Always Return Part III

It ended, and we lay together like youngsters following their first time, entwined on the icy floor. My breath misted in the chill air. Am’aleh had no need to breathe, but she exhaled all the same, giving life to my cloud of steam. It swirled into the shape of a ship with ghostly sails, carving an eldritch wake through the air above us.

“I am glad you returned to me this night. There is a task I would set before you.” She spoke as a cloud meanders through the sky, slow and delicate yet insistent.

“I am yours to command.” Waning waves of bliss still washed through my body.

“A group of treasure hunters discovered an ancient artifact in the catacombs of Scara Brae. It is on a ship bound for Gisela. I would have you intercept this ship, and steal the artifact.”

“What manner of artifact attracts the attention of the great Am’aleh?”

The goddess hesitated, and then floated up in a halo of sparkling steam and sat in her intricate throne. I stood, finding myself suddenly clothed again, and sat in my simple chair facing her.

“It is a relic as old as time itself. A collar and manacles, called the Thaynebinder.”

Thaynebinder. That lone word hung in the air like an unholy curse. I did not need to ask after the abilities of such an artifact.

“If this relic falls into the wrong hands on Corone, it could be devastating… for me, or for one of my brethren. It is too powerful an item to tarry in the hands of mortals. You must steal the Thaynebinder, and cast it into the sea.”

“What is the name of the ship that bears this precious cargo?”

“The Deadman’s Trove.”

I drew a sharp breath. I had bought passage on the Trove in the past. The pirate ship kept finding ways into my life. The corsairs who crewed her boasted of their discretion, and their determination to finish every job they received. Whoever hired them to transport the relic had chosen wisely. Doubtlessly they would deliver the artifact on time… unless someone stopped them at sea.

“Your whim commands me. I will do as you have asked, on one condition. When the Thaynebinder sleeps on the bottom of the ocean, we will speak of the ways in which one rises to godliness.”

“We will speak of it.” Her form of still water shifted with the slightest nod. “Go now… I will send a friendly current to carry you on your way.”

Her body bubbled and boiled and then burst into a thousand tiny droplets. The floating fortress of ice vanished along with it, and I dropped into the ocean with barely a splash. The current clutched me, sending me out to sea. I swam with it, kicking powerfully and pulling stroke after stroke toward my unseen destination.


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Always Return Part II

Bliss entered my body through the crown of my skull and the base of my loins. Pure pleasure overwhelmed me as I lay back in the buoyant sea. Power flooded into me, my connection with the Tap repaired. I raised my hands and expelled a torrent of molten ice. It rose around me deliberately, forming into a small house, or maybe a boat; a floating fishing hut with a hole carved in the bottom. The sea buoyed me upward and I rolled onto the floor of the icecraft dwelling, examining my own handiwork. The floor stretched perhaps four yards by four, the hole occupying half of the space. The walls rose in intricate blue layers, the ceiling curving toward a single spire. I fashioned myself a simple chair of ice and sat comfortably.

Am’aleh rose in my wake, a whorl of liquid ice and solid water, a reverse cascade of brilliant colors. She took on the shape of a woman, her skin soft shades of blue, her hair so light it shone almost silver, her face masklike perfection. Her mane floated in a breeze that was not there, and she sat in a crystalline throne as it took shape beneath her.

Her radiance demanded no groveling… just a worship of a different kind. The hole in the floor between us closed and we stood, meeting in the middle of the floating hut.

“Is this the castle you offer your goddess?” Her voice, like water whispering around the docks at dawn, echoed in my ears.

“Why would you sap my powers?” I demanded.

“I did no such thing,” came the flowing reply.

“Then why did I lose my ability to manipulate water? Why did my connection with the Tap turn from a torrid flood to a stymied trickle?”

“Perhaps this limitation has always been in place,” the words danced past her azure lips, “you never used to leave me alone for so long.”

I frowned, the Y-shaped scars on my cheeks wrinkling. She was right. Before I met McKinley, I had never gone a week without swimming in the ocean. Certainly not since Am’aleh first gave me her blessings. The ritual had felt natural and healthy… I had no idea it might be necessary.

“When will I have a chance at true power of my own?” I asked, “when will my magic stop being borrowed from your grace?”

“When will the sea stop lapping at the shore? You already wield a great many powers of your own. Combined with the magic I lend you, you approach godhood. What more could you ask for?”

“I will always want more. Until I stand on even footing with the Thaynes, I remain ravenous.”

“Then feast,” she said, wrapping arms of still water around me, “and drink.” She tilted her effervescent face upward and leaned in. Her liquid lips kissed mine until I lost all track of time and space. She lifted away doubt and worry like burdens from my shoulders. I could be the breath of vapor ascending the heavens. I could be the typhoon that sweeps the lands clean for new growth to flourish. I could be the mighty waterfall, with my own pool of fish swimming far below.

My clothing dissolved beneath her will and we made love on the icy floor, a goddess and a demigod locked in liquid embrace. We rose like the tide and fell like rain, joining like the currents and bursting like geysers. It lasted for days and weeks, or perhaps it lasted for minutes, or seconds. It mattered little. For a time we existed as one great being of pure passion and power.


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Always Return Part I

Water always returned to the sea. In rain, in sleet, in rivers and streams it flowed. Through impenetrable bedrock and packed earth it bored, patient as time almighty. Past boulders and forests and cities it burbled. Always maintaining one mistress in mind… the great salt ocean that cradled each drop sweetly, before allowing it to ascend the heavens in purifying evaporation.

At times, I felt as insignificant as a single raindrop. Despite the confident gleam in my eyes, despite the steely muscles in my body, despite the godlike powers that waited on my whims… I could be a lonely bead of moisture on the canvas of a sweat-tent in Fallien. I could be a minute mouthful drunk by a Dur’Taigen from a river in the Red Forest of Raiaera. I could be a molecule on the bottom of the ocean, kept from ascension by the pressing weight of water above. She made me more… the immortal and indomitable she, the lady of the sea… my goddess, Am’aleh.

The last words she’d spoken haunted my memory as I lay in bed next to McKinley Parish. My mortal lover slept soundly, her auburn hair in disarray around a beautiful cream-colored face. Her innocence attracted me, her need of a strong man stayed me at her side. Her hunger for me electrified each pore of my skin, and her trust and devotion made me proud. Even so, she could not claim my whole heart… a part of me forever belonged to my goddess.

Always return to me… Am’aleh’s voice, as soothing as drizzle in the treetops, echoed in my mind. Weeks had passed since last I felt her endless embrace. In that time my connection to the Eternal Tap dwindled, and my affinity for water and ice magic failed. I felt like a kinked hose. Power flowed into me with each breath, and lingered, finding no release.

Sitting up slowly, I kissed McKinley on her forehead. The young woman’s lips parted slightly, and then she rolled over, still deeply asleep. I slid out of bed and padded silently across the room, naked and comfortable in my lover’s cottage. I drew on a pair of black sifan pants and a matching shirt, fastening the buttons with fingers that moved faster than eyes could follow. I stepped into my black metal boots… the Breaker Boots, given my namesake by the alchemist who created them. They whispered over the wooden floors as I approached the back door. McKinley’s dire wolf always slept by the front.

The breeze plucked at my clothing and ruffled my short brown hair as I closed the door. Stars stared down from the sky in imitation of the moon’s silver light, a thousand fractured fragments from a thousand ethereal mirrors. I rubbed a callused hand through the stubble on my chin and over the Y-shaped scars on my cheeks. I could smell the ocean on the wind through the forest’s earthy aromas. The scent of salt called to me like a lover’s curled finger.

I walked through the meadow surrounding Kinley’s cottage, haste urging each step to carry me faster and further. I broke into a run as I reached the woodland path, loam crunching beneath the Breaker Boots, leaves and motes of dust swirling in my slipstream. I raced through Concordia like lightning lancing through the night sky, grounding with every step. Soon I could hear the crash and roar of the ocean… never silent, never restful, always waiting.

Always return to me… Am’aleh’s words filled my mind, forming a desire as singular as any addict’s cravings. I kicked my boots off on the beach and dove into the surf, tasting my lady’s salty sweetness in my nose and mouth. Her arms surrounded me, her touch a gentle but steadying caress. Her love lifted me, buoying both body and spirit, until I surfaced some hundred yards offshore. The waves and currents had a soft feminine voice that spoke for my ears alone.

You stayed away longer than expected.

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The Death of a Deity Part V


The fearsome beating of the dragon’s wings battered the name from Breaker’s mouth. He and Shinsou both recoiled, covering their eyes against the silt raised by the whirling winds. Above them, the deity wheeled and dove, like a hawk spotting a mouse, exposed on the cliffs.

“You had to go and pick a fight with Thayne, eh?” Shinsou yelled, drawing Stygian and channeling a measure of dark matter into the blade. “Here,” he tossed the mythril sword to Josh, “see how the big f*cker likes a taste of the Widowmaker!”

Breaker reared back and threw the sword at the diving dragon. It spiraled skyward like reverse chain lightning, scoring a hit deep in the soft tissue of Draconus’ eye. The deity roared and reared out of the dive, wings beating heavily once more to keep him aloft as he clawed at the seeping wound.

“It’s now or never!” Shinsou called over the wind. “That blade will stop him healing, but not for long.”

As if hearing the words, Draconus looked earthward and belched a long plume of acrid fire. Josh and Shinsou dove out of the way and crafted a barrier of ice between them and what became a roiling lava pit. Frost flew from all four of their palms, forming a slightly curved wall. A pillar of steam rose from the place where heat met cold, obscuring the deity’s good eye.

“I could use a lift about now,” Josh uttered, and began to change the shape of their icecraft.

“Coming right up,” Shinsou replied, lending his own brand of magic.

The frozen wall re-shaped into a tall flight of stairs. Josh leaped forward and pounded up the steps, his enchanted boots giving him perfect traction on the slippery surface. Each footfall reminded him of the burns on his feet, and of the ache that Draconus’ kick had chiseled deep into his bones. They reminded him of Am’aleh, who granted him the gift of magic. They reminded him of Shinsou, whose life was equally at risk.

Breaker reached the top of the staircase and jumped with all of his might. He soared upward, drawing close to Draconus, but not close enough. He extended a hand as he reached the apex of his jump and crafted a long whip of molten ice. It snapped up and wrapped around the dragon’s massive, scaly neck. Hand over hand Josh climbed the whip, until he clung from one of the broad spikes that bristled along the beast’s back.

You cannot defeat me. The simple confidence of the thought nearly unnerved the demigod.

“Others have said the same!” Josh roared in the dragon’s ear.

You have never faced a Thayne.

“No,” Josh said, “but I have loved one.”

He vaulted onto Draconus’ back and leaped skyward once more, flipping faster than a tossed coin. As he rose above the dragon two balls of ice formed in his palms, and he poured his own unique energy into each of them. As he descended, still corkscrewing and gaining momentum, he cast the iceballs at Draconus’ wings. They exploded with more power than Alerian hand grenades, causing both wings to instinctively fold in defense.

And then Breaker struck the top of the dragon’s head with both boots. As the blow landed the boots grew heavier, each by a hundred pounds. Josh summoned an unnatural gust of wind to aid him, adding more pressure to the base of the deity’s skull.

Draconus fell like a cannon detached from an airship. He plummeted like a stone thrown down a well. He dropped straight and fast, headfirst toward the sandstone cliffs. His mighty wings flared, but too late, and too weakly to stop such momentum. His skull impacted the soft rock like an asteroid, creating a crater of obliteration and casting up a cloud of sand and dust. Breaker felt the deity’s neck crack beneath his boots at the moment of impact, and as the dust and debris settled, the dragon lay still.

Josh slid down the scaly snout and retrieved Stygian from the ruined eye. Its twin had glossed over, massive and yellow, staring lifelessly off into the gathering darkness. Breaker climbed out of the crater and paced to where Shinsou stood a safe distance away. For once, the Telgradian appeared at a loss for words. Josh deftly flicked blood from the mythril blade and returned it to its owner.

“Well, fine then.” Shinsou huffed, finding his voice as he sheathed the sword. “But next time, I get to kill the dragon.”

Thayneslayer… the word came from the sea, distant and dreamy and distinctly feminine. Breaker would have recognized his lady’s voice anywhere.

My champion… Am’aleh was calling him. The breaking waves beckoned like a lover’s crooked finger. Josh took a step toward the ocean.

“Where are you going?” Shinsou demanded, “look,” he pointed toward Serenti, “we’ve got some explaining to do!”

People were beginning to trickle out from between buildings and behind walls, curious onlookers who had seen the dragon take to the sky, who had seen it fall, and stay fallen.

“Someone will need to take credit for all of this,” Josh said, “and I think you are just the man for the job.”

Shinsou sputtered, looking back and forth between the demigod, and the deity whose death he had helped bring about.

Before the Telgradian could protest, Breaker took two steps and dove off the cliffs and into the sea.


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The Death of a Deity Part IV

“Give it up, Fawcett. You could never run fast or far enough.”

Breaker cornered the slender telepath among the sandstone cliffs along the shore south of Serenti. Smooth pebbles crunched beneath black metal boots as he stalked the criminal. The wind made the man’s matted hair stand on end as it moaned in the mouth of a nearby cavern. With a final fearful glance over his shoulder, Fawcett dove for the cave.

“No you don’t!” Breaker caught his wasted ankle and dragged him backwards. Fingernails scrabbled futilely on rock, and then the telepath rolled over and pushed a thought.

Release me and throw yourself in the sea!

Josh laughed, a long, mirthless chuckle. So close to the ocean, the wax and wane of each wave sounded like Am’aleh’s sweet whisper. Fawcett’s thought glanced off of his adamantine will like an arrow striking stone. As the telepath rose the demigod dealt him a furious blow, a single thunderous punch to the chest. Fawcett’s heart skipped and stopped, and he crumpled on the shore, eyes glazing.

Come into my cavern.

The thought invaded Breaker’s mind like a battering ram sundering a gate. His knees trembled with the power of the words, and he turned toward the cave before he could think. He took a faltering step, and then another, and then stopped.

My mind is my own. My body is my own. No one shall move me but me.

Perhaps, the omnipotent voice said, but curiosity will carry you to me just the same.

Breaker bellied down and crawled into the cavern, finding space to stand almost immediately as the tunnel twisted and grew. It expanded into a sandstone lair. From around the corner power radiated, along with the low, steady rhythm of a great beast breathing. The sandstone walls seemed to expand and contract with each inhale and exhale. The power of the being pulsated like a glowing beacon in the darkness.

Despite the lack of light, Breaker’s sharp eyes showed him all as he rounded the corner. The tunnel widened monstrously to accommodate the bulk of a winged dragon. Black scales covered its massive, muscular body, and curved spikes protruded all the way down its spine and tail. Its fanged maw almost smiled down on him, and its front pair of clawed feet carved furrows in the sandstone floor.

“Draconus.” Breaker said with no question in his tone. Finding a dragon holed up in an impossible cave near Serenti could be no coincidence. Awed by the Thayne’s presence and the power he radiated, Josh stopped suddenly.

You have come far to find me here, Joshua Cronen. The voice was nearly enough to upset Breaker’s balance. May I assume all of my minions are dead?

“I’m confident they are,” the demigod said, still rooted to the spot. He thought of Shinsou, chasing after Rok. He thought of the silver-masked woman, chained in the watchtower. “All save one minion of your minions. We’ll deal with her after I’ve finished with you.” He took a single step forward, feeling like he was fighting a waterfall.

They were always a means to an end, the Thayne replied, each word a piston striking Josh’s mind, you have proven yourself in defeating them, and they have brought you to me. All is as it should be.

“You expect me to believe this is all some grand design?” Josh tried to sneer, but awe crept into his tone. “Am’aleh has guided me on this path. She would not play me into your claws.”

Am’aleh is of the lesser Thayne, the voice said disdainfully, she sees but what I will.

“Impossible,” Breaker breathed, “I know why you broke the convicts out of Terrinore. Am’aleh’s influence has grown these past few years. She is becoming the one and true deity of the sea… and you are just a forgotten remnant.”

The dragon’s roar shook the cavern. Putrid breath nearly knocked Josh off his feet, and small gouts of orange flame crackled from the fanged maw.

After you have joined me, Draconus said, you will watch in approval as I strike Am’aleh down.

“Then I guess I’d better kill you here.” Josh growled. His hazel eyes narrowed and his neck and cheeks flushed. He bent his powerful legs, legs that had felt frozen moments earlier, and leaped mightily at the dragon. He rose upward with dank air whistling through his ears, rolling his shoulder back. At the top of his arc he arrived in front of the dragon’s horse-sized head. His fist snapped forward, hammering Draconus’ snout with a downward haymaker. The demigod landed in front of the deity as the dragon’s head lolled to one side.

Is that your best blow? Draconus inquired. Disappointing.

The Thayne responded with a front snap kick from one of his tree-trunk legs. Josh attempted to leap away but the swift kick caught him in the sternum, shooting him upward like a ball from a cannon. He burst through the sandstone ceiling, body and mind ringing with the impact. He tumbled through fresh sea air, through the gathering darkness, and splashed into the salty shallows.

The earth quaked in his wake. A great tremor ran out in all directions, and then the sandstone cliffs split open and Draconus rose up, scaled wings flapping like canvas sails. The dragon flew out of the rift he’d created and landed with a ground-shaking thud in the shallows nearby.

Breaker struggled to rise, folding one knee beneath his body and pressing up with his arms and legs. His chest felt as if it had been struck by a trebuchet. He coughed up water that had found its way into his lungs and forced himself to his feet.

I had thought we might work well together, Draconus said as the demigod straightened his posture, but I find your reputation is greater than the man himself. Such a pity. Such a waste of time and effort. The dragon took a breath that threatened to steal all the oxygen from the air, and then opened its maw and unleashed fire.

Liquid flame spilled out in a blast directed at Breaker. Against the ache in his chest he lifted both hands and pulled water up from around his ankles, extinguishing the torrent. Draconus roared and the deluge of fire became one of lava, red hot and boiling. Breaker twisted his palms skyward and his water became molten ice, flowing out to meet the magma in a growing cloud of steam and smoke. Inch by inch, the flow of ice faltered, and the cloud of vapor crept closer to Breaker. Inch by inch, the demigod’s strength waned, until he could feel the heat of the lava on his forearms.

With a roar to match the dragon’s Breaker redoubled his efforts, but nothing he did could overcome the Thayne’s endless torrent of roiling rage.

Am’aleh help me, he thought, feeling his goddess’ touch in the water around his ankles, for I fear no one else can.


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The Death of a Deity Part III

Through the outskirts of Serenti wound a long, deep offshoot of the Firewine River. The channel meandered around corners and flowed under bridges, its surface dappled by rainfall. Beneath one broad bridge perhaps two hundred yards east of where the river emptied into the sea, a shadow formed beneath the water. It molded into the shape of a man as he swam up from the depths. But this was no ordinary man.

Joshua Cronen’s head broke the surface of the water silently and he drew in a deep, even breath. The Y-shaped scars on his cheeks glistened as he swam powerfully for the protected stone shore beneath the bridge, close-cropped hair plastered down around his head. He found handholds on the rocky ground and pulled himself out of the water, droplets cascading from his brown cotton breeches and black lace-up shirt. His black metal boots left the water last. The enchanted footwear had slowed him down surprisingly little during the swim from the sea.

For a moment Breaker crouched beneath the bridge, listening to the rain and sniffing the air. This close to the ocean the could still smell the salt, and it reminded him of Am’aleh. Of late he had spent a significant amount of time with the Patron of the Sea, communing with her beneath the surface. A part of him longed to join her on the ethereal plain, to sink comfortably into her eternal embrace. But there would always be time for eternity… other matters, such as Olin Rutland’s presence in Serenti, could not be left to wait.

After the showdown with Smarteye Sam at his Temple to Draconus in Lornius, Breaker had done some research. He’d learned the names of the Terrinore escapees from reliable sources and visited an archivist in Gisela. He had not liked what he learned. All of the former prisoners were responsible for long lists of crimes, but none so notoriously as the Lunatic of Serenti. The last time he’d visited the pearl coasts Rutland had taken over the city by way of terror. Most memorable among his misdeeds was the time he’d staked twenty randomly selected citizens in town square and torched them to death, nearly burning down the city in the process.

Breaker ducked out from beneath the bridge and searched his surroundings with keen hazel eyes, listening for any sounds beyond the relentless drum roll of rainfall. He saw no one and heard nothing, so he moved swiftly across a cobbled street to press his back against the stone wall of an abandoned seamstress’ shop. If history was any indicator, by now the City Watch would be firmly within Rutland’s grips. For that reason Josh had arranged to meet Shinsou at a tavern near the city’s fringe. Am’aleh herself had carried the message, for Josh rarely entrusted his words to paper.

“-can’t bloody believe the captain dragged us out of bed for extra patrols in the rain.” A voice echoed around the corner. Josh slipped into an alleyway that smelled of stale garbage. He flattened his back against the wall behind a small shed meant for storing firewood and waited.

“Don’t I know it,” came a second voice, along with the sloshing footsteps of two sets of boots. “At the moment I truly wish I’d moved my wife and the children to Radasanth last summer. You don’t think the rumors are true, do you… about the Lunatic’s return?”

Through a knothole in his wooden hiding place Josh saw two men turn into the alley. They wore heavy cloaks with the insignia of the City Watch over chain mail armor. Both were of an average height and medium build, one young and the other older and scarred. The young man shook his head.

“Can’t be,” he said with the confidence of youth, “the captain wouldn’t work under such a-”

As the two guards passed his hiding place Breaker stood up suddenly between them. Their eyes widened in shock as his heavy hands landed on their necks. Josh squeezed gently, applying pressure to the arteries and veins either side of their throats. Both men clawed for their daggers but collapsed as blood flow to their brains was cut off.

Josh crouched and caught both guards as they fell, lifting their considerable combined weight on his broad shoulders. He walked a little deeper into the alley and kicked open a side door to the seamstress’ shop. Inside smelled of must and mildew, and he dumped the sleeping guards on the dusty floor. Finding old bits of cloth to bind their wrists and ankles proved easy, and he left them there and closed the door behind him as best he could. They would escape in time, but likely not before he had his meeting with Shinsou.

Back out in the rain, Breaker flitted through the streets like a ghost. He had confidence in Shinsou’s ability to invade the heavily guarded city. The man had more spells up his sleeve than a court-wizard and a uniquely clever mind, not to mention the resources of the Brotherhood of Castigars at his disposal. Josh liked Shinsou well and trusted the man implicitly. Although he had a somewhat checkered past, the Telgradian had forged a path to redemption at Breaker’s side.

The street outside The Seaman’s Shanty was blessedly empty, save for some soaked bits of trash blowing in the wind. Breaker entered through the main door and made directly for a corner table, sitting down without giving anyone a chance to recognize his abnormally scarred face. A serving girl came by to take his order and he turned away from her and asked for ale without any intention of drinking it. The place smelled of sawdust and sour wine. Fortunately only a few other patrons occupied the bar and tables. Breaker leaned back, producing a creak from the shifty chair, and waited for Shinsou.


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The Death of a Deity Part II

The day had dawned brightly for Olin Rutland, with a red-rimmed sun rising over the eastern sea. Serenti blossomed beautifully in autumn, especially when visited by Olin’s particular brand of chaos. In the month since he and his comrades escaped Terrinore Isle Rutland had returned to the site of his former glory, where years ago he’d tormented the citizens with his madness. The Lunatic of Serenti, they’d called him, and soon would again. Or perhaps he’d choose a different title… the Lord of Serenti, no the King, no… the Emperor. They would call him whatever he pleased once his hooks sunk deep enough into the city’s nervous center.

Olin swallowed a satisfying mouthful of morning ale and banged the empty tankard down on the fine teak tabletop. A serving girl stumbled over from the corner to refill his cup, nearly sloshing ale on the floor, her face drawn up in fear. She had belonged to the lord whose manor Olin had appropriated as his own, and he’d kept the staff on to suit his needs. He slapped the serving girl’s ass as she scooted back to the corner, eliciting a muffled thud from her skirts and a startled shriek from her mouth. He’d already sampled that particular morsel, and would again soon.

The Lunatic picked his teeth with a herringbone left over from breakfast and examined his reflection in the back of a polished silver spoon. His sallow cheeks had regained some ruddy color in the month since he escaped, and his face no longer looked gaunt with starvation. His wide green eyes still glowed with a familiar fervor. He remembered the pain and discomfort of prison all too well, and still woke in a sweat most nights expecting to find hard stone floors beneath him instead of the lord’s thick feather mattress. He shivered and took a long pull of ale, savoring the bitter brew.

The kitchen door banged open and Darrin Hornsby strode in, followed by the musty smell of the library he’d entered through. His heavy boots tracked mud across the clean tile floor. Olin would enjoy making his servants clean that up later, perhaps using nothing but their tongues. Judging by the expression on Hornsby’s face, however, he would not lack for entertainment that day.

The scarred enforcer looked grim even for him, with his white-seamed face drawn down in a deep frown. Olin smiled. Events that upset others – even events that upset his friends and allies – often amused the Lunatic. He licked his lips, savoring the final flavors of fish grease and ale, and gestured for Hornsby to sit at the small kitchen table.

The large, muscular man pulled back a chair and dumped his heavy frame down in it. He spared a quick glance for the pretty serving girl in the corner and then cleared his throat and reached inside his leather jacket. One callused hand produced a folded piece of parchment and placed it on the table. Hornsby slid the paper slowly across the teak surface, navigating a path between the platters containing the remnants of Olin’s breakfast.

“This just arrived from Smarteye,” Hornsby said in his deep, harsh voice. He tugged at his thick beard and raked a hand through disheveled dark hair, eyes blazing like coals. “Should scour that smile from your face,” he muttered darkly.

Following Roderick’s orders, Olin had brought Hornsby and Hackney with him to help take control of Serenti. Winchell Hackney, the old puppet master, was responsible for controlling the actions of the town guard’s captain. With the Watch in turmoil, Olin was free to create chaos throughout the prosperous city, leaving folks leaderless and on their knees, ready to beg for whatever scraps the Lunatic tossed their way. Hornsby’s job was to command Olin’s personal guard and keep the Lunatic alive, and his minor role in the operation clearly left a bitter taste in Hornsby’s mouth. Olin cared little for what went into Hornsby’s mouth… but the folded paper that came from the man’s hand caught his attention immediately.

Olin picked up the paper and unfolded it, and after a brief glance at the tidy scrawl on the page sighed and snapped his fingers. Nothing happened. The Lunatic growled and snapped his fingers again, twice and thrice. Suddenly the serving girl gasped and sprang into action, collecting a pair of half-moon spectacles from a nearby counter and presenting them to Olin with a curtsy. Rutland took the spectacles with a smile and then seized the girl’s hand and sank his teeth into her wrist, biting hard enough to draw blood.

The girl screamed and jumped away, gripping her wounded wrist as blood oozed between pretty pale fingers. She turned and fled, sobbing, to have a healer see to the bite. She would be back. Olin might not have trained her to be ready with his glasses yet, but she bloody well knew not to tarry in returning to his service, no matter what kind of mark he left on her.

Olin cleared his throat and wiped his lips with a linen napkin, and then perched the spectacles on his nose and shot a withering glare at Hornsby over the flats of the half-moons. The enforcer was gnawing at a thumbnail, knowing better than to look at Olin while he wore his glasses. With another unnecessary harrumph the Lunatic read the note.

My Dear Olin, it read in Smarteye Sam’s educated hand, if you are receiving this letter it is likely I am dead or captured. Roderick, of course, will have received the same news. I took the precaution of preparing these messages when I discovered two strange men poking around my Temple to Draconus in Lornius. I have since learned that their names are Shinsou Vaan Osiris and Joshua “Breaker” Cronen. Both have a list of tawdry titles and good deeds tied to their names, so there seems little doubt as to why they are interested in our operation. I have invited them into a trap which they will find too appealing to ignore, but like any good chess master, I always hold moves in reserve.

If you receive this my dear Olin, expect Osiris and Cronen at your doorstep before long. In my letter to Roderick I advised that all of you join forces, for if my enterprise in Lornius has fallen, it can only mean that these determined men will seek out the rest of our crew. Be ready for them, and take every precaution. They gained entrance to my temple with absolute ease, and had nearly discovered the source of my power before I interrupted them. Use all of the resources at your disposal to make them regret their insolence. If I am dead or captured… my final wish is for these two men to meet a painful demise at the hands of the Lunatic of Serenti.

Yours, Smarteye Sam.

Olin tossed the parchment onto the empty fish platter, where it slowly soaked up the grease coating the beige earthenware. So. Smarteye was dead, or worse imprisoned once again on Terrinore Isle. Olin felt no sadness for the loss of a friend. His lips curled into a wide smile, displaying his yellow teeth to Hornsby.

“You’ve read this?” Olin asked the enforcer, and got a terse nod in return. “I’ll want my personal guard doubled, and watch patrols tripled.” He raised a hand to quell any protest. “Tell Hackney, he will take care of it… spread the story that we’ve a pair of murderers and rapists on the loose. That will get the guards riled up and ready for blood. Release the names-” he peered at the greasy parchment on the platter – “Joshua Cronen and Shinsou Vaan Osiris. I want every man in Serenti who has eyes on the lookout.”

The Lunatic hummed a gleeful tune as he stood and danced about the table, clapping a bewildered Hornsby on his broad back.

“Don’t look so glum, don’t wear a frown!” Olin sang… “Two new playmates are coming to town!”



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