Another Job

            The rain fell lightly onto the forest.  The man traversing an almost invisible path was annoyed at this but kept his annoyance quiet.  Every few minutes he stopped to scan his surroundings, making sure he wasn't being watched; he shifted the light gear he carried and then continued on.

            Roarde knew this job would be tough.  Not only would he have to break into that Gnoll lair to steal some trinket, but then he'd have to retrieve his payment from that freak-job of a customer.  When he first met the guy he was taken by how haggard and thin the man looked, but the eyes were what caught his attention – they looked cold and empty of life.  The mage set him up with a map to the lair as well as some money for any supplies he might need.  Of course Roarde always worked with what was on hand so he just pocketed the cash and picked out his own gear.  A professional thief and practiced assassin like himself always knew places where he could receive a special five-finger discount.

            The forest didn't reveal any warning concerning his approach to the cave and Roarde could've given himself away to a dead man, if there had been any around.  Luckily it was still light out and raining, two things Gnolls' hate.  Unfortunately the rain was letting up but no guards was still no guards.

            The Gnolls lack of activity suggested they must still be sleeping and Roarde didn't intend to let this advantage go to waste.  He crept up to the mouth of the cave to take a look inside.  His vision was taking its time in adjusting but from the smell of wet fur Roarde could tell not all of them had kept from venturing out.  He slipped inside and almost molded his body to the wall.  Making sure he was not going to be interrupted, he withdrew a black  piece of cloth from one of his many pockets.  He quickly tied it around his head, making sure that it covered his eyes completely.  After several minutes of being completely blind he removed the blindfold and his now adjusted eyes examined the passage.

            At about a fifty feet he spotted the first guard.  Well, if you consider a stupid mongrel leaning on its spear completely asleep a guard.  Even in the half-light of the cave Roard could see the coarse fur and hyena-like features that marked this creature as a Gnoll. 

            It wouldn't be much of a hassle to take out this obstacle and Roarde was starting to doubt the difficulty of this job.  He pulled out the thoakish garrote and slipped it over the thick-necked monster.  A precision twist drove in the barbed wire, it didn't even let the thing peep before it was dead.  A quick search turned up nothing of value, to Roarde at least, and he continued on a bit more confidently.

            His employer had told him that the Gnolls' shaman wore the necklace he was after, but as to which one was the shaman the thief didn't know.  One Gnoll looked the same as any other and a dead one looked even better.  As he pondered how he'd actually get this talisman and manage to make it out in the hour or so of daylight that was left, he managed to make it to the sleeping lair of the whole clan.

            Roarde had never seen so many sleeping bodies and the reek they gave off was almost unbearable.  Empty kegs and half-eaten corpses of who-knows-what littered the floor, as well as dozens of bodies.  A smile flickered across Roarde's face for the first time since taking this job.  They must have had a feast recently and the thief's timing couldn't be more perfect, or at least it seemed that way.

            Very, very carefully the man began to tiptoe along the patches of bare rock in between mounds of mangy carpeting on the cave floor.  He figured that the shaman probably wouldn't lower himself to sleeping with the regular riffraff and that there must be some other room not too far off.  It was a time consuming task and the slightest off-key snore or shuffle made Roarde reach for his weapons.  By the time he made it to the other end of the great cavern the sun had already set. 

            It didn't take Roarde long to find the crude doorway, that was nothing more than an opening covered with a moldy blanket.  Moving quickly into the new room he almost gave away his intrusion to two hulking figures.  Luckily for Roarde they didn't seem to notice him, but then again it didn't seem like they were noticing anything.  It took the thief several seconds of scrutinizing notice that the two forms were human.  His instincts kept him from venturing out too soon and the question of why these two would be apparently guarding this room naturally came into Roardes' head.

            It wasn't until he stopped to think about why these two were here that he noticed a sharp new aroma.  The stench of death filled his nostrils; a barely perceptible gag immediately animated the two 'guardians'.  Almost soundlessly they started to shuffle towards the noise.  The jerky movements betrayed their true nature, they were undead. 

            Without a warning the assassin/thief drew his sword and a vial in one motion.  One hand flung the vial at one of the creature closest to him, shattering against its head.  The other monstrosity received a blow to the neck; old muscles were sliced in half but failed to slow the creature down.  While the first zombies' head slowly dissolved from the vial of acid the other reached for his throat. 

            It wouldn't even have required the thief's superb reflexes to dodge the blow.  The creature was moving in slow motion and therefore hadn't even managed to turn around before Roarde had severed its head from the body.  He examined the second one to find the acid had already taken care of it.  He looked past the entrance and found that his scuffle hadn't interrupted the Gnolls' beauty sleep.

            With a little more caution Roarde continued down the side-passage.  It wasn't long before he spotted a Gnoll sleeping on a pile of filthy hay.  He made sure there were no more surprises and then entered the small room.  Looking down on the suspect Gnoll he saw that it did indeed wore something around its neck.  The description of what he was to steal had been vague at best and Roarde didn't even know if this was the shaman, so his chances of getting the right talisman would be chancy at best.

            After a brief hesitation the thief decided that one necklace was as good as another so he slowly reached for the creatures neck.  As his hand crept closer, the Gnoll suddenly jerked.  Roarde immediately went rigid.  After almost a minute of the Gnoll lying there peacefully he continued his reach for the necklace.  He was just about to grab it when a furred hand grabbed his.

            "I don't think so!" the Gnoll rumbled crudely.

            Roardes first reaction was to pull away but the grip was too strong.  A prick to his neck revealed the creature wasn't unarmed.  The thief's gaze looked straight at the inhuman face that stared back at him with those hungry eyes.

            Experience had taught him the best move in such a situation was usually the most direct.  In an instant one hand smacked the primitive bone dagger away from his throat while the other twisted out of the Gnoll's grasp.  A backhand to the creatures' face inflicted more surprise than pain and the thief took his chance to pull the necklace from the creatures' neck.

            Roarde bolted out of the room barely escaping from the Gnolls' clawing.  As he raced from the passage he could hear the Gnoll behind him yipping and howling in it's uncouth tongue.  Not one to really care about how he made an exit, Roarde dashed through the sleeping chamber.  His misplaced footsteps did more to wake the sleeping Gnolls than their leader's ranting.  Barely keeping from falling flat on his face because of the commotion of rising bodies and wagging tails, Roarde could see that he had long overstayed his welcome.

            The entrance to the cave was ahead of him and from the sound of it, an army of Gnolls were close behind.  He flew out of the cave opening to discover a world even darker than the one he just left.  He couldn't see the path he had followed here but memory was enough and he ran towards what he thought was the correct direction.  Though as soon as he left the rocky ground his boots started to sink into mud that had replaced the solid ground he followed recently.  The howls behind him grew increasingly louder and Roarde couldn't guess how much time he had left before their leader organized the mob into a posse. 

            With adrenaline filling his muscles, Roarde managed to pull himself free and tried to continue on.  The going would be heart wrenchingly slow and the stress was taking its toll on the thief.  He wouldn't be able to live through this job the way things were going but he hated to admit defeat.  With a mind numbing realization he reached into his vest and pulled out a green-vial.  Taking a moment to curse his own stupidity, he downed the contents of the vial. 

            As the ravenous pack of Gnolls began to fan out in search for his blood Roarde began to feel his muscles strengthen.  His body felt much lighter, without wasting the moment he picked himself up.  A cry caught his attention and he turned to see he'd been spotted.  His newly enhanced leg-muscles easily paced themselves across the muddy ground without leaving traces of footprints.  The Gnolls weren't so lucky and while they floundered over each other to keep from being trapped in the mud Roarde was halfway back to town.

            "Hey barkeep I'd like another ale! And where's my roast duck!" screamed one of the filthy adventurer's that usually frequented the Broken Horn.

            "I toldja it's comin'!" screamed the barkeep to his ill-mannered customer.

            Roarde sat back in his chair, hungry but happy.  Soon his employer would be arriving and then he could unload this little charm that had almost cost him his life.  Taking the necklace out to examine it Roarde noticed that it didn't look special at all.  He was surprised that someone would want such a thing and for a moment he hoped that he was holding the right item.  The necklace was just a long piece of leather with several teeth  and bones attached to it.  From his animal experience Roarde could tell that a couple were wolves fangs, one seemed to be a sharks', some looked human.

            A rattle at the entrance broke his reverie and he turned to see who it was.  Sure enough it was his employer.  Roarde then noticed how young the man looked, younger than he was in fact.  His last encounter had made him think the man was much older.  Skin had seemed barely able to contain the mans' skeletal frame, but now his employer was completely covered by thick black robes; he looked like he was hiding from the sun.  It didn't take him long to spot Roarde and his approach to the table seemed more like a glide across the floor.  A strange numbness spread through the thief's body.

            "Do you have it?" the man asked, the words carrying a chill.

            Roarde laid the necklace on the table, barely suppressing a shiver of distaste.  The necklace hardly had time to touch the table before a bony hand removed it.  Roarde could see a flash of intense emotion pass across the man's face before it again went impassive.

            "You did a good job." he began to get up.

            "I think you forgot something." Roarde had managed to regain control of himself.

            "Ah yes, your payment, I can't give it to you here but if you'll come with me..." he began to exit the inn.

            Roarde followed the man uneasily but he there was no chance he'd wind up doing this job for free.  As they began to exit the town, Roarde finally decided to say something when everything seemed to spin.  He rubbed at the blurriness in his eyes and looked around in surprise, noticing they were no longer anywhere near the town.

            "What's the hell is going on?!" he shouted at the man, who wasn't showing any alarm, "What are you pulling a backstabber on me, bone-wizard?"

            "Indeed." was all the man said, still not facing him.

            Suddenly the black robed wizard produced a tiny whistle Roarde hadn't noticed before and blew.  He heard no sound but Roarde decided this was as good a time as any to get his pay.  He lunged for the robed figure with a quick burst of speed.  He had barely moved two feet before a flash of light threw him painfully to the ground.  Gasping, he had barely enough strength to roll onto his back.

            Time seemed to slow down, Roarde noticed that he couldn't feel his limbs.  After what could have been days, a hoarse voices caught his attention.  He could see that bastard wizard and ... Gnolls.  Their voices floated on the wind, seemingly miles away but he caught the end of the conversation.

            "I thought you might like this gift, Great Warlord GaKss-grrl {Fangs-Like-Swords}." "And I have retrieved your talisman Shaman HrrAwg-rrk   {Howls-With-Roar-Of-Thunder}",  he placed something in the beast's outstretched paw.

            Roarde couldn't believe that he had been set up.  The shock of this revelation and the recent blow to his body so dazed him that he hadn't noticed several Gnolls had picked him up and were carrying him away.

            "Enjoy your new life thief, if they let you have one." the wizard let a half-smile slip onto his face.

            When the filthy Gnolls were out of his sight Vockrihn pulled out the real talisman and stared at it with pride.

            "That stupid creature will never realize what a worthless piece of crap he's wearing until it's too late." he gingerly touched the talisman now hanging around his neck, "No loose strings this time, eh?"