A cowled and hooded figure approaches Captain O'Brien in the Port of Call.
"Good evening. My employer has asked me to take the liberty of buying you a drink, if you find the offer agreeable."
The woman - for it is a female voice that emerges from the hood - takes both his tankard and her own to a private table in the corner of the tavern.
"I hope you do not object to me interrupting your leisure time on a matter of business, but this tavern does seem to have developed a reputation as a marketplace for surreptitious dealings.
"Local rumour is usually colourful and frequently inaccurate, but it is my job to chase up interesting tales and establish the truth of them. I hear that recently a novel artefact fell into your hands. My employer would be interested in knowing more of it, and perhaps purchasing this item. Would it be possible for me to examine it?"
"Never fear Ma'am, Business is my Pleasure, especially with one so lovely as yourself!"
A heartbeat passes, as the faceless cowl studies him, considering the inanity of this statement.
"Udo! The box please!"
"You go and get it. It doesn't like me."
"Nonsense Udo, this lovely creature's time is precious."
Udo goes off, muttering, while O'Brien focusses the battering ram of his charm on the fortress of the cowled woman's insouciance. Presently, Udo returned, flanked by two hulking deckhands. The box is placed on the table. O'Brien opens it, giving the impression that the man is incapable of blowing his nose without a flourish.
"The Eye of Thunn!", he cries.
The eye stares up into the cowl, its pupil dilating as if in surprise.
For an interval the two examine each other silently and facelessly, the disembodied eye and the shadow beneath the cowl.
"It seems that for once rumour has been quite accurate. You have made quite a remarkable find, Captain, and I have little doubt that my employer would be interested in the acquisition of such an item." It is impossible to judge the direction of the speaker's gaze, but to judge by the position of her head, she is gazing upon the eye with a steadiness that suggests fascination. "Were you to part with it, Captain, had you decided on a price? And may I ask how you first came to hear of the Eye? Even folklore or rumour pertaining to the item would be of interest to us." Her voice is still level and professional - if she is in any way susceptible to the compliments with which she has been showered, she is maintaining an impressive facade of invulnerability.
Three long flames stream upwards from the candelabra in the centre of the table, and reflected in the great, black pupil their three tiny golden ghosts quiver, giving the eye an uncanny appearance of intelligence.
At hearing the confirmation, O'Brien snaps the box shut. It disappears, with O'Brien's characteristic florid legerdemain.
"I'm entertaining bids from all quarters, at the moment. To avoid the
sordid business of an auction, I suggest that you enter a bid with my man
there." O'Brien gestures to Udo, who glowers.
"The reserve price is ten thousand standard weights of gold. The bids will remain secret, and the highest by midnight Freitag will prevail.
"Now, milady, if you will excuse me, I am expecting female company of a less obscured nature..."
The woman stands, inclining her head in a fashion that in some indefinable way suggests that she is smiling.
"I would not dream of intruding further upon your... leisure time, Captain. I shall communicate with my employer and return with his response."
[A brief synopsis of what follows...]
A flock of undead owls apparently turns up to try for the eye. O'Brien and Udo barricade themselves in the cellar of the inn they're staying at, until the flock gives up, and goes away. Predictably, O'Brien helps himself to the contents of the cellar in the meantime.
Half-drunk, and in possession of the Eye, O'Brien staggers through the streets, and gets involved in a midnight carnival, held in honour of one of the many gods worshipped in Zehazel. During this carnival, he is attacked, by robed, faceless humanoid things, whom he defeats by a combination of dazzling swordplay, unlikely acrobatics, and blending in with the drunken, carousing mob.
A large animated statue comes next, which is the point at which O'Brien decides he has had quite enough. Tailing one of the Faceless Men back to Kalgravex's lair, he reckons that the best way out of all of this is just to offer to sell the damned thing to Kalgravex. After all, Kalgravex is a rich man, and paying for it has to be easier than all these shenanigans.
A pale greenish light flickered around the study as one of the bound servants entered. Master Kalgravex looked up from his writing. The bound servant removed its mouthpiece and announced the presence of a visitor requesting an audience. The Master turned towards the row of clocks on the wall. It was late for a visitor to be calling.
Within the Crooked House was a room where visitors were taken. Master Kalgravex sat in a large black wicker chair, holding a small glass of plum brandy as he watched his guest pace back and forth, gesticulating with great energy.
"At first it doesn't look like much, but it's actually quite beautiful, a work of art ! Its historical significance, too, cannot be overstated: for years it has been passed down through the royal families of distant isles. It is a symbol of their power and majesty. And speaking of power, yes, most of all the Eye is a magical artifact of great potency ! It was spoken of at great length by Heromospotes the Astute who proclaimed it the greatest magical treasure of the thousand worlds ! There are worlds beyond the mists whose alchemists have sought it for centuries - in vain. There exists an entire sisterhood of..."
Master Kalgravex smiled slowly to himself as O'Brien rambled on, waving his arms and enthusing about the Eye of Thunn. Presumably he was going to ask for money, so Kalgravex slid his right hand into his catskin glove and with a few quick signs, sent the House Guards to fetch suitable payment. Finally O'Brien drew to a conclusion.
"...but it would be a crime if such a priceless paragon of magic were to fall into the hands of a mere collector of trivia. So, as your talents are well known to all in Zehazel, I feel honour bound to offer you the first opportunity to buy the Eye of Thunn !" O'Brien bowed briefly before continuing. "A reasonable price would surely be..."
O'Brien was interrupted by a dull metallic thud from just behind him. Two spindly figures stepped back into the shadows. On the floor stood an earthenware pot filled will small round coins which gleamed with a dull golden light.
"That's more than it's worth." Master Kalgravex spoke very quietly, as though to himself. "But bargaining is not something I enjoy. Take it."
The Gulliver left the Crooked House carrying his prize, whilstling cheerfully to himself. Another man in his position would have doubtless feared for his life, walking through the streets in the heart of Revenant carrying such riches. As it was, O'Brien's demeanour may have been what saved him. Many eyes watched, but none approached. The Master of Revenant shook his head sadly. Such men as this night's visitor were beyond his comprehension. Idiot.
Deep beneath the Crooked House Master Kalgravex drew a long, weak breath. He was too tired now to enact the binding ritual upon the Eye. It could wait until morning. He felt as though the eyes of the Nether Lords were upon him as he crawled up the stone steps to his chamber. Too many years had passed, he was old, so very old. He felt a sudden fear that his work would not be done in time.
"Good captain, you surely don't expect me to buy a pig in a poke, do you?"
O'Brien affected an injured expression, and muttering something about the lack of trust in the modern cowled businesswoman, re-opened the box. The bull's eye contained within was, to give the Captain's ingenuity credit, almost of a size with Thunn's.
His prospective customer surveyed the contents without taking a step closer. "I think your price is a little high for this piece of butcher's dross." She moved away from the table, towards the casement, which she opened.
"Butcher's dross? This is the fabled Eye of Thunn! Plucked from the head of the god by the hero T'challa himself!" spluttered O'Brien.
"Don't get up, good sir - I have already surfeited on your chivalry." The figure pulled aside her cloak to reveal a loaded crossbow, aimed roughly in the direction of his gut.
The Captain was nothing if not a man of action. Now, as was often the case, his chosen action was scarpering. Unfortunately, his client reacted to the sudden movement by loosing her crossbow bolt, and proving herself an excellent shot when, a moment later, it lodged in the meat of his thigh.
"That is your payment. The next time you try to cheat your betters, expect to lose one of your _own_ eyes."
Once the bolt had lodged in his leg, O'Brien's cavalier attitude had instantly disappeared. His voice, the commanding voice of a seasoned commander, barked "Seize her, Lads!"
The cowled one peered through the window to see a alley containing 3 hulking deckhands, all armed with cutlasses. Five more men rose from tables around the bar, and advanced upon her...
The captain limped towards the surrounded woman, and hissed "Now, *that* is going to cost you dearly.
"We'll start with the asking price for the eye."
The woman's manner altered as she found her escape route blocked, and she glanced about her at the windows of the tavern, now inaccessible behind the closing line of armed men, her body language suggesting a touch of panic. One hand trembled a little in reaching for the next crossbow bolt, and then she recovered herself.
"I am afraid I do not have the money with me. Perhaps some of _my_ friends may have some loose change among them..."
The landlord began quickly moving the ranks of bottles to safer locations behind the bar as another seven men rose, three throwing aside cards from a poker game, and another four leaving their seats by the great hearth.
Some of the more timorous customers, recognising the signs, were already snatching their belongings and making for the corners of the room, some turning tables on end to shield themselves.
Taking advantage of the distraction, the woman made a bid to escape the circle about her, by dropping on all fours and darting between the legs of her enemies towards darkness and relative safety beneath one of the tables. O'Brien was too quick for her, and a timely downward stroke of a scimitar made contact with her fleeing form. There was a sound of rending cloth, and a gasp of pain from the fugitive.
With a roar, and a sound of unsheathing steel, the mercenaries fell on O'Brien's crew. Another crew might have been outclassed by such veterans, but this was the crew who fought the mighty Stonemen of Rashoon. A few cheap bravos held no fear for them.
Still, the battle was far from one-sided. One particularly hulking mercenary elected to break the circle around his employer by hurling a stout oak table into the group, a move which sent the crew flying into a group of Jugurtha barbarians near the door. Perhaps in anger, perhaps merely entering the spirit of things, the Jugurtha lept into the fray, apparently heedless of which side they were on.
As the situation spiralled further into chaos, O'Brien spotted the cowled woman open the door, and sneak out into the night. His attempt to force his way through the throng to pursue was confounded, as he was struck in the temple by a flying tankard, and disappeared into the morass.
It was a good while before the figure in the cowl dared to stop running. She paused and leaned for an instant against a wall, breathing in quick, high, pained gasps. After a while she noticed the smear which her shoulder has left upon the wall, and gingerly pulled back her left sleeve. Dark rivulets of blood were running freely down her arm, and into her glove. She stared at the evidence of her own injury in disbelief and incomprehension for a short while, then gathered her cloak about herself once more and began running.
Later, after the Watch arrived to quell the riot, O'Brien and one of the mercenaries sat grumbling in a Vermiform cell.
"It's going to cost us what she paid us, in fines, just to get out of here."
"Really? that's too bad old boy. Especially since she cheated me on a deal this evening as well. You know, that gives me an idea..."
"You tell me anything you know about her, and we'll pay your fines."
The mercenary considered this. It was hardly a moral thing to do. Having said that, if he were a moral man, he wouldn't kill people for money.
"Alright. But I don't know much."
"Whatever you can tell me is fine."
"I just know her name's Magdalena."
"I see. And where did she hire you?"
"Winged Frog, down by the docks."
"I know it well. Now, let's see about getting out of here..."
O'Brien had a muttered conversation with the guard outside the door. After reaching an agreement, O'Brien sat down to wait. Presently, the doors were opened, and the combatants were released. Udo was outside, making a contribution with Kalgravex's gold to the Vermiform Widows and Orphans fund. Both sides of the conflict shook hands and went their separate ways.
Later, as O'Brien had his wound tended, he and Udo discussed vengeance.
"You know boss, you should really let it go. She shot you, you cut her. No-one got killed, just call it quits."
"You forget, Udo, she owes us ten thousand for the Eye."
"Boss, you've already sold it to someone else."
"But it was a good scheme, and deserved to win. Thus, I deserve the gold, thus she owes me the gold."
"I can't believe that even you believe that."
"Of course I do. And I've just the scheme to get it..."
The woman in black kept running through the night until she reached Gethsemane. The cut to her back continued to flow with blood, defying her attempts to reach it. She didn't know what the man she was searching for looked like, and found herself, exhausted, ringing the bell she found outside a small house. She had deliberately already stumbled past the main gate to the Gethsemane Gardens.
The man who answered the door was a simple acolyte, but he recognised the severity of the cloaked woman's condition. Grasping his daughter by the shoulder, he told her "Run. Fetch Master Tannen. He will know what to do. He healed your mother. He will heal this woman also."
By the time that Tannen arrived, the woman had all but fainted. The man and his wife were trying to wash the sweat from her face with a damp cloth, but she weakly resisted their attempts to remove the cowl from her features. Seeing the healer, there was a brief flash of relief in her eyes, and she fainted.
She awoke feeling better, stronger, yet uneasy about what magical acts had been wrought on her body. Looking around, she saw she was lying on a soft grassy bank. She winced, reaching up to discover that her cowl had been removed from her face.
"Do not worry. I do not know who you are, and I do not care. If I am hungry, I heal the son of the baker. If I am cold, I lend strength to the grieving tailor. If lonely I have comfort in my plants and my skills. If hurt I shall heal, and in grief I shall find my strength. That is my philosophy, and I respect the wishes of my patients. I have not looked at your face. I merely removed your mask so that you could breathe properly."
"Must remain a secret," the woman managed. "Nobody must know that I was injured or that I was here."
"You have my word, and it will soon be morning. I imagine that you will wish to leave. You wil be able to do so with the breaking of the dawn." Tannen turned to the light coloured tree at his back, and smiled at what he saw therein. He stayed there, with his back to the woman for a minute, before turning again. As he expected, her retreating back was at the line of the trees - her hands already wrapping the cowl back around her face. Looking down, he was surprised to see a black pouch, evidently filled with coins, lying on the grass.
"Let her pass," he addressed the trees. "The woman has a generous soul, and her kindness will allow a few of the poor children in Zehazel to eat well this day."
"Kavan Hypher! What wonders do you have for me today?"
Cavelle, the grizzled proprietor of Cavelle's Locks, ushered Kavan to the back of his stall, lending a hand with the steaming cauldron that the charming foreigner carried.
"Do you have any more of those delicate shellfish tweezers?"
"Alas, I have none today. Did your sister find them of use?"
"Very much so. She says they are finer than the steel she usually works with. Murann thinks they must be the work of a Daedalean artisan. Are they?"
"Not at all. There is a crafty sailor who makes cutlery from clams. I bought those tools from him yesterday, and urged him to create an array of similar items. If you need more, he will be able to supply you in a few days."
"Splendid. I think I may be able to sell them, as well, to the discerning customer..."
"I wish great success on you. But today I bring you goods of an entirely different nature." Kavan reached into a silken fold and retrieved a tiny jar of green oil.
"You spoke of the incessant ache in your leg, yesterday, and this afternoon I discovered this treatment which may ease the pain." He lifted the lid on the metal pot he had brought with him. "You must pour the oil on the water, then bathe your limb in it. Will you try it?"
Tentatively, Cavelle drew off a thick bearhide stocking and massaged his old wound. Kavan poured a few drops of emerald liquid onto the boiling water, and immediately a bitter scent suffused the dusk air.
"It is sourket," he said. "The blue men of the distant north harvest it as a healing herb, yet here it is a spice for the Vervain's supper."
Chills ran through Cavelle's arteries, followed by a soothing warmness, and a pricking as of pins and needles. And the pain was gone. His swollen calf felt not numb, but alive.
"Kavan, my friend, this is wonderful. What can I give you in return?"
"I am sure that Murann is already working hard at my current request: I would not have her rush or overwork on my behalf. When she is done, I may wish to trade for more at your quite reasonable rates. Until then..."
"There is another thing." Cavelle rose abruptly, foot halfway back into stocking. "If it is not impolite - are you really the ambassador who spoke of this Million Swords?"
"I am he," Kavan Hypher replied. "And I would beseech anybody with the will and the way to arm themselves against this threat to Zehazel. For every child, woman and man in the city is at risk from the Quorarch army."
"Well, I may not be young anymore, but I used to be a fighter of no little ability, and your potion has breathed some new life into me. Can you tell me more about these invaders?"
"There is some that I know, and some that I have learnt, and some that I feel. I could tell you a story of my encounter with some bandits..."
"Please. But not here in the market, it's getting cold and business is dying. Let me buy you a drink and a meal. How about the Port of Call?"
"A flagon of green wine with extra water, if you please, and a pint of Old Sweaty."
As Denning decanted, Cavelle the ironmonger turned back to Kavan Hypher. "So, about these barbarian hordes?" he suggested, drinking in the convivial atmosphere.
"I was once ambushed by Quorarch bandits," began Kavan. "It was the start of the major summer, with me mounted on longhorse and returning from the city of five spires, my case filled with trade agreements and my skins filled with sweet mountain waters. My wisdom told me to ride accross the top of the sand dunes, but my baking brow begged me to navigate between them where the air is cooler.
"I was young and I taunted luck, daring to choose the shady path. Therefore luck led me, out of all the million hollows in the desert, to the dwelling of some Quorarchai.
"Nothing did I know of this, until my longhorse crumpled beneath me, struck in the head by a slung stone.
"Reaching for my waterskins, I dove to the side, seeking the only protection against a second stone. I felt around and under my prone longhorse for sword and spear, and caught a glimpse of a hidden door opening, whence gambolled two quorarch women. The younger leapt over the longhorse at me, brandished knife flashing in the sun. Weaponless, I rolled away, gained my feet and backed away from her, clasping the skins behind my back.
"The older woman, meanwhile, was knelt over my longhorse. I willed myself not to watch as she slit its throat and immediately drank at the red flow of blood. But this was to be my salvation. For my brave, strong longhorse, fast almost as a smallhorse, took its last breath and kicked the Quorarchai, killing her dead.
"As the younger Quorarchai looked round at that deathwail, I made my chance and bolted for my spear. Now the winds blew the other way. The girl-woman backed away with fear in her eyes, but without the deathcalm that precedes a frenzy.
"We danced around each other, I trying to throw the shadows before me and the sun into her eyes, and she leading me into some unknown trap. I scanned the sands before me, advancing to maintain the distance twixt us at her peril, and saw the shape of a surge behind me in time to whirl around and point spear at the quorarch man who arose there, wielding twin swords.
"With three blades against one, and only reach in my favour, I immediately attacked. Ullman was guiding my hands, or dulling his senses, because I was able to touch two scores against him before he was able to respond."
"What do you mean," Cavelle broke in, "touching scores? You make it sound like a game."
"I have noticed that there is a difference between the way you citydwellers fight, and the way the Quorarchai and my own people fight," Kavan responded. "When you attack someone with a sword, you strike at them with all your might, as if you were trying to split them in two. Maybe it is the only way to get through the metal that you sometimes wear when you decide to prepare to fight. But it is easy to deflect. In the desert, it is different. Let me show you."
Rising, Kavan lifted the barbed spear that rested beside him, carefully inverted it, and before Cavelle could react, Kavan had thrust the blunt end past his body and was slowly drawing it backwards along his chest.
"Hey! Can you read?" Denning the barkeeper gestured towards an engraving on the bar. "No swordplay."
"I sincerely apologise," said Kavan immediately. "Please let me buy a round of drinks."
Cavelle resumed the conversation. "So you can cut someone, but that's only a fleshwound. It won't stop them."
"They are bleeding. And when you are bleeding, alone in the desert, death is inevitable. A lot of our combat is waiting - a battle of endurance. "But that day, I couldn't wait. I was trained in spearfighting by the Prince himself, but I still couldn't hold off two opponents.
"With exquisite care, I allowed the woman circle round behind me again. I listened to her breathing, I adjusted my grip on the spear. I used my best judgement. As she pounced at my back, I spun round and clubbed at her head. Like an easterner.
"I got a long slice down my back for turning away from the swordsman, but the quorarch woman was dead and the two of us were evenly matched.
"Did I mention that I was trained by the Prince himself?
"I killed that last Quorarchai, then bound my wounds as best I could, drank deep from my waterskin, and searched the dune for the quorarch dugout. It was a cool hole, covered with skins and buried in sand. Hobbled inside was the scrawniest, most illkempt smallhorse I have ever seen. I took all the water, and the smallhorse.
"I cast the red sands on the silk, consulted the lodestone, then sprawled across that mean beast's back and pointed it towards home. I sang a song for my mighty longhorse, and surrendered to the heat.
"I would have died, had not Eshel Kayam found me out in the sands near her oasis. She took me home, and I was in her debt for three years, and then she married me."
It was midnight and a pair of barn owls preened themselves atop the Gullivers' Guild House. One, the smaller of the two, casually dissected a mouse that had had the misfortune to become dinner. With delicate touches the owl removed the mouse's eye and both looked at it. After a few moments the owls exchanged glances that, had any experts in the body language of barn owls been present, would have been interpreted as 'this is a problem'.
The larger owl then picked out the heart of the mouse. This time the smaller owls reponse was a shrug, more along the lines of 'I've no idea'. The large owl resignedly cocked its head on one side then devoured the mouse.
The next day an apprentice Gulliver was found to have died - killed as he slept by a single stab wound. The watch, noting the locked room and tight security checked the mantlepiece and found the usual Barraban confession which was dutifully filed for future reference.
Voice One is that of a man who has just had a very large problem injected into his otherwise perfectly organised day. Voice two is that of a man who has had to convey the news and knows exactly what it means.
1 : "A million?"
2 : "Yes master."
1 :"That's a thousand thousands."
2 : "Yes master."
1 : "And we have no reason to believe they're different to anyone else?"
2 : "No master."
1 : "Then we're going to be very busy. We'll have to start before they reach the city. If too many get in the situation might become unworkable."
2 : "Outside the city, master?"
1 : "Yes, think of it as a holiday."
2 : "Yes Master."
Through the gauzy veils which surrounded Zehazel, Something was moving.
Amonst the Mist Isles there was a noise, a buzz, a disquieting shiver,
almost like ice about to crack and melt, life-giving liquid where there
had been only death. Minds reached out, feeling towards Zehazel, surprised
by the life and the joyous confusion there. And a focus.
The city remained oblivious to their presence except for a few individuals. On the dockside lookout Tam the Hare, leaning in a back alley like a sleepy rag doll jerked upright as if a puppeteer had pulled all her strings taut. Her brother's face appeared at the window opposite and breathily whispered, "Tam? What's up?"
"We should get out of here. Hurry."
The face leaned out and quickly glanced up the alley both ways. "City watch?" he asked.
"I don't know, I've just got a bad feeling, like we're being watched," she replied.
He retreated back into the darkness of the building again, returning quickly to climb out, bag over his shoulder. "Nothing much in there anyway. I said Mick the Mouth was all mouth. I said, didn't I, I said 'Captain O'Brien don't look rich to me'. Stupid idea in the first place, if he had anything worth anything he'd keep it on 'is ship.'
Deeper in the city, Garath Chant stopped still to give a glance of surprise to the skies. A few moments of still tension passed before he started on his way again, murmuring into the wind; "You again. So you have found your way here, too." Images returned to him of a broken world, where the sunlight no longer shone, and all that remained of the people were the broken temples and arches. "This will make things more interesting", he murmured again, and smiled to himself.
Not enough food here, not any more. Seeking, searching, finding. And feeding.
Sophia had spent her day amongst the sick in heart. As she was helped to her bed, she was tired from their fears and their pains, small and great. She had dealt this day with a merchant, one Shensen Gule, who had been healed of his self inflicted wounds by lesser healers before being brought to her care. His wife had left him after his children died of fever, and since they had not suffered for long enough to be brought to a healer, the man had slipped into the insanity of believing that the poor woman had disposed of her children through some magic means. A petty delusion, eased by conversation. Sophia's individual talents had been hardly warranted, and remained unused. None of those she had seen today threatened Zehazel.
She settled between the sheets and sipped some water. Before closing her eyes, Sophia gazed at the stars which shone also upon her Emperor.
Alcyone had the duty of watching the living heart of Gethsemane this night. The younger acolytes took the duty in turn, for it was not arduous, but neither was it challenging, and the care of Sophia was considered suitable for a youngster who had had a difficult few days. The girl fidgeted in her chair, unable to concentrate enough to meditate. The air was thick and oppressive. For an instant, Alcyone saw the face of her mother covered with blotches - bites they were, rat bites - the sight that had once sent her running to Gethsemane for succour. She shook her head against the disturbing vision. Back again? Memories hadn't preyed on her mind for almost twenty years.
Sophia was walking through the streets of Zehazel, but no-one acknowledged her presence. No-one guided her steps or supported her. She stumbled, and there was laughter. She fell, and feet trampled her, children stood and pointed and laughed at the cripple. She started to speak, to admonish them, but there was no sound, and so she painfully crawled away from the boots, the stones, the joyous chortles of her tormentors.
She was crawling away down a dark alley, and a door lay ajar, so with a sense of relief, Sophia pulled herself inside. The air was sweet and bitter at the same time - the smell of decay. Her eyes adjusting to the darkness, she became aware of the bodies of two small children. They were too far dead to be saved, even if they could have been taken to Gethsemane.
And then the merchant, Gule, entered the room. He was smiling. A dark haired, dark eyed woman stumbled along behind him. He pushed her into the room; she fell across the small bodies. Neither of them noticed Sophia. And she knew: she had been fooled. This man was truly deranged. He had murdered his own children, and now was trying to blame the deaths on everyone and everything else. He would kill again, and again. She was responsible. He could have been stopped, or she could have cured him. If she had been willing to spend the effort.
A kaleidoscope of images exploded in her mind, the names and faces of each of the madman's victims. Not his victims - he had looked for help. Her victims. The sensation of her hands choking the life out of another living being. The warmth of newly drawn blood on her skin. The sweet, sweet joy of causing suffering.
And an undertone. Murmurs of pleasure and satiation. Sharing with her, sharing the sublime energies of pain and fear. A promise, if she cared to listen, that she could escape all this torment and feel strong. She was more like them than she knew. It would be so easy...
Alcyone's solitary reverie was disturbed by an angry shout. Her eyes flicked open to see the slender figure in the bed sitting upright, staring unseeing into the night. Sophia's hair whipped around her as though stirred by a hurricane, leaving welts along her cheeks; her hands ripped at her scalp, removing handfuls of still writhing strands. She cried out again, voice raw and desperate, and blood frothed at the corner of her mouth.
The physical damage, at least, had been healed by the next morning, and none of those who had seen it would ever speak of the matter, even in Gethsemane.
The sun sank beyond the edges of the walls of Zehazel, the shadows of the buildings finally chasing its golden reflection off the whole city but for the tops of the towers, glittering an unearthly blaze seen from the darkness below. The streets of Melmoth, usually tranquil and still, began to fill, as its population gathered in the central square. An atmosphere of charged curiosity gripped them; the Mages for which Melmoth was known, their servants and the others who lived here, scribes and barmen, bakers and a blacksmith, all gathered together. Whispered questions of confusion brushed the air from all except the Magi, who either knew something more or wished to appear that they did.
As the square filled to capacity, a figure rose to stand on the feet of the old, obsidian statue, dressed in a tattered cloak over worn leather with long dreadlocks draped across the shoulders and flowing down his back. Standing there among the expensive many coloured robes of the assembled wizards he looked as out of place as the obsidian statue did in the territory of light and colour. His voice rolled out across the crowd...
"The Melmoth are strong in Zehazel, yet our presence is felt only as individuals. When we act together, the rest of the city does not see, and that is the way we choose. But Melmoth needs a voice, a central focus for other allegiances to approach, and for us to give our counsel to the other allegiances.
"This role is counter to the spirit of the Magi of Melmoth, yet it needs doing none the less. Just as the statue of Magulus stands here in the square, at the heart of the allegiance yet so different to its surrounds, I would stand at the heart of you all. I offer my services as carrier of information for you all. I do not seek to rule here, as Magulus did, but to gather strength, so the allegiance I choose should grow in the city, and so that you do not waste your efforts against each other in matters where we should all work together.
"I am Garath Chant, Archmage of the WraithWeb Palace, keeper of the Sun Crystals and Master of the Riftmagic. I say that you can trust me, and you know my words to be true. I say this now, before you all."
The crowd remained silent and unmoved, as the torchlight flickered across the square. A minute passed thus, without movement or noise. Then a scarlet clad woman, tall and strong with a cascade of dark hair, walked forward.
"I agree to your offer." she whispered quietly, so quietly that none other than Chant could possibly have heard. As she said it, she passed by the Statue and the ragged Archmage, and walked out of the square. In turn, each of the other Mages either did the same, or backed out of the square without speaking a word. thirty... thirty five... forty... Garath Chant silently counted those who had accepted, glancing out at those who stood still, either contemplating their choice or waiting upon their turn, he could not tell. He considered finding out, but kept to his choice to use no magic at this gathering.
As well as expected, he thought to himself, it is a good beginning.
Garath walked back to his home weary and alone, opening the gate to his basement rooms with a half muttered keyword to appease its guardian. The day had gone well, with no magic drawn from his depleted reserves, yet despite it he felt worn thin and as tired as the dead. Except not all the dead rest, he thought to himself, a grin stealing his resolved face for a moment. It's the people he thought to himself. I have spent too long entombed in the WraithWeb palace, surrounded by beings of immense power, but removed from contact with people.
As the door swung closed behind, he walked into the main room and stoked the fireplace to life once more, feeding it fresh fuel. Then he slowly and rigorously went through the exercises he had once been taught to keep his joints flexible, his body strong and supple. Each flex was an effort, each stretch felt as if he were breaking threads of wool that had tethered his body rigid. Finally, exhausted physically and glowing from the exertion he retired to rest.
The dream began peacefully enough, he stood in the Library of the Witches surrounded by the volumes of hundreds of years of magic research. Once more, he scanned the shelves, searching for that one important book he had spent his entire life searching for, although he suspected now in his heart that it did not exist. Row after row of shelves he scanned, growing more weary and fearful as each lacked the book he needed. Then he heard it, the sound of the beast. What beast it was, he could not tell, only that it was one he knew he could not stand against, could not hope to fight. The windows dimmed as it walked past, heading for the doorway. The only way out.
Chant stood from the crouch he was in, and felt his back could not straighten, that he did not have the strength to stand tall. He tried to move to the windows, high at the back of the library. an easy jump, then lift myself out to safety. But his steps grew less steady the closer he got, until he could hardly stand at all. He heard the boom of the doors swinging open to admit his nemesis, yet he could not bring enough strength to reach the window, and now he lacked even the energy to hide. Curling into a ball, he felt the beast move over him, could sense the last of the light of the room blotted out behind its terrible form, could feel its breath upon him. "Please, please no..." he croaked, then found that even his voice could not escape as the terrible weariness stole the last of his will.
Garath Chant awoke to the dawn, drenched in fear beside the cold fireplace, and for a few moments could still feel the cold weight of lifelessness in his limbs. But as strength returned, so did the will.
"No. Never like that. I will find it, and it shall never happen."
He stood, walked across to the door and opened it to the sunlit room behind. "I know this is your doing. Tonight I will have to lay wards. You will not defeat me, nor will you gain access to my soul again, hungry ones. The one who escaped to my world told me all about you."
The wards confounded them. They had never experienced magic of this type before. But there - just nearby - another rich source of pain and rage, of sustenance. Something else to break.
The tramp sleeping rough near the mage's home was in his safe place, warm and colourful, with people who never touched him and always loved him. He looked up and smiled as one of them walked up to him. Then he was being picked up, shaken as the woman yelled at him that he stank. Move on. Get out. This isn't your place. He started to cry. It is mine, is mine... You don't deserve a place like this. If you don't move on, we'll make you. Stubborn in his dream as he never was in life, the tramp held fast to the bright green of the grass, the bright red flowers, his fingers digging tracks in the perfect brown earth as they pulled him along. If you don't leave, we'll show you why you don't deserve it. And he started to beg, no, anything but that. He'd left it too late. They'd dragged him into a room, kicking him a few times, and left him with the Thing on the other side of the curtain, and he turned and ran, but the faster and the further he ran, the closer the curtain and the Thing came, until there was a sudden pain, red and black, and the Thing came out from behind the curtain...
He had given in too easily. He had not been a good subject. Still, there would be other good meals now. The creatures moved on, looking for someone in whom to live. The tramp was not a home. His body would be found the next day.
[Notices have been posted city-wide promising a reward to anyone who can get through the front gates of the Imperial residence and leave a message on one of the mannequins guarding the inner palace - WITHOUT killing anyone. The sum offered is a generous one, but the notices are anonymous and some sceptics have observed that even if someone did breach the Emperor's defences and live to tell the tale he would have no guarantee of receiving his prize...]
Lare paused on top of the high wall sensing a sudden movement below. He clutched the symbol which the dealer had promised would protect him from harm. It had cost him all the money he had collected yesterday from the tradesmen who had cared to part with a little of their over-weighted purses. The purchase in turn had given him a miserable night; too hungry to sleep he wandered from inn to inn until the pale-eyed stable boy at the Port of Call had sneaked a few things out from under the cook's nose.
The boy... what was his name ? Rayth ? Ralath ? Had taken pity on him and tried to be generous with gifts of food and the stories which circulated amongst the drinkers about the Palace and its inhuman guards. Unfortunately only the food was welcome. Lare had a theory that if he knew nothing of the guardians and their powers he would be immune - they could have no hold over a man who refused to believe in them. Summoning his courage he believed that below was a rat, a common rat, which could do little to him.
Lare landed heavily, then froze in the grass listening for any reaction to his arrival in the sacred grounds. The gardens were cool and somehow dulled the noises of the city beyond. He shivered - in the city silence spoke of thieves after his takings - he forced himself to move forward.
The air became cooler still and Lare was aware that the frayed coat, still with many months of wear, was not keeping it out. He wrapped it closer to his skin but to little avail. Mist was rising from the flowers; Lare looked downwards for safe footing and realised that the mist was enveloping him, was between skin and clothes.
His feet moved as he jerked and stumbled forwards. The mist was not fixed to him and there was less of it the quicker he twisted away. He made a great effort to jump sideways and free himself from the form which was starting to regain its hold on him. He floated for a second, then another second as the soil gave way beneath him. As he crashed into earthy ground he last recollection was the searing heat in his foot as it broke underneath him.
There were voices. A man and a woman. Lare heard without concentrating; the ache in his foot absorbed his thoughts.
"He will never know how lucky he was."
"Lucky? It will take weeks for the bone to mend and he may still have a limp."
"That might even help him - physical scars encourage more generosity from the city people." The voice clearly regarded itself as seperate from those people.
"I don't think he would regard it as lucky to limp."
"Perhaps not but, anyway, this is not what I meant. He was lucky I heard him fall and kept Her from him. She was enraged and I had a difficult battle to push her back. I barely managed the wards. But I did it. I knew that once She fully grips her victims their minds are no longer their own."
There was a silence. Lare started to shake.
"He seems to be waking. Give him the soup. He will forget; it is probably already only half a memory. Even those who worked here eventually forget."
[Precedes _SeHT's adventure with the ratmen...]
The atmosphere in the cathedral-like main chamber of the new sixth spire of Zehazel was still, apart from the screams of the occasional terrified infant, the moans of the afflicted, and the soothing whispers of families and the Gethsemane volunteers who moved around this latest hall exactly as they did in an even dozen others around the city. As in all the other plague hospitals, it was death-watch. It always was - that was the nature of the affliction.
However, here and there are moments of relief and tenderness. Sometimes the mood is even lifted by the deaths of those worst struck - the elderly who had no-one to sit with them in their final days but for their carers and the similarly-afflicted in the next pallet. More often, it is the joy of a single recovery in the packed room - a breaking fever, a tentative step, but these are too few and far between. The huge double doors at the end of the room stand open, but of those who are brought through them, perhaps one in one hundred walks out again, and even these will be scarred for the rest of their lives. Infants, mothers, grandfathers, the plague is insistent, rapid, and nearly invariably lethal.
Those who know this walk around the room, trying to give relief, talking, laughing, lying in their hearts to those whom they already know, soul-deep, to be dead. Two such men wander quietly across the centre of the room, perhaps pausing at a certain bedside to whisper quiet words to pained families, to touch a forehead, concentrating momentarily to give sleep and rest to pained children or, far too often, to pull sheets over the faces of more victims whose time has run out. Reaching a rare empty bed, Val Tannen leans heavily and faces his colleague, who incongruously stands in the plague hospital dressed entirely in black, yet wears his costume entirely without discomfort.
"I cannot thank you too many times for the use of your spire, Master _SeHT," Tannen says, stumbling over the pronunciation. "I am sure that this much misfortune and human tragedy in your own home must be very troubling; yet your generosity and understanding in this matter remain quite unparalleled outside my own order - sometimes it seems that nobody else in this city has the time to think about its poor."
// Think nothing of it,// replies the taller, black-clad man. // It is the very least I can do.// He reaches into the folds of his cloak and pulls out a small silver potion bottle. // Perhaps it is time for us to give some of these poor unfortunates a moment of hope?//
"Certainly," Tannen smiles grimly, pulling himself up onto his crystal-beechwood staff - his thirty years hanging heavily upon him. "It seems all that we can do for them at the moment. Give hope that this plague will end eventually. I can hardly believe the huge steps we have already made - weeks spent treating rats in the knowledge that they are the origin has all but dammed up that source of the illnesses. Yet still they pour in to our hospitals. There must be something I have overlooked. We cannot hope to heal all the city, but we have done much. What haven't I seen?"
_SeHT stands up purposefully and looks around the room, saying, // perhaps you have done all you can, young healer. From what I heard in the Port of Call, there is a magical source for the plague - the 'ratman' you talk about on the occasions you sleep. If it is indeed a sorcerous plague, then he needs must be the root which must be extracted before your plant can grow strong again.//
Smiling at the other man's carefully chosen metaphor, Tannen straightens up and follows _SeHT to a nearby bedside, where the eight year old child of one of the city's minor cloth merchants lies in the depths of a fever. The merchant looks around at _SeHT's hesitant touch on his shoulder, disturbing him from a slumbering prayer. Seeing the two men, one in white robes, the other a black cloak, hope rises in him. _SeHT puts the vial to the young child's lips, and allows the contents to trickle down her throat. Stepping back, he allows Tannen to place his hands on the girl's temples, and a faint golden-green glow touches her forehead. The two men stand thus with the parents for fully ten minutes, watching as the girl's breathing steadily improves, until the delighted father turns to the two who have almost certainly saved the life of his young daughter.
"Sirs, you have saved Danielle's life! If there is anything I can possibly do to repay you, you have only to say the word, and it is yours. Please, sirs - my debt of gratitude is immense."
"Removing his hands from the sleeping Danielle's head, Tannen shakes his head softly. "Your gratitude is enough, Master Ashton," and was as always slightly gratified to see the reaction to his knowing the name of the man in front of him. "I do not live my life for its rewards - I do what I do for the sakes of life itself. I would only ask you to remember the families who sit beside you, and will remain here as you take your daughter home." Bowing slightly, he moves on to the next bed, to perform the last rites for a middle-aged man. It was only ten thirty in the morning.
By seven o'clock that evening, five more miracles had been performed, alongside three more natural recoveries. Citywide, however, thirty-nine more people were being placed in the cart that pulled up regularly by the hospital doors. Accompanying Tannen to the door, _SeHT smiled grimly. // Progress is slow, but at least the plague is getting easier - from what you have said in the last few days, you would easily have lost four times as many in a day before you began making all these efforts.//
Tannen turns at the doorway - whilst obviously relieved at this knowledge, it is clear to _SeHT that he will not be satisfied until the plague is over entirely. He nods slowly. "That is true, my friend. But until we can stop the cause, I am afraid that hundreds more will be lost to this city. Whatever we do is not quite enough. I wish the warriors would take this threat seriously - pursue the rumours, I don't know... Yet they seem to be too caught up in fighting amongst one another. Anyway, your generous contributions have been most helpful - you have saved more than you can possibly know. I shall see you in a few days, _SeHT; I feel my presence will be useful at other hospitals around the city in the immediate future."
Turning to the street, the exhausted Tannen walks out into the traffic, walking past a large pile of quality blankets, easily the equal of a full season's profits for a young merchant. Pinned to the top blanket was a flower and a small scrap of parchment, which read "For Danielle." Tannen smiled, and behind him, _SeHT echoed the expression. Finally they were making some progress.
The day of the tourney had finally arrived, bright and clear. It had been organised by the ridiculously wealthy Sardanapalan, Pelegrin Waspis, who was to give out rewards of considerable cost to those who excelled in tests of archery, horsemanship and melee combat. Upon the field before the Parliament House of Arbiter, several great tents had been erected, inside which nestled stands for the arriving audience. One, at the head, rose taller and more magnificent than the others, embroidered in cloth of gold - this was to house Waspis, his family and others who had been invited to the tourney as his special guests of honour. The field itself was littered with equipment soon to be used in the forthcoming contests; at one side stood mounted targets, ready to withstand a barrage of arrows - in the opposite direction, Waspis' right hand, Paolo de Nola, who was to chair the contests, oversaw the final sharpening of blades ready to be used in the melee. Within the centre of the meadow were placed various obstacles and devices, many expertly crafted by Daedalan workmanship, which were to serve as tests of skill within the riding competition. The crowd entering the arena was considerable; citizens of every Allegiance had turned out in force to watch the tourney, and to support their chosen champions. Sardanapalese men in Waspis' employ drove cartloads of provisions pas the teeming crowds, and shouted angrily at individual merchants attempting to set up their own food stalls upon the field. Tatterdemalion beggars begged for alms from richly dressed Vervain and Melmothians, while armoured Antiochenes and Palatinians eyed one another brutally across a sea of heads. Dionysian musicians and players enacted minor entertainments, including the old crowd pleaser 'The Trickster's Game', in which the Trickster god, Lillillofotim, convinced a pompous judge that his head was no longer upon his shoulders, and that he must, therefore, speak out of his arse. Ragged prostitutes offered swift love to those who would take it for a handful of coin, while painted courtesans blew kisses at the wind, and dropped garlands into the hands of passing noblemen...
As his minions lit torches against the encroaching gloom, Paolo de Nola officiated over the drawing of lots to determine which contestant would battle which in the first round. Saikendo of Mordecai was the first to be drawn from the helmet by a ranking member of Arbiter, matched against Krum the Jugurtha. Flute of Caliban was pitted against Sir Bertrand de St. Larell; then Baron Gustave Fleischer against Gleaming Red Fur; Stedder of Vermiform versus Hihoto Kawahara; and then Venn against "Lucien" Duquensay, leaving Earl Meinhardt Gessner to fight D'Arctagnan by elimination.
Davan Mirless, Melmothian political commentator, scanned the crowds with a keen eye, noticing the small details in people's attitudes and reactions that spoke volumes to his unusually quick mind. Margaret Waspis' face bore a scowl that indicated she was only being held in her seat by threats about what would happen if she failed to keep up appearances. He couldn't see anyone being fooled by those appearances for much longer. Joseph Rawley himself beside her, there to see that the whole tourney went off as planned, with law and order being maintained. A carefully rehearsed repertoire of expressions and postures that never hinted at the man's innermost thoughts - even Mirless hadn't the first clue what made this one tick.
Dionysian and his nuisance protege Meymian, closing ranks with fellow miscreant Barlius Lorenzo. The three of them were clearly up to no good, and presumably thought that no-one was onto them, but their conspiratorial behaviour and unusual nervousness laid them wide open to him. In the next stand along from them, Cardinal Tertullius of the Mordecai, sent to keep an eye on the Palatine entry, St. Larell, whom the sanctified College's money was riding on. Nice to see politics muddying the waters, in their decision not to support Saikendo - a wild card monk, of the 'spiritual' type the churchmen don't approve of. Tertullius himself was clearly a political decision, being the least inflammatory of the Cardinals and thus the one least likely to provoke gossip. Mirless, of course, could get gossip out of a stone.
Kali of Caliban was prominently present, talking with Lammo Muyo, a Tsukuharan wandering poet, sage and scholar of Hiniko, recently arrived in Elsewhere, and apparently hoping to write a lay based around the prowess of Kawahara, his fellow countryman.
In the Vervain stand, representatives from all the best families, with the obvious exception of any Duquensays, whose feelings on the subject of their wayward daughter Larisse were well-known. Vathekus de la Quintesse was nervously fingering his betting-stub in the front row, no doubt having once again wagered rather more of his family's money on one of the contestants than was strictly wise. The boy's mania for gambling would land him in serious trouble one of these days.
Contest I: Saikendo (Mordecai) versus Krum (Jugurtha)
A triumph of fighting style over brute strength as Saikendo gracefully steps out of reach of Krum's every lunging blow, biding his time to strike with devastating precision through his enemy's dropped guard. Sweat pours down the barbarian's face, and he becomes increasingly unsteady on his feet, seemingly dazed by his opponent's blows, before a perfectly-timed sweep from Saikendo brings him crashing insensate to the ground like a felled tree. Saikendo bows once to the adulation of the crowd, and once more to the stony silence emanating from Cardinal Tertullius' stand.
Contest II: Flute (Caliban) versus Bernard de St. Larell (Palatine)
A brief and bewildering showdown. The imposing Sir Bernard and the slight figure of Flute face each other across their arena, the knight's expression one of contempt for the mere mage that dares to disgrace this day of honourable combat with his insolent smirk. When the signal to battle is given, the knight rushes forward, only to find himself unable to locate his opponent, often striking at mirages, to his mounting rage, when the crowd can see that Flute is behind him. There is much consternation in the judges' area - this is clearly an illegal use of magic and grounds for disqualification from the contest - but Flute soon tires of his buffoonery, taps St. Larell on the shoulder and offers his surrender to "an obviously superior foe".
Contest III: Gustave Fleischer (Antioch) versus Gleaming Red Fur (Beyond)
A walkover for the Baron, but even so a much more satisfying match for the crowds than the preceding fiasco. Immaculately presented in the blood-red colours of his uncle's Allegiance, the bookmakers' favourite soon becomes the people's favourite too, winning roars of appreciation for his showmanship as he forgoes chances to devastate his harried opponent in order to court the adulation of the crowd and give them their money's worth. The Upright Beast's elegant fighting style, as devious as one might expect from a walking fox, never lets him down, but in the end he lacks the endurance necessary to fend off another onslaught from Fleischer's runed blade, and holds a paw up to plead for respite, which is ungrudgingly given.
Contest IV: Jacob Stedder (Vermiform) versus Hihoto Kawahara (Beyond)
Based on earlier showings Kawahara is widely fancied to take this match from the long-shot of the day Stedder; but it proves not to be, as the watchman's straightforward fighting style serves him well against the more flamboyant gambits of the Perpetual Warrior, whose numerous errors of judgment leave Stedding ideally placed to seize the initiative or land a telling blow. Eventually Kawahara finds himself with Stedding's swordpoint against his heart and resigns the match, shaking his head in disbelief.
After the match Lammo Muyo comes forward to declare mournfully that he has seen a brave man beaten, and to offer the apology that Kawahara has not seemed himself at all this day. He nevertheless graciously offers to sing a lay for whomsoever shall win the contest, and promises to perform a rendition after the tourney within the Port of Call, for any who will wish to hear.
Contest V: Saul Venn (Beyond) versus "Lucien" Duquensay (Vervain)
The sellsword is clearly upset about meeting a woman in combat, even one masquerading as a man, and restricts himself to fending off her attacks while he voices his discomfort. His slim, faceless opponent assures him that his principles are misplaced, that he should hold back nothing, and that not all tavern rumours are founded in truth; interspersing words with virtuoso displays of fencing ability that Venn, whose weapon seems a natural extension of his arm, deflects with ease nevertheless.
Eventually Duquensay tires of launching futile attacks against such an impenetrable defense and, breathing heavily, steps back and pulls off "her" mask - to reveal an unmistakably male countenance. A murmur of shock ripples through the crowd, and there is uproar in the Vervain seats.
"Can it be? That's old Errol's... son?"
"Preposterous! I intend to demand an explanation."
"She's fighting in heavy Daedalan make-up, that's what it is."
"Hmph. I smell black enchantment behind all this. The Duquensays were never above sacrifices and bloodpacts to further their cause - Errol's wife didn't go peacefully to her grave all those years ago, if you catch my drift..."
Whatever the truth about the identity of Lucien/Larisse, once Venn gets over his own moment of stunned surprise he quickly presses home a masterly attack which soon overwhelms his now listless opponent.
Contest VI: Meinhardt Gessner (Antioch) versus D'Arctagnan (Beyond)
A hard-fought battle, possibly the most evenly matched of the first round. The burly, redheaded Gessner is known to be Gustave Fleischer's near-equal in combat, which makes him a contender for the trophy in anyone's estimation. The angular, stick-thin foe he faces, swathed in black, eyes hidden in the shadow cast by his huge hat's brim, does not seem capable of standing up to a scion of Antioch nobility.
But stand he does. D'Arctagnan, wielding a musketeer's rapier, is not an especially quick fighter, but Gessner trades on his bulk rather than speed also, and it becomes a contest of stamina. Several times Gessner dashes his opponent to the ground with a blow that looks capable of felling an ox, but each time D'Arctagnan manages to get back to his feet and resume battle with quiet, unflagging strength.
Eventually, bleeding from nicks and cuts all over his body, Gessner sinks to his knees under the weight of a blow and signals surrender, to return crestfallen to Baron Fleischer's side.
While the six remaining contestants are provided with water and have the cuts and bruises they have already sustained seen to, the crowd are entertained by Dionysian clowns, acrobats and fire-jugglers. Kali of Caliban does not stay to see the second round of combats: perhaps her favourite has been defeated, or the event has not been meeting her exacting standards of entertainment.
Again, Paolo de Nola presides over the drawing of lots to determine who will face whom in the second round. Saikendo of Mordecai will meet Venn the Sellsword; a chance emerges for Antioch and Palatine to settle old scores as Baron Fleischer is paired with Sir Bernard; leaving Watchman Stedder against the sinister musketeer D'Arctagnan.
Contest VII: Saikendo (Mordecai) versus Saul Venn (Beyond)
With the chaff eliminated, the second round begins in a manner that lives up to all promises. Venn has lost some of his cockiness since the start of the contest, rubbing his forehead and frowning as he strides eyes down into the arena; Saikendo remains the picture of unruffled calm.
Although Venn no longer appears to be at the height of his powers, this is still a battle between two absolute masters of their chosen weapons. Sword and quarterstaff whirl and collide in the space between the combatants as though choreographed, and if Venn occasionally misses his footing for a heartbeat and takes a vicious blow, he always finds a parry in time to prevent himself from being struck senseless.
After long minutes in which members of the audience often catch themselves having forgotten to breathe, Venn's sword stops centimetres short of the monk's shoulder as he pulls his blow. The pair's eyes meet, then Saikendo gives a small nod and makes the sign of surrender to Waspis and de Nola. Venn is visibly relieved to be out of the fight as he heads wearily back to slump on his provided bench.
Contest VIII: Gustave Fleischer (Antioch) versus Bernard de St. Larell (Palatine)
A battle between the champions of Antioch and Palatine was always going to stir emotions in the current political climate. Recent street skirmishes had resulted in Palatine gaining possession of a significant amount of Antioch territory while Lord Albrecht Fleischer focussed his attention on carving vast swathes out of Vermiform, his current primary object of loathing. Although Fleischer had indicated that he saw Palatine as a worthy Allegiance with which he had no quarrel, and subsequent condemnation of the strife by the Hierophant had put a halt to hostilities, at least temporarily, the fact remained that Palatine had usurped Antioch holdings, and seemed in no hurry to give them up again.
As it happens, the grand showdown proves hugely anticlimactic. Fleischer and Sir Bernard step into the ring and the volume of the emotional crowd's shouts and jeers swells deafeningly. Then, as the two fighters bring their swords up in readiness for battle, the knight's eyes fill with terror. Gazing on Fleischer he begins to tremble, then blubber; he prostrates himself before the astonished Baron and begins to writhe in the dirt, grovelling piteously for his life.
The boos and catcalls of the crowd failing to shame Sir Bernard into giving a better account of himself, the judges have no choice but to award Fleischer the victory before one blow has been struck. The knight's supporters argue furiously with Paolo de Nola that this behaviour is so out of character for Sir Bernard that foul play *must* be occurring, and guards rush in to quell outbreaks of violence between Antiochenes and Palatinians in the crowd who can contain themselves no longer. Meanwhile the Hierophant, muttering darkly as he gathers up his skirts, orders his entourage to convey him swiftly from the scene that has lost his College so much money and face.
Then the Baron's stentorian voice rings out: "This is incredible, de Nola! I came here to show these people how a true warrior does battle, not to have my foot slobbered upon by craven sissies. (Let go my leg, wretch!) It is the citizenry's *right* to observe me in action. I propose that I take on the noble Earl Gessner, who was cheated of his own chance of victory by an opponent who, by some sorcery, could tolerate blows that would have hospitalised any other man."
While the officials huddle to discuss this offer, Fleischer basks in the crowd's loud appreciation of his generosity; and although it is finally decided that it would be too unorthodox for his suggestion to be followed, the Antiochene Baron seems to have won a new respect for himself and his Allegiance this day.
Contest IX: Jacob Stedder (Vermiform) versus D'Arctagnan (Beyond)
Despite cutting the most nondescript figure of all the day's combatants, Watchman Stedder seems confident of his abilities as he steps onto the field opposite D'Arctagnan. However this nonchalance soon deserts him as it becomes clear that his swordsmanship is no match for that of the silent, deadly, tireless musketeer. As he is steadily forced back at rapier-point, he often casts panicked glances into the crowd as if looking for a saviour from his predicament; of course none emerges, and he offers a hasty surrender.
Most eyes are on D'Arctagnan as his inexorable advance demolishes Vermiform's finest... most, but by no means all. Davan Mirless raises a quizzical eyebrow at the aghast reaction of Meymian, Barlius and Verdigris to this defeat: Meymian, developing the sudden urgent need to answer a call of nature, practically races away into the night, and the other two make their separate excuses and leave not long afterwards.
While the three uneliminated warriors were tended and watered in preparation for their final showdown, Lord Chief Justice Rawley took the podium to make his annual address to Zehazel. His speech assured the people that the city had never been so stable and prosperous. As one example of this he cited the way the threat posed to the city by the harbour plague had been swiftly dealt with by the emperor's loyal subjects Val Tannen of Gethsemane and _SeHT of the newly asserted allegiance of Meraeanos, both of whom were honoured with medals for their assistance; as another example, the invaluable work done by Father Smoth in improving the lot of the poorest inhabitants of the city.
Moving on to the subject of Arbiter's role within the city, he was pleased to announce that crime was down citywide - the Lascari in particular had been less than usually troublesome lately. However he cautioned that this excellent state of affairs could only be maintained if all allegiances were duly respectful of Arbiter government, especially as enforced by its strong right arm in Vermiform; he added his voice to that of the Hierophant of Mordecai in condemning recent violence between Antioch and its neighbours, and implied in passing that he took a dim view of private armies such as Vervain's Black Angel Guard attempting to muscle in on the policing of Zehazel.
To round off his speech, he deplored the continued support for vigilantism among the people, especially in the wake of the brutal slaying of underworld figure Bruno "The Bear" Brown, at the hands of the notorious Midnight. He urged anyone with any clues as to Midnight's identity of whereabouts to come forward to Arbiter as soon as possible.
Contest X - Fleischer (Antioch) versus Venn (Beyond) versus D'Arctagnan (Beyond)
The three men, one of whom would before tonight was out be crowned as Zehazel's greatest warrior, moved to their positions at the points of an unseen triangle. The wind had picked up, causing the Earl's crimson cloak to billow like a sail, and D'Arctagnan's scarves to coil and uncoil around him snakily.
Venn stumbled badly on the way and it took a few moments before he could pick himself up again. He was pale and tired-looking, and shivered miserably with each breath of wind.
Fleischer frowned across at the hunched figure, fighting down a wave of nausea of his own. "Feeling a little under the weather, sellsword? How very unfortunate..."
If D'Arctagnan was operating at any less than his peak, he didn't show it. With glittering eyes which could just barely be made out beneath his facial wrappings, he shot a glance at the judges' enclosure in anticipation of the signal to fight.
It was given. The trio of warriors, each of whom had already proven his exceptional prowess beyond all doubt, paused for a moment to see how this three-sided battle would have to be fought.