A Piece of Home

— One —

“Sanctuary!” Broon Bloodgrass shouted with joy. The caravan master’s stout body fell into the bench back–to the loud protestations of the wood and a staggered step of the horses–as relief washed over him. He fished from his pocket a cloth to wipe away the midday sweat, though it always seemed to Maxon, the young driver of the cart, that the action added more than it removed. In response to Broon’s exclamation, Maxon looked up to the road ahead and saw the scout at the crest of the hill with his arm outstretched and sword held upright to signal their destination was at hand. Word quickly spread along the caravan to those few out of earshot of Broon’s booming voice and all equally shared the delight of the caravan master.

“Less than half a league to go,” he said to Maxon. “No chance of brigands at this point,” he continued. “Beyond the rise, it’s all open plain up to the gate. Ha!” He slapped his side–his tell of genuine relief–then grabbed the wineskin at his feet and drew a deep draught.

The scout rode up to them and fell in alongside their cart next to the caravan master. “Azyuma’s perfumed beard, what–belch–a–belch–journey!” he said to the scout, “and I owe much of its ease to you.”

The scout looked to Broon and gave a slight, respectful nod, all the while casting a watchful eye about. He smiled back at the quiet rider. The stranger was a curious figure, unlike anyone he had met before. The scout’s race was as puzzling as his appearance. Here was a man who could blend in anywhere just by changing his shirt. Of that, his clothing was a mix of familiar styles from across the empire, but it was the long sleeved tunic that was most perplexing. The material looked like the kind used by the barbarians in the frigid northern mountains, but the styling was not. On more than one occasion, Broon thought he had seen intricate filigree patterns in the fabric when the sun struck the cloth just so. The tunic was high on his neck with a single button just below his ear. A set of small jeweled buttons ran from his neck to his right shoulder and down to his waist. Snug sleeves went down to the man’s wrists.

Broon had wondered if the man might have been a captain in some foreign army, or if he had won the tunic in battle from an equally curious warrior. Such a provenance could also explain the odd harness his horse had, though it seemed flourished with the blue loops of Adrale cavalry. Broon had tried to learn more of the mysterious traveller during the journey, but the man had spoken not one word the entire time, though he seemed to understand what anyone in the caravan said. The stranger had a kind face framed by black hair that was as dark as stygian stone. His large eyes were a brilliant green with a corona of gold and a thin fringe of vermillion. Those eyes seemed much older than the lithe body that housed them.

“There is always some risk,” Broon continued effusing his good cheer, “with such a lengthy drive, but what you did for us . . .” He paused to replay the weeks in his head, and shook it in amazement. “I have never had a drive so free of concerns. And when bandits were foolish enough to attack, watching you ride out alone against them before we knew they were there . . . I’ll wager they thought a god was riding with us. Your feat of arms, methinks, will become the songs of legend for ages to come, and I will see it so.” Broon sported a smile almost too big for his head.

The scout nodded slightly again, a humble smile of acknowledgement on his lips.

“I do not know what gods set you on a path that joined ours for this journey . . . Ha! Practically as we exited the gates of Ranke. Once we are unloaded, I will visit the temple and burn fat-rich ox thighs to them for an entire day,” he roared. Broon offered the wineskin to the rider, who politely shook his head. “Then let this be the first of many libations to honor your continued good health,” Broon said. He drained the last draught and hoisted the empty wineskin aloft in salute. He let loose a hearty laugh when a few drops dripped on his face. “Ah, look!” Broon exclaimed as his lead wagon reached the top of the hill and they saw their destination.

Sanctuary.

“There she is,” Broon said wistfully. “Is this your first time here, Maxon?”

“Yes, Master Bloodgrass.”

“She’s a hellpit, but she’s home.” Broon’s words rang truer than Maxon might suspect. Broon was born in Sanctuary. His father also was a child of Sanctuary and his mother had been a temple slave, or so his father had only reluctantly told him on his deathbed, though Broon suspected she was a Red Lantern girl. Broon had never known his birthmother, but he did not begrudge his father the loss, for there had always been a mother-figure in his life.

“Stick close by me and you might survive to ride out in a few weeks time,” Broon said with a chuckle and a soft elbow in Maxon’s side. “And on that subject,” he continued, abruptly turning back to face the scout, “we haven’t had an opportunity to speak”–he chuckled unconsciously at the irony–“about it but I hoped I might persuade you to stay with us for the remainder of the journey.” The scout, who had been ignoring Broon to regard the colorful towers growing taller beyond the rise, turned back to face him and gently shook his head. The action was so delicate that his straight hair hung undisturbed.

“Well,” Broon stammered, “I can pay in advance. In fact, I offer this payment just for your services on the journey here.” Broon pulled from a waistcoat pocket a leather pouch fat with coins. Maxon’s eyes grew wide at the sight and sound of what was for him almost three years wages. The scout’s crisp eyes, in contrast, sparkled in amusement. Again, the head shook and rejected the offer with that simple polite gesture. Broon did not ask twice, and the pouch was quickly secreted on his person.

“Well, my friend,” Broon countered, “I greatly admire your humility, but I also wouldn’t want rumor to spread that I take advantage of others. Let me at least pay for your lodging while you are here. I know a few modest inns that might appeal to your sensibilities.”

Those words made Maxon roll his eyes, then he, like the scout, ignored Broon’s rambling about the return journey to watch the city appear as they crested the final rise. Broon had not stopped yammering as they approached the Gate of Gold. Two guards stepped out of the shade inside the wide tunnel and moved out toward the caravan while Maxon guided the long train out of the main thoroughfare.

“Are you sure I cannot persuade you,” Broon implored one final time. Again the scout shook his head, the action as gentle and polite as the first time. The rider gave a polite bow to the caravan master, a smaller one to Maxon, then he flicked the reigns and rode across the front of the team and started north along the wall. “Fare thee well, friend,” Broon called after him with a wave. “I pledge it is my third task to find Hakiem the Storyteller and have him pay handsomely for my accounting of your deeds, or I will sing them myself, if I must, but I swear all of the empire will know of you! I swear it!” His boisterous shouting ended as the guards reached his wagon; the voices of others in the caravan called after him with thanks and praise.

Just as he rode out of sight around the corner, the caravan master stood and waved frantically to grab his attention before calling out one last time. “Wait! What is your name?”

— Two —

There were few people on the simple trail that followed the wall around the north side of the city. He rode on past the Gate of Triumph, forded the White Foal River and swung wide of Downwind, then continued south, following the music in his head, a gentle melody just perceptible over the sounds of nature around him. As he approached the coast, the ground began to rise up to a plateau where he found the sparse ruins of a long-forgotten estate. Over the ages, most of the masonry here had made its way back to Sanctuary for incorporation into buildings as the city grew. One particularly massive stone block had survived the plundering, since it was too large for the townsfolk to haul away. Here, he reined in the horse to let it graze on the thick verdant sward.

He threw a leg over the horse’s neck and slid off. The animal raised its head to look at him while it chewed. He smiled at the horse and stroked its neck. When it swallowed, he slipped off the harness, let it drop to the ground, and gestured inland. The horse looked in the direction indicated, then turned back and nuzzled the proffered hand as a whinny rumbled out of its chest. The man patted the thick neck and gestured again. The horse dropped its head, turned inland, and started down the hill at a walk. The man watched it depart for a while, then moved to the massive stone. He slipped the sword sheath off his belt and leaned it against the stone, then he eased himself down to sit in the soft grass against the leeward side, pulling his knees up to his chest. In the dying light of the day, he stared at the city in the distance as it took on a delicate glow from the torches being lit for the night.

The gentle music in his head faded with the setting of the sun. He closed his eyes and hoped he wouldn’t dream.

In the distance, the horse broke into a gallop.

At the first hint of grey on the horizon, he made his way back to the city to wait outside the Gate of Triumph until it opened for the morning. He was the first one there, but he was not alone for long. He was joined by other traders and suppliers who always arrived early. Some of the cautious ones were surprised to find someone there before them. He paid them no mind as they did to him, though those same few kept a wary eye on him. The arrival of the Watch along the wall put them at ease, but not enough to make them relax their guard.

Once the gates opened, he let the more eager people enter the city first, many bringing produce in hand-drawn carts for the inns or the bazaar. He entered the city between these and the first wagons still approaching from the north. He fell in behind a group of artisans taking their goods to the bazaar. The sounds and smells about that place were intriguing; he followed them in. The morning crowd quickly filled the narrow lanes, making progress slow as he dodged, weaved, and was made to wait for buyers to conduct their transactions so he could move on to the next stall. The vendors called to him to “Feel that quality” and “Have a sample”. All he would do was politely shake his head.

Suddenly, he heard the melody, faint but near, and instinct took over. He spun around to head back the way he had come or hopefully spot a quicker way out, but when he saw none, he began to politely push and weave his way back through the crowds. When he emerged in the road, he saw the Gate of Triumph on his right and turned to the south. Ahead were more buildings, and beyond in the distance was the sea. The music was faint, but it was not coming from up ahead, so he began to walk briskly to the south, looking for an avenue that he could take to the east. He reached an open space where beast-dawn carts were drawn up. Laborers ran back and forth from the wagons to disappear into the maze of streets opposite.

He stopped to listen for the melody. It was still faint but he instinctively knew it was not within the streets across from the wagons. Looking to the south, he saw the buildings with trappings of men who work the sea. The aroma of salt and fish made him inhale deep and smile. Ahead he could see another wide street going off to the east and he strode on with purpose. At the intersection, he saw the avenue was significant in length and breadth, running all the way to the east wall. Buildings walled off the north side of the avenue. Somewhere within was the thing he sought.

He began to run. He tuned out the noise of the people and focused on the delicate melody, hoping to sense a surge in its strength to know when to turn and run in among the buildings to the north. Half way down, there was a break in the dense buildings–another avenue heading north–and he skid to a stop; the music surged slightly. He jogged northward up the avenue, weaving through the flow of people while listening for the melody. It grew stronger still and then it was gone; extinguished as if by the closing of a heavy door. There was no echo, no lingering wisp as smoke from a suddenly quenched fire.

He stood in the middle of the street and listened, oblivious to the people who wove around him as he studied the multi-story buildings that flanked the street. Further up the avenue was a high wall with a gate house flanked by guard towers. From that vantage, he knew, he would be high enough to hear the music again. Filled with renewed purpose, he resumed his walk, heading for that gate. When he reached the end of the street, he surveyed the two towers, wondering how he might access one unseen. A line of people entering the gate were being stopped one by one before being allowed in. He moved into the shadows of a building to watch the process, studying it for some way past them, when he heard the faint strains of a song. He abruptly forgot about the gate and stepped into the bustling street. Looking to the east, he spotted some street musicians plying their trade and he frowned. As he turned his attention back to the guard towers, he spied a different tower in the distance. He hoped it was not inside this walled area. He walked eastward along the wall until he came to a triangular park area, and stopped when he reached the intersection of the two streets beyond it. The buildings were not as tall as he had thought, but the upward slope of the land made them some of the tallest in the city. This avenue was lightly trafficked, and when he came to the low wall surrounding what he surmised was the tallest, he turned down the alleyway along its outer wall.

The alleyway was empty and still in morning shadow, but unbeknownst to him, one person took note of his activities. A Hawkmask, Manjuwa Senowari, was leaning against the corner of the adjacent temple at the far end of the alley, watching the curious man approach with mild interest. When the stranger stopped about midway and looked to be studying the wall and the temple beyond, Manjuwa gave him his full attention. It was by pure coincidence that Manjuwa found himself in this location, personally tasked by Jubal himself to meet a contact to acquire some important information.

This fool picked the wrong temple to rob today, he thought as he started down the alley. I don’t remember which savage Rankan god this one is for, but a theft from any temple is just the sort of activity that will bring scrutiny from the Hell Hounds, and that is bad for Jubal’s business.

“Stop,” Manjuwa shouted at the man, who deigned to give him a quick, casual glance before turning back to the wall. “Insolent goat,” Manjuwa hissed as he drew his sword.

The ringing sound of drawn steel made the man turn to face him and cast a disappointed gaze at the heavy weapon.

“Yes, you should be fearful, whelp, but that won’t earn you any quarter from . . . What are you doing?”

The man stared at Manjuwa as he reached over and unfastened the button at his waist and continue up his side with ritualized motions. As the tunic began to loosen, Manjuwa caught a brief glimpse of some bruising on the man’s flank. When the first button at his shoulder was released, the fabric fell partly open, soliciting an oath from the Hawkmask; the man’s exposed skin was covered with tattoos of eyes. When the last button at his neck was unclasped, the man torqued his shoulders, and the tunic slipped off his body, falling to the ground. The man’s torso was covered completely; the tattoos ran from his neck down past his waist, and from his shoulders down to his wrists. A few of them looked closed, but most were open. The man drew his own sword in a single slow movement and let it hang relaxed at his side. The stranger’s posture was neither aggressive or defensive.

Manjuwa relaxed his own tense posture, suspicious of why so slight a man would stand up to him. “I’m not a member of the Watch, so as far as I’m concerned, you’ve done nothing wrong, but if you do not leave now, I will stop you.” The man’s emotionless expression stared back at him. After a moment, Manjuwa asked, “Do you understand me?”

The man nodded slowly, then gently lifted his empty hand and gestured in dismissal. Manjuwa’s teeth clenched at the suggestion, but he found himself scrutinizing his opponent. The man was over a head shorter and his slim, fit frame did not look to have anything like the power coursing through Manjuwa’s limbs.

Since you could not possibly take me by force, you must be an acrobatic bladesman, since you were planning to scale the wall. This will have to be a quick kill, he told himself.

Curiously, the man looked at him and shook his head. Manjuwa unconsciously rubbed his empty palm against his breeks. The Hawkmask’s heart was racing and his grip tightened painfully on his sword as a suggestion took hold in his mind; a suggestion that all those eyes were staring at him, and they were judging him.

“What is that noise?” Donic wondered as the typical morning quiet of the avenue grew into a chatter. The Hell Hound was annoyed not only by the nearby din, but mostly by the thought that he would have to move to learn its cause. With a heavy sigh, he leaned over to the corner of the Gate of the Gods to peer down the avenue. The noise came from a small crowd that was clotting the entrance of an alleyway between two temples.

“Pivig,” Donic called. When there was no answer, he looked back to see the Watchman in full snooze against the wall. A handy stone at Donic’s feet soon smashed into the wall next to Pivig’s head and grazed his temple on the ricochet.

“I wasn’t asleep,” Pivig grumbled as he found the dented plate on his leather cap.

“Watch the gate,” Donic barked. “I’m going to check something out.”

“What is it?” Pivig asked, missing the subtle heat in Donic’s words.

“I don’t know. It might be two drunks fighting in an alley, but the crowd suggests otherwise.” At the far end of the avenue, more people shuffled around the corner, heading for the commotion. He grumbled under his breath and set off.

When he heard the unintelligible mumble from Pivig, Donic muttered in reply, “And if you’re asleep when I return, I will ensure your next nap will be the longest you and your family ever have.”

“Let me through,” Donic announced as he came up to the thick pack. The crowd ignored him–or they didn’t hear him over their own din, making him grit his teeth. “Make way for the Hell Hounds,” he roared as he began to work his way through the mass. The people at the back of the pack made a path for him, but those in the middle had nowhere to go, which ultimately suited Donic as he enjoyed manhandling and elbowing his way through them. As he drew closer to the front of the crowd, he could see someone further down the alley, but the shadows in the alley and the jostling of the crowd at the front made it hard to see details. When he emerged at the front, he stumbled.

“Who did that,” he demanded hotly as he spun around. The front of the crowd pressed back into the mass with little result. He glowered at them for a moment more, then turned back to the scene down the alley. Up ahead was a man with his back to him adjusting his tunic.

“What are you doing there,” Donic demanded. As he drew nearer, he saw something at the man’s feet. Donic was drawing his heavy sword before the discrepancy clicked and he recognized the distinct boot of a Hawkmask.

“Move and I fell you where you stand, murderer,” Donic hissed as he came to a halt a safe distance from the man, but still close enough so he could quickly lunge in and dispatch the culprit. At his words, the man–still facing the other way–rolled his shoulders and before Donic could speak, his tunic fell to the ground and he turned to face the Hell Hound.

“If those are meant to intimidate me…” Donic began to scoff, but his words trailed off when he saw the sword held loosely in the man’s hand. Like its owner, the odd-shaped blade was shorter than normal, but the smooth, blue pewter-looking metal was captivating.

“Drop that weapon now,” Donic demanded, his sword rising at the ready to menace compliance from the man before him.

The man looked at the wavering blade before his face, then glanced up to lock eyes with Donic. As he did, a disconcerting thought crept into Donic’s mind.

— Three —

From his study in the heart of his sanctum, Enas Yorl had entered the astral realm to engage in some demanding astral research, a rare opportunity afforded by his new corporeal form had the advantage of making entry into the deeper realms much easier than normal. Almost immediately he was distracted, his original purpose abruptly forgotten, by faint music. He had never heard its like before, yet its composition was the purest he had ever heard, in any realm or lifetime. The aether around him began to glow with a silver-blue light that pulsed but withdrew when he tried to focus on it. He sensed a current pushing him along, and those initial gentle pushes became hard buffets that swelled into a maelstrom; the music grew louder with the impact of every wave. The final wave swatted him back into the earthly realm with the force of Stormbringer’s war hammer striking a soft fruit.

Gaaahhhhh!, Enas Yorl’s psyche screamed in agony. His dark, cloud-like form rolled and boiled above the table in his study like a malevolent thundercloud that races down from the mountains, bringing a fortnight-long torrent to the plains. The music roared in his mind, making it difficult for him to concentrate enough to close the astral portal. Lightning arced within his cloud-body in time to the music, sometimes striking objects around the room, toppling, destroying, or setting them alight. The agony made him wish for the halcyon bliss of another transformation.

The portal to the astral realm closed and the music faded with it, bringing calm to his form; exhausted, he hung in the air like a morning fog. A bitter metallic taste echoed in his non-mouth. What an odd taste . . . so familiar . . . As his mind reached out to touch it, a brilliant golden light bored into his consciousness, and with it came a cacophony of ancient voices and images.

And a name.

Xin’s blood! Nom, come! I need you, he projected to his young dogsbody.

There soon was a knock at the door, and in walked the boy wearing a blindfold, his arms extended out in front. He stopped when he felt the soft barrier rope against his chest, placed just for this purpose.

“Yes, master,” Nom asked.

I have an urgent message you must deliver, Enas Yorl told him.

The afternoon sun beat down without mercy on the two guards at the base of the grand stairs, leading up into the royal palace.

“I doubt being nude and under shade would offer any respite in this heat, but a uniform prevents a blistering tan in the wrong places,” the elder guard said to his cohort.

“That’s why I take care of that in my off hours,” his companion answered.

The first guard gave him a dismissive look. “I don’t want to know.”

“Still,” the second continued, “they’re sweating like slow-roasting mutton in this leather. I can feel it running down my legs.”

“Shut up,” the first guard moaned, his eyes closed to blot out the invisible image.

“It’s flowing like the spring melt on the White Foal right now,” the second guard continued to tease wth relish.

“Shut up or I will personally shove Vashanka’s c . . .”

“Who’s that?” the second said, gesturing into the distance.

The first guard looked and saw a young boy purposefully walking toward them from the gate house.

“Who let you in here? How did you get in here?” demanded the first guard as the boy reached them.

Nom approached the two guards, unaffected by the gruff tone. “I bring a message from my master for Prince Kadakithis,” Nom said, producing a small folded parchment from inside his tunic.

“Is that so,” the guard scoffed, glancing at the other guard, who rolled his eyes. “Well, Prince Kadakithis is finished hearing pleas for the day, so you’ll have to come back next week when it’s open again to everyone. And tell your master he might think his words are important, but that’s not enough to see the Prince when you want, even if your master should be that monster Enas . . .” The guard froze in place as if a victim of that mage’s pets as the boy smiled and held out the parchment to him. Both guards leaned back from the paper, their arrogant, bemused expressions suddenly gone.

“Wait here,” the guard called out as he hurried up the palace stairs three at a time and disappeared inside. Nom watched him go, replaced the parchment in his pocket, and looked up at the remaining guard, who eyed the boy warily. Nom smiled at the guard, causing him to immediately find something–anything–else to look at.

“I understand you bring a message from . . . your master for Prince Kadakithis,” a man called out as he descended the stairs to stand several steps above Nom. His words were kind, but his eyes flitted like a prey animal; a fine patina of sweat was already present on his upper lip.

“Yes,” said Nom. “My master ordered me to bring this to him,” he continued, holding out the paper once more.

“As the primary advisor to his highness, Prince Kadakithis,” Manus said as he descended the remaining steps, “I must review such requests.” He gingerly took the offered parchment and turned it over in his hands. It was sealed with a silver wax, impressed with a strange, swirling signet; Manus noticed the same silver sigil tattooed on the boy’s throat. Above the seal were written the words: his answer is within.

“It is to be opened in the presence of Prince Kadakithis in three minutes time,” Nom continued. The unusual deep timbre of the boy’s words made the grown men warily eye the boy.

“Yes,” Manus said, glancing once more at the mark on the boy and the wax. “Yes. Come, quickly, and do not speak unless spoken to,” Manus said as he ushered the boy up the stairs and into the palace. Nom struggled to match Manus’s brisk pace, which left guards and staff scattering in their wake.

As they approached the main hall, a woman’s shrill, angry voice echoed down the hallway.

“I don’t care how many men it takes! I want you to find him and drag him in chains before me now!”

“My prince,” another voice began.

“Why are you still here,” Kadakithis said, his voice easily straining ever higher. “And what do you want,” the prince demanded in near-apoplexy. All in the hall looked in the direction he was staring to find Manus and Nom standing in an entryway.

The prince’s face was a vivid shade of red. Even from across the room, Manus thought he felt a sprinkle of the spittle that flecked the corners of the prince’s mouth. Before his dais stood three men– the Hellhounds Zalbar and Razkuli, and a third man dressed more in line with an envoy of some well-to-do merchant. On the dais behind the prince stood the chamberlain and a priest of Vashanka.

“Well?” the prince shrieked.

The vitriol in the prince’s eyes froze Manus in place. He had seen the prince execute men for more trivial reasons, and he could tell that this incident would probably afford him a tortuous death that would become legend. Manus’s lips parted and began to flutter, but no words emerged.

“The message,” whispered Nom with a tug at the advisor’s cloak.

“My prince,” Manus stammered as he approached the dais holding forth the parchment while Nom trailed behind, “I have just received an urgent message from . . . Enas Yorl.”

The prince had begun to respond, but at the mage’s name, he stopped himself. No words came out from his still-gaping mouth. The Hellhounds and the envoy turned to the prince, awaiting his response. Kadakithis’ mouth slowly closed and then a calm voice was heard.

“What does the mage say,” the prince asked. His voice wavered slightly as he fidgeted in his seat like someone with a case of prickly heat on his butt, and the red in his face, in fact most of the color, was nearly gone.

“Ah, yes,” Manus said as he fumbled with the parchment. When his eyes fell on the wax seal, he stopped and looked down at Nom, who gave a cheerful nod for him to continue. Manus swallowed hard, broke the seal–everyone in the room flinched imperceptibly, except Nom–and unfolded the parchment. The prince and others watched as Manus stared at the parchment for a moment, then he turned to look at the boy behind him, and back once more to the parchment. Manus cleared his throat; it echoed in the silent hall. He looked at others, gave them a forced, weak smile, flipped the parchment over, then his hand with the parchment fell by his side.

“My prince,” Manus began, “the message is most . . . peculiar.”

“I gathered,” Kadakithis said. “Written in some arcane script? Do you require help?” Irritation began to creep back in to the prince’s voice.

Manus shook his head. “No, Highness.” He cleared his throat again, then reached behind him to pull Nom forward to stand before him. “This boy is Nom. He is the servant of . . . the mage.” The prince’s eyes darted briefly to the boy. “The message simply instructs me to present him to you, and that he will speak for the mage.” Manus concluded with a nervous smile, and took a step back.

“Is that so,” Kadakithis said, turning his attention back to the boy.

“It is so, my prince,” Nom said, his words resonated with ephemeral power. Kadakithis fidgeted, pressing himself back into his seat, the Hellhounds wavered, and the third man dropped his hand to his belt, arresting his gut reaction to draw his sword. “Forgive me, my prince,” Nom said, this time with the voice appropriate to a child, to the relief of all in the room–they relaxed their poise. “My master has infused me with the knowledge needed for this moment,” Nom continued. “To begin,” he said, interrupting the prince before he could speak, “you were having a”–Nom’s mouth curled up in mirth–“robust discussion when I arrived that, I expect, is directly related to the subject I bring. May I inquire what it is?”

Zalbar glanced at Kadakithis, who gave his leave with a wave of his hand.

Zalbar turned to the boy and spoke. “There have been two killings this morning by a stranger to the city. One was an . . . employee of a . . .”–Zalbar glanced at the envoy, who glared back–“. . . a certain merchant.”

“Jubal,” Nom said. Hearing the name come so quickly from the boy surprised the envoy, who now regarded Nom with suspicious eyes.

“Yes,” Zalbar said. “The other was one of the royal guard. A small mob saw both incidents, but it dispersed when he was felled. Only a few witnesses remained when the Watch arrived and questioned them.”

“Master Hellhound,” Nom began, those two words issued slowly from him and pulsed with vexation. “If you find the details of these incidents too distasteful for your delicate constitution, please have someone else recount them. Otherwise, continue,” Nom snapped.

Zalbar snorted at the boy’s impudence, but continued. “The first incident was already over when the citizens came upon the scene. They were present for the second, but not much is known as they were at the back of the mob. It involved a member of the Hellhounds named Donic Primm. He was investigating the first incident near the Gate of the Gods. He found the killer standing by the first victim. He had to defend himself and was slain when he slipped or tripped over the other body. The Watch were summoned by the sound of the fighting and grabbed some of the people in the crowd, but the killer was gone by the time they learned what had happened.”

“Describe the killer,” Nom pressed with authority.

“Not much is known,” Zalbar replied. “The witnesses could not see his face and no one saw him leave. It was early this morning and the alley was still in shadow. The description they have was orally relayed from those at the front of the mob so it is most likely unreliable.”

Nom simply stared at Zalbar, who thought he had said enough, but a petulant beckoning gesture from Nom suggested otherwise.

You little. . . Zalbar cursed to himself, his nostrils flaring with indignation, but a sudden chill in the air made his skin prickle and quickly extinguished his anger. “They said he was not tall. His body is covered with some ornamental drawings, and he had an peculiar sword no one had ever seen before, but a cleverly carved stick would confuse most of those people.”

As Nom mulled over the description, he became aware of a peculiar noise. The others in the room were staring at him; he was smacking his lips, unconsciously trying to remove a subtle metallic taste from his mouth. He forced himself to stop and spoke.

“Did anyone suggest the art on his body looked like eyes?”

“Not exactly, but one did mention they seemed like pairs of rings.”

The boy hissed softly and closed his eyes.

“I’m guessing your master has heard of this man,” Kadakithis said as he lifted a cup to his lips. The hint of sarcasm in the Prince’s statement was not lost on Nom, who waited until the prince was about to swallow to ask a question.

“No one suggested an appearance of Ils?” Nom looked on with a slight smirk as Kadakithis choked and gasped for air while he continued as if he did not notice. “It would be understandable. A small, strange man covered with eyes easily killing two larger, stronger-looking men. Simple townsfolk could be forgiven if they had thought in their hearts he was Thousand-Eyed Ils in the flesh.” He paused, waiting until the prince could breathe once more, following the ministrations of servants and the chamberlain. Nom kept an eye on the two Hellhounds to see if they might react to his mentioning of Ils. They had ignored Prince Kadakithis’ distress the entire time, staring at the boy with a muted snarl that made their lips dance slightly. The two men had managed to resist making a move, though Razkuli’s fingers were twitching near his sword hilt. Jubal’s envoy had simply stared wide-eyed at Nom, the raging fire behind them a normal personal trait of the man.

“Are you all right, Highness?” Nom asked, the words coated in multiple layers of innocence that no one believed for one second. Just as Nom intended.

“Yes,” the prince gasped, then fell into another coughing fit. He gestured for the boy to continue.

“It would be understandable for someone to think this,” Nom continued, “and they would be . . . incorrect.” At his pronouncement, all seemed relieved, but the priest most of all; the man seemed on the verge of fainting.

“My master regrets to tell you,” Nom continued, “the man is not a god. Nor is he a demon. He is something more.” Nom’s face went slack. He stared off in the distance for a moment, then visibly snapped out of his daze. “My master insists you take his earnest counsel to leave the man alone. The man is not violent unless threatened. He is here for his own purpose and will leave when it is concluded.” Nom smiled and gave a shallow bow to Kadakithis.

“That’s it?” Kadakithis demanded, his temper starting to flare.

Nom nodded.

“Is this a joke,” the prince demanded with a snarl. The Hellhounds glanced at each other and broke into smirks of their own as they stared at the boy.

“No, Highness,” was the simple but stern reply.

“I should simply leave this murderer to wander the streets and not make him answer for his crimes?”

“A font of wisdom truly dwells within your Highness,” Nom smiled and nodded.

“Individually they might face a challenge, but if I send the entire Watch and the Hellhounds after this man . . .”

“Then you will have that many dead littering your streets, my prince, but it will in all likelihood be many more,” was the calm reply.

Kadakithis stared at Nom, looking for some hint in the boy’s face or manner that would tell him the jape was real. The boy gave none; he stood calmly with his hands clasped together in front of him and an innocent smile on his face. The chamberlain approached and spoke briefly in the prince’s ear.

“What of your master,” the prince asked. “Surely a mage of his power could handle this man.”

The men were startled by the boisterous laughter that issued from the boy. It was deep and loud, filling the room, echoing down the halls, and out of the palace; the two guards outside at the bottom of the stairs glanced over their shoulders in bewilderment. Behind the prince, the chamberlain and priest were having an animated discussion, which ended with the priest gesturing heatedly at the prince. The chamberlain glowered back, then bent once more for the prince’s ear, but before he could speak . . .

“No.” The laughter continued, though greatly diminished. It nevertheless was improbable for such a laugh to come from someone so young. “Enas Yorl will not because he cannot. This man is not someone who can be dealt with or handled or bent to anyone’s whim.” The voice was Nom’s, but there was a suggestion of some power lurking within.

“And why not,” Kadakithis demanded. When silence followed his question, the prince rose to his feet and descended toward the boy. “I grow tired of your riddles and subterfuge, boy.” His temper rekindled and the heat grew with every word. “Why shouldn’t I treat this man as a threat to the entire city–or, the whole empire? I want to know who he is and why I should consider your master’s counsel in this matter. Now!” The prince stood before Nom, his arms crossed with an exasperated frown dominating his face.

“Very well,” said Nom. “I will tell you what my master has imparted to me.” The boy’s face once more took on a far-away look, then, after glancing to each man present to ensure he had their attention, he began.

“If it helps you understand the seriousness with which my master considers this matter, know that he only just sensed the man’s arrival and immediately dispatched me here. His awareness probably coincided with the melee you described. This man has been known by many names over the years. My master does not know his real name, but Enas Yorl heard stories of this man from his master when he was an apprentice, who heard the tales from his master. There may be ever more steps back than these, but he does not know. The tale seems to be something that is learned and locked away in their memories. When the man’s presence is felt, the memory issues forth so steps can be taken.”

“Ah, so. . .” Kadakithis said.

“Steps for the protection of the mage only, Highness,” Nom said in answer to the preempted question. “While my master has no knowledge of any specific event, at some point in the past it was deemed wise to avoid this man at all costs.”

“Then perhaps,” Kadakithis said after the chamberlain extracted himself from the prince’s ear, “I can invite him to an audience.”

“It is likely he does not understand what we say any more than we would him, for his is a language that has not been spoken since . . .” Nom was slowly pacing in a circle, speaking directly to each man as he approached him. His pause came when he stood before the priest, who was dabbing at the sweat on his brow. A mischievous thought came to the fore, and Nom continued.

“There once was a city of magic. Every man, woman, and child within its walls were mages of a power undreamed of now, even by my master. In this time, there were no gods, just a pure source, an ur-magic. When the gods emerged from a tiny eddy in the flow of this magic, they took some of it for their power. Even so, what they took was not but a drop of this source, as inconsequential as taking a flagon of water from the ocean. The very act of their birth has isolated us from this pure, ancient power, like a sandbar that forms in a river, and wherein, the trapped water grows calm and brackish. That is the world in which we exist. Also consider that the gods must constantly expend a considerable amount of their power to prevent the erosion of this shoal they themselves formed against the source, and then you can perceive the real power they have, and what lies beyond them, or so my master and the ancient teachers believe.” Nom shot a quick glance at the priest and noticed his plan working quite well; the slit-eyed priest’s pursed lips were turning white and his balding pate had a flush of crimson at the blasphemous words. Nom suppressed his mirth at the priest’s discomfort and continued.

“The mages of that city were not isolated like we are by the gods. They drank deep from that river of magic. They bathed in it. They studied it, shaped it to their will, and made it their tool. My master will not engage this man because it is unknown what would happen if two such magics encounter one another. He speculates this is why they were taught to avoid this man for their own safety.”

Nom paused to glance at all around, and, seeing their concerned expressions, he said, “If I may anticipate the question all of you now have, he is not one of them. He is not a mage. He is . . . was their champion.” Nom shot a quick glance at the Hellhounds, who were not as easily riled as the priest. Jubal’s envoy, however, never lost his agitated expression.

“They chose him as the sole protector for that city so they might focus on their studies and arts undisturbed. In this duty, he was exceptional and needed no aid. To complement his formidable and innate skills, they fashioned for him a simple blade from a metal that is unknown today. It is why, at the mere mention of him or the blade, coupled with its proximity, we now have a strange metallic taste in all our mouths.”

Nom paused and smiled. At the pronouncement, they all glanced around at each other, all trying to rid themselves of the metalsome nuisance on their tongues. “Your attempt will not work,” Nom said as he also smacked away, “but it will go away in time.”

“What powers does this sword convey,” Zalbar asked. His tone was one of concern rather than fear. “It is not that long ago that we rounded up the last of those accursed weapons from Vashanka’s shop.”

“As best as my master knows, Captain, the blade has no magic or power as would concern you in that fashion. Its only curious feature is the unknown metal of which it is made. My master knows not if it was brought into being magically or was naturally occurring at the time, nor does he know what exceptional attributes this material would afford the blade, but there must be something to this line of thought since it is believed he has only ever had this one blade.” Zalbar recoiled as Nom described the weapon, which did not go unnoticed by the boy. “Quite the prize for someone who might win it from that man, either by feat of arms or dexterous intrepidity, either of which my master would advise against as a foolhardy and deadly expedition.”

“If the blade is not magic, and he is not magic. . .” the priest began.

“Then how is it he is so long-lived?” Nom finished. “That is the reason he should be left alone, which I will explain, Highness.” Nom closed his eyes and his head wobbled slightly as he drew in a deep breath, and then his eyes shot open as he exhaled.

“As the champion of that city, he prevented an untold number of attempts to lay siege to it. His fame grew far and wide, rivaling the marvel of the very city he protected. When once more the city was to be the target of raiders, they sent a woman to seduce him away and lay with him. Only then did the raiders begin their sack of the city. The raiders were merciless and slaughtered every living soul. The city was razed, probably more from the destruction of the magic inhabiting it than the violence of the raiders. The woman was also tasked to ensure the champion was dispatched, and she ran him through with his sword. When he awoke, he showed no signs of his wound, the seductress was a small pile of meat next to him, and he was covered from head to his feet with tattoos of eyes–one pair for each mage slaughtered. They inhabit him and imbue him with his immortality. It is not known what may free him from his eternal existence. It is believed he long ago dispatched the raiders and their descendants, though revenge has not lifted his curse. Some believe that he roams the world searching for the trophies that were carted away by the raiders. Others believe he must prove himself worthy again. This could explain why some of the eyes appear open and some closed, and why he disrobes when he fights; so they can watch and judge the virtue of his actions. Perhaps when all of the eyes are closed he will be free, though the killing of your men probably did nothing to tip this balance either way. These are the theories put forth by generations of mages.”

Nom paused for a moment and surveyed his audience, all of whom awaited the rest of his tale. Even the grimace was gone from the mien of Jubal’s man.

“He has probably come here seeking some relic from his city. When he has it, he will leave. This is all my master knows.”

Nom stopped and smiled, releasing his audience from the grasp of his tale. Kadakithis slumped back in his chair and exhaled audibly.

“My master suggests,” Nom continued, “that with the information gathering and observation skills of the Hawkmasks, together with the control of the Watch and Hellhounds, the man can be located and the citizenry shielded from further incidents. To attempt to bar his action should be avoided at all costs. You will not find him where others congregate, and I’m sure I don’t need to explain why he does not take the company of women, so he won’t be found in the Red Lantern district. If it is an object that has brought him here, no challenge or steel or sorcery will prevent him from obtaining it.”

Jubal’s man turned to Kadakithis and nodded in agreement. Zalbar and Razkuli stopped their whispered conference so Zalbar could also signal his agreement to the plan.

“It is done,” Kadakithis announced. “Is there any way to know what he seeks?”

“That is unlikely, my Prince, and to look for it is equally unwise, even if he was not here looking for it. My master suggests the people who might be capable of procuring, much less possessing or handling such an item are few. Let your subtle investigations begin”–Nom began to tremble and his face screwed up in pain–“there.”

An animal roar of pain bellowed from Nom. The men recoiled in surprise and watched the boy flee the audience chamber. No one moved to follow him. The sound quickly faded.

Kadakithis turned to stare at the men gathered around the dais and growled, “Why are you still here?”

Out in the courtyard, the two guards watched the screaming child run out of the palace, down the stairs, pass between them, then across the courtyard and into the gate house tunnel. When he was out of view of any eyes, the screaming abruptly stopped.

— Four —

Around late afternoon of the second day since his arrival, the familiar melody roused Ujox from his catnap atop the highest spire of the temple. As he listened, the song became clear as if the music was playing in his ear–it was near! He crawled around the circumference of the roof until he found the point where the music was clearest. It was moving in the heart of the dense cluster of buildings south of the palace gate. He studied the layout as best he could to make a mental map, then with a wistful smile, he began to climb down the spire. The afternoon throngs plodding through the streets were unaware of the figure descending the spire on its shadowed side.

But not everyone was unaware. Several pairs of eyes watched the effortless descent with great interest. These people gave simple signals to other watching eyes, each of whom set about to execute a single, simple action, unobtrusive on its own, but when done in concert were all part of a plan to limit the interaction of the unknowing populace with the climber once he was on the ground.

Ujox soon emerged from the alleyway onto the Avenue of the Temples, then walked to the southern end, and, as he approached the Royal Way, he took a shortcut through the large well-kept park and continued heading west. The music was no longer as clear as before, but it was louder than yesterday when he had arrived. He could tell the prize he sought had moved little since he first heard it when he woke, and soon he stood once more before the palace gate. Now, the music began to move, so he set off into the labyrinth of streets, letting the growing intensity of the music guide his turns. He did not run or walk briskly. There was no need now that he was so close. There also were few people in the dark and narrow streets–the result of those single, simple actions carried out by Hawkmasks, Hell Hounds, and the Watch that delayed or diverted people one way or another out of his path, and controlled the number of people in the area. They couldn’t clear the streets completely–that would have been impossible and look out-of-sorts. Even the thieves did their part, passing along the word to avoid that one person.

Ujox negotiated the Maze with confidence as any longtime citizen would. As a result, those few people who encountered him paid him no mind, and every one of them had a pretty good idea where such a man would be going in this part of the Maze.

He, however, had no idea of his destination. He was simply following the melody through the maze of the streets. Unlike real music, which would have echoed around different corners to lead a pursuer astray, the melody in his mind was a trail, leading him on the exact path taken by whom or whatever possessed it. The melody grew stronger as he made his way through the shadowed lanes guided by instinct. The carrier might have the benefit of knowing the destination and every twist and turn in the Maze, the carrier also knew better than to stroll carefree through the Maze, even one as peculiarly vacant as it was now.

Ujox could tell that the music had stopped moving. A few turns later, he found himself at his destination. The writing on the sign overhead he could not read, but he recognized its iconography, that of a horse of prodigious sexual proportions with a horn in its forehead. He stared at the image. A bent old man passing by cast a wary eye at Ujox to assess if he was a threat, and also out of curiosity of seeing someone stand outside The Vulgar Unicorn as if he was sizing up the place.

They’ll eat him alive, the man thought, amusing himself with the knowledge that soon there would be one less source of trouble in the city.

I haven’t seen one of those in a very long time, Ujox thought. How long ago was that? He tried to remember the last time or place he saw one when a chorus erupted in his head. The loud, psychosonic impact in his mind made him shift his weight to his left foot as it slid backward in an instinctive, defensive move. The sudden scraping sound sent the smug passerby scurrying around the corner–activity ignored completely by Ujox, who stepped up to the entrance, and, before he could open the door, he was nearly knocked over by a boy running out of the building. Ujox almost started after him–the boy reeked of it–but the music remained inside the building, so he forgot about the fleeing figure and continued inside.

Maybe this wasn’t the best spot to choose. I should have made him come to me, Havnaar Thanphil groused as the door of The Vulgar Unicorn groaned open once more to admit anyone but the courier he was expecting. It had become a game for a few of the patrons who had their eye on the curious stranger hidden within a quality cloak and cowl in the back corner of the main room, how he perked up when the door opened, and how he was dejected when the person entered. They would have ignored him completely had they known who he was. It was safe to assume that no one in Sanctuary, much less the whole of the Rankan lands, knew they were in the presence of Havnaar Thanphil, nor would they have recognized his popular nickname, Deathhands. And just then, those very deadly hands wished they were around the neck of the courier he awaited with rapidly diminishing patience, but when he felt the urge to storm out and search for the rogue, he remembered why he was here in the first place, and would swallow a deep draught of his ale before hammering the tankard down on the table. He caught the eye of a passing barmaid and ordered another.

Half way through the next serving, the door groaned open once more and Havnaar looked up to see who it was. A young man stood in the doorway, glancing nervously around the room in genuine fear for his life with his arms wrapped tightly around his chest. Other eyes in the dark tavern sized up the boy, but they lacked the special vision of Havnaar. The object hidden in the boy’s tunic glowed like the sun.

He’s not for you, you jackals, the mage mused as he cleared his throat and raised a gloved hand to catch the boy’s attention, and warn off the other patrons. The youth wove his way through the tables toward the back, trying to maintain a maximum distance from everyone and everything, as if their touch would render him dead. The courier stopped and stared at Havnaar, finding the mage’s shadowed face more frightful than the den of thieves and cutthroats around them. Havnaar reached up and pulled back his cowl just enough so the boy could see his face, then with a gesture and superlative look of annoyance on his face, Havnaar directed the boy to sit.

“You’re late,” the mage grumbled.

“I was lost in the sewers,” the courier stammered. “I hid there overnight. When I emerged, I wasn’t where I thought I would be. Then, I had to make sure I wasn’t followed.”

“I care not,” Havnaar growled. “Do you have it?”

“Do . . . my master instructed me to see the payment first.”

Havnaar raised his hand from the table to reveal a small hide purse stuffed to its physical limit with coins.

“I am also instructed to count it first.”

“Enough!” Havnaar hissed. “It is the agreed amount, and, as you are too inept to see, the purse is sealed as per the agreement. You have the object strapped to your chest under your left armpit with several leather thongs. Produce the item now or”–Havnaar swiftly stripped off his glove and reached for the courier–“I will take it from your dead body.”

The courier swallowed hard and pressed himself back in the seat while he fumbled desperately inside his clothing. Havnaar casually slipped on his glove and wriggled his fingers deep into the soft leather. Presently the boy produced a small piece of cloth and placed it on the table next to the purse. Once it was out of his hands, he swiftly drew back, as if he feared it would strike out at him. Havnaar was mesmerized by the brilliant glow of energy the object produced.

“So beautiful,” Havnaar said under his breath as the courier began scooting toward the end of the bench. “That is for you,” he said, gesturing to a smaller purse that now sat next to the first on the table.

“Thank you, master,” the courier whispered as he deftly secreted both purses in his tunic and skittered quickly for the entrance.

Havnaar ignored the courier as he left. His attention was fixed on the cloth before him, and the treasure enclosed within. He held his hand over it and his lip curled into a nascent snarl as he felt its energy warming his cold flesh.

Havnaar snatched his hand away and slumped back against the bench in near-ecstasy, staring lustfully at the small bundle on the table before him. His mouth was suddenly dry; he snatched up his heavy cup and drained a deep draught, his head twisted to the side so as to never lose sight of that cloth. As he drank, he cast his gaze about The Vulgar Unicorn. Some of the patrons were eyeing him as well, but no one was showing overt interest. It would take only one of them to teach the rest not to try their luck against the lich.

“How long I have waited for this day,” he congratulated himself as he stared at the bundle. “Centuries of searching. You were always just up ahead and just out of reach. Well, I have you now, and your secrets will be mine,” he said with a growl as he reached out and picked it up. A tingling sensation ran up his arm and into his chest. “I will learn,” he mused, “why it is you possess a life force in the first place, but for now, I will be content to gaze upon your features.”

The care he took to unwrap his prize was deliberate; the aura of the object was intense and as each layer was removed, the intensity grew stronger. His aura sense was attuned to the life energy of the living and the dead, which came in handy when it was time to feed, but this aura was unlike any he had ever seen. It pulsed steadily, a klaxon of light that only he could see. The final fold fell away and he stared in awe at the palm-sized curved piece of stone.

It weights nothing, he marveled as he turned it over in his hands. Both sides were covered with incised glyphs of some arcane language that he knew was indecipherable. The carvings glowed a little brighter than the stone itself. Without thinking, he took a tentative taste of its energy. The powerful jolt made him grip the stone with a maddening strength even he did not know he possessed. His limbs felt as if on fire, but the pain faded and his hand relaxed. All that remained of that foolish deed was an acrid metallic taste in his mouth and a tremor in the hand that held the stone. Most of the dull-eyed patrons of the Unicorn busy numbing their minds around him only saw Havnaar gripping his trembling hand.

Not all of those eyes, however, were so dull.

In the two corners of the tavern furthest from Havnaar’s table, the shadows rippled and began to move. The ripples coalesced into forms and from them emerged Enas Yorl, draped in his customary heavy cloak and cowl, and Ahdiomer Viz, who was wiping his hands on his barkeep apron. Each mage was so raptly held by the activity at that far table that they almost collided with each other, guided by a magical flux to approach and stand in the same spot.

“What is that,” Viz whispered with wide-eyed fascination. His tongue flopped about inside his mouth, trying to rid itself of the odd metal taste that had manifested on his arrival.

“I think it’s Havnaar Thanphil,” Yorl replied. As he spoke, he suddenly folded his arms together inside the heavy sleeves. “There’s someone I would not have expected to see mixed up in this,” he said, his voice now heavier and wet.

“I don’t mean him,” Viz replied. “I knew it was Thanphil from the rank smell.” Enas Yorl chuckled, though it was a sound that would make Evil glance over Its shoulder with concern. “No, I meant the thing in his hand. Are you feeling the power emanating from it? Can you imagine what it must be to force the lich out of his pit and journey this far south?”

“Indeed. I cannot discern wh”–the pitch of his voice rose as the volume of his cloak lessened–“at it is either,” Yorl replied, “but when I first felt its presence yesterday, the sense of dread that filled me was such that I never expected to be here now, and so close to . . . oh, merciful Xin!”

Both mages suddenly froze in place as an animal does when it knows unseen eyes are staring at it. They each took a step away from the other as a small man slipped between them on his way to Havnaar’s table. They both stared straight ahead, transfixed by the only thing that could rip their attention away from Havnaar and his prize.

Havnaar had noticed none of this. He was still captivated by the bit of masonry in his hand. It was only when the stone began to vibrate in his hands, gentle at first but growing gradually in strength, that he sensed another life force that should not be. He glanced up to see a figure emerge from the semi-dark between the two overhead lanterns. The man was uncanny in his nondescript appearance. Tunic. Breeks. Short sword at his hip. He could be anyone who frequented The Vulgar Unicorn, much less any citizen of Sanctuary who would dare to frequent this place. The other patrons certainly had that impression, but they did not have Havnaar’s senses. The man’s aura blazed as strong as the stone’s, and it seemed to ripple from thousands of small bright spots that covered the whole of his body from the neck down. The aura’s undulation was hypnotic, and as the figure approach his table, Havnaar could not look away from him.

“So, that is he,” Viz leaned closer to ask. There was a hint of incredulity in his voice.

“Indeed he is,” Yorl replied, his cloak billowing from within. “Watch and remember, my friend. We will not see this again in our lifetime.”

“What? You’re not . . . Are you going to see if he can spare you your tortured existence? Do you think he can do that?”

“No. No, I will not ask that,” Yorl said as his erect form hunched forward, trying to bend in half. “I don’t know why I’m even here. I was nearly done with a series of incantations to sequester my mind in the astral realm until he was gone, but I just ceased that and came here. Just as you did, it seems.”

Viz nodded. “I had no idea any of this was happening, but suddenly I had opened a portal, and here I was.”

“I will not ask him that thing,” Yorl continued, now more than a head taller than Viz, “desperate though I may have been at times to be free of the agony of my transformations. With my luck, the cure would probably be infinitely worse than the illness.”

Viz nodded, a grin of understanding drew his mouth wider. “Probably the wisest course, old friend.”

“I am content to enjoy this moment that only a few souls before us have experienced,” Yorl opined, his strained words causing extra steam to pulse out from the cowl.

“Yes. I, too, am enjoying this even more because it is happening to that abominable beast lover, Havnaar Thanphil,” Viz added. Both mages grinned–in their own way–but their levity was abruptly snuffed out by a powerful psychic roar coming from the table at the center of everyone’s attention.

All this while, Havnaar had stared at the man standing before him. Ujox stood there for a moment, and now Havnaar’s eyes watched as the man reached out, slowly and deliberately, for the stonework. Tendrils of the energy erupted from the stone and reached out for Ujox’s hand. When his fingers touched the stone, the melody erupted in the minds of everyone in The Vulgar Unicorn, and everyone in Sanctuary, and even beyond its walls. Havnaar continued to stare at the stone as the man took it from him unchallenged. He held it up to study it, turning it over in his hand to read all the inscriptions. Then, with a knowing smile and wistful look, he slipped it into his tunic. Only Havnaar could see the auras of both man and stone, similar yet distinct, and as the stone was secured in Ujox’s tunic, it faded from existence, and with it went the melody. Once the stone’s aura was gone, the rippling of the man’s aura ceased and became a uniform coating of golden light with a slight fringe of vermillion.

Ujox beamed a bright smile and gave an appreciative nod to Havnaar. As Ujox turned to leave, he casually set two gold coins on edge that started slowly rolling around the rim of the tankard. Ujox suddenly stopped and turned back, reaching out to pick up the cloth that had been wrapped around the stone. He tucked it away, then casually started once more for the entrance. As he passed the two mages, who had retreated into the shadows on opposite walls, he cast a glance at Ahdiomer Viz and gave him a slight bow.

Ujox turned and did the same to Enas Yorl and when he did, the mage’s perception of time slowed to nothing as he was unconsciously drawn to part of a tattoo just visible on Ujox’s throat as he bowed. In the darkness of the room, the eye was visible as if Ujox stood outside in the midday sun. As Yorl stared at the eye, it opened wider and the pupil dilated to consume nearly all of the disc. A wave of calm washed over the mage from head to foot, a tingling serenity unknown to him heretofore and in perpetuity, as the shape within his cloak assumed a form pulled from a long-forgotten dream. Enas Yorl closed his eyes, a single tear issued forth just before his entire body began to cramp.

The door shut with a soft click that was easily heard in the tomblike silence. For a moment, the sputtering of the candles in the overhead lanterns was the only sound in the tavern.

The door suddenly flew open, breaking whatever spell had held the patrons.

“Hakiem!” Broon Bloodgrass’ booming voice echoed. “Where are you? Ah!” The caravan master spotted the still-reeling storyteller off to the side and made his way quickly to his table and took a seat. “You won’t believe the story I have for you,” the big man grinned.

— Epilogue —

“So, a God Walks Into a Bar . . .”

The Warlord said nothing as he strode behind his general through the ruins of the town. He had not personally supervised the destruction of this place–it was too insignificant for his attentions–so he had sent a detachment to deal with it, for the sake of completeness. He never expected to set foot in the area, but a messenger from his general had piqued his interest.

The stench of rot and smoke was nearly gone; it mingled with the suggestion of salt on the soft breeze blowing in from the sea. A partly-fleshed severed arm was skirted by the general, and kicked out of the way like a stick in the road by the Warlord. His stride grew longer and soon he was outpacing his general, guided by flickering memories to make the turns through the shattered ruins. He didn’t know the name of this little town as the deceased inhabitants might have known it, but he had a memory that this was the site of a foul seaside port in an empire that replaced the empire that replaced the Rankan empire of faded legend.

When he turned the final corner, he saw a small group of his soldiers standing outside a building. The building itself was a bit rundown, but looked relatively untouched compared to the crumbling structures around it. The entrance was a dark hole in the side of the whitewashed stone. The Warlord abruptly stopped and stared at the entrance. After a moment, he shook his head as if clearing away a bad memory, then glanced at the general, who now stood with his soldiers. The general gave a trepidant nod.

“Wait here. No one else is to enter,” the Warlord growled. He turned his attention back to the dark portal, swallowed the lump of cotton in his throat, then strode into the building.

He stopped just inside and let his eyes adjust. The buzzing of flies told him where a corpse lay in the darkness. A few holes in the roof let in some light that illuminated the far wall opposite the entrance. Within that soft glow, he could discern the outline of a figure seated at the only unbroken table in the place. The man’s back was to him.

A small shudder escaped his lips as the Warlord walked slowly toward the table, watching the man for any movement. He swung wide, slowly walking around the table to stand opposite him. The man never looked up from his drink. He did not need to. Warlord Tempus Magnus already knew who he was.

“I . . . I dreamed that one day I would find you,” Tempus said in a hoarse whisper. He reached for the chair before him, but thought better of it and did not pull it out. “You know who I am,” he announced, confidence finding its way into his speech, “You know what I have done. Generations of millions lie dead by my hand and my command. Surely now I am worthy.”

The figure sighed and looked up at Tempus–glowing emerald eyes bored into his mind. The man stared at him for a moment, just long enough for a few beads of sweat to form on Tempus’s brow. Then, the man leaned back into his chair and . . . “I was here long before the discord that sired the worm who first enslaved you formed in the river of ur-magic,” Ujox said–a stream of ethereal, musical sounds to the ears of Tempus. “His worth is as a mere atom to the sea, as you are to he,” Ujox continued. “Your death might return your energy to that great source, and if that happened, your rancid presence might sour that flow from its head to its end. That can never be.” Ujox looked up and locked eyes with Tempus. You will never be worthy, even in that impossible age when nothing remembers when a river flowed that arid course.

The sing-song noise ended, but Tempus understood nothing; confusion scrunched up his face. The ancient one sighed and shook his head, then, with a smug grin, he pushed his mug towards Tempus. As he did, his sleeve rode up and Tempus saw dozens of tattoos of eyes on Ujox’s wrist. All but a single pair by his wrist were closed. As Tempus stared at them, the open pair blinked, then the pupils looked around and found him. The skin around the eyes crinkled in mirth, then the eyes slowly closed.

Tempus began to tremble as he looked up from those eyes to Ujox’s face.

A smile appeared on Ujox’s lips. It quickly became a toothy grin that let forth a giggle that was harbinger to an outburst of raucous laughter.

The soldiers out in the street stared in disbelief at the shadowed entrance, occasionally glancing at each other, seeking confirmation that someone else was hearing the same thing.

The general took a hesitant step toward the entrance and was nearly bowled over by a scowling Tempus as he stormed out into the street. He said nothing as he passed them; the sun glinted on the moist tracks that ran from his eyes down to his cheeks. Small dark spots dotted his red tunic.

His men scrambled to follow.

The laughter followed along behind.