We learn how Kal ended up in the situation from the first chapter.
For those of you reading The Runesmith Chronicles for the first time I recommend going back and starting with Book 1 (just search for The Runesmith Chronicles or click on my name). It isn't necessary, but it will give you have a better understanding of how things like the magic system works and what's going on.
Each time I put up a new post I update my Bio with the latest Chapters and projects I'm working on.
As always votes and feedback are greatly appreciated!
Edited by: Old Fart
As Kal stirred the pan's ingredients and prepared to cook up the small pile of meats he had picked out for his guest, he thought back to the events from almost two weeks ago that had gotten him into this situation...
Standing before a heavy wooden door, Kal lifted large iron ring attached to it and let it fall, the sharp clang as it struck the metal plate echoing throughout the clearing around him. Looking up, he wondered why so many wizards he'd heard about lived in towers. Quite often, their homes were described as garish structures that stuck out from their surroundings in a way that made them impossible to ignore. The one in front of him was no different. Standing far above the trees in a small forest northwest of Carriston, it was easily seen from a great distance away. Then again, he couldn't judge them too harshly since he planned on setting up a small city in the middle of a mountain.
He felt the faint vibrations of people moving around inside the tower long before he could hear anyone through the thick oaken door.
"Master! Someone is at the door! Can I let them in?!" came a female voice from above.
Kal looked up just in time to see a flash of golden hair disappear into one of the tower's windows, followed by a faint grumbling response from someone further inside. A few seconds later a wizened old face emerged from the same opening.
"What do you want?" he said with a sneer.
"My name is Kal," he called up to the man, "I'm looking for someone to teach..."
"Go away! Come back in ten years when you've learned enough about magic to not waste my time." The old man ducked back inside just as Kal was about to respond.
The young mage sighed, he hadn't expected to be welcomed with open arms, but this was still disappointing. Even as he walked away, he knew that he couldn't give up. For a generous donation to the coffers of Carriston's lord, one of the viziers had told him of a mage who was known to be well versed in dreamwalking and Astral magics.
The lich that had dragged Ikuno into the Astral Plane and attacked her was still out there somewhere. Luckily, Azrin appeared to lose interest in Kal once he had exacted his revenge upon the oni. In the time since Ikuno returned to her shrine, there had been no sign of him. On the other hand, with Kal's pitiful knowledge of dreamwalking, the undead mage could be standing right next to him in astral form and Kal wouldn't have known.
That's why he needed this wizard. He wasn't very interested in learning how to dreamwalk, but he needed to be able to protect himself and prevent the lich from doing the same thing a second time.
"I'm not cheap! Bring a bunch of money when you come back!" came a yell from behind him.
Kal spun around and yelled back, "Money is not... a problem," he finished lamely. The man had already walked away from the window. He shook his head as he continued back towards where he had made camp.
The heavy iron doorknocker crashed into the strike plate again the next day, this time Kal stepped back and looked up toward the window the man had spoken from yesterday. He only waited a few moments before a pretty blonde girl stuck her head out, her paws resting on the windowsill.
Kal looked again and, sure enough, there were paws instead of hands. As he looked closer he noticed that what he had thought was just blonde hair included two ears with rounded bottoms that hung down nearly to her jaw. Those ears cocked forward, and her head tilted to the side for a moment before a big grin split her face.
"It's the man from yesterday!" she yelled to someone inside, presumably the old wizard. "I'm going to let him in!"
The dog girl vanished from the window but was caught up short by an emphatic, "No!" from the wizard followed by some angry grumbling that Kal couldn't make out.
"But he might be a friend!" she said. A paw appeared out the window as she motioned in his direction.
"He might also be a thief or a ruffian," heard Kal as the man approached the window. A moment later the wizard leaned out and glared down at the younger mage, "I told you, you're too young to learn from the likes of me, go away already."
"But I can already use... dammit," again the old man walked away before he could finish speaking.
The golden-haired dog girl stuck her head out the window and was about to say something when the tower's master yelled for her. With a smile and a quick wave goodbye, she too disappeared inside.
Feeling more than a little dejected, Kal began making his way back to his tent.
Over the next week, Kal visited every day at about the same time. Within only a couple of days, the chipper dog girl started waiting for him at the window. One knock on the door and one request to speak to the wizard was all he made each day, though by the end of the week he found himself staying longer just to speak with the wizard's servant.
"Are you a slave?" asked Kal. He was laying on the grass beneath the window with his hands behind his head since it made it easier to speak with her.
She had shifted her arms back to human and was now resting her head on them as she leaned on the windowsill. She thought for a long moment before replying, "I think I am. My mother was a slave and ran away to have me. She ended up here right after I was born and, according to Master, died almost as soon as she gave me to him. But Master has had other wizards visit and he has never treated me like those men treat their slaves or put one of those nasty collars on me." A grin crept across her face and her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, "Although we still do the slave stuff sometimes, especially when I'm in heat," she said her eyes twinkling like she had just revealed some big secret. "I try to get him to do it more often, but he tells me he is too old and needs to save his energy, so he can make it through my next cycle."
Kal laughed, "You sound less like a slave and more like a companion."
The dog girl stood straight up, the strip of leather covering her breasts doing little to keep them from bouncing in a way Kal had to admit he found very pleasing. It had been a while for the mage. "Companion! I like the sound of that! I want to be Master's companion!" Her arms shifted back to those of a golden-furred canine and she went bounding up the steps behind the window, calling for the old wizard.
A worried look crossed Kal's face as he got up, he hoped his words didn't end up causing trouble for the good-natured pup. As he began the trek back to his camp, he thought that tomorrow's supply run to Carriston couldn't have come at a better time. The tent he got from Dai took care of several his needs but didn't make things like food and toiletries magically appear. If things went bad between the girl and wizard, it gave them time to cool down and keep him from getting incinerated by the old man when he returned.
It wasn't the most expensive inn on this side of Carriston, but several merchants had praised it for clean rooms and good food when he arrived in the area a couple of weeks ago. As he stood from his table in the dining room he had to agree with them, at least on the food. Kal politely waved off the barmaid who had been giving him eyes all night as he made his way up to his room. Not that the girl wasn't pretty enough to take to bed, on the contrary, the short brunette was rather comely and the upper clasps on her bodice seemed to be coming undone as the night went on. At the moment, however, Kal was mentally exhausted after a day of haggling and bartering over in the merchant's square while simultaneously being wary of anyone who might be eyeing him up as a potential target. It wasn't the first time since he set out that he wondered how people could live in such a place.
Entering his room, he turned around and twisted the small knob that locked the door. It was strange thinking that the same mechanism was on all the doors back at Master Ellis's inn back in the little town of Telsin where he had grown up, he'd just never noticed because he had never felt the need to use them. Luckily his lesson on the importance of locking his room turned out to be as benign as a drunken patron of the inn stumbling into his room by mistake. Even though the man hadn't meant any harm, the situation turned extremely awkward when Kal jumped out of bed to confront the invader. Over the last two years, he had become used to sleeping in the buff.
That wasn't a habit he was willing to give up just yet. For him, an inn with a reputation for clean beds and rooms would get his consideration before ones deemed upper-class establishments. Besides, though he was by no means poor, there was no sense in wasting the money he had.
Kal removed the leather vambraces from his forearms and set them next to his pillow. He'd never been attacked while staying at an inn but felt it was wise to have the runes that enhanced his strength and speed nearby in case that changed, he didn't need to worry about the healing rune since it was now tattooed on his back.
As he climbed into bed he took a moment to be grateful for Ria's assistance on his journey so far. She stored items in a kind of stasis where they stopped aging, this meant that he could make these trips into the city less often since the food he purchased would never go bad while it was inside her.
He was just about to drift off when he felt a surge of pleasure through his bond with Perra.
'Missing me?' he asked her.
'You have no idea! I was thinking I would be in the mood less once I was pregnant, but it seems to be the exact opposite. Kahrin was kind enough to loan me one of her toys to help take the edge off.'
'I imagine that came with a price?'
Kal felt Perra's laughter through the connection, 'Sort of. She asked me to return it unwashed after I've just used it, so she can clean it off herself then drag Bren back to their room. I'm not sure what his thing is with my taste but it's kind of cute how flustered he gets at the idea. Kahrin finally told me that while he has always had a thing for the taste of women, he only gets all embarrassed when it's me.
'For some reason that doesn't surprise me. Is her toy the reason you were so loud a few minutes ago?'
'Enough that I felt it way over here.'
'It was nice to have something to squeeze down on, I might need to get one of these for myself. It would have been even nicer if it had been you.'
'Sorry, dear. Feel like another round? I wasn't in the mood when I came to bed, but you sort of changed that."
'At the same time? Absolutely!'
Kal smiled as he threw his bedclothes down towards his feet. He wrapped his fingers around himself as he started focusing on what Perra's hand was doing far, far away back in their farmhouse.
Kal approached the tower two days later, having arrived too late yesterday for a visit. He wasn't terribly surprised when the golden-haired dog girl didn't greet him at the window. Without using his speed or haste runes, Carriston was nearly a day's travel from the wizard's tower. With the travel there and back, as well as a day for shopping, three days had passed since their last conversation.
He hoped that her discussion about upgrading her status from slave to companion had gone well. He failed to see any issue, from her own description he treated her more like a companion and it would do little more than change her title. That said, one thing he had learned was that humans could be weird about titles. Even in his own experience, he had a difficult time adjusting to the idea that he was now a mage once he had left most of his farming duties behind. Not to mention when he revealed to the townsfolk of Telsin that he was a magic-user, and everyone began calling him 'Master.' While their interactions may not change dramatically, having the dog girl as a companion would put them on more even footing than a Master/slave relationship. He could see where an old man stuck in his ways might have a problem with that.
He lifted the heavy piece of iron hanging from the front of the door and let it fall, announcing his presence. Kal then stepped back far enough to see into the lowest window, through which he had spoken to the tower's occupants before. He knew that there was a spiral stair that ran right behind the opening and he waited intently for some sign of movement since he was too far away to feel vibrations from the people inside.
"Ria, I need my staff," he said to the pouch on his belt after he saw the old wizard pass by. Apparently, things had not gone well with the dog girl's request for a status change. The older mage must have been sprinting down the steps, but the tiny flash Kal saw of him showed a man enraged. A moment later a speck of light from his bag of holding touched his palm and a staff with a gold cap on one end and a platinum one on the other appeared. He then reached out and touched the runes on his vambraces with magic, but didn't activate them. This allowed him to keep them in a primed state where he could easily pour magic into them with a thought.
There was a quiet click before the door swung inward as if kicked in by a giant. The ear-splitting shriek of protest from the metal hinges made Kal wince but he couldn't free up his hands to cover his ears. The old wizard was stomping towards the open doorway and already about halfway through drawing the rune for his spell with the tip of a wand. Kal recognized the rune but had never seen this particular spell cast before, he also knew he had a fraction of a second to either take it head on or get out of the way. Taking the spell head-on was doable but would bite deeply into his magic reserves, it also would look amazing and show the old man that he was a formidable wizard worthy of teaching.
Deciding that the man wasn't in the mood to talk about Kal's education opportunities, he chose the wiser route and activated his strength rune, jumping up and towards the tower. In the same moment he went airborne, a small streak of flame sizzled through the air where he had just been standing. Kal's feet came to rest on the tower wall and he reached out with his knowledge of geomancy to anchor himself to the stone, the strength rune staying lit up with a dull glow that gave him the ability to stand upright despite the odd angle.
He looked up just in time to see the spell reach the end of its range where it ballooned into a swirling mass of orange and red flames nearly ten paces across. Perhaps he shouldn't joke about getting incinerated as he had at the end of his last visit. A blast of hot air buffeted Kal as the flames dissipated, pushing back the old wizard who had just barely stepped out of the door. The fireball vanished so quickly that only the grass near the very center was charred and still alight in places. The remainder of the plants in the area were only singed, including a few of the nearby trees on the edge of the tower's clearing. Seeing the blackened circle and how large the flaming sphere had been, Kal was glad that he had gotten out of the way. If that had hit him where he was standing it might have engulfed the old mage as well.
The thought flickered through his head that he was being a bit arrogant about the situation, being more concerned about the old man than his own safety. However, the fire resistance rune on his bracer was unique. Where other runes of this type were throttled to keep the magic requirements within reason, Kal had modified his and removed the restriction. Instead, he opted for a bit of resistance where the limit had been but was something he could push through if necessary. Going beyond that point, the energy needed got increasingly larger as the protection included higher and higher temperatures.
Regaining his feet just inside the door, the wizard ran outside and peered about, searching for the young man.
"Listen, I'm sorry about..."
The mage whipped around at the sound of his voice, brandishing the wand and screaming "Give her back!" In an instant, the man had drawn another spell then shoved the wand through the rune still floating in the air. The ornate piece of wood drew in the glowing rune near its base, carvings along the wand's length lit up with eldritch power as the spell traveled toward its tip. Kal brought his arm up in front of him and a magical shield snapped into place above an aqua colored rune. The energy gathered at the tip of the wand momentarily before a lavender bolt of energy streaked towards the younger man.
The force of the impact stung Kal's arm and places on the shield quickly reformed from where the bolt had stripped it away. He stared wide-eyed over the edge of the glowing disk at the man on the ground, Ikuno's spells hadn't hit that hard!
The wizard was also looking up in surprise, this boy had summoned a shield without drawing a rune or creating a magic circle, not to mention that the shield had survived his wand-enhanced magic bolt. It was also slowly sinking that this man was casually standing on the wall of his tower as if it were level ground.
"I don't have her!" said Kal hurriedly as he saw the old man recover and begin drawing another spell. The only 'her' the mage could be talking about was his dog girl servant as far as he knew.
"Liar! You were the one who brought up that companion nonsense and when I told her no, she ran off to be with you! For the last week you are all she has talked about," the man's voice went from angry to bitter.
"I've been off getting supplies the last few days! I haven't even been around! Besides, if I had taken her why on earth would I come back? Certainly not to end up looking like that!" he pointed with the end of his staff at the circle of blackened grass, his other arm was still occupied with maintaining the shield.
The wizard considered his words for a moment before releasing the spell he had partially drawn, another one of those hard-hitting energy bolts, but he didn't lower his wand. "Then why are you here?"
Kal sighed, "For the same reason I started coming here. I need to learn how to protect myself from astral attacks."
"You don't know astral magic?" the man seemed genuinely confused.
The young mage shook his head, "My teacher had no aptitude for it, so she couldn't teach me."
The wizard's confusion deepened as he processed what the young magic-user had said. Kal raised his shield as the man began drawing another rune in the air but this one didn't seem directed at him. When the wizard activated the spell the magic instead flowed towards the man's ears and eyes. "Answer me honestly, did you take Rose?"
Now Kal understood, the man had cast a lie detection spell. "Rose? Is that the dog girl's name?" The wizard nodded. "No, and I haven't seen her since the last time she and I spoke here at the tower."
"Do you know any astral spells?"
Kal had to think for a moment, "Some of my cantrips might be astral in nature but beyond that, no."
"Do you know where Rose is?"
"Odd question, but no, I don't."
The old mage thought for a moment before cursing under his breath and walking back into the tower, slamming the door behind him. The soft click once the door was shut making it quite clear that he didn't want to be followed.
"Hey! Wait!" Kal yelled as the man walked beneath him. Growling in annoyance, he carefully walked up the side of the tower to the window above and pulled himself inside. He made no attempt to be discreet or quiet, so it was no surprise when the old man came stomping up the stairs, waving his wand at the young magic-user.
"How dare you come into my tower uninvited!"
Kal raised a questioning eyebrow but made no motion to defend himself, "Honestly I'm surprised I'm standing here, I would have suspected you would have some kind of defense over the windows."
The older man's face fell, "I used to, but Rose loves to look out over the forest. I couldn't figure out a way to do it without taking that away from her." Without his anger to keep him going, the man looked like he was about to burst into tears.
"Why did you walk away? Our business wasn't done yet," asked Kal in an attempt to steer the man away from breaking down.
"Yes, it was," snapped the wizard, "you didn't take her and don't know where she is. You're useless to me."
"Hardly, just because I'm young doesn't mean I'm worthless. Besides, since I first came here, I've come to think of Rose as a friend, so I have an interest in finding her too."
"And what makes you think you can help?" the man sneered.
"Because you haven't found her yet."
The old mage was clearly taken aback, "What...?"
"I know how locater spells work, they take you the most direct route to whatever you are trying to find. I also know from the high court in Carriston that you are a dreamwalker, I have to imagine that finding her that way was one of the first things you tried." The man's expression steeled as Kal's points hit home. "Finally, you think she was taken because none of your divination attempts were successful, which means you think she is hidden and warded."
"Fantastic deduction, but that doesn't explain how you can help me."
"Because up until a few years ago I was a farmer and needed to trap and hunt a portion of my food, especially during winter. The trail may be a few days old, but I should still be able to track her, from there we might be able to figure out who took her. Once she's back we can talk about teaching me about dreamwalking."
"I'll not waste my time teaching some youngster."
Kal shrugged, "So be it, but remember, I'm neither a pile of ash outside or pinned to the wall of your tower. Your time may not be as wasted as you think. Enough of that, the trail grows colder even as we speak, change into something more suited for traveling quickly in the forest and meet me outside." Kal momentarily considered walking through the wizard's house and leaving through the front door but decided that he had invaded the man's home long enough. A quick hop sent him over the sill of the narrow window, the feather fall rune slowing him so coming to rest on the ground was no more jarring than stepping off the bottom step of his front porch. Without looking back, he made his way to the clearing edge to wait for the older mage.
Once there, he groaned with annoyance, he'd forgotten to ask the old man his name.
Kal hoped that Kelthor's assessment of there being few natural dangers within the forest was accurate since the older mage had no concept of moving quickly and quietly through the woods. After almost an hour of traveling, he honestly felt like having a large boulder rolling along behind him would make less noise. It wasn't just the snapping twigs underfoot or walking into low lying branches from not paying attention, it was the incessant chatter that was slowly driving Kal insane. He simply did not need to know the man's entire life story. On the other hand, hearing that he had grown up in a large city far off to the east as the son of a wealthy merchant did explain his sorry excuse for woodsman's skills.
Kal's ordeal came to an end just a little over an hour into the journey, heralded by a strange angular bird that came flapping directly towards them. Kal watched with fascination as the little bird fluttered in front of Kelthor's face for a moment before unfolding into a piece of parchment that the old mage snatched out of the air, his eyes widening with each line he read.
The wizard looked up at the younger mage, his eyes full of fear, "Slavers took her, they want a ransom."
"I guess we're heading back to the tower then, unless you would rather stop by my camp, it's actually not far from here."
Sadness crept into Kelthor's voice, "No, I need to go home so I can look through my coffers. I won't have much left after this," he said handing the parchment over.
After reading the letter, Kal whistled at the figure they were asking, that was a lot of money. He looked up at the other mage, "Seems like a lot to pay just to get a slave back."
Kelthor turned around and drew a rune in the air, a wispy line of light visible only to him pointed the way back to the tower. "Rose has never tasted gondas weed," he said over his shoulder.
Kal gave him a questioning look. That was certainly an odd way to start a conversation but it already sounded more interesting than the inane prattle he had listened to on the way out here.
Seeing the question in the younger man's eyes, Kelthor continued, "She's never needed it. My early years were taken up with study. Occasionally I'd hire some company for the night but never pursued anything serious with the womenfolk. In my birth city of Laramin the first son gets most of the business, the second son gets the rest, the third son is given to the church. Since I was my father's fourth son I was going to either find a trade or depend on the goodwill of my older brothers for the rest of my life." His sardonic smile and mirthless chuckle told Kal that his brothers were not the types to be looking after their younger siblings.
"I threw myself into the books, and therein lies my mistake. I learned enough to get the attention of the church. As you know, they don't like us mages. A group of squires around my own age cornered me by a church and nearly beat me to death, they took special pleasure in making sure that I wouldn't have children I could teach my 'heathen magic' to. A cleric came out and stopped them, but once they told him I was a magic user he only healed me enough to keep me from dying, from the look on his face it disgusted him to do even that. I believe that the squires accomplished their goal, I have taken many lovers over the years but not one of them gave me a child.
Until Rose's mother showed up on my doorstep, that is. Wracked with pain from her slave collar's punishment for running away and holding a small bundle with the daughter she had just given birth to. Her only words to me were that she couldn't let her daughter be born into slavery and asked me to watch over her pup. After handing me Rose she ran off into the forest. A couple of days later I followed some circling vultures and found her body, she had managed to tear half-way through the collar before finally passing."
He glanced over at Kal, "Rose is the closest thing I've ever had to a daughter, I take care of her heats because, like most dog girls, they can be so intense they cause her pain when not sated, nothing more. When she got old enough to hear the story of her mother she came to her own conclusion that she's a slave. I simply never corrected her, it makes it easier to keep her safe." His voice dropped nearly to a growl, "Then some snot-nosed mage comes along and tells her that she is more of a companion based on how I treat her. Do you have any idea how that felt? Your daughter coming up to you and asking you to treat her more like a wife and everything that goes along with it?"
"Not yet," Kal replied calmly. It wasn't easy but Kal was managing to largely stay next to the older man as they returned to the wizard's home
There was a long pause between them, "What do you mean, 'Not yet'?"
"I have daughters with an alarune, butterfly, and a couple of rock girls. I've been warned that when they reach maturity, at least for a while, they won't see me as their father, just another man who can give them a child. Keep in mind, these are my daughters by blood, not ones that I have adopted. That's why I said, 'Not yet', your situation is just something I'll have to deal with in the future."
"You expect me to believe you have that many children with that many women at your age?"
Kal shrugged, "It's more than that actually, you can re-cast your lie detection spell if you like."
"I think I'll just let you have this one. You say that you will have to deal with this in the future, what about now? What would you do in my situation?"
"First off, I would never have let her think she was a slave. Really though, your situation is easy. She's not blood-kin so I'd do whatever would make her happy."
"What if Rose was your daughter by blood? Would you take her as a lover just to make her happy?"
"If she were my daughter...," Kal looked over at the older mage, "In all honesty? I don't know," he said shaking his head. "However, that's really a conversation for you to have with her when we get her back."
"We? I don't see you offering up any money for her return."
"No, but I still need those lessons. How about giving me the chance to rescue her first? The slavers gave you a week to produce the money. I can pose as someone in the market for a slave, find out where they are and what it will take to get Rose out of there."
Kelthor looked the young mage up and down, "I'm seeing huge problems with your plan already. I think I'll just pay the money."
"That hurts," said Kal, frowning, "care to tell me why?"
The wizard stopped and turned toward the young man, "You have a presence more akin to a snow hare than a slave owner and you hardly look like you'd be able to kill a den of armed slavers and thieves."
"Rabbits can be dangerous! They have big sharp pointy teeth!" Kal paused for a moment but just got a raised eyebrow in response, "Fair enough, on one of those you are right, I'm not too keen on killing anyone, even if they probably deserve it. I was thinking more along the lines of a sleeping spell, I'm familiar with it and have plenty of dust."
Kelthor shook his head, "I applaud your sense of morality, but you have made a poor choice in professions if you think you will get away with never taking a life. I certainly wasn't so lucky."
Kal smiled, "I understand that, but I still hope that the first time is worth what I will lose when it happens. I'd rather it be someone worthwhile instead of some filth-ridden slaver."
The older mage thought for a moment before nodding in acceptance and starting back towards the tower. "What about the fact that you look nothing like someone who would purchase or keep slaves?"
"You can thank the merchants I've run into on my journey so far for teaching me how to look like someone who will likely kill them if they give me a bad deal. The acting part is the least of our worries," said Kal as he came up beside the wizard. "I think the biggest concern is that they have a mage working for them."
Kelthor gave him a questioning look, "Where did you come up with that?"
"You can't find Rose when dreamwalking and their ransom note flew to us and unfolded itself for you to read."
The older mage chuckled, "In a city like Carriston wards and messenger parchment are both easily available from the mage's guild for a bit of coin. Most wizards wouldn't stand for the conditions of a slavers' or thieves' den, they tend to be just a hair better than a cesspool."
"That's a relief, I wasn't looking forward to having it out with another mage so soon."
"What can you tell me about the slavers in the area?" Kal asked, sitting in front of the Chief Constable's desk. On his second day in town, a couple of ruffians had thought to relieve the newcomer of his coin. A short time later Kal had dragged them into this man's office by their collars, bruised and beaten but still breathing, while the young man doing the dragging hadn't broken a sweat.
"Not a lot, they are well hidden and well-funded. Their leader, Kogen, supplies the elite around here with a variety of 'toys' but the dogs are the only ones I know of that he keeps on hand. If someone wants a cat, harpy, goblin, lamia, he'll go get one for a price, from what I understand some of the lords and ladies enjoy the novelty. It also means that even though slavery is technically illegal in Carriston, that only applies to human slavery and we've been told to turn a blind eye to his activities," the Chief looked like he had just bit into something sour.
Kal couldn't blame him, the situation sounded unpleasant. Unfortunately, that wasn't quite what he was needing to know. "What can you tell me about Kogen himself?"
"Great beast of a man, a couple of hands taller than me. Carries around a giant sword and unless you're one of the local whores you'll never see him without his armor, rumor has it that he doesn't even take it off and just removes the codpiece. He's traded quite a few slaves for various enchanted weapons and such, if you see him carrying something, assume it's magic. When people put in special orders for monster girls, he personally goes and fills it, alone I might add, so I'd bet a silver that he knows what he's doing with that sword of his.
"If you have some time I can go over everything we've learned about him."
Kal gave the Chief a questioning look, "You're being unusually forthcoming."
The leader of the constabulary leaned over his desk, dropping his voice to a whisper. "I want them and their whole business gone. It's a stain on what I do and a stain on this city. Even the town guard and the night watch want Kogen and his ilk gone. Problem is, if I take him down I lose my job because I've pissed on the upper houses' fun. I've got a wife and kids, I can't do that. However, if you go and rescue this pup and happen to kill Kogen, me and the captains of the guard and watch are in the clear."
Kal scowled, "I'm not an assassin, I've never killed anyone."
"Of course, you're not!" said the Chief, "You're a young man going off to rescue a woman from slavery. Then again, your rescue just might put you in a bad situation with a man who I'd be happy to be rid of. If that happens, I'll do what I can to make sure you come out on top. Besides, assassins get paid, and I'm not giving you a copper.
"No reward for taking Kogen down?"
The chief constable shook his head, "That reward would have to come from the Lord's coffers, I understand that he has put in a couple of those special orders."
Kal grimaced, "I'm having a hard time believing that the Lord and his court would do something so... vile."
The Chief shook his head, "You need to remember Kal, your situation is different from a lot of people. You see monster girls the same way as you do humans. Most people out here in the world see them as less than human and more like livestock. The rest of them go along with the church and consider them abominations, more than ready to kill the monster girls and anyone who sleeps with them, whether it was willing or not. Even I have a hard time listening to you talk about having kids with your women of your own free will. I don't think I could do the same."
Kal was taken aback by the Chief's words, they'd talked about monster girls before, but the man had never spoken of his own views. The moment didn't last long, when he thought about it he wasn't really that surprised. Kal was just disappointed because he thought he had found someone more understanding of the girls.
He pushed those thoughts aside and drove the sadness from his expression. "If you have more information on Kogen I'd like to hear it."
The door to the shop swung open in complete silence revealing shelves filled with knick-knacks and other novelties on either of the walls and a counter in the back of the room. Off to one side on the back wall, a gray, torn piece of cloth hung over the doorway that led further into the building. Instead of replacing the broken panes, boards nailed over windows let in a pittance of light. The merchant behind the counter could have been mistaken as a seller of dust and cobwebs with the thick layers that coated his wares. The man who just entered ignored all of that and stepped up to the counter, which happened to be the only spot in the room that appeared clean, he was well aware that the items on the shelves were not what people bought here.
Rist didn't look up from his scales as the cloaked man walked into his shop, "You're on the wrong side of town to be wearing that finery sir, people might think you have too much money."
"Those that think so may find themselves dead in the street. If I'm on the wrong side of town then the constables won't care."
The merchant snorted, "Constables? Here? You see yourself as a joker."
"Neither you nor the men hiding on either side of me are laughing."
Rist's eyes narrowed in suspicion. With their stealth enhancing magic items, few people were able to see the assassins-turned-bodyguards he'd hired away from the thieves' guild. "No, they are not," he said waving the men back into their shadows. Beneath the stranger's cloak, a light blue glow trapped between the man's arm and the inside-out leather vambrace he wore faded as the men disappeared into the darkness on either side of the room once again. "You have my attention, now you must choose whether or not to use it wisely."
"I'm looking for a bitch."
Rist sighed, for such a promising start, he had hoped the man might prove to be slightly interesting. "Madame Tufa's whorehouse is just up the street," he said, his voice filled with disappointment. The information wasn't even worth charging for.
The man leaned down producing a gold coin that he proceeded to roll back and forth across his knuckles. "I'm looking for something more permanent, something I can take home with me, and something that nobody is going to yell if I break her." He flipped the coin into the air and fast as lightning Rist reached out and snatched it. Something felt wrong and he opened his hand to find it empty.
Across the counter the cloaked man was still casually rolling the coin over his knuckles, a smirk playing at a corner of his mouth. "You don't get paid until I get something of value."
The information broker scowled, "There's a pauper's grave just beyond the fields on the south side of the east road. Tomorrow morning be waiting on this side of the small church at the grave. A black wagon will stop and pick you up on their way back to the city. If you are lucky, they won't have hauled anything yet."
The man in the cloak nodded flipping the coin in the air letting it fall into his open hand, with a slight flourish he laid the gold piece on the counter, a second appearing next to it. "I wasn't here."
Rist passed his hand over the coins and they vanished without his fingers moving, "I've no idea who you are talking about good sir but perhaps you would like to check out some of my wares?" he called after the cloaked man who had spun on his heel and was already on his way out the door.
When the man had left, Rist jotted a few words onto a small piece of parchment and held it out over the counter. The note let the slavers know they had a customer and made sure he received his finder's fee, the best jobs were the ones that paid twice.
A shadow detached itself from its place next to a set of shelves, the darkness dripping off him like water as he walked out into the meager light. The information broker felt the paper taken from his hand. Three years the man had worked for him and Rist still wouldn't look him in the eye, it was like staring into the face of death itself. "Deliver that to Kogen," he instructed the assassin, "No, wait. Give it to Sylus." While the man in the cloak talked a good game, he didn't have the air of a killer about him, unlike the apparition that was now silently making his way to the rear entrance of the shop. There was no sense in involving the slavers' leader when it was likely the boy was just in the market for a new toy. Rist smiled, never underestimate a young man's drive to get his dick wet.
The shadows were starting to lengthen when Kal finally made it out of Carriston's western gate, the guards paying him little heed as he was obviously not one of the nobles. Loners and small groups of people leaving were of not their main concern right now as part of their jobs was to collect taxes on the goods coming in, currently both farmers and merchants alike were trying to get into the city before the gates closed at sundown, so they could set up in the market square first thing in the morning. As Kal walked by, tax collectors evaluated the worth of goods on a number of carts and wagons pulled off to the side while guardsmen checked for any signs of smuggling.
In his first city, Kal had been appalled that such measures were necessary. Back in Telsin, only things sold within the town proper were taxed. If a merchant was suspected of making shady deals or cheating the town, a council member would sit in on their stall for the rest of the day. Then again, if the small farming community had two traveling merchants set up on the same day, they would talk about it for weeks like a gigantic Bazaar had magically appeared and sold everything from potatoes to dragon eggs. When Kal considered the huge numbers of goods that passed through these cities each day, he quickly lost the inclination to fault their methods.
He did consider these particular guardsmen lucky, over here on the western side of the city there were none of the black boxed-in wagons to check. Although, in his explorations he did notice that the eastern guards only occasionally checked the wagons returning from the pauper's grave, letting a few go through before pulling one off to the side.
Once he was far enough away to be out of sight for the guards on the gate ramparts, he pushed some magic into a rune of his own making. The haste rune glowed bright blue in the middle while the outer ring was a tan color. An image of the rune lifted slightly off the vambrace and the outer ring began spinning. When it was going fast enough the ring broke along the thick lines that split up the protection phrase inside it. The phrase was necessary to keep him from turning into a gooey smear if he happened to accidentally run into something at full speed, such an occurrence might hurt a lot and result in some broken bones but wouldn't kill him. As the magic from the rune in the middle finally pushed past the gaps in the outer ring he began jogging towards the northwest where his camp and Kelthor's tower was located, moving more quickly than any horse could run.
A moment later the stamina rune started glowing on his other bracer. He had a lot of ground to cover before morning and couldn't afford to be taking a break because he was tired.
The moon was well past its zenith when Kal stopped on the northern edge of Carris Forest, his eyes glowing red from a darkvision spell. After packing up his tent, he'd made his way back out of Kelthor's forest onto the plain where the city was located and turned south until he ran into the Forest of Carris. He then made his way east along its northern edge, far from any possible onlookers.
Kal realized about the time that Carriston was directly north of him that he had no idea where the city's common grave was, he hadn't been that far east yet. Finding a spot where there was a fair gap in the farms he made his way back up to the eastern road, following it until he could see the small church Rist had spoken of. After getting his bearings he returned to Carris Forest and stepped inside, looking for a place to set up camp.
"Panta," The small white square of cloth Kal had thrown on the ground began unfolding itself over and over, unfurling into a rectangle just large enough for two people to lie on comfortably with a little bit of room around them. The top then started to lift as poles extended from the bottom on either end and formed the peak of the tent. The canvas material, which had been slightly loose, pulled taut, gathering at each of the corners but never bunching up.
"Vanya," the odd pronunciations of the elvish language still felt uncomfortable to him but even as he spoke the tent seemed to vanish before his eyes. The gray fabric taking on a splotchy coloration that perfectly mimicked its surroundings. Kal breathed a sigh of relief, not having to say the word at least twice to get the shelter to do anything. He checked behind him once more to make certain he wasn't visible from the forest edge, or the plain beyond, before turning back to the tent
"Velu," he said, unsealing the tent flap and stepping inside. Upon entering he immediately stripped down and fell into bed. Even with the stamina rune, he was still exhausted, and he only had a couple of hours to sleep before he needed to be back at the east road to meet his ride.
The sun was just peeking over the tops of the trees when a bleary-eyed Kal saw the first of the black boxed-in wagons coming up the road. The driver and his helper just glared at the hooded figure on the side of the road. He cursed himself for not realizing that the ones who weren't his ride would likely know what he was waiting for, he didn't like the idea of anyone thinking he was a slave owner. However, as he watched, this first wagon never stopped or went into the common grave, just turning around in front of the small church.
The driver stopped the cart right in front of him and the passenger vaulted off the seat, silently walking back and opening one of the two doors on the rear.
Kal glowered at the man as he approached, "I'm having a hard time believing that nobles come out here and get carted around in the back of a corpse wagon." He really hadn't gotten enough sleep last night and it was showing in his tone.
The thug chuckled, "Nobles gets theirs delivered. You'se is a stranger. In ya go."
The mage frowned and shook his head before climbing in and taking a seat on one of the benches jutting from the sides. As the door closed a faint light started to emanate from the small orb in the front corner. While not pleasant, the odor wasn't horrible, it was easy to tell that this particular wagon had hauled its share of bodies but also that it hadn't done so in quite some time.
There was a slight shaking as the man who had opened the door climbed up into his seat next to the driver. With the crack of a whip muffled by a layer of wood, the cart began bouncing along the road as they made their way to the slavers' hideout.
Kal's heart jumped into his throat as he heard the command from the guards at the gate.
"You're being inspected! Pull over there!" yelled the guard.
"Aye," was the driver's response, just before Kal felt the wagon shift to the side as if making a sharp turn.
He only waited a couple of minutes before two guardsmen opened the back doors finding a lone hooded, cloaked figure sitting on one of the benches. The light winked out as the door unlatched, its small size and the dark interior making it effectively invisible to the guards. Kal was grateful for the fresh air, as the sun climbed higher in the sky the inside of the wagon was getting decidedly hot an uncomfortable. He risked a peek out the side of his hood and was unhappy with what he saw. One of the guards was frowning while the other was grinning from ear to ear.
The smiling guard began closing his door when he noticed the other hadn't moved. He playfully swatted the frowning man's arm with the back of his hand. "Don't be like that, this means we're getting paid tonight." The dour-looking guardsman grunted and closed his door. "They're good!" the man called to someone off to the side as he sealed the mage in once again. Kal assumed that the driver was given some sort of gesture since the wagon began moving a couple of seconds later.
He quickly figured out that they were taking the long way to the slaver's hideout and that people along the wagon's route were either warned or paid off to keep quiet as they passed by. Numerous times a street hawker went silent as they came upon him or her, only to start up again once the wagon was a good distance down the road. It was effective, by the time they began down a slope that took them underground, Kal was completely confused as to where they might be within the city.
The cart continued underground a short time before leveling off. Soon after, they made a tight turn so the wagon faced back the way it came. The driver and his helper dismounted and a few seconds later loud thumps echoed repeatedly in the large room as they closed a set of large wooden gates.
After a few seconds, the rear doors opened. Torchlight revealed the faces of the driver and helper, behind them was a clay wall propped up by heavy wooden beams with sconces nailed to them. A wooden door in the middle of the wall appeared to be Kal's next destination. "Were 'ere. Out ya go," said the helper
The slavers took a step back as the man exited the wagon, the cold hard stare on his face was genuine. From the lack of sleep, the bruising ride, the unbearable heat, the fact that he was hot and sweaty before remembering that he now had an adaptation rune just for these situations, discovering that the town guard was paid off, and finally the slavers' unknown victory in managing to keep the hideout location from him despite his best efforts; Kal was in a properly foul mood.
"Through da door, the chap in dere checks ya fer weapons afore ya sees da bitches," said the helper jerking a thumb in the direction of the door behind them.
Kal strode forward shouldering the slaver out of the way and getting an indignant, yet satisfying, squawk out of the thug. Opening the door, a wave of putrid fumes washed over him that all seemed to emanate from the disgusting man sitting at a table in the small room. Swallowing down the bile threatening to rise in his throat, the mage stepped inside and slammed the door behind him.