“We’ve got to take our clothes off and bathe with demons?” Constance asks worriedly as she does her best not to visibly shudder while we walk toward the Gymnasium of Steam.
“You have to admit, it’s a lot harder to hide things on your person that way…” I reply. “Just let Anika and I do the talking here, and try to stay out of trouble.”
After the greasing of multiple palms we finally are escorted by a large male guard into a secluded grotto in the rear of the baths to meet our Harmonium contact named Tardat. She’s a shapely half-elf female with enough male guards around her to make you wonder about her… tastes… but that’s not the kind of information we need today.
Anika hands the letter of introduction over to the half-elf and nudges me slightly as she begins reading it. I glance in her direction as she mouths the words “false words” behind a faked cough. Great… who knows what we’re really getting ourselves into.
“Your references look good, so we’ll get down to it. Twenty-Four hours ago a paladin named Demiel was mugged in the Hive of Sigil and his sword was taken by fiends. This sword is important to the Harmonium, and we want it back quickly.”
“Why us?” I ask in scorn. “Surely your group is capable of handling our kind… especiallly en mass.”
Tardat looks and Annika and I with a barely concealed sneer of disgust. “We sent a squad to return it… the 26 that weren’t torn to pieces by demons returned a few hours ago.”
“Where’s the sword now?”
“A Pit Fiend mounted the sword somewhere in Dispater’s Iron Tower in Dis, the commerce center of Hell. Go to Dis and wait for our contact. If you bring us the sword, we’ll be sure to make it worth your while.”
“I don’t know… my while is worth quite a lot,” Hodey snickers.
“Ten thousand worth in emeralds and a single handcrafted magic item for each of you should be enough for your worth.” She snaps her fingers and one of her guards hands her a scroll. “We also have this interesting map… it seems to show an island location with an engraving that says ‘Some doors are best opened with a mace.’”
Constance’s eyes light up as Tandar smiles. “If you bring us the sword, the map is also yours.”
“I guess we have a deal, then.”
“Okay… other than filling out your Last Will and Testament, I suggest you all purchase some new shoes for the trip, as the land gets a bit hot around here. I’m going to go see if I can Dermot in the Barons Market… word is that he is trying to get a trade license in Dis, so that could be a good way for us to get entrance to the city.”
“I could use a few potions,” Hodey begins before Annika and I both yell out “NO!”
“Seriously… you really don’t want to buy anything magical here in Hell, Hodey… they never do quite what you wanted them to…”
“And they usually take from you more than you’re willing to give,” Annika finishes ominously.
The others manage to purchase shoes in the Barons Market so we continue as a group past large blue insect creatures selling souls in bottles till we come to a tent manned by a short and rather rotund bald man bathed in exotic scents exchanging a small bottle for a rather large amount of money.
“May I help you?”
“We’re here to help you, actually…” I reply.
“Oh! You must be here because of the ad! If you can help me with what I need, I will cut you in for 5% of the profits from my trade in Dis for the first year.” He hands us the contracts and samples with a smile. “I trade in exotic spices from the far away beastlands… crushed fire poppy from the Plane of Fire, even white peppers that glow in the dark from the Outlands!”
“We’re going to have travel expendetures,” I reply as I look up from the contract.
“That can be reimbursed when you return with the licenses… and receipts.” He pulls an envelope from his coat and hands it to us. “Take this letter of introduction… it should help you on your way. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
The others choose to do some final preparations under Annika’s guidance in the market while I look around for some last minute information. Locals don’t talk a lot here in Ribcage (safer that way)… but I do manage to find a rather inebriated Harmonium thug lamenting about how none of them are supposed to be here in Hell. No kidding… Apparently they’re all supposed to be in Fortitude where they’re going to use the sword for some “mighty ritual.”
Curiouser and curiouser…
I find the others afterwards waiting in line at the government office, enjoying their introduction to bureaucracy in Hell. “This is getting ridiculous!” Constance moans in boredom.
Hodey checks the money in his pocket and grins. “I’ll be right back… save my place.” He scampers up to the front of the line and from what I can tell, falls flat as he tries to offer them money. Constance runs after him, however… and after a few words and an additional exchange of funds, she waves the rest of us to join her.
“I don’t suppose you got a receipt for that?”
Two hours later we’re ushered into chambers as the clerk hands the official on duty the letter. “Rule of Three, eh?” he snorts. “Dermot just doesn’t know when to quit. He’s an industrious bastard though… so we’ll give him the paperwork for 400 instead of 1000.”
“Funds we’d gladly pay as long as we can get a receipt sir,” I answer with my best fake smile. Gods damn it… we’re walking into a trap… I just know it…
Money is exchanged, and a squadrom of men escorts us through obsidian hallways into a large room with huge iron doors and twenty guards on each side. The room is lit, but without torches… with naught but a bare stone wall with a four foot gap at the top beyond the door.
“You’ll love Hell this time of year…” says one of the guards with a chuckle. “You might want to smoke whatever you’ve got before you go, though.”
“Afraid I smoked my last when I heard I had to come to this place,” I chuckle as my braids wrap around Constance and Hodey and we levitate up to the crawl space to see a crimson pillar of light with silver flashes within it. “You coming, cousin?” I snicker as she tries to scramble up the wall and falls on her rear. “Or do you need help?”
Annika mutters and finally makes her way up to the crawlspace where we all enter the portal… and find ourselves standing at the ruins of a town that looks like it was on the losing end of a fireball competition. I can’t shake a strange feeling though… that it’s somehow familiar… but not quite. And then it occurs to me… this must be Darkspine… the gate town before Ribcage that fell to temptation and became a permanent resident of Hell.
“What be your business here?” bites out a large insectoid figure as he cracks his whip.
“We are merely commodity traders seeking entry to Dis,” I reply as Constance walks up to the creature.
“Observe our fine mechanical wares!” she says with a smile as she gestures with her hands and Hodey’s metal bugs crawl over her.
“Five-hundred,” it replies dryly after looking at all of us and snorting.
“Absoultely,” I reply with a grin as I whip out a parchment and pen and scribble a quick receipt. “Just leave your mark here.”
There’s not a lot of signs of life in Darkspine… most of the buildings are falling down, burned or beaten by the constant barage of fireballs falling from the sky. In the distance is an endless plain coated in gore and sharp rocks as the distant cries of demonic armies engaging each other for eternity reach our ears from every direction.
“Did you see something move over there?” Annika whispers as the rest of us scatter and hide in the shadows. Well… all of us but Constance, anyway… who sings to herself in the middle of the street.The roar of flame and new voices from behind us urge us onward to the edge of town as Annika steps up to be our guide. I may know Ribcage… but I was never insane enough to venture beyond it. We travel a good five blocks before we are stopped by a gutteral voice. “Last chance for a drink before the wastelands!”
A vaguely troll-like woman leans against a shelf full of rusty tin cups full of a strange dark liquid and grins at us as we walk by what must have been the ruins of the local inn.
“What the hell,” Constance says with a grin as she takes out ten gold and orders a drink for everyone. I sniff my glass and shrug. “It’s actually whiskey… and from what I can tell, not a bad one.” While the others chug their drinks, I pour mine into one of my empty flasks. Who knows how long our trip will be… and when I’ll truly need a drink.
“So what’cha doing here in Darkspine?” the woman asks as she attempts to clean the mugs.
Annika talks to herself quietly for a moment before placing a hand on Constance’s shoulder. “I think something’s coming,” she whispers. “We should go.”