Sunday, 25 August 2013

The First Eyrie

"Owls," James said, a word that seemed, to Lester, to be pretty much apropos of nothing.

"Where?" Lester said, making a guess that Lester was referring to some owls that might be somewhere nearby.

"Here," James said. "Or at least they used to be. I recognise this place from pictures. It's the First Eyrie."

"Oh," Lester said. "Good. So how far until we get somewhere less... remote? Ideally a place that is less imbued with feelings of lurking menace."

"James!" Rachel cried out running over to join the pair standing among the perches on the enormous stone slab. "You're safe."

"Yes, uh, yes Rachel, I am safe and well," James said. Lester believed that he detected a note of awkwardness in James's voice.

Without even saying 'hello' or 'how do you do' Rachel dipped her hand into Lester's pocket and fished the mouse out. She held James up to her face, wreathed in smiles.

"Well," she said. "This has been a fine adventure, but I think, perhaps, it is time we found our way home."

"I couldn't agree more," James said.

"Well, we'll wait for the gnome to wake up and I'll get him to take us home, or we can just get some directions," Rachel said.

"You meant the Skull Garden, didn't you?" James asked.

"Well, that's home," Rachel said. "I think we've been wandering around for too long now, although, to be fair, I mostly stayed in Bridgetown Market, it was you that travelled."

"Yes, I did," James said. "And I discovered a few things."

"Oh yes," Rachel said. "Like what?"

"Like..." James gave the sentence a short run up but it appeared to be a particularly tall sentence so it wasn't enough. The words sank back down into his throat as soon as they'd emerged.

Lester swapped a glance with Eos, who looked back at him with a cold gaze. He had to remind himself that he'd been the one who had played along with keeping her in captivity, if only for about three hours. Three hours was plenty to liberate an imprisoned mermaid. No one felt the sting of that more than Lester, well, possibly Eos did.

Right at this moment, however, there was one more pressing emotional concern. James had remembered, during his time with Lester, that he was Rachel's father, transformed into this rodent form, memory wiped and dumped into the Skull Garden. This was bound to be a charged moment, Lester could feel the air of anticipation like a low charge of plasma squirming across his skin.

"Well," James said, Lester recognised the music of that syllable, it was the lost, confused and helpless tone that Lester found so irritating in himself. "I remembered that... I don't come from the Skull Garden..."

"You don't?" Rachel said. "So where do you come from? Can we go and live there? Is there a giant bat where you come from?"

"Um, I don't think so," James said. "I just remembered that, and also, I used to be a man, not a mouse."

"A man? So how did you become a mouse?" Rachel asked.

"I don't really know, I don't remember everything yet," James said. Lester could now hear a sort of forlorn relief in James's voice and Lester imagined that he might know what that meant, although he couldn't quite believe it.

"Well we should definitely try to get you turned back," Rachel decided. "Then you could be like my big brother or something. Maybe you could take care of me, instead of the other way round."

"Yes," James said quietly. "Maybe."

And then he said nothing else, and neither did any of the others.

"Well," Eos said eventually. "I guess that we'd better have a look around this place, see if we can find an exit or something."

"Definitely," James said.

"What about the gnome?" Rachel asked. "He doesn't look very well."

Everyone turned their attention in the direction of the gnome who was laid out, unconscious under a perch about fifteen feet away from where they had gathered. They all moved over to examine the sprite.

"Is he breathing?" Lester asked Eos who was the first to reach the prone figure.

"I don't think sprites breathe," James said from Rachel's left shoulder. Lester found it both less annoying and a little sad not to hear the correction directly from his own left shoulder. Now that he had his daughter back Lester imagined James wouldn't want to hang out in Lester's pockets any more. That shouldn't have really meant anything to Lester, but he was confused to note that it did.

"How should we tell if he's alive then?" Eos asked, looking down at the gnome's bearded face.

"He exists," James said. "Technically I don't think you're supposed to be able to render them unconscious."

"So he's pretending then?" Lester asked.

"No," James said. "Magic: pure, coalesced, intelligent magic is a complex. What we're seeing is not an unconscious living being, we're seeing a translation of the state of the magic into our terms. So in our terms the thing that is the gnome is unconscious, unable to interact with us but still present and whole."

"So how do we wake him up?" Eos asked.

"That, unfortunately, I don't know," James said.

"You seem to know a lot more about everything than you did when I left you, though," Rachel said. "So that's a good thing."

"Is it?" James asked Rachel. "Sometimes I'm not so sure."

"Sometimes," Lester said, although even he couldn't quite figure out why. "What you remember is that you have, oh, I don't know, a huge secret or something."

Lester then got the opportunity to add 'pointed glare' to the number of facial expressions he had now seen first hand that probably had never been observed previously on a mouse.

"Yes, well," James said loudly before anyone could respond to Lester's comment with anything awkward or troubling. "We could have a look around for some smelling salts or something. That might help."

"I thought you said it couldn't breathe," Eos said. "How would smelling salts help it?"

"Like I said, it's magic translated into a physical being, sometimes the translation works both ways, it's a kind of interaction of archetypal metaphors."

James paused long enough to realise that no one had any idea what it was he had just said.

"Trust me," James said. "We can try smelling salts, they may work."

"You're much smarter than you used to be," Rachel said. "That's cute."

With that they all made a move away from the gnome to look for smelling salts.

"Wait!" Eos said before they could go four paces. "We really can't just wander off and leave the gnome by himself. I'll stay."

"You shouldn't stay alone," Lester said. "I'll just go and have a look for something, you all stay here."

"I should go with you," James said. "I might be able to spot useful things."

"I'm not leaving you," Rachel said. "I'll have to go too."

"But I already said," Lester said. "We shouldn't leave Eos to watch the gnome by herself."

"Then you stay," Rachel said. "I'll take James to look for the smelly things."

Although the logic appeared sound Lester didn't exactly relish being left alone with Eos at the moment.

"This is a strange place," Lester said. "A little girl and a mouse can't walk about it by themselves."

"We're adventurers," Rachel said, sticking out her bottom lip. "We can do what we like."

"Well, if you like to get eaten by monsters in strange castles that's certainly true," Lester said.

"Lester!" James said. "There's no need to be unpleasant. Okay, look, Rachel, I promise we are not going to be split up. I'll go with Lester and have a look around for some smelling salts, or anything else that might help the gnome wake up. Once we've revived the gnome we'll get out of here, together. I promise."

"But..." Rachel said, her bottom lip was now quivering, and her eyes shone with tears. "We've... we've only just found one another. What if there's another broom?"

"Lester," James said, "despite appearances to the contrary, is a smart cookie, he'd never been caught on a flying broom before but he never ever makes the same mistake twice. You're just going to have to trust us."

Rachel miserably acquiesced to this and passed James over to Lester. The two of them skirted the edge of the stone slab and, before too long, found a set of steps down on one side. The view around the other four edges of the slab told them that this perch was built high up near the top of a mountain on a small shelf of rock.

Underneath the slab was a single layer of domestic type rooms, a dormitory, a living area and a kitchen. Most of it was abandoned and bare but the kitchen still had some bits and pieces left in the cupboards and shelves.

"So," Lester said, as he gathered together all the items they had discovered onto a small table. "You didn't tell her."

"I don't want to talk about it," James said.

"Well, I do," Lester said. For some reason James's cowardice, as he saw it, had really upset him. Lester was not a man given to deep moods but in this instance he was certainly approaching something like anger on the topic. "Until now we've been in a very similar position, you lost your daughter, I lost my brother. Now you have your daughter and you begin the reunion by lying to her. I just... don't think it's the right thing to do, that's all."

"Well, what if I don't care about your opinion one way or another?" James asked.

"That's not the point," Lester said. "You can't agree or disagree with the right thing to do. In the end telling lies to someone you love is always the wrong thing to do."

"I'm not sure that's true," James said. "I think sometimes things are more complicated than they might first appear."

"Oh what nonsense!" Lester replied. "You think it's the best thing to lie to people? I don't. When Chester left on his great adventure he promised me that he would write to me every week. He promised me he would be home soon. He promised me that he knew what he was doing. All lies. I'm sure he would probably have said he was doing the right thing but it wasn't was it? Now he's disappeared and all I have left of my brother is this stupid bottle of - oh!"

As Lester fumbled in his breast pocket the vial of liquid flew from his grasp, spinning end over end through the air.

"Wurgh!" Lester cried out stepping forward, stretching out his arm to attempt a mid-air catch.

The first step turned into a second wobbling grasp as the vial remained enticingly out of reach. With the second step Lester's hand brushed the vial altering its trajectory. Trying to adjust course as he went Lester tangled his ankles and dove down at full strength, determined not to lose the only clue he had to his brother's whereabouts.

Lester heard James squeaking and felt the mouse's claws digging into his neck. The little mouse was clinging on for dear life as Lester crashed into the floor. The vial of liquid fell into Lester's outstretched palm and he curled his fingers, attempting to grasp the vial firmly. All he succeeded in doing was providing a ramp for the vial, powered by inertia, to run up before it flew a few more inches through the air to tap delicately against the stone floor of the kitchen.

The vial didn't shatter but a spider web of cracks spread out through its bottom half. The, now delicate, vial rolled to a stop, whole but not to be trusted, a few inches further on from Lester's position.

"Oh dear," James said.

"Not good," Lester said. "Really not good."

"Well, there is a small up side," James replied. "We are in a kitchen, however abandoned that kitchen may be. We should be able to locate some alternative vessel for the potion, if we're careful."

"Careful," Lester said, like the word tasted bad, "Right, careful."

Lester picked up the vial with a suitable amount of care and attention. He placed it, and James onto the nearby countertop.

"Hold on to this, very gently," Lester said. "I'm just going to find something to decant the potion into."

"Okay," James said, placing his paws onto the cracked surface of the vial. The cracks were so fine that even James could not really detect them by touch, only by looking at their gossamer white threads promising that, at any moment, the vial could shatter soaking its valuable contents into the wooden surface below.

"You know," James said, as Lester rooted through a cupboard filled with junk, "this could be the moment your brother referred to in his note, the one where you're supposed to drink the contents of the vial."

"You reckon?" Lester asked.

"Well, it would be one way to ensure that the contents would end up in their ultimate destination, i.e. your stomach," James pointed out.

"Don't you think that's a bit... arbitary?" Lester asked.

"To be honest," James said. "I find the whole business of gnomic prophecy to be a bit... eep."

"A bit eep?" Lester said. "I don't know that word. Is that another one of those terms from your place of origin, like interweb?"

James did not reply because James was looking into the shining, yellow, hungry eyes of the thing that had made him go eep. The shining, yellow, hungry eyes of a rugged looking tabby tom cat.

"Lester," James said, his voice low and urgent. "You might want to come and get the vial."

"Why?" Lester said standing up and seeing the unfolding drama of survival taking place on the nearby counter top.

"Because..." James said, as Lester hurried forward anticipating the probable impending second disaster, "I... think... I'm... about... to... have... to..."

Lester, showing a reflexive dexterity wholly absent from his last encounter with the forces of inertia and gravity, snatched the flying vial out of the air as James tossed it and scampered off toward the edge of the counter. Lester swiped out with his spare hand but it was just a little too slow to catch the, now energised, tom cat.

The stocky feline form exhibited surprising speed as it loped after James who was pelting hell for leather towards the end of the counter with no seeming plan for what to do when he reached his destination. Lester watched on in awe as James leapt from the end of the counter to dig his little rodent claws into the trailing edge of a dishrag which swung once forward and then once back before James hurled himself from the zenith of the rag's forward journey once more to land on the counter at the far end of the kitchen and lose himself in the pile of broken kitchen utensils someone had left there.

Undeterred the tomcat followed, keeping its eyes down and plodding amongst the twisted metal remains of pots, pans and various large utensils on its quest for fresh mouse.

"Keep moving, James," Lester said, trying to sneak up on the tom from behind. "Keep moving."

Lester could not see James, but then neither could the cat, as Lester came up behind the predatory beast. Lester attempted to pick the tom up by the scruff of the neck, but the cat was too fast for him. It wheeled around, eyes wide, mouth open, hissing and spitting at Lester. Lester, startled, recoiled from the creature's flashing white claws.

"Well," James cried, "here goes nothing."

Lester tore his attention away from the growling tom cat to see that James had reached an area near the wash basin. Stringing some dirty elastic between the exposed prongs of a ricer that had lost its head James had quickly improvised a kind of slingshot by wedging the ricer's handle into a slightly open drawer adjacent to the sink.

James pulled back on the elastic as far as he could before quickly spinning around in his 'seat' and being hurled from the counter all the way over to the opposite side of the room. He landed on top of a handle placed next to the hatch for some sort of dumb-waiter type device.

Despite the evident acrobatic impressiveness of this move the tom had since lost interest in James, continuing, as it did, to growl at Lester. James is safe, I guess, Lester thought, I'm not sure I am. No sooner had the thought formed than the aggressive feline launched itself at Lester's head, hissing and spitting. Lester braced himself for a face full of angry cat and was amazed when the animal failed to make contact.

"Oh," Lester heard James's voice filled with surprise. "Well, I guess that's okay then."

Lester opened his eyes, the tom was nowhere to be seen.

"Did it vanish?" Lester asked, somewhat befuddled.

"No, it's behind you," James said. "Just passed straight through your head."

"Passed straight..." Lester turned to see the cat sitting behind him, regarding him with naked, impotent hatred. "I don't understand," Lester said.

"I think it's dead," James said. "I think that's a ghost cat."

"A ghost cat?" Lester sounded shocked. "Can cats have ghosts?"

"Apparently they can here," James replied. "Oh, well, no harm, no foul, come get me and we'll... oh."

"No," Lester said. "Not, oh, we've had enough oh for today and I'm putting on an oh embargo. An embarg-oh, if you... oh."

"With a creaking, clanking slow inevitablity the lever next to the dumb waiter that Lester had landed on began to descend. Lester hurried over and scooped the mouse up before he could tumble off the end of the lever onto the floor. The lever, once it had started its journey, continued to move downwards until it had locked in the downward position.

"I guess that just brings the dumbwaiter up," Lester said. Examining the area around the device. "Probably nothing to... ah."

"Ah?" James said. "'Ah' is worse than 'oh', any man who says otherwise is a liar. What's the matter?"

Lester crossed to the dumb waiter and pressed a button next to the hatch immediately to the left of the lever that had just been activated. There was the slow and grinding noise of machinery operating behind the hatch. Eventually a broken bell sounded an off-key ping behind the hatch.

"I think that's the dumb waiter control," Lester said

"So what does that lever control then?" James asked.

Any answer was cut off by the sound of a low and eerie moan echoing up into the eyrie from some place far below thier feet.

"You had to ask, didn't you?" Lester said.

"I think, maybe," James answered. "It might be time for us to leave."

And so they did, but what happened after, and the tale of Saeed and Prince Weatherstrong catching the dastardly Miranda Felix, and the story of Phoebe September ridding herself of her burden and the answer to the question of how story books can change by themselves will all be told in another time and place, for the candle is low and it is, most assuredly, now time for bed.


Sunday, 18 August 2013

Chaos in Dracopolis

"I will have your head, mighty Prince!" the lead troll bellowed. It lifted the broadsword snatched from the hands of one of the Dracopolis Prison Guard and lifted it, preparing to cut Avan Weatherstrong's head from his shoulders. Avan struggled against the two trolls who were holding his arms but the situation was hopeless.

Saeed had seen enough. He lit the tip of the sparkle tube and threw it down on the floor in front of the troll. The troll paused, looking down to see the last inch of the fuse disappear in a curl of smoke. That was the last part of the before that Saeed could watch before he had to close his eyes tightly.

Saeed heard the sparkle tube explode and the sudden cries of alarm from the gang of trolls who had ambushed Avan at the crossroads. Only when the glow of light had faded a little from its initial intensity did Saeed risk opening his eyes.

It appeared that Avan had noted the sparkle tube and just managed to close his own eyes before the contents of the small alchemical device had ignited. He had managed to twist out of the grip of the trollish henchmen and was even now choking one of them into unconsciousness.

Saeed smiled to himself and dropped down from the rooftop to join in the fray. Blind trolls were still dangerous but both Saeed and the Prince had received training in unarmed combat, the trolls could only crush their opponents if they could find them. Neither Prince nor thief were stupid enough to allow themselves to be caught.

After the trolls were unconscious and restrained the problems began.

"You're following me," Avan said to Saeed, his tone cold.

"You were in trouble, I thought I could lend some assistance," Saeed replied.

"I have never needed assistance before," Avan said.

"Well, there's always a first time," Saeed responded. "I'm sorry that I acted rashly and was played for a fool. I have been long away from Faerie, studying in a strange city beyond the edges of reality. I was arrogant to think that I was the most sophisticated thief in all of these lands."

"You were," Avan said, Saeed believed that he detected an infinitesimal softening in the Prince's tone.

"I have never made the same mistake twice, Prince Weatherstrong," Saeed said. "Please, let me help you set things right."

"I suppose that it would do little good for me to refuse," Avan sighed. "Don't make the mistake of thinking that I couldn't escape you. I can't both escape you and defend Dracopolis from harm. Once this situation is resolved we shall re-examine our relationship."

"I accept the terms of the agreement," Saeed said as the Prince strode away from the heap of tied up trolls they had left at one corner of the crossroads.

"There's no agreement," Avan said. "Just a statement of the way things are."

"Then I accept the way things are," Saeed replied hastily.

"Well, none of us have much choice about that, do we?" Avan muttered as he reached the edge of a nearby plaza.

Saeed looked over the scene with Avan, everything was not as one could hope. One of the buildings to the eastern edge of the plaza was ablaze. There was no one outside watching the fire, that meant the inhabitants of the building had fled in terror, or something worse.

Saeed could make out the odd motion from the side streets around the plaza but no one was venturing out into the open square. Anyone foolish enough to do so would present too easy a target.

"I was hoping that the guard would have set up a defensive position here," Avan said. "Something must be preventing them from getting this place under control."

"So what do we do?" Saeed asked.

"We'll go to the palace, someone there will be able to tell us what's occupying the guard. The sooner they're free to lock down the city the sooner this will all be over."

So Avan and Saeed made their way carefully towards the central Palace in Dracopolis, the chief residence of the Draco Emperor. Saeed marvelled at how easily the decision to stroll into the palace had come to Avan. Saeed had never met anyone who could just go wherever they pleased before. There was something refreshingly direct about his approach to problem management.

Of course, Saeed considered, as the palace guard waved them through each outer section of the palace in towards the central residence, Avan Weatherstrong was the most heroic figure in the entire history of the Faerie realms. It was no surprise he could just walk into the palace and ask for information. If Saeed had tried this alone he would have been skewered and beheaded by now.

As Saeed was beginning to wonder if they were going to get waved all the way through to the emperor himself the answer to the question was resolved. They were shown into a room where the General in charge of the Palace Guard was poring over a map of the city upon which were arranged a number of models, some like trolls, lizard men and other minor monsters, others were in the shape of Dragon Guards.

There was one model on the table that was white, whilst all the others were carved out of deep grey stone. The white model was a skeletal figure wrapped in a flowing cloak. Many of the guard figures were arranged around that figure but so far away from it that it took Saeed a moment to see the pattern.

"Prince Weatherstrong," the General said, ignoring Saeed entirely, "I am so glad to see you, we really could do with some assistance."

"With this individual I take it?" Avan asked motioning to the white skeleton figure on the map.

The General nodded grimly.

"That is Sergeant-Major Xalotl," the General said. "He's in charge of the City Guard. Sometime shortly after the jail break he became possessed by the spirit of Oban Reif. Reif used Xalotl's body to steal the Star Arrow from the palace vault and escape towards the north."

"So the available Guard are busy tracking him down," Avan said, nodding as he understood what was preventing the guard from taking back the streets.

"To use the Star Arrow, Reif needs the Sky Bow," the General explained further. "That's locked in a vault in the Sapphire Treasure House, we have guards there now, hopefully we'll be able to capture Reif before he gets the bow."

"Is there anything we can do to assist?" Avan asked. "My sword and my companion's wits are at your disposal."

"We really just need Reif stopped," the General said. "Then we can get on with containing the escapees from the jail house."

Avan nodded.

"I take it that if Xalotl can be returned to you unharmed that would be appreciated," he said.

The General pursed his lips and cast a gaze back over the map.

"If the Sky Bow and the Star Arrow fall into the wrong hands," the General said. "The consequences would be grave indeed. Xalotl understands, as we all do, that he has given his life to the protection of the capital."

"I understand," Avan said. "We shall do everything we can to help your people resolve this matter."

And then they were off again. Avan strode purposefully out of the palace with Saeed following along very much in the prince's wake.

"Did you just agree," Saeed asked. "To kill this man who has been possessed?"

"I didn't agree to kill anyone," Avan said. "I don't know what conversation you were listening to."

"It just sounded like..."

"The General is a military man," Avan cut Saeed off. "When it comes to matters such as this he needs to believe that drastic measures are available to the people he trusts."

"So you lied to him?" Saeed asked.

"I never said that I would countenance killing a victim in cold blood," Avan replied. "What he wanted to hear is up to him."

"But what if it does come down to that choice?" Saeed asked. "Retrieve the artefacts or let Xalotl live, not both?"

"Do you feel like the kind of person who would let it get to that point?" Avan asked.

"No, but-"

"Well then," Avan said with an air of finality, "that makes two of us, come on."

The chaos on the streets of Dracopolis was worsening, without the guard's full attention on containing the break out the freed prisoners were running rampant. Saeed had a little experience of dungeons and jail houses so he knew that not every inmate of such a facility was a danger to the common folk. However Saeed also knew that a significant number of them would be, releasing them all onto the streets of a busy city in the hours of darkness could only really have one effect, the one that was playing out before them now.

Saeed was impressed to note that Avan had enough skills in stealth to avoid detection by roving criminals so Saeed and himself made it to the Sapphire Treasure House in under an hour. Fires had been set in several locations across the city, the interplay of firelight and deep shadow served only to give them a larger number of places to hide on their journey.

The Sapphire Treasure House was, in many respects, identical to the Diamond Treasure House where Saeed and Avan had first crossed paths. The main difference was that this treasure house was situated in amongst a bustling nest of small residential dwellings.

As they drew near to the high, forbidding walls of the vault Avan ducked into an alley. Making use of the narrow walls in the space between two houses Avan scaled up to the roof of one of the properties by bracing his legs and arms against the surfaces. The prince made the move look easy, as did Saeed when he followed on behind. Saeed knew that his own proficiency at the action required constant disciplined practice.

Admittedly the prince's own movements were a little less fluid than Saeed's but it was a difference only a professional thief would have noticed. From their new, elevated, position Avan lead Saeed over the roof of the dwelling to jump onto the uneven surface of a nearby, taller wall.

Saeed had to concede the prince some skills again as he scrambled up the surface assuredly, using hand and footholds that most people would not even have noticed. Saeed made up some ground on the prince reaching the top of the wall. Saeed did not allow himself any sense of pride in the achievement, he knew that Avan Weatherstrong was a great sorcerer and a formidable fighter and tactician in addition to his stealth and dexterity. The prince would never win in a thieving contest with Saeed but then, that was not the man's goal.

"What is this building?" Saeed asked quietly as they walked along the edge of the steep sloped roof.

"Temple-Almshouse," Avan replied, "erected in service of Akanno, goddess of the waters. It's the tallest point outside the treasure house walls in this district."

"It's not tall enough to provide us with an entry point to the treasure house," Saeed said.

"Not my intention," Avan said, pulling a pebble-sized roll of bread from a pouch on his belt. He crushed the roll in his hand and sprinkled the crumbs in a little pile towards the lip of the ledge. Following this the prince pulled a small vial of liquid from his pack. He took a sip of the liquid and then drizzled some more over the crumbs, ensuring they were completely soaked.

"Move back," Avan said to Saeed. The prince and the thief retreated into the shadows cast by a belfry in the north east corner of the roof top to wait.

After a few minutes birds began to drop out of the sky and peck at the crumbs. They were small dark birds with odd spiky feathers of a type Saeed had only encountered in the Terra Draconis. Before long a number of the birds had pecked up the crumbs and taken off again.

"So, what now?" Saeed asked.

"Now I can see everything that's going on," Avan said, leaning against the angled slope of the roof. "The effect of the potion lasts almost an hour. You are going to have to help me now."

"What do you want me to do?" Saeed asked.

Avan picked a leather cord up from around his neck. A number of beads were strung off the front, one black, a number of white ones and then one red. Avan took the black bead and the red bead off the cord. He held the black bead out to Saeed.

"Lodge this in your ear," he said.

Saeed did as he was told. Avan popped the red bead into his mouth.

"Now you will be able to hear me wherever you go, until you return the bead to me," Avan explained. His voice had a strange echoing ring to it that Saeed guessed was coming from the bead in his ear. "The birds have already shown me Xalotl. How long will it take you to reach that house over there. The one with the spiraled ornament on the northern ridge." Avan pointed to a house in the distance.

"A minute, no more," Saeed replied.

"Xalotl will reach that location in just under half that, be swift," Avan instructed. "Try to render him unconscious. Do not hurt him. Once the body is down put this in his mouth until the jewel glows blue." Avan handed Saeed a small totem figure with a very large head. A small black gemstone was lodged in to a head band carved at the top.

Saeed didn't ask any questions, he just grabbed the totem and set off at full pelt across the rooftops to his intended destination. Although he was faster than he had ever been before Xalotl had nearly walked the full length of the street beside the house by the time Saeed dropped silently onto the street behind him.

Sneaking up on some one and rendering them unconscious were two things that Saeed did very well indeed. Within another minute Xalotl's body was laid out flat on the street and the jewel in the totem's headdress was glowing a bright and steady blue.

Before long Avan had joined Saeed and reclaimed the totem.

"Good work," Avan said, and he sounded as if he meant it. "I'm still feeling the effects of the scattereye potion, you'll have to help me check if Xalotl's still got the artifacts."

Saeed rolled Xalotl over, the Sergeant-Major had a pack slung over his shoulder but it was empty.

"I think, if Xalotl ever had the items he already handed them to someone else," Saeed said.

"Not to worry," Avan said. "I can still get information from the birds flying overhead. Most of them have settled into nests now, there's less motion in my mind's eye than there was before. Just give me a moment-" Avan's face, wearing a look of intense concentration, suddenly dropped into a mask of alarm. "Oh... no," he said.

"What?" Saeed asked.

"I know who took the artifacts from Xalotl," Avan said. "And she's just released a horde of vampires into the Almshouse."

"Miranda!" Saeed said, there was really only one person she could have referred to at this point. "I'll get after her."

"No," Avan said. "We have to save the nuns in the almshouse, I can't do it alone with the scattereye still in force."

"What about the bow, and Miranda?" Saeed asked.

"We can catch up with her later," Avan said. "For now, we have to make sure no one gets hurt."

Saeed and Avan did manage to save the nuns, returned Xalotl to the palace and Oban Reif to jail. They did, also catch up with Miranda Felix and discovered why it was she had stolen the artifacts from the Treasure Houses of Dracopolis, all of this is a story for another time.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Escape From The House of Masks

Lester was not comfortable with the idea that he had become used to explosions and noise and confusion. If he was even close to being comfortable with any of those things he would have to opt for being comfortable with confusion. The only thing that prevented him from sinking into a protracted all-enveloping delirium was that confusion was so, well, befuddling. He hated being befuddled, wrong-footed, misdirected, at cross purposes and hence he hated being confused.

It was a shame that so much of his life was so confusing these days.

"I'm..." Lester said, staring at the piece of thick moulded card and leather in his hand, "I'm not Duke Morpazzo."

"You certainly aren't," James said from Lester's pocket. "You might, however, get fried by plasma if you make a wrong move."

The erstwhile identity of Duke Morpazzo was vigorously sinking into the corners of Lester's mind before draining away into his subconscious forever. Lester looked away from the mask that had subsumed his personality for an uncertain period of time at just the moment that a screaming ball of burning witch flew past the right side of his field of vision.

Not wishing to recover his identity only to be instantly set on fire, Lester ducked to the left, startling a crowd of bewildered strangers all staring down at masks. It only took their concentration to be refocused for a second before the screaming and shouting started.

In trying to avoid being burned to death Lester had preciptated a panic stampede that could well lead to him being crushed instead. Before things could get too far out of hand a massive explosion rocked the walls of the party venue accompanied by a bright flash of pink-purple light.

"Everybody!" screamed a voice that Lester only just recognised as belonging to Phoebe September, "Party time is over! Time to go home."

"You miserable little witch," came another voice from the far corner. "This party is mine and it's not over until I say it is."

A hush fell over the crowd as a scorched and ragged Lady Crimzona tramped out of the corner, wild-eyed and furious, to face the witch who had covered her in sooty plasmic discharge. Outside in the garden forks of lightning could be seen in the clouds above, a rumble of thunder sounded, only just more ominous than the sounds of Phoebe's magical workings.

"Ladies," a third voice that Lester didn't recognize cut in. "I think that we can all agree that it's been a long evening, and a splendid party, is this the way you want to send your guests home, Lady Crimzona?"

"Who are you?" Lady Crimzona demanded of the still masked guest, a rakish youth whose only visible physical feature was a wiry explosion of red hair poking over the top of his mask. "And what's this got to do with you?"

"Harvey," Phoebe said, her voice low and dangerous, "you have my full permission to show this evil bully exactly who you are..."

"You sure-" the youth, Harvey, said, a look of surprise evident even under the jocular facade of his party mask.

"...this," Phoebe intoned darkly. "I do command thee."

Harvey shrugged and turned his attention to Lady Crimzona.

"You heard the lady," he said apologetically. "She commanded me."

A tail appeared out of the back of the young man's breeches and whipped through the air switching first right and then hard left. It even appeared to make a cracking noise as it reached the end of its journey.

As the switch noise completed the crack noise overlapped seamlessly with a popping sound coming from the direction of Lady Crimzona.

"Oh dear," she said. "I don't feel at all... well... Oh!"

With that Lady Crimzona began to expand, bulking out and, at the same time, sprouting a thick red fur on her neck and the back of her arms. Her hands began to elongate, the tips of the nails sharpening into claws. At the same time her legs became shorter, stubbier while her face began to poke outwards, the flesh on her face darkening to be come a muddy reddish and wrinkled leather snout.

The Crimzona-thing tried to speak again but her voice had disappeared in a number of squawks, clicks and squeaks. Her arms began to broaden and flatten and she fell forward onto the floor.

Within a few moments the hostess of the world's longest, and least amusing, party had transformed from a sharp, pale-skinned young woman into a giant bloated red bat. The Crimzona bat picked up its head and squawked ay the assembled gathering. It flexed its clawed wings and pulled itself toward the window.

"Harvey," Phoebe said. "You appear to have changed her into a bat."

"Pure unfiltered mischief Feebs, I don't have any control over the effect," Harvey replied. "Usually it would turn her into something harmless, but there's too much sour mischief hanging over this house. Must have warped the effect."

"A giant bat," Phoebe said. "Is not much of an improvement over an insane sorceress."

"But can we both agree that it is an improvement?" Harvey asked as the bat pulled itself out of the window.

"Well, nice to see that after the party things quickly return to their usual state," James said from Lester's pocket.

"Not now!" Both Lester and Phoebe said to their respective companions simultaneously even as the bat spread its wings and took to the air.

Phoebe and Harvey both raced over to the window. Harvey reached the sill a few seconds ahead of Phoebe and swiftly vaulted through the window, to hit the path beyond, running. Wearing a ridiculous flouncy party frock Phoebe could not do the same. She resolved the problem by just blasting a hole in the wall and stomping off after the bat and Harvey.

"One thing I'll say for that girl," James remarked. "She'd save you a bunch of money if you ever came to need an extension."

"An extension to what?" Lester asked.

"Rhetorical comment in a different cultural idiom," James replied. "Pretend I didn't say anything. Are you going to stand here all night then?"

"Uh, no, I guess not," Lester said. He picked his way through the crowd to reach the hole in the wall the same time as another freed party guest.

At first he didn't recognize the slim young woman who was also chasing after Phoebe into the garden. This was because the last time he'd seen her she was entirely surrounded by water and hadn't had any feet.

"Eos?" he said.

"Lester?" Eos responded.

"You have legs," Lester replied. He was caught in the throes of that awkwardness that can only really occur when one encounters someone for the second time and realises that on the first occasion that person had been in dire straits and you had done nothing to help them, in fact, you may even have contributed to their many troubles.

"I do," she said. She walked through the hole in the wall, using the legs that Lester had referenced and strode confidently off into the night after Phoebe's retreating form.

"You should try to monetize awkward," James said. "You produce so much of it."

Lester did not feel like telling the sarcastic rodent to be quiet again, he knew it would not be his last opportunity to do so. Instead he followed on after Eos, walking with that awkward half-skipping gait that signalled you were keen to catch up to someone but did not want to commit to actually running.

"I, uh, I would have probably released you," Lester said. "I don't think the man in the tall hat was coming back. Once I'd worked that out, well, uh..."

Eos didn't say anything or look at him, she just kept on walking after Phoebe.

"The words you're looking for," James whispered. "Are 'I'm sorry'."

"Oh, yes," Lester said a little too loud, "I'm really sorry. It was just all so... well it hasn't stopped really... I was confused. But I never wanted to keep anyone in a tank. I'm just... looking for my brother."

"We'll talk about it later," Eos grated. "If we have to talk about it at all. I personally would as soon forget all about it."

Further conversation was cut off as a giant red-furred bat flew out of the night sky to land heavily a few feet in front of them.

"I think we might have missed something," James said as the bat pulled itself up onto its feet with the spindly limbs that formed the outside frame of its wings.

The bat squawked groggily and then, upon seeing Lester, James and Eos in front of it bellowed again, a high pitched, furious shriek before launching itself at them. It didn't get very far, however, it fell again, knocked out of the air by an enthusiastic looking Sir Cobb who had kicked the bat down and was now swooping his sword in for a final blow.

In the last seconds before the bat met its doom at the point of Frederick's sword Lester had time to register Phoebe, Harvey, the gnome and a goblin that Lester had never met before frantically shouting at the knight to hold on. Frederick did not hold on. With a grim sense of purpose he ran the bat through with his sword and the giant monster, quivering, fell dead on the floor.

"Oh, criminy, no," Harvey said. "You really shouldn't be allowed to handle so much as a spoon without a safety cord."

Registering the people standing next to the newly expired giant bat a look of alarm came onto Harvey's face. The wiry young man ran forward waving his arms in the general direction of Lester and Eos.

"Get back!" he shouted. "You have to get back!"

Lester and Eos began to back away, before they had got too far, however a new complication arose.

"James!" shouted the little girl Lester remembered from the market, moments before the incident with the broom and the troll. "James! Is it you?"

Lester looked down at James, his head sticking out of Lester's breast pocket.

"Don't leave her," James said to Lester, his tone dark.

Lester had another opportunity to feel too slow as he felt Eos brush past him, running towards Rachel.

"Rachel!" Eos shouted. "Don't go near the bat!"

On the floor the body of the bat was beginning to glow with a bright pink-white light, a tone was rising, harmonic but sharp, the kind of noise that set your teeth on edge. Lester unfroze, following on after Eos just as Harvey launched himself at Frederick tackling him to get him off the top of the bat as the sharp tone rose to its crescendo.

In the last moments before the bat exploded Lester got a vague impression that he was right behind Eos, who was shielding Rachel whilst Harvey and Frederick had fallen to the opposite side of the fallen bat. Harvey was trying to do something magical, Lester didn't know what that might be.

Then there was a gigantic squeaking pop, a sound, rather like the universe burping, and everything went white.

There were a couple of moments of silence and then the quavering voice of a scared little girl said:


"I'm here Rachel," said James from Lester's pocket.

"But where is here?" said another female voice, Eos.

Lester's eyes were still dazzled by the light of the exploding bat. He blinked a couple of times but everything stayed dazzlingly bright. He turned his head to one side to see that he was lying a few feet away from the slumbering form of the gnome. Lester could feel the sun on his skin. Beyond the blurry form of the gnome were a number of standing structures, wooden poles emerging from holes in the surface of the enormous stone slab.

"That's a very good question," James said. "Where are we?"

It appeared that life was not going to get any less confusing for Lester any time soon. He would, at least, be able to get his bearings, but that will be in a story I tell another day.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

In Which Saeed and Avan Have A Falling Out

Saeed had lived almost his whole life in the grandest cities of Faerie and beyond. He was used to tall buildings, narrow alleys, the rich and the poor living side by side. Noise, heat, bustle, secrets, these were as constant to Saeed as the air he breathed. Even during his time studying in Luminis he had found himself surrounded by crowded grey stone walkways and city people preoccupied with city problems.

City problems, or, to give them a more straightforward title: money problems. City people worried about profit and loss, about making ends meet, about taxes and thieves. In the landscape of a city Saeed was comfortable in the knowledge that he was one of the problems. If you were a problem it tended to be more difficult for you to have a problem. Saeed had worked hard to cultivate an attitude that problems belonged to other people.

When he had been a young boy, trailing after his mother along the streets of far away distant Afsana, Saeed had accepted his temperament on face value. As he had grown older, lost his mother, adventured, become a student, learned a little of the world, Saeed had learned that remaining open-minded and free from worry were two things you definitely had to work at.

Now he surveyed the Plaza of Diamonds, and beyond it the high walls surrounding the Diamond Treasure House and waited for night. He was a stranger in Dracopolis, wearing a hooded cloak, sat at a table outside an Inn, basking in shadow. He would have had a harder time of things if Dracopolis wasn't filled with strangers on a daily basis. Then he might have stood out. As it was he was comfortably invisible in the background noise of a normal day in Faerie's largest city.

Dracopolis was not a place that welcomed strangers, except insofar as it tolerated them, in the days before the great Vanishing tolerance and welcome were not separated by much. In days to come the world would learn better manners. As far as Saeed could tell that just meant you said please and thank you while you were twisting the knife.

Saeed was not bitter, he preferred to think of himself as careful. Saeed was no liar he preferred to think of himself as a victim of circumstance. A thief? Well, some things Saeed could not deny because he didn't want to think of himself as a liar.

The difference between young Saeed and old Saeed was a matter of degree and a matter of relationships. When he was a boy Saeed stole food to live, now he stole things he didn't care about in exchange for money he could use to buy the food he had once stolen. Saeed didn't care about the things he stole but he cared very deeply about who got hurt.

Saeed had made a vow never to lie, and, in the meanwhile, a second vow never to intentionally harm anyone. The first was a vow he had made to his dead mother. His mother, being dead, knew nothing of this. The second vow he had made before his teacher, in the room his teacher called dojo, within his master's house at Luminis. Saeed took the second vow very seriously, as seriously as he took the first, but for entirely different reasons.

The walls of the Diamond Treasure House reminded Saeed of the walls of Luminis. The Treasure House Walls were intended to be intimidating but they were no more than a shadow compared to the barrier that kept those who were not ready out of the city at the brink of forever.

As dusk gave way to night street lights made a declaration that Dracopolis did not intend to stop just because the sun had set. This, too, reminded Saeed of the city where he had learned so much. The similarities were slight, nothing could compare to the glowing heart of Luminis by night.

The Tavern on the Plaza of Diamonds, became louder as the darkness deepened. The pedestrian traffic slowed and thinned. Saeed became more visible as a result, that was never a comfort. Thankfully the people who remained were all preoccupied with each other, none of them were looking at him.

It was still some time from Midnight Bell but if Saeed waited then he risked becoming even more conspicuous. He stood and crossed the square to the Temple of Turan. He hoped that no one had discovered his cache or the preparations he had made to gain entry.

As he crossed the square a young woman, laughing, stumbled out of a party of merry makers and nearly collided with him. He saw her coming, stepped to one side and caught her before she could fall to the floor.

The young woman looked up into Saeed's face, Saeed shifted his head forward so that his features would remain obscured by shadow. They young woman did not appear afraid, she was still smiling.

"Thank you sir," she said. "I'm afraid I got carried away."

Saeed lifted the woman to her feet and gave her a small bow from the waist. He made sure that his hood kept his face from view.

"Don't you speak?" the young woman asked.

Saeed did not want to be remembered as any more than a man in a cloak. He looked at the party of people that the woman had emerged from. They were nearly over to the opposite edge of the square now. Saeed pointed after them.

The young woman looked.

"I don't even know if you have a handsome voice now," the young woman said. "But I felt that you were strong."

She smiled at him, her eyes sparkled in the light from the crystal lamps that lit the square. She was a young Draco, very beautiful. Saeed was not here to fraternise, he just stood waiting for her to move on, or at least to take her eyes off him. She studied him for a moment longer before saying:

"You really are no fun at all," then she turned and chased after her friends.

Out of habit Saeed checked his pockets, but the encounter had not felt like a pickpocket's attack of opportunity. Of course, the best attacks of that nature did not.

Satisfied that he still possessed everything that he needed to proceed Saeed carried on to a small trade entrance at the side of the temple building. From the inside of his cloak he drew a long wire with a hooked end.

He worked the wire in between the wood and the jamb at the hinge end and fished around for a moment. When he pulled the wire back a thin, strong cord was caught on the hook. Saeed picked up the cord and lifted it until he felt the tug of it coming free from the screw that he had wedged it behind on the opposite side. Then he pulled at it gently at about waist height, about where he remembered the bolt being earlier. He felt the bolt slide back. He undid the latch and opened the door, retrieving the cord and stowing it, along with the wire hook in his cloak.

From a pouch at his waist he took a small screwdriver and retrieved the screw he'd used to wedge the cord earlier. He put the screw and the screwdriver back into the pouch. Once he had closed the door, he shot the bolt again leaving no evidence that he had been here at all, except for the tiny hole left by the screw at the hinge end.

Saeed climbed the steps of the temple's offering tower. All Temples to sky gods had tall towers, the law of the city meant that it could not be as tall as the treasure house walls, but it was tall enough for Saeed.

The visitors to the temple had not found Saeed's means of entry, neither had they found the wooden box he had stored in the chimney of the offering room. The wood on the lower side was sooty, the priests had made an offering at some point after Saeed had stowed the box. Saeed's box was varnished with a flame-retardent, it had easily withstood the heat of the fire.

Saeed opened the box and pulled out a crossbow and an arrow with a hard, barbed tip. The head of the arrow trailed a thin cord of dark rope in which could be seen fine filaments of metal. Saeed mounted the arrow into the crossbow, went over to the window of the offering room that faced the treasure house, took careful aim and fired the arrow so that it stuck into the stone near the summit of the wall.

Saeed tested the arrow's hold and found it to be satisfactory. He tied the far end of his thin cord about the bracket of a sconce in the wall opposite the window. This done he hoisted himself off the floor onto the rope and used a clip on his belt to secure him to the cord. His feet pointed back towards the sconce, his head was oriented toward the wall of the treasure house. He began to climb along the rope over the square towards the Treasure House.

This was the riskiest part of the enterprise. He had no contingency for falling. Thankfully he could not be seen from the ground the light from the crystal lamps was reflected downwards by metallic hoods on the fittings. He edged swiftly over the space between the top of the tower and top of the treasure house wall.

He did not pull himself all the way over. Stopping about fifteen feet from the end of the rope. He rested at a point pre-marked in the rope where the silver filament running through the cord stopped. Saeed double checked that the absence of filament was not a trick of the light by sniffing the rope. The pungent aroma of the treatment of the last fifteen feet told him that he had stopped in the right place.

He reached carefully into his pocket for a preprepared alchemical tinderstick he had made. He brought his boot carefully to his waist by bending his knee and struck the tinderstick against a rough patch on the toe of the boot. Then he slowly turned the flaming spill and wedged into a hole drilled into the sole of the boot at the front.

Saeed lifted his toe up and touched the flame to the rope behind him, where the filament started. The rope burst into a fast burning bright red flame and vapourised instantly all the way back down to the tower.The light was intense but the red colour was not bright and lasted only for an instant. The rope, now effectively bissected, fell towards the treasure house wall.

Saeed twisted his body and swung his legs round, bracing for the impact. As he hit the wall a shock ran up his legs along with a little pain, but it was bearable. Once he had stabilised himself Saeed set about getting over the top of the wall. Wrapping the cord of the rope around his right arm for extra stability he began to run sideways along the wall using the rope to help him also run upwards. When he felt that momentum had taken him as far as he would go he spun his heel and ran the other way.

Several times he repeated this action, each time picking up speed, changing the motion from running to a kind of guided swinging. On the last pass he threw his weight up at the end of the spring and sailed over the top of the wall feet first. Bracing himself again he hit the wall on the other side. The impact on his feet was not as hard but the rope burned the skin on his right arm a little.

Hanging there, six hundred feet in the air above the courtyard of the treasure house Saeed took a moment to compose himself before reaching into his cloak and pulling out the slender silver spider cord that would take him to the ground. One end of the spider cord had a metal clip on it in the shape of a lily blossom. Saeed held the lily head to the end of the thicker rope he had fired from the bow. Working a catch on the underside of the clip the petals of the lily sprung shut binding the spider cord to the rope.

Saeed released the rest of the cord to fall into the dark shadowy canyon between the treasure house and the interior side of the wall. He tested that the clip was holding and then transferred his weight to the spider cord. Once he was sure that the spider cord was firm he clipped it through a sprung metal loop on his belt and slid down the cord in a number of jumps down the wall.

Once Saeed's feet had made contact with the ground again he twisted the spider cord in a clockwise direction and, with a few twists, the cord clip released. Saeed quickly regathered the length of spider cord together and placed it back in the knee pocket in his breeches.

Now he was ready to get inside the treasure house. Saeed looked about the thin strip of cobbled courtyard that ran around the base of the building. It was extremely dark down here, more shadow than light. Saeed had prepared for this as well. He took a vial of night's eye drops from a pouch on his belt. He dripped the drops onto the surface of his open eyes and, as the liquid spread across the surface his vision blurred and then cleared, bringing the shadows into focus.

Saeed had descended on the eastern side of the treasure house. There was no entrance to the main building here. He would have to go around to the south side, there would only be one entrance and exit. The disadvantage of this for thieves was that the entrance was bound to be heavily guarded. The advantage was that guard patrols were light, in many cases non-existent.

Taking a peek around the nearby corner Saeed could see a pair of trolls had been left on guard at the main entrance. This was all in line with the operation information he had bought from the goblin in Ferrowmarsh. Saeed had planned ahead for this eventuality.

Using his pocket knife Saeed prised a chunk of cobble out of the ground. Then he pulled the mirror brooch from his belt and clipped it to the outside of his cloak. Still out of sight behind the corner Saeed opened the metal shell that covered the top of the mirror crystal and a perfect copy of him appeared directly opposite him.

Using the angle setting controls embedded in the rim of the brooch Saeed offset his reflection to appear about six feet away from him and slightly off to the right. Then he covered the crystal again and the mirror image phantom disappeared.

Sticking close to the edge of the north wall Saeed crept up to the side of the entrance, remaining in shadow as much as he was able. As he drew within about half a dozen yards of the trolls he threw his rock into the shadows beyond the entrance to strike against the outside wall with a hard crack.

The trolls instantly leaned forward to examine the shadows, exchanging a puzzled glance. Saeed flipped the shell on the mirror brooch and his cloaked form appeared before the trolls. Saeed tried to look as if he was pausing, wondering if he'd been discovered, waiting for the trolls to see him.

One of the trolls pointed at the mirror phantom.

"You!" it cried out. "Stop there!"

Saeed turned, away, knowing the mirror phantom would do the same. He ran a few yards away and out from the walls. He looked back over his shoulder to see the trolls giving chase as the phantom appeared to melt into the shadows.

Saeed closed the brooch shell, spun on his heel and ducked in through the main entrance of the treasure house. He was not out of the wood, but the guard patrols within the vaults should not be as hard to evade as the sentries at the entrance. The warren of narrow corridors and shadowy alcoves was where Saeed felt most at home it didn't take him long to find vault number 425, the lock on the door was almost embarrassingly easy to pick.

For a moment or two Saeed considered the possibility that this had all been an elaborate trap but his fears quickly appeared groundless as he observed the target of his mission, the rainbow lattice, a magical device forged by a powerful druid, Cyrus September.

Wanting to be done with his work as quickly as possible Saeed stepped into the treasure room. Something in the corner of his field of vision caught his eye and he only just managed to raise the grieve protecting the underside of his left arm before a blow aimed at the side of his head made contact. The force of the blow left Saeed in no doubt that his assailant would have rendered him unconscious. The attacker had not reckoned with Saeed's sharp reflexes, born of much training in his master's dojo.

The fight began in a flurry of blocks, strikes and attempted grapples. Whoever this stranger was he had learned some of the unarmed combat techniques that Saeed had learned in Luminis. Saeed needed some time to work out the stranger's style of combat if he was to have any hope of turning it against his opponent.

Talking during a fight was not encouraged but Saeed believed that he might be able to apply the pressure of persuasion to the situation, so he broke the rule:

"Guards finding us fighting won't care that you're trying to stop me," Saeed said.

The opponents fist attempted to plant itself in Saeed's ribs. Saeed danced backwards, evading the hook. As he did so he got a chance to get a better look at his opponent. The man was male, a little older than Saeed, dark haired, full beard neatly trimmed. The man had designs shaved into the sides of the beard where they cut down to his jaw over his ears. The designs were intricate, probably symbolic of rank and also magical. The man wore several jewelled rings, which also indicated that he had some magical power.

Without responding the man stepped forward, planting his feet and raising his arms, adopting a fighting stance. The man had positioned himself between Saeed and the entrance to the treasure room. Saeed noted a sword hung at the man's waist. It became plain that the man could easily have killed Saeed, with metal or magic, but had chosen not to.

"You don't want to kill me," Saeed said. "Is there no agreement we can come to?"

"You leave now, without the lattice, we part, we don't see one another again," the man replied, his tone flat.

"You seem well equipped in every respect, my friend," Saeed replied. "Save that you packed no sense of humour."

"You think this situation is funny?" the stranger asked him.

"Any situation is what you make of it," Saeed replied. "There's no personal animosity between us, unless you are the owner of that artifact, which I do not believe you are."

"Regardless of who I am," the stranger said. "You have no right to the lattice. I will not allow you to take it."

"What does it matter to you?" Saeed asked. "I am just an agent, if I fail another will come."

"If you want to prove that there is more to you than thievery," the man said. "Tell me who sent you here."

"So you do want to threaten my life, no thief can be trusted with the name of their true master," Saeed said. "I am no more than an agent hired, in turn by an agent. The woman who retained my services in this task was a mercenary by the name of Miranda Felix. I do not know who retained her, it is entirely possible she doesn't know either. She knows enough to recognise information she doesn't want to hold."

"Felix?" the man said. "Don't tell me you took a job from her."

"I did some research, no one will be hurt as a result of this job," Saeed said. "This is something I am very particular about."

"I'm going to reach for my pack," the man said. "Do not attempt to escape."

Saeed could only honestly admit to the man that he would take any quarter that was given, so he didn't say anything at all. The man reached his hand behind him, not removing his eyes from Saeed. At the last moment, overtaken by urgency, the man looked away to his pack. Saeed ducked forward and grabbed the lattice before heading for the door.

"Don't-" the man said.

Then things began to go in a very strange direction. Saeed heard the tinkle of a small glass vial breaking in the doorway. In an instant he was surrounded in a choking grey-purple fog. Saeed fell to the floor and the next thing he knew he was looking up into the blurry face of the strange man from the treasure room.

"Are you awake?" the man demanded. "How do you feel?"

Saeed's head felt like it had been hit with a mallet. He groaned.

"What happened?" he asked.

"You'll be fine, stay away from the treasure room," the man said. "Stay here, don't try to move."

Then the man was gone, running off down the corridor, as if giving chase to someone.

Saeed couldn't work out what was happening. One moment he had been sailing through the air, the lattice tucked under one arm and the next he was here, without the lattice, lying on the floor.

It was all very well for the mysterious stranger to tell him to stay put, but what if a guard patrol came by? Then Saeed would be caught and imprisoned. No one should be in the Treasure House without authorisation, no exceptions.

Saeed struggled to sit up, but the pain in his head was accompanied by a weakness in his limbs. He managed to raise his head a little but his arms didn't seem to want to work.

"Well," a female voice said from somewhere over his head, out of view. "You appear to have screwed this up. I should leave you but, I must confess, you seem to strike at a soft spot I didn't even know I had."

A face appeared in the corner of his field of vision: Miranda Felix, smiling at the prospect of having Saeed under her control.

"Come on," she said. "I'll help you up. We'd better get out of here."

Miranda offered Saeed a hand, he forced his arm to reach up and accept it. Between the two of them they got Saeed to his feet.

"What are you doing here?" Saeed asked as they began to make their way, slowly, along the corridor. Miranda was supporting Saeed more than he would have liked.

"Call it an intuition," she said. "When I checked on you in the square before you entered the temple I got the impression that I may have asked too much of you."

"I would have been fine, except for the stranger," Saeed complained.

"What stranger?" Miranda asked.

"Don't move," the stranger said behind them.

"I've heard that voice before," Miranda said. She did not sound too concerned but she had stopped moving. "Prince Weatherstrong, what brings you to the heart of the Terra Draconis?"

"Passing through," the stranger, Saeed now recognised as Avan Weatherstrong, a hero in some tales that he had been told when he was a boy. "I saw your puppet here, and your exchange in the square. I decided that it couldn't be good news so, I followed. Good job too by the look of things, return the lattice."

"She doesn't have the lattice," Saeed said. "She was my contact remember, she paid me to retrieve it."

"She paid you to take the blame for its theft," Avan replied. "She always intended to leave you here to face the consequences of her actions."

"You always had such a dark view of me, Avan," Miranda said. "If you are going to insist on being such a bore then I have no real choice but to comply with your request."

"Slowly," Avan said as Miranda reached over her head to her back pack.

There was another of those confusing moments in which Saeed felt a sick twist of giddyness. He was flying through the air, he collided with something... someone... then he was on the floor again.

"She's getting away," Avan said from underneath Saeed.

Recovering a little more health by the second Saeed struggled to get off Prince Weatherstrong. Once free the prince leaped to his feet and ran off in pursuit of Miranda. Saeed, determined not to be left behind again, followed on afterwards.

It appeared that Prince Weatherstrong had no more right to be in the treasure house than Saeed, they had to pause a couple of times and reroute to avoid guard patrols. Avan lead Saeed down below the ground level of the treasure house and out through an entrance to the Dracopolis sewer system that hadn't been on any of the treasure house plans.

Saeed was too grateful to have got away alive and undetected to ask about that means of entry and escape right away. Avan didn't even really seem to acknowledge that Saeed was following him.

After a short run through the twists and turns of the sewer system Avan found a way up that surfaced below a grate in an alley adjacent to the Market Square. As soon as the two men climbed up onto the streets of Dracopolis it was clear that something was wrong. In the south the sky was orange-lit with flames and there was a tang of smoke upon the air.

"Felix," Avan muttered. "What have you done."

Saeed, tired of feeling out of his depth, plundered his study of the layout of Dracopolis for an answer to Avan's question.

"The jailhouse," Saeed said. "That's in the south. You don't think..."

"You don't know at all who you were working for," Avan replied. "That's exactly the kind of thing that she would do."

"I have spent a long time in a place where I learned much about my own nature," Saeed said. "I am afraid I do not know much of the nature of others. This is what I came out into the world to learn."

"Well, your first lesson is that some people enjoy bending chaos and destruction to suit their own ends," Avan said. "They leave others to help clean up their mess."

The prince turned away from Saeed and strode off towards the Market Square, Saeed could hear the sounds of terrified people screaming and shouting in the distance. His cheeks burned with shame that he had been played for such a fool. He hurried after Prince Weatherstrong once again.

"Please, Prince Weatherstrong," Saeed said. "I am a simple thief, but I have my own code. No harm should come to anyone as a result of my actions. As Melinda has unleashed the inhabitants of the jailhouse to cover her escape if I do not help to end this then I am, indeed, partially responsible. I will help."

"Do as you will," Avan replied. "It is none of my concern."

Saeed wanted to insist that if he could not win the respect of the prince then he would feel that he had faced a great and shaming failure. That was a personal issue, though, for which there may be time later. Saeed could hear his master's voice in his ear, telling him that, in the first instance, he should help to contain the problem that he had created. If he wanted Avan Weatherstrong's respect then that would have to come later.

And indeed it would; in fact, the two would work together to defeat Miranda Felix, and the person behind her actions. But that is a long story, for another time.