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.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


The image within the circle began to once again become coherent, colors and lines coming into focus from the swirling, formless morass that had initially occupied the defined space on the ground. As Yen continued chanting in the obscure language of the Isle of Stryth, the blood from his clenched hand slowly dripping down into the swirling image, forms began to reel into focus, revealing once more the darkened, misty streets of Venne.

Michael knelt down slowly in his armor, folding one knee carefully into the hard packed soil to support the rest of his bulk. He sunk his sword into the ground with the weight of his shoulder bearing down upon it, then leaned over on the hilt, peering into the circle as he gripped the smiling image of Kil like a talisman. He said a small prayer to his god as he watched the demonist work; not approving, and barely believing, but nonetheless drawn. The crooked young man before him had become indispensable to his operation. And Yen was completely right about him. His devotion to cause had made him a rebel, a traitor, and an outlaw. But he still clung to his final belief. He was not an apostate. He sincerely believed that his actions would all be understood and condoned by Kil, regardless of priests, and church law, and the government they supported. He had prayed fervently through the year he had walked down this solitary path, searching out every shred of evidence in the states of Haarkedamia for inklings of or preparation for another Kasnarian invasion. Even against explicit orders to stop his pursuit.

He knew that the marching orders for a full invasion of Haarkedamia were prepared and ready for release all across his country. But even gaining that information had been an act of sedition. Yen had revealed to him months ago that there were sealed marching orders in the warded pouches that each Tithari General’s courier kept on his body at all times. That information, a state secret that he should not have been privy to, had been the gift given to him by Yen in exchange for his life. Michael remembered their first day: dispersing the mob of that nameless crossroads village in the foothills of the Haarkedamian state of the Kolnian Duchies, a collection of small rural states in the Bur Wood.

Michael had been in the Bur Wood for two years as a deep operative, tracking the movement of resources in the area that could be utilized in a military capacity: lumber, mithril, iron. Numerous valuable resources could be found in the wild and hilly forest, and were dealt in by rough and independent pioneer traders, working out of small temporary villages along rough hewn highways such as the one he found himself in when he found Yen, dagger in hand, crouching low in a defensive posture, hood still concealing his features. He was fending off five miners in the dirt commons that was situated in the midst of a collection of temporary shelters and sturdy, low-roofed thatch buildings. The miners had him surrounded, but were acting reluctant to close with the stranger, picks and axes held in contemplation of impending violence.

At his side, a curious, hideous companion aided in the defense of the bent young man, it’s glossy black eyes darting back and forth from one threatening miner to the next. The short, pale thing possessed a large, perfectly round head, crowned with a small circle of short, dark horns. As it pivoted back and forth to watch the miners, it scrambled on spindly, bent little legs that ended in short claws, seemingly too tiny to support the bulbous, hideously fat little torso atop them. The fat little beast held out equally wiry, thin arms that ended in curled claws, as it mimicked a sinister counting of the surrounding foes. After a moment, the creature’s unnaturally wide mouth opened, revealing a row of jagged, crooked black teeth. Then the creature sounded a hideous, guttural noise deep from within its loathsome gut. It belched a great sphere of bilious acid from its mouth, aimed directly at the closest miner, and immediately turned to the next miner. Where the acid fell, miners fell, screaming in agony as their skin sizzled, fat popping as they were burned mercilessly by the acid as it bore down into exposed flesh.

As the second miner fell, Yen charged a third, a guttural chant streaming from underneath his hood as he lunged violently with his dagger, throwing away all pretense of defense and caution. The miner was caught completely off guard, and Yen’s dagger sunk deep into his chest, the small robed man’s weight barreling into him, taking both attacker and victim to the dust in a scramble of limbs and grunts.

Michael watched the events unfold from his seat high up on a timber wagon, loaded deep with Bur Wood elms destined for the mills further down the river Koln. He’d taken the job six months earlier, after a year and a half spent literally in the dark, as an iron miner. This job on the wagon was infinitely better to aid his intelligence reports on the industries here in the Bur Wood. He saw the goings on of all the small mining and lumber communities up and down the Koln, working alongside the gruff and brave souls who came to the woods to seek their fortunes in the harshest wilderness of Haarkedamia. He drank with them in their small, smoky taverns at night. He’d even developed a taste for the brutal, un-aged spirit that the timber workers would distill out of boiled tree sap and river water. They would drink the fiery liquor every night after the sun was down, from small, hand-carved cups that many of them wore around their necks on leather cords.

Here was something that Michael had never seen before in his travels. Watching the small creature rout the remaining miners after felling two of them with great gouts of steaming acid, Michael’s memory was stirred. He knew what the thing was, even if no one for miles could identify it with any more specificity than ‘ugly little bastard’. A lesser demon, a creature summoned from the planes of the Abyss. He’d read about them briefly in his military schooling, as the Kasnarian’s intelligence training was nothing if not exhaustive. After a moment further spent watching the brutality with which the small robed figure dispatched his own foe, stabbing methodically while whispering in a language Michael did not recognize, he had settled on the idea that this man, as unlikely as the possibility might be, was a demonist. Far, far from his home, in the most remote area of a backwoods duchy. A Strythkian native, as all demonists had to be if his schooling was correct. A member of a nation whose people had not been seen on the mainland, supposedly, for a few hundred years at least.

Despite himself, and the stories he’d heard, Michael had to know why this demonist was here, and flagrantly displaying his abilities among a population of laborers and miners. He made his way down from the wagon’s high seat slowly, being careful not to reveal the large sword he had slung very low on his back, which was covered with a rough woolen forest cloak of grayish green. He briefly lamented that his armor, wrapped carefully in oiled cloth and bound tightly, rode surreptitiously lashed to the underside of the wagon he piloted. Too late for that now, he thought, heavy boot-shod feet hitting the hard packed dirt to the wagon’s side.

Yen had looked up then, his face a rictus of veins and stress lines, eyes wide and staring, the pupils dilated into black orbs. He reached up with his free hand, wiping flecks of blood from his face, leaving red streaks across both sunken cheeks like some Daarkian shaman. Rising slowly, he turned the cruelly shaped dagger over in his hand to where it was clutched point-down, his knuckles turning white around the hilt. He straightened to his full, meager height, and glanced quickly toward the two other miner’s bodies. The bulbous, hideous little demon squatted on the chest of one of the men, staring intently into the dead man’s fixed, dull eyes. Yen made a low, chittering noise towards the beast, while bringing his intense gaze back to fix on Michael. He didn’t move closer, but the demon turned, still squatting on the body, to fix its own black gaze on Michael.

Michael looked at both as he slowly moved his arms out from his sides. “I have no intention of attacking you, I am unarmed,” he said clearly, using the local accent he had acquired from his years here in the south. He stepped towards Yen cautiously, wanting to see more of the man’s face, and the weapon he clutched, which seemed to dim the light around itself and the demonist’s hand. For the first time since he’d come to this dark forest of bearded laborers and stupefying drunkenness, he felt his innate curiosity and wonder getting the best of him. He wanted to know more, and to know why.

The demon squinted at Michael, making him assume that something bad was about to happen. His leg muscles tensed, ready to at least try and dodge an attack. After a moment though, the demon’s face relaxed, and it turned to Yen, making a chittering, guttural noise similar to what Yen had made. Yen glanced to the demon when the noise began, then turned to Michael, gesturing with his dagger. He then spoke.

“What you said is only half true, Tithari. You are in fact well armed. Reach under your cloak and unbuckle the sword,” Yen said, his voice rasping and light, almost too quiet to hear. Michael blinked for a moment, his given Kasnarian title ringing foreign in his ears; it had been years since he’d heard it spoken. Not quite believing what was happening, he complied, undoing the metal clasp that held his sheathed sword low across his back. His weapon fell heavily to the dirt, trailing its bindings.

“Now, paladin of Kil, would you mind terribly telling me just what it is you are doing here?” Yen continued, gesturing with his dagger at the surrounding hovels. “You are far from home, and if I am not mistaken, forbidden to enter this country under pain of death.”

Michael grinned at the irony: a Strythkian somehow implying that he was lost and far from home here. If anything, Kasnaria was at least on the same continent. He felt confident that the demonist probably found the encounter as improbable and weird as he did. He answered, “I could ask the same of you, demonist. Don’t suppose your unique talents are really what is required for a successful timber concern?” Michael removed the stifling cloak, figuring that if this went poorly, at least he’d be able to move freely. He tossed it back up onto the wagon, seeing that neither Yen nor the demon were advancing on him.

Yen looked at Michael thoughtfully, “So you know what I am as well. That’s convenient. That means you were trained in the Intelligence Branch by Kasnaria. I have need of someone with your knowledge.”

“Funny,” Michael replied, “you seem to be able to gain information quite well.” His eyes flicked obviously towards the demon, who still squatted, watching him intently.

Yen shrugged, looking at the demon. “The price of his return to the Abyss, information and obedience,” he said cryptically. Yen reached to his belt, holding his sheath out from his side and sliding the dagger delicately into it. When he did so, the demon disappeared in a puff of black smoke, a crackle of dark energy emanating out from the space he had occupied. “Now then, you have yet to tell me, why are you here?”

Michael looked around at the surrounding buildings. He could see eyes peering intently from darkened windows here and there. He doubted that they were unarmed. “Why don’t we continue this fascinating talk elsewhere? I hardly think the tavern is going to serve you, and if anyone was listening, my job’s over as well.” Michael bent, retrieving his sword, still carefully watching for a twitch of aggression from his new acquaintance.

Yen moved closer, not bothering to look at the surrounding silent little buildings. “There are fourteen remaining humans if you care to just . . .”

“Why don’t we just leave?” Michael cut him off, startled by the sudden gleam in Yen’s eyes. He walked hastily to the wagon and dropped to one knee, fishing under the bed with one hand. He then straightened quickly, pulling on a length of cord. His armor fell from the wagon’s bottom, clanking softly in its cloth wrapping. Michael gathered it up carefully. He stood again to see Yen standing close to him, looking at him quizzically.

“There’s another war coming.” Yen said to Michael, looking at the large paladin. Michael returned the gaze, startled to realize that despite his crooked body and ruined voice, the demonist couldn’t be more than twenty years old.

“If you are asking about a Kasnarian invasion, I’m not telling you anything,” Michael replied gruffly, slinging his armor across one shoulder.

“I was not asking anything, Michael,” Yen said, still looking him in the eye. “I was making a statement.”

“So you know my name as well,” Michael replied, still unable to grasp the very existence of this strange young man. “What is yours?”

“I won’t tell you,” Yen replied hastily.

“That’s going to make a conversation rather awkward,” laughed Michael, no longer fearing his survival. If he could lay a hand on the brittle demonist, any fight would be quickly and sharply decided.

“Names are power, Michael, and we barely know each other.” Yen replied. He quickly turned from Michael’s confused look and began walking towards the woods.

Michael looked at the load of timber atop his wagon, and his four draft horses. No likely mounts there, he decided quickly. Looking back at the small community briefly, and seeing no one likely to follow or challenge them, he followed Yen into the forest.

Monday, February 22, 2010


After half an hour, the light below Garenol winked out suddenly, and he could just smell the waft of smoke from the extinguished candles as it floated up to him in the rafters. He shifted silently on his perch, stretching each leg individually and rolling his ankles gently. He thought to himself an additional half hour would probably ensure that the man was asleep, so he continued waiting, holding the stained dagger delicately in his left hand, his right extended over, clasping the closest rafter to where he sat.

Thirty more minutes, he thought to himself, shifting slightly as the wooden seat began to irritate him. Then I can get a little sleep, go find Malus, and lay low. Maybe relax a day or two. Then he remembered their final assignment, the archbishop Polk. A frown played across his face as his delicate features drew into a worried countenance. Regardless of the reward at the end, Polk’s demise would not come easy, regardless of his or Malus’ skill.

The deeply entrenched church of Lor had been the dominant human faith here in the south since the dawn of written history. Much of its popularity and power came from the priesthood, a highly organized and charismatic group of unparalleled healers. Their abilities at healing, blessed by their god in this art above all others, made them absurdly popular with those who could afford it. The flow of gold into the coffers of the church from healing the sick, the lame, and for the right price, even the recently deceased, had rendered the church the single most powerful organization in Haarkedamia besides the Confederacy Council itself.

Polk himself had lead the church even since Garenol could remember. A man of immense influence, and immense physical dimensions, Garenol always remembered his eyes. He’d seen the man himself a number of times in the court of his father, King Galen. In Wood’s End, the small country of the Confederacy ruled by his father, the human population was small, but nonetheless was visited yearly by the archbishop, who made it a point to visit all the congregations of the faithful yearly if possible. Garenol remembered being a young elf, seated down from the dais that his father sat on for formal receptions, between his brothers Garel and Gaern, watching as Polk and his retinue appeared before the small elven court, resplendent in thick white robes, the hems and cuffs suffused with golden threads denoting rank. Polk himself would seem awash in gold, very little of the white of the cloth still showing through the glowing adornment of his vestments. The eyes were sparkling, and moved quickly, taking in everyone and everything in their field of vision, as if a master appraiser were taking stock in his auction house.

The dark but twinkling eyes had settled on young Garenol, stiff and uncomfortable in his court attire. Polk, disregarding court etiquette in his personal power, had veered from the approach to the throne, and walked to where Garenol sat with his brothers. The enormous robed man looked at them inquisitively, as if judging each for himself. After looking upon each in turn, his gaze had returned to Garenol, and he had smiled gently, as if sharing a quiet joke. He had then patted Garenol on the head and turned to face the dais and King Galen.

“So is this the young man that added the new solarium to the College of Magic?” Polk asked the king good-naturedly, his orator’s voice echoing in the grand hall.

King Galen had laughed, rising from his throne to come down the dais to greet the archbishop. They shook hands as Garenol sat blushing. Just in his second year at the College, he had decided to perform what he had optimistically called ‘independent research’. The result of his research had caused an explosion that had removed the better part of the roof in the lab Garenol had been in. His ears were just now losing the ringing whine that had plagued him for the past three weeks. He shifted uncomfortably as his tall, lithe father had shook the archbishop’s hand, reaching out and patting him on the shoulder.

“Yes, I am afraid this is our little prodigy, Garenol,” he father had said, laughing as he too reached out to pat Garenol on the head. “Incredibly talented and bright young mage, just not terribly cautious.”

Polk had laughed heartily at Galen’s friendly banter. He then walked arm in arm with the King away from Garenol and his brothers as they began talking animatedly about the happenings and intrigues of Haarkedamia. King Galen had proceeded to introduce Polk to various members of the court and functionaries in his small kingdom. Polk had greeted them all graciously as friends and equals, remembering the name and position of each the next time he encountered them: that night at a state dinner in his honor. He had regaled the table with tales of his church’s more colorful members, great paladins and crazed monks of Lor. Everyone had laughed long and hard along with the loud, portly archbishop. He made great connections with everyone he met, energized his small church congregation, and made friends of every person he touched. He departed after three days with more gold than the six members of his personal retinue could bear away in three chests lashed to longpoles.

Garenol still blushed at the memory of Polk. They had seen each other occasionally over the intervening years. And every time that their eyes met, the archbishop had beamed down at Garenol, and the archbishop would retell the hilarious story of how he’d blown the roof off the College of Magic as a youth. It always got laughter. Everybody remembered it. The great mad mage, Baron Strahkenhof, had giggled at the story, then told a blushing Garenol that he shouldn’t worry about it too much, seeing as how he, Strahkenhof, had been impoverished as a younger baron while paying to rebuild the parts of the College that he himself had personally rendered uninhabitable by leaving behind a trail of wards and etched runes that would summon howler monkeys randomly and without warning. Garenol even laughed to himself about the affair after hearing Strahkenhof’s crazy tale. He laughed harder when he found out that the tale was completely true.

He was not going to go down the childish path of resentment towards the man. After all, the event was pretty remarkable, most definitely memorable, and rather hilarious, given the seriousness and humorless nature of most of the proctors of the College of Magic. No, what had always driven Garenol’s mistrust of Polk had been on the final day of that first visit, as he watched his father’s liveried porters struggle to lift an imperial ransom’s worth of gold into the reinforced wagon that followed Polk’s gold-filigreed carriage. Polk had stood there in the circle of gravel leading to the keep’s main door, still laughing, still patting shoulders and vigorously shaking hands. No one else seemed to notice the departure of wealth.

That evening, in the first quiet family dinner after Polk’s departure, Garenol still wondered at all the money that had left Wood’s End, destined for the coffers of the Lorian Church, based in Venne. Garenol had already finished a number of years of mundane schooling, as his father’s carefully chosen tutors had drilled into him a number of political and economic lessons, since he could be raised to the throne if something were to befall his older brother Garel. He was bothered that his father had seemingly overlooked the departure of all this wealth, and that troubled him, as he considered his father as rather just, astute ruler. He had poked at his food noncommittally, finally clearing his throat to speak. He had to know why his father allowed this to happen.

Before he could voice what troubled him, King Galen leaned back in his chair at the head of the table, looking deeply into a glass of pale yellow fortified wine from Porl. “Children,” he said, looking down the length of the table at his three sons, and his wife, Tirrana, “what did you think of our visiting friend the archbishop? Quite the character, wasn’t he?”

“He was really friendly,” Gaern, the youngest, quickly replied, “He remembered my name when I saw him at dinner, and gave me a little icon.” The young elf gestured at the small token next to his plate that he had been playing with through dinner; a small silver eagle spreading its wings, affixed to a thick disk of polished azure stone. King Galen nodded.

Garel, recently graduated from the College of Magic that Garenol was now notorious at, pursed his lips in thought for a moment before speaking. He then said, “For such a powerful man, he certainly seems to put those around him at ease. He spoke to his underlings as close friends, and even remembered the names of our two footmen who opened the great hall’s doors for him and his retinue. That kind of ability and charisma with people is pretty amazing, but it makes me wonder how he would fare leading people in stressful or violent times. He seems almost too friendly, like he wouldn’t be able to take the reins when true power had to be used.”

King Galen chuckled at the seriousness and studied cadence of his eldest son’s response, “I can see that your tutor in politics and governance has been talking about personality and charisma again. Are you and he in agreement about personality as it applies to leadership?”

“I would suppose that we are, father,” Garel answered, leaning in over the table slightly to better see his father, “It is one thing to be loved and admired by your charges, but ultimately, those aren’t enough to lead people through famine or war. I think that being more a symbol of power and strength to your people helps you take control in times when the common people cannot be trusted to serve their better interests.”

Galen nodded, a more serious look crossing his face as he listened to his eldest son’s opinion. Obviously, the boy’s tutors were grooming him for the throne already. Good, he thought to himself, you never know when this knowledge may become absolutely necessary to the boy. He looked across from his eldest to Garenol, who had remained silent, slowly pushing peas into a line across his plate with a silver table knife. “How about you, Fireball? Seems the archbishop heard of your escapades all the way up in Venne?”

Garenol looked at his father, placing the knife aside. He thought for a moment further. Then he began to speak, haltingly. “Forgive me if I speak out of place, father, but the archbishop seemed to be performing a magic show.” Garenol paused.

His father sat down his drink, intrigued by his quietest son’s stumbling train of thought. “Go ahead son, how so?” he said gently, trying not to derail the young elf’s ideas.

“Well,” Garenol said, gathering a few more seconds to think, “How he treated everyone and how he remembered all the names and greeted everyone as his oldest friend, it all seemed like the flourishes that a street magician would use to hide his sleight of hand. You remember that performer that came through the city in the spring, father? The one you had brought in for us?” he gestured at his brothers. His father nodded in recognition, his expression now serious. “He wasn’t a mage, just a normal gnome. But he was able to do these amazing tricks, small animals appearing and disappearing, all kinds of things with a deck of witching cards. But none of it was real magic. He was just really fast and dexterous, and he kept talking and cracking jokes the whole time. By the time you realized what was going on, he’d already pulled the joke on you. All while you were looking where he wanted you to. While you were laughing at his cap falling off, he’d slip a sparrow into a different pocket, or a coin into your own pocket. It was a week before we figured out what had gone on.” His younger brother Gaern was nodding in agreement, remembering the show.

“So,” King Galen said, leaning forward and putting his forearms on the table, “You think that the archbishop is a rogue, eh? Trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, completing a performance?” Galen laughed lightly to himself as Garenol looked down at his plate, expecting a tongue-lashing from his father. He never cared for these lessons in statecraft from his father. “Then what was he trying to conceal, Garenol?” His father continued, looking straight at him, the gaze withering Garenol’s downturned face.

“Father, I was just telling you the impression I felt watching him these few days,” stammered Garenol, “If I speak out of turn, then please, just tell me and I’ll apologize.”

“No, Garenol,” his father said, “I want you to tell me what you saw. Now, tell me.”

Garenol’s brothers looked at him with worried expressions. His younger brother was clearly nervous for him, and Garel, who was supposed to rise above petty things like an uncomforable conversation, was looking on with a worried expression, as if he wanted to contribute but was scared.

“Alright,” Garenol said, finally breaking his silent despair and looking back up at his father, “I think that the whole show was for the money he took with him. Did you see the chests? That wagon they brought with them barely got moving under a team of six draft horses. And the whole time, he’s just talking and laughing and touching people, but his followers? Those men who were with him? They were making sure that those chests of gold were secured before they left. Where did that money come from?” Garenol was rambling now, speaking all the thoughts that had fermented over the course of the dinner. “That was a fortune. More money than I had ever seen. We don’t even have that many humans living here in Wood’s End. Some merchants and those few craftsmen who work along with our carpenters and carvers. Why does he even need that money? Was it the only reason he was here?” Garenol stopped, finally realizing that he was on the verge of ranting, embarrassed but glad he was finally able to voice the concerns that had been trapped behind his clenched teeth all day. He looked back down at the table, avoiding the eyes of his father, now wide at the conclusion of his rant.

King Galen sat silent for a moment. He then took back up his glass, twirling the golden liquid under the light of the chandelier above the table before finishing it off in a slow draught. He smiled at the taste, swallowing as he replaced the glass on the table. No one had dared to speak yet. “Garel,” he said sternly, startling the oldest boy, “That is what I should have heard from you.” Garenol looked up, confused. His brother’s expression was as shocked as he figured his must be.

“The money. All that money. Garenol, that was enough gold to feed every single subject of our nation for an entire winter. Probably with enough left over to buy each family a couple of cows or a horse. That wagon leaves here every year with those chests. Polk comes, we talk, he laughs, he charms. He bolsters the faith of his human constituents here in our nation. Their faith is strengthened. I’d wager my spear,” he continued, gesturing over his shoulder to the hearth, where a heavily runed longspear hung over the mantle, bookended by a paid of enormous dark purple horns. “that each member of the church here feels blessed, and will feel that way each time they visit the temple or see a cleric of Lor for the next few months. But the money, the money always goes with him. A couple of chest’s worth of his loyal followers’ wages and earnings from the year. And one chest from me, absolutely filled to the brim with a portion of the state’s gold.”

Garenol looked confused, “But father, why would you have to give the church of Lor so much money? We aren’t even humans.”

King Galen sighed, as he looked back over his shoulder towards his long retired weapon. “Because son,” he started, then leaned back onto the table, looking each son in the eye in turn, “that man brought me back from the dead a number of years ago. That type of blessing from their god does not come without a price. And for those of us not of his faith, the price is almost unbearable. So I pay him in thanks, and from indebtedness. And also,” each looked back around to ensure his sons were listening, “so that after enough chests, they will owe each of you, should the time come that you have to avail yourselves of their services. They are an insurance policy in a way. They can heal almost any wound. They can heal even a dead man, so long as there’s still a body. Never forget that, my sons, but also never forget the cost. That wagon, every year I have sat the throne.” Galen leaned back into the velvet cushions of his chair, and waved at a porter, who brought the bottle of Porl wine over to deftly refill the king’s glass. His sons sat and pondered at their father’s speech.

Garenol shifted again, his legs were getting stiff. He thought again about what his father said, all those years ago. Heal a dead man, so long as a body still existed. It wasn’t going to be enough to dispatch Polk, they were going to have to dispose of his body entirely. Tomorrow night was going to be tough.

But for now, he had a job at hand. Checking the wrap around his face by feel, he edged towards the tile that was slanted up just a crack. He silently removed it, and stood up, straightening himself atop the narrow rafter. He then stepped into the open air above the dark hole, floating down into the room, slowly and silently, the darkness enveloping his form.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Garenol walked silently across the peaked roof of the Bloody Fist, balancing himself effortlessly at the seam where the two sloping sides met. He leaned against the chimney closest to him, still thinking about how best to approach this last job of the evening. A target that had to be accessed without incident, in a presumably locked room of a public house, that was still crowded with guests. Not impossible, but challenging nonetheless. Garenol crossed his arms, lost in thought, as the noises of the crowd rose to him from the first floor windows.

After a few moments, he walked carefully down the sloping roof to the back of the building. He leaned out and looked down into the alley behind the Bloody Fist. The back area was a jungle of empty ale barrels and loose, empty crates from local butchers and farmers. A small improvised pen held a number of small young pigs, gently snuffling through their straw bedding, blissfully unaware of their role here at the tavern. Garenol looked up and down the length of the alley, confirming a lack of people. He dropped over the roof’s edge, coming to light without a sound, his soft boots muffling contact with the wet cobblestones.

Rising from his crouched position, Garenol walked over to the back door of the tavern, which was propped open with a burlap sack of ruddy red potatoes. A cloud of fragrant steam drifted from the door, and Garenol’s stomach rumbled in recognition. He was officially famished. But, he thought to himself, business first. He stuck his head around the door, looking in on a bustling kitchen staff, cheerful men in puffy hats and well worn aprons moving efficiently around a number of thick wooden tables and carefully controlled cooking fires in metal boxes. One of the cooks walked by slowly, cradling a number of eggs in his gathered up apron. Garenol recognized him as one of the pig bearers from earlier that night.

He gave a low whistle, getting the cook’s attention as he stepped fully into the doorway of the kitchen. The cook looked at him confused, “Sir, the outhouses are down the alleyway to the left,” he said in a tired voice, gesturing vaguely with an elbow as he clutched the eggs.

Garenol laughed, producing a gold piece from his cloak. “Ah no, thanks though. I was hoping to get ahold of Dorick, straighten some things out from earlier?”

The cook narrowed his eyes slightly. They widened again quickly, as the young cook recognized the man he had served earlier, whom all the other cooks had been talking about. The one who put the whole tavern to sleep earlier trying to avoid a brawl. A mage, and an elf to boot. He swallowed nervously, shifting the eggs in his apron carefully over to one hand as he slowly extended his free hand to take the coin. “Give me just a moment, sir,” he replied quietly as he moved to place the eggs in a large, round bowl on top of a nearby table. “I’ll go up front and get him. You just wait here.”

The cook walked off towards the swinging doors that entered the bar proper, wiping his hands briskly on his apron. Garenol watched him go. He then turned back to the room and walked quietly around the busy kitchen, peering into pots and watching the brigade of cooks getting ready for morning, and the appetites that come with the dawn. The smell in here was intoxicating. He slipped a hand onto a table and grabbed a crust of thick brown bread that had been cut from a loaf as long as his forearm. Following his nose over towards the large pots bubbling over the coal fired metal boxes, he quickly dipped the crust into a thick brown stew that smelled of roasted onions and garlic. He quickly ate the bread. Garenol then looked up, hoping to be able to anonymously grab another bite. He saw Dorick, standing near the swinging doors, watching him with a bemused look.

“Perhaps you have missed your true calling in life, Garenol,” Dorick said good-naturedly, walking around a long table towards Garenol. “As long as elves live, you could be quite the master of the kitchen after the right training.”

“Perhaps,” Garenol replied, looking back over at the bubbling stew wistfully, “but something tells me my current occupation is a touch more lucrative.”

“And driving you into the bottle, it would seem,” Dorick replied carefully, ladling some of the thick stew into a carved wooden bowl. He stepped closer to Garenol, handing him the steaming bowl and a pewter spoon. Garenol accepted it with a gracious nod.

“Oh no, that’s not the job, it’s just Malus,” Garenol said, between spoonfuls of stew. He moved back to the large loaf of bread and deftly pulled off a healthy sized piece. Between grateful mouthfuls, he continued, “I swear this is the last time I let myself get cajoled into wet-nursing him through an operation. He has his uses, but he is getting more unpredictable every time we use him. I’m not even sure why he has agreed to continue on with us. Tacit wants him dead, he’s the reason that we lost Joseph and that elf with the wooden frogs. . .”

“Toads,” Dorick interjected, nodding along with Garenol’s rant, “she carved little wooden toads. Hell of a shot with a bow from what I heard when I was still in Allthoria.”

“Toad, right,” Garenol said, “Gods only know where she went after she failed to stop Malus that night in Porl.”

“Still in Allthoria, if the tavern grapevine holds true,” Dorick said, thinking about his extensive correspondence. “Still whittling, still making coin with her bow.”

“Shame, really,” Garenol said around a bite of bread, “she and Joseph both. We could have used both of them here for . . .”

“Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.” Dorick cut him off brusquely. “Whatever happens, at least thirty people out there saw you here tonight. I don’t particularly relish an appointment with the Ivory Council if they start looking for witnesses. Just keep it to yourself. Now,” he finished, picking up an olive from a bowl at his side, “why are you back?”

“Need a room for the night,” Garenol said, “And I didn’t figure you’d want me walking back through the bar after tonight’s fun.”

Dorick rolled his eyes and sighed, “No, Garenol. Under no circumstances is Malus coming back in here.”

“Not him, just me,” Garenol said with a conciliatory tone, “We got split up, so who knows what he is up to. I just need a few hours, then I’ll get up, collect him from whatever rough joint he winds up in, and we’ll be gone.”

Dorick’s mouth twitched at the corner as he studied Garenol’s face. “You pay double,” he finally said, breaking eye contact.

“Of course,” Garenol replied, wiping his hand off on his cloak and moving it to his pocket.

“The service stairs are there behind you, next to the larder door,” Dorick said, taking the coins from Garenol as he pointed over his shoulder. “Just take the first room at the top of the stairs, I know it’s unoccupied.”

“Wonderful,” Garenol said, relief spreading over his face. “Send up breakfast in four hours?”

Dorick laughed, “Sure, why not? Any requests?”

“No more wine,” Garenol said, already turning to the stairwell. Doricked laughed again as Garenol disappeared quietly up the wooden stair.

At the top of the stairs, Garenol turned into a dimly lit hallway. Two modest candelabras hung suspended from the ceiling, their small lights calm in the still air of the hall. Six doorways ran down both sides of the hall, leading to the stairwell at the opposite end that was intended for guest use. Garenol could here the din of the downstairs crowd emanating from the far end. He reached to the handle of the door nearest him, on his left. He looked down the hallway once more as he stepped in the door of his room, analyzing the layout and trying to gauge general distances.

He closed the door to his room behind. The room was modest but clean. A feather stuffed mattress, covered in clean linen sheets and down quilt stood against the far wall. The bed was book-ended by two nightstands, one supporting a brass candle holder with three lit tapers. The other held a crockery pitcher and small drinking cup. A polished metal mirror was affixed to the wall over a sturdy dresser of oak wood and brass fittings.

Garenol walked the floor of the room from one wall to another in measured steps. He then began to remove his equipment, casting his cloak over a post of the bed’s headboard. He unbuckled his pack and sword belt, throwing both onto the bed. He then looked up at the ceiling, hoping it was how he had remembered it.

And indeed, there it was, a ceiling tiled with thin copper sheets, patterns stamped into the squares and cheerfully painted. Garenol stepped onto the flat surface of the bed’s footboard and reached up, pushing gently up on one of the tiles. Sure enough, it came loose, and he was able to push it aside, on top of the tile next to it. He peered up into the pitch black of the crawlspace, thanking his luck that the plan he’d conceived would work.

Stepping down off the bed, Garenol hefted his sword belt, drawing his curving dagger from its scabbard. He looked at the blade, holding it up in the light. He set the naked blade on the bed. Reaching for his pack, he began rummaging through its pockets, finally finding what he sought deep in a side pouch. He drew out a thick crystal vial, its contents a solid black. He placed this next to the dagger and put back on his leather gloves before pulling the cork from the vial. A sticky, viscous tar-like substance oozed forth slowly from the vial as he held it over the dagger’s blade. The substance slowly made a dark, staining steak down the blade’s side as he move the vial, being careful not to pour over the side of the blade onto the bed. Halfway down the blade, Garenol stopped pouring, and quickly shoved the cork back into the vial and replaced it in his backpack. He let out a long breath that he’d held for the entire application.

Garenol fished around in his shapeless cloak for a moment and pulled out a long silk scarf. He began to carefully wrap it around his face, his eyes catching the shine of the deep purple silk threads that were woven through the tight black fabric. As he did this, he walked to the mirror and stopped in front of it, ensuring that only his eyes showed through the cloth wound carefully around his features. He crossed back to the bed, gingerly lifting the dagger, now shiny wet and black. He stepped back onto the footboard of the bed, the soft soles of his boots letting his feet grip the thin platform. He began to chant quietly under his breath.

As the murmur coming from his mask died off, Garenol floated slowly up through the gap into the space above his room’s ceiling. His eyes quickly adjusted to the dark here in the rafters of the Bloody Fist, and he alighted silently on a beam running the length of the inn, his balance holding him crouched and alert. From this vantage point he could see the tiles carefully arranged over each of the eleven other rooms.

Quietly, his toes gripping the rafter below him through his thin boots, Garenol began to move from room to room, bending low to listen at the tiles. At a few stops, he would life a tile delicately, creating an imperceptible slit through which he would look into the room below. At the fifth room he tried, he stopped. There, sitting on the bed underneath him, slowly stretching to remove a finely cobbled set of tan dress boots, was the night’s final target, Antonin Karderek. Garenol let the tile down slowly, leaving it open just a crack to let light through. He then leaned back and rested his legs, waiting for the light in the room to be extinguished.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thus far. . .

So as of today I have almost 30000 words in the narrative. From what I have read about publishing, most want a first book to be in the neighborhood of 100000 words, which put me just under a third of the way there. I still am not sure how I feel about the story so far, or if what I want to do is even publishable. Honestly, the story that I have in mind is a world war, involving multiple nations and races, a couple of gods, etc. It's a multi-volume affair, easy.

Which I assume is kind of fine in the fantasy genre, given that most of the more renowned fantasy works are not stand-alone volumes. In fact, I am hard-pressed to come up with any book in the vein of sword n sorcery fantasy that became well-known as a solitary book, rather than a series. Elric, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, etc. are all series. It gets even more elaborate in modern fantasy. Robert Jordan died writing I think the twelfth book in his Wheel of Time, and damnable ape George RR Martin has stalled out on the fifth volume of A Song of Ice and Fire (which is a great series, that I will only ever recommend to friends again if GRRM finishes the damn fifth book and continues on).

So my question is. Provided I finish a first volume (which I for the first time in a long history of getting frustrated or bored while writing, feel confident that I can do, I'm a good 70 pages further along than any prior efforts), do I shop it around with a treatment for subsequent books? It would seem silly if I were doing a serious, arty type novel. But from what I see, at least in terms of what gets published by fantasy houses, they must shop for series that they know will produce repeat sales after a first volume.

Oh yeah, my other point of writing this. If any of the few folks who read this have a friend who doesn't know me who you think would read this and offer some contructive feedback and impressions, I'd appreciate it. I'm happy with the writing thus far, but the only audience is friends, and folks who I have probably bored stiff about this world before in talking about role playing through the years. I need, for lack of a better term, an ignorant reader.


The liquor dripped in a steady rhythm onto the polished wooden floor as Malus walked to the desk. He leaned out over its finely polished surface, and looked down at the merchant, who was now crouching behind his chair, trying in vain to load another bolt into the large crossbow, and failing miserably at the task. He was breathing heavily, each draw of breath making an audible wheeze in his chest.

“Stand up,” Malus told him flatly, gesturing at him with his sword. The man jumped, but responded quickly, rising queasily to his feet, not making eye contact with Malus. “Now drop the crossbow,” Malus told him. Frederick complied immediately, the crossbow thudding heavily onto the carpet, the unsecured second bolt falling harmlessly out of place. The man’s shoulders heaved slightly and he stifled a sob. Malus looked him over dispassionately, and lowered his sword. “Why don’t you get yourself a drink?” he asked, pointing his weapon at the crystal tumbler on top of the desk. “I’m sure at least one of those bottles survived your savagery.”

The man nodded, gulping air and still stifling sobs. He moved to grab the tumbler from his desk. The glass slid across the desk from his shaking hand, and he had to grab it with both hands to keep it steady. He glanced quickly up at Malus, who gestured towards the side table with his sword. The man walked around the desk warily, proceeding towards the table while keeping his face to Malus. When he got to the table, he steadied himself against it with one hand, leaning heavily as he looked down at the table, now littered with broken and dripping bottles. He leaned forward, looking carefully. A disappointed look crossed his face, and he breathed out heavily.

He turned to face Malus, clearing his throat, “What I was looking for has shattered. Can I open this cabinet here?” he gestured at the small carved door in the front of the table. “I think I have something in here for the occasion.”

Malus narrowed his gaze, moving within striking distance of the merchant. “By all means do,” he said, readying himself for an amateurish attack from the merchant.

The man shook his head at Malus’ mistrust. “I’m not going to attack you,” he said wearily, “but if I’m about to die, I’d like to open this bottle.” He opened the cabinet slowly, careful to make sure that Malus could see inside. He gestured down into the cabinet. “That one there, I’ve seen sitting on for a special occasion,” he continued, reaching slowly into the cabinet for an unlabelled bottle, filled with a deep amber liquid, the neck of the bottle sealed in a deep purple coat of wax. “A bottle from the High House of Coryntor,” he explained, holding it up for Malus to see. Malus shrugged noncommittally.

The merchant chuckled nervously, using his thumbnail to break off large pieces of the sealing wax. “A bottle of dwarven spirits. And not that dreadful lamp oil they keep underneath the bar for grizzled drunks either. This spirit,” he held it up the light, looking at the cork in the bottleneck that had been hidden under the wax, “was aged for a century by the stewards of the High House in their cellars. It’s never even supposed to leave Coryntor.” He turned back to the table, eyes searching the various items for a corkscrew. He finally saw one, soaking in a puddle of clear liquor near the far edge of the table. Retrieving it, he turned back to Malus and continued, “In fact, the only way I was able to get this bottle was in a trade with dwarven . . .”

He had turned back to find Malus with his sword arm drawn back for a stabbing blow. The moment he made eye contact, Malus struck, driving the weapon straight through the merchant’s breast and out his back. The shocked merchant continued to stare into Malus’ eyes, a look of incredulity paralyzed into his expression.

“I tire of your squawking,” Malus said, pushing his hand axe back into his belt. His hand now free, he took the bottle of liquor gently from the hand of the quickly fading merchant. He jerked his sword free from the merchant’s chest, and the man collapsed to the floor, his eyes rolling back in his head.

Malus wiped off his sword blade on the merchant’s green coat and sheathed the weapon. He held the bottle up and looked at the bottom. There, molded into the glass, was the crest of the High House of the dwarven kingdom. Malus raised an eyebrow at this. Although he abstained, he knew this was an impressive trophy. He slid the bottle over his shoulder into his pack carefully.

Malus looked around the office as he made his way back over to the desk. He bent and collected the bag of gold off the floor, and most of the scattered coins as well. Continuing to look around, he thought for a moment, then walked back to the body of Frederick Story. He leaned down, and put his hand onto the man’s body, patting each pocket of his garments in turn. In the man’s right breeches’ pocket, he found a ring of forged keys, which he took. Malus straightened up and walked quickly from the office, back down the hallway towards the front of the building.

Once he reached the shattered front door, he glanced outside to ensure that the street was still clear. After he had confirmed that he was still alone, he walked down the front steps and turned back towards the double doors that lead to the warehouse floor, jingling the ring of keys as he walked. He moved in front of the doors, finding a keyhole in the middle of a steel plate bolted into the doors, housing an enormous bolt lock. He quickly moved through the selection of keys on the ring, finally finding the right fit on the fourth try. The bolt drew back with a satisfying click. Straining against the weight of one of the two doors, Malus shoved it open enough to move inside. He pushed the door shut behind him.

The inside of the warehouse was still and pitch black. Malus felt along the wall, feeling for a torch. His fingers moved across a wall sconce, and he pulled loose a torch. He fumbled for a moment in his cloak, pulling out a packet of tindersticks. Lighting one off the rough surface of his greaves, he lit the pitch-dipped torch, bringing a sphere of sputtering light to life in the cavernous warehouse.

Malus swung the torch around, revealing a rough wooden floor extending out from his position near the wall out into the darkness beyond his torchlight. He began to slowly creep across the floor, moving the torch around to see as much as he could while moving through the empty warehouse. He swung the torch near the floor from time to time, leery of traps. Considering that the merchant kept no armed guards or mercenaries of any type, he felt certain there would be traps.

About thirty paces from the entryway, Malus’ light finally shown upon something in the warehouse; a number of small wooden crates were stacked in a tidy pyramid in the middle of the floor, well away from all the walls. Malus approached the crates slowly, examining the floor at his feet for tripwires or irregularities in the floor itself. He was also wary of magical wards, but hoped that his armor would protect him from most mundane security spells. He stopped about ten feet short of the crates. They were unmarked, but the planks they were constructed of were carefully fitted to one another, denying casual observers any look at the contents inside.

Malus hesitated for a moment, studying the boxes. Whatever they contained, the crates were precious enough for Frederick to have been here alone, sleeping in his warehouse. The intelligence report had indicated that the man had dealt in valuable goods, but for a warehouse this large to only contain these few small boxes indicated their great worth, at least as Malus saw it. He intended to find out what was in them, and if they were portable enough to get out of here with.

Taking another moment to think, Malus continued to look at the cargo. After a moment he seemed to make up his mind about something. He drew one of his daggers from his belt, knelt down near the floor, and slid the dagger along the floor, hilt-first, towards the stacked crates.

About a foot from the boxes, the dagger stopped abruptly, frost crackling over its blade and leather wrapped hilt. Malus cracked a grin as he proceeded over towards the blade, confident that the cold spell that had circled the cargo had been expended on his dagger. He pulled on a leather glove as he walked forward to his dagger. He bent down and retrieved the weapon with a gloved hand, the blade and hilt thoroughly frozen. He looked at it for a moment, and carefully replaced it in a leather sheath to thaw. He then reached out for the closest crate.

An inch from the top of the crate, a white bolt of energy arced out from the box and struck his hand, surging up the length of his arm into his armor. The white electrical surge crackled over his entire armored form, sparking off into small bolts of lightning and releasing a small clap of thunder as it passed through him. Malus staggered back from the box, every muscle in his body seizing uncontrollably as the bolt passed through him. After a number of faltering steps backwards from the box, Malus toppled like a great tree, his ankles failing as he tipped backwards, crashing flat onto his back. After a brief moment of twitching, he lay still on the floor. The torch that had flown from his hand landed a few feet from him, still burning.

Malus awoke with a murderous ache behind his eyes. He blinked a few times, attempting to focus his gaze. Whoever had warded the boxes was powerful enough to ignore the magical protections that had been forged into his armor. As the world came back into focus, he saw fire. Scrambling to his feet, Malus looked around to see that the flame from his torch had spread across the wooden planks of the floor to the wall on his left. The wall was burning, and the flames were beginning to lap at the large beams that ran along the width of the ceiling. He cursed to himself as he felt to make sure his weapons were still on him. He glanced back at the crates. He hesitated for a moment. But curiosity got the best of him. He ran over to the nearest of the crates and grabbed the lid. Nothing happened. Malus grunted to himself in satisfaction at an avoided flaming death.

Straining against the thick nails that held the lid in place, Malus savagely tore off the wooden lid of the crate, revealing packing straw on the inside of the box. He shoved his hand down into the straw, feeling a cloth sack just a bit below the surface. He grabbed it and dragged it out, feeling similar cloth bags underneath the straw to the one he was taking out. The flames were now among the beams of the roof. He didn’t have long now.

Malus tore open the rawhide strap that closed the top of the bag and reached in. He withdrew his hand, opening his fingers wide to show a stack of gold coins, each almost the width of his palm, heavy in their own thickness. Malus shook the stack thoughtfully, holding his hand out of his own shadow to see the insignia stamped into the face of the top coin.

Embossed delicately into the coin’s face was the Imperial Eagle of Tribunus, its claws clutching the Scepter of Pentedexion and the Sword of Constantinius. Malus turned the coin in his fingers, its opposite face revealing the Staff of Tribune, the third of the Tribunus’ elven gods, overlaying an elaborate, delicately scrolled triangle. Malus looked up and counted the boxes, quickly drawing himself a rough figure as the roof above him began to blaze. Twenty crates, and squinting at the open one in front of him, probably twenty tied bags per crate. Seeing as how he was straining to hold this one bag aloft, he guessed from previous experiences that the bag in his hand held probably close to a thousand of the thick coins. Four hundred thousand, or there about, by his quick estimation. He strained and slung the one bag over his shoulder, lamenting that this one bag would be all he could remove before the roof came down.

The fire had illuminated the warehouse fully now, and Malus saw a small door off the back, no doubt leading into an alley between buildings. He moved as quickly as he could under his new burden. He kicked open the locked back door in a rush, moving swiftly into the alley. The building was now visibly smoking, and his time to leave without incident was shrinking rapidly. Looking down the alley, Malus saw a large chestnut brown mare, struggling in vain against her lead rope, which had been tied to a post a few steps from the door. The mare’s saddle was an elaborate work in light tan leathers, inlaid with green velvet detailwork. Malus remembered Story’s spurs, and the green of his outfit and office. Shrugging to himself, Malus approached the animal with a hand out, palm open. He patted the animal’s curved neck carefully as he undid the hitch, throwing the reins back over her head. He quickly secured the large bag of coins to the saddle horn, along with the smaller bag he’d taken from the office. Then he swung himself up into the saddle, talking to the upset animal in low, hushed tones. He popped the reins lightly, and the horse bolted, tearing out of the alley.

Malus let her run, burning out her fear of the fire in physical exertion. When she slowed a few blocks later, he steered her gently back towards Meridian Street, back to the Bloody Fist. He had many things to tell Garenol. The fire brigade bells rang out once more in the distance. Malus snorted to himself, thinking of how terrible they had made lives in that particular profession this evening.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Garenol shook his arms loosely away from his body, pushing them as far back as they would go. He yawned deeply, his eyes watering. He watched down the alley as Malus drew closer in the fog, his cloak pushing aside whirls of gray mist as he walked purposefully towards Garenol. He nodded in brief acknowledgement as he neared him. “So,” Malus said without inflection. “This is the building for the third target?”

“The warehouse, yes.” Garenol replied, retrieving a sheaf of papers from within his cloak. “I was just going back over it. Frederick Story. Rather influential merchant, dealing primarily in the shipment of precious cargoes moving into and out of Haarkedamia. Has holding companies in Allthoria and Quintheniar. Has a dwarven partner that gets him access to Coryntor. Is rumored to move goods across the Allthorian frontier into Tribunus, although gods only know how he would manage that.”

“Not a representative in the Confederacy?” Malus asked.

“No, not even high-born from what the report says,” Garenol replied, somewhat surprised. “Just an uncommonly astute commoner merchant who found himself with his fingers in a lot of pies. Still has that wonderful commoner paranoia and lack of confidence. Comes here to his work to sleep with merchandise if it’s particularly valuable. Doesn’t trust the city’s security or hired help.”

“Which ought to make this quite an effortless stop on our trip,” Malus finished quickly, as he began to tie back his cloak. “Then one more tonight? Who’s the last on the list?”

“Let me see,” Garenol said, not remembering the name from his earlier read-through of the intelligence document. The wine and ale were wearing off, and his head was beginning to hum with the dull rhythm of a morning after. He looked up into the swirling mist of the sky above him as he turned pages. “We only have about an hour left to daybreak. We need to do these quickly. Here we are,” he said, holding up a page closer to his face to avoid the still thickening fog. “Antonin Karderek. Council member from the Confederacy State of Harkenia. He’s a member of the pro-Confederacy wing of the council, always a pro-confederacy vote on any manner. Prefers when in Venne to stay at . . .” Garenol flipped to the next page. His eyes widened and he groaned audibly. “The Bloody Fist Tavern.”

Malus grinned and laughed gruffly under his breath. “So Dorick’s place is going to see some hell tonight after all,” he said, grinning in a sinister fashion.

“No dammit,” Garenol said, frustrated, “Look, you do this one,” he gestured towards the warehouse looming behind them. “There are no guards, and probably no witnesses for a half mile. Stay here in the alley and watch for the next guard of the watch. The moment he has passed, slip inside and dispatch Story. You should have a good amount of time. I’ll head back to the Bloody Fist and deal with this last one.” Garenol shook the clutch of parchment as he talked. “I can take care of this quietly,” he said, pointing to the papers, “and probably make it look accidental.”

Malus stopped grinning, a brief moment of a disappointed child’s expression sweeping across his features. He looked down at the cobblestones of the alley. “Fine,” he said. “Get going, I’d like to get a little sleep before we have to spend tomorrow in preparation for Polk.”

“Fair enough. Back at the Fist at first light then for sausages?” Garenol asked, sliding the documents back under his cloak. He was clearly relieved at Malus’ acquiescence, glad to not be worrying about whether or not the Fist would burn to the ground tonight. He knew that operating by himself, he could access the target’s room and dispatch him quietly. Malus, on the other hand, when confronted with the old conundrum of drawing the snake out of the tall grass, always decided to burn it all to the ground.

Malus nodded, already thinking of the man inside the warehouse. He stepped closer to the mouth of the alley to watch for the patrolling guard. Garenol watched him walk away, then turned back to the coal bin behind him and looked up. He figured that back across the rooftops to the Fist would be faster without Malus moving with him. He leapt soundlessly onto the lid of the bin, and from there sprung up quickly, grabbing the ledge of the warehouse roof and hauling himself up, disappearing into the fog.

Malus turned to ensure that Garenol was gone. When he saw Garenol’s boots disappear over the roof ledge, he drew his weapons and walked out of the alley into the street in front of the warehouse, turning towards the main door of the building. He moved quickly up the steps to the office door, perched on a small covered stoop overlooking large wooden double doors set into the side of the building with iron hinges and latches, wide enough for the largest wagons. Malus stood on the stoop for a moment, looking at the windowless door and the brass plaque next the door. The plaque was engraved, “F. Story: Import/Export”

Malus nodded at the plaque, glanced up and down the street once more to ensure that it was clear. As far as he could see it was. ‘Good enough,’ he thought, splintering the door with a vicious kick from his metal sheathed foot. The wood split down the middle of the door lengthwise, pulling hinges out of the frame and sending the interior lock spinning across the wooden interior floor. Malus stepped into the darkened front room.

On the rooftops, Garenol moved swiftly and silently, the soft leather pads on the bottom of his city boots letting his nimble feet feel every surface. The nuances and slant of the tiles, the gravel strewn across flat warehouse roofs, small spots where pitch had bubbled up in joints to stick briefly to his soles as he flew across rooftops at a brisk jog. Garenol breathed easier here above the city’s stifling, close warmth and the smells that accompanied a crowded population. His head was clearing, the dregs of the earlier wine and ale slowly dissipating. He was actually starting to look forward to a large breakfast. He hoped he could dispatch this Karderek quietly enough that Dorick would have breakfast served before the inevitable, grisly discovery upstairs.

He was still ordering an elaborate breakfast in his head when he saw the two large stone chimneys of the Bloody Fist a few roofs ahead of him, comforting, lazy clouds of white smoke drifting from their smooth stone crowns. The smoke mingled with the swirling fog into a morass of white clouds above the roof of the tavern, giving it a gauzy appearance. Garenol leapt the last few gaps between buildings, slowly stalking up to the ledge of the last building before the Fist itself, and peering over the edge down at the tavern.

True to form, the business was still bustling. There were a few patrons still out on the porch, having drinks. This close to dawn, they were simply slung a bit lower in their chairs than they had been earlier in the evening. A cacophony of cheerful noise still emanated from the main hall of the tavern. Garenol could see through the first floor windows that many patrons were still inside, still insisting upon more music, more ale, more meat.

Garenol remembered the posted notices they had seen on their walk into the city, proclaiming, in a few different languages, that the tomorrow that was just on the horizon was proclaimed a national holiday in Haarkedamia, to celebrate the mysterious return of the country’s long entombed hero, Valister Olorin. No wonder the crowd was still dense and boisterous this close to dawn: no one was going to work tomorrow. Garenol smiled ruefully. All the patrons were enjoying the frivolity and merriment of an unexpected holiday, but he knew that when they had heard the news tomorrow of tonight’s deaths, there would be unease and tension in the throngs who had come to view the sleeping body of their hero. He shuddered to think what the city would be like when he and Malus killed the archbishop. There would be riots. That type of upsurge coupled to thousands of visitors inside an already crowded city. . .

He shook his head. After all, that’s why he and Malus were here, he supposed. Although he couldn’t quite pin down the exact motives of their employer, a tall, pale elf named Jean Pariel, he knew enough about the man to guess. He remembered his companion for many years, Tacit, had brought them the first jobs from Jean Pareil, when they were still operating in the human kingdom of Allthoria, north of Haarkedamia. Given the long-standing unspoken tensions between Allthoria and the Tribunus Empire, which occupied the northernmost third of the continent, Garenol thought to himself that obviously Jean Pareil was an agent of the Tribunus throne, seeking to undertake certain operations in other realms that could be denied if necessary. The fact that Garenol knew Tacit had been awarded a rank in the Tribunus’ secret service, the Strasstruppen, just seemed to confirm his suspicions.

He focused his attention back to the windows, quietly scolding himself for drifting back into speculation. ‘I’m being paid an obscene amount of money,’ he thought to himself, ‘that should be enough motivation.’ He began to plan out in his head just how to get into a guest’s bedroom to silently dispatch him, with a roomful of cheerful and boisterous drunks just beneath. He also realized that he didn’t know which room he would find Karderek in, which made things more complicated. He started plotting as he rose, steadying himself to jump the alley between his perch and the sloping roof of the Bloody Fist.

Malus walked quickly through the front office, glancing at a few wooden accounting desks, their tops littered with ledgers and loose paper, quills and inkwells. He moved past them, towards a flickering candlelight at the end of a hallway leading off the back of the main office room. He proceeded to the entrance to the hall, moving to take cover against the wall. He moved fast, glancing around the corner and down the hall, looking for any sign of his target. A number of doors lined the hallway, glass panes in each showing individual offices, desks, chairs, and cabinets. Each was dark. The light at the end of the hall continued to flicker weakly, although Malus couldn’t discern its source from this vantage.

Malus grimaced in thought, bobbling the head of his hand axe in a lazy circle for a moment. Then, he spoke.

“Frederick Story. There is no use in hiding or running. I have men surrounding the building. Come out now unarmed,” he said forcefully, peering down the hallway. He saw a shadow move in the light. He waited for a number of seconds. Nothing else happened.

“Last warning. We will take you by force. Submit now and this can be over with quickly and painlessly.” Malus looked back around the corner and down the hall. The shadow was now moving methodically, and he heard metal scraping against the wood of a desktop.

“Have it your way, then,” Malus said to himself as he turned and began striding down the hallway, making no efforts at stealth. He led with his sword pointed ahead, tip up to deflect attacks. His hand axe swung from his other hand, hanging loosely behind him, partially obscured by his tied back cloak. He slid next to the wall to his right as he neared the open area where the hallway terminated. He saw a large office, and visible to him along the left wall was an elaborately carved side table, covered in crystal decanters holding various spirits, their rich colors reflecting warmly in the dim yellow candlelight.

“Come on out, Story, I can hear you moving around,” Malus said, his back still to the wall. He didn’t yet dare peer around the corner into the part of the office that the noise was emanating from. Here, closer to the source, he recognized the noise right off: someone was bagging a large sum of heavy coins by scraping them off a tabletop into a bag. At this recognition, Malus decided to risk a look. He leaned over and peered around the corner at the rest of the office.

At a large desk opposite the side table near the right side wall, a short, stocky, balding man was sitting with one hip up on the desktop, his other leg bracing him by standing up on top of the deep green woven rug that covered a large area underneath the desk. He was dressed in a velvet suit, deep green jacket and riding pants over a cream linen shirt. He had on glossy black riding boots, already braced with spurs, a riding crop sat near at hand. He held a crossbow leveled towards the open doorway, its butt nestled between his upper arm and his torso. A broad head of a bolt stuck out of the end of the weapon, its multiple cutting surfaces reflecting wickedly in the candlelight. With his free hand, he was scraping tall stacks of gold coins off his desk into a cloth bag that he had opened wide in the seat of his high backed leather chair. A large crystal tumbler sat mostly empty at his side, less than a dram of amber liquid still in its bottom. The man was paying attention to carefully bagging the gold when Malus cleared his throat after studying him for a brief moment.

The man jumped, the crossbow cradled in his arm twanging as he fired in a panicked spasm. The bolt went wide, skipping off the wall near the side table and shattering a number of the crystal spirit bottles. Malus stepped fully into the room as the man dove behind the large chair, spinning its seat and throwing gold coins across the desk and onto the floor.