“That wasn’t as bad as it could have been,” Galel says taking the lead to the Ol’ Tanker. “Gill hates you now but he’ll forget about it after a good romp with a little las.”
“I just assumed that was how I was supposed to act around him.” Niander says looking back at the butcher’s front door.
“Don’t worry about it, he likes the banter. We have given up on him already so I can only assume he’ll love to see you again.” Galel says turning left at the first side street.
The Ol’ Tanker sits in the middle of the street. You could say the street was built around it, but who would do that. The walk to the front door is parlous, Niander gets yelled at by a cart driver, from his tone it may have been the same one that nearly ran them over when they emerged from Gad’s underground library. The large oak doors of the pub swing open before either Niander or Galel can reach for the handle. A couple, about four years older than Niander, walk out hand in hand. The young man looks strangely familiar. He bows to Niander as an apology for almost knocking into him and he continues on his way with the young and beautiful lady. Niander can’t help but look back at them.
“If I had a girl like that I wouldn’t never leave my house.” Galel says clapping Niander on the shoulder and leads him into the warmly lit pub. “This is the Ol’ Tanker. Oldest drinking hole in all of Weeping valley. If you let Andrew, the barman, tell you the story about the day this place opened he would swear that Baktu himself stopped by for the first drink of the day.”
“Is that right?” Niander asks smiling, “and what did he do the second day?”
“He cursed the barman for letting him black out and piss himself.”
They laugh and find two stools up at the bar. The atmosphere is quaint enough. Most of the talk is quite, a lutenist strums drunkenly in the corner singing about a woman who won’t take him back. A few Fell worriers, in gleaming armor, sit quietly in another corner listening intently to a story from a curvaceous barmaid. A few drunk couples attempt to dance, others just embrace for fear of toppling over. A man in dark robes sits facing the fire and away from the bar, his long gray hair is tied in a neat bun. Niander notices that the folks around him are giving a bit of a wide berth.
“What’ll it be boys,” a soft and friendly voice gets Niander’s attention. The barman, a stocky bearded fellow with black hair down to his lower back, stands smiling and holding a white cloth in one hand and a pipe in the other. “Can I interest you in a cup of Roue Lady, just came in from Castle in the Sand.”
“Sounds great Andy, two cups and a plate of nosh.” Galel says in a mock noble voice.
“As you wish, m’lord.” Andrew bows and hurries off.
“Roue is a good way to start the night.” Galel says to Niander.
“Its not even midday.” Niander says with a chuckle.
“Its night if you close your eyes.” Galel says reaching over the bar and grabbing a satchel of Dilly flower. He pulls out a pipe from his coat and packs the dried flower into it. “Anyhow, the folks in here have the right idea.” He nods to the rest of the pub.
“What’s that?” Niander asks watching Galel reach for a lit candle to light the flower.
“Dilly.” Galel says exhaling a slightly gray cloud. “Good for the lungs. You want to try?”
“Sure.” Halfway through his first puff Niander coughs, “What the hell, thats nothing like the tobacco at the Abbey.”
“I would think not, this isn’t your average dried leaf.” Galel says taking the pipe back. “No, no, no. This is more of a… well you’ll see.”
“Thats going to be six copper, boys.” Andrew says returning with two clay cups and a plate of bread, butter and sliced hard sausage. “Natie is getting a wheel of cheese from the cellar.”
“Ah, Natie, how is your little girl?” Galel says letting out another great cloud. “I haven’t seen her in a good span of days.”
“Still nursing her left hand after she slapped the living hell out of you, Gal.” Andrew says snapping his fingers at Niander. “Doing alright over there?”
“Have you ever noticed how pretty the barmaids are in this place?” Niander slurs without looking at either of them. “I feel odd, not all there. Do you know what I… what was I saying?”
“Blessed Baktu, how much have you two gone through already?” Andrew asks inspecting the content of the satchel.
“He’s had one puff.” Galel says laughing. “I didn’t know he was new to it.”
Niander turns back towards the bar and jumps in surprise, “Andy, When did you get back?”
The bearded barman shakes his head and reaches under the bar for a bottle of Golden Dragon. “Here, take a swig of this.” Andrew pours a good amount into a glass and pushes it towards Niander.
After a failed attempt at grabbing the glass, Niander holds it up two inches too far from his face and sniffs deeply, “Smells good.” He drains the glass, makes a face and coughs. “Ow. What happened?”
“Dilly isn’t for the fair my boy.” Andrew says putting the bottle and glass away. “Here, drink your Roue before its gets cold.”
Niander takes the clay cup and drinks deeply. The warm rose colored liquid fills him with a sudden joy. He exhales with a calm bliss and leans heavily onto the bar. His eyes close and his mouth opens slightly, what a wonderful drink, he thinks. Nutmeg and something heavier he can’t identify dance playfully on his tongue. Opening his eyes, he looks at both Andrew and Galel, speechless.
A few hours later and many more drinks in, Niander and Galel sing along to a slow rendition of Lady Luna accompanied every other note by the still drunk lutenist. Half the room hums along while the other half looks longingly into their cups. The barman Andrew smiles and hums while dancing with his daughter Natie. Niander laves Galel to the harder bits of the song and takes a young girls hand and pulls her into a close embrace. He turns her in time with the out of tune lute. When the song ends the pub erupts into applause.
“Thank you for the dance, my lady.” Niander bows and Kisses the young girls hand.
“The pleasure was all mine,” She says blushing. “You are a fine dancer, even for a drunk.” She teases and adjusts his collar.
“A man is only as talented as the woman who accompanies him.” He leans in and kisses her cheek.
“What’s all this?” a man with a hard face stands from his seat and curls his fist at Niander. “Watch yourself creature, that is a Sramgi woman, not one of your soulless bunch.”
“Watch yourself my boy, he isn’t the only soulless one around here,” Andrew says setting a glass hard onto the bar. “You are in Weeping Valley of course.”
The man, with a look of disgust, spits on the floor. He knocks the rest of his drink onto the table and pulls the young girl painfully away from Niander, “wicked place doesn’t even have the proper markings to warn good people of the sort of hovel this is.”
“You mean you aren’t a Vampire?” Niander asks in amusements. “How funny, I know a Sramgi, he is a half man who lives in my home.”
“Shut your mouth, creature. How dare you speak to me.” The man picks up another cup and throws it at Niander, soaking him with wine. “I should slay you here and now. I would feel less than if you were a dog.”
“Apologize.” Galel says stepping behind Niander.
Three other men stand and join the the hard faced man who threw the drink. “What shall we do to the creatures, Timothy?” the man with a white eye asks.
“I think we should kill him, Edwin.”
“Want us to hold him down? Lets get him.” The white eyed Edwin says to the other two men.
They advance on Niander and Galel. The barmaids, almost instinctively, hurry in and pull the tables and chairs from harm’s way. Edwin pulls out a dagger and thrusts it at Niander. Galel, in expert fashion, catches Edwin’s wrist and snaps it with a lazy movement. The other two bound onto him.
Niander wraps his arm around the neck of one and throws him hard onto his hip. He yelps in pain and crawls away. Galel snakes his limbs around the last of the three and holds him tight until he goes limp.
Niander looks deep into the eyes of the leader, Timothy. “Will you be fighting your own battle, coward?” Niander takes a step forward and catches the young girl as Timothy pushes her into him. “Let’s postpone this dance my lady, I have business to attend to.”
“Filthy Vampire.” Timothy screams, he pulls out his own blade and lunges and Niander, who side steps and smacks him with an open palm.
“I’m to drunk to bother with you.” Niander says. He focuses his mind and his eyes go black. Timothy clutches at his chest, unable to breath.
“No, use your hands.” The man white haired who had his back to the bar stands and with a billow of robes reveals himself as Master Ryker Al’Gurah. “Quiet your Feruh and use your hands Niander.”
“Master Al’Gurah, as you wish.” Niander’s eyes return to their normal hazel and Timothy gasps for air. “I am sorry Timothy, your death will not be quick. I will have to beat the life out of you. You will suffer, and I will sweat out the marvelous drinks I have already had. Neither of us will enjoy this.”
“No Have mercy.” Timothy cowers, he drops his blade and holds his hands up over his face. “Please, god have mercy.”
“God? Which do you pray to?” Niander asks, walking closer to him. Timothy lunges in desperation and spears Niander to the floor.
Niander lets out a loud laugh and digs his elbow into the back of Timothy’s neck. Timothy bites down hard onto Niander’s chest. Taking hold of his head, Niander pushes Timothy away and lands a strike to his cheek bone, shattering it.
The young girl cries out and pleads with Niander to let him go. Timothy stands and strikes her hard in the face, “if I needed the help of a Vampire whore I would find someone more suitable.”
Niander stands and raises his fist to strike again, only to have a chair land on the back of his head. He rolls onto his back and sees a man holding the left over pieces of the chair. Master Al’Gurah steps over Niander and with what looks like no effort at all sends the man clear across the room. The pub erupts into a massive fight. Chairs and tables are knocked over as seven Sramgi men fight a losing battle against drunks and barmaids flashing all manner of fang. After the last Sramgi runs out of the pub loud applause explodes again.
“Den, play us the best damn song of our people.” Andrew calls out to the lutenist, who alone didn’t join in the fight. Den stands up off the his chair and strums a masterful rendition of Black Fire Lit.
“You two are terrible at hand to hand combat.” Master Al’Gurah says shaking his head at Galel and Niander. “Follow me. And don’t forget to pay our tabs.”
Niander walks over to the bar, drops four gold and follows Galel and the Master out of the pub. Master Al’Gurah calls a coach and enters before the other two. Inside the small cab, Niander watches the Master as he looks out the window in silence. They jostle around for about two minutes before the horse stops. Niander and Galel exit first and find themselves in High Valley. Niander can’t understand how they made it up so fast. Master Al’Gurah walks past them and into a tall building with a heavy wood door painted black with the golden emblem of the Fell Army; a down facing sward on a shield engulfed in flames.
“Enter, and please wipe your feet.” The Master walk into the dark building.
Niander and Galel follow. The inside is one vast room filled with training equipment. Most of the floor is made of what looks like a solid piece of emerald colored stone. A small section, the battle area, is made of a soft lush wood. Sun light spills in through a domed ceiling of thick glass. A cool breeze enter and escapes through precisely placed vents in the eastern and western walls. The southern wall holds hanging targets riddled with arrow holes. A small stock of weapons sits to the left of the battle area.
“Please, change into these.” Master Al’Gurah hands them each a set of black trousers and tunic. They obey. The material is much more flexible than anything Niander has worn. It stretches wonderfully over him like a second skin.
After they are dressed, the two young men join the Master at the edge of the battle area. He pulls off his robes, his tunic and trousers are the same cut as Niander’s but are a rich purple color. He is much thinner than Niander had thought, but the fitted clothes show a body of lean muscle that belongs to a man a quarter his age.
“The Art of Ka’ala has been taught to those in the Fell for more than twenty thousand generations.” The master walks bare foot onto the lush wood. He stands with his hands to his sides and inhales deeply. His movement is like flashes of light. In one moment his hands are positions as if he is holding a large basket, in the next he is crouched down with one leg supporting his body and the other stretched high above him. He is straight backed with one hand holding an invisible door open and the other blocking the sun from his eyes. In a flash he is bent over backwards, hands outstretched behind him with both sets of middle and forefingers pointed out.
Niander knows that the spaces between the positions are flawlessly smooth transitions but for the life of him he can not keep up. The Master stands straight backed with his hands to his sides again. He walks over to a training dummy and lifts it effortlessly over his shoulder. Standing it up in the middle of the battle area, he rolls his neck and readies himself again.
“Ka’ala will make you faster and stronger if you live by its one simple tenant. Surrender yourself to the sleeping fire inside you. Allow it to fuel your attacks and you will burn every opponent that stands to you.” Master Al’Gurah steps silently towards the wooden dummy and strikes it with such force that it explodes into splinters. “Would you like to learn?”
Both young men stare wide eyed and opened mouthed. What ever just happened is still registering. How could this ancient man have such power. It wasn’t Feruh, it wasn’t even the combat taught in the Abbey. This was a knowledge so dangerous Niander couldn’t help but feel an anxiety to learn it completely. Still speechless, both young men nod.
“Step into the arena the Fell have lovingly named The Grave.” Master Al’Gurah smiles a wicked smile. “Ka’ala can be broken down into three main pillars, The Smolder, The Flash and the Inferno. The pillars can each be broken down into ten thousand different positions. I have been a student for the better part of my life and I have mastered all three. I myself am a practitioner of The Flash pillar, but no one is better than the other two. As future masters I expect you to learn all three and decide which one pillar you will take into battle. Let us begin.”
Fifteen hours later Niander and Galel are two piles of aching muscle and bone, the warm drunk feeling of long ago is long since forgotten. The Master used the first hour to show them all thirty thousand positions. After that he spent three hours on each pillar, making them hold each position until they had it perfect. For the last five hours they ran through all three pillars until they preformed every single position as close to flawless as their bodies could allow.
“I would have liked to see a better performance from two future Master, but as it is your first lesson I will let it pass unpunished. Next time, you will do better.” Master Al’Gurah says. “My driver will take you each to your homes. Return in three days for your next lesson.”
“Thank you, Master Al’Gurah.” Both Niander And Galel salute and step off the The Grave, which after fifteen hours has rubbed their feet raw. The cold stone is soothing against their sore feet, and they begin to disrobe.
“No, those belong to you now.” The Master says, “you will wear them for all of your lessons, both my own and Master Loren’s as well. Ah, which reminds me.” He walks over to a small table near the weapon’s rack and returns with two golden pins in the shape of an upward facing sword wrapped in chains of sacred ruins. The mark of the Virin Master. “Wear these with pride, and uphold the honor they command.”