Chapter 3 – Uneasy Feelings
Vorn looked about the courtyard and shuddered, remembering the way the priest had broadcast his voice. That kind of power was a totally new concept to him and it chilled him to the core. He contemplated what Cydric meant by "something foul is in the air".
As the party wore on, Vorn stayed to the shadows listening to the revelry. It seemed he'd arrived in T'Aarn at the right time after all. Finally, decent food! After having worked up an appetite with the duel, he headed over to the tables that were filled with food. Beef, pork, chicken, bread, gravy, potatoes, stew, desserts, and more food than he could name was on the tables. And this was to continue for two weeks! He could hardly believe the generosity and wastefulness of these outlanders. He sat down at a table and wolfed down half a chicken and a bowl of potato stew with a goblet of wine. Then, unscrupulously, he wrapped some food and packed it up into rations. "This food would be wasted anyway" Vorn reasoned with himself, quieting his sense of morals.
Shadow discussed Phineous' job offer with Captain Thurl, and though Thurl encouraged Shadow to join the guard for its noble purposes, he conceded that he could not pay the wage that Phineous could afford. "I have three hundred men under my charge, and few get the pay and credit they deserve. I have far too many fine men to be able to pad their pockets as Phineous can. He has one tenth the men as I and nearly the same budget." His voice grew softer now as he leaned closer to Shadow. "Some say his men get paid a quarter what they should but his budget gets increased year upon year." He straightened and spoke loudly again, "But there are many fine men in his care. Just make sure you don't settle for anything less than 75 T'arg per month. But if you will excuse me, I see a young lady that I have not spoken with in ages. Good eve, sir." He concluded with a quick salute as he called to a large and well endowed woman in a tight green gown.
That seemed to cement Shadow's thoughts on the matter and he was contemplating and looking about the barracks grounds for something of interest. Not far off, a rough looking man grabbed another under the arm and quickly ushered him towards the canopy of the mess hall. These men were certainly more interesting than standing in the middle of a field alone. Shadow's keen eyes could pick up quite a bit of detail, even in the near darkness. It was a trait Phylinx inherited from the Blessed Mother, Siverandora. She was the goddess that all life's blessings came from, and she above all other gods, was most revered by the Phylinx. Even the oppressive followers of Zechariahs conceded it was her hands that saved the first Phylinx and Kanis from destruction.
The man who led the other wore a tattered vest of dark studded leather over a long-sleeved shirt and breeches, and held the other firmly under the arm. It was apparent from his expression that he was not in a friendly mood and the other had a look of deep concern. Shadow continued to watch them as he walked, seemingly aimlessly through the groups of standing conversations.
To the eastern end of the mess hall, a boisterous voice called out asking for participants in song and dance. Many of the crowd moved closer. The sudden shifting of people gave Shadow the perfect opportunity to move closer to the men. He could almost feel his eyes bulging with excitement and his heart quickened its pace. Who knew what things would happen; a battle, murder? The thoughts brought both exhilaration and horror, but it was certainly more fun than watching musicians play. He stepped to a place where he could observe the men and watch the entertainers, just in case these fellows proved less interesting.
Sitting at the table Vorn had filled himself sufficiently on the fine cake, breads, mead, and meats and for the most part, tried to keep to himself. Behind him, however two men whispered harshly to each other. It seemed one fellow had bet heavily on the previous match and the other was there to collect. Vorn was not one to normally eavesdrop, but since he was part of the subject, he began listening intently. Their voices were intermingled with the rustling of the crowd and the musicians who arrived not long ago and it was hard to hear all that was being said.
"...pay up." Said the one voice.
"I told you, I don't have it all here. But I can get it. I just need to take a short trip..."
"So you can flee? I think not." Said the collector. "One way or another I'm here to take my three-hundred T'arg and the thousand you yet owe." The man's grip on the debtor tightened and he stifled a groan of pain.
Shadow was quite glad he was watching these men. It indeed was becoming more entertaining.
Vorn, still sitting, turned slightly to face the band and gave a quick glance at the two negotiators. In the dim fire light, it was difficult to make out details, but he thought he saw something glint in the hand of the aggressor. Shadow's wide eyes caught Vorn's move and instantly recognized him. He could feel his lips curling in a smile of anticipation.
"Then you'll take me to your stash or you'll be a legless cripple in the morn," the angry one said.
Vorn caught a glimpse of the large Phylinx’s figure and he settled back to the table as if to enjoy his feast. The debtor whimpered in despair, “Fine, I’ll lead you back to where my money is. Just don’t hurt me.”
The angry one replied, “As long as you got the money, no harm will come. And you’d better have the money! Or else…”
The two moved slowly through the field toward the path into town. Quickly, Vorn stood and steered over to Shadow whispering, “Come quickly. This may be more than it seems. Besides, I got all the food I could eat, and Nilam’s musicians are much better than T’Aarn’s. Let’s follow them, and see whether the debtor has a reasonable case or if it’s just extortion.”
Shadow nodded to Vorn, "Wouldn't miss this for the worrld."
Vorn slung the pouch of food over his shoulder, “If I’d known, I would’ve gladly lost the duel. I do not want someone to lose a limb because of me.” Vorn began to follow the pair, and whispered more to himself then anyone listening, “Besides, if it is extortion, I can bring him in and get a reward from Phineous.”
The Phylinx walked along side Vorn. "A T'arrg says the man has no intent on paying his debt in full," Shadow said quietly to Vorn thinking he knew human nature well enough. Perhaps it was a tad ironic that a wager be made on a matter of another wager.
"One T'Aarg it is, Shadow."
The music was joyous and bouncy, getting many of the people of the guard complex in the mood to dance. The dark Phylinx hummed along slightly off key without realizing it. The tune was quite captivating and promised to haunt him for days to come. As the two led them out of the crowded area, the music started to fade making Shadow's humming more obvious. At a glance from Vorn, the Phylinx smirked and said "Sorrrry. Just sorrt of grrabs you, you know?"
Now in silence, they followed the others. Shadow's footfalls were barely noticeable to Vorn though he stood right beside. "Wish I had my bow. I hate being unprreparred," he stated uneasily.
Vorn and Shadow traced the two some distance away. Moving further into the city, the night air thickened into a light fog. They continued their pursuit for several minutes when Vorn noticed a figure looming in the darkness. At first, he thought it was coincidence, but as they turned a corner, so too did the one following them. From this distance through the fog and night, it was impossible to see who or what it was.
Vorn whispered to Shadow, “There’s someone following us. We need to split up. Can you try to hear behind you to find his location? If you can, then drop back and ambush him. You should be able to pick up my scent afterwards by this.” Vorn reached into his pack and retrieved a large chunk of strong smelling cheese. “I’ll be carrying this. If you can’t smell it from far away, then I’ll drop a piece off every once in a while. What do you say?” Vorn sniffed the cheese and shuddered, “Aw, I could smell that from a league away. This is some nasty stuff.”
Shadow's face twisted in distaste at the offensive scent, and then nodded with a snarl. "I could find that smell blindfolded." He turned his head and looked at the buildings they were walking past; mostly brick and some in serious need of repair. There were plenty of barrels and boxes, stands and water troughs, and dozens of other things to hide behind. It wouldn't be hard to set up an ambush.
He nodded again to Vorn, "When we turrn the next corner-r, I'll find a place to hide." Several paces ahead, their prey turned down a secluded alley between a row of houses and shacks. Shadow eyed the buildings, and when he and Vorn turned the next corner, he jogged off into the night.
Vorn cast a glance over his shoulder, but could not see the one who had been trailing them. His pace slowed just a bit and he moved closer to the cover of some wooden planks that someone had set aside; no doubt to fix a leaky roof. His goal, however, was to keep track of the two ahead of him. Thankfully, the debtor was making it fairly easy to follow, with his shuffling stride echoing in the still night.
Shadow went around the side of another nearby house and found a suitable flat-roofed building that seemed sturdy enough. He hunched down, almost squatting to the ground. With a mighty leap, his strong legs easily took him to the ledge, though his toes curled instinctively to grip the wooden shelf. Surprisingly, there was not much debris where he landed, and his footing was almost silent. From this vantage, he could view the whole street, including where Vorn had passed. Laying flat on his front, he waited for his prey. It was almost too much excitement for one night, he thought, then noticed his tail flapping and twitching behind him. A little more concentration and he lay still as a corpse.
Continuing down the path, Vorn listened hard to hear if Shadow needed any assistance. But his steps were taking him further away.
From his rooftop vantage, Shadow clearly picked out two figures in the fog. With his enhanced vision, it was easy to see his prey. The one was a large dog-like man-beast, but its proportions were top-heavy.
Definitely not Kanis, which left only a Gnoll. He carried an 's' shaped knife on his hip, and a massive stone-headed hammer slung over his shoulder.
The other, a short distance off, was a hooded figure, shorter and thinner then the Gnoll. Nothing of its figure was visible due to the concealing nature of its cloak, but a glint of a metal dagger was plainly visible in its hand.
The stalkers turned the corner and stepped together whispering and pointing down the path. The large Gnoll waived the smaller one off to the other side of the street as they moved more cautiously, peering between crates, around corners, and other obvious hiding places. As they searched, the Gnoll moved closer to Shadow’s perch, enough so that Shadow could smell his foul stench, while the other crept on the other side of the street nearly five strides away.
Shadow looked beside him, spying a loose chunk of brick nearby and grinned thoughtfully. He knew it wouldn't be possible to kill the big fellow beneath with one blow, but he was not without options. Grabbing up the brick in his right hand, he lofted it a distance on the opposite side of the two thugs, banging against a wall noisily. Then, as their attention was diverted, Shadow dropped down to the back of the large Gnoll and grappled about his neck - squeezing the very life out of him. At the same time, his other hand reached around, and grabbed the man-beast’s curved knife from his belt. Instinctively, the Gnoll yanked his head back and bellowed in shock, but his call ended abruptly as Shadow drew the blade from left to right across its throat.
Shadow struggled against the flailing motions of the Gnoll to try to keep the big, meaty shield between him and the other, and plunged the knife hard under his raised arm, but the Gnoll’s stiff leather curiass absorbed most of the strike. Blood sprayed from the creature’s neck, soaking Shadow’s arm and spraying on his face.
The hooded figure turned in horror, seeing his large comrade gushing blood and being battered by the black-haired Phylinx. A curse was clearly heard from its lips as it charged, trying to stab at Shadow from around his large friend. Rotating the gurgling Gnoll, Shadow stepped just out of reach of the smaller thug’s blade.
Grasping his slashed neck, the Gnoll tried to break Shadow’s grip on him. Had it not been for Shadow’s quick movement, the Gnoll would have been too weak to even attempt such a feat, but Shadow’s grip slipped from the Gnoll’s bloody neck. Grasping in vain, it tried to stem the flow and stumbled away.
Shadow jabbed the knife at the hooded creature, then curved his wrist and slashed again, striking both times, but the cuts were shallow. Behind, the Gnoll succumbed to his wounds and slumped to the ground.
Stepping in, Shadow made another two fold attack, first slashing from shoulder to hip, then across the belly, but his quick foe barely escaped the first attack, slicing his cloak, then he used the cloak to deflect the second.
Holding the cloak like a shield, the hooded bandit slashed at Shadow’s face and he barely pulled his head out of range. As the two combatants turned in the natural ways of combat, an authoritative female voice called out “Lay down yourrr arrms, orr I’ll skewer you both!”