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Exit Stage Left
Ebreth Tor kissed his sleeping wife and slid out of bed, his heart shuddering irregularly in his chest as the last vestiges of his dreams retreated to the darkened corners of his mind.
She murmured something drowsily and he came very close to crawling back under the covers, but he didn’t. Instead he dressed quietly in the pre-dawn darkness, folded his robe and put it into his backpack, strapped his sword and his pistol to his belt, and then, after a moment, put Khyrisse’s wand in his backpack too. He found her satchel hanging from the dresser chair, and rummaged in it for the Carriage sigil. It didn’t take long to find. He tossed the satchel over his other shoulder, unfolding the sigil as he went noiselessly down the staircase. Sennett materialized as he opened the front door. “My lord,” the phantasmal butler said, inclining his head and standing out of Ebreth’s way.
“Coffee ready, Sennett?”
“It shall be ready presently, sir. You are a bit ahead of schedule.”
Ebreth nodded and dragged the suitcase out of the hall closet and outside onto the stoop. Jack was standing at the base of the steps. Ebreth blinked at him a few times in the darkness and then gave him the first grin of the day and dropped the suitcase to grip his friend by the arm. “You’re up early, Paris.”
“I, uh, came to see you off.”
“I’ll bet you did.” He snapped the sigil into a carriage and opened the door to toss the backpack and Khyrisse’s satchel onto the plush seat. “How long have you been waiting out here?”
“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” said Jack, shuffling his feet a little. “What matters is--congratulations, Ebreth. It’s really good to see the two of you so happy. I didn’t get a chance to tell you yesterday.”
“You didn’t have to.” Ebreth grinned, pushed the suitcase into the cabin, and shut the door. Bane was low in the sky now, but no sign of morning yet. Sennett reappeared in the doorway with a covered basket and two thermoses, which meant either it was 3:30, it hadn’t taken as long to prepare as Sennett had let on, or Ebreth was going to get lukewarm coffee this morning. He cracked one of the thermoses to see and got a sweet blast of cider steam. “Perfect,” he said, tightening the cap and standing on the rung to cache them beneath the driver’s board. “We’ll be back a week from tomorrow. If there’s some kind of crisis--”
“I won’t tell anyone where you went,” promised Jack.
“What would we do without you, Jack,” he grinned, and made one last trip into the house. It took six minutes and thirty-two-point-four seconds, by Jack’s internal chronometer, for him to reemerge with his fast-asleep wife in his arms, wrapped up in a big white bedquilt. Jack had been counting on at least ten extra minutes of waking-up-Khyrisse time to finish his decorations, but at least he’d gotten the basics in. Ebreth either didn’t notice or pretended not to notice. “Can you get the door?” he said over his shoulder, lifting Khyrisse to the driver’s board.
“Stop stealing all the covers,” mumbled Khyrisse. Ebreth suppressed laughter and adjusted the quilt around her a little better in the early morning chill. “Isn’t she going to be annoyed when she wakes up halfway across Ataniel wrapped in her bedclothes?” Jack had to ask, as he shut the front door of their house and it locked in an amber flash of light.
Ebreth looked down at her as he settled in beside her on the driver’s board. She looked completely sacked out. The wedding must have been more of a strain on her than even she had expected. “Well,” he said, “my money’s on no, actually, but if she is, I’ve got a good repertoire of sorry faces, and there’s some clothes in the suitcase.” He snuggled the sleeping archmage into his left side and transferred the whip to his right hand with the reins. “If we’re going to make Montas by tonight without entering Diari airspace we pretty much have to leave now, and I have plans for tonight. She’s the one who wanted to be surprised.” He shrugged his right shoulder down at Jack, grinning. “Take care of the denouement and everything for me. We’ll be back and ready for more evil in a week.”
“You shouldn’t say that,” winced Jack. “It’s tempting fate.”
“For the first time in my life, Jack,” said Ebreth Tor, “I’m just about ready to tempt fate.” He cracked the whip without letting go the reins, a deft flick of his wrist that belied his leftover weapon proficiency with it, and flinched only a little as its tip broke the sound barrier. The team began to move, slowly at first, and then faster. The tin cans Jack had tied to the bumper sparked across the cobbles behind them and then lifted off, clinking into each other like chimes.
JUST MARRIED, proclaimed the back panel of the Carriage, in neat blue letters each the same height as the others.
Matters of State
“Is it done?” Omeria asked Hotspur.
“Yeah, it’s done.” The dwarf made a face. “I can’t believe you made me watch the whole fucking wedding. What a gagfest. Couldn’t K’Mar have handled this?”
“K’Mar had political connections to be working on,” said Omeria, dismissing his sourness with a wave of her hand. “You’re our surveillance expert. So tell me, Spur... was there any sign of Edyric the Archer?”
“No,” sighed Hotspur. “What do you want with that ugly dyke anyway?”
“Better for you not to know till it’s done, my friend,” said Omeria. “There is no mistake?”
“Oh, like the Web was such a subtle team,” snorted the dwarf. “Every yahoo in the place would have seen ‘er.” He cleared his throat as Omeria gave him that look. “But no, there’s no mistake,” he said. “Our inside ‘friend’ was right up on the dais, and she didn’t see hide nor hair of the bitch.”
Omeria nodded. This pleased her; she’d been having more than enough setbacks lately, and it was nice to see things going according to plan for a change. “And our newlyweds?” she said. “Have they left New Trade yet?”
“Early this morning,” Hotspur reported.
“Excellent,” said Omeria. “Then get me Marhault. It is time to start Phase Two.”
Swallower of Gods
“So,” Kit said, as the five thieves trudged down the dusty dirt road for the Doomlands rift. “What gods were trapped in this thing, anyway?”
“They were Diarian gods Kit,” said Araiji. “Ulisho, Maizhin, and Kza. I doubt you would have heard of them. This was a little more than--” She counted off rapidly on her fingers, translating between numeral systems. “--two thousand years ago, by your calendar. These Doomlands were then fertile and wild.” She tapped her staff on the cracked earth for emphasis, and some dead, orangish dust puffed up around the miniature crater it made. “But there was a terrible rift among the Diari pantheon, with Ulisho the Prophet challenging our revered Pysiri for primacy. Ultimately they met on this battleground. Some call Ulisho traitor, others mad with power, but whatever her motives, she had no more desire to destroy Diaria in the ensuing war than Pysiri.” Araiji was silent a moment. “I sometimes wonder,” she said, “whether things might not have turned out better for the Diarians if Ulisho had prevailed. You will not comprehend the treason involved in that simple musing, so it is of no import. Pysiri’s great power focused the rift in the hearts and minds of Diaria into a physical rift, one that reached into a world more powerful than even the gods could withstand. Ulisho and her followers were cast into it and never seen again. There is no escape from the Doomrift, not for objects, not for men, and not for gods.”
“That sounds promising,” Crandall agreed. “But how do we get the Sebetekh here?”
“This I can do,” said Araiji. “Taraizh Thanal has been a challenge ground for my people since it served as one for our First Lady and her opponents. I know the ritual well. The power of this place is binding; the challenge will be spoken, and they must answer.” The seer paused. “The greater difficulty,” she said, “will be casting them into the Rift. For unlike Pysiri, none of us has divine power of our own.”
“Well, what about Ulisho?” said Ralchar. “If there’s no escape from the Doomrift ever... that means she’s still down there, right?”
“No one knows what happens to those lost in the Rift,” said Araiji, frowning.
“Well, destruction would be escape, of a sort, wouldn’t it? You’ve got to figure at least the souls of everyone who’s ever fallen in are still trapped down there somewhere. Which would make Ulisho and her buddies the only true god-essences left on Ataniel.”
Araiji shook her head. “Even if that were true,” she said, “releasing her would be beyond the power of all the lost gods of our world combined.”
“Maybe she could drag someone else in, though.”
“I--don’t think we should count on that.”
“I still have the wand of the Ram,” offered Kit. “Maybe if we tricked them into standing right by the edge somehow, I could use it to break up the ground under their feet.”
“We might also be able to trick them into looking in,” Crandall said. “They say the sight drives men mad... seeing what’s down there might at least distract the Sebetekh a little.”
“We can hope,” said Ralchar.
“We can hope,” said Dexy grimly.
To The Rescue
“You already finished yours?” Thalia exclaimed incredulously. “Really?”
“Sure,” said Berryn, leaning lazily against a wall munching on a bagel. “It was easy. I had off-hours duty last night, and a woman came in with a kid with rickets. Cure Disease. Then I gave the stone to Acolyte Edwin. Remember, the one who had me wearing that stupid “What Would Arawn Do” bracelet all week?”
Chloe snickered. “Should... that really count?” said Thalia. “You would have done that anyway.”
“So I work in a church,” said Berryn. “So sue me. He didn’t say it had to be something hard, just something that made a real difference to someone. Cure Disease definitely qualifies.”
“Where’s yours, Chloe?” asked Alderon.
“Oh, I put it somewhere,” she said, sighing. “I’ll get to it. ...Sashami? Is something wrong?”
“There you are!” The northerner hurried across to them, flushed and a bit out of breath. “Where have you been?”
“I’ve been, uh, hiding,” Thalia admitted. “My father and his entourage just left this morning.”
“And Berryn had to work the late shift in Annwych last night,” said Chloe. “I went with him to keep him company. Why? What is it?”
“I witnessed a kidnapping,” Sashami said breathlessly. “A villain in black bodyarmor abducting a woman!”
“From New Trade?” cried Thalia, jumping up. “Have you told the police?”
“No!” Sashami caught the princess’ arm. “I witnessed the crime... I should be the one to set it right. This is my intended pledge quest, I can feel it!”
“You’re kind of supposed to report things like this to the police, though,” Thalia said uncomfortably.
“Or we could free her ourselves and leave him tied up on the stairs of the police building,” suggested Alderon, with a sweeping flourish of his slim sword. “Like Silverblade would. Fear not, fair maiden, Alderon Torikin to your rescue,” he cried to no one in particular.
“Alderon, for all you know she’s uglier than a dung beetle,” said Chloe.
“No, she was passing fair,” Sashami said.
“Thanks a lot, Sashami,” Chloe sighed. “I was trying to make a point.”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter.” Alderon sheathed his sword impatiently. “We’re adventurers, and here’s an adventure. Are you girls coming or not?”
“Do you know where he went?” Thalia asked Sashami.
“Yes, he was heading north,” she said. “I followed at a distance, but turned back before getting too far from the city. I didn’t want to be caught unawares. But I’m certain I could pick up his trail again. I am skilled at the arts of tracking.”
“I’m game,” said Berryn lackadaisically.
“What is the meaning of this!” thundered the dark man in the faceless silver mask, moving his head back and forth in a strangely violent surveyal of his new surroundings. “You! Gambler! Is this your doing?”
“Smen cimmoc,” he whispered, and closed his eyes.
“Pathetic fool! This world is ours!” His mailed hand made a fist and Dexy seized up like his windpipe was caught in it, making a hideous choking sound Kit didn’t think she’d ever get out of her memory. She fired the wand of the Ram at the rocks the Sebetekh was standing on, but though the kickback blew her off her feet and into a dead tree, it didn’t make the towering man lose his footing at all.
Blood ran from Dexy’s nose, and with one last spasm his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell lifelessly to the dirt. “You should have fled while you had the chance, gambler,” the Sebetekh spat.
Crandall cleared his throat. “You know,” he Lied, “you may be able to cut through us like a knife through hot butter, but you won’t find the space dragons so easy an opponent. We’ve already summoned them, and they’re massing for the attack in the rift behind you as we speak.”
The Sebetekh actually whirled, and so did three of his five mates. Kit couldn’t blame them; she had almost believed Crandall herself, and she knew he was making it up. She fired on the leader again from behind, but it didn’t rock him any more than the frontal blow had. The sleek grey figure had taken to the air and did look down, and it sent her reeling; the bulky blue-skinned man caught her. Now they all moved towards the Rift, thinking this an attack. Kit was actually hopeful they might all head in to confront it of their own accord and just never come back out, but it turned out to be too much to hope for. “It’s a trap,” snapped the impossibly beautiful woman with the knee-length auburn hair. “There’s nothing there.”
“Yaaaaaaah!” yelled Ralchar, flinging himself into her from behind. She didn’t sway much more than the leader had when Kit blasted him with the wand of the Ram. The blue guy swung his sickle with a blinding flash of light and Ralchar’s head went skidding across the dirt like a skipping stone and thudded into Kit’s ankle. Kit was too stunned even to scream. She’d seen people die before, of course, but there was something about a severed head, something more final than anything else. “Shit,” said Crandall, and disappeared.
“For this waste of our time,” the lead Sebetekh thundered, “you will all die.”
Nay, Great Ones, replied a resounding voice, as a familiar stone shape shook itself loose from the dry earth. You will not slay this mortal child, for too much rests on her shoulders.
“Sphinx!” Kit yelled joyously. “It’s my Sphinx! Knock ‘em into the Rift, Sphinx! Hurry!”
“You... know that creature?” Araiji whispered, the worried look on her face only deepening.
“Distractions!” The Sebetekh struck furiously at the Sphinx as it sprang between the six demigods and the girl. To Kit’s dismay, the brutal blow of the stone beast’s gigantic paw did not knock the beautiful redhead back into the Rift. She couldn’t believe the stability these people had. Did they all have grounding devices like Algol Demonstar or what?
Kit tried to sneak into the shadows, but there weren’t any here. Crandall must have used an invisibility device. She hoped he was sneaking around for a backstab or something, not just taking the opportunity to get out of town. The young thief crept up behind the blue guy as best she could in this glaring light. They must have some kind of artifacts on them. It was going to be Kit’s only chance.
As it turned out, she didn’t get it. The Sphinx was holding up well enough against the pounding the six Sebetekh were giving it with their terrible weapons, but that was before the sleek grey figure, apparently recovered from her encounter with the Rift, laid her hand to its side and began visibly to suck the life force out of it. The great beast collapsed heavily to one side, narrowly missing the sleazy-looking guy. Then the grey woman put her other hand to the Sphinx, and it shuddered and began to flake dust.
“Augh!” screamed Kit. “You leave my Sphinx alone, you... you buttheads!”
She flung herself at the grey figure, but when she got there she was gone, and so was the Sphinx, and the Rift, and the dust of the Doomlands. Kit was standing in a strange store of some sort, with everything from riding crops to plucked geese to magical artifacts that daunted even Kit hanging from the many pegs and hooks adorning its deeply curved walls. A thin wisp of cigarette smoke rose from the carved wood desk at the center of the organized clutter.
“Kitreyla d’Gracien,” said Magnate, simply. “We meet again.”
Another Visit From Evan’s Favorite Villain
“Very nice,” said Cloak, admiring the small warehouse Vas had set up for him down by the docks with an exaggerated zest the elf could only find snide. “In quite good condition really. I suppose most of the buildings here would be of new construction. What’s our cover again?”
“Olive oil shipping,” Vas said shortly.
“Really,” said the arch-vampire. “How cliché. Oh, well, perhaps I’ll assign Bella. She owns some groves, I believe, and it wouldn’t do to have a front business that wasn’t turning a profit, would it?” He strolled over to glance down the staircase. “I assume the cellar matches the specifications I gave you?”
“No windows, double door, and an underground exit,” muttered Vas. “You’ll have to provide coffins for your guests yourself, I’m afraid.”
“Now that would be a charming little turn-of-the-century touch,” smiled Cloak. “You should go into the hotelier’s business, my good Vastarin. But no; it is to neither of our benefits to attract travelers into spending more of their time in the city proper, wouldn’t you agree?”
“They had better not,” said Vastarin, folding his arms. “For your sake. Even if I cared to, I would hardly be able to stop Luthien and Rhynwa from becoming involved if any of Khyrisse’s circle were to meet with any unfortunate accidents. Whether they were by those under your command or not.”
“All should be more than well,” Cloak assured, in a tone entirely too fatherly for Vas’ liking. “We are a chauvenistic nation in Tobrinel, my people as much so as our living neighbors, and there will be no rogue vampires relocating here without my knowledge, my permission, and, most likely, my concerted exhortation. Most of the passersby will be first- to third-level thrill-seekers I’ve sold this to as a sort of exotic safari. Bag a Javinite! Bag a Diarian! Have a torrid affair with a Shikinti vengeance spirit! Even if one of them did take it upon themselves to try their hand against, say, your sister, I’ve gone to lengths to see to it that they would be less of an irritant to her than a stray wolf wandering down from the mountains. I cannot speak to the loyalty of my people with absolute certainty, but I can be as sure of the safety of your friends as of my own, which will have to suffice for your purposes. Understand that I’ve walked Ataniel since before the time of your grandparents, young Vastarin, and feel quite confident I will continue to do so. Your friends are in more danger of being struck by lightning.”
“Fine,” muttered Vas. “Look, here are the keys. Is there anything else you need from me before I wash my hands of this?”
Cloak looked around the warehouse. “Bottling equipment, perhaps.”
“If you want to play at the olive oil business, Cloak, that’s your problem,” snapped Vas. “No one is going to be investigating it, or, for that matter, paying the least bit of attention to it. So kindly stop bothering me with it. Your avidness is starting to grate on my nerves.”
“Ah,” said Cloak, smiling, “no, our oil will all be bottled back on Bella’s lands, worry not. You should really give it a chance; it will undoubtedly be higher quality than anything you are used to here. I will require bottling equipment for more... specialized... exports of the operation. You understand.”
“Take the keys,” Vas said after a beat, shoving them at him. “I want nothing more to do with this.”
“I’m sure,” Cloak said tolerantly. “I won’t disturb you again, Vastarin. Until next I require something, that is.”
Vas stalked out of the warehouse, his cloak whipping in the midday wind.
Sashami inched her face around the oak tree until she could just survey, with her left eye, the small camp by the Northsea coast.
There were a few people moving, armed men, it looked like, gathering their supplies. Three in her line of sight; Sashami suspected a fourth beyond them. They had not yet noticed her. Sashami had darkened her face with dirt as her people traditionally did on the hunt, and hers was an outdoorsman’s stealth. Off the Northlands coast bobbed a strange metallic curve, like the shell of a huge silver turtle half-submerged. There was a hatch of some sort open on its back, and by it stood the black-armored man from last night, with the short-haired woman he had kidnapped suspended in some sort of rose-colored crystal cocoon. He was lowering the crystal through the hatch into the belly of the mechanical turtle. It had to be some sort of underwater transport device. Sashami could not follow a trail through water, so their attack would have to be now or never. She gestured furiously to her young companions behind her with her right hand and charged around the tree into the campsite, unslinging her double-headed axe. There was in fact a fourth warrior, right where she thought she had sensed him. “Foul villain,” she cried, “release that woman or face our wrath!”
“What?” The leader’s face was obscured behind his fearsome helmet, but his posture clearly connoted a scowl. “Bah! Another bunch of starry-eyed, wet-behind-the-ear adventurers. Just what I need right now. When will you people learn you cause more damage than us villains?”
“What?!?” Sashami was affronted. “You are the one who abducted a woman from the street, dishonorable cur, not I! Watch what you imply about me!”
“Or what, you’ll kill me?” sneered the armored man. “Yes, your pathetic codes of honor are much more important than a death here or there, aren’t they? While my reasons for taking this renegade into custody would only get in the way?”
“If you have a reason good enough to justify breaking city laws,” Sashami demanded, “you had best share it with me now, miscreant.”
“Actually, I don’t need to share anything with you,” said the man. “Guards, dispose of these insects.”
The four mercenaries jumped to the attack. Sashami tried to struggle past them to the leader, but he had dropped down into the portal he had lowered his captive into. “Ow!” he muttered, rather undramatically, as the hatch hit him in the elaborate helmet. “Damn this armor!”
Then the hatch closed, and the mechanical turtle submerged. “You will not get away with this, foul villain!” Sashami cried after it furiously.
“Uh, Sashami?” said Alderon, trying desperately to parry off the attacks of two of the swordsmen left behind. “One thing at a time, here?”
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