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Chapter 5 – A Winding Trail

 

Vorn continued to trail the debtor and collector, holding firmly on the piece of cheese in his left hand and a throwing dagger in his right. ‘Shadow should be able to handle himself back there,’ Vorn thought, remembering the scars on Shadow’s body. ‘I have to keep following the debtor, so Shadow can pick up the trail later.’ Although he lost the person who was following him, he could still make out the forms of his targets through the thickening fog. Vorn shivered, remembering the frightening tales of Nilam and how ghosts and demons always seemed to appear in thick fog.

 

He continued on, unsure of the fate of his fellow traveler, Shadow, and passed a small shack; its shutters pulled closed, but inside were the angry voices of a man and woman arguing. It seemed the man had been caught at the bath house again and his lady was none-too-pleased. Ahead, the figures of his distant mark continued their steady pace, their voices hushed and barely audible. Vorn stuck close to the walls and corners of buildings ensuring that they would not spot him as he had done with his pursuers. For a moment, Vorn thought they had been moving in a circular path, but then he heard the sound of the canal ferry’s bell ahead. The slope in this part was certainly steeper, but Vorn had not anticipated they would be crossing the canal. The ferries were not very large; perhaps enough room for twenty or thirty standing bodies. It would be nigh impossible to board without raising suspicion.

 

As they continued toward the waters, Vorn pondered his options. None seemed to suit him. However, that scenario did not unfold. As the two walked past an alley, a mighty commotion arose. A sleeping dog had been startled by the men’s arrival and began barking and howling. Both men jumped at the sound then realized it came from but a small mongrel, no taller than knee high. When the thug moved in to kick the mutt, the other made his move and darted off to Vorn’s left and disappeared between two buildings.

 

Alone now, the remaining man stood in the street cursing loudly. He seemed in no mood to follow and instead kicked at the dog as it scampered away and began barking anew. “You can’t hide!” he yelled into the night then kicked at the barking dog and again missed.

 

With the dog’s yelping covering any noise he might make, Vorn moved closer and rummaged through his belongings. Stowing the pack of food on the ground, he withdrew a piece of meat. He could barely recognize the substance now, but he recalled that it was one of the most flavorful meats of the feast. Tossing aside the cheese, he wiped his hands the best he could on the cloth sack before standing.

 

“What’s taking Shadow so long?” he whispered as he readied his dagger in his right hand and held the meat between his finger tips. It felt slimy now that the juices of the other foods had mixed in the pack.

 

Walking forward from the mist and darkness Vorn appeared like a phantom. He stayed just far enough in the shadows for his figure to be seen, but indistinguishable. Intoning in a deep voice, he called out “Nobody touches the Hound of Lak-Marath and lives, mortal! Come to me, hound!” But his foreign accent seemed queer and weakened the effect he sought. Whistling to the dog, he threw the meat to the ground hoping the dog would come. Instead the dog scampered off into the alley from whence it came, circled, and lunged back into the street barking now at both figures. The poor mongrel seemed terrified and having two figures to bark at was obviously straining the little beast’s nerves.

 

Vorn drew a second throwing blade and felt the weight between his fingers. Unlike here in T'Aarn, Nilam had excellent steel and their craftsmen truly knew the value of a balanced blade. Vorn stood his ground ready to fling his weapons if the man became a threat.

 

The dog continued to bark, terrified of the man that kicked at it before. Turning to face the voice, the man called out "I told you, you couldn't hide. Get out of here before he comes back." As if summoned, the other figure approached from the shadows, leveling a crossbow at Vorn's chest.

 

"So who's this and why have you been following us?" From behind him, three more men stepped from the alley, two humans and the third a Slag. All four had a rough and unkempt look. These were no noble gentlemen; that was certain.

 

Vorn replied in a deep voice, "I'm an inspector of T’Aarn, you worthless criminals." Vorn showed his patch as a symbol of his authority though he backed up to keep in the deeper night so the ruffians could only hear his voice and not see him. "Now what are YOU doing wandering around this late at night?! And your friend there had better lay down his crossbow, or else he'll be arrested for endangering the welfare of an inspector. Speak up!" Vorn kept both of his daggers at the ready, ready to lung with the sound of the crossbow’s twang.

 

"I told you, I don't want anything to do with this," said the figure on the right to the crossbowman, his voice trembling. “I’ll not be part of a murder!”

 

Then from the crossbowman on the left, "Shut yer gullet and stand your ground! You, inspector... come out so we kin git a look at ye." The three others flanked out, two moved to the left, cutting off a retreat, and the other to the right, getting closer to the trembling man. "What business do you seek this night? I don't take kindly to havin' the law breathin down me back so speak it clear!"

 

A sound like a creaking hinge and stuck door being opened came from behind Vorn, just around the corner down the alley. Vorn's heart lurched at the sound, could it be another attacker coming from behind? Just then the man on the right fled as fast as his shaking legs would travel, ducking low to avoid being the target of that powerful crossbow.

 

“Bastard!” The crossbowman called, “you just lost me my money.”

 

Vorn yelled, "That's it mata-tashi,” he swore in his native tongue. “I gave you your chance. Drop it!" With a fluid motion, Vorn’s right hand launched his dagger towards the crossbowman. Swiveling his hips and following the flow of his arc, his hand grabbed the intricately laced handle of his curved blade. His dagger spun through the night air and, though the archer tried to side step the blade, struck the ruffian’s weapon hard, lodging deep into the wooden frame. A blink of an eye passed and Vorn’s second dagger was loose followed close with the ringing of his steel sword as it welcomed the night. Caught off guard, the ruffian failed to notice the second knife as it sliced deep into his cheek. Instinctively, his hands clenched, launching the crossbow’s bolt through an open window of a nearby home.

 

Vorn turned to face the others. "Last chance, people. I don't know why you are here, but drop your weapons now, or this will not be pretty."

 

The human to Vorn’s left hesitated and looked over his shoulder at the crossbowman. He was not prepared for an armed warrior, and certainly not one with a steel sword of that size. The wounded crossbowman recovered his stance, dabbed the deep cut on his cheek, and tried to sneer. But his lips would not part. His lip and jowl seemed to sag as the blood dripped down his chin and into his studded vest. “That was a grave mistake,” he muttered; speech impaired from his drooping lip. “Kill him!” he yelled, and then turned his back as he tended his maimed features.

 

The three remaining thugs stared about, the Slag reached down, pulling up a thick wooden plank as long as Vorn’s sword. The human to the right unfastened his belt, swinging its heavy stone fastener and gripping his short bladed dirk in the other hand. The closest human fell back and grabbed up a stone and several chunks of a shattered brick.

 

"YAAAAAAAAA!" Vorn screamed a loud battle-cry and charged the crossbowman, who seemed to lead this posse.

 

Hearing the yell, the wary human scooped up his stone and threw it with a powerful, side-arm swing. Vorn saw the motion, ducked low as the stone skipped off his shoulder and crossed the distance, pumping his legs hard. The bleeding ruffian turned to face the roar and stumbled back as Vorn’s blade sliced through the air, yielding a breath from his naked throat. The round-eyed warrior held the sword in a mighty two-handed grip, still poised to follow through with the killing blow. "One step closer and this gindashi dies." The humans and snake-faced Slag stood firm, eying each other, waiting for someone to make a move.

 

In a moment of panic, the bloody-faced rogue smashed his crossbow hard against the blade, ducked low and fled into the dark alley only steps away. Seizing the moment, the human on the left lobbed another large stone at Vorn who turned lining his blade to block, but the stone struck him hard in the chest. Fortunately, Vorn’s coat of plates absorbed most of the blow, though the force of it was enough to make him recenter his balance.

 

Vorn gave chase into the alleyway following the crossbowman. “Where the hell are the guards when you need them?” He muttered under his breath. “Guards! GUARDS! THIEF!” he shouted, hoping that the guards even cared.

 

The shadows engulfed Vorn as he darted into the alleys after the leader. His heart was racing, its rhythm pumping in his head. The bleeding ruffian cast a glance over his shoulder, and then made a sliding hard turn down another path. Left, then right, and left again, all the while with Vorn and the three others giving chase.

 

Through the fog, Shadow and Kanth could hear a muffled voice calling out loud for guards, though its position was no longer straight ahead. Shadow recognized the slight accent, it was definitely Vorn, and judging from the slight strain and direction, he must be on the run. Then another call, claiming naked women were present. That certainly peaked Shadow's interest. Though the thought of naked humans with their nearly bald bodies was not as appealing as the sleek Phylinx women, but then male desires are not too selective.

 

Shadow followed the sounds, heavy footsteps echoed not far off, but definitely running. From the rooftops he spotted a group of shadowy figures as they raced through alleys. There were multiple figures, though which one was Vorn was impossible to tell. His pace quickened, running hard and barely taking the time to judge his steps. Behind, Kanth found it difficult to keep the pace as her bow hindered her balance. She followed Shadow from roof to roof; her smaller and lighter form leaving fewer indentations in the some-times rotted thatching reeds then Shadow’s heavier steps. Though the prey was not in sight, the run was invigorating on its own.

 

Finally, Shadow closed the distance. The humans below had been zigzagging down the narrow paths between the homes and shops, where the Phylinx had taken a much more direct path. Landing on a flat-roofed home, he could see the figures as they charged down the way. From his vantage, he could easily pounce on any one of the four figures, but which one? Certainly not the last, so he must be the first.

 

Just as Shadow was about to make the leap, Kanth landed on the same roof-top, still clutching an arrow tight against the stock of her bow.

 

From below, a raspy voice called out “Drakes, to arms!” As far as could be told, it was the lead runner. So much for tackling the second runner. Could Vorn be the last? Just then, the lead runner slammed into a wall, shoved hard off and down another path that led diagonally away from the two Phylinx. The second runner, breathing heavily, carried a long, slightly-curved blade of steel that caught the slight glow of the moon. Then the remaining three staggered behind, but one was definitely not human. Its serpentine-like neck was hunched low and its shoulders stooped in a contorted fashion. How exactly Vorn had made it to the center of a chase Shadow and Kanth could not imagine, but yet there he was following hard on the heals of the leader of the race.

 

Without a bit of hesitation, Kanth leveled her bow toward the reptilian figure. "That's not him," she called as she aimed to put the arrow through the torso of the creature, the assuredness of her prey evident on her scowling face.

 

"I can't tell which one from up here... but I'll go after that lead runner.  He's obviously not Vorn,” Shadow said as Kanth's arrow was loosed and flew towards the serpentine opponent.  The arrow streaked through the night, whistling as it flew, but the shot was off its mark and stabbed solidly in the hard packed earth. Shadow grinned and nodded teasingly. "Nice shot," he offered the Phylinx archer as he leapt from his perch and bolted across the rooftop in a direct line to cut off the pack.

 

---

Vorn ran furiously after the crossbowman and noticed heavy foot steps coming from... the roofs? He glanced up for a moment and saw a dark Phylinx figure outlined against the moonlight charging past him. Finally, Shadow had arrived! Running with renewed hope, Vorn shouted, his breath coming fast, "You're not going to escape, gindashi. GUARDS!" He still wondered why the town guard had not been alerted yet, especially on the night that the festival was taking place. Shouldn't they be on double duty? Shrugging off his thoughts, Vorn passed his sword to his left hand and took another throwing dagger from his sheath on his shoulder. In his momentary distraction, he noticed the thug had gained some ground. Down another path they turned, and Vorn wondered when this chase would end. His chest felt as if it would explode. Even if they halted the chase, he doubted he could fend off a single foe in his condition and the thoughts of more thugs reinforcing this rag-tag group of vandals was more daunting than ever.

 

---

Kanth cursed her poor aim and slid another arrow to the ready. Her serpent-like prey arched its neck as it passed beneath her, the faint moonlight glistening off its shiny skin. “S-s-Phylinx!” it hissed as it bolted past, casting glances over its shoulder as it continued down the path. The three tightly packed figures seemed to hesitate at the junction where the previous two runners had turned. But the hesitation faded as they continued the pursuit.

 

“Slimy beast,” she cursed again pulling the bow string tight. At least this walkway was less obstructed then most, and Kanth had a clear shot, even if for only a moment. Letting the arrow fly, it felt good and true as it arched. Much to her appreciation, the arrow hit home, deep into the soft flesh just above the Slag’s hip. The shot forced his steps to stagger and the thing almost fell, brushing against the side of a mud-bricked home. Before another arrow could be drawn, the Slag and its two companions disappeared around the bend.

 

---

This hard run was certain to plague him in the morning, but thus far, was more than worth it. Keeping one eye on the figures below and the other on the unsteady roofing on which he trod, Shadow did not hesitate with his leap down. Timing was everything.  He hit the ground and tucked with a roll to minimize any injuries.  This was not a good time to have a sprained ankle. As he stood, it seemed almost as if the black Phylinx was appearing straight from the black earth. In the same moment, the lead human turned down the bend, his face pale as the dead, bleeding from a gouge on his cheek.

 

---

Before the fleeing crossbowman, a massive, dark figure rose from the ground. This could not be! In the darkness, the creature seemed to grow even larger. Its eyes glowed a sickly yellow as it peered into his soul. The devils of Mourtarious had come for him! Driven by panic, the thug backed against a wall, then turned and feebly began clawing and kicking in an attempt to escape through the building’s window.

 

As he did, the inspector turned the corner, sword in hand and dagger in the other. Fearing not mortal men, the thug cast a wary glance at the dark beast then charged back toward the swordsman. “You won’t take my soul!” he cried out.

 

---

Growling at the loss of a clear shot on her prey, Kanth leapt to an opposite roof-top and began her charge toward the alley that her enemies ducked into. Her breath let out in an audible hiss as she landed and spit another curse at the reptilian creature she was sure she would slay with her first shot. With the furious conviction given to her by Torn, her sleek figure crossed the rooftop to where she believed the reptile to be hiding. Impeded by her burning thigh muscles, she slipped on the loose cedar shingles as she reached the rooftop not far from where Shadow had dropped to the street. Below, footsteps echoed hollowly off the meager mud and reed walls as the humans ran beneath her.

 

---

Vorn turned the corner, and stumbled into the alleyway, panting, from the high speed chase. Finally, it had ended! Vorn paused for a moment, taking his breath and surveying the scene. Shadow was there on the opposite side of the crossbowman, blocking his escape. Almost taking Vorn by surprise, the panicked ruffian charged away from the large Phylinx and threatened to trample Vorn. Exhausted, he waited, half bent over breathing hard. The path, narrow as it was, gave little room for movement, and as the man neared, Vorn straightened his stance and thrust his blade forward. The thug raised his crossbow in a feeble attempt to fend off the blow, but Vorn’s blade passed between the bow and string, slicing the tightly bound wire with an audible “pop”. Vorn’s arm was barely braced for the impact when the man ran full force into his weapon and it jarred against bone plated armor and sliced through leather and flesh beneath the thug’s armored vest. Their bodies collided as Vorn’s weapon sliced through the last fold of leather that entangled it and the rogue crumpled to the ground. Footsteps and hard breath from behind alerted Vorn and Shadow to the arrival of yet more of the gang. Vorn turned on his toes and stepped back ready to face the new threats.

 

As they turned the bend, the human wielding his belt and knife slammed his shoulder into the wall, knocking some loose mortar from the mud bricks. His belt hand held tight to his pants as the vigorous run had made them slip low on his hips. The other, stopped just short of the corner, and stared wide-eyed at Vorn and his commander who lay still on the ground. He had the look of cowardice to him, Vorn mused.

 

Shadow smirked at the fear he had instilled in the thug... running away like he saw a ghost.  It was an advantage he could use.  The other thugs may become demoralized if they believed they were fighting demons.  "You cannot r-run frrom me, scourrge.  I am herre to claim your-r-r soul and you will not cheat me from it.!" he exclaimed as he stood erect lifting a damning, pointing finger at the accursed.  He gave chase once more closing the distance between him and Vorn.  If the first man turned his back, it posed an excellent advantage; one Shadow did not want to miss out on.  His daggers flashed in the sparse street lighting and poised for attack.

 

---

Peering over the ledge, Kanth held a precarious vantage. The humans had kept their pace and stood dumbfounded at the intersection of four joining paths, but the Slag had disappeared. Her quick eyes searched under the ledge and the hair on her back bristled to the sudden realization of what was to come. She aimed straight down just as scaly claws reached over the ledge and grasped for her legs. In the same instant, Kanth loosed her arrow at the snake-like face below. Spotting the coming attack, the Slag instinctively recoiled as the arrow cut into his thick cloak, but his grip on Kanth’s leg was strong as he yanked hard, letting his weight pull them both down. Unable to stifle a scream, Kanth flailed her arms as she fell back against the roof, then was jarred again as her body was pulled from the roof and landed hard against the ground.

 

---

Keeping his eyes on the two thugs, Vorn stepped on the crossbowman's body and crouched, wiping the blood from his katana with the crossbowman's clothing then sheathed the weapon. It was bate. Now with Shadow close and looking the two over, it was obvious their bravado had expired. "Surrender and die, SCUM! DROP YOUR WEAPONS!" Vorn commanded, not realizing his slip in grammar. His intent was to say “surrender OR die”, but by the looks on his enemies’ faces, it worked just as well.

 

“Zecharias!” cried the beltless one as he turned to flee. Following suit, the wide-eyed stone thrower made a hasty escape. Both reached the end of the alley into a main street and disappeared from sight.

 

Shadow halted quickly looking down at the fallen foe. “Nice strrike.  Things got prretty out of hand, looks like. Therre is a guarrd shack not too far-r-r if you’d like to head for-r-r it.”  The Phylinx stood with his weapons in hand and looked down at the bloodied thug, wondering if he had enough or if he would bound back up for more.  Shadow nudged the man with his foot, judging his responsiveness, and ready to plunge his daggers into the torso at first sign of resistance. Almost startling, the thug groaned and rolled to his side clutching the spot just under his ribs that was bleeding through his garb.

 

---

The shock of the fall pierced Kanth’s consciousness and made her vision go white with pain. Forcing herself to push past the pain, she rolled and steadied, braced by her one hand and legs.

 

“Vultures-s-s,” hissed the Slag as it grabbed up the plank of wood and stood ready to club the Phylinx warrior to death.

 

Though she still clenched her bow, it was useless at this point so she dropped it where she crouched. Instincts overtaking logic, she gripped her hind claws into the packed clay and lunged. As if time stood still, she pulled her legs up and grabbed for the Slag. In turn, the slag spun, swinging his club in a wide arch. In a blur, the Slag’s plank splintered across Kanth’s outstretched arm. Their bodies collided and Kanth stumbled to the ground in pure agony. Her ears roared with the sound of rushing blood and her eyes were blinded with tears and white hot pain.

 

Vorn and Shadow heard the crack of wood and a Phylinx’ scream of agony. Eyeing down the alley, they saw the large Slag standing over the crumpled form of a Phylinx woman. “Kanth!” whispered Shadow with a sudden pang of guilt. He had not recognized her previous scream through all the commotion.

 

Crying out and blinking away the tears of pain, Kanth writhed about on the packed ground of the alley. Praying that the creature above her would cease its attack, she tried to regain her bearings and pawed at the ground with her good arm seeking the darkness beneath the shadows of a nearby wall.

 

Shadow’s vision narrowed as if everything that surrounded the viper disappeared. It was a rage, building inside, but his anger slowed his pace and Vorn began to move first.

 

Stepping out into the alley, Vorn hurled his dagger. Moving forward to finish Kanth off, the Slag barely noticed the tumbling blade, but when he did, it was too late to defend. Vorn's blade hooked low as it caught the air, but struck hard in the Slag's leg. Instantly, the creature fell to one knee as it grabbed for its leg.

 

Shadow bounded past Vorn as the slender human recovered from the throw. The Phylinx would make the Slag pay dearly for this injustice.  He growled audibly as he charged forward, throwing his shoulder down he tackled the thug and brought him to the ground; prone and vulnerable.  On the ground, Shadow maneuvered himself to the top of the dazed Slag, placing the blade of his dagger to the snake’s throat. “As the man said… sur-r-render-r-r or die!  Car-r-re to choose death?”

 

“I yield.” The snake-man hissed after a moment lying beneath Shadow’s weight. Through great strain and an effort to resist the enormous pain from the deep gouge in his thigh, the slag finally retorted, “I would not have harmed your woman if ssshe had not attacked firssst.”

 

Chapter 6

 

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