There was a time, not too long ago, when stepping onto a seemingly empty boat only to be greeted by Ebreth Tor swinging down from the rigging yelling bloody murder would have seriously unnerved Jack.
For some reason this was what the mathematical construct was thinking as he ducked out of the trajectory of the pirate lord’s boot. Ebreth, who probably hadn’t been expecting to connect anyway, twisted like a cat in midair and landed on his feet on the polished deck, his rapier flashing from its hilt. “En garde!”
“I don’t have a weapon,” Jack pointed out, his hands still in his pockets.
“Then take mine.”
He shovel-passed the blade at him. Jack didn’t think on his feet anywhere near as fast as Ebreth, but his simple reaction time, unrestricted by the firing rate of human neurons, was nonpareil. “Now you don’t have a weapon,” he said, his right hand still in his pocket.
“I have a capstan bar.” Ebreth yanked it loose in a fluid motion. Jack laughed. New Trade contained Ebreth uneasily, like a glass globe with a bear inside. Whatever other changes he’d been through--almost all of them, in Jack’s opinion, for the better--he was still a pirate at heart, and settling down this much left him practically pacing off energy half the time. “Hey,” said Ebreth, straightening a little, “you’re the one who wanted to learn to fence.”
“I’d been thinking of a, uh, fencing foil, Ebreth,” said Jack. “With a little ball on the end. And maybe in the, uh, VR salon. Waving sharp objects I don’t know how to use in people’s faces is something I think Aunt Lora bred out of me in the first week.”
“I have 78 hit points, Jack,” said Ebreth. “You’re not going to kill me accidentally.”
Jack was starting to respond to that when the pain hit, a sharp, searing stab in his right side. He doubled over with a harsh gasp that didn’t sound like his own somehow. Ebreth had reached him in two strides, no trace of amusement in his features now. There was a dull, heavy clatter as the discarded capstan bar struck the deck, a dent Ebreth would spend days sanding out of its surface. There was the washing of the waves. “Jack?” said Ebreth’s voice, from somewhere distant and slow, and then closer, and then the world snapped suddenly back into focus. The pain subsided as abruptly as it had appeared, and Jack looked stupidly down at his hand where it clutched his side. “Jack!” said Ebreth, supporting him by both shoulders. “What is it, what’s wrong?”
“I--” Jack gasped, then remembered he didn’t need to breathe. He took his hand from his side slowly, as if expecting to see blood there. He did not. “I don’t know,” said Jack, in puzzlement and wonder.
John Yearlate doubled over in what felt like slow motion, clutching at his side. Blood oozed through his fingers. “I said get out of my fucking way,” said Frankie Roberts.
Jackson’s own knife was out now, and on his face was an expression John hadn’t seen before, the diamond-hard look of a cobra. John remembered, dimly, that Jackson and Frankie had once been friends. It had never occurred to him before to wonder how.
“Well, who’s that down at the end of the alley?” sneered Frankie. “You playin’ tough with me now, Jackie? We all know you lost your balls years ago.”
“Look,” muttered Eddie. “Frank, let’s blow, let’s get out. We don’t need more trouble. We got plans.”
Neither man paid him the slightest bit of attention.
“I ain’t afraid of you, Frankie,” Jackson said simply. Somehow it was the most powerful thing he could have said.
“Maybe you should be,” said Frankie.
The boardwalk had emptied in a hurry. No one wanted to be part of another rumble out on the promenade. John didn’t either, but when he moved his lips, nothing came out. Wounded, he thought dizzily, not even dead. It seemed so unfair somehow, after they'd come so far and waited so long, just to end up caught in a dream where everything went this wrong. Tama, he thought, without meaning to.
“Frank,” Eddie pleaded, as the two men faced off against each other in the street. “Jackson! Come on, this don’t help nothing!”
“Shut up, Eddie,” said Jackson, without looking at his former friend. “You’ve been twisted up till you’ve become just another part of it.”
“I’m trying to help you, you stuck up bastard!”
John watched helplessly as Jackson and Frankie circled each other, their knife blades winking in the sun. He didn’t understand all this hatred. There had to be some way this could have been worked out, Jackson, Frankie, Eddie. Did it have to end in violence? If he was better with words, could John have talked them out of it without getting a knife to the kidney for his trouble? He must have done something wrong--but what?
Frankie stabbed Jackson in the left shoulder, and Jackson slashed his arm deep as he put it in range. John Yearlate lay paralyzed on the pavement, his right side soaked in his own blood, and listened dully to the dogs on Main Street howl. “One false move,” said Frankie, low and grainy, “just one false move away, Cage.”
“Means you’re under arrest, Frankie,” came the quiet voice from behind them.
Fear in Frankie’s eyes as he turned, for the first time since John had met him. Not, John thought with the strange clarity of his closeness to death, that he was afraid of prison, or of the sheriff for that matter. Frankie Roberts had just seen the one person he still cared about losing, and that, John remembered without remembering exactly from where, was enough to make a coward of any man. “Joe,” said Frankie, “it ain’t what it seems. He started it.”
“He start it?” said Joe Roberts, pointing at John. There was an angry pain in his voice. “How many times do I have to see some kid lyin’ on the floor lookin’ bad, Frankie? How many times am I gonna look the other way?”
“Joe, don’t do this.” Frankie was pleading now. “Look, I’ll make it up. You know me and Jackson, you know we go back. That’s all this is. Can’t we just forget about this?”
“Nothing is forgotten or forgiven,” the sheriff said quietly and painfully. “It’s the last time around, Frankie.”
Frankie broke for the casino front, threw himself onto one of the horses tethered at the bar and slashed its lead with his knife. Joe Roberts raised his crossbow as if to shoot his brother in the back, made to pull the trigger, made to pull it again, and then swore, threw the weapon on the ground, and jumped back into his own saddle. John watched from the ground as the two horses thundered off for the Cynystran border, his vision darkening, beginning to distort. He heard Jackson’s voice some more, and Eddie’s, felt hands on his shoulders. The last thing he saw before slipping into unconsciousness was the river rushing on, effortlessly.
“Hello?” Aithne opened the door to her flat and looked crossly around the empty hallway. “Who knocked my door?”
Both Aithne’s hands flew to her face as she looked down and noticed, for the first time, the fluffy yellow chick on the pile carpet. “Chicken!” she shrieked in joyous abandon, scooping the little bird up to her breast. “Katikusakta! Jack’s chicken is come back!”
“Woo-hoo. I’ll just have to break out the champagne over that one, boy,” came the Mistral’s dry voice from behind her.
Aithne wasn’t paying any attention. “Did you find for me?” she asked breathlessly of the Rat in the hall. The young witch hadn’t figured out yet whether he was some kind of shapeshifter or a supernatural being, but he could talk, and Jack Paris spoke of him as an equal, so he certainly was no ordinary rat. And he had done a favor for her this day. “I am very appreciate. You are a really good rat.”
“Thank you,” the Rat said modestly, preening his shoulder.
Aithne held Peep up to her petite face, her eyes crossing a little as she brought the little bird close. “I think, you are very dusty chicken,” she surmised. “I will give a bath and then we will find Jack.”
“Peep,” added Peep, as the door closed.
The brave little chick escorted safely home, it was Melissa’s turn to depart now, which she did by nudging the second-story window in the hall of the Rat Trap open. “Mrrrrrrrao,” she trilled her soft goodbye to Seeker and the Duck, and sprang for the branches of the maple tree next to the building. Seeker of Places was almost less amazed that five ragtag animals had been able to defeat the eldest Lich Lord of Ataniel than that the company of a cat had been so little an unpleasantry.
Shaking that thought off, the Rat started off for Jack’s apartment, Duck in tow. Jack would be glad to see him again, the Rat knew, but there was not much time to spend on socializing. Not anymore. Defending the world from Lich Lords was all well and good, but now Seeker had a friend to save.
Numbers played in his head all the long scurry down the hall.
I Fought The Law, And The Law Won
This was not how Shalak Anakazri had intended this year to go.
It was supposed to be the year of his triumph. He had manipulated that Diarian clone into freeing him, rendering him the only active Lich Lord on Ataniel. It was an opportunity any archvillain would have salivated over.
Then a handful of animals had freed all his minions, some moronic revenant had severed the Negative Material Plane, and Shalak was mortal, alone, and ruined.
Could things get any more demeaning? he wondered.
Just then the doorbell rang.
“What is it,” sighed Shalak, swinging open the door to his fortress with annoyance.
Six shots rang out in rapid succession.
“Inviolable m’ hairy arse,” muttered Jethro Toleski, stepping over the broken and bloody body of Shalak the Terrible. “You have the right to remain silent. You have--”
Innocence and Experience
“The rest of them seem fine.” Valende shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know, Khyrisse. Luthien will be here tonight... but I think your father might actually be more help. Whatever that was, it has more to do with wild magic than the negative material plane, I can tell you that much.”
A powerful new breed of wild-magic-using monsters in town, just in time for my wedding. Oh, lovely. “Anything even remotely resembling purple weasels,” the archmage muttered under her breath, “and I throw dice at your head, Barre.”
“What?” said Val.
“Call it a prayer to Newell.” Khyrisse sighed. “Val, I should tell you... Jack’s had a, strange experience.” The older elf’s eyebrows shot up in alarm. “It may be a weakening of his function. It would probably be good if you talked to him.”
“Oh, Haneli,” Val whispered.
“There are only six more weeks to go, Val.” Khyrisse sighed again, and rubbed her forehead. “I still have a few chips to cash in, but... but I think maybe we should be accepting the possibility that this might be all the time Jack has left.”
“So we should go on and let Ebreth take him out to some whorehouse?” Val said a little bitterly.
“What?” said Khyrisse. “Why would he do that?” She realized her voice was too sharp, and tried to moderate it. “What’s gotten into you, Val?”
“I--mean no offense.” It was Valende’s turn to sigh. “But Ebreth told Vas last week he thought they should get Garal a hooker, and with all the talking everyone’s been doing about Jack experiencing the world before he goes, I just thought... well, I certainly didn’t mean to imply Ebreth was frequenting such places.”
“Val,” said Khyrisse, frowning, “A hooker would probably be good for Garal.”
Val paused a long moment. “Well,” she said.
“It wouldn’t be good for Jack,” Khyrisse said. “I can’t believe you think Ebreth would do something like that.” She paused. “I can’t believe you think Jack would go along with it! It’s all we can do to get him to go out on dates. Can you imagine him with a prostitute?” Valende sighed, and Khyrisse fiddled with a piece of her hair. “Val,” she continued hesitantly, “I don’t mean any offense either, but--are you sure you don’t have anything invested in this Jack?” The priestess stiffened. “It’s just that... Val, you’re reacting to the idea of him with another woman like...”
“I just don’t want him to do anything he’ll regret,” Val said shortly. “Ebreth is Ebreth, and Vas is Vas. Jack is not, and I don’t think he should be taking their counsel on these matters. I mean nothing against Ebreth. You know my brother is the dearest person to me in this world, and I feel the same about him.”
“You think they’re bad influences on Jack,” Khyrisse said, squinting at her friend.
“I think they could be,” said Val. “I haven’t given up on saving Jack, Khyrisse. I still believe we may be able to. But if we do, and Ebreth has talked him out of being who he is because he’s going to die soon anyway... then we may save the equation, but Jack Paris will be lost.”
“People evolve, Val,” said Khyrisse. “He’s not going to turn into some debauched stranger. He just wants to enjoy life a little more. He said that, not Ebreth. He thinks he spends too much time worrying and analyzing and theorizing and not enough time doing.”
“I like him that way,” Val whispered fiercely.
There was a long pause.
“As a person,” said Val. “He is a good and worthwhile person. It would be a shame for us all if he lost that because he doesn’t think it’s good enough.”
“Val,” said Khyrisse, “look, if you wanted another chance with him, I’m sure I could suggest--”
“That is not what I said.” Val stood up abruptly. “I just don’t want to see him kill his innocence because other people think innocence is passé. Maybe more of us should be like Jack. Tell him that, if you will.” She stalked out of Khyrisse’s office, her arms wrapped tightly around herself.
Rites of Passage
“So you’re from Tharr?” asked Chloe, leaning on her cane as she made her slow and fragile way from the café. “You don’t look like any northerner I’ve ever met.”
“I’m from Cynystra, originally,” Sashami said. “My parents were attacked and enslaved by barbarians when I was a child. I was rescued by a Tharric warlord, who raised me as his daughter.”
“That must have been terrible,” Alderon said sympathetically.
“It was frightful, but the fates smiled on me at least. Ahvo was a good father to me, and he taught me enough of the arts of war that I need not be afraid again. I am on my pledge quest now. If I return to him victorious, I will be a War Woman of our people.” Sashami looked pleased at that prospect. She was of moderate height, just a bit taller than Thalia, but she held herself with an unusual straightness that made her seem taller. “Have the rest of you passed your pledges yet? You seem of an age with me.”
“Our... pledges?” said Jason.
“Rites of passage,” said Sashami. “So that you can take a man or woman’s full position, I mean. A warrior, a wizard, what have you.”
“Berryn and I are in training for the priesthood,” Chloe said. “He’ll go up for review next year. I’m up the year after that.”
“I’m a man already,” Alderon said proudly. “I captained my first ship last year.”
“Really?” said Jason, impressed. “Where is it?”
Alderon gave him a dirty look. “Ah, man,” he finally said, kicking a pebble down the sidewalk. “It wasn’t my fault. That shoal came out of nowhere.”
Thalia tried not to giggle. “I haven’t even started an apprenticeship,” she admitted instead. “I just left home last month. I’m trying to learn magic, but it’s slow going.”
“I guess I went on a quest like that,” Jason said thoughtfully, after a moment. “I went with some heroes to protect Ataniel from illithids.”
“But not yet without the guidance of older warriors?” said Sashami. “It seems we are in similar straits then. The customs of my people permit me the company of other young people who would prove themselves. Perhaps we might travel together?”
“I doubt I’d be much use to anyone traveling,” Chloe said quietly. She was keeping her spirits up admirably, but there wasn’t much getting around the fact that she was crippled. Valende said the vampire had drained her strength somehow. She wasn’t in pain and it wasn’t degenerating as far as anyone could tell, but it left her moving little more than half as fast as the others, and tiring sooner.
“You still cast spells better than I do at a full run, Chloe,” Berryn comforted.
“Maybe we could find a floating chair you could ride in,” offered Alderon. “Or an enchanted exoskeleton or something.”
“It would be shameful to reject a comrade because of wounds fairly gotten,” said Sashami.
“I think I’d be up for another adventure,” Jason said a little hesitantly. “What... did you have in mind?”
“I know not,” said Sashami. “Not yet, anyway. I heard you could get anywhere from New Trade, so I just came here. There must be a good foe who’s not too far out of our league somewhere on the continent.”
“I don’t even know where we’d start, Sashami,” Chloe sighed.
“Coincidentally,” said a smiling voice behind them, “I have a suggestion.” Startled, Thalia turned to see a handsome blond man in a red, white and blue costume. “Justin Moore,” said the man, tipping his hat to her. “Hero-at-large. And it sounds like you’re just the kind of people I’ve been looking for.”