It took Poz a full day to get somewhere with human civilization. He stuck to nuts and berries as he travelled, not wanting to sacrifice the advantages of this flesh. The city of Gildsroot was located at the meeting point between two rivers. It had been a hub for trade even before the Alohym had arrived. Although the advantages offered by air travel could not be denied, for the most part the Alohym’s ships were reserved for military use and transporting goods they deemed essential. For everything else, the river served well enough, especially with the new engines provided by Alohym technology. They would heat the water to a boil and use the pressure to turn great paddles, able to move far faster than any sailing vessel had in the days before the Alohym – and against the current without the effort of rowers to propel them.
They also had steel sides that were nearly impervious to arcfire, and were therefore relatively unguarded this close to a town. In the growing light of the dawn, it was very easy for Poz’s Wolflesh form to swim up and wait for one to pass without being noticed. Then it was a simple matter to grab a rope dangling from the deck into the water below and hang on for an easy trip past the guards on the wall of the town. Thankfully, in Manflesh he’d known this might need to happen, and had thought to leave a warning to himself so Poz could waterproof the pack that held the valuable papers.
What he hadn’t predicted in manflesh was the air of the town when Poz paddled to the shore, abandoning his ride before it would reach the dock and risk drawing the attention of the guards. There was a palpable tension to the air, like the feeling just before a storm came in, but under a sky that was clear of all but a few wispy clouds. People went about their business and talked to each other about what Poz could only assume were the usual topics – how the fishing had been, the latest haul from the docks, how nice it was to have such good weather. The sort of trivial things people discussed when they worked or had nothing more pressing on their minds. A couple walking by was even discussing a Lum Play they had seen the night before, a recreation of the famed tragedy of the last days of the Cardomethi empire.
“Personally, I feel that it was a bit overblown,” the man said, rolling his eyes.
The woman with him smiled, but the way her knuckles whitened where they gripped her shawl belied the expression. “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.”
He shook his head. “It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it. It’s just…I understand it’s supposed to be a history, but things certainly couldn’t have actually happened like that. An empire as vast a Cardometh falling in a week? Surely it’s impossible.”
The last two sentences were said slightly louder than the statements preceding it, and the man’s volume increased at the same time as an individual hidden behind the imperimail armor of the Alohym’s soldiers passed by them. The armored individual – behind that much protection Poz could not tell if they were male or female – gave the couple a nod and continued on his way. The man and woman fell silent for a few steps, and the woman let out a soft breath. “So why did you really dislike it?”
The man chewed his lip, and spared a glance over his shoulder. The Alohym soldier was still walking unabated. “We can talk about it at home,” the man said.
The woman’s eyes narrowed, and she nodded curtly. “For the best, I think. It’s nonsense, anyway.”
Like her partner, the woman’s voice grew a bit louder. Not so much that most would register it, but the sensitive ears of Wolflesh let Poz pick up on the difference easily. That wasn’t the only sense that was heightened for him either. The couple passed the crates he was crouched behind, and their passing stirred the air enough to bring their scent to his nose. It was salty and damp. The smell of sweat.
Wolflesh couldn’t sweat. If Poz needed to let off heat in this form, he was forced to pant. In the cool air, he had no need to let his tongue roll loose. It certainly should be far too cool for humans to sweat, dressed as they were.
Considering the implications of what he’d just heard and smelled, Poz slipped into the alley behind the shops. A bit of rummaging through the rubbish back here let him find a discarded burlap sack that had no rotting smell tainting the fabric and a wooden dowel of the right length. Underfolk couldn’t pass a human if they were being watched closely, but with a few careful tears and ties to make the sack into a hood and leaning on the dowel as if it were a cane, Poz could easily use the hunched back of Wolflesh to pass as someone with some unfortunate spinal injury. He made sure the sleeves of his shirt covered his hands so the claws could not be seen, and as long as no one noticed his grey skin, he had the perfect disguise.
It was a horrible truth of Humanity that their eyes would glaze over strangers in suffering, either to spare them the terrible thought that fortune was all that separated themselves from the poor wretch they avoided or to avoid taking on the burden of someone’s pain they had no investment in. The best of them would avoid staring to avoid making Poz feel uncomfortable. No one would look closely at him, and the Alohym soldiers?
They would never imagine someone so afflicted could be worth their notice.
As long as I can avoid anyone who wishes to do me charity, I’ll be fine. It had worked for him before, back when he’d worked with Nicandros in the days before the Alohym’s arrival and in the days after.
For a thousand reason he now felt it would be a very wise decision to avoid openly walking about as an Underfolk. The fact that the rest of his species had retreated beneath the Earth was one of those reasons. The fact that he’d indulged in the sin of Manflesh was another. The remaining reasons, all nine hundred and ninety eight of them, were embodied by the poster offering ten million keys for Poz’s capture or death, and a hundred thousand keys for any Underfolk – dead or alive – that ended up not being him, or if the body was too mangled to identify.
“Terrible, isn’t it?” a voice next to Poz said, startling him. Poz didn’t dare look over at his new companion.
“Yes, terrible,” Poz croaked, coughing with the words to disguise the growling voice of this form as some phlegmatic affliction.
The sound worked. The man who had stepped up took a hurried step to the side. “I mean, I thought they were all gone or dead. And one of them is now walking around, inciting riots?”
Poz swallowed hard. We meant different things with that word. “Terrible,” Poz repeated. “Alohym willing, he’ll be caught soon.”
“Alohym willing,” the man agreed, and when Poz started to cough again, he took a few hasty steps away.
It was a relief. Poz had to take deep breaths, staring at the poster that offered more money than a laborer could make in a decade for any Underfolk corpses brought to the Alohym. If your people hadn’t fled underground, there would be blood in the streets.
But they had, and they were safe. Poz was the only one that walked the surface freely. And his blood was worth a hundred of his kinsmen.
Making sure to lean on the improvised walking stick as if he truly needed it’s support, Poz headed deeper into the city. He would need to rest here tonight, and he’d have to find somewhere safely hidden away.
Unless, of course, he wanted to make some random stranger a very wealthy individual for the very low price of Poz’s head.