"Young man, have you a pyreal for an old adventurer?"
Being of a nature inclined to ignore beggars, I moved to avoid the crumpled figure leaning against the wall. What cared I for these people, these haughty Sho who were so particular as to frown upon a mis-aligned teacup?
"I could tell you a tale for that pyreal," he added, hurriedly.
That stopped me, despite myself.
"Yes indeed, a tale worthy of a young gentlemen like yourself," he said, in soothing tones. His face was almost completely hidden by a cloth shroud, the tradition among Sho who had taken ill. "Aluvian, I see. Visiting from the northlands of Dereth?"
"Ah," the man said, shuffling away from the wall of the temple. A smell reminiscent of boiled cabbage and mildew wafted away from him in the wind, almost thick enough to be seen. "You are a newcomer, then? Tell me - did you come here directly, or were you, ah, misrouted?"
I did not understand the term, and shrugged, taking a step back to keep his filthy rags from brushing against my arm.
"There are those who are called to enter a portal, but find it does not take them to Dereth; perhaps you are one of these?"
Again, I shook my head.
"Mm. What kind of tale would you like, then? Perhaps something about those who were so.. .misrouted?"
I shook my head a third time. One new world was disorienting enough.
"Something about the creatures who have fallen here from those worlds, then?" he asked, sounding desperate.
I was in no mood for such casting about, and beckoned him to begin, seating myself cross-legged, in the Sho fashion.
From between the ratty, stained folds of his sick-cloth and the crags of his own wrinkled skin, I caught a glimpse of large, mirthful dark eyes. "A tale, then, of another orphan race." He fell from his hunched standing position into the shade of the temple wall.
"Ah, this sun is harsh on old skin," he said, delicately arranging his bony bottom. "It is very bright, and warmer than in the land of our ancestors, yes?" I shrugged noncommittally, and he cackled. "You are not one for wasting words, eh? Yes, yes, quite so. You pay me not for talking of the weather, eh? Very well. A tale then."
In a world not entirely unlike this one, or old Ispar, there lived three races. Distant kin, they were, like the Aluvian, Sho, and Gharu'n. We do not know what they called themselves in that world. Among these races was one which, like my old eyes, found the light bright beyond bearing. They were nocturnal beasts, by necessity. Their kin were stronger and swifter, and smarter too.
So this race retreated to the time their betters did not prowl, and the places they did not frequent. They learned to live as shadowy scavengers, and rummaged among the battle-sites of their larger cousins once the sun, the Egg of the Great Firebird, returned to the bowels of the world. Their kin, the gangly Banderling and the rank Mosswart, would fight and kill each other over respective god-images. Or over a particularly fragrant fruit-bearing tree. Or a spring from which cool, clear water could be procured. Or simply because they both happened to find themselves in the same place. They were not particular about their violence. If you do not know this by now, you will soon.
A sad tale this is, honorable traveler. These creatures, while not as enlightened as we, could have accomplished more by sharing than by fighting. It is fortunate that they continue to be at each other's throats here in Dereth, and that our peoples do not fight in such a manner. Were it not so.. No, I will not speak of that.
But, we were speaking of the third race, which hid in the shadows as their betters hooted and growled and died in a hundred little battles daily. This race we have named Drudge, for they appear capable of only the most menial of activities, or at least so far as we know. When the light faded, and the sky turned into a sea of blood - taken as a sign, I am told, that the gods of the Banderling and Mosswart had approved the day's slaughter-sacrifice - then the Drudges would mew and call, and trot out of their lairs, knuckles stirring up the dust behind them.
By the hundreds and thousands, they would disperse across the land, seeking whatever abandoned and discarded food, weapons, and tools they could find. Base scavengers, they took from the places that living Banderling and Mosswart were not. They looted corpses, scuffling over trinkets and weapons, their eyes hoarding and drinking the spare light like the Gharu'n do water. I have heard tales that their sky is a miser's, with rare stars, and only a single misshapen moon to watch their nocturnal activity. Sometimes, when in numbers and their enemies few, they would attack the Banderling and Mosswart. Being weak and of cowardly demeanor, this was rare.
When the Great Egg of the sun arose again, these wretched creatures would mewl in pain at its light, and flee. Blinking their great, sensitive eyes, they would scurry back into crowded caverns, dragging behind all the spoils they could grasp in their pale claws.
While the Egg shone in all its majesty, awaiting that day - blessed be it! - when it hatches a new Firebird, they would sleep and caper. Down in the cool stone depths, they squabbled and bartered, in their simpleminded way, over the shiniest objects that had been recovered. They would reproduce, in scores. Being feeble creatures, they kept their numbers by having litters of a dozen at a time. They would make small fires - perhaps their only civilized skill - and crudely roast or boil what discarded food they had brought down from above, to feed their kittens. While Drudges can see quite well in the dark, they do require some light. They are not philosophers of magic, nor demons, who can see in the complete absence of light.
In this world, they live in much the same way. They infest those lodgings left untouched by stronger creatures, and take that which has been abandoned or lost by others. They live in colonies where possible, and underground by preference. Dereth's underground is riddled with dungeons - natural caves, subterranean storehouses, sewers, even entire cities.. .and stranger constructs, whose purposes defy explanation. Nevertheless, Drudges can still be found living out in the open, for they are, as I have said, quite stupid, and easily forget the way home.
Great numbers of these pathetic half-wits have been taken by the Tumerok, for use as slave labor in their own colonies. Many die at this work, but there are always more to take their place, and the Tumeroks do not love them.
I will tell you one thing more, before I ask for my coin. In Dereth have been seen Drudges altered by powerful magery, fierce and powerful in combat. You will know these by their color; unlike the sunless pallor of their kin, the hides of these Drudges range from an ashen gray to the black of obsidian. I have not yet found someone who can tell me who is changing them in this way, nor where, nor for what purpose. The answers are out there somewhere. I hope someone will share them with me, someday.
"Now," the man said, lightly clapping his bony hands, "I believe you owe me a coin, honorable sir."
I did, and reached into my belt pouch as I stood, retrieving five green-gold coins of magically forged Empyrean alloy, the common trade of these lands. These I dropped without ceremony into the man's yellowed, eager claws.
"Ah, young sir, you have been fair. May the Firebird, Unicorn, and Dragon bestow their blessings upon you."
I smiled and turned to go, but was brought back by his voice once more.
"Your name, honorable sir?"
Well. There was no harm in it, after all.
I knelt down again, and, picking up a twig, scratched in the dirt, "Hendac, the Watcher."
Behind his filthy mask, the old man squinted dark eyes at this, and spared me a quizzical look. "Will you not speak to me at all, then?" I shook my head, and before he could protest my "haughty demeanor," as so many others have done, I scratched in the dirt;
"Was born mute. Can only listen, and watch."
"Ah." The man did not know how to react to this, and covered by thanking me again for the coins. He retreated back into the shadows, taking with him the scents of cabbage and mold, and leaving me with the sharp pine fragrance of Shoushi. I resumed my amble through the town, considering. He did know much about those pathetic creatures, and did remain in the shadows of the lee side of the temple..
I halted suddenly and looked back, but he was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps I saw a flicker of pale yellow in the evergreens beyond, but perhaps I did not.
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