“Axrom’s balls!” Gax hissed. “You don’t think I killed him, do you, Dar?”
“He looks plenty dead,” Darlis’eit said, shaking her head. She put a palm to her brow. “I’m bewildered… I shouldn’t be, what with you being a dumb idiot, but I am. Blight me, Gax! You’ve got to start looking before you throw other idiots through windows!”
At the orc’s feet lay two men. One, named Eberel, was the idiot Gax had defenestrated. He was groaning and shifting atop the innocent bystander Gax had inadvertently struck with the human missile. Gax, suddenly sober, bent down and roughly shoved Eberel off the other man, who, to his immense dismay, just happened to be the mayor of Durthlem.
Hushed cries of alarm came from all around Gax and Dar. At least a dozen patrons had witnessed the mishap. Eberel had imbibed too much ale and thought it a good idea to attempt riding Gax around the tavern. Gax decided that the fourth attempt had been the final and sent Eberel for a different kind of ride right through the open window of the tavern.
He and Dar had returned from an extended stay out in the wilds with the Bremmsh, a tribe of forest-dwelling orcs, a week ago and had spent a fair amount of time in various taverns telling the tales of that adventure. They had planned to leave Durthlem for Vaaljkr in the morning. This would complicate that plan.
Gax reached out a meaty, green-skinned hand, and felt for a pulse. His eyes popped open and a smile split his face. “He lives!”
Rough hands wrapped around Gax’s arms, hoisting him up. “That bodes well for you two,” one of the guards that had been escorting the mayor spat. “But until Halvos wakes up and has full use of his limbs, you’re rotting in a dungeon.”
An arcane string of words spilled from the mouth of the third guard standing behind the two that gripped Gax. A sting like the bite of a dozen fire ants spread across his wrists. Gax didn’t need to look to know a magical binding now secured his hands behind his back.
“Isn’t that a bit hasty!” Dar snapped. “Mayor Halvos might pop up in a minute or two.”
“You see the way his neck is bent?” asked the guard. “The way that arm is curled?” Dar bit back any reply she might have been preparing. Gax saw it, too. “That look at all normal to you?”
“Put a healer on him.”
“No shit!” the guard barked, letting go of Gax and squaring up to Dar. “I’ve heard your tales,” he continued in a low, threatening tone. “You’ve adventured quite a bit. We’ve both seen healers channel all manner of power from all manner of gods and come up short when it comes to fixing a spine.” He shot a look over his shoulder at his companions and nodded toward the elf. “You’ll shut your blighting mouth and stay still if you know what’s good for you.”
Gax was dumbstruck. How many times had he thrown a drunkard through a window, out an open doorway, or even into some manner of furniture and walked away with a free mug of ale for it, or, at worst, after parting with a few silver ovals? Too many to count, surely.
This time, he very well may not be walking away at all. Justice was sometimes swift and merciless when a government official was involved. Gax wouldn’t be at all surprised if he and Dar had their legs and arms broken if Halvos was to wake as a quadriplegic. If he didn’t wake at all soon, they’d be meeting their gods.
The guard nearest Dar snatched her by the arm and moved to her back. The mage walked over as the guard restraining the elf pressed her hands together. Dar’s scowl remained intact, but she turned a meaningful gaze on Gax and nodded.
A single arcane word slipped from the mage’s mouth, then Dar activated the magic in the necklace the Bremmsh orcs had given her as a token for saving the Lirrus. A blast of power erupted outward from Dar, catching the guard restraining her fully unaware and sending him careening into the mage, who then fumbled the spell. The guard still at Gax’s side swore then pulled his sword from its sheathe. Gax spun toward the man and slammed his forehead into the man’s temple.
The guard’s helm saved him from unconsciousness and provided Gax with a sharp pain across his brow. The orc, not wanting to be ran through by the dizzy but now enraged man, shot a knee up into his gut. That doubled the guard over, his sword falling from his grasp to clatter on the cobblestone. Patrons watching the scene unfold called out laments and curses.
“We’re in deep shit, Dar!” Gax called.
“Time to call in that favor from Elanura,” Dar whispered, now at Gax’s side. “Where is it?”
“Here!” Gax swiveled and extended his bound hands toward his elf companion.
“Which one?” Dar growled, her fingers running across the few tattoos etched into Gax’s skin about his wrist and forearm.
“The raven!” The guard who had been struck by Dar’s necklace was rising to a knee, his face a mask of rage.
Dar touched the tattoo with two fingers, stretched out a leg and placed her foot on the mayor’s chest, then spoke a trigger word in the goblin-tongue. Nothing happened.
“Did you say it right?” Gax cried.
“I’m not fluent in mongrel talk! Why couldn’t it have been common? You’re sure it’s this one?”
“Yes… wait! No! No, it’s the… the… Blight me, what all’s on there? I can’t see it.” Gax began to spin about as he tried to crane his neck and position his arms around his body and the battleaxe strapped to his back to see his own wrists.
Dar snatched his hand and yanked him back around. “Stop moving!” She pressed her fingers to a tattoo of a lily and spoke the word. The mage was now up and casting.
“It’s the pig!” Gax screamed, the pitch of his voice higher than he thought possible.
He felt Dar’s two fingers press a spot on his forearm, heard her belt the word. The guard she’d knocked down was a stride away, his sword beginning its descent for Dar’s neck. Gax roared in protest of his friend’s death.
The volume of his yell was suddenly much louder. The dim of night was replaced by an ethereal blue glow that quickly faded to black.
“Shut up!” Dar snarled, jabbing Gax in the ribs.
The orc quieted, his head swiveling to take in the room he and Dar were in. It was a foyer with a barred gate on either side. A spiraling staircase led up toward the ceiling then terminated at nothing. Gax stared at that oddity for a moment, wondering why a walkway hadn’t been constructed from that and to the wooden door set in the wall on the second story. Beyond the gate nearest to them was a library, a storeroom through the other.
“Why a blighting pig?” Dar asked.
Gax shuffled around Dar to see if Halvos had come along with them and found him sprawled on the floor. “Why’d we bring him?”
The door on the second story swung open. A woman in a crimson robe, auburn hair shot through with streaks of silver, walked across the air as though on a bridge. She stopped, turned, braced her hands on an invisible banister. She looked down at the intruders, her gaze intense and jaw slack for a moment. “What in the nine hells?” she whispered as she took in the trio. “Is that Halvos?”
“Aye,” Gax said sheepishly. “We might have killed him a little bit.”
“Him,” Dar quickly put in, nodding toward Gax. “Not ‘we’.”
Elanura’s mouth dropped open. She stared at the scene long and hard, bewildered. Gax thought she was weighing whether to teleport them right back out onto the street or not. She sighed, closed her eyes for a moment, then spoke an arcane word and ran her hand through the air. A shimmering square of dim green light appeared. She reached a hand through the portal and came back with a decanter of dark wine.
“As to why the pig,” she said, staring down into the decanter, “what’s the goblin-tongue derogatory term for an orc?”
Gax’s brow wrinkled in concentration. Dar’s lips pulled up in a smile.
“We need to call in that favor,” Dar said a short while later, Elanura seated on a divan in the foyer, her eyes plastered to the still unconscious Halvos, her hands occupied with the decanter and a wine glass.
“Apparently,” she said.
“Hey,” Gax said, staring at his arm, “the pig is gone.”
“I didn’t give you unlimited access to teleport into my home whenever you want. Gods know you’d portal in every other day if that was the case. This is a single favor, though I’m not too sure I can deliver what you need.”
“You haven’t done more than look at him from a distance,” Dar said.
“Have you seen magic fix many necks like that?”
“I know, I know,” Dar said, exasperated. “How long until you know whether you can heal him or not?”
“A few days at least. I need to put him in a stasis, research, gather the necessary reagents, commune with the right gods… Then, I’ll know if I even have a chance.”
“A few days,” Gax echoed. “All of Durthlem will think we killed the mayor by then. Even if Halvos turns up fine, we’ll still be in a world of shit.”
“And Durthlem’s not a good city to be wading through shit in,” Elanura said. “It’s big, with a lot of political connections and allies. You’ll both end up with a hefty bounty on your heads that’ll span the whole of the country.”
“Blight!” Dar hissed. “If we make it out the other side of this with our heads still on our shoulders, you’re not throwing another drunk idiot through any windows or doors, you dumb idiot!”
“To top it off, Halvos was responsible for presiding over the Gods’ Feast tomorrow,” Elanura added with a tip of her glass. “He’s likely done most the work, but his missing that will be quiet the upset. You’ve both royally blighted this one.”
“I’m not the one tossing people like they’re coin purses!” Dar snapped, glaring at Gax.
“Maybe not, but he’s your companion, and you’re just as in the shit as he is at this point, yes?” Dar’s frown softened. “Right then. I have an idea to buy you both some time. It probably won’t work, and this better not come back to me.” Elanura paused to refill her glass then bring it to her lips where she downed half the contents. “Gax, I’ll need to hold your battleaxe for a time, but I doubt you’ll need it, what with you becoming responsible for running Durthlem and all.”
This wasn’t Gax’s first time dawning the guise of another using illusory magic. Just months ago, a wizard had cast such a spell on him that made all who looked at him see a stunning human female rather than a bullish orc. Despite his experience, he still found himself quite uneasy seated behind mayor Halvos’ grand oak desk.
Aides rushed in with parchment awaiting his signature, which he swiftly applied with a stroke of the pen that left an illegible wiggle. Architects and street coordinators harassed him with updated plans for the holiday festivities that mayor Halvos had been part of planning for the past several months. The treasurer barked numerical figures as often as she loosed obscenities, making Gax feel more like he was at a cards table than holding an important office in a large city.
A sudden crack stalled a hysterical actor in his pitch. Gax tipped backward, the source of the disturbance the shattering of one of the legs of his chair, his hands flailing about to grab something. Rather than arrest his fall, he flung loose papers about the room as he careened. Others, he crumpled in hands that looked like those of a meek, middle-aged human but were actually those that could, and had on occasion, throttle men with necks like those of a shark.
The actor, having spent several minutes pleading with the mayor to be allowed a small corner or an additional street cordoned off for his troop to perform, immediately carried on. Gax, having tuned the man out some time ago to stare blankly at the papers that were now flitting slowly to the ground, stood swiftly. His ego was far more damaged than his head, which had struck the wall behind him. Dar, seated in the corner of the room, couldn’t stifle a laugh.
“Axrom’s balls, man!” Gax boomed. “We don’t have the blighting room and you’re probably a shit actor if you’re skills at cards are any sign. Piss off or I’ll have you thrown in a dungeon… I can do that, right?” he added, shooting a sideways glance at Dar. Rather than a confirmation, he received a stony glare in response.
“Cards?” the actor wailed. “What’s this about cards?”
“Shit,” Gax hissed, remembering that the man thought him Halvos, mayor of Durthlem, not Gax, the orc that had effortlessly crushed him in cards at the tavern last night. The coin Gax had won off the man at least explained his desperate plea to be allowed a place to perform for such a large festival. “It’s a metaphor, is all.” Gax said after the silence stretched.
“What part?” the man asked. “And for what?”
“The mayor is running short on time, and I’m dry of patience,” Dar said, standing from her chair.
“Mayor Halvos, I beg –”
“And I demand that you shut your hole!” Dar snapped, grabbing the man by the arm and escorting him forcefully toward the door. Gax couldn’t tell if the actor was still putting on a show, or if Dar was digging her fingers into a pressure point like she’d done many times to him in the past. “If he tries to come back in,” she barked at the guards standing vigil outside the room, “run him out of town.”
The armored men and women in the hall turned questioning glances on their mayor. “Aye, what she said,” Gax said, nodding. The guards, including the man who had nearly decapitated Dar before the teleportation spell had taken effect, captain of the mayor’s personal guard by the name of Alver, nodded.
Dar shut the double doors leading into the office, locked them, then spun and leaned her back heavily against the wood. She stared at Gax with wide, far-off eyes, like those a scribe would have after spending a day and more staring at and transcribing an ancient tome. “Blight running a city,” she said after a time.
“Gods, yes,” Gax said, leaning over the table and lying his torso across it. “Everyone is so needy.”
“And how is one man supposed to keep track of all those moving pieces?”
Gax planted his palms on the table and pressed himself up. “And for something so stupid! You would think they’re planning to storm the capital!”
“Bunch of children!”
“Dolts, the lot of them.”
“If Elanura can’t fix Halvos in a day, we’ll just up and leave Durthlem. Hells, we’ll leave the country altogether if we must.”
“Blight a day! I say eight more hours. Axrom’s balls, I need a drink.” Gax began opening and rifling through drawers, hoping to find a flask. One drawer was locked, the sturdy mechanism and strong wood not allowing it to budge in the slightest. Gax scanned the top of the desk for a key, devoting all of half a second to the task, then braced one hand against the desk and pulled on the drawer handle with all his considerable might.
The handle broke free from the wood. Gax’s hand shot back and smashed through the window behind him. Broken glass tumbled down to the street below, cries of alarm from passerby sounding. Gax spun toward Dar, his eyes wide as dinner plates and a frown upon his face. He knew that the illusory magic was fickle, and that sustaining even minor damage could dispel it.
Dar blew out a deep sigh. “You idiot. You blighting idiot.” She ran a hand down her face, squeezing her fingers and thumb against her temples.
“Gods! I didn’t?” Gax hissed, searching for a mirror.
“No, you’re still Halvos,” Dar said. “Still though, you’re no less an idiot.”
Gax began to breathe a sigh of relief, but the doors to the office burst open. Dar, having heard the footsteps approaching, nimbly shuffled away from the doors so they wouldn’t strike her.
“Everything alright in here?” barked Alver, staring menacingly at Dar with his hand on his sword hilt.
“Aye,” Gax said, drawing a scowl from the guard. “Yes, I mean. Yes, everything is just as fine as it was prior to now.” Gax found that more intelligent folk tended to use more words when less would suffice. Judging from Dar’s raised eyebrow and slanted mouth, he figured he still didn’t have their speech down well.
“What happened to your window, then?” Alver asked. He scanned the room, likely for a rock or some other missile.
“The handle to this here desk drawer broke right free of the wood of the desk when I went to open the desk drawer with my hand by pulling on it, the way one would normally do to do that.” Even the guards in the hallway behind their captain slowly straightened from their crouches and stared at Gax as if he’d sprouted a second head.
“That’s the second piece of furniture to break in the past few minutes,” Dar interjected. “Do you furnish the mayor’s office with scrap wood found in an alley?”
“My father built that desk and those chairs for mayor Rivan,” one of the guards in the hallway snapped. “It’s the finest oak you’ll find in our country.”
“Might have been once but it seems like shit now.”
“Halvos,” Alver said, interrupting the building argument, “why is she still here? She and her orc friend healed you, which is great and all, but what is she still around for? Are you going to make anyone who accidentally nearly kills you an official advisor?”
Gax began to formulate a rebuttal that would convince the man that Dar should be allowed to stay. But then he realized the position he was currently usurping. “You damn near chopped off her head then she goes and fixes me. The wizard that did the job only did it as a favor to her and her orc friend. Without her, I’d probably be dead. So, yes, she gets to stay for as long as I say. If I have to explain myself one more time, I’ll give your job to one of the others out there!”
The captain’s glare didn’t soften, but he inclined his head and backed out of the room, shutting the doors as he went.
“Better?” Gax asked Dar when they were alone again.
“You keep that up and maybe we decide to keep our posts here.”
Gax chuckled at the quip then returned to the desk. The lock was still intact, but enough wood had broken off that he could undo the mechanism by hand. The drawer slid open and out tumbled a handful of gewgaws and parchment. “Damn my luck,” Gax said. He began to pick the items up from the floor and stuff them back into the drawer.
“Hold a moment,” Dar said, staring at a smooth, translucent blue stone Gax held. She marched over to his side and inspected the stone. “That’s a scroll gem. Maybe the illusion will let you hear it. Go on, speak his name.”
Gax, never one to pass up a good opportunity at valuable or interesting information, grasped the stone in two fingers and said, “Halvos Osmond.” A red light flared within the stone, followed by a black rune. Then, the stone returned to its previous state. “Damn.”
“You saw that rune!” Dar said. Gax nodded but had no idea what it meant. “The Nalforant!”
“Blight me,” Gax swore.
“If Halvos is getting encrypted messages from that lot, he’s either as crooked as they come and owes them for some big favor, or he’s in league with evil bastards and deserved to have his neck broke.”
“Didn’t they sack a village a few weeks back? Abnor, right?”
“Aye. Took a dozen hostages and performed their evil rites. Search parties found the entrails well before they found the bodies. What was left of them, at least.”
“So, blight running a city, then.”
“If it involves anything related to the Nalforant, blight it six ways and then some.” Dar sucked in a deep breath then blew it out. “The festival starts in a few hours. You’re due downtown in half that. I’ll go check in with Elanura. You do your best to keep your head down. No more blighting things up, understood?”
“Dar, when have I ever been able to not blight things up? Still, though, we make it out okay most times.”
“It only takes the one time when we don’t to make all the difference. Don’t let this be that time.”
Strands of thin pine branches woven together spun around banisters and encircled doorways. Witch lights of various sizes and colors cast by all manner of mage twinkled over tables and amongst tree foliage. Blazing streetlamps and floating candelabra cast warmth and light in such abundance that the setting sun seemed to have climbed back up into the sky in the town square. Colorful flora sprouted from shrubs and benches so vivaciously that there was no doubt a druid had conjured the immaculate display.
Amongst the grand decorations and awe-inspiring magic, hundreds of folk milled about like a sea churning with endless currents. Gax watched the masses with a slack jaw. A sense of togetherness, like he had felt with the Bremmsh, filled him.
Several times had a hearty slap fell on his back or an embrace wrapped around his waist. The giver of that gesture always stared at Halvos with bewilderment plain on their faces. They’d expected to clap a shoulder or hug the man about the chest. But Gax’s physical form was at least a foot taller than the illusion he wore. It was as good thing Elanura was such an accomplished wizard. If not, the spell likely would have failed by now.
To avoid further issues, Gax moved to his seat behind a long, overly-festooned table near the center of the square. At his back were several stone steps that led up to a fountain carved in the likeness of a mermaid. The stone writhed as water that changed color every couple of seconds shot from the mermaid’s hands and mouth. To either side of the enchanted stone were large wreathes shot through with strands of sparkling gold and silver twine.
The table and myriad decorations, Gax hoped, would dissuade most citizens from attempting to touch their mayor. A small glass of white wine took up the only available real estate on the table at Gax’s seat, the rest dominated by pine branches, painted acorns, glowing pinecones, and bows of multiple size and hue.
Gax lifted the glass to his lips quickly and drank the entirety of its contents in a single gulp. He winced at the bitter taste, never one to enjoy white wine. Of course, this would be Halvos’ preferred beverage. A drink was a drink, though, and Gax sorely needed a few. He cast about for an aide to refill his glass but found no one seemingly on the job.
“Idiot mayor,” Gax grumbled.
On the other side of the many long tables set up before him danced dozens of Durthlem citizens. A band played a jaunty tune that had the dancers swirling about vibrantly and those watching stomping their feet, clapping their hands, and swaying, smiles plastered to their faces. Gax couldn’t help but smile also as he watched the merriment. So many different folk dressed in finery or lively costumes, worshipping all manner of different gods, celebrated on this single day each year in unison.
Squeals of delight erupted every so often as a parent or grandparent unveiled a new toy or garment to a child as a present. Candies and desserts coated the lips and cheeks of most children as often as their hands held them. The smells of those delights wafted through the square, notes of cinnamon, sugar, apple, fig, and pumpkin carrying on the light breeze to Gax’s nose.
Mugs of ale, glasses of wine, or flasks of harder spirits clanked against one another as folk celebrated together. Gax watched over it all, lost for a moment in the revelry. The chair next to him slid out, the legs scraping the stone and jolting him.
“Axrom’s balls!” he swore.
“She’s made great progress,” Dar said. “Spine is fixed. Should be only a few more hours before she can wake him. She took a deep drink of her mug of ale then used it to push a pinecone off the table to make room for it. Her eyes sparkled and she looked down into the mug as if a joyous scene was playing out within. “Mmm. Pumpkin and clove. Ooh, and cinnamon?”
Gax nearly toppled the entire table reaching for her mug. Dar, with ever swift reflexes, smacked his reaching hand. “All I’ve had is a bit of piss water!” he complained. “You know I love pumpkin, Dar!”
“Aye, I do. Go find your own mug.”
“I can’t! I’ll get hugged or pummeled until the damn spell fades away,” he growled.
Dar considered that for a moment then shrugged a shoulder. “Eh, it’s probably better that you’re sober anyway.”
“That’s never better for anyone ever!” he snarled.
“Gods, you’re a grumpy mayor. Here.” Dar’s other hand, which Gax only now realized had been hidden at her side, lifted and stretched toward the orc. A fresh mug of steaming ale was grasped in it.
“By the gods, it’s warm, too!” Most ales were better the colder they were, though Gax had mostly imbibed lukewarm drink. A select few deserved to be warmed in a kettle. He’d only ever had one, in this very square during this very feast several years ago. He’d quaffed the entire thing in moments, hoping to get a second cup only to find the kettle emptied by the many clamoring citizens.
A firm hand clamped on Gax’s other shoulder, jostling him such that a gulp’s worth of ale sloshed from the mug. “Sir, there’s an emergency that needs your attention immediately.”
Gax was being hoisted up by his armpit by Alver. He was really beginning to loathe this man. The captain suddenly stared at Gax sidelong, something about the feel of his mayor’s underarm wrong. Gax quickly followed the man up. Another hand snatched the mug from his hand and set it down. He tracked the thief with murderous eyes to see two more guards on the other side of the table.
Before Gax could swipe the mug from the table and take it with him, he was being hauled away by the guards. He nearly lifted and threw each one clear across the square to return to his ale.
“Not you!” snapped Alver after pushing Gax along. Gax looked over his shoulder and saw Dar standing before the captain’s outstretched hand.
Dar’s glare spoke of violence. “She comes, you blighter,” Gax snapped. The captain slowly turned a questioning gaze on Gax. The orc rolled his eyes, huffed, then added, “You’ve been such an angry fellow all day. It’s wearing on me. Dar’s taken a position as a guard. If there’s a problem, she could help.”
The captain nodded reluctantly.
The group hurried through the crowded square and packed streets. Dar hustled up to Gax’s side and held out the mug of ale, now halfway gone. “It was spilling,” she said after loosing a mighty belch.
Gax took the mug and drained what was left in a few gulps. “Gods, that’s good. I’ll need another two or three after this,” Gax whispered to Dar. Louder, he said, “What’s this emergency about?”
“Sewers,” Alver said without a moment’s hesitation.
“Sewers?” Dar echoed. “Shouldn’t that concern engineers and men with shovels?”
“It’s what was found in them.”
Dar nodded, then looked briefly to Gax. The orc was relieved to see the same skepticism on her face. Something was amiss. He didn’t have much to go off other than a gut feeling, but he and Dar had learned to trust those over their many years of adventuring. And when they both felt it, there was certainly something untoward headed their way.
“What did you find?” Gax asked.
“Not here,” Alver said, wiggling a finger about to indicate the mass of people they were pressing through.
“A body,” whispered one of the guards, drawing a scowl from the captain.
“Then get a coroner,” Dar said, stopping. Gax followed suit.
“It’s not so simple,” Alver growled.
“Make it that way.”
If a glare could melt flesh, Dar would be a puddle. “I don’t take orders from you. And neither do you,” he added, shifting his gaze to Halvos. Gax realized he’d been heeding Dar’s words too much in front of the men, acting out of sorts for Halvos. “I’m captain of your guard for a reason. I’m telling you this needs your attention. Are you going to let some blighter that almost killed you override that?”
Gax wanted to plant his fist firmly in the captain’s face. Instead, realizing that he needed to play this charade only a bit longer to reverse the damage he’d done, he nodded. “Show me.”
In short order, the group found themselves passing into a squat, stone building. Immediately within was another threshold blocked by an iron gate. The captain opened the locks on either side, then swung the bottom of the gate up. He handed the key to one of the guards, took a torch from the sconce on the other side, then began his descent down the stairway in the narrow corridor.
There was good reason why the utility workforce consisted primarily of gnomes, dwarves, halflings, and humans. Gax was sure he looked a fool in his human guise. He felt foolish enough, bent so low and turned sideways so his shoulders wouldn’t collide with the thin tunnel of well-crafted stone blocks. To onlookers, it would seem like Halvos had a very poor sense of his size, putting himself through unnecessary strain to stay so low and walk sideways, almost crablike.
Dar snapped to get Gax’s attention, then rolled her eyes down. Gax understood the cue and looked over Dar’s shoulder to see two guards behind them staring at their mayor in clear confusion. He noticed, too, that they had their hands on the hilts of their blades. “Bad knees,” he said, hoping to placate their interest.
The stench alerted the group that they were nearing the end of the tunnel. Gax nearly loosed an oath concerning Axrom’s testicles but caught the words behind his teeth. The thin tunnel let out onto a landing platform barely large enough to accommodate the five guards, Gax, and Dar. An opening in the wall to the left of the platform held stairs that went further down. To the right was a locked iron gate. Directly ahead was a sturdy railing, and beyond that was the canal where the odor was coming from.
The hiss of flowing liquid and slosh of more solid waste sounded. Gax heard a muttering voice nearly hidden by the constant noise. But it was there for a moment before it quickly hushed.
“This way,” Alver said, walking toward a set of stairs that led down passed the railing and toward the canal.
“You couldn’t have pulled it out of the shit,” Dar said flatly. To the guards, she may have sounded like her normal, irate self. To Gax, she sounded like a tightly pressed coil ready to explode. No one responded to her.
Closer to the railing, Gax saw that the canal was covered by plates of iron with small holes in them. There was much more room down there than there was on the platform. Railings to either side and a stone wall at the back provided a mostly enclosed space. He saw, too, several figures standing near the rear wall.
Something cut through the air behind Gax. Swift footsteps followed by the meaty thwack of steel entering flesh sounded. The orc whirled just as Dar disappeared down the open stairway to the right. One of the guards at the back began wheezing and growling in agony. He screamed, or tried to, but found himself gurgling on blood instead. The other guard pursued Dar.
“A complication, I see,” droned a low voice.
“Halvos must have decided wrong,” Alver said.
“Unfortunate,” the voice said, though he sounded quite pleased.
“What’s this about?” Gax asked, feigning terror. He stopped before the stairs, the torches the other guards held illuminating the landing.
“Come now, Halvos,” the voice said. The owner stepped away from the wall, trailed by two others. They wore short cloaks, their hoods up. Plate armor covered the speaker, trimmed in purple and black. The other two wore leather and cloth vestments. They pulled their hoods back to reveal eyes stained orange.
Nalforant. Gax knew little about the cult, though he did know the origin of their odd eye color. They mixed blood from victim’s used in sacrificial rites with a terribly powerful narcotic called twist, the two substances mixing to orange, then dropped the drug into their eyes. The results were usually seizures, foaming mouths, and occasionally death, which they coveted depending on the cause and timing. But the substance left a lingering orange hue in the whites of their eyes.
These three had recently dropped. Gax hoped that would impair their vision enough that he could dispose of them.
“We know you listened to our message,” the man continued. Scroll gems, Gax knew from experience, informed the sender when their message was delivered and heard by the recipient. “Based on the new friend you brought with you, it would seem you’ve decided the path of resistance.”
“Her?” Gax asked, pointing a thumb toward the stairway. “It looks like that dead man there tried cutting her head from her shoulders. Can’t blame her for sticking him.”
“Something’s not right,” Alver said. “I’ve felt it since you came back with that elf. Jhor, bring him down here. I have a theory.” The captain pulled a knife from his belt.
“Come on,” Jhor said to the guard next to him. The two crept toward the stairs. Had Gax been a less experienced fighter, he may have focused only on the two guards approaching. Instead, he continued to scan the room and noticed one of the Nalforant cultists shaking a petrified human hand and casting some dark spell. He also noticed the captain whip his hand forward.
The knife sailed past Gax as he lurched to the side. Riding the momentum of that sudden move, Gax vaulted over the railing and snapped one leg out. His shin caught Jhor squarely in the nose, shattering it with a crunch. Heat and sound erupted behind Gax as the mage finished her spell and a column of flame appeared where Gax had been standing.
Steel sang as blades leapt into hands. Gax burst forward to get at the spellcaster. The Nalforant cultist on the other side of the leader appeared as though he had teleported, blocking the orc’s path. Like Gax, the man was unarmed, so the orc didn’t slow in the slightest. He rushed forward and swung the back of his arm at the man to bat him aside so he could get to the mage then crush her head against the stone wall.
A blow like that of a sledgehammer struck Gax in the solar plexus, completely eradicating any forward momentum he had. He stumbled backward, unable to breathe. The cultist rose from a crouch, his movements purposeful and snakelike. A monk, Gax realized, trained in the martial arts so incredibly well that they could direct kinetic energy in a way similar to how a mage directed fire and lightning.
“You,” Alver said. “Where’s Halvos?”
“Who is this orc?” the leader of the Nalforant asked.
Gax was thankful for the lull in fighting, and that the other man had spoken up; he was still fumbling for breath, his chest heaving and constricting without drawing in air.
“No one of importance. He and that elf nearly killed Halvos the other day.”
“Halvos is a man of many enemies, it would seem.”
“Wait, where is Halvos?” the captain asked again more emphatically. “Did you kill him? He’s dead and you thought to take his place as mayor? How long could a spell like that last?”
“Halvos isn’t dead,” Gax managed to say after finally sucking in a much-needed breath. “A wizard friend of mine will have him patched up and back on his feet in a matter of hours. This was temporary, just so my friend and I didn’t land in the shit everywhere we went for killing Durthlem’s mayor.”
“Seems you’re further in it than before,” the Nalforant cultist said. “In fact, you’ll find yourself quite literally in it momentarily.”
“Halvos might have crossed you and his guard might be crooked, but that has nothing to do with us. You were going to put us in a dungeon to rot. We did something to keep that from happening. Ain’t no business of ours what is going on otherwise. Me and Dar, we’ll pack up and get right out of Durthlem for good.”
“Our reputation doesn’t precede us?” the cultist asked, placing a hand on his chest. “We have a perfect opportunity to slit your throat and bleed you completely dry. There’s no one here to stop us. You have no weapons. The authorities are in league with us. Under what falsehood did you ever think we would consider letting you go?”
Gax shrugged. “Worth a shot. Besides, us bullshitting gave her more time to sneak up behind you.” Gax pointed over the cultists’ shoulders to the back wall. Several heads whipped around. Gax rushed in at the monk, who hadn’t fallen for the ruse, then abruptly changed his angle and slammed into the guard whose nose he hadn’t flattened.
With a mighty pull of the guard’s arm, Gax spun him around and pressed himself tightly to the man’s back. One arm looped around the man’s throat and squeezed mightily. Gax’s other hand shot out and took the longsword from the guard’s grasp. Grunts and strangled cries escaped between the guard’s teeth Gax was currently strangling. He ended the man’s resistance by plunging the sword through his ribcage, both lungs, heart, and out the other side.
The mage began to cast. Motion from the platform to Gax’s left caught his attention. He changed his grip on the corpse, spun, then launched the dead man at the cultist leader and Alver to the right. His ploy didn’t foil the mage’s spell, but Dar’s saber did.
The elf all but flew over the railing and down to the landing. When her feet lit upon the iron squares, her blade lashed out and decapitated the mage. She continued her momentum toward the Nalforant cultist wearing plate armor, but only managed a single step. The monk closed the distance between himself and Dar faster than Gax thought possible for a human then jumped and spun.
A snapping round kick caught Dar fully in the chest. Unlike Gax, with his considerable bulk, Dar’s feet left the floor and she careened backward. Her back slammed into the railing and she pitched over. If not for her quick reflexes and strong grip, she would have wound up swimming in waste. She arrested her fall by grasping the railing, though the monk was in quick pursuit to finish her.
Gax would have to leave the elf to her devices. The three remaining enemies formed a semi-circle and began to creep toward him. “I’m thinking the odds are stacked in my favor now.”
The cultist smiled devilishly, spoke an arcane string of words, then ran a hand swiftly over his bastard sword. Red and black flames erupted from the metal then smoldered as though upon a dry log. “I’d say not.”
Gax spared a look at Dar to see her in a precarious position. She had shimmied left along the railing and found a thin walkway to plant her feet on. A half-step away from the wall would plunge her into the waste flowing by in the open canal. The monk was climbing over the railing to pursue her. Experienced though she was, Dar would need help to deal with the monk, especially on such perilous ground.
Alver and Jhor seemed intent on allowing the cultist with his magically imbued blade to deal with Gax. He was on the right side of the semi-circle, though. Gax took advantage of their hesitancy and sprang toward, Jhor, who was on his left. Jhor backpedaled suddenly, the cultist charging in. Gax expected as much.
Gax lurched toward the cultist and swiped at him with the sword he’d pilfered. The puny blade didn’t have the reach Gax was accustomed to when wielding his battleaxe, but it worked as intended. The cultist pulled up short and swung his blade at Gax in a short arc then poised it for a thrust. The swipe Gax had taken at him had been a ruse as well, though, and the orc was already reorienting on his original target.
Jhor’s broken nose must have dissuaded him from wanting to enter the fray, for he hadn’t rushed in at Gax’s back like he expected. Alver did, though. The captain swung his blade down for Gax’s skull. Stopping now would allow the cultist to close in on Gax, so he continued his dash toward Jhor, raising the sword over his head, praying to Axrom that the steel held against the larger blade.
It did not.
The blades collided and a great clang sounded, followed by a snap. Gax’s sword slowed Alver’s enough and changed its angle so the strike came down on his bicep. It cut a deep furrow in his flesh, but Gax barely felt the sting of that blade. He continued onward with a spin that dislodged the blade from his arm.
Jhor dropped his own blade and began to run. Fueled by rage, Gax was moving with a speed the human couldn’t hope to match. He rammed the few inches of blade left of his sword through the back of Jhor’s neck. He left the broken blade embedded there, grabbed Jhor’s shoulder with his good arm, and flung the corpse at Alver and the Nalforant.
Gax whirled toward his pursuers. The cultist held his sword up high, point nearly touching the ceiling, and spoke an alien language. Gax’s ears throbbed as the words left the man’s mouth, Alver wincing and stumbling in pain as well. The cultist’s eyes flashed purple. A violet rune appeared on the floor beneath Gax’s feet, then streaks of purple light erupted upward and encased him.
Stabs of pain shot through every inch of Gax’s body. A sudden lethargy assailed him, his arms and legs seemingly turned to lead. He staggered forward as the rune dissipated. Alver wasted no time as he bounded forward to take advantage of Gax’s diminished state.
A crosscut came for Gax’s side. He flung himself to the ground in a roll. The sword connected with his back but glanced off, leaving only a shallow cut in its wake. Gax, sprawled on the floor at Alver’s feet without a weapon, was ripe for the killing. The orc looked up at Alver’s smiling face as the man oriented his blade for a downward stab.
Gax’s fingers slipped down into the slim opening in the iron square Alver stood upon. He called upon his rage and desperation to beat back the exhaustion and pain. With a roar, Gax gripped the panel and heaved. He had hoped to flip the plate completely over, putting Alver on his back or in the waste below. Instead, he only disrupted the man’s balance and dislodged the plate from its spot.
Alver stumbled backward into the cultist, allowing Gax the time to clamber to his feet. He took the iron plate with him as he rose, though he struggled with its weight. The cultist and Alver split apart and crept at Gax from either side of opening. Gax backed away slowly, hugging the iron plate to his chest with one arm.
“Together now,” Alver said to the cultist. “On three.” The cultist nodded and poised his blade for a stab. “One.” Gax all but smiled as he continued to lumber backward. “Two.” Alver struck out with a slash angled down and to the right, intent on pushing Gax toward the cultist who waited for the thrust. Gax was prepared for the ploy. And his barbaric rage had nearly eradicated the lethargy from the cultist’s spell.
Gax flung the iron plate out and battered Alver’s sword aside. He spun with the momentum of the plate and brought it up and out. The edge of the iron square missed Alver as he ducked beneath it, but the man’s sudden crouch and wide-flung arm left him off balance. He took a hard step to keep himself upright, but instead of his boot landing on iron, it went straight through the opening in the floor the plate Gax held was meant to cover.
Alver’s side slammed into the edge of the hole. His legs splashed down into the muck. His elbow and hand arrested his descent for a moment. Then Gax raised the iron plate above his head and slammed it down atop Alver’s helm. Iron striking steel sounded and reverberated within the tunnel with terrible volume. Alver splashed down into the waste, unconscious if not fully dead from the blow.
Searing pain erupted along Gax’s ribs. Gax backed away from the cultist, pinching his elbow against his side where the tip of the blade had sliced. A burning agony sprang to life across the wound, seeming to devour Gax’s entire ribcage, chest, and shoulder.
A scream sounded. Only after a few seconds did Gax realize it was him screaming. The dark flame of the cultist’s blade had set his mind aflame. His senses were scrambled from the pain. He stumbled away like a wild animal stuck with a barbed spear. He swatted and scratched at his torso as if he could put out a fire blazing there.
The cultist stalked forward, saying something through a wicked grin. Gax couldn’t make sense of the man’s words, his mind an oblivion. Such was a state for him several times before in his life, though he’d put himself in such a madness, rage consuming and overwhelming him. Unlike a stuck animal whose instincts would demand flight, Gax only ever thought to fight.
Shock exploded off the cultist’s face as Gax suddenly lunged forward. The man quickly recovered and swung his flaming sword across. An animalistic terror of that fire lent Gax unimaginable agility. He somersaulted beneath the cut and into the man’s legs. Gax rose, his arms flailing up to catch the man’s hands and prevent that vile blade from striking him again.
Gax found purchase and locked the cultist in a tight embrace that foiled any further stabs or slashes. The two came nose to nose, and the cultist began speaking his abyssal tongue. The wound in Gax’s side exploded with new agony. His strength waned and the cultist seemed to devour it. The flaming sword moved toward his face.
Gax snapped his head forward and opened his mouth to bite out the cultist’s throat. White light flashed. Gax thought for a moment that the mage was back on her feet despite lacking a head, but quickly realized the cultist had slammed his forehead into his nose. The fire from the blade began to singe his cheek and ear.
The rage drained from Gax. The sudden explosion of pain across his face dulled the agony in his side. It provided him a moment of clarity, quieting the animal he had become. Gax remembered the layout of his surroundings. He lifted a leg and placed one foot on the cultist’s hip, spun, then fell to his back.
The fall was a practiced backward roll. Gax’s other foot came up and planted on the man’s opposite hip. He bent his legs in, then shot them outward as he rolled back onto his shoulders and released his grip on the man’s wrists.
The Nalforant cultist took to the air and flew right into the railing behind Gax. His knees struck the railing then his body violently pitched over and down into the waste. His sword clattered against the wall then sunk below the rubbish. Gax surged to wobbly feet, then was after the dark paladin.
Images of the black flame wielded by this vile man flashed in Gax’s mind. He was overwhelmed with the need to end him, to be truly rid of the threat of that abyssal fire. Gax vaulted the railing without hesitation. The cultist rose from the muck and wiped at his eyes.
Gax landed with a splash and his fist smashed into the man’s face, sending him onto his back once again beneath the vile surf. Gax dropped his knees down on the man’s shoulders, sat on his chest, then grasped his neck and throttled him. The cultist thrashed wildly to dislodge Gax to no avail. Gax would have sat there for the better part of a minute to drown the man. He found he didn’t need to as he pulverized the cultist’s trachea, a sickening crunch vibrated up from his thumbs and into his arms.
Despite the agony and lethargy assailing Gax, he found new strength fill his body as Dar cried out in pain and desperation. A splash sounded. Gax spun and saw through the tunnel beneath the landing above as Dar stumbled through the muck. She’d managed to keep from going down beneath the stuff, but Gax could see her gulping as if she were underwater and in need of air.
Gax was scrambling up the wall and over the railing in a flash. The monk splashed down into the waste to pursue Dar, the splash of his quick footsteps telling Gax he was moving in to finish her before she recovered. Gax sprinted toward the other railing then flew over it and toward Dar and the monk without stopping to consider the scene below.
He landed and bulled forward to slam into the man. He expected the monk to whirl toward him and deliver a brutal kick or devastating punch that would level him. He was fine with that, as long as it saved Dar. However, he connected squarely with the inert man’s back and bulled him down beneath the muck. This time, Gax ended up neck deep in the sewage as well. He found the monk’s neck and began to squeeze and press.
“He’s already dead, Gax!” Dar yelled. The words failed to sink in. “Gax! Gax!” she continued, accentuating that last cry with a slap to the back of the orc’s head.
Gax’s arm flung out at Dar. The elf was wise enough to know Gax was lost to his emotions and had moved back after striking him. She surged back forward and grasped Gax’s face. “He’s dead, you oaf!” she screamed.
The words sank in a bit. Gax stilled, processed what Dar had just told him. Then he turned back to the monk and noticed he wasn’t resisting in the slightest. He rose from the man and stepped back to see the hilt of one of Dar’s sabers sticking up out of the waste.
“The sharp end in him?” Gax asked.
“Right through the chest,” Dar said plainly.
“Getting shit in a fresh wound is not so nice.” Dar gently slapped Gax in the side with the flat of her other saber. “Looks like we’re going to owe Elanura one now.”
Gax lifted his arm to inspect the wound in his side and found filth dripping from his chest, mixing with blood. “Blight and damnation.”
“And that makes us no longer even,” Elanura said. “You both owe me a debt.”
“I’m not the one that needed cleansing,” Dar protested.
“I needed it because I came to help you with that punchy bastard,” Gax said.
“Gax and Dar,” Elanura said, raising her palms to the sky and moving her hands up and down. “Dar and Gax. One comes with the other. Everyone who knows you two knows as much. Who wants the tattoo this time?”
A short while later, Gax rubbed the new tattoo Elanura had magically imprinted on his flesh, seated at a table in the wizard’s home across from the newly revived Halvos. Dar handed a glass of red wine to the mayor, the man still seemingly in a haze. Gax lifted his own glass and drank deeply, putting it back to the table with a frown.
“Alver was in league with the Nalforant?” Halvos asked after some time, his hand wrapped around the wine glass absentmindedly.
“Upset that it wasn’t just you?” Dar asked scornfully. She snorted a derisive laugh then poured herself more wine.
“They blackmailed me,” Halvos pleaded. “I didn’t have a choice. I had to work with them or—”
“Save it. I don’t care and neither does my companion. What we do care about is our relationship. If not for my dumb friend nearly killing you–”
“You’re welcome,” Gax interjected.
“–you’d most certainly be dead right now.”
“In a bad way, too,” Gax added, a shiver running through him at the thought of the dark flame.
“We need our names cleared from this debacle. What you do after is on you, but I’d recommend you take your family and crawl under a rock for the next fifty years.”
“Especially with the damned Nalforant involved. You sure blighted something up to get them on your back.”
“Remember, the two of us came out of this mess much less dead than eight other experienced hands. You probably don’t want either of us upset with you.”
Halvos sucked in a deep breath, blew it out in a sigh, then lifted his wine glass to his lips and sipped from it. He nodded once. Gax and Dar returned the gesture then pushed away from the table and left the study. They found Elanura shortly after.
“It had to be a pig again, huh?” Gax asked, rubbing the tattoo.
Elanura smirked. “Didn’t have to be. Could have been a dragon’s head, a lion, a dagger… Could have been anything you wanted. But the pig just fits now, doesn’t it?”
“I’m starting to like you more and more,” Dar said.
Elanura winked at the elf. “You’re more than welcome to stay a few nights.”
Dar considered the offer, but shook her head. “We’ve had enough of Durthlem. Maybe after you use up that favor.”
“How does this one work exactly?” Gax asked, interrupting the two women from their flirting. “You call it in and we just pop up back in your home?”
“That could make for an awkward meeting,” Elanura said. “There’s plenty of things you could be doing that I want no part of. You’ll feel a warmth on the tattoo. Almost a burn. Then repeat the same process from last time when you’re ready and here you’ll be.”
“You couldn’t have made it a tickle?”
“A tickle on a big fellow like you? You probably wouldn’t have ever noticed it. Besides, based on your adventures and experience, what’s a little more pain and discomfort?”
A few hours later, Gax and Dar were sitting atop horses they’d rented from a stable in Durthlem, the city walls receding behind them. They’d waited around just to watch Halvos address the city folk, and what a spectacle it was. The man had blathered and rambled so that he was mostly incoherent. Finally, he declared Gax and Dar heroes who had uncovered conspirators working with the Nalforant and announced his resignation as mayor, tears running down his pudgy face.
“What a way to spend a holiday,” Gax said, shaking his head. “Playing mayor to a bunch of needy whoresons, barely getting a single drink, getting stabbed and bit by godsdamned evil hellfire then filth in the wound, and winding up in debt to a blighting wizard.” Gax snorted then spat on the ground. “I need me a drink or ten.”
“Wasn’t so bad,” Dar said. “For me at least. Had a few mugs of that warm ale.” She smacked her lips. “Sold off the loot from the Nalforant bastards for a good amount of coin. Got invited to stay a few nights with Elanura… she sure is a pretty thing, huh?”
“What loot?” Gax blurted, startling his horse.
“The sword that spat those black flames and a few gewgaws from the mage.” Gax’s eyes grew as wide as dinner plates, and he opened his mouth to loose a barrage of epitaphs at his companion. “Oh, shut up. Here.” Dar tossed the orc a purse full to bursting.
Gax caught the purse and stared at it bewildered for a time. “Best Gods’ Feast in all my days!” he boomed, a smile widening across his face. Dar chuckled. Gax tucked the purse away, all but forgetting the harrowing events that led up to this windfall. “She sure is a pretty lass. Why didn’t you stay?”
Dar nodded, picking up the conversation. “It’s never good to get in bed with someone you owe something to. Business is business. Other things can come after.”
Gax nodded, seeing the wisdom in those words. “Makes sense…” he said noncommittally.
“You would have stayed anyway?” Dar asked, her words sounding more an accusation.
“Without a second thought.”