Thursday, September 18, 2008

Chapter Nineteen

The three companions grumbled as they were escorted to the chamber where they were to be house for their stay. The door clanged heavily after they entered, followed by the audible clack of a stout lock. Their meeting had been dramatically interrupted, and they were hustled away without another word.

Staring at the locked door, Brayden sat down on the bed, sinking into the down pallet. The enfolding softness of the thick mattress seemed lost on him as he scratched his stubble covered chin.

“Hmm, what can this rogue want?” he thought aloud.

“Power,” Sethyr hissed in response.

“I agree, but to what end?”

“It could be plain cussedness,” Vijhan added.

Brayden and Sethyr turned toward the Canid wearing looks of surprise.

“What in the blazes do you mean?” Brayden asked.

“Well, sometimes a lion will horde a kill, even if it has already eaten its fill. It just wants to keep the meat from the other lions. It’s just simple contrariness.”

“I see his point,” Sethyr agreed. “Maquin knows that his rival wants us. Perhaps he doesn’t care why…just that he can deny his enemy something they want. I think that Vijhan understands you Humans better than I do.”

“I didn’t say I understood them…I just recognize a hunter when I see one. Something in his eyes says we are just meat to him.”

“Be that as it may be, we have little choice but to accept his hospitality…for now,” Brayden said.

“Aye, that is true. But, we should be ready to escape if we get the chance.” Vijhan added.

“Where can we run from him?” Sethyr asked. “It seems that we have two choices…Maquin or this other criminal. At least Maquin seems to have some manners.”

Brayden and Vijhan stared at Sethyr. The mage’s normal reticence seemed to be absent.

“What are you two gawking for?”

Brayden smiled, “oh, nothing. It’s just that you normally aren’t so…trusting.”

“I never said I trusted the rogue, but as long as he minds his manners, perhaps he can be of use to us.”

The three watched each other for a moment, Sethyr meeting Brayden and Vijhan’s gazes with a cold, reptilian stare. Unspoken agreement passed between the companions and the tension drained from the small room.

“If we stay here with Maquin we will be drawn into any conflict on his side. I suppose at this point we do not have much choice in the matter.” Sethyr said.

Brayden nodded. “I agree, but we must remain vigilant. I he is truly a villain then we must break with him, no matter the cost.”

Vijhan responded with a quick nod while Sethyr rolled her eyes.

“Now that our consciences have been slaked, why don’t we try to do the same for our hunger,” Sethyr said.

Brayden nodded, and emptiness suddenly pinching his belly. He and the others had been so engrossed with their flight to find Maquin’s sanctuary; hunger had slipped away, forgotten.

Vijhan licked his chops, eyeing his companions self consciously as the though of food made him begin salivating.

Once again it struck Brayden how close his friend was to his animal nature. The common wisdom held that the Canids remained a young race, emerging from the wilds of the north only a few centuries before. Some rumored their creation dated to the wars of magic fought in the lost northern empire at nearly the same time.

If true, Brayden pitied the Canids, orphans left to fend for themselves with the passing of their sorcerous parentage. He suspected that this only served to strengthen their reliance on the pack. Now, Vijhan did not even have that. He and Sethyr were all that the Canid had left.

Sighing, Sethyr buckled her pack closed and tossed it under the bed.

“Now that we have settled that argument, I believe that I’d like to see if our hosts can provide me with a warm bath and the food we discussed,” Sethyr said.


Nothing but Sethyr's eyes and nostrils peeked above the steaming bathwater. She floated just under the surface, arms and legs splayed at her sides absorbing the pleasant heat of the bath. While drawing the bath a plump servitor had asked Sethyr if she would like some aromatic oils added to the water, but the mage politely declined. The water was enough to sooth her scales.

Weeks in the wilderness did nothing for the condition of her normally lustrous skin. Sethyr almost imagined the flecks of grime falling away as she slowly undulated her body, letting the water work its way between her scales. She imagined hearing the dry scales drinking in the welcome moisture of the bath. Sethyr’s people believed that they had come from water and rarely strayed far from it. Her adventurous ways, however, often precluded such luxuries. When the opportunity afforded itself, Sethyr used the embrace of the water to support her physical form and free her mind, letting her thoughts nibble around the edges of any problems currently vexing her. At the moment her ruminations landed squarely on Maquin, their eager host.

A low, thrum reverberated through the bathwater, tickling Sethyr’s tympanic membranes. Her let her eyes crack open in irritation at the disturbance. A second thrum quickly followed the first. A third followed, but stronger as dust wafted from the stone roof.

“Danger,” the feral part of Sethyr’s brain screamed, prodding her survival instincts into responding. The ghosts of her ancestors seemed to whisper in her ear; unconsciously sending her head under water, blurring her vision for a moment as nictitating membranes slid into place over her eyes, slowing her heartbeat to conserve the air in her lungs.

The bathwater carried the thrumming even more intensely than the air above, nearly deafening Sethyr. Yet it also carried the sound of running feet and muffled screams. The sharp clang of an alarm bell soon followed. The cacophony assaulted her ears, driving her back above the water.

“Sethyr!” A voice shouted from beyond the door. An insistent rapping followed.

She recognized Brayden’s earthy brogue. “Let us in, ye damned lizard.”

Rising gracefully from the tub and padding to the door, Sethyr slid back the bolt. Pushed from the other side, the door swung open, giving her barely enough time to avoid a collision with a nimble hop.

Brayden rushed into the chamber, his pack and Sethyr’s hanging from his shoulder. As he spun to locate his companion, his foot slid in a puddle left from the mage’s exit from the bath. With an oath of consternation, the paladin went down in a heap.

Vijhan, close on Brayden’s heels, had to leap over him. This, the Canid achieved easily, but a bit too powerfully. His leap took him over the fallen paladin, but also over the lip of the tub. Vijhan landed in the steaming water with a splash.

Surfacing with a choked growl, Vijhan sprayed water everywhere in the small room. With an adroit hop, the Canid left the tub, immediately dropping to one knee next to Brayden.

“Sir, are you well?” he asked.

Brayden grimaced, holding his right ankle. “I’ll be fine…if I don’t have to run anywhere.”

Emerging from behind the door, Sethyr hissed a laugh. “My comrades to the rescue. How wonderfully courageous, but I’m afraid that running may be required sooner than later.”

“Yes,” Vijhan added, “the mage is right. I can hear evil voices in the tunnels.”

Brayden looked at Vijhan with his eyebrow crooked quizzically. “Evil voices? What do you mean.”

“Harsh and evil, and I have heard them before.” A low growl slipped from Vijhan’s throat. “The Jurouk have come.”

“Blazes!” Brayden cursed. “We must flee.”

“Flee? I never thought I’d see the mighty Brayden flee from anything.” Sethyr eyed the paladin suspiciously.

“We have no time for this. The Jurouk are savage beyond nightmare. I’ll be damned if I let them capture me.”

Sethyr retrieved her red robes a nearby table, dressing quickly. “My old master once said that if I ever saw a lion running in terror I should try to keep up. I’d rather not face these Jurouk.”

Vijhan nodded, his normally lank hair bristling, flinging even more water around the room.

Sethyr and Vijhan helped Brayden to his feet, brushing dust from his surcoat.

Vijhan peered out the door and his companions gathered their belongings.

“We must go quickly. They have not reached this far.”

Sethyr and Brayden followed as Vijhan crept into the corridor. Sniffing the air and perking his ears, the Canid searched for signs of approaching Jurouk.

“It is clear, for now, but I hear faint screams from above.”

Brayden shook his head, “If they are above, we have no choice but to go down…wherever that may lead.”

Friday, April 4, 2008

Chapter Eighteen

Sethyr’s eyes did not need much time to adjust to the blackness inside the tenement. Her reptilian eyes picked up more than the eyes of a Human. She spied the wisps of heat coming from the breath of the men hidden inside the room as if they were standing in pale moonlight on a cold night.

“Follow me,” the man by the door ordered in a gruff voice.

“And how do we do that in this murk?” Sethyr replied.

The brute stopped and puzzled for a moment. He turned toward the trio, a glint of eyeshine betraying a heritage sprinkled with a bit of the night dwelling Basha.

“Take my hand until your eyes come right. Make a chain and I’ll lead you along.” He put out his hand, but none of the trio made a move to grasp it. The man grunted, harrumphing loudly to show his displeasure. He reached out and clutched Brayden’s wrist. The Protector startled at the unexpected contact.

Sethyr saw Brayden grope more than reach for Vijhan’s hand, guessing where the Canid was. He managed to find Vijhan’s arm and then they joined hands. With a sigh Sethyr made a show of fumbling for Vijhan’s other hand.

“I believe the links are complete,” Sethyr said after taking hold of Vijhan’s tail through his cloak. The Canid gave a startled yip, relaxing only after realizing it was Sethyr who held his tail. “You may proceed.”

The hulking guard gave a satisfied grunt and then led them deeper into the abandoned building. An obvious path had been cleared through the refuse littering most of the floor. As he led them through, the guard kicked aside a few piles that had slumped back into the path.

Sethyr heard Vijhan begin to whine and she gave his tail a friendly squeeze.

“Don’t panic, boy. I am sure we’ll be there in no time,” Sethyr said in a valiant attempt at a soothing voice. The words came out closer to a sly hiss, but Sethyr felt some of the tension in Vijhan’s tail subside.

The guard stopped, putting a hand on Brayden’s shoulder to bring the others to a halt. Vijhan halted as Brayden did, but Sethyr stumbled into the Canid, pretending to be fumbling in the dark.

Turning toward a large crate stored next to the nearby wall, the guard knocked on the crate and then pulled it away from the wall. The flickering light of a torch poured in through a passage revealed behind the crate.

“Pass through here and follow the torches. Don’t stray from the path or you’re libel to get eaten. Nasty things live down there…but not as nasty as the magnate.” The guard chuckled, giving them a casual salute as he stepped aside for them to enter.

Sethyr followed as Brayden and Vijhan passed into the stone corridor. Once through, the crate slid back into place, leaving them standing alone in the low ceilinged corridor.

“You can let go of my tail now,” Vijhan said with a barking laugh.

Sethyr released the Canid’s tail, glaring at him.

Brayden stifled a laugh, also earning a glare from Sethyr.

“Shall we proceed? Or do you have more useless mockery for me?” Sethyr tried to keep the irritation from her voice but failed.

Brayden nodded, turning toward the line of torches secured in sconces set in regular intervals along the wall. The floor sloped downward, making it a ramp down into the city’s underside.

Before the Protector took a step down the corridor Vijhan held up his hand.

“What is it?” Sethyr asked.

“Sweet,” Vijhan answered.

“What are you saying?”

“The smoke is sweet.”

“What..” Sethyr began to ask but was interrupted by Brayden.

“How can that be?”

“Use your noses,” Vijhan said. “There is almost no smoke coming from the torches and what there is smells sweet.”

Sethyr strode over to the nearest torch and drew in a nose full of air.

“The dog’s snout does not lie. He is right, I smell it too” the mage said as the delicate scent of fine perfume wafted from the smoke.

“This is all very strange,” Brayden shook his head.

Sethyr’s head swung slowly to regard the Protector. “Yes, very strange indeed. But what hasn’t been strange since Hedgewise?”

Brayden gave Sethyr a strange look. “I’ll admit, it has been unusual…but what are you trying to say?”

“When so many strange happenings occur, it excites my natural skepticism. Some might call me paranoid, but I feel manipulated.”

“I don’t feel that,” Brayden said, a question in his voice.

“I can understand that…but you always see the better half of folk,” Sethyr hissed vehemently. ”That’s a mistake now. I just feel like a storm is gathering and we are at the center.”

“So what do you propose we do?” Brayden asked.

“I do not know,” Sethyr answered.

They stood there, silently regarding each other when Vijhan interjected. “When hunting dangerous prey, you must know the danger is there, be wary, but still move forward with the hunt. If the hunt were safe, everyone would be a wolf.”

Sethyr and Brayden both turned to stare at the Canid. Normally taciturn, he had summed up their only option in a few words.

“So I suppose we leap into our mysterious benefactor’s lair?” Sethyr asked.

“Yes…and snarl often,” Vijhan said. “It makes them think twice.”

“We have little choice now,” Brayden added. “So let’s go meet this magnate that helpful fellow mentioned.”

Sethyr allowed Vijhan and Brayden to lead the way before following them down the corridor. Not a few times, Sethyr glanced back suspiciously, anticipating something. It never came.

The corridor ran straight for some time before turning sharply. Continuing its downward slope, the corridor began to turn inward upon itself turning left at decreasing intervals. As they descended the air grew damp and cool, almost like a natural cave. A throbbing in Sethyr’s sensitive tympanic membranes marked their descent as significant.

The trio encountered several dark corridors branching off perpendicularly, but heeded their earlier advice and ignored these. The last was the easiest to quell curiosity about because of the charnel smell of an abattoir issuing from its dark reaches.

Sethyr chuffed in annoyance. “Is there and end to this infernal drain? It would be quicker if I climbed in a barrel and rolled down to the bottom.”

“I’d wager you’d be much the worse for wear if you tried that,” Brayden answered.

“I suppose, and more than just my feet would be sore.”

Sethyr heard Brayden chuckle. “I’m sure we’ll soon arrive, or we’re likely to be knocking on the demon’s door if we go much deeper.”

The trio’s laughter rang in the confines of the corridor, but the tone lacked its usual easy confidence.

A deep guffaw answered their own levity, startling the trio. The throaty laugh resounded louder than their own. The laughter surrounded them.

A protection spell sprang unconsciously to Sethyr’s lips while Brayden and Vijhan dropped into fighting stances, weapons draw. They scanned the area to determine which the laugh came from, but the resounding echoes made it impossible for them to discern. As if on cue, the flames of the torches flickered in tempo with the laugh.

“Have no fear, be welcome in the down below.” a voice filled the corridor.

Already watchful, Sethyr clearly knew the voice came from up ahead. “It would seem that our host is here to greet us.”

“Well, at least he sounds friendly,” Vijhan added.

Sethyr saw the Canid’s hackles rise, his muscles flexing under his skin, his eyes becoming wide, taking in all of his surroundings. Not for the first time, she admitted to herself, it was nice to have Vijhan with her.

“Of course I’m friendly, my good Canid friend,” the voice boomed. “You are my guests, after all.”

Vijhan wore a look of awe. He relaxed his fighting stance, mesmerized by the voice. There was a hypnotic quality to it that Sethyr took to be not quite genuine. Brayden remained in his ready stance.

“Don’t be so gullible,” Sethyr sneered between clenched teeth. “Of course he knows all about us. Whoever he is, he has been watching us ever since we entered the city. Even before that if you remember how we got the key to the swineherd’s gate.”

Brayden nodded. “Sethyr is correct. Whoever this fellow is, we are in his power at the moment and it would be wise to accept his hospitality. We have little choice.”

“Of course you have a choice, good sir,” the voice interrupted. “As I said, you are my guests and may leave whenever you wish…although I am eager to spend some time with you.”

Sethyr and Vijhan peered at Brayden, the same question etched on their faces.

Once again Brayden nodded and then took a deep breath. He removed his hand from his sword hilt and started down the corridor, addressing their host. “We humbly accept your generosity and hospitality.”

Sethyr eyed Brayden suspiciously as Vijhan followed him and then also followed. “Like femra to the slaughter,” the mage mumbled.

The trio emerged from the corridor into a large, circular chamber, lit brightly by a glowing white globe hung from the ceiling. The room was bare with the exception of a humble, wooden chair in the center. A handsome man lounged in the chair. He wore simple clothes that were obviously of fine quality.

Well, at least he has taste, Sethyr thought.

As the trio entered, the man smiled, straitening up in the chair. Pain showed on his face as he stood up and approached them, favoring his right leg. “Greetings, my new friends.”

Sethyr watched as Brayden and Vijhan executed slight bows. The mage hissed in aggravation at their show of deference.

The man’s smile widened when he saw Sethyr’s reaction. He chuckled softly.

Brayden turned to glare at the mage but remained silent. His eyes said everything Sethyr needed to know. Sethyr met the Protector’s stare and did not flinch.

“And you must be Sethyr,” the man said.

Sethyr managed to keep her face neutral. “And you are?”

Brayden put up his hand. “Forgive our companion’s rudeness…”

“Not at all,” the man interrupted. He placed his hands together in a prayer-like gesture and nodded once to Sethyr. “It is a wise fellow who does not sell his trust cheaply.”

Sethyr’s eyes narrowed at the man’s comment.

The main straightened and turned toward Brayden. “I am the one who has been rude. I have not even introduced myself.” The man gave the trio an expansive bow. “I am called Maquin, Immunda Maquin. My followers have named me the Magnate of the Down Below.” He waved his hand in the air dismissively. “Yes, I know it sounds a bit fancy, but they insist.”

“My thanks for your welcome, Lord Maquin,” Brayden said.

“Just Maquin,” he interjected.

Sethyr stepped forward, “So Maquin, what in the nine hells do you want from us?”

Brayden reached out, laying a hand on Sethyr’s arm.

“A fair question, even if asked with all the subtlety of a smithy’s hammer,” Maquin said. He walked around the chair, trying to hide his limp as best as possible. Sethyr had to marvel at the man’s trust when he turned his back to them. But, then again, the three of them were at his mercy. He obviously knew this and, thus, could safely offer his back.

“That is not an answer,” Sethyr replied.

“If you insist, let me try to explain. Let me think of where to start,” Maquin tapped his chin, thinking.

“Perhaps you could begin with your plans for us,” Sethyr said. “Why did you bring us here?”

“That would be too confusing, so I shall start with some background,” Maquin folded his hands at his waist and began to pace slowly, maintaining eye contact with Sethyr.

“I am a son of Kath. I was born here, as was my father and his before that. I love Kath and I wish to se it preserved.”

“How altruistic.”

“Not just altruism, my reptilian friend. I also have considerable business interests here and chaos in the city hurts those interests. As Kath’s fortunes run, so do mine.”

“And what concern is that of ours?” Sethyr asked.

Sethyr saw the slight upturn of Maquin’s mouth as he tried to stifle a grin.

“Well, I have heard that we may share a common interest. I have a rival that has recently come to the city and he doesn’t share my concern for its welfare. I believe that you have encountered this villain’s machinations as well.”

“And how do you know this?” Brayden asked, suspicion creeping into his voice. He shot a glance at Sethyr and something passed between them. Vijhan’s whiskers pricked up at the comment.

Maquin’s pacing stopped and he turned to face the Protector. “He treats his hirelings poorly and I treat mine well. Some in his employ have sought to curry favor with me with an eye to switching allegiance. A certain number of them have let me know of that three travelers were making their way to my city. I wanted to discover who you were. Their information has proved invaluable.”

Sethyr grinned, allowing most of her pointed teeth to be seen. “You have yet to answer my question.”

Maquin turned back to Sethyr, frowning at having lost just a bit of control. “I was just getting to that.” He took a deep breath. “I have also been told that my rival wants to get his hands on you. I am not sure of the reason, but, having become acquainted with his tactics, I am sure it wouldn’t be pleasant.”

“I am sure that telling us all this is simply more altruism,” Sethyr said.

“No, it is practical. My assumption is that if I can deny him in anything, it will be to my benefit. You and yours are simply the targets of a happy coincidence.”

“So we are allies of coincidence. I can accept that,” Sethyr quipped.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Chapter Seventeen

Skitnik curled up for a nap on a pile of full sacks of oats in one of the less traveled storerooms in the Master’s hidden lair. The warren of dank tunnels and chambers lay deep beneath the streets of Kath. The residents above were ignorant of their existence and probably preferred it that way. Skitnik knew that he preferred it that way, so he could not fathom why any thinking creature could disagree.

Most Human folk saw his kind as pests, at best, or as a menace, at worst. They had a habit of killing Goblins at their whim. Skitnik felt much safer with tons of stone and earth between himself and the city dwellers above. Not that he felt all that safe here in the warrens. The Master and his Jurouk minions held no more love for Skitnik and his Goblin brethren than the Humans did, but he they killed them there would be no one else there to see to the drudgery, so they mostly let the Goblins be.

Skitnik scratched at a nit biting at the back of his knee, shifting slightly to find a more comfortable position atop the sacks of grain. The nit did not bother him again, but another itch pestered him, the itch of hunger. Skitnik elbowed his makeshift bed of oats in frustration. He shared the same curse as all Goblins; of being devout carnivores. If something had not once crawled, hopped, swam, or flew, a Goblin took his chances if he ate it. If Skitnik ate the grain that provided such a fine bed for him, his bowels would erupt in a terrible flux. The ingestion of fruit proved different, but equally uncomfortable for his kind.

No, it had to be meat or nothing. Skitnik sat up, letting out a plaintive squeak. Hunger pecked at his stomach again. He supposed he could go hunting for rats, but held little hope of success there. When he and his brethren arrived the shows ran thick with juicy rats, but over the years the Hungry goblins proved better as hunters than the rats as hiders. The few rats remaining tended toward smart and lean, providing little reward for greater effort.

Skitnik rejected the idea of prowling the cave where the refuse and nightsoil were dumped. There dwelled rats aplenty, as well as tempting cave crickets, but the Master forbade any gathering there. It made no sense to Skitnik or the other Goblins, but three of their fellows dead at the Master’s hands for ignoring the decree were enough for even the densest of them to learn that the price was too high.

Skitnik supposed he could wait until the marrow, but the hunger bit again just as he tried to decide.

“Snog it!” he said to nobody in particular.

“I’ve got to get me some bit of flesh or my belly’ll devour me alive.”

Skitnik hopped off the sacks and paced a square around the small storeroom. His nails clicked on the stone floor, echoing down the bare store tunnel leading back to the main warren.

“I wants the food, but cants get it. Who can get it?” Skitnik asked aloud.

“The Jurouk can,” he answered aloud.

“So hows do I get them to give it to me?”

“They’ll kills ya if ya ask,” Skitnik continued his one sided conversation.

“They’ll gives me some tomorrow…feeding day…best day of the week.”

“Cants wait that long or I’ll be a husk.”

“Steal it!” Skitnik shout and then slapped his clawed hands tightly over his snout.

“Nots gonna steal it. May as well piddle in the Master’s ale. I’d sure end up dead.”

“So shuts your yap, unless ya got another inkling.”

He put one hand on his hip, still pacing, and scratched his head theatrically. The pacing continued for several minutes.

Skitnik froze, one foot still lifted in the air and on finger scratching his head. His eyebrows furrowed as he slowly lowered his foot. Clapping his hands to his muzzle, he let out a yip.

“Eck! By the Firbolg’s fuzzies, I’m thinkin’ I got me the answer!”

Skitnik capered around the storeroom, whistling and snapping his fingers.

“It’s not to steal if it’s not wanted no more. Alls I do is get the Master’s scraps before they go to the heap, and the kitchen’s always wantin’ help gathering the dishes. Sure as I’m a bright one, I’ll clean the Master’s dishes with the scraps in my belly. No need to bother the heap with it.”

Whining in excitement, Skitnik dashed out of the room headed for the kitchens. If his memory of the warren’s routine served, the Master’s last meal had been served not long ago.

If he could get to the kitchen at an opportune time, there was a good possibility the Jorouk cooks would assign him the task of retrieving the dirty dishes.


Skitnik peered into the Master’s chamber from the shadows of the hall. As he had predicted, he had arrived at just the right time for the Talonus, the chief Jurouk cook, to order him to perform the unfortunate task of gathering the Master’s dishes.

Skitnik made a proper show of whining and complaining about the task until Talonus threw a heavy ladle at him. Convinced that the cooks had not guessed his true intent, Skitnik hurried to the chamber, his mouth water the whole way.

From his hiding place, Skitnik listened to the sounds of eating. Whoever the Master really was, they were a very robust eater. The sounds of slurping and chewing and obvious culinary enjoyment emerged from behind the curtains of the large bed that the Master rarely left.

Occasionally a scrap of bread or a fowl bone bereft of flesh flew from behind the curtains, discarded casually for the servants to clear away later.

“Enjoying your dinner?” a basso voice said from within the curtained bed.

“I enjoyed the company,” answered a woman’s breathy contralto.

Skitnik stifled a squeak of alarm. The Master rarely entertained guests, and when he did they normally screamed instead of dined.

“I’m so pleased. My staff takes pride in their…hospitality.”

“Oh, you cad. You don’t have to remind me of that. I have been a guest before.”

“I am so forgetful. I feel lost when I am with you,” the Master said.

“You flatter me. You can have me visit any time you wish. You know that,” the woman answered.

“Unfortunately, I summoned you for you insight rather than you company.”

“Oh really? It has been ages since you asked for my opinion on anything.”

“Yes, I know. But, the situation I find myself in is better suited to you particular stripe of…wickedness.”

“Wickedness? You are one to accuse me of that. You might hurt my feelings...and I might be forced to put and withhold my help.”

“Whithold?” The Master’s voice turned to iron. “I say what you do and do not do. Never forget that, woman.”

“No need to snap. I merely jest. What choice do I have, anyway?”

“Never forget that I hold you in my hand. Your fate rests on my sufferance.”

“Of course, my Master.”

The voices were quiet for quite some time. Skitnik thought of slipping out to retrieve the dirty crockery he had spied on a low table near the foot of the bed. The plates still held many succulent scraps that seemed to beckon Skitnik to nibble them into nonexistence.

With a careful look around the room, the goblin stepped out of the shadows, placing his foot carefully to make sure his long nails did not tick against the floor. As he began to lift the other foot to take another step into the room, the whiskers on his snout began to quiver. This only happened when doom loomed near. Ducking back into the shadows, Skitnik covered his eyes, silently beseeching his ancestors for luck and whatever protection they could provide.

“Are you still angry with me?” The woman asked.

“Angry? No, simply perturbed. Why you insist on this behavior is beyond me. I provide you with everything you ever wanted and still you defied me. I thought that my lesson had demonstrated that my will is not to be trifled with.”

“The lesson was well taught, and learned. I suppose it is just my nature to test those around me,” the woman answered.

“Well, as that may be, I have need of your unique perspective. Will you give it, or must I teach you another lesson”

“There is no need for that. I am eager to hear what you have to say. These little talks are all I have to ward off the boredom.”

Skitnik huddled in the shadows, listening to the two banter back and forth, afraid to move, even breath. His whiskers twitched uncontrollably. If the master discovered him here, eavesdropping he was sure to kill the goblin. Unfortunately for Skitnik, if he tried to slip away, the Master just might hear him, which again led to an unpleasant death. The only other choice that came to mind was to wait for an opportune time to collect the dishes and then run like the reaper was at his heels.

Skitnik decided on the last course of action. Taking a few careful, quiet breaths, the goblin focused on controlling his shaking limbs. He filled his head with idyllic images like long naps with a full belly and nestling with his siblings when he was a pup back in the mountain cave where he had been whelped.

The image helped calm him and his breathing eased. He stopped trembling and his whiskers returned to their normal droopy posture.

Skitnik jumped when the conversation from the chamber renewed.

“My apologies, dear,” the Master said. “I so rarely have company that I am sometimes lacking the courtesies required.” The master nearly spat the word.

“I forgive you, darling, but please go on. I want to hear everything about this delicious plan of yours.” The woman answered, her voice tinged with humor.

“The details are not important. It suffices to say that I have grown tired of the status quo. I plan to slake my boredom with a bit of conspiracy. There are forces in motion that wish to unseat the regent, who has been my pawn. I have not decided if I shall let that happen. He is a buffoon and I grow tired of his incompetence. I have also learned that our plans in Hedgewise have gone awry, but this simply serves to spice our little pot of intrigue. If my new plan succeeds I will be rid of the Regent and those rebels that opposed him to top it off. I shall be the only power is Kath.”

“You are wicked…in all the best ways,” she purred.

“Don’t be impertinent. I didn’t invite you here to be a hussy,” the master responded.

“Than what did you invite me here for? You certainly are not looking for my approval. That time passed ages ago. No, I think it was something else.”

“Watch your tongue, witch,” the Master said, his voice booming in the chamber.

“Or what?” she answered, with a giggle. “What else can you do to me?”

“Silence or I’ll drop you in the privy and where would that leave you?”

“In the privy, I suppose,” she laughed.

The feminine laughter rang out unnaturally in the corridors, but was suddenly cut short by the sound of a hand slapping stone. A solid thunk of stone impacting stone followed quickly.

Skitnik watched in fear as a sphere of some sort rolled out of the chamber toward his hiding place in the shadows of the corridor. The sphere rolled smoothly, loosing little of its momentum as it grew closer to the goblin. Skitnik leapt away, avoiding the sphere just before it struck the wall and bounced back a few handspans back out of the shadows.

Now that it had stopped rolling, Skitnik took a moment to look at the sphere. His whiskered stood on end once again as he stared into the eyes of a beautiful woman. The eyes belong to the head encased in the transparent crystal sphere. Whoever she was, she wore a look of surprise and sadness. Something told Skitnik she knew her fate when she was killed.

“Slave!” The Master’s harsh voice jolted Skitnik out of his shock.

The Goblin stared up, realizing that his escape from the sphere’s kiss had taken him out of the shadows. He stared up into the eyes of the Master and the Master stared back.

This was the first time Skitnik had even gotten a clear look at the Master he had feared for so long. It was not a moment he would ever recall with any kind of fondness. The Master’s brawny form nearly filled the wide doorway. His build reminded Skitnik of a gladiator who had once been a guest of the Master before being killed for sport by the Jurouk guards at the Master’s behest. He wore only a loincloth and his body was all hard planes of muscles.

Despite the physical presence of the Master’s perfect physique, the thing Skitnik most remembered was the eyes. The Master’s eye blazed with fury. Elemental anger poured from his visage with nearly physical force.

“You shall die, spy!” The Master bellowed, lifting his hand and pointing a finger at the Goblin.

A vile green bolt of magic flew from his fingertip toward the stunned Goblin.

Only generations of vermin reflexes saved Skitnik as he ducked underneath the bolt and scampered off down the corridor. The Goblin moved so fast he never even saw the hole the bolt burned into the wall where he had been standing mere moments before.

Skitnik could hear the Master pursuing him, his bare feet slapping on the bare stone floor. Even with his head start, he knew from the sounds that death was gaining on him.

Frightened, but still cagey, Skitnik began taking every turn he could. The Master was fast, but he was quicker and each turn helped the Goblin pull away from his pursuer.

Unfortunately, Skitnik knew he was running out of time to escape. He would soon come to the more populated part of the warren and a fleeing Goblin was sure to draw the notice of any nearby Jurouk, and fro a Goblin drawing a Jurouk’s interest was almost always fatal.

Just then he turned another corner and nearly collided with another Goblin. The other Goblin hopped out of his way, but fell down in the attempt. Skitnik recognized the other as Rattik the Lesser, a particularly spotty customer who’s job it was to bring new Goblin slaves to the warren on a regular basis.

Skitnik did not bother to apologize or offer any assistance to the cursing Rattik. He was too occupied with saving his own skin and would worry about catching a beating from the other if he survived the Master’s wrath.

Skitnik changed a glance over his shoulder just in time to see a bolt of green energy streak from the corridor he had just fled and strike Rattik. The Goblin howled in agony as green fire engulfed his small body, sparks popping from the tips of his hair and whiskers.

Ducking around another corner, Skitnik lost sight of Rattik. The corner led him into another storeroom filled with various casks and barrels. Scanning the room quickly, he spied one with its lid ajar and leapt into it. He landed waist deep in brandy and quickly slid the lid of the barrel closed from inside.

Even with the lid closed he heard the Master voice from the other room.

“Look upon this Goblin. Such is the fate of all who spy on me!”

In a flash Skitnik realized that Rattik had paid for his transgression.

With a sigh and a silent thank you to his ancestors’ spirits, he squatted down in the barrel until the brandy reached up to his chin. Skitnik took a deep, deep drink and began to wonder just how in the nine hells he could get out of this with his skin intact.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Chapter Sixteen

Tralingua’s eyelids fluttered in the early evening darkness. It was soon enough after nightfall that people were still about. Without this distraction Tralingua would surely have already fallen asleep. As it was, she fought the day’s fatigue valiantly. Unfortunately, a long day of begging in the religious quarter of Kath left her with little extra vigor for the task Maquin had set for her.

“It’s simple,” he had explained. “Just wait at the spot I tell you until some folk show themselves.”

“What folk,” she had asked.

“A man, a lizard, and a dog, my darling Tralingua” he had answered, adding feigned sweetness when he said her name.

After that Maquin dismissed Tralingua from his meeting room and she had gone back to her begging. She fumed the rest of the day thinking about how the boss had said her name. She may have been an indigent widow with no trade other than begging, but she recognized contempt when she heard it. She heard it often enough in the mumbled curses of her customers.

The sneer in Maquin’s voice assured her that he felt she did not deserve such a grand name. Most folk felt the same way. How could her mother have been so daft as to name her after perhaps the greatest beauty in the old stories? And a Princess, no less. To avoid the smarmy comments and teasing, she simply called herself Trali; a name she felt was more fitting for her humble job and her spotty looks.

Trali tromped back to her assigned begging territory. She cursed the fates that conspired to leave her with no option other than begging for a living. At the same time she secretly admitted to owning much of the blame for her situation. While being reared as the only daughter of a mildly successful merchant, Trali received better than average schooling, especially when compared to most women in Kath. Her first husband was affable but often described her as a challenge, but they were happy enough. Happy until the day the constables brought poor Ulrik’s bloody purse to her. They offered their condolences for the unfortunate loss of her husband. A nobleman had been in a hurry and had simply not seen Ulrik crossing the Temple Square before running him down with his new stallion. Her parents long since dead and having no siblings or children, Trali found herself alone in the world. She soon decided that being alone was not a state she wished to live in for long. Her second husband could most easily have been described as a necessary evil and he often described Trali as a shrew. A bitter end to that union was inescapable. That was how Trali found herself here in her current situation; waiting for an outlandish sounding group to enter the city through a forgotten gate, after her long day of begging to survive.

Looking more like a heap of rags rather than a once proud woman nearing old age, Trali lounged in a corner created where two of the more robust buildings in the poor quarter came together. From her vantage, she kept watch on the grime covered door once used by pig farmers to slop their hogs at the city midden. By the looks of the door, it had not budged in several score years, but she knew better. Although long forgotten by the city officials, those folk more comfortable in the shadows kept the door well maintained and oiled, despite its decrepit appearance. Only a few keys existed that would turn the old, iron lock, and they were guarded jealously. Trali knew if those she waited possessed one of those keys, the city’s shadowy underworld considered important by them influential or at least important.

Trali waited well after the sun fled and the tavern and inn keepers ventured out to place welcoming lamps on the door posts. She flirted with sleep, but the thought of Maquin’s anger if her prey slipped by was more than enough to keep it at bay. Her taskmaster often forgave small blunders, but had a reputation for harshness if someone made enough of a muddle of things.

Circumstances rewarded Trali’s diligence just as hunger began to pinch her belly. The door swung open and those that had been described to her emerged. Had they been any other three, she might have questioned it, but the dissimilar silhouettes of each made it clear that these were the folk she waited for.

Trali rose to her feet, joints popping as she stretched. She shambled toward the travelers as they closed and locked the door. As they turned to regard their surroundings, Trali reached them. Her back straightened and she affected her most dignified pose.

“Gentlefolk, I greet you.” She kept her voice low, but clearly audible enough for the three to hear her.

The three exchanged confused expressions, but said nothing for a moment. The creature that Trali would have described as a werewolf looked at the male Human and simply shrugged. The lizard creature cocked its head, watching Trali wearily and then turned to the Human.

“Well, you talk to it,” it gestured dismissingly at Trali. “It’s one of yours”

The man sputtered, looking embarrassed by the words. He turned to Trali and held out his hand.

“My apologies, goodlady. My companion sometimes lacks couth.”

Trali immediately revised her first impression of the fellow. Despite his bedraggled appearance, she decided at that moment that he was obviously a gentleman.

“No sorrys necessary, Lord. It’s quite a compliment to be lumped in with you.” Trali took his hand, bowing her head and performing a curtsy of sorts.

“Now, gentlefolk, if you follow me I’m to lead you to Master Maq…” Her voice trailed off for a moment, but then she continued. “I’m to lead you to our mutual friends. They’ll be eager to speak with you.”

“I am, bye the bye, Brayden. These are my companions Sethyr and Vijhan.” The man gestured toward the lizard creature and then to the werewolf.

“So pleased to make your acquaintance, good sirs,” Trali gave another quick curtsy, nodding at each in turn. She noticed that the werewolf’s tail began to wag back and forth when she acknowledged him. It reminded Trali how different Brayden’s two companions were, and that meant attracting unwanted attention. She gave the trio an embarrassed look. She motioned them over to a shadowy alley between a tavern and a shop outside of which a sign hung depicting a hat festooned with an impossibly long feather. The sound of gathered folk emanated from the open doorway of the tavern, but the shuttered widows indicated that the shop was closed up tight.

“I hate to ask it, but do all of you have long cloaks? Even in this dim night, you’re quite an unusual sight. My friends are the type that prefer as little attention turn their way as possible. If you wear the cloaks, it could help us avoid prying eyes.”

The Lizard creature hissed an unmistakable sigh, rolling its eyes in a peculiarly human way. The human, Brayden he had called himself, simply nodded and motioned for the others to comply as well. All three took a moment to retrieve long woolen cloaks from their packs. They were quite plain and looked nearly identical, probably purchased from the same craftsman.

Trali took a step back while they had donned their cloaks and nodded approvingly. It was quite an improvement in anonymity.

“Now I’d say that’s much better,” she commented.

“Oh course,” the lizard quipped, “no one shall find three shrouded figures stealing through the streets, led by…a bundle of rags, the least bit suspicious.”

“Sethyr, that is enough,” Brayden said with iron in his voice.

Sethyr’s gaze dropped toward the cobblestones.

Trali could not tell if this meant that the creature was repentant or merely cowed by the man’s rebuke. Either way, she did not care. She could not recall the last time anyone had come to her defense so readily…and it gave her a warm feeling.

Trali looked straight at Sethyr wearing a friendly smile.

“Better to look suspicious than be identified. Anyways, in this part of the city, a conveniently concealing cloak is almost a uniform.”

She stepped forward and adjusted the cowl of Sethyr’s cloak. She pulled it closer to conceal more of Sethyr’s elongated snout. The mage let out a quiet hiss, but submitted without an argument.

“Now, I think that’ll do it. Now if you would please follow me, I’ll have to there in not too long.”

Trali led them away from the alley and across the dark plaza to another alley. Their route look then through empty streets and cramped walkways, even through a burned out warehouse, before she held up her hand for them to halt. By this time, the circuitous route had thoroughly confused the trio as to their position in relation to the city wall.

They stood in front of a tenement resembling on a dozen they passed earlier. Trali smiled inwardly as she observed the confused looks the trio wore. Maquin would be pleased that she not only delivered them safely, but by a route the three had no hope of ever retracing.

Trali rapped on a decrepit looking, but solid sounding door. It slid open but the room inside was a pit of darkness.

Trali whispered to the guard she didn’t see, but knew would be there. “Please tell him that his guests are here.”

“Tell them to come in,” a voice came from the dark interior.

Trali turned to the trio she had escorted and motioned to them.

“This is as far as I go. The others will take you the rest of the way. Good Journey.”

Trali turned away as Brayden tried to thank her. She was tired and needed to rest. No matter how kind the man was, she knew the feelings it gave here had to be fleeting. Most of the world treated her with scorn and Brayden’s compassion only served to throw the rest of her life into sharp contrast. She heard a cheerful farewell as she hurried off into the night.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Chapter Fifteen

To Vijhan’s canine eyes Kath was still a distant smudge on the horizon but the smell stabbed at his sense of smell, alternating between the stench of rotting garbage and the cloying odor of thousands of unwashed humans. Hidden beneath the overpowering human smells the sharp tang of the sea teased Vijhan’s nose. He had never seen the ocean, but its crisp scent stirred his instincts.

As they drew closer to the city, the stench increased, but the Canid’s nose began to adapt to it. If he concentrated he could ignore the smell and pick out other, les powerful scents. Vijhan thought that with practice he might be able to bear it for a while.

The outline of the city sharpened, gaining clarity as they drew closer. The walls slopped upward like a slab-sided pyramid, the parapets topped with graceful, rounded merlons. From this distance it was impossible for Vijhan to see if the walls were manned, but he had to assume that they must be at least minimally guarded.

The gate lay directly ahead of them, the road they traveled on running perpendicular to the city walls. It stood at the end of the road, a fortress unto itself. A huge banner flew from its highest tower, billowed by a stiff sea breeze.

“We should think about leaving the caravan soon…that is if we believe our mysterious warning,” Sethyr said.

Brayden sighed. “I suppose you are right. I have grown accustomed to the luxury of riding, but I suppose I could stretch these old legs of mine.”

“We should go now,” Vijhan added. “If we wait much longer, the gate guards may see us abandon the caravan and send out men to see why. If I commanded that gate, I’d have men with spy glasses watching the incoming traffic for just such a thing.”

“What are we waiting for, then?” Sethyr asked. She gathered up her pack and a sack of food they had purchased from the caravaneers and gingerly climbed down from the slow moving wagon. She hopped off the last few feet, landing on the dusty road next to Vijhan. When she got close enough the Canid could smell the mage’s cinnamony scent. It always made him smile inwardly. He enjoyed the scent, but would never admit it to Sethyr. She strived to be as unpleasant as possible at all times and knowing that he found her scent pleasing could cause no end of disagreement.

It took Brayden more time to gather himself before hopping down. Vijhan had to steady him as he nearly toppled over after taking a bad step.

“Careful, my friend,” Vijhan said, his hand clamped firmly on Brayden’s elbow.

“I’m fine. My thanks for the steady hand,” Brayden replied, embarrassed.

A look passed between Vijhan and Sethyr. They both hoped that Brayden had not seen the concern in their eyes. It pained the Canid to admit it, but in the short time he had known the Protector Brayden had seemed to have lost a step. He seemed older, somehow.

One of the caravan guards turned impassively to watch the three friends hurry into the high grass next to the road. Vijhan hoped that if questioned, the guard would not mention the caravan’s temporary guests and their suspicious departure.

The others followed Vijhan deeper into the grass, away from the road. Just as he anticipated, the Canid soon came upon a wide game trail. This far from the road, the grass grew high enough that it reached over their heads, but just barely. The trail cut a neat furrow through the tall grass, which in most places nearly met, almost as if the tri were traveling in a swaying, golden tunnel of grain.

“Where in the blazes did this path come from?” Sethyr asked from the rear of the line.

“This is how animals travel to Kath,” Vijhan responded.

“What do you mean?” Brayden asked, cutting off Sethyr’s curt response to Vijhan.

“Well, the one thing that Humans have always been good at is making garbage. I’m always surprised at what you will throw away.”

“Go on,” Brayden said after the Canid paused for a moment.

“Well, at least you have enough sense to dump the garbage outside of the city…or so I assume. The animals know this and feed off your castoffs. This trail was most likely made by a family of steppe boar on their way to breakfast at Kath’s midden heap.”

“Garbage?” Sethyr asked. “We are following the trail to the garbage pit?

“Where else? In the old days the pig farmers probably slopped their stock at the midden heap…”

“So that would be the logical place for a swineherd’s gate,” Sethyr finished Vijhan’s thought.

“Yes,” Vijhan nodded. “And the wild pigs have provided us with a hidden way to get there. Smart creatures. If they weren’t so tasty I’d feel terrible for eating them.”

“None the less,” Brayden interrupted. “We had better hurry if we want to reach the city before nightfall.”

Sethyr eyed the Protector, “My good friend, after nightfall is the best time to enter the city. Less chance of being seen.”

“You’re right, of course,” he answered, wiping sweat from his forehead. “I simply don’t have the nose for sneaking.”

“Fortunately, you travel with two experts,” Vijhan said, eliciting a toothy nod from Sethyr.

The trail meandered left and right, following whatever porcine instinct had led the pigs toward the city, but it did lead eventually in the right direction. If a wild pig could be counted on for anything it must be its tenacious and unerring attraction to an easy meal.

The smell of the city’s garbage alerted the three companions before the city came into view. Brayden nearly gagged on the stench, but it seemed to excite Vijhan. Sethyr remained as calmly aloof as usual.

The high grass ended abruptly, obviously shorn by human hands. All three ducked back into the hidden safety of the grassy alley, hopeful that they had not been seen. Peering carefully from the edge of the grass, Brayden surveyed the land beyond. Mountains of refuse filled the space between the grassland and the city wall. He could see hunched figures swarming over the mounds, like human ants, gathering food around their hill.

Vijhan peeked over Brayden’s shoulder.

“It is amazing. Your folk squander such abundance,” Vijhan said.

“The poor put it to good use,” Brayden answered, a bit of defensiveness in his voice.

“I mean no insult, friend. You Humans can work and produce like no other race. That gives you the option of being what some would call wasteful.”

Brayden shot an irritated glance over his shoulder.

“I’m sure he is so happy that you approve,” Sethyr said, drawing a look of ire from both of her companions. “But I think that right now we should decide how to proceed.”

Brayden and Vijhan turned and walked back into the cover of the grass.

“I thought we had a plan?” Vijhan said.

Sethyr eyed the Canid.

“No, Vijhan, we have someone else’s plan. A plan, that I might add, only meets our unknown benefactor’s needs, however much they may be aligned with our own. We need our own plan.”

“Sethyr is correct. We should trust his suspicion. It is one of his most well honed traits,” Brayden said

“So what do you suggest?” Vijhan asked.

“Well, our benefactor expects us to enter on the sly. I propose we do nothing of the sort. I say we counter their circumspection with a flourish.”

“And what, exactly, does that mean?” Brayden asked.

Sethyr gave a predatory grin. “I suggest we make an entrance and force our benefactor to show himself, or themselves as the case may be.”

“We should, at least, wait until dark,” Brayden said.

“Yes, that would be for the best. We want to be audacious without being foolish,” Sethyr agreed.

* * *

Sethyr, Brayden and Vijhan watched the human scavengers as they went about their business, picking their daily treasures from the mounds of garbage. Brayden’s stomach wrenched at the misery that their lives must be. Most, he noticed, were either old or very young, the most helpless among the city’s population. A few squabbles broke out, but most went about their business with bowed backs and downward gazes. Some part of Brayden assured him that the downward gazes were more than simply watching for possible scraps. Shame showed in those bent heads.

The sight tore at Brayden, sending his mood into a dark place. He felt the guilt of not helping these folk, but pushed it aside to stay focused on his current task. He knew that focus was indispensable to a Protector. If he chased every injustice he stumbled across, he would never be able to right any wrongs. Being a servant of Chanti required focus, concentrating on the task at hand. With a sigh, Brayden fixed his eyes on the high city wall and followed Vijhan onward.

The Canid set a quick pace to the wall. A few of the human scavengers risked weary glances at the dangerous looking trio, but went back to their task once satisfied that they posed no danger. As they approached, it became apparent how large the mounds of refuse actually were. The smell increased as they neared as well.

Finally they reached the city wall. Vijhan pointed out a road that led away from the midden toward the main gate. This must be how the garbage was transported from the city to this dumping ground. They also saw a few forlorn folk shambling down the road toward the gate, finished with their day of scavenging and ready for a few hours of respite in whatever hovel they called home.

“So where, do you suppose, is this gate?” Brayden asked.

“It sounds like it was designed as part of the wall, which probably means it is not hidden,” Sethyr answered.

“The quickest way to find it would be to separate and each of us search part of the nearby wall,” Brayden said. “But, I am not comfortable with that. It puts each of us in too much danger. We are safer if we stay together.”

The others nodded in agreement. Without a word they began to walk along the wall. This close, the wall blotted out even that last vestiges of twilight, leaving the ground nearby in a pool on inky darkness.

Brayden stumbled in a small depression, cursing and limping for a few steps.

“Damn, maybe we should not have waited to find the gate after dark.”

Sethyr and Vijhan turned to regard the Protector.

“What? I am just frustrated that I am stumbling around like some infirm fool. I don’t see in the dark as well as you two.”

Sethyr grinned a grin so wide that it was visible even in the dark.

“Worry not, we will guide you. Would you like a stick to tap the ground with meanwhile.”

“Go sit on an egg!” Brayden snapped.

Sethyr’s grin disappeared, replaced by an angry hiss. Vijhan stepped between the two, interposing his wide body.

“Unless we want to wander until dawn we better find that gate,” the Canid said.

“It’s on the other side of the bastion over there,” a weak voice came out of the darkness.

The trio looked back and forth, searching for the source of the voice. They soon realized that it had come from a nearby heap of refuse. As they watched, a slumped figure stood up. In the darkness Vijhan and Sethyr could see that it was an old woman, wrapped in a tattered cloak. Brayden could only see an outline of the woman.

“That bastion,” the woman said, gesturing toward a small tower that projected out and away from the city wall. “When I was a child my father used it to slop his hogs here at the midden and he used that gate.” She approached the trio in a stiff, shambling gait.

Once she drew close enough Brayden could see to woman’s withered features.

“Oh, gran, what are you doing out here at night?” He asked, taking her hand.

“My legs won’t carry me back and forth, so I sleep here now,” she answered with a note of sadness. “It won’t be long before I am ready for the heap myself.”

“No, we will help you,” Brayden said with resolve.

“Don’t worry yourself, Protector. I have lived a long life and choose freedom over comfort long ago.”

“But, gran, it is my duty to aid you…as a Protector.”

“Young man, why do you assume I need your protection?” She cackled as she drew a long, thing knife from beneath her skirts. “I have been taking care of myself for more years than you can count. Now stop this foolishness and let me help you.”

Brayden nodded, but still looked unconvinced.

The woman cackled again but continued. Now, years ago they painted over the old swineherd’s gate, but it is still there. Someone actually opened it a few weeks ago, so I know it will still open, but I suspect it is locked once again.”

“My thanks, gran. We were gifted with the key,” Brayden explained.

The old woman’s grin collapsed into a deep frown. “Sometimes a gift like that isn’t worth anything but a peck of trouble. You three need to be careful. There have been rumblings amongst to beggars.”

“Really? What do you mean?” Brayden asked.

“Now that I think about it, anyone who see you could make themselves a nest-egg reporting it to the right folk.”

“And who would that be?”

“Can’t honestly say that I remember. I forget the damnedest things nowadays,” she replied followed by another cackle. She reached out, grasping Brayden’s wrist and drew him close in a hug.

“Now piss-off so I can get back to sleep,” she said, slapping the Protector on the back and letting him go. She turned and shuffled back toward the mounds of refuse, disappearing into the dark.

Without a word the trio made their way toward the bastion indicated by the old woman. After a few minutes of searching near the bastion, Sethyr discovered the crudely concealed gate. Brayden withdrew the key from the pouch on his belt and slipped it into the lock. It entered easily, meeting no resistance. Brayden turned the key, rotating it smoothly until all three heard the click of the tumblers falling into place. The lock had obviously been well maintained despite the shabby appearance of the gate.

“We shall see what kind of reception awaits us,” Brayden said as he pushed the gate inward.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Chapter Fourteen

Sethyr watched Brayden minister to Vijhan from across the campsite. She could not help the pang of jealousy that rose in her chest. She knew that Brayden would do the same for if she were injured…he had in the past. But, she still felt jealous. Before the Canid had come along, she had Brayden’s undivided attention. Now she had to share, and did not enjoy it.

Of course, Sethyr liked Vijhan well enough. He had proved to be a good traveling companion, despite the rocky start to their association. The Canid genuinely wanted to be helpful, and did not ask much in return.

“Harrumph,” she grumbled. In some ways Vijhan was just like a dog, eager to please. Sethyr felt a flash of guilt. She knew first hand that instinct was hard to overcome. Because some distant ancestor of her own was often the prey of huge birds, the back part of her brain jumped every time a large shadow passed by. It was not rational; it just was…

Sethyr sighed. Watching Brayden tend to Vijhan was not any easier, but she resigned herself to the sharing. If it came down to having a portion of the Protector’s attention or none of it, she chose the former.

“Will he survive?” Sethyr asked as she approached to two.

“Yes, he will. It’s just his arm that is the trouble now,” Brayden said.

“That’s why you should let me start scouting again,” Vijhan said, as he opened one eye.

“It has only been two days since the bear got a hold of you. You still need rest.” Brayden scolded the Canid.

“You haven’t let do anything but rest for two days. Frankly, I am sick of your cooking. If I don’t get some fresh meat soon, I’ll start gnawing on one of you.” Humor showed in Vijhan’s voice.

“Well, I’m much too stringy, so I suppose you’ll have to start with Brayden,” Sethyr quipped.

“I’d sooner eat my mother…which he is acting quite like, come to mind.”

They shared a laugh which ended with an uncomfortable silence.

Vijhan broke the silence with one of his canine yawns.

“Honestly, I know I can scout, even with a bad arm,” Vijhan said.

Brayden look skeptical. “I’m still not sure. What if you meet another one of those bears?”

“This time I won’t try to fight it. I’ve seen the errors of my ways.”

“Brayden, you forget our need for haste. Those rubes in Hedgewise may still be in danger” Sethyr added.

“I know…I know all that. I suppose it will be alright.”

Vijhan whined happily. “I can’t wait to run again.”


Sethyr watched as Vijhan loped along side the bouncing wagon. From her vantage atop the bolts of cloth filling the wagon, she laughed.

“Don’t you ever get tired?”

Vijhan just smiled up at her and shook his head.

Sethyr chuckled, which came out as a reptilian croak. She turned to Brayden who lounged next to her atop the wagon. He eyes were closed and his breathing shallow. The lines at the corners of his eyes did not appear so deep as he napped peacefully. In the time she had known the Protector, Brayden had aged more than his years. Sethyr assumed it had to be the result of all the warm-blooded business that mammals like the Canid always engaged in.

Sethyr could not understand why Brayden and his ilk did not appreciate simply lying in the sun and relaxing. They all insisted on hurrying hither and yon, busy for the sake of keeping busy.

She mused that perhaps someday Humans would manage to keep from destroying themselves to appreciate the simple joy of doing nothing but lying in the sun.

“Not likely,” she thought to herself. They seemed to be happiest when they were occupied with some trivial bit of business.

The wagon lurched to a stop, nearly dislodging Sethyr from her perch. The jarring also woke Brayden.

“By the titan’s testicles, what is going on,” Sethyr shouted at the drover guiding the wagon.

“Sorry, sir, the caravan has halted. Looks like ‘nother caravans already at Northfork. We’ll hafta wait our turn,” the drover answered sounding bored. “Bad luck is it’s a’going and were a’coming, so we gotta wait til it’s passed by the Northfork”

Sethyr remembered Brayden mentioning Northfork several days ago when he had described Kath to her and Vijhan. The Northfork, he had explained, was where the main road going north from Kath split. The branch they waited for headed straight west, toward the Sea of Grass. It was not as heavily traveled as the other branch. That one went north-east along the coast. Smaller roads branched from it on a regular basis leading inland to the cities of the heartland. Between Kath and the Northfork regular army patrols were common. This kept the ever-present caravans safe until well away from the city. This kept the area around the city officially free of bandits. This was a service the tax collectors emphasized when they made their rounds among the visiting merchants.

For Sethyr, this delay was merely the latest in a string of boredom that began when her and her companions had joined the caravan. The caravan master had been eager to let the three companions travel with the wagons once he discovered Brayden was a holy man. He was more circumspect about her and Vijhan, but was quickly won over after she performed a few tricks for the drovers. To ensure further goodwill, Vijhan continued his hunting each day, now bringing back larger prey to share with all of the caravaneers. Sethyr would never believe that these men of the West really trusted her or the Canid, but they had warmed well past a state of tolerance.

Sethyr dozed on and off before being jarred awake by the motion of the wagon once again began jouncing along the road. She sneezed from the renewed cloud of dust kick up by caravan as it traveled down the road.

“Dust or mud,” she said in Brayden’s direction. “I’m not sure which the worst choice is. When you have one you prefer the other.”

“Aye, isn’t that the fate of all mortals?” Brayden answered, a mordant note in his voice.

“So, how far to Kath from here?”

“A day at the most. Vijhan should start smelling it any time now.” Brayden snickered.

The Canid’s head turned, peering at Brayden.

“Smell it? A day away?” Vijhan asked.

Brayden nodded. “Yes. I’m afraid we humans often ‘soil the nest’, so to speak.”

“I have heard that monkey fling dung. It must run in the family,” Sethyr added.

Brayden laughed. “You could be right. I just wanted to prepare our friend here that his fine snout may soon be under assault.”

Vijhan smiled. “Not to worry. To my folk things don’t really smell bad, simply more or less interesting.”

“If that is the case, you should find a Human city very interesting…in an olfactory sense,” Sethyr said.

The actual crossroads came into view from where Sethyr sat atop the wagon. The main road they were heading toward was obviously much wider and better constructed than the hard packed road the traveled on. It was topped by uniformly sized cobbles made from grey stone. Where the two rougher thoroughfares split from it, an ornately carved stone plinth stood, marking the end of Kath’s influence and responsibility. A stone bust of a fat, jovial looking fellow stood atop the plinth, seeming to welcome all to the territory of Kath.

“Who is the grinning imbecile up there?” Sethyr asked, pointing at the stone bust.

Brayden craned his neck to see where the mage pointed. “That is Jombie, the patriarch of Kath. He founded the place a few hundred years ago. His line died out ten years before I was born. The Regent rules there now.”

“So why is his statue still up there?”

“He and his family were very popular. The common folk still celebrate his birthday here in Kath.”

“I suppose that irritates the Regent to no end,” Sethyr said.

The conversation died away as they neared the plinth. As they passed, a shabbily dressed fellow who leaned against the plinth eyed Brayden and Sethyr suspiciously. After their wagon passed he uncrossed his arms and then began to walk with the caravan. He slowly closed the distance between himself and the wagon they were riding in. He soon caught up and looked around to see if anyone else was nearby.

“Oi, you. Up on the wagon,” he hissed.

Sethyr sat up and peered at the man.

“Yes?” She answered.

“Not you, scale-face. The bloke.”

Sethyr reached over and poked Brayden with her claw. The protector started from his dozing.

“What…what is it?”

“I believe this gentleman would like a bit of your time,” Sethyr said as she pointed down at the man hurrying along next to the wagon.

Brayden sat up, peering down at the man.

“How may I aid you, friend?” he asked.

“Are you a Protector?” The man answered.

“Yes, I am. Are you in need of my healing touch?” Brayden looked the man over. He did not have any obvious injuries or infirmities.

“No, I supposed to give you a message.”

“A message? From who?” Brayden asked.

“A friend in Kath.”

“A friend, you say? I’m afraid that you may have me confused with someone else. I really don’t know many people in Kath.”

“I was supposed to deliver the message to a Protector who was traveling with a lizard. That must be you,” the man explained. “They said you had a dog too, but I guess they meant him,” the man pointed at Vijhan.

Sethyr hissed at the man, irritated at being called a lizard. The man pointedly ignored her ire.

“So, what is this message?” Brayden asked.

“I’m just supposed to give you this. Beyond that, I’ve no inkling.” The man tossed an oilskin bundle up to Brayden who deftly snatched it out of the air. The man immediately jogged away, quickly outdistancing the slow moving caravan.

The Protector looked it over, but found no markings or clues to its contents. He began to unwrap the packet, untying the leather bindings. Sethyr leaned closer, hoping to catch a glimpse of the contents.

Once open, the packet revealed a scrap of rough parchment folded over a large bronze key. The key was scarred and covered in a patina, but still looked quite functional. Brayden unfolded the parchment and began to read. Sethyr scooted closer and read the parchment over his shoulder.

“Danger lurks, waiting for you at the gates of Kath. For reasons unknown to me, Helgrim the darker seeks you and your companions. This key unlocks swineherd’s gate. It has not been used officially for many years but should serve you well. Seek it five hundred paces east of Northgate. Using this you should be able to slip their traces.”

The words were written in precise, blocky letters and the letter was unsigned. Whoever their possible ally was, they chose not o reveal themselves yet. Sethyr surmised that even if their new enemies were watching the Northgate for their arrival, their new allies would be watching the Swineherd’s gate carefully.

The caravan trundled on steadily, bringing closer the decision of how to use this unforeseen and troubling bit of information.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Chapter Thirteen

Vijhan stalked the low scrub bordering the nearby plain. A strange, pungent scent wafted toward him on the morning breeze, raising his hackles. He had to stifle a low growl. The Canid, a skilled hunter, inhaled deeply, trying to pick up more of the scent. Perhaps if he could get a nose full he would be able to identify the scent. Gripping his spear just a little tighter, he inhaled again.

Vijhan recognized some of the threads of the scent. Whatever it was, it was a predator. The coppery smell of a meat eater was easy to discern with his sensitive nose. There was also a curiously strong smell of rotting meat intermingled with the predator’s. The sweet-tinged rot masked the finer nuances Vijhan needed to identify what kind of predator it was.

Spooked, the Canid gave one last sniff and then began to back away. There was no way to know what was giving off the scent, but he could tell that it was very close. After warily retreating to a safer distance up a low hill, Vijhan strained his eyes to see if his new vantage point allowed him to catch a glimpse of the hidden predator. No such luck.

Felling confident he had slipped away undetected, Vijhan fell into a ground-eating lope. He decided to cut his scouting trip short and let his companions know that something seemed amiss ahead. Earlier in the day he had discovered a wonderful camp site, but had rejected it as not far enough along his route. If he hurried, he might be able to intercept Brayden and Sethyr before they reached the site and explain the situation. Based on their best guess, they would find one of the trade roads in the next day or so. Ending the day early would be a welcome respite from the constant travel of the past several days.

As Vijhan traveled gentle breeze began to blow from the north. He muttered a curse for the change in the wind. With the wind directly in his face he could smell anything that he was moving toward, but anything coming up behind him would have its scent blown away from the Canid’s keen nose. For Vijhan the effect was akin to wearing a blindfold, eliminating his ability to detect any pursuers by their scent. He was, however, comforted that he caught the faint scent of his companions on the breeze blowing toward him.

Vijhan’s pace remained constant and quick, as if the scent of his companions was pulling him along. The scent grew more distinct in his nose as he ran, reassuring him that he was growing closer every minute. Vijhan’s tail began to wag on its own at the prospect of seeing his companions again. Even though it was a natural reaction among his kind, it bothered Vijhan that his tail seemed to have a mind of its own. A few times he had considered wearing breeches that would conceal his errant tail, but dismissed it each time at the thought of the possible discomfort.

With a chuff of determination, Vijhan decided to leave well enough alone. Not even Sethyr seemed poked fun at him for the minor foible. He thought perhaps it could be that she might be as self conscious of her tail as he was in the presence of Brayden. Despite their vast differences, Vijhan knew that he and Sethyr both shared a strange admiration for Brayden. Before meeting the Protector, the Canid never had any interest in Humans, other than as possible prey. Vijhan assumed that Sethyr shared similar feelings because she chose to travel with Brayden rather than stay with her own folk.

The breeze shifted abruptly, no longer blowing in Vijhan’s face, but from behind. What he smelled stopped him in his tracks. He paused and inhaled more deeply to pick up the scent better. The strange rotting smell was so strong now it caused him to sneeze. He recognized the smell, with its mixture of rot and predator. However, this time the smell was much closer and it made his mind cry danger. The smell was unmistakably from a dákde t'ooch.

Vijhan whirled around, ready to fight. A massive bear galloped into the clearing, its head up and sniffing the air. Vijhan let out a gasp at the bear’s size. On all four feet, it looked directly into his eyes. He had seen one at a distance when he first began to hunt with his pack, but that experience utterly failed to prepare him for meeting a dákde t'ooch face to face. The bear swung its huge hear from side to side, scanning the clearing. It was then that Vijhan saw the reason for the rotting smell. A horrible burn marred one side of the bear’s face and neck, all the way down to its shoulder. The wound was blackened, but had broken open and putrid yellow ooze seeped from it. Vijhan saw that the wound was terribly infected and was driving the bear into a fevered rage. If the dákde t'ooch had not been deadly enough, being mad with pain made it doubly dangerous.

It took the bear a few moments to catch sight of Vijhan. Dákde t'ooch depended on hunting with their sharp noses and had very poor eyesight, but it was good enough to identify prey at a short distance. The bear shook its head and bellowed a challenge, flinging drops of ooze from the wound out to either side.

Vijhan’s knees nearly buckled from the roar’s ferocity. He imagined that the force of the roar ruffled the furry tufts of his ears, making them unconsciously flatten against his head. Vijhan, his reason frozen by fear, gave his body over to his hunter instincts. His lips curled into a feral snarl and he howled, summoning the rest of his pack to the kill. A kernel of though trapped beneath the carnivore reactions knew there was no pack to summon, but it remained trapped, unheeded.

Enraged by Vijhan’s challenging howl, the bear snorted, lowering its head for a charge. With another roar, the beast leapt forward. Vijhan reacted instantly, scrambling to the left, putting him on the side of the bear with the injured, cloudy eye.

The bear’s jaws snapped on empty air. Realizing that its prey had escaped, the bear reared up on its hind legs. It towered nearly three times Vijhan’s height. Letting out another titanic roar, it scanned the clearing for the Canid.

Before it spied Vijhan, the Canid jumped forward, stabbing his spear forward. The blade bit deeply into the beast’s hip, summoning forth another angry roar in response. The bear whirled around, dropping to all fours. The creature’s sudden move ripped the spear from Vijhan’s grasp.

Sensing an advantage the dákde t'ooch lunged at the Canid. Vijhan managed to dance out of the way, drawing a small, bearded axe from his belt. The bear snapped at him, but missed again. Vijhan smashed the axe downward at the bear’s head as it snapped at him. He scored a glancing blow against the blackened wound on the bear’s face. The scabious mass split wide, spitting a fountain of putrid corruption.

The bear let out a high-pitched bellow of pain, shaking its head in agony. The pain showed no signs of discouraging the bear. In fact, it seemed to redouble its ferocity. The bear struck out with a ham sized paw, catching Vijhan before he could backpedal. It connected with a glancing blow on the Canid’s arm with a sickening crack. Vijhan sailed through the air, landing in a heap at the edge of the clearing. The axe flew from his mangled grasp as he hit the ground, clattering against the trunk of a scrawny tree.

The bear plodded in a circle, bellowing and pawing at its injured Muzzle. The pain made it forget the fallen Canid for the moment. Vijhan took those precious seconds to gather his wits, getting to his feet. He cradled his broken arm close to his side, wincing with each movement. He spotted his axe lying under the tree where it had fallen and he stumbled over to retrieve it. Carefully leaning down to pick it up, Vijhan’s injured arm brushed one of the low hanging branches. He stifled a yelp of pain and grabbed the axe.

The sound was enough to distract the bear from its pain long enough to recall its prey. It rounded on Vijhan, panting, its huge shoulders heaving as it slowly padded toward the Canid. Vijhan raised the axe in a feeble defense, but the bear rose to his hind legs and batted it away, sending it flying into the trees. Now defenseless, Vijhan reverted to his instincts. Unmindful of his dangling arm, the Canid rose to his feet and leapt at the bear. His teeth closed on the bear’s thick neck and he bit down with all his remaining strength. His teeth met tough hide and a thick, oily pelt, but did not penetrate anything vital. There was just too much flesh there for the Canid’s teeth to find deadly purchase. The bear swatted Vijhan to the ground, dislodging him but paid for it by losing a large patch of hide from its neck. The back of the Canid’s skull struck a rock as he hit the ground. It sent stars across his vision and his head swam.

The dákde t'ooch loomed over the stunned Canid, a combination of saliva, blood and pus dripping down, spattering Vijhan. A shout drew the bear’s attention away from the fallen Canid. Its head lifted, searching for the source.

Brayden stood among the trees just outside of the clearing, his broadsword drawn and his shield held defensively.

“Leave him be, beast!” Brayden shouted. Dropping to all fours, the bear sniffed the air suspiciously. Some glimmer of guile still left in its fevered brain warned him to be wary of the newcomer. It growled threateningly, but did not make a move to attack.

Brayden took a step forward, shouting and banging his sword against his shield. The racket startled the bear, but it still did not back away from Vijhan.

Brayden took another step forward, continuing his clanging barrage. The bear shied away from the harsh metal clanging, but did not fully give ground. It continued to stand over Vijhan, unwilling to lose its prey to the newcomer.

It reached out with its paw, rolling the Canid closer and eliciting a pained groan. The bear leaned its head down, eyes never leaving Brayden, and began to pick up Vijhan in its mouth.

“NO!” Brayden screamed. The Protector rushed forward, swing his sword in an overhand arc.

The Bear, having a hold of the Canid, whirled on all four feet and galloped away from the charging Protector. Even carrying the Canid, the bear moved much faster than Brayden. It began to outdistance him, Vijhan flopping in its huge mouth like a doll.

“Blast you, beast…STOP!” Brayden yelled, but the bear paid him no heed.

“Sethyr, do something.” Near panic showed in the Protector’s voice.

Just at that moment, Sethyr did do something. The mage materialized directly in the path of the charging bear. She held nothing but a tree branch in each hand. The bear chugged on, bearing down on the mage like a charging bull. Sethyr simply smiled one of her knowing smiles and spoke a single word.


The branches she held burst into bright flames, whooshing as they ignited. The sight of the flames did get the bear’s attention.

The huge beast froze, its juggernaut bulk heaving to a halt five meters from the flames. Its good eye grew large, transfixed by the guttering flames.

“Ah, I see by you wound you are familiar with fire,” Sethyr said. She took casual step forward, moving the burning branches closer to the bear.

“Be a good, little pet and drop our companion.”

The bear let out a high-pitched whine. Its head swung to and fro, searching for a way around Sethyr. It stepped to the right, but the mage waved a branch and the bear shied away from the fire, sending it backward a few steps.

Sethyr slowly continued her approach, a step at a time.

“You silly bugger, drop the dog and you can go…Oh you stupid animal.”

With a bellow of pain, the bear dropped Vijhan and whirled around. Brayden stood behind it, his sword wet with blood. The Canid forgotten, the bear advanced on Brayden, enraged at its new tormentor. Sethyr could see more than a little concern on the Protector’s face.

“Allow me,” Sethyr said, and waved one of the burning branches in Brayden’s direction. A gout of flame leapt from the branch and executed a curved path through the air toward Brayden. The protector held his sword aloft, intersecting the path of the flame. When the two touched, the sword’s blade transforming into a brand of fire.

The flaming bland gave the bear pause. It hesitated in confusion, its fear of the flames warring with its insensate rage. The rage won out and the bear lunged at Brayden, its eyes filled with hate.

The Protector danced aside easily, avoiding the snapping jaws. With a quick chop, he brought the sword down on the bear’s neck, its blade slicing neatly through it. The flames sizzled as the bear’s blood splashed on the blade as it passed though the bone and sinew.

The bear’s head dropped neatly to the ground, but the body plowed into the ground a few more feet, driven by the momentum of its muscled bulk.

“Sethyr, douse these flames, we don’t want to start a wildfire,” Brayden called as he rushed to Vijhan’s side.

Sethyr gave a bored sigh. “As you wish.”

The mage held the burning branches in front of her and blew casually on them. The flames guttered out, leaving the branches smoking, but extinguished. As the flames on the branches died, so did the ones engulfing the blade of Brayden’s sword.

Brayden dropped the sword absently into the grass as he reached Vijhan. The Canid was unconscious, but still breathing. The protector carefully removed the Canids woolen shirt, searching for wounds. The bear had left several deep punctures on his shoulder where it had carried Vijhan in its mouth. The arm was obviously broken, but other than that, Vijhan seemed fairly intact.

Brayden hastily removed his heavy leather gauntlets and probed the wounds on the Canids shoulder.

“A am going to fix these first and then I’ll need you help to set his arm,” he said to Sethyr as she approached casually.

Without waiting for a response, Brayden put his hands over the punctures, closed his eyes and, began to chant a prayer to Chanti. A bright glow appeared around his hands. The visible bruising slowly faded as the chant continued. Finally, Brayden finished his prayer and moved his hands, flexing them painfully as if afflicted with arthritis.

He turned them over, revealing a web of bruises on the palms of his hands.

Sethyr hissed when she saw them. “It’s a high price to pay for the healing touch,” she said.

Brayden looked up at his friend. “Perhaps, but one I am willing to pay. I’d do the same for you.”

“It’s a pity it won’t knit bone as well as flesh,” Sethyr responded.

“Aye, but I don’t know if I’d even survive that…now help me make him comfortable so we can set his arm in a sling. It’s fortunate that he is still benumbed. It’ll make it much more pleasant for all of us.”

Brayden removed a blanket from Vijhan’s nearby pack and rolled it behind the Canid’s head, trying to make him as comfortable as possible before beginning the task of resetting the Canid's broken arm.