Amid a sense-dulling miasma of cinnamon, cardamom, musk, myrrh, and the more common scents of coconut oil, grease, and fried goat cheese, a small bustard alighted on a crenellation of the wall dividing the Upper City of Katapesh from the Lower. Below this bird, the Nightstalls of the Lower City roiled with saturated, electric activity. Thrills, poisons, intoxicants, diseases, severed body parts of all kinds of beasts, even slaves and contracts with devils were all up for sale for those who knew where to look, to be had for a haggle and a struck deal. Even though the sun had surrendered her presence and sunk below the sands hours ago, the city still baked with the residual heat of the desert day and boiled with the hot humidity of thousands of bodies negotiating space and merchandise.
It was from within this milling chaos that Dhalhria watched the gnoll bitch in the Nightstalls. The former Duskwalker Agent had seen this feral creature pass through for the past two nights, and as the gnoll stalked purposefully forward tonight, Dhalhria’s curiosity was piqued. Gnolls weren’t uncommon in the Nightstalls, but a visibly powerful she-gnoll striding independently was a fairly rare sight for even such a freak scene as this. Dhalhria drew her cowl tighter, tugged at her ill-gotten cloak of elvenkind, and swept stealthily behind the nearly seven-foot bipedal hyena, keeping a dozen or so paces behind her mark in the bustle of humanoids. The she-gnoll stopped briefly before a tent, where she barked out a common Katapeshi phrase, announcing her presence at the threshold and requesting permission to enter.
This is no savage beast from the Brazen Peaks, Dhalhria thought to herself, feeling validated in her earlier hunch that this particular gnoll held herself apart from the more monstrous and bestial ways of her kin. The Katapeshi vagabond sensed some subtlety lurking within the rough-furred being, but whether it was truly some aura of prowess or simply a contrast from the gnoll slavers of the western mountains, she could not yet be sure.
Moments after the gnoll had entered the dusty, drab, desert-beaten tent, an unhealthily thin, androgynous figure emerged, chewing something uncouthly. The gnoll followed behind. Dhalhria was intrigued further; here was a strange pair: an angular and rakish woman, her face weathered by the harsh environs, wearing an abused hide shirt, and a tightly-wrapped turban insulating her head against the cool desert night; next to her, the hyena-like gnoll towered proudly, keen animal eyes ranging around the surrounding tents, stalls, and market canopies.
Intuitively, Dhalhria knew she had been spotted—an uncommon event for the practiced skulk. The gnoll’s eyes did not betray this, but the matted fur was suddenly animated by crackles and snaps of static electricity. This rapidly building tension was accentuated by a grimace of the gnoll’s black lips as she addressed the back of her companion with a huffy whisper.
The companion gauntly grinned and squinted into the shadows where Dhalhria hid. The she-gnoll strode forward a pace and leapt at her stalker lurking in the shadows, who was trying to disappear into the enchantment of her cloak. The leap defied gravity, and the speed of movement was astounding, abrogating even the practiced reflexes of the shadow-walker. Suddenly Dhalhria was struggling against the target of her curiosity, who held her in a grip that seemed tainted with faint fell magic. Although well-rested and alert, Dhalhria felt suddenly sapped of her strength. Still, her agile body overcame her adversary’s attempts to keep her restrained, and she slipped out of the mongrel’s grip with little effort.
“Stop, stop,” Dhalhria said, laughing disarmingly while easily evading the powerful grip. At the same time, the gnoll regained her footing and the hide-clad woman unsheathed a scimitar and pulled a sickle from under the layers of pouches hanging around her belt. Dhalhria drew her own long-bladed dagger in a move so swift as to give her opponents pause. Raising one black eyebrow in a suggestive arc, she demanded, “Let me speak before we maul each other over a misunderstanding.”
The she-gnoll growled deep in her throat, a guttural churning that rose up into a crisp bark of a word: “Talk!”
Dhalhria relaxed her defensive posture, but not her attention. She let the dagger dangle deceptively to one side as she explained herself. “You’ll have to pardon my shadiness. I’m the inquisitive, bored type, suited more for robbin’ tombs these days than prowlin’ the Nightstalls.”
The tawny, turbaned woman put a hand to the gnoll’s shoulder. “Go on, then,” she said to the cloaked woman in front of them. “Tell us why you were following my companion here all the way through the Nightstalls.”
Dhalhria raised both eyebrows this time, and gave the beastly humanoid before her an appraising look. The gnoll seemed to take this as an invitation to speak.
“Tip for you: never stalk me. I sensed you, yes. We primitive beasts have keen senses, plus I have a hidden pair of ears and eyes.” With that, the great, shaggy she-gnoll raised her right arm. A plump, ridiculous-looking bird descended and settled clumsily on her forearm, seemingly from nowhere, with its serpentine neck throwing its diminutive, boggle-eyed head this way and that. The gnoll stroked the back of its wings, and it recoiled and ruffled, darting its head backward to look accusingly at her. The two twittered and squawked at each other in gravelly gibberish.
Dhalhria again laughed easily. “More to you than just a rough-and-tumble rebel that broke away from the pack,” she said, her voice appreciative. “Perhaps I could have a word with the two of you somewhere a bit more private? The streets of the Lower City are thick with punks, crooks, charlatans, and schemers,” she said with a hint of irony and a wink, “but we can rent a private booth at Aromas and Aphrodisiacs, and have a conversation over a shared hookah.”
The gnoll guffawed, and the hide-clad woman’s grin reappeared. “That might just work,” she said, sheathing her scimitar. “You’re paying, of course,” she added in a tone that conveyed that these terms were not up for negotiation. “And it’ll have to be a quick meeting, as we have business to attend to tonight.”
“Naturally,” said Dhalhria. “I’m Dhalhria Tabish. Spent time as a sailor and in the Mwangi Expanse, but my roots are in this city,” she said as the three began to walk through the haphazard maze of stalls, kiosks, carts, and tents of the bazaar. “I’m back after a couple of years away, and I’m looking for a couple of recruits,” she continued.
“Recruits for what?” growled the gnoll.
“For the lucrative business of exploring and plundering ancient ruins,” returned Dhalria quickly, glancing over at the gnoll. “I gave you my name. May I ask the two of you to return the courtesy?”
“My name’s Pandrecha, and this here’s Gazouq,” said the turbaned woman, indicating the gnoll, who nodded in affirmation. “I spend some time on the waters myself, both oceans. What’s this about plundering ruins?”
“I’d rather wait until we’ve secured our little booth of privacy to begin telling you about that,” said Dhalhria.
The group of three continued to converse intermittently until they arrived at an expansive tent of colorful silks, adorned with streamers. “Alright girls, let’s have a smoke,” said Dhalhria as she entered the tent, followed by Pandrecha and Gazouq, who had to duck her head severely to enter the infamous den of drugs and pleasure.