I was sitting with my friend Narthak while she was having her dinner at the Wrench and Gear Inn, near the train depot – everything in Junction City is near the train depot. Narthak is a young duer, or dwarf, beginning to near middle age, but with a world-weariness about her. Not quite old enough to be a veteran of the Imperial Civil War, she nevertheless has seen more than her share of the darkness in the world, and has spent much of her life fighting it. She keeps her dark hair tied back, and wears a long coat made of black waterproofed canvas. Occasionally she has been known to affect a large, wide brimmed leather hat to keep the sun from her eyes. On her hips rest a pair of well used revolvers and an old sword.

We were sitting and enjoying ourselves while she ate, when a duer we both know, a tracker named Ghim, approached us with three men in tow. Ghim had a very excited look on his grizzled face as he approached. “Hey, guys! Glad you’re here. I wanna introduce you to someone. This here is Victor Zhirinovsky,” he gestured to the older of the men, a finely dressed gentleman who appeared to be in his late 40’s, “and his aide Leonid Akhmetov. They’re looking for men to travel with them to Tolk, to serve as guards, guides and whatnot. I’ve already signed on, and thought about you two. Interested?”

I looked at Zhirinovsky. Neither he nor Akhmetov paid me any attention whatsoever, though their bodyguard sized me up quickly first before also dismissing me.

Zhirinovsky was a tall man, slender and dark. He had the look of a man of importance, a scholar. He stood ramrod straight, with the haughty look of one who expects to get what he wants without question. His features bespoke his Keffizar breeding, but the clothes were definitely those of the University in Sora Lanka. By contrast, Akhmetov, also a Keffizar, was quite young, perhaps in his early twenties. He was at once eager and uncertain. He tried to emulate Zhirinovsky’s haughtiness, but hadn’t learned yet to be as arrogant as his mentor.

Their unnamed bodyguard was dressed in leathers. His black hair was cut short and out of his face, and his deep blue eyes seemed to notice everything. He wore no guns, but rather a pair of short swords at his hips.

Carefully, slowly, Narthak put her food down and wiped her hands and face. She gestured for the three men to sit down – which necessitated me standing – and looked at them for a long moment. “I’m listening,” she said, coldly holding eye contact with Zhirinovsky.

“Good afternoon. As your friend stated, I am Viktor Zhirinovsky. I am to be heading into the wilds to the south and east of Tolk, in search of a ruin I am told has been found there. The University is most interested in any such, and I and my aide are to investigate. We were to meet with some men here in Junction City, but they appear to have reneged on their contracts. As such, I find myself in need of others of a more … martial … character than myself. Primarily your duties would consist of protection for myself, whatever crew is hired, and any findings we bring out. The remainder of the crew – labourers, mostly – are yet to be hired. I thought it best to secure your services first. I expect we should be able to hire most of them in Tolk, though having a Mek with us will greatly reduce my need for any such. I am willing to pay quite handsomely for your services, of course, as you come to me rather highly recommended.”

“Really,” replied Narthak, shooting a glance at Ghim, too quick to be noticed by Zhirinovsky. “And from whom did you get such a reference, may I ask?”

“From your friend here, naturally. Can I assume you are interested, then?”

“Hm. I’ll need to know more, about where you are going, what you expect to be running into, what you hope to recover. That sort of thing. Also, I need to make it absolutely clear that the Mek is my partner, not my property. Zir name is Nik, and zie is one of the finest warriors you will ever meet. Zie is not a labour saving device, nor will zie be doing any more of your hauling or digging than any of your other guards. Is this clear?”

If I had the ability to smile, I would have been grinning from ear to ear at Zhirinovsky’s discomfortas he agreed to this. The next half an hour was spent in negotiations, after which it was decided that we would accompany Zhirinovsky on his expedition. After they all had left – Ghim one way, the humans another – Narthak looked at me. “Well,” she asked. “Did you get all that? Not entirely sure I trust him, but his silver will spend as well as any.”

“He and his assistant are Keffizar, regardless of any supposed affiliations with the University in Sora Lanka. They barely noticed I was there. He’s also hiding something, some detail about what they are after. He said that they are going into the mountains to the east of Tolk. Well, he’s obviously too well educated not to know that the Desert is just on the other side of that range, and that it really exists. I can only assume he knows what inhabits it as well, so that raises the question of how deeply is he looking to penetrate those mountains? While there is very little danger posed to me from those in the Desert, what they would do to you and the rest of the party could be potentially disastrous. I say we keep an eye on them for that reason alone.”

“Agreed. What of their bodyguard? What was your impression of him?”

“A strange one. I cannot place what land he hails from, but he is obviously a warrior born. I did find his choice of armament unusually archaic, however. No firearms whatsoever, and his twin swords were little more than long knives. His clothing was absolutely functional, not a bit of frippery about it, even the cloak appeared to be something he could shed at a moment’s notice. The manner in which he carried himself was very certain, confident. He watched everything in the room, missing nothing. He, too, dismissed me with his eyes, but not before first assessing me for potential threat.”

“Indeed. Definitely something.. different about him. He’ll be one to watch.”