“Welcome back, ma’am,” said Colleen, hustling down the hallway of the New Trade Federal Building alongside Khyrisse.
“Mmm,” Khyrisse said absently. She had a slight tan, fading to sunburn on her cheeks and the top of her head. Colleen went on.
“The economy’s been weakening, ma’am. Commerce has been good, but international production is down... the losses to the labor force are catching up with us.”
“That’s too bad,” said Khyrisse.
“Two businesses folded this week, a, uh...” Colleen flipped pages in her spiral notebook as she walked. “Hotel and a curio shoppe... and we’ve got four new businesses, a small parts store, a gourmet foods store, an olive oil shipper, and a timber warehouse...”
“Colleen,” said Khyrisse, stopping to face her intern. “Is there some reason you’re following me down the hall chattering at me instead of just meeting me in my office?”
“Uh, yes, ma’am, actually.” Colleen looked down, red-faced. “It’s Duke Omeria, ma’am. She’s... conquered part of Talaria.”
“Aughhhhh!” Khyrisse yelled, and hit both her hands on her forehead.
The Fourth Aspect
“They’re not necessarily dead,” Ralchar pointed out. “All we know is they’re trapped in the Rift.”
“Is there any way to rescue them?” Kit asked, without much hope.
“If there were, child,” Araiji said gently, “it would not have been an effective place to trap the Sebetekh. Dexy and your Sphinx friend were prepared to give their lives for this cause. And... who knows? Perhaps they live on in Ulisho’s realm.”
“What did you do to those Sebetekh anyway?” Crandall asked curiously.
“Don’t wanna talk about it,” muttered Kit.
“She gave up part of her humanity,” explained a voice from behind them. Kit turned to see a strange woman, tall and thin, her face half in shadow and half in light. “Which part remains to be seen.”
“Who are you?” demanded Kit.
“I am the fourth Aspect,” the woman avoided the question. “And you, young Stealer, are now the third true Immortal of Ataniel. I would know what you plan your future to hold.”
“Wow,” said Ralchar. “You’re really immortal? I thought that horoscope was just sort of, well, a horoscope.”
“The divinatory arts do not lie,” Araiji sniffed.
“I--I don’t know yet,” said Kit, starting to feel a little agitated for some reason. “I’m only twelve, miss... I don’t need to decide my whole future right now, do I?”
“Ah,” said the strange woman, “you have already, Stealer. All I need to know is what your decision was. All else you do will follow from it, for the rest of time.”
“No!” said Kit, upset. “I can do whatever I want. I have free will.”
“Forgive me,” the woman said quietly. “I speak of patterns beyond your limited vision. Of course, your choices remain your own. If I know the path you have chosen to walk, however, I will know what those smaller choices will be. Will you tell me?”
“What if I don’t?” Kit said belligerently.
“That would tell me what I need to know,” the woman said calmly. “Is this your answer then?”
“If I knew what you were asking, it might be,” Kit said sullenly. “Do you mean why I stole the immortality? I needed it to get rid of the Sebetekh and try to save my friends, but they died anyway. Except Ralchar,” she said, suddenly remembering. “Ralchar died the first time, and not this time.”
“Luck of the draw,” grinned Ralchar.
“The question,” said the woman implacably, “is what you have given up. True immortality comes only with a sacrifice of the heart, Stealer. Each of the Five gave up part of themselves to become more. The Seller sacrificed his ability to help others, and it is his endless existence you have stolen. How will this manifest in you? What path have you set for yourself, Stealer?”
“I--I don’t know!” Kit was starting to get really upset. “I--I told Magnate I’d only use it for good... and I did, I beat the Sebetekh and saved the world. So maybe it didn’t affect me at all!”
“Ah.” The woman’s blank face looked almost pained for a moment. “You have given up, then, your smallness. This should not surprise me. Indeed you will have an epic life, then, Stealer: a life full of powerful foes and godly artifacts, heroic deeds and struggles for the fate of the world. And at each you will succeed, more or less. The world will not end with you there to champion it.”
“That doesn’t sound bad,” said Kit. “You’re an old wet blanket, is what you are! Immortality would be boring and stupid if it wasn’t full of adventure and triumph all the time!”
“You will find your own grief,” the woman said. “This will not be the last time you will find yourself able to save the day but impotent to save those around you, Stealer. Your powers will fail you in the small goals... the human goals. You will see.” She was quiet a moment. “I wish you well with it. I have learned what I needed to learn.”
She was gone in a seam of black and white light, leaving the four Thieves alone in the desert.
Of Love And Other Indoor Sports
“Yeah, it was great,” said Ebreth. “A nice change having a week to ourselves. No Rat Kings or sentient dinosaurs or anything attacked the city while we were gone, did they?”
“No, actually,” said Jack. “We wondered if maybe they were all off pestering you.”
“Not that I know of. One pirate ship took a shot at the Carriage once, but Khyrisse scared them off with a lightning bolt before I could close on them.” Ebreth shook his head like it still annoyed him. “I mean, really. People don’t follow Khyrisse around casting sleep at her. There aren’t a lot of pirates out there who have the right to even try and kick my ass.”
“I wouldn’t have thought piracy would engender so much, uh, professional pride,” said Jack. “To hear Uncle Asinus tell it it’s mostly about body lice, grog, and shore leave.”
“Ah, he’s just pissed off because Caimen got all the babes.” Ebreth grinned and flipped his shades. “Speaking of which, how’s Aithne?”
“She’s, uh, fine,” Jack said, somewhat surprised at himself for not blushing. Ebreth apparently noticed it too, and grinned broader. “Ahaha,” he said, poking at the smaller man, “see, I told you she wanted you! So is she as sweet as she looks?”
“Uh,” said Jack, his brow furrowing a little in discomfort, “I--you know, I don’t think this is really the most appropriate way to be, uh, talking about this, Ebreth. I mean, don’t you think it kind of, uh... objectifies women?” Ebreth squinted at him. “I mean, I uh, respect her more than that.”
“I respect Khyrisse,” Ebreth shrugged. “Doesn’t mean she’s not good in bed.”
“Okay,” sighed Jack, pressing his forehead, “can we, uh, change the subject before we really get into the realm of too much information here?”
“Suit yourself,” Ebreth said affably.
The two walked on in silence for a few minutes. “When... did you first know you were in love with her?” Jack finally asked, hesitantly.
Ebreth gave that the thought it deserved. “I think it was after Cori--” he started. “Did Cori ever tell Jack she made a pass at me?”
“She, uh, did?”
“Well, sort of,” said Ebreth, like he was eliding over a lot. “On our way to Paris Island. Anyway, I didn’t, ah, take her up on it, and I was wondering why the hell not, and I guess it sort of occurred to me that might be why. And then Khyrisse kind of blew me off and I went and got drunk off my ass, so that pretty much told me the rest of the story right there.”
“So it took a while,” Jack mused. “To really know how you felt, I mean.”
“Well, there was that whole thing with Hell dumped right in the middle of it,” Ebreth said. “I might have figured it out a lot sooner without that. Beats me, I’ve never done this before. Why?”
“Well,” Jack said, “it’s... all a lot more complicated than I was expecting, that’s all. And it seems like my Other pretty much knew about Valende right away. That he was falling for her I mean. And I don’t--well, I think maybe I love Aithne, but I’m just not sure. There’s nothing about her giving me pause or anything, it just... just didn’t reach out and grab me the way Lita always said True Love should. I, uh, mean--”
“Lita fell in love with a man who wasn’t worthy of her and that’s the truth,” said Ebreth. “I say go with the mutual happiness over the dramatic love-at-first-sight thing. ...But that’s just my opinion.”
Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire
“The Rotting Toe,” Chloe read off the placard. “Let’s try in here.”
Thalia winced at the sheer name of the place. “Can we please stop this?” she begged. “I just can’t believe my True Love would be the kind of person to hang around bars like this trying to pick up girls.”
“Well, you’ve got to do something more proactive than sitting around singing ‘Some day my prince will come,’ Thalia!” Chloe shook her head. “You have one month. It’s the least you can do to go on a date every night till then.”
“Promising young heroes often frequent bars,” added Sashami.
“There wasn’t anyone my type in the Mithril Dagger. Do you really think there’s going to be in a place called the Rotting Toe?”
Sashami peeked in the window. “Well, don’t look now, but there’s a very attractive man with a claymore in there.”
“I’m not just looking for someone attractive, Sashami, I’m looking for my soulmate!”
“Well, how will you know if he’s your soulmate or not until you talk to him?” Chloe demanded.
“If he’s not,” said Sashami, sneaking another peek, “give him my number. He looks like he knows how to use that thing.”
“I hate this,” moaned Thalia, as her girlfriends held open the door of the Rotting Toe for her.
Back To The Grindstone
“Western Talaria,” Khyrisse repeated, pacing. “Do we know what was there yet?”
“Two human villages and a dryad grove,” Lora said. “They’ve been relocated.”
“I mean what’s there, Lora!” Khyrisse sighed and rubbed her forehead. Jack’s aunt knew more about politics than Khyrisse ever would, but her analytical mind just wasn’t up to Khyrisse’s caliber, particularly in magical matters. “Omeria just conquered a hundred square miles of undeveloped, strategically useless countryside in the most magically invested country on Ataniel. What did you think it was, a dare? There’s something in there she wants... and I want to know what it is.”
“The... region didn’t stand out for anything in the historical report,” said Lora, her brow furrowing. “I’d assumed she was trying to frighten Talaria into some sort of favorable trade agreement... but you’re right, it could be more. I can send Colleen to do some additional research.”
“Merde,” muttered Khyrisse. “By the time she finds anything Bloodscar’ll have it already. I don’t suppose we have intelligence in the area?”
“I’m sorry, Khyrisse,” said Lora. “Maybe I should have called you. I--assumed you’d want privacy.”
Khyrisse sighed. “I did,” she admitted. “Whatever Omeria needs from Talaria, I needed a vacation more. We’ll deal with it. Whatever it is.”
“So where did you take her?” said Jack, lifting a bucket of soapy water up over the rail of the Boat to Ebreth. The seagulls had apparently been having a busy week.
“Kamalua.” He rolled up his sleeves and started scrubbing. “Showed her around Akaka for a while, too, and a couple of little lagoons I knew. And down to the Reef. She’d never been to the Islands at all, if you can believe that. I gave her the grand tour, more or less.” He leaned out over the bow. “Well, minus the seediest parts,” he said, grinning over his shoulder.
Jack grinned back, sheepishly. “I’ve never seen the, uh, seediest parts myself, actually.”
“Oh, come on. You’ve never been to Port-au-Sang? Not even for Carnival?”
“Aunt Lora didn’t really like me leaving the estate when I lived there,” Jack admitted. “Port-au-Sang was pretty far up on the ‘forbidden’ list.”
“Well, she did have a point there,” Ebreth said, “but damn, Jack, Carnival is like...” He shrugged like he couldn’t think of how to express it, and sloshed a spray of soapy water across the deck. “Next Carnival, right, I’m taking you.”
“Carnival is in February, Ebreth,” sighed Jack. “I’m not going to be here, remember?”
There was a long silence. Ebreth put his bucket down and wiped his brow. “Well,” he said, subdued now. “If you are, though.”
“If I am,” said Jack, “consider it a date.” He paused. “But I wouldn’t, uh, bet on it or anything.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Ebreth said quietly, and scrubbed the deck with a new ferocity.
The Back Alleys Of Objectivism
“This has got to be the stupidest city on Ataniel,” muttered Alderon, kicking a pebble into the gutter. “No one here knows anything about Slade, guys. And if they did, they wouldn’t tell us.”
“I think it’s kind of charming,” Jason objected faintly on Lianth’s behalf.
“Oh, sure,” said Alderon, “if you don’t mind everyone belonging to some kind of fucked-up New Age cult, or anything.”
“It’s just a little overzealous self-empowerment.” Jason shrugged. “I mean, look how much stuff it helped them build. If you think this is bad, you should see what fanaticism looks like in my country.”
“It’s got to be based on a better principle than every man for himself,” said Berryn.
“Well,” said a man from behind them, “that depends on your perspective, really.” The three turned to look at him, and he smiled broadly. “What it means for the common fella,” he explained, “is that if you run into somebody stronger than you, you wind up as target practice down by the town square. If you run into someone who’s not, you’re cool. It’s not like anyone around here interferes in other people’s business, right? There ain’t no police or nothing.” He flicked his cigarette into the street. “So what you’ve gotta do,” he continued, genially, “is get real good at figuring who’s stronger than you and who’s not. Then you’ll do all right here.” He nodded his head left and then right at two other men who were loitering around in the alley. “I’ll start you out with a hint. Us three, we’re stronger than you are.”
“Oh, fuck,” sighed Alderon, pulling out his sword. “This would happen while the girls are all out clubbing.”
The Omeria Egenda
Omeria looked up as Hotspur entered her office, his armor battered and blackened with fire. “Well?” she said tersely. “The excavation... it succeeded?”
“Hey, I am, after all, a dwarf,” Hotspur grinned.
Relief skimmed across Omeria’s cool face, followed by a sinister smile. “Then things are looking very good for us indeed,” she said, putting her fingers together. “There were no... complications?”
“Eh, some snake-men or something were living there,” Hotspur shrugged. “Nothing Bloodscar and I couldn’t handle.” His eyes darted left and right, and he leaned in closer. “He’s been acting kind of weird lately, though, boss... did you know he calls himself ‘Kara’ in his sleep?”
“As long as he remains effective, his personal habits are of no concern to me.” Omeria dismissed it with a wave of her slim hand. “Did you cover your tracks?”
“I collapsed the cavern,” said Hotspur. “Anyone who shows up’ll know there was something there, but hopefully they won’t be able to tell what. In a hoard that old it could have been anything.”
She nodded. “Very good. You have done well, Hotspur. Have our prize taken to my laboratory.”
“Prizes,” said Hotspur. Omeria’s eyes widened, a rare admission of excitement from the dark sorceress. Hotspur grinned. “There were two.”
“There were two,” breathed Omeria. “Excellent. Tell Bloodscar to see to it that this doesn’t... leak... the way the wild magic phase did. If we can just keep this under wraps for another year, we will truly have the ultimate weapon at our disposal.”
“Sure thing,” smiled Hotspur, and shut the office door behind him.