The Essence Gate War: Book 01 - Adept (5 page)

BOOK: The Essence Gate War: Book 01 - Adept
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The
Elvaren were smiling once more. “It has succeeded admirably in convincing us how unsuitable is the current setting for our task. We will relish it looking always over its shoulder, until one time soon it looks an instant too late.”

With mocking salutes, they turned and glided out the front door
s of the inn. Calming his breathing, Amric resisted the urge to pursue them. An unnecessary conflict here in the open would only serve to involve the city watch, and he could ill afford any such delay if he was to warn Valkarr and Halthak of the danger to them, in particular if more hired blades waited out there in the shadows.

The thunderous approach across the common room reminded him of the risk he had accepted in forcing the hand
of the Elvaren. He sheathed his swords and raised his empty hands in apology. The Traug slowed and his rumbling growl subsided in volume, but still he approached, his great thick hands flexing open and shut. Amric looked past him to find Olekk at the bar. He met the Duergar’s suspicious glare as he produced three heavy coins from his money pouch, and then laid them with exaggerated care upon the table. He then raised his open hands and took a step back.

Olekk glanced down
to the coins, and then back at Amric. After momentary consideration, he barked an order and jerked his bearded chin back toward the bar. The Traug ground to a halt and fixed Amric with a scowl that spoke volumes about an exhausted supply of free warnings, and then lumbered back to his favored corner of the room. On his way, he righted the table he had overturned, and the care he exhibited in handling it showed he considered the stout oaken furniture as fragile as finest porcelain in his grasp.

Amric started
to leave, but paused for a glance back at where the elderly stranger had been sitting. That corner table was empty. Odd, he thought. All the exits from the common room were well visible from Amric’s position, and he had not seen the man pass through any of them. Amric shook his head; the man was a riddle for another day. He strode through the doors and into the afternoon swelter.

 

 

 

Halthak worked his way through the thick of the trade district. A shop owner pressed in at his side, pacing him for a few steps as he hawked his wares with a broad, ingratiating smile. Halthak continued on, shaking his head in what he hoped was a courteous manner as he passed. He knew better than to smile back; baring a mouthful of sharp teeth inevitably caused others to read unintended aggression in his features. He inhaled the rich, heady aromas of spices and cooking food, and his eyes drank in the colors and activity around him. Although his errand in the trade district had been unsuccessful, he had lingered for hours afterward and found a growing affection for the place. Here in Keldrin’s Landing, with its diverse collection of different races and cultures, he was just another in the crowd, no more or less unusual than the next traveler.

He saw several full-blooded
Orks standing in a cluster apart from the other races. They were thicker of limb and deeper of chest than he, and they bristled with crude weapons and studded armor. They turned scowls upon him, but did not follow up with the prejudice he could expect in a different setting. He kept a wary eye on them until he was well past, and as a result he did not see the elderly man in his path until he slammed into him.

The air whooshed from Halthak’s lungs and he staggered back
, doubling over. Leaning upon his staff to catch his breath and his balance, he looked up to see a slender old man in grey robes. The fellow’s silvery hair was slicked back along his skull, and despite his evident age, his pale, smiling face radiated an intense vitality. The man appeared unaffected by the collision, and Halthak peered past him in disbelief. It felt like he had run headlong into a boulder; surely he had contacted something more solid than this kindly old fellow! The man stooped forward and helped him upright with a grip like cold iron.

“I––
I am––” Halthak managed to gasp, still struggling for breath.


Please accept my humblest apologies, young sir,” the man said, his voice low and yet somehow cutting through the din of the crowd. “The years have made me clumsy indeed.”

The
old man released Halthak’s arm and gave a gentle pat to his shoulder as he moved past, disappearing into the crowd. The healer stared after him for a moment until his breath came unhindered again, and then he resumed walking.

It was but moments later that he heard an angry shout followed by a commotion behind him, and he turned to look
. The crowd parted to give him a clear view of the scene several shops back. He saw the same old man with whom he had collided reaching down to help an irate individual up from the ground as two other men looked on in surprise. The old fellow’s familiar words carried across the distance as if Halthak stood beside him.

“Please accept my humblest apologies, young
sir! The years have made me clumsy indeed.”

The man on the ground
surged to his feet, spitting oaths and swatting aside the proffered hand. He faced the silver-haired fellow, leaning forward with fists clenched, and his two friends moved to join him. Halthak noted their cruel demeanor and their unkempt appearance, and he knew them in an instant for common cutthroats. He felt an immediate fear for the old man’s safety, and he took a step in that direction. Even as he did, however, the three brutes faltered and fell back a pace. The old man’s posture was mild, but the men cowered back from something in his expression. They made a wide circle around him, glancing at one another, and then all three of them looked in Halthak’s direction. No, not in his direction, he realized; they were looking directly
at
him. Seeing him looking back at them, their expressions hardened and they averted their gazes, feigning sudden interest in the nearest shop.

D
espite the oppressive heat of the early evening, Halthak felt a chill run down his spine.

The old man
turned to look back at him and held his gaze with unnerving intensity. His smile was gone, and he gave a slow nod to Halthak before turning and melting into the crowd.

Halthak studied the cutthroats once more
. They cast furtive glances at him, growing restless under his scrutiny. He searched for a familiar face, perhaps from the bandit camp, but did not recognize any of them. He could not fathom their interest in him, but he had a growing certainty as to its nature. They would not need to skulk about if they meant him well, and robbery was unlikely, given his poor attire and obvious lack of coin. No, they intended harm or capture, and he had no desire to ascertain which. Regardless, he doubted he would have spotted them without the commotion, so he was indebted to the strange old fellow for the warning that might have saved his life.

Though he was only saved, he reminded himself, if he managed to evade them.

He debated his course. He could remain in public here, staying close to highly visible store fronts. This might prevent capture, but the ebb and flow of the populace here might leave him vulnerable to a stealthy blade in the press of the crowd. He could go to the city watch, but they were nowhere to be seen at the moment and would require more to act on than his suspicions and some hard looks cast in his direction. He wanted to flee the trade district, as its welcoming atmosphere had palled of a sudden, but he was unsure how to prevent them from following, or even where he could go to be safe. He had almost exhausted the last of his meager funds, and the stable he had been sneaking into each night to sleep seemed quite exposed, all of a sudden.

He found himself wishing again that he had been able to stay longer with
the warriors Amric and Valkarr, as he had little doubt they could handle these cutthroats as easily as they had managed the bandit camp. His every interest in their mission here had been rebuffed, however, and they had insisted on parting company with him once he was safe inside the city walls. They had seemed so determined, so purposeful.

He had no such solid plan of his own; he had traveled to this remote, dangerous place in the hopes that his healing talent could be of us in the conflict here
. It seemed foolish to him now. Of what use was he? He could not even get here safely on his own. He had hoped to find his purpose, and yet he was just as adrift here as anywhere else, it seemed. And so he had bid the warriors farewell, removing at least one unnecessary burden from their path.

Halthak shook himself
. Standing there dumbstruck was doing him no good. He set off at a quick pace, staying close to the stores. If he could put enough distance between himself and his pursuers, he could duck down a side alley and lose them. If he chanced upon a city watch patrol before then, he could shadow the watch until another opportunity arose to escape.

He peered down the alleys between shops
as he passed. They were narrow and deep in shadow already, and would only get less inviting as the sun continued to set, but they were his best chance of disappearing. One yawned ahead, a dark portal just past a busy food market. He veered toward it. At the corner, he craned his neck for a look back and felt another chill. The men were shoving their way through the crowd and closing the distance with alarming speed, their gazes fixed upon him. They were far too close, almost at his heels, and entering the alley would be sheer folly now; no one would witness the attack there, and his assailants could flee its aftermath in relative safety.

Halthak turned away from the mouth of the alley, but a figure loomed
at out of the shadows. With a startled cry he swung his staff in an overhand chop at the figure’s head, but his opponent batted it aside. A powerful arm shot out and seized his robes, yanking him forward into the shadows and sending him staggering down the alley. Halthak threw a hand against the wall to keep from falling, and spun to put his back to it, raising his staff before him. He cursed his own stupidity. Of course they had more than the trio he had seen in the open, encircling him to ensure he could not escape so easily. His fists tightened on the burled ironwood staff. It was a stout weapon, but he was no fighter. He had no illusions about the odds of him fending off one skilled attacker, let alone four or more.

The three thugs entered the alley at a run, bec
oming black silhouettes like the figure before him against the still bright sun of the main street. They skidded to a halt as they entered the shadows, daggers held low and ready, and for a moment all was still. Halthak had just inhaled to shout for help when the scene exploded. He heard startled oaths as the cutthroats lunged forward at the figure who had hauled him into the alley, and there followed a flurry of activity too fast for him to follow in the poor light. There was a loud grunt and one shape went down heavily. The mysterious figure cut between the other two, and another shape was propelled across the alley to slam into the wall, where it crumpled. The figure spun around the last of the thugs and then approached Halthak at an unhurried pace. Behind him, the final thug pitched face-first to the ground. The entire fight had taken only a few seconds.

Halthak realized
that his hands were shaking, and his cry for help had died in his throat. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom and the figure drew near, recognition dawned.

“Valkarr!” he exclaimed.

The Sil’ath halted before him. In a thick, guttural voice the lizardman said, “Come, we must join Amric.”

Halthak swallowed and nodded
. Striving to emulate Valkarr’s casual demeanor, he followed the warrior out of the alley. As he passed, he noted the cutthroats lying in spreading pools of blood, their own daggers jutting from their still forms. He shuddered. Valkarr bore not a scratch, not a stray drop of blood; he had not even drawn his own weapons in the brief scuffle.

Back on the main street
of the trade district, Valkarr received a few curious looks, but no one appeared alarmed. Like Halthak, the cutthroats had not even managed to raise a cry before the action was over. Amric emerged from the crowd and flashed Halthak a grin.

“I am relieved you are still
well, healer. It seems you will be safer in our company for a time after all, as there is a price on all our heads.” He held up a hand as Halthak’s mouth dropped open. “Save your questions for now. We must leave the streets immediately. I sent the watch patrol to the docks with a false report of a disturbance there, so that we could operate without interference here, but they will be returning soon with a host of uncomfortable questions. And those buffoons in the alley were merely the most impatient and least skilled of those who will be after us.”

Halthak shot a panicked glance to either side
. “Where can we go to be safe?” he stammered.

“Safe
? Nowhere in this city, I’m afraid,” Amric replied. Then a boyish grin spread across his features. “But until we have a better plan, I know where we can go that will make most attackers think twice.”

 

 

 

Amric pushed the food around on his plate, lost in thought. Across the table, Valkarr was wolfing down his meal with typical abandon, and Halthak showed almost as much enthusiasm for his own. Amric hid a smile as he pretended not to notice the abashed glances the healer shot in his direction. It was evident that the healer did not frequently enjoy a full belly, and hunger had overwhelmed his manners on a meal he accepted with outward reluctance and inward relief. The warrior found it hard to fault him, as the Sleeping Boar served excellent food indeed.

BOOK: The Essence Gate War: Book 01 - Adept
5.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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