It was a busy day at the Riverhill market, and Shalnark was lurking about, searching for his next mark. Where he came from, money was made of paper, making it far easier to pickpocket. On this continent, however, silver pennies were the universal currency of the Travenhall Empire, and a noisy bag of silver is tough to swipe from a belt unnoticed.
Shalnark found a place to sit on the stoop of the town chapel as he continued to scope out potential victims. Thievery was punished harshly, especially during the market days. Whoever he chose to steal from had better be carrying enough coin to make it worth the risk.
From his vantage point, Shalnark could oversee the entire town. Its buildings were brick, and the half-timber frames made them simple enough to climb for a quick getaway. The feuds brewing to the north had not yet touched the modest town. This gave the citizens a false sense of security that a career criminal like Shalnark could easily exploit.
At a glance, Riverhill seemed to be plucked straight from a painting, but Shalnark knew better than anyone to never take anything at face value. Peel away the clean and secure market streets and you would expose the smell that spoke volumes of the true state of the land. The alleys reeked of piss, as people who could not wait for the gong farmer to arrive simply emptied their chamber pots out the window. The surgeons and apothecaries practiced a form of medicine that would just as soon kill you as cure you. If you wanted to eat, you would need to either steal or work yourself to the bone. Shalnark chose the former.
How long have we been trapped in this place, Ebennen?
Shalnark had been alone since he was stranded on the continent of Enuin. For most of that time, no one spoke his language, so he had only the voice within his head, Ebennen, to talk to.
Hard to say. Probably three years? Ebennen responded.
Feels much longer than that. Shalnark picked up a loose stone and tossed it down the stairs. If only we had not botched that job at the cathedral in Oxgate, we would be sailing home from Port Lood by now. Getting caught was bad enough, but losing the ship fund hurt worse than death.
At least you made it out of Oxgate alive. That’s what is really important.
Is it? It took us nearly two years to gather all that silver. Shalnark rubbed his brow. Now, all we have is a single full purse, the clothes on my back, and whatever equipment we could weasel out of Oxgate.
We can always steal more silver. Your life cannot be stolen back from the clutches of Lord Death.
And remain in this forsaken primitive land for another two years? You’ll have to forgive me for preferring Lord Death’s embrace to having to shit in a pot.
You heavily exaggerate how bad it is in the Travenhall Empire, Ebennen said. Sure they are primitive compared to Geergan, but their living conditions are respectable.
Just keep your eyes peeled. See if you can find any more rich bastards like the one we robbed yesterday. Most of these peasants aren’t carrying enough to make it worth the risk. I’m going to try to figure out our next job.
Hours had passed, and so far, the only person carrying anything of real value was a patrolling Holy Knight wearing a gilded symbol of the warrior god, Xobris. Shalnark had no intention of kicking that hornet’s nest after what happened in Oxgate, but at this point, it seemed he had no choice. The scoundrel reluctantly stood and dusted off his trousers. Shalnark began to formulate a route of escape in his mind.
A familiar figure appeared at the edge of his vision. It was the same man Shalnark had successfully robbed the day before, but this time he was toting an even larger coin purse.
This poor bastard sure is a glutton for punishment, Shalnark thought to himself.
The purse you nabbed from him yesterday was worth more than all the loot you typically nab in a week, Ebennen said. I figured, for sure, you tapped him dry.
Apparently not. I’m going to get a closer look.
Shalnark melded with the crowd, followed his prey, and began sizing him up. He seemed young and fit but was thin and stood only five feet, eight inches tall. He was only slightly taller than Shalnark, with a similar frame, leading him to believe he could easily overpower the man in a tussle. Judging by his groomed thick black hair and lightly tanned skin, he was likely of Pallumian descent, which would have made him a foreigner in this part of the empire.
“A traveling merchant, perhaps?” Shalnark mumbled aloud.
Maybe, Ebennen said. Looks more like some wealthy heir looking to spend his inheritance.
He wore a tailored padded gambeson that had clearly been worn only a few times.
His gambeson might protect him from some blunt force, but my dagger shouldn’t have any trouble piercing it should things get messy.
Unlike the day before, the mark was armed with a war hammer at his side.
A little more prepared today, isn’t he? I wonder if he knows how to use that . . .
Next to his hammer dangled his fat coin purse tied on by a single thin rope in place of the lovely leather satchel Shalnark was now wearing on his bandolier.
Best to leave him alone, Shalnark. Something doesn’t feel right about this one.
“No!” Shalnark whispered violently into his hood. He checked his surroundings to assure no one saw his outburst.
I’ve got this. Shalnark shifted his words into thoughts toward his alter ego. If we are ever going to make it home, I can’t keep robbing peasants, Ebennen.
I know we need a tremendous amount of silver to charter a ship, but there has to—
Shalnark shoved his way into the crowd. Ebennen’s shouting vanished as he finally took action.
Shalnark’s face began to transform under his hood. His nose lengthened, his skin darkened, his chin widened, and his brow protruded. Within seconds, his appearance was entirely different. He put down his hood, confident that his mark would not be able to recognize him.
The man spent a lot of time at each stall, curiously examining each item the peddlers had to offer, but never seemed to buy anything. It appeared he wanted to make a sweep of every booth in the market before deciding what to buy. His fat coin purse made him popular with the peddlers and merchants. After about an hour of tailing, it was time for Shalnark to enact his plan. He positioned himself walking toward the man with his razor-sharp dagger tucked away under his sleeve.
Just one quick cut on that rope . . .
The river of people pushed the man closer and closer to Shalnark, who was slowly approaching against the crowd’s flow, bumping shoulders with everyone along the way.
I’m sorry, my Pallumian friend—Shalnark drifted ever closer—but I need that silver far more than you do.
With the mark within arm’s reach, Shalnark brandished his dagger from under his sleeve with a reverse grip and bumped into his target. He sliced at the rope with blinding speed, but the string did not cut.
“What the Hells?”
The resulting tug pulled hard on the man’s hip, immediately alerting him to Shalnark’s presence.
“Aha! I’ve found you, thief! This time you shan’t esca—”
The pair’s eyes met for a brief moment, giving the merchant time to get a good look at Shalnark’s open face.
“Wait . . . you aren’t the thief from yesterday,” the mark said with one eyebrow raised.
A couple of onlookers witnessed the attempted robbery and looked concerned. Hundreds of different thoughts flooded Shalnark’s mind as he began to panic. He tugged on the rope one last time as hard as he could, attempting to force his knife through it, but somehow it held fast as if woven with pure steel. The merchant grasped onto Shalnark’s shirt collar with one arm while reaching for his hammer with the other.
With a dash of quick thinking, Shalnark flipped his dagger to a standard grip and sliced the top knot of the bag while catching it with his off hand. With his objective in hand, he flicked a kick forward straight into the merchant’s groin. The mark collapsed to his knees. He stumbled back, bracing for a second strike, but as soon as he looked up again, Shalnark had already turned heel and ran.
A woman who watched the struggle unfold screamed, “Guards, come quick! That man has just been robbed!”
Shalnark would have to get out of the crowd before a mob of peasants jumped on him. Without a moment to spare, Shalnark took a hard right down a close-by alley, pushing his way through a confused crowd of people. His gaze darted back, looking to see if anyone was following him.
“I think he went down this way!” an onlooker yelled as a group of stoutly sized men began to flood the alley behind Shalnark. He rounded the corner behind a house and nearly ran headfirst into a wall. Shalnark contemplated doubling back, but the shouts of his pursuers were too close. He was trapped.
Shalnark’s eyes darted around the walls as he began mapping out a climbing path. He grasped the torn bag in his teeth and scaled the building almost as fast as he could run on flat ground. Shalnark lay flat on the roof as his heart continued to race.
“I was certain he went this way!” one of the men yelled below. “Damn it all! He can’t have gotten far! Man the stables. The last thing we want to let him do is to steal a horse and flee.”
Peeking over the edge of the roof, Shalnark watched as the militia sped back to the market. He let out a sigh of relief as he rolled over onto his back and closed his eyes for a moment, trying to relax his panicked heart. His breathing slowed as he imagined himself controlling the rhythm of his heartbeat, slowing it almost to a stop. It was a unique talent he had developed throughout his life that allowed him to think clearly in times of great strife. In seconds, Shalnark had brought himself back from the brink of a frenzy to a relaxed state.
“Taking a nap now, are we?”
Shalnark’s heart jumped right back into a thunderous race at the sound of a voice from nowhere. The first thing he saw as he opened his eyes was the mark standing over him with full childlike eyes and a smile. He rolled to the side and scrambled up, preparing for an attack, but no such attack came.
“You put on quite the show of acrobatics there. This certainly was not your first time,” the mark said as he raised his hand to his chin. Shalnark remained silent. “You are wearing my satchel that was stolen from me yesterday, yet your face is completely different. Are the two of you a part of some kind of gang of bandits?”
Shalnark was still trying to piece together how this man could have reached him.
Could this man truly be that much faster than me?
Impossible, Ebennen said. We took the shortest route to this spot. We would have seen him.
Either way, I can’t allow him to follow me.
Shalnark brandished his dagger once again and pointed it toward the man. “I don’t know how you managed to get up here so fast, but I will not hesitate to kill you if you don’t back the Hells off.”
The man took a single step back only to stabilize his stance. “That’s even the same dagger you used yesterday to cut the straps from my satchel. That brings me to two conclusions. Either you robbed the man who robbed me yesterday and stole everything from his person, or you have the ability to change your face!”
Shalnark went pale. No one had ever discovered his shapeshifting ability on their own before.
I assumed everyone on this forsaken continent was a simpleton. Guess there had to be at least one bright mind somewhere. Of course, that would be the one I rob.
I knew it was too dangerous. Run, Shalnark!
Without giving him time to continue, Shalnark took off in a sprint across the roof. With a running start, he leaped to the neighboring rooftop and continued to flee. Shingles slid under his feet, but he narrowly caught his balance as he ran and jumped from building to building until the man was well out of his sight. He stopped for a brief rest as his heart and lungs raced from his aerial sprint.
Just as he thought he had lost the man, a bright blue light erupted about one yard away as the man appeared before him again. It became clear to Shalnark he was not dealing with just some Pallumian traveling merchant. He was dealing with a magician.
“You’re even more nimble than I originally thought! Considering your dexterity, acrobatics, and face-changing ability, it’s really no wonder you were able to escape me so easily yesterday.”
Without hesitation, Shalnark readopted his stance and lunged toward his opponent.
I don’t see how I can escape this man, Shalnark thought. Looks like I have no choice but to put him down. It’s a shame, really. Other than being a tricky bastard, he seems well-mannered.
Shalnark aimed to stab under the ribs. With equal reflexes, the magician lifted his hammer from its holster and redirected Shalnark’s blade outward, causing him to stumble. Taking advantage of his broken stance, the magician stepped across, grasped Shalnark’s head, and flipped him over his shoulder. Shalnark rolled into the throw, reducing its impact, and rolled back onto his feet as he narrowly stopped himself from rolling off the roof.
As the magician regained his footing, he attempted to utter something, but Shalnark threw one of the broken shingles toward the man, throwing him off balance. Shalnark charged the magician once again with his dagger. He feigned a stab to the thigh to lower the magician’s guard so his upper quadrant would be open for an attack. Most untrained thugs would’ve already been stuck ten times by Shalnark’s blade by this point, but this was clearly not this man’s first knife fight.
With just a hint of luck, the mark leaned back, causing the blade to only scratch the outer layer of his gambeson’s neck-high collar. With his right hand, he grasped onto Shalnark’s dagger arm and attempted to set up another takedown.
Shalnark followed his failed vital strike with a thrust kick to the gut, sending his opponent stumbling back toward the edge of the roof. Shalnark followed through and planted his kicking foot on the ground as he spun around with a rear kick, but in a poof of smoke and light, the man had vanished.
Shalnark peeked over the edge, unsure of what he saw. Suddenly, he felt an arm wrap tight around his neck from behind with another arm locking his weapon hand behind his back.
“Would you hold still and listen to me for a moment?” the magician screamed in Shalnark’s ear.
Reflexively, Shalnark threw his head back into the magician’s jaw, causing him to lose his balance and sending the pair tumbling off the edge of the building. Shalnark braced for impact, knowing a fall from two stories high like this could break his back, but was relieved when he landed in a cart full of soft hay along with his enemy.
Shalnark scrambled to his feet, checking his belt to make sure his earnings for the day had not come apart or fallen off. He let out a sigh of relief when he felt the coin purse still tied to his bandolier. However, his dagger was missing.
“There he is, men!” the militia shouted from down the road.
“Shit!” Shalnark shouted as he jumped into the driver’s seat of the cart. He slapped both horses on the ass, and they took off down the roads of Riverhill at breakneck speed.
“Hey!” the farmer next to them called as he attempted to grab the horses’ reins, but he was far too slow. The horse-drawn cart sped through the paths of the town with the two brawlers. The horses jerked the cart around as they sharply rounded a corner, sending Shalnark tumbling back into the hay. The people of Riverhill screamed as the horses continued their rampage climbing up the hill.
The magician’s hand bloomed from within the hay, grabbing hold of Shalnark’s leg. Disarmed, the thief looked about for a new weapon to dispatch his foe. He spotted a shovel lying next to the cart driver’s seat. As the magician emerged, Shalnark swung the shovel in a full circular arc ending directly on the magician’s chest, sending him flying back over the edge of the cart. Shalnark took one last look at his opponent as he grew smaller in the distance, rolling along the side of the path.
And that takes care of the Pallumian.
Hurry! Stop those horses! Ebennen screamed.
Shalnark threw the shovel and turned to try to find a way to slow the spooked horses. He lay over the driver’s seat and reached as far as he could over the carriage shaft, trying desperately to grab the reins that had fallen between the horses. The horses were running too fast for Shalnark to simply jump out, so he needed to get control of the carriage.
Channeling every ounce of his being into his hands, Shalnark saw his arm literally stretching toward the reins by an inch. His eyes widened in shock. He knew he could change his face easily with his power, but he had never been able to modify his body any deeper than his skin tone. However, there was simply no time to ponder his newly discovered skill.
“Come on, just an inch more!” He squeezed the words between his gritting teeth.
He imagined an invisible force pulling on his fingertips, stretching his arms little by little. Bones cracked and reformed. Muscles slightly tore and reattached as the fibers multiplied and expanded. The arms stretched another three inches toward the reins long enough for Shalnark to grip them with his index finger.
Just as his finger grasped the reins, Shalnark saw another poof of smoke at the top of his vision just ahead. The magician magically appeared in the air, falling directly toward the speeding carriage as it swiftly approached. His arms were outstretched like an albatross in flight as he fell with grace toward Shalnark.
“You can’t be serious!” Shalnark yelled.
The magician slammed into Shalnark with a direct hit, tackling backward into the hay behind him. The impact from the magician startled the horses even further. The left horse attempted to bolt toward his side, causing the other horse to stumble. The carriage shaft shattered, releasing the panicked horses before they reached the edge of the cliffs. The cart came to a brief stop, allowing the brawlers to regain their footing for a second before the carriage began to roll downhill in the opposite direction. The steep hill made the cart accelerate at an alarming speed toward a building at the bottom of the slope.
Both Shalnark and the magician fell back into the hay as they braced for a major impact. At that speed, the cart slamming into the building at the bottom of the slope would kill them both horrifically.
Shalnark! Ebennen shouted.
Well, I guess this is it, Shalnark thought as he closed his eyes and waited for Lord Death’s peaceful embrace.
However, Death never came. The carriage suddenly felt like it was somehow traveling uphill back into the courtyard in front of the church. Shalnark opened his eyes.
The magician looked noticeably exhausted as he wiped the sweat from his brow. “Well, that was certainly close! If I had miscalculated the positioning of the exit portal by even another inch, we would’ve repainted that person’s home with our guts!”
Shalnark was still lying on his back in the cart, gripping the edge with all his might. “How . . . are we still alive?” He looked behind the carriage but wasn’t sure exactly what he was seeing. A strange phenomenon sat in the center of the market. It appeared as if Shalnark was looking at a painting of the market, but someone had grabbed the canvas and twisted it.
The magician put his fists to his hips and stood proud. “Simple! I opened an entry portal in our path that exited facing up a different hill, slowing our deadly cart of death to a stop.” The magician reached a hand toward Shalnark. “Now that I’ve got you calm, my name is Don Traveler, and I—”
The blunt end of a spear struck the back of his head, knocking him unconscious on top of Shalnark. Standing at the edge of the cart was a tall Holy Knight dressed in his armor. Behind him was a small mob of Riverhill villagers armed with clubs and pitchforks.
The Holy Knight pointed a cocked wheellock pistol in Shalnark’s face. “You’re under arrest for robbery, reckless spell casting, and debauchery. Do not resist, for I will not hesitate to use deadly force.” The crowd behind him shouted profanities at the pair as they dragged the magician’s unconscious body out from the hay.
Shalnark looked down to see the sack he had fought so hard for had split open in the cart. Inside was nothing but shards of unworked iron. A worthless decoy bag.
I told you something wasn’t right, Ebennen said.
Shalnark sighed as he slowly lifted his hands over his head.
“I hate this damn continent.”