Axe, Beak and Claw

by Ron Echeverri

She gasped bloodily as i held her.  "Don't... hhhh... don't let him... get away."

I lost the fight against my tears.  "Damn it.  Damn him.  Don't— don't—"

She coughed up laughter and blood.  "Don't tell me... that i stole your heart... after i stole your purse."  And she exhaled for the last time.

I put Cossu's corpse down and grabbed my axe.  I'd managed to chase Teraad off; i'd interrupted the evil bastard's spell, whatever it was that he intended to set upon me, but with my luck he'd by now found some magical device that would expel my bowels from my body and set them upon me like a nest of enchanted, bloody, rubbery snakes.  Still... i had to finish the job or die trying.  Damn adventurer contracts.  I needed to get a better agent.

I ran down the corridor.  I could hear him cursing and throwing things around in his library.  Good, i still had a chance.  I charged into the room and saw him at the other end of the long room, as he whirled around with a large fire opal in his hand.

"HA!  You pitiful mercenaries gave me a good fight, but all that's left of your company is one very bloody thug!"  He sneered at me as i still came at him (what, you thought i was going to stop and listen to his bullshit?).  "Meet your fiery end, worm!"  And he started chanting, and i started praying, and he started screaming as he suddenly exploded into flames, and i stopped running towards him and started backing away.  The fire that engulfed him kept growing.  I turned around and fled back to the giant atrium.  I started to pick up Cossu's corpse, until i saw the fire that had followed me was starting to fill the room.  I ran towards the outer wall as i apologized to her ghost, even as i could hear her memory in my mind giggling and saying, "A cremation's a PERFECTLY acceptable burial, silly!"  I started to rappel down the wall when the keep exploded and everything went dark.

I woke up in some thorn bushes and saw the keep's flaming remains.  No treasure, no companions, and our horses had run away.  I started walking back towards the King's Road as i considered a career change.

I hadn't gotten very far, though, when i heard a large screech off to my right.  As i vacillated about my next course of action, a large beast with the wings, claws, tail and head of an eagle, and the back and legs of a lion, burst out of the woods in my direction and screeched at me.  It was, no doubt, one of Teraad's gryphons; one of the first things we did after sneaking into his keep was find the gryphon riders' rooms and lock them in (Ti!la wanted to kill them, but we reminded her that this wasn't a per-head job).  "Great," i mumbled to myself, "i survived all that and now i'm going to get eaten by a fucking gryphon."  I grabbed my axe, planted it on the ground and leaned on it so i wouldn't fall over.  I stared at the beast, trying to react to it.

It didn't come after me.  It screeched again and started pecking on its left rear leg.  There was a large piece of timber stuck through it, probably a result of the keep's explosive immolation.  It turned back at me and screeched again.

I laughed once.  "As if," i told it.

It limped towards me.  I held up my axe like a child trying to hold up a ham hock.  It swiped with its claw and knocked my weapon out of my hands.  "Thanks," i told it, "i was getting a little tired of it."  I waited for the end, but all i got was a face full of gryphon breath.  It went back to pecking at its leg for a few seconds and looked at me again.

"Fine."  I held my hands up.  "Fine.  Why don't i pull that sliver out of your toe?"  I walked around and grabbed the timber and pulled.  The gryphon gave what sounded like a pain-tinged screech and pulled its leg back, yanking the timber out of my hands.

I yelled at it, "Hey!  This is gonna hurt, so buck up and quit being such a damn baby!"  It growled and hunkered down, then looked at me and squawked.  I exhaled and grabbed the timber with both hands and put a foot to its leg.  I heaved and pulled the thing out, then quickly dropped it in a vain attempt to shield my ears from the beast's screaming.

I opened my eyes and saw it somewhat ineffectively licking its leg.  "Now what?" i wondered.  I didn't have any healing potions left, but i had a first aid kit in my pack.  I did what i could, but it was human-sized and it barely had enough bandages for a gryphon-sized thigh.  I looked at the gryphon and told it, "Maybe there's some dreamgrass around here.  Stay here."  I made a staying motion with my hands.  "Staaaay."  It gave me an indescribable look.  I turned around and started looking through the forest.

"What KIND... of idiot goes... looking for hours for dreamgrass for a gryphon A FUCKIN' GRYPHON who mind you has been a complete gentleman, beast, gentlebeast oh gross.  Wait.  Did i already walk past—"  I slid and knocked my head against something hard, interrupting my rambling.

I woke up to the sight of a chubby and somewhat disturbingly cheery olive face.  "Hey there, fellow humanoid!  Looks like you took a nasty bump there, but i've patched you up!  Don't know how a guy takes so many scratches and some light burns from falling down, but gosh darn if you didn't accomplish it!  There's so much i'm learning out here—"

I held up a finger and said, "Ssshhh."  He obediently shut up.  I tried to collect my wits and stood up.  "Um.  Thank you very much for healing me."  I stuck out my hand.  "My name is Mwaele.  What's yours?"

He smiled and pumped my hand enthusiastically.  "Hey Mwaele!  I'm Feren Nor, druid apprentice, WBUDR1 Local 87!"

I smiled thinly.  "Pleasure.  Ah, say, would you know where i can find some dreamgrass around here?  I gotta—"

He let go of my hand and punched me in the shoulder.  "Aw, c'mon!  You're like the guys who sent me out here last month to look for a left-handed dowsing rod!  Even i know there's no dreamgrass out here!  Although, if you want to get high, there's probably some mushrooms growing—"

I grabbed his robes and pulled him close.  "Feren.  I have a hurt gryphon nearby.  Can you help me?  I would really.  Really.  Appreciate it."  His robes smelled of fresh moss.

He got a concerned look on his face.  "Gosh!  Let's go find it!"  I let him go and started making my way to where i thought i'd left the gryphon.  After a few missteps, we found it in the same position i'd left it.

"Dang, Mwaele, a tame gryphon!  I bet you're loaded with gold!"  Feren inspected its leg and whispered, "Wow, that's a harsh wound!  I'll do what i can, but i spent my big healing spell on you!"

"Well, do what you can," i said.  "And you don't have to whisper."

He blinked.  "Oh.  Right."  His healing spell involved a lot less mumbo jumbo than your average cleric's, for which i was thankful.

"Furthermore," i added, "i am not loaded with gold, nor is this my gryphon.  It came from that mess."  I pointed over my shoulder with my thumb to the smoldering ruins.  "And that's where what should've been my gold is lying, unrecoverable and useless.  Not that i'm bitter."

Feren gaped over my shoulder.  "Nettles and thorns!  That's a Category One fire!  The ecological impact could be enormous!  I gotta get back to the compound!"  As if on cue, the wind shifted and started blowing fetid smoke in our faces.  He looked at me.  "Do you know what happened there?"

"Well, yeah," i said.  "You see, we were trying to—"

"Don't tell me!  Tell my master!  C'mon!"  He looked at the gryphon.  "`Sides, i bet he can fix your gryphon up real good!"

I raised my hands.  "Look, i think i can just leave the gryphon here, now that it won't die, and you can go to talk to your superiors, and i'll make my way back to Kromalir so i can get myself a godsdamned beer.  So, nice to meet ya."

He drew a sabre and aimed at me as his face turned hard.  "Don't fuck with Mother Nature.  We need your information.  You're coming with me, and i don't care if you're conscious."

I almost laughed.  I could surely take this punk even in my weakened state and without my weapon.  But... what the hell was my hurry, anyway?  Maybe these hippies could get me a good warm meal.  "OK, OK, just promise me you'll give me a beer as soon as we get there."

He sheathed his weapon and the chubby smile came back.  "You bet!  Let's go!"

One thing about being a city-dwelling adventurer is that i had no idea what the lives of beasts are like.  So my first day of traveling with a gryphon showed me two things i never thought about: what a gryphon eats, and what gryphon shit looks (and smells) like.  The first time it took off, i thought it had decided it had had enough of walking with humans.  My relief was short-lived; it returned in a short while squawking, with a buck's corpse in its claws.  Feren declared, "Well!  I guess we should eat, too!  I'm sure hungry!"  So i chomped on my dwindling trail rations (another thing about being a city-dwelling adventurer is that i'd never learned to hunt, and Feren nattered on about it being the wrong time of the year to hunt around here and, gosh, just the other day he had to chase off some poachers and then i tuned him out), Feren ate wood ears and lichen, and the gryphon made quick work of the carcass.

The next morning, i was roused by a fabulous stench.  Feren was already up, covering the gryphon's mess with dirt and dead leaves.  "Gee, Mwaele, what have you been feeding your gryphon?!  It smells terrible!"

"It's not mine, i haven't fed it, and if you have any complaints about its diet, you'll have to address them to Teraad's corpse, back under the burnt ruins of his keep."  I retched.  "Fuck, i'm not gonna have an appetite for a week..."

"Aw, c'mon!  It'll pass soon!"  Feren finished the job and straightened up.  "Hey, this isn't as bad as owlbear dung, especially if it's been on a goblin bender!  Hooo-ey!  Let me tell ya—"

"Feren, please.  I don't need a detailed description of monster crap.  Let's pack up and get going, yeah?"

Feren frowned.  "Ah, gooseberries, Mwaele, you're no fun!"  He then tried to sulk very unconvincingly as he packed up his gear.  I smirked.

By the third day, i started wondering what gryphon meat tasted like.

Fortunately, that night Feren announced we should arrive at his commune — "our druid compound," he reproachfully corrected me — by mid-morning.  We'd crossed the forest without encountering any hostilities the last 60 or so hours, which i was inclined to believe was more likely due to the gryphon's presence than to Feren's wilderness skills.  Then again, the gryphon's presence would've done little good if it were still impeded by a bloody leg, so Feren used his healing skills to their limit to cut down on the oozing and allow the beast to put some weight on it.

The next day, right on time, we crested a hill and looked upon a shallow vale where scattered huts lay under oaks and conifers.  As i walked into the compound, i glanced at the gryphon with some apprehension.  The damned thing had been exceedingly well-behaved throughout our travels, leaving my side only when it went to hunt ("Hey, Feren, why won't you hunt us some meat?  The gryphon hunts." "Do you want to tell him he can't hunt?" "... I see your point.").  Frankly, i was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The compound was a lot more active than i could see from the hilltop.  Animals bounded in and transformed into humans and elves.  Birds swooped down and dropped notes into buckets tied to trees.  People bustled with urgency from hut to hut.  I turned to Feren and said, "You guys are as busy as any business in the city.  I'm impressed."

Feren nodded with what was for him a grave expression as he led us through the activity.  "Except our work is of much greater importance."

I paused a beat.  "Yeah.  Of course."  There's no point in arguing with the young.

We reached a log cabin.  Feren said, "You'll have to have your gryphon stay out here, Mwaele.  The door's not big enough."

I turned to the gryphon.  "You heard the man."  It chirped and sat down.  Damn it, i was getting used to the blasted animal.  I shook my head and told Feren, "Lead on, kid."

The log cabin turned out to merely be the foyer to a wide patio, which was encircled by a thicket that looked carefully tended.  We walked across the area towards a large table that was fashioned from half a segment of a very old tree.  Seated behind it on a large, crudely carved stump was a greying humanoid with slightly pointed ears who pored over papers and made notes.  As we approached the table, i heard him grumbling, "Blasted dire beavers.  It's going to take a week to break those dams down..."  He looked up.  "Ah.  Feren.  How—"  He suddenly noticed me.  "Feren, who is this and why have you brought him, not only to our compound, but to my very office?  Did i not impress upon you the urgency of keeping our location secure?"

"Uncle N'Jeet—"

"Nightshade, boy!" he roared.  "I've told you not to mention our kinship except in private!  You could be taken hostage and used against us!"  N'Jeet irately stood straight.  "Sit down and be silent!"  He fixed his stare at me.  "You!  Tell me right now what you're doing here!"

I held my arms up and tried to look unimpressed.  "Look, pops, i don't want any trouble.  No need to turn into a bear and maul me, OK?  The kid," i pointed at Feren, who looked like he was about to cry, "will probably tell you what you need to know if you just let him talk, OK?"  I grabbed a stool fashioned out of a short length of tree trunk.  "Mind if i sit?  Thanks."  I sat down.

N'Jeet gave me a look like i'd addressed him in a foreign language; slowly, he processed what i'd said and calmed down.  He exhaled and turned to Feren.  "I'm sorry, Feren.  I, ah, i overreacted."

Feren sniffed.  "It's OK, Un— um, Master Druid.  I forgot about bringing him in here, it's just that, well.  You see, he burned down a keep—"

I bristled.  "Hey, hey, i did NOT.  Teraad did that—"

"SILENCE."  I felt his bellow in my bones.  The gryphon's scream was a light breeze compared to this.  He regarded us quietly, then turned to Feren.  "Tell me what happened." He wagged a finger at the boy.  "And no embellishing."

Feren swallowed.  "Yessir.  There's a Category One fire in grid E-11.  A keep collapsed in a fiery explosion."

"How long ago did this happen?"

Feren looked at me.  I cleared my throat and said, "About four days ago."

"Four days!"  The elder druid started getting red in the face again.  He turned to Feren.  "Why didn't you send an avian messenger here?"

"I..." Feren blushed.  "I forgot."


"I, i was distracted!  I found Mwaele and his gryphon and they were both hurt and i had to try to patch them up and when i saw the fire i knew i had to tell you right away and i forgot to whistle for an avian messenger..." Feren started sobbing wetly.

N'Jeet groaned and held his head.  Without turning to me, he said, "Ser Mwaele, what happened in that keep?"

I sighed and tried not to roll my eyes.  "Teraad, the mage whose keep that was, blew it up when he tried to use some magical jewel to kill me."

N'Jeet frowned.  "How did you escape?"

"I ran.  The keep exploded and my body fortunately landed in some bushes.  Can i go now?"  I got up.  "Look, it's not that i don't want to help you out, but there's not anything else i can tell you.  I need to get back to Kromalir so i can collect my pay before they assume total party kill and declare me officially dead."  Trying to get work when you're officially dead is hell, mostly because places will immediately assume you're undead and start shooting as soon as you poke your head in.

"Ser Mwaele, i could not give half a spore about your official living status."  The old codger's stare pierced me.  "What matters to me right now is that there has been a Category One fire — a magical fire, even — raging for four days.  If i show you a map, can you show me where the keep was located?"

I shrugged.  "I think so."  I walked behind the table and looked.  "OK, this is the King's Road, and that's Xmmx Peak, so if we follow Wyrmstail River... here.  That's where it should be."

N'Jeet made a noise like a strangled cough.  "Feren!  Stop your blubbering and come here.  I need you to pass word to Tsirin about the fire."

The kid hiccuped, wiped his nose on his sleeve and ambled over.  The elder wrote out a note and gave it to Feren.  "Now hurry and pass that along.  We'll have to move quickly to contain the damage."

"Won't the place have burned itself out by now?" i asked.

N'Jeet shook his head.  "Even if it were a normal fire, we'd have to take charge of the ruins; if it rained, the water would leach all sorts of poisons into the earth.  But a magical fire will burn until there is truly nothing left to burn, and might even continue to burn out of sheer spite."  He turned to Feren, who was still standing there.  "Well?  Chop chop, lad!"

"What about Mwaele's gryphon?" he blurted out.  "It's hurt!"

"Yesyesyes."  N'Jeet shooed him off.  "Go.  I'll see to the gryphon."  Feren smiled again, waved at me, and ran off.

I sighed.  "It's not my gryphon, you know."

The druid chuckled twice.  "Well, you didn't strike me as the sort of fellow who thinks he can own another life form.  Where is this gryphon?"

I pointed with my head.  "Just outside the entrance."  We walked outside.  The gryphon was lying down, but it sat up as soon as i came out.

"Well, well.  An Eastern Range gryphon," N'Jeet mused to himself.  "What is he doing out here, i wonder?"  He turned to me.  "Where did you find this gryphon?"

"I found it, well, it found me once i woke up after the explosion," i replied.  "I'm fairly sure it's one of Teraad's gryphons."

"Hnh."  He knelt and looked at its hurt leg.  "That is a nasty wound."  He looked at it closely.  "Darkwood."


"There are darkwood splinters in his leg.  How was he hurt?"

"A big piece of timber went through it.  I'm guessing it was one of the supports from the keep."  I coughed.  "Er, how'd you know it's male?"

He gave me a look halfway between amused and surprised.  "It was a simple matter of inspecting his nether regions."

I felt like an idiot.  "Oh."

He returned to his examination.  "Strange.  Darkwood is rare enough for weapons; to find enough to use as joists or beams..."  He grunted.  "A wasteful and extravagant thing.  Darkwood's special because of its lightness, but while it's tough, there's tougher woods for construction."

"I see."  I looked at him curiously.  "You seem to know a lot about engineering for a woodsy type."

"At my age, young man, if you don't know a bit about everything, you should damn well know everything about something.  And if you think you know everything about something, you're deluding yourself."  He muttered as he made some sweeping motions with his hands, smacked his fist into his palm, and applied his hands to the gryphon's wound.  In a few seconds, it looked almost as good as new, missing only a patch of fur.  N'Jeet straightened up and walked around to face the gryphon.  He bowed and spoke.

"I am Nallim ez Jeet, Master Druid of this compound, and i welcome you, young gryphon.  I would be honored to hear your tale of how you came to be here."

I had to admit that i was sticking around for this out of sheer curiosity.

The gryphon cawed and chirped for a couple of minutes.  It looked at me a couple of times, and N'Jeet turned to regard me as well, saying encouraging things like "Do tell," and "You don't say."  Once it was done, i asked the druid, "So what'd it say?"

"He said," he chided me, "that he is bonded to you.  You freed him from his evil master, and you cared for his wound."

Oh, great.  "Umm, i appreciate that, but i... uh, if i reject it, uh, him, will i hurt his feelings?"

The gryphon squawked and cocked its head.  N'Jeet frowned and said, "Well, how would you feel?"

"But i don't know how to take care of a gryphon!" i protested.

N'Jeet rolled his eyes.  "Honestly, you city folk are so damn patronizing.  You surround yourself with," he made air quotes, "'domesticated' animals that have been bred into a useless contentment just so you feel like a higher form of life."  He put his hand on the gryphon's shoulder.  "This is a prime candidate of the Gryphos orientalis species, in age, vigor and intelligence.  He is an animal that is perfectly able of taking care of himself.  He has pledged his life to yours.  You will accept and be his mentor, his partner, and his friend.  This is my judgement as a Master Druid in good standing."

I stood there, staring.  "What if, well, if i say no?"

N'Jeet said nothing.  Suddenly i was aware of the quiet around me, and i felt myself assaulted by many pairs of eyes.  Uh-oh.  I tried not to tense up as i looked at the gryphon.  Without turning, i asked N'Jeet, "Perhaps i should not judge the gryphon so quickly... it, ah, he seems to be about as smart as your average human.  If a human made such a pledge to me, i would probably accept.  So... i accept."  The grove seemed to breathe again, and the quiet noise resumed around me.

N'Jeet clapped his hands together.  "Well!  That's all settled, then.  I suppose you're eager to get on the road, yes?  I'll walk you out of here.  Come this way."  I somewhat sullenly followed him.  He turned to me and, seeing my expression, said, "You seem a bit put out."

I snorted.  "You manipulated me.  Forgive me if i'm not giggling like a gnomish prankster."

He looked away and snickered.  "That's the circle of life, Ser Mwaele.  That's how i get my jollies as a Master Druid; i make things happen, usually by having young people do them.  I shape things to ensure that nature is not thrown out of balance.  That's my job, and manipulation is just one of the tools of the job."  He looked sideways at me.  "Some of the other Master Druids argue that there is no good or evil, and that people like Teraad — was that his name?"  I nodded.  "People like Teraad are not evil, but just another predator.  What do you think?"

I shook my head.  "I know what he's done.  I saw some of what he'd done in his keep before we took him down.  His actions were no mere predation."

"I agree with you."  He sighed.  "We — humans, dwarfkin, the fey, the little ones — are part of nature.  We must not separate ourselves from it.  But that's what cities do, what cities are.  They declare a border between man inside and nature outside.  And the city acts like a festering carbuncle on the face of the planet.  Every city does this; it pollutes the air, the water, the earth.  The people in it live out of harmony with their surroundings."  He grunted.  "The elves, with their long life, understand this better, but even they are not above it.  The dwarves just dig larger holes.  And the goblinkin..."  He shook his head.  "They act like insanity is a racial touchstone.  They should have never survived this long.  That they did and still do is a curse, a blight."

"I have heard rumors," i said, "of civilized goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs.  Living like we do, in a constructive manner, not like barbarians."

"I hope they are true.  If they are, i hope that the civilized goblinkin thrive.  But, in the meantime, i must tend to Local 87 and our protectorate."  He pulled a waterskin from his belt and drank.  "You know, when i sent Feren to that grid where he found you, he was supposed to meet up with the druid in charge.  I got notice from our avian intelligence network that she had been killed by wandering orcs the day before you arrived."  He snorted.  "I imagine Feren will remember sometime today that he was supposed to meet her and panic.  Ah, well... silly boy."  He took another drink.

Suddenly, i remembered something.  "Hey!  Feren said i could get a beer when i got here!"

"Did he now."  N'Jeet chuckled.  He stopped walking and whistled a little tune and a scrub jay flew down.  He whispered at it and it flew off.  "Let's wait here while he comes back with something."  He snapped his fingers.  "Oh, damn, i had a point earlier, but i digressed.  Cities?  Pollution?"  I nodded.  "Kromalir.  It is the largest city, by far, on the continent, in both area and population.  Do you know how bad its pollution is?"

I shrugged.  "I imagine it's pretty bad."

He shook his head.  "It is practically immaculate.  The Wyrmsbreath River runs through the city, and it is as clean at its mouth, where it runs into the Great Ocean, as it is when it first enters the city.  A city that size should be burning down a forest every year as fuel, but the forests nearby show little use, and some of that is nearby towns and settlements.  The fuel spent should be choking the air above it with soot, but the air is clear.  The city should be surrounded with farms to feed it, but there are only a few."  He shook his head again.  "It is a mystery.  I hear that there are certain magics in place that deal with the city's needs, but i know of no magic that can do it on such a scale, and in so many respects."

"Huh.  I had no idea," i said.  "It sounds pretty cool, i guess."

"Cool?"  He sighed.  "It is a marvel, a miracle.  A great source of envy for me, i'll tell you.  And, no doubt, for others.  Which raises more questions: If these magics exist, why have they not been shared with other cities?  Why hasn't the Empire of Tashpar invaded Kromalir?  How does a city as diverse and populated as Kromalir remain stable politically, and why has it remained independent and unallied with any nation?"  He fell silent.  After a while, a very tired scrub jay returned with a wineskin, which it dropped into N'Jeet's hands.  He gave it to me.  "Your ale, lad.  You deserve it, certainly, for letting an old man ramble."

"Ohhh yeah," i groaned.  "I've been waiting for this for four days."  I opened it and started pouring it into my mouth.  It was rich, slightly nutty, and quite hoppy.  "This is fantastic.  You could sell this at The Ashen Tongue."  I looked at N'Jeet.  "Er, that's a bar in Kromalir.  Best beer in the city."

"Yes, even in our hidden little encampment, we've heard of their Abyssal Ale.  As you can see — and taste — we're big fans of the craft."  He grimaced.  "Selling it would be a great way to raise what little money our endeavors require, but the logistics involved would probably betray our position.  We could spin off our brewing efforts into a separate group, but we can't spare the manpower and we don't have the money required to start such a thing."  He looked at me.  "I don't suppose you're interested in a change of career, are you?"

"Heh.  Funny you should say that..."  I took another drink.  "Although brewing beer does sound appealing, i don't know anything about it, and..."  I shrugged.  "I'm a violent man.  It's my core competency."

"Losing your entire party in that keep didn't bother you, eh?"

I shrugged again.  "It's happened before.  In my line of work, it helps not to get any more attached than you need to do a good job."  Suddenly i remembered Cossu.  Somehow, i'd avoided thinking about her these four days.  Now i felt like there wasn't enough beer in the world to dull the pain.  I drained the skin in one giant gulp and wiped my mouth and eyes in one motion.  "Thanks for the beer.  Gotta go."  I handed him the flaccid container.

He held it between thumb and forefinger, then looked skeptically at me.  "Yes, i suppose you do."  He put the skin in his vest and said, "But before you do, there is one thing you ought to know about gryphons.  You'll be going to a fairly populated city and, well, there's bound to be a lot of horses there.  Horses happen to be a gryphon's favorite meal, so do try to get him one once in a while, just so he doesn't get antsy and hauls off some knight's steed."

"Fantastic."  I looked at the gryphon.  Was he trying to look innocent?  No, i think i was just starting to crack.  I looked at N'Jeet and asked, "So, we just keep walking this way?"

He nodded.  "You'll see the King's Road after about a half day's travel this way.  It should be fairly safe."  He bowed.  "Thank you again for your help."

I nodded.  "Sure thing."  I turned to the gryphon.  "Well, no time like the present, except for the next time.  Let's start walking."

The gryphon squawked, and bowed before me.  I stared helplessly for a few seconds, then walked up and patted him on the head.  "No, um, it's OK.  You don't—"

N'Jeet cleared his throat.  "I believe he is offering you a ride.  Climb on his neck, and hold on to his sternocleidomastoid muscles."

"His what?"

He waved irritatedly.  "The muscles on the side of his neck!  Don't hold onto his feathers, you'll just annoy him!"

"Fine!"  I walked over and gingerly mounted his neck.  "Hmm, this ain't so bad."  I settled in.  "OK, c'mon, you.  Let's head home."

"Oh! One last thing!"

I rolled my eyes.  "Yes, Master Druid, what is it?"

"None of this 'hey you' crap!  You give that gryphon a name, you hear me?"

"Yes, sir!"  I patted the beast's neck.  "ONWARD!  UP AND AWAY!"  He made a strange sound as he started flapping... was that laughter?

I waddled into the inn, as i was in too much pain to walk normally.  Hogsbreath and Son was a decent enough establishment (by "decent enough", i meant it was plague-free, the food didn't taste like decay, and nobody there had tried to rob any guests in their sleep), and we'd flown all day.  We probably still had another two days to go, and i was not looking forward to them in my bow-legged state.  It had been a few years since i'd been part of the Southeastern Cavalry, but riding a horse always came back to me, and even riding bareback didn't discomfit me much.  All my experience there, though, hadn't prepared me for riding the equivalent of a feathered horse with wings on its ass.  One of the first things i'd have to do with my mercenary pay would be investing in a saddle... and maybe, the next time i got some real wealth, get some magical device that'd let me understand Gryphonese.

"Looks like you've ridden hard all day, mister!"  Hogsbreath was behind the bar, predictably cleaning a tankard.  "I bet you'd like a nice cold one!"

"I'm afraid that won't do, Hogsbreath."  I sat gingerly on one of the stools.  "Give me some of the ol' Hogsbreath Fire.  I need some medication."

"Comin' right up."  He reached behind him and pulled down a ceramic jug.  He uncorked it and poured half a tankard.  "Eight lene, kind sir."

I gave him an anu.  "Give the two extra silver to your son and have him tend to my mount, eh?  It's hard to miss; it's the only gryphon."

Hogsbreath started laughing with a loud braying sound, which was stark and bizarre over the sparsely occupied common room.  After a while, he calmed down and yelled at his son, hiccuping on occasion, to go take care of the mount outside.

Although his reaction slightly perplexed me, i mentally shrugged and instead nursed my liquor and rubbed my thighs.  Suddenly a scream came from outside and Hogsbreath Junior ran inside.  "D-d-dad th-there's a f-f-f-frickin' g-gryphon out there!"

The barkeep looked at me, realized i hadn't been joking, and panicked.  "The horses!  We gotta save the hors—"

"Relax!"  I slapped the bar.  "He's not hungry right now and he'll behave."  I turned to the kid.  "Just treat him like you would any other mount, OK?  He won't bite."

"Y-yes, mister."  He turned around, stopped, and turned back.  "Um, mister, does he have a name?"

"Yes.  His name is Kohasadi.  Thanks for asking."  He nodded and left.  I turned my attention back to the rotgut. Eight lene for this? I hoped it wouldn't make me go blind.

KROMALIR!  JEWEL OF THE WEST COAST!  ENVY OF KINGDOMS!  BEST RATED PLACE TO LIVE ACCORDING TO FAMED POLLSTERS KEVARE & WIFE!  I wish i knew why that ill-conceived and short-lived campaign popped into my head as we approached the city; it seems that the city's been on the edge of unrest for as long as i've lived there.  I started thinking about a good place to land as i came around the Arch of Remembrance, which frames the entrance of the Wyrmsbreath (outsiders always ask, "What's the Arch in remembrance of?" and locals always reply, "We've forgotten."), when i noticed two large, double-barreled ballistas, one on each shoulder of the arch, that looked pretty old.  I'd never seen them before... probably because i've never flown around the city.  I wanted to check to see if there were more aerial defense stations around the city walls, but my ass needed a break, and i didn't want to give anyone an excuse to shoot at me.

I had Kohasadi land by the East gate.  I took a swig of some Fire i'd purchased for the way home and grimaced; i couldn't wait to have some single malt at the Ashen Tongue.  I stretched a bit and gestured at my mount to follow me to the gate.  A very bored Constable greeted us there.

"State your full name and business."  She sounded like a dying goose.

"Mwaele Jumuwadi, returning home from a contracted sortie."  I anticipated her next question by showing her the Mercenary Guild tattoo on my wrist.  She opened her mouth, closed it, and turned to Kohasadi.  She was jarred out of her lightly scripted existence into a state of confusion.  "Uh, you, uh, got a permit for that?"

"What, we need permits for our mounts all of a sudden?  Are you asking every two-bit paladin for a permit on his horse?  You gonna start shaking down wizards to see if they have permits for their familiars or something?"  I felt a nagging voice in the back of my head that seemed to imply that i might not be as sober as i should be.  I asked it to hold that thought.

"Uh, uh."  She turned to her partner for help, who rolled his eyes at her and jerked his head towards the city.  "I guess you can go in, then.  Welcome back home, uh, sir."

"Thank YOU, Constable."  I swept my arm towards the city.  "After you, my friend!"  Kohasadi squawked and walked in and i followed right along.

"Why," i asked Kohasadi, "didn't you remind me to get some water at our last stop?  This headache is killing me."  The beast just stared at me, damn his silence.  Walking down Pine Glade Road was what had really escalated it into a four-alarm headache; two solid miles of restaurants, shacks, and carts, with the smell of food from all over the continent assaulting me.  I practically fled one outdoor grill where a doughy dwarf with a wild, graphite-colored beard in a bloodstained apron was grilling what the sign assured me was "Giant Rock Mole".

We came upon one of the many fountains that dot the city.  This one featured a statue of two dragons in flight, fighting each other.  I had Kohasadi wait for me by the buildings while i went to soak my head and drink.  I submerged my head fully and rubbed my face and neck, and then slurped from my hands until i was sated.  I was about to walk back to my gryphon when i heard a high voice say, "Hey, buddy, you gonna pay?"

I turned to the source.  A halfling in two-toned canvas pants, a plain shirt and a leather vest looked at me insouciantly; two other halflings dressed similarly snickered behind him.  As i looked at him for a few seconds, he said, "Hey, you deaf?  Got water stuck in your ears?"

"No."  I paused another couple of seconds.  "I should pay you?"

"This here," he waved at the fountain, "is our fountain.  You wanna use it, you gotta pay.  Six coppers for all you drank, and a silver `cause you rubbed your dirty head in it."

One of his friends snorted.  "Yeah, and by the look of your skin, it looks like you got a lot more rubbing to do!"  He and the third halfling started laughing.

I stared at them.  I must've lost my bearings as i tried to escape the odor of seared mole and stumbled into a part of town controlled by the Halfling Mafia.  Your average thug has enough sense to not harass a 19-hand-tall man with a battle axe on his back, but i'd heard stories about how brash the Mafia types had become, as well as their contempt for any non-halflings.  This seemed to be my confirmation.  I might be able to take them on in a fight, but i'd take my blows and i was in no mood to be cut at the moment.

Just as the first halfling looked impatient and started walking towards me, i held up my hands and said, "You're right.  I should pay you.  Six stars and a lene, is it?  My bag's on my mount, mind if i call him?"

He tried not to look smug.  "Go ahead."

I turned and yelled, "KOHASADI!"  A screech and a beating of wings later, he landed right next to me.  I pointed at the surprised halflings.  "I know it's not much, but i know you're hungry..."  Kohasadi gave me a quizzical look.  I urged him on with my hand.  "Go on!  You don't have to eat them all right now; we can throw one in a sack for later."  I winked.

Kohasadi turned to the halflings and roared.  The halflings swore, quickly turned and ran.  I watched them retreat, feeling disgusted.  All i wanted was to get paid and go get a drink... i shook my head and went looking for a street map.

It sounds ridiculous, but after being gone for a few weeks, it felt like i'd forgotten how large this city is.  Once i found a map, it took us several more hours of walking to reach the blue-grey stone building where the mercenary recruiting firm of Grandbowyer, Brizzik, and Hopsfield was housed.  I rubbed Kohasadi's head and said, "I'll be a while.  Give me a good screech if you need me, eh?"  He chirped and lay down by the entrance.  I walked up the steps and entered.

The decoration had changed slightly from the last time i was here; they'd added a couple of paintings and a small wooden statue of some sort of demon.  Either one of their merc parties had one hell of a negotiator or they were absolutely strapped of coin and had to cough up their share in art.  GB&H didn't screw around when it came to what was rightfully theirs; i'd heard of parties that came back with nearly nothing who were forced to turn around immediately and go take down another target to try to make up the deficit.  And now here i was, alone and almost empty-handed.

"Oh, hello, Mwaylee!"  Oh, gods, it was Tinita, the receptionist.  I could not understand how a woman with traces of elven blood could have a slight mustache, but she proved that there was a way.  I'd given up months ago on correcting her mangling of my name.

"Hi, Tinita.  Here to see Mister B."  I tried to put on a calm face.

"Master Brizzik is out, dear, but Master Hopsfield is in."  I groaned inside.  Brizzik was the only one of the three with actual field experience; the other two were contemptible greedheads— excuse me, they were financiers.  Grandbowyer was pompous but tolerable; Hopsfield, on the other hand, was cool and moved slowly.  Like a snake.

"He is available right now," Tinita said, "but first things first."  She waved at a rack in the corner.  "You know the rules, dear.  Weapons stay here."

I smiled thinly.  "Yes, ma'am."  I put my axe in the rack and took my backpack off.  "May i leave this here, too?"

"Certainly, dear."  I removed a jeweled goblet from it and headed towards the offices.

Hopsfield's office was starkly furnished with darkly stained wooden cabinets and a gigantic desk covered in ledgers, behind which he sat right now, sullenly scratching out some numbers.  His ashen complexion and dour attitude suggested some orcish blood in his ancestry, but i certainly had no interest in socializing with him to find out.  He looked up as i walked in.  "Ah, Mwaele.  Please sit down."  I sat in a well-cushioned leather chair.  "You're here, ah, earlier than i expected.  And alone.  You didn't bug out, i hope."

I put down a flare of anger.  I would be hard-pressed to take such a jest from my best friends.  "No, Mister Hopsfield.  Everyone else was killed by the primary objec—"

"Now, hold on," he interrupted.  "We need to do this by the proper procedure.  You know the drill."

"But—"  He interrupted me again by slamming open another ledger.

"Now, let's see..."  He turned some pages.  "Ah, yes."  He touched a polished stone inlaid with gold on his desk, which started glowing faintly.  "Now recording this sortie debriefing, truth detector enabled."  This was standard procedure, to make sure Mercenaries didn't try any funny business, such as pocketing treasure and not declaring it.  "Primary objective #136: Teraad Egofu.  Wizard, rated 4, fortified keep, twenty elite guards, four gryphon riders.  Contracted by, eh, you're not allowed to know that, or their reasons, et cetera, yadda yadda.  Ah, here we are, contracted operatives.  If you could please inform me of their whereabouts as i list them off: first off, Mwaele Jumuwadi, human man-at-arms, rated 3.  You're clearly here and in fair health.  Next, Ti!la, human barbarian, rated 3."

"Dead.  Cut down by Teraad's elite guard."  She went berserk and ended up getting herself surrounded by six of them.  She killed four of them before she went down.

"All right..."  Hopsfield painstakingly entered the information.  "Otto Gneisslegs, dwarf priest, rated 3."

I chuckled despite myself.  Otto hated the translation of his clan name and tried to go by Stronglegs, but had been unable to have the name officially changed.  "Dead.  Cut down by Teraad's elite guard.  Same with—"

"Ah, ah, don't rush me."  He held up a finger, which i tried not to seize and snap off.  "Nella Lindengrove, Detective of the City Constabulary Force, unrated."

Oh, yes, dear, humorless, obsessive Nella.  She wasn't a Mercenary, but she had a bone to pick with Teraad, and she jumped at the chance to come with us, however that would affect her status with the Constables.  Not that she told us much more about it.  "Dead.  Cut down by Teraad's elite guard."  In a last-ditch move, she threw her greatsword at Teraad as he taunted her.  If she'd just tried to protect herself with it, i would've been able to jump in to help her.

"Hmm, yes, i see a trend here."  He coughed and finished entering the data.  "Ssthith Copperback, reptoid sorceror, rated 4."

"Dead."  The snake kid went toe to toe with Teraad while we took care of the hired help.  What little i caught of their fight was quite a sight, but the kid was a bit too unlucky and Teraad was a bit too crafty.  "I don't know how.  Magic, i suppose."

"And last, Cossu Mirán, human thief, rated 3.  Mmm, she was quite a charming young lady, wasn't she, Mwaele?  Her l—"

"DEAD!  SHE'S DEAD!  THEY'RE ALL FUCKING DEAD!"  I realized i had my hands on the desk and was yelling at his face, which was only a few inches from mine.  I gritted my teeth and sat back down.

Hopsfield narrowed his eyes.  "Yesss.  All right.  Now, the objective.  What became of him?"

I exhaled and tried to compose myself.  "He's dead, i guess.  He collapsed his keep with some huge fiery explosion.  I barely got out."

"But you didn't actually kill him?  You didn't make a first-hand confirmation?"

I shook my head.  "I was too busy running from the expanding fireball.  I saw him engulfed in flames, but that's all."

He tsked.  "Unfortunate, very unfortunate."  He dipped his pen in his inkwell and wrote in his damnable ledger.  "Please list all recovered treasure, including all magical items, objets d'art, and any other valuables."

I plunked the jeweled goblet on his desk.  "One bejeweled goblet."  I found it in his kitchen.  For all i knew, the gems were fake, but i figured it was worth grabbing.  "That's it."

"You don't say."  He peered at me.  "You weren't able to go in later and recover more?"

"No.  The fire was still burning when i woke up the next day, and the keep was in ruins."

"Impressive..."  More paper-scratching.  "So you have nothing more that belonged to Teraad, correct?"


"Hmm."  He looked at the glowing stone.  "I do not believe you are being entirely honest with me."

"Huh?  Oh."  I thought again about how exactly he'd phrased the question.  "I have with me one of Teraad's gryphons.  But i didn't take him from the keep; he found me the next day and, well, it's a long story, but he's bonded to me now.  And i am bonded to him as well, i suppose."

"Well, as one of Teraad's belongings, the beast is definitely part of recovered treasure.  You have no claim to it."

"I do not claim him.  He chose to bind to me after i helped him with an injury.  And i have been charged by a master druid in the nearby forest with his care."  I crossed my arms.  "If you want to insist on taking him, you're welcome to try, but i can guarantee that he won't like it, and he'll be more trouble than he'll be worth to you.  And if you do, i'll be sure to let that master druid know what you did."

"Ah.  Hah."  He steepled his hands.  "Well."  He looked at the ledger.  "Well, you are on the hook for 3000 gold pieces' worth of treasure, or 25% of the haul, whichever is larger."  He picked up an eyeglass and examined the goblet.  "Hmmm.  This will make a dent in your obligation, but—"

"Look, take it out of my pay, all right?  And if i still owe you more, talk to my agent, he'll set it straight."

"There is no cause for you to be paid, Mercenary.  You failed to meet your goal and bring back proof."

I felt a bit of nausea.  "Now hang on—"

"Even," he interrupted, "if your story about the collapsed, burning keep checks out, the fact remains that you admitted that the primary objective caused his own demise.  We don't pay for suicides unless you incontrovertibly drove them to it.  That isn't the case, is it?"  He looked at me; i just stared back.  "Therefore, no pay.  It's all in the contract; you know that."  He laid his hands on the desk.  "I'll contact your agent to handle your financial obligation, and he will either pay it in currency or negotiate a new contract for a make-up mission.  You may leave now, and keep your gryphon, so you don't feel like you walked away with nothing."  And he gave me a wretched facsimile of a smile, trying to convince me he was doing me a favor.

"Oh, you're all fucking heart, Hopsfield, you miserable bastard."  I got up and stomped out.

I tried not to be rude to Tinita as i threw my pack and my axe on my back and rushed out.  Kohasadi scrambled to his feet as soon as he heard me slam the door.  He tilted his head as he looked at me.

"Don't ask," i told him.  "Just don't fucking ask.  You know what i really shouldn't have right now?  A drink.  So let's go get one."

He rubbed his head against me.  Oh gods he was so cute.  I felt a little better.  I patted his head and sighed.  "Thanks, buddy."

We made our way straight to The Ashen Tongue.  I ducked inside the door and asked the entrance hallway, "Hosea, is that stable around the corner still abandoned?"

A voice from somewhere in the poorly lit hallway said, "Ya, mon."

"Could you ask Gialarçi or someone to run some water that way?"

"Sure, mon."

"Thanks, Hosea.  Thrown anyone out lately?"

A sigh permeated the air.  "Been a while.  Now quit talkin' to me, or you'll give me away."

I laughed.  "Take care."  I left and led Kohasadi to the stable, which had been abandoned (except for the occasional squatter who would quickly be ejected) for a few years.  The trough had just been filled with water via a small canal that came through the wall from the beerhouse, and Kohasadi headed for it.  He dipped his beak, then tilted his head back to swallow.  Watching him drink felt very educational.  When he was done, he lay down in the corner.  I asked him, "Are you hungry?"  He shook his head.  I said goodbye and left.

I walked into the Tongue and sat at the bar.  A bard — an orc-blood, wow, don't see that every day — entertained the patrons with drumming and what i assumed was Orcish poetry.  I hailed a bartender and said, "One Abyssal."  He returned quickly with a flagon filled with black liquid.  I was about to take a drink when someone said, "Excuse me, sir?"

I turned and and saw a kid, maybe all of 14.  "Yeah, what's up?"

"Is it, um, is it true that there's actually the blood of Abyssal creatures in the Abyssal Ale?"  Ha, oh, that legend still had legs.

"Well, kid, i could bore you with an explanation of the solera method they use to keep the proportions correct and other such technical stuff, but the short answer is, yes, but in such a low quantity that it's practically undetectable."  I took a big drink and smacked my lips.  "Why, you'd have to drink 20 Ales before it started to show the effects... uh..."  I set my flagon down.  "Guhhhhh..."  I stood up, grabbed my throat and started making choking noises.  I looked at the kid and he'd turned three shades paler.  "Nnnnam zuktag ilo, nam zuk— kkkkhhhh..."  I stretched my hands out at him.  "JOIN ME IN THE ETERNAL PIT OF TORMENT, YOUNG ONE.  COME NOW—"

The kid screamed and ran out of the bar.  A few people had turned to look at the spectacle, but quickly lost interest once the kid left.  I chuckled and sat down again.  A voice behind me said, "Really, Ele.  I don't know why i tolerate your chasing my customers away."

I turned around to find Gialarçi giving me a resigned look, but with a smile.  Her chestnut-colored wavy hair was tied back, which let her show off a slight dusting of freckles that stretched almost from ear to ear. She was wearing a short leather jacket over a plain linen blouse, and a long blue skirt (i had to lean over the bar and crane my neck to see just how far down it went).

"Only a woman as charming and beautiful as you could get away with calling me 'Ele'.  And, really, wasn't he a little young to be drinking in here?"

"Yes, he wasn't.  If he can pay, he can drink, as far as i'm concerned.  And you didn't answer my question, you awful man."

I raised my hands.  "Forsooth, milady, thou dost tolerate my ill whim on account of my grace and ruggedness."

She rolled her eyes.  "Forsooth, Mwaele, you're such a bard wannabe."  I laughed and had more beer.  "To answer my own question, i put up with your antics because we're old friends, because you have good taste, and most importantly, because you pay your tab on time."

"Oh, er, yeah."  I frowned and stared at my beer.  "I can't pay you right now.  I'm practically broke and that trollspawn Hopsfield won't pay me for the job i just did because i came back almost empty-handed and the asshole mage we were sent to kill offed himself."

She sighed.  "Oh, well, at least Hosea will cheer up after he throws you out."  I looked up, alarmed.  She giggled and put a hand on my arm.  "Kidding, you dummy.  Is the Stinker going to take care of your work problems?"

I drained my flagon.  "If he can't do it, i'm fucked."  I aimed vaguely at the top shelf.  "Gimme something peaty, Giali."

She raised an eyebrow.  "Hey, you already look a bit wobbly. That stuff will put you down."

I frowned.  "C'mon, you're not my mama, and i've been waiting for weeks.  Next time i go out, i swear i'll bring some along with me..."

She sighed and shook her head.  "Customer's always right, even a mouthy, non-paying customer who's clearly too tired to hold his liquor."  She set down a glazed ceramic tumbler and poured some spirits out of a jug.  I took a sip.

I felt something touch my arm.  It seemed easiest to ignore it, so i did.  I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I said, "Muf."  At least, i think that's what i said.  I felt something grab my arm and roll me over.  Hmm, i did seem more comfortable this way.  I felt water, "WHOA WHAT THE ohhhh gods why is it so bright my head ohhhhh."  I rubbed my eyes as gently as i could and looked up at some guy holding a bucket.  I tried engaging my verbal skills again.  "What.  Uh, what's going on?"

"Orders from the mistress.  She said to awaken you at midmorning.  Said you might want to get an early start on the day, sorting out your troubles."

"Did she mention that i would try to kill you if you threw water on me?"

"Ha, yeah, she said you're a big mean bastard, but you'd be so hung over that i'd be safe.  She also said, and i quote," he said as he pulled a piece of paper from his apron, unfolded and read it, "“That fool can come to my establishment and drink my finest whisky without paying for it, but i will not have him waste it by getting sick after drinking it on an empty stomach.”"

"Ssshhh.  More quietly, please."  Details were coming back to me.  Oh, gods, i told her about the horrible things i saw in Teraad's keep, the torture chambers, the magical experiments being conducted on peasants, the occult altar... i told her about Cossu.  Shit.

The man walked back to the entrance of the stable (oh, i was in the stable... how did i get here?).  I asked him, "Hey, how did i get here?"

He chuckled.  "How dya think?  The spirit of the Ashen Tongue found you unwelcome and deposited you here."  I heard Hosea's laughter in my mind.  Lucky him, got to throw out a stumbling drunk after all.  The man picked up a steaming mug from a short table and walked back to me.  "Here," he said as he gave it to me, "this'll fix you up.  It's the mistress's special curative.  Southern brown bean infusion with a dash of spicy red pepper."

I sipped it first to make sure i wouldn't burn my mouth, then took a long drink.  I felt it run down my throat and spread throughout my body, and it felt like a blanket was lining every inch inside my skin.  The headache stopped pounding and my eyes didn't feel sticky anymore.  "Damn," i croaked, "that's fantastic."  I drained the mug and felt almost as good as new.  I handed the guy the mug and said, "Thanks a bunch.  What's your name?"

He bowed at the neck.  "Xotus, at your service.  I'm in charge during the mornings, so if you need anything else, just drop by and ask for me."

"I think i will."  I stood up and stretched, but got bumped in the back in mid-stretch.  I turned around.  "Oh, Kohasadi."  I rubbed his head.  "I hope you weren't worried."  He squawked.  "C'mon, buddy, we got work to do."  I waved to Xotus and walked out.

We headed south towards the riverfront.  On the way there, i bought three grilled capons, and i took care of most of one while Kohasadi swallowed his birds, as well as the remains of mine, whole.

My agent kept an office in a ritzy terraced building that overlooked a bend in the river.  Rich bourgeoisie stared nervously as we walked down the promenade; i knew i looked awful in my sooty, bloodstained courbouilli, and having a gryphon at my side didn't make me seem any more charming.  Finally, we arrived at an immaculately white building, with many brass plaques by its entrance.  One of them proclaimed,


I turned to Kohasadi.  "I don't expect these jerks out here will give you any grief directly, but they might try to get a hold of a Constable.  Maybe you can just pretend you're sleeping, yeah?"  He squeaked, lay down, and closed his eyes.  I walked in, went up a flight of stairs, and knocked on the door marked with an S.  A voice within yelled, "Yeah, yeah, c'mon!"

I opened the door and walked into a well-kept office with a great view.  To my left, i saw a gnome with less salt-and-pepper hair than he used to have sitting behind a desk.  He was holding some sort of pastry-enveloped sausage in his hand, half-eaten.  He waved his meal at me.  "Mayleh!"  He finished chewing and washed it down with a big swig from his mug (which more than likely contained apple cider).  "Just the man i wanted to see.  Siddown, please."

I sat.  "Good to see you, Nahhas.  How's business?"

"Fine.  Great.  You look like hell.  Look," he continued, "we gotta talk.  This last job of yours, sounds like it was a total washout.  Hopsfield sent me a message last night, and he did not sound pleased in the least."  He had a bizarre accent that nobody i knew could place.  His 'yours' sounded like 'yoys', and he managed to find two syllables in 'talk'.  "And now," he said as he swallowed the last of his sausage, "i owe him a lot of money."

"I know, i know.  Look, Nahhas, you know i'm a quality Mercenary.  Just get me another assignment, and we'll be living it up again soon."

He shook his head.  "It ain't that simple, kid.  You see, you've gotten yourself a reputation.  And i don't mean the kind that pays, you get me?"

"Uhh, can't say that i do.  What's going around?"

Nahhas shook his head and pulled out a large-bowled pipe.  "You and your godsdamned selective memory," he grumbled as he overstuffed the pipe with leaf.  He uncapped a candlestick, which burst into bright flame, and used it to light his pipe.  He capped the stick, got out of his seat, and started digging in the file cabinet behind him.  The room started to fill with vile smoke as Nahhas played the part of a hairy, two-legged bellows.

"Ha!" he suddenly exclaimed, and he produced a leather envelope with a flourish.  He slapped it on the desk and he sat down.  I kept quiet and waited for him to get to his point.  He pulled a sheaf of paper out of the envelope and said, "You'd been with me for, what, year and a half.  Solid, quiet work, chop chop here, chop chop there.  Then, three months ago, your group was sent to Mount Verhir to retrieve a meteorite from its crater.  You came back alone with a heart-sized chunk, which, i must add, was barely enough to break even.  Two months ago," he blared, forestalling my attempt to interrupt him, "your party was sent out to clear out whatever was causing severe deforestation and killing crops at Broken Arm Vale.  You come back with the head of some deranged druid and no cohorts.  This one was a plain interdiction, no economic clause in your contract, so no loss there.  But now you've returned alone again, with a huge debt."

"C'mon, Nahhas, shit happens."  I waved my arm at the window.  "So i've had a crappy run—"

"You damn right you have.  And i've had Mercs with runs like yours before, and every damn time, you know what happens?  Nobody wants to hire `em.  You're as good as cursed, kid.  Nobody'll take a chance on hiring you.  Well, unless..."  He looked questioningly at me, but with little conviction, as if he were anticipating my answer.

I shook my head.  "No way.  I am not going join those psychopath Irnuul worshippers."  You'd think that sects that venerate the god of mayhem would die out on their own after a while, and with Irnuul, history proved that to be the case; there was, however, always some idiot who managed to resurrect it again for another bloody cycle.  They paid a lot of money to whoever was stupid, evil, or crazy enough to join their pogroms.

Nahhas opened his hands and took another puff as he held his pipe in clenched teeth.  "My hands are tied, kid.  I mean, i'll try, you know i will, but i know how it's gonna be.  All i can do is not bust your chops over the money, you know?  I figure you'll pay me eventually, and for you?  No interest.  You're like the brown human son i never had."

I snorted.  "Maybe a better agent can get me a new gig."

"Hey!" he yelled.  "I tell you i love you like a son and you respond by threatening to leave me, you little shit?  I'm going to punch you in the balls!  If i can't get you a gig, nobody can!  And you know it!"

I laughed.  "Pissing you off just doesn't get old, Nahhas."  He glowered at me, as he grumbled under his breath.  "Seriously, man, you've always worked hard for me and gotten me top-quality gigs.  And the offer of no interest is more than i deserve."

"Don't remind me.  I'm already sorry i offered it to you, you freak."  He shook his head, got up, and walked around his desk.  I found myself wishing he'd left his damnable pipe behind.  He reached into one of his many vest pockets and pulled out a brass pendant of a hand and forearm grasping a sword's blade close to the hilt.  "Here's your Mercenary emblem, Mwaele.  You're free to find work where you can find it."

I frowned.  "Wait, you're cutting me loose?  I thought—"

"Shut up, you kobold-brain.  I am giving you the chance to find work if you can.  Naturally, i will still be doing my utmost to get you a gig.  The way i see it, two heads are better than one, even when one of the two is as tiny as yours."

"I hate you, Nahhas."  I took my emblem, which, once in my presence, showed red lines trickling down the arm.  "I'm going to stab you in your sleep with this."  I untied the empty string around my neck, threaded the emblem, and hung it around my neck.

He snorted.  "Go ahead and try, you clown.  I'm immune to cheap brass doodads, donchaknow?"  I got up.  He said, "I'll leave you word at the Tongue, yeah?"

I nodded.  "That'll probably be best."

Kohasadi and i headed to the flophouse where i slept while i wasn't out of town working.  The neighborhood where it existed wasn't exactly a slum, but it was far from a desirable location; all around were shabby buildings with small rooms that were mostly inhabited by laborers and their families.  When we reached my building, i left Kohasadi out in the street and i went in to collect my stuff.

I'd paid my rent up front before i'd left, so that was one fewer thing to worry about.  I walked past the busy common room, climbed four flights of stairs, and unlocked my door.

My room was very small, but at least it had a window, even though all i could see was the opposite tenement house and the drab street below.  I threw off my backpack and emptied it of the remnants of my adventure: a half-empty flask of oil, a rotting torch, a crumbling whetstone, detritus that had once been road rations.  I opened the bolted-down chest by the wall and pulled out a pair of brown canvas pants and a dark red linen shirt.  I carried them downstairs to the wash room (which was mercifully devoid of any neighbor), where i took off my armor and cleaned it with a bucket of water and a stiff brush.  Then i removed my clothes, considered washing them and quickly decided instead to throw them into the dirty towel bin.  I jumped into the bathing pool and scrubbed myself with a sponge, feeling better with every stroke.  I dried myself with one of the dragon tongues that passed for towels in our building, dressed myself and returned to my room.

I took the last pair of my thick cotton socks (a luxury, but a welcome comfort that was well worth the expense) from the chest, pulled them on my feet and put on my boots.  I piled the hard leather plates into the bottom of my backpack, placed the rest of my clothes on top of them, then collected my few prized possessions from the lonely shelf on the wall next to the door: a fringed necklace (a gift from an old lover, although i suppose she wasn't old for an elf), a carved ebony mask from my homeland (or so i was sworn by the salesman from whom i'd purchased it — someday, i'd have to make the trip and find out the truth), and my first axe (more like a hatchet, a cheap piece of shit that nonetheless struck true enough often enough).  I strapped my battle axe to its usual home on the side of my pack and put my backpack on.  I walked over to the foot of the not-quite-long-enough-for-me bed, picked up my didjeridoo, and walked out.

I stopped by the landlord's office and found him hunched over a table, poring over a ledger.  I cleared my throat.  "Hey, Kashri."

He looked up and pushed his stringy blond hair out of his face.  "Hnh.  What."

"I'm moving out.  Here's the key."  I gave him my key.  "Thanks for the room.  Be well."

He jerked his head at me.  "Hnh."  He returned to his ledger.  I left.

Upon walking outside, i saw a few urchins taunting and throwing stones at Kohasadi, who was starting to look very unhappy.  "Hey, you little punks, cut that out!" i yelled.

They gave me the finger, threw stones at me, and yelled, "Snu, jay!"  Damn gutter punks and their gang slang.  They changed words so often that trying to learn their language was pointless.  I started walking towards them when an older kid walked out one of the alleys and yelled, "Agu!  Agu!"  That quieted the others down.  She turned to me and said, "Heh ma, Mwaele.  Haven't seen you in a while."

I peered at her; she had stick-straight hair in a long braid, slanted narrow eyes, and ears that stuck out.  I ventured, "Tuumag?"  She smiled, to my relief.  "Wow, you sure have grown.  It's good to know you can still speak Western."

"I can't forget it.  I have to run things here, dee ya?"  All of thirteen years old and in charge of a street gang — and i wouldn't bet a star on her making fifteen.  Still, she was sharp and tough.  She pointed at Kohasadi.  "That thing yours or something?"

"Yes, he's my friend.  Do you want to meet him?"

She laughed.  "Not eager to become beast food, Mwaele.  We'll be good to him and to you.  You want me to beat them?"  She pointed at the rock throwers.

I shrugged.  "Do what you think best.  I won't tell you how to do your job.  I'm moving out, anyway, so i probably won't see you for a while.  Maybe ever."

She nodded.  "You got lucky, get nice place.  I know you."  I didn't bother to correct her.  She added, "You be back someday.  Lei fuh, Mwaele."  She punched me in the solar plexus, then she led her band of miscreants into the alleys while i stood there groaning and bent over.

Gialarçi shook her head.  "Beat up by a child.  Perhaps it's for the best that you're getting out of the business, Mwaele.  Next time it'll be an orc's axe or a guard's sabre and there'll be less of you to entertain me."

"I am not getting out of the business.  I'm being forced out," i grumbled as i looked around the somewhat crowded room, watching the people interact.  "And," i added, "she did not beat me up.  She caught me off guard.  I wouldn't have regarded an orc or a guard so lightly."

"You once quoted to me from the Mercenary Code: “One never knows where a threat comes from.”  Besides, you knew she was a gang leader.  Admit it: you've lost your killer instinct."

I stared at my beer.  "It's like i don't know myself anymore."

"I don't recognize you, either.  And you know what the cause is."

I looked at her.  "I do?  I mean, what?"

She stared at me for a second before answering.  "Well, it's probably not the sole reason, but it's probably the main reason.  Your gryphon, Mwaele.  You are, for the first time in your life, responsible for another life."

I laughed mirthlessly.  "My job has often caused me to be responsible for a life.  Sometimes many lives."

She held up her left hand.  "Let me rephrase that.  You've been entrusted with the well-being of others before, but only within the context of your occupation.  You gave Kohasadi your allegiance, your trust, your love, of your own accord and will."

I bristled.  "I told you, that druid—"

"Oh, be quiet!"  She slapped her hand on the bar.  "You have taken to that gryphon like a boy to his first love.  You can't even carry on a conversation with him, yet you show him devotion i dare say you have never given anyone in your life.  Not even Cossu."

Her words stung me and left me speechless.  After i sat there for a few seconds, Gialarçi said, "I'm sorry, Mwaele.  That was blunt and insensitive on my part."

I shook my head.  "No, don't apologize.  I, i... i did love her.  I think."

She tipped her head to her right.  "I don't think you did.  But i think you could have, Ele."

I held my forehead.  "You're right.  I really have taken to Kohasadi.  I wonder if that druid did something to make it stick, or if gryphons put out some smell or magic when they bond to someone—"

"Or maybe," she interrupted, "you had in you the ability to care for another being all this time."

I got angry.  "Do you see this?"  I pointed at my didjeridoo.  "This is a reminder of who i really am.  That girl who “beat me up” today?  That was me, lustrums past.  And at one point, i decided i'd walk away from it while i was still alive, still whole.  I took up a neighbor's proposition to busk, me on my didjeridoo, him on his djembe.  The first night, we split our money and there was a star left over.  He wanted to keep it, since it was his idea to play music in the streets.  I did not agree.  Our disagreement escalated and i broke his arm.  Over a damned copper coin."  I clenched my right hand.  "It was not an accident.  I very deliberately sought out to cripple his means of subsistence.  I could have broken his drum, but my thought then was to make him unable to work and to harm him.  It was an act of malice."  I opened my hand and let it fall on the bar.  "I am a malicious and violent man.  If i could not change then, when i was young, why should i change now?  How could i change now?"

Gialarçi looked at me sadly.  She put her hand in mine and said, "Mwaele, you already have changed.  Stop looking at who you used to be, at who you think you are, and look at what you're doing now, what you have now."

I pulled my hand back.  "I'm doing nothing but drinking beer i can't afford, abusing the good will of a friend, and feeling sorry for myself because i can't work anymore.  What do i have now?  Nothing."

She pressed her lips together, said a word and waved her hand at me.  Suddenly, light exploded before my eyes.  I reared back reflexively and fell off my stool.  "What the hell, Giali!" i yelled.  "I can't see!"

"Oh, i knew that."  I could hear her sneering.  "It seems to me that if you don't want to see, you might as well not bother seeing at all."

I stumbled as i got up and tried to find my seat.  After what seemed like minutes, i laid my hand on it, but it was pulled away.  Then something hit me in the back of the knees and i hit the floor again.  I felt someone kneel on my chest and i heard her voice in my ear.  "Now look what you've done," she whispered, "you've gone and made me lose my temper in my own beerhouse, in front of all my customers.  I do hope you haven't cost me any more business, Mwaele dear."

"Giali—" i squeaked.

"Ssshhh.  Listen to me.  Listen to my voice.  What i will suggest to you now will seem the most reasonable thing to you in the world.  When i let you up and return you your sight, you will walk upstairs to one of the conference rooms, where you will sit and think about your current situation until i come upstairs to get you.  Do you understand?"

"Yes.  I will go upstairs."  The words tumbled out of my mouth before i even thought of them.  She pulled me to my feet and suddenly i could see again.  My legs started taking me to the nearest staircase.  Once i got upstairs, i pulled aside a curtain, sat down, and pondered.

After some time, Gialarçi came in and closed the curtain behind her.  I suddenly snapped back to full consciousness.  "Hey, what the... what did you—"

She sighed.  "I'm truly sorry, Mwaele.  I gave you an unshakeable suggestion so i could get you out of public view quickly."  She snorted and sat down.  "You make me so mad, you bastard.  And now i feel so guilty about what i did."

"Uh, well... you should!"  I felt very disoriented.

"Well, it doesn't sound like you're angry with me, so that's a relief."  She gave me a slight smile.

"Yeah, i guess i ought to be, but i'm not."  I was trying to gather my thoughts.  It wasn't working very well.  "I, uh, i didn't know you knew sorcery."

"Yes, well, i rarely have to use it these days, except to quell the occasional fight between drunken patrons."  She sighed.  "So, tell me, Mwaele, do you feel more at peace?"  She raised an eyebrow.  "Is the self-loathing down to a manageable level?"

I flared my nostrils and almost smirked.  "I... guess so.  I think you were right."  She smiled.  I continued, "I still think that there's gotta be something gryphons do when they bond to a rider, though."

She rolled her eyes.  "Maybe you can ask that druid if you see him again."

"Heh."  I got up.  "You know what else i thought about?"  I pulled her to her feet.  I looked at her for a second, then quickly kissed her.  "You're amazing.  Thank you for everything you've done for me."

She looked at me for a second expectantly, looking almost vulnerable.  Then she reasserted herself and said, "You take liberties, you cad."  She slapped my shoulder with little conviction and smiled.  "And you're welcome."  I grinned back.

I walked out of the Ashen Tongue with a bit of a bounce in my step.  It felt nice; it should have creeped me out a bit, but it didn't.  I walked around the corner to the stable and found Kohasadi napping.  He perked up when i knelt by him.  I scratched his head and said, "Well, then, what shall we do now?"  By now, he'd learned that i meant this rhetorically and didn't make a noise in response.  I sniffed and shook my head.  "This is dumb.  What i need to do is find a way to understand you."  He squawked and nodded.  I laughed and said, "All right, then.  Tomorrow morning, we'll head to the closest office of the Parks and Gardens District and ask a druid for some help."  I pulled out my bedroll, put out the lantern that hung above the stall, lay down next to him and fell asleep.

The next morning, we had sausage and tea (well, i had tea) before we set out towards the PGD office.  We headed north for a couple of miles until we hit the Park of the Council, the largest park in the city.  In addition to the various botanical gardens, it also had large vegetable plots and fruit orchards throughout the park, as well as greenhouses in the center.  I stopped one of the gardeners and asked, "Where can i find the druid in charge?"

She said, "Master Néfilo is on duty today, and he should be in the main greenhouse."  She turned and pointed to one of the buildings, off to the east side.  I thanked her and she returned to her potting duties.

Once we reached the greenhouse, Kohasadi and i walked through a leather curtain, then through a curtain made of large leaves, and into a wave of hot, humid air.  The light seemed brighter in here, and there were tall trees above and bushes and brush below.

"How the hell are we gonna find him in here?" i grumbled to myself.  Kohasadi heard me, though, and pecked me on the shoulder.  "Oww," i whined.  "What?"

He looked intently at a spot far away, off a bit to the left.  I couldn't see a damn thing except for plants, so i said, "OK, show me."  I followed him until he suddenly stopped, crouched a bit, then started skulking forward.  I still couldn't see anything, but i did hear some loud talking in a language i couldn't understand.  We crept up until it seemed that the talking was right next to us.  Kohasadi then lay down, looked back at me, and looked forward again.  I snuck up next to him and knelt down.  Through some leafy vines, i could see four halflings, one in a PGD uniform, the other three in fancy clothes.  Mafia, no doubt.  The smarter-looking gangster was making chopping motions into his palm, waved around, and pointed his finger at who i assumed was the druid.  The druid responded with more yelling, pointing at each Mafioso, and pointing towards the exit.  The leader said one word, and his hoods each drew a club and started to advance.

I tensed and for a second considered jumping in, even though i'd left my pack, and thus my armor and axe, back at the Tongue.  The druid stepped back while chanting, cupped his hands and then curled his fingers into claws.  The vegetation sprang to life and wrapped itself around the mobsters.  While they struggled to escape, the druid pulled a crossbow from his back and loaded it.  He aimed it at the goons, gave a short speech, then waved his hand and the vegetation let go.  The thugs' boss yelled angrily and walked away, with his muscle following closely.  I got down and hid as best i could, but they fortunately didn't look around as they walked past us.

After a short time, i stood up and walked past the vegetation into the small clearing.  The druid got up from his task and drew his crossbow with blinding speed and said something in his language.  I held up my hands.  "Whoa! Wait! I'm not with them!"

"A course yer not," he spit.  He put the crossbow on a table that was mostly covered with various seedlings, small dishes, and piles of dirt.  He scowled at me and said, "Whadya want, biggun?"

"I assume you're Master Néfilo."  He nodded.  "My name is Mwaele, and this is Kohasadi."  He looked at Kohasadi and snorted, but said nothing.  "And, well, i'd like to ask you how i can understand him."

"What, d'zee have something important t'tell yez?"  He barked laughter.

"No.  I mean, yes.  Look, he's bonded to me, well, we're bonded to each oth—"

"Ha!  Rubbish!"  He waved a hand.  "Bonding's an instictive thing with reg'lar animals.  Ain't no such thing as bonding with intelligent beasts.  If he goes'n takes a shine t'yez, that's a conscious decision he's making, no question.  Who told yez he bonded t'yez?"

"Uh, Master Druid N'Jeet, um, Nallim something Jeet."

"Never heard a him!" he yelled.  He turned around and picked up a seedling.

"He's with one of the druid/ranger unions out east, if that helps."

"Oh, one a those master druids."  He walked a few steps away and knelt.  "Always nattering about balance and ecosystems and parts per million a pollutants..."  He shook his head as he finished planting the seedling.

I felt like i had inserted myself in some internecine philosophical argument.  "Umm, yeah.  So."

He turned his head to me and gave me a withering look.  "I han't forgotten what yez asked for, if that's what yer trying t'insinuate with that babbling."  He dusted his hands and got up.  "So yez want t'talk t'yar friend, eh?"

"No, sir, i want to understand him when he talks to me," i repeated patiently.

"I knew that!" he growled.  "Just testing yez."  He motioned at us with his fingers.  "Come this way."

We walked towards the wall of the greenhouse, where there was a small windowed shed.  He opened the double doors so Kohasadi could come in.  Inside it was cool and dry.  "Ohhh, this is nice," i said as he closed the doors.

"Can't have the heat and humidity muck up the paperwork and instruments in here, now, can we."  He rummaged in boxes and drawers filled with odds and ends for a while.  "Ah!"  He pulled out two thin metallic arches.

"What are they?" i asked.

"Beast translators.  The archdruid types lend `em t'novices during their training.  I managed t'hang on t'mine, if yez know what i mean."  He snickered.  "Well, let's just make sure they still work."  He wrapped one around the base of each ear.  "All right, gryphon, so what's this about yez being bonded t'the biggun here?"

Kohasadi squawked, cawed, and chirped his way through the story again.  When he was done, Néfilo shook his head.

"They don't work?" i said.

"Oh, they work fine.  It's yar friend's head that don't work."  He pulled the ear arches off.  "Romantic nonsense.  I guess that's what being young does t'yez.  Babies have soft heads, but the young are soft in the head."

I gave him a half-smile and said, "So..."

"Yer impatient babbling is really irritating me."  He held the devices up.  "What's these worth t'yez?"

"I, uh."  I looked down.  "I have no money."

"Did i ask yez for money?"  He shook his head.  "Big ears yez got but they don't hear a damn thing."

"Look, what do you need?"  I racked my brain.  "You want me to take care of those Mafia guys?"

"Ha.  That does sound desirable, but no, they'll just send more."

I shrugged.  "I guess you're right.  What did they want, anyway?"

"Curious, eh?"  He pulled a stool to him and sat down.  "They wanted me t'rig the city's agricultural infrastructure t'minimize output for the bigguns."

"The city has an agricultural infrastructure?" i asked incredulously.

"A course it does!  You think the food comes out a the air or something?"

"Well, i figured it came from farms outside the city."  I waved my arm.  "I see the crops out there in the park, but i doubt they're enough to sustain the whole city."

"We have rooftop plots all over the city, biggun.  We have caves where we manage t'grow some crops with magical light and a minimum a water.  We have fungus farms that exist just off the sewer lines."  He put his index fingers together.  "Those idiots tried t'appeal t'my ‘sense a racial pride.’  Bigots make poor criminals, yez know?  Too much effort spent hating and ostracizing people yez should instead be making money from."  He rapped his knuckles against his temple.  "Never put the ideologues in charge, that's what i say."

I stood there silently and thought for a few seconds.  Then i said, "It's worth a lot to me.  I don't understand why Kohasadi and i have grown so close, but it's all i have now.  I won't do anything you ask, but i'll do almost anything."

Néfilo grinned.  "I'll send yez on a task, then.  Maybe a few errands, that should make us even."  He got up and walked to a chest, unlocked it, and pulled out a buckled leather case.  "Now, do yez know where the town a Pialesto is?"  I shook my head.  He continued, "It's three days a travel on foot north-northeast, just past the Tashpari border.  I need yez t'go there.  The last messenger i sent that way got roughed up by the Mafia before he left town, and i don't need them getting into any more a my papers."  He handed me the case.  "Now, once yez get to Pialesto, there's two apothecaries in town.  Ask around and find out which one is run by a dwarf, and go t'that one.  Once yer there, ask for a red clay poultice.  He'll tell you he's out, but he'll tell you how to get to a place where someone can get you some.  Her name is Dakel Yeniri.  Give her the satchel."

I looked at the satchel, then back at him.  "That's it?"

"For now, biggun.  Might be a while before i consider yar debt discharged."

"Not exactly a debt if you haven't given me the goods, is it?  I get the feeling you're going to hold me hostage as your errand boy as long as you can dangle those doodads in front of me."

He frowned.  "I'm not about t'start arguing semantics with yez, biggun.  Yez know what yez want, and yez know what i want."

I held up my hands.  "OK, fine, you have a point.  Can you just lend `em to me for a while?  I'd like to have a conversation with Kohasadi."  Kohasadi perked up and squawked.

Néfilo sighed and shrugged.  "Ahh, i suppose."  He handed me the arches.  "I'll get back t'my work and give yez two some privacy."  He grumbled on his way out the door.

I looked at the arches; they were too small to fit around my ears, but they just might fit on the inside of my ears.  I opened the door and yelled at the druid, "Hey, you got a mirror in here?"

"There's one in the tool cabinet!" he yelled without bothering to turn around.

I looked to my right and saw a cabinet.  I tried to open it but it was locked.  I looked next to the door and there were a few keys hanging there.  I grabbed them all and kept trying them until one fit and opened the cabinet.  Inside i found a messy assortment of gardening tools and clothing.  There was a mirror on the inside of the door i opened, so i looked into it to put the arches inside my ear.  As i finished fitting them, i heard, "Are they in?"

I turned around to see Kohasadi with what might have been an expectant look on his face.  I grinned and said, "I do believe they are."

"That's great!  I've been anxiously awaiting this moment."  He stood up and walked closer to me.  "Even if you won't get to keep them for long."  I could hear him squawking and chirping, but it made sense.  It was a bizarre but marvelous experience.

I patted him on the shoulder and said, "This is really cool.  So, ah, what do you think?  About this all?"

"I'm still thinking about what the small one said about bonding."  He sat.  "We gryphons are not dumb like prey, but we are not as smart as you humanoids are.  So i would dispute that we are unable to bond because we're too smart.  And yet..."

After a couple of seconds, i impatiently said, "Well?"

"The mage.  My old master.  He made me and the other gryphons in his stable smarter, so he could train us more quickly."  He looked away uncomfortably.  "I wanted to follow you, because i  knew you had tried to kill him.  And my first impulse was to let you be my new master."  He looked at me again.  "Even though you took care of me, you still thought of me as a dumb beast.  And i would have been glad to let you be my master, because i did not know a life as a free being.  But then i talked to the caretaker, and just the way he looked at me, and talked to me, as if i were more than just a beast..."  He shook his head.  "I am young.  I am not used to this intelligence, this self-awareness, this ability to think about myself, this..."

"Introspection?" i offered

He nodded.  "Introspection.  To look within myself, to examine who i am.  I am excited and confused.  Do humanoids feel this same way?"

I chuckled.  "For a few years.  We grow out of it.  I suspect you will, too."

"Perhaps."  He looked at his left claw and flexed it.  "Anyhow, well, if i am not truly bonded to you, i am still committed to sharing your fate as your mount, but not as your servant."

I nodded.  "I would like nothing better.  I don't want to be excessively sentimental, but it seems inescapable that finding you outside Teraad's castle was the best thing that has happened to me recently, if not in my entire life.  These last few days have been fun and rewarding, even if i had been unable to understand you until now."

"I also feel that way, if not more so.  You ended a life of servitude.  I owe you my allegiance."

I shook my head.  "I did not intend to free you.  You owe me nothing.  But i welcome what you would give me."

He nodded.  "And i welcome what you would give me."  He sighed.  "So.  We shall be doing a favor for the small one soon, yes?"

I nodded.  "That would seem to be the case.  Let's go find him."  I grabbed the satchel and we walked out of the shed towards the small clearing where we first found Néfilo.  He was collecting leftover materiel.  He looked up and said, "Ah, so yer done?"

I nodded.  "Here you go."  I pulled the arches out of my ears and handed them to him.  "I don't suppose you'd know where i can find someone who can make a saddle for Kohasadi."

"Not much a riding fan, biggun.  Try the stables at the Constabulary Yard.  If they can't do it, they'll know someone who can."  He pointed at the satchel.  "Don't take too long, eh?  Some a that is already weeks overdue."

I snorted and shrugged.  "Sure thing.  Good look with the Mafia."

"Ha!  Those pinheads ha'better not come pestering me again, or i'll set the ankhegs on `em."

I goggled at him.  "You have ankhegs in here??"

"A course i do!  Ya got a better way t'mix up and aerate the soil?"

"I, ah, suppose i don't."  I tried to smile through my amazement.  "I'll head back here once i'm done, yes?"

He picked up all of his gear and stood up.  "That'll do, biggun.  I'll talk to you later."  He nodded at Kohasadi and walked off towards the shed.

I looked at Kohasadi and said, "Let's see if we can get you saddled."

"Is this some kind of joke?"

I stared unamusedly at the stablehand.  I pointed at Kohasadi with my hand and said, "Yes, i'm clearly joking.  I'm asking for tack for a gryphon just for shits and giggles."

"Well, sir, we don't have any gryphons here.  So i'm not sure why you think i can help you," he replied stiffly.

"Well, sir, you only work for the largest stables in the city, so i thought it reasonable to assume that you had the resources to accomodate my request, and if not, perhaps point me towards someone who can."

He sighed.  "The Stablemaster might be able to recommend a stable that does custom work.  I'll see if he's busy."  He turned with a sniff and walked into an office in the side of the stables.  They were well maintained and æsthetically designed, although they weren't as nice as some of the stables i'd seen in the Asiri-Ticanil campaigns out east.  Some of the nobles there loved their horses so much, it had made me uncomfortable.  Then i looked at Kohasadi and i felt uncomfortable.

My mental rambling was interrupted by the emergence of a large, dark man with very shortly cropped hair from the office.  He walked towards me, then suddenly stopped and stared, then grinned and said in a decidedly feminine voice tinged with an Asiri accent, "Or my eyes deceive me, or... well now.  Jumuwadi.  It is you, yes?"

"Yisadil."  I smiled widely at who i now realized was a woman.  "Of all the places... this is one hell of a welcome surprise.  How long have you been here?"

"In Kromalir?  I came here directly after i left the Asiri service."  She smiled at me.  "And that was only ten days after your magnificent drunken peroration."

I felt myself flush in embarrassment.  "More like my petulant tantrum.  I can't believe i did that.  I'd managed to forget it..."

She laughed.  "Oh, Jumuwadi.  You were an outsider, so it was your prerogative to see the things we'd ignored all our lives.  You were young, so it was your duty to speak about what you saw without consideration for your audience.  And you were right; the reason the war has existed for centuries, and probably still continues, is that it is an intensely personal thing for every Asiri and every Ticanil, drilled into them by their culture since childhood."  She turned to look at the horses in their stalls.  "I got tired of sending beautiful horses to die on the battlefield, so i left the Asiri stables and came here, the home of that young man who fought as if he were already dying, as long as it did not become a personal issue.  And, of course, i never found you."

I rubbed my head sheepishly. "Yeah, well, i've been busy." I looked at her hair. "What happened to your braids? They were beautiful."

She shook her head. "Too much work. Once i got the job here as a stablehand, i wanted to devote all my time to my job. And now, i am Stablemaster, for three years." She clapped her hands. "But enough catching up. Let us look at your beast."  She opened a door in the fence and walked up to us.  "Come outside, please.  He is making the horses nervous."  She led us to a corral with high walls, barred the gate behind us and turned to examine Kohasadi.

"Twelve hands and a half... mmm, the wings make things difficult... you have to sit up close to the neck, yes?"  I nodded.  She continued mumbling to herself, "Your legs probably get in the way of his flapping..."  She moved to his back.  "Gorgeous tailfeathers.  Could you have him take off?  I want to observe it."

Kohasadi squawked and started beating his wings, which startled Yisadil.  "He understands Western, you see," i told her with a chuckle after Kohasadi landed.

"Marvelous," she breathed.  "Where did you find him?"

"Outside the wreckage of a keep.  It's a long story."

"I do not doubt it."  She ran her hand over Kohasadi's neck and shoulder.  "Jumuwadi, mount him and take off.  I want to see you riding him."

I hopped on and braced myself for takeoff.  After a few seconds of hovering, Kohasadi put us back on the ground.  I hopped off and asked Yisadil, "Well?"

She shrugged.  "It can be done.  I will set up an appointment to measure him and i'll give you an idea—"

"I'm, ah, i'm actually in a bit of a hurry.  I need to leave town."  She raised her eyebrows.  "Not permanently.  Just for a while, and quickly."

She narrowed her eyes.  "I see."  She sighed and put a hand over her face.  After a few seconds, she looked back at me and said, "Wait."  She left and came back soon with a pony saddle.  She put it on Kohasadi's neck, pulled out a knotted length of rope, and measured various lengths across his body.  She then pulled out a stick of charcoal and made a mark on the saddle.  "Come tonight, two hours after sunset.  It will be done."  She frowned at me.  "I won't waste my time asking you for payment, as it seems the likely source of your need to depart."

"I—  No—"  I gave up.  "Look, i don't want to owe you a favor.  I promise to come back and pay you, not just for this, but for the custom job."

She looked at me for a few moments, then nodded.  "All right.  See you tonight."  She left quickly without a look back.  I grimaced in discomfort in her wake.

I had to deal with the officiously stuffy stablehand again that night when i picked the tack up; i'd not realized how badly i'd offended Yisadil's Asiri sensibilities with my favor-begging ("The Stablemaster is inevitably detained," he intoned stiffly when i asked for her).  Mr. Stuffy sniffed and harrumphed as he adjusted the straps around Kohasadi's torso until he was satisfied.  "Please get on your mount and try it out," he whined.  I hopped on and we took a few flaps around before we came down again.  It wasn't great, but it was a marked improvement.  I asked Kohasadi, "How's it feel?"  He shrugged and cawed.  I thanked Mr. Stuffy, who sniffed and went back inside.

I estimated that it would take us all day to fly to the Tashpari border, so it seemed prudent to turn in now at the Ashen Tongue.  However, the thought of seeing Gialarçi again made me uncomfortable; where did that kiss come from?  What did it mean?  I felt adolescently awkward.  I decided to duck the situation by sleeping in the stable next to Kohasadi (and avoiding his inquisitive looks).

A flying mount is an improvement over an earthbound mount because the constant pounding of hooves against ground isn't being transmitted to your nether regions.  This fact plus the improvised saddle made enough of a difference after a full day's flight that i didn't want to have my legs ripped off once we arrived in Pialesto.  It was dingy, even for a border town; there was filth down alleyways and a layer of mud covered the buildings' walls.  The place was poorly guarded, as if Tashpar didn't care if someone came along and claimed it for themselves (and who would want to?).

I approached a couple of kids and asked them about the apothecary.  One of them played dumb while the other tried to filch my coin pouch.  I smacked his hand away and threatened to sic Kohasadi on them, which only made them giggle.  They pointed me in the right direction and i flipped them a star each.  They yelled horrible things about my mother as we walked away.

The building was built with dwarves in mind, which meant i had to duck my head to avoid hitting the sign that depicted a mortar and pestle that hung above the five-foot-tall doorway.  I avoided beams as i made my way to the counter.  There was a small gong and mallet, which i rang.  A cheerful dwarf with a short beard (well, short for a dwarf) bustled his way out.  "Greetings, good sir!  What may i do for you today?"

"I need a red clay poultice," i said.  "Er, please."

He waved my request away.  "No, no, nobody uses red clay anymore!  It's too hard to find, and it doesn't do nearly as good a job as the black marsh clay!  I happen to have—"

"Sir," i interrupted, "i really need a red clay poultice."

"I assure you, sir, that the black clay—"

"Look," i bit off, "i wasn't asked for black clay.  I was asked for red clay.  A red clay poultice."  I looked intently at him and tried to keep my temper.

He pressed his lips and snorted.  "Oooh!  You're probably some other errand boy of the witch's, i'll wager!"


"Bah!  Stop wasting my time."  He crossed his arms.  "It's the witch you want to see, i'm sure.  Go on, then!"  He pointed and said, "Go through the poplar grove at the end of town and go around the hill.  You'll find the witch's hut.  Now go and don't come back!"  He stomped to the back of the store and closed the door.

"Freak," i muttered.

The sun barely made the sky glow behind us as we flew eastwards around the indicated hill.  I saw a mine entrance that looked abandoned, and a short distance from that was a dilapidated house.  I could see smoke coming out of the chimney and an oil lamp through a window.  Kohasadi banked around and landed in the front yard.  I dismounted, patted his neck and walked up to the door, half-expecting a crazed woman with wild hair to burst out of the house and screech at me to go away.  I knocked on the door and brushed aside my disappointement when nothing happened.  I was about to knock again when the door was opened by a woman in a leather apron with a brick-red face and hair to match, tied back in a ponytail.

"Greetings," i said, "i am looking for Dakel."

"You are looking," she retorted, "for Yeniri."  She tilted her head inside.  "Come in, then."

"I apologize," i said once i was inside.  "I presume that the Tashpari custom is family name first, then?"

"Correct."  She picked up a bowl and handed it to me.  "Water.  You have something for me."

"That i do," i said.  I drank it all, then took off my backpack and pulled out Néfilo's satchel.  As i turned to face her, i saw her scrubbing the red clay off her face with a wet cloth.  Now i was able to appreciate her tiny nose and pale skin (which was still a bit pink from the scrubbing).

She put the cloth down and took the satchel from my hands.  She opened it and removed a sheaf of papers, which she replaced with another sheaf.  She tied the satchel closed and as she handed it back to me she said, "You would best not spend the night in town.  I offer you my hospitality here."

"I... thank you.  Yes, i accept.  Just one second."  I went outside and told Kohasadi to find somewhere comfortable to spend the night.  He squawked, stretched, and started walking around.

"The people in town called you a witch," i remarked in between bites of a succulent mushroom stew which really cried out for bread that, sadly, Yeniri lacked.

"That is what many would call a woman who lives by herself, doing strange things in the base Earth, who it is said turned away from what was her calling from the Gods of Heaven."  She fixed her gold-flecked eyes on me.  "My Sun-touched eyes, my Anu-colored skin, my hair the color of the Stars themselves; these all meant i was destined to be a Priestess of the Gods."  She paused for a second, then said in response to my blank expression, "You know nothing of our ways."

"I know nothing of your ways," i agreed with a nod.

"The Gods seeded the Earth with life so that some good could come from evil.  The Earth is fire, which is destruction and hate, and dirt, which is rot and death.  All life springs from this, away from the Earth, and yearns for the Heavens.  Man and beast walk upright, fowl flies, plants grow upwards."  She paused to drink some water.  "For as long as i can remember, i felt an affinity for the Earth.  As some faiths insist on saving sinners instead of destroying them, so i wanted to work with the Earth, so that we may all benefit from the knowledge.  Had my appearance not been touched by the Gods, i would have been killed for my heresy.  Instead, i was banished."  She laced her fingers.  "Néfilo thinks of me as a rogue geologist, but i am a priestess of the Earth.  After some time, i think he will understand this."

After some silence, i awkwardly changed the subject.  "So, what's in the mine?"

"Quartz crystals.  The gems that were once mined have long been exhausted.  I give the crystals to a wizard in town to use in preservation spells for me."

"What are you preserving?  Food?"

"Soil samples."  She took another spoonful of stew, and chewed and swallowed it.  "I send them to geologists in Kromalir.  If they are not preserved, they are useless by the time they arrive."  She sighed.  "They have me on a stipend, but it is barely enough to cover the expense, even after i scramble around that decrepit hole for a few meager crystals so i won't have to pay wizard component prices."

She'd shown more emotion in that last sentence than she had during the rest of the evening.  I felt an idea beginning to push through in my head and, after i finished my stew, i said, "How long would the soil sample last without the spells?"

She shook her head.  "With the techniques i have available, one day."

"How often do you send one?"

"Every twelve days, when Anu is fully lit and when it is fully dark."  She frowned at me with curiosity.

"How about this?"  I put my hands flat on the table.  "I will fly here every two weeks.  You will collect the samples, and i will carry them to Kromalir.  If i leave at sunrise, i'll be there by sunset.  And i'll charge you..."  I chopped my left palm with my right hand.  "... half of what the wizard is charging you."

She sat there quietly, looking at the wall behind me.  Then she looked at me and said, "I accept your offer.  With much gratitude."  She collected our bowls and put them in a bucket.  She said, "Anu is dark tonight, and i'll be leaving soon to collect the latest sample."  She looked at me with some obvious discomfort.  "I could use someone to hold my lantern."

I stood up and nodded.  "I'd be glad to help."

She gave me a thin smile and turned to prepare her gear.

As we trudged back from the site where we'd taken the samples, i caught Yeniri nervously sneaking glances at me.  I didn't think much of it; i've worked hard at making people nervous over the last few years, so it happens even if i don't mean it to, and she was an odd duck, anyway.  We arrived at her cottage and she started working on preserving the samples while i took off my armor, stretched my muscles and did some balance exercises.

After some time, she declared, "I've finished," and stood up.  She walked towards me and said, "I."  She then blushed suddenly and fiercely, but she did not turn her eyes from mine.  "I wish you to spend the night in my bed.  If it would please you."

"Ahh, i, uh."  My brain scrabbled for words.  "Your gratitude, um, you don't have to thank me for, ah, this way, that is—"

She shook her head.  "I am not asking you to pay you back for your help.  It..."  She looked down for a beat, then at me again.  "It is a selfish thing.  You are a man with skin the color of the earth."  She reached up to touch my cheek.  The skin on her fingertips felt thick but smooth, like a polished callus.  She whispered, "So much earth in one man... to share my body with you would be a holy thing."  She pulled her hand away.  "They would kill you, you know.  Your color would be an offense to the Gods.  That's why i didn't want you to go back to the town.  Even though it is a border town and the presence of the army is minimal, i did not want you to risk yourself."

I tried not to stare.  "I... i'm flattered.  But i don't think that, i, ah."  I rubbed my scalp.  "We've just met," i finished lamely.

She looked at me for a second and nodded slightly.  "Of course."  She turned away and walked to her bed.  She sat at the edge and waited until i'd finished laying out my bedroll to put out the lantern.  I lay there for what seemed for hours until sleep came.

Yeniri woke me up as the first rays of sunlight were crawling around the base of the nearby hill.  "I've refilled your waterskins.  Here."  She handed me a small bag.  "Some nuts for the journey."

"Thanks."  I got up, buckled on my armor, and rolled up my blankets.  She handed me the soil samples and a scrap of paper with an address written on it.  I put them in my pack, pulled it on and turned to her.  "Thank you for your hospitality, Priestess."  I bowed at the shoulders.  "I'll return in two weeks."

She accepted the formality with a gentle smile and a nod, then said, "You are forgetting something."  She went to the table and picked up a pouch.  "Your payment."

I shook my head.  "Embarrassing."  I took the pouch and tucked it and the nuts into one of my pack's side pockets, then headed outside.

I yelled for the tenth time, "Kohasadi!"  Great, i've lost my gryphon.  "Well, sir, where did you last leave him?"  "Right here!"  "Well, perhaps he just got up and walked away."  "Shut up!"  My internal dialogue was interrupted when i tripped over half a sheep and landed on my face next to a snoring Kohasadi.  The impact stirred him from his sleep.  "Waark?" he croaked.

"Don't tell me you're hung over on mutton, pal," i wheezed as i got on my hands and knees.  Kohasadi responded to my quip with a strong sneeze, which resulted in my being covered in bits of damp sheep meat.  "Thanks.  Thanks a lot," i told him as i glared at him.  Kohasadi ignored me as he stretched and preened.  I started wiping myself with a rag and said, "Are you done?  Can we go now?"  He rolled his eyes and knelt.  I mounted and we took off.

I finished giving Kohasadi a summary of what had happened as we landed in the North End of Kromalir.  "And what's really going to make it sticky," i concluded, "is that i can tell that she's not gonna let go of the sex thing.  She's gonna wait until she feels we know each other well enough, and she's gonna jump my bones and not take 'no' for an answer.  But, well," i shrugged, "ahh, i don't know what i'm complaining about.  I could use a good and vigorous exchange of ideas, if you know what i mean."  He gave no indication that he did.  "So, uh, how does the mating ritual thing work with gryphons?  If you don't mind my asking."  He shrugged.  I shook my head.  "Man, i gotta get those translators from Néfilo.  C'mon, let's get to where we're going."

We set off down Fire Apple Road, and after about twenty minutes turned right on Captain Suk Street.  "Twenty-nine...  twenty-three... eighteen.  Here."  Kohasadi lay down by the wall and i walked down a short flight of steps.  I pulled on a rope and waited.  A few seconds later, the bottom half of the door opened; a loaded crossbow was aimed at my groin and someone rasped, "I've had enough of you!"

I stood there paralyzed for what seemed like an hour.  I heard a grunt and the crossbow was lowered; a black, bushy beard emerged first, followed by the rest of its owner's head, tilted to the side.  "You're a bit tall for a halfling."

"And you're rather trigger-happy for a dwarf," i retorted somewhat squeakily.

He snorted, pulled his head back and opened the upper half of the door.  "Well, it doesn't look like you're with the munchkins.  The name's Ĥavar.  How can i help you?"  He waved me in.

I stepped through and said, "I'm Mwaele. I have the soil samples from Yeniri."  The room had tables all around covered with dirt, rocks, tools, and books.  There were strange lamps all around the room that glowed but had no evident flame.  "That's a lot of magical illumination you have in here."

"Heh.  Not magic."  He laid the crossbow on a table and put on some work gloves.  "What you see is a few years' worth of trying to capture lightning in a bottle.  But no magic's involved."

"Huh."  I took my pack off and started fishing around for the samples.  "Look, these haven't been preserv—"

"Is that," he tensely interrupted, "a Zekzu Clan elite guard battle axe?"

I turned to look at him; his expression was a mixture of awe, disbelief, and hostility.  "In fact, that's exactly what it is.  You've got a good eye there."

"Where the hell did you get that?  Did you take it off one of their corpses?  Did you loot it from the King's Tomb?  I swear," he grabbed his crossbow, "i will shoot you right now if—"

"Whoa!  Whoa!"  I held my hands up.  "Will you relax?  I got this as a boon from the Zekzu Prince himself, all right?"

His arms dropped, although he still clung to the crossbow.  "Prince Feĥog?  He lives?"

"He was alive three years ago.  I saved his life, so i'm pretty sure about that."

"And that's why he gave you the axe?"

"Well, i did ask him for it."  I pulled it from its holding strap.  "Do you want to look at it?"

"Do i!"  He practically jumped towards me and tried to take the axe, but realized he couldn't grab it with one hand still clutching the crossbow.  "Here," he said, offering it to me.  I traded weapons with him.  His fingers traced over the engravings on the axe head; he rubbed his thumb against the blade, and then struck the head with his thumbnail, which produced an even, rich thung.  "It's a beautiful axe," he breathed.  "Do you see the clan motto here?"  He pointed at some runes.  I craned my neck as i surreptitiously uncocked the crossbow.  "‘Survive.’  That's what the runes say.  When i heard of the massacre, i assumed the worst."  We traded weapons again.  "It's not every day i find a human who appreciates the beauty of the axe."

"Yeah, well, swords are fine if you're into poncing duels or slaughtering conscripted peasants.  If you want to crack open a steel-plated hero-wannabe," i hefted my axe, "you use the right tool for the job."  I put the axe back in its place.  "Anyway, it's not every day i find a geologist with the latest Stone & Súa repeating bow."

He grinned.  "You've got a good eye, too."  He cradled his crossbow.  "It took me almost a year to save up enough for this.  Still itching to try it, as you found out."  I snorted.  "Anyway, if those Mafia types come back, i'm not going to waste any more time talking."

"You, too, huh?  Why are they giving you trouble?"

He shook his head.  "Mad rumors of something under the city.  My crew and i have been taking surveys, and they seem to think that we've uncovered data that will be useful for them.  The data hasn't even been processed, let alone peer-reviewed!  We can't let anyone muck around with it!"

"I... see."  I didn't.  I pulled the soil samples out.  "Well, like i was saying," i said as i handed them to him, "these haven't been magically preserved, so you'll probably want to get to them quickly.  Then i'll get out of your hair and be on my way."

He grunted.  "Thanks a lot for bringing these over.  Good luck out—"

The front door burst open and a grimy young human stumbled through.  "Ĥavar!  They.  Mafia."  He fell on his knees, wheezing.

Ĥavar shook his head.  "It never ends."  He patted the kid on the shoulder.  "Slow down.  Breathe.  Tell me—"

"Kortra!" the kid burst out.  "They're holding Kortra hostage!"

The dwarf started turning red.  "Where," he snapped, "are they?"

"Steam vent 3.  They told me to tell Master Néfilo—"

"Néfilo!" i exclaimed.  "You know him?"

"Shut up!" Ĥavar yelled at me.  He turned back to the kid and said, "Go on!"

"I climbed the ladder as quickly as i could, found him and told him that they had Kortra and wanted him to come down, and then ran here."  He started crying.  "I'm sorry, Ĥavar, i know you told me to keep an eye out, but they snuck up on us, and, and, i—"

"Hey, look, it's all right.  You're not a fighting sort, Grape.  Stay here and run a metal analysis on these samples from Tashpar.  I'll go take care of the munchkins."  The kid nodded.  Ĥavar pulled out a breast plate and started buckling it.

"I'm coming, too," i said.

"Look, i appreciate it, but i can't afford to pay Merc rates, and anyway, i think i can handle a few criminals."

"There were a lot of `em, Ĥavar," said Grape.  "Maybe a dozen."

"I'm not going to charge you."  I threw my backpack on.  "If it involves the Mafia and it involves Néfilo, it involves me on a personal level.  And it sounds like you could use the help."

He grunted.  "Grape, you double-bar that door behind us in case they decide to get fresh over here.  I'll give the knock when i come back."  He grabbed his crossbow and cocked it.  "Let's go, Merc."

We went outside.  "Kohasadi!"  He squawked and scrambled to his legs.  "Can you carry us both?"

He gave me a skeptical look, but knelt.  I got in the saddle.  Ĥavar clambered onto Kohasadi's back, knelt behind me and grabbed my pack.  "Ready!" he yelled.

"Kohasadi, we have to go to the Park of the Council!"  He started flapping forcefully and managed to take off.

Kohasadi couldn't get a lot of elevation, but we arrived at the park without any spills or stops.  Kohasadi circled around the back of the building and landed.  "Why are we landing here? " i asked him as i dismounted.  He pointed at me with his claw, then at the other side of the building; then he tapped himself and pointed upwards.  Then he took off again.

"C'mon, Merc," said Ĥavar, "i'm not going to stand around while you and your gryphon play Looks Like Sounds Like."

"Yeah, yeah, i'm with you.  I think he has a plan," i said as we started walking around.  "I hope so, anyway."

As we turned the corner we found one halfling standing nonchalantly against a tree.  We approached him, but he held out a hand and said, "Talk to Yiem.  He's by the front door."  Ĥavar glared at him and turned towards the entrance.  Two short thugs stood there with their arms crossed.  Ĥavar stopped several paces away from them and said, "Which one of you is Yiem?"

"I am," said the shorter one.  He had a scar that ran from the bridge of his nose to the left corner of his mouth.  "You're Havar?"

"Close enough," growled Ĥavar.  "Where's my geologist?"

"Down.  You can come in, as soon as you drop that," he said as he pointed at the dwarf's crossbow.  "You," he pointed at me, "stay here."

"There's something comical about being issued orders that are unenforceable," i sneered.

He shrugged.  "Suit yourself."  He whistled and he and his partner drew a long, knurled mace.  I saw the halfling we walked past also wield his mace and advance towards us, and another one on the opposite corner match his moves.

Ĥavar pulled me down to his height and whispered, "Maybe you shouldn't be causing me trouble so soon."

"I can't help you if i'm not next to you," i bit back.

Ĥavar swore in Dwarvish (it doesn't make sense in Western, believe me), aimed his crossbow at Yiem and fired, nailing him in the left cheek.  Yiem fell down with a grunt.  His partner charged at Ĥavar, but i interposed myself to give the dwarf time to reload.  The halfling certainly knew how to handle his mace; it was a heavy weapon for him, but he whipped it around as if it were a stick.  I spent my time parrying it at first until i got a good measure of his length and rhythm.

I was about to give him a good cut when i saw some movement in my peripheral vision.  I turned in time to parry the newcomer's mace with the butt of my axe.  Now i had to use the haft of my axe like a staff, blocking to and fro while trying to get a good swing in.  The newcomer tried to press me, and i took a chance by sweeping his front leg out and knocking him down; i then let my momentum turn me around and gave the first thug a good chop, which he half-parried and half-dodged.  I kept going at him, waiting for the other one to recover, and when i felt him behind me, i drove the end of my axe backwards, stabbing where i hoped he'd be.  The first thug saw that my reach was suddenly shortened to almost nothing, and reared back.  I anticipated his swing by taking a step back, turning in place and whirling my axe around in a circle.  My blade cut through his right arm and into his chest.

I pulled my axe free quickly and turned to face the newcomer.  He was on the ground, face down.  I rolled him over and saw that the butt of the axe had caught him in the left eye, leaving an unpleasant hole.  I turned towards Ĥavar, in time to see him land a powerful right hook on his halfling's face and knocking him to the ground.  He turned towards me and grinned.  Then i felt something hit my shoulder and turn me around.  I saw a halfling behind a tree, reloading a repeating crossbow and taking aim at me.  Then i heard a screech and i saw a body fall on top of the halfling.  Kohasadi landed next to the prone bodies and set upon my attacker.  His screams did not last long.

"Little bastard got you good," grumbled Ĥavar next to me.  "Let's take a look at this."

I looked at my shoulder and saw a bolt sticking out of the armor.  "It doesn't hurt too bad.  I think the armor stopped most of it."  I knelt down.

"Yeah... didn't catch you flush.  Lucky bastard."  He pulled the bolt out and i tried not to complain.  "Yep, bit of blood there, but not a lot.  You'll live."

Kohasadi walked up to us.  I petted his neck.  "Thanks again, bud.  Let's go inside, shall we?"

We walked through the leather curtain, and i headed for the leaf curtain when Havar said, "Where you going?  Steam vent entrance is this way."

I turned to him and saw him at a door on the side of the entrance room that i hadn't seen the last time we were here.  "Oh.  Right."  I followed him through, then i said, "Ĥavar, wait."  I turned back to Kohasadi and said, "It's a narrow staircase.  Do you want to wait here?"  He shook his head and squeezed through the doorway.

We walked downstairs as the dimly lit hallway curved gently to the right for about a minute or so until we reached a short, flat hallway that ended in a door.  Ĥavar held up a hand as he snuck up to the door and put his ear to it.  After a few seconds, he straightened up, shook his head, knocked on the door and then pulled it open.  The back of the room had one large window, and what looked like a stone desk covered in levers, knobs, and an abacus.  I could also see a blonde dwarf woman with a pair of goggles on her forehead standing next to it, with a halfing behind her pointing a loaded crossbow at her head.

"Kortra!" exclaimed Ĥavar as he stepped towards her.  "Are you—"

"Far enough, stumpy," said a voice that came from the right of the room.

"Boss, he has a friend," said the halfling with the crossbow.  "Looks tough.  Want me to shoot `im?"

"No, you idiot, you need to keep menacing the hostage."  I could feel the contempt dripping in his voice.  "Besides, Yiem and Yikem'll have him under control."

"It's hard to have someone under control when you have a piece of metal sticking out of your face," i said as i walked into the small room.  To my left, two thugs held swords to Néfilo's neck; the druid looked furious.

To my right, the boss, the same one i'd seen Néfilo humiliate just a few days ago in the greenhouse, sat on a stool frowning with arms folded and holding a hand crossbow.  He said, "That was very rude.  You are a very rude person.  Oh," he scowled, "for Greed's sake, you're a fucking Merc.  Where the hell," he turned to Ĥavar and idly waved the crossbow in his direction, "did you get a Merc on such short notice?"  He interrupted Ĥavar as he started to reply.  "Forget it.  Don't give a fuck.  Doesn't matter.  You give me the data you have, we let your girl here go."

"What about the druid?" asked Ĥavar.

"Oh, he owes me one.  I'll be having my fun with him once you and i are done here."

Ĥavar pondered for a couple of seconds, then turned to the woman and said, "Kortra, my dear, i realize this isn't the best time, but i've meant to ask you to have me as your husband."

Ĥavar's non sequitur left the entire room befuddled.  Then Kortra exploded, "Are you insane?!  What the hell are you thinking, asking me to marry you now??"

"Now, dear, you don't have to say yes.  If you agree, just kneel."

Kortra stared at him for three seconds.  Then she knelt.  Ĥavar whipped up his crossbow and shot You Idiot in the neck.

I lunged towards the two who were holding Néfilo and launched a kick, which caught my target square in the stomach.  All of a sudden, two halflings were guarding air and Néfilo was lying in the corner, sucking wind.  I grinned and said, "Shall we dance?"  They half-heartedly turned their swords towards me, which i knocked out of their hands with ease.

"Your men are pathetic," i said as i turned around, but found i was talking to a stool.  Kortra and Ĥavar were kneeling and hugging, so i didn't bother asking them if they'd seen him leave.  I picked up and tossed the swords in their direction and ran out the door and found a dazed halfling pinned by a gryphon.

I chuckled.  "As i was saying, your men are pathetic."  He groaned, although i wasn't sure if he meant it as a response.  Then i heard the sound of fisticuffs and ran back into the room, only to find Kortra smacking Ĥavar on the head and cursing at him.  "Er... that's not a dwarven mating ritual, is it?" i lamely gibed.

"If it is, biggun, is what yez did t'me foreplay?"  Néfilo had his two ex-captors face down on the floor.

"I apologize, Master Néfilo, but—"

"Yeah, yeah.  Yez got the job done.  C'mon, let's get these vicious criminals upstairs and get a hold a the Constables."

"Here, these are yars."  Néfilo handed me the arches.  "Yez earned them.  Frankly, i still owe yez."

"Thank you, Master Néfilo."  I walked over to the mirror and put them in.  "So, when you say you still owe me, do you, ah..."  I let the sentence trail off.

"I swear, biggun, yez ought t'have that speech impediment checked."  He grunted.  "Look, i'll be explicit.  I could use yar help."

"I'm listening."

"Here's the thing: the Mafia is right.  There are legends about something that happened here in the city, about 150 years ago, that had been suppressed somehow, not only in Kromalir but also in Tashpar.  Things started bubbling up in the last year or two."

I finished with the arches and turned to look at him.  "So, what is it?"

"The upshot is that there is something powerful under the city, and the Mafia wants it.  The Thieves' Guild wants it.  The orcs want it.  We want t'find it and keep it away from them; if either criminal group gets their hands on it, they'll use it t'consolidate their power in the city, and if the orcs get it, well, who knows what they'll do t'the city after they overrun it."

I started to speak but he waved me off.  "We need more muscle.  I want you and the beastie t'be part a our group.  I don't expect yez t'hold off the Mafia and the Guild and the orcs by yarselves, but wherever and however we can deploy you, we will.  I can't pay yez Merc rates, though," he said as he spread his hands.

I crossed my arms.  "Well, i'm not about to find any jobs at Merc rates right now."  I turned to Kohasadi.  "What do you think?"

"It sounds exciting.  Those little ones taste awful, though."

I laughed and turned to Néfilo.  "Talk to my agent."

F    I    N

[1]: WBUDR == Western Biome Union of Druids and Rangers