Talking things over in a backroom was a lot easier, at least once everyone had calmed down and stopped using violence as their first resort. They were led to a hidden room behind a shady-looking store, a shopkeep waving them through into what must be the group’s base, at least to judge by the amount of junk and trophies piled up – Stathis moved aside a heap of swords to make room on a bench, prying Semari’s arms off herself and letting her sprawl onto the long seat.
Janaxia immediately found a mirror, or at least a plate buffed to a reflective shine and set to work on herself, upset at being compared to a Blood Witch and wanting to remedy her appearance now she had the opportunity, that being clearly more important than tending to the actual job. Watching a semi-invisible hand appear and start shaping her hair was somewhat eerie, but she’d be useless otherwise.
From the stuff in the room, the gang were somewhat skilled, if not very focused – there were several jars of rare spices, some jewellery scattered around, random plates, goblets and suchlike of noble metals, as well as crates of random valuable goods. All the standard accoutrements of a thieves layer, complete with a tattered tapestry of a black wolf head on one wall, the edges somewhat singed.
The one that had taken Janaxia hostage made himself comfortable, legs sprawling as he reclined into the most comfortable-looking chair in the place, the others taking their own places.
‘So, you must be Stathis? Semari wrote about you.’
Janaxia looked up, her hair unravelling by itself, suspended in mid-air by magical force. ‘She can read and write? That is a shock!’
Stathis ignored her, although finding out that Semari had people she was close enough to bother writing to was a surprise. And how did letters get down here? If she had to pay for them to be delivered this far, no wonder she never had any money! That she seemed to be a member of a thieves guild was somewhat less of a surprise, although it did make it strange she was terrible at actual thievery, at least when it came to picking locks, backstabbing and sneaking around.
‘Yes, that’s me. This is Janaxia, and Parth. So, we’re in something of a hurry, and really need to find someone fast. He got nabbed by some people in fancy clothing.’ She briefly sketched out the situation, hoping they would help without needing payment. If nothing else, at least it was somewhere safer to leave Semari.
‘I go by Hadric Wolf-Fang. An interesting story, and an impressive deed, to have journeyed here, at the very heart of the world! Much here lies hidden, and a single person can vanish in a moment.’ He clicked his fingers to emphasise the point. ‘Without any clue as to who the kidnappers were, then you may have to leave empty-handed. Although, for a little coin, I’m sure some assistance can be found, the ferryman are normally only to happy to gossip about their fares after a few drinks.’
Janaxia slapped away Semari’s questing hands with a sharp ‘no’, as though disciplining an unruly cat, before returning to her own grooming. The strange metal disc danced through the air as she began to re-braid her hair, shaping it back into separate braids, decorative bands making it keep it’s shape. A silence swept the room, the other rogues all looking at the disc, then between themselves. One of them reached out to take it, before it dropped to the table, Janaxia continuing her self-care, as she met the would-be grabber’s eyes.
Stathis made herself not smile – it looked as though they might have some leverage. ‘We took that from one of them we defeated on the way down here. And it looks as though you might know what it is?’
Hadric gave a cheeky grin, before waving a hand negligently. ‘It looks like cheap brass to me. I’m feeling generous, so I’ll take it off your hands for a gold? As a friend of Semari, an offer to a friend of a friend. Actually, why don’t we have a few drinks, you must be wanting to relax?’ His wrist flicked, a knife shooting from his sleeve and ringing against a gong. A hidden door immediately popped open, a female voice yelling out.
‘What the hell do you want now? Have you rescued her yet?’
A moment later, a head popped through, a young(-looking, at least, it always being hard to tell with such people) elf shoving her head into view, her pointed ears bearing an impressive number of golden rings and cuffs, some joined by shining metal chains, bright compared to her blue-black skin and stark white hair, tied into a sensible bun. ‘Sun’s wrath, if you’d told me you were bringing guests, I’d have made you do some cleaning first!’
As soon as she saw Semari, she came over and began checking her over, batting grabbing hands away with brisk efficiency. She was dressed for comfort rather than style, in baggy trousers and a tattered tunic, both looking to be well-worn, stained and patched. ‘Well, you managed to grab her back at least, that’s a good start. So, who’s this lot?’
Hadric spread his arms wide, a theatrically exaggerated gesture of welcome. ‘This is Kethys, the leader of our merry band. And these are Semari’s brave companions and compatriots, who, I’m sure, would like to relax with a few drinks, and some food?’ He tried (and failed) to nod subtly at the disc, now safely in Janaxia’s hands; having finished attending to her hair, the semi-visible hands were now at work cleaning the rest of her outfit, a pile of dirt and grime building up in a heap next to her.
Her eyes widened, and she nodded. ‘For a friend of Semari, yes, of course!’ She vanished back through the door, the sounds of glasses clinking coming through.
Stathis scooted next to Janaxia. ‘That thing is clearly important. Think you can get the truth from her?’
‘And how do you propose I would do that?’ Janaxia looked at her blankly.
Stathis tried to be tactful. ‘The same way you normally do? Just maybe a little quieter this time?’ Janaxia looked at her blankly, as Stathis sighed and cast subtlety aside. ‘Just seduce her. I mean, you’re going to anyway, right?’
Janaxia looked utterly appalled, disgust on her face. ‘With her? Did you see those trousers? Stained, from cooking, and years old, no doubt. And that hairstyle! The very merest effort! She has potential there, to be sure, but it would require a lot of work to bring out. And I resent the implication that I simply throw myself at some stranger to acquire information!’
Stathis managed to resist listing off Janaxia’s conquests in the short time they’d known each other, although Gods knew it was tempting. ‘OK, fine. I’ve got another plan, just keep everyone busy, I need to talk to Hadric for a while without interruption.’
Janaxia arched an eyebow. ‘Really? I suppose you could do worse, if you happen to enjoy the rougher sorts, he’s not that bad looking. Although you are looking just a little bedraggled. Playing on his sympathies might be an effective strategy.’ She reached out and tucked some of Stathis’s hair behind her ear. ‘Would you like me to tidy you up a little? He probably isn’t the most discriminating, but you are sadly not at your finest.’
‘I’m not going to seduce him! I just need a little time to talk to him. And make sure to keep that disc protected. Whatever it is, they want it, and that makes it valuable.’
As they separated, Kethys returned, bearing a bucket full of beer bottles, passing them out. Stathis accepted, but didn’t drink, just in case it was poisoned. Janaxia took one, sniffing it slightly before making a face. She approached Hadric, who rose to meet her, as she smiled at him, hopefully disarmingly, standing close enough that their conversation wouldn’t be overheard.
‘So, what is that thing?’ He looked at her, then glanced away. ‘Look, we’re just here to get our guy back, then we’re gone. But I need to know what it is.’
‘Oh, just a trinket, just…’
He looked back at her, meeting her eyes with what was meant to be a disarming grin. She focused, letting power well up, her eyes burning golden for a moment. He choked, words stopped for a moment, unable to tell a lie, at least while the spell persisted. ‘You were saying?’
He choked again, trying to lie again. This was a lot easier than any indirect alternatives. Technically, it wouldn’t force him to speak, only to tell the truth if he did, but he didn’t seem to realise that, and Stathis wasn’t about to enlighten him.
‘It’s a doppelganger marker – each of them carries one to show who they are when they meet up. They’re a major player down here, with that someone could pretend to be one, get into their creepy base and steal all their loot. That little trinket is worth a whole bundle, or could be used for a hell of heist.’
‘Right. So this means they’ve probably grabbed our guy? This seems like it could be convenient for both of us, don’t you think? You help us get in, we share the loot, then we’re gone. Deal?’
’70-30. And I…’ He made an offer, then was forced to stop partway through as he couldn’t lie.
‘I know you can do better.’ She smiled, eyes still glowing with the faintest touch of celestial power.
’65-35, the be… OK, 60-40.’
‘That sounds about right. Go tell your boss we’ve made a deal.’
‘Hey, she’s not…’ He made some gasping noises, unable to think of a truthful way to validate his statement. ‘Dammit, how long does this thing last?’
She relaxed her will, letting the magic fade. ‘There we go. Now, lets get this sorted.’ She raised the beer to her lips out of sheer instinct, taking a sip – the flavour actually wasn’t that bad, given it was probably brewed from moss or mushrooms or something.