CHAPTER TWO, PART TWO
"Slippery John said he'd meet us at the inn," said Meryl, when we arrived at Cronenburg later that day.
"Any particular inn?" I asked.
"Slippery John just said 'the inn'."
I put my hands on my hips and took in the endless racks of shingles that lined what a flamboyant signpost identified as the Street of Inns. "Slippery John is a fatheaded, useless berk."
"Oh, come on. He's not useless."
The day was wearing thin and the sun was making exaggerated yawns and meaningful looks at the horizon. We'd been trudging through the plains for a few hours before Cronenburg appeared, and it didn't take long to be underwhelmed by the place. It had once been a tiny hamlet, the kind of town where yokels in big hats leaned against barrels in the middle of the street, chewing straws and making filthy cross-eyed looks at anyone who wasn't the product of rampant inbreeding, but (as Slippery John had told Meryl, who had in turn told me) the Adventure Trail had turned it into a popular traveler's rest for wandering mercenaries.
We'd passed a lot of those on the way. Barbarians, dwarves, battle mages, elves, healers - the road was permanently serving as an unusually large catwalk for absurd battlewear.
Syndrome sufferers were commonplace and easily spotted; they were the really attractive people who jogged robotically along the road, awkwardly swung weaponry at the endless wandering monsters that adventurers attract, or just stood perfectly still in fixed heroic poses in the middle of the highway to the immense frustration of their non-afflicted friends and peers. I'd never seen so many of them packed so densely in one place.
"Well, no need to start fretting," said Meryl. "We'll just have to check all the inns in turn. You want to take that side of the road and I'll take this one?"
"How about you take both sides of the road, and I'll go do something else."
"Ah. Gotcha." She tapped her nose. "Reconnaissance."
"No." I tapped the place where my nose used to be. "Shopping. I want to find a new robe that isn't about to rot off with water damage."
She began poking her head into the inns and I kept walking to the town center. This didn't take long. Cronenburg only had three streets, which formed a Y around what I would have called a village square had it not been perfectly circular. The Street of Inns was the southerly branch of the Y, and the two arms were the Street of Magic and the Street of Combat. Every single building in Cronenburg appeared to belong to a business of some kind.
The streets were absolutely packed with human traffic, everyone shoving their way through the crowds in hasty pursuit of their individual shopping needs. After being swept relentlessly around the town center for a few laps I made a burst of effort and stumbled out into the comparatively sedate central plaza. I stood on a bench to get a clearer look around.
There evidently had been a bit too much surplus in the town planning committee's annual budget, and the very air seemed to sparkle with the setting sunlight reflecting off brand new shop frontage and polished cobblestones. The centerpiece of the town was a huge, silvery ornamental fountain depicting a wild-haired barbarian with one furry boot planted on a defeated gnoll. Crystal-clear water ran from its stab wounds. And just to underline the message, a six-foot long plaque at the bottom read "CRONENBURG WELCOMES ADVENTURERS" in big serifed letters.