Chapter 1: Meetings and Acquaintances------Page 7
Questions Answered (Streers of Sshamath)

The party was led out of Sshamath's Bazaar in a southerly direction. Xull'rae took the easterly path that turned toward the wall after some ten minutes of walking the myriad of winding streets at ground level. The party was minutes behind her, but were headed in the same direction. The inn came into view shortly thereafter; twin towers comprising the most visible aspect of their destination. The place looked familiar to Horock and Drazoul, but to Xull'rae, this was the pathway home; the inn was about a hundred feet away from the Darkwoods, the place where the Tower of Masked Mage lay hidden.

The Vengeful Weave inn towers were several stories tall and dotted with windows. A middling-sized wall surrounded the remainder of the establishment, concealing the lower portions from view. When they approached the main foyer, the bustle of many customers was heard and people of all races came in and out of an archway that was guarded by two bouncers. Both looked fearsome; one was a tall, brown skinned man with course black dreadlocks and an eye patch, and the other was a firbolg, brawny and full of muscle.

They were led into the foyer; it was done fairly decent and the decor was of a much simpler variety. The room was rather sizable, able to hold at least two hundred patrons, though not quite that many were present at the moment. The ceiling of this particular area stood two stories above them with a large deck situated on the second floor, open to view, to their left. Below the deck appeared to be a well guarded and very busy gambling hall.

After a short pause Cogliostro stopped to speak with a charcoal skinned duergar of nondescript manner while the party was led up a small set of stone stairs to the deck. Waiting for them was a scantily clad waitress. From their roost above, all could see that another similarly sized tavern room sat on the far right side; this one was of finer decor and the patrons within looked to be more distinguished as well.

While Horock and Drazoul focused on their surroundings, Cogliostro joined them and took a seat at the head of a large table. He motioned for them to join him and beckoned for the waitress with his other hand.

Drazoul turned toward where the human was seated. "Nice place you have here, crazy man. Perhaps you can be so kind as to give us a tour of the place, after?" He took a seat in a rather comfortable looking plush chair directly across from Cogliostro.

With suspicion still in his blue eyes, Horock followed the bald human and sat down beside the disguised yuan-ti, Drazoul. When the waitress came, he ordered the strongest drink the inn had to offer. Despite his paranoia, Horock was curious about what was going on; his guard never dropped, his eyes scanning the room on occasion.

Xull'rae moved and stood near the table, but did not take a seat. Where she had come from, no one knew, and all looked at her in surprise. She still remained hooded but she retracted the piwafwi with a roll of her shoulders to show her crossed arms and short sword sheathed at her side. Anyone close by could see she was a woman, regardless of the black armor she wore.

Cogliostro recovered quickly from his shock and responded to Drazoul. "Perhaps, if ye ever prove your worth, you will be given the grand tour...and no harm will come to you here, Saer Horock. You have my assurances." There was no hint of mockery or insincerity in his tone as he spoke, for once.

The bald wizard looked over at Xull'rae again, watching her. He wanted to speak with her, but figured it would be a worthless cause. He simply took note of her stance and waved again at the waitress to get their drinks. Once she was gone, he opened the floor to questions. "Now, what exactly is it you wish to know? I will answer to the best of my ability, and within the limits I see fit."

There were no others seated upon the raised deck, they were alone it seemed, but no one spoke. Cogliostro sensed their unease and smiled. "Fret not, nothing we say will be overhead by those below, such are the enchantments bound to the area." Looking upon each of them, he awaited their many questions he was sure they had.

Xull'rae was the first to speak, getting right to the point. "Why choose the Masked One? You must know his portfolio and despite a deal made, treachery will have its hand in things, even if small."

Cogliostro grinned; Xull'rae was lightening fast as expected. Blunt too. "Mm, aye, treachery will most assuredly be a part," he replied to her, "however, what other drow deity would you have me choose? Lolth is simply out of the question; we all know what her drow are like, I would get no cooperation whatsoever. And the Dark Maiden is too full of joy and happiness for my liking, and further, she is not the type of drow I wish to study. There is no use even mentioning the remainder of the pantheon, all nutcases and zealots. So, that leaves me with the one who has some semblance of a brain within his skull, one willing to deal with my kind, your vaunted lord, Vhaeraun."

Drazoul merely grinned at the human and interrupted just as Xull'rae looked ready to reply. "If I prove my worth, then people will have a reason to seek my head. As for questions, what the hell is this? Explain what you want from Horock and me. You didn't kill us; that must mean you want something."

Xull'rae interrupted right back, irritation was clear in her tone, "So studying us is the cause of all this...?"

As he sat there and listened to what the others were saying, Horock thought back to the day that he had met Cogliostro and waited for Xull'rae to be finished with her questions before he dared to speak. "When I first bumped into you and you threatened to kill me," he chuckled. "You told me that I would be 'working for you'. I want to know what this entails, what I am going to get, who I am going to piss off, and so on and so forth." He crossed his arms and waited for a reply; pissed at the idea of an outsider studying the faith.

Cogliostro smiled again; calm in fact, as he expected them to ramble and bombard each other. He just hoped no tempers flew in the process as he responded first to Xull'rae; she was the true object of his study and the most important member of the team. "No drowess, it is not the cause of it all, though that is the case in part," when she said nothing further Cogliostro sat back more comfortably.

He then addressed the Half-blood, Drazoul. "And I have no want for either of you to be here. You were thrust on me by virtue of Vhaeraun's church if you do not recall," Cogliostro's expression turned as dark as his tone all of a sudden.

Uncomfortable under the human's gaze Drazoul fell silent and looked worriedly at Horock, just as Cogliostro answered the last question. "It is very simple Horock, you will do what I say, when I say, to whom I say. The reward for such duties will be based upon your usefulness during said tasks, and the amount of cooperation you provide me."

Cogliostro saw their affronted expressions except of course Xull'rae's, but he wasn't worried in the least, he just kept on in a tone that did not barter for interruption. "And this compact was agreed upon by your Lord, so take not offense at my studies, lest you raise His ire."

Drazoul recovered first and gave a smile that showed too many teeth. "Both you and I have something in common human, I was thrust on you by virtue of Horock and you got us both!" the disguised yuan-ti then grinned at Horock and spoke again, "Nothing personal old friend but it is true."

Xull'rae was stunned at what she had just heard. Either Cogliostro let that slip or he was getting too arrogant. The line he fed Horock and Drazoul was the same he gave her at their first meeting. Yet, he had just said that he made a deal with Vhaeraun to study drow, but Vhaeraun didn't give him a choice who to study? What kind of bargain was made where you had no want of something? If Drazoul and Horock were given to Cogliostro to study and he deemed them worthless, then what was she to him? Unless, she was the true study subject, but why and what did both men get out of it? It didn't make sense. This was something she had to investigate and pray about later.

The waitress came and drinks were set upon the table. A tall glass for each of them was passed around. The liquid was a completely clear and colorless one. Her duty done, the waitress left again. A simple nod from Cogliostro was given to the half-blood in reply.

"That is all well and good," Horock snapped, "But what 'kind' of jobs are we going to be given? I do not mind killing people, if it has a purpose. However, it had better either benefit me, or my God. I will be more then happy to help if it benefits the Masked One. But do something to hurt him and you will regret it, human." He meant it and only hoped his voice reflected his intent, but when Xull'rae spoke, he lost a little of his heat as uncertainty set in. Horock wondered how she tolerated the man.

The interruption helped Xull'rae snap back into focus. She realized she had been too quiet for too long and hoped no one noticed her lapse. To smoothly get back into the conversation she snickered and with mirth in her tone, laced with just a touch of hardness to make it her signature attitude, she said, "Fine, fine cooperation you will have from me when and if I see the benefits to do so, not when you say and to whom. I cannot speak for the other two."

Cogliostro offered up a forced polite smile. He heard Horock but it was Xull'rae to whom he responded to. "You and I have discussed this matter already, drowess. If I find continued disobedience, I will take the matter up personally with your Lord. One way or another, I will get my desired cooperation. And you," he shifted slightly to face Horock and his smile grew wider into a triumphant grin. "Every task I will set before you will have a purpose, even if you have not the wisdom to discern it. As for whom it benefits, well, this entire deal will make the church prosper, and that is the only compact I have to fulfill in order to reap the benefits of your labor. As for you personally gaining from all of this, there is no such agreement; though if you serve me well, I will indeed take it upon myself to add in the bonus since you have not gotten it through your skull thus far that you have no choice in this matter unless you wish to leave Vhaeraun's clergy. And please, do not deign to threaten me, I've had enough amusement for one day, my sides are beginning to hurt from all the laughter I've held in check."

Another lie Xull'rae picked up on. If the church gave the two to Cogliostro, then it was clear that these two men did have a choice, they were not attached to the compact. They were decoys to look as if the church was honoring their obligation. Cogliostro just worded it in a very clever bluff to make it seem as if they were. These two arrived after the pact was made. She knew this because the events of the contract and their arrival were off. She was given weeks in advance about the meetings between god and wizard, before they struck a deal. Xull'rae didn't even know if Drazoul was even of the faithful. Cogliostro was just preying on Horock's fears to get him to behave.

Xull'rae just knew without knowing how, that the words to Horock were meant for her. Cogliostro was using her faithfulness to Vhaeraun knowing full well that she would not go against something her god set up even if the Masked Lord used her as bait. The realization that she was in Cogliostro's hands and that her faith shackled her, made her very angry.

In vehement retort, Xull'rae replied to him, "And one way or the other I'll do it my way, not yours, so get used to it. There are loop holds to everything and what you say and how I do it may be different, but the result will be just as effective!" It was a futile effort, she was still trapped. Xull'rae felt childish for letting her anger consume her and envied Horock and Drazoul, they were not bound as she was. This gave her gratification when she remained silent about the situation. If they wanted to be stupid and become slaves through ignorance and fear, let them. If she could not be free, neither should they.

Cogliostro was undaunted by Xull'rae's outburst, but nonetheless smiled as if pleased that she dared to back talk him and endanger herself as well as her position within the church. "Mm, yes, you are the difficult little sprite, drowess." A slight shrug was then offered to her, "So long as the end result is the same, I care not how ye carry the task about."

Horock was fuming too, but he did little to hide that fact. "Fine, you have my cooperation; as it stands, it would appear you have given me little or no choice. I also agree with her. The things you want me to do will get done but maybe not the exact way you want them to. I however cannot speak for my companion. If he so desires it, he may stay with us and continue to help me," Horock looked at Drazoul, and hoped that he would stay. He trusted the yuan-ti more then he trusted most people. On top of it all, he was a useful companion and great in any fight.

Drazoul sighed in reluctance and irritation but seeing the hope in Horock's face made him go against his better sense. "Well since Horock has agreed to join up, I will to..." He had no wish to leave his companion in the dangerous Underdark and he still owed his life to the hot tempered drow more than once. Regardless of his reasons, he still loathed the thought of working for the human as little more than a slave.

A simple nod was offered to them both as Cogliostro brought the glass of water to his lips, swallowing it all in one long drought.

Xull'rae frowned at Drazoul, but from behind her hood, and what people couldn't see behind it, could hear it in her voice and it was dripping with disdain. "Well if it stays, it better know its place down here and fast...he is not of the church, therefore, I will kill him if I wish."

"Also," Cogliostro interrupted absently, as if in afterthought, "Keep in mind there is nothing stating that I am to reimburse you for your services. If you do well, I will take it upon myself to pay you...then again, if ye become a thorn in my side, well, I need not say such things aloud." Those words were meant for the half-blood, he then turned to agree with Xull'rae, "Exactly!"

With the bluff confirmed, some of Xull'rae's anger drained away. Drazoul wasn't faithful to Vhaeraun and therefore was considered cannon fodder. Despite her greedy and vengeful nature, her fanaticism came first as she grudgingly accepted the answer to her questions. "Any benefits to the church are enough for me human," the feeling she conveyed was one of honesty, a rare thing, and unusual in a drow. "Save your money on me...I've been 'paid' for already anyway," she admitted in a mutter.

Horock nodded in agreement but he did not feel entirely the way Xull'rae did as he added his thoughts on the matter, "I would say that I would also be happy as long as the faith gets most of the proceeds from this endeavor. However, if I can get something form it as well that would be great." In truth, he really did want some of the booty that would be gotten, but he also wanted the faith to benefit the most. He knew that Vhaeraun would see to it that he did not get cheated, so great was his faith.

Drazoul stared at the cloaked drowess for a moment and realized she knew his form was not real. Finally he said, "I will follow your protocol drowess I have no quarrel with you."

"See that you do disguised one, because I have no conscience when it comes to eliminating those that I think have no value or purpose," Xull'rae replied in a serious and quiet tone.

Cogliostro simply sat in silence while they conversed. He took it all in; what was said, and read between the lines as well.

Xull'rae noticed Cogliostro's unusual quiet and read his body language like a book, so she deliberately interrupted the wizard's thoughts by turning the conversation back to him with more questions. "So what is the other part you mentioned as to why you made a pact with The Shadow...other than studying us?"

"Hm, other parts, actually," Cogliostro corrected. "And I'm not at liberty to say at the moment. When the time is right, more information will be revealed." He smiled, which made Xull'rae sigh in annoyance.

Horock scoffed. "Hmmm, okay human, keep your secrets. Do you have a job for us? I am getting very bored of just hanging out in this dismal city. I am ready to serve the Masked One," he said this to hopefully help please the human and to make sure that he, himself, fully understood what was going on.

Cogliostro chuckled, enjoying Horock's kiss up method. "Mm, serving the Masked One has not much in common with the tasks I would have you do, so if boredom overtakes you, talk to your church hierarchy. I will summon you when you are needed; however the stables are in need of cleaning if you are truly bored."

Xull'rae hid more irritation as she pressed on. She refused to be mellow like Horock or blissfully ignorant like Drazoul. "So why show up at the Bazaar? And don't tell me all of us there was a coincidence, because I'm not stupid nor gullible…Don't be snide either..."

"Who's being snide?" Cogliostro feigned mild shock, "And no, t'was not a coincidence, to be sure," he added in with a mysterious smile. His satisfaction was short lived, that cloak of hers really put a damper on expressive reaction.

"So, in other words, you don't have anything ready for us yet? You are the worst planner of this kind of stuff that I have seen in my entire life, and trust me, I have seen the worst type of expedition leaders, military leaders, and every other type of leader that there is. I just hope you have something for us to do soon, and don't be a fool. I am not dumb like you probably think I am. So, please, if you want us to do something, just tell us, right now!" Horock snapped.

The mysterious and now amused smile never left the bald human's face as he looked at the drow male, nodded, and replied. "Yes, your family was known for its poor leadership ability, so I can see how you would be familiar with it. That aside, why ever would you think that I have a task for you at this time? I've not even come to know much about the lot of you yet, so how could I wisely employ you in any undertakings? Get not the wrong impressions of why we are speaking this day. You are only at my disposal when I see the need and when your church has no need of you. And not once during our conversation today have I stated anything to the point of my needing you currently."

"So answer my question then..." Xull'rae said softly, still reigning in the urge to snap.

"Curiosity for the most part," Cogliostro shrugged. "And, to gauge what I could about you all, a little at a time. I will learn all I need to about the lot of ye soon. And of course, all of you have been tested repeatedly today."

This runaround, vagueness, and lack of rest were taking its toll on Xull'rae and her better judgment to keep silent. "Sorry but you'll never figure me out...just what slips out... and what I let you see...and I don't slip very often..."

Cogliostro simply kept that smile going and nodded to Xull'rae; his smile was a knowing one this time.

But Xull'rae kept right on, haughty and confident now, or so it seemed. "Besides I'm a woman and you're a ma--, well, a male and your kind have never, since the dawn of time figured the other sex out yet."

"Tested, why and how?!" Horock shouted angrily. He was very irritated about this new information. He also didn't like not knowing what he was being tested for.

Cogliostro winked at Xull'rae's words. "Mm, quite true, that I cannot argue," but at Horock's outburst he raised an eyebrow, as if the man should know. "The why... should be self-obvious, Saer Horock...and the how, should come to ye upon reflection of today's events."

Horock tried to calm himself down by chuckling at what Xull’rae said about women.

Cogliostro continued. "Now, since it seemed to upset you so much Saer Horock, I shall tell you that most tests had been passed, though by a narrow margin in most cases."

Xull'rae had had enough of the discussion and started going down the stairs. "Well, I will be going...since I'm not 'needed' I have prayer to catch up on," she announced.

"Mm, take your imbeciles with you, please. The third will be arriving soon," Cogliostro said. He now sounded irritated himself. All the bantering and Xull’rae’s sudden disinterest finally got to him. However, he felt no need to explain what he meant by the third to her.

Xull'rae did not stop her descent as she snorted a response. "They are not mine Rivvel, they are duties to the recruit are done for the day..." she did not look back, but was pleased to hear some irritation come out of him if nothing else. The company of Szordrin always seemed to set him on edge; he must be the third arrival Cogliostro was referring to.

"No, no, they are yours...only mine by virtue of them being yours!" Cogliostro sounded desperate now, but Horock and Drazoul saw the irritating and knowing smile he wore and frowned at each other.

"No, sorry, I refuse to baby sit them as of now," Xull'rae sounded regal and bored. Cogliostro couldn't make her take them, but she did look at Horock behind her. Her eyes were cold yet beautiful; they almost glowed like burnished gold. "He should know his way to the temple...if not, he will learn..."

"So long as they leave my establishment I care not if you slack in your duties as their caretaker drowess," Cogliostro's distant but well heard reply went without comment.

"Okay..." Horock glared, growling at the human. "Fine, play your little games. Just know that I am not a dog to be called on whenever you so please," he glanced at Xull'rae's cloaked form and wondered if she was truly going to leave him here. He wouldn't have cared; it was just that he didn't know his way around the city as of yet and wanted to be sure that he could get back to the safety of the tower. After all, there was a price on his head and he didn't want to lose it, so he quickly followed her.

"Oh, but you are," Cogliostro said. That broad smile was offered to Horock as he called after him. "You became said dog the day you gave part of your free will up in order to serve Vhaeraun. Such is the price of faith."

Xull'rae then whirled on Horock. She was so close to him that he could feel her warm breath on his skin. Her face, he could see very clearly even though the hood was up; she was angry but still so beautiful, it made the breath catch in his throat as he tried to pay attention to her words. "Rule of thumb twit, thieves care for themselves first...others second...I'm not slacking in anything... Do you understand? The Shadow Sorcerer said to teach you, but lessons end for the day. Got it?"

Her words hurt him. Shocked, Horock shoved past her, more from embarrassment than in anger. He was upset at being treated so lowly, he just wanted some respect from someone he admired and liked. Without turning to look at her or shout, he mumbled, "Fine, I will find the way back to the temple."

"He also said that this cleric is fully under your command and, if anything happens to your imbecile, it is your pretty little ass on the line, not mine," Cogliostro reminded Xull'rae. He was coming down the stairs with Drazoul in tow. They looked from one drow to the other.

"Not really," Xull'rae replied to Cogliostro in a matter of fact tone. "If he can't find a place of sanctuary on his own after being shown it, then he has terrible skill and Vhaeraun has no need of such. He has to learn in the Underdark that this isn’t the surface. Dependence is death. He has to learn without being led, he isn’t a child. If he can't find his place then let him die."

Cogliostro smiled politely to Xull'rae and answered her. "Like I said, what you do with him and for him is your own business. The matter has nothing to do with myself. Now go make such proclamations to those who care, like the Shadow Sorcerer," he still wore a mocking smile as he made a small shooing motion in her direction.

"If this is another one of your 'tests' human, I would like to tell you that I am very pissed off right now. I pity whoever gets in my way." Horock moved further toward the exit, keeping an eye on his back. He knew he had shoved Xull'rae and that she was still behind him. Going out into the streets meant danger, but it was a risk he was willing to take if it would help prove himself to his teacher.

Drazoul shrugged and Cogliostro shook his head. "Tsk tsk, one really should know how to contain their anger...a sign of weakness, that," remarked Cogliostro. But it seemed to fall on deaf ears as no retort was given from either drow.

"I have no intention of going with them to pray, I suppose I shall stay. Horock if you need my dagger just say," Drazoul said. It was obvious he was not going to defend his friend.

"Hm if ye are to stay then pull out your coin purse, for it will not be a free ride," Cogliostro responded to Drazoul. When Drazoul sighed, Cogliostro continued, "lodging, drinks, food, and women are available. Men too, seeing as that seems more your style." the wizard chuckled, glancing in Horock's direction.

Xull'rae heard the comment about sexual preference and smiled. She couldn't resist jabbing at Cogliostro with her own personal wit. "Go hump a table leg you gay ass windbag!" She spoke it in high Drow as she slipped around the corner and disappeared.

"Hm, mayhaps I will at that, Drowess!" Cogliostro answered back in that same language. He was quite fluent in it, even though it carried the Luskan accent.

Before walking out the Inn, Horock spoke to Drazoul in a friendly manner. "If you so desire Draz, I would of course welcome your company!"

The disguised Yuan-ti, Drazoul nodded at Horock then glared at the human for making such a comment. But before he lost his cool he decided to play it out and ask, "How much?"

Horock stopped at the archway doors, growing impatient. "Well, if you want, stay here Draz. I am going to have to make it back to the tower alone without you. But I think I would have to say that men seem more to your liking human, than that of the rest of the people here."

the blue-eyed drow motioned Drazoul to follow him one more time and spoke in High Drow as well. "Come Draz. You and I can have some fun wandering the city and bothering people," smiling, Horock stepped out the door and into the light of the city.

Drazoul grinned at his friend's invitation. "Never could turn down a day of good mischief!" He grinned at the human then, "Tell me the prices later!" he shouted as he rushed out into the streets beyond.

"Well, in my defense, I did state the drowess had a cute ass..." Cogliostro muttered to himself. His mocking smile was offered up to no one now. "And yes, that would be such a wise thing to do whilst hiding out, bother as many as you can, draw attention," he said sarcastically. "That's the gods, this group is doomed," he sighed and shook his head as went to the bar to drown himself in liquor even though he couldn't get drunk, but he could partake of the newest gossip being passed around.

They would all be back soon enough.

Interrupt the Bard -or- let her continue