Princess Thalia walked along the low wall by the harbor, her enchanted golden hair blowing lazily in the summer wind. “Can you imagine High Priestess Rhynwa as a bridesmaid?” Chloe was laughing. Chloe was a fresh-faced acolyte of the dead god Arawn, only a few months older than Thalia, and the two teenagers had quickly become fast friends.
“Will she be wearing black?” Chloe’s boyfriend Berryn wanted to know.
“I think they’re wearing blue.”
“Cause I don’t think I’ve ever seen Miz Rhynwa in anything but black.”
“I can’t believe Lady Starshadow isn’t wearing white,” said Jason, half awed by the ruler’s audacity.
“Divorcées aren’t supposed to wear white,” Thalia said. “Trust me, I had to memorize the style book years ago.”
“Still,” said Jason. “It’s like she’s calling attention to it. She--she must be a very self-assured person. Getting married so late in her pregnancy, I mean. Everyone must know.”
“It’s pretty common in my country,” Alderon said carelessly. He was a friend of Berryn’s, a few years older than the others, and thought himself much more worldly than Thalia suspected he really was. “Some of the traditional women don’t like their sons to get married until a girl proves her fertility.”
“That’s rather sexist,” Chloe frowned.
Alderon shrugged. “I didn’t make the traditions up.” He grinned at Thalia, a crooked, cheery smile. “So do you have a date for the big event yet?”
Jason giggled. “I doubt I’ll be able to go,” Thalia sighed, kicking a pebble down the sidewalk. “My father is probably invited, Khyrisse being a head of state and all... I don’t dare tip him off to where I am.”
“We could disguise you,” Alderon offered.
“We could dress you up as a boy!” said Chloe, grinning mischievously.
“I don’t know ab--”
“Hssss!” Berryn interrupted, a sudden alertness slicing through his usual lackadaisical torpor. “Something’s c--”
The heel of a hand slammed into his chin, sending him crashing back into the harbor wall with what could only be superhuman strength. Jason screamed. The rest of the assailant materialized from the same malevolent mist the hand had. It was a pouty-looking man with spiky blond hair and a Tobrinese shirt... and, Thalia couldn’t help but notice, prominent fangs. “I thought you said there weren’t vampires anymore!” Alderon yelled at Chloe, drawing his sword.
“I thought there weren’t!” Chloe shouted back, pulling out her holy symbol.
“You know what they say about assuming, kid,” sneered the vampire, and went for her throat.
Be Careful What You Wish For
“I’m worried about him, Flicker,” Khyrisse sighed. “He hasn’t left the temple all week.”
“He lives in the temple,” said Flicker.
“I mean he hasn’t left the sanctuary.” Khyrisse brushed a loose strand of hair tiredly out of her face. “This has to be so hard for him. You dedicate your whole life to something...”
“To destroying something,” said Flicker, “and then it’s destroyed. Most people call that ‘success’.”
“It’s not just the undead, Flicker. It’s his whole school of magic.”
“There are others,” said the Sunfighter, with a shrug. “If Rhynwa could handle the death of her god, I’m sure Luthien can handle the loss of the Negative Material Plane. Besides, doesn’t this mean the end of Gordon’s curse?”
Khyrisse sighed again. “We’re not sure,” she admitted. “That was the first thing I thought of--but Rhynwa said they didn’t know if the curse was actually dependent on the NMP or not.”
“Well,” said Flicker, “it means the end of the undead, anyway. And Luthien hates the undead.”
“I don’t think he likes being useless, either, Flicker.” Khyrisse raked her fingers through her hair. “He was the preeminent necromancer of Ataniel. Now he’s a mage specialized in a school that doesn’t exist, with all his skills dedicated to hunting creatures that don’t exist, in the service of a god who doesn’t exist. How is he supposed to feel?”
“He’ll rebound,” said Flicker. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders, Luthien.”
“He does,” said Khyrisse, and sighed. “I’d--still feel a lot better about this if you’d talk to him.”
“I can’t imagine I’d have anything more comforting to say than Rhynwa, but I’ll try.” Flicker frowned suddenly, his eyes narrowing with concentration. “Hold that thought,” he said. “Praxis says we’ve got a vampire attack down on Marshall and Vine.”
“What?!?!?” screamed Khyrisse. “In New Trade?”
Flicker unslung his bow. “You’re the one who wanted undead around,” he said. “Maybe we can save some for Luthien.”
“This isn’t what I meant!” Khyrisse hollered furiously, and followed Flicker out the door at a run.
Octavian vs. Octavian
“Hold up,” panted Rani, resting her palms heavily on her jean-clad thighs. “Jonathon, hold up. I need a minute.”
He raised an eyebrow and clicked the blade back into his staff-sword, clearly not even winded. “I wish you wouldn’t call me that.”
“What the fuck do you want me to call you, Lucas?”
“Octavian will do nicely.”
“There’s a bright idea. ‘Looks like rain, huh, Octavian?’ ‘Sure does, Octavian.’” She took a hard swig from her waterskin. “Our banter’s retarded enough as it is without getting some fucking hick comedy routine into it.”
“You don’t think you can do this, do you.”
“I know I can do it.” She banged her gloved fist on the wall. “I don’t know if I can do it your way. I have things you need. Talents. Gifts. I can read these city streets like no man alive. I can do things you can’t.” Rani breathed, and sat down. “But I don’t know if I can do things you can.”
“Then perhaps this is the wrong route for you to be taking,” said the vigilante, his tone not entirely unfriendly. “This is a big city, and there’s room in it for more than one defender of justice.”
“I need Octavian,” Rani said, mopping her forehead with a towel. “If I have to start from scratch the underworld’ll wipe the floor with me. I need the mystique you’ve built up as much as you do. You’re no One True Bloodscar either. There’s more of a difference between you and what the city thinks you are than there is between me and you. If you can do this I should be able to.”
Jonathon raised his eyebrow but didn’t comment. “What have you learned of the slave-runners, anyway?”
“More than I wanted to,” muttered Rani. “Some impressions I’d just as soon not pick up, you know?” She rolled her head, trying to will the painful knot in the back of her neck away. “Most of the trade’s coming from Nylevia and the Princedoms, a lot of it going to Diaria. Sounds like they’ve legalized it there. As if the place wasn’t fucked up enough.”
“And the Slaver’s Guild?”
“Ain’t the force it was in your day, or anything.” Rani drained her waterskin. “But Tucson’s got his fingers in it behind the scenes, and he’s got deep pockets.”
“If he is going to try to run this city and the Guild at the same time, he will be his own downfall,” Jonathon said dismissively.
“Don’t underestimate him. He may not be Lucas St. Augustine, but there’s a dangerous man in there. We go way back, me and Johnny.” Rani paused, and then shook her glittering head. “Besides,” she added, “he’s got Alliejin in his corner.”
“Not a man to cross,” Octavian acknowledged.
“Can we pass him some of whatever you and Tor have been smoking? Maybe we can bring the whole triumvirate over to the light side.”
“I would not care to bring another Madness upon the land merely for the chance of converting our good Don,” murmured the vigilante, a faraway look on his face. “Ah, but those were strange times.” He shook his head. “And these stranger still, it seems. Have you caught your breath? You have much to do yet before nightfall, and our city waits.”
Rani paused a moment, touched by the word ‘our’, wanting something better to say. “Hell yeah,” she finally said, not thinking of one. She stood up, tossing her empty waterskin out of the way, and slapped her hands on her jeans. “Bring it on.”
This was not how Thalia had really been planning on spending her Saturday afternoon.
She pulled her compact out of her purse and waved the small mirror around in the vampire’s face as he tore at Alderon. Turned out the swaggering elf really was brave, after all--he’d gotten between her and the monster without a second’s hesitation, armed with no more than a shortsword +1. Unfortunately, the vampire’s reflection didn’t seem to have any more effect on him than Berryn’s continuing attempts to turn undead. Thalia’s one Magic Missile spell was expended, poor Chloe was crumpled on the pavement, and the vampire was dealing more damage than Alderon and Jason were. Things did Not Look Good, and the princess pulled a silver brooch out of her purse with a heavy sigh. None of the other folk remedies against vampires were proving themselves useful, but Thalia didn’t really know what else she could do.
She took a deep breath and plunged the pin into the vampire’s shoulder. It sizzled as it went in, and he shrieked in pain. Oh, good, silver weapons will hurt them! “Take that!” cried Thalia, with more confidence than she felt. There was only so much damage one could do with a two-inch brooch pin, but at least she wasn’t going down without a fight. The vampire snarled and seized her by the throat, and then...
Then a third weapon had joined Alderon’s and Jason’s. “For the vengeance of Alekki!” cried a piercing voice. Thalia choked and coughed as the vampire dropped her to whirl on his new assailant, a young olive-skinned woman with a double-headed axe. Berryn scrabbled frantically to heal the badly battered Alderon while the vampire busied himself slashing the newcomer’s face with his fangs. She did not make a noise of complaint, but she wasn’t having a lot of success maneuvering her battleaxe with the vampire right on top of her like he was, either. The battle teetered, and for a hopeful round Thalia even thought the teenagers might defeat the beast, but then he wrenched the axe away from the woman wielding it by main force and sent Jason head-over-heels with a dishearteningly careless backward thrust of its shaft.
Then, mercifully, a silver arrow ripped through the vampire’s chest, and a second, and, by the time he was lunging off in the direction of this new threat, a third.
“That’s my cousin!” shouted Alderon, excitedly. “Flicker! Hey, Flicker! Get ‘im!”
A crackle of blue-white lightning joined the arrows, and the vampire’s body arched in an inhuman scream. Freed of the immediate constraints of field medicine, Berryn dropped down to Chloe and began trying, with shaking hands, to revive her, as Thalia and Alderon stood together and watched the two Mithril Dagger Heroes dispatch the vampire.
It was almost discouraging, how easy they made it look. I guess Khyrisse was first-level once too, Thalia thought, sighing to herself as the heavily pregnant archmage incinerated the monster that had only moments before been on the verge of slaying all six young adventurers without even breaking a sweat. I wonder if she felt this... stupid about it? “Thank you for helping us,” Thalia added to the woman in the wolfskin cloak as she joined them.
“Thank me not,” said the woman, in a strange accent. “I failed to defeat the creature. The thanks belong to these good warriors.”
“Everybody ok?” said Khyrisse, puffing over to them.
“Chloe,” said Berryn, “she... I can’t...”
“Rondi,” Flicker sighed, putting up his bow as he approached. “I should have known you’d be mixed up in this somehow.”
“It’s not my fault!” protested Alderon, in a plaintive voice that made it clear enough to Thalia that it usually was. “It really wasn’t,” she helped him out of it now. He had, after all, saved her life. “That vampire just attacked from out of nowhere. Alderon held it off till you got here.”
Flicker clapped his young cousin reassuringly on his good shoulder and went past him to help the rattled Jason sit up. “Are you ok?” he said. “Praxis relayed your distress call...”
“She’s... alive...” said Berryn, shaken, “but I... can’t heal her. She’s not level-drained, but--something’s very wrong here.”
“I don’t mean to give orders,” interrupted the young woman with the axe, “but has anyone got a wooden stake on them? Because I’ve faced creatures like this before, and it looks like it’s going to...” The vampire’s body exploded in a strangely yellow puff of smoke. “Too late,” she sighed.
“Shit,” muttered Alderon, as the vampire’s gas cloud escaped.
“This... this is wild magic!” Khyrisse was frowning at the fallen priestess incredulously through the shimmering mask of her true seeing. “What the flark...”
“Rhynwa and Luthien aren’t with you, are they?” Flicker asked Berryn.
He shook his head numbly.
“It’d take too long for them to get here,” said Khyrisse. “Take them to the Church of Tal, Flicker... I’ll go get Val and Vas.”
Flicker nodded and lifted Chloe in his arms. “I think you’d better all come,” he said. “I don’t know what that was, but it might have had some effect on the rest of you as well.”
“I’m Thalia,” Thalia added.
“Sashami,” said the woman in wolfskin, gravely.
“Welcome to New Trade, Sashami,” sighed Khyrisse, and jogged off in search of Valende.
“Okay,” Ralchar was saying as he paced. Dexy LaRue sat with his hands clasped behind his neck, his thin face shadowed with darkness. “So we have six semi-immortal beings on their way to Ataniel to conquer it. How do we stop them?”
“How did they stop the Shadowlord?” Kit wanted to know.
“By destroying the Heart of Trade, I believe,” Araiji said in her heavy accent. “Shadow had been using the city as a beacon.”
“Could the Sebetekh be using something as a beacon now?” Ralchar asked Dexy.
The gambler didn’t answer, just looked out at the horizon with a haunted look. He looked like he was in desperate need of some bourbon, so Crandall offered him a shot. He didn’t take it. “Well,” Crandall said, “I’ve never done anything quite like this before, obviously, but there was that time Jack accidentally pissed off the Water Serpent...”
Crandall looked around. It was not looking like anyone was interested.
“Anyway,” he cut to the chase, “we wound up with an endless stream of water elementals coming out of this portal at us, and even Cori couldn’t cut ‘em down forever. Jack gave us some mumbo-jumbo about interplanar shockwaves and dimensional pockets, didn’t have much to lose, so we gave it a shot. Collapsed the gate on them as they were coming through and it trapped ‘em in some kind of planar bubble or something. Maybe we could try something like that.”
“That is a good idea Crandall,” Araiji said thoughtfully, tapping her fingers, “but do you really think it would work on beings as powerful as the Sebetekh?”
“It worked on the Water Serpent,” Crandall said. “And she was the daughter of a god.”
“It’d be worth a try,” Ralchar opined.
“Mister LaRue?” Kit said, a little uneasily. “What do you think?”
“I think this world is doomed, child,” said the card shark in a very soft voice. “But my gambling days are behind me now. I will follow your lead, and I will--do what I must.”
“That’s the spirit!” said Ralchar, encouragingly.
“Get a hunch, bet a bunch,” grinned Crandall, and slapped his hands on his thighs as he stood up. “Damn, I hope this works. I’ve got a lot of living to catch up on.”
So You Say You Want A Revolution
“I hate this!” Billy Underwood’s fist banged on the coffee table. “No wonder no one takes halflings seriously. We’ve been talking about independence for a year now and we’re still doing nothing but talking. It’s time for some action.”
“Diplomacy takes time, Billy,” said Keri. “We’re making progress. We’ve got the political cover we need from Tremontagne’s treaty with New Trade; now all we need to do is get enough trade agreements set up to guarantee economic viability after the breakaway.”
“Trade agreements which are completely illegal under Cynystran law and will have all of us hanging if we’re discovered,” said Billy, “which is more likely with each passing week we sit on them. Give me a sword and a sling and let me die standing up.”
“We can’t do that, Billy,” said Keri. “No one will join us if it’s not a sure thing. You know that.”
“I agree time is of the essence here,” added Toby Salzar. “As the Madness recedes into the past, so does the people’s anger with Cynystra. And it’s true that if we wait too long we’ll be caught with our pants down, as it were. But the people are still tentative about a peaceful shift to sovereignty; do you really think an armed rebellion would stand a chance with them?” Billy folded his arms. “No, we must get our ducks in a row, just as Keri suggests, and then redouble our efforts to sway public opinion.”
“Leo Garbanzo is with us if we can show him the money,” Keri added optimistically. “That alone might shift the balance.”
“What happened with Pencleus?” Alora asked.
Keri sighed. “He still doesn’t want to get involved,” she said. “He’s a hero, not an activist. He doesn’t care who’s in charge. But he won’t let Cynystra come in here and bully-boy people around. Once we make the move, he’ll step up if he has to. I know it.”
“That’s not when we need the help,” said Billy, aggrieved. “We need to get this country of meek and accomodating fair folk to make the move. If we can do that we’re home. Cynystra is bound to New Trade’s treaty and we’re not worth that much to them. They won’t fight it.”
“That’s exactly why we need to stick with diplomacy, Billy,” said Keri. “If we declare our independence and join the Trade Federation, Cynystra won’t attack us and no lives have to be lost. But we can’t do that until we’re assured of enough popular support and economic stability that the province won’t turn back to Tremontagne within two months, or it will all have been for nothing.”
Mr. Salzar was nodding. “Garal,” he said, singling out the one member of the fledgling political party who had not yet said anything, “you’re going to Khyrisse Starshadow’s wedding in New Trade today, aren’t you?”
“What?” said Garal, a bit discombobulated. “No... I mean yes... I mean, I’m going, but the wedding’s not today. The, uh, bachelor party is today. The wedding is on Monday.”
“Yes, yes,” said Mr. Salzar, “but the point is you’re leaving today and you have an invitation, isn’t that right?” His former pupil nodded. “Will you bring Keri as your date?”
Garal blushed deeply. “Oh, no, Mr. Salzar,” he mumbled, not looking at Keri, “we don’t have that kind of, uh, relationship...”
“We gave it a try way back when, of course,” Keri added cheerfully. “But that was a long time ago, hey, Garal?”
The planeblazer blushed even more. “Perhaps I should rephrase myself,” said Mr. Salzar tolerantly. “Garal, my boy, will you please bring Keri as your date? I’m sure your immediate social circle will know you’re the invitee, but all the diplomatic guests Keri’s been networking with will be sure to take her presence there as further... legitimization... of her status. As if the Director of New Trade were sending a signal by inviting her, yes? Perhaps we can use your personal relationship with her to simulate that effect?”
Garal hadn’t stopped blushing at the suggestion of romance between him and Keri, so no one noticed his embarrassment at Mr. Salzar using the words ‘personal relationship’ about him and Khyrisse. “Oh,” he said, “well, when you, uh, put it that way.”
“Excellent,” said Mr. Salzar. “It’s coming together, Billy. Trust your history teacher on this one. I can see the patterns falling into place.”