Brazen Gambit

One day, several years after Bob Asprin and I had put Thieves’ World® into “freeze dry mode,” I got a call from an editor at TSR -- then the publishers of Dungeons and Dragons®. It seemed they’d put together a new gaming milieu and were looking for authors to write stories set in it. I was reluctant at first, then the editor asked if I didn’t have a few unpublished/unwritten TW stories rattling around in my creative compost heap, because the DarkSun® milieu was the grittiest, down-and-dirtiest world TSR yet..

Well, I didn’t then; I really hadn’t looked back after we stopped doing TW. But by the next morning I had mental images of a man trying to study magic in a raucous bar and so I called the editor back and asked him to send me the background material.

At about the same time, I was reading Mikhail Gorbachev’s autobiography and thinking about the challenges to a fundamentally decent man trapped in an utterly corrupt society. For Gorbachev, that society was the Soviet Union, but it wasn’t long

before I was extrapolating from the Soviet Union to the DarkSun® milieu and my barroom scholar, Just-Plain Pavek.

After that, everything flowed together with remarkable ease. There is a lot of similarity between TW’s Sanctuary setting and the DarkSun® city of Urik, where I set my story (because it had been described in the existing DarkSun® novels, but no one had claimed it as a private “sand box”). The magic’s different and I had to wrap my imagination around elves, dwarves, and a bunch of specialized milieu beasties, but, all-in-all, I easily made myself to home.

I also began working with Hamanu -- ostensibly the villain of the piece, but character who clearly fell into the moral category a friend once defined as “groovy evil.” From the moment he strode into the prose, Hamanu threatened to take over the story...but more about him in CINNABAR SHADOWS and RISE AND FALL OF A DRAGON KING.

Chapter One

 It was the 102nd day of the Descending Sun in the seasonless year on the Tablelands of the world men called Athas. Ral and Guthay, the sibling moons, had already slipped below the horizon. Through the clear, dry air, the midnight sky was as black as the Dragon's heart. The parched Tablelands were lit by the pinpoint brilliance of a thousand unchanging stars. The brutal heat of day yielded to the bone-numbing cold of night, as it had every other day in both living memory and enduring legend. Days, years, and mortal lives churned relentlessly from birth to death. The cycles were endless, and invariable.

 Nothing changed in Athas: What was would always be. The will of man or woman could leave no lasting mark upon the world. These were the laws seared into the understanding of each child born beneath the blood-red sun.

 Yet Athas had changed, and recently. The dreaded Dragon, ancient beyond mortal reckoning, was gone. No more need a city-dwelling man or woman fear the Dragon's levy: the annual assessment of life, drawn without remorse from the legions of misfortune within each of the seven city-states.

 Change had come in other ways as well. A citizen's council had replaced King Kalak in Tyr, that had happened before the Dragon died. It governed that mighty city-state and controlled its precious iron mines. The sorcerer-kings of Balic, Raam, and Draj had died with the Dragon. Anarchy ruled in their former domains.  Mighty rulers still reigned in Urik, Gulg, and Nibenay, each keeping a suspicious eye on living neighbors and a covetous one on empty thrones.

 And somewhere on the Tablelands during this cold crystal night, the heavens raged and the bitter tears of Tithian I, fallen tyrant of Tyr and would-be successor to the Dragon himself, fell from black storm clouds, unintentionally nurturing the withered land.

 But in all the Tablelands, change intruded least in the northeastern city-state of Urik.

 The Sorcerer-King, Hamanu, survived the Dragon's demise and the misfortunes that befell his fellow tyrants. In undimmed panoply, he had returned to his square city that lay within sight of the restless Smoking Crown volcano. Striding out of the shimmering wastelands, his massive body shrouded in an illusion half-human and half-lion, the king had mounted the highest tower in his domain and had addressed his subjects. His words, enhanced by the mind-bending power of the Unseen Way, had penetrated every mind, every shadowed corner of his city.

 Borys the Dragon is dead.

 Most of those who heard the resonant, echoing voice, had not known the Dragon had a name.

 The sorcerer Rajaat is dead.

 Fewer still recognized the name of that ancient human wizard, nor knew if Rajaat had been friend or foe before his death.

 I, Lord Hamanu —King of the World, King of the Mountains and the Plains, Lion of Urik, the Great King, the Mighty King, the bringer of death and peace— I, your king, have returned safe and whole to rule my city. You need not fear the emptiness that replaces Borys and Rajaat. Though change has thrust itself upon Athas, you need not fear it. Change will not disturb fair Urik. You need fear only me, only when you disobey me. Worship me, your sacred eternal king. Obey me and live without fear.

 From the highest templars in their gilt-trimmed, yellow silk robes and the proud nobles sweating beneath their jewels to the least dung-seller and mangy street urchin, the Urikites responded with an almost-spontaneous hymn of praise. Their ten thousand and more voices joined together were not so resonant as Hamanu's uncanny voice. Deep in their hearts, the Urikites knew the truth of their king's words: While the Lion of Urik held his domain in his taloned grasp, the city had nothing to fear but its own king.

 In that regard, life went on in Urik exactly as it had for a millennium. It was true that fearsome storms had raged twice above the city walls in the two years since King Hamanu's return that dusty afternoon. The storms were seething, screaming monsters, with many-colored lightning that left brave citizens cowering in the corners of their homes. But the storms did not breach the towering yellow walls, and neither did anything else.

 King Hamanu's word was as brutally honest as it had always been. Change in many forms might have come to the Tablelands, but it did not disturb his domain.

* * *

 A cool night breeze flowed from the dark desert and across Urik's open rooftops. Folk who, before sunset, had languished in whatever scrap of shade the city afforded, pulled cloaks high around their necks and hastened along cobblestone streets toward their beds. Here and there, throughout the mile-square city, a snarl or growl erupted as someone wandered too close to someone else's guarded property.

 Silhouetted sentries from the Templarate's civil bureau, their spears against one shoulder and shields hung on the off-weapon arm, patrolled the broad outer rampart walls. The damage wrought seven years earlier when Rikus of Tyr had led his rag-tag gladiator army in doomed assault on Urik's heart had been long since repaired and blended seamlessly now with the older fortifications.

 Better-equipped guards from the Templarate war bureau stood watch along the narrower inner walls that divided Urik into segregated quarters, reserved for the nobles and the templars themselves, and common quarters for the rabble. Merchants, who held themselves apart from the entanglements and protection of citizenship, set aside their sunlight rivalries to mount a common watch in their own quarter. In the elven market, near the western gate, where trade never came to a complete stop, pungent fires crackled all night between translucent tents and shanties.

 When the curfew gongs rang at midnight, law-abiding folk latched and double-latched their doors, if they had doors, for, despite the loud claims of the civil bureaus that the streets of Urik were always safe, regardless of the hour, wise folk knew that after midnight Urik belonged to the street scum who were always responsible for their own safety, and to the templars who, in the opinion of many of those behind latched doors, were the worst of scum themselves.

 Despite the curfew, or because of it, there were places within Urik that were only alive in the criminal hours after midnight. One such place was Joat's Den. Carved out of a corner of the hulking customs house, convenient to both the Caravan Gate's plaza and the elven market, but not part of either quarter, the Den sprawled low to the ground and open to the sky.

 A single grease lamp above the door shone faintly on a cracked and peeling piece of leather that, in the bright sunlight, displayed the faded portrait of a gap-toothed dwarf brandishing a tankard: Joat himself in his younger days, when he'd been trying to attract customers.

 The customers Joat got, then and now, were off-duty templars. And since the yellow-robes provided a steady, if undistinguished, trade in which there was little threat of competition or hope of expansion, Joat let his sign fade. For decades the dwarf had concentrated his entrepreneurial efforts in procuring the strongest inebriants at the lowest possible price.

 Tonight he was serving broy, a liquor produced when kank nectar was left to ferment in the sun for a few days, then sealed in resin-smeared leather sacks. Broy was a pungent, slightly rancid drink with a cloying sweetness that coated the drinker's tongue for hours afterward. It was, to say the least, an acquired taste,

 Unlike the liquors fermented from fruits or grains, broy produced quiet, melancholy drunks who stared at the stars, lost in introspection. As such, it was not the drink of choice at Joat's Den where templars came to forget who they were, what they did, but the templars who frequented Joat's Den acquired taste and tolerance for whatever the old dwarf could scrounge, as long as it could kick like a broody erdlu.

 Joat, himself, however, preferred the nights when broy was all he had behind the mekillot rib bar. Business was good, of course; it always was: when templars drank, they drank until they achieved oblivion. But when they drank broy the furniture didn't break and the place stayed quiet as a bone-yard.


 Through some quirk of fate, from a stool beside the hearth that Joat had deliberately refused to kindle, a customer had taken it upon himself to entertain everyone. The dwarf stood ready to toss the human youth into the back alley the moment anyone complained, but the mournful tunes the boy played on a set of pipes whittled from the fragile wing-bones of unhatched erdlus suited the overall mood.

 The youth was halfway handsome and dressed in plain, drab-colored clothes rather than a sulphurous yellow robe. He could have been anyone, but he was a templar. Joat was sure of that. He hadn't hired any entertainment and though non-templars occasionally came through his doors —his place had a certain reputation for discretion, if one didn't mind the regular clientele— no non-templar would be foolish enough to sit here, surrounded by the most reviled denizens of the city, lost in his thoughts and his music.

 The young templar's fingers arched delicately over his instrument. His eyes were closed and his body swayed gently in rhythm with the music that was as beautiful as it was unexpected.

 Strange, Joat mused silently in a lull between refills, listening to the pipes. Where had he learned to play like that? And why?

 Joat knew the templars as well as anyone who did not wear a yellow robe knew them. More specifically, he knew the under-rank templars from the civil bureau who had only a few threads of orange or crimson, never gold, woven into the hems of their sleeves. Such folk came to his place to celebrate their infrequent promotions, gripe about their varied failures in the ruthless bureaucracy, and to eulogize their dead. There were, of course, other kinds of templars: aristocratic High Templars who inherited their positions and seldom ventured outside their private, guarded quarter, ambitious templars who'd betray, sell, or murder not just ordinary citizens like him, but other templars, too...

 And then there were Hamanu's pets: men and women to whom the ancient, jaded king gave free rein. Those pet names were whispered here, in Joat's Den, and feared above all others, even the king's.

 The dwarf didn't particularly like his customers, but he knew them well enough to know that beneath the robes they were very much the same as other people. They made the compromises everyone made to survive in a world that was indifferent to life. He certainly didn't envy them. In his eyes their privileges couldn't outweigh the risks they took every day, clinging tightly to their little niche in Urik's grand bureaucracy.

 King Hamanu decreed that nothing changed. In the larger sense, the king spoke the truth. But change was a constant in Joat's small world. He'd raised his family here, behind the customs house. His wife still cooked all the food. His children helped in more ways than he could count. Five grandchildren slept in cozy beds beneath the pantry.

 It hadn't been easy; he'd endured more hard years than he cared to recall. The templars were reliable customers, except when crop failures tightened supplies or one of Hamanu's chronic military campaigns put the whole city on war rations. Joat's Den had been burnt out twice, most recently when Tyrian hooligans had sacked the city, trying, without success, to free the slaves.

 King Hamanu always got Urik set to rights again, easing off on fines and taxes until trade was back on its feet again. The Sorcerer-King didn't claim to have founded Urik, but he, and the Templarate he had founded, nurtured the city with ferocious care. Urik survived; Urik's citizens survived. In the end, survival mattered more than the king's notorious cruelty or any individual templar's brutality.

 Standing in the twilight of his life —his eyes a bit dimmer than they'd been in his youth, his hand a shade less steady when he poured from a full jug— Joat was proud of himself, of his Den, of their survival.

 Or maybe it wasn't pride, just that forsaken, melancholy music.

 The youth had entranced himself and everyone with his playing. He showed no sign of fatigue. Like as not, he'd pipe away until sunrise, unless someone stopped him. Melancholy music that produced melancholy customers who, in turn, produced no sales. Joat wiped his hands on the leather apron that covered him from neck to knees— and covered a variety of weapons as well. He selected a supple sand-filled sap from the apron's armory. The small weapon disappeared in a thick-fingered dwarven fist.

 He was easing around the end of the mekillot rib bar, determined to solve the night's problem, when a woman's terrified shriek split the night. Every head came up —except for the musician's. The scream hung in the air a moment, then ended the way it had begun: abruptly.

 A quick exchange of glances around the Den said it all: murderNo spoken words were needed, nor anything else. Even if a templar had been interested in rescuing the woman, the odds against finding her were as long as the odds against saving her were short.

 Templars were cautious gamblers, especially when their own skins might be on the line.

 A blond templar —handsome except for his broken teeth— hoisted his tankard upside-down. A war-hardened elf (on the other side of the room, naturally) made the same gesture; and a third templar pitched a ceramic coin into the musician's half-filled cup. She called for a happier song.

 An unanticipated chorus of slurred dissent erupted. To Joat's astonishment, a fair number of his rock-headed half-drunk customers were enjoying the unpaid performance. Who knew what they might have done if he'd sapped the youth into silence? Maybe he should put the word out that he was looking for a musician with a taste for melancholy?

 Sighing through his unanswered questions, Joat returned the sap to its hiding place beneath his apron. He retrieved the ripe broy-sack from its hook behind the bar and started around the room, topping off any outheld tankard. He paused a moment at a table where the solitary templar's tankard stood empty.

 "You ready?" he asked the top of one man's head.

 The templar straightened, covering a wax-tablet with brawny arms, but not before Joat got a glance at it. Not that Joat needed to spy. This templar —he made it a point of honor not to know his customers' names— didn't come every night but his routine, when he did come, never varied. He'd study the marks on a scrap of parchment, then attempt to reproduce them from memory on the tablet. He'd repeated the process as many times as necessary, rarely more than twice per scrap.

 Joat recognized city-writing when he saw it: most people did. But script was forbidden to anyone not noble born or templar trained and he was careful to conceal those script-secrets he'd deciphered over the years.

 Still, an intelligent man made assumptions.

 The brawny, intense scribbler had a very mashed nose and lips that were scar-twisted into a permanent scowl. He didn't seem the sort to be collecting love-notes from a noble lady (though Joat had seen stranger things happen in his Den), so his assumption was that the templar was studying magic.

 Great Hamanu knew why a templar would commit magic scribbling into his memory. Although, on second thought, if Great Hamanu knew of this would-be scholar's hobby, then this templar would likely have been converted into parchment himself. The king granted a priestly sort of spellcraft to his templars, through what means an ordinary man did not care to guess. High Bureau scholars performed the esoteric research that enabled Urik to defend itself against the other city-states and the war bureau knew how to wield what the High Bureau and the king concocted.

 But from everything Joat had ever overheard in his tap room, a lowly civil bureau templar entreated Hamanu for magic as seldom as possible.

 And always regretted it afterward.

 "You ready?" Joat repeated, holding the thong-closed spout of the sack over the templar's grungy tankard.

 Before the templar could answer yea or nay, another scream shattered the night's calm. This scream wasn't feminine or anguished or very distant. It was a sound of pure rage, nearby and coming closer. Entirely ominous. Absently, expertly, Joat put a slip-knot in the thong before dumping the broy-sack on the studious templar's table. He slid his hand beneath the apron again, unsheathing a talon-knife with a blade half as long as his forearm. The weapon had scarcely cleared its sheathe when something loud and angry thrashed through the beaded curtain that served as his door.

 Joat saw that the shape was mannish, rather than womanish, human rather than dwarven or elven, but mostly he saw the long, jagged-edge blade that ran with blood. The man belched nonsense about the sun eating his brain; he'd crossed the line from rage to unreason, slashing wildly at enemies only he could see.

 Joat spared a worried glance for his own knife, which looked puny compared to the opposition, but the Den was his place. He'd go down if he had to, but he'd go down fighting. The Den was his focus, not merely the center of his mundane life, but the uniquely dwarven center of spirit as well. When a dwarf broke faith with his focus, his spirit found no rest after his death. It returned as a howling banshee to haunt the scene of his failure.

 The last thing Joat wanted to do was bequeath a cursed tavern to his children and grandchildren. He flexed his fingers around the leather-wrapped hilt and took a cautious step toward the beaded curtain.

 But Joat wasn't the only one easing toward the raver. The templars took a proprietary interest in Joat's Den. Though they could go wherever they wanted in the city, they weren't welcome in many other places. Any of the dwarf's regulars would bust the jaw of anyone who accused him, or her, of friendship, or some other soft-hearted sentiment, but there were fealties no one mentioned. Chairs, stools, and an occasional table overturned as the regulars lurched to their feet.

 Hesitation rippled through Joat's Den —as if every man, woman, elf, dwarf, human, or half-breed had expected to play the solitary fool and was stunned to be part of a group instead. The templars lost their natural advantage in that hesitation. The raver attacked the hapless musician who played dirges, but did not notice death approaching.

 The youth screamed as the long knife came down across his arms. His fragile pipes slipped from his hands and were crushed by his own weight and that of the madman who fell atop him.

 With a scream of her own, an elf templar broke ranks with her hesitant peers. The razor-sharp petals of a punch-knife bloomed between the fingers of both fists before she dove across the floor and plunged them into the raver's flanks below his ribs. Away from their tribe —and the Templarate was as far from a tribe as an elf could get— Joat's elven regulars usually stood aloof from any brawl, but they had notions of loyalty and friendship no non-elf could hope to understand, and this particular one had evidently taken the musician's misfortune personally.

 She seemed capable of finishing off the madman. Blood spurted from the punch-knife wounds, a reliable token of fatal injury, and she'd gotten a lethal arm around his neck. No one, including Joat, stepped forward to deliver a mercy blow.

 But the madman they all believed mortally wounded writhed like a serpent in the elf's grasp. Forgetting the musician, who had survived the initial attack and lay moaning, curled around his blood-soaked arms, the raver brought the spiked pommel of his long knife down on the elf's undefended neck. She groaned once and went limp.

 Oblivious to the blood streaming from his wounds, the raver got to his feet, holding his weapon too high, leaving his gut and legs unprotected. Anyone could see the inviting line of attack, but neither he nor any templar rushed to accept it. Something was seriously amiss: the raver should have bled to death by now.

 Joat flexed his knees, sinking close to the ground —as only a dwarf could. He eased forward, brushing his bare feet in arcs that never lost contact with the dirt floor, never surrendered balance. The vital blood vessels and nerves at the top of the madman's weapon-side leg were his target, but he was careful not to give himself away by looking there. Silently invoking Rkard, last of the dwarven kings, for luck, Joat sank another handspan into his crouch and waited for the opportunity.

 He felt himself fall, but neither saw nor remembered the blow that toppled him. The raver's long knife knocked his shorter weapon from his hand when he raised it in desperate defense. The stone-hard mekillot ribs of the bar saved his life, blocking the long knife's cut. The composite blade broke from the force of the downstroke.

 "Hamanu," someone swore and several other templars repeated the word.

 The magic student, still standing at the edge of Joat's vision, had drawn a metal knife, not long enough to pierce the madman's guard but sufficient for defense against the broken, composite blade. The student grunted at another burly human who carried an obsidian-edged sword. This second templar nodded in reply, and gripped his sword with both hands, while the student played shield for them both. Working as a team, they backed the raver from his victims, then the swordsman dealt a swallow-tail slash that left the madman's weapon arm hanging by a mere flap of skin.

 But, the madman kept to his feet —once again roaring his nonsense about the sun burning inside his skull. He used his remaining hand to pry his broken knife from the shock-clenched fist of his dangling arm. The templar pair stood in flat-footed stupor as the raver slashed the swordsman's face with the broken blade and backhanded the student into the nearest wall.

 "Mind-bender!" another voice shouted, offering the only possible explanation for what they'd witnessed.

 No one else took up the attack. The madman remained where he was, cornered, grievously wounded, undefeated, and just possibly undefeatable. Everything that breathed on Athas had a jot of mind-bending talent, but templars wisely left theirs unnurtured. King Hamanu did not look kindly on powers that he could not bestow, or withhold.

 The blond templar with the broken teeth shoved a hand deep into the neckline of his tunic and withdrew a ceramic object Joat had sincerely never hoped to see exposed in his establishment.

 "Hamanu!" the templar cried loudly —not an oath but a prayer. "Hear me, O Great and Mighty One!"

 Other templars reached for the thongs around their necks. Their medallions were alike —baked slabs of yellow clay into which the Sorcerer-King's leonine aspect had been carved. While Joat trembled, the medallions began to glow and a pair of slanting golden ovals appeared above the open roof of Joat's Den.

 His blood went cold in his heart: No man could see those eyes, that way, and hope to survive the experience.


 The words of invocation exploded in Joat's skull, compounding the headache he'd already gotten from the raving mind-bender. He closed his eyes in agony and missed the moment when the sorcerer-king's magic channelled through the medallion-holding templars. Joat felt the flames' wind and heat, heard their roar and the maniacal squeals of the madman. He smelled noxious magic. He could have opened his eyes —was sore tempted to look— but wisdom prevailed, and he kept them tightly shut until the squealing ceased, then the flames, and only the stench of charred flesh and hair lingered.

 "It is done," a quaver-voiced templar announced.

 Joat opened his eyes. His own wounds were minor, although the leather apron would have to be replaced. Another elf knelt beside the musician who would clearly survive, but never play his pipes again. The elf who'd first risen to his defense remained where she had fallen, the victim of bad luck and the unique vulnerabilities of long, light elven skeletons. Joat bent down to close her eyes as he joined the crowd around the raver's corpse.

 The blond templar who'd invoked the king's aid wore a scarlet thread in his sleeve and held authority the others respected. He knelt by the largely intact corpse, muttering as he peeled away charred strips of cloth.

 Granted, Joat hadn't been watching when the spell did its work, but he'd expected a smear of ash and grease, a charred husk at most. Instead, there was an emaciated man —impossible to guess his age with his skin hanging hollow from his bones— lying dead on the taproom floor.

 "Should've cindered." One of the templars put words to Joat's misgivings. "There were five of us together. He shouldn't be more than dung in the dirt."

 "He said the sun was eating his brain, and I believe it. Be glad He was feeling generous." That from the swordsman with his fingers pressed tight against the gash in his cheek.

 Those words provoked a round of muttering. The templars agreed Hamanu had to be told his boon had fallen short. The blond templar wasn't volunteering, and neither was anyone else —which meant there was a bad chance Urik's templars were going to let that particular burden fall on an ordinary Urik citizen's shoulders.

 Weighing the alternatives, Joat squatted down beside the corpse. Between the shock and his aching head, he'd forgotten the words the madman had been shouting. Sometimes an ordinary citizen, scouring the markets for the cheapest liquors available, heard things before the templars heard them. Gritting his teeth, Joat pried the corpse's mouth open and pulled out his tongue.

 "Laq," he said, rising to his feet and leaving the blackened, definitive symptom for all to see.

 Someone hawked into the cold hearth, spitting out evil before it took root, the way peasant farmers did. Another swore and slapped fist against palm.

 Like the black-cloud rains, Laq had appeared in Urik after the Dragon's death and Hamanu's return. The storms, violent as they were, held out the faint promise that someday water might again be plentiful in the Tablelands. Laq left no similar optimism in its wake.

 At first no one had known what caused men and women of all races to stop eating, stop sleeping, and finally lose their wits entirely. Earliest speculation said Laq was a disease, or possibly a parasite, like the little purple caterpillars which did eat through their host's brain.

 But the worms turned their victims into blissful idiots, not raving madmen, and they didn't turn his tongue soot-black from tip to root.

 These days the rumormongers claimed that Laq was an elixir the nobles had concocted in a futile effort to wring more work out of their slaves. Supposedly the elixir worked, after a fashion, but strong, energized slaves had a disturbing tendency to overpower their overseers; and when the slaves were deprived of their elixir, they became even more obstreperous.

 For a second coin the mongers would claim that King Hamanu had issued a secret decree banning Laq without ever defining what it was. The King, they said, promised an unpleasant death to those who traded in it.

 Joat was skeptical of two-coin mongers: The Sorcerer-King didn't issue secret decrees about imaginary elixirs; he certainly didn't need a new excuse to get rid of those he didn't like, and any death at Hamanu's hands was unspeakably unpleasant. Still, something was seeping through Urik. Folk were starving themselves, going mad, and dying with dead black tongues.

 "Never been one this hard to kill before," the magic student mused, no worse for his battering and standing, once again, beside his table, collecting his parchment scraps. "If it's Laq, something's been added. Something's been changed."

 The dreaded word, more dreaded than Laq itself: change.

 Imagine telling King Hamanu that his magic had been scarcely strong enough to bring down a starving human, then imagine telling him that there was something loose in Urik that had given madmen mind-bender's strength and the ability to throw off magic.

 A sane man would make the corpse tell his own story. And it could be done. A sorcerer-king had ways of getting what he wanted from the dead, and ways of punishing them, too, but not even King Hamanu could unscramble a madman's wits.

 Failing the corpse, send that ridiculous-looking student, who'd raised the whole uncomfortable possibility...

 "Pavek!" the blond templar shouted, pointing at the table.

 But Pavek was gone, with only swaying strands of beads in the doorway to say that he'd left in a hurry. A templar scurried into the alley after him. Joat scurried to the table, worried that he'd been stiffed, but— no. Though the parchment scraps and the wax tablet were missing, two chipped, dirty ceramic coins sat in their place. Joat swept them into his belt-pouch. Then he made the rounds again, chivvying the regulars to pay their tabs and pleading for someone to haul the corpses to the bone-yard. They took the elf, and left him with the raver.

 Joat hobbled to the bar, the ache in his head nearly balanced by the ache in his side. He probably had a few cracked ribs —nothing that wouldn't mend naturally in ten days or twenty. When it came to getting beaten up, there were advantages to being a dwarf. He felt under the mekillot-rib for the sack where his wife kept the powder she smeared on their grandchildren's gums when they were cutting their teeth. Mixed with a bit of water and swallowed fast, Ral's Breath did wonders for aches that were too big to ignore but not serious enough for a sawbones or healer.

* * *

 Pavek heard his name followed by a string of curses. He'd heard worse and kept walking at the same steady pace, confident that no one seriously considered pursuing him. Templars didn't act without orders, the smart ones didn't anyway, and Nunk, the blond Instigator with the rotten teeth, wasn't going to issue any more orders tonight. Nunk wasn't bad, for an Instigator, and he wasn't stupid. He'd guess what Pavek meant to do, and leave him alone to do it. There wasn't going to be enough glory in this night's work to warrant a share of it.

 The customs house bordered one of the few neighborhoods that hadn't been rebuilt since the Tyrian gladiators sacked the city. It might be, eventually, but in the meantime its broken buildings swarmed with squatters. All sorts of folk wound up there. Some were hiding from creditors or templars, some were only temporarily down on their luck, but for most of them, the quarter was the last stop before the bone-yard. They were all too poor to rob and too desperate to risk robbing someone else.

 Pavek paused on the brink of the rubble. He cocked his head, using the stars to fix his relationship to Joat's Den, then recalling the first scream, the murdered woman's scream.

 There was little doubt in his mind that the raver had killed her before bursting into Joat's: the timing was right, the raver would have killed anything that crossed his path, and, witless as the madman was, the squatter's quarter was probably where he'd been living.

  The footing here was more treacherous than any of the inhabitants. Leaving his metal knife secured in its sheath, Pavek started down a street still littered with fire-charred bricks.

 By Hamanu's decree, Urik was a square city. Streets were supposed to intersect at squared angles, but the king's order had broken down in the squatter's quarter. The old streets were blocked with fallen walls, new paths wove drunkenly through the ruins.

 Pavek took his bearings again and reconsidered his whole plan. This wasn't his job. He was a customs guard: third-rank Regulator in Urik's third-rate civil bureau who spent his days making sure no one stole the city's bonded property without the proper signatures. He wasn't authorized to haul corpses up to the necromancers for interrogation and he wasn't authorized to worry about Laq.

 But he'd gotten a glimpse into the fire of the raver's mind just as he'd gone flying rump-first into the wall, and he'd seen the face of a woman torn apart with terror.

 Find the woman, find some answers about Laq— that was his entire plan. Urik was all the home he'd ever have, and he didn't like the thought of it being overrun with ravers, especially mind-bending, magic-resistant ravers. Pavek had been face-to-face with King Hamanu just once in his life, when he'd gotten his first yellow robe. He'd have sworn there wasn't anything he feared more than his king, until he watched five templars focus Flameblade spells on a black-tongued raver, without reducing him to ash.

 Eventually, Pavek found what he was looking for: A little while later: human, lying on her back, half in shadow, half in the pale starlight, one leg tucked demurely beneath the other, her neck so brutally torn and twisted that her face was pressed against the ground. Pavek moved her gently into the full starlight; his hands trembled as he turned her head back to a normal angle. The face matched the one the raver had blasted into his memory. The bureau necromancers would be pleased: a sudden death --alive one heartbeat and dead the next-- meant the dead-heart sorcerers would get useful answers to their questions.

 Pavek closed her mouth and eyes, and closed his own, waiting for his nausea to pass before he tried to hoist her across his shoulder for the long hike back to the civil bureau's headquarters.

 A scraping sound emerged from the nearby shadow: a leather sandal grinding on sand and broken bricks, but a smaller sound than anything full-grown would make. Pavek lunged low and caught himself an armful of human boy that he dragged into the starlight for closer inspection.

 "Leave her alone!" the boy sobbed, pummelling Pavek ineffectively with his fists.

 "I can't. She's been murdered. Questions have to be asked, answered. The man who did it can't help. His mind was gone before he died."

 The boy went limp in the templar's arms as all his strength flowed into wails of anguish. Pavek thought he understood. He'd never known his father. His mother had done the best she could, buying him a bed in the Templarate orphanage when he was about five years old. He'd hardly seen her after that, but he'd cried when they told him her crumpled body had been found at the base of the highest wall. There was a lock of her black hair beneath the leather-wrapped hilt of his metal knife.

 But Pavek had forgotten the words for compassion, if he'd ever known them. Ten years in the orphanage, another ten in the barracks had erased such simple things from his mind. He squeezed the boy against his chest and thumped him on the head. He thought that was what his mother had done, once or twice, and the boy did grow quiet.

 "Give me a hand. We'll take her to the civil bureau, then I'll find you a place—"

 "The bureau!" Shocked out of his tears, the boy wriggled free. "Who are you?"

 "Pavek. Just plain Pavek. Regulator—"

 "A templar!"

 The boy's fist shot forward, a small hard object striking just below Pavek's groin. He folded inward, barely staying on his feet as the boy scampered into the shadow. Not far. The footsteps didn't fade; they stopped. Pavek cursed beneath his breath as he slowly straightened his back and his legs.

 "Boy— come back here. Urik's no place for a boy alone."

 Pavek knew he was right, but words gasped through clenched teeth lost something of their effectiveness, and the orphan stayed where he was. When he was confident of his balance, Pavek removed a few ceramic coins from his belt purse, displaying them in the starlight.

 "Look— you'll need these."

 The boy didn't take the bait. Well, Pavek reckoned he wouldn't have taken it either, under similar circumstances. He dribbled the coins into the dirt for the boy to retrieve later, then, with a stab of pain through his midsection and a loud groan, he hoisted the corpse across his shoulders and headed back the way he'd come.

Copyright 1994, TSR, Inc.

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