A Fine Feathered One’s Decision
The fetid swamp air intrudes upon the scratch hut built on a tiny spit of an island surrounded by murky water. A small dung fire nestled among rocks beneath an inadequate chute of a chimney adds its putrid smoke into the drafty enclosure, the excess smoke finding its slow way through the many breaks of the overhanging thatch. With the bleak morning sun hidden from view by the damp mists of the swamp, an altogether unpleasant and uncomfortable reality of another miserable day awaits the small group of ruffians now stirring awake.
Hidden deep within the Mwangi Expanse, few have known of this gathering place. And fewer still who visited have lived to tell the tale. Bordered by the foulest surroundings that nature and humankind can spawn, it lies far beyond the reach of any country’s regulation or influence. Ruffians and rogues alike, though, seek it out for protection. Sited on the edge of the world, it is a perfect place in which to enter into unwholesome alliances with other like-minded and cruel folk while seeking a bit of a reprieve from the law, at least for a time.
A pair of new rogues had entered the shanty late in the evening, crusty and sodden from the long trek through the mire to the refuge. No greeting awaited them, and only unsleeping eyes slivered opened a bit watched as the two bedded down, all hands upon dagger hilts, tense and ready to draw at the slightest of provocation. Dark hoods covered their faces, with long stained cloaks draping their bodies. None within the hut were willing to risk challenging the legitimacy of the pair’s admission. Life was too fragile and brief to mistakenly accost the wrong person on the edge of civilization.
One of the ruffians pokes at the fire, stirring the cold ashes to life as he tosses a handful of pellets upon the mix. A brief flame is smothered as yet more smoke issues from the crude fireplace. Nodding to his companion whom he had arrived with, who also is stirring awake, he stretches his arms out over the fire to gain a bit of its warmth.
But from across the room, a murmured curse is uttered, breaking the brief peace and bringing still silence to the room. “Filthy bird fracker. “
The ruffian ignores the gibe, and slowly continues to stretch his arms over the fire. As they extend, his sleeves peel back, revealing a pair of dark feathery limbs, each ending in an avian-like claw.
“Leave him alone, scum” the other rogue threatens. “He ain’t no bad ‘un, and ern’t one ta mess wit.”
“Scum? Scum you say?” the taunter mumbles, thrashing from his bedcloth and rising to his feet. Having woken up cold and uncomfortable, and still a bit groggy from the vile rum he had consumed the previous night, the bandit temporarily forgets the dangerous environ in which he had rested the night. “Ain’t no bird-dong sucker gonna call me scum.” With a quick flourish, the bandit pulls out a throwing dagger and with a flick sends it at the rogue. Surprised by the quick action, the rogue has time to only widen his eyes an instant before the dagger enters one of them, deeply embedding itself into his skull. The rogue slumps back against the wall, his other remaining eye still open, unstaring into nothingness.
A quick scurry of bodies brings the hut to life, as the other scoundrels in the hut quickly exit. Not wishing to be involved in the fight, they take life over valor and flee into the swamp. Fights like these are an all-too common occurrence. But their duration is usually brief. A few hours to pass and the outcome will be settled. Time enough then to return. But for now, a brief stay in the swamp offers a continuance of life, brutal and mean though it may be.
The figure warming his arms at the fire shakes his hooded head slowly. “That twer’ an unfortunate choice” he says with a slurred, tweet-like twang. “Now it do look like I ‘ave no friend to twavel wit.”
“You ain’t gonna need no friend to git to war you be traveling, bird bather” the bandit spits. Reaching down to his side, the bandit pulls out his sword and advances the short distance towards the figure.
With a quick sigh, the figure by the fire drops his head then spins quickly into a crouch facing the advancing bandit. The bandit pauses as the hood from the figure pulls back. With a broad beak dipping sharply down towards his chest, and two narrow eyes deep set on the sides of the narrow feathered face, the visage revealed is more bird-like in appearance, and yet stores an uncomfortable vestige of familiarity as a distant cousin of humans.
“I knew ye be one of them bastard Tengu” the bandit exclaims. “Filthy bird lickers. Hate you all. Ain’t no place in civilized society for the lot of ye. I’ll be happy to set your bones over this fire and ‘ave ye for breakfast.”
“Luky it be fer me we aern’t in no civil society”, the birded one responds, and slowly pulls out a long curved sword which gleams red over the soft glow of the fire. “I don’t t’ink I be accommodating yer request”.
“Ain’t yer choice to make, feather fracker” the bandit calls, and charges in with a flourish.
But the feathered one brings his blade up, quickly knocking the slashing sword down and to the side with uncanny ease. Then slashing his curved sword up along the same trajectory, the sharp blade slices a trail of red blood across the front of the bandit, causing the bandit to cry out in pain.
Stumbling backwards, the bandit looks down in disbelief at the red slash across his breast. Blood quickly pools in the slice and begins to run down his front, first in a trickle, then in a rush. Looking up, he has but a moment to see a gleam of the curved blade slashing towards him, taking the bandit’s sword arm off at the elbow.
Crumpling to the ground, the bandit gurgles in pain while desperately trying to staunch the rapid flow of blood, to no avail. Realizing futility, the bandit rolls onto his back. Throwing a last avian curse at the foe who has delivered the mortal wounds, the bandit closes his eyes in an attempt to squeeze out the pain while enduring his last few living moments.
“I tire of dese swamps” the Tengu says to the bandit, whose rate of bleeding promises the imminent arrival of Pharsma to collect the soul. “And petty bandits lik yerself who prowl tru its muck. I believe it be time fer me fer a change o’ scenery. To the seas, aye. Been hearin’ o’ da tale o’ a band of new pirates out ‘un de’ Shackles. Makin’ high names fer demselves. Mus’ be gainin’ a purty penny as well, capturin’ ships, killen Free Capt’ns, lootin’ villages. A bit o’ real excitement.”
Cleaning the blood from his elven blade on a hastily discarded blanket, the Tengu slides the blade back into his scabbard. Taking a long drink from a half-full water jug remaining from the night before, he then pulls out a grotesque looking mask from his own pack and positions it over his face. “If’n I kept dis mask on, maybe me friend would be alive wit me still.”
Positioning his pack on his back, he then straps his crossbow and composite bow in place across either shoulder. Bending down to the rapidly weakening bandit who remains bleeding out before the fire, he quickly goes through his pockets. Collecting the bandit’s few coins, he drops them into his own purse.
Now moving over to his companion with whom he had arrived the previous evening, he repeats the process of gathering coin. Pausing just long enough to ensure his companion is truly dead, he utters a soft prayer of relief to Gozreh that he did not need to complete the job. Not that killing matters much to him, but his preference is to avoid having to kill his own friends unnecessarily, mercy though it be.
Tucking his now much fuller purse away, he turns his companion’s body onto its side so that he can reach the left hand. A quick tug and the ring comes off, which he then slips onto his own claw-like finger. “This little magical trinket will shore now ‘elp me more dan ye” the Tengu mutters, and rises to his feet.
Offering one last look about the hut, he then heads through the door. Setting a course towards the coast, the Tengu begins to whistle while he slogs his way through the shallow muck of the swamp.
“Been a long t’while since I rode ol’ Sharky, anyhows. Miss da ol’ guy. Sharky, here I comes. We gots us some pirates of de shackles to track down. Maybe even join ‘em. The Lesser Evil mite jus be the trick to add dat bit o’ fun and excitement I’ze be lukin’ fer.”