Double Trio: Chapter 1
"Why the hell are we in this dive again? Isn't there somewhere better we could drink?"
The second man, a tall, muscular, distant-looking man, shook his head in response.
"We were told to meet here, Anselmo," he murmured, his deep voice rumbling despite his soft tone.
Anselmo looked towards his accomplice. "Look Cwichelm, I don't like it here. This isn't exactly the highest quality establishment they have here. I've heard stories of some of the barmaids slipping drugs into customers' drinks to rob them blind! I've heard-"
The third man, a man of average height and imperious tone, interrupted his comrade. "Be silent, Anselmo! We are not going to slander this establishment because of some rumors you heard from your fellow drunkards and night-madonnas!" Glancing around, he quickly added in a lower voice, "Especially not with our guests arriving soon."
Anselmo asked, "Who are these 'guests' of ours anyways, Baldwin? And why did they insist on meeting in such a dangerous place anyways?"
"It's not dangerous, Anselmo. That's your paranoia speaking," Baldwin responded curtly. "But as for our guests, I have no clue who exactly they were, but I was told that they were ladies. So I expect the both of you to act on your best behavior and treat them like you were gentlemen. Is that understood?"
Anselmo sighed. "Yeah, okay, Baldwin. I'll keep myself on good behavior. No bullshit."
Cwichelm nodded slightly. No further words were necessary from him.
Baldwin grinned. Perhaps this wouldn't go as badly as he thought. Maybe Anselmo wouldn't try his usual buffoonery, and maybe Cwichelm wouldn't scare them off with his terrible gaze. God only knew what went on in that man's head. What was he thinking? Bah, three years working with these two, and Baldwin still couldn't figure them out.
His train of thought was interrupted by the tavern doors swinging open. Three women, all dressed in the finest high-society clothing available, attired in veils and great woolen dresses. In this dive, that was an outlier. Everyone here was the lowest class possible. Drunkards abandoning their responsibilities for cheap booze, workmen enjoying their time off work, lesser tradesmen coming to meet in their illegal sub-guild meetings, barflies and whores seducing the others into a night of cheap pleasure, and, of course, three freelance adventurers looking for a job.
The ladies gracefully walked through the tavern, attracting glances and stares as they did so. The bartender seemed amused, smugly smirking as the ladies walked down to the adventurers. When they came to the table, Baldwin gave his signal, and all three rose up to welcome the ladies. They bowed before them, and Baldwin swung out his arm to the table.
"Welcome, fair ladies!" He said. "I am Baldwin, and with me are Anselmo and Cwichelm. Pray, take whatever seating you choose, madames, and we shall begin."
The three ladies nodded and took their seats opposite where the adventurers sat. Once they were seated, Anselmo, Baldwin, and Cwichelm sat back down.
The first lady was swarthy, probably from the desert nations of the Southeast. She was anxiously glancing around to her fellow ladies, then to the adventurers, and everywhere else in between.
The second lady was, in contrast, pale white, as if she'd never been outside before in her life. She stared intensely at everyone, surveying them down to their very soul. She'd give anyone who met her gaze with a case of the shivers.
The third lady was a more healthy color, white, with a little bit of tan that told anyone she was perhaps more adventurous than was permitted for a lady. She considered the men lightly, as if she were dealing with mere peons.
The first lady spoke first, "Hail, dear adventurers, I am Ahmose, and with me are Brigid and Cassandra. We have come from lands afar to meet with you, for we have a mission of the utmost importance we must accomplish."
The second lady, Brigid, spoke next, "Yes, we are on a quest for a certain... magical artifact, one with great powers, and it is not safe enough for us to do it."
The third lady, Cassandra, spoke last, "We will pay very handsomely, as much as you would like, if you would aid us in our quest."
With the three finished, Anselmo, his greed getting the better of them, asked, "You're giving us a blank check for getting this thing? You must be very wealthy!" Baldwin would have slapped him, if it were not for his sense of duty and protocol. But the ladies were fine with it, as Ahmose's chuckle showed. "Oh, indeed, or at least our benefactress is. She is a very powerful lady, and she would spare no expense for this artifact."
Baldwin, quick to restore control, changed the subject. "Are you ladies implying that you would travel with us?"
Cassandra replied, "Do not worry about us, Sir Baldwin. We are fair ladies, but we are no strangers to hardship, nor to warfare. Our lands require women to prepare for war because it is so chaotic."
Baldwin nodded, though he was unsure about such strange customs.
Cwichelm had been deep in contemplation, thinking of the ladies' words and their countenances. There was something about them, something he couldn't figure out about them. "What is the exact nature of this artifact you search for, ladies?"
There was a brief pause, the ladies unable or unwilling to answer the question at first. Brigid answered, "We don't exactly know. We believe it may be part of the Great Scepter, used by the late Emperors of the Damned long ago. We know it has great power, the kind that can destroy... or create."
Cwichelm asked, "Why, then, do you want to have it? What do you gain from having that much power?"
Brigid replied, "We want only to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. If we can, we would very much like to destroy it. If we cannot, then we would keep it safe, far away from truly evil forces who would want to have it."
Cwichelm squinted his eyes in thought, but before he could reply, trouble erupted at the tavern entrance. Six men, wearing brigandines and armed with clubs and hammers, threw the doors opened and swaggered inside, forming a wedge with the lead man at front. Each man wore helmets, some kettlehats, some bascinets, and the lead man with the sallet. Painted on each of the helmets was a white mark, a hand inside a circle: the Inquisition. The whole tavern grew quiet at their presence. The lead Inquisitor marched to the bartender, sat himself down on the stool, and waved for a drink.
Anselmo was the first to go into a quiet panic. "Aw shit, man. What's the Inquisition doing here?" He whispered.
"Shut up, Anselmo," Baldwin chastised. "If you panic, they're going to assume you're guilty of whatever they want, and you'll get burnt at the stake. Now keep your cool and drink." Though he would certainly not admit it, Baldwin was just as scared. Even though he knew there was nothing he did wrong, the Inquisition was not always too keen on checking for mistakes. Heretics and the innocent both burned equally well.
Cwichelm, on the other hand, seemed as calm as before. He had no fear of the Inquisition and their vile tactics. Though it would have sent him to his ancestors, he would have been willing to fight them.
The ladies, also, were getting nervous. Ahmose was now shaking nervously, Brigid had a worried countenance, and Cassandra was reaching for something hidden in her dress.
Over in the front, the Inquisitor was asking a few questions from the bartender. The poor bartender, scared out of his wits, stammered out a few words and pointed to the back. The Inquisitor thanked him, and he and the posse moved to the back of the tavern. Towards the adventurers' table.
The Inquisitor came to the table and stared at each of the members there. He adopted a cocksure posture, certain that no one would try anything with six armed men behind him.
"Hail, ladies and gentlemen." The Inquisitor's voice was smarmy and smooth, condescension oozing in every word he spoke. "I am Inquisitor Banden, and I am here to ascertain whether certain monstrous figures have come here, and what their purposes here may be."
"Monstrous figures, Lord Inquisitor?" Baldwin asked. "Are you saying that there may be... mamono... here?"
"There may be, indeed, Sir...?"
"I am Baldwin, Lord Inquisitor, no longer a knight. With me are Anselmo and Cwichelm, both commoners and good, upstanding men."
"Ah... Pleased to make your acquaintance, Anselmo and Cwichelm." Banden turned to the ladies, all three women looking at the Inquistior with some degree of anxiety. "Fear not, my dear ladies, I mean no harm. I only seek truth and righteousness." The Inquisitor pulled out a wand, with a little clear gem set into the wood near the bottom. He showed the wand to the group. "Now, dear friends, this wand can detect mamono mana. If it does, this gem will darken and become purple. Now, I shall see if there is any truth to this report of ours."
Cwichelm stared at the wand, watching the Inquisitor wave the wand around the three ladies. The gem remained clear, even after a minute of waving. Banden chortled, and turned to his friends, smug grin on his visage, before returning to the table. "Ah, it seems this report of ours was wrong. Forgive our trespass, and enjoy yourselves, dear friends." With that, he and his cohorts immediately turned about face, and left the tavern.
A collective sigh of relief from the entire group came almost entirely at once. "Gods, that was a close one!" Anselmo murmured.
"No blasphemy!" Baldwin rebuked. He looked sympathetically at the ladies. "I apologize for this mess, ladies. We were going to discuss more, but sadly this encounter has interrupted that, and I do not wish for us to garner more attention than is necessary. However, it is my policy to always answer our potential client in one sitting, so as to not waste anyone's time. We're willing to aid you in your quest, if what you say is indeed true."
The three ladies brightened up. "Thank you very much, adventurers! When and where shall we meet you three?" Ahmose asked.
Baldwin thought for a moment. "Meet us at the crossroads outside the city gates by noon. That will be more than enough time for all of us to be prepared. Is this good enough for you?"
The three nodded.
"Good, then our business here is concluded."
The three adventurers got up, and escorted the ladies out to the tavern entrance. "Do you have lodgings for the night, ladies?" Baldwin asked.
"No sir, we do not," Cassandra answered. "We are new to this city, and we figured you would know better than us where to sleep for the night."
"True, m'lady. Our inn, the Alehog, is not too far from here. It is not very busy at the moment, and the innkeep there is quite accomodating, so I am quite sure we could get you a room there."
"Thank you, Baldwin."
The six went to the Alehog. It was a decrepit, derelict two-story building, It looked like it hadn't had any real repairs in forever. When the group went inside, they found the innkeep, a bloated yet jovial older man, sitting in a stool eating chicken and gruel. He looked up to see the new ladies with the adventurers, and grew a lecherous grin. "Ah! My adventurers bring some fine ladies with them, eh? Good men y'are!"
Baldwin, embarrassed and irritated at the man's lewdness, replied, "No, Herbert, they're our guests, and they are nothing like what you are implying! We simply need room for them to stay the night before we head off on our adventure." The ladies seemed amused by old Herbert's 'greeting', snickering to themselves at such a silly old sot.
Of course, that gave Anselmo a dirty idea, the kind that he had to suppress when he was commanded to be on his best behavior. But that train of thought was interrupted when Baldwin nudged him to move and get to the room.
The rooms were on the same hallway, the ladies' room to the left, and the adventurers' to the right. Everyone went to their rooms, and Anselmo continued his perverse thoughts. How, he wondered, did those beautiful ladies look when unshackled by their classy drapes? What sort of natural beauty could be found then? His thoughts were interrupted again, when Baldwin flopped onto his bed, the squeaking and creaking of the mattress and the frame disturbing from his reverie. Anselmo turned around to check on his friends. Baldwin had no sooner flopped onto his bed than the man's snores rumbled. Cwichelm was out to take a piss, so Anselmo would have a quick chance to peek at the ladies.
He slowly cracked open the door, and quickly but quietly shut it back as he went out. Out in the hallway, he could already hear water sloshing around and quiet but excited chatter. Poor Anselmo, man of desire, nearly lost his cool then and there. They were bathing, and he would soon see every glorious detail! Because of the poor shape the Alehog was in, there were several peekholes from previous guests' violence, or else from old age and rot. He could easily take a peek into the ladies' room and see every detail clearly.
So he did, squinting into the hole to see. When he did, his heart nearly jumped into his throat, and not from sensual excitement, either. He saw three mamono: an Anubis of the old desert wastes, a ghostly Banshee, and a swift and large Centaur. He saw everything, more than he could have ever bargained for. Not just their beautiful faces, not just their nude bodies, but their true selves. That Inquisitor was right, then, and those were the mamono he had seen! But then, how could they have registered clean of mamono mana on those wands?
Just as he was thinking that, a gnarled, strong hand grabbed his left shoulder. Cwichelm. Anselmo turned to the big lug, who was grinning. He knew, didn't he?
"Come to the room, you and I will talk there," he murmured. Anselmo got up and followed Cwichelm back into their room. Baldwin was still fast asleep.
Anselmo looked at Cwichelm with some wonder. "You knew they were ma-mamono, Cwichelm?" He asked. Cwichelm nodded. "How'd you know?"
Cwichelm replied, "They smelled like a dog, a horse, and death itself." He grinned. Cwichelm's magical senses gave him that ability, to quite literally sniff out the truth.
"Shit, man. We're fucked, Cwichelm. Every lord from here to the Border Marches, and every Order Paladin and Lord Inquisitor is going to want us hanging from a tree or gibbet, or burnt on the stake! You've got a plan for this, Cwicky, old pal?"
Cwichelm nodded. "Shut up, keep low, and help these girls."
Anselmo thought for a second, and nodded in agreement. "Okay, that's as good a plan as any. Should we tell Baldwin?"
Cwichelm shook his head. That was sound advice. Baldwin still had his knight's instincts, and that included killing mamono wherever they were found.
Anselmo sighed. "I talk a lotta shit and do a lotta lying here and there, but, man, it feels wrong to lie to bossman like that. Still, I'll shut up till we're found out."
Cwichelm smiled, and said, "Go to bed and greet the dawn well, Anselmo." With that, he crawled into bed, just as squeaky as Baldwin's, and began reading a book of his. Anselmo, his excitement finally fading, felt just as sleepy, and crawled into bed. Thankfully, it wasn't as squeaky as the others'. As Anselmo closed his eyes, he swore he could see an Anubis smugly grinning at him. He fell asleep, with the promise of tomorrow, and a secret to keep...