Well, Thaddeus Fly thought as he stormed into the entrance den of the building that served as his base of operations, at least Deus has men with some discipline.
The main lobby of the Guildhall was littered with trash, discarded clothes, and slumbering agents.
“What in the names of all gods above is this,” he roared, waking nearly a dozen slouching, lazing agents. “I’m gone for a couple of weeks, and this place turns into a total sty. On your feet, maggots!”
“Headmaster,” Lain whispered next to him. “I am in dire need of a bath and a change of clothes.”
He nodding to her and the others, temporarily dismissing them, including Markus Trent.
The agents in the lobby lined up in front of him, puffing out their chests like military recruits, hands behind their backs.
“Where is Mr. Striker,” Fly walked up and down the line, keeping a few feet between himself and these laze-abouts.Worthless, he thought, bile rising in the back of his throat. “Would anyone care to answer me?”
“Headmaster,” one of the Illeck agents near the right end of the line said.
Fly swooped over in front of him, pressing the end of his blunted snout against the whelp’s forehead.
“Have an answer for me, you lazy little prick?”
Cold sweat ran down the Dark Elf’s forehead, wetting the end of Fly’s face. “I sure hope so, because it might just lessen the severity of your punishment. Now, speak!”
“Sir, he’s out in the city, hustling wagon merchants for protection fees,” the Illeck said.
A list of the names of the city’s more prosperous wagon merchants ran through Fly’s head, and on that list, near the bottom, his mind came to a screeching halt—Harold Deus. Oh shit, he thought, please gods don’t let him lay a hand on Anna’s husband. The truce will be so much used toilet paper if that happens.
“Akimaru,” Fly shouted but he needn’t have done so. The white clad Ninja hadn’t left when he was dismissed, but now he sped out of the Guildhall so fast he appeared to only be a blur of white cloth.
“Good. Now, what’s your name, agent?”
“Sorpalo,” the Illeck squeaked.
“All right, Sorpalo,” Fly backed away from the Illeck and the line of agents. “You may take yourself to the coroner’s office in mid-town Desanadron. Ms. McNealy would probably like a list of the city’s most recent dead, along with any files the police department has on the dearly departed. As for the rest of you,” he shouted, addressing the rest of the line as the Illeck took off to play gopher. “I want the halls, meeting dens, and my chambers so spotless I could invite the lesser gods over for tea. On the double!”
With no objections, the agents set to work, sweeping, mopping, dusting and rearranging.
“Ah, so good to be home,” he whispered to himself.
* * * *
“No,” came the muffled reply from the inside of Norman Adwar’s personal chambers. The Hoods had returned to their underground base, and Flint wanted to talk with Norman about his altercation with Lee Toren.
The Gnome Pickpocket was furious, and intended to quit helping the Hoods if Norman didn’t apologize for beating him down.
“Look, just let me in, Norm,” the Wererat pleaded, growing increasingly impatient. All of his petty jealousies had been building up in the back of his mind, as was his nature, along with the frustration of not having been able to lash out at the Midnight Suns. He had been frozen in the snow-strewn plains of the east, beaten by a guard and imprisoned, and had been forced to accept the aid of Akimaru in order to escape. He’d had Markus Trent knelt before him, the opportunity to break his neck right there for the taking. But he knew that Anna wouldn’t have let him.
“No,” Norman said from the other side of the door. Flint had been given this task mostly because Stockholm had other matters to attend to, foremost among these being reviewing Hollister’s reports. Besides, he thought, the Red Tribesman may very well just congratulate Norm, give him a few pointers about where to hit the Pickpocket the next time, and be off to his office.
“You know I can pick this lock and have this door open in less than a minute, Norm. It swings open into the hall, so don’t think about trying to barricade the thing.” This statement was met with silence from the Engineer, and a moment later Flint heard the satisfying ‘snick’ of the deadbolt retracting into the door.
He opened the door, stepping lightly past Norm, and taking a seat on the freshly scrubbed floor. Everything smelled like disinfectant and cleansers. One of Norman’s little habits, he surmised.
Norm sat down on the floor, his legs hooked in Indian-style, and put his head in his hands.
“I don’t know what came over me,” the Gnome moaned. His chest twittered up and down with the start of sobs. “I’m just so sick and tired of feeling helpless, useless, and that bastard took off without even warning me or Styge. They clubbed me in the back of the skull without so much as a warning, Flint. Without my machines, I’m nothing.”
“I wouldn’t say that, precisely.” The short bout in the snowy street of Ja-Wen played over in Flint’s mind again. It was roughneck, but there was an admirable amount of technique to Norman’s punches. “Where’d you learn to fight like that, by the way?”
Norm wiped his left forearm across his face, taking the tears away.
“Oh, that,” Norman got to his feet, and absentmindedly grabbed a socket wrench from the shelves beneath the bench, and tightened down a few screws on the odd contraption currently occupying most of the space. “A few years back, I took some leave and went to see me family in Palen. My dad, he’s an Aeromancer, and he used to serve as a city guard.” Norm finished his work on the large, multi-sectioned device and flipping a switch.
Strange rumbling vibrated through the air from the device, and a chute of some sort opened on the left side. As he continued his story, Norman fed bits of scrap metal into the large machine.
“One of his old guard mates, fellow by the name of Emanuel Topsy, was visiting when I arrived. Human Boxer, and very skilled at his style. Dad set me up with him to do some sparring. It was mostly a joke, and I took a good lickin’, but I learn from my mistakes.”
“I guess so.” Flint drew out his cigarette case and matches.Getting low, he thought as he took one of the three remaining sticks of tobacco.
After another minute of feeding scrap metal into the machine, Norm stopped, and put on a thick pair of black rubber gloves. He opened a chute on the right side of the machine, and steam poured out. He flipped a few more switches on the front of the device, and a set of lines of light appeared on a piece of glass he’d installed on the front.
“What is that thing, anyway?”
Now Norman smiled, and puffed out his chest proudly. “It’s a machine I built that makes other, smaller machines.” He used a set of dials below the screen to alter the picture.
Flint turned his head this way and that, and realized that the picture was a changing depiction of a mecha weapon. A gun, Flint thought. How very quaint.
“You feed in scraps of metal, input the design you want here on the this screen with the dials, and wait. There’s an old power reactor inside that melts the metal. Spokes, cogs, and crane arms inside shape the metals, and when it all cools, the end result comes out of this here chute,” Norm indicated the right chute as white smoke billowed out of it.
He lowered his head with a deep sigh, however. “I’ve been testing it for four months now. Nothing that comes out of it has worked.”
“No worries, chum.” Flint stubbed out his cigarette on an old grind wheel already half filled with old butts. Norman apparently had the habit too, he thought. “You’ll get it right enough. So, you learned a little Boxing from the old boy, eh?”
“A little bit, yes.” Norman removed his gloves and set them next to the machine. He saw the question in Flint’s eyes, and responded before the Wererat could ask. “Whole thing heats up something fierce when it’s operating, dials included. That there screen’s a fifth or sixth generation. All the ones ‘afore it burst apart from the heat. This one’s safety glass.” He paused for a moment. “I’m guessing the good master Lee Toren expects an apology?”
“That he does.” Flint lit another cigarette and handed Norman his last. “I’d come with you, but I’ve got to go buy more of these poisonous things. He’s at the in-house tavern, along with Will and Styge.”
A few agents saluted and greeted him as he left Norman’s room, and he returned the salutations with his typically easy smile. Speaking with the Engineer had brought him out of his sour mood, which was very good for him. He didn’t like going out in public with a storm cloud over his head, and with the right winning smile, he might convince the girl at the sundry goods store to give him a discount for the smokes.
“Say, Flint?” The Wererat was making his way up an access ladder into the streets when the Engineer called up to him. He looked back down at the white haired Gnome. “Thanks, for the talk.”
Flint nodded, and made his way up into the city. Stockholm was great at yelling, he thought, but I’m better at listening. At least I’ve still got that going for me.
Norman Adwar totted along through the tunnels of the Guild, picking his way between the legs of those larger than him when he could, finally entering the in-house tavern with the last drag of Flint’s cigarette on his lips.
He stubbed the end in an ashtray, and walked over to the table at which Lee, Deus and the elderly Illusionist sat, drinking warm ale. He didn’t bother sitting, shuffling wordlessly around the table until he stood next to the Gnome Pickpocket.
Lee glared down at him, and Norman got a good look at the results of his Boxing teachings. He wasn’t much good at the art of fighting, but he saw he knew enough to pummel someone like Toren.
“Well?” This and nothing more did Lee say to Norm, who stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets.
“I apologize for kicking the living shit out of you—in public yet,” Norm said with a broad smile.
Deus and Styge both laughed merrily at the bug-eyed look Lee gave the Engineer.
“I apologize, but make no mistake, I’m not sorry about it. I gave you what you deserved, though I understand why you’d be sore about it.”
For a moment, the other patrons in the tavern remained silent, until all at once, Lee Toren joined the laughter of Deus and Styge.
“Well said, Norman,” Lee said through swollen lips. He took a swig of his warm beer, and smiled wider, revealing the gaps in his teeth. “No worries about the teeth, mate. I can have a healer grow me back some fresh ‘uns. As fer the pride, well, fuck all to it.” He signaled the barman that he needed a refresher. “Pride’s a double-edged sword that I’m not too keen on anyway. Any road,” he said, accepting a new mug of ale. “Sit a spell, and tell us where you learned to fight loik that.”
And so Norm sat and shared history with them.
* * * *
“Are you certain, sir?” Hollister asked Stockholm, who had taken his seat in his office once again.
He handed the reports that Hollister had written up to the Sidalis, and smiled.
“Absolutely. We could use an official statement at least once a week, and you’d be just perfect to do it. If you want, that is,” Stockholm amended, not wanting to pressure the turtle-like man into anything. “There’s no pay raises in it for you, though. You’d be agreeing to do this completely on your own time and effort, Sven.”
Sven Hollister smiled broadly, and shook his head a little.
“Oh I wouldn’t expect any pay raise, sir. It’s just the sort of thing I enjoy doing. So, when are you, the Prime and the Headmaster returning to your posts full time?”
Stockholm pondered this a moment, uncertain of the answer himself.
“You don’t know, do you?”
“No, not really,” Stockholm admitted. “What it comes down to now is a matter of patience. You’ve done an excellent job in my stead, Sven, but you need to tear some ass around here.” He looked the turtle-man in his large, somber eyes, and wondered about his ability to ‘tear ass’, as he’d put it. “If you don’t, nobody’s going to take you seriously.”
“Oh, they take me seriously enough,” Sven Hollister said. “When I inform them that a few misplaced papers mean no payday for them, they straighten up and call me sir and everything.”
Stockholm smiled broadly at this, his face aglow with approval.
“Very good, then.” He got up and clapping Hollister on the shoulder. His hand came away a little damp. “Been in the pool?”
“A few hours ago, before I came to see you, sir,” Hollister replied. “I like to take care of myself, sir.”
Stockholm nodded briefly, and exited the office. Out in the dusky hallways, his mind seemed on fire with revelation. They had left Reynaldi in the dust, but now he thought back on the Elven Paladin’s face.
He remembered Archibald Reynaldi—and the Paladin’s sister—even if Reynaldi himself had forgotten her.
* * * *
The city of Barfor was in the southeast, not far from the desert known as the Desperation.
A hundred years before Ignatious Stockholm would be called to the deadly confrontation with a crazed gunman, a hundred years before he fell in love with a Cuyotai nearly fourteen years his junior. He was young in his mortal years at this time, and still hadn’t trained in the arts of the Knight, and several forms of martial arts still remained unknown to him. However, the ways of the Soldier were already well known to him, and three black belts were his to claim. Fighting was a way of life for him, one he put to good use as a prizefighter in the city’s arena stadium every week.
Saturday night again, he thought, glaring around the equipment room at the other hopeful competitors. Just another night to earn his rent, and beat some of the city’s ‘finest’ citizenry stupid.
One of his few friends since arriving in the city, a gray furred Werewolf clothed like a beggar, approached him from among the contestants, though he himself was no brawler. “We’ve got a new entry tonight, my friend,” the gray Werewolf said. “Elven woman, name of Delinda Reynaldi.”
Stockholm grunted, tying on his leather gloves.
“Class,” he asked without looking away from his hands.
“Best as I can tell, a Knight,” the older Werewolf said. “I can’t be wholly certain, though. There’s magic about her, you can rest assured.”
“Magic won’t help her,” Stockholm grunted. “And tonight’s special circumstances, as you’ll remember.”
Once, perhaps twice a year, the arena held an ‘all bets off’ night, where the fight only ended only when one contestant pleaded for an end, or couldn’t move. On most other Saturday nights, the contest ended when the five official judges called it over, most times before anyone suffered permanent injury. Tonight, somebody might be killed.
“I remember, Ignatious. I’m not foolish, though the girl is. She brought a little brother with her. Boy can’t be long out of diapers from the look of him, but he calls her ‘sissy’. Parents are nowhere to be found, not by my eye or nose.”
“She probably doesn’t want them to know how she earns her keep,” Stockholm said, getting up.
Several nearby contestants shrank away from him, each silently praying that they didn’t draw names alongside him. Stockholm had walked out of the arena the overall victor for three months running, and few were ready to try and claim the title of new champion—especially tonight. All feared that the soil would be their beds tonight.
The competitors were called out into the arena where a makeshift wooden stage had been erected, a single small table situated in the center of the stage, and the arena’s proprietor, a bipedal snake-man named Fang Slitherskin, spun an orb atop it.
Inside of the orb, strips of paper with the competitors’ names on them shuffled about. He drew two names, called them out, and the first match of the evening began. The rest of the competitors sat or stood along the outside of the arena, watching the first bout without much interest. A Jaft, fresh out of the northern mountains with the first tribes of his people to come into civilized lands, mounted atop a Wererat, pummeling him mercilessly with his short-handled war hammer. Everyone already knew the blue skinned humanoid would be the victor.
Stockholm’s first match of the evening was against a Kobold gunslinger, whose reflexes, while impressive, hadn’t been fast enough to land a single shot on the blurring streak of crimson violence that was Ignatious Stockholm. Three swift punches later, Stockholm’s first match was over. The second round of combat provided little more challenge, with a Human Monk practicing an ancient, outdated kick-based martial art called Tae-kyor-dough. The Werewolf deftly blocked the first kick, and landed a one-two counterattack punch combination to the Human’s jaw.
The Monk managed to throw one more kick, a low line strike to Stockholm’s shin, which sent a spike of pain through his leg. As soon as the blow struck, however, the big man took advantage of his proximity, grabbing the Human by the head and pulling it down as he drove his knee up into his face.
There was the crunch of the man’s faceplate, and a spray of blood as he flew back through the air.
The third bracket of fighters got underway, and Stockholm found himself watching the Reynaldi girl alongside a gruff Lizardman with his left arm now in a sling, and a Khan who stank so mightily that Stockholm’s eyes literally teared up.
He watched the Elven girl’s movements, the way her sword strikes centered not in her upper body, but from her hips, the interspersed spells lashing out at her opponent. Her opponent was an Illeck Pyromancer. The Illeck’s fire spells appeared to be fast and potent, but she was casting while she was backpedaling from the furiously swinging Elf woman. Her flames lashed out without any accuracy, missing their mark every single time.
The Red Tribesman watched with increasing interest as the match played itself out. The spells the Reynaldi woman used didn’t appear to have any specific nature to them, so he couldn’t figure a good guess as to what school of magic she studied. However, he did take note of three very particular facts. Firstly, all of her spells were cast with a motion from her left hand. Secondly, the spells appeared to be mostly defensive in nature. She put up several warding walls of light blue force, and created a bubble around herself at one point, shielded from the Illeck’s Pyromancy as it flowed over the bubble. Third, each spell required an exact count of three seconds to come into full effect.
A loose strategy started to form in his mind as he cleaned the scimitar in his belt. He hadn’t yet drawn the weapon for tonight’s tournament, but if he faced off with the Reynaldi girl, he’d have to. She hadn’t hesitated to swing at the Pyromancer, though the Illeck’s only physical weapon was an iron short staff. But competitors started the combat at opposite sides of the arena. That’s a whole lot of space to cross, he thought mildly. There are only two ways to stop her from using magic—to disable her left hand or cover her mouth. How do I manage this without killing her?
“Ignatious,” his older Werewolf acquaintance said, calling his attention.
He looked up into the gray, almost stone-cast face.
“They’ve drawn your opponent for the round. It’s Nathan Quan.”
Stockholm’s heart skipped a beat. Nathan Quan didn’t scare him—instead, he was inherently afraid for the man. Nathan Quan was a thirty-six year old Lizardman with a strange and mysterious illness that wracked his body with muscle spasms. He had once been an accomplished shaman for one of the older tribes living in the southeast. There were only a few tribes still living in the grasslands or towns of the southeast, as most tribes had taken to the desert, which suited them just fine.
Quan’s magic and skills with a staff were commendable to say the least, but his illness would kill him if he wasn’t careful. A blow delivered with the wrong amount of force could do him in.
“How come I didn’t see him in the holding room, or in any of the matches,” he asked.
“Same reason you can’t see Trogart and Borinero over on the other side of the arena. They’re running two matches at a time tonight.”
Stockholm thought about this, and realized that the competition was moving along much faster than most weeks. How had he not noticed?
It didn’t matter now. He had to tell the judges to disqualify Quan from the competition. Without another word to the aging gray Werewolf, he sprinted around the perimeter of the fighting field, catching Quan’s eye as he passed him on the western wide of the waiting/sideline area.
The Lizardman shaman looked pale, and Stockholm knew without asking that he was on the border of Death’s territory. He had to get to the judges, and now, before the current matches ended.
The Five Wise Men, they were often called in jest. Each of the elderly businessmen sat at a long oak table on the northern side of the stadium. Two of the five judges used spyglasses to watch the southern bout between Reynaldi and the Illeck, while the other three kept an eye on the northern bout. Stockholm approached them, Humans all, and he stood at the side of their table, panting.
“Honorable judges, I cry your pardon,” he said.
None of the judges, who were also the owners of the stadium, made any move to show they had heard him, but he knew they had.
He checked the closer bout, and watched the Minotaur, Borinero, crash his huge right fist into the smaller Sidalis’ face. The spiked knuckles on his hand poked holes in the otherwise humanoid face of the mutant, but the holes bled for only a few seconds before strange, black feelers exploded outward, wrapping around Borinero’s throat and squeezing until he passed out.
As soon as the Minotaur was down, the judges gave their attention to Ignatious Stockholm.
“Greetings and well-met crimson warrior,” Adam Sort said to him. Of all of the judges, he had the largest portion of ownership over the arena, and thus, the largest financial interest. “What can we do for our longest reigning champion?”
“You must stop Quan from fighting.” He explained the elderly Lizardman’s medical condition. He went on to detail the concept of a ‘lawsuit’, which was becoming an increasingly popular legal battle system. When he mentioned how much money Quan’s family could win if they sued, the judges wasted no time in expelling Quan from the arena.
When the Reynaldi girl stepped into the ring, he stiffened for a moment. Semi-finals, he thought. If I trump her, I move on to the final match, and that’ll be that. “Contestants,” judge Sort bellowed over the roaring crowd. “Take your positions!” Stockholm unsheathed his scimitar, as did the Reynaldi girl. A loud, boyish voice called out her name, and she turned to wave at her little brother. As soon as she turned back to face Stockholm, he finalized his battle plan. It would be a calculated risk, but it was one he was willing to take, and no rules had been set against it.
Reynaldi charged at him, closing the gap to fifty yards in a few seconds while Stockholm waited and took careful aim. If she didn’t attempt to stop what he was about to do, his scimitar would plunge into the empty box seat next to her little brother. If she flinched, as he expected she would, he would have her where he wanted her.
He hefted the sword up, taking careful aim, and stared her in the eyes, stopping her in her tracks. She looked back over her shoulder, and mouthed a single word at him when she turned back; ‘no’.
Stockholm threw, and got only a partial reaction from the Elven girl. She turned to watch the arc of the throw, and sure enough, though it gave the boy a fright, it harmed no one. She heaved a sigh of relief, and a moment later, screamed in horrified agony as Ignatious Stockholm clamped down on her left wrist with his massive, vise-like jaws.
Her blood was sweet to his tongue, and he almost lost control of himself in his enjoyment of its flavor.
With a sharp, short torque of his upper body, the Red Tribe Werewolf came away with the girl’s hand in his mouth.
Reynaldi fell the ground, her left arm spouting blood like a fire hydrant. Stockholm hadn’t expected the wound to bleed so badly, and his heart quivered as he looked to the judges. They hadn’t apparently seen the severity of the injury yet, and the Elf girl was trying to get up, despite the damage. “Don’t move, idiot.” He picking up the hand he had spit out. He saw, with some regret, that he had chewed the hand unknowingly before spiting it out. Though it could be reattached, he doubted it would ever be the same.
Stockholm pulled a strip of leather from one of his pouches, kneeling down to the crouched girl and tying off the wound to staunch the bleeding. “Judges! Declare this contest over,” he cried, looking at Sort. The old man, though looking right at him, shook his head. “You must! She’s going to,” he cried, his voice turning into a howl of pain as the Reynaldi girl ran her sword through the stomach to the hilt.
Without thinking, he turned to face her, saw the grim smile of satisfaction, and grabbed the sides of her suddenly wide-eyed face.
He wrenched her head to the side in an instant, bloody murder filling his mind instead of reason. There came a crunch, followed by a horrified shriek from the judges and the crowd. She fell from his hands limply, dead as dead can be.
He never saw the boy run to the body, didn’t hear young Archibald curse him. He didn’t hear the judges declare him the victor. He didn’t compete in the final bout of the night. Instead of any of this, he ran from the stadium, from the district, and finally, from the city.
He spent the next year of his life alone in the desert, atoning for his sin.
* * * *
Akimaru kept his hands wrapped around Striker’s throat for another minute before dropping him to the ground in the alley. A side door of the restaurant to their back opened, a scrawny black Human coming out to dump the kitchen garbage. Akimaru shot him a look, and the black man threw the bag of trash into the open dumpster across the alley, hurrying back inside as swiftly as he could go.
Striker rubbed his throat and coughed hoarsely, gaining his feet but wobbling heavily. “You can’t, do that, ducky,” he gasped at the white clad Ninja, who only glared balefully at him.
Striker hunched over, his hands on the dirtied knees of his denim pants. There were no sewer grates in the alley, and the roofs of the restaurant on one side and the items shop on the other connected, so he had no way to leap to a rooftop and be away. Akimaru had him cornered, and unlike most Guild members, Striker didn’t do better when backed into a corner. He only did worse. “I was, only doing my job, ducky,” he heaved.
Once again, the surprisingly strong hands wrapped around his throat, and he was pushed back into the oak siding of the items shop.
“You will no longer molest Harold Deus at his work, Mr. Striker,” Akimaru said quite plainly, his frosted purple and white eyes locked on Striker’s. “That is the wish of the Headmaster, sensei Fly. Do you understand?”
The odd agent nodded as best he could, and dropped on his ass, rubbing his frozen throat. Akimaru turned to leave him nursing his pains, but not before Striker could get in the last word.
“Don’t think this is over, Akimaru,” he growled, gaining his feet. “The next time you come after me, I’m not going to make the mistake of being caught off guard. I’ll get you, half-breed,” he growled.
Akimaru stiffened visibly, and Striker laughed shrilly as he darted out the other end of the alley.
Akimaru wondered how Striker would have come upon knowledge of his lineage, but decided that, for the time being, he would let it alone. He had accomplished his task, and would return to his sensei.
* * * *
Harold Deus was having the worst day of his business career. He had been stolen from several times during the morning hours by punk children, and now this strange man, dressed like a pirate, was kicking his wagon and demanding money for ‘protection’. The man popped a spider into his mouth, and Harold nearly vomited as he heard it crunch between his teeth. Already in the red for the day, he didn’t want to be beaten up for his money, and he wanted this disgusting beast of a man to clear out, and soon. But none of the city guards passing by gave the man so much as a second glance. It was as if they were afraid of him.
Thankfully, a strange young man in all white clothing sped up the road, grabbing the man who called himself Striker by the waist and tossing him with ease across the street into a horse trough.
The two men ran off then, the pirate speeding ahead of the white clad youth, and Harold thought that his troubles for the day were over.
He was wrong, however. One of the officers from the Department of Taxation came by an hour later, and Harold suddenly really was in the red.
He hoped Anna would be home soon.
* * * *
Anna Deus spent her afternoon trying to catch up on Hollister’s reports. She had enjoyed her conversation with Lee, Styge and Norman earlier, but now it was down to business. All reports indicated that after their first return home, things had fallen back into place, and all heads were accounted for, save one. One of the younger, fresher agents, a Human youth by the name of Thomas Civil, had been arrested last night whilst breaking into one of the gaming halls in the seventeenth precinct. He would be brought before a judge today for arraignment, and Anna needed to either spring him or have him shut up before he could say anything to save his own skin.
It was one of the less attractive facts of being the Headmaster, but when an agent was captured in the city of Desanadron, measures had to be taken to ensure the safety of the rest of the Guild. Only twice since taking over the Hoods had she ordered the secret murder of imprisoned agents, and she had hoped to keep it that way. One of their secret weapons was an agent who worked in the police department, a Sidalis with the power to erase memories. However, four months ago, he had died in the line of duty while attempting to apprehend a Vampire that had been stalking the city streets at night. Their ability to keep agents quiet had been severely reduced.
She pulled Civil’s personnel file from the filing cabinet, and knew immediately that she was had no choice but to order him slain. Civil had formerly been a member of one of the smaller gangs in Desanadron, a group of street thugs called ‘The Ones’. He’d been pinched for selling mecha firearms without a license, and he’d rolled over on all of his friends. The gang had quickly been locked up and each member sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment. The nine angry young men were all locked up together in Jorten Penitentiary, near the center of the city.
Anna pulled open one of her drawers, and pulled out an official notice from the Desanadron courthouses. Another of her fine forgeries, she wrote in the necessary blanks that would order that Civil be taken to Jorten to await trial. She would drop the knowledge to his former gang members that he would be joining them in general population soon. Once she had the paper in order, she started to change into a light brown business suit, the sort that lawyers wore in the courthouse.
She made her way swiftly to the seventeenth precinct, walking briskly inside with an air of authority. In the main entrance lobby, signs pointed to the police department, the precinct notary, and the courtroom. She checked the black attaché case she had brought with her, reminding herself of her current false identity before striding right into the police department. She took the corridors down to a set of iron double doors, and walked inside.
A wide oak check-in desk stood immediately before her, and she pulled down the false glasses she was wearing to get her bearings.
Two Dwarves discussed proper axe wielding technique at the check-in desk, each man wearing the three stripes to indicate their rank of sergeant. She brusquely approached the desk, like any good servant of the legal system, and slapped down the internment order on the desk. “Hey, sergeants, need this signed off on before I take it to the judge.” She used her best ‘I’m in a hurry’ tone.
The Dwarves broke off their conversation to look critically at her, and she prayed they weren’t checking to see if she was a regular.
“Easy does it, buddy, we’ll sign it.” The Dwarf on the right shifted uneasily in his chain mail shirt, which he wore over his uniform.
Sleeveless, she thought, just like Stocky’s. Was he a police officer once upon a time? She resolved to ask him about it once they were on the road again.
The Dwarf on the left skimmed the document, grabbed a quill, and signed his name to it. “Good enough?”
She nodded, and turned on her heel, getting out of the police presence as eagerly and swiftly as she dared. Her heart pounded and she made her way with more confidence to the courtroom. Cops were always on edge, observant, and suspicious of everything. Judges and court officers didn’t bother to be suspicious, since the suspicious people were brought to them by the police.
Why am I doing this? she wondered before she opened the doors that would lead her into an indented courtroom. The thought came unbidden, a secret whisper in the chambers of her heart. Am I really going to send this young man to his death? What’s the harm in letting him serve his time? We could just expel him from the Guild, and be done with it.
But she knew that this was not an option. If the precise location of their underground base were revealed to the police, they would have to up and move, and some of their agents wouldn’t escape in time.
She walked into the courtroom, where a moderate number of scruffy men were shackled and chained, all awaiting sentencing or departure to await trial. She hustled up to the judge, a bored looking middle-aged woman of the Human Race, who looked over the document and stamped it, handing it to a court officer. “Thank you for your service Mr. Peach,” the judge said to Anna, who turned and left the courthouse. She had done her evil deed for the day, and needed a stiff drink.
She had doomed a promising young man—informant though he was.
* * * *
Evening came and went, and in the morning, Anna had a headache the size of the Elven Kingdom. She had spent most of the evening in the in-house tavern, alternately singing songs with the merry, drunken agents, and crying her eyes out on Flint’s shoulder about having Civil killed. She had received word after her second drink that the members of his former gang had shived him as soon as they’d found him in general population, and it had nearly unraveled her completely.
So when she finally fell down from too much drink, the Wererat carried her to her office, cleared off her cot, and laid her down. She bawled a little while longer, smearing his fur with tears, and then passed out, cradled in his arms.
“If only you’d been born a rat,” Flint whispered as he laid her head on her pillow. He exited the office into the hallway, where he passed several dozen agents returning from their work. He tucked himself into his own bed, up in the city in a hotel room.
Now, the next morning, he sat across the desk from Anna, who had an icepack pressed against her forehead. “So what’s on the agenda for today, Flint,” she asked, taking a sip of her coffee. “Ye gods, I can almost chew it this morning,” she complained morosely.
Flint chuckled a little at this, picking away at the dirt under his claws with a hunting knife.
“Can’t be helped, boss,” he said, not looking away from his claws. “As for what’s on the agenda, not much. We’ve got a request from the gaming house on Twenty-Second Street to help fix a few games today. They’ve got a high roller comin’ into town, they don’t want him to fleece them like he has the places in Ja-Wen, Torie and Whitewood.”
Anna thought it over, and agreed that Flint and a handful of ‘riggers’ as they were called in the Guild could head on over later.
“Just a few items,” Flint said. “Fellow by the name of Twitcher wants a word with you. He’s an independent agent, wants to join the Guild.”
“What’re his qualifications?”
The Guild Prime handed her his criminal record. He had a list of warrants out for his arrest nearly as long as Lee Toren, and she immediately signed a form welcoming Twitcher to the Guild. Mostly breaking and entering, she noted, but he had a few cons on his rap-sheet as well. “Next.”
“This came in this morning.” Flint handed her a copy of the official coroner report regarding Thomas Civil.
Fifty-seven stab wounds, puncturing the kidneys, stomach, intestines, right lung, bladder and spleen. Eighteen random lacerations to the chest, back and throat areas, she read. Gods almighty, they shredded him apart.
“I know, it turns the stomach raw, but we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do,” Flint offered.
It didn’t help Anna any with her mood, or her headache.
“Last but not least, there’s this.” Flint handed over a sealed envelope. It was a purple paper, folded very carefully and scented with an odd, rose-like aroma.
“What’s this?” She turned the envelope over and over.
“Not sure,” Flint said. “It was lying outside one of our access grates this mornin’, though. No idea who it’s for, so I thought I’d play it safe.”
Anna opened the envelope, which she saw wasn’t sealed, thankfully, and pulled out a folded piece of parchment. She almost laughed out loud when she read it. It was a love letter from one of their part-time agents, a Storm Tribe Werewolf, and it was addressed to Stockholm.
Poor girl, she thought. It’s true what they say about the good ones.
“What’s got you grinning like the devil just dropped a treasure chest in your lap?”
“Oh, oh nothing, Flint.” She pulled the icepack away from her head. “You needn’t worry about this, I’ll hang onto it. Nothing else?”
“Not now, boss.” The Wererat put the knife away and moving over to the door. He looked back over his shoulder as she chuckled under her breath. “Shall I send word to our friends around the area to watch for Evergreen?”
“Oh, yes, that.” Her mind returned to the Glove of Shadows and the tracking agent who had stolen it. “Indeed, do so. If you can, find out if Reynaldi has dispatched any of his own men to hunt for her. We’ll want to be armed with as much information as we can get, and I know that’s your specialty. Get out there and network, Flint.”
He gave her a mocking salute, and left the office of the Headmaster. As soon as he was gone, she pressed the icepack to her forehead again, and pulled out the love letter. She’d received three of these in her time, and her mind wandered back to two beloved memories, and one not so beloved one.
Her first love letter was not so fondly remembered.
* * * *
She is sixteen years old, and has lived in the cottage for four years, giving the landlord an even cut of her earnings, as agreed. She is filling out, though not much in the chest. She is glad of that, because the damned things would just get in the way.
She is enjoying a nice evening off from her work, reading a James Colt novel she has just purchased, fair and square, from the new bookstore up the street. She will not steal from it, because she has seen what stealing from a bookstore can do—it can cause them to shut down, robbing her of her books.
She has not seen her mother in years, and wonders if perhaps, like her hero from the fiction novels, she should go see mama one last time, to apologize and make her peace. She decides that it isn’t worth the hassle, at least not now. She has her new book, and she wants to simply enjoy living in the world of James Colt for a few hours.
Near midnight, there is a knock at the door. She dog-ears her page, and heads to the front room.
She opens the door, and there stands the landlord, reeking of drink.
He smiles at her in a disturbing way, a bottle of ale in his hand.
“What can I do for you, sir? Collection isn’t for another week.”
He places a huge, hairy hand against her forehead, and shoves her inside, knocking her clear to the floor as he pulls the door shut behind him.
“What are you doing?”
He says not a word, flying on top of her and tearing at her clothing like a lecher, hungry for her womanhood.
“I have watched you grow into a fine young woman.” His rancid breath is hot on her neck. “This month, I want no prizes, girl. No, not this month.” He tears her pants off with reckless abandon.
He is violent and awkward, and she loses her maidenhood to his wildness, shrieking in pain and horror the whole while.
He finishes with her after only a few minutes and passes out on top of her bleeding body. She continues to scream, and in a few minutes, constables burst into the cottage and tear him free of her.
She curls up into a ball, sobbing and bawling harder than ever she has in her life.
One of the officers, is the Jaft who returned her home so many years ago, when she first fell in love with the world of James Colt. His eyes are harder, and there is an extra stripe on his sleeve, but when she looks him right in the eyes, there is recognition.
He puts a gentle blue hand on her shoulder, and she lunges across the wagon into his arms, sobbing heavily. He pats her on the back, and assures her that the Wererat is going to jail for a long time. He will never hurt her again.
She receives healing, but is told that she must stay at the old Lizardman female’s hut for three days before she can move again.
Before the Jaft leaves, he hands her the new James Colt book, stroking her hair. “You take care now, girl,” he says, and graces her with a smile.
She is grateful, and were it not for the stench of his flesh, she would love him. She does, in a way, but not as she feels she should. He has been there twice now when she needed someone to rely on, and she can offer nothing but her thanks.
The next day, a letter arrives for her. It is from the landlord, and in it he promises to sneak out of jail and come track her down. She decides that one night is enough time for healing. Despite the healer’s protestations, she leaves, tossing the love letter in the fireplace of the healer’s hut. She needs friends, she decides, and she needs to no longer appear to be a girl.
She joins the Hoods a week later.
* * * *
“You’re certain?” Fly and Akimaru sat at his tea table opposite one another, with Trent serving for a change.
He had accepted his punishment well enough, and would try not to get on the Headmaster’s bad side again—at least not for a while.
“Yes, sensei. Miss Evergreen joined us on our return trip from the ruins.”
“Yeah, she was Solomon’s girlfriend.” Trent poured a cup for himself and knelt at a third side of the table. “I don’t remember much about the whole trip, but I remember that. Akimaru took me to his place to heal up after our little encounter with one of the natives down there. She’s apt to come from that area, sir.”
Fly nodded, thinking the matter over. He could leave that afternoon with his previous company, head north on horse and be at the southern range of the mountains in a couple of days.
His sutras had aided him greatly when they traveled on foot from Desanadron all the way across the continent to Ja-Wen. They had moved at a normal pace, or so it seemed to the party, but they had in fact moved faster than any horse this side of mortality. He didn’t have any more of these sutras prepared, and he’d need the afternoon to properly inscribe them. Aside from this, did he owe it to Deus to tell her they had a lead?
Yes, he decided, he did. Honor among thieves. But who will take the Glove if we lay hands on it? Will we have to fight for it?
Considering the fact that Deus had Ignatious Stockholm on her side, he hoped not.
But Deus was only one factor. He sipped his tea. The Paladin would dispatch troopers to track down the Glove, and even if Evergreen did return to the Dwarven Territories, she could be hiding anywhere in those snowy ranges. So he added into the whole equation, ‘where do we start’?
“Sensei, if she is in the mountains, she cannot hide from me,” Akimaru said.
Fly and Trent looked at each other, and then at Akimaru. Fly had seen the questions lurking in Trent’s eyes, and decided that if he ever wanted to have a trusted right hand man again, he’d have to let him in on Akimaru’s secret.
“How is it that you can claim that, Akimaru?” Trent asked.
The white clad Ninja looked to his sensei for approval, and Fly nodded his black, scaled head. He sipped of his tea, and shuffled back a little from the table.
Trent seemed to take no notice of this, and a moment later, he wouldn’t have needed to. He fell backwards and nearly screamed.
Akimaru removed his head fitted mask, revealing a head that appeared to be carved out of white crystals. The hard, frosted eyes steamed, and the entire room started to drop in temperature.
“I claim this, Markus Trent, because I am born of a Psychic mother, and an Ice Elemental father.” The half-breed Ninja pulled his mask back on. Trent sat ready to bolt from the room, but looked over at Thaddeus Fly.
“I hope that answers some questions,” was the Headmaster’s only reply.
* * * *
On the third morning, Anna awoke from her cot, and decided that a trip up into the city was in order. She wanted some decent food and a change of scenery. She was getting anxious, and Flint’s network hadn’t yielded any information regarding the tracking agent or the Glove. He had, however, discovered that Reynaldi had dispatched two men to hunt her down, a Sidalis and a Lizardman. They were traveling west, still several days away from the city.
Annoyed at the lack of information regarding the Glove of Shadows, she left the Guild base in a huff. Her dreams had been nightmares, her rape playing itself over and over in her mind, each time the appearance of the landlord that stole her innocence becoming more and more that of a true monster.
She made her way through the dusty streets of Desanadron’s fifth district, smiling at the few people keeping early hours. Even the constables, who had no idea what the elusive William Deus might look like, smiled and greeted her with ‘good morning sir’s. Maybe it wouldn’t turn out to be such a bad day after all.
She selected a quaint little mom-and-pop country style diner, and stepped casually inside. The owner of the establishment, an elderly Cuyotai woman, guided her to her seat, pouring her a cup of coffee and handing her a menu before bustling off to greet another customer. Anna took a quick look around, and saw that the new customers numbered six strong, and were all young Lizardmen, strapped with blunt weapons and looking like trouble. She wondered about the wisdom of coming to one of the more heavily gang populated districts of the city for breakfast.
Most of the small gangs knew who she was, and who the Hoods were, but hot shots like this didn’t always care. Unless they were stupid, or suicidal, they left Stockholm alone, and usually Flint could talk his way around them, but they all had a hard-on for her. It would go down as a high mark of honor among punks like the gentlemen being seated behind her if they could claim to have laid out the famous William Deus.
One of the Lizardmen gave the old Cuyotai woman a swift kick to the ass, knocking her over as she turned away to fetch them coffee. They barked their harsh laughter at her, but the old lady did nothing to invite more trouble on herself and the cook in the kitchen, who was her even older husband.
Anna’s stomach growled with hunger, but her heart burned with fury. She was a thief, true, but she didn’t mess about with the old and infirm. They could have broken her hip with a stunt like that, and at her age, the lycanthrope wouldn’t regenerate very fast. “Pricks,” she muttered under her breath.
“Excuse me, what was that you toffer.” The butt-kicker turned in his seat to glare down at Anna.
Oh boy, she thought, I’m in trouble here. Still, she would stand her ground, and hopefully, the owners would have someone in the back on hand to take care of jokers like this. If she could stall them for just long enough, she might be okay.
She got up from her booth, and stood nose to snout with the Lizardman.
He wore no shirt, only long leather pants, heavy combat boots, and a brace of knives in a bandoleer diagonally on his upper torso. His friends were similarly garbed, and they all had a single tattoo on their right forearms of a bull’s head with a knife through it, the eyes big, bold ‘x’s.
Bullock Boys, she thought. Just great. I had to pick a fight with some of the toughest sons of bitches in this district, didn’t I?
“I called you pricks.” She puffed out her chest and got in the Lizardman’s face. “Real big men, picking on a little old lady.”
That’s right girlie, she thought to herself, bluff them as best you can.
The reptile looked her up and down, and she took heart in the fact that he didn’t seem to know who she was.
“You’ve got a hell of a mouth on you, boy.” The ruffian pressed against her, forcing her back a step. “You have any idea who ye be fuckin’ around with? We’re Bullock Boys, tenderfoot.” He drew the iron mace hanging at his side. “We’ll crush you as soon as look at you, boy, and don’t you forget it. Now step off, stranger.”
The old Cuyotai woman came with the gang’s coffee, and before she could hustle away, the punk in front of Anna turned and swung the mace hard into her retreating calf.
She screamed out as the other Lizardmen laughed—and Anna plunged one of her knives as far as she could up into the punk’s brain.
There was a whirl of movement then, and Anna tried to escape by running toward the north-facing window of the restaurant.
However, as the wood planks of the floor passed under her feet, another rounded mace struck her hard in the back, and she went down hard, coughing blood. Thick-soled work boots stomped and kicked her all over, reducing her body to an inwardly shrieking bundle of injured muscles and organs. They broke her left knee with a hard stomp, and she tried to scream, but couldn’t, as one of the punks had just shoved a wadded up napkin in her mouth as a makeshift gag.
She blacked out then, and didn’t see who saved her from certain death.
Ignatious Stockholm, Flint, and Thaddeus Fly wiped their weapons and claws clean, the Black Draconus offering to pay for the damages.
The elderly Cuyotai couple said “no thanks, just get out,” and together, the head agents of the Hoods and their unexpected ally carried Anna’s injured form to a healer.
* * * *
“So you see,” Fly said to Stockholm and Flint as a Sidalis healer worked on Anna’s ragged, beaten body. “We’ve decided to head toward Traithrock. I was looking for Deus to give her the word, but when I finally found her, you two were cleaning house with the Bullock Boys.”
Fly looked over at Anna Deus. The mutant healer used his special powers to mend the wounds all the way through, setting the bones back in place in her leg before proceeding.
“I’m surprised you helped us, to be honest.” Flint puffed hard on his cigarette.
Stockholm waved the exhaled cloud of smoke out of his face, coughing meaningfully.
“I thought the truce was, you know, temporary and whatlike.”
Fly shook his head slowly, looking over again at Deus.
Stockholm’s gaze followed, and he hung his head.
“I should have gone with her,” he muttered.
Flint put a hand on his shoulder as they stood in the waiting area beyond the bead curtain. Seems to me every healer has these damned things.
“Now now, chum, you couldn’t have known where she’d be heading. This is a rough city. She just forgot that the gangs rule in some districts, not the Guilds.”
“A hard way to be reminded,” Fly offered. He too waved a cloud of smoke aside. “Do you mind not poisoning the air with those foul things? They smell horrible.”
Flint blew an enormous cloud right in Fly’s face, twitching his lips to make the cloud in the shape of a boat of some sort. It parted against Fly’s stubbed snout, and he grunted in disgust. “You regenerate, but folks like myself can catch the black rot from those things.”
“So don’t stand so close to me,” Flint snarled, still unhappy with Anna’s decision to tell this klofchet her secret. ‘Klofchet’was a curse word in the Wererat tongue, roughly translating into ‘butt-humper’, but much harsher.
Fly took a few steps away, but came right back up as the mutant healer approached the unlikely trio.
“How is she?” Stockholm didn’t catch himself in time to refer to Anna as a man.
“She’s going to be fine.” The healer rubbed his hands together. “I’ve undone the bindings around her breasts to give her better breathing faculty. The bones are set, and the power is working through them. She’ll need to be laid up a full twenty-four hours, but she seems pretty resilient. She’ll be just fine, but I have the distinct impression that unless one of you good gentlemen stays here, she’ll try to get up and move around before she should.”
“I’ll stay with her,” Flint spouted immediately.
Stockholm gave him a brief nod of approval. “You make preparations for us to leave tomorrow, Stocky. Fly.” He extended a hand to the Black Draconus, who accepted it and shook. “We thank you. But make no mistakes, we’re still going to do better work than you Suns blokes.”
“I welcome the challenge.” Fly actually gave Flint a smile. “We’ll be heading out this evening, ahead of you. Don’t worry, we’ll only take enough steeds to take our party north. If we meet up in the mountains, we’ll keep the peace, if you will.”
“You have our word on it,” Stockholm replied. He turned to Flint, and lowered his voice. “Make sure she’s comfortable. Don’t let the good doctor get too touchy-feely, either. He looks the sort.”
Flint nodded, and the Black Draconus and Werewolf took their leave, setting about their business. Flint finished his smoke, stubbed it in the waiting room ashtray, and entered the healing room.
He grabbed a wicker chair and moved it next to the bed she lay upon. He and Stockholm had sprinted after her as soon as they realized she wasn’t in her office, afraid that she might go off on her own, as she often did when she had a bad night’s sleep. Flint had passed by her room twice in the night, and had heard her moaning within, trapped in her nightmares. He had gone to see Stockholm, who was sitting by the fire in his private chambers, reading a book. Flint had given him warning, and Stockholm had agreed to make sure she didn’t leave alone. So great had been his need for sleep during the night, however, that he’d actually slept past Anna, and had failed to follow her.
Flint didn’t hold it against the Werewolf, though. He too had slept in, and it had been Stockholm who had woken him up by tossing his bed over on its side. They’d followed Stockholm’s nose to her, and arrived only just in time to stop one of the Lizardmen from kicking her skull in. They had taken the Bullock Boys apart, and Fly had entered the diner just in time to stab one of them in the lung before the Lizardman had a chance to bash Flint’s brains across the floor with a spiked club. Now, here she lay, healed up, but still looking bruised and beaten.
Her eyes fluttered open an hour later, and he put a hand on her chest, just above her exposed breasts, to keep her from getting up.
“Where, am I,” she asked in a dry, cracked voice.
“A healer’s hut.” Flint took her limp right hand. “You got pretty banged up, boss lady.”
Her eyes drooped, and her head lolled to the side to look up at him.
“How, bad was it?”
Flint grumbled, and lit up a smoke with his free hand. The healer looked at him disapprovingly, but he went right on anyway.
“That bad, huh?”
Flint simply nodded.
She cleared her throat, and the healer brought over a glass of water, handing it to Flint.
“Only a little at a time,” the mutant said. “You don’t want her to gag.”
Flint let her take a small sip, which she took graciously.
“I thought, I saw, Fly, before I passed out, all the way,” she gasped.
Again, Flint nodded. “I’m so sorry, Flint. I know, that burns your ass.”
He stroked her hand, leaving the cigarette in a tin tray next to him to burn a little.
“No worries, missus,” he said softly. “You really had us worried, though. What were you thinking, going to the fifth district? The Bullock Boys have had it in for us for a while now. Them and the Blue Fists.” He referred to a gang of Jaft youths who mugged people at night, armed only with their knowledge of Boxing. They were brutal, vicious bastards all, but they knew better than to mess with old folks like the Bullock Boys had. On top of that, the Blue Fists let it be public knowledge that they only struck at night, so the daylight hours were safe for anyone to pass through their turf.
“You know, it would have been nice, to have a few of those guys around,” Anna managed to croak.
Flint gave her the glass, and she sipped a little more water. She coughed harshly, spraying water. “Could you, put that out, for now?”
He stubbed the cigarette, and took her hand again.
“All right, let’s get out of here, my mousy friend.”
“Not a chance.” He put a bed sheet over her. “I’ll cover you for your own peace of mind, but you’re not going anywhere for twenty-four hours. Doctor’s orders.”
“So, what did Fly want, anyway?”
Flint told her the situation, and she nodded, accepting it all. She had no qualms about a truce, but with almost a full day’s travel ahead of them, Fly would reach the tracker girl and the mountain territory first.
No biggy, she thought. We’ve come back from behind before.
She held a little talk with her Guild Prime, and dozed slowly back to sleep. Flint slept in the chair next to her cot, and the healer nipped off for a nap himself.
The mutant healer was proud of his power, and looked at the ceiling of his bedroom, only slightly regretting the lingering presence of the Wererat. He had the impression that there was a very special relationship there, though he also sensed that nothing could come of it. The wedding band on the woman’s left hand had been sort of a giveaway. “Still,” the mutant said aloud, stretching his arms and legs in his bed, all five of them. “Time heals all wounds.”
The healer’s hut was still with sleep.