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Skeptic Tank!

:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.: -----=====Earth's Dreamlands=====----- (313)558-5024 {14.4} (313)558-5517 A BBS for text file junkies RPGNet GM File Archive Site .:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:. 1 / DDDDD ZZZZZZ // D D AAAA RRR GGGG OOOO NN N Z I NN N EEEE || D D A A R R G O O N N N Z I N N N E || Volume 5 -=========================================================+|) D D AAAA RRR G GG O O N N N Z I N N N E || Issue 4 DDDDD A A R R GGGG OOOO N NN ZZZZZZ I N NN EEEE || \\ \ ------------------------------------------------------------------------ -- DargonZine Volume 5, Issue 4 10/15/92 Cir 1130 -- ------------------------------------------------------------------------ -- Archives at FTP.EFF.ORG ( in pub/journals/DargonZine -- ------------------------------------------------------------------------ -- Contents -- ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Pact VI Max Khaytsus Yuli 17-19, 1014 Beginnings Max Khaytsus and Michelle Brothers Mertz - Sy 5, 1015 ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1 Pact part 6 by Max Khaytsus (b.c.k.a. ) "Sergeant, sergeant!" a female voice echoed down the corridors of the catacombs beneath Dargon Keep. Aimee, looking around the maze she was in, turned and bolted. Did someone see her? What happened? She ran into the first dark doorway she saw and hid in the corner of the room. "Sergeant!" The female guard ran past Aimee's room without slowing down. Aimee made herself as small as she could, hoping the woman would not come back and find her. Long moments passed with Aimee not moving from her hiding place, not even daring to breathe, then she heard more footsteps as people ran back down the corridor. "Are you sure?" she heard the Sergeant's voice. "Sure seemed like he was. And just like Elizabeth said, too," Altura answered. "I didn't wait around to see. Arellano is still there in case something happens." "You best go get the physician, then," the sergeant answered. Through the doorway to the room she was hiding in, Aimee saw the female guard hurry towards the stairs leading out of the dungeon. The sergeant's heavy footsteps could be heard heading in the other direction. As soon as all was quiet, Aimee snuck up to the open doorway and looked into the corridor. She desperately wanted to leave the dungeon, thinking Altura would leave open the door into the castle hallways, but instead, impulsively, turned the other way, heading in the wrong direction, wanting to see what had happened that Elizabeth had to be called. Keeping as quiet as she could, Aimee carefully snuck down the corridor after Sergeant Guralnik, towards the room where Captain Koren's body lay resting. Dyann Taishent angrily slung a handful of mud into a clay jar on the table before him. The vessel shifted away from him, making the cooks in the kitchen turn and look. "Careful, careful," Corambis tutted. "You know what will happen if Madam Sepagary sees you treat her dishes that way." "I'll seal her mouth shut with clay if she so much as thinks of opening it!" Dyann snapped. Thuna, watching the two men work and helping them when they needed something, let out a laugh. "What is it, girl?" Corambis asked. His assistant had been unusually quiet all morning, after the failure the night before. "I'm sorry, sir, but I can just imagine Madam Sepagary serving the Duke with her mouth full of clay." Corambis and Dyann both chuckled at that, but the mage's laugh quickly disappeared, replaced by a grim expression. "Don't worry, we'll find her," Corambis assured him. "This has never failed before." "Last time we did this, it blew the top off old Sweeny's tower!" "That was his own fault," Corambis said. "Anyone who keeps so much dung around and plays with fire is asking for it to happen." A laugh escaped Dyann's lips. "Oh, that expression on his face!" Corambis also laughed. "But then the other spell never failed either," he added thoughtfully. "I've been thinking about that," the mage admitted. "And are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Corambis asked. Dyann nodded. "That would explain the mutt's new habits...let's take a look before we start blowing doors off hinges." "Well, at least one door," Corambis said. "Thuna, repack the ash and the spirits of hart's horn. We'll be back soon." Long before Aimee could get her courage up to enter the room where the guards were, she heard hurried footsteps in the corridor behind her and darted into the room across from the one she was looking in. From across the corridor, she could still hear the guards talking quietly in the second room, now overshadowed by the approaching footsteps and female voices. "...Lieutenant Taishent both know, but I want to be sure first," the physician said. "He didn't say anything," Altura answered, "but we really didn't wait. Sergeant Guralnik bid me to find you immediately." Aimee watched the two women enter the room and disappear inside. She waited for a while, then not seeing anyone exit, snuck into the room to see what was happening. "...healed over pretty well," the physician commented, "but I don't want you going anywhere. A few more days of rest will have you solidly on your feet." Aimee carefully snuck up to the doorway and peeked in. The guards were once again gathered around the Captain's bed. "There will be a scar," the physician went on, "but I can give you some salve to clear that up. It won't disappear, though. That was a pretty big gash." "A soldier isn't a soldier without scars, doctor," Sergeant Guralnik said. "Well, I don't know about you or the Captain here," Elizabeth said, "but I know most women prefer men whole." She looked down again. "It's really up to you. I'm just offering you what I think to be a good solution." Who was she talking to? Aimee edged forward a little more, her curiosity getting the better of her. "Why am I in the catacombs?" a weak, but deep voice sounded. It was the voice of Captain Adrunian Koren! Aimee gasped, realizing as she did so that she had given her presence away. The four guards and the physician turned towards her and between them she spotted Captain Koren's face, eyes open, looking at her. Aimee took a step back, tripping over something at her feet and falling over backwards. A loud yip sounded as she fell to the floor. "I tell you that door has been closed for over a year!" the keep castellan declared, hands on his hips. "The Duke ordered it locked ever since that thief broke into the vault!" "Open that door now, you tub of lard, or I'll give you a hex free of charge!" Dyann demanded of the large man. "`Tub o' lard'? You old windbag! I'll show you a tub of lard!" The castellan stepped forward, pushing the old mage back with his huge stomach. "Castellan," Corambis pushed the two arguing men apart. "Castellan, if you don't open this door for us, we'll take it by force and then instead of replacing the key on your belt, you'll be replacing the door on its hinges. Do what will be right for all of us." The castellan grumbled. "Please," Corambis insisted. "We just need to look around. We'll be quick." Karl darted out of the way with a yelp as Aimee fell over him and quickly scrambled up to her feet. The six people in the other room stared at the girl with astonishment. None of them expected her to be here and for a moment, no one knew what to do. The girl quickly scrambled up and disappeared from site. "After her!" Guralnik was the first to recover and the three younger guards charged out of the room, after the girl they knew to be lost. Her seeing Captain Koren mattered in that no one was to know he was alive and she could ruin the entire plan of eliminating crime from Dargon. "What is going on?" Koren groaned, trying to sit up. "Don't exert yourself, Captain," Elizabeth forced him to lay back down. "Sir, there's been a lot that happened in the last month..." "The war? How's the war?" "Dargon is safe, Sir. We ran them all off! The Duke even chased them." For a moment Koren smiled. "And the Southern Marches? The eastern boarder?" "Captain, you need to rest!" Elizabeth cut in, stopping Guralnik from revealing the bad news. "Perhaps it would be better if one of your own men briefed you, or perhaps Lieutenant Taishent," the sergeant caught on. Koren nodded. "Did Darklen make it?" "Yes, Sir." "And Azin? Shevlin? Milnor?" "Lieutenant Milnor is all right, Sir," Guralnik said, "Lieutenant Azin is with the Duke's forces...Lieutenant Shevlin..." He glanced at the physician, but went on. "Lieutenant Shevlin held the West Gate to the last man. I'm sorry, Sir. He didn't live to see us drive the enemy away." Koren nodded with a sigh, his expression grim. "And Lansing Bartol?" "He's well." "Have Kalen come see me if you refuse to let me get up," Koren told Elizabeth. "I'll pass on the message," the physician said, not having the intention of saying anything to the lieutenant for at least a few days. "Send for me if you need anything." "Before you go," Koren added, preventing Elizabeth from leaving, "tell me why that girl was being chased." The castellan fumbled with his keys until finding the right one and inserted it in the lock. "Just to show you no one ever goes here," he complained, twisting the key in the door. "Why, even I haven't set foot in here since winter and the only other key's in the Duke's study. Look!" The door swung open to reveal a corridor lit with torches, alternating on the opposing walls. The dust was disturbed with a well defined trail. "No one, eh?" Dyann snapped. "I knew that mutt kept coming here for a reason!" The castellan angrily removed a torch from its sconce and hurried down the corridor. "We'll just see who's been here!" Aimee ran down the lit corridor as quickly as she could manage, with Karl right on her heels, jumping and barking loudly. Behind them Aimee could hear the running feet of the guards. She did not even think to run into one of the dark rooms or side tunnels. Not only could she get lost there, but Karl's insistent barking would only help the guards find her faster. She did not know what she would do upon reaching the heavy oak door, or if it would even be open, but she could always kick and scream and maybe someone on the other side would hear her and tell her father. Aimee breathlessly scrambled up the stairs, almost tripping over Karl. She could hear the guards not far behind her. She darted out of the corridor, now running after the puppy, looking for a place to hide. As she turned the corner, she spotted three men, her grandfather, one of his friends and the castle castellan. All three stood astonished, looking at her. "Grandfather!" she wheezed, breathless from her run and dashed to hide behind him. Right on her heels the three guards turned the corner. The old mage held his granddaughter behind him and took a confident step forward. "What do you want from my granddaughter?" His words boomed in the corridor. "You know," Ilona said to Captain Koren, "you and Kalen are equally pig headed! Like you came from the same mold!" Their wait for the others to arrive was taking longer than either of the two expected and Ilona decided to use this as an opportunity to take care of some unfinished business. The guard captain laughed. "How so, Lieutenant?" "Kalen was injured in the war," she told him, "and now he doesn't want to take the time to let that damn wound heal!" Koren laughed. "I remember just over ten years ago bandits set up camp four or five leagues south of town and were exerting a road toll from caravans and travellers. Kalen was just a rookie then. Captain Tamar Armstrong was the head of the guard -- it was a few years before he went to serve as a general in the King's army -- and he sent me and some men, including Kalen, to break that band up..." The Captain fell silent as Elizabeth walked into the room, followed by Kalen and Jerid. "Didn't I tell you to stay in bed?" she demanded. "I've stayed in that bed for a month!" Koren snapped. "Wounds heal better when they know they need to heal." "I'll have a sleeping potion mixed in with your food next time you eat," the physician threatened. "Kalen," Koren ignored the physician, "have you ever told Ilona of your first great adventure?" "When I was two?" Kalen looked a bit shocked that the Captain would remember a story told at a party where everyone had a little too much to drink. He fought back a slight flush that covered his face. "No, in the guard!" "I haven't, Sir," he wiped his brow with his sleeve. "Well, do and get those wounds tended to." "Wounds?" Elizabeth turned to Kalen. "Don't you touch me," he warned her. "Did you two get everything straightened out?" Koren asked Jerid. "We did, Sir," he said. "Aimee found the door open, wandered in and got locked in here. I should have thought to check the catacombs. That is just like her." Koren chuckled. "I can understand her fright when she saw me not moving. I'd have run, too, if I were her age." "All's well that ends well," Jerid said. "Next time, I hope, she'll be smarter than going where she shouldn't be. That scare was so bad for her, I won't even punish her for being irresponsible...even though I should." "Good," Koren approved. "Now, about Liriss." Everyone pulled up a chair and sat down around the Captain, ready to plan. "Jerid, I want you to extend your patrols to the docks. I don't want a single ship to leave before we're finished." "You can be sure of that, Sir," the castle Lieutenant answered. "You, Ilona," Koren went on, "I want you to secure the market place when Kalen takes Liriss' hold. That way we'll cut off the best way out of town." "Sir, if I may, I'd rather be there as it happens. With your permission, I'd like to have Caisy do that job." Koren thoughtfully twisted his mustache. "Let's get back to that in a moment. Kalen, I want that building surrounded and broken into. Use all the force you can. This is an excuse to kill criminals without having to answer for it. Anyone who doesn't yield when told doesn't get a second chance, clear?" "Yes, Sir." "And since Kesrin is willing to turn evidence, try to take him alive, but if that doesn't happen, I won't be too concerned. "Elizabeth, I'll need to rely on you to doctor my people. We simply don't have the manpower to do everything. I'll need my medics in the raid itself. I want you and what physicians and healers you can scrounge up to be ready and close by. Stay with the patrols and they'll bring you in when it's time." Kalen looked at Elizabeth, expecting her to protest the plan, but she did not say a word. In a way, Kalen hoped that he could avoid a mass slaughter and he knew that in an ideal situation, his captain would have wanted the same, but he also realized how understaffed they were and how important it was to end the criminal reign over the city. Perhaps Elizabeth knew it as well and held her tongue for that reason alone. "Now," Koren turned back to Ilona, who waited for his decision. He had no doubts that she was among the best officers he ever had, but he needed to hear her reasons and push her a little, to see if she was willing to push back. "Ilona, any reasons?" Ilona did not answer for a few moments, putting her thoughts together. "Captain, I'm a Dargon town guard," she said. "I want to be there because that's my job. That's what I signed on to do. I'm here to protect, not be protected. Isn't it enough you barred me from fighting in the war?" "Your efforts were important where they were applied," he said. "Elizabeth tells me you were invaluable." "But you put me in the keep so that I wouldn't be hurt in the fighting!" Koren smiled. "Yes, I did. It was both for you and Kalen. One of you worried was enough. I couldn't afford to have both of your performances affected." "Then overlook that I'm a woman this time," Ilona asked. Koren shifted in his bed. "I understand you're on the take with Liriss?" "Of course," the Lieutenant smiled back. "He's been sending me jewelry." A few of the gathered laughed. "Kalen, how injured are you?" the Captain asked his second in command, ignoring the laughter. "I'm fine, Sir." "Fine like me?" Kalen did not answer. "I want you to take charge of the market square," Koren decided. "Ilona will lead the raid. And after you're done, I want you to see Elizabeth. I may be as stubborn as a mule when it comes to my own health, but I'm smart enough not to risk my best people needlessly." Ilona waited patiently until all of the twenty people in the raiding party gathered in the alley. They had surprised two brigands here and took them prisoner with minimal resistance. Now they lay on the ground, tied, waiting until the raid was completed, to be transported to the guard house. It would be a great success if the rest of the raid went as smoothly. Looking around in the darkening alley, Ilona wondered if she should wait until it was completely dark, but not wanting to waste too much time. Each minute she and the guards were here was a risk that they would be noticed from inside the building. The sergeants slowly gathered around her, waiting for instructions. "Caisy," Ilona turned to the man next to her, "first floor, straight through. Hold the rear stairs and the exits. Tess," she turned to the tall red-headed sergeant that could put fear into most men she fought. "Second floor. No risks. As soon as you're done, back Caisy." "Yes, Ma'am." "Garay, Streed and DaVrice, you're with me. Go easy on Kesrin, but bring everyone in. The third floor is the only place I prefer prisoners to bodies. Everyone clear?" All the guards nodded. Ilona signaled for Caisy to begin and two of the Sergeant's men quickly broke down the door. Caisy led his small group in, followed by Tess' larger unit. "Go," Ilona nodded to the three guards remaining with her. They went in and, drawing her sword, Ilona followed. The building was dark inside, not yet lit to accommodate the the setting of the sun. The first floor corridor was mostly empty, although sounds of a fight could be heard from further down, where it took a turn. Caisy and his men secured a good half of the building's first floor and were now working at the other end of the corridor. Ahead of Ilona, her team's heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs. Not wanting to let opportunity slip by, Ilona quickly followed them up the stairs. As she passed the murky second floor, she heard someone yell "archer", but there were already plenty of people on this floor to take care of the problem and she had a job to do one floor up. Hoping that the alarm would be taken care of by the men assigned to the floor, Ilona continued up the stairs. The instant the outside door cracked and swung open, Caisy followed his men into the building. They both paused to fight the two brigand guards at the door and he ran past them, towards the stairs. The flood of men that followed through the doorway carried the fight after him and the two brigands were quickly overpowered and thrown behind the stairs. Caisy himself ran deeper into the building, looking for other inhabitants. At the stairs he found another man, wearing studded leather decorated with metal, a sailor's cap and a wild glean in his eyes. "Yield!" Caisy ordered. Wearing the dark blue tunic of the town guard he did not feel the need to declare himself. Instead of surrendering, the brigand drew his sword and leapt over the banister. Caisy backed up, blocking the first strike with his sword. The man's attack was so determined that he quickly found himself on the defensive. Two more blocks and a parry later had him five yards further down the hallway. "Damn you!" he swung his blade across the corridor, making the man pause his advance to avoid getting hit. Behind him Caisy could hear a battle cry and someone's rushing feet. He decided to risk facing the new opponent, hoping that his own men, now moving up the corridor, would take care of the crazed brigand from the stairs. He turned, bending down, swinging his sword at knee level. It impacted with the new opponent, changing the war cry to a yell of pain. Instead of attacking, the brigand simply collapsed over Caisy. "The door!" Caisy indicated to the other alley doorway to the two guards that caught up to him. Another armed man rushed at them from the back stairs. The corridor was not wide enough for the three men to fight together. Tess followed her men up the stairs, knowing full well that at least three or four of her people were still in the entry corridor, helping Caisy's men. This was a large reduction in strength, but it was a necessary loss. No part of the building they had been in could be left unsecured. She made it to the top of the stairs to find her men already engaged in combat. With a quick and precise thrust of her sword, Tess cut deep in the side of one of Liriss' henchmen and proceeded on without stopping. The second floor corridor was clear, but there were plenty of rooms to worry about. Tess opened the first door she came to and stepped inside. She ducked under the fist of the man who met her and quickly pulled the door shut, catching the thug in between it and the frame. As he screamed, she hit him with the flat of her blade and shoved him back in to the room. Two other men rushed at her, but only one at a time could fight successfully through the doorway. Tess met the first one with her sword as her own men rushed down the corridor behind her. She blocked the first swing of the sword with hers, then followed through and cut deep into his shoulder. "Yield!" He did. His companion also tossed his sword down, having seen what had happened to his friends. "Get out here," Tess ordered, stepping back. The three men came out into the corridor. "Face down, on the floor!" A yell made everyone look up as a half dozen men charged down the corridor, holding a bench sideways, knocking everyone over, sweeping them backwards off their feet. The bench slammed into the three men Tess challenged, then into her. She lost her sword as she slammed into the wall and the next thing she knew, she had a set of hands around her throat and a heavy body on top of hers. "You son of a bitch!" she yelled at the man and grabbing hold of his shoulders, slammed him sideways into the wall. The man's head impacted the fine grain wall with a crack. It took three full thrusts to get him to let go of her neck and by that time she was covered with his blood, dripping down on her from the injuries to his skull. Tess shoved the unconscious body off her and got up, only to see the man she wounded earlier holding her sword. "Poetic, isn't it?" he turned the blade, wet with blood. "Not for you," Tess drew her long dagger, preparing for an unbalanced fight. "Archer!" someone further down the corridor yelled and as if on cue, the brigand with her sword fell over, an arrow shaft in his back. Tess also dropped down, hoping it was only one archer and that he did not have many arrows. She could see pretty far down the corridor, but not far enough to distinguish what was going on at the other end. As she looked, she again heard a rush of running feet and rolled out of the way, towards the wall, as the men with the bench charged in the other direction. There were only four of them now and with her dagger, Tess managed to put a deep cut in the leg of the man on her side. He stumbled, ham strung, and fell forward, pulling the bench down with him. The bench end ground against the wall and the whole column of men went tumbling down. Tess quickly grabbed her sword off the floor and got up, only to have another arrow whiz by her ear. That made her back up, carefully looking down the corridor where her men were fighting in small groups. Three of the men that carried the bench got up off the floor, two of them drawing their swords and the third bent down to get his off the floor. As she prepared for fighting two men, one of them staggered forward and fell, with an arrow in his back. His companion spun around to see what was happening, giving Tess a perfect opportunity for a strike. She did not let it go to waste. Having heard someone yell "archer", Caisy rushed up the back stairs, leaving his men to secure the first floor. Two of them were wounded, one unable to continue to fight, but the battle there was almost over. On the landing, Caisy stopped just short of being hit by a sword. He was at a great disadvantage, having to fight a man towering half his height over him, but that was the luck of the draw and the disadvantage of being lower down on the stairs. Yells of combat could be heard both above and below as he blocked the vicious swings of the blade of the man on the landing. One hard blow forced Caisy to fall back three steps, but as his attacker followed him down, Caisy lunged at his feet, making the man lose his balance and tumble down over him. The way was clear and deciding to let the five guards downstairs deal with the swordsman, Caisy rushed up to the landing and up the second flight of stairs. In the growing darkness of the second floor, Caisy could see men fighting down the corridor and an archer in the foreground, letting an arrow lose from his long bow. The man was dressed in a light tunic reaching down to his knees and had no sword. "Put it down!" Caisy ordered as the archer drew another arrow, but instead of complying, the man tried to catch the arrow's notch on the string of the bow. Caisy swung his sword, not wanting to become the archer's new target, but the man was barely at the tip of the sword's reach. The weapon hit the bow, shearing through the narrowest part of the weapon and breaking the string, making the shattered bow snap out with a loud crack. The archer screamed in pain as the broken string cut through the flesh of his unprotected forearm and the bow twisted in his hand like a writhing snake. The arrow, barely caught on the torn string, jumped off the bow and stuck in the wall not far away from Caisy. Ilona made her way up the stairs on the heels of Sergeant Streed. An unconscious guard already lay at the top of the landing. The first set of doors on each side of the corridor was open. Sounds of crashing furniture could be heard from the door on the left side. "Help him," Ilona pointed Streed to the room, not sure if Garay or DaVrice was in there. As Streed disappeared in the room, Ilona made her way down the corridor to the end of the building overlooking the market place. The central room on the far wall was suspected of being Liriss' headquarters and pausing only long enough to ready her sword, Ilona burst in through the door. The first room was empty. It was richly decorated with rugs and pieces of art. On one wall stood a luxurious sofa with soft pillows scattered at its base. Across from it stood a large cabinet displaying bottles of liquor and spirits. Not wanting to waste the time exploring the room, Ilona rushed to the next door and burst through into an office with a large window showing the last of the setting sun's light over the town wall a half league away. At the desk in the center of the room sat Liriss, facing Ilona, full of surprise. It took Ilona a moment to notice the young woman who had brought her Liriss' message a few days prior, standing in the shadows at the wall to her left. "What is this?" Liriss asked, surprise evident in his voice. "It's a raid, rat." "You can't do this!" he got up, then calming himself, added, "you have to believe what I told you three days ago. I'm not responsible for Koren's death!" "What about two kidnappings?" "What kidnappings?!" "Do you know what the sad thing is?" Ilona asked. "I actually believe that for the first time in your miserable life you're telling the truth. You usually gloat over your victories, but ever since the war started, you've been running like a scared rat. You're free to go, assuming you can get out of this building. If not, that's your luck." Ilona paused, thinking about the young woman. Should she be arrested or let go? "You..." It would make more sense to let her go. That way there would be no witnesses to her releasing Liriss, to make a bargain to be set free. "You have to let her go!" Liriss hurried to say. "I'll turn myself in if I must, but you have to let her go!" "Who is she?" Ilona asked. "Please!" Ilona knew that she had little time herself. "Go, both of you, but next time you won't get off this easily!" Without waiting for Liriss to respond, Ilona rushed out of the room, knowing full well that her people would be looking for her. In the long hallway she found Garay guarding two men and a woman. "Lieutenant, are you all right?" he hurried to ask. "Fine. What's happening?" "The first floor is secured and the second is being cleaned up. Sergeant Caisy sent three men to give us a hand here." One of the doors slammed open and one of the guardsmen shoved a beat up man out. Ilona hurried to finish the sweep of the floor. Captain Adrunian Koren sat in bed in his second floor castle room, twisting his mustache, watching Kalen pace before him. The news from yesterday's raid was both good and bad. Four guards dead, a dozen wounded, three of them badly enough that they would be off duty for as long as a month, but that was nothing to compare to what had happened to Liriss' men. "The whole corridor," Kalen repeated himself. "It wasn't like this even in the invasion... Wall to wall blood. The men said that before I got there, you couldn't put a foot down without being ankle deep in blood..." "How many?" Koren asked, his voice a mere whisper. "It's hard to say. You had to see it... We took thirty-three alive, about half were whores who refused to fight. Half a dozen were barely children. "The men pretty much fought with all they had. I understand some went after our people with furniture or whatever they could lift. One man attacked Caisy swinging part of a dead body..." Koren shook his head. "How sad we've come to this..." "I'd guess there were two or three dozen dead total," Kalen went on. "We took them by complete surprise. There was no way they could mass an organized defense." "I wish I could give everyone some time off to get over this," Koren said, "but getting over our own losses will be hard enough. I can't afford to let anyone take time off now." Kalen nodded. "And Liriss?" "I'm sorry, Sir. It was my fault. We could have arrested him for trying to bribe me." "Kesrin, not Liriss," Koren reminded the Lieutenant. "He protected himself well." "Either way," Kalen answered. "I should have arrested him for what has been happening." "You told me you didn't think he was responsible," Koren said thoughtfully. "Not after his meetings with Ilona, but he's still guilty of a lot that happened before this." "But that's the..." there was a knock on the door "...thing. Come in," Koren shifted in bed. "If we could prove it without overstepping our bounds, this wouldn't be a problem." The door opened and Ilona Milnor came in. "I just feel guilty that he would charge on that horse right past me and I couldn't lift a finger. Wouldn't." Kalen glanced at Ilona. "I should've been smart enough to have a few men with horses." Ilona looked down, avoiding his eyes. "What's done is done," Koren said. "He's not our only problem. Kesrin's with him because we made a deal and one's as good as the other. Hopefully this will put them out of business for a few months at least." "Do you really believe that?" Kalen asked. "No," the Captain sighed. "If not them, someone else will come. It never stops." "Kesrin gave us a statement before we let him go at noon," Ilona injected. "What he claims happened was Ovink found out about Liriss' attempts to bribe Kalen and ordered your death, Sir. He wanted to start a war between us and Liriss and lay low until we won. Then he would set up his own shop..." "His one error was that he underestimated Kesrin," Koren said, "but that's the way things go in a nest of wasps. I don't suppose it will take Liriss and Kesrin too long to rebuild." "Especially considering the number of men that escaped," Ilona added. "Tess said they were jumping out of windows, afraid they'd get killed whether they surrendered or not." "They'll need time to get over the scare," Koren said confidently, "and to lick their wounds. And we need time to take care of ours. But we'll be ready next time and you'll have horses, right Kalen?" Lieutenant Kalen Darklen smiled. "Yes, Sir, I will." "Well, then," Koren turned to Ilona. "What did you come here for?" "To ask you how you were and if you needed anything." "I feel like a tired old bull that needs to get back on his feet!" Koren's voice boomed. "Keep that guard house in shape! I'll be coming home soon." "And Tara, Sir?" "Better than I understand she was. I saw her this morning. She's been through quite a scare." "If you don't mind, Sir, I'll ask her to stay with me until Elizabeth lets you go." "That will be fine, Lieutenant. And thank you." "My pleasure, Sir. One more thing..?" "What is it?" "About replacements for Lieutenants Shevlin and Azin. I was wondering if I could give you a recommendation." Ilona glanced cautiously at Kalen as she said that and he nodded his approval. "Who did you have in mind?" the Captain asked. "Sergeant Caisy. He did a fine job handling the extra shift over the last month. And Tess, if Azin decides to stay with the Duke. If anyone, it was she who made last night a success." "Tess? The Lederian? She studied with Lord Morion, didn't she?" "Yes, Sir. The whole town knows that by now." "Get me their service records and we'll take a look," Koren agreed. "I best go, Sir," Kalen said. "My shift starts soon." "Go, nothing. You need to see Elizabeth," Koren ordered. "Don't think I've forgotten. Have Tess do your job today. We'll see how she does." "Yes, Sir," Kalen sighed. "And you make sure he gets there," Koren told Ilona. "Dismissed." "You let him escape, didn't you?" Kalen asked Ilona once they left the Captain's room. "You mean Liriss?" she asked. "Yes, Liriss." "Yes. Are you angry?" Kalen put his arm around Ilona. "No. I don't think he was guilty either, but he still needs to be punished for his past." "We'll get him," Ilona said confidently. "We will," Kalen agreed. "You know that woman I told you about, the one who delivered the message to me in the guard house?" "Uh-huh." "I saw her again in Liriss' office when I let him go," Ilona said. "While I contemplated whether or not to let her go, he offered himself for her!" "Liriss?" Kalen asked in disbelief. "Liriss." "I wonder who she is..." "So do I," Ilona said. "You didn't see her in the market square, did you? She wore a light colored skirt and a green tunic." "I may have...I wasn't really watching for unarmed women at the time." Ilona sighed. "I hope we find out some day. It struck me that she was very important to him." They soon reached the physician's quarters and Kalen hesitantly knocked on the door. "Don't look so intense," Ilona mocked him. "It won't hurt a bit." The market square was once again busy, oblivious to the raid that took place there the night before. Shoppers rushed about from booth to booth, haggling for the best deals. Shop keepers waved their arms and yelled, expressing the quality of the products and the unbeatable price they had to offer. "And you can let this lay around for months," the merchant explained to Dyann as he paid out the money. "It will be good at least through Deber." "I'm not buying it to let it lie around," the mage said. "When I buy food, it's to eat it." "After you buy it, do with it what you will," the merchant snapped and turned to the next customer, no longer having to worry about making the sale. The mage sighed and walked across the crowded street to Corambis' booth where Madam Labin was still telling him how appreciative she was of his services. "And thank you again, Sage," she said yet again. Dyann heard that exact phrase before he left to buy the pickled sweet meats he was not supposed to eat. "My pleasure," Cormabis answered with what appeared to be an exasperated smile and a forced pleasant voice. "And don't forget that I need to see you again in a few days. No later than the end of the month, so you be sure to have your assistant stop by my house and remind me." "Of course, Madam," Corambis' smile did not fade as he spoke. "Well, actually you'd better have her drop by tomorrow," the woman went on. "My maid made this wonderful new cake that I'd like you to see. It tastes just heavenly, but it's..." she looked around "...a Beinison recipe and I'm just not sure if that's good or bad." She crossed herself. "I'm sorry Cephas. So you must tell me before I try it again, with the war on and everything." "I'll have Thuna stop by tomorrow," Corambis promised. "Thank you again, Sage," Madam Labin repeated. "I'm always glad to help out," he released a deep breath. "And I also want you do a reading for my sister. She will be going to Asbridge early next month and you must help her plan for the weather. I hear the rains are due to be stronger this year than last and I want her to be ready. She just doesn't believe me when I tell her!" "Of course. Just have her stop by and I'll be more than happy to help." "That's just so kind of you," Madam Labin went on. "You know, I was told that..." "Excuse me," Dyann rushed up to them. "We need to talk. Would you please excuse us, Madam?" "Well, if you need..." Madam Labin began, but Dyann had already pulled Corambis aside. "Well, how rude!" she exclaimed. "I'll kill that woman," Corambis confined in his friend. "I swear, she'll not last long if she continues to visit me." Dyann laughed. "That's why I don't sell my advice." "Did you hear about the raid?" Corambis asked. "Every word of it, from Jerid. Just look at that empty building now. I hope they tear it down!" Corambis looked north to the old three story structure. "If they don't, we can. Get Sweeny and Arbogast and some others..." "We're all in our sixties," Dyann reminded Corambis. "Well, yes, but..." "I wanted to talk to you about Adrunian Koren," Dyann said. "Yes," Corambis' eyes lit up. "I told you that casting didn't lie!" "Which still leaves us with a problem," Dyann pointed out. "If the casting was right, what's going to happen to Lord Dargon?" Corambis scratched his head. "I wish I knew what that damn casting meant..." ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1 Beginnings by Michelle Brothers and Max Khaytsus (b.c.k.a. ) Mertz, 1015 Pristine sails rose stark and white against the sullen sky, flapping slightly in a salt encrusted breeze. Dull sunlight raised bright patches on the ship's worn wooden railing. Nicks and cuts caused by sword strokes and grappling hooks caught and pooled shadows like the blood that had so recently washed the vessel's deck. Tarilane sat on a barrel filled with fresh water and sadly noted the still present marks of war; a pale stain on the deck that salt water could not scour away, carefully mended rents in the otherwise perfect sails, and the swords that the sailors still wore. She touched the hilt of her own blade reflectively. The war was over, but the peace was tenuous at best. Shakin had not been directly involved in the Beinison/Baranurian conflict. Located to the southeast of Beinison, the huge country had simply never felt the need to conquer the intervening territories to gain control of the independent state. That Shakin also produced the best alchemists and physicians on the continent and could deny their services to anyone, made the decision to let them alone easier. Leaving them autonomous was easier than being denied medical aid sometime in the uncertain future. The Shakinian crown, held jointly by the Royal Consorts, having no interest in land acquisition, had remained neutral, as they had throughout the war torn centuries. This was not to say that they did not take part in the latest squabble between the two powers. Healers and alchemists were in high demand by both sides, and since past attempts to limit enemy access to Shakinian healing resulted in the complete withdrawal of all support, both sides were allowed to bargain for these services. If it had no other exportable resources, Shakin's highly skilled physicians and herb mixers more than made up for the lack. The country itself had remained physically apart from the war, being on the wrong side of Beinison to experience the devastation directly, until their neighbor, Kimerron, a tribal country Beinison did not consider worth their time to subdue, decided that it needed more land. Thinking their large neighbor was busy with other games, Kimerron attacked from behind, making deep incursions into Beinosian territory. After recovering from the shock of the unexpected bite, the tip of one of Beinison's many fingered army crushed the raiders. Tarilane had spent most of her life in Sahni, Shakin's capitol, learning the alchemist's trade. The skirmish right on her country's border provided her with plenty of opportunities to practice her lessons--both healing and sword. Because her master, Derimiahn, was one of the most skilled alchemists of his time, he was in great demand by the crown to assist the physicians in easing the pain of the refugees and in providing components to the royal mages. He was a gentle man, who refused to use even one of the many titles the Consorts had conferred upon him during his life, but at the command of his royal cousins, travelled to the front to represent them with his art. Tarilane, his second eldest apprentice, had the honor of accompanying him, while the eldest apprentice attended the shop and the youngsters. Together, master and student labored beside healers, trying to save the lives and limbs of the young victims and beside the mages to provide ingredients to fuel protective spells. Tarilane learned more in the months spent building potions for the healers and mages than she ever could have during the normal course of her studies. They had returned to Sahni a bare two weeks ago and five days after the homecoming, Tarilane found herself on her way to the nearest port, Derimiahn's last words echoing emptily in her ears. "You have learned all that I can teach you, Tari. I release you from the rest of your apprenticeship before you watch the walls of this shop grow too small around your spirit." He placed a hand on her head in almost fatherly benediction. "Know that you have pleased me and show great promise. You will do well." And he left her. Tarilane found herself standing alone in her cramped cubicle, watching the dividing curtain-wall rippling in her master's wake. She did not follow; could not have thought of anything to do or say if she had. She took her leave of the other apprentices at the night meal, which Derimiahn was conspicuously absent from, and spent hours talking with Shauvandier, the senior apprentice, plotting a destination. The youngesters helped out by packing her few belongings while Tarilane and Shaw pored over a worn map. The single, barely full bag waited by the front door with the tiny, hastily gathered pile of parting-gifts--Sonshallan, the next oldest apprentice gave her his first blown potion bottle, a lopsided affair that would barely stand upright. Castellei, next in line, gave her a writing pen, with soft apologies that he could not afford ink or a case yet, and Shaem, the youngest, gave her her favorite string of blue beads. Later she would find the green scarf Shaw had stashed in his herb storage chest for the last few months in the top of her pack; his final gift to her. Much later, after the children were tucked away in bed, Tarilane shared a glass of mead with Shauvandier before the dying fire. "Is there anything else you need?" he asked softly, watching the firelight play across Tarilane's features, catching in her pale brown hair. "Courage," she quipped back with a faint smile that faded immediately. "Seriously, Shaw, it's like leaving home for the first time. Except this _is_ the first time. I don't remember living any place but here. I'm really scared." "You'll do fine, little sister." Shauvandier pulled her into a gentle embrace. "Master's right to send you off...I've watched you prowl the house and watch the road like you wonder what's at the end. You'll do fine. You're good, practical, everything that it takes. Don't worry so much. And don't forget to keep a sense of humor," he added, taking her by the shoulders and shaking her a little. "You get too serious sometimes." Tarilane chuckled softly, unable to deny the accusation. She could be very intense when working, to the exclusion of the gentler emotions. "You always know the right things to say, Shaw. You're like the brother I never had." They sat in companionable silence after that, until Shauvandier shooed Tarilane off to bed. As she drifted into sleep, Tarilane remembered their ill-fated attempt to deepen their friendship into something more personal. They had just gotten themselves comfortable on the bed when Derimiahn pulled the dividing curtain aside. He said nothing for what seemed like the longest time, then pulled it shut again. They had parted as soon as his footsteps disappeared down the stairs, the ardor of the moment chilled. After that, they never felt quite right about the quick kisses and stolen caresses, even though the Master never said a word about the incident. The decision to keep the relationship platonic was made not long after, and neither one could say they regretted the decision. Tarilane recalled all of this with a faint flush, and chided herself for getting lost in memories. The present was what she had to worry about now, not the elusive past. Salt breeze cooled the burning in her cheeks, catching the scarf that had been Shauvandier's final gift to her and causing it to dance. The loneliness she had been able to hold at bay during the journey to the coast rolled over her with the slap of the water against the hull. "Lady?" The sea roughened voice shattered her mood like waves breaking on rocks. Tarilane was glad for the interruption; she had had enough of remembering. She slipped off the keg and turned to face the First Mate, noting the cutlass belted to his side. Pirates and warships still roamed the sea, not realizing that the war was over. Or perhaps not caring. "Yes? What did the captain say about the job?" "Cap'n says, if'n y' kin cook, y' kin have passin'," the Mate said. "With th' clear understand'n that y' pull y'r own weight. We won' coddle y'. This ain't no easy job. Fact `tis, we lost our last cook t' pirates." He folded his arms, waiting for her to politely decline. He either did not see or did not believe the sword attached to her waist. Tarilane laughed. "Sir, I spent six months near to the war border and I don't wear this--" she patted the hilt of the broad sword "--because it's pretty. Sometimes it was the only thing that stood between my Master and those who would have stolen what we would have given freely. I'll be fine. And I'm a darned good cook." "Hope so, f'r y'r sake," said the Mate doubtfully. "'Cause we'll put y' over th' side if'n y' can't cook. I'll show y' where y'r t' sleep." Tarilane grinned and followed him towards the galley. * * * * * Sy 5, 1015 "I really hate this," muttered Darion, just loud enough to be heard by the youth he rode beside. The clop of the horses hooves on the cobblestones effectively prevented the whisper from traveling much farther. He hunched a little in his dark tunic and studied the houses and businesses. "What?" replied his companion with a mocking grin. "Coming out in daylight or riding?" "Bodyguarding," Darion snapped, careful that his voice did not carry over the steady beat of the horse's hooves. "I don't like doing this. You do. I'm not a fighter." Ranth chucked, remembering their last bar fight, a few nights ago. They had gotten into a brawl with a pair of burly sailors out of Lediria over a dice game and Darion had taken quite a beating, serving more as a distraction than an actual participant. "Gotta step out of the shadows sometime, my friend," Ranth advised. "You can't spend the rest of your life creeping down alleys. Come to mention, you have been doing a lot of midnight prowling lately. What's been up?" Darion opened his mouth to respond, but the man they were following interrupted harshly. "Pipe down, you two," he ordered, without looking back. "Yes, my lord," Darion and Ranth said in chorus. The man did glance back at this, and glared, one hand on the heavy, peace-bound dagger at his hip. He hated when his proteges did this, and they knew it. The knife promised what would happen to them if they did it again. Darion and Ranth traded glances as he turned back to study the heavily trafficed avenue. Lord Silvas was in a poor mood today, and they did not know what had caused it. Deciding that being silent on the matter would greatly increase their life span, they made no further comments. Lord Silvas was not a man to be trifled with. A high ranking member of Comarr's booming Thieves Guild, he had taken the pair in when they were just runny nosed urchins on the streets. To Ranth, the larger of the two boys, he gave an education in combat and arms. For someone of his age, just over eighteen years, he was quite handy with any weapon that came into reach. He would make a fine guard or mercenary in the not so distant future. Darion was taught the art of spying. Tall, slender and agile he could sneak into and out of places with ease, and, unlike his partner, Darion was literate, so that he would know exactly what parchments to acquire on his regular trips into Ciara's merchant quarter. Since the day Silvas picked them up, Ranth and Darion were a team. They did everything together, from their first drink, to their first theft. Though not exactly a kind master, Silvas did teach them the necessary skills to survive on Comarr's seedier side, as well as other cities. Buildings grew up around the little group as they rode deeper into the Ciara's business district. The air filled with the sounds of hurrying people and street haukers; mingled scents of new bread and garbage drifted out from taverns and inns. Above it all, a faded blue sky reflected the smoke from the many chimnies, confusing the true white clouds. Lord Silvas pulled to a halt before a dry-goods shop and dismounted. His bodyguards followed suit. Darion's gaze scuttled restlessly along the avenue, marking the people who passed, the dusty goods in the store's display window, an odd mark burnt into the shop's door jamb, and the bar across the street. He nudged Ranth, who was keeping an eye out for obvious threats, and motioned quickly at the building across the street. Ranth wiped his answering smile off his face as Lord Silvas turned to them. "Keep an eye on the horses," he ordered. "I have some business to attend to. I will return shortly." "Yes, my lord," Ranth and Darion acknowledged, careful to not do it in chorus this time. Silvas disappeared into the shop in a swirl of cloak. "Hot out, isn't it," Ranth said, after a pause, eyeing the bar. When Silvas said `shortly' that usually meant long enough for a drink. "Sure is," agreed Darion, as he watched a gaily painted carriage rumble past. "Could stand for a drink to cut the dust." "Same here. So long as you're buying. It's your turn." "Since when?" Ranth glared at his friend. "I bought the rounds last night!" "Yeah, you did," confirmed Darion. "But I paid Olivia for you last night, because you'd drunk all your silver. You owe me at least a drink for that, if not more." "You did?" Ranth looked confused. "Sure did." "Did I have a good time?" "I assume so. I had to carry you home." "Oh." Ranth studied the stitching on his horse's tack. "In that case, I'll buy you a drink." "Or three," laughed Darion. "Let's go." Leaving the horses tethered in front of the shop, the pair trotted across the cobbled street and into the Silver Platter. The interior was well lit for a tavern, and much cleaner than the ones Darion and Ranth were used to frequentinging. The smell of alcohol was strong in the air, but the floor and tables were clean and the patrons fairly well dressed. Ranth looked a little out of place in his battered corslet, but, as usual, that did not bother him in the least. They walked up to the bar, noting that the place was doing steady business despite the earliness of the hour. Finding a space was easily done; Ranth squeezed his bulk between a half drunk merchant and a tipsy youth. He pounded his palm on the counter a little. "Two glasses of ale," he called over the high pitched babble of the common room when the woman behind the bar turned in his general direction. Two battered mugs appeared a second later and passed into Ranth's possessions after an exchange of coin. "You know," commented Darion as they sipped at the frothy glasses in a corner. "I'm broke. I spent my last copper on that spice cake this morning." "Then I guess it's time to earn another stipend," said Ranth, swallowing a great mouthful of ale. "Picked out a bird yet?" "The scarlet jay you stood next to at the bar," Darion replied, nodding in that direction. "He's paid in silver twice and doesn't show any sign of leaving." "All right. I'll distract him, you pluck him." Darion disappeared into the crowd, while Ranth shouldered his way through the bodies to the bar. In the process he tipped the remainder of his drink all over the front of the red clad man's fancy tunic. "`Ey! Wash it, y' clunsy oav!" The man rounded on his attacker, slopping rich purple wine out of his glass as he turned. "So sorry, my lord!" apologized Ranth, brushing futilely at the spreading brown stain, causing more wine to spill. He glanced quickly down and saw that the purse was gone and Darion was no where in sight. Ranth set out to extricate himself from the situation. "Terribly sorry. Let me buy you a drink to make up for the trouble." "I don' wan' a drinth," slurred the merchant, weaving around, trying to orient himself on the youth. "`Y damned bashterd!" And he cut loose with a wide roundhouse swing that missed Ranth entirely, but ploughed satisfyingly into the next nearest person. Ranth ducked away into the crowd as the merchant swung again and the cry of `fight' rocked the rafters. Darion sauntered back across the street, casually tucking the stitched leather pouch into his pocket. He leaned against the flank of his horse and watched the entry to the Silver Platter. The sound of a soft crash drifted across the bustling street and he winced a little. A soft rustle behind him caused him to turn quickly. "Ready to go, my lord?" he asked, seeing Silvas stepping out of the shop. Darion's sharp eyes noted the dagger at his side was no longer peace bound and he filed the scrap of information away to contemplate later. "Where's Ranth?" Silvas asked sharply, straightening the sleeves of his dark tunic, baleful gaze pinned on Darion. "He--had to go to the alley," lied Darion quickly. Not original, but better than telling the lord that they had left his horse unattended so they could both get drinks. A loud crash sounded from across the street and the youth forced himself not to turn to look. The stool flew out the splintered shutters of the Silver Platter and skidded to a halt in the middle of the street, nearly tripping a horse. "Then he can catch up," Silvas decided, mounting. "Let's go." Darion did look back to the bar at that statement and Silvas turned his glare onto him. "Are you worried that Ranth can't handle his business on his own?" he asked bitingly. "Or did he go somewhere else." "Uh, no, my lord." Darion mounted quickly and fell into position behind his master without another backwards glance. Ranth was perfectly able to take care of himself, Darion reminded himself. He was a natural with most weapons and could hold his own in either a formal fight or a brawl. Better than Darion could, in fact. Hard on the heels of this thought came the clatter of hooves and Ranth pounded up to his place beside his partner. "Have fun?" asked Darion in undertone. "Yeah. Took a right cross for you." "Everything come out all right?" asked Silvas caustically, without looking back at the pair. "Yes, my lord!" Ranth responded quickly. "What did you tell him?" he demanded quietly of his friend. "Nothing terrible," grinned Darion. "Stick close, though. He's in a mood again." "Figures." "I'll give you your cut when we get back," Darion added after a second. "Good." "Any other stops, my lord?" asked Darion when his master turned to glare at the pair of them. The innocent look on his face fooled no one. "No. Now shut up." * * * * * Tarilane clutched the straps of her bag and surveyed the streets and buildings past the bustling pier. Like the port city Karine of Shakin, Ciara was busy, filled with people ignoring one another, hurrying about their business. Salt air mingled with the smell of tar and fish, smell she had gotten used to during her time aboard ship. Dappled afternoon sunlight speckled the sky and a stiff breeze caused her cloak to flap sharply. Reflexively her fingers reached up to make sure the dark green scarf around her neck had not blown away. The scents from Shauvandier's herb chest still clung to the silky fabric and Tarilane felt the now familiar tug of loneliness and homesickness. She sighed and made her way off the pier. Letting herself sink into depression was hardly the way to achieve anything constructive. She set her mind to working out her upcoming problems. She needed to find a place to stay first, so that she could start to make serious plans. Tarilane wanted to open a shop of her own--an apothecary. She had grown up in Master Derimiahn's shop--could not remember living any place else, in fact. He claimed that he found her sitting on his doorstep one day, a precocious two year old, with no way of telling where she had come from. He had kept her because it was more trouble to try and take her into town, than to simply raise her. At least, so he said. Tarilane always suspected there was more to it than that, but had never been able to find anything else out, and eventually, it did not much matter any more. After sixteen years surrounded by the work, she realized that she did not want to live or labor anywhere else. Watching Derimiahn mix potions was one of the earliest childhood memories she had. As she grew older, Tarilane was allowed to join the Master and his apprentices, never less than five, usually seven or eight in all, on their forays to gather wood and herbs. At the age of nine, she was officially apprenticed and started learning to identify plants in all seasons, learned how to blow the little glass bottles that would eventually contain the concoctions they made; learned to prepare the condiments that mages would eventually use to produce miracles--the liquid and powder magic that was the trademark of the alchemist, that mages could not work wonders without. She spent tedious hours learning to read, write, and figure, keeping the shop's tally-books current and accurate. Long hours spent learning, before she was ever allowed to create anything. Since the day she had made her first simple potion, Tarilane realized that she wanted nothing more than to have an apothecary of her own, and her Master, seeing the drive and the talent, taught her everything he could. Now, freed from the onerous duties of an apprentice and ready to pass through journeyman to master, she did not know how to proceed. `Inheriting a shop would have been easier,' Tarilane sighed to herself. `But no use in wishing for what I haven't got, so I'd better make the best of what I have. Enough silver and coppers to put a roof over my head for a few days, at least, and the food the Captain gave to me should last about as long.' One clean set of clothes, the heavy cloak around her shoulders, the pack, and her parting gifts were the sum total of her possessions. Hardly enough to open a shop with, not that she would even consider selling them. `I'll start looking for a job tomorrow...' The scuffle of Tarilane's salt encrusted boots was lost in the general bustle of the street traffic. * * * * * Lord Silvas' residence was well suited to his high rank in the underground and to his front as a wealthy merchant. A six foot stone wall surrounded the house and the small, tree filled garden secluded him from the outside world. Traps were hidden in the green expanses, just in case a guild member got greedy. The house itself was only two stories tall and constructed of grey stones a little darker than the wall. Gates kept out any curious passers-by. Inside, the house was subdued rather than ostentatious. Nothing spoke of overt wealth, but everything had the stamp of quality. There were a few extravagances. Glass window panes replaced dull common shutters and heavy velvet drapes concealed the interior from all outside viewers. Rugs, in the few places Silvas was willing to have them, were plush and colorful. Ranth and Darion sat in the fanciest room in the house, the front room, usually used for receiving guests. Pictures and tapestries covered the walls and the furniture was deep and comfortable. Sprawled in velvet covered chairs they played cards with their latest pickings as stakes. Ranth flipped a well worn card at his partner and waited. Darion studied it, then compared it to the others in his hand. "Well?" Ranth said impatiently. "Well what?" "What's your bet?" "I'm thinking about it." Ranth waited, tapping his toes against the heavy rugs on the floor. "Young masters." The quiet voice caused both youths to jump. "Lord Silvas requests your presence in his study immediately." A slender woman stood in the doorway, in the black gown Silvas had all his house staff wear. Ranth and Darion were positive the woman worked for the Guild, but so far had not been able to prove it. Her manner was ever that of a well trained servant, and they always seemed to be too busy to follow her when she had her day off. She waited patiently by the door while the pair redivided the pot and made a show of reshuffling their hands back into the deck. Ranth pocketed the deck as they followed her into the hall. Lord Silvas was seated in a comfortable chair, taking advantage of the late afternoon sunlight to read a letter that had arrived while he was out. He looked up as Ranth and Darion entered the room and arranged themselves before him. "You've learned quite a bit in the last few years," he said, closing the letter with a low rustle. He studied the pair for a minute before continuing. "Now it is time for you to practice what you've learned on your own. I want both of you out of the house by sunset tonight." Darion and Ranth stared at him in shocked silence. "You're kicking us out?" asked Ranth. "Isn't this a little sudden?" said Darion at the same instant. Silvas looked amused, the faint smile smoothing the worry lines around his eyes for just an instant. "Yes, I'm kicking you out." He directed his first comment to Ranth. "And no, it isn't sudden. You're both capable of taking care of yourselves and I don't want to deal with you any more." "We'll do fine," said Ranth confidently. "I don't doubt it. And I'll be checking to make sure that you only take what's yours, so..." Silvas let the sentence trail off threatingly, dark eyes piercing the two youths. After a moment he found his place in his letter again and started reading. Ranth and Darion recognized a dismissal when they saw one and headed for the door, trading uneasy glances. "Don't forget to watch your backs out there." Lord Silvas' voice followed them out into the hallway. "The Guild will contact you when you have proven yourselves." When Darion glanced back, the man was still busy with his letter. The pair climbed the stairs to their room in silence, with the black clad servant trailing after them. Packing was a five minute affair; Lord Silvas had not encouraged having many possessions. Darion had leather armor that he had purchased just a month ago, a short sword, and some daggers, plus an extra set of clothing and his lockpicks. Ranth carried a full broad sword and a battered metal corslet that provided better than adequate protection. Both weapon and mail were highly polished, for if Ranth had any loves, it was that of weapons and combat. He too had a spare set of clothes, and each carried a pack, where they were able to stash several days worth of food when they thought the servant was not looking. They found themselves staring at each other as the front gate was shut firmly behind them. "We never did find out if she works for the Guild," commented Darion irrelevantly, watching the woman make her way back inside. He turned back to his partner. "So what do we do now? I feel like I've just been stabbed in the back." "We always knew this would happen," countered Ranth. "Just not this soon..." He sounded less confident than he looked. "Why did he say `The Guild will contact you when you've proven yourselves'?" Darion wondered aloud. "The Guild's always eager to make up the money they spent on training people as soon as possible." "He probably just forgot," Ranth said, looking up and down the street. Darion turned to look back at the house through the heavy gates. "He didn't forget. He _doesn't_ forget. You know that." "Ah, forget it," Ranth pulled his friend away from the gate. "We've got things to do. Tomorrow's the first day of the rest of our lives." "So what do we do today?" asked Darion. "We go get drunk. Then we find a place to stay." "Sounds good to me." * * * * * The Sailor's Rest Inn was not exactly on the wharf. It was well over five blocks away from the port, in fact, the scent of the sea and fish barely tainting the air. The worn sign had a sailor in classic pirate costume laying in a hammock painted on it and was nailed just above the front door. Inside, the common room was large, lit by ship's lanterns giving the place a ship-like atmosphere. Tarilane found the place after wandering around the city streets for several hours. It was the cleanest places she had run across all day, and with night falling, the young woman decided that it would do for the night. Bargaining with the innkeeper brought the price down to something reasonable and Tarilane had gotten dinner in the bargain. She sat beside one of the greasy windows overlooking the street, picking at the fish stew she had been served. At least the bread was almost fresh and the ale was not bad, and was cheaper than the mead she wanted to buy. Tarilane watched the people coming and going from the inn as she slowly finished her meal. Lower ranking ship's officers, rather than rough sailors made up a good part of the crowd, along with lesser merchants and people who could not afford a better place, but would not go to a cheaper one. People like herself. Ordinarily she had no interest in watching people, but in a strange city keeping track of the patrons gave her an odd sense of security. And it beat thinking about what she was going to do tomorrow. As she watched, an armed man entered the inn, followed by a heavily painted woman, and a second later by two youths about Tarilane's own age. All four stopped briefly at the bar to get drinks, then the woman wandered off into the crowd. The man stayed at the bar and the youths commandeered a table as close to a corner as they could get. Tarilane's attention wandered to the next arriving people and to the last few bites of fish stew still left in her bowl. Out of the corner of his eye Darion kept a close watch on the shifting humanity that surged past the edge of their table. The location was not far enough out of the press of bodies as he would have liked, but it afforded a reasonable view of the room, and Ranth could always watch his back. His eyes skipped over the people, and settled on a young woman seated near the front window of the inn. She was reasonably good looking, so when she stood and made her way past the table, he smiled up at her, hoping to gain company for the night. She did not seem to notice. Ranth laughed at him when he swore. "That's twice," he grinned, taking a large swallow of beer. "You're going to bed lonely tonight." "Not a chance," retorted Darion. He took a long pull from his mug and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. This was the pairs second tavern for the evening, and both were more than a little tipsy. Darion poured himself another mugful of beer and set the jug down in the middle of the table. "Hey, leave me some!" Ranth snatched the pitcher back. He refilled his own mug, managing not to spill to much of the dark brown liquid. "We'll need to get a job tomorrow," Darion advised as they slowly went about emptying their glasses again. "Want to check with the Guild?" "Nah. Let's try something different for a change," said Ranth. "Like what?" "Caravan guarding?" "You trying to get me killed?" Ranth chuckled, then hiccuped. "Let's talk about it in the morning, when you're sober enough to listen to reason. We should find a place to stay for the night. And before you ask, no, we can't afford to stay here." "Think one of your so called friends'll put us up for the night?" Darion's eyes gleamed in the flickering lantern light and his red cheeks took on a burnished orange glow. "We can always ask. Let's go." Ranth lumbered to his feet, followed by Darion. While not quite drunk, both were sufficiently inebriated that they did not walk quite straight. As they passed one of the barmaids, Darion tripped over a crack in the floor boards and stumbled into her. "Hey, beautiful," Darion smiled at her, helping her to steady herself. "Want to get off your feet for an hour or two?" Ranth had to help Darion steady himself after the maid's slap knocked him sideways. "What'd I say?" "I'd say you're going home lonely," snickered Ranth. "Thanks a lot," muttered Darion. "I don't feel so bad though. You don't have anyone either." "I've got you and I haven't even been trying." They stepped out into the warm summer night. The air was still and almost as hot as the interior of the inn itself. The street was quiet and empty, with street lanterns shedding pale light over the cobblestones. Out of habit each checked a direction for potentially dangerous oncoming traffic. "Let's stop at the alley," said Darion abruptly. "You should have gone before we left." Ranth veered to the left and into the dark alley-way. "Bet I can hit higher on the wall than you can." "No way!" retorted Darion, following him in. "Not a chance. And no hands this time," he added, unfastening his breeches. "You've got to be joking!" "Don't think you can do it? Silver says you can't. There. Just try and beat that!" "No problem. Hah! You owe me a silver." "No way! That is not--" Darion cut himself off abruptly and held up a hand so that Ranth would not jump in. "What?" hissed his friend. "Listen!" "To what?" "Shhh!" Darion cocked a hand to his ear, exaggerating the order for his friend to keep his ears open. Ranth cocked his head to one side and concentrated. He heard the soft chatter of children's voices just seconds before the pack burst out of the shadows to mob them. Shouts bounced off the walls as the group divided and attacked each of the young men with sticks, rocks, daggers, and their little bare hands. Surrounded on all sides by raggedly dressed urchins, neither was able to get an arm free enough to successfully defend himself. Someone yelled in triumph as Darion stumbled. Tarilane opened her eyes to the dark beamed ceiling, the voices from her uneasy dreams solidifying into reality and drifting through her window. Annoyed, she pulled open the shutters to give the little brats a piece of her mind, just in time to see one of the youths from the tavern bowled over by a pile of children. ------------------------------------------------------------------------ 1 ** ****** **** ** ** ** **** ** ** ** **** **** ** ** ** ***** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ***** ** ** *** **** ** Quanta is the electronically distributed journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy. As such, each issue contains fiction by amateur authors as well as articles, reviews etc... Quanta is published in two formats, Ascii and PostScript* (for PostScript compatible laser-printers). Submissions should be sent to quanta@andrew.cmu.edu. Requests to be added to the distribution list should be sent to one of the following depending on which version of the magazine you'd like to receive. quanta+requests-postscript@andrew.cmu.edu quanta+requests-ascii@andrew.cmu.edu or quanta+requests-postscript@andrew.BITNET quanta+requests-ascii@andrew.BITNET Send mail only- no interactive messages or files please. Note that if you subscribe with a letter sent over BITNET, you will have the magazine sent to you as a file over BITNET, whereas if you subscribe with a letter sent over the Internet, the magazine will be sent to you by mail. Note that all issues are available from the anonymous FTP server fed.expres.cs.cmu.edu ( If you can access this server and would therefore only want to be notified when a new issues has been released, please specify this in your request. Quanta now reaches an international audience of over 1000 subscribers. It is produced bi-monthly by Daniel Appelquist (da1n+@andrew.cmu.edu). * PostScript is a registered trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated. ------------------------------------------------------------------------ (C) Copyright October, 1992, DargonZine, Editor Dafydd . All rights revert to the authors. These stories may not be reproduced or redistributed (save in the case of reproducing the whole 'zine for further distribution) without the express permission of the author involved.


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