Getting back to the surface took some time. Mostly because Rontu and Ool still had heavy wounds from their encounter with the matron. They couldn’t move too fast. Even when they finally broke through a gaping cave opening, it was the pitch black of the Shadow Wood. They had passed through the Shadow Wood to get to Jabar'olath, so Rontu, Khaz, and Ren were generally unsurprised. None of them were really bothered by the lack of light. Aevukepe helped Rontu most of the way. Once they reached the surface, they settled down to rest again.
Ren’s map was pulled out again and showed them the lay out of what was nearby. However, for this, light was necessary. Ren conjured a hand full of fire for them to study the map by.
“That’s curious,” muttered Rontu, squinting at the vellum. “There seems to be a port city … I doubt it’s a drow establishment.”
The names labeling the many dots signifying people were not drow names.
“So another secret criminal city?” asked Khaz. There were a few scattered about Delusuu, as it was the land in which Ranelu dumped its criminals and apparently all the races they decided to banish. However, any humans or elves that were banished there were at the mercy of the Drow Empire, which dominated over this land. Drow despised anything that was not drow. So humans and other elves were forced in hiding. Rontu said that these cities were occasionally discovered and snuffed out by the empire from time to time.
Apparently, it was considered a sport to the drow. Like shooting down pests, or poes, in Hyrule field was sometimes a past time of bored magic users.
“Well, we need supplies,” said Rontu, leaning back against the thick and tall trunk of a tree they were nestled in the roots of.
All the trees of the Shadow Wood were huge. The only tree Khaz had seen that could compare was the old and dead form of the Great Deku Tree of Kokiri Forest. The roots undulated through the ground like great unmoving worms and vines.
Rontu didn’t look very good. His hand went absent-mindedly to his side, were his major wound lay in his ribcage. His expression was dulled and impassive, even more so than usual. There was a heaviness to his gaze that was not usually there. And yet, as far as Khaz could tell, Rontu’s eyes still twitched the direction of the twigs that snapped under Ren’s heavy steps.
There wasn’t much noise in the wood than that. An eerie silence pervaded the trees around them. No animals stirred in the brush. No leaf seemed to stir. The canopy above was so thick that the sky above could not bee seen. It seemed to be part of the constant darkness of the woods. There was no way to tell what time of day it was. Oddly, Khaz didn’t mind so much. He actually found the Shadow Wood rather peaceful. He felt oddly safe there than threatened.
“The only problem is … well, Ool and I are hardly in any shape to travel much. That aside, it’s likely to be a human or otherwise white elf establishment. We would do better to hide here than risk death trying to sneak about a city as large as this one,” said Rontu, his white hair hung over his face as sagged against the tree trunk. “In our current states, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to do.”
“Right so …” said Khaz, trying to prompt Rontu to his point. Obviously, he already had an idea for what should be done next.
“So you, Ren, and Lynn should go to the city and see what you can find.”
The trek was endless; darkness gave way only into more darkness and the skeptical young male was beginning to wonder if all the hearsay about the blistering light of the surface was merely priestess propaganda. However, with the sharp incline towards the surface world came changes. The stifling staleness and heat of the cavern dissipated and shifted to a crisp coolness and the air about them came alive with soft breezes. Even the ground underfoot began to belie the shift. As the earth spat them out into the impregnable dark the steady stone went soft underfoot as the cave floor gave way to a spongy carpet of ferns and lichens.
Ool’s once-confidant stride turned into an unsure and slinking shuffle. Each foot dragged then bounced a bit before he placed it back down, shying like an unbroken colt at the uneasy sensation. Their combined footsteps sent up a muffled clamor to break the dead silence of the wood. Drawing his pale yellow eyes up from the coils of horsetail ferns and creeper vines that blanketed the earth Ool was met with black on black shadows. An army of top-less pillars sprouted from the ground and met with the shivering, whispering ceiling; trees. Like a fish thrust onto land Ool could only flounder.
Slinking in Rontu’s footsteps like some abused hound the young male stuck close.
The quiet speculations and conversations that the rest of the group seemed so immersed in fell on deaf ears, however. Agony bloomed behind the young male’s eyes as the half-dragon coolly conjured a handful of flame. For eyes so accustomed to total blackness that sudden flare sent ripples of nauseating misery straight to the back of his battered skull.
Desperate fingers sought the roughened bark of the nearest tree for support as Ool felt the bottom of his gut lurch. In four strained and not-so-silent retches the young drow had emptied the meager contents of his stomach. Shaking from exertion and clenching his teeth to keep his head from splitting in two, Ool forced his eyes shut. Even through his eyelids he could still catch a pink glow as that fire-light crept through the skin. Another wet slap broke the silence as Ool’s body ejected a mess of foaming bile onto the spongy forest floor. Angrily, Ool gathered a mouthful of bitter saliva and spat. Once he was sure that the ordeal was over he wiped his mouth with the back of one hand and propped himself up, shaking, against the tree.
Pain and embarrassment stained his haughty features. Vomiting, Ool found, was rather humbling; he kept his mouth shut to save his reputation…and to keep any other ‘surprises’ from coming tumbling out of his vile-tasting mouth.
Rontu had heard Ool's retching, but failed to comment on it or even give the other drow a glance. He already knew it was because of the light from Ren's flames and the combination of a very bruised and battered head. He just didn't feel the need to comment or stop discussing what was to be done next or ask if Ool was well or not. He would fine ... eventually.
Khaz and Ren seemed more easily distracted, but then they both noticed the drow and the unease of his innards.
"What's wrong, can't stand the fresh air after the stink of your room?" said Ren with a sneer aimed toward Ool. "Does it make you ill?"
Peeling his lips back into a snarl Ool kept his features half-buried against the rough bark. While he might rise to Ren's prodding even as his guts threatened to paint the forest floor he wouldn't be thick-headed enough to turn back towards that light. A rough snort cleared Ool's nostrils and he set a casual glance towards the base of the tree and followed it upwards.
"Walking behind you for hours hasn't aided my situation." It was a lame quip and Ool knew it as soon as it had left his lips and it prompted him to speak again if only to misdirect that fact.
"And our scholars must have been poorly informed...I was to understand your heavens were limitless and lit by a great flame. The grass is always greener, mn?"
"Well, yeah, it is greener," retorted Ren like Ool was addled in the brain, like he most likely was, raising a brow at him. "It's greener because there's a freaking sun out here. Normally, anyway. We're in the Shadow Wood. No weird glowing moss crap up here."
"Come to think of it," said Khaz more thoughtfully, folding his arms across his chest. "There's not exactly trees down in the underdark, right? In any case, you just can't see it yet, because we're in the Shadow Wood."
"It's beside the matter at hand," interrupted Rontu, getting impatient with this quickly. He rolled up the map and tossed it back to Ren. "The sooner you go the sooner Ool and I can leave the Shadow Wood and then he will get to see it for himself. The establishment is a port city called, Haven Port."
Ren caught the map and tucked it back in with his things along his belt with his pouches. "Oh joy, just me and Mr. Big Ears? Well, whatever. We'll have it covered."
"My ears are perfectly normal for a Hylian," snapped Khaz.
"Shut up and get your things ready," said Ren, already turning his back on him, ready to head out. Khaz scowled at it. This wasn't exactly the ideal situation. Khaz could hardly stand Ren even when Rontu was around to call order to their senselessness. Now it was just going to be the two of them, trying to gather supplies in an unknown city full of criminal backwash of Ranelu. Sullenly, Khaz grabbed a pack and followed Ren through the giant roots and trunks of the Shadow Wood.
Names were meant to give shape and feeling to a place and the rag-tag township of Haven Port was no different. The name smacked of cool costal breezes and safety. It had a friendly sound that marked it as a variable oasis to the common traveler. Haven Port. Whoever had named the place must have had a good sense of humor. The whole of the place from ground to gutters was colored a dingy grey from the constant blowing sea air and everything sported a healthy coat of salt. Poorly laid cobbles beckoned wanderers onto the winding streets as if the very unevenness of the masonry was ready to trip a body and shake the coin from their pockets. For a cesspool, Haven Port had been poorly named.
Inside, the general feel of the city went unimproved. It was a long haul before sunset but the noontime hour hadn’t seemed to thin out the patronage within the local drinking establishment. The rickety assemblage of tables as well as the long line of seats along the bar were packed with stoutly stereotypical, bickering souls. Dour shafts of washed yellow sunlight managed to seep in through the thickly oiled pauper’s glass windows but it did nothing to lighten the atmosphere within the bar. Acrid plumes of blue-grey tobacco-smoke hung about in a stuffy slither, only broken as a body passed by or another tussle broke out among the heavily drinking ranks. The only music that purveyed the scene was the heavy clattering of glasses and the sudden angry outbursts of the patrons. Now and again the sound of a bottle breaking or the squall of a waitress having her backside roughly patted would break through the low and steady hum of sound.
One soul, with crooked nose buried steadily in a hand of cards, had managed to drown out the rancorous white noise. The young man’s head was gently bowed as he considered the odds he had been dealt and slowly shuffled his fanned line-up of cards. Unlike his fellow gambler’s, however, the dark-haired youth seemed to lack hard-edges. Those angular features were as even and passive as a portrait and his almond-shaped eyes held no malice in their moss-green depths. Taizo was the single piece of Haven Port’s puzzle that did not fit.
His clothing was just dissimilar enough to slap him with the title of foreigner. The dark sleeves of his thick linen jacket had been rolled up above his wrists…a measure Taizo had taken to show as a good favor; there would be no cheating this game. At least on his part. Along the inner arm and curling down the young man’s ribcage a pattern of pale gold dragons had been threaded into the garment, the intricacy obscured by the way Taizo dropped his left elbow. The garment hung tarp-like about the young man and it made him seem somehow smaller, as though he were curling up into a warm blanket. The linen wrappings about his hands and fingers had raised eyebrows, however. Upon cursory inspection one of the larger men heading the poker game had raised the question if he was some kind of leper…of which Taizo had politely assured them all was untrue but otherwise offered no explanation. Something about the young man’s smiling ease had put the gamblers off and each nay-sayer in turn had dropped his accusations.
Taizo’s calloused fingers slowed in shuffling his hand and eventually went still. With sudden realization those forest green eyes went brighter than any of the oil lamps that peppered the walls. Keeping that stricken-blank poker face in place was becoming more and more difficult as the seconds ticked by. About the table each rough-neck threw in his bet with a heavy clatter of coin.
Of course, Ren got impatient with all the hiking through the woods, and before long his desire to reach their destination sooner lead to them using Lynn's shadow jumping ability. It wasn't anything like an instant teleport to Haven Port. Lynn could only go about 10 feet at a time with each jump. Plus, he could go faster if he could carry his travelers on his back. But both Ren and Khaz were too big for that. They had to make due with keeping a hand on his head or shoulders.
Still, it definitely shortened the time it would have taken to walk through the Shadow Wood. Once they broke through the trees, Khaz felt exposed again. He always liked darkness. He was always just more confident in it. He didn't trip when it was nice and pitch black like in the Shadow Wood or the underdark. That was the only thing he had liked about being in the underdark.
The city they arrived at was none too comforting either. Takai had hunted in towns similar in grim to this one. Like the one he had found Thenia in. A little girl he found down in the hidden basement of a brothel house in a human city. Surprisingly enough, this city was on the other side of the Spirit Mountains, in Ranelu. Not all the criminals could be caught and thrown across the border.
It made him feel better about it all. Well, about Takai mostly. It seemed almost like a waste to pass this city up without letting Takai out to do a little hunting, but ... that was unlikely to occur with Ren at his side. He usually did his hunting in cities that Ren and Rontu did not accompany him to. It was just safer.
His mind danced carefully around the thought of Thenia, because thoughts of her easily lead to thoughts of Leonna. And he didn't think about Leonna if he could help it. He tried to stuff that down in the hole he stuffed everything he couldn't handle down. And Khaz was always good at not thinking about such things. The unease faded out as he let the thought of Thenia drift away, bringing his focus back to the task at hand.
Supplies. It being a more ... exotic city, though full of scum, Khaz was comfortable with Lynn walking along side him instead of haunting him in the shadows, as Lynn had often been forced to do in Ranelu. However, it wasn't long before he and Ren were prodding at the map and arguing about which place was most likely to have what they need.
Khaz said they should try asking someone. Ren rejected this immediately. Before long, they both "agreed" to splitting up to see who could find the right place first. They were to meet back in an hour at a pub next to them called the Talon Maw.
Of course, Khaz was fine with that. It was the place he planned to ask the bartender for directions in the first place. Probably not as easy as it sounds, as it was basically a city ran by criminals. Ren and Rontu handled these people better than Khaz normally did ... at least when they were around. This was because Khaz preferred to keep up appearances. He was supposed to be the weakest link. And often times, it was better that everyone, especially your enemies, believed such. Because then they underestimated him.
"Lynn, wait for me out here. It's probably too crowded in there for you anyway," said Khaz as they approached the pub. "This will only take a few minutes."
A little puff out air exhaled out Lynn's nose told Khaz that his companion did not approve of this. It was odd having someone who was so actively protective of him. This was part of the reason for making Lynn wait outside. No doubt, someone would get in his face and make threats. Khaz could handle that fine without Lynn to growl at them. At least Lynn didn't normally argue with Khaz when he made such orders, he was just silently disapproving.
Khaz stepped into the bar and found himself surrounded by humans. Khaz hadn't exactly become fond of humans ever since he had started traveling around Ranelu. Apparently, they were rather like Gerudos, no pointed ears. However, their skin tone, hair, and eye color seemed subject to variation. And they had just as many males as females. What annoyed Khaz about humans was mostly how they treated their women, which was strangely opposite of Gerudos and Hylians. The brothel Khaz had visited and shown him the rather ugly side of it. He definitely preferred elven cities.
He swallowed hard at the looks he received upon entering. He suddenly remembered how humans in Ranelu didn't like elves and how they weren't likely to like them any better in Delusuu. Perhaps this would be much more difficult than he had first thought. Feeling eyes all over him, Khaz made his way over to the bar. He pulled up a sit and gave the bartender a nervous smile. The man was missing an eye and did not smile back at Khaz.
Before he could even open his mouth, Khaz felt three shadows drift over him and fall onto counter in front of him. He slowly turned his head and raised an innocent brow at the three human men. "... Can I help you?"
One was short but stocky. He was shorter than Ren but looked more thickly wrapped with muscle. He was bald and tan all over. When he leered at Khaz, he saw that several of his teeth were now either gold or silver. They glimmered at Khaz through the dim lighting from a wide-set jaw. Many shiny hoops and rings decorated the man's ears, mouth, nose, and eyebrows.
The second was tall, nearly as tall as Rontu, and muscular. His skin was so dark it was almost black. However, it wasn't the faded black of a drow's skin. There was a brown hue to it, like it was a brown so dark it was nearly black. He definitely was not a drow. The ears and facial structure was clearly human. His hair appeared to be cut down short, and the little strands that were showing were very thick and course, full of curl. Most of it, however, was covered with a soft leather bandana. His dark eyes held quiet disdain as they looked down at Khaz. Strapped to his belt and various parts of his body seemed like an entire collection of various kinds of knives.
The third man was not as impressive in his stature as the first two. He was also rather pale in comparison. Everything about him seemed washed out. His hair was a pale, almost dishwater blond that hung limply around his face, pouring straight off his scalp and past his shoulders. His eyes were a bland and dull gray shade of blue, and always looked slightly watery. He wasn't as tall as the second man but not as short as the first. He was also not as muscular as them. He appeared twigish and lean. He was the only one who smiled at Khaz, but that smile peeled the lips apart like a greasy knife through spoiled fruit.
This one pulled a chair up next to Khaz on his left.
"Well, you see, brother," said the greasy one. "We're playing some cards over there, but we ran into a bit of a problem. See, we need one more person to play."
"Uh huh ..." said Khaz. This didn't sound like it was going anywhere good. It was strange how the words themselves were friendly enough, except when they were coming out of this guy's mouth.
"I'm sorry, brother, I should have introduced meself first," said the blond one. He seemed to be the talking piece to this bunch. "My name is Ronin. These brothers here are Rock and Blade. What's your name, brother?"
Khaz held back the sigh threatening to exhale through his nose. Dragging his eyes up from the counter, he looked into the other male's washed out blue eyes. "Whatever you want it to be, brother."
Khaz's tone was light, not exactly mocking, but still poking at all the "brotherly" talk. Ronin chuckled at Khaz's answer. "That's clever, brother. Clever." Ronin flung an arm around Khaz's shoulders. "So what do you say? Wanna play some cards with us?"
Khaz cringed inwardly when Ronin put his arm around his shoulders. "Uh, sorry, but I didn't come here to play. I came to see if I could ask for directions. I need to buy some supplies, see ..."
"Oh, you should have just said so, brother," laughed Ronin. "I think we both can get what we want. You come play and win, and I'll tell you everything you need to know about Haven Port."
"And if I lose?" asked Khaz. He really didn't want to play ... but he was also confident he could win. Even though, he hadn't played a card game since he was fifteen.
"Hehm," Ronin half laughed half hummed. "Well, then you lose a little gold out of your pockets. What's the harm, hm?"
Probably a lot more than Ronin was making it seem like. They would probably try to twist his arm into playing more even after he wins. Just like how they were trying to twist his arm now. They most likely intended worse, since he looked like an elf with longer ears than usual. They probably wouldn't even tell him what he wanted to know if he won. This was a waste of his time.
"Why would I do that when I can ask someone else for free?" asked Khaz, looking to the bartender.
The arm around his shoulder tightened, pressing him closer to Ronin's stench. "Because it's rude to reject the offer, brother. We just extend a hand of brotherhood to ya."
The tall, dark one whipped out a knife at this point and lightly brushed the edge of the blade against Khaz's ear.
"So you can either play with us, or we make you look more like us."
Khaz swallowed, glaring at the tall one with the knife. Well, maybe he should have brought Lynn with him after all. Before he knew it, he was being saddled over to the table and forced down into a seat next to another guy with black hair and muscular and athletic but not overly bulky build. His green eyes were staring at his cards. There were wrappings around his hands. It reminded Khaz of the Sheikah back home in Hyrule.
…and then if I move this card, here…in front of this one…that’s a royal flush, isn’t it…?
Immersed in the arrangement of his hand Taizo hadn’t even looked up at the flurry of activity as his fellow players excused themselves from the table. Throughout the game the young monk had come to learn that the sudden complaints of the rickety chairs screaming across the un-worked floor meant it was time for more drinks. Taizo was loathe to forgo the offer of drinks as he had been doing all afternoon; he had no real tender to pay for it. Each time one of his new ‘brothers’ rose a mug and opened their gullets he found himself watching those bobbing Adam’s apples with a twinge of longing. It had been months since Taizo had been able to indulge himself in a drink and now his only consolation from abstaining was that the bitter swill didn’t smell very appetizing.
Across the splintered round of the table came a sharp whistle. Immediately Taizo drew his head up like a deer caught in the headlights. Regarding the only member of the game left with a soft tilt of the head, Taizo blinked at the weathered old man.
“Yes?” The young monk’s tone was nothing short sounding politely searching.
Sliding a pair of gnarled fingers from his lips, the criminal hefted his mug upwards for a swallow. After enough noisome gulps to render him short of breath the cup dropped back down at the roughneck rigorously licked his lips. Taizo thought that this might be where the term ‘wetting one’s whistle’ might be applied. A greasy and chipped fingernail rapped smartly on the tabletop as the man hungrily and in that bulldog manner, licked his lips.
Swordfish was rail-thin and looked liable to collapse to one side like a poorly constructed house of cards. His hooked nose was sharp and full of pock-marks and scars and the lips underneath it were slim and cracked. Swordfish’s neck had a sag to it that belied his age and Taizo couldn’t help but wonder, with his soft manner of slurring his words, if the old criminal wasn’t missing most of his mouthful of teeth.
“Ante up, already. No pay, no play.” Another sharp barrage of finger-taps assaulted the grainy surface as Swordfish set a bleary and clouded eye on Taizo.
Only too happy to oblige the young monk dipped his head solemnly and began searching his belonging. A few moments and a few more suspicious glances from Swordfish the dark haired youth produced a small leather pouch. Giving the tiny drawstring bag a merry shake Taizo tossed it amid the pile of copper and silver pieces in the center.
Swordfish did not look pleased and his voice snapped and slurred as he barked out: “S’in it?”
“Coins, of course.”
An almost boyish smile coursed over Taizo’s lips as he turned those mossy copper eyes back on his cards. Taizo was a poor liar and so never told a real un-truth. Yes, there were coins in the bag and perhaps just enough of them to match the bet. However his payment might not have been readily accepted. In that bag was the allowance of a pauper. The tender was nothing more than a score of square steel coins drawn together through their holed middles by a length of cord. A few copper and silver made the mix a bit less monochrome but the sum was foreign and therefore no good. Still, Taizo compromised with himself. These men should have noticed something was awry if he had not been spending coin hand over fist on liquor…or at the very least asked why. Swordfish seemed sated with the weight of the coin as it hit the table and so he said nothing. Still, the monk did feel ill-at-ease with not being forthcoming…but where was the harm if he was going to win, anyway?
Again his almond-shaped eyes were back on the fan of cards in his hand. It was long minutes later before he looked up again. The sound of a rump thudding dully down into the seat next to him drew Taizo’s eyes up. Up, down again, then up Taizo did a double-take. The man that had been plopped down next to him didn’t exactly fit the tavern niche, just like himself, but he could have passed if it weren’t for his tapered ears. Taizo stared but his eyes were bright with interest rather than the ingrained hatred of the rest of the table. Taizo thought that he had never seen a finer pair of ears than these.
“Oh, fantastic!” That voice was warm and quiet but it held a genuine edge. The way he exclaimed made certain that it was most definitely Khaz’s ears that had caught his attention and not the prospect of adding another player to the game. “Are you joining in?”
Taizo’s gaze bobbed softly from the Hylian’s ears towards those midnight blue eyes and met them with an even expression of his own. Unlike most men who sized up a potential friend of foe with a series of glances Taizo’s gaze never left Khaz’s features to study the cut of his clothing nor what weapons he might be carrying. It was either complete confidence or utter naivety. Curling in his fan of cards to keep prying eyes away from what he was sure was a winning hand the young monk offered out a wrapped and calloused hand towards the newcomer. It was a halting but liquid gesture; genuine in his welcome but unsure if it was the proper way to start it. Taizo was often good at committing social faux pas.
That pin-straight curtain of black hair did nothing but make his smile seem brighter white. The smile flared nova-bright for an instant before it dimmed to a more normal display of exuberance. Try as he might, Taizo found his gaze wanting to wander back to those inexplicably long ears. The monk had to keep his mind on watching the Hylian’s face rather than his more interesting appendages. The monk had opened his mouth again, ready to speak when a hand crashing down on the table slowly drew his eyes across the table, his gaze questioning rather than alarmed.
Swordfish bared black gums in a nearly toothless growl. “When you two’re done lickin’ each other’s asses, we got a game to finish.”
By the time Khaz brought his gaze up from his wrapped hands and forearms, he found himself staring into a pair of colorfully green eyes, bright with a sort of awed innocence about them. It nearly reminded him of Leonna. How she could look at a broken bottle made of brown glass and think it was pretty. He often wondered if that was how she had once looked at him. A broken thing, but somehow still pretty. Oh Din, he was thinking about Leonna now, and that always put a sore turning pit in his gut. He needed to focus right now.
“Oh, fantastic! Are you joining in?”
Fantastic? Khaz stared, and so did the other. However, those green eyes seemed to sway over to his ears rather often. He seemed ... almost painfully authentic. Unlike Ronin over there, he seemed to be just as happy to see him there as his words suggested. He offered Khaz one of those wrapped hands and said, “I’m Taizo.”
Khaz almost found himself raising his arm to take it, until they were rudely interrupted by one of the other brutes Khaz hadn't yet been introduced to.
“When you two’re done lickin’ each other’s asses, we got a game to finish.”
How crass. Khaz gave the old man a glare that was just as equally returned. Out of this old sea of scum, Khaz felt Taizo next to him was some sort of life-raft of cleanliness in several regards. However, he tried to remind himself that anyone who was here, in Delusuu, and not a drow, were criminals. It was hard to believe that shining, innocent smile was attached to a criminal. Then again ... Khaz was here, and he hadn't been convicted of anything.
Not everything was as it appeared to be. But in Delusuu no one really had any reason to hide. They were already damned just by being here. All criminals. There was nothing to hide. Maybe that smile was just as it appeared to be.
Ronin started dealing out cards to Khaz. "So brother, how is it we're graced with your presence on this side of the mountains?"
Khaz picked up his cards carefully. Not wanting to flash his hand on accident, and also because it had been a while since he had played any card games. He hoped the rules to this one was similar to what he knew in Hyrule. At first, he didn't seem to be paying any attention to Ronin's question. But than after a pause in which he gathered his cards, his eyes stayed on them as he said with a completely causal face and tone.
"I killed a man." It was a convenient half truth. He had killed men both in and out of war. He was just never convicted of murder. Of course, amongst criminals, a murder or two was expected. Usually only the worst criminals were chucked across the border, according to Rontu. "So how do I play?"
The group roared with laughter at that. Khaz gave them a deadpan expression. They were enjoying this too much.
"You don't know, brother?" chuckled Ronin after he finished laughing with the rest.
"Different rules depending on the game and the location," replied Khaz, his expression still not amused.
Ronin snorted, but explained to Khaz the basics of poker and the general highest to lowest hands.
Taizo thoughtfully surveyed the Hylian over his fan of cards. This man, who had yet to reveal his name, had marked himself a murderer so easily that he might as well have been commenting on the weather. It was uncanny. Unexpected. With all his heart-shaped features and his patiently miffed manners Khaz didn’t exactly seem to fit in with the local roughnecks. Surely he could not be cut from the same cloth as the rest of the rag-tag assortment of villains and thieves that circled the table. Even if his Master had warned that appearances could be deceiving Taizo went with his gut and judged Khaz by his first impression of the fine-eared fellow.
“There’s no need to be rude.” His soft and chipper tone wafted towards Ronin from behind his little shield of playing cards. There was no malice to his words and it seemed the dull sort of chiding one might offer an indulgent child.
“After all, we’re all brothers here, aren’t we?”
The monk offered a lazy smile that narrowed his slanted eyes just enough to make him look unassuming. One linen wrapped hand shuffled the cards to one hand and Taizo prodded the tabletop softly with his index finger. A smile twitched at the edge of his lips as the young man tried to diffuse the situation while Ronin and the rest remained unawares.
“My hand is very good.”
At Taizo’s nonchalant appraisal of his own cards howls of laughter and dismissive barks went up from the rest of the cut-throats at the table. The young monk only allowed his smile to lift a little as he finally cast his gaze towards Ronin. Taizo’s next curiously eager question came with a slight tilt of the head, as if he were listening to some far off noise.
Khaz tossed the minimum amount of coin into the center of the table with the rest of them. It was money wasted except for the fact that it kept Blade's knife away from his ears. Meanwhile, Takai took a peek at the rest of their cards. It was hard for him to see it in perfect clarity though. The shadows weren't as dark here. The lighting was dim, just enough to give him a good guess at the rest of their cards.
Taizo wasn't lying. His hand was good. Smart tactic though. By stating the truth with his poker face, the rest were left to guess whether Taizo was bluffing or not. Of course, Khaz had sh** for cards. They traded a card in, but that was all the game allowed for. It helped Khaz out little.
Both he and Ronin folded early. Probably because they were both smart enough to take Taizo's words seriously. The rest were too thick in the muscle. It probably squeezed their brains, kept them from getting any smarter.
Still, Khaz watched Taizo lazily. He seemed quick to defend Khaz when the others laughed at him, though he didn't exactly scream it loudly. It was subtle but there. Why did this guy seem to take such a quick liking to him? Khaz had just confessed to being a murder, and yet he seemed unfazed. Was Khaz wrong? Was he actually just as criminal as the rest? Or did he just not care?
Round after round more coin was tossed into the pool and as the bets got higher so did the players’ nerves. Taizo’s smile was just dreamy and self-satisfied enough that it must have been a bluff. Swordfish stared down the end of his pock-marked nose at Taizo and lapped at his cracked upper lip. The amount of money that had amassed in the center of the table was nearly ridiculous and one by one Ronin’s followers folded. All save for Swordfish.
“You’re out of coin.” A gnarled finger jabbed accusingly in the young monk’s direction. “Let’s see your hand.”
“I don’t suppose you take I.O.U.s?”
Under that genuinely soft and even tone there was playful jibing. It seemed that Taizo just wanted to play the game and see how far he could press his luck. In all truth he had run out of suitable payment rounds past. All that padded that thick leather pouch he had anted up for his bet had within it was a handful of square steel coins; a worthless figure of payment from a foreigner. Still, Taizo couldn’t see the harm in it all. After all, he did have the better hand.
The splintered table swayed suddenly as Swordfish got to his feet and slammed both palms down on the table. Those black gums were bared in the monk’s direction. It was obvious that the salty old dog was tiring of Taizo’s games. The young monk didn’t give an inch at Swordfish’s outburst. Those mossy green eyes only flickered upwards curiously.
“Put down your damn cards!” Spittle flecked the table and added vile emphasis to that command.
Leaning back in his chair a little, Taizo laid down his little fan of cards neatly on the tabletop. Ace. King. Queen. Jack. Ten. All in the same neat suit of little red hearts. That even smile did not once waver, as though his poker face was a constant companion…not just something used for a game of cards.
Khaz covered his hand over his mouth in a casual gesture but was really masking a smile. Finally the old one forced Taizo to lay down his hand. Just like Khaz predicted, Taizo's hand was a gold one. He watched Swordfish turn red in the face. Oddly, Khaz didn't mind losing so much if it was Taizo who got the money. It felt less like it was being stolen from him.
Khaz got up then. "Pity, seems I lost. I guess I don't get that information I wanted. Later."
Old Swordfish’s pock-marked lips peeled back over blistered gums when he caught a look at Taizo’s hand. Cheeks bloated by too many decades of drink turned the sunken, sour red of a rotting tomato as the old salt pushed his chair back angrily. Nobody got that lucky! Not on a first round in any case, and the score of spare cards Swordfish had squirreled away in his own sleeve backed up his assumption. No damn fool kid could cheat this cheater!
Ignoring the collection of slacked jaws and disbelieving stares that met him from about the table, Taizo leaned in towards the pot with a bandaged hand outstretched. Luck had everything to do with it, really. One could only work with the hand that they were dealt, after all.
“Lucky game…anyone for another go?”
Just as the tips of his fingers went to retrieve his own pouch from the pile of winnings a cold clatter of steel pinned the fabric to the table. The young monk yanked his hand away, having only been inches from having his hand pinned to the wooden surface. Where his hand had hovered only a moment before Swordfish’s dagger was embedded in the table. A spill of those square steel coins poured from the shredded drawstring pouch…an ugly spray of grey against bright silver and sparse gold rounds.
“Cheat! You weren’t even playing with money!” In a spray of saliva Swordfish howled his accusation. Like a disturbed nest of hornets the rest of the group began to swarm.
Taizo’s smile was immediate and apologetic. A white-wrapped hand went to the back of his neck in an open and appeasing gesture. It was true that he had not been forthcoming with his fellow card players. His money might have been good in this province but coin was still coin, wasn’t it? And what was the harm if he had stolen nothing or wronged a body? Hadn’t he won?
“Well, not entirely. It’s still coin...so it isn’t as if it’s dishonorable.” Taizo tone was appeasing and good natured; cool under pressure. “And what’s the harm if I had the winning hand?”
Swordfish parted the crowd as he stumbled drunkenly forward and snatched Taizo by the thick fabric of his jacket. Roughly he drew the young monk in towards his spittle-flecked lips and scowled. One brittle fist was balled and hovering just near his ear as he readied a blow.
“You sneaky little ♥♥♥♥!”
Both of Taizo’s hands rose slowly, palms facing Swordfish in a congenial gesture of surrender. Since he had laid down his winning hand his smile had waned to something that was nearly apologetic…but not remorseful. That practically percolating smile didn’t fade; only the delivery changed. Even when the old sea dog jerked him up out of his seat Taizo was passive. There was not an ounce of struggle from the young man.
“I don’t want any trouble.” Taizo murmur had surprising clarity and evenness despite the cuff he was surely about to receive.
“Trouble’s what you got! Should’a thought about that before, you little cheat!”
Swordfish brought his balled up fist straight towards Taizo’s crooked nose…but the punch never connected. With the speed of a lightning strike the young monk drove his palm forward and shoved the heel of his hand against Swordfish’s nose. It was the only part of his lithe frame that had even moved an inch. The old cut-throat dropped his grip on Taizo’s jacket and staggered backwards, drooping eyes watering profusely.
“I’m sorry…I really didn’t want to have to do that.” It was…an apology.
Taizo rolled his palm over to check those white wrappings for any red droplets of blood the strike might have dislodged from poor Swordfish. Luckily, the wrappings were clean. The young monk had done his best to pull his punch. After all, it wasn’t really Swordfish’s fault that he was aggravated…and Taizo knew that he was somewhat responsible.
Khaz turned to look when the thunk of metal hit the wood and coins clashed together. Crap, looks like he found the fake money that Taizo had been betting with. Well, it wasn't exactly fake, but it wasn't money that was used in Iki. New to this land, Khaz could still guess as much. Honestly, Khaz didn't understand all these metal coins. Of course, Hyrule used rupees. Sure, he supposed rupees were exchanged for things made of metal: swords, shields, jewelry, etc. He didn't get why they would melt down metal into coins for trading and money. Khaz knew the coins weren't the same as Iki currency because it was dark in that little bag they were in. Takai told him.
He heard and watched the man turn redder in the face with rage. Oh dear, this wasn't going well. Khaz supposed he could easily just turn around and walk away, and be spared seeing the bloody bar fight about to ensue. The rest of this gang were entirely focused on Taizo. Khaz could easily get away without more trouble. However ... well, he supposed he had taken a strange and sudden liking to Taizo as well. It didn't sit right in his gut to leave without helping him out somehow. Maybe he could just intimidate the hell out of them with his talon gloves. Magic intimidation worked better on humans anyway, as Khaz learned most humans had little to zero magic.
Then again, he could have done this before, but he hadn't because they didn't look like the type to be scared of magic. Besides, if the drow hunted them down, they had probably survived magic before. Maybe even fought against it to live.
Khaz watched Taizo give the man who grabbed him a wap on the nose with his palm thrusting forward. Luckily, he drew no blood with this blow. Hell, he even apologized to the guy. At this point, Khaz spoke up.
"I don't see what the big deal is. He won anyway. He doesn't owe you anything." They all turned to glare at him. "Besides, you were cheating worse than him."
"Prove it!" snarled Swordfish.
Khaz shrugged, taking a few steps back to the table. "I'd ask you to shake out your sleeves, but it'd be halfheartedly. That aside, your sleight of hand switching your cards around there was a little clumsy. Not judging, as I'm clumsy too."
One or two started to roar with some sort of cries of outrage, but then Khaz slammed his hands down on the table to shut them up again. The nails of his talon gloves extended and they nailed themselves into the wood of the table. If they were paying close attention, the metal of the gloves made no sound, only the wood did by being struck.
"Look, there's no need for any trouble here. He'll leave the money, take back his useless coins, and you all get your money back."
Too bad his talon gloves weren't scary enough. They were all on their feet now. Ronin sneered at Khaz.
"He's made fools of us, brother."
"Don't say it," warned Takai, who knew what Khaz had a mind to say. "You can get out of this without a fight if you restrain your words."
But Khaz was sick of this bunch. "I'm sorry, I was under the impression that you all made fools of yourselves."
Khaz’s participation in the whole ordeal made Taizo’s heart lighten. The long-eared fellow was a variable beacon of friendship in an otherwise ruddy room. The feeling of comradery, of sharing the same goal, was the one thing the young monk had come to miss the most during his pilgrimage from the monastery. It was an unexpected place to find altruism and friendship. Perhaps it really was true what Suuri had always said: The light always shines brightest against the dark.
“Look, there’s no need for any trouble here. He’ll leave the money, take back his useless coins, and you all get your money back.”
“I think that’s a fair compromise.” A hopeful nod accented his words.
Swordfish seemed to have gathered his wits about him enough to hover near Ronin’s left shoulder, snarling at the duo from behind his shield. Already a dark purple blemish had begun to creep across that hooked nose, dipping into the sunken cavities of his eyes. The bruising would do nothing to improve the toothless savage’s looks. Growling and spitting Swordfish’s snake-like fingers wrenched his dagger from the chipped wooden surface and wobbled it in the Hylian’s general direction as if he were revving up to throw a few more insults but Khaz beat him to it.
“I’m sorry, I was under the impression that you all made fools of yourselves.”
The young monk’s jaw went a little slack as he heard Khaz returned the brute’s chattle expertly. Suppressing a chuckle with a humble bow of his head Taizo lifted his shoulders in a rather guilty looking shrug. In all truth Taizo was guiltier about almost laughing at this inappropriate moment than he was about almost swindling the group of gamblers in the first place. Those doleful eyes swept over the Hylian in a humoring glance. His guilt slipped through his tone.
“Don’t give them all the credit…I did help.”
This, it seemed, was the last straw for the assembled vagrants. One of the stockier cut-throats dove into the fray, beginning the fight with a triumphant yowl. Brandishing a dagger in one hand the hoop-earring besotted man made straight for the young monk’s midsection. It seemed that cry had come a tad early in celebrating his victory, however.
Turning his attention from Khaz to the noisome attack Taizo merely side-stepped. Pivoting on his left foot the young monk hinged to one side and let his right foot come up. That low center of gravity their attacker had hardly served him well. His foot clipped Taizo’s as it came up and unbalanced he tumbled into a table. His sizeable gut collided with a rough ‘oof!’ and the man ended up splayed out over the table. Not once had Taizo’s upper body moved.
“Apologies...but I think we should go.”
Bowing so low his pin-straight hair nearly swept to his thigh Taizo kept his spine stiff. Once he righted himself the young monk sauntered liquidly over to the table to snatch up his handful of coins. Just as his fingertips closed over the thick knotting of string that stranded them together, however, he could hear the angry rumbling behind him getting louder.
With a battle cry from the short one called Rock and his lunge at Taizo, the rest were soon leaping to the attack. Ronin went for Khaz. He had a feeling he had been waiting to do that for a long time. With a gasp of air, Khaz brought his left arm up. Wrapped over the top of his forearm was a very shiny, almost liquidy looking black metal. It sprung up as Khaz lifted his arm and formed a round disc the caught Ronin's knife, which was so long it was almost a very short but skinny sword. The blade bounced off the shield, which made no noise. The noise made was by the blade that struck.
As soon as the sound of fighting started, people cried out as they were either knocked aside in their chairs or knocked over by Lynn who came charging toward Khaz. Lynn skid and slid to a stop, ending up in front of Khaz and crouched protectively, ready to spring to his defense.
"Close your eyes," growled Lynn in an order.
Khaz snapped his eyes closed just as he saw Lynn jump at Ronin. The man was screaming shortly as Lynn caught his forearm in his mouth, the one holding them blade. He bit down until he dropped the weapon. However, Blade, the big, tall, and dark one was coming for Khaz next as Swordfish went after Taizo personally.
Bandaged fingertips wove all too eagerly into that string of coin; Taizo felt that a hurried exit would benefit both himself and his fine-eared new friend. Just as his calloused pads jerked the string taunt to lift it from the metachromatic spray of coin the table beneath his arm shifted. One of the so soundly cheated men had shoved the table hard to Taizo’s left to clear a quick path to the monk. A shower of coins and stray cards clattered to the swill-sodden floorboards. That string of coin in hand, Taizo had only a split second to react before a body came lumbering toward him. Where a table had been only a half-instant before there was now a body. A rather irritated looking one, too.
Drawing up a half-formed fist, the young monk lashed his hand out. That string of square copper and steel coins swung like a pendulum. Bringing down his arm in a short, swift arc, Taizo cracked the tiny column hard across his attacker’s temple. The resulting sound was unpleasant. A soft hollow ‘donk’ sent the unnamed attacker reeling backwards into a groaning support beam. It was hard to tell if the men on the prowl now had been members of their card game or if other undesirables were merely joining the ranks. Taizo caught the sting full of coin and stashed it in one of his pockets swiftly and turned to look for his new friend amid the squabbling.
Sorting out the jumble of bodies was becoming increasingly difficult. Now it seemed that some men were fighting one another now as well. Some stray punch had sent tempers flaring even amid the ill-kempt men even though they shared a common cause. However, that did not help stem the sway of bodies that were now eagerly closing in on the duo. With slavering, jabbering jowls, Swordfish was inching towards the monk. Grinning his broken-tooth grin and licking bulldogged lips, Swordfish raised the thin blade in his hand. It seemed as though, having seen Taizo’s first round of counter-attacks, that he was more cautious.
“Here, kitty-kitty…” Swordfish’s words slithered from wet lips as he circled the monk.
Taizo’s jade eyes caught ever uneasy motion the old sea dog made, though he never did anything but stare straight at the older man. Elders, among the monastery rankings, were to be respected and revered. It was almost difficult for Taizo to make any sort of attack. Instead of moving, the monk put one leg out and hooked a bare foot into the bottom rung of a rickety wooden chair and merely moved it swiftly between them. Swordfish gave a confused pause.
“Stop ♥♥♥♥in’ around, little---OOF!”
Taizo had picked the chair up and tossed it at Swordfish. The poor ale-sodden sea dog reacted before his brain had time to catch up with him. Raising his hands up, Swordfish caught the chair. With that barrier set between them, Taizo shifted half to the side and shot one leg out in a crushing kick. The side of his foot connected with the wood, splintering the shoddily made chair and sending Swordfish crashing backwards to land in a heap on the floor. It all happened in the span of half a breath.
All the boyish exuberance Taizo had possessed the moment before had faded, leaving his face expressionless as he turned to face the next onslaught.
An all-out bar fight brawl had ensued, and Khaz supposed he only had his tongue to blame for it. Also his foolishness for staying around to stick up for a man that he couldn't be sure was as criminals as the rest in this tavern or not. In any case, he still had to duck and weave through bodies to avoid Blade and his knives that seemed hungry to cut his ears down to human size. Khaz honestly tried to avoid fights, usually. This was because in fights, someone usually always got hurt. Even if it wasn't him. And usually when people got hurt there was blood, and that was really the one thing he could not stand.
He tried to make his way to the exit. He hadn't waited to watch Lynn make Ronin bleed. He had closed his eyes to turn away. It was only barely dim enough in here for him to make it far away enough from them to avoid the sight. So he opened his eyes but already knew that Blade was after him. The huge man shoved and bulldozed through others who were fighting in tangles, this place a little too small for a fight of this magnitude. Khaz threw glances over his shoulder to gauge how quickly Blade was advancing which was too quick for his liking.
Blade grabbed someone was soon as he was close enough and threw the man into another aimed at Khaz who had just ducked around the later. They toppled with the force of the huge man's push and hit into Khaz's back as he tried to retreat. Khaz fell flat on his stomach as the men fell on his legs. He wriggled to worm his legs out from under the men who writhed and fought in their own attempt get to their feet. Khaz scrambled to his feet, but the fall had given Blade enough time to catch up with him. A dark hand grabbed a fist full of Khaz's black spiky hair at the back of his head. He pulled, yanking Khaz back toward him with stumbling feet.
He writhed, turning as much as he could to the right with Blade gripping his hair. Black energy shot, crackling mute like some kind of static black electricity, from the slot in his right hand talon glove. It took the form of a small scythe. Khaz swung the energy blade wildly out at Blade's side. It just barely skinned the dark man's massive thigh. But it was enough to make him drop Khaz, because of the agony.
Khaz heard Blade roar, angry at the intense pain that one small little cut of the energy blade had caused him. It had melted not only the material of his pants that it cut but the skin, blood, and what little tissue underneath that it had managed to touch together. It all twisted together and then solidified like cooled wax from a burning candle. However, Khaz hadn't turn to see this happen. Honestly, it wasn't any better than seeing blood to him. Khaz would rather not chance it in any case. It wasn't enough pain or damage to keep Blade from coming after him. If anything, it had only added more fuel to the fire.
Khaz scrambled away when Blade let go, though he tripped and stumbled over people who had been thrown to the floor and toes and feet that got in his way. Khaz spun into one man who growled with anger, but was gone so quick the man punched the nearest person, assuming it had been them who knocked into him.
Blade was nearly frothing at the mouth with the anger and pain. He kept his eyes on the Hylian was he tripped and danced through the crowd.
All of this might have been funny, Taizo thought, if it weren’t for the murderous intent behind it. A friendly fight or brawl broke out often enough back home, which spoke for the ease with which the young monk dipped and dodged to avoid perspective punches; Taizo was no newcomer to a fist fight. However, as the ruckus gained momentum he keenly opted to bow out of this one. Soon the score of slavering sea-dogs would gather their wits, stop fighting one another, and settle in on a common goal…the scraggly foreigner and his new fine-eared friend.
Taizo frowned. If they made it out of this, he’d have to be sure and ask the other man his name.
Catching sight of Blade lumbering through the crowd towards Khaz, Taizo picked up the pace. He made for the door. Leaping over a mass of wrestling bodies and hefting his bulk over an upturned card table, the young monk gave a halting landing next to Khaz. The inky haired foreigner offered a none too sheepish wince and dipped his head in a hasty bow as he placed his hands on either of Khaz’s shoulders. Putting his weight behind the motion, Taizo urged the Hylian towards the door.
“I, uh…think this is our cue, huh?”
The last thing Taizo wanted was to get caught up in this brawl any more than he had to. The poor monk felt guilty enough about it already. True, some of this was his fault for trying to cheat…even if ‘cheat’ was a strong word for it. Taizo was honest to a fault and never told a lie, but the truth was something that could be omitted or bent, though in situations such as this he often found he regretted the choice. The bar lay in ruin behind the duo as Taizo practically herded Khaz out the door and the innocent-hearted youth couldn’t help but feel a little responsible. All monetary damages aside, now it seemed as though every sailor in port had it out for them.
And yet, as they rushed for the door, Taizo was smiling.