At the edge of a murky fountain, in a coal-coated town’s central square, in the midst of a dirt road dusted with broken pieces of machinery and metal sculpture, sat a haggard Drakari in white robes. An open sketchbook rested on his lap.
It was rare that places this peaceful came to Varin. He knew he should have been traveling; he had hung around this sleepy settlement for far too long, spending a week or so at the cheap inn at the edge of town. But it was simply so nice here. Every day had a lazy feel to it, and the perfect amount of sunlight filtered from the foggy sky to sketch by. The dark elves here were pleasant as well. None of them had harassed him during his stay, which was a surprising first when one had orange eyes, spindly talons for hands, and membranous dragon wings. Most went off to work the mines in the morning, so the square was empty for the moment.
That was the way he liked it.
Another plus to this town was that there were many curious contraptions in the shop windows that would make interesting drawings. Instead, Varin’s pencil outlined the shape of an intricate mansion of dark wood, stone, and dragon bones. It was so large that one looking at the drawing might not have realized it was a treetop dwelling if it weren’t for the thick branches it rested on. As strained as his life in the general’s mansion had been, it didn’t keep him from feeling a little homesick every now and then. “But nostalgia for Suthainn is no good reason to return. To risk servitude again would be foolish. Correct, Arie?” The little gold-speckled sparrow resting on his shoulder twittered in apparent agreement.
A shadow fell over Varin, accompanied by a voice thick with Drakari accent. “That's a mighty fine estate you’ve drawn there. Reminds me of the city I come from.”
The pencil tripped in its dance across the page. It lay prone in Varin’s grasp a moment, as he gave a curt reply to the stranger, glancing over his shoulders with a slitted gaze. “I do not like people whom snoop upon my sketching without introducing themselves.”
As it turned out, the stranger peering over at Varin’s work was as stocky Drakari of exceptional height and rust-red scales, one of his boots resting on the stone edge of the fountain. His face was narrow and extraordinarily reptilian and set with cunning brown eyes. The first weapon on his person was a steel flail hitched to his hip by the belt. Taloned hands tipped with sharp, black nails were the second. Claw Caste. Varin couldn’t help but mentally categorize him. Standing amid Alerar’s smog and mechanically-inspired architecture, he looked very out-of-place. “Kendrold; mercenary,” the stranger named himself with a crack of his knuckles, raising his head proudly. “Your name, I don’t need to hear.”
Upon sight of the stranger, Arie ducked into one of the deep pockets of Varin’s robe with a strangled chirp. Varin figured that she had the right idea. Apprehension was welling up in his chest. How likely was it to encounter another of his kind all the way out here? “You frightened my friend,” the young man told Kendrold, his words prickly with discomfort, and his wings twitching a pinch. “Please leave me alone.”
A guttural chuckle burst from the Drakari. “Testy, testy. Am I bothering you, Fuilenir?” Casteless.
The word cut through the tender quiet of the morning. It had been a long time since anyone had slung around that slang term, and it had never been in a good-natured manner. New life was breathed into his concerns about this encounter. Varin shot the stocky mercenary a frightened look as he slipped his sketchbook and pencil back into the folds of his robes. He stood up and turned to face the man with his fanged bared, and Arie glaring out of his pocket. “This is no chance meeting, is it? What do you want from me?”
Kendrold extended a thick claw, his scaled lips splitting into an amicable grin. A few gold teeth shone in the paltry light. “Aren’t you to the point? General Aurawan hired me to fetch a lost possession of his, and I believe I have found it. It was mighty difficult to track you down. You stick out like a sore thumb, but you don’t stick around long enough to catch, let me tell you that. Would you mind coming quietly? I'd prefer to bring his property back undamaged, even if it is of low value.”
“Or, you could simply let me go,” Varin replied, enunciating the words slowly, as if to make absolute certain that the bounty hunter understood. “It would be much less hassle for both of us that way, for I have no intention of returning to that household again.”
“But then I don't get paid, do I?” The bounty hunter flexed his claws, disappointment in the slight slumping of his shoulders. “How about this? I’ll give you to the count of ten to comply. One, two…”
“Ten,” Varin spat as he took off in the opposite direction, his robes trailing behind him.
Startled by the instant rejection, Kendrold took a quick swipe at his fleeing bounty, and the tip of his claws scraping against Varin’s wings and slicing off a few scales. Still, the young man ran without a glance back, much lighter on his feet than his heavy pursuer. Kendrold charged fearlessly after him, only to find that Varin had seemingly vanished after the first corner he had turned. A few white flowers from his braid lay crushed on the ground, fallen off in flight.
Kendrold inspected the blood on the tips of his claws and took a deep whiff of it, rather calm despite the disappearance of his quarry. “Mmm. I suppose we’ll have to do this the hard way; there’s a reason Patience is a virtue. Let the hunt begin.”