Ra'vigal is a good pup. He finds the meat. Must move fast. Must move quiet. But he finds the meat. The others, they know him. He sniffs well, he digs well, he is the best. Some have come looking, for his stash they think, the place he hides the meat. But no, they never find it. Ra'vigal needs no stash. Ra'vigal covets something much, much more powerful. Much more, dependable. It climbs. It climbs the holds it built for itself. Ra'vigal is an excellent climber...a secret he will take to his grave. His fellows do no climb. Only dig. Dig and fish, dig and fish. ...The hunger, it festers, such pain. But Ra'vigal has lived with pain. He knows what to do, and the value of something his fellows will never know.
"Right on time, boyo." I watch the gnoll creep forward from the shadows. The thing's an imposing sight in the moonlight, standing a good foot or two over me as he emerges, then slinking and cowering, bending with respect to my eye level. I give him a small nod and watch a gracious smile spread across his dog face. "How is the night, Ravi?"
The creature gives a small yip, like a hyena, followed by some clicking and chittering in the back of his throat. I watch fresh saliva hang from his lips. Good. He can smell it. I know better, so I pull out the sack of butchered meats. The gnoll nearly recoils in dread fascination at the bag, blood beginning to soak through the bottom. I watch his feet scamper in place with impatience; but he knows what I want. "Easy, Ravi. Easy..." I hold up a hand.
Ravi stares at my palm, then the bag, then flashes his head toward my hand. A watcher might think he was going to eat my poor right hand, but instead he presses his forehead into my palm. Not a headbutt, not a tap, he stays there...and I focus my breathing. He does the same. Slowly, together, we control ourselves. My adrenaline twitch and his hunger; we breathe. The clicking in the back of his throat slows, then stops, a calm settling over him. His eyes open again, clear and focused. I ask again, "How is the night?"
His voice is thin, raspy from years of abuse and battle. "It cold, Friend. Wolf moves in South bend, by the grin. Master...harder to track. No smell this time."
"How about the kid?"
"The child is quick. Cunning. No prints, no feet perhaps." Ravi smiles at his own joke, then coughs and continues, shrugging his thin shoulders. "Not much more to tell..."
"I need a point, Ravi. Or this meat goes in the river..."
Ravi's head snaps to me. "Friend would not do this. Ra'vigal has done his best. He can only track on runs. Ra'vigal would never-
I hold up my hand once more. "Sorry, buddy." Ravi quiets, still eyeing the bag. "This one's on a tight clock. I need anything you have. Anything you can give me."
Ravi rises, taking a deep breath. I've known him a few years now, and I've watched an intelligence and an empathy grow inside of him. He looks down at me, calm and resolute. "Tribe is growing, and starving. Friend's meat helps, but more needed sooner. We grow, we change...but hunger. It makes us...stupid." He taps his head with a claw. "...Vicious."
I plop the bag at his feet. He looks down at it, then at me, before bending once more and snatching it up. He lingers this time, and I hold up my hand. He presses his forehead into it and I give him a little scratch. I feel him press just a little harder, then move away. "Child made a door. At Rail. Be fast. Be safe. Bye, Friend."
"Bye, Ravi." I watch the gnoll slink back into the shadows, thinking as I pull back on my gloves, checking the frayed threads one more time. I've gotta' get this damn thing fixed...
There's something people forget about magic and travel. It isn't by feet. It's by inches. This is what I tell myself anytime a smilie sprints off five hundred feet in the direction of a door slinger, cursing himself that he didn't mark the cull. This is what I tell myself when I leap over railings, when I see the flash of a green cloak, soaked through by mud and slick with the smell of days without a decent bath. This is what I remember when I shove past the 8-feet of muscle ahead of me and utter, "Out of the way, tusk-head." and this is why I keep telling Rayph he needs to work on his cardio.
I play every inch as I sprint toward the gleaming armor of The Grinning Brand. I feel heavy impacts behind me, enraged breath on my neck, hot and ignited. With flecks of spittle beginning to paint my back, and shouts of warning from the grins, I tuck into a slide... And whack my shoulder good on the way through. Which is nothing to the pin toppling behind me as the half-orc bruiser slams into the pack of them. I slide out of view between the rails, flashing a toothy smile at the attendant; I just made her day, I'm sure. Careful, Izzy. No one wants Olivia jealous.
I slip in feet first beneath the rail, hand over hand to slow my fall. I hang for as long as I can, slowly inching my feet toward the damp fissure below the rail. Feeling the rumble coming...I drop when I can hold no more, checkers of light and darkness flooding the tunnel walls above and below me.
They say this is where the first trades of Strain were made, according to good ole' Daniel's scriptures. So I think it's fitting to pull my twill and light it up. You know, for the spirit of the thing. I think of Rayph and I pause, the roll halfway to my mouth. That's the thing about Strain; if you're not careful, it becomes everything to you. You think about how it felt when you had it, how it feels now that you don't, and when you can get it again. Hughes wasn't careful... Someday I'll find him choking smoke in a gutter with his veins torched from the inside out; but it'll be his choice all the same.
There's scraping ahead of me and I watch a shadow slink away. Pocketing the Strain, I measure my footsteps carefully, taking the time to listen. There is a whisper and crackle around the corner, and a satisfying pop, flecks of purple and black smoke swirling at the edges of the stone. Another door.
I sprint around the corner, pulling the twill again as I move. Remnants of smoke just beginning to dissipate from the spell, I pull a pouch from the set. Fine sapphire leather, specific and cold to the touch. With a gloved hand, I pull the strands open and dig out a handful of bright, cold-iron dust, tossing it to the smoke ahead of me. Each grain of dust impacts the smoke like a hammer hitting stone; sparks fly at first, then the billows burn white hot, connecting like electrical tethers in a fraying web.
Sucking in air like my life depends on it, I reach out...and grasp the web.
The earth stretches and whines around me, my own vision focusing to a singular point about ninety degrees down. Then I feel the lurch. I am flung toward the rock ahead of me, instinctually closing my eyes, adrenaline pumping for the pain, but I pass through it. A shield of swirling smoke and residual magic keeps me from being pulverized; rocketing through space and time in an instant. If I weren't the rider, this would have been cool, but it isn't the fall that kills you...and my momentum is only borrowed.
With a secondary popping sound, I slam into a table, smashing my nose on the top and flipping it forward as I attempt to roll...only to rocket my own legs into a bookcase. I feel the thing start to pitch forward and I press my legs into its frame to keep the heavy oak from crushing me...but I can do nothing to stop the books, candlesticks, plates, silverware, and a small, plush owl bear from toppling over me while I stifle a swear.
I lie still for a moment, listening. The bookcase, now liberated from its load now resting on my face, is let down easy atop the pile. Breathe, John. I focus my breath, and pick apart the noise. The tiny scraping near my head is first, followed by the chittering squeaks. Mice. Archived, I spread the sense out. Creaking boards and foundation. Old house. Lower end. Maybe District 5 or 6. No one is screaming at me, and I can hear the wind as it lances through an empty home. Abandoned. Slums. District downgraded to 6 or 7. And if it's 7, kid's about to be in a world of hurt at the hands of the fringers. One more thing; footsteps, quick, frantic, not far. I slide myself out from under the case as quickly and quietly as I can, now thankful for the bruises, as the pile of old books and childhood keep the bookcase from yielding any more noise.
I step out into an alley, the rain giving up for the time being. Lucky, really, because any idiot can follow feet splashing in puddles. I take two steps and pause... Crap. I can see my breath.
Something whistles up ahead. High and crisp. I barely have time to set my feet before they are knocked out from under me. I start to rise before being pressed back down by the heavy paws of a massive wolf. Its eyes bore into mine, and I take note of its gold and bronze irises. Often their wolves have some scarring, signs of war, but this one's coat is fresh. Bright white and beautiful. "Well, aren't you a pretty puppy." It barks in my face, spittle raining down, and its beautifully sharp, white teeth bared.
Another sharp whistle and I can breathe again. The cold voice hits my ears from down the alley as if it were whispering to me. "Stay down, dog."
I lie there, shooting up one mock salute. "Yep. Staying down. Just havin' a smoke." On my back, I pull the twill from inside my coat, spinning the Strain into fingers. "Don't let me down, now, Danny boy." Wetting the edge at my lips, I snap my left thumb and middle finger together. The fibrous pads of the fingers spark and the flame is set. Now, Strains are not things you smoke. Smoking is a casual thing; take a drag, speak some strix, take another. It takes time. Strains were not built for casuals.
I take one drag, and inhale the raw arcana of our past. The Strain is consumed completely, its casing turning to ash on my chest. Elemental fire courses through me; pain numbs, replaced by Rage. The seller called this mix "Burn," and though it feels similar to my Asher stash, this is certainly not for healing. No infernals built this. This was made by druids.
"Don't do it, dog."
"IT'S BEEN DONE." Whoa. I'm actually spitting lava. So let's test this sucker. I focus my breathing, and focus on my right hand. Fissures of lava and flame begin to crack through it, threatening to explode at any moment. So I let it, and turn it toward the Shiver. Whips of fire and lava are flung from my fingertips toward them. I flourish like my favorite kung fu villain, sending waves of lancing burn toward them. I don't have to be accurate; I just need to burn time.
"Cease, child." The Shiver emerges, pushing the rising smoke and steam from his form and slamming me into brick behind me. These things are strong, its cold fingers digging into the flesh of my torso. But it pulls back suddenly, burns appearing on its hands. I smile. It growls, then punches me. Really hard.
I feel my body arch in tremendous pain and force as I am rocketed upward onto one of the divider walls. Whatever injuries I suffer in the next minute I won't feel, so let's earn this. With another burst of flame from my hands, I shoot to my feet, but the Shiver is already there, pushing through the fire and grabbing my throat with an ice-covered hand.
I feel the cold creep across me, extinguishing the flames and numbing my connection to the arcana. "Hands off, Shiver." I wedge my arms around his own and snap it sideways, breaking the grip and landing a little off kilter.
"You cannot wield your own Strain, dog." As it sets the bone back in place, the cold fibers resetting the injury.
"It's a means to an end." I seethe.
"It is a means to your doom."
The eldritch blast hits me square in the chest and I'm tumbling through the air; falling, without style. I hit the wet stone, a meridian between the last two districts, with a sharp snap and my whole left side goes numb. There's a ringing in my ears, either from the Strain or the impact, either way vision's a bit fuzzy. I hear the whistle and something white runs past me; probably blocking my exit. I try to focus on the tall wall where I came from...where I see it leap down to meet me. Water splashes on either side of us. Why is it so damn loud? The Shiver sighs, while I fight to focus through the rising pain and falling arcana.
"You stretch too far, mutt. And now you have added insult to your attempt at injury. You have taken your steps an inch too far ...But do not mourn; my lance will silence you." Frost-lined boots click toward me as it recites its code of execution. The night just keeps getting better. "...Take solace in the fact that no creature shall mourn you. The cold shall stay their memory." The cold fire of its lance ignites like a flamethrower, casting flickering blue light across our landscape. Piled boxes, ramshackle tents, hanging lamps devoid of oil...and painted marks upon each, red as blood, and all lined with bone, stripped clean of any remaining flesh. "As it is now, and as it shall always be, you were not prepared to meet The Three." It raises the blade, and I watch something else rise behind it.
Two strong claws grip the Shiver around its torso and fling it down the strip. The blade dissipates with a sharp crack as the Shiver rolls and recovers, seething breath escaping between its sharpened teeth. It then straightens, summoning the blade once more, and walking slowly back toward us. "...No one shall mourn another dead dog in the street."
I stare at the back of the creature; matted, spotted fur and wiry, toned muscle. "Ravi?" I try to rise, but I'm bruised in places I didn't know I had.
"It fine, Friend." Ravi's raspy voice, laced in something sinister, sends a feeling through me I was not expecting. The gnoll looks back at me with a smile, then rises to his full height. Eight feet tall and half-flexed, he addresses the Shiver. "All often forget, but tonight I remind them. Ra'vigal always brings the meat..."
Then we heard them. First a few yips, like the mewling cries of a lost puppy, high in pitch and odd to the ear. The Shiver stops, and lets out a quick whistle, a grin stretching across its lips... But no wolf comes. Instead he is met by a sharp bark from the shadows, and a low, cacophonous rumbling growl as dozens of red and yellow eyes rise from behind the piles of refuse and the discarded. Dozens, upon dozens. Every month the Lockgnaw clan pushes further along the meridian. They grow, and anyone that knows gnolls... They are always hungry. It drives them toward great things. Terrible, great things.
"Be fast. Be safe. Bye Friend." Ravi smiles, gives me a nod, and howls his war cry as it is echoed by his brothers. They're not scared tonight. Meat's back on the menu. The howl rises as one sound, a sonic spear to the dark heavens, and then all at once stops. An eerie tension rises as no gnoll moves, only the the cold breath of a Shiver without any options rising and falling in the night. Then I hear Ravi click once. Just once, and they're on it. Converging like a rabid wave of teeth, claws, and voracious hunger. I see a few flashes of an eldritch lance and hear the cries of pain and growls of vengeance, but I can't watch long. I have to move.
"Bye Ravi." I scurry backwards toward the wall, unable to look away for a few moments, but another surge of pain in my side brings me back to the present. I check my ribs; yep, there's two...scratch that, three. Kahna, this better be worth it. I find Ravi's hand holds and start up. Halfway there I feel a pop in my hip. Three quarters and my shoulder gives out. The Burn is still active and I'm numb enough not to care. I spit up blood at the top, and stare at a pair of filthy leather boots and an outstretched hand.
I stare at the hand. At its scars along the back of the hand - burns, perhaps - and the curious missing pinky. Then I see it; at the wrist and spiraling up the arm. I take note of it as I take the hand, and, with a lot of effort, are helped to my feet.
"C'mon. Let's get outta' here."
I limp after the little form. Down the alley. I watch him carefully, quietly; which is fine. I hurt too much to talk right now.
"Heh. You really did a number on him, huh? ...I doubt we'll see him again, even if he DOES make it outta' there." He moves a few crates, setting them up like a small barricade, motioning me over. "Here. Let me have a look at you..." He produces a small medical kit, and I let him lift my shirt to check my ribs, leaning in closer. He whistles. "Damn. That bruising sucks...ya' know what, I think I can-
The blade enters his throat and slices deep and clean. I feel warm blood flow over down the knife, and across my hand. As his eyes meet mine, I twist it and drive upward until I hear a tiny crunch, cradling his head and waiting for the life to leave his eyes. His form crumples to the ground, a pile of flesh and bone. With a sigh, I pull back his sleeve and make sure. I check the detail of the tattoo; armored gauntlet, horned owl. Then I pull the order out, opening its fine duskweave cover. With the tip of the blade, I dab the halfling's blood onto the space next to my signature and let the magic do its work.
A small shuffling behind me sheathes the knife, and I shift my body to obscure the other as best I can. The form is a small, frail creature; childlike. I pull one of my gloves off and hold up my bare hand.
"Hey. Kid. It's okay." I can see her eyes dart behind me, examining the crumpled form. I snap my fingers a few times. "Don't look there, it's ugly. Keep your eyes on me." I walk slowly toward her, taking in her frail form; cloak, bandages, large hood, cradling something in her hands, and pulling it closer to her form. "Hey, it's alright. It's over now. What do you need? Are you cold? Do you need help? Let me just-
Her eyes, bright and yellow, dart to me, the knives of her pupils stopping me in my tracks. The word burns from her tongue and seethes the air with hatred. "...Raptor." She glowers, stepping backward into the night...and disappears.
I think to call after her; to explain. But instead I stand there, a crack of thunder sounding above me. As the rain hammers harder and harder, I stare into the dusk of the alley. A long moment passes, drops of water soaking into my hair. A triumphant howl splits the night and rocks me slowly back to the moment. Fifty hours, fifty plat.
And that. Is that.