Login   Sign Up 


Title TK

by mnemosyne 

Posted: 03 October 2006
Word Count: 53239
Summary: The current state of my "trashy fantasy novel." Help. Please pardon any formatting errors due to transferring from MS Word to the forum.

Font Size

Printable Version
Print Double spaced


ALEXIA HIT THE DIRT HARD. The left shoulder of her shirt tore as she skidded over a root and skirted behind a large patch of brambles, skinning her elbows and shoulder along the way. Ducking under the massive shadow of a pyrus tree, she cradled her shoulder as she pushed her aching back up against the back of the tree’s colossal trunk.
“Fan out, she’s here somewhere,” croaked a guttural, raspy growl of a voice. Whatever sort of creature had just spoken began to walk forward, cutting through the underbrush with loud thwacks. Two humans came out from behind an outcropping of stone about twenty yards behind her, and fanned out to the left and right, brandishing menacing halberds.
More armed men came out in other directions from between two large pyrus trees Alexia had dodged between only moments before. One of the armed men came within five feet of where Alexia was crouched and shivering, but turned to his right and walked on.
A large, reptilian creature emerged from the undergrowth, and raised a torch in one of its four, blue-grey-scaled arms. The vaguely anthropomorphic beast flared the nostrils on the end of its long, beaked snout, inhaling a few large gulps of air. Alexia recognized it immediately. This beast was a Cryddri, one of the Cloaklands’ shock troops used for hunting – and usually killing – fugitives. She did not recognize this particular monstrosity, but she had seen many before, and had always managed to get on bad terms with them very quickly.
Entirely without warning, the large creature stopped dead in its tracks. The Cryddri spun around and focused its gaze on Alexia, and let out a deafening roar that sounded like a combination of a screeching drake and a shattering windowpane. It extended a long, clawed forefinger, pointed to where Alexia hid, and shouted “THERE!”
Alexia jumped up from her hiding place, and dashed off to the west, towards the rapidly decreasing darkness as twilight crested over the tops of the Eldûl Igen just beyond the tree line. As she leaped over bushes and under fallen trees, she could hear the clank of armor-plated boots behind her, and the roars and splintering tree limbs as the creature crashed through the forest.
As she ran, the crashing grew ever so slightly lower. She began to feel more relaxed, gaining more rhythm to her running, but never losing speed. As soon as the sounds of the creature were out of earshot, she stopped running, and, exhausted, began to walk.
Quickly surveying her surroundings, she noted a tree to her left that had large knots sticking out of its trunk. Using these impromptu handholds, Alexia clambered up the tree with the speed of a seasoned rock climber, and perched herself on one of the “Y” shaped branches near the midriff of the trunk.
Her breathing still shallow and fast, Alexia allowed herself to relax just long enough for the murmurs and rustles of the creature and its hunting party to come back into her range of perception. She perched herself more readily on the balls of her feet, and stared down. Just as the creature again began to probe the air for her scent, Alexia pulled from her belt a small glass sphere filled with a flowing, semi-gaseous fluid that sloshed about like bromine gas in an alchemist’s flask. Alexia tapped the sphere lightly with her fingernail, sending a hairline crack about three-quarters of the way around its circumference. She then grasped the orb lightly, and hurled it at a tree about three feet to the right of the creature, where it shattered violently. The volatile liquid exploded upward in a cone of greenish-yellow haze. The wind blowing through the trees quickly dispersed the thick brume, which stuck to any surface that would lend itself.
The imposing Cryddri doubled over and roared with pain as its nostrils began to blush a light red color, and it began to claw at its nose with its two unoccupied arms. The men around it proceeded to wax chaotic as they all became confused and frightened as their exposed skin began to burn and itch. Alexia chuckled as she leapt from her limb perch to a lower limb on a tree further ahead of the pack of unruly mercenaries, and proceeded down to the ground on her next leap. She turned around to marvel for a moment at the mess she had just caused, and then turned to leave.
It was then that a blue-grey-scaled arm wielding a small bough came crashing down on Alexia’s back. She blacked out.

* * *


“AYE, THE FIRE RUBY. ‘S huge. Bigger than any one of you lot could carry I tell ye’ that.” The old man said before taking a large mouthful from his own tankard. “Worth a fair bit too, I should say.” Taere’s ears pricked up then. He moved from his corner to where the old man was sitting.
“Can I buy you a drink, friend?” Taere asked.
“I dare say ye’ could.”
“Another tankard of Dragonsmeade for my friend here,” he called to the barkeep. “Now, tell me more about this Fire Ruby.” Taere acted extremely interested, though he knew what the Fire Ruby was already. He was a mercenary, hired and sent to find it by the Ctrelli Mechanics Corporation in Æfer.
“Your name first, friend.” The old man said. “I don’t speak to those I don’t know.”
“Nice to meet ye’, Neran. I’m Peb.”
“Now that niceties are out of the way,” Taere leaned forward on his elbows expectantly, “tell me about this Fire Ruby.”
Peb quaffed his freshly filled tankard and belched before speaking. “The Ctrelli Mechanics Corporation was looking for a new source of power. So when they were shipped a prototype ‘magnifier’ or somethin’ like that from Shojuno, they thought of micro-engineerin’ somethin’ to generate power. Usin’ some weird magicks I’ve never seen, they did this thing up real nice and made it the size, shape, and shine of a 9-inch emerald-cut ruby. They were transportin’ a prototype to Selûne through Cordïd when their caravan was attacked by thieves from S’aar. The Cloak found the thing after they caught up with the bandits, but refused to return the Fire Ruby since Ctrelli hadn’t registered their border crossing here in S’aar.” He chuckled. “So now, ‘s locked up in that prison tower near Colendd.” He shuddered, “Bloody awful place. The bastards keep kids locked up in there. Y’know that?”
“I’d heard things.” Taere admitted.
“Bastards, the lot of ‘em.” There were nods and murmurs of agreement from around them.
Taere nonchalantly stared out the window so as to drift away from that subject. “Well,” he said, getting up, “I’ve got to be leaving; the Inn I’m staying at refuses to let anyone in after dark.”
“That’d be Shan’s place,” someone said.
Taere nodded and drank the last of his mead. “Well Peb, thanks for the information.”
“No problem. You’ll be goin’ after it I presume?”
He grinned. “Am I that transparent?”
“Aye, ye’ may be at that. Well be careful, ye’ don’t want to be locked up in that hell hole.”

Taere left the tavern, feeling a bit more than tipsy. The sun was starting to go down and the torches were just starting to be lit. He was a big man, not of flesh, but muscle – a natural warrior. Although large, he was fast; and it was this skill that made him an excellent swordsman.
The streets darkened quickly, and he made it back to the inn just in time.
“I’ve half a mind to kick you out.” Shan told him as he walked past her.
“If you did that, you’d lose out on some circlets, wouldn’t you?”
Shan grunted with disapproval and hustled him inside. He held the woman in high disregard. She was a gossip and loved to be the center of attention. Conveniently for her business, though, the inn was the only clean one outside a mile from the Cloak tower.
After barely managing to get himself up the stairs, he collapsed on his bed and passed out.

Morning broke, and a beam of light shone down on Taere’s face. He awoke up with a start and maneuvered himself into the still remaining darkness. He tried to get back to sleep but as morning crept on the sun followed him around the room until all he was fully bathed in light. He swore and got up grudgingly.
He dressed in his full armor and went into the town to see about buying a horse. It was a long way to Colendd and he wasn’t going to walk.
Taere found a stable on the outskirts of town, and settled for a big roan with an unfriendly look in his eyes. When he first came near the horse, the large animal bared its teeth with the intention of biting him. Laughing to himself, Taere brought his fist down on the roan’s muzzle.
“That’s enough of that,” Taere murmured. He turned to the stable keeper and asked, “How much?”
“Are you sure you want this one? He’s awful bad tempered.”
“Quite sure. We’ll get along well. Now, how much?”
“One hundred circlets.”
“You’re kidding me.” Taere turned to leave.
“Well, I could drop the price down to eighty…”
“Or you could drop it to fifty, and call it a good deal for a sub-par animal.”
“Excuse me?”
“Come look at this.” Taere gestured for the stable keep to come over to the opposite side of the horse. Taere looked down at the horse’s underbelly, which had a very noticeable white growth protruding from the brown fur around the middle of its chest.
“That wasn’t there yesterday…”
“Well, it’s here today,” Taere spat out with the slightest hint of acerbity.
Flabbergasted and bewildered by the mysterious growth, the shopkeeper stood staring at the horse for a few moments before speaking. “I paid good money for this animal when it was a foal…I could let it go for sixty-five, but that’s my final offer.”
“Done.” Taere pulled out a pouch and emptied a handful of silver rings into his left hand. Counting them to himself in clusters of ten, he dropped a jingling handful of rings into the stable keeper’s open palm, and led his newly purchased horse out to the main road.
Chuckling to himself, Taere brushed at the growth on the underbelly of the horse. The surface cracked, and the majority of what had apparently been caked-on mud fell off and mixed in with the gravel on the road. Taere clapped his hands together a few times to get the excess mud out of where it had become caked onto his hands, climbed on the horse, and trotted out of the west gate towards Colendd.

The road was hard, and Taere was driving his horse even harder. He had business to do, and he wasn’t going to get it done by strolling. Taere couldn’t help but talk to himself – and occasionally his horse – as he rode towards Colendd. Riding through the seemingly endless landscape of Belden Forest for over four hours was, as one might imagine, pretty boring. After a few fruitless conversations with his mount, Taere realized his horse didn’t even have a name – or, at least, no name he had been told. For what seemed to be a perfectly good brown horse, that seemed odd.
“So, what’s your name?”
The horse didn’t answer. Then again, Taere hadn’t expected him to.
“You need a name.”
The horse snorted. It continued to clop along at a slow trot.
“What do you feel like? Some clichéd word blend? Sunfire? Windwalker?”
The horse jerked the reins a little, and stopped to feed on the side of the road. Taere tried to pull the disobedient roan’s head up, but it was immovably planted in a patch of trail grass.
“How about Dirtnap?” Taere whispered under his breath. And, of course, the horse paid no attention to its rider. Taere yanked on the reins, but to no avail.
“For the love of the Ether, GET MOVING!”
The horse’s head snapped up, and took off straight into a canter down the path. Taere almost fell off head-over-heels and backwards as the horse quickly accelerated.
“Well, I guess your name is Ether.” He paused. “Fine! Choose a better name than I did. Stupid horse…” Taere muttered further to himself, making oaths on innumerable inanimate objects of no real significance.
As Ether continued quickly down the forest road, the edge of the massive forest clearing that Colendd occupied finally came into Taere’s view. The walls of the city comprised densely planted pyrus trees and filler saplings, carved out in the center to create a hollow palisade wall enclosing the entire city in the impenetrable girth of a pyrus forest. The technique was copied from Cylvari Elves living in the region, and worked well for most defensive purposes. Getting through the wall, however, was easier said than done, even for travelers and merchants. The city had one gate at each of the cardinal points of the compass, each of which was exceedingly difficult to find even at the relatively short distance of 100 yards. A merchant might be less than 50 paces from one of the gates, but end up circling the city for another 15 minutes to find the next gate, simply because they were so well camouflaged with branches and nature-mimicking ironwork. Taere, no more skilled in the art of finding the gates than the average merchant, continued to ride around the city for about another hour until he reached the west gate of Colendd.
The gate was a massive wrought-iron portal curved into a leafy-patterned design interwoven with naturally knotted branches and twisting vines. Every few feet, a large, mirror-finished metal leaf would poke out from the otherwise natural-looking ironwork, denoting the presence of an entrance. On top of the palisade, a magically manipulated wooden cage was perched at the hinge of the left gate, connected to the palisade by a wrought iron spiral staircase.
Taere called up to the apparently empty cage, “Anyone up there?” He heard some hollow clunks and the clatter of metal from inside the palisade, and the distinct flat sound of leather-soled boots on iron. A man appeared in the crows’ nest, wearing an ornate iron helmet and carrying a halberd.
“Who’s there?”
“Neran of Kwalish. I have business with the Order of the Black Hood here.”
“I’ll just check on that, then,” the guard said with a slight sneer. He descended into the wall again. Taere heard murmuring from inside the hollow trees of the wall, and soon again heard the clank of boots on the metal staircase. The guard reappeared.
“Alright, you’re clear. Go on in.”
The guard pulled a lever next to him in the crows’ nest. A sharp metallic click was followed by the grinding of gears, and the gate swung open outward. Taere pulled Ether back to avoid the gate, and the roan whinnied in dismay at the loud unfamiliar noises. The gate stopped, and Ether calmed himself down. Taere clicked his tongue, and Ether trotted ahead into the gate.


TAERE TIED UP HIS HORSE outside one of the small, inconspicuous looking cottages in the northeastern portion of Colendd. After struggling to loop the reigns around a post and crossbar sticking out of the ground to the left of the entrance, Taere gave Ether a pat on the snout and a quick neck rub, and walked inside.
As soon as he entered the dwelling, it became obvious, however, that it was anything but a normal, inconspicuous cottage. Immediately to the left of the entrance, a staircase descended into the ground about ten feet, and opened up into a large room bustling with shady looking characters dressed in hoods, cloaks, and all manners of thieves’ garb. Some toted daggers, tossing them in the air and testing them for balance, others bartered with – presumably stolen – goods and money.
Taere scanned the room, and soon found who he was looking for.
“Sherrik!” An old, coot-like man looked up at the sound of what was presumably his name, and tottered over to where Taere stood.
“Taere Flarion,” Sherrik said in a caustic tone, “you unreliable, tardy, untrustworthy bastard of a mercenary; I’ve been waiting for you for over an hour!”
“Calm your crotchety old self, Sherrik, I had trouble with my horse.”
“Get a better one then.”
“Sherrik, I just bought the horse. What do you expect me to do, go back and ask for a new one?”
“If this stable hand had any sort of class, he’d trade you for another horse.”
“How about we stop talking about my business issues, and start talking about our business?” Sherrik suddenly straightened up, and seemed less like an old man and more like the seasoned thief he was.
“Entering the tower will be the easy part. Once you walk in those two massive doors, however, your task immediately becomes much more difficult. The Cloak usually places the standard inept, greenhorn guards at the main entrance to restrict who gets into the tower as effective mindless peons and as cannon fodder if anyone particularly menacing – that’s you – tries to get in.”
“Suggestions?” Taere probed.
“Deal with them with as much brash confidence as possible. With any luck, they either won’t know the rules of who’s allowed inside, or they’ll be so confused they’ll simply let you in.”
“And if they don’t?”
Sherrik’s eyes glistened with the slightest twinge of iniquity. “Kill them.”
“So once I either get past them or, maybe, kill them, where do I go to find this thing?”
“It’s probably in a vault.”
“That’s great. That’s really, really great. What am I supposed to do about that? Those vaults are magically locked. I don’t have the kind of equipment you need to get into one of those locks, let alone the standard five that the Cloak uses on all their high-security vaults.”
“I’m sure you’re resourceful,” Sherrik replied. He then got himself up with the knotted stick he used as a cane, and began to totter back to his other business, but turned back quickly.
“Oh, and Taere?”
“Mmm?” Taere grunted back.
“Don’t get killed.”
“Wait,” he said, “was that concern?”
“No, you just do good jobs for Ctrelli. We like you.”
“Make all the excuses you want, Sherrik, you know you actually care whether I live or die.”
“Go do your job.”
Taere walked back up the stairs out of the thieves’ den and back out the door. Unsurprisingly, he found that Ether had unhitched himself and wandered off into town.
“Hell’s bells…” Taere muttered, and stalked off to find his missing roan.

* * *

The cell door opened and Alexia’s interrogator walked in. Alexia looked up through the blood-crusted locks of her brown hair, now stained permanently red by the ichor that covered them daily.
“Good morning sunshine.” He grinned menacingly, “And how are you today?”
She spat at his feet.
“Fine, thank you.” She smiled sweetly. “And what is it to be today my Lord Tariq? The whip? Or perhaps the hot irons?” and took a quick glance behind him at the guards, they were watching uneasily. “Tell me my Lord. Where is my sister?”
“You don’t need to know that.”
“I think I do.”
“Well then, you’re not going to know. It doesn’t matter now anyway.” He leaned in to whisper in her ear: “She didn’t last as long as you.”
Alexia hesitated perhaps a second before head-butting him. He staggered backwards, and rubbed his head gingerly. He then straightened up and became more business like. Alexia saw one of the guards grin a little bit. She laughed inwardly.
“Tell us what you know. Why are They after you?” he said quickly, hoping to shock an answer out of her.
“I don’t know anything, as I’ve told you many times before, but you seem to take no notice.” She paused and cocked her head to one side. “I don’t even know who ‘They’ are.”
“I know you’re lying.” He spat.
“How? I don’t think mages have come across truth magic yet have they?”
Without warning he hit her hard across the jaw. She barely felt any pain before passing out.
A torrent of water flowed over her and jerked her awake.
“You don’t think I’d let you get away that easily do you? Strip her.”
Tariq’s two accompanying guards pulled off her tattered shirt, and chained her arms to a pair of old, bloody shackles hanging from an indefinitely long set of chains attached to the iron bars above her cell. Tariq unrolled a three-tailed bullwhip from behind his back. The spaces between the stitches gleamed as the dim light reflected off the shards of glass woven in with the leather cord of the whip’s tails
Again and again the whip cracked across Alexia’s back. With every blow surges of pain washed over her like fire. She could feel the welts beginning to swell up on her back, and just barely started to be aware of the blood trickling down the grooves of her spine.
After an hour or so, they stopped. They released her from her chains as they usually did and left her sobbing on the ground.
“Tomorrow, my dear, there’s always tomorrow,” Tariq said as he almost pranced out of her cell. The iron-reinforced oak door clanged behind him and ground with a screech as the magical locks engaged.
She had to get out.


ALEXIA WAS LEFT for three hours to recover. After the second hour they walked in and slammed a bucket of algae-ridden water down on the hewn rock floor before closing and re-bolting the door. Alexia dragged herself over to it, leaving a trail of blood behind her.
Reaching around with both hands, she cupped her palms and slowly began to drink the water. Her tongue was swollen and she could barely swallow, but the moisture for her lips was enough.
After she had drunk her fill she crawled back to her corner, and got herself into a position where she could lean against the wall without causing any more damage to the large welts on her back. An hour wasn’t enough. She knew the beatings wouldn’t come again for another week. But she’d be gone by then.
They came back and dragged her up onto a chair that was brought in. One of them looked at her with pity. She looked back at him weakly, and managed a smile. He was a new one. He wasn’t used to seeing this, but he’d harden off in a few months.
She looked up and saw Tariq walk in; the two-guard show propped her up on the chair and stepped aside quickly.
“You don’t look too good.” Tariq murmured with a smirk.
“I could say the same thing about you.” She replied looking at him. She mustered what spit she could in her mouth and spat on the floor at his feet.
He turned to the guards. “Leave us.” They left, and Alexia was left alone with him.
Tariq pulled out a small leather case. He placed it on the ground and stooped low over it. He unlatched the two sterling clasps on the front of the case, and opened it away from Alexia. Out of it, he drew a variety of sharp-looking, shiny implements.
“This could hurt a little.”

Alexia slept uneasily that night. Dreams plagued her mind, and the odd scream from outside her cell sometimes broke through into her consciousness. When the dreams came, as they did every night since her capture, she cried helplessly. There were people screaming and dying. All she saw was charred flesh, heard the screams of children, and the images of innumerable people being mercilessly butchered became almost imprinted onto her mind’s eye. It all felt too real.
She awoke early, and walked over to the door with what looked like surprising ease, when in fact, every bone in her body seemed to ache as she moved.
The door was made of solid oak, and was reinforced by steel trusses and plates across the joints of the wood. It let no light through except for a small hole covered by stout bars of iron. Alexia peered through this to see the new guard standing outside; looking quite distressed at what he was hearing coming up from the lower levels.
Alexia smiled to herself and made a pathetic show of falling on the ground, while yelling out an extremely convincing shriek.
A few seconds passed and eventually the guard unlocked the door. Alexia made a show of rubbing her knee.
“What’s wrong?” He had tried to make his voice gruff but had failed quite miserably.
Alexia put on her best little girl voice. “It’s my knee. Tariq kicked it yesterday and I just tried to get up, I think it’s dislocated or something.” She looked up at him with her best impression of doe eyes and smiled weakly. “This is what you get for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
His face softened and he crouched down for a closer look at her knee. And that’s exactly what he got. She swung her leg up and kicked him solidly in the face. He staggered backwards, giving Alexia the time she needed to get off the ground. Standing in front of him now, she looked at him. He was shocked. She cocked her head to one side and put on a face of feigned sympathy.
“Oh,” She said. “Did you think I was harmless?”
He didn’t answer.
“Don’t worry. Most people do when they first meet me.” She walked closer to him. He didn’t move; it was like he was rooted to the ground. Alexia grinned before hitting him in the jaw. Hard. He wavered a second before his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he fell on the ground. The keys tied to his belt jangled.
She smiled.

* * *

As the sun came up over the City of the Cloak, Mur Sylphetica’s eyes opened. He sat up on the bedroll he had slept on the night before, and checked the door. The shovel was still jammed into the bolt lock. He had been hiding in – of all places – a storage closet located on the third floor of the Cloak Tower itself.
As silently as possible, Mur got himself up, and strapped on all his gear. His belt was made entirely of padded leather, and made no sounds. His vest was full of small pockets – also completely padded and silent. He somehow managed to make 4 daggers, 6 small throwing knives, a loot bag, two short swords, and Mesmir, his larger blade, completely silent without turning himself into a padded snowman.
He slowly pulled his shovel, which he had used as an impromptu door lock, out of the bolt, and swung the door open. He crouched behind the doorframe, hiding in the long shadows the rising sun cast through the window. There were four levels of stairs he had to climb up to get to the top of the rotunda, and it wasn’t going to be easy to get up them. The Mages were already awake and patrolling the halls and their halberdiers would be on the ground floor. This could be a problem.
Mur crept along the walls in the shadows, avoiding Mages whenever he could, and simply staying completely silent when he couldn’t get around them. Every so often he considered throwing a flashbomb or two to get around a Mage, but luck was with him, and they simply walked away. There was no need to attract attention.
By the time he had gotten up three levels, the sun had risen above the horizon completely. The shadows were lighter and shorter, and it was becoming increasingly hard for Mur to get around unnoticed. He was discovered twice by a Mage, and narrowly escaped being caught by hiding in stairwells and in buttresses on the ceiling. He finally got past the third level, and to the overlook balcony of the rotunda.
As he expected, the tower was already bustling with activity. The ground floor of the tower was full of Mages, guards, representatives from the rest of the Cloaklands and all other manners of people who had some business with the Order of the Black Hood. Mur certainly had business with them, but he was in no rush to get down into the grit of things on the ground floor. It wouldn’t be very professional to cause a ruckus.

Obviously, Taere had no such qualms with creating a spectacle. He slammed open the large oak doors and strode in with confidence. His cloak flowed out behind him, just barely showing the metal breastplate he wore under the thick black folds of the fabric.
He walked quickly over the stone floor, embossed and inlaid with the six-starred seal of the Black Hood. His boots clanked on the floor, which attracted more attention than he really needed. As he started to proceed up the stairs, a rather frantic-looking rookie of a guard came up behind him and stopped him by putting his hand on his shoulder.
“Sir could you please—”
Taere spun around quickly and cut him off. “Where's the fire ruby?”
“Sir, you have to—” The guard had no commanding personality whatsoever.
“Did you understand what I just said? I need to know where the fire ruby is.”
“Sir, if you wait a minute, you can find out how you can—”
“If you tell me where the fire ruby is now, I will wait.”
The guard seemed to gain a bit of initiative and confidence for a moment. “Well, I can tell you where you can see it, sir,” but then he lost it again, “but you have to go through a search here.”
“And why is that? Do I look like a criminal?”
“To be honest sir, you do fit the profile of a—”
“A what? A burglar? A mass murderer? A genocidal maniac bent on destroying all the people in the Cloaklands…starting with you? Hmm?” Taere shot him the crazy-eyed look of a psychotic.
The guard completely lost his composure at this remark “Well…no…but—”
“But what?”
The guard straightened himself out. “It's a strict policy that we must search any and every person entering the premises, and you sir are ent—”
Taere was disgusted. “Shut…up.”
He raised his left arm, and a long scalloped blade sprung out of the gauntlet under his cloak. He then thrust his hand forward, driving the blade into the guard’s chest. The metal made a rending sound as the blade passed through his chest plate and into his ribs.
The guard managed to squeak out a faint “Ouch” before collapsing off the end of the blade to the ground. Instantly flashes of white and blue ether went off around Taere in the rotunda as most of the Mages disappeared to other safe locations – in other words, away from him. Taere smirked, and reached behind his back into his cloak. From behind him he pulled a large silver hilt encrusted with a large aquamarine jewel etched red with a dragon. Blue liquid crystal began to flow from the hilt into a jagged bladed shape that looked as if it had been carved by its base right off a rock face out of a crystal vein. Taere swung the sword around in his hand, and smashed the broad side of the blade into a second approaching guard’s face. The man went down, clutching his bleeding nose.
As he turned around, Taere felt a wave of heat wash over him. Some of the Mages who had stayed had launched a barrage of fireballs, which now barreled down upon him. Taere was not dismayed in the slightest. With a huge swing of his blade, Taere deflected all the fireballs away from him. As the fireballs contacted the blue crystal, they flashed blue, reversed direction and immediately flew back at their casters, striking each of them in the chest.
Taere turned again just in time to hear “Stop where you are!” A group of four heavily armored halberdiers was running towards him from the other side of the rotunda with their weapons raised and visors down. Taere reached inside his cloak, and pulled out a small wooden contraption covered on one side with ratchets, gears, and camshafts. He then unfolded the sides of the small machine; making it obvious it was some sort of crossbow. Then, after pulling down the release hook on the back, he fired a bolt across the rotunda straight into one of the guards’ eyes. Taere wound a crank on the side of the contraption, letting another bold drop into the knock and pull back on the bowstring. Taere locked the trigger with a final half crank, and then loosed another bolt straight into another guard’s chest plate, shattering the armor and impaling his sternum.
As Taere went to reload the crossbow with another bolt, a guard came too close. Forgetting the crossbow for a minute, Taere raised his left arm, and pushed his wrist down. The gauntlet blade that had remained stationary on his wrist shot off, and, trailing a steel cable, impaled the guard in the chest. Taere pulled the blade out of the guard’s chest with a whipping motion, sending the broadside of the blade sideways to shatter another guard’s halberd blade into steel shards. Taere then switched hands, retracting the gauntlet blade and holding the crossbow with his left hand, and pointed his right wrist out at one of the remaining two guards. This time he pushed his wrist up, and a small steel bolt flew out of his sleeve into the guard’s throat, puncturing his throat and embedding itself halfway out the back of his neck.
The last guard was quick. He got into melee range of Taere, and swung his halberd down at Taere’s head. He barely missed, sending a shower of stone fragments and dust up as the blade of the halberd shattered one of the stone floor tiles. Taere then drew his blade, and, just as the liquid crystal extended itself to its full length, cleaved the last guard in two at the waist.
“That was too easy…”
But there was no one else there.
“Or not.”
Taere proceeded to run up a flight of stairs to the inner landing, and into a door leading to an upward staircase.

Mur had seen all this, and was, to say the least, not pleased with the technique he had just seen. Sure, he was a good fighter, but there was really no point in making such a public spectacle of it. He dropped down from his hiding place in a crevice of the ornately carved ceiling adornments, and surveyed the carnage before him. This was a total mess.
Working with obsessive-compulsive meticulousness, Mur began to clean up the floor. Not only did he spread blood-absorbing powder over the corpses, but he also pulled each body individually off to the side of the room, and slapped phase-shifting spell stickers on them. Each sticker was a small piece of magically adhesive parchment with a short ethereal shift spell written on it. When activated and stuck on a person or some inanimate object, the spell transfers over from the parchment to the item, rendering it ethereal and mostly transparent. The stickers didn’t last forever – just long enough for someone to make an escape or hide something from peering eyes for an hour or so.
Further, he placed back as many parts of the shattered stone tile as he could, and cemented them back together with workers’ adhesive – standard fare for any professional thief worth his salt in the Cloaklands. Mur was trained to leave a scene exactly as it was when he came – a piece of training that triggered what some might call a psychotic break.
Following his semi-formal cloak-and-dagger training in Kwalish, Mur’s borderline obsessive behaviors manifested themselves in the form of full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder. He found his compulsions useful sometimes when on a job, but rarely did he ever find a use for them in any other part of his life.
After laying all the shards of the shattered halberd by their staff – he had no means by which to mend them – Mur finished his work by pushing almost everything off to the side of the room. As soon as he finished, the double doors at the top of spiraling dual staircases that led to the main offices of the towers burst open as mage investigators poured into the room. Mur, acting on instinct, leaped almost 4o feet in the air, landing on one of the ceiling ornaments. His form melted into shadow, and he waited.

* * *

“For the love of the Abyss, how long do these stairs go for?!”
Taere was well into the 400th stair. The service staircase was cramped, moldy, and damp, and looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned since it was built (which was likely, as it had been rebuilt 6 years before). As Taere continued to climb, his boots got increasingly stickier as slime mold and mildew spores built up on the bottom. He could literally see no other footprints on the staircase other than those he had just made.
“This is absolutely disgusting.” Taere kicked the side of his boots against the walls to try to dislodge the festering muck from his feet. As he expected, he did not succeed. He stamped on the floor a few times, also to no avail.
Taere reached down to pick at the treads of his boot with the points on one of his gauntlets. With his foot firmly in his own grasp hovering in the air, Taere stated simply, “Harrumph,” and stepped down hard.
Much to his dismay, the floor, as if the “harrumphing” had aggravated it to the breaking point, collapsed out from under him. He found himself suddenly tumbling down a dark shaft with the light above him slowly receding. Acting on instinct, Taere shot his gauntlet blade up into what he hoped would be a slightly sturdier stone ceiling with the intention of stopping, or at least braking his fall. He heard the hook strike solidly into stone and mortar, and prepared himself to slowly retract the cable. As it were, though, in the few seconds it had taken him to react, he had fallen much further than he had expected. He immediately felt the line go taught; stopping him suddenly at what he thought must have been at least one hundred feet above any ground that he could see.
“Absolutely perfect. JUST DAMN PERFECT!”
An idea then struck him. This idea manifested itself in the form of a small rock that had become dislodged from the staircase above hitting him squarely on the head. Besides providing him with a small amount of pain to deal with, the rock also got his senses moving. He couldn’t see. Yet. Taere, using thoughts to stimulate certain nerves in his frontal lobe, activated the mage-crafted Blacksun Filter in his right eye. Much like a contact lens, it was a paper-thin piece of malleable mithril-crystal, with small runes on the edge, invisible even when worn, which activated innate magical properties of the crystal. Imbued with a soul captured from the Astral Plane, the Blacksun Filter acted as Taere’s guide, map, and analysis tool for many things. The crystal, as one of its unique properties, when activated by the bioelectrical currents of the brain, amplified ambient light.
Much to Taere’s both delight and personal embarrassment, he found himself dangling about a foot above a roughly carved stone floor, in what seemed to be a solitary confinement cell beneath the Tower. He released the blade, allowing it to tumble back towards him quickly as the magnetic reel retracted the cable back into the gauntlet. The moment the blade snapped back into a place, a twinge of pain shot through Taere’s arm. It appeared he had dislocated his shoulder.
He immediately uttered the word “DAMN!” followed by a string of other, rather unrepeatable profanities, and only then was able to start devising a way of fixing himself.
He started with the door. He made an attempt to open it with his dislocated arm, but did not find it, with his limited range of motion, physically possible for him to open the door at all, let alone use the momentum to snap his joint back into place. He reluctantly opened the door, finding a spiraling staircase with a smothered torch in a sconce on the wall. Striking the metal end against the wall, Taere lit the torch, and proceeded down the stairs. He was greeted by something rather unexpected.

* * *

Alexia stripped the guard of his tunic and weapons. She belted the short sword around her waist, and picked up the keys. She knew she didn’t have much time before the next wave of superiors came through.
The door was still unlocked, so before leaving the cell, she pulled the guard up and chained him to the wall in which she had been strung from so many times. She ripped off a piece of material from the tunic and gagged him. Now, when he awoke and started yelling, no one would care, for this was a prison, and who didn’t scream?
She left the cell quickly, and began to make her way around the dungeons. After a minute or so of skulking around the outer corridors, she realized that she had no idea where she was going. She wanted to get out, she knew that much. But there was something else stopping her. She needed to find her sister. Whether Tariq was lying or not, she didn’t know, but she knew she had to find out for herself.
She’d heard from some of the other guards that she was being held in the western corridor, whereas Alexia herself was being held in the east. She imagined that they would place her as far away from her own cell as possible. So, with Alexia being at the end of the Eastern corridor, logic led her to believe that Janna would be held at the far end of the Western corridor.
She needed her weapons; there was no doubt about that. And she knew precisely where the armory was. At the end of the Western corridor there was a spiral staircase leading around the rest of the tower level, before either dropping off down or going up, all she had to do was get past the other cells without disturbing too many of the other prisoners, which wasn’t an easy task in itself.
She pulled up the hooded part of the tunic to cover her hair, and attempted to walk like one of the guards. It didn’t work very well and Alexia felt sort of ridiculous, but she passed three guards without them noticing. She knew that their way of communicating was with a sort of grunt. She could grunt very well.
At the end of the corridor, she ran around the stairway opening and walked along the straight passage passed the western block of cells. There was barely any need for the guards in the corridors, each wall was twelve inches of thick stone, and the locks were magic, so the lock recognized each key. The locks could not be picked.
Within each of the cells she heard crying and moaning. This was where the children were kept. A tear came to her eye as she passed a cell and heard a little girl crying out for her mother. For a second she thought of ignoring it, but then the keys in her hand made a slight noise. She held them in her palm and smiled. But before that, she needed to see Janna.
The final cell was in sight, but Alexia couldn’t quicken her pace, if anything seemed out of place at this point, she’d lose everything. She carried on till she came to it. The small gap that was on every other cell was blocked up, and no sound came from it. She unlocked it quickly and entered. What she saw then, nothing could have prepared her for.
The girl was unrecognizable, blood was spattered up ever wall, and the floor oozed with it. Parts were already turning brown. The body itself had no semblance of its once-Daeian form. The chest cavity was open, and the heart missing. The face had been cut and hacked at, the hair matted and knotted with dried blood.
Alexia collapsed to her knees and sobbed. She lightly touched the blood, which was at the stage of ooze. Her sister. Dead. Blood spilt. She couldn’t think. All she felt was pain, both physical and mental. Her head grew light and she felt dizzy, but that soon left and was replaced by one emotion. Hatred. She wanted revenge for this, and she would get it.
She stood and left the cell after muttering a prayer for the dead in Daeian. Alexia took herself to the nearest armory and got what weapons she needed: a composite bow, a full quiver of arrows and a pair of stiletto knives. She tucked them inside her tunic quickly and headed down a spiral staircase. She had no plan, but she knew that the easiest way out of the tower was from the top level. She was three levels below the ground floor, so she had quite a way to go.
Alexia knocked an arrow on her bow. She forced herself to ignore the pain that was rushing through every inch of her body. The wounds on her back had reopened and she could feel the blood seeping out of them. She went down the stairs and did not come into any contact with guards until about the hundredth step.
Alexia heard two of them around the corner talking. A few seconds later, the guards came into view. They saw her and stopped.
“What are—” That was as far as he got. Alexia kicked him solidly in the chest and he fell back down onto his comrades, knocking them down a few steps. Alexia moved down a few paces and shot the first arrow. The arrow left the bow with a twang and hit its target in his throat. The guard made a gurgling sound, then collapsed. It felt good to fire a weapon again.
Without hesitation, Alexia knocked another arrow and shot the second through the chest, and the third in the stomach. With them all out of action, she carried on. Through this, Alexia felt a sort of cold satisfaction, although she knew that no amount of bloodshed would bring her sister back, it still felt good.
Alexia turned slowly, and saw that a light coming from the staircase was getting stronger and stronger. Alexia moved down the corridor a little more, and hid in a dark alcove.
It wasn’t a guard, and it wasn’t a mage. Either way, Alexia didn’t know them. As the figure passed her, she quickly saw two weaknesses in his elaborate armor, and she took full advantage of these.
She moved quickly when his back was to her, sliding one stiletto underneath the bottom of the chest plate towards the groin and the other at his throat.
Although the man was much taller than her, she reached up without moving the position of her daggers, to his ear, and said, “Move an inch and I’ll make sure you never have children.”

* * *

They had come back. After the rather conspicuous scene the stranger below him had made, Mages were finally filtering back into the tower. Mur had already spotted his target, carrying a large purple satchel on his right hip, tied loosely to his robe by a braided gold cord. Mur already knew the contents of the satchel by the small, embroidered red mark on the side.
Mur acted quickly and with precision. Without the use of a sight, predetermined attacks, or any kind of advanced mathematical calculations, Mur drew back and flung one of his stilettos hard at the wall of the Tower about 10 feet below him. With a sharp clang, the blade ricocheted off the walls, whipping the gathered group of mages below into frenzy, too busy guarding their heads to cast any teleportation spells or attack back (if they even saw him). The stiletto seemed to fly in perfect arcs, and began quickly extinguishing all artificial light in the large rotunda of the Tower. Light crystals shattered, and torches were extinguished in puffs of smoke, turning the entirely sealed inner rotunda pitch black.
In the darkness, it was obvious from the shuffling of feet and low murmuring that the small group of mages was slightly distressed. By Mur’s count, there were at least eight, maybe ten. What he specifically wondered was why they weren’t teleporting away now that the stiletto had clattered to the floor. He soon found his answer. Around the walls of the room, there was a faint blue-white glow. His sword, Mesmir, was glowing with a faint blue in the dark, as well – not visible past about a foot from him, but faint enough to indicate there was magic afoot. Since the recent “attack,” the Mages had put up wards around the Tower. Now, they had trapped themselves inside.
From below him, Mur was suddenly aware of sporadic white lights coming from the Mages below. A few of them had small light crystals on their staves or wands, giving them light enough to see about them, but not much else. The mages slowly walked around the dark rotunda with little to no direction. Mur chuckled as he watched them pace around, as they could do little to nothing until they found whatever caused the sudden darkness. Mur intended to “find” them first.
Mur dropped silently from his perch at the top of the rotunda, and landed lightly on his feet. He dashed without sound toward the back of one of the mages. Just as the robed figure turned and began to cast light on Mur’s figure, he was greeted with muted footsteps, a silent blade, and the cold embrace of the Abyss. The mage’s staff clattered to the floor, and was followed by a volley of fireballs from his still-living comrades. The fireballs came far too late, and struck blank marble tile.
“Come out, coward!” shouted the mage that seemed to be the leader of the group. Mur obliged for a moment, jumping barely within the light the mages cast, long enough to toss a stiletto at another one of the mages, knocking him to the floor. His light was extinguished, and replaced by another set of too-late fireballs.
Mur continued his cat-and-mouse game until the leader mage was the last one left standing. When his back was turned, Mur snuck up behind him, and tapped him on the shoulder. The mage spun around, and as he did, recited a low incantation. His left hand became charged with purple electricity, and grasped out to crush Mur’s face. Mur responded by blowing a raspberry at the mage and darting off into the murky blackness.
“Confound you, insect!” the mage yelled, and slammed his staff against the ground. A blast of light expanded instantly from the head of the staff, relighting the torches and illuminating the room with an intense white light. Once his vision returned to normal, the mage spun around to find Mur. What he found was Mur’s blade, Mesmir, seemingly materialized in his lower abdomen. With a slight croak, the mage slid backwards off the sword, and fell to the ground with a thud.
After the mage fell to the ground, Mur immediately began to rifle through his possessions. His belt, however, where Mur has spied the purple satchel, was empty. The mage had somehow secreted the pouch and its contents away so Mur could not find them
“Blast it all…” Mur muttered.
Mur then heard another sound, this one much sharper. The sound of metal striking stone followed by crumbling rock informed him of a recent victim of one of the Cloak’s many defensive devices – trick staircases. Knowing that it was probably the stranger who he had been mentally referring to as “the idiot,” Mur used one of Mesmir’s more interesting characteristics in an attempt to get to and help the fool – phase shifting. Grasping the hilt of the blade, Mur closed his eyes, and instantly changed forms into a semitransparent shadow. He then proceeded to drop through the floor.


“IF YOU WOULDN’T MIND, I didn’t come here to be emasculated; I came here to do a job.” Taere did his best to keep his cool, even while he had stilettos pressed up against some of the more vulnerable parts of his body.
“Well excuse me, I didn’t mean to get in the way of business.” Alexia was more than amused, but less than pleased at her impeded progress. She had been standing with her daggers ready to kill this man for more than five minutes, and would have killed him already, but in the mess of things and the darkness of the prison hallway, the man had somehow managed to get a the better part of a small dagger pressed up against her lower abdomen.
“You’re not going to move, are you?” Taere asked.
“No, I’m not. You’re very perceptive.”
“Thank you. You could show your gratitude by maybe…moving those nasty looking bits of steel?” They both jerked a little, as they had been every few minutes for the last while.
“You’re really not going to move?”
“No. You aren’t, are you?”
“Of course not.”
This continued for another half hour or so. Taere thought he had the upper hand for a moment once he thought he had drawn blood with the point of the blade he had hidden in his right sleeve. His hopes of having a slight advantage were crushed however, when he realized that Alexia had been silently and apparently painlessly dragging her stiletto across his neck.
“Nice equipment.” Taere remarked. Alexia pulled up on the hilt of the dagger in her right hand. Taere felt a jerk as the tip of Alexia’s stiletto tore a hole in the leggings under his armor.
“Likewise,” Alexia replied. Taere smirked sarcastically, and relaxed himself again.
“Now, Taere started, “if I were to ask you to move at the same time I did, could I count on you to actually move?”
“That depends. Can I trust you to do the same?”
“You have my word as a mercenary.”
Alexia almost laughed. “That’s worth about as much as the muck on your boots. Got anything else?”
“Well, you do have me in a bit of an…awkward position. How about I give you control over the welfare of my future.”
“I already have that.”
Taere considered. “Good point. Then again, I also have control of where your lunch goes.”
“Excuse me?”
“Well, either you can finish digesting your lunch, or it can end up on the floor.”
“I see your point. How about we both count to four, and then we both move?”
“Four? Why not three?”
“Because three is boring. Ready?”
“Okay. One…”
“Three…” Before Alexia reached “four,” both of them moved. Alexia pushed her stilettos into chinks in the plates of Taere’s armor, and vaulted herself over him. At the same time, Taere dropped to the floor, and rolled back to his left. He extended his left arm, and his gauntlet blade extended and pointed straight toward Alexia, who had meanwhile knocked an arrow, drawn it back, and aimed it at Taere’s left eye.
“So do I get to keep my lunch now?”
“As long as I get to keep the future of my family intact.” Taere responded. He lowered his arm, as Alexia lowered her bow, and put the arrow back in her quiver.
“So,” Taere said, “If we’re going to get out of here somehow, it’d be nice to know your name.”
“Alexia. Alexia Romanova.”
“Taere Flarion. Now that we’re off to a better start – nice to meet you.”
“So, what’s the plan?”
“You’re asking me? I’ve been wandering around in the dark looking for a door out of here since I fell through the ceiling.”
“Excuse me?”
“It’s a long, rather embarrassing story that I really don’t feel like telling you right now, as it will have no impact whether or how we get out of here.”
“Fine, keep your faults. Let’s move.” Alexia pushed past Taere and began walking back the way he came. Taere, frustrated enough, decided to follow silently, and simmer in his own juices for a while. Just then, a voice came from around the corner behind Alexia, followed by the glint of steel and a dark, faintly glowing bluish figure.
“Don’t move a muscle.”

Mur pushed his dagger into the woman’s back. She didn’t look like a guard, but she was carrying weapons. The man he had seen before was completely out of sight – this was not good.
For some reason, even when she had the tip of a dagger pressed against her spine, this woman felt compelled to try to move. As she jerked to her left, Mur dragged the tip of the dagger up the right side of her back. He felt the tip catch on something – a scar or a scab maybe, and the woman doubled over. Mur stepped back for a moment, and, in his weak move, found himself in the position he had just put the woman in moments before.
“What did you do to her?” a rough voice behind him asked. Mur felt the familiar feeling of cold steel against the back of his neck.
“I have no idea; she moved, then she fell over.”
Two large hands attached themselves to Mur’s shoulders and spun him around to face…something familiar.
“Taere? Taere Flarion?”
“Of all people. You. Why would you be down here?” Taere put up his hand. “Wait, don’t answer. I know. You’re a fan of my work. You feel compelled to stalk me,” Taere poked Mur in the chest as he said each of his next words, “everywhere I go.” The last nudge was particularly hard, sending Mur and his dagger clattering to the floor.
“I can tell you with pretty good certainty, you’re just competition,” Mur replied.
“Competition? I’m so far above your level you should be staring up at the heel of my boot.”
“Excuse me? Who was it that snuck into the vaults of the High Caliph of Al-Hajjiri silently and stole a set of forty crystal capacitors?”
“Granted, that would be you. But – I ask you – but, who was it that infiltrated the headquarters of the Cryddri, stole one of their eggs, and made it out without a scratch?”
Mur nodded. “That was impressive. But who was it that robbed the Shojuni mages’ towers for seventeen nights before they even noticed anything was missing?”
Taere paused. “That wasn’t you.”
“Yes it was.”
“No, there’s absolutely no way that was you.”
“Really? And how’s that?”
“Because I had been working for Ctrelli on that job for a month before you even started. Ever notice how the shelves on the seventh floor seemed so sparse? That was me.”
“Stop trying to take the credit for my jobs, Flarion; you’re just jealous and you know it.”
“Look. Now you’ve changed it from professional to personal. Now we’re going to have problems.”
Before Taere could do anything, he heard the distinct sound – one that he had heard too much already today – of steel scraping against steel. While Taere and Mur were arguing, Alexia had managed to pull herself together, get behind Mur, and stick the tip of his own dagger into a joint in the armor he wore on his back.
“This is the third time today I’ve been in this situation. You’d better hope I don’t feel like taking the easy way out this time.”
“Alexia, put the dagger down.”
She gave him the most confused, wide-eyed look he had ever seen. “Pardon me for asking, but why?!”
“He’s not going to kill anyone, and he’s not a threat; he’s just as stuck down here as we are.”
“If he isn’t a threat, why did he just cut my back open?”
“You moved,” Mur blurted out, “I didn’t do anything.”
“Oh for the love of – don’t give me that kind of crap, you moved the dagger.”
“I did not, you ducked off to the left; I stayed right where I was!”
“Then why does the cut you just made go up and to the left?”
“It doesn’t.”
“What?” Alexia reached around behind herself and felt her back. What she had thought was the wound from Mur’s dagger was in fact a deeply cut welt from one of Tariq’s whipping sessions.
“Nevermind…” Alexia said, and trailed off.”
In the awkward silence that followed, Taere decided to get the conversation – and, hopefully, them – moving again.
“So…Alexia, this is Mur Sylphetica. Mur, this is Alexia. In the interest of getting out of here alive, can you two at least act like friends for the next ten minutes or so?”
“Fine,” Alexia grumbled.
“If you insist,” Mur said, and hesitantly bowed courteously, but kept his eyes up. Alexia curtsied mockingly in the same fashion.
“Now that we have the formalities out of the way,” Taere said, “Do either of you have some sort of plan to get out of here?”
They both stared at him blankly.
“We could start by just walking straight in one direction,” Mur suggested.”
“From what I could tell of the layout of this place,” Alexia added, “that’s probably the best idea.”
“Lead on.”
Alexia looked to her left and her right, and, acting on instinct, went left. The passageway continued straight for a surprising distance, before they ran into a set of two doors – one leading left, and one continuing straight. Alexia began to go left, while Taere and Mur both continued on to the door ahead of them.
“Didn’t you just say we should just go in one direction?” Taere asked scathingly
“Yes, but this is an exception.”
“Oh really? Because you had the idea, you think you have the power to decide to take us off on side trips whenever you want, hmm?”
“No, I just happen to know that behind this door, there’s a flight of stairs that leads to an armory where they’re keeping my weapons and a whole lot of other nasty-looking things they confiscated from prisoners before they lock them up.”
Alexia grinned in defiance, unbolted the door, and ran up the stairs behind it. Taere and Mur begrudgingly followed. What they saw once they reached the top of the staircase astonished them.
This underground room had shelves after shelves of filed trinkets, scrolls, purses, and other various gizmos of unknown purpose. The far wall was lined with weapon racks containing bladed weapons the likes of which Taere had never seen. Some of them were so massive Taere had a hard time figuring out how anyone would use them.
“Some of the Cloak’s prisoners aren’t human.” Alexia said.
“You asked how anyone could use one of those. I told you.”
“I didn’t ask,” Taere replied.
“Yes, you did.”
“I thought I was only thinking it.”
“Maybe you thought out loud.”
“Right…” Taere rubbed his head. Maybe that fall had affected more than just his shoulder. He came out of his daze when he saw a pile of small metal cylinders lying stacked on a table next to one of the weapon racks. He immediately picked them up and attached them all to a cuff on his right wrist. He pointed his arm at the wall behind him, and flicked his wrist. A silver dart shot out from the end of one of the cylinders and stuck ricocheted off a shield that hung on the opposite wall. The dart whizzed past Mur’s ear and stuck in the ground next to his left boot, causing him to spasm, flail, and fall flat on his rear, breathing heavily.
“What the HELL was that?”
“Sorry. Just testing out the new equipment.”
Meanwhile, Alexia had been rummaging through a pouch that hung from the wall filled with unstrung bows of various prisoners. She finally pulled out a dark cherry wood bow with corked vials of what looked like blood at either end. The arms of the bow were composite, and joined one third of the way up and down from the handgrip with pieces of bone and linen ties. Runes were etched into the arms in a language that looked entirely foreign to Taere and Mur.
“That looks nasty,” Mur said.
“It never misses,” Alexia said.
“Do you always brag like that?”
“I’m not bragging; it really never misses.”
Taere and Mur, after gathering a few more supplies of their own, went downstairs to attempt to open the locked door that led in the direction they were originally going. Taere optimistically tried the handle, but couldn’t get the door to move an inch. It was bolted shut with three padlocks, and what looked like a magical ward. Taere took a few steps back, and tucked his left shoulder down in front of him.
“And what do you think you’re doing?” Mur asked.
“I’m going to get the door open.”
“This isn’t anything like what you tried in Sundukur is it?”
“Do you really think there’s going to be a three-hundred-pound guard with an axe behind every locked door you run into?”
“No, I just consistently get bad feelings about the doors you decide to knock in, since there’s always been some sort of towering mess behind them.”
“I’m glad you have confidence in my ability in kicking in doors,” Taere said, “but I’ll make you a deal. If there’s something completely and utterly terrifying behind this door, I’m giving you permission right now to run away and hide and let me get beaten, maimed, or eaten in your stead. Okay?”
They backed up a few more steps, and, on the count of three, ran headlong into the door, yelling mindlessly at the top of their lungs. It seemed as if the wood monstrosity had something personal against them, and all but struck back at them when they hit it. Taere and Mur flew backwards and landed flat on their backs, as a faint plume of dust blew out from the top of the barely shaken doorframe.
“That,” Mur said, rubbing his shoulder, “did not work.”
“At least I popped my shoulder back in.”
Mur paused.
“You just did that so you wouldn’t look like and idiot running into a door by yourself.”
Taere didn’t say anything. Mur grumbled to himself, and then rummaged around for a pouch Taere had seen him take out of the armory a few moments ago. After untying its top, Mur rolled it out onto the floor in a circle. Inside were lockpicks of all sizes, vials of blue and green acids, and a few other smaller pouches of materials Taere didn’t even begin to speculate as to their purpose.
“How fast do you work with those?”
“Fast enough.” Mur set to working on the first lock as Taere waited behind him, listening to the sounds of Alexia poking around in the armory upstairs.

Half an hour had passed, and Mur’s frantic, rushed work had only gotten him past the first padlock. Taere was fidgeting impatiently, and was often absent-mindedly whistling to himself. Alexia still hadn’t come down the stairs, and it sounded as if she were sifting through a bucket of daggers.
“I thought you said you worked fast,” Taere remarked.
“I thought this was a regular padlock,” Mur retorted.
“It seems you thought wrong, master thief.”
“Ouch, really. I’m in pain. Now can you shut up and let me work, please?” Mur fumbled for a few more moments with the second lock, then slipped and dropped his tools on the floor.
Taere let out a sigh of exasperation, and pushed Mur out of the way. He drew the Malevolence from behind his back, extended the crystal blade, and sliced through the side of the doorframe. The two remaining locks and the magical ward shattered in a shower of sparks.
Mur looked on in amazement. “Why didn’t you just do that before and save me all that work?”
“I don’t know,” Taere said, “I was lazy, I guess.”
Mur steamed to himself and started muttering as Alexia finally came down the stairs.
“What’s got him all worked up?” she said as she tucked a pair of daggers into a bandolier around her waist.
“No idea,” Taere replied.
After strapping on a belt-pouch, Alexia said, “Now how do you suppose we get past the guards in the rotunda, ‘Man With the Plan?’”
“After what I did, I doubt they’ll give us much trouble,” Mur said, with the slightest hint of narcissistic pride.
“Dare I ask…?” Taere said with a bit of reluctance.
“I…‘introduced’ them to Mesmir and a few of my stilettos.”
“Ah, the good old hack and slash,” Taere mused. “I always knew you’d grow up to be a bloodthirsty warrior. You know, I like you just a little bit more now.”
“Actually, I hid in the shadows, tortured them in their blindness in the dark, and decapitated or impaled all of them without them even catching more than a glimpse of me.” Mur smirked.
Taere’s voice fell. “I suddenly dislike you again.”
Alexia chimed in, breaking up their little feud. “Will you two stop arguing over how to kill mages?” Calmly, she said, “Now then, we can get out easily since the tower was warded by the mages you killed; it’ll take a while for the rest of the mages outside to break through the force-fields to get to us. We should be able to get out through the top of the tower.
“Sounds like a good idea,” Taere said. “Shall we?”
Mur indicated the open door before them, and bowed in a crass gesture of feigned humility, saying, “After you, O Great Lord of Blood and Maiming.”
Taere laughed sarcastically with a disdainful smirk on his face. He pushed the door open, which let out into a large circular chamber. A tan sandstone pedestal about the size of a dinner plate rose a few feet off the ground at its center. Above the chamber was a shaft of the same diameter as the room, extending up to the inner roof of the tower. The inner ceiling had a depression in it, barely visible in the harsh lighting.
Taere approached the pedestal first. He had seen things like this used in Deguar keeps as what he had been told were some kind of transportation, but he wasn’t sure how they worked. The pedestal was made of solid stone, except for a massive cut sapphire almost two feet across sunken into the center. The gems edges were encrusted with sandstone deposits, almost as if the crystal had grown out of the pedestal. Taere reached down to feel the surface of the gem, and found it cold to the touch. A pale blue energy coursed through the gem that became concentrated around his finger when he touched the gem.
Mur and Alexia, meanwhile, quickly scanned the walls of the chamber for some sort of marking telling them what kind of room they stood in. The walls were lined with crystals that pointed upwards, each of which pulsated in sequence to indicate “up” – as if their arrow shape didn’t make it obvious enough that something in this room went up.
“I think I found something,” Mur called out from the far wall of the chamber. Taere and Alexia walked over to where he stood, just as he pushed in a small stone in the wall. A foot to its right, an image of the tower in cross-section lit up in the stone wall. Next to each of four sections, blue crystals pushed their way out of the wall, solidifying into circular buttons as crumbled sandstone fell to the floor around the edges. The edges were beveled, giving them a button-like appearance.
“So? Who’s going to press the button?” Alexia asked.
“Which button?” Mur asked.
“Your guess is as good as mine. We’re trying to get to the top of the tower, so…try the top button.”
Mur backed off. “The last time I pushed a button that seemed that innocuous and straightforward, I ended up hanging over a pit of spikes holding onto a set of vines. You push the button.”
“I’m not pushing it,” Taere said.
“You’re both useless,” Alexia said as she pressed her palm into the top button.
The pedestal in the middle of the room shot straight up to the ceiling with a grinding roar. The pedestal was apparently the head of a gigantic stone column threaded like a giant screw, which locked into the ceiling of the gigantic shaft in the depression Taere had noted earlier. Below the floor, gears ground as some sort of magically-powered machine engaged, and the floor began to rotate. Climbing on the threads of the center column, the floor began to rise.


“DOES ANYONE ELSE notice a problem here?” Mur said, looking up.
“What, you mean the fact that we’re rapidly approaching a flat stone ceiling with no signs of slowing down?” Taere stated matter-of-factly.
“Yeah, you know, that’s the problem I meant.” Mur stared up, more in worry than in thought.
The stone floor had continued to turn and rise steadily toward the top of the tower, but showed no signs of slowing down or stopping as the stone floor beneath them rapidly closed with the stone ceiling above them.
“Any ideas would be helpful,” Alexia said as she stared upward at the quickly advancing flat disk of stone.
“I really had a bad feeling about this job,” Taere muttered.
Mur, in a sudden burst of intuition, pulled a dagger out from his pocket, and ran over to the threaded column at the center of the room.
“Ok, this thing is a screw, right? So, it works like a giant rotating wedge, right?”
“Congratulations, genius; I can see you passed basic-level mechanics when you were twelve,” Taere bit back. “Your point?”
“How do you stop a wedge in motion?”
“You…” Taere paused for a moment to think, “jam it! You know, for a half-decent thief, you make a pretty good mechanist.”
“Thank you. And by the way, for your information, I passed advanced-level mechanics with flying colors.”
Mur lodged his dagger into one of the grooves, and waited for the floor disk to rotate to the proper height. When the side of the blade caught, Mur let go of the hilt and stepped back. The wheel ground for a moment, and almost stopped.
After holding the floor in place for almost a full second, the dagger blade snapped in half with a sharp clang. The tip was flattened as it passed through the grooves threaded into the center column, and fell down beneath the floor. The hilt, on the other hand, shot out from between the column and the floor, rebounded off the walls at least three times, and came to rest by the outside of the circular shaft.
“Well. That didn’t work.” Mur looked sheepish.
“A valiant effort, master thief, but now we have about thirty seconds fewer to figure out how to avoid becoming human p’té.” Taere grumbled to himself further. He was having a very bad day.
Suddenly, and entirely without warning, the floor stopped rotating about twenty feet from the top, and the pedestal above them detached from the ceiling, and, along with the threaded column, fell back into place on the floor.
To their left, a stone door opened, revealing two guards sitting lazily on a set of benches. Taere and Mur flattened themselves against the wall to the left and right of the door, while Alexia leapt to the threshold over the door.
The first guard picked up his halberd, and walked forward towards the door. The second guard picked up a poleax, and stood behind the second. As they approached, all they saw were two hands protruding from either side of the doorframe. Two darts that seemingly materialized from nowhere suddenly found themselves in each guard’s upper chest. The two collapsed, and their weapons clattered to the floor.
Taere and Mur stepped out from either side of the door, followed by Alexia. They approached a window on the side of the building, and peered out. Below them lay about two hundred feet of sheer drop, and above them another twenty feet of rock followed by the crenellated lip of the tower.
“Any ideas – and Mur, don’t suggest anything,” Taere said, scowling at the lanky figure behind him.
“I didn’t have anything worth saying anyway…” Mur skulked a few paces behind Taere and Alexia.
After pacing for a few moments, Taere suddenly exclaimed “I have an idea!”
“Way ahead of you,” Alexia replied.
Alexia reached down to her boots – also new acquisitions from the armory, apparently – and began detaching the soles. What looked like simple ornamental spikes on the sole were, in fact, interlocking climbing grooves for leg and arm attachments. As Alexia strapped the arm claws on, Taere looked on.
“Did you have any ideas for us, or are we supposed to levitate?”
“I’m sure you’ll figure something out,” Alexia replied as she jumped up on the sill and scurried out the top of the window. Taere thrust his head out to see Alexia slowly making her way up the sheer alabaster face of the tower. The claws on her arms were considerably sharper and longer than the boot attachments, and dug into the side of the rock with each movement of her wrist.
Taere pulled himself back in the window, and, after considering for a moment, forced out a sigh and reluctantly held out his hand to Mur.
“Grab on.”
“Dare I ask why?”
“It will become blazingly clear in about three seconds.”
“The last time I heard you say that, I ended up half-naked in a pit.”
“Do you see any booby-traps? It’s a window.”
Mur grabbed hold of Taere’s right arm by the wrist. Taere leaned out the window with his left knee on the sill, and pointed his left arm up at the underside of the turret above them. He fired the gauntlet blade into the buttresses of the crenellated lip, where it stuck with a satisfying “chunk.” The sound attracted the guard patrolling the top of the crenellations, who called over another guard from his post to look into it. Taere began to quickly retract the cable, pulling him up and Mur out of the window with him.
Just as a pair of guards looked over the side to investigate the noise, Alexia reached the top of the wall. Their faces were greeted by spiked wrists to the face, followed by a swift push backwards as Alexia leaped up onto the top walkway. As soon as she landed, she whipped out to her left and right with her stilettos, striking low and upward into two guards’ stomachs, and moved on to her right.
Taere was quickly running out of cable to retract. He began to swing back and forth, and, when he reached a proper height, he released Mur to the control of air resistance and gravity. Mur went sailing gracefully over the top crenellations, landing directly in front of a guard. Before the armored man had time to react, Mur drew Mesmir from behind his back, and sliced upward, almost cleaving the man in half. He moved on, following Alexia and covering her back as she moved around the tower.
They both ran into a roadblock halfway around the top of the turret in the form of five well-organized and well-trained guards with shorter, more easily wielded weapons. Mur’s phase-shifting abilities weren’t doing him much good, and Alexia was simply stuck taking on two guards at once who were both well prepared for her.
“Taere,” Mur called down, “You might want to get up here!”
Taere, meanwhile, had been swinging below the tower on his half-retracted grabbling hook cable, building up momentum for what was about to be a rather impressive leap. Using his repeated swings and his own body weight as leverage, Taere launched himself up over the lip of the tower, trailing the detached gauntlet blade attached to about ten feet of cable behind him. His awe-inspiring arc ended a few feet Alexia and Mur, and a few feet in front of another pair approaching from behind them. The gauntlet blade rapidly caught up to where Taere stood, sticking in one of the two approaching guard’s shoulders and knocking him to the ground. He pulled back on the cable, releasing the blade from the guard’s corpse and retracting it back into the gauntlet.
He proceeded forward, clashing blades with the second of the two guards. The guard made a long downward slash, which Taere expertly parried and rolled under, bringing his blade up and behind the guard. The crystal blade hit the guard solidly in the small of his back, crushing his spine and sending him crumpling to the floor.
Returning to Alexia’s side, Taere engaged one of the five remaining guards. Aided by this new distraction, Mur was able to duck under one of the guards, and deliver a crippling blow to the side of his abdomen, and follow it with a puncturing strike to the second guard’s back.
At the same time, Alexia was able to take on her opponents one at a time as Taere kept the others occupied. The first fell easily as Alexia riposted a badly executed thrust with a half-throw of one of her stilettos. The second, in the process of blocking on of Taere’s diagonal slashes, received a point-blank arrow to the left shoulder, followed by an almost surgical cut between the fifth and sixth vertebrae of his neck.
Taere finished the group with a quick stab through the shoulder with about one third of the length of the Malevolence. With a hard push of his legs, Taere heaved the man off to his right, and over the side of the tower. The guard slipped off the end of the blade, and went tumbling down to the mess below that was the courtyard of the Tower.
Taere, breathing heavily, sheathed his blade, and leaned against one of the crenellations, out of sight of anyone below. Mur peeked over the side of one of the troughs in the turret wall and looked down at the courtyard. The scene below looked like a perfect description of anarchy. When the mages erected the wards around the tower after Taere’s impetuous entrance and didn’t take them down to report, other mages had come to try to break the wards and get inside. Their progress was slow to begin with, but was impeded further by the masses of people that had begun to congregate around the dimly glowing Tower. The body that was just tossed over the wall had apparently landed on a merchant’s stall a level below in the acropolis-styled city, causing a second commotion and forcing the guards to spread themselves thinner over the space of the city.
“The guards are all spread out; we have a pretty good chance of getting away cleanly,” Mur reported.
Taere didn’t respond. He was staring off the side of the tower to the west.
“Taere?” Mur waved his hand in front of Taere’s face, which stayed in a state of dazed curiosity for another few moments. Finally, he spoke.
“What in the Abyss?”
Mur was, to say the least, confused. He started running his hands over his face and hair, and asked, “What? Is it me? Did I do something? Is there something in my hair? What—”
Alexia grabbed him by the shoulders, and said “Look behind you.”
From their vantage point atop the Tower, the three of them could see for many miles more than they could on the ground below. What had caught Taere’s attention was something approximately twenty miles to the west. Mur’s eyes quickly adjusted to the distance behind him, and took in a vision of complete and total horror. In the middle of the lush green of Belden Forest, what had once been Colendd and a large portion of the forest around it had been reduced to black, smoking ruin. Not a single remnant of structure more than a foot high could have been left standing from what they could see, as it looked as if there was a flat black plate smashed down in the middle of the trees.
Taere sniffed the air, scratching his nose after taking a good few whiffs.
Alexia and Mur had caught the same scent moments later, a smell that could only be called the epitome of foul odors. Alexia’s senses were assaulted by the aroma of rotten eggs laced with a hint of charcoal and sulfur.
Coughing, Mur managed to blurt out “What is that?” before doubling over and heaving from the stink.
“Brimstone,” Taere said, apparently unaffected by the smell. He took it in with a sort of odd satisfaction, leaving his outward appearance incredibly confusing to Alexia’s stares, and to Mur once he finally recovered from his retching fit. It seemed as if he was accustomed, even welcome to the smell, almost as if he had smelt it every day for some time.
There’s no way that dragons had anything to do with this, Taere thought to himself.
“Brimstone? Are you saying that was a volcano?” Mur asked.
“Volcanoes aren’t the only things on Tolwyn that make brimstone, Mur,” Alexia replied.
Taere spun around quickly. “I know what you’re thinking,” he lashed out in a suddenly violent tone, “and there’s no way they’d do that.” Alexia and Mur recoiled from Taere’s sudden display of aggression, causing him to catch himself in his moment of over-expression. “Sorry,” he said, and returned to thought.
“Taere, you know—” Mur started, but Taere interrupted him by thinking out loud.
“There has to be some sort of explanation for this. I know dragons wouldn’t have anything to do with the razing of an entire town, regardless of the politics of their Aerie. Unless I missed something in the last few years—”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Mur said, “where did this sudden knowledge of Aerie politics and what and what not dragons and their Dragoons will do come from?”
“Nevermind,” Taere snapped back, “just drop it. I honestly don’t feel like talking about it, and I don’t see what it has to do with our current situation, okay?”
Alexia took a few steps towards him. “You were the one who brought it up, Taere, I think you should explain yourself.”
“Listen, it’s not that I don’t trust you, but, to be completely honest…well, actually, that’s it, I don’t trust you. Yet. Maybe if we find something later I’ll be able to tell you about it, but right now, I don’t see a reason in trusting a thief and a stranger with information about where I’ve been and where I come from.”
“Fine,” Alexia said, “then do you have a way of getting us off this godsdamned tower?”
“I do, as long as this whiz-bang of a thief still has his standard tools with him.”
“Just because I use some…unorthodox methods doesn’t mean I don’t still have all the old staples.” Mur pulled out a grappling hook and a thin monofilament cable from two of his belt pouches. The wire was surprisingly long for the space it took up, and was obviously strong enough to support the weight of multiple people. Mur backed up a few paces and began to swing the hook around his head. Running forward, he hurled the heavily weighted hook off the side of the tower, where it caught on a tree at the rear of the acropolistic mass of the City of the Cloak. Mur handed Taere and Alexia thick, two-foot-long strips of leather with wrapped grips on either side. Mur took his own strip of leather, and, with a running leap, wrapped it around the cable and jumped off the side of the tower on his makeshift zip line.
Taere and Alexia hastily wrapped each of their leathers around the cable, and jumped off, just as they heard the familiar sound of the pedestal hitting the ceiling below them. Just as Alexia’s feet left the Tower, the entire roof opened up as the pedestal moved up and through the roof. On the rotating floor were Tariq and Cloak soldiers bearing bows and bristling quivers. The archers fired a volley that arced and fell far behind Alexia. She couldn’t exactly make out what string of words Tariq let loose as the arrows sailed by her, but she assumed they weren’t pleasantries and small-talk.
Alexia saw Mur and Taere near the bottom of the tree where the traverse ended. Alexia let go of one of the sides of the leather, and landed gracefully next to Mur as he reached up to undo the grapple and wind up the cable.
“So, as before,” Alexia asked Taere, “what’s the plan?”
“We move.”


“I SEE THIS as too big of a coincidence to overlook,” Taere said. He poked the fire a few times with a long stick,
“How so?” Mur asked. “We were both looking for work, and unless your skills have waned since I last saw you, you’re still pretty good at your work. It was a matter of opportunity, I guess.” Mur got up from his tree stump seat to turn the rabbits they had put on a spit. Alexia was busy doing whatever she was doing – Taere and Mur both had no idea why she had been sitting cross-legged for over an hour – outside the light of the fire about a hundred feet to the east of their camp.
After a while, Taere spoke again. “I still think this is entirely weird. Haas sent you to steal the same thing I was sent to get back, and we end up meeting on the job while neither of us complete it, and we both get out because of each other’s help. I’m just saying it’s a pretty big coincidence.”
“Don’t go feeding me any more of that ‘fate’ crap of yours; screaming to the sky for help in every situation is pretty useless. The Gods might hear everything, but they sure as the Abyss don’t listen.”
“I’m not talking about fate, you dim-witted pile of wyvern dung, I’m saying that I think this was engineered.”
“Ok, who would want to engineer us finding each other, and for that matter, why would they do it?”
Taere considered. “I have absolutely no idea.”
Mur stood up quickly. “See, that’s your problem; you theorize, make conjecture, think too much, and have nothing to back up any of your ideas. Either that, or there’s something you’re not telling me.”
Taere stayed silent. Mur dropped his inquisition after a few moments, and returned to his cooking, muttering. The bushes behind Taere rustled as Alexia made her way back into the camp. She sat by the fire, eyeing the fire with an odd curiosity. Her eyes darted from the tips of each lick of flame to the next, as if she was expecting them to tell her something.
“Mind if I asked what you were doing?” Taere said.
“Meditating,” Alexia said.
“On what?”
“Not ‘on,’ ‘to.’”
“Alright, to what?”
Alexia paused, about to say something, but corrected herself, “To my patron goddess.”
“That’s not much help. Who is she?”
“She is the Caretaker. She guards over me and watches me, though from exactly where no one is sure. I came to know her when I was young, so from now on, I ask her for guidance.”
After a moment, Taere said, “You’re not going to tell me who she is, are you?”
“No,” Alexia said, smiling. She returned to her meditative state, this time within the light of the fire. Taere watched as Alexia’s face lost all expression, and she descended into a comatose state of communication with whoever her higher figure was. Her body seemed to become almost ethereal, barely flickering in and out of material existence as the light of the fire danced around and through her. Taere watched; to the casual observer, it looked as if nothing was happening. While she was fading in and out of materiality, however, Taere felt waves of energy pulsating from her that filled his body with a completely foreign feeling. The best way he could describe it to himself was a feeling of connection – to Alexia mostly, but also to just about everything around him, and to some unknown powerful thing that he couldn’t fathom.
Alexia broke her trance. “I need to ask something of you.”
“Ask away.”
“Would you consider sparring with me?”
“Is there any specific cause for this request?”
“Fighting takes the utmost concentration. I’ve been thinking on a few things lately, and I want to get them out of my mind. I was hoping that if I took my mind off of them for a while, I’d come up with some solution without even wanting to.”
“I’m not very good,” Taere said, though he didn’t mean it. Even his gait belied years of intense training by masters of the art of swordplay. Alexia’s face showed that she knew he was lying, but she didn’t say anything to Taere about it, and drew a long, thin rapier she had acquired in the Tower’s armory. Taere recognized the make of the blade instantly, but a less-than-honest smith could easily fake the façade of craftsmanship. He waited to ask until he had seen it move.
Alexia placed the blade in front of her, standing straight behind it in a fencing stance. Taere drew the Malevolence, and stood in a similar stance. The slender blue tip of the crystal blade bobbed and danced lightly, while the jagged mess of crystal near the hilt stood rigid as Taere kept his stance firm.
Alexia made the first move. She darted out with extraordinary speed, ducking her sword under Taere’s sword arm in a feigned slash that became a quick thrust. Taere twisted his arm around to the left, catching her rapier midway down the shaft, knocking the tip to his right, where it sailed harmlessly past his torso. He then countered and turned around backwards to his left, sweeping his blade downward. Alexia whipped her rapier around so rapidly the air cracked, and parried the blow as she leapt over the wandering point of Taere’s blade. The speed and rigidity of Alexia’s blade betrayed its maker to Taere without question.
“Where did you find a Deguar rapier?” he said, holding Alexia’s blade back in the dirt with the slight curve in his blade.
“It’s – well, it was – mine, until the Cloak took it.” She twisted her sword up and backwards, and brought the razor-thin edge down toward Taere’s shoulder. He stepped back to avoid being put in an awkward defensive position, and parried the blow straight on the broadside of the Malevolence.
“But where did you get it?”
“Where did you learn how to fight?” she spat back quickly. They exchanged sarcastic grins, silently agreeing to keep their own secrets, and returned to their sparring. After a few more rigorous minutes of swordplay, Alexia broke off suddenly and dropped the tip of her blade to the ground in a stance of submission. “This has helped. I have some ideas about why you two found each other.”
Mur’s ears perked up. “Expound, please,” he said, walking back over from the fire.
“I have the distinct feeling it has something to do with me.”
“Are you serious, or are you just being narcissistic?” Mur said.
“I’m on what you might call the Order of the Black Hood’s ‘most wanted’ list.” Mur started to open his mouth, but Alexia cut him off with a gesture. “Before you ask, I’m not going to tell you why; all you need to know is that at the start of this mess I hadn’t done anything to anyone.”
“So you’re saying that you have done something now?” Taere asked.
“Don’t interrupt, but yes, by now I’ve killed more than my fair share. If I were caught I’d be tortured, hanged, and quartered at the least, not to name any other indignities I might suffer beforehand. Back to what I was saying before, though: the Cloak has ties in Æfer, which is where Ctrelli and Haas are both based, correct?” Taere and Mur both nodded, waiting for more. “The Cloak’s operatives were the first to catch Ctrelli on the way to Selûne, so they should have been in the cells near, me, correct again?”
“Unless the Cloak has taken up a new policy of releasing prisoners after…well, at all, then yes, they should have been there,” Taere said.
“They weren’t. I knew about the entire mess from whispers the guards had made to each other, so one day I asked Tariq about it. He said he’d tell me if I have him…let’s call it ‘information.’ I gave him what he wanted, and he told me. Half of the Ctrelli Caravan was jailed; the other half…never made it to the prison for some reason. He didn’t know why, but here’s my idea – Doppelgängers.”
Alexia’s idea disturbed Taere greatly. Doppelgängers – or shapeshifters – in Taere’s experience, were greatly disturbing creatures. Why Alluvia trusted them to govern an independent city-state on their tense border with the Cloaklands was beyond his capacity to understand. Gängers, when they’re not shifted into some other form, stand about feet tall. Their spindly, disproportionately long fingers and gangly arms and legs are covered in a thin layer of stretched blue skin. Their eyes shift constantly from a deep blue the color of their skin to bright orange, and through all the yellows and greens in between. Their stare in shifted form is generally normal, but they can willingly change their eye colors to bright colors to distract or disorient the people they speak to.
Gängers, as if by instinct, tend to cause trouble, and not just in the ways one would expect. Though Taere had more than once had to discern between three of the same people – who he knew for a fact were not triplets – he had experienced much more severe Gänger-induced mischief in the form of security breaches, peace-treaties-gone-bad, and various other diplomatic snafus. Taere had heard that they started most of the wars Tolwyn had seen, but knew that no one could ever prove it.
“They control the entire city-state of Æfer; why would they be involved?” Mur said.
“Gängers are shady by nature; do you honestly think they don’t have any unofficial channels set up with the Alluvians and the Cloak?”
“I admit, it’s crossed my mind,” Mur said.
“I have a feeling that at least one of the Council members in Æfer has been compromised by the Cloak. They probably have operatives in Ctrelli and Haas, who made the assignments of the people on the caravan, and then sent both of you after it, assuming or at least hoping that you’d find me.” Taere and Mur both stared at her as if she had just told them she was their mother, father, and uncle’s niece all at the same time.
Finally, Taere said something: “To quote Mur, do you have anything to back this up?”
“I have more than conjecture and theory if that’s what you mean. I saw Tariq with one of them.”
“One of what?”
“One of the Doppelgängers.”
“I hate to burst your bubble,” Mur said, “but unless they were walking around unchanged – as in, 5 feet tall, bug-eyed and blue-skinned – I doubt you could tell it was a Doppelgänger.”
“It blinked at me. Twice.”
“And blinking makes it a Gänger how?” Taere said.”
Alexia lowered her voice. “It blinked with two different sets of eyelids.”

* * *

To say it was “dark” would have been an understatement. “Pitch-black” barely expressed the lack of any light source discernable in the room. When Tariq crossed the giant, arched threshold into the dark room, he felt as if he had passed through a barrier between the warm air of the Cloaklands and the arctic chill of the Snow Plains. The hair on his arms and hands stood up straight as he passed through, turning his forearms into veritable pincushions.
As soon as he passed through the threshold, he looked back to where he had come in. He could not see the door. The only light he had been able to see before entering was now gone, eaten up by the blackness of the room. Tariq’s thoughts immediately moved to escape – he had not known what he was getting himself into. His master had never summoned him to his chambers, nor had he ever known where they were – and he still did not. Before he was brought, his eyes were blocked by sticky lampblack conjured by some sort of magic he could not hear, nor, he presumed, had the capacity to understand or use.
He struggled gently in the grip of his escorts, two bounty hunters garbed in dark gray robes that covered their entire bodies from the cowl on their heads to the hem at their feet. Their iron grip on his arms did not falter as they descended deeper into the dark, as if they could actually see where they were going in the inky blackness of the room.
Tariq’s escorts stopped, holding him for a moment, then let go of him, stepping to the side. He was now alone in the dark.
He reached around in the air for a few moments, before he heard a sound. It was a low-pitched rustle, like the sound made by the unfurling wings of a giant bat. He wiped at his eyes, trying to remove whatever was left of the black tar that stuck to his face, hoping by some chance he would be able to see if he removed it all. Fear gripped him as he raked around his eyes with his fingernails.
“Stop your groping, we wouldn’t want you injured.” Tariq had no idea where the voice came from, only that it was deep, resonant, and seemed to be coming from somewhere or something in front of him. It was the voice he had heard in his mind before – the voice of his master.
“Your pardon, my lord, I cannot see—”
“Nor do you have any need to, so you shall remain sightless in this room until I deem it fit that your vision should return to your eyes.”
“But my lord, I—”
“You what? Question my actions again and I will permanently remove your eyes with a blunted meat hook.” Tariq’s master moved, producing a shuffling sound as the hem of his robes brushed against the stone floor. “I hear from my agents that you have failed once again to find the source of the disturbance.”
“We were trying, but we couldn’t get her to tell us anything. She was remarkably resilient. I almost think she might have actually known nothing about the force that followed her.”
The master was silent for a moment. Then, “Why are you speaking in the past tense?”
Tariq was shocked. He had thought that his master’s “agents” would have told him that Alexia had escaped, but apparently he didn’t know. Immediately, trepidation welled up in Tariq’s gut, manifesting itself as a feeling of a ball of iron shot lodged in his throat. If the master didn’t know, that meant his already unpleasant and wrathful demeanor was about to get much worse. Tariq reluctantly spoke: “The girl has escaped.” He had no sooner finished speaking when a wave of pure energy rippled through the air – invisible, but mentally tangible. It seemed Tariq’s master was angry.
“WHAT!?” Tariq felt the iron grip of a gauntlet around his throat. He tried to speak, but was muffled by the metal fingers clamped onto his neck. “Explain yourself, mortal!”
Tariq sputtered and inhaled sharply, finally getting out the words, “I cannot breathe, master!” Immediately, he was dropped to the floor, where he lay, panting on his back staring up into the endless black.
“Now, please, elaborate, and perhaps you will die quickly.”
Tariq gulped, and spoke, “She escaped from the top of the tower. She was aided by two others.”
His master broadcast the emotion of interest. “Who were these two?”
“Males,” Tariq said. “One was a warrior, Alluvian, the other…I honestly have no idea what he was; he was a thief. They both attacked the Tower, one after the other. Both were very skilled in use of a blade.”
Tariq felt hot breath on his face as his master drew closer. “If you have no more details, you will be of no use to me. Tell me more.”
Stuttering with panic, Tariq explicated: “The thief carried a blade enchanted with Shadow…perhaps your powers could make use of it. The Alluvian was wearing a suit of heavy armor unlike any make I’ve seen, and carried a crystal blade.” Tariq gave as many details as he could about the two men, finishing with the fact that both seemed to know each other.
There was silence for a moment as Tariq’s master ruminated. Tariq heard a growl as his master gathered power. Expecting a quick death, he cringed. Suddenly, the growling stopped. He heard his master say, “This blade the Alluvian carried…what make was it?”
“The blade was blue crystal. I’m not sure where it came from, but I’ve seen similar designs come in from expeditions into the Wastesands.”
Obviously interested, his master continued, “Describe the blade as thoroughly as your feeble mind can.”
“The majority of the blade was straight, leading from a sharp forte to a cluster of jagged crystal around the foible. The hilt was embedded with four dragon’s talons, as well as a large blue gem the same color as the blade placed right in the middle of the quillions. The pommel has smaller spines protruding from it, probably wyvern’s teeth, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were dragon’s teeth either; the rest of the blade spared no expense to look like a work of art.”
“Was there something etched into the gem in the hilt?” His master was obviously hiding a suspicion. He knew what the blade was, Tariq surmised, but would not let on until he confirmed it doubtlessly.
“Yes,” Tariq said. “A red dragon.”
Tariq’s master was silent again, this time for a long while. Tariq grew anxious in the silence, and returned to thoughts of contemplating his life and how it was probably going to end. Regardless of the information provided to him, his master was not known for his mercy. Finally, he spoke. “Go back to your city. Eventually, someone will send word for a Hunter. This I have seen. Have one of our associates be put on the job. Tell him of his quarry, and make sure he brings her alive. If he fails, send more after her. If they fail,” Tariq felt something being placed in his hand. “Give him this.” The object was round and cold, and pulsed with a low thrumming sound that reverberated through his arm. He shuddered as the vibrations crept up his neck, filling his ears and body with the humming of the stone. “You will know what to do with it when the time comes. Now go.”
A light faded in from the blackness around him. Tariq turned around to see the passage he came from. He walked hurriedly toward the light, when he heard a voice, and felt a gauntleted hand on his right shoulder.
“Oh, and Tariq.”
“Yes, my lord?” he said as his voice caught in his throat.
The hand on Tariq’s shoulder spun him around to face the dark end of the room. Two green eyes lit up like burning orbs in front of him, casting an eerie, oblique light on his master’s sharply angled face. His master hissed through a maw filled with pointed teeth, “If you fail me again, I will consume your soul and spit it out into the pits of the Abyss, where it will writhe in torment for twelve eternities.”
Tariq turned and ran.

* * *


“SO IT’S DECIDED, THEN,” Mur said. He strapped his gear onto his saddle, and jumped on his mount – a large brown thoroughbred he had purchased at a small stable outside the City of the Cloak. Taere and Alexia had both restocked on their provisions, allowing for two weeks’ journey to Colendd and then to Æfer. Mur’s horse whinnied as he turned her to the left. “We’re going to Æfer.”
“But not yet,” Taere added.
“Right, not yet. First, we have to indulge your morbid fascinations and sift through bodies for…what exactly is it that we’ll be looking for?”
“Anything that could tell us who did it.”
“Well,” Mur said, “how would you respond if I said…there’s no way in the Abyss you’re going to get me to look through a field of CHARRED FRIGGIN’ CORPSES!”
“I have no problems with death,” Alexia said, “I’ve seen enough of it.”
“See? She has no problem with it.” Poking Mur in the chest as he spoke, Taere said, “And why aren’t you?”
“They’re all…dead, and…” Mur contorted his hands and cringed, “icky.”
“Now, correct me if I’m wrong,” Alexia said, “but didn’t you just kill ten mages in the Tower?”
Mur responded with an “Umm” and muttered oaths. He spurred his horse and led the way to an easterly shortcut. Taere and Alexia saddled up on the same horse, and rode east to a small clearing about a mile from the city. Taere’s horse, Ether, was tethered to a tree. As they drew closer, they saw that Ether had eaten all the grass and shrubbery within a ten-foot radius of the tree. Taere dismounted and patted his gluttonous horse on his neck, then climbed on and nudged Ether in the ribs. After much protest, the horse moved, leading the way in a slow canter to the west toward the ruins of Colendd.
After riding for a long while, Alexia broke the silence. “Mur,” she said, addressing him directly for the first time in Taere’s recent memory, “if you don’t mind my asking, why did you become a thief?”
“Who isn’t a thief in the Cloaklands? The only way to survive with the Cloak watching you is to steal once or twice…a week.”
“So are you saying you’re from the Cloaklands?”
“I was there when you found me, wasn’t I?”
“No, as in a native. Were your parents from there?”
“I don’t think I’m at liberty to discuss that. I have my secrets, you have yours.”
“Do you have some deep, dark secret that you can’t tell us about your parents?” Taere asked. “Were they criminals? Traitors?”
“I told you, you don’t need to know. I don’t want to know where your rapier came from,” he said, indicating Alexia, “and I don’t want to know where you learned how to fight,” he said to Taere. “All you need to know is that I steal, and it’s how I get by.”
“Stealing for a living is completely unnecessary,” Alexia said. “Do you ever even make a profit?”
“I don’t steal for profit – usually. Like I said, I steal to survive, not as a career. Have you seen the process they’re charging for flour in the Cloaklands? They’re so high the Caliph of Al-Hajjiri would have trouble buying enough for his guests.” Pausing for a moment, he then said, “And by the way, I don’t like to call it sealing. I take things so people who need them more than others can get them – I like to say that I ‘permanently borrowed’ whatever I took.”
Taere pulled Ether’s reins back until he rode parallel to Mur. He asked, “And what happens when you decide to settle down? That is, if you ever do.”
“I have it all planned out,” Mur said with pride, “I only work outside the law for a few more years, taking independent contracts from Haas – they’ve given me a contact to go to – get my big score and start up my own trading business under Haas, then find a nice girl and buy a house somewhere in the Thengol Mountains.”
“Where exactly is this ‘big score’ of yours?” Alexia said.
“Oh I’m sure Haas will come up with something for me. Besides, it’s not like I haven’t amassed my own little stash over the years. I’ve stolen from the most guarded places on Tolwyn.”
“Was one of those places your belt?” Alexia said as she twirled a stiletto in her right hand.
“Hey!” Mur said, looking at the empty dagger frog on his bandolier, “you stole that!”
“No I didn’t, I ‘borrowed’ it, O great master rogue.”
“Give that back; I only have three of them!”
“I will. Eventually.” Mur grumbled after her, put in his place once again by Alexia’s superior personality.
Taere, having quickly lost interest in Mur’s inadequacies as a conversationalist, turned to Alexia. “So, since you’re not going to tell me anything about where you were before that dungeon, would you mind telling me how you got in there in the first place?”
“I’d rather not. Perhaps another time, after Colendd.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” Taere said.”
“Noted. Now stop this absurd trotting; it makes you look like an armored grasshopper. Speed up the pace.” Alexia spurred her horse, sending him down the path in a quick gallop.

Alexia stopped her horse in a thick area of trees about five miles from Colendd. It had grown dark over the course of their ride, and neither Taere nor Mur had any desire to camp outside.
“Any reason why we stopped here?” Mur asked.
“We need somewhere to stay that the Cloak’s soldiers can’t find, right?”
“And your best choice was a thicket? How stupid do you think they are?”
“I didn’t say we were going to stay in a thicket. There’s an unregistered inn around here owned by a friend of mine.”
“Aren’t unregistered inns illegal in the Cloaklands? Wait, nevermind, everything is illegal in the Cloaklands,” Taere remarked.
“It’s not illegal if no one knows about it.”
“How would the Cloak not know about a huge damnable inn in the middle of a forest?!” Mur said.
“If it’s underground.” Alexia reached over to a knot on the trunk of one of the larger ebony trees in the forest. Next to the knot, Taere could barely make out the carved image of a boar, encircled by a crude representation of ivy and two full tankards of mead. Alexia pulled on the knot and twisted it to the right, which, strangely, made a ratcheting sound as if a giant mess of cogs and gears was tucked away in the tree. To the right of the knot, a section of the tree’s trunk sunk into the surface of the tree, and dropped into the ground to reveal a spiraling wood and dirt staircase descending into the hard-packed dirt beneath the tree. Alexia proceeded down the stairs about three feet, and reached into a large depression in the wall filled with unlit torches. After lighting one on a wall sconce, she proceeded down the staircase, with Taere and Mur following close behind.
The staircase eventually reached a tunnel, approximately twenty feet underground by Taere’s estimations. The tunnel was only about five feet wide by six feet tall, with a rough dirt ceiling penetrated often by hard roots that hung like stalactites or traversed the entire tunnel like ropy columns. Taere got himself caught more than once, and almost clotheslined himself a few times as he attempted to catch up after untangling himself.
As they proceeded down the tunnel’s weaving and convoluted length, the walls became more evenly hewn, even braced by timber posts at some points. At about the half-mile mark, the tunnel became more regular as it approached a framed door set into the end of the passageway. Alexia deposited her torch in an open wall sconce, and knocked on the door. A slot opened in the door, from which peered a set of beady eyes that shifted over the group.
As quickly as it had opened, the slot closed, and was immediately followed by the clicking sound of deadbolts and latches unlocking. The heavy wooden door swung open to reveal a large common room filled with tables, chairs, and patrons. The atmosphere was not unlike the underground Fence’s hall Taere had frequented in Colendd with Sherrik. He only then began to realize the impact of Colendd’s destruction. Not only was Sherrik the contact gone, but also Sherrik the old man, as well as the entire population of a small city in the Cloaklands. The city itself had been alive – walled in by planted and cultivated trees, and had used the forest’s own natural processes to heat and insulate its homes, built partially underground in most places. This marvelous cooperation, unique in the Cloaklands, was now gone, destroyed by some unnatural force.
Taere was jolted out of his contemplative state by the sound of his left pauldron ringing like a cast iron pot struck with a mallet. A huge hand spun him around, where he faced the imposing girth of a seven-foot-tall man wearing a gigantic tan apron stained with mead, smiling widely. Alexia stood behind him, grinning as the man brought Taere into a gigantic bear hug, slapping him on the back and repeatedly knocking his wind out.
When Taere found the ability to speak, he rasped out, “Have we met?” Something about Gar seemed familiar. Then again, Taere couldn’t be sure; it could’ve been the blood rushing to his head.
“No, I don’t believe so,” Gar replied, “but if you’ve brought Lex back, then you’re a friend of mine by association.”
Alexia moved forward as Taere continued to recover his breathing faculties, and said, “This is Gar, he owns the Black Boar. He used to be a soldier of sorts, but now he’s settled down a bit.”
“I still have to handle my fair share of battles and wars in here, Lex,” Gar boomed – surprisingly cleanly and crisply, Taere noted. He turned to Taere and Alexia, and said, “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“If you don’t mind me saying so,” Taere said, “you’re rather eloquent for a barkeep.”
“One doesn’t keep up the operation of an unregistered inn in the Cloaklands without having a bit of skill with words.” Taere was impressed. “That said, however,” Gar continued, “it goes without saying that once you’re here, you’re entitled to a little fun.” Gar gestured for Taere and Mur to follow him to the bar in the back of the room, where he motioned for them to sit down. After disappearing into the back room for a moment, he came out rolling a gigantic oak barrel. Gar hefted the liquid-filled cask onto the bar, and stabbed through the back of the barrel with a spigot valve. “For bringing her back and for Alexia herself, a barrel of my aged mead. It’s special stock.” Taere pulled out a ring of circlets, but Gar pushed his money away. “It’s on the house for you three.” Gar poured them three large steins of mead, and walked back to the other side of the bar to serve other thirsty customers.
Just as Gar walked off, Alexia came out from a back room with an unfamiliar man in tow. His hair was black and cut short, with sideburns and a beard shaved and trimmed cleanly like a soldier. He bore no scars, though, and was obviously not a man of battle. He looked almost like nobility – which Taere realized was distinctly possible, as nobles often came underdressed to local bars so as to disguise their status.
“Taere, Mur, this is Michael. He’s…an old friend of mine.” Taere caught the obvious pause, and a strange emotion coming from Alexia. She was holding something back, form Michael as well as from Taere and Mur. Much to his surprise, and a bit to his dismay, Taere actually felt a pang of jealousy tugging at his chest. Michael passed his hand lightly over Alexia’s left shoulder, whereupon she flinched suddenly as his hand hit one of the barely-healed scars on her back.
“How badly did they hurt you?”
“I’d rather not describe most of it.” Taere realized she probably wasn’t honest with anyone, not just people she didn’t know like him and Mur. A new twist, he thought. Alexia continued, “We’re going to need a room for a night or two.”
“Hiding from something again?” Michael said.
“You could say that.”
“Now you’re going to have to explain yourself,” Michael said, placing his hands on his hips in mock authority.
“It’s a bit more serious than the last time I had to hide out here, Michael,” she said.
Michael leaned into her, as if to kiss her, and said, “I’m sure it’s nothing too bad.” Taere saw the back-story immediately: old friends, former lovers, and a man trying to do a woman a favor in return for one of the nights she was staying to take as his own.
Just as Michael was about to reach her lips, Alexia pulled back. “Between the three of us,” she said, moving backward slightly, “we’ve killed about thirty-five, maybe forty Cloak officials. It is something ‘too bad,’ Michael.”
Michael was thrown aback, and pulled Alexia away from Taere and Mur by her arm with a jerk. “Are you insane? You know what happens to people like you in the Cloaklands—”
Taere interrupted Michael as he walked over. “People like her? Now it’s been brought up, and you need to tell us exactly who and apparently what you are, Alexia.” Michael, disregarding Taere, spoke in a low whisper that Taere couldn’t hear.
After a moment, Alexia backed away, and said, “I thought you didn’t care that I’m a Daeian”
“Whoa, WHOA,” Mur interjected, “you’re a Daeian?!”
Michael, ignoring Taere and Mur, said, “I don’t care. But everyone else does.”
“Now, normally,” Mur said, “I have no problem with going on murderous, barely-justifiable rampages. But with a Daeian? In the Cloaklands! Do you know what kinds of things they could do to us for even talking to you?”
Alexia’s eyes burned as she turned and said, “Shut up Mur!” She turned back to Michael, and said, “Look, all we need is one night. If this is how you really feel, if you really don’t care what happens to anyone but yourself, then we’ll leave tomorrow, and never bother you again.”
“Fine,” Michael said with spite, “one night. All we have is a single room, and you still have to pay.”
“Fine. Taere?”
“What am I, a coinpurse?” he said
“Yes,” she replied.
“This is insane,” Taere said as he pulled out ten thick silver rings and deposited them in Michael’s open palm. Michael handed Taere a crude bronze key with only two tumbler catches. Taere noted this, and kept a worry about the security of the room in the back of his thoughts.
As they walked up a small set of stairs to the rooms, Michael called after them, “I’ll send breakfast in the morning.” When they didn’t respond, Michael stalked off into the back room from whence he had come.
The room Michael had rented to them was sparse. The bed was small, and the room only contained three plank-lined retaining walls, a large fur rug, a chest of drawers, and a large, un-cushioned wood chair sitting in a corner. Mur, upon seeing the rug, collapsed immediately and fell into a deep sleep.
“Well, he was tired,” Taere said. Spying the only open sleeping space left in the room other than a cold floor, Taere settled himself into the chair in the corner, which was surprisingly comfortable for its relative lack of cushioning. He drifted off to sleep, letting the Blacksun filter scan the room for movement while his eye stayed cracked open.

Taere’s dreams were disturbing. A set of images he hadn’t seen at a while came back to him in his sleep – things he never wanted to see again.
The first was a scene of a razed city. From up close to over a mile away, all that could be seen were burning roofs and flattened stone-brick-and-mortar buildings. A cobblestone road was winding in between the buildings, littered with half-charred bodies. A cloaked figure with a gigantic black sword on its back walked between the bodies, giving them no regard. There was a flash of light.
The same cloaked figure stood over a woman, middle-aged. A blue-black-skinned hand with dark grey talons reached down toward the woman, grabbing her by the throat. As the figure’s immense strength lifted her off the ground, the claws bit into her skin, puncturing the smooth surface of her face. The creature’s eyes glowed green, and the woman burst into flame. There was another flash of light.
A young girl lay in the street. All that could be seen the cloaked figure’s back, and a red glow that washed over the girl. She didn’t utter a sound, and collapsed into a pile of dust. Another flash.
The cloaked figure pulled the enormous sword from his back. The blade, over a foot wide, was ebony in color and engraved with red runes in an unrecognizable language – one that Taere just then realized was similar to the writing on Alexia’s bow – and ended in a curved blade like that of a scythe. The figure flourished the weapon, then slammed the tip into the chest of a badly beaten and scratched man who had lain at his feet. A teenaged boy with a broken leg off to the figure’s left reached out and tried to move, but could only mouth the word “no” with a face of anguish. His words would not have been heard over the roaring flames around him. There was another flash.
The cloaked figure held a girl, no older than sixteen, in the same grip as he had held the woman. This time, though the green glow from its eyes was just as strong, the burning was slower, not as if to kill, but to torture. The same boy who had watched the man die earlier looked on in immobile horror, frozen by some horrible magic so that he could only watch this girl be maimed and killed before his eyes. There was a final flash of light.

Taere awoke in a cold sweat. His dreams had been under control for a long while – he hadn’t had this particular dream for over a year. Every night that he was about to have the dream, it was preceded by splitting headaches that plagued him throughout the day. He had been getting the same headaches again only recently. Only just then did he realize that they had started this morning – the day he met Alexia.
This is getting entirely too weird, Taere thought to himself. He got up and headed out of the room, down the stairs, and to the bar on the lower level to cool his spirits. As soon as he had ordered a pint of mead, he was joined by Michael, who was sulking and obviously stewing in his own juices. Taere watched as Michael ordered a bottle of the strongest qurao – illegally produced liquor from Al-Hajjiri – and started quaffing it as if it were water.
Taere got up and slid over on the bar, and pulled the bottle gently from below Michael’s already drunk-blushed nose. “Slow down, no one’s racing you.”
“Oh, as if you care,” Michael snapped, snatching back the bottle to continue drowning himself in alcohol.
Taere pulled back the bottle, and set it down to his side, opposite Michael. “I just don’t want our gracious host drinking himself to his grave while I watch.”
Michael glared at Taere with bloodshot eyes. Taere then realized that Michael had obviously already been drunk before ordering the qurao. “Why should you care what happens to me,” Michael said, slurring his words. “You obviously don’t care what happens to Alexia, so why me?” Michael suddenly lost his balance on his elbows and fell flat-faced on the bar. Taere hoisted Michael’s upper body back up and leant his elbows against the bar again.
“What do you mean I don’t care? I rescued her didn’t I?” Taere wasn’t sure why he was acting so defensively on Alexia’s behalf, but something about Michael’s attitude was disturbing him. He was hiding something.
“You rescued her, did you? You got her out of prison, maybe, but she would’ve been okay there. They would’ve kept her alive at least, but no, you just had to break her out of there, didn’t you?”
“Are you suggesting that she wanted to stay? Have you seen what they did to her? She won’t even tell us the full truth of it, and we were the ones who got her out. There’s no way she would have preferred life in a cell.”
“Oh but now that she’s out, and she’s killed people, they don’t want to catch her again. They want her dead. Unless someone gets her out of here, or she gives herself up, there’s no way they’ll let her stay alive.”
“What do you mean, ‘unless someone gets her out of here?’ Explain yourself.”
“If they were to get her back, alive and unharmed, they’ll treat her okay until they get something out of her. Which they won’t.”
Taere was beginning to feel there was something terribly wrong going on at the Black Boar. He noticed that over the course of his conversation, people were slowly leaving the common room, slinking off to back rooms and hallways until the entire bar was empty. “You’re talking like you already arranged something,” Taere said.
Michael was silent for a while. Then, “It’s for her own good, they’ll keep her alive—”
“What are you saying?”
“She’ll be okay…tell me she’ll be okay!” Michael started yelling, “Tell me she’ll be okay!” up toward the stairs Taere had come from.
“Michael, what the hell did you do?”
“Someone came. He said he could keep her safe if I told him where she was.”
“Who was this? Who came?” Taere said.
“I don’t know who he was,” Michael said. “He didn’t give me a name, only a promise.”
“A promise? What kind of promise?”
“He gave me this.” Michael held out his hand. In it was a plain silver ring tied to a small swatch of black cloth. Immediately upon seeing it, Taere leapt from his seat and ran upstairs.

Taere stood beside the room in the hallway. The door was barely ajar, just enough to peer in at an oblique angle. The room was dark. The liver of light that spilled in from the hallway fell on the bed, where Alexia had been when Taere left the room. She wasn’t there now, and the threadbare blanket and top sheet were pushed aside on the side of the bed facing the door. The pillow was shifted, and a depression in the mattress showed that something had been moved from under Alexia’s head.
She must have slept with a stiletto under her pillow, Taere thought to himself. If she had been holding the dagger in her sleep, she would have been able to surprise anyone who came after her, unless somehow, someone surprised her first. Taere knew only two ways to surprise a Daeian – all of whom had reputably sensitive hearing – either magical silence, or a form of distorted, backwards manipulation of shadows, not unlike Mur’s use of Mesmir. Magic was out of the question, as he, Mur, or Alexia would have sensed it, even while sleeping.
This narrowed down what Taere imagined could be inside. Cryddri were notoriously terrible at hiding, as they preferred to burst into a room and tear everything apart. Doppelgängers, while shifty, could have nothing to do with any “finding,” as Michael called it, as they had no interest in Daeians. He quickly cycled through his knowledge of other organizations that could manipulate shadows to do their bidding, and came up with two answers. The first disturbed him more than he wanted to admit. As he though of it, a voice stabbed at the back of his mind – one he hadn’t heard for a long time, he then realized. He pushed the voice out, and considered the other possibility – a Hunter. Since the Hunter seemed much more likely to be employed by someone like Michael, Taere assumed he was about to face off with a member of the Bounty Hunters’ Guild. The Guild was a quasi-military organization that had guildhalls all over Tolwyn. They were associated with no government, public, or private organizations other than themselves, and their only relationships to anyone else were through their clients. All members of the guild had basic knowledge of stealth and shadow-walking, and took about any contract that would come their way. Taere suspected that whoever was sent on this job was particularly skilled, as he was not only working for Michael, but in part, the Cloak itself.
Taere slowly pushed the door open to let more light spill into the room. The hinges creaked, and Taere cringed as he walked into the room. Half of the space of the small room was still shrouded in total blackness, through which Taere couldn’t even see with the Blacksun filter because of whatever shadow manipulation this Hunter was using. The sound of heavy, labored breathing came from the blackness, but from no real direction – another result of the shadow manipulation. Taere, after listening intently for a moment, could hear the rustling of robes and shuffling of light feet. Alexia was struggling. Taere stayed back from the shadow, waiting until either Alexia’s of the Hunter’s movement gave away their position.
A small corner of a cloak peeked out from under the shadow to Taere’s right. Taere pulled the Malevolence from behind his back and pointed it at the shadow. The shuffling stopped, and Alexia came out of the shadow, in the tight grasp of a cloaked figure. Arms clad in leather armor reached around her, holding her arms behind her, bound with leather cords, and holding her own stiletto at her throat.
“Who are you?” Taere said.
“No one that concerns you,” the Hunter replied. Taere was particularly disturbed by the Hunter’s voice – metallic and disembodied, as if he was speaking from somewhere other than his own mouth.
“Let go of Alexia, she’s not worth the pay.”
“The Daeian has a name, does she?” The Hunter paused, then said, “I’m not just doing it for the pay. I serve others.”
“You hunt Daeians, then?”
“You’re perceptive,” the Hunter said. Taere again listened to the voice. It seemed familiar, as if someone else was speaking through the Hunter to him. The Hunter continued, “Nonetheless, I have to insist that you let her go quietly, or I will be forced to take two dead bodies with me when I leave, instead of the live one I was expecting. This would be…an inconvenience I do not wish to endure.”
“What if I told you she wasn’t worth anything?”
“I wouldn’t believe you. I have my sources of information, and my employer. This one is worth more than you’d think, and not just in bounties.”
“Well then don’t you think I should be able to bring in my own prey?” Immediately after speaking, Taere thought, to no on in particular, Alexia, for the love of the Gods, please play along with this.
Much to his surprise, he heard back in his head, I hope you know what you’re doing. He hadn’t thought Alexia would have even given an audible response to his crudely projected thought, much less a telepathic one.
Since when can you use thought-speech? Taere said.
Since I was three. Now stop yammering and do something about this idiot with a dagger at my throat.
The entire conversation took place over a fraction of a second. The Hunter relaxed his guard, and said, this time in a less detached, more corporeal voice, “Your prey? I find that hard to believe. She was sleeping in a bed by herself.”
“In a room that locks from the outside,” Taere said. “I also find that fugitives tend to be a bit more cooperative when you let them sleep on a mattress instead of leaned up against the wall in a corner.”
A little help would be nice, Taere said to Alexia.
“Just because I’ve been caught doesn’t mean I’m in any rush to be taken on by anyone else,” Alexia blurted out. Twisting out of the Hunter’s grasp, she said, “Now get off me!” She backed off a few paces to his left.
“Now, listen, I know of plenty of other Daeians here in the Black Boar, and I’m sure they’re worth more than this one. You can go ahead and have them, as long as you let this one go back with me.” Taere casually walked closer to the Hunter, and sheathed his sword in feigned amity. “They’re right down the hall, all old and easy to capture. I’m sure you’ll get paid well for them, definitely more than you’d get for this one. She’s…not the best of specimens, if you catch my drift.”
Taere! Alexia said.
Will you stop, please? I told you to just play along, so do what I said!
Fine, She said, but don’t think I won’t hold it against you, at least a little bit.
Taere continued out loud, “So? What do you say you just go for the better payday?”
The Hunter seemed to consider for a moment, and almost looked as if he was going to accept the offer. Then he twitched ever so slightly, and said, switching back to the ethereal voice he had used previously, “I’m afraid my employer wouldn’t like it if I defaulted on this particular contract. If I can’t take her unharmed, I may have to harm you both.”
“Both? There are three—” Taere looked around, and realized Mur was completely out of sight and earshot. He only then realized he hadn’t even seen him in the bar downstairs, and that Mur had probably disappeared at the most inopportune moment – an odd habit of Mur’s he remembered from past experience. “Rotgut,” Taere swore, as he reached behind his back and drew the Malevolence again.
The Hunter leapt sideways toward Alexia, but she had already anticipated his first move, and sidestepped the Hunter expertly. With the precision of a surgeon, she disarmed the off-balance Hunter, and sliced down his back with his own dagger. The blade tore through the cloth of his cloak, and ripped deep into the muscles of his back. A spray of blood hit Alexia’s cheek as the Hunter dropped to his stomach and twitched.
Taere walked over to the incapacitated Hunter. “Now then who hired you and what—”
Before Taere could finish, Alexia plunged the Hunter’s dagger into the back of his neck, severing his spine instantly. The body stopped twitching.
“What the hell did you do that for? He could have told us something…anything!” Taere yelled.
“I doubt he would have said anything. He didn’t seem the type.” Alexia wiped the blood on the Hunter’s cloak, and went to open the glow-worm lamp on the wall. Taere started fuming to himself again, but cut his thought short when Alexia turned on the lights.
In the recently produced light, Taere could clearly see that there was something wrong with the Hunter. Not only were his limbs and body disproportionate to each other, but his joints also seemed too pronounced. Then he saw the blood oozing from the Hunter’s neck and back. It was thick, sticky, and almost solid black, and oozed as if it had been coagulating in the Hunter’s veins before he had died.
“Something’s off,” Alexia said. She looked over her left shoulder, as if something was there, watching. Suddenly, her knees buckled, her eyes rolled back, and she collapsed on the ground. Just as her head hit the wood floor with a hollow thunk, Mur walked nonchalantly in the door.
“Sorry if you were looking for me, I was out—” Mur stared at Alexia and the dead Hunter, with Taere between them. “What the hell did you do?”
“What did I do? I didn’t do anything, she just fell over!” Taere said.
“And who the hell is that?” Mur said, indicating the Hunter.
“Long story, I’ll tell you on the way out.”
“We’re leaving?”
Taere picked up Alexia’s unconscious body, and headed for the door. “Someone just died in our room, and Alexia just passed out for no reason. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s something very wrong with this whole situation.” Taere turned in the doorway, and said, “Yes, we’re leaving.”

Taere and Mur took Alexia to a dense part of the forest about a half-mile west of the Black Boar. They set up a small camp, with a fire only large enough to cook vegetables and roots so as to not give away their position to any of the Hunter’s reinforcements. While constructing the fire, Taere recounted everything that had happened while Mur was away.
At the mention of the Hunter’s voice, Mur interrupted, and said, “It sounded hollow?”
“Yes,” Taere said, “like his body was speaking, but he wasn’t, if that makes sense.”
“It does. That’s how my voice sounds when I blend with shadow. It’s pretty simple shadow manipulation.”
“He didn’t sound like that when he was in the shadow though; he sounded like it even when I could see him plain as day.”
“So…he was speaking like that when he wasn’t in the shadow?” Mur said.
“Not all the time, actually, only some of the time. When I mentioned a business deal, the voice faded, as if it wasn’t ‘his’ voice, but someone else speaking…through him, I guess.”
“That wasn’t shadow manipulation, then,” Mur said.
“That’s what I was going to tell you before you interrupted me,” Taere said.
“Oh,” Mur said. “Uh, never mind, continue please.”
Taere finished the rest of the story, lending particular detail to the way the Hunter’s body was misshapen, and to the tar-like blood that issued from the wounds in the Hunter’s back and spine.
“So, as if we didn’t know that there was something dreadfully wrong here, you had to tell me that. We’re being chased by shadow-crawling, homicidal tar babies. Great.” Mur threw up his hands and started pacing, muttering to himself.
Taere turned to Alexia, who was still unconscious. He tapped her on her shoulders, and said, “Wake up.” She didn’t move. He tried again a few times, with no result.
Mur walked over and nudged Taere aside. He wound up, and delivered a hard, excellent-sounding smack to Alexia’s left cheek. Her eyes flew open, and were immediately followed by her fist connecting with Taere’s lower jaw.
“What the hell was that for?” Taere yelled.
“You hit me!” Alexia responded.
“That was Mur!”
She spun around with fire in her eyes, and yelled, “You?” as she delivered a blow to Mur’s solar plexus.
Mur doubled over and just about coughed up his lungs. Through his writhing about on the forest floor, he managed to croak out “That was painful. Are we even?”
Alexia grabbed Mur by the strap of his sword, and pulled him up to her eye level. She delivered a hard smack to his right cheek, and said, “Now we’re even.” She then dropped him back to the ground. She turned to Taere and said, “I hate it when this happens.”
“What, getting hit and beating the living hell out of an innocent bystander? That hurt,” Taere said, rubbing his jaw.
“I’m sorry. No, not that, though. I mean being hunted in my sleep.”
“This happens often?”
“There’s a never-closed bounty out on Daeians in the Cloaklands, Al-Hajjiri and Navareskia. We’re really not safe anywhere, though; Hunters will go anywhere for a Daeian bounty. Besides, we’re really not that difficult to spot in a crowd. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not exactly average-looking.”
Taere was just beginning to notice she was right. Her cheekbones were perfectly curved, her skin was pale but not white, her hair…
“Taere?” He popped back into reality.
“Uh, well, that’s pretty conceited of you,” Taere said, feeling completely awkward.
Mur regained his ability to speak, and said, “So who exactly was that…thing that was in the room?”
“A Hunter. They’re members of the Bounty Hunters’ Guild, and they work for whoever pays them. Apparently this one was going after the open contract on Daeians,” Taere said.
“I’m not so sure he was just after Daeians,” Alexia said. “He was after me.”
“I don’t think so,” Mur said. “From what Taere told me, when he mentioned other Daeians, this Hunter practically gave up on you.”
“That was only after Taere told him he was a Hunter too, and that he had captured me already. After that, he gave up on me.”
“That really doesn’t explain why he gave up,” Mur said.
“It’s one of the rules of the Guild,” Taere said. “Whoever makes the catch first, keeps it unless he dies or the prey escapes.”
Mur sat down and thought. Then, he said, “You know, something wasn’t right about him.”
“Wow, you’re an absolute genius,” Taere said. “He was only a bony, hollow-voiced mess that bled tar, maybe there was something off about him.”
“Not just that, I mean that when I was near him, I felt something – I don’t know – dark.”
“I know what you mean, there was some aura, some feeling that things just weren’t right.” Taere leaned up against a tree. “It was like a ripple or something. I just have no idea where the ripple started.”
Alexia had been silent for a while, obviously thinking. She was keeping something inside, and Taere wanted her to let it out. She finally did, and said, “It’s been said that whenever you kill a Daeian, you become tainted by the smallest speck of Shadow. I don’t even want to think of how many Daeians he killed.”
They were all silent for a while, thinking. Taere realized that Alexia had probably never seen a Daeian since she had lived in one of the old keeps in the Eldûl Thengol he always heard about. Most had been burned out by patrols of Hunters or Cloaklands soldiers before the mountains were established as a neutral zone between Alluvia and The Cloaklands, but there was a chance Alexia’s still existed. Taere realized that they would be passing through the Thengol on the way to Æfer, and that they could maybe look for her keep.
Mur brought him back to the then and now, and said, “Listen, there’s probably more of those Hunters around. We should get moving.”
“Right, we should get out of here before they find out Michael let us kill one of them.”
“Michael?” Taere said. “Why the hell are we worrying about him? Shouldn’t we be a little more concerned with getting ourselves out of here first?”
“Sure,” she said, muttering, “Unless he’s interested in the damned bounty too.”
Taere realized she had no idea that Michael had all but told the Hunter where to find her so he could bring her back to the Cloaklands. He thought it best to keep it secret, and instead said, “You’re really ticked off at him for bringing that up, aren’t you?”
“I hate him for it,” she said.
“You hate pretty easily, don’t you?”
“I hate people who can’t accept the fact that I’m me,” she said. “If they can’t, then there’s no room for loving, or liking for that matter.”
Taere dropped the subject, and moved back to the small fire. Mur had started roasting some fungi he had rummaged up from the base of a tree, and they were starting to give off a sweetish, pungent aroma as their spores floated up in the heat of the fire. Taere decided to forego the mushrooms and laid down on a light bedroll for the night. Just before he closed his eyes, he thought of Alexia, and how much she looked like someone he used to know.


THE FLATTENED BLACK PLAIN where Colendd once stood stuck out like scar on the face of the land. Burnt timbers and floorboards crunched under Ether’s hooves as Taere surveyed the landscape. He jumped off, landing with a crack on a charred crossbeam from a large house. The beam strained, then shattered under the weight of Taere’s armored boots. He could see a few charred hands or legs jutting out from under the flattened remains of houses and buildings, too charred to be recognizable. He saw pieces of bodies – charred pieces of abdomen, decapitated torsos and others – lying under flattened walls or crushed beneath supporting beams from the larger structures.
Though the smell of sulfur permeated the air, Taere bent down to pick up a shard of the sundered timber. He crushed the charcoal-like splinter between his fingers, and inhaled. Brimstone entered his nostrils, filling his nose with the slight burning sensation that live brimstone causes. After brushing his hand off on the edge of his traveling cloak, he walked over the crunching, black ground to where Alexia and Mur were dismounting.
“So, find anything you didn’t expect?” Alexia asked.
“Not yet,” Taere said.
“So you’re expecting to find something then?”
“You could say I have somewhat of a personal stake in this situation.”
“Are you ever going to explain yourself fully?” Mur said.
“Probably not,” Taere said. “Right now, I have this terrible feeling that I’m going to find something that no one is going to like. I want both of you to keep an eye out for anything that shouldn’t be in a town in the Cloak. Swords, daggers, and halberds would be normal, but if you see anything like pikes, maces – any weapons that guards or soldiers probably wouldn’t be carrying – don’t touch them, but tell me. The same with armor; we’d expect to find leather and chainmail, but if you see any out-of-place plate armor or lamellar, show me where it is.” It was only after he finished that Taere realized his voice had taken on the commanding tone he had once been used to using.
“Yes, sir, commander,” Alexia said with a bite. “Who do you think we are? Your platoon?”
“Sorry,” Taere said, “I…” he searched for words and came up with “I used to command a sizable force, so to speak, and I might have regressed back into that mode of speech. I probably could have and should have told you that.”
“That’s probably true,” she said, “but I’ll keep an eye out for anything unusual nonetheless.” She walked off to the west to start searching through the burnt ruins, while Taere and Mur went north and south, respectively.
Taere knelt down to study an odd burn pattern on one of the larger timbers. The markings were, at first glance, consistent with charring under intense flame, but when examined more closely, Taere saw deep cracks that striated the wood along the grain. After considering for a moment, Taere’s surprise turned to dismay at what the pattern implied.
He called Mur and Alexia over, and said, “We have a new priority. I found something pretty disturbing. Look at these grooves. If a house was built with these already in the wood, it would have collapsed already, long before whatever or whoever did this came.” Taere extended the gauntlet blade on his left gauntlet, and pried the beam apart with the tip of the blade. It took considerable force to split the wood, but after a few moments of struggling, the beam burst open with a crack. As he expected, a burst of ice crystals exploded up from the two halves of the beam as they fell to either side of Taere’s knees.
“Ice?” Mur said. “Colendd was burned; why is there ice in the beams?” Mur bent down to touch the ice, as if to make sure it was real. Taere swatted his hand away.
“Don’t touch it. Watch.” Taere pulled a small piece of blank parchment from the inside pocket of his cloak, pinched it between his thumb and forefinger, and touched it to the ice. Instantly, bluish-white crystals climbed up the paper until they reached Taere’s fingers, whereupon he dropped it immediately. The paper, now weighed down by the crystals on its surface, fell to the ground and shattered like a cordial glass. “Have you ever heard of something called a crysmal gun?”
Mur and Alexia both shook their heads no.
“It’s a weapon that uses liquid crystal fuel that’s kept extremely cold by channeling elemental air and water over its surface. This ice is about five times colder.”
“Interesting, but that still doesn’t explain why the whole town was burned,” Alexia said.
“It was a cover so no one would realize who really razed the town. I’ve seen it done before, but I doubt it’s the same people.” Taere stayed silent for a moment. He realized exactly who could have burned the entire region after it was frozen dead, but he couldn’t fathom the idea that they were actually back. Instead of revealing what he truly thought, he said, “I wouldn’t put it past Gängers to pull something like this.”
“So then we’re definitely going to Æfer?” Mur said.
“Unless you have any other idea where the Cloaklands would have been able to find Doppelgängers in authority positions, yes, we’re definitely going,” Alexia replied. “Taere?”
“I guess that seems like the right idea, at least for now. If anything else comes up, I might have places to go, though. I figure I might as well tell you so you’re not surprised.”
“What kinds of ‘places’ do you mean?” Mur said.
“It won’t matter unless I actually go, so I don’t think I’ll tell you.”
“You’re just full of deep, dark secrets, aren’t you?” Alexia mused.
Taere was about to speak, when he saw something familiar off to his left. He turned and knelt in the black dirt, and dug a hand out of the charcoal. On the hand was a silver ring set with a small blue gem. Taere immediately recognized it as Sherrik’s, and finally began to comprehend what happened at Colendd. He had lost a friend, and a colleague, and was entirely unprepared for it. He had unrealistically hoped that Sherrik had somehow left or made it out before the town was completely flattened, but he knew that Sherrik wouldn’t leave Colendd unless Ctrelli had called him back to the home office in…Æfer.
“There are bigger things going on here than the Cloak’s hunt for you. I think this was a corporate attack.”
“A what?”
“This was business. The rest of Colendd was just collateral damage to these people.”
“Well, who were they going after? Who was attacked?” Mur asked.
Taere reached down and slowly removed the ring from the charred hand at his feet. “My contact from Ctrelli. His name was Sherrik. I don’t know who did this or what they had against him, but they did a thorough job of covering it up.”
“Well then, if we actually want to find out who did this, we should go.”
“Right,” Taere said. “We should go.”
Taere walked back to his horse hanging his head. He felt Alexia’s eyes piercing the back of his head, as if she were boring into his mind and trying to find his thoughts. He had no compulsion to let her see what he was thinking, and mentally closed himself. He almost felt like there was a resistance pushing at his mind for a moment, and then it was gone. When he turned back to look at Alexia, she turned her head quickly to the side, but Taere could tell she had been staring.
I’m really not that interesting, he said to himself, but as he did, he let his guard down just enough so that Alexia would hear what he said, but nothing else.
What are you trying to hide, Taere? Alexia said.
He didn’t answer.

By the time Taere, Alexia, and Mur had gotten back on the move to the west, they had started spotting the first wave of thiops on the move towards Colendd.
“These gigantic toadstools are harmless,” Taere said, but Mur seemed to be more disturbed by them than he should have been. They move in waves, so Taere thought it understandable that they might seem odd; it’s not every day someone sees a herd of ten-foot-tall mushrooms with arms and legs cresting a hill like an army.
Alexia looked disturbed as well. “What are those things?” she asked.
“Thiops,” Taere said, as one of their caps brushed up against Ether’s haunches. The horse was startled, but did nothing more than whinny. “Don’t worry about them; they’re just going to Colendd to clean up.”
“Clean up?” Mur said. “What do you mean?”
“They’re walking mushrooms. Mushrooms grow on dead things. Thiops do the same thing, except they can walk.”
“So they…eat dead things?” Mur said, disgusted.
“Essentially, yes, that’s exactly what they do,” Taere said. In truth, they weren’t going to eat any dead matter. Instead, they would root themselves on top of the remains of Colendd and decompose the remains like normal mushrooms – only on a much larger scale.
“Ugh,” Mur said, and turned back to the west as the last of the thiops came over the hill and passed by his horse.
“I have to wonder, Taere,” Alexia said, and paused. Taere sensed another question about his past coming, and didn’t look forward to it. She then said, “How do you know so much about…well, it seems like at least a little bit about everything?”
Taere didn’t answer for a while, but thought, rather broadly, Must you?
Yes, he heard from Alexia. You wouldn’t want Mur to get too confused, now, would you?
“It’s mostly from research I do for jobs for Ctrelli,” Taere said. It was a terribly disguised lie, and Alexia sensed it, but Mur just took it as if it were true and didn’t say anything.
“And what job did you have to research thiops for?”
Taere scowled at Alexia, but said, not missing a beat, “I took a job in the Dhimghôl. There’s plenty of dead stuff to deal with there, so I needed to do a little research. The thiops are much more violent there.” Taere had actually taken a job in the Dhimghôl, but had done no research of the kind. He already knew about thiops and their relative aggressiveness in the Ghôl. This was yet another one of the secrets he kept away from Alexia behind a mental barrier.
“You know,” Taere said, “All this talk about me has made me realize…from all the time I spent with you,” he indicated Mur, “I have no idea where you’re from, or what you did before about two years ago when we both got that contract for Sundukur. All we really know about you is that you’ve been a thief just about as long as I have, and you have a sword that can jump a few hoops.”
“Well,” Mur said, apparently glad that Taere and Alexia’s attention had returned to him, “I was a foundling for as long as I can remember, and started stealing to live. I lived in an orphanage outside of Bay Hold for the first five years of my life, until I realized I could do better for myself on my own. I scaled the fence in the back I moved between Berland, Cordïd and Mast from the time I was five until I was twelve, when I settled down in a little abandoned house in a small village outside Berland. I stayed there until I was sixteen, when I met a representative from a group of thieves.
“From there, you know the drill. I was initiated, started working jobs, and then got my own contracts. And now you find me here.”
“Interesting, Mur, very interesting,” Taere said, “But what happened in those intermediate years while you were with the thieves? We have a long ride ahead of us, and we’re going to need something to pass the time.”
“If you really must know, I guess I can give you some of the details. But I really don’t feel like telling the whole thing – it is a good chunk of time, and it would probably take longer than the whole trip to tell.”
“Then give us the condensed version,” Alexia said.
Mur was quiet, and breathed a few times. Then he began to spin his tale.
“As I said, when I was sixteen, I finally settled down in an abandoned house in Berland. When I came to the city, I had no connections, no friends, and knew just about no one. My few acquaintances that I talked more than three words to were the barkeep and a few regulars at the inn closest to my – well, not my, but you get the idea – my house. There really wasn’t much to talk about; Berland was pretty quiet and boring back then. Not like now, since the new restrictions the Cloak put on magic and just about everything else. I‘m not saying that the Cloaklands used to be a nation of freedom and action without consequence; it just used to be a little less restricted. As I said though, I didn’t really talk to anyone about anything, because there wasn’t much to talk about.
“Anyone else I talked to was a potential mark. Sometimes’ I’d bump into them and apologize, and steal their coinpurse as they turned away. Other times, I’d just brush past, cut their purse, then spin around and strike up a conversation as I was slipping his purse into my pocket. This is how it went for about a year, until I met my contact.
“I was walking through one of Berland’s open-air markets, looking for a mark for my latest scheme – kind of like a bait and switch, but I don’t want to get into the mechanics of it. Anyway, I decided to try it out on an oblivious-looking merchant while he was concentrating on browsing the market stalls. I went to make the cut and replace his purse, but just as my hand touched his belt, he spun around and grabbed me by the wrist. I dropped the knife I was using, and he dragged me off into an alley.
“He began to chastise me for my thievery, calling me all manner of things for a good five minutes straight, all the while holding on to my wrist with the grip of a vice. I was sure he was going to beat me, cut off my hands, or kill me, and for the first half of his tirade of scolding, it seemed like he might do all three. In the middle of his ranting and raving, however, he lowered his voice, and asked me, completely out of the blue I thought, how long I had been stealing to make a living. I told him I had for about five months, I wasn’t sure. It was then he told me his name, and about the Black Pack. His name was Cratomer, and the Black Pack, as he put it, was a ‘group of opportunists looking to take advantage of the many prospects for wealth in modern society.’ When I asked him what he meant, he told me that it was just a group of people like me who supported each other the way a family does, except that they’re much larger than a family.
“Cratomer took me back to where this ‘family’ lived, which was, oddly enough, a much larger abandoned house that the Black Pack bought under the name of a dead nobleman a few years after moving in. For the next few years, up until about three years ago, I lived there, taking petty job after petty job, until finally someone took notice of me after I was commissioned to steal a sealed box from a museum property shipment going from Mast to S’aar. That box, as I soon learned after opening it – an action that voided my contract, I soon learned – contained Mesmir and a variety of other magical artifacts that the Black Pack distributed amongst itself. We didn’t really care about the contract after we found out what was in the box, though. Just half of the weapons and artifacts could have been fenced for more than three times the value of our contract. The thing is, though, that I wasn’t the one they gave Mesmir to.”
Taere interrupted Mur, and said “So you stole from a thief. Somehow I get the feeling that didn’t turn out too well.”
Mur was silent for a moment, and gave Taere a cold stare as his horse clopped up a slight incline in the path. He then said, “You have a talent for stating the obvious. No, it didn’t. Cratomer was supposed to get Mesmir, and I, the new initiate runt, was supposed to get a set of ‘never-dull’ throwing daggers. All in all, I wasn’t pleased. Also, I had already figured out what Mesmir could do when I retrieved the shipment. So, in the middle of the night, I took Mesmir, and left.”
“Just like that?” Alexia said.
“Just like that,” Mur said. “It’s pretty hard to catch someone when you can’t see them. I really expected them to be a little more attentive about their loot, but Cratomer just slept through it all, and I just left them to go about their own petty business. By then I was getting independent contracts from more people than I could count, and, to be honest, the Black Pack was behind me. I moved on.
“I started off with small contracts, just caravan interceptions and other material jobs. Soon, though, I started getting offers from Ctrelli and Haas – corporate sabotage contracts. I like to think I’ve done a little bit to shape the history of Tolwyn sometimes. For instance, you know that expedition that Haas just went on to the Wastesands? They would have never gone if I hadn’t taken research materials from a smaller trading company on a contract from Haas.”
“You have no scruples, do you?” Taere said.
“Would you have denied a contract that paid five thousand circlets?”
“Five thousand circlets?”
“You heard what I said, five thousand. It was a hard job, so they paid well. I think it makes sense.”
They were silent again for a while, and after a few moments, Mur spurred his horse and rode ahead a few lengths. Taere found himself riding alone on a path with Alexia. At first, he glanced over every few seconds, to – he kept telling himself – make sure she was all right. He did start to notice things he hadn’t before about how Alexia carried herself. She had an aura of self-confidence about her that was not bruised or marred by the unsightly scars of a whip. As well, Taere noted the way her normally brown hair, at the right angle, would shine with a bright red hue as if coated with blood. Taere put this off to an optical illusion, and turned his head quickly back to the path straight ahead. He looked back moments later, however, to study the arch of her cheekbones, the curve in the small of her back, her—
What are you looking at? Taere heard in his head. He immediately shut his mind off from Alexia, so forcefully, in fact, that she recoiled on her saddle. After realizing his mistake, Taere made an awkward face and quickly turned his head back to face straight ahead.
“That wasn’t very nice,” Alexia said. She was silent for a moment, then said, “What are you hiding, Taere?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” Taere said, still facing forward. “Why won’t you tell us why you were in the Tower?”
“Because you never asked.” Taere turned to look at her, and studied her quizzically. “What?” she said.
“We did ask. You said you’d tell us some other time.”
“Oh,” she said. This time it was her turn to be awkward, and, with a slight scowl, she said, “I was trying to be witty.”
“Well, it didn’t work very, well, now did it,” Mur spit out. He slowed his horse to match pace with Taere and Alexia again.
Alexia glowered at Mur, then said, “Do you really think they had a reason to throw me in there? In the Cloaklands they’ll throw you in a dungeon for doing so much as spitting chew-weed on the street.”
“You don’t look like the chew-weed type. You know why we were there; it’s only fair that you should tell us why you were,” Taere said, very obviously pouring on the sweet.
“I’ll give you that. It’s a bit of a gruesome story, though. Are you sure you want to know?”
“In the hours you’ve known us, have you ever known either – well, have you ever known me to have a problem with gore?” Taere grinned at Mur.
Alexia got out “If you’d rather cover your ears, Mur—”
“Ha, ha; you’re both hilarious,” Mur interrupted. “Speak.”
“My sister, Janna, was a prisoner there. I tried getting her out through all the legal channels and more subtle methods of persuasion, but I couldn’t. So I did the only other thing I could. I got myself arrested.”
Taere and Mur stared at Alexia as if she had four heads. “Are you insane?” Taere said. “Half the time, they don’t even think twice about beating you in the street. You had a better chance of getting killed than arrested.”
“I know. Luck – if you can call it that – was on my side, though. Apparently the Cloak was looking for me. I don’t know why, but for some reason, they were particularly keen on catching and torturing Daeians that particular day.”
“You know, that sounds like a great plan,” Mur said, “drop into a dark, evil dungeon to find your sister, while avoiding the teeming hordes of guards and Cloak mages that are there at all times. Intelligent.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Mur.”
“Well, I was right, wasn’t I? Obviously it didn’t work, and you got chained to a damned wall. I don’t see anyone named Janna here, do I?”
Alexia’s face erupted red as she became filled with an almost unnatural rage. “It did work, Mur, and I wish it hadn’t!” It looked as if Alexia was going to leap out of her saddle and attack Mur as she said, “I saw her was I was being pushed through the halls. She was lying on the floor of a cell, with her chest torn open and her intestines spilling out on the floor!” Her rage turned to the inexplicable and unnamed emotion between sadness and anger as she said, “I wanted to look back to make sure it was her, but I couldn’t because the smell of her was burning my eyes, and my hand were being pried from the bars on her door!” She started to cry, and Taere could only sit there while she wept all over her horse’s mane. As if they could sense the emotions flying around them, the horses slowed, and circled around each other. Alexia collapsed onto her horse’s neck and muttered something that sounded like, “Are you happy now?”
Mur and Taere sat atop their horses in silence. After a few moments, Mur said, “That was…graphic.”
Alexia looked up, her eyes burning with rage, and said, “Do you ever say anything without that stupid sarcasm of yours? Are you ever serious? Gods, I don’t believe you!” She spurred her horse and rode ahead on the path, leaving Taere and Mur completely bewildered behind her. Taere was the first to catch up, riding ahead while Mur collected himself from Alexia’s rebuke. Alexia’s horse had just broken through the end of the forest onto an open grass plain, where she slowed to a trot, then to a stop, and let her horse bend down to eat from the yellow-green grass.
Taere pulled back on Ether’s reins, and turned him to stop sideways next to Alexia’s horse. “Hey,” he said, “did you have to blow up at him like that?” Alexia didn’t answer; she had gone from sobbing to raging to pensive all in the course of a minute. “If he’s been giving you grief, he really doesn’t mean it.” Taere realized as he said it that he was talking about Mur as if he were a small child, not a seasoned thief. After thinking about it for a moment, he realized however, that in many ways, Mur was a child. He had one goal, and one way of getting there, and any deviation from it threw him into what he would call an obsessive-compulsive fit, but was really more like a more mature version of a tantrum.
As if she were reading his thoughts – which, Taere realized, she probably was – Alexia said, “It really isn’t his fault; you’re right. As much as I’d like to blame him for reacting like that, he didn’t know anything about what I went through. It’s nothing to him, death. It’s nothing to me either, really, but this was my sister. This was my flesh and blood, not some guard in my way that would have killed me if I hadn’t killed him. He doesn’t know what I was feeling.” To Taere, she said, silently, I sometimes forget that everyone isn’t an empath.
As Mur came riding over, she said to him, “I’m sorry.”
Mur stared back at her, bewildered again, and said, “You’re not going to make a big deal out of it?”
“No,” she said, straightforwardly, “it’s not worth my time.” Her horse finished eating, and she kicked it ahead. Taere and Mur took up positions to either side of her, but slightly back. Taere considered riding up ahead, but Alexia was casting off remote feelings and an atmosphere of aggressiveness, and Taere thought better of it.

The three of them rode on for another few hours, until they reached the foothills of the Eldûl Thengol. It was just getting dark, and they began to set up a camp by one of the last plains shrubs before the vegetation changed to steppe-grass and sage. Taere and Alexia tied their horses to a nearby deeproot shrub by long leather cords, while Mur hitched his to a small, spiky outcropping of rock.
As their fire began to burn, Mur stared up at the mountains looming in their path. He said, “It’s summer…how do those mountains stay frozen?” Though Mur’s observations tended to be wrong, Taere looked up to see mountains at least three miles high, all with solid glaciers atop their peaks.
Alexia, as if an expert, looked up as well, and said, “Their name means ‘Snowy Mountains’ in Elvish. Their icecaps, even the ones near the mouth of the River Aerfalle and the Great Sea, are perpetually frozen and never melt. Greiy Elves say the Snow Plains to the south reach out in a long, spiny finger over the mountain range. I think they’re just really high up where it’s always cold, but no one really knows.” She trailed up looking at the peaks.
Taere realized immediately that she must have been thinking about her old home – one of the Daeian strongholds he kept hearing about in the Eldûl Thengol in rumors. He never thought there was substance to any of those idle words, but apparently they were right. He said, “You used to live somewhere in there, didn’t you?”
“About fifteen miles in and three miles up. Eldi Lethui, we called our home. Now it’s…well, we’re gone. No one lives there anymore.”
“What happened?”
“Hunters. They came in the middle of the night and took about half of us before Ren sounded the alarm bells. The rest of us ran, but only about a third of the ones that hadn’t been taken already made it out of the mountain before the Hunters started burning things. We all slid down the side of the mountain to the paths below and looked back up at our old home, only to see our brothers and sisters being set aflame and tossed out of windows into the open air.
“The Hunters came after us on the slopes, and dropped onto us as if they had come from thin air. Hunters and Daeians tangled together as they tumbled down the slopes, only to land at the bottom snarled in chains or broken in the death grip of a Hunter. I only know fifteen of us who made it off the mountain, and only ten of us are still alive or free. The rest of them, almost two hundred…they’re all dead by now.”
Alexia sat silently for a while by the rapidly growing fire. Suddenly, her mood changed, and she said, “Gods, I’m a depressing story. Why do you let me keep babbling on like that? We have more pressing matters than my personal history.”
“I can think of one,” Mur said. “How are we going to get over those mountains and up to Æfer? You said yourself that those mountains are three miles high, and I don’t know of any ways through the range within ten miles of here.”
“There is the B’kher Pass,” Taere said.
“But that only gets us half of the way through,” Mur noted back. “Besides, there’s a huge river right in our way that…oh.”
“You’re catching on,” Alexia said.
“We can take the B’kher Pass through the side of the range to one of the trans-Thengol valleys. From there, we can go north to the Aerfalle River, and take a river barge downstream to the river port at Æfer. I can arrange for our docking fees to be overlooked, and we can go about as we please after we find somewhere to set ourselves up for a while.”
“You’ve known exactly what we were doing for a while now, haven’t you?” Mur said, obviously a little ticked off.
“I connected the dots, and she had the plan,” Taere said, indicating Alexia. “I thought you would have figured it out on your own. I mean, you said yourself that you were a master of guile and intrigue.”
“You’re not ever going to drop that, are you?” Mur said, frowning.
“No,” Taere replied. He started dismantling his piecemeal armor, unlatching piece by piece until all of it but the gauntlets and breastplate lay on the ground in a disorderly pile next to his bedroll. Taere unlatched the gauntlets, which hissed as their clasps opened, and, oddly enough, let out steam from vented chambers on either side of the round, polished topazes that sat on the top of each wrist. Mur and Alexia stared as Taere slowly pulled the gauntlets off of his arm, allowing bits of crystal and wire to be pulled up from the skin of his arms, then snap off and retreat back under the skin. Taere did the same with the breastplate, which vented steam and heat from the back, sides, and front of the metal joints. Wires and crystals similar to the ones on Taere’s wrists snapped off the breastplate as he unfolded its two-piece shell and laid either half on top of one another next to the pile by his bedroll. Alexia stared at Taere’s chest and wrist, where the wires slowly came back to the surface, to appear like silvery veins in intricate patterns under his skin.
“Is that…permanent?” Alexia said.
“Unless I get them removed, yes.” Alexia and Mur continued staring, dumbfounded. “They allow the armor to respond to my thoughts. When I want the blade in the left gauntlet to extend, I just have to think it, and it happens. It’s the same with – wait, you haven’t seen it yet.” Taere put a finger to his left eye, where he slid a small, green-tinted piece of what looked like glass out of his eye and between his thumb and forefinger. With it came a wire from Taere’s tear duct, which snapped off the same way as the ones in his wrists and chest. Taere flinched slightly when the wire snapped, and his eye teared up for a moment.
Taere held the green lens out for Alexia and Mur to see. “It’s a filter. Whenever I want, I can see in the dark, or see where someone’s hiding. It works the same way as the blade – if I think it, it happens.”
“How does all of this work?” Mur asked.
Taere slipped the filter back into his eye, whereupon Mur and Alexia saw the small silver wire shoot out from his tear duct and fit itself into the side of the lens. While he was slipping on a tunic, Taere said, “All of the wires are connected to—” but then cut himself off as he got stuck in one of his shirtsleeves. Alexia got up and walked over to Taere, and pulled his head out of his sleeve, and slipped the neck over his head.
“Thank you,” Taere said. He noticed immediately that Alexia was second-guessing her decision to show concern or empathy, but when he tried to see what she was thinking, he encountered only the thought of a brick wall giving him a raspberry. Giving up, he continued, and said, “All the wires go further under my skin and connect to the topaz in the center of the breastplate. I have absolutely no idea how it works, all I know is that I’m wearing it, and that at one time it was Idari.”
“Idari?” Mur said. He was obviously quite confused.
Alexia, on the other hand, seemed to know exactly what Taere was talking about. She said, “They’re dead. There’s no mention of them in any history of any race – Brodhalven, Anskari, Greiy, Dwarf, Ghoul, not even Daeian. We only know they existed because of what they left behind. No one really knows where any of their old weapons or armor came from, or how they were made, but every so often someone finds Idari artifacts in old ruins around the Eldûl Kojunko in Shojuno, or in the South Fire Wastesands.”
“Ok, that’s great,” Mur said, “but what are they?”
“No one knows. Their name is from broken Elvish, from their word eÿdar, for ‘unknown.’ People think they probably looked a lot like any of us, at least in stature, but as to their face, appearance, even their skin color – no one has any idea. All anyone does know is that they were extremely advanced mage-smiths, and put magical devices in almost everything they made.”
Taere took over then, saying, “Everything they make is powered by topazes, sapphires, or emeralds polished into oblong gems just like the ones in my armor. They all connect with the user’s body through mithril wires that are permanently dug into the skin when the device is first used – or for the first time in a very long time.”
“And how did you come across this armor? Did you steal it?”
“Not exactly.”
“What do you mean, ‘not exactly?’ Did you steal it from someone who stole it? What happened to honor among thieves?” Mur had worked himself into an unnecessary fit.
“Calm down, Mur,” Taere said, “I didn’t steal from a thief. I…borrowed it.”
“Borrowed? For how long? And from whom?”
“For as long as I need it, and I’d rather not say from whom right now.”
“You’re more cryptic and secretive than I am,” Alexia said. Lying down on her bedroll, she said, “You know, I’m not going to be able to sleep now. You’ve got me interested.”
“Then get yourself to sleep with anticipation,” Taere said as he pulled the top of the bedroll over himself. “Maybe I’ll tell you in the morning.”

Taere never intended to tell Alexia anything the following day, but he assumed she had known that. She didn’t ask him anything about it, and there was a sort of unspoken understanding between them that she wasn’t going to find out where the armor came from. Instead of pressing the issue any further on himself, Taere donned his armor and stood beside Ether, waiting for Alexia and Mur to get ready.
Mur was strapping on his saddlebags, and was about to mount his horse, when he looked over at Taere, and said, “You gonna walk the rest of the way?”
“I don’t want Ether tripping on something because I’m up there on his back. These are mountains, not trails or roads, Mur.”
“Good point,” Mur said, and pulled his foot out of his left stirrup.
Alexia, unlike the two of them, had not strapped her possessions to her mount. Instead, she had packed her gear into a large framed pack she had unfolded from her saddlebags.
“Where did you get that, and why in the Abyss are you carrying all of that?” Mur said.
“I picked this up when we got our horses, and I’m taking all of this because my horse doesn’t want to go into the mountains.”
“Doesn’t want to go?” Mur was flabbergasted. “You know, the whole purpose of riding a horse is making it go where you want it to go. Besides, how could you possibly know whether your horse wants to go anywhere or not?”
Alexia sent the idea of amusement into Taere’s mind, and said, “I just know,” to Mur, who shrugged it off to Alexia’s general peculiarity. Alexia walked back over to her rose, and stared at it for a moment. The animal then went trotting off to the south over the plains.
Suddenly invigorated, Alexia pushed her pack up on her back, and marched forward to the first incline of the steppes they were about to enter. Taere and Mur followed with their horses close behind, coaxing them up the rocky faces and sheer cliffs of the start of the Thengol range. At first, the horses were having trouble adapting to the new terrain, but they eventually regained their footing and traveled on with almost as much daftness as they had traveled over the plains in the Cloaklands.
They quickly approached the border of the neutral territories, conspicuously marked on the Cloaklands side with bright yellow balls of energy floating about a yard off the ground every ten feet or so. They passed over the border, and continued into the taller peaks of the Thengol. The snow pack soon came at lower altitudes, becoming thicker and more treacherous with every step. Taere wasn’t having much trouble walking through the half-frozen muck, but Alexia and Mur had to pull out tracks to tie onto the soles of their boots to keep their grip while walking. Alexia especially was having difficulty keeping her balance with over fifty pounds of gear strapped on her back, and more often than not found herself traversing the slopes by leaning against the side of a cliff and sliding her top-heavy self across their improvised path. Taere more than once offered top take some or all of the gear off Alexia’s back and put it on Ether’s more-than-ample haunches for at least a little while, but each time she refused the help, preferring to carry it all herself.
The rest of their journey was mostly uneventful, save a ravine crossing during which Mur’s mount faltered in its step, and almost lost its footing on the narrow rock bridge they were crossing. The horse’s tottering caused its overfilled saddlebags to break open and spill their contents – most of the group’s foodstuffs – off the bridge and into the icy ravine below. Luckily, however, this occurred only a day-and-a-half’s journey from their destination. The next day, Alexia managed to down a few mountain quail with her bow, sating their appetites until they could re-supply at the end of B’kher Pass.
After another day’s travel, following an uncomfortable sleep in an ice cave, the B’kher Pass opened up into a deep valley lined with small, jagged peaks. The path they had been traveling on was over a mile above the river, but they could clearly see discoloration on the rock walls of the gorge about twenty feet up from the valley floor. Taere realized this must have been where the water level rose to in the warm season, when much of the ice on the top of the Eldûl Thengol started melting.
Alexia was the first to notice the switchbacks carved into the mountain that started by dropping off to their left. She began to move along the reversing trails, and Taere and Mur followed with their mounts down to the ferry on the valley floor.


THE WATERS OF THE RIVER AERFALLE seemed particularly high for the season to Taere; the current had drowned some of the reeds on the banks. The rickety pontoon docks were bobbing and undulating in the swift current, while ramshackle rafts moored to them tossed in the whitewater. As he went to hitch Ether to one of the posts by the side of the river, he almost collided with a running dockhand set off-balance by his load of mooring rope. The tail end of the line barely missed Ether’s hoof, which, had it caught on it, would have caused quite the disaster.
Alexia and Mur dismounted as well, and followed Taere as he found his way to the offices of one of the smaller ferry companies amidst the tumult of the small harbor. Taere weaved his way between the bustling crowds of dockhands and passengers to a small shack with a weatherworn sign above it that read “Gorgan’s Dispatch & Ferry” in red and white lettering. Taere pulled the door open, which creaked on old hinges as it swung open and stuck about halfway. Taere squeezed his way in, followed by Alexia, while Mur had particular trouble getting in as his sword caught on the doorframe.
Seated behind a desk was a portly man with thin gray wisps of hair on his head and a thin beard on his face. His hands were stained with rope tar, along with the shoulders and underarms of his shirt. He was busy sorting through a messy stack of papers and manifest books on his desk, looking for something
Well, at least we know he’s been on a boat before, Alexia said silently to Taere.
Even if he still smells like it, Taere said back.
As if he had just noticed the three of them enter, the man looked up from the papers on his desk, rather surprised, and said jovially, “Why hello there, I’m Gorgan – as you might have guessed from the sign – and I’m a bit busy, so if you’d wait a moment…” Gorgan trailed off and continued to search through the papers littering his desk.
Suddenly, with a jerk, he pulled a paper from inside a small bundle stuck in the pages of one of the manifest books on his desk, and shouted “Eureka!” Then, after a quick rummage, regained his frantic look of dismay, and said, “Blast it all I’ve lost my pen again. Would either of you happen to…oh, nevermind. You’re customers and I’m a bumbling fool sometimes.”
Gorgan hoisted himself from his chair, and half walked, half waddled over to Taere, and reached out his hand. He was considerably shorter than Taere, just over five feet tall, and looked rather absurd as he stared up at Taere.
“Now then,” he said, still shaking Taere’s hand vigorously, “What exactly do you need dispatched or ferried, exactly?”
Alexia replied, “The three of us, our horses, and our gear.”
“Three horses?” Gorgan looked dismayed again. “I’m afraid that’s going to be difficult.” Gorgan hobbled over to the window facing the river, and pulled up the shade. “As you can see,” he said, indicating the river, “The banks are rather high and the water’s rather rough. If you want to keep three horses and all your gear steady, it’s going to cost you.”
“How much?” Taere said, this time not even waiting for Alexia to put him forward as the group’s money tree.
“That entirely depends on how much you’re willing to spend. I have plenty of open rafts, but they can only carry my crew and maybe two of you. You could go bigger…but like I said: it’ll cost you.”
I don’t like something about him, Alexia said. She then said out loud, “Before we go paying for anything, I think we ought to see what we’d be paying for. You said you have ‘rafts?’”
“Yes, I said ‘rafts.’ That’s what you take when you’re going down the Aerfalle. At least, that’s what you take from here. We’re a small port, missy; we don’t have the giant ships like they have downriver.”
“All the same, let’s see what kind of services you’re selling.”
“Right this way then,” Gorgan said, and waddles past them out the door. Using his girth, Gorgan pushed the door open and walked out easily. Somehow, Mur still managed to get himself stuck, and fell a few steps behind Alexia as he cursed and swore at his scabbard.
“Rafts” was probably an overstatement of the quality of Gorgan’s goods. His ferries were little more than trees lashed together through holes drilled vertically through each end of the trunk. Four of them were moored to the end of one of the piers and were tossing violently in the river. A fifth had just launched, loaded with what looked like a pile of mulch tied down under a tarp made of stitched-together animal hides.
Taere turned around to face Gorgan. “You mean to tell us that those,” he said, pointing behind him to the rafts, “are the best you can do?”
“That’s the best anyone at this dock can do,” Gorgan said. “Have you seen the other bloody planks these salty dock-rats call barges rent out?” Taere looked around as if to humor Gorgan, but quickly realized that he was telling the truth. When he had head that the docks at B’kher Pass were sub-par, he didn’t realize just how bad the boats would be as well.
“Taere,” Mur said, “I think this is the best we’re gonna find, unless you feel like walking the entire river.”
“I think your friend’s right,” Gorgan said. Taere caught the slightest smirk edge its way into the left corner of his mouth. It disappeared as quickly as it came, however, as Gorgan held out his hand, and said, “It’s twenty circlets for each of you, twenty each for your gear, and…oh, I’ll throw in the lot of the horses for twenty more.”
“You can’t be serious,” Alexia said, stepping forward. She was about to keep arguing, but Taere calmly pulled out his coinpurse, and deposited two interlocked rings of fifty circlets in Gorgan’s palm, along with two smaller rings of twenty. While Mur and Alexia stared in amazement, Taere tied the purse closed, and placed it back in the inside pocket of his traveling cloak.
Gorgan snapped, and one of his dockhands ran over with a lockbox. Using a key on a gold chain around his neck, Gorgan unlocked the box, and deposited the massive amount of currency inside, where it landed with a jingle on top of a pile of other coins and notes. He shut the box, and turned to lead Taere to the rafts he had just purchased the use of. The dockhand went scurrying off back to Gorgan’s offices, while Alexia and Mur trailed behind Taere, stunned at the enormity of the transaction that just occurred.
Gorgan stopped at the third and largest raft on the pier. It was a little better made than the other four that Gorgan had for rent – this one had a planked deck, and was shaped almost like a ship, though it had no keel that Taere could see. Steel poles and a large hide tarp lay on the deck, similar to the one Taere saw used to cover the mulch on the raft that had just launched. Gorgan stepped to the side of the gangplank and extended his hand to allow Taere to step onto the craft. Before putting his weight fully on the raft, Taere pushed on the deck of the skiff with his left foot. Surprisingly, the deck barely bobbed. Taere stepped on, and walked across the thirty-foot deck to the stern, where a rudder shaft stuck out from between two planks.
“The pontoons are hollowed pyrus trunks, shipped here from Keldenwood. I said I was the best you could find here, but that didn’t mean everything here was bad.
Alexia and Mur followed after him, surveying the craft that would carry them downriver. Mur looked like he had something to say, but kept it to himself for the time being, which confused Taere. He had always known Mur to be a loudmouth, and it seemed odd that he would stay silent when there was something on his mind.
Taere wrote Mur’s strange behavior off to financial shock and walked back over the gangplank to the dock. “It’ll do,” he said to Gorgan, who immediately snapped in the direction of two dockhands at the end of the pier.
“Retrieve their horses and their gear,” Gorgan said to them as they scurried over. He then leaned forward and grabbed each of the scrawny youths by their collars, and said, “And so help me if there’s even a bottle of ink missing you’ll find yourselves strung up under the pier at high tide!” He released the dockhands, flinging them back a few feet. They darted off to the offices to fetch the horses, kicking up clouds of dust in their haste to get away from their employer.
“You have a theft problem?” Mur asked as he disembarked from the raft.
“Problem’s too harsh of a word. More like an issue that needs resolving,” Gorgan said. “I swear though,” he continued, “the next time one of those dock-rats filches something, it’s going to be his hand on the block…” Gorgan trailed off, and began to walk away, but turned around quickly, and said, “Oh yes, your gear will be packed within the hour, but we’ll have to tie your horses down so they don’t fall off in the cataracts.”
“Cataracts?” Alexia said. She had walked back over the gangplank onto the dock just as Gorgan had finished his little tirade against his dockhands.
“Cataracts, rapids, whitewater, whatever you want to call them. Regardless of what you want to name them, they’re rough water, and you’ll need to tie yourselves down, let alone your horses.” Gorgan chuckled a bit, and then said, “The waterline’s pretty high this week, so you should have an easy time, unless this dry spell continues and the flow starts to drop. Then you’ll be hitting some major waves by the time you reach the Aerfalle delta.” Despite Gorgan’s subtle taunting, Taere looked rather confident, but quickly then realized he hadn’t seen a crew of any sort.
Gorgan had already started to walk away when Taere yelled, “When does the crew get here?”
“Crew?” Gorgan replied, guffawing audibly now. “You’re the crew!”

Other than a minor mishap with the mooring ropes and a dockhand, Mur managed to maneuver the raft rather cleanly out of port and into the main current of the river. He had neglected to mention that he had a few years of marine experience, enough to man the rudder and keep the eight-foot-wide craft in the center off the Aerfalle’s current.
Taere had managed to persuade Gorgan to allow the two pilfering dockhands to come along on the voyage as mates, which apparently made Mur the captain, as he was the only one with any experience with a ship. Taere used this opportunity to relax and stop leading, allowing Mur to do most of the work. Gorgan had said with the current rate of flow, the trip would take about three days as long as they stayed in the current and didn’t hit any dead spots or holes. Mur discussed the trip with Gorgan in mariners’ jargon that Taere barely absorbed, and had told him that it shouldn’t be a problem for him to keep them traveling at a good pace.
Taere dropped into one of the recessed cargo holds – little more than a hollow carved into the trunks of the pyrus trees – to retrieve some preserved fruits and biscuits he had purchased from the quartermaster at the docks before they set off downriver. When he popped back up on deck, he was greeter by Mur, who had finally decided to speak.
Before Mur could say anything, however, Taere said, “Who’s steering the ship?”
“Mik,” Mur said.
“Yes, Mik. He’s one of the dockhands we hired.”
“Which one?”
“The short one.”
“He can reach the tiller?”
“He’s not that short, Taere. Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to ask you about. What I did want to know was about that massive amount of money we just paid to get this raft.”
“That was the price, so I paid it.”
“That price,” Alexia said as she came over, obviously interested, “was a hundred and forty circlets! Do you know how much food you could have gotten with that much coin?”
“Probably about a month’s worth for the three of us,” Taere said.
“And you spent it on three days’ travel!” Alexia was furious with Taere, and it showed. “We would have done better walking than taking this stupid raft. My horse is tied down, my bow is buried under this mountain of gear, I’m wet, I’m tired, and I’m really unhappy!”
While Alexia continued ranting to herself, Mur said, “I’m less worried about what you spent it on than where you got it from. I mean, I know you take jobs and make good money, but even a good thief wouldn’t throw away that many circlets on a raft.”
Alexia, having overheard what Mur said, seemed to immediately understand what he meant, and stopped muttering to herself and came back to listen.
“Your pockets are obviously deeper than both of ours combined,” Mur said, indicating Alexia. “Since you’re carrying so much around, and since so far it’s been the source of our sustenance, livelihood, and transportation, I think we both ought to know where you’re getting it from.”
Taere was cornered and had little choice but to tell them. He had gotten himself ready to, when Mik called from the tiller, “Cataracts!”
A great wave rocked the deck, sending Taere and Mur skidding to port, while Alexia grabbed on to the edge of the cargo hold. Taere was thankful for the interruption, and hoped that Alexia and Mur would forget about their conversation for the time being. He realized, however, that he was in a messy situation, when he saw that the raft had no gunwales to hold on to or to keep him from sliding off.
The raft settled on a horizontal just long enough to fling Alexia down into the hold with the gear before another wave hit the port side, flattening her against the side of the hold behind two sets of saddlebags and Taere’s pack. Alexia pushed the hulking mass of hide off of her, and heard Taere’s armor clanking about inside the pack.
Taere and Mur had managed to get a hold of one of the ropes tied between the planks on the deck, and had lashed themselves to it by the time the raft hit the next wave, which flung Alexia starboard and almost overboard. She managed, Taere saw, to grab hold of another one of the tie-down ropes, and secured her upper body to the deck.
Craning his neck, Taere looked astern. Mik had bound himself to the tiller, while Eirim, the other dockhand, had dove into the covered cargo hold and was bouncing around under the animal hide tarp. Mik expertly navigated them through the rest of the cataracts, and after a while, the river settled back down to a fast current with few waves. The horses whinnied and snorted as they cleared water from their noses, and struggles a bit under their bindings, but settled back down quickly.
Mur untied himself first, and walked back to where Mik was struggling to untie his hands from the tiller. Mur helped him with one of the knots, and said, “That was some pretty good seamanship there.” Mik didn’t respond. “You’re allowed to talk.”
“Th…th-thank you, sir,” Mik managed to say. He then darted off to the covered hold to retrieve Eirim.
Much to Taere’s pleasure, it seemed that Alexia and Mur had dropped the subject of the source of his funds. Taere was in no rush to reveal the personal details of his life to a stranger – and even less so to Mur, someone he knew and who knew him.

Little else happened until they had to put in at shore for the night. The current was particularly strong past the cataract, and Mur predicted that they might be able to make Æfer by the next night. After guiding the raft in near shore, Mur leaped off the side into the river carrying a large iron spike tied to the bow of the raft by a thick braided rope. He waded through the freezing water and the thin floes of ice by the shore, and drove the spike into the thick clay and peat just above the waterline. He hen leapt back onto the raft to start unpacking his gear for the night. Alexia and Mur followed suit, while Mik and Eirim untied the horses and allowed them to stretch and come ashore.
Taere’s first thoughts went to his armor, which had been tossed around considerably in his pack while the raft was in the cataract. He hoisted the heavy pack out of the cargo hold, and opened it up once he got back on dry land. Thankfully, the rocking of the rapids had done no more than jostle the armor a little, which bore few if any dents from its time in the pack.
Taere set the armor down, and began to roll out his bedroll, when he saw Alexia walk off into the woods again by herself.
Where are you going? he said to her.
To think, she replied, and walked off into the rapidly darkening tree line.
Taere followed her as best he could, which proved difficult without the light. After about a minute, he had totally lost her, and, consequentially, himself. He spun around a few times, and realized he had neglected to start a fire back at the camp on the riverbank. He was about to pick a random direction to walk in that seemed like the way back when a hand gripped him on his right shoulder. He turned around, and saw the faint outline of Alexia in the darkness.
Since you’re so intent on following me, take my hand. Taere took her right hand in his left, and she started walking – as far as he could tell – away from the river, and deeper into the thick woods.
“Where are we going?” he said, which was greeted by a soft “shh” from Alexia.
Speak silently from now on, she said.
Taere nodded, though he doubted she could see him. Realizing this, he opened his mouth to acknowledge her, but, remembering, said, Alright, with his mind.
Alexia led him further away from the sound of the river, until all he heard was the crunching of the leaves and the thin layer of snow under his feet. The frost and snow blanketed the floor and vegetation of the Aerfalle Valley all the way north to the delta, where the river split and mixed with the warmer waters of Kronel Bay. Alexia pulled Taere a bit further, and then sat down, pulling Taere with her.
What is it you do out here? Taere said to her.
I intend to show you, she said. Now, close your eyes. Taere wasn’t sure how to respond to this, as he really couldn’t see much of anything with his eyes open. I know what you’re thinking; just close them, she said. Taere obeyed, and his world went from dark to black.
For a while, they both sat, slightly cold, very damp, and silent. Then, Alexia said, Open your eyes. Taere did, and what he saw was incredible. His eyes had adapted quickly to the low light, and even without the Blacksun filter, he could see almost everything clearly, bathed in the blue glow of moonlight. He could see then that they sat in a small clearing about ten feet across, and there was a deer about thirty feet to his right.
Now you see how I see, Alexia said. You don’t need magic, just a little time. Now close your eyes again, and sit completely still. Don’t move a muscle; not your fingers, not your toes, not your face, don’t even breathe.
Don’t breathe? Taere said, confused.
It will be taken care of for you, as long as you do exactly as I say, and you don’t move. Are we clear?
Good. Now stop moving. Taere listened, and, after dropping his shoulders and legs into a comfortable position, exhaled, and held his breath out. I want you to listen to everything at once. I want you to hear the deer, hear the squirrels, hear the birds sleeping, hear everything in the valley. Taere did his best, and soon he began to hear the wind in the icy leaves above him, and the actual breaths – fast and short – of the sleeping birds in the hollows of trees above his head. Then he heard something else.
Do you hear it? Alexia said. That sound is the pulse behind everything here.
Taere listened harder, and he began to hear the pulsing rhythm of it. It was quick, but still slow. It wasn’t lazy, but it wasn’t rushed either. I hear the beat of it, Taere said, and he began to try to mentally match the pulse. He then began to realize that he was running out of air.
Whatever you do, keep still! Alexia said. I can hear the beet, and you’ve almost matched it. Keep in synch with it, and you’ll fall into the rhythm, and you won’t have to breathe.
Taere struggled to keep still while his air ran out, and tried to keep on the beat with his mind. He fought against his reflex to inhale even as he felt the heat escaping from his face and fingers, all the while keeping steadily on the beat with his mind.
Suddenly, for the slightest, infinitesimal fraction of a second, he felt an incredible connection to something that could only be described as divine. Light filled his vision, even with his eyes closed, and his body immediately warmed from the beams that bathed his eyelids with a soft glow. His entire body seemed to pulse with energy that started in his chest and spread through his arms and legs to his feet and hands, and into his face. The feeling was incredible for that iota of time. And then suddenly it stopped.
Taere found himself sprawled backward as if he had been kicked in the back of the knees, with his back arched, and breathing heavily. His eyes were open wide, and stared straight up at the moon and the backdrop of stars above him. He tried to move, but his body was stiff and sore from the jolt back into the cold air of the Aerfalle Valley.
Breaking Alexia’s rule of silence, Taere said, “What was that?”
Apparently breaking her silence as well, Alexia said, “That was all that remains of what was once the governing spirit of the entire world.”
“That was Gaea?”
“No,” she said. She leaned over his still paralyzed form so he could see her speaking, and said, “Gaea is long gone. That pulse is what she left behind of herself. Daeians say it was the one bit of sanity she had left to leave behind some sort of rhythm to balance the forces of nature. When Gaea went mad, the cycles of nature went completely backwards. There was water raining up and clouds that rode on the ground, and fire was spewing from islands in the sea. When the Mad Spirit left, what remained was the pulse that you heard.”
“What would have happened if I had stayed connected?”
“That entirely depends. I’m amazed you connected at all, actually. Most Daeians do not even achieve that sort of connection until they have trained extensively. But then, there are many things I don’t know about you. Training in the arts of meditation could be one of them for all I know.” Alexia put on a knowing grin and got up from beside Taere.
As he regained the ability to move, Taere slowly pulled himself up, and said, “How vulnerable is one’s mind while they are connected to the pulse?”
“One’s mind is entirely cut off from the rest of the world while one is connected. The moment immediately after the connection is severed, however, is enough time to extract a surface thought, a name, perhaps” She paused, and then said, quickly, “Who is Augheryd?”
Taere was stunned. He almost began to tell her, but then caught himself, and said, “An old friend.”
“Perhaps I will befriend him.”
“If you ever meet, perhaps.”
“Perhaps.” With that, Alexia walked back toward the river, where Taere could see the faint orange glow of a campfire. He followed her back to the riverbank to go to sleep for the night. His experience with the pulse had tired him more than he first realized, and he fell into a deep sleep the moment his head hit the pillow.

He awoke to the smell of salt meats being cooked over a fire. Taere sat up, and saw Eirim and Mik holding two large branches over the fire, each bough skewered through strips of salted pork and what looked like a freshly killed river fowl. Alexia was nowhere to be seen, and Mur was standing off by the riverbank cleaning his weaponry.
Taere got up and stretched his aching muscles, still worn out from his previous night’s experience. He walked over to the fire and sat down on a small log that had been pulled up the night before, next to where Eirim was staring intently at the fire and the meat over it. The boy – barely even thirteen, Taere realized – twitched when he sat down and moved over a little, but then settled back down onto the log.
“I’m not going to chop off you hand, you know,” Taere said. Eirim didn’t respond. Taere picked up another branch from the pile of tinder beside the fire, and spitted several more pieces of salt pork, and set them over the fire to cook.
“You don’t have to do that, sir,” Eirim said. They were the first words Taere had heard the boy speak over the entire day and a half he had been traveling, and he wasn’t surprised by the high timbre of Eirim’s voice.
“That’s true, but I’m hungry, so I figure if we cook more of it, it will all be ready sooner.”
“Me and Mik have enough cookin’ for the three of you, sir; you don’ have to.”
“Well what about the two of you? You’re a growing child, you should be eating.”
“Oh, when Gorgan sends us out, he tells us not to eat the customers’ food. It’s for you, not for us.” Taere was astounded at how coolly Eirim said it, as if he didn’t realize how absurd that sounded. A moment later he realized that Eirim really didn’t know that Gorgan had been mistreating him even when eh wasn’t there with them.
Taere reached over the fire and pulled a few pieces of sat pork off of Eirim’s spit, and held them out to him. Eirim just looked back as if he were being offered poison.
“Well? Go on, take it.”
“Sir, we’re not done!”
“I’ll take care of it.” He went to take the spit out of Eirim’s hand, but Eirim pulled it away, and continued to cook.
Taere kneeled down in front of Eirim, and took him by the wrist. He said, “We hired you two to help us with the ship, not to do every odd job that needed doing. I’ll take care of the cooking.” He took the spits from Eirim and Mik, and said, “Now go clean yourselves up; you’re both a mess.” Without any hesitation, Mik and Eirim both smiled, and ran down to the river, grabbing two large kettles along the way to collect water to heat over the fire.
Taere sat back down on the log with the two large branches in his hands. Behind him, he heard Alexia say, “You’re not as tough as you make yourself out to be, are you?”
The battle wasn’t worth fighting, so Taere turned his head and said, “We hired them to help us with the boat. I can cook perfectly well by myself.”
“Is that so?” Alexia said. She put her hands on her hips, and said, “Then why is your portion on fire?”
Taere turned back and saw that, indeed, one of the branches had lingered too long in the licking tongues of the flame and had caught ablaze. Taere quickly pulled it out of the fire, and blew it at in a futile attempt to extinguish the flames.
He soon found himself eating charred pork, while Mik, Eirim, Mur, and Alexia bit into juicy pieces of cooked preserved meat. Eirim was particularly amused, and couldn’t stop grinning for the entire short meal.
After Taere finished his hopelessly blackened meat, he repacked his gear and began to prepare to launch the raft for another day’s journey toward Æfer. Mur and Alexia assisted, along with minimal help from Eirim and Mik. They had both taken a considerable liking to Ether, and insisted on being the ones to coax him down into a kneeling position so he could be lashed to the raft. Even once Mik had launched the raft and begun steering them downriver, Eirim stayed with the horses, brushing their necks and bringing them fresh water from skins and in buckets from the river.

The increased flow of the river quickened their journey, just as Mur had predicted, but not by as much as he had expected. By the end of their second day on the river, they were no more than ten miles from Æfer’s inlet. The inlet was a constructed riverbed over fifty feet deep and a quarter-mile wide to accommodate both down- and upriver boat traffic, and the deep keels of many merchant vessels. They could have easily reached the inlet in another few hours, but Mur insisted on setting it at shore for fear of hitting a cataract or eddy in the dark and saving the trip for morning light.
Their second night on the banks of the Aerfalle was just as uneventful as the first. Taere went off again with Alexia to try to connect with the natural pulse, and again succeeded, if only for another fleeting moment.
Alexia told him he was making progress, though he noticed little increase in the time he was connected with the divine light from the night before. This time, however, Taere made a mental note to keep his mind shielded, especially for the moment he was disconnected from the pulse. Alexia told him this was part of why he couldn’t make a more permanent connection, but Taere continued to keep his guard up so as to guard the secrets within his mind.
What is in there that is so deadly that none may see it, Taere Flarion? Alexia wondered to herself. She said it with the whimsical tone of a rhetorical question, which amused Taere, and encouraged him to try to connect again.
“Perhaps this time I will forget to keep my guard up.”
“You are tired, Taere,” Alexia said. “You shouldn’t over-exert yourself.”
“I have plenty of energy. Again.”
Fine, she said.
This time, Taere did feel as if he was connected longer, maybe a half-second, before his body cut out and he was left on his back, this time fully sprawled out in spread-eagle.
You look as if someone just knocked the wind out of you, Alexia said
I feel like it too. But I want to do it again. And so he did. They repeated the meditation another three times, and by the end, Taere had achieved a connection for more than three seconds before his body cut out. This time, however, the force of the disconnection was so strong that the moment his body returned to the cold air of the Aerfalle Valley, he was flung backwards as if pushed by an invisible arm.
Alexia walked over, and extended an arm to help him to his feet. As Taere took her wrist, she said, “That is what happens when you keep your mind closed. The energy that was flowing to you suddenly has nowhere to go, so it goes in the direction it was going already – which in this case, happened to be you.” She pulled him to his feet, and said, “I think that’s enough for today. You’re tired.”
“You don’t have to be an empath to figure that out,” Taere said. He was breathing heavily, and sweating from his brow and chest. The loose shirt he was wearing while his armor was off was soaked through, and he was in desperate need of a bath.
When Taere and Alexia returned to the camp by the riverbank, Taere immediately relieved himself of his shirt, and dove into the water. It was warmer than it had been up in the higher parts of the Eldûl Thengol, but was still river water, and was by no means comfortably warm. It took Taere a few minutes of shivering to get used to the water, but afterward he swam about in the neutral current of the eddy that so conveniently jutted out from the shore about twenty meters upstream. He swam upstream to the pile of rocks and earth, where he was joined by Alexia, who sat perched atop one of the larger boulders.
“You know,” she said, “I never understood how someone could enjoy swimming around in a mess like that.”
“A mess? What are you talking about? This is a freshwater river!”
“If it’s so ‘fresh,’ then why do we boil the water we get from it before we drink it?” Alexia smirked.
“Because it tastes better that way,” Taere fired back, not missing a beat. He leaned back in the water, and kicked away from Alexia on his back, splashing her a bit with his foot.
“So I suppose the fact that Eirim told you to so you wouldn’t catch a disease floating around in it had nothing to do with it then?”
“Who am I to not take the advice of a seasoned mariner?”
“Seasoned mariner?” She harrumphed. “He’s barely thirteen and probably hasn’t even been off the river to see the ocean.”
“Who’s to say experience comes with age?” Taere said. “When I was twelve I could shoot a bow better than half of the men where I lived.”
“And I could shoot better than you can now when I was seven,” Alexia said. “Your point?” She scowled.
Taere stared blankly at her. “I’m being facetious. I know we boil the water so no one gets deathly ill. I can deal with swimming in it because it’s relaxing.” Taere then realized something about the way she had started this line of conversation however. “You’ve never swum, have you?
“I have,” she said, getting up and crossing her arms, “I just…don’t anymore.”
“And why not? It’s relaxing,” Taere said
“It’s repulsive,” Alexia replied
“Well, I don’t know where you’ve been swimming,” Taere said, “but I’m perfectly comfortable. You should come in.” He swam back over to the eddy, and splashed water at her feet.
“Don’t you go trying any of that; I’m not getting in the water.”
“I disagree,” Taere said, and lunged at her leg. He missed as Alexia sidestepped his arm, laughing a little.
“Stop it; you’re going to make me fall in!”
“That’s the idea,” Taere smirked, and kept grabbing at her ankles.
Suddenly, a crossbow bolt whizzed through the air, and narrowly missed hitting Alexia in her left shoulder. She twisted away to her left, dodging the projectile expertly. This twisting, however, caused her only balanced foot to slip on the wet rocks, and sent her tumbling into the river to Taere’s left. She surfaced quickly, inhaling sharply and looking back toward the camp. The horses were bucking at their tethers, while Mur was embattled with three black-cloaked figures. He was barely holding them off from Eirim and Mik, who had only moments after Taere looked back dove into the recessed holds of the raft.
Taere and Alexia quickly swam to shore, and ran back to the camp. Alexia was the first to her weapon, pulling both stilettos from the side of her pack and hurling one into the clavicle of one of the cloaked figures. The hooded man fell to the side with a grunt, and was quickly replaced by one of the other two, who made a strike at Mur, which he parried expertly.
Taere was the next to find his weaponry, buried in his pack and attached to the back half of the breastplate of his armor. He pulled the hilt from its sheath, allowing the crystal just enough time to extend, and quickly decapitated the second attacker. The headless body fell limp under the black cloak.
The third, now cornered against a large shrub and a rock, pivoted wildly, sword in hand. Taere was the first to move forward, and said, “Who sent you?”
“The master sent me to kill you. That is all I know, and all I can tell you.”
“Well, we’re still here, now what?” Taere said, edging closer.
“Now, either you die, or I die.”
“So be it.” Taere lunged forward, parrying a strike from above, and kicked the assassin in the knee, shattering the joint and knocking him to the ground. He raised his blade to deliver the final blow, but before he could, the assassin raised his blade, and plunged it into his own chest.
“Shadow take me,” he hissed out, before collapsing in a heap on his right side. Taere lowered his sword to his side, and exhaled.
“Where the hell were you two?” Mur said, stepping in front of Taere and Alexia. “Swimming?”
“I’m sorry we didn’t reach you sooner; we didn’t even notice anything until that bolt almost killed me,” Alexia said.
“Bolt?” Mur sounded surprised.
“Yes, Mur, the bolt. The crossbow bolt that almost hit me in the chest.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“What’s so difficult to figure out?” Taere said. “It was a crossbow bolt. She dodged it, she fell in the water, we came here, and we killed these three. Am I missing something?”
“I think we all are,” Mur said. “Look around. None of these three have a crossbow.”
A rustling about twenty feet up the riverbank caught Taere’s attention. Taere quickly rushed up to investigate, and was greeted by the tip of a crossbow bolt pointed at his face.
“Drop the sword,” a voice growled. From the brush in front of him, a fourth cloaked assassin emerged, this one shrouded in grasses, leaves, and branches sewn into his cloak. Expertly camouflaged, the assassin had remained hidden until his three comrades were killed. Now, he was poised to return the favor. “Well, go on, drop it,” he repeated.
“Who sent you?” Taere was still adamant on finding out where these mercenaries came from.
“I don’t think you’re in a very good position to be making demands. Now drop your weapons. All of you!”
Alexia, Taere, and Mur obliged, and the assassin stepped forward, pulling a dagger from his cloak.
Anyone? Taere thought quickly.
The assassin pressed the dagger to Taere’s neck, and said “We need her alive. You two are expendable.”
Just as the assassin finished speaking, a small dagger shot by Taere’s ear and stuck squarely in the assassin’s eye. Taere turned around to see Eirim stand up from beside a rock, his arm in a followed-through position from throwing.
“An excellent shot, Eirim,” Taere said, glowing like a father who had just seen his boy fell his first tree. Eirim stood up straight, and grinned widely. Taere looked over at Alexia, who was still sopping wet, and said, “So much for not going swimming, eh?” Alexia did not grin.

Eirim – and Mik by virtue of association and in the interest of fairness – ate extremely well that night. They got first choice of the best parts of a small deer that Taere killed not long after the incident with the assassins.
After finishing his self-imposed tough pieces of shoulder, Taere went to climb the outcroppings of rock that lined the riverbank near their camp. When he reached the top of one of the larger ones, he gained a vantage point that let him see all the way down the last hundred vertical feet or so and the remaining ten miles to Æfer, and to the ocean beyond it. The city was still awake, even after the sun had set, Taere noted, as he saw lights moving around in the streets. From his perch on he rocks, the city seemed almost peaceful, though he knew it to be anything but.
After a while, Taere climbed down from the rocks, and headed back to the riverbank. The mountain air was giving him a chill, and he was tired. Before he went to sleep, he couldn’t help but wonder where these assassins had come from. He hoped he would find out the next day when they reached Æfer. Pushing these thoughts to the back of his mind, Taere lay down to rest, and dreamt peacefully of a steady rhythm.

* * *

Michael’s tankard of mead was barely ever empty since the day Alexia left. Gar pitied him, more for his addiction to alcohol than his general state of hopeless melancholy. Every hour or so for the last two days, Michael would come back to the bar with a barely-full tankard, and Gar would replace it with a filled one, frothing over with gold, foamy head. Alexia and her two companions hadn’t finished the special stock, and Gar didn’t want the barrel of special brew of morat mead.
Michael was well into his third pint of the day when both Gar and he heard the distinctive creaking sound of the hidden tree entrance opening on the surface above them. Not long after, the door at the tunnel into the inn opened, and a man walked in, clothed entirely in black. Though this would have set off red flags in any other barkeep’s mind, Gar thought nothing of it; the inn’s usual patronage was of a seedier sort than most.
The man did not bother to introduce himself, but instead walked past the bar to the wing that contained the rooms. Probably here to do some business, Gar thought. Can’t blame him for being seedy looking if he needs to do business here.
What the man had to do at the Black Boar could be described as business by some standards, but wasn’t by any means the kind that any normal person would do. The cloaked figure did not walk to a room to have an arranged meeting; instead he reached out to open the door to the catacombs and cellars under the Black Boar. Not surprisingly, the door was locked.
Undeterred, the figure placed the index finger of its gloved right hand on the lock. With a terrible hiss and a puff of inky black smoke, the inner workings of the lock dissolved, and the deadbolt clicked open. The figure opened the heavy wood door, and descended into the cellar.
The man paced between the stacks of crates filled with food, plates, and various amenities, until he reached the back of the room by the shelves of aged wine. With inhuman strength, the man grabbed one of the cases of wine by its supporting arm, and pulled it out away from the wall on a hinge. Behind it was the black-cloaked figure of the Hunter who had come to the Black Boar to take Alexia back to the Cloak, curled up and contorted to fit into the space behind the wine case. The cloaked man grabbed the Hunter’s body by the arm, and dragged it out of the wall and into an open space on the floor. He bent down to examine the wounds on the Hunter’s body. A deep gash was open across the Hunter’s back, and his spine had been severed at the top of the neck. Thick, almost black blood had crusted up around the wounds, making them look all the more painful.
The man reached into his cloak, and pulled out a small, dark sphere that pulsed with a low thrumming sound. He plunged two fingers through the membranous skin of the sphere, and pulled out a thick dollop of black, tarry ooze. He speared it on the Hunter’s neck and back where the wounds had been inflicted, where it soaked into the wounds like water on a sponge. No sooner did the ooze seep into the Hunter’s skin, the wounds began to knit themselves back together, and when the wounds had fully closed, the Hunter’s lifeless body inhaled sharply, raising its chest off the floor.
The cloaked figure bent down to the Hunter’s ear, and said in a hushed voice, “You have been brought to my attention by a matter of divine convenience. Your quarry has escaped you, dishonored you as a Bounty Hunter. Your other brothers under my hire have failed me. Now you have a second chance. But instead of that fool, you now serve me and my master.” He extended his arm to the Hunter, who took it by the wrist, and pulled himself to his feet. “Follow me.”
The man and the hunter climbed the stairs back into the Black Boar, where they were greeted unpleasantly by Gar. Michael, who was, unsurprisingly, drunk, simply stared emptily at them. His inebriated state, however, did not keep him from realizing that a dead man had just come back to life and was standing in front of him next to an insidious-looking man who had burned his way into a locked cellar.
“Bringing a would-be murderer back from the dead; breaking into MY CELLAR! You have some explaining to do,” Gar thundered. He tightened his fists at his sides.
“We will explain nothing, and we will leave,” The cloaked figure said. “Do not attempt to stop us.”
“You’ll explain yourselves, or you won’t be going anywhere,” Gar said matter-of-factly.
The newly resurrected Hunter, leaving verbal discourse behind, struck at Gar with his fist. Gar caught the Hunter’s fist in his enormous palm, and struck back with his free right arm. The Hunter, following suit, stopped Gar’s blow, and twisted his right fist out of Gar’s grip. He then squeezed with his gauntleted hands, causing Gar to bellow with pain, as the smaller digits on both his hands snapped with sharp cracks, and his fingernails dug into his palms, breaking the skin. Gar fell to his knees as the Hunter kept his grip on his fists.
At the same time, Michael went to strike the hooded man, who back-stepped quickly to doge Michael’s inaccurate strike. As he did so, the hood fell back from his face, revealing a stubbly, dark tan face with thick hair. Michael recognized him from his days in the City of the Cloak at once.
“Tariq? You—” Michael was cut off as Tariq extended his arms with open palms toward Michael’s chest. Without even touching him, Tariq sent Michael flying across the room with such force that he shattered the oak barrel of morat against a wall as he hit it at full speed, spilling it on the floor in a frothy mess.
The Hunter released his grip on Gar’s hands, throwing him on the floor. Tariq walked over to him and said, “You are lucky to be alive. My master has no quarrel with you, but if you interfere again, that may change. You will allow my associate to leave the way I came. I, on the other hand, must be going.”
Tariq turned and walked toward the door. As he did so, he raised his right arm, and snapped. What should have been a quiet sound resounded like a clap of thunder, and in a puff of thick black smoke, Tariq disappeared.

* * *


BY THE TIME MIK had skippered the raft to the inlet, boat traffic had already increased with the morning rush. Merchant vessels, powered by sails, oars, magical impellers, and other forms of self-propulsion that Taere did not even recognize sailed through the channel to go upstream, while others left port to the south to head out to sea. The entrance to the inlet was protected by several layers of eddies, and a natural reef of rocks and freshwater coral native to the region.
Mik expertly guided the raft between the eddies and into the main inlet, from which the trip to the docks was an easy ride on a current to the harbor, and then a quick turn into a small pier. The side of the raft nudged up against one of the larger piers, and Eirim threw the mooring ropes over the side and around the posts on the dock.
As soon as he stepped off the raft, Taere was approached by the pier’s manager, with ledger and fee-purse in hand. Not surprisingly, the pier manager was a Doppelgänger, in his un-shifted, blue-skinned form, as was the custom for Gängers resident to Æfer. The five-foot-tall humanoid was bespectacled, and slightly hunched.
“Welcome to Æfer, I am ¬Ïz, and I require your names, and docking fees. The fee for a, err…” Ïz paused to examine their raft, “…ship of that size is twenty Ûdds, in any denomination you can scrounge up. That will cover you for the week, but if you need to stay in port any longer, you will have to find me, or your craft will be scuttled.”
“I think we’ll be staying here as long as we need, and the docking fee should be waived,” Taere said.
“And why is that?”
Taere pulled a small brown leather pouch from inside his traveling cloak, and opened it to show the pier manager its contents – a gold ring with a scalloped rim, inscribed with a simple seal. The Gänger stared for a moment, his eyes wide as if he were looking upon a priceless artifact.
He looked up suddenly, and said, “Yes, I believe you’re correct. The docking fee will be waived. Are you here on business or for pleasure?”
“A little of both,” Taere said. He walked back onto the raft to untie Ether and gather his gear, but Eirim had already seen to it. Alexia and Mur strapped their gear to their mounts, while Taere was the one this time to shoulder his equipment. He walked over to Eirim and Mik, and said, “You should probably be getting back upriver.”
“I guess so,” Eirim said.
“How are you going to get the raft back up to B’kher?”
“Gorgan hires a tug to pull back all the rafts once they’re down here. ‘Til then, they sit in a dry dock on the far side of the port. We should probably get the raft over there now that you won’t be needin’ it anymore.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Taere turned to go, but then turned back, and said, “Wait a minute, forget the raft, how are you getting back to B’kher?”
“Oh, me and Mik’ll just wait for the tug.”
“And how long will that be?”
“Oh, about a week or two, best guess.”
“A week or two? Nonsense, you’ll be back in three days.” Taere pulled Ether over, and handed the reins to Eirim. “He’s a fine horse, and he seems to have taken a liking to you. You two can ride him back.”
“Sir, I can’t take your horse!”
“You’re not taking him; I’m giving him to you.” Eirim was obviously hesitant. “Go on, take him. You’ll be back up in B’kher before you know it.”
“Thank you, sir!” Eirim grabbed hold of the reins, and stepped around Ether’s side. He hoisted himself up into the saddle, and pulled Mik up behind him. “Goodbye sir! And thank you again!” Eirim said as he spurred Ether off – amusingly enough, in the wrong direction, Taere noted. About a hundred yards down the pier, he saw Mik and Eirim squabble a bit, turn Ether around, and head off to the north. Taere turned around just in time to see Alexia. She didn’t say anything, she only smiled.
Mur stepped off the boat with his horse, and said, “We’re taken care of, I assume?”
“Entirely,” Taere said. “Follow me,” he continued, “I know a good place where we can set ourselves up for a while.”
Taere led them off the docks and into the city streets. They massed open markets, larger thoroughfares that traversed the city, and shop districts. Alexia seemed to find the merchants who had permanent shops particularly interesting.
“Making mental notes to visit these places, are we?” Taere said.
“Particularly the medicinal shop we passed a few stores back,” Alexia replied. “They have herbs there I’ve never even heard of.”
“I wasn’t aware you were an herbalist.”
“You have your hidden talents, and I have mine. I don’t use herbs for what you’d expect, though.”
“Care to explain?”
Alexia pulled a small pouch from her belt. Within it where six glass spheres about the size of a large cherry, each filled with different colored liquids and gases. She pulled out one that contained a reddish-brown liquid. “See this one?” she said. “It’s made from cinnamon, pyrus bark, and oil of bladegrass. When it’s exposed to air for longer than a second or two, it gets so hot it can burn through metal. You might find that could come in handy in a profession like yours, Mur.”
“If I knew how to deal with herbs, I might,” he said. “The way you described it, I’d probably burn my hand off with it.”
“Once I see what kinds of things they have to offer in that shop, I could brew some up for you. It’s a rather simple process. Just…don’t touch anything while I’m working with it, or else you might burn both of our hands off.”
“Agreed, that would be a bad thing,” Mur said.
Taere felt rather good about himself and his situation, all things considered. He realized, as he walked peacefully through the streets of Æfer, that the three of them had grown particularly close over the last few days. They were a long way from the violence they had threatened upon each other at their first meeting. He considered them friends more than simply fellow travelers now, something he hadn’t had many of in quite some time. Had it really been two years?
These thoughts left as they reached their destination, a well-to-do hotel in the center of Æfer’s market district called The Hearth. The smell of warm sweetrolls and fresh bread wafted out from the windows of the front, which, if Taere remembered correctly, was close to the main dining room.
Taere was the first to open the door into the hotel, upon doing which he was immediately greeted by a cacophony of sound and the same strong smell of sweetrolls that had wafted out the window into the street. The inside of the lobby was adjoined to the min dining room, where patrons were being served all manner of meals and drinks by a rather disproportionately attractive wait staff. One of those waitresses, lit up immediately upon seeing Taere enter, and quickly served up the pints of mead she carried to two patrons sitting in a corner.
“Taere Flarion!” the waitress yelled as she half-ran, half-jumped over the various passed out and otherwise disheveled persons lying on the floor. Taere was accosted by a large-bosomed chest, and a pair of arms that squeezed him as if to pop him like a balloon. Before he could even recover his breath, the well-endowed woman in front of him planted a kiss on his lips. Taere was more than startled, but that didn’t stop him from returning the kiss for a good ten seconds or so. He couldn’t help but notice Alexia’s attempt to hide her more than obvious disdain and jealousy of Aldesse, and felt slightly ashamed of himself.
“Aldesse, you’re insane,” Taere said, collecting himself.
Aldesse twisted around Taere’s back and looked up playfully. “Well then we fit pretty well together, don’t we?” she replied.
“Taere?” Alexia said, stepping in between the two of them. “Who is she?” Her face resembled that of a woman scorned; a face Taere had seen before jokingly many a time on…
“Well who do we have here?” Aldesse said, thankfully interrupting Taere’s thoughts and turning to face Alexia. She looked Alexia in the face, as they stood about the same height, then down at her chest. Without any warning, Aldesse reached out her hand and prodded Alexia’s chest.
“Hey!” Alexia said, batting Aldesse’s hand away.
“Not exactly maid material, are we?” Aldesse said.
Taere, not quite quick enough, darted forward and restrained Aldesse from alarming Alexia any further. “Aldesse, she’s not a city type; she’s not exactly used to that sort of thing.”
“‘That sort of thing?’ Is this a regular occurrence? Should I expect to be groped at every turn by an overly-critical harlot?” Alexia said.
“Excuse me, miss. I’m not a harlot, I’m a barmaid, which takes a lot more natural talent than you could possibly imagine. Or,” Aldesse said, looking down at Alexia’s bosom, “at least more than you have.”
“Why, you¬¬¬—”
“Let’s not start fighting before we even get situated, shall we?” Taere said. “How about we all calm down, order ourselves some nice, strong drinks, sit down at a table, and talk?”
“I think that sounds like an excellent idea,” Mur said. He walked over to the nearest table set for four and sat down. Taere and Aldesse followed, along with a still fuming Alexia. Aldesse walked over to the bar to retrieve four tall, thin glasses of a dark brown spirit. After a brief argument with the bartender, presumably over doing her job, she returned with the glasses on a platter, and sat across from Taere.
“Now then, what exactly are you doing here, showing up after a good year on hiatus?” Aldesse asked Taere. She distributed the glasses around the table.
“We’re looking for information,” Taere said, after downing his drink. He grimaced a bit after he spoke as the aftertaste of the spirit hit the back of his throat. “What is this exactly?”
“Fermented shoreberry root and anise. It’s a house special; we distill it in the cellar.”
“I can almost taste the mildew,” Taere joked.
“Well that’s hardly fair,” Aldesse said with a scowl. “Anyways, back to business. What kind of information are you looking for, exactly?”
“Now that I think about it, it’s less information we need than a person from which to extract said information.”
“Ah, now we’re getting somewhere,” Aldesse said, leaning forward so as to prominently display her cleavage. Taere couldn’t help himself but to glance down for a fraction of a second, during which Aldesse caught him and said, “I’m up here, dear.”
“Sorry,” Taere said, embarrassed.
“No need. What kid of person are you looking for?”
“Someone in a position of authority.”
Aldesse’s eyes went wide as she said, “You can’t be serious. You don’t mean—”
“Oh, I most certainly do.”
“Listen,” Aldesse said, obviously put off guard, “We should probably continue this discussion somewhere a little more private.” She got up, and led them up the stairs in the back of the dining hall to a lords’ room with a door that mercifully had a working lock.
The table in the middle of the room was circular with two padded benches around it, one of which Taere, Alexia, and Mur sat on. Aldesse sat in the center of the bench across from them, and immediately began changing. Before their eyes, her stature shrunk by about half a foot, her skin took on a blue color, and her eyes changed from a neutral brown to a bright bluish-green. Alexia silently and smugly noted to Taere that her bosom decreased in size notably as well. Aldesse blinked twice, in the same manner as Alexia described before to Taere and Mur – once with one set of eyelids, and again with another.
“Alright, now that we can speak freely,” Aldesse said, “why in the Gods’ names would you want to actually speak to anyone who runs this godsforsaken city?”
“It’s really less ‘speak to,’ than ‘threaten with death,’” Taere said.
“Oh, and that makes all the difference, does it? Do you know the kinds of things I have to do just to be able to talk to Sorel, let alone get people and audience with him? You’re talking about calling in almost a year’s worth of political favors!”
“Aldesse, when was the last time you used any of these ‘favors’ of yours that you’re hoarding and accounting for as if they were hard currency?”
Aldesse was silent, first in thought, then in mild embarrassment. “I guess I never really have,” she said after a moment.
“Then what better use do you have for them than to help out a friend in need?”
“You’ve made your point,” Aldesse said. “I’ll see what I can do about getting you in to see Sorel.”
“Now wait,” Alexia said. “We’ve just sat here and allowed you two to work something out, about which we know nothing.”
“Well,” Aldesse said, “what do you want to know?”
“For starters, who exactly are you, and how did you acquire these political favors you two were talking about?”
“Well, I work here at The Hearth, and as you can see by the kinds of rooms we have back here, we occasionally cater to some rather high-class clientele. I’ve struck up personal relationships with a few of them, and in some cases, they tell me things that they aren’t supposed to, or they’re just nicer than most, and they tell me that if I’m ever in some sort of need, I can call on them for a little help.”
“What kind of work are we talking here?” Alexia said.
“Whatever work I get paid for. Did you really think all I do here is serve drinks and look pretty? And before you say anything, I said I wasn’t a harlot because I’m not. That’s not my only profession. I’m really more of a courtesan if you think about it. It’s a much more sophisticated position than a common whore. I entertain, I keep company, I bend to whims and manipulate desires.”
“Not exactly what I’d expect of a prostitute,” Alexia said.
“As I said, that’s because I’m not one. Anything else you need to know?”
“Yes,” Alexia said, “Who is this Sorel you spoke of?”
“Sorel is a Doppelgänger, and is one of the higher-ranking Senators in Æfer’s government. He is on the same level of prestige as seven other Senators, each of whom are second only to High Chancellor Ri’ik. Sorel is a particularly shady character, and is reputed to, but has never been proven to, be connected to all manner of subversive forces in Alluvia and Selûne that are either financially or politically tied to the Order of the Black Hood. You, most likely, if you’re looking to talk to Sorel, have encountered some of these seedy elements, and you assume he’s had something to do with them coming after you.”
“And how did you figure all of that out so easily?” Alexia said.
“Intuition and experience, m’dear. You get a sense for these sorts of things after a while working around politicians. As much as they say they keep their opinions to themselves – which, mind you, of course they don’t – after a while, their tells become as plain as day to the watchful eye.”
“Now that you’ve gotten yourself up to speed, can we start talking about actually getting to see Sorel?” Taere said. “Aldesse, what’s the plan?”
“It’s not going to be easy, and you’re not going to like it,” she said.
“Please tell me it doesn’t involve going through the sewers.”
“Not exactly, but you will be underground for part of the time.”
“Explain yourself.”
Aldesse sighed, and said, “The only way I can think of to get you inside the Upper Chambers is to have you arrested.”
“What?!” Alexia said, slamming her hands down on the table.
“Now, I’m all for coming from angles no one expects,” Mur said, “but getting myself arrested? I feel like that’s probably a bad idea.”
“You’re not getting arrested, Mur,” Aldesse said. “They are.”
“Alright, go on,” Mur said.
“The plan is thus: I have contacts and favors to call in with Eburo, the Captain of the Guard. He can make sure you are arrested on false charges, and imprisoned in one of the higher-floor cells in the municipal prison. The prison’s main entrance is but yards away from the entrance to the upper chambers, where Sorel takes a walk around the outer cloisters every day at around noon. Once you escape, you can find him there and corner him. As long as you don’t have too much equipment with you, I will make sure that your effects are easily accessible. When you see him, you should—”
“Hold on a second, Aldesse,” Taere said. “Your plan seems to hinge on us escaping. How do you propose we manage that?”
“There is still a third party to be involved here. Mur is not to be arrested for good reason. He will be the one to set you free from your cells. As I hear it, he is a rather accomplished thief and particularly good at being invisible when necessary. You will need to sneak into the prison from the public sections of the Lower Chambers Cloisters. No one patrols the Lower Cloisters; they’re essentially an upper-crust park than no one really appreciates or goes to.
“You shouldn’t have much trouble getting into the Upper Cloisters from the Lower. There’s a twenty foot retaining wall that separates them, and as long as you move quickly, you shouldn’t be spotted.”
“What am I to do if I encounter any kind of resistance?” Mur asked.
“Eburo has assured me that any minor number of casualties will be dealt with and ignored. If you can, incapacitate any guards you need to remove from your path instead of killing them. Try not to kill more than a few if you can; it would make my life much easier.”
“Your life? You’re just sitting here serving drinks and doing…whatever else you do here.”
“Yes, but it’s my arse on the line if you screw up. Don’t be stupid.”
“Right. No stupidity. I’ll do my best.”
“Good. Now, as I was saying,” Aldesse said, “When you corner Sorel, he isn’t going to react very well, nor very subtly. He will most likely yell, scream, and shout for guards if you give him the chance, so if you have the ability to silence him in any way, you would do well to do it as soon as you can.”
“Anything else we should know about interrogating him?” Taere said.
“Nothing other than his intense fear of losing his status or position in the Senate. Play that in any way you wish, though I doubt you could make more than empty threats. Fear of pain or death are probably your best options.”
“Always good to be able to fall back on the basics,” Taere said. “You have our undying thanks, Aldesse.”
“Only the best,” she said. Aldesse stood up and unlocked the door, and opened it back into the main dining hall of The Hearth. She walked out the doorway, and Taere, Alexia, and Mur followed. She led them through the front lobby and to a staircase by the back wall. “I can have you set up in the third room on the right. It should be big enough for all of you; it’s a modest-sized suite. Unless, of course, you don’t need as much room,” Aldesse said, winking at Alexia, who gave little to no response. “You can leave your things behind the front desk and I’ll have them taken care of. I’m sure you have a lot to do before going on this little operation of yours.”
“Indeed,” Taere said. “Alexia, I believe we have some shopping to do.”

Their first stop took them to a smithy, where Taere purchased himself a light but well-balanced longsword. As much as he was trying to keep his load down, he couldn’t wean himself off large, awe-inspiring weapons as drastically as trading the Malevolence for a bodice-dagger. He also bought a set of throwing daggers, and a set of silencing felts for his belt and his left gauntlet, which he refused to give up simply for its utility.
Alexia’s equipment was almost perfect as it was, save her large and entirely un-concealable longbow. To use in its place, she bought ammunition for Taere’s wrist-mounted dart launcher, which he agreed to let her use. She as well bought silencing felts, and a grappling hook attached to about twenty feet of steel cable.
Mur, unconstrained by the need to hide his gear, restocked himself with throwing daggers, bringing his grand total of projectiles up to twenty-four. He also had both Mesmir and his two smaller daggers sharpened while Taere and Alexia browsed further for any more little bits of metal that might come in handy.
Their shopping spree continued at the alchemical and herbological supply shop that Alexia had spotted earlier. As promised, she bought enough oil of bladegrass, cinnamon, and pyrus tree bark to make Mur a generous supply of the heating oil she had shown him earlier. Meanwhile, Taere was looking around in the back rooms for mushrooms and other varieties of fungus that could be used to make healing salves and soothing balms.
After coming out and depositing a pile of mushrooms on the proprietor’s counter, Taere spied Alexia eying a glass apparatus that was to be used to brew complex potions and distill liquids.
“Interested in this?” Taere said.
“Am I ever! I could make gallons of itch-gas with this in under a day.”
“Pardon my ignorance, but is that a great accomplishment?”
“Well, if you want some perspective, it took me a week to mix enough gas to fill three of those little glass spheres.”
“Then that is an accomplishment, isn’t it? Is there any chance we’re ever going to need a gigantic diversion of some sort?”
“You never know, I guess,” Alexia said. She turned, and said, “Wait a minute, you’re not proposing—”
“Yes, I am. As you’ve said, I have deep pockets, and I haven’t been wont to keep them closed. It’s yours. What else do you need to mix itch-gas?”
“About twenty pounds of mustard seed, a gallon of pure alcohol, and three large polypore mushrooms.”
“I have to go back there again?” Taere said. He was already covered in dirt and smelled like a bucket of mud.
“Yes, if you want your gigantic diversion, you’re going to have to go digging through mushrooms again.”
“Fine,” Taere grumbled, and walked back into the back room to immerse himself in fungus and dirt once again.
As Taere dug his hands back into the piles of polypores to find some larger ones, Alexia called back to him, “Wait a minute, does this mean you’re going to buy the distiller?”
“Did you miss that part? Yes, I’m buying it!”

After a few more stops to pick up other miscellaneous supplies, Taere, Alexia and Mur returned to their room at The Hearth. Alexia set to work on her newly purchased distiller, and Mur was incredibly tired and opted to sleep. Taere, however, found himself restless and headed downstairs to the dining room. He found Aldesse working her regular rounds, bringing drunks and food to tables with the other waitresses.
As she walked past, Taere said, “No special customers tonight?”
“Fortunately not, I’m a bit shorthanded tonight, so I really wouldn’t be able to get away if I had any.” She set down two pints of mead on the bar in front of a pair of customers, and walked over to where Taere had seated himself. “Need anything?” she asked.
“Not at the moment,” Taere said. “I’m trying to clear my head.”
“What of?”
“As well as this whole thing is planned, I keep getting this terrible feeling about it.”
“Listen, you told me once that for all his conversational and social faults, Mur was one of if not the best rogue you’ve ever seen. If you say that about him, I’m inclined to believe you. And if what you say is right, then you have nothing to worry about. Mur will have you popped out before you even hear the doors lock behind you.”
“I know he’s good at what he does, but I feel like there’s something I’m missing, some factor I haven’t considered or even thought of that could completely change the outcome of this whole operation.”
“We’re both experts; if there was something to miss, one of us would have caught it already.”
Taere still had a sense that something was definitely off with the plan, but Aldesse had significantly lessened the feeling. He dropped the idea, and instead said, “You’re right. Get me a bottle of sparkling berry wine.”
“Coming right up, sir,” Aldesse said. She walked behind the bar to retrieve a bottle and two thin glass flutes, and returned to the table, popping the cork back behind her at the bar as she walked. As she poured the drink, she said, “To the success of your mission to find…whatever it is you need finding.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Taere said, and he took a flute, and quickly downed the contents. His trepidation momentarily relieved, Taere got up from his seat, and said, “Thanks for the drink.” He started to pull a circlet from his pocket, but Aldesse pushed his hand back.
“On the house,” she said. Taere nodded, and walked back upstairs to his room to sleep. Tomorrow was going to be interesting. He was going to get himself arrested.


MUR WAS THE FIRST to wake, even though his part in the day’s plan didn’t come until noon. He was as restless as Taere had been the night before, and was pacing the room while Alexia and Taere lay asleep. He pondered the plan, and its relative simplicity. The straightforward and uncomplicated nature of the plan unnerved him slightly. Mur realized that every good plan had a backup, and plenty of redundancies. This one however, was so straightforward that it made it seem as if its one major fault was not a fault at all – they were throwing themselves in prison, effectively incapacitating themselves in the event that something went wrong.
As he continued pacing, he began to formulate his own plan in the event of some catastrophic failure of Aldesse’s connections to the Æferian Senate. Quickly taking in the resources available to him in the room and the town of Æfer, he began to make his own plans.

* * *
Downstairs, Aldesse was cleaning the tables for the morning breakfast rush. She looked up at the sound of bells on the door, and saw none other than Captain Eburo march into The Hearth’s lobby, accompanied by five royal guards, and two others that she didn’t recognize. The other two were clothed in black robes that obscured their features almost entirely, revealing just enough of their faces to allow her to notice their dark skin color, a color not native to the region.
Eburo was not one to always stay in the same company, however, so Aldesse thought nothing of it. She walked over to greet Eburo, taking a pitcher of hot Hajjiran coffee from behind the bar on the way.
“Good morning, Captain. Care for a drink?”
“Not this morning, Aldesse,” Eburo said.
Out of the corner of her eye, Aldesse could have sworn she saw one of the black-cloaked strangers say something. She said, “Excuse me?”
“I said nothing,” the man said.
“No,” Aldesse said, “you said something. If you’re going to come into my hotel and start muttering, then you’d better have an explanation for yourself.”
The stranger said nothing. For a moment, it looked as if he was about to speak, but Captain Eburo said, “Excuse him, he is a business associate of mine, and travels with me to the Senate, and followed me to my stop here. Pay him no heed.” Eburo walked away from the royal guards, who dispersed through the room, guarding the front door, back entrance, and door to the kitchen.
“What’s with the security detail?” Aldesse said. “I’m really not that important.”
Eburo laughed. “They’re not for you, they’re for me, and even though I insist upon it being unnecessary, they continue to hound and guard me like so many loyal dogs.” He walked past her, and sat down at a table. “Is everything in order?”
“As much as you told me to get in order, yes, it is.”
“Let us review. I will be taking your friends into custody on the charges you have made against them, then—”
“Wait a moment,” Aldesse said. “I didn’t make any actual charges against them! You said you’d make it seem that way, not actually charge them with robbery!”
Eburo leaned in over the table and spoke in a muted whisper, “I’m aware of what I said, but in case you didn’t notice, there are more than a few people in here that aren’t in on our little scheme, nor any other than I who benefit from your services. From now on, please speak as if you’re trying to be subtle!” Eburo leaned back, and resumed speaking normally. “Are you ready to confirm these charges?”
“Yes,” Aldesse said.
“Good. Here are the charges, on formal document. Seal them here.” Eburo then said under his breath, “The ink on this seal will erase itself in three days. If by then you haven’t figured out a way to release your friends, they will be set free due to what will be recorded as a ‘clerical error.’ Are we clear?”
“Crystal, Captain Eburo.”

* * *

Taere awoke to the hissing and popping sounds of the distilling apparatus. Mur was fiddling with it, producing a bluish-black liquid that he was funneling out of a retort into glass spheres.
Taere walked over, and said, “You know what you’re doing with one of these?”
“Watch this,” Mur said. He closed the valve on the retort and shut the burner, temporarily stopping the production of the liquid. “Open the window.”
Taere did so, and just as he did, Mur picked up one of the glass spheres, pressed it on its fracture point, and hurled it out the window. The sphere sailed across the wide street outside, hitting the cobblestone pavement near the edge of a dock. When the sphere split open, an enormous cloud of choking black fog burst forth, instantly covering an enormous area almost thirty feet wide. The smoke dispersed in the wind, but did not begin to thin until at least twenty seconds after appearing.
“Wow,” Taere said. “How much of that do you have?”
Mur reached down next to the table, and picked up a large wooden bucket. It was filled with these spheres almost to the brim, and it looked as if Mur had brewed enough to fill another two buckets, maybe even three. “Enough.”
Alexia was just then waking up, and came in from the other room wearing a dressing gown. Her hair looked more like a dilapidated crow’s nest than a head of hair, and she paid Taere and Mur no regard as she walked into the suite’s study.
“What was that?” Taere said.
“I couldn’t see through the hair, but I think it was Alexia,” Mur said.
After a few minutes, the smell and sound of brewing coffee wafted out from the study, as did a more rejuvenated Alexia.
“Good morning,” she rasped.
“Didn’t sleep well?” Mur asked.
“Didn’t sleep much at all, well or otherwise. I’m sure the part of the night I was asleep was good, but it was only about an hour.”
“What kept you up?” Taere said, as he walked into the study to pour himself some of the coffee Alexia had brewed.
“Nothing really. My mind was racing, and I usually can’t sleep very well anyway.”
Taere walked over to the desk where Alexia had set down the carafe of coffee. He grabbed a large mug from a shelf, and tipped the carafe to pour himself a cup. He got no more than a quarter inch of coffee before the carafe ran dry. “Hey!” he called into the next room, “what did you do with the rest of the coffee?”
“I told you I couldn’t sleep. I needed more than usual.”
“Anticipation getting the better of you?” Mur said.
“You could say that.”

* * *

Eburo was still milling through more documents as Aldesse returned to her task of preparing the bar for the morning rush. As she was wiping down one of the tables with a wet rag, one of the two black-cloaked strangers walked over to her. She put down her rag, and looked up with a scowl. “Can I help you with something?” she said.
After a moment of silence, Aldesse said, “Yes?”
“I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with the Captain.”
“I noticed, and apparently you couldn’t help but comment to yourself about it either.”
“Comment? Ah, you mean what I was – yes, I admit it – muttering to myself. I suppose you could call it commentary. I apologize if it seemed rude.”
“Well, it did, but thank you for the apology.”
“You’re more than welcome. Now, as I was saying, from what I could figure out, you know of some fugitives that you are prepared to out to Captain Eburo?”
“Yes, I am”
“If it’s not too much to ask, where are they exactly that you know of their hiding place?”
“I doubt I’m really at a liberty to tell someone I don’t know.”
“Admirable that you would keep the secret of someone who you know to be an outlaw. Why?”
Aldesse was quick to respond, if unconvincingly, “I guess it has something to do with decency. I’ve always believed in giving people a fair chance. You could be some bounty hunter on a commission to find these same fugitives and capture them before they can be brought in by the Æfer Legion.”
“A fair chance for fugitives. Not something an everyday woman working at a hotel bar would normally consider.” The stranger was digging, and Aldesse knew it. She couldn’t just end the conversation, or the stranger would know that she was hiding something, so she did her best to cover.
“Listen, I may not make much here, but it’s my place, and just about the only place I could find, at that. Until I started working here three years ago, I was living on the street because the Legion dragged off my parents for a crime they didn’t commit. I haven’t seen them since, and every time I ask the Legion, even Eburo can’t tell me. He’s looked every week for a year, and he hasn’t even found a record of their arrest, their crime, or even their birth. My parents don’t even exist anymore because of the Legion. So pardon me if I seem a little overzealous, but I just don’t trust the Legion, or anyone with them!” Everything she said was a complete and total fabrication, but she got into it, and acted it well, at least in her opinion.
It seemed the stranger bought her lie, and backed off with his questioning. “Pardon my intrusiveness, then. I was simply being inquisitive.”
Just then, Taere and Alexia came down the stairs in the lobby of the hotel, Taere carrying the empty carafe.
“Aldesse!” Taere called. He walked into the dining hall, oblivious to the guards at the doors, and said, “We’re out of coffee. Do you think…” Taere trailed off as he looked around the room, and finally noticed the other people present. Like lightning, he leapt behind the bar as the other of the black-cloaked strangers raised his arm and fired a volley of three darts, which struck the wall behind him. Alexia, about to turn the corner into the dining room, ducked back behind the wall.
Aldesse shrieked as the stranger she had been talking to leapt forward and grabbed her by the arm and waist. She found herself with her back to the stranger, restrained with a dagger across her throat.
“Now Aldesse, why didn’t you just tell me they were upstairs? It would have made both of our lives so much easier. Now yours may have to end. A tragedy, isn’t it?”
“I know that voice,” Alexia said. “Tariq?!”
“Ah, I see I’ve made an impression on you,” Tariq said, throwing back his hood to reveal his face. Taere peered out from behind the bar to look at him, and barely recognized his features. Tariq’s facial structure was about the same as it had always been, but was somehow off. His cheekbones were pronounced, his eyes were sunken, and his hair fell slightly differently, just enough to accentuate the sharpened boldness of his features. The most striking and different feature, though, Taere almost didn’t notice. Tariq’s eyes had changed shade, from a dark brown to a solid black, with no discernable pupil or iris.
“Captain!” Aldesse called. “Get this man off of me.” She struggled in Tariq’s grasp for a moment, but stopped when he pressed the dagger harder into her neck.
“I apologize, my dear, but I don’t think that’s going to be possible. You see, aiding and abetting a fugitive, even one that you’ve turned in yourself, is still a crime punishable by quite a long term of imprisonment. But, of course, you knew that when you allowed fugitives of the Cloaklands to hide out in your hotel free of charge.”
“The Cloaklands? They have no authority here!”
“Dahn-Tariq is on special assignment, and has permission from the highest authority in the Legion to arrest fugitives of the Cloak that he finds here in Æfer.”
“And who’s given him this permission?”
“I have.” Eburo walked over, and took both the dagger and Aldesse from Tariq. “Taere Flarion, you are ordered to give yourself up to these officers of the Æferian Legion immediately, or your friend Aldesse here will be…harmed.”
Taere stayed behind the bar, breathing heavily.
“Taere, for the love of the gods, stay where you are! He won’t do anything!”
“I assure you, Flarion, I am more than serious,” Eburo said.
“If you harm her—”
“You will what?” Eburo said. “Attack me here while seven others stand as guards and witnesses?”
“Taere!” Alexia called.
“Ah, another one?” Eburo mused. “M’rist, Bhor!” He nodded towards the two guards by the door. “Take her!” The two Legionnaires moved quickly behind the wall, and after a moment, the sound of struggle, and a sigh, they brought Alexia out, unconscious with a dart stuck in her shoulder.
“Taere, get out of here,” Aldesse called.
“If you run, I assure you, both Aldesse and Alexia will die, and you will be responsible!” Tariq said.
“Godsdamn it, why are you even here, Tariq?” Taere said.
“Hunting you. My investigations are not limited by imaginary borders.” He drew another dagger, and walked over to where Bhor was holding Alexia over his shoulder. He pulled up her head, and placed the knife at her throat. “Come out, or she dies. You have three seconds!”
“Tariq, if she is even bruised—”
“Taere, get out of here; she’ll understand,” Aldesse said.
“How about I kill her as well?” Eburo said, pressing the knife harder into Aldesse’s throat. Aldesse flinched, and the knife slid ever so slightly across her neck. It opened the tiniest of wounds, one just large enough to make Aldesse screech.
“Damn you!” Taere said, and he jumped out from behind the bar toward one of the nearest guards. The Legionnaire sidestepped his impromptu attack effortlessly, and jabbed him in the back with a glass-tipped dart. The glass shattered as the dart pierced the flesh of Taere’s back, injecting him with a small but strong dose of a sleeping agent. Taere fell flat on the ground, and raised his head for a moment, then fell into a deep sleep.
“Excellent. Now where is the third?”

* * *
Mur had just finished brewing another batch of the black smoking gel when the door to the suite burst open. Five guards, an important looking figure, and two cloaked individuals stormed in; all rushing at him for reasons he had no knowledge of. More out of instinct than anything else, he grabbed as many of his recent purchases as he could, and without thinking, he knocked over the distilling apparatus on the table behind him. The full retort spilled onto the floor, causing an enormous cloud of smoke to burst forth with such force that it both knocked all eight of his assailants toward the back wall, and sent Mur flying out the window into the street.
He landed with a thud, rolling away from the building, as a shower of broken glass and black smoke followed his rather indiscreet exit. The people on the street around him stared as he looked around quickly, and darted off down the avenue toward what he hoped would be relative safety.
After running a few blocks and making more than a few backtracks, Mur ducked into an alleyway to asses what he had been able to grab from the room in The Hearth. He of course had Mesmir and its accompanying daggers, and had whatever throwing daggers he had tucked into the bandolier across his chest. He also had the pouch on his belt, in which he had placed eight orbs of black smoking gel. He made a final count, giving him one sword, two combat daggers, ten throwing daggers, and the pouch of smoking gel.
Mur mentally rifled through his contacts in Æfer, and planned his route. He ducked back out of the alleyway and into the avenue into the morning’s foot traffic, blending in seamlessly with the other travelers, merchants, and hired hands all going through their morning slogs to work.
The majority of the people had a decidedly sullen look on their face, and Mur understood why. These people had the same day over and over again every week with little to no variation. His days, however, were far from ordinary, as evidenced by his last week or so with Taere and Alexia.
After a few more winding turns through Æfer’s convoluted business district, Mur ducked out of the rush of people and onto a smaller street, where the few people who worked in the businesses situated there shuffled down the streets and into their offices, shops, and warehouses. Mur continued almost to the end of the street, where he found a large brick and stucco building with a worn black merchant’s shingle with gold lettering hanging from a wrought iron bar above one of the three doors to the building. On the sign was “Trinkette’s,” barely readable from beneath the weathering and beating the old looking sign had take from the elements.
Mur opened the door, and climbed the steep, narrow set of stairs to the second floor. A small set of bells jingled as Mur walked in the door. The shop was small, and was almost the dictionary definition of a hole in the wall. The walls of the shop were cracked, and lined with what looked like too many shelves for the weight of the decrepit old building to hold. The shelves were packed with all manner of glittering objects, some valuable, and some worthless. Under the shelves, display cases with cracked glass held objects of significantly more value, but still not of any great worth.
Mur’s gaze was drawn to a particularly shiny looking object in one of the display cases closer to the back of the store. He kneeled in front of the case to get a better look. Sitting on one of the shelves was a purple satchel, tied shut with a gold cord and embroidered with a single gold Elvish letter S for the word “saa,” meaning “fire.”
What in blazes, Mur thought to himself. All of this and the Fire Ruby ends up here! I wonder what she’s charging for it…
Mur cut off his train of thought and stood up quickly when Trinkette herself walked out from the back of the shop. Her deep red hair matched the red curtain that hung over the doorway to the shop’s rear, and seemed to blend in with the flowing fabric as she rushed out from the back.
“How can I—Mur?” Trinkette immediately recognized him. “Well, I certainly haven’t seen you around in a while,” she said with a distinct twang in her voice. “Has business been bad?”
“‘Business’ has been fine, Trinkette, but I don’t have anything for you if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Now listen,” Trinkette said. “I agreed to be your fence after you left the Pack only because I thought you had potential. I’m riskin’ my connections with just about every rogue in the city by dealing with you, and if you’re not going to make it worth my while, I don’t think there’s any purpose in continuin’ this relationship.”
“Now wait a minute, Trink. I’m in quite a situation at the moment, and I really don’t have time for business dealings and empty threats. First of all, you know that when I pull a job, I pull it well. Second, I just came to you last week with what you said was the biggest score you’d seen in over ten years—”
“One of the biggest,” Trinkette interjected. “Not the biggest.”
“Alright, ‘one of the biggest,’ but that doesn’t matter.” Mur’s voice dropped, and Trinkette put on a face that showed that she understood that Mur was in a serious bind. “Three friends, two of whom have protected me with their lives, and that I would do so in return, have been falsely imprisoned by the Legion under orders of an official from the Order of the Black Hood. If they aren’t released in the next day or so, they’ll all be shipped off to the Cloaklands, tortured to the brink of death, and then probably killed in front of each other, so you’ll pardon me if I don’t really feel like talking about my business habits, Trinkette. I need to know if you can help me.” Trinkette was silent for a while as she took in what Mur said. While at times Mur seemed flippant and nonsensical in his speech and mannerisms, when life or business was on the line, he became deathly serious.
After a moment, Trinkette said, “Do you really think he’ll agree to help you?”
“There’s always a chance. There’s still honor amongst thieves, isn’t there?”
“Don’t try to kid yourself into thinkin’ that you’re the only one who knows what happened. That sword on your back isn’t yours, y’know.”
“Okay, you’re right, I haven’t been that honorable myself in the past, but that’s changed…somewhat. I’m sure he’ll come around after we have a good long talk. And, of course, a few drinks.”
“How hospitable of you,” Trinkette said. “Fine, I’ll tell you where to find the Pack. But godsdammit you didn’t hear it from me!”
“Agreed. If they ask, it was a vagrant on the street,” Mur said.
“No, that won’t work; they use beggars as cover for scoping out potential jobs now. Just don’t tell them anything about it, not even if they ask.”
“Fine, then. My lips are sealed.”
“Good.” Trinkette went to the front of the shop, locked the door, and closed the shutters on the windows. She then walked over to a display case, and opened the cabinet. She reached for a rag in her back pocket, and used it to pick up a small blue gem from the case. She held it out to Mur, who simply stared at it.
“Am I to just stare at it until it reveals the meaning of my existence?”
“Godsdamn, Mur, it’s a teleportation gem! Just touch it.”
“Right, I knew that.” He placed his palm on the top of the gem, and was immediately enveloped in blue light. When the light faded, he was gone. Trinkette sighed, and placed the gem back in the display case. She then returned to her work in the back room. Mur’s actions had made it apparent that things had become urgent.

* * *

This seems all too familiar, Alexia said to Taere. He was a cellblock away from her, but all the stone, rock, and distance could not block empathic speech.
Maybe for you, Taere replied, but last time, I was on the other side of the bars.
Aldesse was in a similar situation, but she was unable to use empathic speech, and Taere had no means of locating her within the maze of Æfer’s prison system.
Any ideas? Alexia said.
Not really. I don’t have any resources in this situation, so I’m just as stuck as you are.
What do we do then?
We wait. Eventually, one of three things will happen, Taere said.
And what might those be?
Mur will find a way to break us out, we’ll be dragged back to the Cloaklands and tortured while they hunt him, or they’ll find him before we leave, and all three of us and Aldesse will be taken back to the Cloaklands and tortured.
I don’t like either of the last two.
Neither do I.
Wait, Alexia said. I hear footsteps. Someone’s coming.
Let me see, Taere said. Alexia obliged, and Taere saw and heard what Alexia saw, swirled and echoing, but still visible and audible.
Eburo walked down a flight of stairs to the right of Alexia’s cell, followed closely by two Legionnaire guards and Tariq. The four of them stood in front of Alexia’s cell, with the guards flanking the door, and Tariq immediately behind Eburo, who faced Alexia.
“My dear,” he said, in what seemed like an uncharacteristically jovial manner, “it seems you’ve been captured again. When will criminals learn that when they run, they always get found?”
What’s with him? Taere said.
No idea, Alexia said. I don’t know many hardened soldiers who talk like this.
“Not going to speak are we? That’s fine; I’ll be doing most of the talking. You’ll probably be screaming.” Eburo reached forward and unlocked the cell door. He and Tariq entered, followed by the guards. The Legionnaires leaned their spears against the wall, and pulled a set of shackles down from the ceiling.
“Tariq tells me you might find this rather familiar,” Eburo said. The guards ripped her shirt from her back, and chained her to the ceiling by her wrists. “There is also an old friend who wishes to see you again. You haven’t seen each other in…oh, perhaps a week or two.” Eburo reached behind his belt, and undid a long leather rope from his belt. As the end hit the floor, Taere and Alexia heard the clink of glass shards woven into the whip striking the stone floor.
Taere, get out of my head, Alexia said.
No, I’ll take some of the pain, he said. Don’t hold it in.
The lashes came, and pain seared across Taere’s back as the whip struck Alexia again and again, carving deep gashes in her shoulders and lower back. Each time she was silent, concentrating on letting Taere share the pain instead of experiencing it herself.
Through the lashes, Taere tried to keep his mental eyes and ears open, so that he could still tell what was happening to Alexia. Eburo was saying something, as was Tariq. He couldn’t quite make out the words, but he heard something about “Them,” and insolence. He watched the two of them speak, trying to read their lips, when he saw something disturbing.
Alexia, Taere said.
She barely responded, between two lashes of the whip, What?
Look at Tariq when Eburo says something. Don’t stare, just glance at him quickly.
She did, and she saw Tariq’s lips moving as if he was muttering. When she tried to listen to what Eburo was saying, she realized what was happening.
He’s been enthralled! she said.
Taere was confused. I don’t protest to be an expert on magic, he said, but what exactly does that mean?
It’s not normal magic, she said before the whip came down again, then continued, it’s elemental magick and pure mental force that’s allowing Tariq to control him.
“My dear, you don’t seem to understand that the sooner you tell me what I want to know, the sooner I stop lashing your back to pieces,” Eburo said, as he cracked the whip again. Tariq, unsurprisingly, was muttering again.
He doesn’t know that I heal faster than most people, Alexia said to Taere.
Tariq, making his first active interaction in the exchange, walked over to Alexia, grasped her head by the cheeks in one hand, and put his finger over his lips.
“Shh,” he said, “I can hear you.”
And you Taere, I can hear you as well. Tariq’s echoing, ethereal voice invaded Taere’s mind, along with a wash of darkness and mental force that drove Taere to the floor.
What in the Abyss? Get out of my head!
What might I find that’s so precious? Tariq said. Taere felt Tariq encounter his mental barrier, and braced himself. Goodness, it must be important…
Taere felt a stabbing pain in his head as Tariq began a relentless assault on the inner sanctum of his mind. Taere was able to keep him from his deeper secrets, but could not keep his immediate thoughts hidden.
You think that street rat of a thief will come to your rescue? This is not some jail in a backwater town in the S’aar province, Tariq said. This is the Æfer Prison District; an entire section of the city devoted to keeping you exactly where you are. Unless your friend the urchin has some great secret army hiding and ready to strike out at the entire city of Æfer, you have as much chance of escape as the city of Ceridost rising from the sands!
Through Alexia’s eyes, Taere saw Tariq take the whip from Eburo, who now stood with his eyes transfixed on point in space, and completely devoid of emotion. Tariq pushed Eburo back against a wall, and reached back to continue Alexia’s beating.
After about ten more minutes, Tariq stopped his lashing, and handed the whip back to Eburo.
“My arm hurts,” he said. “We’re done here, unless she has something to say.” Alexia did not move, instead acting as if she had passed out while hanging from her arms. “No? We’ll get it out of her eventually.” Tariq swept around, allowing his cloak to slow behind him, as he walked out of the cell, followed by both guards and Eburo.
So what can we do about the enthrallment? Taere said.
Short of killing Tariq? Alexia said. Nothing.

* * *

“Mur Sylphetica.” As the blue light faded around Mur, the first thing he heard was his name in a stern, breathy voice coming from behind him. He turned around to see Cratomer seated at a table behind him, with his boots up on an adjacent bench. Cratomer stood up to his full height, an imposing six-foot-three-inches, and walked over to Mur.
“Cratomer. Nice to see you.”
“I’d say the same about you, Mur,” Cratomer said. He drew a knife faster than Mur could react, and stuck the point against his chin. “But it isn’t. What in the Abyss possessed you to show your face around here, you slime-breathed maggot?”
“Cratomer, whatever happened to make you so mad at me, it must have been in the past, because I haven’t been here in quite some time,” Mur said.
“Quoit sum toime, ‘e says,” one of the thieves behind Cratomer chimed in. Mur looked, and saw Fleerus S’kross, or, as he was usually called, Gimpus, limping over on his namesake bad leg. He put his face not more than six inches from Mur’s. “If y’be thinkin’ eight years is ‘quoit sum toime,’ y’need t’get yer clocks adjustered!”
“Back off, Gimpus,” Cratomer said. “This one,” he said, using his other hand to reach around Mur’s back, “and this sword,” as he took Mesmir from its sheath on Mur’s back, “are mine.”
“Now wait a minute Cratomer, I’m not here to steal anything from you.”
“Oh you aren’t, are you? I raised you on the streets, kept you clothed, kept you fed, and when you felt like leaving, after all that, you just disappear with my gear and my sword? How am I supposed to believe you?”
“Oi says we gut’m, then see how ‘onest ‘e is wit’ us,” Gimpus said.
Cratomer walked to Mur’s right, keeping the dagger point under his chin. He pressed harder with the dagger, until the point barely punctured Mur’s skin. Mur didn’t even flinch. He kept his eyes locked on Cratomer as he stated back at him. After staring intently for a moment or two, Cratomer said, “No, I think not.”
“Oh godsdammit, oi was lookin’ fo’ward to usin’ me knives,” Gimpus said, and skulked off.
“Are you going to kill me, or am I just going to stand here awkwardly?” Mur said.
“You’ll live.” Cratomer removed his dagger from Mur’s chin, and turned his back to him as he said, “You seem honest enough, at least this time. “Besides, this is a new shirt,” he said, tugging on the collar of the bright white shirt he was wearing. He turned back to Mur, and sat down where he had been before Mur arrived. “So, since I’ve decided to believe you, I hope you have something good to say, or else I might have wasted my breath, and Gimpus’ boredom.”
Mur walked over to Cratomer, and sat down on the bench across from him. “I need a favor.”
Cratomer started laughing. “You can’t be serious? You stole from me, ran away, and disappeared for over eight years, and you want me, Cratomer, the leader of the Black Pack, the most famous Thieves’ Guild on the Southern Continent, to help you?”
As Cratomer continued to laugh, Mur kept a straight face, and just stared. After a moment, Cratomer looked up at Mur, and saw nothing but a stern face.
“By the gods, you’re serious, aren’t you?”
Cratomer stared for a moment in utter disbelief. Mur understood Cratomer’s apprehension to helping him, but he kept his eyes locked with Cratomer’s in an attempt to convince him with sheer willpower.
“Godsdammit, you must have a hell of a plan if you’re coming to me for help.”
“So you’ll help?”
“Well what do you think? Come on, spit it out!”
Mur smiled, and told Cratomer what they were to do. After Mur finished his plan, Cratomer smiled as well.
“When were you planning on pulling this together?”
“As soon as we can,” Mur said.
“Tomorrow’s the day then.”

* * *


Taere woke with a start as he heard his name issue itself – it seemed – from behind a wall. He shot up from his straw pallet, and pressed his ear against the wall. Again, he heard his name.
“Taere! Are you there?”
“Aldesse?” Taere said, in no particular direction. “Where are you?”
“I can’t hear you, talk at the wall!”
“Where are you?” he said, this time talking directly to the wall.
“I’m behind the wall you twit!”
“And somehow I can hear you…how thick are these walls?”
“Apparently not very thick at all, though I doubt that will really do us any good.”
“At least we can speak to each other,” Taere said. “Where’s your cell?”
“I don’t really know the layout of the prison. I haven’t been here before, surprisingly enough.”
“Have you seen Alexia anywhere?”
“Not since we were put in here. I saw her being dragged to her cell after I was locked up. She’s at least three levels down from us, probably not in the Lowers, though.”
“The Lowers? You say that as if it’s a title. What’s down there?”
“Believe me, you don’t want to know what’s in the Lowers. I hear they let most of the prisoners run free on the lowest level. They don’t even bother to watch them; they just lock them up tight so no one gets out. I hear most everyone down there doesn’t survive more than a few years before they die from rotgut or get shivved by someone looking for food.”
“I doubt Alexia’s down there,” he said. “They want her alive, but I can’t tell why.”
“I’ll see what I can do about finding out, but I doubt all the contacts and favors in the world could help either of us at this point.”
Taere lay down on his pallet, and was about to go back to sleep, when his ears perked up at the mention of Colendd between two Legionnaires down the hallway. He slid to the bars and tried to pick up on the context of the conversation. He found, however that he didn’t need to.
“That was an awful mess,” one of the guards said.
“Burning the hell out of a frozen village…I still don’t understand why we did it,” the second said.
“We did it because we were ordered to. Do you remember the last Legionnaire who questioned orders from the high-ups in the Senate?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Exactly,” the first guard said, slapping the second on the back. “He might as well have never existed. He’s probably blubbering down in the Lowers, if he hasn’t died from fever already.”
The guards were coming closer to Taere’s cell, and would berate him if they knew he was listening. He slid his pallet forward on the floor, and laid down to feign sleep by the barred door. The guards walked past, unaware that they were being eavesdropped upon.
The first guard said, “At least we know we were doing something legitimate this time.”
“I have no idea what you mean,” the second said.
“Well, they did tell us where the orders came from, didn’t they?”
“Right, right, they said it was a paid job.”
“Paid for by the Order of the Black Hood, it was. And well-paid, I might add.”
“Well-paid, for sure,” the second guard said. “I got a full hundred D’res for a day’s work! That’ll feed me for a month!”
Did you hear any of that? Taere said to Alexia.
Every word, she said.
Sorel’s going to have a lot to answer for when we find him.
If we ever get out of here, that is.
I’m sure Mur’s going to find a way to get us out of here, Taere said. He’s much better at what he does than anyone gives him credit for.
By the Gods, I hope you’re right, Alexia said. She rolled back over onto her straw mat, and fell asleep.
Instead of doing the same, Taere instead tried again to bond with the natural pulse he had connected to nights before. He found it more difficult in the prison, not because of his surroundings, but because of the nature of the place. Something there seemed to be blocking his access to the rhythm. The stone walls couldn’t be doing it; material should have been no impediment. There was a presence that he couldn’t quite place, but it was impeding his progress.
After a few minutes of attempting to mentally push past the shadowy haze blocking his mind, he finally connected with the rhythm, staying connected for over ten minutes. After that, his body exhausted itself, mostly from trying to keep the connection to the rhythm while staving off the mental barrier he encountered around the prison.
After trying a failing a few more times, Taere resigned himself to sleep. Before he lied down, he experienced one of his telltale headaches that warned of an impending dream, but Taere was too tired to care. He put his head on the pallet, and fell asleep.
A dream came to him, but not the one he expected. Instead of seeing a burning town and a cloaked figure with a sword, his dream started in utter darkness. For a moment, he saw nothing. Then, far away in his vision, he saw a pinprick of light. The light grew, slowly expanding from a point to a bright red light, casting off beams into the darkness of his dream. The light slowly expanded, until his entire field of vision was bathed in red light. The light seemed as if it should be painful, but somehow, it was calming and warm, much like the light of the rhythm.
A shape began to appear in the light. At first, there was only a wing. The wing was bat-like, but with a grace to it that a bad did not possess. Next was a shoulder, with powerful muscles that attached to the wing. A second wing came into Taere’s view, then the full back and tail of what appeared to be a dragon. Soon, a great silver head came into view, with a regal frill and four sleek black horns running down the back of its head. The dragon let out a resounding roar, then fixed its eyes directly on Taere.
Taere, a familiar voice said in his dream.
Taere suddenly realized he wasn’t fully dreaming, but was in fact in a sort of trance, connected to whatever source was giving him this vision.
Taere Flarion, the voice said again.
Who are you? he said
You know me, though we haven’t seen each other in quite some time.
Taere was stunned. Augheryd? he said. How did you—?
I found you quite easily, my old friend. You’re not easy to miss, even in that hellhole you’re in at the moment.
Can you get me out of here? Taere said.
No, Augheryd’s voice said, I’m restricted from leaving, as you might recall. You have to come to me before I can go anywhere. I feel as if I’m atrophying.
I’ll get out of here as soon as I can, but I’m waiting on someone to come through.
Mur? You’re relying on him to break you out? Two years have changed you.
And I’m sure you’re not the same as you were either. Now let me sleep; I’m tired.
As you wish, the voice said. The vision immediately faded from Taere’s mind, and he dropped into a deep sleep.

* * *

All the while, Mur had been going to work preparing for the next day’s work. Cratomer had sent Gimpus off to collect other members of the Black Pack, while he and Cratomer headed back over to The Hearth to see if they could salvage anything from Mur’s earlier escape.
Their room looked like a disaster area. The detonation of the black smoking gel had knocked over every object lighter than a table in the room, and had blown just about everything else against the back walls. The covers of the beds were stuck to the walls with shattered glass and splintered wood from tables and chairs that exploded from the force of the gel. Mur and Cratomer waded through the splintered mess of the room to the corner where the distilling apparatus had been. Glass shards were embedded in the wall and the table in a circular blast pattern.
“Well done,” Cratomer said. “I see you’ve learned how to make a mess properly.”
“One of the many things I’ve learned in the last few years,” Mur said. He made his way over to the bed, and dug into the wood splinters piled by the sides. After a minute or so of digging, he pulled out two large leather duffels, and heaved them up onto the bed.
“What have we here?” Cratomer asked.
Mur cleared off a clean space on the mattress, and emptied both duffels onto the bed. Out poured Mur, Taere, and Alexia’s purchases from the day before. Bandoliers of throwing daggers, Taere’s longsword, and all manner of thievery equipment spilled out.
Cratomer smiled, and said, “Well done again, Mur. Where did you get all of this?”
“One of the people we’re going to break out has deep pockets. Very deep pockets.”
“Are these pockets going to be open to the Pack after we help you out?”
“Honestly, Cratomer, I’d love to say they were, but it’s really not my decision. You’ll have to ask him yourself once we break the three of them out.”
Cratomer picked up the longsword, and flourished it in his right hand. “This is pretty well balanced…” He thought for a moment, then pulled Mesmir from his back, and handed it to Mur.
“Cratomer, what are you doing?”
“I’ve gotten used to smaller weapons ever since you took Mesmir; I don’t think I’d be much help if I were just swinging it around like a troll with a tree branch. Besides, I never got the damned thing to work anyway.” Cratomer sheathed his new longsword behind his back, and stuffed the other equipment back into the duffels, and hoisted them onto his back. “Come on,” he said, “we have a Pack to meet.”
They descended the stairs, and left The Hearth, heading down the main thoroughfare until they reached the Docks District. Two massive iron gates, each flanked by an enormous Pyrethian alabaster pillar one hundred feet high marked the transition to the ocean ports. After passing through the gates, Cratomer led Mur immediately to the left, and down a flight of stone stairs recessed into the street. At the bottom was a gate that led into what looked like a sewer.
“Classy, Cratomer,” Mur said.
“Appearance isn’t everything,” Cratomer said. “I would have expected you to know that.”
Cratomer pulled an intricate key from a chain around his neck, and inserted it into the lock. He turned the key around twice, and the gate made an unexpected clicking and whirring sound. As the gate swung open, the sewer behind it rippled and slowly faded, and a scene much more like a Thieves’ Guildhall appeared.
Mur ducked under the low ceiling of the gate, and stepped into the Guildhall, following Cratomer to the back of the room. The main room into which they stepped was lined with tables, a bar, and silenced booths with magical charms on the seats, tables, and sides, so that any conversation within them would remain private. Cratomer stopped at a back table, where Gimpus and eight other members of the Black Pack were sitting.
“Oi! Took ye’ long ‘nuff t’get here, Cratomer,” Gimpus said.
“I was picking up some goodies for all of you,” Cratomer said, and emptied out the duffels onto the table. The Pack members sat wide-eyed as all manner of expensive and top-quality equipment of their trade was laid before them. Some of them scrambled for throwing knives, but Cratomer leaned forward and said “Ah, don’t touch. You’ll all get some.” He began loading the equipment back in the duffels as Mur sat down at the end of the table next to Gimpus.
“Y’dune well, Mur,” Gimpus said. He then turned to Cratomer, and said, “Oi’ve been thinkin’, Cratomer, y’said Oi’d be getting’ outta there pretty quick once y’give the signal. How’m Oi gonna do that w’thout gettin’ m’self dragged in an’ locked up?”
“My friend, you must learn to wait.” Cratomer dug into a pouch on his belt, and pulled out one of the capsules of black smoking gel that Mur had recovered from the room at The Hearth. He cracked it ever so slightly by pressing on its stress lines with a stiletto, and let a single drop of the gel drip out onto the tabletop. The gel burst into a cloud of smoke that rose in a column to the ceiling upon hitting the table, astounding most of the pack, while giving Gimpus’ face a distinctly black tone.
“Oi!” he said, and coughed from inhaling the smoke. “That’ll do!”
“Good,” Cratomer said, and pulled a few glass balls filled with the gel from his belt pocket. He handed them to Gimpus, who shoved them into his pocket. “Don’t drop those, and try not to run into anything.”
“Whot d’you think Oi am, some sort of klutz?”
“No, I think you’re prone to accidents, and you know it,” Cratomer said. He dug into the duffels, and began distributing gear to the other members of the Pack.
Mur leaned over to Cratomer and whispered, “Cratomer…what exactly is this master plan that you keep talking about?”
“Divide and conquer, my friend, divide and conquer. Follow me.” Cratomer finished distributing gear, then beckoned to the Pack members. Gimpus followed them out the door, then broke off and headed off in another direction, with a very friendly barmaid in tow.
“Where are they going?” Mur said.
“They’re the distraction.”
“What do you—” Mur cut himself off after seeing the glint of a dagger in Gimpus’ sleeve. The gears in his head finally started turning, as he said, “Brilliant.”
“Would you expect anything else,” Cratomer said ever so narcissistically. He proceeded to lead Mur and the other Pack members down the streets of Æfer until they reached a landing on one of the great slights of steps up the side of the Senatorial Palace. The Pack sat and waited for a lull in foot traffic, then sped behind a large shrubbery, where they found an old, rusted sewer grate.
“Magic key again?” Mur said.
“No,” Cratomer replied, “This is just a sewer.” He and two other Pack members grabbed the grate and pulled it up with a great creak, and dropped it beside the tunnel entrance. “If you please, Heroll, the signal?” Cratomer said to one of the Pack members. Heroll pulled out a large arrow from a quiver on his back, and fired it straight up into the air. The arrow made a sharp screaming sound, and lit up bright green as it trailed its way down into the streets below. A few moments later, a high-pitched shriek made its way faintly to Mur’s ears. After about a minute, a large troupe of guards came rushing by, charging down the steps with halberds in hand toward the marketplace below.
“Time to get moving,” Cratomer said. He leapt down into the sewer grate, and the rest of the Pack members and Mur followed him down into the murky darkness.

* * *

“What in the Abyss is that smell?” Taere had been woken from his light sleep by the approaching stench of death, sulfur, and the slightest hint of stagnant water.
“How did you—” Taere heard a guard say from around a corner, followed by the sound of a blade piercing flesh. The guard fell into Taere’s field of view as his dead body collapsed on the ground in front of Taere’s cell. Taere stood up quickly, just as Mur and a ragtag looking bunch of people came rushing past the guard.
“We really don’t have time. Where are Aldesse and Alexia?”
“Aldesse is one block over on the other side of this wall. Alexia…is somewhere down there,” Taere said, pointing to a grate in the floor.
I’m two floors down, near the Lowers, Alexia said.
Can you get me to you? Taere said.
If you let me see what you see, yes.
“Are you going to let me out, or just sit there?” Taere said.
“Uh, right,” Mur said. He rifled through the dead guard’s belt, and unhooked the key ring from a loop on the guard’s left hip. He quickly undid the deadbolt on the cell, and threw Taere a large black canvas duffel. Taere opened the drawstring to find all of his possessions, recovered from the prison armory by Mur’s obviously resourceful friends. The tall one in the back nodded to Taere, letting him know that he was in charge of the whole operation.
“Taere, this is Cratomer, leader of the Black Pack,” Mur said.
“Pleased to meet you, and you have my thanks. Now let’s get Alexia and get the hell out of here,” Taere said.
“I like how you think, Taere,” Cratomer said. He nodded in the direction of Aldesse’s cell, and two Pack members darted off to free Aldesse, while the rest of them descended a set of stairs at the end of the hall. About halfway down the staircase, Cratomer pulled a glowing green gem that hung on a chain from inside his shirt. The stone pulsed a few times, then ceased its glowing.
“Time’s wasting, that means Gimpus had to leave. We’re going to have an interesting time getting out.”
Alexia, we’re in a bit of a rush, where are you?
Down one more level, then make two lefts, and I’ll start yelling.
Taere led on, until he began to hear Alexia’s voice echoing through the hallways. They quickly reached her cell, where Cratomer quickly went to work on the complex lock. Apparently, Alexia was deemed much more important than Taere or Aldesse. The lock was open in minutes, and Alexia was quickly returned her arms and armor from another duffel on Mur’s back.
“We don’t have much time to get out of here,” Cratomer said. “Since Gimpus had to leave the marketplace, the guards will all be coming back here.”
As if to prove his fears, the metallic clank of boots on the floor above them rang out as a troupe of guards returned to their garrison.
“Godsdammit,” Cratomer said. He turned to the Pack, and said, “Well, we didn’t come armed for nothing, boys.” He drew the longsword he had traded for Mesmir from behind his back, and the rest of the Pack members drew their own blades, and rushed upstairs.
“We’re not going to let them have all the fun, are we?” Taere said.
Alexia knocked an arrow to her bow, and smiled. Mur drew Mesmir, and led the way up the stairs. The scene ahead of them was chaotic – Cratomer and eight Pack members against a full garrison of Legionnaires, and the Pack was winning. Guard after guard fell to the blades of the Pack, while more seemed to pour from every door to replace their fallen comrades. The scales tipped dramatically when Taere, Alexia, and Mur joined the fray, who cut a swath through the guards until they reached Cratomer.
Taere found himself back to back with Cratomer, and they became cut off from the rest of the Pack. They began to slowly spin around each other, parrying strikes from the guards around them, and cutting them down with the next blow. At some point, Cratomer ducked out, leaving Taere in a corner surrounded by three guards, two with swords and one with a spear.
One of the swordsmen was the first to strike. He drove the point of his sword forward, which Taere easily parried and pushed off to his left. He made an upward strike with the Malevolence, severing the man’s left arm with the back edge of the blade. The guard collapsed, just as the spearman made a thrust. Taere sidestepped the bladed tip of the spear, and stamped it down to the ground under his boot. The blade snapped, sending the tip of the blade into the air, where it ricocheted off the wall behind Taere and flew down the stairwell behind him.
The second swordsman then made his move, slicing upward at Taere’s left side. Taere blocked the blow by quickly extending the gauntlet blade on his left arm, and deflecting the strike back toward the floor, where the sword clanged on the stone tiles. Taere then reached up with his left arm, striking the spearman across his neck, slicing it open. Before the spearman’s body keeled over, Taere moved behind it, using the corpse as a human shield as the second swordsman recovered and made an ungraceful slash at Taere’s midsection. The attack gutted the guard’s corpse, which Taere’ promptly threw forward at the second swordsman. The body set the swordsman off balance, allowing Taere to effortlessly break through his defenses and run him through with the Malevolence.
As he removed the blade from the guard’s chest, he saw that Mur and Alexia had each found their way over to where he stood. The path was open to a stairway that led up and out to the Upper Cloisters, but Cratomer and the Pack were still embroiled in the battle with the guards.
“Cratomer!” Taere called over the din of battle, “can you handle yourself?”
“Hell, you got where you need to go, we don’t need to handle anything!” he called between parries. He pulled two capsules of black smoking gel from the pouch on his belt, and smirked.
Taere smirked back, and said “Good luck!”
“Luck,” Cratomer said, beating away a sword point, “had nothing to do with it. We’re the Black Pack!” Cratomer threw the capsules to the ground at his feet, instantly filling the entire floor of the dungeon with thick black smoke. As the smoke billowed up the staircase, Taere sheathed the Malevolence, and led the way up the stairs to the Upper Cloisters.

Favourite this work Favourite This Author

Comments by other Members

No comments at present.

To post comments you need to become a member. If you are already a member, please log in .