B.T.V. -- Session 13 Epilogue: Dragonsbane
Everybody Loves a Unicorn Assassin, Right? You can call me Sybermane. Largely because that’s my name. First, last and only. Yeah, I know other immortals go through names like a rummy through booze, but not me. Can’t be bothered to keep track of who knows me by what name. I’ve always figured they can’t catch you in a lie as long as you’re relentlessly honest. Course, no one says you’ve got to spill everything you know every time you open your yap, right? So the God I serve, Khons of the Great Night, From a Time Before the Stars Existed, etc., etc., etc., gave me the chance to go to this place called Axildusk, and a city called Adhrilanka. I’ve been to Axildusk before, so that was okay. I worked as an “inquirer” back then, largely because everybody seemed to get confused and ask for very bad things if I told I was a private dick. Figured I wouldn’t repeat that role when I got back to Axildusk. Turns out I was wrong. Khons and Taiphon, the Noble Thought of Time etc., and Benedict of Aylmer introduce me to a new guy, who makes quite the impression on me when he shows up at the meet toting a body over his shoulder. He’s a big boy, but the feat is still kind of impressive, because he is doing it despite missing his left arm. He has a massive axe slung on his back, so I figure he was a barbarian. Civilized guys seldom carry around such oversized weaponry. Not as much to compensate for, I figure. I have to watch my tongue. Not just because Taiphon and Khons are there, or Benedict, who wouldn’t give a crap whatever I said. But the walking pile of muscles looked genuinely bereaved, so I decide the corpse has to be a friend. Former friend. Or maybe a lover. No judgment here. Anyway, the guy looks like he’s used to being a stoic, but the grief is painted all over his face, and I don’t want to be a jerk. For a change. He and I have just left the others, who are in some kind of open altar surrounded by three pillars God only knows…okay Gods only know…where it is. I don’t work for Taiphon, but let’s face it, one of his avatars has a horse head too, so he’s okay in my books. We arrive via a portal or whatever on a sandbar between two ships that have grounded on some rocks. Looks like they’ve been put to better use than sailing, though. Right away, my ears, which I should tell you are both acute and cute, can hear singing and laughing and yelling and so on. “I’m home,” I think to myself. I know other immortals sometimes bitch and moan about how the long years stretch before them and so on, yawn, but as long as I had food, drink and entertainment, I’m alright. Difference between an Equinn, I suppose, and other races. Equinn is what my kind are called, by the way, but lately all I hear about are Quinnials. They look like me, except I don’t think they’ve got horns, so they aren’t unicorns. But maybe they just don’t like showing them off, same as me. And having them sawn off for, well, I mentioned that part already. Benedict has come with us. My old pals Osric and Finndo fingered their brother as a snooty stick-in-the mud when I kicked around with them. I can see that might be, but I’ll judge for myself. We climb up and onto one of the two ships, the Troubador I learn later, and on the deck outside are a bunch of “Bluecoats,” who I assume are the low end of the town guard spectrum in Adrilankha. They don’t seem to be doing much of anything except standing around, minus thumbs stuck in asses. But they are very tall. Like seven or eight feet tall. Wonder what they put in their children’s cereal. Then I spot the pointed ears. So. Elves. Huh. Big Elves. “We must seek the Prince,” Benedict suggests or commands, depending on your point of view. We walk up some stairs…wait, have I mentioned all the additions made to the ships to provide more space? No? Yes? Anyway, we go into a lounge-kind of space, which I would find really nice if it isn’t for a body stretched out on the floor, wearing a white cloak and an ornate white mask, with some kind of throwing weapon sticking out of his left eye. Nice shot, I think. Another is imbedded in one arm, and looks like it near to cut off the limb. Sweet. Somebody knew what they were doing. Axewing, still carrying around the corpse, laid it down on a table. Nearby, Prince Elric of Melnibone—I’d never met him, but I’d heard enough about him, and luckily he doesn’t have a sword with him—is talking to four or five Elvish men and women who sort of tower over him. They have the look of elite troops, maybe a special unit of military police. “There is the Girl as well,” Axewing said, I guess not wanting to interrupt the Prince’s conference. I’d picked up enough to know Axewing’s friend had died saving someone called the Girl and Elric from something called a Morganti dagger. Seems something that is Morganti can destroy a soul, so I guess Elric feels right at home with the idea. So Axewing’s buddy had lost his soul. Rough. No afterlife, whatever that might be, no resurrection. There one second, gone the next. Now I’m getting maudlin. “Taiphon spoke to her needs, being the Dragon of Humanity,” Benedict reminds Axewing. I’d like to call Benedict, 'Ben', just to make it quicker, but you know, you just don’t do that with him if you want to survive whatever war he’s planning next. Axewing suggests all clever-like that might be why the Jenoine took her in the first place. Look, you’re going to have to start picking up some of this stuff by context. I can’t keep explaining it all or we’ll never get through this story. So don’t bother asking how I know the guardsmen talking to Elric are members of the Draegeran Empress’s Special Tactics Group, one of them being Major Iterrari, and one a really tall, really good looking Sergeant called Lyra. Elves, they’ve always got the looks, but who am I to complain? Nearby is Cabillion, an assassin who’s a companion of Axewing. Cabillion somehow gives off vibrations like he’s a good guy. Can’t remember ever seeing that in an assassin before. Yes, I have been and might be an assassin again. Get over it. I’m good to my herd, and rarely give a shit about anyone else, but I don’t go around cutting on people just to see what colour their blood is or to hear them scream. Not often at least. Sometimes, okay? Sreigorn, the Ranger King, is there, as is the last King of the Dwarfs, Handfist, again pals of Axewing. Handfist is a real ball-buster. I look forward to getting to know him better. Sreigorn’s cool and precise. Still deciding about him. One of Elric’s two Dragon bodyguards is standing there too, trying to look like he’s doing his job, when from what I hear Axewing’s favourite corpse, Asher Zi, had to take care of business at the critical moment. So a bunch of immortals got outdone by a mere mortal. Maybe it will remind them humans always have potential for the unexpected, something I’d learned a long time ago. Once death is conquered, most immortals take to looking down their noses at their mortal kindred. Dumbasses. Axewing heads over to Cabillion, looking for Asher’s “Claws,” which I take to mean his throwing weapons. Then Axewing leans down like he’s going to take the Claw out of the assassin’s left eye, and I step in. “You better not do that yet,” I caution. “Assassins sometimes trap themselves, in case they’re taken out and want to take one last soul along with them to whatever hell they’re going to. And I want to have a good look at everything in place.” I begin looking at the corpse from different angles. Green armour, looks like maybe dragon scales, nice pauldrons, long, dark hair, a dark beard. Looks faintly surprised at being dead. Lot of people end up with that as their final expression. Axewing, meanwhile, has gone hunting for a third Claw that missed the assassin. He sees a Draegeran, an Orca with leather work bracers on his wrist and the other maybe a worker on the Ships, a Teckla, the peasant class of the Empire. Axewing asks if either of them have seen the Claw. The Orca says, curling his lip, “We’ve already spoken to the Stigs, Easterner.” He frowns at the crime scene. The Teckla is less disdainful, maybe because of Axewing’s big fuck-off axe. “No, but the small, hairy one was here.” Obviously meaning Handfist. Meanwhile, Benedict is telling Axewing’s other companions, “I don’t quite understand. Where was everyone sitting? Is that a good question to ask?” Like he’s an everyday fellow out of his depth. Cha! He draws out an explanation of what actually happened, which basically amounts to how the assassin got the drop on everyone but Asher. “I expected more blood than I have seen. Where is the blade? And who’s chair is that?” He’s pointing to a wing-backed club chair. Nice. I’d keep my eye on it for later use. I’ll just drop in here, to get it out of the way, that while my eyesight isn’t any keener than a human’s, I’ve got one hell of a lot of peripheral vision. Yes, I can point my eyes in two directions at once. No, it doesn’t give me a headache. Yes, I can point my ears in a direction to get better reception, so to speak. No, I can’t spin them in a full circle. Happy? “That was Jack’s chair,” Sreigorn tells Ben. Hell, I gave it a try, and it just doesn’t work. So Benedict it shall be. “And he’s gone, I see,” Axewing says, having returned to his companions. He asks Handfist for the third Claw, and the Dwarf hands it over readily. Axewing puts that Claw on Asher’s body, returning to the group. I’ll keep an eye on those Claws, I decide. Looks like can inflict a lot of hurt, and if there are soul-destroying daggers around, I’ll need all the edge I can get. Conan—I’d heard Benedict call him that—had been big deal in the armies of the Veightal, I remember, and I bet he’s the sentimental type, so Asher will get a big funeral and his possessions might go with him. “I don’t think so. He has begun to look into the matter,” Sreigorn says. He adds that Sana had taken the Girl to Aggie’s room. I’ll fill that in later. Meanwhile, having been told the assassin hadn’t been moved at all, I see a nicely embroidered cloak, very distinctive, that seems like it might have more uses that just protection from the elements. “This is distinctive,” Axewing observes. “This is not a common assassin.” Sreigorn says the killer has been posing as a minstrel named Thaddeus. Yup. Thaddeus. No lie. His body is just short of seven feet tall. He could be Elvish, he could be a human but he’d be really, really tall for that, or he could be something else entirely. The mask is extremely elaborate and, oddest of all, no blood leaks from the assassin’s left eye or his wounded arm. “Something else” grows more likely. Meantime, MOC, the Master of Ceremonies for the Playships, has come over. “A most unfortunate sequence of events,” he says, not without sympathy. “Did you know this Thaddeus?” Axewing asks. “I did,” Moc admits, “but not well. Thaddeus has only been on the Playships a short time, and had refused several offers of time slots to perform.” “Did he provide any background?” “We are itinerant by profession.” I turn my nose on to see if the corpse had any weird smells, and as a real longshot my ears to see if it’s making any odd noises. And it’s the latter that pays off. I hear what sounds like leaves rustling, having just fallen from an autumnal tree. I mention this, but Axewing can’t hear anything. “How loud is it to your ear?” Benedict asks. “Is there any reason to fear?” I tell him the body could be boobytrapped. I’d learned that the hard way my first time in Axildusk, when I’d turned over an injured man on my doorstep and found an exploding shadow mine underneath. Not fun. I barely lived. Benedict draws a knife just as Shadowjack starts to appear. Another famous character. I’m pretty sure nobody there had heard about me before that night. And that’s the way a Shadow Warrior wants it. “I see you have found someone,” Jack says. “He is Obsidian,” Axewing explains about me. Something I’ve yet to really understand. “He is one of us.” That much I know. “The hour grows late,” MOC comments. “I have not touched anything,” Jack continues. “There is an odour. It strikes me he’s not connected to our reality in every way.” “Jack of Shadows,” MOC announces in a stenatorian voice. “You have yet to pay your fine. The time is most certainly not appropriate, but the place is.” Fine? I’m unsure what that’s about, but I’m pretty sure it’s funny. “We won’t be long,” Jack tells us before heading off with MOC, stopping a few tables away. Axewing chooses that moment to stoop down and extract the Claw from the assassin’s left eye. When he does, I see the Claw is a curved…blade? No, not a blade. Like a tiger’s claw, I suppose, only bigger. Looks like it fucked up the assassin’s skull even more on the way out. The Claw comes out oddly, too, as if the body beneath the cloak and mask isn’t human or Elvish. I also notice a thin liquid with a sheen on it on the Claw. Axewing takes the second Claw, too, and puts them on Asher’s body. “You’ve taken the blades,” Jack notices on his return. With Jack’s suggestion that the body isn’t quite attached to reality, I step into the Astral Plane—okay, it’s called an Astral Jaunt, I didn’t name the abilities of the Khrescent, even if I am a master of it under Khons. I kind of see small creatures of some kind squirming around inside the body. A lot of them. They must have some relationship to the Astral. I can also see some kind of slime on the Claws. I return to the material and tell Benedict and the others. “I have a thought but as I have had no interaction with these creatures, I cannot be sure,” the Amberite said. “It does not exactly fit together. Where is the Master of Ceremonies?” MOC comes over, and Benedict asks him about the dead assassin. “He called himself Thaddeus.” “Did he travel alone or with others?” “He had a companion. He was dressed as a minstrel and his name was Kawdicus. They said they came from the south,” but otherwise MOC shrugged. “They were so uninterested in performing, you see.” Benedict turned back to the others. “There are two avenues to explore, Kawdicus and this body.” “There is a third possibility,” MOC offers. “I have a talent for telling time. It approaches the high hour upstairs. Master Strayhorn is there. He is rather gifted in the high hour, even infallible in deeds or thoughts. He is highly thought of by the Empress. I could go fetch him.” Benedict nods his approval but, as soon as MOC leaves, warns the others to be careful. “Strayhorn used to be a Spire of the Spectral Array.” “What colour?” I cleverly asked, that being as much as I really know about the Array. “Blue before there was Cyan,” Benedict answers. Which tells me nothing, but I hadn’t expect to learn anything from the answer in any case. Soon after, Strayhorn arrives, his gait odd as he walks down the stairs from the next deck, as if his joints work differently from a Draegeran’s. Which I suppose they might. He introduces himself. Several 'watche-faces' adorn his belt. “That disc there,” Axewing says, “It reminds me of the timekeeping of Granbretan.” “You are widely travelled, sir,” Strayhorn compliments him. Benedict pointed to another watch, noting that it is used by Fire Mages in certain cities. Strayhorn also carries a very ornate sword, and he rests it on the floor by its tip, where it stands on its own, balanced on the point -- somehow. After Benedict points out the newcomer is obviously capable of fighting, Strayhorn replies, “In truth, I am a shopkeeper. I sell information about animals.” “You are something of a guardian for animals?” “Something like that.” “I will press no further,” Benedict concedes, and instead asks Strayhorn what he might know about the dead assassin. “This is an animal. He is not a creature of this world.” Ah, I think. So animals include sentient species too. Does that mean he thinks he’s some higher form of existence? And if so, what kind? And then I realize I don’t care. “There are small animals on him,” Benedict points out. “Small, wormlike things,” the shopkeeper confirms. “I have not seen them before. They are he, and he was what they were.” Yep. Just so helpful. “There is another in the city like this one,” Strayhorn adds. Again, we knew that. How did he? “Can you tell us where this Kawdicus is?” Axewing asks. Handfist, almost behind the shopkeeper, reaches toward something on Strayhorn’s belt. The sword swings around like a gate, still on its tip, and he is forced to snatch his hand back. “I have picked up a trail,” Sreigorn reveals. “A glistening, like on the weapon.” The worms, it seems, had crawled out of the body and were making good their escape. He suggests following them below. “We mut not wait too long, then,” Benedict states. Cause we had a vote and put him in charge. I just can’t remember when. Bossy, like Osric said. “They are not animals in a natural sense,” Strayhorn announces. Axewing asks Handfist to take him to Aggie’s room, so he might check on the Girl and begin the funeral rites for Asher, as written by Anubis. So I, in a burst of empathy, take to my heels to follow Sreigorn and Strayhorn as they trail the worms. Had to be more exciting than funeral rites. Axewing, carrying Asher, and Handfist leave the Troubador and cross to the Carousel, the other grounded ship, which appears to be more residential, and has a whiff of the decrepit about it. Entering a corridor, they find a large, white cat in front of a door, glaring at them. “This is where it gets tricky,” Handfist muttered. Then, in a louder voice, “Now listen here, Sana. We’ve got Asher here. It’s different from the last time we were here.” After a moment, he tells Axewing, “She’s not going to let you in there. She wouldn’t let me in.” Sana, in reply, doesn’t look particularly pleased. Axewing motions Handfist to stand back, then takes a couple of steps toward the cat, who lowers her head and rumbles in her throat. “I need to prepare the body for funeral,” he tells her. “It’s important for Kashmir. She’d undoubtedly undergone a trauma.” He then walks past the cat and feels something bang into his back on the left side, near his kidney. He stumbles to his knees but hangs onto Asher, despite the threat of sliding on the wooden deck worn smooth with millenniums of use. He looks at the cat, then lowers the body to the floor. Sana grabs Asher’s clothes with her teeth and, picking him up, carries him to the door, which she pushes open. As she enters with the body, Axewing calls to the Girl from the doorway, and she steps into sight, looking sad. “He’s still…,” she starts, but doesn’t continue. “I know this is difficult for you, but it’s important we prepare Asher for the next phase of his existence.” “But doesn’t Morganti….” “It’s important for what Asher was to humanity to handle this properly.” The cat, meanwhile, just stares at Axewing. “I will have to get the proper tools to prepare him for the ceremony,” Axewing says. “I will return.” He notices a glassed door on the other side of the cabin, showing views of Adrilankha to the south of the Playships, before he leaves and, joining Handfist again, returns to Elric and the others. I catch up to the other two, forming with them a trio of mighty worm hunters. Sreigorn is in the lead, while Strayhorn is watching the Ranger King as he walks along the interior of the outer hull of the ship, toward the stern. We come to an area with some people and tables and chairs, and Sreigorn pushes several of them, by which I mean the furnishings, out of the way. Then he stops, seemingly stymied. “They have gone up the wall, tracker, likely to go out the window.” Strayhorn says. I’ve got my eye on a bunch of Bluecoats staring at us. One makes eye contact with me, but he’s not my type so…. He looks rougher than the others, and quite short compared to them, and I realize he’s human. He has a pistol in his belt, and a sabre, and he stands just under six feet tall. His hair is as black as mine, and that’s pretty black. He’s got some sort of shoulder decoration glowing with what they call ghostlight locally. It’s not that far from moonlight. “Are you a Quinnial?” he asks, annoyingly. I’ve gotten this question before. don’t just punch him for being too stupid to know an Equinn when he sees one. “I’m not exactly,” I answer. “I’m related to them. I admire the decoration on your shoulder.” “Draegerans are not fond of your kind,” he tells me. Like I give a crap how a bunch of tall Elves feel about me. But “your kind” is never a complimentary reference, and I go back to considering giving him a kicking. You’ve never had a beating until you get one from an Equinn. It turns out that his name is Gaffelippyn, and he’s seconded to the Stigs, explaining the decoration. I notice he’s keeping his left hand under his cloak. Holding a weapon, maybe? Or maybe left-arm amputations are common here for some reason. He is already my second that day. He keeps asking about me and Quinnials, so I let drop that it’s possible I’m the founder of the race. Which might be true for all I know. When you’re immortal, the seeds you sow will come back to haunt you at some point in your existence. “You are the founder of the Quinnial race,” Gaff repeats slowly. “Despite your flippant manner, I think you mean it. Your kind are not well-loved by the Draegerans.” So he’s a bit of a broken record. I turn my attention back to the two I came in with. Strayhorn’s now leaning far out the window in the side of the ship, apparently talking to Sreigorn on the rocks below. We’d passed an exit just before entering this area, so I figure the Ranger has done out. That’s me, Mr. Deductionary. “He has picked up the trail of the creatures,” Strayhorn lets me know. We go outside to join Sreigorn. “Do watch out for the creatures of the water,” Strayhorn offers. Even as I was thinking of a joke, I saw an ominous wake, and decide to keep my yap shut. Strayhorn then walks out to the edge of the rocks and keeps going, his feet staying atop the water as he headed for the riverbank to the east. “Body equilibrium,” I say out loud for no good reason. “It’s an old trick.” Sreigorn’s at the edge of the water himself, on one knee, looking carefully at the ground when a big old crocodile-like monster rears up and tries to make him into supper. I instantly—and I do mean instantly, I practice this a lot—draw my Tahsr, a shortbow, and an SSr arrow, and loose it at the creature, striking it. The creature is thrown off slightly, and falls into the water to make its escape. I, meanwhile, have lost an arrow. Betcha Sreigorn doesn’t offer to replace it. Don’t bother taking out your wallet, I’ll let you know now he doesn’t. So he’s probably as broke as I am. A God will send you on a mission, never thinking maybe you could use a little walking-around cash to buy food, shelter if you need it, and so on. I usually end up doing some menial work to pay for my meals to start. No ploughs or wagons, I tell them. I’m a funny guy like that. “An interesting occurrence,” Sreigorn observes coolly. He motions to the water, and I see wisps of ghostlight there, like a cloud. “The creature bleeds light.” Axewing reunites with Elric, who is done with the Stigs and staring at the dead assassin. “I have been made aware of certain facts,” the Melnibonean tells the Barbarian. “They are concerning. Not that I was the target. This as the third attempt on my life this week. I expect that to continue.” He points out to Axewing that the assassin wears a very particular kind of cloak. The pointed hood indicates that it belongs to a new organization of assassins based in Karrion. He worries the group had been retained by his opponents. “It is in the nature of assassins. They are killers to the highest bidders,” Axewing tells him. “This complicates an already complex situation,” Elric continues. He hadn’t yet spoken to the group’s master, since he can’t be reached by telepathy, but the Empress has spoken to him. “He is Maldon Sax. He calls himself the Tai-pan.” “I actually know this one,” Axewing reveals. “I have met him. He offered me the gift of a Phoenix egg, though it was unlikely to be fertile, he told me.” “You will inform the Prince of Amber about these things?” Elric asks, adding Benedict had gone off with Jack. “I haven’t had time yet.” “Perhaps he is fond of the Empress. Perhaps he seeks to preserve the status quo.” “Is there someone who can contact this one?” A tall Stig comes over to speak to Elric. “We should be considering removing you from here for your own safety. We intend to move you to the palace, and from there you can make your own way to the Hall of the Dragon.” “I wonder which is safer, here or there,” Elric replies. “Perhaps to the Cathedral, where you can claim sanctuary.” “I do need to rest,” Elric allows. “I don’t suppose you would come with me? The Cathedral isn’t a place for Easterners.” “Asher had come into some monies,” Axewing tells Elric. “I was hoping it could be transferred to Kashmir?” “Does he have a will?” “Not that I know.” “I will investigate for you, because that is what princes do?” he seemed to be asking himself at the end. “I will see if I can find anyone who can contact Maldon,” Axewing says in way of farewell. Elric leaves just as Benedict and Jack are arriving. The latter spots Axewing just starting to take a drink of wine, and slaps the bottle out of his hands, the vintage dribbling down into his lap. “That wine has been poisoned,” Jack explained. “You probably don’t want to drink it. In fact, you might want to throw up.” “I’ll help,” Handfist offers helpfully. “I have a heal,” Axewing insists. “Can you get a message to Karrion?” “If Elric was unable to manage, it must be more difficult than I expect. I will consider it.” “I plan to send Asher off in the old way,” Axewing says, changing the subject. “I will need a pyre, and silks for wrappers. And I want to teach Kashmir something about the Veightal. We all still serve the True Gods.” “I am sure Asher would approve of the efforts you are going to,” Benedict assures him. “What was the nature of the vault? I have never seen the like.” “A place outside time and space, but still connected. A rare example of an allowance.” “How does Gerard fare in his new role?” “He takes to it like a duck to land.” Hey, turns out Benedict can make a joke. Oops. Wait. I’m not there yet. “The worms seem to have gone into the water,” Sreigorn is telling Sybermane. Then, unexpectedly, “You look like an Equinn.” Have to like a guy who calls my race by the right name. We decide we’re going to cross over to see what Strayhorn might have found on the eastern shore. I try hailing a couple of boats, because it seems to be below Sreigorn’s dignity, but hey, he’s the Ranger King. I don’t have any luck at first, probably because, you know, they think I’m a Quinnial. Dumbasses. Finally, a skiff makes its way down the water channel between the ships. He, too, looks dubious. “I work for Prince Elric,” Sreigorn says. “I am his spy.” The Orca boatman asks for payment, but neither Sreigorn nor I have any of the local coin. Hell, I came straight from my keep, where I don’t need to carry around money. “I have a gemstone,” Sreigorn offers. “Can you make it out?” The boatman, an Orca, turns a lantern toward the stone. “You offer me this to get to the shore?” “I do.” We board, and minutes later we are on the far shore. Everything I see seems to be made from stone, from the cobblestones on the streets to flowerpots. Fine, I didn’t see any flowerpots, but you know what I mean. Elves. The boatman offers further journeys, on account of the gem, which will pay off for me later. Meanwhile, I see a flash of white from a building to my left, while Sreigorn is checking the shoreline for wormsign. So I walk around the building, and catch another flash, though this time it seems more metallic. I see someone standing under a covered overhead walkway connecting two buildings at the second storey, his shortsword drawn. As I get nearer, I see he’s wearing black and grey clothes. Nice colours for an assassin or thief, I figure. He’s Draegeran, too, and his teeth glint in the faint light illuminating the area. He motions with the sword for me to come stand beside him, so I do. “A fine evening to be outside,” he says. “You don’t know me, but I know of you.” He proceeds to tell me Quinnials have “poor judgment and worse reputation. “On the other side of the City is a Manor House. Many such of you are there in the Lost City. The Lost City was taken by your tribe. Many were slain.” Then he warns, “I am a Jhereg with friends in high places.” I hear the sound of an arrow striking someone overhead. Odd. I didn’t hear the twang of the bow or the sound of the arrow flying through the air. I do hear a cry from whoever got hit. And then another scream as a second arrow finds a second target. The Jhereg I’m with looks alarmed, and I can’t blame him for that, and he steps back into the open, dark doorway behind him. So I stroll back to Sreigorn and rejoin him. Then we both hear the muffled sound of an explosion. Somebody’s getting serious. Axewing and Handfist are approached by the shorter Stig they had seen earlier. “He is the king of a lost kingdom,” Axewing explains. “Does that make things easier for you?” The Stig fetches drinks for the group, and then Handfist stalks off in search of more potables. “What exactly is he?” “His is another race. He is the last of his kind. There will be much you will come to see that is inexplicable. There is a land far beyond yours, but due to the coming war, we are all drawn here.” “You speak well for an Easterner. I too am an Easterner.” “I imagine it must have been difficult for you to obtain your position.” “I was seconded to them. They are short on numbers, right now. I am not trusted with far missions, but I am still considered useful.” “The coming war will break down all borders,” Axewing warns ominously. “Some borders cannot be torn down. People are proud of who they are.” “Pride is fleeting. A deluge is coming, but I have survived such. But death would be better than being cast into the evil that created it.” Gaff introduces himself by name, as does Axewing. “My name is an Eastern name, but your name is more made-up sounding.” “This is a name that I gave myself.” “So it was not bestowed on you by those you know?” Axewing explains the first part of his name is for his weapon, and the second for the Gods he continues to serve. “I have not great love for them,” Gaff said of gods. “They help those they choose to help. They are inconstant.” Handfist comes down the stairs, a pony keg in hand. “These questions I ask for my own interest,” Gaff adds. “I am off duty.” “Let me give you this gift,” Axewing tells him. “The Gods did not create the races. There were beings known as Loreds, and there was a Lored Mann. And the last he created were Final Men. Greater than all other men. And you will meet such, and understand a little of what Lored Mann was.” “Where are these Final Men?” “They are about. One is downstairs.” “More ale?” Handfist inquires. “I need another,” Gaff allows. So I must have just sort of shrugged after the explosion, ‘cause Sreigorn asks me, ”Not concerned with a fireball?” I shrug, so he and I venture to the south, where Sreigorn remarks on a large building on the bank. “This is odd. The building extends into the water itself.” Shutters open above and an angry voice demands, “What do you want down there? A woman or a boy?” “Perhaps we should investigate the fireball,” Sreigorn suggests. As we return to where we had been, and move into the plaza when I had met the Jhereg, he notes, “This space is well used.” Yes, I know you’re King of the Rangers, thank you very much. Then I remember he’s reading sign on cobblestones, so I’m a little impressed. “I see there is someone in this covered section, at the end of the it,” motioning toward another covered overhead walkway. “Handfist did mention that Draegerans are quick to use their bows. They often use magic to silence their bows.” That is a clever idea, and I elevate my estimation of how much magic is freely available and used in Axildusk. They must also silence the arrows in flight. I admire attention to detail. Hearing a low voice coming from the walkway, sounding nervous, I scale a wall and walk along the top until I can hear them better, but they’re speaking in a language I don’t understand. They’re furtive in their tone. I’ll learn nothing this way, so gripping the edge of the walkway’s roof, I swing in through an open window. I land on my feet, of course, and find two Draegerans to my right, both in black and grey. “What the fuck is a tribesman doing here?” one asks incredulously. He tells me they’re being attacked by a woman outside. Then one of them gets hit in the clavicle, and falls, shouting “Get it out of me!” Now, I’m no expert healer, but I know unless you are, you can do more damage removing an arrow that it made going in. The missile came through a window, so I risk a peek out, and see a white cloaked figure on a roof, maybe 80 or 90 feet away, standing on a chimney. I see she’s aiming her arrow right between my eyes, so I give her a little wave. Sounds stupid, right? But nine times out of 10, you wave at someone who’s looking at you suspiciously, and they relax and sometimes even wave back. She, however, looses her arrow, but it misses me, striking somewhere inside the corridor. The uninjured Jhereg sprints by me, into a building with a blue slate roof. I start to move over to the injured one, planning to carry him to safety because, well, they’d offered me 50 to be on their side and, you know, with my purse empty I’d accepted. I’m not sure 50 what. Before I can reach him, the arrow explodes into a fireball, and I have to throw myself back to avoid getting my mane singed. The Jhereg screams and falls silent, and I hope he’s died. Burning to death has got to be ugly. Then I remember the arrow that missed me, and I hustle into the building with the blue slate roof. “What is ghostlight?” Axewing asks Gaff. “You must find another source of power. Leviathans are an intelligent race.” Draegerans harvest ghostlight from dead Leviathans, hunted in the oceans by ships dedicated to the purpose. The current condition of the Leviathans might be due to the manipulations of the Jenoine, Axewing speculates aloud. “I was a prisoner of the Jenione for several years,” Handfist tells Gaff. “I am free thanks to Axewing.” “I am worried for this city,” Gaff confides. “The Jenoine have placed an instrument of death in the City. A sword, rumoured to be linked to Elric, for he carries no sword.” I head down a set of stairs to the ground floor and immediately run into the Jhereg who sensibly deserted his comrade, who is incensed by the attack. “Such a decanting is evil and should be reported.” What, did someone forget to let the port wine stand for half an hour after pouring it from the bottle into a decanter? Oh, right. Decanting means spellcasting. Weird world. But then, they all turn out that way. “A most peculiar activity. We have not been called to writ.” Suddenly, he turns on me, pulling his shortsword. I punch him in the head, and he tumbles out the open door into the street beyond. An arrow punches into his buttock, and he looks in a bad way despite the hammy target. I pull him in the door, and pluck out the arrow, remarkably easily, and toss it into the street. And apparently I’m the biggest idiot in the world, because despite all my experience, it somehow lands just a couple feet outside the door and directly in front of it because, well, you know, that’s the kind of bonehead I am. I get a bit singed, but not my mane, so that’s okay. Enough’s enough, I decide. I manifest invisibility and sprint across the street and start up a wall. It’s been designed to resist climbing, I realize, with obvious handholds that break away and sections more slippery than I look. Not enough to stop me, but it slows me a bit. Handfist suggests to Axewing that they might be able to spot Thaddeus’s companion from the air, and they climb with Gaff to the top deck, where Defiant screams as he comes in for a landing. “Should we be concerned?” a worried Gaff asks. Defiant then lands with a loud thump and declares, “You have brought me a meal!” Gaff reaches twice for his pistol before finally managing to pull it out. “The human has a weapon,” Defiant remarks casually. “Don’t be stupid, man!” Handfist cautions. “Put it back.” Axewing uses his psychic connection to Defiant to put an image of the dead assassin’s garb and mask into the latter’s mind, and tell him they are on a hunt for a second. “She lies across the way, on the roof,” the gryphyn immediately points out. “Can you carry me over to her?” The gryphyn goes one step further, allowing Handfist to ride as well as he takes to the air and circles a plaza just east of the Playships and the river. “There. Behind the chimney. You might be able to discern with your human vision.” Axewing drops from Defiant, bringing his axe to bear, striking the assassin in the back of the head, the blade sliding along her spine to her back. Somehow, the wound is not as bad as it could have been, but is still serious indeed. Axewing lands on his feet, but begins sliding down the slate roof until he manages to stop on the eavestrough after reversing his axe and driving its top spike into the tiles. The woman, for this assassin is female, slides down the roof as well, even as Handfist’s back hits the chimney she had been standing upon, collapsing part of it. “I’m in a clown show. The Barbarian and the Dwarf,” I think, somewhat maliciously, as I see my target snatched from me. How do you question someone with a traumatic brain injury, I wonder as I watch what’s happening. I drop my invisibility because what’s the point now? Axewing starts hauling in the woman, whose face turns toward him, and he realizes she’s wearing no mask. He picks her up and slings her over his shoulder, because, well, barbarian. For some reason he’s wearing a white, feathered cloak. Handfist starts sliding down the far side of the roof, and I leap, trying to grab him. Hah. A moment earlier I’d been imagining stilettos in his and Axewing’s eyes. Not sure what came over me. I get him by the wings of his helmet, but a second later they come off in my hands. “Stupid detachable wings!” Handfist gripes as he falls through the roof to the floor below, landing somehow with a wet sound. Couldn’t be his brains being spilled, I figure. No brains, all bone. But I can hear him start moving around, and then coughing. He’s lying in a small half-barrel on the floor. I see the woman in white being held by Axewing, who steps off the roof and drops into the saddle of Defiant, some 30 feet below. Damnedest thing I ever saw. I figured it would drive his balls up into his brains, but maybe they are already there. That would explain a lot. Somehow he manages to not further injure the woman, and Defiant takes off, heading back to the Playships. I toy with the idea of sticking my thumb in my ass to complete the picture, but decide against it. However, thinking of assholes, I remember Handfist below. I drop into the room, landing on the floor maybe nine feet down. “This is really embarrassing,” Handfist confesses. There’s a funny smell, and I realize he managed to hit a piss bucket. A big one. A Jhereg stands nearby, over eight feet tall, holding a rapier in his hand. I’d kill him, but let’s face it, this is really our own fault, isn’t it? Okay, Handfist’s. “What is the meaning of this?” the Jhereg demands, reasonably enough. “Fortunes of war,” Handfist splutters through his drenched beard. “Fortunes of war. You should know better, Tribesman.” I consider pointing out that I was neither the one who broke through the roof or the one dripping urine on the floor, but I’m becoming accustomed to the idea I’m not well liked. Aw. I’ll never get over it. “You should take off the fake beard and burn it,” the Jhereg told Handfist, and just that quick the Draegeran was right up there in my good books. “I could cut it from your face, if you wish.” “That piss bucket isn’t big enough to hold all the shit I don’t give,” I tell the Jhereg, accompanied by my best level stare. I might still be hanging onto some resentment from the clown show. Something funny happens to the Jhereg’s expression, almost like I’d somehow made the situation less bizarre for him with my veiled threat. “Just go,” he says. “Why does this always happen to me?” Handfist demands plaintively as he climbs down the stairs inside the building. I refrain from telling him. Defiant lands on the Carousel, and Axewing springs off, still carrying the woman with his one arm. He carries her back to the third deck lounge on the Troubador. “You better think twice about taking me captive,” the woman says in a moment of clarity. She seems to be going in and out of a daze because of her wound. Axewing reaches out with his mind and contacts Benedict, who’s just saying, “Thank you, my dear. I shall return tomorrow for another assig—Axewing! Very well, I will join you." He enters the lounge soon after. I manage to hail the boatman who gave me and Sreigorn passage earlier, and with Handfist return to the Troubador, where we find Benedict and Axewing. We have a go at interrogating the last’s prisoner. “You are a member of the Tai-Pan’s organization?” Axewing asks, and gets confirmation in return. “Why did you attempt to kill Elric?” “I kill who I wish to kill,” she answers, almostly dreamily. Traumatic brain injury, I think again. “Who paid you to do this then” Axewing demands, but gets no answer. “She is in a bad way,” Benedict observes. “We must either wake her or cure her.” Axewing tries flicking some ale into her face, but that doesn’t rouse her. Finally, she opens one eye. “Who are you?” “Who paid you to attack the prince?” “I fail to see what you mean,” she half-groans. Gaff steps into the lounge. I remember him from below earlier, and he seems to know Axewing and Benedict. He has a guilty look on his face, and then anxious. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he says urgently, in a low voice. Then, “You found one.” He motions to the room behind the bar. “Take her in there.” Axewing and I pick up the chair that the woman is in, and carry her awkwardly, and she falls just behind the bar. I scoop her up and take her into the room Gaff indicated. Benedict and Axewing stay outside because, of course, they’re too dignified to hide. Then a Stig captain bulls his way into the lounge. He’s covered in indigo armour, and his skin is blue as well, and he’s glowing with ghostlight, but he’s too short to be a Draegeran. “If you weren’t my brother…,” he tells Gaff. “I try not to hold that against you,” Gaff mutters in return. I’m really getting to like him. He might be the first addition to my new herd. The captain has an odd sword on one hand, and in the other, a blade juts out from under his sleeve. “I am not used to being threatened in my own City,” the captain declares, seeing Benedict and Axewing. “There is an odd situation in Adrilankha, and I need help defusing it.” Gaff explains what has happened to the assassin’s body, and to Asher’s. “I hear things. I see things. I am not the brother you knew,” Gaff tells the captain. “It is my intervention that got you named to your unit,” the brother responds. Oh yeah, I’m not loving this guy. “You don’t fail to remind me,” Gaff grumbles. Turning to Axewing and Benedict, the captain says, “I am not used to dealing with other competent Easterners.” “You are a captain of this special group of constables?” Benedict inquires. “We are not constables,” the captain replies indignantly. “We are the Stig.” Then he steps over and pulls the mask off the dead assassin’s face. “By the Veightal!” I hear Benedict declare suddenly. “What is it?” Figuring if Benedict has been caught off guard, I want to see what did it. I emerge back into the lounge to have a look. The dead assassin’s face is a writhing mass of some sort of large grubs, giving off a strange acrid smell. The body then erupts with the insects. Maybe the worms that didn’t take off turned into the grubs? “I feared this might be the case,” Benedict intones. You heard it right, he intones. “The Mule’s agents are among us.” That, in case you do not know, is the kind of crap news that makes me sad. Suddenly, a Bit appears out of thin air, maybe 30 feet away from us. Don’t know what a Bit is? You’ll find out soon enough. Nothing good would be a quick way of describing it. “I claim this one for the Bit,” he says in a commanding voice. “Stand away. Should you not stand away, this device will obliterate the city.” He gestures to a rectangular, thin case on one wrist, with a small ghostlight imbedded in it. Maybe a button? Or trigger? Or a big bullshit bluff. “This is not the time,” Benedict warns. Well, he is the greatest strategist of all time, so I figure I might take his advice. This time. The Bit claps his hands together twice, and he and the body disappear. “The Bit are part of the Mule. His assassins,” Benedict instructs, maybe for the benefit of the Draegerans. Somebody mentions the female prisoner, and the captain is indignant. “You are keeping things from the Stig. It is not wise.” I wonder if Gaff would mourn his brother if he suddenly was killed in the line of duty. Maybe not, but the jerk might have a wife and children Gaff would feel bad about and have to look after, so I don’t do anything. Plus, as you notice, I don’t feel the need to have people be in constant terror of me. So much work. “This is so strange,” Gaff admits. “What are the Bit?” Somebody explains they were created to hunt and destroy the agents of the Mule, but were suborned themselves and now are his assassins, typically working in pairs, typically able to appear and disappear, to be part of the world one moment and then not the other. We march off into the room behind the bar, where the woman is coming to. The captain produces a mild curative, which he administers to her. “You!” she exclaims, looking my way with some disgust. That’s right, lady. Hurt my feelings. “I was dealing with you.” And you would have thought that right up until the moment I took you out. She doesn’t strike me as a Bit. Then she turns her gaze to Axewing. “You dropped out of the sky? And I thought we were the only ones doing that.” “Perhaps you’d rather deal with me,” Benedict suggests, all smooth-like. “The Tai-Pan. We’re asking if you can reach him. There was an attack on Elric, and you were implicated.” “Really? That explains something. One I was travelling with was taken. The Jhereg claimed to have him captive in a building across the way. I cannot do what you ask of me. I am only an acolyte.” “Then can you speak to one who can find us this Tai-Pan,” Benedict asks. “I will need to be well,” the woman answers. The captain offers her another two vials, and she quaffs first one and, after assessing its effects, the other. She pulls her hood over her head. “I’ll need more space. Is there a larger room?” We go back out into the lounge. “It is like a decanting,” the woman explains before she starts. “Akin to a summoning. I can only do this infrequently.” “I am certain the ones above you will see the sense in this,” Benedict assures her. “I can only bring Scappin, a master.” She concentrates, and then he appears in a hovering symbol, and he descends to the floor. And he’s only six inches tall! Just kidding. Human size. “Ecclesia!” he demands. So that’s the woman’s name. “What is the meaning of this?” After learning of her reasons, he ordered the Stig captain from the room, saying his loyalty lies with the Empire, not the Easterners, and only they could see the Tai-Pan. The captain finally departs in a huff.