Sleven and Bryna approached the mountains with no city in sight. A weathered sign hung on a post; an oil lantern hung from the arm of the post illuminating the sign. The sign read:
An arrow pointed to the ground.
"What? Where is the city?" Sleven questioned to no one in particular.
Bryna moved forward without being nudged, stopping right next to the sign. Suddenly the ground beneath them began to shudder. A grinding and churning noise filled the air. Bryna stood unmoved by the commotion as the ground where they stood slowly sunk into a dark, dank hole.
Sleven closed his eyes and clung to the saddle, not sure if he should try to get Bryna to jump out of the hole – which she didn't seem inclined to do. So he stayed with the horse, sinking blindly into a pit, not knowing what was going to happen next. What did happen, however, was the last thing he would ever have expected. Blinding sunlight pierced through his eye lids, making his eyes water.
How could this be, a world beneath the world? The sun seemed to shine brighter in this world. Stretching before him was the city of Cyn. It was not like the cold drab city he had imagined. A main dirt road trailed out before him. Stone buildings lined both sides of the road; signs hung from posts designating what were inside the buildings. Homes speckled the outlying hills. It was all very quaint and too good to be true.
"Well the first thing to do is find an Inn." Sleven said aloud.
Bryna whickered and bobbed her head up and down. Was she agreeing with him? Things were getting too weird too fast, and Sleven suddenly found his head spinning. With a mental shrug, he urged Bryna on, looking each building over carefully, hoping for a clean-looking inn, or at least a tavern where he could eat. He knew he didn't dare ask someone for help; even if he hadn't known before about the nature of Cyn's inhabitants, he would have quickly picked up on the openly hostile looks.
His eyes alighted on a building with a wooden sign that said inn and tavern. Perfect. He would kill two birds with one stone. Get some food and have a bed for the night. There were gales of laughter exuding from the place. It couldn't be that bad if everyone was having a good time. Looking at the outside of the building Sleven deduced that the inside couldn't be all that bad, because all the stones were intact. He reached out and pushed the tavern door.
The door swung in to the tavern-slash-inn. Heavy smoke caused Sleven's eyes to water. Blinking hard, he cleared his eyes enough to take in his surroundings. It was a horror; monsters and other unknown creatures were staring at him. At one table was a one-eyed monster that seemed to fill up the entire room. There were little men with long, hooked noses and pointy hats. Several men with pale skin sat in a dark corner of the room with goblets filled with what appeared to be blood. Behind the counter was a young woman with long black hair and cat-like eyes. Every now and then wings fluttered behind her. In another corner of the room a machine rested on a stool. It was a small box with a black disk spinning around; a needle was attached to an arm that was connected to a curved cone. The sound of laughter seemed to be coming from the cone.
Sleven hesitated another moment, and then stepped further into the room. Under the glares of creatures he couldn't put names to; he found an empty seat in a relatively secluded corner. After a few tense moments, a creature that Sleven assumed was the keeper stomped over to his table and stood towering silently over him. The creature was tall; his head nearly touching the soot-blackened rafters, and narrow through the shoulders, which were covered with fine, snow-white hair.
"What?" the creature asked after an eternity, in a soft tenor.
Sleven tried to suppress a smile; if all the monsters were like the creature before him, Sleven had nothing to worry about. He looked around for suggestions on what to drink. There was grog, beer… and blood, which was out of the question. He turned to examine the kegs behind the counter. One had a dragon painted on the front and smoke seemed to be coming from the tap. Another keg had a hideous creature painted with what appeared to be a gray beard coming out of the tap.
"I'll have one of those," Sleven said, pointing to the fuzzy tap. The large man-creature turned on his heel and walked away, swaying his hips.
The bartenderess laughed out loud when his drink order was delivered. "One Troll's Beard, coming up." She pulled the drink into a not-so-clean mug and walked over to the table to serve his drink herself. "Enjoy," she said with a smile.
He looked at the drink; a long, thick, gray hair was floating on top. Bottoms up, he thought to himself. He took a long swig. As soon as the thick liquid hit his throat, everything went black and his head hit the table hard.
When Sleven came-to once again, he opened his eyes to find he was still in the barroom, but he was totally alone. The soft, early morning light filtered through the windows; he still didn't understand how the sun could shine underground. It hurt his bruised, aching, hung-over head to think about it for long, so he stopped trying.
Looking up, he saw the bartenderess watching him from behind the counter as she wiped the worst of the grime off the heavy mugs with a rag that didn't seem too much cleaner than the dishes.
"Morning, stranger," she said in her husky voice, not quite a greeting.
"Morning," Sleven mumbled, running a hand over his face to try to clear his head. He jumped up with a yelp when he encountered not the perpetually hairless jaw line he was accustomed to, but a shaggy, moth-eaten beard that rivaled that of any peasant oldster he had ever seen.
The bartenderess chuckled mockingly, "Well at least now you blend in, young man."
Sleven looked at his appearance in a dirty windowpane. The moth-eaten beard was long and gray. He had always wanted to grow a beard, but this was ridiculous. It made his chin itch. He gave it a sharp tug; it was real.
"Don't worry, it will fall off in a few days," the bartenderess' wings fluttered behind her, filling the air with a slight buzzing noise.
Sleven studied the young…woman before him. She had long, straight black hair trailing down past her waist. She wore black leather pants that fit snugly to every curve. A black blouse barely covered her top. It was cut so low it left nothing to the imagination. But what caught Sleven's attention the most were the wings now folded behind her. They were similar to the wings of the blue pixie. Is she a pixie? Sleven wondered. Before his thoughts could take him far, the door to the tavern-slash-in opened.
"Ah, his highness has woken up," a voice from the doorway said.
Sleven jumped and faced the doorway, eyes wide. No one was supposed to know who he was – had he let something slip after he drank that…stuff? If so, in a place like this he was probably in big trouble.
"What, never had a Troll's Beard before?" the voice asked with a laugh. "That's a bad habit to get into here. This tavern caters to the…exotic. Most of the drinks have effects like yours did. Those that don't…well, most humans won't drink that stuff."
With those words, the owner of the voice finally stepped into view. He was a short…being; only coming up to Sleven's navel. His skin was the gray color of clay, his knotted hair the gray-brown of wet stone. His wide-set eyes – the dark gray of thunderclouds – stared piercingly at him over a bulbous, crooked nose that protruded down to his chin.
"I thank you for the advice, sir," Sleven replied politely, still not sure if the little creature knew that he was a prince.
"He feels he must protect all the country bumpkins that come through the doors," the pixie-woman told him with a wink.
Sleven stared at the thing…creature…small humanoid in front of him. He had never seen anything like it before. He had never heard of anything like it; he had no word to put to the creature.
"I'm a stone garden gargoyle, kid. Get over it." The gargoyle's gruff voice brought Sleven to his senses.
"His name is Roc," the bartenderess offered. Amusement glittered in her eyes. "And I am Tatia."
"So, your highness…" Roc began.
Before he could continue, Sleven interjected. "How did you know who I am?" He was still completely confused about…well, everything. Where was he? How was the sun shining underground? Who were these people? Could you even call them people? Would he ever see the blue pixie again?
"Next time you run away from home, take the royal crest off your steed's saddle blanket. Now, what can we do for you? Why are you here?" Roc asked.
"Uh…um…uh," Sleven had for a brief moment forgotten his quest.
"Quit jawing, boy, and speak," the little gargoyle ordered.
"I – I…um…I am looking for the White Healer. I heard she was beyond the mountains." He swallowed hard, not sure if Roc and Tatia would believe him.
"That is a noble quest. You have come to the right place. Cyn is the only city in the world that sells maps to show the way to the White Healer." Roc explained.
"Really?" Sleven asked, surprised at his good fortune.
"No, I only said that for your reaction," the gargoyle retorted.
"Roc," the bartenderess said warningly.
"Okay, okay, don't get your corset in a pinch," the gargoyle waved her off. "Listen, kid, I wasn't kidding earlier. Cyn's the only place you can get a lot of things in this world. You just have to know where to find it."
"Can you help me find the map?" Sleven asked.
"Oh, I can tell you exactly where one is, but you will never get it."
"What? Why?" Sleven was shocked and no little angry. He'd never been denied anything before.
"Your ears, kid," the gargoyle explained. "You're elven, or at least partly so, and as such you should know exactly where to find the White Healer. Anybody you approach about a map will think you just want it so that no one but the elves can find her."
"Oh, just go get it for him already," the bartenderess interrupted. "We both know that's what you're after, anyway. Kid, give him the money for it."
Hesitantly, Sleven did so, thinking it probably wasn't the wisest course – and that it was likely his only option. The gargoyle snatched up the purse and quickly disappeared.
"Looks like you've got yourself a sidekick, princeling," Tatia said dryly, polishing another mug.
Sleven waited patiently for the moveable stone creature to return with the map. Some of his comments haunted the young halfling as he waited. So he was supposed to know the way to the White Healer because he was an elf? Didn't they know talking about that type of thing was outlawed? No elf would admit to knowing that type of thing. No elf would admit to being an elf these days.
As these thoughts engrained themselves in Sleven's brain, the gargoyle returned. A brown piece of parchment was crumpled up in Roc's small, cracked hands. He handed the wrinkled paper to the prince. Raising an eyebrow, Sleven took the map and smoothed it out.
A look of shock came to his face when he saw the "map." It looked like a child's drawing. The thick lines were crooked; people were represented by stick figures. Frowning, Sleven studied the map. It did show the way to the White Healer, but according to the map it was a straight path through the Forecorth Mountains.
Sleven looked down at Roc. "Did you just draw this yourself?" His anger started to rise.
"So when do we leave?" Tatia asked.