A sheet of ice covered the wall of Flint and Akimaru’s cell. A single rat climbed it with an excited gleam in its eyes.
The tender soil of the earth beyond the cement wall tore apart, easily cast aside by Ignatious Stockholm’s claws.
Norman Adwar successfully pried the prison cell door open with his mecha contraptions as Styge prepared spells that would see the two of them safely outside the Fort.
“Don’t worry about the others, good Gnome,” he’d said when Norman had voiced concerns for his comrades. “They’ll make their way out, of that I’ve little doubt.”
Anna and Fly had rethought their strategy.
Since the ceiling of their cell was obviously none too thick, Fly had aimed his mouth upward and let loose wild lightning into the concrete overhead.
The ceiling had come apart quickly, large chunks of gray concrete falling hazardously down toward him.
As Anna had suggested, and already done herself, he darted for the safety under his hardwood bed.
After a minute of rumbling, he and she both stole a quick glance upward, and saw their way out.
He rolled out, and set himself in a crouch, his hands cupped together.
Anna rolled out, stepped up on his hands, and he threw her skyward.
She caught the lip of the hole, and pulled herself up into what looked like a stockroom of some sort.
Fly leaped up through with ease, using the natural leg strength of his people, and helped her fully up through the hole and into the chamber.
“Well, this is where it gets a little tricky, isn’t it?” She took in the contents of the stockroom. Weapons were arranged on neat, ash wood racks, and sets of old armor hung on hooks. Under other circumstances, she might have donned some of the armor and a weapon, pretending to be just another guard. However, in the brief description Norman had given her in his notepad, Fort Stone wasn’t host to any Draconus. She couldn’t pull it off with Fly in tow.
“Not necessarily.” Fly eased himself around the hole in the floor, over to the solid oak door.
If anyone had been outside of the storeroom when they blew through it, they would have been staring down at the two thieves when they rolled from safety. He opened the door a crack, and looked out. The hallway the storeroom opened into had large, open windows carved in the stone of the keep. Through the windows he saw an open courtyard, possibly on the northern side of the Fort. Nobody stood between them and escape. Of course, that was part of the dilemma, wasn’t it? How could he be certain the others would get free of this place, especially Lain?
He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t worry,” Anna said. “Everyone else will get out. I’m sure of it. Now let’s get the hell out of here.”
Without another moment’s hesitation, they burst from the storeroom, out into the hall, through the windows, and across the empty courtyard. Nobody witnessed their escape, save a single woman who stood atop the Fort wall that Fly blasted through with another discharge of electrical power.
She had what they had come for, and they couldn’t even see it.
Teresa Evergreen continued north as the heads of the Hoods and the Midnight Suns made their way east around the Fort. They would head back to Ja-Wen, where they would await the others. If the others escaped alive.
* * * *
In his animus form, Flint struggled up the ice. The arctic freeze of the frozen surface flowed through his claws into his body too swiftly for comfort. Finally, however, he made his way through the grille near the ceiling, and into an expansive workroom.
Several furnaces held blazing fires that pumped heat through metal tubes into the main keep, including the prison cells. A pair of Humans, probably Soldiers, were setting food onto several trays and attaching them to thin ropes.
Flint had another advantage over Stockholm in the lycanthrope department, and it was the fact that his particular Race could change shape soundlessly. He did so, and picked up a rolling pin from the counter next to him, creeping up behind the two guards. His padded feet moved him stealthily, cautiously toward their exposed backs as they grumbled and mumbled to one another about the low duty of tending to the prisoners’ needs.
Flint assessed the situation briefly. They were only Humans, and thus little threat to him in a physical confrontation. At least, this would have been the case if he were armed with more than a baking instrument, and if they didn’t have long swords at their hips and the deadly training to use them appropriately. If he gave them the opportunity, they would slay him without a second’s thought. He avoided confrontation where he could, but knew when he couldn’t.
Before they could even stand to full height, the preparations of the meals complete, he swung the pin down on the back of the head of the left-hand guard. He almost immediately wrapped the pin up around the throat of the other guard, who clawed and scrabbled at the pin until he lost consciousness. There was a brief, satisfying groan as the men congealed on the floor. “Sorry boys,” he whispered to the suddenly still chamber. “If it’s going to be you or me, I always choose me.”
“Not exactly a bad way to think about it,” Akimaru said behind him.
Flint turned and saw that the white clad Ninja had made his way to the grille, and was extending his frost covered surface around it.
A couple of minutes later, Akimaru punched through the iced over area, and pulled himself into the workroom.
“As the Obura say,” he offered, dusting himself off. “Survival is never personal. It is natural.”
Flint considered this a moment, and then led the way to the only door leading into or out of the chamber.
He focused, concentrated on his ears, thought deeply on the concept of sound. This was a talent he and his Race relied upon heavily.
While all lycanthropes had a few heightened senses, Wererats could literally turn up or down their hearing.
He pressed one large, oval, flap-like ear against the wooden door. He could just make out the sound of footfalls in the hallway.
“Anything?” Akimaru asked.
Flint held up a single finger. A pair of guards rushed past in a hurry, talking in ragged gasps about how impossible it was that someone had stolen ‘it’.
Flint’s heart dropped into his stomach; had one of the others already gotten a hold of the Glove of Shadows? If so, which Guild had claim over it?
He would hopefully find the answers in Ja-Wen, because that was where he intended to head to with Akimaru. He would be crossing through winter country without equipment, but maybe the white clad Ninja could do something to lessen the harsh conditions.
Flint and Akimaru moved slowly out into the hallway, searching for a way out. They found one without too much hassle, only having to move to the northern hallway at the end of the one they were in. Large, open windows had been cut into the stone of the keep, and a huge hole had been blasted in the outer wall of the Fort. Smoke still filtered up into the air from the hole, and though Flint couldn’t tell what exactly it had been from, he had a few suspicions.
They ran through the courtyard, each noticing that nobody stood in their way. They got out of the Fort proper, into the snows of the eastern provinces.
The two Guild members almost ran right into the backs of Anna Deus and Thaddeus Fly.
* * * *
The soil here is getting cold, Stockholm thought. He had been digging up at an angle, so that he and Rage could both climb up through the makeshift tunnel without difficulty. The earth and stones he had now come across held a portion of the dampness and chill of the surface above, and in a few more minutes, his digging claws came in contact with snow and air.
He heard a gasp from behind him.
“We’re out, ain’t we?” Rage said. “I’s can feel da fresh air.”
Stockholm smiled back at the Orc Berserker, glad to see the man’s mood had changed. Since he had stopped pounding concrete, Rage had been sulky and restless. Now, his face lit up as sunlight, in a thin shaft, broke past Stockholm’s shoulder and onto the Orc’s face.
With a few more heaves, Stockholm spilled into the snow-strewn fields of Tamalaria.
Exactly where he was remained a mystery for only a few minutes, until Rage came up from behind him and said, “Hey, dere’s da Headmaster.”
Stockholm let the snow fall off of him and looked over his shoulder. He was perhaps fifty yards away from Anna and Fly, who were dodging Flint and Akimaru’s running forms.
Well, well, he thought, the gang’s all here.
“Come on.” He put a furry hand on Rage’s shoulder.
Rage nodded and continued to beam at him, happy to be free.
The two warriors approached at speed, but Stockholm didn’t need to worry about surprising the four agents with their presence. They made enough noise, crunching through the snow, to make all four heads swivel toward them.
“Stocky!” Anna darted through the snow and would have hugged the big man, but Akimaru and Rage were both present, and neither had a clue that she was, in fact, a woman. She had already let her little ‘secret’ become ill guarded, and she needed to minimize the damage.
Instead, she stood swaying before him in the arctic winds that blew down from the north. “Good—this is almost everyone. Quickly now, can you smell any of the others?”
Stockholm held his snout up to the air, and took a couple of quick sniffs. He could, in fact, smell a Human and a Gnome moving swiftly south. He could smell many other scents, but these two in particular he knew personally.
“Styge and Norman Adwar are already down and away,” he reported, reverting to his role as Chief. “They’ll head to Ja-Wen, most likely, waiting for us to regroup. Will, how the hell did these people expect us? Did that preacher you and Flint talked to—”
“No,” the Black Draconus cut him off. “I think I know how you were found out, as well as us, Red Tribe. We’ve come to an agreement, myself and your Headmaster. We’ll be working as a single group, for now.” He gave Akimaru a slight bow. “At the very least until we get back to Ja-Wen, and question Markus Trent.”
“He wasn’t with you?” Anna asked.
“He claimed to have business to tend to in the city.” Fly clenched and unclenched his fists. “When we get a hold of him, we’re going to make him talk. It will be a very violent conversation.”
The group moved cautiously down the eastern side of the Fort, stopping after about forty yards, where they saw a pair of slender hands stretch out of a window.
Fly recognized that pale skin at once as Lain McNealy. He sprinted ahead, and stood before the surprised Necromancer woman. “Lain!”
“Thaddeus,” she gasped. She had been working slowly at the bars of her window, but wouldn’t get free anytime soon. The bars were thick, and set close together. Only because of her natural slenderness had she been able to move her hands through them.
Fly signaled Rage over, and the Orc Berserker planted his feet in the dirt, making certain he got settled in beneath the snow, grabbed the bars, and heaved back on them.
The wall groaned under the pressure, a large section of it finally breaking free.
Lain leaped out, her breath catching in her throat as her powers flowed back through her entire body.
“All right, this should be everybody, aside from the old man and the gearhead,” Flint rasped. “We can either stand around congratulating ourselves and twiddling each other’s privates, or we can get moving.”
Anna looked into the Wererat’s face, and saw his hatred for the Midnight Suns. He didn’t truck with this alliance, be it temporary or not. Apparently, he had bad blood with Desanadron’s other thieves’ Guild.
The Wererat led the way south, his anger causing him to move without caution or heed to the fact that the group was largely unarmed.
Would that really matter though, she wondered. In their midst were two Ninjas, a Berserker, a Necromancer, whatever the big crimson Werewolf was, and herself. Flint, while he wouldn’t admit it, was a Strong Arm Thug by Class, and though he had a few skills in the brawling arena, he worked best with throwing knives and short swords.
The group followed the Wererat, eventually catching up with him. They stopped at the southeastern corner of the outer wall of the Fort, each hoping to get clear of the Fort without encountering hostile forces.
Stockholm sniffed the air, Flint tuned his hearing up a few notches, and Fly brought his hands together to concentrate. Without his sutras or any other equipment, he would have to rely on the meditation techniques the Obura had taught him.
Anna silently leaned against the concrete wall of the Fort. They were leaving behind the reason they had come to Fort Stone in the first place, or so she thought. If they left now, how could they hope to take the Glove of Shadows later?
Perhaps, she thought, they would get lucky, and Reynaldi wouldn’t be able to destroy the artifact here. Hopefully, he’d have to move it again.
“Five or six troopers,” Flint said.
“Humans and Jafts, one Elf,” Stockholm added. “Moving swiftly south. Styge and Norman will be spotted if they aren’t careful.”
“They’ll be fine,” Flint said. “I just heard Norman say something to the old man about making them look like grobvriks. You know, those shelled buggers what only come above ground during the winter?”
They all breathed a slight sigh of relief, except for Fly. He had drifted far into his meditation, and found himself stretching his astral perceptions beyond anything he had in a long while.
His point of view, he discovered, was that of a single crow in a murder, fluttering around some sort of mountainous region. The bird fascinated him, its mind a jumble of meaningless, instinct-driven thoughts. Food, defecate, eat, defecate, find a corpse, find a corpse. Such delicate body parts, such fragile bones in this scavenger, he thought.
He realized, with a fright, that he had wandered seriously off course and snapped himself out of the mind of the crow.
The return trip to his own body seemed to take a disturbingly long time, but when his eyes opened, he saw only a few minutes had passed.
He realized as he wobbled back to consciousness, that there had been a woman in his field of vision. A woman, he felt certain, that the bird could see, but people could not. Why had she seemed so familiar? For now, he decided, that could wait.
“We’ve no reason to tarry.” He swayed slightly.
Anna gave him a curt nod, and together, Human Rogue and Black Draconus Ninja led the way south. Through the snow they trekked, silently agreeing that the truce between them would hold.
* * * *
For a day and a half, the mixed company of Hoods and Midnight Suns made slow progress. Each was fatigued from lack of exercise and the suddenness of their escape.
They stopped often but slept little, and would have frozen through badly if not for the strange pockets of lowered chill they occasionally passed through. Flint and Fly both had an idea of why that was, but neither Wererat nor Draconus said a word.
The night they spent in the plains did nothing for their tempers, yet none lost it.
Two long hours before the sun rose, they made their way to the outskirts of the city of Ja-Wen, tired, hungry, and chilled to their collective core. Without discussion, Anna and Thaddeus Fly led the company to a large, family-themed restaurant where they all gorged themselves completely and utterly.
Though their equipment had been taken, the guards of Fort Stone hadn’t thought that a prisoner would have any good way to use coins in their cells. In that regard, they had all been very lucky to keep their money pouches.
Near the end of their meals, Anna finally asked Fly what he intended to do next.
He held up a claw to stay her a minute before answering. “We find Trent, and beat him senseless. I know for a fact that he betrayed us all. He would have done that eventually, but this journey was the perfect excuse for him to finally make another move.”
“Another?” Styge wiped his lips with a napkin.
Fly nodded slowly, thinking back over the three attempts Trent had made over the last twelve years. Two of the attempts had come only a couple of years apart.
“Yes, another.” Lain McNealy had seated herself on Fly’s left side, and it hadn’t escaped Anna’s eyes how often she placed her free hand in his lap.
“Three years back, Headmaster Fly went on a mission out of the city, and while he was gone, Markus Trent bent several dozen of our agents to his designs. Upon the Headmaster’s return, he had to defend himself against them. Thankfully, Akimaru and Mr. Striker aided him in his combat, but we lost nearly forty men to Trent’s scheming. If it were up to me,” she said, looking meaningfully at Fly’s profile, “I would have had him executed. But the Headmaster is wise, merciful when it serves his purposes better.”
“Oh yes, merciful,” Flint grumbled. The Black Draconus had almost breathed lightning on Styge and Norman when they had come upon them, not recognizing them for who they were because of the old man’s Illusionist spells. Stockholm had turned Fly at the last possible moment, and the explosion of lightning had landed only a few feet from the Wererat Prime. Bastard hadn’t even apologized, Flint thought. “You’ve ordered your people to hunt down our agents so often I forgot how merciful you could be!”
He climbed angrily from his seat and stabbed the table with a fork, shuffling outside without another word.
Anna watched him go, and almost followed. Stockholm put a hand over hers to stay her. “I’ll go talk to him,” the big man rumbled.
Anna agreed silently, and the Red Tribesman exited the restaurant.
Flint was on an open patio, keeping out of the snowfall that fell gently on the city’s streets. Foot trails and wheel ruts stood out in the fresh powder, and a team of Dwarven shovel pushers turned down a busier street, making certain to keep the main ways cleared.
Stockholm put a hand on Flint’s shoulder as he stepped out, and gave a little squeeze. “What’s on your mind, Prime?”
Flint lit a cigarette and exhaled angrily. He had seen something in Fly’s eyes when he had spoken across the table to Anna.
He knows, Flint had thought. “She told him, you know,” he said. “She told Thaddeus Fly the one thing that has kept her and I so close.”
“She told me too.” Stockholm drew level with the Prime. He thought, not for the first time, that if Flint had only been a lycanthrope of a more canine nature, he could have fallen for the man. But certain aspects of Flint’s personality grated Stockholm’s nerves, and his incessant jealousy was just one of them.
“I don’t mind that, Chief,” Flint said, using the only nickname he had for Stockholm that the Red Tribesman didn’t mind him using. “You’re like family, in a way. But him.” He spit into the snow. “He’ll use it against us.”
“No, he won’t,” Stockholm said flatly. “He has a queer sense of honor, like all Ninja. Theirs is a world and lifestyle I only vaguely understand, but I know secrets are sacred to them. They use them as the most precious currency in the world.”
The two Hoods stood silently for a while, neither daring to disturb this temporary peace.
After a good twenty minutes, the rest of the Guild members came out of the restaurant, and they all seemed to have agreed on a course of action.
“What now, sir,” Flint said to Anna.
“Fly has found Trent through his meditation,” she said. “He’s at the Crash Pad, a little east and north of here. Lee’s there too,” she added.
Flint breathed a mental sigh of relief. He knew Lee was a greedy bastard, but he liked the Gnome Pickpocket. Flint had been afraid that Lee might have frozen to death in the plains north of Ja-Wen, traveling without the benefit of the necessary equipment.
“So we’re heading over there as a group?” He tossed his spent smoke over his shoulder, where it rebounded off of the helmet of a city guard.
The guard glared murderously up at him, but he took no notice.
“For now, yes. When we get Trent and Lee back, we’re going to interrogate Trent, find out what he knows and what he did, precisely. How he set us up. From there, Fly and I have not yet agreed on a course of action.”
“So what, I’m taking orders from this skulk now?” The Wererat pointed an accusing claw at the Black Draconus.
Fly said nothing to defend himself from the insult hurled so carelessly at him.
“I pray you’re not going to tell me that’s so, William, because if it is, I’ll wait right here until this little party is over.”
“He isn’t suggesting anything of the sort.” Stockholm once more put a patronizing hand on Flint’s shoulder. He felt the tension in the Wererat’s bunched muscles, tasted the bile that must be collecting in the back of Flint’s throat. Old hatred, he thought, as taught by Remy way back when. Way to go, boss. “For now, there are no leaders, no orders,” the Chief of the Hoods said gravely. “For now, we work as a single unit with the same purpose in mind, the same mission statement. When we have what we need from Trent, we hold council over what to do. Is everyone level with that?”
Quiet whispers of agreement met his statement, and he turned away from the company and descended the patio steps. “Fly, if you would lead the way?”
With the Black Draconus in the lead, the rather motley looking crew from Desanadron shuffled through the snowy streets of Ja-Wen. Everyone pretty much took up their roles of old. Rage kept close to Lain. She had to explain to him that she wasn’t actually going to have a baby, though, she thought inwardly, she could always fix that, given time.
Pedestrians, travelers, and even city guards moved out of their way, many clearly terrified of such a nasty looking bunch. They arrived at their destination within fifteen minutes, and much to their surprise, found Lee Toren sitting outside, enjoying the fresh air of the winter day and the polluted air of his cigarette.
His eyes went wide with shock as they approached as a group, but only for a moment. “Come to tan me hide there ol’ boss?” he asked Anna.
“Wouldn’t dream of it, friend,” she replied. “You’re a professional, and I know that. I’m only paying you so much, but trust me, a deduction is going to be made in your salary for leaving Styge and Norman to twitch in the wind.”
The old Illusionist seemed not to be paying attention, but Lee saw the quick fury in Norman’s shining eyes.
“Sorry, mates,” was Lee’s only reply to that glare. “Simply a matter of my nature.”
“Your nature could have gotten us all killed for all you’d have cared,” Norman shouted as a steady wind picked up, carrying his voice all the better to Lee’s ears.
Fly had an inkling of an idea of what was going to happen next, but he made no move to stop the little Engineer.
Norman sprinted forward, slipping just beneath Stockholm’s furry grasp, and was on top of Lee Toren so swiftly that the agile Pickpocket couldn’t move out of the way in time. His fists drove hard into Lee’s face, and they went tumbling down in a tangled heap of diminutive limbs, each flailing at the other for purchase.
“Should I stop them, sir?”
Anna’s mind barely registered Stockholm’s quiet question, but she shook her head. Fly and Akimaru stepped around the quarreling Gnomes, heading into the hotel. They had business inside, and would bring Trent out for questioning, though Anna knew that they would ask questions of their own before dragging him out. For now, she wanted to watch this little battle in the snow.
Lee needed to learn a hard lesson in loyalty, she thought, and Norman deserved a chance to finally get in some combat experience that wouldn’t prove fatal to him.
Back and forth the Gnomes tumbled, Norman punching as hard as he could wherever he found an opening, Lee trying to block and get at his knives. Twice he rolled Norman off of him, managing to get a hold of a knife handle only long enough to have it knocked away. Norman, Lee quickly found out, had a lot of potential in the area of pugilism. Back and forth his head whipped as Norman punched him, teeth flying free from his darkened gums.
His nose was surely broken, he thought, as he tried to breath through a mouth that was being pummeled over and over again.
Finally, as he tried to punch back, Norman’s left fist found purchase against his temple, and Lee’s lights dimmed, then totally blanked.
Norman Adwar stood over Lee Toren, a Pickpocket with so many years on the road and in combat that Norm had thought his impulse to attack was lunacy.
A quiet pair of hands clapped as he breathed hard, his breath misting in the winter air.
For the first time in his long life, he had openly attacked someone and come away the victor.
As Anna and the others quietly applauded him, Norman Adwar turned and vomited into the snowy street—his body filled with self-loathing.
* * * *
Markus Trent knew he was in trouble the second he heard approaching footsteps. Those steps held poorly veiled fury and violence. He knew who would be bursting in.
Sure enough, the door flew open, banging harshly on the wall, and rebounding shut right in Thaddeus Fly’s face.
Trent barely suppressed a laugh, but felt no humor when the door opened again, slowly. Fly stood in the doorway, with Akimaru slightly behind and to his left.
“Trent,” Fly growled, stepping into the room.
Trent had a clear advantage over Fly. He still had his weaponry, while the Headmaster had nothing on him except his uniform. However, with Akimaru now in the room, and Fly’s breath weapon twinkling vaguely in the Draconus’ mouth, the advantage slipped quickly into the mental filing drawer marked ‘Bad Ideas’.
“Headmaster, perhaps I can explain—”
He got no further before Fly’s hand seemed to magically transport itself to Trent’s throat. The Draconus’s other hand whipped into Trent’s right-hand pocket, and withdrew the sutra stuffed within.
Trent’s heart sank as he realized precisely the sutra’s purpose—it hadn’t been locked with Chi magic at all. It had been given to him so that Akimaru could read it as he had the bracer in the cottage to the west.
This fear was confirmed as Fly handed the sutra back to the white clad Ninja.
Akimaru removed one glove and took the sutra in hand, reading into its brief history.
“So,” Trent managed to gasp. “What is written on that sutra, anyway?”
Fly smiled hideously at him, and let out a bark of a laugh.
“It’s the language of my people, Trent. It says, ‘traitor’.” Akimaru handed the sutra back to Fly, and moved out into the hallway. “Wait right here, Markus. I’m not going to kill you, but punishment is due, rest assured.”
As soon as Fly was out in the hall, Trent darted to the window.
The grinning green face held an expression that mirrored the look Fly had given him only a minute before.
Rage followed instructions to a tee, and Trent wasn’t sure he could make it past the Greenskin without suffering severe injury.
Out in the hall, Akimaru leaned in close and spoke clearly to his sensei. “Markus Trent instructed Teresa Evergreen, one of our trackers, to follow Lee Toren. She is the one who can become wholly undetectable, sensei.”
Fly groaned and nodded. He hated Evergreen but knew she had invaluable talents. Talents, it would appear, that were now being used against him. “She informed the Paladins at Fort Stone of our coming, and the coming of the Hoods. Trent was going to have her bring him the Glove of Shadows, but she has betrayed him. She has the artifact, sensei.”
“Terrific.” Fly threw up his hands. “How in the seven Hells are we going to track her down?” Abruptly, the crow’s eye view came back into his mind. The woman had been Teresa Evergreen! The bird had been able to see her, even if he couldn’t. “Never mind that. Let’s get back in there and drag his ass outside.”
Akimaru bowed, and entered Trent’s room again.
The Human Ninja was on his feet, his rucksack on his back.
“Are you going to come back to us peacefully?”
“I will.” Trent’s entire body seemed to sag with defeat. “My plans have failed yet again. However, I have an idea where she’ll be heading.”
Fly cocked a scaled eyebrow at him.
“She comes from the Dwarven Territories, Traithrock I believe,” he said.
“Well, it’s a start anyway,” Fly muttered. “When we get outside, keep your weapons in their place.”
“Why do you say this, Headmaster,” Trent asked.
“Because for now, there is a truce between us and William Deus.” Fly turned his back on the traitor and moving out into the hall. “Akimaru, bring up the rear. Trent, you stay right behind me.”
In single file, the three Midnight Suns, Ninjas all, exited the Crash Pad.
Fly’s first sight outside was the Pickpocket Lee Toren laid out in the snow. Then he saw blood on the hands of the other Gnome. “Well, Norman Adwar. I see that victory is yours.” His blunted, reptilian snout wrinkling at the smell of vomit in the air.
“Shut it, you,” Styge admonished the Draconus harshly. He’d rummaged through his bag for bandages, and he was taping Norman’s battered hands. “The youngster isn’t exactly proud of what he’s done. We’re not all savages like you.”
Fly stared in wide-eyed astonishment at the Mohawked old man. For the gods’ sake, he thought, the man’s just an Illusionist! How dare he speak to me that way! But he kept the temper in check. A truce was on, and he wouldn’t be the one to break it. Not yet, at any rate.
He reached behind him, and grabbed Trent by the arm, thrusting him into the middle of the group. “Speak up, and beg for their forgiveness, idiot,” Fly growled.
The combined glares of the Hoods and Midnight Suns bored into him, and Trent squirmed inside. His eyes lingered for a long moment on the face of Ignatious Stockholm, a man he had feared for ten years since their first encounter. Nobody, not even Akimaru, scared him as much as the crimson lycanthrope.
“I sold you all out,” he said gloomily. “The Glove of Shadows is now in the hands of Teresa Evergreen, and I am to blame. I beg your forgiveness, but accept your punishment.” He knelt and hung his head, as was Obura custom.
Also following custom, Akimaru came forward and clutched a large handful of his hair, pulling his face up to look at the surrounding agents.
They all wanted a piece of him, and he knew it.
The first to come forward, surprisingly, wasn’t Fly, or Stockholm, or even William Deus. It was the old man, Styge.
He stood before the Ninja, the winter wind flapping his robes about his thin, frail frame. He cupped Trent’s chin with one long fingered, gnarled hand. “Young man, you’ve caused us all a lot of grief.” His breath rattled harshly in his chest as he hadn’t fully recovered from manifesting his illusions in the prison cell. “Still, I can’t find it in me to lash out at you, youngster. After all,” he said, letting go of Trent’s face to take a step back and throw his arms wide, indicating the whole of the group. “If you hadn’t, this sight would not be before me! All these folks, together for a common purpose for once, makes my heart sing with joy! I’ve never held a grudge agin’ you folks. You just don’t offer me the perks Will does.” He returned to his place in the group.
Next came Flint Ananham, the Wererat who served as the Hoods’ Prime. He let the claws of his left hand spring out, and he pushed them up against Trent’s throat. He knelt down, and peered into the Ninja’s eyes. “The old man may forgive you, but I sure as fuck won’t you little punk. You’re the worst kind of scum. It’s people like you that make a bad name for Ninjas.”
He let one claw flicker across Trent’s left cheek, letting a thin trickle of blood flow down his face. He too returned to his place.
Now Lain McNealy towered over him. “If I’m around when you die, Trent, I’m going to raise your body and let another zombie rape you with a rusty pipe.” She spat in his face, and moved next to Fly.
Nobody moved forward for a moment, until Ignatious Stockholm, huge and menacing, knelt down in front of him.
“Markus Trent,” he said.
The Ninja’s heart beat faster and faster, near the point of bursting. As the Red Tribesman leaned in closer and closer, he felt the urge to jabber and scream, to writhe free of Akimaru’s grasp.
“You have known me, boy. You have known the taste of my claws, the taste of my blade. My weapons are gone now, thanks to you, as are the rest of all of our supplies. You will replace them, tonight, while the rest of us take council with one another. If our two groups remain together, Hoods and Midnight Suns joined in purpose, I shall be your jailer. If we should separate, I feel certain that Akimaru here will take up the task. Either way, you’re no longer an ally. You’re a prisoner in our midst, and the mobile cell that is the company will hold you in contempt for a long time to come. Yet, you may redeem yourself.” He said this last bit very softly. “If you are very, very lucky, and very, very careful.”
When Stockholm stepped back from Markus Trent, nobody else came forward. Instead, Akimaru let Trent’s head loll forward and put one foot on the Human Ninja’s back. He pushed as hard as he could, pitching Trent forward, into the snow.
Trent rolled over, and looked up into the hard, dead eyes of the white-clad Ninja, whose masked face was pressed nose-to-nose with his own.
Akimaru leaned further forward, pressing the place where his mouth should be next to Trent’s ear.
“The Red Tribe speaks true, Markus. You must redeem yourself, absolutely and certainly. If you don’t, then there will have been no reason for me to save you in the mountains. And if we should have to return to such a place again, and you have not redeemed yourself, I will let you die by the hands of the beasts.” Akimaru whispered, letting no one else hear him.
Between the Red Tribesman and Akimaru, he might not live to see his next birthday, Trent thought.
“All right,” Anna said after Akimaru helped Trent up. “Let’s head to the nearest building big enough for us to hold council. We’ll decide what we’re going to do now that everyone’s here, and the Glove is gone. We may go our separate ways again, or we may continue on as one large group. Either way, we’ll decide during our council.”
All were in agreement on the matter and they all made their way to the city’s largest library for council.
They were not the only ones holding council at this time.
* * * *
Archibald Reynaldi considered the suggestions his highest-ranking officers had given him. After searching for perhaps five hours for signs of the former prisoners, a team of Knights had concluded that the entire group, regardless of Guild allegiance, had gone south, to Ja-Wen. In the process of escaping, two troopers had been slain, in the workroom that connected to the cells from above. How exactly any of them had managed to get into the workroom was still beyond the Elven Paladin, but he wasn’t really thinking about the how of it. His concern was only for the aftermath of their escape.
He could accept that any of the escapees had stolen the Glove of Shadows. They scarcely would have had time between the moment of their escape and the hustle and bustle of the troopers of the Fort going about their business. On top of that, he thought, he had issued a general alarm to search for Lee Toren in the area surrounding the Fort. Surely not even the brash William Deus would have been foolish enough to attempt the tower if the entire base was on such high alert.
Could Reynaldi had been double-duped and betrayed by whoever had spoken with the preacher in Ja-Wen? One of Fort Stone’s ranking officers, Captain Fillings, had suggested that as a possibility.
“And why not,” the Minotaur captain said to the meeting chamber as a whole. “While we concentrated on the prisoners we had, we forgot about the ones we didn’t! That Pickpocket probably knew where to go all along. He must have had a way of hiding himself from us, and he tailed Lord Reynaldi to the tower. All he would have to do then was wait for the perfect opportunity!”
“Yes, that does seem very fitting of him,” another officer said.
The Dwarven officer scratched his thick, black beard as he knit his eyebrows close together. “Where would he go after taking the artifact? Where could he hope to hide from the Order? We have Forts in almost all lands of Tamalaria!” A number of the officers grunted agreement, and a couple even laughed, as though the idea of escaping the Order of Oun were a ridiculous one indeed. Back in the days before the War of Vandross, one could go days, even weeks, between outposts. After that terrible war, dozens of Forts went up as many Paladins and Knights serving the Order at the time gave up lands and money to spread their influence across the land.
Only two non-commissioned officers were present for Reynaldi’s meeting, men he had trusted for years, and neither of them had said a word, or ushered a single chuckle. Now, the Elven Paladin looked to them. On the left stood a Sidalis in a simple cloth uniform, the green camouflage pattern matching his eyes almost perfectly. His physical appearance was highly non-humanoid. A bipedal hornet, his long, translucent wings folded on his back, Corporal Dean Masters took no prisoners and offered no mercy in combat. Two thin antennae stuck out on either side of the square camo cap on his head, and the bulbous black eyes blinked back at Reynaldi as they twitched.
Across from the mutant, Masters, one of the Order’s only Lizardmen cleaned his katana on a specially woven rag. Like Masters, the Lizardman wore no armor, and he only wore two weapons on his right hip. He sheathed the katana, and drew the shorter sword set next to it in his red sash, inspecting the edge critically. This man was Sergeant Bergeon, and he was in charge of teaching the proper techniques of caring for one’s weapons.
“Corporal,” Reynaldi said.
The Sidalis blinked rapidly, and took a step forward. The weapon strapped to his back, a trident, shifted a little between his wings.
“Anything to add to the conversation?”
“Just this, sir.” His voice droned high and wheezy, yet devoid of any inflection. “There are two distinct areas where the Order has little or no influence or favor. The Elven Kingdom, and the Dwarven Territories. Of the two regions, I have the distinct feeling that the thief would head to the northern mountains of the Dwarves and Minotaurs, sir.”
Reynaldi nodded, and several of the officers muttered among themselves.
“And you, Bergeon?” Reynaldi asked the Lizardman. “Do you concur?”
“Indeed,” the sergeant said. “If Dean and I move out now, we may catch up with our quarry before he arrivessss in the mountainssss.”
Reynaldi stood at the head of the long conference table, the assembled officers following suit.
“Do it,” Reynaldi snapped. “If he gets to the safety of those mountains before you, you’ll have to be very discreet in your pursuit. Obey the laws of the territories. Be mindful of the Dwarves’ many religious sects. But above all else, get that artifact back here. I’ll not let Lee Toren run rampant with something like the Glove of Shadows.” He pounded his armored fist on the conference table for emphasis, trying to hide, both from the others and from himself, the temptation that the glove presented even to him. How, he wondered, could an evil being like Lee Toren resist that power? The Sidalis and Lizardman saluted stiffly and left through the creaking double doors. When they were gone, Reynaldi dismissed the rest of the assembled officers, and sat back down at the head of the conference table.
If Toren didn’t have the Glove, no matter. He would have whoever took the Glove from the tower study executed immediately upon their return to Fort Stone. Most of the Order had abolished execution, but Reynaldi was an old-fashioned sort, all holy wrath and vengeance. He smiled broadly at the idea of hanging Lee Toren. He would not only volunteer to be the gallows man, he wouldn’t bother to wear a mask.
“Oun bless me,” he whispered.
* * * *
Two days south of the Elven Paladin, the parties agreed to split. Their styles of command and operation simply differed too greatly. They agreed that if they should run into one another, no weapons would be drawn, no assaults initiated.
The Midnight Suns left with a few parting words to the Hoods, and took themselves to an Alchemy shop, where they could get instant teleportation back to Desanadron. The Hoods would wait two hours, and then follow suit, as had been agreed during their council. How each group approached the situation from there would differ, and Anna wanted to get an idea of how things were going back home.
Fly would contact her three days later, though she did not as yet know this. Anna’s mind was filled with concerns for her party members, especially Lee Toren, who’d wanted to be done with her and the Hoods since his harsh beating from Norman Adwar. She didn’t know that Akimaru would reveal to Fly the location of Teresa Evergreen’s origin, or what it meant. She didn’t know that Norman would lock himself in his room and refuse to leave.
She didn’t know she was going to have a near death experience.