Though its face is lipless, the creature seems to twist its expression into one of malicious amusement. When its mouth parts, and a low, rumbling, bassy voice emerges, the very ground itself begins to quake and quiver. Tremors run through the creature’s gripping claws, to the throne, through the ornate floor, and up into the boots of the gang — everything in the luxuriant chamber resonates as one when the beast speaks.
“Abia,” it says. “You’ve come back to me.”
A gigantic creature with wings like a bat, a long, fluted neck, and a narrow reptilian face contorted with greed and malice, bursts from the darkness, bringing with it a great gust of heat and roaring wind.
The gang plants their feet to resist being entirely bowled over. The creature turns effortlessly under the peak of the huge chamber, before coming into a dive and alighting upon the throne like a housecat. Its gold scales reflect the torchlight and its claws gouge into the beautiful throne.
The two parties stare one another down, save Fassn, who’s inhaling a deep breath of the hot air to feel it in his lungs.
Shyan clears her throat, looking the creature dead in its shiny black eyes. “We’re here to deal.”
The throne at the room’s far wall is massive, built of fused gold, threaded with silver, studded with diamonds, rubies, sapphires. Fassn’s eyes nearly bug out of his skull as he takes in the display of wealth, while even Cang’s mouth drops involuntarily open. Heavy black shadows press in from all corners, kept flickeringly at bay by guttering torches in ornate sconces. The heat in the chamber is enough that sweat beads at the gang’s brows as they take in the oppressive throne.
The throne itself, though, is unoccupied.
“Hey we had a deal,” Shyan calls out, though no one is apparently around to here. “Mr. Dragon? We’ve got gold, stolen from royalty! Your musicians said you wanted to buy it.”
A wave of brutal heat suddenly washes over the gang, kicking up a hot wind that throws them each into disarray. Something enormous moves in the shadows.
At the head of an ostentatious flight of stairs stands a massive set of double doors, crafted of fine, ancient oak, with filigree of silver veined throughout. Both Rivera and Rufus stop before it, turn to face the gang.
“Boss is through here,” says Rufus.
“You’re not coming with us?” Shyan asks.
Rivera shakes her head. “Boss likes to talk to clients alone.”
“What do you think, Abia?” asks Shyan.
“This is true,” she says, her tone suggesting no elaboration. The floating, glowing sphere takes a couple of turns around her head.
The musicians throw open the double doors. Within, an enormous throne room, and a thick, wet, unbearable heat.
“Good luck,” says Rivera, closing the door behind her.
“The boss is exacting,” Abia says. “But he loves gold.”
The attendant observes from his vantage point atop his long nose. “This one has sense, at least,” he says. “But, alas, the boss is not receiving visitors right now.”
“Right,” says Rivera, rolling her eyes. “Don’t mind him,” she tells the gang. “He’s just lazy. He’ll say whatever it takes to get rid of us.”
“A most scurrilous accusation,” says the attendant, entirely unphased. “Truly, the boss is absent, on a walkabout, of sorts.”
Shyan gives Abia a questioning look. Abia replies with a look that says “don’t worry.” Sure enough, Rivera and Rufus push past the attendant and ascend an ornate staircase. The gang wastes no time in following, leaving the attendant blinking calmly in the foyer.
Abia shakes her head, a gentle motion that suggests a firm “no.” “Boss will know,” she says.
“Quiet down back there,” says the flutist. “Show a little respect.”
Cang gives her a grievous look, but says no more.
An attendant in a crisp waistcoat descends a set of wide, mahogany steps, and stares down at the gang past his long, crooked nose. “Rivera, why have you brought such filth into master’s home?”
Rivera, the flutist, draws herself up. “Getting some gold, all right? They brought something nice the boss is gonna want.” She gestures at Cang, who’s holding the necklace.
“Their clothes are filthy.”
“We took a bath, all right?” Shyan says. “Look, even cut my hair. What more could your boss possibly want? He either likes gold or he doesn’t, forget about hygiene.”
A small smile creeps onto Abia’s lips.
“This doesn’t look so good,” Shyan says, peering into the dark.
“Well of course not,” the flutist replies. “Can’t have the foyer visible from the street. Look at the type of element this place attracts.” By her words, she’s speaking of the peasants, but by her tone and look, she means the gang themselves.
Rufus, scowl on his face, strides into the dark. The gang follows, and moves through the blackness like a rubber gasket or burial shroud: once they’ve moved through it, everything is different. Elaborate filigree sprawls across the walls, golden sconces hold roaring torches, and the floor tiles are cut of burnished silver.
Cang subtly gestures at the tiles to bring them to Abia’s attention. “Let us steal a few of these and be done with it,” he says.