The late afternoon in Esthelring is an active one. Stores and wheeled street stalls selling crops, clothing, and tools were closing down. Canopies were folded, doors shut, and signs placed up indicating proudly that business was done for the day. Merchants piled wares on wagons or barrows headed back out of the city, to storage sheds, or warehouses. Some stores remained open, their owners tidying up, busking, or yawning over counters. Many blacksmiths and armorers began cooling their fires, but still the sound of hammers on steel rang in many quarters.
A flat, wide-brimmed hat bobbed through those streets. The woman underneath watched the activity around her with serene curiosity. Her right arm was braced against her body, held up with a sling made by tying a simple, colorful cloth with zig-zagged striped patterns of green, red, yellow, and black. A withered, limp hand hung from it, just peeking out of a wide sleeve. Her other hand rested on the long, slender hilt of a slim, sheathed blade.
Imadi noted the architecture, the wood, thatch, and stone of the buildings around her and the elegant, if ostentatious erections on the hills above. She found it all boring and unimaginative, from every drab plank to each plain piece of clothing. The only things she admired were the gardens on the hills above, though she thought it unfortunate that such colorful amalgamations of nature be restricted to the estates. Was there no beauty in the commoner’s life in the Kingdoms? The lack of balance was disturbing.
Suddenly a heavenly scent distracted her from the distaste in her mind, and she followed that olfactory boon to a small wooden stall in the street, little more than a cart with a canopy and stools for sitting. An older man tended to a small stove boiling water in a simple metal teapot. Another steaming pot sat on a fold-out counter. Imadi sat on a stool, and the man placed an inelegant wooden cup before her. He poured the fragrant liquid into her cup, his thin hands shaking with the tremors of age.
“Six coppers,” he creaked.
Imadi paid him the few measly coppers she carried, tasted the tea, and immediately thought she had misheard his price. It was far too good to cost so little; sure, it lacked the spice of the tea in Yodoru, but it was heady and smooth. She was glad for its warmth when the sight of the person sitting down next to her shot rivers of ice down her spine.
“The Balance keeps you,” he said in a friendly tone.
“Took you long enough to find me,” Imadi responded.
The man tilted his wide-brimmed hat up, revealing a face of sculpted mahogany, and said, “Time spent convincing Ordu to let me talk to you before you’re hunted and killed. Maybe you could admit it’s time well spent.”
“You surprise me again. Here I thought you had chosen a side.”
“Stop this. Change is inevitable. Even the mightiest of stones warp in the rivers of time. Ordu leads the Binai-Fandwa on a new path now. A righteous one. You know it as truth. In your heart, I know you do.”
“My heart knows only one truth; we tend to peace, protect our people, and lay siege to corruption and evil where it roots in Yodoru. In Yodoru. Ordu’s war on the world is nothing like what the Binai-Fandwa have come to stand for. We are defenders of peace, of the Balance. We are not warmongers.”
“Now we protect by seeking war. Tell me, what do you see in this lowly city? Fairness in rule? Justice for the innocent? Where is the Balance?”
Imadi thought for a moment, watching a pair of sickly-looking hounds cross the street, then nodded, “What I see disgusts me, but it does not give us the right.”
“Excuse me,” the old man chirped.
“It gives us all the right. You will know this is true when you see the depths of depravity these Kingdoms reach. Left alone, the people of these lands will continue to suffer. We introduce the Binai-Fandwa to the Kingdoms, we bring them peace, justice...Balance!”
“And only at the edges of our blades.”
Kilen laughed, “Yes. That’s how it’s always been. Don’t be so naive. The Balance of Yodoru is a product of our blades. It is born of them, and all the blood they’ve drawn. Bringing it to the world will require more blood.”
“I’m not naive,” Imadi snapped, “It’s you and the rest of your traitors that have forgotten our tenets and discipline. Centuries ago we revolted against a corrupt dynasty that sought to use our strength for war…”
Kilen interrupted, “For their gain! At the expense of the Binai-Fandwa and the Yodoru people.”
“...and our strength lies in our tenets. To never wage war…”
“In the name of another! It says nothing about waging war in the name of the Binai-Fandwa.”
“Um, excuse me…”
“What Ordu wants is power, plain and simple. That runs against everything we are.”
Kilen swept an arm wide, indicating all around them, and spoke, “This runs against everything we are! Children in the streets. Corrupt rulers ignoring their people’s suffering. Rampant crime. Do you not see the great evil that afflicts these Kingdoms?”
“Yeah, I suppose it’s all kinda crappy.”
“And how much have you seen, exactly?”
“Enough to know Ordu’s words ring true. Imagine this city with the Binai-Fandwa. The peace these people would know. The justice done. We can share what we have in Yodoru with the world. It may very well be our purpose, as Ordu suggests. The wise Aru watches the whole of our world Ehuna--not just Yodoru--balanced on the fulcrum of his talon, waiting for the day it plummets into the chaos of the underworld Morodi. The Binai-Fandwa keeps the Balance in Yodoru, but Ordu is right, that is not enough. The whole of the world must be Balanced to prevent its end.”
“Odd how you explained a lot of what you were saying while you were saying it, I’m sure she knows what all those things are...”
“I will not take the suggestion of that treacherous murderer.”
Kilen grew quiet, then said, “There’s still no proof that he’s done anything of the sort. Your words against his. And it’s your words that split our order apart! It’s your words and insistence that causes those still loyal to hunt you and the other dissenters down!”
She placed her tea on the counter, savoring its aroma, and said, “If you’re going to try to kill me, I suggest you get it over with.”
“Please don’t do that here.”
Kilen clucked in annoyance, “And imagine we used to be friends. I would rather you join us. Ordu welcomes our lost warriors back.”
“It is not I who is lost, Kilen.”
He shook his head in frustration, “Fine. Ordu comes for you. Personally. I’ve bought you a few days to think about this discussion. That’s all the time you’ll need to witness the evil here yourself. Then we’ll find you and you can make your final decision.”
“Could you buy some tea before you invade? That’d be nice.”
Imadi nodded at Kilen and made to leave.
“By the way, I wasn’t the only pair of eyes stalking you and your new friends. You want to learn how depraved the Kingdoms are, start by seeking out your comrades. And watch your back; if they’re from here, who’s to say they’re any better than the rest of these scum?”
Imadi’s grip on her hilt tightened as she sped down the street, her eyes scanning for a giant wearing a wolf-head cloak.
Hours later, deep in Esthelring, Gafgarn, Sully, and Dorin were making their way back to The Wasted Cadaver. They explored as deep as the city’s Central Square, a large stone courtyard surrounded by twisting columns fashioned like tentacles. In its center stood a tall, frightful nightmare, a creature reaching upward with six clawed arms and a muscular torso not unlike a man’s. Its lower half was a long, bulbous affair coiling about itself, teeming with hundreds of vine-like tentacles. It’s head, little more than a lump between its shoulders, bore a hive of empty mouth-like fissures. On its pedestal read Nashuul. Beyond it lay a church, much like the one in Hausto, albeit several times larger. Gafgarn’s revulsion ensured they hadn’t stayed long.
Making their way back, unsure how they would find any sign of the jester in a city so large, Gafgarn watched businesses close in the pink and orange hues of the setting sun. He noticed pairs of armed, shifty-eyed people moving from store-to-store, collecting sums of coin into small lockboxes they carried like satchels at their waist. The hint of fear was evident on each merchant’s face as the pairs came around. Any guards walking the street seemed not to notice, or coyly pretended there was something strikingly more interesting in another direction.
Before Gafgarn could comment, he caught sight of something that made him completely forget about the shady dealings around him. A jester hat of red, black, and silver bounced down the street. He only just saw it turn a corner, its wearer in a high-collared jacket that hid his face. Gafgarn shot down the street, surprising his companions who hurried to catch up.
“Wot’s the deal, Gaf?”
“Quiet,” Gafgarn commanded as he neared the corner of a building. “I think I just saw AJ.” He poked his head around the corner and saw that hat trotting down the street. Gafgarn made to follow.
“Shouldn’t we get the others? The Cadaver’s not too far off from here.”
“No, I don’t want to lose him. We take him now.”
They followed him through streets, then a network of alleys, careful to keep out of sight. The jester never looked behind him, and now relaxedly walked into a narrow pathway between two large buildings. Gafgarn, Sully, and Dorin gingerly, but quickly, followed.
The narrow path lead to a small, dusty courtyard surrounded by fences and tall buildings, with other narrow alleys leading out from its corners. At the opposite end from Gafgarn stood a shabby shed that looked like it could barely hold the single occupant sitting on its roof, his legs dangling over its edge. His head hung low, hiding his face behind that jester hat.
Between them, scattered about the dingy yard of dead grass and dirt, were chairs, \benches, ottomans, beds, stools, and other furniture in various stages of disrepair.
“This be a trap,” Dorin said.
“Of course it is,” Gafgarn said as he stepped forward.
“Then shouldn’t we turn around and leave?” Sully asked.
“No. They’re already behind us.”
Sully couldn’t help but chuckle, and said, “That’s not exactly a problem for you, though.”
“Neither is what’s ahead of us.” Gafgarn hefted his hammer in one hand and pointed a meaty finger at the figure sitting before him, and said, “I want my gauntlets.”
The jester raised his head to reveal typical fair skin and blue eyes. He smiled at them as he nonchalantly swung his feet.
“Boss, I don’t like the look of this,” Sully said.
“Be ready. That may not be AJ, but whoever these punks are, they know we’re after him. So they know where he is. Which means I’ve got some skulls to crack.”
“Who’d wanna protect that crazy bastard?”
At that the imposter AJ shrugged and a tall woman entered the courtyard to stand next to the shed. The half of her head that wasn’t shaven bore long, silky black hair. She wore an elegant pink jacket lined with fur that descended to her leather boots laced up to her knees. She raised a long, elegant pipe to her rosy lips and placed the other hand on her hips, her stance revealing the tiny leather shorts and corset burdened by a heavy bust underneath her jacket. The handle of a coiled whip at her waist might go unnoticed in comparison to her thick, corded musculature. Tattoos of blue and purple hearts decorated her neck and collarbone at the same side as her shaven scalp. She smiled, revealing pearly teeth.
“That hat,” Gafgarn said, nodding towards it, “I want the man it belongs to. I’m guessing you know him.”
“Wow,” said the woman in a sultry voice, “you aren’t too polite, are you?”
“You brought me here to be polite?”
“No,” she said, taking another drag from her pipe, “I brought you here to die.”
“And why’s that?”
“You killed my ex-husband.”
“Smidgin, I’m guessing? I’m surprised you care so much about him if he was an ex.”
“I don’t. But I was supposed to kill him.”
“And you are?”
“You can call me Madam.”
“Well, Madam,” Gafgarn said, hammer in his hands, “I suggest if you want someone dead, you pick up the pace next time.”
“Thanks for the advice,” she said, snapping her fingers.
The courtyard flooded with armed men and women from each entryway. Some vaulted over the fences, daggers and blades in hand. They were all tough-looking, many with studded leather armor and peculiar small metal spikes protruding from shoulderpads and bracelets. Without hesitation, they threw themselves at the trio.
A dagger flew at Gafgarn, but the giant was already moving, ducking beneath it and sweeping a duo aside with his hammer. He swung his hammer down in an arc to squish an attacker into the dirt, then propped himself up with the weapon to block a sword strike with one foot and cave in a face with another. Back on his feet, he blocked and dodged several attacks, pedaling backward until he lost his footing and his rump fell into the seat of a heavy-looking chair.
Sully and Dorin again found themselves back-to-back, fending off a handful of killers. Most of the gang around them focused their efforts towards Gafgarn, those harassing Sully and Dorin applying enough pressure to keep them busy. On the defence, they found they were unable to move until a large chair skidded along the ground, knocking two belligerents to the floor. Sully and Dorin cut through the opening and made it to Gafgarn, who was sitting on the ground, hoisting his hammer into a chin.
Gafgarn hoisted himself up into a flying kick to his gut, which sent him bowling into a bench. As he tripped backwards over it, he was launched sliding on the ground just as a hatchet chopped down into the bench. As he slid, he awkwardly swung his hammer, taking out ankles and shins. Then he used the momentum to roll over his head onto his feet and rose swinging. Sully and Dorin kept enemies at bay in Gafgarn’s destructive wake.
Towering over the heads of the gang around him, Gafgarn could already see the crowded courtyard growing more sparse. The attackers became more hesitant and careful in approaching the behemoth. Still, he found himself surrounded. Behind him a woman swung a chair, which shot out of her hands into another attacker looking to cleave Gafgarn’s arm from his shoulder. Gafgarn turned and kicked out, knocking the woman into several behind her. He used the opening to charge through them, then leapt up onto a filthy couch as the gang pressed behind. It threw him up into the air as a throwing axe grazed the bottom of his boots, throwing sparks. Flying over where he had just come, he used his hammer to cull the group below, knocking them into a pile. He landed on his feet by Sully and Dorin, who were looking dumbfounded and feeling useless. As Gafgarn raised his hammer above the groaning pile of assailants, the crack of a whip shuddered through the courtyard.
The mighty hammer was stuck over Gafgarn’s head, Madame’s whip wrapped around its head like a deadly, leathery vine. Her pink jacket in the hands of the jester-hatted imposter, she stood pulling the whip with both hands, smiling with naked arms bulging. Sully and Dorin took up positions behind him, their blades flashing in the fading light as they began trading blows once more. A fresh assault began, causing Sully and Dorin to struggle. Some attackers made their way around the defense, flanking Gafgarn from the side. He was quick to react, charging to the left while tugging on his hammer, slamming into a surprised gangster with his shoulder. Madame began sliding towards Gafgarn, losing her footing, so she wrapped more of the whip around her forearms and pulled. Using her renewed effort as momentum, Gafgarn charged to his right, flinging himself into the air. “Down!” he yelled, and Sully and Dorin hit the floor just as Gafgarn flashed over him. He swung feet-first into a small crowd, his boots crushing a ribcage and sending the group sprawling. Now on his belly, Madame was dragging him towards her until him got his legs ahead of him and began pulling back. They found themselves in another stalemate.
Sully and Dorin struggled to keep the remaining gang members from cutting up Gafgarn from behind. Sully received a cut to her waist, and returned the wound in kind. Dorin parried and hopped between two attackers, barely keeping up. Just as they were losing control, screams from the rear of the group erupted. A thin, long blade was flashing through the courtyard, wielded by none other than Imadi. She struck like a storm, each flick of her sword a lightning strike, causing the assault to disburse enough that she could reach Sully and Dorin. The three stood with blades ready, awaiting the next attack.
Suddenly, the whip snapped. Madame fell into the fence behind her and Gafgarn spun, swinging his hammer into the unlucky face of an assailant with an upraised sword. Where the whip broke the shaft of an arrow stuck up from the ground. Madame looked to the roof of a building to see a shadowy figure in a cowl with a bow in hand, quickly knocking another arrow.
“Vangie, he’s mine!” Madame yelled.
“Not if I kill him first, you witch,” a woman’s voice responded. The figure let another arrow fly towards Gafgarn. He grabbed an attacker by the throat and used her body to catch the lethal missile. Throwing the body aside, he motioned for Sully, Dorin, and Imadi to take cover behind a fence with him. The gang in the courtyard froze, unsure whether to take the wolf-cloaked giant or move to Madame’s aid.
“You little whore, I told you if I ever saw you in my district, I’d rip you limb-from-limb.”
“Geeze Ursula, you still all torn up about the whole thing with Smidgin? Let it go! And let me gut this big guy already, you and your crew seem to be having a hard time of it.” An arrow plunked into the fence by Gafgarn.
Sully took the opportunity to bring up an important point to Gafgarn, “Boss, we should go while they’re distracted.”
“No,” he said, “not until we learn where AJ is.”
“This’s getting complicated. We need to go now while this gang is distracted.”
The argument between the two women continued.
“You call me by my professional name, you slut!”
“I’ll call you whatever I want, hag! Now let me have my revenge and you can go back to running your gang or whatever.”
Ursula, or Madame, hurled two throwing knives towards Vangie, who somersaulted to avoid them. “I’m getting revenge, Vangie! Don’t you have someone to assassinate, a contract or something for your Duke? Stick to your career criminality and butt out of my business!”
“How about you stick to your career criminality and let me have my fun!”
“Last time you had anything of mine, it was my husband, skank! I didn’t let you have him then, and I won’t let you have this one now! So get lost or get down here so I can tear you apart!”
The clamor of armored boots echoed from several of the alleys. “It’s the guard, everyone out!” Ursula yelled. “I’m going to have that Captain’s head, we paid him off this week!” Men in steel armor burst into the courtyard brandishing swords and shackles. Some of the surviving gang were quickly apprehended, though most of the able-bodied type were quick to escape. Ursula and the jester had disappeared, as well as the woman on the roof. Gafgarn, Sully, Dorin, and Imadi were left to be surrounded.
“Drop your weapons or be killed,” a guard commanded.
Gafgarn gripped his hammer tightly, thinking he could break through the line and give chase after Ursula. Gafgarn looked to Imadi, who sheathed her blade, declaring, “I will not harm those charged to protect the innocent.” Sully placed a hand on Gafgarn’s arm and shook her head. He knew full well he couldn’t afford to start a war with the city itself. He dropped his mallet and the guards closed in with their shackles.
“Yer popular with the ladies, eh, Gaf?” Dorin joked.
The guards hustled their prisoners into a nearby station meant for temporary holding, into dark jail cells of iron bars. There were no windows, the only light a flickering, dim torch on the wall just down the hall. Gafgarn, Sully, Dorin, and Imadi were brought to a cell together. A bench lined the rear wall of stone and a bucket crusted with the detritus of the previous tenant lay on its side in a corner. The guards violently shoved Dorin and Sully in, then evermore cautiously coaxed Gafgarn in at the end of the impolite points of their blades and spears. He begrudgingly obeyed, the scars on his face practically baring their own teeth at the sentinels. The heavy gate slammed and locked behind him. The guards left. The incredible dust of the space did nothing for Gafgarn’s mood.
Sully stood looking grim while Dorin poked a foot at the filthy, acrid bucket. “What’re we gonna do now, boss?” she said.
Gafgarn looked at the cell around him and said, “We aren’t getting out of here. Not much I can do about stone and iron.”
“Gaf, why not use the bench ‘ere to launch you at the gate.”
“If I had my hammer, maybe. No good busting that down if my body is broken afterward.”
Sully cut in, “What if you hit it with your boots? They’re pretty tough, they might do something...if you don’t break your legs.”
Gafgarn grumbled, “Fine. Better than waiting for the headsman.”
Through a series of pitiful attempts, the three quickly found that they would not, in fact, be busting any iron gate down. First, Gafgarn tried launching himself from the bench by sitting on it. He slipped off in different directions or flipped off of it onto the floor. Then he tried running--using what little space they had to pick up speed--and jumping on it. This resulted in launching him into the wall or the ceiling at odd angles. Finally, Dorin and Sully tried using their strength and weight to push Gafgarn down onto the bench before releasing him. After bowling into his subordinates a few times, he finally flew directly at the locked bars. He brought his feet up in front of him just in time to kick out at the metal. Though they thundered and shook as he crumpled on the floor, the only difference he made was in shaking off flakes of rust.
Gafgarn rose, dusting himself off and stretching his now sore limbs. Imadi looked on with an incredulous expression.
“Sorry, boss, it was worth a try. I guess we are just waiting for the headsman.”
An unerring chortle slithered across the hall. A familiar voice followed, “You’ll do the headsman’s job you keep at it like that.” Gafgarn peered into the opposite jail cell, where, in the weak light, he could barely make out a figure sitting cross-legged on the floor. As it leaned forward, still chuckling, small shining bells came into view, dangling at the end of red, black, and silver striped tendrils extending from a patchy hat. Beneath that hat red eyes, a pale face, and a viciously delighted grin greeted Gafgarn like a hungry spectre.
“Nice to see you again, wolf-butt.”
Gafgarn wrapped a massive fist around a bar, gripping it tightly. He imagined it was AJ’s neck.
“Oi, Gaf, it’s the jester!”
AJ placed his hands on his cheeks and feigned surprise, “Oh, shucks, your dog’s sniffed me out!”
“Count yourself lucky you’re in a cage,” Gafgarn growled, “how’d you get locked up?”
“It’s sweet you’re concerned, but I’m here by choice. How could I miss out on such a great opportunity for us to get to know each other?”
“Aye, yer nuts can get ta know my foot!” Dorin snapped.
AJ’s red eyes shot at Dorin like lances. “I like your spunk, dog. I wonder if it’d last with you under the edge of a knife. We’ll find out one day, I’m sure. For now, I’m talking to the wolf, not you, so pipe down.” The dim torchlight cast wavering shadows on AJ’s face as he grinned at Gafgarn, “We’ve a relationship to catch up on.”
“Who is this fool?” Imadi quipped. “We’re in a prison, and he talks about relationships?”
“You chose a great time to come into town, one-arm. Hope you’re ready for a good show.”
“We? What did you mean we?”
“Right, right. Us. We’ve got a great thing going now, we need to nurture it.”
“So what’s this thing we’ve got?”
“A...competitive partnership. A connection. I’m concerned, though. Those bars can’t be good for your health.”
“Can’t be good for yours either.”
“I won’t be behind them for long. You’ve walked into a pit of snakes, Gaffy. This city’s going to eat you alive if you aren’t careful. Everyone thinks they’re on top, none of ‘em realize they’re in the same hole, slithering over one another. Regardless of who wins, they’re still stuck, and still snakes.”
“And you’re not?”
“Oh, no, nononono. I’m here to bury that pit. I’m going to bring it down on top of ‘em, but it’d be a shame if you got caught in it all. I just want to make sure you’re ready for the collapse. You took the opportunity away from me at Smidgin’s camp, but I think Esthelring is going to be so much more fun.”
Sully came to the bars now, “What were you going to do?”
“Whatever I wanted, dog.” AJ viewed Sully with amusement, then returned to the giant, “Did you like our little game back in Hausto?”
“That wasn’t a game, clown,” Gafgarn said, “it was murder and chaos. And annoying.”
AJ laughed, “Oh, come now Gaffy, don’t act like you cared about any of those people. We have a moment to talk, let’s at least be honest with each other. You’ve got to have one funnybone in that gargantuan heap of yours, right? Did you get the joke?”
“I get that you figured out I’m cursed. So you killed people to make that point.”
“Fun, right? Especially the fat man. That one got wayyyy too comfortable with his position, am I right? The walls, the quiet town, surrounded by loyal lowlifes. Lots of good that lot did in the end. At least I know you won’t get so comfortable anytime soon.” AJ’s laughter echoed between the cells.
“Enough. The gauntlets. Where are they?”
AJ sighed as he rose to his feet and approached his bars. “Now I’m disappointed,” he shook his head, jingling his shining bells, “you’re rushing things. I’m trying to make a connection here, and you’re all business. We’re going to be a part of each other’s lives for some time now, you really don’t want to get to know me better?”
“I know all I need to know about you. You’ve got something I need.”
AJ laughed once more, “and you have no idea why you need them!”
Sully cut in, “and you know?”
AJ cocked his head and smiled wickedly, “well, more than you. I know those shiny shoes of yours are something the Kingdoms haven’t had a whiff of in centuries...maybe millenia. Now that’s interesting. Fascinating, your mustachioed friend might say. Something like this comes along, something that changes all the rules...now that’s something I’ve just gotta be a part of.”
“What are they, then?” Gafgarn asked.
AJ shook his head, “I said we should be honest, doesn’t mean I’m going to bare all. Gotta tease you a bit. Besides, I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but I know you need the gauntlets. And, before you ask, they’re with the girl. Say, what did the professor tell you about little sis?”
“That you kidnapped her. I help him save her...”
“He helps you get back to sitting on chairs. Really? That’s it? Well, little blondie’s got so much more going on than all that. Maybe you should ask the good doctor. After all, Wither’s a fast friend, right? Someone who considers you an ally rather than a research subject? Or are you all just a means to an end for each other?”
“I don’t care, as long as they help me wring your neck.”
AJ shrugged, “Suit yourself, wolf-butt. It amounts to the same thing for me; we’re going to have a ton of fun. Now that we’ve gotten started, we’re going to burn down this city together.”
“I’m not helping you do anything.”
AJ’s voice took on a sudden sinister tone, “I’m not asking, Gaffy. Fire’s already started, and this city’s kindling. Don’t worry, though, you’ll get your gauntlets after you’ve played along. And that’s just the beginning. You and I are going the play the greatest game in the history of the Kingdoms. If I’m right…maybe the greatest the world’s ever known.”
Light footsteps echoed from the hall. Suddenly a cloaked figure emerged around the corner and shot for AJ’s cell. In a moment it unlocked the door, then moved down the line, opening the others that contained any of Ursula’s gangsters. They all crept back into the dark of the hall, some giving AJ funny looks as he watched.
“Well, that’s my cue,” he said as he smugly walked out of his cell, a bounce in his step. “Great chat. We’ll have another one real soon. Just stay alive for me until then, okay, wolf-butt?” Then he disappeared down the hall, leaving Gafgarn and his friends with the fading remnants of a deep throated, vicious cackle.