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Fool's Find (WIP)

Bed-man Sep 14th, 2019 (edited) 2,911 Never
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  1. Yells erupted from all around. People were laughing, cheering, arguing. The sounds all flowed together as one, a symphony of drunken delight. This was not atypical for a usual weekday, but it somehow seemed as if there were more people than usual in the tavern. Perhaps I was simply imagining things. Sitting there at that small table, clustered among others full of rowdy drunks, I suppose it simply made the whole place feel smaller than it was. The groups were comprised of the adventuring types; small bands of would-be warriors, traveling from town to town looking for the odd quest or two so they could play the part of heroes. There were humans, saurians, and kalrins alike, all huddled at their seats, planning their journeys and drinking to the point of blacking out. As I said, not atypical.
  2.  
  3. From the corner of my eye, I watched as a pair of idiots threw knives at the notice board, the blades piercing into the wood with a satisfying thunk. At once, the small troupe surrounding them threw their hands into the air and gave a cheer, and the two idiots ate up the attention like they'd die without it. Moving my eyesight across the room, I spied upon a ragtag group of people playing cards. I caught at least three of them cheating. Nearby were some warriors soaking their feet in bowls, letting out small noises of comfort as the cooling waters eased their soreness.
  4.  
  5. I was sat alone, in a far corner of the first level. Having my back against a wall afforded me some small comfort of security, no need to worry about a blade at my neck. Despite that minor comfort, I kept a hand on the dagger at my waist, preparing for anything. Even in a place as carefree and seemingly simple as the Laughing Wolf, one could never be too cautious. Or maybe that was just my own brand of paranoia.
  6.  
  7. One of the tavern wenches wandered over my way with a large mug of some of the tavern's personally made ale. She was a frail thing, one of those mousy kalrins. To some men, she'd probably be good wife material. Hard working, cute face, a thin figure. Even the grayish fur covering her body might be appealing to a few; I'd heard kalrin fur can be soft as silk if brushed regularly. The pointed ears on her head swiveled in every which direction, almost as if she were trying to listen to everything at once. Setting down my drink, she twitched her pinkish nose at me and wished me a nice evening before retreating back to the relative safety of the kitchen.
  8.  
  9. My eyes scanned the room another time before I decided to take a swig. A light taste, with a minor dash of cherry. Odd choice, but it wasn't that bad. It paired well with the nice cut of wyvern roast I'd ordered. Marinated with a perfect blend and slow cooked for hours, the wyvern was so tender and juicy, it damn near melted in my mouth. While I was downing a second helping of the ale, in walked the person I'd been waiting for.
  10.  
  11. He was a tall man, dressed in a nicely made red shirt. His moustache appeared to be freshly oiled, or whatever it is merchant-types use to get their facial hair to look so shiny. In one hand, he held a small cane, the tip of the handle shaped into the form of a wolf's open maw. Judging from the way he moved, he did not have a limp, so I could only assume the cane was for appearance's sake. As he looked over the room, I raised a hand to wave him over, then watched as he carefully made his way through the overcrowded tables and booths, being sure not to accidently brush up against anyone or anything as he went.
  12.  
  13. When he finally sat down, he took the chair opposite mine, placing his cane down on the table length wise. Seeing it up close now, I noticed the wolf's eyes were made of small cut rubies. Strange tastes, these merchants.
  14.  
  15. "Oh, my boy Graham, am I glad to see you again," the man in red breathed out, his words accented with an air of nobility. Faked nobility, but that's neither here nor there. "I was beginning to get worried I might have gotten swindled."
  16.  
  17. "Mhm," came my answer with a roll of my eyes.
  18.  
  19. The man cleared his throat then. "I don't mean any ill will by that, merely you and your uh...friend looked to be the roguish types." Chancing a look around, he seemed confused by what he found, or rather what he didn't. "By the by, where is that saurian of yours?"
  20.  
  21. Reaching down by my feet, I pulled up a canvas bag, letting it fall on top the table. "She's busy," came the curt answer. "Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to get this over and be on my way."
  22.  
  23. "Certainly, certainly." Reaching out, he pulled the bag over to him and examined its contents. When his hand came back out of the bag, he held something wrapped up in cloth and twine. A rust colored stain decorated the cloth. While the man busied himself unwrapping the item, I proceeded to continue my meal. I had already paid for it, no sense letting it get cold. As the heavenly taste of cooked wyvern flooded my head, the cloth was unraveled fully, and in the man's hand was a purple organ.
  24.  
  25. A heart.
  26.  
  27. Not human, of course. It belonged to a certain troublesome rabbit. No ordinary hare was this, for it was as big as a wolf, had teeth like knives and was hungry for flesh. It had been causing problems for the man in red's caravans, attacking the carts, scaring away the horses, eating at least two of his workers. The beast was dealt with by way of traps and a swift pair of crossbow bolts to both brain and heart.
  28.  
  29. The sharp dressed man examined the heart closely, turning it over in his grasp to see all sides. "Quite nice work you've done. Cut it out in one nice piece, no stringy tendons or whatnot clinging to it. You even washed it clean of dirt, I see. Fine work."
  30.  
  31. Through a stuffed face, I retorted, "You'll find all the major organs, just like you asked." After swallowing, I decided to sate a bit of curiosity that had been swimming around my head ever since the man hired me and my partner. "If you don't mind induldging me, why did you come to us for this? I figured merchants usually go through the hunter's guild for this sort of thing."
  32.  
  33. "Indeed, we do. But," he paused and let out a tired sigh. "But, there is so much paperwork when you deal with guilds." A hint of frustration dripped from his mouth at the word 'paperwork' and I could almost feel the annoyance radiating off him. "I'd rather cut down on such bothersome things. And that's not even getting into the way the guild always has to have 'their share' of the beast, so if you ever want anything specific, they ask for far too much coin."
  34.  
  35. Hm. Perhaps guild work was more profitable than I first imagined.
  36.  
  37. Then again, working for a guild would mean being forced to abide by all their inane rules and regulations. Plus, it would mean needing to pay guild fees, and that just sounded too much like extortion by my mind.
  38.  
  39. After giving it some thought, I asked, "Won't they get upset when they find you went behind their back like this?" From my experience, the guilds hated losing out on any opportunities for profit.
  40.  
  41. He shrugged and flashed a wide grin. "If I can find someone to do the same job at a lower pricepoint, the only ones the guild should be mad with is themselves."
  42.  
  43. The man went back to searching through the bag, pulling out a few more organs wrapped in cloth, checking to see their quality. Meanwhile, I was getting back to enjoying my meal. I watched as the red clothed merchant unwrapped each organ in turn, and mumbled to himself over their appearances. Odd man, this merchant. But, he seemed very pleased with the work done. A bit too pleased for my liking.
  44.  
  45. Atfer some time he had examined all the organs I'd collected, at least by my count. But, he still reached in the bag once more. Coming out empty-handed, he got a curious look to his eyes.
  46.  
  47. "Where's the pelt?"
  48.  
  49. Downing the last of the ale, I slouched down slightly before giving him his answer. "Needs to dry. Should be done by morning, then I'll send it off to your house."
  50.  
  51. The curiousity in his eyes seemed to grow. "Send it off? But I...."
  52.  
  53. I cut him off. "You live in Greensprings."
  54.  
  55. An eyebrow raised, followed by a slight twitch at the corner of his mouth. "I never told you that."
  56.  
  57. It was my turn to shrug and grin. "Of course you didn't."
  58.  
  59. From there, the man's face became awash in a mixture of fear and anger. He tried to speak, but all that came out was a wordless grunt. For several minutes, he attempted to get himself under control and speak properly, but he only found more pitiful noises of protest. Becoming a bit bored of his floundering, I decided to interject.
  60.  
  61. I held up a hand to silence him. "You must understand, my partner and I are not exactly licensed professionals. We need to take some slight precaution when dealing with our clientele." My hands made swift work wrapping up the organs and placing them back inside the bag, handing it all over when finished. "We don't like making a habit of going against people without reason, mind you. So long as our clients hold up their end of our agreements, we can all walk away happy. And that being said..." I brought up a hand, rubbing my index finger and thumb together.
  62.  
  63. The man's eyes had gone wide in the meantime, his skin had fallen a shade paler. A lump had seemingly formed in his throat, as he swallowed, making a rather loud gulping sound. His eyes darted from me, to the bag, then back to me, all the while his mouth tried forming words.
  64.  
  65. Afterstumbling for a few odd moments, he managed to find his voice. "I don't know how you found out, but I assure you, if any harm comes to my family, and I find it traces back to you..."
  66.  
  67. "Yes, yes. You'll kill me and mount my head on your wall, skin my partner and make some nice boots from her, blah blah blah." I let out a faked yawn, and leaned fowards in my chair, resting my chin against a fist. "I've heard it all before. Now, if you would please pay, I'd much prefer for this business to be over and done with."
  68.  
  69. He ran his thoughts over in head, seemingly debating on his next move. With the newfound information that I knew where he lived, his internal argument didn't last long. He reached for his belt and pulled loose a coinpurse, dropping it on the table before me. I didn't even have time to grab the purse before he shot up from the table. He was just about to take a step away when I got his attention.
  70.  
  71. "Oh, and Reginald?"
  72.  
  73. He foze at the sound of his own name. When his eyes met mine, I could see fear in them. I met that fear with a cocky smirk.
  74.  
  75. "I do hope we can do business again in the future."
  76.  
  77. In a flash, the man took his goods and made for the door, tail between his legs. The sight of it got a little chuckle out of me, and I pocketed the money and finished off the last of the wyvern meat. It was so good, I practically licked the plate clean. Being in such a good mood over finishing the contract, I even ordered a slice of pie.
  78.  
  79. Once the desert was finished, I made my way out the tavern and thought to head home. The sun had disappeared beneath the horizon and the moon was starting to shine forth. Street lamps had been lit during my stay inside, and the tiny flames did their best to guide the way through the darkened town. The air still smelled of the rainstorm that had passed through earlier in the day, the stone streets glistening in the lamplight. Shops were beginning to close up, the owners grown tired of the work day and seeking the comfort of their beds. Wannabe heroes and adventurers hurried along to whatever inn they had paid the night for, while some were more giving to sin and could be seen heading for the brothel and gambling house.
  80.  
  81. As for myself, I walked the same path I had grown accustomed to. A hop by the baker's place, ducking below the bridge connecting the upper and lower districts, worming my way through the alley next to a bar I never frequented, and finally jumping over the broken fountain.
  82.  
  83. I ended up in front of a run down building. No manor was this. No, this was built from twigs and kept together on sheer willpower. Small. That was mostly how one would describe my home. Small and dirty, to be more honest. I'd always told myself I'd take the time to spruce it up to look decent, but I never seemed to get around to it. Through the curtains, I spied the flickering sight of candleflame.  Not a good sign.
  84.  
  85. Steeling myself for what was to come, I headed inside. Things were mostly the same inside as they were outside. Small and dirty. Cramped. There wasn't much to be seen; a bed with a chest next to it, a makeshift wardrobe full of all manner of supplies, a large stretch of rabbit pelt hanging on a rack drying, and a lone desk with papers and books stacked on top. Sitting at said desk was none other than my partner Twi, her face illuminated by the tiny flames dancing on the nearby candles.
  86.  
  87. She was a broad woman, with dark green scales covering her body. A short muzzle protruded from her face, and I knew first hand the amount of sharp little teeth that hid within. Like other female saurians, she sported a small, thin fin on top her head, which ran down the back side, ending just below the nape of her neck. In the glow of the candles, her normally yellow eyes took on a golden sheen. Those eyes were, as it turned out, slanted in anger.
  88.  
  89. "Graham." When she spoke, her words were soft, husky some might call it. "You scared off another one." It wasn't a question. She already knew what happened at the Laughing Wolf.
  90.  
  91. "Just making sure he knows his place." I didn't even bother asking how she knew.
  92.  
  93. Somehow, her eyes narrowed even more, and I could almost feel the knives shooting from them. "You're no longer allowed to talk with clients alone."
  94.  
  95. Flabbergasted, I blurted out, "Allowed? I run this operation!"
  96.  
  97. The chair fell to the floor as she rose from the seat. Standing her full size, she was just slightly under eye level, but that never bothered her. In a blink she was before me, the collar of my shirt held tightly in her grip. "This is the third time you've done this bullshit this month. That man was an alchemist. A merchant. Did you ever stop to think about the connections he might have? The connections we could have made?" Despite how upset she was, she did not raise her voice.
  98.  
  99. A scoff fell from my lips. "Since when do you care about connections?"
  100.  
  101. At once, she pushed me back, almost slamming me against the wall. "Since we decided to set up our own business. But every time we take a job from a merchant, someone just has to be an idiot and ruin a possible partnership." All the time we talked, her grip on my shirt had never loosened, and I could feel her lifting up slightly. Even though she was shorter, she was strong enough to throw me. We both knew that fact intimately.
  102.  
  103. "We've already had to deal with prick merchants snubbing us of our hard earned pay. Putting a little fear into 'em just ensures they won't cause issues."
  104.  
  105. She didn't hesitate for a single second. "And what will you do if that fear makes him run to the town guard? Will you try to explain your stupid plan and end up in jail? You need to use your head more," she said with a sigh. "We can't keep losing out on potential business like this." Her hands released me and she backed up, already calmed despite being absolutely right.
  106.  
  107. My own sense seemed to finally come to me then. "Look, I just don't like dealing with those rich assholes, especially not after the last job almost got you killed." She didn't even seem fazed by my words, so I decided to add what I assumed would get to her. "Anyway, do you know what that alchemist told me? He said he doesn't use the guild because of the paperwork and cost. These people don't care. We're just cheap labor for them."
  108.  
  109. "Don't you think I know that?" She reached out and poked a claw to my forehead. "But we need the money. Understand? You can't keep doing this 'dangerous mercenary' nonsense."
  110.  
  111. A single nod was my response, to which Twi sighed once more and walked back to the table. Now with her some ways away from me, I finally got a good look at her, which gave me pause.
  112.  
  113. "Twi? Why are you dressed like you're going somewhere?"
  114.  
  115. She had outfitted herself in what we called our 'work clothes;' a gambeson and some padded trousers with metal plates around the arms and legs for added protection, a belt with her dagger sheathed to the side, and her crossbow strung on her back. It was the usual attire for whenever we had any job to do.
  116.  
  117. "We," she clarified. "We are going somewhere."
  118.  
  119. "And where would that be?"
  120.  
  121. She reached for a bundle of similar clothes on the table, tossing it my way. "While you were busy frightening off future clients, I went to a meeting. We're heading to Junefeld for an escort job."
  122.  
  123. An exaggerated sigh loosed itself from my lungs. "But those are so boring."
  124.  
  125. This was met by a roll of her eyes. "Yes, but they pay well. And speaking of pay, drop it." She pointed over to the corner of the small room, right next to the wardrobe.
  126.  
  127. One of my hands went to the coinpurse in my pocket as I walked to the corner. On the wall, close to the floor and unknown to all but the most trained of eyes, there was a very slightly discolored piece of stone amidst the others. Grabbing the thin edges of this stone, I pulled it loose, revealing a small hole in the wall full of other coinpurses. I plopped the bag I held into the hole then covered it back up. My deed done, I went about dressing myself in my work clothes.
  128.  
  129. While removing my shirt, I heard a small noise from my saurian counterpart, followed by, "See you at the gates." By the time I had the article of clothing over my head, the door was already closing behind the scaly woman.
  130.  
  131. ~~~
  132.  
  133. It didn't take long for me to dress and follow after Twi. I came upon her waiting by the eastern exit of town. The large gate hung overhead, ready to slam down shut if need be. Surrounding our fair town of New Serrak were large logs bound together, acting as protective walls. They'd held up well enough in the past, or so I'd been told. Supposedly, the duke was going to have the wooden structure switched out for a proper stone defense. Eventually.
  134.  
  135. As soon as I stumbled into view, the scaled woman threw a pack my way, which I ever so gracefully failed to catch. Nearby, a snicker could be heard from the one of the armor clad men guarding the gate. I would have told him where he could stuff his laughing, but Twi was already on the move, so I swiftly made after her.
  136.  
  137. Her sight was set on the stables, and by the time I caught up, she was pulling a strong mare from out of her pen. The mare in question was colored like a raging thundercloud, dark gray with flecks of black. Twi had bought her some odd years back, and made sure to tend to her at least once every day. Twi had named the beast Vox, after some old saurian warrior of legend. Every time she was taken out, Vox would let out an excited noise and stamp her front hooves upon the hay covered floor. This time was no different. It was always a pleasant sight to see the creature so happy. What I wouldn't give to be able to get so much pleasure out of life as that horse did.
  138.  
  139. Once let out into the open air, the mare stared at Twi and I, awaiting her orders. After tying our gear to Vox's saddle, we took our usual positions, myself in front with Twi behind me. We had tried it the other way before, but Twi's tail would always get in the way and make things too uncomfortable for us both. When I felt Twi's familiar weight leaning against me, as well as her hands softly wrapping around my waist, I grabbed hold of the reins and kicked us off. Vox started out at a light trot, but slowly worked her way into a full gallop. She barely even seemed to breathe any differently after the change in pace, which I always found curious.
  140.  
  141. The distance to Junefeld wasn't a vast one, a measly half night's journey. Regardless, the road ahead was clear, and the sky above was full of glinting stars. Even out beyond town, the air still had that distinct fragrance that follows a storm. It was such a calming scent, so much so that I wished I could bottle it up and spray it around the house whenever I needed to sleep. While we went down the road, I looked out to the forest nearby, catching a glance of a lone hunter dragging back a fine specimen of a deer. Likely, he'd sell the majority of it. I knew I would.
  142.  
  143. I nudged against the saurian on my back. "Hey," I tried getting her attention.
  144.  
  145. Twi brought her head close, resting it on my shoulder, her smooth scaled cheek almost rubbing up next to mine. "What?"
  146.  
  147. "What do we know about this client? Who are we escorting?" My eyes remained on the stretch of road, but I could spy my companion out of the side of my vision.
  148.  
  149. I was met with a scoff. "And give you fuel to scare off someone else?"
  150.  
  151. A scowl found its way on my face. "Oh come off it. You aren't seriously gonna keep me in the dark on this, are you?"
  152.  
  153. Silence. I wasn't sure if she was trying to think of a clever comeback or trying to find the right words to bring me down gently. Either way, the fact she didn't say anything for an odd few minutes was aggravating. I was about to repeat myself when Twi made her decision.
  154.  
  155. "He's a low-rank nobleman's son. We're to meet in the morning and accompany him as he hunts some deer."
  156.  
  157. "How low-rank we talking?" If a blue-blood was stooping so low as to hire some sellswords like us, it must have meant he was in some dire straits.
  158.  
  159. I could hear the smile in her voice as she said, "He'd have to lick the duke's muddy shoes clean just to get a seat at his dinner table." We shared a laugh at that. Twi's laugh was a joy to my ears.
  160.  
  161. When we wound down from our shared enjoyment, I remembered the other half of info about our upcoming job. "So. Deer hunting, huh?"
  162.  
  163. She let out a small grunt. "I know, I know. But, like I said, we'll be paid well." Slowly, she shifted her head more my way, and I could feel her nuzzling her smooth cheek against my neck. I reached a hand up and stroked my thumb across the other cheek. Her soft scales were always cool to the touch. "When we get back home," she added, "let's get some of that wine you like so much to celebrate."
  164.  
  165. "Yeah," I said, the soft smile working its way across my face, "I'd like that."
  166.  
  167. From there, things got a bit quiet for a time. All there was was the sound of Vox's hooves beating against the road and the wind rushing by. Thankfully, it was an autumn night, so unlike a hot summer or freezing winter, it was a perfect cool temperature. Occassionaly, we'd see another person on the road, but for the most part it was seemingly just us. Off the trail there were a handful of livestock sleeping peacefully under the calming night sky, and I began to wonder if these were where New Serrak's businesses got most of their typical meats.
  168.  
  169. Of course, the adventuring types and certain merchants would bring in special beasts like chimera or griffon, but that was as rare as a shooting star. The fine folk of New Serrak just happened to get lucky recently. A caravan had arrived last week, and they had all manner of exotic meats and produce. When they first showed, I'd been tempted to spend a decent sum of coin on a selection of items including some of the wyvern meat, but Twi insisted on being picky, and we only walked away with a small handful of fruit. I supposed it was fate that the tavern bought a hefty amount of the wyvern meats. Mayhaps whatever god rules this world was smiling down on me.
  170.  
  171. We had been on the road quite some time when Junefeld finally came into view. The half moon above shone down, revealing the city. Unlike our own hometown, Junefeld had a stone defensive wall, likely due to the atristocrats living within lobbying for a proper wall. Of course the duke would listen to them. I couldn't see much over the walls, as they seemed to go above the roofs of the buildings within. My knowledge of the city was poor, but the one thing I did know was the name was originally June's Field, but over time people had started saying less of the full name, supposedly.
  172.  
  173. Stationed outside the gate were guards not unlike the ones back home, though these ones had nicer, well-polished armor. Like most places we'd visited, the guards stopped us and asked us our business, to which Twi said something about a "Ser Boylan." The men apparantly recognized the name and welcomed us inside. Once the armored men were out of earshot, I wondered aloud if that was the name of our client.
  174.  
  175. "Oh right, I forgot to mention," came the mumbling words from the saurian woman. "Yea, that's him." After Vox took a few more paces, Twi got off the saddle and took the lead to a place we could stay for the night.
  176.  
  177. Junefeld's interior didn't seem to differ much from New Serrak's, at least by my rough estimation. Similar styled brick homes and shops, and almost the exact same color of stone used for the streets. There was a temple or a chapel--I wasn't sure what the difference was--which New Serrak didn't have for reasons I never cared to investigate. A few lamps along the streets hadn't been lit, or perhaps had simply been blown out by a haphazard breeze, so the dark streets were partly illuminated by the half moon above, giving everything a light touch of silver.
  178.  
  179. Twi seemed to know her way around the city, as soon we were face to face with a nice looking inn with a small stable on the side, which was fashioned out of an old shed it looked like. Luckily, there was an open place for Vox, and the mare was more than happy to rest her legs. As Twi ran a hand down the side of the mare's neck, she wished the beast a good night and then pushed me out of the stable and towards the inn.
  180.  
  181. It was a fairly nice place inside. Soft lighting by way of various small candles, a low burning fireplace to keep the room nice and warm, a few paintings hung on the walls. At a small desk on the far side of the room sat a young man. Too young to be running the inn by himself. Looked to be no older than fifteen summers. I assumed then that the inn must have been family run. He welcomed us, but his face lacked the typical business-like smile you'd often see, instead replaced by a curious frown. When we asked for a single room, the look he gave only grew more curious. I had a hunch what was bothering him.
  182.  
  183. Our room was located off to the right side, and I wasn't much surprised to find it was just a smidge larger than our own home. The room was rather bare bones, however. Only thing in there was a bed and a small closet. Having all that extra floorspace felt slightly offputting. I'd gotten so used to home, it seemed. All in all, though, the inn's bed wasn't as cozy as the one at home. Be that due to the fewer amount of feathers in the inn's pillows or the lack of the thick warm blanket we used back home, I wasn't sure. Either way, it didn't take too long to doze off once Twi and I crawled beneath the sheets.  
  184.  
  185. When we awoke, it was to the sound of yelling from just outside the room. As we dragged ourselves out the room, we were graced with the presence of a man drunkenly stumbling through the hall loudly proclaiming himself as the 'King of Unland' (whatever that means) and arguing with anyone who so much as dared look at him. Through some mircale, Twi and I managed to avoid his notice while leaving, and soon were out in the morning light.
  186.  
  187. In the bright sunshine, the city looked different. More alive. That didn't come as much of a surprise, but it still took me a second or two to adjust to the difference. Despite being so early, people were already going about their business, marching throught streets, banging away on their anvils or throwing open their doors for customers, children running here and there while their parents hollered for their attention. Back in New Serrak, the streets weren't this packed even during the busiest times of day, much less right after dawn. The most foot traffic I ever saw back home was from would-be heroes passing through town on their way to slay some beasties or fight a gang of bandits or whatever those morons do as they try to become famous.
  188.  
  189. Beside me, a stretched out yawn fluttered through the air as my faithful saurian cracked her knuckles, preparing herself for the day ahead. Following her example, I leaned backwards and heard a series of popping sounds along my spine, followed by that oh so soothing feeling.
  190.  
  191. "Ready for an exciting day?" she said with her voice dripping with sarcasm so thick you could almost see it.
  192.  
  193. I was about to play her game when the memory of this being an escort job hit me. All I could say was a grumpy, "The money better be worth it."
  194.  
  195. "Oh?" She sidled up next to me and jabbed an elbow into my side. "And what are you gonna do if it isn't?"
  196.  
  197. I wanted to say, 'For starters, throw you down on the floor and spank your scaly bottom till the green turns red.'
  198.  
  199. Rather than those thoughts, however, I simply grumbled, "I'll take your cut and buy some expensive booze with it."
  200.  
  201. She let out a cute little laugh and led the way to the meetup point.
  202.  
  203. While following after Twi, I began to notice that Junefeld wasn't a particularly fancy looking place, despite a lot of the duke's special 'friends' living there. Granted, I was sure those friends lived in the upper districts far away from the common riffraff that was us normal folk, and their homes being where the actual fancy shit was. Regardless, the majority of the town felt like home, surprisingly enough. Sure, it lacked that certain charm that came from seeing the same fools stumbling around every morning, falling over themselves after a heavy night of drinking, but other than that it was as if the two towns were twins. Hell, as we walked I even saw similar shops in the same places; a tailor right next to the baker, a blacksmith across the street from the cobbler, the butcher and grocer's stores stacked up side by side, so on and so forth. All things considered, it was a bit odd to see how alike the two towns were, but I chalked it up to them having been built around the same time.
  204.  
  205. Ahead of me, Twi was going on about something, but I wasn't paying much attention. Seeminly realizing this fact, she stopped and looked back at me, a look of aggitation about her.
  206.  
  207. "You're not listening."
  208.  
  209. "Of course I'm not." No point denying the obvious.
  210.  
  211. A short angry breath left her nostrils as she seemed to fight the urge to slap me; one of her hands opening and closing repeatedly, not entirely sure whether it wanted to go through with the action. Instead of striking, she huffed and turned back on her heel, threatening to storm off.
  212.  
  213. "Ok, ok," I pleaded. "What was it?"
  214.  
  215. "I was trying to say that the Boylan family, while not high up on the social ladder, are still nobles."
  216.  
  217. "So what?"
  218.  
  219. "So," she said while reaching a clawed finger out and poked at my forehead, "I don't want you doing your stupid 'dangerous mercenary' crap. They still have decent connections in Falur."
  220.  
  221. "How do you even know that?"
  222.  
  223. "I take this job seriously and make sure to get as much info from our clients as possible. The Boylans' retainer was very forthcoming with answers."
  224.  
  225. I rolled my eyes, which only earned me another sharp poke to my browline.
  226.  
  227. "I mean it, Graham. Don't be an idiot." A scowl had marred her beautiful muzzle, and along with the fire in her eyes, I knew I should just agree and hope this day went by quickly.
  228.  
  229. Silently, I nodded in agreement and the two of us continued our short trek.
  230.  
  231. We eventually found our way to a small bar near where the upper and lower districts met up. Standing alone next to a small archway, it was shockingly well kept; no moss on the stone walls, no vomit around the side alleys, not even a single drunkard loitering around from the previous night. It was almost enviable seeing such a proud building standing tall in what would have been the slums if this was back in New Serrak.
  232.  
  233. Hanging from the overhead awning was a small sign designating the bar as 'The Black Sheep,' complete with a little doodle of the titular animal.
  234.  
  235. Cute.
  236.  
  237. After taking in the sights--so to speak--I turned back to Twi. "So, this where we meeting up with Mr Blue-blood?"
  238.  
  239. Before she had the opportunity to answer me, a loud bang came from the bar as the front door flew open and slammed against the outside wall. A large burly saurian with dark red scales carried out a disheveled looking man, tossed him down to the ground before us and snarled out some threat I didn't pay any mind to.
  240.  
  241. In response, the man simply laughed while the saurian stomped back inside. As the man stood back up, he brushed the dust off his admittedly nice looking clothing. Were it not for the stains and wrinkles, one could easily mistake them for the clothes of a low class noble.
  242.  
  243. Wait.
  244.  
  245. No, I thought. This couldn't be...
  246.  
  247. "Ser Boylan?" came the careful words of my scaled partner.
  248.  
  249. The man turned to face us, almost tripping over his own feet in the process, and responded with words that filled my gut with dread.
  250.  
  251. "The one and only." His voice was slurred with drink, and I could smell the alcohol on his breath from where I stood. He gave an awkward bow, letting a loud and disgusting belch when he straightened up once more.
  252.  
  253. Wonderful.
  254.  
  255. "Ser Boylan," Twi repeated, hiding the her disgust expertly, "we are Twi and Graham. I met with your associate yesterday about being your escorts for a hunt."
  256.  
  257. Boylan took a good long look at us, scanning us up and down with glossy eyes. He seemed more or less satisfied by what he saw, as he gave an enthusiastic nod.
  258.  
  259. "Yes, Gadrid told me to expect a pair. Funny enough, he failed to mention one of you'd be a lizard."
  260.  
  261. I wanted to hit him right then and there. Hard.
  262.  
  263. For the briefest of seconds, I saw Twi's eyes go wide in shock at the insulting word. In that short timespan, it looked as if she had just been slapped, she was so surprised. She quickly managed to recover and make herself appear as the hard working sellsword. I, on the other hand could feel my own death glare, coupled with a deep scowl. I was very much tempted to make my thoughts known.
  264.  
  265. Twi shot me a look, and we shared a silent agreement between us, causing my anger to subside. For now.
  266.  
  267. After seeing my face now masking my anger, Twi said in a cooled, business-like tone, "Well, Ser Boylan, it's nice to see you in such high spirits so early in the morning."
  268.  
  269. "Bah! High spirits, my ass. All I wanted was a few pre-hunt drinks, and those damnedable lizards in there," he jabbed a thumb behind him at the bar, "told me, ME, that I had to leave." At the second utterance of the insult, Twi's eyes narrowed into thin slits for a mere moment before resuming their neutral, almost bored appearance. In the back of my mind, I wondered how long she could keep the act up.
  270.  
  271. The whole time he spoke, Boylan's voice was fluctuating between a normal speaking volume and yelling random words. If he was this out of it, I wondered if he'd be able to do much hunting anyway when the time came.
  272.  
  273. The drunken noble continued on. "My grandfather owned the lumbermill that cut the logs used to make that bar, and they have the audacity to toss me out?"
  274.  
  275. "And I'm sure he was as great a man as you," I mocked under my breath.
  276.  
  277. The man didn't seem to hear me, but I was a bit more concerned if Twi had. When she didn't even look in my direction, or show any sign that she noticed my mumbling in any way, I felt I was in the clear. Even if I couldn't have my way in full, I'd at least make snide remarks just for own pleasure.
  278.  
  279. A loud belch came from Boylan once more, and he flashed a stupid grin at its completion. Disgusting man, this one.
  280.  
  281. "With the introductions out the way, what's say we get to the matter at hand?" Without even waiting for a response, he marched off.
  282.  
  283. When he was out of earshot, I nudged Twi's side. "So, still think the money's gonna be worth it?"
  284.  
  285. She let out a harsh, guttural sound. "Come on, we have a job to do," she grunted, then followed after our wonderful and drunken client, leaving me to take up the rear of our little party.
  286.  
  287. Despite his inebriated state, Boylan was very sure of his directions. Or at least, he seemed to be. He never stopped to take his bearings or check his surroundings. It led me to believe those 'pre-hunt drinks' were something of a regular occurance for the man. Regardless, he brought up to the northern gates, and through them I saw what I assumed would be our hunting location.
  288.  
  289. Beyond the gates was a large expanse of trees with trunks wider than a man's outstretched arms and leaves shimmering in reds and yellows. Despite how late into autumn it was, the trees didn't seem to be missing any of their leaves, as not a single one could be seen littering the nearby road or fluttering about in the breeze. The sing-song calls of birds reached my ears, and I noticed a small gathering of the beasts in question lazing on top the gate itself; a flock of some red bird I couldn't place the name of. Their large black eyes stared down at all who passed beneath the archway they claimed as theirs.
  290.  
  291. As the three of us walked outside the city, Boylan pulled out a small vial of liquid. He looked skyward then proceeded to empty the vial's contents directly into his open eyes. When the small container was emptied, Boylan let out a long breath then shook his head, afterwards he turned to face me and Twi.
  292.  
  293. "Now then," he proudly exclaimed, "I hope the two of you are strong, because you're gonna be bringing back my kills."
  294.  
  295. Taking a step forward, Twi retorted with, "That wasn't part of the agreement. We were to be escorts only, not some corpse delivery service."
  296.  
  297. A wry smile lit up the blue-blood face then. "You made your agreement with Gadrid," he said with a chuckle. "I'm not Gadrid, you see. So, if you want me to pay you once this is over, you'll do your part." He snapped his fingers toward one of the nearby guards at the gate, who swiftly departed to some unknown location. When the armor-clad man showed back up, he had a bow and a quiver full of arrows, handing them over to Boylan with an almost submissive nod.
  298.  
  299. After tying off the quiver to his back, Boylan turned his gaze to Twi once more. "And by the way, miss lizard: don't ever talk back to me like that again, else you and your friend here won't be living the sellsword life for long." This sudden change in his attitude was a shock, as if he'd become a completely different man. With his threat hanging in the air, he cheerfully headed towards the forest, seemingly eager to find some hapless deer to shoot. Knowing nobles like him, I figured this wasn't for some nice meal, but rather just for a trophy, something he could brag about.
  300.  
  301. Taking a glance over at my partner, I saw the secret fire behind her placid demeanor. To the majority of the world, she looked the obedient worker, her calm, almost bored expression hiding the truth. But, I knew that slight twitch at the corner of her muzzle signaled just how annoyed she was already. And we hadn't even known the guy for more than ten minutes. Some part of me wanted to crack a joke to try to cool her mood, but I knew she'd just tell me to take the job seriously and walk off in a huff. Rather than open my mouth and annoy her even more, I simply put a comforting hand on her shoulder, gave a slight squeeze, and followed after Boylan.
  302.  
  303. I had to remind myself not to hit the bastard.
  304.  
  305. The trail ahead was rather worn, an obvious sign this was a frequented trail, which I assumed was used mostly by hunters. Regardless of any of that, Boylan stomped on ahead, not saying a word as the three of us followed the makeshift path. From behind me, I heard Twi speeding up slightly to match my pace, and when I looked at her I noticed her muzzle twitching had subsided. It was likely to return whenever our client decided to speak again, I was sure.
  306.  
  307. As if he could read my thoughts, Boylan broke the silence.
  308.  
  309. "Tell you the truth, I'd never thought to hire some sellswords." I could hear the condescension in his voice, as if mocking us for our line of work. "But, I was told the two of you do good work."
  310.  
  311. "Probably also told we didn't charge too much for our work, either," I mumbled to myself.
  312.  
  313. "Really?" Twi spoke with care, making sure not to betray her own outward mask. "Not everyday a client recommends us to others. Must've made a good impression on them." I saw a self-satisfied smile crawl across her face then. I knew that in some way, the smile was directed at me as a wordless gesture that she was right about 'making connections.' The sheer fact she now had proof of this claim meant I'd never hear the end of it once we got home.
  314.  
  315. "Well," Boylan went on, "it's more like second-hand knowlegde. Gadrid was told about you two, and then he in turn told me."
  316.  
  317. Through her smug smirking, Twi responded, "Either way, it's always nice when our clients speak well of us."
  318.  
  319. Boylan stopped dead in his tracks ahead of us, holding a hand up for us to follow suit. Without the sound of our collective boots on grass and soil, I could hear another noise coming from ahead. An odd squeaking, like a creaky door mixed with a child's crying. A deer was close. Boylan held up his bow and nocked an arrow while taking slow and steady steps forward, trying make as little sound as possible.
  320.  
  321. From where I stood, I couldn't see hide nor hair of any deer, but its constant sqeaking sounds made it evident the thing was somewhere nearby. It was still early in the morning, so I was kinda surprised we found one already. Silently, I hoped it ran off before it could get shot, if only because I didn't want to be hauling around its corpse any time soon. Twi seemed to be of the same mind, as she remained where she stood beside me, scanning around for any sign of the beast.
  322.  
  323. Suddenly, a blur of brown fur dashed out of the brush ahead, fleeing off into the distance. Our oh so wonderful client let his arrow soar, only to have the missile embed itself into the trunk of a tree, narrowly missing the retreating flank of its intended target.
  324.  
  325. "Dammit all," exclaimed the nobleman's son, stamping a foot down like a dejected child. He regained composure, puffed up his chest, then pointed a finger at Twi. "You, lizard woman. Go track that thing down for me," he ordered.
  326.  
  327. Just that like, that slight twitch at the corner of her muzzle returned. Even so, she wordlessly went off in the direction of the animal, meaing I was now left alone with the bastard client. Thankfully, he didn't seem interested in striking up conversation.
  328.  
  329. Until he did.
  330.  
  331. "You're not much of a talker," he mused.
  332.  
  333. I shrugged. "You've never addressed me specifically."
  334.  
  335. "I suppose I haven't." Boylan rubbed at his chin, thinking on something before he asked, "So, how does a human sellsword end up partnered with one of those lizards?"
  336.  
  337. With Twi nowhere around now, and with the man continuing to insult her, I was tempted to lay into the jerk, probably hit him a few times for good measure. However, I managed to get a grip on myself and did the one thing I always did when I was asked stupid, pointless questions. I lied.
  338.  
  339. "We've known each other since we were children. When we were coming into our adulthood, I started doing odd jobs here and there to scrape by. Eventually, I wound up doing more and more jobs, and once the more violent ones came my way, people just started calling me a sellsword as a result. As for Twi, she begged to join me after she ran away from home, needing some sort of job to keep herself afloat." The fable came easily to my lips. I'd woven several different scenarios for this exact answer. It was always surprising how often I'd been asked this.
  340.  
  341. "Since childhood, eh?" A weird smile formed on his face as he continued. "If you've known each other that long, surely you've taken her to bed at least once. What are those lizard women like?" Yet another stupid question.
  342.  
  343. So, I gave another lie. "Wouldn't know. We aren't like that."
  344.  
  345. "Shame," he said, shacking his head in disappointment. "Got the perfect opportunity to try, and you don't even bother."
  346.  
  347. Just a few more hours, I thought. Just a few more hours and we'd be free of this moron.
  348.  
  349. I kept repeating that thought like some sort of mantra, and while doing so, a familiar call sounded out in the distance. A sparrow's call. Bringing my hands up to my mouth, I repeated the call back, earning a questioning look from Boylan.
  350.  
  351. "Twi found your deer," I explained to him while taking charge and leading the way.
  352.  
  353. "Ah. Good."
  354.  
  355. "Maybe this time you can shoot it and we can go home early," I mocked under my breath.
  356.  
  357. After a few thankfully silent minutes, I spotted Twi crouching beside a tree, and Boylan and I carefully joined her. Ahead was a small clearing amongst the trees, where the deer from earlier--or maybe some other, I didn't really catch a good look before--cautiously grazed. It was a female, judging by the lack of antlers and smaller stature. Twi's position had us stationed downwind, and I motioned to Boylan to take his shot.
  358.  
  359. Once more he pulled back an arrow, but as he righted himself to get a better shot, a foot landed on a fallen dead branch, and a loud snap followed. The deer shot its head up before vanishing through the trees once again. Like before, he cursed and stomped, only to then order Twi to follow after it. Sadly for him, this scene repeated itself the next time we caught up to the deer.
  360.  
  361. He wasn't a good hunter.
  362.  
  363. After the fifth or sixth failed attempt, Boylan seemed ready to break his own bow. His face was becoming red with his anger, every missed shot brought about more and more tantrums, and his commanding tone towards Twi became louder. It was enough to make me laugh were I not the trained and dedicated worker I was.
  364.  
  365. Truth be told, the only reason I didn't laugh was the thought that if I did, he'd just storm off without paying us.
  366.  
  367. As time went on, storm clouds began to drift above, spotting the sky with gray, threatening a downpour. When I notified Boylan of this, he harshly told me to 'shut up and let him hunt in peace.' For all the good his 'peace' did for him, he was still no closer to having his prize. We kept watching him struggle to shoot his quarry; over and over he missed, and over and over his reactions brought a twisted joy to my heart.
  368.  
  369. After another failed shooting, Boylan snorted and snarled out, "I've had enough of this. We're going back." Such a childish attitude; fitting for a spoiled idiot like him.
  370.  
  371. The whole way back to Junefeld's gate, he was huffing and puffing, kicking up sticks and twigs like a toddler. I finally had enough of holding back and let out a small laugh.
  372.  
  373. Immediately, Boylan turned my way. He snapped, "What's so funny?"
  374.  
  375. "Nothing," I lied. "Just remembering the time my brother knocked down a hornet's nest and got nearly his entire arm stung." Out of the corner of my sight, I saw Twi roll her eyes and continue on.
  376.  
  377. Having bought the fib, the angered noble continued his stomping and pouting until we were back at the gates. One of the guards rushed over to take the bow and quiver from the young man. With the subservient guards around him, his mood seemed to brighten up once more, and he regained his smug aura from when we first met, the scowl and almost whiny look about him being replace for a cocky grin.
  378.  
  379. "Well, I can't say it's been fun," he loudly spoke, as if announcing his displeasure for all to hear. "But, you can't be blamed for skittish beasts acting in their nature." From a pocket, he pulled forth a sack of coin, holding it out for me to take. When I did so, he beamed, for some reason. "Hopefully, if I ever hire you two again, things won't be as boring." With that, he turned on his heel and marched back through the streets, likely heading back to the bar he was thrown out of.
  380.  
  381. ~~~
  382.  
  383. As we were shuffling off, my head began to cool. My thoughts were no longer awash with ideas of violence, my eyes no longer scanning around for any loose brick or stone I could bash a head in with. Finally, I stopped by the side of a street, and let out a long breath.
  384.  
  385. "Fuck, am I happy that's over," I exclaimed. There was a small group of young women passing by, and they all gave me dirty looks for my foul language. They were further upset when, rather than apologize, I waved happily at them.
  386.  
  387. "Ready to head home?" I turned to see Twi staring back at me, one hand idly fingering the hilt of her dagger. "C'mon, let's go. I wanna get back and get drunk."
  388.  
  389. Just the thought of having a stiff drink set me at ease. A chance to just sit and relax. "I feel like I could use a drink or two myself. But, we're gonna need something stronger than wine, in that case." With renewed vigor, I made for that stable we put Vox at, ready to finally leave this place.
  390.  
  391. A content sigh left her at the that as she took her place walking beside me. "Don't care. Anything that makes me forget that annoying blue-blood will be more than fine."
  392.  
  393. "Oh, so you were getting annoyed," I joked through a smirk.
  394.  
  395. Along her thin lips, a smile equal to my own formed. "Just because I have self-control not to curse and swear like you usually do," she said while flicking her tail against the back of my leg, nearly tripping me, "doesn't mean I didn't want to throttle that bastard."
  396.  
  397. Before long, we had taken Vox and were through the exit and back on the road. Hanging above our heads, the clouds had grown considerably darker, threatening yet another storm. It was at this point Twi and I realized we did not have our hoods, dooming ourselves to be soaked by mother nature.
  398.  
  399. "How could you forget the hoods?"
  400.  
  401. "Me? You're the one who packed. If anything it's your fault."
  402.  
  403. We started to argue like this back and forth for the next few minutes. Thankfully, in all that time, no water fell on our heads, yet we continued to bicker like children. Though, in my defense, I was right. Hell, I didn't even know there would be a trip until I got home the previous night.
  404.  
  405. Twi just didn't want to admit she screwed up.
  406.  
  407. Though lacking proper coverings through no fault of my own, I decided on a plan. "Alright, look," I pointed to the sky then. "It's not as dark heading back home, so if we don't take too many breaks along the way, we might make it before even needing to worry about getting wet."
  408.  
  409. Without a moment's hesitation, Twi jumped up on Vox's saddle. Looking back at me, she slapped the portion of saddle right in front of her, urging me to hurry up. Once I took my seat, I felt the familiar grip of a certain saurian's arms about my waist, followed by her breath right against my neck.
  410.  
  411. She leaned in, and with her mouth so close to my ear, she breathed out, "If we get rained on, I'm saying it's your fault."
  412.  
  413. "If we get rained on," I repeated, "then I'm going to need someone to warm me up in bed." Twi's arms reflexively squeezed around me momentarily. I kicked us off, hoping we would beat the storm. At the same time, I also hoped some rain did fall, if only so I could make good on my faux threat.
  414.  
  415. It was about an hour and some change later. So far so good, I told myself. We were making decent time, and not a drop of rain had landed the entire way. We were still a long ways from home, but I was feeling confident mother nature was being kind for once. Vox had slowed to a trot after a lengthy bout of a full gallop. On my back, Twi was leaning against me, resting her eyes. I could feel the way her chest inflated with each slow, deep breath she took.
  416.  
  417. We had been going long enough I was contemplating taking a small rest when the sky darkened significantly. Where once, the sun could still be seen peeking out through small holes in the clouds, now no light was available. The sky was so dark, I could have mistaken it for night if I didn't know any better. Then, the black clouds began to swirl, twisting around one another in a large circle.
  418.  
  419. Pulling hard on the reins, I got Vox to halt, my eyes fixated on the happenings above. Behind me, Twi stirred awake, letting out a yawn, which was cut very short when she realized why we stopped.
  420.  
  421. "The hell's going on?"
  422.  
  423. I couldn't answer her. How could I? I was just as confused. Never in all my life had I seen anything of this sort. The two of us stared on in silence as the clouds spun ever faster, yet strangely the cool breeze had died. It was as if the clouds had taken up all the wind for their dance. Suddenly, a bright light burst forth from the center of the swirl, so bright it almost hurt the eyes to witness.
  424.  
  425. Without a moment's notice or warning, all the wind came bursting back down at once. It flew by fast and hard, nearly knocking me and Twi off of Vox. I don't know what kept the horse herself from falling over, but thank whatever god kept her on her feet.
  426.  
  427. And just as soon as it had burned forth, the light then dissipated. Drom the center of the cloud whirl burst a golden glow, which soon streaked across the sky, heading down to the earth below. The streak of gold soared through the air, making a line right for a patch of grassy field off to our left. When it made contact, it did so in a crash, its sound a cannon fire right against my ears.
  428.  
  429. Seemingly the moment the golden thing touched down to earth, the dance of black clouds vanished, leaving only the stormclouds from earlier in their wake, the sunlight returning to the world. Wordlessly, I moved Vox's reins, wishing to see whatever this object was. A scaled hand gripped my arm, the claws almost puncturing skin.
  430.  
  431. "What do you think you're doing?" Twi's normally calmed and low voice was tinged with a touch of fear. I'd very rarely heard her like this.
  432.  
  433. "I want...need to see what that thing is," I tried to explain.
  434.  
  435. "Are you mad? The sky just ripped itself open, and your first thought is to go towards what came out of it?"
  436.  
  437. "No, it's just..." I shook my head.
  438.  
  439. "What if it's dangerous?"
  440.  
  441. I looked over my shoulder at her. Her yellow eyes met mine. "Since when do you care about that? Besides," I continued with a shrug, "can you imagine how much money something like this could be worth? An object from the heavens! Gotta be worth some serious coin."
  442.  
  443. The prospect of money seemed to get through to the saurian woman. She mulled it over, her face contorting in odd ways as she had her internal battle. Finally, she came to a settlement.
  444.  
  445. "Alright. Let's go." She removed her hand from my arm, letting it fall to the side. The hand was soon placed back around my waist. "But," she warned, her arms tight around me, "we gotta be careful. We don't know what it is, after all."
  446.  
  447. I nodded in agreement as I convinced the mare carrying us to move towards the thing in the field. As we neared its landing spot, the air around us warmed. It was like summer had come early, but only in this one area. I began to sweat inside my gambeson, the thick wool almost choking me. When we were within walking distance, I hopped off Vox and began to approach the small crater that had formed in the crash. The sound of Twi's footsteps indicated she was following after me.
  448.  
  449. There, sunken down in the dirt and clay, sat a gold colored stone. It was as big as my fist it looked like, and jagged in places as if it had broken off from a larger segment. Kneeling down, I reached out to touch it. From behind me, a hissing sound could be heard as Twi sucked in air. Perhaps out of nervousness. Slowly, my hand approached, and as the very tip of a finger touched the stone, I found that it felt warm. Not hot, but more like a cup of tea that had been sitting out for a while. Reaching out with the entirety of my hand, I wrenched the stone loose from the soil, and held it up. When I did so, a new sensation could be felt from the warm, golden stone.
  450.  
  451. Pulsing. Like a soft heartbeat.
  452.  
  453. "It's a rock."
  454.  
  455. Twi's voice was right in my ear, causing my body to tense up for a brief moment at the surprise. When I could feel the muscles relax, I then noticed that Twi had slid in close, pressing herself against me as she stared down at what I held.
  456.  
  457. This wasn't some dull rock, I thought. The warmth it gave off, the light beating; this thing was entirely new to me. I didn't know how to describe any of this to Twi, so instead, I pushed the stone into her hands.
  458.  
  459. Instantly, her eyes went wide in shock. Her mouth opened, moved silently as if trying to speak, but nothing came out. It seemed she was equally as stunned as I was. Neither of us knew what to do next. My earlier idea of selling it came to mind, but after feeling that heat and beating, I wasn't so sure about it anymore. A stone that moved like a heart sounded like the kind of nonsense you hear in children's fables. Then again, this was the real thing. I couldn't deny that, not after holding it.
  460.  
  461. "What should we do with it?" My voice came out rough and louder than I intended. My words seemed to snap Twi out of some trance regardless, her entire body shivering before her eyes switched their focus from to me.
  462.  
  463. "I'm not sure," she mumbled. She let the stone fall from her grasp, and we both watched wordlessly as it landed with a soft thud in the soil.
  464.  
  465. "This thing isn't normal."
  466.  
  467. Scoffing, she responded, "No kidding."
  468.  
  469. With my eyes wandering back up the sky above, I tried to see if there were any remnants of that eerie dark swirl. Something that could perhaps explain what we just witnessed.
  470.  
  471. There was nothing of note. Only the same gray clouds that followed us from Junefeld.
  472.  
  473. I let out a long, slow breath as I thought on what our next move should be. On one hand, I was sure whatever this thing was, it couldn't be good. An object from the sky, crashing down after a complete blackout of the sun? It was enough to send a shiver down my spine. Oh sure, I'd seen my fair share of things, being a sword for hire kinda meant I dealt with some offputting scenarios; a rampaging beast with blood and viscera still dripping from its fangs, a madman attempting to kill children, a would-be assassin of some small up-and-coming business owner. But nothing could compare to this.
  474.  
  475. Then again, on the other hand, I still wondered about the possible profit if we just fenced it. It still didn't seem like the best idea, but maybe letting this be someone else's problem would save us whatever hassle might come in the future. After all, if this thing proved to be dangerous, why risk our own necks when we could just cash it in and live worry-free?
  476.  
  477. Well, first things first. We needed to get home. Slowly, I picked the stone back up, paused for a second to be astounded once again by its beating, and quickly stuffed it into a small satchel. I could see Twi side-eying my actions, the look of confusion on her face plain as day.
  478.  
  479. I explained myself. "Look, we have no idea what this thing is. I don't think we should just leave it here."
  480.  
  481. She started to say something, but cut herself off before a single word fell from her thin lips. She stood there pondering our current situation, until finally coming to a head. It was then Twi said something I definitely didn't want to hear from her.
  482.  
  483. "We need to go see Ursh."
  484.  
  485. ~~~
  486.  
  487. "Are you really sure about this?"
  488.  
  489. After Twi's earlier words, we raced home, destined for New Serrak's upper district. Located there, deep in the Fifth Ward and placed near a local bank, was a jewelcrafter's shop. The place wasn't very large, and was mostly of woodwork unlike the brick homes and stores nearby. Be that out of a cost reason, or because the owner just wanted the place to stand out, I wasn't entirely sure. It was after midday, and there was the odd customer coming and going. It was here we found ourselves, right outside the shop's door.
  490.  
  491. Twi shook her head and groaned at my words. "Of course not," she grumbled, "but he's the only person we can trust about this...thing." A knuckle rapped against her backpack, where that odd stone was hidden in some cloth, to keep it away from prying eyes.
  492.  
  493. "The one you trust," I corrected. She fired me a look that said she was none too pleased with the correction. I didn't relent, however. "Kinda hard to trust someone after they've attempted to kill you, ya know?"
  494.  
  495. "And he apologized about that," she pointed out rather bluntly. "It was just a misunderstanding."
  496.  
  497. "Misunderstanding, my ass." But, despite my objections, I was still there with her. Deep down, I knew the owner could be trusted, if only because of Twi. He wouldn't do anything if she was around, so at least there was that.
  498.  
  499. With the tiny spat resolved, we steeled ourselves as we pushed open the door and stepped inside.
  500.  
  501. Everywhere the eye could see, there were jewels. Every corner of the room stocked with rings or necklaces and other such things. Shelves lined with bracelets, tables adorned with chockers, mirrors placed at either side of the room perfect for viewing oneself with whatever finery one saw fit to purchase. Customers in nice clothes stared at us, our raggedy looking gambesons a stark contrast to their pressed shirts and freshly laundered pants.
  502.  
  503. Across the way, sitting at a plain little desk, was a saurian. His scales held the same dark coloration as Twi's, his eyes the same bright yellow. The two had similar facial structures; the way their brows dipped right on the edge, giving their eyes a slight upward slant; rounded off snouts that ended in a noticeable point, causing their faces to look angular. They both even shared the broad chests. The only noticeable difference was that Twi had that small fin running down the back of her head.
  504.  
  505. A cold stare came from the saurian at the desk. His entire body subtly twitched, either in anger or something else, I wasn't sure. Probably anger, though, considering the last time we spoke. Regardless, there was a young black-furred kalrin woman standing near him who he leaned over to whisper something to. She quickly made her way over to us.
  506.  
  507. "Um, Mister Ursh has asked that the two of you come to the back of the store." She sounded worried, nervous. Likely, she had no knowledge as to who we were or why we would speak to her superior in private, and seemed completely unsure what to do beyond what she was told. As we silently strode passed her, she sputtered out a "Thank you" before going around to tend to the customers.
  508.  
  509. The back of the store was a combination office and storage area. Boxes were piled up on the tables in the room, and in the corner was a small safe containing daily profits and such. I'd always been tempted to see just how much money was in that safe. Now that we were away from the customers, Twi slid her pack off before leaning against a wall, letting out a long, low moan as she did so. A foot tapped against the floor, impatience quickly setting in as she kept stealing glances over to the entryway, wondering when the owner would finally decide to grace us with his presence. Meanwhile, I stood opposite her, folding my arms across my chest. Without much to do, my eyes began to reflexively count the individual planks of wood that made up the walls.
  510.  
  511. I thought back on the trip home from the crater. The silence between Twi and myself, the tension so thick I could practically choke on it. We had no idea what to expect out of this rock. Every time Vox made any sudden movements, Twi and I sucked in a collective breath, worried something, anything might happen. But nothing ever did. The rock was rather plain after I'd placed it into Twi's backpack. I also noticed, as we left the crashsite, the warm air gave way to cool autumn breeze once more.
  512.  
  513. Even when we finally passed New Serrak's gate, the two of us didn't take it easy. All around us, people were speaking in hushed whispers about the strangely blackening sky. No one knew what happened, but all had witnessed the strange phenomenon, sans the harsh winds. It appeared that that part of the event was selectively for me and Twi. However, as we walked, I heard a few choice words about a golden streak through the air.
  514.  
  515. Others had seen the rock's flight. But none knew what it signified. None knew what the streak of gold really was. But still, if the rest of the city had seen the swirl of clouds, it made me all the more cautious about our newfound treasure, and it forced me to quicken our pace towards Ursh's shop, regardless of my feelings on the shop's owner. All along the way, however, we were assaulted by rumors of what the black sky meant. Some said it was an omen of the end of days, others that it meant a god was manifesting a mortal form or some such nonsense. Even when we arrived to the shop, a group of housewives were strolling by and I could hear one say she thought it meant old fables of magick were coming true.
  516.  
  517. Back out of my memories, I realized I lost track of the wall planks and resumed my count. It didn't take long for Twi's near double to show his scaly hide, however. Soon enough the noise of the customers outside quieted down, and footsteps sounded off as the outline of the saurian jewelcrafter could be seen heading our way. Neither Twi nor I moved as he entered the room, an icy gaze still stuck to his face. Calmly, he walked over to the table in the middle of the room and sat down. From a pocket of his coat, he produced a cigar which he lit up and took a long drag from before finally saying anything.
  518.  
  519. "It's nice to see you again, Twi." As he spoke, his gravelly voiced words were accented with puffs of cigar smoke. Without even looking my way, he added, "I see you brought 'him' with you."
  520.  
  521. My eyes narrowed at the blatant insult. "Listen here, you son of bitch. I'm fine with you being a prick, but at least have the balls to face me when you do it and not act like some coward."
  522.  
  523. Still he refused to look my way when he responded, "Coward? If I recall our last meeting correctly, you were the one who left with your tail between your legs." A thin smile graced his lips at the mention of that.
  524.  
  525. The words came flying out me without a second thought. "That's only 'cause, unlike you, I don't kill family."
  526.  
  527. Finally, his eyes snapped to me, widening in anger as they did. The cigar dropped from his lips as he stood up from his chair, hands slamming down onto the table as he got up. Clawed fingers balled into tight fists as he moved around the table, feet hitting heavy against the floor as he stomped.
  528.  
  529. A hand went to my dagger as Ursh stepped towards me. I was preparing myself for a fight when a sharp crack of thunder sounded, and something sped by in the space between us. Something thin, with a pointed edge. Collectively, our two sets of eyes turned to see Twi, her hands holding up her crossbow. Realizing at once what just happened, I sheathed my blade and backed away from the now slowly calming saurian male, who in turn retraced his steps to his chair.
  530.  
  531. When the tension in the air had begun to cool, Twi cleared her throat. "If you're both done with this nonsense," she said with a condescendingly motherly tone, "I think it's time to get to business."
  532.  
  533. Even though the heat had died down somewhat, Ursh still had an unpleasant look about him. Furrowed brow ridge, a deep scowl, hands clasped together, body tensed. It was as if he believed one of us would still try to attack him. From his point of view, his two least favorite people just barged into his shop, so it wasn't a wonder he'd be a little upset. Well, least favorite person and Twi. While I knew he never liked me from the first time we met--on account of the whole attempted murder--he at least appeared to still hold a soft spot for Twi. Not much of a surprise, really.
  534.  
  535. From her pack, Twi pulled loose the stone from the sky, setting it down before Ursh.
  536.  
  537. The ridge of his brow raised at the sight. "A rock?" His sight shot up, alternating focus betweeen Twi and me. "You decided to come bother me over a rock?"
  538.  
  539. "It's not some plain everyday rock," I started. I went on to tell the whole story about how we came upon it.
  540.  
  541. Ursh listened in silence, but I could tell from the look in his eyes he was not amused. His scowl, by some miracle, managed to deepen even more. When I explained the heartbeat-like pulsing, he let out a snort, and I could see some remnants of smoke puffing out his nostrils.
  542.  
  543. A low growl came from the saurian man. A twitch formed at the corner of his mouth. "You realize how asinine this all sounds, right? Some stone from the heavens? What kind of idiot do you take me for?"
  544.  
  545. "Where have you been all morning?" My words were accusatory. "Have you even talked to any of your customers? Surely one of them mentioned what happened." How ridiculous this was, I thought to myself. A business owner who didn't even know the goings on right outside his door.
  546.  
  547. A twitch of the brow and a snarl came from the angered scaled man. "Unlike you, I don't have the luxury of galavanting around the countryside to chase meager profit. I have to stay inside most days and..."
  548.  
  549. From beside me, Twi interrupted him. "You know we wouldn't lie about something like this," she pointedly stated. "We wouldn't be here if we didn't think it wasn't important."
  550.  
  551. Ursh's eyes fixed on Twi for a long pause. After studying the younger saurian, he came away with a soft breath. He replaced his gaze to the stone once more, a hand slowly picking it up. At the feeling of the warmth and pulsing, his face lit up in surprise. His jaw dropped as he failed to articulate a response.
  552.  
  553. I smirked in smug satisfaction. "See? Not just a normal rock, eh?"
  554.  
  555. Once he swallowed a lump in his throat, Ursh found his voice. "I've never encountered anything like this before."
  556.  
  557. Great, I thought. A dead end. We came to see the only expert we knew on this topic, and even he didn't have an answer.
  558.  
  559. Placing the stone back down, Ursh coughed and fixed the top button of his shirt. "I'd like to study this stone," he said. It wasn't a question, I noticed. "Doing some routine experimentation, I might be able to determine just what this thing is made of. It shouldn't take me..."
  560.  
  561. "No," came my immediate answer.
  562.  
  563. Twi sighed at me. "Graham, this isn't..."
  564.  
  565. "No," I repeated, interrupting her as well. "If it turns out to be something valuable, I don't want him having more of it than us. And if it turns out to be dangerous, I definitely don't want him having more." Jamming a finger at the jeweler, I continued, "You can take a small piece. Just enough for your little experiments. Got it?"
  566.  
  567. Rather than argue, as I thought he would, Ursh nodded and pulled out a tiny chisel and hammer from a pocket. Placing the chisel at an inclined angle, he struck the hammer down, and from the golden stone popped off a small chunk, barely bigger than a strawberry. Pleased with the result, he returned his tools to their resting place and picked up the small piece of stone.
  568.  
  569. His gaze directed at me, he said, "This small enough, your majesty?"
  570.  
  571. I wanted to start a shouting match at the admittedly bland insult. I could even feel the response bubbling in my throat. But, before I had the opportunity to say something, a thought occured. He actually did what I asked without even fighting back. Maybe, in some way, perhaps he was trying to make peace since we were faced with some unknown object from the stars. Maybe. Probably just wanted to get this over with so I'd leave sooner. Whatever the case was, I silenced the argument in my soul.
  572.  
  573. "Yea," I responsed. "You know where to find us once you're done with your stuff."
  574.  
  575. Wordlessly, he nodded again then picked up the larger segment of stone, holding it out for us. I plucked the rock from him, returning it to Twi's pack afterwards. I was getting ready to leave when Twi touched my arm again.
  576.  
  577. "Do you mind letting us talk for a moment?" At first, I wanted to say no, but I could see the pleading in her eyes. I told her I'd be right outside, and made my exit.
  578.  
  579. When I left, I noticed the kalrin woman standing out by the entrance, her hands held together, fingers fidgeting with nervous energy. She still seemed worried, as when she saw me leave, she jumped and moved back a pace or two. Tempting though it was to try to mess with someone so wound up, I let it go, finding myself a nice space of wall to lean against to wait for Twi. This wasn't the first time she'd asked to speak with Ursh alone. Every time we visited, they always had a nice talk. Granted, we never made our visits frequent, though thinking on it, that was probably why they always liked to spend some time together.
  580.  
  581. The fact of what I had done in the shop finally hit me then. I'd called Ursh a murderer. Twi probably wouldn't be happy I brought that up. That might even have been one of the things they were discussing without me around. Their family life was mostly a mystery to me, as Twi didn't like mentioning it often, and I didn't like to pry. Even so, the fact I brought up a possible painful memory for both of them wouldn't win me any favors.
  582.  
  583. Why did I do that?
  584.  
  585. Ursh had tried to take my life once before, so I wasn't entirely without reason to shittalk him. Not like he ever gave me any reason to treat him fairly. Talking down to me, not even looking my way when he insults me, acting like my mere prescence was an affront to his very being. It was infuriating. Not to mention, he'd never formally apologized for trying to kill me that one time. Oh sure, saying there was 'a misunderstanding' was one thing, but he never took a knee and asked forgiveness.
  586.  
  587. Well whatever, I told myself. He was only good for his knowledge. Once he figured out what this stone really was, hopefully then I could sell it and get Twi away from our crappy life. No more sellsword business, just living a live of peace. Then again, without our typical jobs, I wouldn't really know what to do with my time. We'd been doing this for so long, I never really thought about what we'd do if we ever stopped.
  588.  
  589. Maybe really make a family of our own? I couldn't stand children, though maybe if they were my own flesh and blood, that'd be different.
  590.  
  591. Open up an inn or a tavern somewhere? I didn't really know how to cook, but I figured I'd grow into it.
  592.  
  593. Just go live on the edge of a town and become hunters by trade? We knew more than enough about killing game animals, and some beyond that, to make something of ourselves that way.
  594.  
  595. Whatever the future might hold, I wouldn't be alone in making such a decision. And as I had that thought, my other half could be seen pushing the doors open and leaving the jewelcrafter's shop. I flashed her a grin and held an arm out for her to take. A roll of her eyes was her initial answer, but she gave in anyway, sliding in close enough for me to wrap an arm around the small of her back. Resting my hand just above the base of her tail, I gave the apendage a small squeeze, earning myself a weak slap to the chest from one slightly annoyed saurian.
  596.  
  597. It was time to go home finally.
  598.  
  599. ~~~
  600.  
  601. Once we were home, Twi let out a long relieved breath and sat down. I meanwhile immediately went to the money hole to stash away the skystone and the coinpurse Boylan gave us. While I was removing the stone from the wall, Twi perked up.
  602.  
  603. "So, any ideas on what this even is? Like, it obviously isn't normal."
  604.  
  605. Yea, you could say that again, I thought.
  606.  
  607. With the stone now hidden, I stood up, arching my back slightly. The sound of joints popping and cracking came forth, and a wave of soothing feelings ran through my body. "Oh, that's better," I mumbled out.
  608.  
  609. "Graham, I'm serious," came the almost irritated tone of my saurian love. "You said yourself earlier. What if it's dangerous?"
  610.  
  611. "Eh, we'll cross that bridge if we come to it," I told her. I then began unbuckling my gambeson, and just after one buckle was undone, the cool autumn air rushed into the open garb. The cooling wind took away all the sweaty heat from the thick wool.
  612.  
  613. In truth, the idea of danger had crossed my mind several times the last few hours. Clearly, the stone had something about it. The heat, the throbbing. It was possible it might even be some kind of weapon. Until we knew for sure what it was, however, there wasn't much use worrying. After all, it hadn't done anything up to that point.
  614.  
  615. While I removed my puffy jacket, Twi followed suit, starting with her boots. The leather footwear still looked relatively well, if a bit dusty from use. Her thin fingers undid the straps and ripped off the boots in swift, near violent fashion.
  616.  
  617. "I still don't like bringing Ursh into this."
  618.  
  619. "And I don't care." The sheer bluntness of her words stopped me in my tracks. "I told you already, we can trust him on this."
  620.  
  621. "I know, I know," I said, annoyed. "I just..."
  622.  
  623. "Don't like him," she finished my thought. "Believe me, the feeling's mutual in that regard."
  624.  
  625. "Then why do you trust him so much?" My tone was accusatory. I could never wrap my head around why Twi put so much faith in her brother, especially when he never deserved it.
  626.  
  627. "Ursh is many things, but he's good for his word," she explained. "Always has been, ever since we were kids."
  628.  
  629. Pulling the belt off my pants, I slung the leather cord over the back of a chair. "So that's it, then?"
  630.  
  631. "What more do you want from me?" she bit back harshly. "If you can't trust him, then at least trust me." Calm, slow steps brought her over to me, where she wrapped rough scaled arms around me and nuzzled a smooth cheek against my neck. The feel of her cool body against my naked chest sent a small shiver through me. "Trust that I know what I'm doing."
  632.  
  633. Nodding along, I assured her, "I always do." Returning her embrace, I pulled her down to the nearby bed, letting us sit down as we held one another. While there in her arms and her in mine, my mind began to wander back to my earlier ideas. Thoughts on what we might do if we ever left the sellsword trade.
  634.  
  635. "Twi?"
  636.  
  637. "Hm?"
  638.  
  639. Finding my lips surprisingly dry, I mentally cursed myself. Doubly so when my throat felt tight as I tried to voice my thoughts.
  640.  
  641. "I've been thinking some," I finally worked out. With slight effort, I pushed my companion away so I could look at her face when we spoke. "We've saved up quite a bit of money from all our jobs."
  642.  
  643. She nodded to my words, but otherwise kept silent.
  644.  
  645. "And, considering we might be able to sell the skystone..."
  646.  
  647. She poked in a word. "Skystone?"
  648.  
  649. "Yea, it just kinda came to me," I tried to give an explanation. But, I had to get back on topic. "Anyway, if it's something we can sell, I think it might be time to leave New Serrak."
  650.  
  651. A frown ruined her wonderful face as she looked on in confusion. "Don't you like it here?"
  652.  
  653. "It's not that I don't like it," came my reasoning. "It's more that we could do better."
  654.  
  655. "Well, I admit it would be nice to have a bigger place."
  656.  
  657. "Exactly," I exclaimed.
  658.  
  659. "But why should we have to leave town for that?"
  660.  
  661. "To make a fresh start. Something new."
  662.  
  663. The frown upon her thin lips swiveled upwards into a tiny smirk. "New? Oh, so you don't enjoy your life with me anymore?" She was teasing.
  664.  
  665. I ran my hands up her sides, my palms following the outline of her curves, and came to rest them on her shoulders. "Twi, I'm being serious. If we have enough money, we could leave this sellsword thing behind and have something...safe."
  666.  
  667. Her smirk merely grew larger. "And what would you do that's 'safe?'"
  668.  
  669. "I don't know!" I really didn't. No matter how much thinking I did, I could never come up with something concrete. "But, I do know that whatever it is, it'll surely be better than putting our lives on the line for some idiot with a sack full of coin."
  670.  
  671. I wasn't sure if it was the tone of my voice or what I said, but Twi's little smile faltered. A heavy look came over her as she stared intently into my eyes.
  672.  
  673. "You're actually serious, aren't you?"
  674.  
  675. A simple nod was my answer. Her eyes never left mine.
  676.  
  677. "Alright," she began, "I don't exactly disagree with you. Being a sword for hire isn't much of a rewarding experience."
  678.  
  679. Rather than respond right away, I grasped her scaled cheeks between my hands and pulled her face close, planting a soft kiss on her forehead. She let out a little joyful chirp and pushed me down onto the bed.
  680.  
  681. "You know, I hear Farrhold is a great place," she said as she laid down beside me, curling herself up and resting her head on my chest.
  682.  
  683. "Oh yea?"
  684.  
  685. "Yea," came a response surrounded by a loud yawn. "Nice little forest and lake nearby. We could be hunters there."
  686.  
  687. Through a small chuckle I stated, "What about heading up to Piler's Valley? They got plenty of room for farmlands."
  688.  
  689. "Pfft, farming? You?" The sweet sound of her laughter hit my ears. "You don't know the first thing."
  690.  
  691. I gave her side a pinch, causing her to fidget away while laughing as I repeated the action. "I can learn," I declared.
  692.  
  693. We spent a large part of the afternoon on this back and forth while laughing at each other's ideas. By the time we wound down from the high, we simply laid down on the bed, huddled up close as the sun was descending beyond the horizon to be replaced by its silver cousin. From the cracks and seams of the house, the soft glow of moonlight provided just enough light to see. Slowly but surely, the two of our breathing slowed until we met an even rhythm and our lids felt too heavy to keep up.
  694.  
  695. When I woke, it was the jostling of my arm. Twi was shaking me, ridding me of some peaceful sleep. I opened my eyes, greeted by the sight of my one and only saurian love. Warm sunlight was shyly peeking out through the window slats.
  696.  
  697. "What, woman?" I barked out as I sat up calmly.
  698.  
  699. "I have an idea," she breathlessly said. Her half-crazed look in eyes told me I probably wasn't going to like this idea. "I know how we can try and find info on what we saw yesterday." I was going to grumble about wanting to go back to sleep when she added, "Without attacting attention to ourselves."
  700.  
  701. Giving her a narrow eyed stare, I sighed, knowing exactly what she was talking about.
  702.  
  703. "Fine," I moaned. "Let's just go now. No sense waiting till later, I suppose."
  704.  
  705. As I started to move out of bed, I noticed Twi had already placed some clothes out for me; they had been placed right over my legs, probably so I wouldn't miss them. She must have been eager to get going, I thought.
  706.  
  707. It was just after dawn when we arrived, the cold air slowly warming up in the early morning sunlight. The building was an old one, its once proud brick walls having been worn down by time, their bright red color now dulled down to a slight pinkish hue. Sitting near the center of the upper district, it stood tall and wide, a monument to the town's foundation and formation ages ago. Some would call it a home of knowledge, its vast array of books and texts and scrolls and tomes, all dedicated to one form of research or another.
  708.  
  709. Thinking on it, I wondered why we hadn't started here instead of bothering to get Ursh involved. But then the memory hit me; the archive was a guild operation, owned and operated jointly between three separate guilds no less. That realization caused a long groan to exit my lungs as Twi and I walked up the steps to the entrace.
  710.  
  711. While ascending, Twi turned to me and said in a hushed voice, "Let me do the talking. Don't say or do anything, got it?" She finished off the rhetorical question with a warning glare as she stepped throught the front door.
  712.  
  713. For my part, I mouthed out a simple, "Fine," and followed after her. Of course, I also rolled my eyes, more for my own amusement, as she had already turned around and walked ahead.
  714.  
  715. An apt description for the archive was that it was like a library but older, full of more specialized knowledge, and run by worse people. The interior of the archive was what one would expect; wall to wall rows of bookshelves filled with all manner of whatever you'd want. Well, whatever the guilds would want, to be more precise. Hardwood floors were cleaned and shone so bright, I could almost see my own reflection within them. Placed periodically around were an assortment of tables and desks, at many of which sat some person or guild member doing who knows what.
  716.  
  717. Close by the entrance was a reception desk, behind which sat a saurian male of considerable age it looked like. One could always tell a saurian's age by their eyes, even if their outward appearance could mask it. It's said the eyes are a window to the soul, after all, and this one's eyes showed a sense of weariness within. The kind of weariness that only comes with a long and storied life. His sand colored scales were speckled with flakes of an almost sunbleached white, and he wore what best could be described as a jester's outfit minus the silly belled cap. It was a two-toned suit, one half black and the other half red, and I wondered if it was some guild uniform or a personal choice. Either way, it looked comical on the aged reptilian.
  718.  
  719. He glanced up at us, studying Twi and myself for a brief moment before opening his toothy maw.
  720.  
  721. "You're not with any guilds." It wasn't a question. He somehow knew the truth without even asking. His voice had a tone similar to a grandfather's, that odd mixture of wisdom and annoyance at the youth.
  722.  
  723. "Observant one," Twi mumbled under breath. As she said she would, she took charge and handled things. "No, we're not," she addressed the jester-clothed saurian. "But, it was my understanding we don't need to be."
  724.  
  725. The old reptile began his response with a harumph. "You don't need to be, but it means you ain't allowed to take any books outside the building." From below the desk, he reached a scaly hand down and produced a small book, opening it up to a page filled with names, dates and times. He pointed to a clean line and ordered, "Sign here. You'll sign again when you leave."
  726.  
  727. After we both signed the little book, Twi glanced around and asked, "Do ya happen to know where we might find any research texts on phenomena in the sky?"
  728.  
  729. The old reptile, confused, said, "Meaning?"
  730.  
  731. "Oh, you know, lights in the night sky, strange noises, odd cloud formations. Those kind of things." While she spoke, she moved her hands about idly, making small circles and wiggling her fingers slightly.
  732.  
  733. "Hmm," he mumbled in absent thought. He grunted a few times before his memory seemed to come to him. "Ah, probably interested in that dark sky from yesterday, eh? I believe you'd find such things in section 2125. It's on the second floor."
  734.  
  735. She thanked the elder and the two of us made for the stairs. As we climbed, I decided to voice a thought.
  736.  
  737. "Why did you want me not to say anything?"
  738.  
  739. She said with a scoff, "Knowing your dislike of the guilds, you'd probably inject some nonsense about the way they operate, and annoy the poor bastard." A barely audible chuckle escaped her then. "We just got here, wouldn't be smart to piss off the people running the place and get kicked out."
  740.  
  741. She was right of course, but it wasn't like I was going to admit it. So instead, I shrugged the comment off as we landed on the second floor. As the ground floor below, it was full of rows upon rows of shelves, each one filled to bursting with all manner of books. Along each row of shelves was a small plague detailing its row's number. The closest one was, naturally, named section 2001. Our feet made little noise as we walked the long halls of books locating the section we were pointed towards.
  742.  
  743. It was a long and quiet journey towards our destination. The loudest sound was that of flipping papers as people read whatever they desired all around us. The second loudest was the occasional coughing here or there. After quite some walking, we came upon it, a small sign on a shelf signaling section 2125. The long row of bookshelves that followed hopefully contained some kind of clue, any hint towards what we witnessed in the sky. With no real idea where to actually start looking, I pulled out the first book I could see.
  744.  
  745. It was titled "When the Sun Turns Black." Skimming the few odd pages, I saw this particular book was about old myths concerning eclipses. Nothing helpful to our mission. While replacing the book, off to my left I could see Twi making a nice stack of texts. Might as well do the same, I thought, so I started following her actions. Not like we even knew what we were supposed to be looking for exactly.
  746.  
  747. This was going to take some time.
  748.  
  749. For hours we hunkered down at a table, twin stacks of books between us, and we read. Page after page, book after book, on and on for nearly half the day. Sure, there were some interesting facts about the way clouds are created from air currents high in the sky and other such wonderfully informative details, but the further on we read, the more I felt the answer was eluding us. Nothing seemed to shed light on our curiosity, but still we kept at it. But as the clock ticked on and my eyes scanned countless pages, words began to form together, jumbling themselves into an incomprehensible mess.
  750.  
  751. My eyes fixated on a paragraph, trying in vain to read something, anything. All that could be seen was a haze of letters. Furstrated, I slammed the book shut and let loose a loud breath through my nostrils, doing my best to bite down on a angered yell.
  752.  
  753. "No luck, huh," came Twi's soothing voice. I looked up and saw her giving me a look that seemed to say all I needed to know.
  754.  
  755. Neither of us had yet to find a damned thing.
  756.  
  757. Glancing back over to the row of shelves, I mumbled, "Could take us a few weeks to pour through all those books." That would mean a few weeks of no paid work, my brain finished the thought. Pushing that aside, I realized that there was no feasable way we'd be able to do much good on our own like this. This only led to the obvious question of who could we trust. Ursh was...Ursh, but I doubted he'd do anything rash. We had the odd connection with a select few other sellswords, the occasional merchant I hadn't scared away, and even some petty criminals we'd worked with in the past. None of them struck me as the type to believe our insane story, nor did any of them seem trustworthy enough with what little information we had.
  758.  
  759. Trapped in my thoughts, I could hear in the distance Twi calling out to me. Returning to the archives, I looked back to my companion, whose face was twisted up in confusion. It was almost comical to see her so bewildered.
  760.  
  761. She eyed me for a second. Trying to figure out if I was back, probably. "Everything alright?"
  762.  
  763. Nodding, I answered, "Just thinking." When I paused, Twi gave me a gaze telling me to elaborate further. "What if this whole thing is something entirely new? Something that's never been recorded down or even seen before? I'm actually kinda...worried."
  764.  
  765. "You, worried?" She scoffed at the mere thought. "All that tough mercenary crap you pull and this is what's getting to you?" Her lips curled up into a big smirk, and she tried to conceal a laugh.
  766.  
  767. Brushing her mockery off, I continued. "I mean it. This whole thing feels weird. These kinds of things don't just happen. Certainly not without reason, at least."
  768.  
  769. I gave her a few seconds to swallow the laughter down so she could properly talk. When she calmed herself, she still had a slight smile, however.
  770.  
  771. "Maybe it's magick."
  772.  
  773. "Very funny."
  774.  
  775. "Hey, I'm serious." Her continued smile made me think otherwise. "What if the legends are real and magick does exist? That would make sense of this whole situation."
  776.  
  777. She had a point. It would explain things, even if it was absurd. But still. Magick? That stuff was ancient myth, the kind of thing that there was so little records left, it made people wonder just how far back the tales went. Regardless of my personal feelings on the matter, I pocketed this idea somewhere deep inside my head. Perhaps there was some truth to this. Perhaps not.
  778.  
  779. For the next few days, Twi and I kept up our little study. Every day, we pulled book after book from the shelf. And every day, we came no closer to an answer. We even branched out to other sections of the archive, but came away just as empty handed.
  780.  
  781. It was enough to make me feel a little hopeless.
  782.  
  783. ~~~
  784.  
  785. It was a few days later when we were startled awake from a peaceful night's sleep. A continuous knocking at the door caused me to bolt up in bed. Inky black darkness encompassed the room, so I could tell it was still night, but just how late was beyond me. From my side, Twi  sat up as well, and we two jumped off and grabbed some weapons; her a dagger, me a crossbow. Together, we stalked towards the door of our ramshackle home while the rapping still sounded.
  786.  
  787. As I pulled the string of the crossbow back and readied a bolt, my scaly partner wrapped her delicate fingers around the door handle. The instant another knock came, she pulled the door open, dagger raised high, and I brought my own weapon up to eye level as I took aim.
  788.  
  789. "Wait! Please don't kill me!"
  790.  
  791. It was a feminine voice. One I could almost swear I'd heard before. Heard recently, too. Through the open door came the brisk air, sending a wave of chill through the room.
  792.  
  793. Harsh lamplight stung my eyes as the figure in the darkness raised a lantern, revealing themselves to be a black furred kalrin woman. Her loose fitting clothes were cut short, clearly not made to be worn outside during a cold night. She kept her free hand pressed close to her chest as she shivered in the breeze.
  794.  
  795. Keeping my weapon held up, I barked out, "Who are you and why are you here? You have five seconds."
  796.  
  797. "Please no," she squeaked out. Her shivering went overboard, the lantern in hand looking as if it would shake out of her hand. "I'm Blaire. Mister Ursh sent me."
  798.  
  799. Lowering the crossbow, I took a second look at the kalrin girl's face, and instantly I recalled where I'd seen her last. She was that skittish little thing working at Ursh's place. I almost didn't recognize her. Then again, I'd only seen her once before, so it wasn't like I had real knowledge about her.
  800.  
  801. Twi's hand pushed my crossbow to point down towards the floor as she sheathed her blade.
  802.  
  803. "What are you doing here this late?" she interrogated the frail mouse.
  804.  
  805. The onyx furred lass spoke a mile a minute. "Mister Ursh needs to see you two right now and he sent me to bring you to the shop and I didn't want to be a bother so I'm sorry for waking you up so late but you really need to come with me because he said it's really really important." It was actually kinda impressive how she said it all in one breath.
  806.  
  807. Twi snapped her head back to look me in the eyes. With just minor movements of our brows and widening or closing of our eyes, we shared a silent conversation. At the end of this wordless talk, I nodded and went to grab some clothes for us to change into, and soon enough we were out the door, following the short kalrin lass.
  808.  
  809. On this short hop to the jewelcrafter's, the wind seemed to only become harsher, blowing harder and stronger while we moved. Papers and other debris fluttered about as the dark streets were met by the miniscule hurricane. The winds were barely a step below cutting, but the cold more than made up for the missing bite. Ahead of us, Blaire was barely holding onto her lantern as she was overcome with shudders.
  810.  
  811. Why in the world did she retrieve us in such clothes? She didn't even have a cloak or anything.
  812.  
  813. Rather than get into unneeded conversation, I kept my mouth shut, as we were closing in on the shop. A light was shining forth from the windows and smoke poured out the chimney. Warmth awaited within. Blaire took us to a side door that assumedly led to Ursh's living quarters.
  814.  
  815. We stepped through the threshold and were met with the heat of the fire blazing strongly in its hearth. No warm coals were these, but rather hardy wood that, judging by the stack of logs nearby, would last through the night. Across the way, Ursh was sat at a large desk littered with several open books and tomes. In the middle of this chaos was the small chunk of golden stone he'd been given, housed upon a cut of red cloth. On the floor beside the desk were more texts, half opened, spines bent. Discarded.
  816.  
  817. We didn't even have the time to remove our cloaks when Ursh spoke up. "Good, you're here. This is important." He waved his assistant off, telling her she was dismissed. The girl took this well, simply bowing out and retreating to who knows where.
  818.  
  819. "This is about the stone," Twi huffed.
  820.  
  821. He stood up quickly, knocking a book off the table in the process. "Of course it is."
  822.  
  823. Twisting my face into a lopsided and confused grin, I said, "It hasn't even been a week. You couldn't have done all your dumb experiments already."
  824.  
  825. "I didn't have to!" His answer came swift and harsh, his tone raised. Letting out a breath to calm himself, he closed his eyes for a brief second before continuing. "I'd never even heard of any rock, stone, mineral or whathaveyou that could give off its own warmth or...or have a heartbeat. It's a thing of childish fairytales, I told myself."
  826.  
  827. My next statement came with a shrug. "Hard to deny it when it's staring you in the face, though."
  828.  
  829. Extending one long scaly finger, he pointed my way. "Exactly." He then gestured towards all the papers scattered about the desk and floor. "So, I took to every book I had on the topic of rare and unique stones."
  830.  
  831. He gave a long pause, taking a deep breath before finishing the thought. "Not a one of them had any answers."
  832.  
  833. My jaw was practically on the floor. The one so-called expert we knew had no information. No sort of revelations or discoveries. Once the shock passed, a different emotion came through me. Anger.
  834.  
  835. A torrent of anger entered my being. Fingers tightened into balled fists, muscle tensed ready to strike. I snarled out, "So you mean to tell me, you woke us up in the middle of the night just to tell us you don't have a damn clue?"
  836.  
  837. "Let me finish," he spat back. He then sighed rather annoyed--all for my beneift no doubt--before he went on. "As I said, I found no traces of this stone in any of my research texts. But, while pouring over the notes, a thought came to me. What if this stone is not natural?"
  838.  
  839. "The sky ripped itself open, of course it's not natural." This time it was Twi who interrupted, not I. I was in fact quite pleased with my saurian lover for this, my chest swelling with pride.
  840.  
  841. "What I mean," he got back to topic with a groan, "is what if this stone isn't a stone?" A swift hand pulled up a book from the top of his desk and began furiously flipping pages. "Something about this seemed oddly familiar in the back of my mind, like I'd heard something like this. And lo and behold, I found something that might just explain it."
  842.  
  843. "Well, don't keep us all in suspense," I joked.
  844.  
  845. Yellow eyes narrowed my way as he continued flipping pages, until at last landing on what he had been searching for. He cleared his throat, preparing himself for the information he was about to share with us.
  846.  
  847. "According to old scholars, this thing might in fact be a piece of a dragon."
  848.  
  849. "A dragon?" Twi and I repeated at the same time, both of us too stunned to really add anything else at the moment.
  850.  
  851. With a gleam in his eye, Ursh almost excitedly explained his findings. "Indeed. According to experiments performed on the last reamaining dragon over six hundred years ago, their entire body houses portions of their power. Remove a piece of bone or horn, and a miniscule amount of power that remains in the piece. I think what we have here might be a hardened piece of scale."
  852.  
  853. I scoffed at this explanation. "This is ridiculous. How in the world could this thing be from any dragon?"
  854.  
  855. "I'm getting to that," he assured her. Pages flipped swiftly once more as he searched the book again, mumbling incoherently to himself all the while. "There it was," he said jabbing his long thin finger into the page. Slitted eyes scanned the pages as he recounted his findings. "Supposedly, old alchemists experimented on dragons, and in so doing, they found that any piece of a dragon that was broken off or such, would give off a subtle warmth, and even...a soft pulsing."
  856.  
  857. Well that certainly sounded familiar.
  858.  
  859. "That's not all," he said after a pause. A frown appeared on his face then. "It says here, that any piece of a dragon only gives off that warmth and pulsing only so long as the dragon it came from still lives."
  860.  
  861. All three of us went silent. After Ursh's little information dump, none of us really did anything for a few moments, just letting this all settle in our brains. If this was true, if this rock really was from an ancient dragon, then it was more than just some pretty bauble to be sold off. Though they had gone extinct, dragons were still regarded as one of the world's greatest creatures. Intelligent, strong, fast; dragons were second to no beast. Some believed they even rivaled the intellect of the children of Meloire. There were even ancient myths that dragons could bend the elements to their will. If a dragon was somehow still alive, who knows what that could mean for the world.
  862.  
  863. But, one thing still bothered me in the back of my mind, scratching away at my thoughts.
  864.  
  865. "This still doesn't explain what happened with the sky."
  866.  
  867. Two sets of yellow eyes snapped to me, and both saurians let out little unsettled grunts. Though we now had a possible answer about the rock, we still had nothing on the swirling clouds and abscence of sunlight. And even if the stone is some dragon scale or bone or whatever, where did it come from? How did it come from the sky?
  868.  
  869. Questions, but no answers. No leads, even. Things were not looking up.
  870.  
  871. "Welp," I said with an annoyed moan, "no use standing around here." Directing my attention to our gracious host, I said with a smile, "Thanks for nothing. Next time you knock on our door in the middle of the night, maybe actually have something useful to say."
  872.  
  873. ~~~
  874.  
  875. Things were not going so well.
  876.  
  877. Twi and I had just left Ursh's shop for the second time in a week and we had been told the skystone we found might just in fact be a piece from a dragon. A still living dragon, no less. As if it wasn't bad enough the sky tore itself open to pop out this strange object, now we had to deal with the knowledge we might just be holding onto something from one of the most dangerous creatures to ever roam the world.
  878.  
  879. Dragons were above anything aside from the Meloirean peoples, and perhaps the most scary thing imagineable. I mean, what's more terrifying than a giant flying lizard that could breathe fire and was rumored to be just as smart as you? Not to mention the old myths of them knowing magick. When it rains, it pours, eh? The sheer fact one could still somehow be alive after all these years was enough to make me wish someone else had found this rock. Or scale, I suppose, if Ursh was to be believed.
  880.  
  881. 'But', a tiny voice sprang up in the back of my mind, 'it could mean a tremendous amount of money. An ancient beast, thought long dead, now back from the grave. And you hold a piece of it.'
  882.  
  883. A compelling point. Regardless, I knew this wasn't something to take lightly. Dragon scale or not, the skystone still had no explanation of how it got here. Twi and I had spent the better part of four days researching in those blasted archives, and nothing brought us any closer to an answer. I was beginning to think perhaps Twi was right about the reason being magickal based. After all, dragons were reported to be able to use magick, as far fetched as that was. But, if it was magick, then...
  884.  
  885. "You gonna keep standing there or what?"
  886.  
  887. Twi's voice broke me out of my thoughts. Ahead of me, she stood with her arms folded across her chest, an impatient scowl adorning her.
  888.  
  889. Clearing my mind, I flashed her a grin. "Didn't realize you were so eager to go home."
  890.  
  891. "It's late," she said with a roll of her eyes. "And besides, I'd rather get out of this cold."
  892.  
  893. Hearing her mention it actually brought the chill back to me. I hadn't even thought about it until she said something, but the biting cold had only gotten worse since our time inside Ursh's. It was as if the weather was reflecting our sour moods.
  894.  
  895. After catching up to her, we huddled together as we made our way back home to the relative warmth of our bed. Similarly to when we first found the skystone, we didn't say much on the way home. As we walked, we were met with nothing and nobody, everyone seemingly too smart to venture forth in this sudden chill. Even the stupid hero types weren't dumb enough to go out in this weather. Mentally, I cursed Ursh yet again for forcing us out of such a nice sleep only to tell us he knew next to nothing important. While yes, knowing the stone was a dragon thing was nice, it definitely could have waited until the morning. Especially since it was only a theory, and he had no concrete proof he was right.
  896.  
  897. Stewing in my thoughts, I kept going back to the sky. The strange darkening, the swirling clouds, the bright light from nowhere. While I'd never admit it out loud, the whole thing actually scared me a bit. Things like that just don't happen without reason. There had to be an answer. There just had to be. I never considered myself much of a scholar, but after the last few days in the archives, I was beginning to understand what drives those kinds of people. This pursuit of an answer, it made me realize why someone would even bother taking up such an occupation. The chance to learn something new, to learn something previously thought unknowable.
  898.  
  899. Something did bother me about all this, and it wasn't just the fact we had found no answers. Despite everyone seemingly knowing about what happened the other day with the sky, no one really appeared too bothered by it. Nothing had changed in New Serrak at all. People were still going about their usual day to day without any differences. Maybe they were all just ignoring it in the hopes it all meant nothing. Maybe they just didn't want to think about it, for fear it might mean something.
  900.  
  901. Up ahead, I noticed we were getting close to home, and breathed a deep sigh of relief. Sleep sounded very nice right about now. We got inside and almost immediately our clothes were gone and we were hunkered down in our warm bed. We had still yet to say anything about what Ursh had told us. A part of me didn't want to speak, knowing if I did I might just end up rambling on about old myths of how terrifying dragons were said to be. Another part knew we'd eventually need to talk about it, and wanted to be the first to start things off. Eventually, after some mental debating, I gave into the latter.
  902.  
  903. "So," I began, "dragons."
  904.  
  905. Her eyes met mine as she chose her words. For a brief second, in that moment before she spoke, I contemplated just turning over and ignoring this whole conversation. I almost slapped myself for even thinking like that, like some kinda of child.
  906.  
  907. When Twi responded, it was with a low groan. "Yea. Dragons."
  908.  
  909. Oh to hell with it, I thought.
  910.  
  911. I sat upright and went at it. "You don't think he's serious, do you?"
  912.  
  913. "Ursh?" she questioned after following me up.
  914.  
  915. "Yea. I mean, dragons? This is stupid."
  916.  
  917. "You have to admit, it does make the most sense out of anything."
  918.  
  919. "Well, yea," I agreed. "But, they went extinct ages ago. There's no way there's another one just hiding out somewhere."
  920.  
  921. She shrugged at that. "Like I told you a few days ago. Magick."
  922.  
  923. "I..." Cutting myself off, I huffed and stared a hole into the floor. If both Twi and Ursh were right...well I just hoped they weren't. Either explanation they presented had bad things written all over them. I knew I had repeated it over and over in my mind, but I decided to share it with Twi. Maybe saying it aloud would help somewhat.
  924.  
  925. She absorbed my words in silence, allowing me the chance to speak my peace. As I talked, her eyes widened and narrowed to my words, quietly judging my reactions to our current situation. When I was winding down, she reached over, taking my hand into her own, and the familiar feeling of her soft cool scales calmed me.
  926.  
  927. A deep breath later, and I fell silent once more.
  928.  
  929. "Look," she started, "I know this all seems insane. But, after what we witnessed, what we found? I kinda think 'insane' can be thrown aside. None of this is normal, I agree. It's hard to believe, and terrifying. Just the thought of a dragon showing up is enough to make me want to dig a deep hole and disappear into it." A cute litle chuckle came from her at that. "But, I think we should see this through. Whatever happens, happens."
  930.  
  931. Just hearing her say all this set me at ease. At least now I knew for absolute certain I wasn't the only one worried. She leaned into me and we embraced, wrapping our arms around one another tightly.
  932.  
  933. When we parted, I said, "We've been through some tough shit before, anyway."
  934.  
  935. She shook her head, but I could spy the slight smile playing at the corner of her lips. With this final little joke, we settled back down and slowly drifted off to sleep.
  936.  
  937. When next I woke, it was to the sunlight pouring through the cracks of the house. The sounds of foot traffic and the usual hubbub of the town got me out of bed. After a stretch, which earned me a few popping joints, I dressed for the day and noticed something was missing. Looking back at the bed, I saw a certain saurian wasn't laying in it, and a further inspection of the room revealed Twi must have left before I woke.
  938.  
  939. Thinking nothing on it, I continued to dress and was about to leave when a thought entered my mind. In all this time I'd been back home, I'd completely neglected to send off that pelt to Greensprings. When I turned, I saw it still hung up on the rack, well beyond the point of needing to be there anymore. Then and there I decided, this would be my first duty of the day. Maybe. If I actually felt like untying it from the rack. I mean, it was a tightly wound knot. Such a knot would take at least a good twenty seconds to undo.
  940.  
  941. Then again, if the pelt didn't reach that damned alchemist sometime soon, he might send someone to come collect it.
  942.  
  943. Taking the more cautious side, I decided it best to just get it over with now. Roughly twenty seconds after that decision, I was rolling up the pelt, ready to march it over to the courier's office. March is such a strong word for it. More like I casually dragged my feet there. It wasn't like it was too too far. It was just on the edge of the lower district, right near the Laughing Wolf tavern in fact. A decent morning's jog away; the perfect distance to work up an appetite. And so, with pelt in hand, coinpurse at my side, and the worries of yesterday behind me, I left home.
  944.  
  945. The moment I opened the door, I realized it was beyond early morning as I had assumed. The sun looked high enough to be nearly noon, and the large amount of people out on the main streets confirmed it. It wasn't like Twi to let me sleep in like this. I'd grown so used to her insistence on waking early, even more so these last few days doing our little archive visits. Were I a lesser man, I might have grown concerned over her whereabouts. But, I knew her well enough to know she likely had a good reason to leave without me. It usually meant she was meeting a potential client or something of the sort. A smile found its way to my face at the thought of taking another job. With more work comes more money, after all.
  946.  
  947. Making my way through town, I eventually found myself at the courier's office. Rather small for what some might think an important building. What some might not know was this wasn't the only office in New Serrak, merely the one for the lower district. Probably explains why it isn't so large or really noticeable much. It looked like any ordinary place, the only thing that marked it as the courier's was the sign in the window saying as much.
  948.  
  949. Pushing open the door, I was greeted to the lonely room within. Opposite the entrance was the door to the back, it was always the first thing one saw when they came here. Off to the side was the 'waiting area,' but mostly it was used to stick people the workers didn't feel like dealing with at the moment. I'd had to spend time there before. A single desk sat near the far wall, a lone kalrin boy manning it.
  950.  
  951. 'Boy' might have been a bit much. He wasn't fairly young, he just had a youthful look to him. The brown fur covering his body was cut neat and short, and his clothes were a size too big for him. The large ears adorning his head flicked about quickly, paying heed to nearly every sound. It also didn't help matters he was rather short, even for a kalrin. Barely came up to my chest last time he stood up next to me. Anyone could easily mistake him for some fresh-faced kid, new on the job. Of course, that all went out the window whenever he opened his mouth.
  952.  
  953. "What do you want?" His voice was loud, scratchy, harsh. It was the voice of a man who'd spent too many years smoking.
  954.  
  955. "Got a package needs delivering to Greensprings," I sounded off, raising the pelt high enough for him to get a good look at it.
  956.  
  957. A hand came to rub at his furry chin as he echoed the town's name. "Hm, that'll cost ya around thirty."
  958.  
  959. Happily, or rather begrudgingly, I handed over the requested money and pelt, and as I did so, I had to remind myself to mention one certain detail about the delivery.
  960.  
  961. "This is to go to a merchant by the name of Reginald. An alchemist. Likes wearing red, I think."
  962.  
  963. He pulled out a small paper and pen and began to write, repeating my words. "Reginald. Alchemist, merchant. Likes red." His eyes shifted upwards to me and he coughed out, "Anything else?"
  964.  
  965. Well, there really wasn't much left but send it off, but I got a little nasty idea. Just something for the hell of it, I told myself.
  966.  
  967. "When it gets to him," I noted with an evil smile, "I want him to know this comes as a 'very special' gift from his favorite sellsword."
  968.  
  969. A toothy grin flashed my way as he finished writing. "Merchants, eh. Fuck 'em."
  970.  
  971. "I'll drink to that."
  972.  
  973. ~~~
  974.  
  975. As I left the courier's office, I was greeted to the sight of gloomy gray clouds filling up the sky. 'Great', I thought, 'another storm.' While I did enjoy the fresh scent after a nice rainfall, I didn't particularly like dealing with the actual rain itself. Mostly that was due to too many jobs in the past forcing me to stand around in the middle of a downpour, which usually earned me a small cold for my efforts. Even still, I hoped this coming storm would pass by without overstaying its welcome.
  976.  
  977. With my business concluded, it was now time to partake in a well-earned meal, my feet swiftly taking me to the tavern nearby. As was always the case, the Laughing Wolf was nearly full to bursting with customers, loud as an orchestral band, and smelled like a circus tent. Like most days, the place was packed with adventurers and regulars alike, all looking to sate their appetites, drown their sorrows, have a talk with a friend or two, or any combination of the three. I carefulled wandered my way over to a small table near a wall, keeping a hand on my dagger's hilt the whole way through.
  978.  
  979. Right before I sat down, a roar erupted from one of the circles of those hero types, and it was clear from my vantage point that a handful of the group were infighting. Looked to be a pair of kalrins and a saurian all going at one another, while their human companions were just cheering on the violence. I couldn't make out anything any of the group was saying, on account of the chorus of other voices all around, but it was likely a dispute over somehing stupid. Probably money, if I had to wager a guess.
  980.  
  981. Regardless of any pointless fighting going on, I sat back in my chair and waited for one of tavern wenches to head over my way. When one finally did, it turned out to be the same young kalrin girl I saw my previous time there. I recognized her immediately by the pink nose and gray fur. Well, also by her thin frame. So fragile looking she was, I wondered just how such a girl was able to handle the hustle and bustle of the Laughing Wolf. But still, perhaps in spite of all that, she did seem to carry herself with some sense of inner strength. At least, I imagined she did. It made sense in my head, otherwise I doubted she'd be able to keep up the work, after all.
  982.  
  983. The furred girl showed off a soft smile and chimed out, "Hey, I remember you. You were meeting that weird guy in red few days back." Her voice had an almost sing-song quality to it, as if she was just holding back a ballad as she spoke.
  984.  
  985. "Hm? Oh, yea." I waved away the memory and made my order. "I'd like some venison and wine. Also, bring me a cup of whatever soup's good today."
  986.  
  987. "Right away, sir," she said with a slight fidgeting of her nose. Before she walked away, she seemed to remember something and said, "We have some cinnamon bread if you'd like. It's fresh from the baker's, so it's still warm." When I nodded in agreement, she let out a puff of satisfaction and marched away to place the order.
  988.  
  989. As I waited, I passed the time people watching. The major thing that drew my attention was that fight, but it seemed to have died down in the little time I talked with the kalrin wench. The pair of kalrins looked worse for wear and the saurian appeared to have a broken arm, but the entire group was back at their table, happily playing cards and discussing whatever it was those types talk about. Strangely enough, none of them were cheating, or at least I couldn't see if they were.
  990.  
  991. To my right was a trio of the town's guardsmen enjoying a small break from the day's work. One thing I always found odd was the guardsmen as a whole were all human. Not a single kalrin or saurian among them all. I didn't know if that was due to none of them wanting to be guards or if the town had something against it. Either way, the trio I witnessed were rallying around the table throwing dice around playing a game of Greed.
  992.  
  993. Off to the left were some tables pushed together for a large group, a family from the look of things, all of them yelling incoheretly as they ate. Over to their left was a table of young lovers, all making stupid faces at their significant others while they talked about most likely pointless things. Nearby that table was one with a mixed group of kalrins and humans, but they didn't look to be the hero kinds. Their garb was more plain clothed, likely just some regulars from town meeting up for friendly chats.
  994.  
  995. It was by this point the gray-furred kalrin wench returned with an armload of trays, placing one such tray before me. On it was my ordered meal along with that cinnamon bread she mentioned. Everything looked quite appetizing. I wasted no time and began to dig in, my stomach grumbling for what lay before me. Everything was as good as it always was; the meat seared to perfection, the soup earthy and bold, the wine sweet, and even the cinnamon bread proved to be a nice after-meal treat. By the time the young kalrin girl returned for my payment, my plates were damn near licked clean and my goblet empty of even a single drop. I was perfectly happy to pay in full, and was soon enough back out on the street.
  996.  
  997. I went back to walking around town, but didn't really stumble upon anything worth a damn. It was all a bit boring. I was beginning to wonder if Twi had finished up whatever she was doing, which I still hoped was a new job offer. Every new job was one step closer to us eventually getting out of New Serrak and saying a fond farewell to this whole sellsword life. It wasn't that I hated this line of work, honestly I rather enjoyed some of the jobs we'd done in the past, it was more the fact a decent chunk of clients had been the kind of smarmy asshole types like Boylan.
  998.  
  999. I walked on, my mind slowly dropping away thoughts of past jobs and clients. It wouldn't do well to get stuck on things like that, especially not when we had the skystone to worry about. Once we knew for absolute certain it wasn't some dragon thing, we'd sell it off and finally be out of this life. On the other hand, if Ursh was right...well we could still sell it and just forget about the whole ordeal. Two random sellswords weren't exactly the best people to deal with dragons, after all, plus I doubted there'd be much use in us holding onto it at that point. What could we possibly do with a dragon scale? We weren't scholars or alchemists, nor were we knights or the heroic kind in any regard. Our hands would be the least likely ones to do any good if a dragon showed its ugly face around.
  1000.  
  1001. 'And besides', I thought to myself, 'if a dragon did show up, chances were it would be killed just as quickly as it popped up.' There was an abundance of those wannabe heroes everywhere, after all. They'd be chomping at the bits to get the chance to kill one of those mythic beasts.
  1002.  
  1003. While continuing to think on heroes and dragons, I stumbled my way through the streets and ended up next to the gambling house. It was a large place, towering one might say. The windows were high up near the top, and were so heavy with smoke the glass had become tinted an ugly yellowish color. Likewise, the scent of smokes of all kind wafted out from the building to create a near visible funk. Every now and again, a cheer could be heard from inside, either from people happy they're winning or just the crowd around those people rooting for them.
  1004.  
  1005. I still had a decent pocketfull of coins left. A little game or two sounded like a good way to waste some time before heading back home. A nagging voice in the back of my mind reminded me Twi'd be awfully upset if she learned I'd wasted money gambling. Then again, she couldn't get upset if she never found out. Plus, if I won, then there'd be even less reasons to get mad. Taking the risks into very heavy consideration, I walked inside almost immediately.
  1006.  
  1007. The stench hit me first. Smoke mixed with sweat, both combining together with cheap beer and even cheaper food made the place smell worse than the tavern. At least the tavern had the saving grace of large windows kept open for ventilation. The gambling house didn't have such luxury. Their windows remained closed at all times, for whatever reason. All around the floor were tables for certain games, all seemingly sectioned off into their own respective areas; the far left corner was dedicated to some card game I couldn't quite see, the far right was for Greed games and a second dice game I couldn't recall the proper name for, along the right and left walls were checkers and lot casting respectively, and in the front center of the place were some roulette wheels.
  1008.  
  1009. Ignoring the awful smell, I walked over to the wheels, stealing a beer off some half asleep patron as I went. It was nearly full. Only seemed right to not let it go to waste. It tasted like piss water. Anyway, the wheels were spinning fast, and the dealers were yelling out how much time remained until they'd toss the marbles. One of the nearest ones said bets would be closing in twenty seconds.
  1010.  
  1011. Pushing my way through the small crowd, I placed down a bet. "Ten on number 13!"
  1012.  
  1013. When the time for betting was closed, the dealer loudly exlaimed as such and was getting ready to toss the marble into the wheel. I didn't expect much in the way of a payout--this was all mostly just a way to kill time for me--but I would be lying if I said I wasn't getting a bit excited as the marble left his hand and began to roll through the wheel. Over and over, it made its way through the wheel, running counter to the wheel's own spin. Slowly but surely, the marble lost momentum and reached the slotted numbers, bumping and hopping between the slots until eventually landing right on 13.
  1014.  
  1015. Because I had only placed my bet on a single number, my reward was twenty times the coin I put down. Lady luck had smiled on me to give me a nice sum that day. And, feeling as if her smile would shine on me some more, I placed another bet, this one higher, at fifty coins, placed on number 8.
  1016.  
  1017. Once the time to deal had come, I was once again getting excited as I watched the marble spin and roll around the wheel. On and on it moved until its eventual descent, the marble's path sending it so tantalizing close to my chosen 8, only for it to bump off and land on the 5. The erupted boo shook me as I realized not a one of the patrons had placed a bet on said number, so not a one of us would be getting a damn thing that roll. But, I would not be deterred. Lady Luck had graced me once, surely she would do so again.
  1018.  
  1019. I placed yet another bet, and waited in earnest to watch the marble land on my choice.
  1020.  
  1021. I walked out of the gambling house some time later a bit drunker and with only half the money I went in with. That nagging voice in the back of my mind perked up again, but in my addled state I chose to push the thoughts down and stumbled on home. From the way I could tell, sundown was still a couple hours away, so I didn't spend too long in the gambling house. Hours, yes, but not like it was all day or anything. Not like I had anything better to be doing, anyway.
  1022.  
  1023. Besides, I sent off the rabbit pelt that alchemist wanted, so I deserved a little fun time.
  1024.  
  1025. Rounding my way off the beaten path and towards all the alleys and side streets that eventually led me home, I was met by a surprisingly little amount of people. Not even the local drunkards were littering their usual spots. Finding this odd but not odd enough to warrant any sort of deeper inspection, I shrugged and continued on my way. Still, without the normal sounds I'd grown used to over the years, the way home was a lot quieter than on average. Most days, you'd have to try to ignore the sounds of drunken fools begging for another coin or two for 'one last drink.' You'd hear the sounds of those who play the part of hero boast of their recent accomplishments, but on that day I heard no such bragging.
  1026.  
  1027. Maybe there was a festival or some such I'd forgotten about? Did everyone suddenly vanish off to a different ward? Was it possible there was some important event I'd not been privy to? Whatever the case, I found I actually disliked the quiet. Those loud annoyances had been so ingrained into my daily life, I'd grown accustomed to them, and their disappearance left me almost wishing for a return to form.
  1028.  
  1029. After a long, silent walk, I made it back home and was quickly through the door, falling down onto the bed and letting out a yawn.
  1030.  
  1031. "Had fun gambling?"
  1032.  
  1033. I shot right back up, greeted to the sight of my saurian lover sitting down at the little table, resting her chin in one of hand while lazily eyeing me. The slight downturn of her thin lips was all that was offered, but still I could tell she wasn't amused. How I hadn't noticed her there was beyond me. I tried to think of an excuse, anything to explain myself.
  1034.  
  1035. "...I would never."
  1036.  
  1037. 'Brilliant move, dumbass.'
  1038.  
  1039. The ridge of her brow raised and her lips moved into a small smile. "Wow, you're an absolutely terrible liar when drunk. Don't bother trying again, by the way. You smell like that disgusting beer the gambling house uses."
  1040.  
  1041. "That proves nothing."
  1042.  
  1043. 'Why did you open your mouth again?'
  1044.  
  1045. An exacerbated sigh left her before she explained. "They're the only place in town who sells that cheap swill."
  1046.  
  1047. I grunted in response.
  1048.  
  1049. "Y'know," she started, getting up and calmly walking over to me, "you're the one who talked about using our money to eventually leave New Serrak and start a new life." She closed in on me and wrapped a delicate hand around my arm, the claws digging into my skin. "What's the point of even talking like that if you're just gonna waste our money gambling?" Even though her voice remained calm, her tight grip on my arm was more than enough to know just how she felt.
  1050.  
  1051. "I just needed something to do." Another excuse. Maybe the alcohol was effecting me more than usual.
  1052.  
  1053. "Something to do," she repeated. And just as quickly as her anger came, it left. Her hand moved away from my arm, tiny markings where her claws sank in remaining, little beads of blood leaking out. She shook her head and took a step back, her gaze scanning me up and down as she did.
  1054.  
  1055. Changing the subject, I said, "Do you know why things were so quiet?"
  1056.  
  1057. "The duke came to town," she responded matter-of-factly, as if I was somehow supposed to know this already.
  1058.  
  1059. This was, in fact, news to me. "Wait, what? The duke? Why the hell'd he come here?"
  1060.  
  1061. Bringing a hand up, she waved me off, but still answered. "Something about finally changing out the town's defensive wooden walls for real stone ones." She tried to hide it, but I could hear the disbelief in her tone. This wasn't the first time the duke had made such a promise.
  1062.  
  1063. 'Probably wouldn't be the last, either.'
  1064.  
  1065. "Hey, by the way, where were you all day?"
  1066.  
  1067. As if a switch was flipped, she became a bit more serious. "I went to see someone about a new job. They want us to find and destroy a griffin nest, along with any eggs. It would take us about a week's trip away from town."
  1068.  
  1069. The booze was beginning to clear from my head as the prospect of another job hit my ears. I almost sprang up on the spot.
  1070.  
  1071. "Any info on the client?"
  1072.  
  1073. She raised a brow at me, rolled her eyes, and continued. "From what they've told me, the griffin in the area had already been slain, but the local guild members neglected to deal with the nest, so our client worries some new beast might sniff out the nest and raise the chicks itself, thus repeating the problem."
  1074.  
  1075. She was intentionally being vague about the client. After the Boylan incident, I'd suspected she wasn't too serious about wanting to keep information from me. The fact she seemed genuine this time actually stung a bit. But, rather than let that bother me too much, I sucked it up and decided to get on with business.
  1076.  
  1077. "So, when do we leave?"
  1078.  
  1079. "Two days. Tomorrow, we're gonna get all the supplies we'll need for the trip."
  1080.  
  1081. ~~
  1082.  
  1083. The next day, we went to the market in town. It was a long, wide street down in the lower district, and all along the street were these little tents and stalls, set up as makeshift shops. There were local farmers, hunters, small time alchemists, up-and-coming tailors, a blacksmith's apprentice, all manner of things, really. It was a cheap alternative than the bigger stores in the upper district. People there were mainly just selling what they could to get by.
  1084.  
  1085. Entirely too crowded at the best of times, the market was not a favorite spot of mine. The volume of people was never to my liking. Strangely, however, I never had this issue with the Laughing Wolf. Maybe it was because I could always manage to get an open table to myself, but at the market, you were walking around, bumping into people, possibly getting your pockets sifted through by some petty thief. I'd even had to personally handle some of those people before, but at the tavern, no one ever bothered me.
  1086.  
  1087. We'd left home fairly early, so by the time we got to the market, it wasn't as full as it usually was. Still too many people for my tastes, though. From there, we simply went around, buying the needed supplies for the journey; food, water, some oats and whatever for Vox, extra bolts for our crossbows just in case, so on and so forth. A rather boring trip, all things considered. Not like I expected much, but still boring.
  1088.  
  1089. As we were in the process of getting ready to head home, the sky suddenly grew darker. Those same glum grey clouds had persisted since the day prior, but never let loose a single drop. I looked up at the sky and stared at the dark puff balls as they lazily drifted closer and closer together, eventually meeting up and covering most of the sky in their dull color. Maybe today it'd finally rain and a true blue sky could shine forth once more.
  1090.  
  1091. If only we were so lucky.
  1092.  
  1093. No, instead those cotton balls in the air began to move, and the grey sky slowly shifted into one of black. My eyes went wide in shock as the clouds began an all too familiar twisting and turning among the now midnight sky. Faster and faster they circled one another, and with each completed rotation, my heart beat just a bit faster. All around me now, everyone was stood like me, shocked and confused by the same strange phenomena from the previous week. All sound in the market ceased as everyone found themselves drawn to watch the clouds' dancing. Unlike last time, there was a lack of harsh biting wind, which I assumed meant whatever was about to happen wasn't going to happen in town.
  1094.  
  1095. Suddenly, a near blinding white light beamed forth from the middle of the tumbling clouds, and among that white I could make out a bright blue spot. I glued my sight onto that blue and kept on its path as it shot out of the circle of clouds and streaked across the sky, flying so far away it crossed the horizon line, out of view. If my estimations were correct, then it appeared to be heading off to the northeast. As soon as the blue streak left sight, the black sky went back to the pale grey, and sounds began to return to the market.
  1096.  
  1097. The first thing I heard was a woman's panicked screams as she prayed to some god for salvation. This was shortly followed by more screams and noises of fear as a lot more of the people out in the market scrambled around. People began to just grab things and run, not even paying, causing the sellers to start grabbing people and demanding payment for their wares. A few fights broke out amongst the crowds as the looting carried on.
  1098.  
  1099. As the disorder in the market rose higher and higher, the local town guards came rushing in, trying their damnedest to calm everyone down. Those armor clad men had their work cut out of them, the way I saw it. Since we first arrived, there had been an influx of foot traffic, and now the street was about as filled as a typical day at the market. They barked their orders at the masses, and some even fell in line to obey. Not all did, however, and some of those people had to be...shall we say 'detained' by the wonderful men in iron.
  1100.  
  1101. Without a moment's hesitation, I grabbed Twi by the arm and pulled her through the horde. Together, we pushed through several packs of angry and fearful shoppers, knocking a few onto their asses in order to make it passed. A lot of them yelled, probably trying to get us to come back and apologize or demand a fight or some stupid shit like that, but we had no time for any of that nonsense. Onward we went, until eventually ending up near a side street, and not a moment too soon it seemed, as behind us came a roar as the guards descended onto the crowd.
  1102.  
  1103. I stared on as a burly saurian tackled a fully armored guard to the ground and began slamming his fists into the poor guy's helm, the scales on his knuckles splitting open and leaving blood on the face cover. He was joined by two other shopped, who only cheered on his violence. All around were similar such sights of guards and townspeople going at it like morons. The prison would be pretty full by the end of the day.
  1104.  
  1105. A low whistle escaped me and I gave a little chuckle. "Wouldn't wanna be in there right now."
  1106.  
  1107. I turned and saw Twi looking up at the sky, her eyes scanning around. For what, I couldn't imagine, but I didn't bother asking. I simply grabbed her arm and pulled her along, my sights set to home. There was no telling what came out of the sky this time, but it must have been connected to the skystone. If we could just get the stone and maybe bring it to wherever that blue thing ended up...
  1108.  
  1109. As we wound through the streets, the yells and screams from the market were fading away into the distance, only to be replaced by similar screams elsewhere. Every corner we turned we saw people of all kinds yelling, wondering what was going on, why the sky had gone black a second time, what it all meant, if they were safe, if the future would be well, all manner of questions that had no clear answers. The fact people only now seemed bothered, when a week prior everyone just kinda brushed off the same thing happening, actually annoyed me. Why only care now? What's different from before? It wasn't like any of them even knew what the golden streak was from the first time the sky opened, and so far that proved to have done no damage as far as they knew.
  1110.  
  1111. I pushed those irritations away and continued on towards home. Towards that small hiding spot in the wall. Towards the supposed dragon scale.
  1112.  
  1113. When we could see our home, Twi pulled herself out of my grip. A short breath left her and she said, "You wanna go find this new one."
  1114.  
  1115. I could feel a smile coming on. She could always read me so easily. I nodded in response. "Of course. I mean, if the first one's some kind of dragon thing, just imagine what the second one might be." In truth, I just wanted to know more about this whole situation. Maybe finding whatever came out of the sky this time would reveal something, anything.
  1116.  
  1117. The ridge above her eyes raised as her slitted pupils stared into my eyes. It took her a second or two before she just hummed out a suspecting noise. Probably figured my real intentions, but she didn't present any argument against me, so she likely had similar ideas herself.
  1118.  
  1119. As we were walking through the entryway inside, she said, "We still have that job to do, though. Can't go running off like that."
  1120.  
  1121. "Oh, come off it," I chided, "This is way more interesting than some pest control work. Plus, might be more lucrative, to boot."
  1122.  
  1123. I knew mentioning the possibility of profit would get to her, and I watched in silent glee as Twi began to think it over. Wordlessly, she debated in her mind over what the right move to make was, and whether the admittedly pisspoor coin from the job would even stack up in comparison. While she was busying herself with the internal arguments, I walked over to the hidey hole and produced the supposed scale, pocketing it along with an extra coinpurse. The way I saw things, she'd agree with me at the end of all this anyway, so there was no point wasting time waiting around. And as soon as I was done with that, Twi clicked her tongue and looked over to me.
  1124.  
  1125. "Fine," came her reply. She walked over to the wardrobe and pulled out two sets of our 'work clothes,' tossing me a change of attire. "But, if it's something serious this time," she stressed, "I don't want us getting involved." As she removed her shirt, she added, "Wouldn't do us any good getting ourselves killed."
  1126.  
  1127. "Something serious," I repeated. "Only thing more serious than a dragon scale would be an actual damn dragon. And I don't think that thing we saw was nearly big enough to be one of those." I paused then, my attention drawn to Twi as she undressed.
  1128.  
  1129. Those smooth dark green scales were always so alluring to me, especially the way they gave off a very slight gleam when the sunlight hit them just right. Her taut stomach, complete with a select few abs for show, along with the small budlge to her biceps and forearms were all a reminder of just how much we'd been through together. When we first started out, she lacked some muscle to her, but now...now she had the perfect form for my tastes. Her pants hit the floor, and my eyes roamed down the remainder of her body. Similar to the top, her legs had a small amount of meat on them, and the little dips and curves around her hips and thighs were always enough to drive me wild. All she ever needed to do was shake them around and I'd throw her to the bed. Her tail curled around the bottom of one of her legs, and I could feel my feet moving me closer.
  1130.  
  1131. Reaching out an hand with the intention to pull her to me, I felt the breath hold in my lungs, as if afraid any sound would ruin this. But, before I could touch her, she cleared her throat, breaking me out of the trance.
  1132.  
  1133. "Didn't you want to go find something?" My eyes shot back up to her face, only to see the mischeveous smirk sprawled along her muzzle.
  1134.  
  1135. A switch was flipped in my mind at the sight and I immediately grabbed her, pulling her close and tight, feeling her warmth against mine, her hot breath on my neck sending a shiver through me. "One hour wouldn't hurt," I growled.
  1136.  
  1137.  
  1138. The room was thick with the scent of sweat and sex as we were redressing ourselves. We didn't say anything as we were readying ourselves for this little excursion. Nothing really needed to be said. We got what we wanted out of our systems and were refreshed and rejuvenated for the what was to come.
  1139.  
  1140. At least, I assumed we were.
  1141.  
  1142. Ater tying off my crossbow sling under my shoulder, I was finished my preparations. I looked on as Twi was doing the last touches, double and triple checking our supplies, her thin lips wordlessly mouthing each item's name as she scratched it off her mental list. She let out an almost inaudible happy chirp as she completed her task, causing a chuckle to burst out of me.
  1143.  
  1144. She scowled in response, following it up with a simple but effective, "Piss off." However, the phony frown she wore couldn't hide the smile hiding in her eyes.
  1145.  
  1146. The bags we packed weren't all that heavy, I noticed as I lifted them over my free shoulder. Surprising, considering how much we had planned on bringing. We easily had enough to last us more than a week, so surely it should have weighed more than this, I told myself. A nice breeze shot through the room when Twi opened the door. With a shrug, I ignored the oddity and continued on my way outside, following right behind Twi.
  1147.  
  1148. We were barely onto the street when the sound of heavy boots alerted us. The footsteps were like thunder, there were so many of them. And they all sounded as if heading in one direction; ours. No sooner had this thought crossed my mind when around the corner appeared a small troop of men--mostly human, but the odd few saurians stood out-- all wearing the same stupid brown and black ensemble; neatly tucked in pressed shirts and starched slacks. Their eyes, sharp and focused, were all staring us down. I met them with an equal amount of daggers to my glare, and out of the corner of my eyes I caught Twi moving behind me.
  1149.  
  1150. As I dropped our things and the men grew closer, one of those stone faced idiots let out a shout. "By the authority of the Trader's Association, you are to come with us."
  1151.  
  1152. A deep, tired groan was my reply. Guild business is never a fun thing to get roped into.
  1153.  
  1154. In a hushed voice, I whispered to my counterpart, "Go. I'll deal with whatever the guild wants."
  1155.  
  1156. A deft scaly hand shot into my trouser pocket, swiftly procuring the scale and hiding it back in her own pockets and out of sight. She turned to leave, but paused for a moment, getting in close and nuzzling the side of her face into the crook of my neck before dashing down the opposite side of the street.
  1157.  
  1158. "Hey," cried out one of the marching men, "get back here. The Association demands an audience with you both." He, along with a small handful of others, rushed ahead to give chase, but I had no doubt in my mind they would only end up failing. They didn't even catch up to her before she rounded the corner and onto a different street, at which point she would vanish, crushing any and all hope of them ever getting their disgusting guild mitts on her. I almost swore I could faintly hear her sweet laughter as she disappeared out of sight.
  1159.  
  1160. When the remaining members of the hard eyed group reached me, I gave a faked yawn, saying, "I was just thinking there was nothing that could spoil my post-coital happiness. And then..." I took a moment to spread my arms out to gesture to all of them. "...here you are."
  1161.  
  1162. A small chuckle sounded out from the back, but whoever it was quickly corrected themselves with an overly pronounced cough. The others, however, did not look as amused, sadly. In fact, they seemed even more stone-faced in the wake of such a simple joke. Not even a single threat of a smirk on any of their faces, as far as I could tell. Either these boys had been trained something fierce, or guilds just attract humorless dicks.
  1163.  
  1164. One of the men stepped forward, his face shifting from the hardened scowl into a softer, almost bored expression. It was the kind of face that made it obvious it was a show, something he was doing to attempt to put someone at ease and maybe make them not resist as much when they're brought in for something. It was a face I'd seen before. Not his, in particular, I didn't know or even care to know this guild goon. No, instead it was a reminder of years back.
  1165.  
  1166. Regardless of memories, I smirked and told the man, "So, do you guys always go around together like this, or was this special just for lil ol' me and Twi?"
  1167.  
  1168. He didn't even bat an eye. "Graham," he spoke with a tone just as bored as his mask of an expression, "the Trader's Association's guildmaster wishes to speak with you promptly. Please, come with us."
  1169.  
  1170. "I assume this isn't a choice on my part?"
  1171.  
  1172. "You assume correct." The group behind him then wormed their way around us, slowly forming a wall around me. They then essentially pushed me along with them as they led the way back to their master, acting like the obedient dogs they were. All they were missing were the collars.
  1173.  
  1174. Being in the middle of a man-made castle, so to speak, made me realize just how strange the upcoming chat was most likely going to be. I couldn't recall what, if anything, I'd done to piss off the Trader group. Perhaps this was going to be about that time I sold an owlbear head without the 'proper credentials.' Honestly, all those guilds and their stupid rules. A man wasn't allowed to so much as spit without one of the guilds somehow wanting to know about it. What color was the spit? How big? Where did it land? Did the man have a cold or was he just spitting for fun?
  1175.  
  1176. Whatever the guildmaster wanted, it probably wasn't going to be a friendly talk, though.
  1177.  
  1178. The surly bunch were dragging me to the Trader's Association headquarters, if they used such a term to describe it. No, they had to be uppity over it and name it the 'Trader's Association Hall of Finest Wares.' More like 'Hall of Bullshit.' It was a large circular structure, reminiscient of old religious temples; tall marble columns, statuettes depicting iconic figures of the past, long flowing banners adorning the archways. And people wondered why I thought the guilds were all up their own asses. I mean, really? Basing your trading hall design off of temples? How much of a piece of shit do you have to be to even come up with that idea, let alone follow through?
  1179.  
  1180. The walk to the Hall wasn't a long one, but it sure was an excrutiating one. I had to walk around with a group of unfunny, uninteresting, untalkative, un-anything-fun assholes.
  1181.  
  1182. I tried to spark up a conversation with a burly looking blue scaled saurian with, "So, how's being a guild dog treating you?"
  1183.  
  1184. Rather than bite back, he brought a long clawed finger to the edge of his muzzle's thin lips, and he shushed me.
  1185.  
  1186. Shushed me! Like I was some petulant child. I could feel the anger rise up, a hand quickly grasping the hilt of my dagger. If he wanted silence, I'd show him the true meaning of the damned word. The moment I started to pull the blade free from its sheathe, however, every singe one of the bunch walling me in pulled out their own and aimed them all right at my neck. So close were those razors, I couldn't even swallow the lump in my throat without possibly nicking myself.
  1187.  
  1188. And still, they all showed faces devoid of emotion. Not even anger of their own at me attempting to do harm. Just completely blank expressions. This, in some magickal way, somehow worsened my mental image of the guilds. Couldn't even bother cracking just a little when one of their lives were being threatened.
  1189.  
  1190. Putting on a mask of my own, I smiled at my captors, painting a large and bright energy about me. "Come on boys, you don't wanna hurt me. Think of what your guildmaster will do to ya if I come back in pieces."
  1191.  
  1192. The one with the fake bored look from earlier was the one to answer me. "She only wanted you in for questioning. Never said anything about you needing to be in good condition."
  1193.  
  1194. "Hm." That certainly made me rethink my position. Slowly, my palm eased away from the dagger's hilt, my hand coming to a rest back at my side.
  1195.  
  1196. With a nod from the bored man, who I was now assuming to be some kind of leader for these jackasses, the guild croneys all sheathed their own blades, returning themselves to their prior placements as a wall. From there, we marched together all the way to the Trader's Hall. The exterior entryway consisted of a pair of too-tall-for-any-normal-person-sized doors, which I was promptly pushed through along with my wonderful escorts. Inside, things were much like the last time I'd seen it; the foyer had a long carpet adorning the floor, leading up to the door opposite the entrance. Along the sides of the room were several stands and kiosks of members of the guild peddling and trading whatever it was they desired. 'Course, for guild members, such things were silk, expensive perfume, alchemical potions the likes of which regular people could never afford, artwork of the highest caliber, so on and so forth.
  1197.  
  1198. I didn't have much time to examine the finer details and see what was different, as the entourage around me forced me along to the door where the carpet ended. Through the doors we went, and I was met with an actual hall, a long one with multiple doors and other similar halls shooting off at semiregular intervals. As we went down this hall, I noticed paintings and other artworks blazoned along the walls. Pretty pricey stuff, too, the kind of art that never got made twice, either because of the original creator's untimely death or...no, it always seemed to just be due to death.
  1199.  
  1200. Shooting away these pointless thoughts of arts, I puffed up my chest as we came to a stop, our destination apprently at hand. A simple wooden door, just like the others around the hall. My eyes fell on a small plague in just under the entryway, which read, 'Guildmaster Tanno.'
  1201.  
  1202. No knock was given by my posse, yet the door opened. Guildmaster Tanno herself was sat at a large wooden desk. Unlike some of the other guildmasters around town, Tanno was a kalrin, not a human. She was a lithe, wirey thing, her limbs so thin it made one wonder if she was malnourished. Her brilliant white coat was long and expertly cared for. Evidently, she took pride in her fur, and I couldn't deny the results had a mild stunning effect when I saw her. Her guild uniform was freshly cleaned and pressed, the creases still visible to the eye. This frail thing made herself look the part of someone vastly imortant, which I guess she was. She took one look at me, her black nose twitched, then her eyes narrowed to hard slits. Yea, this clearly wasn't a frienly chat.
  1203.  
  1204. And who should be waiting there, standing right next to the guildmaster herself, but that bastard Ursh.
  1205.  
  1206. ~~~
  1207.  
  1208. The room was fairly large. Not surprising, given who it belonged to. Along the floor was a rather expensive rug, which I only knew was expensive because I'd attempted to steal one just like in sometime in the past. It was part of some job. Similar to the hallway outside, the walls were adorned with paintings of various styles. Landscapes, portraits, historical imagery; all in glorious colors and such. The desk was rather quaint, one might call it. No larger than was needed, every pen and paper on top in a neat orderly row, nothing sticking out of the drawers or anything of that fashion. There were, however, no windows in the room. Not even a clock. Strange.
  1209.  
  1210. As I was taking in my surroundings, the short, old kalrin woman cleared her throat for attention. All eyes turned to her, even mine.
  1211.  
  1212. She spoke in a soft, yet commanding tone, "Rin, your men may leave us now."
  1213.  
  1214. The bored faced man nodded and every last one of my escorts, save for this Rin fellow himself, shuffled out through the door and away from sight. The sound of their boots hitting the floorboards faded, and then all that remained was the empty air between the four of us left.
  1215.  
  1216. I had the thought to say something to break this silence, but my inner genius broke through to tell me that would be a poor choice. I actually decided to listen to him. Tanno took a long time to speak again. It felt like minutes, but was probably just an odd second or two. Her glare never left its position on me, however. She just stared, so long and so unblinkingly, it actually made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Eventually, the agonizing silence dissipated when she took a short breath and spoke.
  1217.  
  1218. "I'm sure you know why you're here."
  1219.  
  1220. A hard shrug, followed by, "Haven't the foggiest." I had some suspicions, obviously, but not like I would just announce them. Especially not to the guildmaster herself.
  1221.  
  1222. The old kalrin let out a grunt. "You saw the sky earlier, did you not?"
  1223.  
  1224. Arms folded across my chest as I scoffed with much indignation, "Stop beating around the bush, you old windbag. What's this all about?"
  1225.  
  1226. The bored faced Rin turned to me, his face scrunched up into an ugly scowl. Lips barely curled back to show off just a hint of teeth, eyes like knifes, even a tint of red entering along his neck and cheeks. How cute, the dog taking offense for the insult to his master. I met his scowl with as innocent a smile as I could muster. This only seemed to upset him more, as his hand shot to the dagger at his side. Before he could pull it free, Tanno snapped her fingers.
  1227.  
  1228. "Enough, Rin." And just like that, the man returned to his uninterested look, turning away from me and gazing at the wall. From there, the guildmaster replaced her focus onto me once more, continuing our conversation. "I'll get to the point. Where's the dragon scale?"
  1229.  
  1230. My attention instantly moved to Ursh. That son of a bitch talked. I knew we shouldn't have trusted him. All the rage inside me was threatening to boil out and straight at Ursh, and I was so very tempted to just let my body move without thinking and just finally give that bastard what he deserved. But, a hand gripped my shoulder, squeezing hard. Too hard. Looking over, I saw Rin had returned, and was eyeing me cautiously while the red hot anger inside me began to churn more. Oh, if this ass wants some too, I'd be more than happy to give it to him.
  1231.  
  1232. "Graham," chided the old furred woman. My breathing was hard as I shot back to her, seeing her face had a look like that of a scolding grandmother. Surprisingly, seeing that actually calmed me somewhat. Couldn't explain why, though. When I let out a long sigh, Tanno spoke once more.
  1233.  
  1234. "Yes, Ursh told me about the scale, and about what you and Twi witnessed." My brows furrowed at the mention of his betrayal. "I know you probably see this as an act of treason," she continued, "but do know Ursh here is merely worried for the safety of all. Including you and Twi."
  1235.  
  1236. A laugh came from deep within. The kind of mocking laugh everyone knows is nothing but sarcastic. It actually started to hurt I kept it going for so long. When I finally elected to stop, I snorted out, "Bull. Shit." Jabbing a finger in the scaly idiot's direction, I said, "If this piece of absolute garbage wants to pretend he's doing this for the 'greater good,' fine. But don't you dare look me in the eye and tell me you buy his story. I know you're not dumb or senile enough to fall for that crap."
  1237.  
  1238. Without even blinking at my words, Tanno completely side stepped me. "Be that as it may in your eyes, Ursh is a trusted member of our guild. I'd like you to hand over the scale." She wasn't having any of my arguing, it seemed. But, I had an idea.
  1239.  
  1240. "And why would I give it to you?" I took in a breath, puffing up my chest and standing a bit taller. "Your guild is nothing but money hungry power grubbers who'd sooner sell the scale to the highest bidder than ever worry about whatever harm it could bring. And on top of that-"
  1241.  
  1242. "I did not bring you here to debate," she cut me off. The suddent interruption stopped me in my tracks, leaving me slackjawed.
  1243.  
  1244. "You are here for one and only one reason: to turn over the dragon scale." Tiny, but loud steps brought her increasingly closer. The rustle of her clothes, the flick of her tail, and faint bobbing of her fur, all of it was a sight to behold. This short frail woman was inching upon me in a manner so threateningly, I didn't even know how to respond. She continued, "If you do not turn it over to me promptly, I will personally see to you getting a nice cold cell in the town's dungeon."
  1245.  
  1246. She was now directly before me, he head craning up to keep eye contact. Despite the difference in height being in my favor, I felt a lot smaller than I actually was. I tried to justify to myself this was only because she was an old woman, and had nothing to do with her position of authority or even the half crazed look in her eyes, the kind of look that said she'd stab me in the throat and watch me bleed out just because I looked at her wrong. And boy, had I looked wrong at her since entering the room.
  1247.  
  1248. A lump formed in my throat. I swallowed it down and put on a mask, complete with a smile to light up my face as I explained, "Sorry, but I don't have it anymore. Gave it to Twi, and she flew the coop, so to speak."
  1249.  
  1250. Tanno's eyes slowly moved over to my right, towards Rin. He backed up my account by telling her about Twi's sudden departure from my 'arrest site,' and how no one had seen her since. An annoyed groan came from the guildmaster as an initial response, followed by her eyes shifting back to me yet again.
  1251.  
  1252. "Alright. I have a proposition for you, Graham."
  1253.  
  1254. I couldn't help myself. "Sorry, kalrins aren't my type, plus you're a bit too old for my liking."
  1255.  
  1256. She began to say something, but cut herself off and paused. I wasn't sure if she was thinking over my dull joke or just trying to find some new retaliatory words. At one point, I even saw a smirk rise up on her lips, but her eyes kept their hard and narrow look, so the fact she smiled even a little was a bit unnerving. One small hand came up to rub at her chin as her large round ears flicked, likely in annoyance if I had to guess.
  1257.  
  1258. Off to the side, I saw Ursh, realizing he was noticeably absent from the entire conversation. Little emotion was on his face. Barely could tell what was going on his mind, if anything at that. His hands were resting on his hips as he watched the guildmaster and I, silent judgement oozing out of his very being. Maybe. Perhaps I was reading him wrong. Regardless, he hadn't spoken a single word since I entered. Didn't even let out a peep when I mentioned him earlier; not a single breath almost. It was actually more annoying that he was silent. I could handle his usual attitude, but him being quiet was aggravating.
  1259.  
  1260. Preparing to get his attention to finally stir up some kind of argument, mostly out of irritation at his silence, I cleared my throat, only to be interupted by Tanno.
  1261.  
  1262. "The proposition I have is simple," she began, a finger pointing up as she made her statement. "You find Twi, bring the dragon scale back to me, and you don't have to deal with the guild anymore."
  1263.  
  1264. "Anymore?" I laughed sarcasticaly again. "I don't deal with you idiots now." My lips curled into a wry smile. I was going to turn thing in my favor. "How about I make my own proposition?"
  1265.  
  1266. She returned my smile with that same slight unnerving smirk, her eyes never faltering from their hard stare. "Oh?"
  1267.  
  1268. "Say I bring back that stupid scale. When I do, you cough up some nice coin for me and Twi, and we'll just...leave." I accented my bargain by making my fingers do a simulated walk when I said 'leave.' "Pack up our things and wave New Serrak goodbye, never to be seen again."
  1269.  
  1270. From the corner of the room, I saw Ursh actually look up at that. It seemed I finally grabbed his attention. His body visibly vibrated in anger for just a second.
  1271.  
  1272. "Hm." Tanno thought about my offer. For about a second. "How much?"
  1273.  
  1274. "Guildmaster, you can't be serious!" The guild dog Rin nearly shoved me aside to speak to his master.
  1275.  
  1276. Ignoring him, I named my price. "Two thousand." It was rather high, to be honest. But, combining that amount with what Twi and I had saved up, we'd be able to afford to move anywhere we pleased, and could even live off that coin for a decent time.
  1277.  
  1278. Rin demanded his master not to take my offer. "This is insane. There is no guarantee he even knows where Twi left to."
  1279.  
  1280. Also choosing to ignore her own dog, Tanno ordered him aside to continue her dialogue with me.
  1281.  
  1282. "That's a hard bargain. Shrewd, even. You'd make a good guild member."
  1283.  
  1284. This got a genuine smile from him. To think after all these years, the guildmaster was this easy to deal with. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble had I known I could just talk to her like a normal person. "Flattery will get you nowhere, ma'am. I'm not lowering my price. Take it or leave it."
  1285.  
  1286. "My my. Undoubtedly the type of thing I'd expect one of my own to say." A soft chuckle lulled through the air. It sounded warm, almost like a doting grandmother. "Fine," she concluded with a nod. "Bring me that scale and you have yourself a nice stack of money to get the hell out of here with." She reached out one of her small hands to shake on it.
  1287.  
  1288. However, I needed just a bit more.
  1289.  
  1290. "Actually, there is one more thing," I noted. When she raised a brow, I explained. "In order to make this all official and above board, I'd like you to write up a formal contract on the matter."
  1291.  
  1292. The chuckle from earlier evolved into a small bubble of laughter. "Oh dear, you really would have been marvelous in my guild. Shame you never joined." She walked over to the large desk, pulled a fresh paper and pen, and began to write up our contract.
  1293.  
  1294. As she busied herself writing, I decided to finally address my biggest concern. Ursh.
  1295.  
  1296. "Can't believe you actually betrayed your own sister." I didn't directly look at him, but I think he got the point. "She trusted you. More than you deserved, considering our current situation." I chanced a peek over, and saw him giving me a cold look. It wasn't quite that intimidating, but I could feel the hatred radiating out of him. Seeing him like that, all pissed and ready for a fight, it made me want to keep going.
  1297.  
  1298. Yet, despite how much I'd likely enjoy doing so, I didn't. If I really wanted to twist the dagger, in a manner of speaking, I could have told him how he was the only one Twi trusted about this skystone business, and how hurt she'd be that he went behind her back this way. But, I just didn't feel like doing that. Maybe I simply wanted to get out of the building without having to deal with an altercation with him. Maybe I simply wasn't as in the mood for an argument as I thought. Whatever the case was, I decided to continue smiling at him as he snorted out and took a step forward.
  1299.  
  1300. "You have no idea what you're doing," he snarled out the accusation. "Whatever this thing is, it's far above your head. I should have taken the piece you gave me to the guildmaster right away. Maybe then we might have some information to work on." As he talked, he pulled forth one of his cigars, lighting it up and taking a few odd puffs between words. "You and Twi shouldn't have kept it in the first place. You should have just left it where you found it, not gotten yourselves involved in whatever mess this might bring. I only hope I was wrong about it being a dragon scale. Heavens help us if such a monster was actually out there." The smoke poured out of his mouth and nostrils like from a chimney, and by the time he was done talking, he was already finished with the first cigar and produced a second.
  1301.  
  1302. Interestingly, the moment Ursh plopped the second cigar between his thin lips, Tanno stood upright once more and announced the contract was complete, asking for me to look it over and sign. After handing it over, she silently watched as I carefully read her writing, even taking it all in a second time to ensure she wasn't trying to hide anything in the fine print. Scanning thoroughly, I found nothing suspicious, but did make sure to read it over a third time just to be safe. When I still saw nothing out of the ordinary, I was more than happy to put my name down and shake the guildmaster's hand.
  1303.  
  1304. With the deal out of the way, Tanno nodded and said, "Now then, you'll be needing a way to track down Twi and the scale. I assume you only had the one horse?" When I gave her a nod in the affirmative, she snapped a finger at Rin. "Prepare a wagon and some supplies." The man then left to do what was ordered.
  1305.  
  1306. "Really going all out for lil ol me, eh?" I was actually impressed. Granted, she was willing to drop a hefty sum on this deal, so I probably shouldn't have been surprised.
  1307.  
  1308. Ignoring me, she turned to Ursh. "As punishment for not coming clean right away, you shall accompany Graham in the search."
  1309.  
  1310. The cigar threatened to drop from the scaled man's lips as his jaw almost hit the floor. He recovered fairly quickly though. "With all due respect, Guildmaster, I can't just up and leave. I have my shop to run, and besides that-"
  1311.  
  1312. She cut him off with, "You shall do as you're told, Ursh." That shut him up fast, and he took a step back, giving a submissive nod as he did. Tanno moved closer to him, her small steps bringing her right up to his chest, just like she did to me earlier. "This is your chance to redeem yourself in my eyes. Do well, and I won't demote you or force you to face a harsher penalty. And as for your shop, we'll send someone down to take care of things while you're gone. I'm sure that assistant of yours would be glad to have a face other than yours to look at all day."
  1313.  
  1314. With another submissive nod, and with his eyes to the floor, Ursh begrudgingly agreed. "As you wish, Guildmaster."
  1315.  
  1316. What I wouldn't give to have that kind of authority. Thinking on it, if Ursh was going to be my partner in this, I could see a number of issues arising, however. I decided to voice these concerns.
  1317.  
  1318. "If I may, Tanno, Ursh and I aren't exactly...agreeable at the best of times. Would it not be wiser to send someone else in his place?" The scaly idiot himself looked up at me, an almost thankful look about him. Neither of us really wanted to spend any time with the another.
  1319.  
  1320. However, Tanno rejected the suggestion. She waved a hand my direction, saying, "If you aren't 'agreeable' as you say, then I'll just have one of my own go with you to make sure you don't kill yourselves." Seemingly finished with the topic, she grabbed the contract out of my hand and placed it in a drawer of the desk, mumbling to herself about who to send with me and Ursh. She rattled off several names, always saying something about if they were busy with more important matters or if they were the right pick.
  1321.  
  1322. As the furry guildmaster continued her rambles, Rin reappeared with a loud, "The wagon and supplies will be ready soon, Guildmaster."
  1323.  
  1324. Tanno snapped out of her little mutterings, turning to her loyal dog and smiled. "Ah, Rin. Just the man for the job."
  1325.  
  1326. The bored faced man took on a look of utter confusion. "Um, what job, ma'am?"
  1327.  
  1328. "You shall be traveling with Graham and Ursh as they locate the scale."
  1329.  
  1330. "And Twi," I added.
  1331.  
  1332. She clicked her tongue at me. "Yes yes, her too, I suppose."
  1333.  
  1334. I had half a mind to spit fire at her, but a small nagging voice, quite similar to Twi's in fact, told me that would be very unwise considering we just signed a contract and all that. The other half of my mind decided it best to listen to this psuedo-Twi and I let it go.
  1335.  
  1336. Tanno's loyal guild hound seemed to be finding the right words to say, probably trying to think up an excuse. Rin's eyes darted to me, then to Ursh, and finally back to his master. His mouth moved, possibly as if to make an objection, but rather than do that, he sighed. "Of course, Guildmaster. As you wish." Similar to Ursh before him, Rin gave a small submissive nod when he answered.
  1337.  
  1338. "Good," she responded with another annoying click of her tongue. "Now, all of you, leave. I don't want to see any of you again unless you have that scale with you." She waved us out of the room, nearly pushing us as she shooed us away.
  1339.  
  1340. As soon as we were out, the door was slammed behind us rather rudely. It was then I made my true mood known, at least to my unwitting companions.
  1341.  
  1342. "Kind of a bitch, isn't she?"
  1343.  
  1344. Rin's face contorted as if he had been physically hit by my words. He pushed me up against the wall, a hand on my shirt collar. With fire in his eyes, he spat out, "Watch your tongue, or I'll cut it out myself."
  1345.  
  1346. Like was typical of me, I met his anger with a smile. "Geez, didn't realize your leash was that tight."
  1347.  
  1348. "Excuse you?" He punctuated this by tightening his hold on my collar, pulling it slightly so the back end dug into the nape of my neck. I could just tell the fabric was going to be stretched out from this.
  1349.  
  1350. "Your leash," I repeated. Letting out a sigh, I felt a bit sad for the man I even had to explain this. "I'm saying you're a dog. Tanno's your master and you do anything she says."
  1351.  
  1352. A sharp pain shot through my spine as he pulled me back only to slam me against the wall. "You don't know what you're talking about."
  1353.  
  1354. "Oh really?" My hands reached up to pry his fingers off my shirt, and I noticed the frabric had indeed been stretched out. Wonderful. I looked at him, with his angry eyes and slight reddish tint to his cheeks, and I told him what I saw. "You didn't want to be our little guild escort. You wanted to refuse. And you could have. But ya didn't." A lone finger poked at his chest as my next sentence poked at his ego. "And why? Because you're nothing more than a loyal pet, wanting to do anything to make his master pleased. I bet she could have told you to follow us into hell, and you'd stumble out a 'yes ma'am' like the good boy you want her to see you as."
  1355.  
  1356. Oh, the look on his face. The mixture of confusion, anger, and that tiny bit of hidden shame. It was a thing of beauty. And the best part? The best part was that deep down, he knew I was right. He had the opportunity to say no, to even assign someone else to the task.
  1357.  
  1358. "Anyway," I decided to switch topics, "why would you even wanna refuse? Can't be because of me. We just met, I doubt you'd hate me that much so soon. Usually takes people a day or two."
  1359.  
  1360. From behind me came Ursh's voice. "It's because of me."
  1361.  
  1362. My head swiveled around so I could look at the scaled man, then back to Rin. Both seemed to be avoiding eye contact with the another. "Oh, so you guys have a history?" This was shaping up to be a joyous journey for all three of us, then. I could only hope wherever she was, Twi was having a better time of things than me.
  1363.  
  1364. ~~~
  1365.  
  1366. We left town almost immediately after we walked out of the guild. Waiting for us right outside was the wagon Rin had ordered. It wasn't fairly large, but it definitely was enough for our needs. Two strong stallions were to be our transport, and on the wagon were the supplies we needed; food, water, a map, etc. Some guild goons were just about finished up with loading on the supplies as we made our way up to the wagon. They said nothing as they put on the last few things, even when I tried to strike up conversation. Once done, they exited the scene and then it was just the three of us.
  1367.  
  1368. "I'll take the reins," Rin blurted out, and hopped up onto the driver's seat. Not surprising, considering I now knew he and Ursh had some issues. But, this only meant that I'd be alone in the wagon with the scaly son of a bitch.
  1369.  
  1370. How inticing. Just what I wanted to do with my days.
  1371.  
  1372. The moment Ursh and I jumped in the back, Rin got the horses moving, almost causing me to bowl over in the back. As the sound of hooves on stone became less and less noticeable, I began to wonder on all the places Twi could have gone to. We saw that blue streak go off to the northeast, so I decided to check the map to remind myself what was off that way. After unfurling the cloth and reviwing the local areas, I then traced a rough estimate of where the blue streak went. It went over the horizon, so it could have theoretically ended up anywhere. If we were to find Twi, we'd need to find out where the new object from the sky ended up.
  1373.  
  1374. An idle thought entered my head. If we went looking for the new object, we'd likely need to talk with locals in the area. Someone was bound to see something. But how to ask? Sure, having the two guild morons with me would prove helpful; just tell people the object was some guild's experiment. No one would really quesiton it too much if we pushed the lie hard enough, nor would they ask which guild. People generally don't give much thought to the inner workings of whichever organization is doing what, so long as it doesn't bother their daily lives.
  1375.  
  1376. While I was concocting the perfect lie for such an occasion, Ursh decided to clear his throat. To think, I had almost completely forgot he was there. Shame. Looking up, I was greeted to the delightful sight of his cold stare.
  1377.  
  1378. "Where's my sister?"
  1379.  
  1380. A brow raised questioningly as I tried to piece together his question. "I already told Tanno I didn't know." Did he think I was lying?
  1381.  
  1382. He scoffed at that. "You expect me to believe that?" A cigar was pulled free from some pocket and he quickly lit it up and started puffing away. "You must have some idea where she went."
  1383.  
  1384. "How about I answer your question if you answer mine?" That got his attention, as he nodded in approval to the request, but only after a few seconds of thought. "Why did you bring your guild in on this?"
  1385.  
  1386. I watched the cigar slowly burn away and the remains fall to the wagon floor as he took one long final drag before finally speaking. When he did so, all the smoke poured out from his mouth at once. It was almost mesmerizing the way it all flowed.
  1387.  
  1388. "The sky opening up once is worrying enough," he answered. "But two times? And within a week of one another?" A second cigar was brought forth and swiftly ignited. "Who's to say what might happen next week? We need to get a handle on things, any way we can. We need to find the dragon scale Twi has, along with whatever fell off to the north-"
  1389.  
  1390. "Northeast, actually," I cut in.
  1391.  
  1392. A low growl escaped his throat at the interruption. The throaty sound, combined with the sight of the smoke snaking out between his lips, made him seem like a dragon from old. "...northeast," he repeated. "Whatever that thing is, we should find it, bring it back, and study it. Maybe we can come up with some explanation for these events." His yellow eyes stared me down hard, a silent demand that I uphold my end of our little bargain.
  1393.  
  1394. I came clean. No sense lying about this. "I have no idea where she is." Another growl emanated from the saurian, so I explained further. "I told her to take the scale and find this new skystone or whatever it might be. She could be anywhere up that way."
  1395.  
  1396. The green scaled man sighed and put out the cigar. He hadn't even taken a single puff of this one. "Don't you have some people you know up there? I'm sure you two made friendly with some low down fools not too dissimilar to yourselves."
  1397.  
  1398. His question struck a nerve. "Just because we're not guild sanctioned doesn't mean we hang around with criminals."
  1399.  
  1400. "But you do," he accused. It seemed his talks with Twi were more revealing than I'd assumed.
  1401.  
  1402. My shoulders came up in a shrug as I explained, "Only when we need to."
  1403.  
  1404. "And you don't think that would be a time like this?"
  1405.  
  1406. Thinking on it, he had a point. If Twi would go anywhere, she'd go somewhere we both knew, probably leave a message for me in some way, then move further on. After checking the map again, I surmised the best place to start our search would be a small town named Falk. There was a tavern we'd done some work for a while back, and I figured Twi might have stopped there. It wasn't much to go on, but it was better than nothing.
  1407.  
  1408. From the front of the wagon, Rin called out to us. After poking out heads out to see what he wanted, we were informed we were just leaving the city, and Rin asked me where we were heading.
  1409.  
  1410. Handing over the map, I showed him the rough path I'd traced earlier. Pointing out Falk, I stated, "We're gonna make our first stop here. I know some people there who might have seen Twi, assuming she passed through." After he nodded in the affirmitive, Rin snapped the reins and the horses took off at a full gallop.
  1411.  
  1412. As I settled back down in the wagon, a very strong ordor seeped through the air, so I turned to see Ursh smoking up a storm. One, two, three, four cigars one right after the other.
  1413.  
  1414. Hesitantly, I wondered aloud, "You, uh...you doing ok?"
  1415.  
  1416. As he flicked out a now useless cigar onto the ground outside, he snapped back at me. "My sister is off who knows where, the sky has torn open a second time, and I'm forced to be with two people I very much dislike."
  1417.  
  1418. "You think I'm any happier about this?" I unsheathed my dagger and began cleaning the gunk out from under my fingernails. "Like I wanna be around you for longer than a minute. Honestly, I bet that damn guildmaster of yours knew exactly what she was doing, setting us up like this. Probably hoping we'd strangle one another at some point, save herself the aggravation."
  1419.  
  1420. "What's your problem with the guild, anyway?" His question came in the form of a snarl as he lit up a fifth cigar. "Tanno's association does good work. All the trade deals we make help the country and her people. And the other guilds do equal amounts of good. Craftworks, hunters, blacksmiths, all of them are fine groups."
  1421.  
  1422. "Yea, but you gotta follow strict guidelines and rules. Barely allowed to have any real freedom in how you operate your own business." I flicked the dirt off the end of my dagger, attempting to hit Ursh with it. "It's why I prefer the market in the lower district. No guild croneys hiking up prices, no uppity rich types prancing about like they're better than anyone, everyone sells how they see fit, and the buyers are free to choose whoever they want to get their goods from.
  1423.  
  1424. "And not only that," I exclaimed with a boast, "but they don't force an excessive tax on anyone. The guilds take a part of your profit from you as 'guild fees' despite said fees doing nothing for you." When I had finished cleaning the fingers of one hand, I tossed the dagger into that one and began cleaning the other. "Tell me, what do the Trader's do for you with all the money they take from your shop? You ever see any sort of improvements to how things are run? From where I sit, all I see is the guild hall being decorated with more and more expensive artwork and such."
  1425.  
  1426. The saurian seemed to be taking this to heart, or at least it appeared to be that way. He thought over my words for a while. Long enough for me to notice the sky beyond the wagon's covering had shifted a bit. The clouds had moved, covering the sun and dimming the land just slightly. For what felt like a long time, Ursh sat there, contemplating his answer. I was begining to wonder if he was ever going to reply, he took so long to form a response.
  1427.  
  1428. Rather than sit and wait like some kind of idiot, I took to scanning through the map some more. Seeing the small number of towns Twi and I had actually been to in the northern regions of the country, I began to realize it might be easier to track her down than first thought. The fewer places she'd stop at, the quicker we'd be able to get a read on her whereabouts. Of course, this was all under the assumption she'd even stop at any of these places. But, knowing her as well as I did, she would, if only to leave some kind of message for me.
  1429.  
  1430. The saurian across from me had chosen to remain quiet, so I took his silence as a victory. If he couldn't properly defend his guild, maybe he'd start doubting them. Perhaps he'd even start to come around to my point of view and see them as the greedy organization they really are. I almost felt like pushing him a little on the issue, maybe boast about how he'd yet to come up with any sort of rebuttal. However, seeing him deep in thought, I actually felt like holding back. It would probably feel better to shoot down whatever refutation he'd bring up if or when he does it later, I told myself.
  1431.  
  1432. Without much to do but wait until we arrived, my eyes slowly began to droop down. The sheer boredom was getting to my head, and soon enough I didn't have the energy to resist the allure of sleep.
  1433.  
  1434. At nearly the exact moment everything went dark and sound was exiting my ears, I could feel the wagon stop and Ursh barked out an order. Groggily, I sat back up, and the light from outside the wagon's opened covering burned my sight, the suddenness of it sweeping away what remained of my slumber.
  1435.  
  1436. "Good, you're up," the saurian snorted as he moved the covering to let in yet more light. "We're here, time to find your people."
  1437.  
  1438. ~~~
  1439.  
  1440. After some stretching to get the blood flowing in my limbs, I exited the wagon and my eyes drank in the sights. All around the town, there were kalrins going about their business; nothing but kalrins. No humans or saurians to found, save for the small group of three who just arrived by wagon. Despite standing out as we did, none of the townsfolk bothered to even give us a second glance.
  1441.  
  1442. Rin nudged me and asked, "You sure this is the place you mentioned?" His eyes shifted to and fro as he showed off an uncharacteristically non-bored face, instead electing to look perplexed. In one hand, he held on to the cloth map, and in a swift motion he pulled it open to, I supposed, double check our route.
  1443.  
  1444. Pulling the cloth back down and away from his face, I assured him, "This is it. Now come on, we gotta get moving." From my side, I could hear Ursh lighting still another cigar. How much did this reptilian bastard keep on him? With all the smoke he inhales, it was a wonder his voice didn't sound scratchier than the courier's back home. With confident steps, I took charge and led my two 'escorts' towards the tavern.
  1445.  
  1446. Falk was a nice place, all things considered. Sturdy homes and shops, people who minded their own damned business, no guild offices to deal with. If it wasn't for the abundance of the furred, mousy kalrins, I'd probably have suggested to Twi we move here. The dirt roads weren't particularly barren, but it wasn't hard to notice the natives were avoiding us. When you come into a guild-free town with someone like Rin, dressed in the brown and black of a guild dog, it only made sense the people wouldn't be exactly welcoming.
  1447.  
  1448. Our boots made little noise on the path towards the tavern, and the lack of any idle chitchat from the people around us only served to highlight the silence. It was as if the people of Falk were just waiting, keeping a close eye on us as we moved. Likely, they sizing us up for how best to take us down if need be. A hand crept towards the hilt of my dagger, just resting there, but I hoped it wouldn't have to come to that.
  1449.  
  1450. Despite the eerie atmosphere, no one made a move, and our path wound its way to end at the entrance to the old tavern. Before we walked in, however, I turned to the two guild idiots. In a lowered, hushed tone, I ordered, "Sit down, don't talk to anyone, don't do anything, don't even look up. I'll handle everything."
  1451.  
  1452. A high pitched intake of breath sounded out as Rin sucked in through clenched teeth. "You will do no such thing," his words came out in one long huff. "Need I remind you this is a guild operation?"
  1453.  
  1454. A rolling of the eyes and an exaggerated sigh came first, and I noticed the dog seemed none too pleased with that. When I yawned over his comment, that only seemed to piss him off more, his face going a slight tint of red. "Look, I don't give a damn if this is some 'guild operation,'" I said, even adding little air quotes for emphasis. "I'm only in this for finding Twi and getting the money. And, since I'm the only one who knows where she'd be, that means until the job is done, this is my show. We play by my rules, or we don't play at all. If you don't like that, you're free to continue the search on your own. I don't imagine you'd do very well without my knowledge, but hey, it's your call."
  1455.  
  1456. More red seeped onto his face, until his complexion was similar to an apple. I almost broke and laughed at the sight, but I was able to push down the bubble enough for Rin to slowly come to the realization I was right. With a reluctant nod, the red faced guild dog brushed past me and into the building, only to pick the nearest table and sit down quietly. I tipped my head over to Ursh to see if I needed to give a similar talking to, but found he was already on his way inside.
  1457.  
  1458. In my mind, a short victory tune was playing at the sight of two guild goons being almost entirely under my command. I could think of plenty of ways this could make the trip more fun, but a swift knock to the back of my brain in the voice of Twi reminded me this was still a job. I could have my fun some other time, right now I needed to focus on the task at hand.
  1459.  
  1460. From the open door, I peered into the tavern and found it the same as the last time I was there. Same broad tables, finely crafted wooden support beams, the bar over in the corner complete with a few bottles of assorted booze. Even the decorative deer and boar heads along the walls were the same, though some did show signs of age.
  1461.  
  1462. With the ego boost I was having, I strode in with sure footing, right up to the bar's counter, behind which sat a kalrin lass. She wasn't much older than perhaps sixteen summers, and her sleek black fur was near reflective in the way it shone. Her small hands were busy wiping glasses clean, the dampness of the towel she used darkening the fur around her hands. When she gave no indication of acknowledgement, I loudly coughed, which snapped her focus up to me.
  1463.  
  1464. "O-oh, sorry, sir," she stammer out. "Welcome to--" The pause went on for a few odd seconds. It was an uncomfortable pause, even, as during the time, the young lass examined my face, her gaze moving about my features strangely. It was like she was searching for something. What, I had no idea. But then, her eyes narrowed and she met my own gaze. Her deep emerald green eyes locked onto mine for barely a second when she shot them back open and smiled so wide it almost reached up to her temples.
  1465.  
  1466. "Graham?"
  1467.  
  1468. At once, I was taken aback and wondered if we'd met before. Her face didn't really ring any bells. Sure, she was cute enough for kalrin lass, I supposed, but if she knew me, we must have met sometime. Yet, no matter how hard I tried, this girl's furry little face just wouldn't surface in the back end of my mind.
  1469.  
  1470. In the time it took me to go through my thoughts, the smile on her face wavered, but only just so. Both palms were placed onto the counter as she leaned in, urging, "It's me, Hannah. You don't remember me?"
  1471.  
  1472. Mentally, I repeated the name and delved into my memories. The last time we'd been in Falk, Twi and I had been tasked by the tavern owners to deal with some pest that had been stealing from their storeroom. No one had been able to even figure out who or what the thief was, but after some careful planning on Twi's part, we managed to learn it was not one thief, but a group of them. Fairies, to be more specific. I tried searching my memories of that time more closely, hunting down the name Hannah. The only black furred kalrin with that name was the tavernkeep's daughter, but that couldn't be right. Hannah was a tiny thing, barely even reaching up to my waist last time we were here.
  1473.  
  1474. Wait, how long had it been since then? Three years? Five?
  1475.  
  1476. My eyes scanned her once more, trying to compare her to the Hannah from my past yet again. Her shining eyes did seem to be the same bright shade as the girl I knew, and the way her ears ended on a slight point unlike most kalrins was oddly similar. A small white blemish among the black fur on her face drew my eyes to her chin, and I could recall the young kalrin I once knew also had the same spot of white fur there, too.
  1477.  
  1478. With my mind still finding more and more similarities, I decided to just be as upfront as I could. "Lamont's daughter?"
  1479.  
  1480. A sharp noise sounded out as she slapped at the counter in glee. "I knew you'd remember!" Her smile widened once more, it threatened to fly off her cheeks. She gave a few happy little hops as she repeated, "I just knew you'd remember."
  1481.  
  1482. "Ok, ok, settle down," I ordered as I tried to ease her off this little victory high of sorts. When she finally stopped being so damn giddy, I flashed a small grin. "You certainlly changed some. No longer that little ankle biter I last saw."
  1483.  
  1484. "'Course," she affirmed with a nod. "I been eating all my meat and greens like Ma and Pa tell me. No wonder you didn't recognize me." One almost glossy black furred hand waved over her body, as if to present herself like an item. "I've been growing so much the last few summers. Soon enough, I'm gonna be all grown and take over the tavern."
  1485.  
  1486. That immediately brought back my reason for being here. "Right, the tavern. About that. I have a couple questions I need to ask."
  1487.  
  1488. Sher shoulders slumped forward a bit and the ears on top her head drooped ever so slightly. "So, this isn't a nice visit?"
  1489.  
  1490. Sighing, I mumbled, "Sadly, no." It would have been nice to just stop and chat, but there were more important matters to attent to.
  1491.  
  1492. Before I could ask my question, though, Hannah blurted out, "Is this about Twi and the weird thing with the sky?"
  1493.  
  1494. My eyes went wide and I reached out, grabbing the young lass by her shoulders. "You've seen her?"
  1495.  
  1496. My sudden reaction caused the girl to freeze up, her body tensing fiercly under my grip. It was like her whole body had turned to stone. I let my hands drop back to my side and apologized for the outburst.
  1497.  
  1498. After assuring me it was fine, she finally answered my question, "Well, I didn't see her, but Pa did. Said she popped in for a second or two, handed over a letter, then left town."
  1499.  
  1500. Speaking of her Pa, I couldn't see Lamont nor his wife anywhere. Perhaps they were busy trying for a second kid somehwere in the back rooms. Regardless, Twi didn't have too great of a headstart on us when she first left New Serrak. The time from being picked up from our house to leaving the guild hall was barely less than an hour. Twi had only just recently been here to Falk. However, given Vox's usual speed and stamina, at best I could assume we were at least two hours behind. That damned horse was far too fast.
  1501.  
  1502. Getting back to the matters at hand, I skipped any formality or small talk. "Do you have the letter?" There wasn't any point beating around the bush and wasting time.
  1503.  
  1504. "Yeah-huh," she exclaimed and pulled out a small white envelope from underneath the countertop, handing it over for me. "Pa said it was supposed to be for someone important. Don't know why he didn't tell me it was gonna be you, though."
  1505.  
  1506. Using my dagger to cut open the letter, I reached in and unfolded the note within. According to her writing, Twi was going to be making her way to the town Proslin, where she'd rest for the night before moving on. Proslin was quite a ways off. For that mare of hers, it would be easy enough to make it there by nightfall, but for our wagon, things wouldn't be so simple. Taking account of the weight of the three of us, combined with the wagon iself and all our supplies, we'd be lucky to see Proslin by midnight, and that would only be if we could manage to push the stallions all through the night. Not exactly an ideal situation.
  1507.  
  1508. Without giving much thought, I crumbled the letter up and stuffed it in a pocket. Before I turned to leave, I waved to the furred girl and said, "Tell your folks I said hi." With that, I stepped over to the table where my guild 'friends' were still waiting.
  1509.  
  1510. Ursh was the one who perked up. "I take it you got Twi's message?" I noticed a lack of expended cigars on the table or along the floor near his seat. Perhaps he'd finally run out.
  1511.  
  1512. Nodding, I responded, "She's planning to stop at Proslin."
  1513.  
  1514. "We can't get there before night," Rin spoke up.
  1515.  
  1516. "Right. We're going to need to stop along the road somewhere. Might even need to camp out, depending on how far we can get." Rin and I then began discussing relatively safe locations for the three of us to rest at, both in terms of towns and just random spaces of open fields.
  1517.  
  1518. While I was going over things with Rin, my eyes spied Ursh pulling a loose thread from his vest and watching intently as it drifted down to the floor. Either he was much more bored of this than even Rin's face looked, or...no, probably just boredom. If he'd run out of his precious smokes, it wouldn't be unreasonable of me to assume he didn't have much else to occupy his hands. Maybe being a craftsman made his fingers used to constant motion, which might have explained his huffing down cigars like they were a necessity. Or maybe I was just putting too much thought into the random actions of that asshole. Likely the latter.
  1519.  
  1520. Eventually, Rin and I worked out a decent place for us to doze off for a few hours. Our destination marked, we got up from the table, with Ursh lazily following after, then headed on back to the wagon. Just like our original trip to the tavern, the one from it was watched carefully by the townspeople. Funnily enough, I couldn't recall any such treatment when it was just Twi and myself a few years back. Then again, we didn't have a guild dog like Rin with us then. Thankfully, no one decided to interrupt out path out of town, and the wagon was soon rolling along the road once more.
  1521.  
  1522. Since we now knew exactly where to go next, I had managed to convince Rin not to make any unneeded stops during our little talk, and so I took the driver's seat. I was a bit surprised Rin knew so much about the area, as I had assumed he was a Serrak boy through and through. He was the one who eyed our camping spot on the map, noting it would be in a secluded spot among thick trees. With a boast, he claimed we'd be perfectly safe from any danger there, so long as we didn't make a fire. I wasn't so confident. Even the safest places could be compromised. I'd be sleeping with one hand on my dagger and the other on my crossbow, just to be sure.
  1523.  
  1524. The stallions pulled us towards our intended goal, but something seemed off. Slowly, our speed lessened. The poor lads weren't used to pulling this much weight, it seemed. Knowing the guild bastards, they probably just picked two random beasts and not some that were familiarized to such a task. It would certainly explain just how quick they were able to get things together before we left. Well, this wasn't part of the plan. If things kept up this way, I imagined we wouldn't even make it to the campsite.
  1525.  
  1526. I called out to the back for the guild dog. "Rin! Get up here!"
  1527.  
  1528. The bored face appeared on the edge of my sight. "What?"
  1529.  
  1530. I explained our current predicament, and made sure to place the blame solely on his fellow members. "Honestly, how could you even let this happen? Aren't you supposed to be a captain or whatever?" My chastisements finally finished with those two pieces, and the man went momentarily silent.
  1531.  
  1532. The few seconds of quiet led me to reflect. My thoughts drifted to the blue streak and the tear in the sky. Once more, I'd been a witness to something unbelieveable. And once again, I was inserting myself into a situation clearly beyond me. Yet, I still desired to learn the truth of this. For that matter, what in the world could the Traders do about it? They were merchants and craftsmen, what did any of them know about objects from the heavens or whatever this all was? It all bothered me something fierce, but I wasn't afraid. Sure, the thought of a still living dragon was terrifying in and of itself, but at least there was a possible answer in that. The sky opening up still remained a mystery, and then there was the new object. The gold streak turned out to be a golden stone, or scale is Ursh's theory was correct. Did that mean the blue streak was going to turn out to be a blue stone-scale? Or would it be something else?
  1533.  
  1534. From beside me, Rin finally countered, "Had I known my men would fail in such a simple task, I would have just done it myself. I'll be sure to reprimand them once we return."
  1535.  
  1536. I snickered. "Ah yes," I spoke between little chuckles, "reprimand them. Talk down to them and act all big and scary and say how disappointed you are in them. That'll surely teach them a lesson."
  1537.  
  1538. "Oh? You have a better alternative?"
  1539.  
  1540. I thought he'd never ask. "Sure, put some fear in the bastards. Get the ones who you assigned the job and maybe break a finger or two as a warning to not fuck up next time." As I said this I mimed the action as I desribed it. "You'll definitely see results." He might also see one of the runts attempt to fight back and possibly put him into a sick bed. My advice was a double-edged sword that way.
  1541.  
  1542. He gave it no time to stew in my mind. "That's absurd. Why would I assault my own men that way? It'll only end up with them requesting positions under a new captain or even defecting entirely."
  1543.  
  1544. Damn, he saw through it.
  1545.  
  1546. It was a bit later, after the sun had fully sunken beneath the horizon, when our noble steeds had gone as far as I was willing to take them. They needed a good long break, and I didn't have the time or patience to scout the best location. I simply pointed out an empty stretch of grass near a small hill, and we quickly got a little camp set up. As we unpacked a few odds and ends, I noticed more failings in Rin's men. We lacked the crucial tents. Bedrolls, yes, but no tents.
  1547.  
  1548. I relayed the info to my 'companions' and they took it rather well. Rin cursed his men for their incompetence, while Ursh just took his bedroll and positioned it to a space of his liking in silence. This new quiet side of his was really annoying. Where was the saurian who pulled a knife on me on our first meeting? Where was the guy who damn near spit fire every time he so much at looked at me? I couldn't believe I was actually missing that, but I had grown so accustomed to it.
  1549.  
  1550. Shaking my head clear, I grabbed some flint and steel and sparked up a small fire. The soft crackles and pops were a soothing noise, bringing a wave of relaxation over me quite similar to the kind I felt after a nice rainfall. Across from me, Rin and Ursh were both searching through some packs for food, coming up with some dried meat and nuts, respectively. Not a bad meal, but also not a very hearty one. Beggars can't be choosers, though.
  1551.  
  1552. During the light meal, I risked finally asking the question that had plagued me since first hearing about it. I waited for the right time, which was when Ursh was taking a sip from a canteen. "So, why do the two of you not like each other?"
  1553.  
  1554. The saurian coughed mid-drink, spilling some of the water onto himself. Just as planned. Rin was in the middle of chewing on a bit of meat, and was the first to answer me.
  1555.  
  1556. "Couple years back, he fucked my fiance." He said it completely monotone. Not a single ounce of emotion in his voice.
  1557.  
  1558. I could feel something trying to escape me. Something big, something I could not hope to contain. So I didn't. I let loose a deep, belly laugh. On and on I went, tears even stinging my eyes I kept at it so long. It got to the point I wasn't even letting out a laugh at all, merely making high pitched wheezes as I ran out of air. This was just too delicious. My face burned red with the sheer amount of joy I felt now having this knowledge.
  1559.  
  1560. I managed to choke back enough of the laughs to get out, "So you mean to tell me, some woman decided to leave you for 'that?'"
  1561.  
  1562. Stone faced, Rin answered, still monotonous, "It's fine. Clearly she never cared for me if she was going to sleep with a goddamn lizard."
  1563.  
  1564. At the insult, my laughs subsided. The pain in my sides became numb. My sight went over to the saurian, who was staring daggers at Rin. Ursh's chest rose with a deep breath, then a second. Calmly, he got up from his spot on the ground, took a few steps over to Rin, and slammed a fist into the side of his jaw. Oh, this would be fun, I told myself.
  1565.  
  1566. Rin fell backwards at the sudden impact, his head twisting to the side from the strike. A moment passed. He did nothing but lay there. Another moment. Still nothing. On the third and final timeless second, Rin shot up and tackled Ursh by the waist, slamming them both to the earth below with a loud thud. I watched in glee as Rin brought a fist up to return the favor to Ursh, bringing it crashing down onto a spot beneath one of his eyes. He brough his hand up, preparing for a second forceful hit, his arm almost shaking at the ready, when a sound like thunder froze him.
  1567.  
  1568. From my position, I had grabbed my crossbow and fired off a shot over Rin's head to stop him. Both men turned to see me and my weapon.
  1569.  
  1570. "Alright, you both got a good hit in," I snapped out. As much as I wanted to see the ensuing brawl, I didn't imagine Tanno would be very forthcoming with the payment if they both didn't return. "Time to shake hands and go to bed happy you didn't beat each other to death."
  1571.  
  1572. Well, they didn't shake hands, but they did at least give one another a small nod of acknowledgement, as if silently agreeing they each got what they wanted out it. Maybe.
  1573.  
  1574. ~~~
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