Teresa Evergreen had expected pursuit. It stood to reason that as soon as she betrayed her beloved Markus Trent, the Midnight Suns would be hot on her trail. She just hadn’t expected them to take so long to come after her.
She crouched atop a rock spire along the first of the footpaths into the northern mountains, looking down at the Midnight Suns. She’d been waiting in a nearby cave for two full days.
Earlier this very morning, before the sun had fully come into view, she had seen a strange mutant flying past, a hybrid of man and hornet, with a Lizardman gripped in its hands. They appeared to be working together, and if her instincts were still to be trusted, they too were looking for her. “Well, well, the game gets more interesting all the time,” she’d whispered to herself.
Now, however, looking down at the Midnight Suns, she realized that the game wasn’t all that fair. After all, they had no way of finding her, so long as she kept her wits about her and her powers active.
Her heart skipped a beat, however, when the white clad Ninja, Akimaru, looked up toward her. Had her cover wavered slightly?
But no, Akimaru looked away from her and up the trail again, following just behind a groggy Rage.
Teresa followed after, leaping from stone spire to stone spire, nimble and agile as ever. When the footpath the Suns followed turned west, she continued north, navigating and negotiating steep inclines and jutting mountain faces.
She had left marks of her passage, but unless Akimaru was inspired to leap up onto a rock spire, nobody would find them. Trent, however, just might, she realized, and increased her pace. She had to find someplace to hide, and she had less and less time to do so. If the Midnight Suns had arrived finally in the mountains, then the Hoods wouldn’t be too far behind.
Though her powers nearly rendered her untraceable, she knew one of the Hoods could find her. Not Stockholm, no, and not the Wererat either.
But that damned Illusionist might be able to see right through her veil of invisibility. On top of that, she had to worry about the mutant and his Lizardman friend. She had no idea if they could successfully track her down, but she didn’t want to take any chances.
Where could she go, in the mountains, where she could successfully take refuge? Certainly not with Solomon, she thought, he’d want to wring her neck for leaving him for Markus Trent.
But the ruins, she thought. Those ruins could make do.
* * * *
“Remember, head straight back,” Stockholm said in a low voice to the horses as the rest of the company headed into the mouth of the hills that lead up into the mountains proper. Stockholm released the bridle of one of the chargers, and it led the other horses south and east again, toward the city of Desanadron.
Finished with their purpose, the Red Tribesman hadn’t wanted to risk them being slain by wild creatures waiting for them at the foot of the hills.
“That was real noice of you, mate, real noice,” Lee grumbled, walking along next to Norman Adwar at the rear of the ascending company. “Now how the hell are we gonna git home?”
“The gods gave us each two legs, Lee,” Stockholm’s replied before heading up toward Anna.
Flint leaned back toward the two Gnomes from his spot in the middle of the company.
“Four sometimes,” the Wererat said with a grin. He coughed harshly, and lit another cigarette.
“Sure, loit another one ‘ere my ducky,” Lee said. “You sound roit as rain me mousy friend.”
“Piss off,” was the only reply.
The Hoods made their way up the footpaths, the rain left behind them in the flatlands of the northern plains. Here, in the hills fronting the Dwarven Territories, the air felt cool and clammy, damp with the snow they would soon be passing into. Knowing that the Dwarven Territories never experienced anything but wintry conditions, everyone from the company had brought their snow gear, and started to strap it on at around midday, when the elevation started to rise greatly. They were in the Territories now, without a doubt, and the first of the snows could be seen up the trail.
The Hoods didn’t break for a meal at noon, choosing instead to push onward. Anna had guided them to one of the easier climbs up into Dwarven lands, the slopes gentle enough that even Norman Adwar and Styge could make their ways up without too much trouble.
Stockholm fell back several times from his position up near the front, each time offering to carry the old Illusionist, but Styge refused him politely.
His attention kept darting off to the east, where he thought he could just barely discern someone hopping around the higher spires of rock like a frog or grasshopper. Nimble, he thought, whoever that was.
In this fashion they marched throughout the daylight hours, the old Illusionist finally taking up the Red Tribesman’s offer as late afternoon shifted into early evening. Flint let Norman ride on his back for a little while as well, Lee complaining about not getting so much as an offer of a ride.
Anna laughed at the expert Pickpocket, whom she knew to be more than sturdy enough to handle the wintry conditions of the mountainous Dwarven Territories.
As the sun set in the east, the company found a small alcove set in the side of the mountain and made a temporary shelter there for the night.
No plant life had been seen in the last hour of their travel, snow blanketing the area eternally. This told Anna that they had made excellent time. The Hoods would be atop this particular mountain in another half a day, so long as they continued to follow the twisting, circling path they were on, and then they could make an easy trip north, to Traithrock. In the Dwarven capital they would hunt down information where they could, and try to figure out their next move in the comfort of Dwarven hospitality. Gruff, hard working, and often combative people though they were, the Dwarves also knew a thing or two about how to treat travelers.
The Rogue wondered if Stockholm had spent any time here, among the Dwarves, and after everyone else had gone to sleep, except for her, Flint and the Red Tribesman, she asked.
“Yes, I have lived in these mountains, though not in Traithrock. The people there know me, but not so well as the Monks of the Kento temple in the far west. Their temple sits on a cliff face, with a long drop to the ocean on its back side.”
“That’d be one hell of a drop if someone used the wrong door to duck out for a squat,” Flint joked.
Anna and Stockholm both laughed for a moment before Stockholm turned serious again.
“You know, we had one young apprentice make that mistake,” he said evenly. “Luckily for him, the masters were able to save him. They tossed him a sutra scroll that allowed him to float down to the water, gentle as a feather. He had to swim around for a while, but they got him back up to the temple.”
“So, did he finish his training all right,” Anna asked.
Stockholm grunted a harsh laugh. “He was expelled a month later for laying with one of the chambermaids. Sex was not allowed in the temple grounds, you see.”
Flint balked at this. “You mean to tell me that the whole time you’re there, you can’t have any romping around? Well, no offense, my fine furry friend, but it’s a good thing you’ve got a strong willpower.” Flint puffed on his smoke. “I never would’ve lasted a month!”
Anna punched him in the arm, and took a sip off her aleskin.
“What? I’m serious boss. Life of celibacy just isn’t my style!”
“Really?” She felt slightly tipsy from the ale she’d consumed throughout the evening. “Just when was the last time you got lucky, mouse?”
Flint rolled his eyes and thought back. “Four months,” he said. “She was a fine piece of…” he stopped when he saw their faces.
They each tucked in for the night then, unaware that the Midnight Suns were camped less than a mile away, on another of the mountains.
* * * *
“Good thing we’re both cold-blooded,” Bergeon said to Dean Masters as they surveyed their surroundings. “Did you notice those footprints on the taller spires when we were flying past?”
“I did.” The Sidalis cleaned the tip of his spear with some of the snow on the ground and a rag. “I don’t think any of the thieves we’re after could have done that. You know, Lee Toren wasn’t with those prisoners. Perhaps you were right before.”
“What do you mean,” Bergeon said, licking the air with his tongue to get a good whiff of the air around them.
“I mean perhaps we should leave them alone. That Orc was no laughing matter, friend, and the Necromancer woman apparently has a good deal of power at her disposal.. They’re beyond our skills to deal with, just the two of us.”
“Nobody is beyond our skills, Dean,” Bergeon snapped. He was a devout swordsman without a specified Class, and his love of his steed had been greater than any Knight might have for their horse or griffin. Only Beastmasters had a fonder relationship with their animals than Bergeon had had for his stamprous. He had raised the animal from birth, naming it Talon, running with it in the fields, and training it in combat. Yet a legion of undead had been brought down on it, and he’d been forced to leave it to its fate. No, he thought angrily, we’ll not leave them go. “That woman took Talon from me, and I shall have her head for it.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, it was just an animal.”
A moment later, one of Bergeon’s swords was at his throat. “And you and I aren’t much more than that, Dean Masters! You just remember that!” The Lizardman glared at Masters a moment longer, and sheathed his weapon. “We are not under the eye of Reynaldi right now. His orders can wait. Lee Toren can’t go far with the Glove of Shadows—not in these mountains. We’ll find him, but not before we slay the Necromancer woman. And if the Orc survived his injuries, we’ll finish him off as well. Nobody escapes the death of my swords.”
The two agents of the Order of Oun walked a while, periodically stopping to check for signs of people’s passing. They found the small, heavy tracks of Dwarven patrols here and there, but discovered nothing to indicate the passage of the thieves.
Although the sun had set long before, another two hours passed before Bergeon agreed to set camp in an outcropping of rocks that fronted a cave set in the mountain. He didn’t want to go in the cave and disturb anything living there, so instead, he and Dean Masters took turns keeping watch throughout the night.
The next morning, they found the Midnight Suns again.
* * * *
Akimaru went around the company, shaking everyone awake. Fly had told him to wake them just before sunrise, since he would have the last watch of the night.
“Oh man,” Markus Trent said, shivering. “This weather up here sucks.”
“Get used to it.” Fly hitched up his rucksack. “We’re heading for Traithrock, and we’ll need another full day, maybe day and a half on these mountain paths. As long as we don’t come across any Dwarven patrols, we’ll be just fine.”
Everyone got up, getting their things together. “How are you feeling today, Rage?”
“Better, sir.” The lumbering Greenskin stretched his massive frame lazily, working his limbs awake. “Still not up to, ah, you know, um, what’s the word?”
“Snuff, Rage-san,” Fly said. “The term is, up to snuff.”
“What’s snuff?” the Orc Berserker asked seriously.
Fly chuckled at his ignorance, but smiled gently at the man. “Lain can explain it better than I, my fine green friend. For now, let’s just get going.”
The Midnight Suns moved out into the snowy day. The sun shone brightly in the mountains, but imparted little of its warmth on the snow-covered mountains.
They continued on up the mountain, keeping to the paths they knew, avoiding the broader ones that Dwarven patrols would surely watch.
Then, around one turn in their mountain path, they saw the two strangers who’d attacked them, weapons at the ready.
The two groups stared at one another menacingly.
Atop the slope, the Sidalis and the Lizardman swordsman stood, feet apart, battle ready.
Trying to fight on the slope would be madness, Fly realized, but the mutant had wings. All he had to do was hover out away from the slope, and pick them off with his spear from a distance. Being at a higher elevation, the pair of strangers also had the advantage over Fly and his company. How would he deal with them appropriately?
“Sensei, please step aside,” Akimaru whispered into Fly’s ear.
The Black Draconus did as Akimaru asked, and stood near the edge of the slope. He risked a brief glance downward, and saw that if he slipped wrong and fell, he would plummet a good six or seven hundred feet before he struck another footpath. He would be killed for sure.
“We will let you pass, murderers,” Bergeon said, pointing his katana right at Lain McNealy. “If you give up the Necromancer. I shall have her head in exchange for the life of my steed.”
“You attacked and trapped us, swordsman,” Fly shouted up past Akimaru, who was steadily walking up toward the soldiers.
Bergeon didn’t hear a word of what Thaddeus Fly yelled. His eyes were locked on the Necromancer, his blood boiling with hatred.
Dean Masters only heard Fly vaguely as well, but for different reasons. He had seen the Orc, who had survived his wounds, but looked ill, weakened. But his bulbous, insect eyes were locked on the feet of the white clad Ninja approaching them. The man didn’t walk through the snow, but atop it. No sign of Akimaru’s passage could be seen.
“Sergeant, look.” The corporal pointed at Akimaru.
Bergeon tore his eyes away from the Necromancer, and was shocked by the same observation Masters had made. “What the hell are we dealing with here?”
“I don’t know, Dean, but you’d better use one of your barriers, and be quick about it,” Bergeon said, as Fly let loose a shuriken.
The metal projectile split the mutant’s left hand up the middle, and he let out a horrendous, high-pitched wail of agony as Akimaru made his move.
The white clad Ninja shifted his feet, and threw his hands forward, releasing a cone of force at Bergeon.
The Lizardman saw that the cone was actually thousands of minute shards of ice, and he drew his shorter sword, weaving his blades back and forth before him. Only a handful of the shards struck him, piercing his body like arrowheads without wooden shafts. His arms and legs bled openly on the snowy slope, but he was largely unharmed.
Bergeon’s training alone saved him from the next attack, as Thaddeus Fly came through the air at him, a jump kick just glancing Bergeon’s shoulder as he spun to the side.
The Lizardman looked to his right, and saw that another Ninja, a Human clad in gray tunics, sat astride his ally, Dean Masters, stabbing the mutant over and over in the arms.
Masters managed to throw Trent off, squaring off with him and lunging with his spear. He missed the stab, but tore it back around, cutting open Markus Trent’s left leg and spraying the snow with blood.
Fly drew one of his short swords, and engaged in a fast-paced duel with the Lizardman. Back and forth they went, exchanging blow for blow, neither making much progress. Fly knew the level of skill of the swordsman was high, probably much higher than his own. However, he had watched Bergeon, fight against Rage, and had watched his movements when Akimaru had flung his cone of frost at him. He had a pattern, and Fly waited for the opening that would help him finish this battle.
Trent, meanwhile, was backpedaling, being forced against the side of the mountain by Dean Masters’s continued assault. The mutant had lost his ability to put up his barriers when the shuriken damaged his left hand, but his skills with a spear hadn’t been much diminished. Over and over again he came at the gray-clad man who had tried to take advantage of his injury, landing one more slash on Trent’s face—before he was slammed by a huge, green fist.
Rage loomed over Masters as the mutant fell to the snow, sending up clouds of snow as he flapped his wings to get away.
He just got away from a stab to his back, Trent’s knife landing hard in his right calf.
Masters groaned in pain and rubbed the left side of his face where Rage had punched him.
The Sidalis floated out over the side of the slope, out of their attacking range. “What good are your weapons now, fools?” He cocked his right arm back, securing a chain at his hip to the blunt end of his spear. He would throw the spear and haul it back, hopefully landing it in one of them and pulling them over the edge, down to their death.
Which one, which one, he thought. That was when he noticed Akimaru again—too late.
Masters saw a shining surface jutting from the slope—a walkway made entirely of ice. Upon the walkway, which led right up beside him, stood Akimaru, the white clad Ninja.
“What the hell,” was all he managed before the grinning apparition, with its ice stalactite-covered head, breathed a freezing mist over his wings.
Dean Masters plummeted out of the sky, screaming all the way down.
After a full two minutes of screams, there was stunted silence, with only the clash of swords to break it.
Akimaru put his mask back over his head.
Fly looked for that opening, missing his opportunity only by a half a second each time it showed up.
The pattern was getting tighter as he struggled against the swordsman, each passing moment lending him seemingly greater speed.
While Fly flagged and slowed, this Lizardman, this inferior creature, gained the advantage.
Now or never, he decided, and opened his snout.
Bergeon’s eyes went wide, but he managed to tuck and roll away from the blast of lightning just before Fly let it erupt out of his mouth.
The mountain shook as the blast struck empty air.
Bergeon took advantage of this slip-up on the Draconus’ part and pelted down the slope toward the still Necromancer woman.
The gray clad Ninja was on the ground, tending his bleeding wounds, and the white clad freak was still walking back slaying Bergeon’s companion, leaving the Necromancer wide open to attack.
Screaming for blood and vengeance, Bergeon bore down on her. Lain McNealy didn’t move, couldn’t seem to move if she had wanted to. He had her dead to rights.
A few yards away from the woman, a huge, meaty fist reached out from behind a jutting segment of rock in the mountain, grabbing him by the throat.
In all of his years of training, Bergeon had never let his anger get the better of him, and now, he had let himself make the error that cost him his life. He darted his eyes to the right, and found himself looking into that wide, shining smile he had seen a few days before.
The Orc he had stabbed in the stomach knocked his sword out of his right hand with ease as he crushed the breath from his neck. “Remember me?” Rage asked before he threw Bergeon over the edge of the slope.
* * * *
Anna Deus and her band of Hoods experienced no such trouble on their way to Traithrock, which they reached just after noon that same day. The Dwarves on duty at the city gates had recognized Ignatious Stockholm, and palavered with him before letting the company into the city proper.
Traithrock spread before them, smoke rising out of chimneys everywhere they looked, guards standing about and holding friendly conversations with the townspeople. Crime was not much of a factor in daily life here, so guards were closer to the meaning of civil servant in the Dwarven Territories. If a shop owner needed something taken home, or brought to the shop from his abode, he needed only ask a passing guard to do him the favor, and it was done. Anna envied these people their peaceful existence, devoid of the fear of gangs and Guilds.
“All right people, let’s split up,” Anna said to the group as a whole. “We’ll meet up back here by the gates at nightfall. That goes for everybody, Lee,” she said meaningfully. “I don’t want you taking advantage of these people’s trust and getting us in trouble.”
“No worries, mate.” Lee inhaled the lovely aroma of home-cooked food from nearby. “I never cause trouble when I’m here. I prefer ta have me ‘ead on its shoulders, know what I mean?”
The Hoods split into teams, heading out into the city of Traithrock.
Styge and Flint headed west, toward the business district. Anna and Stockholm headed north, toward the government buildings and the mines. Norman and Lee, being Gnomes, who were often considered a cousin Race to the Dwarves, headed east, toward the taverns and the first of the residential districts. Each team had a single purpose—find anything relevant to their search, particularly where a fugitive might hole up.
As they had agreed, they met back up by the gates as the sun started to set on the day. There, each team revealed what little they had learned.
* * * *
Styge and Flint made their way to the shopping district in the southern region of the city of Traithrock, slumping along at a leisurely pace, enjoying the hustle and bustle all around them. The Dwarves were busy folk, and had no use for nonsense or tomfoolery until after dark.
Flint watched a team of Dwarven carpenters work on the siding of a new tavern, no foreman in plain sight. Only by the difference in work clothes was Flint able to finally identify the man as they passed by, because even the foreman was getting his hands dirty, hammering huge support spikes into the wood siding.
“Very industrious people, Dwarves,” Styge observed, puffing on a tobacco pipe. “Hard workers, hard drinkers, hard people. But they’re very respectful, very law abiding folk.”
“Yeah, I’ll give you that, old man.” Flint slowed as they passed by an elaborate stone cathedral. “But how can you tell a male from a female around here? They all look the same to me.”
“Oh, that’s easy.” Styge approached a trio of Dwarves who were seated before the cathedral, sipping coffee in tureens from a thermos.
He stood there a moment silently, until they acknowledged him, then he turned his eyes to one in particular. “Excuse me, ma’am, but would you happen to have the time?” He kept his hands folded behind his back.
“T’is half past five hours in the afternoon.”
To Flint, the Dwarf woman’s deep husky voice sounded no different than any Dwarven man’s.
Styge shuffled back to him, and together, they walked down the street further, ducking into a sundry goods store after a few minutes.
“So, how do you do it old man? I’ve lived much longer than you, but I can’t tell the difference.”
“It’s easy, when you know what to look for.” Styge ordered a box of matches and a half-pound of pipe tobacco from the clerk.
The counter was low, as was the ceiling, and Flint had to duck a little to fit in the store’s main room. He wondered what sort of trouble Stockholm was having, seeing as he had a good foot on the Wererat, and a good deal more width.
“And what exactly does one look for?” Flint wrote down an order for six packs of rolled cigarettes and handed it to another clerk, this one a teenaged Human boy. The store was lit with tubes of glass hung in brackets set in the wall, orange swamp gas glowing inside of the tubes. This was a strange new form of lighting, discovered and developed by the Dwarves of the hill regions to the east of the mountains. The swamp gas could be collected by simply holding a glass container over one of the many natural ground vents in any of the swamps found throughout Tamalaria. Then, it was filtered through rubber tubing into the light tubes of a building, and a match was struck against the access hole of the rubber tube. The swamp gas burned slow and bright, lighting a room quite well and for a long period.
“Well,” Styge said, thanking the Dwarven clerk for his purchases. “Take a look at this man’s left ear.”
The Dwarf gave him a queer look, and pulled the scruffy red hair back from the side of his face.
Flint saw a plain ear.
“What do you see?”
“I see an organ that aids in hearing,” Flint said sarcastically. “What the hell else should I see?”
“No earrings, right?”
Flint shook his head.
“Very good. That means this fellow is a man. Also, there’s the matter of the beard. See this gentleman’s beard?”
Flint took a good long look at the long, crimson beard. It was braided on the two sides near the edge of the long, flat chin.
The Dwarf tipped his head back and grinned, pleased that someone was admiring his facial hair.
“Now, what one thing stands out about it?”
“Aside from the typical Dwarven length? No offense, sir,” Flint said.
“None taken.” The clerk watched these strangers’ conversation about Dwarven ears and beards with interest.
“Dwarven women braid their beards in the middle.” Styge lit his pipe. “That’s the easiest way to spot a woman in the crowd.” Styge turned his disarming smile on the store clerk. “Now then, could I ask you a few questions, sir?”
Nice transition, Flint thought. Compliment the man, then start asking questions. Too bad he’s not a Rogue. He’d make a good con man.
* * * *
Norman Adwar and Lee Toren walked through the city streets of Traithrock, and in order to keep suspicions low, did what most civilized Gnomes did in strange cities—they held hands. It made Lee sick to do it, and Norman wasn’t too fond of not having his hands free, but they knew that they’d stick out like sore thumbs if they didn’t among these Dwarves. In Traithrock, two kinds of Gnomes let their hands be empty around each other. Thieves, for one, and Alchemists for another. Neither of these sorts was trusted in the Dwarven Territories, and so the pair of Gnomes from Desanadron walked hand in hand down the busy streets of the tavern-infested area of Traithrock.
When they picked a less than seedy tavern, they found the publican of the establishment locked in an arm wrestling contest with a Jaft man, another of the Races prone to living in the mountainous and dangerous regions of the lands.
As soon as Norman and Lee took in the sight of the blue fleshed humanoid gaining a slight advantage, the owner/bartender of the tavern shifted the pressure on his elbow and slammed the Jaft’s arm down on the bar counter.
Uproarious shouts of praise and disbelief filled the air, along with the natural stench of several of the contest loser’s kinsmen. Five Jafts in all stood about the pub, all huddled together to laugh and jeer at their companion’s failure to best a ‘wee man’ at a test of strength.
“Anybody ever tell you you’ve got a knack for getting people into the worst possible places and situations?” Norman asked Lee.
“Certainly, lad,” he replied. “You isn’t the first, and you won’t be the last, I’ll wager. Now buck up, lad, and let’s get us some drinks.” Lee Toren’s eyes naturally lingered on each loose stringed money pouch he saw. “This is one sort of bar where we won’t have ta say a word to anyone to learn of current, local news.”
The two Gnomes let go of one another’s hand, approaching the low countertop with Lee in the lead, two fingers up.
The Dwarven publican nodded evenly at the Gnome Pickpocket, and poured two clean mugs of ale.
Norman eyed his glass with suspicion before sampling the beverage, which, much to his surprise, was slightly sweet.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said to the publican, who looked away from the current Jaft challenger for a moment. “What’s this made with?”
The Dwarf laughed merrily for a moment, and shook his head. “It’s honey ale, lad. Brewed and distilled with mountain snow and honey. Careful you don’t drink it too quick, master Gnome. It may taste kind enough, but there’s a bear’s bite behind every swig. Not exactly for the casual Gnome customer.”
Norman thanked him for the information, and took a seat at the bar, settling in to watch the next contest.
Lee Toren, meanwhile, set his eyes on a man with whom he had worked a few independent jobs years back. The man was a Tanner Cuyotai, a member of the most common tribe of werecoyote. Artemis Lane, the man had called himself, although Lee figured that had to be a played up name. Most performers of the fine art of confidence man took on several names a year, or kept an arsenal of readily assumable identities on hand for repeated use.
Lee strode over slowly, savoring the sweet sense of a victory already at hand. Lane, if that indeed was his name was now, was engaged in conversation with a pair of respectable looking Dwarven gentlemen. He wore the fine black and white tunics of a nobleman. Tufted collar and cuffs flowed out over his furry neck and wrists, and lent a subtle grace to his movements as they ruffled.
“And that, my fine sirs,” Lee heard as he approached, “is how you could literally triple your profit margin over the course of only a month.”
Lane held up a long, slender finger to stay the Dwarves. “If you kind sirs would excuse me, one of my investors would like a word with me right now. Isn’t that so, Mr. Orten?” The crafty Cuyotai looked Lee dead in the face.
“That’s roit, moi ducky.” Lee realized wouldn’t have the immediate advantage to press, as the two Dwarven businessmen clearly wanted to linger, untrusting of such a smooth transition in the Cuyotai’s speech with them to this newcomer. “Timothy Orten, gennelmen,” Lee offered the Dwarves a friendly hand. “I should just loik to say that you’d be makin’ a foin investment wiv the good sir here, if’n you’s opt to invest.”
The Dwarves muttered to one another for a moment, and then asked Lane to excuse them while they talked over his proposal in private.
No sooner had the two Dwarven investors exited the tavern than a pair of hairy, gnarled hands wrapped themselves in the front of Lee’s tunic and hauled him forward, spilling a good quantity of his ale to the wooden floor.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Lee?” Foam forming at the corners of Lane’s mouth. His eyes were wide and wild, and the Gnome Pickpocket gathered that his con had already seen some rough spots along the way. “I’ve been working those two stunted fools for three whole days.”
“Calm down now Artie.” Lee pushed away from the Cuyotai Rogue with his free hand. “And be mindful of the beer. I paid good coin fer this drink.”
Lane grunted and motioned Lee to take one of the empty seats across for him, but the way he did so made it clear that Lee only had a couple of minutes to ask him any questions.
“All right, you little braggart,” Lane whispered, keeping his voice low and a fake smile plastered to his broad, canine lips. “What do you want?”
“Answers, Mr. Lane.” Lee took a swig of his honey brew. “Just a few. First off, you seen any strange folks passing through the city? Stranger than normal, I should say,” Lee amended before Lane could give him a smartass reply.
“Nothing too bad, not really. There’s a tribe of Jafts in the city for trade and booze, maybe a few loose women if they can find a compatible species. That’s about all.” Lee finished his beer with a quick chug, and wiped his mouth with a sleeve.
“Roit. Good enough, then. One more question.”
Lane raised a suspicious eyebrow. “That’s it? Two questions? You’re usually much more full of inquiry, Lee. Old age finally catching up to you?”
“Never mind my age and answer my question. Is Solomon still hanging about? You know, the old part-timer? Mister ‘I’ll work fer anyone what pays me enough’?”
“Oh, he’s still kicking about. Skulks around a ways from the city a lot, near the old mines what got shut down last year.” Lane smiled and waved at the two Dwarven businessmen he’d marked before. “You have your answers, Lee. Now get out of here before you ruin my deal.”
Lee offered his hand, which Lane shook, and he was off the seat and away.
When he got back over to Norman, the Engineer was three quarters into his third honey ale, and well beyond the path of mere drunken happiness. He had to sling Norman over his shoulder and carry him out of the bar, moving awkwardly back through the city streets to where he would rendezvous with the rest of the Hoods.
The mines seemed a safe enough bet, if he could get anything useful out of Solomon. Then again, he thought as he laid Norman down in the snowy street to sober up, assuring the guards nearby that his friend had simply taken too much honey ale too quick, perhaps he wouldn’t have to drag anything out of Solomon. Not when blokes like Stockholm and Flint were readily available.
* * * *
“If someone was going to hole up nice and tight around here, it’d be in those mines,” Morek Rockmight said to Ignatious Stockholm.
Anna had let the big Red Tribesman lead the way toward the government buildings, and Stocky hadn’t even wavered slightly in his path to the councilor’s abode. A quaint, three story house, built on a scale to accommodate Humans and Elves with ease, Morek’s home was open to all those he considered friends. This list included some of Tamalaria’s finest, and its worst. He’d never been quite sure where to lump in Ignatious Stockholm.
“So why were the mines abandoned?” Anna asked after thanking the Kobold house servant for her tea.
The three of them sat on the covered patio of Morek’s home, drinking hot tea and enjoying the cheese-filled biscuits the hired help whipped up for them on the pinch. Morek tried to apologize for the quality of the food available on short notice, but Anna waved the apology off. If she could eat like this every day, she thought, she’d be as squat as the Dwarven Boxer.
“Last year,” Morek said, “a team of diggers was headed in for a routine day on the job. Only one of them was soused as all get out, and stumbling around loik an idiot. He seemed to fall through a crack in the wall, as ‘is mates says it. When they followed him through it, they found this door. Well, you know us Dwarves—we’re not naturally curious folks, but this was just something too weird for comfort, you know? We’d been pulling iron and gold and copper out of those mines fer years now, and suddenly there’s a door up near the higher levels? Didn’t ride well with the lads, and so they came back and told the council about it.
“We all talked it over, me and the other six councilors, and we agreed to send in an exploration team. Five men, heavily armed, with some good fighting skills and a few of the machine weapons we’ve scrounged up from other hidden ruins over the years. Never know what you’re up agin when goin’ under the ground anymore. Um, do we ‘ave any of those chicken things left, Travis?” This last question Morek directed at the Kobold butler, who smiled his polite smile and nodded.
“Cor, heat those up and bring ‘em out. You’ll find these a treat, big man,” he said to Stockholm. “Good stuff, good stuff. Kobolds is really very good at three things, I’ve found. One is magic. They’ve got a nat’ral talent fer it. Another’s cleaning, which they’ve got an even better knack for. And the last is cooking, because believe you me, I’d never find the patience to sit around the kitchen and concoct half the stuff ol’ Trevor there comes up with.”
“The mines,” Anna tried to get the aging Boxer back on track.
“Oh, right.” Morek looked surprised at himself for digressing. “So we sent in a group of five able men. Not thevery best, but mind you, these blokes had been around since Tanarak of Sidius. Very reliable, capable in a pinch. Five went down into the ruins beneath the mines, and only two came back alive.” Morek’s voice lowered to a threatening whisper. “The creatures they described are freaks of nature, demons almost for sure. Blighted, black-skinned things wide as an Ogre and fast as a leopard.” His voice filled with a terrible awe. “Three or four arms, strong as an ox to each limb. And there were other monstrosities down there, my friends. Things the two survivors couldn’t even bear to talk about. Weird animal hybrids, and even a few things they could only describe as men made of mecha and steel. No, if anyone wanted to take refuge down there, they’d have to be able to make themselves totally invisible to survive.”
Invisible, Anna thought. Like Teresa Evergreen.
* * * *
The city of Traithrock finally hovered into plain view below the Midnight Suns. Though they were all beaten, bloodied and bandaged, they were glad for the sight of it. The Dwarven people wouldn’t exactly welcome them, Thaddeus Fly knew. Theirs was a motley crew to be sure, and among them was an Orc, one of the few species in Tamalaria that the Dwarves openly hated.
As the company got closer to the city, Fly noticed that Akimaru exuded more and more of an air of impatience, anxiety. Had he been here before? Fly thought a few years back. He had sent Aki and Trent on an excursion up here to a set of discovered ruins. The part-timer, Solomon, probably still lived in Traithrock. He might be able to provide them with ideas on where she might be hidden.
The Midnight Suns arrived before the city’s open gates a little after the sun had set, only a few hours behind the Hoods, who had already held council and moved on.
As soon as Fly stepped through the gates, two-dozen Dwarven guards surrounded the company.
Axes, short spears and war hammers at the ready, the city’s guards held a safe distance from Fly’s group. One of the stout troopers, wearing heavy banded chain mail with a single plate of metal over his right breast, approached the Black Draconus. Upon the plate was emblazoned a diagonal blue line, apparently some sort of rank signifier Fly had never laid eyes upon.
“Hail and hold, outsiders.” The Dwarf hollered in harsh, guttural tones, though Fly was only a few feet away. “Most who come to Traithrock through the open and public roads are welcome, but not all. We would know your names, and your Class. If you belong to any army, give us your rank and your nation as well.”
Well, Fly thought, may as well get this tricky business over with by playing it honestly.
“I am Thaddeus Fly, Ninja. I am the Headmaster of the Midnight Suns.” The Black Draconus called back just as loudly as the Dwarf. He looked around at the assembled guards, and saw the blissfully unaware looks they gave each other. Good, he thought, they’ve never heard of me. “With me are,” he said.
“No, Thaddeus Fly, Headmaster of the Midnight Suns,” the captain of the guards said, putting up a staying hand. “We shall hear from your compatriots themselves. You there, Human.” The captain pointed at Trent. “Name, class and status.” Trent gave the captain a low, mocking bow, grinning like a court jester at play for his king.
“I am Markus Oliver Trent.” H stood to full height. “Ninja, and second in command of the Midnight Suns, though this is often a point of dispute among our Guild.”
Nice, good little public jab, Fly growled in his mind.
“Good. You, woman,” the captain spat.
“I am Lain McNealy, Necromancer, member of the Midnight Suns. I have no official rank.”
There came some mixed, apprehensive murmuring after her introduction, but the captain made no comment, insisting only that the Orc go next.
“Um, I’m not really sure what to do Ms. McNealy,” he whispered to the Necromancer.
She whispered something briefly in his ear, and he grinned. “Oh, dat’s not so hard. Okay, um, my name is Rage. I’m a Berserker. I’m in da Midnight Suns. Was dat okay?” He whispered the last, seeking the Necromancer’s approval.
Oh boy, Fly thought, here comes the really hard part. “You there, white one,” the captain said, pointing an accusing finger at Akimaru. “Name, class, status. Now!”
“I am called Akimaru. I am Ninja, and am also a Midnight Sun,” Akimaru offered evenly. “Nothing more shall I say to you, honorable captain.” He offered the Dwarf a deep bow from the waist.
This seemed to have a calming effect on the captain of the guards, and that calm spread from him to his kinsmen.
“It is well,” the captain said, giving a curt hand signal to his men, who lowered their weapons and slowly returned to their posts. “You may pass into this our city, but be warned. Any shenanigans on your parts will be sorely and swiftly dealt with. Understood?”
The company as a whole agreed, and the captain of the guards sauntered away. They had finally made it to Traithrock, and with only the strange mutant and the swordsman Lizardman to deal with along the way. Those two had been a tremendous pain in their collective ass, but at least they had been the last obstacle between themselves and Traithrock.
Now, to find Solomon, Fly thought, and beat whatever info out of him that we can.
* * * *
Two hours prior to the exchange between the guards and the Midnight Suns, the Hoods all came together at that same spot. No Dwarven guards bothered them. The city’s denizens recognized Stockholm, and the Gnomes were their cousins in spirit, so the group was left to hold their brief council. This particular council began with Flint giving Lee a small, blue pill to force feed to Norman.
“It’ll sober him up in about five minutes flat,” the Wererat explained.
“You sure it isn’t some sort of poison?”
“I save those pills for your coffee.” Flint gave a dubious smile.
Flint and Styge went first, telling Anna that they hadn’t found out much, except that the mines northeast of the city had been shut down a year back for reasons unknown to the shopkeepers.
On this subject, Lee and Norman, now sober and suffering a huge headache, had little more to offer.
When Anna retold Morek Rockmight’s account, things took a serious turn for the better. They all had a rough idea of what Teresa Evergreen was capable of. However, they all agreed that the group could do little without good food and rest, and so they all headed, as a group, to the only hotel in the city that catered specially to ‘big people’, as the mountainous Dwarves called them.
The accommodations were comfortable, if nothing else. The company split into three rooms, keeping the same partners as they had for the collection of information. When Anna and Stockholm entered their room, they had both been pleased to see that the housekeeping staff took their jobs seriously.
“So, left or right?” Stockholm eyed up the two available beds.
Neither would be a good fit for his massive frame, Anna saw, but if he curled up in his animus form, either would be perfect.
She opted for the one on the left, and tucked herself under the covers. She lay there, quite still, for a long while, waiting for the soft snore of her crimson companion.
After an hour and a half, she rolled over, and saw him sitting on the edge of his bed, staring at nothing.
He gave her no answer. Instead, he stood up, a glassy, unfocused look in his eyes, and shuffled out of the room like a zombie.
“Stocky,” she said, only slightly louder, praying he’d snap out of whatever trance he was in. She didn’t want to be alone, here, in this foreign territory. She knew that Flint would already be fast asleep in his rented chambers, and though she liked them all, none of the others seemed fitting company at this late hour. She rolled back over, and waited quietly for Stockholm to return.
A half an hour later, the Red Tribe Werewolf came back into the room, looking haggard, but smiling.
Anna sprang from her bed and jumped at him, wrapping her arms as best she could around his huge upper body.
He patted her comfortingly on the head, and she suddenly found herself crying, wishing she could be back home, in bed with her husband, Harold. “Don’t leave me alone like that, Stocky,” she said, pounding a limp fist against his barrel chest. “Never again, you hear me?” She looked up into his huge, cavernous eyes. “Where have you been, anyway?”
She sniffed the air around him, particularly the odor coming from his left hand. “And what’s that smell on you?”
“Oh, nothing much,” Stockholm said with a grin. “I just had to take care of some business with a fish.”
Before Anna could protest or ask any more questions, he scooped her up, laid her back on her bed, covered her up, and gently kissed her forehead. “Good night, Annabelle Deus. Rest well, and think no more on this matter. Soon, we will all head home, and live a while without William Deus in our lives.”
She smiled warmly at him, and found that his kiss had made her drowsy, as Harold’s always had. Within minutes, she was restfully, peacefully asleep.
* * * *
Markus Trent hadn’t felt so good in a long, long time as he ran the cheese grater along Solomon’s leg for a third time.
Oh, what beautiful, gorgeous shrieks Solomon makes. To think that Fly granted me this delicious playtime.
The Midnight Suns had wasted no time following the direct path through the center of the city that Markus carved for them. He was anxious to be done with this whole business, anxious to be back in Desanadron, going about his usual tasks and daily habits. The road was no place for him, and pent up frustrations were on the verge of breaking him apart when Fly had suggested that he ‘tune Solomon up’ to get the information they needed.
Trent had opened the front door of Solomon’s cottage with ease, picking the lock so fast he might as well have had a spare key. He and Fly had barged through the door, falling upon a half-sleeping Solomon as he had headed for his door to see who was trying to call on him at this late hour.
The two Ninjas had quickly incapacitated him, and Fly had helped Trent bind him and gag him in a straight-backed oak chair in his own bedroom.
The prostitute in the bed hadn’t even woken up from a drunken sleep that would take a massive explosion to wake her.
Fly had instructed Trent to get the information they needed, and then had exited the cottage to wait with the others.
“Isn’t it marvelous, Solomon,” Trent asked the part-time agent and freelancer. “If you survive to see another sunrise, it shall be the most glorious sight of your long, meaningless life.”
Trent raked the grater across the exposed bone of Solomon’s left leg again, coaxing another hiss of agony from the bound man.
“No whore will ever be able to satisfy you as much as the fresh morning air being drawn into your lungs. Don’t you see, Solomon? I am setting you free. And you don’t even have the stomach to thank me for it!”
Another scrape of the bone, and though the muffled screams were gratifying, the cheese grater had become boring.
Trent left Solomon to wallow in his misery for a few minutes, while he searched his cottage for more goodies to work with.
He came across a glass bottle of vinegar, popped the stopper, and took a whiff. It was strong stuff, and he instantly liked it. However, this wouldn’t be good for more than a few minutes of fun so he scrounged about for more goodies.
“Ah, isn’t this convenient,” he whispered, feeling the front of his pants swell out from his growing erection. What he had come across was another glass vial, this one filled with a thick, greasy lamp oil.
His hands flew over the drawers of the kitchen he had found the oil in, and his fingers found purchase on a book of matches moments after throwing the silverware drawer to the floor. “Perfect.”
Back to Solomon, who was now crying and sobbing. Trent danced in front of him, cackling like a hyena as he poured the vinegar on the bleeding leg wound.
Solomon screamed with renewed vigor, thrashing about like a nightmare marionette.
“That’s right, that’s right, scream for me sissy boy.” Trent danced behind the chair, pouring a small portion of the lamp oil into Solomon’s greasy black hair. He struck a match, and let it fall onto the damp scalp, reveling in the screams and the thick, black smoke of the burning flesh atop Solomon’s head.
When Trent finally doused Solomon’s head with water from his kitchen pump, the man was teetering on the brink of death.
Trent undid the gag in his mouth, and crouched down next to him, all business and false concern.
“You know, if you just tell me what I want to know, we won’t have to continue this all. I’ve got a healing sutra right in my pocket that can fix you up just fine, friend.”
Solomon still moaned a little, though his voice had been strained so badly that he couldn’t make a noise louder than a kitten’s mewl.
“Now, has Teresa been by to see you?”
A silent nod, and nothing more.
“Good, excellent. How long ago did she drop in?”
“Yes… terday,” Solomon managed, licking his cracked lips. “She… wanted, to know, if… the mines, were… still being… worked… on.”
“Okay, good. We know they aren’t.” Trent pulled a sutra from his pocket. The writing on it would be completely foreign and unreadable by Solomon, but he knew Trent would tell him how to activate it before he left.
“Is she heading there?”
“Yes,” Solomon croaked. “To, the, ruins.” The part-timer confirmed Trent’s fear that Evergreen would be confident enough in her powers to try to hide among the monstrosities living therein.
Trent patted him gently, warmly, on one bound arm.
“You’ve done well, Solomon. I’m sorry I had to put you through all of this, but I figured it was the only way to get you to talk. After all, old flames have a way of making men keep their mouths shut. Now, you can use this sutra to heal yourself once I’m gone. Not before, or I’ll have to split your eye with a shuriken, okay?”
Solomon nodded, and Trent placed the sutra in his hand. “Very good. Now, I’m going to leave. Remember, shuriken to the eye.” He left the cottage bedroom, and then the house.
Outside, Fly and the others turned to face him.
“The ruins, Headmaster,” Trent said with a satisfied smile. “You know, I didn’t think you’d let me have any fun on this whole trip. Thanks for proving me wrong.”
The Midnight Suns left the city behind them an hour later, navigating through the city streets and out through the east gates.
In the cottage that Trent had used as a romper room of torture, Solomon unleashed the chi magic locked in the sutra.
There was a brief, hot flash of yellow light, as from a hundred candles flickering to life. So raw was his throat that he didn’t even scream when the lights turned out to be flesh-eating scorpions, which crawled into his open leg wound and mouth, devouring him from the inside out.