Day 4The last thing Conrad remembered was slumping over the yoke, delirious from blood loss. His weight jerked Gulliver into a sharp dive, indicators beeping and flashing their warnings, and the dunes outside Karim rose hungrily to greet them. Distantly, he heard Zebra shouting—felt the man’s huge hand tugging at his shoulders. And then, nothing.
For three days after the heist, Conrad slipped in and out of a feverish haze, plagued by nightmares of chemical attacks and the agents of vengeful merchants ambushing him in the dead of night. Unable to distinguish dreams from reality, he watched through bleary eyes as a parade of familiar faces entered and exited the room: Sori, Zebra, Brooke, Baldur, and Davroar came and went, sometimes lingering to exchange terse words or swab the halfling’s face with a damp cloth before unconsciousness took him once more.
At dawn on the fourth day, Conrad’s eyes snapped open. Lazy dawnlight crept across the bed sheets tangled around his legs and torso, dust motes swirling in its wake. The halfling scrambled up to a sitting position using his good arm. Even that motion brought on a wave of nausea and dizziness that threatened to push him back into unconsciousness. He wiggled the fingers of his injured arm and smiled. It seemed he had escaped the complex, if not unscathed, then at least without any permanent injury.
How long had it been? the halfling wondered. Judging by the audible growling in his stomach and his dry, cracked lips, several days had passed without any food or water. He recognized the room as his room in the Whispering Tankard. The memories came back to him piecemeal—waking up in the interrogation room, clearing out Whittaker’s safe, discovering the truth of the old merchant’s chemical weapon, and he and Zebra’s narrow escape from the hangar. Once again, slippery Conrad Jamboy had defied the odds.
In his youth, it would have been different. In those days, before the expansion of interplanetary trade and the arrival of all manner of advanced technologies, such as the weapons and surveillance systems employed by Whittaker’s security teams, the heist wouldn’t have been half as complicated and certainly not as dangerous. Dimly, Conrad remembered seeing Brooke and Baldur standing over his bed. Had it been a dream? The last he had seen of Brooke, she had charged headlong into the collapsing upper complex, amidst fires and explosions, not to escape, but to rescue her fallen friend. And Baldur… the halfling had witnessed the hulking Goron buried under tons of concrete slabs—a fate from which no one, not even a member of the hardy, thick-skinned desert race, should have emerged alive. Of course, they had also lost contact with Haruhiko in the chaos. Whether he had met an untimely end or simply judged the situation too dangerous—too out of control—to risk his neck, Conrad could only guess.
As the halfling took account of the events in Whittaker’s complex, voices, caught somewhere between a whisper and an angry shout, drifted underneath the door.
“—not a coin on the little bastard,” Brooke said.
“But Baldur said he cracked the vault,” came Sori’s measured, almost robotic voice.
“Baldur’s worse off than Conrad.” Brooke’s voice held more than a trade of venom. “We’re lucky he didn’t die following that pipsqueak’s ridiculous plan.”
Sori seemed not to understand. “We all followed the same plan, Brooke. We knew the risks.”
Reminded of the loot he had nabbed from the vault, Conrad glanced around the room anxiously, his gaze settling on a chair in the corner of the room, on which his clothes and weapons had been placed. His heart skipped a beat before he located the nondescript pouch dangling from his belt—the magical bag of holding that now contained a hoard of gold and artifacts that would be the envy of kings and dragons the worlds over. Before he could stop it, the audible sigh of relief escaped him. The sound was like a gunshot in the pre-dawn quiet. He clamped a hand over his mouth, but the damage was done.
The door banged open. Sori tried to hold Brooke back, but the larger, more physical woman bullied ahead, pointing at Conrad accusingly.
“A simple job,” she growled, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “In and out. What the hell was that back there?”
Conrad opened his mouth to reply, but only descended into a fit of coughing. His mouth felt like it had been stuffed with cotton balls. Finally, he croaked, “I’m sorry, Brooke. I couldn’t have known—”
Brooke’s eyes flared. “Couldn’t have known? You almost got Baldur killed. And for what?”
The halfling met Sori’s eyes and she looked down, smiling apologetically. So the last part of his plan—the part only the blue-skinned techno-genius knew—had not yet been revealed. In the chaos leading up to the heist, the group had planned every detail meticulously, from Haru’s initial infiltration, to Conrad’s kidnapping, to Baldur’s subsequent rescue, to Brooke’s disabling of the security system. But one detail—perhaps the most important detail—had escaped their notice. That is, and through no minor effort on his part, it had escaped the notice of everyone but he and Sori.
The question of exactly how Conrad, at just shy of four feet tall, planned to carry a vault-load of coins, jewels, and priceless artifacts, was one the seasoned duo had artfully dodged throughout their days of plotting. In their many years working together on more minor jobs, the two had grown accustomed to weaving their own brand of intrigue through the fabric of delicate operations, always emerging just a little bit better off than their fellow crooks while still avoiding suspicion. The heist had been no exception to their time-honored tradition. No strangers to the betrayals endemic to their line of work, and not yet ready to trust the four eager young criminals who materialized on their doorstep, Conrad and Sori had conveniently forgotten to mention the innocuous bag of holding—an item that responded only to the halfling’s specific commands.
“Did you hear me?” Brooke yelled, grabbing Conrad by the front of his nightshirt and hoisting him into the air. “What do you have to say for yourself, goddamnit?” Conrad yelped, more from pain than surprise.
“Enough, Brooke,” Sori said, boldly stepping forward to grab the taller woman’s forearm. “It is not his fault.”
“Not his fault?” Brooke echoed disbelievingly. “How exactly is it not his fault?”
“We all knew the risks.” Sori enunciated each syllable with the exasperation of a mother speaking to her child. It seemed the commotion had roused the rest of the group, as at that moment, Zebra and Davroar entered the room.
In the face of her growing audience, Brooke relinquished her grasp. Suddenly sheepish, she took a step back and flushed a deep crimson, refusing to meet Conrad’s eyes. “Sorry,” she muttered. “I just—”
“Don’t worry about it.” Conrad winced with each word as he eased back into a sitting position, cradling his injured arm. “It got crazy in there, I know. How’s Baldur?”
Brooke shrank visibly in response to his question. At that moment, she seemed much more a scared little girl than the headstrong woman of a moment before. She blinked back tears and said, “Still unconscious. He’s lucky to be alive. If he hadn’t gotten us out, I don’t—I don’t know what would have happened.”
“No word yet,” Sori said, filling the silence. “Not since that night. I have to imagine he’s…”
“Dead,” Zebra cut in flatly. “How ya feelin’ little guy?”
“Dead,” Conrad echoed back with a half-hearted grin. “Or damn near, anyway. How’d we get out?”
“Well, let’s just say it’s damn lucky you taught me how to fly before your little hero act.”
“And my ship?”
It was Zebra’s turn to wince. “You won’t be flyin’ it any time soon, but it’s in one piece. Stashed it outside the city where we landed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Whittaker’s goons found it by now. Too dangerous to bring it back to Dav’s place, y’know?”
The halfling nodded grimly. “Whittaker.” That word brought back a flood of fear and anger—images of shadow monsters bristling with quills and spines, and of a fleet of ships equipped to visit the old merchant’s unique brand of terror upon population centers throughout the Crossroads.
Growing up, Conrad used to idolize men like Ajax Whittaker. The escapades of high society enthralled him and made him believe, against all good judgment, that he was always one job from breaking into their ranks, from climbing the social ladder and amassing the wealth and notoriety of which his days as a starving street waif had implanted persistent fantasies bordering on an all-out obsession.
Now, though, the halfling saw the truth. It was not his height or his background that kept him from rising above his peers and claiming that coveted lifestyle. It was his conscience—that sense of morality which, although he was not opposed to the occasional robbery or the sale of implements of murder to his underworld brethren, always stayed his hand when faced with innocent, undeserving victims. He and Sori, along with the select few others they trusted for repeat jobs, had carved an ethical niche out of an unethical profession. Whittaker was another, more foul brand entirely.
“I have to stop him,” Conrad said on impulse.
Brooke frowned. “Whittaker? Didn’t we try that already? Look how far it got us.”
“We tried to rob him. This time, I plan to kill him.” His own uncharacteristic resolve startled him, but he gained momentum from Sori’s agreeing nod. “Look, at the end of the day we’re all crooks here… I get that. Well, except for Dav, anyway.”
The innkeeper, silent until that point, offered the halfling a deferential nod.
Conrad gathered his thoughts and continued. “None of us are innocent, not truly. But what Whittaker’s up to, developing weapons like that… it’s beyond the pale. We knock over casinos and banks. He wants to start wars—kill thousands of people—, all to make a quick buck. I can’t abide it, not after seeing what I’ve seen.”
“You know I am with you, Conrad,” Sori said, placing a hand on the halfling’s shoulder.
Davroar stepped forward. “Me too, pipsqueak. Anythin’ t’stick it t’that slimy son of a bitch.”
Nodding appreciatively, Conrad turned to face Brooke and Zebra, the question plain on his face. But both of them were already, unsurprisingly, shaking their heads.
“No,” Brooke said. “Once Baldur’s back in action we’re out of this place. He warned me he had a bad feeling about the heist. I should have trusted him. I won’t make that mistake again.”
“Nothing personal, kid. This whole fancy crime business ain’t my style. I’ll stick to fighting and feasting.” Zebra stared the halfling down from his position behind Brooke before his gaze flicked toward Conrad’s gear piled on the chair in the corner. “We’ll settle our business and I’ll be on my way. No hard feelings?”
Conrad nodded again, acknowledging both the man’s argument and his subtext. He expected to get paid, and the halfling had no qualms with that bit of business. “None. You two—you three—have done more than enough already. I can’t ask you to get involved in my personal vendettas, whatever the stakes.” With that settled, Brooke and Zebra made their way out of the room. Davroar shut the door behind them.
“Talk, pipsqueak,” the muscled innkeeper said in a low voice, leaning in conspiratorially. “I ain’t no genius, but even I know when there’s somethin’ ye ain’t tellin’ us.”
Despite himself, Conrad grinned. “Sori?”
The blue-skinned woman crossed the room and retrieved the enchanted pouch, bringing it to the halfling’s waiting grasp.
With a spoken word in some unintelligible, arcane language, Conrad opened the door to the pocket dimension held within the bag. He uncinched the drawstring and pulled the pouch open wide, tilting it forward to allow Davroar and Sori to look inside. Even Sori, always as placid as a still lake, could not suppress her appreciative gasp.
“By the Arbiters,” Davroar murmured, his voice stolen by the sheer breadth of the halfling’s haul. “Ye actually pulled it off.”
Conrad peered into the pouch himself and found it hard to breathe. Like looking through the peephole of a door, he could only see part of the expansive room inside, but if it had a floor there was no way of knowing, so crowded was it with the fruits of Ajax Whittaker’s sinister labors. Mounds of gold and jewels, piled as high as the halfling’s chest, caught and reflected the morning light, interspersed with paintings, statues, and rare texts. All in all, it was more wealth than Conrad had ever imagined, much less seen in one place—enough to last him the rest of his life or to fuel his most extravagant ambitions.
For now, though, Conrad had a more pressing matter at hand. “Don’t get too excited just yet,” he said, closing the pouch and speaking the word to deactivate the enchantment. “There’s work to be done.”
“So what is next?” Sori asked.
The halfling thought for a moment, a plan beginning to form. “We’ll need a team.”
Quest Progress: 2,199 / 20,000