The Ghost Town

Year 341 FW, Summer, in the Far West


Part 1 - Majura

Majura prides itself on being the most western city in the world. They’re probably right.

When you head inland from the ocean, you face the Great Barrier Mountains. The giant lux-wall that separates civilization from the wilds more or less follows those mountains. Across that wall, around those mountains, and you head into a raging desert. It’s quite a large desert, far larger than you might expect even being told it’s huge.

Follow the trader’s wagon-tracks deeper across those sandy wastelands than anyone has any sane reason for going, and you find the Free City of Majura. They built their stubborn city right at the edge of a big salt sea where they can grow salt-tolerant crops on the river deltas. It’s not the only spot of civilization in the desert, but it is the largest, and very probably the most west.

Today I am in Majura.

There was probably a reason why I set out this way, and it would likely change every time you asked me. At the heart of it, I just hadn’t been here before. I tend to have an incurable desire to go anywhere I haven’t been yet.

The train doesn’t come this far. That’s part of why they call it a free city – they don’t let any of the guilds operate here. But wild guides like myself are welcome, or so I’ve been told, so long as we play by the local rules. They call us bounty hunters, which really is a part of the job of a guide anyway, so it’s really not much different.

I’d hooked up as a caravan guard for the last three weeks to get here. We had one skirmish with bandits but no losses. We’d arrived at the city late last night then been made to wait outside the walls until morning. When all was done and delivered, the caravan-master said he liked us all, and if we turned up at his warehouse clean and sober three sunrises hence he’d hire us for the trip back.

That was three whole days to see if more interesting adventure came along. Three days to explore the streets of this exotic dusty place, where everyone hides in the shade whenever possible. Where the taste of salt is always on your lips, and where water is such a precious thing, families send their children to the market to buy each day’s ration.

“That man just robbed you,” the young child I’m watching tells me, her water jug resting on her head.

I blink dumbly, and her eyes point off to my side. Following her gaze, some thin person in desert-colored fur and desert-colored robes meets my eyes, shoots me a smug grin, makes a hand gesture that’s probably rude, then disappears into the crowd.

Looking down at myself, I start counting the important parts.

My tail is still attached, that’s good, for what’s a tiger without a tail?

My new spear is still in hand. Fiora calls this one a naginata, and I’m still getting used to it, but it’s the singular most expensive thing I own. Both my knives are in their harness on my left hip. The other side though, yes indeed, my coins are missing, as the coin bag has been cut clean off my belt.

The child steps off as well, gracefully, water jug and all.

Well fluff.

This was not the exotic adventure I had in mind.

From the stories I’ve heard though, not something too atypical for this city that calls itself free.

I step off to the side, out of the flow of traffic, and put my back against the sunlit wall of a stone building. It takes a beat, but I dig a coin out of a hidden pocket on my knife harness. I glance up at the blazing hot sun overhead, hook my will into it, and pull from it a little bit of lux energy.

Not many mages can do this – pull lux from the sun itself. A pair of sigils are inked onto the inside of my left forearm, and the one for elemental light shimmers with the power I’m moving. Then, tilting my gaze back to the coin in hand, I blow a slow stream of breath onto it, gently unwinding the lux energy and feeding it into a little invisible air sprite that’s sleeping, wrapped around the coin.

Slowly, the energies build, then catch hold and start to wake.

I drop the coin over one claw – convenient how Majuran coins have that hole in the middle – and whisper to it, “Hey little one, welcome back. You want to lead me to your sister now, don’t you?”

The little air sprite twinkles into almost-visibility, like a tiny white dragon, curled and writhing around my coin. It tinkles a faint song at me and I smile. “Yup, just take me there and you can be together again,” I tell it.

The sprite makes a happy sound and launches from the coin. It flies a tight circle around my head then vanishes, leaving only its sound. I pocket the coin it’s anchored on and restart my way down the street. These cute little sprites always come in entangled pairs. I keep this one’s mate in my coin bag.

As I walk, a soft tinkling chime sporadically catches my ear and leads me deeper into Majura. It turns out to be quite the path to follow.

First we go down the street. Then down a scary alley. Then up and along a wall. I first follow on the ground, but when the sound i’m chasing turns over the roofline of a long connected set of buildings, I give in, sling my spear over my shoulder, and scale the rough stucco.

The path then crosses over a narrow board to another roof, which flexes incredibly disturbingly under my weight. Then down another stone wall, which is easier as I can use lux to lower myself safely, and through a market. Here I decline to go over the top of market stalls and instead pick my less agile way around them.

But my prey seems to know they’re being followed and starts doubling back. I never see them, but some zigzags into dead-end alleys come into the path, and with each successive one I get ever more nervous about ambush. Then I find five coins, including the one I’m tracking, tucked into a cubbyhole along the alley wall.

The clever bastard of a thief must have systematically tested small sets of coins until getting rid of the one I’d rigged.

I look around at the empty alley around me and the roofline overhead. Nobody is in sight, but I’m sure my thief is watching. Both of my air sprites writhe around me in a joyful dance, as the one had woken the other the instant they touched.

So I sit cross-legged, right there, my back not quite against the side of the alley that seems to have been painted with less urine. Everything is in shade here, but that’s fine, I have plenty of lux in the stones in my pockets. I arrange my cloak around me and set my spear next to me, easy reach. Pulling some lux, I point with the first claw of each hand and trace a circle around my fuzzy ass.

My circle ripples, glowing, into visibility. I carefully draw a set of sealing runes in my mind, then make a tossing gesture with one hand, and the runes manifest with a blaze at each cardinal point. I’m definitely making this much flashier than it needs to be.

Holding the pair of enchanted coins together on one claw, I address the air sprites as they writhe together in play. “Now, dearies, tell me everything you know about this guy,” I ask my pets.

They chatter. I listen best I can. Their description is unintelligible. I don’t actually know their language. It doesn’t matter in the slightest.

This next part can get me in trouble. These small sprites would fade away within minutes when I let them go. Bigger sprites, the kind that might help me catch a thief, those might just wreak a little havoc before they got around to dissipating. There’s some rumor I’ve heard that says the city guard here employs seers and actually tracks magic, but I’m willing to bet that’s just what they tell people to spook them.

I think I’m willing to risk even a pretty big fine in order to get my revenge.

I feed a slow stream of breath onto my pets, gently pouring energy through our link as fast as they lap it up. They twist into my lux, hungry. In a handful of heartbeats the twin dragons have grown to the size of large eels, writhing and dancing ecstatically in the air.

“Thank you, darlings,” I interrupt their song. “Final bargain: I’ll break your bonds fully if you’ll catch my thief for me and bring them here.”

The sprites touch noses with each other, entwine into a coil, then uncoil again and resume separate writhing, if possible, even more frantically than before. There’s enthusiastic chiming from all sides as they dance around me.

I rise to my feat and pick up my spear, then drag the sheathed blade across my binding line. The circle pops and disappears. Then I glare at the pair of coins in my hand and pull heat from all the gods-forsaken rock in this sun-baked place. Tipping my hand to drop the coins, I melt them into slag as the money falls to the ground.

Majura doesn’t make their coins from precious metal, sadly.

But in a heartbeat my air sprites are gone, flown off, in separate directions.

I count more beats. I get to eleven, then there’s suddenly soft but furious cussing from straight above me. I don’t at all grok the language, but swearing always has a certain rhythm to it.

Then there he is, the desert colored fluff who robbed me, being dragged by a writhing pair of eels off the top of the very building I’d been not quite leaning against.

It hadn’t occurred to me to suggest my sprites should bring him here gently, so they just tug him off the roof and drop him. The thief tries to spin himself in the air, but really doesn’t have a chance. He vectors into the solid rock of the street right in front of me.

Nevertheless he rolls and manages to absorb the impact, but then comes up to find my spear blade level with his face.

We look at each other for a long, slow moment. The thief has short fur, long thin build, something of a rodent’s face, with a raccoon’s natural mask. He looks to be young, maybe a few years past majority. He looks very confused for a beat, then practically shivers through furious, then a totally blank expression, before settling on miserable.

My sprites are already gone and the night is quiet. Softly, as if not to break the night, my thief starts groveling in scant how sorry he is.

Might as well give him a chance. “Give me back the rest of my money,” I growl, my tiger teeth bared.

He’s quick to agree, jabbering in fear. He clumsily starts fishing coins out of little pockets all over his person. And there it is: he throws a small handful of pebbles right in my face, twists, and is tumbling away before I can even object.

He runs smack into the end of the his own cloak, which I’m standing on the corner of. He’s hardly even phased and twists into it, facing me again, but then winces and seems to almost lose his footing for an instant. Did he get hurt by his hard landing?

But the thin man’s face shifts expression again and what faces me is unshielded rage. A solid black knife blade with a thick out-of-proportion black handle has somehow materialized in his hand, though I’d swear he pulled it out of thin air itself. A quick upward slash and I’m forced to step back or lose whiskers. He doesn’t roll free though, he comes low and presses me, knife flickering around and jabbing the haft at my groin.

The kid moves like a windstorm. I have a staff as tall as myself with a sword on the end. I’ve been trained in Condor fighting techniques. I should have the clear advantage. But this kid doesn’t care, and he is systematically forcing me backwards as fast as I can retreat without totally collapsing my guard. On top of that, it feels like he’s toying with me.

I didn’t go into this wanting to actually hurt anyone, but Tiger’s First Law is when you start to lose, it’s time to change the rules.

I pull lux. I bang my spear haft on the ground and detonate a bomb of air, knocking him backwards.

That was the distraction. When the kid weaves in anyway, and death is skewering past my guard towards my delicate meaty parts, I gel the air between us, catching him. Then I step out of line of his momentum and flip my weapon around, tugging on the fabric of space itself with my will to make the weapon move faster. Rolling my wrist at the last instant that I un-gel the air, he has no chance to dodge, and I clip the dull end against the back of the guy’s head.

A resounding crack sounds and the thief drops cold.

I stare at the motionless body and warily toe him. No response, but I think I see his chest rising and falling a little.

“That’s the one trick Fiora used to outlaw when we sparred,” I tell the comatose kid proudly.

A loud BANG thunders though the alley and a rune-charged net hits me from one side. I flail for balance but am clean knocked off my feat.

City guards in white-enameled armor rush into our little dead-end alley. Two of them tackle and pin me by way of the net, and someone pulls my spear away.

Someone says something in the local language that I don’t get. They sound awed.

I’m dragged up by each arm and I find myself looking into the face of a human soldier a third smaller than me with gold shoulders on his uniform. He must be the one in charge. “You hear that, cat?” he says in heavily accented scant. “That Dark Knife. He wanted forever. You’a hero!”

He scowls deeply. “You charged with moving dangerous animal. Your rights are forfeit.” He says the last part with much less accent. He probably practices those words a lot more.

Then a collar slips around my neck. I hiss, I can’t help myself, but it changes nothing and I the clack of the lock snapping closed sinks into the very depths of my soul.

“Collar burn your head off if use magic,” gold-shoulders tells me helpfully.

Me and the kid who robbed me are pushed and tossed into the same vile-smelling wagon.

As we’re rolled through the streets, the open bars of the wagon allow faithful law-abiding citizens to throw all sorts of crap at us. I sit as stoically as I can and accept each bruise of a rock and splash from a chamberpot. I tell myself over and over that I did know this was the risk going into the whole thing.

I try pulling the tiniest sliver of lux from the sun at one point, to try to clean my face, and the collar instantly goes so hot I decide the guard’s warning wasn’t in jest.

An eternity or so later we finally get to the guardhouse. The kid is still unconscious, and that part is actually a little worrying. I was mad, but I really hope I didn’t crush his skull or something. But comatose or not, the guards pull him from the wagon and strip him to his fur right in the middle of the yard. I’m allowed the questionable dignity of taking my own shit-stained clothes off.

Blessedly, they throw two buckets of mostly clean water over each of us.

However this comes immediately before a body cavity search.

The guards are talking agitatedly about the unconscious thief the whole time. I get the impression that processing me is just an afterthought, in case the two of us were actually working together.

Finally I’m led and he’s dragged inside. We’re each thrown in a cell, across from each other but otherwise in the same block. Then they throw a blanket in after each of us and retreat, still arguing amongst themselves in the local language.

I consider my nemesis in the next cell over.

He lays inelegantly where they’d dropped him across his cot. Brown short fur, black on his hands and feet, with totally random mottled black randomness intermixed with sand-colored splotches everywhere else. Thinner even than he’d looked in his cloak. All limbs. Probably as tall as me if he didn’t hunch over. Brushy short tail.

The subject of my consideration gives a start and rouses then, with a hiss. I’m quite relieved.

He sits up and looks around, deep brown eyes passing over me like I’m a piece of furniture. He spits something onto the floor and works his jaw, then feels the back of his head where I clobbered him, and winces.

“Sorry,” I venture.

He reaches out and snags the blanket from where it landed near him, wraps himself in it, then lays with his back to me like he didn’t even hear.

“They called you Dark Knife?”

No response.

I take the hint and stay quiet.

I nap a little. At one point I wake as a whole mob of guards come into our block, several of them with gold shoulders, and listen to them argue vehemently with each other while staring at my thief. He watches them back, silently. They ask him some questions and he doesn’t reply. They get angry and he doesn’t reply. They argue with each other some more than finally leave.

“I’m Tuan.”

The kid doesn’t reply, though his eyes do move to me.

“Well, I’m here because of you, so I’m going to talk at you anyway, and you have to listen.” I’m not sure there’s logic in that, but the words fit my mood and generally have the right idea.

Then I realize I don’t actually know what I want to say to him and I just growl.

“You cheated,” the kid hisses at me suddenly.

My growl turns into a grin, I can’t help it.

He twists and stares at me, silently. I try to make my face impassive, but nevertheless I feel my spirit weighed in his gaze and it comes up lacking. He turns back to his favorite wall and resumes a sullen silence.

Much later that night, some small sound wakes me.

The light is very dim but enough to let a cat see. I blink myself awake and stare incredulously as the kid watches me back, from the gap between our cells. He makes a rude gesture – he’s still naked so he gets to make it pretty graphic – then starts walking away.

“Wait!” I whisper urgently. “I can help you.”

I don’t even know why I say it. Am I really trying to find a way to rock bottom?

He pauses. The guy stares at me over his shoulder. He reaches out a hand and grabs a bar of the cell next to him. He lets go and turns towards me. Then away. Then he rocks back and forth. Then he’s back at the door of my cell, baring his teeth in the dim light. He bends and sets to work on the lock with a simple black shim.

I really wonder where he was keeping it.

In all of about three beats the lock yields and he eases the door open. I slip through, taking my tactics from him and leaving my blanket behind. But as I exit the cell, the thief grabs the fur in the middle of my chest and pulls my face to within an inch of his, only to make an almost inaudible hiss right in my face. Then he lets me go and eases the door closed behind me.

We sneak to the end of our cellblock. Most other cells are empty, but we try to not wake the people in the ones that aren’t. The one guy who is awake is studiously not seeing us as we tip-toe by.

We get to the end of the row and the kid gestures that I should stay put. His meaning is pretty clear.

He carefully peers around the open door into the lit guardroom. Then he waves me to come forward. I ease up next to him and he pulls my head down again. Putting his muzzle next to my ear he whispers so soft it’s mere breath, “Lux?” I shake my head and touch the collar on my neck.

He lets me go and I stand upright. He thinks for a moment then holds up two fingers on one hand. He uses different fingers than I would. Switching to one finger, he uses his other hand to mark off an angle towards the lit room, then gestures at himself. Then switches to the other finger, another angle, and points to me. Repeat: one direction and himself, the other direction and me. I nod to show I understand.

He crouches low, I ready myself, and then with no sound whatsoever he shoots around the corner and into the brightly lit room. I’m flat behind as quiet as a cat can be, but my feet still make sounds like a normal mortal’s should as they touch the stone floor.

The guards start up, making their own short sounds of surprise. The kid had given me the closer target. I punch the guard in the throat before he can make a louder noise. While he’s stunned I slip behind him and apply a choke. I count heartbeats as he starts to sag. When he’s fully limp I count six more then let him down to the floor as quiet as I can.

I look up at my thief. The guard he took is face-down in a growing puddle of blood, the kid just crouched next to their body, watching me.

“You’re too nice,” he whispers actually loud enough to hear, then nods that I should proceed him out into the hall. Then points, when I hesitate to move.

He joins a short moment later, and I resist the urge to look back and see how he managed to secure the guard who I’d gone to so much care to leave alive.

The hall we’re in reveals more guardrooms, each fronting a different cell block. We step past their lit doors with trepidation – at least on my part – but nobody rouses after us. Farther up the hall, the thief opens a side-door like he knows where he’s going and leads me into some kind of processing room.

Our clothes and all my weapons are in a heap on one table. I whisper a happy squeak and the kid glares at me angrily. I shut up and worry about getting dressed.

I fit on my knife harness – both blades in their homes – with some satisfaction. I reach for my spear and the kid touches my wrist and shakes his head. I frown, the satisfied feeling popping in an instant.

I concede and leave it. I bow to the weapon in apology. Fiora will kill me for this, assuming I somehow survive to get there.

The way I see it, our next steps are to get through the single exit of the jail house, to which the gate is undoubtedly closed at this time of night, then across a large open plaza beyond, well-lit and with watch-towers, specifically monitored to keep this kind of thing from happening, and then past the outer gate as well.

This young man apparently has a different idea.

He leads us into a utility closet and eases the door closed behind us. Then he pushes a crate underneath a barred window, hops up, and with a couple gentle tugs, removes the bars and sets them outside. He hops up once more, ducks his head and shoulders into the window, then kind of rolls gracefully backwards and is outside. He turns to look back through the small window at me.

I climb onto the crate and consider the exit warily. I think thin thoughts and start trying to fit my much larger tiger bulk through the opening.

The kid pulls on my arms, helping with all his strength. There’s sharp parts of the frame involved, and I feel rips happen in my clothes and flesh. But the really important part is, I fit. I almost fall on him when my butt finally pops through outside.

He dodges and rolls up in an instant to start setting the bars back into place. I can smell my own blood, so I’m really sure there’s no way of hiding our path, but I appreciate his attention to detail.

We had come out onto the roof of some small building joined to the jail. It’s a storage shed of some kind, maybe? We’re shielded from the watch towers by a corner of the jail itself, but the shadow that hides us doesn’t extend any farther along the wall.

The kid slips off the shed on the most-shadowed side and I follow. Hunched down in the corner he leans close and points farther along the jail wall at something. He stares at me for a long moment, then bends close and whispers, again nearly noiselessly, “distraction.”

I pull my dagger and cut free the belt buckle stitched onto my knife harness. It’s a solid single piece, thin stone with wood inlays in the pattern of my personal sigil. It’s a beautiful thing, and cost me a pickle. But I was enamored with the artist’s work when I found their stall in the Pono’unamau market. Then like everything I carry, I rune-smithed it for an emergency.

This is probably an emergency.

My debt to the city may have started out as just a fine for releasing some air sprites, but breaking jail totally escalates things. Leaving a body or two a lot more. Am I really about to escalate them even farther?

Have I left myself much else of a choice at this point?

I mime throwing the thing and whisper, “Five beats, then bang.”

He nods rapidly and mimes throwing it over the roof of the jail, towards the front gate.

I pause a moment unsure if he means now. At his further nod, I sink a claw into the trigger, rise, turn, pitch, then drop down again, counting heartbeats.

Without waiting for the bang the kid grabs my shoulder and tugs me once before bolting along the jail’s outer wall. I chase after, still counting. I hit seven, then the blast turns night into day for a moment as the shockwave rips through the central plaza. I hope I didn’t hurt anyone.

The kid drops to his knees and pulls at the grate over a storm drain. I drop next to him, grab, heave, and the heavy cover lifts off.

Angry noises are closing behind us as I follow the thief down the hole. A bolt of energy singes my fur as I drop, and I shunt as much of the lux as I can into the earth around me, which results in a yelp of pain as the collar at my neck singes my hide.

But my escort hasn’t paused, and I keep chasing. The open drain is behind us in moments and the sewer becomes totally black. I’m just following the gentle sound of my companion’s footfalls as fast as I can without smashing into a wall. His sound reassures me that he’s mortal after all. Then after a moment I can’t help but wonder if he’s making noise entirely for my benefit.

After a couple turns he pauses, then a sudden light in the dark surprises me.

The kid rises from some secret cache he’s raided, wearing a small purse and holding a tiny lit stone, giving off a warm glimmer. He starts down the tunnel again. And yup, now that there’s a light for me to chase, he’s stopped making any noise at all.

Quite some time passes as I trudge along in the messy pipe. My companion’s path is bent but at no junction does he ever show any hesitation. The tunnel we’re in gets progressively larger until sometime we’re traveling side-by-side. Finally we step out from a broken gate and scramble down a rough stone wall.

We are totally outside the city. The sewer drains beside us, sludge oozing into a trench that winds out towards the open desert. It looks gross and probably smells bad, but at this point my nose is totally numb. The air here smells quite nice I think.

The place isn’t deserted. A few hovels are pressed up against the wall, and clustered even more thickly a little farther away.

The kid leads us into the slum without hesitation. A couple twists and turns then we stop. “Wait,” he says. It’s the first I think he’s voiced louder than a whisper. I nod silently and he disappears around another corner.

A few moments go by, enough for me to start worrying that I’ve been left, then he’s back. He pushes a bundle of rags into my hands, keeping a similar wad for himself.

The new clothes are hardly more than torn, dirty, simple robes. But I change without hesitation, shedding my sewer-coated outer layer. The robe turns out to have a high enough collar to cover the damn enchanted metal one that I’m still wearing.

I put the new robe on over my knife harness too. The kid makes me go through every item that’s in the harness’s many pockets, making sure not a single bit is something I don’t recognize. There’s not much. The guards had left me a ration bar, how thoughtful of them. Also present: my long knife, short dagger, collapsable cup, tiny little rune wand, and a pair of stones, still charged with lux. Missing: the six other stones that should be there, and my wild guide guild crest.

Damn crests are so often lost the guild actually gets some of their income from selling us all replacements.

We wad up our old clothes and push them into a corner, in case there’s trackers in them, the kid explains. I wonder if my air sprites made him paranoid. He leads me further through the slum.

Now and then, my guide pauses to murmur a few words to someone we pass, then leads on again. We make another twist in the winding labyrinth and go through another door improvised out of leftover building supplies. I honestly can’t tell doors from walls here. Nobody who didn’t know this place could navigate. It takes me a moment to realize we’ve entered a room. Someone might live here. There’s even a pile of straw over the hard packed desert.

The kid drops onto the pile with a sigh, and I realize who the tenant of this little shack is. I sink down where I am, pick the sturdiest wall, and lean against it.

We eye each other.

The silence stretches on.

I’d spent all night being silent around this guy, I could carry it on a bit longer.

After a while he sighs again and rolls to his side on his pile of hay, his back to me. I note he’s managed to leave just enough room I can justifiably say I’m invited. I tentatively ease next to him, leaving a tiny space between our backs, and rest my head on an arm.

“Thank you,” he says quietly.

“Thank you,” I reply back, equally quietly. I’ve no idea what we’re thanking each other for.

I wait for more, but after a while doze off.

When I wake, the kid is leaning against the wall watching me. I eye him silently as my thoughts form and I wonder again who he might be.

“So,” the young man says. This seams to encompass everything he believes it needs to, but I don’t know how to reply.

He tries again, “You can’t stay here.”

“Yeah,” that’s something I can easily agree with. “Might be time to leave town already.” This adventure has been both shorter, and more exciting, than anything I expected to do in the city.

“Where will you go?” he asks.

“Not sure,” I concede. “Ideally a porter’s lounge, so I can get hired to go home. But I’m not sure going back in there is smart.” I wave in the general direction I remember the town wall being. “Where do you think I should go?” I ask.

He blinks. His surprised face shows for an instant then morphs into a blank one. “North,” he answers quickly.

I’m about to ask for more when he goes on. “Oasis. People go all the time to pray.”

“Favor of the gods would be nice,” I agree, though I’m not really much into religion. “Is there anywhere to go past there that’s not back here?”

He rocks back and forth again like weighing options. He seems to decide, and yet still takes a breath to gather his thoughts. This is going to be deep, I’m sure.

“Help me on a quest? You said you would.”

“What kind of quest?”

“Past Oasis to a ghost town. There’s real ghosts. But there’s something there I want.”

I keep listening, waiting for where this sounds like a good idea.

He seems to realize he left that out and adds more. “Ish’bala is just past. Real town, big trade road.”

I quirk my whiskers forward, weighing my own options. On one hand I can take this kid’s quest and see where it gets me. I think we’re past the point where he leaves me bleeding out in a ditch. But I’m not sure that would still hold true after we found whatever he’s looking for.

On the other hand…

I’m not actually sure I have any other hands to play right now.

“Okay.”

“You’ll help?”

“Sure, ghosts sound like fun.”

The kid seems to light up then, jumping up and clearly ready to go. I ease myself to my feet more tenderly. I really can’t be more than a few years older than him, but I guess that’s enough to count. I’m stiff all over.

“So what do I call you?” I ask, “Master Dark Knife?”

The young guy shakes his head violently as he pushes open the flap of canvas that acts as door of his shack. “Hate that name.”

“What then?”

We start through the labyrinth, no answer immediately forthcoming. He stops to exchange a few quiet words with someone again. He comes up with a waterskin, which he drinks from then passes to me. I drain it and pass it back. Heavenly.

“Call me Todd,” he tells me finally as we exit the slum. “Who were you? Toon?”

“Tuan,” I correct his accent.

“Toon,” he agrees.