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Midnight Deep
Lair Of The Troglodytes
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The Diamond Key

by Ulysses Ai


Background
Crow
Artwork © Susanna Wesslund
The tavern is filled with smoke and song, roaring fires radiating hot amber light onto the merry faces of the dancing men, thumping the floor with their booted feet. Tankards are raised in raucous toasts, before the warm contents are tossed down throats, or just as often spilling onto the floor as men stagger and laugh before falling over.

Watching the celebration from a quiet corner, you smile at the comic display. The men deserve their rest. It was a hard trek across the arid lands of Granborin, called the Sun's Anvil by those who dwell at its withering edge. Only sand moles and the lizards that hunt them live in the desert. The caravan had encountered a few of the giant lizards on this journey, but the warriors had been numerous enough to drive off the beasts. It was the heat that had made the going difficult, and the sand that seemed to slide from under the feet at every step. Your own legs still felt the weariness of the journey; only the copious amounts of beer give your companions the strength to dance.

One hand drifting to your belt, you grasp once more the small purse hanging there. Fifty pieces of gold, paid in full by the merchant Frellan for the safe passage of his goods. A fair wage for three week's work. But being a merchant's guard was often more dangerous than being a soldier. When there was no war, soldiers grew fat and obnoxious. Better to be a merchant's guard, you reflect. Dangerous, perhaps, but predictable. And if it went badly you could always flee. Bandits never pursued you if you ran away.

Reflecting on your fortunes, you look up as the door opens, letting on a gust of cool air that is a relief against the hot interior. Most of the revellers do not notice the figure who steps inside, but the sight is unusual enough to make the Keeper hastily put down a half-full tankard in front of the man lolling at the bar and scurry forward, ignoring the protests that come after him. You also sit up a little straighter. The woman standing inside the doorway is dressed in a long cloak of deepest blue, embroidered around the base with white and golden thread. A cowl hides her features, but it is not difficult to see her distaste as she looks over the drunken louts before her. The Keeper has scrambled over the bodies and dodged the dancing revellers to bow to the lady, welcoming her to his establishment. By this time some more of the drunken men have noticed her, and the room is starting to quieten. The cowl moves from side to side as the woman shakes her head at the Keeper's invitation, then she thrusts a gloved hand in your direction before turning around and leaving. The Keeper turns and looks straight at you before turning back to bow, but the lady is already gone. You stand as the Keeper makes his way back across the common room, waving away those who try to accost him, either to ask who the lady was, or to order more beer.

Giving you a brief nod, the keeper shouts above the song and laughter.

"The lady wants to see you outside!"

"About what?" you ask.

The keeper shrugs, and goes back to the bar. Picking up your weapons and pack you start to make your way across the room. The room is almost as hot as the Sun's Anvil! It is a relief to walk out into the night, embraced by the cool air. Closing the door behind you, you inhale deeply the fresh air. The lady is standing nearby, and you are startled to see with her four armoured men. They carry no signs or symbols, but each has the look of a professional guard. Curious, now, you approach, stopping many feet away. One of the guards significantly takes a step, placing himself to intercept you if you were to try and attack the lady. The lady hastily steps past the guard, waving him back with irritation. Placing her hands on her hips, her form clothed now in shadow, she looks you over, eyes sparkling in the depths of her cowl. "You are the captain of these men?" She asks in a low, melodic voice. A beautiful voice, but her tone is impatient.

"No," you reply. "The captain is under one of the tables inside."

Although you can't see her face, you sense she is frustrated. "You are not drinking tonight?" she asks, probingly.

"I can't afford to get drunk and spend all my money," you reply.

"I see," she replies curtly. Stepping away from you, she paces to one side, then turns. "I need guards for a journey. I will pay you well. How many others can you gather? Men who will be fit to leave at dawn tomorrow?"

You shrug. "I'm not sure."

The woman seems displeased. "Very well. Get lots of rest. We will leave at first light tomorrow."

As she turns to leave, your words halt her. "I haven't agreed to your terms. In fact, I haven't heard your terms at all. Where are we going? What is the rate of pay?" The lady looks back at you over her shoulder. "One gold coin per day. Our destination is...not for you to know at this time."

"What about an initial sum? And a bonus for safe delivery?"

The lady turns to face you, planting her hands on her hips. "Five gold now, and another five when we arrive." Folding your arms, you pretend to consider the offer. It is a generous amount, but some journeys were more dangerous than others. Frellan paid ten gold for safe delivery, and two gold per day to cross the perilous wastelands. "It is difficult to know how much I deserve, if you will not tell me where we are going. What are you carrying?"

"I have made my offer," the lady snaps. "If you accept it, be at the Northern Gate at dawn! Don't presume to bargain with me while you are unproven!"

Stalking angrily away, the four guards hasten to follow her.

Standing alone in the night you contemplate the offer, you hand wandering once more to the purse on your belt. You would have preferred to rest a while before you next job. But you would never refuse a job lightly. The lady's journey smells dangerous, but you are curious as well. For many moments you stand as the breeze cools you, turning things over in your mind. At least she will be heading north, away from the arid lands. Wandering up the street in search of an inn, you contemplate the idea of sleeping in, perhaps in the arms of a perfumed lady. Yet adventure is calling...


Additional Information
This gamebook features slight variations on the usual Fighting Fantasy combat rules. The standard amount of damage inflicted on an opponent is not two STAMINA points, but the difference between the Attack Strengths. Furthermore, some enemies have an ARMOUR rating. This has the effect of reducing damage inflicted on them by that amount.

You begin the game armed only with a dagger, but you may acquire more weapons later. As usual, you can choose the one that you will use in battle by selecting in the list of possessions and clicking on USE.
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