The Tamer (part 2)

Sash asked Mockingbird what that meant and she replied,

“Be kind to nature.  It is our motto, and our guide to life.”

Sash repeated the phrase then stared at the great fire before him as Mockingbird spoke in Tiantan again and a great cheer burst from the crowd.  Then, a grand celebration took place.  A number of the tribesman had picked up the whole rack of meat and brought it over in front of the fire.  They began pulling out great spics and roasting all the meat and passing it along to everyone.  A massive feast began then and the party and the fire roared into the dark of night and onto the edge of dusk.

Demagauge dropped down onto cold solid stone from his dangling grappling hook.  He then ran to the westward wall and began to feel his way down a long hallway.  He neared the end and took the next two right turns until he came into a dead ended hall covered by tapestries on both sides.  He continued along the west wall until he felt a very slight cool breeze behind one of the silks.  He reached behind it and found a small air pocket on the stone wall.  He felt up the crack and found a small protrusion sticking out.  He pushed it in and could feel a gust of cold air hitting the tapestry and blowing on by both sides of him.  He crept behind it and entered the room. It was indeed a cool room and the walls seemed to perspire.  On the back wall sat a large dais and on it was an old crude pot.  He tried to put his hand down it, but it was too narrow a reach.  So, he pulled out a small hammer from his belt and lightly tapped the bottom of the pot.  A crack formed and then he hit it again, ever so lightly.  A small fracture now appeared and he pulled the shard out.  Inside was a golden circlet, a bracelet worn by warriors.  This was a cool fifteen thousand pieces, he thought to himself.  Gauge took the trinket and started back through the series of hallways.  He got back to his entry point, but his rope was gone. Gauge looked to his left and saw a tall, long-haired brunette standing there.  It was Cuttice.  She was swinging the rope in one hand.  Her other hand was behind her back.  Gauge knew this meant trouble.  He dodged back down the hallway as three small knives whizzed by him.  He heard her footsteps coming around the corner.  As she turned the bend, Gauge came out with his dagger aimed at her belly. He thrusted forward, but Cuttice grabbed his arm and flipped him over on his back.  She lay on top of him with a big smile.

“I thought we were going to play rough?” She then leaned down and kissed him.

Gauge suddenly woke.  He was dreaming of something in his past.  He looked around the tent.  No Permion.  He got up and grabbed his short sword and headed towards the road which led to the nearest bar, The Hound and Tails.  It took him only a few minutes to cover the distance on the dirt path and when he arrived, he first ran to a window on the side of the building.  Looking in he saw Permion being surrounded by two big bar patrons.  He knew this would not go well.  As he was walking in, he caught some of the conversation.

“This guy’s dabbling in magic.  He has to.  No skinny runt can drink twenty glasses of ale and still be standin’,” the guy Perm was obviously out drinking said.

He was lying on the bar to hold himself up, but Permion was just smiling away, looking completely unphased.  Gauge knew this was part of his magic specialty, illusions.  To paint a false picture, create a false object, image, or feeling, or anything else to fool the senses.  The more he stared at Perm’s face, he could see through the illusion, maybe because of his attention to detail, being a thief and all.  He could see Permion was actually passed out!  No, he was up again, but his eyes were really glazed.

“I don’t like these tricks.  I am not pay-ing up to this bet.”

The guy tried to take a swing at Perm, but slipped and fell on the bar, knocking over several mugs and glasses.  The bartender, looking upset, ran off into a back room.  The guy’s buddy walked up to Perm and slugged him right in the face, putting him squarely to the ground.  All the other guys in the bar were now getting restless, and seemingly rowdy.  Gauge saw two dwarves tussling with each other in a corner over a beer, and then a woman busted a mug on someone’s head.  Everything was turning into chaos.  Gauge went over to grab Perm’s assailant, but got hit in the back by a table being flipped over.  All of a sudden, a giant figure arose from where Permion had been lying.  He was at least eight feet tall and bulging with muscles.  His face was pointy and his skin a forest green.  It was a troll!  He stared at the person who had decked Perm and planted an uppercut right into the square of his jaw.  The guy seemed to make himself fly across the room, right out of a window.  Gauge heard someone shriek in terror when it appeared, “It’s a troll!”

But now, he heard someone else say, “Oh my Zeus, there’s two of ‘em!”  And sure enough, behind the first troll was a second.  The bartender now screamed, “Nobody fights in my bar!”

This second troll looked older, but a lot stronger than the first one.  He picked up the first troll and tossed him right out of the front door.  Gauge knew it was time for a quick retreat.  As he left, he heard the barkeep yelping in joy, “Get ‘em, Bertrum!  Get ‘em all!”

Gauge ran outside and saw Permion lying on the ground, with a cut on his forehead.  He knew he was the other troll, under magical disguise.

“Ohhh,” Perm said, trying to get to his feet, as Gauge helped him up.

“We need to leave this area immediately.  I have a place you can stay while I meet with my guild.”

“When are we going to search for Elizabeth?” Perm screamed at him, as Gauge turned to start walking away.

“Well, quit going into bars and starting fights, so I can concentrate.”

“I was asking the guys in there if they’d had seen her.  But, no one had.  Please, I need to know if you really are going to help me, because if you’re not, I need to go do it myself and quit wasting time with you.”

“Why do you think I’m meeting with my guild?  I’ve told them all about you and your situation.  If she is still anywhere in this area, they will know.”

Perm seemed reluctant, but said, “Okay, but I’m trusting you.”

“I never asked for that.  Now come, let us pack up camp and get going.”

Crocarius and Gert sat at a table with the three former prisoners inside the Rusty Bucket.  Darius the knight had been carried off to his room, as Lentern sat on a wooden stool, acting as a mock stage, as he softly sung quiet love ballads to a group of young girls.  There were two women and one man sitting with the two warriors.  A long, creamy blonde haired lady seemed to be the leader with a stretched, flowy dress and curled tendrils in her hair.  The other woman, dressed in the same white silk, was wearing a shortly cut top and a small skirt.  The man had on a white silken vest and tight trousers, also of the same white silk.  Gert was ordering water after water in his special mug while Croc began the questioning.

“So, who are you people?”

The blonde haired lady spoke up. “We are priests and priestesses of the goddess of love, Aphrodite.  This is Mary Ann, he is Luther, and I am Aphrodite.”

“Are you trying to tell me you are a goddess, because I don’t believe in those silly notions?”

“No, it is of the greatest honor to be named after our beloved goddess.  I merely pay her homage.”

“So, who were those creeps that held you captive?”

“Well, about eight days ago, a man with a small entourage came to our temple and asked if we could bless a wedding ceremony of his daughter.  The journey to Luskan is a far one, so he agreed to tithe our temple very generously.  So, we set off for the journey.  After the first night, our wagon was assaulted by men with swords.  Bandits, I presumed.  I could see through our wagon window and recognized one of the rouges as one of the men in our temple only two days before.  Then, we were all sacked, quite literally.”

“Do you know where you were being taken?”

“To Luskan, presumably.  It is only two days journey northwest of here.”

Croc looked at Gert and smiled.

“Well, old friend, to crazy Luskan we go!  We can rest here tonight.  Drink in mirth, but do not overdue it.”

“Too late for that,” and then Gert let out a thunderous bellow of gas from his mouth.  Croc and he had a good laugh over it, but the priests didn’t look thrilled.

“You ladies can share a room together, okay? Luther, you can bunk with Lentern, if you can stand the noise, if you know what I mean?”

“I am a priest of love.  I will not be bothered.”

Croc whispered to Gert, “I’m glad I’m not staying in that room.”

Croc then got up and went to the front counter to book the three rooms, and then proceeded to his own for some well deserved sleep.

In the morning, he awoke to the noise of fitful coughing.  He got up and exited his room, and went to where he was hearing the noise.  He saw that the door was slightly ajar, and when looking in, he saw Aphrodite, sitting on her bed, looking quite pale.  Mary Ann ran into Croc with some wet towels in her head.

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“Don’t be.  Come here,” he said, taking her aside.

“What’s wrong with her?  She looks sicker than an orc.”

“Well, she’s not been well, ever since we were picked up by those men.  Her power has been dwindling, even though she prays all night long.”

“Stay with her, and keep her spirits up.”

Croc let her go to Dite as he gathered the rest of the troops.  He arranged for the use of three horses to take with them.  Gert refused to ride on one, so the ladies shared one and Luther and Lentern would both take one.  They then set off from the inn and started on a northern journey towards the town of Luskan.

Later that day…

Lentern came alongside Croc and Gert, who were leading the way, on his steed.

“How far willl we make it today?”

“Well, we’ll stay on the hillsides overlooking Luskan because it’s no easy journey down that terrain, especially with the women.”

“Croc, we are only accompanied by two women, it wouldn’t be that difficult,” he corrected.

“Luther is wearing stockings, Lentern.  Doesn’t that count for something?”

Then, from behind them, Dite let out a loud sigh and suddenly fell from her steed.  Croc and Gert both rushed to her side.

“Give her some bread and meat.  And water.  Not your water, Gert.”

They got her to her feet, and Croc told Mary Ann he would ride with Dite for a while.

They mounted up and she began to seem to feel better.

“Thank you; you are most kind to help us.”

“It’s no problem.  We were going this way anyways.”

“So, sir Croc, how did you come to meet with a dirged dwarf and a handsome young boy?”

“Well, they’re both just old friends.  How did you come to meet those two?  From the church, I would guess.”

“Of course.  I have worshipped Aphrodite for as long as my memories have held.  Love is my gift.  I have sewn its seed all over this land.  Do you believe in love?”

“Well, I love combat.  The thrill of battle.  I live to fight.  I’ve known no other life.”

“Why do you fight?”

“I have traveled with Gert for several years.  My parents were killed when I was young.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  Did you pray for their safe journey to the Elysian Fields?”

“That’s all ghost stories.  Religion holds no key or solace for me.  It was religious zealots that killed my parents.  I have made it my life to settle that debt with Bane himself.”

“Are you mad?  Bane is a treacherous and merciless being.  You could not possibly slay him.”

“You will see.  I will when my day comes.”

Silence fell on them until over the first rise of the hillock flew a burst of flame.

“Whoa!  We’d better go check that out,” Croc commanded.

The troupe rode forward and climbed the green soil until on the rise came a small plateau.  A line of creatures surrounded a black figure in the center.  Smoke and fire seemed to linger in the air.  As they moved closer, they watched as the figure let out a scream and burned two of the slow-moving figures in front of him away.  He was holding a staff that was glowing red as he was extinguished its power time after time upon those rotting people.

Croc and group rode upon the scene, but as they approached, the figure now revealed himself as an older, withering man.  Just as Croc and Gert were drawing their weapons, he burned away the last of his opposition.

“Burn back to hell from which you appeared, you stinking maggot holes!” he screamed down at the ground.

“Death to the undead!”

The group looked at the man.  His cloak shone small specks of indigo but was completely covered in soot.  His face, not yet old, but worn past his age lay dirty and scraggly, and his beard falling from his face in no order, just growing haphazardly.  He was latent with vials, scrolls, and wands strapped to him wherever he found room for them.  He also didn’t seem particularly friendly, maybe preoccupied.

“Well, it’s a good thing we came along when we did,” Gert muffled to himself.  Croc spoke up to the fellow.

“My name is Croc and my friends and I travel to Luskan.  Might I ask your name?”

The man seemed to stare at his own thoughts as if they were on his feet for several moments, and then sputtered out, “Gramis. My name is Gramis and I’m honored to meet you Goodbye I am on my way to business.”

And with that, he proceeded to scuttle off.  Croc tried to signal him, but he stopped at the sight of Dite.

He looked at her, very intently, and she tried to be polite.

“May I counsel you, traveler?  I am a priestess of love.”

“Well, those are matters with which I need help with the most urgently.  Are these counseling sessions’ hands on?”

“Good sir!” Dite screeched with disapproval.

Gramis seemed unfaltered and made his way towards Mary Ann.

“Might you be a bit more cooperative?” and she also walked away disgusted.

“Aye, he knows nothing of women, that’s for sure,” Lentern told Gert.

Croc intervened, “Please, sir, what manner of creature were you fighting off?”

He gave Croc a long, hard look.

“Young warrior, those were the walking dead, or should I say the undead.  Many evil wizards and priests in this world have the power to recall these evil servants back from the pits of fire from whence they came.  I have been cursed by such a person.  These things have been following me all the way from Loonsdale, six months ago.  I am to see an old friend in Luskan, who may help me.  Maybe I could travel with you, eh?”

Croc looked at Gert displeased.

“Well, perhaps, but we can’t afford to attract any trouble along the way.  We all have our own business to attend to.”

Gramis looked around at the odd group and thought to himself, “If this rag tag group doesn’t attract trouble, I don’t know what will.”

“Sounds like an agreement.  Nice to meet all of you.”

By the time the group arrived in Luskan, it was nightfall.  One thorough muddy road led through the town and houses were pitched on either side of it.  Luskan wasn’t overpopulated, but like every town, had a lively bar towards the center.  Off to the right of that, they could see an ironsmith shop, with steam rising off the anvils and the smell of burnt metal in the air.  A supply store sat on the opposite side of the road.

“I guess this is the business section of town,” mumbled Gert.

“Well, Gramis lead the way for us,” Croc instructed him.

“He lives in the smallest shack on the eastern corner of Luskan.  A small stone fence encases a court of emptiness.  He’s not one for decorations.”

“We also have to be on the lookout for that wagon and any of those goons we beat up that you recognize,” Croc said to Gert, who was beginning his drinking for the night.

The pack traveled slowly past a taller building that had a small fire inside.  Croc saw a wooden sign hanging from a post with a bed chiseled into it.  On a plaque under the roofline read “The warmest place in miles.”

“Lentern, take Dite and the others and secure us some rooms.  Cheapest they got.  I and Gert will go with Gramis to meet his friend.  Eat if any food is available.”

“Don’t you want me along in case any heroic feats are performed?”

“I don’t think an old wizard will prove very dangerous.”

“Shows what you know,” Gramis said only loud enough for his own ears.

So, they group split itself into two, as Lentern and the priests and priestesses of Aphrodite headed to the cozy looking inn.  Gramis continued leading the way to his friend’s house.

“Tell me of yourself, Gramis,” Croc asked.

“Well, not much to tell.  I have been a wizard all my life, at least as far as I can remember.  I left home after my family was forced to move further south.”

“Where do you come from?”

“Further south of the swamplands on the other side of the Dunan.  A small farming community called Bales Buck.”

“Why didn’t you go along with your family?”

“Well, to be honest, I am royalty.  I just haven’t found my kingdom yet.”

Gert interrupted, “What makes you think you’re royalty?”

“It was told to me, in a vision, by a wise priest of Oleander.  That I am a ruler of a vast kingdom.  Now, all I have to do is find it.”

Gert responded, “Well, who knows, maybe I have a vast kingdom waiting for me, with plenty of young, dwarven females ready to serve my every wish.”

As they rounded a corner, they saw the dingy house with a slacking roof.  A fence of granite stones surrounded a muddy pit of a front lawn.  No sign of friendliness or warmth was generated from the shack.  More like no sign of life.  They entered the gate and found a strange container lain on the ground.  It was an ornate case with strange runes laid on it.

“What is this?” Croc asked as he picked it up.  He shook it some, but nothing happened.

“It looks like a magical container, of some kind.  These runes read as a warning,” Gramis said, as he examined the box.

“A warning of what?” Gert asked as suddenly a vice-like grip clutched his ankle and pulled him to the ground, face first.  He looked back to see a massive serpent peering at him.  He had emerald eyes and a forked tongue.  He sneered and flashed his sharp jaws. Hissing, the beast lunged at his captive prey.  He was met with a shoulder block from Crocarius.  The beast snapped back and recoiled as Gramis came forward with his wand out.  Croc reached out and tried to free Gert, but the snakes’ grip was too tight.  The beast now looked at Croc, but Gramis spoke up.

“Fire enchanted and evil recanted!”

A long finger of flame reached out and seared the serpent’s flesh.  It hissed and jutted forward, knocking Gramis on his back, wand flown from his grasp.  Croc now took a huge slice at the snake’s bottom half with his sword and ripped its meat clean from Gert’s legs.  The snake jerked his head back and again shot himself at Croc.  He threw his sword between his self and the snake as it solidly bit down on Croc’s entire midsection.  He screamed but noticed his edge had pierced completely through the snake’s head.

 Gert now reared back and blasted the back of its head with his mighty hammer.  The snake, now regrowing its missing flesh, lashed its tail, knocking the dwarf deep in a pit of earthy ooze.  Gramis now stood with the box in his hands and started chanting again.  He spoke in a language of words forgotten in time and words never heard by the human ear or otherwise.  Croc’s sword and the snake’s jaw both loosened from their respective grips and the beast started to be pulled and crumpled tightly back into its richly designed prison.  Gramis put the box down and went back to check on Croc.  The box disappeared, unnoticed by any.

“We need to get you inside.  I think you’re poisoned.”

Through the gleam of light filtered by the trees, two figures make their way through the Silver Wood.  Sashrala and the silent Tiantan warrior known only as Eyes of the Hawk amble from the serenity of the woods to the rough, craggy surface of rock.  There was no real path or road here, just rocks, ripped and torn, thrown together in a big pile moving down a small decline.  They maneuvered as carefully as they could down this until it lead down to a precipice.  They then came to a cliff where Sashrala stopped him in his tracks.

“Kashere will help us travel down this unfriendly terrain.”

From a wool pouch, Sash pulled a tiny wooden rat idol.  He laid it on the ground and sprinkled some dust from the pouch on it, and on them.  Hawk began to feel himself shrink or the world around him enlarge.  He wasn’t sure.  Quickly, they were the size of gnats and they climbed aboard Kashere, who was now a living, breathing rat.  He scurried down the rocky hovel and scurried in and out, up and down, through and around stony impasses leading down to silty sand.  Hawk could see the water out before his eyes, but could not see land out beyond the shore.  It was an endless palate of sky blue paint on the canvas of earth.  They dismounted and Sashrala spoke a few quiet words, and all was back to normal.  The world was its normal size again and Kashere was nothing more than a children’s toy.  Sash could see Hawkeye staring at the quiet emptiness of the water.

“Time does not pass below the surface of the Ageless Sea.  It is said an ancient kingdom of elves have even adapted to living and breathing underwater, although none have been seen.  We will wait here.  Soon, he will come.”

They camped on the shoreline for three days and three nights, waiting for a sign of something, Hawkeye didn’t know what for.  In the day, the sun rose high and baked their skin to a fine brown.  Sash stayed in his robes and prayed for more than twelve hours a day.  Hawk mostly walked through the woods back up the rocky cliff or hunted for food.  At night, the moon shot up like a boomerang and cast its pale gaze on the water in front of them.  Each night, Sash would walk into the water, over his head, and pray some more.  He was following suit on this third night.  As he emerged from the cool depths, he began to chant in a low hum:

“The calm of the seas

holds many mysteries

before the days of good men

Leaves fall and trees bloom

kings rise and sink into tombs

But, the ancients still tread.”

The wind picked up behind him and he looked at Hawkeye with peaceful eyes.  He pulled back his hood to reveal his white scalp, devoid of hair with crumpled skin seemingly pulled tight over the surface.

“Come here.  It is time.”

Hawk moved forward and Sash touched his neck and quietly started speaking.

“Follow me closely and observe.”

He took off his robe and under it; he wore a tattered, soiled vest of earthly colors.  He also wore long, brown trousers with a golden lace holding them up.  Sash’s body was not in good shape.  His legs were bony and not developed.  His waist was thin, and his arms gangly.  He dove into the water and Hawk followed suit.  The water was so clear he could see for miles.  He tried to quickly swallow some air, as he went back under water, but he realized it was unnecessary.  He could inhale and exhale normally under the water.  Sash was heading deeper down, past schools of fish of all different sizes and colors.  He was moving forward as well as downward where there was not much life around.  Hawk’s body was also not cold at all; he felt perfectly at ease in this new environment.  Sash had now found an embankment with coral growing all the way up it.  The rock looked like what they had crossed on Kashere’s back on the beach surface.  They swam up over the edge and peered down into a massive hole.  Hawk could see down it to the bottom, maybe fifty feet.  They were looking into the hole as something shifted in the water.  Movement of animals started swarming around the hole.  Hawk saw several giant whales swimming around, as well as even miniscule shrimp hiding in the sea fauna below them.  The rocks started shaking ever so slightly, like a herd of horses was running by them.  Some of the sea creatures fled in fear of the violent shaking, but most just watched.  In the hole, the floor began to crack and split all over the bottom and then the surrounding

walls started splitting.  It carried up the hole and on the plateau like a wave of water washing over you.  Now, the shaking was intensified and the water all over was churning and bubbling at a ferocious pace.  The cracked floor of the hole was now coming apart and it seemed as if the stony ledge was moving.  Hawk tried to swim closer to the hole, but Sash held him back.  A loud thunderous crack rang in the sea and a massive swirl of blackness lifted up through the hole.  It was like a tornado of dark matter billowing up from the hole that rose to the surface of the sea.  The entire section of rock was now indeed moving, splitting directly in two and through the mire of blackness; Hawk could see a huge red fin attached to a long, slender arm.  It had large, rounded suckers under it and now many more were coming from the shadowy abyss.  They were reaching out way past the herd of creatures watching and stretching seemingly to infinite points under water.  Then, like a massive ship sailing out from out of the fog, came a bright red shovel attached to an enormous face with two, dark set eyes.  The creature dispersed the dark ink with its flailing tentacles and started pushing itself and then shooting through the water like an arrow from a bow.  As it pushed away, a massive rush of pressure shot them all through the water at a great speed.  Sash seemed to motion to Hawk as two dolphins tried to fight the current and thrust themselves upward.  The men grabbed on their fins and held on for dear life.  The fish, using the same pushing and pulling methods as the large creature, made it through the pocket and jumped straight out of the water, flipping in mid-air.  Hawk and Sash let go and paddled their way back to shore.  As they climbed upon the rock, both men were fighting to catch a moment’s breath.

Sash managed only a few words.

“Ah, ah, ah, well, Abizlodia, the mighty kraken, has risen.  The walk of the ancients has begun.”

The town of Rybold is a mercantile place full of vendors, sellers, and mostly beggars.  The roads are packed with carts and small tents set up on the sides of the dirt path leading through town.  Everything from weapons to trinkets to vegetables and exotic animals are sold day and night.  Mostly wagons travel through, either to set up shop or buy enough of any supplies to make it on their trip.  Just such a wagon was passing through town at this point in time.  Driving it was an old man with his wrinkled wife sitting by his side.  They were farmers coming to Rybold to sell some of their crops.  In the wagon itself, vegetables were scattered about; potatoes, tomatoes, onions, turnips, and there were also apples, oranges, wheat, barley, grapes and even some fish caught in the Dunan River.  Also, hidden within the crops were two small men: one wearing a black cloak and the other in a blue, decorated robe.

“Gauge, you should really try these apples.  They are so sweet and crunchy.  And look, no worms.”

Perm flashed his snack in Gauge’s face.  He swiped the fruit out of his hand.

“Stay focused.  We need to get out of here.  We’re still quite a ways away from the meeting.”

“Man, you can loosen your drawstrings once in a while.  You forget that I’m on a mission, too.”

He picked up another apple and happily took a bite.

“Yes, I’m sure that young barmaid in Milbourne had a lot of information on your lost love.”

“Hey, she was pretty smart.  And I got us some free brew.”

“Thanks, but I don’t drink.  Okay, on my voice, let’s jump out.  Okay, now!”

Gauge grabbed Permion’s robe and jerked him out of the back of the moving wagon to the worn road.  The thief nimbly hopped and landed perfectly, but Perm had brought a basket of those apples with him.  When he hit the ground, he rolled, and more apples spilled from inside his robe and rolled all over the road.  Gauge grabbed him and pulled into an alleyway, so they could collect themselves.

“Okay, try not to do that again,” he said as he pulled Perm’s hood back from his curly, brown hair.

“Don’t worry, I don’t intend to, so long as you don’t pull me out of moving things,

anymore.  Where are we again?” Perm asked, dusting off his robe.

“Rybold.  We need to head north for another two, maybe three days.  We need to find another wagon out of here.”

Gauge stepped back out to the street and across the way, he saw a small, furry creature weaving in and out of booths and carts.  He followed it with his eyes into the bar at the end of the western road.  He knew it was Ruffy.

“Stay here.  Show your picture around.”

Gauge sneakily moved across the wagon traffic into the bar as Perm took out a small locket with a crudely drawn picture of a young, fair-complexed girl.  Perm began to look up and down the dirty avenue at people bargaining for things they wanted.  A taller, short-haired brunette caught his eye.  It was the girl he had seen back in the Rusty Bucket.

“Not to be trusted, eh?” Perm said under his breath as he moved towards her.

Inside the bar, Ruffy was seated in the back(as usual) with his peppermint ale( as usual; he carries a pouch of assorted types of leaves, some for drinking, some for cooking, and some for smoking in his pipe.)  Gauge made his way to the corner and seated himself.

“So, how’s the stew here? Seasoned?” Gauge gave the small gnome a sly smile.

“What are you doing here, Gauge?  Where’s your buddy?” Ruffy motioned a bar maid to the table.

“He’s out doing some research for me.  Secret stuff.  Are you attending the meeting?”

“Of course.  I’m quite fond of Titan’s ‘business plan’, shall we say.  And, naturally, I’m his number one choice for the job.  Yes, get my friend an ale, please,” Ruffy told the waitress.

“You know I don’t drink.”

Ruffy holds up one of his peppermint leaves, “You haven’t tried this in one.”

“What job are you referring to?  Finding the native?” Gauge asked.

“No, that’s not it. I guess you haven’ heard.  Have you even been communicating with headquarters?”

“In my own way.”

“So, you know about the spy?”

“What spy?”

“Titan has suspected a traitor in the guild for quite some time.  I have been chosen as the one to find him, or her.”

“Well, good luck with that.  Trying to find a dishonest person amongst a thieves guild.  How soon are you leaving?  No, that’s too obvious a question for a detective as yourself.  Who do you suspect?”

“Well, I’d be lying if you aren’t always a top choice.  Maybe it’s just your nature to keep secrets.  Or maybe it’s your friend.  Or one of the other twenty five members.  Time will tell, but I will find out who it is.”

“How do we even know there is a traitor?”

“Titan says so.”

“Titan is a politician first, a friend, second or third.”

“That doesn’t make him any less perceptive.  Plus, I hear the Sunwoods are fortifying defenses across the river.  Maybe they know something of Titan’s plan.”

“Or maybe just weary of his character, as well they should be.”

“You speak freely about an important man.  Others less devious than me might report such deception.”

“As a thief, you should know not to trust anything but your instincts.”

“Trust isn’t the issue here.  It’s money and power, what every free man or gnome wants.”

“What will a gnome do with power?  Gain stature?”

Ruffy leapt up and put his dagger to Gauge’s throat, but he also felt a sharp edge burning his stomach.

“Quick to get offended, aren’t you?”

“Quick to offend are you.  See you in three days.” And with that, Ruffy scurried out of the bar and out of sight.  Gauge placed his blade back in his leather boot and walked back out to the crowds of people.  He began looking for Permion.  Maybe half a mile up the road, he spotted the painted blue robe, but next to him, a familiar face, Cuttice.

“What the hell is he doing?” Gauge spoke under his breath.  He made his way over to them and stepped up behind her.

“I know your smell, Gauge.  You shouldn’t underestimate my abilities,” she said without turning around.

Permion looked surprised and turned around, red-cheeked.

“Hey, Gauge, done with your meeting?” he asked.

“What meeting would this be?” Cuttice inquired.

“An unimportant one.  Did you know about a traitor in our midst?” he asked as he pulled her aside by the arm.

“Yes, I have known about it.”

“Well, what do you think?”

“Critically thinking, it could be anyone.  I wouldn’t trust a soul in the guild, including former lovers.”

Gauge seemed to blush, but straightened up.

“Seriously, could it be Ruffy?”

“Yes, it could be any of them or just Titan putting a seed of doubt in our heads that he can use to his advantage later.  He’s scum, powerful scum, but still scum.”

“Well, that makes two of us.  So, have you seen Permion’s missing girlfriend?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Didn’t he show you the pic…?”

Perm interrupted with a seashell necklace in his hand.

“This is for you, queen of the sea.  You could rule the seas with a look from your enchanting eyes.”

Cuttice and Gauge looked at each other with sarcastic faces.

“Thanks, but try it somewhere else.  Let me see your girlfriend’s picture,” she said.

“Oh, right, of course.  Here she is, good old Elizabeth.  Lost in the world.  Me, all alone without a kindred spirit to share my experiences with.  How many lonely nights must I spend?”

He looked at her with big, pathetic eyes.

“Well, Gauge will keep you company.  I prefer to sleep alone,” Cuttice responded.

“Okay, be that way.  But my passion is not so easily extinguished,” Perm said with a gleeful look.

Cuttice turned to Gauge and asked, “How are you getting to the meeting?”

“Probably on another wagon.  Just need to find one.  Interested in coming along?” He slightly brushed her hand with his and she responded by clutching three of his fingers in hers.

“It would be nice.  But, I need to be there fairly quick.”

“Well, I guess we’ll be thieves and borrow one.  Got any in mind?”

Perm happened to be scanning the area and spotted a wagon on its way out of town.  There was a large piece broken out of the side and he remembered that big guy slamming someone into a wagon outside the Rusty Bucket.

“Guys, come here.  I have a plan.”

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