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Tredroy, 2035

The games, the games. All glory to them. All things I am are because of the arena.

The fighters stand in a row, twenty of us in salute as the mayor is seated again to the sound of bucinae. We view the fresh sand laid over new bloodstains, thirty yards of it between the seats where the hungry crowd stands cheering. As the music plays, we stand erect and proud. Here we are, the headliners: six provocatores, a new retiarius and a pair of even newer secutores to goad him, plus a tired old charioteer.

Today I spread my arms wide, turning about to sneer at the crowd. I am The Lion, Yusuf The Lion, none other, and no one touches me without a lot of gold changing hands. I draw my sword and clap it against shield, signaling the rest to disperse, and they obediently run the perimeter, shouting at the spectators and twirling. Still more obediently, the crowd roars, willing slaves at my command, hanging on my every gesture. I’ll knock down any young fool who raises a spear at me, or any old one, and the paying customers love me for it.

Down the generations the rules have altered, they tell me, always favoring more of the carnage that pleases the city fathers, telling them that they are men, capable not just of dealing out death but of commanding Death itself.

In other cities, in the west, it is said that more fighters die in their arenas, with no set times for matches, leaving bodies piled high enough to offer shade. Mere slaughter does not impress me, I who have met their finest and lived. Here at home are games that thrill, but more importantly build fighters who have hope of life, who live more often than not, and know how not to die.

After my tenth kill, they told me, folk learned to fear my roar. Twenty or more, beyond counting, and they would scream along with the fresh meat I cut down. Years passed, and the faces changed, but the games remained.  Blood for cheers, cheers for blood.

After some magic number, after the screams of the women became more pointed, they rented me out. The women, young or old, and the men, always old, seeking something in The Lion’s embraces that they lacked, or feared. I slept apart from the rest of the fighters, those whose stylings and reputations were ordinary, whose scars were less comely.

Some who paid for me were eager, some feigned reluctance, but all paid in hard coin; there were rules to these games that I learned quickly, and my masters were pleased. I was fed meat, rubbed with expensive oils, and given the cape they call The Lion’s Mane.

By day I trained in the sand, and thousands cheered. By night I was a different sort of warrior, slipping past shields and under armor to win single hearts in new ways that took me as long to learn. They were there, after a match, perhaps pretending interest in the outcome, perhaps so eager that there was little talk of the kill, or of who might face me next.

Their eyes wandered as I rinsed the blood and grime from my skin. Their tongues touched their lips as I slipped the leather straps from my arms, and my master would nod once. Then I knew that here was another match, and that I already belonged, for this night or for several, to this lady or to this man. I would smile, sneering as I did in the ring, and see my new master tremble with anticipation. With these my newest skills I would buy myself a week of rest, of no spears nor blades trying to pierce me, and of whatever fine food and wine my captor cared to share with me.

It is a life any might envy, and now, today, they tell me that it is at an end, that a stranger who names my father has bought all my future days and nights, and given them back to me, if I will only go to the west to meet the stranger who sired me.

I know not how or why. I only know that without word or thought I walked away to join the caravan, into the afternoon sun as the horns struck up again for a match I would never see. There are lovers enough to mourn my loss. My sandals tread lightly in the dirt as I turn away from the slaves of the arena and toward the world of free men. I hum along with the horns for a time, and then I cease to hear them or the crowd’s cheers behind me. The games, the games, glory to them, but greater glory to me.


(Really sincere apologies to William Harrison.)

Sweat beaded on Haruki’s forehead. “Focus!” yelled Master Wai, “Breathe, it is the first thing you must learn.”

Haruki stood as steady as he could in Heron on Watch. His leg burned, how long had he been standing like this… minutes… hours?

“Release!” Cried Master Wai, Haruki and the other students returned to ready.

Haruki stared over the heads of this fellow students at Master Wai, who gave them all an approving nod. “Balance, balance in body and spirit is important students. Remember this.” “Dismissed.”

The students bowed in respect, and once Master Wai returned their bow, the students fell-out of the training formation they were in and began to make their way to the barracks and meal hall. It was not long before Haruki found himself on the training pad alone.

He was only 14, but he was as tall, or taller than, many of the more senior students. This did little to endear him with his fellow students. Some were afraid of him, other simply mistook him for an older student. Making friends was difficult.


The bokken splintered on contact. It was a marvel that Haruki’s sparring partner even kept hold of the, now useless, piece of shaped wood. “Reset!” called Master Feng. Masukiru and Haruki returned to their points, and a small youth-everyone was small to Haruki—moved to replace Masukiru’s bokken.

This was the third bokken Haruki broke this week. Sometimes it was his, others his partner’s, it wasn’t likely that his current bokken would last this current fight.

It was becoming more obvious that his strength was quickly matching his size. Master Feng half threatened, half promised to make Haruki learn his forms with the testubo if Haruki kept breaking the school’s bokkens.

If the look on Master Feng’s face said anything, he would be swinging the large studded club before the end of the week.

He did not remember having that much to eat, and he had felt that he had been retching for hours.

Thankfully, the small copse of trees hid him from view.

He could still hear the scream of bone, and he could swear he could feel the sickening snap through his tetsubo when it connected with his enemy. But it was when he struck the Chang-Zi solder alongside his head… Seeing melons disintegrate when he struck them was one thing, it was a different thing when that melon… no… <gag>… must not think on it.

“Haruki-san!” cried Masukiru. “Finish your pissing, and help us with the bodies!”

Haruki choked back another retch, and forced himself to focus. He forced himself to breathe. He found his balance, just as Master Wai had taught him.

He knew that this was the first of many battles. The tensions in Ah and some of the surrounding clans were high, and a low war was expected.

“Breathe, it is the first thing you must learn!”

SIX days later, they were in Min.

For a city in Megalos, it was a miserable and rundown place, possessing only streets thick with mud and shit and despair. The smallfolk who lived here in squalid poverty went out of their way to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes, conveying in their body language just how utterly broken so many of them were. There were still the occasional signs of ostentatious wealth – nobles unwilling to risk contamination by the filth rode through the streets on magnificent destriers that likely cost more than any two tenements in the city or were carried aloft on litters borne by sullen-looking slaves criss-crossed with both old and new whip scars. Heavily armed warriors were everywhere, eyeing those they did not know – and the ones they did know as well, it seemed – with barely hidden suspicion. Here, it seemed the criminal element was in true power, no matter that Baron Martignac ostensibly ruled from his nearby fortress.

“Mos Eisley seaport,” Gestlin announced as they disembarked from their small ship hired to make the run from Alimar. “You will not find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.” Gabriel glanced in his direction.

“You’ve been here before then?” he asked. “Good. I’ve only passed through once so having someone familiar with Min…”

“No, no, no,” Gestlin said quickly. “I was just … it’s something I heard once. I haven’t been here before.” On the wizard’s other side, Merasiël gave Gabriel a look that was partly confused, partly irritated, and entirely focused; he nodded in understanding to her unspoken suggestion.

“Let’s find an inn,” he said. Venturing out into Min with Gestlin was a doomed proposition from the start – the wizard was simply too clumsy to take on anything resembling a stealth operation and that didn’t take into account all of the simply strange things that occurred around him. Case in point, the school of mermaids they’d encountered on the way here; the chances of them happening along their path and then all of them inexplicably deciding they were in love with Gestlin was pretty low under normal circumstances. Thankfully, they’d decided to fight it out amongst themselves which had resulted in an opportunity to slip by them.

Finding an inn was not difficult but locating one that did not look to be on the verge of simply collapsing due to neglect was. Ultimately, they chose the best of the worst – it had an engraving of a rearing horse which led to Gestlin gleefully declaring that it was the Prancing Pony, no matter what the actual name happened to be – and rented two adjoining rooms; the locks on the doors were pathetic things that would not hold up to any attempt to breach them, so Gabriel and Merasiël stored their respective belongings in the room that Gestlin would be in. The wizard almost immediately recognized their intention to leave him behind.

“But I can still help!” he whined.

“Then help,” Gabriel replied. “You got us to this point. Now find out why you cannot scry his exact location.”

“But lock the door,” Merasiël added as she slipped out. Gabriel nodded.

“Lock it,” he agreed, “and bar it somehow. Use magic if you must.” He retreated before Gestlin could start casting and found Merasiël waiting for him at the bottom of the rickety stairs. She was eyeing the rough-looking louts in the common room cautiously; none seemed interested in her presence, not with their mugs before them. Their decision to avoid her gaze might also have something to do with her body language – she was visibly on edge and any damned fool who bothered her when she was like this deserved the knife in the eye that they would inevitably receive. For his part, Gabriel knew he was not much better; he kept shifting back and forth between Leopard in High Grass and Cat Crosses the Courtyard since both seemed appropriate. He wondered what his body language was saying…

“Did you see the soldiers in white earlier?” she asked softly in Elvish. “White and red. Like someone else I know.”

“I did.” Gabriel frowned. “Serrun has a presence here. Did I ever tell you about that?”

“Many times. I thought you were exaggerating.” He let her lead them from the inn and into the filthy streets outside. “Do you think they can help?” Gabriel gave her a cold, wolfish smile.

“Oh, they will absolutely help,” he said. “We just need to ask in the right way.”

FINDING the Serrun force was not difficult.

Word on the street gave them early warning: Marcus, Count of Shambray, had come to Min to treat with Martignac in an attempt to convince the latter to cease cooperating with the plague of pirates who infested this rotten city. There were rumors of an impending war as the other city-states faced desperate financial times due to the rampant lawlessness; traders and merchants simply refused to even venture to this region of Megalos because of the pirate scourge and it seemed that Shambray’s visit was a veiled threat: fix the problem or we will.

When they found him, Count Marcus was at the head of his ten-man squad and on his way out of Min. He had aged gracefully; now in his early thirties, he still had most of the color in his hair, albeit with a few streaks of silver that lent him a gravitas that Gabriel did not recall seeing in his youth. Unlike many nobles of his rank and age, he had not gained an appreciable amount of weight.

“We will need the scouts deployed for the entire journey,” he was saying as Gabriel glided forward. The similarity in their respective colors allowed him to easily blend in with the soldiers under Marcus’ command and the irritating drizzle of rain was an expert excuse to keep his hood up. “I did not like that bastard’s tone.”

“You expect an ambush, Lord?” the speaker was young but bore a striking resemblance to the old war-captain Gabriel recalled being at Marcus’ side when he was last in Serrun. When was that? Seven years ago? Eight?

“Expect, no. But neither would I be surprised if it happened.” Count Marcus scowled. “And with these damned pirates all around …” He trailed off abruptly as he finally took notice of Gabriel’s presence and frowned in his direction. It took barely a moment – he could see the exact moment that Marcus realized who he was based on how the blood drained from his face – and in that same moment, the young captain who had questioned his lord also realized they had too many men. He went for his sword, which caused his troops to follow suit. “Hold!” Marcus snapped harshly and the soldiers froze in place. “I did not think to see you again,” the count said slowly, hesitantly.

“We are not here to reminisce, Lord of Serrun,” Gabriel replied coldly. In the hours it had taken to track this man down, the cold simmer of his fury had intensified into a barely controlled inferno. He had thought it under control, locked away in the Void, but now, with them so close to resolving this and taking back their son, it was a constant struggle to rein in his temper. From the body language of the men before him, his voice absolutely betrayed his state of mind but Gabriel no longer cared. “You arrived in Min four days ago,” he continued. “The following morning, a ship with red sails docked. We would know where the crew of this ship resides.”

“We.” Count Marcus repeated the word and glanced around, as if to say something else, but the words died on his tongue as Merasiël stepped out of her place of concealment. She had engaged the magics woven into her cloak which Gestlin had augmented last year and as a result, appeared to just be a woman-shaped shadow that had seemingly detached itself from the darkness. The count’s reaction to her appearance drew the eyes of the soldiers.

“Dear God,” one of the men murmured. “It’s both of them!”

Gabriel smiled a shark’s smile.

“Red sails,” he repeated. “The crew.”

“That’s Captain Amalrith’s ship,” a soldier said. Gabriel looked at him. “One of the baron’s servants told me about him. She …” He coughed and glanced toward the count with an embarrassed expression but continued. “She said he was once highborn but was stripped of his rank. He bought back his family’s home with what he seized as a pirate.” Gabriel glanced toward Merasiël – she nodded very, very slightly and slowly backed into the darkness again; the magics of her cloak made it seem as if she was simply enveloped and vanished. With the eyes of the count and his men on him, Gabriel doubted any of them were even aware that she had withdrawn.

“Leave the city,” he ordered Count Marcus before turning away. Automatically, he fell into Cat Crosses the Courtyard as he glided across the filthy cobblestone. Behind him, he heard the murmurs of the warriors – they’d just noticed that Merasiël had vanished – and then Marcus’ sharp orders. But none of it mattered, not anymore. The dead man who had dared lay hands on the child neither he nor Merasiël were able to raise had a name.


Under his hood, Gabriel was smiling and he knew it was a terrible thing to behold.

THEY located their prey just as the sun was beginning to set.

Lord Amalrith’s villa was a high-walled compound on the outskirts of Min and it was crawling with armed guards. To most eyes, the place would appear impregnable and well-defended but within a handful of heartbeats, Gabriel could see that the villa’s security was little more than a cleverly disguised lie. Too much of the compound was in disrepair, with crumbling walls or unrepaired breaches. Most of the guards patrolling were either incompetent, drunk, or distracted, and the few who were paying attention were scattered all along the walls and could cover only portions. No, the real problem was magical in nature.

“It’s warded,” Gestlin murmured. He was crouched alongside Gabriel, staring intently at something only he could see. Bringing him along was necessary, given what they had learned in the hours since meeting with the count of Shambray, but still, Gabriel was uncomfortable with having him exposed like this. “They’re strong too. Whoever threw them up knew what they were doing.”

“Can you take them down?” Gabriel asked. He had stopped studying the walls and was now watching Merasiël as she stealthily crept closer to the compound. Unlike him, she actually could sense magic though it was a talent she rarely used, so she would at least be able to determine where the wards began.

“Yes.” Gestlin tapped the ground with that stick of his. “You have two options: Smil-Blam and I can take the wards down slowly and quietly or we can explode them all at once.” He shrugged. “I don’t know what will happen if I blow them up but I think … these feel like informational wards. If I’m right, they’re designed to just warn the villa of attackers, not to stop someone from kicking in the door.”

“So if you collapse them all at once …”

“Every alarm in the villa will go off at once.” The wizard made a face. “Taking them down slowly is probably the safer option but I don’t know how long that will take, even with Smil-Blam’s help. Like I said, the wizard who erected them was good.”

“Then take them down fast.” Gabriel reached under his armored corselet and tapped the elven amulet he wore; instantly, Merasiël froze in place and looked toward him. With quick hand gestures, he passed on the plan and she nodded once.

“Wait.” Gestlin was scratching something in the dirt. “I have an idea.” Giving him a quick sidelong look, Gabriel held up a closed fist, knowing that Merasiël would understand the instruction to delay. “I think … I think I can cheat these wards. If I wrap you and Merasiël up in inverted versions of what already exists, the villa’s wards will recognize you as part of the existing structure and not set off the alarm.” He frowned. “It would require me to stay here though. I’d have to concentrate to maintain it…”

“Do that.” Another hand gesture to Merasiël; she started retracing her path to join them. Once she was close enough, he filled her in. She nodded her approval.

“Another thing,” Gestlin said as he extracted two rocks from the dirt. He closed his eyes, murmured something in a language that sounded like so much gibberish, then pushed the rocks into their hands. Gabriel looked at the stone in slight confusion, especially when both of his companions flinched away from it. “Keep it covered!” Gestlin snapped. Merasiël had already pocketed her rock. “To a mage,” he said before nodding toward Merasiël, “or someone capable of magery, those rocks glow. If you need to signal me for some reason, I should be able to see that.”

“And if you do,” Merasiël stated calmly, “your first action is to destroy the villa’s wards. Make it loud and bright and confusing. Sow chaos.” Gestlin grinned brightly.

“Now that,” he declared, “I excel at.”

It took the wizard long moments to craft his inverted ward and during that time, Gabriel crouched alongside Merasiël quietly, his eyes ranging along the walls of the villa as he planned out his approach. As he was on her right, that meant the right side was his to handle while she took the left. Already, he’d identified his first targets and the best path inside … presuming Gestlin’s spell actually worked. He thrust that thought aside, buried it in a layer of ice and wrapped himself in the Void. Focus and control. That was all that mattered.

“The wisest course of action,” Merasiël murmured, “would be for us to find him, retrieve him and leave the rest behind. They would only slow us down.”

“Agreed.” Even floating in the emptiness of the Void, that decision felt … wrong to him.

“I do not intend to be wise this night,” Merasiël added after a moment. Gabriel smiled again.

“Nor I.” He considered saying more, something pithy or witty or perhaps he could actually verbalize the depth of his feelings for the woman next to him, but the thought was distant and fleeting. Action was always better than words.

“Go,” Gestlin whispered suddenly. Gabriel was up and moving almost before he realized.

He kept low as he darted toward the villa’s walls, hugging the shadows where he could find them and relying entirely on speed where he could not. The moon was swollen and full, but a trick of the sky had turned it blood red which suited Gabriel’s mood wonderfully. As an added bonus, the steady drumbeat of rain that had begun while they were in the city had not abated and no guard wanted to stand silently in this. And then, he was there.

Up the wall he scrambled, sacrificing stealth for speed, and he slid over the lip of the rock mere seconds after beginning his climb. Crouching on the battlements, he paused, halfway expecting an armcry to be raised or a storm of arrows to descend upon him. Nothing stirred. He could hear the muted grumbles of the nearest guards, their words lost to distance, and the sizzling hiss of something on a fire. Anger at the necessity for this and elation at his success warred within him, but Gabriel thrust them both aside and silently drew Compatior. This would be close work, where the rapier required space he did not have. He smiled darkly once more. Now the killing began.

He was an angry, vengeful ghost in the night, gliding from darkness to darkness and striking without a sound. From behind, of course. Always from behind. His free hand would curl around his victim’s mouth in the same instant he thrust Compatior through the man’s skull or neck or heart, whichever was most exposed in that instant. A few moments of brief struggle before his victim when still and limp, then it was off to the next man. Across the villa, cloaked in her own shadows, he knew Merasiël was doing the same with Angrist.

Without warning, chaos erupted. Later, Gabriel would never quite be able to identify what caused it – perhaps he misstepped, perhaps Merasiël had, perhaps Gestlin’s inverted ward was not as effective as thought – but in an instant, the entire villa was exploding with activity. Men in the courtyard below were seizing their weapons or shouting or running. With no time to even consider alternate options, Gabriel did the only thing that occurred to him.

He attacked.

From the crumbling battlements, he sprang down, landing briefly on the top of a large metal cage that he only then realized held a living person before twisting into a spinning somersault. Even before he landed in the midst of an armed group, he had drawn Misericordia. Kissing the Adder sent one man to the ground in a shower of blood and Gabriel flowed into Falling Coins on Stone. The men were just now beginning to turn toward him, startled and fearful expressions on their face as he struck. Black Pebbles on Snow became Parting the Silk. Another man joined the first and overhead, the night turned to day as a cataclysm of light indicated that Gestlin had shattered the wards in a fierce pyrotechnic display. Snow in High Wind flowed into Mongoose Takes a Viper. Despite his rage, despite the fury singing in his veins, Gabriel was still in control, still tightly focused. Kingfisher Circles the Pond caught a desperate thrust from one of his foes and left the fool wide open for Ribbon in the Air. There were more of them on the ground than upright now and they knew it. Even more terrifying for them was that Gabriel had only accounted for some of their fallen; Merasiël struck from shadow and silence, her knives blurring and bloody. Another of them fell, gasping out his last as crimson life gushed from his ruined throat. One of the men turned toward her at this, eyes widening at her sudden appearance, and Gabriel flowed toward him. River Undercuts the Bank sent him to his knees with a startled gasp and Merasiël buried both of her knives in his eyes. In mid-step, she twirled away, dropping to a knee as her blades carved lethal furrows upon another. He too fell, screaming as clutched at his belly in a desperate attempt to keep his entrails from slipping out.

And then … silence.

Without consciously realizing it, Gabriel had sidestepped so his back was to Merasiël’s and they scanned the courtyard, weapons at the ready. Men were strewn about haphazardly, some still alive and moaning but most already dead. The stench of blood and shit was thick but here in the Void, it was a distant thing, like something someone else had smelled. Gabriel’s face ached – he had been smiling his terrible shark’s smile the entire time, he realized – and he forced the expression away.

The door to the villa opened, revealing a man matching this Lord Amalrith’s description. He was screaming, raving, gesturing … a mage. The man was a mage. Gabriel was sprinting toward him before he was truly aware of it. An explosion of light screamed toward him but Gabriel twisted up and over it, spinning through the air and landing without even breaking stride. He could see Amalrith’s face contort in terror.

And then, Angrist flashed over Gabriel’s shoulder and took the man in the eye.

By then, Gabriel was already committed to his strike; Arc of the Moon flashed in the night and Amalrith toppled, his head rolling away from his body. With Angrist buried hilt deep, it did not go far. Gabriel hooked Misericordia’s blade under Angrist’s quillions and, with a casual flick of his wrist, wrenched the blade free and sent it spinning toward Merasiël. She caught it almost without looking. For long seconds, silence reigned.

And then, Gestlin blew up the villa wall.

NO one tried to stop them as they led the freed captives back to Min.

Behind them, they left Amalrith’s villa on fire, having stripped everything of value from it. The rescued children huddled together in the covered wagon – Gestlin was still complaining that they’d left his in Cardiel at Whiteoak, but seemed temporarily assuaged with some of the magical paraphernalia taken from Amalrith’s study – and the three adult women pulled from the cages were watching everyone with wide, nervous eyes. Even Merasiël, it seemed, though she was ignoring them as much as everyone else.

They found Amalrith’s red sailed ship unoccupied save for a trio of fools who thought Merasiël was there to entertain them; their bodies made satisfying splashes when dumped into the bay and that, more than anything else, made the statement that Gabriel hoped it would to the port’s onlookers. He waited to make sure that the children were securely aboard – the three women had vanished almost as soon as they entered Min, but that was their decision – and that Merasiël knew his mind before striding back down the ramp and re-entering the city.

He located the crew of the small craft that had brought them to Min days earlier in a miserable-smelling tavern. To his very great pleasure, none of them were drunk as they’d already run out of money. When he made his offer to them, they accepted without hesitation and set about recruiting others they considered trustworthy.

As dawn broke over Min, a ship with red sails set out to sea.

“We cannot take him back to Cardiel,” Merasiël told him some time later. They were both hanging back, watching the young boy who was a strange but somehow wondrous mixture of them both. Like all of the other children, he was still frightened – the ship was a reminder of how he got here and Gabriel expected the boy would never be able to forget his foster parents being cut down – but Gestlin was entertaining them all with a strange magical puppet show and the fear was temporarily abated. Gabriel had long ago stopped trying to follow the plot; it was nonsensical at best, involving a man who dressed up like a bat and a boy who was a bird fighting against a clown and woman who was also perhaps a werecat.

“No.” Their son looked once in their direction, then back to Gestlin’s tricks.

“And you will not return to Caithness.” There was no judgment in Merasiël’s voice at that – she understood better than most why he could not go back. “But I know of some in Harkwood who could be more … effective defenders of our son.”

“Will they accept him?” Gabriel asked softly. The boy was half-elven, after all, and he’d known enough elves to recognize they were just as capable of cruelty as men.

“Do we have a choice?” She placed a hand upon his arm. “The chances of this Amalrith simply stumbling upon our child seem … small.”

“Yes.” Gabriel tried not to frown. “I will look into that. Shake some trees, see if I can make any traitors slither out.” He did not have to say what it was that he would do to anyone he discovered linked to the abductions. Merasiël nodded and went back to watching their son.

THAT evening, Gestlin sent Merasiël and the boy to Caithness.

He did not understand the reasoning behind this decision but accepted it nonetheless. Not being familiar with Harkwood, he instead sent them to the monastery that was Mendel’s abode. It was late and Merasiël hoped the cover of darkness would allow her to avoid any of the more uncomfortable questions should she have the misfortune of encountering the old priest. Gabriel watched her gather the sleeping child up – he folded all of his thoughts and feelings and emotions into the Void – but said nothing. In the last instant, before Gestlin spoke the final Word of Power that translocated the two halfway across the world, Merasiël looked at him and smiled softly.

And then, she was gone.

“I do not understand you at all,” Gestlin told him later. “You didn’t even tell her goodbye!”

“Because it isn’t goodbye.” Gabriel stood on the prow of the ship and concentrated on maintaining his balance. “Merasiël knows how to reach me. I know how to reach her. So, it isn’t goodbye.” That caused Gestlin to give him a questioning look, but Gabriel ignored it. The elven medallion had been a gift from Merasiël and simply wasn’t the wizard’s business.

“But … what about your son?” At that, Gabriel’s expression tightened.

“I thank you for your assistance in this, Gestlin,” he said, “but this is a matter between myself and Merasiël.” If his tone did not adequately convey that the matter was closed, then the look he gave the wizard did. Besides, he did not know how to best explain himself; he had thoroughly failed Auqui simply by being in his life. He would not fail this child in the same way. Merasiël would find someone better suited to be the boy’s father, someone who was more than just an exceptional killer. And then, the child could grow up to be something truly exceptional, perhaps someone who never had to even pick up a sword.

It was a good dream.

Author’s Note: This is intended to be the very last bit of Gabery, though honestly, I said that about Chance Meetings too!

BY the end of the first day at sea, Gabriel was nearly ready to strangle Gestlin and throw his body overboard.

It was not entirely the wizard’s fault – Gabriel had been in a foul mood since they cast off, especially with how so many of the harsher-looking sailors eyed Merasiël when they thought she was unaware, not to mention just how badly he wanted to find some open space large enough to practice his sword forms which was an impossibility on a vessel this size – but if he was honest with himself, Gabriel could admit that Gestlin’s personality quirks were most definitely beginning to rub him the wrong way. This was not new, of course; in the four years since he and Merasiël had escorted the wizard out of Tredroy just in time to evade a group of would-be murderers, Gestlin had proven time and again that he really needed to be locked in a very small room and only taken out when needed. For his own safety, of course.

“I think she’s mad at me again,” the subject of his musings announced. They were both on the forecastle, at the very front of the ocean-going ship where the spray of saltwater splashed in their faces as the brig raced across the sea. Gabriel had come here hoping for a moment of peace but Gestlin had followed. Because of course he had. For a man of his years, the wizard sometimes displayed the maturity of a child.

“Did you ask her if she’s mad at you?” Gabriel leaned forward and closed his eyes. Wind ruffled his hair and beard, both growing too long; Merasiël had made a few oblique remarks to that end the other day but until now, Gabriel had not truly realized how much time had passed since he had either cut. If he asked Merasiël to do it, he might end up clean-shaven and bald, but Gestlin might decide to involve magic and Gabriel had no desire to have a beard of fire or hair wrought of tulips. Perhaps a member of the crew could manage a trim…

“Why would I bother?” Gestlin asked. “I can barely understand her half of the time when she does speak to me. She’s so …” He trailed off and Gabriel smiled.

“Willfully enigmatic?” he offered.

“Yes!” Gestlin scowled. “I’m the wizard. I’m supposed to be enigmatic and mysterious, not her.” He shook his head. “I don’t know how you can stand that.”

“I find it part of her charm,” Gabriel replied with another smile. “Have you done something foolish to upset her?” he asked. He kept his eyes closed and focused on his other senses. The smell of salt, the cry of gulls, the creaking of the old ship … it was almost meditative.

“No.” Gestlin paused for a noticeable moment. “Well, nothing moreso than normal.” At that, Gabriel almost chuckled; for all of his flaws, the wizard was at least capable of recognizing them. “It’s … she’s avoiding me. And when she can’t, she refuses to even look at me. I thought maybe that I had something on my face, like jam or dried honey, but I’ve checked – twice! – and even washed my face, but that didn’t help, so then I thought maybe it was my face specifically and I considered asking Smil-Blam to change it but I’m mostly happy with my looks so-”

“For the love of God,” Gabriel interrupted sharply, “please tell me you did not use that damned stick of yours.” He opened his eyes and gave the wizard a quick once-over – nothing appeared to have changed and he wore his usual expression of befuddled amazement, so Gabriel exhaled softly in relief.

“Well, no,” the wizard replied. “I remember what you told me about not using him on this ship.” He adopted an expression of overwrought sadness which looked ridiculous on him. “You know I could get us to Alimar with just a single spell. We could be there in the blink of an eye.” He snapped his fingers to accentuate the point.

“I also remember how we actually got to Araterre in the first place,” Gabriel retorted. The three of them suddenly appearing in the middle of Prince de Sauvons’ court had caused an absurd amount of chaos that had taken weeks to untangle; thankfully, the prince had not been present at the time or the guards might have considered them assassins and blood would have been shed. At the reminder of that miscast spell, Gestlin looked away, suddenly embarrassed.

“That wasn’t entirely my fault,” he mumbled before making a face as a spray of water struck his face. “But Merasiël …” he started again, his expression once more turning long. Gabriel held up a hand to forestall the next comments.

“I will speak with her,” he said quickly. Anything to avoid another Gestlin ramble that started on one subject, took a sharp turn into another and then devolved into a third before somehow ending up on a fourth, sometimes in mid-sentence. He liked the wizard, considered him a friend, but the man needed to learn when to shut up. Besides, seeking out Merasiël meant climbing to the crow’s nest where she liked to hide and the one time he’d tried to convince Gestlin to go there, the wizard had blanched and made some positively pathetic excuses. If he wanted peace, that was the way to accomplish it. Even better, it meant he could see Merasiël. Alone.

“Good.” Gestlin smiled brightly, then gave Gabriel a look that he no doubt thought to be sly. “She likes you better than me anyway.” It was another of the wizard’s attempts to trick him into explaining the nature of the complicated relationship between Gabriel and Merasiël. And as he had each time before, Gabriel refused to bite.

“That’s part of my charm,” he retorted as he pushed away from the railing. He paused to look Gestlin in the eye. “Do. Not. Use. That. Stick.” The wizard made another face and Gabriel once more considered trying to take the staff away from him until they reached land. Doing so could be dangerous – the damned thing sometimes seemed to have a personality of its own and was entirely too willful for a piece of wood – but letting him keep might be moreso. After a moment of consideration, Gabriel opted for the safer path and strode away.

The crew that he passed stepped out of his way, most knuckling their foreheads in a quick sign of respect that made him smirk. This was far from the first trip they’d taken on this particular ship and the last time out, there had been pirates which had been very exciting, especially when he and Merasiël took the fight to the other brig. Every surviving crewmember had either witnessed firsthand or heard of how just two people had cut down nearly half of the pirate crew, including the captain and his pet warlock … although, to be fair, Gestlin had effectively locked down the other spellcaster. And hadn’t that bastard looked especially surprised when Merasiël seemed to come out of nowhere to stab him in the eye with Angrist?

He scrambled up the netting that climbed up the mast, then paused once he reached the crow’s nest. Merasiël sat there, staring out over the sea with no expression at all on her face. If anything, she looked bored, even when her eyes flicked toward him and then back to the horizon. At the moment, she was absently balancing her mother’s sole remaining knife on one hand; as her position shifted in the wind, she automatically compensated and the blade remained nearly perfectly horizontal the entire time. The crow’s nest was not quite large enough for the both of them and, though Gabriel had no problem at all being that close to her, he could read her moods well enough to know better than to push his luck. Instead, he secured himself in the netting by looping one hand through and hooking both feet around rope. With the wind filling the sails, the netting shifted and trembled so he also anchored himself on the crow’s nest with his free hand.

“Gestlin thinks you’re mad at him again,” Gabriel said, automatically slipping into Elvish as he spoke. He knew better than to try and outwait her – if she had no desire to speak, then she would not. They’d once gone almost an entire week without saying a word; it had been torture to him but she’d not even noticed and had been at least slightly amused when he broke the silence to complain. Merasiël shifted very slightly, going so far as to actually give him a sidelong glance, and Gabriel mentally translated that to be ‘Does he now?’ He nodded. “He’s taking it very badly,” he said. “Sad looks, moping around, why, he even mentioned doing something to his face with that damned stick of his.” This time, she turned her full attention to him and Gabriel recognized her unspoken question. “No, he didn’t actually do anything yet, but you know how dangerous he is when he starts getting bored or lonely.” Merasiël’s expression went wintery cold then as she looked away and Gabriel sighed. It was exactly as he suspected. No. As he feared. Gestlin was getting noticeably older and, as an elf, Merasiël was doing what came natural by pulling away from him. “I will try to keep him distracted then,” Gabriel said. “But I do not know for how long.” She offered a very small smile – it was little more than a slight curving of her lips, but on her, that stood out – and then even reached out to touch the hand that was gripping the crow’s nest.

“We will be in Alimar for several days,” she said softly. Her words had nothing to do with the actual meaning behind them, but Gabriel nodded in understanding. He knew what she wanted to do and, despite the hollow pit in his stomach he recognized as old fears that had never been conquered, he wanted to do the same.

“What of Gestlin?” he asked. If the wizard found out their secret, things could get very complicated. He glanced down to where she still touched his hand, then looked up to meet her eyes. Merasiël shrugged, which he translated to mean ‘We’ll figure something out.’

He wondered why that filled him with dread.

THEY rode from Alimar some days later.

As usual, Gestlin’s ridiculous wagon slowed them down somewhat, but he never went anywhere without the thing and over the years, Gabriel had learned to tolerate it even if he was never quite comfortable with entering it since things simply should not be larger on the inside, no matter how magic was involved. Today, the wizard had summoned an especially strange-looking beast to pull it; the thing was a large, elephant-sized creature with great horns, a heavy coat of fur and a long, fuzzy tail. Gabriel had looked at the thing Gestlin gleefully called a ‘bantha’, exchanged long-suffering looks with Merasiël and promptly sought out a pair of sturdy horses to carry the two of them. With Gestlin, there was every chance that this bizarre beast would inexplicably vanish in a flurry of sparks or molten butterflies, and if that transpired, it would do so while they were climbing a hill. Or descending one. It was far safer to trust a normal steed.

From Alimar, they headed east, toward the peninsula that jutted out into the Erythraean Sea. The road they’d chosen meandered slowly along the coast which kept the ocean in sight pretty much the entire trip and a cold wind curling in from over the waves brought with it the distinct smell of the sea. There were a dozen tiny villages scattered along the road, most relying heavily on fishing to survive, but they did not stop at any of them despite Gestlin’s continual pleas to do so. It was a long, dull trek, made worse for Gabriel because Merasiël had abandoned them and ridden ahead to serve as scout; eventually, he followed suit when Gestlin’s continued rambling (and threats to use magic to entertain himself) reached critical levels. Getting clear was, by far, the wiser option because he knew from past experience that a bored Gestlin was a hideously dangerous one. By nightfall, though, they’d reached the outskirts of their intended destination, a small hamlet mostly hidden from view by a trick of terrain. This was Whiteoak.

Even before they rode into view, Gabriel knew something wasn’t quite right. He and Merasiël had spent several months here some years back so he knew the land rather well and could not quite put his finger on what it was that was bothering him. At a glance, he could see that Merasiël was tense as well which, rather than calming him made it worse. They topped a low hill that looked over the village and Gabriel felt his stomach knot up.

Before, there had barely been a dozen homes in this hamlet, but now, there was but half that. The great white tree that had dominated the center of the small community and given it its name was charred and blackened, barely alive and so sickly-looking now that cutting it down almost seemed like it would be a kindness. Once, there had been a small pier where the fishermen launched their small skiffs into the sea, but it too was gone; what little remained was skeletal and burnt. None of this was new damage, though. Whatever had happened here had done so a week or more ago.

Merasiël was spurring her horse forward almost the moment the hamlet came into view and Gabriel abruptly realized that he had done the same. He was vaguely aware of Gestlin’s startled question, but the words were incomprehensible. Even before he slid off his horse, Gabriel had fallen into the Void, that mental construct where he fed all emotion and pain into a flame. Control. He would require absolute control. Automatically, he adopted Leopard in High Grass even though he doubted there were enemies on all sides. This was old damage – if there were any enemies still here, that would be a surprise.

The hamlet headman saw their approach and turned toward them. An elf of indeterminate age, half of his face had been badly burned some time back and he moved with a decided limp that hinted at nearly mortal injuries only just healed. Gabriel’s hand fell to the hilt of Misericordia.

“You’ve come too late,” the old man said. “They’ve taken your son.”

FOR almost two years after walking away from their friends and leaving Tredroy behind, Gabriel and Merasiël had only each other to rely on.

They cut a lethal swath across al-Wazif and Megalos, killing slavers wherever they could find them and crippling their organizations. It was an impossible task – where one fell, three more would seem to spring up – but a worthy one, even for two people whose hands were so wet with blood. Together, they were already a terrifyingly lethal team and, as time passed and they grew to know one another even better, they become even frightening. They learned to communicate with little more than glances or wordless noises – for them, a specific kind of grunt and the lift of an eyebrow could be the equivalent of an hour long strategy meeting. The level of intimacy they fell into by accident was closer than anything Gabriel had ever envisioned being possible.

So it was only natural that they ended up becoming lovers and, as it turned out, killing slavers was not the only thing they did well together.

Once turned into twice, and then a third time, and then they were routinely sharing a bed. Those were heady times, between the constant fighting and the equally frequent loving, and Gabriel doubted he had ever been as content as he had then. In fact, he might go so far as to say he was happy.

And then, Merasiël realized she was with child.

They both panicked a little bit then, though Merasiël would later argue that she had been the voice of rational sanity even though he very clearly recalled her getting emotional. For his part, Gabriel was more than willing to admit that he was terrified – the spectre of his utter failure with Auqui loomed over him and he did not think he could be a father, not a good one anyway. What skills could he pass on? How best to murder a man? The easiest way to steal into a guarded tower to cut down the bastard within? Which grip to use on a knife when you did not wish your victim to make a noise? Those were not the sorts of things a man was supposed to pass on to his child! When Merasiël suggested the elven tradition of fosterage, now mostly forgotten in this era, he’d readily agreed. Not only was he relieved that there was a second option, one that allowed him to seek a better father for their child, but he was also at least a little encouraged that Merasiël thought highly enough of him to recommend an elven upbringing. So they began seeking out suitable foster parents.

Their search had brought them here, to the hamlet of Whiteoak, which was almost entirely elvish. Gabriel had halfway expected to be viewed with suspicion and distrust, being as human as he was, but found instead that he was accepted quite easily. Here he found a few new friends, including an expert hostler who agreed to take in Cometes who was simply too old to maintain the dangerous lifestyle that Gabriel led.

It was also here Gabriel discovered that he was no longer aging, but then, that was another story entirely.

When their son was born, they had given him over to an elven couple who could not have children of their own and then walked away. Merasiël hid it well, but Gabriel knew she sometimes wondered if they should have stayed and raised the boy themselves. He wondered the same thing from time to time, but whenever his thoughts turned in that direction, he would recall the boy who Auqui had been and then the man he became. It turned into a silent, unspoken mantra that Gabriel concentrated on: this was better for the boy.

And now, the child had been taken.

Fury raged within his belly, threatening to splinter the ice that was the Void. Gabriel wanted to draw his sword and start killing, to keep killing until the pain went away. He glanced at Merasiël, saw an identical expression on her face, and forced himself to look away so he could again concentrate on burning away his rage. There would be time later for killing. There was always time for killing.

“When?” Merasiël hissed, her voice tight and so cold that it could freeze the sun. The headman could clearly see the murder in her eyes if the hesitant half-step back he took was any indication.

“Nigh on two weeks ago,” he replied. With a gesture, he indicated the damaged tree. “They landed and started killing with sword and with fire. We lost twelve to injury alone and then they took nearly twenty with them when they sailed again.” He looked away. “Children. They took our children.”

“Two weeks.” Gabriel smiled, though he knew it was a terrible expression that did not come close to touching his eyes. In that moment, he did not care that this man had been kind to them, that he had been wounded and suffered a terrible loss. Only the rage coursing through Gabriel’s veins mattered. “You know who we are, what we are capable of, and you did not bother trying to contact us?” He trembled on the edge of violence – it would be so easy to cut this old fool down, so terribly easy. The moment passed, though, when Merasiël took his arm and pulled him away.

“There is no time for this,” she told him flatly. It took him barely a heartbeat to realize she was pulling him toward Gestlin who was already down from his wagon and talking with a pair of elves that Gabriel knew. The wizard looked torn between angry and horrified.

“Have you heard what happened?” he asked. “We must do something for these people!”

“What do you need to find a child?” Merasiël asked. “The other one – Mendel – he followed the Caithness lord to Tredroy. Can you do that?” Gestlin blinked, then momentarily looked away, his eyes swimming out of focus and he considered. He started tapping the ground with that ridiculous staff of his while simultaneously nodding.

“Yes,” he murmured. “I think so.” Gabriel exchanged looks with Merasiël – the two other elves were watching, hope in their eyes as well, and he recalled they had a young girl about the age Auqui had been when he first met the boy; ruthlessly, he shoved that thought away. There were far too many terrible things scum like those responsible for this attack would do to a girl-child that age. Gestlin shook his distraction away and locked eyes with Merasiël. “I will need something tied to the child. Blood from a parent is good, from both parents even better.”

Gabriel’s knife sang from its sheath and he had already sliced into his palm before he was fully aware of doing so. The white hot pain was barely what he deserved but he could endure. At his side, Merasiël had done the same with Angrist and Gestlin’s eyes widened the instant he realized why she had cut herself.

“Oh,” he said softly. His eyes jumped to Gabriel’s own bloody hand and the wizard’s eyes went even rounder. “Oh!” he exclaimed before swallowing and glancing away. When he looked back, his gaze was hard. “Yes,” he said in a tone of voice that Gabriel had never heard from him. “I can do this.” He gripped Smil-Blam so tightly that his knuckles were white. Strangely colored witchfire danced around the staff. “We will do this.”

Author’s Note: I thought I was done with Gabery since the character and the campaign itself was retired. For that matter, I never intended to indicate that there was anything more than deep, enduring friendship between Gabe and Merasiël but Gigermann’s character for Banestorm volume 3 changed that. He decided that Thorondil would be their child and developed an interesting backstory for him that spurred the long dormant Muses. And this was born. Because Gabe and Mera have a special set of skills that make them a nightmare for some people…


HE hated this city.

The stray thought came out of nowhere as Gabriel darted over the rooftops of Craine, each step carrying him deeper into the city all the while threatening to spill him down into the street so far below. A soft rain turned the footing treacherous but the distant rumble of thunder managed to cover his occasional missteps. There was no time! He and Merasiël had only just arrived here in Craine to handle other matters when word of the impending strike had filtered through their usual contacts. Had the target been any other name, Gabriel doubted either of them would care.

Below, three stories down, a magnificently crafted carriage trundled over the cobblestone street, flanked by a quartet of elaborately dressed (and utterly useless in a fight) ceremonial Curia Guards. The embossed seal stamped upon either door identified the carriage’s origin – Caithness – if the shagginess of the horses leading it did not. Within was the newly elected archbishop of Caithness come to negotiate an end to the ongoing hostilities between his country and that of Megalos.

And that man was marked to die.

Gabriel kept pace with the carriage below – not an easy task, given the slick rooftops and the generally poor footing – all the while reviewing his mental map of Craine to determine the spot most likely for an ambush. It was coming up shortly – this street would bear right and then open up into a much wider avenue that connected to one of the wide bridges that connected this half of the city to the other – and he silently cursed. There was no way to warn Merasiël. She was, as far as he could tell, on the other side of this street, ranging alongside the carriage in an identical manner.

The carriage slowed as the street veered toward the wider avenue, momentarily coming closer to Gabriel’s position, and in that moment, chaos erupted. Concealed crossbowmen threw aside their cover and lurched into view, bowstrings snapping sharply. All four of the Curia Guards fell, though one of them looked only wounded as he clawed for his sword even while toppling to the cobblestones. More of the ambushers sprang out of hiding, emerging from shops or from behind conveniently located obstacles.

Gabriel did not hesitate for even a moment.

He reached the lip of the building at a dead sprint and was airborne an instant later, landing atop the carriage with one foot and letting inertia carry him the rest of the way. His intended target had not yet loosed his crossbow but did so now with a panicked gasp at his unexpected appearance – the bolt splintered against Gabriel’s cuirass, sending shards of wood spinning through the air, and he grunted at the bruising impact. It did not slow him in the slightest – the flash of pain was distant while he floated in the Void, in the Oneness where all concerns, whether they be emotions, thoughts, or the possibility of death, were gone, fed into the flame of his will – and Misericordia flashed out with a soft, mournful hum. River of Light sent the man sprawling in a rain of crimson. He was not dead – not yet – but the spray barely abated even as the man clutched at his ruined neck.

Gabriel hit the street a heartbeat before his victim, absorbing the impact of the landing by tucking forward and rolling. Something briefly tugged at his cloak – another crossbow bolt, he supposed, narrowly missing his flesh – but it did not slow him as he came to his feet mere steps from more would-be murderers. He danced ruin among them, his music steel against steel. Morning Rain on Ice flowed into Arc of the Moon. A man fell, screaming but Gabriel did not hear it. Kissing the Adder became Falling Coins on Stone. A solid bar of light burned away the night, immolating one of the men so quickly that he had no chance to scream. Into the heart of the murderers Gabriel danced. Black Pebbles on Snow became Parting the Silk. He saw men down that he had not slain, knew that Merasiël was dancing her own song amongst them, her blades coming from the shadows as she pounced. It was how they fought together – he would spring in, draw all eyes, and she would lunge seemingly out of nowhere, oft times from directly behind them. Snow in High Wind flowed into Mongoose Takes A Viper. Another man fell. And then another, shrieking as that burning light once more stabbed out, igniting clothes and flesh. Gabriel sidestepped a wild thrust from his last foe and countered – Viper in Low Grass punched Compatior through the man’s striking arm, delaying him just long enough for Unfolding the Fan to silence the murderer’s screams forever. He let the corpse topple as he pulled both weapons free, flicking them slightly to ensure they were not stained with blood, and quickly surveyed the blood-soaked streets. Automatically, he fell into Cat Crosses the Courtyard to maximize alertness and reaction speed, but it hardly seemed necessary.

There were two young men – boys, really, though they had hard faces – standing alongside the now open carriage door, each with a quarterstaff in one hand and fire in the other. They were staring at Gabriel with aggression in every line of their bodies and barely contained fear in their eyes, but he gave them only a brief glance before letting his eyes slip toward the man they ostensibly stood to protect. It was understandable why they might be concerned. Not only had he dropped out of the sky and killed six … no, seven men in a matter of heartbeats, but to their gaze, he was little more than a blur of shadows and distorted shapes. That was really Gestlin’s fault since he’d ‘upgraded’ the hunter’s cloak many years ago. It excelled at times, floundered at others, much like the irritating hum that Misericordia uttered when wielded or the equally frustrating blue-white glow the rapier emitted, both of which the wizard had insisted were unintentional additions to his magical upgrades all the while trying to conceal his glee. That too had to be disconcerting to these boys’ eyes: a shadow wielding what looked to solid bar of light? Had he encountered someone adorned in this way when he was their age, he knew that he would have hesitated to act as well.

“Release,” the old man who stood in their center ordered in a sharp tone that expected absolute obedience. He was thinner than Gabriel recalled and what hair he still had was now completely white. His face was lined, both from stress and exhaustion, but his eyes were still bright and far too knowing. At his command, the two boys dropped their hands, quenching the flames. They did not shift their gaze, though, and seemed poised on the verge of summoning more witchfire. “See to the injured,” the old man instructed sharply, not even bothering to give either of his acolytes a glance. They leapt to obey, allowing him to refocus on Gabriel. “Your assistance was most timely, my friend,” he then said with a smile.

In the distance, Gabriel could hear the pounding of hooves and the shrill cry of whistles hinting at the Watch’s inevitable approach. He slid both weapons into their sheaths, causing them to vanish under his cloak and took a subtle half-step back, away from the man watching him, away from his past. How long had he been running from that? Even with Merasiël there, it still felt like running. He wanted to say something, anything, but no words came, and thankfully, the white-haired clergyman took mercy on him.

“Go, Brother Gabriel,” Archbishop Mendel said with a soft, sad smile. “And thank you.”

Without a sound, Gabriel stepped back into the alleyway to his back and allowed the shadows to swallow him.

He waited until no one was watching to scramble up the building’s surface.

Doing so was even easier than it normally would have been, once more due to the magical equipment that Gestlin had crafted so many years ago. The gloves and boots that Gabriel wore seemed wrought of simple leather, but they allowed him to adhere to solid walls even when there were no handholds. At the time of their crafting, Gestlin had named them ‘spidey-gloves and boots’ before grumbling that they should have been red with white piping and muttering about something called webshooters as well, though Gabriel had tuned him out by that point. Merasiël bore a set as well and these items had saved their lives on more occasions than Gabriel could count. They also gave them access to locations where normal men and women could not reach, allowing them to accomplish tasks that should have been impossible.

The elven medallion he wore under his cuirass warmed slightly as Gabriel reached the top of the building and then tugged him to his left. Keeping low and silent, he ghosted along the roof, allowing the device to lead him to where Merasiël was. She too was hidden from sight thanks to her cloak and the medallions had become necessary following that incident in Araterre some years back where they lost an entire night trying to find each other while in a slaver camp that they did not wish to alert.

“Here,” Merasiël murmured as he crept toward her hiding spot. She extended a hand from underneath her cloak and Gabriel knelt alongside her. Instantly, she reached out to touch him which was something of a surprise, but his momentary shock faded when her questing fingers crawled across his cuirass. Oh. Of course. The crossbow bolt. Until now, he had not realized how painful that had been – the bruise would likely be quite ugly when he finally removed his cuirass – but he folded the dull ache into a part of his mind where he could ignore it. The Void made it feel like someone else’s pain. He heard her exhale softly in relief before withdrawing her hand.

In any other place, at any other time, he would have teased her for doing so – between them, he was usually, by far, the more expressive. Oh, Gabriel knew that Mera cared for him – she would not have borne their son, Thorondil, if she did not – but life had left her incapable of displaying her softer side except in rare moments. When they were alone like this, she was more open to him than any other person alive, sometimes even briefly forgetting the dark tragedies of her life to smile at his occasional witticisms. Never when anyone else was present, of course, but still. Once, he’d even caught her singing and she had not trailed off in embarrassed silence upon realizing that he was awake and listening, though after she finished her song, she did threaten to castrate him with a rusty spoon if he mocked her for it. Not that he would have ever thought of doing so – she might have atrocious timing and unspeakably bad form when it came to dancing, but her singing voice was quite pleasant. For that matter, he thought nothing about speaking his mind to her, whatever or wherever his thoughts went, even if afterward, he might wish he’d kept silent. It was the strangest relationship he’d ever had and to his very great surprise, Gabriel had long ago realized that he was content with the arrangement. Wherever he went, whatever dangers he faced, however great the fire, Merasiël would be there with him and she knew he would follow her to hell if necessary. Again. Or for the first time. Whatever was the case. Gabriel thrust the momentary burst of reflection aside, burying it under a layer of mental ice. Merasiël was speaking and he needed to listen.

“Two watchers,” she whispered, her voice pitched for his ears only. Her free hand pointed first in one direction, then in another before vanishing once more under her cloak. It took him a long moment – her eyes were so much better than his, no matter that he wore a ring to enhance both his night vision and his general visual acuity – but he finally located both of the watchers indicated. They were stretched out upon their respective rooftops, crossbows aimed toward the carriage now swarming with city watch and church soldiers. Loosing a bolt now would be suicide, particular given the archbishop’s clear arcane capability. Both men were also watching the rooftops around them with what would have been paranoia had Gabriel not suspected they were trying to find him or Merasiël. Under his hood, he smiled slightly.

“I would very much like to speak to those men,” he said very, very softly. This had been an expensive proposition, in between the better than average capabilities of the would-be murderers and their knowledge about Mendel’s path.

“I am thinking that I would like fish for dinner this evening,” Merasiël murmured calmly as she began inching away, angling toward her target. Neither had to discuss a plan – they would part, each seeking the man closest, and later, they would argue over which of them had accomplished the task first without ever being able to prove the answer either way.

“I’d prefer lamb,” he replied, equally soft. He was tired of fish. Really, really tired. Twenty days on a boat with little more than that to eat? Frowning, he let the Void wash over his thoughts and focused on his objective.

To his utter disgust, Gabriel’s target began creeping away almost as soon as he began stalking the man.

There was no indication that he knew Gabriel was following him – the man’s attention seemed mostly focused on the cluster of soldiers and priests below – but he was being very careful about his surroundings, a clear indication that he was quite worried about being pursued. This attention made it difficult to get within striking distance as the watcher silently stealthed away from the ambush point. Gabriel was faster, even while trying to remain unnoticed, but still, it took more time than it should.

Four buildings became five and then six as the watcher’s trail weaved over the rooftops. Irritation and a tiny sliver of anger tried to bubble up but Gabriel ignored them as he crept ever closer. The hairs on the back of his neck suddenly stood up and he froze in place, allowing the hunter’s cloak to completely conceal him from view. Something was wrong. Slowly, Gabriel scanned the wide rooftop for anything out of place but he found only that which was supposed to be here. A sealed crate of roofing tiles, assorted tools for repairs, a faceless man stalking toward him, a wooden crane secured for the night, two ladders … wait.

A faceless man?

He barely had time to draw Misericordia and fall into Leopard in High Grass before the Faceless was upon him, his wickedly curved long blade whistling. Back Gabriel fell – he was suddenly aware of a second man and then a third, all without features and all astoundingly hard to look at; his eyes automatically tried to slide away, as if the men weren’t really there or just not important – and each step carried him closer toward the lip of the building. Branch in the Storm knocked aside a decapitating strike he could barely see and he retreated, catching another thrust from the second man with Kingfisher Circles the Pond. They were fast, faster than anyone he could remember facing. None of them made any sounds as they attacked, not even the grunts of exertion one would expect in a close fight like this. Back Gabriel fell, each parry warding off a potentially killing strike. He heard the watcher he’d been pursuing approach and, at the last moment, allowed Folding the Air to carry him away, into a sideways somersault. It put the watcher between the three Faceless, fouling their footing for only the span of time it took for one of them to sink a yard of steel into the watcher’s belly, but it was long enough for Gabriel to draw Compatior, regain his bearings, and brace for their next attack.

Cyclone on the Plain became Lizard in the Thornbrush. He retreated grudgingly, giving ground as he danced away from their blurring blades. Mongoose Takes a Viper badly wounded one of the Faceless – any other man would have been crippled, but this one was only slowed – and Snow in High Wind left a line of scarlet across the chest of another. Sparks flew as their ripostes struck his armor. The cuirass held, but these strikes … none of them were intended to wound or even slow a target. They were all killing blows. Back Gabriel danced. Ribbon in the Air bought him enough time for Cat on Hot Sand, but that was batted away and countered with something dangerously close to Dove Takes Flight. Back …

His left foot reached the lip of the building and he understood their intent without consciously thinking about it. Another thrust would force him to retreat again and he would have two options: hesitate and be off balance long enough for that thrust to take him in the heart or fall. This was, by far, the tallest of the buildings in the immediate vicinity and the construction behind was a good storey shorter.

So Gabriel chose option three.

In mid-step, he threw himself back with every ounce of his strength, relying on the other, unforeseen enhancement that Gestlin had added to the ‘spidey-boots.’ Instantly, he felt the effort necessary – it was hard to explain the sudden drain on him; it was like he’d sprinted for three or four miles … but at the same time, it wasn’t. His jump carried him back, further than he would have ordinarily have been able to manage, and in mid-air, he twisted around like a cat so that he would land squarely on his feet. One of the Faceless toppled over the side of the building, having lunged for him in the very instant he sprang away and badly overbalanced.

Gabriel hit the roof of the shorter building hard – thanks to the boots, he stuck the landing, but the strain ran up his legs and would have made him howl had he not been wrapped in the Void. He shook the pain away, buried it, pushed it aside. All that mattered was the enemy. And the two remaining acted exactly as he expected. Both took a step back and then threw themselves forward.

He met them in mid-air.

There was no finesse to his counter and this was simply not a thing that could be practiced. He took two long steps and jumped once more, ramming Compatior into the chest of the Faceless to his left where he left it while swinging wildly at the other with Misericordia. The latter he caught high – a neck strike – and shower of crimson followed the dying thing that looked like a man to the roof of the shorter building. Gabriel hit the wall of the larger construction a mere heartbeat later, his feet and free hand finding instant purchase and adhering him in place. I must send a very congratulatory letter to Gestlin. The stray thought flickered across his perception but he barely noticed it as he tensed his leg muscles and jumped a third time.

Both of the Faceless were dead – he stabbed Misericordia through their eyes, just to make sure – and he recovered his sai quickly before leaning over the edge of this building to look for the third man. Evidently, extreme pain negated their strange ability to go unnoticed because he found the man immediately and it looked as though he’d broken a leg with his fall. The Faceless looked up and, though he could not see the man’s face, Gabriel knew he was looking at him so he offered a grin that he knew the man could see since he could feel a cool night breeze in his hair, alerting him to the fact that his hood had been knocked askew. It was more acting than anything else – the three enhanced jumps had left him so exhausted that he just wanted to sit down for an hour or so – but it must have been effective as the Faceless reversed his sword and drove it through his own heart.

Gabriel blinked. That … he had not expected that. He stood there, staring at the dead man for a long moment before a thought occurred to him. Merasiël.

He was sprinting back toward where they’d separated even before he was conscious of moving. Rest could wait.

Whether by luck or divine protection, Merasiël had encountered none of the Faceless.

When he reached her, she was finishing up with her watcher who looked none the worse for wear. The man was visibly terrified as Gabriel drew closer and lowered his hood, but other than that, bore few injuries. That was to be expected – while she was more than capable of physical coercion, Merasiël knew quite well that the threat of torture was usually a better tool than actually going through with it. She frowned slightly the moment she recognized his stance.

“Leopard in High Grass,” she murmured in Elvish. “Are there enemies on all sides?” Her own body language had phase-shifted to one of readiness as well and the casual, perfectly balanced and seemingly arrogant way in which she stood was so similar to Cat Crosses the Courtyard, a walking stance that she disdained as looking like an arrogant saunter, that Gabriel might have teased her about it at any other time.

“Faceless,” he replied in the same tongue. Why hadn’t she encountered them? Bad luck on his part? Sometimes, he wondered if God simply enjoyed toying with him. “I just encountered three of them.” He scowled at the bruised man at her feet and switched to Anglish. “I hope you learned something,” he said.

“Some things, yes.” Blindingly fast, she flicked Angrist underhand, burying the knife in the man’s chest. He had just enough time to gasp before death took him. “No one will grieve that one’s passing,” she remarked coldly. A lifetime ago, Gabriel would not have recognized the disgust in her voice – clearly, the dead man had confessed to vile activities. A rapist, perhaps? Certainly not a molester of children as Gabriel doubted the man would not have still been breathing when he arrived. “Are you certain they were Faceless?”

“Yes.” Merasiël frowned again. She studied him for a moment, likely attempting to determine if he had been injured, and this time, Gabriel had to frown. He hated when she gave him that look, as if he was a little boy who had gone and done something he should not have. Besides, she knew as well as he did that the blades used by the Faceless were poisoned. If he’d been cut, he would be dead already.

“This … complicates matters.” Gabriel smirked at the extent of her understatement. “That one pointed me to certain individuals linked to our investigation.” She gave the corpse a scowl before recalling Angrist to her hand. “But I think it likely that the attack on the brother…”

“Archbishop,” Gabriel corrected. Merasiël shrugged and continued as if he said nothing.

“…is connected in some way. He will need to be warned.” Gabriel opened his mouth to argue, then closed it immediately. She was correct. The Faceless were hideously expensive and he had just encountered three. There weren’t many people or organizations who could afford to put three of them in the same city, and those that could afford it – like the Church, for example – could easily put another three here as well. Merasiël nodded. “I will see to this,” she said.

“And I’ll go speak to Mendel,” Gabriel said grimly.

Gaining access to Mendel was frighteningly easy.

As an important visitor to Craine, the Archbishop of Caithness and his entourage were granted rooms in the ducal palace, which should have been harder to infiltrate than it was, especially given the events earlier this evening. He was three-quarters of the way to where he knew Mendel would be staying before it occurred to Gabriel that his old friend had very likely cleared the path somewhat for him. That should have made him happier than it did.

The two hard-faced acolytes were standing watch outside Mendel’s door, so Gabriel circled around them and climbed to the roof. He ducked a pair of chatty guards on rounds – one of the two was telling an improbable story about the duke, a turtle and an irritating al-Wazif ambassador that was so engaging Gabriel almost shadowed them just to hear how the story ended; it was exactly the sort of almost believable nonsense that he recalled Magnifico telling – and then slid toward the open window that opened up into Mendel’s chambers. Even before he entered, Gabriel felt his skin begin to itch or rather, the tattoos that crawled the length of his arms and now intertwined on his back. There was magic at work. Of course. Mendel would not have trusted the duke to protect him.

“Hello, Gabriel,” the subject of his thoughts called out from where he sat. The Archbishop of Caithness had abandoned the robes of state for something more homespun and simple. Suddenly, he looked far more like the old friend than the Church official and Gabriel wondered if that was a ploy on Mendel’s part. He discarded the thought almost before it fully manifested.

“Hello,” he replied as he clambered through the open window. Without thinking, he pulled his hood back and scanned the room for potential threats.

“Look at you,” Mendel whispered. “You haven’t aged a day.” Gabriel’s eyes snapped back to the white-haired man who suddenly looked frail and tired. He could still see his old friend but only just as the ravages of time had worked their terrible magic upon him. “Gestlin said it was so,” Mendel murmured, “but I did not truly believe … not until this very instant.” Gabriel tried not to frown – he was suddenly vastly irritated at Merasiël even though he knew this was not her fault. This was why she went out of her way to avoid interacting with people past a certain amount of time – according to what he’d gleaned, one of the reasons they parted ways briefly while he traveled with Gestlin to Rainald’s lands and then on to Sahud was because she’d begun noticing how much older the wizard had begun to look.

“If I knew the secret, I would share it,” Gabriel said quickly. That was not entirely the truth – he strongly suspected that the dragon-marks were responsible for his apparent lack of aging, but he’d found no others who bore them would could answer his questions. Even the Fortress of Tears stood abandoned and, when he’d visited it some years ago, it had looked far more desolate than it should have, as if its halls had stood empty for many decades, not just the ten years or so that had elapsed since he fought and killed within. He greatly feared that he was the last man to bear the dragon-mark and it was this that had changed him. Not even the elves could wholly decipher why he did not age and they had more reason than others to be wary.

“Yes, yes, I know,” the old man began, waving his hand to dismiss it. Before he could continue, there was a soft knock at the door and it slid open.


His former apprentice was not wearing white but rather a dark gray that almost bordered on black, the crimson Templar cross still prominent upon his chest. If there was a deeper meaning to his uniform, an indication of Auqui’s station or assignment or status among the order, perhaps, Gabriel was ignorant of it as he purposely avoided Templars whenever possible. Auqui had not entirely discarded common sense as he was armed and wearing mail underneath the dark tabard.

“Forgive me, Excellency,” he began in the instant before his eyes alighted upon Gabriel. Without a word, he went for his sword.

Gabriel had already half-drawn his own blade when Mendel sprang to his feet with the grace of a much younger man, placing himself squarely between them. Auqui had also bared steel and from his absolute lack of expression, Gabriel knew he was deep within the Void himself, already centered and ready for a fight that could only end in one way. Despite the distant anger, the unresolved rage and fury, Gabriel could not help but to feel a flash of pleasure that his former apprentice had learned his lessons well.

“Hold!” Mendel snapped, his voice stern and hard. “You will, neither of you, bare steel in my presence!” The old man now wore authority like a cloak and Gabriel backpedaled slightly, placing his back to the wall just to the right of the window even as he allowed Misericordia to fall back into its scabbard. He was not fool enough to take his hand from the hilt, not even with Mendel standing there, but Cat Crosses the Courtyard came easily as he lounged, deceptively casual. Auqui knew the form and frowned, but he too rammed his sword back into place.

“Forgive me, Your Excellency,” he said stiffly, his eyes still locked on Gabriel. “I was unaware that you were entertaining … guests.” He scowled and glanced away, which Gabriel was silently glad of as it gave him an opportunity to recover from the shock he hoped did not show on his face. Auqui looked so … old. He did some quick mental calculations and almost winced at the result; His former apprentice would have to be in his early forties now. Seeing Mendel as an aged man was one thing – the onetime priest had already been nearing middle age when they met so very long ago – but Auqui? Gabriel still recalled the young boy he’d first met on the Huallapan homeworld. Now, that same boy looked like he could be Gabriel’s elder brother or uncle. In a few years, it would be worse. He tried not to grimace but, from the fleetingly confused expression that flickered across Auqui’s face, he did not do as good a job as he would have liked. “I am surprised to see you here, however,” his former apprentice stated flatly. “Our reports have you in al-Wazif.” Gabriel narrowed his eyes.

“Keeping track of me are you?” he asked with a smirk that he did not entirely feel.

“Considering your activities and capabilities, it is necessary,” Auqui replied. He grimaced. “Do you realize what you’ve done? What may come of your actions in Qazr?” Gabriel blinked – the Templar intelligence network was better than he had anticipated – before grinning. This time he meant it.

“Civil war, if we’re fortunate,” he replied. It had been his idea though once he explained it to Merasiël, she’d suggested a handful of adjustments that turned wild speculation into an actionable operation. Everyone knew that the governor of Qazr as-Sawh, Emir Harun abd Ishaq, was at least half-mad. Brother to the reigning Caliph, Harun had spent the last thirty years building up the army with an eye on invading Megalos once more but his obsession with war had turned him bitter and insane, especially as he knew he was in the twilight of his life. And so, Gabriel and Merasiël had visited him, not to do murder, but to tip him even deeper into madness. Merasiël had stealthily dosed the emir’s food with a potent elven drug that caused hallucinations and then, as Harun struggled to decipher what was real and what was not, Gabriel had visited him, wearing his cloak of distorted light and shadows. The irritating glow of Misericordia was useful for a change as it gave him the illusion of a divine messenger, an angel perhaps. And the punchline was something even Magnifico would approve of: at no time did Gabriel speak a single word that was untrue.

“Know that I am Gabriel!” he’d said in a loud, booming voice, consciously emulating Magnifico or Mendel when they were proclaiming things to a crowd. Harun had prostrated himself immediately, thinking that he was being visited by the archangel himself. “Know that the act of slavery displeases us and that you are henceforth charged to combat this practice by any and all means!” When Harun visibly reacted in surprise to that, Gabriel had finished with, “And know that he who would keeps another in unwilling bondage, whether they be man or woman, elf or dwarf or other thinking creature, this man shall I visit. And my wrath shall be terrible.” Merasiël had struck then, having snuck up behind Harun, and the extra-strong dose of the drug had sent Harun spiralling even deeper into his delusions which allowed them both the opportunity to depart undetected. The last he’d heard, Harun had declared himself to be a holy man, visited by the same archangel who delivered the word of the Qur’an to the Prophet himself. His fervor (or his madness) had convinced many that he spoke the Word and he was causing massive upheaval in al-Wazif as he demanded emancipation for all of those who were slaves. War would come…

Providing the Caliph did not have his half-brother simply murdered, of course.

“I do not think that he came here to discuss his actions against the heretics, Lord Commander,” Mendel said gently as he retook his seat. Auqui scowled again but simply nodded. “Speak, Brother Gabriel.”

“The attack on your person this night,” Gabriel began. “There were two watchers and I followed one.”

“I would like to speak to that man,” Auqui said sharply.

“He is dead,” Gabriel said with a shrug. “But I did not kill him. He was slain by Faceless.” Auqui inhaled sharply but Mendel showed no sign of recognition. “Have you made any foes in Tredroy of late, Your Excellency?” That caused a response – the archbishop exchanged a quick, knowing look with Auqui – and Gabriel frowned. “You expected an attack tonight,” he guessed.

“It seemed … probable, yes.” Mendel gave Auqui a questioning look.

“Your guard was supposed to be my men,” he said darkly. “They were ordered to stand down from someone … I mean to find out who.”

“And I shall pray for their soul when you do,” the archbishop said before turning his eyes to Gabriel. “I know nothing of these … Faceless. What are they?”

“Assassins,” Auqui spat.

“Magically enhanced assassins,” Gabriel corrected. “They are faster, stronger and generally harder to kill than a normal man. One would think that having no faces makes them easier to spot but in truth, your eyes slide right off of them.”

“Tredroy.” Mendel frowned. “I remember … there is a guild of assassins there, yes?”

“There was,” Gabriel replied. He shrugged. “Some years ago, there was a war in the underground of Tredroy. The Faceless appeared then and supplanted the old guild.”

“And I am certain you had nothing to do with that war either,” Auqui snapped. Gabriel smirked.

“I was in Sahud at the time, so no.” He returned his eyes to Mendel. “Faceless are extraordinarily expensive and they do not kill indiscriminately. The watcher I pursued would have been ignored unless he attacked one of them if he was not on their list of probable targets.” He started to say more when the medallion he wore suddenly grew warm. Merasiël wanted him to join her. “It is highly unlikely that Faceless simply happened to be after one of the men watching the attempt on your life.” He shifted closer to the window. “Few can afford a single Faceless,” he said, “let alone three. And those that can could easily afford more.” He met Mendel’s troubled gaze.

“You think the Church has hired these assassins.” Gabriel offered a tight smile.

“It would not be the first time,” he said in a knowing tone. “And now, if you will forgive me, I am needed elsewhere.” He was gone before either of them could react, though he heard both of them calling out.

The medallion drew him across the city and to Merasiël.

Once again, he chose the so-called ‘thieves’ highway’ that connected so many rooftops together, mostly because it suited his mood but also because it was simply the quickest way to cross Craine. The streets below had once followed a discernible plan but over the years, much had changed. Buildings had collapsed or burned or simply been torn down and rebuilt. Streets had been diverted and redirected away from the straight paths into something more easily defended. Only the thieves highway provided a direct route.

His thoughts raced as he darted across the slick rooftops and narrow walkways. Merasiël’s avoidance of their former friends and comrades had been something of a source of conflict between them over the years, especially as he learned about some of the life events that had taken place for them, but now … now he completely understood. This year would mark his fiftieth year and yet, he looked and felt no different than he had twenty years earlier. Would he still look thus in another fifty when all of his friends (save one) had passed into memory? Or a hundred? Five hundred? No wonder elves seemed so detached from this world – everything and everyone would be gone in the blink of an eye.

The medallion grew warmer, tugging him in a specific direction, and heartbeats later, he heard the distinct ring of steel upon steel. Automatically, he fell into the Void, hardly even noticing how easily it came to him. He paused for only a moment – there! That rooftop! He could see Merasiël wielding her weapons against … nothing? Gabriel grimaced and threw himself forward, concentrating as hard as he could on seeing past the illusions. Two Faceless were there, pressing her hard with their longer blades, and a third was already down, Angrist rammed in his throat. Gabriel understood why she was wielding the lesser blade now and he sharply angled toward the corpse. Without missing a step, he seized Angrist, tearing it free from the dead man and hurling it at the nearest of the living Faceless. It caught the assassin by surprise but was far from a killing blow as the elvish blade struck him high in the meaty part of his shoulder. Merasiël reacted without hesitation.

In mid-step, she twirled around the staggered Faceless, ramming her lesser blade into the back of his skull. She released her hold on that dagger and seized Angrist in the same, easy motion, all the while staying on the move. Half-crouching, she side-stepped to put the dying Faceless between her and the remaining one. The elves did not name their stances and forms like Gabriel had been taught, but rather referred to them by the animal they sought to emulate. This was Wolf, a fast, aggressive style that relied more on teamwork than individual effort, and Gabriel darted forward to aid her as expected, drawing Misericordia as he fought the urge to look past the remaining Faceless.

Swallow Rides the Air became Snow in High Wind. Merasiël shifted left, Angrist coming in low. The Faceless narrowly dodged, but his footing was fouled. The Rose Unfolds drove him back, which only further allowed Merasiël to slip further into his blind spot. Gabriel flowed forward, redoubling his level of aggression. River Undercuts the Bank became Ribbon in the Air. The Faceless had to know that he could not devote his full attention to Gabriel, not with Merasiël there circling behind him, but the speed with which Misericordia flashed at him made doing so a necessity.

And as he parried, Merasiël struck. Like any good wolf, she went for hamstring and throat – the first strike was with Angrist and it severed the tendons in the Faceless’ back leg, which happened to be the one holding most of his weight. He toppled without even a squawk of surprise, and she struck again, this time using the weapon she’d pulled from that place where they rescued Wallace so many years ago. Blood gushed as the blade abruptly lengthened to a short sword and sliced through skin with the ease of a hot knife through snow.

“You took your time,” Merasiël remarked once they were certain all three were dead and no others were present. Her breath came rapidly as she recovered – Gabriel watched for a moment – and then shrugged.

“I was on the other side of the city,” he pointed out. He gave the bodies a frown. “Six. Someone has spent a considerable amount of money on this.”

“A Churchman,” came the reply. Her breathing was sadly returning to normal. “I observed him issuing instructions to the Faceless.” She scowled suddenly. “I was sloppy and one of them saw me,” she added. Gabriel shrugged.

“If it is any consolation,” he remarked, “I walked right into their trap before I even realized it was a trap.” She grunted. “The Churchman?” he asked. Merasiël nodded and quickly recovered the knife still buried in the second Faceless’ head.

“This way,” she said.

It turned out that she had been pursued by the Faceless for some distance. They retraced her steps back over the roofs of three buildings, across a stone-cropping that served as a bridge over the street below, and then finally up the side of a large, wide wall that looked down into the wide streets outside the Craine cathedral. It began to rain again midway through through their journey and by the time they reached the overlook, both were soaked all the way through. Gabriel fell into the Void to escape his discomfort – here, where there was no emotion, he could ignore how badly he wanted a hot bath.

There were a handful of armored Curia Guards standing watch before the cathedral’s door and they looked every bit as miserable as one would expect, but as he and Merasiël settled in for what could be a long, boring wait, a pair of bishops emerged from the cathedral, pausing briefly to seek immediate cover from the rain. Merasiël shifted, though Gabriel felt it more than saw it since her hunter’s cloak did a fantastic job of keeping her concealed.

“That one,” she murmured. “The thin one. He’s the one.” Gabriel grunted.

“He looks familiar,” he replied softly.

“I thought so as well but could not place him.” Merasiël paused. “The Templar stronghold in Cardiel, perhaps?” At that, Gabriel frowned. If this man had been there, he would likely be one of the Talosian cultists who had escaped the Templar purge. He would need to die.

“Bishop Aloysius of Tredroy!” Mendel’s voice boomed over the streets, echoing so loudly that it caused Gabriel to jerk in surprise. Below, the Curia Guards reacted were visibly startled and the thin bishop – Aloysius Honorius, Gabriel guessed – jumped as well. Flanked by mounted Templars who were armed and clearly ready for a fight, Archbishop Mendel appeared around a bend in the main avenue. He was seated astride a horse himself and was garbed in resplendent garments identifying his position and rank; only the simple quarterstaff he held in one hand was unadorned. “You stand accused of apostasy and heresy under the eyes of God!” Mendel said, his voice still echoing in such a way that it had to be magically enhanced.

To their credit, the Curia Guard reacted immediately. Upon recognizing an archbishop and a squadron of Templars, they levelled their pikes and moved to surround the heretic bishop, even as the man he had been speaking to backpedalled rapidly, holding his hands aloft in surrender. He was too distant to hear what was being said but Gabriel suspected he was proclaiming innocence. Bishop Aloysius, however, did not go quietly.

With a sharp gesture, he set the foremost of the Curia Guards aflame – the screams of the men could be heard even here and Gabriel tensed, intent on throwing himself forward to join the engagement, but Merasiël caught his arm and held him back – before dancing back from the thrusts of the remaining Guards and gesturing once more. An explosion of rock and debris erupted at the feet of the men, flinging them back as shrapnel from shattered cobblestones tore bloody strips from them. Momentarily safe, Bishop Aloysius took a step away, glancing in the direction of the Templars…

Who were already thundering toward him.

Aloysius managed to get off another spell – a scalding hot jet of burning sand streaked through the rain where it caught the lead rider’s horse squarely in the face – but that was it. The Templar at the head of the squadron came off his shrieking, panicked mount in a smooth dismount that even Gabriel had to admire. Even before the man struck the ground and rolled to distribute the impact of the fall, Gabriel recognized Auqui’s body language. His former student came up, a bastard sword whistling free of its scabbard, and struck. Black Lance’s Last Strike drove the blade through Aloysius’ neck – Gabriel frowned; not only was the form sloppy, but it had been a poor choice. He would have used Arc of the Moon instead of leaving himself so wide open like this – and the bishop staggered back, blood drenching his robes and spraying the streets where it was promptly washed away by the rain. Auqui flowed forward – Low Wind Rising became Striking the Spark and ended with Folding the Fan – and the Talosian toppled. He twitched once, twice, again, and then was still.

“Sloppy,” he muttered under his breath, even as he silently acknowledged that Auqui had not entirely forgotten his lessons. He was aware of Merasiël studying him … though how she managed to do so with his hood up and the hunter’s cloak shrouding him from view, he had no idea.

“That was a dangerous strike,” she remarked.

“And his elbow was crooked again.” Gabriel paused, considered. “Still,” he corrected himself. “I think we are done here,” he added as he straightened slightly, attention mostly still focused on the street below. Mendel had arrived and was attending to the injured. So was the other bishop for that matter, though that might have been a ploy on his part to avoid looking at the squadron of Templars now surrounding the area. Someone had thrown a cloak over Aloysius’ body.

“Agreed.” Merasiël stood, glanced once more at the street, and turned away. “I greatly desire a hot bath,” she murmured. Gabriel gave the madness on the street below another look but then paused..

Auqui was standing there, looking directly at him.

Gabriel hesitated, considered – how could his former apprentice see through the magical shroud that was the hunter’s cloak? Or was he just reacting to observed motion? The latter seemed the most likely and, without letting himself think it through, Gabriel flicked his hood back. He saw Auqui tense – that too was not unexpected given their long-standing agreement to avoid one another – but Gabriel simply nodded and turned away, pulling his hood back up.

And then, he followed Merasiël into the rain.


THE inn was crowded.

Gabriel stepped through the entranceway, his entire body tense and his eyes alert. He felt naked without his armor, but it would have drawn far too many eyes; the rapier at his side was bad enough, even though more than a handful of those in the vicinity were also armed. There were too many potential threats here – by his count, there were no less than fifteen men present who knew their way around a battlefield, three of whom were at least as good as Radskyrta had been before his untimely demise – and he wanted to avoid a fight, at least for the moment. That had been, after all, one of the reasons this place had been chosen.

The innkeeper’s eyes widened with panicked recognition as Gabriel strode slowly across the common room, though that was understandable. Not long ago, after all, the man had witnessed that near disaster with the fool in the street. Gabriel idly wondered what had come of the man, then decided he did not care. If he was wise, the man was still running.

He found Auqui exactly where he expected him to be. The boy – no. That wasn’t right. He was a man now and Gabriel needed to keep that in mind. Auqui was seated in one of the corner tables, his back to the wall. Such a location provided an excellent view of the door though drawing a sword from that position would be difficult. Not impossible, but certainly difficult. He too was armed, though like Gabriel, he wore no armor. There were no indications of his new allegiances, but then, he would not wish to advertise it here, would he?.

“I am surprised you came alone,” Auqui said by way of greeting. He had resorted to his native language, but that was no surprise either given the nature of their conversation. His eyes flickered across the crowds, then settled back on Gabriel. “The sai you bore is new.”

“As is your beard,” Gabriel replied flatly. “I did not come here to reminisce. Speak your piece.” He did not bother addressing Auqui’s presumption that he was alone and recognized the instant his former apprentice recognized this fact. Auqui’s eyes narrowed very slightly and darted once more.

He listened silently as his former apprentice told his story and how he grew to learn about Zabka’s deceit. The tale about the goblin child being Christ reborn made Gabriel frown, but he said nothing. Finally, the boy fell silent and they sat quietly for a long moment. Gabriel considered – nothing his former student had told him excused some of what had happened. Kira was still dead, after all, and he knew that he would never be able to forgive him for that.

“So,” Auqui said softly. “What happens now?”

“I walk away,” Gabriel said. “You do the same. Neither of us seeks the other out.” He offered a cold smile that did not touch his eyes. “Should our paths cross again,” he said simply, “it will end in bloodshed.”

“An adequate arrangement,” Auqui replied. “I cannot speak for the other Templars – some of them will always see you as an enemy. And, of course, the Order of Talos will come for you.”

“If they find me, I will greet them will steel.” He rose – Auqui did the same, his eyes as wary as Gabriel felt – and two men seated at the far end of the common room tensed. Gabriel would have smiled again, but instead, he tipped his head very slightly to his former student and turned away.

He was two streets away before he began to relax even a tiny bit. Retrieving Cometes from the inn where he’d secured him took no time at all – the stableboy looked dumbfounded at his reappearance, even though he’d told the lad that it was only for an hour or so – and he reconfirmed that everything was in place by touch. That was necessary thanks to the illusion wrought over the horse’s back that concealed the saddle and bags from sight; thankfully, Gestlin had not asked why it was needed, but then, the wizard had been too eager to rejoin the others in their celebration of Wallace’s rescue to really question much.

Before he had taken more than three steps from the stable, Merasiël fell into step alongside him. Like him, she wore a hood that mostly concealed her features – something of a necessity in this city it seemed – but the soft rain that fell from the sky was an exceptional excuse. Also like him, she appeared dressed for travel, but then, he could not think of a time when she was not. More than even him, the elven woman always seemed ready to drop everything and vanish.

“There were four outside the meeting place,” she said softly in her native tongue. “None followed.” Gabriel started to frown at that, then gave her a questioning look. “I did not harm any of them,” Merasiël stated, her tone bordering on defensive. “They watched you leave and then rejoined the boy.”

“Well,” Gabriel mused under his breath. “I suppose that is something.” His eyes flicked to her again. “Thank you for your assistance,” he said. She shrugged indifferently.

“You have the look of someone setting out on a trip,” she commented instead. “Do you not intend to accompany the others to Caithness?”

“If ever I set foot in that country again,” Gabriel replied flatly, “it will be too soon.” His tone drew her eyes and he shrugged almost exactly like she had moments earlier. “There is nothing for me there but bitter memories.”

“The others?”

“You heard them today,” he said. “Rainald cannot wait to get back to his wife and children. Mendel misses his monastery. Magnifico … truly, I do not know what he thinks. And Dane … Dane will do whatever Wallace tells him to.” In truth, Gabriel had already said his goodbyes to them, though most would not realize it until long after he left.

“Where will you go?” My, she was full of questions today. It was a pleasant change – usually, he was the one pestering her.

“South, I think.” Gabriel smirked. “Someplace free of Templars and missing lords and demons pretending to be archangels. Somewhere … peaceful, I think.” To his surprise and utter delight, Merasiël gave him one of her very rare smiles. Admittedly brief, but present nonetheless.

“But not too peaceful,” she said. Gabriel laughed out loud.

“You know me too well,” he remarked. They walked in silence for another moment. “There is a place for you, if you wish it,” Gabriel said abruptly. That drew her eyes. “Caithness does not interest you either, I think.”

“It does not,” Merasiël replied after a moment of consideration. “South, you say?”

“To the coast of Cardiel, at least.” Gabriel smirked again. “Then … who knows? Araterre perhaps? Or some far distant land that no one has seen in a thousand years. Perhaps the very edge of the world.” He shrugged. “A place that has never heard of a Templar would be ideal.”

“I will need a fast horse of my own,” Merasiël pointed out. A flicker of something that looked suspiciously like mischief appeared in her eyes. “Surely in a city filled with knights and Templars, we can find something appropriate, yes?” Her expression hardened slightly. “Or slavers.” Gabriel could hear the unstated hatred and wondered at it for a moment. He pushed his curiosity aside – there would be time later to make inquiries – and instead nodded.

“Ruining a slaver by stealing his prize stallion bothers me not in the least,” he remarked wryly.

“There is a … Lord Drogan in this city,” Merasiël said abruptly. “Or so I have heard.” She was a better than expected liar, but Gabriel could see her eagerness to pay this lord a visit. By the sharpness of her expression, he doubted the man would survive should their paths cross.

“Well then,” Gabriel said with another smile. “Let’s go pay him a visit.”

Three hours later, they departed Cardiel on horseback, leaving behind eleven dead men, including one lordling, thirty-six freed slaves, and a single burning house.

It was a good start.

The water was not as cold as he expected.

As he lowered himself into the bay, Gabriel exhaled slowly, suddenly relieved that they would not be swimming through ice water. He heard Merasiël mutter something under her breath, and then Magnifico – not for the first time, he worried about conducting a stealth operation with the older man. Until they got him out of his ridiculous jester clothes, Gabriel had not realized just how much older Magnifico was compared to him. He made a silent, mental note to keep an eye on the man, just in case.

They kicked off from the Gleaming Endeavour with Gabriel taking point. It was awkward going – the watertight bag strapped to his back contained their clothes and gear, but the added weight made swimming difficult – but neither of his companions seemed to be struggling. They paused in the shadows of a dock as a pair of the city’s guards passed by, grumbling softly at having to be awake this late (or early, depending upon one’s perspective). Gabriel glanced toward Merasiël and flashed her a grin.

“Just like Ky’Tal,” he murmured under his breath, his voice pitched for her ears alone. She gave him a flat, unamused look.

“Warmer water,” she murmured in response.


Six Years Ago

The water was strangely frigid for this time of year.

Gabriel grimaced as he floated silently, hugging the shattered remnants of what had once been a hurriedly constructed skiff but was now little more than wreckage. The decision to try an amphibious assault had been a foolish one – to his credit, Dane had argued loud and long against it – but then, the Crusaders had not shown much in the realm of intelligence over the last few years. Naturally, it ended exactly as everyone feared it would, with blood and fire and more senseless death.

This would be the third Hive they had attacked, and Gabriel very much hoped it was to be the last one. He was tired of this world, tired of this ridiculous war, tired of the constant, unending stupidity foisted upon them by nobles who had no business even speaking in a war council, let alone leading troops. Admittedly, the worst of the lot were already gone, felled by their ignorance or dead by disease, but still, there were just enough of the fools remaining to make things difficult. The siege to take this hive, for example, was bringing the fools out like honey drew bees. Most of them wanted to simply assault the gates … or rather, wanted to hurl their Huallapan levies against those gates until they battered them down which was such a patently stupid idea that they had to latch onto it. Thankfully, Dane was at least a little wiser.

Which was how Gabriel found himself treading water in the bay that Hive Ky’Tal crouched over like a sullen, angry child. There were nineteen others scattered around him, most of whom were elves under that fierce-eyed woman, Merasiël . Auqui was here as well – the boy had begged and Gabriel had been forced to admit that he would be useful – as well as Kira, and all of them were waiting for his signal. Damn that Dane for putting him in command. He wanted to scowl even though he acknowledged this was pretty much his own fault. After all, he’d been the one to suggest assaulting this way.

“This will be close knife work,” he’d told the assembled team, noting the casually confident way the elves stood. None of them would shy from what had to be done, not with that hard-eyed female in command, so he focused most of his remarks toward Auqui and Kira. “Once we reach the shore, follow the plan. There are to be no deviations or last minute heroics.” He locked gazes with Auqui. “Am I clear on this?” he asked, letting his tone and body language deliver the threat more than the words.

“It will be as you say, Master Gabriel,” the boy said. He was too eager by half, but dammit, they needed him here. His understanding of the tongue would be essential given how poorly Gabriel understood it.

A brilliant flare of light momentarily illuminated the far bank – Mendel, probably; Dane had a tendency to rely on the monk for these sorts of signals – and Gabriel waited until the flare had faded away before letting himself dip under the water so he could resume his swim. Already, he could feel the strange water-breathing weave dropped over him by Pachacuti beginning to falter which he supposed he should have expected. What was the old saying? You can have it done well or done fast, but not both? They had opted for haste.

They reached the bank before the weave completely collapsed and Gabriel allowed his head to breach the surface slowly. According to the locals, this had once been a fairly large port city before the Vasar came, and the bugs had never bothered tearing down the docks. The neglect showed, however, with rotten timbers and the skeletal remains of strange-looking ships yet berthed against swaying piers that even the local sea-birds avoided. There were a handful of natives milling around and Gabriel grimaced slightly. He considered their options quickly before allowing his eyes to flick to the elven leader, Merasiël . She nodded her understanding and without a word vanished back under the water. Three others followed her.

In the shadows of the crumbling docks, Gabriel led the rest of the team up into cover. For a change, they did not have to change clothes – Pachacuti’s weave had seen to that – and Gabriel waited for a long count to twenty before the four elves materialized out of the darkness, their expressions grim but unconcerned.

“It is done,” Merasiël said softly in that strange-sounded accent of hers. The other elves shifted around her, as if they could not quite determine whether to recoil away or pledge lifelong loyalty. From the woman’s expression, she noticed this and liked it even less than they did. Gabriel pushed his curiosity aside for the moment.

“Four teams of five,” Gabriel hissed. He pointed to two elves he vaguely recognized. “You and you, with me. Hit your targets fast and keep moving. Our primary objective is to get the gates open.” He flashed a grin. “Peace favor your sword,” he said in his terrible elvish before turning away.

With Auqui, Kira and the two elves at his back, Gabriel angled toward the south gate. Rainald would be waiting there with his squadron of Wallace men, though God only knew how many Vasar they would need to cut through to win the gate. He kept low, hugging the shadows and avoiding the patrols, even though he knew Auqui was desperate to throw himself into battle. Now was not the time for that sort of thing, though he doubted the boy cared to hear such a thing. All that mattered was the mission.

And then, of course, everything went to hell.

It was no one’s fault, really, though later, Auqui would blame himself – they were sprinting through the narrow, overgrown streets that connected the remains of the Huallapan city to the Hive proper when a squad of Vasar warriors rounded a corner at a fast run. For the span of a single heartbeat, Auqui was silhouetted in the early morning light, a single, armed warrior facing off against a dozen bugs set against the backdrop of a ruined temple, and the Vasar’s advance faltered in surprise. They reacted nearly as quickly as he did, with their vestigial wings beating against their carapace in alarm even as he threw himself at them with the Boar Rushes Downhill. Gabriel did not even bother cursing as he reversed stride and darted back toward the melee, his father’s sword whispering free from its scabbard. The sharp snap of bowstrings – the two elves and Kira – sounded and two of the Vasar grunted in pained surprise as arrows struck him. By then, Gabriel was among them.

Snow in High Wind gutted one of the bugs and he twisted around a wild swing, springing up and over the polearm. He landed lightly in the dirt and then counterattacked – Kissing the Adder left the attacker squirming in a pool of its vile ichor – before redirecting another bug’s attack with Branch in the Storm. Auqui was there, laughing like a fool as he danced through Apple Blossoms in the Wind, injuring two of the Enemy but not sufficiently to drop them. That was just like him, so intent on showing the world how capable he was that he forgot the entire point of a fight like this was to kill the opponent. The best defense, Gabriel’s father had once told him, was to have your enemy on the ground, bleeding out. The Rose Unfolds flowed into The Mongoose Takes a Viper, which became Kingfisher Circles the Pond. The entire world constricted to this sharp engagement – Gabriel was aware of more arrows striking home, was cognizant that Auqui’s laughter had dwindled as he struggled ever so slightly, knew that Kira would be circling the scrum and seeking her own entrance point, but so little of that mattered. There was his father’s sword and the Enemy. And, of course, the sword forms.

It ended nearly as abruptly as it began. He backed the last of the Vasar into Auqui’s unnecessarily sloppy Arc of the Moon, but the bug’s attention was not on the boy so it made no attempt at defense. With a sudden jerk, it toppled as Auqui’s strike took its head which resulted in a shower of disgusting bug ichor.

“More coming,” one of the elves said with a dark look aimed in the direction of the Hive. He had already nocked another arrow.

“Then we run,” Gabriel replied. He flicked his wrist to snap the ichor from his blade and bit back a smile when he caught Auqui doing the same.

“Did you see, Master?” Auqui asked as he drew alongside him. The boy was grinning.

“I did.” Gabriel threw him a smirk. “Your elbow was crooked,” he said with a smile of his own. “Now run, boy. We still have a job to do.”

They ran.

And the Vasar never knew what hit them.


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Wallace, March 2005slander01

Magnifico strummed the lute softly, awaiting his next cue.  Stone flooring balanced by the sheerest of curtains against  the warm sun made the exquisite instrument’s sound carry well throughout the hall.  The strings answered his lightest touch, urging him to caution.

“Your sharbat is excellent, my lord,” said the Wazifi whose eyes lied.

William, Lord Wallace reclined, looking relaxed–no mean feat in his high-backed chair of dark, forbidding wood.  He stretched his sword arm, which fell by his side to where his dirk was slung out of sight of the embassy.  “It is last night’s untouched fruit, ibn Ja’far, sweetening the unfermented apples from last harvest.”

“Your kitchener–your cook, lord–is a clever one, perhaps well accustomed to serving the faithful,” ventured the lesser visitor, with a glance at his ambassador.

The younger Wallace, Malcolm by name, spoke up, scowling.  “A cook?  You think my father a newly-landed baron, with a single field hand pressed into service to boil his meat?  Whatever the king tells you, you are in the seat of  Wallace, an old and vast holding.  His table is the finest you will find.”  He was silenced by a fearful glance from his father.

The ambassador’s face betrayed no emotion.  “I apologize for my friend’s words, ill-chosen in a tongue he does not yet command.”  He brought the sharbat to his grey beard, and drank deliberately.  “He meant only compliments, which I now echo.”  His countryman gripped the arm of his chair, but set his mouth in a thin line and did not speak.

Magnifico slid his hand up the neck of the lute to begin the centerpiece of his performance.  He rose from the stool, and walked casually about the lord’s table, singing in the tongue of the foreigners:

O Jandal, what do Banu Numayr say
When the male organ disappears into your father’s buttocks?

Lower your eyes in shame, for you are of Numayr–
No peer of K’ab not yet Kilab!

The ambassador’s eyes widened, but he remained silent.  With an ugly look at Magnifico, ibn Ja’far said tautly, “I have heard, lord, that it is now the fashion in the west to keep feeble-minded clowns, who may slander all with impunity.  In my country, such offenders are killed.”

Lord Wallace sat in silence, smiling in satisfaction.  Leering, Magnifico continued his song:

Al-Farazdaq has declared that he shall kill Mirba–
Rejoice, O Mirba, at the prospect of long life!

“Ash-shi’r asyar, effendi,” said Magnifico, his hands still at the playful tune, and unable to resist, added in Anglish, “Poetry goes farther.”

Ibn Ja’far gritted his teeth and said, “My father’s son will not be so spoken to.  My family–”

Magnifico smiled sweetly, though his hand trembled, and shifted into Arabic again.

You have not an ass in the parliament, nor a mouth,
Nor ever had in the past any worth knowing.

The hija stung, and ibn Jafar leaped to his feet, smoothly drawing from within his robe a dagger.  “Dog!” he hissed, kicking aside his own chair.

Behind ibn Ja’far, though, Malcolm Wallace had moved more swiftly, and the Wazifi died on his blade, clutching at the table’s edge as he fell first to a knee, and then upon his face, blood gurgling from his back as he gasped his final breaths.

The reality of the murder in which he was complicit crept on Magnifico, as the blood of the Wazifi pooled on stone.  He stepped back, panting, and dropped the lute.  Malcolm Wallace calmly removed his dirk from the dead man.  Only then did His Lordship stand.

“You understand me, ibn Falan?  Your man concealed a weapon and drew in my presence.  Only the swiftness of my own son preserved my life from the assassin your Sultan sent to me.”  Wallace’s gaze bored into the blank eyes of his remaining guest.

After a pause, the ambassador’s steady hand lowered the crystal goblet to the table, placing it gently without a sound.  “I understand you, lord.  I will tell you a secret, though.  This man was sent with me not by the wishes of the Sultan, peace be unto him, but by the man’s father, a powerful voice in the kingdoms.  I have been aware these three months that he informs upon my every move.  How could you have known?  Only the wisest of lords might have foreseen the placement of a spy, and arranged for his removal a bare two days after our arrival.  Only the most devoted and sure-handed son might have chosen the precise moment at which to take offense, and trained your singer of songs in the subtle art of insult as set forth by the poet Jarir.  All this done to trick the youngster into revealing his hidden blade?  At a meal when only two of my bodyguards stand outside?  No, it is a tale not to be believed.

“I must write to my Sultan, advising him of the regrettable loss of a valued companion who nonetheless acted foolishly, violating your laws and receiving God’s judgment for his error.  And leaving me alone in a strange country.”

Lord Wallace grinned.  “Yes, we understand each other.  Now, at last, we can speak openly on certain matters.”  He waved a hand in Magnifico’s direction, and young lord Malcolm snapped his fingers, meeting the clown’s eye for an instant.

“Basmala,” muttered Magnifico, turning to flee the bloody scene.

The stink of the slave hold hit him the moment he stepped onto the ladder.

It was a far too familiar stench – sweat, blood, fear and despair, mingled together with the lingering smell of urine, shit and spoiled food – and Gabriel barely managed to keep from grimacing. He kept Misericordia held at the ready as he descended the small steps and kept his eyes on the burly slavemaster who stood as far away as he could manage while still being aboard this boat. The man slowly and very visibly lowered his bloody whip to the deck before holding up his hands.

“In the name of the Allah the Merciful and the Prophet – Peace Be Upon Him,” the man said in rapid Arabic, “I beg for my life, Dread Master.” He knelt and promptly prostrated himself on the deck, much to the wide-eyed surprise – and dawning hope – on the faces of the slaves. Of them, there were a good two dozen, all stripped to a loincloth and with backs dripping from recent scourging. None looked to be particularly strong or well-fed, and Gabriel wanted to recoil from their expressions.

“Don’t kill him,” Dane said. He was crouching at the top of the stairs. “Get him onto the deck and let Mags interrogate him.” Gabriel grunted.

“Get up,” he ordered harshly, his accented Arabic rough and likely hard to understand. He stepped closer to the man, placed the sharpened edge of Misericordia against the man’s neck. “Get up now,” he repeated, “or you will not be able to get up.” The man rose, hesitantly, but advanced toward the ladder, his body taut with terror.

“Does he have any keys, Brother Gabriel?” Mendel asked as he stomped down the stairs. “Let us free these poor wretches for I see that they are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.” The clamor from the slaves grew rapidly as they suddenly understood that freedom was at hand and it chased Gabriel out of the hold.

On the deck, he found Merasiël gulping in air and trying to look as though she was firmly in control of herself – she’d fled the hold almost as soon as she entered it – while Rainald was scowling at the tail of the rapidly escaping other slave ship. Brisk, clean air caught Gabriel’s cloak and flicked it back, but the smell … he could not forget that smell.

He would never forget that smell.


Fourteen Years Ago

Gabriel had a very bad feeling about this.

His employer was striding along the rows of shackled men as their owner tried very hard to convince Sayyid Taimur bin Faakhir bin Taayib to accept slaves in lieu of hard coin. To his credit, the merchant was not budging and, if Gabriel was not mistaken, was on the verge of saying or doing something that might be construed as an insult. When Sayyid Taimur – Fat Tom to all of them, despite the fact that he was not truly stout – had announced his intent to return to Shaniyabad in order to replenish his wares, Gabriel had thought it would be an interesting diversion. He had grown to appreciate Tom’s descriptions of his homeland and, for a heretic who adhered to a false religion, the man wasn’t all bad. And, indeed, from the moment they’d come into view of Shaniyabad, it had seemed like something out of a dream. The soaring minarets, the exotic smells, the gleaming towers of gold and silver … it was everything the bards made such a place out to be. For a moment, he was actually able to believe Tom’s insistence that Megalos would be happier if only they embraced the true words of the Prophet.

And then, they docked and Fat Tom led his expedition – twelve men, all of whom were of al-Wazif birth save Gabriel, though most spoke Megalan as fluently as he did – into the dark heart of the city where the wonders were exchanged for nightmares. Whores and cutpurses lurked in every corner, sometimes being more subtle about their intent (as in the case of the former) while at other times, being far more belligerent about it. The slave markets here were just as cruel and vile as those in Megalos, though here they sold men and women who might have once been Gabriel’s neighbors in a former life. There was no shame in what was done – Gabriel saw one man stripped completely nude so he could be properly appraised, and then the same was done with a young girl barely into womanhood – and he felt his blood pounding in his ears. Only his father’s lessons with the flame and the void kept his thoughts from showing on his face as he was struck by a wall of sound and scents he wished very much to flee. The noise was bad enough – the wails of pain and broken dreams – but the stench … until now, he’d never thought that despair could have a smell.

“I have no need for a man such as these,” Tom said abruptly. He gestured in the direction of Gabriel and the others. “I already have strong arms and swift blades.” The scowl he gave the slavemaster was unexpectedly effective. “What I require is the coin that you promised me for these Caithness honeyroots.” Under his hood – a necessity with this sun – Gabriel frowned tightly. He still did not understand why these al-Wazifis were so obsessed with honeyroot, but every person that Tom had spoken to had been extremely eager to get their hands on them.

“I have women if you are uninterested in the men,” the slavemaster said. His smile grew feral. “Some of them are quite capable at eliciting the proper reactions.” Tom said nothing, though the thunderhead building on his face was not pleasant. “One or two of them are quite young,” the slaver added.

Gabriel tensed. He felt the others around him do so as well and wondered how many they would lose while cutting their way out of Shaniyabad. It had taken most of six months, but he’d managed to learn that talk of children slaves was never wise. Among the caravan, it was whispered that Tom’s primary reason for becoming a merchant within Megalos was to discover the fate of a long-lost daughter, stolen from him by Megalan slavers a decade earlier.

“Step away,” Tom hissed, his eyes narrowed as he glared at the slavemaster, “lest I unleash my tame infidel upon you.” Recognizing his cue, Gabriel advanced, dropping one hand to the hilt of his father’s rapier. He grinned ferociously, automatically sliding into the arrogant saunter that was the Cat Crosses the Courtyard. The slaver glanced once in his direction and then again, this time with a frown.

“A boy?” he asked. Tom’s expression barely changed.

“Do not be deceived by his appearance,” he said. “He has looked thus since he traveled with my father and his father’s father.” Open disbelief was stamped on the slavemaster’s face but Tom embraced his nonsensical story. “My father believed he is the get of a jann and when he Dances … men die.” Tom held up a hand to arrest Gabriel’s approach. “He is a water dancer and death cultist who dines upon the souls of those he slays.” The large merchant shivered, as if suddenly chilled despite the heat, and Gabriel stared intently at the slavemaster, still smiling.

“I will wager my fine new knife he takes him in a four-count,” one of Tom’s men – Fuad, it sounded like – said in a stage-whisper perfectly pitched to sound as if he meant it only for the man he was speaking to.

“But enough of this,” Tom said loudly. He gestured – it was the alert signal, the one that meant they were to stand ready for violence but not to instigate it – and scowled again. “If you have not the coin for my wares,” he said, “then our business is concluded.” He turned away.

The slavemaster lunged forward, lightning fast, his knife appearing as if summoned.

But Gabriel was faster.

His father’s sword flashed free from its scabbard and Gabriel struck without thinking – Black Lance’s Last Strike was a dangerous one as it left him wide-open to counterattack and sacrificed defense for aggression, but in this case, the gamble paid off. Recognizing the danger he was in, the slavemaster aborted his attempt at murder and tried to dodge Gabriel’s thrust, but was simply too slow. A shower of crimson rain splattered across the sun-baked stone around them and the man staggered back, dropping his knife as he desperately tried to stem the flow of blood from his neck. He gasped once, twice, then again before collapsing to a half-seated position. Tom looked down at him.

And then crouched to pick up the knife.

“If you had not tried to murder me, friend,” he said softly, “I would have summoned a healer.” The smile he gave the man was wintry cold. “Instead, I shall let you die – may Allah forgive me for my lack of mercy – and work instead with your replacement.” He straightened and looked to one of the slavemaster’s guards, none of whom had even budged from where they stood. “Have we a deal, my new friend?”

“We do, good master,” the man said. He approached, glanced down at the dying man who had slumped back, and then stepped over him.

“Walk quickly,” Tom said once their business was concluded and they were back in the streets. “I mistrust that man and suspect he will summon the guard at first opportunity.”

“Fear of the half-jann death cultist is not enough to freeze his tongue then?” Gabriel asked softly in Megalan. His comprehension of Arabic was tolerably decent, but actually speaking it? That was still beyond him at the moment. Tom gave him a wry half-smile.

“Cutting down Tahir as you did likely gave them more cause than you might think,” he said. “Now they must decide if any part of what I told them was the truth.”

“All of this over a crate of honeyroot.” Gabriel started to comment further but the snickers from the other men as well as Tom’s grin gave him pause. What had he missed? He cast his memory back over the proceedings … no, nothing stood out. Was this a jest on the fool Megalan then? Some part of his irritation must have shown on his face because Tom threw up his hands.

“Peace, my friend!” the merchant said quickly. “For such a deadly lad, you are blind to some of the strangest things.” Gabriel frowned again, then blew out a sharp breath.

“Sterling Gold,” he guessed. Tom grinned again and tapped his nose, causing Gabriel to shake his head. Of course. It all made sense now. Al-Wazif’s prohibition on all things alcoholic – or, more probably, Islam’s – would inevitably lead to a black market seeking such things and Caithness’ reputation for beer was well known. A complete lie, in Gabriel’s opinion, but well known nonetheless.

“Just so,” Tom said. His smile fell away as their path brought them to another slave market, this one evidently exclusively for captured Megalan (and, in many cases, al-Wazifi as well) women and young girls. “But now,” he murmured darkly, angrily, “enjoy what ye took in war, lawful and good.” From the bitter tone and the way his other men glanced at him in discomfort, Gabriel suspected Tom was quoting from the Qur’an.

“Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters,” Gabriel replied softly in an equally cynical tone, “and to please them well in all things.” Tom gave him a look, grunted and began pushing his way through the throng. For his part, Gabriel gave one more look at the slave auction – that girl there … his sister would have been that age had she lived – and then turned away to follow his employer.

And behind him, men continued to be men, foul wretches and low scum that they were.

The enemy fell like wheat being threshed.

Gabriel flowed through the forms – Kingfisher Circles the Pond batted aside a wild swing, setting the pirate up for Kissing the Adder; the man gasped at the lethal thrust, staggered a half step, and then fell on his face, dead or dying – and barked out a bitter laugh at the wide-eyed reaction from his sole remaining foe. The fool lunged forward and Gabriel did not even bother using a different set of forms, knowing the man would not recognize the insult being directed toward him. He let his eyes flicker away from the man very briefly as the pirate stumbled back and stared at the growing crimson stain on his leather jerkin. Most of the pirates were down and it seemed that his friends were mostly uninjured, though the crew could not quite say the same – Merasiël, especially, had been busy, it seemed and was standing in a ring of corpses, one of which was even missing his head! Rainald let fly a spear as Gabriel looked on and it pinned a fleeing pirate to Gestlin’s cart which made the Northman bellow out a laugh. The elf woman shouted something about the boats, but her words were lost to the wind as the fool in front of him finally collapsed to his knees. Gabriel’s smile deepened. Seven had fallen to him in a matter of seconds and he had taken no injuries worth noting. That was a good start. He glanced up the moment he realized the others were reacting to something..

The pirate ships. They were breaking away.

He was moving before he truly realized it. At his back, he heard the others calling out – Dane was issuing orders, he guessed, and Mera was snapping something in Elvish that was spoken too quickly for him to translate – but Gabriel’s attention was focused on those before him, not behind. There were only four on the deck of the boat closest to him, and he covered the distance to the other vessel with an easy, almost leisurely jump. The closest man gasped and abandoned his efforts cut free the ropes and scrambled back, going for the ridiculous weapon at his side. His face … dear God, he looked like Fat Tom.


Fourteen Years Ago

He was hungry.

His stomach rumbled nonstop and Gabriel grimaced at the uncomfortable sensation. For a moment, he considered his very few options – he’d spent the last of his coin the day before yesterday and Raphael was not a good place to be without money. He still had his father’s sword, of course, and the many skills he’d developed over the years, but the eyes of the city guard were particularly sharp at the moment since some damned fool had tried to murder the Archbishop. Gabriel wondered if it was the same sort of madness that had infected Craine.

He weaved his way through the crowds, divesting a few of the wealthier-looking patrons of their coin purses as they bartered and argued with the vendors – there was one particular close call as his victim reached for his money just as Gabriel cut it free, but he was able to divert attention away from him by stopping and beginning to pat himself down, an alarmed expression on his face as if he had just been robbed. Gabriel met the merchant’s eyes and shared an identical look with the man. Both cried out ‘Thief!’ at the same time and Gabriel joined the man in casting around for the ‘culprit.’

And fortune delivered a fool to take the blame. With a startled, backward look, a boy threw himself forward into a sprint, drawing all eyes. The merchant roared in anger and lurched after him, still shouting for the city guard. Gabriel waited for a moment, and then walked leisurely away.

He spent most of his ill-gotten coin on food – the meat pies were room temperature, the ale was old and watered down, but his stomach settled and his hands were no longer shaking from hunger – and relaxed with the last of his ale. The small tavern was comfortable-enough without feeling cramped and looked to mostly cater to those of a Mohammedian persuasion. In fact, Gabriel actually stood out, both with his features and his clothes. More than few of the larger men shot him irritated looks.

“You look to be lost, my friend,” a large man with dark skin and very wealthy-looking clothes said as he took a seat before Gabriel. Automatically, Gabriel tensed, readying himself for action should it be necessary, but the man before him suddenly grinned, his teeth bright against his dark beard. “Less lost, I think,” he said, “than hiding.”

“May I help you, friend?” Gabriel asked calmly. He did not allow himself to relax.

“Perhaps.” The man’s eyes flickered, taking in Gabriel’s posture as well as the rapier and knives he carried. “You have the bearing of a man who knows how to fight.” He grinned again. “I have need of such a man if you are seeking employment.” That caused Gabriel to blink. In his experience, few men were so open with their need for murder. “Forgive me!” the man said abruptly. “I have forgotten my manners! I am Sayyid Taimur bin Faakhir bin Taayib.” He offered a slight flourish. “I am but a humble merchant seeking wealth in the lands of the infidel and am putting together a wondrous caravan that will spread our name to the lands bereft of joy and beauty.” His eyes gleamed. “I have heard the stories of the Caithness barbarians and how they bed down with their horses and keep their women in the stables.” He shivered. “It will truly be an adventure to see such a thing!”

“I’ve been to Caithness,” Gabriel replied coolly. “And I do not recall men sleeping with horses.”

“Splendid!” The large man’s grew even wider. “Then you can serve as my native guide! We shall need one if we are to navigate the treacherous waters betwixt here and there!” He continued on, extolling the virtues of his grand expedition, all the while taking for granted that Gabriel would accompany him. Payment was mentioned once in passing, and then again when the man clearly saw Gabriel’s less than enthusiastic interest. Thinking of his limited funds and what he would have to do in order to gain more, Gabriel frowned.

“Very well,” he said. “I shall accompany you.” Sayyid Taimur grinned broadly. Within the hour, they would depart Raphael to begin their long, slow journey. Fat Tom as he was known, would become a good friend.

And a year later, he would fall screaming to a Saurian blade at Blythe.

Snow in High Wind sent the man with Fat Tom’s face onto the deck, blood seeping into the deck, and Gabriel felt more than heard a steady drumbeat from below. He flowed toward the next man, aware of Mera’s presence at his back as she side-stepped into view, her knives bathed in blood, and grinned darkly at the swordsman before him..

“If you were wise,” he said in his accented Arabic, “you would surrender.

The man was not wise and, in a moment later, he was dead.