Punchcat Fluffery

PARTY FLUFFERY; Part 1

A languid easterly breeze was stirring the desert air of Tartaria, tumbling over the lip of the valley high above the trudging column of Imperial soldiers. The sun had passed its’ angry zenith and the rocky walls had finally surrendered some measure of shade. It seemed scarcely cooler there, but prayers and exclamations of thanks were breaking out among the ranks nonetheless. As they walked, the Eladri troops would raise their heads to the sky, catching errant gusts on their faces like drowning men coming up for breath. Reicius, their commander, was one of only three company-members allowed a mount. He rode at the head of the column, astride a dusky dromedary. It was his first time riding such an animal, and he did not care for it. His once fussily attended armor was now bleached and dulled by relentless sun and dusty wind. Beside him, a scaly archeologist and the company’s strange, cat-like guide chittered gutturally in dragon-language. They each wore long, weathered robes, turbans and dust-cowls after the local fashion. They looked rather more comfortable in the heat than the company-members in their heavy scales.

Huffily, Reicius splashed some water down his neck; he was forever excluded from such conversations, to which by rights as leader of this expedition, he felt he ought to be privy. His camel groaned with pleasure as the water tricked down onto it’s back, pooling in the nape at the base of it’s hump. Reicius cringed, muttering beneath his breath. “Grotesque creature”. The column, some 30 Imperial spearmen, servants and pack-animals had been making a torturous progress across this godless landscape for three days now. They had come in search of an artefact, apparently residing within an old Redguard temple somewhere in this canyon. The Wizard-Eminent of Ilion had sent him off on this thankless errand for one perceived slight or another, a careless insult he entirely deserved. Reicius fumed, knowing that the old bastard was doing his best to undermine him with the courtiers during his absence.

The stinking goblinoid cities had delayed them intolerably. The warren-settlements marked the very outmost border of the Empire’s most backwater prefecture, dealing only in spices and a trade in slaves. The hostile, thick-browed locals had refused to cooperate or provide directions, even as he produced the seal of the Empress and the sigil of House Githyr. Reicius had been forced to employ a local guide in order to even learn the direction in which this temple supposedly lay. The inscrutable shifter, Shen, had found them an archeologist and provided their graceless mounts in exchange for a large, though unusual fee. The cat-man had proven useful enough, even negotiating passage with the savage dragonborn nomads that roamed this part of the province. He had seemed to engage in some sort of shouting match with one of the bull males, each roaring thunderously at one another for several minutes before they agreed to share a vial of Haze and a swim in the oasis. Reicius and the soldiers had been denied the honour, though still allowed to fill their canteens under the watchful eyes of the clan elders. Shen had finally led them out of the desert and into a deep gorge, confirming with the scholar that the temple lay only a few hours away.

The commander pgrammarsf his helmet, shaking dust and grit from his long white hair. Unused to long journeys outside the comfort of a river-barge, the heat, sand and wet-animal stink of his mount were testing his tolerances. He turned to give another hateful glare to the guide and was surprised to find him missing.

Shen had ridden ahead and dismounted as they approached a fork in the valley walls. He was loping up and down the corridor, running his paws over the walls and sniffing cautiously at the air. The canyon was split down the centre by a large wedge of stone cliff like the blade of an axe. Down one path, Reicius could clearly see green desert flora, a scurrying stream and a flock of resting birds. In the distance, a weathered sculpture of a robed figure with it’s arms raised stood on a dais, it’s face turned away from the column. “Finally,” he thought to himself, “some sign that this god-forsaken ruin actually exists!” Breathing a sigh of relief, the commander began steering his camel down the path towards the statue.

“Wait.”

Recius stopped in his tracks, startled at finally hearing Shen speak in the common tongue. The voice was raspy and deep, a low whicker like a predator’s gowl. He looked down to see the shifter taut with tension, frozen in perfect equilibrium halfway through one loping stride. His head was held low, the dust-mask of his turban hanging loose around his chest. His ears were pulled back against his head as he peered intently down the valley below.

“Not this way,” he rumbled, his lips barely moving. He sunk slowly down onto his haunches, paws pressed flat against the stone as though ready to pounce. After a pregnant pause, Reicius shook his head and whispered back. “”What? Why not? Can’t you see the statue? We’re obviously getting close.”

Shen slowly shook his head, his golden eyes slowly scanning the innocuous scene. Bars of golden sunlight were slowly rolling across moss-covered boulders, white, hardy acacias stirred in the gentle wind and desert flowers were blooming at the waters’ edge. He sniffed the air again. “There's … something.” Behind them, the troops grew edgy and restless. They could hear riverbirds and running water, smell wet soil. They were tired, dirty and ready to break their march. Reicius looked dubiously down the second passage. It wound ponderously off to the west up a steep incline, offered little shade and was clearly the more roundabout route.

“Why not? What is it?”

Shen sniffed again and bared his teeth.

“Something.”

A high pitched whistle suddenly pierced the air and a black-fletched blowdart shot out of the cliff-face. The missile punched into the neck of a nearby soldier, sparking against the armour of his chinguard. He screamed for a second, then rapidly withered, his lips cracking, cheeks hollowing, his tongue bloating. Thirstpetal sap! More soldiers cried out as the vicious alchemical darts rapidly dehydrated them, taking their last, dry breaths and expiring on the gritty stone. The men began shouting, swinging about in search of an enemy as shapes began to move on the cliffs above.

“Phalaaaaaanx!” The Commanders’ voice crashed through soldiers’ ranks, echoing down the narrow valley beyond. Without thought, the footmen rushed to defensive formation, shields locking and raised overhead, spears held to the side. The metallic crack of darts against metal sounded all around the formation, and harsh, angry, alien shouts could be clearly heard on all sides. Reicius leaped down off his camel and pulled his quicksword. The archeologist had taken a dart and crumpled like a pile of old leather. The cat-man was nowhere to be seen. The elves closed in around him as robed figures began to pour out of cliff-hollows and hiding places in the valley below. The elf beside him crumpled, speared through the collar by a javelin, another caught by a dart in the back of the knee. As the shield-wall took shape, the Eladrin finally caught sight of the enemy; local human rabble, insurrectionist heretics and freedom fighters. He raged inwardly at the impudence of the vermin; ungrateful, stubborn, spiteful creatures! “Death to all knife ears!” screamed a dark-skinned warrior, bringing his crude human-made scimitar shrieking down towards Reicius’ head. He parried angrily and beheaded the man, slashed a tendon to his right and stabbed upwards into another man’s ribcage. The blade grated gratifyingly against bone, hosing his pale fingers with blood as he ripped the weapon free. He could see the phalanx taking shape around him, the elves falling back to make room for the formation. Spearmen took position behind the shield-carriers, lashing out to wound as their brethren defended. The humans were a disorganised mass, skirmishers brought to battle with a superior, military force. Though enjoying the advantage of surprise, their lines were rapidly breaking as the Eldari shield-wall resolved. Their scimitars quickly became useless as the elves began to advance, the press of melee squeezing the fighters tight against the gorge walls. Several men with blowpipes went down screaming as the company archers spotted them high among the rocks. The leader of the Humans was unceremoniously speared by Rethius’s bodyguard, a hulking Eladri named Varuthi. The man's golden sword clattered uselessly to the stone as he missed his parry and died with a bloody burp. Within moments, the battle had been turned against the ambushers. Reicius allowed himself a brief moment to revel in this easy butchery. His soldiers were driving the humans back, slashing and bludgeoning their weak, unarmoured forms as they turned to flee. The company’s casualties were moderate, but not prohibitive. He knew he could put a good spin on it back in the Councillor's manse. His face split into a sinister grin, blood dripping from his cheeks and lips. This. This was the work of an Imperial soldier, the slaughter of the Empress’ foes, not running errands for some pissant for a pet sorcerer. With the news of this victory, he would be back in the Councillor's good graces … maybe even recalled to the Canton capital. “Good work Varuthi, this is well worth a bonus.” The giant elf rumbled back contentedly. “Thank you my Lord.”

Reicius sauntered over to the richly apparelled corpse and pulled up it’s head with a grip to it’s hair. “Hopefully,” he said as he began sawing the neck with his dagger, “you were somebody important.”

The corpse’s eyes snapped open, featureless, velvety black orbs paralysing him with shock and fear. It’s mouth opened, revealing rows of needle-thin teeth and a lashing, forked tongue. He began to scream, but was launched into the air by a casual brush of its’ hand, sending him sailing down the gorge and crashing into the ranks of his own soldiers. Dizzy, he staggered to his feet, shouting a command to attack. Several elves broke ranks and charged the lone figure as its’ shape distorting in sickening ways. Bones pressed and bulging against skin, whickering claws burst from skeletal fingers and two of the soldiers exploded into bloody, severed chunks.

“Reee….seee…usssssss.” The creature began to rasp his name, it’s voice whistling like wind through broken glass. His heart pounded in his chest as another of his soldiers came apart in clouds of spinning, severed limbs. Varuthi leapt forward with a shout and impaled the creature for a second time, burying the spearhead in its’ rippling gut. It blared at him, hurling him from his feet and shattering the shaft on the weapon in his hands.

Reicius fell back against the wall of the gorge, cornered and weaponless as the creature approached. In the din of battle, only a few soldiers had heard his shout, with the remainder pursuing the beaten humans down into the valley and caves. The monster bent down and picked up his fallen dagger, collecting it gingerly in taloned hands. It turned it’s baleful black eyes upon him and grinned, a nightmarish expression that cracked the skin around it’s mouth and eyes. “Hopefully Reicius,” it crooned, “you are somebody important.” With a triumphant scream, it raised the blade high above it’s head. In the distance, the boom of encroaching thunder echoed in the canyon. It sounded like a predator’s roar.

The creature’s skull splintered. One of its’ eyes split open like a grape, its’ nose crumpling back into it’s skull in a cloud of ichor and brain matter. Shen blurred into existence. He seemed to hang, ghostly, suspended in the air a split second after he landed the blow. The whipcrack of this first attack reached Reicius’ ears a moment later, deafening, blinding, hurling him down to the floor of the gorge. There was a sickening, meaty sound like wood breaking underwater. The shifter was moving, but in jolting, alien motions that shot out of his swirling desert cloak like a heat haze. Recius didn’t see the second or third punch, only felt the backblast as they cracked against bone and pulped ghoulish flesh like a hammer through hangfruit. As his vision cleared, he caught the afterimage as Shen kicked the creatures feet out from under it, struck it’s throat before it hit the ground, then disappeared. Suddenly, he was being hauled to his feet in a set of firm paws.

“Hmm,” he rumbled ,“I see that you are not dead. That is good.” Breathless, Reicius looked up into the leonine face of the razorclaw shifter. “What …what….” He accepted the canteen of water he offered, gulping hungrily with shock. Shen propped him up against a rock and began lazily snooping around the battlefield wreckage. Finally, Recius spoke. “What the devil was that thing!?”

Throwing aside a shiny piece of armour, Shen shrugged. “No idea.”

“How could it know me? It … it was here to kill me!”

"Perhaps." He reached into his pocket and threw the Eladrin a small golden orb. He caught in surprise and examined it. “There. You got what you came for. Now, you can leave. No need to worry about monsters.”

“This … is it? Wh – how did you get this?”

“Easy.”

“But – where is the temple?”

Shen jerked his head to the right, towards the forbidding uphill path. “Not so far.”

“Weren’t there locks and traps like you said?”

Shen laughed, a chesty leopard-snicker. “Easy. Like I said”

Trying to steady his breathing, the white-elf commander took a closer look at the orb. It was a clear golden crystal, perfectly smooth, inscribed with a silver inlaid rune. Turning it in his fingers, Reicius tried to peer into it’s depths. Muttering a word in high-elven, he pressed his finger down on the rune.

The crystal lit up. Exuding a cool, milky luminescence, it began to chime evenly, seeming to hum a haunting, beautiful song. The cloudiness of the crystal cleared and the commander saw through the light to the centre of the device. He quickly pressed the rune again. The song ended and the light shined dimly on. Looking up, he saw that the device had caught the razorclaw's attention. Noctus was frozen, halfway through removing a ring from a dead human. Hesitantly, he moved the orb from side to side. Noctus’ eyes followed the shining ball intensely, his whole body mirroring the action.

“Varuthi!”

“Yes my Lord?”

“See that this man is paid.”

The cat quickly lost interest in the bauble. As the surviving soldiers slumped around the creek-bed, gasping, exclaiming or simply dropping into sleep, Varuthi returned carrying a small silken bag. Known in the service as dimensional pockets, these enchanted items could keep maps and orders dry, or alchemical unguents cool against the harshest weather. They also had other uses. From within the bag he hauled up a heavy bundle of long, fat, dark silver shapes. Four big, beautiful, frosty fish, their scales glittering in the desert sun hung delicately on a loop of black twine. Syverian Salmon from the Trade Sea, the rarest and most coveted food on the desert continent. He handed over the package to Shen, who lovingly cradled and wrapped several in palm-leaves and string. They would fetch a hefty price in the trade-warrens of Khaanos by morning. With relish, he set upon the last fish, dropping down cross legged to feast on the cool, frosty flesh. Most of the elves turned away in distaste at the shifter's barbaric, by Eladri standards, eating culture as he gutted and scaled the fish with an expert claw. Reicius shifted hesitantly from foot to foot. Though shaken and weary, he was eager to return to Imperial territory.

“You’ve done your duty well shifter,” he said over the noise of the feast. “I consider our contract well satisfied. Go with the gratitude of the Empress, may Dawn shine on you and Dusk Shelter you.” Shen appeared to ignore him, so after a moment he continued. “And…I should like to thank you as well. Personally. For … well anyway, thank you.” He walked away.

Varuthi remained behind for a while, watching Noctus’ meal with a mixture of fascination and disgust. Noctus worked methodically through it, filleting the choices parts of the massive fish and then joyously wolfing it down.

“Who are you, Razorclaw?” He asked eventually.

Shen looked up at him, warily chewing at the glistening meat. After a few more mouthfuls, he answered.

“I’m a penitent. ”

“A penitent? Like a flagellant?”

“No.”

“What then?”

“A monk… fighter, I suppose”

“You suppose?” Varuthi laughed.

“Hmmm.”

Munching.

“If you’re a monk, shouldn’t you be living in a monastery somewhere, contemplating the clouds or the sun or something? Where is your order?”

“Far away. Faaaar away.”

“Why aren’t you back there with them?”

Munching.

Varuthi’s stomach groaned in protest as the gristly display continued. He cringed, finally speaking to break up the hideous noise. “You know, where I come from you could pull one of those things out of the sea for dinner every day.”

The munching stopped.

“What?”

___

Some weeks later, Reicius Boraethia was chuckling to himself. He was lounging in a dwarf-borne palanquin, making his way through the streets of Dalyr towards the Jade Spire itself. The old wizard had certainly been surprised to see him back in Ilion so soon, especially with the artefact in tow and a tale of victory to bolster his glory. Even better, the bastard had been humiliated, unable to unlock the secret of the device and having to send for aid from experts in the Capital. Now. Here was Reicius back home in civilisation proper, the largest port and trading hub on this side of existence. Safely in his pocket, ready for presentation to the arcanists was the lucky golden orb which had won his passage. He could scarcely think of giving it up! Feverishly, he took it out, pulled aside the black silk covering and peered into the depths of the crystal. “Praise Cifyre,” he whispered as he often did, “Thank you for this blessing. May I never forget your kind benevolence. I pray that you find me worthy to continue carrying your token on, to be the bearer of your holy symbol after the arcanists' seance.” He peered pleadingly at the crystal, hoping for some sign of favor. For deep within the crystal, suspended in the milky, golden light was a fragment of black metal. Inscribed on it’s surface in shifting, luminous strokes, was the form of a sleeping purple man, his head haloed by a psionic disk.
___

Of the many disused rooms in the Jade Spire, the one suffering most profoundly from neglect was undoubtedly the séance chamber. More properly a two-walled mezzanine at the apex of the Tower, it’s ceiling was pierced by a circular hole representing the apex moon. Open-aired to aid with scrying, the room was beaten by weather at all hours of the day, bleaching the tiles and peeling away the paprys murals that coated the walls. The small waterlilly pond at the centre of the room was dry, it’s fountain finding use more often as a pulpit for lectures to the College’s few Astromancers. Even these would prefer the luxury of the nearby palace however, and would rarely linger after their classes. The Empire’s grip on the surrounding countryside was too total to require frequent divinations, so the dizzying, cloud-level views of Dalyr were rarely enjoyed by any other than sparrows making their nest in the rafters. On this particular day however, the chamber was in use for it’s other redeeming quality; privacy. The dusty wind whisked away any trace of the muttered words exchanged the two strange figures that moved about the room. No one on the floor below would catch even a whisper of their conversation.

A broad shouldered eladrin with a braided nobles’ topknot was pacing about the space with hands clenched behind her back. Her armoured boots clicked against the ashy stone floor as she tramped back and forth, her expression grim in the face of the wind.

“So what you’re saying is this was wasted effort?”

“Not necessarily.” The other figure was a wizard, the younger and more brilliant of the pair. He was intently examining a golden orb held in a drifting magical stasis, rotating lazily and throwing spidery reflections off against the walls. His spindly fingers caressed the surface of the device, rolling it idly in the air as a quill diligently recorded his observations nearby. He thumbed his lip as the silver rune swung into reach and his hand twitched towards it. With a shudder, he clenched his hands into fists and stuffed them into his pockets.

“But you’re saying that this is not him?”

“Semantically, yes, it is still him –“

“The Timelord.”

“Yes, yes, he has been called that, but of course we cannot know his true name. And this device, the ritual… He may not remember himself. It is truly the cruelest trick I have seen played with magic, and given that I reside in a school full of juvenile wizards, I should say- ”

“You said he’d been – severed. From the god-realm, by this device. What affect will that have on his faculties?”

“Impossible to say! Deva are astral creatures of the first order, we know that much about them. Some speculate that they are the fragments of gods cast out of heaven, or angels doing penance on earth. They are simply so rare that little study has been made of them, save to know that they sometimes regenerate new bodies and personalities upon death.”

The armored Eladrin waved her hands impatiently. “I’m familiar with deva, that’s why we sent troops to hunt out old temples and cairns.”

“Yes! Yes, precisely; the process is inextricably linked with the astral sea, finding it’s strongest earthly anchor in holy sites like the ones you mention.”

“You say this device is meant to prevent his regeneration … so why not just open the thing up? Let the process finish, then ask our questions? The Timelord will be no threat so soon after rebirth.”

“My Lady, we cannot possibly predict the effect this ritual will have had until he achieves regeneration! A Deva cut off from their god would likely go mad with grief and confusion, let alone a being like the Timelord. An actual, honest-to-Aerin demideity returned to mortal form. I think it likely that in his current state, he would be dissasembled by the sheer force of reality. This realm cannot accommodate un-gods.”

The pair were silent for a while contemplating the gently drifting sphere at the centre of the room. The scratching of the Wizard’s quill was carried off in a huffy wind, bringing with it the hot-earth smell of open desert and the sun-baked markets far below.

“Do we know how it happened? How he ended up here?”

“The vision was apparently very clear. The Timelord did battle with some great and indistinct evil in the Other realm, suffering a fatal blow to his godseed in the defense of Cifyre. He should have been wiped from existence utterly, extinguished as a sacrifice to this great evil. Yet somehow he was saved, rendered down into this lowest form of astral life. Who or what is responsible for this bizarre device however, I haven’t the slightest clue.”

“My orders are clear, mage. I am to question the Timelord on a number of topics ranging from Aceri’s Matrix to his role in the Giant Wars during his 9th manifestation. Should I understand that you will not surrender this orb into my care until your superiors in Mortarion have had their say on it?”

“I am sorry My Lady, but that must be my answer. With the variables in this case, the risk is simply too great.”

“I respect your decision and would like to offer my House troops as security for the artifact as it travels to Mortarion.”

The Wizard looked at her warily, rubbing his papery palms together. “Oh, no my dear that won’t be necessary. The security of your House must be your priority, I’ll have my page arrange some mercenaries for us.”

A brief look of annoyance flickered over the officer’s face before she stonily replied. “Of course.” She bowed. The Wizard ended his prestigitation, and the image of the orb dissolved into golden mist. The true artefact was elsewhere, hidden deep in the College vaults. With an uncertain smile, he nodded once to the officer and left the room.

His footsteps echoed in the spiraling corridor, until finally the grinding circle-door closed behind him. The officer stood alone on the platform at the top of Dalys city.

“Did you hear all of that?”

The bubble of black smoke burst into existence, swirling and billowing until a skeletal figure emerged. He stepped through the veil as though parting a waterfall, his long robes dragging a whirl of dead autumn leaves along with them. Beneath his hood, black eyes glittered like wet ink on a page. The revenant spoke, his lips curling upwards in a sinister sneer.

“That little one talks to much.”

The officer clenched her jaw. She was used to the undead, having spent at least a year on duty in the Capital. This one however, was uniquely unsettling. Rooting her feet to the ground, she stood her ground as he paced towards her, fighting the impulse to recoil.

“But what do you think?”

He shrugged. “Easy enough. The peasants still keep clear of the College due to old superstitions. The guards are complacent, dull-witted. I can manage."

“What about these mercenaries he mentioned? Nothing can link the theft to House Uris. If anyone sees you take the orb, the deal is off and we’ll hunt you down along with the rest of the guard.”

Ultionis chuckled, a wet, hacking sound like a rake on dry grass.

“Actually, I have an idea on that account.”

Reicius staggered up the incline, ragged, hungry and aching from his wounds. Bruises peppered his bare arms and back, and a puffy red whip-welt throbbed dully on his neck and face. He had been beaten, humiliated, ejected with dishonor from the Jade Spire. His pleas had been laughed off, the mages taking his precious orb with hollow thanks and patronizing smiles. He told them, told them how important the object was. He had screamed it at them in the Pearl Court, warned them of the fledgling power that lay within the Orb of Tartaria. He had told them that he was Cifyre’s appointed bearer. Eventually the Jade Guard had dragged him outside, as the gods-forsaken witches watched with uncaring expressions. They had stripped him, caned him and left him in the gutter, bloodied for disturbing the Justiciars above. Few in the street outside had taken notice. He could still feel the tug of the object in his mind, the warm, fledgling consciousness growing within the beautiful jewel. It felt like a void, a hot, heavy hole in the side of his psyche. There was a word, a sensation, which he knew, but could not put a name to, a sensation that the object exuded. He craved it. He ached. After days of absence, he had limped back into House Githyr holdings, demanding a horse, his amour and a hot meal. The guards had not even recognized him. Thinking him some mad old beggar, they had hurled him back into the street. They would be no help. But he still had money, his own personal wealth. It waited for him at the credit houses of Linys, and he would be heading there soon, when he finished his task for Cifyre. His ring, stamped with the Sigil of House Githyr had been enough to secure a small bag of gold by courier. Half of that jangled now in a purse at his side, the rest remained buried in a secret spot in the wastes around the city.

Bloody fingers scrambled against rock, scaling the jagged, slippery slope of the red-dust foothill. Bleary-eyed in the sun, he peered around wildly in search of the zenith. He knew he must be close, as far to the east he could see the graying walls of the ancient city. Below him, a scree-slope tumbled away into the distant shade. He had overheard a rumor down in the city, a passing comment between shopkeepers. On the road west, in the hills above the road to Linys, some mad hermit spent his days fishing in a volcanic spring. He had set out that morning, taking the road towards sunrise up to the ashen landscape beyond the road. With a last, heaving effort, he rolled over the top of the stony incline. The sun-beaten rock scorched his bare skin, and he struggled quickly up to his feet. He could smell water nearby.

It didn’t take him long to find. Up on the plateau, the air was clear of the dust that blew through the valleys and troubled the roads. A light, clean wind was gusting, soothing his lungs and tortured flesh. He followed a trail of empty ration-bags, stumbled down a goat-path into a white, sandy basin and found himself at the shore of a crystal-blue pool held in it’s bowl. A languid column of steam rose from the lake, a dome of froth bubbling up from it’s centre. He collapsed into the shallow water, drinking deeply and luxuriating in it’s cool touch. He surfaced, spluttering as water entered his lungs. Hacking and coughing he slumped down on the shore in exhaustion.

“You look familiar,” a low voice growled behind him. Swinging around, Reicius spotted a figure in the shade of some nearby desert-palms, lounging on a moss-covered boulder. He was wrapped in a voluminous desert cloak, it’s face shadowed by an odd conical hat and dust-shawl. A heavy paw hung loose at it’s side, resting on a simple fishing rod; a striped orange tail lashed beside him. The line dangled loosely, trailing off into the centre of the pool.

“You," panted Reicius. "I’ve been looking for you.”

Shen’s ears twitched with curiosity. “Hmm. I remember you now. Military man.” He nodded at the eladrin’s shabby appearance. “Did you have trouble finding the place?”

“I’ve got a job for you cat. You stole it once for me already.” He tossed the bag of gold at the foot of the boulder. It chimed loudly against the stone ringing out in the crisp desert air.

Golden eyes shone in the shadows beneath the rice hat. They studied the elf evenly then slid down to the moneybag. A fat gold piece had tumbled out onto the sand.

“Alright let’s talk.” He stretched, flexing his paws and climbing to his feet. He tossed Reicius a rationpack, clearly stolen from a military caravan. “You didn’t bring any food did you? I haven’t caught a single thing since I got here.”

_

“What’s the pay?” asked the Tiefling indifferently. Ultionis told him and he put down his cards. The raucous noise of the tavern, the stomping feet and the ringing tune of the bard’s mandolin kept their conversation private. Magnus looked around anyway; it wouldn’t do to have some local cutthroat overhear and take an interest. He looked suspiciously into the revenant’s eyes, searching for the angle. “So, protection detail. Stand around, look tough, keep an eye on this chest of theirs. ”

“Yes. The caravan will head north to the teleportation circle. They’ll only need you for a few hours, when the cargo spends a night in a transit safehouse.”

“That’s good money for a nights’ work. And you were what, just out jobhunting for us?”

“This kind of thug-work is not really my style,” he smirked, “but I thought of you pair when I heard of it.”

Harken weighed in to the discussion, his deep voice rumbling approvingly. “We could use the work. And this sounds better than the grimy jobs we’ve been getting recently. By Xorvitar! A vigil to safekeep a dangerous magical device! I say we accept.”

“Aye.” Magnus looked askance at Ultionis. “And you? You don’t want in on the action?”

“It’s only a job for a few swords. I have other work lined up.” He got up from his seat at the booth and gathered his belongings. “I did have a look at the place for you though. Just as a favor. If it were me trying to steal this thing, I’d definitely get in through the roof.”

“Kind of you to mention Ultionis,” rumbled Harken. “We will focus our attention there, and catch any would-be thief by surprise. Ha Ha!”

With a smile and a wave, Ultionis bid his comrades good luck and made his way down the street towards the open sewer-grate.

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