2: Debuts and Introductions

The Spire of Meraeanos.

Towering over the city from the south is the new, sixth spire of Zehazel. It soars from its massive base to such heights that it seems almost to touch the clouds, and yet, shaped as it is like a long, stretched cone, it blocks very little sunlight except at its very feet, which are planted into the ground some few hundred yards away from the nearest buildings.

At the base of the spire, on the side nearest the city, is a huge arched entrance, easily twenty feet high, over which arch two huge dragons, carved directly from the stone. Their hind legs form the pillars at the side of the great portal, and their bodies follow the curve of the door up until their heads meet, cheek to cheek, looking out and down over the entrance, their lips parted slightly, their obsidian eyes gleaming in the ruddy reflected sunlight. Around from behind each of these dragons, the spire has been smoothed a little, the excess soil blown away by unknown forces so that the bare stone gleams in the sunlight - and at night, this place is even more eerie. But, somehow, friendly. Welcoming. Peaceful.

As the eye of the observer travels up the spire, large windows become visible in the outside of the spire, windows filled with what appear to be glass sheets but which contain specks to reflect the light in glorious prismatic colour as the observer changes position. Even higher up a cave is visible, tiny from the ground but from its height it is obvious that it is huge. High above, and encircled by crying birds almost too small to see, is the very tip of the spire, and just below which smokes curls almost volcanically from two large vents.

And it is here that something catches the eye of the observer. For the abstract rock formations which seemed apparently so random suddenly take on new meaning. For, curving around and down the spire from the tip to the base, is a huge dragon in bas-relief: the two vents at the very point forming its nostrils, and the cave taking the place of the eye. Further down the wings wrap partway around the spire, spread as if backwinging to land, and the beast's tail coils down and round to wrap around the base of the towering monolith.

It is almost as if the tower - taller even than the Emperor's spire - were watching the city. Waiting, perhaps - but for what? or for whom? There are mysteries here - and none so profound than as to how such a thing could come to be overnight.

The surf gently lapped at the shoreline, receded and returned, caressing the rocky coast, an endless procession of waves from the mist. A single figure sat patiently waiting, wrapped in a long cloak, the hood up, sheltering him from the rain, masking his face from the world. Behind him was a hut, the tiny island's only structure. Beside him was a trunk carved from the same driftwood as that from which the hut had been built.

Time passed. The waves continued their march from the shroud of mist, to break in gentle sighs on the rocks. The man still sat. Motionless. Gazing outwards. Time passed.

Abruptly he rose, and then walked closer to the water's edge. Sounds then came to him, a creaking of timbers and shouting of men. "Rocks ahead! Rocks!"

There were further cries, and the prow of the galley loomed out of the mist, figurehead gazing directly at him. Oarsmen fought against the water, trying to bring the ship to rest before she crashed onto the rocks. On the fo'c'sle the galley's captain, Upright Johanssen, bellowed orders to his men. He was angry and puzzled. A poxy little island like this should not surprise a Gulliver, not this close to Zehazel. It would make him look bad in front of his men.

He waved instructions aft to his first mate, Axe Svensen, who was at the massive tiller. Axe leaned on the tiller with all his might, pushing against the weight of the ship. Slowly she came around, leaning heavily as she turned to starboard. Upright rushed port, gazing down at the rocks that jutted from the water mere feet from the planks of his hull.

Satisfied that the ship would not hit the rocks he grunted with relief and looked up towards the shoreline. There his eyes fell upon the figure, standing, his trunk on one shoulder, the hood of his cloak pushed back now to reveal his face.

"Captain, may I come aboard?" The man called out. His voice was not loud but carried clearly.

Upright's brow furrowed. He was not sure what to think of this stranger who gazed so assuredly at him. Finally, he nodded his assent, then watched as the stranger started to run, down towards the shoreline, bounding from rock to rock with absolute certainty. In seconds he reached a spike of rock that jutted from a higher outcrop, further than the rest, reaching out from the water. He ran along it and leapt towards the ship, just clearing the gap from shore to galley, feet landing on the bulwark, then dropping down onto the deck to leave him standing next to Upright.

The galley continued to come about, but Upright was aware only of the stranger and the silence. He glanced around to see that all the crew who were on deck, and those in the rigging too, were staring, looking on to see what he would do next, ready to follow his lead. Aft he noticed Axe, entrusting the tiller to the hands of one of the other crewmembers, hefting the weapon that gave him his name.

"Er..." Upright began, his voice slightly choked by confusion, "...hmm, welcome aboard."

"Thank you Captain. My name is Weorthan. You must take me to Zehazel."

The De La Quintesse Household, after the Lorenzo ball…

"Yes, it was a lovely party. And the hosts were very pleasant, you might almost have thought they were Vervain."

"You don't notice anything, Therese." Her brother, Vathekus, was sullenly nursing a hangover. "A load of reprobate gangsters. They nearly broke out in a... a knife-fight or something, not a stone's toss from the ladies."

"Oh, did they? You're right, I don't notice anything. But I thought the musicians were very fine. Oh, and father, I heard ever such a funny name while I was there. I think it was... Kalgravex. Who's Kalgravex, father?"

The spout of the teapot dips gracefully into each of the three cups in sequence, like the neck of a swan bowing so that it can graze the water with its beak. Therese's hands are steady, as she pours tea with the placid radiance of a church window saint.

"Kalgravex? Have I never told you? He is the bogey man who comes for little girls that don't do what their parents tell them." Her father is experiencing one of his rare, and slightly manic fits of good humour. "Do not worry your thoughts about him, pretty lark. He is the master of Revenant, and thus your paths are unlikely to meet."

"Yes. I can see that." Therese hands her father a plate of muffins, meeting his gaze with her buttermilk smile.

Guardsman Trotter was in a state of some agitation when his immediate superior Sergeant Dale appeared. He was convinced that there had been a crime committed, indeed a capital offence was his suspicion. Furthermore it had been witnessed by a great many people, all of whom had seen the perpetrator. He informed his portly superior.

"Then arrest him, lad."

"I can't, sir."

"Why not?"

"I don't know what he looks like."

With a sigh the Sergeant walked into the Laughing Acorn and surveyed the scene. The victim (he was too far gone even for this establishment's patrons) was lying on the floor, stone dead and without a mark on him. A number of witnesses were seated at a table on the other side of the room, arguing.

"Shot with a crossbow I tell you" put in the barman. "He stepped through the door, took aim and fired, straight through the back of his head."

"Nonsense", chipped in a Tatterdemalion. "He was killed in the fight, the one between that off watch Vermiform and the Vervain."

"But we don't get Vervain in here, and there WASN'T A FIGHT!"

"Damn right", added Louisa the barmaid, "It was that woman who did it."

There is a pause in the conversation as everyone looks at Louisa.

"What woman?" (unison)

"The one he was with all night."

Sergeant Dale sighed again and reaching beneath his worn cloak produced a hip flask and a pouch of tobacco. Stepping back outside he handed the flask to Trotter and patted him on the shoulder.

"Time to go home, lad."

Trotter looked perplexed. "But sir, we've got a dozen witnesses!"

"Aye, and they all point to the same thing." Dale finished filling his pipe and paused to light it, inhaling deeply. "It was the Barraban."

"Quite right" said a man in black robes as he walked past the two guardsmen. Trotter span round to give chase, but the street was empty. Sergeant Dale reached into his pocket and produced an official looking piece of parchment with a black wax seal. It was, he reflected, only the second such document he'd seen in his long career, but he already knew what it would say. He handed it to Trotter.

"File that, lad."

"But what is it?"

"It’s their confession, they're very good about them. If we ever catch them we've got them bang to rights on no less than 71,457 murders in the last three hundred years, and almost as many charges of breaking and entering, causing affray in a public place and the theft of one ship's hold full of black silk. They also notify us when their agents die, just so as we can be sure to close the case."

Trotter looked at the piece of paper in his hands, then opened it.

___________________________________________________________________________ ____________________

On this day we the Barraban acting through our agent Lorumal deliberately ended the life of Jesper Carlton, aged 33 years and sixteen days. Should it ever prove necessary to explain how this was done in an Imperial Court file 71 457 will be made available to the investigating officer by us. By our hand

"     "

___________________________________________________________________________ ____________________

Weorthan left Upright Johanssen staring in confusion at the coins in his hand. Upright had plucked at a random figure when Weorthan had insisted on paying his fare, and yet the stranger had reached out his fist and dropped the correct amount into Upright's hand as if he already knew the price. Then he lifted his trunk up onto one shoulder and strode off into the busy crowd that bustled about The Port of Call.

Weorthan walked swiftly and with purpose. He looked neither right nor left, but only forwards as he passed by the districts of Zehazel governed by the Vermiform and the Lascari. He continued heading on up in the direction of the Emperor's Palace, turning only at the last moment to a street that formed the border between Bartholomew and Arbiter. He paused for a moment, looking towards a large apartment building. Rather than going into the main doors of the building, he headed for an alleyway that led towards the back. Here he found a staircase, hidden from all but the most discerning searcher. He smiled and climbed the stairs towards the single, unmarked doorway at their summit. There was a short landing, and he rested here. He set the trunk down, and opened it. He looked inside it for a while, and eventually reached in and pulled out a large and heavy key.

Once inside, he looked around the rooms that would be his home for the duration of his stay in Zehazel. It was a simple apartment, uncluttered and sparse. It was perfect for his needs, sufficiently spacious for certain activities and close to the important centre of the city.

He placed his trunk on the bleached wooden floor by the bed. Kneeling, he opened the trunk and looked inside. After a moment or two he removed a number of slender crystal rods, each about a foot in length and a dullish black in colour. Each rod seemed to leech a little of the light from the room.

He rose and went to the wall with the window that overlooked the alleyway. He looked closely at the wall, touched it, and sensed it. Satisfied he took the first of the crystal rods and smashed it against the wall. Something almost imperceptible changed. Again he stroked the wall, pressed his face to the stone, reaching into it with some other sense. He stepped back, fingertips only touching the wall as he looked at it, stroking it with his gaze, examining the extent of the wall, its totality, its boundaries.

He smiled.

Then he turned to the next wall, this one with a door leading to a balcony over the main thoroughfare that ran between Bartholomew and Arbiter. Again he reached out to the wall, again he smashed a crystal, again he sensed and smiled. Then moved to the next wall.

"Bartlefuss, this fellow Shandarhas, the man of our Allegiance who was murdered across town -- do we know anything of him?" Frode Wellmeant, clad in a fur mantle, was standing in the bay window, looking out across Sardanapalus. Below him busy stevedores were carrying bales of silk into the warehouse for weighing, but he marked them not.

Alred Bartlefuss's crabbed voice provided the details his master sought. Wellmeant nodded thoughtfully.

"Have the family brought to me, then: we cannot have them left indigent through this misfortune. If they prove suitable, we should adopt them into the protection and employ of the House. Have the necessary papers made ready."

Bartlefuss nodded in sympathy, sniffing loudly. He himself was brought into the House of Wellmeant in such a manner when a child, his parents having been crushed by a runaway cart. Frode's grandfather had spotted his ability with an abacus and assigned him immediately to a clerk's station. It had been a hard enough life, but he shuddered to think what might have been his lot had he not proved apt to a trade. 'Will the Allegiance be providing funding for the service Vermiform are now offering in Shandarhas's memory, sir -- carrying victims of assaults to Gethsemane?'

"Ha! I have certain suspicions about that, I must confess. _Cui_bono_? _Quis_custodiet_ipsos_custodes_?" Frode looked sharply at the bemused Bartlefuss, who hated it when his employer babbled gibberish in this way. "I shall observe the first month's operation," Frode continued, "and judge whether it is a worthwhile scheme."

Father Smoth had consented to meet Dominic at a venue of his choosing: a designated room in the Cobblers' Guildhall.

Dominic was shown to a small room full of books and one flickering green candle, the light from which, while not enough to keep even this small room from looking shadowy, clearly picked out the elderly man sitting at the table. It glinted off his spectacles and round face.

"Father Smoth?" Dominic closed the door behind him. "I'm Dominic. It's a pleasure to meet you." He smiled.

The man at the table didn't return the smile, but sounded merely reserved rather than hostile as he returns the greeting and adds, as Dominic paused, "Please... sit."

Dominic sat. For a moment he seemed off balance, under the careful gaze of the Gethsemane, as though he had expected this to be a less difficult meeting. There was a pause, then he recovered his composure.

"The Just Union. Yes. As I said in my letter, I hope to be able to help you with this. I understand you're trying to create an organisation that will represent Tatterdemalion and protect their interests. Help the worst off, prevent exploitation... In Vermiform I have authority over the workhouses and other social initiatives. We're working for the same ends. I would be very pleased for your Just Union to be successful, and I want to give you all the support I can."

Father Smoth takes off his spectacles and rubs them clean, sighing slightly, before he replies. Catching Dominic's gaze and holding it, he begins, choosing his words carefully. "I am not a politician. I don't know how to play that sort of game, so I'm just going to ask you plainly: what are you after?"

"I want to help Tatterdemalion."

"Unusual behaviour for Vermiform."

"It's supposed to be my job."

"Like the workhouses? Organised slave labour." Father Smoth's tone was studiously neutral. "Is that what you want to turn the Just Union into? Another way of keeping Tatterdemalion quietly working, while getting them as close to the starvation line as possible?"

Dominic flushed, and took a breath before answering. He spoke at length, with visible passion, about the workhouses and his reforms, about the usual Vermiform contempt for Tatterdemalion and his attempts to change it. "You see, you shouldn't need to be doing what you're doing. There should be no need for a Just Union - if my allegiance protected them as they were intended to. Tatterdemalion are the most important allegiance in Zehazel - without them none of the others could exist. Vermiform's true task is to protect them. We don't. But I will change that, if I can. I won't ask you to trust me - you have good reason to suspect Vermiform's intentions where Tatterdemalion are concerned. Just accept my help, see whether I make good on my words."

They kept talking. Gradually the conversation became less charged, more optimistic, as they discussed possible ways that Dominic could help the Just Union. There is a briefly awkward moment as Father Smoth referred to the Vervain with pointed antagonism, talking about their crimes and injustices. Dominic's reply was that, should he find a crime, he had no intention of taking the wealth of the perpetrator into account, and that it was to prevent legal injustices that something such as the Just Union was needed.

By the time Dominic left, the candle was an inch shorter, and Father Smoth intended to discuss his suggestions with other members of the Just Union. The prospects, Dominic decided, looked good.

The drive leading up to Castellarc house was lit by a multitude of coloured lanterns as the carriages pulled up. Footmen with torches escorted the guests to the main door where they could see the house was a blaze of colour and light. There were supper rooms with tables loaded with food and gaming rooms where the most jaded sophisticate could find solace at the card table. An army of servants, supervised by Meschaur, carried trays of wine and food through the assembly.

The ballroom had been thrown open and so had the extensive gardens, coloured lanterns in the trees, like a host of fairy lights, showing the way to the flower gardens, where a troop of actors from Dionysian were performing.

Amid the throng Angel Castellan circulated, using his consummate charms to put the anxious at their ease and amuse the cynics. He danced several times and watched two short performances by the troop of actors as well as, later on, Suguwara Yumemitsu's entertainment, complimenting the actors and the artificer on their art.

Only those paying particularly close attention to Angel would have noticed him in the gardens later on in the evening, engrossed in conversation with a young boy dressed in the black and gold uniform of a Vervain page. The boy's hair was long and black and his eyes also appeared black in comparison to his pale skin. After speaking to Angel he slipped away, and was not seen again for the rest of the evening.

"It's not as if she's ugly," expostulated Vathekus de la Quintesse, peevishly. The only male heir of the great house had, early on in the party, positioned himself against a doorway through which his sharp eyes had perceived servants passing into the main ballroom with trays of drinks. By leaning against the doorpost, he could be sure to snatch a goblet from any tray that sailed past his nose.

He had now been holding this post for the better part of an hour, and had quite forgotten why he had selected it. Unfortunately, before wandering on to other matters, his mind had forgotten to cancel the orders sent to his hand and mouth, and consequently each time one of the serving men hurried past with an alcoholic burden, Vathekus automatically reached for a brimming glass, emptied it, and replaced it upon the tray, without any conscious awareness of the act.

To do Vathekus justice, he never drank alone. When intoxicated, he was always accompanied by His Best Friend. After a few drinks, the nearest individual of the male persuasion willing to punctuate Vathekus's monologues with the correct noises would swiftly become the young noble's Best Friend, and be treated to the most intimate confidences.

"There she is, look at her, she has the de la Quintesse face, so why can she not turn it to some account? Women have tricks and wiles enough for getting what they want, after all." Vathekus smiled a little at the young woman who was currently sharing the task of propping him up with the doorpost. He aimed a playful but somewhat uncoordinated pat at her cheek, and narrowly missed taking out her eye.

"And those milk-livered boys who court her, dillying and dallying, deciding whether they will have her or not, and then thinking that perhaps they will not, after all... sometimes I think of calling them out for it, to break up the tedium. Or just locking them up with her and feeding them on bread and water until they propose to her."

In the centre of the ballroom, Therese was dancing. She had not found herself without a partner since the start of the party. Currently, she was matched with young Meymian, the new protegee of Verdigris Dionysian. She seemed to be politely responding to his attempts to start conversation, offering him a smile that had the same cool, inconclusive brightness as winter sunshine.

The de la Quintesses had as one responded to the challenge of the Castellarc party with a veritable explosion of finery. Therese was dressed in a silk gown cunningly patterned in blue, green and gold to simulate the striking shades of peacock plumage. Real peacock feathers decorated her fan, head-dress and collar. Her arms were hidden by long, white, satin gloves, the fingers heavy with rings in which gems glittered like a miniature firework display.

She executed her turns with the precision of a musical box automaton. Her hand rested upon Meymian's sleeve, as delicately and lifelessly as a carnation reclines on a lapel. Therese was exquisite, in the way that a mechanical doll wrought from gold and ivory might be exquisite. She seemed, in every way, a work of art.

Meymian's friendly overtures and tender insinuations were met with a baffling response. The rumours of his late scandalous behaviour had not been slow to spread through the higher echelons of society, and he has noted the way in which the female portion of these ranks had altered their manner towards him accordingly. Some had clearly been intrigued and titillated by an association with such an infamous and topical individual, while others had retreated into outraged coldness or blushing distrust. Therese treated his compliments with a bland, unruffled courtesy that was at first encouraging, but finally vexing.

Perhaps she was self-conscious in the presence of her brother? It was certainly true that, as she danced, she tended to direct occasional glances towards Vathekus, or at other members of the assembled crowds.

As the dance ended, Therese's arm was firmly claimed by her brother, who tottered slightly, and leant heavily upon the slight form of his sister in order to recover his balance.

"This is my friend... what was your name again? He's a jolly decent chap, won some money fair and square from me then lent it back to me. Gentleman. Well, I said he could dance with you. Let's see your card." He fumbles her dance card, holding it upside down about two inches from his eyes. "You've got white spaces. He can have one of those."

"Vathekus..." Out of consideration for her brother's new friend, Therese lowered her voice. "I was planning to use those dances to rest a little."

"What do you need to rest for? You don't even drink!" Vathekus uttered these words for all the world as if drinking were an arduous task that he were taking on for the sake of the family.

A short time after the party reached its fullest swing, the doors to the great hall opened and a tall, fearfully handsome male stepped through before whispering his name to the doorkeeper, who announced, "Lord _SeHT of Meraeanos!" The male stepped forward, his long black cape following behind him as if floating on the air, the dragon stitched on its back seeming almost alive in the candlelight. He was dressed completely in black, from head to toe, and as he moved around he smiled and introduced himself; it seemed to the guests that he carried an aura of mystery with him. Evidently a person of some standing and yet previously unknown to the city, conversation about him formed in corners and flowed in fractal waves through the groups.

The light caught and reflected in his eyes with the gold-green iris, and everybody remarked on his pupils, his teeth: his pupils were slightly pointed, like those of a cat, and his teeth were akin to fangs, and bore a pearlescent gleam when he smiled and introduced himself. //My name is Lord _SeHT of Meraeanos,// he said. And, when pressed, he added: //I am a visitor, a traveller... no-one of consequence.// His hands were cool and smooth to the touch as he shook hands with the men, and when he bowed to kiss the right hand of the ladies he met.

Leaving the groups behind he walked over to a throng of people around a very elegant woman. Keeping his thoughts to himself he stepped up to her and was introduced to Therese, evidently the centre of the party. He stood and talked to her for a few minutes, but something in the room was calling to him and, after making his excuses, he left the group, wondering why an intelligent woman should pretend to be so empty and mindless.

Taking refuge behind a glass of wine he wandered the fringes of the party, allowing himself to be dragged into each group for a little while before moving on, leaving behind him wondering glaces, interested glances – glances from women thinking thoughts about this mysterious, beautiful stranger. And then he found what he was looking for, to one side of the room and standing alone, the source of that which was calling to him.

Silently he approached her, but she looked up and saw him; he slowed his pace, watching her face, noting the pupils with the points that match his own. She did not smile at his arrival, but she did not frown either, but maintained instead the calm exterior perfected over years. He stopped before her, his sword by his side, and bowed. Locking his gaze with hers, he spoke. //Hello.//

Despite extreme shock, the tall woman who had so recently become the object of the stranger's attention forced herself to remain calm. Any expression that could be interpreted as a weakness was inexcusable, not only for her personally, but also in the etiquette of her kind. Seneschal knew her appearance was as immaculate as the gentleman now presenting himself, for she had chosen a floor-length emerald green velvet gown which left her shoulders bare except for the flow of flame-like hair spilling from a golden circlet over her right shoulder. It was not vanity that concerned her, rather the elaborate social dance that she had not practised for centuries.

But another part of her mind raced. How could there be another, here, in Elsewhere? She had fled the persecution which had almost wiped out her race, escaped from one reality to this, waited to see if any had followed until at last she had surrendered hope. And now this. Perhaps it was a trap, a clever illusion. She must be cautious.

//I am _SeHT.//

The creature causing her momentary disorientation was introducing himself. Taking in his rich, dark garb, his svelte, powerful build, and more disturbing, the eyes which had not left her own, Seneschal dropped a deep, graceful curtsey while extending her hand. SeHT caught it, noting the long, agile fingers and kissed them, exerting a slight pressure to raise her once more. Fluidly, despite not having conversed in her mother tongue for what seemed like an eternity, she smiled.

//And I am known as Seneschal. Welcome to Elsewhere, my lord. Can I be of assistance?//

Meymian had managed to steer Therese into a quiet anteroom, where his romantic advances were less likely to be interrupted. He had decided to sing for her one of the poetic Faerie songs of the Old Time, handed down to his race from the time of the Eldar themselves, the "Lay of the Sundering", which told of the terrible Eldar split between male and female, from the point of view of an individual lover, whose girl had deserted him for the life of the Sisterhood. It took years for a Faery to become well-versed in proper song-telling, and the words, composed in their native language, were so beautiful as to make even the most recalcitrant humanoid listen.

If nothing else, after this interview he could have no illusions that Therese was made of stone. As she listened, the hand holding the little peacock fan drooped into her lap, and her demure, candy-pink smile faded.

Just for a short while, the image of the porcelain goddess wavered. It was not a melting, or a warm wavering, indeed her attitude became more intense and more distant. While Meymian sang, she never once took her eyes off his face. The blue jewel-buttons that had been blandly meeting his gaze all evening widened, and darkened. Just for a moment, her eyes were like windows into a little landscape, and their blue had the remote, darkling glow of snow in late evening. She was not looking at Meymian, he realised eventually. It was as if she were looking through him with all the focus of her soul, as if she could make out the motions of the musicin some imaginary distance, and draw it in through her eyes.

The song ended and so did her trance. Her eyes blinked back to their usual aspect, and the peacock fan fluttered in her hand like a waking bird.

The port had been passed, most properly to the left, but perhaps one time too many. One by one conversations faltered as eyes played tricks on tired minds and wavering fingers pointed stiltingly: up above the region of soft candlelight a soft white glow was hovering in the air...

It circled gently, then swooped up and away, towards the windows, the balcony and the sweet fresh air. The guests followed, pausing only to rouse their more sleepy, eyesore or aged fellows, and to grap perhaps a glass, a bottle, cigar and spill. Outside it shimmered, as a mist, and beyond the gardens could be seen, all dark save twinkling candlelights, mimicking the stars above. Then a soft woosh, a fizz, a bang, a sparkle - purple rain in falling clumps. Then bright star flashes and spiralling firebursts – all matched with a chorus of oohs and aahs, in all the right places.

Outside a number of poorer, but no less entertainable characters had heard, raised the children, flocked to windows and were now staring out to the bright lit air. The little, sleepy, voices asking what and why, the answer given; 'fireworks'.

Back at the balcony, guests enjoyed the show, talking now, and the spectacle a background to their slowly clearing thoughts. Arguments remembered, and comebacks finally formed. But ...... Rodica Wellmeant, temporarily out of the clutches of irritable Uncle Frode, felt a slightly cautious feeling, and turning caught a flash of something in the air. She peered up over the lights of the house, yes, definitely movement, something there. An orb, a sphere, no... an eye, but huge and matched by another truly six feet away. "Look, A.. A..." she began, but as people turned and listened and looked her voice was drowned out by a roar and their peering eyes momentarily blinded by a sheet of flame.

The dragon's head was clearly visible now, leaning down, careful not to break the chimneys and sending a second mouthful of roaring fire out into the night. A third time the fire flared over the assembled heads and this time seemed to sparkle and to crystallize. As eyes looked up to make out small falling objects, a rain of glittering pieces of solid fire the dragon turned, faded into the night, and was gone.

The pieces falling were of reddish hue, with a bright centre, gathering and sending out light as a prism. Enough of these little light solid flakes of fire for all to take one, and some more to spare.

Suguwara Yumemitsu nodded thoughtfully as the guests returned inside, and gathering things together he began packing up. The powders, the fuses, the aiming tubes, the firing pins. Later on the gears and windings, weavings and fabrics, mirrors and lights. He was working away all through the night and but finally let himself out by the small side gate. A small smile twinkled in his eyes as he noticed a few of the fire-flakes that had been sent further afield being spotted and gathered up eagerly by a small group of people, hurrying through dawn's first light.

The knight set to guard the Virgin’s Fount knew it was mostly an honorary position, given to younger knights who were exemplary in manners and form but as yet unproven in battle. Still, his posture never sagged and his eyes never wavered as he walked his perpetual ring around the marble pool, passing once each minute through the shadow of the elegant, nude form in its center. The fact that there were no threats to his charge would not excuse a failure in diligence.

Just when he almost caught his mind wandering, he noticed three red shadows in the corner of his eye. "Hey, look at the poof!" shouted one of the obviously inebriated men. "I wonder what he had to do to get put on this shit detail?"

"Likely he wouldn’t kneel to his lord an’ master, no doubt."

"Right. Kneel… and curtsey."

The knight gave these tauntings the respect they deserved: his nose arched up a notch, and his hand hovered slightly closer to his sword, although his stride never wavered. At least, it was remarkably consistent until the trio stepped into the arc of his pacing. He slowed a little, wondering if they’d clear out of the way.

"Hey, I say we make ‘m back off, eh?"

"Yeah, right." And suddenly, they were dancing around him, one in front, one behind, one threatening to step on the edge of the pool, but not quite doing it. He was angry, certainly, but was pleased that he kept his composure.

"This is the Fount of the Pure Virgin. Though I suppose you wouldn’t know anything about purity of purpose, I’d oblige you to remove yourselves. Before I must call the guard. You are not in Antioch now, and we don’t welcome such things here."

This elicited nothing but guffaws from the ruffians. The knight couldn’t help it: he turned his head in disgust. But in the space between moving his head from the right to the left, one of the men climbed up onto the edge of the pool.

"Oblige us to remove ourselves, eh? Remove this!" And with that, the drunkard began unbuttoning his trousers, the threat to the sanctity of the pond obvious.

His rage finally outstripping his self control, the knight drew his blade and hurled himself towards the barbarian, who was still encumbered by his trouser strings. He thought it impossible that, in the next moment, his sword would not strike home, and remove the intruder from the side of the sacred font. It was with great surprise, therefore, that he found himself face down in the pool. As he struggled to stand, and sucked in water instead, he realized that the pressure in his back came from a very well-placed crossbow. After that, he didn’t think very much at all.

Captain Giles looked down at the hastily scribbled note with shock: "Come quickly, and bring all the men you can. Three of our brothers have been cut down without cause near the Fount in Palatine. Quickly! Captain Anitpodee." There was no mistaking Anitpodee’s characteristic haste: he’d forgotten to mention just which fount the trouble was at. Still, Giles wasted no time.

"If we go alone, we’ll doubtless be outnumbered, men. And Anitpodee’s left us no idea of where to strike. So each of you is going to go seek out a group of our brothers. You, tell them to go to the Font of Mercy. You, the Font of Life. You, the Font of the Virgin…."

Deinos Lascari replaced the report in the folder from which he had taken it and laid it carefully, precisely on the desk in front of him, its sides aligned perfectly with the blotter. He sat back in his chair, elbows on the carved arms, fingers steepled. His gaze rested upon the messenger who had brought him the report. A cousin.

"This will require careful manoeuvring. A touch here, a nudge there. You understand?"

The youngster nodded. Deinos sighed; clearly the boy didn't have a clue about the delicacies of manipulation.

"Leave me. I will have to think about this a while. I will send for you when I have a reply."

Deinos rose, turned his back on his young cousin and glanced over to the table where the map of Zehazel lay unfolded. He was aware of the boy's footsteps as they moved towards the door. While his eyes looked down at the map, his ears told him of the boy's progress, movement to the door, each floorboard a slightly different sound, turning the handle, metal on metal, swinging the door open, hinges that sounded so, so faintly, pulling it closed behind him, the latch falling into place. Even so, he glanced once towards the door to make sure he was alone.

Only then did he return his focus to the map on the table in front of him. A finger carefully traced lines of influence across the territories of Zehazel, traced out the patterns of power.

His brow furrowed ever so slightly. Careful planning indeed would be required. The most gentle of touches, imperceptible yet telling.

His finger came to rest.

Yes, here was the centre of it, the crux, here was where the knot was tied, where the chain of events must start. He turned back to his desk, hand already reaching out for the report.

And stopped.

He was no longer alone.

A man stood in front of his desk, exactly where the cousin had stood only moments earlier. He was simply dressed, but the cut of the cloth was good. He appeared unarmed.

Deinos paused, hand still stretched out. The other man remained motionless, gazing calmly at the Lascari. Deinos thought swiftly, as ever. The man could not have got here by violence, therefore by stealth or craft. Deinos could summon guards in an instant. He was clearly not one of the Barrabans, for Deinos still breathed. And as yet he had made no motion.

Outwardly calm while inwardly poised to act, Deinos moved forward towards the desk. His concentration moved towards those special parts of his mind, the carefully trained parts, where words lay that fizzed at the brush of his attention. Words charged with power through long hours of meditation and concentration. If an attack came, they were his best hope of grabbing precious seconds that would allow him to counter-attack, or escape. Deinos drew out the chair, and sat down, making the intruder wait before he was given his chance to speak, gaining Deinos extra seconds to think, and restoring at least a little psychological balance to their meeting.

Only when Deinos was seated comfortably, the heavy desk concealing the dagger he held in his hand, and his foot braced to propel him backwards, and away, if needed, did Deinos allow his eyes to meet those of the intruder.

"Deinos Lorenzo," when the man spoke, it was not a question but a statement, "you will wish to employ me."

"I see," Deinos spoke slowly, carefully, ensuring nothing in his manner spoke of anything but calm. "You could perhaps have made an appointment, but I assume your entrance was designed to make a statement. Congratulations, that statement is very well made. I would wish to employ a man with the same skills as you, certainly, but that does not necessarily mean I wish to employ you. Other matters must be considered - wage, for one. Trustworthiness being another. I'm sure you can think of more. But your entrance has certainly earned some of my time, so speak - who are you, what do you offer, and what do you ask in return?"

"Deinos Lorenzo, my entrance was nothing more than it was. I am here because you will wish to employ me exactly as I say. Wages are of little importance, although you will pay me for what I do for you."

The man slowly reached to his waist and unfastened a small, velvet pouch from a sash there. His eyes were on Deinos as his hand moved, his motion careful, slow, unthreatening.

"This is a statement of my ability, and perhaps of my trustworthiness."

The man took a single step forward, reached out his hand. Deinos shifted his weight so very slightly in the chair, his hidden hand moving. Should this intruder move to attack, the dagger was now perfectly placed to strike below his rib-cage and up into his heart.

However, the stranger merely laid the pouch on the desk, then retreated. Deinos again shifted the poise of his muscles. He gazed, unblinking at his guest for several, long, slow breaths. Calm, but poised. He saw how the balance of power had shifted again so slightly.

"Why don't you just open that for me." Deinos said slowly, wishing to regain the dominant position.

"Very well, Deinos Lorenzo."

The intruder again stepped forward and picked up the pouch. He untied the knot that secured the pouch and reached into it. He removed something, laid the pouch on the desk, then rested what he had retrieved on the velvet cloth of the pouch.

Deinos kept his eyes on the stranger until he had again stepped back. Then he looked down at the signet ring. Reaching out slowly he turned it slightly, revealing the seal of the Lorenzo family set within the ring. Deinos resisted the temptation to check the ring on his own finger, but instead his eyes scanned the complex design, making out the tiny 'N' that indicated the seal should be in the possession of his brother, Nanik.

"Deinos Lorenzo, my name is Weorthan. I offer what you must have and what you must know. In return, I ask nothing. However, you will pay me what is right."

Deinos turned his eyes back to the stranger, "The ring isn't the original."

Weorthan said nothing. Deinos paused for a moment, considering. Eventually he continued. "But I concede, that the seal *is* original. Hmmm. I can make use of your skills, and I will pay you well in return. Very well. My brother hosted a party last week. Lord Linford, of the Vervain, was forced to attend without his dear wife, but, I was pleased to notice, achieved a happy meeting with the beautiful Maylees. Lord Linford is noted as a prolific letter writer. I would appreciate the opportunity to read the correspondence between the two of them. Could you arrange that, do you think?"

Weorthan grinned. He reached again to his waist, this time to a larger pouch of leather. From it he took several folded sheets of parchment.

"As you say, the Lord Linford is a prolific letter writer." Weorthan placed the parchment on the desk. "Four of the letters are his, only two are replies from Maylees."

Deinos reached for the parchment, but Weorthan's hand was still on the letters. Deinos looked up at him, eyes narrowing.

"These are only copies, not the originals. You will pay me what you ought." Weorthan said, and removed his hand.

Deinos placed the blank paper squarely on the desk in front of him, dipped the pen once, and began to write.

Dear Lord Linford,

I am afraid I have some unfortunate news for you. Certain correspondence has come into my possession which, if it were to fall into the wrong hands, might prove both embarrassing, distressing, and costly for you. I am, however, prepared to ensure it is safe guarded, thus assuring your safety, and the safety of your new lady friend......

"Thank you. It is good to see your books are so well ordered."

"I always keep them well, Master Lorenzo, you know you can rely on me."

"That is my hope, Mr Skrull, that is indeed my hope."

Deinos made his way down the narrow staircase, leaving behind the exceptionally dingy little office. As he reached the faded red curtain that acted as a barrier to the main room of the 'Lucky Star' gambling hall, he paused, trying to recognise the voices he heard arguing.

"I'm sorry sir, there is simply no chance of any more credit for you this evening." That was certainly Garlan, the chief of the gambling floor. He had worked for the Lascari since he was old enough to wield a cosh, and Deinos knew him to be exceptionally reliable.

"But it's not ten o'clock yet! I can't possibly leave yet! Besides, my luck is just starting to turn! It would be a crime to through me out now!'

Who was that? Refined accent, he must be from Vervain. Ah yes, that was it - Vathekus de la Quintesse, a regular patron from a wealthy family.

Deinos took a moment to arrange his features into as friendly an expression as he could manage - something less than a pained smile on most people's faces - and pushed back the curtain. "What is this Vathekus, are you having problems?"

The Vervain spun in a moment, and his face lit up, "Deinos! Tell this man who I am, please! This is just terrible."

For a horrible moment Deinos thought the tall man in front of him would hug him in his exuberance, but thankfully he contented himself with grasping his hand. The port on the man's breath hit Deinos hard, but he managed to turn the grimace into a half smile. Deinos looked over Vathekus' shoulder, and gave Garlan a small signal that indicated what was to follow was business, and not to be taken personal. "Garlan, what is the meaning of this? Why is this man not at the tables?"

"I'm very sorry Mr Lorenzo, but he has reached his credit limit."

"Then extend it for him!"

"We already have sir. Twice."

"What?" Deinos looked shocked and turned to Vathekus.

Vathekus shrugged, and said "What can I say, a bad night."

"So it seems. But no doubt you'll be collecting your weekly allowance soon, and that will square you up."

"Um.... that *was* this week’s allowance."

Deinos looked at Vathekus sympathetically. "I *am* sorry, you must be having a bad run."

Vathekus looked sad. "My luck’s not here tonight."

"Your luck?"

"Mariela. She sits on my knee and brings me luck. She isn't here tonight."

"Really?" Deinos turned back to Garlan, "Where is Mariela? Fetch her here?"

"It's her night off, sir."

"Fetch her anyway, I'm sure she'll be delighted to know she has the chance to spend another evening with this gentleman. Isn't that right, Vathekus?"

Vathekus smiled sheepishly, clearly flattered.

"And what of the gentleman's credit limit, sir?"

"Why, extend it of course! We are blessed by him frequenting our humble establishment! He should receive the very best of care!"

"Very good, sir."

Vathekus grabbed Deinos' hand again, and shook it vigorously. "Thank you, thank you! I won't forget this."

"Not at all, you go back to your table before that luck you've found slips away."

"I will!" Vathekus walked at speed, if slightly unsteadily, back to chair at one of the card tables.

Deinos delayed Garlan for a moment longer, his voice dropping back into its more familiar low, almost whispered, tones, "Tell Mariela she's on a special bonus from me. Just keep him playing."

"He's already run up large debts."

"I know. But his family is very rich. An accommodation will be found in the end."

"Very well. Good evening to you."

"And to you." Deinos headed for the door, the sounds of cheers of joy, and groans of disappointment, mixing and fading away behind him.

The dining table sat covered with steaming dishes of many kinds of food. The Lorenzi family ate well, and ate together - it was frequently a time for bringing together the random pieces of information, rumour, and news that they had each heard. The official rule was no 'business' was to be done at the table, but, as most of the family members had few interests outside of business, the conversation constantly skirted around it.

"You heard about that Angel, from the Vervain?" Nanik spoke around a mouthful of food.

"Forming a small band of his own policing force, I believe," replied Deinos, who ate lightly compared to his brother's large appetite.

"If he starts getting ideas about stamping out crime he's going to get slapped down."

"There aren't enough of them to interfere with business at the moment," Father Pactus said, "But if they increase in number-"

"We may have to show them that being a guard can be a dangerous occupation," laughed Nanik.

"Not just for the men. For their families as well," Deinos added, quietly, giving a slight smile.

"Cousin! You can't move that there!" Beppe Wellmeant replaced the Monk piece onto its original hexagon. "It's under siege, see?"

"Oh... yes. Sorry." Frode's tone was distracted.

"Come now! What's the matter with you? Here you've been losing to me all night, and that can't be right." Beppe closed up his catch-tray with a snap.

"I've a lot on my mind, cuz, that's all. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have suggested gaming. Thought it might take my mind off..." Frode's chin was in his hand, his eyes distant.

"Come now!" Beppe rose to his feet. "What is it? Surely not this business of the missing gold, that's a small enough matter. And with you, dear cuz, one knows well enough that it cannot be woman trouble."

Frode grimaced. Only the very close family were allowed to refer to his unfortunate amorous blight. "Of a sort, perhaps. They do say that when a man has his leg severed, he'll be kept awake at night betimes, with an itching foot."

"In the missing limb? The ghost of an itch?" Beppe frowned.

"Aye, perhaps, the ghost of an itch. Caused by the bite of the ghost of a flea? I saw a picture of such a thing once, and very terrible it was to behold -- in bright armour. The man who limned it was holy, or mad. Or both."

"Cousin, you've lost me. Come now -- take a drink with me, will you not? A nightcap. Then we can both rest.' Beppe took up the crystal decanter and splashed out two generous measures of firedew. Frode took his up absently, twirling the stem between his fingers.

"Drink! Drink!" urged Beppe sympathetically.

"I could never drink enough for my needs, cuz, to be truthful." But Frode downed the measure regardless.

"As they say in a certain place, Frode my lad," Beppe refilled the glass, "you never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough."

The fugitive crouched down so that she could aim shots with her crossbow out through the door at anything pursuing the cart.

"I'm sorry to intrude upon you like this."

"Erm," ventured William. "I wonder if-"

A twang from the crossbow. A long shriek from the street. "Please do not allow me to interrupt your conversation." Twang.

The voice was rather out of breath, fairly cultured, and definitely female.

"Who are you exactly?"

"My name is Magdalena." The woman was evidently taking some pains to keep her face concealed in the shadow of her hood, but occasionally cast curious glances at the two strangers with which she shared the cart. "Believe me, I try not to make a habit of jumping into strange vehicles, but as you may have gathered, this was something of an emergency. I probably owe you my life. May I ask to whom I am indebted?"

"I'm William," replied the driver, straightening his hat and peering into the darkness. "And my companion here is Aimeric de Guises."

She listened to his response, and nodded as if memorising the name.

"I think you can slow the cart a little now."

"Why? I always drive like this..."

There was a brief lurch, and a pained howl from beneath the wheels, cut off by the sound of something wet landing by the side of the road.

"Damn, that's hell to get out of the spokes... Besides, aren't there things following us?"

"Trust me, if the creatures chasing us were still at our heels, the horses would be going crazy with panic. Tell me, do you often drive through this rather dangerous neighbourhood?"

"Oh, every now and then, it's a useful shortcut. And I do like to get a bit of night air."

"It is possible that I may have some use for you and your cart some time in the future. Would you mind telling me where I might leave a message for you?"

"Of course, if I'm not around just write it on the graveyard wall... between the fresco of the three legged purple gargoyle and the statue of the horny harpy. There's a few pieces of chalk around if you look."

"The gargoyle has three legs? You mean that the smaller thing in the middle is another... never mind. To be honest, I was hoping for something a little more private than graffiti. Oh well. If I wish to speak to you, I will leave a letter 'M' on the wall, as a signal that I would like to meet you in the graveyard later that night. Would that be acceptable?"

"Marvellous, that's what I had in mind really. The graveyard is quite private really. I mean, there's a lot of people around, but they're all pretty quiet and keep to themselves. It brings a new meaning to the phrase _awkward silence_."

"By the way, you might want to accelerate a little again. Someone appears to be running after us with a length of lead piping in his hand. I can only assume he is the owner of the dog you rendered into two dimensions half a street back. Wait... yes, I think we've lost him. Could you slow down? Yes, slow, please? Thank you. I can manage on my own from here. Thank you again."

As the speed of the cart decreased, Magdalena swung out of the carriage door, and disappeared up the street.

William watched her go.

"Well that was a bit odd," he said to Aimeric de Guises, "don't you think? Anyway, here we are at the Port of Call."

He provided Binky with a nosebag, gave the horse an affectionate pat, and marched into the inn.

"Evening, all!"

Not long after William and Aimeric had taken their seats, a bedraggled looking figure entered the bar, dressed in black trousers and shirt covered with a white tabard depicting a blue dragon flying against the sun. A long, decorative sword forged from some black looking metal hung by his side. Looking up you would notice long, flowing golden hair and green eyes, set against a thin, almost elven-looking face. He walked over to the bar.

"Innkeeper, or whatever the term is in this place I have found myself. Water please, I have much to do this evening."

With that he sat down and looked deeply into his drink, almost meditating.

It was only a short while later that a scared-looking Tatterdemalion crashed into the tavern, and looked around himself helplessly.

Seeing the new arrival sitting at one of the tables, he propelled himself forwards, fell to his knees and tugged at the knight's sleeve.

"Oh, sir knight, noble lord of Palatine. In the name of the Emperor, please help us. I've seen them with my own eyes, the ones who have brought this terrible plague to our homes, tall as a man it was, but with the head of a rat, grey fur all over it, so help me. If our lives mean anything to you, say you'll track them down and kill them, sir, oh please say you will."

The knight emerged from his reverie, but seemed confused. "Palatine?"

"Oh yes, sir, I judged as much from your appearance. You must be a very brave and honourable man very brave and honourable man, just the sort to help us."

The knight shook his head slowly, as if clearing it. "And pray, what is Palatine?"

The Tatterdemalion regarded him strangely.

"They are the good, kind knights who live on the higher slopes of the city, to the east of here. Forgive me if I have made an error, my lord - from your dress there is nothing to tell you apart from one of Sir Guillome's brave followers. Does this mean you aren't going to help us, sir?"

"That depends, on what help you require. I am a Knight, but not of the order which you just described."

"Oh, sir, if you are a man of good heart and courage, you will surely be all the help we need!"

The knight leaned backwards in his chair, seemingly unconvinced. The Gethsemane Val Tannen, who had been following the exchange, took the pause as an opportunity to intercede.

"Please, sirs... you of the knightly orders must aid those of us who fight against the plague in our own ways. If this report be true, it may easily explain the link between the rats and the plague which I fight even now. Please, I entreat you, take up your blade to fight this monstrous, magical plague which strikes down rich and poor without respect for boundaries of class or knowledge."

"Please, tell me more of this plague," said the knight, whose name was Sir Alrain. "One cannot combat a foe which one does not know about. I am new to this place, and any information would be appreciated."

"Sir, your interest is gratifying, and for that I will tell."

Tannen, looking haggard and tired, turned to the other occupants of the bar.

"The whereabouts of the plague, you know as much as I. You have all just heard this news of the 'RatMan' this good citizen (he indicates the Tatterdemalion now hunched over a steaming plate of vegetables) has spoken of. This news fits, to some degree, what I know of the plague.

"The illness is definitely magical in origin, and to some definite degree spread by the rats and other rodents living near the harbour near the city. To this end I hope to speak to the Harbourmaster soon, with a view to treating, or in an extreme case, culling these animals.

"This far, the plague has struck at the poor and those living near the harbour. It is fast, efficient, and deadly. Many of you will know the story of the plague which claimed my home town. I rate this plague to be at least as deadly; possibly more. The symptoms seem harmless - sweating and extremes of temperatures, possibly fainting fits at the worst end. When the disease has taken hold, it strikes with lethal efficiency, causing the victim to bleed taken hold, it strikes with lethal efficiency, causing the victim to bleed internally. When this can be noticed, without proper medical examination, the victim is usually too far taken to be saved.

"Myself, by straining my powers and abilities to their very limits, I can perhaps save one victim in a day. Dozens, perhaps even hundreds, could be infected in a week. I have recently received good information on treating the virus, which I am acting upon; help with which I have begun to set up a plague hospital in the city to receive the poor victims, so that they can die in peace.

"Again, I ask you of *all* allegiances, not just the knightly orders, to take this plague seriously lest it consume us all. I do not know how to take this good man's stories of the 'RatMan', yet I must believe he speaks in good faith, and in that case, we of Zehazel may already have a dreadful foe in our midst - one who uses magical powers to warp and change diseases, making them lethal to humans and not the rats who carry them.

"There, sir; now you know as much as I. I am making every effort to rid us of the disease in my own fashion; I would beg of you to make your own steps - whether tracking down this mysterious source of the disease (a process which I am quite prepared to help you with if no others of the Gethsemane are willing to), or by providing space we can use as more plague hospitals. There is work for all of the orders here; helping my order, providing much needed resources, or even fighting the cause of the plague. I thank you for your time and your aid." This said, the exhausted Gethsemane's energies fail him and he collapses into an easy chair and, having not slept in three days, is almost immediately dozing; leaving the room around him to discuss his words.

An old man scuttled past, hurrying up towards the cluster of beggars in the square. A terrier, thin and mangy, ran alongside, barking with stupid excitement, nearly tripping him up. Dominic paused, watching them plunge into the midst of the flea-ridden crowd.

The End-of-the-World man stood on the sloping roof of a hovel, a couple of feet above the faces of his followers. A grimy sign hung around his neck; the message on it was partly obscured by his long beard, but what could be seen read "...goin to Die!!". He was in the middle of some sort of monologue, switching without warning between the zeal of a saint (arm stabbing upwards for emphasis, bloodshot eyes wide and staring) and a conspiratorial hoarse whisper that carried right across the square (hunched over, leaning down towards his listeners, grinning as he solemnly tapped the side of his nose), punctuated with bursts of manic laughter. The audience was joining in enthusiastically, shouting back at him, apparently making sense of his incomprehensible speech and agreeing fervently. A younger one, seemingly carried away, waved his crutch in the air in great excitement, shouting out nonsense syllables, before losing his balance and falling over.

Dominic started forward towards them. The End-of-the-World man, halfway through a string of syllables gabbled without taking breath, interrupted himself to point, calling out "Verminform!", and promptly falling into a fit of hoarse giggles. The gathering below turned and joined him, laughing and pointing. Trying to ignore a sudden feeling of foolishness, Dominic stopped at the edge of the gathering.

"Hey! End-of-the-World man! I need to talk to you."

The madman stood looking at him, staring disconcertingly, then shouted something meaningless back, immediately echoed by some of his followers.

Dominic began to move through the mass of beggars towards him. A bony hand suddenly grabbed him by the arm; turning, he found himself inches away from a warty grinning face with breath saturated by fourth-rate cider.

"Shpare some change?"

Recoiling involuntarily, Dominic stumbled against another of the crowd, almost falling over. Simultaneously they all once more burst into hysterical laughter. Picking himself up and trying to regain some measure of dignity, he felt a tug at his trouser-leg and looked down to find the terrier gleefully attacking his legs. Looking up at the End-of-the-World man, he tried again: "I need to talk to you! It's about Angel..."

The prophet's eyes glittered, bursting out with, "Angel... hehehehehhh... baastard, ain't he? Statchuues??? Yaahahaha!!... Verminform they know nothing, got it?... 'sss got lumps of it round the back... down below!!!"

One of the mob, with a piece of cloth bound across his eyes and a face scabbed with sores, points upward in excitement. "Up above maaan... Up above, down below... hehehehh!!"

The End-of-the-World man laughs as he shouts back, "Yaaahahahahahah! Weh heh heh... Yaazathoth, yeah? Yazathoth!! He be here soooon!! Wahaha! Were ALLLLL gonnan die!! Hehehe...."

Suddenly, the beggars turn and scatter, hurrying and limping away in all directions. Their prophet throws something small and metal towards Dominic, which rings and bounces as it hits the cobbles. The terrier, still biting Dominic's trouser leg tightly, growls in enjoyment and shakes its head. With a rip the fabric gives way, and the dog runs off after its companion with a piece of cloth triumphantly clenched in its teeth.

Looking around the suddenly empty square, Dominic sighs, picking up the small coin thrown by the End-of-the-World man. Looks at it for a moment, and slips it into a pocket. He starts after the vanished prophet and almost immediately finds himself in a dead-end street.


High above the streets of Zehazel an owl perched on a thin black rail of wrought iron. From beyond the narrow window flickered the light of a candle. The window's thick stained glass was not the vibrant red or lush green of a church's panes, but faded coppery shades depicting a complicated pattern of circles and symbols. Within the room sat the pale, hunched figure of Master Kalgravex of Revenant. His ancient hand held a long black-feathered quill pen, with which he was writing a letter. Slowly, he stopped writing and raised his head. His thin, dark eyes looked out into the night beyond the window.

Kalgravex turned towards the door. The sound was not coming from outside. Indeed, as he had feared, it was the sound of the gong. Far below him at the base of the Crooked House, Jaodun his servitor struck the bronze gong one final time and then searched about for something to use as a weapon. Jaodun was large - six feet high and fatter than most. He had fought many fights in his time and his night-black skin still carried the scars of several. However, he had lived this long by taking few chances. He ran up the stairs to his Oubliette and retrieved his scimitar, then headed for the lower hall. He could hear the sounds of battle clearly now.

The basement was filled with the sound of low, moaning grunts. Little was visible in the darkness. Several inches of water now covered the floor and the sounds of the attackers splashing across the flagstones echoed along the corridors. One of them swung a piece of furniture at one of the alchemical stills and it burst. A brilliant fire flashed from the still and briefly the room was illuminated. Zombies, dozens of them, crawled from the ladder at one end and shambled across the room to the stairs leading upwards into the house proper. The burning one stumbled around the room, bellowing and colliding with its fellows. The room filled with sickly grey smoke as the zombie collapsed into the water.

The first of the zombies burst into the lower hall. Some wandered off through the archways, others explored the winding stairs and still others shambled down the corridor to the reading room. Some were unarmed, but most carried crude clubs, rusty swords or blunt axes. The house became aware of the danger and the shadows began to move. One by one, lines of darkness rose up from the cracks in the floor and unfolded from the gaps in the brickwork and crept from behind pillars. Then the lines of darkness became dark spindly men with long spindly swords and thin, dark cloaks. They moved with the speed of something half imagined in the corner of the eye. Their swift blades cut the zombies and severed their limbs and deflected their weapons and split their heads in two. The zombies looked at their foes with dull, deadeyes and moved towards them. As each zombie fell another came to take its place. Their heavy blows crushed the fragile bodies of their foes. More shadowy guards ran swiftly and silently to stop the attack. Soon the dark red tiles of the floor were buried beneath a hundred lifeless bodies. The zombies moved on into the house, set on their goal as only the mindless can be.

The nine braziers of the North Atrium had been lit and Kalgravex stood in their centre. Around the walls hung huge oil paintings of noble lords and ladies, richly dressed, with small horns and forked tongues. The doors burst rudely open and three zombies marched towards the Master of Revenant, weapons readied. He watched them with narrowed eyes, his breathing thin and fast. They stepped into the circle and collapsed, motionless, to the floor.

Jaodun gave a great shout and spun full circle with his heavy scimitar. The zombies were everywhere and though he had killed two dozen, still there came more. The zombies had passed through the hall of Khemaan - the beetles did not impede them, merely tunneled harmlessly through their rotting flesh. The house was weakening now, Jaodun saw fewer and fewer guards forming. He retreated into the mouth of the Hallow Chapel. Then he heard the voice of Kalgravex echoing as though from all directions: They must not wake Dyosaek.

Alone of all the many residents of the Crooked House, Master Kalgravex knew its secret ways. Now he walked its stairways and corridors, seeking an old, forgotten room. Had anyone been passing by outside they would have seen him walk slowly up an old iron stairway near the top of the house, then along a cracked and ivy-covered balcony many yards below on the other side, then through a narrow cloister along the East wall, its torch brackets long empty on the walls. They might almost think they were watching octogenarian triplets solemnly pacing out their respective domains. Finally he reached his destination and set a thick, eight-inch key into its lock. The door ground reluctantly open and the old Master began a ritual of quickening.

The Hallow Chapel was filled with fallen zombies. Jaodun had retreated all the way along the vaulted corridor to the gate of bone. Beyond lay the bound form of Dyosaek, whose unholy flesh was held by cords of finest gold and whose horned skull was impaled by a hook of living metal, from which the loathsome thing hung suspended above a cauldron of stewed herbs, the vapours from which held it fast asleep. Jaodun could retreat no further and so he stood. His scimitar became stuck in the body of a foe, his flesh was torn and finally his mortal form destroyed. He roared in fury. Then Jaodun unfolded its wings and breathed moonfire upon the advancing ranks of the dead and cast barbed spears from its palms and opened its true eyes to rip their souls from their rotting forms. And then the mortal world expelled Jaodun as it expels all such things.

A chorus of screams rang from the tower as Kalgravex completed his ritual. With a grinding of moss-clogged joints the Knights Revenant stepped from their alcoves. To the casual observer the tall suits of corroded armour would have seemed empty if not for their motion. They marched noisily towards the stairwell drawing swords, morningstars and greataxes from cobwebbed sheaths.

Master Kalgravex moved as quickly as his old bones would allow, down towards the lower levels. He had to be certain that the decaying army that walked his halls had not inadvertently let loose the ancient horrors upon the streets of Zehazel. As he walked he held the Rod of Dust tightly in his hand - a final defence against any unexpected threat that lay in wait for him. Fortunately the zombies had not yet stumbled across the secret ways of the house and he soon arrived at his destination. In the centre of the small room stood a vast black skull painted with runes of pale blue. The old Master of Revenant slowly opened its jaws and turned the ornate copper wheel within.

All over the house, the zombies crumbled to dust. The knights, even more battered and cut than once they were, tumbled lifeless to the ground. All the lanterns on the walls went out. The air became cold and dry. Outside the Crooked House the street was bare, so nobody saw as its craggy moon-cast shadow rotated round with the turn of the wheel. And nobody saw as one by one the view through each window changed to something different.

Kalgravex walked slowly around the house carrying a candle and inspecting each room. The damage was severe, but not nearly so bad as it might have been had the attackers known what to look for. He opened the door to his study and sat down with a sigh - the servants could clear up the mess, he had a letter to finish.

The sergeant paused, making sure his troop were paying attention to him He noted that they were all looking at him, waiting for his lead, and couldn't restrain a slight smirk of pleasure. Turning it into a confident smile, he announced, "Right, you remember what we were told about dealing with Antioch?"

There was a slight pause before a couple of the guards muttered something about not upsetting them. The word 'toleration' came out sounding like a swear word. Sergeant Pollis looked them over - seven of the faces sullen, glancing occasionally into the pub with each new crash. Of the other two, Term had started staring blankly into space again, and Greado was grinning from ear to ear. Greado knew what was coming - he knew Pollis well enough for that, and he would have done just the same were he still a sergeant.

Pollis continued. "Wrong. That wasn't what you were told. You were told that if those Antioch bastards try to do our job, then they get what's coming to them. Got that?"

The slower ones looked confused for a moment, but they got there, and reacted with suitable enthusiasm. The Sergeant might have got stuck with a Watch-Leader like Dominic, but there were still some good men left.

"Now. Let's go arrest them." A chair-leg came flying out of the pub window, and he immediately pushed open the door of the Lazy Satyr.

The pub had never been anything to boast about, but it was now wrecked. One of the two tables had been shattered, as had most of the chairs. Several unconscious bodies lay around, mostly Tatterdemalion. All of the seven or eight Antioch were still fighting, mostly unhurt, though far from sober. The barman, holding the large chunk of wood he kept for these occasions, was desperately fending off two Antioch in one corner; the other fighters were mostly those Tatterdemalion who fancied themselves as brawlers and a couple of Gulliver.

Sergeant Pollis shouted at them to break it up, and prepared to dodge. A wooden beer mug narrowly missed his head. The barman, looking round, caught one of his opponents' fists in the side of his face, and collapsed. One of the Antioch, apparently the leader, swung round and charged head-down at Pollis, bellowing. Neatly stepping behind Term so as to let his men deal with the problem, he grabbed one of the guards whose name he couldn't remember, Tacel or Torkel or something. "Go get reinforcements. Warren's bunch should be over around Westgul Street. Tell them to get here damn fast."

Tacel/Torkel left at speed. The Antioch had finished with all but a couple of the pub's patrons, and had eagerly turned on the Vermiform. Term, with his Jugurtha blood, had downed one of them with two punches, but was having a little more trouble with the next. The others were outmatched but doing okay. Greado in particular had savagely thrown himself into the fight, no doubt relieving the frustration of being demoted back into the ranks for beating up some Tatterdemalion cobbler.

Pollis picked his target and swung at him. The Antioch turned and tried to dodge, but caught the blow on the chin. He staggered backward and grabbed a chair, hurling it. The sergeant moved aside, then dodged behind the bar as his opponent continued the volley with debris from the floor. Another of them began moving towards him, only to be attacked by Ralf, one of the better fighters in his group of guards. His opponent had run out of things to throw and was now holding the barman's mace. With the bar between them Pollis found it easy to avoid the first couple of swings.

There was a scrape of steel as one of the Antioch across the room, no doubt drunker than the rest, drew his sword. Within seconds the brawl had turned into a swordfight. The two Gulliver, the only fighters still standing apart from the Antioch and Vermiform, left through a window. Pollis swore, drawing his own sword and catching his opponent's mace with it. It caught in the wood and, jerking it, he almost got the Antioch to drop it. Twisting his sword free and reversing the movement, he slammed the hilt into the soldier's face.

There was a noise of a bottle breaking behind him and he turned and the glass was cutting into his face and he was screaming, just screaming at the pain and he couldn't see, and his face was burning –

The reinforcements led by Sergeant Warren, arrived just in time to see Pollis fall to his knees screaming, blood pouring from his left cheek and eye, an Antioch soldier standing over him with the gory remains of a bottle. They never hesitated. Outnumbered three to one, the Antioch were rapidly brought down, disarmed, kicked, beaten, and tied up. Several of the small carts used by the new Vermiform 'ambulance' service had arrived to ferry wounded victims to healing. A slightly larger one arrived a few minutes later, and Warren loaded the prisoners onto it. He noticed ex-Sergeant Greado looking at them particularly murderously and beckoned him over. "Hey, Greado, take this bunch over to the prison, will you? Mind the men don't go beating them up while they're helpless or anything. That is, unless you have to to keep them from escaping, of course."

Greado looked at the Antioch, bound hand and foot, and grinned unpleasantly.