Crossing Paths

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“Shade? Hello?”

Shade had suddenly gone very still, completely ignoring Blackjack's rare offer to buy him another ale. He stared at something across the room. Blackjack followed his gaze and saw the dark haired man his friend was staring at. With his high cheekbones and slightly slanted eyes he looked almost feline. His hair was cropped short and white battle scars showed through as he turned his head chatting with his friends, unaware he was being observed.

A deep, feral growl was building in Shade's chest. Blackjack looked at his sixth pint, barely touched then around at the crowded bar, assessing the likelihood of a brawl breaking out amongst its red faced patrons. He actually fancied a drink rather than a fight tonight and they'd already needed to make a hasty exit from one tavern so he put a firm hand on Shade's shoulder, “What is it?”

“Rhaka,” Shade spat. The tankard he was holding, knuckles white, shattered in his hand. A couple of heads turned at the sound but the tavern was so large and noisy it didn't register on the other side of the room, “We're leaving,” He turned and stalked out, expecting his friend to follow. Blackjack watched him leave then returned his gaze to the mercenary. Rhaka... he knew the name well. He was a were-panther and originally one of Shade's fellow mercenaries. The night he and Shade first met he was running from a mob Rhaka had set to kill him after having him thrown from the team, helpfully arming them with silver arrows. They would have completed the job had Shade not stumbled, weakened and bleeding from an arrow in his leg, into Blackjack's camp site which the dracosvulf had then defended. Added to that he had seen the hurt Shade suffered seeing Rhaka take his place in Panther's bed, the woman he had loved. He had little sympathy for love but he would always 'make time' for those who brought harm to his friends. He glanced back to the door and saw Shade had not reappeared. He considered going after him but when he looked back he saw Rhaka was approaching the bar.

The mercenary was eyeing the dracosvulf warily, which was nothing unusual, then he leaned across the bar next to him and called out for another round of drinks. Blackjack downed his pint in two swift gulps and idly hefted the weighty earthenware tankard in his hand.

“Hey, Rhaka.” The were-panther started upright, unable to hide the fact he was caught off guard at this dragonkin's attention. Blackjack flashed him a friendly smile, “Shade says hi.” then he smashed the tankard into the surprised were-panther's face.

Bleeding, Rhaka stumbled backward into a ranwulf standing behind him. The canine snarled and shoved back and the stunned were-panther stumbled and fell with a feline yowl. Blackjack got his boot in and the bar's patrons started to shout at the start of a fight. Apparently their evening's entertainment was on. Rhaka's friends were on their feet and shoving through the crowd. The first, a bearded heavyset man, tried to shove past the ranwulf which took exception to the continued jostling, hit him then the two struggled to push one another down. The second, a quick, wiry youth with red hair and wide brown eyes dodged past. He slashed with his hand, suddenly clawed and red-furred, at the waiting dracosvulf. Blackjack dodged back, noted the fear in his eyes – this was no fighter - caught his arm and dislocated the elbow with a quick yank. The young man screamed an animal cry of pain and scrambled away in tears, cradling his injured arm.

In an explosion of green glass someone smashed a bottle across the back of Blackjack's head. His horns broke the brunt of the blow but it certainly got his attention. He turned in time to see Rhaka following up with a punch which caught his cheekbone with a meaty thump that snapped his head back and split his leathery skin. “Save the love-taps for your whore,” Blackjack smirked, snaked out his hand to grab Rhaka by the collar and head-butted him, sending him back to the beer-soaked floor. His moment of triumph was short-lived as he realised something was wrong.

The baying, drunken crowd fell silent and were backing away, many running for the door. Again Blackjack was used to his appearance having this effect but their eyes were focussed on something behind him. Slowly he turned and found himself face to naval with the largest bear he'd ever seen. Towering on its hind legs it bellowed and took a swipe at him, wicked claws inches long splayed out. The dracosvulf swayed back to avoid the huge paw but in that moment forgot Rhaka was on ground and tripped. The were-panther, down but not out, punched Blackjack in the back of his knee. His leg buckled and he lost his balance, hitting the floor in a pile of wings and tail. “Maybe you can give Shade a message for me?” hissed Rhaka, “Gut him!” he commanded as the were-bear bore down on him. The dracosvulf decided now would be a good time to use a knife. He flicked one of his stiletto daggers into his hand ready to put between the bear's eyes when suddenly a long haired figure blocked the way,

“Ursu! No!”

The monstrous bear reared up with a surprised grunt as Shade waved at it to stop then turned to Blackjack, “Put the knife down. This isn't worth it.”

The bear's form changed, diminished, becoming human once more. A very surprised but smiling human, “F'lair! By the gods! I thought you were dead.” he paused, correcting himself “well, somewhere far away anyway.”

“Ursu! What are you doing?” snarled Rhaka, trying to rise. He paused when he recognised Shade but the shock clear on his face quickly turned to rage, “You!” he surged upward but Blackjack dragged him back, knife to his throat.

Ursu saw his comrade's predicament and growled ominously.

Shade held out a placating hand, “Blackjack, let him go. Please.”

The dracosvulf narrowed his eyes, the idea of slitting the man's jugular was so very appealing but in the end this was Shade's fight. Blackjack let Rhaka go and the two got to their feet, eyeing each other warily, ready to attack the instant the other made the wrong move.

“I'll remember you” growled Rhaka. Wiping at the blood streaming from his broken nose and a deep gash above his left eyebrow. His eyes were murderous, ugly in his handsome face.

Blackjack gave him an unimpressed look, “You're lucky – I don't usually give people the opportunity to. You, on the other hand, are very forgettable.”

Rhaka snarled and started forward but Ursu, standing by him now, held him back. Angrily the were-panther shook him off and glared with daggers in his eyes at the Daemonslayers, “Fenic's hurt.” Ursu said calmly, “And you need stitches”.

Remembering himself and his responsibility to his companions, Rhaka turned to follow the direction of Ursu's nod. He saw the young red head was whimpering in the corner of the rapidly emptied tavern, shot the Daemonslayers another vicious look then went to his subordinate, gently bringing him to his feet, “C'mon, boy. It's just dislocated, we'll get you fixed up in no time.” he said with surprising tenderness, reassuring the frightened young man. As he led him from the bar, with one last angry glance back he snarled “This isn't over, Shade. Doesn't matter what company you keep, you'll get yours...”

Ursu shook his head at Blackjack, “Fenic's no fighter, dragonkin. You didn't have to hurt him so bad.”

“That's rich – you were going to eviscerate me.”

At this Ursu laughed, a jovial, genuinely humoured sound “I'm not killing anyone just because Rhaka says so. Not in a drunken bar fight. Pulling that knife might've changed things though.”

“Says the man who turned into a bear at me.”

Ursu laughed again, “Fair point - perhaps we got a little carried away.” he turned then to Shade, “Gods, save that eye patch you look no different than the day you walked out on us!"

“Is that what you were told?” Shade asked, voice tired, sadly unsurprised the truth of his departure had been somewhat stretched.

The old mercenary gave him a sad, knowing smile, “I always figured there'd be more'n one side to that story, old friend. You gotta understand I can't get involved though, not with Rhaka Panther's second, and bed mate. Hey, you know he still curses you daily.”

“Good.”

Ursu glanced at the door, “Look, it's good to see you again F'lair but I have to go, can't have Rhaka thinking I'm associating with the enemy.” Shade nodded his understanding and the two gripped one another's right wrist in the warrior's greeting. As he turned to leave Ursu gave Blackjack a grin, “Nice move with that tankard by the way. There's been more'n once I wished to do the same.”

 

 

Alone now, Shade turned to Blackjack, much less impressed, “Rhaka doesn't know you so I know you started it. What the hell were you thinking?” he asked angrily.

“He had it coming.”

“True but he's almost never alone. This is between just me and Rhaka and I've been trying to put this behind me. The last thing I want is to fight with my old friends. Actually, the last thing I want is to see Panther and any fight with them would involve her.”

Blackjack cocked his head, struggling with the concept of putting something in the past when the object of your hate is within striking distance, “Well apparently, unlike you, I'm not the bigger man here and if I still had the power, I'd curse Rhaka to get piles every time he mentions your name. Which would be daily, by the sound of it”

Shade couldn't help but smile, enjoying the idea then became serious again, “We should go. A brawl involving shape-shifters is guaranteed to bring the town guard running.”

 

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© I.Davis.
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