Maree swore as an apple cart ran into her back. She fixed a glare on the careless owner, took herself an apple in compensation, and continued down the busy street. Grendel hurried behind, trying to keep up, being way too polite to the milling throng to make any headway. Occasionally she'd turn around and drag him forward by his arm, ensuring he wasn't lost in the crowd of shoppers. She was searching for the shop she'd seen when she first entered Stonegate- a clothing store near the gate. It had looked quite expensive, its windows filled with the latest Ruhtalathian fashions. But money wasn't an issue- or it wouldn't be after tonight.
With regret, she passed the large and expensive shops on the main street- so many places to spend money, so little time. She loved the larger cities, despite the crowds. Doromir was so small and pathetic- only a small tailor shop and Gemmel's General Store. How was a girl to keep up with the latest fashions in such a backwater? She remembered with fondness the trips she and Grendel had made to the nearby town of Gothmarket. Then, it had seemed huge to her, all those people going about their business, the many stores, the countless inns, the weekly market, even the sprawling town-hall. But compared to Stonegate, it was little more than a way-stop. She looked hopefully at a shop which was selling Rhutalathian trinkets, hats and costume jewelry. It all looked so pretty- but there wasn't time to browse. It was getting towards late afternoon, and the shops would be closing soon. If only it hadn't taken so long for her dress to dry, or for Grendel to clean himself up!
Spurring herself on, she broke into a quick march, grabbing Grendel's wrist once again. Most of the crowd seemed to part before her determined visage, and those that didn't earned a shove or quick kick. Grendel apologized profusely to those Maree had moved. She liked his manners, but sometimes sternness was more useful. And if one more dog barked at her, she was going to skin it!
After a few moments, she could see the gate over the heads of the crowd. She looked around quickly, trying to remember where she had seen the shop. There, to the right- Pabla's Garments. She smiled as she noticed the long white dress in the window, and the red ball-gown. Such beautiful products in this country. Still, time for that later; for now she needed something practical, to climb in.
She let out a little yelp as Grendel walked into the back of her, before indicating the shop.
"Looks a little expensive," Grendel said warily. "Can't we just go to the market?"
Maree didn't bother dignifying that with an answer. Did he expect her to walk around in the trappings of a farm girl? If he was going to spend his money on her, he might as well buy something worthwhile. Maree wouldn't want him wasting his money!
Smiling in anticipation, she walked through the door to the shop. A little bell announced their arrival, and a small and wizened woman appeared from the back room. Maree took no heed, and instead admired the outfits hung along the walls. She stared in fascination at a red and white gown, with a long flared skirt, and lace trimmings. The detail was exquisite!
"That is finest Pegador Linen," said the old woman, a hint of pride in her voice. "Its worn by Siana Dancers."
Maree didn't know what a Siana was, but the dress was beautiful. She opened her mouth to ask how much it cost, but was cut off by Grendel.
"We're looking for something a little less flamboyant," he said to the shopkeeper. "We've got a long journey ahead of us, mainly uphill, and these aren't very practical," he added, indicating his robes, and Maree's dress. Maree pouted, unhappy at being denied such a dress. Grendel had a lot to learn about women!
"Si, senor," the old woman said. "You are looking for riding breeches, perhaps? And good strong boots?"
Grendel smiled and nodded. The nerve of him, trying to dress her up like a bumpkin boy! Well, she wasn't having any of that.
"Breeches and boots for him," she said to the woman. "I require something a little more.......feminine."
The old woman smiled knowingly. "Come into the back with me- I'm sure I'll have something to your taste," she said. Maree nodded, and walked towards the back door. "Senor, the boots and breeches are along that wall- help yourself," she said to Grendel. Grendel looked a little surprised at that, not used to being trusted in a store by himself. In Gothmarket, the shop-keepers watched you with beady eyes, convinced you were going to steal the walls! He walked over to the boots and held a pair up. Maree smiled encouragingly to him, and followed the woman into the back.
The back room was a jumble of crates and racks, with various garments of many colours strewn along the chairs and table. A sewing kit lay open on the nearest table. The woman stopped in front of a crate, seemingly selected at random. "Looking for something that'll make the young gentleman notice you, senorita?" the woman said, a teasing glint in her eye.
Maree was shocked by the question. As if she'd spend all her time and effort just to get a man to notice her. Especially Grendel! The nerve of her! She had a good mind to chastise the woman! "I just don't want to look like a man!" she said lamely. She scowled at herself- that comment had sounded more convincing in her head. The old woman just nodded, a wry smile on her face, and opened the crate.
The woman showed her a variety of products; tight breeches which showed off her legs, a stylish chemise which seemed to make her bosom larger than it really was- that one she really liked- dainty gloves, small heeled boots. She tried them all on, one at a time and in different combinations. She knew they really weren't what she was looking for, but it was only polite to try them. She gazed delightfully into the long mirror at every combination. One item, a full body cat-suit seemed perfect; practical, comfortable and flattering. Yet it was all black. She was sure black would be useful for night heists, but she didn't like the colour- it made her look like a grieving widow!
Eventually, she made her choice- it had been an hour at least, she was sure, though the time had passed quickly enough. But Grendel had insisted on shouting into the room every ten minutes to complain about how much time had passed. It wasn't her fault that he wasn't fussy, and could make his choice so quick. But she finally settled on the perfect combination. She chose a blue leather one-piece, which left her shoulders, her back and the top of her breasts bare. The leather was thick and protective, and formed like a cuirass, protecting her stomach and crotch. It came with a pair of tight black breeches, which she discarded, much to the dismay of the shopkeeper. Instead, Maree added a pair of thin leather boots, white in colour, which reached half way up her thighs, and matching long-gloves, which stretched all the way up her arm. She admired herself in the mirror. It was perfect- comfortable, practical, protective, and most importantly, very flattering.
"Do you want me to wrap it for you?" said the woman.
"No, I'll wear it now." Maree said, smiling at her reflective image. The woman seemed shocked by that. Maree wasn't sure why- it wasn't that revealing. She knew Rhutalathians had strange ideas of decency, but in Ardadain showing a bit of leg was quite common. Well.....maybe not common. But not completely unheard of. Especially for adventurers. "The man out front will pay you," she said.
Maree walked back into the front room, a big smile on her face. Grendel was sat in a chair, apparently asleep, but he jumped up quickly when Maree entered. He stared at her for a long moment, unblinking, a look of wonder and shock on his face. His gaze took in her bare thighs and leather-clad breasts, and his face seemed to glow a violent red. Maree was pleased, despite herself. "What do you think?" she asked him, doing a quick spiral, and subjecting Grendel to a view of her half-uncovered backside.
"Its very.......nice," Grendel stammered. Maree giggled, briefly, before stopping herself! She hadn't worn it to impress him! She'd worn it because it was comfortable! Still, she was glad she'd made him blush again.
The leather turned out to be expensive, having been imported from Cymuria, yet Grendel didn't seem to blink at the cost. He had chosen a blue surcoat, similar to Maree's, and green breeches and boots, which fit him snugly. Maree didn't mind admitting that Grendel had nice legs. He'd made a good choice. But the cloak he chose, dark green with a jagged collar- that was a little too much, too flamboyant for a little country boy. But it covered up his back, which was useful. For some reason, Maree found herself very distracted by the back half of Grendel. A very useful cloak indeed.
Grendel paid the old lady, a small fortune by Doromir standards, and the two of them left the store. They headed back to the inn, to gain a little sleep. They hadn't slept at all the previous night, and Maree and Grendel would be up all night robbing the jewelry store. And she was very tired- a little sleep would be very useful! She led Grendel down the streets again, which seemed to make a gap for her this time. She ignored the whistles and the lecherous cries of the market folk- although she smiled inwardly at the attention. But more importantly, as she led Grendel by the wrist, she was very much aware of his eyes on her back. She smiled again, a happy grin, and half-strutted, half-skipped back to the inn.
Morandor muttered a string of expletives as he noticed the Inquisitors sat across from him. The arena was heaving with people dressed in their finest attire, many stood in their seats, and until now Morandor hadn't seen the Royal Box, across the other side of the stadium, though it was clearly emblazoned with the Inquisitor banner; a black eagle on a red field. It was higher than the other seats and jutted out over the pit. It was filled with elaborate and comfortable chairs, and was usually filled with the baron's family, or other important nobles. Now it was filled with six Inquisitors, and their entourage. He'd been informed that Inquisitors seldom went to bull-fights, finding the sport both tasteless, and a waste of time. Yet evidently these Inquisitors had decided otherwise. Just his bloody luck! Stuck in a crowded place with overly-bloodthirsty Inquisitors. And an army of those Stormcrow buggers to boot! One of the Inquisitors was wearing the black collar, which signified him as a High Priest. At least if he was caught, he'd be tortured by a professional!
Morandor had asked all around the town for information on Valaxus. The common folk, naturally, had very little information, and even the Baron's servants seemed to be relaying just gossip and rumour. The Fighter's Guild had proved a little more useful- they had informed him that one of their number, an adventurer named Milas, had recently returned from Valaxus' tower, laden with gold, yet half-mad. Milas had since been accused of raping an innkeeper's daughter, and was to face justice in the bull-ring. If he won, he would be allowed to go free, if not.......well, he would likely be impaled on the horns of a large black bull. The odds of him winning were slim- he wasn't trained to fight bulls, not like the matadors. The prisoners were usually sent on first, to get the bull all agitated and worked up. The majority of prisoners died before the real show actually started.
Morandor hoped that Milas wouldn't die. He had no particular affection for the man- yet another idiot adventurer who decided it would be fun to rob a wizard. And, likely, a rapist. But he was the only lead that Morandor had on Valaxus. Morandor was planning on working a little magic, helping Milas out, should he need it. But the Inquisitors' presence had just made that a bad idea. He sighed, muttered another curse to make him feel better, and tried to work out what to do next. He shifted uncomfortably on the cold stone seat! He wouldn't be surprised if he got bloody piles from it! Some Rhutalathians had hired red cushions from one of the many vendors, but Morandor had not been willing to pay the five bronze pieces. Not after he'd had to pay three silver just to get in the damn place.
The cheering of the crowd announced the arrival of Milas into the sandy ring below. Everyone was standing in their seats, screaming in joy, like a bunch of lunatics. A full house! Not screaming because they liked Milas- screaming because they wanted to see him dead. Morandor stood up, to get a look at Milas, and to look less conspicuous. Milas was wandering around the ring, fear in his maddened eyes, and a small dagger in his hands. The matadors were allowed to use swords, but then, they were heroes! Morandor spat at that. Milas was a skinny man, but quite well-muscled. His light skin and blonde hair suggested that he wasn't Rhutalathian. Probably from Keledrakus, judging by his name. He had a vicious scar down his face, and another across his naked chest. His chest had been painted red to entice the bull. Poor Milas was looking nervously at the crowd who were jeering at him. Morandor sighed- this man was puny, armed with a dagger, and half-mad. He wasn't going to win.
A fan-fair sounded, issuing from the trumpeteers flanking the Royal Box. Another cheer went up through the crowd, and a small gate opened in the pit. Milas backed away from it, knowing what was coming. A galloping noise announced the arrival of the beast, followed quickly by the appearance of a bull, a giant horned monster, black as night. It was moving remarkably quick for its size, and Morandor was momentarily shocked by its ferocity. Its little legs bounded comically as it ran, but there was nothing amusing about the look in its eyes. Milas had stopped looking for a way out of the pit, and was backing away nervously from the bull.
At first, the Bull merely stopped running, and began to walk slowly around the edge of the ring, fearful of all the people, and eager for an escape route. It walked peacefully, at one point sniffing the sand. The audience waited patiently, until three Torinados poked at the bull viciously with jagged spears, from the safety of the audience. The bull, driven mad from the pain, ran away from the spears, straight towards Milas. Milas, in shock, began to run. Morandor frowned- running was probably not a good idea; the bull would likely have ignored him if he'd stayed still. Still, remaining motionless was probably not an idea he'd have thought of if he was in the pit.
Sure enough, the bull, attracted by the movement, and anxious to get revenge for the pain it suffered, turned swiftly and bounded after Milas. It didn't seem to be as fast as Milas, but the thundering sound was terrifying. It broke off its pursuit temporarily, paused briefly, before running once again after the terrified man.
Milas, already exhausted, seemed to gather his courage. He turned and faced the bull as it charged towards him, his posture rigid, dagger in hand. Morandor admired the man's bravery, but pitied his fate. At the last moment, half-mad Milas leapt out of the bull's path, slicing down with his dagger. The dagger didn't penetrate the Bull's thick hide, but it served to momentarily confuse it. Fast as lightening, the little man plunged again, striking the bulls neck with the dagger. This time the dagger struck home, and blood erupted from the animal's neck. The bull bucked and reared ferociously, maddened by the pain, and turned towards Milas. It charged again, its horns horizontal, foaming at the mouth. This time, Milas was too slow, and the bull's horns struck the man in the back, sending him flying in a spray of blood. Milas landed on his stomach, winded, blood pouring from the wound on his back.
The bull stopped, seemingly exhausted and panting heavily, its feet scratching at the ground. Blood dripped down its neck, but the wound didn't seemed to bother it. The rest gave Milas the opportunity to get up. He staggered away from the bull, all the while watching it. Blood poured from his back, but half-mad Milas seemed to ignore the wound, just like the bull. Thinking the bull defeated, Milas once again held out his dagger, and began to approach the beast.
The audience, bored by the bull's passiveness, jeered and shouted. Many of them began to hurl stones at the bull, maddening it once more. A few hit its thick hide, and one stone struck Milas on top of the head, staggering him. The bull, once again maddened and rabid, charged at Milas. This time the horns struck him in the stomach, the left horn impaling itself deeply in the man. The bull's momentum carried them both forward, Milas flailing desperately, unable to unhook himself. The charge ended abruptly as the Bull ran towards the wall of the pit, crushing Milas against the stone. A loud crunch was audible around the arena, and Milas gasped in pain. The audience cheered insanely at the man's misfortune. The bull, finally free of Milas, backed away again for another charge. Milas lay slumped on the sandy floor, his back against the wall. Blood was flowing from the gash at his stomach, staining the sand, and his arm was horribly bent and disfigured. The dagger had landed about five foot away, out of reach.
Morandor felt himself tense. The last charge would be the killing stroke. Milas wouldn't survive it. And then all hope of finding Valaxus could be lost.
The bull lowered its head again, and began pawing the ground. Milas wasn't moving, his slow breathing the only evidence that he still lived.
Morandor had to act now. He had to save Milas. He knew that as soon as he cast a spell, every Inquisitor in the arena would be after him. But he had to act.
Whispering an incantation, Morandor flung his right arm out. The familiar tingle and joy engulfed him, and he felt the magic leave his body. Within seconds, before the Inquisitors could react, the bottom of the Royal Box exploded downwards, in a loud calamity of stone and timber. The Inquisitors and Stormcrows fell downwards, landing with a thump in the sandy pit, in a pile of broken stone. The crowd was screaming now, many people getting out of their seats and running, others staring aghast. Morandor, to his satisfaction, noticed that one or two were laughing and clapping. Three of the Inquisitors were unconscious as were the Stormcrows. One Inquisitor seemed to be dead, and the other two were staring in his direction. He waved at the two Inquisitors cheekily, grinning as they turned in fear. The bull, attracted by the commotion and the red uniforms of the Inquisitors was charging towards them.
One Inquisitor, the High Priest, drew his sword and waited for the bull to approach. The crowd were reclaiming their seats now, intrigued by the turn of events. The other Inquisitor was calmly trying to wake the others, although his unsteadiness revealed his real fear.
This was Morandor's chance. The bull was charging at the Inquisitors, and the audience were paying no attention to Milas. Quickly, Morandor leaped down into the pit, gaining abuse from a few Rhutalathians as he momentarily blocked their view. He landed with a thump in the sand, and ran to the bleeding Milas.
"Are you okay?" he asked the man.
The man groaned in pain, and blinked at Morandor. His vision seemed blurred, and Morandor snapped his fingers a few times in front of his eyes. "Can you speak?"
The man spat out blood, and slowly nodded his head. Morandor frowned, examining the wound briefly. It was beyond his abilities to heal, and he didn't have much time. "I'm looking for Valaxus......can you tell me where he is?"
Milas looked up at him, a look of confusion on his face. "My sister....she lives in Kythens. Very pretty......." Morandor wondered if there was a point to this story.
"No, not your sister. I'm looking for Valaxus."
"Upon the star, the one that shines bright red. That is where she lives now." Morandor frowned, wondering if the man was delirious, or whether it was a result of his insanity. Or maybe a mixture of both. He certainly hoped it wasn't Valaxus who had done this to him.
"The gold you stole. From the Wizard Valaxus. Can you remember where you got it?" Morandor tried another approach. He looked around hurriedly. Two of the Inquisitors had woken up. The High Priest was slashing at the Bull, which lay on its side. They were all watching him. He had only a few moments before they would be on top of him.
He cursed- there wasn't enough time to question this man. There was only one way. Reaching out, Morandor placed his hands on either side of Milas's head. Then sending his mind outwards, he quickly accessed the thoughts of Milas. This was an old trick, to read someone's mind and find the information, but it was never entirely safe. Especially when the one you were reading was so close to death! If the mind died whilst you were in it.......he hoped Milas would stay alive long enough for him to finish. And that the Inquisitors would give him enough time.
Probing outwards with his mind, Morandor tried to discard the useless thoughts which Milas was throwing at him. This was never easy, especially in an insane mind. Thoughts passed through him. Milas' sister, Adia. She really was very pretty. Bonded to a dragon. A house in the mountains, burnt down. A large man in heavy red armour. Purple flowers in a desert. Morandor ploughed through the thoughts. From the corner of his eye he could see the Inquisitors charging towards him.
More thoughts- a blue dragon. A full moon, and a sense of wonder. A pair of old boots, with a hole in the heel. A tower in a forest. Pain. A mountain of Gold.
The Inquisitors were only twenty foot away now. He could feel a spell being cast, his skin tingling as the Inquisitors prepared a spell of binding. Reaching out with his left arm, he unconsciously cast another spell. The four gates around the pit exploded in a shower of shards and splinters. Morandor watched calmly as another six bulls ran into the arena, and sprinted towards the Priests.
Morandor backtracked. A tower in a forest. That was it. That was what he wanted. Which forest? He quickly delved deeper. South Isana. Not far from here. Nevergreen. The Nevergreen Forest.
Morandor smiled in triumph, just as a shadow descended on his mind. For a moment he panicked- Milas was dying, and if he didn't get out quick, his soul would be dragged to the afterlife along with Milas. He flayed around quickly, wanting to break free, but forgetting how. And there was more to learn. He didn't want to leave. No, the blackness was welcome, and comforting. And there was more to learn. And he couldn't remember how to leave. So warm, that shadow, and so full of calm. He relaxed and let the darkness claim him.
A jolt of pain shot through him, and the bond was broken. Morandor's mind leaped back into his body as he realized he'd been struck on the head. It took a moment for his vision to clear, and for him to gather his senses. A Stormcrow was stood above him, his black Gauntlet raised, and blood was dripping from Morandor's scalp. On instinct, he reached for his magic. Only a Stormcrow. Magic would work.
The Stormcrow screamed as he was engulfed in fire. His face blistered and his eye-balls melted as the magical flames ripped at his skin, and boiled him alive in his suit. Morandor stood up, watching as the Stormcrow writhed in agony on the floor, being reduced to a black and withered mass. He looked around, his vision slightly blurred, and his head throbbing. Three Inquisitors lay dead, impaled and discarded around the pit. The High Priest hung limp from the horn of a bull, being tossed violently as the bull ran insanely around the arena. The last Inquisitor was being chased by three bulls, and was slowly being backed into a corner.
Morandor quickly checked the wound on his head with his hand. It wasn't too serious. He'd live. Which was more than he could say for poor Milas. Milas lay slumped against the wall, his wounds flowing violently, his soul finally at rest. Morandor allowed himself a little smile. He'd gained the information he needed, and killed five Inquisitors in the process. Six, he amended, as the last one was finally impaled by two bulls near the remnants of the Royal Box.
The audience was in uproar now, with people running around in panic. Stormcrows and healers ran towards the Inquisitors to offer assistance, Herders ran towards the bulls, and traders and commoners ran in panic. No one was paying any heed to Morandor. Making the most of the turmoil, Morandor ran through the prisoners' gate, through the Arena, and into the street. Around him, the spectators were emerging from the arena's gates, some screaming in fear, others talking excitedly. A woman fainted in front of him, and a couple of kids were laughing and joking about the scene they'd witnessed.
Morandor smiled again, as he made his way back to the inn. The trip had proven to be both informative and entertaining. He guessed it was worth the three silver pieces after all!