Chapter 1 – Unfriendly Welcome
The morning began as usual; Dallar complaining about the lack of meat on the breakfast menu.
His mother Kina sighed, "I'm sorry, Dallar, but we just don't have the money for meat right now. Ever since they've been preparing for the party, the prices of everything has gone up. People are even charging one T'arg for an egg. That's outrageous."
Kina was a lovely Phylinx with a radiant smile and shapely form, but she harbored a hidden sadness. Her husband had passed away near two years ago and she was struggling to make ends meet. Scraping enough money together for food and basic clothing was becoming even more of a burden. And it was not long ago that Dallar was almost killed.
He was playing down by the market when some hooded men grabbed him and took him to a secluded storage building. They were humans, and part of a sect that believed in the ways of Endrak, the human empire. They burned his hands and neck with a hot iron, and had it not been for the intervention of a stranger, they may have killed the boy.
Having heard the screams, Shadow searched the building for the source and peered through a crack in the wooden walls. He kicked the wall in and emerged in the room like some great beast bent on devouring the abusers. Seeing only the reflection of his eyes, and not knowing who else knew what they were up to, the brutes fled.
Since then, Shadow, a black haired Phylinx of Siverandora (homeland of the Phylinx), had been staying with Kina and Dallar. Though Kina insisted that he owed no rent, Shadow would not be so selfish. Dallar, of course took to Shadow immediately. He had never met someone from the Phylinx homelands, and after loosing his father, needed someone to look up to.
"Now hurry it up. You're going to be late to work." She chided Dallar for playing with his food.
"I don't want to go to work. I have to scrub the baths today, and they don't pay me enough for that," he whined.
"I know", said Kina, "They never pay enough, but its money just the same. If you keep working hard there you'll eventually move up. Maybe next week you can work in the kitchen and learn to cook. That way I can take a break from making dinner," she smiled and cast a quick glance at Shadow.
"Oh, but they have something special going on today. Master Phineous…" he began, but Dallar was interrupted by Shadow's growl.
"No one is your master-r-r. Just r-remember-r that." Shadow said reminding the boy. Ever since the Cessation war, all the speaking creatures of the lands were free. Before then, it was a human world where the Phylinx and Kanis and even goblins served only the will of humans.
"Oh, yeah… well Phineous is hiring some new guys. Been adding lots of guys lately. He says he still has room for more. May be you could work there Shadow? I bet you could get a thousand T'arg a week if you got hired."
"I may stop in and see what is about" Shadow replied. The drudgery of not having a purpose was wearing on the large Phylinx.
Later that day when the early morning rains ceased, Shadow traveled to the fortified guard station not far from his home.
The chief inspector, a plump aged man in his late forties, sat down hard on his large padded chair and offered Vorn a seat. Vorn, man of lands far to the North, did not look as other humans in T'Aarn. His skin was the color of yellowed parchment, his eyes were slightly larger and his stature was thinner then the typically hefty folk of T'Aarn. Even his black vest and pants looked unfamiliar. Up until now the conversation on Vorn's request for work was returned with the usual courtesies and questions. It was all quite mundane and Vorn explained how he came to be in the great city of T'Aarn. Of course Vorn left out the parts of being banished from his homeland. Instead he focused on the trek and how it began north of the Thorin mountain range, he moved continually south through Cosk, Ren, Daltin, and finally in T'Aarn. He reviewed his experiences and provided some references, all names the fat inspector did not recognize.
"That is all fine and well, but it looks like I've reached my quota for foreigners, don't you think Thomas?" Phineous said to the grey-bearded guard as he stretched back in his ornate chair. The rain outside had stopped not long ago, but a leak in the roof still dripped in a bucket in the corner. Something lingered in the air, an aroma not unknown to young Vorn. It was an herb sold for smoking. Many barkeeps sold the stuff as it had a way of "enhancing" the effect of their brews. Phineous' stout fingers were interlocked and his hands rested on his round belly and his legs were stretched out under his desk. Quite relaxed was he.
"Aye", said Thomas, as he stood guard behind Vorn. "Me thinks this young'n needs something t'eat". Vorn could feel the scorn burning into the back of his head.
"But still, I've heard good things of you master Volken. I could probably use someone like you. The pay is fair, work is long, but if you do well and keep an eye on some of my crew; keep them in line you know; I could spare some better accommodations for you." His eyes seemed to pierce Vorn to the soul, which made him uncomfortable. It had been a long trek in the morning rain, and though a fire burned in the hearth not far from where he sat, there was little warmth. A chill ran down Vorn's spine as the chief inspector babbled something under his breath. He could not be certain, but Vorn thought it was a prayer.
"You have an unusual sword. Not forged from these parts eh?" his eyes did not leave Vorn though his mood seemed to darken. "For that matter, you don't belong here either, do you master Volken? It is a strange thing to see such a person as you. I don't believe I've ever seen a human with your look. So what are ya then? A half breed? You got some large eyes, was yer mother goblin blood?" Vorn's blood was boiling. Even knowing his skills, it would not be prudent to let the anger show. Behind Vorn's seat, Thomas and a younger guard tensed, ready for a reaction. That, Vorn expected. It was not uncommon for people to question him, even as dishonorably as this Phineous did. But Phineous was bating him. Testing perhaps?
"Very well, master Volken," Phineous said through a toothy smile. "You've endured enough abuse this day. I will pay you 100 T'arg per month. The contract will end in two months time. If at that time, I am satisfied with your work, we will renegotiate. Simply put, I need bodies on the streets and it matters not what they look like. You've proven you can hold your tongue when you need to and that is a fine skill to master. As part of my investigative team, you answer to me and no one else. You may eat and stay in the barracks on this compound, but there are strict rules here. If you agree, Thomas will show you to the barracks where the rest of the team is gathered." He slid a parchment forward with a quill in hand. "You can't ask for a better deal than that, master Volken."
Vorn eyed Phineous with contempt, took the contract and set it on the table. "Very well, master Phineous, I accept your contract," he said quietly, imitating Phineous' tone, "But, before I sign, here are a few terms of my own: One, never call me master Volken again. Two, I am, and shall always be, a freelance mercenary. I don't answer to anybody. If you're my boss, I'll accept jobs, you know, people to kill, criminals to bring in, things like that. If you start ordering me around, I'm outta here. Three, I don't work on monthly pay, Phineous. I work on commissions and rewards. You set the reward, I bring in the criminal, okay? You want me to patrol for a day, just pay me for that day. You know why? `Cause unless the air around here gets a little cleaner, and I don't mean the smoke, I don't feel like hanging around this dump too long. Now that we're clear on terms…"
"Aye, we're clear. I had my suspicions of your motives, and you proved my hunch correct. I need a strong, and independent mind among my men." He casually pointed to the contract, "The paper just makes things legal, if you know my meaning. I'll have some ‘alternate’ work for you as well."
Vorn ruffled the parchment, dipped the quill and signed. Standing quickly, he turned to the grey-bearded warrior, "Tell me the rules along the way to the barracks. I seriously got to get something to eat." As Vorn and Thomas exited, Phineous began humming a tune to himself.
Thomas recovered Vorn's belongings then led the way down the path to the main barracks, not much interested in chatting. "Hey, you been here long?" Vorn asked, breaking the stalemate.
"Eh, yes. It’s been…" he paused scratching his head to think about it, "fifteen years under lord Phineous' command. He was my sergeant when I first joined the guards. Seen a lot durin' that time."
"Is that Phineous always such an asshole?" at that, Thomas stopped and stared Vorn in the eyes.
"Don't dis'pect the man, boy. He's seen what it takes to git t'job done, that's all. If ya hadn't held yer tongue in there, your ass would have been out the door. As it is, he'll take care o'ya. You can't imagine the whining those nobles kin make when an officer sasses back to `em. We're all less than scum to `em, an it's up t'Phineous to watch our backs. Is that clear?"
Vorn had no real choice but to simply nod in acknowledgment and Thomas decided to change the subject by explaining the rules and regulations as they crossed the courtyard to the long houses.
The barracks themselves were huge buildings some thirty paces long and ten paces wide. Their heavy log braces and thatched roofs were common sights in this town given the lush forests that surrounded the walled city. As it was, there were four such buildings arranged in an uneven horseshoe pattern surrounding a main courtyard. That center had several layers and obstacles and the ground was bare of the wild grass and vines that grew throughout the rest of the complex. A group of nine well worn posts stood from the ground, their surfaces beaten smooth from hundreds of weapon drills, a practice only done with wooden mock swords and spears.
Vorn collected his 100 T’arg from the headmaster, Capitan Thurl, and was given the tour and rundown of operations. The four barracks were available for town guards and inspectors, with three hot meals served a day. The food wasn't too bad by all opinions, but it had a tendency for blandness. Vorn was issued a uniform including a red triangular cloth badge with a white eye at the center, indicating Vorn's position as an inspector. Higher ranked inspectors had yellow stripes bordering the triangle. A single stripe on the base of the patch indicated an inspector sergeant. If there were two stripes on either side, then the inspector was a lieutenant inspector and so on. The office of chief inspector discarded the triangle all together, leaving only the blank white eye with a trim of red. The priests of K'aya also used a similar emblem, though theirs resembled a cat's eye.
It was also explained that inspectors outranked the typical town guard of the same rank, so it was a guardsman's responsibility to obey the inspectors and provide support.
Travel into and out of the compound was made easily enough via the main and secondary gates. The town guard compound acted as a kind of barrier at the foot of the hill of the fortress that served as the Capital building. A path across a draw bridge and lesser fortifications and up a winding path, led to the main gates of the stone wonder. Compared to the other buildings in T'Aarn, the fortress was massive, standing six stories at the highest tower with huge stone walls three men tall and twice as thick. Its reconstruction was still incomplete from the Cessation War that freed these lands from the rule of Endrak. Age and soot marred the walls, and the stone of new construction looked as a scar on an old wound. Now with banners of the Centennial flowing in the breeze, it looked more warm and welcoming than it did in prior months.
Capitan Thurl picked it up from there, "Food will be prepared in the mess hall over there. You bunk here and can stow your belongings in the chest under the cot. Keep an eye out for lice and mosquitoes. Flees is common here too. I suggest you eat plenty o' garlic."
Thomas was about to leave when Vorn interrupted his exit, "where are the sparing grounds? How about you and me duel, Thomas, I want to see how skilled you are with a blade. Agree?"
Thomas' lips parted in a wide smile followed by a harsh laugh. "Eager eh? Training ain't my job. We got Vinibar to do the trainin'. I ain't done no sparing in years lad." Thomas and Thurl shared a smile between them. "Thurl'll get ya padded up fer that. I gots some work t'do fer Phineous. Some other aspirin' investigator showed up a few minutes ago." Thomas turned and left out the side of the barracks longhouse still chuckling to himself.
Captain Thurl too had a grin on his face. "It's good to see some spirit in you new recruits. I'm sure I can find Vinibar 'round here. He's always up for a demonstration."
The sun had started baking off the rain of early morning, making the air even thicker and the captain assigned a young worker by the name of Dallar to find the training sergeant. The boy was lean and fit, but obviously a Phylinx by his cat like face and thin coat of hair that grew over his entire body with the exception of several scars on the back of his hands and neck. Before long he returned smiling widely, his sharp canine-like teeth showing.
"Vinibar said he wants to meet you. Come this way." The youth grabbed Vorn's hand and led him to one of the other barracks where several town soldiers were standing around. All eyes turned to Vorn. One of the men that had been lacing his boot turned and smiled. He was easily a head taller than Vorn, with chiseled arms and jaw. His hair was oily and shoulder length with a hint of golden hew and his voice rolled like thunder when he spoke.
"Welcome Vorn," his hand raised in salute, "the boy says you wanted someone to spar against. Well, I'm the man for that 'round here." He extended his hand, "the name is Vinibar."
"The merciless!" called out one of the soldiers from over his shoulder which brought about a round of laughter.
"They jest." Vinibar insisted with a grin on his face. He stretched his hand out and Vorn took his in a strong hand shake. As soon as Vinibar had a strong grip, he yanked, but Vorn resisted a moment later. "Good, good; you're not completely trusting I see. A word to you, never trust your opponent, even if he's just a teacher." He pat Vorn's shoulder as a comrade would a close friend, "Come, let's get padded up and see what you can do."
"Intriguing", said Phineous, the chief inspector of T'Aarn mused. "I've been hunting people like you for over twenty years, and low and behold, you come to me. And for a job no less!" The air in the small office was thick with smoke from the Inspector's pipe that burned a sour smelling leaf. Rain abated the heat of summer, which seemed to saturate the room as did the humidity. Off in the corner, a wooden tub collected the rhythmic drip of water falling from a brown spot in the thatched roof. Drip, drip, drip…
Phineous' wide smile and calculating gaze was masked only by his two thick fingers pressed against his chin and lips. "Business must be poor among the masses. Tell me; is there no one worth killing these days?" His question was broken by his summons to the two guards that stood just behind Cydric. "You will leave us. I believe Cydric will be visiting confession this day. If I call for you Thomas, this man should not leave this place alive." The elder guard nodded in acknowledgment, and both guards stepped out of the room. As the door closed with a hollow clamor, it left an ominous feeling in Cydric's gut. This man, Phineous, was no imbecile despite his lack of taste. His clothing was smeared with grease from his fine dinner and wine stained his sleeves. His pipe nearly screamed accusations of corruption as its fine carving had been inlayed with gold and silver; quite a rare trinket must have cost a fortune.
Cydric's discomfort began almost instantly when he walked in the room. It was something about this man, how his gaze seemed to cut through him. Even with a mild disguise, a fool proof story, and all the appearances of being a law abiding citizen, Phineous knew all along whom he was dealing with. It was as if the inspector had his own spies, and in all the right places.
"It seems K'aya has blessed me and left you in the dark this day. I've been keeping tabs on your exploits. You're good, but not good enough. You should be more selective with your clients. Seems they are more willing to give you up than you were led to believe." His hands lingered out of view for a moment then he pulled a crisp sheet of parchment from his desk. "This is a contract. Sign it how you wish, but you will owe me a blood bond on your name." His voice was dark and sinister now. "I will accept your employment, but you work for me. You'll get half the salary, but I will make sure you get some side work, if you know my meaning. You and I both know the true nature of our business." Cydric felt uncomfortable under Phineous' gaze. He knew more than Cydric could have imagined. "The quill and ink are ready for you. You should know, if we don't see eye to eye this day, you'll be hanging from the city walls before the new moon."
Always calculating, Cydric measured up his options. This stone room left no place to hide, so a fight would be nearly suicide. Three against one were no odds to be taken in a fair fight, not to mention when they've confiscated anything resembling a weapon. The guards would burst in and that would be the end.
Tiny slits for windows didn't look promising either. Perhaps a youth could do it, but a grown man… ‘I'd be skewered before I got my head through,' he thought.
Cydric could feel his face flush with rage and his blood boiled. If only there was a knife so he could slice this mongrel's gullet. But, alas there was no such weapon in sight and no escape either. Without a word, Cydric took the pen and splattered an illegible name on the line. This deal stank of rot.
Phineous leaned forward, anxious to glean the name Cydric had penned and his smile faded slightly when he realized he could not make out the letters. Almost as eagerly, Phineous pulled the contract back and blew the ink dry then placed it in a lock box under his desk.
"This contract is all that keeps you from hanging and it's in my power to have it undone. I'll make sure you have some fun and there will be bounties a-plenty. You will not deviate from my instructions. If I find you take a contract with anyone else, you'll be hunted down, you mark me man." His voice tapered off to a harsh hiss. "For now, you are my investigator." He spoke up again leaning back in his throne-like chair. "That will give you the freedom to do your work and protect you when it gets messy. I expect you to stay in the barracks. Give this note to the headmaster and he will make sure you get your 50 T'arg." His pen moved swiftly, scratching out a receipt.
"You'll have a day to get settled, but I'll have an assignment for you shortly. Now be gone. I have others waiting on more honorable business."
Cydric began to rise "I'll have my belongings and I require some things from my home."
"Fine, fine; Thomas will show you about. Anything you return with must be cataloged by the headmaster." His attention was distracted by a large leather log book.
Cydric turned and grabbed the door handle, half expecting the guards to be waiting in ambush, and slowly pushed the door ajar. Thomas was caught a bit off guard as he was in the middle of a story about a raucous at a bar the prior night. His surprise was evident on his face when the door opened and Cydric emerged into the steamy air outside.
"I have a receipt for the headmaster and I need my things."
"Elwood, get the man's belongin's" Thomas said to the young guard, and then he turned back to Cydric, "Glad t'see we didn't have t'skewer ya. It makes for a rotten day."
"Indeed," said Cydric, under his breath.
After getting the explanation of the rules and schedule, Thomas bade him farewell and Cydric stormed off down the cobbled streets to his dwelling, a modest apartment in the southern quarter. Here, further from the high walls of the nobles, there was little security. The types in this part of town were not to be trusted, though seemed more transparent then Phineous appeared to be. Cydric gathered what he needed and trudged back towards the fort.
Shadow arrived at the guard station not long before noon and it was bustling with activity near the barracks. When he got closer, he heard someone mentioning a competition between a new inspector from a far off land and Vinibar the trainer. Shadow knew Vinibar to be skilled in combat but he also knew him to be overconfident and a braggart. He strained to find Vinibar’s opponent and caught a glimpse of him as the man finished putting on his padding. Something about the way he moved and tested the weight of his wooden practice sword made Shadow think that he knew what he was doing.
Just then a scruffy young man patted Shadow on the shoulder, "hey, we're taking bets here. Who you think's gunna win?"
"What are the odds?"
"Three to one on Vinibar. He's got the size and speed and no one here's seen this outlander before."
"Fair, I'll place ten T’arg on the outlander." Shadow counted out ten small leather chips and marked his bet on the parchment the man handed him.
The crowd had formed a circle waiting to see the match. Both opponents stood on either side of the ring wearing a practice helm, padding, and carrying wooden swords. Vorn itched in the armor. It was little more than reinforced cloth with bamboo and leather. The bronze helm at least provided some face protection with a grid of steel bars.
"We'll fight till ya give in," yelled Vinibar from across the field.
"Care to make a wager on that?" Vorn retorted.
"Aye, I'd say yer worth 5 T'arg."
"Well if that's all you think you're worth, then fine." The crowd cheered at the comebacks and some were still placing bets of their own.
"Alright, let's get it going. Come in, strike and step back. If you can keep up, we'll take it up a notch."
The two combatants closed ranks, Vinibar took the offensive and swung his stick at Vorn, but Vorn deftly blocked the strike with his own stick and swung hard with a counter blow. Vinibar's weapon was far out of reach and he was solidly hit in the ribs.
"Nice work," he said stepping out of reach. "Again!"
This time Vorn stepped in taking an underhand swing then turned the tip in at the last moment catching Vinibar's forward leg bruising it deeply. The mock blade of Vinibar came slicing across towards Vorn's head, but he ducked under the sloppy blow.
Vorn stepped back to the ready position, but Vinibar moved in again and swung his sword in a hard arch, Vorn barely had enough time to bring up his blade but deflected the blow. Vinibar was obviously losing his temper. Vorn took a low stance, stepped to the side and swung down towards Vinibar's shoulder and smote him again. The strong warrior was showing signs of fatigue and pain, but again he pressed the attack, but this time he caught Vorn by surprise. Vinibar's first attack was easily blocked, but he quickly turned the blade for a second, more powerful strike hitting Vorn cleanly on the hip.
Both warriors stared each other down. Vinibar rushed in taking three swings but Vorn parried two of the attacks and dodged the third. Vorn knew what needed to be done and it had to end soon or Vinibar would be angered for blood. With a sidestep, Vorn swung the blade against Vinibar's leg, then head, and back at the same wounded leg. Vinibar saw the stick heading for his leg and barely set the block, but he was unable to prevent the other two shots. Vinibar felt the blows then stood straight, tossing his stick to the ground.
"You've got a wicked style. One I've never seen before. You'll get your money this eve." With that, he turned and walked back towards the barracks. The murmur of the crowd was intermixed with disappointment and awe.