Monday, April 5, 2010

Twenty Three (sorry about the hiatus)

Moving lightly across the flat warehouse roofs, Garenol crouched to avoid creating a silhouette in the now strong morning light. His feet padded assuredly over gravel and tar, the gentle scratching noises that heralded his passing being interrupted with brief silences as he leapt effortlessly from one roof to the next, glancing downward in anticipation of possibly being spotted by early workers, although he thought this unlikely. Being a national holiday, he was banking on there being few people in this commercial ward of the city, and he was right. He saw no one moving in the blocks up to the still smoldering ruin of Karderek’s warehouse, not even a cordon marking off the pile of rubble, which he spied when he was two blocks away, peering out from around a small box that held the trapdoor entrance to the building he was standing atop of. The lack of any barriers or roping off of the site he found strange. Clearly the fire had been put out by a fire brigade, water puddles were standing in every imperfection of the cobblestone streets and alleys around the smoking ruin, and the gutters trickled in a streaming hiss in a noise audible even to Garenol high above on the rooftop. But nothing seemed to demark the rubble as potentially dangerous, strange in a city with such well regarded social services as Venne.

Squinting in an attempt to discern more detail from his distant vantage, Garenol was puzzled enough to decide he needed to move up closer. He leapt another roof closer, crouching way down and proceeding forward with his hands supporting his weight in front, wary of being spotted. He crawled slowly forward across this closer warehouse roof, feeling the tackiness of the graveled tar under his gloved hands and concentrating on keeping his movements quiet. He moved up flush with the wall edge that circles the roof in a low half wall. Garenol then pushed himself up to his knees, gently rising to peer over the edge of the wall onto the scene of Malus’ adventure of the night prior.

The burning of the warehouse had left behind only ash and cinders. Lazy black smoke still rose from the crumbled warehouse, mingling in the air above with occasional gouts of dirty steam from the piles of burnt timbers into an acrid haze. A far exterior wall still partially stood upright, smoking wooden beams slowly peeling away from the scorched red bricks. The scene was unremarkable: the fire had been put out efficiently with great amounts of water, but the materials used to build the structure had doomed it to a quick, furious conflagration.

Garenol continued to look for any marks of distinction in the rubble. No one was moving in or near the burned structure. He’d still seen no one, and was debating whether or not to move down to the building. He rose slightly in his crouch at the wall’s edge, looking out over the edge for a drainpipe or ledge that would enable his descent. On the corner nearest the burned warehouse, he spied a pipe that would be suitable. He edged his way closer to it, returning his focus to the ruin, keeping an eye out for any movement.

Clambering noiselessly down the pipe, Garenol approached the rubble swiftly, scanning the ground to try and determine if any concerted effort had been made in the ruins. He assumed that if the gold had been discovered, that tracks of a composed effort of numerous men would be apparent in the mud and ash of the street. Oddly, from his approach across the cobblestone crossroads, he saw not only no muddy track or wagon imprints. He saw no tracks at all.

Grunting to himself with slight frustration, he began swiftly to circle the smoldering property, now fairly certain that no one was nearby. Obviously, the fire brigade must have approached from a different side. He scanned the ground while moving about the perimeter, growing quickly annoyed at his lack of findings. After a few minutes, he had completely worked his away around the smoky perimeter. He found nothing.

Aside from trickles of grayish water slowly running out of the ruins, he saw no tracks. No hooves, no feet, no wagon wheels. Just a few quickly diminishing streams of water running into the storm drains. He thought to himself at first that the fire brigade’s water pumps may have erased evidence of their presence, but it surely wouldn’t have done so completely. He saw not one print, not even in areas where the ash and water had collected into soft, mushy puddles. Confused now, he stood for a moment and stared at the ruins, contemplating now scenarios in which this situation was possible. Short of a concerted effort of fairly powerful mages, not much made sense to him. He was already guessing that the gold was gone before he heard Malus’ feeble attempts at quiet approach.

Turning to see his companion clanking up the street, Garenol waved him closer impatiently. “Come over here, you oaf. We have a problem.”

Malus looked up at Garenol from watching his armored legs as he moved over the wet cobblestones. “The gold is gone, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know yet, the ruins are too hot.” Garenol replied, looking back to the ruins. “I need you to show me where these boxes would have been.”

Malus raised a gauntlet covered hand, pointing a metal finger to a point in the ruins. “If anything still remains, it will be over there.”

“Notice anything strange?” Garenol asked as he reached into a leather pouch on his belt, producing a beaker filled with a milky liquid. He drew one of his thin daggers and began cutting away the wax seal on the beaker’s mouth.

Malus looked from the ruins to the cobblestones around the front of the warehouse. He grimaced in thought for a moment. “The fire brigade must have come up from the back side,” he finally offered with a shrug, still looking for traces of activity.

“Same thing I thought,” replied Garenol, now working the cork out of the beaker, having cut away the wax covering. “But I already circled the place. However this fire was put out, nothing has touched the ground here since you left last night.”

Malus eyed Garenol suspiciously, “That can’t be right, I even heard the fire brigade bells.”

“I know,” said Garenol with a sigh, “I can’t figure it out either. But I do have some theories.” He held up the beaker of milky fluid to the light as he finally worried the cork loose. Malus looked at the beaker with mild curiosity.

“Drinking already?” he asked with a smirk.

“Hardly,” replied Garenol before he quickly drank the contents of the beaker. “Just something I started keeping on my person when I began working with you.”

Malus watched as Garenol put the cork back into the beaker and put it back into his pouch. Garenol’s cheeks had flushed into a shade that Malus had not seen on the typically pale elf before. Winking with an arrogant little wave, Garenol walked directly out into the hot, smoking ruins.

Malus blinked a few times, watching Garenol proceed over the crumbling timbers and bed of coals underneath. Neither Garenol nor any of his equipment was being affected by the heat, fire and smoke in any way. Malus nodded in a grudging respect. Good idea, that potion.

Garenol walked quickly and assuredly over the uneven surfaces of the ruin, glancing around appraisingly for anything remarkable. As he neared the spot that Malus had indicated, he turned back to Malus, still standing in the street.

“About here?” he asked Malus.

“Roughly,” Malus replied, “There were a number of boxes. If anything remains, you should be able to find it in that area.”

Garenol began poking around carefully with the tips of his boots, the enchantment of the potion rendering them invulnerable. All he saw in his immediate area were pieces of the collapsed roof. He began throwing aside pieces of roof beams and the tiles that once covered them. He cleared a space all the way to what had been the floor of the warehouse, intact but scorched, the top layer of the wood cracked and black, slowly forming into still hot coals. He found nothing of note. No melted gold, no scorched boxes or burlap bags.

After satisfying himself that there was nothing to see in the area, Garenol stood up straight, rising to the balls of his feet and stretching his back. Whatever had been here, whatever Malus had seen, was gone. He looked back to his assigned companion. Malus was looking back down the street he had approached on, no doubt looking out for an possible passersby. Garenol wondered for a second if Malus had the resources available to accomplish something of this magnitude. Then he stifled a laugh. Malus couldn’t even bluff at cards. Gifted in certain areas, the man was not a good criminal by any stretch of the imagination, and this odd undertaking had required an orchestrated operation of a magnitude that even he, Garenol, could hardly comprehend. Garenol quickly dismissed his appraisal of Malus as a culprit.

He cleared his throat and spoke loudly to get Malus’ attention. “Whatever was here, it’s all gone,” he stated flatly. He began to pick his way back through the rubble, still looking carefully at the ruins around his feet but already satisfied with his conclusion.

He stepped free of the ruins near Malus and walked back to him. Malus, for his part, stopped looking up and down the streets that approached the warehouse.

“Still no one has come near,” Malus said without inflection. “This holiday has cleared out the area.”

“I know,” Garenol said, moving past Garenol back to the alley where there horses were tied, no longer wary of spies or witnesses. “But whoever made off with the gold, and extinguished the fire . . . This was a massive undertaking Malus. We are not the only rogue element in this city now. Judging by the complete lack of evidence and disappearance of an almost immovable amount of gold, I don’t even think we are the big fish in this pond anymore.”

Malus nodded, fingering the haft of his handaxe absent-mindedly. “So now what?” he asked, obviously frustrated with mystery and anxious for a task he was skilled at.

“There’s nothing to be done with this for now,” Garenol said, gesturing back towards the warehouse. “Time we got refocused. We still have the final job here before we go back to Pareil.”

“The archbishop,” Malus said, a slight smile playing across his face. “That is a task more to my liking.”

Garenol glanced across at his companion, “Surveillance first, Malus.”

Malus’ smile quickly dissipated, “Fine,” he replied grudgingly.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

An Update on Where We Are Going

As we are ending the third nine weeks at school this week and then going into spring break, I am taking the opportunity to really sit down with some colored pencils and outline where I want this book to progress, making the individual character arcs, their links, etc. It is a remarkably dense process, but one I really hope will enable my writing to move more smoothly, and enable the multiple story lines to be more coherent and flowing, and consistent with one another. I doubt enough folks are following these installments closely enough to be really disappointed, but if you are reading this, rest assured that work is being done, just behind the scenes. I never realized before how much non-narrative structure had to exist behind fiction, as I never wrote much of it before. Pretty neat process, just not always producing something that would entertain. Have a good one.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Departure Into an Ongoing Debate

I’ve been having this internal debate for a couple of months now that I would like to share. Having been raised in the church, I’ve never really had a period of my life in which I was not under at least some of the auspices of the Christian tradition. It has been an inescapable facet of my life, and a critical pillar of my development, and my identity for as long as I can remember.

As I watch Christianity as it is popularly conceived in the world at large, I am often embarrassed of those who label themselves as Christian. Too often it would seem that the most vocal self identified Christians are typically the most hateful and/or most resistant to anything in the world culture that would seem to in any way challenge or complicate the views that they have espoused.

Now, of course I am not going to waste time writing about how immensely stupid creationists are. Nor am I going to feed the hatred of people like Pat Robertson or the Westboro Baptist Church. I think that any intelligent person, Christian or otherwise, can reasonably see that the most shrill and vocal people that identify themselves to the public as Christians are not representative of the body of Christianity as a whole. Further, I could argue that they aren’t really embracing of a Christian ethic at all, but I won’t beat that old, tired horse in this medium.

What I would like to ruminate on is the role of identity among Christians. Particularly, I would like to share the debate I currently have both with myself and a few people I enjoy talking to.

To summarize our debates, I will try and frame the question succinctly.

To what degree is a self-identified Christian’s disavowal of their own good characteristics and actions actually doing that person psychological harm?

That is a densely packed question. Let me unpack it here now that I have proven to myself that there is just one question.

Let us say for the sake of argument that Henry is a young adult in his late twenties or early thirties. He is gainfully employed, has a reasonable home or apartment, reliable transportation, and enough money for food and reasonable amounts of personal entertainment. He has a couple of friends that he has satisfying interactions with, a good, talking relationship with his extended family, and a significant other with whom he has an enjoyable relationship (both emotionally and physically).

To this point with Henry, we see an individual with the three lowest levels met on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (an interesting little theory pointed out to me by my wife, and her psychology degree). Henry has his needs met on the levels of physiology, safety, and love/belonging.

The next level of the hierarchy involves esteem. At this level, the individual’s needs are to be accepted and valued by one’s self and by others. Of the needs combined in this level, self-esteem is the primary component, as one’s perception of his/her worth and value to others will be colored by whether or not one considers one’s self worthy and deserving of this respect. Thus, people with a low sense of self esteem or worth tend towards inferiority complex, where they strive for the esteem of others, but do not either accept or achieve it due to the underlying problem of their lack of self-worth and self-esteem.

So that’s a psychology 101 approach to the hierarchy. And the reason I have chosen to focus on this fourth level is that I have begun to think about the role of personal religion in this level. Obviously, the role of a personal religious belonging will start at this level, if we are being honest.

Of course, religion is often a part of the third level of love and belonging, as many people are Christian because they were raised in the church by family members, or brought into the church by a significant other or close friend. In fact, I think one would be hard pressed to show a very significant number of people who came to be a self-identified Christian without any influence from a friend or family member, or someone they share a significant relationship with. Even if that person would like to contribute their religious belonging to a ‘conversion experience’ or divine will, I highly doubt that these events took place in a vacuum and wholly apart from any human relationship. So at its core, religious belief stems from social mechanism, as one group of faithful propagates another group.

But that only scratches the surface and relegates religious belief to the status of club or organization. I am not so cynical as to say that the church is simply a country club or the PTA. After all, the vast majority of people who identify themselves as Christians would seem to take away from it something beyond social and familial belonging, even if many are only church members for those reasons. I feel it is a safe assumption that many heartfelt Christians have some of their self-identity and self-worth inextricably linked to their chosen identification as Christian, and whatever that entails to them, insofar as they strive to be a ‘good’ member of the faith.

So here comes by big concern, and the debate I have not been able to resolve in a satisfying way for myself. I have personally known a great number of Christians who, when they do something good, or something beneficial happens to them, or they excel at something, attribute these positive things to God, or Jesus. In Jesus’ name. Not by my will, but by His, etc. Insofar as things happen in their life that they would be proud of, or find self worth or ego inflation in, they attribute those things to God.

As a corollary to these attributions of good things to God (Jesus, the Holy Spirit), these very same people, when confronted with a negative aspect of their personality, or something they have done that is wrong, or selfish, or mean, they will, when taking responsibility at all (people who consistently shift and deny blame are not part of this, and a whole other long discussion), will typically accept that the fault is theirs, that they are ‘only human’. That whatever shortcoming they have, it is their fault and something they should work to improve or correct. Or in the case of certain negative attributes, something they should pray that God help them correct, or that God’s will fix it.

Either way, here is the issue simply put. Positive things the person does are attributed to God. Negative things the person does are from some fault they, as an individual person, have. In only one case does the individual involved actually end up owning or identifying the behavior or characteristic, if I am looking at it correctly. Only when the person of Christian self-identity does ‘bad’ do they actually own the action or behavior. If they do the right thing, or something good, then naturally this activity is attributed to God, to God’s glory, in His name, and so on.

So, with my admittedly limited background in the psychology of personality, it would seem that for a person who has personally adopted an identity as a Christian, that their only way to meet needs in this tier of the hierarchy would be to do things that are only attributable to them as an individual. Which, in this line of reasoning, only leaves them with negative character traits for self-identity or establishing self-worth. After all, anything that would generally be considered a positive activity is not through their own agency, but through God who strengthens them.

To actually ‘own’ any personal agency, and to have any self-identity or self-worth, it would really seem that a devout person at this level of need fulfillment would have to seek out their own negative behavior to establish an identity. After all, they have been taught in the faith that the good they do is to glorify God, that pride is a deadly sin, that arrogance leads to man’s downfall, and so on.

So it would seem to me that those who are devout in the faith, particularly if they come to it in their formative years, when so much of a person’s personality development has yet to be settled, actually have a real stumbling block in terms of self-esteem and self-identity. If the hierarchy is in any way true, then a person is going to have needs for self-esteem and self-worth, and I am legitimately worried that a certain type of person, particularly religiously faithful persons, are robbing themselves of their own positive characteristics by being conditioned to disavow them or attribute them to an external agency (God).

Even more sinister is the idea that no matter what, the human animal seeks out these needs regardless. And if the individual is left without positive recourse in seeking self-esteem, why wouldn’t they seek out negative, or bad, activity. After all, if they sin, then that sin is upon them as an individual. Regardless of the negative or bad judgment, the identification as a sinner, a ‘bad person’, or as a morally weak individual, is at least some sort of personal identifier. Even a bad identity would seem to be preferable to the human ego over no identity at all. Better to be a bad person, than to be nothing at all. To think otherwise would be ridiculous: the self, even in its most base and negative actions, seeks to establish itself as an independent entity.

So, in establishing in the individual the common Christian ethic, by which we see the positive actions and things in our lives as happening through the agency of a loving God, and the negative or sinful things we do as a fault on the part of the human individual, is the religion somehow robbing the self at this level in the hierarchy of human needs? In attributing the good things that a person can think and do away from them to some other agent actually robbing the self of its identity? And does the self, in reaction to this taught and then absorbed denial of self-pride in positive characteristics, seek out the only ways in which it, as a human, can find some self-identity, by embracing only the negative characteristics and actions that ‘make them human’?

When Henry finally explodes and beats up his girlfriend, or starts driving drunk, or stealing from his job, is it because as a self he is looking for an identification he can embrace as a self, even if it is ‘abusive’, ‘dangerous drunk’, or ‘thief’? When a vocal and outspoken evangelical Christian gets caught in a cocaine-fueled tryst with a gay prostitute, of course it is hilarious to the dominant culture that readily embraces the public fall of a polarizing individual. But what about the individual? What in that person’s personality was so missing and neglected that they would seek out such a self-destructive behavior in a way that will ultimately get them judged in public? Is it simply because they need to be identified somehow, as anything good they do serves in no way to enrich them as a person, because they have been trained religiously to disregard it and even to be embarrassed when their good actions and thoughts are praised?

Of course, I am not seeking to give folks who do these sorts of things a way out or a pass. Ultimately I believe that the individual must be able to control their own actions to a great degree, if not completely. But I do wonder at what Christianity as a religion accomplishes if it robs the individual of something that by its very nature it needs to be a complete person.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Halfway to the First Goal: Some Reflections

First of all, I never really thought I would make it to this point, halfway through the amount of text that most of the internet seems to suggest is standard for a first novel submission (around 100,000 words). Second, there is no way in hell I can tie up the storylines I want to in another 50,000 words.

Which is pretty much fine with me. I don't think genre fiction, particularly sci-fi and fantasy, really hold to those submission standards. It would seem that the opposite is almost true, that these genre publishers actively seek out the next series to be as big as The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire. And the reasoning is sound: when new books come out for either of those series, they are immediate best-sellers. Something about the fantasy genre lends itself to reader loyalty to certain series, even if they get stale (Like WOT did in the middle books) or stall out completely (like ASOIAF has).

So with the notion that a series ends up being a type of investment with dividends for a publisher, I think that what I am currently writing here (Garenol and Malus, etc.)opens itself to the opportunity to be a multiple volume story (I think using the term 'epic' self-referentially is asshole-ish). But the story would become every large in scope eventually, spreading from my current handful of characters to dozens, eventually hitting every part of this created world, and detailing what will become a world war.

But that is far down the road. I am not posting progression today because I really need to build an outline of where I would like this to all proceed. I can already look back into the consolidated text and find logical fallacies or contradictions in motivation or chronology, so I know that I am going to have to have a reference frame proceeding forward. I find it amazing how even something that I am basically creating out of my head can quickly become chronologically incorrect, or contradictory. For example, last night I went back and read through the three pieces that I have written so far about Michael and Yen, and already I am itching to rewrite, as those characters have evolved in my mind already to the point where I wish to edit their initial appearance. But I know on some level that if I go back into the text already to begin self-editing that I will never actually finish at all. So if you (all three of you) notice a logical fallacy, or contradiction, or timetable mess-up, please make a note of it somewhere and let me know after I decide I have enough to actually begin to edit for submissions, which I will announce.

Another thing, in the interest of full disclosure. Most of these stories are either an amalgamation of the time I spent in high school playing a highly modified version of Dungeons and Dragons with a close group of friends, or they are plots I have created using those characters along with my own. Some of the characters were ones I played, others were played by friends (both from the original game in high school, and in college when I used the source material to run another group), others are my own creation. I have yet to show this writing to the members of this original group. I figure that most of the fellow players, like myself, would find it acceptable that a character they played in the game would be somehow remembered this way, even if I am taking a number of liberties with the character's and the storyline as a whole, which I am.

However, the vast majority of the background material (geographical, political, mythological) here came from a single person, who ran the games we participated in during high school. It was his hand that created the nations and many of the characters I will eventually reveal. I am really banking on his benevolence when I reveal this as something I may try to profit from. Although nothing has ever been published, I definitely feel a moral obligation to receive the approval of this individual in particular, and the group of players as a whole, before this ever advances any further than a vanity project on a small blog. Even to the degree where a percentage of any realized proceeds would be involved, I will want to get the approval of these individuals before I send any of this material beyond this current, not for profit, medium. At a certain point, I would not be able to say with any honesty where homage and devotion to collaborative story-telling end, and outright theft and plagiarism begin. So some of what I write will have occurred originally as a collaborative narrative with a background and context created by another individual, and thus I do hold an obligation to the other individuals involved in that process.

Here's to hoping that they are nice about it.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Twenty Two (50,317 words as of this post!)

Tacit awoke to a murderous amount of sunlight streaming into his airy room from the vaulted windows that ran down two sides of the large, elegant inn, terminating here in the corner suite, offering a view of both the rebuilt Hall of the Confederacy and the Crystal Cathedral. He groaned, rising from under the downy quilts to squint at the expanse of gleaming, clean glass bathing the whole of his room in blinding white light. He couldn’t even turn his face to the windows facing the Crystal Cathedral, the building itself reflecting a truly burning white light straight through the room, leaving every surface of the elegant room glittering.

Tacit propped himself up against the large, carved wooden headboard, shading his eyes with one hand. Last night’s back and forth conversation with Jean Pareil had taken hours, the minor spell requirements adding time and delays to the process of the conversation, as Tacit at one end would cast a spell, sending a number of sentences out across over a thousand miles into the ears of Jean Pareil, who would respond with a spell of his own.

Although Pareil sounded exuberant with Tacit’s research discovery, that positive praise had not alleviated Tacit’s negative feelings regarding Crynus and Brevarious, who Pareil had confirmed were currently ‘operating’ in the city of Venne, under his, Pareil’s, control, direction, and protection. He grimaced at the picture of the two lunatics loose in the city, Malus no doubt caving in skulls and leaving a path of destruction. And Garenol, his fellow elf, who should know better, being himself a royal, probably giving Malus’ leash too much slack and drinking himself into a stupor in between bouts of uncontainable explosions and silent, surgical murders.

Tacit now understood the use of such operatives, and their usefulness to an operation such as Pareil’s. His understanding did little to alleviate his wariness of the stability or loyalty of either. He’d seen the amounts of gold deposited in the name of each man, and knew their pay for the dirtier aspects of operations far outweighed his own.

Of course, Tacit valued his citizenship and place in the Strasstruppen above petty concerns of pay. Malus and Garenol are mindless thugs, he thought to himself, finally swinging his bare feet over the side of the bed, slipping each into a low leather shoe. If they are working in the city, fine, but they need not know that I am here. After today’s work, I will be headed outside the city anyway.

Tacit walked to the richly decorated dressing table against the wall across from the foot of his bed. His eyes finally adjusted to the sheer white gleam of the room, still marveling at the beauty and extravagance of the suite. Tacit had protested vehemently when Jean Pareil had informed him of the reservation here in the Confederate Crown, but his superior would not brook second-guessing. If King Galen was good enough to make him a minor noble for a small amount of time, he’d have to play the role. Clothes, attitudes, transportation, and especially in his displays of wealth. Tacit would just as soon have taken a room above a tavern somewhere off the main thoroughfares, but the nobility of Haarkedamia always seemed, to him and Pareil both, to behave as if their displays of wealth justified and solidified their positions in society’s upper strata. They had shared a laugh at the flamboyance of the attire King Galen had teleported to him; gold embroidered tailcoats, ascots and cravats resplendent with minute embroidered details and exotic fabrics, tight riding breeches in absurd peacock colors.

Tacit had to admit he liked the boots, though. The renowned leatherworkers of Wood’s End had outdone themselves on the subtle, tobacco brown kneeboots. The tall boots fit Tacit’s legs as if sewn directly over his bare skin, and once donned, felt as if they weighed nothing, although Tacit knew they would take the harshest of beatings, his initial ride into Wood’s End ending with a day’s travel in mud and torrential downpours. He’d decided to keep the boots after the assignment ended, no use letting something obviously tailored just for him go to waste.

Tacit reached into the cut crystal basin that acted as a sparkling centerpiece to the dressing table, bringing a double handful of clear, cold water up and briskly splashing his face, pushing loose hairs away from his eyes and forehead, brushing them back behind his pronounced, pointed ears. He looked up at the framed mirror that rose from the back of the table, looking at his bleary blue eyes, flecked with the streaks of red that denoted yet another late evening. He’d finally come out of his magic trance well past midnight, having heard the fire brigade wagons streaking through town once again, their bells heralding the presence of his occasional companions and fellow operatives. He’d shook his head, regarding the rather nice carpet underneath him, at the sound, hoping that whatever chaos the two were no doubt nurturing into life, that it was for the good of his master’s plans.

He thought back to an argument that had taken place between himself and Jean Pareil. The offices of the Strasstruppen’s central command occupied a truly nondescript building in Tribunus City, the imperial capital and largest city east of the Barrier Peaks. The elegant city of spires, flying buttresses and white marble sometimes looked to Tacit to shrink back from the Strasstruppen’s keep, a squat, square keep of enormous brown marble blocks, ensconced within its own defensive perimeter: a planed flat expanse of deep green lawns for a quarter mile in every direction from the building, occasional lone Constantinian Pines standing tall and spare from the wholly neutral landscape.

Many citizens avoided the building consciously, and Tacit always held back a laugh, looking out the windows of Pareil’s offices onto the unnaturally beautiful lawns, expecting every time to see elegant and beautiful elven families eating on the lawns, enjoying the surroundings as they did the innumerable parks of Tribunus City in which they paid homage to their country’s rugged beauty. Instead, he always saw the same sight; an empty landscape, the streets that marked the ends of the property moving along quickly as those who rode and walked those roads deliberately avoided the lawns and the view of the building itself. As if somehow a truly dull brown building housed a nation’s collective dread and terror.

That morning’s briefing had not progressed well, as Tacit remembered, walking quietly across to the armoire that the porters had deposited his new clothing in after carefully laundering and ironing each piece. After a few months of small intelligence gathering missions to carefully gauge the aptitudes and weaknesses of Garenol and Malus, Pareil had sent the two operatives into the Allthorian city of Fauston for an assassination. Tribune only knew where Pareil had acquired the two men. Garenol was an understandable recruit: well connected with an axe to grind and martial skills. But Malus, Tacit did not trust Malus to do anything except sow discord and chaos, and apparently for no other reason except his own amusement. Tacit had gone to Jean that morning to express his concerns, and had received a stinging rebuke for his troubles.

“I am just not sure with this recruit you are sending into Allthoria,” he had led in, delicately, still too grateful for his promotion and inclusion in Pareil’s operating team to be too forceful. “The man strikes me as unstable, and completely disengaged from anything that doesn’t gratify either his physical appetite or his enjoyment of killing and chaos. You set me over them, for which I am eternally grateful, but in that role of responsibility I would be remiss not to share my feeling about a subordinate,” he had stammered out, standing stiffly in front of the beautiful expanse of blond wood that covered Jean Pareil’s desk, hands clenched behind him.

“So,” Jean Pareil had started off, leaning across his desk and opening an ornate lacquered box, taking a long, thin cigar from it. The elf was older than Tacit by at least half a century, the white streaks spreading back from his temples belying his age where his ageless smooth features would not. The streaked hair, once dirty blonde, was now shot through with stark white, was close cropped in the older Imperial fashion, emulating an emperor now dead for well over 500 years. His dark eyes hardly showed any color aside from black, although the constant movement of the dark orbs showed an active, inquisitive intelligence. “What would you suggest we do? Remove Malus from the assignment? They are already across the frontier, moving south into Allthoria. How long have you been holding these doubts back?”

Leaning back, he took a tinderstick from a small pewter cup and struck it off a rough patch on the cup’s side. He let the sulfurous tip burn off, and then held it to the cigar’s end, puffing the cigar into a gentle ember glow. “You now come here to suggest what? An extraction? A complete replanning of the mission the two of them were assigned? Perhaps sell them out to the Allthorian authorities to enrich our positions with them?” He took a long draw on the cigar, his gaze making Tacit uncomfortable. He had yet to ask Tacit to sit down.

“You come in here, with a mission underway, to share your belief that one of our operatives is unsuitable, with no suggested solution to your perceived problem.” Pareil shook his head disapprovingly, still staring at the now perspiring Tacit. Pareil stood up, the thin cigar clenched between his teeth, and leaned out over his desk, his height giving him an even more imperious look. He slolwly took the cigar from his mouth, looking at the burning tip with an appraising eye. He had then gestured at Tacit with it forcefully, pale blue smoke twirling in the still air of the room. “Son, you have to begin thinking like an agent of the Strasstruppen. We have to be able to rely on you to think independently. I need to know I can send you into any situation, in any country, with a certain set of goals, knowing that how those goals are achieved is up to your superios discretion and wise judgment. That is the gift of truly remarkable agents; autonomous thought leading to successful action.”

Jean sighed deeply, rubbing one temple of his slender head with his free hand. He sat back down, gesturing with resignation to a leather-covered chair in front of his desk. Tacit moved quickly to occupy the chair, gripping the armrests to combat the shaking of his hands. He tried to calm himself, taking deep breaths and focusing on the beat of his heart, rattling in his chest, willing it to slow down. He did not dare break eye contact with his superior.

Jean smoked quietly for a few moments, finally looking from Tacit to the walls of his personal office, to a suit of chain armor and weapons hung from the wall to Tacit’s right. Tacit followed his gaze to the wall, admiring the display himself. He read down an impressive list of battles and campaigns that were carved into a small stone plaque beside the armaments. He recognized most of the names, and was impressed by the list, a memorial of around one hundred and fifty years in combat experience. Tacit remembered listening to Jean’s war stories from his time before the Strassstruppen.

Jean began again, in a calmer tone, “I am going to send you to Fauston. Your assignment is to observe Crynus and Brevarius as they go about their assignment. Do not be discovered by either of them and make a detailed observance of their activities. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” Tacit said immediately, in a tone he hoped sounded confident. “I will depart immediately if there is nothing else?” He watched Jean expectantly.

“Gather your equipment, you will be teleported in to be there earlier than the other two and establish yourself in the city. Do not fail in this, Tacit. I need to know that when I am gone that this operating cell will be in capable hands.”

Tacit rose to his feet with a surge, color rising in his face at the unexpected compliment. “Sir.” He turned and left before anything else could be said, unable to stifle a smile for more than the brief moment it took him to leave, closing the door swiftly behind him.

Tacit finished dressing as his memories played back. He was smiling to himself at how horrible that meeting had been, except for that ray of hope at the very end. But his smile faded quickly as he remembered the operation that came after: Fauston, and the disaster it became.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Twenty One

Garenol leapt up the steps of the Bloody Fist, hoping that Dorick would have a horse or know a close stable. He worried that the fire brigade would have noticed something amiss during the warehouse fire, and waited for the ruins to cool enough to investigate. If that had happened, today was going to devolve quickly. People could be relied on to overlook small things, and surely a few coins found in the charred warehouse wreck would be pocketed without incident. But the amount of money Malus had reported wasn’t even portable enough to steal with a concerted effort of allied criminals. Even worse, if melted into a solid mass, it would be even more immovable, an incomprehensible mystery to fuel speculations among an already uneasy nobility and merchant population. Garenol sped up as his speculations began to race in his head.

Moving through the open tavern door, Garenol spotted Dorick, chatting from behind the bar with a few customers seated there to enjoy breakfast. He jogged over quickly, slapping his hands down forcefully on the bar, coins clinking underneath one.

“Dorick, I need a horse, do you have one in the stable to spare?” Garenol asked impatiently, interrupting the jovial talk Dorick was engaged in.

Dorick looked up slowly from where he had leaned over the long counter, his laughter dying away, to be replaced by a wry look. He cleared his throat. “Oh certainly, liege, I believe the city coroner’s horse is stabled and available out there right now.”

Garenol’s expression, unflinching, did not betray him. “Look, Dorick,” he said hurriedly, revealing the generous stack of coins, “I need a horse, at least for the day.”

Dorick sighed, tilting his head to judge the height of the stack of gold on his bar. “My horse is in the far back stall, to the left. Be kind to him, he was a gift. The saddle is in the large chest on the wall of his stall.”

“Thanks Dorick,” Garenol said quickly, already turning for the door once again.

“And Garenol,” Dorick said in a schoolmarm’s warning tone, “This,” scraping the coins off the counter into an apron pocket, “is just a rental fee for the day. Make damned sure that animal is returned to me.”

Garenol waved a dismissive hand back over his shoulder as he disappeared through the open doorway, stumbling between two city guards on their way in the door. The two glanced after him briefly, then continued on into the room; the smell too good to bother with an inconsiderate elf.

Garenol ran back down the alley, now unconcerned about the condition of his boots. He leapt the stable’s low gate effortlessly, and yelled at Malus, “Saddle up, be with you in just a moment,” as he ran past the confused man. Malus blinked a few times, and continued to saddle his new mount.

Garenol skidded to a halt at the back of the small stable, looking left into the final stall. In the dim, he could make out a dappled gray stallion, not as tall or broad as Malus’ horse, but rippling with defined muscles under its sleek, smooth skin. Garenol gave a low whistle. Being raised with high bred horses, he recognized a beautiful specimen when he saw one. The noble animal turned at the low whistle, regarding Garenol coolly. He patted the horse on the flank, moving carefully around him to the box that was nailed into the stall’s plank wall. Lifting off the lid, he saw yet another surprise, an elegant Quintheniar riding saddle, crafted by the wood’s dwelling elves of the small nation of Quintheniar, north of Haarkedamia, nestled between the large human empire of Allthoria and the Barrier Peaks.

Garenol lifted the saddle carefully, marveling at its crafting and how little it weighed. A delicate ivy pattern was embossed into the tanned leather, and hand hammered silver metalwork was delicately interwoven where common iron would be found on most saddles. “Some gift,” Garenol said to himself, lowering the saddle back into the box and taking up a saddle blanket. “No wonder he wants it back,” he continued under his breath as he slung the blanket over the animal’s back. “Have to ask old Dorick about what kind of friends he has made in Quintheniar when I get some time.” He continued with the saddle, quickly readying the proud looking horse for riding.

Malus looked around the corner into the stall, “Ready when you are,” he said quietly, eying the horse as Garenol adjusted the stirrups. “Pretty little horse,” he said before disappearing once more around the corner.

Garenol laughed, patting the horse on the flank reassuringly as he swung into the saddle gracefully. “You’ll rue that joke if we are getting chased. This little monster will run circles around that brute Malus stole. Won’t you?” he finished, leaning out over the horse’s neck, taking up the reins. The animal snorted and stamped with its front hooves, obviously ready to move. “My kind of horse,” Garenol said, letting the animal back out of the stall, shaking out its mane and snorting.

He popped the reins lightly, and the excited horse trotted to the stable gate, nosing the wooden gate open and proceeding into the alley, ignoring Malus atop his big mare. Garenol smiled as he bounced past. Malus shook his head, then steered his mount in behind Garenol, following him down the alley onto Meridian Street.

Garenol waited at the entry to the main thoroughfare, trying to find a sufficient gap to steer his mount into the boisterous street traffic. Malus pulled his reins lightly, steering his horse around Garenol’s mount and directly into the street, pedestrians stumbling and diving to get out of his huge mount’s way.

Garenol yelled a belated warning to clear the way when he realized what Malus was doing, then sheepishly steered his own horse into the large wake left by Malus’ passing. He tried his best to ignore the glare of the people on foot that surrounded them both, their eyes numerous and accusing. He gently prodded his horse with his heels, getting as close to Malus as he could.

Malus turned in his saddle, looking back and down at Garenol, who had advanced as close as possible to his large horse. He smirked, “You did say we needed to hurry.”

“Which part of we may be in danger here did you not understand?” Garenol hissed back, deftly maneuvering his mount into a small gap to draw alongside Malus.

“Fine, better a seen enemy and open confrontation than this ridiculous subterfuge and sneaking around,” Malus replied under his breath, looking sideways at Garenol and not paying attention to the crowd scrambling to avoid his horse’s hooves. “Why should we concern ourselves with this money and who finds it? We can’t take it ourselves, so why are we so worried. If someone seeks us, let them come.”

“Malus, whoever brought that money here is running a massive operation of some sort. If it’s Jean Pareil, we need to know how in the dark we really are. If it isn’t, I’m sure that he would want to know that someone with access to huge amounts of Tribunus gold is moving it into Haarkedamia. This is bigger than a couple of minor assassinations.”

“Bigger than Polk?” Malus retorted, the look on his face agitated. “What we do in his death with shake this nation more than money.”

“You don’t get it, fool,” Garenol snapped back, struggling to keep his mount near Malus’ chestnut mare. “What you found is the most important thing right now, we need more information.”

Malus grimaced, pulling his gaze forward over the top of the parting crowds, squinting ahead. “As I said, on your head, Crynus.” He spurred his horse with the heels of his armored boots, the horse bolting forth into the teeming mass of people, toppling a fruit cart. Garenol followed, cursing Malus’ short sighted stupidity. At least he was going to go back to the warehouse with him. Garenol was now worried about an encounter with authorities at the site. He hoped Malus would let him approach the site surreptitiously and gather what information there was to be had.

Malus led the way through the throngs in the streets carelessly, his forceful steering of the large horse creating ripples of resentful, cursing pedestrians at his passing. Garenol fell in line behind him, tiring quickly of trying to move carefully through the crowded streets at Malus’ side, and embarrassed by the looks that he and Malus were receiving. He mumbled to himself as he followed, his hood drawn up over his face to both obscure his features and block the accusing stares. He let his horse fall into step behind Malus, thinking that Malus should at least remember how to get back to the warehouse.

Malus lead the way back to where the warehouse was carefully, taking an occasional turn off the direct path then veering back a block later, watching behind them carefully for anyone following them. Fairly certain that they were still operating unseen, he picked up the pace, letting his mount break into a quicker gait when they entered the more industrial part of town, since the crowds thinned here considerably.

After twenty minutes of riding, Malus brought his horse to an abrupt halt. Garenol’s horse stopped automatically, jolting Garenol out of his disaffected trance. He threw back his hood and took in the surroundings, anonymous warehousing and large workhouses with wide avenues to permit great trade wagons to maneuver between the buildings. The smell of burning wood drifted to his nose, and his features crinkled at the acrid smell, prevalent although they were still blocks away from Karderek’s warehouse.

Malus dismounted, and walked back to where Garenol sat, still mounted on the wiry dappled gray. “We should walk from here.”

“Fair enough,” Garenol replied, swinging out of his saddle, “Where shall we put the horses, valiant leader?”

Malus glared. Turning away from Garenol, he walked back to his mount without a reply, taking the reins and walking the chestnut mare into an alley across the street from where they had stopped. Malus looked up and down the street. Finding no one apparent, he led his mount into the dark alley. Garenol watched this process with amusement. Then he too led his horse into the alley, finding Malus carefully hitching his horse to a drainage pipe leading down from a neighboring rooftop.
Garenol did likewise, while looking back towards the alley entrance. The odd angle of the building here created a blind spot where they were standing: the horses could not be seen from the street. Garenol nodded at the appropriateness of the location. Turning to Malus, he asked. “Would you like to stay here? I can go up from this spot and approach by rooftops.”

“How will I know if I am needed?” Malus replied, his suspicion of this new plan obvious, “We are still at least five blocks away.”

“If things go bad for some reason, you will know,” Garenol said with a sly smile, moving his cloak back away from his limbs, getting ready to climb the drain pipe. “If I am outnumbered, I stop being subtle. You’ll hear it.”

Garenol placed a foot back into his stirrup, stepping up lightly onto the saddle, then pushing off the saddle, jumping without a noise to the drain pipe, his leap carrying him already well up the side of the warehouse. His horse craned his neck to see what had happened, but Garenol was already clambering out of sight over the ridge at the top of the roof.

Malus watched him go, a disapproving look spreading over his face as he reached up to stroke his horse’s mane. Bane would be a good name for you, he thought as he looked at the great beast, amusing himself by thinking of the shocked looks of all the people who’d leapt out of their way earlier. He hoped this detour would alleviate Garenol’s paranoia, he was hungry again.

Monday, March 1, 2010


The smell of the Bloody Fist’s house cured bacon and sausages drifted lazily out of the open front door of the tavern, acting as a beacon to the crowds who were slowly moving along the street outside. The fog was slowly burning away, revealing a blue sky unmarred by clouds, twinkling over Lake Venne and giving the wet cobblestones of Meridian Street a jewel-like gleam. Garenol watched the growing crowd from the table he had secured after a few hours of restorative sleep, the previous night’s exertions, both physical and oenological, melting off his slim frame as he enjoyed his second breakfast.

The first, smaller meal had awoken him in his room, as Dorick himself had delivered a tray of steaming sweet rolls and a little pot of smoky Allthorian tea. Garenol had thanked Dorick profusely and eaten lustily, willfully ignoring Dorick as he quickly glanced around Garenol’s room, no doubt seeking any sign of wrongdoing the previous evening. Finding nothing to satisfy his suspicions, Dorick had thrown Garenol, now propped up on his pillows, a sideways glance, which Garenol accepted with a benevolent smile, waving a half devoured slice of plum bread at Dorick. Grumbling, Dorick had departed, not at all looking forward to the morning’s inevitable unpleasant surprise. He knew Garenol’s light, cheerful mood was almost never good for anyone else. He sighed to himself as he marched back down the stairs into the kitchen quickly, hoping that whatever it was making the mad elf so cheerful would at least be easily cleaned up.

Garenol had dressed quickly for the holiday, sending a loose linen shirt down with the morning porter for steaming as he donned a pair of doeskin breeches, tucking the close fitted ends of these into the top of his nicer boots; deep burgundy and cobbled out of horse hide. He then took from his pack a hauberk of fine chainmail, the delicate looking links carefully looped together and then sewn onto a thin, fitted leather shell. He felt the interior of the armored piece carefully, checking that the soft cotton lining sewn to the leather was flat and still intact. He donned this armor over his bare skin, tying tightly all the loops sewn into the armor’s side seam, running down the side of his torso, using the mirror to ensure that the armor was fitted correctly. It would be his only defense against a blade in the close crowds that were sure to be in the streets today. He took his shirt back from the porter who knocked again in a few minutes’ time, the gold pressed into his palm by Garenol ensuring his speed, donning it hastily. He rechecked his appearance in the mirror, ensuring that the shirt covered his armor completely.

Turning back to the bed before leaving the room, he looked to his swords, hanging in their sheaths from the footboard. Garenol debated the merit of going outside armed today. The physical deterrence of obvious arms would keep him from being accosted or hassled by almost everyone, but would render him more conspicuous. In the end, hoping for a smooth day of observation and planning, Garenol took two sheathed daggers from his pack, sliding one into his belt at the small of his back, and one along the supple leather of his boot. He sincerely hoped he’d not have to resort to them today, as a spell would be a beacon of flashing light to other casters in the large crowds, rendering his anonymity in the city void. He wished he had learned some more subtle magics.

Once on the porch, Garenol had occupied a table farthest from the tavern’s wide open doors, already looking around for Malus, in the hopes that the man could be intercepted before he went inside. Garenol had waved down an already busy serving girl, and asked for another pot of Allthorian tea, and the traditional Haarkedamian full breakfast. Garenol loved being back in the south, where breakfast tended to take the form of enormous plates of pork products, eggs, and potatoes. He hoped he’d be able to eat before Malus showed up.

In accordance with his wish, breakfast arrived quickly, the rumors of Garenol’s generous gratuities having spread quickly through the staff. He tipped the young lady well, thanking her politely, informing her that under no circumstances should she bring wine, or any alcohol at all, even if Dorick insisted. He’d need a clear head for intelligence gathering, and today already looked to be warming up. He shuddered at the thought of a head full of wine in a hot crowd of peasants, swiftly cutting apart a dark smoked sausage and shoving it into his mouth.

Garenol finished his breakfast quickly, watching the street in front of the tavern for Malus to appear. He hoped that the final assignment that Malus undertook had gone without incident. And if he survived, Garenol thought with a grin, well, I guess that is acceptable as well. He leaned back from the table, tossing his cloth napkin nonchalantly beside his plate, cradling the hot cup of dark tea in his slender fingers.

The street running between the Bloody Fist and the little boathouses on Lake Venne was already busy with people. Garenol watched in amusement the variety of people moving in both directions on the wet cobblestones. Small families of laborers enjoying the morning before the day’s festivities, looking out at the still fog ensconced lake. Push carts and small wagons displaying multitudes of goods and food, their workers and owners already loudly hawking their wares in the quickly improving sunlight. The occasional carriage of one of the city’s wealthier merchants or a minor noble, clattering loudly down the street behind elegant carriage horses.

Most of these conveyances of the wealthy and powerful had a man or two riding on the back or moving quickly alongside, each visibly armed and scanning the faces of the crowd carefully. Garenol smirked at how fast those with something to lose had become paranoid. No doubt his and Malus’ actions of the previous night had already sent fear and dread through the upper echelons of Venne’s population. Good, Garenol thought to himself, sipping his still warm tea, if the minorly important figures are scared, that’ll take focus off an even bigger target. He stopped looking at the crowd when he thought of Polk. He still didn’t have a good idea of how best to approach their last task in the city. He laughed quietly to himself when he thought that maybe Malus would have a plan. He had to stifle a louder chuckle at the form he was sure Malus’ plan would take; probably a haywagon full of incendiary tar rolled up the steps of the Crystal Cathedral, then ignited, followed by Malus riding up the aisles of the main temple on a huge black warhorse, cutting down all who were within a sword’s breadth of him.

After half an hour, the sun had fully burst through the fog cover, bathing the city in welcoming, warm sunshine. The only remaining fog moved out over the lake, slower to warm than the crowded streets and buildings. Garenol continued looking for Malus as another pot of tea was brought.

He finally spotted his partner, far down the street back towards the poor district of Venne. He groaned at Malus, on horseback, armed and armored, the crowd parting well before his arrival. Oh well, he thought, setting his tea aside and moving to the steps to intercept Malus on arrival, so much for subtlety.

Garenol stopped at the cusp of the top step, standing with his arms crossed, looking disapprovingly at Malus. Malus continued to ride down the cobblestone street, either oblivious to Garenol’s stare, or ignoring it. As he drew close to the Bloody Fist, Malus steered the horse closer to the porch. Acknowledging Garenol with a curt nod, he pointed towards the alley at the far end of the building and continued riding, steering the horse into the alley running alongside the tavern. Garenol watched him depart, rolling his eyes at Malus’ behavior. He moved down the steps after a moment, walking alongside the long porch and turning into the alley.

The close, dim quarters between the Bloody Fist and the neighboring building were still damp, condensation dripping from the eaves of both buildings. Garenol stepped carefully in his dress boots, avoiding puddles and occasional trash. Malus had reached the far end of the alley, where a small gate denoted the entrance to the Bloody Fist’s small stable. Malus dismounted expertly, swinging down from the saddle with a jingling noise that sounded to Garenol like a large sum of money jostling around. He hurried to catch up with Malus, now curious about the large man’s evening activities.

Malus opened the gate and lead the horse through as Garenol caught up to him.

“Busy night?” Garenol asked facetiously, eyeing the two jingling bags tied to the pommel of the saddle. “Care to introduce me to your new friend?” he continued, reaching out to pat the flank of the rather well-bred horse. “She’s a pretty lass, not quite what I pictured you on, though.”

Malus ignored the jibes, leading the big chestnut mare into an empty stall to his left. He removed the horse’s lead and bit, patting her gently. Garenol raised an eyebrow at this behavior. Now this is a side I’ve never seen, he thought to himself, an amused look playing over his face. Malus used a nearby pitchfork to toss some fresh hay from a bale into the stall.

He then unsaddled the horse efficiently, belying a previous aptitude that Garenol was unaware of. He’d never seen Malus care for a horse before, but it was obvious that he was well versed in the practice. Malus tossed the two sacks of coins to the dirt floor inside the stall, their coins making a wealthy clinking noise as they landed heavily. He moved out of the stall holding the saddle across his broad chest, stirrups slung carefully up and over the seat. He moved to a saddle rack at the front wall, and slung the big saddle across it. Dusting his hands off, he finally turned to Garenol, expressionless as always.

“Last target was a little complicated,” Malus stated blandly, “the place ended up burning.”

“Yes, I’m sure that had nothing to do with how you approached the target,” Garenol said sarcastically, moving around Malus towards the horse’s stall. He bent and grabbed the drawn neck of one of the bags of coins, straining in physical effort to lift it. “Care to explain these?” he asked, shaking the bag slightly.

Malus shrugged, “That,” gesturing to the larger of the two bags, “was the cargo that Karderek was protecting.” Malus then pointed to the smaller bag that Garenol was holding, “That one was the money he was packing to take with him.”

“Take with him?” Garenol asked, placing the bag he was holding on the ground. “I guess he got worried about the explosion and earlier deaths, and was going to leave town for awhile.” Garenol unlaced the leather strap around the bag’s neck, reached in and produced a handful of Haarkedamian gold coins. “Nice unexpected bonus I guess.”

“Not those,” Malus said, pointing to the other bag, leaned against the loose boards of the stall. “There were crates of those bags in the warehouse. They were warded.”

“Warded? Why would a merchant go to the hassle of having some gold coins warded?” Garenol dumped his handful of coins back into the sack, and stood up. “I don’t see what’s so secretive about some money. Everyone here knows he was wealthy.”

“Warded. Twice,” Malus replied, taking off one of his gloves, revealing a hand the color of boiled lobster, blisters already yellowing. “One cold, the other a damned lightning trap. And not just some money, Garenol, twenty crates, each probably holding twenty of these,” Malus gestured with his burned hand down at the large bag. “It would have been close to half a million in gold. You should look at those. I don’t think he was fleeing from us, the events of last night all happened too quickly for him to be preparing to flee with a small fortune on the other side of the city.”

A confused look crossed Garenol’s face as he tried to lift the larger bag and could not. Four hundred bags like this were more money than most of the Confederacy States would raise from taxes in a year. He was thinking back to his tutors in his father’s keep. He remembered hearing that Wood’s End ran all its municipal and state functions with something like one hundred fifty to two hundred thousand a year. He gave up on lifting the bag, going down on one knee in front of it and untying the drawstring. He reached into the bag and produced a single coin. He held it up into a beam of sunlight that permeated the stall from the rickety plank roof above them,

The Tribunus Eagle showed brightly in the beam of light, dazzling Garenol’s eyes, which had been adjusted to the dim of the stable. He narrowed his gaze into a squint at the coin’s mint marks, then gasped.

“What in the nine hells is this much Tribunus coin doing here, Malus?” he exclaimed, rising to his feet quickly, still holding the coin. “That’s enough money to run a nation,” he said incredulously, suddenly very nervous about the scope of the work they were involved in, “or it would fund an army, a whole army, for a couple of years. Why do the high elves want to send this much money down here? They don’t even share a border with Haarkedamia.”

He flipped the coin to Malus in frustration. Without thinking, Malus grabbed the coin with his burned hand, cursed and dropped it. He glared at Garenol, but Garenol was lost in thought, rooting through the bag looking at the coins. Each one he withdrew was the same: a brilliant, large Tribunus Imperial, shining as if it had just left the mint.

Malus picked up the dropped coin and walked closer to Garenol. He tossed the coin back into the bag. “If we are here to destabilize the Confederacy, maybe Tribunus is playing some part in that? After all, Jean Pareil is a Tribunus elf. Maybe their involvement down here is getting bigger. They have the money, Tribunus is huge.”

Garenol looked up at Malus, “You don’t get it. This is not a large amount of money. This is,” he paused, “or was, a whole nation’s output. Pay and supplies for tens of thousands of soldiers and battle mages, an insane amount. I can’t even begin to wonder how it got here. The power it would take to teleport the weight of it,” he shook his head in wonder, “a dozen skilled mages linked in casting. An entire wagon train to transport it normally. You said the warehouse burned?”

Malus nodded dumbly, “Yes, the warehouse was burning when I finally opened a crate. I kept that one. It’s a lot of money.” Malus shrugged.

“It won’t burn, you oaf. It may not even all melt if it was warded with protective runes or the structure burned itself out quickly enough. We have to go back. Something is not right here. Doing these small things for Pareil is one thing, if something larger is happening, I want to know.” Garenol looked back to the horse. “I assume she was Karderek’s get away plan? If he wasn’t getting away from you, who was he getting away from?”

Malus shrugged.

“I’m going to need a horse, too,” Garenol stated, rising back to his full height. “If Karderek was involved with a Tribunus plot, I want to know why we were kept in the dark, and who else would be after him. Polk may have to wait a day.”

Malus shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another. “I dislike this suggestion that we deviate from assigned tasks, Crynus,” he stated dully.

“Look,” Garenol said, making eye contact with the big human, “we need to know what we are getting in to here. If the merchant was in danger for holding this Tribunus gold, we may be in danger as well, seeing as how we are here working for them. Gods, Malus, we may very well have been sold out. We need to know. We need to go back to the warehouse and see if we can find anything.”

Malus stared down at Garenol for a moment. Finally, he grunted in assent, wagging a bright red finger at Garenol. “This abberation is on your head, Crynus.” He moved back to the front wall to get his saddle again. “Go get a horse, I will wait here.”

“Fair enough,” Garenol said, turning to leave the stable, “Don’t go in the Bloody Fist, Malus.”

Malus grinned to himself as Garenol departed. Of course he wasn’t going to be so stupid as to raise more alarms, but no reason to let Garenol think he was smart enough to realize that, either. He walked back over to his new horse, talking gently to her. He had yet to decide on her name.

A Note from my Career before today's installment

I got some rather wonderful news this morning about my job. Since I am not sure who is reading at this point, a little background knowledge is in order. I teach general level biology at CE Byrd High School in Shreveport LA. Our school population is 2200 kids; of which 600 are science magnet students who tested into a rather competitive program.

I don't teach those kids.

If you have ever seen the fourth season of The Wire, or Dangerous Minds, those are my average students. And while that doesn't particularly bother me (I find being immersed in a radically different culture at least stimulating, if not low-stress), they are not particularly inquisitive or drawn to academic pursuits, by and large (with some exceptions).

So next year this school goes to a block scheduling format, and to save you a tedious lecture about education formats in secondary schools, I will just say that this allows kids the opportunity to take more electives. And being a useless liberal arts snowflake, I wholeheartedly endorse this development.

So we have to offer a large number of electives next year. And in talking with our principal, the first boss I have really admired in years, it sounds like I will be picking up an elective to teach next year as well.

Philosophy, for high school students.

I'll pause for laughter.

So now I get to teach something I really like, that is really worthless, to a completely different group of students from what I am used to.

I will report back once I have figured out if Louisiana has a prescribed curriculum for philosophy in high schools. That alone ought to be pretty entertaining.

Friday, February 26, 2010


Garenol slowly opened the door from the last target’s room, careful to not touch the knob or door with his skin. His paranoia was always most intense when working in cities with Ivory Council members. Some of them had intense divination powers, and could touch objects and see anything living that had previously touched them. Learning this fact had been a costly lesson early in his chosen profession, and he’d ended the manhunt brought on him by his carelessness with a number of silent deaths. He shuddered at the follies of his youth and thanked the gods quietly that he was more careful now.

This last target went according to plan, almost too smooth to end in something as horrible as murder. A silent entrance into the room had not stirred the sleeping council member in the slightest. Garenol had brought swift painless death, not even breaking the man’s skin with his dagger. After slowly lifting the blankets curled around the sleeping man’s feet, he had taken the flat of the blade and rubbed the smallest amount of the viscous tar coating the blade on the man’s heel. Garenol crouched in the darkness of a corner opposite the bed then, to ensure that the man was dispatched without incident.

True to his knowledge of the poisonous extract, a boiled down mixture of Daarkian blood lichens and common peppermint, the man was dispatched without a sound. Garenol knew exactly one person in Haarkedamia that could come close to identifying the poison, and he highly doubted his father would be investigating this death. The blood lichen was a swift toxin, causing almost instant paralysis, freezing the victim in place and also rendering them incapable of vocal noise. Death came within a minute of this initial freezing of muscle functions. Garenol had waited, seen the sleeping man suddenly grow stiff as a board, breath beginning to slow down as involuntary mechanism fought the poison, and slowly lost. Garenol walked to the bed and ensured that the man was dead, holding a small polished mirror carefully under his nose, checking for steam imprint. The target no longer drew breath.

Garenol had then leapt deftly to the footboard of the bed, reaching up with a gloved hand to carefully replace the ceiling tile he had displaced. He knew that if anything, the man would be assumed to have died in his sleep, the only hint of the poison being the slightest hint of a menthol smell. Even the most astute investigator would only assume the light scent was from a traveller’s balm, some type of liniment common to those weary from travel, just like his well-traveled councilman target, now stiff and silent under the inn’s warm blankets. Garenol climbed down carefully, moving to the two pieces of luggage sitting next to the wall behind the door to the room. He shuffled quickly through the two hard sided cases, taking from the larger only the emissary’s pouch with the Confederacy emblem embossed into its thick leather front flap. He also found a small glass jar, marked on its tin hammered lid with a mint leaf: traveller’s balm. He smiled, as he would not even have to plant the container he had in his own pocket to alleviate the suspicions of an investigator careful enough to look for it. Glancing around to satisfy himself that all appeared the way he wanted it to, he quickly opened the emissary’s pouch. The folding leather pouch was filled with documents relevant to the councilman’s work as a representative of his home state. Garenol thought for a moment, assuming this information would be important enough to Jean Pareil to take the risk of stealing it. He wouldn’t be able to leave the murder completely without leads, but he felt confident that being tracked down was not going to happen. He would be gone after Polk anyway. He moved silently to the door, glancing back to the body in the bed once more in reassurance that this part of the assignment was over.

Garenol smiled in relief to see that the hallway was empty, and walked quickly to his room with the emissary pouch. Opening the door swiftly and locking himself inside, he turned with a look of relief to the bed. Finally, he thought to himself, a few hours’ rest before the real job began. He crossed to the window, producing the poisoned dagger from its sheath. It would have to be completely disposed of, as would the now incredibly dangerous sheath. He opened the window with his free hand, letting in the moist early morning air, the sky outside growing a dull gray in anticipation of a foggy spring morning. Garenol then pulled the glove off his right hand with his teeth, and carefully moved the dagger into his naked palm, careful to only handle the unblemished hilt of the weapon. He then took his other glove off with his teeth, spitting it onto the floor beside the first one as he took his sheath in his other hand. Holding both items out of the window over the alleyway behind the Bloody Fist, Garenol began to murmur in a low voice, watching as rust spread quickly up the blade of the dagger, the poison coating the blade turning to pale dry dust and flaking off the quickly corrupting blade. The sheath crumbled fast as well, drifting into the fog of the alley in gray flakes. After thirty seconds of concentration, Garenol opened both hands, letting the fine dust that was all that remained of both items drift into the open air.

Dusting his hands off decisively, Garenol turned back to the room, leaving the window open a crack, the smells drifting up through the window from the kitchen too intoxicating to shut out. He shoved the emissary pouch into his own backpack that lay on the bed. Pushing the rest of his gear off the blankets, he sat down heavily, still breathing in deep gulping drafts. The exertion of suspending himself in the ceiling rafters and magic use, combined with the stress of the day’s events to make Garenol once again out of breath, wracked with fatigue, but at least feeling accomplished. For today at least, his job had been done, and done well. Garenol leaned down and unlaced his soft boots one at a time, not caring where they fell. Stretching out across the bed’s soft quilt, he felt his muscles begin to unravel. Sleep was already overtaking him. Just a few hours, he thought to himself. Then I’ll retrieve Malus and we will sort out Polk, then get out of this damned town. I may take a little time before meeting back up with Jean Pareil, maybe go to the coast, Porl is always beautiful in the spring bloom.

He fell asleep envisioning a solitary beach, its own small corner of the world surrounded by impenetrable cliffsides. The sand underneath his bare feet glittering like an infinite wash of diamonds. Himself seated crosslegged in the sand, loose linen pants brushing up against a bottle of wine cradled between his legs, no other person in sight, a small sailing craft moored off shore, riding gently at anchor.

Malus steered the horse into a labyrinthine pattern upon reaching Tinder Town, the poorest area of Venne, pressed up against the city’s southernmost wall. The whole of the area teemed with activity, as menial laborers, street vendors and the more determined beggars rose from lean-tos and shanties and the occasional permanent tent to face another day. Malus, in his cloak and armor, looked authoritative and intimidating enough to not garner many second looks, as the people moving about their morning gave the hooves of his stolen horse a wide berth.

With enough wandering in this part of town, Malus felt for certain that any trail that led from the warehouse fire to him would be completely obliterated. Even if they saw the hoof prints leading away from the scene, he knew that there would be no way to follow a horse through Tinder Town as morning broke. People already moved in every direction here on narrow, unpaved roads. He looked behind his horse, now moving at a relaxed gait, calmed down from its fire induced panic. Already the hoof prints they were leaving behind were being obfuscated by booted and bare feet, the tracks of pushcarts and donkeys, and the gentle mist of the foggy morning, all combining into an indecipherable muddy morass. He nodded grimly, seeing his thoughts working in action.

Malus decided he was hungry, as he remembered Garenol mentioning breakfast earlier. He kept taking random lefts and rights down unmarked small streets, watching the poor of Venne rise early to prepare for the awakening of the rest of the city for the day’s holiday activities. Malus spotted numerous narrow wagons already loaded with food and drinks, hitched to small, ill-bred looking donkeys, braying in protest at the earliness of the hour. Smaller push carts lined the muddy streets as well, loaded with cheap trinkets to commemorate the occasion, carved likenesses and reproductions of Olorin’s staff.

Malus waved down a vendor who was quickly shoveling hot coals from a metal bucket into the bottom of a metal box on the back of a wagon. Malus could smell the fragrant steam coming from the contraption: roasted corn. He dug into the large bag of coins tied to the saddle’s pommel, tossing the bewildered vendor a gold coin. The man stumbled over himself selecting the biggest ear of corn he could find in the hot box, carefully peeling back the husks into a makeshift cradle, and giving it up to Malus on the tall horse. Malus rode on without pause, taking large bites from the sweet corn as he went, oblivious to the hot juices running down his chin into his cuirass. He failed to see the man behind him bite the coin quickly before pocketing it, more money than he’d see in a month.

Malus decided it would be best to wait until breakfast was in full swing for the crowd at the Bloody Fist. He would then rendezvous with Garenol, and plan out their assassination of archbishop Polk. Malus glanced up from the streets to the Crystal Cathedral, its gleaming white crystal spire rising high above the normal structures of the city, and viewable from any point inside the city’s walls. His eyes gleamed as he found himself picturing the vaults below the cathedral, filled with the kind of riches that would build such a ridiculous monument. With any luck, he would leave Venne rich enough to continue his own quest. But for now, he had to figure out how to kill one of the most powerful and well-protected men in the Confederacy. Rather than frustrate his thoughts, the challenge pleased him immensely, and the smile it brought to his face was sufficiently horrifying to ensure he and his stolen horse an even wider berth than before.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


Tacit slowly replaced the large bound text on the table, still open to the passage he had just finished reading for either the sixth or seventh time. He had lost count. He had also lost track of time, here in this windowless, stuffy room time seemed such a relative and remote concept. Indeed, without the high windows in the main collection hall, Tacit would have had a difficult time knowing when to retire for the night for the past few weeks. All his concentration and will being focused here had no doubt been running his staff of young scholars into the ground. The young cadre of elves had been performing admirably in their academic tasks. They were a credit to the College of Wood’s End. Hopefully, they were enjoying themselves tonight, it was a well earned evening off.

However, Tacit wasn’t thinking about any of those things. He steepled his hands in front of his face, willing his breath to slow down as he stared into space, lost in thought. The candles next to the book sputtered, almost burned down to their small, cupped brass supports. Tacit glanced at the candles when the light flickered, then gauged his time spent. A couple of hours, he guessed by the degree that the candles had melted down to. He carefully moved his book away from the wax that was now dripping onto the smooth table surface. His pulse was still racing, and he found it difficult to remain seated. After getting the book safely away from the candles, he rose and began pacing, clasping his hands firmly behind his back to keep them from noticeably shaking.

He wondered to himself if leaving the library in the middle of the evening, buying a shovel and riding out of the city’s main gate at a full gallop with the shovel strapped across his back would be at all conspicuous. He grinned at the thought, and entertained it for a moment, letting the absurdity and silliness of a very bad idea distract him from a greater scheme long enough to calm down somewhat. He moved around the room, forcing his gait into a semblance of casual walking, looking at the books arranged on the old wooden shelves, but ignoring the titles along their spines. He reached the rolling ladder at the end of the first row, reaching out to it without thinking, his instincts giving him a physical reminder not to bump into it while he was deep in thought. A series of ideas was already boiling just behind his eyes, now he just had to get them in the right order.

After he’d seen with his own eyes the Hammer of Earth, Tacit had known that a great deal of what most scholars here in the east had called mythology was actually historical fact. He was unsure to what degree the stories of the early Emperor, and Kil, and the civil war were embellished by time and authors, but those details were irrelevant. This was the first time he’d seen a mention of the Hammer of Death. The research he’d been at the speartip of since the first uncovered Hammer had left his hands had finally paid off. One small clue in one anonymous text. But this was the reinforcement he needed. The Imperial Document Vaults of Tribunus had yielded this same hint as to the whereabouts of the hammer, and had lead him here in search of information about Old Venne, which he hoped would give some clue of how best to access the catacombs underneath the razed city. Of course, he couldn’t share that information with the team that had been assigned to him. No scholar from here in the south had entered a Tribunus library for a long time, and the notion that he was a minor noble from Wood’s End would have to continue to serve for a few more days.

First, he would have to let the academics who had come with him to Venne continue searching the library for at least three more days. If he simply ended the searching tonight, they were all smart enough to realize that he’d found something important with the young elf he had dismissed earlier, and glean from that fact the assumption that what he’d found was relevant somehow. Best not to leave that trail. The work was already frustrating them, a few more days of futile pursuit in the stacks would do much to alleviate any suspicion of other motives.

Of course, he’d still have to figure out how to access the Old Venne underground, if it was accessible at all. The ruins were long since picked over, and most of the structures were completely gone, their materials used in construction of the new city and its outlying communities. He’d seen the site briefly coming to Venne, it just looked like a rock strewn plain now, an occasional line of stone marking a wall foundation, but that was it. He still held hope that an entry would become apparent. After all, his work with Jean Pareil had given them the clues to find the first hammer in a crypt in a nameless swamp.

Second, he had to report back to Jean Pareil that he’d found another source confirming their initial find, that the Hammer of Death could very well be buried under Old Venne. He’d sent Tacit here after their initial discovery in Tribunus, along with his two other operatives here in Haarkedamia; Malus Brevarius and Garenol Crynus. Tacit had recognized the name Crynus, and been suitably impressed that the Strasstruppen was able to recruit a disaffected royal into their service abroad. He’d had no clue who Malus was, and after a few months of mission work with him, didn’t think he would ever figure the man out, although he couldn’t deny his martial prowess and dedication to working for Pareil, despite not even being an elf himself.

His own career in the secret service to the Tribunus throne had been moving along briskly ever since he’d taken Pareil’s offer up; it was common for high ranking Strasstruppen members to assemble teams of junior operatives, and he’d been thrilled to belong to one doing intelligence work in a foreign nation. His time here in Haarkedamia had been spent until recently gathering intelligence on the various governments that made up the Confederacy, making long, detailed reports to Pareil via couriers who moved surreptitiously along the trade routes from Haarkedamia north into the human kingdom of Allthoria, before secretly crossing the border into Tribunus. The contacts were numerous, and never the same person twice. He often marveled at the network built by Pareil, who as far as he knew had never set foot outside the Tribunus Empire.

As small a find as this was, he did not want to trust it to any courier. He’d have to cast a spell. It would be the only way to insure absolute privacy of the message, and guarantee that the message not be intercepted in route. He sighed to himself when he reached this step in organizing his thoughts. He found magic bothersome, despite his required training in it during his early years in the Tribunus Military. Like all Tribunus soldiers who showed the aptitude and high enough blood purity, Tacit had been taught rudimentary spellcraft in their progression into the officer’s cadre. After fulfilling his minimum requirements in learning the arcane art, he’d stopped his magic schooling, favoring languages and training in military intelligence, knowing even then that he wanted to one day join the Strasstruppen.

Nevertheless, he could not dent the utility of his minor training in magic. Although not skilled enough to transmit the lengthy amounts of documentation and figures he’d collected over time, he could still send a brief message that would only be heard by his intended recipient. He paused in his pacing, and glanced up at the darkened entryway to the room. He walked swiftly to the arch leading down the short hall , feeling again the static presence of the wards over the arch. Looking out into the hall, he could see no one moving around in this branch of the library. As late in the evening as it had gotten, he assumed no one would be here except a night watch guard or two, but he needed to make sure. He walked back over to the book, glancing down again at the page of relevant information. He focused on it, leaning in closely, since what he saw was going to be transmitted by his spell. With a hand outstretched, he made a series of finger contortions and said a few words in a halting, low chant. Nothing happened.

“Dammit, stupid warding,” Tacit cursed as he remembered the anti-magic shield protecting the room. He backed away from the table, agitated. The good news would have to wait a few more moments. He looked around once more at the shelves of books. Obviously, something in here was quite valuable. He wished he had the time to puzzle that mystery out, but duty had to come first. He returned the book carefully to the high shelf where it had been when his assistant had retrieved it for him. Pausing after replacing the book, he remembered the assistant. Now his real internal debate began.

The young academic who’d found the passage about the Hammer of Death had inadvertently become a liability. Tacit disliked needless deaths though, so he continued to hash out a few trains of reasoning in his head, if for no other reason than he refused to act like his co-conspirators; acting out the moment they decided that killing was an acceptable option. In Tacit’s mind, just because a death was an expedient option did not make it the best option. He furrowed his brow as he continued moving around the room, thinking about this new problem.

The whole of the research team had heard him read off the excerpt when he had acted out in dressing down the young elf. So if one had to die, they all did. He grimaced further at this thought. But of course he had acted as if the passage was ludicrous, so hopefully they had all dismissed it as quickly as he had in his act. If he could keep them a few more days as he advanced his own arrangements, he felt that they could be trusted to go home none the wiser about his intentions. And of course, the academic elves were going back to Wood’s End. Should anything emerge from any of them that was in any way exposing of his work, he could dispatch Crynus, who would always have alibi and cover in his home country. Their deaths would not be necessary so far as he thought.

Now, what he needed was a way to enter Old Venne, take possession of the Hammer, and move it back to Tribunus. Tacit’s government had long known that Kasnaria planned another invasion of Haarkedamia, their spies had revealed the progression of the plans years ago. Although Pareil had never shared with him the overall purpose of these missions in Haarkedamia, he did have a theory. Tacit thought that what he was doing in seeking out these artifacts while Malus and Garenol selectively eliminated important figures in Haarkedamia was fairly apparent: they were seeking to destabilize the Confederacy while simultaneously taking away potent weapons that could quickly turn the tide of the imminent war in favor of Kasnaria. Almost all of the access points to the east across the Barrier Peaks that were large enough for armies to pass led into Haarkedamia. A long, protracted, costly stalemate at the outbreak of war between the Kasnarian Empire and the Confederacy of Haarkedamia would only serve to strengthen the political and military position of Tribunus on the continent, leaving the human kingdom of Allthoria their only potent rival as their other enemies burned one another to the ground. Tacit admired the plan he’d surmised very much.

He walked from the collection room swiftly, moving back into the main library to collect his cloak and satchel. He would have to send the magical message to Jean Pareil from outside, and he’d need a secure place to do it. His suite was spacious enough for the spell not to be overheard. As he proceeded to the library’s entrance, nodding at a half-asleep guard, leaning against the exterior wall as he passed, he heard a curious noise. The fire brigade bells were sounding. For the second time this evening. Something was happening in town that Tacit did not quite trust instinctively. He’d have to ask Jean where exactly he’d sent Malus and Garenol when he contacted him tonight.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


By the time Michael had lumbered up behind him, Yen had moved into the trees at the perimeter of the small shanty town. The mature, deep forest sprung from the ground in a solid wall around the community, denoting the boundary between civilization and wilderness as clearly as a stone wall. Yen looked up at the canopy of greenery, muttering under his breath as he walked briskly, a slight limp bouncing his head in a steady circle.

Yen craned his neck to look at Michael as he caught up. He immediately looked past him, back down the forest trail into the town they’d hastily departed. No one was apparently motivated enough to pursue them. Too bad, Yen thought to himself. He looked back to Michael, “I assume you are some type of a spy for your nation? Trying to hide that ridiculous armor is hardly a stealthy way to move around such a rugged countryside.” Yen held a hand out to his side, and a gnarled walking staff, long as he was tall and equally twisted, appeared suddenly in his grip. He leaned on it as he continued moving.

“Assuming I am here for that, at least that’s a rational explanation,” Michael said hastily, drawing abreast of Yen. He stooped, still trying to look the demonist in the eye, but failing to penetrate the deep folded hood. “For the life of me, I can’t say why you would be here in this place. Or even on this continent. You are Strythkian?” Michael’s curiosity still overrode his sense of danger in the situation. He was determined that if nothing else, at least the encounter could make some sense in his mind. There was simply no way that was going to happen for him without a few answered questions.

“Of course I am, young paladin,” Yen said in a low voice, as if attempting to conserve what little vocal ability he had left. “I departed the Isle at a young age, however.”

Michael laughed at being branded as ‘young paladin’. “Unless I am very mistaken, you are barely done with your second decade, if that. I myself am nearing thirty, I hardly think you can call me a young . . .”

Yen stopped walking, and turned to Michael, looking up from his hood, eyes glittering. “Have you ever killed for power, Michael?” he asked, all expression dropping from his drawn face. “Or physically sacrificed a family member? Seen a demon eat your sister for a miniscule mistake? “ His eyes were shaking in their sunken sockets and his voice grew more strained again. “Perhaps you have given the souls of your enemies over to the voracity of a pack of demonic hounds, forever hunting, forever hungry? Sacrificing countless menial foes for secret knowledge and personal gain. Or maybe,” Yen continued, reaching to push the sleeve of his robe up to the elbow of his right arm, revealing a deathly white arm of wiry muscle and tendon. Michael looked at the arm closer, at what appeared to be a basket weave pattern covering it. On closer inspection, he realized what the pattern was, scars. An endless number of cutting scars. Yen’s entire arm was covered in a cross-hatching of cuts that had healed into lines of pale scar tissue. There at the end of the abused limb, Yen’s hand was splayed out, showing the four fingers that still remained there. The smallest finger of his right hand was completely gone, the knob of scar left in its place jagged and uneven, as if the finger had been torn viciously from his body. Or bitten off.

“Maybe you’ve spent every waking hour since you were able to walk in conflict with forces that would happily tear you asunder, burn your home and family, then eat you slowly? Perhaps you have given those forces your own flesh and blood to trap and coerce them into your service? Maybe you lost a finger from not drawing a chalk circle perfectly when you were eight years old?” Yen finished by waggling his maimed hand in Michael’s face before withdrawing it back into his sleeve. He stared for a moment further. He shook his head briefly and kept walking. Over his shoulder he finished, moving away from Michael, “Something tells me I have lived just a touch more than yourself, young paladin.”

Michael watched the demonist hobble away, incredulous at the insane, rambling speech. He wondered at the man’s sanity. Still, the demon he had summoned had proven not only potent in conflict, but obviously its powers, whatever they were born from, enabled it with some psychic ability or sight. Yen already knew too much about him from their brief encounter, and Michael saw an opportunity here. Clearly this encounter was a blessing from Kil. Here was a set of skills that would make a master spy proud. He needed to rein this demonist in, make him somehow loyal to him, or at least intimidated enough to serve.

“So, why are you here?” Michael yelled at the departing Yen’s robed back. “I thought your island was sealed from the outside world? No entry and no departure? Hasn’t it been so for centuries?” Michael began moving to catch up.

Yen let loose a hacking laugh that turned into a cough. “I see your schooling is lacking, young paladin,” Michael smirked at the phrase repeated. “So I will illuminate you. The Isle is sealed against those who desire to leave, or desire to enter. Such is the nature of the enchantment. But exile can be, and occasionally is, enforced. A fate worse than death. A subtle, and old, old spell ward. You can’t leave, but you can be forced to do so.”

“So you were exiled here, then?” Michael asked.

“No, I just thought I’d tell you a story,” Yen said quickly as he continued to move a few paces ahead of Michael, “Idiot.”

“Why out here, of all places?” Michael continued, ignoring the insult. “Why not go to the cities? We are human, after all. You could pass for Allthorian, or live in a port city along the coast where there are innumerable immigrants. Your talents would be invaluable to . . .”

“Anyone who didn’t try to kill me on sight,” Yen finished for him. “I don’t suppose you know of the great wars between the demonists and essence users, or what they just call mages here in this place.” He gestured around with contempt. “If I had done that,” gesturing back towards the town, “in any city with a significant mage population, the hunt for me would be on. I try to steer clear of large population centers if I can.”

He looked up from his hood at the surrounding forest as the pair crested a hill, losing sight of the nameless village behind them. The canopy above them filtered the late afternoon sun, dappling the forest floor and the companions in patches of bright, warm light. Yen squinted into the light, pushing his deep hood back off of his head. His short cropped black hair glistened wetly, and beads of sweat stood out on his pale forehead. His eyes, no longer dilated black, were a quivering green, shot through with brown flecks.

Michael marveled at the youth of the face, despite its scars and stress lines. He saw a thick, whirling band of black tattooing wound around Yen’s thin neck, spreading down and out along the back of his neck onto his shoulders, where it disappeared into his robe. Michael looked closely. It was without a doubt the most intricate and detailed tattooing he had ever seen. He’d spent many a drunken night here in the Bur Wood glaring dully at badly rendered tavern girls on thick forearms, or proud displays of the names of children, wives and sweethearts etched into the corded necks of lumbermen. But this was something different. This tattoo looked almost alive on the pale canvas of Yen’s flesh, almost appearing to be in movement, constricting and winding like a serpent, the minute glyphs and symbols entwined in the ribbons of ink shimmering with an almost imperceptible vibration.

“Those, um, marks on your neck,” Michael began to inquire, pointing delicately at the tattoos. “I’ve never seen anything like . . .”

“Demonic branding,” said Yen, still looking around at the woods and sunlight, letting his eyes adjust. “Unspeakably painful, but necessary for the discipline,” he turned to the large paladin, sizing him up with an almost humane look. “I know the thoughts running through your head, holy warrior spy foreigner, so I will alleviate your fumbling and poorly worded thoughts. You view my powers as an unexpected find here in the bosom of nowhere. This is true. You are probably certain that a violent conflict between us would be resolved based on my preparation for it. That is probably also correct. So you are now determining how best to either enlist myself as an aid in your work, or coerce and force my compliance with your designs.”

Michael continued listening, shaking his head incredulously at Yen’s speech. He began wondering if he should even bother talking or responding.

“I think we would be best served if I tell you what I want. Then I will tell you what I can offer you in exchange.” Yen kept moving, his gnarled staff beating a light cadence on the hard packed trail. Michael had fallen in step beside him, continuing to listen. “In exchange for protection out here, I am willing to help you gather whatever information it is you were sent here for. This means that when I sleep, or have need to recuperate from my exertions, you will stand guard. I will give you more knowledge than you thought you could gather here.” Michael was still nodding, this sounded like the most reasonable thing to come out of the demonist’s crazed mouth.

“What I seek here, besides my own survival, is something that may no longer exist. But,” Yen shrugged in frustration, “I am nowhere close to even finding the smallest hint as to its whereabouts. If the time comes, you will aid me in that quest as well,” Yen finished abruptly, turning to face Michael as he walked. “Do you accept?”

“That seems awful formal for a talk between foreign strangers in a forest,” Michael stated, suddenly puzzled by the last part of Yen’s outlined agreement.

“Ah,” Yen replied, grinning slightly. Michael blanched at the effect of the young demonist’s smile. “You misunderstand me. This will not be a working agreement between two people. I am not building you a latrine. It will be a pact. It will be sealed, and we will both be compelled by its power.”

Michael looked at Yen, trying still to absorb the odd speech of the demonist. “I . . . don’t, know? This is all strange, and moving a bit fast. We still need to get further away from that village. They may get brave after a few rounds of drinks. Plus, I don’t know who the hell you are, just someone who can conjure a demon and seemingly gather information about a person at will.”

“What more could you possible need to know, young paladin?” Yen stated calmly. “These are strange times, and events are moving fast. If you hope to survive what is to come, best begin to make decisions.” Yen looked up the trail to the crest of the next hill, sighing at the sight of the steep, winding hike ahead of them. “At nightfall, we can make the pact, or we can part ways. The decision is yours.”

Michael paused at the foot of the hill they were about to climb, following the ruts of the trail. Despite his disbelief at the sheer oddity of his new traveling companion, he knew that somehow the demonist’s predictions rang true. He just did not trust how the knowledge was gained. Nonetheless, as Yen moved up the hill, supported by his staff, Michael followed him, moving steadily up the hill into the spreading orange twilight.