Umi gulped, only too aware of the fact that doing so would accomplish nothing. But at this point, nothing would accomplish anything. He was boxed in. He daren't even look behind him, to face the fate the cloaked man had in store for him. Would he be killed on the spot for his insolence?
He would rather have not looked at Zarqi either, that foul wretch of a man, but he found himself unable to break eye-contact. Zarqi did not falter either, and after a pause during which he was pretty certain he didn't die (unless dying was a lot less spectacular than it was made out to be), he realized that Zarqi was actually waiting for an answer to his question.
"Er, well. . ." he began lamely, suddenly very confused.
Darayn appeared at the top of the stairs, behind Zarqi, and after a moment during which he looked curious, he beamed down at Umi.
"Ubra! You're early! I was told we weren't leaving for another half our! No matter, I'm finished here anyway." The last comment was directed toward both Umi and Zarqi, and Darayn looked to his brother as he finished speaking. "Go take over for me, would you? You were always the talkative one."
Zarqi obliged, though he looked reluctant to leave the two together. Umi got the distinct feeling that whatever this nonsense Darayn was spouting was, Zarqi didn't like it one bit. Speaking of which;
"Excuse me, leaving?" he asked. Darayn must have known that there were people after Umi, and he was going to bring him somewhere safe. Thanks goodness for the town hero!
Or. . .
"Yeah, leaving, man. Why do you look so confused? You're the one who hired me; you're supposed to know the plan the best. I'm just a mercenary; I fight, I don't plan."
Now he understood why he had yet to be attacked from behind by the cloaked man. Darayn was one of the mercenaries he hired. Umi had ran straight to where the man needed him, so why would he bother chasing him any more? A quick look behind him confirmed what he already knew; the cloaked man was gone.
Umi's cheeks flushed red, embarrassed at his own idiocy. He couldn't possibly have known, but he still felt like a complete nitwit for playing so perfectly into their plans, whomever this mysterious 'they' was, anyway.
"Right. That's true," Umi said, shaking his head as though snapping out of a daze. Then he remembered something, glad he had caught a detail for once. "Weren't there supposed to be more of you?"
"Right you are," answered Darayn cheerfully, packing his shiny new/ancient firearms into a bag and shouldering it. "Is this some kind of test?" he asked suspiciously. "I know I seem a little reckless, but I'm not an idiot."
Umi was unsure of how to answer this, but decided to just go with it in the end. "Yeah," he said, mimicking sheepishness. If there was one thing (other than having a shadow) that Umi was good at, it would be acting. "It was a test. Sorry Viklo, but I have to be sure I'm getting my money's worth."
Darayn shrugged it off. "Don't sweat it, I understand," he said, starting to walk down the stairs again. "I'll oblige. We're going to the Angry Squelch Tavern to meet Haj, the other mercenary. Then, we're leaving town. Good enough?"
Umi nodded and descended as well, but his mind was elsewhere. Darayn wasn't a bad guy, unlike his brother. He was a little brash and immature sometimes, but if he knew Umi was in danger, he would help. Somehow, Umi had to get a message to him, and tell him what was happening.
As if reading his mind, a figure in the crowd that strangely resembled the one that had attacked him shook its head slowly and fingered a dagger at its waist. The wordless message was pretty clear, "Don't try anything funny."
Umi diverted his gaze and directed his feet toward the Angry Squelch. The sun was lowering and the temperature was slowly shifting, but the light remained the same as usual. It was nearly night in Grienor Village.
* * *
A Squelch may be something you've heard of, if you're into interesting verbs or communications terms, but I can assure you that the sort of Squelch this tavern is named after is far less pleasant than any definition you are used to.
A Squelch is another of the unpleasant monsters roaming Asadiea. It's roughly ten feet tall and almost as wide, and it weighs easily enough to crush a car flat. Or pancake a person, as is usually the case.
And that's when they're feeling chipper. An angry Squelch is a scary thing indeed. I suppose it makes sense, then, that the bar was named after one, because as far as rough areas went in the small and mostly idyllic village, it was the only one, and it was bad. It was generally out-of-town-ers that patronized it, and nasty ones at that. The villages had plenty of other pubs they could go to, and so they did, leaving only the toughest at the Squelch.
Umi Ubra was not 'the toughest'. He wasn't even very tough at all. Granted, he wasn't a coward or anything, but that wasn't enough reason to habit the Squelch. If you went in there, you were confident you were going to win a fight, and that confidence was what spared you from having to fight someone in the first place.
* * *
Umi Ubra was not confident. He entered the tavern with his knees nearly knocking, shifty eyes darting back and forth from deadly mercenary to assassin, Myrth dealer to pimp, warlock to thief. This was not the sort of place that should exist in such a town, and thinking of that upset him more than being in the bar. It was almost surreal.
Erstwhile, Darayn had walked way ahead of him, smiling a smile that suggested he was at a party and not in the middle of a bunch of people who would kill him. Even Grienor's hero seemed a little outclassed by some of the people in here.
"Hey!" shouted Darayn, ahead of Umi. He spun and punched a twig of a man square in the face, sending him flying into the bar. Then he put his elbow across the man's throat, on the bar, and raised his other hand expectantly. "Give it back, urchin."
There was a menacing tone in his voice that seemed very out of place on the normally grinning man. And as the pinned man handed over one of Darayn's guns with pleas for his life, apparently having nicked it from Darayn's bag a moment earlier, Umi thought that perhaps Darayn wasn't outclassed after all, just underestimated.
Darayn accepted the gun graciously, smiled at the man and patted his shoulder roughly, and then told him to leave the bar. The pickpocket didn't need to be told twice; he wasn't keen on receiving another bloody nose any time soon. And then Darayn continued walking around a corner as if nothing happened.
"Haj! Hey man, how're you doing?" came his characteristically loud voice from around the corner.
Apparently Darayn had found their man, and so Umi rushed over to his position, mainly just not wanting to be left alone in that place.
"He's right behind me," Darayn said, turning to confirm this just as Umi came around the corner. "Umi, this is Haj. Haj, Umi."
Haj nodded. Umi stared.
Haj was a giant of a man, more bulky than anything or anyone Umi had ever seen in person, though it was difficult to tell whether it was fat or muscle that the man was composed of. He had dark skin and an impressive beard, and as he told Umi he was glad to meet him, he sounded more like a polite earthquake than an actual person speaking. Umi was pretty confident that the man could take on an Angry Squelch no problem.
Darayn began going over last minute details with Haj. Umi stared some more.In fact, Umi probably would have stared all night was it not for an interruption in the form of a little girl.
"Oh come on Darayn, you're not seriously going to hire him are you?" said an interruption in the form of a little girl. The girl stood directly behind Darayn, and looked far too young, too little, too... too much like a little girl to be in such a place.
Darayn sighed, rolled his eyes, excused himself, and turned away from Haj to face the girl. "Holly, I thought we discussed this. You shouldn't even be in here, let alone trying to take mercenary work."
"We did discuss this. And I disagreed. I'm twice as good as this guy, and twice as cheap."
Haj looked offended by this, and probably would have done something about it had Holly not been a little girl.
"You know," said Darayn warningly, "if you weren't a little girl, Haj probably would have killed you for that."
"Exactly! It's a benefit! No one will want to attack me! He would just slow you down anyway. Watch, I'll prove I'm better."
Before Haj, Darayn, Umi, anyone could react, Holly had jumped onto a table and from there onto Haj's back, where she promptly punched him in the tree-trunk of a neck and grinned like a maniac. How she expected her tiny fist to hurt the mountain of a man, Umi had no idea.
Haj had by now caught on, and was raising his arms to pull the nuisance off of his neck when his eyes went wide and he froze. A split second later, he fell over sideways and Holly jumped off. He landed right on a nearby table, completely destroying a game of poker amongst some shady looking individuals. They weren't happy.
"See?" Holly said proudly. "Even man-mountains have knockout points."
Darayn rolled his eyes. Umi gaped. The poker players glared.
"We better leave," Darayn said to Umi, grabbing his arm and heading toward the exit.
"What about Haj?"
"He'll have to deal with those poker players in a minute. We can't stay to wait for him, we have to leave now."
"Good! Then I'll come!" piped up Holly, who seemed to be following them.
Darayn stopped for a moment and stared at her. "How old are you?"
"Twenty," she said brightly and automatically. It was the legal, adult age in this land, and it would mean she was allowed to work as a mercenary. However, it was also a lie. Darayn shot her a stern look.
"Alright," she caved, "I'm eighteen." Darayn shot her another look, but she was adamant. "Seriously! I'm eighteen! I just look younger. But I'm the best help you'll find around here, and you know it."
Darayn stared a moment longer. "What do you think, Umi? It's your expedition, your money; you choose."
Umi, who had yet to regain his powers of speech after the previous incidents, nodded dumbly.
"All right. Let's go then," said Darayn, starting off once more.
The three set off out the tavern doors and into the strange night of Asadiea, none of them having the slightest inkling that they had just begun the single most important adventure of their lives. The single most important adventure of any modern Asadiean's life.