MARKAS MALIVAN Markas Malivan, ill-reputed soldier of fortune, gritted his teeth. If there was anything worse than the heat of the fire kingdom — a sudden departure from frozen seas and subsequent exposure to cracked deserts could leave anyone disoriented — it was the fact that you were going to get killed. That the saint of luck, whatever her name was, wasn't siding with you. That wasn't a simple fact, not at all. Malivan's hirsute hand skimmed near the well-oiled, oxhide sheath of his dagger, and lingered there for a while. He was frowning, his skin pale and pulled taut over his face, and he was also sweating, which wasn't strange for a sunny day such as this. The sun was argent, only just faintly hidden under a thin veil of clouds, shedding the whole city in a tangerine-red tint, with a duodenum of drab shades provided by the mud-buildings. The baking daylight wasn't, however, enough to bother Malivan. There was a good reason for it too. Up the darkened alleyway, approached a troika of men. Three men, and upon a closer view, just a frontman backed by two other men — discernable in that the two were different to the leader. To an everyday aristocrat, it was just a pedestrian routine, as ordinary as peasantry, but this wasn't rightly the case here. The alleyway wad a clear dead end, and this was De'ag, a notorious city. A city where everybody kept to themselves, weapons concealed, hands quivery. People don't mean to approach anyone out of curiosity here — they either mean business or trouble. Malivan knew that, but disquieting was the fact that assaults were a common day-to-day incident in De'ag, as ordinary as the chatter of birds. And the chatter of birds weren't going to be enough to drown out this assault. Muggers, people getting mugged, were typical in the lower-half squalor of the fire kingdom's southern ports, where De'ag was. The city was made up of craggy lands, flush with cliffs with narrow openings that lead to the main shoreline — sand, beige-white with a silvery tincture, and more sand. A dozen sandcrawlers here and there, reams of them swarming in the uncharted rocky canyons that flank the upper cities. The occasional explorer-zoologist made their way to the canyon, on a monthly basis or so, never to return again — these days, mercenaries and locals don't even bother to accompany those stupid souls. De'ag made a living by its ports, the orc-made structures jutting out awkwardly from the precipices, navigable by stratified floors which lead from the sea-soaring docks to the upper cities. The ambiance was soothing from afar, not tranquil but reminiscent of the earlier days of this world: the zig-zagged hymn of the shore-birds melding with the sound of the sea crashing against the rocky shores, and the chorus of sails fluttering, and small boats clambering slowly through the emerald sea, and the echoing drawl of the sailors, and so on. Houses close to the shore stood on rock stilts, to evade the watery waves, and docks on longer, shaped stone ingots, all reinforced with conventional iron or stone. The upper cities were made up of sandstone buildings and stunted fortresses and outposts — some were forgotten and long abandoned, some weren't. From afar, it was a humble, ideal place. Not so much from up close. The roads, blackened by a patina of ashen soot, mixed well with the few dozens of chapels and bounty offices interspersed throughout the city. The houses were made out of sandstone all right, reddish-ochre speckled with blacks and shades of grey. Surrounding the city of De'ag was a huge wall that separated it from its surrounding boroughs — in the instance the city is captured or besieged, and upon which instance, either of them, the gates would be closed. The humans, a majority in the city, here were either trooper-for-hires or officials, the orcs tasked with lording over the commoners and patrolling the streets, and most others make a living through working, sailing or fishing. In other words, most others were the commoners. Although Markas wasn't. The bounty offices, which kept the notice boards and official papers regarding fugitive-hunting, were rather distinct in their appearance — neither did they succeed in appearing coy, which was initially a planned feature, nor did they intermix with the rest of the sand buildings. All metal, black and sallow, with peaked heads and intricately-crafted roofs that distinguish it from its fetid environs. Other than the simple yet ferric doorway, thick wood married with metal clamps, and the guards, there were no other forms of security. Though, some of them, especially the ones nearer to the docks, had fences — crude, spiked walls that went around the buildings and conjoined towards the front, with the external gateway for a buckle. While the orcs were stupid, admittedly, they were good with metals. Junk, but metal nonetheless. As of now, there were more pressing matters. Not strange at all for a city like De'ag. The mercenary, Malivan, was a hardy man all right. If anything, he was stronger than most men. He was born in Elysium, in the more richer districts of the southern division; tossed from womb to a noble-enough family. While he bested even the most vain nobles in terms of facial appearance, indeed, the nifty soldier also held the mark of a true northerner: harsh facial bristle, which he had managed to fashion into a glossy curly moustache, in accordance with trending fashions in Elysium; misty grey eyes, both magnetic and fearsome, and fixed to perennial sharpness; an angular face, near architectural in its incisiveness, that bears both class and an underlying savagery. Setting aside his largely northern looks, he also held a dozen or so southern traits: a romantically-sculpted nose, complimented by a deuce of arching eyebrows, and a pale dark complexion reminiscent of most searrine dwellers; a royal mane of hair, which runs down wildly but always above his receding hairline, showing off his forehead. And, ultimately, a cultured, smart smile that fades smoothly towards both its end and beginning — he has yet to find any worth in it, aside from wooing women over to his cause and bed. All in all, it did the job right. Markas' father was a treasurer, while his mother was a lowly noble. Both met at a southern sector — by the naval titan, the duchy of Raserre, which controlled the lowermost peak of Elysium — where his father was assigned to after a series of shady transfers, and where his mother lived since birth. His father was a meek man, dreamy and quizzical, who acted exclusively in favour of his own well-being and his family — often the latter than the former, for he loved his kith and kin, and his sons, and his wife, and so on. It made him seem like a coward of sorts, with his diluted eyes, and his curly smile. Verily, the odd fellow could be seen as a weakling, and many did see him as a weakling, but Markas himself liked to think of him as a passive man. Or at worst, a pragmatist. The man knew what to do ensure his survival, or the betterment of his living, even if it meant kissing up to people — not the most ideal nord, but he did the job right. When it came to luminosity, Markas' father was scarcely the zealous believer people believed him to be; he was bearably faithful, but never more than that. He used to say it was a kind of sham religion, at the same time following it. Sometimes used to admit his hypocrisy too. Then again, he was as honest as a honest worker could be. Although, solely to his own family and at no time to the daily so-and-so. A good man. Markas' relationship with his father was good too. Good enough. It wasn't spoken of freely, and they both preferred limiting their conversation to the necessities, but Markas knew that his father knew and he knew it himself. Markas' mother was, more or less, similar in nature to his father. The only difference being was her streak of pomposity, which contrasted against his father's enduring humility — could be interpreted as a wanton need to keep himself hidden, could be part of his miserable act of cowardice. Nevertheless, it was a byproduct of her life in a vaguely noble family trying to keep their watered-down bloodline still relevant. Just toss your head back up, and walk like you mean it — that woman did just that, till the day she succumbed to death. Her pride was hers to keep, and she bared it freely for everyone to see. And for that, Markas admired her, and respected her too, but affections came the last in his mind. A clash of interests, if Malivan were to be asked about it. Markas Malivan, aged somewhere in his early forties and stunned by the intortion of timelines, stepped back. His sense of direction had been distorted by his abrupt, unneeded trance, but he was used to them by now. Few things really surprised the quasi-southerner. The mercenary squinted at the approaching group, whom were fixedly close. The light, or whatever pitiful stray light had managed to reach the hairline gap, cast them in more clarity. The leader, for he led the men, carried the burden of a crooked back and the height of a dwarf — traits which made him look more older than could've been, although Markas could swear the crook had linings running across his face, which disrupted his contours. His lips were bulbous and halved, revealing his murky-yellow teeth, surpassed in rank by a nose, rotund and ugly, and a pair of swollen eyes. He had bushy eyebrows, slicked hair swept back in layered waves, and ears that stuck out too far from his head. A permanent sneer was fixed on his face. A heavyset, olive-skinned man with aquiline features — and an elongated nose that might've appeared handsome if not for the many scars that ran through them — followed the leader, staying strictly to the left. He was broad-shouldered and bare-skinned, showing off his sinewy musculature and wiry upper limbs, except for a simple felt trouser that were clipped to the shins and a pair of rugged sandals. His bare chest was hairy, but the dim-black meshed well with the olive skin. The man on the right lacked armour, relying on a taut, midnight blue greatcoat that scantly fit him — both in terms of vanity and size. The coat clung dearly to his flabby skin. The belts, and which held the buttons, swayed and limped. The portly man had a nigh enormous pot belly which, Markas presumed, would neither fit armour nor any sort of clothing. And which, the mercenary also assumed, was why he had to rely on an inadequate clothing article. He had an absurdly thick neck, nearly melding with his chin, and jowls that vibrated at the merest of movements. His eyes were set deep into his sockets, and he had a distinct lack of both eyebrows and hair. Queer tattoos decorated his unclad cranium. The trio, all of them and barring few, were armed with warped eyes and gore-clubs — and which were oddly festive to the likes of Markas, though the one on the left remained passive. The blood that stained on their weapons suggested that they were a bit too eager to use their arsenal, and had already used them. Viscerally. Markas' sarcastic drollery was surpassed by the slew of dread and fright he had in store, and to him, it wasn't good at all — in one way it was, and such a remark would've been coming from the mouth of his still-alive father, but it still made a bad impression. It was seldom gentle to his looks. His lips split apart, revealing his bared teeth, in a terribly-posed grimace. One could also interpret it as a frown of sorts. The fact, however portrayed with or without expression, was simple: it was a single dagger against three clubs. ‘A fuckin' stupid death.’ Markas was a cynical man, and he had no qualms about his less-than-ideal outlook on life — acrimony was prevalent in his occupation, and some even took to writing their will and testament, in advance, before marching to battles. Malivan was a skilled fighter, but more than that, he was a gambler: people survive more through luck than through empty prowess, and he had witnessed it time and time again during his more turbulent days. Then it became one of his principles. Of course, there are the gods too, blessed with saintly powers and an amaranthine ambry of otherworldly kismet, but they don't stoop to help their accidental creations. Such was the way of life. The gore-club is a weapon that exudes a menacing — and at the same time, bland — aura. It's a common armament, lightweight and cheap to make, and can be seen in the hands of bush league goons due to its simple appearance. Its image and its demeanour, both, caters to the taste of the common man, favouring utility over hauteur. The wood-and-iron mace can be prove to be deadly even in the hands of an amateur, rendered easy to use with a handle that slants as it reaches the top, giving a less-needed heft to the enlarged head. However inessential it is, as staves do exist, it still allows for more force to be put to blows and swings at the expense of speed. It is necessary to mention that the weapon is useful especially against armour, where the spike-laden head can penetrate through brittle plates. This weapon had its origins rooting from the De'ag, where the olden patrolmen — orcish or otherwise — were sighted carrying around these custom-made clubs. Could've been simply for the fear effect. The height of the bludgeon differs from place to place and man to man, but is usually less than two feet or so. The goon on the center carried a superlative exception, one that was roughly three feet in height and towered his scrawny build. A certain oddity, but principles were being followed. The peak of a gore-club perpetually comes with a metal ring riveted and bound around the usually flat beak — or in this case, brass — with lethal, reasonably sized spikes protruding from around the axis of the metal band, hence the name. “Oy, ignorante,” the hunchbacked geezer sputtered out, his drawl making it hard to discern his voice. It was a strange choice of words, calling a random stranger stupid, but some idiots don't change. Idiocy is rampant in the fire kingdom, Markas discerned, hypocrisy more so. The other two lagged behind the leader, loitering off the pace, weapons slack in their hands. At first glance, one could speculate about their apparent passivity, or their lazy lack of initiative. Though, Markas noticed that they blocked the entrance to the alleyway, in their attempts to shirk out of their work — in waiting or because they were truly dull, that Markas couldn't apprehend. The mercenary — Markas Malivan, age forty and one, in case you forgot — inched forward, leaning first to the left and then to the right, getting a good grasp of the scenario. The environment happened to guard an abundance of stinking garbage, moldy food, and rusty junk. The walls of the buildings, which hunched eerily over the dead-end pathway and gave it a spangled shade, were made of adobe bricks. The road was simply sand, dirt and gravel beaten together and treated over to resemble a firm path. The walls had windows on them, but Markas was quick to squash any jabs of his own at hope — a thick curtain separated them from the actual world, and it would've been unlikely of them to just go and help another unfortunate stranger. That, or the houses belonged to any three of them. There were chances, slight, but it existed. The curved knave was closer now, his canter jittery. The man was undeniably fast, Markas had to admit. His two accomplices, in the back, were still in their position, with Olive leaning against the mossy wall, and Fat acting as the primary, yet stolid, rampart. ‘Two bruisers, and a geezer. All clubs. Narrow space. Shit.’ One versus three usually doesn't bode well for the former, especially with a crude weapon such as daggers. “Juz-” the geezer paused, “leave yer shit behin-” The geezer ambled forward, stuttering as he tried to control the stream of his drool. His gait, Markas noticed, was clipped and blocky. He had problems with his mouth too, and which additionally served to be a speech impediment. A severe one. It was a pathetic sight, distracting but more so to the owner of it. Eventually, Markas' wits came back to his head. This was a good window for a quick strike or three. A good window it was. A good, good window, Markas found himself muttering. The mercenary darted forward, feet slipping against the dusty pavement as he bought down the edge of his elbow upon the geezer's drooping face. The audible crack of teeth filled the formerly silent livery, followed by the short yelp of a man too surprised to exclaim properly. A gasp from the fat one came after the initial two sounds. All jagged to the ears. The mercenary doubted Fat could get a good view of the action, but it didn't hurt to imagine. Markas looked at the reeling geezer, who was now clutching his face in pain, yelling and cursing. ‘Probably should've just left my shit behind.’ Most men did just that. Most men except the magnificent mercenary, Markas Malivan, himself. “Fuck.” The mercenary murmured. His elbow ached, a biting pain shaking up his nerves every few seconds. The geezer wrenched back again, not from pain but from the fear of it, blood spouting down from his nose. His spittle had turned pink-and-red from the influence of blood. ‘Forty. Fifty if the Saint-whoever-governs-luck decides to side with me.’ Markas did his best to cloak his fear with the impression of bravery. It was a bare, rough performance legible only for its amusement factor, but then again, Markas never was a good actor. Southerners were good actors. His mother was a good actor. He never was a good actor. ‘A fucking stupid death, indeed.’ The mercenary, rather than making a run for it — and which would've been stupid, considering the advantageous positions of the two alley-men — took hold of the geezer's grimy collar. It stank of a liberal mixture of sweat, stale alcohol, and a cocktail of bodily fluids. From the far corners of his peripherals, Markas could see the two burly men making way for him. They were slow, but they were coming all right; arms tensed, weapons ready, and sporting more-than-deadly glares. The geezer clearly paid them well. Or maybe, they didn't spot his dagger yet. Yet. ‘Two seconds, five perhaps.’ Markas estimated their arrival with a run-off-the-mill calculation. His father was a treasurer, and one of the first things he learned, aside from basic language, was mathematics and probability. The latter he perfected during his trooper days. How glorious those days were; Markas couldn't help but reminisce about those valiant years, but clearly now wasn't the time for that. The geezer was belting out repetitious commands, his voice drowning under copious amounts of blood, courtesy to a strong smack from Markas' knuckles. The mercenary yanked his hand back again, unfurling it, before lashing out. The furious whip, scarcely visible to the eye, smashed against the geezer's cheeks — enough to send him tumbling towards the clutter of garbage, with a feeble howl and enough tremolo to knock the wind out of someone. The geezer fell, on faltering feet, into an open garbage bin, his two hose-covered legs, fitted with unseemly clogs, jutting out from the putrid mess. Markas let out a triumphant scoff, before turning and facing the entrance of the alleyway. The unshorn clod, Olive, was now edging nearby. He was much faster than what the mercenary had originally discerned him to be — and which was a sluggish, indecisive bastard, much like all ordinary hooligans. Much to Markas' dismay, Olive was neither langorous nor was he wishy-washy, by any means. Olive didn't hold his weapon before him, his back was arched and his weapon held in a flimsy manner, but what he intended do with it was a lucid fact: the boor was planning to pounce upon him, the sole mercenary here, and the advantages happened to be clearly on his side. He had a far-reaching club, and he looked as if he knew how to use it, whilst Markas had a dagger of which he held only a median amount of knowledge. A very crude dagger. As it was, Markas happened to be a gambler, not the most truest nor the most skilled of fighters. The mercenary ably slid out his dagger. The dull scratch of metal against tough leather was warming to the ears. Malivan held it, sealed his fingers around it and gripped the leatherbound handle tight, and waved it around, never forgetting to oscillate it to and fro the air and between his fingers. A steady stance. Markas made sure to swivel between his slant every now and then — a necessary factor in fights. He hadn't removed his cloak, as he had no wish to reveal his choice of armour; not that it would make any difference against the vicious blows of a gore-club. The clod winced, his passive temperament returning at a following instance. This slight moment of confusion provided a good aperture for more violence. Markas grinned — it was a sloppy grin, lopsided and favouring the right over the left — and promptly reacted by darting forward. His father always used to say he was a quick boy. Olive brought down his club in a sickle-shaped arc, which Markas caught with the shaft of his dagger. The flash of metal touching against metal, throwing flickers of sparks scattering amidst the dusky atmosphere. The mercenary hooked his dagger around one of the gore-club's spikes, surprising the boor, before diverting it to the ground. Bringing it up, as Markas knew from experience, would be more difficult than bringing it down. The savage struggled with the abrupt distraction, but he lacked the experience of the old mercenary, who inched forward and plunged his dagger towards his exposed neck. It was only an attempt, however, as the boor brushed past the strike. The dagger fell upon Olive's forearms, scouring its surface. It was only a skimming slash, good for pain but not much else. The mercenary stepped away. A minor sacrifice for a larger opportunity, Markas mused, both essential and smart. The mercenary lunged around the pain-stricken hoodlum, aiming his dagger again for his open back. The dagger hit naught but air, and the mercenary jerked around, stepping back simultaneously. The boor had evaded his blow again. Markas started back, more tenacity in his stance. He was dumbfounded. ‘Back to square one. Fuck me.’ The mercenary watched the clod put up a defenses again, staggering to his feet, weapon in one hand now. Markas lunged again for a burst strike, on the tip of his toe and on his edge, throwing a feint towards the lower-left side of his opponent. Olive forced his club towards the direction of the dagger, forcing Markas to parry. A hard nail; parry, feint, sidestep. Olive retreated back, jerking his shoulder away from imminent danger, bearing the entire weight of his club upon the dumbstruck Malivan. The club flew past his side, the mercenary having given the slip, allowing him to grab the clod's fighting hand. Careful not to give Olive the opportunity of a retreat again, the mercenary plummeted his dagger deep into the clod's fighting hand. Blade against flesh, tearing through muscle fibres and puncturing the bones. Olive let out a thick yell, short-lived as Malivan delivered his coup-de-grace with a stab to the head. Through the skull and deep into the cranial innards. Rusty but a one-track killer, Markas mused, no medicine for this guy. Blood discharged from the wound, a nigh gracious fountain though not for the iron-rich smell, as soon as Markas brought away his dagger. Fortunately, the mercenary was smart enough to sidestep from the continuous projectile's direction. The mercenary let out a soft sigh, turning towards the fat man. There wasn't any — he had fled from the scene. Markas coughed, glanced back at the rigid corpse, before walking away with a hoarse, grating laughter. Another day in his life, another day survived without pissing. Truly amusing.