Bone, Chapter 1 - Sisters to the Slaughter

[Wherein Art is awakened by the Rogue Monastery coming under attack, and the caravaners are preparing to flee]

Art awoke in the darkness, to cries of "Wake up! Wake up! Everyone wake up!" shouted from a woman close by. "We're under attack!"

"Ugh, ten more minutes," Art said as he flopped over to plant his face into the straw pillow he now wrapped his hands around, along with an agreement of groans from the other now-awakened sleepers.

"Did you not near me? I said we're under attack! Now wake up!" shouted that same voice, except now it was bearing down right on top of him and he found his pillow being pulled out from under him, his head smacking into the cold smooth stone of the floor. -- "Oomph" -- "Get up, get up," she continued to shout as she stepped over him to stand before and shake the man in the next bed over.

Art rubbed his hands against his eyes with a grimace. Couldn't a traveler get one night's decent rest? He and the others had been walking ten hours a day that day, and the day before, and the day before that, and the Rogues' Monastery was the last place where they could really catch a rest before the four hundred league desert trek to Lut Gholein. And it felt to him as if he'd caught no more than one minute of sleep. "Damn it, it's not even light yet, what time is it?"

"Killing time," the woman retorted. -- "That's what I'm doing right now -- killing time! Ow. Ow, why, that hurt, lass!" Art retorted, eyes now wide open, rubbing at the spot on his side where she'd whacked him with the tip of her bow, and then muttered to himself. "A monastery full of women, and what do we get? A rude awakening, that's what."

"You want to know how it feels to be a-hurting, keep sleeping away." She was on to rousing yet another of the room's six occupants from his bed.

"Hey Art, get up already," said a man who'd been sleeping in the bed beside Art's. Art recognized the voice as Warriv's -- the leader of their caravan. He too was drearily wiping the sleep grit from out the corners of his eyes and rising out of bed. "I don't think the sisters have that bad a sense of humor."

Art sighed, then opened his eyes in alarm as he heard the sound of iron on iron clanging in the distance and steadily getting louder - the sounds of battle were swiftly approaching his room. His mind was aswirl with confusion. An attack? Who, how? He bolted up from his bed. "Shit, Warriv, for once you weren't fooling around."

He looked around in the near total darkness. His eyes having already adjusted, he could make out the shadowy forms of the others sharing this guest bedroom with him, who were all in the process of getting up. Manden, the lanky traveling minstrel who Art knew to have probably stayed up late into the night entertaining his audience, stretching and yawning and shaking his head. The stout and wide-bearded Warriv, reaching for the chest at the foot of his bed. Tyler and Johann, the pair of wide-eyed youngster twins the caravan had picked up from the last village they'd passed, already had their chests open and were rummaging through their contents. From their frenetic actions Art surmised the two were eager for their first dose of the adventuring experience. Boone, oldest and fattest of them all, muttering out loud, "I have to get my armor… I have to get my silver… I have to get my water… Ahh, forget the water…"

With a look at the door into the hallway, Art saw the woman had already fled back into the hallway, and a stream of archers running across the hall, their bodies, the brown and white gambesons they wore, and the round shields in their hands made visible by the coppery light of the torches ensconced in emplacements in the walls.

Retrieving his arming sword from under his bed, Art muttered at his bad luck even as he still tried to make sense of it all. An attack? From where? The Rogues' Monastery stood nestled across the valley between two mountains, an impregnable fortress -- so it looked from the outside when he and the rest of Warriv's caravan had made their approach that evening. Or, at least he remembered seeing it that way. Clearly the cries from out the hallway stood testament to the fact that he'd vastly overrated the safety this place offered.

They'd all paid good money for the priviledge, too. A whole penny[denarius]. Not for the room - each. And that was on top of the ten-pence[denarius] tarrif per wagon taking the pass. Warriv's caravan had several dozen wagons -- only a fool would brave the deserts without plenty of company in case something went south -- and given the importance of this pass through the mountain range, he was pretty sure that a caravan passed through its gates at least every day. That all added up to a lot of silver, and he'd wanted to complain when he heard what the Rogues charged -- highway robbery! Only the imposing scene of dozens of archers atop the battlements had made him keep his mouth shut, then. Guess they were about to see what kind of guards that kind of money fetched.

Realizing that he was still in his night-wear, he bent down to the locked chest at the foot of his bed and, in the darkness, fumbled around with the lock and his keys before unlocking it and looking at its contents. Not that he could make out much anything, with the only light coming from the nearest torch out in the hallway. He felt around with his hands, feeling past a canteen, leather bags, a pair of moccasins, until his hands found a heavy padded jacket. Retrieving his black gambeson, put it on over his night clothes to cover his chest and waist, his shoulders and upper arms, and his thighs. As he finished tying the knots of his gambeson and proceeded to tye his sash about his waist, he felt the chill draining out of his body, wrapped as he was behind a dozen layers of fabric.

"Just who are the Rogues fighting?" asked Warriv.

"Think the king has finally got off his fat arse?"

"Well I wouldn't put it past him. Declaring them rogue in the first place, that would make him the usual suspect. Though I'd thought he'd have dropped it by now. Attacking now? Actually I take that back, with the kind of luck we've been having that's just par for the course."

"Damnit Taril I told you before and I'll tell you again, no one's going to pay for the crap you're peddling."

"You just wait--"

"Or, you know, could be anyone the Rogues have managed to piss off in the few decades they've held this place, with the kind of fees they charge," said Art. "The last caravan that had come by, the one before that, all the caravans who had to turn away, our caravan, you, me…"

When Art finished with his sash he put on his leather boots and gloves, fit a leather cowl snugly overhead, stashed his money-pouch into his sash pocket, then retrieved his kite shield from the chest. With the sounds of battle slowly getting louder, he felt a lot better with a large metal barrier between him and whatever was coming his way.

"Think they'll be able to hold them off?" asked Tyler.

"Think we'll have ourselves a fight?" asked Johann.

"Boys, if you think you'd enjoy a good fight then I have a lesson in hard knocks that I think you'll enjoy."

Art went through a mental checklist of his belongings. Armor-- check. Sword--check. Shield-- check. Purse-- check. The rest of his belongings weren't quite as important. If they were forced to retreat, he wouldn't want to have too many belongings on him as that would slow him down. If the Rogues won then he'd be back in no time. Oh, and the water, don't forget the water, he thought to himself as he brought out the canteen, uncapped it and drank.

"Guys, are we ready?" Johann called out. -- "Yes," Art replied. -- "You know me; I'm always ready." -- "Now hold on just one moment Tyler…" -- "…yeah just… what he said… have to get my silver… where's my silver?" -- "Check your pockets, I think you said that one already." -- "Ah. Yes. Why thank you, Art." -- "Always here to help, old pal."

From where he stood Art could see a continuous stream of people running in both directions - women in brown and white uniforms running rightwards with bow or javelins in in hand and full quivers over their shoulders, and an assortment of disheveled men, women and children rushing leftwards with packs on their backs. "Uh, guys, we should probably hurry up, we don't want to be the last ones out of here…"

"Warriv, Taril, you all ready to go?" -- "Ready as can be." -- "Aye." -- "Have to get my papers…" -- "Aw, forget your damn papers," said Art as he prodded Boone toward the doorway. "If the attackers get a hold of you it'll be 'have to get my liver, have to get my bladder… eh, forget the water in my bladder' with you." -- Laughs from Tyler and Johann.

"Right then," said Warriv, "Let's go," and together the six made for the entrance, where they waited for a gap in the stream of passersby. One woman was holding a crying babe up close to her bosum; one man limped along with a walking stick in one hand and a teenaged boy in the other, holding up all the others behind them. Sleepiness and disheveled hair all around, noted Art as his eyes passed over them all. Once this group had passed, Art pointed Boone down the hall after them. "Go." Boone needed no prodding, and Tyler and Johann went right after, practically at a jog, turning right at the end of the hallway. Warriv went next, then Taril.

[Wherein Art decides to instead go to fight alongside the Rogues]

Just as he was about to take off after Taril, however, Art's eyes went to another squad of archers going the other way -- sisters, off to the battle, bows in hand and quivers on their backs, their gambesons prim and proper, high leather boots plodding upon the stone floor as they passed, some with leather coifs covering their heads, others with spears in hand, all with that same determination etched on their faces as they raced to defend their home. The torchlight provided enough light for him to make out who they were: all women, none he recognized, some young enough to take Art aback: some of the ones they were sending into battle probably hadn't even seen their fifteenth birthday.

For a moment Art froze. He had a sword and shield in hand, and he wasn't sure but maybe, just maybe, the defending Rogues could use some help. If he went with them… but that would mean leaving his caravan-mates behind. He didn't want to lose sight of his friends at a dangerous time like this. Who knew if they'd come under attack the moment they turned a corner and he could have helped? Besides, they'd wonder what happened to him. He couldn't bear to let them worry so. And the archers could use his help, too. In case the invaders got that far.

Which led his thoughts back to the Rogues. They needed help and they needed that help now, and he'd be damned if he didn't give them that help when he most definitely could. He had his arms at hand and his armor about him; what excuse did he have? Could he stand aside while girls went to brave the dangers he, a grown man, would not dare to face? Would he follow Taril and live to one day tell his grandchildren of how he had shirked his chivalric duty to fight when the battle beckoned?

No, of course he couldn't.

His hand reached out to the last of a squad of the women archers racing the other way, and held her back by the shoulder, causing her to turn around with a questioning look. "Miss, I can fight," he said, raising his ensworded scabbard up and giving it a little shake for emphasis. "See? I have a sword!"

"Go with the others," she replied, giving him a light push in the direction Taril and the others had gone, before taking off after the rest of her squad.

It was then he noticed several others who were facing him… members of the caravan though not anyone he recognized, a crone, a young boy, a svelte lady and his partner, and a toddler, with not a weapon among them, who had stopped to see his transient discussion with the archer. Oh, right he was in the way. He stepped aside to allow them to pass. One by one they gave him and his sword and shield meaningful looks, their eyes saying, what are you doing just standing there, don't you have a battle to fight? Were those accusatory leers, mocking his indecisiveness?

No, he was a swordsman, he reminded himself, and not just any swordsman: he had taken years of direct instruction from masters of not one, but two schools. With his thumb he fingered the silver crest of the wing engraved upon the pommel of his sword -- a crest earned by and borne only by those who had risen to the title of first sword and proven themselves a master of the ways of the Flying Feather School.

The one who'd spared him not a second glance had of course not known that. It would be up to him to prove his mettle to her, by stepping up to the battle and fighting whatever invaders were threatening the archers.

The archers who had already all disappeared around the corner of the hallway.

"Oh come on," said Art as he rolled his head. He turned his head, watched as the rest of the group of caravaners filed off into the distance, around a corner to safety, then turned to back to face the direction of the clanging and screams. It had gotten a lot louder now, a lot closer. "Ah, damn it," he cursed and took off after the archers, passing the doors of several other guest bedrooms as he went and noting that a handful of caravaners still remained inside them, taking their time to get their assets in order.

He rounded the corner of the hallway, turned right and proceeded down a narrow, short corridor to find several of the archers forming a ring around the top of a spiral stairwell, their bows held outstretched, arrows nocked and pointed downward, ready to draw. Those standing in front of the stairwell held their javelins raised over their right shoulder, ready to lunge at an instant.

"Um, gals, what's going on here?" he asked of them, waited a moment as they continued to stare downward. "Hello?" He looked from one to another. "I know it's a late night and you girls are tired… you know what, forget it."

He'd… not expected them to have stopped here. He wasn't familiar with the layout of the monastery but he'd expected from the way the archers were rushing this way, that this would be a stairwell up to a turret overlooking the battlements. Any invader would have to overcome the outer cloister walls in order to make their way into the monastery proper. But going down? He had thought they were already at ground level, though now he couldn't be so sure. Had the enemy already breached the walls then? If that was the case then which way were the caravaners going to be fleeing? He cursed himself for not having taken note of the layout earlier.

Chancing a look over the railing, he saw that it was just one spiral, one flight of stairs to the bottom, the floor below. The stairwell was empty; no civilians rushing up from below. He rushed to take the flight of stairs down, his boots pitter-pattering against its wood as he descended. As he rounded the bottom of the stairwell he could see light from bursts of fire reflecting off the stone walls, smelt a tinge of smoke in the air, heard the sizzling and crackling of electricity, the sounds of shattering ice, the ring of metal skipping off metal, and cries of pain.

Was that the weapons of the enemy, or that of the defending archers? He tried to recall what ways the Order of the Sightless Eye taught. Ways involving enchanting arrows with fire and lightning? He was pretty sure some of the Rogues of the order were taught a way allowing them to loose arrows out of thin air in case they ever ran out of actual arrows, and if rumors were to believed, a way for their arrows to hunt their targets as if possessed with a mind all its own, but elemental sorcery? That he couldn't be sure of. If they didn't, then that meant the invaders were casting fire and lightning, and these youngling archers didn't seem the type that would be prepared for that eventuality. Perhaps there he could be of assistance?

Along the connecting corridor several of the archers were nocking arrows to their bows, and as he approached them he could see their nervousness, their unsurety, in the way they kept looking to each other and kept adjusting their footing. The nearest noticed his approach and gestured with an arm to shoo him away. "What are you doing here? Leave now!" -- "Leave, already? But I just got to the party!" -- "…Party?" she cocked her head and made a grimacing face that read of outright disbelief. -- "I said, I've--"

"Front line, retreat!" a female voice called out from just out of Art's sight, and the archer he was speaking to whipped her head around to look down the hallway they were all facing and raised her bow, preparing to aim, to give a covering volley to those further down the hallway as they retreated.

Art walked up and peeked around the corner of the wall to see a column of archers racing right at him, the closest one practically about to run into him. "Out of our way with you!" the one shouted right in his face. -- "Ah! Out of your way with me," he shouted in surprise, and turned and bolted down the hallway so as to not get in their way, then realized he had no place to go but up the stairwell from whence he'd descended, so up he went, with the mass of archers hot on his heels. With a single flap of wings might I glide through the sky, horizon to horizon might I fly, he thought, and with the Flying Feather's way in mind, he bounded up the flight in four leaping steps.

Behind him he heard that same commanding voice call out, "We will hold them back at the top of the stairs! You lot, don't hold here, move move move!" Followed by the sound of crackling lightning.

Upon reaching the top of the stairwell Art moved to a slight alcove in the room to give the archers room to ascend. For the first time he caught a glimpse of the commander of the archers: an archer in her own right, decked out in mail, her auburn hair tied back in a ponytail, her quiver devoid of arrows. "I want two lines around the stairwell." As soon as she finished speaking, the two dozen archers gathered here formed two concentric rings around the top of the stairwell, with the first ring kneeling right before the stair railing and the second ring standing behind and over them, leaning over the railing, all of them with their arrows nocked against their bows.

Art looked over the arrayed archers - distraught, tense, with tears falling down some of their cheeks. The screams were getting closer now, getting louder until it was right below them. Several of the archers cry out in grief as one of the archers below cried out, "Help, help me! He--" and just as suddenly her scream cut off. Seconds later, the last of the archers rounded the top of the stairwell, panting.

For a few seconds a pregnant silence echoed through the halls.

Art looked around and counted them in disbelief. He'd seen at least several dozen archers manning the walls when the caravan had first arrived at the gates of the outer cloister, and a place such as this was certain to have more of them elsewhere. In the, what, one minute tops? from when he'd awoken to when he'd emerged into the hallway, he'd have wagered a pretty penny[denarius] or two that at least five dozen rogues had passed by the hallway. Here there were only two dozen. Where were the other archers? Did they stay with the caravaners, to give them protection in case they came under attack from a different direction, or defending another chokepoint further back? They weren't still manning the battlements, unaware of the situation, were they? Or, he thought with a tinge of worry, had the rest of them fallen already?

He had yet to catch a glimpse of what the archers were fighting. He couldn't come up with a plan of attack until he did. His old master had once told him that a true master of the Order of the Flying Feather could stand toe to toe with just about anyone of any skill level in any of the ways. He'd seen the sparring and the inter-order challenges to prove it. But Art himself was no master, and if the invaders were, then he'd not be able to hold his own.

Tapping the nearest archer on the shoulder, he asked, "Just what in the hells are we fighting? What's down there?"

He saw, in her eyes when she turned around, an utterly bewildered look. Just what monster had they seen, what horrors had they witnessed? At times like this he wished he could see what they'd seen.

She didn't reply, merely turning back to looking down the stairwell. "Well it can't be that bad, is it?" When she still didn't reply: "Oh, it's that bad, is it?"

Who the hell were they fighting? Was it, as Tyler thought, the king's men? What other faction could have the intelligence to penetrate the Rogues' defenses, the power to force the Rogues back in their own facility? Was it hundreds of men, or had a single martial artist managed to fight his way through on his own? Perhaps someone of Art's own caliber?

His palms felt cold, the heat of battle having rushed from his limbs to his head. Readjusting his grip on his kite shield, he realized that, unlike all the archers here, he was holding a shield and that he wasn't making any use of it. This lot were all archers - he didn't see more than a handful of spears among them - and when the enemy advanced up the stairwell the Rogues would need someone to block them. That of course, would be him.

With a look of determination, he went to the start of the descending stairs and tried to push aside a pair of archers with his shield. When they looked askance at him, he replied, "I will hold this line."

Then a beastly roar shook the very foundations of the stairwell. Art took an unconscious step back, sagged where he stood, grimacing, his offer forgotten as they all shared a collective held breath as the silence resumed for but seconds. "Okay, I take that back. Pretend you didn't hear that?" When the archers summarily ignored him, "Ah perfect. You pretend very well."

A heavy thud broke the silence, and the two rows of archers simultaneously drew back their arrows for a first volley. But before they could shoot, came another thud and a third in rapid succession, and then an attacker was up the stairwell. Something massive, though it remained hidden from Art's sight by the archers arrayed before him. The stone of the stairwell reflected light fiery and white as the archers loosed arrows of enchanted fire and captured lightning every which way. A heavy thud as archers were sent flying back from the brim, to smash into walls and collapse inert upon the floor. The wooden railing, blasted off its supports and hinges, shattered into lethal shrapnel and embedding into flesh and bone. Other archers, thrown onto the floor in that same stroke. A second later another impact sent more of the archers diving headfirst or hindfirst into the walls. Screams of terror, cries of pain, and a halting, lone voice calling for another retreat--

Oh gods, what the hell are we even fighting? Art thought in horror as it began to dawn on him that this was no mere human the Rogues were fighting. How could he … could he even… what was he thinking in coming here? And the throng of archers, their faces a rictus of fear beneath the light of the stairwell torches, were taking steps back and turning and making for the exit, coming toward him as he stood closest to the exit--

Without even realizing it, Art backed out of the stairwell and out into the adjacent corridor as several of the archers fled right into him, the throng pushing him further and further back, tripping into each other and losing grasp of their bows in their bid to flee. Then they were past him, out the corridor, turning left and fleeing down the hall, and Art found himself taking additional steps backward from the stairwell entrance, his shield clutched in his hands and held right in front of him, as if it would provide him a modicum of protection from whatever was within.

Before him, the last remaining archers were trying to fight the attacker off while retreating, their high-pitched shrieks unintelligible over the din. Art backed out of the corridor, turned to proceed ten steps down the hallway, and turned to look into the nearest guest bedroom. He noted from the dim light cast into it from the hallway torches, that some of the civilians were still busy getting ready to flee.

It couldn't have been more than two minutes since he and Warriv had parted, but Art had expected them to know better. Anger rose within him. Out in the corridor and the stairwell, young women, some even girls, were dying, all to buy these stragglers a few more precious seconds, and they in their cluelessness were taking their merry time, rummaging through their chests for more belongings to take, or perhaps others' chests for objects of value to swipe. Insolent fools. "Leave everything behind and run, you idiots!" Art shouted at them, then proceeded fifteen feet further back to another guest bedroom, shouting at the stragglers there, "We're out of time!"

Instead of turning to flee, they redoubled their efforts to finish packing.

[Wherein Art plans to hold off the demon to give the caravaners time to evacuate, and draws upon his way of the boulder, but flees upon seeing the demon]

Art groaned, realizing that at the rate he had seen the defending force fall apart under the onslaught, these last few caravaners wouldn't be able to make it out in time, there were only seconds left. The archers were just about all fallen, now, and what could one swordsman do where so many Rogues had failed? And yet, that same code bound him to stand guard, to give the defenseless just a few more seconds…

The thought of facing off against whatever creature had just torn through several dozen archers made his heart beat palpably against his chest. He could feel his pulse racing. He took several deep breaths to calm himself, and raised his sword and shield, alone in the middle of the narrow hallway. "Just for a few seconds…"

Yes, if it was just a few seconds, he could manage. He'd learned to fight from the best, after all, and had been accepted as an adept of both the Flying Feather School and the Arid Mesa School. He wasn't about to bring shame upon his masters, who had taught him many of the ways, among them Arid Mesa's way of the monolith.

Planting his feet down firmly, left foot ahead and right foot behind, his shield set before him, he leaned forward with a slight crouch. He began to focus his mind inward and thought, as if chanting, For a hundred years here I have stood. The winds blow past, the rains pound down, yet day after day I hold fast, implacable, unmoving, unbreaking.

Another archer fled out the hallway connected to the stairs, turning to run past him. He saw the blood caked all over her limbs and gambeson, saw the delirium in her eyes as she raced past without any hint of recognition of his presence. She slammed right into him as she made her way past, but with the way firmly in mind, Art did not budge an inch.

For a thousand years we stand. Moons wax and wane, seasons change and cycle, yet month after month do we still stand, never changing, never budging, never yielding.

Another archer followed her but barely made it into the hallway before a giant clawed limb grasped her by the ankle, causing her to fall."No no no help someone help!" she screamed at the top of her lungs and cried to crawl out into the hallway, but was swiftly dragged back into the corridor, out of Art's view.

Art felt a sudden pang of fear in his chest. That was no invading army, no master of any way, but something altogether different. Something he'd had no experience fighting before.

"Oh gods," she choked out, muted, as if resigned to her fate. A crunch of breaking skull and snapping spine, and he heard her no more.

He hadn't taken a single step forward to save her. For any lesser man, the fear would have rooted him in place. For Art, it was the way of hardened self and steeled resolve that had done so. His mind had entered the peace of an eternal moment, making him at one with the virtue of the unyielding.

For ten thousand years yet shall we all stand. Saplings grow and trees fall, towns rise and their ruins decay, yet year after year will we all remain, indestructible, immortal, invincible.

WIth a thud it stepped out into the hallway. Only then did Art see the beast clearly for the first time: a frame the bulk of ten men, spiked scaly tail the the girth and length of a full-grown anaconda, reddish black scales covering every inch of its body, arms and legs each bulkier than a grown man, foot-long claws a-drip with blood, two curved horns jutting out the top of its head, two rows of jagged teeth in the rictus of a grin, gleaming red eyes settling on him.

He dropped his shield and ran.

Bone, Chapter 2 - Lost to the Darkness

[Wherein Art flees and tries to shake the demon off his tail]

The caravaners had all fled down the right hand side, so rightward he fled, turning the corridor as the thump thump thump of the beast behind him told him he was but seconds from being dragged back by a massive bloody claw. Heart beating, blood pacing, he finished his sprint down the short corridor and turned left, into a wider hallway, some eighty yards long, lit all along its length by ensconced torches, the monster right on his tail.

Past arch after gothic arch he ran, the sound of his footsteps inaudible against the rhythmic pounding behind. As he ran he saw the row of windows passing by his right, through which only the black of midnight could be seen. Each too narrow for a man to fit through, even breaking the glass, the windows separated from each other by fluted stone columns half the width of a man. To his left, door after door, all left ajar, abandoned by their occupants. Art dared not enter any of those, they were almost certainly dead ends.

Why in the hells had he waited so long? He cursed himself for his stupidity. If he lived to see another day, he'd never again take a risk like this one. Standing all alone without anyone to back him up, even when he'd known that the enemy could break through ranks of Rogue archers -- what a fool he'd been! And where were they when he needed them? He needed to find them quickly, find them so they could all take on the beast, else he'd trip somewhere along these halls and die…

The image of all those archers arrayed in a neat row, their bows loosing volley after volley of fire and lightning… He'd seen that before, he realized. He shook the thought of depending on them out of his head. No way could any of them stand up to this. If he found the rest of the Rogues, he'd have led the terror right to those hapless archers, and they'd all be slaughtered, and then he'd die along with the rest of them. No, he could not seek their help. He'd have to find his own way out of this.

Having run to the far end of the long corridor he turned left - the caravaners and the Rogues defending them would surely have gone to the right, as that was the exit if memory served him. He cursed at having not memorized the floorplan before heading to bed. He'd no idea whether he'd just doomed himself to a grisly fate with his back against the wall of a dead-end room and his chest being run through by the thing--

But looking at the chandeliers suspended overhead, with its myriad torches, and the width of the hall he'd now turned into, he thought he'd judged correctly. He'd entered another part of the complex, one that saw much more traffic, which would mean a series of interconnecting rooms - rooms with exits, so he'd not be trapped. Into one of these rooms he fled, racing past couches and sofas and an overgrown potted plant, took one of its other two exits at random and sped out of the withdrawing room and into a room with several easels with painted canvases atop them and plain wooden benches before them. Taking care not to ram into anything - getting paint on his boots would make it child's play to track him - he leapt over a bench that stood in his way, and fled through the door opposite the one he'd entered, into a hall covered in lavish tapestries illuminated by a pair of braziers in the center of the room. He doubled back through a room on the same side of this hall as the one he'd come from, this one filled with spinning wheels and yarn, distaves and spools. Making yet another turn, he found himself out in another corridor, one leading directly to a spiral stairwell leading downward.

The last place he'd wanted to go was downward. The beast had originally come from below, and if it had compatriots there'd probably be more of them in the cellars. Knowing he had but a moment to decide, he gave a quick look down the other way - no lit torches down that way, and the darkness beckoned with a promise of staying out of sight of the monster, and the safety that would bring. That way seemed more promising… until he heard more thumps in that direction. No, that way was a swift and foolish death. Downward it was, then.

Taking the stairs down two at a time, he exited the stairwell into an unlit corridor. Feeling his way around the smoothly-cut walls, he found a wooden doorframe and stepped into it, into another room shrouded in pitch blackness. Walking forward slowly with his hands outstretched in front of him, he came upon the far wall and hurt the side of his arm against a doorknob. He grasped it with his hands and swung the door open, then stepped inside and shut the door behind him. Finally, he knelt down against the wall beside the door and took a moment to gasp for breath, several aspirations without feeling the leading edge of breath-debt subside.

[Wherein Art enters the way of deathly living.]

Was it coming closer? He couldn't be sure, the beast could be a great distance away, but it could also be close and on that chance he dared not breathe, yet breathe he must! His gasps for air, ragged and fast, reminded him of how his lungs felt like exploding. He could feel the pumping of excited blood coursing through his veins, however, and so loud! Surely the beast would find him here on account of his haggard breathing alone.

Worse, he felt like he'd lost control of his body and it was now living, truly living, of its own accord, without a care in the world for what his mind wanted. And he as his mind hated that feeling. The way of the ways was the mastery of the mind over the body, mind over matter.

Squatting down on the cold stone floor, legs crossed, he set his arms down his thighs. He closed his eyes and thought of the words he'd been taught, the way of deathly living. Just for a few minutes, he thought. Enough for me to regain control of my self.

My arms, resting before me, stay in place. My body, balanced in place, lies at rest. My lungs, now at peace, hold still, unmoving.

As he thought these words, he kept his arms perfectly still, and balanced the weight of his body. He slowed his breathing, stopped it completely.

My eyes, closed and shut, see only darkness. My ears, deafened by sound, hear mere silence. My skin, numb and cold, lose all feeling.

Closing his mind to all sensation, Art could feel nothing, notice nothing. If the beast had found him, he would never even know.

My heart, clutched in ice, beats no more. My blood, stilled in my veins, courses not. My mind, once racing, watches over my deathly sleep.

With but a thought, he became indistinguishable from yet another cadaver in the unforgiving darkness, his heart not beating, his blood not racing.

For several long moments he lived almost as one dead, even as his mind maintained a sort of unsensing consciousness.

When he came to, it was a slow, uncomfortable awakening from his body's induced sleep, as if his body were being dragged kicking and screaming from its slumber. With a pang of pain his heart began to beat again, slow and palpitating to the rhythm of lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub. Once again blood began to flow through him, cold as ice water. With a sudden, deep breath he aspired fresh air into his lungs, and it left him gasping for breath.

The first sensations his skin felt were of a spreading rippling of pinpricks all over, as if someone were rubbing porcupines over every inch of his skin. He heard, felt the ringing in his ears, growing louder, deafening, before gradually subsiding. Waves of color-that-was-not-color rippled out from the center of his vision, colors that felt purple and orange and purple again yet pitch black at the same time, like one could see if one stared too hard into the back of the eyelids.

He could open his eyes, but he could not move, he was a prisoner in his own body. Then his muscles twitched in pain, and slowly, gradually, he commanded his muscles to contract and relax, until he could move his hands and feet, arms and legs, until he was able to stand up once again, until he was back to being his normal self once again.

How long had it taken, three, five minutes? The beast had evidently been unable to find him; where had it gone off to now?

Ignoring the shouts and screams, he listened for the sound of the beast's thumping, the telltale signs of its moving.

He didn't hear any.

He resumed gasping for breath, looking about him in the utter darkness, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Just where was he? He'd managed to shake the beast off his trail, but now he had no idea where he was, and thus, no idea how to get out of here. And if he just backtracked, he'd stand a good chance of running into it again. Not that he could even remember the path he'd taken -- was that three lefts? Four? How many rights and straight-throughs did he take along the way? He was pretty sure he'd doubled back at one point too, but had he done that in the drawing room or in the room with all the drawings?

Then a mighty roar. For a frantic instant Art almost fumbled his sword, thinking the beast was upon him, but no -- loud as it was, he knew how loud it should have been from having heard it earlier, and he now knew it to be a good distance away. It probably had been lurking through the rooms upstairs, trying to find him, and had gotten frustrated with its failure.

Renewed anxiety arose within him at the thought of being a mouse trapped in a maze with a very hungry cat. No, I need to stop panicking, he thought to himself, and took a moment to calm his nerves. Alright, I need to move quietly and listen carefully, so I don't stumble upon that creature…

That's when he realized he'd been ignoring the screaming. Gods, they seemed to be coming from all around him, a cacophony formed of the high pitched, coarse cries of the archers who'd fought down here and who were now doomed and dying.

He had to get out of this hell, he just had to…

[Wherein Art happens upon a fallen shaman and its group of fallen]

His eyes now adjusted to the darkness, he could make out the faint silhouette of the door at the far side of his room. Walking to it, he propped the door open a mere inch or two, to see what was outside. Outside seemed a bit better illuminated by torchlight, it seemed, and was it growing brighter? With a sudden realization he slunk away from the door and planted himself against the corner of the room. That amber light was of a torch being walked towards the door to his room, from the opposite direction as the direction he could see with the door slightly ajar. Had he opened it but a fraction more or a moment later, whatever was holding the torch would have noticed him opening it.

An enemy? No, it wasn't the beast; the eerie cries all about him would not have muffled the sound of a ton of muscle taking steps through the halls, especially not when the stone would have propagated that sound a much further distance. But the fact that it was holding a torch, down here in what was clearly enemy territory, and seemingly striding down the hallway without worry for the beast? No surviving Rogue would be such a fool, which meant that this could only be a conspirator of that monster. A minion, perhaps?

He approached the ajar door, and he could easily see the flickering of reflected torchlight. Then the torch itself passed into view as whatever was bearing it proceeded down the hall, oblivious to Art's presence. The form, some emaciated humanoid with red skin, with what appeared to be a feather headdress and various sashes in various states of disrepair. That was no torch it was holding, but a gnarled walking staff, six or seven feet tall, with a headpiece shaped like a crescent moon and a glowing orb of captured fire floating right in its center, and a skull pinned at the bottom. The creature was limping along with seemingly exaggerated movements, swaying to and fro as if it were a miracle it could remain upright with each step it took.

Holding his sword in hand, Art braced against the door, ready to leap out. He could take this creature unawares, sever its head in one blow before it could cry out for help, and claim his first revenge for the devastation wrought upon the Rogues--

The next moment another red-skinned, hardly-clothed creature passed into view, then another, and another. Twelve in total. Unlike the first one these appeared as midgets - barely four feet tall, following the first one in a procession. Some held their bucklers and scimitars hand in hand. All were stark naked except for their loincloths, their skins red, their heads bald. Others were hauling, with apparently strenuous effort, what seemed to be a pair of human-sized figures across the stone floor.

Oh, he thought, taken aback. Good thing I hadn't attacked just then.

Though overall the situation looked bleaker with each passing moment. There was not just the lone beast stalking the shadows of the monastery halls, as Art had previously thought. Here were some other creatures invading alongside it, and where there were some there would surely be more. He'd have that many more enemies to avoid, and any one of these could raise hue and cry and bring the demon snarling down at his throat. And, he thought with mounting worry, this was beginning to look like a proper invasion, with a terrifying vanguard and lesser forces to fill out the rest of the attacking forces. The monastery had already all but fallen, and given the monastery's key geographical location, he wouldn't raise an eyebrow if they decided to turn this place into a base of operations. No, this was not looking good at all.

If the rest of the Rogues and the caravaners had managed to flee to safety instead of being separated like he was, then they'd only have known about that first monster, and not of all the other forces. If they then tried to take back the monastery, they'd be in for a painful surprise. He was probably the only one here who had an inkling of the enormity of the situation. He had to let the rest of the sisterhood know.

Which led back to the question of how to get out of here. Sneaking a look back through the ajar door, saw the smaller creatures had turned around a corner, with only the shadows their bodies cast against the receding torchlight as an indication. Without a sound, he snuck out into the hallway they had just walked through, poked his head out into the adjoining corridor they had turned around to ensure that they weren't looking back.

[Wherein Art is trapped behind a closet while the fallen chop a caravaner into pieces and eat him]

Oh no, they were coming right back the way they'd gone. Art doubled back immediately and dove into the nearest adjacent room he had available, the one on the opposite side of the hall from the room he'd just emerged from, and stepped into dark liquid. In the darkness he could not make out any red, but he didn't have to see to know what it was. Shit, he thought as he tossed the boot aside. He couldn't afford to leave a trail of blood for pursuers to follow.

When he put his foot down he almost tripped -- he'd stepped on something. A leg? There was someone lying on the ground, in the darkness. The man gasped in pain, and groaned. Whomever he was, he was probably badly injured, too weak to protest much.

Art heard sounds behind him, out in the hallway, or the adjacent one. The midgets were very close. With a start he realized that there was no they they hadn't heard the man, and they'd be coming to investigate. Then he realized that his little stumble had probably just cost the wounded man his life. Then he realized the patter of the little creatures' feet was getting closer. They could be in the room in seconds, and their leader had a staff that doubled as a torch. They'd see the both of them.

Art felt his code of chivalry tugging at him, and had to consciously suppress it. There was a man not fen feet away from him who would most likely be beaten to death in mere moments unless he acted. A man, which in the Monastery meant someone who wasn't part of the Rogues' defensive forces, who hadn't gone willingly to battle against the invaders, a man who was just your typical caravaner, most likely a civilian. That man could easily have been Warriv, or any of the others he'd been sleeping in the same room as but a mere half hour ago.

What to do? He thought. He could make a stand here, and make up for his failure of resolve back upstairs, and save someone's life. But then it'd be his last stand, because the moment they fought there'd be battle cries and then the beast would be on its way, and if not the beast then certainly these lesser creatures' compatriots. And then they'd both be dead.

Instead, he felt along the walls in the darkness, taking steps back from the door, hoping to find a way out of this place, and there his groping hands felt the handle of a wooden sliding door. With a 'sorry' on his lips, he snuck into the adjoining closet room not a second too soon. He stopped all breathing, dared not make a move in case it tipped off whomever was right outside. He mentally berated himself for getting trapped in a dead end like this, exactly what he'd been intending to avoid, and prepared for a final showdown with the the mob of creatures right outside. Yet, they didn't come for him.

Looking through the narrow slit between the twin closet doors with his right eye, Art watched as what seemed to be the shaman of the group -- the barely clothed lanky one who towered above the rest - started shouting in a harsh, guttural language that Art couldn't recognize, filled with K's, G's, and Z's, repeating itself twice as if in chanting. The smaller ones, their snarling bright red faces covered in streaks and markings of woad paint, had formed a ring around the corpse on the ground followed with what seemed to be cheers and shouts of their own. Victory cries? War cries? Art couldn't be sure.

He saw the shaman pull out a wavy dagger out from a sheath in its sash, and raise it above the man, preparing to stab down. The man, it seemed, knew that his death was a-coming. In seconds his cries went from a halting, almost whispered "Uh, uh, ah, ah" of terror to a gasping, sustained scream of pain shouted from the top of the man's lungs.

Then he saw the smaller ones kick the prone figure they'd surrounded. Groaning and softly wimpering, the man was begging for them to stop their sustained assault, and it was all too apparent that his pleas were falling upon deaf ears.

With a rush of fear he realized that but for the fact that he'd turned tail and ran from the monster earlier, he'd be screaming right alongside that man right about now.

Yet if he acted now, it would expose his position. As deep within the monastery as he was, as completely outnumbered as he was, he would just be asking to get himself killed. He had important intel to deliver to the Rogues. He couldn't die in vain.

Then the shaman shouted over the rest, and all the others rushed to back away from the man in silence, forming a circle. Then, with its right hand gripped right under the the staff's crescent headpiece, he lifted the staff, and the floating flame above it started to grow. In the space of one second it had gone from burning flames the size of a man's fist to an orb the size of a man's head. The shaman then pointed its right index finger at the man, and the sphere of flame launched in the direction it had pointed.

The man cried out in pain, a terrible, desperate scream so loud it pierced the gleeful laughter of the midgets ringed around him. Art stood transfixed at the thought of what they were doing to him as the man's screams continued for several long seconds before abating into choking, coarse cries, cries that soon could not be heard amidst the shouts and jeers of the mob. For even longer moments the midgets hollered and cheered and the fires crackled and burned.

The shaman pointed a finger at the midget next to him, shouted some commands. The chosen one, its mouth slavering with saliva, its incisors large and protruding, cackled rambunctiously with its buckler and then stepped forth with its three foot long scimilar and began to stab and stab and stab, and before long the others had joined in, cackling with glee as they swung their scimitars and proceeded to hack the corpse to bits. Blood splattered the walls and besmirched the faces of the red-skinned midgets. Art looked away, then shut his eyes and stuck his fingers in his ears, wishing he could be spirited away from this hell on earth.

After a few minutes the madness and the hacking had stopped and he instead heard much gnashing of teeth, cackling, and brazen shouts and hollers. Overcome with curiosity, he looked once again through the space between the closet doors and instantly regretted it. Turning to stare at the utter blackness around him, he cupped a hand over his mouth and fought down his gag reflex, to suppress the bile that had grown to the verge of vomiting forth, and slunk his back to a side wall in misery.

The midgets were feasting.

[Wherein Art meditates the way of inner peace to put it out of his mind]

Trying to push the sight out of his thoughts, trying to clear his mind, Art thought back to one of the first meditation exercises his master had taught him, back when he'd been but an initiate into the Order of the Flying Feather.

Slowly, let your eyes fall shut of their own accord… There is no past, no future, to take to heed… There is only the now… Focus the mind inward... Back of your head… You are all that there is, was, and will be, in this world… Nothing outside of you, in this world… Nothing to see, hear, taste, touch, or smell… Only you exist in this world… It is you who is feeling, touching, and experiencing this world…

Thus Art meditated, silent in the darkness, bringing his thoughts inward to himself, paying no attention to the outside world.

Take a deep breath, and hold it… Slowly, steadily, let it out… As you let out your breath, you feel more at peace, at home in this world… Let your body be at ease… Relax your shoulders… Rest your hands upon your lap… Another deep breath… Let it fill up your lungs… Gently breathe out… Set aside your worries… Put off your desires… Let your mind rest…

For several long minutes Art meditated, and as he did his hearbeats slowed, his mind eased. He felt better rested than he had when he'd been awakened out of his sleep.

…And now, slowly, open your eyes.

Art opened his eyes once again to complete darkness. He heard no sound outside, nothing to indicate any continued presence by those creatures. Looking out the slit in the closet doors, he could see only the same darkness -- the shaman had taken its torch staff and left, and his band of followers as well.

Sliding open the closet door, he stepped out into the room, his hands held out before him. In this darkness he was just about blind, and feeling thankful for it being that way. He didn't want to have to see that again. For a moment a vision of what he'd seen earlier flashed into his mind -- a managerie of blood and gore, flayed skin, snapped bone and torn sinew, the man's entrails plucked out from his guts and tied into a noose around the chin and neck of his severed head--

Despite the thought having been recalled to mind, Art set it aside. With the lingering state of mind brought on by the way of inner peace, he felt no distaste, no revulsion. When he heard the continuing shouts and desperate screams echoing in from all around him, he ignored it. When he took several more steps forward into pools and etched trails of blood, so that it stuck to his boots and dripped from the soles of his feet, he ignored it. When his feet bumped into the remains of chewed up flesh scattered all about the floor, he ignored it.

[Wherein Art comes across the Rogue dying from a bleeding throat and gives her a mercy killing]

He reached for his discarded boot and put it back on his foot. With the blood all over the place like this, the midgets were sure to leave bloodly footprints all over the halls and rooms outside now, and one more set of bloody footprints wouldn't even so much as stand out, not any more. And then he stepped out into the hallway, advancing through the darkness without any worry to slow him until he came across a connecting corridor with several torches lit. He thought he saw bodies--

He stepped back in a hurry, berating himself for letting him get too immersed in the way of inner peace. He shook his head to clear his mind of its last vestiges. There was a time for everything, and the time for tranquility and being free of worry was not when trapped in a place he didn't know, in the presence of enemies he could not freely engage.

Realizing that he'd seen bodies and not, say, prowling demons or patrolling midgets, he took another peek into the lit corridor. He could make out in the flickering torchlight a cluster of bodies collapsed on the ground, connected by dark pools of blood seeping into the cracks of the floor. Brown and white gambeson -- fallen Rogues. None of them moving save one, its motions almost indiscernable.

Nothing outside of you, in this world…

So many dead, mangled bodies. Strewn all along the length of the corridor they had fallen. The closest archer's body looked horribly contorted, lying on her back and curled up but with her head sticking out between her lower legs -- her waist had been snapped. The next nearest was propped up in a standing position by an unlit wall torch, whose iron spokes were stabbed up through her eyes. Art couldn't bear to look further down the length of the corridor.

Nothing to see, hear, taste, touch, or smell…

Mind still stunned by the horror, Art took a few steps forward, stopping by the side of the archer who had fallen but was still alive, and took a closer look. Looking no older than twenty, she was lying flat on her back, her mail-gloved hands clutching at her throat, her hands seeped with blood, seemingly trying to staunch its flow. Art shook his head and sighed. That the Rogues were sending barely trained younglings into battle reflected just how sudden the attack must have been, or how desperate their leadership had become.

She looked up at him, eyes wide, she made as if to speak, her lips moved, but no sound came out. Her windpipe partially crushed, then? thought Art. It looked as if she had great difficulty breathing. What had happened? Had the beast run them all over and taken a swipe at her neck with one if its massive limbs? She was lucky -- or unlucky -- to have survived this long.

There was, of course, no way to fix either affliction. She was going to die, he thought, and she probably knew it too, and just hadn't made peace with the fact. Art felt only a useless sympathy for her plight. Most people had difficulty making peace with their impending death; he probably would be too if he were in her place. She was no exception, and by trying to prevent any further blood loss, she was prolonging her own suffering. She was a warrior. She ought to know when more struggle was futile.

And if one of those shamans and their bands of midgets happened upon her and saw that she was still alive but too weak to resist… Well, he didn't know if they'd consider a woman's flesh to taste a bit better than a man's, but there was more than one way to savor a woman's flesh.

He raised his arming-sword before her so she could clearly see it, pointing its tip down at her throat. The gesture was unmistakable. At the sight her eyes opened wide and then shook her head vigorously, her lips in a rictus as if about to cry, and she raised an outstretched arm toward the blade as if to ward it away. More blood spilled from the lethal wound in her throat, now that she had only her left hand to sustain the pressure on her bleeding carotid artery.

"Fine," he muttered to her as he returned his sword to its sheath. She'd indicated that she didn't wish to die a warrior's death, or so it seemed. At least he could give her that, if she so wished. It mattered little in the end how she died. "Let me grant you a peaceful rest then." She continued to shake her head, her lips moving as if to say, No. He shook his head. "You know I'd save you if I could. You know as well as I do that you're not going to make it."

He knelt down by her side, gently took her hands in his -- so small and cold they were -- and lifted them up, away from her neck. She struggled to keep her hands in place, her efforts weak. Unyielding, he brought her hands above her head and pinned them there. "Stop struggling. It will be over soon. It's the least I can do," he whispered.

Lips quivering, she gave one last look at the torch on the wall and closed her eyes as the blood spilled unabated out of her artery to join the ever growing pool that she was soaked in.

He waited in patience and silence as her pulse slowed, then stopped altogether. There, he'd done it: his first kill of the night here in this accursed cellar, and it was to kill an ally. She would have died anyway without his help, but that didn't make it any better. He wondered if the invisible stains he'd brought upon his hands could ever be washed away in the waters of time, if Tyrael from on high would pass condemnation or pardon upon his soul. Kneeling there, the only one to hold her vigil, he wondered if he was supposed to feel a bit more grief or anger -- at himself, the invaders, their plight. But no tears came to his eyes. If anything, he felt at peace with himself and with the world.

How ironic, he thought. He stood as a warrior in a place surrounded by enemies, and the only one he'd felled was an ally. May the heavens find much amusement in that, he thought, for I am too emotionally spent today.

For a long moment he lingered there, wondering if there was something more to be done and giving the rest of the corpses a once-over.

Why yes, there was something more he should do. He slipped the bloodied gloves off her hands and put them on his own. Turning around, he saw that one of the other fallen sisters had a helmet with attached aventail. He promptly relieved her corpse of it too and donned it on himself. Armor was wasted on the dead.

Where there anything else he could use? Looking over their discarded weapons -- javelins, spears, arrows -- he picked up a bow. Elm, five feet long, twenty-five inch draw length. All along its length ran a series of carvings, no more than a tenth of an inch thick, not deep enough to weaken the bow to any noticeable extent. Straight lines, all of them, the longest ones going up and down the length of the bow, but with several smaller ones formed into several runes at both tips, and a more extensive series of easily hundreds of cuts arranged to runes at the center, right around the depression where an archer would have fit her fingers. Symmetrical, beautiful to behold. This much finesse could not have come cheap.

So that was how the Rogues went about wielding fire and lightning. He'd thought it was strange, for the Sightless Eye School, a school known for its clairvoyant ways, to be proficient in elementry. What was this bow's element?

He just picked it up in his left hand, picked up an arrow from the quiver on the floor beside him, and nocked an arrow against it with his right, like he'd seen the archers do. The moment he had the posture just right, a foreign sensation poured into him, like his body had learned a way of its own accord, like muscle memory, and was now teaching its mind. If he tried to empty his mind and sense what way it was, he could barely make out a feeling welling deep within him, reminiscent of sparks from crashing flint, as if he were but an ember floating through the air, eager for kindling to set alight. Had it been taught as a way, its lines of thought would probably be intended to evoke the awakening or hunger of a newborn fire, and its practitioners would probably evoke much the same state of mind as this bow was doing for him. The focus evoked by this way felt crystal clear, potent; one would have to spend months to master a way to the level granted by the mere wielding of this item.

He tossed the bow back onto the floor, it clattering as it went. He'd not shot an arrow in his life, and he was not about to start now, not when he had his sword, not when he was in close quarters, not when most of the rooms were shrouded in darkness. The foreign way had left his mind the moment the bow fell out of his hand.

Power right at their fingertips, to grant their untrained minds a way of fire. And it had all come to naught, thought as he shook his head, looking at the woman he'd helped expire as he stood up.

[Wherein Art comes across a woman who had been carved into, and at her behest, ruins the flesh cutting.]

His trousers and the lower part of his gambeson now bloodied, he proceeded down the lit corridor, then another, trying to get a feel for the layout of this part of the monastery.

It didn't help that most of the rooms and hallways down in the cellars here lacked lighting whatsoever, so that his outstretched hands kept bumping into walls where he least expected them; that he kept almost-tripping over fallen archers or kicking arrows and bows into the distance with a clatter; or that he kept having to change directions. Within the span of a single minute he'd happened upon the torchlight of three separate midget patrols -- or perhaps the same one that just happened to never be where he'd expected them to be -- and had to make a quick turn into a side room or an adjoining passage, or backtrack.

His wandering led him to a small room of worship with a standing torch at each corner and an altar table set in the middle. The purple prayer mat had been kicked into a corner, colorful tapestry showing portraits of an elder motherly figure ripped off the walls or set aflame. Incense lay strewn about the floor and the white cloth covering the altar that he'd expected to see was nowhere to be found. Instead the mahogany of the altar was bared.

A young woman, stripped of all clothing, lay spreadeagled upon the altar, raven hair splayed out behind her, wrists and ankles manacled to chains looped under the wooden legs of the altar. She had been crying out continuously until she caught sight of him, upon which she abruptly stopped her wailing and, with tears flowing down her cheeks, stared at him in disbelief.

He stared at her naked breasts and abdomen in disbelief. "Well, aren't you a sore sight for eyes." Red streaks covered her skin, bloodied cuts as if carved by an athame, a grotesque work of corporeal art. The intricate flesh cuts included several strokes that had been made in the arrangement of a crossed diamond above her left breast, where her heart would have been, with a circle of smaller, more precise cuts arrayed around it; several alternately large and complex cuts going down the length of her chest and abdomen; and long, simpler cuts going down the length of each outstretched arm and leg, interspersed with more complex cuts on the joints -- the shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, and ankles. Several hundred slashes, at the very least, and a few drops of blood dribbling from every one. It seemed a testament to the skill of whatever artist had done this, that she was still alive, and, he suspected, she was probably intended to live through the ordeal.

It seemed he had arrived just in time to save her. One glance at what those manacles connected to, and he figured it would be dead easy to just remove the chains out from under the wooden legs of the altar, without making any loud noise that would alert the patrols, and then she'd be free. She was helpless to do it from her position atop the altar, but it would be no difficulty for him, he'd just need to tip the altar-table enough to tank the chain out from underneath the table leg, and do it four times.

The captive tried to move, but instantly stopped, crying out in pain and biting down on her lips so silence her outcry.

No, even if he'd gotten her free, she'd be in too much pain to so much as stand, much less walk the distance it would take to escape the monastery. What left but to put her out of her misery, as he'd already done before?

Art stepped before the altar-table, entranced. Just what had they done to her? He was sure he'd not seen such horrible marks before, it looked completely nonsensical to him, and yet felt a sense of familiarity, just looking at it. It reminded him of something he'd once seen before, what was it again? Then it came to him. These were like the runes he'd seen etched into arms and armor, like the carvings on the Rogues' bows, just with different shapes and patterns and transplanted on flesh where they looked far more abominable. And just like those etchings and carvings, he surmised, the connected series of runes comprising these cuts into her flesh most likely could also be used to trigger certain states of mind.

Swords and shields with etchings upon them had a clear use for them: a sword might have runes to trigger ways of agility or accuracy, a shield ways of resiliency. Tools, in a word. That was fine: having a sword that granted the wielder enhanced agility made sense, because there was practically no situation where using a sword well could be useful and using a sword better wouldn't. But those were tools. The human body, on the other hand, was not a tool to be wielded. Or was it? The implications were disturbing.

So what, they were turning their captive into a living weapon? Why were they going through the trouble of making this intricate a series of cuts in her flesh? It would have been much easier to simply kill her along with all the rest. It would be a complete waste of time unless they planned to get some use out of her.

"Please," she rasped out at barely a whisper, her voice hoarse, "The blood priest will be back soon."

Blood priest? Ah, the shaman from earlier, or another like it. He'd seen that other one raise a ceremonial dagger. Back then, they'd killed and eaten the man. They'd not done the same with her. Why? Was she one of the Rogues? She didn't have any of the Rogues' gear on her any more, but one look at the muscle in her arms and he was almost sure she was an archer. Perhaps they only did this with women, with the Rogues, with those not seriously injured or with those who could fight? He couldn't be sure which of those applied, not until he knew what all those cuts on her meant.

"Please", she continued, "Don't let them do this to me." -- "What would you have me do?" -- "Cut me." -- "What, like into pieces?" -- "A big X, right through the heart of all of the blood priest's cuts. Ruin his work. I want to see the look of frustration on his face, even if it's the last thing I see."

Art nodded, realizing what she was suggesting. The etches on arms and armor were in those particular patterns because they had to be in order to work. They would be ruined if additional etches were made. Etched objects were usually made of metal, so they'd not take additional etches readily, but cuts into flesh? It would be all too easy to make a cut in the wrong place and render the entire pattern useless, and even if one lived long enough for a cut to heal, a deep enough cut never truly fades away.

Yes, he could imagine the rage that would send the shaman into when it returned. He could also imagine what the shaman would do next, when it realized that its captive was now useless to it, and took out its fury on her. Surely she could see that? If he were in her position, he'd ask for a mercy killing instead. "I mean, are you sure about this? You won't get another chance. For mercy, you know. Trying to spite the blood priest, probably not the best if you eventually decide to beg for mercy. I mean sure, they're pretty tame for demon spawn. All I've ever seen them do is skin a man, rend him limb from limb, tear flesh from bone and eat it, and laugh about it. That, to a man who had done nothing but be unconscious when they showed up. Like I said, pretty tame and predictable. As for you, if you pull this off? All bets are off."

What am I saying? Art thought as his words echoed in his mind and he heard what he'd just said. Just listen to myself, making light of this situation. How could I even say such things? I think I'm losing it. This place has gone to hell in a handbasket and now I'm losing it. Preoccupied as he was with his thoughts, though, he didn't miss her next words.

"I don't care."

He could see the resolve in her eyes. What a fool. As he unsheathed his sword, he realized that when the shaman came back, it would immediately deduce the presence of an intruder and would set his midget minions to look behind every doorhinge. He'd have to move quickly to avoid capture.

"Ah, very well. I guess in such circumstances not caring is good. Easier said than done, I suspect, but a wish is a wish, and I shall grant you your final wish. May you not live to regret it."

He brought the tip of his blade up over her right breast, near the top of the main body of cuts, and set it down upon the flesh. He saw her taking in a deep breath and bite down on her lower lip, preparing to receive the pain.

What the hell, he thought to himself as he took in the sight of his unstained blade. That his blade would be stained with the blood of a captive ally and not by any of his enemies -- that was just too cruel. That his blade would be doing it in, and in the process desecrating, a sacrosanct prayer room of the very order who had sacrificed innumerable sisters in a selfless act of valor, why, that was just the cherry on top.

He wondered for a moment, considering whether to ask her name. Such courage wasn't in great supply. Then he reconsidered. Someone this foolhardy deserved to be forgotten.

He slashed his sword across the captive woman's skin from her right breast to her left hip, then from her left breast to her right hip, taking care to only cut skin deep. She cried out in a muted scream with each stroke of his blade. Blood dribbled from his sword as he resheathed it.

Then he turned and fled out of the prayer room. She would get to see her vengeance and live to suffer dearly for her insolence. He would not.

Bone, Chapter 3 - From the Depths Redeemed

[Wherein Art comes across a woman and her daughter Selena and agrees to set the daughter free, the mother tells her daughter to do as Art tells her to.]

Heading further down the hallway, he saw torchlight growing into view straight up ahead and leapt into a side room, holding his breath in the relative darkness as the troop of the midgets, led by a shaman, walked down the path, two captives in tow, both being dragged by their ponytails, neither struggling. Whether this was the same shaman as the one who had left the captive untended, he could not be sure, but he didn't want to be anywhere near if it turned out to be one and the same. Feeling his way to the back of the room, he nearly knocked over a pile of scrolls, managing to keep them from falling just in time. Patting that down flat upon the table, he kept moving, into another corridor on the other side.

A straight corridor, torches placed upon the walls at regular intervals, with doors placed close together on either side, mostly solid but for small slits at their bottoms and square barred windows at head height.

As he proceeded down the corridor, he looked in through the windows. Dungeon cells, no doubt about it: chains, manacles suspended from bars nailed into the walls, most of them unoccupied, several holding men and women bleeding or dying. None seemed to be in any state to notice his passing.

The sight of the grotequeries that he had come upon earlier came to mind. Instinctively he returned to his meditations.

Focus the mind inward...

One woman had her limbs hanging from four separate chains along the wall, all of them hanging separately as if for sale at the butcher's.

It is you who is feeling, touching, and experiencing this world…

The one in the next cell over was unclothed and was hanging by an iron collar around her neck, her arms and legs reduced to stumps dripping red blood and her nether regions dripping black ichor.

As you let out your breath, you feel more at peace, at home in this world…

With a grimace Art had to admit that his search for inner peace was not helping.

So many had been captured. It seemed the invaders had moved quite quickly, securing so many captives, both Rogues and caravaners. Had some of them been cut off from the rest during their escape? Or had these caravaners been residing on guest bedrooms in the lower floor and been trapped when the beast began its sudden attack in the hallways right outside their guest bedrooms?

The moment he heard the rhythmic patter of approaching footsteps, he opened the nearest open cell door and snuck inside, closing the door behind him but making sure to keep it slightly ajar, in case it locked upon closing. He hadn't the cell keys with him. A bit of apprehension rising up in him at the thought of being locked inside the cell like all the other prisoners. For several tense moments he waited for the procession of midgets to pass by, until their footsteps had faded away.

"You… You aren't one of them, how?" whispered a woman right beside him. Art whirled in surprise, his hand already on the grip of his sword when his eyes settled on the woman before him, visible through the indirect torchlight that filtered through the barred cell window. Her arms were raised above her to either side, her wrists chained to the wall behind her. She was dressed in a peasant woman's gown and her hair looked quite frazzled. To her right was a girl who didn't look even nine, similarly attired and chained, with snot running down her nose and lips, looking like she'd cried her tears out until her tears had run out. The girl looked too tired and scared out of her wits to speak, just darting her eyes back and forth between him and the woman to her left.

Art could feel his mind easing. After what he'd just seen, it felt a bit better to be in the company of someone who wasn't just another mangled bag of meat. It felt like he'd returned from a very long sojourn into hell.

"I happened to not be born to a midget, is my guess… Ahem, I… got separated from the others when trying to escape. Then I got lost. How many of you are trapped down here?"

She shook her head. "A couple? Several dozen? I don't know." -- "I see." -- "Please, you have to get us out of here. You're the only one who can."

"I… I seem to have misplaced my keys. Funny how these keys seem to just fly away on their own, I was sure I had them when I entered."

"One of the tall ones probably has them. You have a weapon, you could--"

He could what, take them on? Yes, he'd thought of that earlier. He could fight these midgets, even the shamans if it came down to it, but there was no telling how many of them walked these halls now, no telling if the beast was right at the end of the hallway. Here in these closed quarters he'd have no room to use Flying Feather's ways, and he knew he could not face the demon using Arid Mesa, not when monolith had failed him already. If it showed up, he was dead. No, he could not risk it--

He dropped his head, and stared at the pommel of his sword.

"Please, don't just leave us here," she beseeched him, seeing his indecision. "My little daughter is only five…"

He continued to stare at his sword, wanting to just bash his way through the walls til he'd come out into the open. All this mucking around in the dark, avoiding pathetic minions as if someone like him could be afraid fo them, it made him feel so out of his element, a shadow of his true self. If only he could smash all his problems out of the way--

Oh that's right, he had a weapon at hand, and he was a graduated disciple of the Arid Mesa School. The way of the crashing boulder and smashing through things was practically a match made in heaven. Art took another look at the chains. Iron, the individual links just under a quarter of an inch thick. If he wanted to he could break those chains, but the crack of crossguard on chain would bring all the patrols on the floor down upon him. He'd have almost no chance of making it out, then. Not unless he moved fast. Never mind breaking all the others out of their chains; just breaking the two of them out would take too long.

Should he do it? Neither of these two would be of any help in facilitating his escape, especially not the girl. Their presence would only give away his position. And he was no closer to figuring out how to get out of this damnable labyrinth than when he'd first tried to shake the beast loose.

Did he dare risk it? Damn it, he thought. Here he was, an adept of two schools with proud histories stretching back centuries. And yet, when the beast attacked, he'd failed to stand his ground. When the midgets had attacked the unconscious man, he'd cowered in a closet. He'd been unable to save the one who'd been bleeding out and had helped doom the one covered in flesh cuts. What would Warriv think if he could see him now? Code of chivalry his ass, he couldn't name a single good deed he'd done in all this nightmare. What a failure. He'd be damned if that was all he'd ever amount to.

He turned to look the woman in the eye, then at the girl, then her again. He knew full well what her answer to his question would be. "Choose."

Tears welled in her eyes. Tears of sorrow and grief, he thought, until she followed up with a sigh in relief. "Thank you, kind stranger," she whispered, all calm and collected. "If no one else will tonight, at least let me call you a hero. My name is Cassia Aurelia. Please tell my husband Eamond, if he still lives, and my daughter, when she has grown, I love them very, very much."

"Mom?" the little one looked at her mother askance, looking like she hadn't been following the plot and was now very much confused.

"My sweet Selena, listen to me," she cood to her daughter. "This man will be getting you out of here, okay? You must go with him. Promise mommy you'll be a good girl and do everything he says, alright?"

"But mommy, I want to be with you…"

"Hush, my dear. It will just be for a little while. He's going to get you out of here first, then come back for mom, so mom come back for you real soon. Till then you have to promise mommy you'll listen. If you do you'll make mom very happy, okay?"

"Promise you'll come back for me?"


"Pinky promise?"

"Pinky promise."

"Okay, mommy."

"There's a good girl. Now what are you going to do?"

"I'm going to follow him and do as he says."

"Good girl! And remember, don't make a sound till he says it's safe, got it?"

"Got it, mommy, not a sound."

"Good. Be a good girl, and mom will be back for you real soon."

Cassia turned to Art and made a slight nod.

[Wherein Art breaks Selena out of her chains and they flee from the cellars.]

"After we go, the monsters will come for you," he said, and set the edge of his blade over her neck. "Worse than you can imagine. Shall I?"

"I know. Please do."

With a nod, he shifted his grip to hold the sword in the middle of the blade with both hands, pommel side up. With mail gloves on, his palms would feel the vibration but be otherwise fine. It felt good to be taking action for once. Half-swording, he channeled the way of the crashing boulder and threw his weight behind his strike as he swung the crossguard at a link four inches above Selena's right hand.

Crashing down with ten tons of solid stone, I crush all beneath me.

With a booming crack the link shattered beneath his blow, allowing Selena's right hand to drop. Selena cried out in surprise before silencing herself. The crack echoed down the stone corridor and its adjacent rooms.

Art's hands felt numb from the shock of the impact. He took a moment to flex his hands. As he did so, he heard disorganized shouts in the distance in the guttural language of the midgets. Time's ticking, he thought to himself. He channeled the way once again as he swung at a link four inches above Selena's left hand.

More mighty than any giant, all shall break beneath my strike.

With another thunderous and resounding crack the link broke. With another halting cry, the freed Selena collapsed into Art's chest.

Art flexed his aching hands and readjusted his grip, turning it around to hold it by its pommel once again. He brought the blade against Cassia's exposed neck.

"Thank you," she said, closing her eyes. Art could barely hear it with the ringing in his ears.

If he'd had the option, he'd visit revenge tenfold upon the invaders for what they'd forced him to do. For all the death and suffering they'd caused, he thought. They'd better manage to kill him before he made his way out of the monastery, or he was coming back to dispense justice.

He slashed the sword across her throat. Blood spurted, over Selena's back, over him, and over the barren stone floor, and a long streak of it quickly trailed down into the neckline of her gown. He suspected he would be having nightmares about this deed if he ever made it out of here in one piece. At least the girl had been looking away. That was one little saving grace.

"May you find peace in heaven," Art whispered as he rushed to resheathe his bloody sword. The voice in his mind was now shouting urgently, Go go go, move!

[Wherein Art flees with Selena in his arms, revisiting the aftermath of the battle.]

Then he lifted Selena up to hold her in his arms and against his chest. He propped open the door with his feet and then they were out of the cell and he was running and running and running down the hall. As he ran, he ignored the desperate shouts that suddenly started up from all around him, each one a voice pleading for him to either save them too or put them out of their misery. The midgets would be drawn to the dungeons any time now with that racket he'd just made, and he had no time to spare. If because of his actions, the invaders took out their fury on the other captives, well, he'd have to hope the high heavens would show him forgiveness.

Art heard a war cry from behind him, and turned to look. Several dozen yards behind him, the first of a stream of scimitar-flailing midgets had rounded the corner and were now spilling into the hallway, chasing after him. "Oh shit oh shit!" he exclaimed even as Selena, looking over Art's back with her chin propped on his elbow, screamed out in fear.

He raced down the hallway, his heart pumping furiously, knowing that the moment he encountered a dead end he'd have to fight his pursuers with no hope of escape. That, and the fact that encumbered as he was by this girl, he couldn't run half as fast as he normally could, which meant that even though they had short little legs and couldn't run fast, the midgets were gaining on him with each passing second. "Remind me why I agreed to save you again?"

He rounded left around corner into a corridor, then right at the end of that one, into a longer, lit hallway some six meters across, drenched in blood and littered with the bodies of men, women, and children, and a great many javelins, spears, scimitars, arrows, bucklers and round shields. Interspersed among them he saw dozens of midget corpses.

So the battle had started here and the first wave of attackers had included those, and those were eminently killable, as he'd guessed just by looking at them. It looked like the Rogues had managed to put up a good fight at first, with javelineers and spearwomen to hold the line and the archers behind them to keep up the pressure with their flaming and electrified arrows, until the beast had come and annihilated the defense.

Picking through the equipment all over the ground, stepping over the bodies of the fallen, a trio of the midgets were at work. One shaman stood on the side, facing away. It had just tapped the skull bottom of its wooden torch-staff against the skull of a fallen midget when Art had come into view. Now the fallen midget warrior began to move, climbing to its feet in uneven lurching movements.

Art paused, almost tripping over himself in surprise. These shamans moonlighted as necroturges? Crucial news indeed. He would have to bring this intel to the Rogues once he'd found them again.

At his loud approach they noticed him, turned to face him with their weapons at hand, a surprised look on their faces. One of them shouted, "Rakanishu!" and banged its scimitar against its buckler before thrusting them in the air. Then it charged right at him.

Given the width of the hallway and the fewness of his enemies, this was something Art could dodge.

A leaf, a petal, a feather, I drift in the open sky.

Art fell into the way of the dancing leaf, easing his muscles and feeling the slight movements of the air around him.

Carried by the wind, I spin, going where it takes me.

His footsteps softened, his body flexible and ready.

Slender, soft, small, I float on through the sky.

Then the first of the midgets was lunging for him, scimilar lashing out and down. Art crouched as he spun out of the way, past the creature before it could turn around to face him, and taking him within arm's reach of the second warrior. He'd had the opportunity to lash out and kill the first one just now, but he opted against it. He didn't want to put Selena at risk for anything.

It struck out as well, a horizontal sweep of its blade to bear down from behind Art, where he could not see it. And yet he didn't have to. The zephyr before the blade's edge was enough to propel Art to out of the way as he shifted his balance. The swing came right past where he'd been, missed by a hair's breath, yet still completely missing. That was too close, he thought. The swing would have missed by more if he hadn't been carrying the girl's weight with him as he went.

Dancing upon the breeze, I sweep past all that approach.

And then Art was spinning past the next midget warrior, his blade not needing to parry as his swirling movement took his completely out of danger's reach. The attacker's blade swept through the air to cut into his gambeson -- and cut it did, slicing through half a dozen layers of wool before glancing off.

For that fraction of a second Art felt panic, even as he realized his skin had remained intact. Heavily padded armor such as his could block cutting weapons, but not if it cut along the grain of the fabric, which meant that occasionally a cut would come through. The way of the dancing leaf usually protected him from even getting a cut -- but he'd been carrying an extra burden with him.

The fourth one, now the only one between him and the end of the hallway and the one that had been reanimated, swept its scimitar horizontally and close to the ground, moving slow and telegraphing its action as it went, as if attempting to trip him. Art did not even have to look as he felt the soft turbulence of air preceding the midget's attack, and leapt right over the approaching blade. And then he was behind the last of the warriors, and proceeding down the hallway. He did exactly that, slowing but for a moment to snatch up a round shield with his left hand.

At the end of that he turned left into another corridor, then right around another corner, whereupon he entered a torch-lit hallway with several gambeson-wearing corpses in a line on the far side. As he raced to that end of the hall he realized why this was tugging at his memory: this was where he'd descended to earlier, and had to double back because the retreating archers had gotten in his way. It seemed the one who had told him to go back, along with the others in her squad, had held their ground after all, sacrificing their lives so that the retreating archers and their commander could make it up the stairwell.

He turned left into the corridor he'd expected to see and, true to form, there was the spiral stairwell up. With the Flying Feather School's way of the albatross -- With a single flap of wings might I glide through the sky, horizon to horizon might I fly -- He bounded up the stairwell three steps at a time. That was pathetic for the way, but given the cramped quarters -- each step only a meter wide -- and given the girl he held, that was as good as he could get.

And then they were atop the stairs, where he for the first time saw the carnage where the archers had made their last stand. A dozen bodies were strewn along the sides of the room, their gambesons coated in blood, impaled by wooden stakes amidst larger pieces of the ruined railing. He felt a bit thankful that he hadn't successfully volunteered to stand at the front of the stairs, or he'd just be another nameless victim.

He proceeded out of the stairwell room. In the corridor he stepped over the mangled corpse whose head was facing the opposite direction as her breasts and whose limbs were all twisted the wrong way, and down the hallway that connected to his guest bedroom, which now had several corpses on the ground -- they must have been the stragglers he'd told to hurry up, who'd tried to flee when the beast had finally entered the hallway, at which point it had been too late for them.

[Wherein Art gets past a group of fallen who had blocked his path, and manage to get out of the monastery building.]

At the end of the hallway he turned right into the corridor, left into a long and well-lit hallway, and came face to face with a squad of midgets led by a shaman. He'd made too much noise with his hurried entry, and they all turned to look at him. He halted for a moment, they stared at him stunned. But a moment later all of them had snapped out of their surprise.

Looking at them, Art noticed that none of these had the woad paint he'd seen on the earlier ones. Were they a different tribe? Or did the painting signify something else? A mark of prestige, perhaps? If so, were these the runts of the litter?

This hallway was too small and cramped with the midgets for him to dance past them. After all, though the way of the dancing leaf granted him a preternatural ability to go with the flow of the wind the way a leaf might, he nonetheless took up the space of a human.

After banging their scimitars against their bucklers and raising their scimitars in challenge with a shout of "Rakanishu!", they charged at him with a cacophony of hollers. He charged at them in silence and in the way of the whirlwind.

Watch the whirlwind, as a top it spins. Feel the whirlwind as it spirals through the sky. Though you know the whirlwind by that which spins, Never shall you touch the whirlwind passing on by.

The moment he got close, he dove through the air with his legs out straight behind him, his entire body spinning left over right over left as if rolling in midair, his sword pointed straight forward: Bird Leaps for the Worm. The midgets dodged out of the way of his outstretched sword and tried to cut at him with their scimitars, but his revolving round shield forced them back or knocked them aside, and one who came too close received an ignominous bash on the head that left it face-planted into the ground and its scimitar and buckler spinning across the floor.

Landing with grace, Art found himself face to face with the shaman. It wore nothing more than a crudely painted loincloth and held a jagged knife and torch-staff in hand, and looked at Art in surprise. The staff it held was raised, and the moment it pointed its finger at Art, the growing ball of captured fire at the center of its torch-staff's headpiece practically lunged for him. Art knew it was coming, of course, having seen how quickly the shaman had blasted fire at the man he'd failed to save, and was already moving to block with his shield before it had started to point its finger. He blocked the fiery bolt with his shield, dissipating it harmlessly, then was past it, with his outstretched long sword in tow, pointed at the shaman, and the shaman's flying severed head followed right after, and the shaman's decapitated body right thereafter, to collapse onto the floor. Its staff clanged to the floor and rolled, no fire left atop it.

Only then did Art notice that Selena was shrieking and clutching onto him for dear life. Art patted her on the back. "Hey, now I'm offended, that was my best rendition of a spinning embrace. I put a lot of effort into learning it."

The rest of the midgets gave one look at their fallen shaman and fled screaming at the top of their lungs, right into the mass of midgets that had been pursuing Art, who upon hearing the retreating group scream, started screaming also, causing the retreating group to scream even more, and within seconds the rout proved contagious and then they were fleeing in all directions with their hands empty and their arms on the floor.

Another ear-splitting roar from the beast, this time from down below. He could feel the stone beneath him vibrate. Had the sounds of terror from its minions routing angered it to action? The memory of its snarling face, bloodied claws, massive legs and overwhelming size came unbidden to him. If he came face to face with that thing, if he were honest with himself, he'd probably abandon Selena as a decoy and flee for his life. And he didn't dare hope that it would be long before the rest of the shamans whipped them back into fighting formation. Either that or the beast would. He was pretty sure the midgets were more afraid of the beast than they were of him.

Art took the opportunity to keep running. At the end of the long hallway he turned right this time, where previously he'd turned left, into a much larger hallway with a wide, long carpet scorched black by fire and a trio of crashed chandeliers and melted wax candles amidst them. Running through the smoke without breathing, he felt its irritating sting in his watering eyes even as he tried to blink it away.

He knew this place now. The carpeted hall led right to a wide open space, the atrium of the monastery. To the left, a pair of wide oaken doors were fully open, and he could see the order's cathedral through them, illuminated as it was by a series of torches and chandeliers down its length. Many of the rows of wooden pews had been upturned, many stained glass windows shattered.

He and all the other members of the caravan had been invited in here to admire the beauty of that grand hall, reading plaques underneath each of those stained glass windows which had explained the imagery of the order's religious beliefs and foundations, like they were so many tourists. The largest window, right behind the pulpit at the far back of the cathedral, had depicted the most crucial scene in the lore of the Order of the Sightless Eye: That of its founder and greatest clairvoyant, Edenna, being shown a vision of the high heavens and of the akashic records, said to contain every truth, all history, past, present, and future. He'd marveled in awe then. Now he wondered if Edenna had foreseen the tragedy that had befallen her order.

That tour was earlier that very evening, not long before sundown. It seemed to Art like days had passed since then, dark days and nights black as pitch.

Taking a final right, he stepped out of the atrium, pushing out past massive, groaning oaken doors, and into the cloister, stepping aside from the doors so that anyone within couldn't see his illuminated back, and anyone outside couldn't see his silhouette against the brightly illuminated tapestries of the atrium. Looking around, he judged the coast was clear. Well, at least until they got to the gates. If the invaders were at all smart they'd have the gates guarded so no one could sneak into or out of the place.

[Wherein Art distracts Selena from thinking about her mommy.]

Here in the darkness of what must have been an early hour of the morning, he could see naught but the glowing sliver of the gibbous moon suspended high up in the sky, and all around it, thousands upon thousands of pinpricks of shimmering light.

He took in a deep breath, filling his lungs with the soft scent of nearby jasmines. Finally, he was out of those oppressively close quarters. He'd never felt so much relief at being out in the open at night, as that generally didn't feel safe. But after this he just might decide to never sleep indoors ever again.

He set Selena down on the gravel path. "Hey, girl, you all right?"

She looked up at him with tear-filled eyes, mute.

"Can't even say yes? I gave you a nice tour of the monastery, you know. Better than the one the Rogues gave me."

"Are you going back for mommy now?"

Art grimaced. "Oh yes, right, about that. I'll be going back for her. Yes, yes, definitely. But first I need to get you further away from this place, somewhere where you'll be safe, before I can go back to get her."

"But I want my mommy…"

"I do too, girl, I do too. Just snuggle in to her lap and have her sing me a lullaby and rock me to sleep."

The girl looked at him out the corner of her eyes. "Ha, for a grown-up like you? That's funny."

"What? Am I too old? I'm barely older than you are." -- "What! You're kidding. You're at least thirty." -- "Hey that's insulting! I'll have you know, I'm only twenty." -- "Forty!" -- "Ten." -- "A hundred! A thousand! Ten thousand!" she said, poking at his chest with each revision as she blossomed into a smile.

Well, at least he'd managed to distract her from thinking about her mommy.

"Ow ow ow," he said, backing away from her as she started to lunge forward so as to keep poking at him. "Stop poking me!" -- "I'm not poking you." -- "Yes you are." -- "No I'm not," she said as she raced after him as he hurried down the gravel path toward the cloister gates, feigning trying to avoid her touch.

Within seconds it had become a full on run, as they in relative quiet sped on through a wide open, grassy quadrangle dotted with bushes and trees and lined with wooden benches backed against ornately masoned stone fences overgrown with ivy.

Bone, Chapter 4 - Enemy At the Gates

[Wherein Art looks at the group defending the gates and coordinates his plan with Selena.]

The moment they came up to a line of hedges he pulled her aside, clamping a hand over her mouth, and crouched. She became quiet instantly. In the darkness he could barely see her, couldn't tell if she was trying to make out his figure in the night as well.

Keeping his hand firmly clamped over her mouth, he poked his head over the hedges, just enough to be able to see the heavy, towering front gates in the monastery walls, some fifty yards in the distance. He took a look at the walls themselves, judging their height relative to the heights of the shamans and the midgets. Two stories tall, by the look of it. With the way of the albatross he could easily leap right out upon the parapets even if they were a story higher still, and with another leap he'd be over the wall. But that was if he leapt unencumbered. With Selena in tow… Well, back in the spiral stairwell he'd managed fewer than half as many steps of the stairs with a single bound, when he bore Selena as when he did not. If that was anything to go by, if he held Selena and leapt, Selena's back would fly smack into the second story level of the wall. He'd have to go through the gates.

He could practically feel the call of the way of the albatross, the beckoning of the walls. They seemed to say: Forget the girl, save yourself. He pushed these thoughts out of his mind. He'd set his mind on saving her, after all. He'd already failed too many times. Failed the caravaners, failed the archers, failed those who had been trapped within the depths of the monastery. If he failed Selena too, if he abandoned such a helpless little girl in a place just crawling with abominations, why, he'd never forgive himself. No, he was not about to abandon her too, no matter what dangers that meant he'd have to brave.

Raising his head a bit higher over the hedgerow, he saw that the gates were closed. Twin braziers stood on either side of the gate doors, their bronze light illuminating a shaman standing before each. Beside each shaman stood a group of midgets, their scimitars and bucklers in hand and nothing but loincloth about them, wandering around seemingly aimlessly.

"Shit", muttered Art. He'd expected there'd be some guards posted at the gates, but that was a substantial contingent right there, more than he'd be able to defeat in the space of two or three seconds. They'd be sure to raise hue and cry the moment he struck out at them. Having fought past a group of these creatures already, killed their shaman and watching the rest of them flee, he could say with a fair degree of confidence that he could scatter them, if he used the way of the way of the spinning leaf, but not immediately, not without getting past them and killing the shamans, and not while protecting Selena at the same time.

Not for the first time he wondered just why he'd agreed to take Selena with him. At this rate she was going to be the death of him.

With the way of the whirlwind, he'd barrel right past any number of these minions and scatter them, but they were right up by the gates. A lunge that would take him safely past all of them would barrel his head right into the gates and scatter his brains out upon them.

Damn it, he thought. This was going to be a bit tricky. A plan formed in his mind. He would have to lure them away from the gates, making them chase him far enough so as to give Selena time to make for the gates down the gravel path on the other side. Shouldn't be too hard, he surmised. He'd seen them rout when he'd killed a single shaman; they wouldn't have the discipline to stay at their posts. He'd then have to get past the midgets and get to the gates fast enough to open them before they caught up. He'd have to give himself some extra space to work with. These were the front gates of an impressive institution of martial arts, and he remembered the gates to be the heavy kind.

He crouched down again and turned to the girl. "Now, Selena, I need you to listen carefully. Okay?" She nodded, so he continued. "There are monsters out there, that I need to lure away. I need you to stay here and then, when I shout, 'run', the moment I shout it, you run. Got it? Run straight for the gates, as fast as you can, do not stop to stare at the monsters, do not look for them, just keep running, run past the gates and then keep on running. Even if you can't run any more, keep going. Even if you fall, pick yourself up and keep going. Understand?" -- She nodded. -- "When I say 'run', what are you going to do?"

"Run." -- "Run where?" -- "The gates," she said, choking, as if a sob were about to burst forth.

"That's right, run for the gates. Run for it the second I tell you to, because if you don't, I'll put you on my lap and beat you harder than you've ever been beat in your life. Understand?" Some harsh threats were necessary at this point, he figured. If he didn't put the fear in her, the fear of something she could relate to, and as a result she didn't move fast enough, well, she wouldn't survive long enough for him to make good on his threat.


He pulled her into a snug embrace with his left hand, which she reciprocated, and then he was off, running down the central gravel path straight for the gathered enemy with his sword and shield in hand.

[Wherein Art engages with the fallen at the gates, drawing them away so that Selena can make a run for it.]

He hadn't been trying to conceal his presence, choosing instead to rush right at the band of midgets. Within seconds they'd turned around to face him, their weapons at the ready, some announcing his presence to the others with shouts of surprise.

"You guys tired of standing watch over the gates yet?" he shouted at them as he closed in. "Well why don't we have a little dance to pass the time, hmm?"

"Rakanishu!" the closest midget shouted, bashing its blade against its shield before thumping its scimitar into the air, the gesture replicated by all behind him but a second later. Then it charged right at Art, swinging its blade wildly.

Art blocked it with his shield and with his contempt, and made his own wide swing at the creature, glancing off its buckler with a clang. Battle was joined. He stepped to his right and made a stab at the midget who had come up to stand at the first one's side, and his sword rebounded off that one's shield too. He looked into their eyes and saw their eagerness for battle, the glint in their eyes that shone of what he could only take to be their hopes for glory.

He kept moving, making another glancing blow against buckler, and another missing wildly. The midgets for their part kept swinging their swords at him, none of them getting past his shield. As he watched he saw that his presence and ineffective attacks had started to whip them up into a frenzy. More and more of them stepped toward him and away from the gates they were ostensibly guarding, their eyes all on him and their blades pointed his way.

The one now nearest to him lunged at him with a wild strike that practically telegraphed 'strike me here! strike me here and you'll kill me cleanly and easily!'. Art parried the blow with his sword instead of taking the opportunity. He hadn't been intending to kill any of them just yet. He wanted them to be preoccupied with fighting him, and for them to be willing to do that they had to be confident that they could take him down. Him killing them would not play into his plans, so he stayed his hand.

The next one came at him from his left, right against his shield, but instead of simply blocking, he sidestepped further to his right, taking him a step away from the fallen who had now half surrounded him, many of them a mere five feet away. He took more steps to his right, and the midgets that had started to come upon him mirrored those steps, keeping close to him as they continued to try to poke past his defenses, three, four at a time.

Art wasn't worried. about this rabble, the ones who had been drawn to him. In the reflected brazier light he could see they had no paint marks. Another dozen of these creatures remained standing by their shamans and by the braziers; those did have their woad paints all over their faces and shoulders. Designated guards? Or more disciplined? Wondered Art. He had to get them to come after him as well, and the latter possibility made that less likely.

As he continued to parry aside blow after blow, taking measured steps away from the mob, he racked his brains for a way to get the rest of them to come after him as well. He took an extra step back, then pounded the flat of his sword against his shield and then thrusting his sword in to the air. Then he shouted: "Rakanishu!"

The shaman nearest him thumped its torch-staff against the ground and flailed its other hand. "Raka-- Rakanishu, zehe?" It spat some spittle on the ground, then continued, "Daka, daka! Rakanize kureku da!" It then continued to spurt a string of what seemed to be expletives at Art before shouting even louder than before, a true war cry from what he could tell: "Rakanishu! Rakanishu! Daka daka rakanishu da! RAH!" and finished with a pointing of its right index finger, causing the glowing ball of fire atop its staff to streak out at Art.

Art knocked it aside with his shield, feeling only an ephemeral wave of heat pass him by. "Wow. You sure you're not overreacting there? Just a teensy, tiny bit?"

Then as a wave they shouted "Rakanishu!" and then every single one of the midgets -- and Art made sure to confirm that it was every last one -- charged straight at him.

"Oh. Oh shit. I think I bit off a bit more than I can chew," he said and turned around and ran down the gravel path toward the side of the quadrangle, every single one of the shamans and midget warriors hot in pursuit. He had to keep from running too quickly - the little ones couldn't quite keep up with his gait if he really started running, and he didn't want them to become discouraged from realizing that he could outrun them with ease.

The moment he reached the far side of the quadrangle where the walls of the front gates merged into a wing of the monastery, he turned and raced down the side of the quadrangle, back toward the monastery's atrium, the whole lot of them making the turn right after. Within moments he was halfway up the quadrangle, halfway between the cathedral and the outer gates. "Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go go go run run RUN!" As he kept racing down the path he turned to look toward the center of the quadrangle, hoping to make out Selena's silhouette -- which he couldn't see in the darkness this far away from the braziers -- and hoping that Selena would take his cue for what it was and make a run for the gates.

After making it to the gates to the atrium, Art said, "Alright, loved racing with ya, but I can't play with you all day," back flipped and, with a thought of With a single flap of wings might I glide through the sky, horizon to horizon might I fly, he was soaring over the whole pack of midgets, floating over them as if standing on an invisible platform, with his arms outstretched to either side. As he sailed through the sky amidst bursts of outrage from the midgets that had been tailing him, he continued to hold the feeling of the way of the albatross in mind, the feeling of weightlessness and of gliding through the wind with the ease of the albatross.

The bound took him thirty feet toward the outer gates. His feet had barely landed upon one of the benches arranged in a square in the middle of the quadrangle before he kicked off from the bench to soar the remaining distance to the gates, where he could make out Selena running for the gates, arms flailing wide about her as she ran. Within seconds he caught up to her, then ahead of her, and then he was at the gates and raising the massive, heavy wooden bar holding the gates shut, out of its iron setting.

From a glance over his back, he could tell the midgets were gaining on him. It had taken him quite a few precious seconds to leap his way back from the far side of the cloister, seconds he barely had to spare. Within twenty seconds, nineteen, eighteen, they'd be upon him. If he hadn't gotten Selena out by then, he'd be trapped in an awkward position of not being able to defend Selena from all directions, or leaping over the wall himself and sacrificing her.

Rushing, he tossed the bar aside and pushed against one of the twin doors that comprised the gate -- the one on his right. It creaked open ponderously, inch by agonizing inch, until the opening was barely over a foot wide. Turning to Selena, who was looking up at him with wide, tear-stained eyes, he used his left arm to propel her through the gates, shouting after her, "Keep running and don't stop till I catch up with you!"

Relief fell over him. He'd done it. He'd finally saved someone who had been consigned to the darkness. He'd helped Selena escape, fulfilled the promise he'd made to Cassia. At a thought he could see her teary, forlorn smile, as if she were watching down from her place in the heavens and gracing him with her thanks.

[Wherein Art begins the fight against the fallen with the way of the monolith.]

Watching her receding back, rapidly dimming into the darkness outside the monastery gates, he felt the urge to follow her, to flee to safety away from this accursed place, and to stay by her side and protect her. But his rational mind knew better. She'd stand a better chance the further away from the monastery she got before the pursuing midgets could follow her, since in the dark of night she'd soon be impossible to find, and following her tracks in the darkness a fool's errand.

And he was now positioned at the gate, the only gate in and out of the monastery on this side of the mountain pass. If he stood his ground, they'd have to get through him to get to her. These little midgets? So long as he held his position, they'd have no chance of getting past him. Every second he delayed them was several more seconds they'd have to run to catch up to Selena, that bit more of a chance for her to get away. He could catch up to her later, seeing as he could outrun both Selena and the midgets.

They were coming right for him, bearing down on him fast. He had seen them, butchering the nameless man he'd happened upon, the shaman among them roasting him as if he were some livestock ready for the spit. Witnessed the horrible mess they left in the aftermath of their feast. Blood, gore, and entrails had been all that was left, nothing at all recognizable of the helpless man he'd so readily slain.

To imagine them doing the same to Selena, tearing her limb from tiny limb as she screamed… No, he wouldn't imagine it, much less allow these creatures to do it.

He turned around right before the half opened monastery gate, positioning himself where he could intercept the midgets regardless of which of the two doors they wanted to pass through, he set down his shield and focusing his mind as the horde of midgets closed in on him, twelve, ten seconds away.

For a hundred years here I have stood. The winds blow past, the rains pound down, yet day after day I hold fast, implacable, unmoving, unbreaking.

He positioned himself firmly behind his shield and watched their approach, eight, seven seconds away.

For a thousand years we stand. Moons wax and wane, seasons change and cycle, yet month after month do we still stand, never changing, never budging, never yielding.

He set his left foot ahead and right foot behind, leaned forward, bracing for impact, steeling his resolve as they converged upon him, five, four…

For ten thousand years yet shall we all stand. Saplings grow and trees fall, towns rise and their ruins decay, yet year after year will we all remain, indestructible, immortal, invincible.

The beast had broken his will, once. And this time, there stood none else between the mob and Selena, none whom he could charge with her safety. But this time, he was ready. This time, he knew who he was facing. This time, he knew the measure of the enemy, knew their weaknesses. This time, he faced no beast.

And now, with the path of retreat wide open behind him, a single backward step away, so that he had no need to fear bringing the wrath of the beast down upon him, with no more reason to shy away from fighting his foe, now he could finally fight.

Besides, the midgets weren't wearing armor.

Two, one.

And then the midget wave was upon him, shouting their war cries in utter discord, their weapons smashing against his shield and glancing off, failing to even budge him, and falling into the reach of his blade. Moving to the actions instilled in him from his years of training, Art slashed with his arming-sword with a swing from his right, slicing a midget warrior's unarmored belly open. Blood and entrails spilled forth and the creature's maimed body crumpled before him, impotent and dying, staining the gravel beneath his feet.

Then, without ever consciously telling his muscles to do so, his sword was sweeping back up and rightward, slicing the throat of another midget and silencing it mid-warcry. Arterial blood spurted and it dropped its weapon and buckler to clutch at its throat in silence, but already unconscious and collapsing but a second later.

Here I have stood…

The oncoming throng kept coming at him again, and scimitars hacked out wildly at him, glancing off his shield, failing to cut through more than the first few layers of his gambeson, rebounding off his helm, bouncing off the mail covering his neck. In return he lashed out with his blade, cutting through one midget's thigh, then left across another's chest, then down through yet another's skull. Screaming started in the wake of his strikes. The dancing of the blade sent streaks of red blood splattering into the eyes of other midgets as the dead bodies stained the ground crimson.

Yet day after day I hold fast…

One of the midget warriors held in a hand a scimitar that, with a swing, burst with fire running down the entire length of its blade. Art nudged his shield just enough to block the stroke, and fend off the flames wrapped about it, and it passed on by, the warrior holding it overextending as a result of Art's block. With a slash of Art's sword he severed the creature's hand. As it fell away the flames shrouding the scimitar vanished and it landed stabbed into the side of the last midget Art had slain. Both the newly hewn warrior and the one who'd been stabbed twice joined the growing chorus of the dying.

The winds blow past, the rains pound down…

The warriors at the front who had seen the fates befalling their comrades froze up, tried to backpedal, yet were pushed forward by the press of the oblivious ones behind them. They raised their scimitars in an attempt to block, but pressed up close as they found themselves, they had no room to parry. They tried to block with their bucklers, but in the press of bodies could not see the movements of Art's blade and blocked blindly.

Month after month do we still stand…

And Art's sword found openings aplenty in between those tiny little shields, interdicting those attempting to open the other door of the gate and hacking their limbs right off. A slice of an arm, and a warrior cried out in pain, clutching its hand and trying to back way, getting in the way of others making for the door. A slice through a leg, and a warrior crumpled into the ground, clutching its bleeding stump before a downward slash of the sword severed its head. And then his sword was back in the front, stabbing into the heart of one warrior pressed up against his shield, then another, then another. In the press of the mob, they were held in place, forming a buffer of bodies that hampered their advance and hindered the swing of Art's blade.

Never changing, never budging, never yielding…

Gasps of pain from the fallen rose from all about him. Cries of terror from those in front overwhelmed the war cries of those in the back as more bodies fell, some falling injured to be swiftly trampled under by those who followed, others dead before hitting the gravel, yet others never hitting the gravel at all as the bodies around the gate started to pile up. Art almost lost his footing as he found himself standing atop red-skinned corpses.

Saplings grow and trees fall…

Over a dozen had died to his blade. It brought to mind several harrowing visions, one after another, of the fallen archers crumpled against walls, bodies broken, lying in heaps throughout those dark corridors. Slaughtered with such ease, as if their sacrifice meant nothing.

As Art surveyed the massacre, he thought of how this would afford at least a paltry shadow of vengeance for the devastation they'd visited upon the sisters of the Sightless Eye, and those unlucky caravaners -- the nameless one who'd been so utterly butchered came to mind -- how had failed to flee in time. These midgets had started to see the suffering they'd caused reflected back upon them. Just started, for Art was not yet finished with them. When he was done, they'd rue the night they'd set foot upon this cloister.

The press let up as the handful of midgets who remained standing, those at the back and had the freedom to back up, saw what had befallen their comrades. Art saw the uncertainty in their eyes as they stopped their advance and backed to six feet away from Art, not daring to venture a step closer. He saw them glancing at each other, waiting for another to charge at him first, pausing and realizing that none of the others wanted to be the first to close in on their foe.

The fallen midget warriors before his feet were clutching their wounds or reaching out their short little hands, making to grasp at Art's boots with their empty hands. With utter futility they flailed. He kicked one aside, not needing to prove the point.

That's right, he thought, time for these little creatures to feel the fear they'd inflicted upon their victims. No mercy for them, no, may the heavens damn them. They'd hacked and slashed until they'd fallen, and now Art held his blade above the fallen.

Art hacked his blade into the corpse of a midget by his feet, blood spurting up as the blade impaled the creature. It screamed in pain, the ring of it crystal clear for all the others to hear. It was not dead yet, then, the unlucky bastard. Then he pulled his sword out, and the screaming redoubled in volume. Then he stabbed again, and this time the creature's choking cry sounded weaker, gurgling as if its chest were filling with blood from its gaping wounds. I am merely repaying your deeds, you bastards, he thought. He stabbed, again and again, and again, making a mess of its entrails, each time eliciting another cry more feeble than the one before. Blood stains draped the wooden gates behind him, streaks going every which way. He did this while staring at the remaining midget warriors, as if to say, come here, let me make mince meat out of your flesh.

Some of the fallen creature's blood had splayed across his face, stained his lips. He flicked out his tongue, sensed the tangy taste of iron as he rolled it about his mouth, and grinned at them with what he knew to be a bloodstained rictus of a grin.

The midget warriors, grimacing from the sight of their former ally being so mutilated with such apparent diffidence by their killer, backed away, first one step, then another, looking at each other with uncertainty written on their faces as if none wanted to be the closest to Art should he decide to suddenly switch out of his defensive posture and lunge at them.

The one among their number that had woad paint over his face and chest shouted "Rar!" and charged at him. Art speared it through with his sword even as its scimitar glanced upon his round shield. Its screamed loudly and for a moment it flailed. Still staring at the rest of the midgets, as if daring them to follow this one to their deaths, he twisted his blade, causing blood to pour forth from its chest in a massive spray. He felt the creature go limp and sag, making only a soft guttural noise as blood streamed down to soil its loincloth and then drench its legs.

Art then picked it up by the scruff of its neck and threw it at the brazier to his left, a mere two meters away. The creature landed in with its neck on the brazier rim and its face in the fire. It wailed a piteous wail and shook its head in agony, trying to shake free. Too weak to stand, with its upper body essentially hooked on the edge of the brazier, it could do nought but flail and wail as it was cooked to death, the flames brightening, catching and spreading up its scalp and scarring its skin black. Within seconds it had fallen silent, its arms and legs twitching. It had screamed less than the man Art had seen burned to death by the shaman, but it had screamed no less desperately.

The rest of the midget warriors had backed up a few more steps, their bucklers out in front of them as if that could block Art's advance on them. Before Art's stare, they appeared frozen in place.

Art sighed. He'd succeeded in keeping them from getting past him. With each second he stood here, Selena would be getting further away…

Then he saw small figures approaching from the distance, only now coming into view as their red skinned bodies reflected the braziers by Art's side. With a sinking feeling Art realized that he'd underestimated the size of the invading force. That thunderous cry of "Rakanishu" sent up by the horde earlier had drawn the attention of those fallen who had been residing within the monastery.

Art adjusted his grip, raised his sword again before him. The whole of it, from point to pommel, glinted red with blood in the flickering orange light. Taking in a deep breath, he kept up the way of the monolith.

Indestructible, immortal, invincible…

He wasn't going anywhere yet.

[Wherein the shamans attack him with fire bolts, forcing him to lash out at them.]

The closest midget warriors had now backed away to ten, twelve feet away from him, with the mass of them further behind. Among them stood shamans, five, now six of them, towering like giants over the little ones. They seemed confused for a moment, as if not sure whether what they were seeing before them was real, a single human standing over a dozen and a half dispatched bodies, in his black gambeson, his round shield and helm bright red all over with blood.

Then two of them thumped the butts of their staves against the grass, orbs of fire ballooning above their crescent headpieces, before they pointed their fingers and the orbs of fire that they had conjured practically leapt at him. As the missile flew at him, its hurtling firelight added to the glow cast by the braziers.

For a hundred years here I have stood…

He blocked them with his shield, the flames dissipating upon impact and doing little more than to heat the air about him.

He stood his ground and stared at them from behind his shield. If that was all they had in them, they were never going to break through. Every second they dallied here, every second he kept them from passing through the gates, was a second more for Selena to get away.

The shamans continued to charge up their staves, continued to toss the balls of fire at him, striking from all angles. A third shaman, and then all the rest of them, joined in lobbing the spheres toward him. They threw them with great rapidity, several blasting into his shield each second, each one throwing waves of heat past him. He began to sweat beneath all the insulative layers of his gambeson -- the heat was starting to soak through.

For a thousand years we stand…

Within a few seconds the shamans had entered a unison, firing volleys at a time so that no matter how he shifted his shield before him, he could not block them all. Bolts of fire struck against his gambeson, forcing him to hold both the handle of his shield and the hilt of his sword in his left hand as he moved his right to pat out the flames before they could properly catch. Art squinted his eyes and almost fumbled, the pulsing light of flames slamming into him, blinding in all their coppery light.

For ten thousand years yet shall we all stand…

Fire wreathed his boots, forcing him to shake his legs to beat the fires out. A direct impact of fire against his helm scalded his forehead; he could feel a burn there. He realized, with a sinking heart, that he could not hold his ground for more than a few seconds longer.

Fire started to catch on his gambeson with more rapidity. It had heated too much, become too combustible for him to put it out with ease. Any more and he'd start to cook in his armor. He had to go, now.

He darted behind the opened door of the monastery gates and started to swing it shut. If he could get it fully closed, the midgets wouldn't be able to readily blast their way out. Well, not until they burned the doors down, since they were made of wood, and that would take a while. Here also he had the doors to block any incoming fire bolts. He strained with all his might to try to shut the door, leaning his back into it. But a second later the midgets were upon the gates, pushing them open and stabbing their scimitars through the gap -- he hadn't managed to shut them closed in time. With the pressure from the other side, he couldn't push the door closed any more, and with the weapons poking at him, he had to duck behind the open door. Meanwhile the other door was swinging open faster and faster…

Within seconds the midget warriors had flooded out past the open gate. As he saw them break through, he realized he had failed.

Chapter 5: A Storm of Blade and Blood

[Wherein Art returns to engage the shamans, this time using way of the cyclone.]

He blocked them for the time being with his shield, but some of the midgets were already racing into the darkness in pursuit of Selena, and he was in no position to stop them. He could hunt one down, then go on to another, but in the time it took him to do that dozens more would have flooded out. There was no point in holding his position any longer either, with the gates wide open they were streaming on through with ease.

And the fires singeing his gambeson had started to give him burns. Leaping out of the way, he rolled across the gravel, rolling away from the midgets and their descending scimitars, until the fires all about him had been put out. He could smell the acrid smell of burned wool, and lazy wisps of smoke, the legacy of the flames for the few seconds that they had caught, wreathed him.

He could leave now, yet he knew he must not. Selena… He had to buy her more time to flee. As the scimitars, glinting in the reflected light of the braziers, continued to threat out at him, he stilled his urge to retreat, thinking, if I retreat now, she will die.

He had to get the warriors' attention somehow, before they made it too far afield. His thoughts went to the shamans -- they were the leaders of this rabble of an army, after all. With a thought of horizon to horizon might I fly, he was leaping back through the opened gates, right over the heads of the midget warriors pouring out, making straight for the nearest shaman.

He kicked aside a scimitar one of the warriors had slashed up out at him, landed atop the head of one of the midgets, kicked off its head with a crunch to take off yet again, this time setting down in an empty space between the throng of the unpainted midgets and those woad-painted ones standing beside their shamans.

"Bishibosh!" cried out the nearest shaman, eyes locked on Art. With a shake of its staff and a point of its finger, it threw another bolt of fire at him. Art ducked underneath it and closed the mere meters to the nearest of its honor guard, who had their bucklers out before them and their scimitars raised and jutted out in formation, all instantly arrayed in a neat circle around their leader. Those at the gates turned to rush back at Art.

That settled it, then, thought Art: The woad paint signified these warriors to be more disciplined, and thus they were charged to stand as protectors of the shamans. But discipline alone would not suffice in keeping him at bay.

Feel the whirlwind as it spirals through the sky.

He spun clockwise while making straight at them, with his shield held out to his left and his sword jutting out from his right. Unlike before, he went in upright now and with his weapon out to his side, sacrificing swiftness for brutality. A whirling living scythe, he swept into the packed circular formation of midget warriors, his shielding bashing aside scimitar and buckler, his sword slicing apart head from shoulders. The force of his charge sent them sprawling toward his left, every single one, as he knocked them aside, blade, body and all. Cries of pain, fear, desperation. For a fraction of a second as he spun, he saw the terrified visage of the shaman mere four feet from his face. It was making to back away. The next moment Art's sword had cleaved into its waist, leaving a gash through its chest and sending it sprawling to the ground.

Art stopped his whirling to see this group of midgets sprawled out before him. One was clutching at its stump of a leg that ended at its knee, moaning with its eyes shut and curled into a fetal position. Another had both of its upper arms shattered, blood spurting forth from both of them and into its own stunned face. Yet another had a gash running across its eyes, which pooled with blood mixed with vitreous corneal fluid. The shaman was flat on the grass, trying to shove its spilled small intestines back into its unzipped waist. Those still alive and struggling were crying a breathy, depressed cry. The few who had been at the back of the formation, whose skins remained unpainted, had scampered off in every distance.

For a second the rest of the midgets, several dozen of them, stared at him, stunned, looking uneager to continue the fight. He'd gotten their attention, and it seemed, their respect. The shamans held their staves still, as if unsure whether their continued attacks had any meaning against this force of destruction. Art took the second to get his bearings and spot the relative locations of the other shamans. If he killed them, their minions would fall into disarray. Better yet, if he threatened them, they'd call their minions back to defend.

Then Art ended the moment by walking toward the next shaman at a measured pace. It saw his approach and took a step back, then another, its staff raised as if meaning to parry. Its eyes glanced left and right, and it shouted, "Bishibosh!"

As if snapping out of their daze, unpainted midget warriors nearest to it rushed to form a solid line to cordon him off from their shaman, all of them with woad upon their skins, with their blades thrust outward and their bucklers out, shouting war cries at him and shaking their weapons at him. Yet he could tell from how they leaned backwards and stumbled over themselves to back away from his approach, he knew they did so merely to hide their fear. The moment he attacked, this group would pull their scimitars back to try to better defend themselves, and thereby prove no threat to him.

Art paid them no heed. The moment he closed to two meters from them, he channeled Watch the whirlwind, as a top it spins.

And then he was upon them, pirouetting, a spinning vortex of death and blood as he collided into this line of midget warriors and sent them careening through the air to land bloodied and broken upon the grass.

When Art finished his spin, he was greeted with a renewed round of cries of despair and screams of those in their death throes. The shaman he'd been aiming for had backpedaled out of his reach, to where some other warriors stood, and it shouted "Bishibosh! Bishibosh, bishibosh!"

As Art stepped toward them, his shield sending aside firebolt after firebolt, some two dozen of them rushed into formation, three ranks deep, separating him from the shaman who'd given the command. The first rank knelt down, their scimitars jutting out at the height of an adult human's knee. The next rank stood behind them, their scimitars set between and over the first rank. The third rank stood further behind, their bucklers and scimitars pointed overhead.

With a single flap of wings…

Art leapt over the whole lot of them, too high for them to intercept, high enough to carry him far over the shaman as well. With his shield he parried aside the shaman's fire bolt. Then as he was about to pass the shaman by, he cleared his mind of the way. Focus the mind inward...

He dropped out of his soaring glide like a rock. The moment his feet touched down he swung around and decapitated the stunned shaman. Its head remained set on its neck as if nothing had happened, as the midget warriors stared. Then the shaman fell onto its knees and flopped over, his head falling off its neck to rolll forward across the grass to bump into the feet of one of the midgets comprising the third rank of the formation.

As he proceeded toward the next shaman, it hastily backpedaled, shouting "Bishibosh!" The unpainted midget warriors stood frozen in place while the woad painted ones rushed once again to take up defensive positions around the shaman Art was stalking toward, who now looked very ill.

[Wherein Art starts to engage in battle against the adepts.]

Know the whirlwind by that which spins…

A flash of reflected light passed overhead, just enough for Art to register a midget lunging down at him from above. Right at where his head would be if he continued his spin. Forced to abort, he slashed his sword overhead to parry aside the incoming scimitar. Its owner, a midget warrior with the black of painted pitch coursing in spiral patterns from its bald head down to its waist, landed between Art and the shaman, its weapon pointed straight at Art.

For a moment they stared at each other, and those around them held still. How had a midget gotten on top of him, wondered Art, with those short little legs? Then the realiziation hit him: he was dealing with no mere midget warrior. That pitch paint? It must indicate its bearer to be an adept like him, and from the looks of it, a user of the way of the albatross. How had a creature like this learned a way of the Flying Feather School?

One thing Art knew for certain: As long as this creature stood before him, threatening to impale his head from above, he could no longer use the way of the whirlwind. He'd have to slay this one first. In that case, he thought, let's see how well this one can fight.

Art lunged for the black-painted one, his sword stabbing here, stabbing there, each time parried aside just enough by the midget adept as it backed away. Art had thought himself gaining the upper hand, before a scimitar sweeping out from his right hacked into his gambeson, only enough to nick his arm but enough for him to feel its sting. Another black-painted warrior.

A leaf, a petal, a feather… thought Art as he began to weave and dance between the jabs and swings of the adepts' blades, parrying first a stroke from the left, then another from the right. A twirl with his blade creating that uncomfortable metal-scraching-on-metal ring, and a stab, and he almost hit this second adept, but it had either seen or felt the attack coming, for it had moved out of the way. It knows the way of the dancing leaf too, he thought to himself. They probably both knew how to use it, and some of its attendant styles.

"Rakabosh!" shouted a shaman, even as it prepared another ball of flame. All around him, as if shaken from a stupor, several warriors joined in the fight, getting the surround on him. Poking in with their scimitars, they slowly sidestepped their way toward him. Though they had him surrounded within seconds, they dared approach no closer than two meters from him, their feet tentative as if ready to retreat, their wildly swinging scimitars rarely closing to withing striking distance of him. They shouted at the tops of their lungs, as if mere warcry could terrify Art into fleeing the battlefield.

He grimaced at the thought of using the dancing leaf's style against so many close opponents. His armor could not hold off every offending attack, and already many had penetrated it to bite into his flesh.

I drift in the open sky…

Holding the two adepts off, bracing shield against the one and sword against the other, then with a missed swing coming around and shielding against the latter and swiping at the former, Art continued to dance between the two adepts, one on either side. Another incoming fire bolt forced him to dodge. Another missed chance to kill one of these pesky adepts, but it blocked an incoming blow from a woad-covered warrior.

Carried by the wind, I spin…

Right after knocking one of them aside, he took a quick step in the direction of the other, lunging forth with his sword. He'd nearly sliced into the creature's flesh but for an intercepting swing from the scimitar, one that turned into a swing at Art's underarm. With a swift spin he retracted his arm out of its path. As he spun, he caught a glance at the intruder. A third warrior, bearing black paint.

Just how many of them were there? wondered Art. And so far these three had proven competent. He'd have to kill these before he left, or they'd prove a threat to the Rogues should they ever attempt to reclaim their lands.

[Wherein Art fights against the adepts and woad painted midget warriors.]

Going where it takes me…

The three adepts had taken up positions equidistant about him, each of them taking a defensive stance and ready to leap back at a moment's notice. The woad painted ones had closed in quite nicely on him, and now they jabbed at him. With a flash of his blades and a sweep of his shield he parried them aside, sending them crashing into the ones on their left then converted his clockwise spin into a thrust at one of the adepts. It managed a light parry of Art's blade, and his blade instead sunk into the chest of a woad-painted warrior. Then Art had pulled his blade back out, whipping it about and around to block another attack, and the one he'd just penetrated sank to its knees, clutching its wounds before collapsing.

Slender, soft, small…

Dodging incoming attacks from all directions, Art stumbled once, twice, failing to evade all their blows at once even with the aid of his sword, his shield, his armor, his way, and his skill. A gash went across his waist, leaving a wound, not too gaping or deep. A glancing cut against his back, tearing only three layers deep into the woolen padding of his gambeson. A blow against the back of his helm, sending him lurching forward before he regained his balance. The press was too much for him; he had to get out now.

With a single flap of wings… He made to leap over the surrounding throng of the midget warriors. But an opportune swing from one of the adepts that came in too close forced him to switch into Dancing upon the breeze so that it wouldn't cut into his wrist. With the way of the albatross abandoned, he fell back to the ground, standing not a foot away from where he'd been a moment ago, still surrounded by on all sides.

Rising dread rose up within him. He had to protect himself… He could go into the way of the monolith, hold them off with his shield close to his left and his sword to parry on his right, but that would give them the freedom to send more warriors in pursuit. He couldn't let Selena fall to them, and that meant he had to strike. And so again and again, he struck, even when contronted by so many incoming attacks from all sides practically screaming for him to guard himself, each time suppressing the fear that his next lunge would leave him exposed to a fatal counterattack.

Horizon to horizon… He tried again, this time making sure to bash one of the adepts first with his shield while lashing out with his sword at another the moment he attempted his leap. The third adept swung into Art's retracted shield, and Art completed his leap, to a spot ten feet away. The adepts followed, skipping through the air, and with I sweep past all that approach he resumed his earlier style, blocking off one adept's advance while striking at another and dodging the third.

He thought he'd started to understand the skill level of these three adepts. Well trained, yes, but not by a master, and their bodies too small to be truly effective in the way of the dancing leaf. Height too short to strike true from different directions, arms too short to strike as far as a human could, legs too short to dodge or run as quickly. Their bucklers protected too little, and their lack of armor protected not at all. One alone stood no chance against him. And yet still, the three of them and their allies had fought him to a standstill.

For mere seconds the three adepts parried his swings or pulled back from them just in the nick of time, and then the woad warriors had come about and had almost surrounded him again, their scimitars lunging out at him the way a wall of spearmen might, forcing him back and aborting yet another strike. He had to move again.

He struck out with his shield to knock aside the blows from two of the adepts, then sunk low to invite the woad painted warriors to lash out with their scimitars. With a single flap of wings, he thought, and he leapt barely off the ground, to land upon the flat edges of the scimitars that had thrust down and inward, even as he spun to parry aside another swipe from an adept. I glide through the sky, and then he had leapt off the scimitars supporting him and into the air, with the adepts right behind.

He'd expected as much. Before they'd landed he'd charged right back past them. Even knowing they'd drop out of their flight to pursue him, that give him a few precious seconds. The woad warriors had proven themselves a nuisance in this fight. He couldn't let them keep getting the surround on him -- already his gambeson sported gashes all over, in a dozen places, and he could feel the sting in his lower leg where one had gotten through his boots, and several more along his arms and abdomen and one cut into his shoulders.

Crashing down with ten tons of solid stone, he thought as he swiped left with his sword, smashing it into the approaching, surprised woad-painted warriors with the strength of many. The first one he hit, the skull shattered into a dozen pieces. One shard of bone lodged into the temple of the next one's head, killing it instantly. His sword continued on, slashing through cheekbones, cutting open jaws and shattering necks. The entire row of them fell apart, and only the one furthest left -- the least impacted by his swing -- managed to stagger away, its weapon and armor discarded.

Yet other midget warriors stepped forth, their faces grim with determination, to face up to him, this specter of death, with their blade and buckler before them, even as Art tread over the corpses of their brothers in arms. Why had these mere woad-painted warriors even approached him? Could they not see how they were being slaughtered wholesale, crushed as if underfoot by a battle between giants? What madness, what desperate courage, what loyalty and dedication drove them to such pointless feats of stupidity? Did the sisters have the same, when they raced to their own slaughter?

Continuing on his leftward spin, Art entered a counterclockwise spin. Feel the whirlwind as it spirals through the sky. Blade and sword outstretched, he decapitated another pair of midget warriors and parted the waist from the hip of the shocked shaman right behind them. A cascade of blood sprayed forth in all directions. And then he was bringing himself around and calling upon A leaf, a petal, a feather, to block the thrusts of the adepts that had caught back up with him.

"Rakabosh!" another shaman called, and more woad painted warriors rushed toward him, their weapons raised. Art spun about as he continued to parry and retreat at the same time. He had given up on killing the adepts for now. Killing them would have to wait until he could dispatch of the others supporting them. Wherever a woad painted midget rushed too close, ahead of their comrades, and whenever Art found himself an opening from the onslaught of the adepts, he lunged out -- dismembering a warrior here, chopping a leg off another there. One by one they fell.

The other shamans continued to throw their bolts of flame at him, their cries mixed in with those of the midgets about them. He noticed they'd thrown the blasts of flame wildly, missing him again and again and striking the midget warriors more often than they struck him. Several of the midget warriors fell to the ground screaming, rolling, trying to get the licking flames off their scalded skin, only to be trampled by others the moment they fell to the ground.

And then they had him surrounded again. This time Art channeled The winds blow past, the rains pound down and held against the onslaught of the enemy, and even has he gritted his teeth from the mounting wounds -- more and more scimitar blades managed to cut past his armor, which had flayed in several places, wool spilling out and making it easier for other cuts to penetrate -- he hacked and severed limbs from their bodies, always targeting the woad painted ones, so much that their ranks had thinned.

[Wherein Art fights against reanimated warriors mixed with adepts.]

And then he started seeing them rise again from the ground. One by one the armless, the legless, and the headless, all of them bloodstained, rose from where he'd slain them earlier to stand once more against him. Out the corner of his eye he saw a shaman facing him with its staff reversed so that the skull sat as its headpiece and the crescent stabbed against the blood-tainted grass, the fire between it gone out. That was the one, he realized.

Yet he could not engage it yet, pressed on all sides as he was. The risen midgets moved with terrible slowness compared to the swift thrusts and dodges of the adepts weaving in and out of his sword's range. The moment he had an opening, his sword flashed through the mangled waist of the nearest reanimated midget. It stumbled and sank for the second while Art was distracted with parries all about him, before standing up once again -- this time moving in a more ragged fashion, as if the reanimating shaman couldn't control it properly now that its abdominal muscles had been slashed open.

Art then sliced both of its arms off in his next two strikes, before proceeding on to others, feeling the growing exhaustion seeping into his muscles to join the lacerations he'd sustained as he dodged his head to the left as a scimitar stabbed where it had been but a moment ago, then dodged right back to the right as another stabbed past the other side. He'd lost track of how many midgets he'd killed, but now that the shamans were reanimating them? How many more times would he have to attack? How long could he keep this up?

A few more strikes with his sword left the only ones surrounding him as the adepts and the reanimated. As he looked about, discriminating bloodied but living midgets from their slower, less competent reanimated cousins, he could tell that a good many of the woad painted ones had given their lives. With a smirk Art realized that they'd come to pay the price of their misbegotten courage and discipline: a swift death. With a start he realized this could actually work to his benefit, with how slowly these reanimated ones were moving.

With a sweep of the flat of his blade he knocked one of the reanimated sprawling into an adept, knocking aside its attack and forcing it to deal with its fallen kin first. A split second later he used the other flat of his blade to smack aside another reanimated. Neither acted fast enough to lash out at him, and now he had himself an opening to the reanimating shaman.

He plunged through the gap. Glide through the sky. And then he was gliding over the shaman's head, just low enough to kick it smack in the lead and knocking it down while slowing himself. He landed and turned to find half the reanimated midgets, still in the process of turning back to march toward the defense of their reanimator, collapsed in a jumble of flesh and bone. He'd broken the reanimator's concentration on its way, and it seemed it couldn't just reanimate them right back.

With a look of surprise on its face, the shaman twirled its staff around as if switching to use it to blast a bolt of fire at Art. It never got the chance. Art swiped the staff out of its hands with his sword, then swung his sword back as he stepped forward to neatly decapitate the creature. When he saw another shaman to his right also had its staff with skull up, he leapt over with With a single flap of wings and slew it too, its body collapsing upon the gravel path. The rest of the reanimated ones collapsed instantly. The shaman, run through by Art's sword, collapsed inch by inch, struggling to stay standing before Art. Art pulled his sword back out, bringing forth a spurt of its blood, before it keeled over onto its face.

[Wherein Art finishes off the adepts and pursues the fleeing midgets, until he loses his arm to the beast.]

Art turned to face the adepts again. He'd observed the fighting styles of these enough to know that one of them shied away from making committed attacks against him. It tried to hide it, and to someone less trained in the way of the dancing leaf's fighting style, it would have hid it well. But to someone of Art's caliber, that would prove their undoing, as it would allow Art to focus more on his offense against one of the other adepts, even while holding a second at bay, safe in the knowledge that the third would be least likely to hit him.

The three adepts landed about him yet again, forming an equilateral triangle with him at the center. This time, none others joined them. The woad painted warriors had just about all died, the reanimated woad painted warriors remained still as the corpses they were, and the unpainted warriors huddled around the remaining two shamans, not daring to get in Art's way. The shamans had ceased their reanimation and elementry, knowing how ineffective those had proven.

The adepts knew it too, as they looked at each other, sweat glistening down their necks and abs, streaks of blood criss crossing swirling pitch-black paint over their faces, shoulders and chests. Then with a war cry they charged at Art all as one, soaring through the air with the way of the albatross. In an instant Art knew them to be committed to their strike. With Slender, soft, small, he spun out of their way while kicking into the gravel of the path with the boot on his right foot, sending little pebbles flying at the adept in front of him, then riposted with his blade at the same target. The adept, taken by surprise by the spread of pebbles rushing right at it, flinched, and reacted to Art's blade stroke just a fraction of a second too slow. It cut a gash on the adept's blade arm, about half an inch deep. Its pained suck of air could barely be heard amidst the wailing of the wounded all about him.

Seeing his path to victory, Art continued to press against the wounded adept, even as it leapt out of the way.. Art followed after it with With a single flap of wings, pressing his initiative, blocking the two trailing right after him with his sword and shield. The moment it landed it tried to leap again, but Art lashed out with his sword with a shout of "Why!". Its scimitar arm moved to parry a mite too slowly and Art managed to sneak in a cut against its thigh. It stumbled, aborting its flight and landing on the ground once more, a pained look on hits face.

Art whirled about him to knock aside the two adepts behind him, then continued his spin with his sword with a shout of "won't!" The now twice-wounded adept tried to leap back again, but with its thigh muscles half severed, could only manage a small hop. Seeing Art's rapid approach, it raised its buckler out to block, its eyes squinted shut out of fear. The next moment Art's swinging blade scythed right through its buckler arm. "You!" Its eyes bulged wide, its mouth open in a high pitched scream, and it dropped its scimitar to clutch at its bleeding stump of an arm. Art blocked a frantic intercepting strike from the adept to his left; he knew the one right behind him wasn't about to hit him, then prepared to strike again. "Die!" But a fraction of a second later Art's swing lopped its head off.

"That was a rhetorical question," Art mused, looking at the dead midget.

Whirling back to face the remaining two adepts, he saw they faced him with renewed uncertainty. It was just the three of them now, with the shamans cowering over a dozen meters away. All the others who still stood bore no paint, could not be counted upon to fight beside them. And the rest were the dead and the dying. They'd challenged Art at their best, three adepts on one, the assistance of their woad-painted brothers and with ranged and reanimator support, and lost their shamans, their warriors and now an adept. What could they do now, thus weakened?

Was this what the beast felt, when it had clawed and smashed its way through all who stood against him, when it whittled down their numbers one at a time even as they did everything they could to hold against it? Had the beast felt the rush of blood in its veins, the excitement of crushing his foes, and finally, the glory of being supreme upon the battlefield, as Art did now? With amusement Art wondered if he ought to feel any remorse at all this slaughter. But only with amusement.

"Come now, we musn't let our finale disappoint our audience," he taunted them.

With another, desperate war cry they lashed out at him, coming at him from both directions. I sweep past all that approach. And then Art had forced the one on his right to abort its attack in order to dodge Art's blade, and kept the one on his left at bay with his shield. Now with only one other to distract him, he could focus thrust after thrust after thrust, all in rapid succession, at the one to his right, forcing it to take step after step back until with its last step back it bumped into the hedgerow that lined the outer walls of the monastery, and it stumbled against its thickness of branches in a rustling of leaves. The next moment Art had skewered it through the heart. It clutched at his sword in vain. When Art pulled out his blade, it was already dead. Its body sank, falling onto its knees, then flopped back against the hedgerow.

Art stared at the remaining adept, as if daring it to continue the fight all on its lonesome after seeing what Art had done to their combined forces. Really, thought Art, after all this, it still wasn't going to flee? Just as it made to charge at him…


The adept flinched in its tracks, stayed put, grimacing. Its loincloth grew wet and urine leaked down its legs.

Art took a step toward it, then another. It took a step back, then another, and then it was fleeing for the monastery atrium, shouting "Bawk off!"

The remaining two shamans stared in shock, then fled as well, following the retreating adept. With their groups of minions following close behind, they ran as fast as their little legs could take them. All semblance of order broke down as the entire force routed, screaming in terror amidst a clamor of "Bawk off!"'s. In their panic some stumbled, tripped and fell in the darkness, to be run over by those behind them.

And behind them leapt Art, shrouded by night, killing the stragglers with quick slashes across their backs. They didn't even turn around to try to defend themselves, just kept running as he thinned their ranks with ease. As he went, Art considered, was this what had happened when the Rogues fled in fear from the beast? Losing untold numbers of their companions in their desperate rout? If so, serves them right for such as this to be inflicted back upon them in retribution, he thought as he continued to reave through the horde.

"Bishibosh!" shouted one of the fleeing shamans as it noticed Art closing in. Several of their followers turned as if preparing to engage Art, only to be pressed forward or run down by the rest of the routing midgets, who continued to shout "Bawk off!". "Bishibosh!" it shouted again when it realized its minions proved unwilling to sacrifice their own lives to buy time for its escape. "Bish--" it was silenced by Art's blade, descending and sinking deep into its skull.

The remnants of the fleeing mob arrived screaming at the gates to the atrium to the monastery building's central wing, where the two gates formed a bottleneck for the routers. In their haste to escape they had all crammed into each other before the ones at the front had even managed to open the door, and the push of the mass forced the half open doors back shut. Those at the front found themselves sandwiched between the rioters behind them and the gates -- gates which opened out into the cloister, meaning their own bodies in the way and they couldn't get the gates open even if they tried.

With feel the whirlwind as it spirals through the sky held firmly in mind, Art came upon them, a vortex of whirling sword and shield splattering blood over the crowd, which fled in all directions with cries of "Bawk off!". He cared little for the unpainted midgets before him -- only killing the last of the adepts mattered. Once that one was dead, none of this rabble could pose as much of a threat to the villages in the local area. Against the knights and men-at-arms of the realm, not to mention against him, these midgets would break and flee, and be cut down. They'd not dare to attack anywhere without the beast, and there was only the one beast, it could only strike one place at a time.

Before him the cowering midget warriors scattered. The last remaining adept, now at the gate turned back to face Art's approach, the specter of its approaching death, and sank to the doorstep as it shouted "Bi--Bishi!"

Just as Art was about to skewer this one through the eye socket, the adjacent door was blasted ajar and from it a giant bladed claw cleaved right through Art's right wrist.

Chapter 6: A Price Most Dear

[Wherein Art retreats, and enters the way of deathly living.]

Art leapt back the exact moment the great claw decapitated his hand, with the thought of With a single flap of wings held in mind carrying him back a dozen steps. The next moment the beast had finished smashing the door wide open to expose the silhouette its massive demonic body before the torchlight of the atrium and made a second swipe right past where Art stood just a moment ago. Had he not leapt back, he would have been struck down where he stood.

Blood splayed from the severed arteries of his hand. His severed right hand, still holding gripping the bloody sword right above its wing-crested pommel, flopped to land, an inert, gory chunk, against the doorsteps. With a clatter, the sword went spinning away from the grip that held it.

Searing pain shot through Art's hands and he gasped in agony, a rictus of surprise upon his face, his eyes squeezed shut. He dropped the round shield in his other hand, used it to clutch at the stump of his wrist, capping it with his palm and applying pressure. Blood leaked through his hands regardless, right through the mail of his gauntlets, to splatter in a continuing stream across the ground where he'd landed.

So much pain. Art felt it hard to concentrate, his mind screaming to relief and almost breaking his focus on the way of the albatross. Yet grit his teeth through the pain he had to, for the beast was lunging for him now, crossing a dozen feet with a single bound. The moment Art landed, he spun about and leapt forward, fleeing from the beast as fast he he could. Horizon to horizon… Flap of wings… Glide through… Fly… He could barely keep the mantra in mind.

Blood pumping hard through his veins, he heard the thump of the beast's great legs against the gravel path of the cloister, its approach swift, it managing to keep its distance to Art even as Art used his way. He stood no chance of fighting such a creature, not without aid, not after all the fighting he'd already been through, not after losing his arms and certainly not after losing his right hand; and so he fled, bounding across the steps, leaking a dribble of blood after him as he went.

Hoping against hope that he could make it out of the monastery, that the beast would not manage to ensnare him in its terrible claws with its next lunge, he raced through the darkness for the front walls. Eighty meters of courtyard had never seemed so far away as it did now. Already he could feel weakness starting to manifest within him, adding to the exhaustion that had set in from his earlier battle. Through the pain, he could conceive of the notion that if he weakened too much, slowed just a moment, he would be killed.

Another leap brought him by the middle of the cloister, where a row of wooden benches backed up against ornate stone patternwork. He passed right on through, his feet landing upon the back of a bench and kicking off again. But two seconds later he heard a crunch and the shattering of wood as the impact of the beast's great bulk ripped it right off its hinges in its mad dash toward its prey and spinning across the gravel path before it to crash into the opposite bench, shattering it against that bench's patterned stone backing. Art did not have to look back to know of the beast's proximity. He could tell just from the chain of sounds wrought by the devastation.

With another leap he sped through the gate-side half of the cloister, paying no attention to the trees and bushes as he passed, only to the gravel path approaching beneath his feet to time his kick again. His vision swayed from the tears that flooded across his eyes, aiding the darkness of the night in hampering his sight. He could barely make out the approach of the two braziers bestride the still open gates.

Before him, the braziers banished the darkness. Yet out beyond the monastery, he would need a light to go by. Crossing over the field of midget corpses he'd slain, he slowed for a fraction of a second to snatch at one of the forch staves dropped by a shaman. He held it in his left hand even as he continued to try to use his hand to staunch his endless bleeding.

He looked up. Before him stood the gates of the wall, the doors wide open and beckoning. Yet he could pass through them, and the beast would be sure to follow. Then deciding against that, he took his next leap, one taking him high up to top the battlement upon the monastery walls and that almost sent him careening into the machicolations lining the other side. In his rushed dash for safety he saw nothing but the shadows of the path before him.

With a side step of his feet he turned. With another kick, the way of the albatross took him down the walkway atop the wall, toward the wall lining the west wing of the monastery. Another leap, and he had reached the turret at the corner; another leap, and he had cleared the monastery walls by a good ten meters, to land upon the ground of the valley below, stalks of waist-high grass poking into his trousers and tattered gambeson as he landed.

Even without being able to make out the silhouette of the mountain in the darkness, he knew its general contour, from having seen it when approaching the monastery as part of the caravan. The mountain on this, the south side of the monastery, stood as the northernmost of a long chain of mountains before the path north of it, the path the monastery nestled within. Here began a steep climb up, with only a handful of alcoves and cliff tops for a person to find proper footing, and hard to reach by normal means.

He had to reach safety. The beast, with its great mass, would probably find no purchase up these sheer cliff faces, not those wide enough to support its weight, certainly not enough to allow him to proceed up. Even if it could track him by the scent of his blood, even if it could hear the beating of his heart, it would have to take a detour, scaling these mountains up from the west instead of from their north, from the monastery like he was. It would be a measure of safety, and give him time.

Using his fingers to slide his left hand up and down the wooden shaft of his looted torch-staff, he found the series of smooth depressions in its shaft that indicated where it was meant to be held, and held it properly.

The way of the albatross fled from his mind, instantly replaced with a foreign thought of the crackling of a fireplace, the flickering of its light, the warmth of the hearth, the heat of its fire. The though immersed him, infused his soul with its glory. It felt similar to that of the bow enchanted to spit flaming arrows that he'd encountered back in the monastery cellars.

Atop the crescent of the staff, a ball of captured fire burst into existence, illuminating the great many stalks of grass blanketing the ground before him in its coppery light and showing him where he was going. He pointed a finger, and that fire shot off into the distance, illuminating the ground before him as it went.

With a single flap of wings…

Nothing happened. He could not call upon the transcendent feeling of his way. Oh that's right, Art thought. He was still holding the staff, so that its way overrode his own. He shifted his fingers out of position, and its way of the hearth evaporated, its hold over his mind broken. The ball of fire over the staff's headpiece winked out in a puff of air, leaving him once again shrouded in darkness, yet he had already seen the path before him, already knew where to proceed.

With a single flap of wings…

Art leapt up the gently curved grassy fields, then with another bound into the more graduated foothills of the mountain, skipping over its many jutting stony outcrops. He readjusted his grip so that he held the staff properly once again. As soon as the way of the hearth flooded back into his mind, the torch of his staff blossomed again, lighting all near him for but a second before he extinguished its light.

Might I glide through the sky…

With another bound, he arrived at the bottom of the first sheer cliff wall, and the next one, aiming upwards, brought him up the cliff to a narrow cleft, a dozen feet long and a foot wide at its widest, with a steep drop on one side and a steep wall on the other. With another adjustment of his grip, the light returned, and seeing the shadows cast by that light reflecting off the cliff face, he knew the position of the next cleft further up the mountain.

Horizon to horizon might I fly…

Leaping from cleft to cleft to cleft, he worked his way up until he landed on a cliff top a meter wide, enough for him to sit or lay down without falling to his death. This must be almost two hundred meters up from the valley floor below, and far out of range of how far the beast could leap, if it was still coming for him. Safety, at last. Art collapsed onto his knees.

[Wherein Art uses way of deathly living to keep from dying of blood loss.]

The adrenaline had kept him going just now, he knew, kept him going through all that strenuous exercise despite his blood loss. But now its time had passed, leaving him a bloody, throbbing mess, in pain from his lost hand and a dozen other wounds, and deathly cold. He felt so tired, like he could just lay down and die… He barely reserved the mindfulness to realize that would be his fate should he enter that welcoming sleep. The rest of his blood would simply pour out of him. Stopping that loss was his highest priority.

Holding the torch staff in hand, he gripped it properly and it burst once again in flame, illuminating his body and the stump of an arm. Still holding on to it, he set it flat against the ground so that the fiame swirled in a spot right above the stone. His mind told him, no, don't do it, it's fire, holy hell it's fire he was playing with, that is going to hurt, hurt like nothing he'd ever felt before, not even the pain of getting his arm cut off, but he knew it was do or die.

No, no, don't you dare do it--

He… he couldn't bear to do it, not with the kind of suffering he would be inflicting upon himself. Just the thought of it was making him hyperventilate, quicken his pulse. There was no way he could bring himself to do it when his mind was this afraid. Fortunately, he'd had training to overcome it.

Slowly, let your eyes fall shut of their own accord…

He closed his eyes, took control of his breathing, started to banish his mind from thoughts of his own condition, even as he could feel the tendrils of death seeping into his weary mind.

There is no past, no future, to take to heed… There is only the now…

He put out of his mind, the thought of what he had to do next and of just how hard it would be.

Take a deep breath, and hold it… Slowly, steadily, let it out…

He felt the calm returning to his mind, felt himself gradually reasserting control over himself.

Set aside your worries… Put off your desires… Let your mind rest… …And now, slowly, open your eyes.

It took him going through the entire mantra of the way of inner peace before he sensed in the back of his mind that feeling of being cool, calm, and collected that he knew to be the successful evocation of the way.

He stared into the staff-evoked sphere of flame before him with placid eyes, his mind uncaring for what it meant, how it would feel, focused only on the task at hand. This time, he felt no instinct to balk and pull his arm away.

Gritting his teeth, he smashed his stump down upon that same section of the stone, sinking his weight on his arm and grilling it upon the fire.

His scream reverberated through the impassive, stony faces of the cliffs.

Though it lasted mere moments, it left his eyes streaming with tears. Doubled over and shaking in pain, he let the shaman's staff drop out of his hands to roll into the cliff face, and clutched at his wrist. In the darkness he was glad he could not make out what a burned, cauterized mess he'd made of his arm.

Heaving, gasping in agony, he righted himself again to squat upon the cracked, bare granite, his legs crossed beneath him, and continued to hold his cauterized arm against his left palm. He could think of very little else but the sheer unbearableness of what he was now feeling, one that stretched out each second to feel like an hour.

Though he had burned his arm, cleansed it with fire, it was still bleeding, albeit more slowly now. He had to staunch the blood flow. One more thing to do, he told himself, one more thing and then he could truly find rest after this nightmare that he'd been through.

My arms, resting before me, stay in place. My body, balanced in place, lies at rest.

This time, he sat as still as a statue, his mind and body centered.

My lungs, now at peace, hold still, unmoving.

He brought his breathing to a halt, without the attendant gradual build up of a need to resume breathing. He couldn't be sure if that was because his body was shutting down, or if he was successful in channeling the way.

My eyes, closed and shut, see only darkness. My ears, deafened by sound, hear mere silence. My skin, numb and cold, lose all feeling. My heart, clutched in ice, beats no more.

One by one his senses ceased. He felt so cold, so very cold, and could not be sure if that was because it was supposed to feel that wa or because he had lost a fatal amount of blood already and was a dead man who just didn't know it.

My blood, stilled in my veins, courses not.

His heart ceased pumping. His arteries ceased throbbing. The flow of blood out of his severed arm reduced to a trickle, then ceased entirely. He had never come this close to dying while using the way of deathly living. His second last thought, then, was that if he was now consigning himself to death, he would never know.

My mind, once racing, watches over my deathly sleep.

For hours he sat, barely noticing the passage of time, all alone on the mountainside beneath a ceiling littered with stars.

Slowly, the blood on the severed stump of his right arm began to clot over.

[Wherein Art awakens, thinks back on what happened, rues his loss and what it means, thinks to go after Selena.]

Art came out from the way of deathly living slowly, as with a throb his heart began to beat and his blood to flow and his mind began to awaken.

He was alive, though it seemed to him as he chuckled, just barely. After what he'd been through, he wasn't sure whether he wanted to keep on living. The memory of his experiences felt too painful for mere nightmare, yet too terrible to be real. How he wished it had all never happened, that he could still have the use of his right hand, to be whole once more.

A wave of tingling needles washed from his chest down to his fingers and then his toes, fading into the sensation of the cold of the night and the dull ache all over his weary body, his muscles cramping all over, and the intense throbbing of his burned, lacerated wrist.

Gods, he thought, as his mind finally began to realize the significance of what he'd lost, and despaired. His right hand. His right hand! There by the cliff side, all alone, unmoving and staring into the sky, he burst into a loud, screaming, then wailing cry. His tears to flow freely, hot and endless upon his cheeks as bit by bit he realized the enormity of his loss.

He would never have his arm back. He would never know the feeling of holding anything in that palm, touching anything with those fingers. Never again would he be able to use that hand for anything. Tying shoelaces, buttoning shirts, putting on sashes… He would not be able to do any of that ever again, not without assistance, and that was just the first things that came to mind. If he were to make a list of all the things he could no longer do, he would never reach the end of the list, not even until the day he died.

"Damn you, gods! Damn you, heavens!" he screamed into the sky, his words echoing along the stone, as he clutched his head in his left hand and right arm. "Damn all of you!" Overwhelmed with frustration, he beat the ground with his left hand clenched into a fist, pounding weakly and bruising the butt of his hand. "Damn you for letting this happen to me! Have I not suffered enough?"

How would he be living his life, from now on? Without his right hand, he couldn't very well stay as a caravan mercenary. Any potential employer would take a look at his maimed figure and know him for a fool, should he attempt it. Perhaps Warriv might accept him back into the caravan, but Warriv was an old pal of his. He'd be taking Art back on out of loyalty's sake, not because Art could possibly stand to be of much use in a fight. That, and he'd certainly be the fool if he carried on as a mercenary even if Warriv or anyone else agreed. He'd be dead meat.

He'd not be able to use a shield at the same time as his sword. Without a shield, he'd be exposed -- so terribly exposed to enemy attack. Oh, he could get himself a suit of plate, that way he'd not need to use his shield -- but without his arm, he could not very well continue on as a fighter, could not earn his pay. Buying a full set of plate? Forget it. It was not a question of whether he'd be reduced to starving, but when. The thought of having to beg for scraps out on the streets -- him, who had single-handedly slaughtered so many before him -- it rankled him greatly.

And not just the use of his shield, either. Not all his techniques worked with just one hand, he realized with horror. Mentally he ran down a checklist of his combat techniques. Without his second hand, he could still perform a murder stroke with the way of the crushing boulder, but with just one hand? He'd either be very much exposed, or his strike would have half as much force behind it, even less. It would hardly be useful; any sellsword without training in the ways would do better. The way of the monolith he could still use with his shield, but it'd leave him with no means to counterattack, which meant he would be easily overwhelmed by an enemy who would no longer need to be afraid of any counterattack. Useless. The way of the cyclone, without a spinning shield to force back would-be attackers and block the ones that they pulled off? It would see him hacked to pieces the moment he used it. And the way of the dancing leaf, while the reflexes it granted him remained, was the most exposed of his combat styles, and imperfect -- without the shield, he'd have to backpedal and dodge far more often, have far fewer opportunities to kill the enemy, and they'd have that much of an easier time getting the surround on him to take him down.

Fighting would be insanely dangerous from here on out.

For long moments he stayed put, waiting for the paralysis to fade, even as his sobs sent tears of grief and regret cascading down his face, his mouth in a rictus of anguish.

If only he hadn't lost that arm. If only the beast hadn't struck right then and there, giving him absolutely no advance warning. If only he hadn't picked that fight, or hadn't stayed so long…

Why had he even stayed to fight so long? Had he made a massive mistake in doing so? He thought back to the events that had led up to the loss of his hand. He'd gotten his hand hacked off because he'd attacked the last adept right when the beast came out the door. Had he at least killed that one? He couldn't remember, as all he could remember of that moment was what had happened immediately thereafter, of his need to flee. He'd gone after it after killing the other two adepts; and had gone after those adepts because of the threat they posed to the local villages, with their martial arts skill. He'd been forced to fight them after he tried to go after the shamans and they'd intervened; and he'd done that because he'd wanted to keep the midget forces' attention on him after they'd broken through the gates, to draw them back in. They'd gotten through after the shamans had practically wreathed him in flame, which they could do because he'd been holding at the gates with his way of the monolith. During none of that entire sequence of events had he made any errors in judgment. And finally, he'd been holding that position to give someone time to flee.

Selena. Who was she, a mere six-… seven? -year old, for him to put his life on the line for her behalf? Vaguely, he recalled making a promise to himself, to save at least someone from the abandoned monastery. A sight of the girl's mother Cassia, face visible in torchlight, wrists bound and chained above her head, pleading for her daughter's salvation. Him, asking for her to "Choose". Why had he agreed? Heavens, how was he such a fool?

The cramping of his muscles subsided, and he could hear the soft, repetitive chirping of insects all about him. His vision returned, bringing the sight of the serene stars suspended overhead, without a care for worldly matters. The numbness had left his body, and he began to flex his body. His legs, his ankles, his toes, his arms, his hands… His left hand, only. He thought he could feel the fingers on his right, but with a touch by his left he knew that to be nothing but phantom sensations. His right hand was well and truly gone.

He was now, seriously, seriously regretting having done so. It had not been worth it in the least. Saving the life of a stranger -- a stranger he could not depend on for anything, seeing as the little girl couldn't help in a fight. Young, delicate, and innocent as she was, she couldn't do much anything. Why then…?

In that entire battle at the monastery, it had been the only truly good thing he'd done, amidst many morally gray ones. He'd done it, of course, because he'd seen her vulnerability, and wanted to save her from the fate that awaited her. She'd needed his help then, and he'd saved her, breaking her out of her chains, bringing her to the monastery gates and commanding her to run into the night, never turning back. She'd ran has he commanded; she'd be safe. Or would she? Last he'd seen before returning to fight within the cloister, he'd seen at least some of the midgets head off into the night. They were probably searching for her.

If they found her… It hardly required any imagination to know what they'd do to her. It would render what he'd done, the battle he'd fought, the sacrifice he'd made, completely in vain. And besides, out in the open wilderness and without any guardian, even if she managed to avoid the midgets… Out there, all alone by her lonesome, she'd not survive more than a day or two. She still needed his help.

He sighed, weary. Once again he would have to answer the call to action. And if he came across any patrolling midgets, once again he'd have to enter the fray. Without his sword and shield…What could he even fight with?

With his left hand he fingered the iron crescent of the torch-staff. Sharpened to a blade's edge all along its length, curving to very pointy ends on either side. He could thrust it at his foe to stab it to death. He could also use its shaft to parry, though against fast-swinging weapons like a scimitar he doubted it'd be much good. At six feet tall from the two pointed ends to the staff at the bottom, it gave him decent reach, allowed him to strike first in melee… Though without a shield and a line of spearmen at his sides, the moment a midget closed in past his thrusting staff, it'd have no trouble attacking him. Overall, the staff was not as good as an arming-sword, for his purposes. He'd have to hope his now tattered gambeson continued to protect him. It had served him well; in the entire fight of the last battle it had resisted cuts with the scimitar very well. Yes, if it came down to it, he could potentially fight the midgets, one at a time.

Then he paused to reconsider. He could hardly fight now, decrepit as he was: lethargic from lack of sleep, separated from potential allies, exhausted from the fighting, wounded in a dozen places, debilitated by the beast, disarmed as he fled, weakened from the blood loss, agonized by the burn on his wrist.

If only he could rest a day, it could mean the difference between life and death. But he also knew that Selena could not wait a day. The longer he waited, the harder it would become for him to find her again, and the more likely she'd be captured or killed. If he was going to act, he would have to do it now.

He stood up, his torch-staff in hand, beneath the starry night.

Chapter 7: And a Prize Most Dear

[Wherein Art searches for Selena through the darkness.]

With a fire bolt shot into the distance to light the way, Art followed after it down the mountain slopes in the way of the albatross. A few short leaps, and he stood twenty paces from the gates of the monastery. Two braziers stood burning, one on either side of the doors, just as another pair had stood on the opposite side of those gates. Their light illuminated a pair of shamans and two squads of midget warriors, standing still and idling respectively. They did not notice him; at his range, he remained cloaked in darkness.

Art had told Selena to run through the gates and just keep on running. With the two braziers and the wall behind them that they illuminated, he oriented himself in the direction that Selena ought to have run off in -- along a grass-strewn dirt path leading west from the monastery gates -- and proceeded down that path.

This had been the path he'd traveled alongside the rest of the caravan just that evening. Then, he'd been looking to the monastery as a welcoming, safe shelter and rest point before the descent eastward into the desert on the other side of the mountain range. Now he was walking away from the bastion of the invaders, a broken man, and not expecting succor for a very, very long time.

Once he had gotten sufficiently distant from the midgets stationed at the gates that he grew confident that they'd not see his firelight, he adjusted his grip on his staff, allowing it to evoke within his mind the warmth of the hearth and the crackling of the fireplace. Captured fire blossomed into a sphere above the cresent of his staff, lighting his way.

He kept his eyes peeled as he advanced, scanning the path before him and periodically looking over his shoulder. He had his light up so that Selena would be better able to find him; after all, he doubted he'd be able to find her himself in this darkness. But just as the fire attracted the moth, so he expected his staff to gain the notice of any midget patrols.

His torchlight showed something dark upon the dirt before him. At his distance, he couldn't make out the shape half hidden in darkness. It didn't seem to be moving. Midget warriors lying in ambush? He couldn't take the risk. Not wanting to engage in melee, he pointed his left index finger, sending the ball atop his staff hurtling right over the shape in the darkness. If he came across any enemies, he'd want to try to hit them with a firebolt in the chest before they closed in on him. In daylight, he'd be able to get off at least a dozen or so hits when out in the open. In night when he couldn't see more than a dozen or two steps ahead, he'd have time to lob a fire bolt no more than once.

As its light passed overhead he could make out what it was. Small bodies, splayed out upon a pool of blood, lying still. He released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding and approached. Two fallen midget warriors, one with its chest impaled by an arrow, the other with an arrow through its left eye. So the midgets had given chase after the fleeing Rogues even outside of the monastery. Had this happened shortly after he'd led the beast down the maze of its corridors?

Now that he'd arrived here he could see another midget body lying crumpled further down the path. It had an arrow sticking out its knee and another out of its back. From it Art judged that it must have toppled over from the arrow to the knee, exposing its back for the second arrow. How many of them had fallen?

He advanced further down the path, but did not find any more corpses, midget nor human. Thank the heavens, Art thought; looks like the retreating caravaners and archers had managed to escape without suffering further fatalities out along this path. If they'd one this way, he mused, then perhaps they'd asked for shelter for the night at the nearest village over, and he'd be able to come across them soon enough. The thought of finding Warriv, Taril, and the others spurred him to move faster down the road.

[Wherein Art tries to animate a fallen corpse and fails miserably.]

Out here in the woods, surrounded by shadows and silhouettes, he felt terribly out in the open, alone, vulnerable. He turned to look at the corpses he'd passed, and remembered that the shamans had used some kind of way of reanimation to bring corpses back to life in the fight earlier. He had one of their staves, and having one of these fallen helping to protect him could easily prove a literal lifesaver. Even if it took him some time to get the corpse up, he figured that extra protection would definitely be worth it.

He twirled the staff in his hand so that the skull sat on top, adjusted his grip accordingly. Instantly the way of the hearth vanished from his mind, and the flames vanished from the staff, plunging him back into darkness. Then he felt in his mind the emotion of controlling a puppet on a set of strings, the feeling of pulling on a string and having the doll move an arm, then a leg, accordingly. The exultation of having one's will translated into action by another, in real time, and exactly as one specified. The urge to raise one up right before him. A way of the puppeteer. With it in mind, he willed one of the corpses to stand up.

Except, nothing happened. With the bottom of his staff he groped about in the dark, prodded where he knew the corpse lay, and it hadn't risen, or moved, from what he could tell. Was he supposed to will the midget corpse before him to stand up and move? Or had there been something else involved, and he just wasn't doing it right? Unlike with the other way the staff granted, he couldn't be sure how to go about applying it. He'd not seen the exact actions the shamans had been using to cause the animation to begin.

Paying attention to the way, he felt the ability to pull on puppetstrings, however… it felt like the connection had been severed. Did he need to first establish that connection, then? He knelt down and rapped his knuckles against the corpse. Ah, that felt better -- he'd forged a connection with this one. He then stood up again and willed it to rise. He heard only the soft sound of the midget's legs moving against the ground, but it hadn't stood up. Had he done it wrong, then? Told it to rise when he needed to control all its actions individually? He couldn't see what he was doing out here in the dark. If only he had a light source at the same time as when he used the way of the puppeteer--

Swapping back to the way of the hearth, he walked over to the nearest tree and snapped a twig off one of its branches. He stepped back to the corpse and there let the twig fall to the ground, then launched a fire bolt at it to set it alight. By the dim orange glow of its light he could see the corpse even as he swapped back to the way of the puppeteer. With a tap of the bottom of his staff against the corpse, he re-established that connection, and once again he thought to have it rise.

It rose up off the ground, as if being levitated, but the levitation slowed the further Art tried to mentally pull up the corpse, and despite his best efforts Art could not get it to properly stand up. The moment Art stopped focusing on getting it to stand, it sagged and dropped back to the ground, inert. Not what Art had hoped for, but a beginning, nonetheless. Was the way lacking in power? It couldn't be -- he could feel the way of the puppeteer with every fiber of his being, the ability to raise up the dead right there at his fingertips. He'd seen the shamans raise several of them with ease. Why then, such difficulty at getting just the one to stand? Had they used some way to facilitate the process and make it easier?

Then the realization hit him. He'd been trying to raise the entire mass of the corpse by the exertion of the way alone. He hadn't tried to get the corpse to stand on its own two legs, and let its legs support its own weight. Brimming with excitement at the realization, he mentally gave it an order to stand up, this time positioning its own legs to brace itself. After several failed attempts that saw the corpse collapsing each time, he finally managed to get it to keep from tottering by propping itself up with all four of its limbs. Then, he had it balance itself on just its two legs, squatting, and once he managed that, raised the bones in the creature's upper body. This time, helped by the fact that it was now standing on its own two feet, the raised creature stayed raised.

"Yes!" Art cheered to no one in particular, thumping his staff in the air, very much pleased with himself. He figured that if nothing else good had come from this night, at least his ability to raise a corpse would be a start. "Now, let's dance," he whispered, and used the way of the puppeteer to drag the corpse forward while swinging a leg forward at the same time, to support its shift in weight. It toppled over.

Art cursed, sagging, and leaning on his staff for support even as he thrust it into the dirt of the road. Given what he'd seen of controlling these creatures, the amount of effort it took to just raise the one… It seemed he would have to painstakingly control every last aspect of its movement. He'd hardly noticed the passage of time just now, but if it had taken him as long as he thought he did to just get the thing to stand up, he had plenty of work cut out for him. He figured if a baby had to first learn to stand before learning to walk, then getting it to walk would almost certainly be just as, if not more, tricky than getting it to simply stand up. Would it take an hour, or ten, of dedicated focus with his mind? Toddlers certainly took far longer to learn to walk. For him to rediscover how each group of bones in the body moved in order to keep balanced, would take far longer than he had, and he supposed these creatures having a bodily shape and size different from his own certainly would not help matters.

And that was just walking. After that came running, leaping, backpedaling, sidestepping, dodging, and other movements he'd not figured out how to do yet, if he hoped to use a raised creature in combat. And even that would just be movement. He'd then have to figure out how to get it to wield a weapon and also a shield, to attack and parry and block. How to get it to do that whilst simultaneously moving it about, to take advantage of any openings provided by a foe. At that moment he decided he stood no chance of mastering the way of the puppeteer in any time range that would make it of any use in his search for Selena.

He was starting to gain an appreciation for the necroturges of the Great Cycle School.

"Rest in peace," he said to the fallen creature, then proceeded into the darkness.

[Wherein Art continues to search for Selena, and counters a fallen who runs upon seeing him.]

He'd proceeded a good way down the path and had yet to come across any of the midgets. Perhaps not as many patrolled these parts as he'd thought. Thinking it was safe, he began to shout "Selena!" at the top of his lungs, and to send flaming orbs shooting out every which way to illuminate the grassy countryside in the hopes of catching sight of her that way. He shouted as he walked, shouted and shouted, for how long he didn't know, but that his voice soon grew hoarse.

His throat felt parched. He hadn't drank anything since going to sleep, and the shouting hadn't helped. How many hours had passed since he'd awakened? How long would he have to continue calling her name? He wished she'd just show up already, she in her small body rushing into his arms.

Out of the darkness did indeed coming running a figure. "Oh thank good-- Oh shit," he corrected himself as it approached close enough for him to make it out as another midget warrior. It had no paint marks over it.

Art reached for his sword with his right hand… then realized it wasn't there. Neither his sword, nor his right hand. He felt a pang of fear, and for a moment he froze, unsure of what to do, or of why his left held not a shield but a staff, and how was he going to defend himself again? And he felt so tired…

The midget warrior stared at him, its mouth agape as if stunned. Then it dropped its scimitar and buckler on the ground with a clang and fled into the darkness with its hands in the air, screaming "Bawk off!"

Art stared in relief as it fled, even as he felt the rush of blood coursing through him. "My… I'm that scary, aren't I?" Then he fell to his knees, feeling light headed. He hadn't even begun to recover from all that blood he'd lost, and that close encounter had him scared witless when he'd ordinarily have cleaved his sword right through the creature. If that was all he could do against one midget warrior, his fate in battle was looking grim indeed.

As he looked down at himself, he saw himself and his armor completely smeared and caked in midget warriors' blood, blood from the battle he'd fought previously. Something he'd never again be able to replicate. The midget warrior, had it attacked, could have probably killed him just now. But the midget warrior didn't know that. It had seen what he'd done earlier, how he'd utterly butchered its comrades, and so it had fled, fearing an Art that no longer was. Saved by what proved yet another reminder of how far he'd fallen. He burst out laughing at the irony. "Ha, I guess I really was very scary."

Then when the the somber smile had faded from his face and his dry laughs had died out, he realized he'd have to work out a plan of attack when next he came upon a midget warrior to even stand a chance of acting. He continued to walk down the path, deep in these thoughts as he kept calling out Selena's name and watching all about him for potential threats.

Minutes, hours passed as he continued as his search down the path led him ever further away from the monastery. Had the little girl with her frail limbs truly run this far, or even walked all this distance? Or had he passed her by in the dead of night? Would he ever find her at this rate? The road his took had been slightly curving about as it headed west, and overall seeming to be going further and further south as well as he marched, or at least so he thought. He'd been following the road. If Selena had actually just gone in a straight line she'd be deep in the forest to his north by now, and they'd never cross paths, she never hearing his voice and never seeing the light of his staff. He'd kept to the path thinking she wouldn't dare to venture off the path; but that doubt lingered. He hoped she wasn't more stupid or reckless than he feared.

If he couldn't find her… He shuddered at the thought of first having lost his arm, then losing Selena too, for it would render his sacrifice in vain. He'd lost so much already, he couldn't bear to lose more. So many dead… visions of seeing the fallen sisters and caravaners through the monastery and its catacombs came to mind unbidden. No more, he thought. Not Selena too.

Please, high heavens, he thought, eyes brimming with tears, in his desperation. He tried to clasp his hands in prayer before realizing one held his staff and the other could hold not at all. Please, let me find Selena. Please let her be safe, please keep watch over her. Even has he finished his prayers, however, he knew no help would be forthcoming. They'd forsaken all those in the monastery, after all, the captives therein must had cried their hearts out for heaven's salvation only to find none. And he, why, Art could scarcely count himself among the devout.

He scarcely noticed when the stars in the night sky began to twinkle out one by one, disappearing into the gradually lightening firmament. The lands below remained plunged in darkness, where only the light from his staff lit the way, reflecting the branches of the trees overhead and beside him. He focused on the ground right before him and on taking step after step, ignoring the ache in his feet and along his waist, the crip shooting pains in his right arm, the wounds all about him. Onward, ever onward, he walked with mind weary and preoccupied, toward what was certainly either Selena's salvation or his doom.

[Wherein Art flees a trio of fallen.]

He almost stumbled into them. A midget warrior, suddenly visible from the reflected torchlight. It had woad paint all over its forehead and chest, and for a moment looked as surprised as Art was. Woad, Art recalled, marked this one as fearless, and he'd not be able to send it or its allies fleeing in terror as he had the solitary unpainted one from earlier. Art's heart sank in dismay. One on one, he might -- just might -- be able to take. Two on one? He'd be a fool to fight. But three?

"Rakanishu!" -- "Rakanishu right back to you!" -- "Rakanishu da! Daka, daka! Rakanize kureku da! Rakabosh!" -- "Ah, fuck," shouted Art as he offset his grip on his staff, plunging them all back into darkness, and scrammed to the side, into the forest with them hot in pursuit.

Damn it, cursed Art, as his hand approached his belt where he'd normally clip his scabbard. Just the three of them, and not a black painted one among them. If the beast hadn't taken his arm, he could have stood and fight, and the likes of these would have fallen before him like wheat before the scythe. Now, just their presence had forced him to flee.

He stumbled through the forest, across its uneven floor with its overturned rocks and fallen branches and patches of bushes and waist high grass. Out in the forest, leaves crunched and branches snapped underfoot. They'd have no trouble tailing him with such a dead giveaway. He tripped over a rock, gasped as he stubbed his tender right wrist against the dirt and scattered plant matter across the forest floor. Stumbling to his feet, he continued his run, even as he heard the shouts of the pursuing midgets behind him. He couldn't keep running in the forest. He was already getting himself lost as he weaved through trees and bramble. Twice already he'd almost smacked his head into a tree he couldn't see, and had only managed to dart out of the way at the last moment because he'd been holding his right arm out before him for that very eventuality.

Art looked up upon the starry sky, made out the patterns of the thirteen constellations and knew his orientation; he was now heading north, away from the road traveling east and west.

With a single flap of wings might I glide through the sky, horizon to horizon might I fly.

And he had backflipped over the midgets, landing with a loud crunch of grass. The other three gave a cry -- they'd heard the new source of the sound, even if they hadn't made out his silhouette leaping over their heads against the starry sky. He continued his run, until seconds later he wound back on the dirt road. He could tell from the smoother floor and the fact that the crushing sound of leaves did not persist. Without sound to give him away, here on the road he could disappear into the night with the three of them none the wiser. He took a few steps out of the way, then crouched and stopped moving altogether.

Moments later the approaching crunching of feet in the distance ceased, to be replaced by the sound of light plodding over the dirt ground. The three of them shouted at each other in a cacophony, sounding more and more frustrated, but made no more sound. Art knew them to be staying put about ten yards away. If he made a sound, they'd know his position, and he couldn't sneak away without making a sound. He heard no birds chirping -- they wouldn't, after all this commotion -- and the soft ones of the insects could not hide the sound of his footsteps.

Art propped his staff against his chest as he knelt, and with his left hand he felt alongside the dirt path for a couple of pebbles, picked them up. Then he threw one in the direction of the midget warriors, twenty yards away. He heard them scamper away from him, shouting. He then threw the rest of his pebbles, thirty, forty, fifty yards away, and heard their retreating shouts and plodding.

He took a deep breath as the racing of his heartbeat subsided and all his aches flooded back stronger than ever, forcing him to grit his teeth to shut out the strain. That was too close, he thought. The midget warriors, out here, some ten miles from the monastery? He doubted this group had ventured out here solely to catch Selena. The implication of that worried him even more. If the invaders wanted more than just the monastery, this entire countryside could be swarming with the fallen right now. If Selena had run into that group… Or any other midgets, for that matter, she'd be dead now. Art's heart sank in despair.

[Wherein Art finally finds Selena.]

When had he come to care so much for her, to care so much as to whether he lived or died? From whence had he brought upon himself such responsibility? he asked himself as his body protested against this abuse. What did it matter to him whether she, a mere stranger, lived or died?

His rational mind could provide no answer. Only, he thought, that she mattered to him. Not because of their having known each other or been friends -- they'd scarcely spoken more than a few words to each other. She symbolized to him that he hadn't been a complete failure in all this disaster at the monastery, even though he'd immediately abandoned his friends and fellow caravaners right from the beginning of the attack despite their being his employer, even though he'd turned and fled when he could have stood his ground to face the beast. Even though he'd failed to save all the others, watched some die and even helped to put other fellow humans to death -- at least, by saving Selena, he'd done something good, that he'd saved an innocent person's life.

So long as she survived. If she died, then none of what he did would matter in the end. Without her, he'd be nothing more than a sellsword who'd failed in his duties -- failed to stay by his employers' side and protect them, failed to earn his pay. With her, he was more than just a mercenary; he was a hero, and she would know it even if none else did.

Then it sank further into that despair as he realized that the people living in villages and hamlets up to twenty or even thirty miles west of the monastery possessed next to no defensive forces whatsoever. The Sightless Eye's monastery had been the local fort, for the locals. Now they were all fresh meat waiting to be slain, and he doubted the rogues could warn them all in time.

He resumed his walk, ever west-ward. When he judged himself to be a safe distance away from the midgets from earlier, he once again lit his torch-staff, once again called out Selena's name, hoping against hope that she'd be all right. His gait grew slower, his breath more haggard, his mind weaker, and his vision grew dim even as the sky grew brighter. He called at barely a whimper, his voice gone hoarse from shouting. He limped, right arm clutched around his torch staff, propping against it as an infirm man might his walking staff. His cheeks felt cool where his tears had dried in the twilight air, and he had no more tears to give.

And then, he beheld Selena's tiny form in the distance, lying on her back. She stirred, stretched her arms out and yawned, gave one look at him, gasped on seeing Art, and raced toward him, saying something.

Oh, thank the heavens she's okay, thought Art, relief flooding the husk of a man that remained of him. Thank the heavens. And then he collapsed, unconscious, with a crunch against the leaf-strewn forest floor, right before Selena.

[Wherein Art reunites with Selena.]

When Art next awoke, he felt a weight on his abdomen, light and soft, birds chirping all about, leaves rustling upon flowing wind. His cheeks felt cool, his body warm, and he rested on his back.

Ah, this must be heaven, he thought. I'd died last night, fell to my death, and the gods had seen fit to grant me entry.

He opened his eyes -- daylight streamed into his eyes, with the sun, glorious in resplendant brilliance, shining directly overhead, sending shafts of vibrant hues through the interwoven branches sprawled above. Branches, slowly dancing. Leaves, fluttering. The blue of the sky shone like brilliant stars through the verdant canopy.

"Yep, definitely heaven."

The moving of his lips told him that he felt so very thirsty. He felt absolutely starved, too, and then he sensed the pain all over him, his right arm worst of all, shooting pains, even as his right hand felt numb. Numb, he remembered in grief, because he'd lost it. He raised his right arm, saw it ending in a stump, blackened at its heart and with red all around, an ugly gory mess. White in the middle -- cleft bone with marrow exposed.

"Heaven sucks."

The weight on his abdomen rolled about a tad. He craned his head and saw the girl. She had her head resting on him. She looked an utter mess, golden frazzled hair bestrewn with blades of grass and a crinkled yellow maple leaf. Her ordinary peasant girl's gown had mud and dirt smeared all over it, as did her shoes and her fair skin.

"Selena?" he whispered. He could scarcely believe it. All through that terrible night he'd been searching, always searching, for her, and he couldn't remember a thing about actually finding her, yet here she was. What luck, that she had survived and he had found her!

He wrapped his left arm around her waist, holding back his tears as he whispered, "Thank the heavens, you're safe." She lived, and that meant that all he'd forced himself through the night before, had not been in vain. "Thank you."

Then he closed his eyes. It felt safe here, safe after so long a nightmare of suffering and terror, and he longed to just stay here and catch up on much needed rest.

The girl squirmed, yawned, and opened her eyes to look at him. "Morning," she said as she patted him in the chest with her little hand. "Morning morning morning!" She leapt to her feet, practically bursting with excitement and, grabbing his left hand, began trying to pull him up. "Wakey wakey time! Get up, sleepyhead!"

"Oh, I'm an oaf now, am I? Well I'll have you know, I saved you last night." -- "Did not!" -- "Did too." -- "Did not," she finished with finality and her arms akimbo and staring down at her. -- "My, but aren't persistent, little one. As if you'd know." -- "I should know. You were sleeping the whole time. -- "I was… How could you possibly say that…" -- "I know because you slept all through yesterday you big, sleepy, sleepyhead!"

"Ha," chuckled Art, thinking of how the girl hadn't been there to see him make his stand against the invaders within the monastery. She'd fled after all, and hadn't looked back. Of course she wouldn't know. "Wait… I slept all through yesterday?" He sat up and grasped her arm in his hand. "Really?" -- Nod. -- "Shit." He'd been out for an entire day and night. More than that, as it looked like noon already. "Shit."

He looked around. Forest surrounded him on all sides; a dirt path cut through it not thirty paces away, and a tiny stream flowed on the other side. The little girl must have drank from there to keep from going thirsty after all this time, but after a day and two nights of nothing to eat she'd be downright famished right about now. "I… guess that really does make me a sleepyhead, doesn't it? Well, I have an excuse," he protested, lifting up his stub of a right hand, and fell sullen again.

Selena took hold of his cauterized wrist. -- "Aargh!" he shouted as he pulled his arm away from her. "That hurt, Selena. Don't touch."

She looked up at him in concern. "It really hurt?" -- "Yes, it really, really, really, really hurts." -- "Hmm, let me see." She reached out for his arm again, though this time by his wrist, and he let her. She then began breathing at it, softly and slowly, again and again, as Art watched on in confusion. "There, does that make it feel all better?" -- "No, I'm afraid it hurts even if you do that." -- Pout. -- "But, coming from you, I guess it's all right." -- "Yay!" she cheered with a fist pumping the air, before clapping her hands excitedly and with a smile.

Rakanishu, the thought went through his mind. A midget warrior, scimitar upraised, then banging it against a buckler. Red skin, gnarly teeth, woad, pitch. He shook the thought from his mind. His right hand had gone instinctively for his scabbard, though neither of them were there. He fell silent.

[Where Selena asks about what happened to Art's hand.]

"How did you do that?" -- "Huh?" -- "Where did you put your hand?" -- Where did I put-- thought Art in disbelief. -- "Oh, it's a trick, isn't it? Can you teach me? I want to be able to make my hand disappear!"

Art shook his head slowly, chuckled, then let it fade. He couldn't very well tell the harsh truth to a girl that young. "Well, you see, after you ran off I had to visit a… an acquaintance. For my getting you out of there safely, he rewarded me with a magic trick, made my hand disappear, only I haven't seemed to figure out how to get it back yet."

"Oh," the girl said, looking crestfallen.

The beast, slashing out with its claw from the opening doorway. In time with that flash of memory, the stump of his arm flared in pain, and he winced, clenched his teeth.

"You don't have to lie," she said, looking at him reproachfully.

"What? I wasn't…" Wait… "Well aren't you smart. Since you asked… Back at the gates, I had to keep on fighting, after you ran on through, to hold them off. I… had to fight a lot." -- "A lot?" -- "Yes, I mean a lot a lot. To give you time to run away. Good thing you did, too. They wanted to eat you, you know."

"I'm not all that tasty!" -- "Oh yes you are." -- "No I'm not. If I am, you'd have eaten me already." -- "Oh, are you feeding me your arm now?" -- "Sure," she said, sticking out her bare arm to him. -- "Well then, if you're offering… I hadn't eaten for two days. I'm starving," he said as he grasped her outstretched hand and brought it before his mouth, opened his mouth wide and made an exaggerated "Aaah" as if about to bite down, then blew a very noisy kiss into her arm.

She tore her arm away, giggling as she danced about, feigning running away from a predator for a moment before stopping. "That was funny! It sounded just like a fart!" Then she looked askance at him. "You actually took a bite out of me. How could you!"

"Aww, I didn't hurt you, did I?" -- "Yes you did!" -- "Okay, then let me take a look at it," said Art as he reached out an arm for her. She stretched her arm out to him, pouting. He began to blow at it, where he'd supposedly 'bitten' her, softly and gently blowed all over it while making light sweeps over her arm with his fingers. He looked up, saw her watching him intently. "That feel better?"

She nodded, grinning. "Much better! Like I'm back to one piece." She sat down on the leaf-strewn grass beside him, sighing. "I'm sorry you lost your hand protecting me."

He shook his head, looking wistfully at her even as a renewed wave of tears brimmed his eyes. "I'm sorry, too."He felt sorry, yet happy. The little bundle of joy had brought more happiness into his life in five minutes than he'd had in days, weeks even. At that moment he felt glad, even blessed, to have been the one who'd rescued her.

He wrapped his arms around her, held her tightly, squeezed his eyes shut even as he let the floodgates burst, sobbing into her shoulder with abandon. "I'm so glad to have you back… I'd lost… so much… There's so much… I'll never be able to do again…" He choked his words on his heaving. He just held on to her, tightly as if never wanting to let go of her.

She for her part wrapped her little arms around him and patted him slowly on the back as if trying to console him. "There now… Don't cry. I'm here for you."

Then her stomach growled. His did too.

"Oh crap," he said, ending the embrace." I feel hungry, and I mean really, really hungry. Did I really sleep for over a day?"

She covered her mouth with her hands as she stepped away and burst into a peal of laughter. "I had you fooled, didn't I? I totally had you fooled!" -- "You little imp, get back here!" -- "Aah!" she screamed and ran -- Art gave a half-hearted chase, shouting after her, "I only slept for a morning, didn't I? Didn't I? After all I did? And what was that you called me? You little weasel, get back here!" -- "Aah!"

Weaving their way through the trees, Selena laughing and Art shouting in pursuit, he soon caught her and pulled her back to him. "Got you! I got you! Now you get what's coming for ya," he said, then proceeded to tickle her all over. -- "Stop! Stop!" she shouted, flailing her arms wildly and kicking about futilely with her feet as she squirmed and giggled, helpless, before Art showed her mercy and they collapsed upon the forest floor with Selena sprawled over him and heaving and Art laughing.

[Wherein Selena asks about her mommy, and Art promises that they'll go get her back someday.]

After a blissful minute of peaceful quiet, Selena said, "I like you. You're just as fun as mommy."

"Oh. That's… quite a nice compliment, thanks."

"Where's mommy?" -- Oh, crap. -- "When are you going to go back for her?" -- Oh crap oh crap what do I say? thought Art -- "You are going to go back for her, right? Right?" she asked. When had she turned around, to stand on top of him, pinning him down like that? He couldn't even turn aside. He couldn't look away from her, with her eyes wide with worry. Seeing those tears in her eyes, just ready to cascade on down, he couldn't bear to break the truth to her.

"Yeah, we'll go back for mommy, Selena. I promise you. We'll bring her back. But I can't do it alone, not after what they did to my hand," he said, raising up his right arm. "So I'm sorry, but I can't do it now. We'd need to first find people to fight with us, so we can scare away the baddies who want to hurt us and eat us. They'd need to be people who are good at fighting and who want to help us, so it may take us some time to find enough of them. And then we'd have to fight our way back there, before we can go save her. I'm not saying it will be easy on you, Selena, but you're a big, strong girl, right?"

She nodded, even as the tears started to flow.

"And big strong girls like you won't cry, you'll stay strong, right?"

She nodded, even as she brought the backs of her hands to wipe away her tears, sobbing, and as her tears fell to stain Art's ruined gambeson.

"Then get's get up," he said as he gently moved her off him, and then stood up. "There's a long journey ahead of us, and the longer we wait the longer it'll be before you get to see her again."

He didn't exactly fancy the prospect of Selena seeing her mother again, though. By the time they got back to the monastery, her decaying corpse was sure to have turned putrescent, and the innocent girl would be treated to a sight and smell that would haunt grown men into their nightmares.

But, as he took up his staff and led her with his handless arm to resume their journey west, he figured that she probably already knew this in her heart, and it was only that sliver of hope offered by his words that kept her from succumbing completely to despair. After seeing the girl so joyful and innocent, he couldn't bear to see her broken. He vowed to himself, then, that he would keep the light of that hope going for as long as possible. Even if it meant keeping her hopes alive with lie after lie.

Chapter 8: A Dance Upon Ruins

[Wherein Art and Selena, going thru the woods, are hungry and Art fails to hunt anything and practices with his staff.]

"I'm tired, can we sit down now?" -- "No Selena. We have to keep walking." -- "But I'm hungry!" she said with a frown, having Art's hand that she held on to, a good shake of displeasure. "We've been walking for hours! I want to eat!" -- "I agree completely. We should sit down and eat." -- "Yay!"

Jumping for joy, Selena went to sit down on a fallen, mossy log beside them, then looked back at Art expectantly. Art stared back at her and asked, "So where's the food?" -- "…I thought you brought some." -- "Did I? Let me check," he said as he stuck his hand and arm in the pockets of his trousers as if to check. He pulled out the white, inside flaps of each pocket, then shrugged. "I don't know where it is."

"Well, where did you put it?" -- "Oh, I don't know, back at the monastery? Along with everything else I left there?" -- "Why did you leave it back there?" Selena shouted at him with a frown. -- "I don't know, maybe having to run from big baddies in the middle of the night is a good excuse?" He looked at her on the verge of crying. "Okay, looks like no one likes my excuse." -- "I don't like your excuse, I don't like it," said Selena as she began pounding at his chest. "Can't you find us some food?" -- "Okay, okay, I'll take a look, see what I can find."

He turned about, taking in the forest scenery. Trees of all sorts stretched for as far as the eye could see. All over the woodland floor rose tall grasses, bushes, and ferns amidst stones and hillocks, dirt and moss. Birds sung in the distance, insects chirped all around, and he could hear the soft sounds of little creatures speeding through the undergrowth, just out of sight. Life went on all about him, the creatures going about their daily routines, carefree and oblivious to the disaster at the monastery.

So much bountiful nature all about him, and not a berry to pick and eat.

He glanced up at the three before him, where a bluebird sung upon a lofty branch far over head. He could leap at it with his way of the albatross, but the bird would outfly him, not to mention be able to change direction mid-flight unlike his leap. He raised his torch-staff, and thoughts of the warmth of the hearth and the heat of the flame blossomed into his mind. Atop the staff flame burst into being, and with a point of his left hand he sent the orb streaking in the general direction of the bird.

It took off almost instantly, of course. But had it stayed put, Art's bolt of fire would have missed it by over two feet. The flames went past the branches and burst aflame against the leaves further up the tree, and caught fire immediately.

He stared down at his staff in dismay, and when he saw Selena looking at him with dismay as well, gave an exaggerated sigh. "Well, it looked easy." -- "Will it help if I cheer you on?" -- "Don't, it'll scare away the birds." -- "What birds?" -- Pause, as Art looked around and listened for birdsong, of which he could hear none. "On second thought, you can cheer me on now." -- "Yay! Go get 'em, Art!"

Art shook his head in amusement, then offered his stub of an arm for her to grasp hold off, before they proceeded again through the woods. As they went, Art kept pointing out with his left index finger, sending fire bolts flying this way and that, setting trees on fire with complete abandon.

Selena ended her cheering to turn to Art. "What are you pointing them off to anyway?" -- "Nowhere, I thought if I kept it up you'd keep on cheering." -- She gave him a slap on his arm. "You know, all that cheering is making me very thirsty too. Now you owe me lunch and a nice drink." -- Art chuckled. -- "What's so funny?" -- "Nothing." He shook his head at her, a grin plastered over his face. -- "I don't believe you." -- "Well since you ask so nicely, I was just thinking of how I will have paid you back the moment we come across another stream." -- "Don't forget about the lunch too! It doesn't count if it's night when we eat. That would make it dinner. You're not going to starve me till then, are you?" She looked askance at him as he resumed shooting bolts of fire before him. "You're not even aiming, are you?"

"Here, you want to try?" he said, holding the staff out to her. -- "Sure, why not?" she said with a grin, took it and held it in her hands but holding it in the wrong place, then tried pointing out her index finger the way she'd seen him do it, then repeated the gesture a few times. Nothing happened. With a frown she asked, "Why can't I do it?" -- "Well I'm sure if you were hungry enough you'd be able to." -- "I am hungry!" -- "Well then that means I'm more hungry than you are." -- "No you aren't!" -- "Am too." -- "I said no you aren't." -- "No I'm not." -- "Yes you are!" -- "That's what I was saying." -- "… Hey, you tricked me! Get back here!" she shouted after him as he took off running, the both of them laughing as they went.

[wherein they come across a hamlet with fallen, and after engaging it in battle, more fallen show up and they have to flee.]

Laughing, they did not realize they'd cleared the woods until after Art stumbled out into the fields and stopped in his tracks. Laughing, Selena ran into him and wrapped her hands around him. "Caught you! I got you!" Then after seeing no reply from Art, turned to stare in the same direction.

Before him stretched acres of farmland tilled in neat rows, fields of shoulder-height wheat stalks stretching before him as far as the eye can see. To the side lay a patch of meadow, green grass stretching into the distance before merging with the forest. Straight before him stood a cluster of houses, perhaps four or five, charred and blackened and only half their walls still standing.

The midgets had passed through before them, Art thought grimly. While Art had been asleep, they'd pressed onward, and razed these buildings to the ground.

"I would say that before us is food," said Art, "except if we go there we'll become food instead." -- "Did someone say food?" -- "Oh, all right, let's go," he said, and Selena grasped his right arm by the elbow as they proceeded toward the hamlet. "Chances are they're all gone now," he muttered, noting that he could catch no sight of any fire, nor any tell tale signs of drifting smoke.

Walking down a simple dirt path, they passed the charred, half-eaten carcass of a cow, and then another, as they approached close to the hamlet. He hadn't bothered Selena from the sight; she'd seen it first, and looked away all stoic-like, as if determined to neither scream nor throw up.

Before them, the nearest of the houses half-stood only a few dozen feet away. Art pulled Selena aside, into the stalks of wheat, and crouched down to whisper to her, "I'm going ahead to see if I can't find any food for us to eat. You stay here, okay? Stay right here until I come for you. Or if I call for your name, you run for the woods, right down this dirt path, till you get to the forest edge, then you hide there till I come for you. Got it?" -- Nod. -- "Good. And if you see any monsters and they see you, you run and scream. Okay?" -- "Okay." -- "Good girl," he said, patting her on the head. -- "You will be back soon, right?" -- "Yeah, real soon. So stay quiet, okay?" -- Nod.

Staff held in hand, Art advanced up the remainder of the dirt path till he reached the blackened husk of the first house. He looked over the half collapsed wooden wall to peer into the room. Straw and thatch lay strewn everywhere. In the center, the bloody corpse of a middle-aged woman and that of a young boy. Fallen wooden planks and logs, half burned, lay crumpled on all sides amidst the charred remains of clothes. Over it all lay a carpet of brown dust and gray ashes with footprints impressed upon them.

Rounding a corner, he turned to see the razed skeletons of the other houses of the hamlet before him. And before them all a midget warrior, bearing no paint, no armor, no clothing upon its red skin beside a simple loincloth. For a moment Art froze in panic, then saw it was looking away from him, kneeled down, with one hand holding its scimitar and with the other hand inspecting something he couldn't quite make out from amongst the ruined mess of another house, whose thatch roof had half collapsed into a heap.

He could feel his mind, his weaker side, telling him to flee. This was no fight he wanted to get into, it said, not with him being so weakened from earlier, not with him bringing a staff to a sword fight, which he knew would be a recipe for disaster. Yet he suppressed his urge to flee. Succor lay this close. Food, water, whatever this hamlet held and which he desperately needed, would be his, so long as he overcame this hurdle. After hours of trudging through the forest, he could feel his hunger pangs beating in time with his pulse, he could feel the burning at the back of his parched throat. Selena, he knew, would be in no better a situation, given her youth. If he abandoned this opportunity, he might very well not make it to the nearest village, and there was no telling if other warriors lurked in other razed villages and hamlets further west.

That must be the one that left all these footprints, Art thought. It didn't know Art was here, which meant Art could surprise it, get in a killing blow with the crescent blade of his staff. Not with a blast from a fire bolt; he'd already seen its ineffectiveness when he'd been on the receiving end of such attacks, and he wanted to make the most of his surprise attack, to kill it outright with a good stab. Then with the threat eliminated, he'd be able to loot through the ruins for anything worth salvaging. Food, a container for water. If nothing else, he'd at least get himself a scimitar.

Tiptoeing, he approached the midget warrior, crescent tipped side pointed straight forward and ready to lunge. The ashes strewn all about made just a tiny bit of noise when stepped upon, hardly more than stepping on dirt. Five yards, four, three… It turned around, saw Art, froze in surprise. Art lunged with his staff, but with a swing of its scimitar the warrior parried it aside with a shout of "Rar!"

Art pulled back to prepare another thrust, but then had to continue to pull back as the warrior lashed out at him with it scimitar.

A leaf, a petal, a feather…

Knocking his staff against the flat of its blade, he knocked the scimitar off course so that it narrowly missed cutting into his outstretched arm. Then the warrior lashed out again with its scimitar, forcing Art to pull back yet again, and then again.

He heard rushed footsteps to his right. The creature's cry made sense now: it hadn't been alone. His heart sank in dismay. "Rakanishu!" he heard the shout, and without a moment's pause he ran from the hamlet, down a different dirt road from the one where Selena hid, with them in hot pursuit. He could hear the nearess of their footsteps, even as he increased his distance from them.

[Wherein Art begins to use the staff's fire bolt to fight the fallen.]

His staff in hand, he conjured flame atop it, then turned about to see three of the warriors in hot pursuit, and pointed at the nearest one, sending the ball of fire right at it. It fell down screaming, wreathed in flame, rolling along the ground. "Hah! Got ya!" Art had already turned to keep running, as he'd almost completely lost his lead to them from pausing just a mere second or two. Then after he'd run another two dozen steps he turned around to fire another shot -- "Got ya again!" -- and found the three of them still chased after him, the smouldering and burned one bringing up the rear. "Ah crap." As Art resumed fleeing, he knew it to have survived the flames. He couldn't get enough shots off in this way.

Within a few more seconds he'd reached the treeline, still with the creatures in pursuit. With a single flap of wings sent him leaping onto a branch, a thick one that could hold his weight, and with his right arm he steadied himself from falling. From here he could look upon the trio of his pursuers, shouting angrily and banging their scimitars against their bucklers as if challenging him to jump down and face them in honorable combat. "What, you want me to stoop to your level? Why don't you rise up to mine?"

One of them dropped its buckler, wrapped both arms around the tree trunk right below him and tried to climb up. "Uh, you, little guy. That wasn't an invitation." Art made it perish its thought with a bolt of fire right on its face, causing it to fall screaming in agony as it rolled around, trying to put out its flame. "Like I said, you're not invited. Unless you want a spot in the fireplace." Art then pointed his finger at it again and again, conjuring balls of fire to lob down at it even as it screamed, smouldered, its skin cooking under Art's sustained assault. "There. That warm enough for you?" Within moments it stopped rolling along the edge of the forest floor, reduced to flailing around wildly and shouting in agony until it collapsed, its corpse still aflame. "How about now?"

The other two midget warriors, upon seeing what fate had befallen their comrade, turned and with a cry of "Bawk off!" fled back the way they'd come. Art fired bolt after bolt of flame after them, and one of them fell into a roll to extinguish flames that had caught it, but beyond a dozen paces he failed to land another hit. "Hey, leaving already?" he said, leaping down after them with the way of the albatross before racing after them, chasing them all the way back to the hamlet.

Whereupon a group of four midget warriors formed a line, all with scimitars out and shouting as they rushed at him. "Well okay, that's a decent welcome, but I had intended to barge in uninvited," he shouted, and with might I glide through the sky he had backflipped over them all to land standing upon the chimney of one of the burned out houses. "I daresay you can't get me here either," he said, watching as they stood around him, shouting. He pointed a finger at one of them and a bolt of fire lashed out, scalding it and sending it running away in fear. "But looks like I can still get you from here." Then he proceeded to fire at them, one after another as he turned around looking for new targets while upon the chimneytop, forcing them to back away from him or hide behind piles of debris and half collapsed walls. Within seconds two of them had collapsed, screaming in panic before the flames burned upon their charred corpses. "Would you look at that! Fleeing already? Come on, show me what you got," he taunted them.

A bolt of fire shooting up and right at him forced him to jump down into the ruins of the house that hosted the chimney he'd been standing on, it having no roof left to bar his landing. "Oh, didn't know you had got that too," he said. "Guess I asked for it."

"Nice clothes," said Art, nodding his head toward the shaman. The shaman that had fired it stood right outside the collapsed blackened walls of house, brandishing its own torch-staff. Unlike the loincloth-clad shamans from the previous night, this one wore a white shirt and brown leggings that sagged from being just a bit too loose for its lean frame. A long diagonal slash rent the front of its shirt, stained with blood -- Art figured it had looted those off one of the unfortunates who had resided in the hamlet. "Are those new? You sure you want to wear them to a fire fight?"

The next second a warrior came to its side, forcing Art to abort his plan to leap at it and kill it: with the warrior there, he couldn't get close enough to impale the shaman with the blade of his staff.

"If you like fire so much, here's a gift for you," he said, sending a bolt of fire hurtling at the shaman. It stepped out of the way with ease even as it launched a bolt of its own right back at Art, who likewise dodged. "I don't want the hot potato" he said, sending another bolt right back, only for it to be dodged again. Another incoming bolt, avoided with a quick tilt of his head, and then he was sending another one hurtling forward. "No, you keep it."

"Ah shit," Art said as a pair of the midget warriors ran into the burned down remains of the home and prepared to bear down on Art. When his next bolt of fire burst harmlessly upon his target's buckler, he summoned horizon to horizon and leapt out of the roofless house to stand upon a wooden stake forming the corner of the next burned-down house over. With a twirl of his torch-staff to readjust his grip he launched another bolt of fire at the shaman, who once again stepped out of the way. This time when it fired however, Art had to take flight yet again, not being able to simply step out of the way, seeing as he stood on a single upright panel of wood with none other next to it. By the time he landed, he had to leap again to block the bolt of fire he saw approaching right at him. He couldn't get another bolt off as he leapt yet again, and the next time he leapt a bolt of fire caught him in the chest, bursting against his gambeson.

His gambeson, already torn and ruined from sustaining so many cuts earlier, now burst into flame with ease. He dropped down into a roll and came up smoking; he could feel a burn along his chest where his gambeson had been nearly cut through. He couldn't keep this long range fight against the shaman, not when the midgets rushing at him forced him to high ground, where he had to take a precious moment to see where he could leap to next, where he couldn't make slight dodges the way he could on flat ground, where he could be intercepted mid-leap with a well-timed fire bolt. The fire bolts just came at him too quickly.

[Wherein Art engages the fallen in melee.]

Shit, he thought to himself. He would have to engage in melee, where he would have to risk his life, just so that the shaman could not continue to lob its flames at him.

With his next leap Art landed beside one of the midget warriors he'd burned to death, discarding his staff to pick up the scimitar it had dropped. With his next leap he lunged at the nearest midget warrior, slashing out with his scimitar, but not quite far enough to leave himself too vulnerable. He prepared to leap back at a moment's notice, and not too soon as the next swipe from his opponent's scimitar nearly took his leg off. The blood pumped through his veins as he backpedaled, realizing just how close he'd come to getting slain. The scimitar before him flashed with reflected sunlight as it wove this way and that, the midget warrior behind it attempting to get past Art's own blade as he parried that way and this in response.

Another bolt of flame struck where he stood a fraction of a second after he, sensing he'd gotten too far away from his opponent, leapt back. If he'd been hit with the flame and been forced to roll to put it out… The warrior before him could have easily decapitated him. Gritting his teeth, he got in close to the midget warrior, scimitar slashing against scimitar in a whirling dance of blades, even as sweat fell down his neck and drenched his chest and armpits. Carried by the wind, I spin. The fear, so overwhelming. I float on through the sky. The blood, pounding with fury. A lunge, a riposte, a step back, and dodge. Now he pressed the warrior back as he advanced with a flurry of blows; now the midget had him backpedaling in terror with its own pattern of strikes. Dancing upon the breeze… A flame bolt struck next to him, its heat singeing his flesh.

Damn the lost hand, thought Art for the thousandth time. Without it, he couldn't wield a shield, couldn't block all those slashes from the midget warrior in front of him, which forced him to either parry or dodge out of the way. Each time he dodged took him a step away from his foe, which put his enemy out of range of his weapon; and each time he parried meant another opportunity to attack wasted. How he felt pangs of envy for the way the warrior before him so easily turned aside each slash of his blade with a well placed, smooth sweep of its buckler.

A mere buckler! If he could close in on the midget, he could strike at targets further away - the hips, the thighs, the knees, the lower legs, and then that puny little buckler wouldn't block his strokes at all. But backpedaling yet again, he knew he could not get in close enough without making himself vulnerable. How he wished he had on full armor!

I sweep past all that approach. Even reciting the mantra in his mind, evoking its feeling to allow him to dance around sweep after sweep of that incoming scimitar, even with his gambeson to block its strikes, he still felt the stinging bite of a penetrating swing of the scimitar against his chest, saw the scimitar leave with his blood drawn upon it. Too much of his gambeson had fallen to tatters, in many places with only a few layers of unkempt, burnt wool, in other places completely uncovered.

He swung his scimitar against that of his opponent, turned it into a spiraling with that uneasy sound of metal grinding on metal as he kept the midget from turning its thrust into a lethal strike on his person. He stayed a moment too long, and another fire bolt caught him in his chest, scalding across him. Gasping in pain, he backed away, unable to even call upon the way of the albatross as his mind became seized with the excruciating pain of the fire. And then he was rolling along the ground, trying his darnedest to put those flames out before he received any more serious burns.

He could hear the midget swinging its scimitar down at where his head had been but a second ago, then again, as he rolled; knew he was rolling away from his attacker far too slowly, and brought up his scimitar into a defensive sweep to parry aside that incoming blow -- one that would have bitten right into his neck -- and the next moment he'd leapt to his feet. His skin felt tender all over, his mind screaming for him to flee. He was tired, and hungry, and thirsty, and that pain in his right wrist only made matters worse.

As he blocked yet another hit from the midget, retreated another step, he noticed out of his peripheral vision, another midget warrior circling around to attack him from behind. One more second and it would strike a blow against him, perhaps through one of the gashes he knew he sported on his back. He leapt, with his way, atop the nearest burned out wooden half-wall to stand with light feet upon it, for a fraction of a second's respite from the midget warriors before he leapt knowing that a fire bolt would be aiming right where he'd stood an instant ago. He landed back on the ground, on the ash-strewn dirt road in the middle of the hamlet, on the ground once again.

He knew he couldn't keep this up, with the midgets bearing down on him two to one. He couldn't even fight one of them off, and that mean he'd have to find a place where he didn't have to engage the midgets simutaneously. He retreated to a doorway of one of the half-burned-down houses, running right over several charred wooden planks that lay flat upon the entryway, then dodged around the wall, even as a bolt of fire passed overhead. He pressed against the head of of the wooden planks from both sides with the insides of his boots, gave a leap while holding the plank that caused it to rise up into the air, then rested his right foot underneath the falling wooden plank.

Then the moment the first midget warrior charged in past the entryway, he kicked his right foot up, sending the wooden plank up right toward its face. The midget warrior blocked it with its scimitar in its panic, trying to knocking it aside. The next moment Art kicked out with his left foot, sending up a spray of the gray ash that carpeted the ground; and this the midget warrior had not seen, having been distracted by the plank of wood. It flailed wildly, blinking and taking a step back, with its scimitar raised upright and swinging in case Art had lunged right then. Art instead ducked and swung his scimitar at the midget's knees, hacking right into the creature's right knee.

Blood spurted from the severed leg as Art's scimitar slashed on through. The midget warrior before him toppled to its unsupported right with an anguished scream, still swinging its scimitar blindly. The very next moment the midget warrior right behind it had burst into the roofless room, its own blade swinging, forcing Art to parry each blow aside even as he stepped back. It shouted in fury as Art continued to weave around the room with the midget at the center, barely audible above the pained wailing of the fallen one. This last warrior stood at the middle of the room with its scimitar at the ready, watching as Art circled around it.

[Wherein Art has to fight reanimated fallen, and goes after the shaman with fire bolts.]

A footstep warned him of the impending danger, and he brought his scimitar out to parry just as another midget warrior entered the room. Another? Thought Art in confusion for a moment before realizing this one had third degree burned flesh all over it, scorched black here, burned white there, and dripping with pus all over. It stood smoking, and yet remained standing without uttering a sound, its scimitar held at the ready. Two in the same room as him. With a quick swing of his scimitar to knock aside the second midget's swinging blade, he leapt out of the house to hide behind a wall.

With a moment's consideration he realized that had been no fifth midget warrior. He'd engaged all of them already: one he hacked through the leg, one still stood, two he'd burned to death, plus the shaman. The one bearing all those burns had been reanimated by the shaman, and the zombie of course felt no pain. He despaired. Bad enough to have to engage multiple warriors without the protection of his other arm; now he had to fight reanimated warriors too?

But a moment later the two warriors had rounded the corner and bore down on him, the dead one charging in first. He thrust at it experimentally, and the dead one blocked his scimitar with its buckler and then swung with its own scimitar.

Even as Art backed away, he knew the shaman had to be standing somewhere where it could see Art, somewhere that couldn't be but a step or two away from having a vantage point of the room he'd been in a moment earlier, if it could command its puppet to engage Art in both places in rapid succession.The house with the burned down roof only had the one door, and while the rest of the walls had been razed, the lower halves of those walls remained intact. The shaman could only have seen him through the open door of the house that the warriors had charged in from; and for it to also be able to see him now…

With I drift in the open sky he leaped over the two midget warriors and saw the shaman, standing exactly where he'd expected it to be. He could end this right away -- his heart sank when he saw the other burned corpse standing right beside it, as it took a step to cover for its master, its scimitar pointed out at him.

A shaman, a warrior and two reanimated warriors, thought Art as he leapt to the side to avoid his pursuers. After all that fighting, he still had to contend with so many threats. Damn his lost arm, forcing him to lose so much of his combat capability! And damn the shaman, for forcing him into melee with its fire bolts, then supporting the melee with its reanimated minions! Wait a sec, he thought… the shaman was reanimating now. That meant it held its staff skull side up, and couldn't also be shooting flames at him. And that meant he could engage it at range.

He leapt to right where he'd discarded his staff a moment ago, dropped his scimitar to pick up the staff, holding it with crescent side up. Then with another leap he landed balanced upon a half-shattered wooden wall that granted him an impressive vantage point of the hamlet and its four defenders.

Flame sprung into being atop his staff, and he sent them hurtling down at the last living midget warrior, pelting it with flame over and over again. It screamed as it fled, threw itself to the ground and tried to roll to put out the flames, and slowed itself down so much in the process that Art could easily continue to press his attack. Fire bolt after fire bolt streamed at the creature, utterly immolating it, and seconds later it had collapsed screaming, waving its arms and kicking its legs in futility as it died. "There now, I've sent you another puppet for you to animate. Aren't you going to thank me for such a wonderful gift?"

The next moment he leapt out of the way of a bolt of flame coming up from below. Landing upon the ground, he dodged out of the way of another bolt of flame, then shot a fire bolt back at the shaman, who dodged. Art looked upon it to see the two reanimated warriors had collapsed by the shaman's side, now that the shaman held its torch-staff with the crescent side up, having twirled it in its hands to be able to launch offensives in Art's direction. It had started taking steps in retreat, and Art could tell the look of anxiety and fear on its face. When Art paused a moment, it didn't lash out with a bolt of its own, instead staring at Art.

"Are you sure you want to do that?" he asked, taking a step toward the shaman and making it take a step back. "Really? Because if you are…" With the crescent side of his staff pointing forward, he leapt at the shaman, the way of the albatross carrying him the entire ten meters in but a second. He had the staff's blade pointed forward, ready to skewer the shaman, but even as he watched it twirled its staff in its hand to grip it with the skull now pointed up, and the very next moment the dead midget warrior by its feet swung up with the arm holding its scimitar, cutting right into the staff shaft right under the crescent headpiece and knocking it aside; and the next moment it was up, with buckler at the ready to deflect Art's next lunge.

Art leapt away from its counterattack, to stand atop a free-standing chimney again, and pouted at the shaman, "Hey! Don't attack my staff! It's a precious souvenir of when I'd killed one of your cousins!" He adjusted his grip on it to evoke its way of the hearth, ready to finish off the shaman now that it had swapped back to reanimation… but he felt no upwelling of heat and warmth, no feeling of standing before the flame in the fireplace, fill his mind. The staff lay inert in his hand. He studied it with an exaggerated frowm on his face, saw the deep gash where the intercepting scimitar had gouged into the wooden shaft. "Now look what you did to it! You made it so I can't kill your cousin's cousin with it any more!"

In reply, the shaman sent two of its reanimated minions come after Art, scimitar upraised, while keeping the other one close to itself in defense. Art looked down and scoffed. "I believe we're at an impasse. I can't get to you while you have your minion defending, and your minions can't get to me where I'm standing."

The shaman and its guard rushed into the adjacent wreck of a house and touched its skull headpiece against the fourth minion, the one with the leg hacked off. Art saw it had already bled to death, its blood pooling bright red upon the ashes where it had lay. But a moment after the shaman's staff touched the corpse, he saw it start to crawl with its arms and one remaining leg toward Art's chimney. "Or stand at all, it seems."

[Wherein Art realizes he can use the bone from the skull staff.]

"You know," Art said as he sat down on the chimney and kicked his legs idly. He paused, waiting for a fire bolt to come at him, then gave the shaman a look when that didn't happen. Damn, he thought; he'd hoped the shaman would take the bait and switch to using its long ranged attack and leave itself vulnerable, but it seemed the shaman had learned its lesson. Instead, the minions struggled to try to prop themselves on each other, with the ones below supporting the weight of those above it, and failing completely. They fell into a heap at the bottom of the chimney.

"You know, you and I are quite alike. We both have staves," he said, giving his staff a little shake. "We both know how to fight, and neither of us really has any allies." He cocked his head. "Well, you have your minions, I'll give you that much." He twirled his staff to hold it by the skull. "And the fact that one of them managed to get in a lucky blow on my staff and ruining the carving for fire bolt. I'll give you that one as well. And as a result you have me in a bit of a pickle." He swung his staff about, idly, looking at the shaman, then its minions, then at his skull-staff, trying to come up with what he could do next.

He couldn't win with a scimitar, not against so many reanimated warriors. He couldn't launch fire bolts now that the crescent side of his staff had been damaged. He couldn't get close enough to impale the shaman with the crescent side blade at all. The skull side… Well, he figured it'd be more or less useless as well. He hadn't practiced much with reanimating bone, couldn't quite grasp how to get it to actually reanimate anything, much less control it in battle, but it remained one of the very few tools in his arsenal. And even if he had, there just remained the slight problem of him not having any bones at his disposal. He couldn't very well use his own…

Holding the staff with the skull side up, he felt the sensation of puppeting bony figures well into him, tried to reach out for the bones within the struggling corpses below him. If he could wrest control of that away from the shaman, now that would be ironic, he figured. Of course, he felt nothing, no sense that he had any control of those below. He realized that the midget warriors' bodies had already been claimed by the shaman as it had gotten to them first. Even as he stared at the skull atop his staff, trying to simply will himself into controlling them, yet still nothing happened.

He stopped concentrating as he stared at the skull headpiece. Skull. Bone. Why the fuck didn't he think of it earlier.

"The difference between you and me, shaman, is that I'm smarter."

With a forceful swing and the thought of Crashing down with ten tons of solid stone, he swung the skull headpiece into the stone chimneytop.

Chapter 9: Reunion in Exile, Part I

[Wherein Art uses the bone from his skull staff to attack the shaman.]

The skull shattered into bony fragments -- individual teeth, the jaw piece, several side pieces, and the cranium. Even as these pieces rained down from the chimney top, he readjusted his grip over the shaft, feeling the way of the puppeteer return to him, then reached out for control of them with his mind, felt the power of his way attaching to them like the strings connecting a puppeteer to the puppet.

With a thought he raised several pieces of dislodged teeth -- the skull's four incisors -- back up into the air before him, levitating. As they weighed next to nothing they rose up with ease, obeyed his every mental command as he sent these teeth off to his sides, then drew them back before him with another thought. The four floated in midair with him scarcely having to concentrate on them.

Such small little projectiles, he thought as he peered at the floating teeth. Small, and despite being incisors, the sharpest bone fragments he had, he expected them to prove completely lacking in penetrative power. Nonetheless he launched them, one after another, at the shaman. The first missed completely; the second as well but glanced off the ground closer to its intended target than the first. With the third Art managed to hit where the shaman would have been had it not dodged; with the fourth he hit anyway. The last one stabbed into its leg, eliciting a gasp from the shaman before with a pat of its hand it knocked the tooth aside. It hadn't even drawn blood, or at least not any that Art could see.

Even from twenty paces away he raised the teeth off the ground again, had them circle around the shaman. The shaman, for its part, had started to retreat away from Art, had brought its three agile minions closer to itself with bucklers ready to deflect, and held a buckler as well in its left hand. It seemed to understand that Art held the advantage here with his height and possession of a ranged attack.

"Aww, leaving already? And I wanted to show you something too," protested Art as he leapt to his feet and then leapt to where he'd dropped his looted scimitar, holding it against his chest with his right arm. He leapt again, to stand atop some ruined wooden walls of a house nearer to the shaman. It picked up its pace as it retreated. With a thought, Art began to pepper it with attacks from the four teeth he controlled, stabbing at it from all sides. Each time one of the flying tooth struck a reanimated minion or bounced off a buckler, Art took but a moment to regain control over its trajectory, to bring it in for another shot. Each time he aimed for the eyes; each time the shaman blocked the flying teeth with a buckler or the body of one of its minions. At this rate, it was going to get away.

Art leapt after it, to land right in the shaman's path. The shaman, in response, had its three minions each take a step away in all directions, to give itself a buffer space between Art and itself, even as it held its buckler close to its face. Art cocked his head. "Hey, I don't think a buckler is meant to be used that way. Can you even see?" he asked, even as the shaman, surrounded by its minions, continued to back away. "No, I think not," he answered himself as he propped his staff against his chest and grasped the scimitar he'd been holding with his right arm. The four flying teeth dropped to the ground as the way of the puppeteer fled from Art's mind.

"Not smart, covering your eyes like that," said Art. "Problem with that is you won't see this coming." Then he struck forward, scimitar cleaving through one minion's leg and then another. The two minions attempted to parry, but the shaman had been keeping the buckler over its eyes and had voluntarily blinded itself to Art's actions. The reanimated warriors parried nothingness even as Art dismembered their legs, and both collapsed.

"Bawk off!" shouted the shaman as it burst into an all out run, allowing its last minion to collapse to the ground.

"That's not a smart move either, trying to flee from an adept," said Art as he glided after it with his way of the albatross, overtaking it with ease even as it continued to shout in fear; and with a single slash across the creature's nape decapitated it. "Definitely not smart."

He surveyed the ruin he'd wrought. The headless body of the clothed shaman, leaking blood out its neck at a profuse rate to stain the soil of the wheat field it had fallen into. Its head had tumbled away, hidden by those same crops. The three midget bodies, collapsed upon the fields a few steps closer to the hamlet, two with legs missing. He looked upon them all, and let his breathing and heart rate slow.

He'd done it. After an intense fire fight he'd finally taken down the invaders that had been guarding the hamlet. Even though he'd lost an arm and much of his fighting capability along with it, even though a mere handful of these midgets could have been a mere footnote in any battle his old self could have fought, he'd still managed to eke out a victory. He hadn't been reduced to a helpless, complete decrepit, as he'd so feared becoming. These bodies lying before him proved it.

But that sense of triumph felt short lived. He'd killed these creatures, but had failed to stop them from torching the hamlet and killing all its inhabitants. Now that he'd found a cluster of midgets, he expected to find more in the vicinity. While he had slept, the front lines of the invaders had swept through the forest past him, leaving him behind enemy lines. And that meant these creatures had slaughtered, and would continue to slaughter, their way through all the peasants and commoners from here westward until they hit some force that could stop them.

His thoughts turned to Warriv, and Taril, some of his closest compatriots. Had they made it to safety? Surely they had managed to do so? The fact that these midget warriors had gotten ahead of Art and Selena did not bode well for their fates. He hadn't seen them since parting ways earlier the previous night. If something, anything had happened to them while he wasn't around to protect them… He'd never forgive himself.

That meant more battles ahead. Art had to prepare himself for the road ahead. Touching down beside the shaman's corpse, he dropped his skull-staff and plucked the shaman's staff out of its hand, then with another leap and another, he'd returned to where he'd left Selena.

[Wherein Art and Selena loot the hamlet for food.]

Selena stared at him with eyes wide open, silent.

"Um," said Art, "Are you quite all right?" No answer. He sighed. "I know, I know, I look like a mess, you can make fun of me for it," he said, looking away. "One of these days I'll buy myself some new clothes, then you'll see just how dashing I am --"

"How do you do that?" -- "Do what?" -- "You… You just went out there and…" -- "Oh crap, you were watching?" said Art, face-palming. -- "I saw you, you were leaping from tree to tree!" -- "You shouldn't have been watching." -- "I want to be able to do that too!" -- "Little girl like you has no business seeing the horrors of battle." -- "Can you teach me? Please please please?" -- "You're like ten years too early for that." -- "Aw! Why do I have to wait ten years?" -- "How'm I ever going to explain this?" -- "How hard can it be to explain it? Just try!" -- "Your parents are going to be mortified." -- "They're not here, it can be our little secret!" -- "Look, can you just forget that you ever saw it?" -- "Forget it? Are you kidding? That was awesome!" -- "Oh what am I saying, of course you can't forget something that awful." -- "Not awful, awesome!" -- "Awesome? Did… did you even see what I was doing?" -- "Of course I was! I didn't know you could dance so well!" -- "Because I was kill-- You know what, never mind," said Art, realizing that Selena hadn't actually seen the fight on the ground, only the fight in the air, not with all the wheat stalks before her eyes.

His stomach groaned in protest. Selena's stomach groaned in agreement.

They looked at each other's bellies, then at each other's faces, with embarrassed looks on their own. Then Selena burst into giggles. Pointing a finger at his belly, she said, "Your tummy's so much louder than mine!" -- "Well my tummy's a grown-up's tummy, it's bigger." -- "You mean you're more hungry." -- "That's right. Hey, does that mean I get to eat first?" -- "I get to eat first!" she said as she slapped him on the belly with a momentary look of reproach. -- Art chuckled as he stood there and let her slap his gambeson over and over. "Come on," he said, holding out his left arm for her to take hold of. "Let's go see if we can't find some decent food." -- "Finally! What took you so long?" -- "Well, let's just say that some baddies found some food first and went all, 'finders keepers' on us, so I had to trick them into giving that up."

They arrived at the entrance of one of the hamlet's burned-down houses, and Art guided her into the room. All about them lay the wrecked remains of its former inhabitant's possessions: ruined clothes lay strewn about the floor, now trampled over by the midgets and smeared with blood and ash and dirt and charred straw. The thatching that used to form the roof now lay in ruins over much of the pieces of furniture there: a desk, half eaten by fire, broken wooden implements. The corpse of butchered domesticated rabbit, in the corner. A corpse lay against the far wall, its body hacked and lacerated in a dozen places, blood trailing from it to the ground.

Art grimaced as Selena gasped upon seeing the cadaver. He hadn't wanted to have Selena see all this, what with her being merely -- what, six, eight? But with only the one hand, he couldn't very well go through all the trash here to find anything useful, and someone had to stand guard in case more of the midgets decided to pay the place a visit. And, he figured, she'd seen worse back at the monastery.

"What… Is he… dead?"

Art patted her shoulder with his arm. "Don't worry about him. Go, see if you can't find something that's good to eat."

Selena advanced, started to pry through the wreckage, stepping gingerly around the pools of blood and all the debris all about, and several times causing a pile of wood or straw to collapse to the ground. After a minute, she turned back to ask him, "You're not going to help me look?" -- "Nope, I'm keeping a look out." -- "No fair!" -- "I… Think of it as, if you find anything good to eat, you're feeding me. Okay?" -- "Okay," she replied, then set about with renewed enthusiasm. Art grinned at the thought of her treating it as a game.

In the end they found several loaves of bread in one of the houses, plucked some vegetables and fruits off some burned-down plants that had been growing in several of the hamlet houses' attached gardens. The meat they didn't dare eat, for it had most likely been hours since the livestock had been butchered and left on the ground to rot. They brought the food into one of the burned down houses, one devoid of any corpses, where they sat down to eat what they'd foraged.

"So what did you find?" asked Art, peering at what Selena managed to scrounge together. "Ah, quite a feast you have there." -- "Yep! It's a feast, and I'm starving! Here, you have some too." -- "You sure you don't want to eat all of it? Not that big of a feast, you know. You'll still go hungry." -- "No! I'm not having all of it, today I'm feeding you!" She picked up a big juicy strawberry, held it by her thumb and index finger, stretched it out toward Art's mouth. "Open up! Say 'Ah'!" -- "Ah!"

As Art bit into the berry, letting its tarty juice flow into his mouth, his thoughts lingered on how he'd found someone to live for and cherish amidst a sea of death and apathy.

[Wherein Art and Selena come upon the village with the rogues at last.]

By the time the two of them had come upon a village, the sun had long begun to sink back toward the horizon, and it bathed its surrounding farmland with streaks of golden light. They'd come across the corpses of several more midgets, these with arrows sticking out of them. He'd pulled the arrows out of the corpses and inspected them; bodkin point. Quite effective against mail, rather wasted on nearly stark naked creatures such as these. He'd then given them to Selena to hold on to in case they proved useful.

Turning to Selena as they kept on walking, he said, "looks like we're here." -- "The Rogues? How do you know they're here?" -- He pointed at the arrows in her hands. "That's how."

She looked at the arrows clutched in her hand with a frown. "I don't get it."

"Most arrows used for hunting don't have narrow points. Just any old pointy tip on an arrow shaft will do. You don't need anything more for hunting fowl. Besides a bow and an archer, of course. But see these?" he said, touching the bodkin point. "See how they're super pointy? Can you tell me what that's good for?"

"Hmm," said Selena, tapping an index finger on her chin. "I don't know. Are you going to tell me?" -- "Come on, I can't tell you that easy." -- "Oh come on!" she said, "tell me!" -- "I think you almost have it figured out," he smirked. -- Playfully thrusting the handful of arrows at his waist, she said, "If you don't tell me, these are going to be very good for stabbing you with." -- He snapped his fingers, smiling. "You got it!" -- "Huh?" -- "Stabby stabby." -- "Uh… Oh. Oh!" -- "Yeah, exactly."

Up ahead, he could tell that the village sported no palisade wall to defend itself. Amidst the cluster of several dozen houses, he could see figures busy on the streets.

"So how does that tell you the Rogues are up ahead?"

"So what I said earlier. These sharp arrow tips are good for going through people wearing armor. Like this," he said, patting his gambeson at the chest. "And also mail." -- "What's mail?" -- "Mail is the armor made out of those little rings." Here he connected his thumb to his index finger. "One after another after another, all linked together, above and below and side to side. Too small for your normal arrows to go through, but these super pointy ones go through just fine. So these arrows are made for war, against well armored enemies. Most people don't have them. But the sisters of the Sightless Eye have a monastery they have to guard from any enemies who wants to break in, and if they're going to try that they'll have on a lot of armor. So the Rogues have these, and they're the only ones around who would have these, or be allowed to have these."

"Un", she nodded.

"You.. aren't following, are you?" -- "Of course I follow! These are super sharp, good against baddies, sisters have them to fight enemies." -- He snapped his fingers. "You got it." -- "Why do the sisters have enemies? Why can't they just be friends?" -- "Uh, I'm not sure. That's a question I'll be asking them once we've caught up to them. Maybe they made those red-skinned creatures angry at them." -- "If they made someone angry, why don't they apologize? Then they wouldn't need to be enemies." -- "Well aren't you smart, you little you! You should go up to them and tell them." -- "Ha! Maybe I will. Then they can all be brothers and sisters. Hmm. Little brothers and big sisters." Then she stared at the ground, downcast.

"What's the matter, little one?" -- "It'd be nice to have a big sister." -- "Well wouldn't you rather have ten?" -- "Ten? No, that's way too many! I can't have so many sisters, I can't stand it!" -- "Well it's time to say hi to all your sisters," said Art. As they approached the village, he removed his helmet and aventail to hold it also in his left hand.

A pair of women dressed in the white and brown gambeson of the Rogue sisterhood approached to greet them, the older one wryly remarking to a young woman still in her teens, "See, what did I say? Told you they weren't the enemy." -- "In my defense, from a distance they sure looked like a shaman with a midget warrior." -- "Only you, Sasha. Sometimes I wonder why they allowed you to become an initiate of the arrow at all."

[Wherein Art meets up with the Rogues and learns how many Rogues had been lost.]

"Well met, sisters," said Art when they stood no more than a few steps apart. "Well you sure look in better condition than me."

The two women looked him over, raised eyebrows at his stump of an arm and at all the blood covering him that had congealed and blackened. "Welcome to Thistledown… I didn't imagine it was possible, but I have to say, looks like it. Were… were you part of the caravan who stayed at the monastery when…?" -- "Unfortunately." -- "Seems you've had a rough time. But as you say, you were there. Count yourself among the lucky." -- Art gave a half hearted grin. "One can try."

"What's that you got there?" asked the elder woman, nudging her chin toward his staff.

"Oh, ah, this?" said Art, turning to look at his looted staff with a grin. "Fine craftsmanship, this one. Earned it myself." -- "Earned," echoed the woman. -- "Ah, well, someone like you might think I'd stolen it." He put away the nonchalant look his face, turned stoic again. "I had a hard fight out in the woods on the way here. I had looted another one off one of the shamans. It saved my life a good number of times. When it broke, I picked up this one, after I killed the shaman wielding it."

"You've been fighting… in your condition?" said Sasha, looking him up and down.

"Good you think that way," said the older woman. "You're lucky I told Sasha to stand down when I did, otherwise she'd have skewered you. If you hadn't noticed, only our enemies carry such staves."

"Well, seems I must thank you for having saved my life," said Art, bowing deep and smiling.

She sighed, and turned to the younger. "Sasha, you know the drill." -- Sasha nodded. "Please, follow me," she said, and whirled on her feet to lead the way to the center of the village.

Art and Selena followed. Soon houses surrounded them on all sides. They passed several of the local peasants, who looked upon them without any sign of surprise, and some who looked distinctly out of place, whom Art judged to be the caravaners. As they went Sasha explained, "After the disaster most of us made it out of the monastery in one group -- me included. We regrouped here, as this village lays closest to the monastery and lies along the path most of the caravaners take. That allows us to intercept any other caravaners haded east before they meet a grisly death at the hands of the invaders, and affords us the best chance of drawing together what few stragglers had gotten separated from the main group. Like you."

"If I may ask… how many made it?"

Sasha bore a smile, and spoke, sounding cheerful and saccharine, though she didn't turn to meet his gaze. "I'm sure you'd like to meet back up with your friends and family, whomever you've been traveling with. If so, you probably have no need to worry. We've been tracking everyone's names, taking note of who had arrived. The majority kept with us when we retreated. Most of the caravaners made it here safely."

"I know. I was there, I saw how the sisters fought to give us every last second, despite knowing what they faced." He stared at the back of Sasha's head; she had fallen silent, and not turned to face him, opting to keep on walking. He continued, "They … you.. fought well." Another silence. "How many sisters made it?" She stood still, but kept looking away. "Why do you ask?"

"I need to know," replied Art. He needed to know what the sisters would or could do in order to determine what he should do next, and the best way to find that out would be to understand what they had to work with.

"A hundred and eighty-nine."

"And that is, out of how many?"

She turned to face him, then. In the gilded light of the evening sun he could see tears brimming in her cheeks. She replied, grimacing. "Only a hundred and eighty nine, out of two hundred and sixty four."

Better than he'd feared, at least, his mind spinning. That at least gave them a good fighting chance. Maybe not enough to retake the monastery, and certainly not while the beast dwelled within, but a leader could do things with that number that couldn't be done with a few dozen fewer. Schooling his expression, "Good to know most of the sisters made it out alive," he offered in consolation.

Her fists had clenched by her sides. "You wanted numbers, right? Those are the numbers, but that's all they are. But, last night… Last night I lost my hall-mother Marianne, my hall's eldest sister Ella… elder sisters Jessica, and Idria, and Carla, and… every single one of my younger sisters. But you wouldn't care for their names, would you? You wouldn't know, wouldn't know just what I've lost, wouldn't have any idea how much I loved them, they were just as if they'd been my own blood sisters. I'd grown up with them since I turned eight, celebrated with them, laughed and sang with them, shared my hopes and sorrows with them, do you understand? I'd never had family outside of them. I've never before set foot outside our monastery. And now I'm here, in a world where I don't belong, surrounded by strangers I don't know, and I've lost all the people I'd come to know and trust, the only ones I'd entrust my secrets and fears with, the ones I could turn to for comfort. And now all of them, gone! In one stroke I lost my home, my possessions, my loved ones…" She choked back her sobs, but tears fell glistening down her cheeks.

"I won't presume to tell you to stop hurting," said Art, then pointed at his stump of an arm. "But rest assured, I have not been hurt much less."

She sniffed, then turned to face away from him and toward the village center. "Let's go," she said, her voice resolute, and the two continued to walk. As they went, some of the people there stopped their activities to get a look at him, then resumed their work.

[Wherein the church bell is rung and Art reunites with Warriv and Taril, and asks after the other caravaners he's familiar with.]

They arrived in the middle of the village, and stopped before the church. "We've arrived. Just a minute." Then Sasha called out, "Father Beltrand."

Moments later the pastor and a church boy emerged from within the castle's wooden double doors. He pastor, an aged man with balding white hair wrapped in white robes, gave one look to Art's bloodied form and with a wearied sigh, asked Art, "You are a caravan member also?" -- Nod. -- The pastor turned to the church boy, a wiry fellow who couldn't have been more than ten, "David, ring the bell for our new guest here, please." -- "Yes, father," said the church boy, and then went racing back into the church.

The priest turned to Art. "I take it things have been difficult. here, but we've been providing room and board to all who need it. I would have opened the church doors, as we would ordinarily do for those seeking shelter, but with the sheer number of caravaners… I spoke with the rest of us villagers. If you wish to stay with our village for the time being, I can find someone who can take you in."

"Thank you, father," said Art with a slight bow of his head. Then he looked up as the church bell sounded out, once, its deep booming ring reverberating throughout the village buildings. "And this is…?"

Sasha answered, "Quite a few of the caravaners had gotten separated from people important to them. For the most part they have remained here in the hopes of reuniting with those they'd lost. This village is after all the closest one to the monastery. Every time someone who had fled the monastery finds their way here, we ring the church bell once, letting them know someone has arrived."

As Art turned around he saw people dashing out of their homes and from down the streets leading into the village center, some of them shouting, calling out names like questions: "Daren?" -- "Erin?" -- "Sherry?" -- "Reginald?" -- One after another they came out, then one after another they stopped in their tracks upon getting close enough to see his face or figure, before retreating in slow, slinking steps, looks of disappointment and barely withheld grief upon their faces as they turned away from him.

"Art? Art!" someone shouted with a gruff voice from the street he stared down at. Art turned and set his eyes on the man, seeing his wide, untrimmed stubble of a beard, his wide belly, the wide, welcoming grin on his face -- "Warriv!" He'd half thought his old friend had been a goner; the sight of seeing him again brought tears to his eyes, tears he wiped away with his right arm as he rushed on over. They embraced, both of them wrapping their arms around each other's backs, their necks on each other's shoulder, for a moment before parting. "Warriv old pal, you're okay!" -- "And you're alive too! Thank the heavens you got back safely!"

"Art! Finally!" Behind Warriv another man, this one standing taller and leaner, joined in on the exclamation, and Art embraced Taril as well, then Art looked upon the two of them with an uncontrollable smile on his face and the two of them looked at Art with tears brimming and, as they looked him up and down, equally wide grins that shrank into frowns, their foreheads furrowed with worry. Art trailed their stunned looks down to his right arm and he raised it before him, tentative. "What, this?" he said, then paused, trying to find some joke to crack to lighten the mood, something to relieve his friends of their worries, but came up empty, the painful thought of having lost his arm overwhelming him. "I…" He looked away in equal parts of shame and grief for his loss.

Warriv and Taril stood equally speechless for a moment, before Taril silently embraced Art again, this time tempered with sorrow, and patted Art on the back. "At least you're back to us. That alone is more than we had dared hope for. It must have been so terribly dangerous, but you're among friends now. You're safe, okay?"

Art nodded, then burst into tears, not minding how unmanly he seemed, not minding that they fell upon Taril's white tunic. A moment later Warriv hugged him as well, and Selena wrapped her arms around his waist a moment later, and together they stood for a very long moment in silence before at long last they let go.

"Where are Johann and Tyler?"

"They went with the archers," replied Taril. "Off on some scouting party just a few hours ago. They may not be getting back til tomorrow; their planned route is quite out of the way. But they are well."

"Thank the heavens for that," said Art as he released a breath he hadn't been aware he was holding. "The two youngsters seemed so itching for adventure when we picked them up, I couldn't have forgiven myself if they had just gotten themselves killed on something so senseless. Huh, I really should have expected that they'd be racing off to their next mission already. What about Boone?"

The two of them looked at each other in silence.

Oh no, thought Art, knowing what to expect, and feeling that pit in his stomach form. "He didn't make it?" -- "We haven't seen him yet. And he's not listed on the bulletin. I checked not half an hour ago. But no one reported seeing him get killed. He could be on his way here as we speak." -- "But wasn't he with you?" -- "Yes, at first. But then -- and I'm not sure when -- we became separated. I would like to think he had made it safely out of the monastery and just gotten separated in the fighting afterward, but… we can't be sure."

"Boone…" Art thought of the doddering old fool. Once again tears came to his eyes. "It feels like we had been traveling together forever. Six years? He'd traveled with us, always lightening our day… Can't believe he's not here any more."

"He's not necessarily dead, Art. You have to keep your hopes up. It's only the first day after that night. It's very likely he'll make it here tomorrow or the day after."

Art nodded, even as he bore a frown, even as he knew just how unlikely it would be for someone like Boone to make it. The oldest, frailest of the six of them, the least aware of the situation and surroundings, all alone in the woods, surrounded by roving bands of shamans and their midget warriors… He wouldn't admit it before these two, and he dearly wished it not to be true, but his rational mind was practically writing the man off as a lost cause. "We'll wait. We'll wait for him, and if he's not here by nightfall tomorrow, then when he does get here I'll beat his sorry ass for making us worry so much."

[Wherein they visit the bulletin and find that Selena is effectively an orphan now, and the caravaners say what they'll do next.]

"Who's the girl?" asked Taril.

"Oh, this is Selena. Say hi to Warriv and Taril, Selena." -- "Hi," she said, keeping shyly behind Art's side as she looked at them with wide eyes. -- "Hi Selena." -- "I brought her out of the monastery when I fled. She… The mother is," said Art, and made a slash-across-the-throat gesture with his left hand. "And I've no idea where the father, Eamond, is."

Warriv and Taril looked at Selena with grief-filled eyes even as Selena continued to stare back, seemingly unconcerned. Then Warriv spoke up, "Let's consult the bulletin," and the two of them led Art and Selena to the side of the open space comprising the village center.

Beside the currently empty hanging iron cage that comprised the gallows and the wooden pillory beside it, stood a wooden board upon which had been nailed a piece of parchment four feet tall and eight feet wide. Upon it had been written, in several neat columns, peoples' names in black ink. Atop it sat an inkwell with the lid covered, an ink pen resting beside it. Before it a constantly changing group of people stood, each of them looking at the names for a moment before moving on.

"We've been tracking the names of the arrivals on this board," explained Warriv as they approached. "Just in case someone arrives when their friends or family are otherwise preoccupied and aren't able to show up, they'll be able to consult the bulletin to see if someone they know arrived in their absence." He stepped in front of the viewing crowd, beckoning Art to approach, then pointed at a name written on the parchment: his own.

"Bedfords," said Art, reading off the name written close to the right of "Warriv Tryvesant". -- "Aye, the Bedfords, they're the ones I'm staying with. Once you get assigned a local family to stay with your name you'll want to jot that down here as well so that anyone who knows you will know where to find you." He uncovered the inkwell and dipped the ink pen in it, then wrote down "Art Waverley" in the shortest, right-most column, beneath all the other names. "Done."

Art looked over the names before following after Warriv and Taril. Some one hundred names, give or take a dozen or so, it seemed. "These are all the caravaners who have arrived?" -- A grunt of agreement. -- "Quite a few names. Most of them arrived safely, then?" -- "Aye. A few of them -- those traveling alone, in pairs or groups where the members had met up -- had already left, earlier this afternoon. Reckon they feel it'd be safer the further away they got from the monastery, the sooner the better if the redskins are going to start crawling all through these parts soon, and they hadn't any time to lose."

Warriv gestured at the bulletin. "Do you see… his name?" -- "Eamond," Art repeated to himself over and over as he perused the list. So many names. Among the list he recognized Warriv's, Taril's, Johann's, and Tyler's names, but he'd arrived at his own without seeing Eamond listed anywhere. His heart sinking he went through the list again, this time more slowly, making sure he didn't skip the name if it was listed; and again he caught no sight of it. "He's not here."

Gods, thought, Art. With her mother dead and her father either dead or missing, Selena had effectively been reduced to being an orphan. She had, after all, no one else to turn to, none other than himself. That meant that he, who'd never gotten married or sired children, would have to take care of her… all by himself. He doubted whether he was up to the task. That would have been iffy even in the best of times. Right now, with him being practically penniless? "He's not here," he repeated, the words sounding hollow, as he stepped away from the bulletin.

"Maybe he'll get here tomorrow," Taril offered. -- "Maybe."

"Who are you looking for?" asked Selena, holding on to Art's hand while peering at the list.

Art sighed, patted Selena on the top of her head. He couldn't break it to her that her father too was dead, especially not with there still being the possibility that he was alive. With her already losing her mother… The best favor he could do was not remind her of her father as well. "Never mind that, Selena. You said earlier that I owed you a feast, remember?"

"Yes, I remember!" exclaimed Selena. Then her stomach grumbled and she looked away, bashful.

"Come," said Warriv, chuckling at her innocence. He gestured for them to travel down the street. "You sound absolulely famished."

"Yay, food! I'm starving," said Selena as she hopped along after Warriv as he and Taril led the way, proceeding down the street. Art followed right after.

"The caravaners who left… You didn't go with them?" asked Art as they walked back. -- "We were waiting for you and Boone. Now, just Boone. Once he shows up, I'm thinking we'll be headed west, too." -- "To where?" -- Warriv sighed. "I abandoned all my wares back at the monastery. Same with… well, just about all the merchants. And much as I'd like to get those valuables back, I consider my own life more precious by far. I can't waltz right back in and pick up what I'd left. Thankfully I have family to return to back in Kingsport. A home, a wife and two children, extended family. Plus, I've left quite an extensive stash behind." -- "You reckon they wouldn't spend it all inside of a month?" -- "That's what a hole in the ground is for," said Warriv, clapping him on the back with a grin. -- "Saving up for a rainy day?" -- "So I'd be able to rebuild. It's enough for me to start a traveling merchant business. Even with the monastery pass closed, I can just sail up and down the western coast, maybe going a bit inland at times. Then if the monastery gets reclaimed, I can pick up right where I left off."

Art then turned to Taril. "Taril, I don't think you lost much back then?" -- "I make it my business not to." He gestured at the flute attached to the side of his belt. "This baby is enough for me to make a living anywhere I go." -- Art sighed in relief. "That's good to know." Now if only he were as lucky.

Warriv noticed the despondent look that had overcome Art. "What's with that look? I'll still be employing you as a guardsman, same as always." -- "Aren't you forgetting something?" Art replied, raising his right arm. "I'll never be able to fight as a proper swordsman again," he said, tearing up. "Fat lot of good I'd do. Staying with you, I'd only be a hindrance."

"Have you lost your mind, Art?" asked Warriv, causing Art to look up in surprise. "Do you think I only had you with the caravan as a guard? After all these years? You ought to know better. Yes, I know how well you can fight, but even if you had no arms at all, I'd still have you accompanying me. Friends don't abandon friends, remember? Ah, don't mind the cost. After all these years I've built up quite the retirement nest. Don't you worry."

Tears swelled in Art's eyes at this display of grandiosity. He'd been so worried, back when he'd sat alone upon the cliff side, wondering just how he'd live the rest of his life, how he'd earn his next meals. He resolved then and there, that he'd do whatever he could to repay his long time friend's kindness, even if he could do little regardless. "Thank you," he said, wrapping his arms around Warriv in embrace. "I wouldn't know what to do without you. Really."

"When he said he'll have you accompanying him, I don't think he meant that close," said Taril with a smile, causing Art to back off, embarrassed. "Now look sharp, we're at the Bedfords'."

[Wherein Art meets the Bedfords.]

"You're not seriously going to come into our home looking like that, are you?" said Nathan Bedford as he stepped out of his home to greet Warriv, Taril, Art and Selena, but looking at Art in particular. Tall and clean-shaven, a man in his thirties, he wore a plain though bright yellow tunic, a brown coif on his head, and leather boots without any any blemish of dirt or mud. "Warriv, this is?" -- "Nathan, meet Art Waverley. Art, Nathan." -- "Ah, Art. Well look, Art, you don't look all that great if I may say so myself. I won't have you coming into my place with all that much blood all over you." He turned to call into the house. "Oi, Penny, bring a towelcloth and my spare set of clothes over here will you? And some soap." -- "Coming," said a woman from within.

"You look about my build, so hopefully my spares will fit you. That gambeson you wear looks like it took a hell of a beating. I hope you don't plan on going into battle with that again." Then Nathan turned to look at Art again, his roving look stopping upon the stump of Art's arm, and refrained from saying anything else. Art felt that lingering look of somber pity on the man, and felt embarassment creep over him. It was one thing for him to reveal his loss to his close confidants; another matter entirely for a complete stranger to look him over… It felt like he'd become sub-human.

"Here," said Penny as she emerged from the house, bearing a clean white woolen towelcloth and a plain white tunic draped on her outstretched arm and handed them over to Nathan, who passed them on to Art. Penny was dressed in a green tunic secured with a simple brooch, and looked altogether as prim and proper as her husband. "Oh my," she said as she saw Art. "There's a river, runs right by the west side of the village." -- "You're going to want to go," said Nathan, -- "And take a dunk in the river," continued Penny, -- "So you're all clean and tidy," -- "Then come back here," -- "Where we'll have some food set out for you," -- "And you can regale us with tales of your adventure," -- "That is if you wish to share them," -- "Aheh, yes, only if you wish to share them," -- "We wouldn't want to discomfort our guests in any way," finished Nathan.

Art looked from the one to the other and back and forth with a stunned look on his face, surprised at how the two seemed to practically read each others' mind so smoothly to be able to continue each others' sentences with such ease. How nice it must be to have a soulmate one could understand on such an implicit level. He nodded to them. "Thank you for your generosity. I'll be back shortly."

"Need us to show you there?" asked Warriv.

"I should be fine," replied Art, holding on to his towel along with his torch-staff in his left hand. "Flows down the west side of the village, right? Then it's going to be hard to miss. Maybe if I miss it, I'll trip over the bridge and fall into it," he said with a grin.

"You're going to need someone to help you," said Taril, gesturing at Art's right arm. Art realized then, that he'd not be able to get out of his gambeson without assistance, nor would he be able to scrub off fully, nor get clothes back on, by himself.

"What now, you're offering to help dress me?" Art teased. "Didn't know you took that kind of an interest in me."

Taril humphed as he shook his head, then knelt down to Selena's level. "Selena, was it? Do you think you'll be able to help your uncle Art here get dressed?"

Selena took a shy step backward, put her thumb in her mouth. "Art's not my uncle," she said, her cheeks flushed. "He's my hero!" -- "Hero, huh?" asked Taril. -- "Yes, hero! He saved me from the monastery."

Art saw out the corner of his eyes, Penny and Nathan giving each other knowing looks, and next he saw them looking at him in a new light.

Taril looked up at Art. "Huh. Looks like our very own hero has saved his damsel in distress after all. So gallant, you." -- "Shut up, Taril." -- Taril chucked as he turned back to Selena. "Well then, will you help him change his clothes? Since he's your hero?"

"Yes!" exclaimed Selena as she have an excited jump.

"Well, that settles it then," said Taril, rising. "And… if he tries anything, you let us know the moment you get back, alright?"

Art groaned, and deadpanned. "Really?"

Nathan patted Art on the shoulder, then kept his grip on his shoulder. "If it's as Selena says, that you really did rescue her from the monastery… You have our thanks, even if Selena is too young to fully appreciate it. Of course, I hadn't been there, I don't presume to know what last night must have been for you, but I'd at least heard tell from those who had been willing to share their experiences. It must not have been easy."

Art looked down at his feet as memories came to mind, of evoking the way of the crashing boulder to break the girl's chains. Of slicing his sword through Cassia's neck like a hot knife through butter, of her haunting parting words. Of pulling the midget warriors away from the gates as he shouted at the top of his lungs for Selena to make a run for it. Of standing at the gates, the way of the monolith in mind, hewing down all who attempted to strike him or get past him, holding his ground with a single-minded determination as he broke the onslaught of their wave. Of searching all through the small hours of the night, alone in the hostile darkness, wishing, constantly wishing, that she'd made it to safety. And finally, the utter relief of finding her right as his legs gave out. "Not easy."

"Well then, hurry along now," said Penny with some light-heartedness in her voice. -- "And go get yourself cleaned up," finished Nathan.

"Here, we'll hold on to that for you," said Warriv as he relieved Art of the staff. "Meet us back here when you're done."

"Thanks," was all Art could make out as he looked upon them, faces both familiar and unfamiliar but all warm and caring. It felt like so long since he'd last been in such company, so long that he'd been trapped in the nightmare. Oh, to finally find himself in a place of safety, where he would willingly relinquish his staff, what had been his only lifeline out int he wilderness! And now that it was finally over, now that he had his friends and acquaintances to turn to should he have any need, he hadn't the words to express how he appreciated their being there for him. "Thanks." That and a nod was all he could manage as he led Selena down the street to west side of the village.

[Whereupon Art takes a bath in the river.]

He found himself a nice, somewhat secluded stretch of the riverbank hidden from the rest of the village by a patch of bushes and a line of willow trees, their leaves forming a curtain to hide them from sight. The other side of the river bank stood some fifty or a hundred feet away -- not a particularly wide river here. He'd settled on a spot downstream of the river -- which flowed north-to-south along this stretch before wending its way west to the sea -- and could see the wooden bridge crossing over the river to his right.

"This place should do," he said, bending down to set the towelcloth and spare set of clothes upon the grass by the riverside. Once he'd shaken off his boots he turned to Selena. "Care to help me out of these?" he asked.

"Sure!' said Selena as she she about getting Art out of his gambeson. As she did so she peered over all the places where it had gotten burnt, or slashed, the wool slipping out from within, and patted on a few of those spots. "Ooh! Fluffy." -- Art smiled. "That's what happens when you wear it into battle: it gets messed up." -- "No; I like it this way. Looks warm and cozy. There," she finished helping Art get his good hand out of his gambeson, whereupon Art took the rest of it off and set it on the grass alongside the clothes he'd been lent. "And the tunic as well."

Once they'd finished removing his tunic he proceeded to remove his pants as well. "You should probably look away for this part." -- "Why, what are you hiding?" -- "I'm not hiding anything… you know what? Yes, I'm hiding, nothing important for you to see." -- "Okay, turning away now." -- "Good girl." He finished removing the rest of his clothes, leaving him stark naked, and proceeded into the water. A bit chilly, but he'd gotten used to that by now. He immersed in it up to his waist, sat upon the silt of the riverside. "You can look now."

"Hey, when do I get to go in the water? It's been a while for me too, you know." -- Art chuckled. "I'm sure Penny will love to give you a nice scrubdown sometime later. Here, you have the soap, right?" -- "Yep!" Selena handed it over to him. -- "Thanks." He proceeded to dab the soap in the water and rub it all over himself. He took his merry time, taking in the sights of the calm, sunny summer day, white cumulus clouds sailing like puffs of soap bubbles upon the water, peaceful and cirrus clouds stretching across the skies far above them like wisps of drapery from heaven. A zephyr blew past, dancing with the draping willow leaves. "My, but this is quite a sight." If only this peace would last forever.

Before long he had finished washing up with the soap -- or as much of himself as he could. Turning to Selena, he asked, "can you lend me an arm with this?" -- "Sure, where do you need it?" -- "Left arm, shoulders, and back." -- "Leave it to me!" -- "Make sure you don't slip," he said. "Or if you accidentally fall into the water, it'll be funny. And then we can play splash the water at each other." -- "Humph! As if I could fall in that easy." Then she paused, looking at him accusingly. "You're not going to pull me into the water, are you?" -- "What? Would I ever! I do not deserve that accusation." -- "You better not, or I'll tell." She took the soap and squatted down, and started washing his left arm with the soap.

As she worked he watched her expression. She seemed completely absorbed by her task, humming a soft little tune to herself. So innocent, he thought. She seemed right at home here, in this little idyll, surrounded by people who would protect her, removed from all the fighting. He felt a bit of euphoria encompass him, at the feeling of accomplishment, and the thought that he'd been the one who had brought her out of the hell that would have befallen her, and delivered her to safety.

"Huh, what are you looking at?" she said when she took notice. -- "Nothing." -- "You're smiling. At what?" -- "You." -- Her cheeks flushed. "At me? Why?" -- "I… wanted to thank you." -- "For what?" -- He wasn't sure what he'd actually wanted to thank her for. After all, he'd been the one who had saved her, not the other way around. She may not realize it, but she owed her life to him. And yet, he felt that if he'd not come across her, he'd not be as redeemed as he now felt. She had filled a hole in his life, and for that he was thankful. "For being here." -- She'd gotten started on his back; now she stopped her scrubbing. "Is that all?" she asked, pouting -- "Hehe. And thanks also for helping me out." -- "That's more like it. Now turn. I can't very well work your back like this." -- "Aye, aye."

When she had finished she set down the soap. "Done! Eh… you're not asleep, are you?" -- Exaggerated snoring sounds. -- "Hey, wake up!" she said, laying the smacks down on his shoulders and back, before proceeding to shake him. "Don't you be falling asleep on me!" -- "Augnh.." he yawned. "Do I have to wake up now?" -- "Yes. You absolutely have to get up now." -- "Oh, all right." -- "You weren't really asleep, were you?" -- "Of course I was! Your washing my back just felt so heavenly I couldn't help but fall asleep." -- "Oh yeah? And how would you know how it felt if you were sleeping?" -- "Ah, you caught me."

As Selena burst into laughter, Art picked up the towel. "Look away now, I'm going to get out of the water." Once she had her back turned, he started to dry himself off. He worked in silence, then once he finished with his lower clothes he said, "I'm good now." -- "You're good? Then we can leave now right?" said Selena as she proceeded though the willow leaves. "Wait wait wait, you're not just going to leave me like this are you?" he said, holding out his arms to show his naked upper body. -- "Sure, why not? I'm going to go back now. You can just catch up later." And then she took off, giggling as she went.

"Selena! Why, when I get you, I'm gonna…" Art fell silent as he watched her go. "Damn her spirit." Then he grabbed his towelcloth, his discarded clothes and the tunic he'd yet to put on. With a single flap of wings might I glide through the sky, horizon to horizon might I fly. And then he was leaping down the street, the passersby hurrying to the sides as went after her, and gesturing and whispering to one another as he passed them by.

"Selena!" he shouted as with a final leap he landed right between her and the door the Bedfords'. -- "Aww, and I was so close too!" -- "Selena, you and I are going to have a nice long talk," he said, taking a step toward her as she took a step backward, a grin still plastered over her face. Then he saw several of the villagers around the street, staring at him. "On second thought, we can skip the talk," he said, then opened the door and darted inside.

Chapter 10: Reunion in Exile, Part II

[Wherein Art and the villagers have dinner, and they discuss their worries.]

"You haven't been making overtures to her, have you?" asked Taril, looking up from his seat at the wooden table in the middle of the room. He, Warriv, and the Bedfords had sat down for supper, and the food had been spread out before them. -- "Really, Taril?" -- Taril shrugged. "You never know, with these kinds of things. You know, that's why I had her go help you out, right? You two seem to be hitting it along very nicely already."

"Next time, Taril, I'm going to have you wash my back, and have her make off with your clothes."

"Ouch, that burns," said Taril. "I'll have to pass on that."

"Well come on in and grab a seat," said Nathan, gesturing to the open two empty seats beside him. -- "Supper's ready," said Penny.

"Ooh, food!" shouted Selena with anticipation as she rushed past Art and grabbed a seat. -- "Did you forget something?" Art chimed in. "Selena?" When she looked back up at him, he gestured at his bare chest. -- "Selena, I thought you were going to help Art with putting on his clothes?" asked Taril. -- "Oops, sorry, I forgot!" she said, feigning guilt and rushing back to help Art with his clothes. -- "Yeah right, you forgot," retorted Art as he waited for her to finish.

He took a moment to survey the house. A meager wooden dwelling with only the fireplace built out of stone, it had a thatched roof daubed with mud to keep out the rain. Aside from the table and chairs in the middle of the room, very little furnished the room: a single cabinet, which he assumed held all the clothes, and a second table littered with as yet unprepared food and utensils. Assorted odds and ends lined the far wall. Beyond a single wall paritioning with a simple door lay a large straw bed.

Nathan saw him looking about. "You'll have to forgive us for our humble dwelling," he noted. -- "Or, if you find it too small," said Penny. -- "We can always check with our neighbors," -- "See if any of them have room to take in another two." -- "No worries," Art replied. "This is more than enough. In fact I mean to thank you, for allowing Selena and I to stay here." -- "Come, take a seat," said Nathan, gesturing to the remaining empty seat at the table.

Art sat down, saw the food spread out before them, set out upon pewter dishes. A veritable feast. Bread, sweetrolls, a roll of cheese, and soup with some carrots and lentils mixed in. Their hosts had even had a goose butchered for the occasion. He closed his eyes, took in a deep breath, let the aroma waft into his lungs. He'd not eaten so nicely in weeks, and compared to his recent experiences in the woods… "Ah," he said, sighing. "Absolutely heavenly."

"Well now, you must be mocking us," said Penny with a knowing smile. She tapped a dish with her fork. "Dig in."

"Thank you," said Art, then reached for his fork with his stump of a right hand. With a grimace he retracted it, reached for the fork with his left. The memories of losing his arm to the beast come out of the monastery's atrium gates flashed past him for a moment before he banished it, but as he looked up he realized the others had seen his foible, could sense their unease from their staring silence. Only Selena continued to eat, blissfully unaware. "Well then, Penny said it best. Dig in, all right?" he said, looking at each of them in turn and tapping his fork at the plates one by one, putting on a smile even as he kept his eyes dry through force of will. "Let's dig in." Then he led the rest of the adults by taking a bite from a sweetroll, spurring a round of agreeing sentiments and echoes of "Dig in", and "Let's eat".

They ate in relative silence for a good while, until Selena -- who'd started first and had been wolfing down her food -- set down her fork without a hint of propriety. "I'm done! Yay, I'm number one!" -- "What a fast eater you are," remarked Penny. -- "Can someone tell me a story?"

"I've been meaning to ask," said Nathan. "About what happened. I figured the sisters wouldn't be all that eager to speak on events surrounding their fleeing their great abode."

"Sure, ask away. I believe you've the general gist of it already," said Warriv. "I've actually been asking around, so I can fill you in perhaps a little better. So, quick overview: Shortly after midnight invaders burst into the monastery and launched an all out attack. From what I gather, they managed to catch the sisters unawares with their suprise attack. It started from the basement level -- the level underneath where most of the guests were staying in -- and the invaders quickly had the sisters retreating."

"How many invaders are we talking about?" asked Nathan. -- "Will they pose a threat to us?" added Penny.

"Now, from what the surviving sisters who had seen the battle all the way through have told us, the invasion force numbered at least one hundred strong. Most of them small, stunted little twits wielding blades, and a handful that stood as tall as you or I, wielding staves and throwing fire bolts."

"But the sisters numbered in the hundreds, surely they could have finished off the threat?" -- "And didn't they know the place better?"

"Aye, but the sisters are first and foremost archers. They don't do well in confined spaces. Not the ones who can't guide their arrows around tight corners, at least, and most can't."

"Weren't they also raising the dead?"

Nodding, Warriv answered, "And raising the dead. Had it not been for the rising dead, the sisters could very well have made quick work of them. But because of this dark power, the sisters had no choice but to retreat, and to do so quickly. In their haste, they could not stay to ensure that all the caravaners made it out safely, but they managed to slay any pursuing invaders that exited the monastery's gates, at least until they started traveling as a group here."

Art kept silent. That… sounded like a very sanitized version of the story. It completely glossed over the horror of that night: the sisters, some of whom hadn't seen sixteen summers, rushing headlong to their death. No mention of the atrocities inflicted on those unable to escape, who'd been killed or captured and slain. Some of that he could chalk up to them not knowing about the fates of those they'd left behind. He guessed he might have been the only one who had seen the true aftermath, being among the last to get out of the place. And the beast. Why hadn't they mentioned the beast? Did they not want the villagers to know, because it could rouse them to panic?

[Wherein Art discusses the weaknesses of necroturgy.]

As he looked around the table he saw worried expressions on Nathan and Penny's faces. "Will we be all right? Are the sisters going to manage, fighting against the risen dead?" -- "Won't the enemy keep bringing them back up again?" -- "How do you fight against something like that?"

Warriv and Taril looked at each other, unsure. Looking at them, Art answered, "Thing with necroturges is they have quite a few weaknesses. This here is the biggest, most glaring one," he said as he pointed at the left side of his chest, right where his heart would be. "Necroturges are every bit as alive as the rest of us. They have to be, or they cannot invoke the way of the puppeteer."

"The… puppeteer?" echoed Nathan.

Looking at the Bedfords, he noticed he'd lost them. "Yes, the way of the puppeteer. It's how a necroturge is able to animate the bones of the dead. Or at least, it's one of them. You may have heard of the way of inner peace? It's the most common one, a building block if you will, to the other, more advanced ways."

"Ah yes, that one," Nathan nodded as if in understanding. "It's just that I'd always thought of the way of inner peace was just called a way because it's the way one went about meditating. But this other… way you speak of… That doesn't sound like meditation at all, it sounds like sorcery, through and through."

"Well, a mastery of the ways will seem like sorcery, I'll grant you that. Certain ones look it more than others. But at the core they are all about focusing the mind on a single concept, an emotive state, or a way of thinking. In that sense the way of inner peace, the way of the dancing leaf, the way of deathly living, the way of the hearth, and the way of the puppeteer, and all the others, are all similar. They all require the mind," he said, gesturing at his temple. "To think. And if a necroturge gets killed, he'll hardly be thinking then. Guess what happens to all his reanimated minions when he stops thinking about what they do?"

"They wander about out of control?" asked Penny.

"You needn't worry about that," he said, shaking his head. "It's just like a puppeteer controlling a puppet, actually. If the the puppeteer suddenly died, the puppet would simply fall to the ground, never to move again. That's all there is to it. What that basically means for us is, if they send their shamans against us, and their shamans send their walking corpses, we just kill the shamans and their army of the dead will fall," he snapped his fingers, "just like that."

"But surely it won't be easy getting to the shamans while they're being protected by their minions?"

"Well remember what the sisters wield."

Understanding looks crossed Nathan and Penny's faces. Nathan continued, "Well that, I have to say, certainly allays my concerns a bit."

"Oh you can put them to rest entirely. There's more to it than that," Art continued. "These skeletons are hard to control." He paused for a moment as he figured that he shouldn't draw too much from his own personal experiences lest they start asking the wrong sort of question, the kind that could get him thrown out onto the street that night. "They have to be. You ever tried controlling a marionette? If you've been to one of those shows, you'd see they oftentimes just jerk the thing around, up and down and side to side, and maybe make like one or two kinds of gestures at once. Getting them to move swiftly with any degree of accuracy? Forget about it."

Though, that hadn't been entirely true. The reanimated he'd fought against had managed to parry and block his blows on a number of occasions. Never with the skill of a trained warrior, that he was certain, but they'd not acted as clumsy as he'd been implying to them. In his most recent fight, he'd not been able to get past them without the assistance of some necroturgy of his own.

But, he thought, no reason to make them worry about such things if he could help it, given they were civilians. They had worries enough. If he could put their concerns to rest, give them back their days of peace, he'd be obligated to do it. It was the least he could do given their hospitality.

"The other thing to keep in mind is, these creatures still stand on two legs like you or I. Chop a leg off, the thing topples, and it ain't ever going to get back up again."

"How is it you know so much about how to fight these things?" asked Nathan.

"I may not look it right now, but I'm a swordsman, actually. Sellsword, though Warriv here has been having me guard his caravan for the longest time now," he said giving a cheerful nod toward the man. "I should think it my business to know the what's what of how to fight anyone and everyone." He put on a confident air. "Besides, I've fought them. On the way here, from the monastery. And I can tell you, either one of you would be more than a match for one of the reanimated. Even with no training at all. These things move like sloths."

"I'm still finding it kind of hard to imagine fighting these things," said Nathan. "To think they had these walking dead storming the monastery…"

"And that's exactly what the sisterhood did last night," remarked Warriv.

[Wherein Warriv and then Art share their experiences of what happened in the monastery.]

"And you… were you there, in the middle of the fighting, when all that happened?"

"Thankfully, we got out of the monastery without incident. The sisters guided us out to safety even as they went to confront the invaders, to buy us time to get out. They'd done that well."

That much Art could recall. Then he asked, "Then? What happened at the gates?"

"They had the caravaners head along the road west, to this village. We of course did as we were told. We didn't want the invaders to catch up to us if we could help it, you understand. As we went we could hear the sounds of fighting behind us. Sisters definitely died trying to kill off any would-be pursuers coming through the gates."

Art nodded, recalling the fallen he'd seen littering the road right outside of the monastery's outer gates, arrows sticking out of them. The story had started to come together for him.

Warriv continued. "Of course, in case us caravaners ran into dangers further up the road while the sisters fought at the gates, a good number of the sisters went with us, leaving relatively few to hold at the gates."

The sisterhood's place in his esteem had gone nowhere but up, Art realized as he listened to Warriv's recounting of events. They'd rushed to defend the caravaners, throwing away their own lives, not only within the monastery but outside it as well, to buy the caravaners time to retreat. They'd lost a good number of their fellow sisters in those fights. In the process, he reckoned, they'd saved Warriv and Taril's lives, and the lives of many others. They'd not saved his own life, per se, but as Warriv and Taril's close friend, he felt he owed them some kind of debt for their noble sacrifice.

"We didn't stop to look back," continued Warriv, "so not sure what happened afterward, but all through that night the sisters were all waiting and hoping for the rear guard to catch up to them. They didn't join up with us, though. My guess is something must have happened, or they had gotten lost or separated or gone another way. Boone was with the latter group."

The beast, thought Art, the beast was what happened. Yet, he hadn't encountered much in the way of human corpses on the way out from the monastery. The beast would have left a trail of devastation. Not to mention, he'd been the one who'd diverted the beast on a wild goose chase all through the monastery, potentially getting it lost. If so, it would have been in no position to go after the rear guard.

Nathan looked askance at Art. "From your asking… You weren't there for that part, were you?"

"Yeah, where were you, Art? One moment we were all running for the exit, the next moment you were nowhere to be seen. And by the time we noticed you were missing, we couldn't very well go looking for you, you understand. Believe me, I asked, practically begged, for the sisters to go looking for you with us. But the sisters would have none of it."

"That's all right, you did well in listening to them. It probably saved your lives," said Art. "But Nathan, you're right. I wasn't with the others. I got separated early on." He chuckled, staring down at his plate. "You could say that I got a case of the Johann and Tyler. Went off searching for adventure, what a fool I was."

"If… you don't want to go into it--"

"It's quite all right, Warriv. I don't mind, and what's done is done. Besides, you shared yours." He tapped his fingers against the table, wondering how to tell his story. He couldn't very well go into the gruesome details of his experience -- that wouldn't enlighten them in the slightest. "I went to join the sisters in their fighting, and wound up one of the last to leave. Then the…" He was going to say 'beast', but if the sisters had a good reason to not talk about the creature in front of the villagers, then maybe he shouldn't be the one to spoil it. "The invaders pursued me, and I led them around till they got lost. Of course, by then I'd gotten myself lost, so not sure if all that did any good."

"Yes it did; it helped distract the invaders while the caravaners were fleeing," Nathan pointed out. He set an arm on Art's back for a moment. "You did something honorable that night. You could easily have saved a good number of lives."

"Huh, guess I did." Art found it somewhat ironic, that he could have saved lives without knowing it. Yet it made some sense. The sisters hadn't been telling the caravaners about the beast, because none of them had seen the creature. Those who had seen it most likely all died, back in the cellar before they could make their getaway. If he hadn't diverted the beast's attention, if he'd gone to rejoin the rest of the sisters… Perhaps, the beast would now be dead, but on the other hand perhaps every last one of them would have fallen under its monstrous claws. And the most ironic thing was, to him, that none of those he'd saved would know he'd saved them. He wasn't about to go around telling them what he'd done; what purpose would that serve? And now, one look at his amputated arm and none of them would have believed him even if he did. "Guess I did."

"I ended up finding Selena…" Glossing over the part about freeing her, he continued, "And we fled the monastery." Would they believe the part about the battle that happened afterwards? he thought. Of course not. "We snuck our way out of the monastery when the invaders weren't looking, but got caught in a little skirmish." Right, little skirmish, he thought. Wasn't that ironic. Most people swasbuckled rather than downplayed their own accomplishments. "This," he said, raising his left arm, "was the result."

"You aren't telling the full story, are you," asked Penny.

"Whatever do you mean?" asked Art, not liking any of the ways this could be headed.

Penny as she took hold of the nearer of Selena's hands. "I mean this," she said, and set Selena's hand down upon the table. She still had manacles and four links of chain around each of her wrists.

"Ah that," said Art with a wry grin. "The invaders had captured her and put her in chains. I busted her out. Do me a favor, would you? Tomorrow, see about getting a locksmith to break her out of those?"

"You are treating all this quite lackadaisically," said Nathan, looking away from the girl's manacled wrists to stare at Art. -- "Oh great, now my host is going to think I have a screw loose," said Art, making a shrug of defeat. -- "No, I'm just saying… If the invaders had done that to her…" -- "Then you know why I hadn't gone into any more detail than I offered." -- "Did they… you know…" asked Penny. -- "I doubt it; but at any rate, she's alive and well, so does it matter?"

[Wherein the Bedfords ask about going forward.]

"So…" asked Nathan, turning to Warriv, "You mentioned you've been speaking with several of the Rogue sisters. Did they… give any indication of what we should expect next?"

"That should be clear to all," Art answered for Warriv. "This village lies right along the main road west from the monastery, which is surrounded by mountain ranges to the north and south and an inhospitable desert to the east. It's also the closest. We should expect the invaders to attack here next."

Warriv nodded in agreement. "That's what I've been hearing from the sisters all day. They make it sound like it's guaranteed to happen."

"It hasn't happened yet, has it?" asked Art. -- "Unless there's a battle somewhere nearby that didn't raise hue and cry? Not yet." -- "That's odd. A hamlet we passed by on our way here had been razed to the ground by the invaders. In the time it took me to get here, they could have easily gotten here already." -- "Hmm, maybe they took one look at the defenses of this village, what with all the sisters defending the place, and decided to back off," he said with a chuckle.

'Bawk off', the thought came to Art's mind when Warriv had said that last phrase. Images of the midget warriors fleeing, and screaming in terror. Of him cutting them down one by one like a reaper upon the wind as they fled for the atrium gates, and then as the lone shaman fled through the wheat fields, him firing bolt after fire bolt after it. He could feel the intent to kill that he'd harbored at the time…

"That's good then, isn't it?" asked Nathan. -- "They'll be too scared to attack us."

"It's actually really bad news," said Art, then explained: "It means they're not dumb and won't simply throw away their lives on a lost cause. It means they'll come back with forces that can overwhelm the defenses this village can put up. It may not come today, may not come tomorrow… But it will come." And, he thought without voicing it: the longer they wait before attacking, the more doomed this village would be.

"I… don't like the sound of this," said Nathan. "Don't like it at all." -- "But they will protect us, won't they?" -- "They certainly seemed confident that they could." -- "I mean, they must, right? Right?" Penny looked to Art with imploring eyes.

"I'm sure they will," replied Art, trying to stay their concerns. "As long as they're stationed here, the village should be safe, for the most part."

"As long as they're here… How long will they be here?" asked Nathan. -- "I mean, they have no monastery to return to any more." -- "They have nowhere else to go." -- "If they're staying here because it's the closest to the monastery," -- "And they mean to defend against the invaders sallying out from there," -- "Then won't that mean they'll be here," -- "Indefinitely?" -- Penny looked at her husband in concern. "So many sisters need a lot of food to eat," -- "And the village only has so much stocked up." -- "Not to sound unthankful for the protection the sisters provide by their very presence," -- "No, we are most thankful of that indeed, aren't we, Penny?" -- "But most of us here aren't all that well off," -- "The food will only last so long," -- "What will we do when we run out, husband dear?" -- "I'm sure the sisters can go out hunting for food," -- "But they can't be doing that while guarding the village," -- "Could they not pay for it with their silver?" -- "But Nathan, would they have even brought their silver with them?" -- "You're certainly right, Penny, they were fleeing in the middle of the night," -- "So they have brought no money with them," -- "Nor would they have anything to sell." -- "Then they will surely go hungry," -- "Which there's no way they'll put up with that." -- "But husband dear! Surely they won't force us to hand over what little food we have?" -- "I'm sure they wouldn't stoop to that level, Penny," -- "Oh, I'm sure also, but what if they do? What will happen then?" -- "I don't know, Penny, I don't know."

Art knew exactly what would happen then. Blood would be spilled. Blood, and death. But he couldn't very well tell them that. He smiled. "They would never do such a thing. No, the sisterhood will be beyond thankful for your hospitality. For one thing, your village has been such gracious hosts. I mean what a delicacy you've fed us lost wanderers. How can anyone forget such an act of goodwill?"

He looked from a smiling Nathan to a beaming Penny, conscious that his words had their intended impact. "Thank you so much for the meal. I am… we are," he said, stretching out his arm to encompass Warriv and Taril on one side and Selena on the other, "most indebted to you. Please, let me at least do the honor of cleaning up," he said, reaching out for a pewter plate with naught left upon it but leftovers. -- "Oh no, how could we possibly,--", interjected Penny, reaching out for the plate herself. -- "No, I insist. It's the least I can do to repay you." -- "But…" she said, glancing at his missing hand. -- "And don't think my not having an arm will inconvenience me overmuch, this at least I can do," said Art as he stacked up plates and carried them away.

[Wherein Art proceeds to take out the food waste and keeps some bones.]

"I wanna help!" said Selena as she jumped out of her chair and rushed to help pick up the plates, brimming with excitement. -- "Oh wow, how helpful you are, Selena," said Penny, standing aside to let her help and watching her with a smile. "Do you know what to do with it?" -- "Of course!" Selena turned to look at Art, who had started to use a spoon to scrape the leftovers into a single bowl. -- "Here, come help me with this," said Art, gesturing at the bowl. "I need someone to hold it up while I dispose of its contents." -- "Sure!" said Selena as she rushed to do as she was told.

"Oh, she's so adorable," remarked Penny. Out the corner of his eyes, Art saw Nathan and Penny looking at Selena work, stupid grins plastered on their faces even as they held each other, hand in hand.

"You can dote on her all you like," said Art, turning to her with a smile.

"I've always wanted a little baby daughter to dote on," Penny explained, then her smile faded.

Art noted the lack of other children in the house. That probably explained their willingness to entertain multiple guests. For a peasant couple in their late twenties or early thirties, he'd expect them to have at least three children by now. He didn't ask, but he surmised that perhaps one of them couldn't have children. If they wanted to have children, even if a daughter? He couldn't hope for better. Selena most definitely needed someone to take care of her, and he hadn't fancied himself up to the task. "She's all yours," he said, gesturing in a flourish.

With Selena's help to tilt each plate over, he'd finished putting all the waste into a single bowl. "Thanks Selena," he said with a pat on her head, making her give a beaming smile. "Where do you usually dispose of this?" -- "Oh, just bury it out in the garden at the back," Penny pointed. -- "Right on it," said Art, then took the bowl and stepped outside, heading for the garden at the back of the Bedfords'.

He had, of course, offered because it felt the right thing to do. Now that he'd scooped its contents into the bowl, however, he'd noticed what he was discarding. Leftover bread crumbs, some lentils Selena hadn't liked, fatty goose skin, and the goose's skeleton. Bones.

It reminded him of that time when he'd shattered the skull of his staff because he had no other bones to work with. That time, it had won him victory over the shaman, but he couldn't keep shattering the skull every time he worked with it. For one, that skull looked too much like a human skull, and he couldn't very well go around with it not on the staff or it'd draw too much unwanted attention.

On the staff, it could pass muster; clean and in one piece, the skull seemed like a proper headpiece for a staff, if a bit gruesome. The sisters had most assuredly seen them in their fight at the monastery, and they'd not question it nearly as much, and even if they were to ask him why he had one of the shamans' weapons, he could say he'd lost his own in the battle. The sisters had lost so much more that night, that he doubted they'd call him out on it.

But for him to walk around with the skull itself? Not so much. And once he'd shattered the skull, he couldn't very well put it back together again. Not to mention a skull hardly made for the best bones to work with, it being mostly a single round object.

Did he have to resort to using necroturgy, however? He'd much rather have an arming-sword; he'd trained with it for years, after all. But without his other hand to hold a shield, it had become far less effective, even dangerous, for him to charge into battle with a sword. And he'd yet to get his hands -- hand -- on a sword again. In the meanwhile, he couldn't use a bow with just one hand, and as he'd seen from the fight at the hamlet, the fire bolts from his torch-staff only got him so far. He preferred to keep his options open. When the time came to use them, the greater the variety of bones he could keep by his side, the better.

He tossed these bones onto the ground with the rest of the trash. Yes, he needed bones; but he didn't need these ones.

But as he used the shovel propped against the garden wall to make a hole for it, he unearthed other bones, which the Bedfords must have buried in days past. These ones had been buried for quite some time, what muscle and sinew attached to them had long since rotted, leaving just the bones behind, nice and clean. It wasn't like he'd find a better place to get decently clean bones. He reached down, and pocketed them.

Chapter 11: Day of Festivities

[Wherein Art comes upon the festivities.]

Art woke the next day finding none of the others remained on the wide bed they'd gone to sleep sharing. They'd left him to wake up on his own time, and he appreciated that. He felt well rested, and the pains all over his body subsiding had attested to the wonders that a good night's sleep wrought.

Art had not changed into night clothes, as he'd not had any to begin with -- those he'd abandoned back at the monastery. He walked out of the bedroom -- the humble home's only other room -- and into the primary room.

"Morning, Art, or should I say noon?" asked Penny, looking up from sewing Art's tattered black gambeson, which rested upon her lap. -- "Morning, Penny… you didn't have to!" -- "No, I didn't, but we can't very well have you walk around in something like that or it'll reflect badly on Nathan and I too." -- "Everyone knows I'm here?" -- "It's a small village, Thistledown. Doesn't take long before the gossip gets around, and I'd prefer the right kind of gossip, thank you very much." -- "Thank you very much indeed." He looked around, noticed the others had left the house. "Where did everyone else go?"

Right on cue, Selena slammed the front door open. "Art! Wake up wake up… oh, you've waked up already," she said, coming to a halt. -- "You have come take a look!" she took hold of him by his wrist and started dragging him out the door. -- "Come now, Selena, what's this all about?" -- "Come on, you'll see!"

Art walked outside and followed Selena as she dragged him to the wide open space that was the village center. There he found what must have been half the village assembled there, crowding around in a big circle around some kind of event. "What is going on?" he asked, though Selena kept quiet, a big grin plastered on her face. He felt stunned. One moment he remembered going to sleep all somber with worry about the future of the village and of the sisterhood, and now it seemed everyone was celebrating? Had they lost their senses?

As they approached, cheers and raucous laughter went up from the crowd. He apologized to several as he and Selena squeezed in so they could see what was happening. "Well, I'll be damned," he remarked to himself.

In the middle of the crowd an oval wooden fencing had been set up, held in place on the dirt ground by two concentric rings of stone blocks. In the middle, two wooden stakes stood driven into the earth, and a man and a woman were racing round and round, the man going around the left and the woman around the right. In each of their left hands they held a length of rope connected to the tops of their respective stakes, and in the right they held a light wooden stick which they batted around as they went. Over the man's eyes was tied a length of blue cloth; over the woman's, a length of red cloth. They laughed as much as any of the onlookers, even as they stumbled from dizziness as they went, beating wildly. Also in the pen a pair of roosters had been let loose and now clucked around as they darted to and fro, occasionally flying but never high enough to escape the ringfence as they tried to avoid getting hit by the sticks and mostly succeeding as the two humans had been blindfolded.

"Red!" -- "Blue!" -- "Blue!" -- "Red!" -- "Blue!" -- and so on the audience shouted, with those on the man's side shouting "Blue" and those on the other side shouting "Red". As he stared, still dazed that this would be happening, he noticed that the villagers had essentially formed into two spectating teams, each of them shouting and cheering whenever their participant managed to land a hit on either of the two unfortunate fowl. And opposite him, sitting on a raised platform, a fat, stocky man in a white tabard stood watching the games, and a boy in a simple blue tunic sat next to him. The boy sat there tallying up the calls, putting little pebbles on one side or the other as each call was made.

"Guys, really?" asked Art, though neither the man on his left nor the one on his right replied. These villagers had time for games like this? What were they thinking? Shouting to be heard above the crowd, he asked the one next to him. "What's going on here?" -- "You've never seen burlesque before? The rules are simple." -- "I know the rules, I'm asking why." -- "Do we need a reason? Can't you see the crowd's enjoying themselves right now?" -- "Yeah but…" -- "Winner of the tourney gets a prize." -- "What prize?" -- "Longbow," the man said, pointing at the man in the tabard.

"A… longbow?" Art mused. Rather cheap, certainly, but odd for such to be a prize; he doubted anyone in the village had the training to use one. The sisters knew their way around the bow and arrow, but he doubted anyone simply lost theirs back at the monastery. And it was a longbow, from the looks of it, quite a tall one. The sisters, women all, might be able to use one, but their builds made them more suited to using shorter bows. Trying to use too long a bow would slow their rate of release. And unlike a hunting bow, it could not be used for much else, being too unwieldy for use as a hunting bow.

Art looked over the man. Beside the platform had been parked a covered wagon, large enough for a man to walk inside, its wooden doors propped open, and with a longbow resting aside it. Also beside the man, on each side, stood wooden tables completely covered with an assortment of goods -- trinkets, clothes, pewterware, bowls and jugs, hammers and knives, belts and broaches, and propped against the tables rested iron farmer's tools of all purposes. Inside the wagon he could see even more goods -- gloves, boots, caps and helms, several quivers of arrows, an axe and sword propped against a round shield in the back.

Then it clicked. This had all been a ploy by the stocky man in the tabard as he showcased his wares. Probably a merchant who had just arrived that morning and set up shop for the day before moving on, and he'd arranged the burlesque for the purpose of attracting all the attention of the village so they'd all come out to look at his wares; and the prize to get the contestants he needed to keep their attention. And a longbow at that -- what a cheap prize, that. It had worked, in a sense. Selena had brought Art over here where he could see what the man had for sale. And he would have gone and bought something from the man too; he'd needed a sword after losing his back at the monastery. Unfortunately for both him and the merchant, he lacked the coin to buy it.

"Finished!" called the counting-boy, opening his palms up to show that he'd no stones left to set down. The crowd settled down and the contestants pulled off their blindfolds, gasping for breath, and turned to the counting-boy, who proceeded to count first the one pile of stones and then the other. "Thirty-three… Thirty-eight. Red wins!" he called out, and the woman contestant jumped with fists pumping the air.

[Wherein the sisters participate in the games as well.]

"Next up," called out the merchant, and the two contests walked out of the ring, leaving behind the two lightly bruised roosters and a scattering of shedded white chicken feathers. Art watched as several of the villagers took advantage of the lull to approach the merchant, no doubt making a purchase. From the looks of it, the man closed several transactions in mere minutes, and a not insignificant amount of silver entered his hands. Sly, having a shop while providing entertainment, he thought. Happy people parted with their coin much more easily. Drunken on the foolishness of the games, they'd not even noticed themselves getting played for fools.

Warriv and a woman wearing white and brown gambeson stepped into the ring. Someone from the crowd protested. "She's one of the sisters. How can you allow her to compete? That won't even be fair." -- "Aye, aye," several others in the crowd started nodding. Art joined in on the shouting too. He'd heard tell of the sisterhood's capabilities. If the Order of the Sightless Eye was renowned far and wide, it was for this. Warriv wouldn't stand a chance.

"Hey, can't a woman play in the game?" the sister protested. -- "Not you, you can't." -- "Yeah! You'll win the prize way too easy." -- "This isn't even a competition," said another, walking away from the crowd line. -- "But I just wanted to have some fun, like you do."

"Now now, I'm sure we can come to some kind of arrangement that would be acceptable to everyone," said the merchant, raising his hands palms up to pacify the crowd, to reasonable effect. "If I may make a suggestion? We all know the sisters are world renowned for their way of the third eye, so of course if we allowed a sister to participate, the results are a foregone conclusion. But my dear," he said to the sister, "If you would be so magnanimous as to agree to bow out of the tournament after this round, and forfeit any claim on the prize, then I see no reason why we cannot proceed with it. You get to play and you get to win, the gentleman beside you gets to continue in the next round, and everyone else gets a rare chance to see your way in action. Everybody wins!"

"Agreeable terms," said the sister. "I already have a bow, and have little need for another. Let us begin." Then she and Warriv began to put on their blindfolds. -- "Ladies and gentlemen," said the merchant with a clap of hands, "I present to you… in the blue blindfold, Warriv, of the caravaners. And in red, Liene of the sisterhood. Let the game begin!"

As the crowd cheered in anticipation, Warriv immediately set about racing round and round his stake, swinging his stick to and fro so as to get the most coverage of the space, but mostly whipping his stick through thin air. The chickens darted back and forth between the two contestants, their occasional clucking or fluttering of wings revealing their positions to allow him to land hits on them. "Blue!" shouted the crowd each time he managed to land a hit.

But the calls of "Red!" on the other side came without end. Holding on to her end of the rope, Liene raced about her stake just as quick as her opponent, but refrained from hitting nothingness. Each time she went about, like clockwork, she landed a quick tap of the stick against the roosters on her side of the field, making them cluck and take flight again and again until the both of them wound up in Warriv's half of the oval ring. When that happened she stopped running altogether and simply waited, until the moment either of the roosters, fleeing Warriv's infrequent strikes, came back within her reach, whereupon she would lash out with her stick again. That red blindfold covering her eyes might as well not be there.

"Finished!" called the counting boy, and started to count the one pile, before turning back to the crowd. "Hey, do I really need to count these piles? I mean like, you all know who won." One pile stood considerably higher than the other. The crowd cheered the victor, even as Art reached over to pat Warriv on the back. -- "Don't mind her, you did great. Besides, you're still in for the next round."

"That's fine," said Liene, setting down her blindfold on the wooden stake. "Nice practice." She strode out of the pen to stand by several other women in gambesons all clustered together. "We could all do with a bit of practice in these times," she said to her fellow sisters. "Your turn, Diane."Art watched as the sister she addressed, who looked no more than eighteen, shook her head, looking downright mortified at the prospect, and as Liene then practically pushed Diane forward, almost stumbling, into the ring, causing the crowd to cheer. When Diane promptly turned around and tried to exit, Liene shot her a stern look. "You can't say you're half as good at third eye as I am. Get out there and show them what you can do."

[Wherein Art participates in the burlesque as well and wins the longbow.]

Ah, thought Art; the sisters viewed this as training. To them, the war must surely still remain at the forefront of their thoughts. Two could play that game, he thought as he stepped forward, past the gate and into the pen. The crowd cheered for him as well, then quickly fell silent as they saw his right arm. He didn't have to look about, didn't have to tap into the sisters' way of the third eye to feel their stares. Their whispers to those beside them, their pointing at him when they thought he wasn't looking, told all. Yes, I'm a handicap, thought Art to himself; might as well let everyone know now and get it over with, rather than have the rumor mill take its course.

Warriv ran up to him. "Art, what do you think you're doing?" -- "I don't know, you tell me." -- Warriv held Art by his amputated arm, then stared at him. "You have guts, I'll admit that much. I wouldn't have put myself out like this for the world. And why are you competing, anyways?" -- Art made a nod toward the longbow still propped against the wagon. -- "Really?" -- "Yeah, why not? Impossble's never stopped me before." -- Warriv smiled and gave him a pat on the shoulder. "Well then, you do you."

Warriv then turned to the crowd. "Anyone have some rope handy?" -- "Here!" -- "My good man! Thank you." Warriv then took the rope and started tying it to the rope already on Art's stake, making it longer, and looping it around Art's right elbow. "There we go. Good luck," he said as he set the blue blindfold over Art's eyes, then stepped back to rejoin the crowd line.

Another clap of hands. "Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you… in the blue blindfold, Art, of the caravaners. And in red, Diane of the sisterhood. Let the game begin!" And as the crowd burst into cheers, Art began to race.

A leaf, a petal, a feather, I drift in the open sky.

He could sense the wind flowing past him. Without his gambeson, with just his tunic, he took note of the slightest breeze, the smallest disturbance in the air. So long as it came from right next to him, the way of the dancing leaf would urge him to move out of the way. When he approached a rooster, its very attempts to back away from him shifted the air by his legs, forewarned him of its impending movements.

Carried by the wind, I spin, going where it takes me.

He'd normally use dancing leaf to avoid taking a hit from a thrust spear, a sweep of a sword, the crush of a mace, dodging or parrying without the need to even look, while the sense it provided oftentimes offered him an opening to counterattack. But this time, he pushed down the urge to back away from any movement; these roosters posed no threat, after all.

Slender, soft, small, I float on through the sky.

The sisters' way of the third eye let them see in whatever direction they wanted with a eponymous third eye. That eyeless sight could see at distance. His way of the dancing leaf only allowed him to sense the wind through sense of touch, but in a game such as this, with the roosters always close enough for him to almost touch them, he'd no need for anything more.

Dancing upon the breeze, I sweep past all that approach.

And with stick in hand, he landed strike after strike on the roosters, heard the onlookers cheer his every strike. "Blue, blue, blue," they shouted, almost as often as they shouted "Red", and the panicked roosters clucked and fluttered back and forth between the two contestants who never missed a beat. And amongst those calls, Art heard excited whispers: "How's he doing that?" -- "Is he using the way of the third eye, just like the sisters can?" -- "Is he now? Does he look like a lady to you?" -- "Now they're just making this look too easy…"

"Finished!" called the counting-boy. -- "Finished, already?" several in the crowd asked, groaning in dismay. The counting-boy started counting the two piles.

As Art took off his blindfold, he turned to nod at Diane. "You did well. Liene should be proud of you." -- "You also. I don't recall ever seeing you in the monastery. Is there another school that teaches the third eye?" -- "Oh, what I used, that is nothing. Yours is the real deal."

"Tie," the counting-boy called out. -- "I thought you were using seventy one stones, how could you have gotten a tie?" asked the merchant. -- "Well, you see, when I saw them going about it so well I think my jaws dropped so much that I swallowed a rock." -- "You what?" Gheed turned around to greet the protesting crowd, and held out his hands in an appeasing gesture. "Now, now, I"m sure there's an explanation for this. Tom, why don't you count those stones again, I'm sure it's just a miscount." -- "I uh," said Tom with a sheepish grin, "already mixed the piles back together."

"…You know what, why don't we call this a tie," said the merchant. "Doesn't matter after all, since the sisters have agreed to bow out regardless of how well they did." -- "But what about Art?" someone asked, "Surely he was using the way of the third eye as well." -- "I was not." -- "Oh really? Want to explain how you did that then?" -- "Sure, if you'd like to step right on up and then cluck like a chicken, and if someone can go fetch me a whip, I'll show you exactly what happens when I use my little trick." -- "Burn!"

"Alright alright, who's up next, hmm?" asked the merchant, eyes scanning the crowd. Art looked about as well. Liene prodded another one of the sisters into the ring, but no one else stepped forward. "Anyone," he asked, smile faltering. "Anyone?" Still no one stepped forward. The crowd had started muttering about how no one could have done what Art had done without using the way of the third eye, and how he must be lying about not using the same technique as the sisters. -- "No use trying. No one can beat that," someone shouted from the crowd. -- "Aye, it's clear who's going to win the competition." -- "No point staying here then." -- "Ah, now now, let's not be too hasty about this," said the merchant, waving his arms about frantically.

Art walked up to the merchant. "I think that latest performance I gave put a real damper on this competition. You might want to consider wrapping this up and handing out the prize, and then moving on to the next contest, shall we? Before everyone starts leaving. I'm sure you want to keep your audience more than anyone else here."

The merchant looked at him and then the gradually dissipating crowd and sighed. "Alright, next round! Anyone from the previous rounds want to challenge Art here for the championship?…No? Okay then… Stay, folks! We'll be moving on to the next contest -- archery! Stay and feast your eyes on a performance by our lovely sisters here that you'll never forget!" he said, stepping forward as if to pursue the dissipating crowd.

"Say, I don't think we've been properly introduced. what's your name again?" asked Art, sticking his face in front of him. -- "Name's Gheed." -- "Say, Gheed, aren't you conveniently forgetting something?" Art turned to face the remnants of the crowd, arms raised to get their attention. "Am I right?" -- "Ah yes, of course, I wouldn't dare to forget, why it just slipped my mind for a moment."

Gheed reached out for the longbow propped against the open door of his wagon, then held it toward Art with his pudgy hand, and announced: "As promised -- Longbow, brand spanking new. Bow-shaft exactly two yards long, draw weight one hundred pounds." He held it out to Art, a smile hiding the smirk on his face. "That is, if you would have it."

That made Art reconsider. Why'd he even demanded it from Gheed? It may be his due, but much as with the sisters who'd relinquished their claim, he couldn't do anything with it, not with just his one hand. He couldn't very well sell it to anyone else in the village, seeing as no one else here could use it either. Oh well, he figured, he could just gift it to the Bedfords as a way of saying thanks. He'd not much anything else he could give them in thanks, anyway, and he was loathe to part with what remained of his armor while in the midst of a war.

He took the longbow, and smirked as it wiped the smirk off Gheed's face.

[Wherein they have an archery competition.]

Gheed went into his wagon and fetched out several rings on stands. He turned to the crowd, announcing, "Now then, archery competition it is! Anyone here who fancies himself or herself a good shot with the bow, line on up! Prize is an arming sword this time!"

The hell? thought Art. Giving out a longbow as the prize for a swatting contest and a sword as a prize for an archery contest? Talk about misaligned incentives. Why not the other way around? He saw Gheed shooting him a meaningful look, almost as if to say, 'I know you have a longbow you can't do anything with and you'll want a sword instead; but with just that one arm of yours, you don't stand a chance of winning an archery competition; you want the sword? You can't have it.' Was the merchant mocking him?

And had the choice of making the prize a sword, been a matter of pure chance? From the way Gheed looked at him, he could only surmise that the merchant had already concluded him to be a sword user, and an arming sword at that. Art hadn't a sword or scabbard with him; nor had he told this lot of his being a swordsman. So how could he know?

Think, he thought to himself, what had he let slip? What had he done to give away his training? Ah, of course, he realized; he'd been participating in the hitting game earlier, and with success that one only achieved with a way. He'd used the way of the dancing leaf; had the merchant deduced, from that alone, Art's training in the Flying Feather School, whose preferred weapon was the arming sword? His estimation of the merchant had just gone up several notches.

At least this time the merchant had put up something more valuable as the prize.

As the crowd began to re-form, cheering at the prospect of another game, Gheed set up the ten rings on stands one after another, putting them all in a line, each one standing ten yards away from the next. "Rules are very simple. The person who can get through the most of these, when they are spread the farthest apart, wins."

Art noticed all had the exact same height. An arrow going through that would have to fly impossibly fast or it would miss some of them. "Hey, how is anyone supposed to be able to get an arrow through all this? Arrows have weight, you know."

"Hmm, what's that? The winner of the first competition fancies himself bowing out this early already?" Gheed turned to the audience. "Sounds like you might all have a chance with this!"

From the crowd someone called out, "Hey, isn't this even more unfair in favor of the sisters?" -- "Yeah, they can shoot arrows like you wouldn't believe." -- "So this is just going to turn into a competition between the archers in the order?" -- "Pfft. Why even bother then? It's not like any of us stand a chance."

"Now, now, don't be so hasty. If we're going to do this, surely the sisters will agree not to participate?" he said, turning to Liene and the women standing beside her.

Not having the sisters participate? wondered Art. Why? None here could shoot better than those of the sisterhood; none could provide a better spectacle than they. By doing this Gheed was shooting himself in the foot. So what, he wanted the peasants to be the ones participating? As if peasants would have any training with bows. Khanduran law prohibited all but nobles and those trained for war from hunting, so they wouldn't have the training. Having the peasants do this would just make for a spectacle of failure. Burlesque indeed.

Gheed clapped his hands. "Well then, let us begin! Who will go first?" As the crowd formed a line to watch, one of the caravaners stepped forward and received a shortbow and a quiver of ten arrows from the merchant. The man nocked his arrow, drew it back and released; it streaked through the first ring and bounced off the second. He went through the entire quiver and managed to get only one through the second ring. "Thirty yards. Not bad, but does anyone think they can do better?"

As the crowd cheered them on, one by one the contestants lined up to participate, while the merchant stood back and spent his time making trades with those who sought him out. When he wasn't making trades, he seemed to only halfheartedly glance at the competition, which made Art think something else was up. Art noted he seemed to be making good money, but could it earn back the cost of the sword? Surely a merchant as shrewd as he would not sacrifice a sword just to get back at Art, someone he'd only just met; no money to be had there. What was the merchant playing at?

[Wherein Kashya gets the sisters to participate in this one as well.]

As he watched the proceedings, he saw another group of gambeson-wearing women, led by one in a story of fiery red hair, walk up to Liene's group, who now stood mere feet away. "What have we here? An archery contest, and no sister participating?" -- "Gheed has forbidden it, bow-mother Kashya," Liene replied, gesturing at the merchant. "Says we are too skilled in the bow." -- Kashya chuckled. "That he is right, bow-daughter, but this treatment I cannot abide." -- "It is okay, elder sister, we keep here only to keep order, and have no need to participate." -- "Ah, younger sister, you are but young still. Were you wiser to the ways of the world, you would not speak as you have."

Then the redhead stepped toward Gheed and announced in a commanding voice, "Gheed, I hear you are not playing fair with my younger sisters. May I inquire why you seek to isolate this village's protectors from the very people we seek to protect?"

"Why, dear sister of the order, when have I ever--"

"You fool no one, peddler. Formerly by proclaiming that, of all the participants in the burlesque, the sisters alone may lay no claim to the prize of the longbow, and now by outright restricting their participation altogether. Are you not relegating my sisters to the status of a second class citizenry?"

Gheed waved his hands in protest, and bowed to her with a grin. "You wound me, my lady, for rest assured, I have done no such thing. To the contrary; I would be the first to acknowledge that your sisterhood has no equal at the sport. I do this out of recognition of that fact. Only in the spirit of fair play, you understand."

"Naturally. Yet, it remains that your antics here have created a bit of a problem for us. The sisterhood has always handled its problems, peddler."

"Aye, you name me correctly, I am but a mere peddler. A mere peddler who finds that solutions to problems present themselves easily when a little silver presents itself also."

"You would dare to hold this little game of yours at ransom?"

The participants of the archery contest had stopped, the crowd fallen silent, watching the verbal spar between the two. Kashya and Gheed seemed to notice their attention as well. Gheed turned to the crowd, arms outstretched to gain their attention. "Well now, audience to my humble event! I had previously stated no sister may participate, but here I find myself in a bit of a bind. But in the end, it is up to you all as to who may play this game. What shall it be, then? Should we let the sisters participate?"

As Art expected, the currently leading participant and those who had lined up to take their turns shouted unanimously "No"; no way would they allow the sisters to take away their chance at the prize before them. And soon after they started shouting no, the rest of the crowd quickly followed in their protests.

"Do you know who you are challenging?" Liene stepped right in front of the merchant's face, her spear in hand and making the wide-eyed merchant take a step backward. But a moment later Kashya put out her hand in front of Liene, gesturing for her to back off. -- "Bow-mother--" -- "Now's not the time for that," Kashya muttered to her. "Do you not see we have the attention of the crowd?"

Turning back to face the merchant, who bore a stupid grin on his face, she said, "I see we may have gotten off on the wrong foot. We of the order of course have no need for such as an arming-sword, of course; far be it for us to attempt to lay claim over it. But you as a peddler must have other wares that may be of at least some worth to us. I see you have quite a few quiverfuls of arrows back in your wagon, and it just so happens that my sisters have an awful lot of acquaintances in need of arrows through the heart these days. And I believe I have already stated that the sisterhood always handles its problems," she finished as she slipped a few coins in the merchant's hands. Quite a few coins; certainly worth the price of the arrows and sword twice over, which meant that the merchant stood to reap a killing off this deal.

Gheed gave it a single glance and closed his fingers over it with a huge grin, then gave her a bow. "Aye, and I am but a humble peddler," he said as he went to fetch out the rest of his arrows, a stack of at least a hundred, all of them broadheads. "He set them down upon the nearby table, then waved for attention. "Ladies and gentlemen, it seems our sisters of the bow have deigned to show us more of their fabled talents. Oh, do not worry; your prize is safe. The sisters shall be competing for these arrows here. And for some added variety, let's alternate contestants between these two separate competitions." He turned to Kashya and the two of them shared knowing smiles.

Art walked up to Gheed. "I suppose congratulations are in order; looks like your investment paid off." -- "That it did. I have to thank you too, Art; had it not been for your intervention, we would still be watching people chasing after chickens and my pockets would still be twenty pence[denarii] lighter." -- "Sounds like you owe me one then," he said, opening up his palm. -- "My, but you sure are quick with your jokes," he replied, not making any move to put any coin into Art's hand, so Art retracted it.

[Wherein the sisters show off the way of the sidewinder.]

Kashya prodded one of the women in her entourage to step forward. "Show them what you can do, Fiona!" then led the rest of the crowd in a round of applause for encouragement.

Fiona stepped into position, bow readied and arrow nocked, then drew and released the arrow. It went right through all ten of the rings to bounce off the far wall, prompting the crowd to cheer. "Nicely done, bow-daughter, I knew I could count on you," Kashya said and patted her on the back. -- "Had it not been for your patience mentoring me in the way of the sidewinder, how could I have done what I have today?"

Art whistled in appreciation. He'd not thought it possible, but the sisters had proven them wrong. Using some kind of way Art hadn't known about, either one that altered the arrow's trajectory by just the right amount or one that made it weightless altogether… He'd known the sisterhood to be well renowned for their archery, but seeing it himself was a different experience altogether. And just what kind of range could they achieve with a way like that? Just how powerful could they be, as adepts of the third eye and the sidewinder, and who knows what other techniques? He'd not seen them actually use them against the beast or the other invaders, given how things had played out in the heat of battle, and against the beast these ways probably didn't matter one whit, but against the midget warriors and their shamans? Maybe the rogues had a hope yet.

Art strode up to the two, giving a slight bow. "Impressive, Fiona. Way of the sidewinder, is it called? Wish I could have joined your order, would have loved to learn it. Then again, I suppose if I had a wish handy I'd wish to be more handy," he said, raising his stump of an arm. "Say, can everyone in the sisterhood do the same?"

"Oh, that was nothing," replied Fiona, blushing from the compliment. "The way of the sidewinder is wasted on getting an arrow to fly perfectly straight. It's getting it to fly in any way other than straight that's true mastery."

After that performance the crowd seemed quite impressed, and calls rang out for the sisters to show what else they could achieve with the bow. Kashya turned to another of her sisters. "Amplisa, show them what the way of the sidewinder can actually do."

Amplisa strode forward toward the ring stands, then lifted one up and set it down in a position to the left of the rest of the stands, then moved another one of the ring stands, this time to the right. In a similar manner she moved all of the ring stands out of position. Some she turned and set down at an angle; others she lifted the ring stand upon one of the stone blocks retrieved from the pen in from the earlier game, to make them stand higher than the others. The crowd started to give hoots and shouts in anticipation.

"Sidewinder," Art mused out loud, standing next to Fiona. "Doesn't sound like a way of weightlessness. Is that what I think it is?" -- "Why don't you watch and find out?" asked Amplisa, then released her arrow. It went through one ring, then curved up to pass through a raised one, then back down through another, then veered to the right to go through an offset ring stand, and continued changing course as it weaved its way through each of the ring stands until it had gone through them all, then went up high into the air before turning to point downward and stabbing right down into the table a mere inch from where Gheed had been resting his hands, its shaft and fletching quivering. The man practically jumped in his fear.

"Remember," said Kashya as she leaned over toward Gheed. "A mere peddler who reaches out with his hands for something he doesn't have might find something in his hands that he doesn't want to have."

[Wherein the sisters show off their other ways and begin recruitment.]

After that the sistershood's 'sideshow' of a contest rapidly became the main feature, making mockery of the performance of the villagers and the caravaners.

Paige rearranged nine of the ring stands to stand three ranks deep, then held and nocked three arrows against her bow, holding one between each of her fingers besides the thumb, then released them all at once, sending one bow through each column of ring stands. Again and again she repeated the process, each volley striking through all three columns of the ring stands. She returned to Kashya's side, her face beaming, while the crowd applauded her success.

A demonstration of martial prowess at its finest, Art mused. One could easily imagine each of these ring stands as an approaching foe. In fact he was sure that many of the onlookers would have caught on to exactly that. Here Paige could shoot three targets at once; it practically invited imagination of how quickly the whole band of sisters could eradicate any foe. And it would not be lost on the villagers. Its message was twofold: The sisterhood, despite its setback, remains a powerful force willing and able to protect its allies from any threat; the village is safe. And: In case the villagers started getting it in their heads that they couldn't afford to feed and quarter the sisters any longer, as Nathan and Penny had expressed their worries about the previous night, it said: Don't mess with us, don't try to resist our rule, or you can see with what ease we can put an end to you.

Ryann stepped forward without a single arrow, only her bow, and when she pulled on the drawstring a shimmering arrow of white light appeared nocked to her bow, glowing all the brighter the further back she pulled on the string, and sent it through a column of ring stands, to knock down the one at the back from the force of its impact. She too returned to the sisters with an air of triumph about her and gasps of amazement behind her.

As Art looked around, he'd noticed that Kashya had called for other sisters scattered throughout the village to join them here. Now they watched on at their sisters' performance, at the enthusiastic reception from the gathered crowd. Gone was that somber look of a defeated order, and in its place, these women and girls had wide smiles plastered over their faces. Not bad, he thought. Apparently this little performance was working wonders for the order's morale, what with how the festivities took their minds off their current situation, and their performances reaffirmed their abilities. After such a devastating defeat as the one at the monastery, that had been something badly needed. Could it be that the redhead captain had realized that as well, and capitalized on this opportunity?

Oriana detached one of the rings from its stand and threw it high into the air, then in one smooth motion she drew and loosed her arrow, and it struck the falling, revolving ring at just the right angle to make it back up into the air, spinning about itself even faster. With another arrow she struck it again, this time knocking it toward her; and with a ringing strike from a third arrow, made it fall without spinning, landing to set right on her head like a tiara. By now the crowd had become much inured to their feats, but this one took the cake, and she found herself beset by commoners asking how she'd done it.

"Now, now, let's give the lady some space, shall we?" asked Gheed, his arms wide to hold back the crowd besieging Oriana. "I'm sure that if any of you ladies wish to learn their tricks, you have merely to sign up with the sisterhood, isn't that right Kashya? I hear the sisterhood could do with some additional recruits right about now." With the smile of a man expecting a reward he looked to the sisters, many of whom shot him hard looks like he'd just reopened some recent wounds.

Kashya however put out a hand to stall their anger, and with a nod to Gheed and a smile as she turned to the crowd. "The way of the third eye. The way of the sidewinder. The way of accusing fingers. The way of hardened light. The way of fortune's arrow. You have seen only a taste of what our sisterhood has to offer. I say now to the damsels among you: Should you join, you will become as a sister to us. You will live with us. You will learn with us. You will fight with us, and, if the vagaries of fate would have it, you will die with us. Don't feel pressured to join now, but the offer stands. Should you choose to take the oath, you know where to find us."

A recruitment drive, thought Art as several girls from among the crowd clamored to join. He found himself having a newfound respect for Kashya, an apparent captain of the sisterhood, for having so easily manipulated a situation she'd come upon into one that would benefit her order. The redhead had taken advantage of the crowd that Gheed had created with his little competition to get potential recruits enthusiastic -- no, positively smitten -- with the prospect of joining, by demonstrating the order's capabilities. The order would no doubt start to receive the first of much needed reinforcements, even if training them would take many months, even years. Despite the setback the sisterhood had received, the captain was already striving for long term goals, and she'd done it for only the cost of a few quivers of arrows, which the sisterhood would have needed anyway.

No, he realized, as he walked away from the crowd as the sun dipped into evening. They'd accomplished far more than just a recruitment. Talk about hitting two birds with one stone; by his count she'd hit at least five birds with her one move. Maybe the sisterhood could rise again from its ashes after all.

Such young women, he thought, rushing to enlist without a hint of the horrors of war, without thought as to their own vulnerability. They'd no training, yet how eagerly they sought to sign up! And here he was, not an eligible damsel but a veteran of a dozen skirmishes, and what would he do? He knew knew how to fight, but without his right hand, without even a sword, how could he? He stuck his left hand in the pocket of his tunic.

And there, amidst the rattling bones, he found his answer.

Chapter 12: A Tale of Bones

[Wherein Art goes to practice magic on his own.]

The next morning Art awoke bright and early, groaning from the discomfiting sleep. "Really, Selena, did you have to roll over onto me?" he muttered at her still sleeping form. "It's cramped enough to be sharing the bed with five other people, even if it's a really big bed." He turned, saw Warriv yawning and stretching himself awake. "Warriv," he whispered, "I'm going out for a stroll. See you in a bit, but don't wait if it takes me some time to get back." -- Warriv simply waved him off.

Now he opened the door and, with torch-staff in hand and having swiped a sweetroll into his sash, he strode out into the early morning, closing the door behind him. Outside, the sun had yet to rise, even as the sky had lightened to the lavender-blue of the pre-dawn.

He needed a place to practice using his necroturgy. Looking about the village to get his bearings, he headed perpendicular to the still-empty village street, passing several wooden houses, and their personal gardens behind them, as he went. Beyond them lay an expansive stretch of wheat fields, countless stalks golden and swaying upon the light breeze of dawn.

That victory over the most recent group of warriors had been too close for comfort. A single shaman -- a single one! He'd been able to slaughter his way through them even when it'd been six against one, with several dozen warriors defending them and a trio of adepts! -- had given him so much trouble, even when its scimitar-armed minions had fallen. Yet again he cursed the loss of his arm. He'd been weakened so much that he reckoned he had not even a hundredth of his former capability. He'd never be able to wield a sword and shield at the same time, and that meant he needed other ways of defending himself should he run into any enemies again. He couldn't allow a repeat of what happened before.

Past the outskirts of the wheat fields, where civilization ended and the wilderness of the forest began, the trees in all their greenery now loomed all about him. He took in a deep breath, drank in the smell of pine trees about him, and felt at peace. Here none would stumble upon him. Certainly not any of the sisterhood, he hoped. After having suffered so many losses to the shamans and their underlings, he reckoned they wouldn't take too kindly to him picking up where they left off.

He squat down by the trunk of a yew tree, his head just low enough to avoid its low-leaning branches. All about him he could hear soft sounds of squirrels scurrying in the underbushes, fallen leaves trampled underfoot. He reached into his pocket, and cast the bones he'd dug up the previous night in a spread across the earth before him. He closed his eyes, then adjusted his hold over the staff to the proper position, and the feeling of him as the puppet string-puller, that feeling of being able to command dolls to dance to every movement of his fingers, that sense of being at one with the puppet's every movement, of that perfect synchrony with the limbs of a body other than his own, immersed his mind.

He couldn't sense any of the bones in the area. Not even the ones he'd brought out, until he tapped them with the skull of his staff. The moment he did so, he could sense those bones, feel them before him, feel them as he lifted them up barely off the ground with his mind, then set them back down, even as he kept his eyes closed. Deep in the way of the puppeteer, it felt so natural, so right, for him to exert this control over these little bones, these mere puppets of his, like he'd always been doing this. That was just the way of the puppeteer, he knew, but he could feel it as if he'd been doing it for ages, and the ability to lft the bones came so naturally.

Only, his skill with the way hadn't come along with that feeling of knowing what he did. Getting a single goose bone to lift as if lifting his own hand felt right; yet when he opened his eyes to see what he'd accomplished, he saw he had kept putting either too little or too much into the movement, with the result that the bone either shot up into the air or hardly moved at all. And when he finally got it up into the air, just trying to get it to stay aloft in one place had proven a challenge of its own, as the force he'd put into getting it to lift had caused it to tumble around and then either float up too high or collapse back upon the earth.

Despite himself he groaned. Hadn't he managed to lift the incisors without issue? Why did these bones prove such a challenge? What difference did these have compared to the ones he'd managed from earlier? Oh that's right; this bone, long and slender, exhibited completely different physics from the incisors, which, despite having a complex shape of its own, nonetheless took a somewhat round shape. The goose bone on the other hand had its ends far from the bone's center of balance. And he'd been trying to control it from its center of balance. Each time he'd not gotten the balance just right, using the way of the puppeteer to apply too much of a force one way, it had tumbled in the opposite direction.

Ah, he mused; that must be it. He had to focus his control over just the one end of the bone. With a thought he considered what it would be like to hold the bone by one end; and then he was holding it by the one end, holding it in place while the other end dangled below it.

He wondered if an actual puppeteer -- of puppets -- had this much of a problem with getting the proper movement out of his puppets. Surely it must be easier?

It took several tries before he could get the bone to go up the amount he desired and then stay put. He had to control the bone at one end, and then by the other end as well and at the same time, in order for it to lift the way he intended it to -- horizontally. Even more conscious effort to keep it from slipping out of his mind's grasp. By then the sun had gone up, its rays of golden dawnlight streaming across the forest floor. The birds had started to chirp, seemingly unconcerned by his presence. Just when he thought he'd gotten the bone to levitate up properly, when he'd set it down to control another one half the size of the first, that other one moved too much. It then took him some more time to get the hang of just how much he had to move this second one; and then the third piece of bone he raised up, a stubble of a shoulder-bone, had yet another dynamic altogether.

After some time he felt he had stabilized his control over one of the bones: making it hover in place before him without spinning end over end, making it move side to side without allowing his concentration slip, making it move up and down and side to side at the same time, making it make such simple movements while being positioned vertically instead of horizontally, making it move in a circle… These control exercises proved endless.

Just one bone, he thought, staring at it with a mix of awe and frustration. How could just one bone prove such a challenge? He'd started to get hungry. He set aside the staff to withdraw the sweetroll, started eating it. As he savored it he looked about the forest, immersing himself in the panoply of green before him. The sun, well on its way up through the firmament, now cast its rays in a diagonal angle down through the trees.

[Wherein Art experiments to find the limits of the way's control over bone.]

For a moment he wondered what Warriv, Taril, Selena, and the Bedfords could be up to. Eating, most likely, judging from the height of the sun in the sky. He could go back to join them, but he'd devoured his snack, and he still felt he'd not grasped even the rudiments of necroturgy. No, he thought; he would finish what he'd come out to do.

He grasped his staff again, evoking the way of the puppeteer. He reached out for the bones he'd left upon the forest floor… and felt he couldn't sense them. That would not do, was his first thought; if he wanted to use this way properly, he'd have to know the limits of when he could control these bones. How ironic would be if he spent days learning to raise bone, then got speared through the chest because he'd forgotten he couldn't parry with bones he hadn't any control over?

He touched one with the skull headpiece of his staff, and felt he could sense that one, and only that one, now that he'd touched it with the staff. The matter hadn't been with his grasp of the way itself, since he could sense and animate the one bone he'd touched. No matter how much he strained, however, he couldn't sense the others.

So, the way only worked with bones he'd touched? Since his left hand gripped his staff, he stretched out his right arm to tap one of the bones, felt his connection to those bones restored as well. As if with his very touch served to bind him to these bones. That seemed a good bit more straightforward than what a puppeteer had to do, which involved having to wind some string around each of the limbs of the puppet he wanted to animate. Then he realized that he'd actually touched those other bones with his arm just then, not his staff, which meant that whatever control he needed to establish, he could conduct through mere touch, not through the staff. And he'd touched it with the side of his arm, the skin, not the bruised, bloody, cauterized excuse of his wrist stump, where he could make out his ulna and radius, ending at the stump alongside the rest of his flesh there; and that meant it hadn't required direct touching with bone.

He stepped on some of the other bones with the bottom of his boot. That didn't establish control. Yes, he had on boots, so perhaps that interfered; and yes, he didn't have any gloves on at the moment; but he had been wearing mail gloves during the fight earlier and he'd controlled bone just fine, and that meant the way of the puppeteer didn't work through his feet. After a few more taps against the bone with his other body parts, he concluded that the way only worked through his arms. Then he almost chuckled to himself at the thought of, well, yes, who ever heard of doing puppetry with one's head, shoulders, knees or toes?

And what if he had to cease the way of the puppeteer? He wondered, and subsequently he dropped his staff, letting it roll out of his hand, before picking it up again to restore the way in his mind. He reached out… sensed a fading connection with his bones. He animated one bone, lifted it into the air, and the connection to it restored to what it had been moments earlier. That told him, at the very least, that he could swap into another way if he had to, and then immediately swap back. That made sense, he thought, recalling his most recent battle, where the shaman, after having swapped to hurling fire bolts at him, had reverted back to reanimation and raised the fallen midget to intercept his thrust. It had done it so fast, he recalled; the shaman hadn't a spare moment to re-establish control over the lead lying at its feet just then.

Even as he considered this, he could feel his grasp over the remaining bones slipping, ceasing, and then that feeling of control had gone. When he tried to exert control over them once again, he couldn't lift those bones any more. Some kind of time limit? he thought. On the order of mere seconds. He could shift to another way, but not for long before he had to swap back to this one. Darn, he thought; he couldn't simply go around touching all the bone he came across to establish control over all of them, and expect that control to remaing there for him to use them days or weeks later.

He couldn't very well keep holding on to his staff all the time, he figured, as he started levitating a piece of bone before him. And if he had to re-establish control over them, he'd have to keep those pieces close to him, as well as the staff. It would be somewhat of a dead giveaway of what he could do, and not one that would do much to endear him to the locals, the carvaners, or the sisters. No, they wouldn't like it very much, not given how much Nathan and Penny had worried about the threat of the attackers' necroturgy, for him to be doing this as well. He would have to keep out of sight while he practiced…

[Wherein Selena asks to learn necroturgy but it turns out to be too hard for her.]

Twigs snapped underfoot to his right. He whirled around, his mind already prepared for fight or flight, when he saw Selena standing there in a petite yellow dress and sandals, her hair all nicely combed up and the manacles gone from her wrists. "Oh, it's you," he said, relaxing. "You almost scared the hell out of me."

"How did you do that?" -- "Do what?" -- "The bones!" -- "I don't know what you're talking about." -- "Yeah you do!"

Oh crap, thought Art. He had been practicing necroturgy and she'd seen him do it. What would she think of him? Something like this would be bound to scare a little girl like her shitless--

"Can you teach me? Please?" -- "Ah, nice dress by the way, where'd you get it?" -- "Penny got them from our next door neighbors." -- "Mmm, looks nice on you." -- "Really? You think it's pretty?" she asked, breaking helplessly into a smile. -- "Yes, I do. Suits you very well." -- "Hey don't change the topic!" -- Well, it was worth a try, thought Art. "Erm… also, I see you've got those manacles off. Must have been heavy, weren't they?" -- "I said, don't change the topic!" she looked at him reproachfully. -- "Ah, you got me there," admitted Art. "Look, can you just forget about…" He remembered how the last iteration of that kind of conversation had gotten, with her, and gave up.

"Fine," he said with a sigh. "I'll tell you what I've been up to, okay? I'll let you in on the secret, but it's a big secret. You have to promise that you'll never tell anybody else about what you're seeing. And that includes Warriv, and Taril, and Penny, and Nathan, and anyone else. Okay?" -- An excited nod. "I'll not tell no one." -- "You'll not tell anyone," said Art, looking askance at her. "Don't think you'll fool me with a promise like that." -- "I won't tell, okay?"

"All right," he said, then raised the staff before her. "You know what this is?" -- "It's the staff you had back when you found me." -- "Eh, close enough. It's a staff that allows doing some pretty cool things. You've already seen one of the things it can do." He twirled the staff to hold it crescent side up, evoked the way of the hearth and flame, and conjured a ball of flame within the arms of the crescent, before banishing it with a thought. "On the one hand, fire, symbolizing life, even as it consumes." He twirled it again to hold it skull-side-up, tapped it on a bone, and levitated it before him. "And on the other, reanimation, symbolizing death, even as the bones move as if alive." Before her entranced eyes he set about showing off the various moves he can make with it, making the bone float up and down, side to side and around. "I've been training with it all morning."

"My turn!" she said, reaching out for Art's staff, then pouted as he snatched it away. -- "You're far too young to be doing this yourself. What are you, seven?" -- "Seventeen!" -- "Yeah right, you big liar." -- "See, you admit I'm big!" -- "No, I called you a big… you know what, never mind." -- "It's mine! Mine I said," she said, as she tried again and again to reach out for his staff even as he held it out of her way and then horizontally up in the air so she couldn't reach it even as she started leaping to try to grasp hold of it. Pretty soon she started pounding at his chest.

"Stop hitting me," he said, backing away even as she redoubled her efforts. "Oh, fine, whatever," he said, and relented, lowering down his staff, which she eagerly took. He didn't let go just yet. "But you have to promise to be a good girl and never use it without getting my approval first, understand?" -- Nod. -- He let Selena snatch it away. "Hold it like this," he said, guiding her hand to the right position. "When you're holding it just right you'll feel--" He stopped when he saw her mouth gaping open. "I think you've got it," he said. "Now, you want to tap the top of the staff against one of those bones," he said, pointing her at the pile of bones on the ground. "Then just think about lifting them up the way you'd lift up a puppet."

She did as he'd instructed, but the bone showed only a halfhearted tug upward before collapsing. Again and again Selena tried, without much success, and started groaning in frustration. Art patted her on the back. "That's normal when you're new to it," he said with a chuckle, remembering how he'd struggled to get any movement out of it earlier. "It takes a lot of time and practice to get it to work, see."

He could tell that she'd lost must of her interest now that she'd seen it would take a bit of work to get it to do what he'd been doing with it, and that she'd looked upset. He felt a pang of sadness for her. He took the staff out of her hands, and squatted down. "Here, I've got something to show you." As the feeling of the way washed into his mind, he touched the staff on the bones on the ground, and with a thought set a pair of them, both of them the slender kind of bone and equally long, to stand erect on the ground before moving them about.

Now plopped down on the ground, Selena giggled. "Looks like they're little people walking around." -- "Yeah, they do," Art mused. He then brought the two bones together, both of them standing erect, then had them revolve about each other, at first quite apart, then closer and faster as he started to get the hang of it. -- "Now they're dancing…" When he brought the two bones completely together, "Now they're hugging and kissing!"

Art chuckled. "No they're not." -- "Yes they are!" -- "No they're not. Why would they be hugging and kissing?" -- "I don't know, maybe they were separated for too long and they finally got back together!" -- "Hah, that's one overactive imagination you've got there, to come up with a silly story like that." -- "It's not silly!" -- "Oh yes it is." -- "Then you tell me a story." -- "Oh? What kind?" -- "A love story!" she said, clapping her hands with a huge smile. -- Art looked her up and down. "Aren't you kind of young for that?" Then he pondered. "Actually, I have just the story in mind."

[Wherein Art treats Selena to a story.]

[Wherein Art gets caught doing necroturgy.]

When he'd finally managed to get it just right, someone stepped out of from the trees behind him, snapping his concentration. A female voice called out, "Drop the staff, now." He saw Selena look up, her eyes widened.

"Ah crap," Art said, then asked as he looked at Selena, "I'm such an idiot. If you could find me out here, how could I have thought others wouldn't as well?" Even has said this, his mind raced, trying to make sense of the situation. He'd completely dropped his guard, doing that little performance for the girl; hadn't thought to listen for anyone else's approach. From the fact that this woman was speaking to him, it didn't seem they had any particularly hostile intentions, and at any rate he had no armor on him, held naught but his staff with some bones on it. The accoster stood behind him, so he'd no idea how well armed and armored the woman was, or if she had any allies. And he had Selena to protect as well. One wrong move from him and her life could well come under threat. It didn't leave him much of an option.

"All right, dropping," he said, Art dropped the staff, then raised both arms and a hand up into the air before turning around. "Liene."

The sister had her spear pointed right at his jugular, a flaming hatred in her eyes. Behind her stood two of her fellow sisters whom he recognized from yesterday's burlesque: Orianna and Elly. Both of them had their arrows nocked to their bows, ready to draw at a moment's notice. All three stood covered in gambeson, wearing gloves and boots, and helms strapped over their heads.

Liene reached down and picked up Art's staff. "Necroturgy." She spat at the ground. "I remember you. Art, was it? Give me one good reason why I shouldn't strike you down where you stand."

Inwardly he cursed himself. He'd known the sisterhood, after their devastating loss of the monastery to invaders using such weapons, would not appreciate him using the same; and yet he'd done so anyway. He'd taken insufficient precautions, and now he'd gotten himself into a potentially very dangerous situation. All because he'd wanted to be as prepared as possible for any eventuality. The irony.

"Hey, you're not seriously going to kill me just for moving some bones around, are you? It's not like I've been robbing any graves," he joked, hoping to set the trio at ease. He turned to look at Selena, who seemed a mix of shocked and ready to cry. He needed not say another word to imply: Here is an innocent little girl who would see your terrible deed if you performed them here and now; surely you will not do that, if not for my sake, then at least for hers?

"One… good… reason." -- "I helped fight the invaders," Art sputtered. -- "Making a preposterous claim such as that? You shame yourself." -- Art put forth his right arm. "This is testament to that fact."

"Really?" retorted Liene. "And with what weapon had you fought? Was it by any chance the very same?" she pounded the staff's crescent end upon the forest floor. -- "No, I had a sword…" -- "Then where is it now?" -- "I lost it when I lost my hand, may heaven be my witness!"

"We shall see." Liene then looked from Orianna to Elly. "Ring a bell at all?" Art looked at the two sisters as well, his heart sinking. He'd fought the invaders, yes, but he'd only truly done that once he'd fled the monastery. By then, the sisters had either fled, or been captured, or been killed. And before then, he'd rushed to join the battle, but events had conspired to make it so he never really had the chance, not until the beast had appeared before him; and then he had fled. And, though he had the opportunity to earlier, he hadn't reported having done such to any of the sisters yesterday, when they'd be much more willing to entertain his claim than they were now.

"I don't recall seeing him fight by our side," said Orianna. -- "Me neither," said Elly. -- Liene humphed and turned back to Art with an air of finality. "Well." -- Art felt his heart had sunk into the pit of his stomach.

"But elder sister," added Elly, "You recall what it was like at the time. In the heat of the moment… I can't very well say who I remember seeing. Besides, he might not have been fighting alongside us, but who knows? Perhaps another sister can attest to his claim. Let us take him back to the village, and if no sister comes forth to testify for him, it wouldn't be too late to kill him then." But, it needed not saying, kill Art now and if it later turns out he had indeed fought alongside the others, then it would be too late to undo the act.

Liene turned back to Art, leering. "You should thank her, you know." -- "Yes, thank you Elly, thank--" -- Then he said no more, for Liene swung the staff, crashing it into the side of his head.

Chapter 13: Trial of a Necroturge

[Wherein Art finds himself on trial, and Liene makes the case for the prosecution.]

When Art next awoke it was to water splashed into his face. He struggled to sit up from his supine position, hacking and coughing and spitting out water even as more of it turned acrid as it went down his nostrils. He found his hands bound. He looked in bewilderment; to him, it seemed as if he'd teleported from the forest to the middle of the village square. About him stood several of the sisters, staring at him with contempt in their faces. He recognized several of their faces: Kashya the captain; her lieutenants Liene and Amplisa; Orianne and Elly and Sasha.

From the way they appraised him, he gathered they'd already been appraised of Liene's version of events. They'd gone this far, without letting him a chance to speak for himself? He'd hoped that after Elly had spoken in his defense, he'd be given an opportunity to explain himself, convince them that he meant no harm to their order, but now?

All about him a crowd had started to form. He found himself feeling some empathy for the peculiar position the roosters had been the day before, for he now found himself in much the same: Helpless and about to receive a terrible beating or worse, as the audience watched the unfolding spectacle. He managed to kneel down, feeling the pain of the hit to his head still hammering at him, alongside the returned, phantom pain of his lost hand, a feeling of dread rising in his chest and displacing his earlier disbelief.

Among the crowd stood a concerned Warriv and Taril, Nathan and Penny, who held an inconsolable Selena by the shoulders even as she cried into Penny's belly. Another sister, her back turned to Art, held her arms across, forbidding their approach. He could only watch as they shouted to him, asking after his health and offering words of encouragement to him.

He could tell that the rest of the spectators felt no such empathy for him. They pointed their fingers at him as they spoke of him to each other and laughed, as if oblivious to the fact that he could hear them. Though by now the crowd had formed a solid spectating line around him, none accosted the sisters to plead on his behalf.

Quite a few of the sisters had gathered as well; several dozen, by the looks of it. Maybe not all of them, as surely many of them remained at their posts, or had gone on scouting or patrol duties; but plenty enough. Surely when Liene had brought him in, they'd asked what had happened, and at least one of them had spoken out in his defense? Why then that none of them looked to him with any look of commiseration? He would settle for doubtful looks as well, yet he found none of those either. Had none of them attested on his behalf?

Kashya walked forward to stand atop a wooden raised platform and raised a hand to silence the audience. It seemed that from the previous day, they'd come to recognize her as a leader of the sisters, for the crowd fell silent at once. "Hear, hear! You see before you, a man who stands accused of several charges. Let us now hear what our fellow sister Liene has to say of this. Once she has said her fill, we shall hear what the defendant has to say, and then we shall pass judgment." She gestured for Liene to take her place atop the platform, then proceeded to a hefty wooden seat on the side, beside an elderly woman in robes of black and cloak of purple who likewise sat upon a grand seat. The very picture of the two of them sitting behind a grand mahogany table left no doubt in Art's mind that they would be the arbitrators of the trial.

"Ladies, gentlemen," said Liene, "But an hour ago I and my party had the distinct displeasure of having stumbled across this man out in the forest, using this," she said, raising up the now familiar torch-and-skull staff. "Know you what this is? You may be forgiven your ignorance, but to the northeast and now our east, are those who have used weapons such as this to work sorcery most debauched: The reanimation of the dead. By means such as this, the dead are deprived the eternal slumber which is their deathright; and forced to work as thralls of a necroturge, heavens forsake them. The redskins had used such as these to make a mockery of war, to slaughter my fellow sisters, many of whom have died that fateful night, and to then turn our dead against us. As had been promulgated by the holy church of the light, such travesty must not be allowed to reside anywhere upon this earth. Wherever we find them, there must they be eradicated, root and all. And as here today we have found this deplorable doing likewise, will not our righteous sisterhood see fit to cleanse him for his sins? Or will it allow this corruption to fester amongst our very own?"

Saying that she turned to all the sisters, who stood arrayed to either side of him, and especially to Kashya and the woman in purple and black. Sisters of the order who, almost universally, looked upon Art with disappointment or disgust. And they, almost as if on cue, began to demand in a cacophony of voices, for Art's swift punishment: "Traitor to the living!" -- "Blasted infidel!" -- "To damnation with you!" -- "I say we kill him, and kill him now!"

Kneeling alone and at the mercy of the sisterhood, Art found his heart divided, one half electrifying fear and suffocating dread, one half hot anger and cold hatred. Such betrayal! Had he not sought to help them fight the threat they faced, he would have fled the monastery. He would not have lost his hand, not suffered through all the hardship thereafter, free to travel the world as he pleased, without a care for the plight of the order. He'd not have slain untold dozens of them upon the cloister grounds, let these unthankfuls deal with the likes of the trio of those midget adepts alongside the necroturgic might of their shamans and the terrible power of the beast. For what had he done that? How unthankful this sisterhood of the Sightless Eye! What a fool he'd been! And how he would pay the price for his folly. What was the order's standard recompense for dabbling in necroturgy? Now multiply that manifold for the hate of such practitioners that the sisterhood must now surely feel, and he doubted he'd be able to escape from this in one piece.

Liene raised her hands, to silence the crowd. "And this is not all. We have spoken to many a fellow sister in the aftermath of that night, and put together a picture of what must have happened then. Had the enemy approached from beyond the gates, where archers a-plenty stood at the watch, they would surely have been repulsed. You have seen yesterday with what mystic arts we sisters may call upon; and my fellow sisters, surely you know best of all. But alas, no, the enemy had not approached from afar, but from below, suddenly appearing from the depths of our cellars, where we had no mind to post any guards. Now then: How could they have snuck into the very heart of our bastion?" She paused, turning to look the assembled rogues in the eyes, before continuing. "I speak of this now, because it is a foregone conclusion that this be no secret to the enemy now, that the catacombs within the cellars connect to a secret passageway out of the monastery, to be used only in the event of a siege the likes of which the monastery cannot repel. Yet that night it hosted the host of the enemy forces, which speaks to one thing and one thing only: A traitor in our midst."

Now, as those in the crowd gasped in surprise and cursed at Art with rising bloodlust, some of the sisters nodded knowingly, and others looked to others in gasps of sudden understanding. One after another they turned their glares upon the forlorn Art, who sank deeper into his misery with each glance sent his way. The sword of Damocles of impending doom hung over him, ready to fall. He shouted in defiance, "I was merely a caravaner on my way through the pass. How could I possibly have known of the sisterhood's best kept secrets?"

"A secret no longer," retorted Liene. "And you, a mere caravaner? No caravaner would have any business wielding the weapon of the enemy." She whirled back to Kashya, giving both her and the woman in black and purple a bow. "I have presented my case and now defer to your wisdom, order-mother, bow-mother." She then stepped aside.

[Wherein Art makes his defense.]

Kashya turned to Art. "Now then, Art Taverley, you have heard the charges arrayed against you. What defense have you for your actions?"

"I admit to having dabbled necroturgy," he said, to the jeers and gasps of the audience. "Not much, yet, but I admit to it regardless. But, I had only done so with the intent of using it to defend myself, to protect those whom I care about, to shield the people of this village and of our former caravan. Before that terrible night, I worked under Warriv, the caravan-master, wielding my sword in the capacity of caravan guard, for the desert to the east be most treacherous and abound with raiders."

"And I would vouch for him, as his employer of many years," said Warriv, raising a hand. -- "By which you would hardly be qualified," retorted Liene. "Who here doubts that after years of working closely with someone and becoming their close friend and confidant, that you would speak to their defense regardless of the truth?" -- "You… how dare you impugn--" -- "Enough, unless you wish to join your friend here," she interrupted, unslinging her bow. -- "You threaten me, yet I would stake my life on his innocence." -- "Then you throw away your life as a fool, for he shall repay your deeds by making your bones dance for him atop your grave."

"I too would attest to Art's good moral character," said Taril, before Liene interrupted yet again: -- "And is this all who will defend this man? People who have traveled with him on numerous occasions, whom we can hardly trust to not all be in on the same plots and plans? Since you have presented us with such a perfect opportunity, tell me, Taril, who else is in on your plot? Whom else shall we have to drag before the crowd, before this corruption is cleansed?" And with that Taril also fell silent. "Well?" Liene asked, scanning the crowd, daring any to speak up.

Warriv and Taril looked pointedly at the Bedfords, and so did Liene; but Nathan clutched Penny's hand tightly, and stared at the ground, and kept his mouth shut, and Penny stood by her husband's side, looking like she'd give the world to be spirited out of the center of attention. The crowd looked at them, at Liene and the other sisters who bore their anger on their faces and bow and arrow on their backs, the power of which had only been demonstrated the day before, then looked away.

With a look of triumph on her face, Liene turned back to Art. "Is that all to your little story?"

"You wish for my story? Then hear it," he said, his left hand clenched into a fist. He would hardly allow her to savor her victory just yet. "I had fought and bled for you, even though you in your ignorance admit it not. This hand I lost is testament, though you in your blindness see it not. But that loss I have suffered, and having lost my right hand in battle against the very enemy that you accuse me of abetting, I can hardly continue on in my occupation, and thus have I turned to the way of the puppeteer, which this staff provides. By its use I had already survived an attempt on my life by the same enemy; by it I have delivered Selena from certain death."

"He's my hero!" shouted Selena as she strove to reach Art's side, hampered only by the sister who obstructed her way. "You can't hurt him, he saved me!" Tears rolled down her cheeks as she cried. "Please don't hurt him!" And as the crowd turned their attention to the little girl, hers the very face of childish innocence, Art could see confusion cloud their faces, doubt erode their bloodlust, for few could doubt the honesty of such clearly heartfelt words of one so young. Oh, how glad Art was, that he'd saved her after all! Should the sisterhood decide to spare him, he swore to himself, he'd bestow all manner of favors upon her, watch after her, he would repay her trust in him a thousandfold…

Kashya slammed a fist down on the table before her. "Nathan, Penny, mind your ward, or I shall mind her for you." Then, as the two rushed to mollify the girl, she turned her attention to Art. "Do not presume that your saving someone out from the forest would absolve you of any crimes, necroturge, even if her claims are true, which no such testimonial would be admissible in any court in any realm. Now, we of the sisterhood are called rogue by many, among them the church of the light, but even so you must know your actions reach the height of folly given recent events. My bow-daughters are out for blood, and yours would do nicely. You understand the situation I am in, do you not?"

Art of course understood: Even as their captain, she was constrained in her actions, for a captain without the trust and support of her subordinates was an ineffective captain, and given the plight of the sisterhood, which could not afford any further setbacks and the villagers here and for dozens of miles around who had none other to rely on for protection, she had judged his life against the lives that might be lost if the sisterhood collapsed, and found his one life wanting.

[Wherein Sasha says she'd given false estimates of the rogues numbers earlier.]

"Well then," said Kashya as she turned to her fellow sisters. "Fellow sisters, my daughters of the bow, does anyone have anything they wish to add?"

Please, thought Art, let someone speak on his behalf, but he had already doubted that any of the rogues would come forth and save him. His fate rested in their hands, and here they would pass judgment over him, whether to kill him or else. Such helplessness. He despised the very idea.

One of the sisters stepped forward to the raised platform: "I do," Sasha said. She pointed her hand at Art. "When this knave first arrived at our village, he entered with that same staff which Liene has caught him using. Covered in blood from head to toe, he looked so much like the picture of the necroturges of the enemy, that I would shot him, mistaking him as such, but for the intercession by elder sister Isolde. At first I had thought little of his presentation, thinking he had only used its torch end. But the first question he asked me was of how many sisters survived the attack on the monastery. Instead of asking after someone in the caravan whom he knew, which any normal person would have, he asked how many of us survived and how many died. Let me ask everyone here, what business is it to one who is not a member of our order, what numbers we have?"

As she looked around, evoking the oppobrium of the sisters, Art cursed himself for having that question back then. This was it, he thought; done for, even as some among the audience began to mutter, "Spy! Spy!"

Kashya looked at Sasha and Art in alarm, then addressed her, "And you answered him?"

"Yes, but of course I lied." She turned to glare at Art, then stalked off the platform to rejoin her sisters.

Damn it, thought Art; why hadn't he thought that Sasha would be on her guard against him? What number had she given him earlier, the number who yet lived? A hundred and eighty nine? He wondered if that number would be higher or lower. Higher, to present a false impression of strength to an enemy and instill confidence in their allies? Or lower, to trick the enemy into underestimating them and launching a foolhardy assault?

She'd said that the original number stood at two hundred and sixty four; so it couldn't be a significant under-representation; he'd seen a number of the sisters' corpses that night, and just in the parts of the monastery he'd passed through. For that matter, had her quote of two hundred and sixty four been accurate in the first place? Or those numbers been accurate, and she were only claiming them to be a lie now, in case Art managed to escape or to guard against the possibility that someone else in the crowd here might be a spy for the enemy and had already received the number from Art?

Lies upon lies, he thought. He'd fought the sisters' mutual enemy, and he'd been repaid in this manner? Then again, half the war laid in deception. He shouldn't have been so trusting of the sisterhood. They certainly would not make the same mistake with him, no matter how misplaced that distrust, and how he would die… Would no one attest to the fact that he'd gone to help the rogues fight?

"Now then, does any other sister have anything to add?" asked Kashya. She, the other sisters, the crowd, and Art all looked around, and none spoke.

His eyes caught sight of one of the sisters in particular. Diane. He suddenly recognized her: the last sister to flee, she'd run past him when he'd entered the way of the monolith back in the hallway. She looked from sister to sister, from Liene to Art, as if torn and uncertain. Wtih a single look, Art knew that she'd remembered him standing against the beast. She remembered, yet now she said nothing. Was it Liene's damnable charisma, the potential threat of retaliation from the lieutenant, that was now keeping her quiet? He thought for a moment of calling her out on it; but would she stand up for him, or reject his claim in cowardice?

No, he thought; if he tried to force her hand she could very well claim not to have seen him there. It would be the easiest thing in the world to say under pressure, and once she said that she'd find it even harder to renege on those words. He would have to find a way to elicit her cooperation. Why hadn't she spoken? He remembered seeing Liene sending Diane out to compete in the burlesque; it seemed, then, that Liene was Diane's superior. She couldn't very well speak out while Liene stood there, commanding the proceedings. She couldn't speak out so long as all the testimony seemed stacked against him, for she'd hardly be able to save him, and stood to earn the resentment of her fellow sisters, to be seen as a traitor.

Therefore, in order to get her to speak, he had to maneuver the proceedings -- perhaps find a way to rile Liene up so much that she slipped and made a mistake, so that others would be less trusting of her accusations, perhaps find a way to demonstrate his claims enough that the other sisters would be shaken. Now all he needed, was an opening.

Then the moment passed, with all of the other sisters keeping quiet. Kashya turned to the elderly woman in the purple and black. "Order-mother, all sides of the case have been presented. Do you wish to retire for some time to make your decision?"

[Wherein Art exposes the fact that the sisters had been hiding the existence of the beast.]

The elderly one then asked, "Art, why do you yet refrain to speak of that which you saw in the depths?", taking Kashya and the other sisters by surprise, and they turned as one to stare at Art with hard faces, even as the crowd asked in whispers to each other as to about what had been in the depths.

She meant to test him, thought Art, to have him name and describe the beast, whom only those who had confronted would know of. She wanted him to name it for what it is. He'd not wanted to speak on it since the order had clearly avoided mentioning it in front of these villagers; he'd concluded that they wanted to keep it a secret from them, to avoid any difficulty that might arise from the caravaners or villagers knowing of its existence. Who knew whether it could result in the caravaners and villagers fleeing in panic, causing a general rout and loss of morale throughout the sisterhood, or allying with the enemy out of fear and then subverting the order?

Certainly the order-mother -- the abbess -- knew this, but then, why was she asking him to speak on it now, in front of all this crowd? Did she so doubt his ability to answer, that she'd risk him divulging the truth? What did she have planned if he did? Or did she herself not know of the beast? Or had she wanted the beast's existence revealed, and she and the captain weren't seeing eye to eye? He looked from the abbess to the captain, to see only stoic expressions on both their faces.

Whatever the reason he hadn't spoken up, it didn't matter now, thought Art. Most of these sisters wanted him dead, and if he held his peace now, he would be. He nodded to the abbess with a smile, thankful for the opening she had presented him. "Why indeed, hadn't I mentioned what I saw in the depths?" he asked the crowd. "Does anyone wish to hazard a guess? Have any of the sisters mentioned it to you yet? Why haven't they?"

"What nonsense you speak," accused Liene.

"What nonsense indeed! What secret do they wish to keep, for them to stridently avoid mentioning the towering demon, the size of twenty men, with a skin of thick red plates, a most wickedly barbed tail, arms and feet thicker than a man, claws sharper and crueler than claymores, two curved horns atop its head, two lines of jagged teeth?" He could see, even as he spoke this, the facade of the sisters breaking. For him to describe the creature in such detail, that must have convinced them that he'd indeed been there.

He whipped around to look at Liene, daring her to contest his claim. "Is it nonsense I speak, O sister? Would the rest of your sisterhood agree?"

When Liene did not immediately contest his claim, the crowd grew agitated, asking, "Demons? Here?" -- "Is this true?" -- "No way, it can't be…" -- "The sisters wouldn't keep such a thing secret from us, could they?" Art turned to see Nathan and Penny clutching each other's hands tightly and looking to Warriv and Taril for reassurance, but finding none. He saw others among the crowd with scandalized looks on their faces. He saw the sisters looking apprehensively at each other, then set their eyes downcast, as if they could not bear to look the villagers in the eye to admit the truth to them.

Father Beltrand stepped forward to face Kashya and the sisters standing by her side, his eyes baggy and wearied. "Please, sisters of the Sightless Eye. This is a matter of great consequence to us. If the man speaks true, we have every right to know." -- Several of the sisters nodded. -- "This beast, if it be as powerful as you say… What are your plans for dealing with it? Shall we all have to abandon our homes, and throw ourselves upon the mercy of the residents of Stonebridge?"

"No," said Amplisa. "We have sent out patrols continuously, checking all the major roads and patrolling the surrounding forests, as well as the approach to the monastery. If the beast ventures from its lair, our scouts will know. For now we only expect attacks from the other, lesser creatures, which we fear not. We shall hold at this position, and ensure that every one of you remains safe."

"Why?" the pastor muttered, softly, looking stricken and haggard. "Why hadn't you told us of this before?

Art continued, "Why, sisters, had you not told the villagers of the beast's existence? Did you imagine that by concealing it, you would make it easier to break the news in the future? Or did sit and hope that the beast would kill itself and cease to be a problem for you to face? Or did you not intend to keep this a secret, but thought others would break the news, while you stuck your heads in the sand? Did you suppose it would be easier to break the news when only half the villagers remained, once the beast had slaughtered the other half? Because had no one spoken up, and told those here of what we truly face, you know there would be a reckoning." He turned to face the villagers and caravaners, who now beheld him with grimaces of shock. "You think the sisterhood protects you from small fry like those midgets. You have no idea what it is they face. The moment the beast shows up, each and every one of you will lose a loved one or two, mark my words."

"Shut up, you bastard," screamed Sasha, tears in her eyes, her hands clenched into fists by her sides. "You don't know what it was like to see your sisters -- your closest friends and only family -- people you loved and trusted, who would watch out for you, and whom you had a duty to protect -- being slaughtered by that monster, while you stood there, knowing that there was nothing you could do to stop it. You don't know how I felt my heart torn, fleeing and abandoning closest to me, as they fell screaming for help. None of us could bear to speak of it, for we all lost someone close, to its claws. You say you fought alongside us, but anyone who had would know better than to speak of it! You don't know a thing!"

"Oh I don't, do I? What creature do you think took my right hand?" Art shouted right back, fury in his voice. "You and what remains of your sisterhood only had a chance to flee and to breathe today, because I risked my life leading the beast on a wild goose chase all through the monastery. Had I not done so, it would have caught up to you, and the caravaners under your protection. Think yourselves able to take it on, in the middle of the night?"

At this revelation the sisters looked startled and somber indeed.

[Where Art, and then Diane, proclaim his having been at the battlefield.]

"You think I suffered any less than you have? The difference between you and I, is that I don't let the difficulty of a topic keep me from broaching what needs to be said. And don't you dare insinuate that I hadn't done my share of the fighting," he added, his vision filled with the memories of his seemingly interminable battle against the midgets and their shamans, the battlefield lit only by the light of torches, the continuous clanging of his sword and shield, his holding two weapons -- how it felt so long ago! -- against enemies approaching from all sides, the dance of death between him and the three adepts.

"I saw the aftermath of the battle, after the rest of you had fled. How long had you stood and fought? How many had each of you killed, Liene, Sasha, how many? Two, four? When I stood at the monastery gates to hold off those who would pursue Selena, I held them off in all their numbers, slaughtered them by the dozens. By myself I held the enemy at the gates, until the padding of my gambeson became immolated by flames. By myself I slaughtered my way through the scores of midgets, broke their defense of their shamans, butchered their shamans in turn, dropped their reanimated minions. You speak of suffering, Sasha? I would trade my suffering for yours in a heartbeat."

"How convenient," said Liene. "Saying that you were the last to leave the monastery, when no sister remained to bear witness. Saying that this battle took place in the monastery grounds, where no sister in her right mind would go to confirm the corpses yet remain. Convenient that it happened some nights ago, so that even if we find no corpses there you could say the invaders had just cleaned up. Convenient to the point of caricature. Who knows whether it is as you say, or whether you yet conspire with our enemy, even as you lie through your teeth, hoping to extract yourself from your predicament?" Liene turned to the two seated. "Kashya, Akara, surely you would not allow this travesty to pass!"

"Liene, Liene, just what would it take to convince you that I have not thrown my lot in with the midgets and their shamans? How's this then: Would one who had done so, explain to you that woad paint indicates the bearer as one who has proven their ability to stand resolute in the face of great danger, who are entrusted with the guarding of their shamans, and will do so upon a cry of 'Bishibosh'?" -- "We know this already." -- "Would one who had done so, also explain to you that black paint indicates the bearer as one who knows the ways of the albatross and by which they can leap over walls three stories tall; and the dancing feather, by which they can sense your every movement right before your strike?" -- "Surely you are attempting to scare us into surrendering to the enemy."

Art groaned in exasperation. How could he get them to understand that he'd not sided with the enemy? It seemed that no matter what he said, nothing seemed to get through their thick skulls. This was it, he thought. He'd run out of things to say.

Kashya and Akara looked to each other in silence. The sisters looked at them in unsure silence as well. Diane looked as if a cat had caught her tongue. Then, in a soft, meek voice, she said, "I, uh, am willing to testify on his behalf." She shrank back from the sudden redirecting of everyone's attention upon her, cheeks flushed with anxiety and bashfulness.

"Say that again?" said Liene, almost as a challenge, as she leered at Diane. -- "Um, I only meant to say…" -- "Younger sister, if he had somehow blackmailed you into saying what you say now, know that he is within our power, and with a single word from our order-mother, we can end him. He has no power now, so do not be afraid of him." -- "Erm…"

"Daughter Liene," Akara said curtly with a glare in her direction. "Can you not see? The only one terrifying everyone here is you." -- "But I only--" -- "One more word out of you, daughter, one word, and I will have you put in the pillory till dusk." Upon which she could only nod in silence, then stepped back. "Now dear," Akara said to Diane, her voice holding much warmth, "If you are feeling up to it, I would like to hear what you wanted to say."

"Thank you, order-mother… I didn't have all that much to say, just that I had indeed seen this man at the end. When all seemed lost, and all my sisters who still lived had fled the fight, and I among the last to flee, I saw him standing there, sword and shield in hand, ready to engage the beast with a look of pure determination that I had never seen. I… I might be mistaken and it might not have been him… I am much ashamed, order-mother. I'd only seen him for a second before I fled straight past him, leaving him to this fate. I gave no consideration to standing by his side then, to lend my strength to his. I could think only of getting out of there. I only knew that however strong he might be, he stood no chance before so terrible a monster, and… I am so ashamed by this, but I had thought that his certain death would at least buy me time to escape." Tears had poured down her eyes, and she wiped them away with the backs of her arms before turning away, sobbing.

She finally spoke out, thought Art. Took her long enough, making him work so hard to defend himself before she intervened. But she had come through for him after all, and the very thought filled him with relief. Whatever he said, that was just the words of a condemned man; but Diane, as a fellow sister of the order? If his words were lead and chaff, hers were gold and the diamond in the rough.

"Do not blame yourself, younger sister," consoled Amplisa as she hugged Diane. "You stayed the longest of us all. In my books, that makes you the bravest." She then patted her on the back as Diane then burst into a wail upon her shoulder. "Now, now, you can't keep this up, or you'll make our audience feel bad."

"Does anyone else have anything they wish to say?" asked Kashya, and when none did, she turned to the abbess. "Shall we adjourn, order-mother?" -- "I believe I have said all I need to say in this matter. Since this man is not one of us, I will leave the passing of the verdict to you." Then she set her arms by her sides, closed her eyes, and began to meditate.

"Well then," said Kashya, "In that case I believe we can proceed forthwith. Art Taverley, understand why I am sentencing you. By engaging in necroturgy, not only have you shown contempt of the teachings of the church of light, you have also shown wanton disregard for the propriety due to our order. Even though you did so away from the village, our patrols had still come across you, and in so doing you have caused us all great distress, and made it so that many of our fellow sisters feel they cannot bear for you to remain in our presence.

"Were I not to sentence you for this, others may be encouraged to follow suit, and that we cannot allow, for the sake of our sisterhood. This village is currently under the protection of the Order of the Sightless Eye. Everyone here would do well not to forget it, for the sisterhood shall surely not forget to hold violators to account.

"Count yourself lucky, that you have friends beside you who would testify on your behalf. That you had done a good deed in saving Selena and bringing her here safety, so as to earn her trust and support. That you had been vindicated by the testimony of our fellow sister Diane. Therefore your sentence is as follows."

His blood pounding through his veins, Art braced himself for her next words, which would decide his fate, hoping against hope that she wouldn't exact a terrible penalty, knowing full well that if she did, none here would speak out against her, here in a village now completely under the sisterhood's control.

"The heathen staff we have confiscated shall be snapped. Furthermore, you shall be stripped and placed in the pillory for a day and a night. Finally, you shall be banished from this village, as well as any other place where our order has established itself, indefinitely. The court is concluded."

Chapter 14: To Stand a Day and Night

[Wherein Art is put in the pillory, and his friends commiserate with him while he explains why Kashya made the right decision.]

As they snapped his bone-and-torch staff, Art could only think of how he'd narrowly escaped death. As they put his neck upon the main hole of the pillory, his left wrist in the smaller hole to its left and locked the top of the pillory down, and bound his right arm behind his back with rope, handling him with quite a bit more roughness than necessary and giving him a number of bruises all over, he could think only of relief that Kashya hadn't seen fit to apply any of the more severe penalties on him. Death, torture, amputation, permanent bodily injury -- what he'd feared more than anything -- he had been spared from; and for now that was enough. All else he could recover from.

But even as he found himself bound to the pillory, he felt his relief transforming into outrage. Who did the sisterhood think they were, to sentence him to such? They were but outcasts of the monastery, they only had power here because they had fled here as one, and none in the village dared to challenge them; how soon they forgot their status as exiles, to think themselves qualified to adjudicate others? And with a verdict of such length! Almost an entire day and night in the pillory, when the standard punishment lasted no more than two, maybe four hours?

Damn that Liene, he thought. Where he felt indifferent to most of the other sisters, he hated her. He wouldn't have been in this mess had she not took it upon herself to arrest him. She had injured him, and he could feel his heart demanding his revenge, even as he knew he would not have it.

Kashya and Akara had strode away from the proceedings, several of the sisters alongside them. Now he found himself trapped in the forced bent-over position, helpless and surrounded by a crowd full of hostile faces. Liene approached, several of the other sisters following right after. She stared him in the face with a look of sheer anger, and yanked him up by his hair before knocking his head down. Confined as he was in the pillory, he could feel new bruises at his nape and on his chin. "You," she practically shouted, "Scum. Of. The. Earth," she said, punching his face with one hand and then another. By that last punch her fist came away covered with blood; he was bleeding from his nose, he could barely open his left eye properly, and his face ached. "Don't think you can get away with it this easily," she said as she then kicked him in the waist, causing him to grunt in pain. She spat at his face. "Say your prayers of thanks, bastard."

Warriv and Taril rushed up to get between her and the sisters flanking her, and Art. "Isn't that enough, Liene? He's been punished; you had what you wanted," said Warriv, his arms spread out wide to prevent her getting past him. -- "You dare stand in my way?" Liene said, glaring at him with her right hand clenched around her spear. -- "Your captain has already passed judgment. What would she think if she saw you trying to change the punishment that she'd already declared?" -- "For the likes of him? I doubt she'd care, and she's left already."

"Speak of the devil," Taril said, looking behind Liene. With a look of shock Liene whipped around to check behind her. "Ha, made you look," said Taril. Her face a snarl, Liene turned around and stuck her head mere inches from Taril. A lesser man would have taken a step back, but Taril then noted, "Any closer and you'd have your first kiss. Not that I'm complaining. You are a damsel, are you not, sister?" He chuckled as Liene backed away with a look of revulsion and embarassment.

"A knave such as him doesn't deserve another moment of our time," Liene said, before turning around and marching off, with Orianna and Elly following right after, and the expectant crowd dissipated, muttering amongst themselves.

Warriv turned to Art, then with a kerchief wiped the spittle off Art's face. "She shouldn't bother you any more, after the number Taril pulled on her. Don't let it get to you. One day will pass soon enough. Tomorrow morning we'll talk to Kashya, talk some sense into her, with any luck she'll allow you to stay in the village. If not, well tomorrow the caravaners are probably all going to be headed west, no fortune to be made staying here any longer without any wares to sell, so don't you mind the exile."

"Thanks Warriv, Taril, I honestly don't know how I'd make it without your help." Art then turned to Nathan, Penny, and Selena, who only approached after the sisters had left. "Nathan, Penny… Sorry for disappointing you like this. I really only meant to do good by you, when I went into the forest this morning."

"Don't you worry," said Nathan, -- "We know your heart is in the right place." -- "We'll get you supper," -- "So don't you fret about a thing," -- "We'll take good care of Selena, won't you dear?" -- "Yes, husband love, she's just the most adorable thing, we'll feed her, and bathe her, and tuck her into bed tonight," said Penny, her hands holding Selena's. -- "Everything will be all right."

"I still can't believe the sisterhood would overreact to such a minor matter," said Warriv. -- "No, I understand why they did it. Not saying that I deserved it, but I can see where they're coming from." -- "Nothing can excuse this treatment. I absolutely have to go petition Kashya about this."

"Don't be rash, Warriv, that would accomplish nothing. The captain doesn't have the option to do much differently." -- "I see tons of options. For one thing, she could have said not to banish you." -- "And what, earn the ire of her fellow sisters? She is their captain, and relies on the trust of her subordinates. She has to lead them in battle, too, and the sisterhood is at war. What if the redskins attack this place and they lose because Liene, Sasha, and the others questioned her judgment? Many people would die. So that doesn't happen, my suffering is but a minor sacrifice."

Warriv stared at him with a look of pity. "I can't believe you'd actually sympathize with the sisterhood on this."

Art smiled. "Hey, someone has to. And if it's not them, then it has to be me. Plus, it makes me feel a bit better about this. Or what am I going to do, nurse my anger for a day and a night, then go and do something stupid? At least this way, I can be at peace about it. It's not the only reason, either. She has to show the villagers who's in charge, since they'll be residing here for some time and will have to deal with the villagers. Best way to do that is by punishing someone whom almost everyone believes deserves it. Someone who isn't a villager, because the villagers may take offense at the sisterhood taking action against one of their own so soon after having just arrived."

"That doesn't explain why they'd punish a caravaner," said Warriv. "We're just as upset with this as the villagers would have been, had it been one of them."

"Ah, but the caravaners, for the most part, haven't known each other for their whole lives. Most just got together for the expedition, they'd only expected to see each other for a few months before everyone goes their separate ways. Some, like Johann and Tyler, we only met a few days ago. Besides, didn't you just say that most of the caravaners expect to leave tomorrow? Once we've left, there's just the villagers that the sisters have to worry about. No one offended, who can return to the village to do anything about it at any rate."

Selena came forward, her face a mess of tears. "I'm so sorry, Art, so sorry," she managed, between sobs and gasps. "When we saw you were gone I said I'd go looking for you. I went everywhere in the village but couldn't find you and I started crying and when the sisters asked me what's wrong I told them about how I couldn't find you anywhere in the village, and they said they'd help look for you and… and if I hadn't done that, they wouldn't have gone looking, they wouldn't have found us," she said, and burst into still more tears.

"Selena, don't blame yourself," said Penny, rushing to embrace her. "You did the right thing, asking the sisters for help. No one would have expected things to turn out like this, and besides, the sisters have been sending patrols around the village for days. They may have stumbled across you two regardless of what you'd have done. There now, good girls don't cry," she said, wiping the tears off the little girl's cheeks. Selena then seemed to put in a might effort to swallow her sobs and wipe the tears out of her eyes. "That's a good girl."

"Warriv and I'll keep watch, scare off any troublemakers," said Taril. -- "Oh don't be foolish," said Art. "I can't possibly trouble you with that. A day and a night is a very long time. You'll regret it before an hour's up." -- "Actually, I'm regretting it already," replied Taril, nonchalant. "Well then, we'd best go back to the house before we get the splash from splattering egg yolks." -- "Watch it Taril, you're going to give the village kids some very nasty ideas," said Art, grinning.

[Wherein Art, in the pillory, starts to hate the sisterhood, wants to abandon them, but can't let any harm come to Selena.]

The group bid their leave, leaving Art alone in the village square. With nothing to occupy his mind, he felt the pain of his severed wrist, the burning sensation still there, still making it tender, bringing tears to his eyes as the thought of it reminded him of what he'd lost. The other wounds, cuts from blows from the midget warriors that had managed to cut through the layers of his gambeson. The bruises all over him from his rough manhandling at the hands of the sisterhood. His nape and back felt stiff and sore from being forced into a hunched over position for so long without any respite. The bottom of his feet, sore from the pressure of standing all the time. His wrist and neck, chafed. His arm muscles, sore from keeping in such awkward a position for so long. Pain after pain after pain after pain, some of them falling out of his consciousness as other pains replaced them, before returning; none of it ever going away.

He'd not wanted to hold a grudge against the sisterhood, after all that his rational mind had told him. Yet, pain had its peculiar way of inculating hatred, and so he found himself hating. Loathing the world, with all its cruelty. Detesting the sisterhood, for having heaped misery upon him. Hating himself, for being so weak, detesting himself for his foolishness.

Why had he even bothered to help them? Oh, he'd been such a fool, he thought; and how he'd gotten his due. He'd not really wanted the recognition from the sisterhood for his deeds; had his fight at the monastery never came to light, had the sisters never heard of how his leading the beast around bought them the time to escape, he wouldn't have minded. He'd not expected all this to be brought up the way it had: as a desperate defense at his trial, rather than as an accomplishment to hold in pride.

What had the sisters done to earn his loyalty? Fight the invaders to buy time for the caravaners to escape? Or just to keep their monastery from falling into enemy hands? It was their only home, after all, and their base of operations. Had he felt sympathy for them only because he'd seen how they'd suffered, how they'd lost their allies? Had he wanted to help them only because they and the caravaners shared a common enemy? Had he went to help them in the first place because of, dare he admit it, naive, romantic notions of chivalry? He was drawing a blank.

The sisters… Fuck Liene. Fuck Sasha. Fuck Kashya, too, for that matter. Diane… She'd come through for him at the end, but only after he'd put in all the effort to maneuvering her into the position where she could do so without risking her skin. Other than that, he barely knew her. And he'd not really gotten to know any of the others. At this point, he felt closer to Gheed than to them. The sly merchant at least knew of Art's background at the Flying Feather School. He at least hadn't been complicit in the latest turn of events.

That's it, he thought; when he got out, he was going to leave this damnable place, leave this deplorable excuse of an order to its fate. Those sisters wanted him gone? Fine by him, then. When the invaders, the redskins or the beast, inevitably came for them, and slaughtered them, well, he'd probably rejoice at that, for it would at least mean the sisterhood got what it deserved. And the rest of the villagers, too, for that matter, seeing as how none of them had stepped forward to defend him at his trial. By then, he, and Warriv, and Taril, and the rest of the caravaners would be long gone, and they'd be safe.

Selena, he thought. This place would be the best for her. Here she had a doting couple who'd take care of her, though he didn't know for how long they'd put up with her. He couldn't expect that they, whom he had hardly known for two days, would accept such an imposition on their lives as to take care of someone so young. But if they didn't… Elsewhere she'd have no one save Art, who couldn't well support the both of them. Warriv might agree to provide for Art's upkeep on his travels; they were long time friends, after all. But Selena, who was she to Warriv? Just another person Art had met. He might not be so happy to have to keep her around and feed and clothe her as well. No, the only palatable option here was for Selena to stay with the Bedfords. And if he had to beg for them to take her in, well, he resolved, for her, he would beg. He could do that much, for the sake of her future.

He would be leaving her in good hands, then. She'd be staying here, he'd leave, he'd never see her again… The thought of it brought tears unbidden to his eyes. No, that wasn't all; if he just left and never returned, and the Bedfords just continued on living here, then when the invaders came and destroyed the sisterhood, she'd be killed too. And he found that he cared for her, wanted to protect that innocence, that bundle of joy. She had a place in his heart that none of the others -- not even Warriv and Taril -- had. He couldn't let anyone hurt her. But with him exiled and with only one arm… He couldn't do even that much.

What to do? he pondered, for a very long while.

At first he'd felt acutely aware of the eyes of the villagers and caravaners as they passed on by, the accusatory glares of the sisters as they changed their patrol shifts. He'd rather be in the pillory somewhere far from prying eyes, or where no one he knew could see him brought so low. He couldn't bear for them to see him this way, couldn't bear the shame.

But after minutes, then hours, passed, with countless people walking past him, some with pity in their eyes, others with suppressed anger, and other still passing by with complete apathy, he'd come to terms with it. He figured everyone who would see him this way already had. Soon enough, he began to long for something to do, someone to talk to, to break this spell of monotony for him. Even getting some stones thrown at him would be a nice change of pace. This intense boredom was slowly but surely killing him from the inside.

When the sun had drifted across the sky and halfway descended to the horizon with its golden light, some of the village children showed up, looking at him inquisitively, but they wouldn't touch him, and the promised splattering by eggs never happened. Instead one of the boys flicked a finger at his nose, to which Art feigned "Achoo". Several of the girls giggled and the boy did it again with a grin, prompting Art to feign it again. "What, isn't anyone going to say bless you? No? Fine; bless me."

"Heh, you're funny. I'd not seen you before. Who are you?" asked one of the boys. -- "He must be one of the travelers," replied a girl. -- "You shouldn't talk to him," said another. "He's a criminal. You know what a criminal is?" -- "Damn right I know what a criminal is, you buffoon!" -- "Why don't we let him tell us?" -- "Shh… What's wrong with you? Don't bother him." -- "Why? It's not like he's got anything better to do."

Nothing better to do. That was it, he thought; he had nothing better to do, not with the monastery pass closed to caravans, not with his loss of his main hand, not with his loss of any desire to help the sisters. He felt lost, adrift. What would he make with his life, once the morning arose and he walked away from the village? He had nowhere to go. And the tears upon his cheeks had nowhere to go but down.

[Wherein Selena feeds Art.]

Who knew a single day could feel so long? The wait felt interminable, and he suspected that the pain he bore doubled the length of the day. It certainly felt that way. Had he been blindfolded, he could have sworn that he'd been in the pillory for a day and a night now, and yet the sun had only barely set. Aching in pain, throat parched, beyond starving, helpless in his hatred, feeling miserable and lost….

Selena suddenly slipped into view, smiling, her golden hair done into twin tails, and changed into a new dress, frilly and green. "Hey Art, miss me?" She held a pewter bowl and spoon in her hands. "Ta-da!" she said, thrusting out the bowl to show him the vegetable soup within, lentils and beans and onion and tomato, with hardly any spice or meat. The heavenly aroma of it wafted up to him, and immediately his stomach began its desperate growling for his attention. "You… like this soup, right? Here." She lifted the spoon up to his lips and her partook.

"I do proclaim this soup the most delicious food in the world," said Art, a bit of the soup slipping down his chin. "When did you befriend an angel, to get ambrosia like this?" -- "Ch! Heaven? Penny made this," -- "Well please tell Penny that her food is the best, for it is absolutely wonderful. And while you're at it, can you also tell Nathan that he's lucky to have picked such a skilled chef for a wife." -- "Sure, I'll tell them that," she said as she fed him another spoonful. -- "Oh, and can you also tell Selena that Art wants to thank her for feeding me." -- "Haha, I got that," she said as she looked at him askance but breaking into another smile.

All too soon Selena finished feeding him the soup. "Well, that's all," she said. -- "And I loved every spoonful of it. Including the part that fell down my chin," he said, staring at the dribbles that had formed a little pool on the ground. "That tasted wonderful too." -- "What, you didn't even get to eat that!" -- "Ah, but in my mind I did. Thanks for feeding me. I think I owe you both a lunch and a supper, now." -- Selena looked at him with a troubled frown. "Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. Penny wanted me to help with chores. She's been teaching me how to sew," she said with a big grin. "She says I've done enough sewing for one day and that I can go do whatever I want. But since you can't… Want me to stay with you?" -- "Well I have to admit, it hasn't been all that exciting being stuck in here. You sure you want to?" -- She nodded gaily. "Of course."

She sat down, propping her back against one of the posts of the pillory. For a few moments they kept in silence. Then she turned herself around to face him. "Okay, just sitting here is boring. I don't know how you manage it." -- Art made a helpless gesture with his hand. "Does it look like I have much of a choice?" -- "Ooh!" she said, clapping her hands excitedly. "Tell me a story!" -- "Really? Well, once there was a man who told a girl a story, and got put in a pillory for telling it. Then the girl asks the man to tell a story, and he says, once there was a man who told a girl a story," -- "Stop stop stop!" -- "But I'm not done yet. He told the girl a story about it, and got put in a pillory for telling it. Then the girl asks," -- "What do you mean you aren't done yet? Aren't you just repeating yourself now?" -- "Really, I'm not done. See, then the girl asks the man, aren't you just repeating yourself? And he says, nope, because this time I have a visitor."

The visitor, Diane, walked up to Art. -- "Oh," said Selena.

[Wherein Diane apologizes to Art and they begin chatting.]

"Um, hi," she said, looking fully embarassed. "Are… are you busy?" -- Art waved with his hand. "Seeing as I can't do very much right now?" -- "Ah, I mean, I know it's a bit late now…" -- "Oh don't worry about that, seems I'll be up very late tonight."

She looked away for a few seconds, looking utterly embarassed, as she wrung her hands. Then she took a deep breath and turned back to face him. "So… I just wanted to apologize. For earlier… For not having spoken up earlier, I mean." She looked at him, as if seeking permission to continue, and when Art kept quiet, she stared at the ground as she continued. "I thought I recognized who you were right away. But, I thought, given what elder sister Liene was saying, that it couldn't have been you. I couldn't be sure… And when none of the other sisters spoke up, I… I just froze. I wanted to speak up, but I just couldn't say anything, it was like my mind was telling me to just blend into the surroundings, don't speak up, don't get noticed. You know? I wanted to run away, but the fear held me in place too. I… I felt so utterly trapped. And then… then I thought I must be mistaken about you, yes, yes that's right, it couldn't, had I thought up all these reasons why you weren't you… But in the end all of that was just me trying to convince myself. Telling myself why it was okay for the sisters to be rid of you, put you to death or whatever they would do. And I couldn't… I couldn't speak out. I just couldn't!" She looked away, stared at the ground by her side, and stared fixated at the ground as she continued. "If you hadn't said what you had, making me realize that it was indeed you, and saying what you did… If you hadn't said that, I wouldn't have dared to speak up. So, I just wanted to say," she said as tears fell down her cheeks, "I'm sorry for not having spoken up earlier. I'm so, so sorry…" She gave a soft chuckle. "There. I finally managed to tell you. I'm… sorry I took so long to tell you. I--"

"Hey, why so serious?" asked Art, feeling bad for her. He put on a smile. "After all, the sentence wasn't anything too terrible. Could have been an awful lot worse. Like that uncommon inconvenience people call death. And you did speak up, at the end."

"But… but only because you had said so much, and when it was almost over! I'm sorry, I should have been the first to speak up, should have done it right away, should have interrupted Liene and told her in front of everyone that she was wrong about you," she said, her hands balled up into fists at her sides. "But I just couldn't…"

"And I should have stood my ground against the beast. After all it had done, I should have fought and slew it, or died trying." He looked up at a surprised Diane. "What, you think I'm some kind of hero, and fought against the likes of that? No, I fled right away. Right after you. Want to know a secret? Everyone feels fear, even the best of us. And because of it, we -- I -- have done some things that I feel very much ashamed of."

A memory, of all the people in the cellar dungeons who he'd abandoned to their fates, knowing just how awful theirs were. Compared to that, his current punishment was but a slap in the behind. They'd have no escape from a much crueler suffering, a suffering he could have prevented, had he dared risk being discovered while still within the monastery.

"Still, I shouldn't have kept quiet as I had. I had been trained to fight as a warrior of the order, trained to not shy from such hardship. Now I've both fled from the invaders and fled from my duty to speak out against injustice and untruth… What kind of warrior am I? What good am I to the sisterhood like this?" -- "You needn't be so hard on yourself. Everyone hits rough patches at times." -- "But none of my sisters have this problem, it's just me. I'm just not as good as they are, at everything." -- "You're selling yourself short." -- "No, I'm just being honest here. I know I have shortcomings compared to my sisters. I can't aim as well as them, or shoot as far, I take longer to learn the ways…" -- "Yet you, and only you, spoke in my defense, when all others kept quiet." -- "They would have too, if they were there and saw you. And if they had, I'm sure they wouldn't have waited so long to speak up. They wouldn't be so afraid of elder sister Liene like I am… I try and I try to stand strong, but I just can't do it… All the others are so much stronger than I am, and I don't know what to do." She wiped tears from her eyes.

Art mused for a moment. "You want to be strong? Then you must make a promise to yourself. Promise that the next time you face a most difficult decision, you will not flinch away from it. That you would accept the role you have to play. If you wish to repay me, that is all I ask."

She shot him a wistful smile. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said so much. I don't know what's come over me… You know, I spent the last few hours debating whether I should even have approached you. I'd been so ashamed of myself, so afraid of what you'd say to me, that I hadn't the guts to speak to you till now."

"So what made you put aside your fear?"

"Easy. I realized that you were in the pillory. The way you are now, what could you do? Chew me out for what I did? If you had, I'd have just given you a slap across the face and walked away, and you wouldn't be able to do anything about it. Now that I've spoken to you, I feel a lot better now. A burden off my chest. And you turned out a lot nicer than I expected. You… aren't just feigning it, right?"

Art smiled and tapped the pillory with his fingers. "Why don't you let me out and find out?"

"Mmm, must have forgotten my keys somewhere. Oh that's right, Kashya probably ate them. And she'll bite my fingers off too if I tried to finger them off her."

"Mmm, very voracious appetite, that one, she chewed me up too," replied Art, and they burst out laughing. Then, more seriously: "Did Liene scream your ear off after I left? She looked quite the storm when she departed."

"Elder sister Liene just got carried away, is all." -- "I'd hate to see what she's like when she means it, then." -- "She just wants the best for her younger sisters, keep us safe from anyone who would do us harm. I don't expect you to forgive her any time soon, and I can only imagine what it must be like for you right now, but if my word holds any weight with you, please don't seek retribution against her. She is my dear elder sister after all."

"Spoken like a true sister," said Art, looking downcast. "I wish I had such a close family as you. You don't know how fortunate you are, having someone you can call someone 'sister' around every corner."

"What's it like?" asked Selena, looking up at her.

With a smile, Diane plopped down on the ground before her, tapped a finger against her lips. "Let's see… You live pretty much your whole life in the monastery. I joined when I was thirteen. Doesn't take long before you get to know everyone there, and then it's like we're all one big family. We eat together, bathe together, sleep together, train together, fight together. You have your elder sisters, who take care of you and who act as your mentors, whom you can always turn to for help. And you have your younger sisters, who look up to you and everything you do, and you want to watch after them and make sure that they're as happy as they can be, and it's just wonderful to watch them grow and--"

"Can you be my sister too?" asked Selena, patting her hands together excitedly. "And then I can call you big sister, and you can call me little sister, and…" -- "Ha, you want to join, do you? Think you might be a bit too young for that?" -- "What, me young? I'm a big girl now!" -- "A bit bigger then," Diane replied, toying with Selena's cheeks. -- "Hey!" -- "What, you don't think we do this to our younger sisters too?" -- "What? No way." -- "Oh yes we do, little one. Whenever bow-mother and order-mother aren't around, we fool around. All. The. Time."

"It… sounds wonderful," said Art. "If things had been different, I'd have liked to join too." Too bad the monastery had fallen. Too bad most of the sisterhood might as well be dead to him, after what they'd put him through.

"You mean the 'if you were born a girl' kind of things being different? Because if you tried to join, most of my sisters would take it the wrong way."

Then he noticed Selena on the verge of tears, as did Diane. "What's wrong?" she asked, as Selena sniffed and sobbed. "Was it something I said?" -- "Uh, yeah, something you said." -- "I want my mommy…" -- "There now, don't cry," she said, wrapping her arms into an embrace. Then with a start she looked up at Art, her expression schooled. "I… I didn't know. I'm sorry for your loss…" -- "Now who's taking things the wrong way?" -- "She's not dead?" -- "No, I meant I'm not the father. I'm not related." -- "Ah. So she is dead?" -- He was about to say 'yes', but with Selena right there, he couldn't bear to say it. "No," he said with a nod.

Selena asked, "Uncle Art… When are you going to go back for her?"

"When we find enough friends to go with us," he said. "When we have the sisters with us to help retake the monastery, we'll get mommy out of the dungeons," he said, grimacing as he said those lies. "Then we'll get her back." -- "Promise?" -- "Promise."

He had no idea how he was going to do anything like this. With the sisterhood treating him as an outcast and him being banished from the village starting the next day, it seemed Selena's dream of reuniting with her mother was further today than it was yesterday. Then, he thought, given what form that reunion would take, it was probably better this way.

Diane took one look at his crestfallen face and he knew that she knew that there would be no getting Selena's mother back and that Selena had yet to know it.

Diane looked around, seeming at a loss. "I think I may have overstayed my welcome… Is anyone else taking care of her? While…" -- "While I can't take care of anyone? Yes, the Bedfords. Also, I think it may be getting past her bedtime." -- "I'll take her home." -- "Selena," Art said, "Go with her, okay? She's gonna take you home." -- She extricated herself from the embrace, then taking Selena by the hand, led her away. She turned back for a moment. "Stay strong, Art."

"Thank you for coming by to visit. And for speaking out, in the end. It means more to me than you could know. I'd really started to lose faith in the sisterhood, till you came."

As he watched the two of them receding down the street, he wondered, since when had he come to trust her to take care of Selena? He'd only spoken with her for such a short while.

[Wherein Art is left all alone, and he tries to master the way of the puppeteer without success.]

As the dusk dragged on into night, the stars began to shine out from the blue. For Art, the time passed so terribly slowly, ever acutely aware of how much it hurt to have to stand in this awkward position, constantly shifting his weight about to try to alleviate the soreness that started from his wrist and neck all the way down to his aching feet, without any hope for respite. When those muscle cramps happened, he'd strain to try to get them relaxed, but given his limited range of moment, that proved difficult, and so his muscles kept cramping up again and again, here in his upper arm, here in his leg, here in his back… It left him feeling weak. He didn't know how long he could keep this up. And another entire night of it! He'd never expected being pilloried could be such torture.

He'd not realized how precious his freedom of movement was to him until he'd lost it. He thought he could give anything, do anything, just to be given a few more inches to move.

It had gotten late at night, and few people still milled about in the village square. None had approached him in hours, and he felt like he was losing himself. He had to find something to take his mind off… He started going through the meditation of inner peace:

Slowly, let your eyes fall shut of their own accord… There is no past, no future, to take to heed… There is only the now… Focus the mind inward...

Peace fell upon him, washing away his awareness of his aches and sores, erasing the slow passage of his penance upon the eternity of time.

This, at last, was something he could spend hours doing, that he'd trained in for years. When he'd finished with one mantra, he began another, then another. One focused on inner awareness, another on thankfulness, another on eternity, another on growth, another on spirituality, another on love, yet each of them another reflection of the same way. He'd memorized plenty of mantras and guided meditations over the years, first at the Flying Feather and then with Arid Mesa. He felt thankful that he'd learned so many and meditated so much.

Learning, meditation, ways. Then, a thought struck him. There was something he could do, something he'd missed for a while now: The way of the puppeteer. He'd been using the skull-and-torch staff while working his necroturgy. But, as he recalled had happened when he had attacked that shaman and gotten his staff chipped, it left a major weakness. The moment he lost hold of the staff, or it became damaged to the point that its carvings ceased to function, he'd lose all his necroturgy, and if that happened, no amount of practice using it would do him any good. And given that he couldn't use his right hand, he'd much rather he be able hold a shield in his left hand than a staff. The moment he learned the way of the puppeteer innately, he'd be able to do just that.

The sisters would not be pleased, a voice of his mind told him. But then, he'd stopped caring what the sisters wanted. After this night, he was done with them. He'd leave, whether he wanted to or not, and he'd chart a new path for himself. And with his right hand missing, constantly seeing new difficulties that loss entailed? Having necroturgy to act as a surrogate hand seemed like a better idea with each passing day.

The problem now was that he had no clue what the mantras of the way were. He'd not studied under the Grand Cycle School, which taught the way of the puppeteer. He didn't know the basics of the way, only what he'd managed to figure out from using his staff. He didn't know the mantras, only the feeling of the way it evoked in him. He'd never tried to reverse engineer an innate adeptitude of a way from just the feeling of the staff, didn't know if it was possible or if it might cause problems later on down the line. Surely it couldn't be easy, or people wouldn't become disciples of these schools?

But he didn't have much of a choice. The Order of the Grand Cycle was hidden somewhere on another continent some six or eight thousand miles away and he doubted he'd ever visit there in his lifetime. And with the monastery pass under enemy control and him in a pillory…

Taking a deep breath and closing his eyes, he tried to summon up the feeling of the way of the puppeteer. The essence, as he recalled it, was that of himself being in control of puppets of bone, making them dance to his every thrust of will, a choreography of harmony in perfect synchrony, utter control of his minions at his fingertips. He imagined what it must have felt like. He… thought he might have grasped it? If he had, the evocation must have been tenuous at best. It certainly felt quite weak, but a shadow of what he experienced when he held the staff. He tried again, and again met with no more than a paltry sensation of control. He felt like an imposter trying to control dolls not bound to his fingers by any strings, and that cognitive dissonance… it threw him out of his attempt. He tried again, and again, but each time he could feel only himself trying to achieve the feeling he wanted, never the actual feeling he wanted.

Damn it, he thought. He knew what it should feel like, he knew it! If he felt it again, he was sure he'd be able to recognize it for what it was. And yet he couldn't bring himself there, couldn't quite evoke the feeling as he ought to. Like knowing what it felt like to be deep in the way of inner peace, at one with the world, and knowing what general thoughts to keep in mind in order to arrive at that place of mind, yet because he was only trying to recall such a feeling rather than actually going through with the meditation, he was not quite getting there.

What was he missing? Well, the mantras, of course. But beyond that came preparatory studies, experiences, all with the benefit of instructor guidance. The way of the monolith, was not merely a few short lines to be memorized and recited. When he first began to learn the way of the monolith, his master had first instructed him and his fellow students in a litany of poems and essays. Against the Wind, a collection of stanzas in heroic couplet by Bikhari. The Three Guardian Stones, A Treatise, by anon. Here I Stand, an exhilarating song whose lyrics he could yet recall to this day. Histories of the Stone Faces, by the historian Iprid, detailing the lore and circumstances surrounding the magnificent faces a long vanished indigenous people had once carved in some fifty forty-foot-tall standing stones in their tribal lands. And many more. They'd also visited the Candelabra Beneath the Earth, a most beautiful and enormous limestone cave that glowed orange and blue and green from bioluminescent fungi; and had spent many a day mining in the nearby silver mine to gain an appreciation for the hardness of the rock entrapping the silver, in a very much tactile way. From those experiences he had gained an in depth understanding of the resilience of solid rock that struck awe into one's soul, approached from every facet. So that when he called upon that mantra -- For a hundred years here I have stood. The winds blow past, the rains pound down, yet day after day I hold fast, implacable, unmoving, unbreaking. -- he knew its truth at a level far deeper than what anyone who merely read those woulds could experience. That was what was missing from his attempts.

If he wanted to truly evoke the feeling of the way of the puppeteer, then, he had to find within him that same intensity and depth of understanding. What did he have to work with, that he'd experienced with the way of the puppeteer? He thought back to when he'd seen the shamans animate their fallen to engage him upon the battle at the monastery, tried to let it consume his thoughts. No; that seemed less an experience for a way of the puppeteer than one of a way-of-getting-your-ass-kicked-by-bloodthirsty-undead. What about that time he'd shattered the skull upon the chimneytop and reanimated the incisors, sending them at the fleeing shaman to force it to cover its eyes? But what he got out of that would probably be a way-of-keeping-the-other-guy-looking-away-from-you. When he reanimated those bones to perform a little skit for Selena? That one seemed to hold promise.

He held in his mind the image of himself toying with those bones, making them dance at his whim while Selena watched in rapturous attention and he planned out what scene to make next. The little bones standing in place, floating around, bobbing up and down with nothing but his mind to control it, an entire troupe of little performers at his beck and call. He held that image in his mind, then checked the feeling it evoked against what he knew he felt when holding the staff. He was definitely on the right track; this experience, personally felt, bore meaning to him.

Yet it seemed only a fragment of the full picture, and a very imbalanced one at that. Adulterated by the intrusion of Selena on his memory, when she had nothing to do with the way of the puppeteer. Polluted by his own considerations of how to proceed with his tale, which focused on story planning rather than adept control. And back then he'd been holding the staff, too, and so his mind had been overwhelmed with the forcibly evoked feelings provided by the staff, meaning he'd been diverting much of his attention on trying to tap into more of the same as on his first attempt.

He tried again, and again, trying to envision scenes from his experiences that involved control of some aspect or another. His mastery over his sword, his calligraphy, his mastery over his own limbs. Whatever he considered having any bearing on the way, he attempted, mixed and matched with his experiences actually working with bone. Him being put on trial for necroturgy. What he envisioned the shamans must have felt when they reanimated their dead brethren. How he envisioned the sisters must have felt when they saw their slain sisters rising against them. How Liene and Sasha must have hated him for what he practiced. All this, and more, he wove into an amalgam of emotions and memories, tried to hold all of them at once, or at least tap into as many as he could one after another.

But it wasn't enough. He'd wound up with some horribly misfigured version of the real thing. Supercharged with emotion, surely -- if he contained the feelings he and others must have had of their relations with necroturgy, how could it not? -- yet of the wrong kinds of emotions, the wrong sensations. What he had here was concentrated storm and fury, making nothing. He didn't need a bone at his fingertips to know he'd not reached the level he needed to even get a single bone to move.

Art shuddered. All about him the village shrouded in darkness, the stars twinkling above in their thousands amidst lazily drifting clouds of shadow, all hint of dusklight gone. The wind brought with it cold of night and he'd nothing on but his tunic. How he wished for his old gambeson back, torn or whatever. He shivered until his muscles strained from shivering so much, and still he felt colder than ever.

In silence, with eyes closed, he tried again to channel the way of the puppeteer. If nothing else, at least it kept his mind away from thinking about his suffering and from thoughts of revenge, from his thirst, from the cold, from all the wounds he'd suffered, from all he'd lost. From everything that, collectively, came together to render it impossible for him to sleep. He poured his attention to his task, even as he knew it to be an exercise in futility.

And then, after an eternity abandoned alone to the darkness, he saw the glorious peep of the sun.

Chapter 15: The Road to Tristram, Part I

[Wherein they get Art out of the pillory and the Bedfords say they'll take care of Selena.]

When the sun had parted from the horizon, Warriv, Taril, Kashya, and several other sisters approached the pillory. "I have to say," said Taril, "Most people who get pilloried get a messed up quite thoroughly within the first ten minutes. You must have quite the angel watching over you." -- "If I had a guardian angel I wouldn't be waiting for you in my current state." -- "Fair enough, we'll get you out of there in a moment."

Kashya stared down at Art. "You'll be out of here by noon, and then never return, or your next time in the pillory won't be so short." -- "Short?" thought Art; who puts people in the pillory for longer than four hours at the most? -- "What's that? Too short for you?" -- "Nothing…"

Kashya gestured for one of the sisters to unlock the pillory, and then he was free. He hadn't realized just how fatigued his muscles were, for the moment he tried to extricate himself from the pillory he collapsed. Taril propped him back up, but he couldn't even feel his legs, or his arms for that matter. All had gone numb and strained. "Anyone see my legs? I can't feel them." -- "All right, let's get you back home," said Warriv as the two of them held him up and walked him back to the Bedfords'. "You're clearly in no condition to be going anywhere."

As they went, Art looked around. With the dawn the village had started to come alive, people rushing along to till the fields or on to other business. A few of the caravaners had started to mill about outside, some of them looking ready to depart and others crowding around the bulletin board. Come to think of it, the night had gone quietly and he hadn't heard the church bell toll at all that day. That didn't bode well for the caravaners who still awaited for the return of their loved ones. "Boone and Ernest still aren't back, are they?" he asked. "I was awake all through the night. If they had, I would have known, I'd think."

Warriv and Taril shared looks of concern. "I don't think so," Warriv replied. "Even the day before, it'd only been two, maybe three caravaners who'd checked in." -- "Boone. Now I feel a bit bad… I seem to distinctly recall my last words to him being a joke about how he'd wet himself and get hacked down by the invaders…" -- "Teaches you right, mister flippant. Now you'll regret it for the rest of your life." -- "Now's not appropriate, Taril." -- Taril suddenly let go and Art sagged a bit before he caught him up again. "Are you sure about that?" he asked, grinning. -- "Damn it Taril…"

By the time they sat Art down on a seat in the house, Penny and Nathan looking at a loss for what to do and Selena eagerly embracing him about his waist, he could feel the needles driling all through his body, fading into a tingling as he regained sensation, and he could start to move again. "How are you feeling?" asked Penny. -- "Like the sisterhood pierced me with a thousand arrows." -- "I think you're fine," said Nathan. -- "Husband," said Penny, looking absolutely scandalized.

"The caravaners are going to be heading out shortly," said Warriv. "You think you'll be able to walk like this?" -- "Ah crap, don't tell me I'm going to be left behind while you all march on ahead. I'll be sitting duck." -- "You saw Gheed's wagon is still in the village square? I'm sure we can get him to spare you a seat," said Taril. -- "How sure are you? Knowing him, he'll charge an arm and a leg for a day's ride. Well, seems I can afford losing this arm since it's missing a hand anyway, but it's the leg I can't do without." -- "Oh, I'm sure all right. All I have to say is, 'Gheed, you do realize this is a good advertisement opportunity for your wagon seat, right?' and that's hook, line, sinker." -- "Nice one, Taril."

"I'm sure you must be frozen stiff from spending a night out like that," said Nathan. He brought over Art's black gambeson. "Penny here has spent the good part of a day putting this thing back together."

Art took the gambeson in hand and looked it over. One could still make out its gashes and scorch marks all over the thing if one looked for them, but the seams had been sown back together with black thread that blended in nicely. He shot the Bedfords a beaming smile. "As good as new. Thank you so much for this."

Nathan nodded graciously. "Alright, let's put that on," he said, and proceeded to help Art put on his gambeson.

"Here, you must be famished right now," said Penny, gesturing at the food set out before them on the table. -- "Let us break our fast together, one last time," said Art, resignedly as they all started eating.

"You needn't worry about Selena," said Penny; then Nathan noted, -- "We'll be taking right good care of her." -- "We most certainly will, the little adorable one." -- "Unless you have a place to take her?" -- "Yes, of course, if you do then she's all yours."

Art looked up, eyes teary with thankfulness. All through the night he'd feared he might have to push this request on them, feared even more that they might, in the end, still refuse; and here they volunteered. "You would do such a thing for her?" He got out of his seat, almost collapsing from his straining muscles, and went on his knees before the couple, put his arms down on the ground before him and set his forehead down on the back of his hand. "Nathan, Penny, I can't thank you enough for this. If you would take care of her, I would be eternally grateful." He turned to Selena. "You too, Selena," he called out, and she hopped out of her seat to kneel and kowtow before the couple, though with a complete look of cluelessness.

"Come now, that's not necessary," replied Nathan; -- "We love her, don't we?" -- "Yes dearie, we'll take excellent care of her," -- "She will lack for nothing," -- "As if she were our very own." -- "Thank you, thank you…" -- "Please get up, Art, we can't have you kneeling before us," said Nathan as he helped him back to his seat. "You'll be having a hard enough journey as it is."

It seemed that the meaning had finally clicked for Selena. She looked at Art, concerned. "Journey? What do you mean? Aren't you staying with me, uncle Art?" -- Art looked at the others, not sure what to say. Penny wrapped her arms around Selena. "There now, you will still have us to take care of you." -- "What? No no, please don't," she said, as she clutched tightly at Art's arm, sobbing. "You can't leave!" -- "Hey, if you don't quit that, Nathan and Penny aren't going to pleased." -- "I don't care! I want to stay with you, please stay with me! We still haven't gotten mommy and daddy back and now you're leaving too? No no no!"

Art looked to the others for help. What could he say to her to mollify her? But the others seemed just as clueless as he. He wrapped his arm around her head, patted her. "Look, Selena, I can't very well go looking for your mother and father while I stay here, and you know how it is outside the village. This is the safest place for you. I promise you, when I find enough friends to go bring back mommy, we'll bring her back. But you have to behave until then, okay? Otherwise I'll keep having to return empty handed and we'll never able to bring her back."

Of course, he would not be seeing Selena again. She would grow up with the Bedfords, and would in time forget about him. He would travel with Warriv, forever banished from returning because of a foolish mistake he'd made. He'd not come back for her, nor would he return with a party to retrieve Cassia from the monastery, not with her already being dead. It was all a lie, and everyone here but Selena knew it. It pained him, having to lie to her so, making promises he knew he couldn't keep, but he couldn't bear to break her heart any more than it had already been broken. And what he said seemed to pacify her, somewhat, though she still heaved and sobbed into him, staining his tunic. For a long while they held onto each other, both of them wishing the moment would last.

Then the church bell tolled, five times in succession, not just once. "It's time," said Warriv, setting down his emptied pewter bowl and standing up. Taking his cue, Art and Taril stood as well, Selena still holding on to him by the arm and looking terrified of losing him as well. Nathan and Penny stood up, the former saying to Art, "As a parting gift, I wanted you to have this." He went to the stand at the side of the house and brought forth a vivid green tunic with gilded embroidery. "Seldom worn, but since my size fits you well, and since you have the most need of it…. Here." -- "These are your best clothes. How can I?" -- "Now now, no fuss," said Penny, "Or we'll take offense."

"I wanted to thank you so much for your hospitality," said Warriv. "Please, I would like for you to keep this. As a memento, and a sign of our thanks." He handed Nathan his brooch, glinting silver in the light of dawn. -- "And I, this," said Taril, unclasping an opaline necklace to hand over to Penny. "May you always live in harmony and happiness, for heaven knows you deserve it."

Art, his arm on Selena's shoulder, gently nudged her forward. "And I would hereby entrust to you Selena, a girl once lost to the darkness and whom I had reclaimed from its depths. I have nothing else to give. You two have shown us a kindness beyond words, which I can never repay. Thank you."

"No, uncle Art, please don't go!" cried Selena, reaching out for him with both arms for a final embrace. Art turned to leave, his heart breaking, and fled.

[Wherein they meet up with Johann and Tyler, and the caravan departs.]

The trio arrived at the village center where the rest of the caravaners had all gathered. They joined quite the crowd: Over a hundred of them, holding what rucksacks and saddle bags they had crammed full with provisions the villagers they'd stayed with had no doubt gifted them. A number bore brightly colored tunics, some bearing swords or daggers and knives. About a dozen of the caravaners -- the ones Warriv's caravan employed for their protection -- stood at attention in their gambesons, some with mail, armed with maces, axes, spears, and an assortment of kite and round shields. Among them stood Gheed, his back to the wagon he'd arrived with, attached to a pair of horses. Two dozen sisters of the order stood at one side, and Art recognized Liene, Diane and Kashya among them, in their brown and white gambesons, with bows, spears, shields and quivers at their backs.

"Caravan master Warriv," said Kashya as they approached. "Our scouts have reported sightings of the redskins east of the village. Light sightings only, should make no trouble for a party this large, but just in case. These are the guards I've promised, two dozen in all. I trust these will suffice?" -- "Thank you, captain. Our caravan has some who know how the butt from the business end of a sword. Two dozen from the sisterhood will be plenty. I promise we'll do everything we can to keep them safe." -- "See to it that you do. Very well then, I leave them in your care. They will accompany the caravan as far as Tristram before doubling back. Liene, as the eldest among the sisters assigned to this mission, will lead. May the sightless eye watch over you." With that, she departed.

"Hey look who's back! It's Johann and Tyler," remarked Warriv, and they all shook hands. "How's your little expedition turn out?" -- "Underwhelming," said Johann, looking downcast. -- "Yeah, I think we've had our fill of adventure for a lifetime," said Tyler. "If all it involves is tripping all over the bramble of the forest and getting knocked into the dirt two dozen times a day by this here bastard," he said, shooting Johann an ugly look. -- "Hey, you think of a better way to pass the time." -- "I take it you didn't run into any of the redskins?" -- "Nope, not a one."

Art chuckled. "Sounds like you missed out on all the fun. Unlike me: I fought a big battle all by my lonesome heroic self, saved a damsel in distress, got a hand whacked off, and got put in the pillory. Like I said: A lot of fun." -- "Wait, you what?" said Tyler, and glanced at Art's hand and grimaced. "Ouch. Yeah, we're done."

Taril approached Gheed, holding up an Art who could hardly walk from his muscle cramps. "Gheed, I have a proposition for you." -- Gheed took one look at Art, then at Liene and the sisters not a dozen paces away, and stared at Taril with a distasteful look. "What, to have this decrepit freeride on my wagon?" He spat at the ground between them. "You can crawl your way out of your mess, for all I care," then turned to get on the wooden board that was the wagon seat, in such a way that left no room for Art to sit on.

"Why you--" -- "Got a problem? You can bring it up to the sisters. I believe Liene's in charge. I reckon she thought you got off pretty easy yesterday." -- "It's fine," said Art out loud, then muttered to Taril, "He's putting on a show for Liene."

"Alright, ladies and gents, let's get on with it," said Warriv, and headed down the street leading westward out of the village. The others followed, marching in no particular formation, in ranks of twos and threes, with Taril helping to hold Art up as they went, bringing up the rear of the column.

Taril asked Art, "You think the sly raccoon is going to try for more sales to the sisterhood now that we're headed out of the village? You'd think he'd do that earlier." -- "No, but he may have goods back in Tristram, and even if he didn't, it wouldn't hurt him to be in good standing with the sisterhood, for later." He chuckled. "Surely more than to try to ingratiate himself with decrepit old me."

[Wherein Gheed and Roland get Liene to pay up, and Art gets a seat at the wagon.]

Though they all walked at a leisurely pace, by the time they'd passed over the bridge along the west side of the village, Taril and Art had lagged far behind the rest of the caravan. A dozen steps, two, three dozen, four, five… Art figured some of the sisters guarding the back must have noticed, since one of them rushed ahead, and a few moments later the caravaners started to slow down and bunch up.

Liene and several of her sisters strode to the back. "I was wondering who's been causing trouble and slowing us down," she said, looking at Art as he leaned on Taril, struggling to move. "Hurry up or we'll leave you behind. Let you fend for yourselves like you should."

"I'd be hurrying if you hadn't put me in the pillory," Art retorted.

"Mmm. Serves him right."

Taril glowered at her. "Liene, I believe I have yet to introduce you to my friend." -- "Oh, I think she knows me--" -- "No, not you, Art. Meet Warriv. The caravan leader. We roomed together at the Bedfords', I would have introduced you to him back then if you had paid a visit. Did you know, Art saved him and his compatriots from a band of highwaymen on the king's road, once. Near would have gotten himself stabbed through the heart had he not been there. How long ago was that, Art? Six, seven years? We've been traveling ever since."

Liene shot Art a frustrated look. "Tell the others to stop," she said, tilting her head toward Oriana, who then ran up the procession shouting, -- "Hold, hold!"

Seeing Liene proceeding forward, Art turned to Taril with a look of amazement. "I see what you did there," he said, as Taril smirked back.

As the others came to a stop, Art continued trudging on over, with Liene leading the way. "Gheed," she said, "I need you to take a passenger," before coming to a stop before the owner of the only wagon in the caravan. The merchant and another caravaner sat on the wooden bench at the front of the wagon, leaving no space for a third. She raised her eyebrows at them. -- "Sorry, seat's taken," said Gheed, gesticulating a sign of helplessness.

"Roland, wasn't expecting to find you sitting here," Liene said to the other rider, a short, stocky man covered head to foot in mail, a flanged mace hanging at his side. Would you kindly give your seat to this laggard?" Liene said, pointing a thumb at Art. "He seems too out of shape to continue on."

"No thank you, I prefer sitting," Roland replied. -- "Weren't you just trying to woo sister Ryann with your claims of how athletic you were? We can't have you start to lose your edge." -- "Well, I changed my mind." -- "You realize everyone's watching." -- "Do I look like I care?" -- Liene glared at him. "Are you really going to insist on keeping your seat when someone else needs it more?" -- Roland gave a look of outrage. "I'll have you know I paid good money for this here seat, and I'm not about to give it up to anyone."

Liene shot Gheed a scathing look. "Ugh. Why did you have to give your seat up to him?" -- "Same reason I do anything," he replied as he patted his money bag hanging at his side. "This man had silver, I took it." -- "Well give it back to him." -- "But what money is there to be had in such a proposition?" -- "You--" -- "Even if I gave his money back, I still can't kick him off the wagon. A good merchant never goes back on his word. And surely the highly regarded sisterhood would not force him otherwise?" -- Liene seemed at a loss for a moment, then asked, "That's quite honorable, for a peddler. How much did he pay you?" -- "Twopence[denarii]." -- "Two," Liene echoed in disbelief.

Well, doesn't this put her in quite the bind? Art thought, as Liene turned around to Roland and said, "I would give you twopence[denarius] to give your seat up." -- "Not moving." -- "Three." -- "You have two choices. You can either give up your seat and take your damn silver, or we can all just sit here and wait and we can see what happens when everyone's had enough of you." -- "Or you can stop being so stingy. Surely the sisterhood must be quite rich, holding such a valuable pass?" Roland challenged. Liene and several of the other sisters winced at the reminder. -- "You know what? Keep your seat; we don't need it. Art here can just keep on walking, and you'd be out your silver." -- Roland gave Art an appraising look. When he saw Liene turn his way, Art intentionally sagged, then collapsed altogether, almost bringing Taril down along with him, and gasped, -- "Ah! I think I just sprained an ankle." -- Roland turned to Liene with a look of triumph. "Not in that condition, he can't."

Gritting her teeth, Liene took out her money purse, took out six silver pennies[denarius], and dropped them onto the ground, one at a time so everyone could count them fall. "That's it, we're leaving. Roland, you can either give up your seat to get your damn silver, or you can let Art pick them up when he brings up the rear." -- Gheed jumped off the wagon. "On second thought, Art can have my seat," he said with a grin. -- Liene stared at Gheed for a moment, then nodded. "Thank you," she said. She shot the smug Roland a final glaring look before stalking away.

Taril helped Art onto the wagon bench beside Roland while Gheed picked up the dropped coins with a delighted look on his face. When Liene had advanced to the front of the caravan to tell Warriv that all had been settled, Art noted to Gheed, "I see you're up to your usual tricks."

"Why, that accusation hurts! I'm nothing more than a proper businessman who always stays by his word." Gheed turned and handed a penny[denarius] to Roland and one to Art. "You did excellent, Roland. And nice performance right there, Art. Pleasure doing business with ya," he said as he walked alongside their wagon, with Roland now at the reins. Roland and Art both chuckled, knowing looks on their faces.

[Wherein Art learns about Roland's background and tries without success to convince him to join the sisterhood's fight.]

"Oh no, the pleasure's all mine," said Art. "Been wanting to see that bitch get put in her place. That you two did it while managing to get me a place to sit and get us some silver speaks volumes. Well met, Roland, name's Art." They shook hands. Art nodded toward his mace, the butt of which bore a trident imprint, red on white, of the Order of the Light. "Well, I never would have guessed. Templars usually don't go about swindling ladies." -- "Ah, you mistake me." -- "Ah? The Light's descry is hard to mistake." -- "One so abandoned is not hard to take."

Art sized the man up. "You realize you aren't all that impressive a figure. Why go about telling people that you're either a looter or a thief?"

"I don't mean the mace, Art, I mean the descry, the symbol of our order. I left the templars since they were all a bunch of stuck ups. What's the point of knight-errancy if you can't stir up some trouble while you're at it? A wise man once said, it is only in a world darkened by chaos and lies that the champion of order and truth shines brightest. See? I too must do my part to accentuate the light."

"Haha! And I might guess that I have quite the good fortune, to sit in the grace of the wise man's presence at this very moment." -- "That'd be spot on." -- "So, what brought you out this far east?"

"Officially, the church has charged me with missionary duty converting the heathens in Aranoch, and that once I get at least six proper men to convert to the light, they will recommunicate me. They can stick their mission up their arse for all I care. I'm headed east because I'm sick and tired of the church presence in the west. What with all the kings and princes of Khanduras, Entsteig, and Westmarch kneeling before the caduceus of the pope, someone like me won't ever feel at home in these parts." -- "And your solution is to live as a heathen in a foreign land?" -- "Foreign? What, you didn't think the church sent me there to convert people if I couldn't even speak the language? No, I was born there. Lived quite a few years there in fact, before I converted to the light and pilgrimaged to the order's fort at Westmarch."

"Still, to go so far… What exactly happened that got you excommunicated?" -- Roland chuckled. "I had an argument with the archbishop. Said the order stood to gain more recruits if they loosened their rules a little." -- "Oh. That's it?" -- Roland shook his head slowly at Art as if in dismay for him. "You have no idea what things are like with the church, do you? A good number of people tortured for heresies and blasphemies would like to switch places with me if they could -- that is, if they were still alive. Only reason I can even talk about this is because we're traveling quite aways from the zealots out in their coastal cities." He looked a bit downcast. "Which brings us to the part where I can't actually get there because the pathetic sisterhood lost their monastery."

"Ah yes, that little snag. Well, you can always go back to the church, tell them the way east's closed, and I'm sure they'll give you another assignment." -- Roland glowered at him. "Yeah but I don't want to stay in church dominion." -- "Well then, you can stay with the sisterhood, they don't share the zeal of the church and don't answer to the king, hence why the sisters are called rogue." -- "If you hadn't noticed, they're caught up in fighting a war right now." -- "So? You can go help them. Maybe even fight back to the gates of the monastery, and reopen the pass." -- "Aha-- You're kidding. Me, fight the beast?" -- "Oh, you heard about that," said Art, looking crestfallen. "Can you just forget about that part?" -- "You're the one who told everybody about it, now you want us to forget it? Fickle, you are."

"Someone's going to kill the beast eventually." -- "Right then, just holler out to me when that someone does his thing, and I'll be back in a jiffy. But I don't fancy taking on that creature." -- "There are other roles in the war, Roland. Guard, patrol, scouting duties. Logistics and supplies. Trade and diplomacy. Espionage and counterintelligence. None of which will involve you running into the beast. Besides, you can explain this as part of your quest to convert those out east." -- "You seem mighty interested in me fighting for the sisterhood. What's in it for you? Aren't you leaving for good like the rest of us?"

"Ah, nothing gets past you, does it?" Art said with a sigh, then looked up at the sky, despondent. He thoughts drifted to Selena; where was she, how was she doing? It felt like days since he'd last seen her, and that sense of not knowing the situation back in Thistledown was starting to gnaw at him. He didn't really care for the sisterhood, but he did care about how their war went. So that she and her foster parents Nathan and Penny stayed safe and wouldn't have to worry about imminent attack, he wanted them to win. And since he couldn't do it himself, he needed others to fight for the cause.

"Yes," replied Art, still staring off. "I want to see the pass reopened. And yes, I have a vested interest in the matter. You know, there's lots of people will be wanting to head east. The sisterhood's going to have to keep turning them away, until they regain the pass or someone else -- maybe the king -- secures it. Merchants will be left unable to trade their wares, and the whole of two civilizations will be made so much the poorer for it." Then he looked At Roland. "If you attended the trial or heard about it, then you should know: I did help the sisterhood fight. And were it up to me, I'd go back in a heartbeat and fight to defend the people of Thistledown, some of them people I care very much for. But it's not an option for me. With the wound I took, I can't quite go back into the fight. You can."

Roland looked uneasy, stared down at his lap. "I saw you at the trial. You really fought them like you said, huh?" -- Nod. -- "I could feel the truth, from the way you spoke of it. I don't know how you did it." He held up the mace by his side, stared at it. "Since I received this mace from the magister of my class, I'd never used it in battle. Not even out of self defense." -- "But they did teach you, no?" -- "Of course. Everyone who passes the initiation rituals for becoming a templar has to learn at least the basic three. The way of inner peace, the way of blinding light, the way of channeling vigor. You'll notice only one of them's useful in an actual fight, and I hadn't learned much anything else before I got expelled. Out on the field, I'll just get my ass handed to me, severed and on a bloody platter."

"Who's to say that's going to be the case? I'm sure if you offered your assistance to the sisterhood, they'd gladly give you training." -- "They could give me the best training in the world and it wouldn't matter," said Roland, and looked away. "I'm not half the man you think I am." -- "Hey now, no one is brave by default. Courage is something you find within yourself on the field of battle, when you find you have something precious to protect. It's the same with me."

Selena, he thought. Back when he fought at the monastery, it'd been his desire to see her escape to safety had kept him from fleeing.

"You could spend some time getting to know the girls. Maybe by the time you are called to battle, you'll have found someone worth fighting for." -- "Pssh. You're fooling no one, Art. The sisterhood is a celibate order." -- "Well, you never know," Art said, shrugging. "Besides, with channeling vigor, they probably would even forbid you from getting within a dozen leagues of the front line. You'd be a unique asset to them, with the number of wounded they're sure to suffer. You, a rogue templar, pledged to the Order of the Sightless Eye instead of the Order of the Light? They'd welcome you with open arms."

Roland gritted his teeth. "I told you, I'm not up for it," he said with steel in his voice. "And I don't appreciate you trying to goad me into fighting your war for you. After we get to Tristram I'm headed on to Duncraig. And that's final."

Art fell silent, not content to let the matter drop but knowing any further attempts to convince the man would fall on deaf ears. He stared out to the passing trees, grasses and bushes of the forest, or past endless fields of golden-haired wheat, allowing the trotting of hooves of the two horses before them to banish the silence.

[Wherein they come across several outlying villages including Stonebridge where they realize the fallen normally use better equipment, and settle at the caravanserai for the night.]

They stayed on the well treaded path that wended its way from the outlying farmlands of Thistledown, through forest and meadow, past streams and hamlets.

The first hamlet they passed lay abandoned, a burned, charred husk little different from the one Art and Selena had come across earlier, and littered with corpses. The caravan stopped to pay their respects to the dead and Art watched as several of them dug out graves for the deceased and buried them up. One of the dead was a girl, barely six or seven years old, golden-haired and fair of skin, now mangled and bloodied. When he saw the corpse he couldn't help but see Selena in his mind's eye. No, he thought; she couldn't be dead, this isn't her, and tried to shake it from his mind as he rushed to help the others with the burials. He buried the girl's corpse himself.

On their walk away from the hamlet, he thought of Selena. Was she okay, safe with the Bedfords? Thistledown currently sported a good number of the sisters, so it should all be fine for now; but then, if the redskins could penetrate this far west, how safe were they really? He could scarcely bear to imagine it, even though the thought wouldn't go away when he shook his head to try to wipe them out: Nathan, Penny, Selena all a mangled mess on the ground, their blood flowing freely. He must have seen too many killed back at the monastery, he thought, for his imagination to pull such grotesque imagery out of nowhere so easily.

He wanted to go back, to check up on them and ensure that nothing untoward had happened. Wanted to dote on the little girl. No, he thought, shaking his head in sorrow. He would never be able to return, or even do anything to protect them if he did, so best not to think of it. Yet even as he went, he couldn't help but dwell on them.

The rank, sickening stench of rotting meat lingered on them long after the hamlet passed out from sight behind them, and many bathed in the next stream they happened upon. The next one after that had been ransacked and entirely abandoned, and thankfully no corpses could be found.

They arrived around noon upon the first village since leaving Thistledown. Before the village and along the road, they came across a stake thrust upright upon the ground, where the head and body of one of the shamans had been impaled, grotesque with its head twisted backward and dripped with congealed black of blood. The skull portion of a skull-and-torch staff had been thrust down the hapless creature's throat, leaning outward. The only incongruous thing about the whole affair was that it wore a white and brown women's gown.

Several of the sisters residing within the village spotted them and ran up to greet them. "Well met, sisters," said Liene, waving to them, and conversed with them a bit before bringing them before the caravaners. "Welcome to Stonebridge, the village where redskins come to die. And get put on display," she said, gesturing at the dead one. -- "Yeah, I noticed… What is the meaning of this effigy?" asked Warriv. -- "It's meant to scare those little redskins away. The sight of one of their elders puts the fear of death into them, so the sight of that helps keep the village safe." -- "And the clothes? Puts the fear of shame into them? I guess even the uncivilized bastards wouldn't be caught dead in women's clothes," added Warriv. -- "Or not," said Taril, pointing at the dead shaman, as several of the caravaners burst into laughter.

Glowers from the local sisters got them to shut up real quick. "We didn't put the gown on the elder, it came here wearing that. All of them did," said one, then gulped, as if what she had to say next were not easy. "They are our uniforms for when us sisters are not armored up for battle. They must have taken them from the monastery. Looted them from our home, perhaps even from…" she looked away. Perhaps even from the corpses of our fallen sisters, Art finished the thought in his mind.

"For you to have set this up, I gather they attacked this place?" Liene asked one of the local sisters. "What can you tell us about them -- numbers, equipment, coordination, tactics?" -- "Nowhere near a threat," remarked Liaza. "Only a single group thus far. They attacked yesterday, two elders and about a dozen of the little rascals. We put the other one on display by the road on the other side of the village. Most of them bore round shields instead of bucklers, gave us some trouble with our bows, but couldn't use them properly, like they lacked the proper training. Besides, way of the sidewinder makes mockery of their shield walls, and within seconds of joining the battle they had fled. We lost none of our sisters in the battle; I doubt any of them made it out alive." -- "That is good to hear, sister Liaza." -- "Come, you must be wearied from your walk," she gestured, and the caravan proceeded on toward the village center.

The shamans are starting to wear clothes, and the midgets changing their weapons? Art thought with rising dread as they went. "Are you at all concerned?" he asked. -- "What is there to be concerned about, with such rabble?" asked Liaza as she and several others turned their attention to him. -- "Well, hear me out. The redskins aren't dumb. In the monastery battle, and in another one since, I've seen them adapt to my changing tactics, seen them use commands to coordinate their troops and come up with counters on the fly. In those battles it had been their notable lack of armor that had decided the outcome. Well, that, and their use of bladed weapons and flame, neither of which can easily penetrate even light armor. At the time I thought them brutes who hadn't even heard the concept of wearing any actual clothes, and that that was why they had only been in their loincloths. But now they had replaced their bucklers with round shields. And you know why: round shields afford better protection against arrows. That begs the question, why hadn't they used them earlier?" He gestured at the shaman in the white and brown gown. "They'd started wearing these, so why hadn't they done so when they first invaded? Surely it wasn't because they'd simply forgotten about it, or hadn't thought of it?"

"So what are you saying?" asked Liaza, to which Art replied: -- "Seems to me like they didn't have the money or the resources back then. And now that they have the monastery and everything of value within it, they can begin selling it for other goods. Things that would be better suited to their war effort. Things like this," he said, prodding at Liaza's gambeson. "Or this," he said, this time pointing at her spear, "or this", tapping the large shield at her back. "Or any number of other weapons that would be more likely to hurt through armor. Maces, polearms."

"Uh, I thought this was going to be some kind of big revelation," said Liaza with a chuckle. "You must be new here. Caravaner?" At Art's nod she continued. "If you fought them recently, you can count yourself lucky. They'd only been this lacking in weapons and armor rather recently. Now that their situation has improved somewhat, you can expect them to field a greater variety of weapons, gambeson, the regular armor anyone else would bring. But you know what? We've fought them before, when they were at their best, and we beat them. Many times. Out in the open, those little runts don't stand a chance."

"It lightens my heart that you feel so at ease," said Liene, sounding far more somber. "I wish I could say the same for the rest of us. Our sisters who remain at Thistledown must stay on their guard at all times, not knowing when redskins might suddenly attack from out of the woods. They have already attacked on several occasions, and after the loss of the monastery we can ill afford losing any more of our sisters, nor can we be so confident that they would stand against the invaders. And though we would much prefer to stay by their side and protect them when the need comes, we have other charges. We must continue on to Tristram, to see our wards to safety. Until our return -- stay strong, and may the sightless eye watch over you."

Thus they departed from Stonebridge. By the afternoon they'd descended out of the stony highlands surrounding the monastery. Here more of the land was tilled, and patches of forest grew more infrequent while hamlets dotted the road, seemingly without end. They passed by road patrols of the local baron, even as they passed village after village, each of them about a mile or two apart.

By late evening they had passed a dozen villages. As they entered the central square of a village called Maple Creek, they beheld a caravanserai before them. The building formed the centerpiece of the village, situated at one side of the village square, right opposite the church, and dwarfed them both. A large wooden building comprised of four halls surrounding a central courtyard, it had stalls and stables, niches and chambers for the whole lot of them. Warriv stopped them all before the building's entrance, and gestured for their attention. "Alright, I reckon every one of you must be tired like hell right about now, so we'll be staying here for the night." -- Cheers rang out from the beleaguered caravaners. -- "Though I admit it might be a rather awkward meeting with the owner after them seeing us pass by the other way mere days ago."

"Really, Gheed, you're doing that tonight?" Art called after him as he saw the merchant open up his wagon doors and take out his display tables. "After that walk, most of us would have just retired for the evening." -- "Walk? Were we walking?" -- "Right, fair point," he said, watching the merchant rush to set up his goods right by the village center. Then he shook his head and followed the rest of the caravaners. "Just don't stay up too late, or I'll be taking the reins tomorrow."

Warriv checked them all in with the owner, who dispatched servants to tend to the two horses as well as bring suppers to the starving caravaners and the sisters accompanying them. They took up residence along two of the four halls of the caravanserai, forming into groups to claim the available rooms. Art, Warriv, Taril and Roland claimed one together, and set down what little belongings they'd been carrying. Setting down his rucksack, Art rubbed the small of his back before following the rest of them back out into the expansive common area forming the corner of one of the halls.

[Wherein Taril recounts the story of Prince Aidan and the darkening of Tristram.]

Taril had found himself a cozy spot against the wall and started playing his flute, a few notes meant to do little more than to garner an audience. Art and Warriv and a few dozen others sat down in the commons alongside them. "Have a piece in mind for tonight, Taril?" asked Warriv. -- "Well, the sisters have been sharing a few of their tales with me," he replied, shooting Ryann and a few other sisters a dashing smile. "With your leave," he said, making a bow even as he squatted in place. "Gather around! O, gather around, and let us celebrate our safe arrival to Maple Creek with song!"

As some of the carvaners milled about and settled down to seats and and tables scattered about the common room, and as the servant girls brought their beer and board to their tables, Art looked around and spotted Roland had already taken sat down on one of the wooden chairs. The recent discussion they'd had about joining the sisterhood came to mind: how Roland hadn't been amiable to his proposal. The man needed a bit of a prod, and it couldn't come from him. Well now, here's an opportunity, he thought to himself, and approached Taril and squatted down beside him. "I have a request for tonight, actually," he said. "I'd heard you tell the tale of 'Prince Aidan and the Darkening of Tristram' on several occasions, and I'd like to hear that tale now."

"Oh come on," said one of the sisters, "Tristram is practically right on our doorstep. Don't you have some tales of more exotic places? North to the frigid highlands of Harrogath, east to the desert sands of Aranoch, or even as far as the orient?"

"Ah, but as you will notice, we are going to Tristram. Tomorrow. That makes this story more relevant, and thus easier to appreciate, than a story of some place far away. You wouldn't deny your wards a nice day of relaxation after such a long walk, now would you?" replied Art, wishing the caravaner would stop protesting. "Besides, you'll like it when you hear this story. Warriv can attest to that as well. Right, Warriv?" -- "What he said," said Warriv, shooting Art a startled look but swiftly recovering. "You'll never hear a more moving and romantic piece, and Taril is a master of its retelling. If you miss it, you ladies will regret it for the rest of your life." -- "Very well," the sister acquiesced.

"Very well, let us begin then," said Taril, then took out his flute. He played a short little melody, an upbeat one sounding joyful and rustic, then sang.

Chapter 16: Road to Tristram, Part II

[PLACEHOLDER: Taril's song about the darkening of Tristram, alongside commentary of how Art and Taril is reacting to the story.]

"Oh, there once was a time of knights and ladies, A time of beauty and glory and peace.

With the conclusion of the piece Taril set down his flute and bowed, and the room burst into applause. "Good tale," said Art, clapping Taril on the back. "Owe you one for that." -- "I'd been meaning to ask, why you seemed so insistent on this one. You usually couldn't care less." -- "Sharp, this one, unfortunately the explaining of it would ruin it."

"Ah, I'm out of beer, can we get some service over here?" Roland hollered, holding out his jug, then hiccuped. A servant girl, hair done up and held in place with a pin and only scantily dressed, duly poured him another before stepping to inconspicuousness at the back of the room.

Art, who'd been watching Roland the whole time to gauge the man's reaction, smirked. Roland had been drinking more and more as the story had been told, and that last one had been his second refill, which suggested that Taril's telling of the story had started getting to him, and that he'd been none too happy about being reminded of how far he'd fallen from the ideal of the righteous templar. Maybe he'd have a chance at persuading the man yet.

"One more!" a deep voice in the crowd shouted, and several others followed in agreement. -- "Ah, now, which story should I tell this time?" -- One of the sisters spoke up, "Our turn, Taril. You have some story that those of us who are holed up in the monastery would otherwise never get to hear?" -- Taril gave her a dashing smile. "I know just the one."

Taril soon began to perform another piece. Art took a moment to relocate to one of the empty chairs attending the table Roland sat at. "You won't mind if I sit here, would you?" -- "Why the sudden consideration? Seeing as you didn't ask if I would mind before getting our resident bard to start this tale of his." -- "You wound me, Roland, I merely enjoy a good tale as much as the next soul." -- "Tricky bastard, aren't ya? You think I don't know what you're up to? Hic. I told you to stop trying to get me involved in things I have no business sticking my nose into, but would you learn? Oh, no never!" -- "I think you must be mistaking things. Maybe you've had a bit too much to drink and you don't know what you're saying. It was just an ordinary tale." -- "Oh, come on, now you're going to turn that around and try to spoof on me? That tactic ain't fresh no more, hic."

"Ah, whatever you say then, I can indulge a drunkard a little while. A jug, please," he called out and pounded the table with the palm of his hand, to signal for the servant girl. -- "Who you calling a drunkard?" -- "I'm sorry, I hadn't noticed these other two people sitting at the table, care to introduce them to me?" -- He gestured, at the two empty chairs on the other sides of the table. -- "Ah, bollocks, you're pulling my leg, aren't ya? I know who you're talking about, and I'm no drunkard." He'd been about to take another drink, and realizing that, he set it down instead. Then he stared at his jug for a moment. "Oh, you sneaky bastard," he said with a shake of his head before he resumed drinking, while Art burst out laughing. -- "Here, sorry about messing with your head," Art said. He took the jug of beer the servant girl had set down before him, and clinked it against Roland's. "To rogue templars." -- "To sneaky bastards." They bottomed their jugs.

In the story, he mused, Sir Aidan Brightwine had received the hand of the princess for his gallantry at Tristram, making him prince, along with all the land, power and wealth to go with it. The standard hero's recompense. No one quite took it seriously; it only amounted to an indication that yes, the story's over. After all the time spent describing the prior struggles, the prize at the end was relegated to a footnote, and just as easily forgettable. It almost seemed as if the reward never happened, which just made the entire story one of suffering. Hardly someone one would sign up for.

Roland slammed down his empty jug. "Another," he shouted. The serving girl came up as usual, bringing the refill.

As she poured it out, leaning forward, Art looked at her. Pretty face, big breasts, narrow waist and wide hips, and revealing clothing. He whistled as he stared, then caught Roland looking at the serving girl as well. "Well? Pretty, no?" -- Roland stared at him with an embarrassed look, like he'd just pissed in his pants. -- Art turned to the girl. "My friend here is feeling in the doldrums and is in need of some company, and you look quite the fetcher." -- "Art, what the hell--" -- "Are you available tonight?" -- "Hey -- seriously?" -- "If my lord would be so kind as to have me." -- "Wonderful." -- "How do you just make these kinds of-- " -- "Twopence[denarii]," said Art, slapping down the two coins Gheed had passed him earlier, -- "What are you getting out of this?" -- "My lord is most kind--" -- "Stop thinking up there and start thinking down there. My friend's a bit slow witted at the moment, you'll need to lead him by the hand." -- "What did you call me?" -- "Drunk, my friend, drunk." -- "My lord, as I am indentured I cannot accept your silver directly." -- "Oh? For how long?" -- "Almost two years remaining." -- "Very well, I suppose I should take this matter up with the caravanserai owner?" -- "Yes, my lord." -- "Have you no decency? She's an indentured servant, she has no choice in the matter." -- "Oh, I'm sure she knew what she was getting into when she signed her indentures, and I'm sure she had her reasons, now stop yapping and go!" Art finished by pushing Roland after the serving girl.

"Twopence[denarii]," he thought as he took the coins and headed down the hall toward the atrium to pay the owner. It's for a good cause, he thought to himself, almost like the mantra. So long as he got Roland to aid the sisters, with his way of channeling vigor, he could very well save the lives of quite a few commoners on this side of the monastery pass. Maybe even this servant girl included. Yes, that's right; it was for a good cause after all, he thought as he passed the coins to the caravanserai's owner. A good cause, he thought as he went to bed.

The next day the caravaners were up and out the gates of the caravanserai within an hour after dawn. The skies shone a clear and crystal blue, and the fields they passed by a sea of gold. Gheed had his wagon back, so this time Art, Taril, and Roland walked side by side a bit towards the front of the caravan.

"So, how was last night? Did you have a good time?" asked Art, shooting Roland a wry grin. -- "What's this? Being more naughty last night than the usual old me?" asked Taril. "What did I miss?" -- Both Art and Taril looked to Roland. Roland groaned. "In knew you were up to nothing good," he said, shaking his head at them. -- "As if you had anything to complain about, mister wanted some, got some." -- "Come on now, I paid good money on your behalf, twice the going rate. I think I have a right to know." -- "Just why are you so interested?" challenged Roland, looking beet red. "I think you're having more fun out of this than I." -- "That's what she said." -- "Who? …Never mind." -- Art and Taril chuckled.

[Wherein Ryann meets with Art and Roland.]

One of the archers, who'd been chatting with her fellow sisters ahead of the trio, flitted away from them, dropped back to walk alongside them. Slender and tan, with blonde hair done into a ponytail, with a bow and quiver at her back. "Hi!" she said to Art, Taril, and Roland, beaming. "Sorry I don't think we've met, this caravan's quite the large group, and it's taking me ages to get to know everyone. I'm Ryann." she said enthusiastically. "Taril of course we've met from last night. I daresay your performance of Prince Aidan and the Darkening of Tristram, was like, quite the endearing tale," she said, she said with a nod to Taril.

"And Roland… I saw your antics with the merchant yesterday. Quite daring you are." -- "Ah, I think you must have me mixed up with Gheed." -- "Really now? He doesn't strike me as the heroic type." -- "And I do?" -- "I mean, for refusing to get off the seat when sister Liene asked? Do you have any idea how many of my sisters would have stood up to her?" -- "About as many ideas as such sisters. Zero." -- "Hmm, seems you have an inkling after all," she said with a smile.

She then went around to Art's side. "Art, is it? I daresay I've heard much about you from my fellow sisters." -- "Just how much?"

"Oh come now. Our sisterhood is like one big family. We girls hear more gossip in an hour than men like you would hear in a year, and that's on quiet days," she said to him gaily, speaking excitedly. "That said, I'll let you in on a secret: I wasn't at your trial. Couldn't attend, as me and Isolde had guard duty at the time. I heard what happened afterward. Actually, we heard many stories that day, some of it transcending legend," she said, looking up in a musing expression. "Some said you had slaughtered hundreds of the red skinned warriors. Others, that you had stood toe to toe against the beast and didn't flinch. That must have taken true courage. I have to say, I'm am downright impressed. If I hadn't pledged myself to my sisters I'd find myself quite smitten. Oops! What am I saying," she said, covering her lips with a pair of fingers and looking embarassed.

Art smiled wryly. "My, I hadn't expected my story to become so twisted from the truth in less than a day. You sure you hadn't been getting these stories from Taril over there?"

"Who? Ah, Taril. Last we talked, he wanted to hear me a story, so I told all about Alathea and Tristan. Looked to me like it drank it all up and couldn't care less whether any of it was true. Which it totally is true, of course," she said, covering her mouth in mock embarassment. "The man likes stories, almost as much as the next girl. I'm sure he'll feel right at home with the big gossips. But ah, I seem to have wandered off topic again. Darn it, What were we talking about?" she said, pounding fist into palm. "Oh! I wanted to ask you. The other sisters, they said like, all these things about you…"

"Not all of it pleasant, I suspect?"

"Well no, not really. Liene seems to think you born straight out of hell, the way she tells it, and I'm like, 'no way is this man possibly that bad, I guess I better check with him'. You couldn't possibly have done anything truly bad, like really really bad, or at least not out of ill will… Could you? I mean no, right?"

"Why, no, of course not," said Art, chuckling.

"See? I knew you were better than they made you out to be! And they'd painted you so wrongfully too, what with seemingly half the sisterhood in on it. Good thing I asked you then."

"You know, you can't just take what everyone says at face value," he said, referring to himself and not sure whether to snicker.

"Well maybe not at face value, usually. Though, to be honest it depends on how much I like the story, to be fair. If it paints the person in a golden light, then I'm all for it. Makes the story better that way, so why care whether it's true or not? Now those naughty little stories that say bad things about people, those are the ones you have to watch out for, for they're almost always the product of some shrew of a sister wanting to make someone else look bad. Those ones I refuse to believe. Oh dear, I think I've gotten a bit carried away talking about that, and I'd never even apologized on behalf of the sisterhood. So here goes-- Apologies!" she said as she clasped her hands and bowed down to Art for a split second, then came up flashing a smile. "Something like that, I believe? Well, it may just be coming from me but I represent the rest of the sisterhood! Honest I do! You'll see, it just takes the rest of them some time to come around, but if you stick with us long enough you'll find them all quite charming."

"Well then it's quite unfortunate that it won't happen," said Art, staring forward.

"What, just because you're banished? Oh no, Kashya couldn't have been serious. Why, that was just to scare you in line!" -- "Easy for you to say," Art retorted. "…Or maybe she really was being serious, I wouldn't really know," she said, cheeks flushed as she looked away for a quiet moment, then turned back. "Was she… being that serious?" -- Art shrugged. -- "Well, that just won't do! We've only just met, how can we be going our separate ways in… what, one day? We're like already halfway there, right?" she asked, looking around. Several others nodded. She continued, "Yeah, only two days. How can that be enough? And without all the caravaners here, it'll be quite lonely… You wouldn't leave a heart-torn young maiden like me all alone, would you?" she said, looking at him with doe-like eyes. "Course you wouldn't. But even if you did, you have to at least get to meet us sisters before you do!"

She turned to call to the sisters who'd kept walking in front of of them, "Amplisa, Paige," and within moments they arrived. "Art, Roland, Taril: Amplisa, Paige. Amplisa, Paige: Art, Roland, Taril. There now, you know each other. I'd be sorely disappointed if you forgot each other's names by noon," she said, wagging a warning finger at them all with a grin. She turned to Art. "Paige and I are pillow friends," she said, prompting a gasp of surprise from Paige. -- "Ryann! How could you… that's not something you just go about telling others! How many times do I have to tell you?" -- "Oh, don't worry," Ryann said, waving dismissively at her. "I've lost count how many people I've told, I'm sure the entire monastery knows about how we throw pillow fights whenever you steal my arrows--" -- "Ahh! Keep quiet, Ryann," said Paige, looking scandalized and rushing to cover Ryann's mouth with her hand. -- "What? You're not bashful about it, are you? Then maybe you should consider not taking my things, like my bras, and my undies, and that one time ow ow ow," she gasped in mock pain as Paige started pounding on her shoulder in alarm. "Okay, I'll stop talking about you now…

"Oh yes, meet Amplisa. Great with the bow, even better with the brush… Did you know, the monastery has a studio where Amplisa led our art club? We had easels and chairs," Ryann offered. Amplisa looked away, smiling with a face almost beet red. -- "Yep, they almost killed me," remarked Art, "seeing as how they almost knocked the breath out of me when I'd almost tripped over some of them." -- "Breathtaking, aren't they? We've been putting them up for gallery in the withdrawing room. Amplisa's our best painter when it comes to fruit basket and carnation setups. Those're my favorites, one look at one of those and you can just feel the sweetness of the grapes and the fragrance of the flowers," -- she took a deep breath -- "mmm… So refreshing. And the best part is," she said as she poked Amplisa in the side, "it took me doing some scribbling to get her started on it. Wouldn't even touch it at first, amiright?" -- "Oh noes," muttered Amplisa as she planted a palm against her face. -- "Oh come on, he hasn't heard it." She turned back to Art. "So you see--" -- "Manure duty for you when we get back to the monastery if I hear another word out of you about that," said Amplisa, glaring at her. -- "Not a word," Ryann echoed with a grimace.

Ryann turned back to Art. "Say, what you did back at the monastery… I wanted to say thank you. For what it's worth, I think what you did to be quite noble, and courageous."

"Courage can be hard to distinguish from stupidity," said Art, raising his right arm. "Sometimes, when I'm my more discerning self, I realize that I'd played the fool."

"Most of the caravaners, even those who were armed, went the other way when we went to join the fight. You… You asked me how you could help in the fight. I think, in times like these, we need more people like you."

[Wherein Art makes a fuss about how the sisterhood had mistreated him.]

It suddenly struck Art what she referred to. When he'd parted ways with Warriv and Taril, he'd asked one of the archers… that was her. "Ah," he said, blushing. "I believe we hadn't been properly introduced back then. I would like to say well met, but I think we can both agree we could have met in happier circumstances," said Art.

"Oh come now, don't look so down," chided Roland. "We're at least leaving the place in one piece." He winced. "Most of us, at least."

"Yes, we're leaving," said Art, glaring at Roland. "And once we're gone, what then? The sisterhood continues their fight, all one their own? With what assets, exactly?" He turned to Ryann. "Oh wait, forget I asked. Last time I asked I got lies tossed in my face, and they used it against me at trial. So forget it. After all, I'm leaving here, and never coming back. Why should I care what happens to the sisterhood? Once we get to Tristram, we're all going separate ways."

Ryann turned to look at him with some sadness. "Our sisterhood has not proven a very good host as of late. But in Sasha's defense… The north hall took severe losses. Most of our sisters from that wing were the first to engage the invaders, and the first to die. Sasha's lost pretty much everyone she knew, and Liene fared little better. And though we are loath to admit it, our sisterhood has not fared all that well. We lost seventy five sisters then, and a few others we dispatched since then have also failed to show up. We have less than a hundred and fifty sisters all in all, and many of those are scattered between guard duty at various other villages close to the monastery, and scouting parties throughout the intervening forest. Many of us are desperate, we don't see any light at the end of the tunnel."

"Why are you telling me all this? Won't Liene get upset if she finds out you've been disclosing all this to someone she thinks is a spy?"

"Liene isn't here, and I doubt you'd run to tell her. Besides, I saw you coming downstairs to help in the fight. You showed up. Even if you fled afterwards… that, in my book, makes you one of us. Not quite the same as a sister, since you're a lad, but close, like you're part of the family." -- "You mean, 'brother'?" -- "Yes, that," she said, chuckling. Then more seriously: "From what Diane said… You stood before the beast, there at the end when all our other sisters had fled or been slain. Even if it was for only a moment. It must have taken more courage than I ever had, to do that. It couldn't have been easy, and we hadn't the right to demand that of anyone, certainly not from our guests. And what you were doing with necroturgy… That was your own way of trying to help, wasn't it?"

"And if it was?"

"Well, even if it wasn't… For what you did that night, our sisterhood ought to welcome you with open arms."

"It sure doesn't seem like it did."

"We erred this time, and we don't deserve a second chance, but if you were to stay, I believe you'd have seen that there's yet some good in our order."

"Well, it's a bit too late, isn't it?" asked Art. "Unless Kashya decides to let me back, I can never return."

Ryann fell silent. Roland turned to Art with a chuckle. "Oh yes, I seem to recall a certain someone wanting me to stay behind to help the sisterhood, but I can't seem to remember who. Remind me again what idiot it was that said that?" he said, shooting Art a wide grin. -- "Why are you looking at me? I didn't say anything," said Art, before making a point to study his fingernails.

"Looks like the game's up," noted Taril. "Care to spills the beans now?"

Art relented, and turned to Roland. "You said you didn't feel like you had the courage to do it. I couldn't just watch you walk away in defeat, or you'd forever feel like you've been a terrible failure. I felt the same way, when I fled from the beast." He grimaced. "You know who the first person I killed that night was? A sister." He shot the stunned Ryann a look that said, don't protest. "A mercy killing, and not the only one I had to commit that night, either. You want to know who was the first person whom my blade drew blood from? A damsel in distress." The memory of him slashing through the woman's bloody, carved skin echoed in his mind. "So no, I don't think I had any right to call myself a hero after that. But you know what? Not half an hour later I went and stood before the gates of the monastery, sword upraised, ready to receive all the fury of a stampeding horde of redskins." He turned to Roland. "What right did I have, to fight that night? And yet I did. I did it because I had someone to protect." He patted Roland on the shoulder. "If nothing else, it's an opportunity to redeem yourself. You may not see yourself as a templar now, but put yourself in the right place, and the opportunity will present itself to you."

"Aye, and put yourself in the wrong place, and a sword will present itself to your heart," retorted Roland.

They fell into silence at that, and after a moment the flighty Ryann dropped further back to speak to some other caravaners behind them. Art felt a bit disingenuous about the whole thing, what with him looking to abandon the sisterhood at the earliest opportunity while telling Roland that he ought to go support it. If he, who at least felt close with several people at the village the sisterhood now defended, wasn't going to be returning back to the sisterhood, how could he expect any more of a man who had no ties to the sisterhood whatsoever? The hypocrisy of it chewed at him.

They walked on for the rest of the morning and noon in silence. Many villages passed them by, but he couldn't be bothered with those. All along the way, his thoughts went to the plight of the sisterhood he'd be leaving behind. Perhaps his first impression of the sisterhood had been tainted by his prosecution by Liene and his being put in the pillory. The sisterhood's own impression of him certainly had been twisted by his use of necroturgy, and he'd hardly even used it.

His mind drifted to his memories of the other sisters. Kashya, who'd manipulated Gheed's greed for the sisterhood's own benefit. Diane, tentatively approaching him to apologize for being too afraid to speak out earlier. Ryann, with seemingly not a care in the world, whose innocence reminded him of Selena.

[Wherein the caravan arrives at Tristram, they stay for the night, and Art, Ryann and Blaise encounter fallen at the market.]

It was late that evening when they approached the gates of the walls of Tristram. Turrets lined machicolated stone walls, which rose fifty feet into the air. The gates were massive, red oaken doors, guarded by half a dozen guards in the silver-knight-and-red-demon livery of the town. Merchants passed in and out of the bustling gates, with the guards inspecting the cargoes of each as they passed. "We're here at last," cheered Art, stretching his arms. "Sure took a long while to get this far. From here on out, we'll all be going our separate ways."

"Welcome to Tristram," said Warriv, loud enough to get everyone's attention. "You all have your entry tolls ready. One penny[denarius] a person. Gheed, I'm sure you know that doesn't apply to you, so don't be complaining to me about life not being fair. It certainly isn't you have more goods than the rest of us combined," he said to the merchant, garnering a few chuckles.

After the guards, satisfied with their inspections, had waved everyone through the gates, the caravaners and the sisters grouped together along the main street, by the entrance. Warriv called out for attention once more. "Alright, this is it, I'm sure many of you are eager to be headed your separate ways. If you are bound for Duncraig however, I ask that you consider meeting us back here morning after tomorrow, when we'll be setting out once again. That gives us all some time to take care of business in this town. The sisters won't be going any further than here, and my group has a couple of veteran guards and you've already spent quite a few days traveling with us, so you know going with us'll be your safest bet. See you then!"

Warriv, Taril, and some of the other caravaners said their farewells to each other. Some of the caravaners began dispersing in all directions, and the sisters headed down main street. Warriv led the rest of his group, Art included, to the Smug Mug, where the sisters were staying as well. The new arrivals paid the innkeep a penny[denarius] each for board. Warriv offered to pay for Art, which he graciously accepted; he'd only had six pennies[denarii] left, all that the Bedfords could gift him, and could ill afford to spend them, not when he had no forseeable means of securing an income. Taril performed for his keep that night with the usual routine that he performed at every inn he visited, much to the delight of the other customers. Warriv paid a penny[denarius] to claim a squalid little room on the third floor of the establishment, to which he, Taril, and Art retired for the night.

The next morning Warriv got up early and left to go buy a wagon. Shortly afterward Taril left as well; Art knew he'd be visiting some of the other inns up and down main street, performing for silver. That left him alone his room, and as there was precious little to do in a room with naught but a round little wooden desk and three mats for beds, he exited, and almost ran into Ryann, who'd been engaged in conversation with another of her fellow sisters out in the hallway. Behind her, the door to their own room had been propped half open.

"Oh look who's up! I hope our conversation didn't wake you up," said Ryann, turning to him. -- "Good morning to you too. I… guess this is farewell." -- "Whatever do you mean?" -- "Aren't you going to be headed back to Thistledown this morning?"

"Oh, haven't you heard? We actually have another assignment for while we're here," Ryann replied. "Liene and a few of our sisters are going to seek an audience with Count Trabern, see if we can't get some support in our battle. Amplisa's group's going to be visiting the cathedral to ask the the local bishop for a pledge of assistance from the Order of the Light. Once we've gotten the coin we need, we'll be buying supplies." -- "Which group are you going with then?" -- "Neither. Blaise and I are going to be scouting the local market, she said, tilting her head toward the lanky young woman standing beside her. "That way we can give a report to Liene and Amplisa before we start allocating our silver between the various supplies we need to purchase."

Art took note of Blaise's puffy eyes and cheeks stained with tears, and asked Ryann, "is she all right?" -- "Oh, don't mind her. I've told her a thousand times, she can't put on such a teary face in front of people who aren't her sisters, but she never listened," she said, and nipped at Blaise's cheeks with her fingers, smiling. "Hey Blaise, can we cheer up a little bit over here?" -- Blaise just sniffed. -- "Why is she crying though?" -- Blaise replied, "Why can't you take me seriously, Ryann? Do you really not see what we're up against? They took the monastery, and…" she broke off sobbing. -- "There now, younger sister, you have to stay strong." -- Blaise wrapped her arms around Ryann. "I don't know how you can keep staying so strong…" -- "It's all right, we'll manage," Ryann said to her, before turning back to Art. "Ah, almost forgot. We told you where we're headed; but what about you?"

Art pointed a thumb back at his room. "I'm going to be going with Warriv's group on to Duncraig, eventually. That means I'm free to wander for today." -- "Well then why don't you come with us? Come, come!" said Ryann, dragging him by his left hand. -- "But I don't have much money…" -- "Oh, you mean you don't enjoy our company?" -- "What? No, that's not--" -- "Excuses, excuses! Come now," she said, and dragging him, they went downstairs and then bounding down the street.

A few blocks down main street they came across a perpendicular, wide street lined with stalls and store buildings on both sides. The buildings on either side loomed with their three floors, each of them overhanging the level below with the second floors overshadowing the stalls lining the road on either side. Merchants hawked their wares at what must surely have been hundreds of passersby walking up and down the street. Here on the primary market street, large inns and taverns lined the road. They went down the street, passing by a performer who Art recognized as using the way of fiery breath to spew gouts of flame from his mouth while spinning about in a martial dance with a pair of sword-twirling co-performers. They went past a brothel, with its red lanterns hanging out before its facade and several scantily clad women standing at the entrance.

"This way," said Ryann as they took a right at the next intersection into Fishmonger's Street, where salmon and trout, bass and mackerel lay on wooden chopping boards and in barrels lining both sides of the road, the distinct smell of bad fish borne on the air. At one of the stalls, fried fish hung suspended on skewers, and a crowd had gathered as another merchant brought in their latest shipment of clam, crab and lobster.

A block down the street turned into Greens Street, where they passed by stalls and markets to the brim with all manner of fruit and vegetables, past a store selling turnips and a sweet scented stall of a merchant selling carnations. All over the ground littered scraps of foot-trodden vegetables, and in boxes in the back Art could make out a few loads of watermelon, canteloupe.

They went a block down that street. "Ah, we're almost there," said Ryann, gesturing at the intersecting street before them. "Grains Street." Then as they rounded the corner, they froze in silence in utter surprise. There they saw a group, about two dozen odd, strolling leisurely down the street with a group of six town guards standing beside them. There they were, inspecting sacks of flour and millet and barley, pointing at several piles, and setting down silver pieces to the merchants before them, and others the midgets throwing batches of them onto a trio of wheelbarrows. That in itself would have been the most normal thing on Grains Street. But that was not all.

Art looked on, mouth agape in shock. He couldn't believe his eyes as they beheld four shamans and a dozen-odd midget warriors.

Chapter 17: Brawling Down Market Street

[Wherein Blaise goes hysterical at the fallen, the guards intervene, and Ryann drags her away before things escalate.]

"They say you can meet the strangest people at the market," Art mused out loud. "Though I have to say, this wasn't what I had in mind."

The two sisters seemed to have shaken themselves out of their surprise because the next moment they had charged around the corner into Grains Street, Blaise pointing a finger at the nearest shaman, screaming, "You bastards! How dare you show yourself in human territory, after all the people you've killed?"

"Oh crap," muttered Art, looking around and noticing the milling passersby had turned their attention toward the spectacle. He noted that while the shamans held their skull-and-torch staves in hand, the town guard had at least seen fit to confiscate the scimitars from a majority of the midget warriors; he saw only two, maybe four, of them still carried scimitars by their sides. The lot of them all seemed to wear gambeson, most of them white and brown, but only two or three carried round shields and the rest didn't have their bucklers. Most importantly, while all of them stood covered in woad paint, none had the pitch. If Blaise's heedlessness brought them into a confrontation with the red skins, then the two archers, combined with the guards, could handle them… However when he set his eyes on the four guards that had been chaperoning the redskins, he saw they now had their hands on the hilts of their swords, staring at Blaise. There would be no guarantee they wouldn't turn against the sisters instead.

Ryann had grasped hold of Blaise's arm, and was now trying to pull her back to Art's position, but Blaise struggled against her pull and kept on shouting. "Where do you get off on this? Is taking our monastery not good enough for you, now you need to stick it to us here as well?" She freed herself from Ryann's grasp and with a few steps arrived mere feet away from the redskins, all of whom had turned to face her way. "These grains," she said, kicking the side of a wheelbarrow filled to the brim with sacks of supplies. "Where did you get the silver to pay for this?" She laughed, almost hysterical. "Since when did barbarians the likes of you even start to use the penny[denarius]? Do you mint them? No. And I'm sure no merchant would interact with brutes like you. So why don't you just admit it?" She sweeped her arms over all the covered wagons they had behind them. "You're paying for all this with the loot you've taken from my fellow sisters, aren't you? Aren't you?" She pointed an accusatory finger at each of the nearby merchants. "And you, you, and you. You know these mongrels can't be up to anything good coming here, yet you still oblige them like any other customer! Is the silver that good to you, that you'd bare your necks out to their blades? Do you really think you have a spare life to throw away?"

"Sister Blaise!" shouted Ryann as she caught up to her and, grabbing her by the arm, attempted to pull her away. "Don't do anything rash!"

"Rash? " Blaise turned on her sister, snarling. "You, calling me rash? Was it rash when the redskins burst into our monastery and slaughtered sister and caravaner alike, forcing us out of our homes? Was it rash when they then burned the outlying hamlets to the ground, slaughtering men and women and children? Because I didn't do any of those things, they did," she finished, screaming. She then turned back to the stunned redskins. "And don't you dare deny it! You may have these idiot Tristramers fooled, but I, and my fellow sisters, know your true colors. You won't get away this this!"

"Ma'am," said the nearest guard, standing forward and striking an imposing pose in his full suit of mail. "I'll need you to leave now, or else I'll have you tossed in the dungeon." The other guards joined by his side.

"Don't get in our way, guards. This is a matter between the redskins and the sisterhood. We demand vengeance."

"And you will not have it here."

Blaised chuckled at the guard. "As if it were up to you to decide. If that were the case none of us would have any problems right now, now would we? A fight's what you should expect from them, because that's what you'll get." Blaise looked past the guards to the redskins. "Really, now you learn the usefulness of peace, standing put there and letting these sorry excuses for guards cover for you? Why hadn't you shown that same restraint to our sisterhood? Or are you lot just a sorry bunch of cravens who wouldn't dare fight us out in the open? Well? You have us outnumbered a dozen to one right now, so what's keeping you?"

"Sister Blaise, are you seriously trying to stir up a fight now?" Ryann shouted at her in alarm.

"This is your final warning," said a guard, bringing his sword half out of its scabbard.

"Don't think for a moment that you'll make it out of Tristram alive, you bastards!"

"Let's go, now," a desperate Ryann practically begged her sister. "Don't you see, if you keep trying to antagonize them they'll attack us! Right in the middle of the town. There are innocents all around us, you'll get them killed!"

"So what, these redskins would flay their skins either way. It's not like they haven't done it before." Tears fell from her cheeks. "Marta, and Janice, and Lisa… They're all dead, by your hands," she said to the fallen, her voice shaking into sobs as she crumbled into tears, even as she let Ryann pull her away. "It's all your fault… All your fault!"

Some of the scimitar-wielding midgets had their blades half out of their scabbards as well, had taken a step forward as if about to attack, before the shaman closest to the sisters had put out a hand and muttered something that made them stop in their tracks. As Blaise let herself be dragged away, still glaring at and pointing accusingly at the redskins, the shaman stood unmoving, and looked at her with a teethy grin.

[Wherein Art realizes the threat posed by the fallen's trade with Tristram and resolves to disrupt it.]

Ryann dragged her around the corner to Art's location, out of sight of the shamans. "Sister, get a grip over yourself," she pleaded, shaking Blaise by the shoulder and staring right at her. "Have you even thought what would have happened if you'd actually succeeded in getting them to attack?"

"I don't believe it," said Blaise as she sat propped with her back against the wall, fists clenched, even as the three huddled by the street corner. "After all they've done to destroy our sisterhood, killing innocent civilians in the nearest hamlets… And they can just walk about free? Did you see how that elder was grinning at me the whole time? It was mocking us, daring us to attack them so the guards could finish us off! And the guards, siding with them…. How could they…"

"Well they probably don't know what happened yet," Art tried to console her. "Remember, news of the attack probably hasn't reached these parts yet. We're one of the earliest to arrive in town."

"It's not like we haven't fought them before! They've attacked other villages in the area, even if rarely as much as they have now. There's no way the town guardsmen could possibly think them innocent. They ought to know better!"

"Wait a minute, you said you've fought them before, and the redskins are from the local area? I had thought they were invaders from afar, is that not the case?" asked Art.

"Oh dear," said Ryann. "I keep forgetting that you are a caravaner and new here. Have you gone all this time without knowing about the redskins? Their tribal lands are in the high up in the wilderness of the forested mountain ranges northeast of here, their closest villages just a few days' walk away. Very close to the monastery. They've been there for a long time and I can't ever recall them doing anything like trading with humans, it's just not a thing they do. They don't know our language, our customs. This… shouldn't be possible."

"Well why not? Surely anyone could see benefits to trade. Their being rather close to human civilization practically guaranteed that they'd get involved in the economy sooner or later."

A thought worried him. Ryann had said multiple villages, a tribal homeland; how large of a redskin civilization were they talking about, to field the kind of numbers that could take on the sisterhood and win? What assets might they have at their disposal? If they'd managed to strike so hard against the sisterhood even without trading for more suitable weapons and better armor, then what could they do once they had started engaging in trade for real?

He peered around the wall, to see the shamans had returned to what looked like barter with the merchants in the area as if nothing had happened. The guards looked content as well, and the rest of the civilians had returned to their tasks, now that Blaise had left the scene. They'd managed to already fill up one wagonload of goods and he doubted they'd have trouble with the rest. Even without language, well, there was a certain kind of language to setting down a stack of coin in front of somebody, pointing at goods, turning away with looks of disapproval until a proper balance of trade had been agreed upon.

And if this group managed to conclude its trade successfully, well the merchants would be happy about it, and if that happened they would clamor to accept more such visits by redskins, engaging in more trade, and a trend of fair trade had a tendency to turn into cordial political relations. The town could very well find itself being goaded by a coalition of the local merchant guilds into forming trade pacts with the redskins, and should the sisterhood attack the redskins' traders in a continuation of their war, that could be seen as an affront to the town. A series of such incidents could very well lead to an alliance between Tristram and the redskins, and if that happened, the sisterhood would find itself fighting a two front war, Tristram on the west and the redskins to the east. The sisterhood would lose the war, and Thistledown… What would happen to Thistledown in that case? Would Tristram even bat an eye if the village were razed to the ground and all of its inhabitants killed?

No, he couldn't just walk away from this, not if that could happen. He had to break this chain of causality while the truce between the Tristramers and the redskins was tentative and easily disrupted, before they'd had a chance to establish a positive trade history. Damn it, he thought; he'd left his aventail and mail gloves back in his room. He'd not expected a run-in in the middle of town, after all.

Art turned away from his musings to see that Blaise had buried her head between her knees, her hands pulling at her hair. Ryann was chiding Blaise: "…And people call me outspoken. What if they heard of how you went all hysterical just now?"

[Wherein Art convinces Ryann and Blaise to go through with attacking the fallen here.]

"Actually, Blaise has a point." -- Ryann turned to him in confusion. -- "You were right, Blaise. We can't let that lot waltz out of here with their goods. We can't let them convince the Tristramer merchants that they're safe to trade with, else things are going to look even worse for the sisterhood."

"What do you mean? Oh, Art, did you really think we would let them bring their supplies back to their villages? We'll intercept them of course. We'll go tell Liene and Amplisa. Then with our other sisters we can set up an ambush right outside the walls. Kill these creatures, take their loot for ourselves. We really need the money as it is, and this'll serve to take down three birds with one stone."

"What, and piss off the Tristramers and make them look like they can't guarantee the safety of merchants trading with them, so that others would be less likely to deliver their wares through here? Don't be so quick to forget that Tristram lies on the silk road to Aranoch, and they make a killing off caravaners passing through. Caravaners who wouldn't be passing through if the town's reputation for ensuring safety of passersby were to be shaken. Or would you think the merchant guilds would be pleased with our intervention?"

She frowned. "I can see why that would bring the wrath of the townsfolk on our sisterhood. But we really need the loot. We don't have that much silver as it is."

"Trust me, the silver isn't worth it. Besides, if we did it your way then the merchants would still have had a positive experience dealing with the redskins. They'd be more positively receive the redskins going forward. Only the sisterhood would appear wrong in their eyes, and after being called rogue by the king, I don't think that's something the sisterhood wants to suffer. If we hope to discourage the merchants from trading with them going forward, we have to intervene now, while they're still on Grains Street."

"You sound like you have a better idea, Art, but you saw what happened earlier when Blaise tried to rouse the redskins into attacking. They didn't bite. And if we had stayed there for a minute more, or tried anything, the guardsmen would have locked us up in a cell somewhere. And if either of us went out there again, the guards would recognize us and they wouldn't wait so long to shoo us out of there."

"Which is why I'll go. And you're right, we can't simply hurl expletives at them and hope some will stick. They don't know our language, after all, probably why that shaman wasn't doing anything more than grin. Far as I know, he probably thinks grinning is a way to show peaceful intentions. And we can't do anything that would appear remotely threatening, since then the guards would be on us in an instant."

"What about the civilians? If you get them riled into attacking us, they'd probably lash out at them too."

"Well, I'm hoping that with my plan, they 'll focus on me. You'll be there to help. I've seen at least a bit of what you and your sisters can do with your bows; some of those would prove very helpful. And don't forget the four guards there; they'll act to protect the civilians. And only the tall ones and a handful of the little ones have weapons." At that Ryann looked at a loss for other excuses.

That of course had been no more than an excuse, so they'd go along with his plan. Against almost two dozen redskins, just the seven of them would be fighting for their very lives, much less keeping the civilians safe, and there were so many of them milling about. Even with other town guardsmen about the town who would assuredly rush to the site of the commotion within minutes, that still gave the redskins whole minutes where they'd have near absolute freedom to act. Innocent people would die as a result of his call. But if he let these redskins walk away, so that they gained the food they need to keep fighting the sisterhood, if they defeated the sisterhood, the only power between the monastery and Tristram, then a few lives would be but a drop in the bucket.

"You're going to get them riled up into attacking, right?" asked Blaise. "Good," she said with a smile, standing up. "Go out there and teach them what it means to mess with the sightless eye. You can count on my bow. Can he count on yours?" she said, unslinging her bow and turning to Ryann. -- Ryann nodded and unslung her bow as well. Art smiled and stepped away from them, into the intersection where he beheld the redskins.

They'd taken much from him, costing him his right hand and the ability to fight properly, keeping his caravan from continuing on east. They'd taken even more from those unfortunate sisters who had fallen into their hands that fateful night. But he'd gained something from them as well.

[Wherein Art riles the redskins into attacking.]

He walked up to the redskins and shouted, "Rakanishu!"

"Raka--" repeated one of the shamans, looking utterly surprised. -- "Rakanishu, zehe?" shouted one of the midgets in outrage. --"Daka, daka!" shouted another midget, who brought its scimitar out of its sheath with a singing of metal. -- "Kura, rakanai," said another shaman, putting a hand on the midget so that the midget put its scimitar back in its sheath.

Huh, they had more control than he suspected, thought Art; they didn't bite. Well, how about this one then? "Daka, daka! Rakanishu!" He said, slamming a fist on the wooden countertop of a nearby stall. It didn't have quite the impact he hoped for. Not having a sword and shield to slam together certainly had its drawbacks.

He saw that look of unrestrained fury on all the midgets as one of them shouted "Rakanishu, na taka ta Kureha!? Daka! Rakanize kureku da!", and before the shamans could order them to stay their hands, one of the redskins had pulled out its scimitar and had charged at him. The guards, seeing this one with its scimitar out, pulled out their swords, metal ringing on metal.

"Daka, rakanai!" shouted the lead shaman, but as it whirled around to confront the guardsmen facing them from all sides, its grin faltered into a look of utter dismay. Art smiled at that, knowing that the shaman knew that it had been outplayed. It then shouted, pointing a finger at the guards, "Rakabosh!"

Art knew what that meant. He shouted to the guards, "Step back!" They'll--" but it was too late; the midgets had, as one, surrounded all four of them, as they stood so close, and lunged at them as a group. The guards' blades slashed out at their attackers, but with each of them separated from the others, and beleaguered by so many opponents at once, were quickly pinned down. Art didn't have to look to know that within seconds their swords would be forced out of their grasp, and then four more midget warriors would be armed.

The midget warriors shouted "Rakanishu!", the guards shouted and grunted before becoming overwhelmed, and the passersby screamed in terror and panicking, made down the two sides of the street. Art shouted "Ah, watch it!" as he backpedaled away from the nearest midget warrior with its scimitar thrusted at him as it leapt after him. He took another step back and collided into the back of a startled civilian who, it seemed, had only just realized the situation he was in; and Art found himself momentarily face to face with the creature bearing down on it. He cursed that he hadn't a sword or even a shield with him.

[Wherein Art fights at Grains Street, and gets separated from the sisters.]

Out the side of his vision he spotted one of those sacks of flour lying on the countertop of a stall. He took hold of the weighty sack with his left hand, brought it out before his chest just as the scimitar slashed into it, cutting right down its seam and slicing it wide open, most of the flour spilling out onto the ground and lightening the load. Hardly any of it remained in the sack in his hand, certainly not enough to obstruct the next slash. But now it had become much lighter. He thrust it out at the midget warrior before him, sending up a cloud of flour, blinding his opponent. But as it had already had its blade swinging out at him again, Art had to step back at the same time to avoid its blow. The scimitar would have slashed through thin air, except it slashed into the cloud of flour instead, sending a burst of it right into Art's eyes and mouth.

Art dropped the sack and stepped back, coughing, as he tried to clear out his eyes. He couldn't see, but he knew where the midget warrior stood, hacking as well from all the flour it had accidentally inhaled; knew it to be but two yards away. Where were Ryann and Blaise, where they intervening? He wanted to call out to them, but managed only another cough. The midget warrior approached once again, it would soon make another swing…

Amongst the cries and the pattering of feet as the rest of the redskins began to move and the civilians began their scramble to safety, Art felt out with his hand along the countertop he passed by as he retreated. His hand knocked over a weighing scale. He picked it up, then used it to block the next slash from the scimitar, the vibration ringing down the scale into this hand and almost causing him to drop it. He was dangerously exposing his arm, he knew, but his opponent, being blinded as he was, couldn't capitalize on his momentary weakness.

The impact had come from Art's right, the foe's left; he had felt the impact against the scales he held as the colliding scimitar had passed on by, and thus knew the next swipe would come in from his left, so he parried accordingly, and with a clang the scimitar knocked his scales to his right.

He continued to backpedal while wiping the flour out of his eyes with the back of his right arm. He didn't have much of a choice; the scales he held couldn't safely block the slashes from the much longer reaching blade his enemy held. He just had to hold his ground, draw his attacker's attention long enough for the civilians behind him to get some distance from the redskins. He could hear from the screaming and the shouting behind him, which hadn't receded as quickly as he'd hoped, that the sudden rush of passersby had crowded the street behind him, causing a bottleneck where they couldn't get away as quickly as the advancing redskins… And then he realized with a start, as he finally managed to half open his eyes to catch a glimpse of what stood before him, multiple midget warriors advancing on his position, the two new joiners holding the fallen town guards' swords as well as their kite shields.

They raised them just in time to block a pair of oncoming arrows -- the sisters had loosed them from right behind him. They deflected right off the shields without making a dent and the trio of redskins kept their advance; they were almost on top of him. "Run!" shouted Art as he threw the scale at the lead one, hoping to knock it off balance and slow the two flanking it, and as he turned to run, he looked over the nearby stall to see what else he could use. Bags, more bags, a pile of barley spilled over a flat pewter tray. He seized the tray and with a swipe sent the grains flying at the midgets, forcing the lead one to stop and look away with eyes closed while the two flanking it raised their shields to block the splattering.

Then they were on him. Holding on to the tray at the edge, Art parried first one blade and then another, even as the metal screeched as the blade slashed across the tray. No proper shield, this, without a handle behind the tray, leaving his fingers vulnerable. He pulled back yet again. He could see that behind these three redskins, some of the other ones advancing down the other side of the street, civilians screaming and looking behind their backs in terror as their fled, blood spurting as some had been cut down. He couldn't keep falling back, or the midget warriors would fall upon the civilians on his side as well.

Then he was out in the intersection, and the front ranks of the enemy too close for the rogues to loose any more arrows. To his sides, Ryann and Blaise had tossed their bows aside and now held shield and spear in hand. They stepped forward, side by side, and thrust their weapons ineffectually against the kite shields on the other side. The pair formed a crude shield wall, but with only the two of them, they instantly became outflanked by their three opponents, and without a proper shield Art couldn't step up to them. "Fall back," he called out, but the sisters were already stepping back, giving ground each time the midget warriors slashed with their scimitar or swords.

Art could see, standing behind the enemy midget warriors, one of the shamans with crescent upraised, flanked by two more of the woad-smeared midgets. It pointed its gnarled finger and a bolt of flame shot forward, to blast against Ryann's boots, causing her to shout in panic and fall back further. Then another fire bolt, and another step back. Art turned back to look upon the intersection; he had to find something to continue the fight with. Instead, he saw only the backs of the mass of fleeing civilians right behind him. He turned back toward the midgets to see a sword slashing right out at him, which he parried with the tray, but the tip of the sword slid screeching across the pewter to slice at his fingers, drawing blood. Involuntarily he let go of his tray, leaving himself exposed. He dodged to the left to avoid the next strike, and then retreated, and found himself in Greens Street.

Where were the sisters? Looking over the heads of these three midgets, he saw they'd gotten separated from him and were backing down the street, opposite the intersection from his, and they were still being forced back, further away from him, by a shaman and two midget warriors. That left the other side of the intersection unguarded for the moment. His heart fell in dismay as he saw a midget warrior hewing down civilian after panicking civilian down that path as the rear of the fleeing crowd couldn't keep their distance from their attacker.

[Wherein Art backs into Greens Street and fights there.]

Art backed further down Greens Street, his opponents bearing down on him. He wanted to get out off harm's way; with the way of the albatross he could easily leap atop the three-story building on either side of the street. But the fleeing crowd behind him could not, and his fleeing would leave them exposed. As he watched, a fleeing old man hobbling along on a walking cane couldn't make it away from the midgets in time. They hacked him down, their blades gleaming red in an instant as the man toppled over, dead. Things had already gone more haywire than he'd expected, with him and the sisters being forced out past the intersection and giving the redskins more avenues of attack. He couldn't allow any more innocent blood to be shed if he could avoid it.

Looking to his sides, he saw fruits and vegetables in wooden boxes atop the stalls along this street. He grabbed an apple, then another, and lobbed them at each of the midget warriors in turn; he'd wanted to do it with both hands, but without his other hand he couldn't throw them fast enough. His foes simply blocked them with their kite shields and kept on advancing. Realizing that tactic wouldn't work any more, he lifted up an entire tray of pears and threw the tray spinning at the lead midget, whereupon the pears spilled out to settle at their feet. One of their number stumbled, its sword striking down and skewering an apple as it attempted to keep from falling over. He picked up a tray of brussels sprouts and flung that over as well, but these they just batted aside and marched over without tripping. He passed a box of watermelons and was about to reach for one of them before deciding against it -- those were too heavy to lob.

He lost a few precious seconds and the midget warriors were almost on top of him. With a heavy pull he brought down the wooden market stall beside him crashing down into the middle of the street. Cauliflowers and cabbages spilled out, slowing the midget warriors down as they had to step over the fallen wooden frame as well as all the round objects now littering the street. As they tried to step over it, he knocked down a second stand, bringing all manner of dates and grapes spilling into the street on top of everything else. With the remaining upright stalls on both sides of the street, the midget warriors advanced over the fallen wooden stall.

Art watched them approach, them walking tentatively and in single file over the obstacle course, then when the lead midget stepped out from the first downed stall over the second one, he hooked a foot around his end of the fallen stall's wooden legs and pulled back on it. The lead midget warrior seemed caught by surprise as it flailed from the wood of the stall under its feet suddenly got pulled out from beneath it, and barely managed to find its balance before Art kicked that same stall away, back towards the midgets. The midget warrior, recovering from the stall beneath it going one way, had shifted its weight accordingly; this second thrust in the opposite direction took it completely off balance. It instinctively tried to step forward to reaffirm its footing -- and its foot caught against one of the middle legs of the stall frame. It collapsed forward, right on top of the rest of the wooden frame, its neck lying on top of the edge of the frame and its head leaning over it. Its sword fell out of its hand and clattered to the ground by Art's feet.

Art stomped down on the back of its head, crushing the fallen midget warrior's windpipe against the edge of the fallen frame. As it grasped for its throat and struggled to breathe, Art snatched the sword up from the ground. The second midget warrior, stepping over the frame right behind it, screamed in fury and leapt at Art, its scimitar upraised, and Art parried it aside with his sword, then stepped back to avoid another swipe from its blade, since without a shield he dared not engage the two midgets simultaneously. He'd knew, from the fight at the hamlet, that he could barely even take one of them on at a time. Two would be suicide. Again and again he retreated, wondering how many more seconds now until the reinforcements would arrive.

Behind these two midget warriors arrived a shaman, flanked by two more midgets, who had apparently found some pewter trays of their own. One of them picked up the wooden walking stick of the slain old man, and the other had apparently pilfered a dagger off one of the fallen town guards. Behind those, the more than half of Greens Street that he'd been forced to retreat past now lay abandoned, looking like a complete disaster zone. He dodged as a fire bolt struck past where he stood a moment ago; he hadn't a shield, and letting his gambeson catch on fire now when melee enemies bore down on him would be deadly. He dodged again as another fire bolt passed him by, to immolate one of the fleeing civilians. The woman panicked, screaming and floundering and driving the rest of the hysterical, fleeing civilians into even more of a panic as they now had to avoid the her flames as well.

He couldn't keep this up or more lives would be lost. He couldn't fight in melee; the last time he'd been in this situation he'd gotten the shaman's staff so he could trade ranged attacks with it. He noted the two midgets at the rear. They seemed the greatest weakness at the moment, what with their impromptu weapons, and the shaman with its staff could hardly engage in melee.

[Wherein Art jumps over the midget warriors to try to attack the shaman.]

Horizon to horizon might I fly.

And then he had leapt over them, ending the evocation prematurely to drop out of the sky and land but two steps away from the shaman. He tried to close in on that distance right away, but in a split second the two midgets bringing up the rear and stepped up to block his path to the shaman. The two better equipped midgets he'd left turned to look his way; one of them rushed at him and the other at the fleeing crowd, which Art now left unprotected. He'd have to finish this quickly.

He stepped up close to the rear guard midgets, secure in the knowledge that the dagger wielder couldn't get close to him with only a dagger, and the cane wielder could hardly expect much results against his gambeson. He saw that both of these two wore gambeson and helmet, but no protection for the hands or the neck. He struck out with his sword; the latter parried with the cane, and Art turned it into a swipe at the former. The dagger wielder couldn't well block with the dagger without risking getting its arm hacked off, so parried with the tray, which was what Art had counted on; he pressed his sword against the side of the tray once it made contact, rather than letting it bounce off, then swiped, pressing down hard. The sword took the fingers off the hand holding the tray and the midget retracted its hand screaming in pain. The other midget tried to intervene, but Art blocked with his right arm; the cane rebounded off the gambeson's arm to little effect. Meanwhile Art struck with his sword again; the midget, now without a tray to defend itself, attempted to block with the dagger, and Art's sword wound up slashing against its dagger arm. Because the creature wore gambeson, it bit only a layer deep into the padding before rebounding off.

The shaman pelted him with another fire bolt, which he ducked; the other midget attempted to intercept him with its cane, which he knocked aside; and the now twice wounded midget turned to flee. Art's sword sliced right through the midget's unguarded nape, decapitating it and sending a splatter of its red blood over the other midget's face.

In the place of the downed midget warrior he found himself face to face with the sword-equipped one who had come to protect its shaman. It lashed out with a top down strike, which Art parried with ease, even as he had to dodge to another bolt of flame from the shaman. He attempted to hack down the other rear-guard midget, but the sword intercepted and forced him back. Behind the trio of redskins before him, he saw the other redskin had caught up to the fleeing crowd at the intersection and was lashing out with its scimitar, each swipe bringing down another civilian, and the shouts of the living and screams of the dying had reached a fever pitch. He couldn't stay here any longer, not while the sword wielding one protected its shaman.

[Wherein Art resumes his defense of the crowd, and starts to fight down Fishmonger's Street.]

With a single flap of wings might I glide through the sky, horizon to horizon might I fly.

And then he was over this group and landed right behind the scimitar-wielding midget, standing in the midst of a pile of corpses red with freshly spilled blood, screaming all around, the murdering midget warrior before him oblivious to his presence. It, like the last one he'd slain, wore gambeson and helmet, but it also had its aventail so he couldn't stab it through the neck. He kicked the creature in its back, knocking it forward and causing it to collapse into a screaming young woman who had turned at her intended killer in fear. The two fell into a heap on the ground, with the woman supine and the midget prone with face crashed into hers and its legs stradding her waist, and it pushed against her bosum with its kite shield in an attempt to right itself, and the woman screaming with eyes shut closed in abject terror.

Crashing down with ten tons of solid stone, I crush all beneath me. Art had swapped his hold on the sword to clutch it by the blade, and slammed the crossguard into the creature's nape. With the sound of snapping spine, it collapsed lifeless into the young woman, face planted into hers for a moment before she slapped its head aside and wiped at her lips with her arm with a look of disgust.

Art whirled around and barely dodged another fire bolt before backpedaling again as the one with the sword bore down on him. He parried left, then parried right and down, the blades singing, and then he stepped further back, out of the now abandoned intersection and into Fishmonger's Street, with the trio of redskins in pursuit.

He took one look at the stalls about him now, upon which stood tray after wooden tray of fish and seafood of all varieties. He held his sword clutched against his right arm, freeing up his left to toss the contents of each tray into the street, carpeting the path in masses of fish, then clams as he passed an abandoned stall selling those in turn. His pursuers followed, though stepping carefully over the fish-littered street, almost slipping at several points and buying him several precious seconds. The shaman continued to launch its fire bolts, sending stall after stall up in flames as they went.

Within moments Art had fallen back most of the length of Fishmonger's Street, with the midget warriors surrounded by the fish all over the ground and kicking aside the mollusks shell by shell. Art took his sword in hand again, and speared a salmon on the tip of his sword. He then gave a quick sweep with the sword that sent the skewered salmon flying at the nearest midget warrior, the one with the sword, following up with a lunge at the less well defended one. A leaf, a petal, a feather, I drift in the open sky. His feet could feel the wind, sense how it ebbed and flowed over the fish lying scattered on the ground with his movement, allowing him to step on solid ground with each step, even as the redskins, caught in a sea of slippery fish, could not move without looking where they stepped lest they slipped. The midget he attacked parried just in time, knocking Art's blade aside by bringing its cane up, but that had only been Art's feint. Carried by the wind, I spin, going where it takes me.

And then Art had whirled around the midget warrior to impale the surprised shaman in the chest. It it too wore gambeson, as well as aventail and mail gloves, so his thrust only sent it sprawling back -- right into the other midget warriors, who, being in a street littered with slippery fish, refused to shift their feet until it was too late and all three of them fell sprawling into the fishy mess. With the midget warriors in no position to parry, Art made to stab down with his sword at the shaman, which now that the shaman lay flat against the ground, could cause severe injury even through gambeson. It brought up its staff to parry, from its right to its left; Art brought his sword into a sweep in the same direction, Art's left to his right, knocking the staff out of the shaman's hand and flying out to the right, to roll down the street.

Art went right after it. Even as the trio of redskins stood up from where they stood, he discarded his sword and took the staff in hand, crescent side up. He pointed, and bolt after bolt of fire shot at them, but the two remaining midget warriors blocked. Both had kite shields now; they must have looted the other one from the one Art had felled earlier. Putting the two side to side, they covered for both themselves and the shaman, who now crouched down to keep a shorter profile. The trio of them kept proceeding down the street, kicking aside fish and clams as they went. Within a moment they had gotten past the rest of the littered fish. The shaman called out some orders, and then the midget with the sword was racing down the street toward the fleeing civilians, shield facing Art to block any fire bolts, and the other one picked up the sword Art had dropped and then lunged at him.

Slender, soft, small, I float on through the sky. Art danced around the one coming at him, to find himself between the midget warrior and the now unarmed shaman. He charged at the shaman, before realizing he no longer had his sword and couldn't decapitate the shaman. Instead he fired a bolt of flame at it, which against its gambeson did very little. So that wouldn't work either. He twirled the staff in his hand, and entered the way of the puppeteer. So, it's come to this after all, he thought, amused. He brought the skull of the staff down low and tapped it across the fish littering the street as he went, with the midget sword-wielder in pursuit. He could feel the bones of each of the fish touched by his staff, in his mind, as if they'd linked up to him like a marionette would by strings to its puppeteer.

[Wherein Art reanimates the fish and crabs to take down his enemies.]

He tried launching the fish at his pursuer. Instead the fish flopped along on their bellies, moving pathetically weakly. Not enough bone in them compared to their weight, he realized, and fish didn't have the skeleton for moving on land. Flipping and flopping was the best they could do. As the midget warrior pursued him, he turned and went back up the street. The midget warrior chose its steps where they'd already knocked the fish aside, so that each step it took landed on solid ground, without slipping. Then with a single thought, Art commanded the bones of fish he'd tapped, and they flipped and he flopped themselves to cover the spot where the midget warrior would stand next. Its boots skidded off the smooth scales of the fish and it fell head over heels to lie prone before Art, who stepped on the sword it still held, then stabbed down with the crescent side of his staff with More mighty than any giant, all shall break beneath my strike, sending one sharp tip of the crescent at its nape. With the force of the thrust, it impaled through the riveted mail, and with a final twitch it stopped moving.

Behind him Art could heart more screams of the fleeing innocents. The midget warrior had caught up to the rearmost among them, now that Art was no longer blocking its way, and slaughtering them. Art was too far away to kill it right away. Instead, he stalked toward the unarmed shaman, who stepped back, eyes wide with fear and shouted, "Bishibosh!" Art knew what that meant, of course, and expected the midget warrior it had dispatched earlier to return and attack Art from behind. It hadn't gotten more than a few dozen steps away and he could hear the pitter patter of its return already.

Art swiped another tray off a stall counter, this one containing several crabs. He then tapped the bone headpiece against the crabs on the ground before him, and the feeling of control over their carapaces came over him. The crabs, at least, could scuttle about on their feet on dry land. He scuttled them over to the sword lying by his side, and had them grasp it by the hilt with their pincers. Within moments they had the sword firmly in their grasp, though only from where they stood: near the ground.

Could he even do anything with that? he wondered. He'd much rather reanimate the fallen warrior he'd just killed, which at least stood at a decent height, but he'd tried that already and he hadn't practiced enough to gain any decent control of such a complex skeleton yet. He'd have to go with simpler creatures for now.

No; he experimented with them, and with a thought raised them into the air. The crabs, their bodies mostly carapace, levitated into the air, the sword in their grip along with it.

The midget warrior had almost caught up to him, and though it faltered a step upon seeing the floating crabs wielding the sword by the grip, charged right at him. As the warrior came into range, he had the crabs swing the sword they held right at the midget warrior. But his control over the crabs hadn't been fine, and the sword spun about the wrong way, and just too slowly and weakly. The sword slashed against its gambeson, failing to penetrate, before it and the two levitated crabs were slammed aside from the impact against the midget warrior and sent spinning away and out of the crabs' grasp.

It kept coming right at Art, hardly even distracted. Art leapt atop one of the stalls with the way of the albatross, kicked off to another when the midget warrior attempted to hack at his feet. Why hadn't that worked? he asked himself. It hadn't even tripped the creature. Did he fail to get the crabs to hold on to the hilt tightly enough? Had the crabs been too lightweight, too small to leverage the force of the way of the puppeteer properly?

"There it is! Attack!" shouted one of several town guardsmen as they rounded the corner into Fishmonger Street. Finally, thought Art. The fight had felt so long, even though probably not even five minutes had elapsed. The midget warrior noticed their shout and turned to face him, banging its sword and kite shield and shouting "Rakanishu!" It then made to charge at them, but immediately tripped and fell sprawling. Art had maneuvered a crab between its feet and had it pinch a boot with each of the crab's pincers, effectively chaining the creature's feet together. The next moment, the guardsman crashed a mace into its head with a crunch.

Art whirled around to face the shaman. It backed away, then with a scream of "Bawk off!" it took off the way it had come. Art chased after it with his staff held crescent side up, drawing upon the way of the hearth as he launched fire bolt after fire bolt after the racing figure as he followed in pursuit. It managed to dodge his first few hits as it fled through Fishmonger's Street and into Greens Street, where it slowed down in an attempt to find its footing over the pair of downed stalls. Art fired another bolt of flame after it, and it dodged out of the way, but lost its footing and tripped into the wooden frame.

It turned back to look up, mouth agape as Art approached and stood before it, ready to point his index finger at it. It gesticulated wildly with its arms, and screamed, "Have mercy! Please don't kill me!"

Art was taken aback. Since when did the redskins know human language? The shamans hadn't been speaking when he and the two sisters had come across them at Grains Street; they'd been gesturing. How then did it know these words? And these weren't words used for everyday business. Then he realized just where it had picked up those phrases. He snarled in fury, and launched fire bolt after fire bolt into the hapless creature as he shouted at it, "You bastard! How dare you take the desperate pleas of the innocents your kind had tortured and killed, and throw them back at me! How dare you! You hadn't spared them any mercy, now you want it from me?" Fire bolt after fire bolt, until the shaman, screaming, smoking, and immolated in flame as it flailed, died, a charred mess upon the burning wooden stall frame.

[Wherein Art comes across the dead from the battle and decides that he can fight alongside the sisterhood after all.]

A moment later the four recently arrived guards caught up to him, all of their faces concealed from him behind helmets. One of them asked him in a loud voice, "You there -- identify yourself." -- Art turned to face him. "Art Taverley, caravaner staying here for the night." -- "Why is it you wield a weapon of these redskins?" -- "Ah, good sirs, you misunderstand. I had nothing to defend myself when these creatures charged at me. It was only by chance that I found myself with this weapon, and of course I used it to defend myself, nothing more." -- "Really now?" -- "Come on Ilend, give the man a break," said one of the other guards. "He had to make the best out of a bad situation." -- "And yet you were able to use it to spit balls of fire?" the first one continued. "Care to explain your skill with the staff?" -- "You don't really think he's in cahoots with the redskins, do you?" -- "Your friend raises a good point there, do I look like I have red skin to you?"

Then he realized, he was still holding on to the staff, with one half bone. Maybe they hadn't seen him using necroturgy or maybe they assumed the shaman he'd been fighting had done it, and only seen him use the fire half, but him walking around with it would draw attention. Here in Tristram, one of the bastion towns of the Order of the Light which detested necroturgy, carrying that around was akin to painting a target on his back. He tossed the staff onto the floor with feigned look of nonchalance. "Now that they're all dead and you guys are here to guard my back, I can finally be rid of this abhorrent thing." Inwardly he groaned; it had taken him quite some time to get a hold of one of those and he was giving it up voluntarily now. Who knew when he'd get it again? And it had proven quite useful thus far. He hated going about without carrying something for protection.

"I'll be watching you," the first guard said to Art, even as he sheathed his sword.

"Well you shouldn't," replied Art, gesturing at the commoners lying about all along the street, some already become corpses but others clutching their wounds and screaming for help. "I think you'd better tend to these people. Now that the fighting's over, they should be your highest priority."

As the first guard barked out orders to his comrades to secure the area and tend to the wounded, Art raced down the rest of Greens Street to the intersection with Grains Street. All about him he saw slaughter. Dozens of corpses lined the path, most of them slashed through in the back. Blood, bright red, flowing freely, mixing with dirt and trash. Screams, incessant, drowning, haunting. He saw only about a dozen guards stepping gingerly over the devastation. It looked like they'd dispatched the rest of the rampaging redskins, as the only redskins he saw lay unmoving on the ground alongside the slain civilians and the occasional fallen guardsman. Questions came from those holed up in the nearby buildings, asking if it was safe to come out.

He surveyed the three adjoining streets, but could catch no sight of Ryann and Blaise. Maybe they had survived? Or had they been hunted down a few steps around the next corner? He passed through the intersection, along a street past ruined stalls full of confectioneries and pastries, the street he'd last seen the two archers fleeing down.

As he went, several wounded men and women raised out arms toward him, begging for help. He'd caused all this, he thought; he'd brought about so much disaster and suffering to an unsuspecting crowd whose only crime was being at the wrong place at the wrong time. It could easily have been avoided, he told himself. If he'd not taunted the redskins, the sisters could easily have tracked them down once they left the town, like Ryann had suggested, and ambushed them with their arrow-based ways, with the combined power of the two dozen or so sisters who Liene and Amplisa led. This lot wouldn't have stood a chance, and none of these passersby would have been hurt. So much death could have been avoided… And yet, he reminded himself: if he hadn't done this, and made the redskins cause so much grief to the people of the town, Tristram could very well have found itself allied with the redskins, and then many more people, perhaps all the people liviing east of the town, might've eventually died. A necessary evil, he thought.

Why couldn't he have saved more of them? If he had come better equipped… but he had no sword then, and he couldn't very well have asked for one from the guards. If they had instead gone to get more of the sisters… That would have taken too long; the redskins could have finished making their transactions and left the markets by the time Ryann managed to locate all the other sisters, and they couldn't have risked that happening. If he had fought better… He thought back to how he'd fought this time, and couldn't pinpoint any particular mistakes that he'd made. He was only one person, standing against the onslaught of many; he could only slow their progress along one street, could only fight one enemy at a time, leaving all the other civilians exposed. He'd done what he could to protect them. Heck, if he hadn't been there, perhaps dozens more might have died. And without his other hand, he couldn't have used the way of the monolith to hold his ground or the way of the cyclone to cut right through his enemies. He could hardly have performed any better. The fact of the matter was that he could no longer fight.

Wait, that's not true, he corrected himself. He'd just taken down a shaman and several attendant midget warriors, while starting the fight completely unarmed, and he'd emerged without suffering any major wounds. The last fight at the hamlet might have been a pure fluke, but if it had been a miracle, well, he'd now repeated it, and that meant he could likely do it again.

And if he could fight the redskins despite his handicap, well then, he could hardly walk away and let the sisterhood fight this war without him. He smiled at the thought of what Warriv and Taril would say when he told them he'd be returning to Thistledown with the sisters.

Chapter 18: Seeing Eye to Eye

[Wherein Art reunites with Ryann and Blaise.]

He found them past the next mess of an intersection, huddled on the ground behind a stall. Ryann rested on the ground, looking frail and in agony, her leg cut with a deep bloody gash that ran right across her thigh, above the knee, the bleeding staunched with a tourniquet applied further up her leg. A sizable pool of blood lay beneath her injured leg. A crying Blaise held her in an embrace, hardly noticing his approach. "Oh my god."

The two sisters looked up at him, grimaces over their faces. Tears fell down Blaise's cheeks. "It was all my fault, I couldn't protect sister Ryann in time. They just kept coming and coming and running everybody down, it was chaos everywhere and we got separated and when I looked back again I couldn't see her any more. And I fought and I fought but against so many of them I couldn't get back to her and--"

"Calm down," said Art, setting an arm down on her shoulder. "You can tell the story later. But first we need to get Ryann back to the other sisters. Here get up, help me carry her," he said, and pulled Blaise to her feet. Together they hauled Ryann up. She screamed in pain and squeezed her eyes shut as they brought her up to stand on her good foot. As Blaise helped hold her up, Art showed his back to her and knelt a bit. "Come," he said, and Ryann got on his back. "You don't weigh half as much as some people I know," he said, trying to lighten the mood, then he and Blaise headed back to the Smug Mug.

As they went Blaise continued to cry, even as she wiped away her tears. "Useless Blaise, useless, useless…" -- "Hey… I wanted you to know, that I don't blame you for what happened, and I don't think Ryann would blame you either. That was a difficult situation we found ourselves in, one where no one knew what might happen, and I doubt we could have emerged from it unscathed. Against so many of them, that the three of us all made it out of there alive is in itself a miracle."

"But if I hadn't fled, if I had stayed by her side… Oh why hadn't I practiced more with the spear and shield in my spare time?--"

"If you had practiced more with the spear and shield, you might be lambasting yourself for not having practiced more with the bow and arrow right about now, if that had been the situation. You tended to Ryann's wounds. That is all that anyone has a right to ask for."

"I should have done better. Could have done better. What's going to happen the next time I fight in a battle? Freeze up entirely? Watch as my sisters get killed, one after another?" -- "Shush, don't let your overactive imagination get the better of you. I'm sure you won't let that happen." -- "I don't know what to think any more. When the fighting started today, I thought for sure I had trained enough to stand my ground. I had trained alongside my fellow sisters for years! Kashya, Amplisa… They said I was ready! And when the time finally came for me to fight… You don't understand, Art! All that training… Actually fighting is nothing like that! I was so afraid. I was so afraid…" She broke down sobbing.

"I understand," said Art. "The first time in live combat is always the worst. But you know what? Contrary to what some might say, it does get easier, the more you've fought. At least, it does for me." He smiled at her, trying to reassure her. "Who knows? Maybe you'll become the fearless hero everyone looks up to."

"No. You can't possibly understand. When the town guards showed up to fight alongside us, they were just in time, I had tripped and fallen and had already lost my shield, and one of those little ones was about to land a finishing blow on me. I was so deathly afraid that I'd be hacked to pieces. Was so relieved when the guardsman parried the swing aside…"

"It's going to be alright. We're almost back to the inn now, and there'll be your sisters there."

She turned to him, and he saw on her a look of desperation. "And then what? We still have the war on our hands. What happened today to Ryann… The thought of risking such injury or worse, in every skirmish and battle from here on out… Oh, why are the heavens so cruel? Haven't we lost enough? How many more battles must we fight? We've lost the monastery, and now just when I come to a town where I think it safe to relax… I can't. I just can't take it any more," she said as she burst into sobs.

Art kept quiet the rest of the way to the inn. He didn't know what he could say any more. All along the way Ryann kept quiet as well. If he hadn't felt her pulse against his hand, he would have worried that he carried home a cadaver.

They arrived at the Smug Mug and once the crowd on the first floor parted for them, went up to the second floor where the sisters had claimed their rooms. Blaise knocked on the door, which Amplisa opened from within. One look at Ryann lying on Art's back, and she was gasping and stepping back, calling for the two other sisters with her to make room. "Heavens! What happened?" Amplisa asked as they set Ryann down on one of the beds. "Ryann? Stay with me." When Ryann turned to stare at Amplisa without a word, she turned back to Blaise. "What happened? How much blood did she lose, is she going to make it?"

Blaise neither nodded nor shook her head, merely stared at Ryann with a glum look on her face.

Art turned to see the pallid look on Ryann's face, remembered seeing the pool of blood when he'd found them on the ground, after the fight. That much blood loss… He doubted Ryann would die from it, or she'd have died already, but to make sure nothing untoward happened… "Roland. Where is he, is he here?" -- Nod from Amplisa. -- He rushed out into the hallway and was about to shout for him when he saw Roland already standing there, a look of concern on his face. "I saw you bringing Ryann in," he offered.

[Wherein Roland applies the way of channeled vigor to Ryann.]

"Roland, you said you know the way of channeling vigor. I know you don't care much for the sisterhood and they haven't done anything to earn your help, but can you do this favor for them?"

"Step aside," Roland replied as he entered the room.

The sisters looked up in surprise. Amplisa asked, "Channeling vigor? But that won't--" -- "It won't heal any wounds," said Roland, eyes downcast. He took one look at the gaping wound on her leg and closed his eyes. "She's not going to walk on that leg ever again. With cruches, maybe, but certainly not running." -- "Never?" echoed Blaise in utter dismay, while Ryann gave out a weak moan and slumped forward.

"Come, help her up," he said, gesturing to Blaise who propped the sister up. "You'll also have to remove her top clothes." -- "What?" said Blaise, startled. -- "You heard me." -- "What, all of them?" -- "Yes, topless, is there a problem?" -- "But--" -- "Do it," said Art, and she looked at Amplisa -- Nod.

Blaise helped the lethargic Ryann out of her clothes, gambeson, shift, and bra, though not before positioning her so as to preserve her modesty.

Roland then squat down behind her, closed his eyes and began mumbling a mantra, which Art barely made out, while pressing both palms against her back and pushing her into a proper upright sitting position. Over and over he repeated his words, while remaining completely composed. Half an hour, an hour, passed as Roland kept going. As Art watched he could make out fluctuations in the air about Roland's arms, like a mirage in the desert. As he and the other sisters watched, he noticed Roland's brows furrowing, him seeming to grow a bit more agitated with each passing moment. His arms began to slip, then to shake, and he voiced the mantras louder and louder, so that Art could make out the verses:

Gift of vigor, freely given. A grace from God, glory be. To see the world all abound with life, To participate in activities of love and strife. To sense this world with touch and taste, To see this world with eyes and ears. To dance about with this mortal frame, To speak of this world, all abound with hope. Gift of vigor, I freely give, In honor of God, do I gift to thee.

With a groan Roland pulled his arms back from Ryann's back, and toppled backward on the bed. As Blaise rushed to hold Ryann from falling back as well, Art gripped the man by the upper arm. "Are you alright?" -- "Yeah, I'm fine," Roland said slowly and softly. "Necessary side effect of channeling vigor, I'm afraid, but never you mind, it's nothing." -- "Don't sell yourself short, Roland. You shouldn't have put such undue hardship on yourself." -- "Couldn't be helped," Roland shrugged. "The lady lost a lot of blood, so I had to channel a bit more than usual. Quite a bit more. And it gets harder to maintain the way the longer I keep it up. Don't mistake me; I don't think I can do this every day, and certainly doing it twice in as many days will have its consequences, but just this once? I'll manage." He gestured at Ryann. "How's she?"

"I feel a lot better," said Ryann, turning around. She winced as she tried to move her injured leg. The wound hadn't gotten any better in the slightest, but at least she was trying to move, and that in Art's book was progress already. "Seems it hurts just as much as before. Still, whatever you did… thank you," she said with a wan smile. -- "Ah, don't mention it," said Roland as he continued to stare up at the ceiling.

"Now, will one of you explain how Ryann got into this mess?" asked Amplisa. Blaise recounted the events. Amplisa listened, then interrupted, "You mean this was all an entirely avoidable affair?" She turned on Art with a furious look in her eyes, causing Art to take a step toward the exit. "And you went ahead with it anyway? You might well have taken the sword and cut sister Ryann yourself!" she said, grabbing a spear and pointing it threateningly at Art.

"What, you think I wanted all this to happen?" retorted Art in disbelief. This sisterhood, just how unthankful could they be?

"Did you? We put you in the stocks, Art, and I understand that couldn't have been pleasant, but did that deserve all this? Did sister Ryann deserve this? When did she ever do anything to hurt you?"

"I may not be happy with my treatment at the hands of your sisterhood, but at least I know who deserves my wrath. And after all that I had done on behalf of your order, Amplisa, when I had I ever gotten a word of thanks from you? Only Ryann here ever thought to approach me and get to know me. Me, hurt her? Don't make me laugh. She's got nothing to worry about from me. It's the rest of you who should feel remorse and guilt."

"Remorse? Guilt? How dare you lecture us after your actions got my sister wounded! After it got how many untold scores of other innocent civilians killed? Do you even feel a whit of compassion, do you have even a spark of empathy? Why, it seems Kashya let you off too easy. Tell me why I shouldn't gut you right where you stand!"

"Stop, sister Amplisa," pleaded Ryann, clutching the hem of her gambeson. -- "Sister Ryann, you want me to spare this traitor? After all that's happened to you?" -- "What Art did… Was for the best. It might have just saved us all." -- "What's gotten into you?" -- "Please, at least hear him out." -- Amplisa set down per spear and glared at Art. "You have a lot of explaining to do then."

So Art explained his logic behind the actions, how Ryann and Blaise had agreed before they began. How things had gotten more out of hand than he'd expected, resulting in more casualties than he'd hoped for. How the three of them had gotten separated, and how he returned to find Ryann already wounded, skipping over the part about how he'd gotten back to using necroturgy to win the fight against the redskins, all of which the two sisters corroborated. He figured Amplisa already upset enough about him to do without the reminder of how he also used a way that was anathema to them.

By the end of it, Amplisa had a look of understanding on her face, and no longer looked at Art with such venom. Instead, he thought he saw growing respect for him. "So in other words," she remarked as he finished, "I owe you an apology." -- "I would never presume such a thing," Art replied. -- She smiled, wan. "So tactful. It seems the sisterhood was wrong about you. Not that it matters much any more, does it? I hear you will be parting ways with us come tomorrow morning."

[Wherein Art tells Amplisa he wants to fight alongside the sisterhood, and Amplisa explains the sisterhood's current situation.]

"That… may not necessarily be the case," Art replied. "What would you say if I said I wished to return with you back to Thistledown… To fight by your side and prove my worth?"

"You mean what would I say when Kashya inevitably demands to know why you stepped foot on the village from whence you'd been banished?" she smiled, looking smug. "Liene is Liene, and Kashya is Kashya, and Kashya is our bow-mother. But if it makes you feel any better, I for one believe that the ends justify the means. Even if you had fought with necroturgy, I wouldn't mind, now that I know where your heart lies."

Art nodded, careful not to let any surprise show on his face, or she might suspect that that was exactly what he'd just done. That sounded like she'd not stand up for him when he returned to the village, but was that a sign that she would support him in case he got into another argument with Liene? That would come in very handy indeed, he figured, if once he returned to Thistledown he got in a battle that forced his hand on the matter, which given he couldn't fight well by his normal ways, would come sooner or later.

"But it's not me you have to convince, Art. So long as there are those in the sisterhood who don't see eye to eye with you, you must watch where you tread, lest you step on other peoples' toes. Speaking of which, what will you do now? Hopefully not to get us embroiled in another conflict which we can ill afford. Best make yourself useful, if you want people to see the good in you."

Art smiled. "Let me guess, you have just the thing in mind."

"Tell me, what do you know of our situation?" When Amplisa saw Art's confused look, she sighed. "For helping our sisterhood with the foresight you had, I think you deserve at least that much, if for no other reason than you'd have a better understanding of what we need."

She unfurled a scroll which contained a map of the region. Art could see it had been made in Tristram; the map showed the town right in the middle, with great detail on the surrounding towns and villages for perhaps a hundred miles in each direction, but growing less detailed further away, with distances more and more skewed toward the edges of the scroll. He recognized the places he'd been to recently. The monastery, ninety miles east of Tristram. Thistledown, fifty miles east of Tristram. Stonebridge, forty miles east of Tristram. Maple Creek, twenty-five miles east of Tristram. He recognized the mountain range running north-to-south right through the monastery, the only place for a hundred miles in either direction where the mountains leveled out to form a pass a caravan could fit through.

Amplisa pointed at a region north-east of Tristram, from what looked to be fifty miles out from the town, almost all the way to the mountains. "This is redskin territory," she noted. "The twelve nearest of their villages form a single tribe, one that has been encroaching on our territory for quite some time. We've been fighting them for some time now and -- Oh, that comes as a surprise to you?"

"Why yes, I thought this was a completely out of the blue invasion at the monastery." Shows how much the sisterhood had trusted him and the other caravaners, to keep them completely in the dark like this, he thought.

"Well, the sisterhood usually tries to keep its own matters to itself. Presenting a peaceful situation to the caravaners to assure them of their safety, and all that. I'm sure you, who figured out how to deal with the redskins in the market this morning, would find that obvious. Yes, we've been fighting them for some time, though usually limited to minor skirmishes in the territory near the monastery and near the Tristram-monastery part of the silk road, to keep the path safe for the caravans. With the ways of the Sightless Eye School, we didn't have much trouble securing our territory, even if they did come at us with bows and blades, flames and necroturges--"

"Bows?" Art asked, perking up. "I hadn't encountered them using them at all."

"Yes, that's the thing, isn't it? In the recent attack and since, they'd only ever attacked us with their elders and their little runts. We would've been having it quite easy, except for the beast. I'm sure you know what happened then. Now, we have sisters patrolling this entire area," she said, running an index finger over a circular region between Stonebridge and the monastery. "With Thistledown as our base. Last I heard, from our scouts furthest east -- that would be two days ago, meaning the information is at least four days stale -- the beast was still holed up in the monastery. Though, that might have changed since then, but I digress.

"Since the beast is staying put, our immediate concern is to stop any redskin incursion westward in their tracks -- but for that we need support. The monastery may have been easy for us to guard, but this area we're covering now? It is a large region to patrol with just a hundred-odd sisters.

"Which leads me to one of the sisterhood's key missions here. Tristram is the closest town to the monastery, and the one which stands to benefit the most from free flowing trade through our pass, and the one which stands the most to lose now that the way east is blocked. Being the closest, without having to cross any other noble's territory, also means ready troop movements between the town and the region we're watching. As such, Count Traben should be the most inclined, and most able, out of all those to the west, to reinforce us. His territory includes Tristram and its outlying villages, stretching for roughly fifty miles in each direction. He should be able to field at least a few hundred men and still keep the majority of his forces in reserve to defend, and with that kind of support we should have no trouble retaking the monastery, beast or no. And if he didn't want to spare too many of his own men, he'd have the resources to hire the mercenaries to do the job."

"Liene has made arrangements to meet with him at three this afternoon, when he holds his daily court. As a member of the sister, she'd doubtless be granted an audience so that she can make her case. Now, given what I've told you, why do you suppose I told you what I've told you?"

"You want me to attend the meeting? No, can't just be that. You want me to represent the caravaners' viewpoint on this, in case the sisterhoods' petition by itself doesn't suffice. Or better yet, you know I'm good friends with Warriv -- your sisters must have told you that we stayed with the Bedfords back at Thistledown -- and you want me to get him to join Liene's petition. Two petitions at the same time for the same cause by two different parties would be more effective than one -- after all, if either of our two groups approached the count alone and he decided against aiding that group, he'd find himself in an awkward situation when the second group showed up later and he wanted to go back on his word, but bring both groups at once and he'd likely decide in our favor to begin with." He looked up at Amplisa, and her smile was confirmation enough. "We'll be at the count's court at that time. Speaking of which, where is Liene now?"

"Hiring the mercenaries I spoke of earlier," she said beaming. "You'll find her group at the northern square." -- "Very well then, I shall be sure to go visit them today," Art replied.

[Wherein Amplisa, Roland, and Art discuss Roland's differences with the church and where he sees failings with the sisterhood and how confident they are of winning.]

Amplisa turned to Roland. "And I wanted to thank you, for helping Ryann. It couldn't have been easy." -- "Oh, think nothing of it," Roland waved from where he lay on the bed, a smile on his face. "Really." -- "Nonetheless, I wanted to thank you. When Blaise and Art first brought her back to us she wasn't speaking at all. At least you've returned that spark back to her, and for that I am eternally grateful.

"The way you used - channeled vigor, was it? I've only seen it used once or twice but if I recall, that's a way of the Church of Light School." -- "It is," said Roland, sounding defensive about it, and when he neglected to volunteer anything further, Amplisa asked, -- "Then you are a member of the Order of the Temple's Light? A templar?" -- Roland kept quiet, staring at the ceiling. -- Amplisa continued, "I guess we have to be thankful for their teaching you their way then. By your good deed today you've proven the righteousness of the church."

"Righteousness? Don't make me laugh. The church is damn stuck up in its ways. Yes, sister, it shames me to say that I used to be of the order. But I am no longer. What I do, I do because I want to. I don't use my ways on behalf of their cause. So if you would be thankful of what I have done today, I would prefer you not ascribe my deeds to the church. We don't quite see eye to eye. More like they don't see, period."

"I… see," replied Amplisa, looking uncertain. "Actually I should be honest with you, I don't see." She nudged her head, indicating the mace attached to his belt. "You carry an implement with their descry, yet you say you're not with the church? Surely you could have gone and bought a different weapon, one without that insignia, if you no longer wanted to represent them. Was this recent, and you didn't have a chance to do so? You're certainly not doing a very good job keeping quiet about your disagreements."

"It's the church that has erred in its ways, not what it supposedly stands for or the descry that represents that ideal," he replied. "I'm speaking of the Ten Tenets, of course. I hold this mace because I still hold to those ideals." He smirked. "After all, we can't have the wayward church deciding what is the true path of our religion."

Amplisa asked, "What caused the divide between you and the church? Surely you still mostly hold to its ideals, or I'd imagine it would be hard to stay a believer."

Roland smirked. "You'd be surprised how tenaciously people can cling to their faiths even if those faiths teach things that go contrary to what they believe to be true. Did you know, the cat-peoples out east subscribe to the teachings of the infidels? Whose religion, which in many ways is similar to ours, also emphasizes the superiority of humans to all the other races. Cat-people, believing humans are superior to their own kind, what idiocy… As for the actual difference in beliefs… Plenty, come to think of it." He pointed at Ryann. "Fourth Tenet: To help those in need. Ryann needed help, so I provided it."

Art took a moment to memorize that. How would he like it when Art threw it in his face to try to get him to come to the aid of the sisterhood? For that matter… "Just curious, what are the rest of the Ten Tenets? To be clear, the ones that you hold, not the church's."

"They're the same ten, mine and the church's. It's just that they're not holding to them. Oh, some of them they stick with, like the First Tenet: To believe in God. Maybe a little too zealous, in fact, what with them inquisitioning purported nonbelievers wherever they think they can get away with it, and them going on Holy Quests. All that bloodshed, and for what?"

"The last Holy Quest was thirty years ago," Art pointed out. -- "Well they're preparing for another one. Have been for some years now, and still are. I would know, I keep in contact with some of my brothers of the faith in the church." -- "Good grief. How large is this one going to be?" -- "Who knows? Last one saw fifty thousand march, fifteen thousand of whom died, and perhaps as many of the purported infidels out in Aranoch. You know about it, don't you?" he asked, turning to Amplisa. "The sisterhood stood complicit. They marched right through the monastery's pass on their way there."

"You can hardly fault us for that," Amplisa retorted. "It was stand aside or be denounced as infidels, excommunicated, besieged, and wiped from the face of the earth. And for a religious matter which didn't even involve us, they just wanted right of passage. And even if you could, I wasn't the one making the decision at the time. I was what? Only a toddler? Back then."

"The road to hell is paved with excuses. On the day of reckoning, I wonder if God would be so interested in hearing you out. Or Tyrael, for that matter. Oh that's right, your sisterhood doesn't even really believe, do they? Like so many others, the sisters merely pay lip service to our God. Guess they don't believe either way, do they?" he finished, looking quite riled up.

"We do believe in God," said Amplisa. "But understand the monastery's position, and situation. The sisterhood doesn't command much in the way of taxes, since most of the surrounding highlands are almost completely non-arable. If we went and publicly denounced the Aranochians as infidels, how long would it take before the sultan of Lut Gholein declares use of our pass forbidden? How quickly would trade dry up then? How quickly would the sisterhood fall, and be replaced by some other group that, seeing how suicidal it would be to take a religious stance, would proclaim no official stance, as we have been doing? And then we would have come full circle, having accomplished nothing to show for the sacrifice. What would you have us do, Roland?"

Roland fell silent for a few seconds, then muttered, "Guess I hadn't thought of it that way."

"Is that why you didn't want to help the sisterhood?" Art asked.

"Ah yes, thank you for reminding me, Art. Roland, I think I speak on behalf of the majority of the sisters when I say it would be a pleasure to have you standing with us. Even if nothing else, your way of channeled vigor could easily save lives over the next few weeks. I know we have very little that we can give you at the moment, but rest assured, your assistance will be greatly appreciated. Once we get the monastery back--"

[Wherein Roland demands to know the truth about the sisterhood's situation, and things turn out to be a lot worse than the sisterhood had made it out to be.]

"It's going to always be 'once we get the monastery back' now, isn't it?" Roland interrupted. "I'm sorry, but you can't be confident that's even possible. We've all heard about the beast. So long as it's there, you can't really even attempt to reclaim it, can you? All it has to do is stay there, and you'll be stuck indefinitely. Now I'm asking this because you seemed to open up to Art earlier and provide some actual good information, but: I want you to be honest with us. Is this a fight you can even win?"

"Of course we will. Why, I wage Bow-mother Kashya is making the arrangements to storm the monastery even as we speak, and it's only a matter of time before we retake the position," she retorted with confidence.

"Really now? Is that why the sisterhood has dispatched two dozen sisters out west, when the monastery lies to the east?"

"Warriv had requested that we escorted the caravaners to Tristram. Surely you understand we have a responsibility to do as much? And besides, we still need to gather much needed supplies before we return east. War can't be fought on an empty stomach, Roland."

"Course I know that. But you're not fooling me in the slightest, Amplisa. You must be aware that with each passing day the sisterhood's position grows weaker, and the redskins gain that much more time to consolidate their hold over the monastery. The proper course, then, would have been to regroup at the nearest hamlet and immediately launch a counterattack to retake it. But you aren't confident that you can win, are you? I heard the descriptions of what the beast is like, and it doesn't seem like your bows stand much of a chance in getting past its carapace. Do correct me if I misread your sisterhood on this, but I can't help but notice when during your conversation with Art earlier, you seemed to dance around the fact that the sisterhood still has to deal with the beast that's holed up there. You don't even want to talk about it, do you? You don't want your fellow sisters here to realize that all you can do right now is bide your time and hope the beast just ups and leaves."

Amplisa looked downcast and offered no response. Blaise, Ryann, and the other sisters turned to Amplisa with a look of concern.

"Didn't think so," Roland continued. "I think it's high time you told us the all of it, Amplisa. Art here made a strategic victory on the sisterhood's behalf, and I've helped restore some vigor back to Ryann. I think you owe us at least that much. Out with it: What kind of troop forces are we working with? What kind of enemy forces are we dealing with? What have you encountered, or expect we will encounter, that you haven't told us about yet?" He looked at the other sisters in the room as well. "And don't think you're above this. Chances are she, Liene, Kashya and others haven't been straightforward with you either." They looked at Roland, uncertain. He turned back to Amplisa. "And by the looks of it, you've been keeping your fellow sisters in the dark too, haven't you?"

Art shook his head at Roland with urgency, hoping to get him to stop, but doing it without making any sound so the sisters wouldn't notice his attempt. But Roland didn't seem to notice, or if he did, ignored him entirely.

"You know it's critical that we keep such information secret," Amplisa retorted.

"Why? Because the truth is far worse than you've been making it out to be? Because you've been understating the number of sisters who'd failed to make it safely to Thistledown, you've been understating reported sightings of enemy troop movements, you've been overstating the resources at your disposal, or all three? Or worse?"

"What? I--" -- "Don't deny it," Roland warned. "Besides, now that the cat's out of the bag I think it's better you told us everything. Or do you want your sisters to wonder just what you're still keeping a secret from them? Make them doubt if you'll just throw their lives away on a lost cause?"

Amplisa looked caught, between Roland's glare and the concerned looks on the faces of her younger sisters. "Alright, you got us. But what can we do? Would you rather the sisterhood's leadership roll over and admit defeat? Because that's how you'll get routs and deserters on your hands, and if we had that then the sisterhood could very well collapse."

"What haven't you been telling us?" asked Blaise, clutching Amplisa's gambeson by the hem. When Amplisa looked away, She shook her. "Please, sister! Answer me!"

Amplisa sighed. "Guess it can't be helped. It is as you said, Roland, we are caught in a bad situation, and we are outnumbered. But it isn't as bad as you make it out to be. The redskins, it's only the twelve villages of the nearest tribe that is a threat to us, and even they had suffered catastrophic losses in their recent battles against the other redskin tribes further north, which is why they are forced to send their runts and their elders to fight us. So long as the case, one of our archers is worth ten of theirs."

[Wherein Art learns that the midgets are redskin children.]

"Wait," said Art in disbelief. "I thought you were just calling the midgets that but you're actually implying they're redskin children? You mean to tell me we've been fighting children all this time?"

The sisters all stared at him with mouths agape. -- "Wait… really? Are you daft, Art?" Roland shot back. "What the hell did you think they were, dwarves? Of course they're their young."

Oh my god, thought Art, as memories came, of him slaughtering his way through scores of the midgets that night at the monastery. How he'd pursued them back to the atrium gates even as they fled in panic, even as they screamed in what must have been cries of mercy. So small, so unskilled, so undisciplined, so under-protected. To them he must have been a demon in his own right, butchering his way through them without compunction. So many lives he'd ended that day, and to think that they'd been but child warriors, forced to fight out of desperation… He stared at his remaining hand and imagined the horrified red visages of the midgets that he'd slain, their red blood staining his hands. "What have I done?" he whispered to himself.

Then he remembered how they'd swung their scimitars at him as they came, forcing him to defend himself. The three adepts, who fought on almost equal terms with him when he'd still been whole and who could certainly slaughter him now. That wasn't the behavior of innocent children. He remembered how the midget warriors had carved a screaming caravaner into slabs of meat and jeered and cheered over his death. When their elders carved patterns into the captive sister's flesh, where were the children pleading for them to be spared? When dozens of captives were chained in the cells, where were the children spiriting them away into the safety of the night?

No, he thought to himself; he wouldn't spare them any mercy simply for their youth. Not with all the blood they'd spilled. They would slaughter humans just as easily as any redskin adult, if given the opportunity, and he had people in Thistledown that he wanted to protect. He'd be damned if they died because he had felt a morsel of pity for his enemies.

[Wherein Roland demands to know the truth about the sisterhood's situation, and things turn out to be a lot worse than the sisterhood had made it out to be; continued.]

He brought himself out of his thoughts to hear the others still discussing the situation. "And their numbers?" Roland was asking.

"Numbers aren't everything," Amplisa retorted. "They lack the armor to fight us on even footing. Their young lack the training, and their old lack the strength, to truly fight us. And they can't spare sending what's left of their forces against us for much longer, they need people to provide supplies for their warriors."

"The numbers," Roland insisted. "What are the numbers?"

"Probably no more than we've encountered already. A hundred, two hundred. They can't possibly field much more. Like I said, they're on their last legs already, what with them sending their child warriors against us."

"Amplisa, do I have to wring every last drop of the truth out of you?" He turned to the other sisters. "Let me read between the lines for you. They're already sending their children to fight us. That shows they're desperate, but more than that, it shows they're determined. Despite how poor their situation, they aren't about to surrender. Maybe they can't -- maybe the tribe they've been fighting against, which it seems had annihilated their adult forces, had been slaughtering everyone in the villages they've captured."

"That can't be right," said Blaise. "If they've been devastated by their war against another tribe, then why are they fighting us? And they have the beast on their side, why don't they just have the beast defend their village?"

"The beast can't well defend all twelve villages at the same time, can it? It's only in one location at a time. And given the power of that beast, I don't think it answers to any redskin. I wouldn't, if I had that kind of power. It's probably the other way around -- the redskins are getting dragged into a two front war by the beast, if it's as intelligent as I think, or they're using it to attack the monastery. And the redskins are taking to the monastery because they think taking that place will break the back of the sisterhood -- even if it means more pain in the short term. Not to mention all the loot they've claimed for themselves. What happened at the markets this morning -- They could probably be looking to sell all their misbegotten silver for a leg up in their war. What that means, is that they're committed. They are literally fighting for their lives right now, all of them. They won't back down, and if it comes down to it, they'll send more child warriors at us."

He took the map off the table and set it on the floor so everyone could see as he indicated. "These twelve villages probably have a hundred or so redskins apiece, if they're anything like our villages, which they probably are. We're looking at fifty of their elders, perhaps, and we've encountered maybe a hundred or so of their younglings, but there's probably another hundred of their younglings in reserve, plus five hundred of their females that they could send into the fray if things got that desperate for them."

He looked up at the sisters. "And you have what, a hundred sisters left?" -- Ryann winced. -- "Oh we have far more than that," Amplisa remarked. "Don't underestimate our order." -- "Maybe. But how many of them actually know how to fight? Probably not even half, am I right?"

If their expressions were anything to go by, the sisters had grown more and more concerned and desperate with each passing minute.

"And let me guess, that's not the only problem the sisterhood has. Losing the monastery means you don't have much to work with now either. Since they attacked in the dead of night and took you by surprise, the only things you have are what you managed to retrieve at the time. Which probably didn't include the sisterhood's treasury. So tell me, how much money did you bring with you to Tristram, in order to buy all the arrows, javelins, and other supplies you'll need? What do we have to work with?"

"It is true we don't have much silver. Hence, why Liene will be meeting with the count this afternoon."

"You're avoiding the question."

Amplisa threw her hands up in surrender. "Oh all right. We have fourteen sing three[denarius]." One thousand, three hundred and eighty pennies[denarius].

Everyone gaped. My god, thought Art, was the sisterhood really attempting to fight a war with just that?

"That's… not even a quarter of a talent," said Roland. "Not even a half a quarter quarter of one."

"Please tell me that's not true," asked Blaise, looking at Amplisa with a desperate look on her face. "Please tell me that's not true…" -- "How are we supposed to keep fighting? How can we possibly win?" asked another sister. -- Ryann buried her face in her hands and sobbed.

Art did some quick mental calculation. Assuming the sisterhood had two hundred sisters to support, even on peasant's food, which was by no means sustainable for a warrior's build but would be all they could afford, that was still over a singleton[denarii] a day. Maybe half the sisters could find some work to do to earn their keep, and reduce the cost to the sisterhood to four seg two[denarius] a day, but that was the bare minimum and the actual cost was going to be more like a singleton[denarius] a day. They'd exhaust their reserves in just two weeks. Maybe the sisterhood had more silver back in Thistledown, but with them sending as many as two dozen sisters here, enough to keep it safe, and bringing only that little silver with them? They probably had very little left. Once those two weeks were up, they'd be forced to disband.

"It's true," said Amplisa, resigned. "But you're forgetting about the count."

"So you're telling me that your vaunted sisterhood's future is essentially in the hands of Count Traben, is that what you're saying? What, are you going to have her beg for money? Is there some connection between the two of them that I'm not aware of? Heavens, could Liene be his secret lover?"

"What! How could you insinuate such a despicable thing?"

"Heh, if that were actually the case it would go a long way toward solving our problems. Why else would Count Traben even consider giving you men or money to fight your war for you?"

"Because he stands to lose all traffic through the pass if he doesn't and the monastery remains in the hands of the redskins. All the merchant traffic will route through the Tamoe pass, two hundred miles to the south, and then Tristram's economy will collapse."

Roland mused on this point. "Hmm, I guess you do have as much going for you, but I still can't imagine it will come with no strings attached. For him to have stayed in power as long as he has, he can't be some bleeding-heart philanthropist. Well? What if he puts in terms that you can't quite swallow? Say, that he insists his men also take part in the monastery's forces thereafter, or that they tax the sisterhood's earnings? What I'm saying is, if it came down to it and all the sisterhood has to rely on was the resources it already has, how much silver do you have to spend on the bare necessities?"

"That's enough, Roland," she glared at him.

"Why? I expected that you, as a sergeant under Kashya, would face the situation for what it is. I wasn't expecting you to resort to telling me to shut up."

Amplisa sighed. "Yes, our situation is quite dire, as you've clearly managed to get out of me. I don't suppose you're saying all this out of a desire for us to do some soul-searching. You have some kind of solution, I take it?"

"No," said Roland. "I just wanted you to go into this war with both eyes open."

"Actually, there is something you could do," said Art, causing the other sisters to perk up. "You are former templar. Speak with the bishop here. Ask them for assistance on behalf of the sisterhood. That way just in case Liene's meeting with Traben goes south, we'll still have some recourse."

"Humph. As if a bishop would like to meet with someone who's been excommunicated."

"But he doesn't know that, does he? I recall you mentioned you'd been excommunicated farther out west… or was it south? But certainly not in Tristram. And I doubt they go around visiting all the churches and cathedrals across Khanduras with logs of who's been kicked out and what not. You know enough of the templars' ways to pass yourself off as someone who's still in the order, someone who speaks to them as if a brother. You have a mace with the templars' descry on it. Show it to them, and I doubt they'll turn you aside."

Roland seemed taken aback by the request, but didn't have a retort right away.

"Please Roland," asked Amplisa. "You've seen now how humbled our sisterhood has become. And since we've been keeping to our own Sightless Eye School and not the Church of Light School, the bishop may take quite averse to any of us trying to get them to do anything. You're our best hope. If there's any chance you'd be able to convince him on the matter, won't you do so?"

"Besides," said Art, "You're the one who was making a point about how the sisterhood needed whatever help it can get."

Roland looked between the sisters and Art, seeing himself outnumbered on the matter but still looking unconvinced.

Amplisa knelt before him. "Please, Roland. I'm begging you."

Looking aghast, Blaise and several other sisters rushed to Amplisa. She took a hold of Amplisa's shoulder, looking distraught. "Sister Amplisa, we can't have you kneeling before a man! You can't!"

Amplisa made no move to stand up, but shot them a look. Blaise looked mortified. "Please Roland, I can't bear to see our sister Amplisa on her knees like this, this is sacrilege to us! If my doing so would convince you…" Blaise fell on her knees right beside her, tears forming in her eyes. -- The other sisters knelt down beside them, saying "We're begging you" as they did so. Ryann made to move as well, but Blaise gestured for her to stay put. -- "And Ryann would as well."

Roland shot Art a look of pure loathing, as if to say, you got me into this mess.

Art knelt down before Roland as well, right beside Amplisa. Now let's see him refuse, he thought, holding back a chuckle.

Roland's mouth hung open for a moment. "Oh all right, I'll ask to speak to the bishop. But no promises. Like you said, your order claims to be believers but with so little fervor you might as well be agnostics, so I doubt he'll display much zeal in the matter. And even if he agreed, the bishop will most certainly not be providing us with much in the way of silver. Unlike with the count, who keeps his own treasury, the monies tithed to the church are the property of the church itself, and the bishop would have no authority to handle extraordinary expenses of this kind, not without the approval of the Archbishop of Khanduras. All we can hope to get from the bishop any time soon would be the aid of the local templar branch. But I'll ask anyway."

Amplisa looked relieved. "That's all we can ask of you," she said, before kowtowing to him. Blaise, Art, and the other sisters did likewise.

[Wherein Art confronts Roland about forcing Amplisa to reveal the truth and the morale damage that will cause.]

"I shall go make the arrangements," said Roland with a bow before leaving. -- "I have someone I need to meet," said Art, leaving right after.

He caught up to Roland as they exited the inn into the busy afternoon street. "Roland, can you walk with me for a moment," Art asked, and Roland did. "I have to ask you -- why did you have to corner Amplisa like that? Now look what you've done."

"I got her to speak the truth."

"You forced her to reveal the dismal truth. Something the order can ill afford to acknowledge. Was it really necessary to hurt and shame them so?"

"Do not mistake my intentions, Art. I did so because it was right. I may be no templar, but I am a warrior of the light no less, and mine is the light that shall reveal all lies and deceptions."

"But you knew the truth already, didn't you? From what I gathered during your conversation with them, you knew that well before you started asking such probing questions."

"It wasn't just for me, Art. God knows her sisters had suffered enough in ignorance. They deserved no less," Roland retorted through gritted teeth.

"What they deserved was a fair chance at winning this war, which you've denied them. Don't you see? The sisterhood is standing on its last legs. They can't afford any further morale loss, or they will really start to come apart at the seams, bonds of sistership or no. A person can only take so much bad news before they abandon a cause, Roland; who knows how many sisters will fall into despair because of the revelations you've brought? Who knows, you could have done more harm to their cause than any redskin could hope to accomplish."

"You think I don't know that? But to keep such matters secret, that would be an even greater sin. Seventh Tenet: Speak the truth, for the truth shall set you free."

"Stop living by your ideals, Roland! Haven't you heard, 'knowing the truth changes it'? A heedless pursuit of the truth will only succeed in hurting those whom you care for."

"To the contrary, Art. I care for the Ten Tenets and the universal ideals which they stand for. I couldn't care less what happens to the sisterhood. If they all die, I wouldn't bat an eye. But we can't say the same about you, now can we? You are only trying to defend the sisterhood's secrecy because you want them to win, and you are willing to compromise on your ideals in order to come out ahead. But I won't."

"And you think your ideals are more worthy than the goals you seek to accomplish? Don't fool yourself, Roland. If you were to truly follow your ideals you'd be a beggar on the streets right now."

"Better a beggar than a knave," Roland said with an air of finality before striding away.

"Where do you think you're going?" Art called out after him. "Off to speak to the bishop, are you? Will you be speaking to him as a templar, or as a hypocrite?"

That got Roland to stop in his tracks. "The two situations are not alike. One is a question of doing more good or speaking the truth--" -- "And the other is a question of doing more good or speaking the truth. I don't see the difference." -- Roland glared at him. "You would rather me not talk to the bishop, then?" -- "I would rather you pursue the right goals, no matter the means." -- "You would make a fine zealot," said Roland, before walking off.

Chapter 19: Thunder and Lightning

[Wherein Art visits the sisters where they're trying to recruit.]

Remembering what Amplisa had said about them needing to hire mercenaries, Art headed over to the northern square.

Even from the distance, he could hear a sister calling out for attention as he approached. As he passed the final intersecting street, he came across the square: a large, open space in the shape of a square, with numerous people going about, around a large wooden raised platform, thirty feet square, that stood in the center. Right before the wooden platform, he saw Liene, Sasha, Paige and two other sisters had set up a wooden stall of their own. Beside them stood a guard, fully armored in mail with a glaive and shield by his side. He stood at attention, and Art gathered that they'd already garnered the requisite approval from the mayor for this event.

"Harken to me!" shouted Paige, a hand upraised and gesturing for attention, and a small crowd had gathered before her. She pointed at a wooden billboard where a piece of parchment had been nailed. "If you have skill in the axe or sword, the mace or spear, the bow or staff, or you know someone who is, we are looking to hire, and will pay fair price! Feel stifled in this place of safety, and thirst for the adventure of your lifetime? Think you have the valor it takes to prove yourself a hero? Sign up here for your chance at glory! No prior combat experience needed, we accept anyone so long as you can demonstrate that you have the skill! But sign up now, for tomorrow we depart!"

As Art approached the stall he overheard several of the audience muttering to each other. "…All women hiring? That the sisterhood?" -- "What, are they hiring women only?" -- "I heard their lot are skilled with the bow. Maybe they want someone who can swing a sword." -- "Wish I could say I had the skill. Been wanting to get out of the tedium of being a cobbler's apprentice." -- "Aren't you kind of too young for that? You're what, twelve? This is for adults; away with you." -- "Looking for a real warrior?" boomed a tall, heavily built man in full mail, causing all the others to look his way. He had on his back an axe and a large, metal round shield. With a grin on his face, he stepped up to Paige. "Well, you found him."

Paige looked the man up and down. "Well, you sure look like you can handle yourself in a fight," she said. -- "Course I can fight! What do I look ter ya, a farmer?" he spat on the dirt beside them. -- "Very well, if you would please step up this way and show us a little of what you can do?" she asked, gesturing at the raised platform. -- A humph, as the man stomped his way up to the podium. "Then behold, woman."

The man took out his shield and axe, as a group of onlookers gathered to watch. "Way of thundering voice," he said, and took in a deep breath before letting out a truly deafening shout, louder than lightning: "FALL!" A shockwave blasted through the square, sending everyone crumpling to the ground. Screams of surprised terror sounded out from all directions, all of them smothered by his voice. In the wake of that sonic boom none remained standing but him. People had dropped their belongings, some of them shattering, one woman had dropped a toddler who began to cry from landing on its butt, and Paige's parchment holding the names of those who had signed up had been blown clear of the stall. People crouched with hands over their heads, looking away, eyes shut.

Then before they'd managed to pick themselves up, the man announced, "way of the kingfisher," and leapt high up into the air, soaring a good fifty feet up while traveling only a few feet horizontally. He'd jumped in such a way that he'd reoriented himself by the time he started to plunge back to the ground. "Way of the hammer's fall," he said, and slammed down, now upside down, with shield held flat out to bash into the ground, making a titanic crash. The collision sent cracks down the grain of several of the wooden planks comprising the platform and caused the whole construct to reverberate, before the edge of the platform where the man had landed collapsed entirely. Even where Art stood, he'd wobbled from the shockwave the man's landing had sent through the ground. The man landed gracefully, his shield not deformed in the slightest.

"You're hired," said Paige from her crouching position by the edge of the podium and waved for him to stop in a way that looked like she was surrendering. As she and the rest of the sisters, the audience, and everyone else who'd only happened to be in the vicinity, picked themselves back up, groaning and stumbling and muttering invectives, she fetched the enrollment parchment that had been sent flying. "What shall we call you?" -- "Bars. Iron Bars," he replied. "Who you?"

As Paige jotted down his name on the parchment, Art walked up to Liene. When she saw him approaching she went "Ahem… You again," she said with a look of displeasure. "I thought after what you've been through, you wouldn't dare show your face around the sisterhood again if you could avoid it. So cut to the chase: why are you here?"

"Huh," Art said, peering at the parchment, which had only two lines on it, "Sign up" and "Iron Bars" and no other names. "The six of you have been at this all morning and you've only recruited one sellsword? I've already killed five times as many redskins in half the time." He smirked at Liene, who shot him a hateful look. "Then again, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, what with your attitude toward potential recruits I'm surprised you managed to recruit anyone at all."

Ah crap, he thought. He shouldn't have let his mouth run wild like that, no matter how much he despised her. He wanted back into Thistledown, and for that he had to gain her and Kashya's acceptance… or did he? He looked at the recruitment sheet. If he returned to Thistledown a recruit, they'd have to let him in, no?

"What, you're looking to get recruited? You can get out of here, we don't want you." -- "What? If you're going to kick me out you have to at least give me a good reason." -- "You want a good reason? Look at your hand." -- "What about my hand?" -- "Your other hand." -- "Well that's just low," Art said, sounding hurt. -- "Well? How the hell are you going to fight without it?" -- "Wouldn't you like to know?" Then he smiled. "Want me to show you?"

[Wherein Iron Bars fights against the sorceress.]

"Lady," said Iron Bars. "I'm hired, right? Want me to dispatch this chump for you?"

Art mused to himself, a proper fight between adepts would make for some nice publicity, and get the attention of any other adepts in the city. To take on the beast, that's what they needed, the likes of Iron Bars and his way of the hammer's fall. But he doubted he could take the man on himself. The midgets and the shaman he could take on, but only barely, and only with a sword or one of those torch-and-bone staves. He'd arrived empty-handed and helmetless. And against an adept as well built as this man, who had both arms? That would have been a challenge even before he lost his other hand.

He put up his arms in surrender. "I yield," he said. "I can't fight someone as strong as him. I mean, look, I'm a cripple for heaven's sake! And no one here's possibly as good as you are." That had been intentional. He looked around at the rest of the audience, wondering if anyone would take the bait. The heavy set man just stood there basking in Art's praise as he heaped it on. "What strength! What toughness! What skill with the martial ways! Why, how could anyone even conceive of challenging such manly power! Surely there are none here who can hope to stand before you!"

"Humph. You got that right," Iron Bars replied gruffly.

"You look very pleased with yourself," said a young woman somewhere in the crowd, before she leapt onto the platform. She worea long, flowing, expensive-looking royal-blue robe graced with silver embroidery. She undid her ponytail, allowing her long black hair to flow past her shoulders, then unsheathed her arming sword.

Iron Bars pointed at her, or thought Art, perhaps her attire, none of which seemed suited to a close fight. Seriously? Thought Art. How was she going to fight someone like him, without even wearing a gambeson at the very least? The robes, which he knew identified her as an adept of the Stormy Skies School, looked far too refined, not the kind that would provide any protection, and she didn't even have a shield with her. How could she possibly stand against him? He gave her a second or two before she'd be knocked off the platform.

"Is this a joke?" asked Iron Bars. -- "No. You just offended me." -- "Leave, girl. I'll not fight you." -- "Now that's offensive." -- "Leave, girl, before you get hurt," he said, twirling the axe in his hand. "Because if my axe takes a bite outta ya--" -- "Seems you and your axe have a lot in common, you both have big mouths." -- "Alright, is it a fight you want? Because it's a fight you'll get," he said before running right at her, axe and shield in hand.

She leapt off the platform and wove in between the crowd. Iron Bars stopped at the edge of the platform, at a loss for what to do. Nice move, thought Art. The man could hardly blast or slaughter his way into the crowd, not without injuring innocent bystanders. "So much for that," said Iron Bars, turning away. "Pathetic little girl gave up already."

He was rewarded with a flash of brilliant white lightning that shot from where the young lady hid amidst the suddenly agitated crowd, into the back of his head. Tendrils of lightning spread instantly across his helmet, down the mail that covered his body, causing him to shake violently. "Gah!" he could barely make out. "Woman, you forfeited the moment you stepped off the platform!"

"Hah! Didn't see that coming, did you? With your head in that box of yours, did you forget to think outside the box? No one said anything about the rules." -- "It's common courtesy!" -- "Funny, that. What is it they say about love and war? All's fair? Clearly if you'd failed to see that, this fight isn't for you. Leave, boy, before you get hurt. From this!" She thrust her left palm out at him, sending a gout of water materializing out of nowhere to splash against his armor, drenching him as well as causing water to pool all over the wooden platform, some of it running off.

He'd instinctively blocked with his hand and looked away, but then turned back to face her, his pitch low. "Hurt? That? I barely felt a thing." -- "It's water, it's not supposed to hurt, that was the point… Oh you don't get what point I'm trying to make, do you? Well then you just stand right there while I do this!" And another bolt of lightning shot at him, too fast for him to dodge, and he screamed as his muscles spasmed and the lightning weaved up and down his armor, shocking him.

With a roar of fury he jumped down to the dirt of the plaza. "Why you little--" He approached his opponent as the rest of the crowd around her backed away.

"Oops, looks like I'm exposed," she mused out loud. "To see me like this… shocking, isn't it?" Then with a finger pointed at him she sent another bolt of lightning at Iron Bars, again too fast for him to dodge, for the lightning struck instantly. This time the electricity channeled right down where it had struck his chest, into the ground by his feet, with seemingly no effect on him.

He looked down for a moment, then chuckled. "Tickles. Like I said, barely felt a thing." Then he advanced toward her. The young lady took a step back, then channeled a continuous stream of lightning from her fingertips. It arced against his mail but all of it ran right down into the ground, and he kept advancing despite the scintillating, spasming streak of discharged lightning streaming against him, all of it running into the ground. He continued to approach.

She grasped and thrust out a nearby teenaged boy in front of her, him staring at the approaching bulk of a man with eyes wide with terror. The hapless boy tried to break from her grasp, but gasped as a prick of electricity shot down the hand she placed on his shoulder, and he stayed put, looking trapped and ready to scream, even as the rest of the crowd backed away from her. She said, "Here, look! It's an innocent boy! You wouldn't hurt him, now would you? I mean, look how cute he is!" When Iron Bars tried to edge around her human shield, she guided the teen to remain between them.

"That won't work here, GIRL," he boomed, that last word coming out like a clap of thunder, and everyone fell to their knees or collapsed. For a moment, Art could hardly hear a thing but the ringing in his ears. The boy went crawling away in the chaos, leaving no one between Iron Bars and his challenger. He advanced, and Art could see terror in his target's eyes as she scrambled away from him, knocking into those beside her as she went. She found her footing again and leapt onto the wooden platform. "I am called Jezebel, not 'girl'. You would do well to remember it. Oh, and I recall something about forfeiting when you step off the platform. Well, looks like you've stepped off the platform now," she said with an amused look.

"You got off the platform first!" -- "So what, you have a problem with that? That all muscle in your head too, box-head? Or have you never heard the phrase 'ladies first'?"

Why all the name calling? She's goading him, Art realized as he saw her flooding the platform with more water. Her lightning attack had hurt him while he stood on the wooden platform, as it had been insulated from the ground, allowing the electricity to arc over his body, though with his gambeson on he'd been insulated from most of it. When he'd gotten onto the ground, where such energy was wont to go, her attack hadn't worked at all; the man's mail had conducted it into the ground. She wanted him back on the platform. Hence, her taunts.

"BITCH!" Another boom knocked down those who had stood up just a moment earlier. He charged at her even as she, having fallen on her arse from the pressure of his booming voice, scrambled back to the far side of the platform. The moment he'd stepped onto the platform with both feet, Jezebel channeled more lightning at him, a continuous stream of it this time, and the man's limbs spasmed and flailed. He collapsed face-first, splashing against the water on the platform and involuntarily swallowing water. He could hardly make out a scream as she kept it up for a good dozen seconds, only jolt and shake violently.

Only then did she let up, a hauty look on her face as she leaned down at him, her arms propped against her waist. "Now, would you kindly take back what was it you said about me." -- "Bitch." -- "Yes, that. Take it back." -- He answered by spewing the water that had flowed into his mouth right at her face, catching her off guard. She backed off, squinting, as Iron Bars picked himself up and prepared to launch at her. Jezebel instead leapt into the air, her arm pointed down at the platform. Iron Bars instead leaped backward and off the platform, just as lightning zapped across the wet surface of the platform; if he'd charged he'd have been electrocuted again.

Jezebel landed upon the platform, face to face with Iron Bars who stood on the dirt right beside it. For several seconds the two stared at each other, with the man unable to get at her without making himself vulnerable to her lightning and Jezebel unable to affect him so long as he remained off the platform.

"Okay, stop this madness, Jezebel, you're hired," said Paige. -- "We're not done yet," said both combatants in unison, not looking away. -- "You're not done yet?" Jezebel asked Iron Bars. "You can't even reach me. You can't even get on this platform. Admit it, you've lost."

"Iron Bars never lose," he said, then leapt high up into the air -- way of the kingfisher, Art recognized, he would turn it into way of the hammer's fall next -- and the next moment Jezebel had stretched a hand out at him and a bolt of lightning lanced out from her fingertips, to wash over his armor. The man screamed in agony and plummetted, the evocation in his mind apparently disrupted, to to fall toward the platform, even as he continued to spasm. He managed to throw his axe toward her, his aim thrown off by the electricity coursing through him, but with the axe now between her fingertips and her target, the streak of lightning redirected itself to the falling axe instead. She had a moment to step aside to get another shot at him, and then he landed, shield first, upon the platform, and with the way of the hammer's fall -- the momentary reprieve all he needed to re-enter the way -- and his landing shattered the wooden platform at its center in a thunderous boom that rocked Jezebel the nearest spectators off their feet.

Wooden shrapnels splayed out in all directions. The platform split down half its length, between the crack he'd just made and the one he made along one edge at his earlier demonstration. Art's eyes fell on the other side of the platform, which remained intact. If that one went down, the platform would split in two, and then Iron Bars could easily push or kick one away from the other and then the two halves, neither of them supported along their cracked side, would collapse and then Jezebel would be forced off the platform, what with it being so slippery from all the water on it, or at least it would render her more vulnerable to attack.

Iron Bars snatched up his axe and leapt high up into the air, his jump aimed to land him on the other edge of the platform. Jezebel leapt off the platform, past the same edge and a good way beyond, then as Iron Bars came back down, she launched a torrent of water at him, pushing him out away from his intended landing, and he handed shield-first at the far side of the platform. He managed to roll off the platform just as another jolt of lightning struck at him, to flop into the dirt right beside it with a groan.

"Want to give up now? I can keep this up all day, you know," said Jezebel, taunting, as she stepped back onto the platform. She continued to look at him as he rounded about the platform to the edge he needed to destroy, even as she backed to the other side so he couldn't attack her outright. -- "Well that's good, because I have all the time in the world." He swung his axe at the platform edge, its bit biting into the wood. He looked up at her. "I wonder what's going to happen to this platform once I'm done hacking through this support?" -- "I wonder what's going to happen to your axe when it becomes dulled from hacking at the wood." -- "Nothing, same as my shield," he said, lifting it up for emphasis. The metal shield had remained in perfect condition after two hits with the hammer's fall.

Iron Bars hacked at the platform support again, then again, before Jezebel struck out with her lightning, a continuous stream of it aimed at the axe head. The lightning arced through the metal axe head, without going down the wooden shaft. "Doesn't even tickle," Iron Bars said as he continued hacking away, a dozen, two dozen blows as the lightning continued to channel.

This is crazy, thought Art. If the two kept at it, soon there might be nothing left of the platform but a cratered wreck. Or sooner or later one of the two would accidentally kill the other. Last thing the sisterhood needed was to have a death caused by their mercenary recruitment drive to give a reason for Count Traben to have cause for withholding support, not to mention the sisterhood needed every able fighter it could get and having someone die in a fight would put a damper on their recruitment. Yet despite the apparent stalemate, neither of them seemed willing to back off, not if they stood to lose so much face, with all these spectators. He looked about, saw that several other guardsmen had arrived, no doubt drawn by the peals of thunder the man had made, yet they merely kept to the sides of the square, without making a move to interfere.

Then Iron Bars stopped and stared at his axe, which had gotten red hot from all the lightning channeled into it. The blade's edge had completely dulled out, the axehead turned so pliable from the heat that not even his way of the hammer's fall could protect it, and his last hack hadn't done much to cut through the rest of the wooden support.

He leaped at her, throwing out the axe toward her even as she opened up with lightning from her fingertips. The lightning connected with the axe and merely heated it up a bit more, instead of striking at him, and then he had closed in on her and she had leapt back and off the platform, and he followed off the platform not a second later. Jezebel tried to get around him to get back on the platform, but Iron Bars kept himself between her and the platform. She went toward the axe instead, which had landed about two dozen feet away from the platform, and kicked it further away from the platform so he'd have to spend some time to get it. The axe spun to a stop against Art's boots; he picked it up, amused.

Jezebel grinned. "Looks like you won't be having your axe back if you keep trying to block my way," she said. -- Iron Bars grinned. "You forget, I still have my shield, and you can't hurt me on bare ground," he retorted, and charged at her as if to bash her with the shield.

She held her position as she watched him approach, then swerved out of the way at the last moment, and then she was racing back for the safety of the platform, with him chasing right after her, but failing to get to her before she reached the middle of the platform and, jumping, electrocuted the platform. "Aww, I thought you surely would have fallen for that," she said as she turned around to see that he'd kept off the platform. "I guess I must not have insulted you enough. Hmm, what kind of names can I call you? Addlebrain? Airhead? Arse? Asinine? Ass? Asshole?" -- No response from Iron Bars, who just stared at her. -- "I can keep going all day, you know. I'm still in the A's."

"Shut, UP!" Iron Bars roared, the shock of it silencing her and everything and everyone else in the square. He then strode over to the sisters' recruiting stall and took the parchment with his name on it, even as the sisters who'd gathered there, many of them still knocked off their feet, could only watch him take what he wanted in without rising to obstruct him. "Hey… What are you--" began Paige, mouth quivering. -- "What? It's mine, isn't it?" -- "W…what? What gave you that idea?" -- "Um, it has my name on it," he said like it was the most obvious thing in the world, leaving Paige speechless. He took it and folded it twice so that it was no more than a hand wide, then rolled it round and around the handle of his shield.

Then he leapt onto the platform with shield held out and his head ducked behind it, gripping it via the parchment wrapped around the handle. Jezebel channeled her lightning at it again, except this time it just went over and under his shield, without going down the length of his arm. He pressed forward, denying her attempt to maneuver, and forcing her off the platform. He chased right after her, forcing her to dodge and dart around the crowd even as they shouted in surprise and attempted to scatter again.

[Wherein Iron Bars tries to get the guard, and then the crowd, involved, offering whoever knocks Jezebel out gets to keep her robes, and she agrees.]

Iron Bars came to a halt and turned to one of the guards. "You can't be okay with this, can you?" -- "What do you want?" -- "Arrest her!" -- "What, for endangering people and making a mess out of the platform?" -- "Yes!" -- "Sir, are you sure you want me to arrest you?" -- "What? Not me, why would you think I wanted you to arrest me?" -- "Something about someone endangering people and making a mess out of the platform?" -- "… You know what, forget I asked."

Art had been holding out a hope that when others started shouting for them to take action, the guards would intervene, but now? He looked around, and saw the crowd looking cowed by all the thunder and lightning and the few appeals for them to stop, like Paige's, had fallen on deaf ears. Would he have to take action? But he couldn't… He only had on a gambeson, which while it offered insulation, was nowhere near as effective as the conductivity of mail worn over it, and he hadn't been wearing a helmet either. If he tried anything, he'd get shocked by a bolt of lightning to the face and then he'd be down for the count. He stared down at the axe. Not a weapon he'd really learned to use. No sword, no shield…

Iron Bars then turned to the crowd and shouted. "What about you, are you okay with this? Letting her put you at risk like you're cattle destined for the butcher?" He pointed at her with a hand wide open. "Look at her. What a beautiful robe she wears! Must be worth a small fortune, that, and completely useless in a fight. Why, she's got no armor at all. What a frail young lady. I bet a good thump would knock her out." -- "What, are you trying to get other people to gang up on me? Thought you could handle me by yourself, but apparently that's not the case. Besides, that's hardly fair, that's completely outside the rules!" Jezebel called out in protest. -- "Well why are you accusing me? You know me; I'm Sir Boxhead. I don't ever come up with any out of the box ideas."

Chuckling, Iron Bars announced to the audience, "First person to knock her out gets to keep her robe." -- "Sure, and you can keep it, if you can take it from me," she said, holding out her hand. Lightning sparked out from her fingertips, humming and crackling. The crowd around her hurried to get away. -- "Behind you," Iron Bars said, and Jezebel whirled out of the way of an imagined threat, a burst of lightning striking the empty ground that had been right behind her, before turning to glower at the man, who had started chuckling. "A hundred to one. I like those odds. You can't keep on guard forever, girl."

"Then let's finish this," she said, leaping back onto the platform. This time Iron Bars joined her there, his shield out before him, and rushed at her. She swiped with her sword, pushing it slightly to her right, and let loose another blast of electricity from her left. The man staggered and shook in pain for a moment before he managed to get his shield between them again.

Sword and shield clashed yet again, but this time Iron Bars shouted, "BOO!", unleashing the deafening roar right in front of her, right as he swiped his shield against her sword. She flinched and fell back, and with her hold on her sword weakened, the shield slamming into it sent the sword flying out of the platform.

As he rounded on her again, she let loose a torrent of water below where he stepped, and before the water flowed off the platform, she leapt up and electrocuted the water. Sparking tendrils of lightning streaked over to his boots and arced up his mail, bypassing his shield altogether. He flopped down, barely making out a groan as his muscles spasmed, leaving him completely drenched. The water having already spilled off the platform, Jezebel unleashed another torrent of it and followed up with another wave of lightning. A gurgling and gasping Iron Bars, caught by it as he attempted to stand up, crumpled again with a strangled cry, his shield falling from his grasp to splash into the water. "Stop! I yi-- I yi--!" he choked out, his words getting interrupted as more lightning channeled over his armor.

"Are you quite finished?" screamed Jezebel as he failed to get up again. The man continued to sputter, barely managing any words out, and Jezebel continued to channel, shouting, "Are you finished? Hah?"

[Wherein Art gets into the fray.]

Oh, this can't be good, Art thought to himself as he raced around the platform to where he'd seen the woman's sword go flying. The man's completely soaked now, and that gambeson he's wearing won't be nearly as good an insulator now as it was before. If she kept channeling like this the man would very well die, and from her shouting and her not noticing the man's pleas, he figured she'd gone temporarily deaf from receiving a thunderous shout right in the face, so she wouldn't notice even if the man managed to say he'd yielded, if the man could even get those words out to begin with. He had to get her attention, get her to stop electrocuting him.

Sword in hand, he leapt up to the platform, waving at her with his right arm. "Stop! Stop! Can't you see he's down? He's yielded!" he shouted as loud as he could. The woman didn't seem to hear a word he said, nor of the shouts of protest from the people in the crowd, some of whom voiced their frustration that Art had joined in on what was supposed to be a one on one match and others pleading for anyone to put a stop to the fighting. If only he'd learned the way of the thundering voice like Iron Bars had, he'd be able to get through to her.

He realized he had no choice, then, but to distract her with a threat. He lunged right at her, sword pointed out. She turned to him with startled eyes. He'd managed to close in too close for comfort, and she with her left palm facing him, let loose a torrent of water that knocked him backward and off the platform, even as she leapt back and off the platform as well.

His heart pounding, Art raced around the platform, deciding it too risky to step on it as it'd make it easier for him to get electrocuted. He'd figured how to deal with the lightning while standing on the dirt, at least. The moment he saw Jezebel point an index finger at him, he raised his sword pommel-up and out before him, its tip grazing the dirt as he ran at her. The lightning struck toward him, brilliant and dazzling, before redirecting into the pommel of the sword and traversing its length into the ground, white streaks of lighting flowing and zig-zagging down the blade, leaving him completely unhurt.

Jezebel turned and made back toward the safety of the wooden platform. The moment she arrived, however, Iron Bars, now having picked himself up and looking very much still in pain, charged at her with shield upraised. Caught between the two of them, she dodged to the side and backed away from them, to stand on the other side of the platform, before channeling more lightning at Iron Bars, forcing him to back off the platform.

Art and Iron Bars looked at each other, and he pointed his sword at the remaining side of the wooden platform that they'd needed to sever, then twirled the sword around to hold it by the blade. Iron Bars seemed to get the message, and held out the shield to cover for Art as he approached the platform's side. Jezebel sent another torrent of lightning at them, but it arced harmlessly across the shield, and when that failed, a torrent of water to try to push them away, but Iron Bars held fast.

Art raised his sword, ready to strike at the wood. He only had a single arm to exert force with, and he doubted he'd be able to break iron like he'd done for Selena, but against wood, he thought, he should still be able to do that much, especially since Iron Bars had already done half the work.

Crashing down with ten tons of solid stone, I crush all beneath me. More mighty than any giant, all shall break beneath my strike.

He brought the hilt of the sword crashing down on the wooden platform edge. The hilt went all the way through it as wooden chips flew out and cracks went up the center of the platform to join with the crater in the middle, and then with a crash the two halves tilted inward. Together they kicked at one of the two halves of the platform, knocking it away from the other, then Art advanced on Jezebel, redirecting her lightning with the sword till he stood at one side of the center of the half-platform he stood on, while Iron Bars went to the other side, forcing Jezebel to stand in the middle, a mere six feet from the both of them, and almost within striking range. She kept darting her eyes from one to the other, looking alarmed.

"Jezebel, that's enough!" Art shouted at her. -- "I can't hear you," she shouted back, shaking her head. -- "I said stop this now!" -- "What?" -- "He said STOP!" boomed Iron Bars, causing both Jezebel and Art to stagger from the shockwave, and causing Art to drop his sword, flinching.

Jezebel saw him drop the sword and turned on him and pointed a finger right at him, even as she leapt toward him to avoid a horizontal swing from Iron Bars's shield. Art ducked and instinctively put his right arm up over his head, trying to cover his head from the attack he knew was coming, while reaching down to grasp the sword with his hand.

He staggered as the lightning streamed into his upraised left arm via the wrist, coursed down his arm and across his chest and his heart, down his right arm, through the sword and into the ground. He shook violently, hardly managing a scream, before collapsing into the ground. His body wracked with pain, his heart thumped once to bursting, and then he realized he couldn't feel his heart beating.

Chapter 20: Binding of the Storm

[Wherein Art gets hit with lightning and collapses and enters the way of deathly living.]

The lightning! He realized with horror. It had stopped his heart. Was this how he was going to die, getting himself involved in a senseless fight that had nothing to do with him?

He stopped that line of thinking, dismissing it as useless, and went through the ways he knew. Albatross, monolith, whirlwind, crashing boulder, dancing leaf, inner peace, deathly living, none of those would help. No, wait, that last one would. He'd used it to restart his pulse after entering an induced deathly state, after all.

My arms, resting before me, stay in place.

"Ah crap," said Iron Bars pursued Jezebel as she hopped onto the other half-platform, blasting a torrent of water at him to slow him down before attempting to catch him on it with another blast of lightning. He however darted around to the side of the half-platform and then lunged. Jezebel leapt out of the way, back onto the dirt of the plaza.

My body, balanced in place, lies at rest.

"ENOUGH!" Iron Bars boomed, knocking Jezebel and those behind her down on their butts, before lunging right at her. She rolled out of the way just in time, the rim of the man's shield slamming down on the dirt where she stood but a minute earlier. She fired another torrent of lightning, hitting him on the helm but channeling harmlessly into the ground.

My lungs, now at peace, hold still, unmoving.

"You can't win now," Iron Bars shouted at her as she kept retreating and blasting at him with water to try to push him back. He still advanced. "We've destroyed your platform and there is nowhere in this square where your puny lightning can hurt me." -- "Famous last words?" -- "Why you little--" He lunged after her.

My eyes, closed and shut, see only darkness.

Jezebel darted behind the sisters' recruiting stand, keeping it between Iron Bars and herself, lunging to and fro as Iron Bars tried to get around it. After a few seconds he grew outraged and kicked the whole stand down. Jezebel picked up an inkwell from the stand and spun out of the way, and Paige, Liene, and the other sisters fled out of the way in surprise.

My ears, deafened by sound, hear mere silence.

Removing the top, Jezebel dumped the inkwell's contents right into another stream of water she sent right at Iron Bars, so that the black ink struck him. Perhaps he'd been too confident in the protection his armor gave him, for he hadn't been blocking with his shield and had instead been trying to swipe at her with it, and some of that ink got into his eyes.

"Uh, guys," a boy in the crowd said, pointing at Art, who still hadn't gotten back up. "Where'd the other guy go?"

My skin, numb and cold, lose all feeling.

"Gah! My eyes!" Iron Bars shouted, dropping his shield and blinking. He clawed at his helmet, trying to wipe the ink out of his eyes, but the helmet got in the way and he couldn't reach it. He stepped back from Jezebel, stumbling. "You BITCH!" Jezebel, who'd started approaching him, backed away in terror as the shockwave washed over her.

"Um, not quite sure, doesn't look like he got back up." -- "Wait, is Art okay?" asked Paige, having overheard their conversation and also looking at where he'd fallen, seeing him on the ground. -- "What's going on?" asked Liene. -- "It looks like…" Then her words were drowned out from Iron Bar's thunderous roar.

My heart, clutched in ice, beats no more.

Iron Bars removed his helmet and, blinking and squinting, tried to squeeze the ink out of his eyes. Jezebel recovered and, with a smirk on her face, advanced to pick up Iron Bars's dropped shield.

"I said, Art's down." -- "Well good riddance." -- "Sister Liene, how could you say such a thing?" Paige retorted, looking scandalized. -- "Oh," said Sasha, looking somewhat concerned. "That's lightning that he got hit with. What if he--" -- Paige looked at her in alarm, and took off racing toward Art.

My blood, stilled in my veins, courses not.

Iron Bars was still backpedaling and trying to get the ink out of his eyes when Jezebel smacked his now unprotected head in the side with the shield. He collapsed silent upon the muddy dirt. "Are you quite finished?" she asked, and gave him a good kick in the side. After a few moments of no response from the man, she mused, "Yep, we're done. Huh, for so much sound and fury, the ending wasn't as climactic as I was expecting. What was it they say? The harder they fall?"

Paige knelt by Art's side and put a finger to his carotid, feeling for a pulse, shifting her fingers about his neck as she failed to find any. "No, no, oh no," she said, worried. Several others in the crowd, noticing she had rushed out, rushed over to him as well.

My mind, once racing, watches over my deathly sleep.

Though Art's body ceased to give any indication of being alive, he remained conscious, the way of deathly living keeping his mind awake despite no blood flowing through his veins. He saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing, noticed nothing except the passing of time and the relief of having managed to finish entering the way of deathly living before he lost consciousness, and minded his meditations.

[Wherein Jezebel attempts to defibrillate Art but apparently without success, and the crowd demands her be hanged, and Art redirects her lightning so she shocks herself unconscious.]

Paige rushed up to a Jezebel who looked flushed with victory. "Jezebel, please help! Art here was knocked out by your lightning, and I can't feel his pulse, at this rate he's going to die. Since you can channel the lightning, you can start up his heart, right? Can't you?" she pleaded. -- Jezebel stared at her, looking confused. "He attacked me! Tried to hew me down with my own sword! Why should I do anything to help him?" -- "Please, Jezebel. I saw it all happen, I can swear he wasn't trying to actually hurt you, just trying to stop the fight. You two were getting so out of hand with the fight, and I had asked for the both of you to stop, and you'd both ignored me, so…" She renewed her pleas. "Art's going to die!"

"She's right, you know," said Sasha. "I would be the first to say good riddance -- the second, actually, since Liene already said that -- but considering everyone here saw you strike him with your lightning, if he dies his death will be on your hands. Understand, I only care insofar as that means we wouldn't be able to take you to battle with us, seeing as how you'll be strung up to be hanged." -- "And when did I even say I would be joining your little expedition? Wait, hanged?" Her eyes went wide with fear, then turned to see the crowd gathered where Art had fallen. "Oh hell," she muttered, then rushed over.

"Out of the way, move," Jezebel shouted, and conjured a spark of electricity on her fingertips that buzzed and hummed with energy, causing the crowd to back off and give her some space. She reached down and tapped Art on the neck, feeling for his pulse but failing to find any. "You there," she shot a look at the person in the surrounding crowd on the side of Art opposite hers. "Help me get him out of his clothes." The man looked startled but nodded and went to work, and moments later they had extricated Art out of his gambeson and tunic, leaving him bare chested.

She put an index finger over his heart, and released a small burst of electricity into him, causing his whole body to spasm, then again, then again, then checked for a pulse. Then she repeated the process, shocking him and then checking, shocking and checking, her face looking more and more worried each time. "Don't die! You can't die, not like this! I just wanted to… just wanted to…"

Art, still unable to move and with senses cut off from the rest of the world, felt the lightning course through him. If he could, he would have gritted his teeth. Instead, he could only suffer in silent agony. Someone was shocking him repeatedly -- most likely Jezebel, he thought. He had to get out of his way, but he couldn't, not while he was being shocked, or he'd come out of it only to lose consciousness right away, and if that happened, he could likely die before he re-entered the way. He had to wait until she stopped.

"Now look what you did. He's dead, isn't he?" someone said. -- "Damn it Jezebel, I'd told you to stop," said Paige beside her, looking furious. "Why didn't you listen?" -- Jezebel paused a moment and someone else went to feel for Art's pulse, but he shook his head at her a moment later. -- "Guard? Guard!" -- "We have a murder over here!" -- Jezebel redoubled her efforts, a pained look on her face. -- "I hereby place you under arrest." -- "No, no," said Jezebel, tears flowing from her eyes. Her lips quivered and she shook her head. "Oh, why did I get involved in this mess? This can't be happening. Can't be happening…"

Several of the guards had come up behind her. They seized her by her wrists, hauled her back up to her feet. -- "You're coming with me." -- "No! I'm not done yet! Back off," she said, screaming at them in desperation. -- The guards held her firmly in place as she struggled.

She's stopped, Art thought. Time to wake up, then. He stopped meditating his mantras.

"Don't you see, I have to save him! Let me do this, or else he'll really die!" -- "I think you've done quite enough," retorted the guard. -- "Please, give me another chance! Just one more chance!" she begged of him, wailing. -- "I don't think so."

A pulse began to beat through Art as his organs began to awaken.

A middle aged woman in the crowd pointed at her, looking furious. "You did this. You killed him! And for what? He was only trying to break up your fight! I'll have you know, they'll string you up by your neck and leave you to hang, and I'll think they'd left you off too easy!" -- "That's right!" -- Said another, "How many times did we shout for you to stop? And did you listen? No!" -- "Right, right!"

A tingling sensation swept through him, pins pricking into him from a thousand places at once. His lungs started to function, but his breath was shallow, and in all the commotion about him, went completely unnoticed.

Jezebel looked back and forth between all those before her, and burst out sobbing. "Please, I didn't mean to. I swear I didn't! It was only supposed to be--" -- "Oh really?" retorted one of them. "And I suppose those hundred bolts of lightning you shot were all just an accidental discharge?" -- "Murderer!" -- "No! Oh gods…"

As the tingling subsided, numbness faded into an aching, sore body. He could start to move his fingertips and his toes. He felt like he'd been beaten into a pulp, and it pained too much to try to move if he didn't have to. He still couldn't see or hear yet. What was going on? At least, with the way of the dancing leaf, he could get a sense of his surroundings, even without his normal senses.

A leaf, a petal, a feather, I drift in the open sky…

"To hell with you!" -- "Guards, don't just stand there, take her away!" -- "When'll the trial be? I'd like to watch that one." -- "She doesn't deserve a god damn trial! You saw what happened with your own eyes! We all did!" -- "I say we string up her up nice and tight right now!" -- "Please, no, you have to understand!"

Paige shouted over the other speakers, causing them to fall into silence. "At least let's give her another chance to resuscitate him! What good does apprehending her right now do for him, wouldn't that just guarantee his death? What if Jezebel could have awakened him, and he dies because you didn't let her do her work? You'll spend the rest of your life feeling guilty, that maybe, just maybe, your demands had sealed the death of an innocent! Can you abide by that? For I cannot." She turned to the guards, and gestured for them to let go of Jezebel.

Jezebel promptly took Paige's hands in hers. "Oh thank you, thank you!" she said, breaking down before her. -- Paige thrust her hands aside. "Don't thank me. It's all up to you, and God, now. If you fail to get his heart beating again, you're still destined for the hangman's block."

Art sensed her approach as Jezebel collapsed and crawled over to Art's side with a look of grim determination. Oh crap, he thought, realizing that she was about to shock him again, when he didn't need her help. He could just shout for her to stop, or even just move… then reconsidered. He still held the sword by the pommel. He tensed, as Jezebel laid a fingertip over his heart.

The moment she channeled, he pulled on the sword, bringing its pommel to separate her fingertip from his chest, and the flat of the blade against her shoulder. The lightning surged down from her fingertip, into the pommel, through the hilt and up the blade into her shoulder, down across her body and into the ground. Without any insulation to protect her, the electricity wracked her body. She quivered and shook, barely able to make out a scream as the lighting coursed through her, and she fell headfirst over his chest to lay inert.

[Wherein Art strips Jezebel of her robes and gets her indentured to him.]

The onlookers stared in disbelief as he set her down on the mud beside him and sat up. He looked over them all, a smug look on his face. That worked, he thought, amused, then turned to the unconscious Jezebel and began to disrobe her. The crowd looked on, even more stunned, before finally Paige pointed at him and protested, "What… just what do you think you're doing?" -- "Why, exactly what she did to me. I thought the redirected lightning, and me with my bare chest, made that obvious." -- "That was so she could jolt your heart awake! Why are you doing that to her?"

He stared back at her, even as he continued on his efforts, which went slow with him only having one hand. Fortunately her robes being loose fitting, and her not struggling against him, made it much easier. "Well I'm just taking what's mine." -- "What do you mean--" -- "Heavens, Sasha, I mean the robe. What did you think I meant? I distinctly remember -- what was it Iron Bars said? And I quote, 'First person to knock her out gets to keep her robe.'" -- "That's just what Iron Bars said! She wouldn't agree to that!" -- "And I quote, 'Sure, and you can keep it, if you can take it from me'." -- "But that was only for the fight!" -- "I fought, didn't I? I distinctly remember having fought, unless her lightning somehow jumbled up my memory, in which case I must ask you for forgiveness… Oh what am I saying, if I got hit by the lightning then of course I was in the fight." He shot her a look like she was the one who had lost it.

Sasha turned to the others with an exasperated look on her face. "Really? You're all okay with this?" -- "Well, he did risk his life for it. He almost died, if you hadn't noticed," one of them replied. -- "Really now?" Sasha could only repeat in disbelief. -- "And she did agree to the challenge and its terms." -- "Really?" -- "Besides," said Art, "I don't think she'll mind all too much, when she wakes up. In fact, I bet she'll feel mighty relieved. Why, just a moment ago she was facing the specter of certain death. Losing a robe in exchange for keeping her life would be the best trade she's never made. Besides, I really, really want the robe. For… reasons." Everyone remained too stunned to stop him, and he finished removing her robes and wrapped it over is right arm, leaving her in her shifts.

From her resting position Jezebel stirred, and Paige rushed by her side. "Jezebel. How are you feeling?" -- "Ugh, I feel like I'd just been manhandled." She opened her eyes and stared up at Paige, looking frantic. "Art," she said with urgency, "Oh, no, he's dead, isn't he?" She scrunched up her eyes, covered them with her hands. "No, no. This is the end of the line, my life is over. Oh, you idiot, Jezebel, why did you have to get caught up in a fight?", she said, then burst out wailing.

"Hush, he's not dead yet," said Sasha, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Look." -- Jezebel parted her hands turned her head to the side and saw Art, looking utterly relieved. "Oh, Art! You're alive! But… that can't be! I felt your pulse, I saw you dying before me… How is it you live and breathe?"

Art grinned. "Well, it's actually quite the fantastic story. After you killed me with your lightning, the burning hells claimed my soul, clearly I deserved it. The next thing I knew, I was barely conscious, and bound by thick iron chains to a post alongside three other fallen souls, all of them struggling against their bindings and screaming. My skin was torn asunder, blackened with ash and bleeding from a hundred wounds. Balrogs -- giant demons with claw-tipped wings and dark red, leathery skin, easily as wide as a man was tall and twice as tall -- marched about the sea of bound souls, torturing everyone they came across with flaming red-hot pokers. One came over and stabbed me in the eyes, the burning hurt like hell! Though of course since I was in hell that wasn't the least bit surprising.

"Then I told the demon that I knew of a way to bring seventy two virgins to hell with him for its delight, and he asked, 'how?' And I said, 'If I told you then you would leave me here, but you can trust me because if I double crossed you or if it turns out I lied to you, well, I would have an eternity of torture at your hands, and I wasn't that much of an idiot.' He agreed, and broke me out of my chains.

"I then went down from the ashen steppes full of tormented souls into an overflowing caldera, where flames arched overhead only to come crashing down on the skeletons of the damned, which bobbed up and down upon the lava. I passed them by and found a blackened causeway paved with good intentions, and trampled over peoples' hopes and dreams until I arrived at the sanctuary of chaos, a blackened, dilapidated building as grand as the cathedral of Tristram, where I sought an audience with Diablo. The lord of terror refused to meet with me -- that is, until I slew five of his lieutenants by tricking them into falling into the lava.

"And I told the prime evil what I told the first demon, saying that if he set my soul free and returned me to the world of the living, that I would damn seventy two virgins to hell for him to play with. And when he asked me how I would go about accomplishing this, I told him he'd never believed it would work unless I pulled off the feat first. And he in his greed agreed, and showed me the portal that leads the soul back to the world of the living.

"So here I am, having been the only one who had died, went to hell, and returned, the only one who knows the secret portal out from hell. And if I can find some people willing to follow me into hell, I can show you where the portal lies hidden, that you may return back to this world should you ever die. Anyone want to join me?" He said, raising up his hand and looking about himself with a smile.

He was met with a stunned, disbelieving silence. "…Let me guess," said Jezebel, "you're only interested in taking virgins with you, and only seventy two at a time." -- "You wound me, Jezebel, though not like you haven't already. I have only the purest of intentions at heart… Though like I said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

"Well… Thank goodness you're okay," Jezebel said. -- "Never mind him, you should be a bit more worried about yourself." -- "Ugh. One moment I was trying to save him, and the next moment… What happened?" -- "Like you said. You were manhandled," replied Paige, shooting Art a dirty look. -- "By him. Art. Like I said, never mind him, he doesn't deserve your sympathy."

That seemed to shake Jezebel out of her stupor. She fixated her eyes back on Art, surprise written on her face. "That's… that's my robes!" She looked down her own body and with a yelp, bolted right up and made to snatch at her robes, which Art swung out of her reach. "Give that back! How did you… did you really just…" -- "Na ah ah," said Art. "Not your robes anymore. Remember? You forfeited them when I knocked you out." -- "Since when?" -- Art turned to the onlookers, several of whom nodded in response. -- "Sorry lady," said one, "You did agree to the terms." -- Jezebel rounded on him. "You rascal!" she shouted, then whipped back at Art. Lightning sparked at her fingertip as she pointed an index finger at him. "And you! Give that back or I'll--" -- Art snatched her finger in his hand. She couldn't shock him like that, or she'd shock herself again. "Or you'll what? I don't think the guards will show you any lenience if kill me again." -- "I didn't even kill you the first time!" -- "I don't want you kiling me at all, okay? And besides, you knocked yourself unconscious the last time you attacked me. You really want a repeat of that already?" -- "I demand a duel!" -- "Well, you seem to be fine, seeing as how you're already for round two," Art said with a smirk. "Alright, nothing more to see here, away with you all, shoo!" At that, a good majority of the crowd started to dissipate.

Jezebel retracted her hand, still glaring at him. "You expect me to honor something I said in the heat of battle?" -- "A woman without honor is nothing. Surely you won't say you have none?" -- "But they're my robes!" -- "No they're not. Not any more, that is." Art began to walk away from the crowd. -- Jezebel followed right after. "Give it back!" -- "Sure, I can give it back, but it's gonna cost you," he said, stopping by an alcove by the side of the street. -- "How much? Tenpence[denarius]? Fifteen[denarius]? I can pay that." -- Art chuckled. "What, are you are kidding?" He traced a finger over the silver embroidery, fine and delicate and unlike the golden threaded embroidery of the tunic the Bedfords had given him, had been made with actual silver. "For a robe like this? Only a fool would settle for so little." -- "Well how much do you want?"

"Hmm," thought Art, looking away. He could just sell the robe back to her; he'd get some nice bit of silver out of it, and heavens knew he'd need every last penny[denarius] he could get his hands on. Back when he'd still planned on traveling onward to Duncraig with Warriv and the others, he would have probably done just that. But now that he'd resolved to return to Thistledown to fight the redskins alongside the sisterhood? The silver would still be good, but a few pennies[denarius] wouldn't really make a difference, especially if the sisterhood was going to get Count Traben to back them. They'd be counting whole silver talents like he counted coins. No, with the heavy losses the sisterhood's defeat at the monastery cost them, what the sisterhood needed was manpower.

He turned back to her. "I'm not selling it back." -- "Don't be ridiculous. What are you going to do with a women's robe like that? It certainly won't suit you." -- "Why would I ever… I meant, I want something else instead of silver. I want an indenture." -- "You want what now?" she stared at him like she couldn't believe his boldness. -- "One year's indenture." -- "This is ridiculous," she replied, looking insulted. "I'm not going to indenture myself to anyone. And you have quite the gall to even dare ask for such a thing, you know that? I'm an adept of the--" -- "Order of the Three Elements, Stormy Skies School, yes I know," he said, looking nonchalant. "And I know the robes are a symbol of your status as an adept in the order. All the much more valuable to you, no?" -- "Not that valuable. I can always go back to my order and get a replacement."

"Six months', then." -- "Six months, are you kidding? I can just tell you'll be making my life a miserable hell during that time. You're for just itching for that, aren't you? One month." -- "Three months, and that's the lowest I'll go. The order'll be none too pleased if you return to them saying you lost your robes, and you'll have a lot of explaining to do, which I'm sure you'll want to avoid. Besides, they'll surely put a hefty price tag just to discourage the kind of antic you just pulled."

"Why are you so insistent that it has to be an indenture? Oh, that's it, you just want to lord it over me and stick it in my face that you managed to take me down in this fight, is that it? Why can't I just pay you the silver and we can get the matter over with? Look, I'm an adept of Stormy Skies, right? I can accumulate two seg six[denarius] in three months, if I really tried. I doubt whatever work you'll have me do -- that I would agree to -- would net you nearly as much, and given how the robes are designed for our order I doubt you'd be able to find a buyer for half as much. So I can pay you a singleton[denarius] for these robes, and we can both be happier about it."

Oh, now that's some money, Art thought. He was pretty sure the robes were worth considerably more than three single[denarius], which was why she'd offer a singleton[denarius], but still… A whole singleton[denarius]. Not enough to live indolently for three months, even on peasants' food, but still a lot. But, he remembered, he wasn't in it for the money. "Three months indenture, then."

"Fine, three months," she said, pouting. Then she rounded on him. "But! A few things to make perfectly clear. One: You're going to hand over my robes as soon as I sign." -- "Agreed." -- "Two: This is going to be an ordinary indenture, no funny business, you hear?" -- Art chuckled. "Relax, Jezebel. I'm not going to pimp you out or anything, and I'm not going to make you do any shady work. I'm a man of principles." -- "Really now? Who would have guessed. So. What will you be having me do then?"

Fight on the sisterhood's behalf, he thought, but he didn't say it out loud. No one ever did that for an indenture; it just wasn't done. They had mercenary contracts for that, and generally one didn't push mercenary contracts on other people. It was the kind of thing people had to do voluntarily, and he figured Jezebel wouldn't be all that happy with being roped into something like that, which was why he hadn't wanted to try to push one on her, and had taken the roundabout approach of indentures. With that in mind, he wanted her to eventually get around to helping the sisterhood defend Thistledown, and in particular to protect Selena and the Bedfords, and for that he needed to keep her close to them. "Housekeeping. I'll be putting you with a friendly couple that I'd grown rather attached to. And the family also has a little foster daughter, eight years old, who will need looking after. I trust that shouldn't be a problem for you?"

Jezebel visibly relaxed. "Oh. Can't say I've done much of that before but I'll manage." -- "Let me guess, you were expecting much worse." -- "Uh huh." -- "Where you had been working earlier… I assume you'll have to check with them first, before we get the contract signed?" -- "I work on my own terms, so that wouldn't be a problem." -- "Well. Let's get on with it then," he said, and led the way to the local bailiff's office.

Bailiff Sherman had his office on the first floor of one of the three-story buildings along main street, so they found it without difficulty. Two guards, decked in mail and with spears held at the ready and shields at their backs, stood at attention, guarding the entryway, letting them into the office once the previous visitor left. The immaculate room contained several large pieces of furniture, with cabinets on the side and a large oaken desk in the middle. Sitting on the large, ornate chair behind it was the bailiff, a balding older man with a pot belly who gave them a nod. "Here, have a seat," he gestured at the two simple wooden chairs before them, and they quickly seated themselves. "So what matter brings you to me?" he asked.

"We would like for you to notarize an indenture, if you please," said Art. -- "Very well, that'll be tenpence[denarius]." -- Art took out his money bag and emptied it on the table, producing eight coins, then turned to Jezebel with a sheepish grin. -- Jezebel sighed, shaking her head at him, and reached into her money bag. "And you wouldn't take silver, you said. Nope, never even gave it a thought." She set two silver pieces on the table.

With a nod, the bailiff took an empty piece of parchment off the stack to his side, tapped his pen in the inkwell, and began to write, asking questions as he went. "Who will be indenture holder?" -- "That would be me. Art Taverley." -- Scribble, scribble. -- "And the indentured?" -- "Jezebel Lyrassia," she said, to which the bailiff looked up at them in disbelief. Yes, thought Art, in this case the indentured was the one with all the money. -- Scribble, scribble. -- "Duration?" -- "Three months, starting from today." -- Scribble, scribble. -- "And all the usual terms apply?"

Art pondered this for a moment. The usual terms for indentures included: one, that the indentured would serve the holder of the indenture for a certain span of time, doing particular duties which would be spelled out on the indenture; two, that the holder of the indenture would have legal recourse to punish the indentured for failure to perform said duties properly; three, the goods and services to be exchanged at the beginning and end of the term. Other things were understood, such as the indentured couldn't be requested to undertake anything dangerous, illegal, or of a sexual nature (unless declared on the indenture) or be made to relinquish any of their belongings, that any money spent by the indentured at the behest of the contract holder would be remunerated; and that the holder could pass the indenture on to someone else but only for the indentured to continue doing essentially the same line of work. "Yes."

Scribble, scribble. -- "And what work will the indentured be required to perform?" -- "House work, and attending to me and anyone I see fit." -- Scribble scribble. -- "And what is to be exchanged up front?" -- "My robe," said Jezebel, pointing at the blue and silver robe Art still had draped over his arm. -- "And is that all?" -- "Yes." -- Scribble, scribble. -- "And what is to be exchanged at the conclusion?" -- "Twopence[denarius], to Jezebel," said Art. -- She shot him an appraising look. -- He pointed at the coins she'd paid from her own money bag. "Like I said, I'm a man of principles." -- Scribble, scribble. -- "Any additional terms you'd like to add?" -- "I think that's all. Jezebel?" -- "Agreed." -- "Very well," said the bailiff, and turned the parchment around for them to peruse. -- "Yep, looks good."

"You sign here, and you sign here," said the bailiff, pointing to the bottom of the parchment, and then passed Art the pen. Art signed his name, then passed it to Jezebel and shifted the parchment toward her. -- She looked at it, then at Art. "You're not going to make me regret this, are you?" -- "Nope, never dreamed of it and never will," said Art, trying his best to put on a reassuring smile. It just might get you killed, though, he thought to himself, what with him placing her right on the front lines with the war with the redskins. She probably didn't even know that yet. But, that was the point. By the time she realized what the situation was like over there, she'd be locked into the indenture.

"Good," she replied. "Because I'll have you know, I have very good memory, and if you've made me do anything untoward, then at the end of those three months I might just give you the shock of your life." She held up an index finger and lightning crackled atop it. -- "As if you haven't already," Art retorted. -- "That shock was to save your life, you unthankful wretch. By the way, when are you going to pay me back for that, mister man of principles?" -- "Right now, in exchange for the indenture," he said, passing back her robe. "I'm pretty sure you know just how good a deal you're getting with this. A singleton[denarius]? Hah!" -- She accepted it graciously and put it back on. "Humph. You were going to give it back regardless."

Art tapped at the parchment. "I expect a great deal less sass once you've signed."

She turned back to the parchment and, with a final look at Art, signed her name and set down the pen. "The contract is signed," said the bailiff, who took it and placed it on a heap of other parchment at the corner of his desk.

Jezebel then turned to Art and curtsied. "I am in your care. Please take good care of me."

Chapter 21: Seeking Pledge of Arms

[Where Art gathers Warriv and Roland to go meet with the count.]

The bailiff then proceeded to write out two simpler versions of the contract, which spelled out the terms of the contract, without signature spaces on them, and which referred to the master copy. These he gave to Art and Jezebel. "There. Our business is concluded."

"Thank you good sir," said Art with a bow. Then he turned to Jezebel. "Follow," Art said, putting away his abridged copy of the indenture contract. Looking at the position of the sun in the sky, he gathered it was almost three in the afternoon, when he'd have to pay a visit to the count. Amplisa had all but charged him with bringing Warriv along. He began walking.

"So, where are we going?" -- "Back to our inn. We have a meeting with the count before the hour's up, and I figure he'd be back there by now since he'd left early in the morning." -- "Ah, didn't know one such as you would have friends in high places." -- "Yeah, me neither, who's this friend you speak of? Care to introduce me to him?" -- "Wait, weren't you just saying--" -- "Oh no, Jezebel. I'm just a lowly knave who'd not settle for picking your pockets but the robes they're on altogether," he said with a smile. "Come on then."

They went by the cathedral in the center of town, a magnificent white stone building with arches, spires, and flying buttresses that dwarfed all around it. Oh yes, he thought, Roland would have come by to schedule a visit with the bishop. Having someone as insightful as he come along with them for their meeting with the count could prove quite a boon, as well as him 'representing' the templars. On a hunch, he stepped inside, taking in the spectacle of a panoply of stained glass windows all about, chandeliers above and candles all around. At this time the cathedral stood mostly empty, and he soon found Roland sitting on one of the pews, eyes closed and hands clasped in prayer.

He tapped Roland on the shoulder, prompting the man to open his eyes. He whispered. "Sorry to interrupt, Roland, but there's something that I would very much request your presence for." -- Roland nodded, and followed Art out of the cathedral in silence, so as not to disturb the others.

As they exited the building, Art said, "Roland: Jezebel. Jezebel: Roland, former templar." -- "Well met," replied Roland. "You two know each other?" -- "Just met. Long story," said Art with a dismissing gesture. -- Turning back to Art, he asked, "So…" -- Art explained, "You recall the sisters asked me to go visit the count along with Liene? Well, I figure you ought to come with as well. It'd be quite the opportunity for you." -- Roland nodded. "Fine by me, I've time on my hands waiting for tomorrow." -- "I take it from seeing you at prayer, that you'd managed to schedule the appointment?" -- "Yep, first thing tomorrow. You're going to pick up Warriv too, right?" -- "Yeah, let's see if he's back at the inn." Turning to Jezebel, he explained, "Warriv is our caravan master."

He led Jezebel back to the Smug Mug where he, Warriv, and the sisters were staying in, up to their room where he found it still abandoned. He then went and knocked on Roland's door, right up the hallway. "Damn, they're not back yet. Let's check with the innkeep," he said, leading them back downstairs.

"Innkeep… You know where Warriv went?" -- The innkeep shook his head. -- "Did he leave you a note or anything?" -- "Nothing." -- Turning aside from the innkeep, Art muttered, "Damn. Now where would Warriv be at a time like this?"

"Um, who's Warriv?" -- Art turned to Jezebel, about to explain. "Warriv's our caravan master." -- Roland pointed a thumb back over his shoulder. "Yes, a caravan master without caravan wagons. Where's he going to put his wares?"

Art grinned at him. "Nice call. You know the way?" -- "Follow," said Roland with a nod, and he led the way, wending past streams of busybodies crowding the streets, leading the way to Carpenter's Street, where he found Warriv inspecting one of several covered wagons along the side of the road and speaking to a plainly dressed man before a storefront that said, 'Argyle and Sons, Wainrights'.

"Warriv," Art called out to him. "Fancy finding you here." -- "Art! Come to check up on my progress, have you? I should be done here soon." -- "I'd have thought you'd come here first if you were planning on getting wagons, and that you'd have that taken care of by now," Art asked. "At this rate I doubt we'll be leaving tomorrow morning." -- "I actually had to secure the silver first. Paying for the horses would take a bit more silver than what I had saved up here. I have associates in town, but took a good bit of time hunting them down and getting them to agree to lend me the rest." -- "You managed to get the money you needed?" -- "Yep, already paid for them in fact. Soon as we're done here, I can get started buying the goods." -- "Ah, about that," said Art, "I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to delay that a bit. Amplisa has requested our presence with the count." -- "Amplisa did? Well that's hardly something I can refuse. When is this meeting?" -- Art looked up toward the sun. "Right about now." -- "You're not kidding." -- "Nope." -- "Ah." Warriv turned to the wainright. "Argyle, This one will do just fine. I have to run but, I'll be back to pick up the wagon shortly." -- "Aye, aye!"

[Where Art messes with Liene when they are on the way to visit Count Traben.]

Together, they back to the square. "Huh, looks like they're still at it," he mused, watching a short, stocky man in a gray gambeson exchange blows with a tall, lanky man in a dark blue one. With the wooden platform now destroyed and cleared out of the way, they simply fought over bare ground. By the side, some two dozen well-armed and armored men stood watching, some of them cheering and others jeering.

"Give me a moment to get Liene to come with," he said to Warriv and Roland, and stepped up to the stand and perused the enlistment sheet, which now sported near two dozen names. "And they've amassed a a decent following, too."

"You again," said Liene. Then she looked to Jezebel. "Ah, Jezebel, I see you got your robe back from this jackass. Are you here to join our enlistment?" -- Art chuckled. "She can't." -- "Quiet, I'm not talking to you." -- "Then you aren't talking to either of us." He turned to Jezebel. "Ignore her." -- "Don't mind him, he's a nobody. We had him thrown in the pillory just a few days ago, for getting on our bad side. Ah, but you, that was quite the demonstration of electroturgy. The sisterhood could definitely make use of your talents. What say you, hmm?" -- Jezebel kept quiet. -- "Ah, you didn't strike me as the shy type when jumped out onto the stage. Cat got your tongue?" -- "No, I did." -- "You fancy you have nine lives too many?" Liene rounded on him, glaring. -- "As I've been trying to point out, except you keep interrupting me, she's indentured to me now." -- "Bullshit." -- "Seriously, Liene, I know you aren't about to trust me, but you really should find out the facts before you make a fool of yourself." -- "Hah. As if she'd have any reason to be indentured to you." -- Art tapped a finger on Jezebel's robe. -- Liene turned to Jezebel. "What happened?" -- Jezebel pointed a thumb at Art. "What he said." -- Liene did a double take. "Seriously?" -- Nod from the both of them. -- "Well that sure happened fast." -- "That's what she said."

Liene shook her head. "I can't take this any more," she muttered to herself, then perked up. "Oh look at the time! Paige, I'm leaving you in charge of the recruitment drive till I get back. Elexa, Diane -- with me." She turned to Art. "Sorry but I don't have time to chat," she said. -- "That's fine, me neither. We'll be seeing you soon," he called after them as the trio of sisters began to head down the street. Art, Warriv, Roland, and Jezebel followed shortly thereafter.

"Care to tell me where we're going?" asked Jezebel. -- "Whitekeep." -- "Why are we going there?" -- "Why, to crash Liene's visit with the count, of course," he said with a grin. -- "What's between you and her?" -- "Long story, but since you'll be coming with me…" And he brought her up to speed about the sisterhood and its plight, their defeat at the hands of the monastery by necroturges, Liene catching him performing necroturgy.

"Wait, you're a necroturge? You never told me." -- "Well after what happened last time someone found out about it, I wouldn't be caught dead with the dead. I figured I'd take it to the grave with me. Oh but look, you've made me tell you my secret. You know what they say about the best way for two men to keep a secret is if one of them is dead." -- Jezebel froze. -- "Why the hard look, Jezebel? Last I checked, we're not two men with a secret, we're two men, another man, a woman, and also a bunch of other men and women from here all the way to Thistledown who had seen me getting pilloried."

Suddenly Liene rounded on them, glaring at Art. "Why are you following us? Don't you have somewhere better to go?" -- "You're assuming we're following you." -- "And you aren't?" -- "No, this just happens to be the path to where we need to go." -- "Then walk," she said, and she and Elexa and Diane stood to the side, beckoning him on. -- "You're assuming I know how to get there without you leading us there." -- "I knew it!" -- "Calm down, Liene," Art said, then he and his group walked on past them.

They walked down two blocks, then he glanced around to see Liene's group walking after him. They walked two more blocks, and with a glance saw them again. He turned around and marched right up to Liene. "Why are you following us? Don't you have somewhere better to go?" he demanded. -- "What -- you again!" -- "What do you mean, I again, you're following us, what did you expect?" -- "Who says--" -- "Seriously? You mean to tell me that you're not following in our footsteps?" -- Elexa turned away, covering her mouth with one hand, chuckling. -- Liene flashed an irritated glance at her, then rounded on Art. -- "Are you intentionally trying to mess with us?" -- "Kind of hard to do, considering you're already such a mess that we'd only succeed in putting you straight." -- "Alright, then set us straight, why don't you. What are you up to?" -- "I have a meeting with the count." -- "Not now you don't." -- "Yes now I do." -- "No you don't, because we have that meeting right now." -- Art smiled. -- Liene leered at him before she widened her eyes in realization. "No way." -- "Like I said, Liene, you really ought to find out the facts first," Art replied, looking smug. -- "Amplisa set you up to this? She did, didn't she. Why did she have to send you of all people? Augh!" She turned away, muttering.

"Liene, I actually need to apologize," Art said. -- "Hah, really? What con are you trying to sell me now, to speak such honeyed words?" -- "We've gotten off to a rough start--" -- Liene chuckled. "'Rough start', he says." -- "…and I haven't done much to earn your trust back." -- "You think?"

"Believe it or not, I'm actually looking out for the sisterhood. Amplisa sent me because she saw that in me, and besides, I can represent the caravaners, and you'll want any last bit of support we can provide in your meeting with the count."

Amplisa gestured toward Warriv. "And Warriv's here. So why are you still here then? Aren't you the odd wheel here?"

"If he's not going, then I'm not going," said Warriv. "-- "Yeah, me neither," said Roland.

Liene sighed. "Why are you making this so difficult for us? Look, Art. I don't need your help. You can go tell Amplisa to mind her own business. Because I certainly don't want to mind you when we're meeting with the count. Heavens know you've frayed my nerves enough already."

"Ah, good, then I've succeeded." He slapped himself on the cheek. "I… Let my mouth run faster than my mind, sometimes. Oftentimes. Most times. Fact of the matter is, you're fun to tease. And for having gotten me locked in that pillory, you deserve it. I can't say I care much for the sisterhood, but I do care for some of the people in Thistledown, which the sisterhood is protecting simply by being there. And I'll be damned if I let you get between me and the people I want to protect."

"Bold words, Art. Since Amplisa seems to trust you, you can come, and if you trust Jezebel as much, she can come with, too. But." Liene stepped right in Art's face, stared right at him. "While we meet with the count, you'll do exactly as I command of you. And if you do anything to jeopardize our meeting with the count, you'll be wishing you were back in the pillory, because I'll be damned if I let your antics hurt my family. Are we clear?"


With a final mistrustful look at him, Liene turned and led the group toward Whitekeep.

"So," Diane asked Liene, "Do you think this count will prove receptive to our request?" -- "Remember, sister, we are seeking an ally in our war, as equals. We are not requesting aid on our venture. When we meet with him, do not in any way expose the situation our sisterhood finds itself in, do you understand?"

Diane nodded with a look of worry. "Yes, but elder sister Liene, you make it sound like it's not certain that we'll get the aid we need. Are you worried that he won't be receptive to us if we simply asked for help?"

"I prefer a little paranoia to leaving ourselves vulnerable. After all, it never hurts to be on guard either way. But don't worry, Diane; we'll get the help we need. After all, I know the count. He's a good man, and he and the sisterhood have had amicable relations for many years."

"Don't forget about the merchant trade," added Warriv. "That's a lot of tariffs going into his coffers, silver which I'm sure he won't want to do without. He'll want to ensure that the sisterhood's efforts in keeping the peace along this stretch of the silk road continues, lest the trade dries up and the caravans go some other way and he loses his income. This is no place for him to stint on expenses."

They came upon it soon. It stood proud, a tall, wide stone building that rose some sixty feet tall, easily the second tallest building in the town after the massive cathedral in the town center. The keep stood adjoined to the town wall on the one side, with turrets at each of its four corners. A squad of five guards in full mail stood at attention before the entrance, spears held out before them and barring entry.

[Wherein they meet with Count Traben and the meeting starts off all very nice.]

Liene addressed the one among them with with a blue cloak. "Greetings, good sergeant. We are here for a meeting with the count," said Liene. -- "Name?" -- "Liene, of the Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye." She gestured toward Art. "Also, we bring other guests. Warriv, caravan master; Roland, another caravaner; Art, yet another caravaner; and Jezebel…." -- "A resident here." -- A nod, as the sergeant looked over Liene and the other sisters' white and brown gambesons. "Welcome, Liene and company. The count is expecting you. Brendan will show you the way." The sergeant waved them in, and the pair at the entrance set aside their spears.

"Follow me," said Brendan, one of the other guards, an older man with a full beard that had started going white. He led them in to the atrium, where two other men stood at attention, these wearing only gambeson. "Weapons," asked one of them, whereupon the group handed over their weapons; and then the two of them patted them down. "All good", they said, whereupon Brendan led them down a spacious stone hallway to the count's courtroom.

Brendan entered the room first, taking to stand by the side of the wall as soon as he did so. "Milord, Liene of the Order of the Sightless Eye, and her entourage, also," he announced in a crisp tone. -- "Enter," said a voice within.

They entered the large chamber adorned with chandeliers above and candles all around. To the sides, half a dozen more guards stood at attention in their mail, swords at their sides. Near the far end of the otherwise empty room was set a stone dais, upon which Count Traben sat upon an ornate mahogany chair. The tall man looked dashingly handsome, with a full head of golden hair, broad shoulders set on an imposing frame. He wore a luxurious bright red surcoat lined with ermine. By his side stood his chancellor, a lean man with a wiry long white beard, far more plainly dressed in his undecorated light gray robe. To their sides stood a pair of maidservants.

"My lord," said Liene, and knelt on one knee; -- "My lord," said the others, following suit.

"Ah! You are most welcome, sisters of the Sightless Eye," he said as he sat on his chair. "Come, have we such need for honorifics? Rise," he said, and as one they rose. The count turned to a maidservant. "We must have a proper reception for ones such as these." Upon which the maidservant nodded once and departed. Then he turned back to the group. "I must say, I have not had a proper reception with your order in many a week, though your monastery lies only half a week's walk away, and this seems to be a trend as of late. You must let your sisters know that I, as pretty much your next door neighbor, require that I see your faces more often. And not just when they're on their occasional shopping trips. Speaking of which, I believe I've not had the pleasure of being introduced to any of you save Liene. I suppose my reputation precedes me, which leaves me somewhat at a disadvantage, wouldn't you say?"

As Art and the others introduced themselves in turn, a troupe of maidservants entered, bearing light wooden tables and chairs and setting them about the room, three set to the left where Liene and the sisters gathered, and fourt on the right where Art, Jezebel, Roland, and Warriv then sat. They left a moment later, to return a short while later with trays bearing geese and eggs, assorted fruits and vegetable dishes and more, to set them down on the tables before them. The wafting aroma made his mouth water. One of the maidservants poured red wine into the little pewter cups set on each of their trays, the count's included.

What a nice reception, thought Art. He'd gone before a court a few times on other occasions, for other nobles at roughly the same rank as this Traben, and those had been singularly somber affairs with him and perhaps others simply standing in the middle of the room talking, before a noble that was all business. Yet here they were being treated quite graciously by their host. This looked well, thought Art; his treating Liene and company like equals showed that the count respected them and the order they represented, and that would mean an easier time securing the aid the sisterhood so desperately needed.

"Come, let us toast," said the count, lifting up his little cup and holding it for all to see. Art and the others held it up likewise. "To wealth, health and happiness," said the count, then drank his wine all down in one gulp, tilting it out forward for the others to see he'd finished. -- "Wealth, health, and happiness," said Art and the other guests, before drinking them all down in one gulp as well. Art's wine sent down his gullet smoothly enough. He savored the taste. It had just the right blend of sweetness and tanginess, without any of the bitter dregs. "Ah, fine wine," he remarked, making a solid thumbs-up gesture, as the maidservants walked around to refill everyone's cups.

"I am glad there are still those among my guests who know great wine from good," said the count, beaming. "So what brings you here," asked the count as he turned to Art, Warriv and Roland. How did you have the fine luck of meeting these lovely ladies?"

"I disrobed her"," Art blurted out. -- Jezebel shot Art a scandalized look. -- "No, I meant the sis… wait, what?" -- Elexa burst out laughing. -- Art turned to Jezebel. "What, Jezebel, just that, no backstory, you're going to leave me hanging like that? Speaking of which, they were going to hang you, weren't they?" -- "You just won't make matters convenient, do you?" she replied back, looking at him reproachfully. -- "For attempted murder? Course not. You killed me, made me take a sojourn through hell, or did you forget that already?" -- "You made that all up!" -- "Why how dare you make light of my travails, when you were the one who made my heart stop beating, as several others could have attested to! My lord, I demand she be hung for killing me!" -- The count, with a look of amazement and confusion his face, cocked his head at Art and asked, "Really, now? And how is it you are doing the demanding?" -- "…I got better." -- "One does not simply… Whatever," cradling his head in his hands. "How did this even--"

"Trust me, you do not want to know," replied Liene. -- Turning to Liene and the other sisters, the count said, "Ah yes, I imagine I wouldn't, or at this rate I'll get a heart attack before we're done." -- "Now you know what a chore it is to deal with this man." -- "And how is it that you wound up with such a 'chore' like him?"

[Wherein Art talks about how Liene had him put in the pillory and that transitions into a discussion of why the sisterhood overreacted.]

Oh, he has no idea, mused Art. He had the 'fine luck' of sleeping at the monastery the night of the attack, the very night that culminated in his losing an arm. If it had happened just one day later, he and the rest of Warriv's caravan would by now be several days out into the deserts to the east, blissfully unaware of the war, and he wouldn't have gotten to know any of the sisterhood, or at least not really.

"They put me in the pillory," Art answered, glancing at Liene and evoking a glare from her. -- "Art…" -- "Well now, this I have to hear," replied the count, reclining back in his seat with a smile. -- "Ah crap, now I am wishing I hadn't brought this up," Art muttered. -- "Well don't keep us waiting."

"Alright then. It should come as no surprise to you that necroturgy is heavily frowned upon in these parts, what with the Church of Light and all," he began. He gulped. He hadn't first found out what the count's attitude toward necroturgy was, which meant this could go potentially very badly. "Guess what? I just happened to be dabbling in the very same when Liene and company stumbled upon me."

The count's face formed a rictus of fury. "How dare you dabble in such black arts!" he shouted, causing some of the guards' hands to fly to their hilts of their swords. "For such desecration of those who have earned their eternal rest, there shall be but one reward, and that is death!" Then in a perfectly calm voice, "…is how Bishop Arevain would like me to say." The guards visibly relaxed, as did Art. "But as I am the local count, he has to suffer my reticence on the matter." Then his wry grin faded. "So yes, I can see why the sisters would put you in the pillory for it. But tell me: how is it you came to be working necroturgy in the first place?"

"I used to be a swordsman," Art said, looking downcast. "Then…" he lifted up his arm. "I lost it in battle."

A vision, of him getting his arm hacked off by the sudden appearance of the beast. Him, fleeing into the night, chased in his panic. Crying tears of sorrow, agonizing over how he'd live out the rest of his days without the use of his other hand. Running through the night, searching for Selena, afraid that he'd not be able to defend her against the midgets…

"Sacrifices must be made in war," mused the count. "But in my reckoning, so long as you lost it in the pursuit of an honorable deed then you would wrong yourself to fret over its loss. I can see how you'd resort to necroturgy, then. An almost entirely mental way that can function as a second hand to replace the one you lost makes a great deal of sense, even if a difficult choice given how poorly it will be received." He turned to Liene. "So. The pillory? What did he do, steal a loaf of bread with a dismembered hand? There are other punishments for that, though admittedly severing a dismembered hand would deter awfully little."

"Well no, not quite thievery…" -- "Oh you can admit it," Art said. "All I did was put on a bone puppet play. For an audience of one. In the middle of the forest. And you got Kashya to put me in the pillory for a day and a night."

"Now that's cruel and unusual punishment," mused Traben.

"Yes, it does seem a bit of an overreaction, does it not?" Art said, while looking at Liene, a smug look on his face.

The count added, "I am surprised; last I heard of Erend's rantings, he'd been lambasting your order for being too weak on theological matters. I gather that would include a nonchalant attitude toward the supposed 'dark ways'. The caravaners who pass through your monastery's gates all have nothing but the utmost praise for the sisterhood's understanding and acceptance of all manner of practices. What changed?"

[Wherein Liene explains there's a war and the count seems eager to help contribute to the war effort.]

"The damnable redskins," replied Liene. "Their elders wield staves that grant them the ability to fling fire bolts and reanimate the dead. Their black arts had cost us many a fellow sister in the war, so we'd hardly take kindly to humans doing the same," she said, shooting Art a vengeful look.

"War?" -- The count looked up at Liene in surprise. "What war? Why is this the first time I hear of this?"

Lien replied, "We've been fighting the redskins for a while now, off and on for months." -- "Ah, right, that. Slipped my mind, I'd have to admit." -- "Wouldn't be surprising in the least. We keep the pass to the east safe and secure, and the caravans have nothing to complain about." -- "And I owe you much thanks for that," he said with a smile. "Though, I'd hardly call policing your territory for bandits a war." -- "It's… a bit more involved than that, as of late." -- "Oh. I trust your sisterhood has been managing nonetheless. Is that why you're here then -- to buy more supplies in order to support the war effort?"

"Not just supplies. Our sisterhood is a rather small local power, and we are not many to sustain a war. Hence with the approval from your bailiff, some of my sisters have been looking to recruit mercenaries for the upcoming battles." -- "How goes the search?" -- "Very well. We have gotten a good two dozen individuals to sign up, and expect several times as many by the time we leave tomorrow. Speaking of which, if you would be able to spare some men, that would be much appreciated."

"Why of course!" the count said, beaming. "Anything we can do to help our next door neighbors. I take pride in the knowledge that my men can march in but three day's notice. Though I have to ask, what venture did you have in mind, for the sisterhood's own forces and the mercenaries you're recruiting to prove insufficient?"

"We have reports that the redskin tribe to our north has suffered heavy losses in their continuing struggles with more distant tribes. Battles that have deprived them of most of their adults of prime military age. This gives us an opening for quite the coup. To capitalize on this, we're planning to attack one of their villages," she replied. "Maybe more. Drive them out of the local highlands altogether." -- "Ah, nice. Make them think twice about getting anywhere near our lands," the count added, nodding. -- "And banish their threat from our lands entirely," Liene added, looking triumphant.

"That would be an honorable achievement indeed," the count agreed. "And with our portion of the silk road safer, we'd see fewer raids and more merchant traffic. A win-win for the both of us, wouldn't you say?" -- Liene nodded with a smile. -- "Well a toast is certainly in order!" he called out, and he and the guests all raised their cups. "To victory," he said, and they downed their cups in one shot, after which the maidservants quickly refilled the wine. -- "Ahhhhh! Now that's the kind of wine I really enjoy," he said as he set down the cup. "Red wine with the indulgent taste of impending triumph mixed in."

"You shall have my finest men for this endeavor," the count continued. "A hundred, nay, a hundred and fifty men-at-arms. Let it never be said that Count Traben proved lax in his aid in the sisterhood's time of need."

Warriv stood up, holding out his wine cup before him in both hands. "I, as but a humble caravan master, do thank my lord for ensuring the safety of not only our caravan but others as well. Truly you are most wise, and just as surely shall Tristram prosper under your rule." -- "Haha! Well said," said the count with a broad smile holding out his wine cup as well, and the two drank their cups and showed them empty to each other before sitting back down.

Roland stood up next. "And I, as templar of the Order of the Temple's Light, also thank my lord, for your enthusiasm for supporting the sisters' cause and for demonstrating your devotion to the Ten Tenets. If there is indeed any ruler more of an exemplar of those ideals than you, I have yet to meet him." -- "Hah! Would you listen to that! Drink, good Roland!" and they drank, and Roland too sat down.

Liene stood up, holding out her wine cup before her in both hands. "Thank you, my lord. I believe I speak on behalf of the sisterhood when I say that your support of our cause shall not go unrewarded. Let this herald ever closer relations between us, that we may achieve together what our two polities divided dare not dream of." -- "Wonderful, wonderful!, Come, let us toast!" and they drank, and Liene sat back down also.

[Wherein the count and Liene argue over where to position his forces and Liene has to keep him from realizing that the monastery is fallen.]

The count elaborated, "Give us a few days and we'll set out. Where do you want them?" -- "Thistledown." -- "Uh, forgive me, where is this place you speak of? Bjorn," He snapped a finger at the chancellor, who stepped forward and unfurled a scroll with a map of Tristram and the surrounding regions, setting it on the stand by the side of the count's chair.

"It's a village slightly more than halfway between here and the monastery, straight as the crow flies," said Liene. "This is where we'll be massing for our offensive."

"Ah," mused the count as he looked over the map. "And where are the redskin villages?" -- "Here, my lord," said the chancellor, circling several regions on the map with his finger. -- The count turned to Liene. "I assume you're looking to assault the villages that pose the greatest threat to the silk road, then, rather than the ones closest to the monastery?"

"For now, yes. We'll eventually seek to target both. That is our mission, after all," said Liene. -- "Of course. But that will take a few weeks at the least, yes? Surely you wouldn't think to assault each of these villages one after another. If you wanted to scare them into fleeing, best to give them some time for the news to spread, so that they flee of their own accord. Spares you the trouble of killing them all, you see." -- "Of course." -- "Well in that case I'm not sure a village would be the best staging ground for such an effort, especially one without a caravanserie to support the sudden influx. We'd have to build an encampment for the troops otherwise. Why not Maple Creek? It has one. Or the monastery itself? The complex has plenty of room to house the troops, as a caravanserai in and of itself."

He doesn't know the monastery has fallen, Art realized. With the monastery fallen and the redskins able to attack from both their villages to the north and along the silk road to the east, the sisterhood had to hold Thistledown to protect the villages to its west. They can't afford to fall back all the way to Maple Creek. But he doesn't know that, which is why he's thinking Liene's just being foolish. But Liene knows the truth, and she knows that he doesn't know it, and she wants to keep it a secret for as long as possible to strengthen her negotiating position, so she won't offer to tell him as much, and that means she wouldn't give him the real explanation.

"I am sure you know that ours is a celibate order. It simply would not do to have the men simply settle down in our monastery. You know how rowdy such men can get, cooped up in such a modest abode as ours. It would lead our younger sisters to temptation."

"But don't men and women alike pass through on an almost weekly basis, with the caravans and all?" replied the count. "If almost sounds like you're saying my men, and only my men, can't control themselves, Liene."

"We would not dream of implying such a thing! The caravaners, they visit for a night and then continue on, and many of them we will never see again. Even the regulars only return once in many months, if not years, such that they never have the chance to build up any rapport with the sisters. But for a garrison staying there day in and day out, night after night…"

"Now, I understand your concern. Please, let me lay your worries to rest on that front. I will have it made known that should any of my men even so much as attempt to lay a hand on any of your sisters, the offending arm shall be lopped off -- without excuses. But surely, if my men and your sisters are to fight together, they would benefit more from cooperating closely, training together, conducting joint military exercises, and just all around getting to know each other better, so as to foster trust? After all, one can hardly expect my men, well trained as they may be, to willingly put their lives on the line for a sisterhood whose people they would rarely, if ever meet. Your sisterhood would be well advised not to cloister yourselves off from my men."

"It is not only a matter of chastity, my lord. We have separate quarters for the caravaners as opposed to for ourselves, whereby we limit their interaction with each other. Those rooms of course need to be retained for when each caravan arrives; we would be most inhospitable hosts if we forced them to set up tents without our monastery. For a group of over a hundred men to also dwell within our halls would require them to reside in the very same halls and chambers as our own sisters. We are concerned with what consequences that would bring."

"Let me read between your lines and say that if you fear that, if my men were allowed to mass in the halls of your citadel, that you may have a coup on your hands, that can easily be resolved. I shall not insist on having them reside in the same quarters as your sisters. Only let them be stationed right outside your gates, where they would pose no threat to you but would stay close enough to work closely together, as allies in war must. I believe, so long as they never set foot within your monastery, that you should have few qualms about letting them set up encampment without. In fact, I insist that they do so."

Liene seemed to cast about for some other excuse to offer. "You speak wisely, my lord. You understand I will have to discuss the matter with my superiors before I can agree to such on their behalf."

"'Agree'? How presumptious! You are yet young, Liene, so I can countenance your naivete on this matter, but to any other, what you say would verge on insult. You come to me, asking for my support in your war, offering nothing in return, yet you treat my men as your inferiors, declaring where they may and may not be allowed to go, as if they were nothing but untamed beasts with nothing on their minds but rape and pillage, and this even after I have already made concessions and after I have explained why such a move would prove disastrous. Do I need to summon the abbess here to discuss matters with her personally?"

Liene flinched from such accusations. "It's not that! I truly appreciate your assistance on the matter, but--" -- "But what? Why is it so hard to work with your order on this matter? Why are you so persistent on this point? Is it that significant an issue as to where our forces rally? Why are you so averse to our men arriving at your monastery?"

"Please, my lord. We have our reasons as to why we wish to amass our forces at Thistledown--" -- "What reasons, Liene? What is it you are not telling me? Why is it you absolutely cannot allow our men anywhere near your monastery?" -- Art looked at the count in horror. Liene stared at the floor, speechless. -- The count's eyes widened in realization. With lowered voice he said, "You… don't have the monastery, do you?"

Chapter 22: Sisters on their Knees

[Wherein the count winds up realizing that the sisterhood has lost the monastery and is in a dire situation, and gets Liene to explain what had happened in the war and the sisterhood's current situation.]

Now Liene looked at the count in horror also. She chuckled, leaned back, she stared at the tray of food before her. "Why would you ever think such a preposterous thing? Monastery, lost? Hah!"

The count flipped his tray and all the bowls of hardly eaten food on it onto the floor before them, and slammed a fist on the side of his seat, causing the maidservants to jump and shrink back, Elexa and Diane to flinch, and Liene to fall silent. "How dare you. How dare you try to delude me!" He nodded to himself, staring up at the ceiling. "I should have seen it sooner, the signs were all there. You coming to ask me for aid despite your order going it alone all these years. You bringing these others with you, all the better to help you convince me in their own separate ways. Trying to get me drunk on hopes of glory and triumph. Wanting our forces to regroup in a nameless, unsuitable village, then refusing to let them anywhere near the monastery when I suggested it, grasping at any excuses you could think of to try to keep me in the dark. And you almost pulled it off, too. If I hadn't given the matter any further thought, you would have conned me into committing my men to dying for you."

Liene fell to her knees. In that manner, she scuttled into the middle of the room, to kneel before the count. "My lord, that was not my intention!" -- "Really now? And just when were you going to tell me about this?" -- "We were going to…" Liene left off, looking ashamed. "I admit, I haven't been honest with you. I was afraid how you'd react if we'd told you the truth--" -- "And you didn't fear my anger when I found I'd been misled?" -- "I was wrong, my lord. I shouldn't have misled you. But please understand, our monastery is in a vulnerable state. Plenty of potential enemies could come out of the woodwork if our order revealed our weakness, enemies we are in no position to fight, and we thought, the fewer people we told about our situation, the safer we'd be." -- "And you classified me as an enemy?" -- Liene threw out her hands in protest. "Never!" -- "Why don't you tell me the truth this time," said the count, his voice hard and cold. "Unless you think we're not to be trusted, in which case I think we're done here."

Liene nodded. "It all started when, several nights ago, the redskins attacked our monastery. One moment we were all safe and secure, and the next moment they… It was a massacre. Redskins, everywhere. They slaughtered many of my fellow sisters."

"How was that possible? Your monastery had at least some basic fortifications, it should have held out against anything except a siege."

"They didn't besiege the monastery. They didn't have to. They found our secret exit and came in that way." -- "Secret entrance?" -- "Sister Liene, you can't tell them about our secret entrance?" -- "Might as well. Secret's out anyways. We had a secret passage leading from the catacombs in the bottom level of our cellar, to a remote place in the nearby mountains. It was a tightly guarded secret of our order; even I hadn't known about it until after it all happened. Someone high up in our sisterhood must have leaked the secret to the redskins. And their attack from there, in the middle of the night, took us all by surprise.

"We fought back, but there were too many of them, and they had their elders reanimate their fallen to send them back at us. In the cramped quarters of our monastery, our ways of the bow proved ineffective. We were forced to flee from the monastery." Tears fell down Liene's cheeks. She continued, choking. "We… lost many of our finest sisters…. They stayed behind to fight to buy the rest of us time to flee. We fled all through the night, and regrouped at Thistledown, the village nearest the monastery and along the main road. There we waited for our sisters to return to us, but… Many never did. And now the redskins have grown bolder, they move about through the forests to the east, striking out at hamlets and villages all along the silk road…"

"So it is true, you have lost your monastery," said the count, looking worried. "To think, you had conspired to keep such a thing from me… After that, how in hell do you expect me to trust you, much less dispatch my forces to assist your sisterhood?"

"You have to understand! The sacrifices my fellow sisters had made… That they are continuing to make day after day… We can't let their sacrifice be in vain. Bow-mother Kashya charged us with bringing back allies to help us in our plight, that we might not fight this war alone…"

[Wherein the count withdraws his support of the sisterhood and explains why it wouldn't be in his interest to support them.]

"Hah! You wanted the support of my forces, did you? In fact, you're desperate for them, aren't you? Well you shan't have them, not a single one. Teaches you to lie to my face."

No, thought Art, staring at the count in abject horror. This was what he, Liene, and Roland had been afraid might happen if the count had an inkling of the truth, and the disaster was folding right before his eyes.

Liene looked up at him in shock. "… But you said--" -- The count raised an eyebrow at her. -- "I am very, very sorry, my lord. Please, on behalf of our acquaintanceship--" -- "Acquainted? Since when? Because if I recall correctly, this is only the second time we've ever met. Now you wish your sisterhood had visited my court more often? Now you regret having your sisters so cloistered up in the monastery that they rarely visit this town a mere four days' walk away? Well now it's too late, stranger."

Liene stared at the count with a look of abject desperation. "I admit I may be a bit presumptious to call you our friend, but please… We can't return empty-handed, my lord! Please! I know I have wronged you… But that was all my doing, and I take all the responsibility for it…" She gulped. "I am ready to pay for it with my life. I only ask that you not direct your anger at the sisterhood. They have done nothing wrong. Please, please don't withdraw your support for our order!" Teary-eyed, she set her arms down before her and kowtowed, once, twice, thrice.

"Humph. You think just scraping the floor like this is enough to earn my forgiveness? The presumption you showed, that you continue to show…"

"I'll make up for it! I'll do whatever you want, be it to toil for you or dance for you, so be it, if that's what it takes for me to earn your forgiveness--"

"Even if I have you licking the floor for the rest of your life, that wouldn't move me to lift a finger to help your sisterhood," the count retorted. "Don't think so highly of yourself, Liene. I couldn't care less whether you indentured yourself to me for the rest of your life or strung up a rope and hung yourself right here, right now."

Liene looked up at him, for a moment at a loss for words. "Then… What then do you want from me… from us? If you would provide us with your assistance, then our sisterhood--"

"Can't possibly do anything to make it worth my while. 'But', you say, 'You'd already agreed to support us with a hundred men-at-arms, how you would disgrace yourself from going back on your word simply because the sisterhood had fallen on hard times!' That's what you're thinking right now, isn't it?" He leaned forward in his chair. "Ah! But I had made my agreement with the sisterhood of the monastery -- the sisterhood that holds the monastery pass, that ensures the continued operation of merchant traffic on through the desert to Aranoch.

"But what are you -- nay, your sisterhood -- to me, to Tristram, now? You retain no control over the monastery. You can't ensure the safety of the caravans passing through. You admitted as much yourself. Your sisterhood holds at some backwater village in the middle of nowhere, unable to retake the monastery without forcing a siege and incurring unbearable losses. If you couldn't hold it against the invading redskins when you fought within the monastery, you certainly stand no chance of retaking it now, when you must put it under siege and either attack them directly, which I doubt you have the manpower for, or starve them out, which I doubt you can afford."

"But we could attack through the--" -- "Secret passageway? I doubt the path remains open. After all, the redskins had attacked through that very same approach, did they not? They'd be fools not to recognize that another could invade their monastery in the same way, and they already know that the sisterhood knows of that passage. No, I don't think you'll be able to duplicate their feat.

"And that means the monastery will remain in their hands, for the time being. And that means your order will be consigned to irrelevance. What is the vaunted 'rogue sisterhood' without their all-important pass? I'll tell you what you are. You're nothing but another group of vagabonds living off the pilfered labor of others.

"And not just that, either. His majesty has denounced you all as rogues for refusing to bend the knee before him. Once upon a time, when you held your monastery, you could disregard him blithely. He'd have to commit a sizable number of troops all the way to the far eastern end of the kingdom, to besiege and take your citadel, and a king has much better things to do. But I doubt you can ignore him so easily now. You have angered the king, you fools. Do you know who he is? He's a man, yes, but a man with a hundred thousand soldiers under his command should he desire it. You may be fools, but I'm not. I have a town and a great many outlying villages that I am responsible for, and I will not have their blood wantonly spilled fighting on behalf of an enemy of my king. I owe as much to the men who have entrusted me with their lives, and I would be most remiss to do otherwise."

"I understand you have no interest for our sisterhood, but even if you don't care one whit about us, at least think of the prosperity of your own citizens! There's still the redskins, and so long as they hold the monastery and its pass, the merchants passing though Tristram shall have no means to reaching the east through here. Without the pass, what incentive would they have to pass through Tristram in the first place? Without the trade flowing through, your town will quickly reduce to but a shadow of its former self. Can you abide while that happens?"

"Oh, I think your being holed up in your quaint little abode has left you with an imbalanced sense of our town's robust economy if you think this place to be just one big caravanserai. I'll have you know, Tristram is the local trade hub for hundreds of surrounding villages, as well as a connection to the towns further north, south, east, and west. We don't by any means depend on the silk road. Besides, yours is hardly the only approach to the east. Even with the monastery pass closed indefinitely, there's also the Duergar Pass some hundred miles to the southeast, and all the trade from the north will come to Tristram on their way south. I daresay we'll do fine. The same, I believe, cannot be said of your little sisterhood. You depend on tariffs on the caravaners to maintain your livelihoods, do you not? For your order to survive, you have to retake the monastery as soon as possible. You can't wait, can you?"

Liene was starting to seem very much cornered on this front. "Even if your town manages to survive, you'll have far less in your coffers in the months and years hence with the monastery gates closed and the path a danger to all passersby. Your personal treasury would fare much better if we retake the monastery."

"Well then it is fortunate for our town that your sisterhood yet exists in some strength, does it not? The Order of the Sightless Eye, world-renowned masters of the bow and arrow. Surely the enemy you fight is naught but cockroaches before you? I would expect you'd have the monastery reclaimed before the fortnight is out… Or at least put your all into as good of a fight as you can give them."

"My lord…" she said, looking aghast. "You mean to have us sisters bleed ourselves to death fighting to reclaim the monastery, don't you? Without any of your help? Knowing full well that we'll suffer massive casualties in doing so, losses which would take decades to recover from? During which time we'll be in no condition to safeguard the monastery? So that you could take it from us at your leisure, with nary any losses of your own, once our sisterhood and the redskins have bled each other dry? To claim it over our dead bodies?"

[Wherein the count considers allying with the redskins, and is told about the market incident, and is outraged at the sisters and demands their execution.]

"Well, if you believe you're not up to the task, then I'll have to consider alternatives. If even his majesty couldn't be bothered with seizing the monastery, with all the forces he can summon, then I don't think a mere count such as I can presume to do either. In that case, we'll have no other option but to deal with the redskins. If they have the manpower to seize the monastery, then they have the manpower to ensure the safety of the merchant traffic through the pass."

The count turned to his chancellor. "Bjorn, I want you to find a means to get us in touch with the redskins that have claimed the monastery. Ask them what would persuade them to agree to an alliance with us. If their price is that we mop up the remnants of the sisterhood for them, well that's negotiable too." -- Liene exclaimed, "My lord, what are you saying!" -- The count turned back to her. "Why, smart diplomacy, of course."

Oh, no, thought Art. That was exactly what he'd been afraid would be the outcome, a sisterhood without a bastion, surrounded by enemies on both sides…

"My lord," said Bjorn, bending down close to the count's ear. "I'm not sure how feasible that would be, given events this morning." -- "Why, what happened this morning?" -- "I have heard tell that some of the sisters that had gone to buy supplies in the marketplace had caused quite the uproar in the markets district this morning. Came upon some competition with other buyers and started screaming their heads off at them. The passersby were very much startled and the merchants were very much displeased."

Art looked away, both proud and embarassed. Proud, for it would make it that less likely for the sisterhood to incur a new enemy. Embarassed, for he'd been the instigator of it all, of course, but since he hadn't been wearing anything identifying, observers had only caught on to Blaise and Ryann's presence, in their brown and white gambesons, and had blamed it all on them.

"I will make sure to inquire into the matter, rest assured the instigators will be punished appropriately." Liene replied. -- Bjorn looked sternly at Liene. "Why, you haven't even the slightest clue what I'm talking about, do you?" He turned back. "My lord… By 'displeased', I meant 'all their wares ruined', and by 'startled' I meant 'heads rolled'." -- Liene stared at him aghast, then said, downcast, "It won't happen again." -- Bjorn continued, "My lord would be well advised that under such circumstances, not only would the public of Tristram not stand in support of an alliance with the redskins, but the redskins would seek retribution against us for their dead. I am told over a dozen of them were slain in the incident, and it has happened in our territory and under our watch, after all."

Art cursed inwardly as the chancellor spoke. If it turned out something like this caused woe to befall the sisterhood, then his plan would have backfired, and all those innocent bystanders would have been sacrificed in vain, if not worse, and he would have to bear the guilt of it for the rest of his life…

The count grew outraged as he heard what the chancellor had to say. "Who dared do such a thing? Find the sisters responsible and bring them before me! I shall have their heads!"

"No, please," Liene begged, sinking even lower on her knees. "Even if they had done wrong, it would be because I had been lax in their instruction, and they know no better. I bear the responsibility for this. If you must punish someone, punish me, but please, I beg, you, please spare them!"

The count leapt out of his chair, pointed an accusing finger at Liene. "You! You orchestrated that, didn't you?" -- Still on her knees, Liene backed a step away, baffled and startled. -- "How dare you meddle in our affairs? How presumptuous of you, to drag us into the war without our consent, by fighting your foes on our soil, when we had given them right of passage? You think that by doing this, you will have succeeded in driving a wedge between us and the redskins? I've had enough of your manipulations. Guards, seize her!"

With a metal ring, six guards surrounding them had their swords unsheathed, and before anyone else had reacted, two of them had brought their swords up to Liene's neck, one in front and one behind. She gaped wide-eyed at the count.

[Wherein Bjorn and Art ask the count to spare Liene and the sisters.]

"If I may suggest," said Bjorn, "This one seems completely unaware of the matter, and it may turn out she was not responsible after all. I believe if you allowed the matter to be investigated and the true culprits identified, that the townspeople would praise you for an act most wise. After all, if we execute the wrong suspect it leaves the true culprits free to act again, and I doubt they'd refrain from making a fool out of you."

The count glared at Liene in silent fury, as if unable to make up his mind.

This wasn't good, Art thought. At this rate the count would be dead set to wage war against the sisterhood. Tristramers would die, sisters would die, the redskins would be free to attack all around, Thistledown would get attacked, and the Bedfords and Selena… He couldn't let any harm come to someone as innocent as her, and that meant he had to distract the count from his anger, redirect it toward another.

He stood up. "My lord, Liene and the sisterhood had nothing to do with what happened this morning. If you ask any witnesses of the incident, you'll find that the redskins had done all the killing. But if you must punish the instigator of the whole affair, well, that would be me. I whipped the redskins into a frenzy, causing them to go into a rampage."

Everyone looked at him like he'd grown an extra arm. He chuckled. Well, now that he'd gotten the count's attention and likely his wrath, might as well go all the way. In a lackadaisical manner, he said, "Why did I do it? Easy. Damn redskins don't deserve any mercy and ought to be killed anywhere they're found, collateral damage be damned. And the merchants, too, I regret not having the opportunity to slaughter them all as well, and string them out by their entrails, for trying to trade with them. Anyone who consorts with such creatures ought to be killed with the most extreme prejudice, especially anyone who attempts to court them for an alliance."

"You're trying really hard to get yourself killed," said the count, appraising him. "But I for one don't believe a word of what you said. What are you trying to pull? You want me to spare her, don't you?"

"You misconstrue me," said Art, grinning. "I'd perfectly like to see you 'off with her head' Liene. But do it in public, would you? In front of all the sisters. After putting her in the pillory for a day and a night. And let me give a speech right before. It would be quite the revenge for her pillorying me, to see justice where it were due." -- Liene shot Art a look that said, If he kills me for this, I'll be haunting you for the rest of my unlife.

The count sat back down on his chair, his fury seemingly spent, and he waved at the guards, who immediately sheathed their blades and retreated back to the sides of the room. As Liene rubbed at her neck, the count turned to Bjorn, "Is it true that the redskins had done all the killing and that the sisters had, after instigating the violence, attempted to quell it?" -- "Yes, my lord." -- "You should have mentioned that too." -- "I am guilty, my lord, and deserve to be punished." -- "Eh, forget it."

He turned to Liene. "You are most fortunate that you have a good talker such as him looking out for you and being willing to stick his neck out for yours. I don't feel like shedding any blood today. So, on account of your outstanding relations with the sisterhood, and that it all accounts indicate that your sisters attempted to defend the civilians from the rampaging redskins, I will overlook this incident. But you will go and ensure such as this never happens again, or I shall show your order no leniency. Attacking innocents out of nowhere, causing mass panic and blood to run through the streets, all for political gain? Your sisters can go take their terrorism somewhere else."

Liene nodded. "My lord is most benevolent."

That charge, thought Art… he hadn't thought of it in that light at the time, but now that he thought of it, it did fit. And yet, he couldn't bring himself to think he'd done anything wrong. If it would prevent the redskins from gaining power enough to attack the sisterhood and the numerous settlements out west, then it was for a worthy cause.

[Wherein the count doles out a few coins to the sisters like giving scraps to beggars.]

The count humphed. "Well?" he asked, turning to Bjorn. "If you were or knew witnesses who were there… What did the sisters end up buying?" -- "Nothing, actually, from what they said. More likely, they've bought very little."

"Humph. And after all that ruckus, it didn't seem like your sisters managed to buy anything after all. You said you'll be headed back east tomorrow? It's already three in the afternoon. Seems not only are your wards eager to start a fight, they can't manage even the simplest of tasks." -- Liene flinched at that as if slapped. -- Art flinched too. -- "Were the sisters just there in the marketplace to stir up trouble, then?"

Liene frantically put up her hands. "No, never! We were looking to buy supplies…." -- "Then how come you haven't bought much?" -- "We… we…" -- The count nodded knowingly. "You don't have the money, do you? Well if you'd needed money, you should have said so."

Liene looked up at him with a glimmer of hope in her eyes. "Oh, thank you my lord, thank you--"

The count gestured, and the chancellor set a money bag in his hands. The count took a few little silver coins out and dribbled them coin by coin upon the dais under his chair, pointedly looking at Liene with a haughty look on his face. If you want it, come and get it."

Liene crossed her arms. "Now you are just mocking our sisterhood! Who said we were in desperate need for your silver?" -- The count looked askance at her. "Oh, and are you not?" -- "We may be in need of money, but we're not that desperate. At tenpence[denarius] per wagon passing through our gates, we've massed a substantial war chest." -- "Ah, but question is, did you manage to bring it out of your monastery that night? No, you wouldn't have. You barely managed to escape with your lives, didn't you?" -- "We brought enough of it with us." -- "Oh? Then why are you coming to us? Doesn't the sisterhood always resolve its problems on its own? No, you're only here because you really are that desperate for assistance." -- "We will manage just fine without you or your silver."

"What matters more to you, Liene? Your pride, or my pennies? Very well," he said. He leaned down to pick up one of the dropped coins, then put it back in his money bag.

Liene stared at the small heap of coins under the count's chair for several moments with an obvious look of longing. Then she dropped her head in shame, and walked on her knees over to the dais. -- "Ah, and so the truth comes out," said the count with a grin. -- Liene lowered herself and reached down under the chair where the count sat, and collected the coins in silent humiliation, even as the count burst out into laughter. The guards looked on, grins creeping up their faces. Elexa and Diane stared after Liene, pained looks on their faces, while the others watched her, shocked.

The count then took some more coins out of his money bag and scattered them all about the room. Liene, and then Elexa and Diane, went clambering after each individual penny[denarius] even as the count broke out into guffaws and his guards started to laugh at their desperation. One of the guards set a boot on one of the coins as Liene approached. The guard leaned down, sneering. "You want that coin? Well you can kiss my boots for it," he said. Liene, still on her knees, glared up at him for a moment, then lowered her head and started licking the top of first one boot, then the other, prompting the guards to burst into laughter. The one guard then raised the boot covering the coin, saying "Kiss the bottom of it too," and in a flash Liene had plucked the coin from underneath his feet and was off scrounging for the next coin, causing the guard to face-palm himself. As she passed him by, Art saw her tears flowing freely, staining her gambeson.

"I can't bear to watch this," muttered Warriv with a grimace, standing up. He bowed to the count, saying, "I must take my leave," then left. -- Jezebel turned to Art, whispering, "Why are they doing this? Is their sisterhood really this desperate?" -- "Well don't just stand there, pick up some," Art said, as he got off his feet and joined the sisters in scrounging for coins, as Jezebel watched in disbelief. He managed to scrabble up two pennies[denarius], and handed them to Jezebel. -- "What's this?" -- "Twopence, obviously." -- "I meant what for?" -- "I was owing you that, wasn't I? I'm a man of principles."

The count stood up, looking down upon his guests. "Is this what has become of the once glorious sisterhood?" he said, getting the attention of the teary-eyed sisters. "Scrabbling about for silver coins like harlots? You are a disgrace to your forebears, which I had held in such high regard. The woe that befalls you today, and every day from here on out, is but that of your own making." He turned to Art's side of the room. "And you. I don't know what you see in their order, to cast your lot with them. Is it your mission to continue east? Take a hint from this. Understand that the monastery is not going to be reopened anytime soon, certainly not by the rogues. Take the Duergar Pass, and let the sisters fall all by their lonesome."

Art wanted to speak up on behalf of the sisters, but he kept quiet, knowing that any further claim of affiliation with the sisters to try to get the count to reconsider would only further displease him and bring his wrath down upon them all. He turned to Roland, who was shaking his head at Art, a gesture that all but whispered 'no, don't'. And if Roland thought that if he was going to do what Roland thought he was about to do, well, he shouldn't, then he shouldn't.

Instead he bowed to the count. "Wise words, my lord. Thank you for opening my eyes to the truth."

The count turned back to the sisters, who were kneeling huddled on the floor, sharing their misery in silence. "You came here seeking aid, and got all you deserved. Now get out. Get out of my court, out of my town, and don't come back, you or any of your sisterhood. Or if you ever do come back, I shall have you strung up by the neck and hanged for instigating the slaughter from this morning, you and anyone else who dares to return. Now get!"

[Wherein the sisters, out on the streets, come to terms with the financial plight they're in.]

In terror, Liene and her sisters fled from the room. Art, Jezebel, and Roland followed in their footsteps. The ones who had given up their weapons received them back at the atrium in silence, then they exited the keep to huddle on the other side of the street, which thankfully had few other passersby. The sun had started to dip in the sky, shining its golden evening rays.

Diane was crying inconsolably, burying her face into Liene's bosum. "Please, don't cry," said Elexa, laying a hand on Diane's back. "We'll make do on our own, just like we always have, right?" she asked, turning to Liene. Liene stared off into the distance with a glazed look on her face, unresponsive.

"I can't believe how the count would just turn on the sisterhood like this," said Jezebel, sounding furious and with her fists clenched. "All that he said up front, that was just for show, wasn't it? The moment the sisterhood showed its weakness, he turned coat, just like that! I've always known men to generally to be an untrustworthy lot, but that, that takes things to new heights! What, he thinks he can just push the sisterhood around like that, just because they're an all-women order?"

"I'm sorry we couldn't have been of more help," Warriv offered to Liene with a note of sorrow. Liene for her part hardly seemed to notice. Warriv turned aside with a sigh.

Art looked up from the cobblestones beneath him, to Warriv. Warriv had managed to withdraw some silver he'd previously loaned or entrusted to his associates here, or perhaps he'd borrowed some from them. Enough to restart his trade, this time as a peddler perhaps. As caravan leader, he was probably one of the better off caravaners of the lot. The sisterhood needed money, and here was someone he knew, who would have his ear, and who had also seen first-hand how the sisterhood had been thus betrayed, who might be willing to help the sisterhood out in their time of need…

But no. Warriv had lost so much when he'd been forced to abandon his wagon back at the monastery, along with all the goods within it. What money he had to spend was money he'd surely need to get back on his feet, money to provide for both the man and his family. Art couldn't ask Warriv to give that up for the sisterhood, not when he had no ties to their order. For him to ask it of him would be a terrible abuse of their friendship, and he treasured it too highly for that.

Warriv turned to Art and met his look with a somber one of his own. "I think it's best we left, Art. There's nothing we can do for them, and I'm sure they'll be wanting some time to themselves right now. Besides, there's a lot more we still need to buy for our journey tomorrow." He began to walk away from them, only to turn back a moment later to see Art still hadn't moved. "Art?" -- "Go ahead without me. I will catch up later," Art replied. Upon hearing that, Warriv turned and left.

"What are we going to do?" Diane asked, clutching at Liene's gambeson. -- Elexa replied, "We'll have to buy our supplies, like we set out to do." -- "But… Liene was…" Diane looked downcast, cheeks flushed. "We don't have much money at all, do we?" -- "The fact that we don't have as much silver to work with as we'd hoped doesn't change that, it just means we'll have to make do with less." -- "But sister, we need that money. Without it, how can we possibly buy all the things we need?" -- Elexa looked at a loss. "I… have no idea…" -- "Can we even continue this war, sister?" Diane asked, looking forlorn. -- No reply. -- "This is it then, isn't it? Our sisterhood forced to disband, all of us going our separate ways in a world we barely know--" -- "Hush, Diane, listen to yourself! Have you so little trust in your fellow sisters? After all the years we've known each other?" -- "But then sister, what are we going to do?"

Art watched them in silent pity. Without the aid they'd been hoping for all along their journey here, he knew, their morale would be absolutely crushed. Amplisa hadn't wanted to tell the rank and file just how little they had, and when Roland pried the facts out of her, the sisters who'd heard had collapsed in dismay. Now that the sisterhood had next to nothing and needed to spend it all, there would be no keeping secrets from their rank and file. And if, upon hearing such terrible news, some of the sisters were to desert? That would really bring the sisterhood to its knees.

Elexa turned to Liene. "Elder sister Liene will know what to do. Liene. Liene!" she shouted. Liene snapped out of her daze and adopted a stoic look, turning to look at her two fellow sisters. "Elder sister Liene, please tell us, what shall we do?"

Liene had no reply.

Chapter 23: Engagement in a Brothel, Part I

[Wherein Roland tells the sisters that he'll be meeting with the bishop.]

Roland spoke up. "If it's any consolation, I have arranged to speak with the bishop. Perhaps he will be more amenable to our request for aid than the count has been."

"Really?" said Diane, perking up at that. She wiped away her tears and turned to him. "So we'll be able to get the money we need after all?" -- Elexa added, "He won't just leave us to our plight, will he?"

Roland nodded with a smile. "The Fourth Tenet of the Church of Light: To help those in need. I am sure your sisterhood qualifies. First thing tomorrow, I will speak with him." He pointed to the mace by his side, emblazoned with the templars' descry. "I am templar. He will most certainly hear me out."

Wow, thought Art. The way Roland had so heartlessly dissected Amplisa's secrets earlier and broke their hearts with the revelations, he hadn't expected Roland to volunteer this information. Had the man started to take pity on them now?

Liene turned to Roland. "That's a mite optimistic. Our sisterhood has certainly failed to demonstrate much zealotry in matters of religion. Certainly the bishop will not lend us any assistance as we are now, not without concessions. Most likely he will demand that we convert our monastery into a bastion of their church. Have us all become templar sisters, perhaps even abandon our own ways." -- At this, the other sisters drew back in distaste. -- "And our conversion is not on the table. It would be a complete denial of who we are. And I am sure the count and bishop are in communication, whatever he might say to the contrary. After what happened just now?" She shook her head. "Highly doubtful."

"So what then, are you going to give up? I shall at least give it a try," replied Roland. "I will see what terms he will demand. And you and your sisterhood, of course, must be prepared to accept unappealing terms, which I am sure the man will foist upon you, as I doubt he'd be a fool. Since you need the aid to retake the monastery, then for you, no price is too high."

"Be that as it may, we'll still be needing to make do with what money we do have," replied Liene. "It won't be enough to sustain our sisterhood for long, but with help from the church… We may manage. We just need to buy enough to last till we retake the monastery with the aid of the templar." -- "So what do we need to get then?" asked Eliza, looking up.

Art shot Roland a discreet thumbs-up. It seemed that his promise of templar aid was just what the sisters needed in order to get back on their feet and confront their plight.

"I will need to discuss matters with sister Amplisa," Liene replied. "Besides, given that we Roland has the meeting with the bishop tomorrow, from which we may yet receive the aid we need, I think it's too early to start allocating our silver just now." She looked over at Elexa and Diane. "I'm sure you must all be exhausted from our trying meeting with the count, and I doubt we're in any mood to accomplish anything well. Let's call it a day. Roland… thank you for arranging to meet with the bishop on our behalf. I really don't know what we'd do without you. You've given our hope back to us, and for that we'll always be grateful."

"Let's head back to the inn," said Roland, looking abashed. He led the way, and the rest of them followed.

[Wherein the group encounters a crowd holding funerals for the dead civilians that had been slaughtered that morning.]

They walked down half the length of main street and came across a solemn group standing before a row of coffins astrewn with flowers. No doubt for the slaughter that had happened this morning, Art realized. A ring of lit candles ringed each one, and as they approached, Art could make out people among the crowd walking past the lineup, some bowing their heads and some clasped in prayer, some passing a hand over the wooden surfaces. Roland and company kept to the far side of the streets, but the lamentations from the group still reached their ears.

A memory, unbidden, of him engaging the rampaging redskins down Greens Street with whatever makeshift weapons and shields he had at his disposal, even as they slaughtered their way down the far side of the street. Leaping forth to engage the shaman and its guards, knowing full well that he'd be leaving the retreating civilians exposed. The look of shock and digust on the face of the one woman as he knocked the midget warrior down upon her. Blood running along the streets. Ryann with her mangled leg, looking near lifeless. An agonized Blaise at a loss for what to do.

Before him, Roland slowed down, and he and the rest stopped as well for a moment to observe the funeral. Jezebel remarked, "My god, what had happened…"

A man stood on a small wooden dais, speaking aloud over the silent gathering. "…And Annette--"

"Annette!" wailed a man at the center of the crowd at the top of his lungs, before choking on sobs. "My love…" From where he passed by, he could barely make out others standing by the man's side, holding him by the shoulder in an effort to console him. On the man's other side stood a boy no older than ten who was bawling his eyes out.

"… Annette wife of Griswold the smith, she was the joy of our little community. I recall how each week she'd set out flowers to adorn our stalls, always freshly picked, beautiful and aromatic. She'd always visit us with that smile of hers, ask us for what news we had. Whenever we had need for her help, she'd always be the first to provide it. When Tawny had the fever chills and there was none other to tend to him, Annette was there to tend to him and nurse him back to health. When my neighbor Leanna's twin daughters went missing, it was Annette who led the search to ensure that they were returned safely. When Marlowe's house had gone up in flames, it was Annette who was first to raise the alarm so that we could put out the fires. And that was just in the past year. You all know as well as I, just how much we owe to her. And it is for all the ways that she has touched our lives, that she will be dearly missed in the days to come.

"And yet, that was nothing compared to her love for her family. Whenever she told us a story about her baby son Tam, her eyes would light up in excitement and adoration. Oftentimes in the evenings we would see her passing by on the streets, following after Tam as he went racing up and down the market streets. We remember her hearty laughs as she chased after him before catching him in a loving embrace. We remember her for all the time she spent to teach young Tam, that he may grow up to be a righteous, god-fearing young man. We remember how she'd work by her husband's side, tending to the blast furnaces when his apprentices stood preoccupied on other tasks. And most of all, we remember how she inspired us all to love our friends and family.

"She was a teacher, friend, and mentor to us. Bringing us comfort when we felt most lost, bringing us suggestions when we'd overlooked matters, teaching us to always strive for the best that we can be, she always had a way of bringing each and every one of us into her extended family. And we are privileged to have been brought into her circle, for it is one blessed by the contributions of such an amazing, wonderful woman who has taught us so much about the values of generosity and cordiality, tolerance and acceptance. It has only been with her efforts that we as a community have become as tightly bound as it has become today.

"All that, coupled with her amazing strength and courage, a wonderful personality, and a toughness of will that few can measure up to, makes her as deserving of any of us for a life of bliss. And that, at least, we can say with a surety: That in these last few years, she had been blessed with a joyful life surrounded by a wholesome, healthy family which she loved and friends beyond number. In this, at least, we can see as her spirit passes on, that we had done no wrong by her. We can live in the knowledge that her spirit now watches upon us from the heavens without any unfulfilled wishes, without any regrets.

"When she passed, it felt surreal to us all. How could such a bright fixture of our neighborhood suddenly disappear? For after all, life here in Tristram without her presence would be a dimmer thing altogether. But I for one believe that we owe it to her to never give up, to never allow our sorrow to overcome us. For if there's one thing her life has shown us by example, is that she would want each and every one of us to live life to its fullest, enjoy it to the utmost, putting our sorrows and worries and fears behind us, and to care for each other as she had done for us. So long as we do this, and brighten our world for each other, we shall carry her memory with us always, and she will never truly die, living with us in our hearts.

"Please join me as together, we take a moment of silence to bid farewell and peaceful repose to your physical form, for we know you shall forever remain with us in spirit, and until we reunite in the distant future, may your beautiful soul rest in peace." -- "Amen."

Art turned away from the crowd with tears in his eyes. He hadn't known this Annette person in life, but after hearing this, he felt he'd come to know her in death. He could imagine how the town would be all the poorer for her being gone. Someone precious had been lost that day, and he'd been at least partially responsible. The guilt settled on him. A part of him wished that he could rewind time, and this time not take the course of actions that would lead to her deaths. No, not just her death, but all of them, he thought to himself as he turned back to look at the crowd and the dozens of coffins before them. This was just one individual, and he knew each and every one of the others had their own stories, their own contributions and accomplishments.

"Let's go, sisters," said Liene, taking the lead, and the group resumed their earlier pace.

[Wherein the crowd gathered for the funeral chases after Liene and company.]

But her exhortation did not go unnoticed. Some at the rear of the crowd turned, and caught sight of them, of Liene, Elexa, and Diane in their white and brown gambesons, and a flash of recognition showed on at least one face. The man turned back to the crowd and yelled, "Oi! The rogue sisters are here," causing others to turn around; and they added their voices to the first, clamoring for attention, so that within seconds the entire group had laid their eyes on them. -- "Sisters? Weren't they the ones who started this whole mess?" -- "No, we're not!" -- "How dare they show their faces here?" -- "Haven't they desecrated this place enough?" As they spoke, some advanced on Liene and company, pointing accusing fingers even as the accusations and excoriations themselves blended into a cacophony.

"What was it the eulogist was just saying about showing compassion and tolerance?" said Art. -- "Don't preach to me about tolerance when you lot were the ones who incited the attack in the first place!" -- "Uh, I think that's our cue to high-tail it out of here," said Art as he ran past a surprised Liene and the others, and a moment later they followed as well, down one side street and then another, with an enraged, screaming mob right on their heels. -- "Why'd you have to go and rile them up, Art?" asked Jezebel between breaths as they ran. -- "Would you rather the redskins grew to become a bigger threat?" -- "What? I'm talking about what you said just now… Wait a sec, you mean you weren't lying when you told the count that?" -- "I owe up to my wrongdoings, Jezebel, I'm a man of principles." -- "Says the one who got them killed!" -- "…Why are you coming after me about this when there's a mob coming after all of us?" asked Art as he kept on running.

They wended this way and that through the streets, running as a group with the mob right after them, causing passersby to cry out in surprise and leap out of the way or get knocked over by them. "Oops," said Art as he collided into an elderly man pushing a cart through the street, the distraction only serving to cause him to knock over a young lady holding a baby in her arms. They collapsed in a heap and the very next moment Art had leapt back up to his feet and with an embarassed "Sorry", kept on running. The baby, which had fallen out of its mother's hands and landed on its butt, started to cry but was stunned to silence as the others followed right after, some of them almost running into the babe as well.

They came out of a side street into its intersection with main street and the inn they were staying at. "This way," said Art, passing right by it as he ran. -- "Where're you going? This is--" said Liene, coming to a stop before the inn's entrance. -- "Is going to be your tomb if you go inside," said Art, and the next moment Roland had passed her by and was dragging Liene along as he went. -- "Roland what do you think you're--" -- "You wan't to save yourselves, follow me," he interrupted, and with a glance at the mob behind them the sisters followed right after.

"Where are we going?" shouted Elexa with a bewildered look as they went past a high-end tavern. -- "Run in circles till they give up," said Roland. "And we don't lead them to our inn, or they won't give us any peace," as they passed by a brothel. -- "I have a better idea," said Art, doubling back to the brothel entrance. He and Roland shared a look and in they went. Then they turned around to see Jezebel and the sisters stopped before the threshold, looking like they were being asked to confront the beast. -- "We can't go in there," said Diane, looking embarrassed. -- "How could you even think--" began Liene, before Art interrupted with a look of utter impatience. "Enter or die, choose one," and with a glance behind them Jezebel stepped in, with the other sisters following right after.

[Wherein Art and company are hiding in the brothel. Hilarity ensues.]

"My, look who we got here," said the brothel owner, a plump, homely lady with altogether too much makeup and dressed in fine, flowing red robes. "I'd have said you'll find no shortage of beautiful women here to choose from but it seems you two aren't facing any such shortage to begin wtih," she said, looking them over.

Art took in his surroundings. He needed a place to stow away the sisters. The brothel had a central atrium with a split stairwell at the back leading up to the second and third floors. Each floor had a hall along the back and on the two sides, each adjoined to several rooms. Decorative man-height screens of parchment, held up by wooden legs either side, stood interspersed, providing the place with a semblance of privacy. A little ways off stood a table, upon which rested an arrangement of cups and plates. The madam stood by the entryway, while a dozen courtesans dressed in revealing, flowing gowns of all colors stood behind her. A plan formed rapidly in his mind.

"Go on up," said Art as he nudged the sisters forward toward the stairs at the center of the brothel which led to the second floor. Liene and her sisters looked to each other in confusion before leading them up the stairs. Art called after them, "And if I have to remind you three to strip I'm going to be very disappointed!" Jezebel was about to follow right after them before Art grasped her by the wrist. "Not you." He gave her a nice look over. She did have on a luxurious, flowing blue robe, and the young lady was quite the looker. "You look pretty enough to pass as a courtesan," he remarked, then nudged her toward the entrance. -- "What did you just call me?" said Jezebel in instant fury. -- "Isn't that right, madam?" said Art, turning to the brothel owner. "Sixpence[denarius] for you if you let her play the part and don't rat us out." -- The madam's lips pursed into a grin. "Well that's a first.

Jezebel pointed a finger at him, lightning dancing on its tip, before the doors were thrown aside by the lead of the mob, revealing several dozen panting men and women gathered right outside. Jezebel glanced at them in surprise then, with gritted teeth, banished the sparks and lowered her hand.

The next moment the mob had burst into the establishment, right by the madam who had approached the crowd with a welcoming smile. "Oh wow, so many customers! Wonderful!" She turned to the dozen startled courtesans standing behind her. "Looks like all you ladies are going to get your fill tonight, and then some!" She gestured to them, and they quickly approached, bringing the incoming mob to a halt as they curtseyed before them, then struck up sexually suggestive poses. One wrapped an arm around the nearest man, bringing herself up close. Another traced a finger along another man's abdomen, inching toward his groin. -- "Will you be having us tonight?" asked a courtesan. -- "You know you want to." -- "Come, my bedroom door is open…" -- "W-w… what!?"

The men looked completely out of their element, like fish caught on dry land. Then they were gasping like fish on dry land as the women among the crowd responded. One woman yanked hard on a man's year. "Darling," she said to him with a predatory smile. Another man was elbowed in the ribs, causing him to double over, grunting. Still another woman, her face gone all pink, had brought her hands up to cover the eyes of the man before her; she looked like she desperately wanted out of there. -- "Disgraceful, Eomar!" -- "What were you thinking, leading us here?" -- "Just wait till we get home…" -- "No, no, this is all wrong!" -- "Of course it's wrong! Took you long enough to realize!"

"Madam," Eomar called to the owner over the voice of the crowd, drawing their attention to him. The tan, spiky-haired man stood tall, massive muscles looking ripped under his tunic. "We have come in search for--" -- "Me?" asked a smiling courtesan in a silken red robe as she put a hand over her heart and batted her eyelids. -- "No, not you--" -- "That hurts," she retorted with pouting lips, "Don't you know how to woo a woman?" -- "I'll have you know, I have a wife--" -- "Not for long, you won't, not with such tactlessness." -- "Dina and I have been together for sixteen years!" -- "Dina, my dear, take a hint from a fellow woman, you deserve better--" -- "And what would you know?" defended Eomar. -- "Oh, I know plenty of men, and in more ways than one--" -- "And probably all of them nasty and vulgar… oh what the hell are we talking about right now?" said Eomar, clawing at his hair in exasperation.

"As we were saying, madam," said a lanky, swaggering man standing right beside Eomar. "First, apologies for the rude interruptions," he said, shooting a glare at the red-robed courtesan. "I am Kylan. We have come here in search of women wearing white and brown gambeson. You must have seen them pass by here." -- "Oh, yes, certainly," said the madam. "Why, they went right up the stairs--" -- "Which room?" -- "Third room on the right's available, for a penny[denarius]. Lorelei," she called, turning to a violet-robed courtesan, who stepped forward with a smile to caress Kylan's arm and started to pull him away. -- "What… that's not what I was asking for," he shouted, looking scandalized, as he pushed Lorelei aside and glared at the madam. "Where are they? We demand to know where they are!"

"Like I said, upstairs. But you're not going any further without paying first." -- "Damn it woman, we don't have time for this nonsense!" Kylan retorted. He tilted his head upwards. "Sisters of the Sightless Eye!" he shouted, "We know you are here. Now show yourselves!" -- Another added, "You disgrace yourselves hiding in such a place!" -- "If you don't show yourselves we'll search every room!" continued Kylan. -- "You're gonna what?" said one of the women in the crowd behind him. "How dare you think of disgracing yourself so?" -- Kylan retorted, "Look we're just going to find them and drag them out--" -- "Have you no decency?" -- "I'm only doing this for the purest of intentions!" -- "Purest my ass!" -- "Damn it, Polly dearest, I know they're up there!"

"Well, you can go up anytime you'd like!" said the madam, looking gleeful. "Only one penny[denarius] a visit!" -- "Shut up, madam, can't you tell we're not interested?" -- "Actually you look very interested!" -- "What? No I--" -- "Then that's that bulge down there?" she said, looking at his lower parts." -- Polly glared at Kylan, making him gulp. "You're not actually interested in them, are you?" -- "Of course not! I have no interest in any but you, dearest!" -- The madam retorted, "Don't tell me just the presence of your women has made you lose your balls. Are you men or are you not?"

"Okay we're done here," said one of the men, making to leave. -- "But what about the sisters?" -- A slap across the face. "Are you quite finished?" -- "…Sorry." -- "You're not going to just let them get away with this, are you?" -- "Yeah! They got Josephine killed! And Annette, and Tarley, and--" -- "We demand justice!" -- "Go! Search the rooms!" -- "No, not you, you're not going anywhere. You can sit your ass down right here and let the others search." -- "But--" A glare got him to shut up. -- "I'll go oww oww oww, okay I won't go anywhere," said another man, shooting the woman holding onto his ear, a pleading look.

"Damn it, if you're not going to let us men go, then you women go and find them!" said Eomar. -- A slap against his face. "You would have us disgrace ourselves from stepping any further into this place?" -- "You want to pimp us out that badly?" -- "But who else--" -- "One more word out of you and you'll have no drinking money for the rest of the month!" -- A glum nod.

"Okay, who here doesn't have a wife?" asked Kylan. Several of the men raised their hands. "Then you three -- Jeremiah, Daniel, Gregory, you go." -- "Ah ah ah," said the madam, intercepting them. "If you want to enter…" she gestured for money with an open palm. -- "You can't be serious!" -- "Very." -- "Oh for crying out--" -- "Just fork over the money, it's only what, threepence?" said Jeremiah. -- "Oh yeah? Well why don't you fork over the money?" retorted Daniel. -- "Why does it have to be me?" -- "'Cause you're the one who said it was cheap." -- "No I didn't--" -- "Didn't you just say--" -- "No no, I can't afford that kind of money!" -- "Damn, you change your tune fast." -- "One night with me will get you changing your tune again," said a courtesan in a green gown as she made to bare her shoulder. "I'll make you feel like a hundred singletons[denarius]."

Then with a shout of "step aside, harlot," Jeremiah thrust her aside, his rough push sending several other courtesans falling to the ground before him in cries of protest. Some landed in ways that revealed quite a bit of leg, drawing the eyes of several of the men and the irate glares of several of their women. Jezebel shot Jeremiah a look of sheer outrage. -- "Why, if you're so interested in seeing a lady naked, why don't you have a look at us?" Another said, pouting. -- "How vulgar of you, to knock a lady down?" -- "Shut up will you?"

The courtesan in the green gown cradled an arm, wailing and biting her lip. The madam knelt down by her side and inspected her arm. "Ouch, that must have hurt! Oh, that bruise is not going to look good tomorrow…" She glanced up at the crowd, holding out the courtesan's arm at the stunned Jeremiah. "Look what you've done? Don't you know, a woman's most precious asset is her beauty? Especially for those in our profession?" -- "What are you-- I don't even see any--" -- "How is she going to earn her keep with a marring injury like that?" -- "But--" -- "How are you going to make amends?" -- "Ahh!" shouted Jeremiah as he dashed out the exit.

"Hey wait a minute, you still have to pay up!" shouted the madam, giving him a half-hearted chase for all of two seconds before he was well and truly gone. Then she turned to the others in the crowd. "You lot are all together, aren't you? Then you'll have to pay for that. Tenpence[denarius] will be letting you off easy." -- "You deserve it, you're the ones getting in our way in the first place!" retorted Gregory. -- "Besides, that's not our fault, she fell on her own! Why was she the only one who got bruised?" -- "How dare--" Jezebel whispered, clenching her fist. -- "She's not the only one who got hurt," said the madam, then turned to the courtesans. "Right, girls?"

[Wherein Gregory gets on Jezebel's bad side, she frames him and gets him beat into a pulp.]

"Ow, I think I may have broken my ankle," said one courtesan who was still lying on the ground, caressing her ankle. -- "I think I fell a bit too hard on my shoulder," said another. -- "I might have broken my back…" -- "What… you're just making shit up now, you bitches!" shouted Gregory, his face a rictus of anger. -- One of the courtesans pulled herself up and, catching hold of Gregory's hand, put on a pouting face. "Please, Ellie can't work with an injury like that. And if we don't bring in any silver, we'll starve! If you're a good man, you'd take pity on us--" -- "Damn it you worthless scum, get the fuck off us!" shouted Gregory as he thrust her aside, causing her to fall into several other courtesans and causing them all to collapse in a heap again, moaning.

Jezebel stepped forward, pointing a finger at Gregory. "I thought you looked familiar! Why, you're the one who came here last week, humiliated Ellie and left bite marks all over her waist and beat Lorelei so hard it took days for the welts on her face to fade," she accused. "And then you left without even paying a penny!" -- Wait, thought Art, Jezebel is saying this? How would she know, she doesn't even work here… Oh, he realized, chuckling to himself. -- Eomar, Kylan, Polly, Daniel, and the rest of the crowd listed in mute amazement, disbelief, and outrage, and several of them turned to look at Gregory with accusing eyes.

"What? How dare you make such an accusation against me! For that, I ought to break your neck, you harlot!" -- "Gregory…" Polly said, menacing. -- "I'm telling you, I didn't do it!" -- "And now you'd deny what you've done?" retorted Jezebel, shaking her head with a look of disgust. "Just when I thought a man couldn't stoop any lower…" -- "Gregory," said Eomar, looming over the shorter and stockier man, causing Gregory to take a step back.

He shook an accusing finger at Jezebel. "You lie! I've never been in this place before in my life! I could never do such a thing!" -- "Really now? Because I seem to remember you're quite the recurring visitor," said Jezebel, taking slow step after slow step toward him. "Three, sometimes four, times a week, for several months now, forcing poor Ellie to say the most demeaning things, so that she'd cry for hours afterward and disturb our sleep…" -- "Oh my god," said Daniel, looking horrified. "I can't believe I thought of you as a friend," he said, looking away in shame. -- "You!" Gregory grabbed at Jezebel's robe. -- "What, now you're going to 'punish' me the same way you 'punished' Lorelei? That really gets you off, doesn't it?" -- "Why are you trying to accuse me of something I didn't do? I've never seen you till now. You don't even know my name, do you?" -- "Sure I do, Gregory."

Gregory looked at the faces turned against him, with a face of sheer alarm. "That doesn't count! You could have just heard someone say my name just now." -- "You think you can weasel yourself out of this?" Jezebel retorted. "Just like how you've snuck out of paying before? Well we'll make sure you pay every last penny you owe." -- "But I haven't done anything! I've never been here before! I've never visited those two harlots before, ever!" he said, incurring glares from both the courtesans.

He turned to Ellie. "You tell them! You've never had me as a client before, have you? Tell them!" -- Ellie burst out crying and looking just miserable as she replied, "What, about how you humiliated me?" She covered her mouth with a hand. "Ah, oops, that wasn't supposed to come out, was it?" -- Gregory looked as if he was about to cry, and turned to Lorelei in tears. "Please, Lorelei! I don't know why they aren't telling the truth, but you have to, I beg you!" -- Lorelei fell to her knees and kowtowed before Gregory. "Please spare me, master, don't put me in such a bind! I can't bear your punishments any more!"

The man collapsed laughing and wailing, tears drenching his face. 'How much do you want? How much? I'll pay! I'll give you anything if you would retract your words!" Gregory said, reaching out a pleading hand toward Jezebel, Ellie, and Lorelei. -- "Worthless piece of pondscum!" -- "What a bastard!" -- "To think he'd gotten away with it for so long!" -- "How could you, Gregory? How could you?" -- "What's a fitting punishment for a worm like him?" asked Polly. -- Eomar cracked his knuckles. -- "No, oh dear god no no no!"

And Eomar slammed a forceful punch right into Gregory's face, knocking him onto his back, bleeding out his nose and crying in pain. He brought his arms up to cover his face, but then a snarling Daniel kicked the man in the groin, sending him bending over and clutching at his private parts, and then punches and kicks descended without end from the crowd, all of whom seemed to want a piece of him. The man gasped in his screams, crying and begging for mercy and pleading for them to spare his life, in between involuntary groans and inarticulate screams. -- "Take that!" -- "Teach you to take advantage of helpless women!" -- "Go to hell and stay there!"

Jezebel watched the crowd beating up on one of their own with a triumphant look. Art turned to Roland, who whispered, "Think we should step in a bit here? The guy did no wrong." -- "Obviously." -- "But it's not obvious to them, and if we don't do something about this he's going to get himself killed." -- Then Jezebel was shouting at the crowd, sounding concerned, "Oh heavens, what are you doing to him?" -- "Beating the bastard up, what's it look like?" -- "No, no you can't, don't you see how badly you're hurting him?" -- "That's the point." -- "Haven't beat him hard enough, by my reckoning," said Eomar, stomping hard into the sputtering man's chest. -- "Someone has to beat a lesson into him."

"No, I can't, I can't watch you do this," she said, sounding alarmed. "At this rate you'll kill him! And he doesn't deserve to die!" -- "For making all of us look bad? He surely does!" -- "What are you complaining about? Didn't you want to see him punished?" -- "Well not like this, this is too much, if I'd known you'd react like this then I wouldn't have made the accusation in the first place…" -- "No, you were right bring this to light, we don't put up with abusing women!" -- "Please, you have to stop! I… I withdraw my accusation…" -- "Oh, bother feeling any pity for this guy, he isn't worth it."

"Did you hear that?" said Eomar, shouting down at the man who had been beaten senseless. "Even after all you've done, they still feel pity for your worthless hide. Why couldn't you have taken pity on them? What worthless scum you are!" More beating followed. He lay inert and unconscious as Polly and Dina took turns kicking him in the groin, snarls on their faces. Jezebel backed away from the crowd, leaving them to it.

"Jezebel, was that really necessary?" Art asked. -- She turned to face him and Roland, and approached with a look of mock sadness. "I was trying to get them to lay off beating poor Gregory…" -- "We're not stupid, you know." -- "Oh?" She leaned close to them with a haughty smile, and whispered. "What do you think of my performance?" -- "A bit horrifying." -- "Good. Best we all keep that in mind before someone gets any ideas, wouldn't you say, master?" she said, shooting him an askance look. -- "Did… you put all that on for me?" -- She snorted. "You're just an afterthought. No, I just couldn't stand how the bastard was calling the ladies the vilest things and pushing them around. Which, incidentally, was probably why Ellie and Lorelei corroborated for me. People get upset when their feelings are hurt, and the man didn't watch his mouth. Figure the bully could do with a bit of getting bullied."

"And are you pleased with your handiwork? Was this what you expected would happen?" Roland retorted. -- She turned to watch as the crowd continued to beat the crap out of the helpless wretch, and mused, "Hmm, come to think of it, it's a bit more intense than I would have expected. I'm so good, I astound myself."

"Alright alright, you all can stop now, he's unconscious," said Kylan, spreading out his hands to get the others to step away. Several of them spat at him as they did so. With the crowd now parted, Art could see that the man was covered black and purple in bruises, his face smeared in blood, his nose crooked, an arm twisted behind his back in a most unnatural way, pus oozing out of his eyes.

[Wherein Ariana accuses Eomar for having deflowered her before she became a courtesan, and the crowd refuses to believe it.]

"Seems we got him right good," said Dina, looking at Gregory in disgust. -- "Teaches him right." -- "No, teaches everyone right," said Eomar in his deep voice. "I doubt anyone here would dare to take advantage of women after seeing what'll come to them."

"If only that were the case," muttered a courtesan in a white gown, looking downcast. -- "What's that?" asked Polly. -- "N…nothing." -- "Speak up, girl." -- She shook her head. -- "Oh dear. Don't worry, no one'll hurt you." -- "Ariana, you don't have to speak to that if you don't want to," said Ellie, setting a hand on Ariana's shoulder and looking worried for her. -- "What? Is it another injustice? We demand to hear it. We'll teach him a lesson as well. We're already at it, so might as well. Right, everyone?" -- Nods and grunts in agreement. -- Ariana looked up to them, tears welling to her eyes.

"It was Eomar," she said, barely above a whisper. -- Eomar's eyes widened, as did those of all the others. Looks of disbelief crossed the faces of several of them. -- "Eomar? Eomar what?" -- "You're saying Eomar--" -- "I what?" said Eomar in a threatening tone. -- "He raped me," said Ariana, looking away again. -- "Ah crap," Art muttered to himself. -- "Why don't you say that to my face, huh?" -- Ariana backed away, grimacing. -- "Or why is it you can't you meet my eyes?" -- "I can't believe it…" -- "Must have gotten it wrong…" -- "How could Eomar--" -- Ariana looked from one disbelieving face to another, and fell silent. -- Dina put out an arm to her side, silencing them. "You're saying Eomar raped you? When, how did this happen?"

"It was the night of the midsummer festival. My friends and I had been out celebrating, and as the celebrations died down, we parted ways, and then I was walking home alongside Eomar--"

"That can't be right," interrupted Dina. "Eomar couldn't have attended the midsummer festival here last year. I would know, because the two of us were traveling out on errand to Duncraig. I remember, we joined the village locals in their feast that night." -- Several people turned to Ariana with disbelieving looks. -- "It wasn't last year's festival," Ariana replied, looking caught. -- "Oh? When was it, then?" -- "It was… five or six… maybe seven years ago…" -- Roland face-palmed himself. -- "You don't remember when it happened? Something this important? I'd have thought you'd remembered," asked Kylan. -- "Kind of convenient, isn't it?" -- Dina raised a hand again. "Then what happened?"

Ariana gulped, the continued. "He convinced me to come to his place, just to check it out, he said, and I went--" -- "Great, just what we needed right now," Jezebel muttered to herself. -- "You did agree to go to his place then?" -- "Yes--" -- "Why did you go? You know, that wasn't the brightest thing you could have done--" -- "Had you been drinking?" -- Ariana withered under their barrage of questions. "No!" -- "Who doesn't drink on midsummer's?" -- "I mean yes… yes, I did drink--" -- "How much?" -- "I don't remember--" -- "Oh come on, you couldn't remember? Sheesh, you must have been drinking quite a lot then." -- "You know, young girls shouldn't be drinking that much." -- "You think if you hadn't gotten drunk, you'd have kept your wits about you?" -- "Yeah, it's kind of your own fault if you get drunk enough that a man can take advantage of you." -- "Guys, can we not jump to assuming that I would have taken advantage of her? You all know me, I would never have done such a thing." -- "Point."

"Then?" Dina asked Ariana, who continued, -- "Then I don't remember what happened--" -- "You don't remember!?" asked Kylan. "Then how is it you remember getting raped at all, hmm?" -- "Are you sure it was even me?" -- "Yes, I wouldn't have forgotten that!" -- Kylan looked askance at her. "Are you sure? Maybe you just misremembered remembering his face, is all." -- "No, honest I wouldn't!" Ariana protested.

"How do we know you didn't just want to have sex with him?" -- "I mean, I can imagine how you'd want to tryst with someone as handsome as Eomar--" -- "I wouldn't have!--" -- "Really? Because you sure do now, don't you? Seems your work as a courtesan really fits you." -- "Fitting, for a harlot to besmirch the reputations of others." -- "Haven't you caused enough harm already?" -- "I honestly don't know how the madam manages to convince the count to keep this place open. The whole lot of you can burn in hell for all I care," said Polly. -- "And we all know the likes of you'll say or do anything for half a penny[denarius]. How much money did you want to coax out of him, hmm?" -- "That has nothing to do with it!" Ariana shouted in exasperation. -- "Oh, we're getting all emotional now, are we?" -- "I'm not getting emotional!" -- Stares. -- Alisha slumped, looking absolutely miserable.

"She's probably just saying this to get money," one of them said. -- "Yeah! We all know their kind are just money grubbers," agreed Kylan. He loomed over Ariana. "Why, I bet half of the lot of you indentured yourselves out to the madam in exchange for a heaping of money." -- "So what? That has nothing to do with--" -- "How much did you sell yourself for? Two singles[denarius] for a year? Three?" He and several others burst out laughing. -- "I had to pay off my parents' debts or they'd languish in debtors' prison!" -- "We are to expect the likes of you to speak the truth?"

"Can anyone corroborate what you said? About this so-called rape?" asked Daniel. -- "Well, Alisha was the last to part from us before--" -- "Then she wouldn't have been anywhere nearby when what you say happened happened. And there was no one else?" -- Ariana shook her head, looking defeated. -- "So no one saw this," concluded Daniel. "And it's just your word against his. And from what you said, we already know your memory's quite unreliable, don't we?" -- "Please, you have to believe me!" -- "Really? And does anyone?"

"I for one, don't believe a word of it," said Kylan. -- "Me neither," said Polly. "Eomar is an outstanding man of our community." -- "I can attest to that. He's always been the first to offer assistance to anyone who needed it. I personally know at least three families who owe him a great deal," said Daniel. -- "And I've never ever heard any complaints about his craftsmanship, either," said Dina. -- Nods and murmurs of assent from the others. -- "But, I'm not lying, it really happened," said Ariana, sounding forlorn.

[Wherein Eomar and the crowd are about to exact punishment on Ariana before Jezebel intervenes.]

"So," said Eomar, walking up toward Ariana in all his imposing figure. "You thought you could just jump on the bandwagon after seeing what happened to Gregory, didn't you? Thought you could scare me into giving you whatever you wanted? Ruin my reputation?" As he approached, Ariana backed away. "What would have happened if the people around me hadn't been smart enough to discern the truth? Would you watch as they beat me to death?" -- "I would never--" she said, meekly. -- "Or would you demand that I be castrated and torn limb from limb? Or worse?" he said, continuing to press forward and causing her to stumble and fall on her butt and shrink from him in fear.

Eomar turned to those behind him. "What do you think would happen to our beloved Tristram if the likes of you got your way? How long before the town falls into utter depravity and deceit, the names of good men dragged through the mud? Would you tolerate this?" -- "No! Never!" -- "So what should we do with her? What would be fitting punishment for making such a false accusation?" -- "Teach her a lesson like we did with Gregory!" -- "That's too good for her. I say we hang her!" -- "No, please!"

Jezebel inserted herself between Eomar and Ariana, staring at the man. "Don't even think of laying a single finger on her." -- "What, you actually believe a word of what she says?" asked Daniel. -- "Most definitely," said Jezebel. -- "Hah? Don't make me laugh. Take a hint, Jezebel. She's only saying this because she saw us beating up Gregory. But don't be deluded. She's just making it up." -- "You might not believe her, but I've seen enough of this kind of thing to have a good idea of when it's true. This is one of them."

He cocked his head at her, and set his hands on his waist. "And you think you know better than us, do you? You think that if someone can't get their story straight, and can't remember the facts, that they're somehow more likely to be speaking the truth?" -- "Rape victims often can't remember the exact details of such a traumatic experience." -- "Yeah, sure. You know what's more likely? That she's made the whole thing up and is grasping at straws to try to get around our probing questions, and her story's falling apart at the seams. We aren't stupid, you know."

"How can you say such a thing?" Jezebel shouted at them. "A woman earnestly comes to you and bares her most confidential secrets, exposing herself and her worst experiences to you, and you reward her with scorn and ridicule, and engage in victim-blaming, such as to make it nigh impossible for her to defend herself. How then do you expect anyone to speak up going forward?"

"You miss the point," said Kylan. "Yes, we want to know the truth. But we also don't want women speaking up with lies and throwing false accusations at people we know and trust. Nor do we want to hear any more from those who would attempt to lend credence to such detestable testimonies." -- "But the whole point is that even upstanding members of your community may have engaged in such vile behavior, their good deeds notwithstanding," protested Jezebel. -- "Look, Jezebel, if we can't trust respectable members of our community, then who are we to trust you? Should we doubt everything you say?" said Daniel, with the kind of smile that said he he thought he'd concluded the argument and there was nothing else to say.

"And you!" shouted Eomar. "You're the one who started this whole mess, by making an accusation against Gregory. You're just as responsible for this," Eomar shouted down at her. -- "And, so it happens," Roland whispered to Art, who nodded in dismay. -- "Hey, just how do we know that what she said was true?" asked Daniel. "I mean, if one might have been lying, so might the other, no? They were probably all in it together."

Several faces blanched. -- "No," said Dina, "That one was legitimate--" -- "You sure you're not just trying to justify beating Gregory up with extreme prejudice? What if he really was innocent, just like Eomar?" -- "That's impossible, they had corroborators--" -- "All of whom are harlots just like Ariana, no? And just as trustworthy." -- Ariana flinched away. -- "What did you call me?" -- "Oh, did I misplace you? If you don't belong here then how would you have known about him and the two harlots he supposedly abused?" Daniel smirked at her. "I say we take these three to different roooms and question them separately, then compare their answers. Tenpence[denarius] says their story'll fall apart." -- Ellie and Lorelei turned to look at Jezebel, looking at a loss for what to do. -- "Humph. Now that's a guilty look if I've ever seen one. I do have to congratulate you, woman in blue, you sure pulled one over on us."

The rest of the crowd started glancing over at the still unconscious and heavily beaten man with furtive looks of guilt. "Oh god, what have we done?" -- "Wait, so was he guilty as charged or not?" -- "Oh dear," said Dina, kneeling down to cradle the unconscious man's head in her arm. -- "Is… is he going to make it?" -- "I'm sorry… I'm so sorry…" -- "What have you to be sorry about? She's the one who tricked you," said Kylan, pointing at Jezebel. "She might well have beaten Gregory up herself."

"You!" roared Eomar in outrage, squeezing Jezebel's neck with his right hand. "How dare you trick us into hurting our friend? Why, I should break your neck right now--" -- hands clawing against Eomar's grip, Jezebel struggled to break away, but without success. -- "I'm sorry," said Ariana, looking up at Jezebel with tears in her eyes. "Please forgive me…" -- Eomar sneered at Jezebel. "Think you're so powerful now?" He lifted her up so that her feet dangled in midair. "Now--"

Jezebel pointed a finger at the man's outstretched arm and channeled lightning into it. The brilliant streak of lightning coursed into his arm, down through his chest, abdomen, and feet, into the ground. The man, who wore nothing but his tunic, spasmed, barely managing a gasp, before collapsing into a heap on the ground. Jezebel landed gracefully on her feet, lightning still sparking from her hand, and rested a foot on the side of the crumpled man's head, as she stared at the rest of the stunned crowd.

"You're right. I was making that up. But I owe you thanks, since you're the ones who beat him up for me without questioning anything until it was too late. Every wound you inflicted on him, was your own damn fault. You think your little community comes together seamlessly? You can't even trust each other. And besides, I told you earlier that I was recanting my accusations, but did you listen? In your hubris you patronized us, and that was your downfall. But you got one thing wrong. I don't need to rely on trickery or wiles to defeat you lot."

Chapter 24: Engagement in a Brothel, Part II

[Wherein Kylan, Daniel, and Eomar go up in to the brothel third floor and search the rooms.]

"Don't underestimate us," shouted Kylan as he snatched up the nearby screen and set it down between Jezebel and those beside him, just in time to intercept the lightning that channeled into the screen and dissipated. Holding it out as a shield before him, he rushed Jezebel, who turned and fled up the stairs. "Daniel, Eomar, what are you waiting for? Get a screen and follow!" -- Daniel and Eomar dashed to the sides to pick up screens of their own to bar Jezebel's lightning.

"Crap," said Jezebel, and then she was taking the flight up the stairs two at a time, channeling lightning down at Kylan as she went and forcing him to keep the screen before him, slowing him down. By the time he had gone up two steps of the stairs, Jezebel had already gone up to the third floor and went around the corner, disappearing from view. -- "Yeah," shouted Polly, "you go teach her what happens to people who make false rape accusations!" -- "Think we should help her?" Roland asked Art. -- "She'll manage better than us. Certainly better than them," he said, pointing at the three men who had abandoned the screens entirely as they gave chase.

They'd reached the third floor, and looked about the halls. "Where'd she go?" -- "Must have hid in a room somewhere." -- "Did you see which one?" Daniel asked Kylan. -- "Uh, not sure, maybe that one?" -- "Just split up and search all the rooms," said Eomar. As those below watched from the open central chamber, they split up. Kicking the flimsy screen doors open, they burst into the rooms.

"Ah! Get out, get out!" -- Panicked screams went up all around, mixed with the sounds of faces getting slapped, and some of the men who had barged in found themselves backpedaling with hands covering their eyes or caressing their cheeks and looking utterly ashamed. -- "Sorry! Didn't mean to!" -- "Ahh! Nope, definitely not here." -- "…I think I'll be scarred for life," said Daniel backed out of the second room he searched and raced down the hallway with a look of horror etched on his face. -- "Keep searching!" -- Down below, "My goodness, what the hell are they thinking, going into those rooms?" muttered Dina, wide-eyed. -- "What are they doing?" shouted the madam, alarmed. "Tell them to stop, they'll drive away all our clients!"

More feminine screams and shouts. "What do you think you're doing here?" -- "Even we have the right to some privacy!" -- "Sorry, didn't mean to look--" -- "Just get out!" A thrown pillow followed Kylan out as he fled the room, his cheeks red. -- Then the distinct sound of breaking ceramics and one unconscious man was thrown unceremoniously out of the room to land in a heap upon the hallway, his head bashing against the wooden railing, and began bleeding out of his nostrils. -- "Daniel, get your act together," said Kylan before entering another room.

Clients and courtesans were emerging from their rooms in various states of undress, looking terrified from all the clamor. Feminine screams as Eomar barreled past them as he went from room to room, clutching a bleeding cheek in one hand, and then everyone in the hallways started screaming and running for the stairs, driving another round of panicked people fleeing their rooms to join the crowd. And when Kylan emerged from another room, any remaining semblance of order dissolved into chaos. People in the throng at the stairs jostled against one another in their mad dash to get downstairs, and when the pants on one fat man on the stairs, who hadn't belted them in time, slipped, he tripped and crashed right into others in front of him and they all went a-tumbling down in a cascade of groans and bruises to lie in a undignified heap mere feet from where Art stood by the bottom of the stairwell. Art slowly shook his head as he stared down at them.

"Look what I found," said Kylan, emerging back into the hallway holding a white and brown gambeson. Eomar caught up with him. -- "The sisters!" Eomar said between gritted teeth. "Where are they?" -- "Didn't see them, actually. I just found it lying about, no one was wearing it." -- "They must have taken them off to blend in with the rest of the girls. Where did you find this?" -- "…In the public closet?" Kylan said, pointing a thumb at the stand-alone closet he'd just emerged out of. "It doesn't connect to any of the other rooms." -- "Damn it," Eomar clenched a fist in frustration, not noticing as Liene, wearing a white shift, passed right by them.

"Look, there were several of them, right?" said Eomar, ignoring a hysterical Elexa as she passed. "You'll probably find them all in the same room." -- "Wouldn't they all be fleeing right about now?" asked Kylan. -- "They're hiding from us, remember? They wouldn't dare us recognizing their faces," he replied, as a courtesan, Diane, and an embarrassed client slipped past them. "Which means once this lot have left, it'll just be the sisters remaining in the rooms." -- "Uh, where's Daniel?" -- Eomar turned around to look. "Wasn't he…" He turned back to Kylan, the two of them sharing a look of concern, then they dashed around to the hallway, one on either other side.

Kylan burst into a room, where he stopped, stunned. Daniel was at the entrance, standing completely still. "Daniel? Daniel!" he shouted, waving a hand before his eyes, but eliciting no response. Kylan gave Daniel a tentative push, and he fell over, stiff as a rock, banging his head against the wall before collapsing stiffly on the ground. "Ah! How... who did this?" he looked about, then strode past the fallen Daniel into the room.

[Wherein Natalie engages first Eomar/Kylan and Art intervenes to try to buy them time.]

Out in the halls around the main chamber, the commotion had yet to die down. The courtesans had mostly gathered in the chamber, huddling around the madam and glaring at the newcomers for having stirred up such a commotion. The chaos suddenly crescendoed as sounds of fighting began within the room Kylan entered, mixing in with shouts and pained grunts. The next moment a screaming courtesan fled from the room, completely naked. The next, Kylan fled from the room, holding up his sagging pants, his butt exposed, and looking terrified and embarrassed.

The next moment a woman in a black shift somersaulted out of the room to intercept Kylan by the stairwell. "Who do you think you are," she shouted at him, "barging into peoples' rooms like you own the place?" Kylan flinched, put up an arm to defend himself, which the woman promptly caught and twisted back, causing him to gasp in pain. Then she belowed him into the railing, eliciting a grunt, before kneeing him in the chest and clutching him by his hair and pressing his head backward over the railing, leaving his neck exposed. He struggled, but to no avail as the woman seemed not the least bit hindered by any of it.

The next moment Eomar had rushed up to them, his right arm stretched back and ready to land a forceful punch against the woman accosting Kylan. The moment after that, the woman had whipped out her free hand to guide Eomar's momentum to go crashing into Kylan and crushing Kylan against the railing, with Eomar's face smashing face first into Kylan's. They backed away from each other, wiping at their lips with a look of disgust, then their attacker had whirled around and landed a forceful kick into Eomar's back, sending his face crashing once again into Kylan's and knocking the wind out of both of them.

Then a second later, she kicked at them again, which they only barely avoided as they rolled to the side, causing her kick to impact the railing, sending vibrations up and down the wood. Another kick, this time at the opposite side, which they barely avoided; and then with a final kick the railing broke and fell away into the main chamber. Kylan pushed against the falling wooden panel, recovering just enough to manage to stay upon the brink, and clutched at Eomar's arm to keep from falling. That pulled Eomar off balance, and for a moment they teetered, before Kylan lost his balance and fell. His arms snaked around Eomar's feet in a last ditch attempt to hold on; that in turn pulled Eomar off, causing him to fall, and he only barely managed to catch hold of the edge of the hall, trying to keep from falling.

"Uh, any help over here?" said Kylan. -- "Let go, Kylan!" -- "No, I ain't gonna let go!" he said, dangling in midair as he clutched at Eomar's ankles. -- Those at the ground floor looked up in horror, frozen in place. -- "Damn it Kylan, let go or we'll both fall!" -- "No!" -- "Let go!" -- "You let go! Actually no, don't let go, for heaven's sakes Eomar, don't let go!" -- "I asked you a question," said the woman in the black shift, leaning down toward them. "What the hell did you think you were doing? Couldn't you ask before barging in? Have you no decency?" -- "Please, this is all a big misunderstanding--" -- "Yes, why is it always a misunderstanding when men force themselves on women?" -- "We weren't--" -- "Yes you were!" shouted Elexa from below.

She looked down at him, vindicated. "Any last words before I give you the shove?" -- "No, don't!" -- She reached down with one hand, set it on top of one of Eomar's hands, which were starting to slip. -- "Don't, please don't…" -- "Guys," said Roland, looking up at them. "You realize it's only the third floor, just jump already." -- "No!" screamed Kylan in a high pitch. -- "Damnit Kylan, if you don't get down first I can't let go without falling on top of your head--" -- Jezebel put a hand against her forehead and shook her head in disbelief.

"What the hell has been going on here?" Liene looked away from the spectacle to ask Roland. "I wasn't under the impression it was that much of a playhouse." -- "Well, when you have a bunch of playboys with a lot of girls to play with--" -- "Never mind that," said Art. "Are we going to do something?" -- "Don't listen to Kylan, he's just being hysterical."

"Well," said the woman as she leaned down to stare at Eomar, "What have you to say for yourself?" -- "We're sorry--" -- "For what?" -- "For breaking into your room--" -- "Oh? And why were you doing that?" -- "Because--" -- "You have no manners?" -- "No! It's because--" -- "Your parents never taught you how to behave?" -- "What? No!" -- "Well then you have no excuse now, do you?" -- "Please hear us out--"

"Well, look who's in a predicament now," said Jezebel as she exited the room she'd been hiding in. She gave the two of them a shy wave, then chuckled. -- "Why you… You're the one who got us into this mess!" said Kylan. -- "Just wait till we settle this," snarled Eomar. -- "I think we just did," she said, looking down at them. "Hmm, what did I say earlier? Ah, that's right, I don't need trickery or wiles to defeat you lot." -- "What? That was totally trickery!" -- "What? Just because I don't need trickery or wiles to do it doesn't mean I don't enjoy doing just that." -- "Why you--" -- Jezebel turned and started walking down the stairs. -- "Don't you dare leave!"

"Actually, if you want to go to her so badly, why don't you go join her?" said the other woman as she set a foot down hard on Eomar's right hand, causing him to scream between gritted teeth. "I haven't taught you a proper lesson yet, and if I don't, it'll be quite the egregious oversight on my part, wouldn't you say?" she asked to those gathered below. -- Jezebel shot her a thumbs up. -- "Yeah, teach these tramps a lesson!" -- "Jezebel, you're okay with this?" Art asked as she reached the ground floor. -- "How dare they share such total lack of respect toward us," shouted Lorelei. -- "Perfectly," Jezebel replied. -- "Respect? You?" said Eomar, looking down at the courtesans. -- "Ahhhh!" Eomar screamed as she twisted the heel of her boot, grinding it into his hand.

With a single flap of wings, thought Art, and then he had leapt up to the third floor hallway to stand by the woman's side. "Now now, where are your manners?" he asked her. "Didn't anyone tell you to come to the rescue of damsels in distress?" She shot him a hard look. "What? They're men, for crying out loud!" -- "Oh really? I didn't notice, I just heard them crying out loud like a bunch of women." -- "Why you--" shouted Eomar, glaring at Art. -- "Hey, that was him, leave me out of it!" shouted Kylan. -- "Let go and we will," retorted Eomar with a furious glance down.

"Ah, but I seem to have forgotten my manners. I'm Art. And you are?--" -- "Nobody of interest to you," she retorted. -- "Ah, so you're just a nameless nobody then, I see, nice to meet you, Nobody." -- She glowered at him. -- "Natalie." -- "Ah, good, so you do have a name. Because I'm mildly interested by what you were up to with another naked girl in that room." -- She shot him a look of unbridled fury. -- "Why is it you went so hard after them? Is it just that your interest runs that way, and you couldn't bear to let them get away with having seeing you go at it?" -- "Why you--" She took a step toward him, then her eyes opened wide.

She's caught on, Art thought, and the both of them set a foot toward Eomar's hands clutching the edge of the precipice, with her boot swiping outward in an attempt to knock the two dangling men off and Art's foot intercepting hers, bringing her foot to a step mere inches from Eomar's nearest hand. She tried again, this time attempting to kick at Eomar's nearer hand enough to loosen his grip, but Art's kick from the side caused her to miss Eomar's hand entirely. The two of them then kicked at each other's outstretched feet.

"Why," Natalie said, knocking aside Art's foot before landing to stomp on Eomar's left hand, causing him to holler in pain. "Can't," she said, as Art's foot landed on top of the one she had on Eomar's hand, holding her foot down in place even as she tried to retract her leg. "You," she said as she kicked at Art's ankle with her other leg, forcing him to pull back. "Back," she said as Art thrust out his foot again, this time pressing down hard on Eomar's left hand with enough force to keep the kick from Natalie from sending Eomar falling off, but also eliciting another pained cry from Eomar.

"Off!" she finished as she kicked at Art, who parried her leg aside with his left arm before gripping her outstretched leg by the ankle and capturing it. Natalie immediately entered into a spin to slip her leg out of Art's grasp, landing with her feet on top of Eomar's hands and causing him to scream in pain. -- "Please, can you two just leave me out of this?" he wailed.

"Kylan, you can drop now," Roland called out from below. Art glanced down and saw Roland and Dina holding a screen horizontally below Kylan, each of them holding one of its two wooden supports in both hands. Kylan seemed to notice, as a moment later there was a muffled crash and the next moment Art managed to take a glance, after dodging a low kick from his opponent, and saw Kylan had landed on the ground, the screen split in half and Roland and Dina pulling themselves off the ground.

[Wherein Natalie attacks Art, who's trying to convince her to stop and is forced to be on the defending side.]

"Why you!" Natalie shouted at Art, before lunging at him with her hand. Art instinctively ducked out of the way, even though she wouldn't be able to reach him with just her bare hands. Art took a step back and evoked, A leaf, a petal, a feather, and the very next moment he could sense the movement of a leaf-thin blade of moving nothingness sweeping through the air about an arm's length further than the reach of her hands. Like an invisible sword cutting through air, Art realized. He ducked as she made an upper cut; with the way of the dancing leaf he could sense the motions through the air, could feel that this unseen edge moved as if she'd had a short sword strapped and pointing out the back of her hand.

"Oh shit, things just got dangerous," Art said as he backpedaled. Natalie came right after him, and he had nothing in hand to either attack or parry with, or anything within easy reach. Having retreated about a dozen steps back from the part of the hallway where the railing had collapsed, Art jumped atop the railing to dodge another strike from Natalie, bringing his stump of an arm tow rap around a wooden support between sections of railing to keep from falling off. The next moment she lunged at him again, and he whirled around the support to step on top of the next section of railing, and she slashed out with her unseen blade to where he'd been holding on to the support, forcing him to let go and fall before he caught the railing in his remaining hand to arrest his fall.

Just as she stabbed down with her edge of hardened air, he said with a smile, "Bye bye," and then let go and dropped the rest of the way down to the ground of the main chamber. He turned to see Eomar had already dropped down to the floor as well, and both he and Kylan and picked themselves up.

Natalie looked at Eomar and Kylan as well, and turned back to Art with a look of fury. "How dare you let them get away from me!" she shouted, then leapt over the railing to land gracefully on the ground. -- "Ah, look, can we not fight?" asked Art, grabbing hold of a nearby screen and setting it between himself and his approaching opponent. She slashed with her blade of nothingness and it slashed right through the screen.

The courtesans huddled nearby gave one look at how easily she'd slashed through it, and ran screaming. That caused looks of panicked confusion to cross everyone else's faces, and moments later the courtesans, the madam, the clients who hadn't yet fled, the rest of the gathered crowd, all of them were fleeing which way and that. One kick sent another screen that Art had put up before her, flying to crash into Kylan, causing him and Eomar to stumble and fall in a heap. Another slash broke several branches off a nearby potted plant. Art kept backing up, cognizant that he hadn't come with any weapons and didn't have any shield, while defenseless men and women fled out in the street, tripping over themselves in their mad dash to safety.

"Now just hold on a sec--" Art said to Natalie. -- "…Time's up," Natalie retorted. -- "Teh-- really? … Why are you fighting me?" he said, dodging to the side as Natalie's blade slashed down where he'd stood a moment earlier. -- "You need to ask?" she replied, making another close swing. "After you got yourself involved?" -- Ducking behind a screen, Art replied, "I was just protecting people you were abusing," he protested.

"Abuse?" she shouted back. "I was teaching them a lesson they needed teaching!" She ducked around the screen to make another lunge, which Art blocked by whirling the screen around to intercept. -- "It's still abuse!" Art retorted. -- "You call that abuse? Since when did you care about abuse?" replied Natalie as she stabbed through the screen repeatedly, causing parts of it to tatter apart. -- "I've always cared!" replied Art as he dropped half of the now completely torn screen.

"And had you cared for the plight of all these courtesans around you?" Natalie lunged, only to be parried by the wooden screen support in Art's hand. "Do I see you lifting a finger against their 'clients'? Have you never taken advantage of any girl yourself?" Again and again they traded blows, the unseen blade leaving more and more gashes in his impromptu club.

"So visiting a brothel is a crime to you? What were you doing with that girl then?" said Art as he dropped the chopped up wooden support in disgust and whirled around, dodging a sweep from Natalie, to pick up the other one to parry again. -- "Do I look like a man to you?" -- "What's that got to do with anything? You think women can't abuse other women?" -- "I wasn't abusing her!" -- "So says everyone." -- "You're a dead man!"

[Wherein Natalie and Roland fight while arguing, and Art tries to get Jezebel to take action.]

Roland stepped forward, kite shield in his left and mace in his right, speaking in a commanding voice, "By the light I demand you cease this pointless violence!" -- Laughter, before she ran right at him.

"No, don't -- oh crap," said Roland as he pointed his mace right at her, and then a beam of incandescent light burst forth from the descry engraved upon the tip of his mace, right into her eyes, causing her to scream and bring up an arm to shield it and making her stumble back, seemingly blinded. She began to swing her unseen blade this way and that, as one would to ward off any approaching threats. -- "Get away from me, get away from me!" shouted Roland in panic as he held his shield out before him, whereupon it grew as reflective as a perfectly smooth mirror, and let it absorb a hit from her sweeping unseen edge.

The moment the unseen blade seemed to pass through the shield, a bloody gash spurted into existence along her left calf, causing her to cry out in pained surprise. She backed away, stepping over a fallen screen before kicking the screen at Roland, causing him to stumble before he knocked it aside. -- The madam gasped. "What are you doing!" she shouted. -- Natalie then dashed to a table by the side of the room, and picked up a plate, then a teacup, then a fork, and throwing them at Roland one after the other. -- "That's my plate! That's my… oh good grief," protested the madam as she threw up her hands in frustration.

"Help!" screamed Roland as the plate rebounded off his shield. "Someone!" as the teacup hit. "Get me out of this mess!" as the fork rebounded in turn. -- None of the objects rebounding off the shield caused any harm to Natalie. Watching, Art realized that Roland's -- no, the Church of Light School's -- way of reflected pain could not reflect pain from thrown projectiles back at the thrower.

-- Art turned to Jezebel. "Aren't you going to help?"

Natalie must have noticed as well, for she next tore the screenpaper off a fallen screen. With one hand she launched one of its now stripped wooden supports flying at Roland's head, which he deflected with his shield, then another at his feet a split second later, which since he'd brought his shield up to protect his face, meant he wouldn't know about the second projectile and lower his shield to deflect it. "Oh shit, oh shit--"

-- "You're not."

The flying wooden support crashing into Roland's leg caused him to stumble again, and in his momentary distraction the mirrorlike sheen of his shield faded. -- "Ah!" screamed a courtesan nearby as she backed away out of instinct, and she and several other girls beside her made a mad dash for the exit, right past the remainder of the mob who watched the battle with looks of increasing trepidation.

-- Art held up his empty-handed arm and shrugged. "Help with what?"

Taking advantage of that moment, Natalie smacked her blade of thin air against the side of his shield. With him focused more on maintaining his balance, he hadn't held on tightly to his shield, and it went flying out of his grasp to land a few feet away. The shield rebounded against the wall mere feet from Eomar and Kylan, who stared down with startled looks and dashed for the exit a moment later. -- "Please spare me," begged Roland. -- "You? Forget it," she replied.

-- Jezebel showed him her palms. "I don't have anything either."

"Fuck." Roland dashed for his shield, as did she, the two of them trading blows, mace against unseen edge, with Roland causing light to beam out of his mace and attempting to point it at her eyes, but to no avail as she pointedly kept him in the corner of her vision. -- "You're just like the rest of the men, aren't you?" Natalie accused.

-- "You have your lightning and your water!"

Natalie managed to get to the dropped shield first, and with a kick sent it careening off to the far side of the hall, then whirled around to stab for Roland's throat with her blade, but as Roland's mace had been shining, she closed her eyes at the last moment to avoid getting blinded, and her blade wound up thrusting a good bit away from where Roland stood, even as she said, "Never going to the aid of any women in need, only making things harder for them…"

-- "You want me to hit both of them?"

Roland replied, "Of course not. I am templar!" -- Natalie backpedaled, rounded back to behind the wooden table just as Roland approached, then back-handed the rest of the cups on the table right at him, forcing him to back away as he feebly attempted to parry with his mace. One cup smashed into his chin, stunning him and causing red wine to spill all over him before he wiped it aside. Another he knocked aside with his mace, and it landed crashing into the wall barely an inch from the madam's face.

-- "…Yeah, that would be nice."

With Roland having taken a few steps back, Natalie slowed down, taking a moment to aim each projectile she threw: spoons, forks, knives, as Roland parried them aside or attempted to dodge. "Don't throw titles at me. When have you done anything to right any wrongs?" -- The madam scampered out of the room, screaming in fear, as flying objects flew past her.

-- "Nah, I'm going to sit this one out."

Then he caught her looking right at him with another burst of dazzlingly bright light from the tip of his mace, causing her to drop the fork in her hand in surprise and squeeze her eyes shut. -- "Just because you don't know about them doesn't mean I haven't done my share of good deeds."

-- "What? You saw what Natalie's using; this is a life or death matter! At this rate Roland might get killed!"

Roland ran right for Natalie, mace ready to swing. With her eyes closed, she flipped up the table at him, and as he blocked it with an upraised arm, she wound around to slash at him with her blade, leaving a gash across his gambeson, not deep enough to spill blood. "Really? Like what?"

-- "Roland? Who's he, and why should I care?"

Roland smashed down with his mace a moment later, forcing Natalie to back away. "I don't owe you an accounting!" -- "Oh really now?" She wound around the table again, pulling back just as a mace head swung right through where her head had been, whooshing through midair. With Roland a bit overextended over the table, she swung out with her unseen edge, leaving a gash against the gambeson he wore on his elbow, but again failing to penetrate. "Is it because you have nothing to list out?"

-- Art stared at Jezebel in mute disbelief. "Now's not the time--"

Natalie thrust against with her unseen blade, which Roland parried with his mace, even as he struggled back toward the kite shield lying on the ground. He moved his mace to point its tip right at her eyes, causing her to glance to the side and squint in anticipation, but he took the opportunity to kick her in the lower leg, causing her to stumble. "I'll have you know, just today I may have saved the life of one of the rogue sisters."

-- Jezebel snapped at Art, "Why should I put my life on the line for someone I barely know?"

Natalie spun in to a low sweep, extended blade forcing Roland to take another step back, and then they had both caught up to the shield on the ground. "Humph. So you think. You men all have your heroic complexes, don't you?" She attempted to kick the shield away again, but Roland set his foot down on it first, preventing her kick from sending it skittering across the floor again. Roland tried to push her away, but she deftly redirected the thrust of his mace, causing him to almost lose his balance.

-- "Damn it Jezebel, does one need a reason? Natalie's clearly mad!"

Roland stooped down to try to retake his shield, but retracted his outstretched hand as the blade of thin air swished right past. He swept out with his mace, in a wide open swing calculated to force her to take a step back, but in so doing he had to take his foot off the shield, and that allowed Natalie to drag it with her as she took a step back. "At least I did something. What did you do? Besides trying to kill people?"

-- "Doesn't seem that way to me," Jezebel replied with a sniff and frown. "Seems very understandable, actually."

"Killing can be a valuable means to an end," Natalie retorted. Roland's mace crashed against Natalie's unseen blade again and they whirled the conjoined blades around in a circle. As Roland's had the further reach, she was forced to take a step back to avoid getting hit. That gave him the opportunity to set his foot down on the shield. -- "Oh yeah? How?"

-- "Shouldn't we fight?" Elexa turned to Liene.

-- Art's mouth opened wide in disbelief. "You've gone mad. You're all gone mad," he said, thinking he had to do something now. He looked about the room; aside from the combatants, the sisters, Jezebel and himself, everyone had already fled. He looked to Jezebel -- she at least had his preferred weapon at hand. He went for Jezebel's sword which she carried by her belt. She spun out of the way and set a hand down to guard the sword from him.

With the both of them having a foot on the shield, and their weapons once again held against each other, they kicked at each other with their remaining feet. "Kill the the men who are hurting the women, and the women will be spared their suffering." Again and again as they vied for control of the shield. But Roland had the greater mass and the momentum of his repeated kicks pushed Natalie back a bit, and she had to retract the foot she had on the shield in order to regain her balance.

-- "We're in no condition to fight," Liene replied, pointing at the sisters' white shifts.

-- "Damn it Jezebel, if you're not going to fight at least let me then." -- Jezebel shook her head at him. -- Art shouted, "Can someone give me a weapon?

[Wherein Art and Jezebel gets involved in the fight.]

With a retracting motion of his leg Roland sent the shield skittering across the floor to collide into Art's boots. "Here!" -- "Got it," said Art as he picked up the shield in his left hand, his fingers closing around the handle. He adjusted his grip, and… and suddenly he felt a profound feeling of retribution, of vengeance. Eye for an eye, limb for a limb, tooth for tooth, nail for nail, all iniquities revisited upon the sender, all as perfectly mandated by a law of complete and exact karma. He looked down and found the shield had become completely covered in a shiny glamer, golden with the light from the candelabras.

-- "But at this rate someone's going to get killed!" Elexa pleaded.

"More like kill the clients and the courtesans can quit their jobs and go begging on the streets where they'll really get raped," Roland retorted, as he grabbed a nearby screen in one hand and used it to block another lunge from Natalie, then struck out with his mace, which she deflected. Then the next moment she couldn't be bothered with fighting Roland, as Art had charged at her from her side, kite shield outreached and mirrorine. She banished her invisible blade and dodged out of the way of their two attacks.

-- "If you hadn't noticed, we left our bows back upstairs," Liene retorted.

"Really? Now you're going to gang up on her?" Jezebel shouted at them, then pointed a finger at Roland and unleashed channeled lightning. It struck the screen Roland had previously pulled close to himself, and dissipated. With a curse she whipped out her sword. -- Natalie continued to dance out of Art's way, making a circle around Roland as she barraged him with thrusts and sweeps. "Two on one, that's real cool of you," she said as she batted Roland's swinging mace aside.

-- "Then let's get them," said Elexa. "We need Roland to meet with the bishop, remember?"

"Jezebel I order you to stay out of this," Art commanded, bringing his kite shield to block her attempt to slash through the screen and get to Roland. Jezebel noticed at the last moment and turned her blade so that it struck against his shield on the flat rather than the edge, and was rewarded by getting slightly knocked back as if slapped on the cheek rather than getting her face split open. -- "Order women around like usual, I see," said Natalie as she kicked Roland's screen down, leaving him exposed to Jezebel's attack. -- Jezebel let loose a burst of lightning at Roland, causing him to spasm and cry out in pain even as the man's insulative gambeson greatly weakened its charge.

-- Liene gave one look at the fight and then with a curse, rushed up the stairs.

Art stepped between Roland and Jezebel, putting forth his shield. "She's indentured to me, it'll be wrong for us to be fighting each other!" He dodged out of the way of Natalie's lunge at him, and the next moment she had no opportunity to strike at him as Roland swept horizontally at her head with his mace. She flung her head backward, so that his mace swept right over her chest without contact, then kicked at the side of his leg, forcing him a step backward.

-- Elexa made to run after Liene, but Diane grasped her by the arm, stopping her. "Sister Elexa, are you really going to fight them?" she asked with a look of pleading.

"I knew it! You filthy scum, you're just like the rest of them!" shouted Natalie. -- Forced back by the kick, Roland collided against the wall and immediately ducked as a bolt of lightning struck the column right where his head had been a moment earlier. Art whirled around to bash into Natalie's exposed back, the reflection of his shield causing him to feel none of the impact and Natalie to feel it twice over, throwing her forward right into Roland. Art he leapt to the side and swiped out with his feet, catching the support of a nearby screen and sending it across the floor to block Jezebel's next lightning bolt.

-- "Our friends Art and Roland are under attack. Come, you should fight too."

"Good skills, Jezebel," said Natalie as she tried to kick Roland in the groin, but he twisted to the side and swung with his mace, forcing Natalie to back off. She doubled over, putting her stomach right out of Roland's reach and her head lowered just enough to avoid an uppercut from the side of Art's swinging shield. -- Art parried her next lunge with her unseen blade by bringing the support of the screen he had caught with his leg, into her swing; her blade slashed deep into the wood. Art then kicked the screen right at Jezebel.

-- "I…" Diane looked upon the combatants fighting it out, fear clear on her face. "I can't do it… I can't…"

As Art swiped out with his reflective shield, forcing Natalie to retract her next attack, Jezebel stepped forward to greet the incoming flying screen. "You fight well too. Let's toast to some wine after this?" She swung right down the middle of it with her sword, splitting the screen in two and lunging right past the two flying pieces at Roland, forcing him to abort his swing at Natalie.

-- "You have to! If we aren't willing to fight, then what was the point of learning with us sisters of the Sightless Eye?"

Roland swung his mace right at Jezebel, the light pouring incandescent out of its tip and streaking across her eyes. He reached down to snatch a wooden support with his spare hand and used it to block Natalie's swing with her unseen blade, while Jezebel pulled back, one hand covering her eyes. -- "Wouldn't miss it for anything. Except these bastards have to go." -- Art swung at Natalie with his shield, forcing her to back out of the way and almost into Roland's next swing, but she sank low and went under Roland's return swing with the mace.

-- "I don't know!" Diane burst out in frustration. "Please, Elexa, go, save them!" And then Elexa was dashing up the stairs, and Diane sank huddled into a corner.

The next moment Natalie had kicked at Roland's side, giving her the impetus to quickly return to her feet and sending Roland careening into the side. As he fell he swung the wooden support at Jezebel, who blasted a torrent of water into it, sending it flying aside. -- "Though if you kill Art, I as his indentured will have a hard time of it." -- The next moment Roland had picked up the other half of the screen and charged at her, holding it up before him to soak up Jezebel's next burst of lightning, even as she ran to the side -- right beside Diane, who dashed out of the way, screaming in fear.

"Indentured to him… has he abused you too?" --Can't keep the fight here or Diane will get hurt, Art thought to himself as he swung first at Natalie's left with his shield, then to her right when she dodged that way, yet she swept out of the way with ease, and a thrust of her hand slashed into Art's gambeson, rending it along the sleeve. He dodged out of the way of her kick, then again as she attempted a kick at his other leg. Might I glide through the sky, he thought, and then he was backflipping right over the railing into a second floor hallway. As he went, he caught sight of Diane huddled with her arms raised protectively over her face and her legs tucked close to her chest, quivering in fear.

"Not once. He's helped sisterhood at great risk to himself," Jezebel replied. -- Natalie leapt off the floor right after Art using the way of the albatross as well. As Jezebel struck at Roland with her sword and Roland intercepted with his mace, Art bashed out at Natalie with his shield, but she caught on to it with both hands and landed her feet on the railing. Art swung the shield to try to get her to fall off, but she turned it to her advantage, letting it carry her to the railing by Art's side, and with a single step she landed upon the railing.

With a push Roland forced Jezebel back against the wall, preventing her from keeping distance from him or using her lightning. She pushed his mace aside with her sword, but he smashed the wooden support into her chest, knocking the wind out of her. Art bashed at Natalie with his shield, but she merely took a step back, still keeping both feet on the railing, then whirled around the wooden column behind her to stand on the section of railing right behind it. When Art took a step forward along the hallway, she whisked her hand out, forcing Art to lean back to avoid the leading edge of her blade. -- Natalie asked, "And what about the other one?"

Jezebel slumped down to the floor, then blasted at Roland with jets of pressurized water coming out of both hands, knocking him back. As the light from his swinging mace flashed across her face, she closed her eyes and leapt out of the way. "Roland is perhaps the sisterhood's last hope." -- Overhead, Art whirled around to block Natalie's thrust with his shield, but she cancelled her way at the last moment suffered no injury. She whirled around the column again to land on the hallway, then leapt across to the hallway opposite the open chamber with the way of the albatross.

Horizon to horizon might I fly. Art leapt across the chasm as well, following Natalie through midair. "Then according to you, these two aren't the usual dicks?" asked Natalie as she swung out of Art's way as he landed. Beneath, Jezebel and Roland stood half a dozen paces apart, with her holding sparking lightning upon her fingertips but not making any move to electrocute her opponent, and Roland stood still, not making a move at her.

Art swung an uppercut with his shield, but Natalie sunk low and swept underneath his outreached arm. As she passed beneath, she slashed her unseen edge against the side of his arm, slicing into his gambeson and no deeper but causing the shield to slip out of his grasp, and then a kick tripped Art over, sending him crashing down upon the hallway. The next moment Natalie had snatched up his shield in her left and pointed her right at the back of his neck, pinning him down with her unseen edge ready to thrust into him. Art thought his end was near, but she held back from finishing him off.

Liene and Elexa burst out of a room on a hallway to their side, now wearing their gambesons, quivers on their back and bow and nocked arrow in hand. Elexa gasped when she saw Art lying prone before Natalie, and immediately whipped up her bow, drawing on it, and as Natalie brought up the shield to intercept and it grew reflective as she held it, Elexa loosed her arrow. With a woosh the arrow flew across the room, with a ptang it deflected off the shield, and with a splat blood spurted out of Elexa's chest.

Chapter 25: Engagement in a Brothel, Part III

[Wherein the battle concludes and they tend to Elexa and resolve their differences.]

With a look of utter shock, Elexa crumpled to the ground in Liene's arms, her gambeson stained with blood. Natalie dropped her shield, horror written on her face. Jezebel and Roland stared first at Elexa, then at each other, then raced up the stairs to Elexa, with Diane following right after. "No," shouted Art as he picked himself up. Natalie stood aside, not stopping Art from getting up. Then they both rushed over to the two sisters.

"No, Elexa!" said Liene. She knelt and rested Elexa's chest upon her calves, caressed her head in one arm, then pressed down on the wound with her other hand. -- "Elexa!" shouted Diane, before she rushed to kneel before Elexa and tend to her as well. "Oh god, so much blood…" All her chest appeared stained.

"Oh my god," said Natalie from three paces away. -- "Away with you!" Liene screamed at Natalie. "You've already felled her, what more do you want? You want my life too?" -- "No, I--" -- "Go. Just go," said Liene with steel in her voice, before bursting into wails. Tears fell from her and Diane's faces. -- "Sister Elexa, stay with us!" -- Elexa stared up at them in mute shock, clutching at the wound in her chest.

"Stay with us," said Roland. -- "I… feel so tired," said Elexa, her eyes drooping. -- "No! Keep your eyes peeled! You're not allowed to go to sleep! As your elder sister, I order it!" -- "Elder sister Elexa…" -- She smiled back at them. "It was a nice time while it lasted, sisters…" Elexa spoke, her voice weak. "To have shared a joyful life with you all together at the monastery…" -- "What are you saying, elder sister?" -- "Having spent my time with you… Even if I go now to heaven, I won't feel any regrets…" -- "You're not going anywhere sister Elexa!" shouted Liene. "We still have to reclaim the monastery. You can't abandon us until after we've recaptured it!" -- "Stay strong!" -- She closed her eyes. -- "No, Elexa, please!"

Liene and Diane worked to wrap a sash tightly around her waist, like a tourniquet, so as to lessen the bleeding. It stained a bright scarlet almost immediately. They worked with practiced hands, and within moments they'd finished, though with the cloth already thoroughly stained, it was hard to tell how much the blood loss had been slowed.

Roland squatted down. "If I may." -- Liene looked back at him, teary-eyed. -- "Let me use my way of channeled vigor." -- Art put out a hand to stop him. "Roland, you've not even recovered from doing the same for Ryann in the morning. Back then you mentioned that doing it twice in as many days would have significant consequences. What are they?"

"I'm not sure I want to get into the details," Roland said, making a gesture toward Natalie, whom a moment ago had been trying to kill him. Ah, something involving being less able to fight in battle for a while, then? Art mused. That was all Roland needed to say; he got the gist of it, but the plausible deniability meant that Natalie couldn't simply assume Roland would be powerless to defend himself for the time being.

"Are you sure you want to got through with this?" Art asked, concerned. -- "I don't see any choice in the matter. The Fourth Tenet commands me to. Liene, if you would allow me?"

Between sniffs, "Way of… channeled vigor…" She nodded, causing more tears to fall, then moved aside. -- "I'll need someone to remove her clothes." -- "I'll do it," said Diane, and she proceeded to help Elexa out of her clothes and prop her up while keeping pressure over her wound. Roland knelt behind her, and began to mutter to himself:

"Gift of vigor, freely given. A grace from God, glory be. To see the world all abound with life, To participate in activities of love and strife. To sense this world with touch and taste, To see this world with eyes and ears. To dance about with this mortal frame, To speak of this world, all abound with hope. Gift of vigor, I freely give, In honor of God, do I gift to thee."

Over and over he repeated the mantra, and the air around his arms and around Elexa's arms rippled.

As Roland did this, Jezebel turned to Art. "Fourth Tenet?" -- Art nodded back. "Fourth tenet is to help those in need, which is why he feels so obligated."

Guards poured into the brothel, quickly securing the first floor, and a dozen of them raced up the stairs. They didn't move, instead they continued to tend to Elexa. The lead guard approached them, spear in hand, but did not strike a hostile stance toward them. -- "Thank goodness you're here," said Liene. "He just left." -- "Where did he go? What did he look like?" -- "The assassin was wearing a gambeson all in black, he had a shield and scimitar at his side--"

Art chimed in, "Couldn't have been more than four foot eight. I caught sight of his face at one point. Red skin all over, he must have been one of the--" -- "Damn redskins at it again," shouted the guard, a look of fury half hidden beneath his helmet. "Don't worry, he's probably fled for the gates by now. There'll be no one in town he can look to stay with. Men, with me!" he said, and he turned and ran with the others following close behind.

He stepped to the edge of the railing, watched them leave, and when they'd left, he shook his head and chuckled, as did Natalie. He turned around to see the others looking gloomy. "What?" -- "If you hadn't noticed," said Jezebel as she gestured toward Elexa. -- "Oh… Right…"

"Is… is there anything I can do?" asked Natalie -- Liene rounded on her. "Why are you still here? Didn't I tell you to get out? This is all your fault, and I don't want to see your face ever again!" -- "I never intended for this to happen--" -- "What did you think was going to happen when you started attacking everyone?" -- Natalie dropped her head. "Not this… Never this…" -- "You in your self-righteousness became so blinded by your desire to kill," said Art behind her, "That you forgot that others' lives are put at risk by your actions." -- Natalie's eyes scrunched up into tears.

"How dare you weep for her? How dare you?" Liene shouted, shaking a finger at her. "You're not a member of our sisterhood. You don't know her. You don't know what it means for us to lose someone we care for. So don't put up an act. Her death is nothing to you, isn't it?" -- "Please, you have to understand, it was all a misunderstanding--" -- "And now you want to claim a misunderstanding?" Art retorted. "After never giving anyone else the benefit of the doubt when they claimed the same?" -- Natalie collapsed before Elexa, bursting into tears. "Sorry… I'm so sorry… I never intended to hurt one of your sisters…"

[Wherein they explain the sisterhood's situation to Natalie and explain how Art and Roland are on their side.]

"Oh, and it was okay for you to try to kill us?" asked Art. -- Diane asked, "Why, Natalie? What beef do you have with the sisterhood?" -- "I have no quarrel with you. The sisterhood has been a shining beacon of women standing up for and defending their own, I admire everything you and your monastery represent! The only institution of martial arts learning for women for several hundred miles in every direction, of, by, and for women, taking care of your own and not caving in to the king's demand for submission… Yours is an organization I look up to every day."

"Then why did you attack them?" -- "I… I'd only intended to rid the world of the scum of the earth… I didn't know until the very end, when Jezebel spoke up on their behalf, that these two were acting in the interest of the sisterhood, rather than their own. Otherwise… otherwise I would have stopped the fighting much earlier, and this would have never happened!" She stared at the ground ashamedly. "Speaking of which, Jezebel, what were the incidents you were referring to, when you said the Art had risked his life in defense of the sisterhood? Is this true?"

Diane nodded and explained, "What Jezebel said about Art and Roland is true, but for that you have to first understand our situation." She sighed dejectedly, then shared a look with Liene, who nodded for her to proceed. "Secret's out anyways, so might as well. Our sisterhood lost the monastery a few nights ago. Lost it to an attack from the redskins, took us by surprise. In the process they made off with all our assets, and this morning, we came across some of them at the market, attempting to trade our very own silver for supplies to sustain their war effort. If they succeeded, they would have solidified relations between them and Tristram."

Natalie nodded in understanding. "So the fight this morning at the market?" -- "He started it," she said, pointing a finger at Art. -- "Hey, you're making it sound--" -- "I'm not accusing you… Or, I guess I am, but what I mean to say is, he incited them into a rampage to deny them that victory. But it came at the cost of a great many dead. We came upon their aggreved friends and family just now. They recognized the sisters, and gave chase." -- "So then, the reason you lot wound up here--" -- "Is because we were trying to hide the sisters from them," explained Art. "Liene, Elexa, and Diane went into one of the rooms to switch out of their clothing, which would have identified them as members of the sisterhood." -- Jezebel then said, "And the mob which followed us in wanted to find them."

"But if that's true," said a mortified Natalie, "Then--" -- Jezebel nodded, saying, "Then they had reason to be searching the rooms." -- "So you're saying this is all my fault?" -- "You can hardly be faulted for that. A misunderstanding, is all." -- Natalie stared at her boots, sullen. "And to think that I had judged them so harshly, even hurt them…" -- "Who, Kylan and Eomar? Don't you worry about them, they'll recover. It's just good that at least you hadn't killed them. If you had, then it wouldn't be anything mere time could fix."

"There's another noble thing Art did," said Roland. "We met with Count Traben earlier today. He had found out about that incident, about how the sisterhood had incited their redskin guests to violence…" -- "And he was deadly serious about killing a sister or two," Jezebel chimed in. -- "But Art went and all but asked to shoulder the count's full fury. It could have easily gotten him executed." -- "All in the hope of distracting the count away from placing the blame on the sisterhood." -- "Something like that," muttered Natalie, looking at Art with a renewed light. -- "You have no idea how terrible the count looked," said Diane. "If it wasn't for Art, it's likely none of us sisters could have made it out of there alive."

Natalie nodded to Art. "It seems I have greatly misjudged you," she said. "I have no right to ask it of you, but please accept my apologies." -- Art waved it aside. "I think your not killing me was apology enough. Thank you for that, by the way." -- "I don't deserve your thanks for something like that. Not killing someone is easy. It's the killing that's hard." -- "You're really going to need to stop thinking about killing all the time. The way you're going about it, I'd really have to start worrying if you were some kind of assassin."

Natalie turned to Roland. "And you? Jezebel said something about how you're the only hope left for the sisterhood." -- Jezebel shot Liene a look, and she returned a nod of approval. -- "After the count's refusal, the sisterhood is in dire straits, and has next to no money left to maintain their war effort." -- Art added, "Roland here has graciously offered to go speak with the bishop tomorrow morning."

"It's… it's that bad, huh?" said Natalie, squatting down on the floor. "And what if Roland can't secure the bishop's aid either?" -- "If he fails too, then I fear there may be precious little that can be done for them," said Jezebel. -- Art looked askance at her. "What are you saying? Even if the plan falls through, they'll make do, like they always have. Where there is a will, there is a way, am I right?" -- "You seem so confident about all this," said Diane, pouting. "But I don't see how we can manage."

"Well it won't be easy," replied Art, "and it will require you to put up with difficulties you're not accustomed to facing, and suffer hardships you thought beneath you. You'll have to compromise on things you've previously thought inviolate. After all, if the bishop agrees to aid, it will almost certainly come with strings attached, so that even if you regain your monastery, the sisterhood will never be the same."

[Wherein Elexa wakes up, and Art tries to convince Roland that he's actually quite a competent fighter.]

"She's awake!" Jezebel exclaimed, rushing to kneel by Elexa's side. Art turned and saw that she'd indeed opened her eyes, though she yet looked too weak to move. Roland still had his hands pressed against her back, and he was murmuring to himself between clenched teeth, his arms shaking violently.

"…To dance about with this mortal frame…"

"Elexa! Speak to us!" said Liene, holding Elexa's left arm in her hands. "How are you feeling?"

"…To speak of this world, all abound with hope…"

"Like someone's been doing their darnedest to stop me from falling asleep," she murmured.

"…Gift of vigor, I freely give…"

Liene burst into tears of relief and embraced her. "I was afraid… I was so afraid we'd lost you." -- "Oh, sister Liene…"

"In honor of God, do I gift to thee."

Roland toppled over backward onto the wooden floor, heaving with labored breaths. Jezebel held on to Elexa to prevent her from falling backward as well. -- "Thank you, Roland," said Diane. "That was amazing." -- Liene cuddled Elexa's head against her shoulder. "Sister… Thank the heavens you're okay. Thank the heavens…" -- "Don't you mean thank Roland?" asked Art. "If he hadn't been here, the heavens can thunder all they want and all their storm and fury would be for naught." -- "You're right." Liene sank to her knees before him. "Please, as Elexa is still too weak, let me thank you in her place for saving her life," she said, and tapped her head to the ground before him, three times. -- "If anyone's keeping score, Elexa, you now owe Liene three kowtows when you get better," said Art.

"It's not my doing," Roland said, weakly. "All due credit rightfully goes to God. And besides, I hadn't healed her wounds, only gave her some of my vitality. If she was going to die, no amount of channeled vigor could have saved her. So really, you needn't thank me."

"You are too humble. If you hadn't shared your own vitality, she'd not have had the strength to continue living," said Liene, "so I must thank you anyway." -- "No, don't, it's the least I can do," Roland said between labored breaths. "It's not like I can do much else for your sisterhood." -- "Nonsense! You'll be speaking to the bishop after this. And after that… Would you consider joining the sisterhood?" -- "Sister Liene!" said Diane, looking scandalized. -- "I mean, not like that…" -- "I know what you mean, Liene, and no, I can't. I mean, I can use the way of channeled vigor, but other than that, I'm useless to you. I can't fight--"

"What do you mean you can't fight?" interrupted Art. -- "We've been through this before, Art. And just now, well, you saw the fight just now. Yeah, yeah, go laugh, I'm no good at this." -- "Uh, no, actually I don't see that at all. For all your screaming, you actually put up a pretty decent fight. Don't you agree, Natalie?" -- "That was pretty good. Better than most people I've fought," she agreed. -- "What are you talking about? I could barely hold my own against her! She gave me several cuts, and if I hadn't been wearing my gambeson, I'd be bleeding my guts out on the ground right now!" -- "But you were wearing your gambeson, Roland, and who the hell would go into battle without their armor?" said Art. -- "You gave me a downright hard time of it, and I'm no amateur at it myself. Don't sell yourself short, Roland, you're not half as bad at it as you think you are." -- "Hah, me, good at fighting?" Roland burst out chuckling. "This is a joke, right?"

"No actually I think we're all agreed," said Art. "You know what? I think your problem is you lack confidence." -- "Damn right I don't have confidence, I don't want to get myself killed. Which, you'll notice, almost happened to Elexa here. Anyone who can go into something like that is either exceptionally brave and capable or a fool."

Art thought back to when he'd fought in the monastery, how he risked life and limb holding at the gates to buy Selena some time. If she hadn't been there, he wouldn't have paused there at all, he'd have run right on into the darkness of the wilderness. And he didn't think himself either brave or a a fool. "No," he said. "They're either a fool, or they have someone to protect. When you have someone to protect, the courage comes more easily."

"And? I don't have anyone to protect. When I was fighting, you have no idea how terrified I was." -- "You stopped shouting in terrror once you got the hang of it, and you caught on pretty quickly," Art retorted. "Once you set your mind on the battle, watching Natalie's every step, you didn't have the time and attention to spare on your fears." -- Roland shook his head in disbelief.

"That kind of fear is perfectly natural. You think I don't have that same fear? You think Natalie or Jezebel is exempt? No, we all fear it just as much." -- "Well I felt it a lot more. You weren't in my head, you don't know…" -- "You weren't all that afraid, Roland. You know how I know? Look around. It's just us here. Why's that? Moments after Natalie started attacking us two, people started running for the exit. The clients, the courtesans, the madam, the people who had been chasing us, they all fled. But you stayed behind. You knew Natalie was attacking you with a nigh invisible weapon and you knew that a single misstep would have spelled your death. Yet you fought on."

[Wherein Diane says how she's ashamed of not being able to help, and that she thinks she doesn't deserve to stay with the sisterhood.]

"You're not half as bad as you think," added Diane. "You fought, right there in the thick of it, and for so long. Even when Jezebel joined in the fight against you, you didn't freeze up, didn't turn tail and run. Unlike me," she finished, lowering her head in shame. "I couldn't do anything. Even when I saw all of you in danger, even when I could have easily gone with Liene and Elexa to get our armor and weapons, even after having trained in the ways of the bow for years with my fellow sisters, and even after I had promised myself that no matter how difficult or scary the challenge I'd still persevere… Even after all that, I still couldn't do anything. Now that was pathetic. Compared to me, you're… well, I don't know what you think you're so afraid of."

"Diane," murmured Elexa. -- Liene leaned forward. "Don't say that, Diane--" -- "You know it's true," shouted Diane, rounding on her. "No need to mince words about it: I'm hopeless. I can't shoot, can't fight, and the moment I get caught in one I go cringe in a corner." She clutched at her knees. Her eyes brimmed with tears.

"Oh dear," said Jezebel. -- Liene clutched Diane's hand. "Why would you ever think something like that?" -- With tears falling down her face, she related, "I… When I thought to join the fight just now, along with you and Elexa… I was so terrified. I couldn't help but think of the beast. How it was coming for me. Death was coming for me, and I couldn't think of anything except to get away from it all. It didn't even cross my mind to fight back, sister Liene! I couldn't even think, much less act. And that with opponents who were already preoccupied with others and who could only threaten me up close. If I can't even handle that, then how am I possibly going to be of any help when enemies are charging right at us?" She cradled her head in her hands.

"Nonsense, Diane. You've trained with us, you know how to use a bow and fight. You've proven it to us on multiple occasions. If you're worried about how well you'll do in battle, well, only time will tell. You're still young. You have a long way to go, much more to improve--"

"I knew it, I'm no good as I am right now, am I? And the war's already going on. It's not like I'll have the time to improve enough to be an asset in time. And if I can't help in a fight, when the sisterhood is at war for its very survival… Then I'm nothing but a drag to your sisterhood." She broke down sobbing.

"No, Diane, you're not a 'drag' to any of us. You're one of our sisters. And that makes you just as valuable as everyone else." -- "You know that's not true!" -- "Diane! Listen to me. We need you just as much as we need every last one of our sisters. And no matter what happens, you should always feel at home with us. We're not like those mercenary groups that toss out members the moment they get too crippled or decrepit to fight. You're a sister of the Sightless Eye. You're family, and that means you'll always be welcome here, no matter what happens or how little you can do to help us."

"And with the sisterhood's finances as lean as it is, and you need to save every last morsel for those who can actually contribute… I have no right to partake of your food. It will just pointlessly waste what little you have left."

"Hush, Diane. Don't you worry about our finances, leave that to me." -- "But how can I not? We're terribly short on silver, and we all know it." -- "We'll manage. I swear to you, we'll find a way to manage." -- "But I have no right to make it harder on any of you." -- "Younger sister Diane," Liene chided, "What did I just tell you about us being a sisterhood? You are our sister. That means you have every right to share in what we all have. Don't for a moment think you don't deserve it." -- She nodded, sniffing. "But deserving ought to be earned… And I haven't done anything to--"

"And how do you expect to be able to do anything for the sisterhood if you abandon us?" Liene pulled her into an embrace, tears falling from her eyes. -- "I can't lose you, Diane," said Elexa weakly. -- "And me neither," continued Liene. "Having spent so many years growing up together, and after all we've experienced… You are like a true sister to me, and you are dear and precious to my heart. I've lost so many beloved sisters already in just the last few days, far more than anyone could ever deserve to lose, and all of them so soon after each other. I… I can't bear to lose you too! I can't bear to lose anyone any more!" she wailed as she rested her head on Diane's. "Please… Please promise me that you'll not do anything reckless!"

Diane wrapped her arms rightly around her elder sister. "I promise, sister Liene… I promise," and then the two burst into a renewed round of tears. "I'm… I'm just so worried that I won't meet the expectations you all seem to have for me."

[Wherein Art decides to tell Diane exactly how atrocious the redskins are, in a bid to get her to not hesitate when she fights them for real.]

"Don't worry," said Roland. "I'm sure the sisters will make a warrior out of you yet. You just have to give them the opportunity." -- Diane smiled back at him. "Thanks, Art, for trying to give me the peace of mind. Don't you think, that if I could have fought, I would?" -- "Just now? Not necessarily. You had people fighting for you, in a situation that was nonetheless decently under control, a two on two fight, and where none of the combatants were the sisters you've known. I'm sure that, should the lives of your fellow sisters were to come under threat, you wouldn't hesitate to fight in their defense."

"There will be plenty of opportunity for that," Roland replied. "Trust me. When the time comes, when you see what they're about to do to your sisters in the heat of battle, you'll loose your arrows without any difficulty." -- "I'm not so sure it'll be all that easy," she replied, her face red. "Training and the real thing are quite altogether different matters after all. What's to prevent me from freezing up again like I have just now?" -- "Don't worry. In the heat of battle, all you will worry about is your own safety and the safety of your friends around you. When you see the enemy bearing down on you, and you see them for the threat they pose to you, you will act, no doubt about it."

Listening to them, Art recalled the battle at the monastery, where the unpainted midget warriors had shirked away from engaging him, giving him openings to back into, time and again giving him the opportunity to close in on them and strike out with his sword. If they had all fought him in earnest, coming at him all at once when they had him encircled, he'd have been forced to retreat. But they hadn't, there was always someone who hadn't done their part, and he'd taken advantage of that weakness to the fullest. He'd killed them one after another, thinning out their numbers and breaking their morale until the three adepts had no one left to support them. For want of disciplined fighters, the redskins had lost perhaps a hundred of their child warriors to his blade that night. He couldn't let the same befall the sisterhood.

"That's not… entirely true," said Art, causing Liene to shoot him a look that said, shut up. "I'm only saying this because let's face it, it isn't easy to stand up to the challenge, and if Diane doesn't loose an arrow or thrust with her spear at the critical moment, that could cost the lives of your fellow sisters. This is nothing to paper over." -- "Enough, Art," said Liene. "Are you trying to discourge sister Diane?"

"You know all those mercenaries you and Paige were looking to recruit back at the square? Know how they bluster about all the kills they made, how heroically they acted? Liars through and through, most of them. I would know. I'm a swordsman; I've fought for a living. I've fought alongside fellow guards as part of Warriv's caravan in quite a few battles. I've been watching everyone's movements in those engagements. I can see the fear in the whites of their eyes, sense their unwillingness from their inaction. I've taken advantage of it multiple times in battle, and I guarantee the enemy will try to take advantage of any weakness they sense."

"So what's your solution, then? That we kick our dear sister out of our order? Banish her to who knows where, leave her to be forgotten?"

"I'm suggesting we strengthen her resolve," he shot back. He sat down opposite Liene, and thought for a moment, pulling back up those memories of the horrors he'd experienced back at the monastery. "Liene… You know we fight the redskins. Tell me, what do you know about them?" -- "Um… They're from one of several tribes to the northeast-- " -- "No, I mean as to their behavior." -- "The young fight with melee weapons, the elders wield staves that shoot bolts of fire and raise the fallen to fight again."

Art sighed to himself. "Diane. I want you to close your eyes." -- She did. -- "Now. Envision that you, Liene, and Elexa, and the rest of your sisters, are traveling back to Thistledown tomorrow. For some reason or other, you are all separated from Elexa. Perhaps an ambush or some such forced you to make a run for it. A horde of a hundred redskins, many times over what your group is able to handle. You lot are able to dash to safety, but Elexa here is still weakened from her earlier wound, and you and your sisters are forced to abandon her."

"What kind of crass hypothetical is that?" Liene replied, voice full of anger. "How dare you imply we would abandon one of our own!" -- Art put up a hand in surrender. "Like I said, a hypothetical. Perhaps I should have phrased it differently. Close your eyes again, Diane. Say one night your group is caught in the forest at nightfall, a good distance from the nearest village. You've circled the wagons and set up sentries, and Elexa went without to relieve herself and never came back. She's been abducted, far as you can tell. Now. What do you think will happen to her?"

Brows furrowed, Diane gritted her teeth. -- "Why are you asking this?" said Liene. -- "Isn't it hard enough on her already, without you making her suffer more?" -- Art laughed. "Suffered? Don't make me laugh. You two are alive and well. You may have lost some loved ones, and I understand you love them as if they were your own flesh and body, and you are greatly aggrieved for them, but all that you've suffered is but a shadow of theirs. Or mine," he said, raising his right arm. "I won't belabor you with tales of how much hardship I've had to undergo as a result of losing this hand, all the trials and tribulations. You're not going to be interested. But, and this is important, Diane, if for no other reason then that that way, you'll be able to loose your arrow when it matters, and perhaps save the lives of your fellow sisters… You need to know what's going to happen to the sisters whom you lose to the redskins."

"And my, ain't it so convenient that you would just happen to know?" Liene retorted. -- "Yes, Liene, I do happen to know," Art said, speaking with resolve in his voice. "As I've told you before, I was the last to exit the monastery. I saw things there that none of you have seen. And trust me, I wish every day that that wasn't the case. Because then, I would still have the use of my right hand. I'd still be the martial arts adept I once was, and not the likes of which would be fought to a standstill against the likes of Natalie and Jezebel's caliber. Not a night passes by without me dwelling on the nightmares I've seen."

[Wherein Art describes something that had befallen a dismembered, abused woman in the monastery.]

Diane had opened her eyes again, and was staring at Art with a look of worry. "And… Just what did you see?" -- He'd seen a screaming man get torn up right before his eyes, the midgets tearing into his roasted flesh and feasting of him; but that was a man, and he'd plenty of examples of what happened to women that night, to describe. He figured it would have more impact on them that way, seeing as how the people the sisters cared the most for would of course be each other, all of them women. He'd seen the discarded corpse of an abused and dismembered woman, hanging on the wall in one of the dungeon cells. -- "You know Selena, I take it?" -- A slow nod. "What happened to her?" -- "Not her, her mother. I found the both of them put in a cell within the dungeons, shackled to chains placed into the wall." -- "They… Killed her, didn't they?"

"Yes, they did, though they made it quick," he lied. He'd done that, but he doubted they'd take well to a confession of murder. "But that was a blessing. I happened to also see the woman in the next cell over. By then it had already been far too late. Now really, you should close your eyes, and imagine this happening to Elexa. Or any other sister. The one you hold dearest to your heart. Have someone in mind? Good. You are to imagine that she was stripped naked, all her limbs bound in chains.You are then to imagine that one of the redskin elders then clambered upon her and raped her--"

"Art, what the hell?" shouted Natalie, wrenching him by his ear. -- "Have you no sense of decorum?" added Liene, while Jezebel shot him a disapproving look.

"Ow ow ow let go," said Art, pulling her hand aside and grimacing from the pain of that final tug on his ear. "A better question would be, do you think those barbarian redskins have any sense of decorum? I'm sure you know the answer. And Liene… Stop babying her, or she'll never grow up. Part of becoming a warrior is understanding the horrors of war. Famine, disease, murder, torture, slavery, rape, pillage, descending in significance, in that order. That makes rape only the second least consequental of the six horrors. Oh that's right, with the kind of sheltered life you live, you probably don't even know what rape means--"

"I know," said Diane. It's not like the sisterhood doesn't teach us all the abhorrent consequences that might result from interacting with men."

"Good, then that spares us all the me having to describe it to you. Close your eyes again, Diane. You are now to imagine that, after the first one had raped her, the sister you cared the most for, that each of the redskin midgets under him then took their turn with her as well, caring not for how desperately she begged. Redskins' semen runs black like pitch, did you know? Saw it myself. You are then to imagine that after the ten, twenty, or however many of them had finished using her for their pleasure, and her nether regions all besplattered by that ichor, that they then set her down on a table and chopped her up, limb after limb, at her shoulders and at her hips, cauterizing each wound to prevent blood loss so that she would stay alive."

Art turned around to look at his audience. Several of them had shut their eyes. Diane covered hers with the back of her hand. Liene stared as she slowly shook her head as if in disbelief, tears falling down her cheeks. Natalie stared at Art, aghast.

"You are then to imagine that after they had severed each of her limbs, inflicting such grievous pains on her that she fainted with each cut and forcing her awake again by pouring bucketfuls of water on her, so that by the end of it all she was begging for them to grant her the mercy of death, that they then hung her against the wall by a collar placed about her neck. You are then to imagine that, as she hung suspended against the wall, choking from her own weight and having no limbs to even attempt to struggle with, that they then gang-raped her again and again until she died."

"Damn it, Art, are you quite finished?" shouted Liene, wiping away her tears. "Telling us such a horrific story… Did you have to tell it with quite so much gratuitous detail?" -- Natalie asked in a slow, disbelieving way, "Art.. What you said… is all this true?"

He'd only seen the dismembered woman's corpse hanging off the wall. The rest of it didn't take much imagination to extrapolate. Art replied in a somber tone, "Yes, though I only saw her after they'd finished with her. It was too late for me to do anything, then." -- "Did… you put her out of her misery?" -- "I couldn't… She was dead already."

They looked at each other, looking depressed, and for a long moment not making a sound. Then Art spoke up. "I told you this, Diane, so you would understand what it is you fight. Remember… when the time comes, you must act. You cannot flee the battle the way you fled from the beast last time around. And not just you. This goes for all the sisters, everyone who's going to be fighting. There's not anything quite like war. Compared to that, this little fight we had in this here brothel is nothing but a jolly bit of exercise. And yes, that's even with the casualty."

[Where Natalie, having heard about the atrocities befalling the women who have fallen into the hands of the redskins, pledges to aid the sisterhood in their war.]

Diane looked downright terrified. -- Liene saw the fear apparent on her face, and clasped her hand. -- "I… I'm afraid, sister," Diane admitted, turning to her elder sister. -- "Don't be," said Liene with a look of resolve on her face. "We're here. We -- all the sisterhood -- will be there to protect you. We will go through it together. That I swear." -- "I can't…" Diane sniffed. "It's too much. To have to experience a personal hell like that…" -- Liene embraced her. "Now, now, younger sister, I'm sure Art only chose the worst of them to describe and most of the sisters we lost that night met a shorter, more merciful fate. Right, Art?" she shot him a look.

He stood frozen in place. He didn't have the heart to tell her about the sadistic fates that befell the others who the fleeing sisters had abandoned. But he took too long to speak, and he knew that the others knew, just from looking at him, that there was much more where that had come from.

"Unacceptable," said Natalie, clenching her fist. "The sisterhood is the premier self-reliant institution by, of, and for strictly women, an example for women to aspire to in all Khanduras. I for one will not abide while these redskin brutes rape and abuse its sisters and make a mockery of everything that the order, and I, stand for."

"Oh?" said Roland. "And just what do you think you can do about it?"

Natalie shot him a reproachful look. "That's exactly the attitude I seek to curb, that deep-rooted belief that women can't help themselves and need men to help them. You've given up? Fine. I get that you have no balls." -- Roland gritted his teeth. "I will help the sisterhood in my own way." -- "Yes, well go speak to the bishop for all I care, but if you're not going to put your martial arts to good use fighting alongside the sisters, then you're just a part of the problem, and why bother having martial arts abilities at all?"

"You speak all high and mighty, what are you going to do then?" challed Roland. "From what I gather, you may have been picking fights with individual abusers and rapists here in Tristram as part of your own way of setting things right, but the redskins are a whole tribe, which, need I remind you, had in a single night and with hardly any effort, kicked the Sisters of the Sightless Eye out of the monastery they've held for nigh three hundred years. So you're going to pick a fight with them, huh? You and whose army?"

"Me and the sisterhood's army," Natalie shot back, causing Roland to glower at her in stunned silence. She whirled around to face Liene, holding clasped hands out before her. "Liene, if you would have me, then I, Natalie Ingusetia of Tristram, would pledge my service to your cause."

Liene looked at her in surprise. "I appreciate your offer Natalie. I understand why you would be interested in fighting by our side, but do you know what you're getting yourself into? The sisterhood is caught in a war footing. If you were to come with us, you will not be coming to any place of safety. We have little in the way of shelter or support to provide you. It will not be easy on you," she said, visibly struggling to hold back her tears.

"And that is precisely why I feel incumbent to join you and your fellow sisters in your fight," Natalie replied. "It is only now that your sisterhood even needs the help. Had it not been for the plight you now find yourself in, I would have chosen to remain."

Liene wiped away her tears, her eyes brimming with hope. "We had lost so many of our fellow sisters in the space of mere days. We've lost our monastery… and, except for a little village whose people are putting up with us for now, have no place we can truly call home… Even so, you would join us in our struggle?"

"I would," said Natalie.

"Then… then yes. I believe I can speak on behalf of the rest of the sisterhood, that we'd be happy to have you."

Natalie got on one knee before Liene, still with her hands clasped. "I, Natalie Ingusetia of Tristram, hereby do pledge my service to the cause of the sisterhood. My arms are yours to command."

Standing before her, Liene set her hands on the side of Natalie's shoulders, smiling as she locked eyes with her. "And I, Liene of the Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye, on behalf of order-mother Akara and bow-mother Kashya, hereby do accept your oath of fealty."

Chapter 26: Armoury of Words, Part I

[Wherein they return to the inn, bring Elexa to the sisters, then the Companions discuss the poor prospects for the discussion with the bishop.]

Liene guided Natalie into standing up, and the two of them shared a knowing look. "From now on, Natalie, you will be an honorary member of the sisterhood. I will see to it that our fellow sisters treat you kindly and fairly, as if you were a new member of our order. What we have will be yours to share. When we get back to Thistledown, let us speak to order-mother Akara. We may make a sister out of you yet."

Roland snapped a finger to the group and gestured out past the railing. Below, the madam had finally come back, her nigh two dozen courtesans following right after, to inspect the damage they'd caused to the brothel. Art noted, "Looks like we may not be all that welcome for much longer. At least, not unless we can front the repair cost for all this." Art turned to Elexa. "Do you think you're able to move?"

Elexa nodded, then made to stand up, before wincing and collapsing into Diane's and Liene's arms. Within moments they had gotten Elexa onto Liene's back. "Let's go," said Liene, and led the way downstairs, with the rest of the group following suit. The madam and the other courtesans stopped and stared mutely as they passed, seemingly not interested in demanding any reparations out of respect for the injured.

They made it back to the Smug Mug without any further ado. Liene carried Elexa up the stairs and Diane knocked on the door. Amplisa opened the door a crack, then opened it wide, staring at Elexa in shock, before stepping out of the way so Liene could enter and set Elexa down on a bed. "Elexa… Is she going to make it?" -- "Yes," said Diane, to several audible sighs of relief.

Art looked around the room and saw it was much more compact now, with most of the other sisters already returned. Apparently the serving girl had already delivered the meals to them; bread and stew and a variety of other dishes were set down on the one table in the room, with several pewter dishes placed in a pile. They quickly stopped eating and gathered around Elexa, checking up on her and asking after the state of her wounds. Then Diane shouted, "Ryann! Oh, Ryann, what happened?" she darted past the other sisters to kneel beside Ryann, muttering, "Oh no, this can't be happening… First Elexa and now Ryann too…" They engaged in a tearful embrace, with Amplisa patting Diane on the back in a slow, rhymic pace.

Art and Roland stepped out of the room, leaving the sisters to their commiseration, as he couldn't bear to hear any more of their cries of grief over the two sisters' wounds. Seeing as much, Jezebel and Natalie stepped out as well. "I'm in the mood for some food," said Art, making for the stairs. -- "Really?" asked Jezebel, gettting Art to pause. "Given what happened, how could you have the appetite?" -- "You don't care much for them at all, do you?" added Natalie. -- "I'll be the first to fast if fasting could relieve them of their wounds," Art replied, "But as that doesn't seem likely, I won't. And Roland, after exerting yourself in the way of channeled vigor, you definitely are in need of a proper meal." He propelled Roland to the stairwell, and together they headed down the stairs. -- "Still can't believe it," said Natalie, shaking her head. -- "Well, that's Art. He's always like that."

The serving girl was quick to take their orders once they had seated themselves at a table on the first floor. "By the way, I don't think we were properly introduced," said Roland, stretching an arm forth for a handshake. "Roland Tarth, of the templar." -- "I'm Art Taverley, sellsword." -- "Jezebel Lyrassia, adept of Stormy Skies." -- "Natalie Ingusetia, and pleased to meet you all."

[Wherein the Companions discuss strategy regarding how to convince the bishop.]

"So… what do we do now?" -- "The sisters are planning to return east to Thistledown, heading out tomorrow, though chances are more like they'll be leaving day after that. Tomorrow morning, Roland will be visiting with the bishop," said Art. "Speaking of which, I think we should be preparing for that. For the good of the sisterhood, we can't allow it to go down the way the meeting with the count went, which is to say an absolute disaster. I don't think the sisterhood can take another setback like this one. What do you think, Roland? Something we should know about how the meeting should go, what one might expect to be discussed?"

Roland nodded. "Well, part of it boils down to this: the sisters' unwillingness to adopt the religious zealotry the Church of Light -- or rather, this Bishop Erend Arevain in particular -- would expect or like to see of them. Liene's made it crystal clear that it's completely off the table, even if their refusal means the bishop would have next to no incentive to help at all."

Art added, "And we can expect them to try to get the sisters to handle the problem all on their own, just like with Count Traben. It would mean no losses for the templar, more casualties for the sisterhood, and a more exhausted treasury for the sisterhood besides, which would certainly make the sisterhood more pliable to any demands the bishop makes going forwards."

"Yes," agreed Roland. "And contrary to what you laity might think about the clergy, appointment to the higher positions is not a matter of piety, but a matter of political maneuvering. Bishop Arevain has wheedled and strongarmed his way into his current position, and thus cannot possibly be new to such matters. He has to have concluded that it would be in his best interest to stay out of the war."

"And with the King having already made his position clear… It would be a difficult matter regardless, only now that the count has also taken an antagonistic position… I fear that the bishop may have already met with the count by the time we have our appointment with him tomorrow, for then there would be almost no conceivable way that he would opt to aid the sisters and go against the count's wishes."

"Doesn't the bishop outrank the count by several ranks?" asked Jezebel.

Art replied, "Yes, but his cathedral is still within the town walls. It would behoove him to work with the count on this matter, if for no other reason than to ensure that the local church branch gets its tithings and that the cathedral is protected from potential vandals and the like."

"What all this is all coming to," said Roland, "Is that this really isn't looking good for the sisters. We can expect quite a major debate or persuasion job on our hands tomorrow morning."

"Well then, perhaps we can put our heads together and come up with some kind of plan," said Natalie, and they all fell silent for a moment.

"We'll obviously have to speak to the bishop," said Roland. "Try to convince him to dispatch allies to fight by the sisterhood's side. I don't expect it would be easy." -- "You mean to argue him into a corner, if to comes down to it, do you not?" asked Natalie. -- A nod.

"There's something I don't get about all this," asked Art. "You're not even officially a templar any more, since you've been excommunicated. Even if you pass yourself off as still a templar, why would the bishop bother to answer us? Wouldn't he just kick us out the moment we pose a hard question to him?"

"Of course he would. Which is why I need your help. You see, I'm not going to try to convince him to help the sisterhood." -- The others looked at each other, surprised, before Art turned to him. "…You're… not?" -- "No. You three will." -- "…What are you up to?" -- Roland explained, "We have to put him in a situation where he has to argue the merits of the matter and be unable to simply shut us out when he becomes discomfited. That would only happen if he were to be speaking to someone of similar or higher rank. Who's qualified to speak to a bishop as equals regarding the tenets of the religion?" -- "You?" asked Art tentatively.

Roland shook his head. "Another bishop." -- "We don't have a bishop among us." -- Roland patted himself on the chest. "Now we do." -- "What?" asked Natalie. -- "He means to pass himself off as a bishop," explained Jezebel. "He'd be the only one qualified to do so, after all. I'm sure there will be things that clergy would be expected to know, and Roland would be the only one who knows it. Hence he's in the best position to play the bishop." -- Roland nodded.

Art turned to Roland. "Wouldn't the bishop Arevain know the face of the bishop of Kingsport?"

"I'm pretty sure he hasn't. Kingsport is a thousand five hundred miles away; it isn't even in Khanduras. Bishops are quite busy persons and don't usually go traveling into other kingdoms. Hence why I feel confident with the role. The rest of you will play the bishop's three recently met companions who have, as a result of traveling together, for a few days with the bishop -- that is to say, me -- learned a few things here and there about the religion."

"So the plan is?" -- "Let me guess," said Jezebel, "the plan is for Roland to introduce us three as his companions, and then in the middle of our conversation one of us brings up the plight of the sisterhood, and then between the three of us we engage the bishop and attempt to convince him; while Roland stays to watch. Just his mere presence, with him being presented as a fellow bishop, means the bishop Arevain wouldn't be able to simply boot us out."

"Why wouldn't he be able to?" asked Natalie.

"A bishop, kicking another bishop out of the meeting? That would reflect poorly on the both of them. Erend would stand to lose some stature. Nor would he want for a rumor of such a thing to spread. Hence, we are using Roland's presence to allow us to keep the argument going."

"Isn't that kind of wasting our strongest card in this showdown?" asked Art. "Roland's the most well versed in all the arguments the bishop can field. If the bishop argues us into a corner, or references something that we don't know, we wouldn't be able to continue the argument. I think we should have someone else play as the bishop and have Roland act as one of the 'bishop's traveling companions'."

"Agreed," said Jezebel. "We want the person who's most familiar with the material to do most of the talking -- that's you, Roland." -- "But then who's going to act as the bishop?" -- "One of us, naturally," said Art. -- "You mean you," Roland said. "Erend's going to laugh at the idea of a woman bishop." -- "Well then so be it," said Art. -- "Do you know the mannerisms of the clergy, Art?" -- "No, but you can teach me, can't you?" -- "And if he asks any questions? Do you think you'll have any idea how to correctly answer them?" -- Art looked down at the table. -- "The moment you slip up he'll know you aren't a bishop. Then the game's over."

"Okay, fine, you play bishop," said Art. "But it's not like we'll know what to say, to make our argument. And with just the three of us laity speaking, I'm sure he'll have an answer to everything we say."

"Of course he will," said Roland. "Thing is, when we go there tomorrow, I would expect discussions over scripture to come into play, and I quite expect the discussion to fly right over your heads, as you are now. You won't have an opportunity to interject anything. Without a background in the clergy, studying the scripture, you wouldn't even know how to go about setting up a convincing argument for him."

"Well then, looks like we have a lot of catching up to do," said Art. "You'd best get started." -- "Wait are you serious? This is not the kind of thing that can be taught in an hour or two." -- Art tilted his head at him. "Not like you have much to lose."

[Wherein Roland sets the groundwork for the tale of the battle of Thaar's Convent]

"Point," Roland said, staring off into the stuffed deer's head mounted against the opposite wall. He then clasped his hands on the table and looked to each of them intently. "How many of you know the story of Thaar's Convent?" -- As he looked over the others, Art, Jezebel, and Natalie all shook their heads. -- He shook his head as well, and clicked his tongue. "I would have thought that to be one of the more familiar tales from the scripture, but it seems you're quite the let down today."

"Are you done mocking us?" asked Natalie.

"This is actually quite an important tale to understand in the context of what we can expect Erend to allude to during our meeting with him. This was actually a vision that Akarat -- the Successive One, and founder of the Church of Light -- saw back before he turned prophet." -- "Supposedly," interjected Jezebel. -- "It is recorded in the scripture," Roland said, turning to glare at her. "It was later verified as an actual prophesy, some one hundred years after Akarat's death, when the battle for the convent occurred.

"Now, to some necessary exposition for this. Ghrab Thaar, the great-great-great-great-grandson or something of one of Akarat's Appointed, proved himself a capable templar. After completing his first tour of duty, Ghrab became a templar-errant and went on a pilgrimage across much of what was now Khanduras and Entsteig, preaching and miracle-working as he went. He was seen by the devout as a saint; and his theurgies proved as much. He wielded a mighty war hammer, quite a unique one, because this war hammer… Let's just say, it's not every day you see a warhammer with a business end that's seven inches by six, and nine inches deep."

"That's… preposterous," said Art, "No one in their right mind would wield a warhammer that hefty, the slow swing exposes the wielder far too much."

"Exactly, but nonetheless he wielded it. Certainly a way of some kind, and it allowed him to swing that monster of a weapon as easily as any sword. And a weapon that massive had great power against the risen dead because of all the blunt trauma that can be inflicted with an impact from such a weapon. Furthermore, it was blessed with the power to crumble undead into dust from the lightest of touches, and the two of them made for a powerful combination."

"Blessed? Surely this was another way of some kind," mused Art. He thought back to the bow he'd seen back at the monastery, which granted a way just on holding it; and of the redskins' staves, which granted ways as well.

"It can't be," said Jezebel. "For… what was his name again?" -- "Ghrab." -- "Ghrab, to wield it effectively, it would have required the use of a way just for the swinging of it. This blessed property must be something else then, because one can't use two ways at once; it's impossible to hold multiple ways as strongly as one needs to in order to tap into the power of both ways, at the same time." -- "Well I stick to my hypothesis, it's the only explanation that makes any sense." -- "I'm saying that it doesn't make sen--"

"Guys, that's tangential, I can get on with the story?" said Roland. -- Nods of acquiescence. -- "Blessed or not, the hammer was deemed a sacred relic of the Church of Light. When Ghrab died in 943, it was determined that could never be lost to an enemy of the faith, by which I take it to mean be lost to a necroturge for them to develop a counter to its blessed property; but also that it would be sacrilege to lose or destroy it. So a convent was built over and around the caldera of an active effusive volcano -- by which I mean the lava is always flowing -- with the hammer placed on a platform atop it, such that the only way to access the hammer would be through the bridges suspended over the caldera, all of which, in the advent of an attempted thievery, could be lowered to just above the surface of the volcano -- not enough to destroy the hammer, but plenty hot enough to cook anyone trapped on the platform or its bridges. Due to the difficulty of the undertaking, it took sixty years for the convent to be fully built. And the nuns of the Thaar's Convent were charged with keeping the sacred relic."

"All this, for a hammer?" asked Art.

They paused for a moment while the inn's serving girl brought forth a tray laden with their food: bread and butter, boiled eggs, vegetable stew and a few shreds of chicken, and they started partaking of their food.

Jezebel added, "About the convent… Seems a bit much, don't you think? Why didn't they just bury it somewhere? Or just keep it under watch in the Temple of the One? Surely there it would be safest." -- "Indeed," Roland replied with a smile. "Seems a bit overmuch, at first blush, doesn't it? I suppose the whole 'the floor is lava' thing they had going on was intended to scare the crap out of any would be attackers." -- "Let me guess, it didn't work."

"It didn't," Roland agreed. "Despite the numerous defenses erected atop the fortress's battlements, and the nuns boasting several hundred of their number, almost all of whom, it is said, were adepts of the Church of Light, their enemy was not deterred. In the winter of the year 1068, Azmodan attacked the convent with hordes of undead. The nuns fought well, killing hundreds, and rebuffed the invaders time and again, however with each successive wave the Prince of Sin doubled the forces he sent up the mountainside. Eventually there were just too many. Against so many, the sisters stood no chance."

"Oh, I see, it was a trap," realized Art. "Let me guess: By fighting so well with such numbers, the nuns eventually forced Azmodan to commit more troops than he had originally intended, then dropped the convent into the lava, killing them all and delivering a strategic blow against the forces of Hell." -- "Uh, no…" replied Roland. -- "Really? Seems the logical course of action to me," Art mused.

"Where were they fighting?" asked Jezebel. "Because if I were Azmodan, I would have simply collapsed the supports suspending the fortress over the caldera and drop them all into the lava without even bothering to fight them."

"No, there were only a small platform and a few bridges that were actually suspended over the caldera, the fortress itself was built in a ring around it, " Roland replied. "A suspension bridge can only hold so much weight, you can't pile thousands of tons of stone and mortar on top of it and expect it not to crumble. Besides, Azmodan was trying to get his hands on the hammer, not to destroy it," replied Roland. "In order to, as I mentioned earlier, determine how it was thus blessed and develop countermeasures against it. You have to understand, the hammer of Ghrab Thaar is no ordinary hammer. It was a gift fashioned by Hephasto, the heavens' angelic smith. There was only the one of it in all the world, but the demons knew that given time, Hephasto could create more, and that since the first one had proven so effective, there was no way he wasn't already stockpiling more hammers in heaven's armory for a later battle."

[Wherein Roland discusses, and they recount, the battle of Thaar's Convent, and the strategy involved.]

"But it was kind of futile to attack the convent, he must have known that the nuns would have just tossed the hammer overboard the moment the demons got close."

"Obviously," replied Roland. "That couldn't have been Azmodan's plan. We don't know exactly what he was up to at the time. Not much survives of the historical event, and the Anointed One's visions were a bit sparse on the details. Azmodan is the Prince of Sin, however, and no doubt would have made an attempt at corrupting the nuns."

"You mean like getting one of the nuns to steal it and deliver it to Azmodan? Though if that were the case, why bother with the siege at all?" -- "Why would they do such a thing, though? Their whole lives were dedicated to safeguarding the relic." -- "Which is why the siege was necessary in the first place," said Art. -- "Explain?"

Art leaned back and mused, tapping a finger to his chin. "If I were Azmodan, I would have surrounded the convent entirely to prevent anyone from escaping. Then I would have sent in waves of demons and undead, repetitively and increasing in number with each wave. I would give standing orders to my forces not to kill the nuns if at all possible, but to capture them. In no attack would I permit any forces to get close to the platform itself, lest the nuns throw it over into the caldera. Then, after my forces retreated from each wave, I would parade the captives about the convent, and apply the most horrific treatment to each one, torture, rape, mayhem, prolonging it as much as possible, then a crucifixion or a burning, all in full view of the convent. Make it clear that there's no possible escape, that I had endless numbers of troops to throw at them, and that eventually every single one of them would be captured and killed in the most gruesome way possible."

"That's…. very disturbing," said Jezebel, staring pointedly at Art.

"What, do you think my portrayal of the demons inaccurate? It's not like they're particularly known for being bleeding-heart pacifists."

"Why would you even think such a thing?"

Art replied, "I would expect Azmodan to have done such a thing in order to wear away at the nun's resolve in the expectation that at some point, some of the nuns would cave and bring the hammer without the fortress and deliver it to the demons in exchange for mercy. I would then further expect the abbess of the convent to attempt to convince her fellow nuns that demons never hold true to their word; and then when the fellow nuns' resolve seemed on the verge of breaking, to proactively drop the hammer, thereby frontrunning any attempt to smuggle it out."

Roland continued from there with a nod. "Your interpretation may well be, Art, but we'll never know for certain. Regardless, it is said that, when more than half of the convent's original numbers had fallen in battle or been slain at the hands of the demons, realizing that there would be no escape from their predicament except through betrayal and sin, the abbess jumped into the fiery chasm with the hammer in her hand, and that the nuns, in order to spite their enemy, began throwing themselves in shortly after, after having made prayers to beseech the heavens for aid.

"And then, when two dozen of them had done so, a powerful manifestation of the light of heaven washed over Azmodan's legions, and two dozen identical hammers -- the ones that Hephaesto had smithed in the intervening century -- appeared out of nowhere, each of them shining brilliantly, and the spirits of the nuns who had sacrificed themselves emerged from the lake of fire to wield these blessed hammers as they spun outward in circles around the caldera, dragging their weapons with them and swinging them about as they went. The undead and demons, unable to kill that which was already dead, unable to readily escape from the volcano, and particularly vulnerable to these weapons, were annihilated. It is said that in the wake of this devastation, thousands of demons were found dead with their backs facing the summit."

"Wow," said Natalie, looking at Roland in mesmerized awe, "I had no idea the heavens had such powerful weapons at their disposal."

[Wherein Art and Roland argue over veracity, and Roland explains why the tale of the battle of Thaar's Convent is important.]

"That's just legend," said Art, "And not likely to be one hundred percent true. Most of them aren't, at least." -- Roland turned to Art with a look of indigation. "These are recorded in holy scripture!" -- "So?" -- "You doubt scripture?" -- Art shrugged with a frown. "I doubt any claim made without evidence, Roland." -- "The scripture is evidence!" -- "If the story is indeed in scripture, well then I guess I doubt it also." -- "Roland looked at him, flabbergasted. "You doubt scripture? These are the very words of the Anointed One!" -- "So says the templar." -- "So says all true believers," he said, sounding utterly incensed. -- "Uh, guys, can we get over this?" said Jezebel. -- "People can be misled into believing all sorts of falsehoods," retorted Art. Like how they mistakenly assumed the sisterhood responsible for the fight this morning."

"Then what does it take to convince you?" -- "Like I said, Roland, I want evidence, not just attestations." -- "What evidence? I have to ask because clearly the scripture doesn't count as evidence for you." -- "Well, you could start with the hammer." -- "The hammer of Ghrab Thaar? It was destroyed, consumed by the lava." -- "No, I meant the other two dozen that showed up at the end of the story. If the spirits of the dead nuns flew about the mountainside smashing them into the demons as they fled, then after the battle was over these hammers should have been recovered." -- "Art, those were magical hammers of immense value. They were brought into the world by the heavens to destroy the undead, but at the end of the day they were still the property of the heavens, and of use in their eternal war with the forces of hell. Surely the angels in heaven had gone back to reclaim them." -- "How convenient." -- Roland clenched his fists and glowered at him--

"Guys!" said Natalie, standing up and slamming a fist on the table, causing everyone in the room to look at her for a moment and causing Art and Roland to fall silent. She stared at each of them, daring them to make a sound, before sitting back down. " Whether the story is true is irrelevant. What matters is the bishop believes it to be true. Now Roland, as I'm sure you brought up this story for a good reason, can you enlighten us as to its significance?"

"Right," said Roland. "See, the convent in the story maps quite well to the Sightless Eye's monastery. The demonic forces of Azmodan, to the redskins. The fact that the Sightless Eye's monastery is already lost is irrelevant. What matters is that in both cases, the sisters were faced with impossible odds, and emerged victorious.

"Tomorrow, when we go before the bishop to request the aid of the templars, he is almost sure to refer to the siege of Thaar's Convent as an example that the sisters ought to follow. That is to say, the sisters can fight on on their own, and as long as they are devout in heart and beseech the heavens for aid, the angels will grant them salvation. Which is also to say, the bishop would refuse to provide any assistance, and couch it in terms that make it out as a test of the sisters; such that whether they ultimately win or lose their war, fighting without the templars' support, it would be what the sisters deserved. To wit: if, at the end of this war, the sisterhood is destroyed, the bishop could say, 'see, they lacked piety in their hearts, and the heavens have chastened them by their abandonment; hence none may blame the templar for having refused to come to the aid of such heathens also.' And if the sisters end this war by retaking the monastery and breaking the redskins' forces, the bishop could say, 'See how this was all prearranged by god, that in their victory the sisters might demonstrate the glory of god and his vicars the angels in heaven.' A win-win situation for him, is it not?"

Art said, "And if we, or the sisters were they to join us, were to persist in requesting the bishop's assistance, he could spin that as the sisterhood knowing themselves to be lacking in devotion; for why else would they be so desperate for assistance?"

"Not only that," added Roland. "Since the sisters haven't been particularly zealous in their faith, it's also to chide them for that, and to goad them into becoming more pious in short order. The bishop would in essence be saying, 'now might be a good time for you to start adopting our faith with fervor, given how your lives are going to depend on it'.

"And in addition to that, the whole allusion implies that the sisters will lose a great deal of their forces -- the nuns had lost over half their number in the fighting, and then another two dozen as sacrifices, before the rest of them were saved by miracle. If the same were to befall the sisterhood… well, the sisters have been trying to keep their exact numbers secret but two hundred's a good number to go by. We're talking their numbers being reduced to around seventy. If the bishop brings this up, he may imply that he'll bring his templars to bear when the sisterhood has become that depleted. At which point, he could very well simply make an attempt to seize the monastery for the Church of Light, and with such reduced numbers the sisterhood would be powerless to do anything about it."

Art whistled as he looked about to see Natalie and Jezebel nodding in understanding. "Wow. That's sly. That's really sly."

"If you think that's sly, you haven't seen anything," said Roland. "Consider this a kind of battle as well, only that it's a battle of words. And just as you wouldn't go into a battle without arms and armor, so you wouldn't go into a battle of words without knowing the right words." He looked at each of the other three. "Well? Scared, are you?"

Natalie seemed to take affront to that. "Scared? I already pledged to help the sisterhood, putting my life on the line if need be. This battle of words wouldn't even put our lives at risk; so why would I be frightened?"

"That's the spirit," said Roland, with a smile. "Prepare yourselves then. I'll make warrior of words out of you yet."

Chapter 27: Armoury of Words, Part II

[Wherein Roland recounts the parable of the wezeer's daughter and the six princes.]

Taril entered the inn and, seeing Art and company already seated at the nearby table, he asked, "Mind if I join?" -- "The more the merrier, Taril, and just in time. We've been listening to Roland tell us a story." -- "Oh? What story is this?" -- "The siege of Thaar's Convent," Art replied, "But never mind that one; it's done and told." -- "That's not exactly a popular tale to tell," Taril mused. "How did this conversation start?"

Natalie explained, "We are looking to meet with the bishop tomorrow, to try to convince him into dispatching templar to support the sisters. The stories are just in case he alludes to them during that conversation, we'll know how to respond. Speaking of which, Roland, is there anything we can say to counter this story that the bishop will most likely raise?"

"Yes, there are a few options that I'm thinking might stand half a chance. Problem is they're also embedded in scripture. You'll have no idea what something like 'the parable of the wezeer's daughter and the six princes' means without the context." -- "Then you'd best get started."

"Oh, I know this one," said Taril. "My, I'm kind of surprised you'd tell a story set in Aranoch. That one's from the elder scriptures, right?"

"Yes, it's from the time of the Anointed One, and since the Church of Light primarily bases its precepts on the teachings of Akarat, the story is not well known. Since you were traveling with Warriv's caravan east, one can assume you had been there before and know the culture there, but Jezebel and Natalie might not be so well traveled, so you'll have to wait while I tell them the story."

"I'll do one better," said Taril. "I'll tell the story." He began, "The Sultan Ezmerati of Lut Gholein had a beautiful daughter, it's said that her face was like the moon, whatever that means -- whom he doted on very much, seeing as she was his only daughter, the rest of his scions being male. And when she turned fourteen and became an adult, the sultan endeavored to find a husband for her. But not just any prince of a nearby city would be meet for her; he would only give her to the best husband available.

"So the sultan dispatched couriers to each of the surrounding cities with which his city had good relations, saying that he was looking for a suitor for his daughter; and these couriers stayed at each of the six largest cities of Aranoch for three days, as is the custom, and informed the sultans of each city of the matter. And in each of these cities the sultans took their eldest unmarried sons aside and told them, 'Son, I have taught you all the fine arts and the ways of proper decorum, that you may be second to none; and as Lut Gholein is the jewel city of all Aranoch, the largest, wealthiest and most powerful, and we must have amiable relations with the city-state; therefore go you with the courier back to the city, and secure the sultan Ezmerati's daughter's hand in marriage, and give the matter with your full attention and ability as if your very life depended upon it; for in truth the life of our city depends upon it.'

"And on the morning of the fourth day of their arrival, the couriers began their return journey with the eldest unmarried princes which the sultans of each of the cities had dispatched: one from Lut Nelemar, one from Lut Amin, one from Lut Orram, one from Lut Tairo, one from Lut Varon, and one from Lut Lameen, these being those six largest cities; and they each brought with them trains of a hundred asses laden with all manner of gifts, of fine silks and precious gems and more, along with their guards and their scores of memlooks and female slaves.

"When each of the princes alighted at Lut Gholein, they were invited into the sultan's palace to make merry, and after a period of three days of recreation they were, in turn, introduced to the sultan's daughter, that they might get to know acquaint themselves with each other and that the sultan's daughter might choose her favorite from among them.

"So the daughter met with each of them in turn, and each of the six princes treated the daughter exceedingly well, such that she could not make up her mind; for each of them was handsome, none above the others, and had their way with honeyed words; and when she tested them on their talents, all of them could recite poetry, and recite the elder scriptures in their entirety, and play a musical instrument, and excelled at their recreational games and sports, and were excellent shots with archery and other activities, such that she could hardly tell any difference between them all. And when she tested them on their personality, they all kept their cool under pressure, they all gave charitably to the beggars they passed along their streets, and they all treated everyone they met with kindness, among other qualities.

"And at this the sultan's daughter despaired, for she could not choose one from among these six and reject the other five without feeling like she'd wronged the others; and this she told her father the sultan.

"Now the sultan had a wezeer whom he trusted greatly, and turned to him for advice on the matter, asking, 'pray do tell, how are we to distinguish between the six equally qualified princes?'

"And the wezeer replied, 'surely they have all had the best of tutors, being that they are the sons of sultans; yet though they may appear equally qualified, they are doing this by putting their best faces forward, knowing that by doing so they will secure your daughter's hand in marriage and thereby reap all the benefits that entails. Once your daughter is wed to one, and thus those benefits are assured to them regardless of how they behave, then will the truth of their behaviors be revealed, and in so doing reveal how they will treat your daughter for the rest of her life. Test them not, therefore, by how they treat someone they consider important to them, but by how they treat someone they consider beneath them.'

"And the sultan considered this, and deemed it good advice, and asked, 'pray do tell by what means we may test them?'

"And the wezeer replied, "I have the fortune of having a daughter in the prime of her youth and as yet unmarried, who have I enlabored to teach a great many arts to; poetry and dance and harping, and of playing games of skill and strategy, among others; now if this be agreeable to you I suggest that you take her within the part of the palace where these princes dwell, and allow her to attend to them when they sit idle in the palace, since when your daughter meets with one she of necessity cannot meet with the other five; and in this manner let them become acquainted with her, to as much an extent as they may be acquainted with your own daughter; and then when a week has passed, tell your walee to spirit her without the palace and secret her in a place where none will ever look; then watch what happens, and verily, by this artifice may you separate the wheat from the chaff.'

"And the sultan did as his trusted wezeer advised, and brought the wezeer's daughter within his palace, that she may serve the six princes in turn for a week, that they would of their own volition call upon her to grace their spare time with her presence, and on the seventh day had her spirited away to a khan the location of which only the sultan and the sultan's walee knew. And when the six princes called on her that day, she could not be found; and when they asked for her again ont he second day, they were met with the explanation that none knew where she might be found, and that lest they think the daughter had merely gone back home, that her father the wezeer was in a frightful panic over her disappearance; and they in turn all remarked on how unfortunate a turn of events this was, and joined in prayer for her deliverance, should she yet live, or for her soul to rise to heaven if otherwise.

"Yet though they spoke such words, three days passed without any of the six princes so much as lifting a finger in the search for the missing daughter of the wezeer, opting instead to spend their time awaiting the sultan's daughter as she called on them in turn. And on the morning of the fourth day, a great fire erupted from the khan of the sultan's walee, such that it took long to put out the flames, long enough for the sultan to be informed of the matter, whereupon knowing that the wezeer's daughter had been secreted therein, he arrived there with the wezeer in great haste and worry, and there in the rubble and the ashes uncovered the horribly and unrecognizably charred and disfigured body; and for this disaster their hearts were much contracted.

"As the sultan regarded his wezeer greatly and knowing that the wezeer's daughter had undertaken this endeavor in order to help the sultan and his own daughter choose a prince meet for her, the sultan treated the wezeer's daughter in death as if she were his own daughter, and he called for a three day long funeral with no expenses spared, with an aggreving procession that went nine times about the circumference of the city, such that all who dwelt in Lut Gholein would know of the circumstances surrounding the wezeer's gambit, including the princes, that they may in their anguish know that this had been a test unto them which they had failed.

"As fate willed it, on the third day of the funeral procession, an Appointed of the Anointed One arrived at the outskirts of the city and set his eyes upon the procession, whereupon he presented himself before the sultan, and the six princes who then accompanied him, to a divan within the palace; and there conjured the sultan to speak of what had transpired.

"And when the sultan finished explaining the situation, the saint was much incensed with the princes' disparate treatment between the daughters of sultan and wezeer, the former with doting gallantry and the latter with complete disregard; and said unto the six princes, 'Verily, you have transgressed mightily against the teachings of the Anointed One, now speak your fill, and hope that your tongues may spare you your lives.' And as he said this, thunder and lightning struck overhead in a clear blue sky, and when the princes saw the very heavens angered by their deeds, and as they knew the great moral authority carried by the saints appointed by the Anointed One, they grew sore afraid; yet one by one they stood up to tell their story.

[Wherein the first prince (Nelemar) tells his story and gives his excuse: the just world hypothesis.]

"Now the prince of Lut Nelemar stepped forward and said to the sultan and the saint, 'Your eminences, know that not only had I had not gone to search for the wezeer's daughter, but furthermore, that no search was necessary, nor that it was even desirable; had not the Anointed One been accosted, as he preached before his congregation in this very city, by a beggar, who protested the unfairness with which he had been relegated to a life of ignominy and poverty, whereas the passersby lived upstanding lives of plenty, hoping thereby to seek out alms from the prophet?

"'And had not the Anointed One asked him, O beggar, what have you done this day before you arrived before this congregation?' -- And the beggar said, 'Why, I am but a humble beggar; what is a beggar to do but to sit out along the oft frequented streets of the city, raising forth an empty bowl for passersby to drop out alms? Thus have I done.' -- To which the Anointed One replied, 'And what have the passersby done this day, what they must busy themselves with so much coming and going?' -- To which the beggar replied, 'Surely some are gone to do their business, some to produce, others to sell, and still others to proffer the services of their labor; for they hope that, in so doing, they would earn their keep.'

"'To which the Anointed One replied, "Surely, then, the passersby have earned their keep through diligent labor, and thus are most deserving of it; and whereas your beggarly self had done no thing to earn yours, and for your idleness must you beg upon the streets for scraps. Be overjoyed, therefore, with your lot; for even that little which you have received from the hands of those who have given freely of their wealth, yea, even that you do not deserve.'

"'And at that, the beggar snatched the money-bag out of the nearest member of the congregation, and made to run; but of course this went not unnoticed, and he was soon caught by the others and beaten miserably, and one of the congregation sent for the walee, who brought with him the executioner and commanded him to sever the hand that stole; upon which the beggar accused the Anointed One, saying, 'Have you not conjured me to not remain idle? For that reason have I snatched the money-bag, now look what is to become of my hand!'

"'And is this not the reason why the Anointed One, he who is most wise for his eyes had been opened by the angels in heaven, has said, 'to he who does good deeds, much good shall acrue, and to he who does ill, much ill shall acrrue'?

"'Now behold, the daughter of the wezeer has turned up burned to death; surely this be a mark that she had done deeds most unwholesome in life, to warrant such a punishment? Surely a death by burning be most meet for one such as her, so why then, O eminences, do you concern yourselves with the likes of such a depraved person, the very association of which would mar your otherwise pristine name? And furthermore, your eminences, ignore this matter, and not seek to punish anyone here, for our very wealth and station attests that we be of good character, above all reproach.'

"To which the saint raised a hand to the heavens, and a bolt of lightning blasted through the ceiling, shredding plaster and shattering stone, and smote the first prince, and he keeled over dead. And when the other five princes saw what happened to the first one, they protested, saying, 'had not the fine prince of Lut Nelemar made a convincing reason for sparing him?'

"And to that the saint said, 'Wherefore do you complain, saying that I had done an injustice? Can you not see that as I have smote this the prince of Lut Nelemar, that he is very much dead? Is that not proof enough that by withholding aid for the wezeer's daughter, he had done a deed most unwholesome, to warrant such a punishment? This then must surely reflect the heavens' ire at your cumulative failure to locate the wezeer's daughter; such that none of you have any grounds to claim any blood vengeance against me for my doing of it. Now speak, the rest of you, why I should not do unto you such as I have done to make an example out of him.'"

"That prince is an idiot, I can't believe anyone would believe in a worldview like that," said Art. "By that logic--" -- "By that logic," interrupted Natalie, speaking calmly but looking furious, "Any woman who'd ever been sexually assaulted or raped deserved it: maybe they were wearing clothing a bit too lascivious, they say, or if they'd gotten drunk beforehand, that that's what happens when a girl goes and drinks, they say. Always blaming the victim, and it happens all the time." She shot Art a look. "So no, quite a lot of people believe it." -- Art looked down, and they shared a moment of uneasy silence.

"Should I continue?" asked Taril, looking a bit concerned.

"Do we need to? I see where we are going with this," said Jezebel, turning from Taril to Roland with a knowing look. "Each of these six princes represents some excuse or other for why someone might not go to the aid of another, and the saint finds all of their excuses wanting and kills each of them in turn, right?"

"Exactly," replied Roland. "But the end of each story is not the important part. What matters is the excuse behind each of these princes' stories, and the logic of the rebuttal. As I have mentioned before, the bishop is liable to throw the story of Thaar's Convent against us, and upon that basis, to say that if the sisterhood perishes as a result of this war, that it is because of their lack of devotion to the faith and that they would deserve such, and thus that there would be no reason for him to dispatch any templar to their aid to avert any such disaster. When that happens, we can rebuke him with this, casting the wezeer's daughter as the sisterhood, and the bishop and the templar beneath him as the first prince."

"Brilliant," remarked Jezebel with a clap of her hands. "It directly counters the argument he would raise. We'll see what he has to say in response to that!" She gestured for Taril to continue.

[Wherein the second prince (Amin) tells his story and gives his excuse: this having sworn an oath to woo the sultan's daughter.]

"Now the prince of Lut Amin stepped forward and said to the sultan and the saint, 'Your eminences, you both know that I also had not dispatched my men to search for the wezeer's daughter; but hear now my reason for not having done so, that you may be moved to sparing me. Though I had brought almost as many gifts with my train as the others, to bestow upon the daughter of the sultan, this belies the true poverty of my father's city.

"'Lut Amin is but the smallest of the seven cities, and is is because of this that our people had fallen on hard times. Almost a near ago, our city came under siege from the armies of the sultan of Lut Lameen, and as we had fewer men, were forced to withdraw into the safety of its walls, whereupon the men of Lut Lameen burned and pillaged all that was without our city, all its nearby towns and villages, any settlement not ringed by stone. When they left, they took with them the women as chattel, and left behind the men as corpses; and our once glorious city has been struggling to recover ever since.

"'Now this great travail has put our city in a most difficult circumstance, for each of our six larger neighbors saw us weak, and only tarried in attacking because they doubted firstly that they could take our walls and secondly that there was anything of worth left to pillage in the outlying territories; but this state of matters would surely not persist indefinitely. In order to better protect the remainder of our state, my father poured much of our treasury into bettering the armies, so much that much of our prized assets and heirlooms have been sold off, and little remains of our treasury. And if you think it easy for me to tell you of this, recall that I have come here to seek your daughter's hand in marriage, and that my revealing the weakness of our city must surely ruin my chances of accomplishing this objective; and because of this you can trust that I would not have said this except that it is true.

"'When your courier arrived at our palace and brought his wondrous news, my father drew me aside and told me, 'Son, know that while I shall be sending you unto Lut Gholein to secure the sultan Ezmerati's daughter's hand in marriage, so shall the sultans of each of the other cities bid likewise of their princes; and they have more wealth to draw upon. As such it will prove difficult for you to win her hand; yet you absolutely must. Gaze upon the dearth of our treasury, and you shall see naught but dust and cobwebs within; gaze upon our city and see it much diminished in size.

"Only by gaining the the sultan Ezmerati's daughter's hand can you avert this terrible wasting away of our city, without which our realm will continue to remain vulnerable to invaders. But do this, and we will have the allegiance of Lut Gholein, the greatest of the seven cities of this land, worth tens of thousands of men-at-arms and all that it costs to feed them; all that your alliance will save of our kingdom's expenses, and with that sum may we revitalize our city unto glory.'

"'But I asked of my father the sultan, 'Yet how shall I rise above the other suitors, when their lands be larger and their wealth be greater? Surely they will be able to present more gifts unto the sultan's daughter, and thereby outshine me and doom me to failure in this matter.'

"''Worry not,' he replied, 'For their overweening pride shall be their downfall. Know that I send you force with many gifts, such that a bit more or less shall mean little in the scheme of things; and the royalty of Lut Gholein, it being the largest and wealthiest city, shall not prize such gifts overmuch. They shall care more of how you comport yourself. Now heed this lesson from me, that you shall triumph over all the other princes: The fastest way to a woman's heart, as well as her father's, is to treat her with the utmost respect; so see to it that when you go into the city, that your thoughts are only of her, and of how you can gain her attention and please her, and take a care to do this to greater extents than your competitors, that you may win her heart; but do not let any other matter lead your astray, nor let any circumstance contrive to separate you from her; for therein shall lie your undoing.'

"'And as I listened to my father's words, I saw the wisdom within them, and knelt before my father and there swore an oath, invoking the angels to be my witness, that I shall devote my fullest attention on securing the princess' hand in marriage, and to perish all other thoughts and concerns until I either succeed or fail in my task, and if I break my oath, may the heavens strike me down; so determined was I in this task.

"'And thus have I done since setting foot in this city, thinking day and night only on how to win the princess to the disregard of all else, and so spurned her attempts to either visit or summon me this past week. So when the news came that the wezeer's daughter had gone missing, I gave it no further thought, and soon forgot about the disappearance entirely. All this I have done out of a pure duty to my homeland, to which, as its future ruler when my father the sultan dies, I have a responsibility to protect and make prosper above all else; and that I may fulfill the oath which I had made; and has not the Anointed One said that the breaking of an oath made in earnest is worse than can be remediated by a hundred good deeds? Answer me, O eminences, what you would do in my stead; and ponder as to whether I have done right by my people.'

"And the saint replied, 'It is indeed good to act to protect or better one's people, as it is good to fulfill an oath; but you are a fool, for by your oath and your actions you have only endangered your people and succeeded in doing the opposite of what your oath intended; for having displeased the sultan Ezmerati and me in failing to consider another, for refusing to take action to save her life, you have not only failed in your quest, but have also doomed yourself." And so saying this, he called down another stroke of lightning, which killed the second prince on the spot," Taril finished.

"Hmm… the prince actually had a good point there," mused Art. "If I ha been the second prince, I would have done the same as he did, acting to protect those I cared for. It seems more of a case of the saint judging him in retrospect for not considering something that he couldn't have known ahead of time."

"Well we'll make sure Art isn't the one to present this argument before the bishop," said Jezebel, and when Art turned to face her, she stuck out her tongue at him.

"I think you're missing the point here, Art," mused Taril. "Because of the prince's short-sightedness in neglecting to save the wezeer's daughter, he ruined his chances of gaining the princess. Had he taken action and located the wezeer's daughter, he would have succeeded."

Roland spoke up. "The bishop is going to raise concerns about needing to deploy his templar elsewhere, whether it be for the protection of Tristram's cathedral and itinerant clergy or -- more likely -- for the defense of the churches and the faithful of the various towns and villages scattered across the land, which he will argue is a valid concern now that the redskins no longer have to worry about getting attacked in their flanks from sisters striking out of the monastery. I'm sure he's gotten reports of increased redskin activity all along the regions east of Tristram. And it would be hard to exhort him to have his templar abandon the defense of the outlying villages; after all, he could easily retort that doing so would put the faithful at risk, and his foremost duty is for the salvation of his flock.

"Here we would be arguing that his failing to aid the sisterhood -- in the story, his failure to rescue the wezeer's daughter -- would instead bring about more danger to the surrounding villages. This is a point we can argue in all honesty -- after all, the sisterhood acts as a bulwark against redskin incursion, and retaking the monastery would allow them to reopen a second front against the redskins, forcing them to pull back, which in turn would mean safety for the outlying villages." After seeing nods of understanding from the others, Roland turned to Taril. "If you would?"

[Wherein the third prince (Orram) tells his story and gives his excuse: that he thought others would take care of the matter.]

Taril continued, "Now the prince of Lut Orram stepped forward and said to the sultan and the saint, 'Your eminences, please listen to what I have to say, for I speak the truth when I say that, though I had not done so, I had very much intended to set forth to recover the wezeer's daughter; but for certain events that conspired to turn me from that path. Immediately after your eminence had informed us six of the dire news, I had gone to my section of the palace, intending to speak with my walee, that he might dispatch the guards who had accompanied me to go without and search throughout the city for any sign of her.

"'But as I began giving instructions to my walee, I looked to my left and my right and beheld that up and down the hallway, the other five princes had gone to meet with their walees in turn, so that I paused in giving my directives and approached the prince of Lut Varon, and listened while he bade his own walee to take his guards and go without the palace in search for the wezeer's daughter. 'You look for the daughter also?' I asked of him, and he replied -- 'Yes; as per my instruction my walee will go a-searching for her in all the streets of Lut Gholein.' And his words put my heart at ease, as he had brought with him to the city twice as many guards as I had, and they thus could comb through the city twice as quickly as mine.

"'And even so, I added, 'Then I shall add my guards to yours in this search, and we shall search about for her in our own way, and in so doing find her all the faster.' -- To which he replied, 'Though I am sure the wezeer would appreciate your assistance, your sending guards of your own could cause concerns in the doing of it.' -- 'Why?' I asked, and he replied, -- 'In this city your guards are strangers in a strange land, they know not the customs of this place; now if you have them scatter throughout the city in such a manner, who knows how many of them shall get themselves lost, or perchance do such deeds as which they believe are legal here but which in truth are not.'

"'To which I asked, 'Would your guards not have the same problem as mine? For they are of Lut Varon, also a city separate from this one.' -- 'Aye, he answered, but Lut Amin is as a neighbor unto Lut Gholein, a mere six days' travel, and the men of Lut Varon travel to this city with great frequency, such that I could choose to bring with me only guards who have not only set foot in this city, but have done so on multiple occasions; and thus have I done so. Now have you done the same with the guards you chose to bring?' -- To which I could only say, 'No, I have not.' -- 'Then leave the matter to me,' he said, 'for it would be more amiably handled by my guards than by yours.'

"'But that had not entirely set me at ease, so I asked, 'But the city is large, and of a great many persons and buildings; it would take your men longer to search through it all, and all the meanwhile events untoward might happen to her while she is lost to us. If she is forever lost for want of the lack of my men's contribution to the search, then I shall forever bear the guilt of not having taken action.'

"'And he consoled me, saying, 'Fear not, for the daughter of the wezeer could not have gone far; this here is her city, and she has been here far longer than I and knows this place better than we; and she has no place to go but to her home, and to her father who awaits her there.' -- 'Could not she be captured, and her captors taken her without the city?' I asked, and he replied, -- 'If that be the case then our minds may be at ease, for surely they would seek to ransom her to the wezeer, and the sultan lacks not money.'

"'And I continued to prod him with questions, until he answered, 'And to further set your heart at ease, if she be within the city, then she will of necessity be found, for the sultan's guards have shut the gates of the city and have also begun searching for her, and if my guards be more numerous and better at searching out this city than yours, then so the sultan's be more numerous and better at searching out this city than mine; now therefore cease your worries.' And having thus had by fears allayed, I took my leave of him and withdrew to my room, believing that so long as others better suited to the search than mine had taken the matter upon themselves, that I had no need to search. And that, your eminences, is why I had ceased my inquiry, though I had intended to undertake it; now therefore I submit myself to your judgment.'"

"And the saint replied, 'And yet despite your being assured that no action was needed on your part for the intervention of others, none had intervened. The sultan had not committed to any search, seeing as this was a test of his contrivance; and those few guards who had been dispatched returned empty-handed each day, until the fateful day of the fire; and had you not watched on as merely a bystander, she may yet have lived. And as you by your inaction have condemned her to death, I condemn you to fulmination by the heavens.' And as he said this, the saint raised a hand in gesture to the angels above, and another bolt of lightning struck out from the firmament and smote the first prince, and he fell dead," Taril concluded.

"I think the moral of this story should be apparent," said Roland. "The first prince's excuse is that others whom he believes to be more qualified than he is taking action, thus he does not have to. Sounds reasonable at first blush, but in practice that can easily turn into a situation where no one takes action, everyone looks to everyone else to move first, and the thing that needs to get done is not."

[Wherein Natalie recounts a story about the bystander effect and how that prompted her to become a disciple of Night's Shadow.]

"It happens far too often," Natalie agreed. She stared down at the table as she spoke. "Once, several years ago, I was walking down one of the town's streets when I chanced upon a group of men gang raping a woman. This was in the middle of town, let me remind you; and not in the darkness of some back alleyway. This wasout in the open, in bright daylight. Plenty of people passing by, as is usually the case in towns; and I watched as many of them turned to look at the spectacle and at the woman who was pleading for help.

"And I watched as each and every one of them kept right on walking past as if it was completely normal. None of them tried to drag them off her, nor shouted for them to stop. And I hated them all for it. I wanted to scream at them, wanted to beat them into a pulp, for just callously walking away like that. Hadn't they any compassion? But though incensed, I kept quiet… It was as if the fact that everyone else around me -- that is, everyone but the victim -- was treating it as a non-issue, was somehow inflencing my mind. You weren't there. You have no idea how hard it was for me to act, then. It was as if the situation had left my limbs and my lips paralyzed, and I couldn't speak or act, now matter how much I wanted to.

"And after watching this for about a minute, perplexed, I realized why. The men doing the deed had swords at their hips, and wore either armor or fine clothes, such as it was clear that they were a noble and his retinue. And none of them dared to make a peep about it lest they be beaten or killed for it. And when I realized that, I walked away in silence as well, leaving her to her fate, thankful that what was happening to her wasn't happening to me and thankful that I hadn't done anything stupid by making a fuss of it, and at the same time hating every bit of myself for thinking such things as well as for abandoning her to her fate."

"My god," said Jezebel, looking downcast as well. "I can't imagine how terrible it must have been for her. And it couldn't have been easy for you. Seeing something like that must have scarred you."

"It's not your fault," said Art. "That's a kind of peer pressure all its own. I've seen the equivalent of it myself. Men I'd thought greater than I had faltered on the field of battle, unable to bring themselves to act when those beside them were likewise frozen in place out of fear or unsureness."

"That day I backed away because I knew I couldn't stand a chance against the likes of them. They knew how to fight, and had the equipment for it, while I had nothing. Then and there I resolved that I would gain the means to fight back -- either to defend myself against something happening to me, or to protect those who couldn't defend themselves. I inquired around, and learned that Duncraig had a local chapter of the Order of Night's Shadow, and the very next day I set foot and began my journey westward."

"Night's Shadow," mused Roland. "No wonder you have a way like that… invisible blade that you have there. Quite suitable for assassins, I have to say. Being able to go into and out of places where arms are forbidden and searches performed, while still always having a weapon available to you. I wonder how many people you've killed with that."

Art gestured for Roland to stop. "She could tell you the answer to that, but then the answer would change." He gestured, slit throat. -- "Ah, right," said Roland. "Forget I asked." -- "The answer's zero," replied Natalie with a wry grin. -- Art doubted that, of course; he thought he'd a good grasp on Natalie's temperament already, and doubted she could stay her blade in the heat of the moment. But he wasn't going to call her out on it or say that she was only saying this so that he wouldn't have to come back later to kill everyone at the table; it couldn't be done without forcing her to do exactly that.

"Let's just get on with the story," said Jezebel. "Taril, you have our attention."

Chapter 28: Armoury of Words, Part III

[Wherein the fourth prince (Tairo) tells his story and gives his excuse: how he lost all his guards and feared for his life.]

Taril continued, "Now the prince of Lut Tairo stepped forward and said to the sultan and the saint, 'Your eminences, I agree with your verdict upon the first three princes, for they had their guards and dispatched them not; however the same certainly cannot be said of me, even though I had arrived at this city with as grand an entourage as all the others. Hear now my recounting of the events that have prevented me from engaging in the search as the prince of Lut Varon had done.'

"'The first day that I met with the princess, I told my walee that, as I would be staying with her in the palace, that the guards would not need to stay by my side, as there would be nothing for them to do until such a time as I should call for them; hence I told my walee, 'turn half our men out into the city, that they may divert themselves this day; after all, I shall be diverting myself with the presence of the princess; and I would therefore be remiss if I refused to extend the same opportunity to my men.' And saying this, I spent the afternoon with the princess.

"'In the evening, our conversations led to the princess' great desire to wander the streets of the city, and I, intending to satisfy her, went out into the city with the other half of my guards, the half that remained in the palace with my walee. Perchance our contingent ran into the guards that I had allowed earlier to roam the streets as they wished; except that we found them gambling with cards and dice out in the streets, the doing of which be greatly frowned upon by the Anointed One as leading to temptation, and which they should have known would earn them the sharpest rebuke. I therefore in my fury at them, dismissed them from my service; and though they pleaded for me to overlook this once, I would not tolerate such wrongdoings, and hardened my heart against them; and they were forced to disband and leave.

"'On the following day I was approached by my walee who was in a state of great distress, who informed me that he had received message from a courier stating that his elderly father had taken to sudden ill and died; and asked that he be permitted to go to Lut Lameen, that being where his father had resided in the time before his demise, that he my walee may go and bury his father and attend to all the practices which are demanded of him as part of his tribe.

"'And I told him, 'Of a certainty shall I permit you to go, and not only that; since you have served me well for ten-odd years, I would be a most miserly prince if I dispatched you to go alone; therefore take a dozen of my guards and a dozen of my memlooks and another dozen of my female slaves to accompany you, that those who are their neighbors in Lut Lameen shall know of your exalted station, and that you can return to your your relatives in honor and dignity, and be able to say upon your father's grave that he may rest in peace, for here is the proof that you have brought up your son to be a great man.'

"'To which my walee said, 'Surely I have no need to part from your company with so much; this being a full half of all that remains of your guards now that you have dismissed half of the original number'. -- To which I said, 'Your service to me warrants twice as much as what I am charging you to take; had I more men by my side, I wold have insisted you take twice as many'. And so I bid my walee take his leave with half of my men.

'"On the following day I met with the princess again, and in the course of our conversation she admitted her great love for dates; and hence I was going to dispatch my walee to take some of my men to go to the markets and procure some, but as my walee had departed already and would not return for quite some time, I resolved to do the deed myself, and took the remainder of my men: my guards, my memlooks, and my female slaves; and with such an entourage I arrived at the market.

"'However fate had conspired against me, as just as I had arrived at the market we became surrounded by a group of a dozen bandits, and as I had only a dozen guards by my side, this made our numbers equal; so I commanded my men to fight. But the leader of the bandits was a man learned in the ways of the Arid Mesa school; he crashed through my men with the might of an avalanche when he struck, and stood his ground with the hardiness of a stone outcrop against our counterattacks. And he single-handedly slew my guards, without losing a single one of his own men. And when I fought him, I too took a grievous wound upon my right arm, such that I no longer had the strength in my arm to fight; and it was only because my faithful memlooks sacrificed their lives in attempting to obstruct this one assailant, and because my female slaves absorbed the attentions of his minions, that I managed to escape back to the palace.

"'Thus it was that, by the time I heard the news that the wezeer's daughter had disappeared, I had no guards, nor memlooks, nor female slaves, left to dispatch to search for her; and I could not personally go out to search, for the reasons of my injury and my fear that I would happen across those bandits again and so perish at their hands. Hence, I had no choice to leave the matter of the search to the other princes. Now you know of my reasons for staying put; let us therefore hear your pronouncement.'

"And the saint said, 'That you had no men left to continue the search can hardly be proferred as an excuse; most of the people of the world have no minions that they can command, and yet they still every day commit to action, doing deeds on their own accord. Your men risked and sacrificed their lives that you may live, and yet even though they have done this for you, you could not be moved to merely risk your life to save the life of another; by this do you disgrace yourself. If I do not take your life for this, will not others in a similar situation choose their own safety over that of another, like you have done?' Thus saying, he smote the fourth prince with lightning from the heavens," finished Taril.

[Wherein Art is moved to tears about it and recounts his loss of his hand to the companions.]

Art was moved to tears. This fourth prince had undergone the hardship he had gone through, of a sort, after all; the memories of his loss of his right hand in the battle of the monastery that night which now felt like so long ago. He clutched at his wrist-stump, grimacing, his cheeks burning. This was a hand he'd never get back, no matter what; and what hardship he'd suffered as a result of its loss was only an inkling of how much pain he'd yet to incur for it. Even though he had as good a reason as any to withdraw from the fighting -- a much better excuse than the wound that the prince of the story had provided -- he still hadn't shirked away from the challenge. And yet, it had been so painful, so fraught with danger, and the way ahead still seemed so impossible… Had he at least done right by his actions? Upon his day of judgment, would the Successive One or one of his Appointed attest on his behalf before Tyrael?

"Do you want to talk about it?" asked Roland.

Art explained then of the events surrounding the loss of his hand, his recounting at times broken by his sobbing. When he finished, he swept the back of his hand across his blearied eyes, to see his audience gazing at him with a mix of concern and pity. "I… Thank you for having listened to me. Sorry. I don't usually allow myself to wallow in self-pity like this."

"If it means anything," said Natalie with eyes that bespoke a degree of awe at his recounting. "I appreciate what you have done. Few people, even those who had trained all their lives for war, would have had the guts to stay and stand their ground all alone against a tide of enemies. Fewer still would have thought to search out a some person they barely knew after suffering such a terrible loss." She set a hand softly upon Art's right wrist; the jolt of pain her touch caused, prompted Art's sharp intake of breath. "Even if you were to back out now, and abandon the sisterhood, we would all understand, and would find you blameless."

"I thank you," Art replied. "But I didn't do all this so that I might pass an adjudication by you. I left Selena in the care of the Bedfords, who still reside in Thistledown, the village closest to the monastery and thus in the greatest danger of attack should the sisterhood's defense crumbles; and I mean to see that they all stay safe."

"Don't worry, we will keep them safe," said Natalie.

Art nodded to her, breaking into a smile. He half hoped that one of the others would say the same, but neither Roland nor Jezebel did. In the ensuing awkward silence, he looked at each of them in turn. Roland still hadn't decided to join the sisterhood; once the meeting with the bishop was over, regardless of how it turned out, he'd continue on west along with the rest of Warriv's caravan. Jezebel was only here because she, as Art's indentured servant, had no choice in the matter; if anything, him telling those gathered here just how much he cared for the sisters' well-being might cause her to turn against them out of spite.

"The best way to keep them safe would be to win the bishop's support," said Roland, also looking a bit more gloomy than before. "After the disaster with the count… let's just say, if we fail here, the sisterhood is doomed." He turned to Taril. "I imagine that continuing with the story would also serve to draw Art away from such dreary thoughts."

[Wherein the fifth prince (Lameen) tells his story and gives his excuse: He had started planning for the task but never got anywhere.]

Taril continued, "Now the prince of Lut Lameen stepped forward and said to the sultan and the saint, 'Your eminences, hear my explanation: Upon receiving the news of the wezeer's disappearance, I had returned to my quarters to discuss the matter with my walees. Know that I am a man who greatly values the input of my advisors, for only in so doing may I arrive at the best course of action on any task; and hence I have no less than three walees, whereas other greatees have but their one.

"'Now explained to them that I would like to begin a search of the city with my forty-eight men which I had brought with me, and I asked them how best I could begin this search. My first walee suggested, 'First we need to know where our men are to search; for if we dispatch our men to various parts of the city, no matter how we divide them in their search, we run the risk of neglecting to search certain key areas of the city which the men within each of our groups think fell within the responsibilities of another group; thus let us obtain a map of the city,' However as it turns out, there could be found no map of the city, though I had my men spend an entire day in search of one; for the people who dwelt in the city knew all the streets that they had need to know, and those visitors from without the city needed only ask for directions to get where they needed to go, and since there was none who needed a map, none had been created. And as we had already concluded, we needed a map to thoroughly search the city, lest we miss the wezeer's daughter in our search.

"'When we had been thus confounded by this, my second walee suggested, 'Since we have need for a map and none can be found, we must create one of our own; hence let us dispatch our guards along each of its streets, and observe its roads and buildings, and mark down the locations of each; and in so doing will we have ourselves a map with the layout of the city'. And as I saw this was wise, I commanded my men to walk throughout the city and mark down the locations of each street and building on parchment. This they did, and on the evening of the second day they returned to my chambers; and then my walees and I spent the night putting together the map from the scraps each of my men and generated.

"'On the third day, with the map now being created, my third walee suggested, 'Let us now, by means of this map, divide up the city such that each of us three can lead a contingent of sixteen guards to search our third of the city.' -- And my first walee added, 'Aye, and since we had already tarried on this matter for two days, let us also divide up the city evenly, such that each contingent needs the same amount of time to search throughout the city and report back, and in thus doing, minimize the time needed for the tardiest of us three to finish.' -- And my second walee added, 'Aye, and the easiest way to do that would be to divide up the city equitably by area, so that each contingent has the same amount of space to search.'

"'And my third walee added, 'Nay, that would not be the quickest; the city is not homogeneous in composition, there are places with spacious buildings, which are quick to search, and others with small, winding layouts, which take longer; and there are buildings of different heights, some have but one story, while others may have two, or three, or more; and we must take these into account when apportioning out the city among us three.' -- And my second walee responded, 'Nay, while there would be some difference in the time taken to search between these various kinds of buildings, I do not believe it would amount to much.'

"'And my first walee responded, 'Should we not then undertake a test, to determine which method would be the fastest? Let us then time how long it takes our men to search some spacious buildings, and how long it takes to search the winding ones, and compare them; and also time how long it takes our men to search some single-story buildings, as compared to searching those which are two or three stories, and compare those also; that we may determine how much time searching these kinds of buildings would take; and this test we did in triplicate to ensure good results; and thus we spent the morning of the third day.

"'And then my first walee advised, 'We had mapped the city, and we now know how much time to count toward the search of each kind of building; but we had not noted down which of the buildings are of each kind, without which our earlier calculations are meaningless; let us therefore dispatch our men to survey the city's buildings, and note down the kind of each building, so that we may incorporate that into our maps.' And seeing wisdom in these words, this I made my men do; and they did this all afternoon, and returned with the information I required. And then we spent the night compiling this information into our maps.

"'And I and my three walees rose up on the morning of the fourth day to determine the allocations that I would charge each of my walees to search, taking into account the type of each building and their number and location and calculating how much time it would take to do this; and it is this we were engaged in when we were informed that the wezeer's daughter had perished in the fire. As you have heard from my account, I had dedicated each of the past few days in my preparations for beginning the search; therefore your eminences can hardly reproach me for not taking action on this matter.'

"And the saint responded, 'Indeed you have busied yourself in this task; yet you had nonetheless failed to direct your men to the search. With the death of the wezeer's daughter, the reason for the search has expired; thus have you not wasted all your time with all this unnecessary planning? In the end it is not what we have planned to do that matters, nor how much thought and planning that you have put into it, but what you had actually done. And what have you actually accomplished, with which you hope to conjure me to spare your life?' And with that the saint struck down the fifth prince also," finished Taril.

Roland spoke: "If the bishop attempts to delay providing the sisters with aid, saying that it will take him some time to gather his men and materiel for the cause, we will spring this on him. We'll see what excuse he'll respond with, to try to wriggle his way out of this one."

"Agreed," said Art, sounding a bit more hearty. "Once we mention that, he'll be forced to take another tack instead."

Nodding, Roland added, "We'll force him to agree to providing the sisterhood with aid immediately, and not give him any time to think up more reasons to refuse aid. Once he agrees to dispatch his templar, even if it's just the handful who might be ready for immediate dispatch, he'll be committed to the effort. After all, once the templar he does dispatch get embroiled in the fighting and start accruing casualties, he could hardly refuse to join the war on the side of the sisterhood in order to avenge their deaths, or he would lose face within the ecclesiarchy."

"My only concern is," mused Natalie, "what if the bishop sends aid to the sisterhood, but then, once the casualties inflicted upon his men start to mount, he winds up backing out instead of fully committing?"

"That's what the sixth prince's story covers," said Art. "Taril?"

[Wherein the sixth prince (Varon) tells his story and gives his excuse: he had gone on the search but ran into an obstacle and gave up.]

Taril continued, "Now the prince of Lut Varon stepped forward and said to the sultan and the saint, 'Your eminences, I alone among all the six princes gathered before you have engaged on this search; therefore I implore that you do not hold it against me that I had not managed to find the wezeer's daughter in time.'

"'But had your men been out searching, when the news broke?' replied the sultan. 'I recall you had dwelt within these halls at the time, even though I had seen you head out to the search along with your men. Pray tell, by what contrivance have events conspired to turn you away from your search?'

"And the prince answered, 'I had bid my walee to search the city for the wezeer's daughter, and he divided up my men into two groups, each with two dozen men, and thus dispatched them to search the city. But at the end of the first day they had not found her; and when I and my walee checked in with them, they both said with smiles on their faces, 'behold, we have bought a great many gifts for you to gift to the princess, that you may earn her favor!' And when I asked how this came to be, how went the search and how much of the city they had searched, they each fell on their feet before me and begged my pardon. So I asked them why they felt the need to ask me of it.

"'The first of the two men said, 'We had been out searching, but as we went through the marketplaces we became accosted by the merchants, who attempted to peddle their wares; and as the walee had previously acquainted us both concerning what he knew the sultan's daughter preferred, and I saw such goods among those for sale, I bought some, hoping to earn you favor with the princess and thus to earn your favor also; and in so doing caused more merchants to approach me and invite me to their stalls, to sell me their wares; and the more I purchased these things to gift the sultan's daughter, the more I saw other things worthy of purchase, and the more I bought; until I had spent two thirds of the day touring the bazaars. I would not have spent so much time on the search, had I known that my counterpart had been by some other merchants ensnared, such that neither of us had made much progress.'

"Upon hearing this I rebuked the two of them, and on the morning of the next day I told my walee, 'I do not trust those other two men to engage in their search any better today than yesterday; therefore go without the palace with all my men and perform the seach yourself.' And so he did.

"'And the evening of the second day he returned empty handed and with fewer men than when he set out. I asked my walee what had transpired, and he responded, 'I had been out searching, but at noon our men ran into a group of bandits, one of whom had mastered some ways, and they greatly injured several of my men before we ran them off. Following which, we had to tend to their wounds and seek out poultices and salves for them, and thus we spent half the day searching for these at market and purchasing these, that we could treat the wounds of my fallen guards. But by the time we had finished the sun had half set on the horizon, so that we spent only a quarter of the day searching.'

"I rebuked not my walee, for this matter was unavoidable; but I had seen that enough time had been wasted on this matter. On the morning of the third day I resolved to undertake the search myself. Before long we came across a group of young tramps frolicking about along the streets. I was getting worried at this time, and welcomed the opportunity to enlist them in our search, that we may finish the matter faster, and thus Iendeavored to get them involved in the search as well; but they would only agree if my men could catch them at a game of hide and seek. Thinking this simple enough, I agreed, but they proved better at their art than I had expected; and thus we wasted almost the entire day trying to hunt them down before I realized we were wasting our time and had hardly gotten any searching done, and called off the game of hide-and-seek.

"'And on the morning of the fourth day I realized that, with three days having already passed, there stood little chance of our finding the wezeer's daughter; there would have been plenty enough time for any abductors to spirit her away out of the city and for all tracks and hints of the matter to be lost; and desiring not to spend the day undertaking such a fruitless search, I slept until the sun was high in the sky, and then your eminences summoned me to the divan.

[Whereupon the saint reveals that the wezeer's daughter is alive and there's a happy ending.]

"'Obviously I had failed in my search, and regret both the relegation of the matter first to the two men under my walee and then to my walee; as well as my having gotten myself distracted on the third day and then having tarried on the fourth. Therefore I have no further excuses to offer you, aside from my recounting of the story that I have told; and we all know how thirsty the saint is for my blood, and I would say let us get on with it, but I wish to know, if the six of us princes' excuses have not sufficed, by what excuse will the Appointed One provide, by which he ought seek to spare himself his own life? And by what excuse will the sultan and the wezeer seek to preserve their own lives, as they had been the ones who had arranged this entire affair and thus risked the wezeer's life?'

-- Jezebel burst into chuckles. "He's a dead man, isn't he? I like how the sixth prince turns it back on the saint and the sultan. Poetic justice."

"To which the saint replied, 'now, daughter of the wezeer, step forth from your hiding place'; and to the stunned amazement of all the daughter of the wezeer emerged from an adjacent room, without a single scratch on her."

"What, really?" asked Jezebel. "Sounds like an easy way out of telling a story that ought to have a sadder ending." -- "Let's be a good audience, shall we?" said Natalie. -- "Sure, sure. But there better be a good reason how that happened."

"And the sultan summoned the wezeer, that he may rejoice at her still being alive; and when the wezeer entered the ruined divan and saw his daughter standing before him, he was overcome with joy and relief, and embraced her in tears and asked of her, -- 'how is it you yet live and breathe?'

"'To which the saint replied, 'I arrived yesterday evening, and thereupon saw the prince of Lut Varon engaged in some kind of search all throughout the city, and the prince of Lut Lameen engaged in noting down some details of all the buildings throughout the city, and asked one of the men whom or what they sought, to which I received the answer of the wezeer's daughter, as well as heard of the arrival of the six suitors for the sultan's daughter, who yet remained without any particular favor for any of the six; and thus concluded this must be a test arranged by the sultan, and that given its importance, he would only entrust the secret to his closest confidant, namely his walee; and from there I asked to visit each of the walee's properties, and he answered that as an Appointed One I could visit each of his properties, save for his khan; by which I knew her to be secreted there.

"'Thus this morning I stole into the khan and met with the wezeer's daughter, and having seen that the wezeer's daughter has been inconvenienced by this affair and that nothing stood to be gained by any further wait, I brought there the corpse of one of the killed female slaves formerly owned by the prince of Lut Tairo and put the body in the khan, spirited away the wezeer's daughter, and brought down heaven's fulmination upon the khan, which started the fire which disfigured the corpse beyond all recognition, that you became convinced that the female slave was the wezeer's daughter; and brought her to hide in the palace, which she could do with ease given the fluster within the palace once the fire started. And that is how she stands now, alive and well, before you. And as such, neither the sultan, nor the wezeer, nor I, have done anything remiss.'

"Then the last prince protested, 'If she is well then why have you punished the princes before me? For either she is dead, and those remiss ought be punished; or she is well, and none is at fault for anything.' -- To which the saint replied, 'The sultan, the wezeer, and I knew her to be safe and not lost to us or in any risk of personal harm, hence we are blameless for not having gone to save her; but the same could not be said of you six princes, who were unaware of the plot yet had the wherewithal to search, hence you are found wanting; and if I tarried any further for the removal of such worthless specimens such as you from this world, that you and your like visit misfortune upon anyone else by your excuses and incompetences, then I would be much remiss.' And saying that, the saint smote the sixth prince with lightning.

"The sultan was most amazed at the saint's explanation, which the wezeer's daughter verified; and said, 'Truly your eminence is a greater boon than any of the six princes, and by your actions you have shown it; for though you had no cause to take interest in the well being of the wezeer's daughter, you had searched for her with more alacity than any of them; and the method by which you deduced the situation, and thereby accomplished in one day what the six princes and all their men could not or would not do in three, you showed that you had empathized with my position in addition to showing great intelligence and capability; and in taking the wezeer's daughter out of the khan and bringing her back here, you demonstrated your great empathy for her also. This whole endeavor had arisen because we sought a means to finding the one most meet for my daughter, and that one is you; and so I would hereby give my daughter the princess to you for marriage.'

"And the saint refused; saying, I am but a man of the teachings of the Anointed One, know you not that I am sworn to celibacy?' -- And the sultan replied, 'Is this another excuse, O eminent one?' -- To which the saint replied, 'An excuse, yes, but one which is meet before the eyes of the angels in heaven; for by so doing I honor the memory of the happenings of the saint and the prostitute.' -- 'What is the story of the saint and the prostitute?' asked the sultan; -- which the saint replied, 'It is thus:--"

[Wherein we have the conclusion of the story of the six princes, and the Companions end the night.]

"Oh for the love of god," exclaimed Jezebel in sheer disbelief, "is there no end to this story? How much deeper does this rabbit hole go?" -- Taril replied, "well the story of the saint and the prostitute invokes the story of the prostitute's first sister, the prostitute's second sister and the prostitute's third sister, and that one invokes--"

Art interrupted, "Okay, in the interest of not Shahrazading ourselves, can we agree to stop the story here?" He turned to look askance at Taril. "And I clearly seem to recall that the Appointed weren't celibate, as a matter of fact I'm pretty sure each of them had at least three wives. Out with it; how much of that did you make up?" -- Taril put out his palms in protest. "Only the very last part, I assure you." -- "Damn it Taril…" -- "Three wives? So much for caring for what the women want," said Natalie, hands clenched into a fist. "I mean what the hell is that? They claim to care about their women, and that happens?" -- "If the story's true, it happened at least a thousand years ago," said Art. -- "Actually, I'm pretty sure hareems are still a thing in Aranoch," said Taril. "Most of the eastern grandees have them." -- "Taril, that is not helping."

"Guys, gals, can we get on track please?" said Roland, looking at Natalie who had stood up at some point. "Sit, please." -- Natalie slumped back onto her seat. -- "So how do we use this last story?" -- "Uh…That not every story can be believed?" asked Art. -- Roland rolled his eyes. "Taril's antics aside."

"The sixth prince's story covers several points," said Taril. "First is to always beware events that might happen beyond your control that might delay your activities; you should always plan around that fact, give yourself some buffer to work with. Second--" -- "Arguments we can use against the bishop Arevain, please," Roland reminded.

Art replied, "I think this is one of those things which we'll have to pull on him once we've convinced him -- that is, argued him into a corner -- into helping the sisters. He may be quite unhappy with us pushing him into doing this, so he may drag his feet, with an eye to saying that he'd tried when anyone accosts him about it a month later asking why he hadn't done anything; so we preempt that by reminding him of the sixth prince's story and how, if he takes his jolly time, he will earn the ire of the heavens in the same way that the sixth prince has earned the ire of the saint."

"By the way, what Jezebel said about the sixth prince turning it back on the saint and the sultan," said Art. "That could cause us trouble. The bishop could say, if everyone who is aware of the situation is responsible, then it's not just the count and the bishop, but everyone who can fight, also ought to help the sisterhood; and then he can ask us why we haven't gotten anyone else to join in the fight. Then he can say that instead of 'wasting' our time trying to convince him, our time would be better spent trying to convince others."

"Which is altogether an unfair argument," said Natalie. "Just because we haven't convinced others to join the cause doesn't mean we can't start with the templar. We have to start somewhere, after all."

"I think to that we can reply by asking if the bishop asked that with the intention of dumping his responsibility onto another?" said Jezebel. "To which we can reply, 'do you think to offer the same excuse as that of the third prince? For you already know how the angels above would judge anyone who does so'."

Roland smiled and clapped his hands. "Now you're getting the hang of it! With that, I can go to sleep tonight assured that you three will be able to field whatever arguments the bishop throws your way." He yawned. "It's getting late. I think I'll be headed to bed now."

Jezebel nodded. "Let us meet again here tomorrow morning at eight."

"Aye," said Roland. "I would say, dwell on what we've gone over tonight, because you'll need to know it for tomorrow; but I'd rather you slept well, for tomorrow, we battle."

Chapter 29: A Battle of Parables, Part I

[Wherein Art reconsiders whether to go with Warriv's caravan.]

Art woke early the next morning with his veins throbbing in a mix of anticipation and dread about the upcoming meeting with the bishop. Hey lay in his bed, listening to Taril's snoring on the ground beside him, and looked over at the sleeping form of Warriv in the opposite bed. Today was the day Warriv and what remained of his once proud caravan would be heading on out, and he… well, the hectic events of the previous night had prevented him from giving this much thought, but… after that last fight in the brothel, where he'd been beaten by Natalie, he had to admit that his faith in his fighting skills had been badly shaken.

He looked at the stump of his right arm, and it brought tears back to his eyes. If only he hadn't lost it! He would have beaten Natalie hands down, or so he thought. But without it, without the ways of the whirlwind and the monolith, and with several of his other ways greatly weakened like they were? He'd never be able to fight as he'd done at the monastery. It would be much like how he'd fought the first battle after that engagement; the one at the hamlet before he arrived at Thistledown, the way he had to worry so much about getting killed, because he couldn't be assured of the strong defensive abilities that he used to have. Was he going to be relegated to that of a second rate fighter?

And it wasn't just the latest battle with Natalie that was grating on him. In truth, he'd lost the previous fight as well, with Jezebel electrocuting him such that he'd only survived because he knew the way of living death. If he hadn't… well, the lightning adepts supposedly possessed ways of shocking a person with a stilled heart back to life, but that wasn't a sure thing, and it would have put him completely at her mercy. Which he already had; with him lying still on the ground in the way of living death like that, Jezebel could have easily thrust her sword through him and killed him, way or no way.

In a fight with the redskins, they'd not show any mercy to him, a human and a paleskin in their eyes. He'd seen what happened to the one man who they'd caught back in the monastery…. An unbidden memory of them hacking the screaming man into bloody pieces and then engorging themselves up on his flesh, came to mind. He didn't quite feel like wanting to throw up; he'd seen plenty of equally unsettling and disgusting things in the battles he'd been in; but that was none too pleasant a memory, and if he was to be honest with himself, going back into battle, he stood a good chance of getting killed or captured, and for something like that to happen to him…

Should he even continue with this fool's errand, putting himself at continued risk despite having little prospect of gaining much by it? Surely with a wound like that, the loss of his sword hand, he had a better reason than anyone to abandon the fight; and yet, the thoughts of the night before, the tears he'd shed as he listened to Taril's retelling of the story of the fourth prince and of the words of the saint in response… He'd lost much, yes, but if he abandoned the fight now, he'd still have failed. He couldn't leave them, Selena and the Bedfords…

And this fight with Natalie… This time he'd only survived because Jezebel's words, spoken to Natalie in the heat of the battle, had managed to get to her just in time for her to spare Art's life. By all rights he ought to bow before Jezebel and thank her for saving his life, and release her from her indenture. That would be the least he could do. But if he did that, then Jezebel would leave, since that was the only reason she was staying with him and he'd yet managed to convince her to support the sisterhood. So he'd have to put up with this none too honorable course of action, and it made him feel a bit uncomfortable; but she'd have to bear it for now. Maybe he would make it up to her later.

[Wherein the Companions prepare to go to meet with the bishop.]

He stood up, got himself dressed in the fine tunic Nathan had given him, the green one with fine golden embroidery, taking care not to disturb the others' slumber. Today was their meeting with the bishop. He'd wait to see how that turned out before making his decision. And if the bishop also refused to help, well, then the sisterhood was as good as lost, and Thistledown and the other outlying villages along with it. If that was the case, then he would leave with Warriv and his caravan, and forget the sisterhood. Yes, that was it. He'd forget all about them.

At the ground floor of the inn he saw not only Roland, Jezebel, and Natalie in their tunics, but also Liene and Amplisa. "Ah, we're all here, and just in time," said Roland.

Liene turned around to see Art. "You again. You're going with these three?" -- Art sighed. "Liene, this is us doing you a favor. If you don't want us to go through with this, we can always cancel our appointment. It's up to you."

"No, that's not what I meant," said Liene, face turning flushed. "I… I think I misspoke. You all are of course doing us a great service, and we would wrong you not to think highly of you for it. I was only a bit startled." -- "Apologies accepted." -- Liene shot him a face. "Don't get carried away, Art; that wasn't an apology." -- He smirked and stared up at the ceiling as he replied, "certainly looked that way to me."

Amplisa held out palm over fist before her as she bowed to the foursome. She looked like she'd spent all night crying over the injuries that had befallen Ryann and Elexa. "Thank you for going to speak with the bishop on our behalf… We wish you best of luck. As you know, you're now our only hope."

Art, Jezebel, Natalie, Roland, each of them put palm over fist and bowed to both Amplisa and Liene. "We will not disappoint you," said Roland, and led the way down the street, with Art and the others following right after, to the cathedral standing proud in the center of town.

"So that we're on the same page," said Roland, "Let me introduce us to ourselves. I'm bishop Edward Verens of Kingsport, and I had arrived just two days ago at the town, intending to meet with the bishop; by the way," he said, looking at Natalie and Jezebel, "Would the bishop recognize your face?" -- Shaking of heads. -- "Good, then you two are your regular names, but not you, Art, you're Roland, and you had come here yesterday to arrange for a meeting on my behalf. You're a swordsman as before, but not accompanying Warriv's caravan since people will know that that caravan had come into the town from the east and I supposedly came from Kingsport which is to the southwest; so you're just an itinerant swordsman that I hired when I set out from Kingsport to guard my little group on our travel here. Jezebel, Natalie, you also arrived in town with us; we picked you up along the way, let's say, at Duncraig. Now, introduce yourselves to me?" -- And Art, Jezebel, and Natalie repeated their fictitious backstory back to him.

[Wherein Art tries to convince Roland to fight alongside the sisterhood using the parables he's learned.]

"Any last thoughts, things we need to get out of the way, before we meet with the bishop?" asked Roland.

"As a matter of fact, yes," said Art. "Roland… You're leading us to meet with the bishop, to convince him to send his templar to support the cause… But what about you?"

"If he asks whether I will be dispatching templar of my own to fight? That's preposterous, no one can expect templar to march that long except on a Holy Quest."

"No, I meant you personally." -- "I'll be traveling with Warriv's caravan, Art, we've been over this." -- "Hypocritical much?" Art stopped, bringing the others to a halt. "Telling the bishop to dispatch his troops to fight in a war you're walking away from?" -- "Art, you know I can't fight." -- "You fought pretty well last night, Roland; we've talked about this. So the question is, why aren't you willing to help the sisterhood?" -- "Art, why are you so caught up about getting me to fight? I'm only one person, I won't make a difference in the grand scheme of things."

"Thus said the prince who'd lost all his guards," said Art, grinning at Roland. Let's see how Roland squirms out of this one, he thought to himself. -- "Oh, snap!" said Jezebel, sounding positively delighted at seeing Roland squirm.

"Oh no, you are not pulling the six princes on me," Roland said, glaring at him, indignant.

"Why not?" asked Art. "Aren't you precisely in the position of the fourth prince? And you remember what the saint did in response to that excuse."

"It's not anything like that! I was never a commander of men to begin with. And if you want me to fight myself, haven't I told you already that I can't do it?"

Art nodded. "Yep, I totally get you, your highness."

"God damn it."

"Art chuckled, then patted Roland on the shoulder. "Face it: I got you hoisted in your own rope trap. Unless you want to contest that? Go on, we'd like to hear how the bishop would respond. Gives us an opportunity to come up with a counter-argument against the bishop -- I meant him, not you."

"I'm not doing it," said Roland, staring down at the ground, fists clenched. "I'm not half the hero you think I am, Art."

Art opened up his arms wide. "So make the counter-argument."

"I don't really have any answer to that. I… I just don't want to get killed."

"Then you'd do well to remember what happened to each of the six princes."

"Art, reality doesn't work that way. The redskins'll be killing those who go to fight against them, not the other way around; or do you think they'll intentionally march in a circle around all their enemies to catch Warriv's westbound caravan? And there's no saint here to drop lightning strikes."

"You're not afraid of being damned to hell, Roland? Because if I were devout like you, I'd worry about your eternal soul a lot more than what happens to you in this life. Did I tell you, how I died and went to hell and came back? Why, Jezebel here can tell you all about it. Would you like to hear about the gnashing of teeth everyone over on the other side seem so fond of doing? I can elaborate."

"Damn you, Art."

"Funny that, coming from the damned. Don't forget you already got excommunicated; if you don't take this opportunity to make up, you'll never get another chance. Besides, it's not like Tyrael'll be interested in hearing any excuses, not when you've clearly demonstrated that you already know the story."

"I… I can't, I just can't do it." said Roland, turning away. "It doesn't matter how much you try to use words to convince me, Art. It's futile. Much like this whole war effort the sisters have going against the redskins with what little they have," he said, starting to choke up. "You remember what Amplisa said. You were right there with me. That's all the sisters had; and then they lost the backing of Count Traben, and now we're going to disappoint the sisters again with the bishop--"

"You don't know that," interrupted Natalie. "We might get through to him." -- "I'm pretty damn sure we won't." -- "Not with that attitude, we won't," chided Art.

"I don't even know why I bother," said Roland, throwing up his hands. "You know what, forget it. I'm leaving."

"Wait, what?" said Jezebel. "Just like that? Was it something Art said?" -- "What? What did I say wrong?" Art asked. -- "Shut up, Art." -- "What?" Art protested. -- "Shut up," Jezebel and Natalie said in unison.

How dare they, Art thought in righteous indignation. He was just doing his best to convince Roland to help, and we was only doing that because the sisterhood needed every last ally it could get. Clearly Roland was in the wrong, to abandon the sisterhood like that after having promised that he would speak to the bishop on their behalf; and yet they were teaming up against him, accusing him of having made a mistake? He shouted back, "What did I say, huh? What did I--" -- Natalie clobbered him in the cheek, almost knocking him off balance. He clutched his face, fallen silent. -- Jezebel face-palmed.

[Wherein Jezebel uses Fourth Tenet to convince Roland to agree once again to meeting with the bishop; Roland promises that if it goes well, he'll join the sisterhood; Art promises that if it goes well, he'll release Jezebel from her indenture.]

Roland had started walking back toward the inn, Natalie following shortly after, calling, "Wait up!"

Massaging his cheek, Art turned to Jezebel, who stood by his side, and said, "Oww." He gestured after those two with his head. "Alright, I guess I messed up. Care to tell me where?"

"For want of a sentry, the army was lost."

He understood the inference, of course. In his attempt to convince Roland to join them in the fight, he'd instead gotten Roland to abandon his attempt to meet with the bishop; which meant the sisterhood's sole remaining chance to recover and find allies was lost just like that. "Wise words." Art stared down at the ground as the gravity of his failure began to sink in. "Well fuck."

"Well don't just stand here, go apologize!" said Jezebel.

Art trudged after Roland, with Jezebel in tow. Amongst the throng of other passersby, he saw Natalie had gotten him to stop and was speaking to him animatedly: "…Don't mind him, he's an idiot. Oh, you've caught up, Art? You'd better be here to apologize," she said, crossing her arms to glower at him.

"I'm not interested in hearing them," said Roland, turning his face pointedly away from him. Meanwhile, Art thought: him, apologize? Hah! Art never thought himself as one good at making apologies, and didn't think he had done anything wrong to apologize for.

Jezebel walked to Roland's side. "Fourth Tenet: Help those in need."

Roland stopped in his tracks, then sighed. "I hate you sometimes, Jezebel, I really do."

Art mentally slapped himself for not having throught to say that. Of course! He'd misread Roland and tried to use something that didn't resonate with him. He ought to have tried using an argument concerning something Roland cared for. Jezebel must have considered that. She must have remembered that from when Roland was applying the way of channeled vigor to Elexa, and seen how it had clearly mattered to him. Art had seen not only that, but also when Roland mentioned it to him the first time that morning; and yet he'd not thought of it. Why hadn't he?

To all three of them, Roland said, "Alright, let's just get it over with." -- Art followed up with, "And what about joining the sisterhood?" -- Roland looked away from Art to look at Jezebel, who'd just invoked his Fourth Tenet back at him. He sighed again. "Oh all right, tell you what Art, if this will get you to stop nagging me: If we convince the bishop to provide aid, meaningful aid, not a scattering of pennies[denarius] like with the count, mind you, then I'll personally join them in helping out your damn sisterhood."

Art beamed. Roland as good as promised that he'd join the sisterhood if the meeting with the bishop went well; that was progress. Now he just had to ensure that the meeting with the bishop did go well. It seemed an awful lot was starting to ride on the outcome.

Natalie looked to Jezebel in utter confusion. "How did you-- Why did you speak for him? It was Art's mess in the first place, you ought to have let him apologize," said Natalie, giving Art a reproachful glance. "You let him off too easily." -- "Agreed," said Jezebel, looking pointedly at Art. "Since I got you out of having to apologize, what do you say?" -- "Thank you, Jezebel," Art replied, making a palm-over-fist gesture and giving an exaggerated bow. -- "Is that it?" -- "Uhh… what more did you want?" -- "How about that indenture," said Jezebel.

No way, thought Art. On second thought, for want of a sentry an army was almost lost, and he could do with her aid instead of her ire. "Huh. Well, you've got me out of a bind just now, and a good deed can't go unrewarded. So how about this? If we convince the bishop to send a few templar to the sisters' aid, let's say at least two dozen, then we'll cancel the indenture." He figured that if the bishop agreed, then having Jezebel's aid on the battlefield wouldn't matter nearly as much; plus, then he'll also have Roland. -- Jezebel beamed. "Really? No takebacks." -- "No takebacks."

[Wherein the Companions meet with the bishop and have introductions, and almost get snagged by the bishop; and the two women are booted out.]

Roland led the way to the cathedral, and before long it loomed before them. As they approached, they set eyes upon a pair of guards decked in mail standing before the gates, their spears held tall. Art spoke. "Greetings. I'm Roland Tarth, here to meet with his lordship the bishop Arevain as prearranged." -- A nod from one of the guards. "And the others are?" -- Art gestured Roland forth. "His lordship the bishop Edward Verens, of Kingsport, on whose behalf I had arranged this meeting; and also, Jezebel Lyrassia and Natalie Ingusetia, of Duncraig."

The guards waved them in, where another pair of guards patted them down and took their weapons from them, before they led Art and company upstairs and waved inside a study to meet with the bishop, who stood within. In the center of the study was a square mahogany desk, with a pair of chairs along each side. A pair of bookshelves stood to the sides, and candelabra provided lighting.

The guard announced, "His lordship the bishop Edward Verens, of Kingsport; Roland Tarth; Jezebel Lyrassia and Natalie Ingusetia." At the announcement of the first, the bishop, a fat man wearing all pure white robes who sat at a chair at the far side of the table, perked up. He set down his holy book and stood to greet them. -- "Ah, greetings, brother! You have come a very long way to arrive at our humble town. I pray your travels have gone smoothly?" he said, putting forth a hand, and he and Roland grasped each other's hands warmly. "Come, have a seat! I have a great many matters which I hope to discuss with you regarding our prior correspondences, as you must no doubt be aware."

Oh crap, thought Art. Did the bishop doubt Roland's claim of being a bishop, and was testing him with something like that? If he was, and Roland fell for it and implied that there had indeed been correspondence, the charade would all be over.

Roland waved a hand at the bishop. "Such matters will need to wait until a later time, seeing as how I bring with me three acquaintances that I met along my journey, and who are not fellow brothers and sisters of the cloth, but which I desired that they should meet with you as well. Ar-- Roland here is a swordsman I had recruited back when I first left Kingsport; and these two ladies are Jezebel and Natalie, who accompanied our caravan as we passed Duncraig."

"Oh? And how is it you had the opportunity to make their acquaintance?"

"Due to… unexpected circumstances, my brothers could not accompany me on this visit I had intended to make. But I did not put it off, seeing as I had already tarried enough in visiting the other, more remote dioceses. Now in my travels I had need for guards and company, and it just so happens that in the course of our conversations, these two indicated an interest in meeting with you alongside me, so I brought them along."

"Are your practices in Kingsport all that different