“Look,” Jason said in a shaky voice as the Lianthi toughs closed on the three boys. “This isn’t necessary... why don’t we just give them our money?” Alderon gave him a look like he’d just said the most unmanly thing in the world, and Jason reddened a little. “I mean,” he said, “we don’t even have that much. It’s not worth risking our lives over.”
“Smart boy,” said the amiable gang leader. “Hand over the cash and your weapons, and you walk. Ain’t no need for violence here.”
Jason’s eyes widened, and his grip tightened reflexively on the pommel of his broadsword. “No!” he said. “I mean--this belonged to my... my lover. It’s all I have left...”
“Sentimentalism,” spat one of the other thugs, “has no place in New Lianth.”
“Nothing wrong with a little love story here or there,” the leader disagreed. “But you can remember her just as well without the steel, lad, and it’s hard to do without your head.”
“Him,” Jason corrected boldly, holding the sword out in front of his body.
The tough shrugged. “Him, her, it, ain’t no nevermind to me what you’re into. We leave here with your blades and your purses, and you can leave here or not, that ain’t no nevermind to me neither.”
“Oh, bite me,” said Alderon, and Berryn finished the spell he’d been mumbling under his breath, and the three friends leapt into action.
Unfortunately, the Lianthi was as good at his appraisals as he said he was. Alderon looked younger and more inexperienced than he was, but even so, the Silver Bullets were plainly outmatched. Jason, especially, was getting the worse of it, but he battled gamely on, feeling the blood run down his unarmored side. If they wanted Cedric’s sword they were going to have to pry it from his cold dead fingers, he thought with a ferocity that surprised himself. It didn’t help that the people on the street were passing by the alley where he was fighting for his life without even trying to interfere. They had no way of knowing who had started it, Jason grudgingly acknowledged, or who was to blame. It was they who were the strangers in town, after all. If only Sashami were here; her axe would make all the difference.
She didn’t arrive, but a streak of light did shoot over the thugs’ heads and explode into a brilliant starburst behind them, sending two of them reeling blindly. It was enough to change the odds, at least in the gang leader’s estimation, for he tipped his hat in Alderon’s direction and melted back into the shadows, drawing his stumbling companions with him. Jason put his broadsword down between two cobbles and leaned on it, breathing heavily. On the other side of the alley stood a sturdy middle-aged man with graying hair, frowning, a smoking flare gun in his hands. “You boys all right?” he said.
“I think so,” said Alderon, eyeing Jason worriedly. There was a cooling glow as Berryn mumbled a healing spell. “Thanks for the help. I was starting to think no one in this city gave a damn about anyone else.”
“I’m from Rimbor,” said the man dryly, and produced a business card from his sleeve. “Carson Delaney, gamesmaster.” Alderon took it. “What brings you kids to Lianth?”
“We’re looking for a villain named Slade, actually,” said Berryn. “You wouldn’t have heard of him, would you?”
Carson frowned and shook his head. “Have you tried the Mithril Dagger?”
“That was the first place we went,” sighed Alderon. “Kevin said he thought he might be a bandit leader and suggested we talk to some locals.”
“Well, bandits don’t come into the city proper much,” said Carson. “Maybe if you talked to some of the merchants who ship things in or out, they might have a better idea. Or better yet, you could try Trassus. They probably have more direct contact with bandits up there.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Jason, feeling a little less like throwing up with two healing spells under his belt now. “Thank you... for everything. You probably saved my life.”
“Ah, hell.” Carson waved it away. “It was nothing. It’s nice to do a good deed I don’t have to sell my damn soul for now and then. You be careful out there, all right?”
Ebreth hesitated for what felt like a long time in front of the small wooden church, straightened his collar a little self-consciously, and then slowly pushed the door open.
“Good afternoon,” said a nun. The sanctuary itself was empty, something of a relief to Ebreth. He didn’t want to be interrupting people at devotionals or anything. “Do you seek the blessings of Tal?”
“I, ah,” said Ebreth, and cleared his throat. “I was looking for some... guidance in a spiritual matter, actually.”
“Then please,” she said, indicating the two chairs facing her desk, “trouble me.”
Ebreth didn’t sit down. “I should, ah, tell you, Sister,” he said, “I’m not a follower of Tal.”
“Tal bids me help any I can,” said the nun, “whether they believe in His love or not. My name is Jane Sinclair. What can I do for you today?”
Ebreth sighed and rubbed his neck. “Well,” he said, and sat. The chair was oddly hard. “Does your soul make you who you are,” he finally said directly, “or does who you are give you your soul?”
Jane blinked. That clearly had not been the question that she was expecting. “Talian tradition tends to frame its philosophy more in the manner of the former,” she said, “but I think most theologians would say that they are really two sides of the same coin. You are born with an immortal soul and carry it with you throughout your life, but it’s your choices as a person that define its fiber.” She took off her reading glasses and looked at him carefully. “Does your--soul bear sins you need forgiveness for?”
“Probably,” said Ebreth, “but that’s not what I’m here for. I--have a friend.” He looked out the stained-glass window. “A good man. Probably the best man I’ve known, and he may be dying.”
“Oh, dear,” said Jane. “Can the Church help?”
“I doubt it,” said Ebreth. “We’re working on some things. But he’s not human, and everyone says he doesn’t have a soul.” He looked directly at the nun. “Well, he’s spent years living his life, making choices like the rest of us, and most of the time they’ve been better choices. How is that not a soul? Are you telling me that’s all just down the toilet now, there’s going to be nothing left of him?”
Sister Jane paused. “Not all beings have the same life cycle,” she said carefully. “The Diarians, for instance, are said to recycle their memories at death into some greater psionic gestalt... though they surely have some immortal essence, it simply is not realized as our souls are. Perhaps you should talk to a spiritual leader from your friend’s people.”
“There aren’t any,” said Ebreth.
“Every sentient race has spirituality, even if it may not seem so at first,” she said gently.
“I mean there aren’t any of his, people. He’s the only one.”
“Then perhaps the answer is contained within him.” Jane shrugged. “The world is large, and Tal is great. There would not be men who were thrown away uselessly. Even aliens and monsters play their part in Tal’s greater order. There is nothing in this world truly wasted.”
Ebreth was quiet a moment. “Thank you, Sister,” he said. “That--helps a little, I guess.”
“Coyri!” Tarrin shouted in Diari, rifling through the desk drawer. “Have you seen the gold I had in here?”
“You mean the living money?” said Coyri, coming into the bedroom brushing her hair. “I used it up on groceries days ago, Tarrin. That and shoes for Sajhir.”
“Already?” Tarrin was floored. “Coyri, it’s only been three weeks! And I need to pay the rent!”
“Things are expensive here, Tarrin!” She put her arms out helplessly, and looked at the baby sleeping in the cradle. “See if you can borrow just a little more. Sajhir is old enough now, I think he could get a job... and if you found something I could bring Elleran to, maybe I could too.”
That was a surprise, but a good one; perhaps Coyri was past the worst of her depression. That was even more important than financial worries. “I’ll see what I can find,” he promised. “In the meantime I--I’ll need to ask Ebreth for more money I guess.” This idea did not appeal to Tarrin’s pride.
Coyri seemed to sense as much. “Tarrin,” she said, taking his hand, “you aren’t a beggar, you are a psychiatrist. You help people every day. Back at home, the Empire gave you money in recognition of that. Your kiljhac friends are the heads of state here, aren’t they? If you won’t take money from your patients, perhaps you shouldn’t feel bad about accepting it from them. You are doing a service for their city.”
Acting like it was his rightful due would have been even more excruciating than acting like it was an awkward favor he needed, but there was no way to explain that to his wife. Tarrin could tell that she was trying to comfort him, though, and that in and of itself cheered him. “Thank you Coyri,” he said, squeezing her hand. “I will do what I must. And I will talk to Sajhir immediately about finding work.”
“Good,” said Coyri, and gave him a tired smile.
She watched him from the window as he left, sighed and shuddered at the things her poor family was having to endure.
Then she opened her closet and shook a little of the Cane she had spent the rent money on into her hand, took the deep inhalation that made her feel once again that things were going to work out for them somehow.
Blast From The Past
Ebreth was so lost in thought coming out of the church he almost didn’t recognize her.
This wasn’t a face from a past life, though, like Boule or Lucas. It was the first face from his own, and his step had quickened before he had consciously realized it. “Grayson!” he shouted, ducking
through the light crowd. “Grayson!”
She turned like she was expecting an attack, her hands moving into a stylized fighting position. “Stay back,” she said sharply.
Ebreth did. “Grayson, it’s me, Ebreth... don’t you remember me?”
“Ebreth,” said the planeblazer, not lowering her hands. “That does ring a bell... tall, dark, abandoned me to a Death Slaad in Limbo? Yeah, I think it’s coming back to me now.”
Ebreth coughed. “Ah, well,” he said. “Sorry about that... we’d just had our brains scrambled, if you’ll recall. I didn’t exactly know which end was up. You okay?”
“Peachy,” she said. “Limbo is highly underrated as a place to work off indentured servitude. Look, did you want something?”
“Just... just to say hello,” he said. “It’s been a while. I mean... it’s good to see you’re all right.”
“Guilty conscience?” she muttered, relaxing her stance a little.
“Concern,” he said. “I’m sorry I left you there, Grayson. I wasn’t trying to. I barely even knew who I was.”
“You ran like a rabbit,” she accused.
“I did,” Ebreth said. “I’m sorry.” She sighed, brittly. “I stayed behind in Hell to help you get out. Do I get points for that?”
“Yeah, sure,” said Grayson. “Except it wasn’t really you who did it, was it? Take it off your past self’s scoreboard of sins, I guess. Not like Hell gives a damn.” She raked her fingers through her long brown hair. “So I guess you didn’t need me to get out of Limbo after all, huh?”
“Not as it turned out,” said Ebreth. “You might have been better off without me, though. In retrospect.”
“It could hardly have been much worse,” she snapped. “Did you have to go back to Hell?”
“Well, yes, actually,” Ebreth said quietly, putting his hands in his pockets and looking aside.
Grayson Mer’s thin face twitched, and she folded her arms, stepping on one boot with the heel of the other. “I’d been... hoping you didn’t,” she finally said, very softly. “I thought maybe you at least got away.” She shook her head. “They’re not--still after you, are they?”
“No,” he said. “No, my, my wife bought them off. You?”
“Got off on a technicality,” she said, and sighed, her arms tightening around her. “It’s a long story.”
“I’d like to hear it.”
“Well, after my capture I had to work as a Chaos Hound for a while,” she said. “It wasn’t as bad as all that, I guess, but you never stop looking over your shoulder, you know?” Ebreth nodded gravely. “But then this prick Beliath comes through Limbo and makes off with my identity. Still not the worst thing in the multiverse--Corky found me another one, but--”
“That would be the Death Slaad?”
“You get to know these people, you know?” Grayson sighed and kicked the side of the fountain. “Anyway, I’d probably still be there now, but Beliath went through Hell and gave them my face, and they tracked it back to me. That was the end of that.” She shrugged tightly, and tapped her foot too quickly. “But before he left Beliath apparently filed suit under the Teind, and the legal department belatedly processed it and it was legit, so because he was wearing my identity at the time, I got off. So here I am. Free as a bird, I guess. Though it sure as hell doesn’t feel like it.” She sighed and sat down on the rim of the fountain. “I’m just muddling through however I have to, I guess.” Ebreth sat down near her, and she looked at him. “I probably would have run too,” she said. “If I could have.”
“Doesn’t sound like it made much difference in the end,” said Ebreth.
“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe not. You never know, I guess.” She was quiet a few moments. “I guess time will tell.”
“It usually does.”
“Yeah.” Grayson Mer trailed her hand in the water, watching it with some muted pain. “Yeah, it usually does.”
A Seed In Fertile Ground
“So what have you learned?” Justin Moore said encouragingly.
There was a silence from the Mithril Dagger table he had gathered his fledgling heroes around. Jason had a prominent black eye, and Sashami was sulking. The boy with the claymore had blown them off, and though Thalia was secretly rather relieved, Sashami was insulted enough that the young princess had to bring most of her diplomatic skills to bear in averting a duel. Now Chloe had fixed her up on a blind date with some friend of hers she knew from Annwych. Thalia didn’t want to be rude, but she just couldn’t imagine a successful date with someone who worshipped a dead god of death. Alderon finally answered. “Well,” he said, trying to sound optimistic, “we found someone who suggested maybe we should go to Trassus. Because most bandit activity’s heavier in the north.”
Justin nodded, pleased. “What about you?” said Chloe.
“I did gather some background information,” the caped hero said. “Kevin’s hunch about the bandits was correct... ‘Slade’ first surfaced a few years ago, as the leader of a gang of highwaymen. No one ever saw him, only heard of him from others. After the Madness, he put in a few public appearances wearing the Doomlands armor you encountered him in. He probably found it abandoned after the Shadowwars... how this might have changed his powers is unknown.”
Alderon stared at him. “Where the hell did you learn all that?” he demanded. “It took us all day just to get someone to point us to Trassus!”
“I really can’t reveal my sources,” Justin said apologetically. “Still, yours is the more practical information... what I learned didn’t suggest an obvious next move. Trassus sounds like a good idea to me as well. Do you think you could go there and investigate?”
No one said anything, so Thalia did. “Of course we can... we promised, didn’t we?”
Sashami sighed and nodded. “My honor rests on it,” she said a little grudgingly.
Justin smiled at Thalia, something relieved in the crinkles around his bright blue eyes. “I knew I could count on you.”
“We’ll leave tomorrow,” said Chloe, poking the princess firmly in the shoulder. “Tonight, Thalia, you have a date.”
Thalia sighed woefully, almost wishing she had the option to live her life as an old maid.
But her eye followed Justin Moore’s figure out the door of the Mithril Dagger of its own accord.
Ends And Means
“You are improving,” Jonathon said with a nod, and clicked his blade back up into his sword-cane.
Rani wiped her brow. That was as close as the vigilante came to issuing a compliment, at least in Rani’s direction. She wasn’t going to be an Inez Jardin no matter how much she worked out, though, and she’d resigned herself to it; all Rani really needed was to master the look, the feel of combat. Like an actor on the stage, she could fake the rest. And she was getting good enough for that. “Jonathon,” she asked, after a moment’s hesitation, “what... do you think about this Rimbor Slasher?”
He frowned beneath his cowl. “I haven’t considered it important enough to devote resources to investigating fully... he seems to strike only associates of the Scorpion’s, and is as likely to be an enforcer of Tucson’s as a rival. My hands have been more than full protecting the innocent of the city... but if you have a lead you would like to pursue, by all means do.”
“Not what I meant.” Rani sighed. “He’s preying on Tucson’s people, and he’s got them running scared--a lot more scared than we do. That kind of violence, it’s effective.”
“Yes, as it is for Tucson himself,” said Jonathon, frowning. “It still demands punishment.”
“Does it?” said Rani. “Is it that different from what we do?”
“We do not kill.”
“Should we?” Rani rubbed her neck. “I mean, we get these repeat offenders. We leave ‘em at the cop station and four days later they’re at their old tricks again. When does someone get dangerous enough that it’s worth taking them out permanently?”
“That is not our decision to make,” said Jonathon. “Believe me, Rani, I have seen evil the likes of which you have yet to read even from these city streets. Crush evil, yes, and with a firm hand, but if you destroy it, you will only become its rebirth.”
“I just wonder sometimes.” She stuck her hands in her pockets. “I mean, I was with the Rat Pack when they waxed Ælwyn. Now he’s dead and there aren’t hordes of his evil undead things slaughtering people everywhere. That’s an improvement, isn’t it?”
“The evil we fight is not such a simple one, Rani,” sighed the vigilante. “Slaying an ancient evil necromancer is one thing. Are we going to execute every pusher in this city? Every user? Everyone who spits on the sidewalk? Will we become tyrants worse than the ones we seek to undermine? No, we must be relentless, even violent, for that is the language these vermin speak, but we must not be lethal. Kill the Scorpion, and another will simply rise in his place. St. Augustine was killed; did it change anything here, did anything improve? Two years of open gang fighting, four of political instability, and we’re only now finding our way back to a status quo with a less experienced crime lord who cares for the city less than I did then. No, however justified it may have been, the death of Lucas St. Augustine did nothing for this city. The death of John Tucson would do nothing for it now. This must not be our path.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” said Rani, but the thought did not leave her mind.