Junction was a nasty, dusty, sprawling mess of a town. It was also, by all accounts, the largest human settlement since the fall of the Kandorian cities so many years ago. The heavily rutted paths that flowed like dirty rivers into the city radiated out from the city center mostly to the north and south, but a few obstinate small paths cut right through the mountains the enfolded the city. To the west, were the massive Waterbreak Mountains - a bloated march of jagged mountains that stretched along the continent’s eastern edge from the north to the south. To the east was the Fractured Sea, and the primary source of Junction’s fishing and trade-based wealth. Junction itself sat next the foothills of the Waterbreaks, a few kilometers from the seashore. Much of Junction was built into the hills and cliffs, a reflection of the paranoid mindset of the humans that called Dev’Arana, the continent dominated by the Eternal Empire, home.
Jarious’ wolflings passed the scattered wood and daub houses and haphazardly organized fields that marked the edge of Junction proper. The villages this far out didn't enjoy regular patrols from the guard, so the homes and farm buildings clustered together on raised-earth embankments in the middle of the fields, with a view for miles. Most of the compounds had bridges and high wooden walls that controlled access to the buildings and their inhabitants. It was common for the wolflings to hear children playing, but they rarely saw them except for flashes of color and movement through gaps in the fences. Adults they saw routinely as they worked the fields with their sturdy bovine aurochs and equine tarpans. No one waved.
They traveled in marching order, now with Fovreh on point. The city was stretched, and by the time they entered the city limits many hours later, they were already surrounded by multi-storied stone and plaster buildings. Much to Jarious’ chagrin, the roads only got worse as they traveled in. The ruts, in particular, became deeper and more treacherous as if they were designed to break someone’s ankle.
Near the city edge they saw a man, clean shaven with a light complexion, sitting on a wooden dias at one of the larger crossroads that fed into the city. To his immediate left and right were lightly armored city guards, each with a large axes strapped to their backs. The man they protected sat with his eyes closed, mumbling to himself, as his hands made small circular gestures just in front of his chest.
Grawfn walked up to the dias and acknowledged the two guards, indicating he was no threat. They allowed him forward. In a small clay bowl in front of the dias, he dropped a couple items, too small for Jarious to see. Grawfn touched his eyebrow in a mock salute, and ran to catch up to the wolflings.
“How much, Grawfn?” Fovreh whined.
“Not much… and it was my cut,” he hesitated and thought for a few seconds. “One of the small rubies,” he admitted.
The group simultaneously moaned, grumbled, and cursed.
Torrain pointed accusingly at the dwarf, “Damned right that was your cut.”
“I know.” Grawfn shrugged.
Jarious exhaled sharply as he planned his next words very carefully. In his head, he chided the cosmos for burdening him such a sharp sense of right and wrong. Life, and work, would have been so much easier without acknowledging the consequences.
“No,” Jarious stated in his stern commander voice to cut off any further accusations against the dwarf. The rest of the unit looked at him. Years of instinct reacting to that particular voice served him well. “No. Grawfn is right. The sentinels protect the city and we should tithe. That was money from all of us he put in there. The last thing we need is for Junction to take it on the chin by an Elemental raid. We have too many contacts, too many roots, and too much money to spend to watch it go away. Grawfn did the right thing by tithing to that sentinel.
“You guys are just pissed the right thing just cost you money.”
The wolflings resumed their grumbling, except Morrow. Morrow simply nodded his head visibly to show his support. With Jarious, Grawfn and Morrow of the same opinion, the others knew they had lost and possible leverage they had. Torrain continued to shake his head dejectedly, but he didn't voice a complaint. Arrious, silent, and Fovreh, less so, walked on.
In no time, the men were upbeat once again and chattering among themselves about the various useless items they would buy, the amount of beer they would consume, and the women that would, against all odds, find them attractive. Jarious, too, found himself sucked in to the airy conversation.
“… horseass, Torrain. There’s no way you brought a young-eyed doe from the old country to your room last time, I was with you almost the whole visit.” Arrious ribbed Torrain.
“You weren’t with me the whole time, old man,” Torrain winked. Arrious was older than Torrain, and Jarious for the matter, but younger than the rest of the wolflings.
“Like I said; horseass. You haven’t even kissed a woman since you discovered hair down there,” Arrious absentmindedly threw a rock into the bushes along the roadside.
“You know better, grandpa. You been with me last time, but you claim you didn’t see anything? Didn’t hear anything either, I gather?”
“Nope.” Arrious made an innocent face and continued to throw rocks into the fields.
Torrain turned to Jarious, “Is this how your parents raised you? To lie and make an upstanding man, like myself, doubt his abilities?”
Arrious and Jarious simultaneously answered, “Yes.”
Jarious playfully pointed to Torrain, "You deserve no better, scoundrel. If we didn't check your ego, it would grow to such a size that you would give away our positions while on patrol. As the commander of this motley crew, I cant have that. We destroy your ego not only for the laughs, but as a service to the unit and, indeed, to all humankind.”
“Gee, thanks.” Torrain mumbled, shaking his head and looking at the ground in order to avoid the grinning faces of his mates.
“At your service,” Arrious quipped.
The conversation remained simple and flowing as they entered the city center. Temperatures dropped as the long shadows of the mountains and tall stone buildings grew merged into larger and deeper traces of darkness across the ground.