The Tipsy Penguin was a tavern on Jameh and required Ardeshir to fall back on Ervin for his support in reaching the place.
Yazdan, the mage Bayat sent him to see for his punishment, asked for him to meet him at the tavern and be in his leisurely clothes and not the guild robes.
The tavern showed signs of glory days in its past, but fights as well as the usual wear and tear brought it down to a level Ardeshir didn’t think Yazdan had fallen to. He shrugged and entered, hoping the offerings were at least palatable.
Music and jeering drowned out everything else as they made their way through the crowds. Ardeshir headed for the counter and a sweet drink when he caught sight of Yazdan sitting at a table with two women at his side. He raised his hand and beckoned him over, dropping a coin in the palms of each of the ladies before he arrived.
“I see the fun’s already started,” Ardeshir said. He took a seat and glanced around for any of the servers. “So what’s the special here, anything that won’t destroy my gut?”
“Well, I’m glad to see you’ve finally found the time to join me. It’s been, what, two years? I’ve already taken care of your orders. But tell me, who’s your friend?”
“It’s Ervin, and I’m only here because he keeps getting me into trouble.”
“Trouble?” Yazdan raised an eyebrow and smiled. “I didn’t know you’d become such a troublemaker, but I received the message from High Mage Bayat. Unauthorized expeditions and crypt robbing are serious offenses.”
“It was my fair share of what he owed me,” Ervin said, rolling his eyes.
“It’s been too long but I’m afraid I’ve been caught up with my work retracing the origins of the ahura. We actually made a discovery, but Bayat isn’t believing in a word of what I have to say.”
“Still trying to uncover those hidden magic secrets you think the ahura were keeping from us, I see. If you want to help people, you should start working at theGuild academy and train the next generation of magi.”
Ardeshir had considered staying at the academy and taking on a position as a teaching assistant but he’d be stuck on a set path for the rest of his life without making any truly groundbreaking discoveries that could change the lives of thousands of people for the better.
The woman from earlier returned, placing three jugs on the table and slipping a small piece of paper into Yazdan’s hand.
“Thank you, love. I’m sure it’s delicious.”
Ardeshir eyed the foamy brew with an uneasy feeling and the uncertainty of whether it was a drink or food. It definitely didn’t smell like a sweet ale he’d been hoping to get. “So is this our punishment or what’s it going to be? Salt mines or perhaps construction on the Frontier?”
“Oh, this is just a little bit of foreplay. Our objective is nearby, in a side room to be exact. We must be quick once they’re finished and leave.”
“I’ll just wait outside then and keep the portal running for when you need to flee,” Ervin said and began to rise.
Yazdan quickly grabbed him by the sleeve and tugged him back down. “Stay. I don’t want you drawing unnecessary attention to yourself. We’re up against a particularly skilled group. Thieves plaguing the continent with hit and run strikes on caravans.”
“Not from what my sources gathered but they are working with black market realmwalkers on occasion to get their goods off-world.” Yaz nipped the drink, eyes glancing over the rim. “They’ll split once the trade is over. I expect your friend to follow the traders while we trail the thieves.”
“This sounds dangerous.”
“Then let’s hope we’re drinking courage,” Ardeshir said and risked taking a sip of his own. The brew was awful and had a rancid taste but kicked in almost as fast as his stomach could puke it back out onto the floor. He coughed and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You’re trying to kill me.”
Yazdan shrugged, tilting his jug. “It’s a local specialty mixed with spices. I was told it wakens even the most tired of spirits.”
Ardeshir caught sight of the back door opening and three men leaving whereby one wore the insignia of a trader and the other two wore simple sleeveless vests, revealing dark twirling tattoos along their arms.
“Elvin, big chance for you here. Don’t let him know you’re following and don’t engage. Just make sure you find out where he’s going and if he’s talking to anyone else.”
“Of course it is,” Yazdan said, no longer paying attention to the realmwalker.
They stood and left their unfinished broths on the table as they made after the men. The trader and thieves split outside, each taking a different road. Ardeshir and Yazdan went after the thieves, keeping a brisk pace while blending into the crowd. The day was ending, and many people were returning home. The thieves took several turns and ended up leaving town through one of the smaller gates where they mounted up and rode into the desert.
“Quick, we can’t lose them,” Yazdan said, he went over to the stall and purchased a mount for both of them to share. A mule was all he could afford on short notice, but the thieves didn’t know they were being followed yet.
Ardeshir remained in place, staring at Yazdan with a sense of disbelief. He actually expected them to chase the thieves down on a mule. Yazdan halted in front of Ardeshir, holding his arm out for him to grab and help hoist him onto the mount. He spurred the mule into action, nearly dropping Ardeshir off the back as he was forced to hold on to Yazdan. They settled in at a steady pace several hundred yards behind the thieves but keeping them within sight for most of the way.
It wasn’t until they ventured deeper into the desert and with a lack of lighting that they lost them as they crested over the dune.
“Should we keep going? We might still catch up to them,” Ardeshir suggested.
“They couldn’t have gotten that far ahead of us. Unless …” Yazdan brought them closer to the small rock formation breaking the desert. “They’re hiding inside. All we have to do is find the key to opening it up.”
Ardeshir grinned and hopped off the mule. He rubbed his chin, inspecting the side for any visible cracks. “Can you help me out with the magic words, I didn’t bring any children’s books with me?”
“This isn’t a game but serious work. You’d be able to get so much further if you took the guild more seriously and worked on helping them.”
“What’s serious is the giant snake blocking out the sun but maybe I just got my priorities upside down.” Ardeshir summoned Indara, his daeva he captured from the Shadow Realm during his study at the guild academy. He had a bit of a crush on her back then but became good friends despite the master-servant relationship they shared. “Let’s do it my way. You gotta stir the nest to get the bees to come out.”
“What? There’s got to be a switch or entrance around here.”
The daeva combed her fingers through her snow white hair and met Ardeshir’s gaze with a grin. She placed a hand on her hip, and the other held out to the rock formation. “You need a hand with something?”
Her tight-fitting dress had never proved to be a disadvantage for her. The light blue design encompassed her full breasts and left her shoulders bare for all to take in. Her presence was both exhilarating and also extremely chilly, but Ardeshir quickly became accustomed to the cold temperatures accompanying her. Indara was a frost elementalist and liked to tease him whenever she could.
Ardeshir gulped and began channeling magic to her. “A nice frost coating should bring out any thieves lurking inside.”
Indara laid her hand on a rock, a cold frost seeping out of her in a wave and slowly turning everything to sparkly ice. She drew on more energy from him, digging deeper.
A chunk of ice snapped and fell to the ground a few feet away. A section began to rise in a low rumble followed by screams. There were several of them echoing inside and slowly drawing nearer. Indara flexed her fingers in the air where a mace out of solid ice appeared and her body became encased in a protective sheet of the frost.
Ardeshir grabbed his knife from his belt and summoned Vida while Yaz brought his daeva Tethali out of the Shadow Realm. “Guess you were right. Let’s hope we don’t have to deal with forty thieves.”
A cloaked figure ran out of the opening, screaming with his sword at hand. Both Indara and Vida prepared to fight, but the thief stopped when he saw them. His face remained hidden behind the shawl, but Ardeshir could see the blood coating him. The sword fell to the ground and he shortly after dropped to his knees, head slumping to his chest while coughing blood.
Ardeshir cocked his head to the side and gazed at Indara. “Just how cold did you make it in there?”
“We need the thieves alive, if possible. They need to be punished accordingly and all connections they may have had contact with traced back.” Yazdan pushed the thief’s head back and removed the shawl. “It wasn’t frostbite that killed him. Poison, by the looks of it.”
“Poison? They might have turned against each other.”
“Only one way to find out. We should inspect the lair in case they have any escapes we might not be aware of.”
They entered the cave at a careful pace, wary of any traps or thieves lurking in the shadows. Torches hung at regular intervals from brackets in the wall and lighted their path forward. It also revealed the rest of the band. Strewn about in unnatural poses, but all of them unmoving.
“Wait here,” Vida said, pressing ahead of the group. She wore the thickest armor out of all of them and from what he understood could be resummoned after death.
Indara waved her hand, creating an ice barrier between them and Vida, but kept it transparent so they could still see what happened on the other side.
The knight pressed deeper into the cave, nudging the bodies with her boot to see if any of them were still alive. They all appeared to be dead but Ardeshir couldn’t tell for how long. It had only been a few minutes since the two riders had vanished from their sights. He wondered if the others were already dead by the time they arrived or if there had been an argument because of the spoils.
One of the bodies rolled over when nudged by Vida. It had been sprawled over something Ardeshir couldn’t see so far around the corner. He balled his hands, hoping there wouldn’t be any stragglers coming in late and finding them with a bunch of their dead kin around.
“It’s a dead end over here. A few tents but nothing dangerous,” Vida said and went to her knee. “That’s odd. There are eggs here.”
“Okay, that’s enough. Indara remove the barrier and let’s see for ourselves what happened here.” She nodded and did as Ardeshir asked of her. A crunch sounded from under Ardeshir’s boot as he took the first step. He halted and slowly raised his boot. Shattered egg shells still clung to the underside.
“Try not to tamper with any of the evidence,” Yazdan said. “There has to be a payroll or something we can use to identify them all and see who their clients are.”
“There are more inside the crates. This must be what they’re trading with now.”
“Eggs aren’t worth the hassle. Keep looking and be sure not to touch them. We don’t know what’s inside.”
Rocks clanked behind Ardeshir, drawing his attention around. He raised his knife, slowly venturing back towards the entrance. A cold shiver ran down his spine just before something wrapped around his body. It squeezed tighter, knocking the air out of his lungs before he could scream. The creature hoisted him up to the top of the cave in between the stalactite where sharp yellow eyes gazed into his. His heart heat leaped at the sight and he tried to muster the strength to break free of the embrace. He felt his head grow dizzy by the second as his lips moved to silent words. Ardeshir wriggled, striking at the side with his knife. The blade snapped against the scales before slipping out of his grasp followed by his consciousness.