For descriptions of Tillian races go here. For descriptions of the Valok go here.
i've finally polished this to the point i feel it is ready for reading. Enjoy!
This is what I hate about my job: the endless waiting. Watching the mark’s daily routine, learning his weaknesses, and determining where he feels comfortable. The more you know about the mark, the easier the job. Usually, my employer would provide this information, but this time was different. I hated working blind. The process should always be simple: run in, take down the mark, and vanish into the city.
The mark, Trakshul Zzorngaz, and his turf was all I’d been given. He had advanced quickly, already running a small area around the Khalar market for Folzant. When that was all the information provided, I refused the job. Well, Kruz wouldn’t allow it, and I again wished it was possible to read the flat grey eyes in the Dernak’s scaled face. The lips on his snout betrayed nothing, but my gut told me he was hiding something.
So I waited, standing in the shadows of an alley across from Trakshul’s main office. A week of tailing him had left a bad taste in my mouth, with no hint of why I was forced into this job. All the merchants of his area spoke well of him, he wasn’t cheating on his spouse, and he spent every evening with his five children.
The most puzzling thing was that there was no evidence of him associating with warlocks. Every job since I’d started working for Kruz-Alzeen had been against a servant of the fiends. After a week, I’d not detected one tie to Axius or Dranzeem, and that got under my scales. I hadn’t taken a job on a regular Tilian in a long time, and I wondered what made this underboss worthy of my fee.
Shadows grew across the street as Tzol completed his path across the sky, and I waited. After a while, I recognized the muscle entering the office. He was the enforcer who walked Trakshul home for the night. Irritated from waiting, I decided to force the mark’s hand, and unravel this mystery. I moved from my lookout into the steady river of Tillians that always flowed through the Hollows during the day, heading to the mark’s home.
Trakshul lived less than two city blocks from his office, and I made my way to his home with only the vaguest idea of what to do. There was a sense growing in the back of my mind that I had no reason to follow through on this job, and that if I did, it would haunt me forever.
Reaching the home, I slipped out of traffic and moved to the rear entrance. Out of habit, I checked the hilt of the tulwar (a thick bladed, heavy, sword) strapped to my back while a grim resolution settled on me. I pulled my hood lower over my face, and checked the streets to make sure no one was watching before pushing the door inward and moving into the home.
“Kralgan, if you touch that door again I’m gonna tell your father.” The voice came from a Moglith woman standing over a wrought iron stove. She was small for her kind, but her limbs were well muscled from the constant work she was required to do around the house.
“I’m not near the door momma.” The cub’s voice came from a doorway across from me, and a teenage moglith with his mother’s frame walked through the doorway. “Tzargan and I were…” He stopped abruptly seeing me standing there, and his mother turned to look at her son. She saw me as she began to chastise the boy, and her mouth hung open for a moment before she began frantically seeking something to defend her cubs with.
“I suggest you calm down and gather your cubs to the table.” I opened my cloak to make sure they both could see my axes. Their eyes grew wide, letting me know they understood. “If you were going to die, it would be done already. We need to talk, and I need the young ones in here to make sure nothing unfortunate happens.”
“Kralgan, get your brother and sisters.” She faced me, controlling her emotions well. “What is this about? Why bring my little ones into this?”
“What would hurt your husband more, losing you or losing his business? Someone wants your mate dead, and what I want to know is why.”
“He’s made enemies coming up like he did. They hire thugs to off their rivals all the time.” She sneered at me with that statement. As much as it pained me to admit it, she had a point.
“Those kinds of enemies can’t afford me.”
Kralgan ushered his siblings to the kitchen table. I drifted to the other side of the room to take up the position I wanted for when Trakshul returned home. The cubs took their places at the table, and I waved my hand to one of the open chairs offering the woman a chance to sit. She slid into the seat, and I moved the empty chair beside her.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“Does your husband have dealings with warlocks?”
“What do you mean warlocks? Those are just cubs’ tales to keep them…” She trailed off as I pulled back my hood and stared at her.
“There is more truth to cubs’ tales than you’d ever guess.” I walked back to my chosen spot. “That’s why your husband isn’t dead right now. I’ve found no trace of him associating with demons or their minions.” I looked at her with the most serious stare I can muster.
“Trakshul is just a warrior, trying to make a better life for the Tillians here. He wouldn’t work with anyone who abused the people.” She looked at me, and I wanted the mark to get here soon. Holding innocent Tillians hostage bothered me, but I had to get the truth before I could decide what to do with the job.
“You’re the Tzarkal aren’t you?” Kralgan’s question stopped my thoughts in their tracks, and I glared at the cub. Looking to his mother for a moment, she looked just as surprised as me.
“Who?” I asked, returning my gaze to the cub.
“The Tzarkal. The hitman who has been taking out bosses in the merchant district and Hollows. I heard papa talking about him with his bodyguards the last time i went to the office.” He looked at me with disdain. “You don’t look that tough, you know. You’re not big enough to scare my papa’s enforcers.” His chest puffed out, and I struggled not to laugh.
“Well, I’m not the Tzarkal, and I haven’t heard of this hitman before.”
“What is that bone there?” The younger boy pointed at my tomahawk, and I shifted my cloak back and pushed the treasure of my youth forward so they could get a good view. The oldest son looked at his mother, but she just stared at me. Maybe she stared at my gear, or wondered why I’d not killed them, I didn’t know. The two boys began whispering to each other, and their sisters squirmed in their seats, the energy of youth forcing them to swing their arms and legs.
“The cubs can move around, as long as they stay in here. I’d prefer to not harm any of you, but if it is necessary I’ll do what I have to.” I said. She nodded to me, calling her daughters to play on the floor by the stove. The boys continued to whisper and look at me. After what seemed like hours the front door opened and a booming voice filled the house.
“Zariana. Great news! You know the...” He stopped as he came into the room, and saw me in the far corner. His hand reached for a blade, but with uncommon self control, he resisted drawing steel and sat next to his wife, giving her a soft pat on the back. He looked at her, inquiring if the cubs or her had been harmed.
“Who have you crossed recently?” I asked.
“What?” Trakshul looked confused.
“Who would hire me to kill you?”
“I don’t know.” He paused looking uncomfortable. “Who you usually work for?”
“Not likely, you can’t be worth my fee based on the area you run.” His eyes opened as I spoke, and he looked at the table.
“How long have you been following me?”
“Long enough. You have no mistress, only go to the boss when called, don’t drink or have any vice whatsoever. But the most important thing is that I’ve seen you make no deals with warlocks.” I looked at him, and it was time to hear him confirm my suspicions. “Have you served creatures from the lower planes during your rise in the city?” I waited for his answer, eager to jump on any hint of a lie.
“No. I’ve made friends with the tenants and shopkeepers, and have enough of a reputation to keep my counterparts from picking a fight with me.” He looked at his sons, waving them over to him. “I might not know my bosses allegiance, but I wouldn’t help servents of fiends willingly.” He looked back to me, and in my gut I knew he told the truth.
“Folzant has many warlocks in his organization, most of what he does is at their direction.” I said.
“That’s why you’ve been working through his advisors?”
I stared back at him.
“That explains why he’s not pushed me to do things for him. I just made one less problem area while he tries to stop you from wrecking his business.” He looked crushed.
“So we’re back to why I’d be hired to eliminate you. The longer I tailed you, the more I was convinced you weren’t a mark I’d take, but I can’t figure out why I’d be forced into the job.” I shook my head and stared at the cubs, whose curiosity finally overcome their fear.
“Papa, doesn’t the Tzarkal have a weapon like that he uses on the bosses?” The cub pointed at my tomahawk.
“Kralgan!” His mother roared, making even me flinch. Kralgan buried himself in his father’s chest, and Trakshul nodded while looking at my tomahawk. I flipped my cloak back around me, covering up my tools, just another traveler in the city once again.
“What happens next?” Trakshul looked at me, and I smiled to myself.
“I return the contract and tell him I’m not a hatchet man. If he ever tries to use me as such again, I’ll take the fee and kill him instead.”
“Won’t that make you a target?”
I shrugged and moved back to the door, stopping at the exit and looking back to the Moglith and his family. “If I find out you lied to me, you’ll wish we’d ended it now. You know how easy I can observe you, and I’ll be checking.” The threat had the desired effect.
“I’ll stick with the territory I have now and stay out of trouble.” He looked at his wife and passed her a loving smile. “We’ve just got a property that will let us live well for the rest of our lives.” He looked back to me, relaxing now that danger had passed.
“Good luck keeping it.” I pulled my hood back over my head and exited the house. Unsure of my next move, I leaned against the building and let out a deep breath. Low voices carried through the walls, his sons asking why he didn’t fight me. His reply sparked the kindling of my anger, creating a blaze that grew beyond my control.
“I’m a warrior, but no match for him. The way he moved was the sign of a killer, and if I drew steel you cubs and your mother would have been dead beside me. Pray you never have to look into eyes like his again, because you might be taking your last breaths.”
Walking to the Devil, each step I took fanned the flames of my rage. Things had been going nearly perfect, and I knew that it had been too good to last. Still, that knowledge didn’t temper the disappointment that accompanied everything changing.
The Horned Devil was busy. Many gangs sat down in the basement, waiting for their companions to arrive so they could compete in the pit. The stone of the Devil’s basement matched the ancient complex that delved far beneath the surface of Karat-Si’Zan, connected to the surface only through the shaft Krabuz had built the Horned Devil around. Gangs would wager on their skill, strength, and stealth in a sparring match in the tunnels below. Kruz hired people like me to go down the shaft in the basement of the Devil. We patrolled the main passages through the maze of corridors and chambers, and years ago we’d mostly secured the northern areas. Mostly, just because every once in a while something from deeper down would make its way past the illusion that separated the pit from the uppermost outskirts of the ancient city Del-Krazeen.
Valok mariners sat in the ring around the hole in the floor, smoking and wagering amongst themselves, and two Moglith leaned upon their spears guarding the shaft that led into the pit. I moved over to the bar and waited for the bartender to finish his tasks. Mornak hobbled over to me with my usual, and I flipped a zzar to him. A smile that split the Moglith’s face quickly appeared, accompanied by a nod of thanks. I shot down the zarzn (strong spirits similar to spiced rum) and moved to the basement to wait for Kruz.
Other patrons moved out of my way, I guess I looked angry. I forced myself to relax, and pulled the hood of my cloak lower to avoid unnecessary attention. None of Kruz’s underlings were in the basement, so I stopped and took a sip of my drink before going to sit in the back room at one of the gaming tables.
Kazf, the priest of Zilanon, sat in his customary booth as far away from the pit as possible. A bowl of the daily stew the cook had thrown together sat on his table. Dodging around some of the young gang members who were heading to the bar, I slipped around the many tables and looked for one that suited my purpose.
Deciding that I didn’t care to play with the Feznar and Dal-Shiz who occupied the dice game, I joined the Valok playing kronark. The entire table looked at me as I pulled back one of the empty chairs. They didn’t appear pleased to have a newcomer. I pulled back my hood and tossed one of my coin pouches on the table. They took one glance at the pouch, satisfied that I could afford their stakes, and I sat down and looked to see if Kruz was here. No sign of him yet, so I got comfortable and took a long drink.
The sailor to my right passed me a long stemmed pipe, and I took a long puff of the mild intoxicant and passed it on. The smoke expanded in my lungs differently than the leaf my uncle had smoked with me after returning from the Zarachtil Tzolanzen. My eyes surged against their sockets as I coughed and forgot how to breathe. The sailors roared with laughter, and I caught pieces of a foreign language that rolled off the Valok tongues in between my fits of coughing and trying to suck in air.
“First time you smoke Valok herbs?” A voice from somewhere asked me.
Finally in control of my body, I managed a nod.
“Take no offense from me brothers. They all remembering their first voyage, and when the first mate offers them their first puff. Among us, it a rite of passage for the sailor.” The voice was coming from across the table, but my eyes were still unable to focus on anything beyond my hands.
I removed the contents of my purse, placing it into convenient stacks of brass, silver, and gold. Not all my money, it would be enough to keep me in the game until Kruz finally showed up. A groan arose from the table, and the sailor across from me broke into a laugh, the golden chain hanging from his nose to his ear flopping around as he dragged the coins lying in the middle of the table.
“You picked a bad day to gamble Ngsinal. The winds favor me today.” The sailor said.
The sailor’s eyes rolled back into his head before coming back into a normal position. “I don’t know the translation in your tongue. Silent blade in the night the closest I can come.”
“Is it that obvious?” I asked.
“Only if you know what to look for, but it isn’t all bad. In our tales, the Ngsinal were revered by my people. They were the protectors of the Valok nation, arresting criminals amongst the populace and preventing foreign armies from invading.” He raised the bet as action moved to him before looking back to me.
“For centuries, the Ngsinal allowed my people to live in peace. Then the horde from Axius came, and the Ngsinal arranged for the Valok to take to the sea, while they fought the foul beasts of the Kzareka. The Valok escaped from death, but not the Ngsinal. They perished, and now all Valok must be ready to defend their people.”
I sat there, chipping in the ante and folding whenever there was action by the sailors. His story intrigued me, and vague understanding of what I felt dawned on me. I watched the stairwell for any sign of Kruz, sharing their herbs when passed to me before sending it on. Servers brought rounds as my glass emptied, and I had them bring a round for the table as well. I listened to the sailor tell stories from their homeland, finding acceptance from the humans as we gambled away the hours.
The tiles hadn’t been there for me all game, so when I drew a high pair one of my zzar went into the pot. A few Moglith toughs walked into the basement, and the Dernak I waited for walked to the table he usually sat at while running games for the gangs.
Most of the Valok backed out of the hand, with only the nose chained sailor calling my bet. The tile in the center didn’t help me when it flipped, so I tossed in another two zzar hoping that he’d decide not to play the hand. His brows clenched together, and he looked at his tiles before nervously pushing a mound of silver to match my bet. I turned over my tiles, relief flowing over the Valok’s face. He turned over a sequence, and I smiled at the sailor before grabbing my last two zzar and placing them in my pouch.
“The winds did favor you. Thanks for the game.” I stood, and pulled my hood back over my head.
“You’re done?” The sailor stared at me, his arms spread over the table to scoop up his take. His eyes seemed to look through me as he stopped pulling in his winnings.
“Lost all I want to for today.”
“You have a purpose again.” He sat up straight, leaving the coins where they sat on the table. “Ngsinal, if you are going to look for me later to even the score, you should just try to take back your coins now.” He looked ready for a brawl, but I had another in mind.
“I was waiting for someone, and needed to pass the time.” I smiled and spread my hands out attempting to be non-threatening. “If nothing else, consider it a trade for introducing me to your herbs. You’re right. Your tales gave me a purpose, and that was missing.” I gave a nod of my head to the sailors, walked away from their table, and headed over to Kruz.
Gang leaders were lined up at Kruz’s table to compete in the pit, with so many gangs drawn to the competition that Kruz made running this game his largest earner. He made money on each wager, and then hired the gangs out to his contacts in the lords of the city. I circled around the line and was next to the table on the side Kruz occupied before his muscle could block my path. Kruz looked at me, warning off his guards with a wave of his hand.
“Tzal, what can I do for you?”
“Might want to send the contestants away before I say anything else.” The anger in my voice startled the Dernak, and the lips of his long snout twitched as he rapped his clawed fingers on the table. His pointed ears had snapped forward, and he turned so that both of his eyes could focus on me.
“Please come back in five minutes and we’ll get the games set up.” Kruz said to the gang leaders, and I opened my cloak letting them see my tomahawk and axes. With one glance at my harness the toughs disappeared, and I pulled out the small bag that contained the advance fee for Trakshul. A flip of my wrist tossed the bag on the table in front of Kruz, and my nostrils flared.
“I’m not a hatchet man for any of your clients.”
“That sounds like a threat.” Kruz’s eyes narrowed as he looked at me.
“I won’t kill good Tillians so you can profit.”
“You’re making a dangerous decision here, cub. My client is not going to appreciate the job not being done. They may decide that the fee can be used for you.”
“Let him. I’ve been hunted for a long time, so one more looking to join in won’t bother me.” My hand fingered my tomahawk. Only the Valok herbs’ effects allowed me to control my temper, because the flames of rage I’d felt was replaced by a cool determination.
“You’ve not been hunted by people who know the city better than you. My client will want retribution, and there is already a bounty on your head from Kranak and Folzant for the mess you’ve made of their advisors. Don’t push away the only allies you have.” He tossed the coin pouch back to my end of the table, the thin lips around his mouth pulling back in an arrogant smile.
“Tell him where to find me We can take care of it anytime.”
“Tzal, you’re a good assassin. Don’t be a fool and have all lords of the city chasing you in addition to the Zarachtil Tzolanzen. No one can withstand both, not even you” He shook his head at me while he talked, the condescension in his voice almost bringing my rage back.
“The only times I worked for you it was for fiends and their servants. I’ve turned down all other jobs, so if you ever try to have me kill someone not serving fiends again, I’ll strangle you and then go after your client. That’s a promise Kruz.” I snarled at the boss and turned on my heel. The muscle Kruz had brought with him came towards me, so I pulled my tomahawk from its loop and waited for them to make their move. Two of them moved to draw their blades, and I relished the thought of unleashing my anger on the fools who dared stand in my way.
“That is enough!” Krabuz’s voice startled me as he stepped from behind one of the supports, all activity ceasing as the owner’s voice echoed against the stone walls. “No one draws steel in my establishment. If you want to fight take it into the pit.” He was looking at the Mogliths, and I slipped my tomahawk back into place, hoping the old Dal-Shiz hadn’t seen it in my hand. The thugs backed away before Krabuz turned to me enraged.
“Get out of my establishment, Tzal.” Krabuz said as he pointed upstairs. “Go.” I turned to look at him, and decided keeping my mouth shut would be for the best, as the weight of every eye in the Devil on me made me feel naked. With a glance at Kruz I headed to the stairwell, bumping into one of the toughs with my shoulder as I passed. He snarled at the contact, and I sneered back before moving up the stairs.
Mornak, the ex-gladiator mountain that served the bar at the Devil was staring at me as I ascended the stairs The guards around the balcony watched me as well. Mornak hobbled on his missing leg over to my side of the bar, and motioned for me to come closer to him. I moved over to him, wondering what he wanted.
“Head out the back. It will give you an extra few minutes to throw Kruz’s enforcers off your trail.” Mornak said, his normally booming voice down to a whisper. He moved across the bar and opened the door to the kitchen, motioning for me to follow. Almost preferring to fight off the enforcers just to vent my rage, I hesitated for a moment.
“Don’t think about it. Even you will have trouble with everyone Kruz will call in for you.” Mornak’s face was stern, holding the door open and motioning for me to go.
He was probably right, so I followed him into the back room. Mornak hobbled through the walkways between the massive shelving units that covered the floor of the kitchen. Large double doors led to the main storerooms and Krabuz’s office, but I followed the Moglith to the back door to the alley.
“Why’d you do it, Tzal?”
“The mark was clean. I’m not a hatchet man for gold, and now they know it.”
“No, why come here and pick a fight with one of the lords? Why not just move on?” Mornak’s large brow was scrunched together, and I didn’t know how to answer his question.
I looked to the bartender and shrugged. He nodded his head and flashed me a smile.
“You earned my respect, but can’t say Kruz will want to see you for a while.” Footsteps came from down the hall, and Mornak moved toward the racks of supplies before looking back to me. “Get on your way Tzal. Come back tomorrow and I’ll let you know what the word on the street is.”
“Thanks Mornak.” I pulled my hood up and headed into the late afternoon streets, making my way home to wait for the fallout from the job.
Tzalaran's favorite hangout, hence it is the name of my blog on the web. Here i'll talk about the writing of "Scales of the Assassin", working title of the start of Tzalaran's saga, and give background information on the world Tzal lives in.