Avrak follows an unusual target in a city of both figurative and literal monsters.
|Avrak Daldran's heavy furs and scarred face were unusually subtle for a tavern in Tûl. Most patrons were as warped as the creature sitting across from him: a hulking beast covered in obsidian-black fur, red pinpoints piercing outward from his eyes. His gaping cavern of a mouth glistened with sharp, curved fangs, his head topped with stiletto-sharp horns extending his nine-foot frame an additional two feet.
“Helak, buddy,” Avrak said as the other sat. “Good to see you.”
The demon-like beast grunted acknowledgement. He pulled parchment from a pouch on his waist and began etching into it, orange fire leaping from his index claw to draw runes. Finished, he pushed the message toward Avrak, who read it without touching it.
"An enforcer with the freedom fighters? Pretty funny."
Helak wasn't laughing. Could he laugh? Probably not.
Avrak cleared his throat. "So, she's making captain in the fighters, and we need to make sure she fails."
A terse nod.
"Wait, she?" His face curled into a scowl. "Well, better be damn sure she's a sash. Ain't a light thing, messing with freedom fighters."
Helak unfurled three claws, indicating a payment of thrice the usual sum.
"On the other hand," Avrak said with a crooked grin, "sounds like a great opportunity."
Avrak grabbed his mug and knocked back the rest. He wiped his wet beard on a sleeve, flagging down the tavern wench wth his other arm. This was some good mead.
"So, you already tried," he said, returning to the message. "She's a blue sash, ya da da, you killed all her underlings. Well, good. Hope they paid well. But why not her?"
Helak stared in response. Avrak wasn't sure how glowing red eyes could look cold, but they did. After a few seconds of silence, shifting in his chair, he smiled. "Sure. I'll do it."
She still wore the blue sash. Was she crazy? No. Maybe arrogant, or she'd covered her lie with a bit of truth. Bargus was an ex-enforcer, after all, so that could've been her way in.
Her eyes were blue as well: brighter than her sash, youthful and vigorous. Bargus stood beside her, an arm across her back, guiding her through the crowd. The red sash of an enforcer lieutenant was prominent across his waist. Wispy, dark brown hair topped his tattooed forehead, a shortlist of crimes for which he'd served crimes.
Two ex-enforcers dressed in full-plate armor, wandering through the criminal scum of Tûl; it was an unusual sight. Still, no one dared look at Bargus--and his companion--with anything but reverence.
Avrak faked a smile as the pot-bellied, ape-faced crime boss walked past with the target. A jet-black dove tattoo adorned her right cheek. Bargus's cheek was scarred where his dove once was; made him even uglier, if that were possible.
A few people between him and the target, Avrak kept pace with the crowd. He caught the glow of Helak's eyes behind him. The demon shadowed the target from behind, towering over the crowd, but otherwise typical among the magic-cursed monsters of Tûl. Avrak's pointed ears twitched. Lucky for him, they were his only curse from years in the city.
There were too many people around to strike now. Avrak took a deep breath and followed the procession through Westgate. He dropped back a few steps at a time, slowing his pace until he could hear Bargus's cracking voice. Best to keep close to the target.
"...more popular than you know," the boss was saying. "You're strong. They'd like to see a girl take down a man. Shouldn't be too hard for you; guy's got a gimpy left leg."
"Why are you taking my side? Isn't it supposed to be a contest?"
"Oh, it's a formality. Can't jump rank without some blood, Evie."
“Damn it,” Avrak cursed under his breath. “Forget the name. She's nothing more than the target.”
"Eve," she corrected. A bold lady, this Eve. No, not lady--a girl. Not even that. The target.
Avrak sighed in his mind. He patted the sharp things hidden about his body, brought himself back to reality. Crossbow would do well. Even if he missed, it would be a distraction, and Helak could finish the job.
"Here it is," Bargus said, motioning with a hand at the circular pit of sandy dirt before them. The solid stone of the Western Mount rose behind it like a wall, the crowd surrounding the rest. A pair of the audience stepped aside to leave room for Bargus and Eve to step through.
“Give 'im hell, Evie,” the boss said, shoving the girl with his oversized left hand. She stumbled into the pit but retained her balance, turning her head to respond with a disgusted glare. Bargus chuckled. He stepped back into the crowd, leaving a space for Avrak and Helak to fill, which they did.
Two short swords sheathed across the front of her legs, Eve crossed her arms to draw them as she stepped further into the pit. They extended like they were part of her arms.
Her opponent's was hidden beneath metal, a helmet covering his entire head. Armor covered his back, an orange half-tower shield enough to protect his front. He'd already drawn his sword. The thing was at least three feet long, several inches wide, scraping along the dust of the pit. The blade would take enormous strength to lift, but once it came down, it'd be the last thing Eve would see. Judging by the sweat collecting on her cheeks, she knew it.
She shifted her weight to the left and twirled her blades around, looking like a hawk about to take flight. It struck Avrak that the girl might actually win, that he should be ready to skew the odds.
He wondered for a moment about the source of the contract. Maybe Eve had turned, and one of Bargus's enemies wanted her out of the way; or, the enforcers could know she'd turned, and didn't want her as an enemy; or, of course, it might be Bargus himself wanted her gone, but didn't want the fallout of slaughtering one of his own.
Didn't matter. Avrak reached down the neck of his furs and, with expert dexterity, retracted the string and loaded a bolt into his crossbow. To anyone else, it looked like he was scratching his upper chest. He completed the charade by scratching the back of his head.
Eve engaged her opponent, leaping forward with a shriek, her swords slashing like a lion's claws against the shield. Her strike pushed the man back and around the perimeter of the pit. He dragged the sword behind him, unable to find the opportunity to lift it and deliver a blow, focused on keeping his shield up. The girl kept up a fury which might never end.
"Go around," Avrak whispered to Helak, motioning to his left. While the beast obeyed, Avrak made his way though the crowd in the opposite direction. Soon, they were facing each other from a distance, on opposite sides of the pit.
When Avrak could see the back of Eve's neck, he reached back into his furs and pulled a knife, slicing the string that held the crossbow against his furs. The weapon slid down his sleeve and he grabbed it as it fell in his left hand. With a single motion, he lifted the crossbow, aimed, and fired.
The enforcer was too nimble for the bolt to connect. Without knowing it, she dodged the brunt of the bolt and it scratched across her face, cutting a gash under her right ear. The bolt clanked into her opponent's helmet. Before the shot had even connected, Avrak had dropped the crossbow and kicked it behind him. None of the audience realized; for all they knew, it could have been a kid throwing a pebble. Both fighters were surprised by the sudden drip of blood from Eve's jaw. She might have figured it was her opponent cheating. No way to know what the other guy thought.
On the far side of the pit, Helak moved to finish the attack, but the audience held him back; no one would interfere, or even allow interference, with a fight Bargus had arranged.
The beast looked to his partner, who shrugged. They'd get another chance. Hell, maybe the guy in the helmet would finish the job for them. Avrak relaxed his shoulders and resolved to wait out the fight.
The cut had lit a fire in Eve, her swords flailing about with more vigor than ever before. She got lucky with one swing and sliced down behind her opponent's shield, taking a few fingers with it. He had no chance to stop her blades as they scissored across his neck.
The crowd exhaled a collective gasp. For a moment, it looked like the man's helmet would turn to a bloody stump. Then Eve lifted her swords, knocking the helmet to the ground, his gnarled and burned face revealed to all.
"Mercy," she said.
An eruption of disapproving shouts and curses filled the pit. Bargus charged at Eve, taking her under his arms and guiding her back through the crowd. The audience stepped aside, in spite of the escalating din.
Avrak motioned to Helak and the two trailed their target, silent shadows in a sea of anger. "Maybe he'll finish the job for us. Can't have a merciful captain in the freedom fighters, after all."
Helak grunted in agreement.
Bargus and Eve flew through the gate into the abandoned streets of western Tûl. They stopped in an empty alley, nothing but stone and sky. Avrak braced himself against the corner wall at the end of the alley, motioning for Helak to wait. Around the corner, he could see the boss was far from happy with his new captain.
“Why do you disappoint me?” he said. “I don't know what to do with this.”
The girl had her hands on the pommel of her swords. She looked about to say something, then her blades were out, one scraping at Bargus's jugular. He brushed it aside with one arm and threw the other at her, slamming his fist into the wall, shattering the stone. Eve sliced at his legs, bringing him down. She knew how to disable a man: he was unable to get up, and she legged it down the alley, sheathing her swords as she went.
Avrak let loose another bolt, but the target was already gone. He turned back to his partner, but he was gone, too.
He strolled down the alley, passing Bargus. "Guess she won't be making captain," he said.
“I didn't pay you to mock me.” Bargus clenched his teeth and brushed the dirt away from his bleeding knees. “I'm cutting your payment in half, you bumbling idiot. Now go get her before I take that away, too.”
Avrak glared at the angry, powerless man. No problem taking him here and now, but he needed the money. So, he kept his mouth shut and continued down the alley.
Eve was slinking away from the hulking, black figure of Helak when Avrak found her. The creature's shadow swallowed the girl's lithe frame. Instinct taking over, he ran behind her, scratching the hairs on the back of her neck with a small knife. Instinct fled as quickly as it had come; he couldn't do it.
Then, his feet were wet. A scream. Helak's claws stuck out the target's back, impaled downward through her chest. Avrak's furs were stained red.
Helak retracted his hand, smacking the air with his arm to slosh blood against the wall. He nodded at his smaller partner, who was motionless and unable to speak. The nod was clear, regardless: "Thank you for the distraction."
As the shadowy beast retreated to whatever hell had spawned him, Avrak studied the corpse. Her eyes and mouth were closed, her brow softened. She looked... peaceful.