Chapter 80: Loose Ends
It didn't take long for Ember and her companions to find Lieutenant Aegisfield again; he was still in the market square of the bridge district, talking to a woman who was leaning casually against the wall of an inn.
"Ah, it is you," he said as they approached. "I don't suppose you've learned anything from Rampah, have you?"
"Boo thinks Rampah is a very strange man!" Minsc exclaimed.
Ember held out the scrap of hide to the lieutenant. "He let us buy this from him. He found it near the murder scene."
"Strange..." Aegisfield twirled the piece of hide between his fingers. "I have never seen anything like this hide before. Rose," he said, gesturing at the woman, "was close enough to smell the killer. We have just ascertained that he smelled very strongly of oak bark, the main ingredient of tannin. And now you bring me this odd piece of tanned hide. Few people would have any use for such things... I will have to go to the tanner's, I believe, and make some inquiries."
"Should we come with you?" Ember asked. "If he's the killer, it might be dangerous to confront him alone."
Aegisfield muttered something under his breath that sounded like 'adventurers'. "I've always known Rejiek Hidesman to be a reasonable man, if a bit gruff," he said. "However, I suppose there is a chance... very well, you may accompany me, but you must follow my instructions at all times."
"A wise decision," Yoshimo said.
The tanner's workshop was located on a small pier at the southern end of the bridge, some distance from other houses. The reek of tanning chemicals that surrounded the building made it painfully obvious why nothing had been built near it; Ember covered her mouth and nose with her hand as they approached the building, and Minsc complained that the smell was too much for Boo's little nose.
Lieutenant Aegisfield, on the other hand, showed no signs of discomfort as he walked up to the workshop. He gestured at Ember and her companions to make them stay back at the house corner, and knocked on the door with his fist. Soon, the door opened just enough for a short man with a mop of brown hair to stick his head out.
"I'm closed at the moment. Come back when I've replenished my stock," the man mumbled, and started to retreat back into the house.
"One moment, Hidesman," Aegisfield said. "I need to ask you a few questions."
"If it's about those murders again, I've already told you I know nothing. Why don't you go pester someone else?"
Aegisfield held out the piece of hide. "Do you know what this is?"
"Don't trifle with me, Rejiek. Even I can tell it is no usual hide. What is it?"
"Give it here," the tanner huffed, and snatched the scrap from the lieutenant's hand. "Elephant."
"The hide was found near the scene of the latest murder, and there was a scent of tannin there as well," Aegisfield said. "Have you made anything from such a hide lately?"
"You can't interrupt me like this," the tanner muttered. "My work must go on. My craft is all important. Nothing left to work on. No, only the ultimate materials."
"What are you talking about?"
"You will not stop what is unstoppable!" Quick as lightning, the tanner lunged forward and stabbed Aegisfield in the chest. The lieutenant slumped to the ground, and the tanner started to drag him inside the house.
"Halt, you fiend!" Anomen bellowed.
The tanner gave a start and let go of Aegisfield. "You don't understand! you couldn't! My work must go on!" he shouted as he scurried into the house. Ember and her companions hurried towards the lieutenant, who lay unconscious on the ground.
"Poison," Anomen announced, gesturing at the green-tinged dagger blade that was still stuck in Aegisfield's chest.
"I'll handle it," Ember said. "Go get that bastard." Minsc and Yoshimo went inside immediately, and the cleric hesitated only for a moment before following them.
As gently as possible, Ember wrapped her fingers around the hilt of the poisoned dagger and pulled it out of Aegisfield's chest. It came loose easily enough, but was followed by a small gush of blackened blood. Quickly, Ember placed a palm over the wound and forced her Bhaalspawn gift first to heal it, then to clear the poison. The double effort left her a little lightheaded, but she was rewarded with a few groans from the injured man. She said a healing spell over him as he regained consciousness.
"What..?" Aegisfield asked, then coughed a few times.
Ember pointedly held up the poisoned dagger. "I've cured and healed you, and my friends went inside after him. Can you stand?"
The lieutenant drew a deep breath and slowly got to his feet. "It appears so," he said, and coughed again. "Yes, I'll be fine. Let us go."
The lieutenant was not quite as well as he claimed; Ember had to support him with one arm as they entered the tanner's workshop. The room was empty; there was nothing unusual about it, other than a lack of the hides one would expect to find in such a place. A hinged trapdoor was open in a corner, revealing where the tanner and his pursuers had gone. Ember and Aegisfield climbed down through it into a room where several hides were stretched out over wooden frameworks and along the walls. Daylight seeped in through an open door.
Minsc, Yoshimo and Anomen were standing on a narrow pier on the other side of the doorway. A dead man and the remains of two ghouls lay at their feet. The tanner was nowhere to be seen.
"Where is Rejiek?" Aegisfield asked.
"Gone," Yoshimo said, pointing under the bridge. "He and an accomplice escaped in a small boat while we were distracted by their friends here."
"Ran away, like cowards!" Minsc roared. "Tremble, evil, for Minsc will find you again!"
The lieutenant cursed. "Can you describe the accomplice?"
"He was a wizard," Anomen said. "He attempted to cast horror upon us before they fled, but fortunately I was prepared to counter the spell's effects."
"He was a tall, slender man in his fourties, with sallow skin, greying hair, and no beard," Yoshimo added.
"A description which could fit any number of wizards," Aegisfield said wearily. "All I can do now is make sure that he and the tanner will be apprehended the moment they return to the city."
They returned to the room with all the hides and searched it. A few letters talking about meetings lay in a cabinet, and a massive cuirass of thick, grey hide with a jagged tear on its lower edge had been stuffed under a bench. Aegisfield held the leather scrap over the torn spot; it was a perfect match.
"An excellent find!" Aegisfield said. "I will present this armour and the letters as evidence. With luck, the writings will give us an idea about where they might have gone."
"I... I've found something else," Ember said quietly.
Several hides of pale, thin leather hung on racks in one corner of the room, beside a workbench where the tanner had been assembling a tunic. It was a perfect piece of work, and almost completed; the stitches were so fine that they were almost invisible.
"My lady, is that-?" Anomen asked.
Ember nodded. The gleeful roaring in her blood at the sight of the tanner's masterpiece left no room for doubt. "It's made from human skin."
"Those evil men must be stopped, or all who have skins will sleep in fear!" Minsc complained as the small group headed to Gaelan Bayle's house that evening.
"'Tis in the hands of the city Guard now," Anomen said. "Aegisfield seems competent enough; I have no doubt that he will bring justice to their black souls."
"It's a pity we couldn't have finished it here, though," Ember said, absentmindedly jiggling her coin purse. It was heavier than it had been for a very long time; the lieutenant had rewarded them with gems worth a few hundred gold. It had been a set sum, meant as a reward for assistance in identifying the murderer, not for catching him, but she still felt like they'd been paid in full for a job half done. We didn't catch him, and we don't know why he did those things. We don't know why he made that horrible tunic. It could be that the tanner had merely gone mad, but what role did his accomplice play?
"Be careful with that," Yoshimo cautioned her. "You wouldn't want to draw attention to our newfound wealth, hmm?"
"Oh, sorry." She hung the purse back on her belt and covered it with the hem of her tunic.
Yoshimo grinned. "Do not be worried. You have Yoshimo to watch your back!"
When they reached Bayle's house, they saw a young boy, no more than ten, sitting on the steps that led up to the front door. He stood up as they approached. "Hoy! You'd be the one I's watchin' for, aye? Uncle Gaelan told me to let you in."
"And where is your Uncle Gaelan, then?" Ember asked.
The child laughed. "Oh, yer a funny one! I like you. I'm Brus," he said, and held out a hand.
Ember took the child's hand and shook it as seriously as she would an Archduke's. "I'm Ember. Pleased to meet you, Brus."
"Renal's waiting for ye inside," Brus said. "Jus' follow me!" He flung the front door open and led them inside to the parlor where Bayle had offered them assistance for twenty thousand. A different man awaited them in the room; he looked as stern as Bayle looked jolly, and wore only black, from his boots to his leather armour to his cloak. The only colour on the man was the blood-red lining of his hood, which was down around his shoulders. His eyes followed Ember as she entered the room, making her feel a bit ill at ease. She glared at him, and his face wrinkled into a small smile.
"You'll have to excuse me if I stare, as you're not quite what I was expecting," the man said. "From all I have been told, I was expecting someone... grander."
"Is that so?" Ember asked coldly.
"Oh yes, I've been told many tales of your exploits, both here and further north. But before we continue, let me introduce myself," the man said. "My name is Renal, as I'm sure you've been told. I am also known as Renal Bloodscalp... a little nickname I've earned over time. Rather grisly, but it keeps the fearful in line."
"Your name is known to me, Bloodscalp!" Anomen said. "My lady, this man is a renowned Shadow Thief!"
"That I may be, young Delryn," Bloodscalp said, looking straight at Anomen, "but at this moment, it should be of no concern to you. Ah, relax, squire! I am not about to ask your lady here to commit any crimes."
"What is it you want from me?" Ember asked.
"Right to the point, eh? Refreshing. I am sick of underlings who shift from foot to foot; a bit of directness is a nice change," Bloodscalp said. "To be short, there is a particular task that I need performed, and you are just the one to do it."
Ember raised an eyebrow.
"My problem is this: one of my guildhouses to the south is run by a rather ambitious fellow named Mae'Var. Good thief, but I never liked him. Now I know why. I've had some hints that he is getting too big for himself. Thinking of taking my place, I suspect, but I've had no real evidence to say that this is so." Bloodscalp paused to sip from a goblet. "Now, you're likely thinking: why not just eliminate him? Yes, yes, I suppose I could. But without proof of betrayal, this would anger the other guildmasters and then I'd have a war on my hands and, well, just let it lie that I don't want that."
"And what would all this have to do with me?" Ember asked.
"It's all very simple," Bloodscalp said. "Mae'Var got a new right hand man a few months ago. He's a wizard, and a bloody good one from what I hear, but I also hear that he likes his luxuries. It shouldn't be too hard to convince him to betray Mae'Var, for the right sum. I would like you to approach this wizard and find out what his price would be. Don't worry, there'll be money in it for you too."
"Boo wonders why you don't ask the wizard yourself?" Minsc asked.
"Deniability," Yoshimo said. "Am I correct?"
"Yes and no, my freelancing friend," Bloodscalp replied. "I could have asked any mercenary group to do this, but you have an advantage they do not have."
"What advantage might that be?" Anomen asked.
The Shadow Thief looked at Ember. "The wizard's name is Edwin Odesseiron."