Having hit a rough patch, Thomas faces a tough ultimatum from his guild employer, Mistress Victoria- turn things around or be let go.
Thomas took a long draw from his cigar.
The cherry burned red against the draw of his breath as the dim light of smoldering tobacco flushed his bearded, middle-aged features in a fleeting flare of crimson and shade.
Most of his face was obscured within the shadow of his western-style leather hat and its large brim.
It was his signature look, the western hat and long trenchcoat helped to personify his profession as a Guildman, a drifter, and it validated his presence when dealing with some of the Guilds clientele.
As a guild-sanctioned drifter; Thomas was a man that traversed the shattered waste at the behest of The Guild, taking on various jobs, tasks, and deeds. Mail, security, and supply runs were the most common jobs to be found across all the known settlements.
But sometimes, there are other things that the world needs to be done. The holstered revolver at his left hip was well suited to deal with those jobs that may require a bit more dramatic finesse.
The Drifter, Thomas, was never seen as the man or individual that he is. Be it by the Guild or its clients, or some random stranger on the street. A Guildman is a man the Guild needs him to be.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
Often alone, most guildsmen had nothing but a gruff and sometimes rough mercenary persona. Some did it for the money, some for glory, others for adventure.
But they all did it for their own reasons.
A nameless drifter at best. Thomas held each breath like a connoisseur would while sampling a fine wine. Savoring the earthly taste of the smoke as the pollutant filled his lungs,
Slowly he exhaled his breath in a steady stream of lazy rings and tendrils while resisting an all-too-familiar urge to cough and expel the foul substance from his body.
"Fuck.." Thomas mumbled to himself with a mouthful of smoke.
"These things will fucking kill me yet!" Finally giving in to the urge to cough into the sleeve of his long coat.
He took a moment to stare at what was left of his once stout cigar and admired the craftsmanship it took to roll an item such as it was to such a slow-burning consumable perfection.
It was all done by hand, by some proud farmer near the Imperial Borderlands, without a mechanical tool or machine. Like any hobbyist, Thomas appreciated the time and skilled dexterity it took to produce such a high-quality and flavorful finished product. Grown and cured in a place where life still flourished, untainted and undaunted by the Shattering that upset the world some millennia ago.
This cigar was a product of decades of cultured purity and mundane labor.
It is an art in itself.
He knew it was poison, well, maybe not poison exactly. But still, the prolonged debilitating effect of the synthetic herb was often the same.
Prolonging and extensive use held hazardous health risks to the user, and even those around them. Unfortetuely for Thomas it was also the only thing that could steady the veterans' hands.
After the war, something had never quite been the same. Something had begun to feel broken within.
A veil had been lifted that could no longer conceal the bitter truths of the world. The burden of that truth and guilt is an exhausting weight to carry.
And when the shakes took him?
A troublesome reminder of his younger and more nieve days, well the sedative herb within those cigars was the only thing that would calm the shakes and soothe his mind.
After the war...nothing had just been the same as it was before.
Though Thomas tried Doctor after doctor, even this spiritual guru and the next, Imperial or Rhydinian, it never seemed to yield lasting or substantial results.
Once the novelty of the treatment wore off, so too did its relief.
Eventually, everything seemed to be leading to the same medical prognosis.
And after a while of hearing the same thing, every time?
Well, he just grew numb and apathetic to the truth.
"…But not today!"
Thomas said aloud. His voice was rough with phlegm as he spat to the ground, Shaking himself from brooding and intrusive thoughts.
He flicked the lit cigar to the ground, where it sizzled in a puddle and was extinguished beneath the sole of Thomas's boot.
The reflected and buzzing neon signs of the Jazz Club across the street called the place by its name.
"The Red Dragon Inn".
The Inn held the call of a siren that beseeched all the denizens of the city of Rhydian, if not the world. The Inn was a nexus, a focal point. A natural convergence of lives and fates as well as misadventures and the occasional foolish demise.
The Inn was infamous for its more 'elusive' services and its strict operations of neutrality. Though residing within the outskirts of a Rhydinian district, the Inn straddled a fine political line that allowed it a unique position of mediator between two opposing world powers.
The Republic of Rhydin and The Elv'hanian Empire.
"Let's get this over with.."
Thomas grumbled to himself, agitated.
He was adjusting the brim of his hat with the moisture of the steam-filled evening that had already begun to bead and roll off, uncomfortably dripping down the back of his neck and into his trench coat.
Thomas supposed you had to admire the Gnomes for their ingenuity. The Moisture Recycler Systems are clever devices invented by the gnomish engineering corp. These Moisture Recyclers known commonly as MRS had been installed throughout the city infrastructure to simulate the natural effect of rain in a land that saw little if any natural rainfall.
The MRS was indeed a technical marvel that provided a direly needed service for life within the city and the often hostile environment of the shattered lands.
But to Thomas?
Now, at this moment?
They only added to the misery of his evening.
He was cold, damp, and sore from his little misadventure the day before. He hadn't even showered or changed, yet here he is standing like a fool in the 'rain'.
Looking disheveled and not at all looking the part to enter an upscale social hotspot.
Disheveled by not quite homeless.
Thomas still had to meet with and deliver some unpleasant news to his current guild employer, Mistress Victoria. That was an occupational hazard, like most, he'd typically wish to avoid.
Thomas favored his head where it was and was keenly interested in keeping it there.
Getting on the bad side of one of Rhydians' most influential scions tended to have rather serious and adverse repercussions, such as the type he would much rather do without.
No matter how well he thought he may have known her.
The bouncer at the door had inadvertently drawn his attention toward Thomas;
“You say somethi'n, human?” Slurred the half-giant Cyclops. The large man's voice was a low rumble of grinding boulders.
The Cyclopian bouncer stood tall though slouched slightly forward. His arms are thick with knotted muscle and sinew, they crossed the length of his rather impressively broad chest that seemed all shoulders and almost no neck.
He guarded that velvet rope like a troll would its bridge. Only a dead man would dare force his luck against that monstrosity of a bouncer.
Like most of the Cyclopian Race, the man giant that stood before Thomas, barring his entrance was easily considered one of the most imposing when compared to the other more common races of the city.
The dwarfs and gnomes made up a large part of the city's inhabitants. But it was the humans that seemed to dominate the census, with a few other minor minorities occasionally finding refuge within the city walls.
Most of the Cyclopian population preferred a tribal-style life within the jagged mountains of the north, adhering largely to their old way of life and racial customs. But a few, for various reasons would find themselves every so often within the city of Rhydin.
This individual, this Cyclopian male was more a tower of menacing and imposing flesh than anything mortal.
And to think, Thomas thought. This was only one of the two twins.
Mistress Victoria had chosen her guard hounds well. Well as far as intimidation went at least. Of the two Cyclopian twins, Thomas wasn't sure if the one before him now was Jean or the other twin brother, Paul.
The two Cyclopian brothers often made a game of it and seemed to take a sadistic pleasure out of it. Of the two, Jean is the oldest, if only by a moment. Not that, that provided any notable distinguishing characteristics between them.
Questioned Thomas, proffering up a dismissive shrug, having realized the bouncer was merely responding to him.
That imposing, blind Cyclop only stood there, silent and stoic, with a face like stone. It wasn't the overbearing presence of this creature's personality that would win him the bouncer of the year reward, and he was undoubtedly imposing.
Instead, the promise of pain and physical violence served a man like Jean ad his brother Paul best. They didn't need to intimidate with words and idle threats.
Not when his massive body and cultural history promised it.
Looked for it.
Even begged for the chance to visit violence upon you.
That unsettling stare was now fixated directly on Thomas.
A translucent black visor was worn over the single blind eye and did little to hide a hideous scar of some malformed practice neither of the two brothers spoke about.
This facial disfigurement the two brothers shared.
Their visors provided a visual projection that functioned as a remote viewer, directly transmitting visuals into the Cyclops' visual cortex. Visuals that he and his brother could then share with Mistress Veronica.
To the underground world and those within the influential circles that tended to subtly steer the course of their mutual government, the twins had become known as “The Eyes of the Dragon”.
Body modifications are largely an outlawed service within the city of Rhydin. A law that has seen stricter enforcement over the years after the war. Most technology is coal or steam being preferred.
Manual and analog devices over anything advanced that may implement any type of artificial intelligence. Fear is a heavy and powerful motivator. And after the war, there was no shortage of it.
The visor that the twins wore to share with Victoria dangerously skirted the legalities of that law.
High Tech had become a science that drifted too far off into the ethics deep end and held many uncomfortable similarities with the known horrors of the nefarious Mecha-gnomes and their assimilating technology-driven Race. Their Artificial collective had launched an extinction war against organic life that the Elv'hanian Empire had exploited. In a series of battles and events that eventually culminated in the tragedy often referred to as The Shattering.
It almost seemed as if Jean, or was it Paul?! could sense Thomas's discomfort, the half-giant seemed to selfishly or maybe even morbidly relish in it. Thomas felt the cold dread of that gaze, how it sized him up and down…
like a grinning wolf slobbering over fresh meat. Seeking to ascertain and analyze the validity of any threat that Thomas may pose. The whole experience left Thomas feeling uncomfortable. Something about it always made the hairs on his neck rise with a vague and unnatural sensation.
But that could be the point of using someone like the twins as doormen.
Then there was always a lingering scent of cinnamon and spice, barely there and lingering in the air.
Maybe it was some specialty scent the large Cyclopian man wore? Not that Thomas had ever heard or known of any Cyclopian that was overly concerned with their bathing habits or rituals.
Or perhaps it was some fragrance the club used for aesthetics and ambiance. It didn't really matter and Thomas didn't really care anyway.
"Sorry, Jean, I was just talking to myself.." Thomas said. Having settled with his decision that this was Jean and not his brother, Paul.
The large Cyclopian impassively stood there without a word. He didn't even seem to acknowledge that Thomas had even spoken a word to him. Until, finally, the mounting silence prompted Thomas to prod the large man again.
"For god's sake, Jean! A man shouldn't have to bear his soul just to get a damned drink!”
"Open the fucking door and let me in!"
Thomas complained to no real effect. The ire in his voice was met with only passive indifference. Like an adult watching a child throw a tantrum. The Cyclopian brother just stood there, impassive and indifferent. Which of course did little more than stir the embers of Thomas's own frustration.
“Shit, man! it's not like you don't know me!"
"Stop screwing around and just let me in!" Said Thomas with a little iron in his voice.
The Cyclopian still refused to respond, only seeming to aggravate Thomas more.
"Veronica's expecting me, and you know it!" Yelled Thomas. "It will be your ass if she gets pissed off!"
The two stared at one another a moment longer. The smaller, human Thomas comically tries to outstare a blind Cylcop. The silent tension was thick between the two with only the steady back and forth of the Cyclopian's visors optics breaking the standoff.
The bigger man finally relented with a dismissive shrug, his expression almost hurt-like as if responding to some unheard command.
"Hmm..." The Cyclopian boncer grunted. "I'm Paul."
Though Paul didn’t change his expression, Thomas couldn’t help but feel the weight of that judgmental stare.
Opening the velvet rope, Paul stood aside and allowed Thomas admittance into The Red Dragon.
But as Thomas walked past Paul, mumbling his apology as he went and feeling flushed with guilt and a modest amount of embarrassment. Thomas entered the club, just before the blaring blast of music enveloped him, he heard the large Cyclopian whisper behind him.
"Good luck Mr. Valentine. De Mistress be knowing you fucked up.”
"Fuck…" mumbled Thomas as he squared his shoulders, shook the last of the recycled rain-free from his coat, removed his hat, and entered the euphoric paradise of The Red Dragon Inn.