CORRESPONDENCE of THIEVES

 

An email roleplay, based on the story and universe of Thief, developed by Looking Glass Studios

Written, in correspondence, by: Steve Tremblay, Beate Gerwin, James Sterrett, Alexandria Thomson, and Daniel Todd

 

"We chose our profession in defiance of the greed of the monarchy. We will not live for the sake of taxes to fatten the nobles' pockets. We choose to live the only life available to those who would truly be free. We are Thieves."

-- Creed of the Downwinders, also adopted by Master Nightfall


Foreword, by an anonymous Keeper:

 

Hail Reader, and thank for you choosing to read this tome. I am a Keeper. My name is not important, for the words herein were not written by me, nor even witnessed by me. I have simply taken it upon myself to provide a little background information on the subjects that follow, to prevent confusion by those who are not so familiar with this realms history.

 

In an age long before this one, the Trickster, an entity of chaos, attempted to fully manifest himself. He was thwarted, however, by a being who would come to be known as the Master Builder. The Master Builder was deemed a god by those who followed him, and the Hammerite Order came into existence. Half a year ago, the Trickster attempted a return to our realm, to bring about an age of perpetual night. He called this plan, "The Dark Project." In order to bring his plan to fruition, he tricked a master thief, who was once one of our own, into performing a simple yet dangerous task, in his stead. The thief's name was Garrett. Garrett was given the task of retrieving the Eye, a magnificent gemstone which the Trickster could use as a focus for his magics. Aided by his counterpart, the being who called herself Viktoria, the Trickster betrayed Garrett, stealing Garretts eye to activate the gemstones magical powers. Seeking vengeance, and to save the world, Garrett used a fake version of the Eye which the Hammerites had rigged, swapping it with the real one during the final ritual of the Tricksters ceremony. The backfire of the spell destroyed the Trickster. An exceptionally eccentric member of the Hammerite Order rewarded Garrett with a mechanical eye, and the Order pardoned all crimes. After a brief meeting with one of us, Garrett then went into hiding, and has not been heard from since.

 

That is another tale, worth hearing in its entirety. It is history. I bring you now a different tale, one that may or may not be true, but is certainly every bit as worthwhile to hear.

 

About a month passed after the events above had come to a close, when a stranger arrived at the docks of The City. He came alone, which was odd, considering the size and nature of the vessel on which he had journeyed. It is in the commoners best interest to mind his or her own business, so no one asked this mysterious nobleman any questions. Keepers, however, are not daunted by such considerations. He was an offworlder, and his name was Daneel Todulem. Daneel had once been a mage of great power, a fact made clear to us when he used the last remaining scraps of his power to cause a magnificent mansion to spring forth from the solid stone of the sharp foothills which lay before the great mountains.

 

We were not the only ones who witnessed this act. It had in fact been observed by a Hammerite scouting party. As quickly as it was seen it was reported to superiors. In the ensuing mix of shock and excitement, there could be heard cries of Nightfall! It was as much a description of the darkness from the towers sudden skyward mass as it was of the man who caused it. It was as if night was falling upward! According to Hammerite prophecy, the Master Builder would send a savior who would come at the time of great peril, and perform great miracles. Upon seeing this act of power, the dying Hammerite high priest twisted the ancient texts to suit the situation and decided that this wealthy nobleman from a faraway land must be the savior, and thus emissary to the Master Builder. It was his last display of sovereignty. Daneel, being no fool, happily accepted this position, as well as all the power that came with it.

 

As time passed, Daneel began to acquire an understanding for the new home in which he lived. He came to the conclusion that the most noble group inhabiting The City was not the fanatical Hammerite Order, not the reclusive elementalist Brotherhood of the Hand, nor the poor and dirty working class, and especially not the fat and wealthy aristocrats, but those who dwelt in darkness: the thieves. Though many were common scum that preyed on the weak, others proved to be strong souls who did not wish to live by the rules set by the oppressive world around them, but by their own thievish sense of honor.

 

Daneel, inspired by his new sense of direction in life, covertly began work as an employer and aid to these thieves. As his organization grew, he constructed a base of operations. This base was, on the surface, a museum entitled "The Circle of Stone and Shadow." This seemed one wealthy mans collection of artifacts and knowledge, but in truth was the heart of his criminal organization. In time, Daneel was given the name of Master Nightfall by those whom he served, later adopting it as his surname.

 

Master Nightfall would become known in the underground as one of the most powerful crime lords, occasionally referred to as "The Patron Saint of Thieves", all the while maintaining his guise as a simple nobleman, and emissary to the Master Builder.

 

The story begins nearly two months after Garrett went into hiding, and four months before the peak of Master Nightfall's prosperity.

 


Chapter 1 - The Correspondence

 

- Jyre: The Urchin - Day 1: 11pm

 

I stared up at the tower, which was nestled halfway up the steep hillside. It was a hauntingly eerie image in the fading light. I could have gone up the stairs, I suppose, but then I would have had to face ridicule from the servants and guards, if there were any. So I chose, instead, to take the back route. I had traversed this way once before but that had been in daylight. The area I had chosen to climb, sheltered by plant growth from any view from the tower, looked a lot steeper in the dark. The initial stages were easy enough. The ground was rocky with tufts of grass sprouting here and there. They gave enough purchase for me with which to haul myself up. I was past the halfway point when I came across the real problem. An overhang, like a miniature cliff, towered at least twelve feet above my head. The rock-face in front of me looked like a bowl standing on edge. The rock itself was as smooth as glass. I would have turned back, had I not seen this place before. Skirting my way around the lip of rock that made the bottom edge of the bowl, I eventually came to the thin crack that ran from the bowl's base to its top. With a little effort, I managed to squeeze into the fissure. It widened slightly just above my head and I was able to grab on to the rough rock and pull myself up, bracing my feet against the rock to stop myself falling. Had I been any bigger I would not have been able to do this; there are times when being a titch has its advantages. By repeating the process of reaching, bracing and pulling until my arms felt as though they were about to fall off, I eventually managed to drag myself out of the bowl and onto the overhang above. Once there I just fell on my back and stared up at the darkening sky, panting.

 

The tower itself was perched on a small shelf halfway up the tall rocky hill. The structure could be described as having two parts: the mansion-like base and the tall tower..

 

The wide mansion-like base sprawled out across the shelf in an irregular shape consisting of rectangular and cylindrical units with arched roofs, some connected by short hallways. It filled the shelf easily, leaving little room to walk, or even stand. Many of the units and halls protruded out of the rock-face, which lent me to conclude that there was much of this house hidden inside the hill. From what I could see by the light of the lampposts at the front of the house, the entire structure was made from black shiny stone, ornately decorated with all sorts of relief carvings. Stained glass windows circled the structures, each one different from the one that came before. The entire mansion gave a clear sense of carefully calculated randomness. Had I approached from the stone path and stairway it would have been impossible to see any of this, for it was blocked by the dense foliage and the fences that channeled any visitors to the front door whilst preventing any exploration of the property.

 

The tower part itself was too distant to be clearly made out by the light of the lampposts lining the front walk. The night sky was overcast, so not even starlight could illuminate its features. It was tall; very tall. It was also a good way into the manors structure, standing free of the vertical rock-face that made up the rest of the hill which towered several hundred feet above the towers tip. Searching for the most efficient way up, I circled around the structure in front of me, glancing at the relief carvings as I went past. They seemed to be forming a narrative. This particular one showed a man doing battle with an iron golem, and upon defeating the beast, receiving a large shield. I saw my path up as soon as I went around the bend; there was a narrow passage between two of the structures, which formed a path straight to the base of the tower itself.

 

I was level with the tower's base now and a short dash brought me to its stone clad walls. I walked around to its sides, careful to keep in the shadows and avoiding the windows whilst I searched for my goal. Spotting the dark window near the top of the tower was not easy, especially with the moon's light blocked out by the clouds. Finding the ugly gargoyle that was perched on the wall above it was much easier. It overhung the wall slightly and a wooden platform had been constructed around its base to support its weight. I pulled two pieces of wood out from under my baggy top and placed one of them, a rope arrow, on the floor. I held the other between the palms of my hands and whispered a short chant. The wood in my hands shook and grew until it stood as tall as my shoulder. I couldn't hold back a smile at the sight of that bow. It had been a gift from a young mage named Tanya, whom I had met on my travels but a year ago. I hooked the arrow in place, raised my bow and took aim. When I released the string the arrow rose with a whistle which was followed by a resounding thud a few seconds later. The rope uncoiled, its end hanging level with my face. I returned the bow to its original size, slipped it back under my top and began to climb.

 

I grabbed for the windowsill with my left hand and pulled myself forward. At the same time I released the rope I had used and then pulled myself through. It was dark inside and I could just make out enough to know I was in the right place. The bedroom was quite massive, and thankfully dark enough to keep me from being too distracted by the odd shapes all around me. I just focused on the shapes I did recognize, the bed, wardrobe, and chest of drawers. There was, however, no sign that the one I had come to see was there. I tucked myself beside the wardrobe and waited.

 

My hands were sweaty with nervousness, and I could feel them shaking. A glance at the outside told me it was getting very late. Just as I was beginning to wonder if he would ever come, the door swung open and he walked in. By the light in the hall I could just make out the silhouette of a man in a hoodless cloak. My mind went blank. Everything I had prepared was forgotten. He was preparing himself for bed by the time I realized why I was here. My presence suddenly seemed highly inappropriate. I pulled the letter from my pocket and stepped into the light. "This... this is for you," I blurted out, then hurriedly jumped back out the window and scrambled down the rope before he had a chance to reply.

 

 

- Nightfall: The Return Home - Day 2: 12am

 

The midnight hour approached as I slowly climbed the spiral staircase to my chambers, near the peak of the tower. I had been unable to get anything constructive accomplished in the halls of The Circle that day, in spite of the wealth of new content, which made me slightly frustrated. "Never enough time in the day," I muttered to myself under my breath. I reached the top of the stair and passed through the grand double doors leading to my chamber. Upon entering the room, I immediately felt a presence nearby. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a figure huddled by the wardrobe. I chose to discreetly observe what my guest was up to, without letting it know that I was aware of its presence. *

 

The minutes passed as I emptied my pockets onto my desk, and placed my formal cloak on the hook by the door. Just as I began a few random meaningless acts which could give one the impression of getting ready for bed, a small silhouette, which I vaguely recognized to be that of the young thief Jyre, sprang from its hiding place. She shoved a letter into my hands, muttered something about it being for me, and dove out the window. She is an interesting girl, to say the least.

 

For the past month Jyre had been one of my more faithful contributors. She regularly showed up at my doorstep or the office at The Circle with one or more new treasures she had salvaged, usually paintings or obscure rarities, in return for things like supplies, food, or money. She was a very secretive and timid person, and our words exchanged were seldom more then were absolutely necessary, but I appreciated her all the same.

 

Rebuttoning my overshirt, I turned on the lamp at my desk and opened the letter to read.

 

Master Nightfall,

Good, you have been. Understanding. I feel... I must tell of myself to you. Me words, please forgive, are not good. Me learning of letters came late to me. But I will try. You take my goods. Pass them on. Fair of me it is to reveal to you your source.

Orphan I be. Me dad I never knew. Me mum... Dead she is. Many years dead. Street rat am I. Thief, steal, rob. Those were my deeds. For food in me belly and clothes on me back. Understand, please. I had to survive! Twelve I did be when I were caught. A young man he were who found me. Ranson. That were his name. A guard he were. For the Lady. Ranson did see me starved. Filthy. Pity was his kindness. Took me home. Fed me. By the fire I sat all night. Such warmth I had not known before that time. Handsome, he was. Black of hair and green of eye. Loved him would any lass, sure of it am I.

Innocent I be'd. He... took advantage of me. Drowsing by the fire were I when he... touched me! "Quiet," says he. "Do as I say, or kill you I wills. You think they will miss one of your kind." Please, say you understand. I was lonely. He... The memory pains. Please.

Morning bright did wake us and to him his feet did leap. "Come," he commanded. To the lady did we go. And to her did he make plea for my service. I was a guard that very day. Do not judge me by this! I serve or I die. He gave me no choice!

I train, work hard. Learns much. Letters was I taught, and stealth. Watching. Protecting. Did I enjoy? Yes. Guard I was and guard I was happy to stay. Food I did have and much health. And Ranson did I have to fill me where I were lonely. Happy content. That was me.

But a mistake I did make. To patrol the house was my duty and I did see many a time that things were no good. To my captain Els I did go. And explain I did. But never, never, never did he listen! Angry I grew! Frustrated! "Tell the lady," be all he ever did say. To tell her I tried but always were she busy. Unimportant, I was. And so ignored. When to him I went to tell of bad lights, he did shrug and say "tell the lady." Hit him I did. Hard. We fought much. Everyone saw. She saw!

Arrested. Both of us. Captain Els was whipped. I... Put in a cage and left to rot. Hunger. Fever. Fear of death. No other memories have I. The rescue I do not remember. Going on the ship... It was captain Els who did freedom give me. His life was risked for mine. Obliged was the word he used when I asked why.

Time passed. Strength I gained. Guard I was again, for a short time. Then return did we to my homeland. It is revenge we seek. The captain and me. The lady she... She is evil! It is from her I steal my goods and to you they are passed. Though thief I be, I am not a bad person. Wish only to stop the lady do I.

This is me. This is who I be. Now you know the truth.

Your servant,

Jyre.

 

I paused for a moment, considering, and then quickly penned a brief letter in reply to her. I set it into the "out" chute by the desk. A servant would find it a the bottom of the chute in the morning and have it delivered promptly to her by my agents. Then, finally, I headed to bed.

 

 

- Jyre: On the Streets - Day 2: 10am

 

I was honestly enjoying myself as I trailed behind that fat merchant, having already picked three of his pockets, and found tasty trinkets in each. The marketplace was busy enough that day for me to stalk him quite closely without him ever noticing. Besides, he looked to be the type who never looked a peasant in the eye unless he wanted to buy something, so even if he did see me twice, he wouldnt have acknowledged it. He just bounced along, the folds of flesh beneath his layered garments jiggling with every footstep, which made it all the more easy to grab something without him ever giving it a second thought.

 

I was just reaching out for more when a small boy dressed in rags ran right into me. I had scarcely got a word out in protest when he whispered, "Master Nightfall sends his regards!" winked, and vanished into the crowd. I didnt even get a good look at the lad, though he appeared to be a boy of no more than six or seven years. Quickly looking back up, I was relieved to see the fat man still in view, flirting with a comely peddler woman. Judging by the expression on her face, he was getting nowhere. My next instinct was to check my pockets. I kicked at the dirt of the path as I discovered that the fruits of a morning's work had been replaced by a neatly folded note. Cursing under my breath, I pulled it out and scanned it quickly. Then my face lit up.

 

Jyre,

Hello again, always a pleasure to make the correspondence. Seeing as you are one of the patrons and contributors to The Circle, in the future I do suggest you visit me via the front door.

Now, allow me to congratulate you. I know that this seems an odd thing to say, but it is what came to mind as what I should first do. If your tale is true, and I have no doubt that it is, then you have survived much suffering and hardship, and grown strong as a result. For this, I congratulate you. Also, to a lesser degree, Id like to welcome you to the realm of the written word. I see you are quite new at this, and you managed to put forth a valiant effort. I know of many poor feeble minds who, in spite of proper schooling and a wide knowledge base in the field of language, cannot seem to tell a story half as decent as you have done. At any rate, that is enough chatter from me.

So you and the captain wish to reap revenge upon this cruel lady did I gather that correctly? I am curious to hear of your plans.

Sincerely,

- Nightfall, Master of the Circle of Stone and Shadow

P.S. If the boy steals anything, steal it back from him.

 

Surging with excitement, I quickly dashed to a courier post, making a small detour to relieve the merchant of his gold pocket watch. Arriving, I rang the bell to summon a message carrier, and quickly pulled out a narrow stick of coal to write a letter in reply, using the back of Nightfall's letter to write on. A tall gaunt fellow in his early twenties arrived shortly, and stood there, staring at me as I scratched out the letter. "You need me to carry letter, lady?" the man said, through a mouth with as many teeth as I could count on one hand.

 

"Yes," I said plainly. "And if you make speed there'll be a gold piece waiting for your return." Grinning from ear to ear, a sight I really wish I hadnt seen, he nodded vigorously and stretched out his hand to take it. "As soon as I'm done," I said, sensing his anxious nature. I reread the letter and wondered if there was anything I had forgotten. Hearing the courier's impatient shuffle of feet, I wrapped the letter in some cloth and handed it to him, along with a silver piece. "Now go, quickly," I told him. The man nodded once and ran off.

 

 

- Nightfall: A Letter from Jyre - Day 2: 12pm

 

I try to take at least one day a week off from my usual work to just relax and waste time. That was today. My reading was interrupted by Jossimer, my head butler. He approached slowly, knocking on the doorframe as he entered. "Sir," he said, with his thick nasal aristocratic accent, "a rather disgusting man rudely dropped off this letter at the front gate. He claimed that it was urgent. Shall it be disposed of, sir?" I looked up from the book I was reading, Memoirs of Sir Cabirus, and gave him an expression which usually meant, this had better be good. Jossimer approached in his narrow stiff walk, the light from my lamp catching in his bifocals to make him look like some sort of mechanical creation. He held up the letter between his thumb and forefinger, as if he did not wish to touch it for fear of catching some disease. I reached out to him, the universal signal for give it to me. He did so, and then stood there, absentmindedly dusting off his black formal coat. Strange how the room was emptier when he was in it. I set my book aside, marking my place with Lord Baffords favorite bookmark, and opened the letter.

 

I found that is was actually the letter I had send to Jyre last night, tightly folded, with the addition of smudged charcoal writing on the back.

 

Master Nightfall,

Your praise, it lifts my heart. My thanks I do give you. Of my revenge you would hear? Then tell will I, best I can.

The Lady, powerful in our city is she. Much monies and rule does she have. Many man of the city are hers to command. Feared she be. Despised! Listen in the shadows. Hear their moans. Listen in the streets. Hear their praise. Such is her hold on us! But there is weakness. Yes. And find it will we. Exploit it will we.

Revenge. That was my word. But deeper than that it goes, I think. My people suffering I see now I am home. So freedom now is the need. That will my revenge be.

A few short weeks ago we did thief from the Lady, the captain and I. Into a house of her we snuck. Through her things did we look. The captain, he fears she is connected with the dark ones. That is what he says. And so does her evil rise. Proof it were we sought of this. And through every room and garden did we search it for. My ears did echo the sounds of my blood.

Bmmbmm, bmmbmm. My heart did my excite pound and my fingers did my fear sweat. The captain, he be brave. Calm did he keep me. And safe. Always safe. He knew every patrol, every post. And round each one did he guide us. Once, I fear we was seen but pursuit followed us not that night. Paintings I did find, which now you do posses. Some gold. Some jewels. Not to alert her, most of this did we leave. And letters, many letters. But none, the captain did me tell, that would serve as proof. But one thing did itself appear. A map of many places unknown where her things she did keep. Hovels, sewers, caves and such.

Searched them one by one we have but nothing did we find. To the captain, I say. "What good proof. Listen to us they will not!"

"We find her wrongs, we find her weakness. And that we exploit! Riches she loves, we take them. Contacts she has, we shatter them! Rumors we spread. Foul and dark! And bit by bit she is broken and eventually will fall! To get to her we must first shatter her foundations. And to do that we need knowledge! Patience, Jyre. You must have patience!"

To seek revenge in this way we do. Her downfall will we bring about. And then she the beggar will be. Hers will starvation be! The picture is sweet to me. Peace in my heart it grants me.

But misjudge me not. I seek not her death. Such is not my way.

Your faithful servant, Jyre

p.s. A large lodge has she. In the woods. Far from the city wall. We go there tomorrow. And seek us our proof.

 

"Will that be all, sir?" Jossimer asked quietly. I swept my hand towards him, the universal signal for 'go away', and he did so. Folding up the letter and placing it in the inside pocket of my cloak, I went to speak to James.

 

James resides deep within the downtown area, Warden Clide's area, between the business district and the slums. The building in which he lives is on the edge of the slums, a once prosperous part of The City, which has fallen on very hard times. He owns a flat on the top floor of a condominium, which was originally built by the Hammers to be sort of a monastery for acolytes. But then they built that new place over by their new main cathedral, in the central town square, so it was given to the man they deemed most worthy. Well it seems even a high-ranking Hammerite isnt always the best judge of character, and this individual sold it to the highest bidder, who happened to be the third wealthiest landlord in town. How James managed to actually buy the top floor is a mystery to most, except of course for James, the man who sold it, and the guy who paid for it me.

 

It was a short walk for someone who knew the way, but I still wasn't in much of a hurry. I had only been living in The City for a couple months, but already I had quite a good handle on most of the districts. As I walked I received, as always, an assortment of glances from the passers-by, usually in the form of a discreet nod of greeting from members of the respectable underworld. Most commoners and noblemen, however, took care not to give the dark, foreboding figure of Master Nightfall a second glance, or even a first.

 

I arrived at the building just as late afternoon was creeping up on me. The first thing that came to mind is the first thing that always comes to mind when I look at the place. What a ghastly piece of rock. The building was built by the Hammers, and thus looked like a fortress. However, unlike the perfectly clean and polished Hammerite fortresses, this place was a towering symbol of rot and deterioration. I always wondered why James refused my offers of a fine estate in the uptown area. He claimed that he needed to be close to his agents. I could have easily chosen to argue the matter, but I humored him, and so this is where he lives. I arrived at Jamess front door shortly after making my way up a deteriorated set of stairs, which wasnt without several smelly bodies sleeping on it. I recognized that the door had been locked from the outside, so I knew he was out. Following standard procedure, I passed my hand over the deadbolts, and they magically opened for me. A nice little gadget, courtesy of an elementalist mage, who most likely really misses it. Stepping inside was like stepping into another world. Gone were the cracked stucco walls of the condo, the rotting wooden floor, and the stone ceiling. Actually, they werent gone. You just couldnt see them.

 

James and his wife, Corinne, do not appreciate others saying their home is messy. They contend that they know where everything is: "Underlying Order in Superficial Chaos". And indeed the first impression of any visitor must necessarily be of chaos. Books, scrolls, and half-finished dissertations cover the tables; and they cover much of the floor as well. Massive filing cabinets overflow with papers and books are stacked two ranks deep on the wall-to-wall bookshelves. They live a simple life overall, happy to consume peasant fare day in and day out. But they spare few expenses in the pursuit of their mutual passion; knowledge. Which, of course, is why I hired him to run the Intelligence Section.

 

Stepping over some new volumes on an eclectic assortment of topics, apparently received shortly before their departure - they had not yet disposed of the packaging, though one of the books, Principia Mathematica, had clearly been skimmed - I found, sitting in the middle of a clear spot, a letter addressed to me. Most would find it odd that someone would write someone a letter, and think that the best way for that person to get it was to leave it on your coffee table, but I long ago learned that James was no ordinary chap. He was almost always at least two steps ahead of the game, which made him a damn good spy. I soon discovered that James and Corinne were indulging one of their subjects of particular fascination, military history, during a short holiday. The letter was written in James' typically ugly, blocky, but very easy-to-read print (one of his eccentricities: he only uses script for languages other than his native tongue).

 

 

D:

 

An old friend has come visiting. We are examining battle sites, traveling in the South for this week and the next. For the first week our location is predictable and I can be reached via Drop Box 74f. I regret to say that the second week will be less predictable and communications will probably be temporarily interrupted, but I shall post my movements as they occur so you can reach me in the event of emergency.

J - 09.06 23.3

 

 

The letter was dated today, meaning that he left this morning, which actually was not much of a problem. I was slightly disturbed by the fact that I had to reach James through a drop box. I prefer a valuable document not be left unattended. A drop-box is a location where the recipient certainly will not personally be present any time the courier is. James claims this increases security if part of the network is broken. The courier leaves the message in the pre-arranged location and then leaves a mark at a pre-arranged location to indicate that the box has mail. The courier leaves. The recipient checks the marker site every so often, and when the mark is spotted, will erase the mark and proceed to the drop site. After observation to ensure the site is not watched, nor the agent being followed, the agent gets the message. It often helps to place the drop box in places where it can be easily and unobtrusively grabbed even if in plain view. I pulled a chair up to his desk (I first had to find a chair, and then find a desk), and wrote him a short letter.

 

 

J:

 

You know of Jyre, of course. Attached to this letter are copies of several of her letters to me. Please read them. Did you read them? No? Go read them! Did you read them? Yes? Okay, good. Now, Id like to get some additional information on Jyre. This is not to say that I do not trust her, I do, oddly enough, but Id like to make sure there are no details that I dont know about that should be useful. That should be simple enough for your spies and telepaths. The second task should be all the more enjoyable. I want information on this Lady. All of it. I want to know the layout of her castles, all of them, and all her bases too, especially this lodge of hers in the woods, which I hear she spends the most time at. I want to know her past, history, heritage, how many skeletons she has in the closet, the breed of her pet cat, what she serves her servants for breakfast, how many times she blinked last year, and most importantly, her NAME. You get the idea? I understand you are on vacation, so to speak (dont deny it, I know you enjoy doing that stuff), but that doesnt mean that you cant get one of your many henchmen to pull this off for you. Oh yes, and as always, thank you greatly in advance.

 

- D - 05.26 23.3

 

 

"Now, where does he keep that" I muttered to myself, trailing off into thought. Then I saw it, perched on top of a stack of economic reports, his automatic copy device. Another one of the Hammers wonderful inventions, this remarkable machine will copy any book or document quickly and accurately (and I use the terms lightly). I put Jyres letters into the "in" slot, and waited while it did its work. Whether the Hammers craftsmanship is overrated, or James had worked the thing halfway into its grave, I cannot say. What I did know is that I had to coax the machine to keep working several times, through some rather unscientific means. Judging by the tools that a Hammerite keeps on his person at all times, Id venture to say that this was a feature, rather than a bug. The collection of Hammerite tools scattered about the flat reinforced this notion. About ten minutes later I had a set of perfect copies, and a rather sore fist. Packing my letter and the copies together, I left the room as close to what I found it as possible, and let the door automatically lock behind me. I went to the back of the building and waited. An old man emerged from the shadows, a man whom I recognized as one of James agents. He was an extremely thin old fellow, skinnier than Jossimer, which I found quite shocking, and slightly grotesque. He walked up to me slowly, limping badly, as if his left leg was nothing more than carrion. I admit, I was a little more then slightly skeptical that this man could be any sort of courier. As soon as he was within striking distance of my walking stick, he spoke.

 

"Ohh, heelew Massteer Nitfell." He spat his words out as if he was hacking up phlegm, because he was.

 

I didnt waste time with pleasantries or small talk. "Take this to drop box 74f," I ordered him. He reached out and plucked the envelope from my hand, like he was picking an orange.

 

"Aye ssser!" he spat, and then suddenly bolted off down the ally as if he was no more than eighteen.

 

My eyebrow raised almost involuntarily. "Hmmm" I thought to myself. "James employs strange ones." In intelligence, one needs a cold mind and a warm heart, James always claimed. And he noted that with a bit of careful vetting, a small investment of basic human decency towards society's unloved outcasts - often as little as a regular cup of tea and a sympathetic ear - can reap a great return in dedication and loyalty. Shrugging, I made an about-face, and walked back to the main avenue. It was now evening, and soon it would be nightfall. Rather than going home, I decided to deviate a bit.

 


Chapter 2 - Rouges

 

- Nightfall: A Stroll Through Town Square - Day 2: 6pm

 

Town square is an odd name for an area with an irregular octagonal shape, unless you decide that square means center. But then youd still be wrong, seeing as the town square was located well off the center of the citys layout. Then again, simply calling it TOWN square was erroneous as well, as this city was far too massive to be considered a town. Metropolis would be more accurate. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, the term metropolitan off-center octagon never stuck. Having decided that, I idly walked though the marketplaces and shop-stalls of the town square. I quietly observed the people, taking note of the details. The city was quite busy today. People of all sorts were walking about in a rush, doing business, traveling, loitering, or keeping shop. I took a rare and precious moment to just relax and lose myself in the scenery, going with the flow. Though the vast majority of this city is rather bleak and dreary, this area was quite nice. This is of course attributed to the fact that the Hammerites Cathedral absolutely loomed over the place. Their influence was very strong here. A guard on every corner, and a decree on every lamppost.

 

The Hammers and the Pagans do have one thing in common, though theyd both kill me if I said it, but they both seem to enjoy landscaping. They have utterly different philosophies about if, of course. The Pagans, or rather, whats left of them, see it as the chaos and beauty of nature, and the Hammers see it as mans dominance and control over nature. Either way, the park in the center of town was a very nice place to walk around and do business, and that is just where it seemed I was headed.

 

I was strolling over the brick path, through gardens filled with perfectly manicured hedges, and a lawn so even it looked as if a machine had done it (which may be true, for the Hammers develop machines for everything. No doubt wed soon see Hammers riding around on small mechanical beasts which roamed about eating grass and making a whole hell of a racket.) My thoughts were interrupted when a parchment, aloft on a breeze, hit me square in the face. It was carried by the wind I had just turned my head, and smack, there it was. I dont like being taken by surprise, even if its just by a bit of debris, so I was naturally quite annoyed. I was about to toss it in the nearby wastebasket (if a Hammerite saw me littering Id have an incident on my hands) when I chanced to see my name on the top of the page. I quickly smoothed it out, and read it. It was written in glyphs. Thankfully it was a variant which I knew well.

 

 

Master Nightfall,

 

I am only a old woman that lives in the northern woods. Yesterday, I heard that this boy Jyre needs information about that house of the Lady. Don't ask me how I heard of this rumor, I beg you. All I knew is that he and the Captain needed help, most urgently.

 

Once I was a thief, just like Jyre and the Captain. But nowadays the Order of the Hammer has grown in its power, and the City is not secure any more. And I myself am old now and weak... I feared the Order and so I fled into the woods, after they had broken my wrists. I have a small hut here, unknown by enemies, or friends.

 

I felt since a while already, that there is a great power around the house of the Lady, deep in the forest. And I heard rumors about strange things that happen there. Things that are too horrid to describe. I did not want that this boy and his Captain would go there, unwarned. Too many people have already been disappeared, captured and tortured by their enemies.

 

So, I decided that I could spy around the house, relying on my once great skills. I approached towards the house, I saw that there are guards, seemingly everywhere. And I saw strange, evil lights and noises in the windows of the deeper floors. Screaming, weeping, rattling of chains. It scared me.

 

The house itself has a huge outer wall, shaped like a pentragram. Every corner of the wall has a big tower on its top, with 2-3 guards inside. Also guards with arrows. The main gate is iron, and closed. Around the wall is a ditch, filled with foul water. I think there could be a hole, leading from the ditch into the inside. I saw and heard some indicating water movements in the western side of the house.

 

I hope that this small information could help Jyre and the Captain, when they decide indeed to break into that house.

 

I myself fear that the wood is not secure any more, and will leave now, heading towards a place where neither Hammers, nor the evil presence that I felt beneath that house, will find me.

 

Lytha

 

 

"Jyre is a girl," I said under my breath, correcting her with a slight grin. Whoever her source was, that person wasnt too observant. I should have James warn his spies, I thought, hoping that it was not too late. I picked up my pace towards one of his pickup posts near the edge of the park. Most people would think it strange that a letter could be delivered to someone by the wind, but I had seen many things far stranger.

 

Arriving, I recognized one of James men immediately. It was Schinler. I sighed in disgust, but it would take too much time to find another post with a man at it. Schinler had a history - of shattered nerves. At a glance, he appeared to be no more than a lords servant who decided to stand around looking moronic by the edge of the park; and, in fact, that is exactly what he was. He once worked for Bafford, in the kitchen, a stockboy I believe. And let me tell you, getting whacked on the back of the skull by that ex-Keeper turned thief Garrett is enough to make any man fidgety. To make matters worse, he quit his job with Bafford and joined up with Ramirez, only to be assaulted again in the very same way by the very same person. Schinler is not quite convinced that Garrett is trying to kill him. That was two months ago - the poor man should have gotten over it by now. Sighing to myself, I walked up behind him casually and tapped his shoulder, an act which I knew I shouldn't have done, but did it anyway. He turned his head quickly and jumped half a foot into the air, spilling the contents of a mug of brown liquid all over himself. "Ma-ma-mas-s-ster Nightfall!" He explained with half excitement, half terror in his voice. He then jerked to attention and saluted me.

 

"At ease, Schinler," I said dryly "before a Hammerite notices you and makes a scene. Youre lucky they dont pound you for spilling your drink on their sidewalk."

 

He shuffled around nervously trying to kick dirt over the spilled brown liquid, and didn't have much luck considering that he was standing on clean stone pavement. Realizing how stupid he looked, he quickly arranged himself into a pose of mock at-easiness. "He-he-hellllo sir, er, um, I mean, umm.."

 

"Schinler, you need to lay off the coffee, you understand me?"

 

He nodded sheepishly.

 

"And as much as I find it amusing, you dont have to be terrified of me. Just because Im your boss boss, doesnt mean I breath fire and eat fair maidens for breakfast. In fact, if you continue this show of spinelessness, I shall recommend that James immediately expel you from the payroll, do you understand me?"

 

He took a deep breath and nodded.

 

"Good. I handed him the letter from Lytha. I need you to deliver this message to drop box 74f. I want you to make a copy and send it to me."

 

"Drop box 47f?" he said in confusion, taking and pocketing it without looking at it, just as James had trained him.

 

"No, 74, not 47, 74f. Got that? 74F!!" I raised my voice, growing impatient.

 

He nearly had a heart attack. "Y-y-y-y-eeees SIR! 74 e-e-effff!!!"

 

"This needs to be in Jamess hand as soon as possible, do you understand me? The lives of your fellows depend on it. Clear?"

 

"Perfectly, s-s-sir!!"

 

"Good, and while you are on your way, I want you to make a copy of this letter, I re-iterated. I want the copy in my hands as soon as you have come back from your delivery."

 

He nodded.

 

"What? Youre not done yet? GO!" I commanded.

 

He nearly tripped over his feet as he dashed off; all the while I was wishing I had found another man to do the job.

 

It was getting late, and soon the Hammerite day-watch would retire to their barracks for the evening, and Hammerite night patrols and watches would begin. I spotted a Hammerite soldier standing at one corner by a street-post. I paused for a moment, as a sudden inspiration came to me. He looked as if he was carved from solid stone as he stood there, motionless, hammer gripped tightly in his hands, his eyes staring straight forward. Though he appeared inanimate, I knew his ears were sharply at work, listening for any sounds that seemed out of place. Even with the ruckus of the busy crowd which stirred about him, (keeping about 5 feet away, of course), I knew his ears were sharp enough to hear a dishonest footfall twenty yards away. Odd how they can train them like that. The training is good; very good, but unfortunately for them, not good enough.

 

"Greetings Mathews, Private 4th class." Few people have ever seen a Hammerite surprised before, and lived to tell about it. All the people on the streets who happened to glance in the right direction as I snuck up behind the guard and greeted him are counted among those lucky people. He quickly regained his bearings, and wiped away all traces of surprise or embarrassment.

 

"State thy need, citizen, or be off with you," he said, in that odd accent they all seem to have, as he looked down his nose at me, and tightened his grip on that solid iron hammer of his.

 

I lifted the brim of my hat slightly to allow him to see my face. The poor chap went slightly pale, as if a Hammerite could get any paler, and dropped to one knee, quivering. "Please pardon my ignorance and ineptitude, Master Nightfall, for did not recognize thee. I shall understand if thou wishes myself punished for such a display of blindness."

 

"A mistake may be mastered, but a lie lasteth forever on thy tongue. Rather than try to hide thy mistake, thou hast faced it, and in doing so, may now correct it. Next time thine ears shall be keener to my footsteps, and thine eyes keener to my features. Thou art forgiven, my son." I said, pulling off the Hammerite priest mimic with flying colors.

 

"I thank thee, master," he said, rising to his feet, and not at all groveling. "How may I be of service?"

 

"I wish an audience with the council, the High Priest included. It is of a matter of reasonably great importance," I told him, letting my accent slip slightly.

 

He nodded. "I shall, master. Is there any other way in which I canst serve?"

 

"No. If thou performs these tasks, then thou hast earned thy mettle for this day."

 

"I thanketh thee greatly, Master Nightfall. Dost thou wish that I perform this act now, or shalt I wait until my watch has come to a close?"

 

"Stay at thy post, my son, and may the Master Builder watch over thee, and guide thy hammer to righteousness." I admit, that last bit at the end was a bit of an ad-lib, but he took it as a great blessing anyway as he regained his steadfast stance.

 

Wanting closure to the day, I decided it was about time I get back to my tower and get some rest. Evening was now fully upon the city and a shady character like me needed to get off the streets before the heavy Hammerite patrols began. Undoubtedly they would attempt to arrest me, learn my true identity, and I would have to come up with another excuse to not turn them in and have them executed. As useful as the Hammers are when they think youre a religious icon, they are such a bother. So I made haste, for night was the time for people like me to either get home, or get to the shadows and get to work. I chose the former.

 

 

- Ghost: A Day in the Life of the Dead - Day 2: 8pm

 

I was standing before the entrance to a place called the Bonehoard. I pondered the wisdom of going down into a place like this again. Too many times it's been a run for my life from burricks or zombies or worse. But this time, supposedly, it would be worth it. How many times have I heard that? Some times these jobs are just way too dangerous. How many times was I going to use the word time? I walked the fine line between bravery and sheer stupidity too often. So now I'm here, looking for what my fence called the Star of Alarus, and anything else not nailed down. I needed to make some money on this too.

 

Suddenly I was jogged back to reality. Something was shuffling around behind a nearby crypt. I quickly zipped into the hole that counts as a doorway to this place. "Hmm" I muttered to myself. How convenient it was for someone to leave this rope here. It couldn't possibly be a set-up now could it? If I get killed because this is a set-up, I'm going to haunt the guy who wants this star thing for all eternity. I tested the rope. It seemed solid enough even though it looked like it was older than I was. "Well, lets make this quick," I muttered to myself as I slid down the rope. Surprisingly, I got down safely -- so far so good. There was only one way to go. It looked well traveled. Now I was really paranoid. There's nothing worse than finding living people in a crypt. They can't be up to anything good. Does that make me a hypocrite? Yeah probably. But who cares? I'm just here to loot a little. No one should mind.

 

"Concentrate!" I always have to talk to keep myself focused. It was hardly a quality you look for in a thief. We're supposed to be quiet. Crawling down the roughly cut tunnel, I end up on a wooden platform. I found another rope. "Weird." I used my own this time. I doubted I'd be that lucky twice. Thunk! "Okay, here we go." I climbed down the rope. I noticed the body parts scattered around the floor. Boy, I hoped there weren't any zombies here. I checked my map, old as it was. The Alarus area shouldn't be too far in.

 

Nothing to loot here. Damn, I hated it when that happened! I liked my loot in large quantities, and readily available. Yes, I really liked loot plenty. Loot -- I loved that word. Why is it never easy to find loot? "Ah ha!" I saw some steps, not very visible in the corner, leading to a downward slope. "Yes!" I said triumphantly when I saw the stone carved with the Alarus name. Unfortunately, rubble was everywhere, blocking the passage. It looked as if there had been an earthquake here. I almost decided this was a wasted trip; almost. I noticed a small hole way up by the roof in a dark corner of the room. From the looks of it, I may have been too late. The hole looked man-made, as if someone had recently gotten here before me. Some rocks were piled on a ledge under the hole, like a crude set of stairs. Maybe that was just a convenient coincidence. The rocks could have just fallen like that, and the hole was natural. Damn, I'm amusing. That's insane. Obviously I was too late. How could someone not have gotten in there? The path is so simple. I decided to go ahead with this anyway. Maybe they missed something? I climbed a post on one side of the room. From there, I jumped onto the large flat stone ledge dangling precariously from the roof. Then I slid to the edge and jumped off those stacked rocks into the hole. It was too easy. Something was obviously going to kill me at any moment. I laughed off the thought.

 

I followed my planned route. The only thing I really had a problem with was making it through the fallen floor section. As a result of my attempts, I can now add several scrapes and a brand new head wound to my list of credentials. If only the people who thought I was so great could see me now! "Hah! Dusty and bleeding, master thief I am!" No-one heard my remark. At least no-one told me to shut up. Finally, I made the necessary jumps without significant injury to myself. I peered over the ledge into the debris filled pit. "Okay Ghost, just whip those legs up over that ledge and try to land on your feet, and lets hope it's not a long drop." Aided by the skills acquired through many escapes, I slid up into the next hole. Hoping that I wasn't about to kill myself, I dropped.

 

I landed with a crash. "Ow! Damn! Who put those stairs there?" Falling down a flight of stairs, just when you were sure that you were about to make a death defying drop of magnificent heroism, tends to bruise your pride. What I landed on took my mind away from the pain in my ass. "Nice! A dead body!" It looked like he had only been there a week at the most. "Ew, still fresh." I hoped that this was the fellow I had been worried about. I was not the first to get in here, but planned to be the first to get out. After quickly frisking my new buddy I found a few coins, his map to the place (which looks surprisingly similar to mine), and much to my delight and dismay; no star! I lit my small lamp and then scurried down the hall. I made ready to hide the light source at the first hint of company.

 

And, to my surprise, at the end of the hallway I found a wall. No more hallway. "Damn." I spat at the bricks. I then realized there must be a secret door somewhere near here. A family as notorious as Alarus liked secret doors. Secret doors are fun. Funny, the entire family was dead, yet they choose to bury their valuables with them. Go figure. Angry at the greedy dead people, I felt around the walls looking for the secret panel. Maybe I would stumble on the button. That would be much easier. Just like I knew I would, I found the door. Now I needed to open it. It was amazing how well rich, dead people can blend two pieces of stone to look like one. After a little pushing and poking I discovered that I could not open the door with my hands. There had to be a button here somewhere. There needed to be a way in, just in case 2nd-cousin Alarus died choking on his silver spoon. I retraced several steps down the hall. With the light from the cracks in the ceiling back in the large room, I could see a little better. Luckily due to the quakes in the area over the years the stones shifted around a bit. By luck alone, I happened to glimpse a bit of metal inside a crack between two steps. This could either have been a trap, or a door knob. I decided it was a trap. Knowing nothing better to do, I shut my eyes and gave the cracked step a swift kick. To my surprise, I was still alive. No bottomless pits or falling rocks for this taffer. Sometimes I was amazed at how often I didn't die. The secret door was now open. "Wow! It gets better and better!"

 

It wasn't a big area. At least the map said it wasn't a big area. But then again, these maps are rarely accurate. The first area I found seemed to be the major family tomb. There were lots of uncles and cousins. No women were buried here, which I found weird. Must be some sort of male dominance thing in that family. No wonder they died out. Their wives killed them and remarried. I grabbed a few trinkets which were sitting around waiting for me. I found a gold cup here, and a ring there. There really wasn't much loot. Maybe their women inherited it all after they killed off the cheap bastards. I took it as a good sign that no one had looted the little things already,. It meant that I was the only one who had ever got this far. Now where oh where is grand-daddy Alarus? After a tiring search of the area, I came to the conclusion that I was in need of a break. A small snack and some water would pick me up. Maybe it would even clear my mind. No, not likely. I also needed to stop the bleeding caused by my earlier acrobatics. I sat down on the floor and leaned my back against the resting place of Entar Alarus. It didn't occur to me to be anything special until the sarcophagus slid back like it was on an oil slick, and I fell down another set of stairs. Yes, I fell down another set of stairs.

 

"Son of a..!" I cursed loudly as I nursed a new bruise on my knee and bump on my head. Maybe thats what was wrong with me. I had too many hits to the head. Maybe I could get the Hammerites to make me a nice metal crash helmet for these jobs. Just then I heard a moan. I decided that it was just a subconscious moan of pain from myself. I didn't give it another thought. That is, until I heard something move. Injured, but not totally stupid, I closed the shutters on my lamp. Then I waited to see what came into view. I pulled a mine out of my pack just in case it was what I thought it was. If it really was zombie down there, this was my only defense. Why couldn't it just be a guard I could stab? Before I could answer my question, my host staggered into view. Sure enough, it was a big ugly zombie. "Bye bye Mr Alarus zombie!" I armed the mine and tossed it into a corner. As usual for a zombie, they have great hearing and not much sense. He dragged himself over to the corner where it landed. I ducked out of view just as the sound of a satisfying explosion and subsequent splattering of body parts on stone rang through the air. I hopped from my cover, careful to avoid slipping on the greasy blood, to look for the arms. It was quite disgusting really, but you never know if these zombies are wearing rings until you check!

 

Now the only shuffling of feet were my own. I scanned the room. It seemed there were only three coffins here. Unfortunately, none of them had names on the plaques. There were no dates or other types of identifying marks on any of them. I decided I needed to open each one to see what was inside. I took the crowbar from my pack. First I wondered why I didn't use it to open the secret door. Then I tried to pop the lid from the first coffin. I didn't find anything inside, other then the remains of a person. There was no loot! Obviously this part of the tomb has been here for a really long time, since all that was left were bones. Next I went to the one in the middle. It was a little bigger than the others. It seemed almost dumb that I didn't open this one first. The lid was heavier than anything I ever tried to open in my life. With a lot of luck, and no shortage of adrenaline flowing from excitement, it finally fell off. I found another coffin inside. "Oh man. Hope that one just flips off, 'cos there is no way I'll be able to lift it out of there." My luck had changed. The second lid opened and slid off without much trouble at all. What did I find? I found the mummy of a woman! Maybe this is grandma Alarus? There was one thing about this I didn't like -- there was nothing of value to be seen in the coffin. This meant one of two things -- either it was all a total lie, or it was under the bandages, or the good stuff was under the body."

 

Counting was never one of my strong points. I decided that as much as I hate dealing with the dead, I hated wasting time. I hated falling down stairs even more. Not wanting those two falls to go to waste, I pulled out my dagger and sliced the wrappings from groin to throat. Nothing was visible from there. "Damn. Hmmm." I did see a cut on the chest which I had not made. I heard that some mummies had their organs removed, for some reason or another. Maybe that was why the cut was there. Or maybe it was a treasure chest. I jammed my dagger into the body near the cut and heard a soft clank of metal on metal. My first thought was that I just marred a great artifact with a nice stab wound. "Good thinkin' Ghost," I told myself as I pried open the chest cavity. The act made me feel rather sick. This was a woman, after all. The sickness disappeared when I saw the glint of loot inside and forgot all about that. I reached in to fetch my prize. It was heavy. I pulled it out, covered with muck as it was, and held it up to my lamp. It was the star, without a doubt. The Alarus Star was a spectacular gold necklace trimmed with hundreds of gems, which all danced wildly in the lamp light. "Thanks Lady Alarus! This will pay the rent for quite a while." I chuckled as I grabbed my lamp and headed back out quickly before any curses could take effect on me.

 

 

- Ghost: Of Bruises and Butlers - Day 2: 10pm

 

I had done it. I had my prize. I had the loot. I was sittin pretty. The trip to town was more or less uneventful. Thank the gods. Any more damage or excitement for me just might have killed me. I headed straight for Ragbert, my fence, to unload this tasty trinket and get my cash. I didn't even stop at my place to clean up. As I approached the building where Ragbert usually waits for me, I saw something most disturbing. He was being dragged out by a group of Hammerites, who were also carrying several large boxes! His unsold wares, I guessed. "Well, just throw me down a well! How am I going to unload this thing now?

 

As I stood watching, someone grabbed my tunic and pulled me into an alley. For an instant I thought it was a Hammerite, so I spun around to strike back. Fortunately I stopped my swing dead when I saw her. Her face looked so delicate and innocent, I couldnt possibly pound her into a bloody mess. That wouldnt be right.

 

"You know what they are going to do to him in Cragscleft dont you?" She whispered, sending chills through me. They were good chills.

 

"What? Why? Who are you?" I suddenly felt very dizzy, unable to focus on anything but the sound of her voice.

 

"They will kill him, and get your name, and then youll be next on their list. You cannot let this happen." Somehow she knew what was going on, even though I still had no idea. I hate it when people know more than I do about what Im doing.

 

"What the hell are you talking about?" I whispered in the most hostile whisper I could muster, "Im not going to get him out, it would be easier to kill them all right now, and Im definitely not doing that!" She had to be nuts. She may have been right, but she was still nuts.

 

She lifted her hand and touched my cheek saying, "He is very important in the days to come. You will need his help. Close your eyes and you will see."

 

Thats it! She is nuts! I closed my eyes anyway, keeping one open a crack to watch her, half expecting her to stick a knife in my gut. I sat there in silence for a minute, but no visions of the future hit me, though I did get the feeling that I wanted some nice split pea soup for dinner. All of a sudden she just vanished.

 

My perception of reality then snapped back into focus. The woman was nowhere to be seen. Well now I was confused, frustrated, without a fence, and still had the star in my pocket. Although I would have loved to go track down that mysterious whisper-woman, or go bloody those Hammerite burrick-farts, the main thing on my mind was getting this artifact exchanged for some cash. Then I could go get some soup. Oh, wait a second; I hate split pea soup!

 

"Who else can take something like this and pay me fair value?" I shouted to myself under my breath -- if thats even possible. Just then it clicked. What was his name? Nighthawk? Nightowl...Nightfall? That was him, Nightfall! I hoped the Hammers weren't having a record-breaking night for arresting people who collect rare and hard-to-get items. It was late already, but for something like this I was sure he wouldn't mind being woke up. Also I sure as hell was not going to hand it to a servant to deliver! To Nightfalls place I went!

 

I jogged all the way there to minimize the chances of running into trouble. He lived a good distance away from the center of The City, so it was no easy run. Finally the place loomed into view. When I saw it I let out a cuss so dirty Im surprised that the grass beneath my feet didnt wither and die. There were more stairs, and lots of them. It seemed as if this Nightfall guy was so cocky that he had to have his tower perched halfway up this huge-o hill, and have a nice fancy stairway up to the front door. I damned him and his architects to hell as I started up. Once up the stairway, down the walk, and onto the porch, I banged loudly on the door, hoping he didn't try to kill the dusty, bloody, sweating wheezing person waiting on his doorstep.

 

Just my luck, a servant answered. Or at least I think it was a servant. I know it couldnt have been Nightfall. Ive seen drawings of the jerk, and hes not old, hes not skinny, and he doesnt wear a monkey suit or glasses. The stiff just looked me up and down for a few moments, as I stooped there, hands resting on my knees, still trying to catch my breath after that 7 mile stair climb that I enjoyed so much.

 

"May you be helped with something, sir?" he said coldly.

 

I liked how he never mentioned that it would be he doing the helping. "Ummm, yeah, listen. I gotta speak to Nightfall, like, now," I told him when I had caught my breath enough to say the entire thing without gasping.

 

He replied quickly, undoubtedly having decided what to say before he even knew I was coming. "Master Nightfall is not in at the moment. A message could be taken for him."

 

"Dammit!" I shouted, and the poor sap seemed to jump a little. "Fine, already, ugh, damn, let me see. Okay, tell your MASTER Nightfall that Ghost, he may have heard of me, has a valuable artifact that he wants to sell to him. Got that?"

 

"That story is told daily. Perhaps if you left a note with a much more detailed description of what you have, and where you stole the artifact from, he would be much more likely to meet with you and discuss the purchasing of the object." The stiff was rattling this shit off like he had said it a hundred times, so I knew he must be right.

 

I just looked at him for several moments before I made up my mind. "Fine. You got a pad and pen? Ill write him a note." He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a quill and pad of paper. "Damn, you keep a stockpile in that coat of yours, doncha. What else have you got in that thing, Jeeves?"

 

"The name is Jossimer, sir, and no, there is nothing else in the coat. If your intent is to rob the coat then I should inform you that I am well versed in over a half dozen forms of martial arts and --"

 

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, sorry Jeeves! I wouldnt dream of mugging you, honest!" I smirked and sat down on the stone rail. He looked at me with a look that most men bleed for, but seeing as I really wanted Nightfall to buy this trinket, I decided against killing his doorman. Besides, I admire a man who can do a good bluff. Even if that frail stick of a person did know over five dozen ways to fight, he definitely wasnt any good at them. "Do ya mind if I sit here and write it?" I asked him, fully intending to sit here and write it regardless of what he said.

 

"Not at all. Please drop it into the slot when you are done." I almost wished he had refused. The creep then turned around and slammed the double doors behind him.

 

I invented a new name for him, not a very nice one, sat down, and wrote. Three and a half pages later I was pretty satisfied with my narrative, and hoped that Nightfall wasn't anal enough to have it sent back to me covered with red ink.

 

 

- Nightfall: A Letter From Ghost - Day 2: 11:45pm

 

By the time I got home, it was a quarter till midnight. I stepped through the double doors to my tower and into the huge foyer, where I found Jossimer waiting for me.

 

"Pardon, Master, but there is a note for you. It seems that --"

 

I cut him off by grabbing the collection of papers out of his hand. I made a beeline down the vaulted hallway to my study, where I sat and unfolded the note. Hopefully it would be from Jyre, or maybe even Lytha. It unfolded to reveal handwriting which I did not recognize.

 

Hey, Nightfall. Your doorman says that if I want to sell you this trinket I gained possession of, I need to supply you with lots of good information about it. I dont mind sharing the details, after all, these are the things legends are made of. Put yourself in my place and enjoy the ride!

 

My eyebrow was most definitely raised as I quickly read his account of the adventure, often being forced to re-read passages several times in order to figure out exactly what he was trying to convey. If I heard correctly, Garrett, the thief who killed the Trickster, was unable to find his way into the Alarus Chambers, and yet this Ghost was. Slowly, I pondered what use this skilled thief would be in the situation at hand.

 

And thats it! So do you want this thing or not? I need to get it out of my hands fast before it burns me. Im sure you know what I mean. The address where I want to meet with you to make the sale is written on the back of this paper. If you dont come alone, I wont be there.

 

- Ghost

 

I yawned and placed the letter in the to-do box. I went to bed, not giving it a second thought.

 


Chapter 3 - The Hammerites

 

- Nightfall: Emissary of the Builder - Day 3: 6:30am

 

I awoke to a sound I do not enjoy hearing. I recognized it, as dreadfully familiar as any sound could be. I would not have needed to go to the window to look, but I did anyway. There, standing at the front gate to my domain, was a full garrison of Hammerite Troops. My wonderful escort, I thought to myself, cussing under my breath. I glanced at the clock on the mantle, which read 6:34 am. I hate early risers! The sound they had made came from striking a large iron sledge hammer against a large iron gong. Not one hammer and one gong, but five hammers and five gongs. If my home had not been so far from town, it would have woken up the entire quadrant. It looked like there were twelve Hammerite soldiers, and a crowd of Hammerite workers and scientists who were tending this large device sitting in the middle of my wide path. Wishing I had time to properly shower, I threw on my outfit from the last night, grabbed my cloak, and hurried down the stair, making my way to the front door.

 

Once downstairs, I made it halfway through my living chamber before I noticed that one of James men had dropped off a letter in my favorite drop box: the end table by the sofa. The speed of it all was no surprise, for James and his men worked very, very quickly. In a rush to get outside before the Hammers drew too much attention to themselves, I quickly read it.

 

D:

Intelligence will begin investigation of the Lady, effective immediately. I will begin archival work on my return, which should be today, for I have cut my vacation short due to the urgency of this matter. I am presuming this is a long-term operation and that stealth is more important than speed. Please advise if haste is warranted; and if so, to what degree we should be willing to risk exposure of our operation to the target. From the material presented I suggest we move slowly and carefully for now; if the Lady is whom I suspect her to be from this information and their disturbing correlation to certain veiled hints in ancient writings, this may be an extremely hazardous operation -- as hazardous as, and closely entwined with, events last fall. We will, of course, work to confirm or deny this hunch.

By the way, don't be too hard on Schinler. He's still pretty green. Nonetheless, his failure of nerve was serious and has been noted in his record. I have suggested to his section chief that he undergo further training or relegation to lower-stress taskings.

J 22.14 24.3

 

The letter arrived none to soon, for it backed up my suspicions and would make my argument to the Hammers all the more forceful. I opened the door just in time to see five iron sledgehammers strike five gongs. If I hadnt been gripping the doorknob the sound would have thrown me a good distance backward. As it was it knocked the wind out of me, and caused my ears to ring for a good hour thereafter. Seeing me, the entire squad jolted to attention.

 

The middle gonger stepped forward and shouted, Master Nightfall! We, the servants of his high eternal majesty, the Master Builder, stand ready to escort the Builders Emissary to the Grand Cathedral, upon his Lordships, the High Priest of the Order of the Hammer, request! At least, thats what I think he said, my ears were still ringing terribly. I slowly walked out the door and up the short path to the gate, not wishing to appear undignified by my dizziness. I truly wished that little worm Jossimer had gotten that gong instead of me. Where was the creep anyway? I considered firing him the next time I saw him. I should have known better than to let James talk me into hiring a butler; even if he makes really good tea.

 

Yes, good, I said simply, as I opened the gate and the entire group of them broke into a very brief genuflect. Ahem, yes, I said again closing the gate behind me, when they all had resumed standing.

 

Thou art prepared to travel forth now, Master Nightfall? He shouted.

 

I put my hand down hard on the soldiers shoulder. PLEASE, good sir, you do not need to SHOUT, good sir, I am RIGHT HERE, my very, very good sir.

 

He looked at me with a bewildered expression.

 

Lets go, I said simply, giving up.

 

Please step into the Automated Travel Unit! he shouted.

 

I looked at the contraption, and my brow furrowed. A horseless carriage? I said under my breath. It was a very large contraption, mostly taken up by a riveted iron cylinder, which sat upon several large wheels. Smaller cylinders were linked to the larger one by pipes, and these smaller cylinders were linked by rods to the wheels; beyond that, I could not fathom its workings. Towards the back was perched a pair of compartments. One was occupied by a trio of Hammers, and the other was mostly taken up by a large mound of coal and a small tank of water. Crammed in on one corner was a pair of seats under a small awning. The coal furnace threw off a great deal of heat, and the occasional cinder came floating back towards me from the smokestack. The Hammers operating the beast seemed to consist of a driver, in charge, and two with shovelers to feed the furnace; all three were blackened by soot, drenched with sweat, and wearing the peculiar grin worn by those who truly adore their mechanical toy. Once I was aboard, after a slow and reluctant journey, the engineer moved some levers, and with a loud hissing noise the machine lumbered into motion...

With a jolt and a shudder, the thing started to move, controlled by a Hammerite Scientist up front, who was frantically turning valves, and pulling levels back and forth. It rotated slowly in place, until we were facing the stairway down, and we proceeded forth. I knew I was in for a slow ride, seeing as the twelve soldiers obviously planned on marching along side the thing. Suddenly it hit me. How did they get this thing up the stairway? How was it going to get down? I dreadfully faced the fact that I would soon find out exactly how, and I was not looking forward to the possibilities. I held on for dear life as the crate, being driven by six wheels, navigated its way down the winding stair, shaking like hell as the hard metal wheels struck each step, and dropped down to the next. I wondered why I hadnt heard the thing coming up in the first place, it was making so much noise!

 

 

- James: On the Job - Day 3: 8:00am

 

We returned from our excursion in the south, ahead of schedule, due the sudden turn in events. We were weary but happy, having visited a number of fascinating antiquities and renewed contact with old friends. But, weary or not, a situation had developed, and I soon set to work. As always, the task had several components.

Step one: I asked Corinne, my wife, to plunge into the archives. She doesn't go through them quickly -- but she goes through them thoroughly -- and thereby she picks up on scraps and threads of information that most researchers miss. She also loves working in the archives, so she went happily to work.

Step two: get agents on the job. After a quick conference with the watch-officer, we agreed to send a scholar along on the Hammerite Crypt mission. No sense sending yet another thief, as the team was expected to have stealth aplenty; but a scholar might find information the others would miss. Hopefully the others would keep the poor lad alive. In addition, after a conference with my Chief of Staff, several agents were assigned to gather information on the streets, and one to try to watch this place in the woods. Set a man to catch a man...

Step three: my job. Time to immerse myself in recent reports, and see what might come of them. Then follow those up with a bit of ancient research of my own, following up the suspicions I had mentioned earlier to Daneel.

After a day of intense work, a great deal of consumption of beans from java, and several requests from Corinne for willow-bark tea -- "These people had terrible handwriting!", she complained -- we began to have the beginnings of a picture, and I wrote to Daneel.

 

- Nightfall: A Conference at SoulForge - Day 3: 9:00am

 

Master Nightfall, even if thou hadst more accurate information regarding this structure and its occupants, thy source is discreditable at best! The High Priest didnt look at me when he spoke. His half-closed eyes spent most of their time examining the golden gavel he held tightly in his left hand. He sat erect in his grand marble throne. After a short pause, he looked up at me, his sharp stare attempting to pierce and wound my icy composure.

 

I ask thee, what more information and creditability doth thou need? The very hinting of a rumor that such a structure exists, without record, and without warrant, deep within these woods should be enough to call you to action to investigate. I looked at him as I spoke, mocking him with the lack of intensity in my voice. His face erupted into a grimace as he saw the nodding approval of his subordinate Hammerite priests. He suddenly stood, looked away from the council, stroking his beard with the hand that did not clutch the gavel.

 

The High Priest slowly turned back to face the council of priests, seated around the oval table. Brother Masok, quickly, send five of thy fastest men to the lodge in the forest. Instruct them to search the area which the Emissary hath described, form a tactical report, and return here at once. He then retook his seat.

 

Yes my lord. The man immediately rose and walked out the grand double doors.

 

The High Priest again brought his eyes to me, but spoke to his fellow Hammerites. If this building houses, as the so-called Master Nightfall suggests, a pagan, then we shall make an example out of it. He pronounced every syllable of my surname mockingly.

 

Suddenly one of the brother priests spoke up. Lord, should we not employ the skills of the master thief Garrett in the investigation of this structure? If our servants are discovered investigating, then the inhabitants may flee, and we shall loose our chance to, as you say, make examples out of them.

 

The eyes of the High Priest narrowed. He let the brother finish, but it was obvious that he wasnt considering the suggestion. The name of that man is not to be spoken within these halls! Our debt to him has been paid by Brother Karras, he is now to be considered no more than a criminal, with the penalty of death by torture on his head when apprehended!

 

The brother shuffled in his chair, as if the gaze of the High Priest was injuring him. He gave half a glance to Brother Karras at the far end of the room. Pardon my words, my lord.

 

When our servants return with information concerning the location and fortification of this structure, we shall launch a full assault, crush the building to its foundations, and slay all that reside within. It shall be a grand example to ALL who would oppose our rule that our justice is swift and merciless!

 

May the Master Builder guide us to victory! a particularly old one shouted, a shout that was greeted by many enthusiastic agreements. The High priest then struck his gavel to the table three times, and the meeting was adjourned.

 

My brothers, please allow me a moment alone to speak with the Master Nightfall in private, the High Preist said, as they stood and began to talk amongst themselves. At that, that all left promptly.

 

I stood and looked at him, my hands resting on the back of my chair. He just stood and looked at me, his arms folded across his chest. He was rather young for a high priest. This is of course attributed to the fact that the last high priest died rather unexpectedly last winter, no doubt a result of the torture he received at the hands of the Tricksters minions. This man was the most worthy of the old high priests five apprentices, and was thus chosen by the council to lead. When I say that he was young I do not mean that he was youthful. He appeared to be in his late forties, a very young age for the leader of the entire Order of the Hammer. He was sturdy and tall, and didnt stand with the common frailty one may expect from a Hammerite priest. I could tell he was examining me just as I was him.

 

I have only this to say to thee, Daneel of Todulem. My predecessor decided that thou art the one prophesied as the emissary of the Master Builder. Thou art the strange man who arrived at The City, having never been seen before, preforming great miracles of stone and beam, right after the return and defeat of this Orders greatest enemy. All in the prophecy points to thee being the man who speaks directly to the Master Builder. However I refuse to believe that a man such as yourself, who has more in common with those damnable Keepers, could have anything to do with our Order. It is only out of respect to my predecessor, may his soul reside eternally by the Master Builders side, and this council, who seem to have undying faith in you, that I recognize you as anything more than an arrogant nobleman, who undoubtedly has countless ties to the underworld. If it were up to myself, I would have you executed immediately, mutilated, your head cast in bronze and displayed on my shelf, and your burned broken body paraded through the streets of The City, as an example to all that NONE are above the law of the Order of the Hammer! As he stood there saying this, the tension in this face grew to a scowl, and his voice thundered.

 

I simply looked at him coolly, and replied, in my smug manner, The Master Builder appreciates thy skepticism, my brother. Yet faith is also needed for thee to truly serve thy master. I could almost hear the steam rising from his brow as I turned around and left the room.

 

I never asked to be cast in this role. It wasnt my idea at all. Still, it was very useful to have this kind of voice in the highest level of the most powerful organization in The City. I wanted nothing to ruin it. The High Priest was jealous -- very jealous. He disliked the thought of any mortal being closer to his God than he was, and he hated me for it. It made me stay on my toes, for I was sure he would jump on every and all opportunity to destroy the image the rest of the council had of me.

 

After a short navigation, I made my way down to Soulforge Cathedral's main hall. This place was nearly an exact reproduction of the lost cathedral in the forbidden sector, only about four times larger, and five times more mechanical. Nearly everything about this place was automated, from the shutters that opened and closed by timer, to the lanterns which lit by the press of a button, to the doors which opened automatically via pressure plate on the stone floor in front of them. The time since the death of the Trickster has been the most prosperous time in the history of this Order. New devices were being invented daily, new breakthroughs in architecture and engineering occurred at breakneck speed. The main hall of the building through which I now walked was the largest continuous indoor chamber ever constructed. When the humidity was right, storm clouds formed inside the massive vaulted room. Things like the rib vault and flying buttress made this all possible, and it was a creation which, I say in all honesty, reminded me of home more then anything else. The sight of the colored light pouring through the stained glass windows that flanked the center aisle created breathtaking beauty in a place normally considered to be cold, gray, and rigid.

 

I was in an interesting position, one held by very few. I could see the Order of the Hammer from the inside, rather than having it hidden by the dark iron curtain, which was all that outsiders were privy to. Yet I was not blinded into still, cold rigidness, experienced by one truly of the order, his mind filled with their doctrines and methodology. I pondered briefly what it would be like if I seized control of this Order. Could I turn it around, reforming it to be able to appreciate the beauty of creation, reshape it onto a fair and unoppressive government, or would I too become cold and corrupted? I shook the through out of my mind as I reached the huge double doors leading to the massive walkway to Town Square.

 

 

- Lytha: The Unexpected Guests - Day 3: 10:00am

 

Getting out of the city had become a pain in the recent months. After The Hammerites had beaten the Trickster, they stalked around as if now they alone ruled the City.

 

Only a year ago, you could count the number of Hammerite patrols on the streets with one hand. It was said that the Order would become extinct, because no one wanted to join them anymore. Just a bunch of guys wishing for the old days was what they were called. But after their glorious victory over the Trickster, after all the speeches and processions, they had convinced many young men to follow them. They gave a goal in life to the purposeless, they gave rules to the uncertain, they gave security to the anxious. Then they gave us more rigid laws than before.

 

And more patrols.

 

Startled from my thoughts by some footsteps, my reflexes led me into a shadow. As if they had heard my thoughts, some Hammerites walked along, full of self-confidence. I let them pass by and kept unseen. This time I had been lucky, once again. I sighed, and checked that my small bow was still well hidden under my cloak. Then I stepped on the street again and continued my way to the northern gate of the City.

 

The north gate was heavily guarded in the recent days. It seemed that the Hammerites feared a threat from the outside. Probably they had annoyed the countries in the neighborhood, or provoked a war by invasions into the other countries. Well, I don't care for politics. Politicians are only a bunch of corrupt nobles who try to rule, but in fact, they are only puppets on a stage, lead by fanatics who stay in the background.

 

I shrugged, and checked the bow and my quiver again. They were still hidden enough from the eyes of those arrogant guards. I lifted my hood, following the rule: If a guard thinks you are only a nice young woman with sandy hair, he will probably only molest you and never think you were his enemy. I forced a relaxed, friendly smile on my face, and stepped towards the gate.

 

Two Hammerite guards stood there, grinning in my face.

 

"Hello, missus," one of them said. From the looks of him, he was a very fresh one. His Hammerite Novice haircut was still very evident.

 

I nodded at him. The second rule is: If you feel so much hate against them, do not speak with them. Do a friendly smile, nod, shrug, but never say a word -- they could hear the hate in your voice.

 

"Walking alone, are we?" he continued. They even tried to stand more upright and to look smarter. Damn bastards.

 

I shrugged, smiling. At this point, it discourages them, somehow, but always. Must be the lack of contact with women in the Order. Sissies.

 

"Well, then, pass by, young missus," he stepped back.

 

Giving him a friendly smile, I left the city. I could hear them babbling at my back, but I did not take notice of it anymore. No need to waste more time than necessary with them. The friendly smile cracked off my face as I reviewed my plans.

 

I would now break into that lodge in the woods. I had heard that there was more loot in the deeper floors than one single greedy thief could carry in both hands. That was ideal for my purposes: I needed enough cash for the more important goals in my life. I actually only had one goal, after I had found my sister tortured and driven into madness by the bloody Hammerites -- revenge.

 

My last expedition into the former central Hammerite temple (before they built Soulforge) had ended in a panicked escape. Somewhere in the temple I had lost the letter my sister had written in her unreadable signs. Confused as she was, she had signed it with my name. I wondered for a moment if it would cause trouble when someone found it, but I relaxed as I remembered its unreadability. I, myself, had not been able to decipher one single word. Only my name, Lytha, at the bottom of it, and the address on its top: Master Nightfall. I had never met that man, but heard some rumors about him. Well, making contacts was never my greatest skill. I prefer to rely on myself, rather than on some contact person. You never know when theyll betray you.

 

Still, I could not help but wonder if he would recognize the name. A good thief does not give into the temptation of fame, and keeps her identify secret, and I was a very good thief. Still, rumor of ones activities always tend to proceed one, no matter who one is. In some alleys, I was known as Lytha the Mad, and others, Lytha of the Golden Heart. It seemed fitting that I would be host to those two highly contrasting titles.

But then, the picture of Thalias scarred face and the deformed hands came back into my mind. I buried her corpse two days ago. A fresh grave in the wood behind her hut was everything that remained of her. She had managed to survive for three months after the Hammerites discarded her. Hate came upon me.

Its not easy to write with once broken wrists. I would deliver them a payback. Thalia had been the last drop in a full barrel. My hate had now overwhelmed me. Lytha the Mad indeed -- how fitting. So heavy was the hatred that I almost wanted to leave my usual principle of staying unseen behind me. I wanted revenge; bloody revenge. I wanted to see them on the floor, enjoy their fear, and destroy them.

 

Lost in those thoughts, I walked towards the hunting lodge of the Lady. I did not take notice of anything, until I almost fell into a ditch. Stumbling, I came back to reality.

 

The lodge seemed quiet, almost deserted.

 

"Good for me", I mumbled, crouching forward.

 

I think that it is always good to have a look at the target before entering it. So, I snuck around the house. It had the shape of a five pointed star. The roof started immediately over the first floor. The entire building was made from wood. It did not look very special, apart from the five small towers on the edges of the wall and some windows with the Trickster's eye painted on them. I hoped that the rumors of deeper floors with much loot were right, because it looked disappointing from the outside.

 

The main gate was closed; not that the idea of entering the house through the main gate ever touched my mind. Taking the main gates of a house has absolutely no style, and very often it is trapped with an alarm system, or with guards who are easy to alert.

 

I shot a rope arrow into the roof of one of the towers and climbed up. The tower had one chair in it, and not enough space for any other furniture. I stumbled over it when I went to the door. Luckily, the door opened to the inside of the lodge, or else it would have been blocked by the chair. Behind the door was a narrow, winding staircase. I stopped in the small shadow by the threshold and listened to the sounds from the inside. Just another disappointment -- nothing to hear; only the wind blowing over the roof. I took the stairs and entered the first floor. It seemed that every tower had its own staircase, and all of them led into a hallway close to the outer wall. The hallway surrounded the building. I avoided the main gate - not out of necessity, but out of training. The painted windows lit the floor in mixed colors.

 

I chose one door to the inner rooms at random, and entered a kitchen. Some fresh food lay on the tables. Some plates were arranged on a border. They had cheerful pictures of rural life painted on them. The rustic impression was completed by a tea tray on the table. The cups had cute flowery patterns. The tea was cold. I relaxed and opened some drawers of the cupboard -- only the normal cutlery and some coins. I took the coins.

 

The kitchen was formed in a triangular shape, fitting to the shape of this point in the star. It had one door in every wall, leading to the other points, two plus the one to the outer hallway. I choose the left, and found a living room with a fireplace. The fire was not burning. Some shelves with books were on the center wall. I read the titles, but found nothing incriminating: only novels, and some love stories. I tugged them one by one, looking for a book-switch, and found nothing. I touched the walls, searching for trapdoors. I even crawled into the fireplace. Nothing.

 

I became slightly annoyed, and rushed through the other rooms: a bedroom, a bathroom, and a small office. Everything was nice and tidy. I found some jewelry in the bedroom, but nothing of much worth. A picture of a couple in front of a fireplace provoked my curiosity, but it was far too decent to be used for blackmailing -- they were not undressed. The newspaper and the bills in the office revealed nothing. It would have been only exciting for people who enjoy bets in the bear-pits. In a wardrobe were some weapons: a bow and a dagger -- items used for hunting parties. The bathroom revealed nothing but a huge bathtub. After I looked under the soap without finding anything, I got more annoyed.

 

Angry, I sat down and imagined a map of the house. I came to the conclusion that the nice tidy rooms combined perfectly to the inner pentagram. The outer wall was not thick enough for secret passages.

 

I climbed and entered every one of the five towers. All of them were similar: one chair, alone on the entire floor. The walls of the staircases were solid. I climbed on the flat roof and found no trapdoors. I went back into the house. Leaving a mess is not my style, but this time I was so enraged that I threw some of the plates with the cute paintings on the floor. They shattered with a satisfying crunch. Grinning, I looked into every wardrobe and cupboard, behind every piece of furniture, again. I threw the books from the shelves and searched for secret buttons. I found nothing and left the lodge by way of my rope.

 

Back on the outer ground, I realized that the house had indeed a basement. I could see a very narrow barred window, half-hidden in the earth. I had a look into the basement behind it. It was mostly dark downstairs, but I spotted some shiny golden things.

 

I climbed the rope again, feeling that I strained my muscles far too much with this steady up and down. I entered the tower again, wheezing.

 

This time I wished that I had brought a sword with me. I went into the office and took the hunting dagger from the wardrobe, and started to cut the curtains down -- no secret doors. I threw some of the pictures down to the floor -- no buttons. I opened every drawer of every desk -- no buttons, again. There was nothing under the pillows in the bed.

 

Running through the house in mad anger, I threw almost everything on the floor. What enraged me even more was that my footsteps sounded everywhere like I was walking over the ceiling of a huge hall. If I had found an ax, I would certainly have tried to break through the floor.

 

I must have run through the lodge for hours. At last, almost crying, I decided to give up. I did not even bother to take my rope arrow back. I headed to the main gate, just because it was so easy to access.

 

When I opened it, the bright sun shone into my eyes and blinded me. But I saw some shadowy, hammer-wielding silhouettes. Both they and I stood quietly for some seconds, frozen from fear. I regained control over my body first, turned and ran back into the lodge. Somehow, I stumbled over the lush carpet. I fought to stay on my feet. The lost second was enough for some of the smarter Hammerites to realize that I was no huge scary monster, but only a small person with a hood that tried to escape. One of them aimed his crossbow at me, and shot just when I continued my run. It went through my left shoulder and its momentum pulled me forward. I fell on my face. The sharp front end of the bolt went through the carpet into the wooden floor and nailed me to the ground. I tried to suppress the cry. I struggled to come free, but one of the Hammerites had already stepped beside me. A kick in my left side made me gasp for breath. Another kick broke my left upper arm. With the sound of the crunching bone in my ears, I was overcome by the heavy, sharp pain. Fighting for consciousness, I heard more Hammerites approach. They turned me on my back, ripping the arrow out of my shoulder. I tried to raise my hands to protect my head from the constant kicks, but I had no control over my muscles.

 

Fainting, I heard them say: "So, this is all we shall have for a trophy, eh?"

 

"But... I have seen this face before. Is this not the thief who tried to break into the old temple two days ago?" Someone tried to look at my face.

 

"Yes, I hadst seen that face when we chased her out. She is this thief. Left in a hurry, didn't she? A scared little coward she was. Feeling so clever." Another kick.

 

In the following laughter, someone said: "Thou shalt not rob from the house I have built, so says the Master Builder! We should find out what she wanted in the temple. Take her to Brother Inquisitor."

 

 

- Jyre: The Lynx Stalks the Tiger - Day 3: 1:00pm

 

I watched him enter the small shop from the corner of an alleyway, and smiled. Nobody noticed me. I was just another beggar to them, filthy and stinking. My face and hands were smeared with soot from the fire. My clothes stank after sleeping in the dirty washwater over night. The disguise was perfect. In many people's eyes, I didn't even exist.

 

The hunt was one of my favorite pastimes. I would choose my prey early in morning. It had to be someone reasonably rich, but not so rich as to attract an overly large amount of attention. And then I would stalk him. I would follow him from house to market, through the streets and even, once, into a church. Sometimes, when I was well off, I would spend days doing this, just to prove I could. And when the time was right, I would take him. A swift crack to the back of the head was normally enough to drop them. Then I'd take everything they had bought that day and their gold, if they had any left.

 

But today things would be different. Today I would not take from my prey, I would give. Today my prey was Master Nightfall.

 

He stepped out of the shop and for one terrifying second he seemed to stare straight at me. Then his gaze moved on and I put it down to my imagination. No one had ever seen me before. I had no reason to think things would be any different this time. I waited until he had started on his way once more, then tagged along behind. His route was winding and he stopped several times before he finally turned for home. I was just rounding a corner behind him when something tripped me. I was grabbed by the collar and hauled of my feet. Looking up, I saw him. "Master Nightfall..," I gasped.

 

My wits were scattered about as he slowly let go of my ragged shirt, and gently dusted me off with a few quick strokes of his gloved hand. So, Jyre, he said with a half smile, the lynx stalks the tiger today? His smile then widened and he leaned against the side of the building. As soon as I regained my bearing, I noticed that we were in a narrow alleyway, about fifty yards down from the main street. I suddenly remembered why I had been following him and reached into my pocket to retrieve my letter to him. I really should not have been surprised when he started reading it out loud to me.

 

Master Nightfall,

 

Captain Els, he is sick. He coffs much and his lungs do wees. The healer man did give him medsin. Said that captain should by fire stay til better he be. To the lodge as we planned cannot we go.

 

I seek work, Master Nightfall. The streets be poor not, but I wish me for more... difficults. You understand? The word... Chalinge? For anything I would be grateful... Go to the Red Dragon In and make askings for me. Point you right they will.

 

One last thing I would ask from you. Do you no of this lodge? The words we did find made little mention. Apresheatted and needed be your helps.

 

Your servant,

Jyre.

 

By the time he looked up from reading it, I was gone.

 


Chapter 4 - A Mission's End, a Mission's Dawn

 

- Jyre: A Change of Plans - Day 3: 5:00pm

 

"I don't want you to go, Jyre."

 

Those were the first words Captain Els had spoken since he had first picked up the pen to record my tale. He had listened as I spoke, recorded the words as I told them, but almost from the first second he had had that disapproving frown on his face.

 

"Why not? This is good info. We need anything we can get on Her Ladyship. You said so yourself!" I stepped away from the wall towards the rickety writing desk. My shadow masked Els's face. "I'll be gone two days. Three at the most."

 

Els coughed. A horrible, racking cough. It scared me. When he finally caught his breath he shook his head. "I don't think its the information you're after, somehow."

 

I snorted and turned away, casting my gaze on the quiet street outside. "You think I'd do something like this for money?"

 

"No. But you'd sure as hell do it for the adventure!" He had moved behind me and now placed a large hand on my shoulder. "I worry, Jyre. What makes you think you can trust him?"

 

"He's well known for his... contacts."

 

"He's also well known as an idiot and a bastard! I still can't believe you're willing to risk your life for a rumor!"

 

I could feel his body heat through my clothes and for a second I didn't want to leave. Then I pushed him away. "You'll take the letter to Nightfall?"

 

Els stepped back. "At first light."

 

I picked up my pack and slung it over my shoulder. "And you'll look after yourself?"

 

"Of course."

 

I was almost out the door when he spoke again.

 

"Shall I give him your love?"

 

The question brought me to a halt. I felt my face burning. "It's not like that and you know it."

 

"Oh no?" There was a cocky smile on his face now.

 

"He... fascinates me, that's all. He's so well known and yet he somehow manages to remain a mystery."

 

"He's certainly intriguing, I'll give you that. But that doesn't make me want to pour my soul out to him."

 

I stepped outside and shut the door. I still didn't understand why I had done that myself.

 

 

- Nightfall: It's Not a Good Thing to Forget - Day 4: 8:00am

 

Its hard to enjoy your breakfast when you are worrying about three people. James I really did not have to worry about. Be it avoiding Hammerite scouts wile investigating the lodge, or thwarting the wrath of this Lady should he be discovered digging up dirt on her, I knew that he was more then capable of taking care of himself. I had no doubt that he could search that building from steeple to cellar without being seen by a fly. Then there was Jyre, who told me that she needed my help in the note, but then vanished. Latter last night I went to the inn Jyre spoke of in her letter, but no-one there knew where she was. I could have her tracked down easily, but I dislike doing such things to such people. She would come to me, I hoped, without doing anything rash. She seemed to be a crafty person to have survived so far, leaving little doubt that shes still quite fine. However there was a dash of guilt that stuck in my mind like a splinter. When I had requested the Hammers investigate the Lodge, and I had neglected to warn the old woman to stay clear of the place, lest she be found by the Hammers and subjected to things I would care not to think about while chewing on bacon and eggs. But my train of thought was cut short.

 

"Master, a letter for you --"

 

"Cant ya see the masters eatin!!"

 

Jossimers rude interruption of my meal received a sharp objection from my cook, Mrs. Marith Henrett. Unlike Jossimer, she was a servant I actually appreciated (and coincidentally received the highest pay). An old woman in her mid sixties, she sort of reminded me of my grandmother when I was a child. Standing only a little under five feet tall, with a very slight figure, this little old woman cooked the best meals I could ever ask for. Not only that, but I enjoyed how she constantly picked on Jossimer for his incompetence, so I didnt have to!

Jossimer, ignoring Mariths verbal bashing, walked stiffly up to where I was seated and laid a note on the table. "This was nailed to the front gate with this, Master." He handed me a custom made dagger. The wooden hilt had a figure of a woman moving in swirling mist carved into the side. For a moment I was more interested in the dagger, and after a brief examination concluded that it did indeed have some artistic value, even if it was relatively worthless. Reluctantly, after finishing my orange juice, I picked up the letter and read it.

 

Nightfall, do I gather by your not showing to the meeting that you're not interested in the Star of Alarus, or were you just so busy you couldn't be bothered to reply? I thought Id get a definite answer if I pinned this note to your butler Jeeves, but I decided that might not make a favorable impression. Anyway, you want it or not? I have a big ummm... project coming and I need cash for supplies and lets just say I don't want to go unprepared. I'll be in the tavern by the docks early this morning, corner table to the left of the door. If you don't show by nine this piece of jewelry goes to the highest bidder.

 

-Ghost

 

Cursing myself for being so forgetful, (hey, its just a bauble) I thanked Marith for the wonderful meal, grabbed my cloak, and dashed out to the meeting place. I only had two hours to make it clear across town, so I decided I had better hurry.

 

 

- James: On Task - Day 4: 8:00am

 

I took the latest message to Master Nightfall down to the kitchen and asked the cook for two mugs of tea; then went into the messenger's waiting room. Quin was there, a lass we'd hired several years before. I handed her a mug of tea, and inquired about Spence, her beloved Stafford terrier. Spence, an ugly but very friendly beast, had been part of our recruitment deal with Quin -- we provided it with critical medical care Quin couldn't afford, and part of her contract was a proviso for continuing to provide this service. After a few minutes chatting about Spence's affairs, I asked her to take the message to Daneel, and she sped off.

 

 

- Ghost: A Casual Business Venture - Day 4: 7:00am

 

Getting through The City early in the day is usually pretty easy. It gives you good practice at avoiding being seen without the use of shadows. You also get to practice your pick-pocket skills on the early birds. Not to mention the fact that most of the guards are exhausted from having to take the graveyard shift. But this morning was different. I had a meeting to get to and wasn't bothering to even stay concealed. I did, of course, keep an eye open for Hammerite patrols. Getting to the docks area is simple. It's not far out of the main area of town, but still far enough to keep most of the patrols light. Finally I arrived at the bar where Nightfall was to meet me, or where it seemed I was meeting him. I had had the feeling that I was being set up for a while now. Maybe he just wanted to test my persistence by not answering my first offer to sell the Star.

 

Inside The Drunken Mermaid, the typical sort lingered. Some fisherman types, some pirate types, and some cloaked unscrupulous types ( like me), sat around drinking and making sure not to make eye contact with anyone else. As I approached my normal table I saw I had guests. The men sitting at it looked as if they were quite comfortable until they realized they were in my seat. There were three of them, sailors. They looked rather sleepy. Their ship had probably just come into port, and they were hitting the bar to get some juice into their systems. Nothing helps a cargo unload like a good solid buzz. Surprisingly, they showed the proper respect by moving to another table. I was kind enough to not put a dagger through their hands. I sat down with my back to the wall and ordered my usual drink, warm spiced mead, and prepared to wait for Nightfall. I hoped he showed up this time.

 

An hour passed, and still no Nightfall. There was only one hour left until nine, and then Id go home and find another buyer. Maybe Bafford would take it, but then again, hed probably turn me in as well. Damn those Hammerite collaborators. I'm usually very edgy when I meet with someone I don't really know. He could either bring the cash for the Star, which I didn't even have on me, or he could bring the Hammerites or City Watch down on the place to rid the world of a few more undesirables. However, his reputation preceded him. He is definitely not known for betrayal. What he is definitely known for is collecting rare and valuable items, for that museum of his, The Circle.

 

Another hour goes by, two more mugs of mead go into me, and I'm ready to give up. It was five minutes until nine, and still no all-great and wonderful Master Nightfall. It looked like I have to take a major price cut on this thing to get rid of it. Unless I wanted to travel to some other city to find a buyer. That wasnt likely. I stood and left a few coins on the table for the drinks and got ready to go home. I was pondering who I could pawn this thing off to when the door to the joint opened. Someone who couldn't be anyone besides Nightfall walked in. I sat back down and pulled the dark gray hood of my cloak up over my head.

 

Everyone in the place turned and looked at him. 'What was a nobleman doing here? they probably wondered. Im sure he enjoyed the reaction. I expected as much, but what happened next I truly did not expect. One of the darkened drunks who was buzzing around the dart board suddenly shouted out. "Barkeep! One of yer finest fer the Master Nightfall! Patron Saint of Thieves!!" A few shouts of agreement rang from several corners of the room as the stuck-up bastard politely accepted the offer. I was disgusted. How can a man have a meeting in peace with this, this, whatever he is? I was about to get up and leave when he walked past my table and deposited a note under the rim of the ashtray. I waited until the guy was up by the bar, and chatting with a band of roughnecks, before picking up the note.

 

Ghost,

 

My apologies for the scene. Its what usually happens, sorry to say. I could say that I enjoy it no more then you do, but that would be a lie. Meet me on the platform under the wharf in ten minutes.

 

~MN

 

Skeptical, but needing this cash badly, I got up and walked out. I found the place he talked about easy enough. It was just a short jog to the wooden stair and then down the ladder to the fishing platform under the wharf. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I found him there waiting for me. "Youre early," was all he said.

 

The man is a little hard to describe. Usually when I see clothing that formal, its worn by a fat nobleman, but the stuff he wore was no more suited to a nobleman than he was fat. If you could imagine the standard thief / assassin / spy type outfit, but filthy rich rather then filthy with dirt, youd get the idea. The only thing that was different was instead of a hood, he wore a black hat, flat topped, with a brim that came halfway out to the edge of his shoulders. The only part of his face I could see really was that crooked smile of his.

 

"Youre late!" I said, quite pissed. "I told you be there before nine."

 

"I arrived at exactly eight fifty-seven," he said, as he whipped out his pocket watch to show me that he knew exactly what time it was. "I told you be here in ten minutes. Youre three minutes early."

 

I was about to get really steamed when the guy broke into laughter.

 

"Yeah, yeah, ha, ha, very funny." I balked. "So do you have the cash."

 

"Do you have the merchandise?"

 

"I have it. Not on me, but I have it."

 

"Ill need it before I give you the pay."

 

"I cant trust you to give me the pay if I give you the merchandise first."

 

He smirked at me. "Paying in advance will decrease its value to me. You may have your money first, but you will not get as much."

After considering, I agreed. "Fine." Better to be sure I get my cash and get less, then risk not getting it at all.

 

"Very well. Ill give you five hundred gold for it."

 

It was a good offer, Ill have to admit, but I always try and see what I can get out of people.

 

"No, seven hundred gold."

 

"I may have considered seven hundred if you had the Star with you. As it stands that price is out of the question. I stand by my original offer."

 

I eyed him narrowly. Haggling was no doubt something this creep made an art of. "All right, six hundred and fifty gold."

 

He shook his head. Damn, he had me. He knew I would have a hell of a time trying to sell it to anyone else. That is, anyone else who wouldnt turn me in for it. I figured I might as well fight this one out.

 

"Six hundred and thirty gold."

 

"Ill give you five hundred gold, and I'll make sure that I spread your name around to a few trustworthy fences who are in need of thieves who come with my recommendation."

 

Hot damn, that was tempting. Still, fame wouldnt buy me supplies or would it? I could get some better jobs if some good fences out there knew of me. I had made the right choice coming to Master Nightfall after all! Still, I wanted to see if I could get more gold out of him. "All that, plus six hundred gold."

 

His smile vanished. "Dont push it."

 

"Fine, five hundred gold. Deal." I stuck out my hand, and Nightfall grasped it and shook firmly. "Ill bring you the Star as soon as the gold is tucked away in my apartment."

 

He nodded, and produced five bags of gold from his pouch. I wondered why I hadnt just mugged the man, but then I noticed his quarter staff leaning against the wall. I had fought a man who used a quarter staff once. It looks no more harmless then a blackjack, but boy was I wrong. It wasnt pretty, I can tell you that much. I opened each bag, pulled out a coin, bit it to test it, and was soon satisfied that I was now the proud owner of five hundred gold coins. This could buy me quite a few water arrows and flash bombs. "Great, thanks Mister Nightfall. Where should I deliver the Star?"

 

"To The Circle. Ill be in my office until six tonight. I trust you know the way?"

 

"No problem, it will be there."

 

He nodded, gave a brief smile, and then leaned against the wall and just stood there. I guess he was waiting for me to leave, so I did. I made a beeline for my apartment, several miles north of the docks.

 

 

- Nightfall: A Letter of Solomon News - Day 4: 9:10am

 

Charming fellow, that Ghost. I had expected him to be a tougher haggler, but I suppose he did well. The Star was easily worth the seven hundred gold he requested, but as much as I didn't mind giving to charity, I did need to maintain a reputation. Still, if he didnt come back with the Star, I could always find more then enough thugs to lean on him for me. A crooked glyph chalked onto the manhole cover caught my eye. James had information for me. I walked to the other side of the street, and halfway down an ally to grab the letter which was sitting on a window sill.

D:

Tread carefully with the Lady. The suspicions I had earlier can be confirmed; this is no normal threat. The streets have produced no information yet save one informant who was killed before making her rendezvous; others clearly know of the Lady but are too terrified to speak. So much would indicate strong, current, coercive power. However, a curious glyph was left carved on her back after she was killed; and this has been a worrisome clue.


The same glyph has been found in a number of references C has dug out of the archive; and there, too, it is only referenced en passant and in tones of terror. The power behind the glyph is linked to the Trickster and the Wood, but as a sometime ally, not as a servant. Certainly a dark and chaotic force, in any event, and ill-disposed towards men.


Is the use of the glyph in this age merely an accident? I think not. Is it a false lead, set by a normal enemy to deceive, or to wear the mantle of an ancient terror? Again, I suspect not. The terror is forgotten for long years in the records, only to crop up anew when it has slid from memory. I shall advise you soonest when we have information of more substance.

- J

 

This was looking more and more like what James and I both suspected, but cared not dare utter. There was no need for me to worry now. Everything that was happening was going correctly, regardless of whether or not we were right or wrong. At least, I hoped they were going correctly. I was sick of walking, so I called a cab.

 

I hailed a particularly shabby looking one. I didnt care how it looked, I just wanted to get off my feet. Without any more then glancing at me, the cabby pulled up to the curb where I waited and pulled the lever to open the door. His horse relieved himself on the pavement. The tired looking young man in the driver's seat spat on the sidewalk, and then looked at me. "Where does ye wants ta gooowwhhaaooa!!! Well Ill be a bloody taffer!! Beggen yer pardon, but what would a rich lard such as yerself be doin ailin a rickety ol cab like mine ere?

 

"Just consider me a patron of the working class, good sir. Please, to The Circle of Stone and Shadow, and make haste."

 

"Aye ser! I shant spare the whip ser!" With a crack of his whip horse broke into a gallop. A shame, since I wasnt even in my seat yet. Ouch.

 

 

- Lytha: Brother Surgeon - Day 4: 10:00am

 

A bright light shone in my eyes. I opened them, squinting into the light. Five faces stared into my face. My arms and legs were kept in their position by some straps.

 

"Since we do not know by whom she hadst been sent, we do not want her crippled. Do a good job, Brother Surgeon." A young, intelligent voice spoke from the background.

 

Hands reached for my left shoulder and elbow, keeping me from moving the arm. The bright pain of metal in the flesh of the arm. The sharp, heavy pain of nails in the bone. They made a metal splint, bolted directly into the arm. All went black.

 

 

- Nightfall: At the Office - Day 4: 10:00am

 

It strikes me as ironic how my office is half the size of Jamess flat, contains nearly the same amount of information, yet somehow manages to remain spotless and orderly. This was of course the fault of my secretary, Sheam, a young female ex-street urchin, ex-wench, whom I noticed reading a novel in her hovel. While other street-scum were out begging for food, she had her nose buried in The Winds of Change. Though the activity may seem a tad insane to most, I saw her as the perfect choice for a person to keep my office in order. I hired her, and now the once dirty little street rat has a well paying job, comfortable shelter, and three square meals a day. See what education can do for you if the right person finds you? Ive also come to the conclusion that a good percentage of The Circles guests (not the majority by far, mind you, but quite a few) do not come to browse the displays, but chat with the owners pretty secretary. I didnt mind. After all, she enjoyed it, and a happy employee is a productive employee!

 

She looked up from the stack of papers she was sorting. "Daneel, theres a letter for you here" She handed it to me. "And please tell those Hammerite delivery boys that its impolite to stare."

 

I shook my head, smiling, and took the letter from her hand, disappearing into my office, all the while trying to contain my laughter. Oh, joy, a message from the Hammers.

 

MEMO- 09.08 08.23

DISPATCH NUMBER 475125462

ORDER OF THE HAMMER

COURIER REGISTRY 54-AF

 

FROM:

RAFAEL MORTANGRO STEINKLAW,

HIGH PRIEST, THE ORDER OF THE HAMMER

LORD OF STEINKLAW MANOR

 

TO:

DANEEL TODULEM, ALIAS "NIGHTFALL"

MASTER, THE CIRCLE OF STONE AND SHADOW

LORD OF UNNAMED ESTATE, REGESTRY NUMBER 543-AD4

 

OUR SCOUTS HAVE RETURNED FROM INVESTIGATING THE STRUCTURE, THE LOCATION AND NATURE OF WHICH YOU INDICATED TO US DURING THE EMERGENCY SESSION OF THE HIGH COUNCIL OF THE ORDER OF THE HAMMER ON 09.07. YOUR SUSPICIONS WERE CORRECT. SAID STRUCTURE DOES EXIST, AND IT BEARS THE MARKINGS OF OUR ENEMIES, THE FOLLOWERS OF THE NOW DECEASED TRICKSTER, THE PAGANS. HOWEVER THE BUILDING SEEMS TO BE ABANDONED, SAVE ONE WOMAN WE FOUND TRESPASSING ON THE RESIDENCE. THIS WOMAN APPEARED TO BE A THIEF, WHOM WE CAUGHT DURING HER RAID. SHE WAS CONVICTED ON FIVE ACCOUNTS OF RESISTING ARREST, BREAKING AND ENTERING, TRESPASSING, THEFT, BEARING FALSE WITNESS, AND CONCEALMENT OF EVIDENCE. SO FAR ALL OUR INTERROGATIONS OF HER HAVE ONLY PRODUCED HER NAME, "LYTHA". WE SUSPECT THAT THIS IS NOT HER TRUE NAME. THIS WOMAN IS ALSO SUSPECTED TO BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE BURGLARY OF THE WESTERN BRANCH MONASTARY SEVERAL WEEKS AGO. SHE IS BEING INTERROGATED FOR INFORMATION INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE FOLLOWING TOPICS: HER PRESENCE IN THE STRUCTURE, HER POSSIBLE INVOLVEMENT WITH THE PAGANS WHO MADE RESIDENCE THERE, THE LOCATION OF THE EVIDENCE SHE UNDOUBTEDLY STOLE FROM THE RESIDENCE AND IS NOW CONCEALING, THE METHOD IN WHICH SHE BROKE INTO THE MONASTARY (SO THAT CORRECTIVE SECURITY MEASURES MAY BE TAKEN), THE NUMBER OF, NAMES OF, AND LOCATION OF ALL HER CONSPIRATORS AND CO-CONSPIRATORS, AND ANY AND ALL OTHER INFORMATION WHICH MAY SERVE US IN DETERMINING HER PAST CRIMES, THUS INFLUENCING THE SEVERITY OF HER PUNISHMENT, AND THE METHOD OF HER EXECUTION.

 

AT NOON TODAY, THE TASK FORCE, WHICH HAS BEEN ORDERED TO DEMOLISH THIS STRUCTURE SHALL SET OUT ON ITS JOURNEY. I ASK THAT YOU BE THERE, AND ACCOMPANY THE FORCE DURING THE ENTIRETY OF ITS MISSION. YOUR ABSENCE FROM THIS EVENT SHALL BE CONSIDERED A DIRECT INSULT TO THIS ORDER, AND WILL BE ANSWERED ACCORDINGLY.

 

IN THE MASTER BUILDERS NAME,

LORD RAFAEL MORTANGRO STEINKLAW,

HIGH PRIEST,

FIRST IN THE ORDER OF THE HAMMER

 

I felt like ripping the letter to shreds, I was so angry. There are times when I respected the Order of the Hammer, and times when I hate them with extreme prejudice. Right now I felt the latter. Lytha, the poor old woman who lived in the forest, and warned me about the dangers of The Lady, was going to die a slow painful death at the hands of those monsters, and it was a result of my actions. I had to do something. Should I risk blowing my cover to save but one life, and endanger countless others whom I shelter if the Hammers realize my allegiances to the underworld? Sheam cut my contemplation short.

 

"Master, there is a man here to see you."

 

I was tempted to ask her to send him away, but I needed something to take my mind off of the problem at hand. It was most likely some rookie thief proudly asking for me to display the stuffed burrick head he stole. "Send him in," I told her.

 

She paused, seeing the disturbed look in my eyes. "Are are you all right, Daneel?"

 

"Im fine, Sheam... just the usual Hammerite propaganda. It gets to me sometimes."

 

She nodded, not believing that lie for a second. She turned her head and motioned to a man standing by her desk to come in. "Master Nightfall, Captain Els."

 

I stood at the name of Jyres friend. The man walked in, his face pale and dirty, with dark circles under his eyes. He wore a half a suit of badly beaten scale mail armor. I immediately extended my hand to greet him. "Captain Els, it is a pleasure to finally meet the companion of Jyre. Please, have a seat."

 

He took my hand and gave it a weak shake. "Thank you sire, the pleasure is all mine."

 

"Not sire, please, Master Nightfall if anything so formal."

 

He smiled a little, "Yes, Master Nightfall." He looked like he was about to decline my offer to sit, but after glancing at the leather chair, and realizing how tired he was, he plopped himself down. I sat as well.

 

"What brings you here? I trust Jyre is all right she left in quite a hurry last time I saw her."

 

He looked like he was about to say something, but then stopped, thinking better of it. He then opened his mouth to speak once more, paused, and closed it again. Finally he tried to say something, but instead of words, out came a torrent of coughs and chokes.

 

"Sheam, get Els something for his cough, quickly!"

 

She nodded from her desk outside my door, and ran off.

 

Els finally came out of it "Please excuse me, I am still still recovering."

 

"Think nothing of it. Sheam will get you something to help."

 

He smiled and nodded a thank you.

 

"Now, your reason for the visit?"

 

"Oh yes, Jyre "

 

I was becoming outwardly restless at his lack of words to describe what was going on, when he suddenly seemed to remember something.

He produced a letter from his belt. "This will explain everything." He said after I took it from his hand. I unfolded it, and read it.

 


Chapter 5 - Preparations and Prosecutions

 

- Nightfall: Jyre's Rendezvous - Day 4: 10:10am

 

The letter was not written by Jyre. The grammar was proper and it was written in script rather then text. Being as such, I wasn't sure if it had actually come from her, or if this was even Captain Els before me. Thankfully I am not nearly that paranoid.

 

Master Nightfall,

 

This letter comes to you via my trusted friend, Els, and is written in his fair hand. The reason for the first will become apparent as you read on. As for the latter, I feel it is important that every detail of my day be passed on to you and I fear my own ability with words would make such a thing impossible.

 

Let me start by telling you that after bumping in to you this morning I proceeded to the market where I had myself a wander and, I must admit, picked a few pockets along the way. Feeling a thirst in my throat from the heat I took myself to the Red Dragon Inn, where I ordered myself an orange juice (Jyre does not consume alcohol. She claims it is bad for the reflexes - Els). I had just taken a quiet seat at an out-of-the-way table when a rather portly man sat himself down beside me without so much as a 'by your leave'! I was not even given the chance to object before he spoke.

 

"Allow me to introduce myself." He held out a hand, which I ignored. If I said how he sounded smarmy would you understand my meaning? His response to my refusal was a twitter. "I am Ramirez. Perhaps you have heard of me?"

 

Oh, I had heard of him all right. During my time in the guard he had been described, if you will excuse my language, as a pompous bastard. His staff was underpaid (I had heard rumors that his guard got but half the pay of the Lady's own - Els). He was considered by many as somewhat of a money-hungry dandy. And if that wasn't bad enough I had heard tell that, during my time away, he had gotten himself on the wrong side of a notorious thief called Garrett and was robbed by the man in his own home!

 

I looked this Ramirez up and down and wondered what one such as he was doing in a dark, smoky tavern that had a reputation for being a hangout for the city lowlife. He had a light weight hooded cloak draped over him and was sat with his shoulders hunched up, no doubt trying to be inconspicuous but failing miserably.

 

"Leave me be." I turned my back to him and took a sip of my juice.

 

"I have information concerning a certain female acquaintance of ours."

 

I guess he meant for his words to sound intriguing but his tone only made me want to laugh. "Of course you do." My sarcasm bit. Deep.

 

"Don't pass me up on this, Jyre. It would bode ill for you."

 

I spun around to face him. "How?"

 

He smirked. "You're getting quite a reputation for yourself. I'd be careful if I were you, lest the wrong person hear of it." I recognized the threat for what it was and despised it. Only the lowliest coward had need of such things. "Spit it out, Ramirez." I didn't try to mask the anger in my words.

 

"I have heard that you are seeking information on a former employer of yours..."

 

Blackmail? I wondered. I asked out loud, "You want money, Ramirez? Take a good look. Do I look like I've got money?"

Ramirez shook his head. "I am not interested in your money, though I won't deny I will profit if you take this up." Just then a passer-by jostled our table. Ramirez actually flinched! I couldn't help but laugh.

 

"What's wrong? Afraid Garrett might come after you again? Last I heard he'd gone into early retirement."

 

Ramirez pulled in his paunch and squared his shoulders, trying to prove he wasn't afraid. I wasn't fooled. "It is not fitting for a man of my standing to be seen in such company," he muttered. It was a lousy excuse.

 

"No. We're too good for you!" You should have seen his face when I said that. It was comical! But I digress. I took another sip of my juice and waited. He never spoke. "Are you going to tell me why you're here or not?"

 

He leant forward and lowered his voice. "The family of our esteemed acquaintance used to reside in the abandoned quarter."

 

"So?" I didn't get it.

 

"It is said they left in a great hurry. Many things were left behind in the confusion. Books, letters, scrolls. All abandoned."

 

"And much treasure, no doubt." I tried not to let my growing interest show.

 

"That too. I would pay you commission on any such that you find."

 

'So far, so good,' I thought to myself. Only one thing remained unsaid. "Rumor would have it that the abandoned quarter is haunted."

 

"Oh, indeed." Ramirez actually sounded pleased! "But it is not so bad as it once was. Garrett managed to deal a great deal of damage when he passed through. I will, of course, provide suitable provisions just in case you should stumble across one of the few remaining undead."

 

"You have a map?"

 

"My source was unable to acquire one. Just a brief description of the area. The house you seek is opposite the cloister gates of the deserted cathedral. It is a large house, not easily missed. Interested?"

 

I was nodding before I realized I had made a decision! Within the hour Ramirez had supplied me with water and fire crystals, as well as a half-dozen flash bombs. I returned to my small abode to inform both Els and yourself of this development. By the time this letter reaches you I will already have left. I will be in touch again as soon, as is possible.

 

Your servant,

Jyre.

 

Refolding the letter, I looked up at him grimly. He read the expression on my face all too well.

 

"Shes in grave danger, isnt she."

 

I nodded. "Ramirez is the last person in this city to trust. He would turn in his own mother if there were a bounty on her. Doing any job for him is ill-advised, let alone in the forbidden sector. He's also a total coward. About a month before I came to The City he was robbed blind and publicly humiliated. He was bedridden for weeks after being thrown in with his own pet burrick. As soon as he was well, he sold his mansion, and moved to Southquarter. That was rather lucky for me, considering that The Circle would have been in his territory had he not sold it to the much more wise and honorable Lord Canard. His mansion is a few blocks from here, and now acts as a funeral home."

 

He broke into another coughing fit, just as Sheam came in with a steaming mug. "Here, sip this," she said, handing it to him. As soon as he caught his breath, he took a sip, and his eyes lit up.

 

A sound of pure delight and relief came from him. "What -- what is this?" he asked her.

 

She just smiled and walked out.

 

He looked at the swirling steamy liquid. It seemed to have a slight yellowish-orange glow to it.

 

Just a little something she likes to whip up, I said with half a laugh. In diluted form it works wonders to soothe the throat. In its normal form, the drinker is in for quite a ride.

 

The captain didnt seem too worried about Jyre anymore, he was just interested in this strange liquid he was now sipping. "Captain Els?" Maybe Sheam made it just a little too strong.

 

"Huh? Whahh..?" Yes, much too strong.

 

I spoke calmly. "I suggest that you make haste in rescuing Jyre. She is in grave danger. You know the way. I would leave now if I were you. Ask Sheam and she can tell you who to go to for supplies, and some aid for your ailment. Tell them that Master Nightfall sent you, and they will send the bill to me. Go, now."

 

 

- Lytha: The Cell - Day 4: 11:00am

 

My face was on the cold stone floor. I twitched, scared by the cold feeling and the pain in my left side. I tried to put myself in an upright position, but the chains between my hands hindered my attempt. Both feet and hands were shackled.

 

I looked around the place. I was in a very small cell, lightened by a very intense electrical light. It flickered irregularly. Walls and ceiling and floor were made of solid stone. Behind the bars of the door, I could see into the opposite cell. A very tall, ugly man was there imprisoned, staring at me.

 

 

- Ghost: Patron of The Circle - Day 4: 11:00am

 

To The Circle I went, Star in hand. There are some facts about the world that the vast majority of the people are totally blind to. These things often come naturally to thieves - one who wants to stay alive, anyway. A good thief with his ear to the streets just knows things, if you know what I mean. One of them is the plain and simple fact that The Circle of Stone and Shadow was not really a museum. Well, it was, but if you called it that, it would be only half the truth. Every criminal organization needs a nerve center, and The Circle was Master Nightfalls. Normal people like to visit it and browse through the galleries of art, treasures, and literature, rather unaware that all of the stuff had, at one time, been stolen.

 

The Circle, as it is usually referred to, (some people, who want to sound intelligent or something, call it CoSaS) is seated in Hightowne, an area of The City between the business district and the wealthy suburban area. The building sat in the middle of a very large circular yard. There was at least an acre of land between it and the fence. The yard was nice and grassy, with a few park benches here and there. Cute. The Circle itself was roundish, shaped pretty much like a gear. There were eight vaulted structures arranged in a radial pattern around a central two-story chamber. It was simple and functional, and actually rather bland looking. The building had actually been here for years, pretty much derelict, until Nightfall began renting it. I heard that the landlord was charging almost nothing for him to use the place. I had no idea what it had been used for before it was abandoned.

 

I stepped inside and reacquainted myself with the layout of this place. It was nice of them to have a stack of maps right by the doorway. The layout was pretty simple, really. Each wing had a different feature in it, be it a museum, library, art gallery, or whatever. The northernmost wing had the label 'Executive' on it. I figured that was a fancy way of saying boss. Nightfall was probably hanging out in there. On my way there I checked some of the news posts tacked up in the central ring, where most of the other guests were loitering. Yes, this place was a news center too. I didn't notice anything really new.

 

After briefly glancing at the posts, making note of any new news, I continued on my way to Nightfalls office. In a sort of pre-chamber to his office was another office, and in it sat a young attractive girl in her early twenties. Resisting the obvious urge, I simply stated my business. I pulled the Star from my pocket. "Im here to deliver this to Nightfall," I exclaimed dryly, if that's even possible.

 

She looked up with those big green eyes. "The Master is currently seeing someone. He should be done in just a moment." Truly, I wouldnt have minded waiting in that room at all. Unfortunately the guy who was chatting with Nightfall staggered through the door.

 

"Immm " he blinked several times, and then took hold of the wall to keep his balance. "Mas-.. umm.. Master Nightfall says that you will take me to gear up." I wondered what was wrong with the bloke. He looked like he was slowly recovering from something, or maybe dying.

 

She nodded to him, and guided him out of the office and down the hall. As she went she told me that I could go in now. Damn, I hope that Nightfall sends me with her to go gear up too!

 

I walked in.

 

"Ah yes, come in Ghost. I trust you have the - "

 

I whipped the necklace up into his face. The guy smirked at it, and took it out of my hand with that black glove of his. "Excellent, I shall set it up tonight. Thank you Ghost."

 

"Hey, no problem! Just as long as this tribute to me and such pays off!"

 

He suddenly started to concentrate heavily. It bugged me, badly. "Ghost, are you occupied tonight?"

 

"Yes actually," I told him. Without thinking I babbled on. "I need to get into Cragscleft."

 

He dumped himself back into his chair, with an astonished look on his face. "Perfect."

 

He sprung to his feet and I jumped back about two inches.

 

"Ill give you one thousand gold coins if you break out another prisoner for me."

 

Okay, my jaw doesnt normally drop, but it just did. "Who?" was all I could say.

 

"A friend of mine. Shes being held in the maximum-security interrogation hall. Thats why the pay is so high."

 

"The price is right." I told him with a grin.

 

"Excellent. Time is short. I dont want her to suffer any more then she has to. I shall reimburse you for any equipment you expend during this mission."

 

I was starting to like this Nightfall character after all. Free gear, an ultra challenging jailbreak of a damsel in distress, and a huge reward. Money, women, and adventure, what more could I ask for? It was time to kick some serious Hammerite ass.

 

 

- Jyre: Where Angels Fear to Tread - Day 4: 12:00pm

 

I stood before the wall that separated the forbidden sector from the rest of the city. Its shadow eclipsed me, bringing up goose bumps on my arms. Just standing there I could feel the evil of the place. I turned my eyes to the sky and spotted the sun through a thin veil of clouds. It would hit its zenith within the hour. Lowering my eyes, I looked back across the city towards home. With a bit of luck, Els would be with Master Nightfall by now. His illness was truly beginning to worry me. Despite the healer's potions and advice, Els' condition had badly deteriorated over the last day or so. It was more than just a cold, I was sure of it, but Els refused further aid. I had sent him to Master Nightfall with the hope that he would receive some sort of medical attention.

 

With a sigh I turned back to study the wall. It was constructed from large blocks of gray stone, now mottled and covered in patches of green and yellow moss. It seemed to like the shade and damp that hung here. What was surprising was the fact that the wall still stood at all. With the moisture so prevalent I would have thought the mortar would have crumbled and the wall collapsed long ago. The only reasonable conclusion was that the magic they said had been placed on the wall, was a reality.

 

I checked my provisions again. Food, flash-bombs, holy water vials and water arrows. As well as charcoal and paper for making notes. My magic bow I had strapped to my inner thigh and my lock-picks were tucked safely into the concealed pocket in my belt. If what Ramirez had told me was true, and I had no reason to believe otherwise, this would be a cinch. I tucked my toes into a small crevice near the base of the wall, felt for handholds above and began to climb.

 

 

- Lytha: Yes, Father Inquisitor - Day 4: 12:00pm

 

They had come, two of them. They had taken me from the cell, and dragged me through a long hallway. Behind a metal door was a torture chamber. Most of all, the draining grid on the floor caught my attention. It had blood on it. It was then when my mind was hit with the stench of excrement and gastric acid. I started to shake.

 

In a corner of this room, was a desk with a young man behind it. A large fan was behind him blowing in fresh air. They pushed me down to my knees in front of the desk and stepped back. The young man wore the clothes of an official Hammerite priest. He continued his studies of the papers on the desk. The desk was very tidy, the papers and pens were arranged in a very penile way. Its tidiness looked obscene in this room, in this smell.

 

After some more minutes reading, he looked up and at my face.

 

"I am your Inquisitor. You will address me correctly with 'Father Inquisitor.' The rules are simple. You obey and cooperate, and you will be rewarded. Otherwise you will be punished. Is this clear enough?"

 

I simply stared at him. His voice did not match his profession. It sounded so young, and so intelligent. He didnt even use those annoying archaic thys and shalts. I couldn't believe this. A lash from behind brought me back from my thoughts. I nodded.

 

"Good. I am not fond of the usual brutal way to get information, but I know when force is needed, and I do not hesitate to use it. I believe you have the ability to speak?"

 

I nodded slowly. He sighed, and gave the guard behind me a sign. Another lash.

 

"You do want to go through all of this, only to agree that you can speak? So, can you?"

 

Whipped again, I pressed a "yes" through my lips.

 

"Ah, you can. So, I think we can continue. What is your name?"

 

 

- Ghost: Breaking into Prison - Day 4: 12:00pm

 

I was feeling much better now that I didn't have that chunk of jewelry on me. I'd hate to get stopped by the Hammers with that trinket in my pocket. Now I had some cash from the sale and an agenda I really didn't even have time to plan for. I had to get into Cragscleft. That was something most people wouldn't even consider; not on a very large bet. Planning for such an event takes time, money, maps, contacts, spying, more time, research and a hundred other things I didn't have. I only had a day at best to gather info, spy a bit to figure out how to get in, formulate a plan, gather my gear, and then go to it, before this "Lytha" ended up dead. It would be best to get her out in one piece, and breathing, since payment is more likely that way. I didn't know anyone who had a clue about Crags. No one had ever made it out before that I knew of. Well, they say that Garrett did, but they also say that he killed a god. What a load of rubbish. The Hammerites had recently remodeled anyway. Leave it to the Hammers to decide the prison wasn't big enough, and expand it four floors below the ground by clearing out some old mines.

 

I was in the middle of lunch when it just clicked in my head. Mines have to have airways! They may not have been big enough for me to squeeze into, but it was worth a shot. Getting out would have to be improvised. I didn't know what kind of condition Lytha or Ragbert were in. If neither could walk this was going to be a horrible rescue. With that on my mind I headed to the local Hammerite library. I needed to look up a little bit of mining history.

 

 

- Nightfall: A Little Hammerite Party - Day 4: 12:05pm

 

Being stylishly tardy has always been a hobby of mine. Even a mere five minutes, if its with the correct person, is enough to get your host steamed without getting them totally angry. In some situations the inverse is true, where being tardy was helpful, such as to dinner arrangements. To formal dinners and such it would be polite to come at lest 10 minutes late (at most 40), so that it would give the host the extra minutes to get everything just so. However this was not a dinner arrangement, nor was I looking to be polite. The Hammerites were obsessed about time ever since the clock was invented (a perfect use for gears). But that is rather like the pot calling the kettle black, seeing as Ive been known to check my pocket watch at least three times every hour, and usually more.

 

I exited The City, traveling to the rendezvous point by the edge of the forest. I couldnt miss it. A Hammerite army had gathered, with the high command here as well, to see them off. The whole thing was a good hundred yards away from the city wall. There was sort of a grassy field here, or used to be. The ground was marred and bruised by having large equipment rolled over it, as well as the stomp marks of marching Hammerite troops. There had been a short downpour this morning, so the ground was wet, and every depression made a puddle, and thus mud. My boots were covered with the stuff. I hated mud. The sun was high, which was natural, seeing as it was noon. The sun was also hot, also natural seeing as it was summer. The sun's hot rays hit the wet ground. The natural thing happened. There was steam, and plenty of it. I hated steam even more then I hated mud. I did not enjoy anything dirty, and sticky, and slimy.

 

Taking my mind off the state of the environment, I cast my eyes across the task force. Closest to me was a sort of platform, newly constructed, where several Hammerite priests were standing and sitting. After that, there was a mass of Hammerite troops, some standing in ranks, others marching. Closest to the forest were four large machines, the nature of which I couldnt make out from this distance, with Hammerite workers all over them. I made my way closer, and observed as I went.

 

The platform was raised five feet above the ground, and spanned about fifty feet square. There was a simple railing built along the edge, opening where there was a stairway to the ground. Where there were no stairs, various banners were hung, forming a sort of wall enclosing the area beneath the platform. I could see the sap in the wood of the platforms legs, still bleeding from the freshly made ax cuts. I saw the High Priest standing on the platform, facing away from me, along with five other Hammerite priests. The five were sitting around a table, with a large map laid out upon it. It was above my eye level, but I could see the edges draped over the sides of the table, and it was a map all right. They seemed to be charting a course of least resistance through the woods, to the lodge, a good ten miles away. That would be quite a long walk by any standards. I imagined that those machines would slow it down quite a bit as well.

 

I just paused and watched the High priest for a moment. I was at the platform, and he hadnt seen me yet. None of them had. He looked even more pompous and arrogant then the Baron, though quite a bit more physically fit. He was tapping his foot impatiently, overseeing the preparations. I cast my gaze to the marching soldiers. They made no indication that they had seen me either, though even if they had, I didnt think they would show it. Its called discipline. There were quite a number of them, at least seventy troops and officers. They marched about, ripping the underfoot grass as they went to and fro in those cute Hammerite formations of theirs. My observations were cut short by a voice from the platform.

 

I looked up to see the High Priest talking to Thurm, who had risen from the table. "Brother Thurm, Nightfall has arrived, late as expected. Thou shalt now spearhead this effort, while I return to the Cathedral, to tend to more pressing matters. Nightfall shall be thy second in command, just as thou hast been to me."

 

"In the Builders name, I do as thee command of me, High Priest." Brother Thurm bowed to him as he said this, and then bowed to me. I nodded a quick bow back to him, and then casually walked to the platform, and up the stairs, taking care to knock as much mud off my soles as possible. As I reached the top, the High Priest suddenly turned around, still not having so much as glanced at me, and walked down the stair on the other side of the platform.

 

I approached Brother Thurm. "Is there something troubling the High Priest?" I was simply curious as to what he would say. I knew exactly what was eating at the man. I was.

 

"I know not," he said, "I trust that it is the task at hand which troubles him. Many of us fear that there is far more at work here then simply a lone pagan."

 

I nodded, truly sharing the concern. Brother Thurm didnt know the half of it. I had worked with Thurm before. Here was a man I could actually respect. His loyalty to the order and the Master Builder were, while misplaced, admirable. His passion for knowledge and science were undeniable. He was the only Hammerite priest I had ever seen truly jubilant about his work. Most are so cold and indifferent, but Thurm took joy in his tasks, and I liked that about him. His post as commander of this operation was clear. He had designed the four machines sitting between the platform and the woods edge!

 

"Brother Thurm, what is the nature of these, machines," I said, with sincere curiosity, for I had not yet gotten a chance to examine them.

 

He smiled broadly. "Ah, well. These two, which thee sees closest to us, are designed to demolish unwanted structures. This is indeed old technology, however, in the past there have been much larger machines built on site, and then dismantled when the job is finished. These new versions are completely mobile. They are smaller, and less powerful, but the time saved by not having to construct them makes up for the loss!" I looked with wonder at the massive twenty foot tall machine. It was mounted on a rotating platform, with eight large wheels underneath. On each side there was an arm -- four of them, and at the end of each arm was a device of destruction: a claw, a wrecking ball, a battering ram, and a massive drill. To one side of the machine was a larger version of the steam powered locomotive which I rode in the other day. Both machines were crawling with Hammerite workers, as they prepared it for transport.

 

"Thurm, how are you going to get these machines to the lodge?"

 

He smiled, delighted I asked. "Why, the road, of course!"

 

"Road?"

 

"Yes! We are building one."

 

If he had grinned any wider his eyes would have fallen out. Well, maybe not, but something weird would have happened. My response consisted of both an extremely fake look of surprise, and delight.

 

"Those two machines up by the forest are specifically designed for clearing land!" He pointed proudly. The two he was referring to appeared to be quite similar to the machines that were towing the demolition equipment. The only difference was a large plate affixed to the front of the machine. This plate had two surfaces which met at a sharp angle in the center. It was obvious how it worked. The machine moved forward, and every tree that was hit by the plate was thrust to either side and down, to its death. It was sad, really. There was a time when a man needed to sweat in order to defeat a tree. Now all he had to do was pull levers and sit and watch.

 

I quickly shook that mindset away. The last thing I needed to be was a woodsie sympathizer. "Amazing," I said to Thurm, with only slightly more then a shred of sincerity.

 

"Yes, they are quite an accomplishment." I could tell he was bubbling with pride. "And to think, three months ago none of this was possible! Why, by this time next year, THINK of what will be accomplished!" He put his hand on my shoulder. "Nightfall, I believe a new age is upon us. I can feel it. A new age of prosperity for our Order. An age of invention, of discovery. Aa a METAL age!" He looked back at his mechanical creations and made several loud grunting noises, then crossed his arms across his chest and nodded proudly. I just looked at him, trying to smile. "By this time, three days from now, we shall be at the lodge." He looked back at me. "There you shall see these creatures of metal doing what the Master Builder guided me to create them to do!"

 

I dont know why I felt so grim. This, after all, is what I intended. If it was simply a lone pagan, then the Hammerites would get their example, and Jyre her vengeance. If it was truly as bad as James and I feared, then we would need the Hammerites to fight this "Lady". There was little doubt in my mind that not much could defeat a Hammerite army of this magnitude. More troops were planned to follow, and arrive at the scene just as the equipment did. Then all would pounce on the building, and not rest until every stone was turned to dust, and every beam splintered. It was a well planned operation that would be executed with extreme proficiency. This was a win-win situation. I had to keep telling myself that. I kept my fingers crossed nevertheless.

 

And still I worried about Jyre and Lytha.

 

 

- Ghost: Study Hall - Day 4: 1:00pm

 

Well here I was, the Hammerite Library. I knew they wouldn't just let me in to peruse their blueprints or old documents, so I entered by way of the service entrance, also known as the second floor window. Luckily this place wasn't busy, so getting around was pretty easy. It's good advice to take advantage of things while they are easy. Sadly, I had no idea how this library was laid out. All I managed to dig up were some old maps of the mines before they rebuilt the prison and some notes on construction, which didn't tell me a whole lot. So I got out with my maps and went to spy on the area around the prison to see if I could find anything good.

 


Chapter 6 - Following in the Footsteps of a Legend

 

- Ghost: Casing the Joint - Day 4: 3:00pm

 

"Okay, the front door seems out of the question, as usual," I told myself as I noted the small army of Hammers standing around. I made the trip down to Cragscleft in order to scope the place out, and see what needed to be brought along on this heist. They now used the old mine opening as the entrance to the rebuilt jail. This meant two things to me. First, the Hammerite barracks were by the front door, to stop massive escapes, and so, in case of emergencies, they could all get out easily. Secondly, I would need a lot of help to get in or out that way. I pinpointed my location on the maps I brought.

 

I went a little higher up the hill and spotted something interesting. It was a small opening. It was maybe three feet wide, filled with a fan spinning away, pulling fresh air into the deeper part of the complex. After I noticed that one, I noted several more all along the side of the cliff. I presumed that those brought air to different parts of the prison. I wouldn't be able to bring a lot of gear with me since the hole was so small, but at least I could personally fit. At best, I could dragged a small bag of toys with me, but a bow or sword were out of the question. Those vents were to be my way in. I hoped they didn't lead to the dining room or something. As soon as I got in, it would only be a matter of finding my fence and Nightfall's chick. Piece of cake. "Time to go shopping!" I rolled up my maps and jogged back to town.

 

 

- Lytha: Break the Will - Day 4: 6:00pm

 

He sighed, once again.

 

"I do not want to do this, but you were really not very cooperative."

 

I lay on the floor, face down. I had lost conscious once or twice. I don't remember. My back was numb now. I could smell my own blood.

 

I heard the footsteps of the guards behind me. They came closer, and I felt their hands at my arms. They brought me back on my feet.

"You have broken the rule of cooperation, Lytha. Personally, I hate the thought of what we will do to you now, but the laws instruct me to break first the body, then the mind. I wish you a good night, though."

 

They dragged me back into the cell blocks. I found myself in the opposite cell from where I awoke earlier. Laying on my back, I heard the locking of the door, and the leaving footsteps of the guards.

 

I blinked into the dim light. I made a figure out in the corner of the cell. It was that tall man who I had noticed earlier. I saw him grin, and behind his lips was the largest set of yellow teeth I had ever seen. He stared at me with this horrible grin. I shrunk back. I knew and I feared what he was going to do. My hands and feet were still in chains, no chance in a fight. He rose to his feet, and stepped closer, without a single word. I had my back at the door, could not back any further. He was so close that I could smell his breath in my face. I could simply stare at him, at his teeth.

 

In a sudden movement, he reached out and pushed me on the floor. Struggling to come free, I tried to kick him. But he was already over me. With his entire weight, he pressed me down to the floor, grabbing my hair with the left, pulling my head back. I felt the cold stone at my cheek. And then the pain, when he bit and hit me. I felt helpless. So absolutely helpless. I could not even scratch him, or wind myself out off his hold, with my hands in chains. He pressed me down, he torn my clothes, and I could not even cry. Trying to repress everything, I formed a fist with my hand, so strong that it hurt. And then my head seemed to explode. He had started to hit it down to the floor. All went black, again. The last feeling was the sharp pain when he -

 

 

- Ghost: Shipping And Receiving - Day 4: 6:00pm

 

"Wakey wakey!" I shouted as I banged on the door. Quenton rubbed his eyes as he opened the door. I continued, "How in the hell can you still be sleeping? It's almost dark out!" I let myself in.

 

He looked confused but grumbled something about working late and playing cards all night.

 

"I need some gear, and you're the only one I could think of who can get a few things I need in short notice, even though your prices are way too high."

 

"What ya need this time?" he asked, looking a little scared at what the answer might be.

 

"I need some gas mines, a few flash bombs, a pair of those boots with the secret compartment in the heels, the smallest lock picks you can find and a jar of that paste I used that time...and anything else you can think I need for a suicide mission."

 

He had a stunned look on his face but knew better than to ask what I was up to. Instead he staggered into the back room and emerged a moment later with a small box and a pair of boots. He threw the boots at me and said "Try them on." He opened the box and pulled out a small bottle and set it on the table. "That's yer glue, you 'member how ta use it?" He set out a small pouch of tools, grinning stupidly and giving off a chuckle, because those definitely were the smallest ones I'd ever seen. "How soon do ya need the mines and flashers?"

 

"Yes I know how to use the glue, and I need the gear now, or as close to now as you can get, no later than tomorrow morning, I'm in a little bit of a rush." Quenton winced visibly and said exactly what I knew he would -- "I can get 'em in a couple hours...but it's gonna cost ya."

 

"So typical," I answered, but I needed the stuff now. "Fine, whatever, just deliver them to me as soon as you get your hands on them, cash on delivery. I'll be taking this other stuff now as a deposit to keep you from forgetting." Grabbing my stuff I headed for the door without another word.

 

 

- Jyre: Betrayed - Day 4: 6:00pm

 

I could feel its presence behind me as I fled through the door and down the desolate street. Its groans were a constant echo in my ears. I didn't know where I ran and I couldn't see where I was going. All I knew was that I had to get away! My foot caught on a crack in the stone walkway and I slammed into the ground with a thud. The wind was blasted from my lungs and I could feel blood on my palms where they had ripped open. I glanced over my shoulder as I scrambled to my feet and saw the sickening mockery of life that chased me, shambling closer. Even as I watched, a chunk of its rotting flesh fell from its body. I turned and ran again, plunging thoughtlessly into the nearest shadow. I ran straight into something solid and bounced back off. A second zombie now towered above me, its arms reaching for my throat. I scrambled quickly away, barely holding my feet, and darted into the ruins of a house across the street. Its walls were crumbled and in some places gone completely. But I wasn't overly concerned with that just at that moment. I looked up and saw the second floor.

 

Quickly I gaze around and found the half-collapsed staircase. I just hoped it would take my weight. The first few steps were gone completely so I had to scramble up. The wood moaned beneath my weight and I felt it bend. The groans of the zombies had reached the door. The first one stepped through just as I pulled myself onto the highest step. Seeing the state of the upper floor I began to sob. At least half the planks had rotted away completely to leave the thin plaster beneath. There were no walls and whatever other rooms had once been there were gone. I expected to feel the zombies' cold touch any second and waited, breath held. When I finally built up the courage to look down I found them milling about in confusion. Not once did they look up. I brought my fear back under control, wiped me eyes and crawled into a dark corner to wait for their moans to fade away.

 

I must have fallen asleep, for when I next looked at the sky the moon was well past its zenith. For one horrible second I almost believed in the Builder. Then I shook my head at my own foolishness. It was luck, nothing more. I dug into my pocket and pulled out an apple, which I began to munch. Then I took out my supply of paper and charcoal, which I had kept in my belt pocket, and crawled over to a lighter spot. My apple finished, I lifted my stick and began to record the days events.

 

Master Nightfall,

 

This to you I do write from the city of haunts. Forgive the badly shaping of my words but my hands do shake much from my small times here. It is bad. Very bad. Never should I have come here. The one of which I told, Ramirez, I fear he hath tricked me. To me he did tell that the haunts they do be much less now but when I does the wall climb I find many, many such dead. Back then I should have turned. Els, he did be right. Adventure it was I sought and so to continue I did. I sneaked and I crept and the shadows I did hug but nowhere did I see signs of where I be. I knew only that cathedral's rear did to the front of me be. Compass I use not but follow instead my feelings. The moans and the groans all around me they be'd and shiver my spine and chill my blood it did. And from the many doors to my ears did come the voices of many a dead one. In every bone I felt their pain and in every breath I feared it. So distracted did I be that see I not the zombie til almost I stood upon it. In my pack I did reach and turn my eyes did I. The flashbomb I did throw but came there no shriek. I look and there it be sitting much unchanged in the dirt. It was dud. Fake. The zombie groaned. I did me panic and run.

 

Away from it I did get and much relief I felt. I sat me in shadow and my pack unslung. From it did I take a flashbomb and xamin it I did. The trigger that the bang does make was gone! I took another and found the same. Zombie then did me surprise and the pack I did drop. I run again, much and long til this place of safeness did I reach. And now I do this letter pen, though fear I that reach you it never will. Still, it does me distract from the horrible groans that do me surround. More I will record later, if I do survive.

 

Your servant,

 

Jyre.

 

 

- Nightfall: An Unscheduled Rendezvous - Day 4: 9:00pm

 

In spite of Thurm's protests, I made it clear that I would rather sleep at home, and have to take the trip to and fro each day, than sleep with him in the command tent. That is what I was doing right now -- going home. It was late. My pocketwatch told me ten-thirty. No rest for the weary, however, for I spotted a sign that a drop box had a message for me. Sighing, I investigated. I found the letter posing as a piece of debris by the roadside. I picked it up, and, having nothing better to do, read it. It was from Sheam of all people.

 

Daneel,

 

I was helping Els pick out his equipment, as you asked, when he demanded that I let him go home to get something. I offered to go with him. He refused. I told him that I needed to get him some health potions first. He said that he hates the stuff, and never drinks it. I told him that he was in no condition to run across town and back to get only one item! He wouldnt even tell me what the item was! I told him that Id send a servant after it. He refused, and told me that no one should follow him when he went. I told him to at least get some equipment before he went, and he refused again! He left, and I was unable to stop him. I tried to follow him, but he lost me. Im sorry Daneel, I havent seen or heard from him since.

Sheam

 

This was just lovely. Hopefully Els would show back up, and not try and save Jyre in his current condition. I had to force myself to not be concerned. As much as I cared about what happened to those two, they were not the top priority. This was about more then just helping Jyre get her revenge. This "lady" posed a threat to The City. I was weary, and didnt want to think of it any longer. I wanted the day to end. One more thing had to happen though.

 

It happened when I was about halfway home. I was in a rather nondescript area of The City, not far from Lord Baffords manor, in fact. Suddenly I felt someone walking next to me. I glanced. I saw nothing. I kept on my way, sure that I had an unseen companion. I walked to a secluded corner, and there I stopped.

 

"You would be wise to heed thy past errors." I heard a voice say.

 

I knew it. It was a Keeper. Slowly I turned to face the man, asking "Why do you say that?"

 

The man in a black robe stepped out to where I could see him. "Many forces are at work here, but they all lead to one. Choose one path, not all, and follow it, and the key shall be apparent. If you walk too many paths, you doom yourself to hardship."

 

 

- Lytha: A Voice in the Dark - Day 4: 11:00pm

 

They had brought me back into the other cell.

 

I stared at the light, at its flickering. I could feel the blood running where he had bitten me. I was sore and bleeding. My back was numb. My clothes were torn. And I felt humiliated and hurt and helpless and alone.

 

"Lytha," someone spoke to me with the voice of my dead sister. The voice seemed to come from behind. It spoke very quietly, but sounded also very urgent. But I knew that there was only the stone wall, and that no one could be there. I ignored the voice.

 

The light went on, and off, and on, and off.

 

 

- Ghost: Undercover in Cragscleft - Day 5: 4:00am

 

A sharp knock on my door woke me from my nap. It was still dark outside. That was a good thing. Otherwise it would have had to of been a late night raid. I peeked out of the doorway to my home. I saw a bag sitting in front of my door, with no one in sight. I cracked open the door and flipped the bag open to see a few small boxes and more little bags. I grabbed it and left a bag of coins in the same spot for the messenger to take when I'm gone. I finished packing up what little I could bring with me. I threw on the boots I bought, with the worlds smallest picks in the left boot (I hope I can even use the things). I slung my pack over my shoulder and headed off for Cragscleft, expecting to make it there before the sun came up.

 

The prison loomed ahead of me. Just before sunrise it seemed almost serene, with only a handful of guards at the front gate and typical prison sounds. I probably should have thought more about a late night entrance through the front door. Even if I had, though, attracting the attention of only one guard would still have proven a bit difficult. The birds started chirping. I took that as my cue to head up to find a vent to make my way in.

 

Finally I was in an area which wasnt swarming with Hammerites looking for someone to grab. I made my way to the point where the rocky slope turns into a rock wall. I hoped I could get up to the vent without killing myself or getting spotted. I went down to a spot far away from the front door, where the noise from a fan suddenly stopping wouldn't be heard. I tied a short rope from my pack to my waist, so I could pull the pack up with me. With a running start I jumped and managed to grab the edge of the hole. I pulled myself up into the small crawl space. The fan was blocked by a small grating which easily popped away with a crowbar. This was the part that worried me. Did they have the fans on some kind of alarm if they stopped working? Even if not, would this make a ton of noise when I stopped it? I thought of jamming the crowbar into the blades to stop them long enough to clip the belt driving it, but I decided a big rock would work better. I jumped down to get one. A hauled up a nice big rock inside my pack. Back up to the fan, I closed my eyes and crossed my fingers. I slammed the rock into the blades of the fan, praying that the Builder was still sleeping.

 

CLANG!

 

"Oh my god they had to have heard that!" I wasn't sure if I screamed that out loud, or just in my head. It was hard to tell with my ears ringing like they were. Regaining some composure, I cut the belt driving the fan and proceeded to remove the blade section so I could get past it before the alarm sounded or the guards came running. I hadn't seen a Hammerite guard pop his head into this hole yet. Filled with paranoia, I carefully peered out, saw no one, and realized that they must not have heard it. I was confused and deaf, but happy. I tossed the rock out of the hole behind me, and set the blade by the edge of the hole. I also tied a thin rope to the grating so I could find my way back out this way if I had to.

 

I took what could be my last look at the free world, through the small opening in the side of the hill. I started my (hopefully) short climb into the hell these prisoners had to deal with. If I could manage it, I'd break them all out just to let the Hammers know who was really in charge here.

 

Air shafts all looked the same in the dark. Thank goodness for the thin white rope I trailed behind myself. After several minutes of sliding through the airways I was not even sure which way was up anymore. My muscles already hurt from trying to move slowly and quietly and trying to not drop the 10 feet to the next shaft intersection. Luckily for me, the Hammers were nice enough to add hand holds along some of the tunnels. I guess this was in case they had to repair the cables that bring power to the vent fans. Or maybe they had people chisel these tunnels by hand. They seemed too irregular for that, though.

 

Suddenly, after climbing for what seemed like hours, a faint light came into view to my left. I shuffled along the tunnel in my quietest shuffling fashion until I could peek out through the vent into the room below. "Hmm, no happy whistling guards or groups of Hammers waiting to kill me."

 

The vent popped off easily. I tied my rope to the corner of the grate so I could find my pack and my way out later. If I didn't come back for it they probably wouldn't find it for a while. I wasn't leaving much here anyway. I dropped down into the room, unpacked some things from my pack, threw it back into the shaft. Finally I replaced the vent cover.

 

The room looked like an average living space. It probably belonged to someone just above a guard, but no one really special. I cracked the door open. Peering out, I saw something I really hated seeing on a job like this: a nice, well-lit, hallway. "Oh man, these people are lame! Why couldn't this be a normal dismally lit prison?" The first thing I needed to do was figure out where I was. Then I needed to know where I needed to be. Finally I had to figure out how to turn off some of these lights, so I didn't get killed along the way. "Hmmm," what a thought, "maybe I don't need to turn out the lights.." I stepped back into the bedroom and rummaged through the closet for a uniform, hoping this guy was my size. A nice red uniform hung there. It was just a little too big. That was actually a good thing, since I was going to wear it over my own stuff. My boots, which I had to keep, were a little different from his, but I didn't plan to let anyone check me out that closely. I didn't look anything like the Hammerite I'd seen walking the streets. I decided that was just because this type of Hammerite didn't usually take strolls about town.

 

Feeling somewhat confident with my new attire, I stepped through the door into the world of the Hammerites. (I hoped they didnt mind my grizzled unshaven face, rather then that silly goatee they usually have.) The hallway to the right seemed unpopulated, so that's the way I went. I needed to find a stairway or elevator, so I could find a sign that told what floor I was on. I had to get to the fourth level, the maximum-security area, to find Lytha. I also needed to find where they were holding Ragbert. If all else failed, I could get Lytha out and then come back for him, since I had a decent way to get in, or so it seemed. I had to get both of them out eventually, but right now Lytha was the one I was making money from.

 

I was nudged from my thoughts by the sound of someone walking towards me. I quickly slowed down. I was just standing right outside of the hall intersection. A sleepy guard walked by, yawning as he went. When he turned to glance at me he started grinning stupidly. "Just keep walking; he was obviously a freak." He finally shook away his giggles and went on his way. I tried to convince myself that the problem was with the guard, but something in the back of my head was nagging me. I tried to keep my "holier than thou" attitude going. At least he didn't ring the alarm or scream something. Rounding the corner I noticed a gated hallway to the left and an elevator to the right. There wasn't much straight ahead. I went to the elevator to see what floor I was on, and maybe get to where I needed to be. I pushed the button and waited for the lift to come down. Much to my dismay it was packed with a bunch of guards mumbling about breakfast. I noticed a few stares and a remark or two about my clothing as they unloaded and walked past me.

 

Now the paranoia really kicked in. I checked myself to make sure my pants weren't on backwards or something. I couldnt find anything wrong with me! Well, aside from the fact that my uniform was rather unique. But what do I know about Hammerites? At least I hadn't been busted yet, so I was reasonably happy. I boarded the lift. Once inside, I found that there was good news, and bad news. The good news was that I was close. Two floors up was the maximum-security section. The bad news was this elevator didn't go to that floor. "Great, now I have to go through some checkpoint or something. Lets go up a floor and see whats happening." I muttered under my breath.

Strangely, the next floor looked very different from the other. It was darker here, with only two guards in sight near an intersection.

 

Swallowing my fears, I approached the guards and nodded to each as I stepped up. Oddly, they didn't seem to care much whether I was here or not. I figured that the Hammerite disguise was working after all. I turned confidently to the right to create the illusion that I knew where I was going. After a turning few corners it became obvious that this was one of the prisoner areas. I saw a sign which read Cell Block 5. "I wonder where do they keep the admittance records?"

 

"Can I help thee sir," the guard on watch asked me.

 

"What?" Where did he come from?

 

"You asked about the admittance records?"

 

"No, I'm looking for a prisoner." What the hell was I thinking? I'm going to get killed for this. "Yes, maybe you can; where do you keep your records in this block?"

 

"Follow me sir," was all he replied. Why did he keep calling me sir? This didn't look like any high priest uniform I had ever seen. It had to be something different. I wasn't going to ask this guy what I'm supposed to be dressed as, though. I followed him to a guard room, which he opened with a key. Inside he showed me the book listing who was kept in this area.

 

"I thank thee for thy help, guard." I always hated the way Hammers talked but I had to be convincing if this was going to work. I flipped through the book looking for familiar names. I noted a fellow thief or two who had been caught. I went through the entire list, but there was no Lytha or Ragbert listed. This must not have been a complete book.

 

"Where is the prison registry which shows the new arrivals?" I took a stab in the dark. Maybe he was dumb enough to tell me, thinking I was from out of town or something. He turned to look at me, without saying a word.

 

I knew he was having doubts that I should be here. Finally he turned away from me to leave, and answered, "Where they always are, sir, in the Inquisitors chambers." His mistake was turning away from me. I slid the blackjack out from under my shirt and thumped him over the head with it. He slumped to the ground in a heap.

 

"We can't be having thee think I don't belong here, now, can we? Have a nice nap, hope you don't get fired for sleeping on the job." I grabbed his keys, checked the log book for an empty cell. I found one, and dropped him in it. I cut off his shirt and gagged him with a strip of cloth so he wouldn't make too much noise when he woke up.

 

Now I knew there were at least four other cellblocks on this floor alone. There could have been twenty or more in this place, though. This floor didn't matter for now anyway. I had to get up one level to find Lytha. I searched around quietly while looking for a stairway. All I could hear were the moans of prisoners and their cries for help. I didnt see any more guards around but, then again I didn't see that first one who snuck up on me either. I also didnt see a way out, so I headed back to the intersection where the two guards were probably waiting to grab me. This time I passed them without even looking at them, and headed to the opposite area. I noticed a sign on the wall that I obviously missed earlier.

 

Cell Block 3 & 4 - Left. Cell Block 5 - Right. Maximum Security, Straight Ahead.

 

I couldn't believe I missed that sign earlier. Must have been too worried about being caught. I still needed to go check 3 and 4 for Ragbert, and maybe find a way out.

 

The entrance was actually leading into cell block 4, but across the floor I could see the door leading to 3. There was a guard by the door to the next block, and one standing inside the office overlooking the entire block. I saw a staircase leading up to behind the guard. I went that way. With a purpose to my walk and a serious look on my face, I planned to walk right into the office and look through the book. I could see now why these Hammerites thought they owned the place. It must have been the clothes. Approaching the door I pulled out the set of keys. I knocked on the door before unlocking and opening it. The guard looked me over casually, not noticing much in the dim light. "I need to check your log book," I told him. I proceeded to flip through the pages of the book. "Ah ha," I mumbled quietly as I saw Ragbert's name in the roster. I felt great that I had found one of my objectives. That is, until I read the line next to his name. He died on the rack while being questioned. "Oh damn!" I cursed, among other things, as I spun around to face the guard. "Where are the Inquisitors notes? I have to know what this man told him!"

 

Confused, the guard's only answer was a stuttering which told me it should be upstairs in the high security area. Someone was going to pay for torturing Ragbert to death, and I knew who it was going to be. "Stay here until I come back to talk with you!" I shouted at the man. I grabbed his keys and the log book and stormed out the door while he stood looking baffled at my anger. Once I was alone I took the key-ring and stashed it in the compartment in the heal of my boot. I didn't need them anymore, and they should be safe there, in case I did. I tried to calm down so I didn't alert the guards at the intersection. A lot of thoughts ran through me. The biggest thought on my mind was the fear that Ragbert had mentioned me to the Inquisitor while being tortured. If that was the case, then Id have to ask Nightfall to NOT spread my name around. Trustworthy fence or no, I couldn't risk one of them deciding that my bounty was worth more then my skills. I would have to find a new alias, and build a new reputation. I didnt look forward to that. I also didn't care to end up as a resident here.

 

I could feel the guards watching me as I rounded the corner to get to the stairway. I think they said something to me but I wasn't in the mood to deal with them at the moment. I went around a few more corners until I reached the stairway up to the next floor. Two more guards waited at the bottom of the stairs, both wearing heavy chain armor. I walked to pass them, but they both held out a hand to stop me.

"State thy business," one of them said.

 

"I need to speak to the Inquisitor about a man who died here."

 

"The Grand Inquisitor is busy at the moment, he can not see thee."

 

"I'll wait!" was my answer. After a moment's pause I lunged past the blockade. Obviously they didn't understand my urgency, since one of them grabbed my upper arm and stopped me in my tracks. I spun and pulled the dagger from under my tunic. It found its mark in the unarmored part of his body. He dropped quickly to the ground uselessly grasping his neck, trying to stop the bleeding that would soon kill him. Before I could deal with the other guard everything went black, just after I felt something heavy hit me.

 

 

- Lytha: The Interrogation Continues - Day 5: 9:00am

 

The Inquisitor gave me a sympathetic look.

 

"As I told you yesterday, our rules are easy. And you broke the rule of cooperation. I had no choice. But you must understand that it was your own fault, Lytha."

 

I lay on the floor, once again.

 

"What we are working on now, is your confession about the two events we have witnesses for. What did you do in the lodge, and what did you do in our Temple?"

 

I lay motionless on the floor, saying no word. I was filled with numbness.

 

"The problem is that the confession is needed urgently. So... You have the choice how we shall get it. We can ask friendly, or -- "

A lash from behind, again. I felt the blood running over my back. Must have opened old sores, I thought.

 

He stepped closer, and sat down beside me. "You do not have to go through all of this. Just look at the instruments in this room. They will open your mouth, trust me. But do you really want to learn this from your own experience? All you have to do is give me the confession about the two events."

 

I closed my eyes. I wanted the end of this, but I had not the strength to start speaking. All was numb. Nothing did matter anymore.

He sighed, and nodded to the two guards.

 

 

- Jyre: Hauntings - Day 5: 9:00am

 

Dark and silent. I saw nothing beyond the heavy black veil of night, heard nothing through the thick air that surrounded me. I was alone in an empty world without a single ear to hear me scream.

 

A gust of wind, like a heavy sigh. A spot of gray in the distance. My eyes fixed on it and drew it in. My heart thudded in fear of what I would find.

 

"How many times, Jyre?" Els's voice. It filled the void with echoes. "The Lady knows best. It is not your place to question."

 

"Not your place...not your place..." The words rebounded inside my head, taking on the voice of the dead. That which had been black was now gray. I could see figures in the mist. One of them turned to me, pointing. "Foolish child...." He started to cackle.

 

I was in the dining hall, standing before Els. Guards filled the room, their eyes focused on me and their voices filled with laughter. Els seemed to grow in front of me. His skin became gray and lifeless. His eyes held the same glazed expression that adorned the living dead. "You should have listened to me." His words filled the whole room, blocking out the laughter. "But no. You had to ask, didn't you? You had to know!" The laughter came back, harsh and overpowering. I dropped to my knees, clamped my hands over my ears. The taunting refused to go away.

 

Hands grasped mine, pulled them from my head. "Hush." My face was pushed into something soft. "Ranson's here. He won't let them get you." I wept into his chest, shivering. He lifted a hand to my chin and slowly raised my head. "Just be a good girl like The Lady says."

He began to change. His face became softer, his eyes harsher. The fingers that cupped my chin began to squeeze. "You were coming along so well, child," -- The Lady's voice. "If only you had learnt your place." She shook her head. Her fingers burnt my flesh. "Such a bright girl. So much potential. Ranson did well bringing you to me. If only you had learnt your place..."

 

Guilt tore at me. I looked up at her. Begged her forgiveness. Her voice joined the laughter. "No child. You do not mean what you say." She gave me a push and I was falling.

 

I landed in something soft. The stink of rotten flesh met my nostrils. Looking up I could just make out The Lady's form, staring down at me. I shuddered, rolled over and let out a scream.

 

His eyes were shrunken hollows, his hair nothing more than a few brittle tufts. His skin was gray and dry, drawn so tightly over his bones that I could see the skull underneath. I was staring at the face of a dead man.

 

"See your fate," The Lady called down to me. "And learn its face well. For soon it will come to collect you."

 


Chapter 7 - Tests of Fortitude

 

- Nightfall: Personal Log, 9.11 - Day 5: 12:00pm

 

"Yesterday was quite a day. After we got underway, the Hammerite task force made about three miles progress, working from midday, to midnight. The weather was fair, though quite hot and damp, and the forest was mostly submissive. They let me travel home for the night, thankfully, and while on my way, I met with a Keeper.

 

"He told me I was following too many paths, or something like that. He also told me it was dangerous. Im sure he meant how I have come to be known not only as the Emissary to the Master Builder, but also as the Patron Saint of Thieves. If the givers of the former title discovered the latter designation, there would be hell to pay. Oh well, I had kept it under wraps for quite some time now, and I didnt foresee myself getting careless any time soon. Still, if one of the Keepers made himself known to me, it must have been for a good reason, other than to state the blindingly obvious. Id find out soon enough, I suppose.

 

"This morning, I decided it was about time to buy that carriage I had been putting off getting, and hire a chauffeur. It was a good five mile walk from my tower, clear across town to the citys edge, and then three more through the mud and torn dirt of the newly constructed road to where the task force was making its way to the lodge. I cared not to go it by foot. Besides, I had needed a vehicle, and now was as good as time as any to buy one.

 

"Okay, I lied. I didnt buy one -- I bought two. Hey, sue me, I wanted a rugged one that would be able to navigate off-road terrain, and a stately one for leisurely trips around town. Wealth has its privileges, after all. The luxury stagecoach is being custom built, so I wont have it for at least a week. It will seat four, comfortably, and six if absolutely necessary. Designed to be pulled by four horses -- plenty of room inside -- leather interior (brick red!), aged dark cherry-wood exterior with a cast iron frame (painted black wherever it shows) -- bronze trim *very nice* -- room for luggage -- I could go on and on. The rugged one: its small, about a fourth of the size of the other. Just seats, two, driver & passenger. Just a carriage basically. Open to the air, but has a sort of awning that can be erected in case you want to travel when its raining, or when the sun gets too hot. Its pulled by one horse. Built light -- all pine. Painted black, of course. Large wheels -- two axle -- high clearance, low center of gravity. Small compartment in the back for cargo, which can be converted to a third seat in a pinch. Well designed sporty -- I like it.

 

"Of course whats a carriage without a driver? I hired Richen -- smart guy, good etiquette. Best getaway driver this side of the forbidden zone -- never been caught too, or even identified -- thats why I can use him in the presence of the Hammers. This guy makes an art out of getting to point A to point B the fastest way possible, while avoiding all authority. Which is good, for I dont care to have my chauffeur whipped in the street for speeding. He also makes the tightest fastest turns Ive ever experienced, or seen, without the vehicle turning over! The horse was good too, very good. Thoroughbred, black, young, with one white sock on the left rear leg. I let Richen pick her out, seeing as he would be the driver. Good size, about nine hands. I havent bought horses for the stagecoach yet. Ill probably get Clydesdales or something.

 

"It took us about a half an hour to make it to the task force, as they worked diligently in the woods. None the sooner too, for Thurm was getting ready to send a squad after me. Hrumph, does he just love my company, or does he not trust me? Its not my fault that shopping for a vehicle is a lengthy process! I did it faster then most -- two hours -- and I bought two! I should get some kind of award! I admit, being four hours late to an engagement is rather sloppy, but they didnt really need me there at all. I, unlike they, do not enjoy watching the pistons on those bulldozers, as we have come to nickname them, go up and down, up and down. It gets mesmerizing after the first five hours.

 

"Then came the fun part. You see, Hammers are not too keen on animals. Not even domesticated animals. It was hard enough for them to grasp the concepts of domesticating plants, but animals, whew, those critter have a mind of their own! And a horse, they particularly dislike. I once heard one of them say, if a normal humans intelligence was ground level, a horses would be a pit, ten miles deep. Not that I disagree with them, (I laughed quite a bit when he said that), but still; the critter is useful. Why walk when you can have a dumb beast pull you? Ah well, to each his own. If they want to rely on their own two legs, or one of those machines, then, may the Builder bless them. Im sticking to what works. Anyway, getting back to the subject, they let me ride in my horse drawn carriage, but I had to stay to the far rear of the group, and keep that beast, as they insisted on calling it, away from them. I thought it was very funny when the captain said, in all seriousness, that if the horse so much as looked one of his men in the eye, he would have it beat to death. Hows THAT for fear of animals! Well, Richen was none too keen on these redcoats (as he called them), threatening his Suzy (thats what he named the horse), but he was smart enough to keep his mouth shut, and his eyes downcast.

 

"Of course, staying about a hundred yards behind the task force has its advantages. For instance, Richen and I could talk in peace. We had plenty of time to do it in too. Thankfully the canopy of the trees provided shade for most of the day, or I would have been miserable. Anyway

 

"We talked about plenty of things. He was eager to discuss one thing in particular, his garage and stable at my tower. Simply put, there is no room to build one! We eventually sorted out that they can be carved out of the side of the hill, below the mansion. It would be about halfway between the structure and the base of the hill. A ramp would lead from it to the main road, and part of the stairway would branch off too meet the ramp. Its hard to describe, Ill have to sketch it out. The Hammers should really enjoy building that for me. Cheaper then hiring a private contractor, and less stressful then contracting it myself.

 

End Entry

 

 

- Jyre: A Poem - Day 5: 3:00pm

 

I was awakened by the heat of the sun striking my face. It brought me to my feet with a jolt. Silence. I waited in trepidation for the groans to continue, but they never came. I looked down the street in both directions, but could see nothing from my lofty position. I must have stood there silently for a good half hour, dreading that any second the undead would return to finish me. Nothing stirred except the dirt, swirled up by the gentle breeze. Finally satisfied that I was alone, I jumped down the broken stairs and moved out onto the street. The silence frightened me almost as much as the wailing voices had the night before. I found myself tiptoeing, breathing softly through my nose, so as to make as little noise as possible. The dead slept and I did not wish to wake them.

 

I kept to the middle of the dirt road, avoiding any shadows in the fear that they might contain one of the undead. When I came to the first junction I took a left. The houses along this street, as on all the other streets, were little more than ruins, although the occasional one still stood and looked intact, from the outside at least. I probably should've turned back and left right then, but something inside pulled me deeper into the haunted dereliction. I followed its pull like a blind man would his dog, never once questioning its source. It wasn't a new experience to me. I often felt this way when I sought something and, more often than not, my feelings led me straight to it.

 

I turned another corner and found myself staring up at the wall surrounding what had come to be termed the Haunted Cathedral. Behind that stood the structure itself. The whole place seemed to be cast in shadow, which in turn cast a chill on the surrounding area. I kept as far from it as I could whilst following alongside the wall, hoping that I walked toward the cloister gates and not away from them.

 

The manor came into view before the gates did. It was HUGE. It was also derelict. It stood three stories high probably, with a fourth hidden in the rafters of the roof and at least one level beneath the ground as well. It was also in ruins. The front of the house and a side wall still stood, as did a small section of the roof but the rest was gone. I stopped dead in the middle of the path and stared at it in disbelief. I had risked my life for this! I had nearly died for a pile of rubble! I shook my head and cursed. There had to be more to it than this, surely? I ran to the heap of stones, clambered over them and looked up. Nothing but a rotten carcass! I kicked at the rubble beneath my feet in disgust, sighed and sat on the heap with an angry grunt, staring at my shredded palms. This whole thing had been a big mistake. A cold shadow fell over me as I sat there, drawing me out of my reverie. Looking up I found the sun slowly slipping away behind the Cathedral. Something howled inside its walls. Panicking, I leapt to my feet and started to run. The rubble gave way beneath me and I ended up sliding to its base on my backside. I felt the tears where the stone had opened my flesh, as I struggled to stand. Rolling onto my hands and knees I found myself staring at a ragged sheet of vellum. Despite the danger, I picked it up and read it aloud.

 

 

When shadows grow,

and danger walks,

Come out, come out,

Come play with me.

 

When Trickster's thwarted,

And hammers rise,

Come down, come down,

And join with me.

 

In caverns deep,

I make my bed,

Where city sleeps,

I lay my head.

 

When hammers fall,

and mortals quake,

Your voice from death,

Will me awake.

 

 

It meant nothing! A dumb rhyme. I screwed it up and shoved it into my trouser pocket, not even bothering to try and fathom its purpose. I hated poetry and I hated riddles even more! But still, I'd risked my life for this and I wasn't about to throw it away. I had just started walking again when the ground began to shake.

 

The dirt beneath me lurched. My left ankle twisted painfully and I fell to my knees. Before I could recover the ground lurched again and I was thrown forward. I crashed into the wall of the nearest building and felt my shoulder pop. For a second there was only blackness. My vision cleared and I found myself cast in shadow. I tried to stand but my left ankle refused to take my weight. My right arm dangled uselessly at my side. I swiveled around so my back was against the wall and used it to regain my feet. It wasn't until I was standing that I noticed the cause of the earth's sudden upheaval.

 

It stood before me, a towering monstrosity. Its skin was gray and crinkled, like old leather. Its whole body rippled with bulging muscle. And it had wings! Stretched out as they were, they blocked everything from sight. But it was the head that scared me the most. Two bulging eyes set in a continuously writhing mass, they seemed to swallow everything they beheld. I was beginning to wish I had never got back to my feet.

 

"Death comes, mortal."

 

I heard the words echo in my head and knew they had originated from the thing before me. It never spoke, though. In fact, it couldn't speak for it had no mouth! It took a step towards me. I ran. Straight between its legs and down a narrow passage between houses, my fear making me forget the pain in my injuries. I expected a roar of anger. Instead came what I can only describe as laughter. It was like a ripple in the very air around me that produced a deep, resonant boom that repeated itself over and over, pounding my ears until they hurt. I didn't stop to see if it followed, but continued to run, telling myself it was a dream; that I would wake up soon. If the undead were still around I could no longer hear them.

 

"Fool!" The word boomed in my head. My thoughts exploded. Blinding white light ripped through my mind like a fireball. I found myself lying in the dirt before the city wall, sobbing. My blood dripped into the dirt from numerous wounds I had no recollection of receiving. All I knew then was terror. "You cannot escape me!"

 

I saw the undead then. Swarms of them, summoned here by some unheard command. They moved silently now, almost stealthily. The nearest haunt raised its sword above my head. I screamed and scrambled away, squirming between a zombie and the haunt. My arm brushed against zombie flesh and I felt my skin burn and fall away. But I was too far gone now to register the pain. The only thing that mattered was escape. I spotted a collapsing building and ran for it, tripping over the uneven road and using my good arm to keep myself on my feet. The thing's shadow fell over the street just as I dashed through the building's doorway.

 

"Stone will not protect you." The voice was quieter now, almost teasing. "You will be mine."

 

I could hear the shuffle of undead feet as they approached the building. I glanced around for the stairs to the upper floor but saw nothing. Ran into the adjoining room. Nothing. Spinning around in panic, I spotted it. A ladder. Hysterical laughter threatened to bubble forth at the irony of it. A ruined arm and a damaged leg and I had to find a ladder!

 

A zombie's groan echoed through from the other room. I closed my eyes for a second, wished myself luck and leapt at the ladder. I managed to catch a rung that was level with the ceiling. Kicking awkwardly, I found purchase with my feet and begged them to hold my weight as I worked my hand up the ladder's side to the next rung. Then I moved my feet, one at I time. It was a slow process, but effective. My shoulders and torso were through the opening to the upper floor when the first zombie reached me. It swiped at my leg, ripping a chunk of flesh from my calf and leaving my blood sizzling. Nausea swept over me and I nearly fell. Only the edge of the opening pressing against my back kept me up. I kicked at the reaching hands, threw my hand above my head and hauled myself through. I rolled onto the floor and lay there, breathing hard and listening to the moans of the undead beneath me.

 

The roof exploded. A huge hand plunged straight towards me. I felt it brush my back as I dived out the way. The hand withdrew but I knew it would come back. Spotting the half-collapsed wall that had drawn me here, I scrambled onto it and used its crumbling brickwork as a stairway to the top of the city wall. Once there, I looked back once, saw the thing's hand plunging towards me and jumped.

 

"No...!!" The word pounded in my head like thunder. I lay on my back and watched as the thing slowly withdrew. Whatever magic had been placed in the wall to hold back the undead apparently worked on that thing too. Not that I cared right then. All I wanted to do was get back home and rest.

 

 

- Lytha: Submission - Day 5: 5:00pm

 

I was back in my cell. I had told them everything they wanted to hear. It was easy, at last. I had told them what they wanted to hear. I told them that I was a pagan and a witch, and that I wanted to summon some demons into this world to destroy it. I told them that I had met the Trickster himself and handed him my life, in exchange for some goodies. I told them that my sister, my brother, my father, my mother, my neighbors, my fences were all involved in this conspiracy. I told them everything to escape from the pain. It did not matter that I had never had a brother and that my entire family was dead now. The Hammers didn't know that. And they seemed to be pleased. And they seemed to believe it.

 

And I believed it, myself, shortly after my arms were almost dislocated.

 

The light went on, and off, and on.

 

I stared at it. It went off.

 

I hit the nails of my left hand into the right arm, and pulled them towards the hand. They left bloody sores. The pain was slightly satisfying. A feeling in the numbness, at least. I continued.

 

The light went on.

 

The light went out.

 

I had mistreated my right arm, until it bled. It hurt. It gave me one feeling in the numbness. One feeling -- pain. Better than nothing. Better than the numbness I had felt in the last days. I continued, ignoring the blood. Scratching deeper, and deeper.

 

I did not even give it a glance.

 

I had closed my eyes to lock out sight of the cell, and the door, and the chains from my mind. I let my thoughts wander freely. My mind drifted away. I felt my body go limp.

 

Amidst the wild dancing pictures of the last days, I made my sister's face out. She stood there without moving, beneath the picture of this Inquisitor, beneath the rack where I had lain the last day. Thalia looked straight into my eyes.

 

I focused her image, and tried to step closer. She looked younger, much younger. As young as she had been before the Hammerites had taken her away, three years ago. She smiled at me. But when I took the next step, she turned and ran away. I had so much to ask, so much to say. I followed her. She headed to a sunny valley. I followed her happily.

 

But when I had reached the valley, all went black. I realized that I was in another area, black as a pit. The valley was away. And also was Thalia away. I was alone in the dark. But I could hear voices in the darkness. Low voices, and shouting. One came directly from behind.

 

"Why have you betrayed me? Why did you not read the letter I wrote?" That was Thalia's voice. She spoke quietly. I turned.

 

"No! WHY Has You Betrayed Usss? LISTEN!" I turned again. The new voice echoed Thalia's. But it perverted its contents. And it shouted.

 

"Wasn't it enough that they had captured me? Why you?" I saw Thalia's face, but it disappeared shortly after I had seen it.

 

"Wasn't It enough that you left Usss alone when they Captured Ussss, and WHEN we DIED?!" I saw two old Thalias in front of me. All were dead. They pointed with their cold, dead claw like hands at me.

 

"And Now you Think WE should Sympathize with You?!" Their eyes were glassy. Their claws touched my face.

 

"Ohhhh, My Dear Poooor Lytha!?"

 

I turned. I tried to move my frozen legs to get out off there. I could not do one single move. I could not even say a word or cry.

 

"It was odd, but shortly before my death, I could see it clear. I understood. It made sense, at last. I analyzed myself, and understood. I had visions. Visions about the future. And I wanted to protect you." I turned. Thalia again. The younger version. The friendly one.

 

"SHUT UP!!"

 

She continued, hasty. I stared at the grotesque caricature of my sister. It tried to push Thalia away.

 

"I tried to warn you. I knew that you would not read the letter, so I addressed it to a man who might be able to help you now. And I signed with your name, well knowing that my last days had approached."

 

"Yes, you never LISTEN. But NOW you are Ourssss!" a cold claw touched me again.

 

Thalia spoke in a greater hurry now. "Take it as a chance. As the small possibility ofhope."

 

She disappeared. With her vanishing, I could move my feet again. I ran.

 

I ran.

 

 

- Nightfall: Personal Log, Supplemental - Day 5: 5:00pm

 

"Well things were going smoothly, until about mid afternoon. As a tree fell, a large branch came smashing down onto one of the bulldozers, and broke the main cylinder. What was odd, was that the tree began to fall the way they always fell, the way the machine was designed to make them fall, out and away, and then suddenly changed the path of descent just enough to let the branch smash into the most sensitive part of the device. Bad news. What resulted was an explosion, a small fire, and unfortunately, or fortunately, depends on whose side youre on, three of the Hammerite workers were killed. One of them was right next to the thing when it happened. He felt no pain, but the people who were struck by his flying bones did. He was obliterated by the force of the explosion. His blood is still on the machine. Ghastly. The second was burned badly, and died from a head wound sustained by flying debris. The third had his arm severed, and bled to death within minutes. He died bravely, I must say. Didnt cry out or anything, just let the Builder take him. We all held ten minutes of silent prayer for them, burned them; Thurm did a short ceremony as we put the ashes in makeshift urns. Markers were erected, and then the Hammers got right back to work.

 

"It would take a good day, and new material to fix the broken 'dozer, so until that happened the progress speed was cut in half. They pulled it off the road, where they, and a team summoned to bring repair equipment and more workers, would work on fixing it. Meanwhile the rest of the force would push ahead.

 

"Richen and I remounted the carriage to continue our journey behind them, but our mood was quite different. We didnt talk much -- just sat in silence.

 

End entry.

 

 

- Ghost: Smirking Chaos - Day 5: 5:00pm

 

Consciousness returned to me some time later. I wasn't sure how long I had been out cold. I may as well have kept sleeping, seeing as I had a headache like no living person has ever had. It took a moment to register what had happened, and where I was. As I looked out from behind the bars, I managed to figure it out. This was a cell in the maximum-security area. I was shackled to the wall by the ankles, and my hands were chained together. The Hammerite uniform was gone, even my boots. All I had left were bruises to show for my efforts. Thank goodness they didn't take all my clothes. My new living quarters consisted of a cell of about 4 feet by 8 feet. It was just long enough to keep me from reaching the door while I was chained to the wall. I could hear the crying and moans from other prisoners. If this headache didn't stop pounding I would probably join the chorus. I guess that second guard had all the suspicion he needed, and cracked me on the head with one of those huge maul-hammers they like to play with. It was probably the smartest thing he'd done since joining the order.

 

So, now it was to be an escape instead of a jailbreak. I did have a backup plan in case this happened. Unfortunately, the plan did not include how I was going to get out of my cell once I got the shackles off. I checked my leg for my emergency backup lock picks. I found they hadn't been that thorough when they stripped me of my gear. I peeled back the glue patch on my leg, which hid the picks. That skin-colored glue really comes in handy for some things. If done right, it looks just like a nasty scar. I spent a few minutes fiddling with those minuscule picks, trying to get the shackles off. Eventually I was freed from my bonds. Now I just had to find a way to get the door open, to get out, and get something done. I slid the picks back under the glue patch and stuck it back as best as I could. Hopefully they wouldn't notice it, just in case I got caught again. I crawled forward and peeked out the door. I could see a few other cells in the room, and a door, probably locked, to the right. There was also the usual guard watching from above. Only one guard? I couldn't be in the security zone. That is, unless there is something worse outside that door.

 

"Guaaarrdd!" I formed a plan as I sat there. I was going to get out of this cell and take as many of these scumbags with me as I could. Revenge on the inquisitor could wait. No answer, but it wouldn't stop me from trying. "I killed that other guard and I'm going to kill you too! But you need to let me out first!" I thought maybe if I got him mad enough he'd come down to beat on me a little. I draped the wrist shackles back over my hands and sat back by the wall. Strangely enough, the door to my cell slid open, but I didn't dare step out. He probably had a crossbow waiting to shoot me if I was loose. Footsteps approached the cell, and a deep voice finally spoke as the guard came into view and stopped just outside of my room.

 

"Thou hast killed my brother, but thou will never kill again, heathen!" He looked as if he wanted to step in and beat me senseless right then, but a good guard would never step into danger like that. I stood up and rattled my chains a bit to let him think I was still secure and taunted him a bit more.

 

"Why don't you come on in here and show me how tough you big bad-assed guards are without those hammers?" This guy was well trained; he didn't look too upset, but I don't think he liked me for killing another guard. Still, he was dumb enough to open the door for me.

 

"If it is a fight thee wants, then thou shalt have to come out and face me, craven!" He was taunting me back! The look of surprise on his face when I launched myself at him was almost priceless. He didn't expect me to be loose, and he surely didn't expect the punch to the groin, which sent him to the ground moaning like most of the other people in this area. He wouldn't stay down from that for long, but the shackles wrapped around his neck fixed that. Some other prisoners had noticed what was happening and started shouting for freedom. They quieted down some when I assured them they would be out soon. His keys and uniform would prove as useful as the others I had borrowed. The armor would help a little too. After shackling the body into my cell, I went upstairs to check the log book.

 

The door slid open to reveal a panel of levers and a desk. The log book listed Lytha as being in cell 4, but the levers weren't numbered. I flipped each of the levers and the doors slid open one by one. The prisoners started making noise again. I went down to cell 4 first, in spite of the others demands to be the first to escape. She was conscious, but just barely. It seemed like she was in a state of shock.

 

Occasionally she muttered something, and her eyes twitched about. Weird. She was in no condition to move by her own power. Even though she was beaten badly, in terrible shape, bleeding all over, and in this weird trance, she still seemed to have a bit of charm about her. I unchained her and let her lie there for a minute while I released the others, who could walk, and explained what I needed them all to do. The need to move fast was imperative, since I didn't know what time of day it was or if someone was about to walk in. The plan was simple. Assuming I was in the same place I had originally been heading to, we could mob the guards and equip anyone who could fight for the big escape. I would have to carry the girl out. I wanted out fast, and we had no time to bring her to her senses.

 

One of the prisoners was a tall man. He had probably been a guard or soldier at some point. Although he was rather thin and beaten, he had fire in his eyes. He wanted out of here just as much as I, so I let him lead the break. I handed him the armor and hammer I had taken from the guard and gave him some suggestions. When I was done unchaining the rest of the prisoners, I picked Lytha up and slung her over my shoulder. Carrying her like that, meant I wasn't going to climb out the way I came in. Unless, of course, we ran into a case full of healing potions or were blessed with a miracle.

 

I unlocked the block door and signaled the small group of prisoners to move. The objective was to get to Cell Blocks 3 and 4, and release those prisoners as well. That would make enough of a distraction for Lytha and I to escape, I hoped. It seemed that there was only one or two guards at any given station. Getting to the other prisoners wouldn't be that hard. Seeing as this was the maximum security group, it meant that these were the most dangerous prisoners in the entire place. The hallway beyond the door split off into several others. Thankfully, the Hammerites insisted on putting signs everywhere. The escape group and I were about to make a break for the stairs when a door opened to the left and a guard wandered out. I don't think he even knew what hit him when the prisoners took him down. He was quickly disarmed. I pushed the crowd to keep moving and not make a lot of noise. We made our way to the steps, and sure enough there were two new guards at the bottom. The prisoners were an enthusiastic bunch, looking for freedom and revenge on their captors. The gang leader took one guard down fast by throwing his borrowed hammer and hitting the guard squarely in the chest. Sadly, I saw a couple of the prisoners struck down, killed, before the other guard was taken down as well. By some stroke of luck the alarm hadn't been sounded yet, but I knew that wouldn't last long. I warned the group about the checkpoint up ahead. This crowd's first job was take out those guards, and then move on to block 4 to free more prisoners, while I took Lytha back to the room where I stashed my pack.

 

The event went pretty much as I expected; as soon as the guards saw the mob heading towards them the alarm was sounded, and the carnage really got started. I didn't even stop to watch. Running down the hallway with a body in your arms tends to make sightseeing less likely. The mob got to the guards and another brawl began. By the time I got to the lift, only a few of the prisoners were left standing. I reached the edge of the shaft. I heard the platform coming down. There was no one on it but it didn't stop, so I took a chance and jumped on anyway. It was headed for the ground floor, to load up with guards to stop the riot, no doubt. I jumped off at the next floor without stopping the lift. Lytha and I both tumbled to the ground. I could hear the shouts from the guards waiting impatiently for the lift. I quickly grabbed her and almost dragged her down the hall. I didn't want to be standing here when the lift, full of Hammerites, went by, even though I still had on a Hammer uniform. The safety of the room was close, and if I could make it there I would be very happy.

 

I kicked in the door to the room. Someone was there. That wasn't good. I did the only thing I could think to do. I screamed at the man, who was shaving, as I set Lytha down on the floor. "Come on Brother! They are all escaping! We need every man out there! GO GO GO!" He almost tripped over himself as he ran out the door with his hammer in hand. "They sure don't grow these boys very bright now do they?" I had to laugh as I pulled Lytha's limp body into the room and pulled the pack from the vent. This was going to work. At least that's what I kept telling myself over and over. By now a good portion of the guards should be upstairs and the front door should be open except for a few guards. Those I had plans for. The footsteps clomping down the hall prompted me to shut the door and wait another minute. That gave me time to count my supplies. There wasn't much to work with: two gas mines, four flash bombs, and a dagger. Maybe next time someone offers me a lot of money to do something like this I should think about saying no and walking away.

 

"Well, it's time Lytha, are you ready? Of course you are, or you would say no!" To tell the truth, I wasn't ready. I was hurting all over, but she was in much worse shape. She was bleeding on me, and she hadn't even been hit by anything but the floor. All she did was moan in pain as I picked her up and opened the door again. I could hear the shouting and clanging of weapons as a battle went on one floor above. I guess the guys I freed had freed the other prisoners, because the ones who were left couldn't make all that noise on their own. Sadly, I was pretty sure that all of them were going to die. Thinking about it, I'm sure they would all much rather die like this, then to be executed. With a press of the button the lift started on it's way down and stopped in front of us. I stepped on, and hit the descend button. On the way down I pulled out a flasher just in case there were more guards waiting, but it sounded like most were upstairs already.

 

The hallways winded a bit, but as usual the signs pointed the way to the main entrance. Soon the hall opened up into a large chamber. At the other end was the exit. The room was empty except for a big fire pit and some benches, but I could see a couple guards lingering around outside of the doorway. I laid Lytha down on one of the benches, and decided this is one of those times I just had to fight my way out. Hell, its starting to become the rule rather then the exception in my life.

 

I activated the two gas mines and slid them toward the door. In my most nasal Hammer voice I screamed, "Brothers, the heathens are upon us!" Naturally the fanatical group of about six ran into battle without thinking and discovered the trap laid for them.

 

The gas mines went off with a fwoosh! Most of the group didn't even get out a curse on my family before hitting the floor. The big guy in back, who had managed to escape the gas, wasn't amused. He raised his hammer and charged me! I stood my ground calmly until he got within about ten feet. Then I let him have the backup plan. I shielded my eyes as I slammed two flash bombs at my feet. Blind and dazed, the Hammerite still tried to swing his hammer at my head. Without being encumbered by armor and a heavy weapon, I was able to duck and spin around him, slashing my dagger across the back of his knee, severing whatever it is there that keeps you from falling down.

 

Bleeding and screaming as he fell over, he threatened me with the wrath of the Builder. He told me that my death will be inevitable, or something like that. "I don't like being imprisoned and threatened, sir. For that you must pay and go to see The Builder. You will be the example!" My blood boiled as I plunge my knife into his chest. "You are merely the first, many others will join you." With that said, I picked up his body, my dagger still embedded in his chest, and threw him onto the smoldering fire.

 

My work done, I collected Lytha and tried to put as much distance between myself and this place as possible. I didnt think any of the other prisoners made it out, but, again, at least they died fighting, instead of rotting away in a cell. Lytha and I camped outside of town until it got dark, so there would be shadows to hide in on the way home. I needed rest, and I wasnt about to go climbing up Nightfalls fancy stairway with Lytha on my back; I don't care how much he pays. Hopefully she would come out of her daze soon.

 

Even though I caused quite a bit of chaos back there, and managed to get quite a few of those bastards killed, I wasnt satisfied.

 


Chapter 8 - A Change of Pace

 

- Lytha: Waking from the Nightmare - Day 5: 11:00pm

 

I awoke. The place had changed. And I was unchained. There was a window. It was dark outside. A man sat in a chair, staring into a fireplace. I had seen this face before. Somehow, he must have been in the prison. I could not make sense out off it.

 

"Don't you remember?! He was one of the Guards!"

 

This was a new voice in the permanent shouting inside my head. It sounded childish, filled with fear. But it lied, I was sure it did. I tried to force it back. The voices faded away, but they were always ready to come back. I had heard them permanently in the last day. Or days; I did not remember.

 

"Where -" I tried to ask, but it ended in a moan. My lips felt still numb.

 

He looked up.

 

"Where... am I?" I croaked.

 

"It's not important."

 

"Who -- "

 

"Nightfall sent me to get you out."

 

I was highly irritated. Nightfall? I had never seen him. Never spoken to him. Never met him. Why could he have sent someone to get me out of there? "But why -- "

 

"Don't know, didn't ask. Apparently he needed a woman to bleed on his carpet and I was more than willing to give him the one I just picked up." He turned away. "I'm taking you to him as soon as you can walk. Maybe he can help with your injuries too." With that he left the room.

 

 

- Nightfall: Personal Log, Supplemental - Day 5: 11:00pm

 

"It was growing late, and my mind moved to other matters. I hoped that Els had managed to save Jyre, or at least that Jyre was safe. Properly equipped, and informed, the Forbidden Zone was really not that difficult to master. Still any number of things could happen, and I worried nonetheless. Then there was Lytha and Ghost. Had I done the right thing? Lytha, by her own word, was old, so how much of the Hammerite torture could she really withstand? There was a good chance that by the time Ghost got to her, she would already be dead. And Ghost. What about him? Just because he could tomb raid, didnt necessarily mean that he could break into a complex that fortified. As always, I feared the worst, and hoped for the best.

 

"It was nearing midnight. My favorite time of day. Heh. Because there was only one machine, they decided to push it all night. They had enough men to work in shifts now, so it was actually less work than before. Only so many men can work on something like that before they start just getting in each others way. Thurm had decided he was more useful back with the repair crew, so he went back to them, leaving me in charge. I told the task force to just carry on as planned. The good news was that now I had control over the current situation. Thats never bad. The downside was that I couldnt really leave for home this night; Id have to stay and maintain my role as head of the operation. I didnt mind. After what I saw earlier, I doubt I could have slept anyway.

 

"A few strange things happened this evening. For one, several of the Hammerites who were taking their break reported that their hammers were missing! Of course, they expected me to hurt them or something for negligence, (they were VERY upset!) but I didnt. I just told them that they should make news ones as soon as the operation was over. We had spare hammers anyway. Why I dont know. Oh well. I truly wonder what happened to those hammers. Its not like a soldier to just lose his weapon like that. Foul play was at work. Dark foul play. I hope James gets me that full report soon. Very soon. Hopefully it will -- "

 

Heya Dan.

 

I looked up from my logbook. Yes, Rich?

 

"Who da 'ell 'er ya talkin to?"

 

I must have let my voice grow above a whisper. "This log book. I speak to it, and it records what I say."

 

Ah, im, well, pass me smore o dat pepper, will ya?

 

I picked up the red pepper flask from my sack, and handed it to Richen. He promptly shook a dash of it onto his bean and meat stew. Reminding that mine was getting cold, I shoveled another scoop of the stuff onto my mouth. It was my own recipe, so I had no complaints about it whatsoever. I quickly finished my log entry.

 

"I hope James gets me that full report soon. Very soon. Hopefully it will contain all the information I need.

 

"End days entry."

 

I put my black book into my sack, and finished off my meal. Richen helped himself to some more, scooping it out of the pot that sat on its perch over the fire. Very nice bit o cookin, Dan. Hits the spot I might add, he said, between munches. I smiled and nodded a thank you, as I placed my bowl on a nearby rock. So, he continued, how much longer till these redcoats are done rippin' through da woods?

 

I sighed, Could be anywhere from two to three days at this point. Depends on whether or not they get the other bulldozer fixed.

 

He nodded and grunted. Heh, with the luck this band o metal larks ave been avin, Ill nay be surprised if we get thar, and ell, we find eh -- nothin!

 

I laughed slightly. Well, if the place up and vanished, Im sure the scouts at the posts would let us know in advance.

 

Imm, aye. Twould be da natural thing, eh? He munched some more. Still, ah cant help but shake the feelin hmm.

 

What feeling? He shifted about uncomfortably.

 

Weell, its Suzy, shes jittery-like. Yea knew, like theres somethin amiss in de air. Animals, they gots a sixth sense bout these things.

 

I looked up from Richen and my campsite. Suzy was chained to a tree, next to the carriage. A bit away from us, the Hammers were already mostly asleep, using the ruts in the dirt cut by the machine wheels as beds. They were huddled, all fifty of them, (seventeen were back with the broken machine), in the center of the newly built road, as far from the walls of wood as they could get. The moon and the stars were out tonight, so things were pretty well illuminated through the rip in the canopy overhead. Still several small campfires marked the perimeter of the Hammerite campsite. Richen and I were off the road, slightly into the woods. I turned back to him. Suzys not the only one who senses evil in these woods. He could see the grave look in my eyes.

 

Dan, whatre we goin' after anyhow?

 

A pagan, I told him. Like I told you before.

 

Aye, well, a pagan is a pagan, ell, Im a pagan! Not that I worship the woods or anythin', but Id sooner spit the Builder in the eye than bow down ta the bastard! He took another bite. But ye dont see me makin orses jittery and the wood all aunted!

 

Richen, all I can say is that there is danger ahead. You told me that you laugh at danger, and I hired you to drive my vehicle.

 

Oh dont worry! I aint gettin yellah, no! Im ere witcha!

 

I smiled and nodded to him. Good man.

 

Welp, Im gonna take the advice o them redcoats and get some shuteye. Gnite Dan.

 

Goodnight, Rich.

 

He turned over and fell asleep. I didnt.

 

 

- Jyre: Els - Day 6: 5:00am

 

It was almost dawn when I finally saw my small home again. My wounds were starting to take their toll. Every step was agony as pain jolted through my whole body. I had lost a lot of blood back there, although most of the cuts now seemed to have stopped leaking. Avoiding the Hammerite patrols had made things even worse and now it was taking all my energy just to slide one foot in front of the other. My eyelids kept sliding down and my thoughts drifted towards sleep. Seeing the small hovel brought I degree of revival to my weary body and I managed to stumble up to the door. I fumbled in my pocket and took out my key. It felt like a lead weight in my hand. I lifted it to the keyhole. The door swung open before I could put it in the lock.

 

My heart leapt into my throat. I knew something was dreadfully wrong. Els never left our home unlocked. I stepped into the single room and found myself facing a nightmare.

 

The furniture had been smashed. Our things were strewn about all over the floor. The shutters had been ripped from the window and now lay in splinters underneath. Surprisingly, the oil lamp remained intact and its tiny flame gave the blood that seemed to coat everything a sickening orange tinge. I stepped over the shattered crockery that lay just inside the door and stared at the destruction. It was several minutes before I discovered Els.

 

I saw his feet first, sticking out from behind the bed. My heart was gripped with ice. My feelings fled, leaving me numb. I suddenly knew without having to look that this was his blood! I stepped around the bed to find him lying on the floor, stiff fingers curled around the hilt of a bloody dagger. Not all his blood then, I thought grimly. A smile twitched at my lips at that thought but it didn't last. He had been stabbed. In his chest. In his legs. There was an arrow sticking out of his left shoulder. The facts flitted through my head quickly, my mind too pained to comprehend what they meant. Then, as he lay dying, someone had slit his throat.

 

I stumbled backwards. My back slammed against the wall. I slid down, drew my knees up against my chest, wrapped my arms around my legs and wept.

 

 

- Ghost: A Needed Break - Day 6: 6:00am

 

The past few days had been almost non-stop action. I was ready to sleep the day away. Lytha barely stirred at all, which could be good or bad. I guess its good, seeing as shes getting some rest. After grabbing a bite to eat, I got back into bed, turned over, and fell back asleep.

 

 

- Nightfall: Personal Log, 9.11 - Day 6: 12:00pm

 

"Ten years ago, today, events were set in motion that would change the place I once called home, forever. The events are still so very vivid in my mind. I often wonder where I would be today had this not happened. Seeing as they did, there was really no point in dwelling on the concept. I wouldnt go back there, to the place it has become, ever. I fought too hard to escape.

 

"The repair crew received the supplies needed to fix the machine this morning, so said the messenger. It should be operational before noon, and back with us before dusk.

 

"The weather has been hot. I felt indignant stripping down to my tunic & trousers, but it was worth it. Richen went scouting for a place to let Suzy get a drink, so I went on foot for about two hours. The man is a brilliant navigator. Im glad I hired him. As for myself, this is lasting a bit longer than I expected, so the lunches & dinners Marith packed for me shall be gone soon. No sense in letting them rot. I guess its Hammerite rations for me for a bit. I suppose it never hurts to have more iron in your diet. Har har har.

 

"Everything is uneventful. It reeks of boredom. I wish I could run up ahead, scout, or go back, and do something, anything than just sit and wait while these zealots tear down trees. Alas, undertaking anything of the sort, will have that High Priest pouncing, and every battle I lose against him, the closer I bring myself to not only loosing the respect of the council, but having to eat a pair of dirty hands, and then having my tongue ripped out and fed to a thief. Not nice to think about, let alone experience.

 

"Walking too many paths hmm. Im walking a path right now, built by the Hammerites, to the Trickster, or rather one of his worshipers, or maybe more. Walking too many paths I wish I could remember the exact words he used. Words can be so important. Am I right? Am I wrong? I wish I could remember.

 

"At any rate, I need a break. No more log for today."

 

 

- Lytha: A Stranger's Home - Day 7: 7:00am

 

Slowly I felt consciousness return to me. The surface I laid on was strange. It was soft, not hard like my cell floor. For an instant, I could not remember where I was, and then I realized, that what happened last night had not been a dream! I was in that same strange house! I had been rescued! I opened my eyes to see a wooden ceiling, and a room, flooded with daylight from the window behind the bed. I blinked as my eyes stung from the light.

 

I was still wondering. Why Nightfall? Why me? I shook my head, and knew that I couldn't understand it. Maybe it had something to do with the letter that Thalia had written. If I had only an idea what she might have written him. And then this other man, who got me out off there, brought me somewhere. And I --

 

"You do not even know his NAME!"

 

Yes, indeed. This time the voices were right. I knew nothing about him.

 

"He could be a Hammerite and do even worse to you!"

 

I looked around. The room was small. In front of the fireplace was a table with some papers on it. I moaned as quietly as possible when I tried to move myself towards it. Everything hurt. I looked down at my hands, and saw the bloody scars on the back of the right hand. And the wounds that the shackles had left. I remembered that I had mistreated my hands in the last ... hours, days? Far too long, in any case. The terrible feelings of helplessness and numbness struck me, and I felt sick. But there was still the need to learn as much as possible about this strange rescuer. I tried to ignore the pain, and crawled to the table.

 

The papers were empty. I sighed.

 

But I found a pen, hidden under some paper sheets.

 

I took the pen and an empty paper, and started to write a letter to this ominous Nightfall. The writing was very difficult for me, because my hands were shaking from the strain to crawl to the table. But the handwriting was readable, at least.

 

Dear Sir,

 

I don't know why you sent this man to get me out of Cragscleft. But I think I should thank very much you for it. But I am very curious about your motives.

 

Yours sincerely,

Lytha

 

The pen fell from my shaking hand down under the table. I tried to get it back, but in this moment I heard footsteps outside the door.

 

"Now they will come and get you back to Cragscleft! And you know what? You deserve it!"

 

I grew stiff, and my eyes searched for a place to hide. I tried to crawl away from the table, heading mindlessly to the sofa. The man came in. I stared at the door. He was alone, no Hammers behind him.

 

"You're obviously not fit to travel, so I'll go alone while you rest," he said.

 

I looked up at him, trying desperately to not let my vision be twisted and distorted by my mind. He stood a little over six feet tall. He had a large gray cloak, with the hood down. He wore black boots up to his knees, and the rest of him was covered with leather armor, fashioned as clothing, and painted black. His skin was pale, and he seemed tightly packed, strong, like he had eaten well. I did not dare look at his face. I didnt want to risk seeing something hideous in his eyes.

 

"You're not fit to travel, so I'll go alone. he said, again.

 

"Only because you can't see them this does not mean that they won't come!"

 

"And where will he go? To them, I bet!"

 

"You deserve it, you Betrayer. You deserve everything!"

 

And they broke into a laughter -- a terrible, loud laughter.

 

I tried to ignore them, but I could not force the voices down, this time.

 

He looked at me. Then he added with a smile: "As long as you don't rob my house and sneak out."

 

I stared at him. He was obviously waiting for an answer. I forced myself to nod. I managed it, but only slowly.

 

You slept all day, yesterday, he said. How do you feel?

 

I just looked at him. I blinked a few more times, and glanced around the room, nervously.

 

He nodded. Then he had a look at the table, and saw the letter. He went to the table, and asked me: "May I?" before he read its address. I tried to nod again, but I did not manage it very well this time. And my head had begun to hurt more than before. He looked at the paper, and suddenly let out a little laugh. "Well wow, so you have no idea why he sent me after you, eh? Prumph, the rich, who can figure them out"

 

I wasnt surprised that Nightfall hadnt explained it to the middle-man. Im not sure if it made me feel better or worse to know that he was as much in the dark as I was.

 

"Nightfalls! Wants you he does!"

 

"Just shut up! All of you!"

 

"Uses his dark Magiks on you he shall! Turn you into a Beastie he will!"

 

"And You Deserve it! You Deserve it all! BURN in Hell!"

 

"You in his clutches he wants! Run! Run!"

 

"Shall I take it to the Circle?" he asked, his words cutting through the shrieking in my head like a machete through tangle-vines.

 

He took my nod as a "yes" and put it into his pocket.

 

"I will deliver it to him. Now try to feel comfy here until I come back."

 

He smiled again and left the room, closing the door.

 

I tried to relax myself, but I heard still the laughing and shouting voices in my head. I pressed my hands against my forehead, to make them silent again. I managed it, slowly.

 

In the following silence, I heard him leaving the apartment. A key turned in a lock.

 

 

- Ghost: Masks - Day 7: 7:10am

 

I was feeling pretty damn good, actually. I pulled off what most thieves only dreamt of, and only took moderate injury. After a full days rest, I felt nearly good as new. Of course, a few healing potions helped as well. Yeah, I broke down and bought a couple. What the hell, I said. They may taste awful, and make you gag for air like you just swallowed a bottle of tree sap, but they do the job well. Id have offered some to Lytha, but they arent cheap, and I was sure Nightfall has more than enough to give her. Hopefully she would survive the day without it. Bastard Hammerites and their bastard ways -- Id kill them all if I had the chance.

 

Okay, so I was once again off to The Circle of Stone and Shadow. Never trust a place that had the word circle in its title, my father used to say. (He also used to say that the rats in the basement were plotting to take over the world.) I got there about halfway till noon, figuring the guy had to be in the office at that time. I strolled through the yard into one of the doors, which was always open, and made my way through the light crowd to Nightfalls big office. A smile crossed my face as I saw his secretary sitting at her desk, book in hands. I paused for a second, momentarily stunned by her shining golden hair and beautiful face. It was definitely the same girl as before, but this time I couldn't take my eyes off her!

 

Ahem?

 

She looked up.

 

I waved, Hey there, is the boss in?

 

She smiled and shook her head. Off on important business. Out of town. Should be back in a few days. She went back to her book.

 

I wanted to scream. I wanted my money now, not tomorrow, not three days from now, NOW. That piece of crap skipped town. All I could say was a very exasperated, WHAT?

 

She looked up again. Green eyes -- wow, green eyes. A friend of mine once spent two hours describing to me just how fabulous green eyes were. I cant say he was half wrong, even though he was drunk off his ass at the time. It was very unexpected, Im very sorry. You are Ghost, are you not? You were doing a job for him, correct?

 

Wow. It was definitely the same girl. It was odd how different she looked now. Uh, yeah, jailbreak He said he would pay me My mind shuddered for a moment. Did he say one thousand or ten thousand? It sounded like an awful lot at the time. I gave myself the benefit of the doubt. Ten thousand gold for the rescue of one prisoner, this Lytha woman.

 

She looked thoughtful for a moment. Do you have Lytha with you?

 

Um, no, Those green eyes were giving me goose-bumps. Shes at my home, resting. Shes beat up.

 

Hmm.. well, Id pay you myself, but I can only handle sums of one thousand or less. Damn, if I had said one thousand, I would have gotten the cash and been done with it. Im pretty sure he said one thousand anyway, ten is a huge amount for a job. I couldnt go back on a lie now, I may not get paid at all. Play it cool, Ghost.

 

Aha; well. Maybe I could pursue her to dish something! How about you give me one thousand, ten times, I said with a grin.

 

She just laughed and looked at me like I was an idiot. No one looks at me like that, man or woman! But she had those damn green eyes. What was it with them? All I could do was try not to stare. She put her book down, crossed her arms on the desktop, leaned forward and just looked at me. That was the last straw. The green eyes I could handle, but she had a rather large collar, and when she leaned forward, wow. Okay, Ghost, youve seen better in a bar, however there was something about her that was different. She had dignity -- exotic dignity. Hot damn. Okay, Ghost, focus.

 

I totally forgot why I was even there. I forced my eyes away from her. The money, right, I gotta get the money. Okay, miss, how about if you give me one thousand now, and when Nightfall gets back, he can give me the rest!

 

She laughed, and shook her head. It doesnt work like that. Why do you need this money now so badly?

 

Why? Because its my money, what other reason do I need! I was about to say that, and I dont know what stopped me. If it had been anyone else, I would have said it. A lie, I needed something to make myself not look like a bum. Um, my rent is due today!

 

She smiled at me. Oh shit, I should not have looked at that smile. Youll have to lie better than that. How did she know it was a lie!

 

Oh, Ive seen enough men lie in my day to be able to tell.

 

I said that out loud?! I shouted.

 

She smiled and nodded, giggling.

 

Damn. I would have to wait then. No sense trying to persuade with a creature that turns my brain to mush just by looking at me. My mind darted around for another answer. I did not want to waste the trip across town!

 

Would you like a drink? she said suddenly, getting up. I had seen her entire body before, last time I was here. I dont understand it. Why was she only moderately attractive before, and now all I could do was keep my jaw from hanging open. She was a little over five feet tall, well endowed, slender waist, gracefully curved hips and legs

 

I saw her hand motioning my view upwards. Hello? she said with a smile. Oh dear, I know whats wrong, she said suddenly. She unclasped the circlet from her neck, and transformed before my eyes. She now looked exactly how I remembered! She still looked great, but not mesmerizing!

 

What? What did you do?

 

This, she said, motioning to the large ring of gold in her hand. Its an artifact one of the thieves brought a while back. I had been cataloging artifacts and discovered its unusual enchantment.

 

Its a beauty spell? I said, hoping she would put it back on.

 

She laughed, No, not really. It seems that it identifies the quality of the wearer that is most prominent, and then alters his or her appearance to magnify it.

 

Ahhh, I said, looking over it. So you just got lucky, eh? I smiled at her.

 

She smiled, Maybe, maybe not. Is unsurpassed beauty a curse, or a blessing? All depends on the eye of the beholder, I suppose." Oh great, she was a philosopher. "Im sorry, I forgot I was wearing it.

 

Care to put it back on? I said with a half smirk

 

She just smiled teasingly. And let you drool, good heavens no!

 

Dammit! Ah well.

 

Say, she paused, and then handed it to me. Try it on, Ill fetch a mirror.

 

I laughed. Sure, why not. Im not partial for jewelry though, and Im afraid my neck may be too thick. I took it from her hand, and swung it open. I placed it around my neck, not expecting it to fit at all, but oddly enough it did quite well. It clasped by itself. Instinctual panic suddenly gripped me, and I quickly tried to unclasp it. I could easily enough, so I reclasped, satisfied that I could get it off. I waited anxiously while she rummaged through her desk.

 

Found it. She looked up, and gasped.

 

What? I said, disturbed by her reaction. What? Do I look like a warthog?! What?!

 

She laughed. No, look!

 

I took the mirror and looked at my face. My skin was pure white, and my eyes were a pale red. Whoa! I shouted, and then broke into a grin. I look like a ghost! We both broke into laugher. Perfect! I admired my new features in the small mirror. I then looked up at her and grinned. Wanna have some fun with this?

 

She looked at me mischievously. How?

 

Oh, I dono. How much trouble could an insanely beautiful young lady and a ghost get into, eh?

 

She grinned. Oh, I do adore trouble.

 


Chapter 9 - A Little Bit of Vandalism

 

- Lytha: Who is He? - Day 7: 10:00am

 

I was still on the floor, beneath the table. The man had left the house, and had said that he would deliver the letter to Nightfall. And he had said that Nightfall had sent him. This did not make any sense. I did not know Nightfall, and most important, I did not know this man. And I did not know anything about his motives to get me here. I had to figure out who he was, what his motives might have been, and if he was indeed a thief, like me. I stumbled to my feet, and tried to ignore the scared, childish voice in my head that cried in its fear.

 

When I took my first step, I couldn't keep my balance. I tried to brace myself against the table, but I fell on my face. Some of the paper fell down, too. Sitting amongst the papers, I pressed my hands against my forehead. The headache was horrific, and also the loud laughter of the malevolent voices. The two dead monstrous Thalias appeared shortly in my view. "Just go away, damn it!" Another voice in my head -- my own. Great, I was already shouting at myself in my head now. But somehow, it worked. The Thalias still stared at me, but they were silent for now. I closed my eyes, and stumbled to my feet, again. This time I managed it to stay upright, and I moved slowly to the shelves at the wall.

 

It had many papers on it. One was a letter, addressed to someone called "Ghost." I reached out to get it, but I was already shaking because of the strain. I stumbled, and hit the shelf with my head. More papers went to the floor, and also some books. I sat down, and searched for the letter in the scattered paper sheets. I found it, and read it immediately.

 

Ghost,

 

Surely have you already heard of the Star of Alarus. I am certain that it can be found in the Catacombs of this Alarus family. I have also heard that this place is haunted, but you know how fast rumors are spread. And now I am looking for someone who is not easy to scare. And somehow I had immediately thought of you. So, do you want to go and get it? The price for it is high.

 

Ragbert

 

It had also a small paper attached to it, where someone had made some notes about the details of the job.

 

I searched a little more, and found similar job offers. I took some of them, and put them into the remains of my pocket. If they were only a fake, it was a very well done fake. I concluded that the name of the man was "Ghost", and that I should find out more about that. But first of all, I had to get out of here.

I got up and moaned because of the pain and the short attack of dizziness. I leaned against the shelf, to wait until the dizziness had gone away. The shelf shook, and more papers fell to the floor. I stumbled towards the door. It was locked.

 

Locked. Locked! I could feel that I was going to get into a panic. I beat against the door, shook the doorknob. I could hear my heart beating in my ears. It was a very stable door. There was no chance to break it open. Nevertheless, I threw myself against it, ignoring the pain in my body. I hit my hands against the door, and sunk down to the floor, almost crying. My head was in a chaos.

 

"Run! Run away!"

 

"Yes, of course. I will run away. But how?"

 

"I Hope He Will Go and Bring some Hammerites. You Bastard!"

 

"Run! He will bring the other one! The one with the teeth! Run! The one who -- "

 

"Or He will bring this Nightfall. And he will smite you with his Magik. Wouldn't Thisss be pleasing?!"

 

"Just calm down. All of you. Just -- "

 

"RUN!!!"

 

I was shaking. Out. Yes, out. Away. Why had he locked the door? Out.

 

I looked around. The windows were small -- too small to get out. Was there a trapdoor? Every thief would have a trapdoor. I rushed to my feet and hurried as fast as I could to the couch and tried to move it. There was nothing under it. I looked at the table. Some porcelain fell down and broke. There was nothing under the table. I leaned forward into the fireplace -- nothing. I moved the things on the top of the fireplace. More fell and broke still nothing.

 

When I tried to reach the shelves, I staggered and fell onto some pieces. One of them hurt my mistreated right arm, and it started bleeding again. I fumbled the piece out off the wound, and stared at the blood. It bled on the carpet. I tried to stop the bleeding with a piece of my torn clothes. The wound was not very deep, so I managed to make it stop.

 

This short break had calmed me down, a little. I had found some evidence, or at least some well-faked letters. Hammerites would never fake something to press confessions out of someone, so they were probably true. I had some of them. As long as he wouldn't force me to empty my pockets, I had something against him in my hands.

 

I was still shaking. The room was too small to be locked inside of it. Now, when I had calmed down a little, I felt the pain again, in my entire body, in my other wounds, and now in this additional fresh one, with the cold sharp pain. Luckily it had stopped bleeding. I crawled to the corner beneath the fireplace, and squeezed myself into it. I drew my legs to my chest, and embraced them. The headache started again -- so did the ranting voices. I closed my eyes, and tried to ignore them.

 

 

- Ghost: All I Wanna Do is Have Some Fun - Day 7: 10:00am

 

I really wasnt thinking about that money anymore, nor was I thinking of Lytha back home. The past few days had been utter hell, and I was looking forward to at least a few hours of pure fun and mischief. Sheam and I strolled a few blocks down to the Rusty Lantern Inn, owned by Lord Zeppher, a merchant and landowner who was decisively fat. It was a simple setup, front of the place faced the road, ally to the right, the next shop to the left. We could not have looked any more innocent as we strolled down the ally, and climbed up the fire escape.

 

"So what are you planning?" She said, grinning.

 

"Hm, not sure. I suppose we'll rob the place blind, bash it up a bit, and scare a few dozen guards shitless."

 

She laughed, and said in a very ditzy voice, "Oh dear, Mr. Thief, and what would a poor defenseless tagalong like me be doing?" She fingered the circlet and winked.

 

I grinned broadly. "Diversions are good."

 

I had always worked alone before. Then again, the stakes had never been lower. I knew this guy only hired local riffraff, who would sooner take a bribe than turn us in, even if we were caught. Even then, I trusted my combat skills, and a guard wouldn't dare harm her when they could just stare at her and gawk.

 

In no time flat, we were in through the window, and looking around in a vacant guest room. I quickly checked around, searching for any goodies. I heard a crash, and I quickly turned around, shocked to see Sheam dumping things out of the window!

 

After I stopped laughing, I said, "What are you doing?"

 

"Vandalizing!" she said, gleefully.

 

I grinned and just looked at her as she emptied the contents of the night stand onto the street below. "So," I said finally, "How did someone like you end up with a secretarys job; especially for this Nightfall character?"

 

She shrugged, "Just lucky I guess." The she paused, her mood a bit changed. "Before I worked for him I was a barmaid, or wench as they liked to call me. It was the only job I could get. I tried to get better ones, believe me, but It was either that or be a servant for a rich lord and risk being molested. At least as a barmaid, I was able to fight back and not have to worry about being thrown into jail."

 

I grunted sympathetically. She went on.

 

"Well, one day my boss caught me reading on the job. For some reason he thought that it was unsightly for a wench to be doing something intelligent when there were patrons to flirt with, and I was fired. Pretty much then and there I was blacklisted from any bartending or waitress positions."

 

"Blacklisted from being a barmaid? That's a new one." I remarked.

 

She gave a little laugh. "Well it was back to the streets for me. I was squatting in an abandoned shack in the slums when he found me. Nightfall, I mean. He saw me in there, book in hand. Honestly, when I saw him in my doorway I was scared stiff. I thought for sure he was a Keeper. When I was young I remember reading tales about them, and was always frightened and fascinated by them. When I saw this shadowy person right in front of me, I was sure that this was one.

 

"Hum, Keepers, I heard of them once or twice. I dont believe in em."

 

Her smile returned. "Daneel says they exist."

 

"Daneel? Whos that?"

 

"Huh? Oh, Master Nightfall."

 

"Ah yes, I remember you called him that before."

 

She nodded. "Say, what is your real name anyway?"

 

I shook my head. "Ghost."

 

"Is that the name your mother gave you?" she said with a laugh.

 

"Its the name I gave me," I said with a grin. "You were saying?"

 

"Hmm?"

 

"Nightfall, in your home?"

 

"Oh yes. Well, to my relief, he was very friendly. We chatted for a while, and when he was done he offered me a job in the library at The Circle. After working there for about a week, he upgraded me to secretary and aide. That was pretty much that."

 

"Just like that?"

 

"Just like that."

 

"Weird guy. So whats it like workin' there? Is the pay good?"

 

"Pay is all I could ask for. I live in the lap of luxury, servants provide plenty of food, and have a job that lets me do all the reading and writing I could ever want. Have you seen the library at The Circle? Its huge!"

 

"Heh, Ill bet! So youre livin' the good life now, eh?"

 

She nodded.

 

"How does a guy like that make it so rich? I always thought you had to be a brute and a hardass to make your way to the top. All these lords and barons and what-have-you are all just total jerks!"

 

"I dont know," she said shrugging. "He came about three months ago, right after that incident downtown. Remember how the old Hammer temple was destroyed by monsters?"

 

"Yeah."

 

"Well, he came a little after that. I dont know where his wealth came from, or how it sustains itself. I do know, though, that he doesn't hold very high value on money. I guess the saying about the more you have, the less it's worth, is true. Oh, you know his home in the mountains? It wasn't there before he came. It just seemed to grow up overnight. He doesn't own The Circle, he's renting it, but the repairs and redecoration he has done to it would have put most noblemen into years of debt."

 

"Must be nice..." Hmm, I was seriously considering working for this guy more often.

 

"Hes great to work with. Even though he's very distant and private, he's very personal and friendly. He always makes me feel like we're standing on equal ground."

 

I nodded, "Yeah, I know. So is there anything wrong with this guy? Mr. Perfect eh?"

 

She laughed, "Well, he can be very detached sometimes -- cold, you know; indifferent. If he sees suffering, he will usually ignore it. If they come to him, though, he will be sure they are satisfied. He likes that in people -- initiative. He says that if someone has too much pride or fear to ask for help, then they do not need it. As much as he does for people, I sometimes get the feeling that he is doing it for some hidden agenda, and not truly to be nice. However I doubt it matters, except in the long run, of course. Also, if he doesnt like you, he wont exactly hide it." She stopped and smiled, shaking her head. "Poor Jossimer; he never can please the master."

 

She paused, considering. "Hes dangerous though, to his enemies at least. We dont know much about his past, only that he has been in several wars. He was a general in the last one, I think. But that was many years ago, in a very far away place. Thats really all I know about it." She took a deep breath, and continued, slowly. "Ive heard he practices magic, or used to, but Ive never seen it, or heard him mention it. Ive seen him angry before, enraged. He was ruthless. It was with good cause too but, my, one doesnt expect things like that from people who do the things that he does."

 

"Why? What did he do?"

 

She hesitated. "I dont know details. All I know was that the offender was a type of person he had absolutely no tolerance for. Most cruel men still have shreds of good in them, but there are some that dont. Nightfall will smite, as he calls it, them without hesitation."

 

"Nice guy," I said, half-sincere, half-sarcastic.

 

She smiled. "He is." Then she frowned. "Oh now I feel bad. I shouldn't have said all those horrible things about him! He's a dear and an angel and I trust him with my life," she said with a prideful grin. "Forget all that other nasty stuff."

 

I looked at her like she was insane, but laughed anyway, humoring her. "Oh of course, whatever you say, Sheam."

 

I checked around the room, to see if we had missed anything. With the exception of the bed and the wardrobe, everything in the room was now on the street. "Alrighty, Sheam, lets get down to business. Im betting all the guards are in the bar, up front, save one in the back, who is probably bored stiff."

"Lets get the guy in the back first," she said with a grin.

 

We casually walked out the door and down the hall. Once downstairs, we crept carefully around to the back room. We could hear the guards up front laughing and carrying on. I peeked into the back room door, and saw the guard, sitting on a stool, head down. He seemed to be singing to himself.

 

"Dum de dump de dum de da da, de dat de da de dada, dum dum de dumdidy dum!"

 

The room was packed full of supplies for the bar and inn. Crates and boxes lined all the walls to the ceiling. I knew a safe had to be in here too. I motioned to Sheam to be very quiet, and watch. I took the circlet from her hand, and clasped it around my neck. I didnt feel a thing, but I checked the skin on my wrist, pulling the glove out of the way. I was good to go.

 

"Dum de dat de de dada. da de dat de da de da, if I only hada brain! Heh he heh"

 

I snuck around the perimeter of the room, taking greater care to remain utterly silent then stay in any shadows. There were none to speak of anyway. The guard grunted, and shifted his view across the side of the room opposite from where I stood. I kept moving. Finally I was behind him. I crept up slowly, then tapped his shoulder suddenly.

 

He turned around with a startled jerk.

 

"BOO!!"

 

"AAAHHHHH!!" He screamed and fell out of his chair. He then passed out.

 

I laughed so hard I nearly threw up. Sheam was rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically. I had to fight to catch my breath.

 

"Oh man, that worked better than I thought," I said, between fits of laughter. I took off the circlet and looked at it. "Oh damn, I LOVE this thing!!" My eyes darted around. "Anything here to steal?" She pointed to a safe on the wall, and then to the key on the guards belt. "Oh, this is too easy."

 

So Sheam and I had laughed ourselves silly, and split three hundred gold between the two of us. I was totally content. "My turn!" She suddenly shouted, and grabbed the circlet. "Im gonna go have fun with the slugs up front."

 

With no desire to protest, I followed. After a quick stroll through a few halls, we peaked into the main tavern chamber, where three guards were seated, all totally drunk.

 

Hic! Hey Larry! Paz me somo dat shit."

 

Larry passed a large keg, and proceeded to dump the contents on the table. The first guy took a drink of empty air.

 

Hic! Well whaddya know hic -- it does taste better da more ya drink!" He took another swig of air.

 

"Damn man, dont take alla that shit!"

 

"I aint takin alla dis shit!"

 

"Yes you is!"

 

"Shuddup about shit man!" He belched loudly, and then lowered his voice, leaning forward as if to share some wisdom, "You ever tasted real shit?"

 

"Shit yeah I tasted shit!" Larry shouted.

 

"Whad it taste like?"

 

"It tasted like shit; what else is shit gonna taste like?"

 

"Umm.. I dunno "

 

"Hell, one time I went three weeks without takin a shit!"

 

"No shit?"

 

"No shit, no shit!"

 

"Sheeeiittt!!"

 

Sheam looked at me. I wasnt sure if she was totally disgusted or about to break into laugher. "Ive worked at a bar for seven years, and I have never heard that conversation before."

 

I laughed under my breath. "No shit?" I said jokingly.

 

She gave me a sharp nudge with her elbow, and grinned. She took the circlet from my hand, winking. "You may want to cover your eyes until Im out of arms reach," she said with a grin.

 

I closed one eye, and left the other one open a hair. Unfortunately she turned around right before she put it on, and all I got to see was her hair change from dirty blond to bright gold. She walked out into the bar.

 

"Hey there boys!" She shouted, as they started hooting and hollering when they saw her. One of them got up and motioned to grab her, and she let fly a kick that sent him staggering away! The other two laughed like mad, which didnt last long, because she took them by the hair, and smacked their heads into the table! The first one got back up, raving like a lunatic, and charged her! She leapt up and whipped her shoe across his cheek, sending him flying in my direction. I caught the guy, turned him to face me, and screamed into his face at the top of my lungs. He screamed back, half because he was startled, half because he was so incredibly drunk! I then threw him back at Sheam, and she finished him off with a sock to the back of his head. But then the other two started to wake up! She grabbed one of them by the scruff of the neck, dragged him over to the bar, flung him OVER the bar, and into the rows of bottles and glasses. She then took the third guy in the same manor, and used his head to break the table clean in half, dropping him to the floor when she was done. She dusted herself off, and removed the circlet. She hadnt even broken into a sweat. All I could do was applaud!

 

"Thank you, thank you." She grinned, taking a dramatic bow. "You can tell, Ive wanted to do that so badly all my life. Filthy bar scum!" She stretched her back, legs, and arms, so utterly satisfied.

 

"Now where did a delicate creature like you learn how to fight like that?"

 

"Like that? Heh, that was nothing. They were so drunk a child could have done the same."

 

"You um, you didnt really need that thing, did you." I had thought that she was going to use it to distract them with her looks, but it seems I was wrong."

 

"No, I just wanted it to get stuck in their heads that they were beat silly by a striking young lass." She grinned. "Theyll never think of wenches the same way again!"

 

"That is, if they remember any of this when they wake up!" I said, laughing.

 

"Oh, drat, true. Ah well, I still enjoyed it." She kicked the one who broke the table.

 

"So who trained you?"

 

"Nightfall did, but he told me to never give him credit. Oh, oops."

 

I shook my head, amazed. "Say, grab a bottle off that shelf. I owe you a drink."

 

She sat down next to me, and kicked my shin. "You do it, I aint yer barmaid!" she said with a laugh.

 

Complying, I fetched a tall bottle of imported wine, and two glasses. "Hey, if its on the house, may as well cut to the top, eh?"

 

"But of course!" She sipped her wine.

 

"So, " I said, "What else did Nightfall teach you?"

 

"Well, martial arts, of course. I never was very thrilled with sneaking around, it just doesnt sit right with me. I can kick-box, like you saw. Thats the only unarmed combat I do. Fencing, of course. Quarterstaff was the first thing I learned -- bows as well, though I never really got the hang of it. Someone else is teaching me right now different languages. I've always loved to read, so I've always known a bit more then the average person. Most of the stuff Ive learned while working for Nightfall has not come from him, per se, but from cataloging the stuff in the Circle, and reading the books there."

 

Hmm... she was peaking my curiosity. "Not to be nosy, but this Nightfall sounds very, interesting. Is there anything else you can tell me about him?"

She cleared her throat. "Not much to tell, really. Hes extremely private and secretive. I have full access to The Circle, but have only seen a fraction of the interior of his tower."

 

Time to let fly the question I had been pondering. "So, why did Nightfall want Lytha rescued anyway? I mean, shes never met him! What does he want with her?"

 

She shook her head. "I cant speak for him. Knowing him, I doubt that he truly wants anything from her. Ive never known him to really want anything from anyone, in the way you are thinking of. My best guess would be that he heard that she was wrongfully convicted, and saw the need to save her life."

 

I was truly stunned. "You mean, he risked my life to save someone who wasnt even important?"

 

"Not at all. He hired you. You didnt have to take the job, but the price was right and you did."

 

She was right of course. "Hmmm," I said. "I had better be getting back home."

 

"Yes, and my break was over an hour ago," She said with a grin. "It was a pleasure getting to know you, Mr. Ghost. I know Ill be seeing you again soon."

 

"Indeed!"

 

At that, we left through the front door, and went on our separate ways. No doubt when the owner gets home, the guards will all be flogged for getting drunk, getting into a fight, and then passing out. I wondered which one he would accuse of stealing the cash out of the safe. "I saw a ghost!" the guard in the back room would say, and my wouldnt there be fun then. Ahh, the beauty of a job well done! I went home amused, relaxed, and slightly richer than I had been several hours ago. Hopefully Lytha wouldnt rain on my good day.

 

Then I remembered the letter! I hadnt given it to Sheam to take to Nightfall! Damn. Oh well, I had gotten a little more information on why he rescued her. Im sure she would be happy for just that.

 

I decided that since I had a decent heap of spare cash in my pocket, I should treat Lytha to a good meal. I was sure she hadn't eaten well in quite some time, and I knew there wasn't much food at my place, so I stopped at a corner market and grabbed some goodies for us to munch on. It was getting late. I hadn't meant to leave her alone so long. I was starting to feel guilty about goofing off with Sheam, even though we had a lot of fun doing it.

 

Returning home, I found a note stuck to the door.

 

"The Hammerites are having a major meeting at the main Temple in town tomorrow night Perhaps you should go pay them a visit.

 

It was signed "The woman in the alley." Oh great, her again. If there is one thing I hate about this business, its that no one uses names. Well she said that I needed to save Ragbert, and I didnt manage to do that, so I guess this is her idea of a good vengeance for me. The idea wasnt half bad.

 

Turning the key in the lock of my door, it clicked unlocked. I was ready to invite Lytha to a good meal, but instead what I saw stripped off any good mood I had left.

 

"What the hell? What did you do to my house?" was all I could say (scream was more like it,) as I dropped the bag of food on the table and slammed the door. It looked like the Hammers had come in looking for me, except that most of the furniture was still unbroken, but moved, and papers and junk were everywhere. My rage died down and turned into sympathy quickly when I spotted her. She was curled up in the corner with her knees brought up to her face, shaking and crying. Yelling at her wasn't helping at this point. She looked nothing short of psychotic, her clothes were in tatters, her red hair was looking pretty wild and her green eyes were red from not sleeping and crying. Hey, more green eyes. If staring could kill someone those green eyes would have killed me. She had had some kind of breakdown and from the looks of it I was probably responsible. I walked over slowly, took her hand and knelt down in front of her.

 

"You okay?"

 

She nodded slightly -- a good sign. She was bleeding again, her right arm had opened up, and she looked like hell. Maybe I should have gotten her some health potion after all. Maybe Sheam would give me a flask on the house.

 

"You need to eat something so you can start to get better. Can you walk to the couch?"

 

She nodded again and started to try to stand. She was too weak to be really mobile so I helped her to the couch, once I put it back where it was supposed to be.

 

"It's no wonder you're too weak to move, it must have drained you to destroy my house like this," I grinned, hoping the cheerfulness would get a response out of her, but it only seemed to confuse her. I helped her to the couch and set out the food. It wasn't much, just some chicken and some fresh veggies, but it was more than shes seen in days. Lytha just looked at it, strangely uninterested. Maybe she was still too mad at me to eat.

 

"At least eat a little. If you feel like eating a lot you can do that too."

 

She seemed to smile a little and grabbed a carrot. We ate in relative silence. She put down more than I thought she would, which was good. She broke the silence with something that caught me off guard.

 

"Ghost..."

 


Chapter 10 - A Coming Together, and a Ripping Apart

 

- Lytha: Dinner for Two - Day 7: 8:00pm

 

I hoped that he had not felt the papers in my pocket when he had brought me to the couch. He seemed like he cared about me, but I was still not sure about his intentions. The childish voice tried to tell me that he had, of course, really bad motivations, but his next questions interrupted the shouting inside my head.

 

"It's no wonder you're too weak to move, it must have drained you to destroy my house like this," he said. I have no idea what he meant by that. He smiled widely at me, which only served to make me grow tense. He offered some of the food to me. I tried not to look at it. I waited for a voice in my head to tell me that it was poisoned, or something ever more horrid, but the voice never came.

 

"At least eat a little. If you feel like eating a lot you can do that too."

 

I didnt want his food. I didnt trust him and I didnt trust his food. Fortunately, I suppose, the instinct for survival outweighs paranoia, and eventually I gave in to the extreme hunger I felt. I grabbed a carrot. It was the easiest to get into my mouth.

 

He began to eat the meat. It looked like it was some type of bird. Strange, it was already cooked when he got here. He must not be as poor as this shelter made him seem, to afford a service like that. I finished my carrot, and began to take other vegetables. He ate slowly, and wasnt looking at me. What was his name again? I couldnt remember. Somehow I felt it was important. What was it? Ghost I suddenly whispered, remembering.

 

He looked up suddenly. What? How do you know my name?

 

I was silent. I put down the piece of fruit I was eating, having lost my appetite.

 

"Why were you in there? Prison." he asked, after a pause.

 

I was not sure if this was not another trick of the Hammerites, to get more confessions out off me. I tried to change the subject of our conversation. "Nightfall wanted you to get me out But why? I don't even know him."

 

"I'm as curious to why as you are. Maybe if I knew why you were in there we could figure it out."

 

This was surely only a trick. I refused to know anything. Of course I remembered my expedition to the hunting lodge very well, but I did not intend to confess more than they already knew. "I... I don't know why..."

 

But he insisted. "What was the last thing you were doing? That you remember?"

 

Telling him about my last expedition was definitely not a good idea. But I heard myself already talk about it, and couldn't stop myself from doing this. "I was in that lodge. In the woods, in the north... and then they came." The memory of the pain as the crossbow bolt had hit me in the shoulder and as they had kicked me, struck me. I tried to forget, and made a fist. Before the voices could continue to shout at me, he asked the next question.

 

"Sounds like you were in the wrong place at the wrong time... or they followed you there. Was it a Hammerite lodge?"

 

"No, it belongs to this rich lady. No Hammer lodge. But I -- " I stopped. Telling him about my plans for the break into the Hammerite Temple would indeed be a very bad idea. My intentions for the lodge's burglary had been simple: I needed gold for equipment. I wanted to pay them back what they had done to Thalia, while she was arrested. I tried to nurse her back to health. Seeing her scared face every day had increased my hate against the Order of the Hammer to an insanely high level. The avenging had still to be done. "Don't be silly and throw the chance for revenge away through talking about it. Just shut up about this." Those were my own thoughts in the chaos inside my head.

 

He sat cross legged on the couch, and looked at me. The long pause seemed to have made him very curious. "But what?"

 

"Nothing," was the only answer that came into my mind. "Don't say anything! You are still not sure if he is no Hammer spy!" I looked nervously down to my hands. But once again my lips were faster than my mind. "I have no idea what the Hammers wanted there. It was just a lodge. Just a small tidy hunting lodge." Something inside me seemed to trust him. He had a very friendly face.

 

"What were you doing there? Was it your lodge?"

 

"No. I live in Newmarket. At least I lived there. I doubt I can go back there now." I was sure that I had told them where I lived. The Hammerites would search for me there in the first place. No chance to go home, now.

 

"Yes, the Hammers had a note about who you are... They will be looking for you -- and probably for me, too."

 

For him, too? Another part of me decided that it wanted to trust him. I relaxed a little more. I tried to tell him more. "I fear I told them more than I wanted. And I can't remember what I told them; but definitely far too much." I hesitated a moment.

 

"Okay. You said you lived in Newmarket and that you can't go back... Do you have any family in the area?"

 

"Just as she -- " We had spoken at the same time. I looked up, irritated, and answered his question first. "No. I have no family any more."

 

"She who?" he asked.

 

"She. My sister. Thalia. But she is dead now."

 

Yes; Thalia was dead. She had died some days ago -- or weeks? Counting the time was difficult now. I had cared for her, after she had been released from the Hammerite prison. They had arrested her a few years ago, because they distrusted everything that they couldn't easily control. They could not control the criminals, and they could not control the telepaths. And that's what was wrong with Thalia. She was both.

 

We had a lot of fun with her telepathic abilities, when we were young. Yes, those were happy days, before we learned that this was not normal and that others hated her for it. We stopped playing with it soon after, before we had figured out if I too could do it myself. I was sure that I could not. I did not want to have that ability. It caused only pain, threat, and loneliness. I had seen it, when it happened to Thalia. And I was very good at denying possible facts. So, I was sure that I had absolutely no telepathic abilities.

 

I had tried to help her in the last month. The goal of my last few burglaries had been simply for her survival. I had failed. And she was dead. I had given her a burial, but that was far too little. So, I had developed my plan to pay back to the Hammerites. I had already got myself some maps of the most important Hammerite temples, and I had spied around the places a little. The revenge had still to be carried out. Maybe I could stop the voices in my head in that way. And maybe I could stop my self hate that way. Trying to forget my feelings of guilt about my sister's death, I stared into the nothing.

 

"What did you do over in Newmarket?" his question brought me back to reality.

 

"I -- " I hesitated, but remembered what I knew already about him. He was a thief, same as me. I continued. "I had a job similar to yours, I think."

 

"It seems to be a popular job these days. You're either a rich old bastard, or trying to rob them," he said, laughing.

 

I smiled wanly. "Yes... the rich old bastards were my most preferred targets, indeed. They have too much, you know."

 

"Yes, I know. But I'm trying to change all that." He was still laughing.

 

"Popular job... indeed. But what else could you do? Working in the guild of seamstresses?" I tried to make a joke, myself. Some part of me stood beside myself and watched my relaxed face with anger, fear, and hate. But I managed another smile.

 

Then he said, still laughing: "I could be a Hammer guard... 'Thou there, stopeth thee thisith instantith!' "

 

"What? And you trusted him?"

 

"He Is a Hammer! As I told you! You never listen!"

 

The fear and mistrust was back, and I stared at him, frozen in fear.

 

"I'm sorry. It was inappropriate," he said, as he realized my pain.

 

"He will bring you back to them" cried the childish voice, filled with pure fear.

 

"And You Would Deserve It. Of Course. But You Could Prevent It. You Know How? Attack Him. No Matter How. Attack Him! Get Out!"

 

"Shut up. Both of you! I want silence in my head! Give me time to think, damn it!"

 

I still stared at him -- probably very aggressively. "Are you one?"

 

"No... I don't like them any more than you do," he said, slowly. He seemed to be scared by the fact how aggressive the thought made me.

 

I tried to relax again. But I kept watching everything very attentively. He would never betray me.

 

"You probably don't remember, but several of them died on the way out of the prison. I'm sure they aren't too happy with me," he continued.

 

"I don't remember. There was this terrible numbness. And those voices -- " I said, but stopped immediately when the voices shouted at me to stop telling him about them. I glanced nervously at him, but he seemed to be happy that I had broken my silence. He ignored the fact that I stopped in the middle of the sentence.

 

"I'm not surprised. You didn't even complain when you fell on the floor." He was much more relaxed, and started smiling, again.

 

I smiled briefly, myself. "Didn't I?" I felt tired after the dinner, and yawned behind my hands.

 

"No. You were a good escapee."

 

"Oh well. At least thats one good thing about me." I said.

 

After that, we went to bed. Despite my tiredness and the knowledge that I really needed more rest, to feel better tomorrow, I couldn't fall asleep. I still heard the voices, and tried to make them silent. But it didn't work very well. My head hurt again. In addition to the ranting voices, I remembered more of the last few days. I remembered that I had probably given the Hammerites the names of almost everyone I knew. I thought about it. I should eliminate any records of that. And I should eliminate the witnesses and the Inquisitor. I could not let them arrest everyone, only because I had given the Hammerites some suspicious circumstantial knowledge about them. I wouldnt -- and not because I owed them something; no, some of them were my friends. Friends were rare for me, but I had one or two. I couldn't let happen what I predicted.

 

I rolled to my left side, hoping to feel comfy in my usual sleeping position. I moaned as I felt the pain in my left side. I rolled to my back. The voices came again, and the thoughts. I rolled to my other side.

 

After some hours, I had still not closed my eyes. But I had a raw plan for a possible solution, to be carried out as soon as could be. I turned again, restless in the bed.

 

 

- Jyre: A Goodbye - Day 7: 8:00pm

 

I laid his body in the shallow hole I had managed to scrape out of the hard, dry soil, crossing his arms over his chest and gently closing his eyes. Dirt from my fingers now marred his smooth skin. It seemed out of place somehow. Odd, considering I was about to cover him in the stuff. I watched him for a while, remembering our short time together. Then I scraped the dirt over him and lay a single white flower on his grave. Some would have said prayers at this point, or asked their god why. I had no need of such things. You learn things quickly growing up on the streets. There were no gods, only yourself and the people around you. What you got from life you were either born to or you worked for it. When it was your time to die, nothing would prevent it. Still, I felt the need to say something. I remembered a prayer Aulden once said at a funeral. "Nature takes your body now as once it gave it to you. Your life did bud, grow, and come to flower. Now it will fall to the ground to merge with earth and sprout new growth. When the bud forms anew you will find new places, see new faces and experience new things. May fate smile fondly on your transition." I stood and watched the sunset as I remembered the time when he had told me of his belief. There were no gods involved here, no strange otherworldly beings with unknown intent, just nature taking its course as it did with all life. I smiled as I thought that. There weren't many things we had shared but such a belief had been one of them. "Sleep well," I whispered, fighting back the tears. I turned for the city once more.

 

 

- Nightfall: Personal Log, 9.12 - Day 7: 11:00pm

 

"Okay, so they found Private Ranthos stuck up in a tree today, and Private Christopher was just gone. The two poor saps went out scouting, and next thing we knew, Ranthos was holding on for dear life to a small branch on a large oak, screaming like a banshee. How did they get him down? They chopped the tree, of course! Poor fella, that must have hurt. Hell be limping for quite some time. Anyway, he said a dark spirit leapt out of the tree, grabbed him and Christopher, flew up, and dropped him, but not his friend. They just carried him off. After the tree came down, they burned it. Typical.

 

"The morons thought it was a tree spirit. Ive got news for them -- If it was a tree spirit, then I bet it would have crushed him. All those tangle vines would have grabbed onto his little mansie flesh and smashed his ribsie-cage. No, it picked him up and dropped him -- the tree wasnt the suspect. Its a beast. Wouldnt be surprised if it were the same beast, or beasts, that were responsible for the tree falling on the bulldozer, or the missing hammers. Must be a mongbat. Damn, I hate mongbats. I used to kill them for sport no, not even for sport, just because I hated them so much. Ive visited so many different lands across so many different realms, and none seems to be free of the scum. I mean, hell, if some whacked out deity was going to create a beast, why the hell did he have to combine a monkey and a bat? As if a monkey and a rat were not nasty enough. I swear those things are messed up.

 

"We have been at this for three days. THREE DAYS. I want to scream. These pinheads could have been to the damn lodge, torn the place down, and been home by now, without their infernal machines! Damn damn damnit damn dammmmmnnniiitttt!!!! Sigh. Wow, did this book just record all that? One Damn will do.

 

"Ok, now I feel better. I always hated camping. I mean, I love the wilderness, its a great place to visit, but I do not want to live here. Its wet, hot, the insects are in season, and worst of all, I have to take my cloak off to be comfortable. Damnitallagain!!

 

"Okay, out with it Dan, why are you really so pissed off? No one is reading your log but you, (until someday someone finds it and decides it needs to be published! Ha! That will be the day!) All right, out with it. Okay. Last Night, when I spoke to Cristen, in my dream, she warned me that she sensed much danger ahead. Shes never wrong about these things. She also said that in the direction Im heading, the force of evil is so strong that her projection would not be able to reach me. I fear that tonight she may not be able to contact me.

 

"Okay, Richen has started to snore, so I may as well try and get some sleep. Oh look, left over dinner. Hmm... someone forgot to salt the fries

 

"End Days entry."

 

 

- Nightfall: Thurm's Sermon - Day 8: 6:00am

 

Ahh, dawn. The birds are singing, the flowers are opening, the huge metal monstrosity is churning away, ripping everything in its wake to shreds. What a beautiful day! Yes, as luck would have it, the repair crew had worked day and night, and not only rebuilt the broken machine, but enhanced it. Now we had two again, and they were shredding wood like it was going out of style. They even got the idea (geniuses), to employ the wrecking machines in the task of killing trees and widening the road. Brother Thurm was back, and I gladly returned command to him. I dont think Ive ever seen him happier. He even accepted my offer to ride with me in the carriage, in spite of the fact that it was driven by a beast! What have you to fear, Brother Thurm? Surely if the emissary to the Master Builder trusts this beast, so should you! I was amazed, not only did he accept, but he even talked to Richen!

 

So, my good sir, have you ever considered following the path of the Master Builder?

 

Richen looked at him, and then glanced at me. I knew he was thinking, why the hell did you invite this guy to sit in the passenger seat? Urm, well now that ya mention it, sir, well, cant say ah ever did. Nope. Erm, not that Im closed to it er anythin, its jus dat --

 

Thurm looked at me, and then back to him, cutting him off. Do you mean to tell me, that Master Nightfall has never spoken to you of our ways?

 

Uh wellumm

 

I interjected quickly. Oh indeed I have. However Richen expressed his desire to investigate the matter personally, rather than be preached too. I grinned when I said it, hoping that Thurm would let it alone. I respected his wishes, as the Master Builder teaches us. Respect between two men is a bridge cast in iron, nothing shall compromise it, as long as the two banks remain firm! Actually the word was trust, but I love to bend those things.

 

Ahh, I see. Good then! I shall not preach to thee. However I am sure that thou wouldst not be offended if I simply speak to thee!

 

Oh brother.

 

Oh well ser, actually ah think twould be best if ah --

 

You see, as Hammerite Compendium of Precepts, Regimens and Rules of Conduct, Vol. 108 teaches us, Mortar cannot hold when the stone is not strong and clean. Before beginning thy endeavors, look to thy material, both physical and spiritual. If thou art to begin your search for true faith beneath the Master Builder, thou must first cleanse thy mind off all previous false assumptions! However thou shouldst not be wary to begin thy journey, for fear of error. As Hammerite Compendium of Precepts, Regimens and Rules of Conduct, Vol. 113 teaches us, A stroke of thy chisel, once made, canst not be undone, but a stroke thou dost not make from fear is a worse flaw. Be not cautious -- be correct. All men have much potential within our order. It is truly a sin for any man to not realize all that he truly can be! As the Hammerite Compendium of Precepts, Regimens and Rules of Conduct, Vol. 12 teaches, The Builder gave thou the raw stuff of thy life -- makest thou a great work of it or thou mockest His gifts. However, always remember, the Order of the Hammer is very strict in its rules of conduct. We understand the difference between accident, mistake, and evil intent. Who can forget Hammerite Compendium of Precepts, Regimens and Rules of Conduct, Vol. 141, which gives the parable, When the Builder came amongst his children and asked, who is it that hath spoilt this work?, then didst his errant son answer I do not know. Then didst the Builder cast down his son and smite him with his hammer. For is it not known that a mistake may be mastered, but a lie lasteth forever on the tongue? As one of us, you shall be building a legacy for yourself that will span the ages! As is written in Hammerite Compendium of Precepts, Regimens and Rules of Conduct, Vol. 170, The proof of the wall is that it stretcheth above the height of a man, and lasteth beyond the span of a man. Our greatest works exceed us in all ways. The work you do as one of us is more than any simple commoner could ever dream of! However one must be wary that thy accomplishments do not make thee vain. Vanity, as all flaws, will cause any mans downfall. As Hammerite Compendium of Precepts, Regimens and Rules of Conduct, Vol. 199 dictates, A flaw in the gear will fate it to shatter, a flaw in the beam harbors the termite, a flaw in a man's righteousness encompasses his death. Death, as many men believe, is the ultimate end. For a man to die in the manor I discussed above, it truly is his end. However for some men, who truly repent and worship the Master Builder, and follow his ways, shall live eternally with the Master Builder, in the great Metropolis of heaven. The Book of the Hammer itself speaks of it! I stood before a tower, of planks and nails and stone carved with fire, and I said, surely my eyes behold a miracle, not meant for man, but the Builder smiled and spake, I stand with my mind in Heaven but my feet upon the Earth, and so shall you and your kin. And I wept, though I knew not why. It is truly a place of unbridled glory, but to attain it, as I said before, one must repent! It is not easy to truly repent in this way, most never do, but it is always possible, even for a thief! As the Hammerite Compendium of Precepts, Regimens and Rules of Conduct, Vol. 2, says, and I quote, When the thief did cry to the master, release me, for I repent, and shall do good all my days, then did the master strike the thief's hand from him with a blade. And the master said, go now and do good, for thy repentance has been paid. That man bore the punishment set down by the Master Builder, and his slate has been cleansed. He may start anew! However this does not mean that his path is any easier. The path to righteousness is ever the struggle! Those who try to make it otherwise shall surely fail! As Hammerite Compendium of Precepts, Regimens and Rules of Conduct, Vol. 36 states, Time once past, the harlot did say to the priest, tarry a while, and wait upon thy duties, and the priest did tarry. And then was the harlot scourged with birch branches, and was the priest crushed beneath the great gears, for the path of righteousness leads ever upwards, to where it is perilous to fall. Thou must be eternally vigilant if thou dost wish to live with the Master Builder for all eternity! We hold the hammer in our hands as a symbol of our vigilance! We never tire of its weight, nor do we pause in its use. As Hammerite Compendium of Precepts, Regimens and Rules of Conduct, Vol. 39 commands us, Hadst I a hammer, wouldst I hammer in the morning. Wouldst I hammer in the evening, all over this land. Thou must always take the tools which the Master Builder has granted thee, and use them, fearless of the danger! As Hammerite Compendium of Precepts, Regimens and Rules of Conduct, Vol. 53 warns us, To use thy chisel is to blunt its edge 'gainst the stone. To not use thy chisel is to waste its edge! Never waste anything the Master Builder has granted thee! Thou must heedst the works of those that came before thee! As Hammerite Compendium of Precepts, Regimens and Rules of Conduct, Vol. 7 clearly states, When the Builder walks before thee and builds for thee a fortress, wilt thou go inside and shut the door? Or wilt thou say Yes, and now I shalt raise one of mine own! Thou shalt build a tower, tall and sturdy -- a tower never falters, if the stonework is true. It is ever vigilant, just as are we. This that thou dost see around thee, it shall one day all be gone. Hammerite Compendium of Precepts, Regimens and Rules of Conduct, Vol. 77 tells us, What is a tree but a tower that withers and dies? What is a pond but a cistern that stagnates and fills with muck? What is a patch of ground but a road which cracks and washes away? These are chaos, and chaos decays. By the words of the Book of the Hammer itself, Dig your hands into the earth, and then let the clay and dirt fall to the ground. After a year's passing, can you find that clay again? But drop a stone block, a wooden beam, a fired brick. It will persist a year, and another hundred years beside! There is no vigilance in chaos, no righteousness, no faith, and no trust. Chaos is a disease that infects the world in which we live. Heed the words of Hammerite Compendium of Precepts, Regimens and Rules of Conduct, Vol. 94, Guard thy tongue from falsehood as thou gardest thy purse from a jackablade. Guard thy hand from misdeed as thou gardest thy house from firelighters. Guard thy heart from doubt as thou gardest thy tools from corrosion, for thy faith and thy tools are the best that thou hast.

 

Richen just looked at him. Thurm just looked back, finally finished. After several moments, I spoke.

 

Um, Brother Thurm, thy words were noble indeed, but I do indeed believe that you were preaching.

 

 

- James: Knowledge Gained - Day 8: 3:00pm

 

The day was spent, and much knowledge was gained. Though it was still merely mid afternoon, I felt as if I had done a weeks worth of investigation in just a short few hours and now it was time to go home. I would have liked to have rested when I got there, but I had a report to prepare. My job never seemed finished. I looked up to see storm clouds gathering, and noted that I had best make haste, or find some type of natural shelter. A few moments walk on my tired limbs prompted me to investigate the possibilities of the 2nd option. After all, I would be no good at writing if I was too tired to hold a pen. Best to rest now while it rained, and have a clear mind for the journey home and the preparation of my report. I looked about for something to turn into a shelter, but after visiting the remains of that villa, I was unsure if I would truly sleep.

 

 

- Nightfall: The Storm - Day 8: 3:00pm

 

There was something definitely very evil about the sudden thunderstorm that swept over us. It was the middle of the afternoon, and the sky suddenly filled with dark clouds. Before long, it was as dark as night; a night without sunset. The sky was filled with billowy blackness. Our only light came from torches, and the thunderbolts which rippled incessantly across the sky. When the rain came, it was a wall of dark rushing water, racing towards us, until finally we were engulfed in the fury of it. The torches were extinguished, as were the fires powering the machines. The task force came to a total halt, and soldier and worker alike dashed about, to preserve any equipment that might be damaged by the rain.

 

However the rain soon became the least of our worries, as several lightning bolts struck ground, bursting trees into flame. The flames did not last long, but the force of the strike shattered the wood, hurling slivers of oak and pine, impaling anything that was not made of stone or metal. Richen and I found shelter from the rain, lightning, and debris under the carriage. Most of the Hammerites hid under the great machines. May the Master Builder save them if the wheels should fail and it comes crashing down.

 

The storm had been raging for a good hour, when the true threat came. The fiends which had been sabotaging the force all along made their appearance plainly. A Hammerite with sharp eyes spotted them, about five dozen black specks in the sky. They looked like oddly shaped birds. It was not until the soldiers began to assume defensive positions that I noticed the new threat from above. I recognized the sight almost immediately. I was correct, they were mongbats, big ones. I could tell that they were not passing through -- they were making a direct assault. It was the last ditch effort by this Lady to stop the task force from destroying her lodge, no doubt. Each of the beasties had a scimitar, and were beginning the attack dive.

 

The Hammer captain ordered the men to take up defensive positions around the machines. The rain was still very heavy, so it was hard to hear the shouts and the commands being issued. Richen was growing restless, still oblivious as to what exactly was happening. I told him, and he evinced both excitement and dread with a grimace. He drew his short-blade and made ready to defend Suzy and the carriage. I cursed myself for not brining along my longbow. All I had to fight these monsters with was my quarterstaff. I had never tried to fight airborne foe with that before. It would be interesting.

 

The lot of us looked up in anticipation, weapons wielded, watching the black shapes in the sky grow more and more defined. A group of the soldiers raised their crossbows and simultaneously fired. Several of the creatures dropped, but overall the salvoes did little to stop them. All at once, the creatures struck. Some ended their dives with a slash of their blade. Other went into a suicide dive, blade extending forward to impale whatever they hit. Others simply made landfall. At that moment when the initial attack came, the majority of the damage to us they would do was done. Many of the soldiers were maimed, or killed, as the long curved blades sliced through them. Several dozen suicide bombers slammed themselves into the great machines, doing great damage to the delicate machinery, and shattering their bodies. For several seconds thereafter, the air was filled with the deafening tones of monkey chatter, rain, and the screams of dying men.

 

Our counterattack was swift and deadly. As if unified by one massive force, all hammers struck mongbat flesh simultaneously. The air that was once filled with mongbat chatter was now filled with their shrieks of agony. Then, everything broke into a melee. Our numbers were about equal at that point, but it did not stay that way. Several of the Hammerites still standing were indeed slain, but the rest worked quickly to pound the beast attackers to a pulp. Some mongbats tried to escape, but where made short work of by crossbow bolts. About a dozen of the creatures channeled their attention towards myself, as if the Lady knew who I was and told them to make sure I was dead. I did not attack them -- I waited for their approach. One by one the foolish creatures dove at me, and each dive was met by a fell swing of my staff. The party was cut short when five or so soldiers came to my aid, doing with their hammers, damage which I could not hope to do with a staff.

 

Within minutes, the battle was over. I cast my eyes about the scene, my gaze moving from corpse to corpse, Hammerite and mongbat alike. Only about thirty of our initial group were left, but we, in all, slew more than seventy of the creatures. It was still raining. Remembering, I quickly went to Richen. He was nursing a broken arm -- the horse was fine. However my new carriage was destroyed. I gave Richen a healing potion, which he took thankfully, and as soon as the magical fluid had mended his arm, he moved to inspect the horse to make sure she truly was fine.

 

My next task was to find Brother Thurm. I found him, standing in the middle of the battlefield, moving from soldier to soldier, healing wounds with his Hammerite magic. I watched him work, laying his hand on the shoulder of the men, concentrating, and then moving on to the next. No physical wounds were healed in this manor. Some of these men would live out the rest of their lives with missing arms or legs, but their constitution was restored, and the pain was numbed. When he was done with each, several surgeons took over, administering whatever treatment was needed to stop bleeding. I watched in admiration of their efficiency, and of the bravery of the wounded men.

 

I approached Brother Thurm.

 

Brother.

 

He raised his downcast eyes at me. Yes, my friend?

 

Were the losses serious? I asked, feigning ignorance.

 

He shook his head. No, not serious. Our force was only maimed, theirs was slaughtered. The gravity in his voice deepened. This Lady is no simple pagan. She is a force to be reckoned with. She is a fool to think that this feeble attempt to stop us will do any more than delay the inevitable. Now we have our brothers and sons to avenge, and our justice shall be more severe. Yes, more severe by tenfold. He moved away from me, to the machines. All the workers were occupied tending to the wounded soldiers, so the broken hulks stood solitary in the dark rain. He went up to one of the wrecking machines. All the arms were broken and the steam engine cylinder was shattered. Bits and parts of mongbat were strewn about, and the entire thing was coated by their blood. He laid his hand on a place where the metal was still clean, and then bowed his head. I turned to walk away, and let him be alone with his destroyed creations.

 

Daneel.

 

That was the first time he had ever called me by my first name before. Yes, Thurm?

 

He turned and looked at me. The rain had died down slightly, so I could see his face. He looked tired, and beaten. The fire and enthusiasm were gone from his eyes. Is the beast -- the horse, alright?

 

I was shocked that he showed concern. Yes, she is fine.

 

He nodded. Good.

 

I didnt know what to make of it. Maybe he found comfort in knowing that my creature was all right, even though his were dead. I could have speculated, but I left him alone to mourn.

 

I walked back to Richen who was attempting to put the carriage back together. The Hammers were beginning to stack the mongbat bodies into a heap for burning, and line up their fallen brothers for burial. I was about to speak to Richen, when I heard a shout from a Hammerite soldier. I looked over my shoulder, and standing at the end of the road was a group of Hammerites. It was one of the scout groups, and from the looks of the direction from which they approached, they had come from the lodge.

 

Brother Thurm! Captain! Master Nightfall! the party leader shouted.

 

I approached him, as did Thurm and the captain.

 

Yes, lieutenant, what is it? What have you to report?

 

Brother Thurm, we came immediately when we saw it. We were almost complete with our patrol when we circled back to the lodge, and we found The man hesitated.

 

Yes, what is it?

 

The Lieutenant told him. The words he spoke filled me with dread. Thurms eyes seemed to come back to life, but instead of with pride and excitement, they held anger, fear, and hatred.

 

Take us to the wreck. Thurm said, motioning for me to follow. We left immediately.

 


Chapter 11 - Aftermaths

 

- Nightfall: Return to The Lodge - Day 9: 6:00pm

 

It was not a good feeling. It was a horrifying sense of anticipation.

 

The storm decided to let up and cut us a little slack. The rain slowed down to a drizzle. A fog quickly rolled in, covering the view in an eerie mist. The dark clouds slowly rolled away, opening the sky on the horizon so the light of the setting sun might touch us. Rays of orange light cut through the mist, seeming to point us in the proper direction. We did our best to work through the soaked underbrush, being wary of pits, puddles, or other hazards. We moved quickly by foot. Brother Thurm and the captain walked together. The scouts walked up ahead with the lieutenant. I took up the rear. We traveled without a word, or even a glance at each other. We all knew what we were about to see, and dreaded the thought.

 

The smell hit us with a sudden gust of wind. It was the horrid smell of rancid meat. Smells like that made you wish you didn't have a nose, or, at least, has a very bad cold. The Hammerites winced in disgust, and tried to cover their noses with pieces of their uniforms. I just slowed my breathing and pressed on. After what seemed like hours, we finally made it to the lodge - or what was left of it.

 

Nothing could have prepared us for what we saw there. The lieutenant could have described it in intricate detail, and we still would have been stunned. The lodge, as described before, was gone. In its place, was pure death. I pity any soul not moved to sickness by the sight. It was something I was, sadly, not unfamiliar with. However I doubt my reaction would change should I see it a hundred times.

 

What was once wood and stone, was now flesh and bone. The pentagram shaped lodge had transformed itself, to what was perhaps its nature all along - a house of rotting skin. Bones tied tightly together into beams by vine formed the skeletal framework of the building, with pelts of skin, immediately recognizable as human, forming the walls. Everywhere you looked you discovered new ways in which flesh and bones could be used as construction material, blood and organs included. Some of the flesh was fresh, blood still gushing from it, but most was old and rotting. My stomach begged my eyes to fall from the sight; hide from the ghastly images, but they could not. The sight was far too overwhelming. I felt a weakness in my knees, but stood firm, fighting off the sickness.

 

The construct was slowly falling apart. With the Lady's magic gone, there was nothing left to hold the soft building material together, and gravity began to take its toll. Thurm finally could take no more and turned his back on the sight, eyes cast downwards. The lieutenant kept his eyes clearly away from the building, having no desire to look again. The captain slowly walked towards it. I could not see his face from where I stood. I saw his head turn as he looked the structure over, his hand shaking as it gripped the hammer tighter and tighter. Suddenly he let out a scream of rage. He took two steps backwards, pulling his hammer high above his head, and charged. As the Hammer came crashing down on a bone support beam, thrust with all his might, the wall shattered. Bits of torn flesh, whipped away by the sudden release of tension, flew through the air. He let out a deep sigh and turned to face us, his face specked with bits if blood. His eyes were dark, and filled with tears. He looked up into the sky, and proclaimed at the top of his lungs: "Builder! Guide thy servants righteously! Bless us on this holy quest to rid thy earth of this evil!" Then he was silent.

 

Eventually, the captain walked to Brother Thurm, who was still looking away. The captain's eyes were clear now, almost calm. "My Brother: lead us."

 

Brother Thurm turned to face him. He then glanced at me, and then to the wreck, quickly pulling his eyes away as if the sight pained him. "Captain," he said finally, "summon thy men. This creation must be obliterated. The ground on which it doth stand must be sanctified." Thurm's voice was shaking. The captain nodded, and ordered a pair of the scouts to come with him. Brother Thurm finally seemed to come to terms with what we had to deal with, and looked upon the structure, his eyes empty. The lieutenant approached me.

 

Master Nightfall, thou art wise in the lore of the land. What creature hath done this?

 

I did not answer him at once. I looked at the structure again, especially where The captain had attacked it. I was in no mood to discuss my theories with the young officer. I was too busy contemplating the implications of this situation. The Lady was an extremely dangerous creature, and at large. There had to be a way to determine where she fled to, but I feared that any trace of her departure was destroyed along with the lodge's previous manifestation. Hopefully James would have some answers for me.

 

My Lord? he said again. I sighed, and glanced at him to let him know I heard.

 

The Order of the Vine, I said simply, and then walked a few steps away from him, making it clear that I did not want to discuss it further. After several moments I glanced back at Thurm. I wondered when The captain would get back.

 

He was whispering to himself. I could not hear the words. It was a prayer no doubt. I looked back up at the wreck. The portion that the captain destroyed sagged, and soon another section crumbled as well. Even without the help of the Hammerites, this thing would be nothing but debris within hours. I didn't know which would be a worse fate for these people who went into the building's construction -- being smashed to bits by holy hammers, or simply rotting into the forest floor over time. The woods were dead silent. None of the usual forest background noises could be heard, not a bird or insect, not the rustle of leaves, not the sound of water dripping off foliage.

 

I was relieved when I saw something out of the corner of my eye. At first I thought it may be the Hammerites, but disregarded that thought based on the direction from which it came. It must have been an animal of some sort. I took comfort in the thought that there was something alive here other then the trees and plants. I seated myself, not really interested in looking at the wreck anymore, and waited patiently.

 

Eventually they came. There was only a handful of soldiers left, possibly several dozen, and they were wet, tired, and wounded. The captain lead what was left of the once-proud task force into the clearing, to where Thurm and I waited. As the men saw the structure, their reactions were mixed. Some were shocked, others sickened, others angry, others wept, others vomited. They were a rather displeased group, to say the least.

 

Brother Thurm spoke, My sons, he hesitated, slowly turning away from the structure to face the men, demolish it.

 

The men looked at it, sick with anger, and hesitant with fear. The captain spoke reassuring words. My brothers! Use the gifts which the Master Builder hath granted thee, thy hammers, thy holy instruments, to purge the land of this abomination of pure evil! The dark power here cannot harm thee, as long as this sacred tool is clenched within thy fists! Built into this structure lies the bodies of thy fellow man. Free their flesh from the wood and vine which captivates them, so that their souls may find rest! At that, the group rushed the building, and struck hard with their hammers. They surrounded it, systematically pounding and smashing, without hesitation or fear.

 

 

- Jyre: One Last Hope - Day 9: 6:00pm

 

It had taken three days to remove the worst of the damage, although I couldn't get rid of all the bloodstains. It was not as if it really mattered. I wasn't planning on sticking around. The hardest part had been Els' burial. Letting him go was the hardest thing I had ever done. I must have sat at his graveside for hours, thinking.

 

Once that was done, I saw to myself. I splinted my damaged ankle, applied salve to the many cuts and bruises and strapped my arm to my side. I didn't have the courage to set the dislocated shoulder. Then I moved everything I could out of my onetime home, taking anything unsalvageable to the dump and selling the rest. The only things I kept were a few supplies, my bow, and the necklace Els had given me after he had first rescued me from the Lady's clutches.

 

I did all this in a state of numb depression. All my feelings, everything that had happened over the last few days, I locked up in a little box deep inside me. I needed to be calm now. I needed a clear head. I had no doubts as to who was responsible for Els' death. I wanted my revenge. But I was almost sure I could not have it.

 

I let the cool stream water wash over my fingers as I stared down at the city gates, watching the trickle of human traffic that passed through them. Four Hammerite guards checked every person through, asking them their business and checking their possessions. I had avoided the gate myself, choosing to climb out where the stream flowed into the city. The small hole that allowed it free passage was a tight squeeze but I had used it fairly regularly in the past. That was a bit stupid really considering I couldn't swim.

 

I sighed and turned my back to the city for the last time. I had no desire to go back there again, Lady or no. I had been hurt too often to see it as my home now. My eyes roamed over the rolling green land that eventually led to the woods and the Lady's lodge. I considered going there and making one last futile attempt at vengeance something I should have been doing instead of running off to fight undead. I felt no urgent need to do so though, so I let the idea drop.

 

Where then? I asked myself as I stared at the ugly paved wound that the hammers had created through the untouched land. There was surprisingly little movement on the road, considering the amount of people at the gates. Perhaps I could go to the docks, hop on a boat and go back to that other world I had known briefly. I was torn on that one. It would be good to forget about this place but I wasn't quite ready to let go of it yet.

 

Small white clouds drifted across the pale blue sky as I considered what to do. I glanced at the sky above where the Ladys lodge would be, and saw many dark clouds hovering unnatural, evil looking clouds. I found the site disturbing, so I looked away. I looked in the other direction instead, to where the clouds were small and thin. The sun's setting rays cut through, giving everything they touched a gentle orange glow. It was getting late now, almost evening. Soon the sun would set behind the mountains, and the world would belong to my people; the thieves. A flight of birds passed overhead, flying in a perfect arrow formation. I followed their course, turning on the spot as I did. As they flew to a range of mountains, I found myself staring at something I had spent many days and nights staring at before; a tall narrow structure, silhouetted as the sun set behind it. It was the place to which I had gone and started this terrible adventure: Master Nightfalls tower.

 

I felt my whole body relax for an instant as I gazed at it, remembering all the times I had trekked up there, to deliver to Nightfall a trinket or bauble I had stolen. He always accepted, and always found some way to repay me. A smile crossed my face for the first time in days as I remembered the time which, rather than pay me with supplies like I asked, he handed me a half broken lockpick and told me where I could steal some from. He never made it easy, but he did so in such an odd way that I didnt seem to mind. I pulled myself back to the present, and refocused my eyes on the tower, which suddenly didnt seem so far away. It was almost as though it was waiting there for me to come to it, beckoning me.

 

 

- Nightfall: Prayer for the Dead - Day 9: 7:00pm

 

Plume and plane, forge and fire, purify their spirits; and draw from them all which does not meet Thy plan. Take them to serve with Thee in Thy Home, where they may rest in peace eternal.

 

I spoke the Hammerite prayer alongside them. It was more than just a facade this time. Though I did not believe the Master Builder to be any more than a great man who lived long ago, I still prayed to my own god for the souls who were sacrificed at this evils whim.

 

After the structure had been torn down, by hammer and axe, three piles were made. One was of the broken wood and vine used to fasten the body parts together. Another was of the flesh and bone which was identified as being of animals and beasts. These two piles were then thrown into a pit, and buried. The third pile, of human flesh and bone, was laid out and stacked carefully, blessed, and then cremated. The ashes were placed in urns, crudely fashioned from segments of hollowed out logs. By the time they, or we, rather, were done, there were twelve large wooden urns filled with ash, ready to be transported to the cathedral where they could be exorcised thoroughly. According to the Hammerite beliefs, the spirits would then be able to rest.

 

I stood not far from where I first arrived and looked at the spot where the structure had once been. After they were done dealing with the bodies, they scrapped and ripped everything off the ground they could. The pentagram shape the building once held was still clearly scorched into the earth. Where the substructure of the building had been, was now a wide pit, about ten feet deep, filled with loose dirt and broken roots. At the center of the pentagram, and base of the pit, was a very large stump. It was laden with impacts and cuts, where Hammers set to with their weapons in an attempt to destroy it. It seemed, however, that they either lost interest or were defeated by it. Neither case seemed likely with this group, so I could not help but be suspicious about it.

 

I decided to investigate. Night had fallen so most of the soldiers had already been relieved, and traveled back to the main camp. Before they left, they set up a perimeter of torches in the clearing to keep it illuminated so the soldiers who were staying to keep guard could see. The main camp was set up at the scene of the battle with the mongbats, using the wreckage of the machines for shelter and fortification. The only people still here aside from myself were the captain, Brother Thurm, a few solders and scouts, the troops who would keep watch during the night, and Richen.

 

I saw out of the corner of my eye, the captain speaking with Thurm. I listened.

 

My brother, there is a great restlessness which lies within myself and the hearts of our sons. We feel we have not done all which we shouldst. Is it not true that we were sent here to slay the pagan leader which resided within this unholy place? And have we accomplished this task? Nay, all that was done will be for naught if this vile fiend is allowed to slip from our grasp! For the sake of all future victims to this beast, we must press on! No force this powerful could flee without a trace. We will find this trace, and it shall be this fiends undoing. Until then, I declare that we must honor the tradition of old and build a temple of our own atop the ruins of this shrine to the pagan lord. I suggest that we pave this road which we have worked so hard to construct, and build a tower on this spot. It hath been done before, and we shall do it again. This land will be conquered and from this day forth be a monument to our vigilance. I could tell by the man's voice how angry he truly was, and how hard he was trying to contain it. He felt as though this was a slap in the face to him and his soldiers. They had worked this hard, come all this way, only to be thwarted at the very end. He wanted victory so badly, and was searching for a way, any way, to find it. He continued. This campaign must not be left incomplete.

 

Brother Thurm nodded, and spoke his reply. I agree, captain. Thurm then took a deep breath and looked about. Yes, a tower shall be built. It was disturbing to see the usually long winded and enthusiastic man so drained and depressed. I could see it in his eyes, his faith was weakened. His faith in the machine and technology were being tested like never before. Those wrecking machines were his pride and joy, and he had watched as they were reduced to junk. To add insult to injury, it didnt even matter. In the end, the work he had envisioned the machines doing was accomplished by simple men. That, plus this display of raw might put forth by the pagans, had weakened him severely. He would recover, I knew, but he would never be the same. He was less nave now, in a way. I dont think he had ever before seen what the Order of the Vine was capable of. He had lived in the cold, clean, polished world of the Hammerite monastery all his life, and knew little else. Rigid and brutal as their doctrines may be, they were still sheltered. They were sheltered from chaos. Thurm now had his shelter whisked away, and had been fully exposed to pure chaos. I understood how he felt. After all, I was every bit as depressed as he was.

 

I was pulled from my thoughts as the captain approached. Before I could address him with the question of the stump, he got right to his point.

 

Brother Thurm and I shalt be making our way to camp. Wouldst thou like to accompany us in our tent?

 

I shook my head no. Ill be staying here for a little while.

 

There was a tap on my shoulder, just as the captain asked, Art thou sure? I glanced over my shoulder to see Richen. I turned back to the captain.

 

Yes, captain, I am sure. Thank you for the offer. I gestured to Richen to wait a moment.

 

Very well sir. Just note that Brother Thurm doth indeed wish to speak with thee. I shall tell him to approach thee in the morning.

 

Very good, I said. Tell Brother Thurm that I wish him well. He turned to go. One thing. I said, quickly getting his attention. I am curious, why did the troops leave the large central stump standing?

 

The captain shot me a half smile. Brother Thurm wouldst attempt to tow it with one of his mechanical children. He described to me a vision of a massive mechanical beast ripping the stump and all of its roots from the ground. I called the men off, honestly interested in his ability to repair our demolition machines and convert them into such a locomotive powerful enough to do such a thing.

 

I nodded, pleased to hear that. It was good to know that Thurm was still thinking like his old self. Finally I bid the captain farewell and turned back to Richen who was waiting patiently for me. Yes, my friend?

 

I eerd you say ta tha capin that yea will be stayin oot ere fer a bit. Jus askin ya ta find out if I should save ya any dinner? Ill be makin some beef stew.

 

I shook my head no. I have no appetite, thank you anyway Richen.

 

He nodded. No prob then sir. I set us up a campsite jus ootside the ammer tents. Ive goot Suzy tied up all proper like. Shood I expect ta see ya thar tmarrow mornin?

 

I sighed. I dont know. I glanced about the clearing, and saw that all of the Hammerite scouts had taken up their watch posts. I turned back to him slowly. Get some sleep, Richen.

 

Aye, that I will. We shook hands, and he walked off in the direction Thurm and the captain had. I was now alone.

 

There was no sense in trying to eat, and even less in trying to sleep. I knew I would not be able to do either, even if I wanted to, which I didnt. I decided that it would be best if I found a good observation point from which I could see the entire clearing. It would be even better if I could not be seen from this point. I soon found one in a large tree nearby. It was on the very edge of the clearing, opposite to the main camp. There was a point about twenty feet up where three branches split off from the main trunk, forming a nice basket-like area. I found my way up and laid my cloak over the branches, giving this basket an almost seat-like quality. It was not my recliner back home, but it would definitely do. I was correct about the vantage point - I could see the entire are quite nicely from here. I noted one of the scouts who just happened to be looking in my general direction, and I tried to signal to him by waving my hand. He did not see me, or, at least, did not acknowledge. I decided that I was hidden well enough.

 

So there I sat, watching, and waiting; for what, I did not know. Maybe I expected to see one of the pagan scouts, and then to track him or her, (or it), to the new base. Most likely I was just going to wait until sunrise. I wondered how Thurm and the captain, (whose name I really should ask about), were doing. I did my best not to think of the horrors I had witnessed today, and spent my time thinking instead about my plans for The Circle when I got back. Maybe that rare set of antique armor would finally arrive. I had ordered it over a month ago.

 

Try as I might, I could not let the current situation slide from my mind. Where could this Lady possibly have gone? I doubt she went back to The City. That would be too easy to track. However, the best place to hide a letter is on the mantle, so going back to The City would be an option were I in her situation. She and I, however, were like night and day (possibly a bad analogy) so I had my doubts she would do what I would do. I did know that she was no fool. I also knew that she was highly unpredictable.

 

The initial scouting party has found the house vacant. At the time, I reasoned that they simply had not been thorough in their search, and failed to discover any secret compartments or underground passageways through which the occupants had fled (of course, they also could have merely been out for the day.) Now it was rather clear that the place had already been abandoned. It had been abandoned for over five days more then enough time to get far, far away. Now that I thought about it, it was foolish to think that these pagans would just stay here and wait for the Hammerite task force to come and kill them. They must have gotten word from their spies that the scouting party was on its way, and fled immediately. The mongbats were left behind to slow down or possibly even destroy the assault force which they knew was coming.

 

Why had I not deduced this long ago? Was I that preoccupied worrying about Jyres fools errand into the Forbidden sector? Even if Els had managed to rescue her, I would have no way of knowing out here. I was confident in her ability to survive, as well as Els prowess. He had already saved her once from greater odds. Was I too busy feeling guilty about Lytha to think about what was going on around me? The Hammerites were, invariably, a very harsh and cruel bunch, especially to those they deemed pagan, so chances were that Lytha would not have survived her first day of interrogation. Still, those who lived in the woods tended to have a higher constitution then those in The City, so even if she was an old woman she may have lived long enough for Ghost to get her out. As for Ghost, he was a freelance master thief who was being paid to do a job for a fence - his neck was his business, not mine.

 

I hated being cut off from the world for so long; this not knowing. I was used to being kept up to date, by the hour at least, on the events going on around me. At any rate, I was sure that Sheam would send word as soon as she heard anything about Lytha or Jyre. Jyre, the person who clued me in to this vile monster, I thought to myself. I wondered if our paths would ever cross again. She had always been a very unusual person. It was as if she belonged here in this world as little as I did. I suspected that I would see her again, soon enough.

 

My train of thought was broken when I spotted movement down below. I saw a shadow captured briefly in the torch light. The torches were flickering so much in the breeze that it was hard to tell exactly what the shadow was, but it was definitely alive. I quickly scanned the entire clearing, paying close attention to the massive star-shaped pit and the stump in the center. Most likely it was well concealed, from me at least, behind the steep lip of the pit. I knew something was still down there. I could sense it. I relaxed, making it appear as if I had abandoned my search. If whatever it was could see me, then hopefully it would be lulled back into a sense of security and let its guard down again. From the look of the guards, they were totally unaware that anything was amiss. Two of them even looked asleep.

 

Time passed. Then quite suddenly I saw him again quite clearly in fact. There was no more doubt; he was the same someone I had seen earlier. In a way I was disappointed, since it was not a pagan and I would not be able to stalk him back to base. I was, however, relieved. I watched the man, genuinely concerned by the fact that he was totally unconcealed, as he looked directly at me and then point to the stump. He then melted back into the shadows. I waited a moment, and then several, and then many, but the man did not come back. Deciding he was gone, I slid down from my perch to go investigate closer that with which he was so fascinated and wished to share with me.

 

I, quickly and quietly, though I could have been marching and playing the trombone and these guards would not have noticed, went to the stump. I took a moment to sum it up. It was rather tall and thick. It stood about thirteen feet, and was maybe five feet across at the top, and ten at the bottom. The first seven or so feet was a mass of roots, which converged into a trunk, as was proper for a tree to do, at where ground level would have been. It was, on a whole, a big ugly stump. Something on the surface caught my eye. It seemed as if a small stream of metal was embedded into the side of the stump. It started about a foot below the top, and flowed down the truck until it vanished unto the mass of roots. The wood around the metal was burned heavily. I climbed up the roots so I could get a better look. The ax cuts left by the Hammerites came in handy. The source of the metal was a small and shallow hole. It looked like a hole left by a spike.

 

I jumped back down to the ground. It occurred to me then that there was something quite unusual about this stump. With most types of trees, the roots spread out in all directions, with many roots laying horizontal to the surface. These roots all went downwards, each at nearly the same angle. From the looks of it, a chamber could neatly be hidden inside the roots. Now, the Hammerites beat down on this thing rather heavily with their hammers and axes, so a way in would have to have been very sturdy. That, or it could be enchanted. It did not take long at all to find a section of two roots which did not have any axe marks on them. After my initial reaction was to ignore it, I knew that I had a winner. After overcoming my intense urge to leave it alone, I gave the section a sturdy tug, and open it swung. Sure enough, there was a small chamber within.

 

I glanced about to see if any of the scouts had noticed. As suspected, they had not. I squeezed my way in through the narrow doorway, and found myself in a medium sized nondescript room. The air within was not stale. The room could not have been sealed long ago. The smell of rotting meat still hung lightly in the air. As deduced formerly, the roots of the trees formed a rather conical chamber. Further establishing my theory that this was no ordinary root system, there were no signs that a tap rot had ever existed. In fact, this stump was seeming more and more like severed hand, with many root-like fingers pushed into the ground. Yes, there was a passage leading down from here. It was more like a pit, leading a short way down, and then out. Other then that, the room was barren. There was barely any room to stand, and the ground was loose soil. Cautiously, I lowered myself into the narrow hole and into darkness. I paused for a moment and listened. I heard nothing alarming. It was not pitch black down here. Part of it was a dim ambiance from the moonlight, but there was also a dim reddish glow coming from far down the passage. After an initial hesitation, I pushed on.

 

It was not long before my eyes adjusted to the darkness, and I could see at least well enough to tell whether or not I was going to fall into a pit. The passage was wedge shaped, flat at the bottom with the walls slanting to a point above. The walls were rough and jagged. I could not tell if it had been dug by man or beast. It would have been nice to stop and do an archeological and geological analysis of the rock, but I didnt have the time, the resources, and I really wasnt all that interested anyway.

 

I had been traveling for many minutes before the red glow was heavy enough so that I could see properly. I cautiously proceeded, my ears straining for any sign of other life. By the time I was about halfway to the source of the light, I noticed that it was a great deal hotter down this far. I could also clearly make out an archway up ahead, and a sharp turn into what looked to be a larger chamber which was illuminated by this red light. I continued towards it, my speed increasing.

 

It was now rather clear that I was in the territory of the precursors. This was not the lost city proper, but possibly another of their settlements. The way the walls were cut was definitely their style, and the archway ahead was an even stronger indication. The Lady must have discovered this ancient entryway and built her lodge right on top of it. I didnt need any more indications to prove to myself that this was the way the pagans had fled, but I did want to explore a bit more before heading back.

 

The tunnel twisted at a sharp right angle directly after the arch, leading into the massive chamber. I tucked myself against the edge of the arch, doing my best to look into, or at least listen into, the cavern. Initially I settled for the latter. I could only hear a very deep rumbling noise. Finally, I peeked out slowly.

 

It appeared to be a large man-made chamber. The floor had been ground flat, much like the walls and floors of the passage. Four large pillars marked the room into quadrants. The ceiling was clearly tunneled out by the flow of lava, but I could not see where the lava would have entered or exited, so this cavern could not have been part of a lava flow network unless the traces of it were removed. The room was more like a foyer, acting as an entry hall to an underground city. I suspected that this was a back door. This was far too simplistic to be a main entrance, especially because the passage to the surface was so narrow. I saw a bridge in the center of the room, which must have spanned some sort of chasm. I was in no position to see any more, though.

 

Confident that the coast was clear, I stepped out into the room, still careful to maintain a level of cover. I used the shadow of a large pillar as a walkway to get a closer look at the rift. The rumbling became significantly louder as I approached. Soon it became apparent that this chasm was actually quite large, and took up most of the room. I gave the chamber another once over from this new angle before finally stepping out into the red light to get a better look at the bridge. To my dismay, as soon as I was able to look at it from a proper angle, I saw that the bridge was totally destroyed! Only the mountings on either side of the rift remained.

 

I walked up to the very edge of the broken bridge to properly examine it. Before I got a chance, my attention was quickly diverted to the source of the red light and the rumbling. Flowing in the depths of the rift, was a river of lava. It amazed me how close to the surface lava always seemed to be in this realm. After my brief skit of cynicism, I was back to the matter at hand. The torrid air was rippling heavily, in the pattern of a strong air current. I didnt need to see the ripples to clue me in to that - I could feel the sweltering breeze.

 

I tore my attention away from the molten flow and back to the bridge. The center of the bridge looked as if it had been melted clean off. The cut was very smooth, and there were signs that the cut rock had been molten briefly. It was as if a giant welders torch had sliced the center of the bridge off. I could not tell if it had happened yesterday or ten thousand years ago, but I trusted my hunch. Fire magery, at least in this land, was unknown outside of the Hand Brotherhood elementalists and the Hammerite Order of Priests. We had no idea of the Ladys capabilities, so I was not one to put this past her. After all, she had already proven herself to be a powerful sorceress.

 

By now I had a rough plan formulated. The pagans had fled into this underground city, and destroyed the bridge to keep the Hammerites from following. They did a good job on that mark. There was nothing the Hammerites could do here. It would take far too long for them to rebuild the bridge, what with the passageway leading down to here only being wide enough to let the men travel through single file. The pagans would have won at this point. It was a shame I had no intention of letting them win.

 

It was time to take matters into my own hands. But first I needed to get to my tower to gear up.

 

 

- Lytha: More Nightmares - Day 9: 10:00pm

 

I moved in darkness. In absolute darkness. And then I heard them again. Voices. And a light went on, and off, and on. Flickering. I saw faces in the darkness, in the short intervals of light. Faces of Hammerites. Grotesque faces of dead people. Thalia. The face of the Inquisitor. The pain. They moved towards me, pointing with their hands at me. Or claws. With their eyes motionlessly wide open. Thalia slowly raised her hand, the head of the Inquisitor hanging from her claws. She held up her other hand, holding another head, the face of which I did not recognize.

 

I tried to back away and stumbled into someone or something. I turned, and saw into the face of the man from the prison from the opposite cell who had He grinned, and reached out to get me

 

I screamed.

 

And found myself upright, sitting in a bed.

 

Someone sat beside me and had grabbed my upper arms. "Hey, hey hey... Lytha. Calm down. It was a nightmare," it said.

 

"What? Where " I said, shaking.

 

"A nightmare. You are in my house. No Hammers or monsters here. You've screamed loud enough so that the neighbors have probably woken up." Ghost offered me a glass of water. "Here. Drink. I've mixed some of the healing potion in it. That should chase away the nightmares."

 

I drank, and fell asleep again after a few minutes. This time I had no nightmares.

 

 

- Nightfall: A New Mission - Day 9: 10:00pm

 

Brother Thurm! I shouted, as I entered camp. He emerged quickly from his tent. I approached him. Brother Thurm, I have found where the pagans have fled to.

 

His eyes widened. Thank the Builder for his emissary. Where?!

 

The stump which thy men could not destroy. It is a doorway! I have discovered a way to open this doorway, and this I have done. I found beneath it a chasm, and in this chasm, the path which our enemies have taken. But our path is blocked, for the evil ones destroyed the bridge which spanned a rift, rendering us unable to follow by the path which they took.

 

The light came back into Thurms eyes as I said this, and the captain emerged as well, having heard. He spoke from over my shoulder: Excellent! No barrier shall stand between us and our foe! We shalt conquer it and victory will be ours!

 

I turned to him. You should be warned, captain, for this is no simple barrier. The passageway which leads to this chasm is indeed narrow. It would require many days and nights to build a bridge using material and tools small enough to fit through this crack in the ground."

 

Brother Thurm smiled. Then, he said, shalt we widen the passage.

 

I dashed off as the two men argued as to how that foolish notion would be accomplished. It made me glad, though. They had hope once more, and a new chance to prove that their technology would defeat the forces of chaos. Anything they had in mind, however, would take too long. I had to act fast. I could not allow this Lady and her minions to escape once more. I made my way to Richen and the horse. Richen had not gone to sleep either.

 

Richen, I need to use Suzy, I said, as I was untying her.

 

Er? Of course, Dan, Shes yer orse!

 

Thank you! I shouted, and then mounted and took off down the road.

 

At this speed, it would take me a little over three hours to get to my tower. If I gave myself thirty minutes to get geared up, I would be back here before sunrise. I just hoped that it wouldnt be too late.

 


Chapter 12 - Revelations

 

- Nightfall: The Mystery Man - Day 10: 12:00am

 

It was raining once again. The rain was different this time, though. It was more natural and neutral. It was not an evil rain, but it was still intense. I kept the horse running at a steady pace, slightly below her maximum speed. I didnt want to wear her out. There was still quite a ways to go. I rode her down the road the Hammers had built, of course. I must have been riding for a couple hours, a good half of my journey, when I saw something on the newly built road up ahead. My keen eyes identified a man carrying a lantern. He was standing in the middle of the road waiting, for me no doubt.

 

As I grew near, I recognized the man. It was the same man I had seen twice this day: once when I first came to the lodge, and then when I was watching during the night. It was James.

 

 

- James: A Full Report - Day 10: 12:00am

 

Trudging through the mud and rain is not, in my opinion, a pleasant way to spend ones evening. Nevertheless, there I was, and that was what I was doing. I had gathered all the information I needed. Rest had proven impossible, and now all that was left was to present my report to Daneel. My plan was to go home, compile it all into a document, and have a man deliver it to the camp, where Daneel was most likely staying.

 

I paused on my journey as the distinctive sound of horse hooves hitting mud at a gallop came to my ear. I did an about-face, curious to see who my guest would be. Within moments, I saw it was Daneel, behaving rather unexpectedly. I opened the shutters on my lantern so that he would see me. It took him some time to get to where I was standing. I would have told him to get a horse, but he had one. When he approached, he spoke first.

 

I saw you, twice.

 

Yes I know, I replied. The first time was several moments after you arrived at the lodge. You saw me out of the corner of your left eye as I stood forty paces away, mostly concealed behind a large rock. He grinned as I said this, so I continued. The second time was when I was investigating the post Hammerited villa, or what was left of it.

 

Yes, he said, You were startled by something you saw on the stump. Was it the stream of metal?

 

No, I said, and if you will let me deliver my report, I shall tell you all about it.

 

He put down the horses reins, but remained mounted. Please, go on.

 

Well, its a fair amount to tell, so bear with me. As you have discovered, matters are looking unpleasant. First, the information that we have dug up in our researches. Getting no reaction from him, I proceeded.

 

I came out here to fully confirm the suspicions I hinted at earlier, and which research has given shape. The Lady is no normal threat. The streets have produced no information other then knowledge of her existence, save one informant who was killed before making her rendezvous; others clearly know of the Lady but are too terrified to speak. So much would indicate strong current coercive power. However, a curious glyph was left carved on our informants back after she was killed; and this has been a worrisome clue.

 

She? he said with slight alarm in his voice. Who?

 

Swantella was her name. You never met her. He nodded solemnly, and I proceeded.

 

The same glyph that was found on her back has been found in a number of references Corinne has dug out of the archive; and there, too, it is only referenced en passant and in tones of terror. The power behind the glyph is linked to the Trickster and the Wood, but as a sometime ally, not as a servant. Certainly a dark and chaotic force, in any event, and ill-disposed towards man. Is the use of the glyph in this age merely an accident? I think not. Is it a false lead, set by a normal enemy to deceive, or to wear the mantle of an ancient terror? Again, I suspect not. The terror is forgotten for long years in the records, only to crop up anew when it has slid from memory. So I decided I needed to have a look at this villa, or lodge as Jyre called it, and my trip there has confirmed my darkest suspicions. Incidentally, Corinne discovered a small fact about it: it wasnt listed in the Hammer records because, quite simply, it hadnt existed 2 months ago. Quite a feat. Let me explain what I have found there.

 

I could see Daneel was getting impatient with my long-windedness. I wondered where he was going in such a hurry. I tried to describe events quickly, so that he would not lose interest and dash off before I was done.

 

You passed along a report on the shape of the villa: In the shape of a Pentagram, with towers on each corner. The structure I found had no towers. Instead, piles of something unknown adorned each corner of the star. As I watched, part of the structure collapsed, and I moved cautiously towards it.

 

Yes, I saw, Daneel interrupted. I simply nodded and continued.

 

It stank. The piles on each corner were skin and bones, of a wide variety of creatures, mostly humans. Doors or rents had appeared in the strange material forming each facet of the house. I entered, carefully inserting a small iron nail into the strange fabric of the door to create a path out in the event of sorcery. The interaction of iron and Woodsie magics is not fully understood; does forged metal gain a magic of its own from the work of its creation, in the same way that building a structure in the earth can enforce on some creatures its floor plan of walls, doors, and windows long after the structure has crumbled into dust? Or is it more simply a matter of direct counteraction, the logical physical reality of iron dismissing the arcane psychological glamour of the ancients of the Wood? But I digress.

 

Daneel nodded, urging me to get back to the main tale.

 

Gone were the rich trappings and careful corridors of the report. Inside the villa I found little; not even walls, for it had become a hollow shell. In the dimly lit center I found an enormous oaken stump, ripped off at a height of perhaps 3 meters. Something, probably the remains of the central tower, was draped over the top of the break. On the south side of the stump, a stairway which appeared to have grown, rather than been carved, lead downwards. I entered, driving a small iron nail into the footing of the first step. The stairway lead down for some 4 meters, and then opened out into a room whose roof was formed from the spreading secondary roots of the tree. Peering about in the light of my torch, I discovered that little was left here either, though the stench suggested a slaughterhouse. To the west I found another stairway leading down, and on the ground near it, a small fragment of a clay tablet. Wedging my torch between a set of roots, I pulled the tablet out of the ground for a closer look.

 

I handed the tablet to Daneel. He reached down and took it, and turned it over several times in his hands, examining it. He read it out loud. Dead thoughts.

 

The reference was clear; the full chant ran through my head as soon as I saw it. I recited the chant for Daneel, to refresh his memory.

 

Builds your roofs of dead wood.

Builds your walls of dead stone.

Builds your dreams of dead thoughts.

Comes crying laughing singing back to life,

Takes what you steal,

And pulls the skins from your dead bones shrieking.

 

Yes, he said, I know that one all too well. He handed the tablet back to me. I took it, pocketed it, and continued.

 

This villa must have been a temple of the Wood, active recently, and after the demise of the Trickster, and apparently run by a Lady. The inference is clear: The Lady of the Wood, the Faery Queen of legend, the Queen of Night, the Viktoria of last summers events, is still active despite her husbands demise. I doubt she has become any more kindly disposed towards humanity for her loss. Her activity also clarified the speed of the villas construction, and the meaning of its sudden collapse:

 

And when learns the Woodsie Lord of this,

He sends His beastesses to the manfools,

Who attacks and hammers saws their useless fleshes

And build him a house of they rotting skins....

 

The villa, constructed of human skin and bones, had been given fairer form by the will of the Queen; and with her departure, the glamour was wearing off. I wondered at the time what would become of the poor souls she had trapped to power the spell; but as you know, they have been granted release. I concluded it was best to vacate the premises before the collapse completed itself, in case it included the stairway I had used to come into the Temple. Indeed, the stairway was becoming less stair-like, and the nail I had driven into the wood had begun to glow red-hot in its opposition to the magic in the wood. The skin and bone structure of the villa was also far less sound when I arrived again on the surface. The structural change was disorienting, but the path formed with iron held true and drew my steps out to safety.

 

I paused to see if any reaction was forthcoming from Daneel. I saw none, so I went on.

 

I waited and watched when the Hammers arrived. You were obviously among them, so I shant go into detail on the events which you witnessed first hand. I confess that despite my distaste for many of the Hammers ways, I was moved to murmur the prayer along with the Hammers as the human remains were cremated. Did my glance mistake itself, or did your lips speak the prayer too, Daneel? I was too far away to be sure. When the fire became coals, and the screams of those once-tormented souls faded into peace, the main Hammerite force, including the captain and the priest, departed, leaving only a small token guard behind, and yourself.

 

Daneel nodded. And still, you investigated once more after we had settled for the night. What did you hope to see?

 

If you wait a moment, I shall tell you. You of course noted that there was a large stump which was not destroyed by the Hammerites. It was this same stump, beneath which I found this tablet, of course. I moved to investigate. Where once there was a stairwell, now there was nothing. The stump had sealed itself somehow. I then noted my nail, which had melted further, becoming a cooling streak of metal running downward, spanning the trunk. The wood it touched had turned to ash.

 

Yes, I noted that.

 

You investigated after I had departed? I asked

 

He nodded a yes. James, tell me of Jyre and Els.

 

Shall in a moment, Daneel, but first I have a other matters to report as well. Some days ago, I concluded it was necessary to perform a somewhat drastic act, in the event of our needing to oppose this Lady. At the Circle there was a curious iron stone that fell from the stars. I have previously mentioned to you the potential power of this item. It is time to use that potential. I have taken the stone to a smith whose discretion and skill I have the greatest regard for, and from it he is cold-forging a weapon we may need in opposing the Lady. Have no doubts, it will be expensive, but I think it will prove worthwhile.

 

He was silent, listing intently. I noticed that the rain had died down, so I no longer needed to speak with the same volume.

 

I do not know what exactly the Lady plans, but these are my suspicions. Last year, Garrett destroyed the Trickster with a Hammerite device. Normally, the Trickster then Constantine is replaced by his successor in ritual single combat. Garrett did not destroy the Trickster in that ritual combat, and thus the line was not extended. It is probable that Viktoria intends to ritually kill the Trickster in order to assume unto herself the powers of both the Wood and Faery. Thus arrayed she would be a formidable force, as the bickering that has traditionally divided Chaos might be, dare we say it, ordered by a single will, and thus be a much greater threat. We must think carefully on our next step.

 

His brow furrowed, showing deep concern. I went on.

 

The man called Els, who visited you, was killed several nights ago, and I suspect it is the Ladys work. At that, Daneel grew outwardly disturbed, but did not speak. In addition, Jyre apparently accepted a job from Ramirez that took her into the Forbidden Sector, and she has not been heard of since. I have strong suspicions of links between the Lady and Ramirez, probably originally through Bafford but later more direct. You said that they had left the Ladys service, and I suspect this is her vengeance. She directly slew Els, and indirectly slew Jyre by sending her on a suicide mission via Ramirez, who was acting as her pawn.

 

Damn, he said. He spoke under his breath, words which I read his lips to say, You fool, you let them both die. I pretended that I did not see him say that.

 

Thats all I have to report on them at this time. I would have more on those two, but people of their social class do not normally have records, and I had all my resources devoted to the Lady.

 

Daneel seemed frozen, and then suddenly reanimated. Thank you James. At that, he sped away on his horse.

 

I should have paid more attention to that; I should have realized he was losing his sense of detachment, and would do something rash. But I was exhausted, and my only thought, as I trudged home, was, Builders hairy bollocks, Dan, you might have given me a lift!

 

 

- Jyre: Out of Context - Day 10: 1:00am

 

I stood at the bottom of the stairs to Nightfall's tower and gazed at the giant structure. He was the only friend I had left around here. I made my way up the steps slowly, hobbling along on my makeshift crutch. It felt oddly pleasant to be walking this path between the rows of trees, listening to the gentle songs of the night birds. I halted before I came within sight of the guards at the gate and ducked under the branches of the nearest tree. My desire for human company was even lower than normal. Winding my way through the trees, I eventually came to the steel fence. Climbing it was easy after my time spent in the haunted district. Once on the other side, I darted from shadow to shadow until I reached the side of the tower. A little searching and I came to the tradesmen's entrance. After listening with my ear pressed to the door for several minutes, I turned the handle and stepped through into the cool room beyond. Thankfully, it was empty.

 

The room was small, square and nearly empty. The only furniture was the wooden bench along the left wall. There were no decorations either, just bland tiled walls and floor. There were two other doors, one on the right, which, judging by the size and condition of it, led to some sort of cupboard, and one in the wall opposite the entrance. I dropped down on the bench to rest, exhausted. To tell the truth, I should never have done this. My body needed to rest and recover, not be dragged half-way across the city on a whim. I slipped a bottle from my belt, uncorked it and drank. The contents tasted foul. It was a stimulant, nothing more. Something to keep me going despite my condition. When its effects finally wore off I would pay dearly. But right now all I cared about was finding Nightfall.

 

I pushed myself up of the bench and went through the second of the two doors. It led into a long hallway. I glanced left, then right. Neither way suggested itself to me so I just shrugged and went left. The hallway was carpeted so, despite my crutch and hobbled leg, I was able to move fairly quietly. It was surprisingly quiet inside the mansion and I found myself wondering if anyone was home. Not that it really mattered. If Nightfall wasn't here, I'd just have to wait for him. I paused at the first door, cracked it open and peered in a kitchen. I moved on. Five more doors and two hallways later, I came across what appeared to be a study. The luxury of the place amazed me! Leather chairs, carpeted floors, curtains and even glass in the windows! And so many books two whole cases full! And then there was the desk. It was made from some sort of dark-grained wood, with beautiful carvings on the edges and a leather inlay on the top. I picked a letter from the top of a large pile, sank into the nearest seat and began to read.

 

 

Dan,

 

We will have to go through with it ahead of schedule. It must be done in three days. Were counting on you. Make it good, like you always do.

 

~Ken

 

I stared at the scrap of paper the note had been scribbled on and shook my head. Meaningless. At least to me.

 

"That's because it wasn't meant for your eyes, little one."

 

I dropped the paper and looked up, expecting to see Els standing over me with his usual displeased frown. Only he wasn't. And he never would be again. I felt tears prick my eyes and I wiped them away. Guilt welled up inside of me as I glanced around. I shouldn't be doing this, prying through Master Nightfall's private things.

 

"No. You shouldn't."

 

Damn memories! I put the letter back where I had found it, fighting back tears. I had thought them gone, that night on the hill when I said goodbye. Or was it just my own conscience speaking with his voice? I got to my feet, crossed to the door and put my hand on the handle. I paused for a second then returned to the chair, picking up another letter from the desk as I passed it. Conscience be damned, I needed to know who he was!

 

Hello there,

On the streets I am known as Octopus, so I would appreciate it if you credit that name. I have here the translated (into modern tongue) chronicles of the Smith-in-Exile concerning the time of the Peril.

If this is deemed worth posting in your museum, I shall write more Hammerite scripture as and when I have time.

Sincerely,
Octopus

 

From one of Nightfall's operatives. A scholar by the sounds of things. This Smith-in-Exile sounded familiar to me but whatever memory the name linked to, it was too far gone to give any real insight and just annoying enough to make me want to hunt it out and read it. I probably would have, had I been more relaxed, but the mention of Hammer scriptures made me nervous. I wondered why Nightfall would need such things. More than one reason sprang to mind.

 

"Do you really want to know?"

 

I actually smiled this time. It was comforting to know that Els was still there, living inside my head to guide me. Perhaps death wasn't as final as I had thought. I waited for a response that never came. Did I really want to know? Actually, yes, of course I did. I was burning to know. I picked up the next letter and read it.

 

D~

 

I actually have a spot of fresh news from an unexpected source, including a sales figure.
It should go up tonight.

 

~J

 

Nothing important. I placed it to one side, not really taking in what had been written there. My thoughts were still on the last note. Hammer scripture. Reasonable enough if all he wanted was information that would help him learn more of their ways. But something told me that wasn't the case. The Circle of Stone and Shadow had existed long enough untouched by those religious maniacs to suggest Nightfall knew a good deal about them. Enough to keep himself and his associates safe from their prying at least. So why then? A study of their history? A better understanding of their beliefs? I shook my head in confusion. Did I want to know? My hand hovered over the next paper as my mind wavered. Could I cope with not knowing? I lifted the paper from the desk and found my answers.

 

MEMO- 09.08 08.23

DISPATCH NUMBER 475125462

ORDER OF THE HAMMER

COURIER REGISTRY 54-AF

 

FROM:

RAFAEL MORTANGRO STEINKLAW,

HIGH PRIEST, THE ORDER OF THE HAMMER

LORD OF STEINKLAW MANOR

 

TO:

DANEEL ELIAS TODULEM, ALIAS "NIGHTFALL"

MASTER, THE CIRCLE OF STONE AND SHADOW

LORD OF UNNAMED ESTATE, REGESTRY NUMBER 543-AD4

 

OUR SCOUTS HAVE RETURNED FROM INVESTIGATING THE STRUCTURE, THE LOCATION AND NATURE OF WHICH YOU INDICATED TO US DURING THE EMERGENCY SESSION OF THE HIGH COUNCIL OF THE ORDER OF THE HAMMER ON 09.07. YOUR SUSPICIONS WERE CORRECT. SAID STRUCTURE DOES EXIST, AND IT BEARS THE MARKINGS OF OUR ENEMIES, THE FOLLOWERS OF THE NOW DECEASED TRICKSTER, THE PAGANS. HOWEVER THE BUILDING SEEMS TO BE ABANDONED, SAVE ONE WOMAN WE FOUND TRESPASSING ON THE RESIDENCE. THIS WOMAN APPEARED TO BE A THIEF, WHOM WE CAUGHT DURING HER RAID. SHE WAS CONVICTED ON FIVE ACCOUNTS OF RESISTING ARREST, BREAKING AND ENTERING, TRESPASSING, THEFT, BEARING FALSE WITNESS, AND CONCEALMENT OF EVIDENCE. SO FAR ALL OUR INTERROGATIONS OF HER HAVE ONLY PRODUCED HER NAME, "LYTHA". WE SUSPECT THAT THIS IS NOT HER TRUE NAME. THIS WOMAN IS ALSO SUSPECTED TO BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE BURGLARY OF THE WESTERN BRANCH MONASTARY SEVERAL WEEKS AGO. SHE IS BEING INTERROGATED FOR INFORMATION INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE FOLLOWING TOPICS: HER PRESENCE IN THE STRUCTURE, HER POSSIBLE INVOLVEMENT WITH THE PAGANS WHO MADE RESIDENCE THERE, THE LOCATION OF THE EVIDENCE SHE UNDOUBTEDLY STOLE FROM THE RESIDENCE AND IS NOW CONCEALING, THE METHOD IN WHICH SHE BROKE INTO THE MONASTARY (SO THAT CORRECTIVE SECURITY MEASURES MAY BE TAKEN), THE NUMBER OF, NAMES OF, AND LOCATION OF ALL HER CONSPIRATORS AND CO-CONSPIRATORS, AND ANY AND ALL OTHER INFORMATION WHICH MAY SERVE US IN DETERMINING HER PAST CRIMES, THUS INFLUENCING THE SEVERITY OF HER PUNISHMENT, AND THE METHOD OF HER EXECUTION.

 

AT NOON TODAY, THE TASK FORCE, WHICH HAS BEEN ORDERED TO DEMOLISH THIS STRUCTURE SHALL SET OUT ON ITS JOURNEY. I ASK THAT YOU BE THERE, AND ACCOMPANY THE FORCE DURING THE ENTIRETY OF ITS MISSION. YOUR ABSENCE FROM THIS EVENT SHALL BE CONSIDERED A DIRECT INSULT TO THIS ORDER, AND WILL BE ANSWERED ACCORDINGLY.

 

IN THE MASTER BUILDERS NAME,

LORD RAFAEL MORTANGRO STEINKLAW,

HIGH PRIEST,

FIRST IN THE ORDER OF THE HAMMER

 

Betrayed. That was the one thought that echoed through my head as I returned the letter to its place on the desk. I had been betrayed. I had gone to him in good faith. Trusted him even. Only for him to turn around and give everything I had revealed to those filthy Hammers! I felt my anger start to rise as I sat there and thought about what I had just read. I knew I should have left there and then. After all, next time he saw me he could just hand me over like he had that poor thief.

 

I was on my feet, pacing back and forth anxiously, the paper clutched tightly in my hand. I glanced at the door then the desk, then crossed the space between them, the paper tapping against my leg. I read it again, just to make sure I really had read the words it held. Nothing changed, despite my wish that I had been wrong. It was all there in black and white. Nightfall had gone to the Hammers.

 

No. It was more than that. He was part of their organization. He had attended one of their meetings. Probably more, if the casual reference to it was anything to go by. I stopped by the door, reached out to open it and heard someone speak. The words were too low to make out but they sounded as though they came from the other side of the door. My eyes swept over the room, searching for somewhere to hide. Only one place presented itself. Under the desk. I scurried under the small place and waited anxiously for the door to swing open and my mess be discovered. My eyes returned to the paper I still clutched in my fist. One line stood out from the rest:

 

SAID STRUCTURE DOES EXIST, AND IT BEARS MARKINGS OF OUR ENEMY, THE TRICKSTER.

 

I frowned at the paper. The Trickster? But it was the Lady's lodge. Of that I was certain. And this Trickster was no more than a myth created by the Hammers to cultivate belief in their so-called God. But if Nightfall had given them the information in the first place, then surely he knew much more about this lodge and the Lady than I did. Coldness clutched at my chest as I realized he would trust those filthy hypocrites with the information and not the person who had supplied it in the first place. I felt used. Nothing new there, at least.

 

I shifted slightly, trying to avoid cramps, and heard something rustle beneath me. I padded the carpet with my hand until I found a small crumpled note, which must have dropped before.

 

D,

 

The deed has been done. Expect no traces to yourself, the other guy, or myself. The spoils shall be coming to you shortly. I do not think it would be wise to discuss specifics in this document, so let me be brief. The first thing was done easily, but I had to forgo the second thing. This is not a problem though, for the third thing took care of it. Because the first thing went so well, I did not have to bother with the fourth thing. Your secrets are safe once again. Must be fun to have pawns in the Order of the Hammer, eh? May the Master Builder kiss my black ass.

 

~ Rembrant

 

I stared at the note blankly, utterly confused. Then I reread it. Twice. It still didn't make any sense. Pawns? In the Hammers? But why would he need pawns when he happily worked alongside them? Or was this Rembrant as mislead as I had been. There was something there I could be certain of though. Nightfall's secrets were not as safe as Rembrant had made out.

 

Hearing footsteps moving away from the door, I finally crawled out from under the desk and returned the papers to their rightful place. I wasn't happy with what I had discovered. In fact, I was furious! I was about to go and confront Nightfall about it all when I spotted Els's name on yet another letter. I hesitated, glanced towards the door, then returned to the chair to read.

 

Daneel,

 

I was helping Els pick out his equipment, as you asked, when he demanded that I let him go home to get something. I offered to go with him. He refused. I told him that I needed to get him some health potions first. He said that he hates the stuff, and never drinks it. I told him that he was in no condition to run across town and back to get only one item! He wouldnt even tell me what the item was! I told him that Id send a servant after it. He refused, and told me that no one should follow him when he went. I told him to at least get some equipment before he went, and he refused again! He left, and I was unable to stop him. I tried to follow him, but he lost me. Im sorry Daneel, I havent seen or heard from him since.

Sheam

 

 

- Nightfall: A Misleading Discovery - Day 10: 1:00am

 

Why had Sheam not contacted me? That was totally unlike her. She would never forget something like that. Something must have gone wrong. I knew the answer soon enough. I didnt notice him until I was almost on top of the corpse. There, standing in the road, was the body of a man. I halted my stead and jumped to the ground, quick to investigate. He way laying, face down, in the mud. His back was covered in claw marks, and blood was everywhere. I could see his exposed spine, which was snapped. Carefully, I turned him over to get a look at his face. I had seen him before; only in passing. He was a messenger; one of my messengers. Swallowing my remorse from the loss, I inspected his pouch, determined to not let his sacrifice be in vain. Empty. Someone had taken the message he was bringing for me. Relieved, I found it not a second latter; clutched in his hand. I pulled the ragged sheet of paper from his cold fingers and read it. To my dismay, it was soaked with water and blood, and I could barely read it.

 

D,

 

.. I me he.hwr. ka. .. Ghost did not. meh .. both dead found killed in his .. perhaps Lytha had .. I fear the wor.. do not exp . Is st... alive

 

Im .rt,

 

Sheam

 

I shut my eyes and clutched the paper hard. I could barely read it, but I think I got the message. Ghost had failed. Lytha was dead. They were probably both dead. So many people have died because of my carelessness. None of them deserved it. They came to me, and I repaid them with death.

 

I rode hard and fast through the night. My head was swimming. There was no way I could have known. There was nothing I should have done. A part of me kept telling myself that. I never really listened to that part of me. As a result of inaction, Captain Els was now dead, Jyre was dead, Lytha was dead, and Ghost was most likely dead as well all because I got careless. I didnt think things through far enough and consider the possibilities of my action. I did not think things through and Lytha died. My desire to remain as uninvolved as possible from private affairs resulted in the death of Jyre and Els. I had acted like a Keeper. Now I was damning myself for it.

 

In what seemed like no time at all, I found myself at the head of the road. Taking no time to reminisce, I plotted out the shortest route to my tower, and rode there at full gallop. I did my best to not think of the past, only the future, and what I had to do. I needed a way to navigate through this underground labyrinth, and find the Queen and her minions. More pressing in urgency was a way to either get across the rift, or down into it safely.

 

When I finally brought my mind back to where I was, I was already home. The all-too-familiar sight of my tower loomed into view, dark black against the starry sky. For an instant I had a flashback to days long past, as I hastily fled to my old tower in the Sajot mountains, in a far off distant land. I shook the memory from my mind as I tethered the horse and dashed up to the tower. The front door unlocked and opened as I drew near, and I nodded to my two guards standing watch as I entered.

 

All the servants were asleep. The place was dead silent and quite dark, exactly how I liked it. Once again, I could not enjoy it. As I made my way through, I chanced to glance at the great spiral staircase which lead to my tower and bed chamber. I quickly put any notion of rest out of my mind as I instead made a beeline to the basement.

 

Not all of my rare artifacts are kept in The Circle. I dashed through the hall and chamber of my cellar, making my way to the secret entrance. All the while I ran what had happened through my head; what I should have done differently; where I turned left where I should have gone right; the task at hand, and what was possible if all that I had deduced, all that James had reported, and all that the Keeper had told me, was true. However, the things that burned in my mind like acid were: I had let Jyre, Els, and Lytha down, and now they were all dead. You dont forgive yourself for things like that very easily.

 


Chapter 13 - Reunion

 

- Nightfall: Reunion - Day 10: 4:00am

 

I navigated the tunnels deep within the hillside daily, so why did they now seem so maze-like? I was constantly making wrong turns and losing my way. I could not focus. All I could think about was Els, being skinned alive and made into trophies for those monsters, Jyre, being devoured by zombies, and Lytha being whipped, burned, and finally disemboweled by the Hammerites. I could have protected Els, but I did not. I could have gone after Jyre, but I did not. I could have ordered Lythas release, but I did not. I am not the type of person who dwells on regret, but sometimes I make an exception. This was one of them. It was an all too familiar tragedy. My mind kept going back to the past, back to my old life, now long gone. This is not the first time someone suffered badly for my inaction, and now that memory sprung to life once more.

 

Mlord? the womans words echoed in my mind.

 

Yes? I had said in reply, not shifting my gaze from my desk to the speaker.

 

My brother I he. He has decided to go. He left several minutes ago. Her voice was shaking.

 

All I did was nod, letting her know that I heard.

 

Mlord I fear for his life... I could not convince him to change his mind... She paused, I could hear the intense fear in her voice. I finally turned around to look at her. I could see in her eyes that she had been crying. Please. Daneel, stop him, save him. Please...

 

All I did was shake my head. The decision was his. It is not my place to dictate to him what he can and cannot do. His choices are his own. I respect that. You should too. If he so chooses to go off on this quest, then he shall suffer the consequences. He is a man, and under no ones rule but his own. It is not my job, nor yours, to protect him from his own decisions.

 

I remember the words well, as if I had spoken them yesterday.

 

The memory faded after that. I remember hearing, several days later, that his broken body had been found, half eaten by the creatures he set out to slay. His sister disappeared after that. Months latter, her corpse was found, a dagger thrust into her chest by her own hand. We had not been terribly close, I was not close to anyone in those days, but we were friends. I blamed myself. I never forgave myself. I could have stopped him. He would not have died and she would not have killer herself out of grief. It was my fault. I could have done something. I didnt. I didnt get involved. It happened again. I didnt get involved. If I had, things would have been different. I could have easily saved them both. I didnt. Jyre, Els, and Lytha were dead. I blamed myself. It was my fault

 

 

- Jyre: Reunion - Day 10: 4:00am

 

The parchment fell from my numb fingers. I stared at nothing as I shook my head in denial. He'd sent Els away. The captain had barely been coherent and Nightfall had sent him away! Told him to go into the forbidden section without a second thought! Els had practically been ordered to his death.

 

The anger and hurt that had been trapped inside me these last few days rose and started to bubble. I got up and ran. I didnt know where I was going, and I didnt care. I just ran. I entered a dark room and suddenly there he was, Master Nightfall. Pain and exhaustion were forgotten, replaced by thoughtless fury. I stood and drew my dagger from my belt, raised it above my head...

 

 

- Nightfall:

 

I didnt even see it coming. Another tribute to my carelessness. A dark shape lunged at me. All I felt was a sharp cold pain in my chest. It lunged again. I staggered backwards. If it had been under any other circumstances my instincts would have reacted. I would have defended and counterattacked. But I didnt. I didnt know why I just stood there. I just stood there as this shape I could not even see attacked me. I couldnt see it because I didnt even look. My mind was too filled with regret and anger at myself. The only difference was now my body was in as much pain as my mind. Suddenly the creature stopped, and took a step backwards. I could see that it was quivering. With great difficulty, I turned my head and focused my eyes on the creature.

 

It was Jyre.

 

 

- Jyre:

 

I let the dagger drop. My whole body shuddered. His blood was everywhere! It covered my hands like gloves. I looked up at him, at his torn and tattered clothes and bloody wounds. I saw the pain that filled his eyes. My heart sank as my mind finally accepted what I had done. His eyes followed my own to the blood covered stones and he shrugged. It was almost as if he had expected it. I swallowed back the lump of fear in my throat and tried to say something. Words wouldn't come. The sigh that escaped his lips then was filled with weariness. Tears slipped down my cheeks. I had killed him...

 

 

- Nightfall:

 

I looked down at myself. Seven, maybe eight stabs across my ribs and stomach. I was no longer able to stand. I had lost too much blood. I fell to the floor, and just rested. Jyre was alive. She had not died. She made it out by herself. I did not need to send Els after her. I understood. She blamed me for Elss death. She was mostly right. I could have saved him. I should have protected him. I failed her. I lay there and rested.

 

She started to cry.

 

Slowly, I recollected my wits. The wounds were not that deep, but they were enough to make me bleed. I pushed my body upwards. I began to lose consciousness as I lifted my head, but I fought against it. I pushed myself up to a sitting position. She had her face buried in her hands, weeping. I scooped up some of the blood that was flowing down my tunic with my gloved hand.

 

 

- Jyre:

 

Blood trickled through his fingers, pooling in his lap. My blood turned to ice as I watched. Why wasn't he dead? When he looked up at me his face was calm and peaceful. There was no fear there, just acceptance. I tried to back away.

 

"You're right." I could barely hear his words. Blood trickled out the side of his mouth and down his chin. "It is my fault..."

 

 

- Nightfall:

 

W-what is? was all she could say.

 

I closed my eyes. So little energy was left. I could no longer keep my head up. I rested my face against my bloody palm. The smell of my own blood filled my lungs. It was strangely soothing. I got careless, I said, lifting my head slightly so I could speak. I looked at her through my fingers. No reaction came. And unnecessary deaths resulted.

 

She spoke suddenly, almost a whisper, Els

 

I nodded.

 

 

- Jyre:

 

My legs buckled and I collapsed into the floor. My whole body was going numb after its mistreatment over the last few days. I forced myself to stay alert. To listen. I felt terrible. He would die because of me! I had acted without thought, without giving him a chance to explain! And now he sat confessing to me even as his life trickled away between his fingers. I didn't want this!

 

 

- Nightfall:

 

And Lytha too...

 

Lytha?

 

But; you dont know about Lytha I sighed again. I grew dizzy. As much as I fought the darkness, I knew I could not remain conscious for long. I was sitting in a pool. No. I cannot sit in a pool of my own blood. I must stand. I fought to stand up. The Hammers... I thought I could keep them under my thumb... I am so wrong...

 

 

- Jyre:

 

He was on his feet again, towering over me. His desire to live astounded me. I wanted to help him but knew not how. If only I had listened more to my teachers. If only I had listened more to him! If only...

 

 

- Nightfall:

 

I stood. I had a job to do. I focused my mind on the task at hand. I felt that if I focused hard enough, I would be able to continue in spite of my wounds. I could see the fear in her eyes. There is still time... I know what she's doing... Little else matters anymore... I m-must GO.... I told her, knowing that she knew nothing of what was happening.

 

At that I fell. I dropped to my knees. I could go no further. My eyes closed slowly.

 

 

- Jyre:

 

He wasn't moving, just kneeling in front of me, eyes closed and features frozen. I forced myself to my feet, fighting the growing weariness that now pulled at my eyelids. I gave his shoulder a shove, praying for a reaction but knowing there would be none. His body rocked slightly and than he was still. I watched him but saw no sign of life. He no longer even breathed.

 

Panic gripped me. I couldn't let him die! Not like this. Not at my hands! He wasn't allowed to die! I ripped my injured arm free from its binding and grabbed him with both hands, shaking him. Don't ask me what I hoped to achieve. I didn't know myself.

 

Pain lashed through my injured shoulder. White lances of agony drove through my body. The room spun around me, shimmering. My vision began to dim. Blackness took me.

 

 

- Nightfall:

 

The darkness never came. Instead there was light.

 

I was no longer in the storeroom. I knew not where I was, yet I felt as if I had been here before, many times. I heard a voice in my mind. Daneel?

 

I saw her smiling at me. It was not Jyre. I knew the face immediately. I opened my mouth to speak to her. She placed her finger over my lips. She shook her head, smiling.

 

You know you never need to thank me. You saved my soul, and thus I shall forever repay you. I felt the life come back into me slowly. The strength. She smiled and kissed my lips. I wish I could help you on your task ahead. Know that I am with you though, always.

 

I smiled and nodded, unable to speak. I knew it was terribly difficult for her to do this from so far away. She was hurting herself to save me. I wanted to tell her to stop, but I couldnt speak. She knew that this may be the last chance she had to help me before I went into the labyrinth. She had told me before that there was great evil there. She could not penetrate it. This would be the last time I could see her, until I returned.

 

Slowly the light dimmed, and I opened my eyes. I was back in the storeroom. I saw Jyre collapsed on the floor.

 

 

- Jyre:

 

"Jyre?"

 

The sound of his voice brought me back. I opened my eyes to find myself staring into his face. He looked worried.

 

"Jyre, I'm sorry. Please forgive my blindness."

 

His voice was soft and gentle, so unlike the way he spoke before. And he looked so real. I lifted my hand to brush his cheek. It brushed against cool flesh. He smiled at me. I sank away again, too ashamed to fight the weariness that gripped me any longer.

 

 

- Nightfall:

 

I paused, suddenly remembering something. It seemed so long ago, yet not even a minute had passed. On the floor, on my tunic, on my hands, on her dagger, the blood was gone. I inspected my chest through the holes in my shirt. Nothing. I looked up slightly, and whispered a thank you. I looked back down at Jyre. She was breathing. Her shoulder looked sharply dislocated. If I worked quickly I could set it while she was still unconscious.

 

 

- Jyre:

 

I felt something tug at me, pulling me from the depths that I had sunk to. I didn't want to rise. For that would mean facing what I had done. I would rather die than live knowing I had killed him.

 

 

- Nightfall:

 

Her arm was relocated, but was still badly swollen. I knew one way to help, but there was something I had to do first. I glanced around the room, my eyes searching for any soft object. A pillow, cushion, or towel would do. Finally I saw something: my cloak. I quickly unfastened it from my neck and laid it on the floor next to her. It was easily twice as large as she was. The velvet interior would be much better to rest on than this hard stone floor.

 

Carefully, I lifted her small body from the floor, and set it down on the cloak. I cringed as she groaned, and her head hit the fabric with a thud. This would not do at all. Forgetting that there was nothing to be found, I glanced around the room once more. The idea came to me, and I pulled my hat off. I took off my gloves and stuffed them into the hat, and placed the package under her head. She shifted around a little, and then her body seemed to relax. It was most likely a good deal more comfortable than her bed at home. I looked at her face. She seemed at peace now. Her face was marred by dirt mixed with blood and sweat. I pushed a few strands of hair away from her closed eye.

 

Jyre?

 

Nothing.

 

An inspiration came to me. I closed my eyes and concentrated. Please, help her as well. My lips moved, yet no sound came out. Please. As if guided by the force that saved me, my hand went to her shoulder. Thank you again, I whispered. I held my hand there, and I could feel the magical energy of my savior passing through me into her. Color returned to her face. I closed my eyes and felt myself pushing slowly harder. I found myself leaning over her. I could feel her begin to breathe more rapidly. My brow furrowed, as I trusted my guide, without understanding.

 

 

- Jyre:

 

Whatever it was that called me was persistent. It granted me no peace. Slowly, against my will I rose again from those quiet depths and returned to my mind. Opening my eyes I saw him waiting for me. I almost did not recognize him with his hat off. I was so used to his face being in shadow. His face was narrow but not angular, and his skin a warm tan. He had a short beard, dark copper in color, but black in the center and around the edges. His eyes were closed, with an expression of deep concentration. "What...?"

 

 

- Nightfall:

 

I opened my eyes as I felt her stir, and heard her voice. I spoke the first thing on my mind. How do you feel?

 

Tired; but. She looked at me, slightly puzzled. She looked at her arm, and then back to me. Better.

 

 

- Jyre:

 

As I answered his question he seemed to become more real. More alive! He seemed so concerned. It made no sense. I had killed him! "You; be dead...." I meant it as an observation but he took it as a question and gave a slight nod.

 

"I almost died."

 

 

- Nightfall:

 

What; did you do? She didnt need to ask. I knew she was bewildered.

 

I did nothing. I tried to shake the look of concern off my face, but it would not budge. The one who saved me, she worked through me. She saved me, and then helped me save you. I could tell she didnt really care, even if she could understand. She wouldnt let me die. She would never let me die. She is my I stopped, deciding against telling her that.

 

I felt her hand grip my arm. She uttered a word. Sorry.

 

I took her hand off my arm, and placed it in mine. Please, forgive me Jyre.

 

 

- Jyre:

 

Forgive him? The question brought tears to me eyes. He wanted me to forgive him? I was the one who had tried to kill him without first hearing his words. I was the one who had refused to listen. "I..." I shook my head. How could I blame him for anything? He wasn't Els's protector, any more than he was mine. If he helped every sick man he came across he would never have any time for anything else. As for the Hammers, had he ever had any choice? "Nothing to forgive..."

 

He smiled at me and lifted his head. "Thank you." I barely heard the soft whisper.

 

Suddenly remembering why I had come, I reached into my pocket and took out the scrap of paper. "Found it... in forbidden district," I explained. "Monster came."

 

He took it from me and began to read.

 

 

- Nightfall:

 

The paper was vellum, the material used to make spell scrolls. I examined it. My mind cleared as I concentrated. Several things struck me as odd right away. For one, it was written in English. That in itself was odd. The thing that struck me as terribly peculiar was the fact that the scroll did not vanish when she cast it! I realized I had been talking to myself, and then cleared my throat. I reread the words, and recognized it as an odd variant of the summon monster scroll, yet much, much more. I felt like I had found something extremely valuable.

 

 

- Jyre:

 

He mumbled something about spells and vanishing. The words were not meant for my ears, so low were they spoken. He turned to me again and he had what I can only describe as a scholar's look on his face. "Tell me of this monster." Then his face softened. "No, you must rest. May I keep this?" he asked, holding up the scrap of paper. I nodded, glad to be rid of the cursed thing. He certainly seemed to understand its purpose better than I ever it would. "Thank you." He put it away. "Where are you injured? Your shoulder? Where else?"

 

"My ankle, hard to walk. And cuts. Many cuts." I struggled to sit up, meaning to show him but he held me down.

 

"No, please, lie there. I shall be back very soon."

 

I sighed and closed my eyes. I needed to sleep

 

 

- Nightfall:

 

I ran into an adjacent store-room. I quickly found what I needed: a heath potion, a holy water vial, a bowl, and a fire arrowhead. I quickly went back to her, and found her slumbering lightly.

 

"Heres a little known trick I picked up a few years back," I said to her, though I suspected she wouldnt hear.

 

 

- Jyre:

 

I opened my eyes again at the sound of his voice. He was sitting beside me, a bowl on the ground in front of him. I watched in confusion as he mixed holy water with a few drops of a healing potion. I had no idea what he planned. I waited, feeling safe in his care.

 

 

- Nightfall:

 

The mixture reacted correctly, and all that was needed was to apply heat. I took the fire crystal, and dipped it into the clear liquid. It reacted quickly, turning a deep green color. I took the cloth and dipped it into the fluid, and then applied the cloth to her shoulder. She shuddered for a second, for the liquid was still quite hot, as it needed to be. I then took the cloth, reapplied the liquid to it, and placed it on her lacerated ankle, and then the cuts on her legs, arms, face, and anywhere else I could access without moving her and disturbing her. The enchantress had healed her spirit and her mind, and this liquid would heal her body. How is that now?

 

 

- Jyre:

 

Whatever it was he had done it worked; where there had been pain there was now only numbness. I closed my eyes and sighed in response to a question I barely heard. I felt him wrap his cloak around me like a blanket then his arms slipped under my body and he lifted me from the floor. I snuggled up against him and let my mind drift. It was the first time I had truly felt safe in weeks.

 

 

- Nightfall:

 

I took her upstairs to the guest chamber and laid her down on the queen-sized bed. I was about to turn out the lantern and leave her to rest, but then I paused, and looked at her.

 

She was much younger than I had first deduced. Laying there, at peace, she looked no more than fourteen or fifteen. Her hair was very short and ragged dark brown, almost black . It most likely helped her pass off as a boy when she needed to. I noted earlier that she had greeny-grey eyes, surprisingly intense probably her most noticeable feature. Her face was rather plain, oval in shape, lightly tanned. She shifted around slightly curling into a ball, and then spread out.

 

I smiled, satisfied that I had finally done some good in this big mess. I turned out the lantern, and then dashed back to the cellar. I was surprised to see that only five minutes had passed.

 


Chapter 14 - A Second Chance

 

- Nightfall: The Masters Collection of Amazing Toys - Day 10: 4:10am

 

The door was three feet of solid iron. On it was a mirror. I looked into the mirror, and a bright light shot out into my eyes. Seconds latter, the door slowly began to slide upwards, opening. I entered the passageway which it revealed. I quickly walked down a large staircase, spiraling downward. I had not set foot in here for months. No one but I knew it existed; except James.

 

Jyre was safe. She had been lucky. Maybe this was a blessing after all. If Jyre had not stabbed me, then Cristen would never had restored me, and I would not feel nearly as good as I did now. I came to my tower to gear up, and that was what I was now going to do.

 

I entered the secret vault. It was lit by a pair of glowing blue crystals on either side of a mammoth doorway. I stepped between the crystals, and an arc of energy shot between them and through me for several seconds. The warm tingling sensation was quite pleasant actually, unless of course the person standing here was not me, for then they would be ash. After it ceased, the mammoth door slowly drew itself open. On the door was a high relief stone engraving of a great winged blade. The blade, which marked the center of the door, slowly drew itself into the ground, and the two wings folded backwards, opening the door, and revealing the chamber within.

 

The room inside was long, with a high ceiling. Light was provided by tall narrow white tubes, which lined the walls. Inside this room was a treasury of artifacts. But these were not just any artifacts: this was my armory, collected over the years of my life from my many quests, adventures, and wars. The things I needed to navigate the Labyrinth and then find and slay The Faery Queen were here.

 

First things first, however, and that scroll Jyre had given me needed a temporary home before I could research it. I put it on a vacant shelf, in a place I knew I would remember.

 

My second stop, after grabbing a travel pack from a shelf, was the map chest. I browsed through the drawers, looking for a map with anything on it which resembled the cavern I had seen. After a good ten minutes I thought I had something. Looking at the corner of the hand drawn map, I saw something which looked just like the large cavern I had been in. Passageways leading to and from the room were placed at opposite ends, and the whole thing was crossed by a rift running perpendicular to the passages. The rift was spanned by a bridge. I was almost sure it was the same place when I saw a side note telling that the rift was filled with a very fast lava flow, and strong air current. The complex was huge, and the map was only half drawn. I rolled up the large map, and placed it in my travel pack. I then took the pair of insect-like creatures from the map case, and put them in my pocket.

 

My pocket had a hole in it. The most disturbing thing about this was that the critters fell through my pocket and onto the floor, where they began to scurry away. I quickly snatched them back up, and placed them in my intact pocket. The other disturbing thing was the fact that there was a hole not only there, but everywhere else Jyre has stabbed me. Annoyed with myself for forgetting that my clothing was destroyed, and hat, gloves, and cloak being used as bedclothes, I quickly went to the far corner of the room to a large iron wardrobe.

 

I pulled out a new tunic and pair of pants, sturdier versions, with more pockets, and changed quickly. The tunic had a thick, armor-vest integrated into it stylish leather armor, if you will. I quickly moved the critters out of the old pants and into the new, where they settled down and went back to sleep. Then I donned bracers, leg guards, a collar-like neck guard, as well as straps on which gear could be attached. Then I chose a cloak. It was so black I almost did not see it against the back of the wardrobe it looked like just a deep shadow. It was a much lighter and simpler cloak then my usual attire - and much more functional.

 

My next stop was the weapons rack. My glance jumped from ax to sword to mace and back again. What should I bring? Or more importantly, what would have the most effect on a Faery Queen? The Ax of Life-Stealer perhaps? No, I disliked battle-axes, especially ones that large, even if they did drain the life force from your foes and added it to your own. I considered the nameless jeweled long-sword, enchanted to deal unsurpassed damage. Nah, I had a feeling that she was the type to grow back limbs as soon as I hacked them off. I went to the shelf where I kept the more personal weapons. I found my obsidian, two-handed katana, which I had carried with me during the war with the Rivata back in my homeland. No, it would be too uncanny using that again. I made up my mind which sword to bring as soon as I saw its case. This sword had its own little vault. I quickly went over, and pressed the stone panel next to the door. The door rotated open, and a drawer slid out slowly. White steam poured out of the small chamber where the blade was kept.

 

The sword was about four feet long. It had no fancy adornments of any kind. The blade was not smooth, nor was it worn. It looked to be carved from solid stone. The double edge was dull. The hilt and hand-guard were large. Once again, it had no special decorations or adornments. The handle was molded to fit one hand. The sword was held to the shelf by what had once been iron shackles, but they looked as if they had petrified to stone. Smiling at the memories I had of this trusty blade, I took the handle in my hand, and watched the all too familiar result. The blade seemed to electrify as a yellow pattern of light washed over it. The stone shackles cracked, and were broken. The sword was free, and in my hand. When the light subsided, the blade was polished and clean, just like new, and razor sharp.

 

I smiled and touched the blade with my gloved hand, feeling the energy within. It would not petrify its master. The name of the sword had been forgotten long ago. The earliest records detailed how it was discovered In a tomb, (of Praetor Loth, I believe) centuries ago, by an ancient hero in another far away realm. After trading hands many times, it eventually came into my possession. I never used it for an actual quest until now. Something in me could not wait to try it out on a live adversary. I grabbed a sheath from a hook on the wall, and attached it to my belt.

 

Though I had many sets of armor, it was easy to choose which one to bring. There was only one obvious choice. I had bought it from a strange man by the name of Ashford. He said he had no use for it anymore. His adventuring days were over, and all his friends thought he was dead.