They were surprised to find an elderly, long-faced human tending to the horses there.
“We need five horses,” Zoltan announced. “Post haste.”
“Huh?” the old man grunted, before seeming to see the turron for the first time. “Oh, yes. You. Young man. Horses, yes. Five horses. Um… okay. Um… do you want to buy them, or do you want to hire them?”
“Hire them,” confirmed Zoltan.
“Hire them?” mumbled the ostler. “That’ll be 50 wairs a day.”
“What’s your policy on late fees?” inquired Zoltan.
“Mm… mm… late? Um… you could pay 50 now and whatever the rest you owe when you arrive back.”
“That sounds like a fair way of doing it.”
“Is that 50 wairs each?” asked Alyaa.
“Each,” confirmed the ostler.
Zoltan began to talk at some length about the value of horses, the party’s important job and the economy during the war.
After a while, the aged man seemed to grow confused.
“What?” he asked. “Mm, oh, yes. Well. You can have the horses for as long as you need them, if you like.”
“Thank you, my good man,” Zoltan said with a sly smile.
“Please take care of them,” the old man muttered, before shuffling off.
“We will,” Zoltan called after him.
Edward frowned deeply. “I don’t feel right doing this. I’m just gonna give him, like, 5 wairs.”
“If you want to pay him,” Zoltan hissed, “pay him when you get back.”
“But it feels so wrong!” the former policeman grumbled.
“We’re doing it for justice!” Alyaa snapped.
“It’s for a good cause,” Zoltan agreed. “Come on.”
Still, Edward insisted on giving 5 wairs to a young turron sweeping the stable.
“Why are you giving me 5 wairs!?” the stable boy squeaked. “What have I done?”
“Just go with it,” said Edward.
“Thank you, ser!” the young turron exclaimed.
“He’s not from around here,” Zoltan sighed, glancing sideways at Edward.
“I can tell,” murmured the stable boy, before quickly moving off. “I hope Old Man Cooper doesn’t find out about this…”
The party were given five horses, and quickly mounted them, though Kazdan fell from his saddle on the first attempt.
As the party rode out of Raukath, the sun was sinking, and the sky had turned a brilliant orange. After a couple of hours, the party were riding in darkness along the narrow, cracked road. Zoltan and Alyaa pulled out lanterns and held them aloft as they spurred their horses on.
It was another few hours before the riders spied the lights of the port of Nasquah. As they rode, Zoltan related what he knew of the town – that it was built on the site of Yokurgin’s first settlement, and that it was the most prosperous port in the country.
The entire party noticed how well-maintained the town was as they rode in. The streets were wide and well illuminated, and a few men in military garb milled around.
Zoltan stopped before one, a well-built soldier with thinning hair and a thick white beard, and dismounted.
“Hello, there,” said the soldier, who wore a black cloak.
“Hello, good ser,” the turron returned. “I was hoping you might be able to help us. We’re on the track of some bandits. I’m not sure if you’ve heard the news.”
“Bandits, eh?” said the white-haired soldier. “No, peace in this town has been good, recently. Haven’t had a murder in… three nights.”
“I see,” Zoltan said. “Do you happen to know anything about Feith and Atoth passing through here?”
The soldier considered for a long moment, before saying; “Name rings a bell, but I can’t say I know who they are.”
“Ginger fellows. Cannibals.”
“I’ve seen plenty of ginger folk about, but I’ve not seen any snacking on limbs or the like.”
“That’s always good,” Zoltan muttered. “Any ideas who we might inquire with who may have more information?”
“Kahl Cartheisen’s probably the man with the most gossip around here,” the soldier said, “if you want to ask him.”
“Cartheisen?” Lilith whispered.
“Yes,” the soldier replied, eyeing the darkling suspiciously.
“Excellent,” said Zoltan. “And where might he be presently?”
“His shop’s that way, but it’s shut for the night.”
“I thought as much.”
“If you want a place to stay, The Falling Star Inn down the road would be a good place.”
“We’ll certainly check it out. Thank you, my good man. And your name?”
“my name is Captain Weir, of the Tydon family.”
“Well, thank you, good ser. Keep up the good work.”
“Oh, I plan to. Off you go, and keep the peace.”
The group made their way to the inn, stopping a man on the way and asking for information. The man said that he saw a pair of ginger twins ride into town a day or two ago, but had no idea where they went.
They found The Falling Star Inn full of people, laughing and talking. There were individuals of almost every race; humans, turrons, a few garlands and even a couple of berserkers. Behind the bar was a wiry bald man, his brow shining with sweat and his brown eyes bugging from his head.
“What have you got?” Alyaa asked as she muscled her way to the bar.
“Try the ghostwater,” the man said instantly, grinning widely.
“I’ll have one of them,” Kazdan said, sidling up next to Alyaa.
“That’ll cost you 8 wairs,” said the barman.
“How much for some water?” inquired Edward.
“What?” grunted the bald man.
“Water,” Edward repeated.
“2 wairs for a beer.”
“Do you have milk?”
“I can… sell you milk with whiskey in it.”
“What about milk without the whiskey?”
“No. How about a nice Hadong cider?”
Kazdan and Alyaa took their shots of clear liquid and downed them. Kazdan reeled on his feet, coughing.
“Atta boy,” laughed the innkeep, slapping Kazdan on the back.
“Another!” Alyaa demanded, slamming her glass down.
The barman looked aghast. “Seriously?”
Looking incredibly unnerved, the innkeeper poured Alyaa another shot of ghostwater. Grinning devilishly, Alyaa swallowed the drink, took a step back and promptly vomited all over her boots.
“I knew it,” muttered the barman.
With a look of distaste, Lilith left the inn.
Walking around town, Lilith couldn’t help but notice how different the port was to Shedhmi. The harbour was enormous, well-kept and full of ships, including several impressive galleys. She also noted that there was no discernible damage in the town, seeing only one broken window.
When she returned to the inn, Edward and the barman were still bickering. Lilith appeared silently behind Edward, tapped him on the shoulder and offered him her waterskin. Edward took it with a smile.
Zoltan was moving from one group to another, conversing freely and taking free drinks where he could get them. One woman in particular seemed keen to buy Zoltan drinks.
Eventually, someone identified a grey-haired, bearded man as Kahl Cartheisen. The man was sitting in a corner, drinking from a sizeable tankard with a couple of gentlemen. Zoltan excused himself and walked over to the table.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello there,” Cartheisen returned, studying the newcomer with a grin. The turron identified himself, as did the merchant. “Come. Sit down, my turron friend.”
Zoltan did as he was bid. “How’s business?”
“Business is… good,” Cartheisen said. “As good as can be expected in these troubled times.
The two began talking about trade and the economy, and soon, Cartheisen’s other friends made their excuses and left. Cartheisen offered to buy Zoltan a drink.
More men left the inn, and after a while, the innkeep began wiping down the bar. At this time, Zoltan broached the subject of the Indala twins.
“Yes, I know the ones,” Cartheisen said gravely. “They came through town yesterday morning.”
“I see,” said Zoltan. “So they have been in town. Did they have anyone with them?”
“Yes,” Cartheisen said. “There was them, two or three others, I think, and they seemed to have someone else with them. I don’t know if it was part of the band. I think it was a turron, or, I hope you’re not offended, possibly a child.”
“No, I understand the confusion. I myself have been mistaken for a child, despite the full beard.”
Both men laughed heartily at this.
“I was going to say!” Cartheisen spluttered, before once again growing serious. “I saw them ride past my store. They were headed east. I think they were carrying on along the coast.”
“Did they stop for any length of time?”
“No, I don’t believe so. Most people, if they’re going to stop, stop by my shop, and they didn’t. I spoke to Kruth, and he said they didn’t come in here for a drink.”
“Good to know we’re on the right track. They’ve kidnapped someone.”
“I take it that was the person with them, then? That’s terrible. The things I’ve heard about those boys, I dread to think what’s going to happen to that poor girl.”
“That’s why we’re riding after them with all haste.”
“Yes, I hope you catch them.”
“So do I,” Zoltan muttered. “So do I.”
The party stayed at The Falling Star at a discount rate after Zoltan explained their cause to Kruth.
“I’ll give you them half price,” said the bald barkeep, “and try and get the man there to grow up a bit.”
“He’s not from around here,” Zoltan explained.
“Yes, I can tell,” Kruth said.
The party rode out early the next morning after refilling their waterskins at a water pump in town. The sky was overcast as the party travelled along the coast, and after around three hours, it began to drizzle with rain.
Another couple of hours later, Lilith and Zoltan noticed a figure dressed in white walking towards the group. Zoltan recognised the garb as a robe of the Daerist priesthood. He held up a hand, and the priest returned the gesture.
“Hello friends,” the man said as the group met him. He was a slight man with white hair and a neat moustache.
“I don’t suppose you happen to have seen a group,” Zoltan said, “maybe six or seven strong? One of them looking like a young female turron?”
The man frowned. “Why, yes. As a matter of fact, I did. They were headed towards the Ghotenda, I think, or Asaethe Beach. That must have been yesterday. Evening time, I do believe. I’m not exactly proud to say I hid in the bushes as they rode past. They looked the sort that would cut my throat and not even lose any sleep over it.”
“I’m afraid they were, my friend,” said Zoltan kindly. “You made a good call, there.”
“Seems like I did,” returned the priest. “I wanted to help the child, of course, but I’m one man, unarmed, unarmoured. I don’t think I would have stood a chance.”
“Don’t worry about it. Hopefully they haven’t gotten too far.”
“If you’re on the tail of the bandits,” the priest said, “to rescue the child, ride with all haste. I wish you the best of luck.”
“Before we go,” said Kazdan, “do you have any interest in buying this spell component pouch I have?”
“Can I have a look, young man?” asked the white-haired gent. Kazdan handed the small leathern pouch over, and the priest inspected its contents with interest. “This is very interesting. Where did you get this?”
“A sorcerer friend had no need of it any longer, so he gave it to me. Unfortunately, I don’t have any need of it either.”
“Yes. Well, I’m afraid I have very little money on me.” The priest took a small coin pouch from his belt. “I have about 5 wairs I could spare, if you think that would be a fair trade?”
“Can you offer us any magical assistance?” Zoltan asked.
“I’m but a humble priest of Daerism, I’m afraid. I possess no magical skill of my own. But I can ask the brotherhood to give you all their thoughts and well wishes, and let us hope that will aid you on your quest.”
“That and the 5 wairs will be ample.”
The group rode on, and slowly the rain began to ease off. By the time evening rolled around, it had stopped, but the sky was still full of broiling black clouds.
Lilith and Zoltan determined that the group were almost upon Asaethe Beach. Kazdan also noticed several tracks leading through the mud and grass, a mix of hoof prints and footprints. Lilith dismounted and crept over to a rocky outcrop ahead. On the beach she saw a group of grubby tents set up around a low campfire.
Frowning, Lilith returned to the group and reported what she had seen. Zoltan asked how many tents there were, and if Lilith had seen any horses, which she admitted she had not. The party quickly devised a plan, and Lilith and Kazdan set off for the beach.
AS the two assassins skulked quietly onto the beach, noticing three horses tied to a post in the corner of the camp and four men sitting around the fire, including two tall, gaunt twins, one with wild ginger hair, the other with a shaved head. Lilith also spotted a small, blonde girl, dressed in brown rags, bound behind one of the tents. She was not moving.
Lilith gestured to Kazdan, motioning to the girl, and then snuck around to where the horses were hitched. Kazdan, meanwhile, moved to where the girl was lying. As he crouched down to the turron, he heard one of the men exclaim; “I think I heard something! I think I saw something!”
He turned to see a skinny young man with long black hair moving towards the horses, a shortbow in hand. Kazdan barely saw movement as Lilith ducked behind the tent. The slender man looked around, then returned to the fire with a grunt. “Must have been the horses.”
Lilith waited until the man had sat down, then hurried back to the post where the horses were tied. The darkling swiftly drew a dagger and cut the rope tied around the post. Three lengths of rope slithered away from the post and one of the horses bolted.
There was a yell from the outcrop and Alyaa came charging down, axe held high. The bandits began to move in every direction, yet Alyaa still managed to strike one of the twins.
“Atoth!” roared the other. “Bitch, you’ll die!”
The man, presumably Feith Indala, swung at Alyaa with a mace, but the spikes on the weapon’s head could not penetrate Alyaa’s armour. Another of the bandits, a fat, bald man whose skin shone with sweat, snarled bestially and swung at Alyaa with a dented great axe. Alyaa met the swing with her battle axe, blocking the blow.
Kazdan hurriedly moved Kemrin around behind a tent, noticing as he carried her that wide strips of flesh had been flayed from the girl’s arms and legs. Scowling, he set her down gently and drew his sabre.
Lilith leaped into the fray, stabbing furiously at the twins. As she did, one of the tents was torn open, and a lanky, pale man stumbled out, pulling on a pair of tights.
“What the fuck’s going on out here?” he grunted irritably. Then, as he saw the commotion, he let out a bellow and charged at Lilith, swinging a dagger at her. The scrawny, long-haired man fired an arrow at Alyaa, but it went wide.
Another man emerged from one of the tents, also wielding a shortbow. Rubbing at his eyes, he took a pot shot at Alyaa, but the shot missed entirely. Alyaa cast a brief glare at the newcomer, then turned and swung her axe heavily at Atoth Indala. The man howled as blood poured from his stomach. Lilith then stabbed into Atoth twice, and the bandit spat blood, grunting; “Feith! Help me!”
Alyaa turned away in disgust, only to see the fat man readying his axe.
“You’re big,” she grinned. “I like big.”
Kazdan suddenly appeared behind the man who had just left his tent, sinking his sabre into the man’s side. Almost simultaneously, a quarrel flew from the ridge, striking the skinny man in the kneecap. The bandit howled with agony and fell to one knee.
“Stop aiming for the knees, you ponce!” hissed Zoltan.
Alyaa staggered back as the fat bandit’s great axe took her in the body. At this, Atoth desperately jabbed at Lilith with his knife, but the darkling agilely dodged out of the way, and planted the butts of both her daggers into the bandit’s forehead. He let out a short, strangled groan and collapsed to the ground.
“Him,” Lilith hissed,” pointing at the unconscious twin. “Alive.
“Atoth!” roared Feith, turning to Alyaa with a look of murderous rage. “You cunt! You killed my brother!”
The ginger bandit struck Alyaa with his mace just as another quarrel flew into the scrawny archer’s chest. The man tumbled to the ground, and a victorious Zoltan exclaimed; “That’s how you kill a man!”
The turron scurried onto the beach and levelled his crossbow at the fallen bandit.
“Drop the bow,” he spat.
“I’d rather die,” hissed the skinny man, blood dribbling from his lips. Zoltan loosed a quarrel, and the scrawny man’s head thumped down, a bloody bolt protruding from the bridge of his nose.
“You fool,” sighed Zoltan.
Alyaa spun away from Feith and hacked into the portly bandit once more, and when he doubled over, she head butted him in the nose. There was a sickening crack, and the man slumped bonelessly to the floor, his eyes rolled back to the whites.
Lilith continued to exchange blows with one of the bandits, finally driving a dagger deep into his throat. The bandit who Kazdan had been fighting started to lope away, clutching his side as dark blood poured between his fingers. Kazdan gave pursuit, and cut him down.
Feith found himself alone, surrounded by enemies. With a frustrated roar, he swung his mace at Alyaa, striking her in the head and drawing blood from her temple. A savage grin broke out over his gaunt face, but when he turned, a quarrel struck him just below the eye. The bandit exhaled sharply and fell to the floor.
“Nice shot, boss!” exclaimed Alyaa, grinning even as blood poured down her face.
“Zoltan,” panted Kazdan, supporting himself on his knees. “Check the girl. See if you can heal her.”
“Where is the girl?” Zoltan asked.
“Behind that tent,” Kazdan said, gesturing. “I’ve hidden her in some brushes.”
Zoltan approached Kemrin and knelt beside her, looking at the grisly wounds in her arms and legs. Frowning deeply, he titled the girl’s head back and poured a red healing potion down her throat. Kemrin coughed, and slowly began to move her head.
Edward crouched behind Zoltan, noticing that the flayed patches on the turron girl’s legs seemed drier and more cracked than those on her arms, the left of which was still bleeding. Zoltan shook his head, and wrapped the girl in his coat.
Lilith suddenly stalked over to the unconscious Atoth and sat heavily on his chest. The man stirred as the darkling placed the point of her dagger against the man’s throat. As Atoth’s head lolled one way then another, Lilith prised open his mouth, inspecting his filthy, rotted teeth.
“The girl,” Lilith grunted.
“What about her?” Atoth groaned. “You killed my brother.”
Lilith pushed the dagger deeper into the bandit’s throat, and a bead of blood welled up around the tip of the blade. “You… eat her?”
Atoth sneered. “What do you think?”
With a scowl, Lilith pushed Atoth’s head to one side and pressed her forearm over his brow. She then pulled the dagger away from his throat and set the blade against one bearded cheek. As the rest of the party looked on in horror, Lilith slowly dragged the blade down, taking a strip of skin from Atoth’s cheek. The cannibal howled in agony as shiny red gristle and a single brown tooth showed through his face.
Looking down intently, Lilith began to strip Atoth’s other cheek. As she did, the bandit’s cries weakened and then ceased, and his head fell lifelessly to one side.
Kazdan turned away from Lilith, and as he looked at the campfire, he noticed strips of skin hanging over it. With a scowl, he kicked at the rack of sticks, which collapsed into the flames.
The assassin moved on, searching the tents and turning up two red healing potions, a pair of metal greaves, a small bag of coin, a stack of quarrels which seemed to have been dipped in some kind of black poison and six seared meat steaks, which he threw away with a look of disgust.
Zoltan, meanwhile, wrapped Kemrin in his cloak, and along with Edward, carried the girl over to the fire. He suggested that the party move the corpses of the bandits, so that Kemrin would not have to see them when she awoke.
As Alyaa dragged the bodies towards the sea, Zoltan searched them, discovering arrows on both archers, which he pocketed, He also stripped a leather belt from the green-cloaked bandit, which he sold to Kazdan for five wairs.
“If you tell me how many wairs are in this bag,” Kazdan said, “I’ll give you five per cent.”
“Sounds good,” said Zoltan, quickly counting the coin and announcing that the bag contained 1,500 wairs.
Lilith turned up a coin pouch and a stick of gealas meat on the corpse of Atoth Indala, while Zoltan found a metal hip flask, a mouldy biscuit and a bag of spices on Feith’s person.
When all of the bodies were disposed of, Alyaa crawled into one of the tents to rest. Lilith retrieved the party’s horses, and Zoltan tucked Kemrin into one of the other tents.
Early the next morning, Zoltan found Kemrin awake, wide eyed and babbling incoherently. He sat with the girl, reassuring her in turron, as the rest of the party dismantled the bandits’ camp. Edward looked the girl over, and grimly stated that the wounds may fester despite his best efforts. The tents were loaded onto one of the bandits’ horses, but as this happened, the other remaining horse bolted.
The rest of the horses were loaded up, and Edward gently lifted Kemrin onto his horse, wrapping an arm around her as he mounted. When everyone was ahorse, the party rode with all haste, reaching Raukath by nightfall.
As the group thundered into the square, Serban watched them with wide eyes. The scarred turron charged into the tent, and as the group dismounted, stepped out once more, accompanied by Mairz Scortan.
The white-haired man eagerly eyed the group, and when he spied his daughter, his lips trembled.
“Kemrin,” he whimpered, before bursting into tears.
“If you have any healers,” Kazdan said gently, “you would be wise to summon them, post haste.”
Edward gingerly ushered Kemrin over to her father. Mairz wrapped an arm about her shoulders, tears streaming down his lined face, and led her into the tent.
Serban turned to the party and bowed slightly. “Thank you. So much. If you had been… but an hour later… I dread to think what would have happened.”
“Aye,” Zoltan agreed hoarsely. “It wasn’t a pretty sight, but… the important thing is, she’s okay.”
“Please, come into the marquee,” Serban said softly.
Serban led the party into the Dabhiz Association’s pavilion, where several turrons in grey medical gowns were attending to Kemrin. Mairz was sitting at the table, head in his hands, his body shaking with each racking sob.
Zoltan whispered; “Is there somewhere for us to stay? We’ll leave until things… settle down.”
“Come back in the morning,” Serban said. “He’ll probably be in more of a fit state to talk. We can provide you with accommodation.”
The party left the pavilion, stopping by Hartak’s tent on the way. The alchemist returned their weapons, which looked almost entirely the same, but were different in some unnameable way. Serban then led them to a small cluster of tents, where the party slept for the night.
The next morning, several female turrons brought the group a selection of breads, cheeses and condiments for breakfast. Some twenty minutes later, Serban summoned them to the Association’s pavilion.
Inside, Mairz greeted them enthusiastically, shaking everyone’s hand in turn. Kemrin was sitting, seemingly uncomfortably, on a wooden chair. Her arms and legs were wrapped in clean white bandages, and more colour had returned to her face.
“Thank you, so much,” Mairz babbled. “This is the greatest thing anyone’s ever done for me in my long life. Please, I don’t even know the names of the people who saved my daughter’s life.”
Zoltan introduced the party, and Mairz bowed to each person in turn, tears shimmering in his eyes.
“Thank you for what you did,” Kemrin said shakily.
“Of course, I have set a reward aside for you,” Mairz announced, wiping at his eyes. “I just cannot express my gratitude enough. Serban, please.”
Serban walked over to the table and set a hefty black bag upon it. Mairz stepped up and untied the strings at the top of the bag.
“There’s 10,000 wairs in here,” he said. “Share it among yourselves. Please. It’s the least I could do.” Zoltan smiled politely, taking the bag and handing it to Alyaa.
“You will always, always be welcome in Raukath,” Mairz went on. “From now on, whenever you come here, you will want for nothing. If there is anything else I can do for you, please let me know.”
“Do you know anything about this man?” asked Edward, pulling out the wanted poster for Galian Sial.
Mairz looked at the poster with a frown. “He’s a strange looking fellow. I’m sorry, I can’t say I do. My mind has been on my daughter these past few days.”
“That’s understandable,” Zoltan said. “Don’t worry.”
Kemrin attempted to get up, but Serban stopped her with a gentle hand. “No, child.” The taller turron took Zoltan’s coat from the girl and handed it to the merchant. “Come. Let’s leave here.”
“Thank you,” Mairz said softly. “Thank you.”
As the party left the marquee, Serban stopped them. “It is a great thing you’ve done, but don’t think I didn’t see how you reacted when he gave you the reward. I know where your hearts really lie, and that is why I offer you this one piece of advice. The mayor of Paskau is greedy and cruel, but more importantly, he is filthy rich. I know that recently, the town has been plagued with attacks by tunks. Now, I don’t know for a certainty, but I would say that if you have the skill, you could probably get quite the reward from him as well, if you were to take care of his little problem. I’m not saying you should do it. It’s certainly not honest. But if I were in your position, it is something I would certainly consider.”
“Tell me more,” Zoltan said softly.
“The mayor inspires no loyalty,” Serban explained, “and he is reticent to part with his money unless he absolutely has to. But I am sure he would offer a reward if you were to help with the situation.”
“I see,” Zoltan muttered. “And what exactly is dishonest about protecting a town from tunks?”
“It’s not protecting that’s the problem,” said Serban with a grin. “It’s asking for a reward. If you were to do it for free, that would be very heroic of you. All I’m saying is, why do for free what you could earn for? Anyway, I shall say no more. You may go on your way. Zoltan, if I may have a word just before you go?”
Serban and Zoltan spoke away from the group for a moment, before the Zoltan returned to the party and Serban headed back into the pavilion.
“Anything we should know about?” Kazdan asked pointedly. “Or was it strictly turron business?”
“Oh, no,” Zoltan said casually. “Just talking business.”
“Very well,” muttered the assassin.
“Where’s your Orb pointing to?” Zoltan asked of Edward.
“Not towards Paskau,” said Edward.
“It would probably only be a five hour journey on horseback,” Alyaa pointed out.
“Half a day’s travelling,” Kazdan mused, “for quite a big reward.”
Edward looked from one member of the party to another, frowning thoughtfully.
Zoltan returned to the livery, where Old Man Cooper greeted him.
“How much to buy five horses?” the turron asked.
“Uh… I’m not sure I have five horses, young man,” Cooper mumbled. “I’m afraid.”
“Well, if you did,” Zoltan said patiently, “how much would they go for?”
“Say… 250 wairs?” Cooper said hesitantly.
“Excellent,” Zoltan said, handing the aged ostler a bag of coin.
“What’s this for?”
“For your horses, ser.”
“I don’t think there’s anywhere they can spend this.”
As the party readied to leave, a bearded young turron hurried up to them, an excited grin plastered on his ruddy face.
“Hello!” he exclaimed boisterously.
“Hello,” Zoltan returned, with much less enthusiasm.
“You’re the ones who rescued the man’s daughter?” the young man asked.
“Oh, that is so cool! Let me buy you all a drink.”
“We’re on the way out of town.”
“Going on more adventures, eh?”
“Let me come along, please.”
“Put it this way,” Kazdan interjected. “We might all die. Probably a good idea you don’t come with us.”
The young, ginger turron frowned. “But I’ve always wanted to go on an adventure. It’s so boring here.”
“How old are you, boy?” Alyaa hissed.
“I’m old enough!” the turron said defensively.
Zoltan leaned over to Alyaa and whispered; “Maybe you should give him a… demonstration of why he shouldn’t come with us. Non-lethally, of course.”
Alyaa grinned savagely, Alyaa handed the reins of her horse to Zoltan and stalked over to the turron, grabbing him by the collar of his tunic and picking him up off the ground.
“What are you doing!?” the young turron cried. “What are you doing!?”
“If you can be fooled by that, there’s no chance for you,” she growled.
“What were you talking about?” the ginger lad whined. “I just want to go on an adventure.”
“Well, we’re not going on an adventure,” Zoltan said irritably. “We’re going trading.”
“Tell you what,” Kazdan said. “We’ll be back here in a week. I’ve tied a blue ribbon to a cat somewhere in this city. If you can find it by the time I get back, I’ll give you 10 wairs. That’s your adventure.”
The young man’s eyes lit up. “What kind of cat? What colour?”
“That’s for you to find out,” Kazdan replied with a smirk.
“Come on. Give me a clue!”
“It’s the only cat with a blue ribbon.”
“Okay, okay! But whereabouts in town? Just give me a starting point.”
“Okay. And when did you say you’ll be back?”
“Probably about a week.”
“Where should we meet?”
“Meet me here.”
“Okay!” The turron flashed the party a wide, toothy grin and charged off. Kazdan watched the lad go, shook his head with a smile and mounted his horse.
The party rode out of Raukath, making their way across the flat countryside of Spirilidon. After a couple of hours, the group crossed the border into Gredi, and the ground became hillier. The horses slowed to a canter, and then a trot as the way grew harder.
Soon, the party were travelling single file down a crooked, crumbling path through high craggy hills. As the horses moved slowly and carefully along, Zoltan and Alyaa, who were at the head of the party, heard a low, rumbling growl coming from what appeared to be a cave in the side of the hill.
“Everyone hold up,” Zoltan said sharply. “Does anyone else hear that?”
“Yes,” Edward whispered.
Alyaa slid off her horse and drew her axe just as a huge, hairy creature with enormous fangs and many oily black eyes barrelled out of the fissure.
Edward let out a disgusted cry and loosed a quarrel, which hit the beast in its flank. It bellowed but kept on coming. Lilith leaped nimbly from her horse, stabbing quickly into the beast. Kazdan also jumped to the ground and tossed a throwing star which hit the creature, which bellowed and thumped a claw into Lilith, who slammed hard against the wall of the crevice.
Alyaa cut into the bear-like monster with her great axe, bursting one of its eyes. The beast roared deafeningly, raking its long claws down the woman’s front.
Kazdan struck the creature again with his sabre, and when Lilith put out another one of its eyes, it let out a rattling growl and slumped to the ground.
Lilith stepped away from the corpse of the beast with a grunt and swung back up onto her horse. Kazdan, meanwhile, curiously stepped up to the monster, which he recognised as a gudune, and after a moment’s studying, reached out, seizing one of its mandibles. The assassin attempted to milk venom from the creature’s fang onto his sword, but succeeded only in severing the tooth. His attempt to milk the second mandible was equally ineffective.
Kazdan briefly scanned the cave, before returning to his horse. The party rode on, and after another half hour or so, spied a hulking figure walking ahead of them, a man at least seven feet tall with long blonde hair. The figure had a hefty hammer slung casually over his shoulder.
“Ho there, traveller!” Zoltan called out.
The man turned with a look of surprise, revealing a handsome face with bright green eyes and a hearty moustache. “Ooh, bloody ‘ell! Hello. I didn’t see you there.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t hear us,” Zoltan returned, “with the horses and such.”
“Sorry,” said the man. “In a world of my own. After a day’s work, I tend to focus on just gettin’ home.”
“Can I help you?”
“No, just travelling in the same direction. I thought you could use some company.”
“Absolutely, yeah. If you don’t mind me tagging along.”
“What do you work as?” inquired Kazdan.
“I’m a miner,” replied the huge man. “Was after fumin, but I didn‘t find anything.”
“Have you encountered any spider-bears in these mountains?” Zoltan asked.
“It happens occasionally,” the man said, “if you don’t take care and you don’t know where to avoid. There’s a few tunnels around ‘ere you wouldn’t catch me dead in.”
The party carried on at a slow trot, and the burly miner walked along with them.
“So,” he said as they made their way through the hills. “You ran into a gudune, did you?”
“Yes,” said Zoltan.
“It obviously didn’t kill you,” the miner said with a smile.
“No!” Zoltan replied, laughing.
“You off to Paskau, I take it?”
“That we are.”
“Got business in town?”
“Yes. We heard you’ve been having some trouble with tunks.”
“Aye, we have. They’ve been attacking the outlying villages. It’s quite bad. I’d stand up to ‘em, but I’d get killed meself. The mayor, Marl, I know he’s thinking of hiring people, but the stingy bastard won’t open the purse strings to pay mercenaries.”
“Well, hopefully we’ll do a bit better in convincing him.”
The big blonde man grinned. “Well, if you’re here for that, I hope you do! Bastard could use takin’ down a peg or two, but he’s a tight man. You’ll do well to get any cash out of that bastard.”
The miner asked the party’s names, and after being told them, introduced himself as Behr Tharanstone. Moments later, the narrow track widened out, and the party saw the immaculate buildings of Paskau up ahead.
“I’ll take you straight to the mayor’s office, if you like,” said Behr.
“Please do,” Kazdan said.
As the party walked past the first few buildings of the town, Edward noticed yet another Galian Sial wanted poster.
A little further in, a chirpy voice called out; “Hey! Over here!”
Lilith turned to see a smiling, skinny man with floppy black hair and a sharp nose standing behind a stall bearing the name “Cartheisen’s Goods.”
“I’m buying,” continued the man. “I’m selling. What are you looking for? What have you got for me? Behr? You got any fumin for me?”
“No, sorry Seeley,” Behr replied. “Haven’t come across anything today.”
“Hard luck, my friend,” Seeley said with a sympathetic frown. “You fine folk?”
“We’re fine,” Zoltan said. “We’re just off to see the mayor. Mayhap we’ll call back and see you on the way by.”
“What are you going to see him for?” snorted Seeley.
“Business,” replied Zoltan.
“Going to pay him are you? That’s about the only reason he’ll want to see you.”
“Hopefully we’ll be able to convince him otherwise.”
Seeley laughed good-naturedly. “Best of luck with that. Behr, if they convince him to give up money, you come and fetch me.”
The party moved on, passing numerous buildings of exquisite craftsmanship and unfathomable size. A short while later, they met a well-dressed turron with curly black hair, who smiled at the miner.
“Hello, Behr,” said he.
“Hello, Gared,” Behr returned. “How you doin’?”
“New in town, friends?” asked the turron, eyeing the party.
“That we are,” Zoltan answered. “Off to see your mayor.”
“Ah,” said Gared softly. “Off to see Marl, are you?”
“I am going to guess that you’re here to offer to take care of the tunks.”
“Are you going to ask for payment?”
Gared smiled knowingly. “I’m the financier in this town. I have a lot of dealings with that man, and I know he’s not likely to bend. Unless you give him a real reason to.”
“I can think of a few reasons.” Alyaa smiled evilly.
“If you could give us a real reason,” Kazdan said, “we could make it worth your while.”
“I’ve never been able to think of a reason to get him to give anything up. Then again, I don’t possess a great axe, or the lovely daggers that this lady is carrying. I wish you the best of luck, but if I could be serious for a moment, these tunks are a real problem. They’re killing people in the town, they’re killing livestock. It’s making life here quite difficult, and I know that payment is obviously an incentive, but you really would be helping a lot of people if you could even attempt to stop these creatures.”
“We’ll see what we can do,” Kazdan said quietly after a moment of silence.
“We’ll be taking care of the tunks,” Zoltan added, “and we’ll be extracting some form of payment, one way or another.”
“Then all power to you,” Gared said with a crooked half-smile. “His office is just up there if you’d like to go.”
“Can you hold the horses?” asked Behr.
“You going to make that worth my while, Behr?” Gared retorted.
Behr barked laughter. “You cheeky bastard.”
Nonetheless, Behr flipped the turron a wair, which Gared caught neatly.
Behr led the group through the huge oak doors of a fabulous white stone building. The party passed through an enormous lobby decorated with pillars, statues and tiles.
“He’s up these stairs,” Behr muttered, beginning to ascend a great winding staircase. At the top of the stairs was another hefty wooden door, which Behr knocked on vigorously.
“Yes?” said a dry voice from within.
“It’s Behr,” grunted Behr.
“And what do you want?”
“Got people ‘ere about the tunks.”
The door opened, and a lithe redheaded woman stepped aside. Behr walked into the lavish office, closely followed by the rest of the group. Behind an enormous wooden desk was a portly, balding man in an extravagant high-collared gown.
“Tunks, yes,” the man said with a look of impatience. “You’re going to… kill them, I suppose?”
“That we are,” said Zoltan.
“Very good,” Marl said. “Thank you.”
“And we’re going to receive some kind of recompense from you,” Zoltan said firmly.
“Are you? That‘s interesting. I wasn‘t aware of that business arrangement.”
“No? Well, I’ll explain to you exactly why you should be doing it. Where does your income come from, good ser?”
“It comes from various enterprises which are of no concern to you.”
“Well, obviously, we’re in the mountains, and in the mountains there is jerium and other ores. That is all mined by people. I’m guessing not by yourself?”
“Yes. Very astute.”
“Exactly how will you get the jerium out of the mountains if everyone is dead?”
“I will hire more people. There are always more workers.”
Zoltan paused for a moment, then continued as evenly as he could. “That there are. But workers aren’t likely to come if they’re hearing stories about these tunks killing everyone.”
“They’ll come if they’re offered enough money,” Marl said disinterestedly.
“Ah,” exclaimed Zoltan. “But you see, the problem there is at what point does the amount of money you offer the workers begin to outstrip the profit margin you’re getting from the mined jerium?”
Marl stopped where he was, and after a moment’s thought, smiled in a way that was not altogether pleasant. “You’ve got a sharp mind, my young friend. I think you’d fit in well here.”
“I thank you. But, hopefully, my place here is to rid you of your tunk problem for a very reasonable fee and then allow you to continue to reap the benefits of your arrangement here in the mountains.”
“Okay. And what reasonable amount is this?”
“To get services of all of us, two and a half thousand wairs. That will solve your problem for good.”
“Two and a half thousand wairs between the five of you?”
Before the man could answer, there was a thunderous boom from outside the office. The colour drained from Marl’s face, and Behr swore under his breath, dashing to the window. The rest of the party followed, looking out of the enormous windows.
From the mayor’s office, the party could see most of the town. Beyond the town were farms and small holdfasts, and amongst these were three enormous humanoid figures. As the group watched, one of the figures swung what appeared to be a huge rock on a length of chain into a hovel which was instantly demolished.
“Our price has gone up,” Alyaa hissed under her breath.
“They’re here,” Marl wheezed. “They’re here. Look, whatever. I’ll pay you whatever you want! Just go out there and stop them!”
“10,000,” said Zoltan flatly. “We’ll stop the problem right now.”
“10,000, what?” the mayor snapped. “10,000 each? Fine, fine, just go. Go! Kill them!”
“Shake on it,” Zoltan said, holding out a hand.
“There’s no time for that!”
“There’s always time.”
Marl seized Zoltan’s hand, shook it once and threw it back. “There! Get out there! Get out there! Gods, they’re going to kill us all!”
“Alright. Let’s go to work.”
As the party descended the spiral staircase, Behr said; “That was an impressive show, my young friend. I don’t suppose it’s too cheeky to ask that I stand alongside you in this fight?”
“Absolutely not!” exclaimed Zoltan. “I was going to ask myself. I think we’re going to need all the strong arms we can get.”
“I’ve always wanted to stick it to these bastards,” Behr leered. “It’s gonna be nice to finally show ’em what’s what.”
“Do you know anyone else in town who might feel the same?” Zoltan asked eagerly.
“I think everyone in town’s cowering right now. But this is gonna be fun.”
“Any tips on fighting these things?” queried Kazdan.
“Aim low, take out the legs?” Behr ventured. “Bash ‘em in the ‘ead when they get low enough.”
The party stepped out onto the street, where a couple of people were fleeing from the direction of the trio of tunks. The three hulking figures were slowly walking towards the main street of Paskau. They had ridged blue skin, small black eyes and crown-like protuberances rising from their foreheads. In addition to the one wielding the stone and chain, one held what appeared to be an entire tree trunk. The third had a number of boulders under one arm.
“Right,” Behr roared. “Come on, you bastards!”
The miner dashed forward, swinging his hammer into the knee of the lead tunk. There was a loud crack, and the tunk’s leg shifted. The huge creature roared, a deep, throaty bellow, and slammed its tree trunk into Behr. The miner was thrown to one side, blood spraying from his temple. The tunk behind hurled a boulder at Kazdan, but the assassin managed to leap out of the way as the enormous rock thumped into the ground, sending up huge spumes of dust.
Zoltan darted behind the boulder, before propping his crossbow atop it and firing a quarrel at the nearest tunk. Alyaa buried her axe into the leg of the very same tunk, and dark blood began to pour from the deep wound. The tunk growled and slammed its tree trunk into Alyaa, driving the woman to the ground with a cry.
The tunk wielding the stone and chain began to swing it around, narrowly missing Lilith, who dived forward, ducking under the rock, and then clambered nimbly up the tunk’s uneven skin. The assassin threw her legs over the tunks shoulders and plunged her dagger into the back of its neck.
Seeing this, Kazdan attempted to climb the boulder-throwing tunk, but the giant threw him off with a bellow.
Alyaa dragged herself to her feet and staggered over to the tunk which had struck her. With a vicious yell, she swung her great axe into the same knee which Behr had weakened. The blade cut right through the tunk’s kneecap, and with a deafening roar of agony, the hulking beast collapsed.
“Good move, lass!” grunted Behr, whose face was streaked with blood. “Right! You, bastard!”
Behr charged at the tunk with boulders, slamming his hammer into its leg. The tunk retaliated, striking Behr with a large fist.
Zoltan ducked behind the fallen tunk and loosed a crossbow bolt. The tunk who Lilith was straddling suddenly bucked the darkling off, but Lilith landed nimbly on her feet, darted forward and jabbed her dagger into the tunk’s shin. The tunk snarled and punched Lilith, who staggered to one side. The tunk struck her again, from the other side, and the darkling fell to the ground, blood trickling from her scalp.
With a yell, Behr slammed his hammer into the tunk closest to him, which grunted and fell heavily to the ground. The miner wiped blood from his brow and snarled; “Take that, you bastard.”
“There’s just that one left!” Zoltan cried. “Get him!”
Lilith laboriously pulled herself up as Kazdan cut into the remaining tunk’s leg. Alyaa struck from the other side, and with a long, gravelly groan, the tunk collapsed.
“Oh, it’s dead,” Behr muttered. “I was gonna try and kill that one as well. Well, that were bloody fun, that were. I don’t know why I’ve been so scared of ‘em.”
“That it?” Zoltan panted.
“I don’t know,” Behr replied. “I don’t see any more. Maybe he was some sort of leader, I don’t know.”
“Perhaps we should skin them and leave them at the gates just to serve as a reminder to any of the others,” Kazdan suggested.
“I’m not sure you can skin them, mate” Behr said.
“You could try,” Kazdan replied.
“I can think of a few things I wanna do to them, starting by pissin’ in their eyes. But I think there’s a man up there we should go and visit, don’t you?”