Two full days later, traveling slowly due to their numerous injuries, and carrying Styge’s body with regard and respect, the Hoods and Midnight Suns arrived back in Traithrock, where they all practically collapsed at the gates.
The following morning, Anna found herself being shaken gently awake by Flint, who had nearly broken a Dwarven healing attendant’s arms for trying to remove her clothes.
“Nobody tends to this man but me,” he had yelled at them. “He needs his own room for healing, and I’ll tend to him with your guidance only.”
“I still can’t believe he did it anyway,” Anna said to her Prime and best friend. She had come to miss him over the course of the journey, though they were rarely more than a few yards apart at any given time. But this journey, she realized, was her opportunity to get to know her trusted Chief, become aware of what he was capable of. And she had also come to know Thaddeus Fly, a man who had once been so intent on becoming a member of an elite, family-like team of elders, that he had gotten himself purged from that team’s records entirely. Most importantly, she had come to respect Fly.
“I know,” Flint said. Styge had been officially pronounced dead the night before, when Anna had come fitfully awake from a nightmare in which the ashen-faced Half-Giant construct had chased her alone through the ancient, underground city, never once stopping in its pursuit of her. “But you know what, boss,” he said, looking at Anna gravely. “I think he knew his time was coming.”
“What makes you say that?” She sat up, wincing at the sharp pain in her spine. She’d been through a lot of hiking, battering, running and fighting in the last couple of weeks, perhaps more than she had in years. Maybe a few excursions a year would be in order, just to keep her up to speed.
“Well, he started on that dragon picture a good month before Lee came to us about the Glove of Shadows. He’s still got it, by the way. Says he wants you and Fly to come to a mutual decision about what to do with it. Says he heard the stories about it from Stocky, and now he won’t even try the thing on.”
Flint laughed, but Anna did not join him in his mirth.
He gave her a worried look after her long, studied silence. “What’s wrong, boss?
“It is cursed, though,” she whispered, putting her head on her knees, which she pulled up against her chest. “Styge is dead and Rage’s eye can never be healed. Any word on Norman?”
As when they had returned to Desanadron after Ja-Wen, the Gnome Engineer had found a hotel room in town, and locked himself in. This time, he didn’t even talk to anyone through the door. His quiet musings could be barely discerned when Flint propped his ear against the hotel room door.
“Nothing, Anna, sorry.” Flint shook his head. “What do you figure’s got him so shook up this time around? I mean, you saw how easily he shot that freaky Giant-thingy at the end, so what’s his deal?”
On this, at least, Anna thought she might have an answer. She pulled her head up off of her knees, and looked past Flint’s twitching whiskers on his snout, past the ratty teeth, seeking out his inner mind in his eyes.
“Think about it, Flint. Gnomes make great thieves and better scientists, and we had one of each in our company along the road. Yet one thing separates Lee Toren from most Gnome thieves—something that Norman has in common with every Gnome scientist, something important to his current mindset.”
“What’s that?” Flint handed her a cigarette as he lit another of his own.
She accepted, inhaled off of the same match as he, and let in a long drag.
“Violence, Flint. Killing, the death of another living being at one’s own hands. How many of those mutants and freaks did he shoot? Did you keep count, because I certainly couldn’t.” She waved her cigarette around almost wildly.
Flint’s eyes went wide, and she could see that revelation had struck a nerve in the Wererat.
“You understand now, don’t you? Gnomes, as a rule, detest the idea of taking another sentient being’s life. Even their mages use mostly non-lethal spells. So, how many did he bring down with his own two hands, Flint?”
The door of her room opened a crack, and the Hoods’ Headmaster stiffened slightly before seeing the tuft of red fur through the crack in the door.
“He’s okay, let him in,” she called out to the Dwarf guarding her room, on orders from the Wererat.
Stockholm brought a tray of steaming hot food with him as he was admitted.
“Something from the kitchen, or did you whip this up yourself?” Anna asked.
“Myself.” The Red Tribesman handed bowls to Anna and Flint, a sandwich to each as well. “Norman still won’t budge, and the Midnight Suns are going to see an Alchemist tomorrow morning for transport back to Desanadron. They are tired of traveling in these mountains and in the snow, as I imagine you both are.”
The Headmaster and Prime of the Hoods were both shoving food greedily into their mouths, closing off discussion for the moment.
Stockholm took a seat in one of the available sturdy rockers, squeezing into it with just enough room to breath. “Fly told me he’d have council with you regarding what should be done with the Glove of Shadows once we get back home.”
“Stocky, ol’ buddy ol’ pal,” Flint said around a mouthful of assorted meats and buttered bread. “How many of those things you figure Norm topped off?”
Stockholm rolled his eyes back in his head remembering each kill he had witnessed, and trying to remember the total number of bullet reports. He knew that when they had left the ruins, Norman had left the revolver behind, because the barrel and the chambers had become so heated from firing that the metal had become molten.
“Near as I can estimate, somewhere in the region of forty to fifty kills for Norman Adwar,” Stockholm said evenly.
Anna nearly choked on her own sandwich, her eyes wide as saucers at the high number.
“Indeed, his mecha weapon was deadly, and he was a fairly accurate shot. However, someday a gun will always get you killed by not functioning properly,” Stockholm said, walking away from the Prime and Headmaster. “With a sword or your own body, you’ve only got yourself to blame for failure.”
* * * *
The next morning, Anna Deus, Ignatious Stockholm, Flint Ananham, Lee Toren and Norman Adwar, who wouldn’t deny the departed this last unspoken request, stood in silence as Styge was interred in the earth of the cemetery just west of Traithrock. Of all of the company’s members, he had been the quietest, the least intrusive, and it seemed at least to himself most of the time, the least useful. However, every Hood there knew that without Styge’s Blue Dragon, the Guardian would have slain them all. They, and the Midnight Suns as well, owed him a great debt.
Perhaps that was why Thaddeus Fly had delayed their departure until after the funeral.
Few words were exchanged between the Hoods and the Suns—all members with their own scars to heal, their own harsh dealings with the environment, the ruins, and the Elven Paladin Archibald Reynaldi to remember. And there, Anna speculated, they might yet find an answer.
Each group had also gained something critical to their own members’ lives through the whole experience.
Yes, Anna wept as a Dwarven preacher, a tallow-faced young Dwarf named Kurik Dudzick, delivered the final prayers for Styge’s soul. Yet out of all of this messy business, she had gained something far more valuable than an artifact like the Glove of Shadows. She had obtained a greater, deeper understanding of those who had survived the journey, including the Midnight Suns.
As the congregation was dismissed from the cemetery (Dwarves believe that only the gravediggers should bear witness to the casket being lowered into the ground. They are a superstitious lot, to this very day.), Anna spotted Fly holding hands with Lain McNealy, and thought that perhaps, with any luck, the Black Draconus Ninja had found something he had long sought as well. The Glove of Shadows had been a tempting prize, but it had become a means to an end. It had been a grand excuse for all of them to get out of the city.
As the two companies left the gated and fenced cemetery, Anna drifted over to Fly. “We’ll talk when we get back to Desanadron, Thaddeus Fly,” she whispered. “But I think I already have an idea what I want to do with the Glove of Shadows.”
And so life returned to normal for the residents of Desanadron, or at least, for those brave souls who had set out on a quest to retrieve the Glove of Shadows.
Lee Toren collected his twenty-five hundred gold pieces for his troubles, shared a few drinks with Norman Adwar, who still remained strangely quiet, before departing from Desanadron to find new suckers to swindle.
Borshev and Hollister were informed that in the event that the Headmaster and his Prime or his Chief ever left together on a journey again, they would once again be entrusted with the running of the Guild.
Anna decided that after young Mr. Civil and his ugly business, no more secret executions would be carried out in the name of keeping their base of operations a secret.
“No secret is worth a man’s life,” she had told them earnestly before departing again, leaving the Guild in Flint’s capable hands.
The Wererat had learned a great deal from observing Stockholm over the last few weeks. His own style of command curved a little towards Stocky’s own, and Stockholm tried not to be too harsh with the agents his first few days back. He even smiled and shared a few drinks and laughs with the regulars once he was back in his groove. Yes, these two gents had certainly learned a lot out on the road.
Norman Adwar got his lab cleaned up, and produced one more revolver on his weapon-making machine before he tore it apart, bolt by bolt and screw by screw. He took his time, being methodical about it. If he ever decided to look past the horror of the numerous lives he had taken in the ruins, he would put the machine back together again. For now, he left the one revolver he made in a heavy chest that required two hands to open. If there ever came a time when he couldn’t open the chest, he would leave the contents inside forever. End of story, end of game, he thought.
He had learned one of the most important lessons of anyone in the Hoods—monsters take many forms, and some are in our own hearts and minds.
Across the city, in the warehouse that is home to the Midnight Suns, Markus Trent took at least half of his torture devices down off of the walls of his chambers. He had come to understand that Fly had done he had done honestly, but without a solid understanding of the consequences. He really couldn’t hold Fly’s misjudgment against him anymore. The Black Draconus had admitted his mistakes, and for the first time in Trent’s life, he accepted someone’s apologies without condition.
Several floors below, in Fly’s locked chambers, well, let us just move on and say that the headmaster finally accepted Lain McNealy’s come-ons. He finally forgave himself for his earlier transgressions in life, and found a way to obtain that sensation of truly belonging—in a familial sense.
Yet when they were finished, both of them, along with Trent, wondered once more about poor Rage, blind in one eye.
What they didn’t know was that one of the shards of metal that had pierced Rage’s eye had found a nice spot in his brain.
Though the Dwarven healers had been able to remove it. They did not release it before the shard had done its work; it freed a group of neural receptors in his brain, and Rage would soon find he was able to grasp Lain’s teachings almost as easily as any normal Human or Elven child might.
What of Akimaru, the half-breed elemental and partial Psychic? The white clad Ninja requested one whole month of free time as soon as the company had returned to the Guildhall.
Fly had granted him his request, and Akimaru hadn’t even stuck around to say good-bye.
So what had the white clad Ninja learned?
Something very simple, actually, he thought as he lounged in a snowy woodland path southeast of Ja-Wen. He loved the snow and the cold of winter. But then again, that was only natural, now wasn’t it? However, his trip out east had served a double purpose, one to which Deus and sensei Fly had agreed upon.
They had given Akimaru the Glove of Shadows, since he had assured them both that he had a friend in the eastern lands who could deliver it where it was going without raising too much suspicion.
Akimaru now sat on the crest of a hill, watching his friend approach from the north on the back of a huge, black stallion. Even with his own discerning eyes, Akimaru still couldn’t have guessed what his friend was if he hadn’t been told outright.
The rider skidded to a halt in the snowdrifts, and called down softly, “Hail and well met, Akimaru, half-breed Ninja.”
“Hail and well met, Grigory Molis, half-breed Knight.” Akimaru smiled devilishly beneath his concealing white mask. He handed the wrapped Glove of Shadows up to Molis, who undid the wrapping, looked at the Glove, and shuddered.
“You know what is asked?” Akimaru said.
“Yes-yes. No need to mother hen me about it, my friend,” the half-demon Molis said. “I’ll be sure this gets to the right hands straight away. Stay well, my frosty friend.”
“Go well, my damned friend,” Akimaru replied, and lay back down in the soft, comfortable snow. He starts to chuckle, and then roars with horrific cackling. How ironic, he thinks, that it should come so perfectly full circle.
To the north, Archibald Reynaldi was getting impatient with the long wait without word from the Sidalis corporal, Dean Masters, or the Lizardman sergeant, Bergeon.
As he washed his face in his private lavatory sink, he wondered if perhaps they had been bested, slain in combat with a bunch of thieves.
No, he decided. Not those two.
Late that evening, the Elven Paladin was called down to the front gates of the Fort, where he was greeted by a remarkably noble-looking young Human, possibly a Knight, possibly a very noble Soldier.
With a heavy heart, the man told Reynaldi that Masters and Bergeon had been slain, but they had brought him from Fort Flag for backup.
He had managed to take the Glove of Shadows from Lee Toren after beating him and throwing him in stocks. Now that artifact was rightfully Lord Reynaldi’s to deal with as he saw fit.
“You know,” the young Knight said, leaning in close. “I do believe there is one way for the Order to use this thieves’ tool for a divine purpose.”
Reynaldi pricked up his ears, unwrapping the Glove of Shadows, still perfectly intact. It had drawn him since he’d discovered it—and he’d delayed his original intention to destroy it.
“Do you have any heretics who won’t confess their crimes against the Order down in the cells?” the Knight asked
Reynaldi nodded his head.
“My good Lord Reynaldi, the Glove of Shadows can be used to steal anything from a man. That includes the truth.”
Had Reynaldi been a vulgar, crass or baser being, he might have felt an erection form from the sheer excitement of such an idea. However, he was pure of heart, and would take the Knight’s suggestion as soon as he went back down to question the heretics against the Order in the morning.
When morning came, he put the Glove on, asked the heretics his questions, and wiped the Glove over their chests.
Two of the three accused heretics immediately confessed to demon worship, and were put to death.
The third man confessed to the sin against the Order of adultery against his wife, for which he was whipped and then released.
How glorious is this, Reynaldi thought with glee. I can go to each Fort, and we will no longer have to play around about getting the truth from the accused. I can take the truth from them with this. In no time, I’ll become the greatest man of the Order.
That night, a freak accident of nature occurred. The southwestern tower of the keep inside of Fort Stone was struck by not one, not two, but three bolts of lightning.
Only one person had been present when the tower was struck.
Archibald Reynaldi fell victim to the curse of the Glove of Shadows. Where this mysterious artifact is now, is anyone’s guess.