Ballentine leaned across the table at the Hound’s Head tavern toward the tall, handsome stranger. “You’re lying. That tale is as tall as an oak and just as nutty.”
“By Moradin’s Hammer, it’s the truth,” said the stranger, hand to chest.
“So you’re telling me that you had a Jackalwere in your party, adventuring for weeks, and none of you knew? There’s no way. I would have known.” Ballentine leaned back, sure in his superior skills.
“How would you have known? They’re shapeshifters. They can look just as human as you.”
“But I bet they smell like the dogs they are.”
The stranger’s eyes narrowed slightly as he stared toward at the rowdy table behind Ballentine for a moment. Then he shrugged. “None of us noticed any smell.”
“So what did this supposed Jackalwere call itself,” asked Ballentine, crossing his arms.
“Jack,” said the stranger with a rye smile.
“And that didn’t make you suspicious?”
“I know a dozen Jacks.”
“So how did he manage to take out the rest of your party?”
The stranger stared again for a moment, as he’d been doing all evening, perhaps collecting his thoughts, mused Ballentine, or making up his story.
“Our thief disappeared first, a week in. No trace. We searched, but, well, Jack was our ranger. I’m sure he led us in the wrong direction. The second week our cleric disappeared just as mysteriously. Snacks, I suppose, for the snake in our midst.”
“The cowardly cur, you mean. If I’d been there…”
“I’m sure you would have known immediately,” said the stranger with a half-smile. “It was a week later, twilight, the moon was already up when he attacked the rest of us. Thank Moradin I was rear guard or I might be dead too. We were covering rough, rocky ground. Jack and our paladin were in the lead, three more of us following. I came around a tall stack of rocks and saw Jack with his hand on our paladin’s shoulder, just talking. Then our paladin dropped, like a sack of sand.” The stranger’s eyes refocused on Ballentine. “Did you know jackalweres can put people to sleep with just their gaze?”
“Of course. Who doesn’t know that?” said Ballentine, lying.
The stranger raised his eyebrows but went on. “My two companions ahead of me rushed to our paladin’s aid. I thought he was ill perhaps. We still had no suspicions. But as I stood staring Jack seemed to shimmer, or blur, or well, I don’t know how to describe it. Suddenly there he was, magnificent, head of a jackal, body of a man, drawing his wicked scimitar and smiling. It took a few moments for my brain to take it in. I knew this guy. We’d fought together. Theo and Archie were kneeling over our paladin. They never really had a chance. Though Theo put up a good fight.”
“Supposing I believe all this,” said Ballentine, “Why would the hound want to travel with a bunch of humans?
“There’s protection in numbers,” said the stranger. “It was a safer way for him to travel. Not to mention the fresh food. I think we delivered him where he wanted to go.”
“Where were you headed?”
Ballentine suddenly noticed the tavern had gone very quiet. He looked around. The barkeep and the patrons were all slumped on the tables. The hair on his arms stood on end. He looked back at the stranger, who smiled as he seemed to shimmer.
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