Bad Night in the Shambles

by Keith Curtis ©2001


The rain came down. Not the mild pattering of the more northern lands of Ungava or Kabek; this was a Merrikian rain, coming down in warm fat drops as big as a man's thumb. Travelling the easterlies from the savage jungles of dark and steaming Nunavut, it entered the city without leave or notice. Not even the masters could command the weather.

The city was young, like all cities, everywhere. The rain didn't care however and washed it as indifferently as lesser rains washed the ruins of the ancients far to the north and east. It fell without discrimination on all quarters of the city, rich and poor. Atop the Promethean Hill it was met with gratitude by the manicured flora of the Serenity Gardens. It was watched with mild interest by the well-sheltered novices and masters of the great and sprawling Hall of Art, where they lived in exceptional privilege. It embraced the graceful and impossible towers, danced down the steps of the Hall and rambled in slow lazy tributaries past the House of Healing, past the Inuk Arena with its wet sandy floor, through the opulent estates of landed merchants and down to the swollen and turbid waters of the Saber River, which, like its name implied, cut the city into two parts.

The western hill received its share of the rain in a rare case of equity with the more affluent shore. Here the river was edged by the Fishdocks, where rough and grim fishermen worked even in the downpour to load and unload the fleet which helped to feed the city. Occasionally one of the workers would lift his head and peer from beneath the hood of his oilcloak upwards into the city. The steady rain made the viewing difficult , but they would still look up. Up beyond warehouses filled with grain and cloth both rough and fine, up beyond the shops and houses of laborers and craftsmen, up the sloping and twisting lanes of Goat Hill past the buried fight pits gambling dens and brothels, to the lighted taverns of the Shambles.

In the Shambles, the rain fell just as hard. It filled rooftop gutters; the gutters filled barrels; the barrels overflowed and spilled their contents into streets already like shallow swift-moving creeks. But the closely packed shops and houses of the Shambles provided some small shelter for those whose errands took them out into the wet. Built so that their upper stories overhung the narrow sparsely-cobbled lanes, they often turned streets into tunnels, winding in complex and confusing patterns.

Inside the small and unassuming tavern called the Kraken's Head, standing behind a short angled bar of burnished mahogany, Koda thanked the gods that he had paid to have a new tile roof built. The old thatched one had leaked and dripped in a dozen places.

The crowd tonight at the Kraken was typical. A few off-duty guards, some travelers (ruffians by the look of them) who had joined a small party of tradesmen playing cards and dice in the big corner table. Koda was even surprised to see a Beast had turned up this night. It was either a fox or a weasel; it had not removed its oil-cloak and sat drying near the fire. Beasts did not often frequent the tavern, though they were common enough in the Shambles. It mattered little to Koda. All were welcome, so long as they kept their peace. The Kraken was not a family establishment, though it had a better reputation that most alehouses in the Shambles. Sure, most people came there for the beer, but he always kept a pot of thick stew on the kettle as well as a hard-crusted loaf from the baker's down the way and a good wheel of yellow cheese. More often that not, the new roof would be raised by song.

Tonight looked like it was going to be a night of passable good will. The gamers in the corner were holding up their end well and the evening was yet young. The rain would keep away some patrons, but with luck there would be enough later on to keep the doors open till midnight.

Even as he thought this, the door opened and a tall figure stepped out of the soak and into the common room. Heads turned to take in the newcomer. A few stared, but most turned back to their various pursuits. The man removed his oil-cloak, revealing a well-made, yet somewhat threadbare light gray cloak. An adept, though most likely a student at the Hall of Art. He was clean with close cropped brown hair and a vague suggestion of a beard. He looked about with a trace of amusement on his long youthful face. He found the cloak rack by the door and walked through the room towards the bar. Drawing up the money pouch at his waist he asked, “How much for a beer, sir?”

Koda blinked for a moment. Adepts didn't just walk into the Kraken, not even students who looked barely old enough to hold a razor. The lad had an open ingenuous face that seemed to invite amiability, however, so Koda replied, “One silver, my Lord”. The young man opened his pouch, which was rather small and light he noted, and drew forth a coin.

“One, please.”

Koda almost snorted, the youth was so sincere. He looked as though the inside of a tavern was only slightly less novel than the inside of a Karkulite brothel. The barman took the coin and filled a tankard from the heavy oaken cask. He set it before the boy, saying, “Begging pardon my lord, but we don't often see one of the Gifted in these parts.”

The youth took the clay mug. “Oh, please. I'm not a lord. Not yet, anyway. I'm just a novice at the Hall. And I had business not too far from here.”

Right, thought Koda, but I'll wager half a cask you've never set foot on this side of the Saber.

“Actually,” continued the novice, “I'm here to meet a friend”.

“Is your friend a young woman, with honey-colored hair and skin like kafŽ? And carrying a sword nearly as long as she is?” asked the barman in a suddenly conspiratorial whisper.

“Goodness, no, don't I wish,” he replied. “Why do you ask?”

“'Cause she just walked in the door.”

The novice, whose named happened to be Farralon, craned his neck about. Framed in the door, lit by the small fire was indeed the woman described. She stood little more than five feet tall and was pulling back the hood of her cloak. She did not hang it on the hook but kept it close about her, as if she felt the tavern to be filled with enemies. This was not likely the case, but that didn't mean it was any less dangerous. She did not appear frightened, though, but carefully scanned the faces of the room (most of which were turned in her direction) and walked with a confident stride to the bar. She sat next to the novice without acknowledging him and asked the tavern-keeper for an ale, wine if he had it.

Koda turned to fill the order. By the time he had poured a cup of the spiced wine of Tallon and turned back, he noticed that most of the patrons had resumed their own business. Most of them.

He set the cup before the woman and said, “Two silver, miss.”

The woman reached into the shadows of her cloak and produced a small leather bag. “Silver, hmm?” She said. “I don't know. Will these do?” From her bag she drew forth two small very aged coins. Koda looked them over. They were larger than a silver piece, true, but appeared to have be alloyed with some baser metal.

“Sorry, miss. I've never seen their like. What are they?”

“Ancient coins,” came the reply. “From the ruins of Shakka-go, beyond Ontar. Do you not accept them?” Her face seemed genuinely concerned.

“Never heard of Shakka-go, and I can't pay for wages and stock with relic coins. You'll have to do better.”

The young woman looked at the cup of spiced wine and licked her lips. Slowly, she shook her head and began to rise.

“Wait,” said the young man beside her. “I can take care of it.” His voice broke slightly. He reached into his purse and lightened by the required amount.

“Oh, thank you,” said the newcomer, “but I am a stranger and couldn't impose.”

“Ah... that's all right,” he stammered, “I'll take one those exotic coins as payment.” Koda gave him a look as if to say you know your own business, I suppose. But he took the money and gave the girl the cup. Oh, she's good he thought. But shaking that boy down for a drink was about as hard as convincing a mouse to eat cheese. A hungry mouse.

“Many thanks,” she said.

The boy sat for a long time looking at the strange coin, while she sipped her wine slowly. He seemed to be working on some inner struggle between his brain and his tongue. Finally, they reached a truce and he blurted out, “My name's Farralon.” This having been said, he waited in an awkward silence.

She turned to him with an appraising eye. It was a frank and open stare. Farralon swallowed. This sort of thing didn't happen very often. Well, never, actually. At least not while he was awake. Finally she spoke.

“I'm Nyra,” she said, flashing him a smile of even white teeth. “You're native to the city, aren't you?”

“How can you tell?”

“Pardon my candor, but your hands are soft, you have no scars, and your skin does not show signs of constant sun.”

“Well reasoned, I suppose. You on the other hand, have never been in a city, at least not a big modern one.” Once the silence was broken, he seemed to lose his initial awkwardness. Like a pump that needs priming, he was one of those conversationalists who depends on inertia to keep the talk flowing.

“All right, now it's your turn,” she replied, “why do you think that?”

“Well, you are obviously from far away; your accent is unusual.”

“I am Kabekki,” she said, with no small amount of pride. “What else?”

“You don't know?” He appeared thoughtful. “Let's just say it's the way you look at everything. As if you expect to be bitten by a chair, or enemies to leap out from behind every shadow. Also, you kept your oil-cloak on. Nobody does that indoors; it's too uncomfortable. Besides, it leaves stains. Don't worry!” he hastily added as she began to rise. “The bar stool is varnished wood. You can't harm it.”

“Then why did you say—” she began. “To see my reaction and test whether you were right. You're smarter than you look.”

“And you have a frank way of speaking, not the careful verbal fencing that city-dwellers use.. You are a fish out of water, and no mistake.”

“Hmm...” It was her turn to appear thoughtful. “It's true enough, I suppose. I have no like for cities. It is only great need that drives me here.”

He wanted to say, what need is that? but didn't feel brave enough yet. Instead he replied with, “That's too bad, there is much to be said for city life.”

To his surprise, she snorted with thinly concealed derision. He looked puzzled, and asked, “What's wrong with Tallon?”

Koda the barkeep almost answered that one for him, but he was getting vicarious amusement out of their flirting manner, so continued pretending not to be paying attention. There were volumes he could say to the young privileged lord-to-be, should he change his mind. Nyra answered instead.

“I've heard of Tallon, Jewel of Merrikia.” She said mock sincerity. “And of Merrikia, land of the Spirit Masters.” She made a strange sign, placing her first and second fingers on either side of her left eye.

It was Farralon's turn to be mocking, though he was gentler. “An evil eye? Are we that bad?” Over her shoulder, he saw the city guardsmen get up from their table and head for their cloaks. Nyra tensed visibly, and her hand made a sudden movement under her cloak, though her head did not turn a fraction of an inch.

“Why so nervous?” asked Farralon, impressed by her awareness. “Are you expecting trouble?”

“Anyone should keep on their toes in these parts.”

“I should think it would be the other way around. The wilderness seems far more dangerous.”

Nyra had still not relaxed. “Oh, it is. Believe me. But the dangers there are dangers I know. Honest dangers.”

“And that fat old guard walking out the door is a dishonest danger?”

“In a way. He's works for the city, and the city's law. In the wilderness, there is only one law: the law of survival. It's an honest law, though it favors the strong and the careful. Here there are countless laws and rules. I don't know what they are.”

“You really should relax. They're gone now.”

“I know. And I am relaxed. Just... ready”

“You're about as relaxed as that fox over there.”

“You mean the weasel. He's been looking at you for a while.”

“How can you tell?”

“Oh, his coat is red, and what you can see of his tail under that cloak is red and bushy. He wants you to think he's a fox. But he moves like a weasel.”

“No, I mean how could you tell that he was—”

At this moment the beast in question distracted Koda with a wave. He left the bar and approached the cloaked stranger, who looked up at him from the small corner table.

“Pardon master barkeep,” he began, in a slightly cringing tone. He definitely had a fox's accent, the thick gypsy cant. “It looks as though thy custom is drying up. I happen to have come into a bit of good fortune through a lucky business dealing. It would warm my poor heart to stand a round for the house. Only, I should prefer the gift remain anonymous.” He pressed a gold coin into Koda's hand.

Koda looked at the beast. He had heard the young couple refer to him as a weasel, but Koda was damned if he could see it. And Koda fancied himself a good judge of character. Nevertheless, he took the proffered coin and tipped his head to the beast. “As you wish. Give me a few minutes before I call the round, and you won't be known.” He went back to the bar. By the time he got back to the bar, the conversation he had been eavesdropping on had moved back to its original territory.

“You must be joking,” Farralon was saying. “Merrikia has kept the peace for more than forty years. We haven't done any harm to the tribes of the wilderness, not even the Kabekki.”

“Your people enslave the people and beasts of the jungle and plains. Their wills are sapped and they are left mindless thralls by the arts learned from the Demon-Kings of yore.”

Farralon looked at her, his eyes wide. “Where did you hear that?”

“I have heard the stories. Your unnatural golem fighters kill with impunity. Merrikians field fearsome engines of destruction that walk the ground like great animals, exterminating all who resist them. Do you deny that such things exist?” She seemed quite heated now, her eyes smoldering.

“Yes! I mean, no. I mean... Well of course we have such things, but we don't use them! Not like you suggest anyway.”

“You call my grandfather a liar?” The voice was deceptively calm, but Farralon picked up the hint quite easily.

“Not at all. Not at all. Let's just say that things might be different than they appear.” He could see the aura of her psyche. This was something she felt strongly about, certainly. “Let's take these things calmly, one point at a time.

“First of all, let's start with the source of our... adepts' powers. It is true that long ago, at the end of the Middle World, the Rex Infernae, whom you would call the Demon-Kings, wielded power immeasurable over the world. But they were defeated and banished many hundreds of years ago.”

Her eyes narrowed, “Middle World?”

“The Old World was the world of the Ancients. They had a type of superstition called science, which was the center of their culture. Like most superstitious people, they had little defense against a rational enemy with superior technology. The Rex Infernae conquered them and took over their lands. That was the Middle World”

“And the adepts conquered the Rex Infernae and stole their power. Everyone knows that.”

“Maybe all the Kabekki know that. But that is not what happened. The Rex Infernae were banished by the Prometheans.” He hurried on before she could ask her next question. “The Prometheans took their name from a legend that was ancient even to those of the Old World. They stole the secrets of the Rex Infernae in a mighty battle. The battle is said to have laid waste to the world, very nearly destroying it altogether. We called it Gotterdamerung, from another ancient legend. That was the beginning of the New World, our world. The Prometheans also perished or disappeared in that battle, but they left teachings.”

“And that is where the Spirit Masters learned their powers.”

“Well, yes and no. The teachings they left were scattered and incomplete. The Rex Infernae and the Prometheans made many wonders which we cannot today duplicate. All we have to guide us are the Standing Stones, monolithic structures throughout the lands with words of guidance and wisdom carved upon them. We actually understand very little.”

“You have said nothing so far to refute my accusations. Your people still make terrible weapons of war and unstoppable inhuman warriors. Your troops have killed or enslaved thousands to battle in your arenas or serve in your brothels.”

“Wait now, I think I see where your confusion is coming from. You're talking of the time of Kanukka the Red.”

“Yes, the evil of the Red Queen and her minions are well known in the stories of our people.”

“Well that's just it,” continued Farralon. “They are stories. Yes, Kanukka was bad, but she has been dead nearly forty years. Your Grandfather's tales are a generation out of date. And even then, Kanukka couldn't have done all the things your describe, at least not to that degree.”

“Is that what they teach you in the City?”

“No. It is demonstrable fact. You see it is true that adepts wield great power. But I need to explain that power a bit before I can explain why it cannot easily be used as a weapon of conquest.”

He leaned back a bit. Koda, setting up mugs nearby, was trying to delay calling the fox's round in case the student revealed any adept secrets. So far, Koda was familiar with everything said. He went to services every Highday, after all.

“Now everything in the universe has a spirit, surely you know that.” He leaned forward, warming to his subject. “That spirit can be described by various aspects. All material objects for example have morphia, the part of the spirit that tells an object what shape to be or what texture to have. It describes its substance and physical nature.

“All physical objects in motion have anima. That is the part of the spirit that describes how an object moves, or reacts to some stimuli. It's actually much more complicated than that, though. There's a difference between passive anima, such as a falling rock or the motions of the planets, and the anima of a living growing thing like a plant or animal.”

Nyra was narrowing him suspiciously, but kept her silence and listened.

“The highest and purest form of spirit is called psyche. That is the part of the spirit that gives an object thought, will, and motivation. Only thinking creatures possess psyche. Now, adepts can sense spirits. In fact that is the first sign that someone is an adept. They can see the patterns of the spirit. What the teachings of the Standing Stones do is allow us to manipulate it.”

In a flash, he was staring down at the point of a knife, an inch from his heart. He blinked. He hadn't even seen her hand move.

“I knew it!” she cried, oblivious to the stares and sudden alertness of the other patrons of the bar. “You said us. You're one of them. An adept!” She almost hissed the last word.

“I never said I wasn't,” came Farralon's strangled reply. “Please put your knife away. I won't hurt you. In fact, I think you could kill me pretty easily.”

Koda figured things had gone on long enough. “Please, Miss, he's speaking the truth. He's only a student, and can't do harm to no one.” He was not stupid enough to reach for the knife.

Nyra considered for a moment, and then looked into Farralon's eyes. She saw a sincere concern for his own life there. The moment stretched into a second, and then a third. Finally, she withdrew the blade. “May I offer my apologies,” she said. “I thought you were playing games with me.”

Farralon released the breath he didn't realize he had been holding. “Apology accepted. I didn't realize I would anger you.”

“Anger? If I was really angry, I wouldn't have stopped the knife.”

“I could tell that you weren't in a murderous mood. You're more afraid of something.”

“Stay out of my head!” she snapped.

“Sorry! Sorry! I can't really help it. It's just the way I see things. I can see the aura of your spirit. I can't really read your thoughts. You have to be much more advanced than I am.”

“Drinks on the house!” barked Koda to the common room. The tension in the room melted in the universal social solvent of alcohol.

Nyra relaxed again. “I was never afraid,” she replied with more emotion than she would have liked. “I just don't like to be made a fool of.”

“As you say.”

Nyra looked in surprise as Koda placed more drinks in front of them. “I can't take this,” she said, “I caused the disturbance in the first place.”

“Quite all right, Miss. The round was bought by someone who wishes to be anonymous.”

She shot a look at Farralon. “Did you...?”

Farralon chuckled. “I told you. I'm only a novice. Even a Master can't send a message to someone's psyche like that. It's not worth the energy.”

The two accepted the proffered beverages while Farralon continued as if she had never threatened to skewer him. “You see, that's why adepts or “Spirit Masters” can't have done the things you claim, or at least not on that scale. It's a matter of energy. Sure a master can take an articulated statue, imbue it with anima so that it moves around on its own, pump up the morphia till it's near indestructible, but it will leave him exhausted. Also, there are ley lines to worry about.”

“What's a... ley line?”

“An invisible connection between the adept and his creation. Not even another adept can see them, but they're there. And the farther an adept gets from something he has altered, the weaker the alteration becomes. Nearby, the alteration is effectively permanent. Miles away it can fade in a matter of days or even hours. And once the ley line weakens, an adept has to start all over again. So you can't send forth mighty engines of destruction, because they turn into so much scrap after a few miles.”

“But my Grandfather remembers seeing them.”

“He very well might have. But he was probably far from Kabbek when he did. Kanukka the Red did a lot of awful things, but she couldn't do them everywhere all the time. She had a home city to worry about as well.”

“What do you mean?”

“Adepts don't have a history of... cooperation. It's more of an enlightened self-interest that makes them work together.”

“So you are constantly at each other's throats.”

“Well, that's one way of looking at it,” he said, “at least politically”

“So what do adepts want?”

“The same thing everyone else wants, I suppose. Life, food, a job to do, a family to raise.”

“Your parents were adepts, too?”

“That would be an amazing coincidence. No. Spirit Mastery isn't hereditary. Hey, you said that great need drove you here. What is it that you want?”

Nyra suddenly looked sheepish. “Oh. Well, now. I guess I do deserve the title of fool. It sounds ridiculous now, but I came seeking the help of an adept.”

Farralon gaped. “You have a funny way of asking for it. Do you always go around waving knives at people whose aid you seek?” He instantly regretted the words.

“I have already apologized for that! I was... startled. I did not expect to meet one in a bar. I thought I would have to petition a king, or something.”

“We don't have kings; we are ruled by the most powerful master, whom we call the Archon. Besides, if you hate us so much, why would you want anything to do with us? Why travel all this distance?”

Nyra glanced around the room. “I have a problem. Have you ever heard of a Reaver?

He looked puzzled. “I'm not sure. What is it?”

She shuddered. “In the lands beyond the cities, there are many terrible things. Monsters. Shapeless horrors that dwell in the ruins. We believe they were created by the Reavers.”

Comprehension began to creep across the young adept's face, but he remained mute.

“Reavers come with the storms. They are horrible. They shriek and chase you until you cannot run anymore. And though your heart would burst if you kept on, you cannot stop for what happens when they catch you is too terrible to live with.”

“Scramblers.” His face had lost its perpetual half-smile of amusement now.


“We call them Scramblers. No one knows what they are. I have never seen one—they don't come to cities— but I have heard of them. What did it look like?”

“Like a black hole in the air, filled with lightning. Shrieking like the Demon-Kings themselves were after them. They're common enough in the Wilderness. The people and beasts they catch are changed. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Never for the better. There was a man of my tribe, named Dave.”

Dave the Barbarian? thought Koda, from his surreptitious listening post.

“He was caught by a Reaver. When he was released, he was different. His skin was hard and shiny, like a beetle's. He began to eat garbage. Finally he was cast out. He was a freak. We call them the riven. He went to live with their kind in Nunavut. There is a land or valley of them somewhere in the jungle.” She shuddered.

“Nyra,” began Farralon after a moment, “were you caught by a... Reaver?”

She paused a moment, looking around again. Bartenders, like household servants, have a special kind of invisibility. They are so congruous with their surroundings that they are easily dismissed as mere furniture. So it was that Koda was able to here her as she dropped her voice to a mere whisper. “Yes.”

“By Prometheus...” said Farralon. “What did it... I mean how were you...”

“I know what you mean,' she said. “And don't look so tragic. I was very lucky. It could have been far worse. As disfigurations go, it is fairly minor. You see, I have an extra—”

The front door suddenly banged open, diverting Koda's attention. Framed in the door was a very unusual sight. Man-like in shape, it was made entirely of shiny brass. Oddly articulated limbs of metal moved under their own power as it stepped out of the steady pour and into the dry room, where it stood dripping and turning its somewhat comically mustachioed head from left to right. Koda knew the thing well, though it had never come to his bar before. Who in the city didn't know—

“Brassman!” shouted half the bar. Nyra either didn't notice the term of warm affection in the voices or didn't care, for she was halfway up her barstool and had drawn a very unfriendly-looking four-foot steel sword from her back sheath.

“What the hells is that?” she cried.

“Is that your response to anything new or unusual? Cut it in half with a big knife?” asked Farralon, his look of amusement back. “Nyra of the Kabekki, meet Brassman. He's one of our unstoppable inhuman killing machines.”

The brass manikin turned its gaze upon Farralon and twitched its shiny mustachios. Nyra could see that each one was held in place by a small rivet. It drew itself up in a pose of indignation and opened its hinged mouth to speak.

“Oh I say! That's jolly unfair. I am most certainly not a machine! Really, Student-Morphist Farralon. I will kindly thank you not to spread rumors about me. Although my prowess on the battlefield is unparalleled, and my valor in arms legendary, I think that you go a bit far.” His tone was exactly as a man made of brass should sound. Brassy.

“And to speak of me so to such a beautiful, if easily excitable young maiden as this. Bit deficient in the tact department, eh young fellah-me-lad?”

Brassman moved toward the couple at the bar. “Oh, do come down, Missy,” he said. “Brassman the Brave means you no harm.”

To Nyra's amazement, the figure's effect was so comical that she found herself obeying before she realized her feet were moving. This... golem or whatever looked more like someone's dotty uncle than an assassin. She did note however, the scabbard bolted to his midsection.

Brassman continued; shyness was not apparently not one of his many virtues. “I say, young folk. What are you sitting at the bar for? A social gathering such as this needs a table.” He turned to Farralon and said in a whisper loud enough to carry across the room, “How do you expect to impress young ladies with such shoddy etiquette, eh wot? And my word! You haven't even offered to take her cloak.”

Koda realized he was about to lose his entertainment. He beckoned the trio over to the table closest to the bar. As Brassman took Nyra's cloak, the barkeep cast a covert eye upon her to see if he could inventory any surplus anatomy. But Nyra appeared young and healthy, if somewhat outlandish. She had a loincloth of some animal hide, died deep red. Some light chain mail of gold color covered her upper chest. Oddly designed leather bracers on each tautly muscled arm each held a small dagger. And that was pretty much it. Besides her back scabbard, a pouch and a few odd pieces of jewelry she was otherwise unadorned. Koda noticed that she wasn't even wearing shoes. But he saw no sign of disfigurement. If anything, she was easily one of the most beautiful women he'd ever seen.

Nyra didn't notice this extra attention, as her own observations were focussed on the man of brass. He (it?) was obviously no man in costume. The arms and legs were solid brass rods, attached to a drum-like torso with intricate joints. Parts of him appeared solid, while others appear to be bent from sheets of brass and riveted into place. He was extremely well polished and shiny, catching and reflecting the candlelight in countless warm reflections. He had worn an oil cloak in the steamy rain, though he had since removed it. He only other concession to clothing was a brass and leather soldier's helmet. This he did not remove. Nyra wondered if maybe it was attached, like the scabbard.

Koda wished there were more people here. Brassman was popular in the city, and if word got out that he frequented the Kraken's Head, it could be worth a good deal of custom. In any case he put on his best host face and said, “Well that settles you young folk! Can I get you anything to eat? We haven't got much choice, but the stew is hearty and the cheese is fresh.”

“Nothing for me, thank you my stout friend,” said Brassman. Nyra shot him a look that would require no adept to read. You can eat? Farralon however paid for cheese and bread. While the tavern keeper went to fill the order, they continued conversing.

“Well, well,” said Brassman in a more circumspect tone than he had used earlier, “Is this your contact?”

Nyra did not miss the look of alarm and caution that flickered over Farralon's face. “No, Brassman. Nothing like that. I just met her tonight. As a matter of fact, we were just discussing some unrelated business when you arrived. Late, I might add.”

“Sorry, it's coming down in washtubs out there and the Shambles are hard enough to navigate in bright daytime. But still, no need to bash old Brassman over the noggin with a mace. I take your meaning clear enough. You finish up your wooing while I say hello to those likely chaps at the game table. Call when you need.” And although his eyes could not close, his articulated eyebrows and whiskers gave an unmistakable impression of a wink. He got up and crossed the room.

Farralon looked at Nyra. “Why did you call me an idiot?”

“What? I didn't.”

“Not out loud, but I got the distinct perception when Brassman was in the door that someone plainly thought I was a fool.”

“Well it didn't come from me, mister student adept.”

“Hmm...” He looked around the room and settled an eye on the weasel in fox's clothing. He appeared agitated and was eyeing the small windows in the room. “Thing's are starting to make a bit of sense, now.”

“Well not to me, they aren't. Look, is he... it... whatever, alive? He looks about as dangerous as a mouse. And pompous? If he were anymore full of himself, he'd need a second skin, as the Kabekki say.”

“Oh Brassman's as alive as you or me. He is an animate. A living moving being filled with human spirit. Once he was a human being, but when he died in the service of Master Ningan, the great adept took it upon himself to preserve him in a body of brass.”

“That's horrible!”

“Not at all. Brassman will never age, get sick hunger or even grow tired again. It beats lying in a grave.”

“No, I mean what you said about ley lines. He is trapped. If he leaves the city or even the proximity of his master, he'll die. Won't he?”

“No no no. Brassman is not a golem. He's charged with psyche. Psyche forms its own ley lines. I told you it was complicated. Look, psyche is the highest form of spirit, right? It's also the hardest part to shift. Once an object or animal has psyche, it forms its own ley lines. The transformation is permanent. Even if he were to be severely damaged, he could have parts made by any competent craftsmen. His morphia and anima would automatically give them form and motion. It's why some animals like our foxy weasel over there can walk and talk like humans, though their people were created by the Rex— the Demon Kings, long ago.”

“It still sounds spooky.”

“I wouldn't go into the Noble's Circle, then if I were you. That's the center of the city where the adepts live the thickest. There are a lot stranger things than Brassman there.”

“Look,” said Nyra, shaking her head, “this is a very fascinating, but can we please get back to my problem?”

“Ah yes, your little something extra.”

“It's not funny!”

“Well I would think that someone who leads an adventurous life might find it appealing...”

“Oh you would, would you? It's not that simple. If it were simply an extra one, I could live with it. Particularly if it were not too prominent. But it moves around.”

Farralon made a look of distaste. “It moves around?”

“Yes. When it first appeared it was on the back of my hand. It took a bout a week to grow.”

“I wouldn't think it would fit...”

“I didn't say it was comfortable. I couldn't hold anything with it and it was awfully difficult to hide. After about another week it shriveled up and was kind of absorbed. I was elated to think that perhaps I would escape permanent disfigurement. It's not always permanent, you know.

“A week later, it re-appeared. This time in a place I couldn't hide. I was shamed. I ran from my tribe. It has moved four times since then. I am afraid that someday it will appear in a place that is not just inconvenient, but mortally dangerous. I could suffocate or worse. I had heard that some of the Disfigured sought the help of the Spirit Masters. That they could change people. I thought I could petition for aid.”

“You have an aggressive way of asking for help.”

“I said I was sorry. So?”


“So can you fix it?”

“What, me? That's far beyond a mere novice. Even a Master would hesitate to undo a scrambler's work. They scramble things up something terrible.”

“You mean I've been spilling the intimate details of my life to you and you can't do anything about it?” She looked angry again, and stood as if to leave. Farralon noticed the weasel start.

“Wait! I didn't say I couldn't help. I just meant that I am unable to do it myself. I could put in a word for you at the Hall of Art, where I study. Also, there is a healing every Highday at the Dancers of Dawn.”

“Will that work?”

“Well the healings are usually pretty minor. Broken limbs, sickness and such. You've had your morphia and perhaps your anima scrambled. You probably need a Master's touch. What were you planning to use for payment?”

“Well, I'm pretty handy with a sword. I thought I could be a bodyguard.”

“I'm not too sure that would work. Each Master has a number of Paladins... er, enhanced human bodyguards already. I doubt you could equal their skill. And most adepts would tend to shy away from a bodyguard who hates them on general principles.”

“Then what do you suggest?” She caught an awkward silence from him and said, “Oh no. That's out! I may be disfigured, but I have my pride.”

“I didn't mean that,” he said. “I was just wondering if you might be perfect for what Master Ningan—the Archon— is always talking about.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look, we are trying to learn the secrets of a long-gone people. The Prometheans left behind the Standing Stones, but they're different everywhere. The Merrikian Stones are well known and recorded. But there must be others with different teachings, in far lands. Barbarian lands.”

“Thank you,” she said with ironic disdain.

“Oh come on. I didn't mean it that way. It's just a word we have.”

“For people you don't understand. I know what you call us.”

“I never called you an insolen—“

“Don't say it!”

At that moment, the card and dice game across the room was interrupted by a loud disturbance.

“Blackguard!” came Brassman's voice. “You are playing with dice affixed with boar's hairs. You sir, are a cheat and scoundrel! A knave I say! Why if there were not a lady present I should run you through for such villainous behavior!”

The gamers hurriedly backed away from the table, some of them hurrying for their oil cloaks. The rascally-looking one accused of cheating shot back, “You don't even understand the game, ya brass lamp! I was playing fair.”

The fox-or-weasel who had been nervously pacing the room hurried over to the game table. “Good gentles! Good gentles! Please, let us all be friends here. I say if'n ye all be seated in good fellowship, I could stand you all another round.”

The accused cheater sneered at the fox, “I don't take drinks from hairy beasts,” he spat. He turned towards Koda as he left. “I can't say as I much like the company you keep, master.” He shrugged his oil cloak on and went out into the storm.

“Don't go!” cried the beast as the last of the gamers left. There were only Koda, the weasel-fox, and Farralon's companions left in the tavern. The beast whirled on Farralon.

“You idiot! You young fool!” His voice lost the lilting fox-speech and became the oily tones of a weasel. He dropped aside his cloak and revealed the false tail he had worn. “When I told you to bring a warrior, I meant someone like a Paladin, or Iron John. Not this clown.”

“I can't order Paladins about. And I didn't call Iron John because I wanted to recover stolen property, not cause a mass murder. So you are the one who left me the message. Where is it?”

“Dung-brain! I don't have it. That's why I needed help. It was only the number of people in here that kept him out and now your muddling brass spittoon has lost us even that protection.”

“Who are you talking about?” said Farralon.

Nyra replied without turning her head, “Him.”

As she spoke, the heavy wooden door split violently in two with a cracking thunder. In leapt a huge man. A wide leather weapon belt and short ragged loincloth were all that covered the rippling muscles of his body. In his hand was an abomination, a horror. It seemed like merely a sword, but it was much more. The eye seemed to bend around it in some direction it couldn't follow. It just felt wrong. It was this blade which had split the door like a hatchet splitting firewood. Koda remembered that his front door had had thick iron straps across its timbers. “Hando the Slayer!” said Nyra and the weasel at the same time.

Hando looked around the room with eyes that seemed to burn. He counted the figures and then made directly for the weasel. “Russpelt!” he shouted in a thickly accented and threatening voice. “I warned you! But you wouldn't take the easy way. Now you die along with all these other worthless fools!”

There was no time for questions, no time to debate. Koda, not being a man of action, watched the others move about him in slow motion, while he himself seemed frozen in time, unable to move or speak, not even to save his own life.

As Hando raised the frightful weapon, the weasel drew forth from some hidden pocket a load of sharp spiky objects, which he cast on the floor before Hando. Hando grunted and leapt over them onto the game table, which overturned, sending mugs and plates flying across the room.

“Beware!” shouted Farralon. “That's Annihilator, a Demon-King blade!”

Brassman drew his sword with a fluidity and grace that Koda would not have credited him with, and rushed Hando. Hando recovered, twisting just in time to avoid a skewering thrust. Rolling to his feet, he swung the wicked blade in a wide arc. Brassman raised his own sword to block. Nyra gasped in horror as Hando's sword cut right through Brassman's with no effort and continued its sweep right across the manikin's neck. Brassman's head flew up into the rafters and was lost to sight. His body continued to move in a ghastly parody of combat.

The weasel had worked his was to the bar and was throwing things at Hando. Bottles, mugs, anything to hand. They seemed almost to explode when Hando's sword deflected them.

Nyra had not been motionless. She had drawn her sword the moment that the barbarian giant had entered. She had to avoid the weasel's caltrops, though. She nimbly leapt onto a table and swung up into the rafters.

Hando hardly glanced at her. “Climb your trees, little cat,” he said. “I'll have you down in time.” He sprung towards the bar and with one chop shattered it to splinters. Russpelt the weasel shrieked in terror as the blade whistled toward him. It almost seemed to be cutting the air in half before it. He twisted his limber body in a contortion impossible to a human and saw the sword bury itself nearly a foot into the flagstone floor, throwing off sparks and shards as it did. He sprang to his hind paws just as Nyra came hurtling down from the rafters like a siege arrow, her feet striking Hando near his shoulder blades. There was an almighty crashing noise as Hando's was propelled into the shelves on the wall, his chest and head breaking a dozen bottles. Shaking his head like a great dog, he wrenched the sword from the floor. It left a huge hole behind. He spun to face Nyra, coming up on one knee. Without taking her eyes from Hando, Nyra shouted to Farralon. “You're no good here! Get help!”

Farralon had been trying to help Russpelt, who had walked across his own caltrops in his panic and was now rolling on the floor in agony. He looked up in time to see the hulking savage whip a knife from his belt and throw it directly at his heart.

Nyra heard the blade hit with a deep thunk. The impact was so great that Farralon actually flipped over. She knew a mortal hit when she saw one. “You bastard!” she roared, and swung her two handed sword at Hando's weapon hand. Hando almost missed the block, but he got Annihilator around and the steel burst apart in her hands. Her sword was gone and her right arm felt numb. Still, her attack hadn't been fruitless. Hando's hand was bleeding and he had dropped the sword.

The savage killer didn't waste time. From his safe spot under the remains of the end of the bar, Koda saw him snatch an oil lamp down from its sconce and hurl the contents across Nyra's face. She screamed as the burning oil seared her eyes. She stumbled around groping at her face, trying to smother the flames.

Hando chuckled, and picked up Annihilator in his off-hand. Now it would be simple. The adept and the brass monster were dead. The weasel was crippled, the innkeeper was a fat nothing, and the girl was blind. It was over. He raised his sword to strike off her head. Then suddenly he stared with a perplexed expression down at his own chest, where the hilt of a dagger protruded. He looked at the blind girl, who wasn't even facing him. The last thing he saw before a black tide pulled him under forever was at the base of her neck, half covered by the hair but plainly discernible, a perfect human eye.

Nyra also pitched forward into blackness. Moments before she was totally swallowed up, she thought she heard a brassy voice saying, “No, no! to the left, you silly blighter!” Then she heard nothing more.

Nyra awoke with a sense of surprise. Mostly she was surprised that she had, in fact, awoken. The second surprise was that she could see. She brought her hands up to her eyes and felt no burns, only a little tenderness and a bit of a headache. She was lying on a very soft bed facing a window with a view of a large and beautifully tended formal garden. The sun was shining, but a gauzy curtain cut down the light to a bearable level. She heard a muffled movement from somewhere out of her field of vision and instinctively reached for her wrist dagger. Then she remembered that she had left it in Hando. She sat up to see where she was and immediately regretted it. Her groan was answered by a small piping voice at her elbow.

“Easy Mistress Nyra. Oh deary me, but ye've had a bad time of it. Rest now, young one and I'll fetch the healer.” The speaker turned out to be a mouse. Not the wild tiny kind, but a spirit mouse, a beast. She was, in fact, a nurse. The little beast left her for another room, from which Nyra heard low voices. Almost immediately a recognizable face came into view.

“How many eyes do you see?” asked the adept.

“That's not funny.” Memories crowded in on her, falling over themselves in their haste to get through the door of her mind. “Wait. Aren't you supposed to be dead? The knife Hando threw would have split a small tree.”

Farralon winced at the reminder. “There's a reason we adepts wear such long robes even in this tropical heat.”

“You couldn't wear armor under all that. You'd pass out. Oh. The cloth itself. You enhanced its morphia. You were never in danger from my knife.”

“You are learning fast! Yes, the cloth is supple as silk, but resists blows like iron. If its any consolation, I do have a bruise the size of a melon.” He touched his chest gingerly and his wry half-smile returned.

“I only have one more question,” said the girl.

“Just one?”

“Yes, but it's a good one: What the seven hells of Shakka-Go happened last night!” Her voice had become a shout, causing the timid little mouse at her side to jump under the bed.

Farralon chuckled. “Good question, but it's still the wrong one. You should ask what happened last week.” He got a small bit of amusement out of her sudden consternation.

“Last week? But...”

“It takes a long time to grow a new pair of eyes. Not to mention to have a Master Healer restore the damaged morphia that was giving you a... roving eye” He grinned. He'd been saving that one, she could tell. She begrudged him a small laugh.

“But wait, I thought a had nothing to pay. Why did the... Master Healer, you called him? Why did the Master Healer restore me?”

“Many reasons, but mostly as a reward for the person who recovered Annihilator, the Demonblade.”

“But you survived the battle, you could have returned the sword and left me to rot.”

A brassy voice cut in, “Really young miss, we are not barbarians. Beg pardon, deuced bad manners. We are not... eh... savages.”

“Brassman! But I saw your head cut off!”

“And what a blinkin' nuisance that was, wot? You ever try shouting directions to a body that doesn't have any ears? Regular cock-up, that!”

“I told you,” said Farralon. “As long as there is a reasonable amount of Brassman left, he can be repaired.”

“All right. But what about the sword? How did Hando get that?”

“Before I answer that, could you tell me something? How do you know Hando?”

“Hando the Slayer has a reputation that reaches from the fens of Greenland to the Jungles of Ukon. He's a mercenary, a warrior, a killer-for-hire. I've met him before.”

“Well you won't meet him again. That dagger of yours saw to that. As to how he got the sword; that's where our foxy little weasel comes into the picture. See, the weasel's full name is Slick Russpelt, and he has a reputation about as big as Hando's, though far more localized.”

“I should say so,” broke in Brassman. The little blackguard is the best-known thief in Tallon.”

“Being the best-known doesn't seem like a wise goal for a thief,” said Nyra.

“It isn't if you're caught. He hadn't been until last night. He didn't want to talk, but Master Ningan is very good at reading psyches. I think we have a pretty good picture of what happened.

“Hando came to town with a small fortune in jewels that he had plundered from one of the cities beyond the Great Lakes. He had heard legends of the Demon Blade that is kept in the armory of Tallon. Now before you get excited again, yes, apparently we have a lot of dangerous things stored away. That's not your business, or mine. Anyway, Hando wanted that sword badly, but knew he didn't have the skills to retrieve it. So he hired a master thief to steal it for him.” Farralon paused.

“The Masters were amazed that someone could break into the armory let alone steal something like Annihilator. But good as he was, he was still spotted. He escaped, but the word quietly went out for his hide.”

“That's why he needed the disguise.”

“Yes. Apparently he was stupid enough to mention to Hando that he had been spotted. Perhaps he wanted more money, to help him escape the city. Anyway, Hando figured that as long as Russpelt was alive, he could be captured. Once he was captured, he could be questioned. By adepts.”


“Exactly. Hando decided to kill Russpelt so that the trail would end there. But Russpelt escaped, using those little spiky floor-things of his—”

“Caltrops. They're called caltrops.”

“Oh. Well, whatever they're called, they helped him get away. He knew that he was no match for Hando, particularly with Annihilator. He needed help to get rid of him.”

“Why didn't he just flee the city?”

Farralon laughed. “Spoken like a true barbarian. Don't get angry, I mean that with utmost admiration and respect. The average city dweller wouldn't last overnight out there where you call home.”

“Well,” she hesitated, “I didn't exactly last overnight my first visit to the city.”

“Too true, too true! Anyway, to fight Annihilator, Russpelt needed some serious help. He knew any attempt to petition one of the Masters would result in his capture. So he sought a student.” Farralon gave a little mock bow and continued.

“See a student in the Hall of Art, (which is where you are, by the way) has access to a lot of things. Tools, contacts, and such. Russpelt left an anonymous note for me to find, informing me that the demonblade could be found at such and such a tavern at such and such a time. The note also advised me to take along protection, a fighter.”

“That's why you were expecting to meet Brassman, and why he thought I was some sort of contact!”

“Exactly! But Russpelt had figured that I would take a Paladin, or Iron John, instead of someone as... valorous as Brassman.”

The manikin preened.

“As I said before, masters have special bodyguards: the Paladins. A mere novice couldn't ask one to crush a bug, let alone catch a thief. Paladins are fiercely loyal to their individual masters.”

“And Iron John?”

Farralon shuddered. “Pray you never meet Iron John. If I had asked him, no one would have been left alive. Perhaps for the next building or two over, as well.”

Nyra filed that in the mental drawer labeled “Good Advice”.

“All right. I think I've got it. So Russpelt lets himself be seen by Hando. He ducks into the Tavern, which is filled with people. The last thing Hando wants is more witnesses, so he waits. And Russpelt keeps buying drinks for the house because he's waiting for help to get there and he doesn't want the bar to empty out before it does. He can't leave because Hando's waiting for him, and he has to stick around to make sure that Hando dies in the upcoming fight. After which, everyone would mention the helpful fox, and Russpelt—that weasel—would be in the clear.”

Her forehead creased with puzzlement. “But why didn't you tell a master, anyway. When you first got the note? I imagine a Master could have set up any number of unpleasant surprises for Hando, or Russpelt for that matter.”

Farralon looked sheepish. “Russpelt did know that much about students. See an adept's social advancement depends on... getting noticed.”

“Say no more,” she laughed. “It is the same with the Kabekki. The more you achieve, the more you can get away with. So you thought you could go down there with only... one brave companion and overcome a trained killer bearing a magic sword.”

“Well, when you say it that way...”

“So why didn't you just pick up the sword and hightail it back to the Hall of Art as soon as the fight was over?”

“Well, you were dying. And you did save my life.”

“But you had spirit cloth to protect you.”

“Not against Annihilator! And even spirit cloth has its limits. An arrow or well-placed blow can still kill. And spirit cloth doesn't cover everywhere. Be assured, Hando would have killed everyone if not for you.”

“Oh.” She sat up. “Well, don't forget it.”

“Believe me I won't”

She sank back into the pillows. “What did they do with Russpelt?”

“The Archon let him go. He said that a valuable thief was not a resource to be wasted. He knows enough about Russpelt now to make sure he will apply those skills where they will be more useful in the future.”

“That project of your master that you spoke of? To find the other Standing Stones?”

“Maybe. Master Ningan doesn't let his students in on every detail of state administration.”

“So am I free to go?”

“In a few days, when the Master Healer is sure you are fully cured. Undoing a Reaver's work is tricky business. And the Archon will want to talk with you.” He stared at her in concentration, using sight beyond sight. “Hey, that doesn't scare you: seeing a true Spirit Master!”

She smiled at him with the frank and open expression she had worn went they first met. “No, not anymore. I have seen adepts and they are not so different from us. I have learned a bit from the city. I think it's about time the city could learn a bit from me.”