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Chapter 4

Why Not To Get Yourself Involved With Powerful Evil Undead Villains, Chapter 16

Vastarin Windbourne, lost in deliberation over two females of the species, did not notice the dark figure shadowing him quietly and relentlessly down the streets of New Trade.

In fairness to Vas, he had no reason to be on the lookout. It was midday, after all, and sunny; not to mention the recent destruction of the Negative Material Plane and its attendant shades and animatees. There had been that purported vampire this morning, certainly, but it had behaved like no vampire Val had seen in her many decades of battling undead, and she was convinced it must have been something else entirely.

So whatever the creature had been, neither Khyrisse nor Valende was expecting an appearance from Cloak the vampire lord this afternoon, and Vastarin, trying to decide between Nynia and Ieshala, never had a chance. “Good afternoon,” the disquietingly familiar voice finally split his concentration, and Vas whirled to find himself alone in a quiet back street with one of the most powerful archvillains of Ataniel.

“You!” Vas’ hand shot to the pommel of his sword in an entirely useless reflex. He wished either Nynia or Ieshala were here now, actually. “What--what are you doing here?”

“Now, now,” Cloak said. “You were happy enough to see me last time, weren’t you, Vastarin? Back when I helped you clear that annoying little self-imposed geas of yours up? Yes, you were quick to think of me as an ally then. Surely you didn’t think that would be the end of your association with me?”

“You helped me no more than I helped you,” said Vas. “It was a simple collaboration against a common enemy.”

“But the world is so rarely simple, is it?” The vampire lord smiled benignly. “My people’s needs have changed. And I have a new proposition for you... Vastarin.”

There was something in his tone the elf liked even less than usual. “Perhaps you could start by telling me how it is you and your ‘people’ still exist,” he said, keeping his distance. “I was under the impression the undead had been destroyed by the severance of the Negative Material Plane.”

“Most have been,” Cloak agreed. “Particularly those who tended to be most loyal to me, curiously enough. The remaining Brethren have changed quite a bit, not necessarily for the better, and to be perfectly honest with you, my control over them is less... complete... than it once was. Our traditional hierarchy has been rather shaken. Not that this displaces my position, naturally. It just means I’m going to have to substitute political maneuvering for certain interactions where simple commands once sufficed. This means I will need more to offer my newly independent underlings. Which is where you come in.”

Vas eyed the arch-vampire warily. “It is?”

“It is indeed. You see, my people aren’t especially interested in keeping their bloodletting to a minimum right now, and our current Duke is... less than tolerant of their desires. Emigration is not a well-received plan, as our clans have lived in Tobrinel for more than a thousand years now. The obvious answer is new hunting grounds. New Trade would seem to be an ideal arrangement for us.”

“No way,” said Vas, shaking his poofy head firmly. “Trust me, the ruler here isn’t any more tolerant about vampire attacks than Omeria is.”

“She doesn’t have to be,” smiled Cloak. “I have well mastered the law of diminishing returns by now, believe me. I know how many missing persons it takes to spark extermination campaigns, and I have no intention of crossing that line with any capable ruler, yours included. Unfortunately, the current need of my population is both greater than Duke Omeria would put up with and unable to be held in check by my usual methods. I couldn’t help but notice the convenient trasportation system here. Using that for periodic hunting excursions, it would be child’s play to make up our deficit--and all without impacting the population of any one country enough to provoke a backlash. Yes, that would serve my purpose very well indeed.”

“It most certainly would not serve my purpose,” said Vastarin, frowning. “Get out before I call the guard on you.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” Cloak said smoothly. “I think a continuation of our little alliance could benefit us both. Particularly where your family ties are concerned. How is your lovely sister, anyway?”

“Fine and well,” said Vas, folding his arms. “If you think to coerce me by threatening her, Cloak, you have indeed left your brain in the sun too long. My sister is more capable of defending herself against your kind than I.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of threatening the dear girl with harm,” said Cloak, waving his hand. “As you say, she is a formidable opponent--and more to the point, she is far too useful to me just now. No, I meant what I asked: how is Valende? Feeling a bit better? Getting past the abandonment of that first Jack Paris yet?”

“Will you get to the point?” snapped Vas.

“Rather direct for a Liratyni, aren’t you?” Cloak smirked. “Very well, to the point: how do you think our good Valende will take the news--and evidence--that the only remaining person she truly trusts has also gone behind her back to make deals with her sworn enemy the undead?” Vas’ jaw dropped. “For her own good, of course. That did so soften the blow last time, after all, didn’t it?”

“You--” Vas spluttered.

“--could prove to her the bargain you made with me in Tobrinel, yes, and the pains you took to hide it from her. But wouldn’t it be a more pleasant solution for all involved to simply accommodate me once more? Assist me in setting up a small base here, make it seem palatable to your friend the Director, and you have my word that my people here shall take no more than one or two stray lives within the city limits each month. The rest of our activities shall be in far distant countries and I assure you shall never be traced here. If you’d care to provide me with a short list of individuals you’d prefer I took stricter measures to leave unmolested--either because you think their deaths might make it more difficult for you to smooth over our presence here or simply because you like them more, it matters not to me--I shall endeavor to guarantee their continuing safety, out of goodwill. What say you?”

It was beginning to dawn on Vas why this vampire had been up to the task of being Luthien’s nemesis all those years, why Omeria had not been able to wipe him out and why the loss of the Negative Material Plane was something he took in stride. This was no simple monster he was dealing with. “I--”

“I knew you’d see reason,” smiled Cloak, “when all was said and done. Meet me down by the docks at midnight tonight and we will begin with the plans for our base. Don’t be late. I would hate to have to bring your sister into this.” He flipped his cape and was gone in a shimmer of mist.

Pay It Forward

“Um,” said Thalia, looking curiously at the man in the wide-brimmed hat, “I think you may have taken a wrong turn back on Rosewood, Mr. Moore... if you’re looking for heroes, you probably want to try the Rat Trap. There’s a whole network of people there under Khyrisse Starshadow’s direction.”

“I’m not looking for the Rat Pack,” said Justin Moore. “Oh, they do good things, I know... but only for the people connected enough to find them and ask for their help. I’m interested in the little guy, the one who wouldn’t know where to find a hero if he needed one. I’m interested in the people who need people like you.”

“I don’t understand,” said Chloe, her brow knitting. “If you came looking for us, you’re already connected enough to find help. You could just as easily find the heroes’ guild here, or the Mithril Dagger Heroes, or the Significant Institute for that matter. What are you gaining by insisting on us?”

“The potential for proactive goodness,” Justin said. “Heroes’ guilds wait for people to show up with problems for them. The Mithril Dagger Heroes converge in times of epic crises, historically... these are worthwhile means, but we can’t let these groups be the only ones we can rely on. There are too many who need help day in and day out. A man’s homestead is infested with ankhegs. They are destroying his livelihood, they ate one of his children, and he can’t kill them by himself. It’s a crisis to him. But is he going to walk sixty miles to New Trade to ask Khyrisse Starshadow to help? Is a new generation of Mithril Dagger Heroes going to spawn over this? No, Ataniel needs a new kind of hero now.”

“Why?” said Chloe. “What’s wrong with ankhegs?”

“Uh...” Justin looked a little confused. “What?”

“Death is part of life.” Chloe shrugged. “And ankhegs are as much a part of the great cycle as farmers are. You’re looking for heroes to go kill animals so people can have more land to themselves? Why would we want to do that?”

“Look, it was just an example,” said Justin, with a sigh. “If you’re not interested in the struggling farmer, pick somebody else. That’s part of my point... if there were enough heroes of the sort I envision, each of them could help the people they cared about most and in the end everyone would get helped.”

“Do you have a quest for us or not?” interrupted Sashami. There was annoyance in her dark eyes; clearly she wasn’t happy about the stranger’s attempts to hijack the friends she had just found away from her impending journey to warriordom.

“I don’t think quests are really the best way to approach heroism,” Justin said. “It would be better to make helping people the primary goal, and the quests themselves secondary. More good could be--”

“Quests are the way of my people,” Sashami said bluntly.

“Good isn’t the only goal in the world, either,” said Chloe. “Balance is at least as important.”

Justin Moore seemed to falter a little. It was his first time facing a hostile audience, Thalia thought, and she felt bad for him. “I’d like to help people,” she offered. “I think what he’s saying is that everyone can help in a different way... maybe we can find something to do that would bring honor to Sashami’s family, and help people, and not upset the balance of life and death, all at the same time.”

“Exactly,” Justin said gratefully. “The only thing good is really at odds with is evil... and there aren’t many people who really think the world needs more of that, especially not after the Madness. Evil is more like something people fall into, for selfish reasons, or because they haven’t thought through how they could be something better. I’ve seen how evil can be changed, and I know.” He shook off the moment of contemplation that had descended on his handsome features, and went on. “Improving the world my way is something that can fit with any ethical system. I don’t need everyone to do everything... just for everyone to do something. That would be enough to change the world.”

Chloe shrugged. Alderon was listening cheerfully enough; Berryn had his usual look of lazy inattention, so it was impossible to tell whether he was swayed by the hero’s words or not. Sashami still looked irritated, but not openly antagonistic. Thalia herself thought it sounded like a rather nice idea. “What would you want us to do?” she said.

“This.” Justin opened his hand, revealing five silver slingstones in his palm. “I want each of you to take one of these. When you’ve done a good deed, one that really makes a difference in someone’s life--it doesn’t matter what kind, go ahead and choose something that’s in harmony with your belief system--but once you’ve done one really good deed, pass this bullet along to someone else, and take the same promise from them that I’m taking from you today.”

“So do one good deed, and pass it on?” Thalia took a stone. “I don’t know if it’ll work, of course... but it does make a nice thought.”

“Count me in,” said Alderon, taking another. “Berryn?”

“Okey-doke,” he said laconically, without opening his eyes.

Chloe passed him a silvet bullet and took another for herself, turning it thoughtfully in her fingers. “I’m not opposed to good deeds,” Sashami said with a frown. “But I am loath to give my word so lightly on no more than a stranger’s suggestion that it would be a nice thing to do. Should I die with such a pledge unfulfilled, my spirit would rest uneasy.”

“It’s not a geas,” Justin assured her. “Just a promise.”

“To one of honor,” said Sashami, “they are the same.”

“If you die,” suggested Thalia, “I’ll do your stone for you, Sashami.”

“Yeah, me too,” said Alderon. “Come haunt me and I’ll take care of it for you.”

Sashami looked touched. “You are noble companions, then, and I could do no less for you.” She took the last slingstone from Justin Moore’s creased palm.

“Then consider yourselves the first Silver Bullets,” Justin said with satisfaction. “Let’s get to work. There is much good yet to do.”

Auld Lang Syne

“Khyrisse!” Ebreth called across the living room. “Company!”

“Merde,” she muttered to herself, pausing for a quick adjustment of her clothing in the hall mirror before coming. Khyrisse didn’t like to think of herself as vain per se, but it was getting late in her pregnancy, and the rounding of her features that had initially been flattering was starting to make her feel like a hippo. Especially with the flarking wedding in two days, she thought without meaning to, and fought down the flutter of panic that idea brought with it. “Who is it?”

“Ey Khyrisse!” yelled Siobhan, waving exuberantly down the hall at her.

“Siobhan! I haven’t seen you in...” Khyrisse skidded to a verbal halt, dread sucking at the bottom of her soul at the idea of having to deal with a social call from Shannon in this state. “Is--is your mother here?”

“No, I’m here with my, eh, uh... what are you again?” she yelled over her shoulder.

“Father’s brother?” suggested Flicker’s voice.

“Uncle? Stepfather? Something...”

Khyrisse got a grip on her relief and followed the young Celt into the living room with a shaky smile. Tila and Flicker were there with Ebreth, carrying a few more brightly ribboned boxes. “More presents?” she said, with only partially feigned dismay. The living room was starting to look like it had when they’d first moved in, mounds of boxes piled on every available surface.

“I’ll put them in the game room,” Ebreth suggested.

“Oh no you don’t.” Tila yanked him back to her by the back of his shirt. “I brought that all the way from stupid Javin. You’re going to open it.”

“How can you be mayor of a place you think is stupid, Tila?” said Khyrisse, taking the gift.

“Oh, my city’s cool. You should see the vegetarian restaurants. Are you going to open it or are you going to stand there and gestate?”

Khyrisse sighed and opened the box. In it were two braided silver rings, worn but still attractive.

“They’re gnip-gnop rings,” Tila explained. “Like the ones me and Max use when we’re adventuring. I found ‘em in this cool museu-- uh, bazaar, in Margonal, and since I already had a set, I thought you guys might like one. They split the damage you take evenly between you. Maybe it’ll keep you from dying as much. Well, unless somebody drops a meteor on him, or something. Then it’d make you die more. But that’s the risk you take, right?” The master thief grinned at her friend. “Besides, I always thought those things were kind of romantic. Not like it helped any with Max, of course. I sacrifice my hitpoints for him and I’m the one woman in the party he doesn’t sleep with. Go figure.”

Khyrisse, one of women in the other category, couldn’t help blushing. “Thank you, Tila,” she murmured. “Is this one yours, Flicker?”

“No, that’s from George,” Tila said hurriedly. “We took the Carriage out together. You’d... better not open that till after the wedding, I think.”

“Gotcha,” Khyrisse nodded, and motioned for her spectral butler.

“This one’s from me,” Flicker said, offering Ebreth a lightly wrapped box. Inside, nestled in tissue paper, was a large pewter amulet in the shape of a stylized wolf’s head. “It’s a voggewulf,” Flicker explained. “It’s supposed to protect your child’s cradle.”

Ebreth admired the metalwork. “That’s sweet,” he said. “What, do we just hang it from the cradle and it’ll bring her luck?”

“Well, actually,” said Flicker, “it’ll turn into a huge spectral wolf and rip the throat out of anyone who tries to get to her.”

Ebreth just kind of looked at him. “Nice country you’ve got,” he finally said.

“We have some problems with trolls.”

“And this one’s from me,” Siobhan finished. “Though now I’m feelin’ bad for it not bein’ magic or anythin’.”

It was a crystal pitcher. “It’s beautiful,” Khyrisse said sincerely. “Thank you. It’s good to see you, Siobhan. Where have you been all year?”

“Oh, here and there.” Siobhan gave a cheerful toss of her messy red hair. “Me an’ Max an’ Zzenith just got back from the peninsula up north of Shikintu, tryin’ to track down Trissia Maddyx’s wee’un.”

“Did you find her?” Like the other Sewer Tourists, Khyrisse had just assumed Trissia was off on her own business for a while; it had come as a shock to them all when the feisty bard turned up dead.

“Nay.” She shook her head regretfully. “Babe’s been spirited off to another plane, best we could tell. Zzenith’s Wisdom does say she’s alive out there, did Max’s heart a bit o’ good.”

“She’ll be a grown woman before we know it,” Flicker said deadpan.

Siobhan swatted at him. “Hush you.”

Flicker laughed, and then a look of still seriousness shadowed his face. “Speaking of old friends,” he said, “has--anyone heard from Kieran?”

There was a brief silence. “He went on a bender after Threnody died,” Tila finally offered. “But I haven’t seen him since then, no.”

“I mean,” said Flicker, “with all that’s happened to the undead, would we know if--”

“Ghosts aren’t powered by necromantic energy,” Khyrisse hurried to reassure. “That’s why we couldn’t lay him to rest in the first place... remember? The Negative Material Plane shouldn’t affect him at all.”

“He’s probably just avoiding you because you’re a guy now,” Tila said. “Kieran’s about as heterosexual as they come. I’m sure he just doesn’t want to think too hard about having slept with you, know what I mean?”

“Threnody never slept with Kieran,” said Flicker.

“She didn’t?” Tila was surprised. “Well, why not? He was totally hot for you.”

“Okay,” said Flicker, passing his hand over his face, “now I don’t want to think about this, all right?”

“Men!” Tila said to the ceiling of the foyer. Khyrisse snickered.

“It’s hard,” Siobhan said quietly, “a little, this incarnation business. You’re not them, so you can’t go fillin’ the holes they’ve left in us, but at the same time you’re here, so it makes us feel a bit queer havin’ ‘em still.” She shook her head and squeezed Flicker’s upper arm. “It’s us,” she said, “not you. Dinnae feel bad about it if our imagination’s not up to the task. Your Kieran probably needs but a bit more time to grieve what he’s lost before lookin’ for what he might find. I know that feelin’ well.”

“Don’t we all?” Khyrisse said ruefully.

There was a long, overly solemn silence. Ebreth finally broke it: “So you’re all coming to the parties tonight, aren’t you?”

“Damn straight!” Tila pounced on the opportunity to lighten the mood. “Man, this is the event of the year out here. Pretty much the entire Sewer Tour is in town... I saw Waterloo at the coach station, so I know she’s coming too. Hens, baby, hens!”

Khyrisse laughed. “I’m--sorry your mother couldn’t make it,” she said to Siobhan, and half-meant it. “I hope sending her an invitation didn’t infuriate her too much. I didn’t want to insult her by not inviting her... but I wasn’t trying to rub her nose in the fact that she can’t leave her lousy little island or anything, either.”

“Oh,” said Siobhan, “she can leave any time she wants to.”

Khyrisse blinked. “She... can?”

“Well, she could,” said Siobhan, “but she’d have to ask ‘er old man for permission, y’see.”

Khyrisse’s jaw opened.

“She’s a fearsome pride, me ma.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Flicker said quietly, his reflective eyes a bit distant.

“I’ll drink to anything,” Tila grinned.

“To auld lang syne,” agreed Siobhan, and clinked her glass into Flicker’s.

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