The training arena in Fort Mordu was even worse than the one which had been in Duskan. Large carcasses of troll mages and dracolichs littered the dirt ground, a mob around the center of the arena thick with trainees. Whenever a monster appeared from underground it was immediately felled by 5 or 6 people who surrounded and slayed the creature in under a minute.
"Feh," Tasuki grumbled, watching the mass of disorganized confusion. "No way I'm lettin ya train that mess, comon."
Astraea obediently turned and followed Tasuki out of the training sector, keeping a step behind his heels as he wound his way through the underground passages that connected the different sectors of Fort Mordu together. Finally they reached the south gate where Tasuki kept walking, stepping out onto the wagon trail.
Astraea, however, stopped at the gate's edge and stared suspiciously at Tasuki's back. When he noticed she was no longer following he turned around and raised his eyebrows back at her. "What?"
"How do I know you're not leading me out there to kill me?"
Tasuki let out an exaggerated sigh. "I said before I ain't gonna kill ya. Now get that cute ass out 'ere or do I have havta drag ya?"
Astraea flushed and stepped out onto the road, averting her face from the grinning slayer. "Now jus' follow me and kill what I tell ya to."
She nodded and fell into step behind him, drawing out her dagger in preparation for whatever fight would take place. Her eyes followed those of Tasuki's for a few moments, which were carefully watching the edges of the road for any monsters they might engage, but soon they drifted to his back and shoulder. Her eyes narrowed in scrutiny as she silently observed the rogue. 'I suppose he isn't as bad as he puts on,' she mused to herself. 'If only he'd cut back on those rude comments I might start to think of him as a decent person.'
His fiery orange hair drifted around his face in the soft breeze, long and spiked of its own accord, tapering at the center of his back between his shoulders. His eyes were a sharp yellow, very much like a cat's, and skin a pale shade of green due to the goblin blood which ran through his veins. Shoulders square and broad, one could tell a great strength lay hidden beneath the layers of armor he wore. But it was not his strength but speed which made him unique. There was a quick, agile lightness to his step, and Astraea could tell that he would be able to dodge any enemy's attack despite what little warning he might be given.
Her eyes followed down the length of his arm and came to rest on the dagger which was securely fastened to the leather belt around his waist. It was completely devoid of ornamentation, but that lack insinuated an increased sense of power. It was long and heavy as it bounced against Tasuki's hip, the tip sharpened to a fine point that looked deadly enough to pass through bone with ease. It thickened greatly where it met the simple handle, the dagger curving in a gentle arc along the entire length of it.
"What is it?" Astraea remarked quietly, not realizing she had spoken aloud.
Tasuki stopped and followed her eyes down to the weapon beside his right hand. "It's a dragon's tooth," he answered, a pair of small goblin fangs exposed by the grin on his face. "Only one or two of 'em in the world, bein as how rare dragons are, not ta mention killin one."
"Did you, kill the dragon?" Astraea asked with wonder, her eyes locked on the rare weapon.
Tasuki laughed suddenly and leaned down, his face now level with her own, forcing Astraea to look at him. "Would ya like me if I did?" He grinned devilishly and before she could turn away his tongue darted out and swept over her left cheek, leaving a short trail of saliva on her pale skin.
"Ugh!" Astraea exclaimed with disgust, quickly wiping her cheek with her free hand while Tasuki only laughed louder and walked away down the road.
"That was disgusting, sir," she shot back coldly, this time walking three long steps behind the Slayer.
"Haha, yah sure. Now that I got a taste of ya, I'm gonna want more, an you'll be beggin me fer it." Tasuki turned and flashed her a grin that did little to hide the lust which had crept into his eyes and voice.
Astraea's eyes widened with shock. "I would never!"
Tasuki only chuckled loudly and kept walking.
Astraea scowled and crossed her arms angrily. 'What nerve! To do that to me and suggest that I would actually enjoy...' Her face went bright red and she was grateful for Tasuki's back being turned. Quickly she shrugged away the thoughts that had risen in her mind from his lewd suggestion.
'Alright,' she admitted slowly as an afterthought, still walking a safe three paces behind him. 'Perhaps after the shock wore off I was a little... oh nevermind! He's a scoundrel and a teaser, the best thing I can do is ignore him and concentrate on training. Nothing good would actually come of my being fond of him...'
Suddenly Tasuki stopped and extended his right arm, causing Astraea to nearly collide with it.
"What is it?" she asked crossly, peering over the top of his forearm.
"Yer prey... an' mine," Tasuki replied, his right hand lowering to the dagger at his waist.
A small path led off the left side of the road to a small clearing a dozen feet away, surrounded by tall grass and young oaks. In the center stood a short elf, who was busily swinging a hammer nearly twice her size into the dense brush.
Astraea's eyes widened. "You're not going to kill that elf are you? Tasuki!" But the slayer had already darted off, his form an indistinguishable blur as it sped through the golden grasses.
Astraea screamed at the elf as she gave chase. "Look out!"
The elf turned in surprise, a look of shock and terror crossing her face. However it was not Tasuki that had appeared, but a large yellow and black striped tiger which was leaping out of the grass, claws extended with the intent to kill.
The tiger was roughly knocked aside in midair before it could land, a howl of pain leaving its jaws. A deep wound had been slashed across its shoulder, leaving the animal panting and bleeding on the ground. Tasuki stood over the beast's head, his golden eyes flashing and blood dripping from the dragon's tooth in his hand. "Vraol Bloodclaw," he spat.
The tiger's throat rumbled menacingly. "Tasuki, this is my domain. Leave me to my prey," he said, the growl never leaving his voice while he spoke.
Tasuki merely smirked. "Yer hardly in th' place ta be makin demands, Vraol. I kill whoever, whenever I wanna, includin wannabe killers like ya." The dragon's tooth in Tasuki's hand did an intimidating twirl between his fingers and came to rest hilt up, the dagger poised and ready to plunge down between the shoulder blades of the massive tiger.
In the meantime Astraea had moved up to stand up beside the elf, who was quivering in fright under the presence of the two dangerous killers that were now facing off in a battle of wills. Placing her hand lightly on the elf's shoulder so to not startle her Astraea gently steered her away from the center of the clearing towards the denser brush along its outer edge.
The elf turned large light blue eyes on Astraea when they arrived a safe distance away, her mouth clumsily shaping itself to form words. "Th... thank y.. you," she stammered softly.
Smiling reassuringly Astraea looked the small girl over. "You're not hurt are you?" she asked worriedly.
The elf shook her head, fingers nervously playing at the collar of her robes. "What are they doing?" she asked timidly, eyes glancing over to the face off.
"I'm not sure..." Astraea's voice trailed off. The fight seemed to have come to some sort of agreement, for Vraol was rising to his feet, a death glare pinned on Tasuki. Yet the tiger didn't attack and instead slunk off backwards into the brush, limping slightly from the wound on his shoulder that was still bleeding. When he was out of sight Tasuki turned with a wide grin of triumph on his face.
"Nothin ta fear ladies! Yer safe a'gin thanks ta Tasuki!"
Astraea rolled her eyes while the elf let out a demure giggle.
* * * * * *
"Capricornus," Astraea began, turning to the small elf.
"Call me Capri," the cleric corrected with a smile.
Astraea grinned. "Capri. Tell me again about those monsters we fought. I still don't understand what you were trying to explain to me about them. Div and advantages and stuff, ack." The overstuffed knapsack slung over her shoulder had slipped down again and with a grunt she hefted it back up.
"Na, let me carry th' thing woman, dun want ya ta hurt yerself or nothin." Seizing a moment to be roguishly charming Tasuki came up behind Astraea and deftly plucked the sack from her arm. She gave a nod of thanks but kept her face averted, concentrating on her conversation with Capri. He'd been like this the whole time: charming to a point, protective, witty, keeping out of their way while the two of them chatted and searched for monsters to slay. But there was always a smirk to his gaze, an underlying flame that unnerved Astraea while making her curious at the same time. It was a dangerous combination; that she was sure of.
"Well," the elf chirped happily, pleased at being given a chance to give an explanation. "The five gods Targos, Alustria, Valkyzar, Hommit, and Nallyssa each represent an element and are all connected in a way. Targos is fire, Alustria: ice, Valkyzar: storm, Hommit: earth, and Nallyssa is night. They move in a circle, with one god having advantage over one other, and another god having advantage over it. 'Ice cools the fire, fire lights the night, night blankets the earth, earth weathers the storm, and storm cracks the ice.' Those rules have been passed down for generations and they always holds true. Not only are people connected to the gods, but monsters are as well, each creature having an affinity towards one god, or element. Because of the advantage each god has over another, those transfer to ourselves and the creatures we fight."
"Oh!" Astraea exclaimed, now grasping the concept. "So if I were a Hommet fighting against a Valkyzar monster, I'd have an advantage over them."
Capricornus nodded, happy to see her explanation hadn't managed to lose the dark elf. "It works the other way 'round as well. If you were fighting a monster, or person, who had div over you, they'd have the advantage and cause more harm than you would to them."
Continuing down the dirt road the two women chatted until they'd reached the gates of Fort Mordu once more, unaware of how vigilantly their rear guarding Slayer had kept a watch out for any potential killers lurking in the grass, as they were apt to do in this part of the country. Entering into the earthen walled tunnel Astraea and the elf cleric embraced lightly, wishing each other well and promising to go on another adventure together if they managed to meet in the future.
Astraea watched Capricornus' small body disappear down the tunnel, the orange light from the setting sun spilling down through tall shafts that led from the tunnel ceiling to the topsoil above and creating oblong circles against the hard packed ground. With a sigh that was rather more of contentment and remembered enjoyment than sadness, she turned back to Tasuki, who had been uncharacteristically silent during the whole exchange. His head was turned and looking obstinately away from her at one of the dirt walls, one hand on his hip above his dagger and the other keeping a secure hold on her bulging knapsack.
She cleared her throat, hoping to startle him out of whatever reverie he had stumbled into, but to her surprise he simply faced back to her with a lazy grin and she realized that it had just been a ruse. "Should we head back to the Inn?" she asked, feeling a slight irritation rise at his attitude.
"Sure thin'. Hope ya ain't planning on sleepin though, gotta get ya boozed up tonight an' celebrate yer first day o' serious trainin." Taking off at a quick stride down the tunnel, Astraea jogged behind him to catch up.
"I don't drink," she protested, which was true, however the thought of getting drunk with Tasuki after receiving so many stares made her stomach jump in fear and curiosity. She was going to let apprehensiveness win though, not sure she was up to the challenge of finding out just what the rogue wanted with her.
"Dun drink? Yer faukin kiddin me!" Tasuki laughed loudly, orange head shaking from side to side. "Naw naw, ya ain't gettin off that easy. Can't jus' let a pretty lady go ta bed without showin her a good time can I?"
There was that scoundrel-like charm again and it made Astraea sigh inwardly. It was so much easier to say no when he wasn't pretending to be somewhat of a gentleman. Trying another tactic she slowed her steps and yawned expressively, stretching her arms behind her. "But I'm getting tired. I think I'll just go to bed once we get there." They'd left the main tunnel by then and were rounding the corner to take them into the smaller branch that would lead them to the Inn. She fought the urge to quicken her pace despite her "fatigue" and make it to the tavern before her escort could try another tactic.
To her surprise Tasuki merely shrugged. "Well if yer tired, cain't argue with tha' can I?" He didn't look back at her, but he was grinning, and Astraea wondered if he realized just how easy it was to tell that he was lying. Though perhaps he did, since the problem wasn't that he was easy to read, but rather figuring out what he was planning on doing instead. The half-goblin was too unpredictable for that. While wondering if she should rise to the bait and interrogate him about his intentions they reached the door of the Inn, Tasuki turning to hold open the door for Astraea with a smile and mock bow. Offering the slayer a wary smile she stepped into the torch lit common room, the wide glass windows facing west catching the last rays of the red sun and making the wood furniture in the room blaze like smoldering coals.
Standing undecided in the entryway, for her stomach had just made known it was quite hungry, Astraea looked about for an empty table. Behind her Tasuki coughed and when she turned she saw him standing on the bottom step of the stairs that led up to the rooms. "What?" she asked.
"Ain'tcha 'posed ta be sleepy? Gonna escort ya up to yer rooms." Grinning, he swung her oversized knapsack by one of its handles, knowing perfectly well that if she was as tired as she claimed she wouldn't have the strength to carry it upstairs.
Caught in the lie she blushed and quickly turned back to the busy Inn. "I changed my mind, I'm hungry now." Marching purposefully towards the bar she took a seat two spots down from a lone individual who sat hunched over his mug of ale, the ends of his long mantle draped over the stool. She cast a curious glance at the man before waving the bartender over and requesting a cup of wine and a plate of the evening's dish. A few silent minutes passed before she felt a large presence behind her, Tasuki slipping into the seat next to her with a loud, weary sigh.
"Thank you," she said quietly, noticing the absence of her knapsack.
He grinned and waved the bartender over, suddenly all flashing eyes and white teeth again. "The things I do fer a pretty face," he responded with a loud chuckle. Thankfully the bartender also arrived with her drink and meal and she dived into both with relish, hoping the concentration it took to eat would dispel the blush from her cheeks.
The sun completely set soon after and the fires were stoked to life about the common room, sending new life into the previously dark corners. The curtains over the windows were drawn to keep in the heat and sconces lit on the walls and behind the bar counter. In the wash of new light Astraea pushed her cleaned plate away and sipped lightly at the fruity wine, grateful that Tasuki had been more interested in his food than conversation. Thoughts turned inward it was a moment before she registered the raised voices two seats away.
"Ye's had enuf!" the bartender bellowed, locked in a childish game of tug-of-war with the cloaked patron over a half full mug of ale.
"Gwuime mah ale!" the man growled back in a drunken slur, his hood falling back to reveal a clean cut man with black hair and a trimmed goatee, looking almost too courtly to be in such an establishment.
With a final wrench the bartender managed to dislodge the mug and placed it on the back counter. The patron looked ready for a moment to leap over the table and take back his mug, then just as quickly deflated like a popped balloon and sunk down in his chair, eyes raised to the ceiling.
"Now ye git outta 'ere an fin' yer room!" The bartender commanded. When the man didn't move the portly bar keeper looked about the Inn and waved over a large man with a bald head and an earring in each ear. Taking the drunk under the arms like a sack of flour the bouncer hauled the drunk none-too-gently from his stool and began escorting him up the flight of stairs.
Suddenly genuinely tired, Astraea swiveled around in her stool to find Tasuki on his third cup of ale, quickly heading towards the same drunken stupor the other man had been in. However, considering his behavior last night, she was sure it took a bit to move this man from being a rowdy drunk to a passed out drunk. Not wanting to stick around for the show she slipped off her stool and muttered a quick, 'Goodnight, Tasuki,' fleeing at his surprised look and moving out of hearing range before he could call her back to share a round.
Mounting the flight of stairs two nimble steps at a time she reached the landing and was surprised to see the drunk from downstairs leaning against one of the doors. Wondering why the bouncer hadn't made sure the man got into his room and not just outside of it she approached slowly, making a point to step on the loud cracks in the flooring. He looked up at her approach with dilated eyes, his short black hair messed up into finger spikes, a large brass ring hanging from his fingers filled with keys.
"Um, need help getting into your room?" Astraea offered helpfully, noticing that the lock plate on the door had a few misplaced scratches around the keyhole.
Nodding gratefully the man shoved his keyring in her direction. With a few educated guesses she found the correct key and opened the door, only to look back and see the man hovering on the verge of collapsing at her feet. Moving quickly she grabbed him by the shoulders and got an arm around his waist to drag him into the small guest quarters. He was muttering out apologies for his behavior, which brought an amused smile to Astraea's lips as she got him sitting on the bed, while protesting that he could walk himself and didn't need a woman's help. He didn't stay upright for long though and fell backwards on the coverlet, groaning with drunken nausea.
Shaking her head in pity for the man, Astraea placed the set of keys on the table next to his bed and headed for the door, sure he would find himself awake in the morning fully dressed and with a roaring headache. However just as she was about to close the door she heard a clear sentence come from the man that made her stop in her tracks. "Damn you Aquarius, where the hell did you go?"
Spinning on her heel she rushed back to his bedside. "Wait, you know Aquarius? Where is she, do you know? Have you seen her at all?"
Blinking through a daze the man stared up at Astraea in confusion before his head fell back once more on the bedspread. "Haven't seen her damn girl where'd you go" He was slurring and falling off to sleep, completely oblivious to his words and surroundings. With a growl of frustration Astraea picked up his booted feet and swung them onto the bed, figuring that a friend of Aquarius deserved at least a little kind treatment, no matter how badly drunk he was. Removing his cloak and cape were the most duties she was willing to perform for this stranger and before leaving she drew the room's curtains shut, not wanting him to awake with the morning sun that might cause her to miss catching him. Exiting the room quietly she made note of the room number then walked down the hall to her own room, insides buzzing with trepidation and curiosity. Who was this man and how did he know Aquarius?