Chapter 3: A Ganbury Stroll

CHAPTER 3: A GANBURY STROLL

The sensation of flight.

A dirt-bound creature such as you can never understand how liberating it is to soar. Flying by breeze or mount cannot compare to having your own form carry you on the wind. The idea crossed my mind to momentarily abandon my quest for retribution, and further reacquaint myself with my old friends wind and sky. Of course that would have meant staying with the Flatlander verd longer. I had hoped the cold night air would do something to stay the stench, but the odor still molested my nostrils. Imagine my disgust at a permanent stink somehow lingering from the touch. The country of Haiden was taking its rest now, leaving the day behind to venture into a soft and gentle night. Ours is a breathtaking sky bejeweled with moons.

There is the smallest moon, little Shai, its rocky form nondescript besides impressive Aolon’s white surface traced with tiny glowing streaks of blue, a mysterious trick of the light or perhaps strange, toxic, living rivers. Greater Ravak looms large a scarred, rich red. Choros is a soft blue jewel, a great pearl that most would love to pluck from the heavens.

But by far, the lord of our skies with its bright and beautiful rings is the great Giax, the most brilliantly luminous jewel in the heavenly night. On account of great Giax, there is seldom a dark night to be had in our land. Together, all five of the moons lit the land below. If the verodu, reizeek and vrrit were down there, they would have a hard time hiding out on open country.

The Flatlander had not ceased his pouting the entire journey. His labored breathing was more infuriating than any attempt he could have made to break free of my talons.

“So where are we going?” he shouted, obviously ignorant of my exquisite hearing.

I didn’t answer right away. In my naiveté I assumed the boy would cease his inquiries.

“Look, you kidnap me, make me abandon something I’ve been trying to do all my life, and threaten to drop me if I screw up. You owe me to say where the hell we’re going.”

“Wherever the hell I say.” I said.

“You said you’re looking for someone? What for?” he asked.

“I am fulfilling a wish of theirs. They stole from me, so they wish to die.”

The Flatlander snickered. “That’s it?” He mumbled.

“There is no quest more grand than any partaken by a Saar.” I boomed.

“Whatever.” he quipped.

“Would you like me to loosen my grip again?” I threatened him.

“You won’t kill me until you don’t need me anymore.” he said.

“What makes you think I need you?” I asked.

“Me being here.” he answered.

His tone and inflection. Even with his life in the balance of my whims, he dared not show fear? He dared? The verd was a vile little creature, detestable in every way, but he had begun to fascinate me. He was correct in his assertion. I never intended to dispose of him until after he had outlived his usefulness, not that death itself mattered to him. The only thing about death he seemed to fear was not completing his vengeance.

“Tell me, verd, you are related to the nobility, as this Slight is your uncle. Was your father of the nobility as well?”

“Butoric Fairborn was not my father.” the Flatlander asserted.

“Ah. So that’s the name of your kin. You creatures fascinate me. You put so much thought and time into who you wed, and half the time once it is done you waste your lives quarreling with your chosen mates.”

“Mom didn’t chose that man.” the Flatlander said. “She got stolen away from home by slavers. Slight picked her out of a lineup and sold her to Butoric. He got a barrel of wine for her.”

“I see. So I gather you were whelped by this villain?” I said.

“He still wasn’t my father.” the Flatlander snapped. “The only reason she was taken was to give him something other than drinking to do. I’m glad he is dead.”

Now this was getting interesting. As watching scavengers fight over picked bones is interesting.

“So this Butoric Fairborn is dead. Did you kill him?” I asked.

“I wish I did.” the Flatlander said. “He drank so much when Mom stabbed him he bled more booze than blood.”

“Your home life is fascinating, Flatlander. Why did she do it?”

I could feel his body sag in my talons, curling up as close to a ball as he could in my grip. Something about that question had upset him. It was somewhat infuriating that he should do so after managing to arouse my curiosity.

“Verd, I asked a question, you will answer it. Now tell me, at once.”

“She warned him not to hit me.” the Flatlander answered. “All the times he beat her and she took it but she warned him if he laid one finger on me he was a dead man.”

“Why did he hit you?” I asked.

The verd shrugged. “It’s what he did.”

We’d been flying for some seven hours and seven hundred miles since since the tomb when it appeared out before us to the West, a small string of faintly glimmering firefly lights on the horizon.

“Is that a city?” the verd asked.

“That it is, Flatlander. Welcome to Ganbury.”

The city of Ganbury was one of the closest major settlements to my lair. It grew to bustling life from a small trading outpost after the Last Great Battle of the First Great War of Tygan. It was surrounded on all sides by a vast wall lined with drawbridges great and small. Inside the wall were buildings of brick, stone, mortar and wood to make for a not-uncommon brand of architecture in this region. If the verodu and the reizeek were foolhardy enough to hop towns, Ganbury would no doubt be one of the places they’d stop to fill their bellies and rest their heads.

I descended towards the evergreens of Foster’s Wood, and followed the field of trees to the banks of the river Sallah’s Drink. I passed beyond the city’s outer walls before landing atop a waterfall overlooking Ganbury. The wind and roar of cascading water was perfect for masking our approach. The two-legged termites didn’t suspect a thing.

Upon landfall, the full power of the Flatlander’s stench returned. I dropped the filthy beast and washed my claws in the nearby river nearby.

“When was the last time you bathed?” I asked, hoping he might take the hint.

It spoke volumes that the Flatlander had to think long before answering.

“The last really good bath I had was one my mother gave me.”

“Come now, boy. Surely you’ve bathed since then.” I said.

“I tried once about three years ago.” he recollected. “I was passing through a village. Behind an inn was this trough of dirty soapy water sitting out back. I thought they’d finished with it, so I got in and tried to wash up.”

“Was the temperature not to your lordly liking?” I sneered.

“Oh no. The inn keeper stabbed me. Look.”

The verd lifted up his tattered shirt to reveal a knife mark just above the kidney.

“I guess she really liked that dirty water.” he said as he dropped the shirt back down.

He said it in such a casual way, like a recollection of a stubbed toe. Had this little whelp no luck nor brains to speak of?

“So why did we land here?” He curiously observed his surroundings.

“Why I intend to see if my friends decided to stop for a rest in this fair city.”

The ledge of the falls on which we stood was a perfect vantage point from which to see the whole of Ganbury. The town was more or less a great circle contained within the surrounding walls, a common method of building on this part of the world. As with many of our cities, its defining monument, a glittering tower that rose above all other structures, even the town lord’s home, rested at its center. At the base of the monument, three young children laid some freshly plucked flowers, and carried away others long since wilted. The tower glistened as if covered in gem stones. The people of Ganbury would say it was.

“Nice building.” The Flatlander said of the central tower.

“That, Flatlander, is the Every War Tower.” I said. “It was constructed around the sword of a fallen soldier named Foster, who gained victory for humans and dwarves over their elven overlords in the Last Great Battle of the First Great War of Tygan. Its sides are decorated with artifacts taken from every war hence. Just the kind of idol the war-hungry people of Ganbury would revere.”

“War-hungry?” he asked.

“Pay attention, verd. This is a city of solders and warriors, a place that pays tribute to all who were felled by the stroke of a blade, and a sanctuary for those fortunate enough to come home. There will be not one yard without a well-used sparring mannequin. And watch this,” I gestured down to an old curator walking through the street. He may have been old and decrepit, but he had a step that I recognized. “See the way that creature down there limps?

The Flatlander peered down over the cliff at the old man moving with a slight hobble.

“That is known as armor wear. It happens after the repeated and prolonged uses of, shall we say, not very well-made suits. So he was at one time, a soldier.

The curator walked amongst his fellows, and all of them, every class and every creed, from the most lowly peasant to the well decorated nobility, gave him a slight bow as he passed by.

“See the way they treat him? No soldier walks through Ganbury without engendering reverence. Even soldiers who once fought on opposite sides are friendly with each other here. That is why this city is known as the ‘the living warrior’s paradise’.” It is a celebration of savagery.”

“More like courage.” the boy countered.

“Courage is a myth, boy.” I said.

Thus was the day wasted in Ganbury: sparring, sharpening, smithing, fighting. Whatever meat-headed conversations could still be heard dealt with war and combat. The guards on the surrounding walls and towers talked amongst themselves of bigger, better acts of guarding, with not even the slightest attention given to the sky.

It was a poor choice.

I poked the Flatlander in the belly with one of my claws, sending him falling back into the water. While I did not put any force in it whatsoever, the harmless gesture still angered him.

“Ow!” He cried. “Will you stop that?”

“Don’t bother running.”

My demand confused the Flatlander. “Run where?”

In that word, I first knew him. He could run from me, but but with nowhere to go and no one to go to, he had no reason to try. So desolate was his life that to run would be pointless, because he had no place to run to and no life to fight for. How could that be?

“What of your vengeance?” I asked, almost hoping he would be more combative.

“He’s too far away for me to find now. And…well.” The little one stammered, almost embarrassed to speak the words that came next. “You’re honestly the first person I’ve really had to talk to in a while.”

“I’m not a person, Flatlander.” I corrected him.

“Sorry. Dragon.” he said.

I could take no more. As I walked away, I lashed my tale across the surface of Sallah’s Drink, drenching the boy in water.

“Clean yourself while I’m gone.” I said. I spread my wings, preparing to take back to the sky and go down to Ganbury. The thought made me laugh inside my head. This would give them a good scare, I thought. I’d not the privilege to watch an entire city grovel at my feet in ages. Such a humorous venture that would be to hear those hundreds of voices crying out in the dark, begging.

“What are you going to do?” he asked.

“I’m going to chat with some of the vendors to see if the thieves have been by.”

“Hey, wait. Let me go.” the boy said.

“Why of all the krakens in the Kraken Sea should I let you go? So you can ask for help?”

“If I tell them about you, you’ll just go down there and take me back anyway.” he said.

“Quite right you are, verd.” I said.

“Maybe I can talk to them. Spare you the trouble, maybe.” He said.

Spare me the trouble. As if a casual cataclysm reigning down on this little town would be any trouble for me. The Flatlander did deserve some small credit. His misplaced concern gave me much laughter, and laugh I did. I billowed puffs of flame and smoke from my maw, wondering how he could be so concerned that any harm could befall me.

“Okay, Flatlander.” I let my hand out to the town below, “Entertain me.”

That was the first time I’d ever seen the Flatlander display any fear. He cast his gaze over the city of Ganbury as if I’d just commanded him to stroll across a bed of hot coals. In spite of his offer to spare me this nonexistent trouble, he didn’t want to go down there.

“Well, get moving verd.” I snapped.

And away he went, out onto the bed of coals.

The verd showed some skill when it came to climbing. He showed little fear or hesitation as he hopped down whatever outcropping of stone offered him decent footing. He landed with grace and precision, as if he’d been hopping up and down this cliff all his life. In spite of the obvious callouses and other injuries, he never so much as winced. It seemed physical pain bothered this one relatively little, no doubt drowned out by his inner torments.

The Flatlander came to rest at the side of the falls. It emptied into a lake lined with boats and fishermen, wrapping around the outer wall before emptying back into Sallah’s Drink on its continued journey out to sea. The ring of water caught the light of the stars, sparkling as a fine piece of jewelry, broken only by the smattering of drawbridges that lead to the city’s high wall. The little creature scurried over to one of the smaller tied works of lumber that bridged the glistening chasm, and entered the city of Ganbury.

The noises seemed to frighten him. The Flatlander shrunk in away from every little laugh and crash, like he was being pelted by reeds in wind. The almost assured step he’d had before with me was gone. He was a shy one, a lonely, pitiful little thing wandering amongst strangers.

He didn’t belong there.

Their behavior towards him betrayed it. Every last one of these creatures fled from him as fillings from a magnet. Their disdain was thinly veiled behind twisted nostrils and upturned chins. Some leaned into each other and chortled amongst themselves as if he couldn’t hear. Those that by some defect could feel pity didn’t feel enough to help him themselves. Perhaps they thought someone else should bear the burden, lest they pay the price for kindness.

Two children, a girl and a boy, sparred with wooden swords in the streets near him.

“I am Foster! Leader of the Slave Resistance!” the boy shouted.

“No you’re not.” the female countered. “I am.”

“Oh yeah?” the young boy growled.

“YEAH!” The female shouted triumphantly.

“WHY?” the male complained.

The female giggled and struck back at him. “Foster was a girl!”

She lashed out quickly, enough for the male to begin showing signs of submission. Her victory was cut short when her mother caught sight of the verd and picked the child up off the street.

“Okay, Anya. It’s time to go inside.” The mother said.

“No way. I want to be a great warrior like you and dad.” she said excitedly.

“Your father and I went to war so you wouldn’t have to.” The mother answered, and she carried her charge away.

The verd saw none of it. His eyes were firmly fixed on the stone paved streets of the city. But he could feel them leaving. He could hear their steps and their whispers both. Through it all, he could only look at the stone streets, the only thing not judging him.

Painful though it was for the wretch, he was able to tear his eyes from the stone every so often to read the signs that decorated the buildings. There was a clothing shop named, in rather poor humor, Clo’s Things. One had to wonder if the proprietor of the place chose their career purely based on their name. There was a promising mark named Yandru’s Weapons and Wares, helmed by an odd older woman with short hair who was in the middle of her next mouthful of chewing herbs. That place seemed to interest him especially, perhaps because it wasn’t out of the question for the verodu and reizeek yhivuxii to give their gear a look over.

Of course the little one had other things on his mind. The prying eyes of Ganbury’s people were a constant torment. The once-bright orange blood of the iron feeder had long since turned dull brown, and a passing fool might have mistaken it for something else.

The Flatlander eyed a small tavern that bore the curious name of Spirit Pints. The lantern light inside flickered out the windows, carrying with it the laughter of the patrons. There was a loud, boisterous voice among them. It rose high enough above the chatter of the town that I could distinguish words.

“I tell ya boys, Compton better stop pesterin’ me about this business with his arm. Shackle Mate or no, he’ll hafta kill me if he wants me to put my tongue in a knot.”

It was the highly distinct accent of a dwarf, or harlak. Most of them bore that strange, boorish accent. There were those who claimed it had little to do with the smarts of the people. It was just a way of speaking they were familiar with. Dwarves, like humans, had been the slaves of the elven people for centuries before the First Great War of Tygan set them free. While humans were able to reach higher walks of life due to their supposedly more fair appearances, dwarves had not been quite so lucky for the most part. Their short stature was certainly of little help in finding work outside of basic labor. The abundance of them that were unable to climb the status ladder often found themselves aided by humans, a cross-generational favor as their ancestors were likely bound by the same chains.

Shackle mates they often called each other, which told me this Compton character must have been human.

“I tell ya though. He can throw a mean blade at a target. I betcha if I took his other arm he could throw it just as well with his teeth.” this harlak continued. “I don’t expect ma chances in a fight with him to go well. He kicked my ass well enough when he had my arm and I had three.”

“You had three arms?” asked a voice.

“Yeh. Two of mine and one of his.” The harlak laughed at his own joke.

The decrepit little verd approached the quaintly named Spirit Pints, but it wasn’t the conversation that drew him. Rather it was the vat of water out back. The water was discolored and filled with soap scum, but the top of the gently lapping ripples were lined with suds. For him, it must have looked refreshing.

The Flatlander looked down at his dust sullied hands and arms. I didn’t have to tell him to be ashamed of himself. He had enough shame all on his own. He strolled over to the vat and thrust his hands into the water. Flowers of dull brown blossomed on the surface as the filthy film that encased him fell away. When he withdrew his hands, I could see his flesh had an almost golden tan. This one had seen much sun much in his life.

The boy took a deep breath and dunked his head into the water, thrashing it about before standing back up and leaving the dust behind. He slicked back his black hair as the muck washed away. The Flatlander had a little smile on his face as he cleaned himself. This must have been a rare moment of contentment. He was about to continue when he caught a glimpse of his reflection.

He recoiled at the sight. As if he’d bumped into an old, hated enemy by chance in the street. He stepped back from the tub and reached back for his weapon. Only after his fingers touched the cold metal did he realize he was preparing to pulverize his own reflection. He seemed afraid to return to the vat for fear of seeing the visage again.

For what reason could it trouble him, I wondered. It’s no secret to the Saar that all ape castes, be they rrut, harlak, vrrit or reizeek are incredibly unattractive to begin with, and this Flatlander verd was no exception. But what about himself did he so hate to see? Apart from his obvious misfortune of birth.

Crash. A woman walking out the back of Spirit Pints with a clutch of freshly emptied cups dropped them on the stone paved streets in shock. The metal and wooden cups cluttered together while the glass ones shattered, sprinkling a stinging glitter onto the road.

“Hey!” she cried.

Before the Flatlander could flee, she was on him. The woman grabbed his hair and pulled him back into a chokehold.

“What do you think you’re doing, street rat?” she hissed at him. “Fill my cleaning tub with your filth, will you? You want to get all my patrons sick?”

Her cries brought some of the patrons out of the bar. Among them was the boyish dwarf. He bore the typical features of a dwarf, a shorter stature and a bright red beard decorated with braids and beads. He wore a suit of armor as well worn as his body, and a curious necklace decorated with bones, including one that looked like a human finger whose parts had been linked together by a piece of strong twine. At first glance I thought some of his facial hair had begun to turn white with age, but a closer look revealed it to simply be the fizz from his drink. He lazily allowed his half full wooden chalice to hang at his side, spilling the remainder of his beverage on the ground.

“What you ‘hic’ goin on about, Mariel?” he asked.

“This urchin was cleaning himself in the vat, Harad!” the woman said. She grabbed the vat and pulled it down, spilling the dirtied water and its glasses and plates at the back of the tavern. The woman shoved the Flatlander down towards the spilled water. He lost his balance on the now slicked stones, toppling on his back and bouncing his head off the rocks.

“Mariel, come on now. Ya don hafta be that rough with the little spud.” the harlak, Harad, said.

“You weren’t complaining when I whipped your ass after you shat in the vat.” the woman protested.

“I can take a spank on the ass, especially from you.” Harad said.

Harad’s drink seeped down towards where the verd tried to get back on his feet. As the fumes of the drink reached him, his face imploded into a twisted grimace of far greater revulsion than even the townsfolk had for him. Had the liquid been a living thing, he would have choked the life out of it.

The Flatlander struggled back to his feet and bolted out from behind Spirit Pints and towards the street. The woman knelt down and picked up one of the wooden chalices.

“And don’t come back!” she yelled, tossing the chalice right into the back of the verd’s head. It struck him hard, knocking him down face first. He slid across the stone, leaving behind a streak of red from a now cut lip. The blow was of such force that it rattled my skull as well as his.

“Still throw like a Ganbury potter.” the woman chuckled.

“Oh come on now, Mariel. You only gotta give the boy a smack on the ass to get him the message.” I half expected the harlak to rush after the boy, perhaps offer some small consolation. Instead, he like all the rest, went about their business, pouring themselves a few more pints and taking their drinking outside to look at the moons and stars. To them, the boy may well have been a phantom.

As for the Flatlander himself, he got to his feet and brushed himself off. His forehead and lip were cut and bleeding, but the damage would be barely noticeable in a few days time. He handled it as if this type of treatment was commonplace for him. Maybe it was.

But it was of little consequence now. He continued on to Yandru’s Weapons and Wares, where the short haired woman spat out another mouthful of chewing herbs and crammed another handful in from a bowl on her countertop. Her hands trembled as she sifted through a clutch of gems given to her by a young lady, though it wasn’t from being giddy to touch them. Her calloused fingers trembled from some form of disease I had seen in many others of her kind.

“Well, madam. These are fine gems and will make for great shield decor.” She said as he put a bag of gold on the table. “I hope you find this compensation appropriate. Your gift shall make a future warrior very happy.”

The Flatlander approached the kiosk in a way that wasn’t quite timid. He was on edge, as if he were expecting one of the hand axes behind this woman to soon sail in his direction.

“I..uh…I’m looking for someone who might have tried to sell something here.” he said.

“You know their names?” she asked. The woman didn’t even look up. She was too busy looking over the rubies and trying to still her trembling hands.

“No.” the verd answered.

“You know what they look like?” she asked. This was a routine she was familiar with, and of course this was exactly how I expected it to go. You see, I hadn’t told the verd much about  the thieves. I wasn’t about to let him rob me of some much deserved venting.

How to approach the city of Ganbury was an interesting problem. The usual technique of setting fire to the town to flush out my quarry would result in an anthill situation due to the containing walls. I would have to step on at least a third of the populace to clear the streets, and the prospect of wading ankle deep in gore was hardly appealing. There would be places to search, such as jewelry shops and the town inn to see if my crystal was sold or if I caught the two off guard. If their hiding persisted, the people of this city would protect them. For the people of Ganbury, death in battle was considered a blessing, so threatening violence would likely not be effective.

But the people of Ganbury care about monuments and legacies. Threatening those memories they were trying to preserve well make them speak.

I landed just inside one of the town gates, my approach unnoticed as Ganbury’s nightly rituals ebbed ever onwards. The girl, Anya, was still in the midst of a friendly dispute with her mother.

“But I want to be a warrior, mother. I know I don’t have to, but I want to.” she said. “I want to bring honor to our family.”

The mother gave her child a rub on her crown. “You only need to live to bring us honor, little lion.”

“How sweet.” I grumbled, stepping over them to avoid smearing the creatures on my feet. The mother, her child, and the young boy looked up at me disbelieving as I made my way to Yandru’s Weapons and Wares. I passed by Spirit Pints, where Harad and his cohorts were still chatting amongst the suds. He fiddled with the finger bone on his necklace.

“Gotta tell ya boys. It’s good ta have a good luck charm. That’s why I always carry this, to remind meself that took Compton in battle. He was generous enough to let me keep this even though he wanted the rest of it back.”

“Let me guess which finger he let you keep.” chuckled one of his fellows.

He was licking a fresh coat of fizz off his thick red beard when we locked eyes.

A moment of confusion, then denial, then shocked disbelief as I continued up the street and onto the local blacksmith.

“This is a really good drink.” he said of his full pint before quickly turning it to half of one.

The owner of Yandru’s Weapons and Wares continued to press the Flatlander.

“Listen boy. If I don’t have a name or a description, I can’t help you find these two.”

I shoved my face in front of the small store window. “I just may be able to help with that.” I said.

“Yes si…” She began. I must have appeared so quickly as her reaction was delayed. Once she was able to process my grand visage, it was as if a great gust of wind threw her against the wall.

“Dr…dr…DRAGON!” the smith cried in terror.

The harlak Harad sprayed the last few sips of his pint all over his fellows. “Wait, that thing is real?” he asked. “Lord Blaine! Lord Compton Blaine! We’ve been besieged by a cloud cutter!”

The harlak drew a large crossbow from his back and raised it high in the air.

I rolled my eyes at the foolish display of bravado. “Oh please.”

The scene quickly became a farce as the people of Ganbury clamored to fight back. One fool managed to light the rag sticking out of his alcohol bottle and hurled it through the air. It didn’t reach me of course. One rrut overturned a barrel of water to get an old kitchen knife that he somehow knew was there. Then of course the spell casters got involved. Three wizards dressed in dulled brown robes walked down the street alongside each other, cold water vapor fuming off their staffs. I could still smell the blood of the Saar staining their lips. Obviously these spell casters were seasoned, unlike the reizeek thief. Their blows promised to be the most effective of all.

“Verd, get behind the counter, will you?”

The Flatlander hopped behind the counter of Yandru’s Weapons and Wares, just as the wizards prepared to send out the choice spell for fighting Saar. They called out its name and turned it loose.

“LACIOUS!”

Beams of ice shot forth to my heart, but the fire in my furnace was quicker. It met them in the middle and turned the ice to steam. A cloud of white vapor erupted outwards, clogging the streets. The three lahaar’rie’vrrickii lobbed ice bolt after ice bolt straight into the cloud, unable to hit what they could no longer see. Only when I opened my maw to turn loose my fire did they finally find me. My fireball was launched too late for them to counter attack or dodge. All they could do was huddle close together and summon the one spell that could save them.

“Marumous!” They shouted.

A shield sprang forth that protected them from the fireball. Of course harm was not my intent. To erect a shield strong enough to withstand my furnace had drained them. When the flames cleared they appeared much like the reizeek blood drinker did, pale and sickly. Arcane Fatigue had already begun to set in.

“Lacious!” one of them shouted feebly. The tiny ice bolt struck me in the heart, but did little more than make me chuckle.

“Please. I’m ticklish.” I said to them.

The harlak Harad’s eyes grew wide with shock and fear when he finally realized just who I was.

“That’s not just any cloud cutter. That’s the Big Red Sunuvabitch!” he shouted.

The verodu was right about the name the harlakii gave me. It did keep it simple.

From the chaos emerged an odd character, a rrut in very obvious disarray. He sported an enchanted gauntlet that replaced a severed left arm. He was still adjusting his armor suit as he ran towards his dwarf acquaintance.

“Compton!” the harlak shouted. “Ya big goof. Yer missin the show.”

“Dear Commander Harad, you always say I’m late to the party, but I know how to finish it.”

“Give me more lip and I will take your other arm!” the harlak threatened as he fired the crossbow at my face. I easily caught the bolt in my teeth.

Then they all stopped. The harlak, the town lord, the wizard, the guards in the tower. Everyone. They all seemed to see their attacks were not very effective.

“By Foster’s Blade. Is there anything we can do to stop this beast?” replied the town lord.

“Maybe we can beat ‘em to death with yer other arm.” the harlak responded.

Then I did nothing. The silence that followed must have been greatly unsettling for these creatures. It would take but a breath from me to bring their great city down into the earth. They waited, the town lord, the bone wearing harlak, the wizards, the guards, all of them. They all waited for me to make some statement or motion that would reveal my intent.

“Who might you be?” I asked the robe wearing rrut.

“I am Compton Blaine, lord of this city for the world’s braves.” he said. “At my side is Commander Harad, one of the bravest souls I know. For what sinister purpose do you come here?”

“Well, since you ask-.”

I raised my head high and let loose a great thunderous roar that shattered glass, felled townsfolk to their knees, and stirred frightened whimpers from every closed door and shuttered window.

“Someone has stolen from me!” I roared. “Pray your city is not a harbor for thieves!”

I turned my attention back to the smith Yandru, still quivering against the back wall of her venue. She had pulled out a fighting dagger, a pitiful little thing better suited for cutting bread at a dinner table. A streak of chewing herbs dripped between her clenched teeth.

“Forgive the interruption, my dear. I seek a woman soldier and an elven wizard. You shouldn’t have had too much trouble spotting them. The woman was a soldier who bore a curious armor suit and the elven wizard wore animal hide clothing. They had a blue Lunar Quartz crystal in their possession, about the size of your forearm.”

“I will not talk with you.” she said defiantly.

“Prefer to die in battle?” I asked.

“Gladly.” she nodded.

“I see. What of your monument though?” I turned my attention to the Every War Tower, and sent a great fireball into the skies above it. The flames burst threateningly above the structure, lighting the city below in an eerie orange.

“You wouldn’t dare destroy the jewel of our town!” Lord Blaine demanded.

“Oh, I dare.”

The threat was effective. All weapons were sheathed and stowed as the lord, his harlak friend, the three drained wizards, and all others slowly backed away. I stuck my head into Yandru’s shop. The Flatlander verd still sat below the counter. I had expected him to be panicked from the previous proceedings, but instead he was incredibly calm. He just planted himself behind the counter and watched everything if it were a perfectly normal thing.

Strange one he was. I returned my attention to the smith.

“Now where were we? Ah, yes. My blue crystal. I asked, now tell.”

The lady smith seemed nervous about answering. In an attempt to put herself at ease, she grabbed another handful of chewing herbs and shoved them in her mouth. Her checks had begun to bulge from the sheer amount of her chew, but she still managed to force the words out.

“Yes. Yes. I saw a pair that looked like that. They flew in this morning.” she said.

In her haste to answer, she accidentally swallowed some of her herbs, launching into a coughing fit.

“Describe more about them.” I said with a smile. I neglected tell her everything as to see if she was telling the truth. If she was, this vendor would have no trouble pointing out any details about the two I didn’t mention.

Though she coughed, on she spoke.

“The woman had a suit with a segmented chest plate. Lets you bend really easy. She had an emblem of the Paladin’s Guard.”

“Paladin’s Guard?” I asked.

“Yeah. Raven on top a wolf’s head with an emerald for the eye. Emerald means she’s a Major.”

“Very good. And?”

Yandru continued. “The elf treated his hair into a poor imitation of a lion’s mane. I’ve seen the style around a few places. His staff was funny. Nothing fancy at all. Just a pruned tree branch that sparked a little when he walked.”

“Good. Good.” I soothed her. “Did they have the crystal with them?”

The vendor shook her head. “Not that I saw.”

Her answer did little to help my temper. “Did they give any clues as to where they were going?”

The vendor’s eyes lit up. “Yes. Yes.” she said. “They were heading to the Glass Desert. A couple miles away. They told me because I was wondering why they wanted all that padding for their feet.”

This latest tidbit interested me. “Padding? Didn’t they fly?”

“They had a couple of our guys go with them to the pass and fly their griffins back here. Said they wouldn’t be needing them after they crossed the mountains and gave them to our boys in exchange for provisions. Damnedest thing. They already had plenty of money on them, but they insisted.”

Given the careful planning that went into their escape from my Phoenix River Canyon, these choices seemed quite out of character for them. Everything was of such convenience for me, it was as if they wanted to be captured.

“That’s all I know.” the vendor said. “Hetcher can tell you more. He was one of the people out there this morning. He works at Norma’s Inn.”

I nodded, pulling my head out of Yandru’s Weapons and Wares. As I left the shop, the top of my horned crown caught the roof, pulling it free of and dropping its splintered remains in the town square.

“Oops.” I said, making my way towards the local inn.

The Flatlander hopped out of the destroyed front of the store and watched me as I strolled over to the inn known as Norma’s Inn, a two story building with a cellar and about seven or so rooms on each floor. Upon reaching the inn, I lifted off the roof, exposing the rooms inside. Several travelers huddled under their beds. A nude couple, apparently in the midst of consummating their relationship, held close to each other under the covers.

“You lot breed like rabbits.” I insulted them. “Hetcher, are you down there? I wish to have an audience.”

A stout little fat man slowly walked up the steps. This one was not a retired warrior as most here were. He was a native Ganburian, the product of retired soldiers who started a family and never left. He didn’t bear a single scar.

“Yes, Red Lord. What do you wish to know?’

“The vendor at Yandru’s has been so kind to tell me that you were acquainted with a pair of visitors this morning, a woman soldier and an elven wizard.”

He nodded frantically. “Yes, yes. I and a few of my boys helped drop them off at the Glass Desert. They got a week’s worth of provisions and hunkered down there.”

“Hunkered down?” I asked. “You mean they stayed?”

“Yes. Said they were waiting for someone.” Hetcher said. “They stopped off at this old burned down temple so their friend could find them easier.”

I needn’t ask Hetcher which temple it was. I already knew. The Glass Desert took its name from its sands, which were often melted from the fires of the Saar. This happened many times, for the Saar would often do business in the Glass Desert, at that temple the two thieves found sanctuary in. That temple which I had tried to forget for centuries, where that terrible thing had taken place.

My secret.

The Black Wyrm had sworn she would never tell anyone of the events that transpired in that place. I only hoped that Major Arietta and her Sparks companion wouldn’t find out the truth.

“Thank you, Hetcher. You’ve been most helpful.” I dropped the roof back in place, sending splinters of wood raining down to the floor and tiny bodies shooting up off their beds. “Well, it appears the people of Ganbury are fortunate tonight.” I said. I was getting ready to take to the skies, when something halted me.

The Flatlander. I hadn’t been paying too much attention to him during this little debacle, but with my mind free, that horrid odor of his plagued my nostrils once more. I was far from done with him, but something would have to be done about that smell if his company were to be bearable.

I stretched my wings and soared to the top of the Ever War Tower. I planted myself upon its steeple which pointed into the five moon night.

“By Foster’s Blade, the Tower!” the harlak cried.

I placed my hand on top of the Every War Tower. The shell of swords, shields, scattered gauntlets and pieces of suits, daggers, axes, katars, bow bolts, the bows themselves, and odd little things like buckets, necklaces, coins and plates, jingled at my touch. It was a great chime that scared Ganbury’s people to the silence of the dead.

“Be grateful those who plundered my mountain have not passed through here. Does that not make the people of Ganbury feel fortunate? Mark my words, those responsible will be found. Turn your noses to the wind, and you will smell the ashes of my vengeance. However, since I feel your treatment of me was most rude, I am owed some compensation, wouldn’t you agree?”

I turned to the shop known as Clo’s Things.

“Head of the clothing shop. Come out.” I ordered.

“Don’t go out there, Clo.” one of the patrons cried.

The rrut lord Compton stepped forward. “This must not be! I am the lord of this town. If you wish for a sacrifice, I put myself forward on behalf of my…”

“Silence.” I told their lord. “You there…Clo.”

Hearing their names spoken in my voice always unsettled them. When Clo stepped forth from his shop, he shook wild with fright. He staggered out the front door with his hands raised high. The creature was mostly flamboyant in his dress, a brightly colored suit and pants with curled green shoes. He was bright as the sun. The colors were almost painful to look at.

The owner of the shop grinned nervously. “Well I guess this is the part where you eat me.”

“Blech! Don’t make me vomit. But I must have compensation, would you not agree?”

He nodded. “Of course, red lord. You are truly a divine being and must be treated in accordance with your divinity.”

“Which is why I come to your little establishment. Little Clo, what is your best clothing for outdoor travel?”

In all my centuries of gliding across this continent and burning the pillagers that pestered me, I have never seen a rrut more confused than the proud owner of Clo’s Things when I asked that question.

“What?” he asked.

I pushed myself off the Tower and landed in front of his shop. A loud crash heralded my feet as they touched the ground, and the sheer force of the shock sent the owner of Clo’s Things on his back.

“Are your ears clogged with wax? I want your best clothing for outdoor travel!” I shouted down on him.

“Please, just a moment!” he begged. “Understand you are my first customer of such a large persuasion.”

“Thank you.” I grinned. “And while you’re back there, do be so kind as to fetch some soap. A strong one.”

The rrut crawled through the shattered window just to save himself the second it took to open the door. He quickly grabbed a change of cloths off the shelves, a durable pair of knee high strapped boots, some deer skin stalkings, a thin hide stretched shirt, and a pair of bovine hair woven pants. He hastily dropped the articles at my feet.

“Here! These have been done by our finest tailors. Perfect for hunting, traveling through mountains and…”

“I’ll take your word for it. How about a good holster for a large Morningstar?” I requested.

Before the words left my lips, the rrut threw a holster at my feet. It was a good over the shoulder holster that would mount the weapon safely on the boy’s back. What was better, the holster was brand new. The fresh smell of finished leather was a pleasant one. Such a thing would do the boy good, even if all it did was cover up his stench.

“Oh, and uh…” the rrut shop owner produced a small purple flask of liquid. From the lid came the strong scent of wildflowers, a preferable alternative to the child’s default reek.

“I do hope these items suit your needs.” the owner said nervously.

“Thank you. You have earned your wretched life.” I assured the rrut as I scooped the artifacts into my hand.

The rrut blinked. This was not what he was expecting, but he bowed all the same.

I stepped away, preparing to spread my wings and soar over the wall. “I think that will suffice. Thank you people of Ganbury. Perhaps I shall visit you agai…”

Just then, a child, a young boy, bolted beneath my feet.

“Samuel!” A male rrut shrieked. Apparently the boy’s father. The young one looked to have broken free of his grasp. The boy ran beneath my feet and to the other side of the street, into the arms of an equally terrified woman, presumably his mother.

I avoided stepping on the creature, but only just. I stumbled slightly, rubbing against the side of a nearby building.

“Samuel! Sam, oh by the Gods.” The female grabbed the child off the ground and held him close.

I looked back and forth between then, first to the female, then to the male. I stepped towards the male, looming over him as he quivered in place.

“Do you care about your child?” I asked.

The male ripped a dagger loose from his belt and held it against my nose.

“More than anything on this green world.” he said.

“Then watch him like you do. Idiot.”

Without another word, I gathered up the Flatlander verd from outside Yandru’s and sailed out over Ganbury’s wall.

“Shit!” he cried as the two of us sailed off into the night.

“Your tongue is as foul as your stench, Flatlander.” I told him.

Across the grasslands we followed the river away until the angered cries of Ganbury were but a whisper, onward until we finally reached a cliff that rode the river’s shore. We alighted at the cliff, sheltered by an overhang of rock. If the people of Ganbury were unwise enough to pursue, anyone riding a griffin or roc would pass haplessly by. It would be a satisfactory place to rest. I set the Flatlander onto the rocks in a tumble of limbs and clothing. The garments landed on top of him along with the purple flask of soap and the still shining holster. He sifted through these mysterious objects that surrounded him, unsure what to do next.

“Get out of those filthy rags, verd.” I ordered him. “I will not have my senses ravaged any longer.”

The Flatlander looked to me, then to the items, then back to me.

“You got those for me…” he trailed off.

“Do you smell any other rrut, verd?”

He shook his head.

“Then get dressed.” I ordered.

He looked down to the mound of rumpled clothing the same way I looked at my hoard. Of course all this wonder of his only prolonged my suffering.

“Move it, verd!” I ordered.

He snapped around towards me. “Stop calling me that? I have a name!”

That distant look I’d seen before crept back into the child along with his defiance. The little devil would not grant me peace until I let him speak his title.

“Well, then. What is it?” I asked.

I realize now that he must have not heard it spoken in a very long time. No family or friends to greet him. Seldom an enemy to challenge him. When he said it to me, it may well have been the first time he heard his own name in as many years.

“River.” he said. “My name is River.”

Interesting name for a rrut. The Flatlanders often would name their children after peculiar things such as landmarks or animals. It was a sensible little name, fitting for his character. It was as he was, unique to any other rrut I’d ever known.

“Ah.” I said. “Such a curious name…Flatlander.”

To my mind, there were only two reasons a rrut even needed a name. Firstly, it was a handy, painless way to strike terror into the heart. Secondly a name was earned with respect. The former happened many times for capes of the past, and the latter never would.

“Well if you’re going to be that way I can just start calling you ‘dragon.” he said.

“Ha!” I shouted. “That is a comment on rrut intelligence.”

The verd just scrunched up that mass of skin attached to his skull, groaned and said “Whatever, Zhyx.”

Only Saar’Jya had ever dared name me. That this verd had the audacity to sully my name with his tongue was outrageous. Ignorant of his offense, he began to peel out of his clothing. Not undressing. To call it that wouldn’t be honest. He tore through the disintegrating fabric that clung to his body, revealing the scars of his years. His exposed skin had tanned and burned from his travels. The areas the clothing had covered were pale, almost sickly.

Some of his shell of grime already washed away, I saw his back laid bare.

Hidden beneath the loose fabric of his shirt were scars. They sliced into his skin deep and long. The sheer force they must have been delivered with was enough to make even me wince. They were the unmistakable marks of a whip. Eighteen lashes in total, one after the other, leaving almost no part of his back unscathed. There were small pock like scars that surrounded the lashes, as if the whip that struck this boy was barbed, an extra spice to an already excessive display of cruelty. And his hands…his palms bore dark, glossy burn scars. Horrific, boiling burns. All of the scars were old. So old they themselves had been decorated with more scars.

“What happened to you?” I asked.

“What?” He asked before realizing what I was looking at. The boy seemed to come to himself, to rediscover unwanted memories. The look on his face was one of greeting an old enemy.

“Oh…Slight…Slight, he….” He couldn’t say anything more.

The Flatlander may have spoken no words, but his expression told me everything. He desperately tried to hide that same look of contempt he had whenever Slight’s name was uttered. It seemed appropriate to leave the matter alone.

“Clean yourself up, verd.” I told him.

And so he did. He waded out into the water and proceeded to wash the sickening film away. As the outer shell crumbled, he muttered something under his breath, perhaps trying to prevent me from hearing it. Though as we have established, my hearing is quite acute.

River said something that no one had ever said to me before, and I had no desire to ever hear again.

“Thank you.”