Omnire Township at the edge of the Salt Flats. Second week of the month of Cloudstears (mid-spring)
A human and cazadore trudged up the causeway from where normally lay the desert. This time of year, as the spring flood dried away, the smell of rotting fish was thick and cloying in the humid air. Predators of all types, at least one bear, a few wolves, several foxes and a very large eagle, all lay on the shores of what had been one of the last ponds. They had eaten themselves nearly insensible on the huge armored fish that spawned in the salt flats during the time of high water. Even vultures and crows were too full to fly. The smell made Breeze, the young cazadore male, want to claw his nose off. The human, Miltiades, ignored it like he did most other things. For almost two months the desert would bloom in the aftermath of the flood. Tall grasses were springing from the earth and flowers exploded to take advantage of the short time of water.
A walled city squatted on a ridgeline that marked the edge of the salt flats. To the north, the land grew hillier and rougher until it turned into the Skydagger Mountains. To the east and south was the bleakness of the desert. West was a long lake with heavy forests on the far shore. Herdsmen had sheep, cattle and horses munching on the desert grasses while they lasted. Row after row of tilled land surrounded the walled town, and bright green sprouts were just beginning to peep out of the ground as the first crops rose.
The walls of the city, like most of its buildings, were made of a pale gray limestone common to these parts. The defenses were high and well maintained. Armored guards could be seen pacing the battlements. Some were militia in mismatched plate or leather, but most were in the distinctive armor of the Golden Shields Crusader Order that had liberated the city from the old Atef Empire and held it ever since. A group of heavily laden camels were coming from the gate as Breeze and Miltiades approached. Caravan guards with their hands on still sheathed swords stood between the two travelers and the merchants who paid them. Miltiades walked through and past the caravan without paying it any attention. Breeze was fascinated by the long-legged, lumpy creatures, but was bitten when he tried to touch one. Sucking on his injured finger, the cazadore followed the human as he had for the last few weeks through the desert.
Two mail armored guards, hoisting their order’s trademark gold painted shields, stopped the two travelers. Several randomly armed and armored militiamen stood around the great gate, some alert and some not so much. Miltiades sighed and ran one gloved hand through his hair. “What is your business in Omnire Township?” the first of the two asked in a business-like way that suggested he’d asked this question a thousand times and would ask it a thousand times more.
“Just travelers passing through. I’m hoping for a room and a hot bath, maybe make a friend while I’m here. I also need a lot of supplies.” The human rattled off his to do list while keeping his hands spread and away from his weapons. He paid the one silver toll to come through the gates armed and stepped into the town.
“Um, Miltiades? I don’t have any money.” Breeze said sheepishly. You could only tell a Cazadore was blushing when their lips went red because of the fur. At the moment it looked like the boy was wearing brilliant lipstick.
“Huh? Oh, yeah. No problem. I think some of the bandit money should be yours anyway.” Miltiades flipped a silver coin through the air to the other guard who caught it with both hands.
“Bandit money? What do you mean traveler?” the guard who had asked about their intentions inquired with actual interest in his voice.
“The boy and I dispatched a small group of bandits that were operating out on The Salt Road. No one of note.” Miltiades turned back toward the town and started walking.
“No one of note? You killed Hakim the Dreaded and wiped out his whole band by yourself!” Breeze’s voice hadn’t come into the full rumble of a grown male cazadore and was a somewhat high pitched tenor that carried incredibly well. People all over the market square stopped and turned towards them. You could hear the crowd begin to buzz and several people pointed.
“That’s a tall-tale stranger. Hakim the Dreaded and his band have menaced the trade way for several years.” The guard who caught the coin spoke for the first time in a voice that was deeper than you would have expected.
“I wasn’t telling any tales and hadn’t mentioned it. If you don’t believe it, I’m not prepared to prove it to you unless you feel like venturing out into the flats and finding where we burned the bodies. Call the boy a liar if you wish. I’ll just agree and try to go get that hot bath.” Miltiades fingers twitched as if he wanted to be holding something, maybe a sword.
“Why would he call me a liar? Everything I said is true!” Breeze scowled. Being called a liar was a deadly insult to a cazadore.
“It doesn’t matter if they believe the tale or not. We’re holding up traffic. Let’s move on. Good day to you, guardians.” He took the felinoid’s arm and pulled him away from the gate. Stares from the scattered merchants and the handful of customers followed them. The buzz of conversation fell silent as they walked by and resumed once they had passed.
Breeze was pulled through the crowd. He staggered in awe; the city was swarming with humans – the most humans he had ever seen in one place. He allowed himself to be pulled along, but his awe faded with one glance at Miltiades’ face. He yanked his arm free. “You seem upset. What did I mess up?” His lion ears were down and his brow crinkled in the look that passed for sadness and confusion.
“Nothing kid. You didn’t do anything wrong. It is just that we don’t always want to be the center of attention. We aren’t in a good spot right now. We’re carrying everything we got from the bandits as well as all the scent glands my team pulled from the hivar. I only have one of my weapons, and you’re barely armed or trained in how to use them.” Miltiades’ pursed lips showed his irritation.
“But we’re out of the desert. This is the tribal area, right? As long as we don’t challenge the chieftain, there shouldn’t be any problems.” The young leonine was gesturing enough that he almost hit a wagon. He mumbled a quick apology and hung his head.
Miltiades just stared at him for a moment. Perhaps he was dumbfounded. Or, he might have been kicking himself for joining with, what was quickly becoming apparent, an innocent, vulnerable pup. Or kitten. Whatever. He turned and walked from the marketplace into one of the major streets where there were few people jumbled together. Shaking his head he kept turning to look back at his follower.
“What? Why are you looking at me like that?” Breeze asked.
“Nothing. We’re just got some work to do. Follow me to the inn, and we’ll get started. But as we go, imagine that if you were wounded when on the hunt, you wouldn’t let the other predators know about it. That’s kind of like our situation. And this isn’t the tribal area. Think of it as when many tribes come together. There are a lot of different customs and ways to do things here, but there are always people who make their living taking from others.” Miltiades eyes never stopped scanning the sparse crowd even as he talked with his young follower. They were moving quickly through the narrow cobbled streets and finally stopped at a half-timbered building. Above the doorway, gently swinging in the breeze, was a sign which was painted with a splotch of blue in a field of brown with a few of what looked like green squiggles, or trees, drawn around the blue. “This is an inn: Mikkel’s Oasis. It is a good place to stay, but isn’t cheap.” They opened the heavy wooden door and stepped inside.
The interior was all dark, well-polished wood. The center of the room had a stag antler chandelier with a number of alchemist’s lanterns on it which cast a cool blue glow over everything. Two and four-seat tables were scattered around the middle of the floor, and alcoves with small porthole windows containing private booths covered the outer edges of the space. Gardenias and lavender grew in pots just outside each window to sweeten the air coming through with the breeze. A beautiful young man in tailored clothes wearing a spotless white apron met them at the door with a bow. “Good day, masters. Welcome to Mikkel’s Oasis. Perhaps I can get you a drink and meal.” He paused and looked over the pair, the right side of his lip pursing along with his flaring nostrils, “or a bath?”
They both got a quick bite: good crusty bread with honey for Miltiades, and a baked duck for Breeze, with some of the excellent house ale to cut the dust in their throats. Then they sauntered on to the baths that had been drawn for them by the inn’s servants. A few hours later, both felt and smelled a great deal better.
Miltiades took his big oozing backpack full of scent glands towards the local temple of Jelinari. Breeze didn’t really know what to do with himself, so he followed along. Jelinari was the god of wealth, trade and merchants. He was also the special patron of the huge trade city of Seagate. His temple in Omnire was relatively small, but still looked like a fortress squatting near the caravansary. Heavily armored guards sworn to the service of the temple patrolled it or stood near the door watching the entrants carefully. Though it was a fortress of sorts, instead of traditional iron bars framing the windows, they used decorative, though still impenetrable, ironwood. Stained glass made to look like piles of gold or merchants receiving benediction let colored light into the temple.
Stepping inside, the powerful incense made Breeze sneeze. Just as he thought his nose had stopped tickling, he would sneeze again, and his olfactory plight echoed in the grand hall. He tried to control it but it took several minutes to adjust to the powerful scent. Where the outside had been hard stone with a decorative façade, the inside was all white marble. The floor felt soothingly cool against Breeze’s footpads, and where the light shone through the stain glass windows, creating patches of colored sun spots on the floor, he had the sudden urge to curl up and take a nap. In the center of the room was a huge gold coin that spun slowly suspended from cords to the ceiling. It was somehow illuminated and cast a soft yellow light all across the area. Directly below it were circular rows of kneeling stands and a rack of benediction candles which were illuminated to bless particular enterprises. Around the edges of the vast hall, the priests of various specialties stood in their stalls, some talking with those using the services of the temple to guarantee contracts or change money. Guards were in subtle alcoves all around the building, many hidden behind decorative, flowering plants.
The two went to one of the stalls under the symbol of a golden key. The priest, a sea elf male, all of four feet tall with a sharp fox face and flowing bluish hair, bowed to them as they approached. “Greetings worshippers. What can The Golden God do for you this fine day? I am Brother Selvirish, and it is my pleasure to serve you.” A couple of guards edged closer. Breeze looked around and realized they were nearly the only visitors to the temple that were armed.
Miltiades took off his bulging, damp pack and dropped it on the desk of the stall with a squelching noise. The scent of rotten vanilla wafted strongly from it. The sea elf stepped back with a disgusted look on his face. “I need a lock box for this,” the human said quietly.
“You need a lockbox for a wet pack?” Selvirish said with one slim eyebrow arching upward. He reached out with a dainty pointer finger and his thumb, pinched the very edge of one of the pack’s straps, lifted it slightly (as if grabbing the tail of a dead rodent to toss it in the garbage), and then let the strap drop. His face still twisted in disgust, he pulled out a handkerchief with his other hand from his breast pocket and wiped off the goo coating the tips of his finger and thumb.
“Yes.” Miltiades said without elaboration.
“Very well then. For one this size it will be two gold per day. If you do not have it with you, I look forward to your return when you do.” The elf smiled faintly.
Miltiades pulled his coin purse up towards the desk and rifled through it. Dropping two fat silvery coins on the desk he said, “That should get us for ten days. If you need more, send a messenger to me at Mikkel’s Oasis.”
The elf’s eyes widened in surprise, and he picked up the platinum coins to hold them up to the light. The image on them was faint, but a skull with its mouth open could clearly be seen on one side. “Empire coin? That is rare, but certainly acceptable. If you and your companion will follow me, we can go the boxes.” Selvirish motioned to nearby guards and four of them clanked over to accompany the group.
The elf stepped down from his podium and walked back to a passageway guarded by two more of the halberd-bearing, full plated humans. Passing through, the walls were lined with small steel boxes secured under an iron cage. Large key holes gaped towards the passage. Moving further down the passage, the boxes became larger, until at last some were roughly the size of the pack. The priest took a large key from a necklace he wore as the guards situated themselves in a square around him. He put the key into the floor and turned it. A round marble sheet cracked open on small hinges, and Selvirish pulled it out of the way. Below were dozens of keys, some in pairs, but most were hung in singles with an open spot right beside them. The elf took two from one of the lower pairs, stood up, and closed the floor hatch.
He handed one of the keys to Miltiades and walked up the hallway a short distance. “Each box requires two keys to open and another key to get into the cage. One of the guards approached and put a ring he was wearing on his left hand into the circular slot on the cage, turned it, and the cage opened soundlessly. Selvirish nodded to him and the guard stepped back. “Please come here, and we’ll both insert our keys at the same time and turn them together.” Both inserted their keys, the elf counted to three, and then both keys turned with a resounding click. The thick metal door opened, and Miltiades put his pack into it. The whole process was repeated to lock the pack away. After a few minutes, they headed for the door.
“What was all of that?” Breeze asked when they were alone.
“It was a temple to money.” The human told him as they stepped back into the crowded city streets.
“No, I mean the business with the locks and guards.” The young cazadore mimed turning a key as he asked the question.
“It is a secure place to keep valuables so you don’t have to carry them around with you.” He told his curious friend.
“Why? Why not just leave them in the room?” Breeze started licking at something on the back of one of his hands, his eyes still trained on the older human.
“So it won’t get stolen. If you leave something in the room, you have no idea who will go through it.” The swordsman wove through the crowd with the grace of a dancer while people just avoided the almost six foot lion in armor.
“Thieves? There are thieves here? Then we should leave right away!” His exclamation was probably a little louder than the leonine intended, and a lot of people in the crowd turned to look at them.
“What? I mean, I don’t know there will be thieves. It is just a precaution. You have to be careful in the cities and towns.” Miltiades had finally stopped and looked back at the cazadore with his eyebrows together and forehead wrinkled. A hugely muscled man in a leather apron, spotted black with scorch marks, almost ran into him and stepped around, cursing.
“If there are thieves here, we should go right now. You can’t trust them!” Breeze was gesticulating madly and almost clawed a lady in his excitement. At her squawk, he turned and nodded his head in apology.
“There are thieves everywhere, kid. It is just something you expect.” The human turned back into the crowd and started walking.
“Not where I’m from…” The young lion mumbled.
From up ahead, the beating of a drum could be heard. The market square was much more crowded than normal for mid-afternoon. Several large wagons were set up in the center, and the commotion appeared to be coming from there.
“Come one, come all, to the grandest demonstration of skill and daring you’ll see in your lives!” an older human man spoke in a stentorian voice from a pedestal attached to one of the wagons. Large green signs proclaimed, “Ardneh’s Grand Company” in huge letters in four languages.
A very young woman, possibly still just a girl, with brilliant red hair launched into the air from behind one of the wagons like she was shot from a catapult. Those standing to the side could see that is exactly what happened. There were long trails of multicolored ribbon flowing from her metallic looking hair and show wore an outfit seemingly made of many rainbow shaded scarves tied all over her in various layers. The announcer boomed over the Oooohs and Aaaaahs of the crowd, “Meet the great acrobat Rhoda Firehaired!” and everyone applauded as the girl hit the ground and rolled before coming up into a stance with arms held up as if in victory. Breeze looked unsure of what was happening, but clapped along with everyone else while Miltiades ventured a rare smile.
Rhoda spoke loudly but in a clear voice that carried surprisingly well given how small she was, “Thank you, thank you all! Now, what I normally do at this point in the show is some flips and cartwheels, but I’ve thought of a new version that will get my dear brother,” she points to the announcer with both hands and pauses, ”more involved in the act.”
“I don’t know what you are planning, darling sister, but the normal act is a fan favorite, and you’ve wowed crowds with it from Thunder Falls to SeaGate and even in far Misthaven!” the good looking young man with carefully combed black hair and a tight-fitting robe smiled hugely but looked a bit unsure.
“Nonsense, brother. Let’s show them how good of an acrobat YOU are!” She took a running start to the left of the stage made from three wagons and at its far edge bounced into a back flip. While she was in the air, she pulled one of the long ribbons from her hair and threw it at the announcer who barely dodged before the knife blade at its base stuck into a pole. The crowd roared as the man looked terrified.
Each time the girl flipped in the air, she hurled a knife with a long ribbon at her brother. He dodged the first two and then began to run right to left across the stage with beribboned knives sinking into posts just behind him the whole way. The people in the market square were crowding close now, crushing Breeze into Miltiades who apparently smelled of smoke, a slight hint of vanilla, and the linseed oil used to clean his armor. When each of the two actors had reach the far and opposite ends of the stage, Rhoda hurled two more blades with their orange and blue ribbons trailing out behind. Her brother seemed to panic and froze as they came straight for his chest. At the last moment he caught them both, and his fear vanished into a great smile. He and his sister simultaneously bowed to the crowd and flourished their ribbons before stepping behind the curtain. Coins rained onto the stage as applause and cheers followed them.
A much older human with mahogany brown skin and long, perfectly white hair stepped out. “Hello good men and women of Omnire Township!” He bowed to the crowd, and they continued to applaud. “My name is Ardneh, and I have the honor of leading this company of actors and entertainers.” His voice was a smooth baritone that filled the market without need for shouting.
“Today we bring you a tale of daring from the north! A lone warrior rescues a fair maiden from the foul clutches of a blood maddened beast!” at the word beast he stepped to the side, and the curtains were pulled out of the way. A tower made of wood but cleverly disguised as stone rose up from behind the wagons, and the previous announcer stood in brilliantly silvered armor and held two swords apparently made of mirrors.
The old man again boomed, “Shiningblades versus the Dragon of Draedon!” and a creature made of thick gray scales the length of two horses pranced out onto the stage from behind the tower. Its long head fanged head looked up and a gout of flame shot towards the sky. Several people in the crowd screamed in terror. A woman rose at the top of the tower begging to be rescued.
Miltiades had a look on his face like a pole-axed steer in the slaughtering yard. “You’re blasted kidding me,” he mumbled.
Breeze tore his eyes away from the spectacle. He’d never seen the man act surprised by anything. “What is it?” he asked.
“Nothing. It isn’t important.” Miltiades said with something of a glazed look about him. Breeze kept staring at his friend until another blast of flame from the dragon brought his attention back to the stage.
For the next ten minutes the warrior battled the dragon. Both took great wounds that spurted blood, which smelled suspiciously like tomato juice, and the man stopped a few times to declaim to the crowd on how to triumph over terror, and how any amount of suffering was worth it to save one’s beloved: the beloved woman who shrieked at the top of the tower, played with her hair between fits of terror, and made googly eyes at her valiant hero every now and again. Eventually one of the mirror bright swords found its way into the heart of the beast, and it collapsed. Shiningblades threw open the tower door to release the woman, and they embraced passionately. He leaned her backwards in a powerful kiss, and the curtains closed. By now, the crowd had grown to several times its original size, and a few gold joined the rain of copper and some silver that fell onto the stage. Cheers, applause, hoots of joy and the snapping that mar’ud did instead of clapping filled everyone’s ears.
The older man with the grand voice stepped back out and announced the company would be giving one play each evening at the north field just outside of town. The two actors stepped out, revealed as the brother and sister from the knife throwing exhibition, and bowed deeply to the roars of the people. The dragon stepped out again, bloody tomato juice still sputtering out of its wound, and two people threw off the costume; a heavily muscled meilosh sauroid had been its front half, and a tall, slim man of middle years the back half. Both bowed, and the sauroid poured a liquid in his mouth then spat it onto a burning brand which caused a gout of flame like the dragon had created. The people were deafening now, and the rain of coins was constant.
Miltiades looked back to Breeze and nodded towards the stage. It took several minutes to cut through the crowd, and Breeze was getting a little frantic at being so closed in. Dozens of admirers surrounded the actors. Waiting for what seemed like a lifetime for the crowd to mostly disperse, Miltiades finally reached the older human with the golden speaking voice. Breeze was near but had been pushed over towards the other group of players.
“A fine performance. Very impressive.” Miltiades said as he pressed a fat golden coin into the play master’s hand. “The special effects were a nice touch.”
“Thank you, sir! It is always nice to have your work appreciated.” The older man’s smile split his beard in half, and he nodded to the warrior.
“There are a few factual problems with the last piece, though.” the dark haired warrior said calmly.
The actor’s brows slammed together so suddenly onlookers were surprised you couldn’t hear them. “I assure you sir, we were told the details of the event from direct witnesses! It was true in each detail!” He drew himself perfectly erect and gave an offended sniff.
“Well, I was there too. My name is Miltiades Shiningblades, and that isn’t quite the way it happened.“ He said without batting an eye. ”Let me tell you about my friend, Gnarl of the Broken Club Tribe. That’s a real hero and the one that actually killed the drake.”
In the background, uttered almost too softly to hear, Breeze said, “So you kissed your sister?”
Chapter 2.4: Spring Patrol