After two winters and most of a spring as a prisoner in the Helbsünd gladiator pit, you had finally come close to earning your freedom, and putting it all behind you. Any man left standing after ten consecutive matches without being knocked unconscious was considered too good to bet against; and since the arena thrives on the flow of money from the purses of the Helbsünd upper class and of curious travelers hoping to beat the odds, it’s cheaper to set free those pit fighters who get a reputation for reliability, than to keep paying them to stay alive.Only one more match. You were less than 24 hours away from sleeping in a real bed again, tasting ale and fresh meat, walking through the streets and finding the threads from which you would weave the rest of your free life. Having broken, bled, or knocked out most of the other gladiators slated to fight in the afternoon’s events at one time or another, you began the day with a nervous confidence. But the odds weren’t in your favor that day. You reached into the pot, pulled out the green marble which signified your opponent. Green—that meant Skar Vallis, “Thorn Back,” the hulking hyena man whom you’d watched scores of times as he sliced through a row of goblin heads with a club, like a sword through a stand of gourds, or lash out with his triple-sectioned chain staff to snatch an opponent’s pole axe and then snap off both kneecaps from his blind side before he saw it coming. This was practically a death sentence. Not that Skar Vallis was a monster. In fact, though you barely spoke to him in your 17 months of imprisonment, you could tell that he was exceptionally intelligent for a gnoll—if that’s what a flind was—not merely cunning in battle, but sharp, almost pensive. And while the gnolls you’d encountered in the wilderness were nothing if not savages, Thorn Back conducted himself like a professional killer. He kept his equipment and his person in good condition, never fought dirty, and seemed to live by an unspoken code—whether of honor, martial discipline, or simply self-respect, you couldn’t say. But despite his fierceness in the ring, his underlying comportment was comparable, in its way, to that of a soldier, a nobleman, or a monk. Unlike you, Skar Vallis was a captured beast, and as such had no rights. He could not earn his freedom in the usual way, but at best would only leave by being bought and shipped to some other city, or army, or fed to an even larger animal—one never knew what became of those creatures who were purchased out of the gladiatorium, since they were never heard from again. His self-restraint would never show it, but his desperation in this gladiator life had to have been at least as bottomless as your own. When the portcullis was lifted, and you charged out into the searing midday sun to kill this noble beast or die trying, you felt at once the sting of his lash and your blood running hot on both sides of your skin. You plunged one of your tridents into his matted brown fur and heard his bone-chilling growl as you yanked it out again, now dripping scarlet beyond the barbs. He stumbled backward, but only to lunge forward with more force, dodging your second jab and ringing the side of your helmet like a bell with the full force of his flindbar. Blow after blow, for over ten minutes, he seemed to be getting the best of you for sure, but then, suddenly, inexplicably, he rolled away from the force of your elbow jab across his jaw and crashed into the dust, totally immobilized. But you were sure you’d barely made contact—you’d hoped to stun him with that surprise maneuver and create an opening for another trident thrust, but in fact it was hardly a graze. Was this a feint? No time to think! You rushed over to his body heaped on the ground, ready to plant a lucky coup de grâce in his throat, but in a flash you saw him open one very alive green eye and whisper to you quickly, “Go!” before slipping into what seemed, for all the world, a deep unconsciousness. It was all over before you knew it. Thad Carp, the trainer, had come out into the ring and raised your arm into the air, the crowd was cheering, and you were rushed off to the gladiatorium for a last bath, meal, and full night’s sleep before being let loose into the streets of Helbsünd with a pitiful percentage of your yearly earnings before the sun was fully risen over the sea. Though respected as dangerous in combat, you were well-liked in the gladiatorium, and upon release you found your way just as easily into conversations with strangers in the Helbsünd inns and taverns, trading information with merchants, travelers, fishwives, and prostitutes. After a few weeks of hanging around, you heard that Skar Vallis had escaped the gladiatorium the same night you were released, killing two guards in the process, and heading south out of the city. A few days after that, you ran into a much older human gladiator you had known, Garls Horsbucher, by the dockyard, where he was begging for food after his recent release, unable to find work with his two mangled feet, after they’d been broken and improperly set by Thad Carp’s unskillful hands. You gave him a gold piece to get some food and shelter for the week, and he was happy to have some companionship for the afternoon. He told you that Thorn Back had said he was from the Gontierwald (the forest south of Vighdekort), and most likely had been captured and sold into slavery by mercenaries in the Vighde territory. “He had a great respect for you,” added Garls, “maybe even fear—who could say. But he mentioned that once. He wasn’t much of a talker, you know. But he did say that once.” So you set out in the direction of the Gontierwald, thinking that you might find some information regarding the whereabouts of a lone flind. He would almost certainly attract attention as he passed through the small settlements to the southeast of Helbsünd. You’d figured there was a good chance you could pick up his trail. Maybe he would try to trade with the peasantry for food, or at least steal from them. (Which was more likely? After all, you’d never known him outside the confines of the gladiatorium …) The first week of searching and questioning the locals yielded uncertain results. A farmer boy in Ogrut swore he’d been attacked by a giant “hyena-man,” though the rest of his family denied any such thing. A woodcutter in Sevrich claimed that his meat pie was stolen while he was felling a tree, and a baker in Rühl said his store-room locks had been broken off, but nothing was taken from inside. While you were drinking with the locals in the tavern at Jorrive, however, they all insisted that Coastmen were born liars, and that nothing you’d heard from the people in the previous settlements was likely to contain even a grain of truth, let alone be the “gnoll boogie-man or whatever it was you were looking for.” But then later that night, you awoke to a faint knocking on your door, and opened to find one of those same men standing there in the dark with a gravely serious, yet also agitated look in his eyes. “Come with me,” he said. “I have to show you something.” He led you out beyond a cow pasture and through a small apple orchard, at the end of which he pointed to a large pile of blood-soaked feathers, beaks, and chicken feet. “This waren’t no coyote,” he said, suggestively, “piled up almost neat like that.” The real breakthrough came in Bannermord, where a local priest told you that a small group of woodsmen had come into the village dragging a hyena-like beast-man bound at the wrists and hobbled at the ankles. “He was like a gnoll, but more refined in his traits and in his carriage; almost—I shudder to think of it—as if a gnoll had mated with a huge human. There was a willful blankness in his eyes and expression that suggested a superior intelligence; certainly more than that of his oafish captors, and nothing at all like the forest goblins or other savages I’d seen before.” These men said they had captured their prey in the forest and were going to sell him into slavery in Gresünd. Nothing more was heard about the matter in Bannermord after that. The innkeeper and guests at the Leatherbell Inn in Sündkross confirmed that a group of men had indeed passed through town bearing a prisoner of the same description; they’d stayed in town for two days because two of their party needed fairly serious medical attention—a broken arm, a badly torn ear, and dozens of cuts and bruises. The rope-maker’s wife in Nakh told you that she saw these same men come through the village at dusk, carrying a human-shaped parcel in a large canvas sack, with holes poked out near its head. An old woman who was standing nearby when she said this confirmed that she’d seen the same thing, and added that it was probably a falskrik, to which the rope-maker’s wife rolled her eyes. “It’s an old superstition,” she muttered dismissively, and when you asked what a falskrik was, she only answered that it was some Coastmen nonsense that you shouldn’t get yourself worried about, and went back to her work. In any case, there was no sign of the strange travelers come morning. That was four days ago. For lack of a better alternative, you continued eastward, following the road toward Gresünd. You’d been there before, and you’d known gladiators who’d said they were planning to return to that area when they were released. It’s a pleasant territory, full of orchards and pastures, lush groves of deciduous trees, generous soil. Along the way, you passed all manner of travelers and farmers who were happy to exchange the time of day and trade rations with you, but none were able to give you any helpful information regarding the things you had heard about in the hamlets.
NOW:Half way between the bridge and Gresünd, however, with no one else in sight, you see some stirring in the bushes off to the left side of the road about 20 yards away, which soon spits out a middle-aged man in farmer’s clothes who ambles out in front of you on the road holding a pitchfork, regains his balance, and points it at you as menacingly as he can. “All right, Mister,” he says. “I hate to do this to ya, but my boys are behind you there in those bushes on either side with their bows pointed at your ass, and well, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask for all your money. And valuables. And don’t try anything fast or funny or nothing, or you’re gonna get it. We don’t aim to fool around.” You instinctively turn around, and don’t immediately notice anyone else behind you, but he starts shouting, and you turn back to look at him again. He hasn’t moved, but he looks anxious, desperate, angry, and nervous all at the same time.