"Come at me outlander!" Gourlak called to start. Azurdanak edged forward in a perfect three point stance until he saw the war chief rear back with his club. He darted in past the shield.
Gourlak's warpaint had a noxious stench that caught Azurdanak like a wall once into the war chief's personal space. He choked, which gave Gourlak enough time to adjust and knee him in the chest. The wind knocked out of him, Azurdanak staggered and got brushed back by the shield instead of crushed by the club.
"Hah hah!" Gourlak cackled and moved in. He raised the club again and Azurdanak could only dodge. The chief's arms were longer than anticipated; the tip of the club brushed his face, loosening a tooth but leaving his skull intact.
Azurdanak skipped sideways to put a bonfire between them as the crowd jeered. The fight had gone badly, quickly. Fighting stinking man-giants between blazing bonfires was not a lesson Thibidout had deigned to offer.
Still, principles could be extracted. Azurdanak recalculated. He worked the timing of his breath into the timing of his steps. Wait for the swing, hold breath, move in, redirect the knee, shift Gourlak's balance, and topple him into the fire. Gourlak would not fall for that, but the scrum would create an opening in Gourlak's defense--an opening Azurdanak would exploit. He cycled through a score of different scenarios and contingencies as he and the war chief circled the bonfire. Satisfied that he had covered the angles, he stopped retreating and moved back into position.
When not directly engaged, Rone looked where the action was not. He often found, as he did now, that insight awaits the observer who watches the spaces between things. He stood 20 yards outside the camp, in the dark, in the tall grass, watching sparks mingle from the fires. And thus he alone noticed increased activity at the trading post. No longer were just heads peeking over the battlements; entire bodies stood on the walls. Frantic pointing and running.
Rone turned his head in time to see a great, translucent wildcat, perhaps 30 feet tall at the shoulder. Crouched frighteningly nearby, its eerie yellow eyes trained on him. When it hissed, Rone observed it was missing its top canines.
He left his calm demeanor like a lizard leaves its tail, bolting toward the Urugan moot, not at all certain he would make it to the safety of the mortal crowd.
During all of this, Dahlia remained in Gourlak's tent, angry and aimless. Too proud to go out and watch Azurdanak do his boring sword dance, she sullenly carved genitalia into wooden surfaces with a table knife.
"M'lady, you have a special something," came a smooth voice with an Urugan burr. "Something no one can match."
Faster than a wing beat, her sword was in her hand. "Faugh. I might be amused to hear your voice if it weren't dripping from your greasy face."
"Lady, I gave you everything but offense! And this is your gratitude." He sauntered into the tent and let the flaps close behind him.
"I didn't give you the thrashing you're clearly asking for," she said. "Would you feel gratified to receive that now?"
"What I want from you are the teeth you stole from me. You don't know what they can do, and I still have need of them. If you give them to me now, I will save you from the indignities that will surely follow when my father crushes your skinny wizardling. If he hasn't already."
A great shriek from the crowd rose from outside the tent. "That is likely his end now," said Faugh. He leaned against the center tent pole. "Kill me and you will not escape the camp. Give me what I want and you'll leave unharmed, I promise."
Dahlia had considerably more respect for Azurdanak's fighting skill than she did two weeks ago, but she doubted he would best Gourlak. And she had no reason to hate Faugh other than instinct. But the instinct was very strong.
"After you relieved me of the Grimalkyn talismans, I followed you." Faugh narrated like a campfire tale spinner. "Imagine my delight when I discovered you had brought them to my very home. And then you blundered into my father's ill graces. How easy it would be to reclaim them!
"Soolteg would never have missed them if you hadn't brought them back, of course. That man has more sacred bones than an ossuary. But once you did, he was bound to sense their power and tie his interminable sense of foreboding to your arrival. I couldn't have come back into my exiled home without your ruckus. But you did facilitate my return. Omens upon omens. What a fortuitous time for my reinstatement. When I reveal your possession of the talismans, I will be --- not forgiven, perhaps -- but tolerated again. How convenient."
"Faugh, I don't know what you're really up to," said Dahlia, "but I know why whores paint their faces. And your cheeks are too damn rosy," she said eyeing the distance to the tent flaps. "You care about yourself above all else. So here's what will happen in the next minute. I will leave this tent. In exchange, not only will you live, but you will keep at least one of your eyes. It could go even better for you if you stay quiet and calm."
"Calm?" he said merrily. "Of course. Quiet? Never one of my strengths." And with that, he kicked the center post of the tent, bringing the leather edifice down on them both.
Rone charged pell mell through the moot with the Grimalkyn scant feet behind. Now in the light of the bonfires, it was revealed. The great ghostly wildcat was mottled in color--gray on the face and head, darkening to an ochreous color along its spine, arched and threatening. Its sides were spotted dark and light and freakishly translucent. It loomed over the menhirs and tents. With one swipe, it could tumble half the camp.
"The Dreads!" Soolteg looked up and babbled. "Pravas Ka, Eater of Memory, walks the night! These outlanders brought the Dread Grimalkyn among us!"
Gourlak looked up at the terrible towering wildcat and shouted, "Urugans, do not quail! Find your knives--"
Further orders were cut short. The war chief gurgled as the Azurdanak's leyblade sank into his throat.
Only then, as proper training indicates, did Azurdanak look away from his opponent. He saw the massive spirit creature and blinked once, slackjawed.
With the loss of their leader, the Urugans fell to bedlam. Soolteg shouted dismal prophecies while tribe members scattered around him. Rone had disappeared in the chaos and the Grimalkyn had enough new targets that the Wanderer was forgotten. Great swipes of its paws swatted clumps of humanity far into the air. It rent flesh with its teeth and crushed tents underfoot in its rampage. Its ghostly body passed through the standing stones and its head swiveled with searching menace.
The wildcat's nose sniffed at an etherwordly air until its gaze leveled on the fallen war chief's tent.
Dahlia's sword was no help beneath the heavy collapsed tent. She thrashed to gain footing, but could not see or stand straight. Faugh, reared in such tents, knew how to maneuver. He crawled quickly behind Dahlia, knocked her down, and put his knee in her back.
"Your life is mine, wench. First tell me where the teeth are. I will search you bodily if I must, and I assure you, I will explore every cavity."
Dahlia struggled, but had no leverage. She went limp. "You win, Faugh," she said, teeth gritted. "They're in my bosom. Let me up and I'll get them for you."
"I'll just get them from here," he said, laying on her. He reached around to feel between her breasts.
He could not extract the teeth without letting up a little. In the moment of release, Dahlia senselessly thrashed. She used the space to wriggle around to face him. He grabbed the teeth and groped her in the commotion. He still lay atop her, but his pin was broken.
He held the carved teeth between them in the dark, close space. They were both sweaty with exertion.
Dahlia could hear his labored breath inches away. "Your charm finally swayed me, Faugh. Take your prize." She blindly head-butted the teeth into his mouth and brought her knee up to kick him in the groin. His reflexive inhalation sucked the teeth into the back of his throat. He choked and spit blood onto Dahlia's face.
The scent of blood mixed with its missing corporeality finally gave the Grimalkyn purchase on its target. Claws like scimitars ripped through the tent, catching Faugh and lifting him off Dahlia. Open to the sky now, Dahlia saw the Grimalkyn for the first time in the firelight. She screamed in terror at Dread manifest.
The Grimalkyn roared as it brought its paw back down, crushing Faugh against the tent. Then the great spectral cat crouched and began eating him alive. Faugh's screams ended, but the sound of crunching bones carried an involuntary shudder through to Dahlia's soul.
She sprang from the tent while the Dread was occupied. Only years of habit saw her sword in hand before fleeing. She ran the entire quarter mile to the trading post.
The post was flooded with frightened Urugan women and children, along with several non-Urugan servants who had escaped the madness. Inside the walls, she picked out Rone's mohawk stripe above the the refugee chaos.
Rone supported Azurdanak, who had fared poorly in the stampede. His left arm looked broken and his face was bloody. His expression was full disgust.
"Only six kills," he said. "Two more tried to avenge their fallen war chief during the tumult. I had to slay them with a broken arm. Six! I expected two dozen at least. I could have dispatched Crosian outlaw rabble if I had only been hunting six." He slumped against Rone, the last of his energy spent raging at fate.
Dahlia looked at Rone. Rone met her eyes briefly and then glanced away to a swirl of moths above a fire. "Outlaws, huh?" she said.
"I know a bounty on a bandit 'prince' and his horde over in Phaestra. Prince Eleques and his 60 Hatchets? You get the kills, Rone and I get the reward. That sound fair?"
He looked up at her. "We'll leave tomorrow."