[FFML] [Exalted]The Broken Circle 2/5

miashara at deepfriedpuppies.com miashara at deepfriedpuppies.com
Thu Nov 19 10:03:36 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.

Previous chapters can be found at FF.net

For reasons I'm not clear on, my versions of this showed up with  
smartquote problems. This should have that fixed.


Act 2

As desperately as we needed to bring Angel to medical care, taking her  
directly to one of the doctors of Nibeldamt would prove its own death  
sentence. We were of the opinion that the Dynast would probably be a  
little testy after everything that had transpired and would know that  
we were looking for aid. Nibeldamt was a big place, but there were  
only so many places we could hide from him. Instead we took advantage  
of the fact that Ragara's mansion was on the outskirts of town. We  
made for the mountains, and found a small cave. It was littered with  
old spoor of wolf and bear, but showed no occupancy for a while. There  
I laid Angel down, and made her as comfortable as possible. Clockwork  
Dog set to work on her bandages, while I examined my hand.

It was all fucked up. I couldn't even feel most of it any more,  
something I was quite grateful for. My fingers were turning odd colors  
and warped unnaturally. Nothing responded to my commands. I shrugged.  
The hand would simply be the first of the prices I was willing to pay.  
Angel wasn't one of those prices though.

After she was attended to, Dog and I stepped outside and spread out,  
looking for running water. The cave bore signs that at some point it  
had been a stream head. The water course should be somewhere nearby.  
In time we found it and contrived methods of carrying water back from  
the broad leaves of great trees.

There was a man-shaped thing standing outside the cave. It was the  
height of a bear and as furry, but its legs and body were not ursine  
in shape. Naked if such a term could be applied to something with such  
a coat of hair, the creature rested on hand on the roof of the cave  
mouth and stared within. Tufted ears perked up as we approached, and  
the squat head turned to face us. It had a snout like a bear below a  
high forehead. The dark brown fur was lighter across its face,  
highlighted with gold and burgundy. I was drawn to the eyes. They were  
pure gold, but blazing hot like the metal still within a furnace. It  
had no pupils or irises. Dog and I paused.

"Mortals, have you come to my abode to offer me a sacrifice?" it  
asked. The voice was deep, fitting that it should come from the  
mountainous body. It's lungs must have been cavernous and provided a  
voice that was filled with age and the old powers.

"If you try to take her, I will wreak such a horror upon you that  
death will seem a mercy when I am finished. And if you survive and I  
die, I will curse you with my dying breath and haunt you till the end  
of times, bending the efforts of mortal men to wreck your home and  
destroy anything that you care about," Clockwork Dog replied.

I looked at him astonished. "Good man!" I exclaimed. "I think you're  
getting the rhythm of this."

The shaggy primordial man looked at us bemused. "Mortals, do you have  
any idea who I am?"

"Don't know, don't care, should you mean to harm her." Dog replied.

"And are you also filled with this lunacy?" it asked me.

Now if there's one thing I was filled with, lunacy would be a good  
name for it. "I'm not as creative as he is, but I'm a lot more  
spiteful," I admitted. "Should you harm her, there is no limit to the  
horrors I will eagerly seek out to visit upon you, until the gods come  
to plead with me to stop our revenge."

"You stand in the presence of a god now!" it exclaimed. "I am Shogg,  
lord of these mountains. You would do well to make obeisance if you  
don't want to start a conflict with one beyond you."

"Listen Shogg, we just picked a fight with a Dynast, lost, and as soon  
as we can we're going to go do it again. Picking fights with those who  
think they're beyond us is what we do," I retorted.

"It's like our thing," Dog agreed.

Shogg leaned forward, looming over us. I think he expected cowering,  
but we leaned forward right back out of stubborn belligerence. "Which  
Dynast?" the god asked.

Dog and I exchanged a look. His look asked me how far I wanted to go,  
and my look told him I thought there was a chance we had something in  
common with this forest god. I decided to take some risks. "Ragara  
Aino. We assaulted him in his house-"

"Which we later set afire," Dog interjected.

"-broke his jaw-"

"-assaulted his servants-"

"-ruined his breakfast-"

"-and insulted his parentage," Dog concluded.

"We did?" I paused, not remembering the last point.

"It was while you were still out. I woke up first, and told him his  
conception followed his father finding attention in the hairy embrace  
of an amorous goat. I didn't stay awake for long," Dog filled me in.

"I knew I liked you for a reason," I responded, impressed.

Shogg was taken aback quite literally, for he ceased to loom over us  
and stood erect. "You said all this to a Immaculate martial artist of  
the Blessed Isle? Did you not know he would bury such as you in a  
conflict?"

"Lord Shogg, this was after he buried us in a fight," I responded.

"He hurt her," Dog said with a gesture towards the silent repose of  
Fall of Angels. "We took that very seriously."

"Immaculate Dragon or peon, noble or peasant, god or ant, we don't let  
that sort of thing slide," I continued.

The forest god stared at us, aghast at our complete mockery of  
propriety. "Let's be honest," I got the conversation back on the  
tangent I wanted. "If you have any loyalty to Ragara Aino, you may as  
well run back to your master and tell him where we are. He would take  
anything less as an insult, and actually helping us would be  
tantamount to a personal attack."

"Especially if you helped us recuperate, because after that we're  
going to personally attack him," Dog clarified.

"Again," I added.

"Only nastier."

"Hopefully in a more humiliating fashion."

"And maybe burn the other half of his house down."

"Lord Shogg has no master!" Shogg interrupted us. "That upstart has no  
respect for the emissaries of Yu Shan, and only my better manners  
oblige me to aid him on the full moon. The rest of the time, he may  
look to his own way, as I shall look to the forest." His twisted words  
hinted at the truth so blatantly I couldn't believe he wasn't simply  
admitting Ragara beat submission out of him.

"Please tell me, divine one, do manners dictate anything about healing  
mortals who attacked this disrespectful Dynast?" I asked.

"No," Shogg replied slyly. "They never mention anything of the sort."  
Of course, beating submission into someone rarely makes friends as well.

"Then step into our parlor, Lord Shogg of the Nibeldamt Mountains.  
Please lower yourself to accepting our meager mortal hospitality," Dog  
beckoned him with a bow. "As soon as we are healed, we intend to wreak  
a terrible vengeance on the one who thinks himself your master.  
Perhaps our future plans might interest you?"

"With pleasure," the god accepted, and joined us in the cave.

We flattered and fawned on him as best we could. We told him how  
honored we were that he deigned to speak with us, and Dog lapsed into  
such flowery praise that I was struck silent since my ability to lie  
was vastly inferior to his. Still, by the time Shogg, self-styled Lord  
of the Mountains, left, the bones in my hand were set, and healing,  
and Angel rested easily. Her bleeding had stopped, and no longer was  
her breathing labored. We'd sworn to eat only the products of the  
trees and bushes so long as we remained, but since I didn't really  
feel like hunting a wild boar the fair way, that was an easy oath to  
make. Of Ash Maiden, Shogg knew nothing, save that she had not died in  
his mountains. She came here from time to time, but he paid no more  
attention to her that any other mortal.

When our Angel awoke, we filled in any parts of the story she had been  
unconscious for. Dog was self-effacing about his role taunting our  
captor, but I told it with joy, implying a self-sacrificing aspect to  
it. That it had resulted in Dog being the first on the rack instead of  
either of us I attributed to his quick thinking, and noted that had  
also paved the way for him to talk us out of immediate peril. Angel  
was impressed. Dog of course denied that he had such noble goals, but  
he'd already established himself as a liar. Now he came across being  
humbly dishonest. After that I said nothing more on the subject,  
leaving the ideas I hoped I had planted in her mind to lay in fertile  
soil. Just because the love of my life was dead was no reason not to  
help my ally get his.

"There are a couple things we learned from Shogg," I continued, when  
we had gotten to the present. "The first is that Ragara Aino is, or  
rather was, a martial artist trained in their egocentric cult of  
self-love. He left after learning the parts involving beating up his  
enemies, but before taking oaths that would interrupt his hedonism."

"Like chastity or poverty?" Angel surmised. "He didn't look like the  
type to take well to either of those."

"Exactly," Dog agreed. "Unfortunately, that means he's learned some or  
all of the Immaculate Style of Fire, at least from what I could tell.  
Which means he's probably even more capable than he showed us, but for  
him to unleash his true power, he'd have killed us. Since he wanted us  
alive, he kept himself somewhat under control."

"Oh, that's not good. He's more powerful then we saw?" she protested.

"Much more, most likely," Dog assented. "In addition, he's married to  
a Pelep, who may be as powerful as he is. Shogg observed her during  
the spring thaw, escorting a cargo of steel down the river. From what  
I know of House Peleps, she probably manages the business side of  
things, arranging sales and transport times. While she may not be as  
dangerous as him in a fight, she should have most of their armed  
guards with her, which means when she returns they'll have a small  
army to chase us with."

"Furthermore, we don't know what connection he, or they, have to Ash  
Maiden's murderer," I continued. "Obviously they have some."

"Ragara wouldn't have strangled her," Angel concluded. "He has no need  
to. What about his bride? Do you know anything about her?"

"Not really. I'd never met Aino before now and doubt I'd know his wife  
either."

I looked at him curiously. Angel mirrored my expression. By common  
agreement, we couldn't directly ask him how he would have met a  
Dynast, nor why he now referred to one with such familiarity. Much as  
we wanted him to explain, Clockwork Dog met our gazes levelly and  
volunteered nothing.

"Anyway, it means we have a limited about of time to work before  
Ragara's personal army returns. The spring thaw was several months  
ago, and if she took the cargo to the meeting of the Meander and the  
Rock, she could already be on her way back," Dog continued, changing  
topics of conversation with such tactlessness that we clearly  
understood his past was still off limits. With a sigh he admitted,  
"We're not much closer to finding out who killed Ash Maiden then when  
we began."

"Not true," I disagreed. "We know several things. First, Ragara Aino  
may not have done it himself, but he knows either who did or has  
suspicions. Secondly, we know he wanted us alive, and wanted  
information out of us. Finally, he was perfectly prepared to believe  
we were either Anathema or Terrestrials, and was surprised when we  
weren't. That tells me there's another faction at work in Nibeldamt,  
one Ragara Aino half expects to send powerful assassins after him, and  
one he's inclined to believe killed Ash Maiden."

"The other foundries," said Angel, suddenly coming to a logical  
conclusion after silently placing the intervening blocks. "Ragara  
controls one foundry, maybe more, and clearly makes a lot of money  
doing it. If someone else controls the other, they could be feuding  
and with this much money at stake, they afford some very exotic  
assassins."

"We should go and find out who controls them, and if they have the  
kind of money you think they do," I decided. Then, in consideration  
for her injured state, I added, "You should eat something first."

"You mean tonight?" Dog exclaimed.

"Of course. It's not much past noon now. We should be able to make it  
in time for the evening shift change. We'll be disguised by the masses."

"Are you mad? We need time to recover," Dog violently dissented,  
rising to his feet from his rocky seat and looked down at me. I could  
see his proverbial hackles rising.

"Dog, that Dynast heals faster than we do. He has an army on the way.  
Time is not on our side. Besides, right now he's devoting his efforts  
to rebuilding his house and ascertaining how much damage we did. This  
is the perfect time to do some exploration, especially since we're  
going to give his estates a wide berth."

"Her leg is broken, as is your hand! Why do we have to go now?"

I flexed my fingers a few times. They ached when the tendons moved  
over the wounded bone. "I'll fight with my left," I concluded.  
"Besides, we aren't looking for a fight. We just want information."

"You just want to find a noble way to die!" Dog snapped. "And you'll  
take the both of us with you."

That hurt.

"Listen to me, you sniveling maggot," I snarled, suddenly furious as  
my sleep deprived rage blasted into overdrive. "I have done-"

"Boys, help," interrupted Angel. With a groan she turned sideways on  
the wide stone she lay on, and got her feet under her. Both Dog and I  
paused, standing erect over her supine form. Her first attempt to  
stand didn't work, but then she grabbed a hold of the two of us and  
pulled herself upright. We instinctively cupped her arms as she did,  
and soon she stood between us. That forced us to draw away from each  
other and cleared the air. "Dog, we can't stay here. If Shogg the  
forest god is beholden to Ragara, he's probably running there right  
now to tell him where we are. Maybe he'll just tell everything to  
curry favor and maybe he's try to bargain with the knowledge, but our  
position here isn't safe. Also, we do need information, and Ending's  
logic is sound. But we both know he's hiding something, because he  
lies like I act on stage, a terrible thing to watch that fools no  
one." She turned to face me, and asked, "So, tell us, what are you  
hiding? Why do we have to go now?"

I stared at the two of them. "It doesn't matter," I explained. "It's  
just a personal thing."

"This whole thing is a personal thing," Angel countered.

"Don't worry about it," I said again, and turned my back on them to  
look at the stars that speckled the sky through the tree branches.

Dog impressed me then. I hadn't known his self control was so great.  
"Ending, I apologize. You would not throw away our lives." That must  
have been hard to say, and recognition of that struck me deeper than  
his initial accusation. Because I didn't know if he was right, and it  
frightened me that I might very well do what he trusted me not to.

"Forgiven," I replied. "I'm sorry as well." I turned to face him, and  
made a slight head bow to acknowledge he'd taken the higher ground by  
laying aside his pride first.

"Good. Now kiss and make up," ordered Angel.

"No," we said in unison.

"Damn. That would have been some entertainment," she opined.

"Can we go now?" I asked. "We do need to leave soon if we want to make  
the shift change."

"You still haven't told us what's so important about leaving now,"  
Angel observed.

"Would you please drop it?" I asked again. "You know my logic, and you  
said yourself my reasoning is sound. Please leave my issues alone."

"Very well," Angel replied. Dog made noises to the contrary, but Angel  
jabbed him in the ribs with one of her sharp little elbows, and he  
stopped making any sound but painful grunts. "Let's be honest. We are  
on a half mad vengeance crusade, so I can't get too upset about a  
little personal mania. But you lose all privileges to criticize others  
for acting crazy until you talk to us," she judged. "You also take a  
burden of proof on yourself when proposing our course of action,  
because we can reasonably wonder if you're being influenced by  
whatever it is you won't talk about."

"Fine," I relented.

"Good. Now, Dog, what do you think we should do?" she asked.

"Go to Nibeldamt and find out who owns the other foundries. While  
we're there, we can make sure no harm has come to Anvil or his family  
from our actions," he concluded.

The other two of us agreed. We ate what we could and drank from the  
stream. Angel tested herself and discovered she could walk slowly and  
her funeral robes concealed her limp. The robes themselves were no  
longer a pure white, but had been tainted by soot and ash to a dismal  
gray. It was fitting.

Shortly after nightfall, we crept into town, and patrolled the city  
streets. There were seven foundries, of which three were brightly  
emblazoned with the heraldic arms of House Ragara. Also emblazoned  
with such were counting houses, farmers markets and butcher shops,  
several temples, and the largest pier into the river. Along the way we  
watched Anvil's house just long enough to be sure that he still lived  
there, and seemed in good health. Reassured that no harm had come to  
him through our efforts, we continued our investigation.

Of the other four foundries, all carried the colors of brilliant  
crimson peaks on a field of green. The same symbol was repeated on  
great lumberyards to the south, and the city's formal garrison. Rows  
of houses and shops bore the crimson and green, or stylized  
iron-wrought portrayals of it. Clockwork Dog glanced at it and  
concluded 'Gens Maheka' in a confident tone. On the southern end of  
the city stood a large estate, less ostentatious than that of the  
Dynast, but more defensible. Above it blew the crimson and green over  
ornate walls that remained fully functional. Carvings and bass reliefs  
did not begin until well up the outer wall, and several guards marched  
rounds at regular intervals. Four men in simpler but no less effective  
armor stood before a vast steel portcullis at attention. Though the  
gate was closed for the evening, they showed no signs of slacking in  
their duty.

"Let's break in," I decided from the safety of a nearby temple belfry  
we'd taken refuge in.

"That didn't work so well last time," Dog pointed out.

"We're more prepared now," I countered.

"You and I are still injured, and they'll be alert after what we did  
to Ragara," Angel replied.

"What if we set fire to it first?"

"No," they said in unison.

"Damn."

I looked into their eyes as I had not done since the funeral nearly a  
month ago. I had a tendency to see people as my memories of them, and  
not as they truly were. Now I saw that Clockwork Dog was tired, but  
exhaustion and recovery had worn aside some of the softer aspects of  
his personality. He was more protective of Angel then he had been  
before, as he came to understand that as powerful and capable as she  
was, she was not immortal. But there were no traces of doubt in his  
eyes. He was dedicated to the cause as he had not been before. Angel  
was different. For the first time, the knowledge that she could be  
beaten and easily had come upon her. It frightened her a little. But  
that had tempered her brashness as she had promised she would temper  
my mania. Some overconfidence had been stripped from her like the  
weakness in Dog. Still, she betrayed no awareness of his feelings, nor  
any inkling of returning them.

As for me, when I took a moment of introspection, I found only  
whirling thoughts filed with chaos. My dreams had not been kind  
recently, and now I feared sleep like it was a savage beast that  
hunted me. After a moment, I realized that when I looked into my own  
heart I grew frightened of what I found, and I ceased to look inwards.  
Instead I directed my efforts towards the house that bore the Gens  
Maheka crest. My thoughts lashed at it like a chaotic sandstorm,  
seeking a weakness in the problem.

"If we can't attack them, and we cannot sneak in, then we must meet  
with them evenly. But how can we impel them to meet with us?" I asked.

"Go knock on the front gate," suggested Dog with a shrug.

"And offer them what?" I asked.

"Offer to burn Ragara's mansion down," Angel offered, seeking a laugh.  
Neither of us obliged, because we were staring at her very seriously.

"We could," I noted carefully, trying to direct my scattered and sleep  
deprived thoughts at the problem. "Surely our work is known now."

"What do you want to do?" scoffed Angel. "Walk up to the front gate  
and pound on it, asking for an audience with the lord of the manor to  
discuss some freelance arson?"

Which is exactly what I did not half an hour later. The guards stared  
at me like I was a madman, but I ignored them until an impeccably  
dressed attaché came to see what I wanted.

"To see the master of the house," I replied.

"I see," he murmured, casting a disparaging glance at me. "Are you in  
mourning for something? Is this about the funeral, because this isn't  
the way to ask for a funeral plot, something we are willing to provide  
through other avenues," he suggested in a clear attempt to make me go  
away.

"It isn't about a funeral plot," I replied calmly. "My dearly beloved  
is already buried. I'm here about Ragara Aino."

"That would be Prince Ragara to you," he correctly me absently, with  
the air of a man discussing international economics with a village  
idiot. "I'll speak to my master's secretary. And your name is?"

"Fluffy Bunny," I replied in a tone completely devoid of humor.

"You can go now," he replied instantly.

"Why don't you go tell your master I'm waiting for him?"

"Because you're either an imbecile or a moron, and he doesn't have  
time for either."

"We shall see," I replied. Then I strolled off the manor grounds and  
took a seat on a low pile of boulders by a partially built house. The  
attaché wandered off, no doubt to laugh about my appearance with the  
other underlings and never mention it to anyone of import. In time, my  
companions joined me that we might quickly discourse on our next move.

"Didn't go so well," Dog surmised.

"He won't even take a message to the master of the house," I said of  
the attaché. "We need another plan to get in."

"Without involving any constructive arson," Dog prefixed his question.  
"Do you have a suggestion for getting in there before the minions of  
our favorite Dynast come howling for our heads?"

"You're presenting me with an unfair limitation," I complained.

"That would be a 'no,'" Angel translated for him.

"Should you be thinking right now?" I asked. "Deciphering clues or something?"

"There's nothing to decipher," he replied. "We've established that the  
Maheka spies in the house of Ragara are either known or suspected.  
Ragara's spies in the Maheka house are unknown but assumed. Ragara  
possesses more personal power then these guys do, but lacks the  
support they have since Lookshy stands directly between him and his  
power base." Dog shrugged. "Since half the Dynast's power is absent,  
escorting his annual shipment downriver, the masters of house Maheka  
probably aren't even here, being out securing positional advantages.  
That's the only way they can counter Ragara's wife, a Water aspect,  
arriving at the markets first and therefore commanding a better price."

I looked at Angel. "Don't you love how we established all that so  
quickly?" I asked blandly.

"I certainly feel quite productive," she agreed.

Dog sighed. "Ragara wanted information out of us, but attempted to  
extract it in the bowels of his estate with only two servants.  
Clearly, he suspected someone in his own men. But since we haven't  
been immediately let into house Maheka, either his precautions worked,  
or information from the Mahekan spies hasn't disseminated through the  
estate. Since we know they couldn't have been too successful given how  
subtle we weren't, therefore the Mahekan factor must be keeping a  
tight grip on how much he knows. He'd only play his cards so close to  
his own chest if he was paranoid, implying that Ragara has infiltrated  
his house as well, but more covertly. Since the dynasts of the realm  
are better at these games then the houses of the Seventh Legion, this  
makes sense. Still, Gens Maheka is a thousand miles closer then the  
Blessed Isle, which is why they have more soldiers then Ragara, who  
nearly depleted his personal guard to provide a proper escort for  
their cargo. His wife, a Pelep, is also escorting the barge through  
the floods of the first seasonal thaw, doubly implying she's a Water  
aspect. Whoever gets their cargo to market first gets the best price.  
That, combined with the immensity of the undertaking for Ragara, means  
he can only do this once a year. Hence the cargo is the entirety of  
their annual product, sold all at once for the best profit, but with  
the most risk. Again, why he sent the lion's share of his guard with  
it. Gens Maheka has to know this, but can't do anything about it  
because they probably don't have a Water aspect here. Still, they seem  
to be evenly balanced in the city, so they have to capitalize on  
Ragara's weakness somehow. A personal conflict is right out, but they  
could be sabotaging his supplies, hence why the coke was dirty, and  
securing more advantageous contracts. That's why more local merchants  
fly their colors, and more temples. Maheka has always been more  
religious then the Realm, especially Houses Ragara or Peleps, who are  
basically noble pirates." Dog thought for a few heartbeats, going over  
what he just explained to us in his head. "Not that complicated,  
really. Nothing implies who killed Ash Maiden, mind you."

I stared at Dog in silence, too nonplussed to speak. He did that to me  
from time to time. Angel was nodding as she followed along, finding  
his logical bridges solid in construction. Dog wasn't really paying  
attention to either of us, being more concerned with finding a  
comfortable seat on his rock.

"How does that help us get inside?" I asked.

"It doesn't, really. Not unless you can find one of Maheka's spies and  
show him your face. Then he would probably go running to his boss with  
stories about you, and you'd get an audience in no time. The attaché  
would also probably get fired, which is exactly the kind of petty  
revenge that suits one such as him."

"Dog, why must we always drag these things out of you?" asked Angel  
rhetorically. "Any ideas where we could find one of Maheka's agents?"

"Sure. Find whoever sells Maheka his coke. I'll bet rocks to riding  
horses that there's an agent of Maheka's there."

Angel and I exchanged glances, then considered the barred gate. "Is  
there anything more aggravating then a brilliant moron?" I asked her.

"Nothing springs to mind," she agreed demurely.

"Why am I a moron?" demanded Dog.

"You aren't. That's what's so aggravating," Angel informed him. "Let's  
go find out who sells Ragara his coke, shall we?"

That wasn't too hard. We looked around until we found a squat building  
in front of a fenced in yard piled high with coke. Neither House  
Ragara or Gens Maheka's colors flew above it, implying the owners  
plied their goods to anyone. Attached to the yard was a low pier that  
intruded into the river, about the right height to accept barges from  
upstream. The river Meander was sluggish here, and moved with little  
purpose as befitted its name. Dimly glimmering lights shone in the  
windows, and we let ourselves in the unlocked front door.

Inside was a small room with desks for three men, only one of which  
was occupied. A thin, white haired man of wasp-like features and bony  
hands was adding figures on a slate. Two large men who might have had  
"goon," "thug," or "bodyguard" written across their faces depending on  
the legality of their employ stood in the corner, comparing club size.  
The one on the left had a much bigger club, which the one on the right  
noted with bludgeon envy. All three looked up when we entered, and the  
scribe at the desk pushed back his chair so he could face us easier.

"Good evening," he welcomed us with professional courtesy. "How can I  
help you?"

I looked at Dog. Angel looked at Dog. Dog looked at me. I glanced from  
him to the secretary and back to him. "He's talking to you," I  
supplied helpfully.

"Oh, right. Good evening," watching realization dawn on Clockwork  
Dog's face was like the gears he was named for coming to alignment.  
"I'm the representative of a small operation upriver, where we've  
struck an amazingly vital vein of anthracite coal. We'd been digging  
for gold, you understand, but are not in the habit of ignoring the  
bounty of the earth."

"Yes, the Earth Dragon will award great wonders on those who deserve  
it," the scribe agreed in a tone to correct Dog of improperly  
allocating gratitude.

"Of course. We who follow Pesiap's example by working in the Earth  
always have always been grateful for his generosity. Still, we have  
quite a bit of good, fine anthracite and no market for it, being as it  
is that it isn't what we were originally looking for. We were  
wondering if that was something you would like to discuss?"

"Of course," the scribe assented. "I'm always interested in discussing  
matters of business with one who holds closely to the great truths of  
the Immaculate Faith. So few of these locals have elevated themselves  
from their crude animism even in the light of our evangelism."

Mentally I braced myself. I was exhausted and low on patience, and  
this was going to require more then  had on hand. Angel had already  
gone to the two goons. Proudly, the one on the left showed her his club.

"The question is, do you know how to use that?" she asked sweetly.

"I am Serenading Thrush," the scribe introduced himself to Dog. He  
didn't look like he'd ever serenaded anything. "Please, have a seat."

Clockwork Dog did so, pulling a chair away from one of the other  
desks. "My backers are not aware that I'm here right now, and I'd like  
to keep it that way," he began. "So with your permission, I'd like to  
refrain from using my real name. They can be so intrusive some times."

"I understand," the wizened scribe agreed. "What shall I call you then?"

"Fuzzy Puppy," Dog replied after a pause like he was searching for a  
pseudonym. "This is my scribe, Fluffy Bunny, who will take notes  
during our discussion," he continued, indicating me. "Could you extend  
to him supplies for the evening?" Our host indicated them on the desk  
with a grandiose wave.

I stared at Dog, trying to murder him with my smile. I could write  
about twenty words, one them being my name, and the rest being the  
names of my close friends. Instead I sat at his right hand and readied  
a piece of parchment and a quill pen.

"You understand that our discussion is, of course, non-binding to my  
employers?" Serenading Thrush confirmed.

"Do you think I shall sign a contract under the name 'Fuzzy Puppy?'"  
asked Dog amused. "What Magistrate shall I take it to for enforcement?"

"Indeed," replied the other.

They then began some rather intense bargaining, made all the more  
impressive that Dog had no product with which to sell. I made cryptic  
marks on parchment and pretended they were a personal shorthand. Angel  
flirted with the guards, admired their clubs, and demonstrated how she  
liked to polish them. She seemed intent on a long, slow stroking  
club-polishing motion. After the long demonstration, the one with the  
shorter club began to flush and had to leave. The other kept asking  
questions and tried to arrange a period of personal instruction on the  
topic. I kept hoping lightning would pierce the roof and kill me, that  
I wouldn't have to hear either discussion. No such luck was forthcoming.

Sometime later, we left. Dog walked purposely down a darkened road  
away from the yard while hissing under his breath, "Are we being  
followed?"

"What?" hissed back Angel.

"Are we being followed?" he hissed louder.

"Borrowed?" she asked.

"You're as beautiful as a marble goddess with hearing to match,"  
muttered Dog. "Ending?"

"Not that I can tell," I replied. The remaining goon hadn't left the  
building and doubted the scribe had the vitality to flit from shadow  
to shadow. "Where to next?"

"That barn," he replied, indicating an abandoned out building behind a  
farm on the outskirts of town. We dashed across a field under the dim  
light of the obscured moon, and hid in rotting straw. Nothing moved.

"All right. We know the factor's dishonest," Dog explained. "If he  
isn't the one directly passing Ragara a bad product, he certainly  
isn't bothered by it."

"The guy who kept babbling religion?" I asked.

"No one's that pious without being a filthy skimmer," Dog replied.

"You know, I'm beginning to get the impression you aren't terribly  
fond of the Immaculate Faith," Angel observed. "Any reason for your  
disparaging comments other than religious disdain?"

"I basically told him I'm swindling my backers, and he didn't so much  
as bat an eye. It's a scheme in mining, where you sign a contract  
where the backers make all the money off a set commodity provided they  
put up the overhead for the operation. Since we allegedly found no  
gold, they get none of the profit off our coal sales," he explained.  
"It's a bait and switch, but a legal one. Anyway, he's crooked and  
posing behind false piety, which explains why he's willing to swindle  
a Dynast of the 'Isle.

"Besides, it allowed me to name drop the aliases we used on Ragara. If  
either he, or the guards, are in the employ of Maheka, they should get  
a message to him this evening. We have an appointment to show him some  
of our product first thing in the morning."

"And then someone takes us to Maheka?" I asked.

"No. It's almost certain that whichever of them runs to Maheka,  
another will run to Ragara, if not two. The only one who won't run to  
Ragara is the scribe, who's ripping him off in the first place."

"You should have been a politician," I told him.

"Gods, no. Just get this done and let me go back to my mountain," he replied.

"So how do we get in to see Maheka?" interrupted Angel. She didn't  
take well to scheming. It was outside her nature.

"I have no idea," Dog replied innocently. "I forgot that was what we  
were trying to do in the fun of figuring out who was working for who."

"Idiot!" hissed Angel.

"Why are you so mad?" asked Dog. "I thought The Ending was the  
psychotic impatient one?"

"I all but offered that thug a hand job because I thought you had a  
plan!" she snapped.

"Oh. I see," responded Dog. "Well, you don't have to give him one, of course."

I interrupted before she could beat him. "This isn't a problem.  
Serenading Thrush either works for Maheka or against Ragara. Either  
way, he can get us where we want to go. We wait until he's alone, and  
then we make him take us to Maheka. We'll just stalk him in the mean  
time."

With some grumbling, this was accepted by all. Sleep was almost upon  
me, and I could barely fight it off while sitting still. Therefore I  
suggested we creep back and watch for the scribe, who should be  
leaving soon. This was agreed upon, and we went.

I was wide awake again by the time we crouched down in the shadows  
between two gables of a steep roofed house by the docks. It was tiled  
with shale to better endure the howling snowstorms. We had to move  
carefully and take meticulous care to stand on the underlying beams  
less we crash through. At some point later, a figure entered the room.  
The figure was small, and probably female. Shortly after her arrival  
the lights went out. We all hissed at each other, but no one was  
asleep. Bent by age, the wizened old con left, escorted by his two  
bull-necked and bovine-brained bodyguards. The woman went with them.  
We followed them to a narrow townhouse. Lights came on upstairs, and  
in a small room by the front door.

"Now we break in," I concluded. This time they didn't argue with me.

Around the back of the row of clustered houses were small plots of  
land, fenced in and full of vegetables or chicken houses. Serenading  
Thrush had built his chicken coop directly against the back wall that  
the house would heat it in the winter. The roofs swept almost to the  
ground. Above that were wider windows with thick shutters, paned in  
with glass panels. None of the other houses had glass windows. These  
were dark on the second floor and barred. Above them was a bare wall,  
but above that were two small, narrow windows, also barred and  
shuttered, but lit from the inside. While we planned our incursion,  
one of the foundries across the town suddenly sent spires of flame  
into the sky. It's smoke stacks roared, and sent gouts of smoke into  
the dark air.

"It's the furnaces," Clockwork Dog surmised. "They've been cleaned. I  
also bet that Ragara Aino is personally overseeing the operation right  
now, driving the old machinery with his own power. If they had better  
fuel, they'd make excellent steel. As is, it will be good enough."

As the ash fall began to silently rain from the sky, darkening the  
night and filling our mouths with the taste of death, we stole down  
the row of houses until we found one dark and vacant. We broke in to  
find it was as deserted as promised. There were holes in the roof that  
let us atop the row of houses, each of which shared the roofline.  
Though the way was treacherous with crumbly soot falling like warm  
snow, we crept along on hands and knees. Eventually we counted seven  
chimneys, and were sure we stood almost above where Serenading Thrush  
slept. We exchanged a glance that explained everything. Mere mortals  
as we were, we had no powers that would enable us to silently intrude,  
and the kind of acrobatic nonsense required to move through a barred  
window was beyond us. Instead we listened carefully to the thin slates  
until we heard where Serenading Thrush was preparing himself for bed.  
I held up three fingers, removed one, removed another, and remove the  
third as we leaped in unison to come smashing down with locked knees  
on the roof.

It buckled. The tiles over spaces betwixt the beams shattered,  
dropping the three of us through the roof to an empty attic, the floor  
of which snapped like tinder beneath our sudden weights. Falling with  
a   rain of splinters, we crashed into a frugal bedroom where  
Serenading Thrush was climbing into bed. Angel landed in the bed,  
broke the central beam, and the whole thing dropped six inches as the  
floor partially gave way, allowing the feet at all four corners  
through. The floor held the rest, except where Angel hit. There she  
was knee deep in feathers, while a naked screaming girl clutched the  
old geezer. Dog found himself landing on a end table that simply  
ceased to exist in any recognizable form. I broke a desk in half with  
my feet, nearly broke my ankles on the floor, and let my legs buckle  
until I crashed into his chair. I leaned back and let the legs break,  
dropping it six inches to the floor. I glanced under the desk, and saw  
a large, iron bound chest bolted to the floor and a wall. I kicked it  
a few times, and it made rattling noises.

"Evening, Serenading Thrush," I said lightly. "We have a bit more  
business to discuss."

The girl kept shrieking. Dog observed from the floor, "She's a young  
one for an old goat like you."

"What do you-"

"Shut up," I replied. "Now, I will speak, you will listen, and if you  
don't want me to start breaking her fingers, you'll shut the girl up  
as well."

"Do what you want with her!" cried Serenading Thrush. "The harlot  
means nothing to me."

"Business is hard, honey," observed Fall of Angels, extricating  
herself from the bed. "But that man right there is crazy. I'd stop  
making noises if he tells you too." The girl shut up. Her skin was  
white with fear, and she huddled under the blankets.

"Puppy, Kitten, the guards will be coming up. I think I hear them on  
the stairs. Deal with them," I ordered. Dog climbed to his feet and  
grabbed two table legs, one of which he passed to our comrade. She had  
finally gotten free of down and sheets, and they two of them stepped  
outside. I continued to regard the two in bed. "Now, you are going to  
answer some questions, and then take us to the house of Maheka, and  
you are going to get us in to see the man himself. The amount of bones  
we break of yours first is your discretion, as is the amount of your  
money we steal, and whether or not we also set your house on fire.  
Woman, stop whimpering, or I will stop you."

She stopped. Serenading Thrush looked at me with his eyes bugging out.  
On the landing outside, sounds of horrible, violent conflict erupted  
to the tune of wood splintering and men screaming. I never took my  
eyes off him, for all things considered, I still had no doubts who  
would win.

"Who are you people?" he exclaimed, incredulous. He clearly couldn't  
believe what was happening.

"Fluffy Bunny," I replied. "He's Fuzzy Puppy. She's Cuddly Kitten. I'm  
about to break your legs, and drag you by your spleen to Maheka. Stop  
asking stupid questions."

The old man shut up. His hired companion for the night had finally got  
her breathing under control, and made no noise.

"Question one. Who killed Ash Maiden?"

"Who?"

"Don't answer a question with a question. It's rude," I told him. At  
that instant, with a horrific crash, one of the club-men entered the  
room via a plank wall. Only his head, shoulders, and chest made it  
through, unfortunately, because a moment later he was yanked back out.  
His gurgling suddenly went quiet. "Ash Maiden was the young lady who  
was found in the Meander fourteen days ago."

"I have no idea," the scared old goat pleaded.

"Are you lying to me?" I asked, rising from my seat. Outside the melee  
noises stopped.

"No!" he assured me with panic in his voice.

"Very well. You may take us to Maheka now." I turned, grabbed a robe  
off the floor, and tossed it too him. He stared putting it on in a  
panic. The girl was looking back and forth between us, scared and  
confused. I told her, "You are free to leave. Good bye." With that I  
grabbed the geezer, yanked him upright, and dragged him outside. Dog  
and Angel were standing on a pile of guards. They'd waylaid them each  
as they came up the stairs, and had used the height to compensate for  
Angel's lack of mobility and Dog's lack of skill in unmitigated  
violence. The two were sucking in air in deep gulps but looked  
unharmed. "We're leaving now."

"Good times, good times," gasped Dog.

"We're taking their swords," Angel told Serenading Thrush. "Unless you  
have a problem with that?"

"None at all!" he assured her.

"Good."

I lead the troop downstairs. Once in the street, we walked away from  
the house as neighbors looked from open windows and called out  
questions. They could see nothing in the pitch blackness of skies  
covered in smoke, and in this part of town no one had the money to  
waste candles. The sole light was the window leading to Serenading  
Thrush's room behind us, were the slim figure of the hired girl  
watched us go. Gently flakes of ash fell around us like burned snow.

No one interfered along our route through the city. When we came to  
the gate, we shoved our captive at the guards. "Tell them we're the  
ones who burned Ragara's house down. Tell them we want to see Maheka,  
and we have a business proposition for him."

"They'll never let us in!" he complained.

"Then we'll be stuck out here, with nothing to do. And I remember  
where your place is, where your money is, and where we may as well go  
back to until we can steal enough to bribe our way into an audience  
with Maheka," I replied.

"I'll see what I can do," he assured me. With that he hurried to the  
guards, and started talking animatedly. He was waving his arms and  
yelling. Two guards were dealing with him while two others and four on  
the wall kept close eyes on the three of us. They had bows and seemed  
familiar with their use.

After a few minutes, the guards came to us. "We're taking you to meet  
with Maheka Aino," they told us. "Don't try to resist."

"Dear child, that's the last thing on our minds," Angel assured them.  
They drew up around us, and marched us through the portcullis. Dog  
waved politely to Serenading Thrush as we walked past. The old goat  
was looking at us like a sleeper who couldn't wake up from a horrible  
dream. As we passed inside, he suddenly realized he was free and ran  
off into the night with wild cackles testifying to his joy at being  
alive.

Maheka Aino didn't go for staggering ostentation quite like Ragara  
Aino did. His mansion was opulent to be sure, but the numerous mosaics  
were of religious significance instead of self aggrandizement. I  
suppose that humility in religion is easy when the religion tells you  
you're the apex of Creation, but I gave him points for trying. The  
walls and floor were well laid granite, intricately carved with  
designs and mandalas. All five elements repeated, though earth symbols  
were most common. More subtly displayed, his wealth was apparent in  
well crafted doors and rooms, a plethora of guards and servants that  
wore the best in armor and livery, and imported flatware and exotic  
fruits in baskets. Everything was amazingly functional, but no more  
expensive the best need be. His candelabra held candles, and lit his  
halls with warm light, but were made of fine steel, not gold inset  
with jade.

In time, we stopped in a formal receiving room. The guards handed us  
over to other guards, who bid us take seats in the sumptuously  
apportioned chairs. They were comfortable yet supportive. I thought I  
was seated on a cloud. The floor was tiled in blue, white, and brown,  
and showed towering mountains rising from the earth. Diamond stars sat  
in the ebony ceiling, laid in the shape of familiar constellations. In  
time, Maheka Aino arrived.

He was not so broad as Ragara Aino. Though they were each majestically  
build, Maheka's eyes had less charm and more intelligence. His fingers  
were narrow and dexterous, lacking Ragara's calluses. They had the  
same dark complexions, and calm demeanors. Dressed in a crimson and  
green evening robe, he looked like he'd just awoken but was still  
clear headed. He offered us wine and refreshment, which we politely  
declined, accepting only coffee for the sake of etiquette. It was a  
dark and potent beverage, full bodied. Every sip woke us up, and  
filled us with vigor.

"Now, my guests, I've been told you three claim to be the individuals  
who did such disrespect to Ragara Aino in his own home," he told us  
after our needs had been fulfilled. "Furthermore, you broke into the  
house of Serenading Thrush, one of my suppliers, accosted his men, and  
took him captive that he could get you an appointment to see me.  
You've broken virtually every law we have written down, and numerous  
unwritten ones no one has lacked the common sense to require  
committing to paper. Who are you, and what brings you before me?"

"I'm Fuzzy Bunny," I said. "He's Fluffy Puppy. She's Cuddly Kitten.  
Who killed Ash Maiden?"

"Who is this 'Ash Maiden?' Was she Exalted?" he asked.

"She was the young woman who a dock worker found drifting in the  
Meander fourteen days ago. She was beautiful and kind, and one of the  
best people to ever be born in Highmere. We want to know who killed  
her," I explained.

"Highmere? Is that a district of Nexus?"

"It's a village several days run from here in the mountains," Angel  
informed him.

"So she was a Fae noble? A local princess? The governor?" the  
terrestrial asked, trying to find a deeper meaning to our question  
that wasn't there.

"She was a young woman from a poor family. Her mother got sick with  
the consumption, so they sent her away so she would be safe. Her  
fiancée was supposed to follow her, but stayed behind to make sure  
that his mother-in-law to be was buried safely." It wasn't easy to  
admit she'd had a fiancée and to acknowledge that it wasn't me.

"Wait," interrupted our host. "This was a mortal? And a poor mortal at that?"

"Yes," Clockwork Dog replied simply.

Maheka Aino lost his composure as for a brief instant he stared at us  
like he'd been assailed by a sorcerous talking weasel intent on  
finding who stole his favorite mouse tail. As awareness blossomed  
within in him that we were doing all this for the sole purpose of  
discovering a mortal, and that for that reason his illustrious  
Dragon-Blooded sleep was being disturbed, his face gradually turned  
astonishing shades of red and white until it settled into a deadly calm.

"I do not know. Not only do I not know, but I do not care. Your  
concerns are so far beneath me that I care less for the murder of one  
of my favorite mousers then I do for this Ash Woman. I thought you  
were here because you were powerful enough to assault Ragara in his  
own home, and set fire to it when you escaped."

"We did," Angel said perfectly levelly. "He didn't care about Ash  
Maiden either."

There was something in her voice that stopped his automatic dismissal  
of our concern. For the first time the veils of sleep truly lifted  
from Maheka's eyes. Now he looked at us not as mortals, but as men  
given utterly to a terrible purpose without restraint. Angel suddenly  
appeared on his playing field as a dangerous force that could assail  
powers vastly greater than her own simply through desperation and wild  
abandon. Maheka considered us calmly, as was his nature, before he  
answered. "I do not know who killed her, nor for what reason. But for  
a price, I can find out."

"Price is no object," I replied evenly.

"I'm not talking about money," he informed me. "Clearly, I have  
enough, and greatly doubt any meager financial remuneration you could  
offer me would significantly affect my fiscal stature. But if you have  
the will to enter my service, I have ways for you to earn my aid."

"Lord Maheka, I understand you're a business man, or business Dynast,  
or whatever it is you call yourself, and to you haggling comes as easy  
as breath. Let me be simple. I don't care. I don't care about your  
prices, your services, or you tasks. None of that matters to me,  
because none of it is what killed Ash Maiden. This what will happen.  
You will find out who killed her. You will then tell us. We will then  
go off and deal with it. The rest is meaningless detail. Do you  
understand?"

"That rudeness borders on treason, something I am perfectly vested and  
capable of dealing with myself," Maheka replied ominously.

"Yes, but you won't," Dog replied. He sighed with the same show of  
weariness he had when explaining the political-economic situation of  
Nibeldamt to us. "Ragara tried. It didn't work so well for him. The  
ensuing fight left his mansion on fire, and his affairs disrupted.  
Right now you're in a position to seize that advantage, precisely  
because none of what happened to him has happened to you. What we're  
offering you is that we won't happen to you, leaving you in a  
marvelously better bargaining stance than you were in this time  
yesterday. In exchange, tell us who killed Ash Maiden. It couldn't be  
simpler."

"In fact, we've already paid you our end of the bargain. All up front  
with no negotiations," Angel supplied. "You can't get better terms  
than that."

"Are you threatening me?" asked Maheka astonished. That we had gone  
beyond common insolence to this boggled his mind. I don't think he'd  
ever been threatened by mortals before.

"Yes," we replied in unison. We were getting better about that. It  
came much more naturally now.

"I should kill you right now," he exclaimed and started to rise.

"Sit down, Lord Maheka," ordered Angel, her voice dropping down to a  
deep, subdued menace. "You'll kill one of us to be sure. Possibly two,  
and if you're very lucky, all three. But right now you're here with  
us, and I swear to all the Forgotten Gods that you will not walk out  
of this room alive should blades be drawn." When she spoke her voice  
crackled as powers far outside the ken of mortal men took notice of  
her oath and sanctified it.

"The only way we can win against you," Dog explained. "Is to take this  
to a level you're not willing to follow. You have wealth. You have  
money. You have security. We have nothing but an unconditional need to  
see a murderer found. Lord, we make no pretensions that we're you're  
equal, but you aren't a great power capable of smashing us with  
impunity, or else you wouldn't be in a piss-ant little town like  
Nibeldamt, and you certainly would have overcome Ragara by now. So  
just tell us what we want to know, and we'll go away, and you can reap  
the harvest of the whirlwind we've already sown in the manor of Ragara  
Aino."

Maheka glanced at Angel, then at Dog, and finally at me. "You spoke a  
great deal at the beginning, but now have fallen silent. Do you  
understand that your companions are bargaining your life away?"

"Yes," I replied with a soft smile.

"You aren't a power like they are," he told me, looking deep into my  
eyes and letting his will bore into mine. "You know I could kill you.  
You know the certainty of your fate." His mind was like an avalanche,  
crashing against me with will greater than mortal minds possess. Pure  
Essence raged against my sanity and sought to bend me into submission.  
"I'll put you to sleep forever," he assured me and let all his power  
howl through the silent doorways of my mind.

I leaned forward as well and met his glare. "It would be a pleasure,"  
I replied, and the force he brought to bear smashed against the truth  
of the statement.

Maheka sat back, baffled at his lack of success. He truly did not  
understand why we didn't submit to his will. Never in his experience  
had he met mortals such as we, cushioned as he'd always been by those  
so overwhelmed at his innate greatness that they'd affirmed his  
domination in their thought and deed. He just didn't understand us.  
His consternation slowly gave way to thoughtfulness, which gently slid  
into amusement as he cracked a wide smile, and leaned back in his chair.

"You know, mortals, I will give you credit. I honestly never expected  
to have such a conversation, much less in my home. I'm rather  
impressed. So much so, in fact, that I'm curious to see what you would  
do next. Are you brave, crazy, or stupid? I imagine I'll find out soon  
enough." Once he had found his calm again, even buffeted by our  
tension, he was like a rock, and impassive as the ancient hills. "The  
woman in the river was named Ash Maiden? I didn't know that. Nor what  
happened to her." His voice as solid as old rocks.

Wry thoughts of caution told me this sudden change of tact was  
dangerous. While I was trying to figure out what angle he was playing  
Dog asked, "What about Frozen Thane? What do you know of him?"

"The Ice Walker?" replied Maheka curiously. He cocked his head at the  
apparent non-sequitur. "Very little. He has avoided the steel  
industry, so I ignored him. The only reason I know the name is about a  
month ago someone came to me looking for him. She said I could make a  
significant profit by handing him over. Still, it sounded like a  
private matter so I stayed out of it. Getting involved in private  
feuds does me no good." The last he said archly, indicating the three  
of us and our situation with his eyes.

"Who came looking for him?" Angel asked.

"Some woman from the north. She said her name was Defile Perilous;  
most likely a pseudonym. She had very pale skin, almost white blue  
lips. Attractive in an icicle way. She sounded emotional," he  
pronounced the adjective scornfully. "And there's no reason to get  
between two Ice Walkers. She probably had two of his kids and then he  
ran out on her."

"Where can we find her?" she pressed.

"I have no idea," the scion of Maheka replied. "As I said, I stay out  
of such affairs."

Before either of the rest of us could answer, Dog thanked Maheka for  
his help. "It's been wonderful meeting you, and I am amazed at the  
grace of your house. Now, if we'll be leaving. I hope we can maintain  
our cordial terms long enough for the three of us to depart without  
having to burn anything down?"

Maheka raised one eyebrow. "That's it?"

"Unless you'd like us to stay for crumpets," Dog replied. We all rose,  
following his lead.

"One question. Which of you burned Ragara's house down?"

"We did," I replied, indicating myself and Clockwork Dog. "But it was  
his idea."

Maheka laughed and shook his head. "You must be stupid. Maybe crazy,  
but definitely stupid. Good bye, children. Do not come to see me again."

"Aw, does this mean we can't be buddies?" asked Angel.

"No."

We departed. A butler and a small horde of personal guards escorted us  
outside, and firmly locked the front gate behind us. Silhouetted by  
candle light, Maheka Aino watched us depart from a tower window. Once  
we were off his property, Dog bowed fluidly, and we hastened into  
Nibeldamt.

"So, what did you learn?" I asked him once we were under cover.

"Maheka's a liar, and Defile Perilous works for Ragara. At least  
Maheka wants us to think she does. Now that I think about it, the  
bruises on Ash Maiden's throat could have been made by a woman, though  
she would have been abnormally strong," Dog summarized.

"Might I ask-" I began.

"Maheka claims he never gets involved in personal feuds. Our feud is  
as personal as it gets, and he spoke to us. Especially given he let us  
in to see him the first time because we mentioned what we'd done to  
his competition. Afterwards he made a point to mention the northwoman,  
and imply he didn't involve himself. That's a hint Ragara did." Dog  
cut me off, getting to the point quickly. We were training him so well.

"So we go back to Mansion Ragara and do more violence upon him," I  
surmised. "That works for me."

"Not necessarily," Angel argued. "Maheka could be trying to manipulate  
us into just that. He only gains when we make trouble for Ragara."

"She has a point," Dog agreed with her. "This one didn't underestimate  
us nearly as badly as Ragara did. He might well be using us as  
disposable mercenaries, made all the better because he hasn't paid us  
anything. This is a good deal for him, and he knows it."

"And we have only his word that this 'Defile Perilous' is in any way  
connected with Frozen Thane, and through him Ash Maiden," Angel  
continued. "No one else has mentioned her."

"Oh. Damn." My simplistic plan of action fell apart before me.

"You must be tired," Dog observed. "Otherwise you wouldn't have missed that."

"I haven't been sleeping well," I understated. From there I changed  
the topic. "So all that was a waste?"

"Not a waste. We learned a great deal. Maheka's usable. He's willing  
to play the game to get what he wants, but he's a very cagey player.  
Should this lead about the ice walker woman pan out, we can probably  
rely on him to be consistently dishonest so long as it works for him.  
In addition, if we find ourselves in a bind, he might help us for the  
right price," Dog concluded.

"Not bad for pushing a bluff." Angel sounded pleased with herself. Her  
voice patted us all on the back.

"Pushing a bluff?" I asked.

"Ending, my leg is still all but broken, and walking without limping  
was damn near killing me. I wasn't talking like that because I was  
threatening him, but because my entire left side is in agony. And  
isn't your hand still broken?" she responded.

To be honest, I hadn't thought about it. "Yes, but Shogg stopped the  
bleeding."

"Maheka might well have been capable of putting all three of us down  
at once without too much of a problem. I have to admit, though, when  
you told him you it would be a pleasure to die, that was one of the  
best bits of acting I've seen. That probably tipped the balance in  
favor of dealing with us over fighting."

"Right," I agreed. "Acting."

They looked at me strangely.

"Let's get some sleep," Dog concluded. "It's been a long day."

That was the one thing I really didn't want to do, but couldn't  
convince them otherwise. Soon enough we found a deserted shack on the  
outskirts of town. Wrapped in our thick cloaks, we bedded down on  
dusty piles of rusted farm equipment. After they were snoring, I  
watched the door, playing mind games with myself to stay awake. In  
time I lost.

In silver moonlit fields of waving wheat high above the clouds that  
boiled against the mountains like a frothy sea I walked with a girl  
I'd just met. Here and there the obsidian shards of Jaggerfall's great  
towers lanced above the mists far below us. On this meadow only the  
resilient blue wheat could grow. Even the lichens of lower altitudes  
couldn't cling to the stones. But the azure seed heads beat against my  
thighs in the relentless winds, reminding me that something survived  
here. I had just come to Highmere with my master, and the girl was the  
first person I'd met.

"Why don't you like talking about your past?" she had asked me. Her  
hair was the color of sunshine.

"Why don't you like talking about your name?" I countered. It was hard  
to keep track of what was the dream, and what was a memory.

"I don't like it much," she admitted. "It sounded nice, but the more I  
think about it, the less I like it."

"It's a beautiful name. It's quiet, but mysterious," I told her.

"What good comes from ashes?" she pouted. "Nothing. Ash is what's left  
over when good things burn up."

"Well, at least you still have the maiden part," I retorted, flicking  
her lower lip. It completely ruined her attempt at looking petulant,  
and she knew it. In retaliation she stopped ignoring my disinclination  
to answer her first question.

"So, where did you live before you came here?" she probed.

"Somewhere else."

"Why did you leave?"

"To come here."

"Are you going to stay here?" she continued, refusing to either rise  
to the bait or be distracted.

"I might," I replied.

"Don't you like it here?" she asked.

"I like you."

She flushed and looked off over the mountains. Ash Maiden had never  
been good at taking compliments. "Then don't leave," she concluded  
simply. Wisps of gold hair entangled themselves in her lips and caught  
there. "Because if you like me, you won't leave me."

"Ending, dogs," whispered Angel in a sharp voice. She hadn't been  
there at the meadow. I hadn't even met her until much later. I twisted  
to look at her, and I saw her in ash covered clothes underneath a  
dirty sky. Franticly I looked away like a twisted Orpheus, but Ash  
Maiden was gone, and only Clockwork Dog was there, watching the street  
from a broken window. In the distance the howls of hounds echoed  
across the murky sky. The sun couldn't shine through the soot.

"Joy, the waking world," I lamented quietly. "How many, how far?"

"At least two. Maybe as many as six. I can't hear people. If they're  
after us, we need to leave."

"Of course they're after us," Dog interjected.

"Then we leave," I agreed with Angel. I stretched the kinks out of my  
back, and got ready to run. She had already packed up everything we had.

"What's the point?" Dog asked. "We can't outrun bloodhounds."

"Actually, we can," I disagreed. "It's hard, but possible. And if we  
can't do that, we can beat the dog handlers. But we need to go."

Dog and Angel exchanged another glance, identical to one I'd exchanged  
with Angel not a day before. She asked, "Are you sure about this?"

"Trust me," I replied. "Now hurry."

We broke from cover and raced down a street. The wind was coming from  
the east, over the river, which suited my purpose just fine. We went  
upwind to the docks, plunged into the water icy cold with glacial  
runoff, and swam downstream. In the water our filthy cloaks pulled us  
down, and we shucked them. By the time we made it to the far bank, my  
muscles were cold and tired. We scaled the steep bank, and put some  
distance between us and the town.

Our lead had stretched to perhaps three hours when we saw several  
rowboats laden with men and hounds punt across the fast flowing river.  
We were going north along the line of a ridge, letting the wind come  
from the side and blow most of our scent away. While the baying grew  
louder from behind us, we gained elevation until my temples throbbed  
like nails piercing towards my brain. Once on the ridge line we fled,  
always seeking a harder path. A two foot step was tiring for us, but  
would force a bloodhound to detour. By the time the posse broke open  
terrain and stood silhouetted against the sky, we were miles ahead,  
running down a gorge. The wind tore up past us, hurling along until it  
merged with the open sky. High cross winds caught it there, daubing  
traces of it against the mountain tops.

Not far down the gorge was a shadowed patch of snow, protected from  
the burning sun by a naked stone arrat. On the far side, another ridge  
climbed back into the sky, while small creeks of snow melt collected  
around its edges, flowing downhill. We followed one down until it  
entered a defile like the one we'd just quit before doubling back and  
heading to the ridge. Once there, the wind came from the other side of  
the mountain. We left a second false path plunging into a ravine where  
the wind shrieked downhill. It would carry our scent far below, where  
the gorge opened up onto an alpine meadow. The trackers would need to  
take the hounds all the way down to be sure we hadn't gone that way.  
Meanwhile, on the ridge top, we chose shoulders and prominences that  
lead us always into the wind, walking on rock as much as possible. It  
was exhausting, made worse because we had no water or food.

This far from Nibeldamt the clouds of smoke ended, letting sunlight  
finally through. Our clothes dried in the powerful winds of the high  
mountains. While we saved most of our breath for the run, occasionally  
one of us would point out some natural feature that rose in stark  
isolation against the sky. No people lived here, few animals, and the  
plants that could endure fought against the environment in a perpetual  
struggle. When the sun was directly over head we looked back and  
couldn't see any of our pursuit.

"Think we lost them?" Angel asked.

"No. The handlers are resting their beasts. They should have brought  
food and water for all. But they can't afford to waste too much time,  
because even a bloodhound's nose will lose a trail after a while." I  
scanned the sky, hoping for traces of rain which would well and truly  
finish our pursuit. There were none.

"Food and water would be good for us too," Dog observed. "This high up  
the dry air will suck the moisture from our bodies."

"I know. I'm thinking," I replied.

"Ending, can we really outrun bloodhounds?" Angel asked. The strain  
was cracking her composure, letting doubts seep to the surface.

I looked at her, then sat down for a breather. "If you're going to  
beat a dog team, you do one of three things. Beat the dog, beat the  
handler, or beat the handler's trust of the dog. If you can, you do  
all three. Every false path we leave means the dogs have to check a  
little further then we go. In addition, some of the animals will be  
fooled, and some won't. The handlers see the division in the pack and  
think they're losing the trail, and then the humans get tempted to  
override the dogs' noses. People will start arguing. Animals will get  
weary. As long as we give them no reinforcement, they're lose morale  
slowly. Plus, in the mountains, the rocks will hurt the pads of a  
dog's foot, making it go slowly and pick its way. The handlers can't  
go ahead, and when the going is easy, the dog's are held back to the  
pace of their two footed companions."

"But can it really work?" Dog asked. "A bloodhound can follow a trail  
that's weeks old. Even all this will only delay the inevitable."

"I'm here, aren't I?" I shrugged. "This isn't the first time someone's  
sicked dogs on me."

"You didn't lead a very honest life before coming to Highmere, did  
you?" he observed.

"And you lead one where you rubbed elbows with Dynasts," I countered.  
"Listen, this isn't a battle of wits or wills. It's just stamina. If  
we can keep going long enough, they will lose our scent. All we need  
to do is keep leaving false trails and running."

"Terrestrials," Dog corrected me absently. Still, he rose and  
stretched. With a smile and a shrug he added, "All right then, let's  
go."

"Ending, I've been chased by dogs too," Angel said softly. "It didn't  
work out so well for me."

"This time it will," I assured her. I pointed at a neighboring ridge.  
"Now we'll head to that patch of snow there. We can drink some of the  
melt."

At the next juncture we split and left false trails across two  
ridgelines and down a cut. Choosing to head downwind, we actually  
followed the nastiest ridgeline, leading to high crags filled with  
hollows that the wind would saturate with our scent. We broke off  
suddenly and took a goat trail down that kept the wind at our backs.  
Hopefully our pursuers wouldn't be able to tell our scent wasn't just  
pushed down by the wind until they had to back track. At the bottom of  
the goat trail, we found a tiny stream. It was big enough to slake our  
thirsts and little more. Small berries grew in bunches along the  
waterway, but none of us recognized them. We didn't eat to the  
complaints of our empty stomachs.

While we rested, the winds carried the echoes of baying hounds across  
the mountains. The dells seemed filled with phantom hunting packs, and  
they called to each other across the open sky. We grew quiet for a  
moment, listening.

"They're calling to their own echoes," Dog suddenly concluded. "They  
don't know it's the sound of their own barking thrown back at them."

"How far?" Angel asked.

"Maybe a mile. Maybe less," he judged.

Our lead had been cut to less than half, in spite of my precautions. I  
wanted to swear, but couldn't waste the breath. "Come on. I have a few  
tricks left up my sleeve."

Giving up any pretense of subtlety, we raced down a rocky shoulder,  
keeping off the crest. The pack behind us was baying loudly. Confused  
animals were crying at the rocks, while their masters tried to make  
sense of dog cries. We skirted the edge of the snow field to open  
grass, heading upwind. That plunged into a narrow dell, shadowed by  
the lofty peaks in the evening. We made it to the bottom by the time  
the posse sorted out our false trails. Once they started down, our  
scent would be plain as day, but there was no help for that. They were  
too close for tricks.

"These guys are good," I judged.

"Yeah. It's almost like we angered someone with enough money to hire  
the best trackers," Dog wryly quipped.

"Who would do such a thing?" Angel asked, seeming shocked.

"Bad people," I told her. "Bad people who would set fire to the grass.  
Let them breath smoke."

Without a word, Clockwork Dog pulled out his flint and steel. Angel  
and I grabbed dry grass and shredded it. Soon we had a bed of tinder,  
and caught sparks. It began to smolder, then sizzle, and soon tiny  
licks of flame emerged from their dry nest to feed on the wild grass  
around. The winds kissed the fire, building it up, until smoke spread  
out from where we stood in an expanding half circle. It spread up and  
down the mountain side, hemmed by the rocks above and snow filled  
shadows below. The trackers came around a corner and spotted us, but  
between us was a racing blaze. They turned and fled, chased in turn by  
a grass fire.

"Oddly fitting, to use fire to deter pursuit by men hired by a crimson  
dragon," Dog observed with detached amusement. We set off again.  
Angel's limp was coming back. It had faded for a while when we first  
set out, but the reprieve granted her by a night's sleep was wearing  
off. In spite of the success of the fire gambit, I began to worry.

Our dell was a cleft between two ridges, each topped with stony  
spines. Neither was snow capped but would retain snow in patches until  
late summer where the shoulders blocked the sun, and left deep shadows  
year round. The patch above us was melting as the wildfire swept  
around it, pouring water down across burnt terrain. Only the roots of  
the grass remained. I stared around for a while, then looked at my  
companions. Speckled with grime, they were resolute. All of us were  
exhausted. We looked beaten in body. Still, there was no trace of  
resignation or despair. Dog only worried about Angel, and she would  
accept my words. If necessary, she'd run herself to death. The dirty  
water of the river Meander mixed with soot from the foundries, and  
tattooed us like mad savages. The image was apt.

I cocked my head, and watched the smoke blow in the wind. It raced  
east, both the way we came, and down the dell, towards lower ground.  
The snowfield was still melting above us.

"Come on. I have another idea."

We buried ourselves in dirty snow. It was loosely covered in soot from  
the grass fire, turning the surface opaque. I piled snow on Dog and  
Angel, and then entombed myself. Our smell must have been mostly ash  
and sweat, hopefully overshadowed by the fire. I thought the hounds  
might lose our scent, and seek down the dell, searching for us in a  
false path like the many we'd left before. Besides, it would be dark  
soon. The hounds would need to sleep.

Not long after we had hidden ourselves, we heard the tentative howls  
of the dog teams. They approached after the fires blew out, and  
searched the burn sight for a while. We stayed still, waiting.  
Eventually, they headed away, and the sounds of dog and man faded.

We broached the surface, busting upwards into twilight. There was no  
one around. Short smiles were exchanged, and then we fled back uphill.  
The stone spine of the ridge carried us downwind, and the setting sun  
lit the world in garish relief. Once it sank below the far reaches of  
Creation, we marched by starlight. Three hours later we finally curled  
up in a pile and slept like the dead.

Dawn broke. Pieces of it went everywhere. I dragged myself from the  
huddle and into the cold morning air. Behind me, Dog was curled into a  
ball, while Angel lay draped across him, gnawing on the back of his  
head in her sleep. We'd eaten nothing since the berries Shogg had  
provided, and that was days ago. With luck the trackers would be just  
setting out to reacquire our trail, and they wouldn't find it until  
noon. My sleep had not been dreamless, and being active provided me  
some relief from recalling the nocturnal visions. I scavenged for  
roots and edible flowers, and by the time the others awoke had three  
small piles ready. They would digest slowly, giving us the feeling of  
being full for hours. We drank snow melt, and stared off into the  
mountains, watching the morning sun on the clouds.

"What's the plan? Another day of running through the mountains?" Dog asked.

"No point in that," I admitted. "Sooner or later trackers will realize  
they don't need to follow us. They know where we're going, and can  
just wait for us back at Nibeldamt."

"So, what next?" Dog reiterated.

"We go to Nibeldamt first," Angel answered before I could. "We've left  
enough fake trails to keep them occupied while we make a mad dash for  
the city. Once we get there we find Frozen Thane, and ask him  
questions about Defile Perilous and Ash Maiden. Both Ragara and Maheka  
are stonewalling us, maybe the Ice Walker will spill some  
information." Clearly she and I were thinking the same way.

"Shouldn't we go hide somewhere and lick our wounds?" Dog suggested.

"That's just what they expect us to do," I declined.

"Because that's the only plan that isn't stupid," Dog rebutted.

I shrugged. Angel looked off into the distance, distracted by the  
interplay of light and shadow across the naked stone of the mountains.  
"There's food in town. Water too. We need that," she said absently.

"Anything else is just a distraction," I told him. "Ragara knows we'll  
be back. The longer we wait, the more chance we give his wife and  
their personal army to return. Time is against us."

"But we're half dead!" Dog exclaimed. "Angel, you can't walk! I  
haven't seen Ending use his right hand in two days. You shattered  
every bone in your hand when you hit him, and his jaw healed almost  
instantly. We can't hurt this guy!" Desperation that Dog had been  
keeping at bay through willpower alone was getting the best of him,  
working its insidious damage when he was weak with hunger.  "What can  
we do?"

"What can we do now?" I asked very softly, keeping my voice low in an  
attempt to make him lower his own. "What if we find out Ragara  
actually did it? What if it's his fault, and we need to kill him? What  
then?"

"What if his wife is stronger than he is?" Angel continued. "What if  
we can't finish his until she returns, and they put an army between  
them and us, equipped better than we are, better fed, better armed,  
and outnumber us twenty to one? What then, Dog?"

"I don't know!" he lamented. "I don't know what to do. I can't figure  
out any way we win."

Angel rose and walked over to him. He was perched on a small rock with  
his head in his hands, exhausted. Sinking down beside him, Angel  
wrapped one of her arms over his shoulders and pulled him gently  
against her. Dog didn't resist.

"Dear, we knew the odds to begin with. We knew we were up against  
forces so far beyond us we aren't even playing the same sport. We knew  
this," she reminded him softly.

"I don't think I can watch you die," he responded quietly. "I can go  
myself, but I can't watch you get beaten to death."

"You always were more compassionate," I told him. I slid over until I  
was sitting with the two of them, making a visible show solidarity.  
"Angel is brave. I'm just a maniac."

"Determined, Ending. You're the determined one," Angel chided me.

"But what can we do against that? Against terrestrials?" Dog asked.

"Whatever we have to," I answered. "We find our strengths, and their  
weaknesses. Maheka never would have spoken to us if we'd played his  
game, but he did. We find a way to make ourselves greater, and hit  
them while they're weak. Besides, we don't even know if Ragara did it.  
Maybe he just knows something. We won't fight him if we don't have to."

Dog sat very still for a long time, his palms pressed against his  
head. Finally he looked up at us. He stared at Angel, and then said to  
me, "Fine. I'll follow you to the end, till we find Bright Leaf's  
truth in your name. I said I would, and I will keep that word. But if  
we have to fight one of them again, I go first. I can't watch, if  
there's nothing I can do against the Dynast."

"That's very brave," Angel told him.

"Not really," he denied. "I'm more scared of watching you get hurt  
than dying."

"There're two ways to deal with fear," she explained. "You're taking  
the noble one. Don't be ashamed of fear, because that just means  
you're sane. Even if it feels like it emasculates you, don't worry,  
for we feel the same."

"He doesn't," Dog argued, but there was a touch of his own self in his  
words. He indicated me with his head as he spoke.

"Well, I said fear means you're sane," Angel replied urbanely. "We  
don't accuse The Ending of sanity very often."

"I think I'm insulted," I observed without feeling it. For a moment I  
thought I would have to do this without him, and that did frighten me.

"The truth hurts," Dog replied. With a grunt, he rose and shook  
himself like his namesake. "Whatever. Let's get on with it."

"After that touching display of affection, I'm almost ashamed to  
interrupt," interjected a new voice. Our heads snapped towards the  
east, where a man stood. He'd come from the direction of the sun,  
hidden by the dawn's light. Now he stood on a rock, outlined against a  
white sky. Dirty leather pants were tucked into dirty leather boots,  
under a shirt of dirty leather. He had a wide sun hat, and a short,  
light sword rode on his hip. Across his back was a bow and a quiver of  
hunting arrows. His beard was scraggly and unkempt, and couldn't be  
determined from his hair. Oddly, it had a natural look to it, down  
brown like tree bark. His eyes were a piercing green, that showed none  
of the disregard of his outwards appearance. When he spoke he showed  
his teeth, pure white, also presenting a contrast to his filthy  
appearance. "But I must. I've been hired by the town of Nibeldamt to  
arrest you three, so that's why I'm here."

"On what charges?" Dog snapped. There was some fire in him again.

"The murder of Serenading Thrush," he replied.

"We never hurt him!" I retorted.

"I don't care," the mountain man replied. "But you're under arrest all  
the same."

"And what if we don't go willingly?" Angel asked very softly in her  
impending murder voice.

"Then we do this the fun way, the way your compatriot just tearfully  
admitted he didn't want to see," the tracker replied. With a grin, he  
drew his short heavy blade. "I'm taking you in, but if we have to wait  
until the others finally get past that maze of false trails you left,  
you don't have to walk. I'll happily put you down so you can't walk."

Angel rose as well, and fluidly slipped the sword she'd taken from  
Serenading Thrush's guard from its sheath. She put Dog behind her and  
stepped into a guard stance.

"You carry his weapons, and yet you protest your innocence?" he asked.  
"Well, at least that will ease my conscience."

"My name is Fall of Angels. Neither I nor my two companions has  
injured Serenading Thrush in anyway, for I have been with them every  
moment since I saw him alive and free. But I will not go willingly."

"Angel, please," interrupted Dog. "Don't make me watch this."

"Don't worry," she replied. "I think I can take one mountain man."  
Without further word, they came together.

The crash of steel on steel rocked the mountains, and waves of sound  
ricocheted from the peaks. The mountaineer was fast and elusive, while  
Angel could barely move, forced to fight statically by her bad leg.  
But their blades whipped back and forth, tracing patterns of sparks in  
the morning air. Their weapons whistled like songbirds. Finally her  
attacker tumbled backwards and rolled out of range.

"God, woman," he exclaimed as he got to his feet. Were she healthy he  
never would of made it, but now Angel listed to her right when she  
stood, favoring her back leg.

"If you leave now, we won't chase you," she told him. "We bear you no grudge."

"No, I don't think so," he replied, carefully getting to his feet. "I  
won't suffer three murderers to escape."

"We didn't kill him," I said. "When he left us at the gates of  
Maheka's mansion, he was hale and healthy. The guards will tell you  
that."

"And after you left house Maheka you strangled him and dumped him in  
the river," the tracker countered. "You broke into his house and found  
his strong box the first time, and then you forced the secret of  
opening it from him before you killed him. You've even got his weapons."

"Then why would we have strangled him?" interjected Dog. "We would  
have just run him through."

"I don't know. But I also don't care," he replied.

"Was he strangled by a woman?" I suddenly asked. Pieces were falling  
together in my head.

"Probably her, to cover her tracks," he replied.

"No, not her. But a woman would have small hands," I replied.

"Whatever that means," the tracker dismissed my statement. "But I'm  
not going to let you keep murdering people, regardless of whether  
you're greedy or crazy. You're coming with me, now."

"No," Angel replied. "We're not. And you're going to need to be much  
better than that to take us."

The tracker smiled. "Much better? Very well then. My name is Beast of  
the Oak Forest. And while you may know a celestial form, child, skill  
only does so much without power behind it. Let me show you power."

"Oh, no," someone whispered. I'm not entirely sure who. Beast of the  
Oak Forest suddenly exploded in leaves and twisting vines, and his  
eyes blazed with brilliant green light. The grass under his feet  
writhed and straining upwards, growing preternaturally fast and  
reaching for the light of his aura. Ragara had hired the best money  
could find. Angel withstood the assault for only a few seconds before  
she dropped. Dog threw himself over her, but the tracker beat him  
unconscious with his sword pommel. Every stroke was perfect, a  
testament to Terrestrial power. While he was distracted I leaped onto  
his back. I lasted no better, but before I went down I sank my teeth  
into the Wood Aspect's leg. He didn't even have to beat me  
unconscious. Instead he just turned up the power of his anima until I  
could see Essence racing through his veins like ancient tree roots  
burrowing through the earth. The might blasted my face away and left  
me dazed and concussed.

"Murderer," he whispered and took my consciousness with his boot.




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