|She sent a volley of arrows sailing
through the air at the menacing giant.
Valeria let out an involuntary squeak and leaped backwards. Her bow slipped off her shoulder and into her hand. She sent a volley of arrows sailing through the air at the menacing giant. Adria dove for cover.
Nobody could have missed a target that big from as close as Valeria was to the horned monster. Unfortunately, she only had the cheap target-shooting arrows Hildy Griswold had given her. They splintered harmlessly against the creature's armored hide.
"Do you mind?" Adria snapped at her. "This is Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt, one of the Horned Folk. He brings me supplies from the Badlands."
Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt reached down and offered Adria a massive taloned hand to help her up. His fingers were each as big around as Valeria's wrist. Adria accepted one and allowed herself to be pulled effortlessly to her feet.
Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt looked down at Valeria and bared his jagged yellowish-white teeth again. "And I greet you too, little she-mammal," he said, absently scratching himself where her arrows had impacted. His voice was like boulders mating.
Although her heart was still pounding in her throat, this time Valeria recognized the giant's expression as a smile. She had shot him, point-blank, with four arrows, and he thought she had been shaking hands!
Of course, Valeria had heard of the Horned Folk. Everyone had heard of the Horned Folk of the Badlands, but that didn't make it any less unnerving to find one suddenly looming over you.
Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt's forebears had been a pack of Horned Demons in the service of Baal, the Lord of Destruction. They won their freedom from that servitude with his defeat at the Battle for the Temple of Baal and his subsequent imprisonment by the Horadrim. Freed from their master's time-consuming imperative to "Destroy, destroy and destroy some more," the Horned Folk (who now objected to being referred to as "Demons") began to pursue other interests. They became farmers and raised hardy crops and livestock able to thrive in the Badlands. Many hired out as mercenaries. Others began trading with human tribes and passing caravans. Despite their relatively small numbers, the Horned Folk quickly developed a culture of their own that reflected their love of raw meat, fighting and, strangely enough, haiku.
Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt was pulling an ox-cart filled with his wares: Weapons and armor won in combat, produce from the Badlands, and an iron cage containing three of the ugliest hounds Valeria had ever seen. Their grayish hides were hairless and covered with scars and oozing tumors. The largest stood almost three feet tall at the shoulder, and all three wore heavy muzzles made of metal and thick leather. Their red eyes were slightly luminous and blazed with hatred.
"I've brought the three finest hounds in my pack," Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt told Adria. "Shall I milk one for you?"
"That would be excellent," said Adria.
Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt lumbered over to the cage and opened the top. The hounds inside growled and whined and tried to press themselves into the cage's corners. Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt grabbed the biggest dog, a vicious beast the color of slate, by its scruff and lifted it out of the cage. The dog kicked and whined some more but finally gave up and settled down.
"This way," said Adria. She led Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt around the side of her shack. Valeria followed and saw a huge still.
Jaxanna, one of Valeria's Ladies in Waiting, had once built a distillery in hopes of brewing her own Mana potions, among other things. The results of those efforts had been memorable. At least, the parts that Valeria could remember were memorable.
Adria's still put Jaxanna's to shame. It was a monster. It extended the entire length of the shack and consisted of metal pipes, glass containers, cloth, rope, clay, and countless other materials. A leather bellows inflated and deflated a sac made from the bladder of some giant creature. A rainbow-colored liquid trickled from a tube made from the leg bone of a monster. Orange, red and blue flames danced under different containers and, every few seconds, the contraption would give a reptilian hiss and belch out a cloud of steam that smelled like dirty laundry.
|Pronunciation Guide: Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt
Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt carried his dog to the front end of the still and slipped the muzzle off the dog's snout. He pinched its mouth open, revealing a set of blackened fangs, and then forced its mouth over the lip of a metal bowl at the top of the still. Once the hound was firmly in position, the horned giant massaged its abdomen. The hound whimpered again, and Valeria felt a little sorry for the vicious, ugly mutt. What seemed like gallons of smoking, bubbling acid poured out of the dog's mouth and into the bowl. Finally, as the flow of liquid tapered off, Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt muzzled the dog again and put it back in the cage. The dog wobbled a bit and collapsed, exhausted.
At the other end of the still, Adria watched as the first drops of an almost blinding blue liquid began to leak into a crystal container. "This will be a fine batch, you've done quite well," she complimented Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt. "I'll be able to brew many potions from this. There are few sources of liquid Mana more pure than that distilled from Acid Hound venom, and none purer than that from your pack."
Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt flashed that terrifying smile again. "We do our best," he said humbly. "I understand some people are starting to favor Mana potions distilled from zombie eyes."
"Pfah! An inferior mixture to be sure," snorted Adria. "Will I be able to get more before you return to the Badlands?"
"I do not know," admitted Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt. "Alchemist Zhar, Healer Pepin and Conjurer Ichabod have all placed orders, and my hounds will need to rest. They do not travel well."
"Well, if your hounds are able to spare any more, bring them to me and I will pay you handsomely," said Adria. "Speaking of which..." She darted into her shack and returned dragging two huge chests full of gold coins.
Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt picked up a chest in each hand and placed them in the wagon. "It is a pleasure doing business with you, as always," said Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt. The horned giant looked at Adria's shack. "You look as though you are planning to stay here in Tristram for awhile."
Adria nodded. "I've seen too many omens to ignore. Something of great mystical significance is going to happen here within the next year."
"I too have smelt something in the air about this city," said Hrrarrgrrsh-chutt. "Something dire. Be careful."
"I always am."
Valeria realized she was no longer the center of attention and that there would be no more horned giants, acid-spitting hounds, or other spectacles. She turned to leave and found herself face-to-chest with a huge, broadly muscled Barbarian. He was not a handsome man and had a definite brutish quality about him.
The Barbarian nodded and stepped around her.
"I sense a soul in search of answers," she heard Adria say.
"Merchant gave Dumptruk magic staff in exchange for escort across Badlands," the Barbarian explained to Adria. "Is staff worth anything?"
"Well, let us take a look at what you've got...."
Valeria headed back toward the center of town.
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