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Of Tainted Blood

A shy squirrel looked down from its treetop perch to see a strange sight. Moving thought the forest was a great black steed. A great black charger it appeared of immense size... full eighteen hands in height. We will call it a horse, for it was indeed of equine descent--though not of a stock seen in the realms of man since the last great war when the great stony trolls of the north stormed down into the southern lands astride such beasts. That such a beast was descended from a grazer of the plains seemed farfetched as one saw the challenge in the eyes and flare of the nostril. The beasts were almost unridable by any save the great stony trolls that shared their peaks.

Almost. The rider of this one could not be mistaken for a trollinany respect except perhaps in size. For though he stood a full seven feet and some odd inches, the face was definitely of human stock. Deeply tanned and weather worn it was but handsome. A long straight nose seperated deep brown eyes, eyes whose whites sparked of silver in the morning sun...almost hypnotic in nature. A neatly trimmed beard and moustache adroned his face, a slightly lighter hue than his raven black hair which streamed out from under the light helm he wore.

The unadorned light helm of the mercanary soldier. If there were any dougt, the characteristic wolfskin cloak and black chainmail of the myrrian mercanary completed the picture. A great Darian bastard sword was strapped over one soldier and a Myrrian war axe hung at his side.

The great beast began to rear up and was soundly clouted upside the head with a mailed fist. Then rider too caught the scent and the sound carried as the wind changed...the scent and sound of battle.

He quickly dismounted, dropping the reins and backhanding the steed near the mouth. The beast snorted but obediently trotted back up the trail, angry at not being allowed to join the fray ahead.

With amazing stealth for a being of his size, the giant warrior crept up to the top of the next rise. There was a clearing below, with a small stream running through it.

On the near side fo the stream stood an old man in grey robes, his back to the warrior on the hill. His arms were raised above his head and his hands were trembling.

Across the stream, staring intently at the old man stood a tall slim man in buckskins and a white haired young woman in clinging red silks. Their hands were clasped together and both were shaking visibly.

In midstream a mightily muscled minotaur faced off against a wild eyed tiger. Bodies of goblins and humans lay scattered about the field. Momentarily the minotaur and tiger clashed and the fur literally was flying.

All the while, the three humans stood transfixed, as if engaged in some internal battle of wills not visible to the naked eye.

But the dark observer at the top of the hill was watching with more than his eyes. His heritage included something more than what was termed human. His eyes sparkled as he looked down at the scene below, and he saw far more.

The old man's aura was a flaring purple darkening to black bit by bit. A mage obviously, and tapping energy from another plane of existence. A dark and evil plane, judging by the hue the old man's aura was assuming.

Looking over at the other two, he saw something more promising. The girl had a tight grey aura bordered in bright blue. A spiritualist, and with good control too. The young man had a strong aura of blue and green. A druid, and judging by the faint silver filaments running through the green, he was communing with the forest about him.

The minotaur had the coloration typical of his hybrid race, an animal yellow shot with faint blue form its human half. The blue was rapidly fading as battle rage allowed the animal side to gain every more prominence.

The tiger was the true surprise. Brilliant blue and green gleamed. No pet of our friendly druid there but a lycanthrope of no small control or power.

The battle was becoming lively. In the water, the minotaur was obviously the stronger dealing heinous damage with flail and claw. The water was hampering the cat's natural agility and it was taking a beating. However, it was regenerating and had a lycanthropes natural resilience. It was a matter of slaying the minotaur before the monster beat down his augmented endurance.

It would definitely be a close fight, the stealthy observer noted mentally. All good and well. The battle would probably be decided by the arcanes. He turned his attention back to them, concentrating on his aura sense. Spirits were now whirling about the old man trying to find a weakness in his magical defenses. The old man for his part appeared to be attempting some sympathetic spell on his young opponents, for in his hands gleamed two balls of energy which seemed desperately trying to match the life forces of the druid and spirituallist.

The druid seemed to be the one maintaining the defenses for his side. He was drawing on the life force of the forest and sharing it though clasped hands with the girl. The effort was putting a great strain on him and unless one of the girl's spirits penetrated the mage soon, they were doomed.

But then that was their problem, right? The warrior was about to retreat back down the hill when the old man seemed to become aware of him. He turned with a grunt to face the warrior, the two balls of energy in his hand fading to nothing.

"You have no aura!" the old man exclaimed. By the burning saints, a Titan!!" His eyes rolled back and an incatation rasped from his lips, almost inaudible. A shining ball of energy shot fromoutstretched arm flaring like a small sun it struck the center of the warrior's chest.

When it died out, the warrior stood unharmed save for a spot of scorched armor and a damaged tunic. The warrior stared down at the mage with no expression on his face. Neither fear or anger marred his features. Almost nonchalant, he drew a leather sling from his sleeve and dropped a glowing sphere into the pocket. It whirled two, three times about his head then released sped toward the mages head.

The mage's eyes went wide. A quick gesture and invocation and the air shimmered between them. The sphere entered the effect and seemed to hang in the air. Space warped between them and the ball quickly lost momentum and drifted to the ground, harmlessly.

The mage looked down at the sphere, eyes wide. Then they narrowed. "Fraud!" he yelled. His left hand curled into a fist as he gathered power for another strike.

It was a spell he would never finish. The druid, no longer assailed by the mages attack, recovered quickly. The mages attention was divided between the huge stranger and mentally fending off the spiritual attack of his own companion.

He drew an silvery acorn from his pocket, chanted quickly and crushed it. In sympathy, a great oak near the mage split with a sound like thunder and fell, crushing the mage beneath it.

As the mage fell, his protective spells collapsed upon him. Both he and the oak were enveloped in black flames. In moments all that remained was a charred silhouette in the earth.

The price of using the darker powers was sometimes high.

Face expressionless as a wraith, the giant warrior quietly discarded his shredded tunic and carefully coiled his sling.

The lycanthrope was just delivering the death blow to the minotaur. It itself was a bloody mess but healing at lycanthrope speed. It staggered back up the bank and collapsed.

The spiritualist was bent over, gasping for breath. The druid likewise leaned against a nearby tree catching his breath, drawing on its strength. From his hand fell a clump of ashes, the acorn which had sympathetically suffered the same fate as the fallen oak.

The warrior whistled and waited as his steed trotted up. The nostrils flared as it smelled blood and it instinctively shied away from the charred patch of earth.

The dark warrior mounted effortlessly and waited for the group to regain their composure, axe in hand.

To their credit, recovery took only a few seconds. The woman was the first to recover and take a defensive stance but the male was the first to speak: "I thank you sir. But for you aid we may have been defeated..."

If he was expecting a reply, he got none. So he continued, "I am Terrick of Greenwood, as you may have surmised a druid. My lady friend here is Adielle Kymirr, djinnite seer. Our tired friend there, " gesturing to the weretiger, "is Master Burgaff Stringgeldt...fifth generation lycanthrope. You have our most sincere ..."

"Terrick!!" the girl suddenly exclaimed. "The man has no aura. None!!"

The druid gaze shot back and forth between them in surprise. He reached out again to touch the tree. Silver filaments traced again through his aura as he communed.

"She's right. How do you explain that, friend?"

The warrior shrugged. "I don't feel the need to explain at all, druid."

"Terrick," the girl exclaimed again. "Shallot called him a titan!"

"Adrielle, titans have been extinct since Landor slew Aether. Besides, big though he is he's no titan. Shy a good two feet, by all accounts."

The mounted warrior waited patiently, amused at their confusion. However, no expression formed on his face. A family trait, sages had told him. His face always held the same grim look whether happy, sad. The most expression it ever held was on occassion in the heat of battle, it became a bit more fierce.

The druid turned back to address him again. "My dear sir, no disrespect intended, but you do display no aura. As far as I know only titans and a few types of golem have this quality. I beg your indulgence for some morsel of explanation."

Glib fellow, the druid. Very well...

"Normally, I don't answer questions about myself but this one time I'll indulge you and the young lady. Also, I admire how you have engaged me in conversation allowing your were friend time to recooperate.

The answer is no, I am not a titan. My father was a foot soldier in the service of the man you just mentioned: Landor of Myrr. He and a few others were foolish enough to drink of the heart's blood of Aether. I'm one of several odd progeny sired by those men. The only one I know which has survived to the current day."

The druid smiled in some obvious relief. The girl, however, remained poised for trouble.

"And might I enquire as to your name, good sir." The druid didn't miss a beat.

"Cronus, mercanary soldier, formerly a free captain in the service of Myrr's border patrol. Good luck to you, druid. Judging by the enemies you keep, you will need it."

He spurred his steed about and galloped away. They would definitely need it.

Not quite an hour later, Cronus heard a rustling to his left side. In a blur of fluid motion, he drew the great sword and raised it to the ready over his head. The black black gleamed in the shady forest light as he spun it about in warning. His mount caught the action, and struck a battle ready stance.

Detected, the pack of werewolves burst out of the brush. Seeing the whirling blade, they circled warily. The blade smelled of enchantment, deadly as silver to their kin.

Not the lone traveler they'd expected to take by surprise. This huge fighter wielded death and rode a steed not frightened by their presence.

They circled, once ...twice...three times. But flashing blade and massive hoof were always at the ready. None chose to sacrifice itself that the others might have a opening.

Growling in frustration, they regrouped. One of them, with grey about its muzzle stepped forward a bit from the others. It assumed a semi humanoid form and spoke.

"Where is the book, large one?"

Very impressive, speaking in semi canine form. Cronus nodded in acknowledgement.

"You tracked the wrong party, moonchild. I haven't any book. Do I strike you as a sage or wizard?"

The beast growled and twitched its ears.

"Yours was the only trail leaving the battle site. Where are your companions."

"I have no companions, elder. I came upon the battle just upon its conclusion. Then I left." Cronus recalled a large bundle laying near the druid's feet. "The prey you truly seek is a druid. He masked their trail. Do my saddlebags look large enough to hold a book of any size?"

He saw comprehension dawn in the lupine's eyes. He growled again low... "Had I time, I'd show you the good that blade would do you. Fortunately, for you I do not!"

He reverted to fully lupine form and, as one, he and his pack disappeared into the woods.

That druid better be good, thought Cronus. It was said a werewolf could track an eagle in flight. Still, if that book was so valuable as all that .....

The city of Pith lay directly ahead. A day and a half of hard riding had brought him here. Pith was a large city, with woods leading all the way to its edge. A city of such size would be just the place for the druid's party to lose itself.

Even as he rode up, he saw the ancient walls were pitifully undermanned. A great city fallen into decay.

A judicious tip at the gate and he was not only admitted but directed to a discreet hotel. At the hotel, he rented a private stable to house his mount. He advised the stable hands to keep the beast well fed but not to enter the stable except via the loft. Such conditions cost him dearly, but mounts such as his were extremely hard to come by.

He rented all the rooms one side of the top floor of the Inn. Once a grand structure of stone, shabby wooden carpentry had replaced the roof numerous times and parts of the interior. The city was ancient, he'd have liked to have seen it in days of olde.

He paid for the accommadations for two weeks and made a show of using the last of his funds. He asked the Innkeeper to keep an ear out if anyone was hiring mercanary freecaptains. A good cover story was always essential. He had long ago learned that it was impossible for someone of his size to keep a low profile, so judicious amounts of misdirection were required.

He left as quietly as possible by the back stair and went out about town. He spent a good three hours partying and making sure he was not being followed. Two harlots and three bottles later he felt confident to begin his true night's work.

Dawn was quickly approaching when he'd gathered the information that he needed. A beggar near the town square told him that, yes...the town had executed a kinslayer recently. Only two weeks before, a man had killed his son during a beating. He was a poor man so had paid for the crime with his life.

A few bribes and a broken arm later, Cronus found the name of the gravedigger who had buried the man. The gravedigger in turn sold all his finds of any worth to a vendor in the warehouse district. A necromancer of only small ability, he in turn would procure for the true dabblers in the area.

But dawn was nigh, and such trading is done only with nights blessings. He staggered back to the Inn, feigning drunkeness and a bit of illness.

When he reached his door, he checked that the greased horses hair was still in place from door to frame. So it surprised him when he opened the door to find an enormously fat man in rich embroidered robes sitting on his bed. His aura was paper thin and dark azure.

He feigned blundering shock and staggered back. "In Bella's name, what are you doing here!?" He reached clumsily for his axe.

"None of that," began the fat man. "Friend, I see you do not as yet know me. It would be to your benefit to change that, both to your continued health and to your purse."

The fat man had a voice like chilled wine. Cronus hated chilled wine.

Still, the man had entered without disturbing the door. Better not to play too dumb...just drunk.

Cronus leaned drunkedly against the wall, which creaked ominously in protest. "Okay, 'friend,' I'm listening. I'm always ready to add to the weight of my purse."

"Tell me, warrior. Who did you meet in the woods yesterday?"

"The woods? A witch, a druid and a tiger. Later some werewolves."

"And what were they doing?"

"'The sword of Bella costs...' and so does his tongue." It was the credo of the mercanary he quoted.

The fat man nodded and tossed a pouch of coin to the floor in front of Cronus. Cronus shrugged.

"They'd just killed an old man and a manbull. Bunch of other goblin and a few humans laying about."

The fat man nodded. From the look on his face, Cronus could only assume the werewolves had already reported. The fact that the search was still in progress was a good sign.

"Did they tell you where they were going?"

"No. Soon as I realized they was spellcaster types, I left. They looked pretty tired and didn't try to stop me."

The fat man nodded again. He looked Cronus carefully up and down.

"They tell me you carry a fine sword and ride a fine steed?"

"Yeah. Got the horse in the troll wars. Found the sword in an old troll temple up that way too. I'm a real good fighter."

"I believe you," the fat man smiled. "Tell me, what race are you? You've got strange eyes."

Cronus hesitated. He hadn't noticed any aura detection spell but the man could have thrown it before he'd entered.

"Don't know. My ma was a brothel wench. It's said the man what sired me had a curse on him. I was big and ma sold me to a mercanary captain. Worked my way free and up. Again, I'm a real good fighter."

The fat man smiled and stood. "I am Malhavok. I will get back to you. I may have a job for you. Your information was most useful." He threw another pouch to the floor.

Malhavok, though of great bulk, moved with grace and power. He turned his back to Cronus when he walked out. Cronus briefly thought about cutting him down but decided against it. In the days to come, it was an error he would regret wholeheartedly.

Cronus awoke some nine hours later. He dressed in a pair of lessdirty breeches and a clean linen shirt he'd purchased the day before. He slung his sword over his shoulder and axe to his hip. He opted against the chainmail. Some stealth might be required in the evening to come.

Life was picking up as the legitimate traders were wrapping things up for the day and the more valuable hagglers were preparing to hit the streets.

At his first stop, he dropped off a bundle of clothes to be cleaned. He went through the formality of haggling, taking the chance to check to see if he was being watched.

Sure enough. A young urchin girl of about fourteen was scraping her boots with a small paring knife. She was watching him through the mat of dirty hair hanging in front of her face.

Still early, he made his way to a house of pleasure. He settled for a bath and massage, passing on dream dust and the usual fare offered. To be honest, the girl seemed a little relieved to be rejected...his bulk was daunting to the ladies at times.

The sun had just gone down when he exited via another exit. Night life was just kicking in. He walked down the side alley toward the main street and saw his tail had been replaced by a beggar whose aura gave him away as false, an aura neat and clean...a cunning thief not a beggar with his spirit of decay.

Time to put it to some advantage, he thought. In one smooth movement he reached up and grabbed top of the stone wall beside him. A quick yank and he'd hoised himself up and over the wall. A drainage ditch lay beneath, ankle deep in sewage. He dropped down into the muck and quickly trotted back up the ditch between the buildings...under the street and out the other side. He emerged covered in filth but was away from his unwanted eyes.

He caught sight of the beggar watching the pleasure house from the other side. The man would obviously be punished or perhaps killed, but such was the price of failure.

By the time he reached the back alley of the ghoul, it was truly dark. He walked by once to check the place out. A cat lay behind a lareg barrel and looked up as he passed. He kept going then realized its aura had way too much blue.

The beast was a familiar. No doubt watching the ghoul's hovel same as Cronus meant too.

He kept walking, looking carefully about. There were some drunks passing a bottle a little further on. Their auras again were too clean to be what they seemed.

So, Mr Malhavok had his own agents out also. No doubt one was the warlock whose familiar he'd just seen.

Cronus kept moving, then circled back to watch the watchers. You needn't watch the meat, just follow the jackals. Cronus picked a convenient nearby alley and settled in, as if sleeping off a drunk.

The humans sang and passed their bottle for hours while the little familiar watched the only entrance. Suddenly, one of the men became animated and whispered to the others. The familiar had seen something.

The men were watching a teenage boy leaving the den of the necromancer. A boy with an aura of grey bordered in bright blue. The spiritualist in disguise. Under one arm was a sack just large enough for the skull of a kinslayer recently killed.

She walked down the street and went down an alley. Four of the men followed her with the familiar lagging far behind. The fifth 'drunk' headed across the street toward a nearby tavern.

Cronus stepped out of the shadows and slid a dagger into the man's back. No need to invite every one to this little party.

Cronus was suspicious. The girl was a seer. With concentration, she could detect auras almost as good as he. Yet, had she missed seeing the familiar. He didnt think so.

The alley she'd gone down was narrow with two story buildings on either side. Just high enough to pounce from and low enough for a certain weretiger to be able to leap back up to.

Cronus circled around a few blocks. Hopefully, he could intercept one of the band as they were fleeing the ambush site. He hunched down behind a rainbarrel and waited.

In a few minutes, he was rewarded. Not the spiritualist that he'd been hoping for but almost as good. A large burly man he'd never seen before but knew instantly. The aura was a brilliant blue and green, as befitted a fifth generation lycanthrope.

He carefully moved out to shadow the weretiger. He was very careful. Granted, his resistance to magic prevented any detection spells from giving him away but these people had so far proven to be very resourceful.

The weretiger circled about the area quickly and Cronus was merely lucky to notice the two charmed dogs sitting and watching his withdrawel. No doubt they'd be asked by the druid to howl if anything followed the lycanthrope.

The weretiger eventually lead him down to the river. There all the conspirators were gathered. The girl had shed her boyish disguise. Terrick was sitting in a boat which glided silently across the water with no oarsman.

Damn druid has summoned a water weird to move their small boat silently. They moved soundlessly, withrehearsed determination. They entered the craft and moved silently out into the river. Four wild geese stood at the dock they'd just left and were obviously another set of the druid's guards.

Cronus ran up to the next dock and, stripping down, slid into the cold, murky water. His sword he left strapped to his back but axe, boots and belt were left behind.

He thanked whatever gods there were for one thing. The river was deep and slow moving. He followed them swimming a strong breast stroke. An exhausting method of swimming, but the most stealthy. He kept the shimmer of the water weird just within sight.

He was losing distance and thought he had lost them when he finally came to the other side of the river. Thankfully, they had stopped to talk briefly on the other side or he may never have picked up their trail. He waited treading water as they spoke.

"Burgaff's ambush took care of a wizard who was following. Everything went smooth." The girl sounded relieved.

"So it seemed. Got a bad feeling though. Expected more pursuit." That was a new voice, gruff and surly.

"Burgaff, you worry too much." whispered Terrick.

Burgaff grunted in response.

Remembering the animal guardians on the other bank, Cronus moved upstream before exiting the water. The band was just leaving as he came up to within ear shot. As long as the lycanthrope kept talking, he was in human form. And Cronus would have the edge in the stealth department.

Taking a roundabout path, the three eventually came to a rooming house. He was debating when to make his move, hesitant due to the fact that should he acquire this mysterious valuable book he would be very noticable trying to make his way back to his own inn.