The Beat Made Bad

Tris kicked his spurs into the side of his komostier, urging the large lizard to travel quicker. It was nearing midday and he was eager to get into town. The Orb of Optierus hung high in the sky, almost directly overhead, beating down with intense heat. Tris was glad for his wide-brimmed hat. It kept the light from his eyes and face, sparing him the strain and burn. His “companion”, however, was not so protected.

“Buh Galvet'us, that light is killin' me,” the goblin said. “Suh, can't yah see fit to give me a hat?”

Tris didn't bother to turn around. “You shut up or I'll stick a rag in your mouth,” he said gruffly.

“But suh,” the goblin nearly whined. “It's so b'ight. Yah know I'm from the dusklands. I ain't used to the Orb shinin' so much. Just one of yah' hats, suh.”

“Just close your eyes if it bothers you so much. Those hats aren't for your type,” Tris said. “You know that.”

“Goblins, suh?” the goblin asked. “Yah didn't seem like the type to hate a man based on 'ace, suh.”

That made Tris glance over his shoulder, back at the goblin. He had greenish-gray skin, a typically broad pug nose, thin lips, thick wavy black hair, and large yellow eyes. He had a simpering grin on his face, showing off a dingy row of sharp, hooked teeth. “You know it ain't cause I hate goblins,” Tris said. “My hats are only for my kind. You know what I mean.”

“Ah, spellslingahs, suh,” the goblin said, causing the hackles to rise on Tris's neck. He pulled the komostier to a halt; the steed let out an annoyed trill, confused at being stopped just moments after being prodded to speed up.

Tris slid off its back and reached into a pack, pulling out a large strip of cloth. The goblin's eyes went wide. “Please, suh, I didn't mean no dis'espect,” he said.

“We prefer the term wizard,” Tris said softly. “Spellslinger makes us sound like undisciplined yokels.” He grabbed the rope tied around the goblin's midsection and yanked him down from the komostier. He clumsily fell to the ground, landing with an oof. He gasped out a whine, but Tris shoved the cloth into his mouth, cutting it off. He tied it back around the goblin's head in a tight knot, smirking slightly as he noticed the goblin's pained grimace.

He patted the komostier on the shoulder and the well trained beast went down to its knees. Tris shoved the goblin toward it, and he climbed back on with a glower. Tris briefly considered tying a cloth around the goblin's eyes to keep the light away, then remembered why he'd had to tie him up and dismissed the notion.

“Now no more trouble, ok?” Tris said gently. “And don't chew through that cloth. I know you'd like to, but it's my komostier's favorite cleaning rag.”

The goblin let out some insulting sounding grumbles from his throat, but Tris ignored him and hopped back on to the komostier's back. He gave it a kick to the sides and it snorted and lunged jerkily forward. A moment later, they'd returned to their easy pace. The goblin didn't make another sound.

An hour later, they shambled into town. The orb was directly overhead, beating down on Tris's back. His dingy gray robe kept the light off him, but it was still hot and it stuck to his sweaty body. As soon as he turned his bounty in, the first thing he planned was to find a hotel, order a nice cool bath, and then find somewhere to relax.

People watched him as he passed. He wasn't sure if their glares were for him or the goblin he had tied behind him. A few spit on the ground as he passed. They were all races; humans like him, goblins like his captive, a few of the stocky dwarves, some of the large, lumbering saurids, even a tiny hylidan, dousing itself with water from a canteen. The only ones missing were the dranomicax, who supposedly never left the daylands these days, and the mellifica, though he'd wager there was a hive somewhere nearby.

They eventually came to the jail and Tris pulled his komostier to a halt. He leapt off and tied its reins to a post, then yanked the goblin down. He landed hard on the ground with a thud and a cloud of dust. He grabbed the goblin by the collar and dragged him to his feet. The goblin glared hateful at him. Tris sneered. “You're just lucky they wanted you alive,” he said. “Else I'd have put a fireball down your throat first chance I had.”

He grabbed the rope around the goblin and jerked him into the jail. A deputy spotted him enter and ran over. He was a human, but his skin had a decidedly green tint to it, making him wonder if the man had any goblin blood. His face didn't look very goblin-like, at least. He took the rope from Tris and nodded to him. “I see yah caught Buht,” the deputy said. “Good thin', don't need this nasty gibbershit hurtin' any more gals.”

Tris nodded slightly. “Sure enough.” He looked around the jail, but didn't see the clerk. “Where can I get my bounty?” he asked.

The deputy nodded toward a hall. “Down that way, suh,” he said. “Second douh on the right. Yah'll see Cheyise sittin' there.”

Tris nodded and started to head that way, but the deputy's hand on his shoulder stopped him. “One more thin', suh,” the deputy said quietly. “Buht didn't resist arrest any, did he?”

Tris shrugged. The goblin had tried to run, but once Tris had blasted a lightning bolt into his path, he'd quickly given up flight. “He tried to run, but he didn't fight or nothing.”

The deputy grinned. “If anyone asks, he put up a fight,” he said. The deputy then punched the goblin in the face, dropping him to the ground. The deputy then kicked him in the ribs a few times, before yanking him back to his feet. Tris raised an eyebrow and the deputy grinned. “I'm mighty fond of Miss Claiuh's sistah, suh.”

Tris shook his head, but couldn't help but let a slight grin cross his face. He doffed his hat to the deputy, then turned and walked off for the clerk, his spurs jingling as his boots clapped on the wood floor.

As he entered, a goblienne looked up from behind a dusty wooden desk. She was slender and wore a simply blue cotton dress. “Can I help you, suh?” she said in a deep voice.

“I just brought in that bounty,” Tris explained. “Buht, I think it was.”

She raised one of her thin, dark eyebrows. “Yah caught Buht, huh?” she said without much emotion. “Well, good fuh yah.”

“He a friend of yours?” he asked, wondering at how passive she seemed.

She shook her head. “No, suh, he ain't.”

Now it was Tris's turn to raise an eyebrow. “No offense, ma'am, but you don't sound too please about me catching him.”

She shrugged her shoulders and ran a hand through her wavy dark hair. “He's just a c'iminal, suh. I don't much pay attention to 'em any mouh, to be honest. If I had to know what evuhy c'iminal did, I'd suhly go mad, I imagine.”

Tris nodded his head. “I imagine so, ma'am.” He waited a moment and noticed she was looking away from him, slightly. “If you don't mind, ma'am, I'd like my bounty.”

She looked up as if she were waking from a dream. “Yes, of couhse, suh.” She opened a drawer on her desk and produced a stack of papers. She shuffled through them, until she came to a paper with a drawing of Buht on it. She placed the paper on her desk and turned it for Tris to see.

“Is this the man yah b'ought in, suh?” she asked.

“It is,” Tris said.

“And yah certify befouh tha town of Buhton that he's the man yah b'ought in, suh?”

Tris nodded. “It is.”

“And which god do yah favah, suh? Galvet'us or Optiehus?”

Tris shrugged his shoulders. “I don't much favor either one, to be honest.”

She quirked her had and regarded him strangely. “Yah have to pick one, suh.” She lowered her voice almost conspiratorially, “Fuh the p'oceedin's.”

“I reckon I should say Optierus, since I'm from the dawnlands and all.”

She nodded her head. He wondered if she would take offense to him picking Optierus, the god of light, over Galvetrus, the god of night who was favored by most goblins. She didn't give any indication, though, and continued on her rehearsed speech. “And do yah sweah befo'e Optiehus that he's the man yah b'ought in, suh?”

“I swear,” Tris said, absently tracing the Orb in the air with his right finger. “He's the man, alright.”

“And yah' name, suh?” she asked. “Fuh the 'ecuhds, suh.”

“Tris,” he said simply. “Don't have a last name. I'm from Dakot, up north, if that matters to you.”

She nodded slightly as she scratched some notes on the paper. “Thank yah, suh. That should be good.” She reached beneath the desk and produced a small pouch. She opened it and poured several coins out. She sorted them with a single long, delicate finger tipped with a black nail. Finally, she counted out three silver coins and five copper ones, then pushed them across the table toward Tris. He scooped them into his palm and smiled at the woman.

“Thank you kindly, ma'am.” He started to leave, then hesitated in a premeditated manner and turned back to the goblienne. “Excuse me, your name is Cheyise, right?”

She seemed startled that he'd said anything more to her. “That's 'ight, suh,” she said.

He smiled slightly and doffed his hat, turning the flaccid point inward toward himself. “Well, ma'am, I'm aiming to stay around town for a few days. I was just wondering where I might find a good hotel in this town, is all.”

She blinked heavily a few moments. “Well, I've nevah had to stay in one myself. But I heah the Milnah Hotel down on Dusk is the best place in town.”

“Thank you kindly, ma'am.” He grinned and placed his hat back on his head. “I do believe that's where I'll be staying later, Miss Cheyise,” he said, pulling the edge of his hat down toward her. He watched just long enough for her eyes to go wide in understanding and the faintest hint of blue blush come to her cheeks, then turned and headed out of the jail.

He found his komostier slumped on the ground, its eyes closed. He prodded it with the tip of his boot until it lazily opened an eye. “Come on, you lazy beast,” he said to it, “you'll have plenty of time to sleep later.”

Cheyise had been right. The Milner Hotel was surprisingly comfortable for a small town hotel. A half-silver had bought him the largest, most luxurious room for a night which included a bed so big his komostier could have slept in it, his own bath tub, and plenty of space for his belongings. He didn't really need any of that space; his possessions were few.

A thin ray of orblight peeked through the dark curtains and fell across his face. He grumbled and rolled to his side, covering his face with a pillow. The gesture was more symbolic than anything; he knew if the Orb was already up, it was time for him to rise too. Here in the dusklands, the Orb rose later and set sooner. Most of the town would already be up and about their business.

Even so, he pretended for a few minutes that he was going to sleep, until two slender fingers touched his neck. They slowly traced their way down his bare spine, sending little tingles down his arms and legs. He extracted his head from beneath the pillow and laid back on it, not bothering to turn and see how far down she'd go.

She stopped just at the end of his spine, satisfied in having made sure he was awake. “It's a dirty shame when a goblin gets up before a human,” he said through a yawn. “Ain't you supposed to sleep through the day?”

Cheyise laid a hand on his shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “It's hahd to sleep th'ough the day when all you humans ah makin' business duhin' it,” she said. “A gihl gets used to wakin' up when the town wakes up.”

Tris simply nodded his head as Cheyise started to massage his shoulders. He could certainly let himself lay there all day long, letting her long, delicate fingers do their work. How long could he stay here with her? he wondered. The bounty money would run out in a few days, of course, but even if he had more. Could he stay a week? A month? Would she even want him to?

Before he could pursue that line of thought any further, he pushed himself out of the bed. Cheyise's hand kept her grip on his shoulder for only a moment before it fell away. He went over to the small basin of clean water that was leftover from his previous night's bath and cleaned his face. He could feel Cheyise's eyes on his back as he got dressed.

“Wheh ah yah goin'?” she asked him innocently.

“I've got some business to attend to,” he told her. “Just some things I need to get squared away.” He paused and thought for a moment. “And besides, don't you need to be getting to work anyway? Or you got the day off?”

He heard her slowly slide out of bed. He forced himself to keep from looking. If he did, he might break, at least until she got her clothes on. “Yeah, I gotta wohk,” she said softly. Her feet padded softly across the floor, toward him. He tensed up slightly, but tried not to let it show. As he started to pull on his boots, she wrapped her arms around him. He was thankful he'd put his shirt on already, because she was still quite naked. “Am I gonna see yah again?” she asked in a whisper, oozing into his ear like molten sugar.

Finally, he placed his own hand over hers and slowly turned around, keeping his focus right on her face and nowhere else. “Of course, I'll be back tonight,” he said. He laughed at himself. “In fact, I'll probably be back here before you get off work.” That much was true, at least.

She stared into his eyes for a long moment before finally, achingly slowly nodding. She pulled back, away from him, and he averted his eyes. She chuckled, “Yah wain't so modest last night. The Disc must b'ing out the wild man in yah.”

He rubbed a hand over his face and laughed at her joke. “Maybe so,” he said, looking around for his robe and hat. He found them crumpled in a corner, still unwashed, where he'd left them the night before. He put on the robe, checked to make sure nothing was missing from the hidden pockets, and cinched it shut at his waist. The days were hot in this part of the dusklands, but temperatures dropped sharply during the night and it would take a few hours of orblight before it got warm again.

He placed his hat on his head, adjusting the wide brim subtly for several minutes. He could tell Cheyise was watching him with a mixture of curiosity and bemusement. Had she never seen a wizard before, he wondered? They weren't that uncommon. Perhaps she'd simply never seen one getting dressed. A wizard could fiddle for hours getting his hat just right. Tris had plenty of experience with it and even so, it took him several minutes of adjustments until it fit perfectly.

With one final, tiny tug, it settled onto his head like it was simply another part of his body. If he lowered his face just slightly, it would cover his eyes from anyone trying to look at them. As he turned to face Cheyise, he kept his head slightly lowered and pinched the edge of his brim, bending it slightly toward her. “Ma'am,” he said simply.

He could see her smile. Her innocent smile. “Suh,” she said with a hint of laughter.

He walked out, stopping only briefly by the door to retrieve his wands, and headed downstairs. The hotel had a common dining area for guests. The smell of freshly cooked food sent his stomach growling, but he couldn't stick around and chance seeing Cheyise again. He put the thought of food out of his mind, for now, and headed to the front desk.

An old, severe goblin manned it. He gave Tris a look that said I've lived around humans long enough that I can tolerate them, but I definitely don't like your kind. “Can I help yah, suh?” he asked through his pointed teeth.

“Sure enough, boss,” Tris said, looking the goblin straight in the eyes but without making a smile. “I've got a question and a request.” The goblin just inclined his head slightly. “First, the question. Where can a fellow find a good game of Chenya around here?”

Tris was used to people reacting with either eagerness or disgust whenever he mentioned Chenya. This goblin did neither. Instead, he sucked in a large breath through his nose and let it out sharply. “I'd say the Lucky F'og out neah the end of Sand. Got g'een and puhple paint on the outside. Hahd to miss.”

Tris nodded and slipped a half-copper onto the counter without looking down at it. The goblin didn't look at it either, but Tris knew he was slowly sliding it into his pocket. “I'll check it out. I hope you're right,” he said to the goblin. “Now the request. There is a young goblienne in my room. Once she leaves, can you have my things packed up and loaded onto my komostier? I'll be back later in the day to pick them up.”

“Of couhse, suh,” the goblin said stiffly. “That young goblienne yah mentioned, it's Miss Cheyise, yes?”

Tris tensed up. “Yes, it is,” he said flatly, not taking his eyes from the goblin's.

“Miss Cheyise is well liked,” the goblin said simply. Tris gritted his teeth and fished in his pocket until he found a full copper. He slipped it onto the table. The goblin didn't look at it or make a move to take it. “I am cuhtain she would enjoy sayin' goodbye to yah, suh,” he added. Tris couldn't help it as the corner of his mouth turned down in a brief grimace. He pulled out a silver and pushed it down on the counter hard enough that it made a clink. The goblin smiled and took the coin. “But, I am cuhtain yah wouldn't leave without seein' huh again, so I'll just keep muh nose out of it.”

Tris lowered his head slightly, breaking the line of sight with the goblin, and turned away. Now he was down to a single silver and one and a half coppers. He supposed he'd have to play mightily well at Chenya now.

Chenya was a simple game to learn, but took some intelligence to play well enough to gamble on it. It was played with a deck of 48 cards, split into eight suits of six cards each. The suits were split into two colors – dark and light – while the cards were numbered one through six. Each player was dealt eight cards, any extra cards were discarded. The player's objective was to rid himself of every card in his hand by covering the previously played card. A card could only cover another if it was higher in number (or a 1 in the event a 6 was showing) or if it was the same number and a different color. If a player could not legally play a card, his turn was skipped.

Betting was done right after a hand was dealt. The first player either discarded his hand or made a bet. The next player could discard his hand, raise the bet, or match it. Action would continue around in a circle until either every player had matched the highest bet or discarded their hand. Additional rounds of betting would occur after every three trips around the table. If no one matched the highest bet, the initiator of that bet won the hand. Otherwise, whoever laid down their last card won.

Tris was sitting at a table with three other players; a one-eyed goblin, a young, red-faced human, and a hylidan wearing a rancher's hat. Their dealer, a squinty dwarf with a nappy beard, took too long to count bets and dealt sloppily. The hylidan kept pausing to moisten his skin with water from a canteen and, though he wore gloves, kept leaving sticky residue on the cards. The red-faced human was losing money by the purse-full, but kept pulling more from somewhere and buying back into the game. Most of what he was losing went to the one-eyed goblin.

Tris himself had lost several hands in a row to the one-eyed goblin as well. The goblin was quiet and made bets and calls with a swift, compact motion. He only briefly glanced down at his cards and didn't seem to bother arranging them after he was dealt. He folded some hands, but not many, and he rarely bet anyone out of pots until late in the hand.

The dealer dealt a hand and Tris looked down at his cards. For dark, a one, a two, two threes, a five, and a six. For light, only a four and a six. An actually decent hand, though it was very heavy on the dark side. But he had enough of a spread of dark cards to change suits when he needed to. He glanced at the goblin, but it seemed he'd already looked at his cards, as he held them close to his chest and was staring down at the center of the table.

The hylidan was leading off the betting and tossed out a single quarter-copper. A typical opening bet that didn't give Tris much idea one way or the other about the strength of the hylidan's hand. The one-eyed goblin simply matched the bet; that too did little to give Tris much information. The human called as well, leaving Tris to make a decision. He had six coppers left from what he'd started with. “Raise,” Tris announced, before tossing in a full copper.

The hylidan's mouth wriggled in annoyance. He glanced at his cards, reached for his stack of money, stopped, looked at his cards again, let out a soft, extended croak, reached for his money once more, hesitated, then threw his cards in. He removed his hat, took out his canteen, and began to pour water over his head once more.

The goblin slowly made the call, but did not bother to look at his cards a second time. Tris simply watched him, keeping any emotion off his face despite his annoyance. He'd hoped the raise would draw some response from the goblin, either a fold or a raise. A call didn't give him much. The human called as well.

“One of Discs?” the dealer called out, waiting to see if anyone still in the hand held the card to lead off. No one made a move, so the dealer called, “One of Orbs?” The goblin laid the card out on the table, then turned his one good eye to the human. The human laid out a light three, prompting Tris to play his light four. The goblin laid down a dark four, then the human played a light four, forcing Tris into using his last light card early in the round.

The goblin set down a dark six, the human put down a dark one, and Tris played his dark three. The action stopped and the goblin glanced briefly at his hand. He sat for nearly a minute, looking at Tris with his single eye, staring without blinking. Tris tried to maintain a stone face for as long as he could, but eventually he simply broke into a wide grin. Tris didn't even know why he did it, only that he couldn't help himself, so he hoped it didn't give the goblin much information.

Instead, the goblin immediately pushed out five coppers. The human called the bet as if it were nothing, but Tris ignored that. He had to figure if the goblin was simply trying to bluff him off the hand or if he actually had something that powerful. If he wanted to call, he was all in and if he lost, he'd be out of money. His bounty would already be spent.

Tris looked down at his hand one more time. He still had his two dark sixes and a strong dark five. He made the call with all he had left. The goblin kept his face passive, as always, his eye slowly rotating down to look at the table. He played a dark four, the human laid out a light four. Tris grimaced. He couldn't play a card. “Pass,” he said.

He looked at the goblin, hoping for some reaction, but the goblin didn't give him one. Instead, he laid down a light six. The human jovially said, “Pass.” Tris let out a short breath and laid down one of his dark sixes. The goblin played a dark one, the human put out a dark three, and Tris placed his dark five.

The action paused again for wagers. The goblin had only two cards left, while the human and Tris both had three. The goblin was definitely ahead and pushed a full silver into the center of the table. A decent bet, but not outlandish. His hand must have been strong, because he wanted the human to call, which he did. Tris was out of money, so the goblin laid down a dark six.

“Wait!” Tris said as soon as he saw the card. “I didn't get a chance to call the bet.”

The goblin froze, then yanked the card back into his hand, as if he could hide it from having been seen. The dealer looked over at him. “Sir, you have no money left,” he said.

Tris reached down to his hip and removed one of his wands. It was a thin rod of blackwood, about as thick around as his thumb and as long as his forearm, carved with intricate runes and banded with silver. It had a notch in it where a ruby had once been inset, but Tris had pried that out over a decade ago to pay a debt. “This is worth more than money,” Tris said. The hylidan let out a long, low croak at the sight of it.

“Sir, we don't allow - ” the dealer started to say, but the goblin raised a hand.

“Fiah ouh lightnin'?” he asked in a deep, bassy voice.

“Neither,” Tris said. “Pure energy. Clean, simple, no mess.”

The goblin's one eye went just a small bit wider at that. He pursed his thin lips and stared down at the wand sitting in the middle of the table. “What's it wo'th?” the goblin asked. “Five silvah?”

Tris snorted. “It's worth more than that. Five gold at least.”

The goblin's lips pursed tighter. “I ain't got five gold,” he said. “I got thi'ty silvah.”

Tris shrugged, “Alright. Put up thirty silver. I'll consider it fair.”

“Sirs,” the dealer said nervously, “I'm afraid I can't allow this without the agreement of all the players at the table.”

He looked at the hylidan, who puffed out his throat in an expression of amusement. He tipped the bill of his hat forward. “Fiiine byyy me,” he said.

The dealer nervously turned toward the human and smiled, an expression of assurance that man would deny the bet. After all, if he accepted, he'd either have to pay up or fold the hand, while if he objected, he just had to play. “Ah'm fine by it,” the man said.

The dealer looked crestfallen, but sighed and nodded. “Very well,” he said. “The bet stands. Thirty silver coins is the wager.” He turned back to the red-faced man. “Do you wish to call, raise, or fold, sir?”

The man lifted his cards and started to toss them toward the center of the table. Tris sucked in a breath. He had counted on the man keeping his hand. He made a quick motion under the table with his hand and the man stopped. “Nah, Ah think Ah'll just call.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a single gold coin and five silver and tossed them into the center of the table.

The dealer looked ready to pass out, but nodded, scooped the pot to his side, and looked at the goblin. “It is your action, sir,” he said.

The goblin placed his dark six back on the pile. He held only one card. The human played a dark one. Tris thought carefully. If the goblin had any dark card higher than a three, he had lost no matter what. If he had a light card and it was a three or a two, Tris had to play his other card to escape. But if it was a random light card, it didn't matter what Tris played, the goblin couldn't act. But if Tris played the three, and neither the goblin nor the human could act, neither could he, and he'd lose on the card count.

“Sca'ed?” the goblin asked after Tris had been thinking for a good, long minute.

Tris looked up at him and grinned again. “Of you? No way, sky face.” The goblin didn't respond to the insult, but his eye did narrow slightly. Tris figured his best odds were to lay down the two, so he did.

The goblin's lips twisted and he said, bitterly, “Pass.”

Tris couldn't help but let out a sigh. The human laid down a dark six, putting the action back on Tris.

He laid down the dark one and the goblin spat out, “Pass.”

Now Tris just needed the human to do his job. Quietly, under the table, he made small motions with one hand while looking right at the man. He started to play one card, then hesitated and pulled it back into his hand. He took the other card and laid it down: a dark two. Tris grinned and immediately played his dark three. “The human in a the broad hat is out,” the dealer declared.

The goblin slapped his last card onto the table; a light three. Tris let out a long sigh and closed his eyes. He had been a step away from misfortune. He rubbed his face to hide the beaming smile that was crossing it. In a few minutes, he'd made sixty silver, thirteen and a quarter copper. It was a huge haul that would keep him in luxury for a month, at least. No need to track down any bounties while he had this. And maybe he might even get the ruby in his wand replaced...

He heard the scraping of a chair and opened his eyes. The one-eyed goblin was storming away from the table. Tris had just broke him, probably. The dealer was scooping most of the loot toward Tris, though keeping a small rake for the house. The red-faced human smiled stiffly at Tris, which seemed odd. “Well, Ah do believe Ah've lost enough for today. Ah'd better be on my way.” He slowly stood, gave Tris one final cold look, and walked off in the same direction the goblin had.

The hylidan let out a series of high pitched chirps, his version of a laugh. “Well, yyyou suuure made a mess of thiiings,” he said.

“What do you mean?” Tris asked as he returned his wand to its holster. “I cleaned up.”

“From Hoat,” the hylidan said as if that meant something. “He doesn't take losiiing liiightlyyy.”

Tris looked off in the direction that the goblin had left toward. After thinking about it a moment, he shrugged. “Like I care that some small town gambler is angry. I ain't gonna be here long enough for it to matter anyhow.”

The hylidan chirped again. “Well, Iii'd love to keep playiiing,” he said with a tip of his hat, “but Iii don't thiiink Iii can get the magiiic hands you do, siiir.” Tris raised an eyebrow at the hylidan, wondering what he might have noticed, but the short, frog-like creature just hopped out of his seat and walked off in the quick, springing gait common of his people.

Tris looked over to the dealer and tossed him a silver. “For the good hand,” he said. “But you gotta count better.” He pointed to the house's rake. “You shorted me a half-copper on the rake.”

The dealer started to apologize in a fluster, but Tris had already turned and was walking off, his purse heavy with newly won silver.

The casino exit faced north, so when he exited the light of the setting Orb was full in his face. He squinted and pulled the brim of his hat lower to shield his eyes. It was only an hour past midday, but here in the dusklands, the Orb set sooner than in the dawnlands. He'd have to get a move on soon if he didn't want to be stuck camping out in the middle of the plains at night.

He made quick time back to the hotel and found the goblin at the desk ready with his things. “And no one knows I'm ready to leave?” Tris asked him.

“None but myself and a bellhop, suh,” the goblin said very professionally. Tris reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of silver and placed it down on the desk. When he moved his hand away, the goblin could not help but look at it. His eyes went wide as he counted up the coins, eight silver in all. Tris grinned. “It was a good game of Chenya.”

The goblin snapped his head back up, away from the coins. A sour look crossed his face. “Of cah'se, suh,” the goblin said in an apologetic tone. “Yah' komostiuh and things ah waitin' fuh yah a'ound the back.”

Tris nodded thankfully and went to find his komostier. The large reptile was weighed down with all of his things, though it was hardly enough to bother the beast. It snorted when it saw Tris approach and lurched toward him. Tris reached out a hand and patted its snout, which it rubbed eagerly against his palm.

“There, there boy. You've had your rest and now you're eager to get going, aren't you.” It let out another snort and Tris grinned. He grabbed the handle and half-leapt, half-yanked himself on to its back. It grunted slightly, but less so than if he made it kneel down to let him on. With a soft kick to its sides, he set it to motion. It slowly lumbered forward, gradually picking up steam as it went.

As the komostier carried him toward the edge of town, Tris idly wondered where he'd go next. Back to the dawnlands, he figured. A small town, somewhere, where no one would bother him and he could pack away his robe and wizard hat so no one would even know what he was. The long days, the cool breezes, the happy faces. Or maybe he could go visit Teena. It had been too long since he'd seen her. She had expensive tastes, though, and would run his money out sooner. But he'd run out of money sooner or later no matter where he went.

His thoughts were interrupted by someone shouting. He broke from his reverie and realized he was at the very edge of the town, almost on his way. He tried to ignore the shouts and lowered his head, but they were getting closer and were almost certainly meant for him. He sighed and pulled back on his komostier's reigns. The animal snorted and rumbled to a halt.

Tris placed one hand on his wand and turned back to look. As he expected, it was the one-eyed goblin, quickly approaching him on the back of a komostier of his own. Tris gave the reigns a sharp yank and his own komostier slowly spun around to face the oncoming goblin. Surprisingly, he was not alone. The red-faced human from was riding on his own komostier. But more shocking to Tris, Cheyise had her arms wrapped around the goblin's waist and was riding along behind him.

“Can I help you?” Tris called out to them as they got nearer. He tried to keep from looking at Cheyise, especially her confused face, but found himself guiltily glancing at it more than once. He swallowed his shame and focused everything on the goblin, who wore a steely expression of rage.

“Yah can give muh money back, yah cheatin' O'b lovah!” the goblin shouted as he pulled his komostier up.

Tris shook his head. “I won that money fair and square,” he said. “I ain't givin' it back.”

“Disc's light!” the goblin spat, edging his komostier closer to Tris. “I talked with 'andy and he told me he had that two and a da'k five!”

Tris shrugged, guessing Randy was the red-faced human. “He was losing all day,” Tris answered. “I can't be blamed for his poor play.”

“See Haot,” Cheyise said to the one-eyed goblin. “I told yah he ain't a cheat!”

Haot sneered and turned his head to look at Cheyise with his one good eye. “Yah'uh still stickin' up fuh him?” he asked gruffly. “Aftah he's runnin' out on yah like this?”

A look of hurt swept over her face, but she swallowed it with a heavy lump in her throat. She looked at Tris with her large, honey-yellow eyes, and with a quivering voice said, “I knew what it was when I went up to his 'oom.” Tris had to bite the inside of his lip to keep from saying something and making a fool of himself. “He didn't cheat yah.”

“I was gonna lay down that five,” Randy declared. “Then I suddenly felt like I had to lay down the two. And before that, I was gonna fold, then I put in my silver even though I knew my hand was trash!”

Tris sighed. “That don't mean nothing,” he said. “Like I said before, I can't be blamed for bad play.”

“Yah used magic!” Haot angrily declared. “Yah did somethin' to 'andy and made him play bad so yah could make off with my money!”

Tris shook his head. “You've got no proof of that!” he said, even though they were exactly right. He hadn't expected the red-faced rube to realize he was being manipulated. “Now I suggest you turn around and go back to town before someone gets hurt.” He flicked open his robe to show his hand on his wand.

Tris was so focused on Haot that he didn't notice that Randy had pulled out a staff until it was too late. A blast of lightning cracked through the air and slammed into Tris's side. The wards in his robe crackled and buckled, throwing him from the saddle of his komostier. He landed on the ground in a heap, stunned more from the impact with the ground than the shot from the staff. His wards had absorbed most of the energy, leaving only his fingers tingling and his ears ringing.

He quickly rolled back to his feet. His komostier had moved to stand between him and his attackers, though he doubted they'd be too concerned about blasting right through it. He took only a few seconds to let his head clear and drew his wand. As the ringing in his ears cleared, he heard angry snorts from his komostier and theirs; he wished his wasn't burdened with packs, because komostiers could be nasty in a fight.

There was also loud, high-pitched shrieking from Cheyise. Gobliennes could wail like banshees when they were upset and her voice was enough to pierce the heavens. He shook his head and tried to block the sound out, then dashed from behind his komostier toward a nearby building. Another bolt of lightning shot out from Randy's staff and exploded on the ground a few spans behind him. He ducked behind the edge of the building and hoped that neither of them wanted to damage any local property.

“Haot! Stop, Haot!” he heard Cheyise screaming. At this point, he doubted Haot would listen to her. He didn't want to kill anyone, but it was self-defense at this point. Even so, he knew if he killed Randy and Haot, the sheriff would detain him and probably confiscate his winnings as evidence. And there's no saying that they might just not decide to lynch him without a proper trial anyway.

Tris spared a glance around the building, enough to see that Randy and Haot were dismounting from their komostiers. Randy still clutched the huge, gnarled staff in his hands. How many shots did it have left? Probably not many, if a rube like Randy got his hands on it. Even so, he was a rube who could drop thirty silver at a Chenya table, so he could have enough money to buy a nice one from some artificer.

Haot had a thin wand in his hand. Tris was actually relieved. A staff was a dangerous weapon in anyone's hands, because it made a big blast and didn't require much skill. A wand was a weapon that you had to train with to be any good at it. Sure, any idiot could point and shoot with it, but if they wanted to hit anything and do any real damage, you had to be well trained. Tris hoped that Haot's one eye was proof that he hadn't trained well enough.

He heard a loud, scuffling roar and realized that the komostiers were fighting. If he ran now, he'd be abandoning his komostier and he'd never survive in the plains without his food and water. The nearest town was a good three days away on foot...

Taking a deep breath, he calmed his mind while tracing intricate patterns in the air with his hand. His skin tingles slightly, like a cool breeze passing over it, as his protective wards were rebuilt. They wouldn't be nearly as strong as they were before; he certainly couldn't take a staff blast full in the side and get up from it. But it would deflect anything off center. If he had more time...

He opened his eyes just in time to see Haot round the corner on foot. Tris raised his wand and fired, sending a ripple of blue energy shooting through the air. Haot barely had time to duck back around the building. The energy bolt slammed into the ground a dozen spans away, sending up a small shower of dirt.

“Yah ain't getting' away!” Haot shouted at him.

“I ain't planning on it,” Tris said. He wondered where Randy was, when Haot leaned from around the building and blindly fired his wand. It sent two small fire pellets speeding past Tris, exploding into brief flashes of fire well away from him. “I thought you were only blind in one eye!” he taunted his assailant.

Even if he was fighting two amateurs, it was still two against one, which was never good odds. Where was Randy? Haot tried firing again, but Tris was ready this time and fired a bolt before Haot could get a shot off. The bolt narrowly missed as Haot jerked himself back behind cover and Tris cursed.

He could keep firing nearly all day; reloading the wand would take a bit of effort and stamina, but he had enough of that to spare. Haot and Randy would eventually run out of stored up shots. He could simply try to outlast them if they kept firing blindly at him. As Haot simply stuck his arm around the corner and fired off several fire blasts that came nowhere particularly close to hitting Tris, he was struck by how stupid their plan was.

Which made him realize that they couldn't be that stupid. He spun just in time to see Randy leveling his staff at him. He tried to sprawl to the ground, but he was a few seconds too late. The lighting bolt struck him in the right shoulder. His wards crackled and collapsed, absorbing the brunt of the shock, but Tris was still sent flying backward.

He landed in the dirt in a heap, the wind knocked out of him. His wand went flying out of his grip. He struggled to suck in air and sit up, but his body wasn't cooperating just yet. In a sense, it was a good thing he wasn't dead. Though as Haot put a boot down on his chest, he realized that could change in just a moment.

The one-eyed goblin pointed his wand straight at Tris's face. “Not so cocky now, ah yah, boy?” the goblin asked with a sneer.

Tris grimaced and tried to come up with an insult, but only managed to croak out, “Go fuck the Disc.” The butt of Randy's staff cracked into the side of his head at that, sending a burst of tingling stars exploding in his vision.

Haot growled at his friend and jerked his head in the direction of Tris's wand. “Get that fuh me, will yah?” he ordered before looking back down at Tris. “Now, yah'uh in luck. I ain't wantin' ta kill yah and then 'ave to explain to the she'iff about it. So, I'm thinkin', yah can buy yah' life.” Randy handed Haot the wand and Haot took it in his other hand, pointing both down at Tris's chest.

Tris sucked in a breath, trying to clear his head. “Pocket on my left hip,” he said. “It's got a gold medallion in it. Worth forty silvers, easily.” It wasn't a total lie, either. Haot nodded at Randy, who stooped down and patted at Tris until he found the hidden pocket Tris had spoken of. The red-faced man found the seam and pulled, ripping the pocket open. Out spilled a small, flat amulet on a leather strap. It was set in a pattern of a snake twisting around a crosier. Randy held it up for Haot to examine.

Tris grinned as they examined it. Haot caught his smile and looked down at him. “What ah yah so happy about?” he asked.

In answer, Tris closed his eyes and said, “The fire at the horizon, captured in palm. Sealed in gold, the Orb is dulled. Burnished to brightness, shine!” At his final word, the amulet flashed with a searingly bright light. Both Haot and Randy grunted in shock and surprise. Tris opened his eyes just as the dazzling light faded. He grabbed Haot's foot and twisted, sending the goblin crashing to the ground. To his annoyance, he somehow held on to both wands.

Tris scrambled to his feet and charged at Randy, lowering a shoulder into his gut. He drove the man into the ground, knocking all the air out of him. Luckily for Tris, Randy did loose his grip on his staff. Tris yanked it from his hands and slammed the butt right into Randy's temple. The man still groggily groped at him, so Tris hit him again, finally bringing his resistance to a halt.

He stood and whirled around, lowering the staff just in time to see Haot pointing both wands right at him. The two stood immobile for a moment, just staring at each other. “You don't know how to use those,” Tris warned. “Just give me my wand back and we'll call all this even. Walk away.”

Haot sneered at him. “And yah don't know that 'andy's staff is outta cha'ges,” he said. “So yah give it up.”

Tris jerked the staff down and fired a bolt of lightning a few spans in front of Haot's feet, sending up a large shower of dirt that caused Haot to jump backward. Tris grinned at him. “I'm a wizard,” he reminded the goblin. “Charges don't mean much to me.”

Haot's thick, green tongue slowly licked his thin lips. “I ain't lettin' yah go without my silvah back. Yah cheated me and 'andy.” He wasn't nearly as confident sounding as he'd been even a few moments ago.

Before Tris could respond, someone called out, “Stop right there, yah two!”

Haot started to turn his head. Tris fired the staff, sending a bolt of lighting crashing into Haot's chest. The goblin was limp with death before he hit the ground.

“Haot!” Cheyise screamed. Tris flinched at the sound of her voice. He'd forgotten she'd been around. He'd hoped she'd run off once the fighting started. He swiftly walked over to the body before she could reach it, stooped down, and scooped up his wand. He holstered it and took a respectful step back, letting the goblienne attend to her brother.

He looked up at the source of the voice which had given him his opening. It was the deputy who'd taken his bounty the day before. He was riding on the back of a struthi, a large flightless bird that was fast, but couldn't carry a large load or run for very long. Good for chasing down escapees, but not much else.

The deputy did not look particularly happy. He had a rod pointed right at Tris's chest. Tris slowly raised his hands into the air. Cheyise's high-pitched sobs stabbed into Tris's ears. People had already started to gather now that the shooting had stopped and were murmuring to each other. A curious pair of mellifica buzzed overhead, the wind from their wings kicking up small dust clouds.

“It was self-defense, officer,” Tris said slowly. “Those men attacked me.”

“I know that,” the deputy answered. “Ms. Cheyise told me everythin'. But yah didn't have to shoot Haot. I would have cleared everything up.”

Tris shrugged his shoulders slightly. “And how could I know that?” he asked. “I reckon any other man woulda done it too.”

“I should run yah into the jail,” the deputy said, moving his struthi, and the rod, closer. “Or I should just take yah down right now. Spare this town havin' to deal with yah.”

Tris tensed. A rod wasn't clumsy, like a staff, nor did it have the accuracy issues a wand did. Even in an inexperienced man's hands, a rod was a dangerous weapon. And Tris was doubting this deputy was inexperienced. If he thought the man was going to shoot, he'd have to act quickly.

But the deputy lowered the rod, pointing it at the ground. “Get outta here,” the deputy said. “Get yahr komostier and don't come back, yah understand?”

“No!” Cheysie wailed. She tore herself away from her brother's smoldering corpse. “He killed Haot!” she screamed. “Yah can't let him go! Yah can't!”

“Cheyise,” Tris started to say, but she leveled a hard glare at him with her big eyes. Wet with tears, they looked like two pools of honey and he couldn't stand to look at them, so he pulled down the brim of his hat and started to walk away.

“He didn't commit no crime,” the deputy was saying. “Yah said it yahr self. Haot and Randy attacked him.”

Tris blocked out the rest of their arguing conversation. He could hear their words, her voice growing more shrill with each second, but he didn't let himself understand them. It wouldn't do any good to understand what she was saying right now. He found his amulet lying in the dirt and placed it back in his pocket.

His komostier was scraped and bruised, but not seriously hurt. He'd have to have a vet look at it in whatever town he stumbled across next, but it shouldn't have any trouble making it there. The other two komostiers, which had been pulled away, were much worse for the wear. Each was covered in bloody lacerations, courtesy of Tris's komostier. He patted his steed on the snout and rubbed it, eliciting a pleased rumble from its throat. “I might just have to give you a name after all, boy,” he said softly to it. “You're a tough one.”

A few of his packs had come dislodged during the fight. Tris gathered them up and hastily returned them to their harnesses. He'd have to do a better job later, but he needed speed here. Just as he was about to remount, he felt something thin and round jab him in the back. He froze and raised his hands once again.

“You don't want this,” he said softly.

“By Galvet'us I do,” Cheyise hissed. “Tuhn a'ound.”

Tris slowly turned around, thankful that his hat was still pulled down to block his view of her face. She was holding her brother's wand in both hands, like a dagger. “You gonna fire that thing?” Tris asked. “Before you do, lemme just tell you, once you've killed a man, you don't go back.”

He saw her hands tremble and the deputy called out, “Cheyise, don't!”

Both of them ignored the deputy's call. “Please, Cheyise, I'm sorry about your brother. It was me or him.”

“No,” she said softly. “He woulda given up once the deputy came. Haot was a good man. He was just ang'y yah cheated him. It was yah' fault. Yah cheated him.” Her voice was quivering by the end and her hands shook so that she could barely hold on to the wand.

“If you're gonna shoot me,” Tris said, “then shoot me. The Pair know I done enough to deserve it.” He waited a moment, but the shot didn't come. He lowered his hands and placed them gently on her shoulders. She jerked away, but he caught her arm and held on to her.

“Let go of me!” she sobbed out.

Tris placed his hands over hers and slowly pulled them apart. The wand fell to the dirt. “You were holding it backward anyway,” Tris said as he let go of Cheyise. “If you'd shot, you'd have just killed yourself.” He turned and pulled himself into the komostier's saddle.

He kicked it in the sides and it started to trot off, toward the edge of town. “Ain't yah even gonna look at me?” Cheyise called after him.

“No ma'am,” Tris answered too softly for her to hear, kicking his heels into the komostier, spurring it into a gallop.

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