The night was hushed, seeming to fear the sounds of unbridled horror issuing forth from deep in the woods, screams of memories relived repeatedly in nightmares.
Gabriel woke with a start, casting frenzied looks around her, the images of her dream still dancing behind her golden eyes. Strange eyes they were, like those of a snake. A look contrasting serpentine coldness washed over them, this look was one of sheer terror and confusion. Moments passed as she attempted to calm herself, resting her hands on her stomach for fear of convulsing what little she had eaten back into the open air. The nausea she felt soon settled, and Gabriel wrapped her arms around her lithe body in an attempt to remove the internal chill that crept through her bones, ignoring the sweat drenching her silvery blue tresses. Fear still played across her tanned face, dancing along to the hideous tune of her memories.
A fire, shocking and wicked, hot and all consuming, she was standing at its center. For a moment she could see faces of known neighbours writhing in agony, yet she could feel no pain herself. Dreams, she reminded herself, were sometimes like that. Screams, terror, panic, stemming from this passionate fire. Suddenly she felt outside herself, away from her body she could no longer see, passing through the smoke with her mind empty and chaotic. This, she decided, was when she fainted. She recoiled from the thought of the dream that had been plaguing her since the devastation, and scanned her surroundings for the comfort of reality, what little that was.
She had been asleep, hidden beneath a small copse in Te’ik Forest, the Forest of Shadows. Once this had been a place of solitude for travellers and settlers of the great city of Lou-Rei, her hometown. It was strange at times to think she would never return to the sprawling cityscape, with its cobbled roads and handsome architecture. So strange, in fact, that she had spent the last two weeks in solitude at the mercy of her own strangely affected mind. The fire, clear, white-hot heat, as pale as cotton and not nearly so inviting, plagued her psyche. She remembered its intensity, her own wounds resulting from the flames were healing, but she was still tormented by the terrible pain of those wounds. If she had cared to note, the scarring was beginning to diminish on her body where the fires had scalded her skin and melted it into a bubbling putrescence. The pain was unbearable, in her heart, mind and soul. Her life had been torn away from her, burned to dust on the ground.
Now she was alone, the only survivor of the flames, the only one who could possibly know what had happened. Yet all she knew was the heat, the burning, the confusion, she still did not know what had really occurred. And this scared her. Loneliness was something she knew all her life, and accepted. Orphans, even when adopted at a young age, know loneliness. But never so complete, so resolute. It even began to feel as though her thoughts were invasive and unwanted. She wanted nothing to do with herself or anyone, consumed by fear and loneliness she wanted nothing of life, but was lacking the will to end it all. So she had waited, day by day, for her isolation to consume her entirely. And she would continue waiting, until her life diminished, away from society, away from contact with the world, terrorized by her dreams and memories.
The morning sunlight shined through his window, onto his face. He wasn’t sleeping; he had been awake for a while now. Tenk twitched his whiskers, and scratched behind his left ear subconsciously. Tenk was a Rimmin, a race of humanoid’s half animal and half human; it was their animalistic natures that were predominating. And being a rat, how else could he act but as a sneaking and conniving thief? He sighed reminding himself that it was his rodent nature that had gotten him in this predicament in the first place.
The Te’ik Forest was well known for it’s heavy population of thieves and scoundrels, and Tenk was no exception to this generalization of the populace. He was trapped in a thieves’ inn, known as Chak’s Last Haven, a magically hidden building, practically falling apart in the dark forest. It was a common gathering place of Mots, Krobezes, and Haverns, not to mention a few Rimmins and other thieves. Chak himself was a Mot, clever creatures, short with grey brown skin that easily blended into their wooded surroundings in the forest. Tenk had a respect for the devious nature of the Mots, but that was as far as his respect would stretch among the rest of the thieves. The Krobezes, a large stupid race averaging eight feet tall with muscular bodies, were lumbering idiots, crashing into caravans and killing every last soul who could witness the raid. The Havern’s were worse, the lizard folk who never accepted the term Rimmin for their kind, they were more lizard then human, covered in scales from head to toe and cold blooded like their reptilian kin. More often than not one could find a Havern mind behind a brutal Krobez raid.
Tenk’s thoughts were interrupted when Chak pounded on his door harshly. “Get up an’ off yer lazy rat arse!” The barkeep began yelling at the Rimmin loudly, “There’s work to be done ‘round here, and you ain’t even close to payin’ yer debt!”
Tenk sighed and rolled out of bed, wishing he were free from this place. At first the assurance of a bed every night, warm and out of the cold dark air had seemed a great exchange for confinement. As long as he was here he could easily pay back his debt and at the same time make a little extra money on the side using his crafty talents. Within the week he had been working in the tavern he had proven his initial thoughts quite incorrect. The patrons of the pub were few and generally well known, and those who actually stayed in the inn were not the type to be trifled with. He already knew what kind of watch Chak himself had on his inn, as that was exactly how he had ended up working for the Mot in the first place.
Tenk had intended to stay two days at the inn, a regular customer. But his rat half had gotten the better of him, and he persuaded himself to borrow a bit of the silverware, to melt down once he reached Lou-Rei’s Lower End. Unfortunately for the rat, he was caught, and this was how he was sentenced to repay his debt to the innkeeper. Although he never got away with the intended theft, the insult coupled with the damage from the resulting skirmish was binding him to the tavern and his repayment.
“One more time rat, yer tryin’ my patience. Get out of bed and into the kitchen!” Chak pounded on the door once more on his way back down the stairs, and Tenk grumbled as he pulled a fresh shirt over his large ears, and a pair of trousers over his tail. He pulled open the door and stormed down the stairs, straight to the kitchen through the servants’ door. He was handed an apron by the cook and began stoking the kitchen fires to bake the bread and game for the evening’s dinner. The smell of the morning’s fresh sticky buns spurred him into increased activity. The faster he could get his kitchen chores done, the faster he would be away from the permeating smells of the more expensive foods he craved. Having given all of his personal funds to the innkeeper himself, Tenk survived off the scraps he was given late after the kitchen closed.
After what felt like days working within proximity to the wonderful smells of the kitchen, Tenk was called into the pub, and asked to clean the tables down for the expected afternoon crowd. The labour was in some way easier than working in the kitchens, even though the smell had followed him into the pub and tempted his taste buds still. People began entering the tavern, a few at first, mostly Havern’s and Krobezes, but eventually the tavern began to fill and Tenk was set to work outside cutting lumber for the fireplace and stove. Tenk hated physical labour, but resolved himself that the Mot couldn’t possibly bind him much longer, and it kept him away from the smells of the kitchen. The sun began to set and Tenk was still chopping lumber. He had began to wonder if Chak had forgotten about him when he was called to carry up a few kegs of ale and some casks of mead.
After the rat finished with the last keg he took the opportunity to take a rest, and was offered a tankard of ale by the barkeep. Accepting, Tenk leaned back and began on the other part of his job for Chak – eavesdropping on the patrons and learning some of the news. Nothing interesting to the Rimmin’s standards happened around this area, but Chak was determined to know everything that occurred near his bar, and that was Tenk’s primary usefulness to the Mot.
This night was the same as all the others to Tenk. A handful of raids were executed, a faction of a band of thieves had attempted to attack another, resulting in no death but some irritated nerves. Tenk had finished his fourth drink by this time, and it was growing late. Most of the customers had left the inn for their own hideouts, or were crawling into their beds. The kitchens were near closing, and Tenk placed his empty tankard on the bar and hopped off his stool. He stretched and turned towards the kitchen door when the raucous began outside.
“Is ours, ours!” The bellowing idiocy of a Krobez baritone echoed into the bar, silencing the few regulars left. Tenk’s ears perked up and he snuck towards the door to get a look at who happened to be fighting now.
Outside he saw Ikelen, the Havern who had caught Tenk attempting to steal the silverware. Tenk had immediately disliked the lizard, but after that day he had an even stronger hatred for the creature. Tenk perked his ears up to listen to the conversation between Ikelen and his Krobez cronies.
“Now, now. You just want to eat the poor soul right off? You can have him back; just give the man to me first. I want to know what he was fleeing from.” Ikelen said with the tact of one talking to aggravated children. The second Krobez began to speak up, but the first silenced him with a quick blow to the face, and pointed to a figure lying prone on the ground behind them.
Tenk quickly went into the inn and found Chak, to warn him of what was conspiring on his grounds. The Mot wouldn’t hear of death on his property, it was bad luck. Not to mention that hearing of a man eaten by a Krobez on his protected grounds would be terrible for business. Within an instant Tenk located Chak, and told him of what he saw out front. Chak was furious, and grabbed the arm of the rat and nodded to his Krobez bouncer to follow them. The Mot flicked his fingers as they were out the door and illuminated the area where Ikelen was kneeling with the man who the Krobezes had intended to eat, his head resting in Ikelens hand. The man seemed to be unconscious.
“What in bloody ‘ell is goin’ on out ‘ere Ike? I ‘ear yer gunna let yer flunkies eat a man on my grounds?” Chak was enraged and rushed towards the Havern in a flurry of motion.
“Not so, Chak,” Ikelen began, “I was intending to give them the property we retrieved, this man, after I was through interrogating him. Although he seems to be unconscious, it’s no matter. He may not even survive with wounds like his.” Ikelen then kicked the man hard, and grimaced.
“You will not be giving this man up, Ike. ‘E’s in my care now, an’ thank you for the new property.” Chak nodded to the bouncer, and the Krobez leaned down to pick up the body of the man on the ground.
Ikelen’s arm shot out in front of the bouncer, and rested on Chak’s shoulder, and he began to attempt to sweet talk the Mot to relinquishing the new prisoner. Tenk felt little pity for the man, anyone entering the forest with wounds like that, especially this forest, was guilty of sheer idiocy. Even so, Tenk bent down to look the man once over. He was tall, thin and his skin pale. He was dressed in fine clothing, now burnt and charred, and wore an eye patch over his left eye, which still revealed the scars running down his cheek and up his brow. His hair was singed, but was most likely naturally the same color as the fire’s embers had left it, black. Curiously, Tenk seemed to recognize something of the lithe man’s face, or perhaps it was the manner with which he held himself, even unconscious. Ikelen and Chak were still arguing, the bouncer seemed confused, all had forgotten about the rat’s presence when he yelled out, “This man’s from Lou-Rei, an Ealfin from the Upper End!”
His admonition silenced the arguing, and both faces turned towards Tenk. For a moment no one spoke, just regarded Tenk and the man in front of him. Chak cleared his throat audibly and then turned to the rat, “’Ow do you know this?”
Tenk gestured to the man’s ears, pointed and long, that had been hidden beneath his hair. “That,” Tenk said, “And the signet on his cloak. Singed, but it’s the mark of Lou-Rein senate.”
Silence followed this remark once more, and Chak leaned in to check the symbol on the man’s cloak more closely. This time it was Ikelen who broke the quiet first. “How did you know that, rat? Spend a lot of time in Upper Lou-Rei?” The lizard smirked, but before Tenk could reply, Chak shouted out.
As both Tenk and Ikelen turned, the man jumped up and grabbed the Havern’s arm, pulling him close and drawing a knife from somewhere under the charred cloak. Chak was on the ground, and the man regarded everyone present, but his one good eye darted back and forth between the three large Krobezes with more apprehension.
“Let me pass, or I will kill him. It wouldn’t be the first bit of blood on my hands, I assure you.” The words escaped the man’s lips in a growl of fury.
“Now, now, no blood’ll be spilt on my grounds!” Chak roared at Ikelen’s Krobez friends as they started to draw their weapon’s to defend their leader, “Now, sir. ‘Ow can we ‘elp you?”
“Get me clothing, first of all. I’ll need it; mine is burnt to hell. And tell any of your thieving friends that I will escape this forest unharmed, is that clear?” The man began to growl at Chak, regarding him as leader.
“Perfectly, sir.” Chak nodded to the bouncer, and he went into the inn to retrieve the clothing as demanded. “But tell me, what’s a Lou-Rein senator doin’ wanderin’ through Ti’ek in that kinda state? There been a fire, or some such?”
The Ealfin growled in disgust, and clocked Ikelen upside the head as he attempted to weasel out of the man’s grasp. “First off, I’m no senator. Second, I’m not even from Lou-Rei. I’m a merchant, and I pulled this cloak off a smouldering body, the man may have been alive still, but he wouldn’t have lasted much longer. Lou-Rei is no more, my thieving friends, no more. Burnt to the ground, white fire coming from God knows where. I was just outside the town and within the walls, my caravan too close to the heat. You know about white fire, right? It burns excruciatingly hot; you can’t get within a stones throw of it without igniting yourself, or melting. That’s what happened to my horses. There was nothing I could do to save them. I saw the flames go up from outside the town, and then the trees around me began to combust. It‘s lucky for you thieves and your forest that the senators built that Obsidian wall around the city. The wall’s still up, obsidian is the only thing that white fire cant penetrate. Too bad for the townsfolk the fire started inside, not out. Now if you’ll excuse me,” The man said as he grabbed the clothes handed to him and knocked Ikelen unconscious, “I’m going. Getting as far away from that as I possibly can.” He gestured in the direction of Lou-Rei, and bowed to Chak before raising his hand and disappearing in a cloud of magical smoke.
“Well, well,” Chak began between coughs as the smoke started to clear in front of them, “Whatcha think, rat?”
“Something’s off about that Ealfin. I’m not sure what though, his description of the – the fire was too much. Like he knew too much.” Tenk replied wiping the tears from his irritated eyes, a result of the smoke of the merchant’s departure.
Chak paused and thought to himself, and began kicking Ikelen, “Wake up, ya’ filth! Useless shite, you’ve got a job, eh?”