It seemed to go this way quite often for Tarsis. Perhaps it was just the way his life would always take him—just one mystery after another. The Gnolls that had been slaughtered by gods-knew-what were dead. “Wizard” was what the final beastman had said just seconds before he exhaled his last breath on this earth. Of course that could mean anything, Gnolls were usually pretty indiscriminate in their word-associations. A wizard could just as easily be a simple slight-of-hand artist as a powerful elementalist. No help those lousy dog-like people seemed to be. The absolute worst of it was they had not perished with either his fletching blossoming from their throats, nor his steel opening their chests. But there was something amiss in all of this, and if there was anything more bothering to Tarsis than a Gnoll, it was a mystery.
“Well it won’t solve itself,” he mused, “and I could use a hot drink and a word of news—the road ahead is dangerous.” Tarsis badgered himself into asking around the roadhouse he’d passed if there was anyone he could perhaps take contract with as scout. Strength in numbers, and all that. Besides… maybe that cute barmaid was in the tavern that night. Tarsis was a sucker for green eyes.
When he reached the Wayford Inn, it was much less bustling than it had been even just a few days prior. Odd, usually all manner of travelers stopped to enjoy the fragrant herb-infused drinks and succulent dishes at the trade-road’s most quaint tavern between Klune and Zuog. It provided a welcome break from the monotony of road fare (hard tack and brackish water, dried fruits and meats, etc…), but tonight it was eerily quiet. A band of Gnomes was discussing in hushed tones their travel plans, and the state of their carts and goods. Similarly, a tall, dark-haired Eladrin (odd—the dark hair) was holding court with a handful other of his kind.
The thought of the Gnomes was almost enough to push Tarsis to turn on his heel and proceed with his investigation on his own. Reason held him sway though. He melted from shadow to shadow, skilled as any other of his kind and profession. He observed the Eladrin from a darkened corner booth to see what intelligence he could gather about their business before approaching and possibly making a fool of himself. The Gnomes would be a last resort for him if the Eladrin didn’t need or want a scout or guide.
The lithe celestials talked in hushed tones and seemed intent on their business, he thought that he had heard them speak of need of direction through the rough passage of the bog. However, he didn’t want to just interrupt them and offer service. It would be rude in any culture, and even though he wasn’t strictly familiar with the Eladrin customs, he was sure it would be a bad idea to start a relationship on such strained terms.
Finally, opportunity reared its beautiful head. Their leader stood up from the table and moved to the bar to order another round or perhaps pay for the meal. Tarsis melted from the shadows and moved to within five long strides of the black coifured individual. He didn’t expect confrontation, but as his mother had told him so many years ago, “Better to be safe than to be sorry.” Tarsis coughed quietly and politely to announce his presence.
The Eladrin seemed a pleasant enough fellow (for a merchant, anyway) and after introductions, offered the opportunity Tarsis had wanted. As they started off the following morning, Tarsis detected a decided nervousness amongst the party. He could’t lay pulse to the thing, but something was eating at the cool confidence they had displayed the night before. “Or maybe…MAYBE…I’m just imagining it. Jumping at Shadows again.” As he led the party confidently through the maze of trails outside the roadhouse,and deeper into the swamp, Tarsis thought (and not for the first time) what daft, blind, stupid, half-witted, inbred, muck-brained, DOLT—had thought it brilliant to plan a trade route through a bloody swamp.
Suddenly, the wee pony that Tarsis was leading, Bill, started. Bill whinnied loudly and reared, snorting into the air. Tarsis looked about. A snake had been sunning itself in the road, and at Bill’s approach had started to slither towards the undergrowth. The skittish pack-animal did what came naturally to most horses, and decided the snake was a less-than-savory travelling companion. It was a simple garden snake. Not at all venomous (try telling that to a frightened draft-beast), but it coiled and hissed in indignation anyway.
Tarsis tried to control the animal, soothing words and a tight grip on the reins were usually enough to bring frightened horses to heel. “Whoa there Bill! Whoa lad, steady on!” Bill, however, would have none of it. He clubbed Tarsis hard in the chest with a fore-hoof. “OOF!” said Tarsis. “GORRAMNIT BILL WOAH!!!!” The blood boiled in his ears as Tarsis grabbed the bridle and yanked Bill’s head down hard, pulling the animal close to his chest. He bit down on the pony’s ear. Hard. The horse squealed but calmed down immediately.
“Now listen here, Bill….I like horses, really I do…But it’s a snake. Not even a venomous snake….you do that again, and you get to become steak and leather and glue, my friend….that is a promise.”
The horse nickered softly. Almost apologetically. The Eladrin were smirking slightly. The lot of them.
Tarsis gave Bill a sidelong glance. He checked his equipment for damage—everything appeared to be in order. “Really, mate. I’m not kidding. Pony is my third favorite horse-flesh when it comes to eatin’”
The Eladrin were now laughing outright. The tension broken in the group, Tarsis allowed himself a small half grin. He spoke to himself under his breath. “Seriously…who builds a bloody trade road in the middle of the gorramn swamps…” He followed that statement with a flurry of colorful language, cursing in Sylvanestri and Drakonian (which is one of the best languages for cursing).