Sitting bolt upright, his hands clawing at the air, his breath exploded through his throat in a savage cry of despair, fear and sheer agony. His body burnt with the ravages of the poison, yet he lived. Rolling onto his side, he vomited, coughing up black bile, the sour remnants of drink and what little food he had consumed earlier that day.
Heaving he coughed more, spitting the bitter black putrescence from his gaping mouth. His hands scrabbled against the dusty dirt floor, and he tried to push himself to his feet. No sooner had he risen that he fell, a weakness in his body that he could not readily account for. But then it came back, the knife wound in his back, the poison of the child, the smashing of the assassins head into the ground.
Sn’jn crawled to a corner, his hands looking for the safety of his blade as he groped around in the darkness. He did not find it; instead he found the child’s arm, still attached to the cold corpse that he had created. Slowly his eyes adjusted to the dark, his breathing, once ragged, began to calm.
Beyond all odds, he was alive, he didn’t know why, or how, but his breath was all that mattered. He was alive. Leaning gingerly against the wall Sn’jn let out a slow breath, closing his eyes, letting the cool wall chill his hot body. His mind was all shattered thoughts and syrupy memories. Faces washed over him, nothing made sense, even the sounds he could hear seemed to come from far away and through a web of fluid.
Sn’jn was in pain, he was exhausted, and the only two people that could tell him where to find Deogorath were now dead. His body ached with a deep chill in the joints, sick sweat coated his body. Despair clutched his heart, constricted his chest and stole his will. Sn’jn gulped back tears in his raw throat but could not abandon the despair. It was too heavy a thing, crushing his will. Tears spilled from his dark eyes and he sobbed.
“Foolish man fears death, wise man cherishes it.” The rough voice of Gortak drifted through the darkness. “You must put away your pain, Sn’jn, come! The Crusaders and the Hounds come, if they find you here, they will murder you were you weep.”
Gortak’s strong hands gripped Sn’jn with an unexpected gentleness and helped the broken man to his feet. Gortak ducked under Sn’jn’s arm, helping him stand. Quickly they left the ramshackle building and headed down the alleyways of Harranarra. In the distance they could hear the howls of the Hounds.
It was night; heavy clouds covered the starry sky, casting a halo around the moons face when it managed to steal a glimpse at mother earth. The people of Harranarra had retired for the evening and it was quiet. The late hours of night then, thought Sn’jn. Their footsteps echoes against the alley walls, their feet seeming to find each puddle and splashing noisily. Sn’jn and Gortak half-ran through the alleyways, often Sn’jn had to reach for the walls for support. His legs were leaden, his stomach desired escape from his body, and his mind was foggy. Even the fear of being caught by Hounds and Crusaders did little to alleviate his physical ills.
They blundered down an alleyway made of cobble stones flanked by tall buildings made from sandstone and white-washed. Distant howls marked the presence of the Hounds. The alley was not lit, but the main road that they approached held a small flicker of flame, and with it an odd expectation of hope fluttered in Sn’jn’s chest.
Gortak lowered Sn’jn gently to the floor near the entrance of the main road, “Stay here, I will have a look. You had better have deep pockets, Harvester, for this will cost you dear,”
The half-orc grinned, showing wicked canines and disappeared out of the alley. Sn’jn lay against the cool wall of one of a tall building. The stone was rough, yet a constant in his swaying world. The cool of the white-wash and the night air eased the fire of his skin, and his eyes drooped. Breath came in ragged gasps; his back was a corona of pain and his legs like jelly.
Sn’jn waited for what seems like eternity against the stone before Gortak returned. The half-orc helped him stand and they entered into the main road. Every dozen yards a weak oil lamp lit the way, casting pools of light in an otherwise dark night.
Gortak half carried Sn’jn, moving as quickly as they could, they headed deeper into the city. In the distance the howls of the Hounds carried in the still night air. The road was mostly empty of life. A stray dog barked at them as they passed, protecting its filthy meal for the night: a pile of rags and old, rotting meat.
Sn’jn had no idea where they were heading, he was barely conscious, and would not have been able to retrace his steps if pressed to do so. Soon enough, however, they left the main road, Gortak heading for a destination that only he knew, but his footing was sure, and he seemed to know exactly where he was going. They ducked into an alleyway when guards appeared up ahead, then back into the main road when they passed.
Soon Gortak led Sn’jn to a run-down double story building. The stone was old, rough, chipped in places. The white-wash had seen better nights, it sloughed from the stone in large flakes, the windows were shuttered with mouldy boards and a sickly wan light crept through the cracks in the eaves. The building looks haunted, thought Sn’jn, while he tried his best to keep up with Gortak. His legs had regained some of their bones and muscle, but his tendons were still missing. Each step was an exercise in agony and discipline. At the moment Sn’jn would have happily cut his own legs off, lanced his quailing stomach and bled to death content in the cool night air.
Gortak dragged Sn’Jn to the front door and pounded heavily on it. He looked around while Sn’jn tried to figure out if he had any more bile left to vomit up. He managed to wretch, but nothing came out. Gortak turned his back to the door and scanned the alleyways. Sn’jn realised that Gortak was afraid. Perhaps I should be too? Thought Sn’jn, but he was beyond caring about fear now. His mind was trying desperately to calculate his chance of recovery, make sense of the swimming colours and sounds that kept intruding on his thoughts. Everything seemed so muddled. He was having trouble recalling what city he was in.
After what seemed like an eternity of introspection, the door creaked open and a hobbled woman stuck her head out, “What’s this?” She said. Her voice was old, raspy, littered with dry leaves and rattles. Gortak didn’t even speak to her, simply pushed past into the room beyond and placed Sn’jn gingerly on a pallet.
“Gortak Fanguul, you’ve never had a day’s worth of manners beaten into you, have you boy?”
“Forgiveness, healer, but I bring an urgent application. This human is dying of poison and knife wounds, the Hounds crawl on the streets, and their cursed masters seek blood sport this night.”
“So why bring him here, Fanguul? Let the Crusaders have their meal!”
“He owes me money for saving his life, old hag. Otherwise he would be dead already. I collect my debts.”
The old woman broke a smile that Gortak rather wished she hadn’t. Gortak was not pleasing to look at, but one expected as much from a half-orc. Standing three inches shy of seven feet, grey-green skin the texture of rough stone and enlarged canines, coupled with large white eyes with red pupils, many fled from Gortak before saying “Hello”. The woman was human, if one could believe that a human could live this long, and defy decay. As far as Gortak knew, this healer had been in this house for all of his life, and all the life that his father, and his father’s father had lived. Orc’s did not live long, but three generations still put her close or over one hundred years. That was a long life for any human.
The old woman hobbled over to Sn’jn and poked him with a bony finger. Sn’jn managed a defiant croak, and twitched. The woman rubbed her chin, a gnarled finger rubbing a hairy wart with almost arcane purpose. She paused for a moment, then spat in her hand and rubbed the spittle across Sn’jn’s mouth. Almost immediately Sn’jn began to froth at his mouth.
“Kurd-weed extract. A black poison it is, for black souls. If he sees dawn he will live, if not, you’ll have to sell his things to reclaim your debt, Gortak.”
“There is also a knife in his back.” Said Gortak from the corner he had chosen to use as his resting place, squatting, thick forearms on his knees, staring intently at the woman.
“Why didn’t you take it out?” asked the old woman with a snort of derision.
“Because I have seen blades pulled from bodies that die moments after. The blade keeps the bodies fluid inside, like a cork stopper. I believed that removing it would result in a spout of wine coloured juice that should serve better in the body.”
The old woman cackled, “And you would have saved me from having to wake up, you murderous beast. Oh, what saints and devils do not take comes for that which seeks.”
The woman bent Sn’jn forward, who retched pitifully, and examined the dagger sticking out from his lower back. She pressed on the flesh around the blade and Sn’jn moaned a pitiful, reedy sound. Examining the wound more closely, the woman stumped over to a table filled with an array of roots and pastes, herbs and flowers. She collected several of them, rolled them together and placed them into a small copper brazier. She lit the flame beneath it with flint and tinder, and then went to a cupboard. She pulled two vials out, one black the other clear. While the brazier came to heat, she emptied three drops of the black fluid into the mass and took to work at it with a pestle.
Gortak spat at the foul smell that wafted over to him from where the woman worked. Whatever the healer was busy with, it stank like rank wounds. As the mass within the brazier began to bubble, the woman blew the flame out, and lifted out a large, soggy swathe of the stuff into her hand. She poured the contents of the clear bottle onto Sn’jn’s back, who let out a suitably pathetic whimper, and then applied the black mass around the daggers blade. Once she had completed surrounding the blade, she gripped the handle and pulled the blade out quickly.
Sn’jn jerked, retched, and passed out.
“You’ve killed him!” Gortak said irritably.
“Shut your mouth, beast, he’ll live. The blade blocked the flow of his spirit, shutting off the channel that carried the blood to the legs and guts. It had to be removed. You may want to make a sacrifice to ward off death for your friend, Gortak, it will be close.”
“Sacrifice is worthless, hag. The gods forsook us long ago, and they do not answer our prayers anymore. They left us to be, perhaps as we had asked, and now we suffer for it. There is no grand design or destiny for the mortal races anymore. We turned our eyes to material things, and the gods gave up on us and left. The Crusaders and the Hounds are all that is left of those times.”
“You are foolish, Gortak. The gods did not leave man it is the other way around, man left the gods. They are still there, they still answer prayers, and they guide man to his destiny.”
Gortak gave the woman a flat stare, his red eyes dull. He snorted, and then spat, pushing himself to his feet and stretching out his back.
“You are man, woman. There are no gods.”
He turned to the window looking out. A moment later he moved to the door, “I will return in the morning, to fetch him, or his corpse.”
* * *
Gortak snuck to a building several roads down, one that he had known since just a pup. Using hand holds that had been carved into places such that they seemed a natural part of the building, he climbed up the outside and onto the roof. Here, under the shadow of moonlight filtered through clouds, he entered the thieves’ footpath: a secretive network of paths and planks that created a veritable roadway high above the streets of Harranarra.
Moving quickly and high above the patrolling guardsmen, he headed back in the direction that he and Sn’jn had come. He hoped that he would find something of use to his friend and that the Crusaders had not cleansed the place. Gortak considered Sn’jn a friend, even if Sn’jn did not. Gortak saw something in Sn’jn that perhaps Sn’jn did not see in himself: a man driven beyond reason who had managed to keep some small piece of his sanity.
Many times Sn’jn had helped Gortak, even with offers of simple work. More than a few times they had spent drinking the profits away, but it was all worth it to Gortak. Sn’jn did not judge Gortak for his appearance, or for his heredity. To Sn’jn these things did not matter. They mattered to Gortak. He had tried to study the ways of the wise masters, but he could not shake the sense of shame he felt from the nature of his birth, nor the hatred that he knew his mother held for him. The shame, pain and utter horror his visage reminded her of.
Gortak arrived at the scene of the crime a few minutes later. The trip had taken less than half the time it had carrying Sn’jn through the streets. Squatting on the rooftop, Gortak scanned the road below. Even in the pale moonlight, he could see the muddy road had been churned up by heavy booted feet and clawed paws. The street, however, appeared empty, derelict, as if life itself had been stolen away suddenly.
Closing his eyes Gortak listened, and listened hard. There were sounds to be heard, but they all seemed far away. For a moment he thought he heard the heavy panting of a Hound, but it vanished on a breath of wind and was gone. Gortak waited several minutes, listening with all his concentration.
Eventually, convinced that there was nothing here, Gortak snuck to the edge of the building, and skittered down between two walls. It made a lot of noise in the eerily quiet alley, but not so much that it would wake anyone soundly asleep. He waited another minute, listening, his eyes scanning the entrances to the alley. Satisfied that there was no-one there, and that he had alerted no-one, he moved to the street and to the door of the building.
Ducking under the cover of its awning, he waited another moment, scanning the street again, being careful to look for the glint of armour that Crusaders wore, or hear the heavy panting of the Hounds. Neither sight nor sound appeared to his senses. Stealing another glance up and down the street, he looked and listened for other dangers of the night: thieves and cut-throats. None appeared to him either.
He turned and lifted the latch on the creaky door. Slipping in, he closed the door behind him and applied the leather thong that acted as a latch. Then he took in the details of the room. It was pitch black, but he had the blood of his father in him, the monstrous orcs. He could see in the dark, needing virtually any light to be able to see as a man in midday. He couldn’t see very far like this, but he could make shapes out: the rickety ladder that went up the floor above, two dark stains on the floor where Sn’jn’s victims had laid, another stain where Sn’jn himself had vomited up his bile. A broken table lay scattered in the far corner a drop of rough cloth covered an entrance to another room to Gortak’s right, and to his left an old cupboard, its doors hanging open on rusted hinges.
Gortak moved quickly, but quietly, his padded boots making virtually no sound on the rough dirt floor. He reached the rickety ladder, jumped up, grabbing the lip of the trap door above and pulled himself up so that only his eyes broke cover. Looking around he saw nothing moving and so pulled himself up into the room above.
Gortak searched the room quickly, never certain that the Crusaders and their Hounds would not return. He tossed the two pallets quickly and carefully, searching through the mouldering straw that acted as a mattress. He tore through the bedding, looking for anything that Sn’jn might be able to use. He found nothing. Cursing quietly, Gortak dropped back down into the common room and padded over to the drop that acted as a door. Looking through, he saw several boxes and barrels. A foul smell also came from the storage room.
He stepped in and looked around. The barrels were filled with stagnant water and rotted foodstuffs, the boxes with moth eaten rags. Gortak let out a sigh. He had searched the place fully and found nothing. Either the Crusaders had taken anything of interest, or there had been nothing to find.
That only left one solution to the information problem: they would have to find a Hexer, and get them to speak to the corpse. Sn’jn would not be pleased.