Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Where all the white dragons at?

“There’s one born every minute,” Gardmore chuckled to himself as he waited at the edge of the road in the fringes of the pine forest. “Or five, in this case.” For the past ten minutes, his sharp hearing had been able to pick up the sound of travelers making their way toward him. They were close enough now that he could listen to their conversation without difficulty. And the sound was music to his ears.

“For the last time, I did what I had to do!” came a gravelly voice in obvious consternation. “I’ll admit that things got out of hand, but we saved that girl, and no one got hurt, right?”

“No doubt, ‘cept for the horse that we had to sell to the glue factory...” replied another voice, this one dripping with sarcasm. By the dialect, it sounded to Gardmore like a citizen of the Southern kingdoms, and judging from the lack of expletives used, possibly a member of the nobility. Interesting.

A woman’s sigh like the wind whispering through the trees echoed off the rock wall across the road from Gardmore. “You speak as if the horse didn’t even matter. Sometimes I wonder whether you people respect our natural world at all.” Gardmore couldn’t quite place the tenor of this one, but he suspected by the tone that it might be one of these “wilden” he had been hearing about lately – trees that had taken on a somewhat human form and were now walking amongst the races. Gardmore shook his head. What would the gods think of next?

“Hey, if we hadn’t pushed that horse, we wouldn’t have made it in time to save you and Zorab!” the gravelly voice retorted. “You should be grateful the horse died for a good cause!”

“Nementah and I had things quite under control. By Berronar’s grace we had defeated several of the brigands already. Certainly we could have maintained our tactical advantage had you been several minutes later in arriving.” Reference to a god, stoic, virtually emotionless, high-handed sense of justice, unwavering self-confidence – clearly a deva. Gardmore smiled to himself. Devas were generally straight-forward, honest creatures that couldn't barter their way out of a paper bag. That would come in handy during negotiations.

“Horsey rides are fun!” the fifth voice boomed. This last was the most concerning for Gardmore. He could negotiate with intelligent beings (although he certainly preferred dealing with dumb ones, when he could find them), but he knew most adventuring parties came with muscle, and muscle was not his area of expertise. Gardmore sighed and looked disdainfully down at his round belly and short, stubby legs. No, muscle was not something he could contend with.

He had been a traveling salesman most of his life; unfortunately, bad luck and some bad business deals (with some rather unsavory characters) had forced him to wander. This deep, powerful voice reminded him of his younger days when he was selling re-inforced steel cages to slavers. One of his prospective clients was keeping an incredibly large, tattooed man captive to use in gladiatorial battles. The client had referred to his prize fighter as a “goliath,” and noted that members of that race possessed strength and prowess in battle that was unmatched by other civilized races. “Yes,” Gardmore thought, “I’m going to have to tread carefully with this one.”

The booming voice continued, although now in a melancholy tone, “I’m still sad they wouldn’t let us back into town. I could have used another beer.”

“The easiest solution to that problem is to avoid theft in our future endeavors,” replied the deva with the slightest hint of exasperation. “It takes a significant act of crime to get us exiled from a place even though we captured a local villain, saved a respected member of the community, and reimbursed the cart vendor for damaged property.”

“Hey,” interrupted Gravelly Voice, ‘if we had a bit more gold, I could have BOUGHT the cart instead of being forced to steal it. It’s not my fault!”

As the conversation devolved into an argument over the group’s economic status, Gardmore stepped into the middle of the road. “This might be easier than I thought,” he mused happily. "Traveling adventuring party that needs money, wants to do the right thing, and has no experience in negotiating business deals. Gardmore, it's your lucky day!" He rubbed his hands together greedily.

Within a minute, the group came into view as they rounded a bend. The stocky man silently prided himself on his preliminary evaluation. Leading the group was a behemoth of a man, bearing tattoos and other markings that identified him as a goliath. Next walked a dark-skinned paladin, bearing a seal of Kord and carrying himself as one who has been formally trained and taught in the manner of the aristocracy. Behind him were the deva and wilden. Lastly, to Gardmore’s surprise, was the owner of the gravelly voice, a strikingly beautiful sorceress clad in vermilion robes. Gardmore made a mental note to quit smoking so much pipeweed – apparently it could wreak havoc on one’s vocal cords.

Gathering himself, Gardmore moved briskly, confidently forward. It was show time.

When he was within 15 yards of the group, he hailed them. “Worthy adventurers! Surely it is the gods’ will that happenstance brings us to this meeting! I have been hoping and praying for a random encounter such as this!”

The goliath became alarmed. “Random encounter!!!” he shouted, looking around frantically. “Are there orcs? Goblins? Gnolls? Bandits? Thieves? Outlaws? Kobolds? Zombies? Ghouls? Doppelgangers? Stone giants? Displacer beasts? Mind flayers? Flesh golems? Succubuseseses…?” With the last, he collapsed on the ground, gasping for breath. There was a moment of confused silence as Gardmore and the adventurers stared at the giant. Finally the paladin turned to the salesman and cleared his throat.

“What’s your story, little man?" he asked. "We’ve got places to be, so you’d best make it quick.”

Gardmore blinked several times and finally tore his eyes from the panting goliath, still lying terrified on the ground in front of him. “Umm, story, yes…my story!” He quickly regained his composure. “As I was saying, I have been looking for a band of adventurers. I have met several such parties, but none met the standards necessary to satisfy me. You, however, appear to be of, uhh, the highest caliber!” He glanced at the goliath again as he said this. “I have a proposal for you – it’s a business proposition that I think you will find to your liking.”

At this, the deva stepped forward. “I do not believe we are interested. We have pressing matters to attend to. There are innocent men and women suffering in the bonds of slavery. Families and communities are being torn apart. It is disturbing that you stand here looking to make a profit while this goes on…”

Oh brother. Gardmore inwardly rolled his eyes as the paladin tried to quiet the deva. If he was forced to listen to this holier-than-thou drivel, he was going to up the price.

The scarlet-enrobed woman moved forward and eyed Gardmore appraisingly, “Who’s to say we’re of such high caliber? We might find it more profitable just to, ahem, give you OUR business right now.” The woman backed off when the paladin shot a withering glance in her direction, but he looked skeptical when he turned back to Gardmore. Gardmore also noticed that the goliath, his face showing no hint of his previous terror, had risen to his feet, and was drumming his fingers calmly on the head of his massive warhammer. Things were not going as smoothly as the salesman had hoped.

“Look, shorty, we’re busy people," the dark-skinned man said. "Slaves to free, bad guys to kill, world records to re-take. There’s only so many hours. So give us your proposition, and we’ll see if it’s worth our time.”

Gardmore took a deep breath. “Here’s the deal. I have been doing significant traveling in the area and have come across some valuable information. For a sum (we’ll call it a “finder’s fee”), I will give you this information. Trust me when I say that this will turn out to be a very profitable venture for you.”

The deva’s opened his mouth as if to offer more righteous indignation, but the paladin shushed him. He turned to Gardmore, “How much you want?”

“50 gold,” replied Gardmore.

“50 gold!” exclaimed the goliath as he brandished his warhammer and stared menacingly down at the man. “How about I kill you instead?”

It was all Gardmore could do to keep his trousers dry. He took an involuntary step backward, but tried to look as brave as possible in the face of a 7 and a half foot, muscle-bound fighting machine. Suddenly, the goliath begain to laugh hysterically. “Got you on that one! Ha!”

The sorceress put her arm around him. “Don’t worry, it’s just goliath humor. You get used to it after awhile,” she said in her disturbingly man-like voice. How could such a great looking woman sound so ugly? He briefly considered asking her if she was available for dinner later, but drove the thought from his head. He needed to remain focused. Thankfully, she asked the question he had been waiting to hear, “So you mentioned profit? How much profit?”

That was more like it! He was back in business. “Well,” Gardmore started, giving her a confident smile, “it will be significant. But as I’ve gone through much to obtain this information, I require payment before I reveal it. 50 gold is my price.”

The paladin asked for a moment to confer with his companions. Gardmore looked on with some amusement at their debate. The deva did not appear happy with the proposal, but the goliath and the sorceress seemed to enjoy the prospects of income. The wilden simply shrugged. Finally, the paladin returned.

“Here’s the deal, pint-size. We give you 25 gold now. You give us the information, then we give you the other 25 gold. That’s the way it is. Take it or find yourself some other adventurers.”

Gardmore frowned. This wasn’t exactly ideal, but he didn’t have much other choice. One previous group had already gotten themselves killed (the salesman was lucky to have made it out of THAT mess with his skin intact), and there just weren’t many qualified adventuring parties for hire in this region. He reluctantly agreed to the deal, took his payment from the goliath, and revealed the promised information.

“For the past several days, there has been a young white dragon raiding a nearby village. It seems that the dragon isn’t overly interested in the townspeople, but rather occupies himself daily with digging up graves from the local cemetery and carrying off dead bodies. It is rumored that the dragon is working with or for some sort of necromancer, which would explain the need for corpses, although this isn’t confirmed. Of course, the dragon has had no qualms about devouring any of the villagers who try to resist, and also has helped itself to any valuables found in the graves.”

“Grave robbing! I like this dragon’s style!” the sorceress chimed in. She was met with stern looks from both the deva and the wilden.

“Anyway,” Gardmore continued, “the villagers are so frightened that most haven’t left their homes for the past three days. They need help.”

“Dragons and their evil, murderous ways!” the deva spat. “This creature must be brought to justice! Lead us to this town and we will take care of it.”

“Whoa whoa whoa there, Zorab,” the paladin said as he raised his hands. “Our boy here promised ‘significant profit.’ Let’s hear that part of the story before we get all justice-y on some dragon’s scaly rear end.”

Gardmore gave them a confident smile and continued. “As I’m sure you seasoned travelers well know, even the youngest dragons keep a hoard of treasure. I have been fortunate enough to obtain knowledge of the whereabouts of this hoard. Were you noble warriors to slay the dragon, it would be ours for the taking.”

“I’m sold!” the sorceress replied. “When do we start?” The goliath grunted happily in agreement.

But the paladin once again proved to be a bit more skilled in these sorts of negotiations and interrupted his mates. “You said ‘ours for the taking.’ I’m sure you meant to say ‘yours,’ seeing as how me and my friends here would be putting our butts on the line while you sit on the sidelines and watch.”

The paladin wanted to play hardball. That was fine with Gardmore, who knew how these things worked. He wouldn’t let an opportunity to make some good cash slip away. He decided to start high. “Well, seeing as how I’m the one with all of the intelligence, I think it’s only fair that I get 50% of the take.”

That brought several reactions from the group, including derisive laughter from the paladin, and another “joke” from the goliath, this time involving Gardmore’s brains being used as a sandwich spread. Gardmore, being rather attached to his brains, found this joke as humorless as the first. And he was pretty sure that his trousers were now at least a little damp. After several minutes of negotiation, Gardmore finally secured what he thought was a good deal – he would get his 50 gold for providing all the intel, plus a quarter share of whatever they found in the dragon’s hoard. If it was as much as he hoped, he could make upwards of 500 gold without putting himself in harm’s way! Oh how he loved these big dumb adventurers. So noble, so easily manipulated, so…

“Well?” the paladin interrupted his thoughts. “We agreed to your terms. Lead the way, Gardy.”

“Lead the way?” the salesman was incredulous. Surely they didn’t need HIS help to defeat the dragon? And this was NOT part of the deal, at least not the way he understood it. “What do you mean? I gave you instructions on how to get to the village. I will await you here once you’ve defeated the dragon.”

“That’s some funny stuff there, my man,” said the paladin, “But that’s not the way it’s going to work. You see, as trusting as we are of strange white people selling us information about random towns, you'll forgive us if we have our doubts. You're coming with us." He turned to pick up his pack. A second later, he turned back, as if he remembered something important. He said, "By the way, if you think of ditching our merry little band here, just know that I'm the f***ing fastest nation you ever seen, and I will run you down. And once I do that, I'll turn you over to our friend Bear here, who has been known to break kneecaps with a single swing of his hammer. So I would suggest you begin walking.” Gardmore felt beads of sweat form on his brow. He looked up at the giant man in front of him and tried a weak smile. The goliath grinned back. Gardmore began walking.

It was several hours before they reached the village. As expected, the streets and buildings were dead silent. The only noise was a distinct clawing sound coming from the outskirts of town. Gardmore gulped nervously. “This better be worth it,” he thought, not for the first time that afternoon.

The salesman surveyed his hired goons. He had been introduced to each on their journey from the main road. Leading the group was the paladin. His name was Sir Usain Bolt, self-introduced as a mighty warrior and, of course, “the f***ing fastest nation you ever seen.” Walking next to Bolt, merrily swinging his warhammer at daffodils, was the goliath warden, Bear. Following behind them was Arca, who was not a beautiful sorceress as Gardmore had first thought (hoped?), but had revealed himself to be a changeling warlock. He now strolled along in the form of a bearded dwarf. Gardmore was confused about his earlier attraction to the man (woman?), and decided he’d have to schedule a meeting with his psychiatrist once this was all over. Next to Arca was the deva invoker, Zorab. As Gardmore glanced over, he noticed that the deva was staring at him, expressionless. Zorab had been looking at him intently for the last hour, the invoker's unsympathetic gaze seeming to peer into Gardmore's soul. It made him nervous. Last came Nementah, the shaman, a reserved wilden who seemed content and peaceful as she took in the natural wilderness. The dragon waiting at the end of the road didn't seem to concern her in the least. How these five adventurers, unlike in almost every way, had come together, Gardmore did not know, and had not asked. All that mattered was that they could kill a dragon.

Oh gods how he hoped they could kill a dragon.

Gardmore noticed with some trepidation that they were passing the village stables, the last building in the town proper. They found themselves stealing quietly down a lane bordered on each side by looming willows, the clawing sound louder and more distinct. Suddenly the lane turned a corner and ran into an open gate in the midst of a low stone wall. Beyond the wall was the cemetery, and 50 yards from them, purposefully rending the earth in front of a large headstone, was a white dragon. The dragon did not appear to notice them.

“Here you are,” whispered Gardmore. “Good luck.” He turned and began to walk back down the lane. The shaman grabbed him with surprising strength and turned him back around. Without warning, there appeared next to him a sort of translucent wolf, which crouched on its haunches, teeth bared, as if ready to pounce.

“My companion here is going to make sure that you don’t try anything clever – like running away,” said Nementah.

Gardmore tried to gulp again, but his mouth was completely dry. “At the very least,” he thought with his last ounce of courage, “I’ll have a front row seat for my own dismemberment.”

The group conferred briefly about their plan of attack. Seeming to settle on a strategy, they broke their huddle. The warlock entered the cemetry and began to sneak towards a large mausoleum. The others drew their weapons and waited in readiness by the gates. The dragon remained intent on its excavation, oblivious to the force that was about to be unleashed upon it. Gardmore held his breath. The warlock was almost behind cover. From there, Arca would be able to take a point-blank shot at the dragon’s exposed flank. With its attention then drawn, the rest of the party could rush in and take it by surprise.

The salesman relaxed a bit. “What was I worried about?” Gardmore asked himself. “These are professionals. They know what they’re doing. This dragon doesn’t stand a chance.” For a second, Gardmore had a vision of swimming in a sea of platinum coins, scooping cupfuls of rubies and pouring them over his head as he…


The sound of a breaking tree branch brought the dragon’s full attention on the group standing at the edge of the graveyard. Arca froze, two steps from the mausoleum, but obscured from the dragon’s sight. The beast roared and turned its hateful gaze on each of the pitiful beings that dared disturb its work. When its cold, gleaming blue eyes focused on Gardmore, the cupfuls of rubies vanished from his mind, replaced by another thought: he was definitely going to need new trousers.

While the dragon bellowed in fury at the interruption, the invoker sprang into action. He charged forward. White light was gathered at his fingertips. Zorab shouted to the dragon in its own language, his voice deep and infused with some sort of unseen power. There was momentary silence, and Gardmore dared to hope that Zorab’s words were a warning that the dragon would heed. But then a sound like laughter emanated from the dragon’s chest, and it responded to the deva in a terrible screeching voice. Zorab replied briefly in the draconic tongue. These last words brought a furious roar from the dragon, but the invoker refused to be intimidated. He remained impassive - standing alone in the middle of the cemetery. This insolence only infuriated the beast further.

Suddenly, several things happened at once. The dragon took wing and flew towards the deva as Bear and Bolt charged toward the battle. Arca hurled arcane curses at the beast from behind the mausoleum. Bathed in a divine radiance, Zorab tried to defend himself against the dragon’s attacks, but the monster’s claws rent his armor and drew blood. As if in response to the attack, white light burst forth from Zorab and enveloped the dragon in a scorching blaze. The paladin and warden rained blows down upon its side with their mighty hammers. Gardmore found himself standing next to the wilden in sheer terror. At one point he thought to flee when Nementah sent her wolf spirit to attack the dragon, but his mind felt slow and detached as he watched the carnage unfold before him. By the time he convinced his body to act, the wolf was back by his side. It growled menacingly as if it sensed his purpose. The shaman gave him a warning glance.

A cry from Bolt turned Gardmore’s attention back to the raging battle. Seeing the dragon in a vulnerable position, the paladin struck at its right flank with all his force. His craghammer struck true. An audible crunch sounded through the cemetery, and broken rib bones could be seen protruding from ragged, bloody holes in the dragon’s hide. Bolt let out another fierce cry and immediately dropped his hammer and shield, first pounding his chest, then raising both arms to point to the heavens and celebrating his mighty blow with a strange looking dance. Gardmore wanted to yell to Bolt that he should stop celebrating, that the fight was barely half over, but the words died in his throat. The paladin seemed as if he wouldn’t have cared anyway, as he was too wrapped up in his self-confidence to pay any heed.

To Gardmore’s surprise and joy, the fight ended soon after. The white dragon breathed its icy breath over the fighters, but they shrugged it off and continued to do battle. Within minutes, the dragon lay dead on the ground. Bolt and Zorab had taken the brunt of the dragon’s ire, and they were injured, but still standing. Gardmore was so elated at the group’s success, he danced a little jig. The only thing that stood between him and a pile of money had been destroyed! Untold wealth awaited him just up a nearby mountain. Mentally, he was already spending his riches.

“I could certainly use a new house, maybe one overlooking the lake; I could get a hot tub in the back with a wet bar…” His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a knee-bucklingly awful smell.

“Check what I got!” the goliath roared gleefully as he shoved a mass of loosely connected white scales, still steaming and dripping with dragon innards in Gardmore’s face. “I’m going to make myself a shirt!”

“That’s, uhhh, wonderful,” Gardmore managed to gag out. He moved away from the giddy giant, who went to show his prize to the spirit wolf. The wolf promptly disappeared back into the ethereal realm. Gardmore couldn’t blame it.

“Excellent work, gentlemen!” Gardmore exclaimed, motioning the adventurers to gather around him. Nementah cleared her throat. “…and lady. Now we go to claim our reward.”

“The villagers’ freedom is our reward. We require nothing further…” the deva began, in his insufferable, condescending tone.

“Thaaaaaat’s not quite true,” Arca interjected, having morphed into a horned tiefling. “Let’s find us a dragon hoard!”

“Indeed, let’s.” Gardmore agreed. “Follow me.”

The lair was little more than half an hour’s journey from the village. Gardmore felt nothing but elation at having the dragon out of the picture. In between thoughts of the mansion he would build, he amused himself listening to paladin and the invoker discuss the battle.

"Hey, Zoreeby," Bolt said, addressing the deva, "what did you say to that dragon to get it all worked up?"

Zorab said, "I gave it the same divine ultimatum I give all perpetrators of injustice. I told it to leave and never return, or face the consequences. I also told the dragon to reveal its necromantic master. The dragon, in its stupidity, blindness and greed, merely laughed and said it would never reveal anything. It then threatened to kill us."

"Then what did you say?" asked Bolt.

"I told it to go to hell."

"Tight!" Bolt exclaimed. He attempted to perform some sort of congratulatory hand ritual with Zorab, but the invoker clearly had no experience with that sort of thing. Bolt soon gave up.

Then the deva turned to the paladin. "Why did you drop your weapon and defenses during the battle? You put yourself in severe danger."

"Naw naw naw, Zorab, you don't get it," explained Bolt. "Sometimes you just do something so crazy that you gotta celebrate, you know? Give praise to Kord and all that. I knew we were going to get that dragon down, so I didn't worry about it."

Zorab looked confused. "Every divine strike I direct at an enemy is a prayer, and every word I utter on the battlefield is a praise," he said. "Berronar does not require dancing, and would chastise me for performing such meaningless gestures during a conflict. Is this a requirement of worship that Kord has placed on you personally?"

Bolt shook his head. "You still don't get it. It's all in the moment, my man! When I tore that dragon up, I just had to let it all out! Like that time when we..."

Gardmore's thoughts wandered as the paladin and the invoker dove into a deep theological discussion about the styles and merits of praising one's god on the battlefield. The salesman tried to get back to his vision of the treasure that awaited them, but instead he found that questions began to nag at him. What if there WAS a necromancer involved that still needed to be dealt with? What if the cave wasn’t deserted? What if the dragon had family nearby that would seek vengeance? What if these “noble adventurers” suddenly decided to turn on him and take his share of the treasure? What if he couldn’t swindle these fools out of a disproportionate share of the hoard? Well, that last one wasn’t so much a worry as it was a matter of professional pride, but it was still relevant. “I need to be adequately compensated for my troubles. I mean, I could have been killed out there! And I risked my neck to get this information in the first place,” Gardmore thought. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to get less than my fair compensation. One fourth indeed! With any luck, I’ll be two miles away before these idiots realize I took half their loot.”

Just then the group crested a small rise and the cave came into view. The opening was smaller than Gardmore imagined it would be, but that was no matter; it was a young dragon, and the cave probably went a ways back into the mountainside. He still felt uneasy about waltzing uninvited into a dragon’s lair, but the goliath obviously had no such fears.

“Hey dragon, you home?” Bear called into the cave as he activated a sunrod. “No? That’s cause we killed you! Ha!”

Gardmore tried to motion the others ahead of him, thinking he would still have time to run if something remained alive in the cave, but Bolt wouldn’t have it.

“You next, princess,” the paladin said, pushing him into the cave. Gardmore looked around nervously as he entered. The cave was small and bone-numbingly cold. An underground river ran from left to right, splitting the cavern in two. Across the water, an ornate mirror lay propped against the back wall. That was a start. But then Gardmore looked at the ground. Silver-colored coins littered the rock floor around his feet. Could it be…?

Zorab leaned in for a closer look. “It looks like…”

“Platinum?!?” Gardmore cried, falling to his knees and scooping up the coins. He would be rich! There was enough platinum in here to...wait a minute. No. The coins were too light. It couldn’t be mere…

“Silver is what I was going to say,” the deva offered. “I sincerely doubt a young dragon in this part of the country would have a stash of 1,500 platinum pieces.”

Gardmore felt a scream rising. All of this, for a mere pile of silver? And an old mirror? Inconceivable! He could barely contain his frustration.

The adventurers, at least those that weren’t either a religious nutcase or made of wood, appeared to be just as disappointed with the take as Gardmore was. And they weren’t happy with having paid 50 gold to fight a dragon and get a puny bag of silver. Gardmore was going to have to maintain his composure and talk his way through this.

“It doesn’t appear this dragon was quite as wealthy as we were led to believe, there, Gardy,” said Arca. “Tell you what, we’ll give you 40 gold and let you leave here with your health intact.”

“40 gold! Our agreement was one quarter of the hoard!” Gardmore couldn’t contain his fury. “You’re telling me that mirror is only worth 10 gold?”

“I would not pay 10 gold for that mirror,” said the invoker seriously.

Gardmore himself wouldn’t have paid 10 gold for the mirror, but he decided to call the bluff. “Fine,” he said, “then I’ll take the mirror. You all can take the silver.”

Bolt, who had been writing a makeshift trust deed for the property, glanced sidelong at the mirror. “The deva spoke a little quick there. The mirror's probably worth a tad more than that," he said. "How 'bout this - you take 60 gold and we’re square.”

“60 gold?” Gardmore scoffed and shook his head. He knew he was pushing his luck, but he was going to milk this for all it was worth. “I'll take 80 gold and that's my final offer.”

Bolt gave a little nod to Bear, who loosened his warhammer in its sheath and patted the haft. The gesture was not comforting. “75 gold, Gardy. Take it or leave it.”

Well, the hot tub and wet bar were out of the picture. Still, 125 gold for a day’s worth of dealing with five strangers wasn’t bad. He sighed heavily and told Bolt that he would take it.

"Now it's time to take my leave," the salesman thought as he anxiously heaped his silver into a sack. He left without another word. The adventurers were still searching the cavern and didn't even look up when he exited. Once out of the cave, he gave a quick glance over his shoulder and then hustled as fast as his stubby legs would carry him all the way to the road. He wasn’t about to give these fools a chance to think twice about letting him walk away with half their cash. Once during his flight Gardmore thought he heard something behind him in the forest, but he didn't hear it again and decided to keep going. He had business to attend to.

Finally he reached the highway. Gardmore smiled wryly as he hurried to Fallcrest. Not the most lucrative venture, maybe, but still profitable. Overall, he couldn’t complain.

The salesman had no idea the wilden and the deva watched him as he went, marking his progress toward the city.

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