Var’s geography wasn’t too radically different from Graeme’s. The lands were still blessed with verdant greenery. Plentiful farming country speckled with thick woods and large hills rolling in all directions were still abundant. But past the distant horizon, Aaron knew – craggy mountains stretched into the sky, great cities bustling with all forms of life spread at their feet.
He walked with a purposeful stride as the vanguard of his humble adventuring party. Val, with a wagging tail and toothy grin, skipped right at his back, the loose cloth of her uncle’s bandanna blowing around her neck with the passage of the wind. Nathan and William trailed somewhat further behind, the shorter and more roguish of the two expertly juggling three knives to pass the time as they went. Will’s expression and stride remained static and reserved.
The summer was still in full swing, and the sun beat down on their heads with a brutality that far too many outdoorsmen were familiar with. But it was only Will who seemed affected by the heat, having to slug down another round of water far more often than his fellows.
“Save some for this fish, fella.” Nathan callously taunted him, “For fucks sake. I thought you bucketheads in the Legion marched everywhere. You wouldn’t last a minute under Misr’s sun. The vultures there would’ve picked you clean by now.”
“Sorry. We did march, but… good grief, you guys are going fast.”
“Lay off him, Nathan.”
Nathan caught two blades in one hand, gripping the last one between his fingers. He tucked them away, chuckling all the while. Aaron raised a brow at his friend, wondering just what was so funny. Reading his expression, Nathan shrugged and folded both hands behind his head.
“Sorry. It’s just a bit funny… I remember telling you that whenever you picked on Miles. Guess only one of us has gotten more cynical.”
The gray-haired bandit’s face twinged into a look of shame and remorse for a split second. As quick as it was, it didn’t go unnoticed by Valerie.
“Miles? Whos that?” the hound hummed curiously.
“Someone I should’ve treated better.” Aaron said, his answer short and effective in the bluntest way words could be. He kept his eyes locked on the dirt he was about to trod over for a good minute before he finally mustered up enough will to look forward once more.
Their trip through Var’s countryside was relatively uneventful. The roads seemed free of any cutthroats confident enough to challenge three armed men and a hellhound; and any monster that seemed to want to snatch away a husband was scared off by Nathan. With a quick toss of a throwing knife past their cheeks and a death glare, the rogue sent the clear message he wasn’t interested in their advances.
“Y’know,” Val said to Nathan after he sent a downtrodden slug woman trailing back into the woods, “Maybe you should try to get laid. That might make you less crotchety.”
“I get plenty of cunt, thanks.” Nathan snorted, retrieving his throwing knife with an impressive display of speed, “Forgive me if I don’t like all the animal bits nailed on.”
“Suit yourself, pal.” scoffed Val, turning her nose up at the rogue.
A heavy grumble snuck past Aaron’s clenched teeth. He had always known his friend to be standoffish and moody to strangers, but his slights and taunts aimed at Val and William were starting to wear extremely thin. He made a mental note to pull the rogue aside and probe him on just what his grievance with them was.
It took them a week before they stumbled across another bastion of civilization. And what a civilization it was.
A massive spider web of crossroads stretched out in every direction, acting as the heart of a network of countless highways. Wagons, carts, carriages, riders and pedestrians of all sorts acting as a sort of lifeblood in the veins. Colorful tents of every imaginable shape and size dominated the majority of space, any real architecture looking to be nothing more then taverns and trading posts. But individual stands and booths seemed to outnumber both of them. Everything from nick-knacks to exotic foods to arrays of deadly weapons seemed to be slung within the hive of merchants and wayfarers.
“Whoa. This wasn’t on the map…” Aaron awed, bringing out the one he robbed to make sure he hadn’t gone crazy and missed it. After confirming it indeed wasn’t charted, the bandit decided that whatever cartographer who had pinned the map was a lazy bastard.
“It wouldn’t be on a map.” Nathan said, stepping forward, “It isn’t even a town, if we’re being technical. They call it ‘Hog’s Way’ or somesuch.”
“Hogs Way, huh? I think I have actually heard of this place once or twice.” Aaron grunted. He looked down towards the massive crisscross, thinking the name had something to do with the sheer amount of debauchery and hedonism that took place on the buzzing streets.
“Yeah,” Nathan went on, “Sprouted up only three years ago, I’ve heard. Some fatcat merchant built a manor nearby, and they saw a load of potential in the highway. They invested half their fortune into paving express lanes connecting it to other highways and it became the biggest trading hub in Var. Of course, there’s a fair share of trading taxes and tariffs. Smart investment, I suppose. But I’m no merchant, am I?”
“The opposite, I’d say.” William sighed, his mauve eyes glimmering with a sort of apprehensiveness as he stared towards the pseudo-city
Val’s ears wiggled. Her flame flickered. Her tail, in turn, was storming up like an ebony whirlwind. Having far more attuned senses then all three of the boys put together, she was already transfixed by the overwhelming smells and sounds.
“Lets go, babe~!” she giggled, grabbing Aaron by the arm and practically dragging him towards the unending fair. Will and Nathan were left starting at an orange cloud of dust. By the time that it cleared, Val and Aaron had already become black specs in the distance.
“Shit-on-a-stick…” Nathan swore with a click of his tongue, “Well, let’s get movin’, purple.”
Will nodded briefly, following the rogue as they chased after the bandit and the hellhound.
“Hey, young lady… wanna try some oil-fried chicken?”
Aaron had to admit, the dark-skinned woman dressed all up in brilliant blue and gold rings looked kind enough. And the jar filled with with crispy brown chicken looked and smelled tempting enough… but he was already stuffed well-past his previous limits… and his purse was feeling worryingly light.
“Of course I do~”
Aaron sighed. Val carried nothing but worthless trinkets and snacks with her. And she had thoroughly rutted him into a spineless chump, it seemed. He dished out his last two coppers, and the saleswoman handed them two crispy chicken legs in return.
He looked at Valerie – at his girlfriend, he supposed. The revelation hit him like a rolling tide every time he glanced at her, and the shock kept on coming. He had never engaged in a true relationship before, just quick flings with whores and naive country girls. Looking back on the eve of the previous month, Aaron never could’ve imagined he’d feel anything beyond resentment and fear towards the wolfish girl.
Regardless, he knew something was there. He was hopelessly clueless in many areas, chief among them being the machinations of the heart, but he knew his feelings for her were real, and they were reciprocated ten times over.
Now, just being near her sent butterflies dancing in his stomach and liquid warmth shooting through his bloodstream. On the other hand, no matter how continually adorable she looked scarfing down whatever cuisines came her way, his coin was a finite resource.
“Okay. That’s the last of my spending money.” Aaron only somewhat reluctantly put his foot down, “We’ve had plenty to eat already, Val.”
“Aww… there’s a buncha more places I wanted to try…” the hellhound whined, already eyeballing a swarthy man selling bowls of cheese-soaked pasta a few stalls away.
“Just ask Nathan to lend you some money. We need the rest to help save my brother.”
“Ah, you know he won’t!” Val barked, “That jerk would sell his mom for a copper!”
“Well, I guess we have time to do a few odd jobs while we’re here.” Aaron grumbled, feeling his stuffed stomach protest as he chomped down upon the admittedly scrumptious chicken, “But not anything too crazy. We got to save our energy for the road.”
Val nodded in disappointed understanding. Still, her fiery eyes sparkled with awe as she turned her attention to all the other stalls and wonders surrounding her. Beasts of all shapes and sizes could be found all about. Some were locked up in cages, for sale or on simple display. Fierce tigers, serene panda bears, and chatty parrots of all different sorts of feathers were some of Val’s favorite things. Aaron barely talked her down from taking a bite out of each off them.
Other than that, many others were used as mounts. Great, lumbering elephants stomped down a street every now and then, shaking the very earth. Their long noses bellowed out into the air, demanding space for their wide girth. Others rode on horses Aaron had never seen before, or walked alongside small, unassuming dogs that looked bred for the specific purpose of being cute and docile. Nothing more than fluffy, walking art pieces. He thought it an odd thing, always having had a lurking fear of a lawman’s bloodhound pouncing on him and ripping out his throat.
Still taking in the overwhelming scene, Aaron looked around once again, spotting a fellow guiding his mount towards Val and him. He was a man from the deserts of Misr, his bronze skin and dark hair making Aaron think he heralded from the same land as Nathan. The odd fellow was dressed all up in pure-white silk, all baggy save for his pointed shoes and tight turban. Aaron’s focus was inevitably drawn from the man’s costly curved sword down to the odd mount he couldn’t name. Some kind of tall-legged, long-necked horse covered in shaggy, tan fur. A large hump crested it’s back, on which the foreigner sat with the assistance of a decorative saddle.
“Hello, young man…” the rider cooed, giving his oiled mustache a few thoughtful twirls. His accent was thick and heavy, unlike Nathan, who had left the verbal tics of his homeland far behind.
“Hey.” Aaron shot back, not wanting to offend the man. He already had quite the price on his head; getting into a skirmish with a stranger over some stupid custom he wouldn’t have even known about was one of the last ways he wanted to be caught.
“A fine woman you have there.” the man said, now sneering from under the oil-slicked, curly mustache, “Interested in selling her? I’m a very generous buyer.”
A profound sense of disgust shook Aaron to his core. He had crossed many lines in his life, but dealing with slavers was an option that he’d rather slit his own throat than consider. While it was a different sort of slavery, he had seen the fugitives captured by the Legion back when he lived within their borders. They worked the miserable souls to their deaths, a final way to repay the empire they had sinned against, it was justified.
He had already found the practice on criminals repulsive. The buying and selling of innocents nearly made him vomit.
“How about you ride your rug of a horse out of here before I jam my foot up your ass?” Aaron spat. Val’s eyes lit up at his brash display of bluster.
The slave-driver only chuckled, his stache lifting as his grin became revoltingly wide, “You have some balls, boy. I respect that… take a free bit of advice; keep your opinions to yourself around here. There are more surly folks then me who’d have your head rolling for a little comment like that.”
“I’ll keep it mind…”
The slaver’s grin faded, he aimed his gaze forward, leading his mount further down the road.
“And it’s called a camel, just so you know.”
Aaron and Valerie were left to chew on their thoughts as they slave-driver returned to whatever business he was attending.
“Hehe. That was pretty cool, babe.”
“Nah. That was pretty lame, as far as one-liners go…” Aaron grumbled, watching the camel’s swinging tail as it disappeared behind a bend in the path, “Forget that prick. Lets just go find Nathan and Will.”
The monster-to-human ratio in the Hog’s Way didn’t seem quite so skewed in the devil’s favor as in Hillcrowne. Still, it was very easy to spot the slithering of a massive serpentine tail slither around a corner, feel a humanoid shadow rush from above, or spot a lusty, scantily-clad inhuman selling odd, often lewd, products.
Will avoided them all, eyes cast set into the well-packed earth. They stayed that way, right until the sunny smile of an elf girl ran up, hugging at his legs.
“Hi, mistah!” the girl cheered, sending him a grin with more than a few missing baby teeth. She held a brimming satchel up to him, “Wanna buy some cookies?”
Will’s jaw hung loose, stuttering for a reply. Anything to turn the girl down in the softest way possible. Finding none, he gently smiled back and reached for his wallet.
“Sure thing. I’ll take some.”
The tiny elf’s grin only spread further as the handsome man before her dropped a few coppers into her palm. She handed him back a few cookies wrapped up in cloth, and the moment William accepted it, he felt rather silly for the worthless purchase. The nose-tickling aroma of freshly baked sweets was yet another thing he had realized he had taken for granted whilst locked up in his dingy little cell.
The blushing elf scampered away, giggling all the while. She ran into the awaiting arms of an older elf and a man with the looks of ranger. Her parents, no doubt. The couple smiled at Will, and the mauve-haired archer put on a forced grin and waved back with all the social grace of an eighty-year old island hermit. Looking rather befuddled at him, the couple took their daughter in hand and walked the other way.
Will breathed out, still realizing he needed to improve his tact with monsters. But looking back on himself, at what he had so proudly and shamelessly represented, he couldn’t imagine he’d ever mesh well with them. He grimaced, looking all around.
He was glad for his freedom. The cramped, dirty cell he was shoved into at Riak’s dam still haunted his dreams, but this place was nearly a polar opposite. The monotonous silence in his cell was maddening; here, cries from every beast under the sun and the sounds of revelry and chatter filled his ears from every direction. Where once the only thing in his field of view was a sleeping jailer and blank brick wall was now a roaming kaleidoscope of colorful tents and even more colorful characters, entertainers, jesters, monsters and all. Even the watery gruel that he was forced to sustain himself on was becoming a fleeting memory as he began treating himself to a gourmet meatpie or two.
Will looked down at the sweets in his hand, wondering just why he was still miserable with all his newfound freedoms.
“Ah, for me, buddy? Ya shouldn’t have.”
Will only realized his baked goods had been picked when he looked over his shoulder. Nathan was leaning up against a parked cart and peeling back the paper wrapping, giving one of the cookies a few experimentation sniffs.
“H-hey! When did you…?”
“Keep your head outta the clouds, Will.” Nathan warned, going deadly serious in the spur of the moment, “A lot of people are gonna be out for your and Aaron’s asses… and for reasons unrelated, mine too. Even if the Legion can’t mobilize a task force to come after us here right away, they’ll definitely put up a bounty for us soon. Standing around like a slack-jawed idiot is just begging for some headhunter to put a knife in your back.”
Will nodded in apology and understanding. Nathan smiled back, tossing him a coin purse. It was only when William caught it did he realize it was his own.
“…watch out for pickpockets, too. Slippery little bastards, they are.”
Nathan removed one of the cookies and made short work of it before tossing the rest back to Will. The archer barely managed to catch them before they would have soared past his shoulder and landed in the dirt.
“Also, don’t go wasting good coin on stupid shit like cookies.” Nathan snapped, abruptly swinging back into a tone of serious warning that would put a drill sergeant to shame.
“I-I’m sorry…” William weakly came to his own defense, “I… I just couldn’t say no, y’know?”
“I don’t.” Nathan grumbled, advancing towards Will, “What do you mean you couldn’t say no? Can’t say no to cute little girls? Or monsters?”
Will opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He promptly closed it, staring off to the side, unable to face the rogue.
“Well, whatever. Just don’t go expecting Aaron to lend you any dosh once you piss it down the drain. He’s already spoiling that stupid hellbitch of his…” the rogue grumbled, a hint of frustration in his tone, “He was a lot of things, but pussy-whipped wasn’t one of ‘em. No idea what’s up with him.”
“H-hey, what’s your deal, anyway? Why do you hate Valerie and me?”
The rogue’s honey-eyes speared the archer with a sharp disdain. William just barely stopped himself from flinching.
“Honestly? I don’t trust either of you. But Aaron needs all the help he can get. I’ll deal with whatever the hell you two shits are scheming up after all this crap with his brother is said and done with.”
No rebuttal came to the archer. So he stood dumbfounded, trying his best to shoot a fierce glare back down at the shorter fellow and failing miserably. After a good twenty-seconds of thick tension, Nathan broke it with a cocksure grin and turned his cheek.
“Ah, don’t take it personally, fella. Trust needs to be earned, not shot around like jizz in a whorehouse.”
“So, what? Is that why you’re such an asshole? You’ve got trust issues?”
Nathan shrugged, back still facing the archer, “Nah. I just don’t go placing stock in dickheads I don’t know from the next random fuck stumbling down the street. Its saved me lotsa heartbreak… if you’re smart, you’d do the same.”
“W-where are you going?”
“I’ve got to meet up with some guy. Don’t worry; I’ll be back before supper.”
Will kept his lips clenched shut, watching the rogue pace off somewhere. The thief disappeared into the endless collage of vivid tents foresting the Hog’s Way. The archer sighed dejectedly, still wondering just what the hell Nathan’s problem was. Eventually realizing he was standing in the middle of the street, he paced off, deciding to go find Aaron and Valerie. They’d need to chip in and find a reasonably priced inn. And though the thought made his skin crawl, he realized he might just have to share a room with Nathan once more.
He continued to aimlessly wander, looking for something he couldn’t describe. Barely focused on the where or why, he managed to wander right into a long line of men. They ranged from young to old, handsome to repugnant, pampered milquetoasts to hardened adventures. But they all were wore wide grins and were quietly chatting among themselves. Will followed the line to the end. There, with closed flaps, a towering tent striped in violet and scarlet stretched into the sky.
The archer found himself unable to push through the tightly packed crowd. He turned to circumvent them entirely, but found himself suddenly and unavoidably face-to-face with a slithery-looking man whose face was only as bright as his dress.
“Heeeello, young man.” he greeted with a tip of his top-hat. Planting his walking cane to the dirt, the sprightly fellow curtsied to William. As he looked up, Will witnessed his own aghast expression in the man’s round spectacles. From his tailcoat to his oversized bowtie to his polished boots, everything about him screamed ringleader.
“Err… hello. I’m sorry, I was just wandering around and wanted to get by-”
“Nonsense!” the ringleader shouted in interruption. He wrapped his arm around Will’s neck, aiming him towards the nearby tent and aiming the gem-studded tip of his cane towards it, “Why not come join the auction?”
“A-auction? I… I don’t have any sending money…”
“Perfectly fine! In my experience, window shoppers are just customers whetting their appetite, as I always say~”
Will blinked slowly, pulling himself away from the ringleader, “B-but even if I had the money, I’m in the middle of a journey right now. I can’t afford lugging around stuff I don’t absolutely need…”
The ringleader’s creeping grin spread unfurled fully, from one wide ear to the other.
“Oh. Well, believe me, my products are quite the boon to any adventure. Not only do they guarantee safety from any prospective thieves and bandits, but they’ll provide a great deal of… stress relief. Catching what I’m throwing out, kid?”
Thinking on it for a few moments, Will slowly spilled out what he thought.
“W-weapons? Maybe guard dogs?”
The compere-like figure furrowed deeply. His glasses slipped down to the tip of his nose, revealing a pair of despondent brown eyes to William. The glasses were quickly pushed back into their proper position, and as his gloved hand fell from his face, the ringmaster wore a smile once again.
“Oh, poor thing. It’s always the innocent, sparkly-eyed ones that end up going hog-wild.”
“What are you…?”
The ringmaster threw Will into the line, raising his cane skyward. With a hearty bellow ill-fitting of such a stringy man, he cried out to the men standing guard at the tent.
“Let ‘em in, boys! Let’s get this show rolling!”
Horrified, Will couldn’t stop the men from behind from rushing forward. Pushed along with the crowd, he suddenly found himself in the heart of the dimly lit tent. Nearly whimpering, the archer tried to push his way out.
“Oi! No shovin’.” a burly man in an inappropriately thick coat chided him, pushing him back to the center of the crowd. Forced to stay there due to the flow of the excited men, Will was forced to stumble all the way to the cushioned benches set out before a huge, curtained stage.
Finding himself stuck between a sweaty fat man and a sneering little rat of a kid, Will sighed and figured he could blame his predicament on only his own lack of a backbone. The thick tent let in not a sliver of the summer’s sun, and only two torches sat on either side of the benches. It cast strange, menacing shadows on the already putrid features of the shady men all around. Not wanting to further humiliate himself, he sat in bleak defeat, praying whatever this auction was that it’d be over soon.
Like the light to some sort of play, a flap of the tent’s roof came unfurled, leaving a blinding sunray to leave the stage in everyone’s full focus. Skipping out from the inky blackness and taking center stage, the ringmaster held the hooked end of his cane with both hands and slammed the end of it into the oaken platform in a quick, steady rhythm.
“Salutations, gentlemen. I’m positively delighted you’ve joined me this fine afternoon. I pray that, by the time the light leaves this stage, I’ll have blessed you with your perfect match.” he called, his voice still deceptively booming.
“Perfect match…?” the confused Will whispered under a single breath. A sense of omen crept down his back.
Sliding slickly to the side of the stage, the ringmaster left ample space for his baited audience to watch the curtains slide open. With the heavy grinding of iron on iron and wheels on wood, three muscled men pushed three heavy cages onto the stage.
The audience broke into wild cheers and whistles. But they rang with an empty echo in Will’s ears. He didn’t want to believe it; but there they were – in each cage, a monster girl stood in captivity.
However, that wasn’t drove a chill straight down his back. There was something terribly, terribly wrong with them. They weren’t like the slaves he saw back at home, the human chaff gathered from hardened criminals to mine the Legion’s vast supplies of gold.
They weren’t dirty. They weren’t beaten. They weren’t hunched over from pain and starvation. Their eyes weren’t empty, hope-drained husks. They looked bubbly. They were grinning. He’d even go as far as saying ecstatic.
That, he thought, was infinitely more disturbing.
Twirling like a top, the ringmaster placed himself back to the center of the stage. He held up that crystal-topped cane, and his voice seemed to reverb all the louder.
“Today. we’re offering three potential wives for three very lucky fellows. Care to introduce yourselves, ladies?”
With a skip and hop, the ringmaster landed before the first cage. He held his bejeweled cane up to the grinning monster. Beaming as brightly as fresh snow, the panda girl introduced herself. Her voice was soft, sweet, and seemed to reverberate with all the unnatural power that the ringmaster’s did.
“My name is Lanying. I’m an Ren Xiongmao, efficient in over four languages and an expert with the bo staff! I just want to find a kind husband who loves to have fun~”
Will sat transfixed. She was cute – so cute it almost made his chest ache. It shouldn’t have been possible. He shouldn’t have found a woman trying to sell her person like she was a piece of property adorable.
The men’s wild cheers and hoots only increased. The ringmaster made a motion to lower the volume with one hand, banging his cane against the stage with the other. As the men calmed, he pointed a long finger to the crowd and held up his cane, the jewel sitting atop it glimmering sapphire in the sunlight.
“We’ll start the bid at twenty gold! Good luck, gents!”
Will was nearly thrown from his seat by the uproar. Hands were thrown to the air, each bringing with it another preposterously large sum of coin. Hands wrinkled, muscled, clad in cotton and hard leather went wild like grass in a storm.
“30… 45… 50… 75… 100! 150! Sold at 150!”
The auctioneer of a ringmaster pointed to a man standing only a seat below William. He looked to be a warrior in his early thirties, well seasoned from his years but still burning with youth. He jammed a fork into his chest, grinning like a madman. He chucked a heavy satchel towards the stage.
“Yeah, I’ll take her! I’ve been thinking ‘bout going to the lands of Mist.”
The ringmaster snatched down the satchel with ease. With darting little eyes, he counted the coin with a steadily rising satisfaction.
“Oooh, I love playing the matchmaker.”
Will watched in shock as the adventurer left the benches, all the other men eyeing with either envy or admiration. The panda nearly broke into tears as she leaped from the stage, landing in his waiting arms.
The next two were some sort of an eastern spider-girl who boasted her knitting skills and a dour golem who showed her strength by tearing open the bars of her cage. They were both respectively bought by a slimy-looking tailor and an older, knightly gentleman.
Even the giant boasts of money didn’t register with William at that point. He held his wrenched gut, feeling as ill as a leper.
What could’ve possibly made the girls so excited? They were being treated like stupid, slobbering animals. But they weren’t repulsed. They weren’t downtrodden. It made his head spin. What sort of conditions were they living in under the ringmaster?
“He… must’ve drugged them. Or used some kind of magic…” the archer whispered under a horrified breath. That could be the only conceivable answer – he tampered with their free will.
His mauve eyes burned through the air, homing onto the prosperous auctioneer, his employees lumbering away with his coin as he tipped his top-hat to the remainder of his disappointed crowd.
“Come now! Disperse with the long faces, gents. I’ll be back tomorrow with even more fine ladies ready and waiting.”
The curtains above closed, bathing the stage in inky black. The ringmaster darted away, leaving William to stare agape at his prancing back. He was leaving, skipping off into the unknown. Will felt his jaw tighten.
Thought abandoned him, and he abandoned thought. As the grumbling auction goers left the benches, Will found his path clear. Hopping from his seat, he threw himself into the dark recesses of the tent, wanting nothing but answers from the top-hatted host.
A sliver of light caught his eye near the back. He saw the ringmaster’s shadowed figure move through it before it vanished – an exit. Dancing around crates and empty cages, flailing his arms to make sure nothing was in his path, Will pursued the slave-trader and caught up without even realizing how fast he was moving.
Throwing open the flap, he spotted the ringmaster seated atop a nearby stool. His hat was off, revealing a balding head, and a cold cigar was held between his lips. His darkened glasses dropped as the ringmaster looked up, letting Will see his beady eyes widen in shock.
“The hell are you doing here, kid? Change your mind about making a purchase?” the slaver laughed, shock fading into wry relief, flicking out the lit match in his hand and using the free hand to nudge his glasses back into position, “I figured as much. We have an auction every weekday, but I’m sure we can head straight to the supply and make a special offer for you.”
“Piss off.” Will growled, fury clouting his usually reserved demeanor, “What the hell did you do to those girls?”
A smug grin flashed across the ringmaster’s face. Still wrestling the cigar’s butt around his mouth, he used his cane to help push up onto his feet, “Whatever do you mean?”
“You… you drugged them! Tortured them!” Will asserted blindly but viciously, “What kind of a sick bastard does that? Is it not bad enough you’re selling them in the first place!?”
First, the ringmaster chortled. Then, he bent over, slapping his knee and breaking out into an uproar of teary laughter.
“Ohh~ thats… thats rich, kid. Hate to disarm your little theory there, but I didn’t do jack squat. I don’t even capture them; I’m more or less a middleman. Those girls? They want to be sold.”
Will’s sour grimace remained unmoved.
“That’s insane! Who would sell themselves off like a piece of meat?!”
Sniffling, wiping away a few thin tears, the ringmaster waggled his cane in the air as he explained, “Kid, monsters ain’t like regular gals. They have… lowered standards, to put it bluntly. Doesn’t matter to them if a guy if fat, ugly, or a killer, they’ll take whatever they can get their hands on. Even folks in the slave trade~ as long as you’re not a totally irredeemable scumfuck, they’ll accept anybody as their husband. Hell… even though most of my girls are captured, some joined up of their own volition.”
The archer took a step back, shaking his head in disbelief. That couldn’t have been true… the very idea boggled his mind.
“You’re… you’re lying!”
Grinning, the ringmaster shrugged his shoulders high, “Am I? Doesn’t really matter. Even if they cried and screamed and begged for freedom, I was still given a job by Lady Otha. I’m a salesmen, so I make sales.”
“Otha? Is that your boss?” Will asked, his breathing heavy with fury.
“Oops~! Nah, doesn’t matter if you know. Laws against slave trade in Var only extend to humans. Far as the governments concerned, we might as well be selling cows.”
Will felt something snap. Growling in anger, he slung his bow off his back, and strung an arrow in the fraction of a second. Cocking it back, he took aim at the grinning ringmaster.
“What? You gonna shoot me? Even if you did, Otha would just have another bastard in a suit fill my shoes.”
“You’re sick!” Will snapped, but kept his fingers on his string. The showman before him was as sick and twisted as they came, but something seemed wrong about gunning him down in the middle of a street.
Will wasn’t given time to contemplate it further. He saw a flash of white, gold and silver raced by. He felt a heavy vibration across his bow, but his arrow was still cocked. Looking down, nearly screamed in horror as he found the sharp head of his arrow had been sliced off.
He raised his head up. Coming to a rest next to the ringmaster, a powerful-looking mustached man from the Misrian deserts stood tall. He used one hand to twirl about his curved sword, the other to lob a missing arrowhead up and down.
“Are you alright, Mr. Basile?”
“Quite fine, Zulifqar.” the slaver called Basile sighed, brushing off a smidgen of dirt he had just noticed on his coat, “Your help wasn’t needed, I’m afraid.”
“How so?” Zulifqar asked, tossing away the arrowhead, “He had his bow cocked and aimed right between your eyes.”
“Mhmh~ but… he’s a coward. That much is plain to see. I highly doubt he held the resolve to let it fly… not with so many prospective witnesses just around every corner.”
Will felt sweat gather between the tight twine of his bow and the rough skin of his fingers. The string whined as he let it slowly go loose, letting the worthless, decapitated shaft of his arrow hit the ground.
Basile smiled. Zulifqar sneered. Will collapsed onto his shaking knees, slamming his bow into the dirt in frustration.
“Let’s skedaddle on out of here, Mr. Zulifqar. This pathetic rat isn’t a threat.”
There was nothing that William could say or do. He watched the slaver and his lackey turn their backs, completely unconcerned at the prospect of him notching another arrow. Will gripped the knees of his trousers until his knuckles went white.
Basile. Zulifqar. Otha. He could proselytize until his tongue fell out and his throat went bloody, but he couldn’t deny the truth the slavers imparted. He was a spineless whelp that couldn’t separate good from evil any better than they did.
He was a coward.
The sun finally decided to dip into the horizon, turning a deep orange as its blistering heat was starting to fall to the chill of night. Cast in long shadows, Nathan moved to take a seat in a roadside bench, spotting no one in the immediate area. He sat, one leg folded over the other, wistfully whistling a small tune.
Like a beast answering its master’s call, a darkness-clad figure bled out from the shadows, totally concealed by his tight black cloak. He appeared to almost glide over to Nathan with a startling quickness, but took a seat right by him as casually as two old playmates.
“You’re Nathan, I assume?” the figure spoke, his deep, gravelly voice at odds with his short, wiry frame.
Nathan hummed, taking a moment to examine his own hand. Turning it around to check the back, he turned to the man and nodded in confirmation.
“Very funny.” the dark figure breathed, anything but amused, “Are you here for business? Or did you contact my organization just to try out your lame comedy routine?”
“Yeah, yeah. Keep your cloak on, bud. I just wanted a ride to Mount Enthya – someone who could get me and a few others there quick and on the down-low. Think you blokes could manage to organize that?”
The shady man stared blankly off to the distance, humming all the while, “Well… I’m sure we could manage, but that might prove to be a tad difficult.”
“There’s a bit of turmoil going on out east right now. But we should be able to get you to Zeist without incident.”
“That’s close enough to Enthya.” Nathan smiled, “So, how much is this gonna cost?”
“Fifty gold. Non-negotiable.”
“Fifty gold pieces? Are you off your fucking rocker?”
“Like I said, there’s a good bit of conflict happening out east right now. War is rife with opportunities for men like us. Smuggling goods and weapons, assassinations and espionage… not to mention that the authorities attention is always drawn away from their local criminal underbelly, leaving our organization to act more freely without recourse. That being said, my organization is grossly shorthanded here in Var. We’re stretched thin enough as it is. To transfer an operative out here for simple smuggling job would cut majorly into our profit margins. If you’re that desperate to move, then you need to pay up.”
“I don’t have fifty fuckin’ gold pieces on hand, you maniac. I could almost buy my own horse and carriage for that much!”
The cloaked man snorted, leaning further back into the bench, “Well, good luck finding a merchant around here that’ll take you there. Wartime means blockades, and blockades mean patrols that’ll inspect your cargo. And I highly doubt you’d contact my organization if the only thing you wanted was a leisurely ride over to Mount Enthya.”
Nathan grumbled in annoyance, his hand subconsciously reaching around his cloak for the package he was set to deliver – it contained several highly illegal chemicals. On top of that, both he and Aaron were wanted men.
“For fucks sake… I guess we’ll just have to go on foot.” Nathan hissed. He’d still have more than enough time to deliver the goods, but he wasn’t sure if they’d enough time to visit the sage on Mount Enthya and get back in time to save Aaron’s brother…
“Don’t be so hasty, Nathan. There’s actually something I needed done here. It should be easy enough for a man of your skills. You do this favor for my organization, and I’ll have one of our men transport you to Zeist, free of charge. Hell, we’ll even chip in some extra coin for all your meals.”
Eyeing the cloaked man with a trained caution and healthy suspicion, Nathan asked, “Yeah? And just what would this job entail?”
The hooded remained silent for a short moment, waiting for a merchant’s cart to pass them and continue down the road before he continued.
“The merchant who funded this crossroad is one Lady Hea Yemir Otha. She lives in a manor nearby with a talented mage named Wes Lindstrum. Lindstrum is in position of a certain item a client has requested of us. So far, none of our agents have been able to acquire it from his laboratory.”
Nathan cocked his brow, “And you think I’m the man for the job?”
“From what I’ve heard of you, you’re far more talented than men in my branch. If you can obtain the object in question, you’ll have your transport.”
“Alright then. How do I know you’ll fulfill your end of the deal?”
“Has my organization betrayed you in any of our other bargains?”
“No. But there’s a first time for everything, ain’t there?”
That finally managed to draw a chuckle from otherwise stoic character. The smallest of smiles arced from under his the shadow of his hood.
“Point taken. But you’re stripped of options, aren’t you?”
“That I am… at any rate, I’ll bite what your throwin’ out. Just gimme a few more details, and I’ll nick whatever it is your after.”
“Nothing much else to tell.” the cloaked man said, propping an elbow against the arm of the bench, “None of our agents have returned. But you’re in luck – according to my sources, Otha’s having a dinner party tomorrow night. That should place attentions elsewhere while you work.”
“Lucky me.” Nathan cooed with a wicked grin, “You said it was in Wes’ lab, right? What exactly is this thing anyhow?”
“Its called a ‘Power Distributor’, evidently. I’ll give you a sketch the client provided later… as for it’s function, I haven’t the foggiest clue. Unless it has to do with invisibility or mind-probing, magic doesn’t necessarily factor into my line of work.”
“Call me crazy, but I think it may be used to distribute power.”
“Enough with the smart-ass quips.” the cloaked man grunted, sitting up from the bench, “Just meet me tomorrow morning and I’ll fill you in with further details. Get plenty of rest tonight, Nathan. You’ll need it.”
Nathan watched in silence as the fly-by-night retreated back into the shadows of the tents around them, becoming nothing more than a black smudge before bleeding back into and vanishing like a misty dream. Frowning, tapping his finger against the bench, Nathan sighed to himself.
“Yeah. I have a feeling I just might.”
Nathan, after a short search and with some consultation with William, found Aaron. They were situated in a small inn near the center of the Hog’s Way, rather dubiously unnamed. But it was tidy enough, and the proprietress was kind enough to direct Nathan over to Aaron and Val’s room. With a sharp rap of knuckles against the creaky wood door, the rogue summoned the bandit out of his slumber. Hearing a loud grumble and hearty female yawn from the other side, Nathan waited patiently until he heard the lug stumble up to the door. It slowly creaked open, revealing a shirtless, disheveled bandit still rubbing the heavy sleep from his eyes.
“Uh… hey, Nathan. What’ve been up to?”
“Nothin’ much…” the rogue trailed off, trying to peak over the taller man’s broad shoulder, “Your mutt still asleep?”
Like the rusty, sulfur-stained gates of hell, the room’s door swung open as a paw came from under Aaron’s armpit and shoved it at full force. Barely avoiding being smashed in the face, Nathan hopped back. From out of the darkness, a sleepy hellhound stumbled forward, her crusty eyes only half-open but still spewing forth fire. She wore nothing but Aaron’s large black tunic, just barely covering her private bits. Already accustomed to her loose definition of decency, Nathan wasn’t perturbed.
At least, not until the sleepy hound stomped over, grabbing him by the scruff of his cloak collar. He kicked out in protest, but the hound still effortlessly dragged him over to a nearby window, tossing him out and into the pile of waste below.
“C’mon, babe. Let’s get back to snugglin’.” Valerie yawned, grabbing the stupefied Aaron’s wrist on the back into their room.
“Wait a damned second there, fleabag.” Nathan spat. He dragged himself up from the still open window, shaking a rotten banana peel from his messy brown hair, “We need to discuss business. Be a good girl and wait for your master.”
The rogue grabbed the bandit’s other wrist, yanking him in the opposite direction. Val snarled out, pulling her side with double the force. Aaron let out an uncouth squeak as he felt his bones creak.
“W-wait!” he called, throwing himself free of the tug-of-war, “J-just wait… cripes… just wait a sec, Val. I’ll be right back.”
Grumbling and shooting Nathan the stink eye the whole while, Val eventually relented and stepped back into the doorway, “Fine. Just make it quick, or I”m doubling your punishment.”
Aaron’s eyes went wide, “P-punishment?”
Not elaborating further, Val passed him an insidious grin and shut the door. The whining creak of the old hinges were left ringing in Aaron’s ears for a good half-minute until Nathan grabbed his naked shoulder and pointed down the dark hallway.
“C’mon. Will is waiting for us.”
Still shirtless, but deciding it didn’t much matter, the bandit relented and followed the rogue down the hallway.
Nathan threw Aaron into a room down the hallway, the still half-asleep bandit woozily trudging over to a wooden chair placed conspicuously between the beds of the rogue and archer. Nathan bounced onto his straw mattress not a moment later, clapping both palms together.
“Right. Let’s get down to business.”
Suppressing a yawn, Aaron’s tired eyes drifted from the nostalgic sight of his friend’s wicked, calculating half-smile. He looked over to the other bed, finding William sprawled on his back and staring up at the ceiling. Not quite blankly, but also bearing not even a faint inkling of purpose. Seeming lost in thought, Aaron called out to him.
“Yo, Will. You still with us?”
“Yeah.” came the blunt reply. He rolled over, his glossed focus now on the other two men.
“Right.” Will began, his smile inching ever upwards, “Guess what? I found us a ride over to Zeist. From there, it should only be a skip and hop over to Mount Enthya.”
The news acted like a cold bath for Aaron. Bolting from his sleepy trance into full alertness, a wide grin broke across his face, “No shit? Thanks, Nathan! But can we afford that?”
“Yeah. It’ll be totally free, actually. We’ll just have to go do some guy a favor first.”
“And would that involve stealing something?” Aaron asked with a click of his tongue.
“Naturally.” chuckled Nathan, “We’re thieves, after all. Although, you might not exactly be the best man for this particular mission.”
Nathan leaned slowly forward, wagging his finger around Aaron’s face, “I mean… and don’t take this the wrong way, pal… but we need to sneak into a party, and no matter how you look at it, you’d look out of place there. Maybe as a bodyguard, but that’d probably attract more attention than we need. Blending in is paramount here.”
“Urgh… do I really look like that much of a punk?” Aaron groaned in dismay, putting a hand over his face, as if he could remold it like wet clay.
“The textbook definition. Not to mention you’re not a very good actor, nor even a decent bullshitter.” Nathan snickered, his bed creaking as he leaned back. He cast his eyes over Aaron’s shoulders, looking to William, “A handsome fella like our archer friend, however…?”
“I’m not a thief.” Will breathed under a sad sigh, turning over in his bed.
“You don’t need to be. Just get dolled up and prance around like aristocrats do and I can handle the rest.”
Will remained completely uninterested in the conservation. Staring vacuous at the wall, his back was the only thing he let the other two see.
Nathan grimaced, shaking his head to both sides, “Tch. Fine. I guess it’s you and me, Aaron. I’ve got a few backup plans of we can’t convince Otha’s goons to let us in-”
Otha’s name acted like a sudden pulse of electricity to William. He sprung upright like an undead corpse from the grave. Slowly, he raised a shaking, clenched fist.
“Did… did you say Otha?”
Somewhat blown back, Nathan carefully bobbed his head in confirmation, “Y-yeah. That’s right. What did she do to get ya so riled up?”
Will swallowed a lump of nerves that had gathered in his throat. He stared down at the dirty flooring between his feet, his mind racing. The smirking ringmaster. Those three monsters he sold like cattle. Just imaging the rest of the monsters he had and very much would continue to sell off made his blood boil. The picture of some evil witch laughing as she sat among her blood money only further stoked his fury.
Finally, from the misty depths of his past memories, the terrified faces of a mother and her daughter, both clad in green scales. Coward. Traitor. All the bitter things he had been called gathered like rotten fruit on his tongue. His fingernails dug into his skin until the a thin trickle of blood ran down his wrist.
“I’m in… on one condition.”
The rogue cocked his brow, leaning back towards Nathan.
“And what would that be?”
A deadly glint flashed in the archer’s sharp eyes, shocking both Aaron and even Nathan.
“We kill Otha.”