[FFML] [Exatled]The Broken Circle 1 of 5

miashara at deepfriedpuppies.com miashara at deepfriedpuppies.com
Fri Nov 6 10:17:48 PST 2009


Exalted is the creation and property of White Wolf Publishing. No
copywright infringement is intended. This is a not-for-profit fan work.

Chapter 1 of 5
This is the longest of the chapters.

Act 1

There is an odd fate that watches over funerals in the Valley of Nine.  
It assures that the weather will rain, but soon after the sun will  
beat down with renewed vigor. There's something cathartic in the sun  
emerging from a torrential rain. But before the sun rose after Ash  
Maiden was laid to rest, the rain clouds were trapped between the  
towering mountains and dumped endless tears from heaven. In time the  
family left, and retreated to their homes to cry privately. One by one  
the friends departed as well, until when the sun set behind thick  
clouds, the church yard was empty.

We emerged like phantoms from the veil of rain. One by one figures  
walked out of the darkness to stand around the freshly turned earth  
before a marble gravestone. There were four, three men, one woman, who  
appeared. All had been at the funeral earlier and escorted the  
grieving family home. Once ensconced in familiar places with familiar  
things, they had departed for their own homes, but unerringly they'd  
been drawn back to the burial site. Now they watched the rain make mud  
out of the earth.

“She should have been buried in wood,” spoke the gravelly voice of  
one. “She would have liked that.”

“She would have,” agreed the woman. Her voice was much softer than the other.

“Isn't it odd how the names of Bright Leaf come true in such simple  
ways?” asked a second man. His voice was smoother than his  
compatriot's. Unlike everyone else who wore pure white robes of  
mourning, his cloak was sky blue. In the rain they all looked gray  
anyway. “We thought she was named for her fairness, or the trees under  
which she liked to walk. But Ash Maiden came true in such a simple way  
I never saw it coming.”

“You couldn't have, Dog,” replied the woman, shortening his name out  
of familiarity. “This was not foreseen. It could not have been.”

“Couldn't it? I wonder sometimes. Maybe had we looked a bit-”

“Stop,” snapped the man who'd thought the silver urn had been a poor  
choice. “Shut up right now, and don't ever think that again.”

“Easy now, Hail. Please, not like that. Not so soon,” asked the woman quietly.

“Clockwork Dog knows what I mean,” the one called Hail responded, his  
tone no longer ruthless. “But that way lies madness.”

“Yes, yes. You're right,” admitted Dog. “I know. But I can't see very  
much at all now. I can't see how this could have happened, and I can't  
see what we must do now that it has.”

“That's simple,” I replied quietly. I wasn't very good at speaking  
quietly, but I tried out of respect. “We find out whom, and then we  
kill him.”

Dog and Hail looked at the ground, while the woman looked up at me.  
Her eyes were questioning. “For revenge? Or for Ash Maiden?”

“Either. Both. Does it matter?” I responded.

“No. Not really,” Angel admitted. “So my question becomes, how far do  
you intend to take this? Since nothing you do will bring her back, do  
you simply desire to do bad things to bad people in her name? Would  
you make Ash Maiden's memory one of violence?””

“Yes,” I replied immediately, without needing to consider it. “I'll  
wrap the world in a burial shroud, turn the seas red with blood, and  
unleash horror that tears screaming across the night sky if I have to.  
I'm going to find her killer, kill him, and wait a thousand years  
until he returns in his next incarnation so I can kill him again, and  
again, and again. I don't care about good or bad or the damn rituals  
that Bright Leaf claims sent her to peace. The entire Immaculate Dogma  
be damned. I'm killing that maggot if I have to drown him in my spite.”

“No, you won't,” Angel flatly contradicted me. “But we will find the  
person responsible, and we will kill them. But it will end there.”

I stared back at her, but knew I couldn't beat her in a battle of  
wills. “Fine. So long as we kill them.”

“That was never in question,” she responded. “It was only the methods.”

“Dog, say something,” Hail told him. “Make them see they're being stupid.”

“I can't,” Dog replied. “That is the one thing that stands clear to  
me. Oh, I spin arguments and show them the way they're going leads to  
nothing. But as soon as we split, it will come to nothing, for in the  
mind of him,” and Dog indicated me. “Is a madness. All balance has  
been thrown clear, and while Fall of Angels is still rational, should  
I dissuade her from accompanying him, The Ending shall wreak such a  
horror upon Creation that evil will have entry to the Paths of Heaven.  
There are two ways to stop him, and Fall of Angels going with him is  
one. I refuse to even consider the other. Thus Hail, it seems I must  
climb aboard this departing ship and pray my strength on the tiller  
prevents it from crashing on the shoals.” He stepped forward and  
pivoted, a symbolic gesture that put him beside me and Angel.

Hail saw how the circle had shifted to become a line with him as the  
sole outlier. In some deep part of my heart I felt terrible, for Hail  
was as consumed with his own grief as we were. His smooth manners had  
given way to coarse pronouncements, meaning that the raw pain under  
the surface was corroding his grace. Yet he stood on the path he saw  
as right and refused to step off it, even in his personal trial.

“I won't be a party to this,” he said finally and walked away.

I opened my mouth to shout something at him. Angel stopped me by  
smashing her fist into the side of my head hard enough that I toppled  
to the wet earth and saw lights and colors. She stood over me with an  
implacable expression. “You were about to say something stupid,” she  
told me.

“What?” I yelled at her. “I was going to tell Hail-”

“Something stupid that he doesn't need to hear.” She crouched down so  
her face was only a foot from mine. Rain poured off her features and  
dripped to the ground, ignored. “Listen to me. That man is a better  
person than we are. He's doing the right thing in his heart while he's  
half mad with grief, and it's tearing him from the friends who are his  
family. He's in agony right now, and he's bearing it alone because the  
people who should be helping him are about to go kill someone. But he  
won't bend because his heart tells him what's right, and he listens to  
it before us, which is why we should listen to him. But you won't say  
anything that confuses or muddles his world, nor will you make his  
burden any heavier. He's a better person then we are, and you won't  
make him suffer for it.”

I looked from her to Dog. He shrugged. “She's coming along to make  
sure you don't do anything stupid. Now she isn't letting you do  
anything stupid. I'd listen to her.”

“I thought you came along because you wanted to avenge Ash Maiden's  
death, and find her killer?” I asked. The side of my head was  
beginning to throb, and I began to realize how hard Angel had hit me.

“Two birds, one stone,” she replied. “Make no mistake, and never  
entertain the idea that I am not committed to this goal like the wind  
is committed to blow. But we do this right, or I'll leave you bound to  
a tree while I find and kill the murderer without you. Do you  
understand me?”

I told you I couldn't beat Angel in a battle of wills. She was small  
and cute; her body looked soft to the touch and her hands were warm.  
Inside her was more iron than the mountains of the East. “Very well,”  
I conceded.

“Good. Glad we have that settled.” She reached down, picked me up, set  
me on my feet, and brushed the mud off my back. “Put a cold compress  
on that, or it will swell. And stop poking it.”

“I love you,” blurted Invisible Dog.

“What?” asked Angel, for she hadn't been paying attention. She was a  
woman of iron, but she'd taken one too many blows to the helmet and  
was also deaf.

“I said, 'let's get out of the rain,'” Dog lied.

“Good plan. My family's barn? It's warm, and we can figure out our  
next move,” she suggested.

We agreed, and set off. Once we were at the barn, she left to get food  
and drink from inside. I turned to Dog, “Let's get out of the rain?” I  
asked amused. “That was the best you could come up with?”

“Shut up,” he replied. Then he stood in the corner insulting himself.

We set out for Nibeldamt later that evening. There was a lot of  
quarreling first, but eventually I told them this was my insane  
mission for revenge so we were doing it my way. Instead of reducing  
the quarreling, this amplified it, but we still left for Nibeldamt.  
Across nine miles of mountain road that had  carried mule trains to  
the iron mines of deserted Jaggerfall we ran until dawn when it had  
been two full days since I slept. The Unconquered Sun rose to find us  
trotting downhill. Light poured through the mountains and reflected  
off the thin dusting of snow that lay at the roots of the thin grass.  
A few clouds wafted by but the air was too cold to sustain them. We  
ran until nightfall and finally collapsed in a pile underneath huge  
pine trees. At dawn we started again and in time came to the gray city  
underneath a cloud of smoke.

In the absence of a major smelting center in the mountains of Duun  
Nibeldamt grew from a not two-shits village to a collection of  
smelters on the Meander River. Nearly seven thousand people huddled  
under an umbrella of dirty soot. They had repaired a First Age foundry  
as best they could. Now metal pumped out the door and ash into the  
air. It got into the dirt and turned it black. People still came,  
because there was money in iron that cared little for the varieties of  
the market. There was always war, and so long as there was war, there  
would be steel. By a looming black smithy of filthy granite sat a line  
of townhouses. In one of them lived family of Ash Maiden's who had  
brought her body back to Highmere. The wife had stayed for the  
funeral. The father couldn't. We met him at his door, looking like  
death.

There's only so much room for conversation with a group like ours. We  
didn't say anything as he escorted us to his kitchen and sat us around  
the table. He offered beer and food. We declined politely, hunched  
over in our seats, waiting. Anvil was his name, like his father before  
him, and like his only son.

“I suppose you could only be here for one reason,” he observed while  
studying our trio.

“Just one,” I replied. Now my voice was soft, but it was the softness  
of terrible strain.

“When I was coming home from work, my nephew Wide Eyes met me at my  
door. He's a little guy, doesn't even have his true name yet. He said  
his Momma had to talk to me. He said it couldn't wait. When I got  
there, she was in the house, but the kids weren't allowed in. She met  
me at the door. The body was on the table.

“She said Ash Maiden had been found floating in the river. She might  
have been drowned, I don't really know. There was water in her mouth,  
and river sludge under her fingernails. Some people who had been  
fishing on a dock pulled her out. One of them recognized her. They  
took her to my sister's house, and I came by later. A couple days  
later one of the mining caravans went up to the mountains, and they  
said they'd stop at Highmere. I had to stay here because the coke  
isn't burning right, but sent my wife and my kids, so they could take  
my niece home.”

“She didn't drown,” interjected Dog, his voice just as quiet as mine.  
“We saw the body before she was cremated. There were finger bruises on  
her throat. She was strangled.”

Anvil looked up at him. “You couldn't have seen the body for days. She  
would have started to-”

“If he says they were finger bruises, they were,” Angel flatly  
contradicted what Anvil wanted to say. The big foundry man looked  
strangely at the small woman who seemed little more than a girl. Her  
body was hidden by the white cloak of mourning, showing no adult  
development, and she had always had a young face. But now the cloak  
was dirt speckled, and her eyes were dark and grim. When she said that  
Clockwork Dog would never make a mistake, even analyzing a body that  
had begun to turn, the iron in her voice underlied her words like a  
steel frame. Anvil's words were like fruitless summer breezes against  
her certainty.

“Now,” I said and leaned forward over the table. With an effort I  
placed my hands still on the oak planks between us, but they were  
rigidly still like petrified animals. “Who would have had reason to  
kill her?”

Anvil was hiding something. He looked at us three furies, consumed as  
we were with our desire for murderous revenge, and knew that we would  
start something he did not want done. Written in his eyes were the  
desires for us to go away and not make waves. But just as clearly he  
understood the inviolate will of Angel, the determination to see this  
through in Dog, and the near breaking madness born of my own grief.  
Worst of all for him, we were reading him even as he was reading us,  
and he knew it. As much as he wanted to hide what he knew, he  
understood that our madness could turn dangerous to Ash Maiden's  
family very quickly.

“She had been seen a lot with a northman called Frozen Thane. The  
foreman at the foundry has been looking for Frozen Thane, claims the  
ice walker stole money from him. It's a guy named Firm Grip. He's a  
big guy, and doesn't worry too much about the rules of law or the  
faith. There aren't be many things he wouldn't do if his boss told him  
to get some money back,” Anvil explained,

“”Did you tell him anything?” asked Dog. “About Ash Maiden or Frozen Thane?”

“There was nothing I knew to tell him. She stayed with my sister on  
the east side. Anyone could have told her that. I don't know where  
this northman stays, or what's happened to him. There haven't been any  
more bodies floating in the river, if that's what you're asking.”

“No, we're asking if you told Firm Grip where he could find Ash  
Maiden, so he could ask her where Frozen Thane is. And if you did,  
then we shall find out about it, and visit the cost of your  
indiscretion upon you,” I explained to him. “But if you honored the  
rules of family loyalty, then we have no fear that you kept your  
silence, and we thank you for your help.”

“Where's Firm Grip?” asked Angel.

Anvil was staring at me, appalled by my veiled yet clear threat to  
kill him. He didn't turn to look at her when answering, “He works  
nights. He should be at the foundry now.”

“Then we'll be leaving now. Thank you for the hospitality, Anvil, son  
of Anvil.” Angel rose, and put a hand on my shoulder. I was staring  
into Anvil's eyes, looking for some hint of indiscretion. I wanted  
very badly to find it, but my comrades tugged at my shoulders, pulling  
me towards a more deserving victim of my attention. Reluctantly I gave  
way to them, and the three of us departed.

“You aren't after revenge,” called Anvil, as he watched us leave from  
his stoop. “You're after madness.”

“We're after something much worse than that,” muttered Dog. “We're  
chasing the reason for madness.”

I ignored him, and Angel probably had never heard at all. Soon we  
stood before the mammoth building, a functional relic of a past age.  
Plumes bore the smoke away above it, and a hundred windows glowed with  
red light. The foundry ran day and night. It had been made in the  
First Age, when the mad Solars had required metal for their armies.  
After the great cataclysms that ended that era, men still needed steel  
of superlative quality, and they ventured into the dark foundry and  
found ways to get it running again. Now the doorways shone with the  
light of molten iron, and heat poured from it like a physical force.  
The night shift was gathering outside, not yet ready to go in, while  
the day shift hadn't quite left. Smoke was turning our white clothes  
black while we watched. Soon we couldn't be told from the workers.  A  
side door let us in to find a bored sweeper, who pointed out Firm  
Grip's office. We let ourselves in without knocking.

Firm Grip was another big man. He had big arms and a big gut that  
seemed to be chewing on the desk its owner was bent over. Dressed in a  
leather smock with hood, the foreman sweated profusely in the  
darkness. Beads of it ran off his face and plopped onto the paperwork  
he was studying. Great noises emanated from the innards of the  
smelting equipment, titanic smashing sounds and grinding noises. We  
studied him for a while before he even noticed we were there. Dirt and  
grime was worked well into his apron, and his seat was outlined on the  
floor in soot.

“Who're you lot?” he grunted when he noticed us. His face was fat and  
droopy. It looked like it was melting. Maybe he hadn't shaved and  
maybe his dark jaw line was simply coated in ash, but sweat beaded up  
on his chin. I decided I didn't like him.

“We're friends of Ash Maiden,” Angel told him. “We heard you were  
looking for her before she died.”

“The dead one? What of it?” he asked.

“Yes, the dead one,” I told him. “Why were you looking for her?”

“Who sent you? What's the dead girl have to do with me?”

“That is the question,” I observed. “We want to know when you saw her  
last, what happened when you did.”

“Get out, now, or I'll throw you out.”

I was about to explain to him the order in which I intended to break  
his fingers, when Dog cut me off. “Have you been having problems  
getting your coke burn right? Same fuel, same air, but the burn isn't  
as hot?” he asked.

Firm Grip made a weird face before saying, “Yeah. And?”

“Your intake shafts are jammed. Let them cool down, send a couple guys  
up there with spikes to purge the flues. Also, I noticed outside that  
your furnace hinges are building up gunk. If you clean that, you can  
pour the metal when it's hotter.”

The foreman rolled his eyes from right to left across the three of us.  
They stopped on Clockwork Dog.

“Check your equipment. We'll be back tomorrow,” Clockwork Dog  
finished. “Tell us what we need to know then. Tell us everything you  
know about Ash Maiden. Do that, and I'll tell you what's really wrong  
with your coke burn.”

“I don't know anything about the dead girl,” he grunted.

“Maybe ten percent of your coke costs will remind you. You must be  
wasting that much or more trying to get the fire hot enough. Think  
about it. And check the flues. They're filthy.” With that Dog rose and  
gestured us to the door with a nod of his head. We fell in behind him  
and left.

“What's wrong with his coke burn?” Angel asked, as we trooped down a  
steep stairwell.

“I have no idea,” Dog admitted. “Do you care?” he added curiously.

“No,” she admitted.

“Then the flues?” I asked.

“Did that man look like he's obsessed with cleanliness?” Dog replied.  
“I'd bet my next meal he hasn't cleaned his flues on time. The hinges  
I noticed when we came in.”

“Then explain why Firm Grip is going to tell us anything tomorrow,” I  
told him.

Clockwork Dog sighed. “Firm Grip isn't going to tell us anything. But  
he wasn't going to tell us anything anyway. As soon as his shift gets  
off, he's going to go running to whoever tells him what to do, and  
tell him that we were asking about Ash Maiden. We sleep now and follow  
him in the morning. Then we find out who's giving the orders, and skip  
a bunch of meaningless violence.”

“How do you-” Angel started.

“Because Firm Grip's an idiot. He's a follower, a sheep. He doesn't  
wipe himself without orders. Someone, whoever thought Frozen Thane  
owed him money, told him to go get it, and he did. But he didn't kill  
her,” Dog added. “His hands are way too big.”

Angel and I exchanged glances. In unison we shrugged. “Now, someone go  
get some food. We're going to sleep in that lumber yard,” Dog told us  
as we left the side door we'd come in. It was directly before the main  
entrance to the foundry, and full of heaps of wood. Also piled high  
were mounds of charcoal bricks. They were the coke the foundry used.  
Angel ran off to acquire food, while we squatted in the shadows. “You  
take first watch,” Dog concluded, and wrapped himself in his cloak to  
sleep.

“Why-”

“Because you're going to stay up and obsess anyway,” he replied.

I stared at the back of his head, mouth open, searching for words.  
Eventually I remembered to shut my jaw, and positioned myself so I had  
a good view. In time Angel returned with bread and a water skin, and  
we consumed much of that. Then she curled up and went to sleep as  
well. I gazed into the foundry and watched men pour liquid metal,  
pounded from ore. I thought of the way sunlight looked went it went  
through long fair hair. Smiles would come so easily to some lips that  
they seemed poised to relax into a grin. She'd had such striking eyes.  
In time Dog woke so I could get some rest from our exertions. I stayed  
awake with him as long as I could, but eventually succumbed. Even then  
I slept but little. Waking up was worse.

“The shift's changing,” Angel told me.

“Where's Dog?”

“Looking at a coke pile. I was about to wake him when he bolted  
upright and started babbling something. I think he actually did figure  
out what was wrong with the burn.”

“He needs to focus on what's important,” I grumbled.

Angel looked at me oddly before turning her attention to the foundry.  
We waited and watched, while the workers changed. Eventually Firm Grip  
appeared, still wearing his leather smock, and hurried away from the  
smithy. After finding Clockwork Dog, we lit from rooftop to rooftop  
and haunted the alleyways as we scurried after him. He didn't look  
around, and it was easy to stay concealed in the all pervading gloom.

In time we followed him to a mansion on the outskirts of the town.  
Upwind of the perpetual gales which whipped down off the highlands the  
air was clean, and the sun shared the sky with clouds and birds.  
Meadow larks sang in the trees that marched in stately file across the  
manicured gardens. Firm Grip stood out like a dirt stain on the sky as  
he entered the vast doors inlaid with sapphires. The entire mansion  
was of marble and done with blue highlights. Most amazing of all,  
waterfalls poured from alcoves in the walls, and ran into carefully  
orchestrated channels that twisted about the magnificent property. The  
entire thing stank of wealth.

“I don't see any guard,” I said as we crouched behind a stone wall  
several hundred yards away. “No, wait, there they are. Two on the  
walls, three on the patio, one by the doors.”

“The one by the door isn't a guard. He's a butler,” Angel informed me.

“How do you know?” Dog asked.

“He's butling.”

We both looked at her with the same expression. She matched our look.  
“What? I used to have a butler. Before the wars and I came to Highmere.”

Dog and I exchanged a glance. By common agreement, we never asked  
anyone in the group about their past. Still, Angel could hack her way  
through the forest with only a knife and sever tree limbs bigger than  
her waist with that same knife. I couldn't imagine her being waited on  
by anyone, nor requiring butling.

“Well, anyway, how do we sneak inside?” I asked.

“We don't,” Dog told me. “That's a Dynast. The crest on the door is  
Ragara, and the second one is Peleps.”

“And?” I asked again.

“Those are Dynasts,” Dog repeated, looking at me like he expected that  
to mean something. “From the Realm? The Blessed Isle?”

“I know what a Dynast is,” I retorted. “But I see no reason not to go  
in there. You were the one who said where ever Firm Grip went is where  
we can find some answers. He came here, and we know he doesn't live  
here. So inside that house are answers.”

“You're not listening. That's probably the man who runs the foundry.  
The foundry is from the First Age, which means that it needs magic to  
run, which means the man who really runs it isn't a man. And if it's a  
Dynast, that means it's an immortal, one of the Chosen of the Dragons.”

“And?” I kept repeating.

“That's an Exalted. One of the Chosen. He's a bigger badass then all  
of us combined, and he may have a wife who could probably beat Angel  
senseless with her dining fork. We're mortals. They aren't. We don't  
go smashing around, breaking stuff. He'll kill you, and then your  
revenge won't happen.”

I considered his point. “Think you can take a Dynast?” I asked Angel.

“Of course not,” she replied.

“Want to anyway?”

“Till death, baby,” she replied.

“That's my girl. You hit right, I'll go left?” I asked.

“Good deal. Go on my signal,” she replied, and took off running, still  
crouching behind the low wall.

Clockwork Dog stared at me. “Why did she call you baby? Are you and-”

“Don't be an ass. Now let's go break into to a mansion. Besides, if  
you impress her, she might call you baby to,” I told him, and lead him  
around the side of the house, staying low and keeping to the new dawn  
shadows. “Ready to hit this guy?” I asked Dog when we were in position.

“Terrestrial,” he corrected me. “And no, but that certainly won't do  
any good now.”

“I thought you said it was a Dynast?” I asked him.

“It is. Terrestrial is what people who don't like Dynasts call them.  
And since we're about to really dislike this guy, we may as well get  
the language right.”

“Whatever,” I replied agreeably. There were sudden shouts and cries  
from the far end, and we hopped the mansion's outer wall and tore  
across the manicured lawns. The guards were distracted and didn't  
notice us as we vaulted ornamental rails. I was in midair above a  
beautifully trimmed hedge before the first cry went up from our side  
of the building.

Directly below me, where I had been intending to land, was a  
magnificently armored specimen of fighting potential in full war  
regalia. Lacquered plates bound together to form mail protected his  
head and blossomed with pointy bits, dissuading me from simply landing  
on him. Even as I sailed downwards, his hand flew through a circular  
motion, whipping the long curved blade at his side from the sheath in  
an exquisitely practiced motion. Dog, who lacked my jumping abilities,  
crashed from the solid mass of greenery I was descending over and hit  
the guard in the knees, the only part of him that wasn't pointy. Feet  
went out from underneath his body, the guard missed his swing, and  
tumbled to the ground only scarcely before my knees smashed into the  
side of his ornamental helmet. There's only so much armor will do when  
two hundred odd pounds of me comes crashing down on top of it,  
sandwiching the head between knees and a flagstone walkway. I rolled  
off and stood up, and quickly stole his sword. Clockwork Dog stole the  
matching knife. We set off towards the mansion again.

More cries went up when we leaped the circling stream in its sculpted  
marble path. Two guards, equipped just as the last, had come around  
the rear corner, and sent up a cry. We were only a dozen feet from a  
small door, but by the time we got there someone inside had locked it.  
I stepped away, dropped into a stance, and yelled, “Can you pick it?”  
to Dog.

“Sure,” he replied with a futile laugh, not filling me with  
confidence. The guard on the left was outdistancing his companion, and  
we met in clash of blades that showered my unprotected eyes in sparks.  
I rolled my body out of the way and lashed out at his feet. He leaped  
clear and tumbled with a beautiful combat roll. My master would have  
been proud. The man behind tried to take my head off, and I barely  
parried. I pivoted to try to get behind him, and spared a glance at my  
comrade. There was no chance I'd be able to beat both of these guys at  
the same time.

Dog crouched, stared at the lock for a second, then backed up and body  
checked it will all his strength. On the third hit the door  
splintered. He vanished inside.

The first guy was back on his feet now, and with his comrade they  
moved to force me to the wall. There was no place to run, so I feinted  
at one, lunged for the other, and ducked to avoid the first's riposte.  
They realized immediately I was no novice with the blade, and launched  
blinding flurries, relying on their numbers to batter through my  
guard. It should have worked too, but Dog reappeared with a barrel and  
smashed one distracted guard over the head. Whiskey flew everywhere,  
and sparks from my desperate defense met the crude but potent mountain  
beverage. Everything caught fire, including me. Fortunately, I wasn't  
burning as bad as the guard.

He shrieked like a cat plunged into hell even though the fire couldn't  
have gotten into his armor yet, and dove headfirst into the shallow  
ornamental river. That didn't work too well for him. While the second  
guard finished his combo, he only tagged me once. I feinted for his  
legs, swung a burning sleeve at his eyes to blind him, and booted him  
in the chest, knocking him after his fellow. Then I dropped and  
rolled, putting out the alcohol, and entered the house.

This would have been a great place to rob, had I still been in that  
line of work. Provided one could get past the guards, the staggering  
opulence of the interior ornamentation would have set a successful  
thief for life. Gold, silver, jade, and platinum graced marble and  
amber. Ornamental columns soared from floor to ceiling and framed  
priceless statuary. Someone had polished the floor to a mirror shine.  
In fact, it was brighter than the mirror I had at home.

“Nice place,” Dog observed as we fled through the halls, body  
breaching doors as they appeared, heading inwards.

“Love to visit again,” I replied. We came around a corner, and another  
armed man tried to block our way. As my companion dropped to his knees  
and slid between the guard's legs, I took four running steps from an  
end table to the wall to the ceiling and sailed above his head. The  
guard was perplexed and didn't decide to attempt to kill me until I  
was past. Dog smashed the side of one mailed knee as he went by, and  
that guard took a sudden inadvertent interest in the floor.

“Don't think they'll invite you,” Dog added.

“Why not?” I retorted. In unison we crashed into the next door. The  
beautiful mahogany held, but the plaster door frame did not.

“You just aren't popular,” Dog informed me.

“I've noticed that.”

We got up and fled through the foyer. As we went in the trappings grew  
steadily more and more magnificent, until finally we came to an area  
so staggeringly wealthy I couldn't imagine that the steel business  
made anyone this much money. Juxtaposed with the unearthly wealth were  
dirty footprints. They lead us upstairs and to a final doorway. This  
one had a curtain instead of a door, depriving us of the joy of a  
spectacularly destructive entrance, but I cut it in half anyway. That  
was just for effect.

Inside Firm Grip stared at us, bracing himself for a fight. He was by  
a small dining table, where a man was eating breakfast, paying out  
entrance no mind. He was either stupid, blissfully oblivious, or  
frighteningly powerful. The room itself was all stone and metal, with  
no wood. The table was cast silver, and had a second table setting  
that was empty. The breakfast-eater dabbed his lips with a silk napkin  
and looked up at me.

I'm not one for male beauty, but this guy could have had any girl he  
wanted in anyplace I've ever been. Not just attractive, he looked  
regal. The man had charisma. His arched brows conveyed deep  
thoughtfulness, yet his eyes were youthful and sparkled merrily. His  
breakfast robe was brilliant red with threads of gold.

“Morning gentlemen,” he replied calmly.

“What do you know of Ash Maiden?” I snapped, whipping the point of the  
long curved blade towards his face. It stopped a hair from his eye,  
but he never flinched.

“Refresh my memory,” he ordered me. His voice was used to command.  
“Who is Ash Maiden?”

“She's dead,” I told him.

“Then I can't very well know her any more, can I?” he replied.

Infuriated, I swept the blade over my head and aimed for one of his  
hands, attempting to wound him and show we meant business.  
Unfortunately, he meant more business.

The diner flashed out of his chair, caught my wrist, and struck me in  
the chest with an open palm. The world stopped, and the moment of  
being hit lasted forever. Then I flew backwards, sailed through the  
door I'd entered, and hit a wall hard enough to become lodged in it,  
my feet dangling a foot above the floor. I couldn't see and could  
barely breath.

“Wow, that hurt,” I gurgled when I stopped sucking air.

“My name is Ragara Aino,” he introduced himself, dusting off his  
smoking jacket. Clockwork Dog stared at him and brought the knife up  
defensively. Ragara Aino ignored it. “Now, who are you?”

“Fuzzy Puppy,” lied Dog.

“Fuzzy Puppy,” repeated Ragara Aino, tasting the words. “Right. And  
your wall-mounted companion?”

“Fluffy Bunny,” I wheezed.

“Ah. Comedians,” he judged. “Very well. Firm Grip, are these the men  
who came to see you?”

“Uh, yeah,” answered the foreman, staring at him in awe. He had crept  
around the room so he could look at me bug-eyed. “You put him into a  
wall,” he whispered in awe.

“Quite. So you three came to my foreman, asked him about Ash Maiden,  
then followed him when he left my smelting plant. Correct?” he asked  
Dog.

“More or less.”

“I see,” he nodded. “Now are you her friends, old lovers, or simply fools?”

“We're vengeance,” Dog replied, and lunged at the Terrestrial. He had  
no chance of winning, but his sudden attack came with such reckless  
abandon for his own survival, that it drove Ragara back as my  
calculated strike had not. The Dynast back pedaled, blocking knife  
strike after knife strike with his bare hands, and every time  
brilliant gold and burgundy light flashed from his fingertips.  
Cascading sparks lit the room, overshadowing the candles, and crackled  
against the stone walls, leaving scorch marks wherever they touched.  
Dog drove him back, almost to the far wall, before Aino managed to get  
his balance. Then he replied with a flurry of his own, open hands  
flicking fire and stardust at Dog's face and eyes. Amazingly, my human  
friend evaded the immediate retaliation, but the follow up took his  
legs out from under him. Aino smacked him, twirling his body and  
lofting him into the air. Before he could land, he struck again and  
again, flashing hands that burned flesh through clothing. Dog crashed  
earthward and the air fled his lungs when he hit. Ragara twisted, and  
cocked a strike that would have broken the fallen man's body into  
pieces. It never landed.

“Know that if you hurt him again, you will die,” said Angel in a voice  
like the death she promised. The razor edge of a stolen blade lay  
against the Dynast's spine, and she stood with all her weight coiled  
against it. For a moment the Dynast considered the situation, then  
relaxed, and stood erect very slowly.

“And you are?” he asked.

“Cuddly Kitten,” she replied, her voice never changing. I realized  
then that Angel was scary when she was pissed, something I'd been  
objectively aware of before but never really known on an emotional  
level.

“Very well, Cuddly Kitten, I'll let him live,” Ragara replied. “I'm  
Ragara Aino, though I suddenly regret I wasn't named Squiggles the  
Fox. Peer pressure, you know.” He looked around and saw Firm Grip,  
who'd lost his grip on consciousness and lay in a heap.

“We want to know what happened to Ash Maiden. Did you order her killed  
or did you do it yourself?” Angel asked.

“Neither, to be perfectly honest.” At the point of a sword held by a  
woman with a self preservation instinct only in comparison to me, he  
looked completely at ease. His voice was smooth as the silk he wore.  
By now I was beginning to get my senses back, a testament to how hard  
he'd hit me. I noticed then that Ragara's clothes were damaged as they  
shouldn't have been. They weren't torn but burned.

“But you know who did,” Angel added. “Or else that,” she cocked her  
head to the big pile of steel worker without moving her eyes. “Would  
never have come running straight to you.”

The Terrestrial turned around very slowly, his hands held open away  
from his sides. When he stopped the point of her blade nestled against  
his Adam's apple. “Now that's an interesting question. One that might  
be worth something,” he answered.

“It wasn't a question, and it's worth me running three feet of steel  
through your throat,” she answered.

I managed to pry myself out of the wall. While I still had the sword  
handle clutched in my grip, the blade lay in several pieces on the  
floor. Discarding the useless hunk of metal, I flexed my fingers, and  
walked back into the room with the rest.

“How do you feel, baby?” asked Angel.

“Wonderful, Kitten.”

“Who are you?” he asked again. “Anathema?”

“Angry,” I replied.

“No, you're too weak. You're mortals, aren't you? All three of you are  
really mortals. That's amazing. I'm as impressed with your bravery as  
I am awed by your stupidity.” With that he threw his head back in a  
burst of wild laughter. It was enjoyment tainted with mockery. It was  
also overwhelmingly cocky. “I can't wait to tell this story at my next  
party. It'll be worth the damage, just for that.”

“Not if you don't answer our questions,” I told him. “You won't make  
it to your next party.”

“Oh, because the two of you will stop me?”

“We'll kill you,” Angel replied.

“You think you can? You think this is all I'm capable of? You think  
you've seen my true potential?” he retorted insulted.

“You think you've seen mine?” replied Angel, turning the question back on him.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do,” Ragara Aino replied, and suddenly  
burst into brilliant light. Stones of fire tumbled from his shoulders  
and crashed onto molten rocks by his feet. His hair blossomed with a  
burgundy glow, and every time his head moved lava flickered from his  
hair in volcanic plumes of fire and ash. More than ever before a  
tangible aura of power radiated from him. Rocks tumbled from the  
ceiling, crashing to the earth around them, as dovetailing streamers  
of pure Essence radiated from the Dragon-Blooded noble.

Angel lunged, slamming all her weight behind the blade and driving it  
into his throat. It bounced off burning skin, and Ragara swept it  
aside with a forearm. Then he lunged for her. She retreated, blocking  
his advance with the weapon, but only managed to use his momentum to  
throw herself backwards. I grabbed the table and drove it down onto  
his head with an overhand swung. He partially blocked, but the  
brilliant incandescence of his skin proved dangerous, and splintered  
the metal. Before I could swing again, he swept a foot at my head. It  
swept inches from my face as I swayed backwards, leaving a smell of  
sulfur and brimstone. I popped upright and struck as Angel slashed at  
his legs.

Ragara simply wasn't there. Somehow he moved faster than fist or  
blade, and counterattacked from a small pedestal. I was ready for the  
open palm, but even when I blocked it seared my hands, burning my  
flesh and tearing apart my skin. Angel was able to block his other  
hand, and it rang against her sword. But then I made the mistake of  
attacking and found only empty air. I leaned forward and saw that  
Ragara was bending down, ducking below me, exposing his back. I really  
thought I could get him, and never noticed his leg striking down like  
a scorpion's tale. Pain blossomed in the base of my skull, and I  
tumbled.

Lights flashed on the walls, and the ring of steel echoed through the  
room. I was able to hold onto conscious to watch the implacable Dynast  
focus all his attention on Angel, bearing down on her assured of a  
quick win. But she was elusive, and fled from his onslaught like a  
feather in the wind. No matter the power and speed he brought to bear,  
the only thing that suffered was his house. Rents appeared in the  
walls, and the ceiling collapsed by the door. I honestly thought she  
had a chance.

But even a lucky mouse can't fight a tiger. She was outclassed, and  
when she slipped her blade past the near invulnerable guard to flick  
it across his throat, it only screeched across his throat like  
fingernails on slate. Ragara cackled wildly, and swung while she was  
still recovering from her attack. He caught her in the face, the  
chest, the shoulder and the leg. Blood escaped her skin before  
fountains of essence fire. Then she dropped, and the Terrestrial stood  
alone.

“Silken Lotus Style,” he said to himself. At first his aura was too  
bright to see through and blotted out his features, but as he panted  
it faded until he could be seen like a shadow on the sun. “That's only  
taught in the far south, where the assassin guild of the Black Adder  
does business. You may be a mortal my dear, but you are not just after  
revenge for that dead twit.” With a curious expression, he shook his  
head and turned away.

I punched him in the face as hard as I possibly could, throwing my  
body after my fist in a suicidal effort that held nothing back. My  
knuckles caught him dead in the jaw, and he tumbled backwards into a  
wall. Every bone in my hand shattered.

“Tell me who killed her,” I demanded, trying to pick myself off the  
ground with only one hand.

“You worthless peasant,” cursed the Dynast. “You blasphemous clod. You  
ant, you maggot, you filth, you swine.” Then he lapsed into the high  
tongue of the Scarlet Empire, which I'd never learned. His composure  
was gone, and he screeched profanity at me like a spoiled child. When  
he stood up, I could see I'd broken his jaw, which unfortunately did  
nothing to prevent him from talking.

Doubled over, I got my feet under me, but my back didn't have enough  
strength to pull me erect. Ragara Aino took two running steps and  
punted my face, throwing me backwards. I flipped twice before  
destroying a delicate dresser, crashing to a heap with splinters and  
finery tumbling about me. The Dynast strode over and stomped on me  
until I couldn't distinguish between the impacts of his foot.  
Eventually, I lost conscious.

Torture was being unconscious but denied relief from my dreams. I  
walked across an alpine meadow, where grass met the sky on the  
shoulders of great peaks, and all the world's forests were spread  
below me, running off to the Wyld in the distance. Slight breezes  
danced through my hair, and zephyrs of the north kissed my neck. It  
was a place burned forever into my memory.

Before me stood the most beautiful woman who will ever have lived. She  
was fair of skin and lithe of arm. Her eyes transfixed me, even as her  
thick hair seduced me with its dance upon the air.  Every inch of her  
skin radiated vitality, and the gentle rise and fall of her breast was  
as light as the air she breathed. She was so beautiful that hurt, even  
in my memory.

“I love you, Ash Maiden. I did then, and I do now. I always will,” I  
repeated my words. I knew what she had said then. She had looked down  
quietly and so sad my heart broke, even as she cried that she had to  
break it.

“I love you too,” she told me in this place. She always did in the dream.

“Forever?” I asked.

“So long as you are with me.”

I held her close. She whispered she'd never leave me, she would always  
understand, and she would touch me so my turmoil calmed to  
tranquility. She forgave me all my sins, just because I asked. In her  
arms I could sleep again.

“I wish this was real,” I whispered, holding her so tight.

“So long as I'm in your dream I am,” she told me. “Here I'm alive.  
Stay with me so I don't have to die.”

“Forever,” I promised.

“Forever?” she asked.

“Forever and ever,” I swore.

She embraced me back, but her hands were rough on my back, and shook  
me. I stared up at an ugly face and knew I was awake. For a moment the  
hurt and longing was so powerful I couldn't keep the anguish under  
control, and I swore yet again that I would never sleep again. Like  
every waking since, I didn't think I could survive that dream one more  
time.

“I think he's gonna cry,” yelled the ugly thug, as he shook me by the  
ropes that bound my wrists. “I think he's honestly going to cry. How  
hard did you hit him, boss?”

“Hard enough,” came a twisted grunt. Ragara Aino walked into my line  
of sight, looking furious. His face was bandaged, and it interfered  
with the smooth sound of his voice. Now he growled like Firm Grip had.  
“Is he awake?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. Wake the other two.”

The thug left, and the Dynast crouched down in front of me. “You lost,  
maggot. I won, and I'm going to kill you. You'll be reborn as a worm,  
perhaps one that lives in a dog's ass. I hope it is a miserable  
existence for you, deserving of vermin who attacked the chosen of the  
dragons. You know, I'm not even going to let you get any revenge by  
haunting me? I've thought of that. No, I have ways of sending you on.  
I don't know if you'll be able to choose Lethe or to be reborn as an  
intestinal parasite, but I can assure you your demise will inflict all  
the suffering I wish I could assure you in the next life.

“That goes for you to,” he added, facing  out of my field of vision.  
“You're the she-wolf who tried to cut me. Normally I'd applaud the  
skill, but now I'm just going to drag information out of you. And you,  
the stupid one, will get a lesson in truth first and hardest. Weasel,  
Rat, put that one on the rack.”

For some reason, I wasn't the stupid one, because they left me alone.  
I began to see where we were. It was an underground room, where the  
roots of great trees hung from the ceiling. The floor was carved into  
the deep rock that reached waist high up the walls. Angel lay next to  
me, sorely in need of the mercy she was named to bring. Her face was  
streaked with blood that dripped into the dirt. Her hands were tied to  
her feet, doubling her over into a fetal position. While the  
Dragon-Blooded martial artist raged at her, insulting her and telling  
her what horrors he intended to inflict, she lay nearly catatonic. I  
couldn't tell if it was an act, or she was far from the waking world.  
If so, I prayed her dreams were better than mine.

Clockwork Dog was being carried to a metal rack, where his wrists and  
ankles were set into iron harnesses. Once there he was bound with  
leather straps, and stripped to the waist. The rack was set on  
castors, and it rolled over, leaving him facing down while his bare  
back lay exposed. Ragara Aino, finally finished with cursing at the  
comatose Angel, walked over to him and accepted a multitailed whip  
from one of the thugs. They leered at each other in excitement and  
stepped back to allow their stone faced boss to work.

“Now,” said the Dynast. “Tell me what I want to know.”

“You're getting ripped off,” instantly replied Dog. “The coke you're  
buying is one part in seven ash. It should be at most one in twenty.”

Ragara, who hadn't even struck yet, paused with the whip behind his  
head, staring at Dog in confusion. Caught off guard as he was by the  
apparent nonsequitor, his train of thought derailed. “What?” he  
sputtered.

“The coke in your lumber yard. It has too much ash in it. That's why  
it isn't burning as hot. Your supplier is selling you a bad product.  
You can still get the right burn temperature, but you need to grind  
the coke first. Also, increase the air intake to the furnaces. Even  
with good product, they aren't running anywhere near full efficiency,”  
Dog explained.

“That wasn't what I was asking,” replied the Dynast.

“I know, but I assume you don't like wasting money. Given bad fuel and  
a dirty burn, you're wasting nearly half your fuel budget. I don't  
know how much money that is, but given the size of the foundry, it's  
got to be at least a talent a year.”

Our captor leaned very close to Dog and pulled his chin with the whip  
handle until they were looking at each other eye to eye. “How do you  
know that?” he asked, searching Dog's eyes. Dog stared back, looking  
into the conflicted brown eyes of the supernaturally potent Dynast.  
There was fury there, but there was also greed.

“I looked at your lumber yard. You could have figured it out too, of  
course. It's not hard to tell. But your yard man didn't check closely  
enough.”

“It is hard to get good help these days,” agreed Ragara.

“Please don't hit me,” added Dog.

“Now, your true nature comes out,” Ragara gloated. “I'm going to go  
check that myself. If you're telling me the truth, your death shall be  
quicker, and I may forgive some of your transgressions.” The other  
promised as he dropped the whip onto Dog's back. It lay between his  
shoulder blades. Grunting, Ragara stepped away from Dog as if he was  
soiled to be in the captive's presence.

“What about the others?”

“Death by fire.”

“What if I told you why your steel rusts faster than it should, and  
how to fix that? Or why the molds keep breaking?” continued Dog.

Ragara looked at him curiously. “How do you know I won't just torture  
it out of you?”

“Because you just promised you wouldn't, and if you do anyway, then I  
know you'll only break your word again. Besides, there are a lot of  
things wrong with your plant, and I won't tell you how to fix them. If  
you torture me, you won't even know if I'm telling the truth, or just  
lying to make you stop hitting me. And you can't afford to waste  
entire lines of steel to test my theories, but can't afford to keep  
wasting money doing it the wrong way.”

“Can't afford to waste money?” the Dynast scoffed. “Do you have any  
idea how much money I have?”

“Enough that you want more, and you're making enough that the  
percentage you lose every year replacing your molds unnecessarily has  
got to be huge. How much is a mold worth? A house? Two?”

“Shut up,” ordered the rich and greedy Dragon-Blood.

“Check the coke,” promised Dog, ignoring the order. “See if I'm right.”

“We shall see,” retorted Ragara Aino, and he turned to go. His men,  
disappointed that no one was going to be tortured, left with him.  
There was no door to this room, so they blocked the entrance with a  
table, and piled boxes in front of it on the other side. We were  
temporarily alone.

“Have I ever told you that you're my hero?” asked Angel, not moving in  
the slightest from her position of apparent unconsciousness.

“No,” replied Dog. “But now is a perfect time to start.”

“I'll name my firstborn after you,” she promised.

“Can I be the father?” he asked. She laughed like he was joking, and  
he played it off like he was just trying to raise her spirits.

“I don't suppose-” I asked, leaving the question unfinished.

“I lie a lot,” Dog admitted blandly. “It's one of my failings. But the  
coke part is correct. It will take him at a while to go down there and  
check. I did my part. Ending, think of a way to get out of here.”

We had all been tied the same way, hands to legs in front of us.  
Fortunately, when I'd punched Ragara  his face had not only broken my  
fingers, hand, and wrist, but my radius and ulna were both fractured  
completely. They gave when I pushed them, at the minor cost of  
unbelievable pain. It wasn't hard to figure a way out of my bonds, but  
it was really, really going to hurt.

I bent my hand into a cylinder and worked it through the rope.  
Sometimes my vision would white-out in pain, but I clung to  
consciousness because my dreams were worse. Eventually, I got my  
broken hand free. That loosened the ropes and soon I was standing. Dog  
was next, and then Angel. Of all of us, Dog was in the best shape,  
since he'd gone down the fastest. We made Angel comfortable since with  
her thigh broken she couldn't walk. Then we turned to the blocked door.

“Not so much,” I concluded after throwing my weight against it. It  
didn't even budge. If some of Ragara's iron was stored in this  
basement, he could have barricaded that shut so a dozen men wouldn't  
have been able to force it. We considered the ceiling, interspersed  
with tree roots as it was. “Ideas, smart guy?” I asked.

“Not getting any,” he replied.

“You're useless,” I concluded. “For that, I get to father Angel's baby  
she names after you.”

“The hell you are,” Dog replied. “Any baby of yours will be dumb, ugly  
and crazy, and I refuse to let you besmirch my good name.”

“I think I'm insulted by that,” judged Angel.

“Sorry,” apologized Dog. “You could never have a baby as dumb, ugly,  
or nearly as crazy as The Ending is.”

“That wasn't exactly a compliment,” she observed.

“You did agree with his plan to attack a Dynast. I told you that  
wasn't a good idea,” he pointed out.

“You came to,” she retorted.

Dog looked at her with an inscrutable expression. “I did at that.  
Since I don't have the crazy excuse, I must just be dumb.”

I interrupted to head that line of conversation off. This was neither  
the time nor the place, and we needed to focus. “What about digging  
through the ceiling? How deep can we be if those roots reach this far?”

“Up to twice the height of the tree,” Dog observed, turning to examine  
them with me. “So conceivably a hundred feet deep or more.”

“Could we rig something so the roof collapses? We could wait until  
Ragara returns, pull the ceiling down on him, and then make our  
escape,” I suggested.

“First, he's an Immaculate Dragon-Blood. Collapsing the room would  
probably only annoy him. Second, he has goons, lots of them, and we're  
in no condition to fight our way out of here.”

“You're not being very positive, here,” I scolded him.

“I'm just saying it wouldn't work,” he replied. “I'm not preventing  
you from doing it.”

“Hey guys, I'm getting a little light headed, so I'm going to take a  
nap now. Wake me when we have to fight somebody,” interjected Angel in  
a dreamy tone. Immediately we stopped thinking about escape and turned  
to her. She was losing blood, fast, from a number of frighteningly  
deep cuts she'd taken in the fight. My plan with the ceiling would  
take time we didn't have. We needed an alternative.

“The wall,” Dog said without explanation while I tried to stop her  
bleeding. We'd put her down, and I was doing what I could to staunch  
the wounds. Our shirts went to that purpose, but there wasn't much  
blood left in her. In addition, instead of simply being beaten, most  
of her injuries were second or third degree burns, and the blood  
seeped through the skin. Dog couldn't watch my desperate, ineffectual  
treatment. Going to the wall, he started digging at the dirt with his  
fingers until they bled. He worked near the door, and I went to help  
him with my good hand. With desperation urging us on, we put a hole in  
the wall just past the pile of wooden cases that blocked the door.  
Cascades of dirt tumbled down from above, and the earth creaked, but  
the roots held it still.

“Help me lift her,” Dog told me.

“No, I'll carry her. You fight,” I disagreed.

He looked up at me. “You know you're better at that then I am.”

“And she's better than us both, but she's out and I only have one  
hand. But my back isn't broken, so at least we won't slow you down.  
I'll carry her; you fight.”

“I don't know if I can,” he admitted quietly.

“There's no choice. I can't do it. Just remember, if you lose, she  
dies. We do to, but let's not kid ourselves about what you care about,  
shall we?”

Dog said nothing else as he rolled Angel onto my back as gently as he  
could. He stabilized her as I stood, and held her cheek a moment  
longer then he had too before forcefully turning away. Without pause  
he crept through the hole and stalked down the hallway. I followed.

There was no one in the next room, but either Weasel or Rat sat in the  
room beyond, smoking a hand rolled cigarette. Dog jumped him from  
behind, landed on his back, and just started hitting him as fast and  
ruthlessly as he could. Both Angel and I had shown him a few tricks,  
so he knew the basics of what he was doing, but only barely. What he  
lacked in skill he made up for in desperation and the element of  
surprise.

I felt somewhat bad about that. Not for Rat (I think is was Rat)  
because he deserved everything he got, and I watched Clockwork Dog  
smash his teeth out against a stone with apathy. No, I felt sorry for  
Dog, because to make him fight with desperation I'd had to beat him in  
the face with losing the woman he loved. That was pretty miserable,  
made worse by the fact that I knew she didn't love him back. Still,  
everything I'd said had been true, and unrequited love certainly  
wasn't going to get requited if we all got killed when Ragara Aino  
returned. Yet it was with a low feeling of guilt poisoning my gut that  
I watched him do terrible things to the thug until we knew he wouldn't  
get up any time soon. From there we continued to creep on. Twice more  
he ambushed sentries, lunging at them from the darkness, where the  
grime that smeared his skin had camouflaged his approach. When he laid  
their bodies in corners, and beckoned us onwards, I observed their  
wounds, noting the ferocity that had inflicted them and felt even  
worse for him.

Not far beyond that was a stair that went up. We went until the stairs  
turned from rough earth to laid stone. There we turned aside, and  
crossed a wide cellar filled with wine bottles and casks. In the back  
several great beams were clustered together, supporting the ceiling.  
We hid behind that so Dog could go scout out ahead. He returned shortly.

“There's five men at the top of the stairs, and more outside. Not like  
the ones we’ve seen so far, they're armed and armored like the guards  
we fought in the garden. I don't know why they're up there, but I know  
I can't take that many at once.”

“All right,” I accepted that. “What next?”

“Let me think,” he replied. His lips moved like they had in the barn,  
when he'd felt the weight of his cowardice for not admitting to Angel  
what he'd really said. In a burst of intuition, I realized he was  
working himself up to a hopeless fight, just to do something while she  
was bleeding. Maybe that was what we had to do, but I didn't want it  
to happen when he thought he was failing her.

“You did good,” I told him, breaking him out of his reverie. “Three  
men, you were injured, and we're in a bad way.”

“Not good enough,” he replied, somewhat despairingly.

“Good enough,” I disagreed. “We're here, aren't we? We're not still in  
that room.”

“But now I have to fight ten times that many more,” he objected.

“Only if there's no other way. Any chance that brain of yours can  
think us around having to fight half a claw of armed guards?” I asked.

“No,” he replied, staring up at the ceiling. He looked at it blankly  
for several seconds. “Yes,” he contradicted himself, staring upwards  
curiously.

“Digging?” I asked.

“No, burning,” he explained. With that he ran to a wall were small  
casks stood in neat rows. He picked one, uncorked it, and raced back  
to liberally douse the wooden pillar with its contents, whiskey by the  
smell. He explained more while he worked, “There were no pillars  
below. Here we're closer to the surface with less weight on the roof,  
but now just in this one place, there are beams holding up the  
ceiling. Why?”

“Weak spot?” I suggested. He finished his barrel, got two more, and  
handed me one. I dumped that out next to his, covering the old wood.

“Possible. Or something very heavy just above this point. Perhaps the  
pump that moves the water in Ragara's little stream, or a particularly  
heavy, and therefore valuable bit of statuary. Sold gold water nymphs,  
or something.”

“Right above us?” I asked.

“Almost certainly. Get back,” he ordered.

“How are you going to light it?” I asked, doing as he bid. It was a  
dumb question, but I was getting a bit heady. Ragara obviously kept  
some potent stuff in his basement. In response, he held up Rat's  
package of tobacco, and his flint and steel.

“There are times when I really need a cigarette,” he explained and  
started sparking.

The room was almost full of alcohol vapors. They caught on the first  
spark, and flash fires raced upwards. The pillars caught instantly,  
but the fires also found homes in the barrel racks. It was all almost  
silent save the crackling that earth walls muffled. We huddled by the  
door, listening for the guards above and greedily gulping fresh air  
before the fire could get it. We very nearly asphyxiated on hot gas  
before the creaking in the center got louder, and the roof started  
buckling.

Half the ceiling collapsed at once, smashing wine bottles and  
destroying exotic cheeses. Two ornamental streams broke and poured  
down the gaping hole, knocking over the remaining hard liqueur.  
Barrels started cracking around us as we ran to the hole, climbed up a  
beautiful marble representation of the Scarlet Empress done in rubies  
and crimson, and popped out of the earth. Air, saturated with alcohol  
fumes, began to whistle up out of the dirt, carrying smoke. We were  
running before the air itself caught fire, sending gouts of blue fire  
everywhere. Fortunately, the entire garden started to burn behind us,  
covering our escape.

“That guy is really going to be mad,” I observed to Clockwork Dog as  
we scrambled away from the manor house.

“I never really liked him that much,” Dog admitted.

“Really?”

“Yep. Very gaudy taste. No books. All wealth, no culture.”

“What about now?” I asked, as a pillar of smoke rose from the  
exquisite yard, reaching for the sky.

“Less money, still no culture.”

“Think he'll take it personally?” I asked.

“Oh, I hope so,” Dog enthused to me. “Let's not be here when he finds  
out, shall we?”

“Good plan,” I agreed. We hopped a low wall and got away from there  
with all due haste.





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