Updated: Jul 18, 2021
Gallas, on the eastern shores of the great lake in southern Ashendor. A city of dark-shrouded alleyways, busy markets, crowded docks, ancient stone walls and tall, foreboding towers.
Outsiders say you only encounter one type of individual when you step inside its walls. Outsiders say the city is rife with rogues, nothing more than a den of hustlers and cut-throats.
The hunter knows this not to be true. She knows the city too well.
Now the hunter strides through the Dusk Market that, as its name suggests, has been bustling since sunset. Squeezed in between the northern docks and the merchant district, it is a crowded maze of stalls and shacks where the right amount of coin can buy you anything: the company of an elven beauty for the night, obscure paraphrenelia from the farthest reaches of the Free Kingdoms, or even the life or death of another.
The hunter cuts a route through the maze, her steady confident pace, battle-worn dark leather and short sword on hip enough to ensure passers-by offer a wide berth.
Sickly yellow light, angry curses and raucous laughter spill out from the tavern as she approaches. The Wight, one of the less-savoury drinking establishments in the city. She steps inside into a sea of drunkards, greasy smoke and the stench of stale sweat, cheap ale, vomit and piss. The patrons, warriors and sellswords mainly, heave against the bar or cluster around tables and benches in loud conversation, quaffing tankards of beer or gambling clusters of coin in games of chance. Two battle-scarred men by the fire square up to one another, spitting insults, whilst others watch with amusement and the anticipation of blood.
The hunter pushes through the crowd to the far side of the bar and a steep set of stairs to the upper floor. The bar-keep nods at her as she ascends the stairs to a narrow corridor, pushes open a low door and steps through into a shadowy room beyond. Her eyes pick out the shapes of the room even in this darkness, broken only by moonlight leeching through narrow gaps in the shutters, and the silhouette of a man at the far side of a small table.
'I didn't expect to see you again, Amaia.' His voice is little more than a raspy whisper, but she hears him nonetheless. 'I thought not even someone with your reputation and talents would return after hunting such a creature.'
The creature. The creature that has preyed on city-folk from the darkness in recent weeks. The creature she slew earlier this night, ramming her enchanted silver blade into its gut.
'Tobias, your disappointment of my return will not cause me the disappointment of not being paid, I hope,' she replies. 'That would turn our conversation sour very quickly.'
Tobias chuckles a rasping laugh. 'No no my dear, my surprise of seeing you return was one of relief, not disappointment. It's wonderful that you are back safe, of course.'
'Then why the thug lurking beside the door?' The soft scrape of a boot and creak of leather armour gives away the presence of the man Amaia already knows is waiting in the deeper shadows of the room.
Tobias strikes a match and lights a cluster of candles. Weak light fills the room, splitting the darkness into shadows that dance across the walls to the flickering flames. His deep-set eyes are dark beads above a hawk-nose protruding from a thin, pale face.
'Your thug?' she persists, gesturing over her shoulder without looking back. 'Or have we stumbled upon a burglar hoping to rob us both?'
Tobias waves his hands dismissively. 'That's just Ivan, he's merely here to look after my safety. Gallas has become such a dangerous city of late, one cannot be too careful.'
'Hire someone less conspicuous. The man reeks of stale wine and breathes louder than a sailor during his first visit to a dockside brothel.'
Tobias chuckles. 'Such keen senses, I'm impressed. Better than any human I know. With those emerald eyes of yours, I did wonder during our first meeting if there is a touch of elvish blood in you. Please, sit.' He gestures to the chair opposite and Amaia obliges.
'I have the payment right here for you,' he says, 'assuming you destroyed the nightfeeder, of course.'
'The creature died from an enchanted blade. There is nothing left of it now but ash.'
'So, no actual proof you killed it?'
Amaia's eyes narrow. 'Proof was not part of our agreement Tobias.'
'You expect me to part with my gold merely on the weight of your word?'
Her voice is tinged with anger. 'Should I take you to the alleyway where I killed it so you can sift through the ashes? We should go now, before the rain blows in from the sea and washes it into the sewers with the rest of the filth. And bring Ivan with us. Gallas has, as you say, become dangerous of late and his stench will drive any thieves away.'
Tobias laughs, louder this time. 'Proof is unnecessary. I have heard enough to be certain.' He leans forward, candlelight flickering in his dark eyes, and smiles.
Those who know Gallas better than most outsiders would say you only encounter two types of individuals within the city walls. They say that for every hustler and cut-throat, there is a fool who will fall for a con or succumb to a blade.
The hunter knows that this is not true. She knows this city too well.
But she knows there are indeed many fools in Gallas. She considers this as she watches the dancing shadows behind Tobias. Amaia's keen eye notices how the shadows cast by Tobias dance a very different jig to the flickering candles. Very different, as if they possess a life all of their own.
Amaia casually drops her arm to her side, silently sliding a narrow blade from her belt.
Tobias maintains his fixed smile and locked gaze for a moment too long to be genuine. In his dark eyes, she sees his realisation that she recognises him for what he is. In her emerald eyes, he sees her realisation that he knows it.
Amaia leaps forward from the chair, slashing for his face, but he's already moving backwards to the shutters and the dagger cuts through only air and candle smoke.
From behind, Amaia hears the soft click of a crossbow trigger a moment too late. She twists, attempting to dodge the inevitable bolt, but it slashes her exposed lower arm as it passes, thudding into the wooden wall.
As she regains her footing, she sees Tobias' features begin to shift from the beady-eyed hawk-faced man into something almost dog-like, with oversized jaws and a broad snout. His fingers extend into ragged claws. A serpentine tails grows from behind him and bat-like wings burst from his back completing his true form: a lancer demon. Its serrated-tipped tail flicks back and forth with excitement and goes to strike.
Amaia leaps back, grabbing Ivan and pivoting around him, the motion flinging the crossbow from his hands and, with the thug now between her and Tobias, she ducks low as the creature's tail bursts through Ivan's chest, spraying blood across the wall.
With the tail lodged in Ivan's body, Amaia moves in quick, knocking aside the table and slamming into the demon. She knows the creature's deadliest weapon is the powerful, steel-sharp tail, but get inside its reach and a lancer demon is relatively weak.
Now up close, she stabs the dagger deep into the demon's flank, snapping the blade from the hilt. It snarls and slams its forehead into her face in return. She reels back from the blow, blood running from her nose and hurls herself forward once more. The force smashes the demon and Amaia through the shutters and they fall, down to the dock below, crashing into a stack of empty wooden crates. Ivan's body lands nearby and the demon's tail comes free from it.
Amaia rolls free from the broken planks and, with the space the open dock offers, she's able to draw her sword. She quickly takes in her surroundings. A moonlit empty dock, decrepit, that backs onto the tavern. No-one about outside and from the loud conversation and laughter from within, their fall was not overheard.
The lancer demon gets to its feet, shaking off shards of wood, and steps forward, its tail raised to strike. Amaya feints to her right and easily dodges the tail as it slams into the dock. She feints to her left and the demon's tail misses her again.
On the third time, the creature anticipates the feint, twisting its tail mid-lunge towards her. But Amaia knows the attack is coming; she takes a step back and slams her foot onto the tail as it spears the ground. A fast swing of her sword severs the serrated point from the tail, brown-black blood bursting out from the wound across the stones.
She snatches up the tail tip in one fluid movement and lunges forward, bloodied blade in her other hand arcing down towards the beast's face. It deflects the strike with a raised arm, but she moves closer still, bringing the tail tip round and driving it through the soft flesh beneath its lower jaw, blood gushing from the wound.
The demon staggers backwards and falls. Amaia falls with it, stabbing, stabbing, stabbing, until it stops moving and her hands and arms are soaked in the creature's blood.
Once she has regained her breath, she drags the demon's body to the edge of the dock, pushing it into the water with her foot and throwing its tail tip in afterwards. The ravenous fish and eels that lurk in the water will consume its flesh and whatever remains will burn away in the light of the dawn. She washes her hands, arms and face in rainwater from a nearby barrel and cleans her sword.
The hunter leaves Ivan's body where it fell. Eventually it will be found by the city watch and cremated with so many others that die each night in Gallas.
She turns back to the demon's corpse floating on the water for a few moments, then turns away from the empty dock and walks into the night.
The hunter knows that there are in fact three types of individuals one can encounter within the city walls. Firstly, the rogues, that rabble of hustlers and cut-throats, and then the fools who fall victim to the former.
The hunter knows Gallas very well. She knows that within its walls are also creatures that feed on the fools, the hustlers and cut-throats. Some are beasts that lurk unseen in the shadows, others are horrors that walk the streets in plain sight, their true nature invisible to others. They may be few, but they are the greatest threat in this city.
Rogues, fools and horrors. Amaia knows that all three can be found in Gallas. The difficulty is telling them apart.