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Skeptic Tank!

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 7 -=========================================================+|) D D AAAA RRR G GG O O N N N Z I N N N E || Number 6 DDDDD A A R R GGGG OOOO N NN ZZZZZZ I N NN EEEE || \\ \ ======================================================================== DargonZine Distributed: 12/14/1994 Volume 7, Number 6 Circulation: 634 ======================================================================== Contents Editorial Ornoth D.A. Liscomb Rifts Max Khaytsus Seber 1-10, 1014 Endgame Rogers Cadenhead Seber 10, 1014 ======================================================================== DargonZine is the publication vehicle of the Dargon Project, a collaborative group of aspiring fantasy writers on the Internet. We welcome new readers and writers interested in joining the project. Please address all correspondance to . Back issues are available from ftp.etext.org in pub/Zines/DargonZine. Issues and public discussion are posted to newsgroup rec.mag.dargon. DargonZine 7-6, (C) Copyright December, 1994, the Dargon Project. Editor Ornoth D.A. Liscomb . All rights reserved. All rights are reassigned to the individual contributors. Stories may not be reproduced or redistributed without the explicit permission of the author(s) involved, except in the case of freely reproducing entire issues for further distribution. Reproduction for profit is forbidden. ======================================================================== Editorial by Ornoth D.A. Liscomb Perhaps at some point I will be able to use this space for witty personal observations or pointed editorial opinions on topics ranging from the Information Superhypeway to Order Rodentia. Unfortunately, there have been so many changes to announce that I've had neither time nor space to indulge my expository inclinations. And this issue is no exception, for this editorial is dedicated (primarily) to the announcement that DargonZine now supports "notification subscriptions". Users who select this subscription option will not receive complete issues by mail, but only a notice that the issue has been distributed. This is designed for those users who would rather fetch their issues from rec.mag.dargon or our FTP site rather than wake up to find a 100K mail file in their incoming mail queue. This is useful to us, as well, because it allows us to keep a more accurate count of readers who obtain their issues through secondary channels in preference to direct subscriptions. If you regularly read DargonZine via rec.mag.dargon or the FTP site, we'd like to add you to this "notify list", so that we have a better idea of how many people read DargonZine on a regular basis. If you are interested in changing your subscription to a "notification subscription", please drop mail so stating to , and you'll be switched over. In other news, we're in the process of infiltrating the Delphi online service. In the near future (it's still under construction!), Delphi users will be able to find the FAQ and recent issues in the Fanzines database of the Science Fiction & Fantasy SIG. The Internet archive site for DargonZine is available on the Internet Gopher menu in the SF&F SIG. Look under the Fantasy Sites, Newsgroups and Homepages selection. The Dargon Project newsgroup is also on the Usenet Reader menu in the SF&F SIG. Thanks to Gordie Meyer for helping us get set up over there. The final bit of news is that during the month of January, we'll be celebrating the 10th anniversary of the founding of FSFnet, DargonZine's predecessor. We'll be distributing a huge two-issue compilation of the Best of the Dargon Project, reprinting some of the stories that we are most proud to have brought you during the past decade. Special hardcopy versions are also being planned. They will contain artwork and other material not available in the electronic versions. Information on availability will be forthcoming. This issue features two stories that depict some of Dargon's less savory characters. Max is back with "Rifts", which continues his exploration of Dargon's underworld and the city guards who combat it. And we have "Endgame", which marks the first story by Rogers Cadenhead. Actually, Rogers first joined the project back in 1987! He fled after a short stint, but has (against his better wisdom, perhaps) returned. And now he's finally breaking into the pages of DargonZine. Let's hope that it won't take another eight years for him to print his next story (which should be a beaut', judging by the synopsis we've seen). Onward! ======================================================================== Rifts by Max Khaytsus Seber 1-10, 1014 "I'm afraid we're not the same Dargon we used to be." -- Kalen Darklen A large wagon pulled by an overworked horse rumbled down the street, a misaligned wheel rattling unevenly against the rough cobblestones. The driver's whip snapped in the dark, causing the horse to speed up, the clicking of the bad wheel developing a more even rhythm as the wagon rushed off into the distance. Quiet once again settled in the deserted street and a dirty-orange tabby braved the darkness, rapidly crossing the street before some other contraption decided to cut across his path. A crashing noise sounded behind him and he froze in mid-trot, looking up and down the street. It was dark and quiet. The tabby glanced back to the alley in which he had settled down to rest in a warm pile of debris, where two noisy men had disturbed his peace, causing him to flee. He paused, deciding if he should run further or wait them out. The sound of footsteps up the street made his decision for him and in a streak of orange he disappeared under the steps of the building on the far side of the street. "You hear that, Kiney?" a whisper sounded in the alley. "Kiney?" "Shut up, you fool!" "But ..." "Shh!" Silence fell on the alley as a lantern light floated down the street. It rocked back and forth in a careless grasp and for a moment threatened to enter the alley. In a moment the light faded and a mene later so did the sound of the footsteps. The shadows again moved. "Was that the guard, Kiney?" "Don't know." "What was it?" "Shut up." A man stood up and reached for the windowsill above his head. His fingers deftly played with the shutters and they came undone. "Never so easy!" "Kiney, what if the owner's home?" "Then you'll kill him." "I've never killed anyone, Kiney. I don't know how to do it." "Shut up." The man's hands wrapped around the window's ledge and he started to pull himself up. His feet aided his efforts and in a moment he was inside the dark room. "Kiney, where are you?" "Shh! Give me your hand." A shadowy hand reached out the window and helped the other man up, then both figures disappeared into the house. Quiet again ruled the dark alley, but the calmness did not remain long. There was a clank and a crash and yell and not long after a man hopped out the window and reached up to accept a bag. "Is he really dead, Kiney?" "Come on!" "Is he?" "Just shut up and give me the bag!" The large bundle was passed down, followed by the figure that held it. "Is he?" "Yes!" "Do dead people go to heaven, Kiney? Mums said they die and go to the Stevene." "Shut up!" They moved to the edge of the alley and Kiney paused, looking for and listening to any signs of others. As he stopped, his larger companion bumped into him and lost his grip on the bag. The overfilled sack slipped out of the man's arms and tumbled to the ground, spilling the pilfered items at the mouth of the alley. Silverware clattered on the ground around the two men, including one adventuresome platter that decided to roll out of the alley and down the street. "You idiot!" Kiney hissed, spinning about. His exclamation was accented by a sudden gasp -- only then did the two men notice a woman hiding in the shadows of the old structure. "Grab her!" Kiney yelled as she bolted. She was close enough for him to get a good grip on her cloak and they both tumbled down among the spilled contents of the bag. Jerid Taishent looked down into the castle courtyard from the long stone balcony halfway up the facade of the fortress. The massive stone wall of the keep rose a hundred feet ahead of him, its top rampart level with the balcony. Two guards stood talking on the wall and his gaze paused on them. Through no fault of their own, the guards were never where they were needed most. The entire time since war had come and gone from Dargon, all his time had been dedicated to keeping the Duchy running. It was not his job, but with Clifton Dargon battling the Beinison fleet, Luthias Connall fighting the Beinison army and Lansing Bartol recruiting and training troops in the south of the Duchy, the lieutenant of the First Dargon Militia found himself performing a job never meant to be his. "I understand your concerns, Lord Arstead," Jerid said to the young man sitting at the table behind him. "I had a sister myself ..." "What can you do to help?" Jerid turned. "Right now not much. There's a war on. This town is in ruins and it won't begin to be repaired for a long time to come. I wish nothing more than to order a squad of men to track down those who killed your sister, but I have not the troops to spare. We are extremely shorthanded here and the public knows it. Some choose to use this opportunity to plunder the city and the citizens." "So you say there's no protection even for noble blood?" "My Lord ..." Jerid shifted uncomfortably. The answer was 'yes', but he was not about to use that word. "We are only a quarter of the force we were before the war. The town guard is barely a half. And all the remaining troops are green. We do what we can. What we have the power to do." Arstead shook his head. "Maybe you'd use different words if you had known my sister ... or if you had to tell our mother how she died." "I'm sorry. We're doing all we can. I wish we could do more." "You're the law here. You can do what you want." "My Lord," Jerid faced the noble across the table, "with the power I hold comes a responsibility for things far above and beyond what the nobility may need. My first duty is to the Duke, to his lands and his people and I must protect his interests to the best of my ability. My responsibility is to the living. My second duty is to avenge the dead. When I have the time and the troops, that shall be done." "I'm sorry you feel that way," Arstead stood up. "My grandfather shall be mentioning that in his letter to your Duke." "The Duke's ship is the _Shining_Star_. Send your letter through the Port of Armand and it will get there faster." Arstead stiffened up at the response. "Good day, Sir Taishent." "Good day." Jerid returned to the edge of the balcony and listened as the departing footsteps fell somewhere behind him. The letter, he knew, would be worthless, save to aggravate Lord Clifton at a time such as this. He did the best with what he had and the Duke had known that when leaving for war. A door slammed loudly in the chambers. "Page?" he called into the room. "Yes, my Lord?" soft footsteps were followed by a young girl's voice. He had not intended to turn, but this was unusual enough to warrant his attention and Jerid took his eyes off the distant green forest beyond the castle wall. In the doorway stood a young girl, thirteen or fourteen, the crest of the House of Dargon proudly displayed on a guard uniform that was a little too large. The girl's long blond hair made him think of his own daughter. She was only six now, but where would she be if she were ten years older and where will she be in ten years with the war now on? "You called, my Lord?" the girl asked again. "Yes. Tell Madame Sepagary I will see her now and have Vogel bring his parchment and inks." "Right away, my Lord." And she disappeared behind the curtain. A shadow of a man blended into the scaffolding at the base of the castle wall as a dying lantern hurried down the walk. It was carried by a guard and followed by another, both armored and armed, the Ducal crest displayed on their clothes. A heavy fist fell on the castle gate. "Sarge!" The gates creaked open. "Out of oil," someone said. "Come on in." Shuffling footsteps sounded, followed by the doors creaking closed. The shadow again emerged from the wall, followed by a tall lanky man dressed in sandy-grayish clothes. He looked towards the castle gates, then up the road leading into town. All was once again quiet. He gripped the scaffolding and rapidly ascended to the crack in the wall where a lucky catapult or ballista round must have penetrated the castle's defenses during the siege. The opening was now mostly repaired, only needing the proper stones to be laid so the style of the wall remained the same. He looked up to the top of the scaffolding, some six or eight feet short of the top of the castle wall. They probably made it short on purpose, but short was fine, too. He finished his climb, waited for the guard above to pass and then jumped, letting his hands wrap around the edge of the battlement. He would not have been able to do that in armor. The footsteps on the wall lost their rhythm and paused. Only the crickets below disturbed the quiet of the night. The guard muttered something and went on. Another moment passed and the thief climbed over the embrasure and landed softly on the castle wall walk. No one was in sight. A few flickering lights in the castle revealed the windows of those who could not sleep, but the one window that was important was dark, as it was supposed to be. The man quickly crossed to the other side of the wall and glanced down. Three soldiers stood talking below, a dying lantern held in their midst. He judged the distance between the wall and the castle. It was too far to get across by any means other than crossing the courtyard. It was not to be done. Returning footsteps alerted the thief to hurry down the wall to the west side of the castle where the roof of the stables rose better than halfway up the castle wall. It was a good fifteen foot drop, but it was the best and quickest way to get down the castle wall. As the guard's footsteps neared, he flung himself over the edge and landed softly on the stable's roof. The footsteps again paused and the thief attempted to blend in with the darkness. Something slammed on the roof, hit against his shoulder and fell over the edge of the roof. Startled, the thief rolled over, just in time to see a rock hit the roof where his head was a moment before. Startled at his discovery, he rolled over again, backed up to the wall and felt for his dagger. It was a long blade, since a full sword would get in the way, and under normal conditions it was more than enough, but now, discovered, he feared it would not keep him alive long enough to finish the job. Another rock bounced across the roof and rolled over the edge. There were footsteps above. "Rotten cats!" a curse floated down. "STAY OFF THE WALL!" A pained smile spread across the thief's face as he rubbed his sore shoulder. Quiet as a cat. Mistaken for a cat. At least he was not drowned like one. Once the guard had passed, the man once again started moving. He hopped off the roof of the stables into a bale of hay and proceeded across the dark side of the castle's courtyard. Along the roof there were no customary gargoyle heads or weather-protecting ledges or even statues of the local heroes. That would make the scaling of the wall more of a challenge, but the dark of the courtyard and the reduced guard were an added bonus to making the theft a success. "I had not realized that unfortunate girl had been one of yours, my dear," Liriss muttered, pacing the length of the rich carpet. "I wish you had told me sooner. I am not sure what I may be able to do to help now." The plump, matronly Eliza Tillipanary remained in her chair as the crime lord circled the room. "I thought the girl had returned home as she kept saying she wanted to do," the woman explained. "It was not until recently that one of the other girls, who also cleans in the Duke's castle, brought to my attention that a noble from Arvalia has been looking for the unfortunate's killer." "Noble. What noble?" Liriss stopped. "I believe his name was Arstead." "Arstead ... Arstead ... from Arvalia?" "That's what she said." "Never heard of him," Liriss shook his head. "Should I find the killers, what do you want done with them?" Tillipanary shrugged. "You know I take no interest in your work. Do what you will. I just want them and their friends to know that even frontiers have justice." Liriss laughed. "If they hang me, my dear, they'll hang you right next to me. Everyone knows my work." The matron shook her head. "I don't. You merely offer me a service I can not obtain from the town guard." Liriss laughed again. "I will look for the killer and be sure to tell you who they are." "See about finding them first," Tillipanary warned. "We will discuss who they are then." She stood up and adjusted her dress. "Now, I still have plenty to do, so I'll be going. Be sure to let me know your progress." "Good evening, my dear," Liriss saw the woman to his office door and closed it after her. As he returned to his desk, he made a mental note to ask Kesrin to look into the murder and see if he could locate who had committed it. If it were one of his own people, the search would be easy and fast, but the punishment would be more difficult to mete out. If it were someone outside his organization, the search would take more time, but the punishment would be a pleasure. Others must know that the city belongs to one man. A knock sounded on the door just as he sat down and the perky nose of his assistant Rene appeared through the crack. "I'm sorry to bother you again my Lord, but there's a 'Pike' here to see you." "Yes," Liriss stood up. "Send him in." "Straight," the girl disappeared. Liriss prepared himself for the visitor. The door again opened and a tall young man walked in. His dark hair was carelessly brushed back and he had a slight limp, but he did not let it bother him and rapidly crossed the room to the desk. "A pleasure as always, my Lord," he nodded to Liriss. "You're back soon," the crime lord commented. "And with a limp ..." "A minor mishap," the young man admitted. "Dargon Castle was not built for scaling." "You've been there already?" Pike removed a pouch from his belt and placed it before Liriss. "I've been there." Liriss quickly snatched up the offering and pulled open the strings. From inside he removed a cloth-wrapped box and from that a flat headed ring. He examined it, then removing a burning candle from a girandole, dripped some wax on the table and imprinted the ring in it. Pike took a step closer to the table to take a look as Liriss worked. The crime lord produced a parchment from the stack in the corner and compared the impression in the wax to an impression on the parchment. "Perfect!" "You had doubts?" "I am impressed by your speed." Pike smiled. "You do realize the seal is worthless for official business without the appropriate signature." "Don't concern yourself with that," Liriss laughed. He opened a desk drawer and took out a pouch. "Impressed with your speed, but ready for the delivery." Pike accepted the pouch and placed it on his belt where the other had hung. The contents jingled as they passed hands. "You won't check?" "I trust you. And if it's not there, I'll steal the signet back." Liriss concealed a smile. The world had too few honest thieves. "I have another task for you, if you feel up to it." "If it requires no climbing for a few days ..." "That's up to you. I have no interest in the process of execution of the job." "All right, then." "I have ... I *had* a lieutenant who fell into the hands of the guard. I want him back." "I assume he's larger than the signet?" "Significantly." "My prices rise with the weight." "How much?" "Where is he being held?" Liriss sat down, indicating for Pike to do the same. "In the Old Guard House, in the center of town. The prisoners are held in the basement." "You're talking about high risk here, my Lord," Pike took the offered seat. "There's the entry and exit I have to take into consideration and your man's willingness to leave." "He'll die if he doesn't," Liriss said. "You'll get two Marks if he does." "Two and a half." "And a half?" "I like odd numbers," Pike explained. "That is rather odd," Liriss agreed. He considered for a moment. "Two and a half it is. I need him back." "... or ..." Pike suggested. "Or?" "Or one Mark and the name of the man who killed Miriam Arstead." Liriss' eyes betrayed surprise. "A popular girl." "Have others asked?" "The question is, have others asked you?" "A contract, my Lord. I merely need a name." "A contract by whom?" Liriss demanded. "A brother, a father, a lover ... Does it matter?" Pike shrugged. "It might." "Not when money is paid, my Lord, just like in your agreement with me. I was offered money for a name. I did not ask why." "Revenge's the usual motive," Liriss explained. "So I suspect," Pike agreed, "but it's none of my business. If you get me the name, I'm willing to do the job for less. Is that to your satisfaction?" Liriss rubbed his chin. Eliza implied she wanted the killer punished. Pike implied someone was ready to do that. That only left Liriss as a broker of information with reduced expenses on his part. "I believe that deal is more than fair, Pike. One Mark and I will look into the murder personally." Pike smiled. "A deal, then. Now, my Lord, who is it that you need rescued?" "In here," a guardsman pushed open a second floor office door for the young noble and let him in. Arstead entered the small cluttered office and paused patiently before the desk loaded with papers and an empty scabbard. The dark-haired, dark-eyed officer wearing lieutenant pins indicated for a moment's time and completed an entry in his journal. "What can I do for you?" "Sir Darklen?" Kalen stood up. "I am." "My name is Janos Arstead. I understand you were the one looking for the killer of Miriam Arstead." "You're her husband?" the Guard Lieutenant asked. "Brother. I came to Dargon as soon as my family was notified. My father is in the war and my grandfather is far too old to travel. I have to be responsible for the family now." "Please, sit down." Kalen again took his seat and closed his journal, using the scabbard to hold his place between the pages. He had no good news to give and plenty of bad. He had been far too busy in the past few days to make any sort of progress on the increasingly violent incidents that had been surfacing around the city and barely managed to hand out assignments to junior officers, most of whom were barely qualified to wear swords, much less do investigative work. Perhaps an offer of hospitality would make things easier. "Would you like anything? Mead? Ale?" "I would like to know who killed my sister." Kalen shook his head. "I'm sorry. As of the last report I received, this morning, we had not found the killer. Our resources are stretched and time is an issue. It will be a while longer before I can give you a definite answer." "The trail may grow cold by then, Sir Darklen." "I realize that, but there are dozens of crimes taking place every day. We don't have the men to do the job right and I'll be the first to admit that. Have you requested assistance from the Duke's Adjutant? Right now Lieutenant Taishent is in that position." "I met with Sir Taishent yesterday," Arstead answered. "When we learned about the death, my grandfather gave me a letter of introduction to help expedite the matter, but that was met rather coldly. I had hoped the House of Dargon would be of help, but clearly ties of nobility do not stretch across the Duchies of Baranur." "I'm sorry," Kalen shook his head. "The system worked much better before the war. Hurt as we are, with as many men as we've sent off to war, I'm afraid we're not the same Dargon we used to be. I wish I could do more to help." "Perhaps I should be the one to offer help, Sir. It is my sister, after all." "What could you do to help us?" "Investigate? Just how short on men are you? Perhaps I can help to fill in?" Kalen let a ghost of a smile escape. "Lord Arstead, we're half the force we used to be before the war. One more man will not make a difference, particularly if he is new to the city and not trained in our methods. The offer is appreciated, but not feasible." "Are you saying justice will go undone?" Arstead's tone became more demanding. "No. I'm saying justice will need more time." "That's unacceptable, Sir," Arstead set his jaw. Kalen's soft expression melted away. He stood up, the journal falling off the desk. "Unacceptable? The same men who killed your sister, killed a renownd scribe, a personal friend of the Duke's family, yet the crime receives no greater priority to be solved. Your family is part of the masses that come through this city. Do not make the assumption that noble blood will make a difference in a shattered duchy." Arstead stood up as well. "I see I may have request assistance from the Duke himself." The chair behind Kalen tumbled over. "I'll be more than happy to forward that letter for you, along with my report that a dozen of my men were killed or injured in a raid last week. Don't make assumptions that your lineage matters to a duchy crippled by war! Get out of my office!" "Told you it was our lucky day!" One guardsman slapped another on the back and took a few rapid steps, leaping on the back of a waiting horse. His companion also quickened his pace and mounted the steed near the first. "Horseback duty for a week! I think I can get to like this job!" "Let's go get 'em, boy!" The first man's heels connected with his horse's sides and they disappeared into the night. "Hold on there!" the other guard yelled, trying to adjust the saddle. "Wait for me!" The second horse jumped into a trot and also disappeared into the night. Silence descended on the dark street and a shadowy figure drifted across the alley behind the guard house. It crossed the street to the Dargon Town Guard Stables and disappeared inside completely undetected. In the dim light of the stables, Pike discarded his black cloak in an empty stall, revealing the blue and grey uniform of the town guard. It was a great risk showing up here dressed as a guard. Reduced as they were, the guards would probably know one another, but this was for a quick job in the night, one that would be discovered no more than a bell or two after being done, if that long. When put into the right perspective, the impersonation of a guard was the least of his concerns. He checked a few horses, working his way towards the rear door to the guard house and calmly walked through. A woman in a guard uniform passed him, nodding a hello. Pike responded in kind and slowly walked down the corridor to the back stairs. Liriss' directions were rather specific. Offices and storage upstairs, holding cells downstairs. He quickly glanced up the stairwell and descended into the basement. A lone sleepy guard stretched at the sound of footsteps and shifted in the creaky chair. "Yes?" the soldier asked as Pike approached. "I have it right here," Pike reached into his pouch, drawing the guard closer by his curiosity. His fists connected with the guard's chin and the chair tipped over, the unconscious guard rolling up against the wall. Pike paused to take note of the room. Small, dark. Stairs leading up on one side, a heavy metal door on the other. A small table and a chair for the guard. There were four candelabras in the walls, three candles each, but they produced barely enough light to see the metal door and the unconscious guard on the floor. Pike pulled the guard up and replaced him in the chair, removing the ring of keys from his belt in the process. It took a few moments to find the proper key and pause to listen for sounds both on the other side of the door and in the corridor at the other end of the stairs. Satisfied with the lack of activity, Pike turned the key in the lock and pushed open the door. The well-oiled hinges made no sound as the door swung open and Pike quietly stepped inside, carefully closing the door behind him. A wall candelabra served as the only source of light. Removing a single candle, Pike proceeded down the long corridor, looking at the sleeping prisoners and the occasional names on the wall. About half of the cells were populated, although not all with prisoners were tagged. At one such cell, when Pike brought the candle close to the wall to see if there was a name, the prisoner jumped out of bed and rushed the bars. He collided with the door with a wild scream, arms reaching for the blue and grey uniform before him. Pike hurried to back away as one of the muscular hands grabbed his shoulder and was able to pull away only when the hair on the prisoner's arm caught fire from the flame of the candle. "I'm gonna kill you, you damn bastard!" the prisoner roared. "Next time," Pike forced himself to keep his cool, "I'll douse you with oil before taking the candle to you." The man fell silent and took several steps back. Satisfied with the results, Pike continued down the corridor of the semi-awake prisoners until coming to a cell carrying the name he was looking for. He banged his arm on the door. "Get up!" The body on the cot stirred and a man sat up. "What?" "Interrogation. Let's go." He unlocked the door and pulled it open. "This way." The man in the cell hesitated. "Kuvan Ovnik?" Pike asked. "Yes, yes." The man stood up and came to the open door. He looked to be in good shape, although very dirty and unshaven. In the dim candle light Pike could barely see the remnants of an old bruise on the man's cheek. "Not enough entertainment at night?" the prisoner spat. Pike gave him a shove forward. "Spit again and you'll be cleaning the floor with your tongue." Ovnik stopped and gave his captor a chilling look. "I'll remember your face." "You do that." They made it to the end of the corridor and went through the door. Pike closed and locked it as Ovnik glanced over at the unconscious guard. "Take his clothes." "What?" "I was sent to get you out. We won't make it out of here with you dressed like this. Take his clothes." Ovnik chuckled. "Oh, I knew they'd send someone." Liriss matched his gaze with Kesrin, waiting patiently for his lieutenant to react. Kesrin, in his usual style, gave no hint of surprise at having seen Ovnik just a moment before. Even as the footsteps of his old friend faded down the corridor, he calmly sat in the chair across from his lord. "Any reason he's in chains?" "He lied to me, Kesrin," Liriss picked up the half full wine goblet and took a sip. He swallowed with satisfaction. "I don't like it when people turn on me, Kesrin. When they do, I have to go to a great expense to make sure others know what a bad decision that is. Lord Dargon may be losing control of his city, but I'll be damned before I lose control of mine. Make sure I don't have to do this again, Kesrin. It pains me so to see trust misplaced. And good men, too. This shouldn't be." "Of course, my Lord," Kesrin answered in his usual calm voice. "Good. Now go and make sure that Ovnik's fate is not shared by others." Kesrin rose slower than usual. "And that fate, Lord?" "I feel good today, Kesrin. He will have a slow death." The crime lord's laughter trailed his lieutenant into the corridor and as the door closed, the older man's face sombered up. "Put a little fear of me into you, Kesrin. Loyalty must be unconditional, even if it stems from fear." ======================================================================== Endgame by Rogers Cadenhead Seber 10, 1014 The village of Tench The reader leaned over the Wheel of Life, a drop of sweat falling from his forehead onto the ornately decorated cloth. Eight signs of Makdiar's zodiac were painted inside slices of a circle on the aged fabric's surface. Eight smaller symbols separated the signs, and at the center was the mark of Destiny. It was unseasonably hot for Tench in Seber, and there was precious little breeze coming in through an open window. The two men knelt on opposite sides of the Wheel, in a small room at the Duck Inn. The fat-faced reader hovered over the wooden discs and uttered a soft incantation: May Araminia's grace Fall upon this Wheel Like the first kiss of spring On a graveyard. The reference to the goddess of good fortune was part of the pitch, Teyvas noted with amusement. The rogue expected to receive happy news about a bountiful tomorrow. There was no profit in ill tidings, after all. The reader gestured for Teyvas to pick up the nine discs that were blue in color. Teyvas did so, and he was told, "Close your eyes and make a picture in them of your birth sign. Can you see the Torch?" Teyvas, clamping his eyelids shut as tightly as he could, saw orange and red flickering. He tried to make a torch out of it but the glimmerings were elusive. "I can see Pyrale," he said. "Cast the discs!" the reader said, and Teyvas opened his fist to let the discs spill out over the wheel. For more than a mene, the reader looked over the scattered objects and mumbled a few disparate words to himself. The cutpurse reached behind his back and scratched at a slow-healing sore near his midsection. This action prompted no notice from the reader, and Teyvas smiled to see how self-absorbed the man was. Finally, the reader offered his interpretation. He pointed a pale finger at a blue disc that lay near the only red one. "This is the heart, and it is resting on Pyrale, your birth sign," he began. "You are a man of fiery passions." The reader looked to Teyvas for a comment, but he wanted to hear more so he said nothing. Several other discs were described, based on their resting places and the reader's gift for metaphor, but it became obvious that he was saving the best for last. "This disc represents the body, your own mortal flesh," the reader stated ominously. "It lies on Valonus the Oak, which means you will not be called from this realm for many years." If Teyvas had needed more proof of the insincerity of the Wheel, this prediction would suffice. He knew there would be no life for him beyond 25 years, if he even got that far. Teyvas welcomed a young man's death -- after his parents were killed in their beds when Dargon guards raided their camp in 1004, Teyvas promised himself that he would die on his feet. He was well on the way to keeping that vow. Teyvas pointed to a disc that had fallen on a smaller part of the wheel. "What does this mean?" he asked. The reader looked a bit flustered, then said, "Occasionally, a casting falls in a way that cannot be explained in the teachings," he said. "This is such a case. The disc for future foe has landed on the Crown, the symbol for the past." "That is indeed a puzzle," Teyvas said, amused at the misfortune. "Verily," the reader said. "In such cases, you must find the answer in your own heart." He moved on to another spot on the Wheel. "This last disc is your course of action, and it has landed on Kafarn, the water symbol. You will be traveling soon, on a long journey that will be of importance, perhaps by seaborne route ..." Teyvas interrupted him, pointing to the symbol for Gefflin the Fox, which was his real birth sign. "What of this, then?" he asked. The reader was surprised to see a disc there, and was unaware that it had been the thief's doing. "This is the symbol for treachery," the reader said. He was planning to elaborate further, but was interrupted again, more forcefully this time. Teyvas had pulled a knife from his boot and buried it in the man's fleshy midsection before another word could be shared between them. The reader gasped, and a strangely comforting hand was placed on his shoulder by Teyvas. The fortune-teller fell with a shudder as the knife was yanked from side to side before being removed. As Teyvas pushed the man aside, a drop of blood fell from the unfortunate's mouth and landed on the Wheel. The blood was about the size of a disc, and of similar coloration to the red token. "Your body disc has landed on Valonus," Teyvas said to the fallen reader. "You have a long life in front of you." It had not been difficult to get out of Tench with the reader's money and the silver earring that he wore. The room was on the second floor, and Teyvas climbed out the window and retrieved his horse from the stables. Teyvas had hoped for more good fortune from the reader, but was not unhappy because he needed to leave town in any case. Tench was a crossroads village with a few squalid taverns and a rough reputation. Teyvas had hoped to meet Lana the Snake there, a dark-hearted beauty whose exploits were legendary. Lana was nowhere to be found, and the only explanation he got was crazy talk about the assassin losing an arm in a fight with her twin. There would be other opportunities, he thought, and other women of questionable moral character to look after. Though he had just turned seventeen, Teyvas had a puckish smile and a calculated indifference that women found attractive. He had amassed a lengthy history of conquest, but in recent days the young man had narrowed his standards to a particular breed of femininity. He now sought women who were as hateful and fearless as he was, traits he imagined for his own mother when she was courted by his father. Teyvas' parents had been bandits, a profession he was proud to carry on. Ten years ago, they had been part of an encampment five leagues south of Dargon that had demanded a toll from travelers. He lived there, playing with the other children who were spawned by the bandits, but that life changed when Captain Tamar Armstrong led a Dargon guard unit on a raid of the camp. Armstrong, a general now, had been ordered to teach a lesson to those who would break the laws of the duchy. The lesson was taught. The boy's parents were among the first to die -- a guardsman entered their shelter and cut them down with his sword before they could even stand. Teyvas, who was seven at the time, was taken into the city and placed in a home for orphans. The ride back to Dargon would be a long one, and not very pleasant, since Teyvas could not keep to the main roads. There would be soldiers about in great numbers, because of the war, and he did not want to chance an encounter with them out in the open. Someone might remember him from a past exploit in the city, or he might also be conscripted into the army. The trip passed without event, save for a horrific storm on the 11th of Seber that forced him to seek the cover of trees. By the time he arrived in Dargon, he was nursing a headcold, so he sold the horse he no longer needed and used the money to buy a room in the waterfront district. The building was next to a brothel, and the thief could hear the hawker's cries, as well as other carrying on, well into the night. Teyvas kept to the docks for many days, a little worried that two murders he was involved in might be catching up with him. When he stopped at one of his favorite haunts, Teyvas was told that town guardsmen were looking for him in connection with the deaths. Zaran, a companion of his, must have confessed to the crimes while the thief was in Tench. The two of them had dragged a woman into an alley, killing her servant when he intervened. Zaran had wanted to take her, and Teyvas was willing to let his oafish friend have the pleasure of her company before they robbed her. Unfortunately, another hero chanced upon the little tryst. The portly fellow laid Zaran low with a skillet, of all things, and Teyvas was forced to cut down the man as he escaped. Teyvas now had learned the name of the middle-aged hero: Thomas Shopkeeper. His persistent widow had sung Shopkeeper's praises throughout the city, and the city fathers had taken notice. They wanted the slayer brought to justice. Teyvas needed to get out of Dargon, perhaps permanently. He could head back to Tench or a village like it, but the number of people who knew his face was getting perilously high. The best thing to do would be to book passage on a ship, but he did not have enough funds to leave Cherisk behind. To remedy the situation, Teyvas left the docks and meandered towards the upper-class reaches of Dargon. He lingered on a street lined with temples, hoping to find suitable prey leaving from an evening service. As the last strands of sunlight faded to the west, Teyvas watched a slender woman with a long tan cloak leaving a small shrine to Sbeppo. She was carrying a book as long as her forearm, and the thief concluded that she must be a scribe, since that was Sbeppo's sphere of influence. It was heartening to see the glint of gold around her slender neck, since Teyvas could not linger long in this district without arousing suspicion. The little scribe walked purposefully towards the market center of Dargon, evidently with some tasks in mind. When she turned away from a shop-lined avenue and headed across a tree-lined street, Teyvas cut across a grassy patch of land to get closer to her. He began dogging her steps, only 10 feet or so behind her, and she finally took notice of him. There was no one else on the street with them, and she knew what a bad position the shortcut had left her in. This dance of prey and predator was something that Teyvas wanted to savor, to extend until he could practically taste the fear exuded by his victim, a scent that hung heavy like a musk. But there was no time for play. Teyvas moved with the grace of a cat, knocking the scribe off the path and into some overgrown grass. She turned over and pushed at him with a weak thrust of her right hand, but the thief had undone her by pulling his knife across her throat. As a torrent of blood flowed from this second smile, Teyvas realized that the scribe was not as she seemed. For starters, she was actually a man. A slight, almost elfin looking man, but definitely male. He took the necklace, a pouch of coins and the contents of a shirt pouch -- thin slivers of glass coated with a powdery dust. He found a fourth sliver in the man's right hand, as if he was planning to do something with it. Teyvas touched his tongue gently to the sliver, to see if the dust was some kind of drug he had experienced. There was no taste, but Teyvas found all the explanation he needed when he looked more closely at the dying man, who was beginning to tremble convulsively. The book that he clutched tightly to his breast was covered with runes and other markings, whose origin was unmistakeably arcane. He had killed a mage. Teyvas cursed the luck that had put this spell-wielder into his path. If the shopkeeper was not enough of a burden, this would be his undoing. The thief had made long practice of avoiding magic and its practitioners. He pried the book from the hands of the mage, kicking the now-dead man in the ribs so hard that bones snapped. As Teyvas was walking away, three cloaked figures suddenly approached him from a street 50 feet distant. One pointed a finger at him and yelled in a guttural language Teyvas had never heard before. The rope was pulled so tightly around his neck that Teyvas thought it would kill him prematurely. His promise was going to be kept; he would die on his feet, before hundreds of Dargon's citizens who had assembled to send him off. The crowd looked up at the gallows with expectant faces, glad to have a diversion from the all-consuming passions of the war with Beinison. A female lieutenant named Ilona Milnor read the accusations levelled against him, and the sentence that had been meted out in the name of Duke Clifton Dargon the Second. There was a dull efficiency to her demeanor, and Teyvas was instantly attracted to her indifference. She had better things to do, and the young thief earnestly wished that he was one of them. After the murder two weeks ago, Teyvas had been captured by town guards as he was being dragged off by three Nar-Enthruen mages. He found out that the victim belonged to a 23-year-old arcane society that fiercely protected its own, affirming the thief's lifelong fear of magicians. The Nar-Enthruen were disappointed to hand him over to the guards, and had complained bitterly when it was ruled that they could not have the killer back. Still, they exacted one concession from the town guard before today's hanging. A hollow-faced Nar elder had spent an afternoon outside of Teyvas' cell, asking him numerous questions about his life and the crimes that he had committed. He was forthright, hoping some measure of infamy would outlive him, but the somber man did not seem impressed. As the Nar elder left, he spat some kind of curse at Teyvas in the exotic language of the Nar, and it left the thief with a strange coldness in his bones that did not fade. It was time for Teyvas to pay for the murders of Thomas Shopkeeper and the mage. Ilona stepped over to a hoist that would pull his ragged frame up the gibbet. "Do you have any last words?" she asked. "Only these," he said, looking into her eyes directly. "I love you." He smiled as she signaled for two attendants to turn the hoisting mechanism. For a moment, Teyvas looked down with a cheery air at the crowd that had gathered to see him off. He felt important for perhaps the first time in his life. This elation faded quickly, replaced by the burning pain of the rope. The weight of his body pulled at his neck, and Teyvas strained for a breath he could not take. For 20 minutes, onlookers watched as the thief danced on the gibbet, his feet gyrating to find purchase on the ground below him. Teyvas had promised to die on his feet, and as his consciousness faded he was still trying to extend an outstretched foot downward to the earth. His sorry path through the world reached an end. But it was not the end at all. Teyvas wiped his eyes, which had somehow become filled with smoke, and found that he was standing in a kitchen where roasted meats were charred black from overcooking. Through a closed door he could hear dozens of people talking in an adjacent room. Instinctively, he reached to pull the meats away from the cooking fire, wondering if he was meant to prepare food in the life after death. He noticed that his own arm was slender, and pasty-white in color. He looked down at his body, and really began to wonder about his predicament. "J'mirg's blood!" Teyvas exclaimed in a sonorous, high-pitched squeal. He clutched at his chest in terror and amazement. "I'm a squirmin' female!" After a few minutes of hysteria, Teyvas settled down to the fact that he had been reborn as a woman after being hanged for two murders in the city of Dargon. He was a mature woman in a tavern maid's attire, hunched over roasting fires in a kitchen. She had burnt most of tonight's main course. Teyvas could hear the sounds of merriment from a nearby room, and he gingerly opened a door to peer out. There were about 20 people in the dank establishment, which was decorated with boar's heads and the pelts of numerous forest animals. A poorly executed painting of King Haralan hung above a fireplace. "Adrana!" a man screamed at him -- her! -- as he approached from an adjacent bar. The boisterous character was a stocky barkeep with a long beard and unclean attire. He grabbed her around the waist once he came close enough to do so. "That foul smell had best not be the meat you're preparin', or we're going to have a riot on our hands." Teyvas shrugged Adrana's shoulders, suddenly embarrassed that a man was touching her in such a brusque manner. The thief would have liked to remove the offending hand with a blade, but this wench carried no weapons. Even if she had, he realized that the barkeep could physically dominate the woman if he chose to do so. This sense of inferiority was new to him. "Ol's balls, woman!" the barkeep cursed. "You really did burn the food ... show me what you did." He pushed her back into the kitchen, and gazed upon the ruined meats she had pulled from the fires. For a moment, he stared at the food as if his glance could restore it, but his face reddened and he turned to Adrana. "Your stupidity has cost me for the last time, you old crone," he said. A feeling of shame and fear washed over Teyvas, two emotions he did not possess before assuming this woman's form. He tried to stammer some kind of reply, "It, it was ..." Before he could finish, the burly barkeep brought the back of his hand across Adrana's face so hard that she was knocked to the corner of the kitchen. A tin pitcher full of grease was upended by one of her flailing arms as she attempted to break her fall, and the hot liquid spattered against her leg, causing excruciating pain. The barkeep was not hurt by the grease, but the accident enraged him further, and he approached her to mete out more punishment. Teyvas was not going to let this continue, woman or no woman. He lifted himself to a crouching position and grabbed a butcher's knife. Adrana's arms were not strong enough to plunge it deeply into the barkeep's chest, but Teyvas hoped the dullard would not realize that. "Adrana," the barkeep said, a little quieter than he had been. "I'm leaving," Teyvas-Adrana said. "If you move I'll gut you like a fish, and feed your entrails to those codswallops out there." The barkeep backed off a step. "Don't come beggin' tomorrow morn, woman!" he said. "I won't," Teyvas-Adrana replied. She left through the tavern's back door, and headed to a well-lit public street in front of the building. Teyvas could see the duke's castle and a few familiar guard towers in the distance, so he knew he was still in Dargon. For a half-bell he walked the streets aimlessly, in the general direction of his apartment in the waterfront district. As he came closer to it, Teyvas suddenly realized that it wasn't really his home any longer. He wandered away. Teyvas was too stunned to be alive in this woman's body to appreciate the escape from the hangman's noose. There were no rope burns on his neck, but he could still feel the itch of the cord wrapped tightly under his chin. The grinding sound of the hoist pulling him onto the gibbet reverberated in his head like the clangor of a Lederian battle-drum. Teyvas did not know what to do next. The few friends he had would not believe this, and some were likely to seize the opportunity to avail themselves of Adrana. From his vantage point, he could see she was not entirely unattractive. With no other options to consider, Teyvas took himself back to the tavern, hoping to find someone who could tell him where Adrana lived so that he could sleep there. Unfortunately, as he crept into the kitchen through a back door, Teyvas saw the barkeep, sitting on a stool a few feet away and drinking wine from a bottle. "I knew you'd come back," he said, pulling himself to his feet with considerable effort. The unclean man wiped his beard with the back of his hand and then grabbed a knife. It was the same blade Teyvas had threatened him with a few hours ago. "No wife of mine treats me like that," the barkeep said. He smiled savagely at her, his teeth glinting like jagged rocks on the shoreline. Teyvas sat up in a dark room and pulled a sheet off his body, screaming. The competing smells of excrement and death told him that he was in a dungeon cell. He was back under Dargon Keep, he reasoned, and had dreamed of his own hanging and the experience as Adrana. The last part was still horrifying to him, and though her murder was a figment of the mind he could not help but clutch at his neck in sympathetic pain. The nightmare that had visited itself upon that woman was beyond anything Teyvas could conjure, and he wished the Nar elder was around so that he could tell the man his own crimes were minor. Teyvas had dispatched his victims with efficiency, and had never taken sexual liberties with any of them. To torture a woman and to rape her so violently was unimaginably grotesque, even to him. Still, it was just a dream, probably an effort by the gods to introduce him to the sensations of guilt and remorse. It was not going to work, he thought, and laughed weakly. As he did so, the ends of his beard rubbed against his chest. Teyvas did not have a beard. He found himself in a new form, some kind of squat, muscular figure who was covered in flea-infested hair. What happened to Adrana really happened, to him, and the rebirth had come again. "Damn you, spell-tosser!" he yelled in agony, and Teyvas threw his new body against the solid wood of the cell door until it was bruised and bloody. He fell asleep on the floor, a throbbing and badly sprained arm lying askew at his side. He awoke to the banging sound of a metal pan being slammed against the walls outside the cell. Teyvas lifted himself to his feet, crying in pain as the injuries of the previous night asserted themselves upon his conscious body. Peering through a small barred hole in the door, Teyvas saw a guard clad in the duke's colors heading down the hall. He recognized her as one of those who walked him to the gibbet the day before, though he had no way of telling if that was really how long ago it took place. He was still in Dargon. Sitting back down on his noxious pallet, Teyvas looked himself over. He was some kind of wild man, with a stone-solid upper body, stubby legs and dark olive skin. Most of the injuries he inflicted upon this form would heal quickly, but the left forearm was still extremely sore. When his sensibilities started to return, Teyvas began to think about the curious visit from the Nar-Enthruen elder shortly before his execution. Rosgode was his name, and he claimed that the visit was for an interrogation about the thief's "sundered life," as the elder put it. Rosgode acted as if there were some kind of spiritual reason for needing to know such details. "Do you not wish to tell me?" Rosgode asked. "Surely you must know that you are already doomed." There was a sympathy to this last statement, as if the old man took a fatherly interest in his subject. Teyvas did not believe in the sentiment, but was flattered at the attention he was receiving. "I will share it all with you, spell-tosser," he said, "and when you walk out of this place you will know that I wanted to be here." Teyvas told the mage about the carefree life of a roving bandit clan, and how rich with joy he had been before the devil Tamar had taken it all away. He explained how Dargon's orphan shelters were haphazard operations that would expel children for troublemaking whenever expenses went beyond the funds alloted by the Dargon government. He told of fighting with wild pigs and dogs for refuse tossed in the middle of city streets at age ten. While Teyvas spoke, Rosgode cupped his hands together as if he could catch the conversation like rainwater. Teyvas thought it was odd but was too wrapped up in himself to consider it further. He continued his tale, hoping that Rosgode had a strong memory and would take the story beyond the dungeon walls. Teyvas told him about living in the dying houses when the Red Plague struck in 1007, stealing food from the palsied hands of victims when he could, hoping that he would join their suffering. But he never became sick from the exposure, and it even led to the only honest job he ever had, as a charnel runner taking the dead to be burned. "Why did you never try to kill Tamar?" Rosgode inquired. "Did you not despise him for what his men did to your parents?" "I despise them," Teyvas said. "They were weak and deserved what they got." When Teyvas' tale reached the murder of Rosgode's compatriot and the thief's subsequent confinement, the Nar elder stood up, clasped his hands together and held them tight as if he were holding a cricket. He stared at the young man in the cell and suddenly said something unintelligible in his own tongue. The sneer on Rosgode's face made Teyvas feel that it was some kind of curse, and it laid a chill on his bones. Sitting in this new cell, Teyvas surmised that the spell-caster had used their conversation as a pretense to enact some kind of Nar-Enthruen hex. Adrana's demise at the hands of her husband was visited upon him as punishment, and a sense of dread fell over him as he wondered what might come next. He did not have much time to speculate about it. The day progressed and guards delivered gruel masquerading as food. Teyvas was still trying to stomach it when his cell door was unlocked and another inmate stepped inside. "I'd wager 13 marks you didn't expect a visitor today, kinsman," the prisoner said, pulling his lips back as a wolf does, revealing a sinister smile. The man was from Kimerron, a small country of barbarians that had lost a war with Beinison. He removed a short knife from a pocket in his leggings. "It cost a king's ransom to get this shank," he said. "Your lord sends his warmest regards." After his third death in Dargon, Teyvas was reborn in a widening spire of sites and situations. At Gateway, he was a foot soldier of Beinison skewered by a Lederian colour sergeant. At Sharks' Cove, he was a slaver whose property rose up against him, tying him up and setting him ablaze. At Shireton, he was a halfwit stoned to death for exhibiting inappropriate affection for livestock. As the number of expended lives grew, the thief stopped resisting the fate that had been bestowed upon him. For a time he contented himself with the relative peace of drowning, submerging himself in the water before others could choose a more appropriate end for him. He began to lose his attachment to the mortal form, and imagined himself as a floating wisp of golden cloud, skimming the top of trees in one locale and then dissipating, only to reform somewhere else at the direction of the prevailing winds. When the number of his reincarnated forms reached 17, Teyvas found himself kneeling in a small alcove, looking upwards at a bronze statuette of Sbeppo, the patron deity of scribes and the written word. There was a reflective glass behind the sculpture, and Teyvas gazed into it. His face was that of a frail, tawny-haired man. He carried a rune-covered book as large as his forearm. For several minutes, the thief stared into the eyes of the last man he had killed. He breathed deeply, filling the body with life, and thought about the way he had taken this vitality away from the mage. Teyvas pushed aside the curtains that separated the alcove from a larger chamber of worship. Two men in lily-white robes stood near the back of the room, talking quietly. The altar was empty because the evening services had ended several menes ago. Setting the book down, Teyvas ascended to the raised dais that contained the altar, a pair of tables and a large illustrated manuscript. The book was open to a drawing of a mother giving birth to a younger woman who was pregnant herself. The thief was not aware of the significance of the book, but he could tell that it was valuable and of import to the people who worshipped here. He yanked a torch from its holder on one wall, an act that took all the strength this elflike body possessed. At this point, the two robed men approached him in alarm. "Get yourself off there, brother!" one said. "Come any closer, brother, and we find out if this book will burn," Teyvas replied. "Bring me Rosgode of the Nar-Enthruen!" It did not take long for the elder mage to reach the temple. "Have you gone mad?" he asked emphatically as he strode down the aisle towards the dais. "For someone you have killed more than a dozen times over, I am remarkably sane," Teyvas said. He wished he could summon the other Teyvas, who was probably wandering the temple area at this point, looking for someone to rob. He would give the boy all of the mage's riches, if he could, and send him away from Cherisk for good. "This is nonsense-talk, Alder," Rosgode said. "What kind of enchantment are you talking about?" Alder-Teyvas was growing fatigued, and he knew that he could only keep everyone at a distance for a few more menes. "I am out of your time, and I am not your friend," Teyvas said. "Later tonight, I was a thief who murdered Alder and was captured. You came to my cell and I told my crimes to your hands. When you left, you spoke a Nar curse upon me. "I was hanged, and reborn as someone who was fated to die," Teyvas continued. "I am reborn and reborn, and I die every time." Rosgode looked stunned for a moment, but the expression was replaced by one of comprehension. "The hand-telling is a way to remove a man's crimes," he said. "If I did that, I took them so you would not have the evil to draw upon in a future life." The response made sense to Teyvas, gave him an answer to why he was unable to resist being the victim of 17 successive crimes. The evil had been stolen away from him, and he had not found anything to take its place. The elder took a gentle step back, and held out his hand as if trying to keep Teyvas calm so the book would not be harmed. But there was fear in the pits of Rosgode's ruminant eyes. This was a revelation to the tired cutpurse who had been freed from the finality of death. Rosgode had not expected the spell to come to a circle like this -- before he had even cast it. It was all Teyvas needed to see. He knew what had to be done. Alder-Teyvas dropped the torch onto the holy book of Sbeppo, causing two nearby priests to cry out in agony and rush onto the dais. As this happened, Teyvas reached into a pouch on Alder's shirt and pulled out four powder-covered slivers of glass. He knew that they were a weapon of some kind, since the original Alder had intended to use one before his throat was slit. Rosgode was unable to react, jostled by onlookers who were rushing in to assist their fellows. Teyvas put the glass in his mouth and held it with his teeth as he leapt onto the elder. He wrapped both arms around the mage, who was attempting some form of evasive magic, and bit down as hard as he could. White fire erupted from his mouth, spewing forth a clarified heat that blinded all those who gazed upon it. Rosgode, whose head was directly in its path, was beyond such concerns about his vision. Teyvas stood on the deck of the _Laughing Gale_, a merchant ship headed to several trading ports on the eastern coast of Duurom. He found the money to leave Dargon for good: A miracle had visited itself upon him in the form of a fracas at the Temple of Sbeppo. As he waited in the area, hoping to find a templegoer headed home with too much money and too little sense, Teyvas saw a spell-tosser confronting his brethren inside a temple. The frail man rose up like a snake baring its fangs, and as the thief headed for a closer look, a white fire erupted from the mage's mouth. This sorcerous act unleashed a potent magic that left one man dead and another dying. Rather than attending to the surviving mage, his fellows worked feverishly to save a book that had become damaged. "The illustration of the birth and rebirth has been lost," a man wailed. "That page cannot be saved!" As they left to attend to the manuscript, Teyvas was able to walk into the temple and clean the altar of its golden adornments. An offering box that rattled with coins was also left behind by Sbeppo's faithful. Teyvas used the easily gained fortune to book passage on the _Gale_ two weeks later. He watched the continent of Cherisk recede to the east as the ship headed northwest into colder waters. Finally, when the land faded from his sight, he headed down to the hold where passengers were to sleep. Filthy straw covered the floor and the blankets were threadbare and moth-eaten, but he fell asleep like the duke's heir esconced in a feather bed. "Get up, dog!" The bark of the ship's captain was unmistakable, sounding like a shovel dragged across stones. Teyvas stumbled to stand but did not move quickly enough, and four hands pulled him to his feet. Hovering next to the captain, a round face slowly came into focus for Teyvas. When it did, he did not have to ask the reason for the nighttime visit. It was the teller from Tench, whose fortune was much better than Teyvas had thought when he left the man for dead. "This is him," the fat-faced man told the captain as a sailor found a blade among Teyvas' belongings. It was the only weapon he had carried onto the ship. The Wheel reader brought himself closer to the thief, and Teyvas could smell the ointment that was caked upon the man's midsection, salve that closed the hole opened by a knife. "I must offer apology to you for a mistake in your reading," the teller said, his voice weak but deliberate. "The Wheel's promise of a long life has been shown to be false." A blackjack was brought down upon Teyvas' head by one of the captain's men. As red light filled his sight, and warmth radiated from the back of his skull, the thief received the last indicator of his future from the reader. "You are about to embark upon a seaborne journey," he rasped. Two sailors wrapped the legs of Teyvas in chains, and a bloody cloth was stuffed into his mouth. A hearty shout rose from the crew of the _Gale_ as the son of bandits was tossed overboard. Teyvas landed feet-first when he reached the ocean floor, a dying sob trapped in his throat by the Wheel of Life. ========================================================================

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E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank