McGraw began to have a fatalistic feeling about the day when he wasn’t even allowed to finish breakfast. It wasn’t that the food at the A&W was particularly sumptuous, or even that he could afford to give it his undivided attention. He always kept an eye and ear on his surroundings when out on a mission, and in this particular town he also had his mental senses attuned to the wards that would notify him of his quarry attempting to flee via Rail. It was breakfast, though. There were some things to which a man was simply entitled, things he took it amiss when someone interrupted them.
He had, as usual, chosen a seat in the front corner of the room, which afforded him a view out the windows and one of the inn’s common room itself. After Tellwyrn’s surprise visit, he’d also taken to keeping a weather eye on the door. As such, he of course noted the five figures assembling in the square outside, but didn’t assign any particular attention to them until the one in the middle bellowed his name.
With a sigh, he glanced down at his plate of eggs, beans and hash browns, currently half-finished. The thought of just ignoring them crossed his mind, but with some regret he dismissed it. The sort of fool who stood outside a tavern yelling for someone to come out was the sort of fool who’d create an even more disruptive ruckus if they weren’t obliged. He brought the bite currently sitting on his fork to his mouth and stood, carefully wiping his face and beard with his napkin, and strolled across the room to the bar while chewing.
He swallowed just before reaching the waitress currently minding the tavern and tipped his hat politely to her. “Mornin’, miss. Just wanted to settle up here, in case I don’t get the chance later.” Smiling unthreateningly at her wary expression, he set a small stack of coins on the counter.
“That’s…uh, that’s well more than enough,” the girl said carefully.
“I’m aware. Listen, those kids outside yelling in the street? If they’re in a position to take advantage later, give ’em a round on me. They’re likely to need it.”
Nodding to her again, he turned and strode unhurriedly toward the door.
McGraw stepped outside and descended the short steps to the square, then came to a stop a couple of yards from the front of the tavern.
“Mornin’,” he said politely, tipping his hat. “It’s a mite early for it, don’t you think? I don’t suppose you kids would care to do this later.”
Two of the five—the women—he recognized from the tavern and around town; they were by far the more distinctive. The more absurd, if he was to be honest. The one in the center who’d been yelling was the attractive young lady in the dramatic black leather that showed a distracting amount of skin. He’d done his best not to be distracted, of course. McGraw’s policy was never to ogle a woman unless she specifically indicated that she wanted him to, and this one looked more the type to invite attention just so she could ream some poor fellow out for showing it. The other was a short, waifish, rather hollow-cheeked girl in sweltering black robes, clutching a staff of dark-stained hardwood. A magical staff, but not one that fired bolts of lightning at the press of a switch. No, it was a wizard’s staff in the tradition of his own, an aid to spellcasting. For all that, he didn’t perceive any arcane energies around her. A witch, then, or warlock? Either way, an amateur. People who meddled with either fairies or demons quickly learned to be serious and not waste time on such melodramatic touches as sweeping black robes and ornately-carved staves, or they came to a swift and sticky end.
The men were slightly more respectable-looking, with the exception of the mage, who was actually wearing hooded robes straight out of the last century. The man was middle-aged at least, with a slight paunch and as much gray as brown in his beard; of all people, he ought to know better. Beside him stood a fellow who wasn’t a cowboy but had dressed as one, his leather and denim attire brand-spanking new and embellished with needless embroidery, surmounted by a white ten-gallon hat. He also sported late-model wands holstered at his belt, over which his hands hovered menacingly. On the other side was a nervous-looking fellow in a plain suit, a bronze badge at his lapel marking him a cleric of Salyrene.
“Justice,” said the girl in leather self-importantly, “doesn’t wait till it’s convenient for you.”
“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw said mildly, “it wouldn’t be the first time. But I was under the impression that justice in this town was the province of a nice fellow with a badge, who has the actual authority of the Empire to hand it out.”
“Our weapons are all the authority we need,” sneered the “cowboy.”
“That’s no way to live, son,” McGraw told him gravely. “It makes for a world that ain’t fit for anybody to live in.”
“There are things more important than the law,” the girl in leather said sharply, clearly trying to steer the conversation back toward herself. “Especially when assassins hide behind the law to do their dirty work.”
“Was that directed at me?” he asked. “I didn’t realize I was hiding behind anything.”
“There are higher powers,” intoned the girl in the black robe. She had a thin, strained voice. “Higher concerns. A great doom is coming; it is whispered on the wind in every corner of the world. Those who care to stand against the darkness must do so, ere it is too late.”
“Kid,” he said wearily, “nobody talks like that.”
“Enough,” snapped Leather. “We’re not here to argue the point. Any point. We know what you’re here for, Longshot, and it’s not happening. I think you should leave town.”
“If there’s a problem with me minding my own business in this fair little burg, I believe I’ll wait till I hear about it from an official source. Just as a point of curiosity, though, are you kids aware the people you’re protecting are members of the Thieves’ Guild?”
That caused a stir in their ranks. The girl in the leather narrowed her eyes; the cleric actually twitched as if startled, looking over at the leader as if for direction.
“So,” said the mage with a smile, “you not only know who we’re discussing, but that they need protection. Sounds like an admission to me.”
“Well, it seems I’ll have to grant you that one,” McGraw said, chuckling ruefully. “Fairly caught. That’s what happens when I don’t get to finish my breakfast. What’s your story, friend? Forgive my pointin’ it out, but you don’t seem to quite fit in among these whippersnappers.”
“Rotscale,” the other wizard replied, holding up an arm and pulling back the sleeve of his robe to show a long streak of black, hardened skin. “I’ve been to every cleric in Tiraas; they can’t do a thing. The doctors say I’ve got two years, tops. Always wanted to be a hero, ever since I was a boy. Facing the prospect of actually dying in bed, well… A man reassesses what’s naïve and what’s true.”
“That, I can respect,” McGraw said, nodding gravely. The other man nodded in return, his expression still calm and faintly amused.
“So what’s it gonna be, McGraw?” asked the girl in the leather. “Are you gonna leave on your own terms? Or do we have to do this…the hard way?”
“Ideally,” he replied calmly, “the outcome here is that I go back inside and finish my meal, and y’all cut this foolishness out and go get a real job. Ain’t my policy to tell anybody how they oughta live, but I do wish you’d consider the consequences of your actions for people who aren’t you. This here’s an inhabited town,” he nodded to the side, where a dozen or so townfolk had gathered to watch the proceedings with great interest. “Anybody starts shootin’, there’s likely to be bystanders injured and sure to be property damage. Also, the way you’ve been carryin’ on out here, I expect the Sheriff to arrive any second, and as things stand it ain’t me who’s aimin’ to spend a night in the pokey.”
That brought them up short. Some of the bluster leaked out of the leader; she glanced uncertainly around at the buildings and people nearby, while the cleric and the robed girl looked to her for guidance. The cowboy only stared at McGraw, a faint grin hovering around his mouth. That one was going to be trouble, no matter how this played out.
“All of this,” McGraw went on, “is leaving aside that you poor saps have been suckered in by some authentically bad people to do their dirty work. So I’ll turn your question back around on you, miss. You wanna step inside, have a seat, talk this out like civilized folk? Or would you prefer to do something foolish and get buried under the consequences of it? What’s it gonna be?”
Watching from the shadows of a nearby alley, Thumper cursed softly to himself. Already it was all going wrong. All those damned kids had to do was be their stupid selves, and they couldn’t even do that right. Even as he watched, he could see their resolve faltering.
As usual, he had to do everything himself.
He pulled a small hinged case from the inside pocket of his coat and flipped it open; inside were several vials from his potion kit. He might be a fake salesman, but the props provided for his cover were quite real, and he had taken the precaution of bringing several along in case they came in handy for today’s work. Selecting one, he shut the case and tucked it back away, flicked the cork off the vial with his thumb, and drank it down, grimacing at the bitter taste. Would it interfere with the functioning of alchemy to add some damn flavor?
At least it worked. In seconds, his own arms faded from view. Clothes and all, luckily; he’d read horror stories of adventurers caught in sticky situations when their invisibility elixirs had only concealed flesh, but thankfully modern alchemy was more reliable.
Shook was no sneak-thief, but he’d grown up on the streets of Tiraas and knew how to move quietly. For all that sneaking out in the open in broad daylight set his nerves jangling, he circled around the little tableau unfolding in the square without being spotted by any of the participants. He’d half-expected McGraw to be able to see through the effects of the potion, but it seemed luck was with him.
He ghosted around behind the five would-be heroes, creeping up on the fool in the cowboy hat just as McGraw was finishing up his little speech. He was right about one thing: the sheriff would be here very soon. Thumper had singled out this guy when Tazlith had introduced him around to the posse she’d put together: he was aggressive, reckless, and exactly the sort of fellow who could be relied on to start trouble. Even if he didn’t actually start it, nobody would have a hard time believing that he had.
As the fives wannabes hesitated, glancing at each other, Thumper crouched, moved in closer, and then lunged. He grabbed one of the cowboy’s hands with one of his and his wand with the other. The man cried out in surprise and tried to pull away, but Thumper was faster, stronger and had the element of surprise. He mashed the wand against the man’s hand, twisted it in the general direction of McGraw, and squeezed the clicker.
The shot missed, of course, cracking one of the wooden supports holding up the A&W’s awning. That didn’t matter; what mattered was that to those watching, it looked like the man had performed a quick draw and fired from the waist.
It had been a gamble; it would have backfired had his targets shown any introspection or reserve, but human nature didn’t fail him. Once the shooting started, the thinking stopped.
McGraw hadn’t been in the path of the wandshot, but he nevertheless threw up a shield, a sparkling blue sphere around himself, which protected him from the blast of unfocused shadow magic hurled by the girl in the black robe. People screamed and ran in all directions. The cowboy had dropped his wand when Thumper let it go, and was looking around in confusion.
The Sheriff would be there in seconds, surely.
Thumper was already on his way back into the alley.
Principia had chosen a good spot once she heard the shouting begin. For all the trouble-making types who came through Last Rock, few bothered to make use of the town’s rooftops, which was almost a shame; the stone structures were extremely solid and their slate shingles kept in good repair. They also didn’t transmit sound well, so as long as she stepped lightly, nobody knew she was making her way over their house.
It helped that people never thought to look up.
The sloping roof of the general store had a conveniently-placed chimney from behind which she peeked down at the action in the square. She had marked the alley into which Shook had vanished prior to the action starting, and thus noted the faint disturbance of invisible footsteps in the dust heading toward the adventurers. It was, she had to acknowledge, a good effect. If not for elven eyes and the fact that she’d been watching specifically for something from that point of emergence, she would have missed it.
“You bastard,” she murmured with a faint smile. He was nothing if not predictable.
Prin ducked lower as the first shot went off, hiding herself completely and thus losing her view of the action. There followed two more wandshots and the less distinctive sounds of spells being cast, then a lull. She peeked out again a moment later, taking stock of the scene.
McGraw had vanished. Unless one of those fool casters had managed to disintegrate him—about as likely as a sudden revelation that she was in line for the Imperial throne—that meant he had moved to reclaim the advantage. The fact that she didn’t know where he was…well, that could be all kinds of bad.
Tazlith was trying to rally her troops, who were varying degrees of frightened, confused and pissed off. Principia decided none of this needed to be dealt with by her.
Moving lightly as a squirrel, she darted across the rooftops to the large house where she rented an attic, slipping neatly through her open window into her chambers. Even using her unconventional paths, nowhere in Last Rook took long to reach.
Prin shut the window behind herself, turned to her enchanting table…and froze. She darted over to the door—yes, it was open, the lock broken. Naturally Shook didn’t have the skill, and probably also not the inclination, to pick a lock like a professional. She looked back to the table, where her row of carefully enchanted rings were missing.
“Bastard,” she said with more feeling.
Speaking of, at that moment her broken door pushed open and Longshot McGraw ducked inside.
“Ma’am,” he said courteously, tugging the brim of his hat to her. “Pardon my intrusion, but it seems I need to move up my timetable considerably.”
She stared at him for one silent moment before bolting.
Prin threw down a coin as she fled; its simple anti-magic charm wouldn’t have held against anything a wizard of McGraw’s caliber threw at it deliberately, but it disrupted the stasis spell he tossed after her enough that she only felt a brief tugging sensation before she managed to dive through the still-open window.
She somersaulted midair and landed on her feet in a slide, shooting straight down the sloping roof tiles. In the alley below, she kicked off the far wall to blunt her momentum and rolled as she reached the ground, sprinting for the mouth of the alley.
McGraw’s teleportation wasn’t as tidy or potent as Tellwyrn’s; his appearance was presaged by a split-second flash of blue light, giving Prin enough warning to skid to a stop rather than plow into him, and his reappearance came with a crack of energy and a static buzz that made her hair try to stand up.
“It seems,” he said conversationally as though nothing had just happened, “that your friend Mr. Shook has set a pack of ravenous puppies on me. I actually have to admire his cleverness; I’d feel quite bad if I brought harm to any of those silly kids, which hampers me more than a little. My feeling, though, is they’ll maybe be a bit less trigger-happy if I show up again with you in tow. They did turn up to protect you from my depredations, after all,” he added with a grin.
Principia backed up two careful steps. “Why are you doing this?”
He shrugged. “The money’s good.”
“That is what I meant. Why? You could have apprentices…wealth, a life of comfort. You’re ten times the mage any of those turkeys who go adventuring in the Sea are. Why this?”
McGraw tilted his head to one side, regarding her curiously for a moment before replying. “Short answer is, it’s something to do.”
“Seriously? That’s it?”
“Miss, when you get to my age—”
“I’m at least twice your age.”
“—you start to think about who you are and what you really want, whether you intend to or not. I stumbled into the adventuring life quite by accident and spent a couple decades moaning about it…but come time to retire, I found the thing I truly fear is… Well. Apprentices, wealth, comfort, and all the trappings of a staid life. Won’t say I crave adventure, as such, just…not to be bored. Things like this suit me fine.”
She crept back another step. “I could only wish I had your problems.”
“I imagine my situation looks a fair bit better’n yours at this moment. Not that I’m not enjoying this discussion, ma’am, but I also am not a fool. We can carry on chatting while we walk, if you are so inclined.” He leveled his staff at her and smiled politely. “This way, please.”
Shook made a point of breathing hard as he dashed up to the adventurers, who were huddled together in the square. Townspeople had fled; they had the place effectively to themselves for the moment. Where the hell was that Sheriff? It had been more than a couple of minutes already; Sanders had never been so slow to respond to a disturbance, at least not from what the locals had told him over the last few days. He’d had to wait for the counteragent to the invisibility elixir to take effect, and had been sure he’d come back to find his minions slugging it out with the law while their actual quarry slipped away. Well, odd as it was, he’d take it.
“Everybody all right?” he panted, doing his best to look concerned. “Damn, he moves fast. I didn’t even have a chance to get in behind him.”
“Jeremiah,” Tazlith said with obvious relief, turning to him. “Marks says he was grabbed; somebody got his wand and made him shoot at McGraw.”
“We are not of one mind on what to make of this story,” said Lorrie, the warlock. “It seems terribly convenient for him. Terribly inconvenient for us.”
“I didn’t detect any invisible presence,” the mage (whose name Shook hadn’t troubled to learn) intoned pompously. It was all Shook could do not to roll his eyes.
“Dammit, I should’ve expected that,” he said, putting on a rueful face.
“What?” said Tazlith. “What do you mean?”
“The whole point of this was to stand him down, prevent it coming to a fight, right? McGraw told me to my face he’d like nothing better than if I started the shooting so he could claim self-defense. If he realized we weren’t going to oblige him, obviously he made it seem you were starting the fight.”
“Can…can he do that?” Marks asked uncertainly.
“Man’s a famous battlemage. Who can say what he can do?”
“It’s an interesting theory.”
They all spun toward the speaker in unison, those who had weapons raising them. Sheriff Sanders was striding toward them, his stare promising murder. With him came Ox Whipporwill… And the three Imperial soldiers quartered at the University.
So that’s what had taken him so long.
“I cannot recommend strongly enough that you lower those wands,” Sanders said grimly. “Needless to say, a thorough investigation of everyone involved in this mess is forthcoming. If there’s been magical meddling, we’ll find out, one way or another. In the meantime, though, you are all coming down to the office with me. It’ll look much better for you if I don’t have to be assertive about it.”
“All we wanted to do was protect that girl McGraw is after,” Tazlith said stridently. “We’ll cooperate in any way we can, but right now he is still out there, and so is she. We aren’t the threat here. Do your job, Sheriff!”
Shook would have winced if her blustering didn’t so perfectly suit his aim of deflecting the trouble toward herself. That was one of the top ten things you absolutely did not say to law enforcement.
“This ain’t a conversation, miss,” Sanders shot back, placing a hand on his own wand. “I am gonna repeat myself one more time, and after that I’ll assume you’re resisting. We are going—”
“Excuse me,” said the robed mage, “but you should all see this.”
They turned to look where he pointed, Sanders a second after the others as if expecting to be attacked from behind if he averted his eyes. It was no trap, though, at least not for them. McGraw and Principia were entering the empty square from the street beyond. She walked in front, stiffly, her hands balled into fists at her side. The old wizard strolled behind her, staff resting over his shoulder, puffing idly on a cigarillo.
“Hello again,” he said. “Ah, ah, ah, let’s nobody go an’ do something rash. There’s been enough dust kicked up for one morning, I think. Seein’ as how Ms. Locke and myself seem to be the source of all this commotion, we’ve talked it over amongst ourselves and decided the most responsible course of action is for us to remove ourselves from town till everything has a chance to settle down again.”
“That true, Prin?” Sanders asked tersely.
She glared at him. “Of course it’s not fucking true, you half-wit, I’m being kidnapped! Do something!”
McGraw shook his head. “Nobody around here can ever let me do anything the easy way,” he said fatalistically. “Y’know, I believe I’m beginning to actively dislike this town.”
“Feeling’s mutual,” Sanders said, drawing his wand. “Elias ‘Longshot’ McGraw, you’re under arrest.”
“If you consider the matter carefully,” McGraw replied calmly, smiling, “I think you will find that I am not. As I was saying, Ms. Locke and I will be leaving the town now. I leave it to you and these lovely people to decide how much needs to get broken in the process, Sheriff.”
“You are astronomically outnumbered, villain,” the warlock intoned. “Submission is your only wise course.” Around her, the others readied their weapons; wands and staves were aimed at him, and Tazlith drew a pair of throwing knives.
“It seems to me,” McGraw said evenly, stepping up behind Principia so that he addressed them over her shoulder, “a show of force isn’t appropriate in your situation. I’m assuming, of course, that you would rather Ms. Locke not get shot in the process. I might be wrong about that. Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“We fan out, take him from all angles,” Shook said tersely. “He can’t hide behind her skirts if he’s encircled.”
“Thank you for your input,” Sanders said sarcastically.
“What?” Principia screeched, a note of hysteria entering her voice. “No shooting!”
“Do you wanna get hauled off into the prairie to be executed like a dog?” Shook replied. “Just keep your head down and try not to get shot.”
“No! Fuck you, Shook! No shooting!”
“Go to hell!” She was shrieking now, eyes wide in panic. “Nobody’s taking shots in my direction just because you would rather I’m out of the picture! You stole my fucking enchanted rings and left me high and dry, you faked the shot at McGraw with that invisibility charm! This bullshit is entirely your fault!”
“Wait, you did what?” Tazlith said, whirling on him.
He glared at her. “This is not the time—”
“He’s wearing rings,” the robed man noted. “Rather a lot of them. I wondered about that.”
“Seems I’m gonna need a bigger cell,” Sanders said wearily. “Goddamn it, the middle of the street with weapons pointed in all directions is not the place for this. Everybody stop whatever the hell you’re doing and stand down!”
“Y’all clearly have matters to discuss amongst yourselves,” McGraw said cheerfully. “We’ll just be heading—”
“No, you don’t!” Sanders raised his arm, aiming his wand right for McGraw and disregarding Principia’s squeal of protest. “Nobody fucking moves!”
McGraw opened his mouth to reply, but cut off, his eyes widening as they shifted to look past the group. Immediately he and Principia were wreathed in a sparkling sphere of transparent blue light. Two wandshots splashed against it, causing it to flicker and dim—Marks and one of the soldiers had apparently been spooked by the sudden spell effect.
“Hold your fire!” Sanders roared, to no effect.
McGraw pointed his staff at the ground between them; light flashed along its length, and an elaborate circular glyph appeared on the paving stones. Everyone backed rapidly away from it, Rook and Moriarty swiveling to point their weapons at the shape that began forming out of mist above it.
“What the fuck?” Marks moved one hand to aim at the figure, keeping his other wand pointed at McGraw and Principia.
“He summons something,” said Lorrie, shifting her staff to rest in the crook of her arm and folding her hands together. “Two can play at this game.”
“No!” Tazlith shouted, whirling on her. “Dammit, we talked about this! Do not bring that damn thing out, this’ll all go to hell if you lose control of it!”
“An elemental!” exclaimed the mage as the missed coalesced into a figure. It wasn’t even vaguely humanoid, though it had two arm-like protrusions. “How does an arcane wizard have access to a water elemental?!”
“Oh, shit.” Sanders’s outburst wasn’t aimed at the elemental, however; he’d glanced over his shoulder, following McGraw’s eyes.
“Don’t shoot it! Don’t make it mad!”
“Will somebody do something?!”
The bolt of power that roared across the square, making all their hair stand up and momentarily blinding everyone, was massive enough nearly to suit a magical artillery shot. It struck the creature dead center; half its mass evaporated on the spot, the rest splashing harmlessly to the ground, apparently now inert.
The weapon that had fired it was clearly antique. Shorter than modern battlestaves and at least twice as thick, it was a throwback to the age when such enchanted weapons were a new invention borrowing from older sensibilities; elaborately carved, decorated across its whole length with bands of silver and surmounted by a globe of glowing crystal, it looked like what an artist designing a cover for a penny dreadful might imagine an old-fashioned wizard’s staff to be.
The person carrying it had made that perfect shot with the cumbersome weapon one-handed, using the other to prop herself up on one of her canes. She glared coldly at McGraw.
“Shame on you,” said Mabel Cratchley.
With a burble and a huge gout of steam, the elemental rose up from the ground; it was smaller now, but clearly re-forming itself.
This time, Marks, Lorrie and the cleric dived away as Miz Cratchley blasted it again, Rook stumbling backward from the incredible force and falling on his rear. It made a smoking crater in the middle of the square where it struck.
The staff, too, was smoking now, though Miz Cratchley didn’t pay it any mind, shifting her aim to McGraw.
“Don’t do it!” Principia wailed, cowering back against him.
“Impressive shootin’, ma’am,” McGraw said, tipping his hat to her. At some point in the last minute he had dropped his cigarillo. “But there’s a reason those old thunderbuses were taken out of service. One more shot and the thing’s likely to blow up.”
“I’ve lived long enough,” she replied, staring him down. “I’m ready to account for myself to the gods. Are you?”
McGraw stared back at her, apparently lacking an answer to that.
Before anybody could act or come up with something to say, there came a soft pop from right between the two groups, the effect rather underwhelming after the recent show of firepower. The effect on the group of the figure who materialized was another matter entirely.
“All right,” Arachne Tellwyrn said flatly, “that’s enough.”