“You?” Garal said, stupefied. “Mr. Salzar, you killed this man... and Keri, too? But why?”
“Politics, my boy.” The gnomish illusionist sat down heavily on one of the blood-spattered chairs. “Keri was a very charming young lady, but I’m afraid her diplomatic skills were woefully overrated. She was on the verge of giving away the store to the Cynystrans in her conciliation talks. Malisho Minarye wiped the floor with her in their previous meeting. We simply couldn’t afford any more concessions.”
“So you killed her?” Garal was aghast. “This is absurd! I--I don’t believe this! We have a coalition government and, and you were the highest-ranking member! Why didn’t you just tell her not to make the deal if you thought it was that awful?”
“She was the Prime Minister and despite how out of her depth she was, I didn’t have the authority to remove her, Garal. Now Leo Garbanzo is leading the talks, and the public perception that Cynystrans killed a popular politician will help him stay his course. Keri Cloverleaf, in a climate where Cynystra was perceived as granting our independence peaceably, would never have been able to. Her sunny optimism was a great asset during the revolution, it is undeniable, but we needed a strong hand at foreign relations. This was the only solution.”
“No!” said Garal. “There are always more solutions! I’ve been to more planes than, than you’ve read books, and in none of them is there only one solution. That’s a lazy, a coward’s answer! You murderer!”
“Say what you will,” said Toby, and shrugged sadly. “If I thought I could have changed your opinion, Garal, or Keri’s, perhaps there might have been another way. As it is, only one remains.”
“So you’re going to what, kill us now?” sighed Rani, like she’d heard it before.
“There’s been more than enough death here. No, all I need now is a scapegoat, and you, Garal, should fit the role just nicely.”
“Are you on cane?” Rani demanded. “You’re not going to be able to pin all this on Garal. He wasn’t even in the fucking country when Keri was killed... and I can prove it.”
“Which is why I need his help,” said Toby, agreeably, “if I’m going to make this stick.”
“Why would we help you?” Garal said furiously. “You’re a murderer!”
“Perhaps, but I’m also the president of a very young and vulnerable country, Garal. You are, to put it bluntly, a nobody. No parents, no siblings, a few cousins out in the country, no more. That you were behind this would mean nothing, a simple betrayal by a collaborator few had even heard of before. That Leo and I were would mean the collapse of the government, a blood feud between three of the most prominent families of the Shire, and, make no mistake, the end of Ti’Ashentes as an independent province.” Garal sat down on one of Sammy’s kitchen chairs, shaken. “I regret that it had to happen this way, Garal. Had you not interfered, perhaps our losses might have been cut with Keri. But that simply isn’t how this played out. Keri is dead now. There’s no changing that. Will history remember her as a founding mother of a successful country, or as a pointless murder victim in the footnote of a failed coup? What say you, my boy?”
There was a long, long pause. Rani looked incredulously at Garal. “You’re not really going to let him get away with this,” she said.
“No offense, miss,” said Toby, “but from what I know of his heart, my guess is yes, he is.”
“I hope you go to Hell,” Garal sputtered, a clumsy invective but one he hadn’t offered up since his last trip there.
“Time will tell, my boy. Time will tell.”
Every Once In A While The Cavalry Does Arrive
A heavy silence had fallen in the demonic holding cell Khyrisse and her friends were trapped in.
Jack had a deck of cards in his satchel, so they’d started playing a few rounds of Hearts, trying to take their mind off the many things that were troubling them this morning: Ailonwy’s vendetta, Grayson’s betrayal, Asinus and Vas’ fates, Khyrisse and Val’s total inability to cast a thing inside this forcefield, the hunger that had been gnawing at them for the better part of a day now and was getting increasingly hard to ignore. Khyrisse was, she had to admit, more dependent on magic than was entirely good for her. She was so used to being able to cast her traveling mansion at will, it barely occurred to her to pack real supplies anymore. The wealth of magic items that had slowly crowded things like blankets and iron rations out of her backpack were little more than decorative doorstops at this point. Val had a tinderbox, but there was nothing to use as fuel. And it was surprisingly cold here, once the suns went down; the forcefield did nothing to cut the winds. Khyrisse had curled up with Ebreth for the long abyssal night, and Jack could modulate his--well, her, now--body temperature, but conditions weren’t severe enough for Valende to scrap her pride and huddle for warmth, and her discomfort was not improving her mood. Khyrisse had tried to tell her Vas was probably in a better position than they were, seeing as how Hell was bound by law not to torment souls that didn’t belong to them and tended to actually abide by such laws. Val had practically bitten her head off.
Khyrisse sighed, and collected a trick of clubs. Maybe when Ailonwy came back to taunt them, they could prick her ego into a billiards rematch against Jack. It was the only thing that was really coming to mind. It would be weeks, she was belatedly realizing, before her parents really started to wonder where she was; they used to leave their own children for months at a time, and weren’t even likely to find her continued absence strange. She probably should have left “if I’m not back by” instructions with Lora. It just really hadn’t occurred to her.
Then a door opened from nowhere in particular, and Flicker leaned through it, holding onto some strange blue rope with his left hand. “Everything all right in here?” he said.
“Flicker!” Khyrisse jumped up in joyful relief, but Valende pushed her back warily. “How did you get here?” Val demanded, her other hand on the pommel of her sword.
“Luthien cast gate,” said Flicker, pointing at the frame of the planar portal he was leaning through. “Nasty the succubus lost contact with Asinus, and she was getting kind of worried...”
“Gate?” Now Khyrisse was frowning. “Gate doesn’t allow planar travel, it summons an extraplanar being!”
“In this case, me,” said Flicker. “Doesn’t take people long to get paranoid down here, does it?”
“What was Mato Miehet made out of?” Khyrisse charged.
“How many stops did we make on the Spiral Path?”
“Uh, three,” he said. “One with the Mithril Dagger Heroes, one with Arturian in the first Shadowwars, and one with Torin destroying that beacon thing.”
“What color was Astilla’s hair?”
“I have no idea.”
Khyrisse folded her arms and sighed. “He seems all right to me, Val.”
“Besides, he could hardly take us anyplace worse,” Jack offered.
Ebreth didn’t say anything. “Do I know you?” Flicker said, squinting at Jack.
“I’m, uh, Jack,” sighed Jack, fiddling self-consciously with her blouse. “It’s a long story. How did you find us here, anyway? We seem to be pretty well hemmed in, topographically speaking.”
“What, the 212?” Flicker jerked his thumb over his shoulder and up. “I was born two planes that way. I could find this place in my sleep. Are you guys coming, or are you going to make me fight my sister for you?”
“I’m not leaving without Vas,” Valende said resolutely.
“Nasty found Vas last night. A devil apparently sold him to a group of succubi she knew. He’s, uh, a little tired, but alright.” Val gritted her teeth, already too well aware that her brother was not going to be appropriately distressed about this circumstance. “The one we’re still missing is Asinus. He’s somewhere in Hell, as best as we can tell. Tila led Max and Praxis across that old bridge of hers and they’re looking for him as we speak. Luth and I were just supposed to bring you guys home.”
“Well.” Khyrisse looked at Val and then at Flicker, and gave a rueful grin. “Next time I complain nothing ever gets done without me doing it myself... smack me one.”
“The rest of us do have our occasional moments of competence, you know.”
Be It Ever So Humble
Garal shuffled miserably down Oak Street in New Trade.
Last week, he had loved this town. It wasn’t as cosmopolitan as Trade had been, but it had the same bustling, energetic feel to it. Garal hadn’t lived in the country he was born in since he was a child, and every time he went back he felt out of place, disconnected. He never intended to live there again.
Now that he’d been exiled he had never wanted anything so strongly in his life.
The steps leading up to his apartment seemed very steep and very many. Garal didn’t have a lot of friends back in Ti’Ashentes to be shattered by the lie that he had killed Keri. He hoped that Khyrisse believed what he’d told her in his letter, that he’d taken the blame for a crime he didn’t commit and couldn’t explain why. Rani said she’d vouch for him. For some reason it made a difference. Garal didn’t want to be living in a city belonging to someone who thought he was a relocated murderer on probation. What the others thought of him he guessed didn’t matter so much. This was his home now, whether he liked it or not. His was the face he was going to have to look in the mirror every morning.
With a heavy heart, he put his key into his apartment door, only to find it was already unlocked.
So depressed was Garal, he didn’t even have it in him to panic over the idea of an assassin pursuing him. Oh, great, he thought, with a mental sigh, just what I needed today. Then he pushed open the door.
“Surprise!” yelled everyone.
“...” said Garal.
“Happy housewarming, Garry,” grinned Vickie Dare. “We thought the place looked kinda bare, so each of us picked out a piece of furniture for ya.”
“You,” Garal said feebly. The flat now looked like someplace Derek the Deranged might have lived as an apprentice.
“The bed is from me,” she stage-whispered, with a wink.
Garal looked from the purple waterbed to the graceful elven china cabinet to the overstuffed green reading chair to the rolltop desk. He looked from Vickie to Jack, to Amatsu, to Val and Vas, Ebreth and Khyrisse, to Rani, leaning quietly against the very back wall with a self-satisfied smirk on her face, to Mina and Orlen and even Princess Thalia. There was, for some reason, a lump in his throat.
“Thank you,” he finally said, his voice barely more than a squeak, but getting stronger. “It’s good to be home.”
Laura’s One And Only Comic Book Reference of the Game
Rani hated hotels.
You could wash other people’s sweat off the sheets, but not their impressions. Most hotel beds hadn’t seen murders or aggravated assaults, thankfully enough, but there was usually a date rape or a final-straw argument between a divorcing couple or somebody being violently ill at some point in the damn thing’s history, and Rani liked neither pointless people-watching nor going to bed in a burqa.
But the next coach for Rimbor didn’t leave till morning; and she was glad she’d stayed for Garal’s housewarming party. It seemed to have cheered him up a little. Rani didn’t understand the kind of patriotism that would make someone take a fall like that. Busting her ass to save Rimbor City from being hijacked, sure, but taking a murder rap just to avoid getting its political leaders into a scandal? You had to be kidding. Garal thought it was worth it, though, and who was she to second-guess him.
She sighed, lay back and stared at the stupid nautical-themed decor in the darkness and listened to Mina snoring lightly in the bed on the other side of the room. Tomorrow, it would be back to work. Rani had been away long enough.
She heard the noise faintly at first, then louder. It was coming from outside. Rani closed her eyes to let her psychometric senses pick up the whiff a little better. Someone, she thought, was crying for help. More unusually, Rani could have sworn she sensed a vampire.
She lay there a little while longer, trying to convince herself she was hearing things. Vampires are undead. There are no undead anymore. Ergo, no vampires. Fucking duh, Rani. She could still feel it, though, when she paid attention to the crisp night air floating in from the New Trade streets; and she heard the cry again, louder, and Rani wasn’t getting any fucking sleep anyway. She got out of bed with an exasperated internal sigh and took her Octavian cloak out of her bag, moving quietly so as not to wake Mina. It was as good a cover as anything, and no one, except maybe Vickie Dare, was going to take an Octavian sighting in New Trade seriously anyway. A vampire, Rani was pretty sure she could handle on her own.
As she fastened the cowl, though, the light from some passing barge came blaring through the fucking porthole window.
“Shit,” sighed Octavian, as it illuminated her.
“What were the odds of that happening?” wondered Justin Moore, smiling ruefully despite herself.
“Don’t tell,” said both heroes at once, each giving the other a long and penetrating look, and then raced out the hotel door together to go kick some vampire ass.
What’s Fair In Love And War
Ebreth was standing at the unshuttered bedroom window, watching the sun rise. Khyrisse put her arms around his waist from behind. He didn’t say anything. “There really was nothing we could have done for her,” she said into his back.
“I know,” he said softly.
“If only she’d told us... maybe we could have helped.”
“I doubt it. Not before they repossessed her.”
Khyrisse sighed. “Well, at least she’s free of them now. And they lost their chance at conquering Heaven when Praxis defeated the Seriape, so no harm really even came of it.”
“I guess,” Ebreth said quietly.
“It’s not you Valende was attacking, you know.”
“It could have been. If I was in Grayson’s place, I would have done the same thing.” He closed one of the shutters, looking at his own fingers curled through the slats. “I would have killed all of you, when I was in theta. It’s terrible to know. But I would have done anything they told me to. Sometimes I--thought I had.”
Khyrisse swallowed. “I don’t think you can be blamed for what you would have done in that state, Ebreth. I think by anyone’s standards, you were technically insane by then. We all have a breaking point. Believe me, I know.”
“No,” said Ebreth. “You don’t. Not like this, and I--hope you never do.” He closed his eyes. “Khyrisse... I’ve been trying all year not to ask you this.” She stiffened a little despite herself. Those were ominous words. “I can’t go back there,” he said. “I just couldn’t do it. There would be nothing left of me, nothing. You--technically, legally, my soul belongs to you. You bought me off. As far as Hell’s concerned, Khyrisse, you own me.”
“Do you... want me to find some way to... to sell it back to you somehow?” Khyrisse said slowly. “I don’t--know how that would work, exactly, or if mortals are even allowed to do that, but we could try...”
“No.” He leaned his forehead into the shutter. “No, but I want you to promise me you won’t sign me back over to them.”
Khyrisse’s jaw fell open. “Why,” she finally managed, “on Ataniel... would I ever... do that, Ebreth?”
“I don’t know. Do you think I write these things?” He pressed his shaking hands over his face. “If it was important. If it would save the city, save our daughter. I don’t know. Sacrifice me, sacrifice any other part of me, I trust your judgment. But not that. Please. I couldn’t take it again.”
“Ebreth,” she said, and tried to take his hand.
He didn’t let her. “Or,” he said, “even if you were... very angry.”
Khyrisse stood still.
“I know,” he said, without looking at her, “you’ve been hurt before. I know that. I don’t want to ask you for unconditional promises, but I can’t--Khyrisse, it’s enough. There is nothing I could do that would warrant that. Please. I’ve already done more time than--I can’t take looking over my shoulder like this, knowing you hold this over me. Please let me trust you on this one thing, no matter--what.”
It was a very long few minutes before she spoke. Her heart had constricted too painfully in her chest, her mind alternately careening over and shying away from nightmare scenarios in spite of all her attempts to rein it in. Dammit, I won’t be sleeping all week now... She shivered and made herself look at him, his body slumped against the shutter in exhaustion. Ebreth never slept well. She wasn’t the only one tormented by fears of the unthinkable, and he deserved an answer. “All right,” she said quietly. “It--I guess maybe it might have occurred to me, under some--it might occur to me. I have a temper. I know it.” She shivered again, involuntarily. “But I won’t. I promise. I--I may kill you. Depending what you did, I mean. I couldn’t even promise it would be quick.”
“That’s all right,” Ebreth said wearily, not opening his eyes. “If I went off on some Madness rampage or something, I certainly hope you’d either save me from it or kill me. I’m not going to tell you not to take some awful revenge if I left you or something, either. Just--not that. Let there be this one thing that’s beyond the pale. That’s all I’m asking for.”
“All right.” She put her hand tentatively against his back, trembling a little. “I promise. Can--can we stop thinking these horrible things about each other now, s’parde-vois... please?”
He sighed long and low, turned around and held her to his chest. “I’m sorry, baby. I’m sorry.”