Chapter 1 The beginning
Alam Bladen needed a drink and a decent meal, as he had gone without a proper one for several weeks. He necked his beer in a second. Its bitter flavour horrified his taste buds, but the juicy chicken with the mushroom gravy was to annul it. He threw himself over the roast; his hands quickly smeared with grease and sauce, yet he didn’t care. His thirst was deep, but his hunger was even deeper.
He sighed and threw a sorrowful look at the empty can. He could do with another beer. Or, better, with a naban cigar, the perfect remedy for his fatigue. As he was rolling one, he glanced around the place. He was mapping the location. It was paramount in determining his father’s whereabouts. After seven years without any piece of information, he finally found an ex-convict who knew what had happened the night his father had disappeared. Alam needed closure so he could finally live his life.
The Broken Fang tavern was at the crossroads of three places: Watun with its unique spices, Fastanfa Bastion with its weapons, and the Citadel of Meli with its riches and fashion.
Inside, four almost-consumed candles were struggling to throw some light. The floor had holes, and dirt was everywhere, soiling everyone’s shoes. The room was filled with the smells of cigars, cheap food, and alcohol. Worn wooden tables, marked with mug stains and cigar burns, insufficient during busy hours, were crowding the place.
Alam watched the innkeeper wiping insistently a perfectly clean glass, peeking in Alam’s direction at times. Then his eyes passed on the servant girl pretending to be busy polishing the cutlery, yet her eyes were burning with desire when looking at him. Behind her, paintings depicting the arrival of the second sun on the Gulumen’s sky and the following disaster were adorneding the shabby walls.
Alam adjusted his hood over his forehead, covering it. The passer’s sign was glowing in soft, silver light. It was infinity shaped, the symbol of the perpetuity of time. Also, he ensured he had hidden his long, silvery hair under the tulac, a traditional gulumen hat worn by warriors.
He glared at his empty metal tin again and sighed - he had a long night to fill ahead. Anxious, Alam decided. He placed three hurs on the table - more than sufficient for his frugal dinner, and he stood up. Two men followed almost simultaneously. Alam couldn’t miss the gargoyle’s stinky odour, even with their faces covered. Their primary food source, the Alabama plant, caused them to emit an odour of ammonia.
Alam had encountered their kind a few times in his youth and wasn’t very keen to deal with them.
He peeked at them as he headed to the bar, his black cloak fluttering around him. When by the counter, he threw five hurs on it, enough to buy a barrel of beer, the only type of alcohol allowed in taverns.
“A beer. See to be cold,” Alam said aloud, avoiding the man’s glare. Then whispered, “Obus send me,” and discreetly gave him a note. The innkeeper glanced at the two creatures as they passed behind Alam’s broad shoulders, and then he disappeared in the back. The man appeared minutes later, carrying a whole barrel of the precious liquid. He poured beer into a can and pushed it toward Alam, a few drops of amber liquid splashing on the yellow wood. “Go there.” The man slipped him a piece of paper. “Say Tynan sent you.”
Alam nodded and chose another table to hang for a little longer; this time, he faced the entire tavern and its entrance. The two gargoyles were gone. He opened the note, his hands trembling with impatience. A big gulp of air ran down his throat as he read the note. His breath precipitated, and Alam closed his eyes for a second.
His attention shifted as the door opened with a prolonged creak; Alam discreetly concealed the note within his cloak. A person popped a few coins while sitting down.
“Bring me a chicken and a carafe of beer,” a deep feminine voice sounded.
That drew Alam’s attention. The tight, long black dress, adorned with red strips, split to the thigh level, let an intricate tattoo be seen. It was in red and green colours, runes mixed with blurred animal shapes ascending on her thigh.
A hallowed shapeshifter, Alam thought, his eyes fixed on the rare creature.
Dangerous creatures considered sacred in some areas, the shapeshifters barely survived the arrival of the second sun named Sorend. And yet they would overcome armies of men by themselves because they could transform into any existing living creature. Alam never expected he would live long enough to see one of them.
Quickly losing interest in the new arrival, Alam remembered the helper. He noticed her by the bar, cleaning the floor, and went straight to her.
“Two hurs,” she said, licking her lower lip.
She took the money avidly and pushed Alam into the dim corridor. He touched the woman’s burning skin as he unbuttoned her saggy shirt. She stank of cheap, strong liquor. Her abysmal hair, cascading on her round shoulders, ambushed his nostrils with a foggy smell of smoke as she received him entirely. She pushed herself into him and moved rhythmically; her left leg anchored on his hip.
Then Alam sustained his height on the unpolished river stones wall and turned her to face it. His right hand kept her generous breasts as the other held her close. The woman said nothing but a fake prolonged oh as he finished silently.
Alam caressed her back and felt the marks of the piercing stones. She hurried to cover her round bosoms and, without a word, left him in the darkness. He stood there for a minute while taking a deep breath, trying to fight the cold chills inside his heart. He needed to give his mind a break as all his thoughts had tranformed into a chaotic swirl, projecting vivid emotions due to next day’s disclosure.
When he left the corridor, the furious flickering of the candlelight made him squint his eyes.
Now, now. I hate to eradicate that satisfactory feeling, but your two friends from earlier are lurking in the back alley, waiting for you.
Alam whirled around, alerted by the words intruding into his mind. He glared at the woman in front, still treating him with her back. She slightly turned her profile, allowing him to notice the beauty of her contours. She would keep her dark hair in a long braid, knotted in symmetric spirals, and garnished with dark feathers and silver stones. It was almost touching her dusty high-heeled boots.
So sensual and fragile, he couldn’t help thinking.
Is that so? Appearances can deceive
Why are you helping me?
She said nothing more. She just stood there and sipped from her tin.