Gray eyes fell before the simmering bowl of pale green liquid on the nightstand, hesitance dancing within the walls of the young man's mind. Aloe water was soothing, of course, but it would only last seconds before the stinging sensation kicked in. He grasped at the limp bandage strip from his wrist, grimacing as he began to unravel the tarnished wrap about his arm. Voices high and low sifted through the thin walls as the constant clanging of gold coins played about his ears. He silently thanked the distraction and took a step over to the tattered cloth acting as a door, charred fingers playing with the loosened coils.
"I don't care how crowded the blasted mansion was, you were supposed to get his due and get out. How hard of a job is that, Edmund?"
A fist slammed against a table and the young man flinched. "He was ready for us, id... sir. There were armed guards waiting for an ambush. The only way out was the front entrance!"
"Which is why I brought the boy with you, moron. He's there for a reason," said the first voice, his tone harsh.
Edmund clicked his tongue. "Well you better get him to control those fancy little spells next time; Stephan and I nearly burned to death."
"I didn't hire you to hear your little whines and tiffs about my boy. Either you better up, or I'll send you into the hands of Sorben's Calvary. Word has it their baron is offering a mighty high bounty on your head."
There was no reply on Edmund's side. The young man shook his head and walked back to the bowl, delicately stripping his arm of the filth-ridden wrap. His arm was a map of burns covered by a thin veil of cracked skin, fragile to even the brush of a finger. Wincing with pain, he slipped his arm into the water, a sharp gasp shooting from his mouth as the aloe seeped into his wounds, ripping the burns naked and vulnerable to the medicine. His hand clenched into a fist as his muscles throbbed in a spastic rhythm before stumbling backwards, knees shuddering. He wobbled to his dresser and pulled forth a small towel, draping it over the sodden arm.
Orphelin jerked his head up, spotting the lanky form of an elder man, the gnawed core of an apple in his oiled hand. Remnants of gray and black hair rested on the front of his forehead, quickly retreating. Heeled boots clicked against the concrete floor as the man ventured towards Orphelin, nibbling what little apple there was left before tossing it over his shoulder. The constant thread of 'hms' slurred around the inside of his mouth as he removed the towel, furrowed eyes staring at his arm.
"My, my... that looks a bit bad, doesn't it? Stephan told me it was bad, but I never would have imagined it like this." He shook his head, placing a hand on his waist. "Ah well, accidents will happen, I suppose. No guards saw your face, did they?"
"No, I was able to get away as quick as I could, but the others..."
"You let me handle those two hacks; they couldn't rob themselves out of a whorehouse. I don't have to worry my poor old self about you, though." He grinned, clapping a hand on Orphelin's shoulder. "You're my special little card. If Edmund and Stephan want to rot in the Quarry, it's no skin off my bones."
The Quarry was a labor camp carved deep into the Ralaw Mountain Range found in the deep south, though many have come to call it by its true name: a dungeon. Any person convicted to a crime – may it be burglary, assault, or murder – was doomed to carry their sentence out within the growing walls of the pit, working through the hellish lashings from the sun to drill for oil veins. Connected to the Quarry was a series of tunnels, where workers would be graced with mining for copper. Due to tunnel collapses and corruption within the circle of guards, only a small handful of prisoners were granted early release.
"Because of their screw-up, we'll need to stray away from Sorben for awhile," the man continued, sniffing. "No matter, we got the whole country to wander around! It's too rustic here, anyway; I've been perusing at some of the northern cities on my spare time. How does returning to Beraska sound?."
"Would that be... I mean, the last time we were there, the thieves in Beraska were after your head. If they catch wind of us, we..."
"They can preach all they want, but no man catches Drake Coul. Take no heed of the thieves, boy." Drake turned to leave, then stopped on his heel. "Ah, I almost forgot...!" He whipped around, digging out a small sack and tossing it to Orphelin's feet. "Your cut for the job, with an added bonus. Don't spend it all in one spot."
"Thank you," said Orphelin, but Drake was already out in the hallway.
~ ~ ~
"Are you new in town? I don't believe I have ever seen you before." The elder otter tugged at his whiskers, his dark eyes set on the young man across the counter. He growled somewhat when there came no reply; the town square was ripe with travelers and vendors of his trade, selling anything from jewels carved into the bones of dragons, to potions that would turn a being into the mightiest of heroes, to maps that led to the home of the Demigods. Any attempt at a friendly exchange of words was impossible, especially since he was cursed with a booth beside a woman who concocted a mixture that would promise love at first sight. The otter repeated himself three times before he caught the patron's attention.
Orphelin smiled weakly, brushing locks of brown hair from his eyes. "Oh! I... I'm only a visitor, sir. What's... what's the total again?"
The otter pushed forth a tin plate. "Ten coins, plus an additional coin for sales tax."
Orphelin paused, the small sack of coins hanging from his fingers. "That certainly can't be right, sir... Aloe water is, what I mean is..."
"Expensive?" The Lutrakin flashed a toothy smile, a low chuckle purring in his throat. "Were you right, you'd need a sack twice the size of what you hold. The vials you see here, I made myself, only a day old. You can find the ingredients for it all around the near marshlands; it wouldn't be right to con a lad such as yourself out of your money."
The smile on Orphelin's face broadened. "Thank you, good sir!" he bowed his head slightly, placing the sack upon the platter. "There's fifteen, I believe; I won't be needing the rest."
Clicking his tongue, the otter swiped up the sack and rattled it close to a nub that was once his ear before spilling the coins across the tin platter, scrunching his nose during each examination of the bronze coins. The bottom of the otter's stand vibrated to his rudder tail slapping against the beams, hitting twice, stopping for a precious second, then hitting twice again. This continued for what Orphelin envisioned to be hours until, with a snort of satisfaction, the coins vanished into an oaken strongbox and locked away with a brief turn of the key.
He pushed the vials of aloe water towards Orphelin, his tongue clicking one final time. "A pleasure doing business with you, my good boy."
"Thank you, sir," Orphelin replied with another bow. The vials cradled about in his arms, he bid the otter good luck with his stand and vanished amongst the crowd, taking care to avoid any outreaching elbows or spastic chases from children. Fifteen coins, cut for the job my foot... Stephan and Edmund would have been arrested if not for me. He swallowed a grunt, his arms gently tightening their grip, eyes staring down the cobblestone path with the aroma of freshly baked bread and brewing tea taking to the air. A whiff of peppermint tea stopped the young man in his tracks, beckoning him towards the shop. Tables inside and outside were filled with exhausted customers as frantic waitresses bustled to and fro from the kitchen.
"Fancy a seat?"
The vials nearly dropped from Orphelin's grasp as he jumped at the voice, turning to face a man slumped down in a chair, boots propped up on the table, a book placed precariously against his forehead. A bare hand pinched the book's spine and pulled it away, revealing sharpened features of a man whose eyes wove a never-ending tale of past battles. His outfit was a stark contrast to the other townsfolk, garbed in a mixture of armor and robes; steel plates curved around his shoulders and down his arms, while his chest bore a goldenrod cloth. His gloves looked to be stitched into his arms, that or Orphelin feared the circulation in the man's hands were only moments from resembling deformed plums.
"Well?" One boot vanished beneath the table, pushing the chair opposite to him Orphelin's way. "You look tired from hauling those vials around, why not take a few minutes to rest your tired feet?"
"I probably shouldn't, I need to get ba... Is that an orange scone?"
"The last one, plucked right out of the oven," said the man, smirking. "But then I remembered I can't stand the taste of that horrible fruit, and it would be a waste to just let it stay out here..."
Orphelin's rear was already in the seat before his sentence was complete, the vials lined in a neat row as his fingers drummed towards the pastry. "W-well, it would be... If I may?"
His smirk broadened. "It's all yours! Just be gentle with your burns, though."
The fingers had just touched the rim of the plate before they were halted, Orphelin staring at the man in surprise. Glancing downward, he spotted a bare finger stripped of its bandage, raw skin shining through the clouded rays of the sun. He jerked his hand back and hid it under the table, his face paling at the very thought of unwanted eyes seeing his wound.
To his shock, the man chuckled, leaning back in his chair. "You're acting like a child who's been caught with his hand in the candy jar; I like that. Relax, the people here pay attention to anything but what's around them. Eat up." He slid the scone across the surface with ease.
Silently, Orphelin swiped the glazed pastry up with his good hand, fighting back the urge to wolf it down in two bites. He slid a corner between his teeth, taking in a hearty piece and shivering from the rich, orange-infused crust soaking on his tongue. He let it stay there for a good moment before forcing a swallow and wiped his mouth along his sleeve.
When the man spoke again, Orphelin nearly choked on his second bite. "Tell me, how long have you been playing with fire magic?"
Gripping the edge of the table, Orphelin coughed loudly, lightly pounding on his chest until his throat was free of any obstacles. He risked a quick stare ahead, feeling the hairs on his body rise. The man's posture was a direct contrast from seconds ago; his fingers were laced together as he straightened out, a half-hearted frown replacing his smile. The back of Orphelin's neck began to warm.
"I don't, magic is... I..."
The man quickly threw a hand up, close to Orphelin's face. "Unless you were stupid enough to shove your arm into a furnace, there's really no other explanation for those burns besides, well, you know. I'll be more than happy to hear the truth, because in all honesty, you are probably the worst liar I have ever met." He sniffed, scratching the base of his ear with his pinky finger. "Shall we try this again, or would you much rather hide behind your weak fib and leave?"
Tiny cinders sparked around the tips of Orphelin's fingers, erupting from his skin and hopping across the table. An iron grip clenched his wrists and ankles; any means of escape proved impossible. All color seeped from Orphelin's face as he crept his eyes to the man, who had preoccupied himself with examining a pebble-sized singe on his clothes. Grabbing the dull knife from the table, he sniffed and scraped away what ashes he could before wiping each edge on the blue tablecloth.
"Well, I guess that's an answer I can live with," said the man, propping the front legs of his chair into the air. "It told me a lot, actually."
"You can't... you can't tell anyone. Please, I'll give you anything, I--"
"Who's there to tell?" The man shrugged, absent-mindedly whirling the knife in his left hand with impressive skill. "I don't know if you noticed, but this isn't the liveliest of places to spread rumors; you could blurt out you're a serial killer and I bet the only person to pay attention would be a deaf man. I, however, would focus more on keeping that future wildfire in check. I don't know how long you've been toying with the magical arts and I don't care, but I do care for your safety. You seem like a kid whose head is perfectly screwed onto your shoulders, and it'd be a shame to see you turn into a crispy corpse." He flicked the dull blade onto the wooden slab. "I know a very talented professional who would be more than happy to bring you under his wing, in fact I can bring you to him right awa--"
Genuine surprise cracked into the man's eyes. "Come again?"
"No." The legs of his chair scraped across the rocky surface as Orphelin stood, delicately gathering the vials. "I apologize, but I must go before I get in trouble. It was nice meeting you."
"Yes, well." He rose as well, towering over Orphelin as if he were a child. "Likewise, friend. I'm certain our paths will eventually, if not sooner, cross. Safe travels."
~ ~ ~
"You look troubled."
Hawk's eyes shifted upward from his story, though not giving all of their attention to the woman standing before the blazing fireplace. Beneath the floorboards of their room, the inn was flooding with the merchants of the vendors boasting of their profits, accusing individuals of stealing customers and sabotaging merchandise, and overall drowning their sorrows in honeyed bourbon. The walls and floors vibrated from the commotion, Hawk fearing and wishing the ceiling would collapse on the bastards.
"Looking troubled is completely different from looking excited, Mistress Hiba. Move the smoke from your eyes and we won't have anymore mistakes."
Even from across the room, Hawk could feel the flaming aura surrounding the stout mage. "It seems more than Pyree's teachings have influenced you," she snapped, the thick accent of the eastward Shehera nation rich in her voice.
"With all due respect, Mistress, chastise me later. We have more important matters at hand." Peering out the window, he spotted a quartet of silhouettes hurrying to a horse-drawn carriage beneath a dying streetlight. A thin, elder man clambered in first, followed by a dark-skinned man with half his head bound in gauze and bandages, another hobbling along with a crutch, and finally...
"And that would be?" She asked, turning to face him.
Gently shutting his story, Hawk poked at the dark hole in his shirt. "Tell me, Mistress Hiba. What would you say if I found the son of the famed 'Firebreather'?"