Only the faintest breath of wind broke the silence, one brief pause hanging delicately over the scene.
“What?” came the slightly muffled voice of a Rider at last. “Draw? Boy, everybody has wands out.”
“Yeah?” Joe mused. “Where are they pointed?”
Hands hanging at his sides, he flexed his fingers once, and smiled.
The Riders exchanged a round of glances, then several shifted, turning their aim to the Kid.
Joe moved so fast his hands were nearly invisible. A fraction of an instant later, his wands were out and had cut two arcs of white light around him, as though he were swinging luminous knives; a fan of slender rays lanced out in multiple directions, striking multiple targets. Unlike the percussive cracking of most wandshots, they made a hissing noise, quickly drowned out by a series of grunts and cries.
Nine men slumped or staggered, none killed, but every one struck square in the head by a beam. Wands were dropped; only one managed to keep a grip on Jenny’s arm, though with her other hand freed she immediately slugged him in the face. Already dazed, he went down, tugging her off-balance. Every Rider who had been covering a hostage was out of action.
“Damn,” Gabriel breathed.
“I could’ve taken him,” Jenny grumbled, shaking her hand.
“Everyone stand down,” Joe called into the stunned silence that followed. “Weapons away, and back up.”
“We don’t take orders from you, boy!” a Rider snarled. All of them shifted their aim, over a dozen wands now covering the Kid.
Joe grinned lopsidedly, the left corner of his mouth tugging upward. “No one’s talkin’ to you, boy.”
“Do as he says!” Strickland called hoarsely. “Back away!” Townsfolk shuffled backward, still gripping weapons; Toby eased back with them, but Ruda and Trissiny were left isolated in the street, both clutching swords in ready positions. Gabriel, standing in the shadows in the mouth of an alley, didn’t back up either, but hesitantly lowered his wand a fraction.
Several sharp commands were barked in elvish, and slender figures on the rooftops eased back, many slipping entirely out of sight.
“Men!” shouted the lead Rider. “Whatever happens, whatever you do, do not shoot the dryad!”
“Darn right,” Juniper growled, tugging along an erstwhile hostage who seemed to be in shock as she joined Gabriel. The rest had already bolted, most to the ranks of the townspeople, Jenny through the doors into the Shady Lady.
After three tense seconds had passed, the leader yelled again, exasperation audible even through the filter on his voice, “You can shoot him!”
Once again, Joe swung his arms in wide, impossibly rapid arcs, forward then back, shifting dramatically from side to side as he did so. It looked more like a sword dance than any kind of wand fighting; he didn’t even fire, though again a distinct hissing sound emerged from his weapons.
It was immediately drowned out as lightning filled the street. Every Rider present let loose at Joe, firing until some of their wands began to smoke. The staccato cracks of wandshots blended into a constant, deafening crackle; among all the onlookers, hair stood on end and fabric clung to skin, tugged by the massive amount of static unleashed. In seconds, the reek of ozone was overpowering.
Not one bolt struck its target. Lightning arced off course, zipping along tunnels of ionized air Joe had placed to either side of him, close enough to singe his sleeves but never hitting home. Sizzling bolts were redirected mostly into the hard-packed dirt street, though some ripped past and struck down Riders on the opposite side of the Kid.
“Stop!” The leader had to raise his voice to a near scream to be audible above the carnage. “Stop! CEASE FIRE! You’re killing each other, morons!”
Indeed, fully half their number were down, their white cloaks scorched by friendly fire, some actually burning. A low chorus of groans was audible from those who hadn’t been instantly slain. The remaining Riders shifted as one organism, stumbling backward from Joe, sudden panic evident in their body language despite their enveloping disguises.
Then the Kid attacked.
Angling his body and raising both arms, he aimed wands up and down the street and fired. His weapons now unleashed bolts of pure white light, straighter and more solid than the lightning of standard wands, the sharp noise they made notably higher in pitch. Fixing his gaze straight across the street and leaving only his peripheral vision to see both groups of foes, he made only minute corrections with his wrists, as if he were conducting an orchestra, and squeezing off a sharp volley of shots in each direction.
Every shot struck a White Rider. Not a one was a kill shot; he pierced arms and legs, sending wands tumbling from nerveless fingers and enemies sprawling in the street, their limbs unable to support them.
It was over in seconds. No more than half a minute had passed since he had first drawn his weapons.
Smoke and static hovered over the street, along with the sharp tang of ozone and muted sounds of pain from two dozen felled men. The onlookers had progressively shifted back, and had the sense to clear a path up and down the avenue; now the elves silently thronged the rooftops, while the residents of Sarasio lined the sidewalks, pressing themselves against buildings and as far out of the line of fire as they could get. Even Trissiny and Ruda had withdrawn during the onslaught, the paladin having dismounted and dismissed her steed. Only the Kid and the leader of the White Riders still stood in the street, both with weapons drawn.
“Holy shit.” Ruda didn’t raise her voice, but in the relative quiet she was clearly audible. “I just saw that and I don’t believe it.”
The last White Rider stood with his weapons held loosely, aiming at the ground. The Sarasio Kid still had his pointed up and down the street, their tips smoking faintly, but he was now staring straight at the Rider. Slowly, the Rider stepped over from off to the side, kicking one of his fallen men out of the way in passing, and came to stand in the center of the street.
Joe turned to face him, lowering his arms. All four wands were aimed at the dirt now, the two glaring at each other across a distance of some twelve yards.
“Forgive me for not applauding,” the Rider rasped. “Seems my hands are full.”
“I don’t find myself in a forgivin’ mood, for some reason.”
“Mm.” He nodded. “Seems a fellow of your talents could put a pretty clean end to this right now.”
“Well, that’s the difference between us.” Joe rolled his shoulders slowly. “I don’t do everything I could do.”
“Fair enough. I’ll remind you, even a housecat’ll only torment its prey for so long.”
“Depends on how bored it is. I’ve spent quite a span of weeks cooped up in there.”
The Rider’s derisive laughter was an almost painful thing to hear, the magic filter on his voice turning it into a hoarse, abrasive sound. “You didn’t have to hide away, kid. The time you’ve wasted can be measured in lives. This would’ve all been over weeks ago if you’d had the guts to come after me and end it, coward.”
Both whipped up their wands; Joe was the faster by a hair. The Rider staggered backward, struck in the chest by two bolts, his own return fire going wide and splashing against the eaves of a nearby roof. An elf fell to the ground with a strangled cry; two more dived after him and Toby came running, while the rest of the watchers on the roof skittered backward, farther from the line of fire.
The blue glow of a shielding charm pulsed around the Rider, though; he staggered, but didn’t fall. Regaining his aim, he unleashed a fierce volley at the Kid.
Joe held up both wands, lightly flicking one about as though mixing a bowl of batter, and the Rider’s shots veered away in all directions. With the other, he returned fire, blast after blast slamming into the Rider’s shield.
As a defensive strategy, Joe’s deflection proved more tenable than the Rider’s reliance on charm work. The Kid began to advance at a measured walk, still firing and and creating air tunnels to draw away lightning bolts. The Rider retreated before him, staggering as he was pushed back by the kinetic force of each bolt. The sphere of pale blue light around him was constantly ignited, now, and starting to grow hazy at the edges; the entire thing smoked faintly. Pressed as he was, his footing suffered; he began to miss, sending wild shots into storefronts, the sky and the ground.
The onlookers had already begun retreating further, vanishing deeper into the alleys and backward over the roofs. Most of the stragglers took the hint and bolted as the duel intensified and shots began to fly far afield, leaving just the brave and the exceptionally foolish lurking behind what minimal cover there was to watch. Only Vadrieny remained on the rooftop, now, observing the combat calmly with her arms folded. The rest of the students had assembled and also remained; Trissiny and Shaeine had planted themselves firmly in front of the others, protecting them behind golden and silver shields of light. The drow, in fact, had walled off the entire street and was protecting all the townsfolk beyond. Trissiny didn’t have that much range or power in her shield and had resorted to shoving Gabriel and Juniper behind her.
Then, with a flash and a puff of smoke, the Rider’s barrier went down. It shattered under a hit dead center by Joe’s wand, and the force of that plus the disorienting burst of light caused the White Rider to stumble backward. His shots ceased as he flailed his arms momentarily for balance.
Joe deftly aimed a shot straight between his legs. However he had tricked out his wands, this one also wasn’t a conventional lightning bolt: it hit the ground right behind the Rider with an explosion of dirt and fire, sending him staggering forward again, completely unbalanced now. In the next instant, Joe reversed his fall yet again with a shot to the shoulder, sending him spinning in a circle.
The Rider let out a cry of pain, dropping to one knee in the street. He lost his grip on one wand, and Joe sent it flying with a precise shot. He raised the other, however—but too slowly.
The Kid nailed his opponent’s wand dead on the tip as it fired, and the wand exploded. Only the energy of the lighting bolt currently being discharged erupted outward from the destroyed shaft; if the power crystal had gone, the blast would likely have demolished the street. As it was, it merely mangled the Rider’s hand.
“That’s for killing innocents in my town,” Joe said grimly, still stalking forward. He fired a beam of light into the ground at an angle in front of the kneeling Rider, burning a neat hole in the street. Then, with his other weapon, he discharged a burst of energy directly into the tiny shaft, and the ground directly under the Rider erupted, sending him reeling.
The Rider, amazingly, managed to regain his feet on the fly, but Joe nailed him in the other shoulder, spinning him around again. “That’s for provoking the Empire to demolish Sarasio…” A second hit to the opposite shoulder, already burned from a previous impact, spun him back the other way. “And for trying to murder an Imperial agent under my protection.”
Two simultaneous shots clipped the tops of the Rider’s shoulders on both sides, sending him tumbling backward to the street.
“That is for sending your goons after my home. And this—” Another neatly burned hole followed by an explosive bolt caused an eruption directly under the Rider’s upper body, catapulting him forward where he landed on his knees, barely catching himself with his good hand. “—is for shooting a girl who was no threat to you.”
The White Rider, after one brief cry of pain, managed to keep it in, but now his breath rasped so heavily it was audible up and down the street, sounding horrific with the spell altering his voice. Joe strode calmly toward him, his boots crunching on cinders and debris littering the ground.
“I could go on all night,” the Kid growled, coming to a stop before the kneeling, hooded figure. “But you wouldn’t last to appreciate it all, so this is for your general lack of civilized behavior.”
He drew back his foot and kicked the Rider right in the face, hard. The fallen man let out another weak cry, toppling over on his side to lie in the street.
“Honestly,” Joe said in disgust. “Wearing white after Remembrance Day? Our distance from the Imperial capital does not give you license to act like a savage.”
He turned and strode away, holstering his wands, leaving the last of the White Riders sprawling in the street. Joe navigated around fallen figures in white to stop before Trissiny, where he tipped his hat respectfully.
“Ma’am,” he said. “I surely do appreciate your help, you and all your friends. I dunno how this would’ve gone down without you, but I know we were just about out of hope ’round here before you came along. Sarasio owes you her life.”
“I think you deserve a fair share of the credit,” she said, finally letting her golden glow drop. Gabriel, who was cowering behind Juniper, let out a sigh of relief and straightened up, grimacing.
Ruda’s arrival was announced by the clomp of heavy boots and the rattle of her sword in its sheath. “May I just say,” she declared, “that was the single most amazing fucking thing I have ever seen, and before we leave town Imma tell you some stories about shit I’ve met on the open sea so you properly appreciate my perspective.”
“I told you this guy was a big deal,” Gabriel said, grinning.
“Anyhow, Shaeine, Triss, keep an ear up for calls for help,” Ruda went on, her expression sobering. “We’ve got a good number of wounded and more’n a handful of dead. The elves brought witches and they seem to have it all in hand; they’re letting Toby help, but I don’t think they want any more cooks stirrin’ the broth. Still’n all, you’ve both got the mojo, so they might need you.”
“Noted,” said Shaeine.
People were filtering back into the street, now, both elves and humans. Some milled around, seemingly at a loss, but there were more businesslike figures present who began checking the fallen Riders, separating the injured from the dead, removing hoods and checking wounds. The crowd were worn out and focused, but more than a few of the faces revealed brought outcries. It seemed the Riders were, indeed, people they knew and had trusted.
Trissiny’s blade came free of its scabbard with a silken rasp and burst alight. “Stop!” she barked, pointing it at a man who had leveled his wand at a fallen Rider, who was trying to scrabble backward away from him.
The man turned his attention to her, but didn’t back down. “Sister, you have any idea what these pieces of shit have put us through? I say we put every last goddamn one of ’em in the ground, now!”
An ugly rumble of agreement rose from many of those present. Most of the elves and more than a few human residents remained silent, frowning.
“How much carnage will be enough for you?” Trissiny demanded. “Can you really not see the pattern at work here? These men started out protecting you from those who abused you, because there was no law to do it. The brutal use of power only escalates itself; vengeance turns into more vengeance. It will just keep going until there is no one left to kill! It has to stop.”
“You’re better than this,” Toby agreed, approaching from up the street. He seemed almost to glide along in a serene counterpoint to Trissiny’s force of personality. The monk of Omnu and warrior of Avei operating in concert; even the loudest dissenters fell silent at the tableau they presented as he placed himself alongside her and turned to face them. “You must be better than this. We’ve fought because we had to, and we’ve won. Our victory isn’t complete until we end not only the Riders but what they stand for: the spirit of brutality.”
“What’ll we do with ’em, then?” someone called out.
“We give healing to those who can be healed,” Trissiny said firmly, “bind and imprison them, and then hand them over to the Empire to stand trial for what they have done.”
“And where was the Empire when our town was burning down around our ears?” someone else shouted, followed by angry cries of agreement.
“Worry about where the Empire will be, not where it was!” she shot back. “What are they going to find when they finally get here: carnage and destruction, a few survivors who know only how to keep fighting? Or a town full of loyal citizens who rose up to protect their homes and deliver their attackers to Imperial justice? The Empire isn’t a perfect thing by any means. If you lack faith in it, at least try to understand its nature. Give the Imperials something to show Sarasio is worth rebuilding and protecting.”
“This is why we need justice,” Toby added firmly, giving Trissiny a nod. “Justice comes from law, from order. It means everyone has rights and knows what to expect. Justice means you can have a place worth living in again. If you insist on having more vengeance, you need to acknowledge the price.”
“The cost of vengeance is everything,” said Trissiny.
There was quiet, townspeople exchanging uncertain glances. It wasn’t by a long shot the ardent agreement Trissiny would have hoped for, but at least the people weren’t offering them any further rebellion.
“All right, you heard the paladins,” Joe said firmly. “Let’s get these varmints rounded up, patched up and into cells. Somebody clear out whoever’s squatting in the Sheriff’s office, an’ get the smith over here to make sure the jail’s still serviceable. Anybody who needs healing or medicine, head to the Shady Lady, an’ we’ll have whatever help we can get standing by. Somebody find me Mr. Paxton, too. We’ll wanna get him back to Tiraas as quick as possible so he can spread the good word and get us some help out here.”
The townspeople may have been uncertain about Toby and Trissiny taking charge, but they sprang to follow Joe’s orders. Faces remained grim, but resistance seemed to melt away as everyone sprang into action, and in no time the movements around them took on a more focused pattern, people sorting themselves out, administering aid and rounding up fallen Riders, to be bound for imprisonment or laid out with their scorched cloaks over them.
Joe turned to the leader, who had begun to stir weakly. “All right,” he said grimly, “let’s answer the big question on everybody’s mind.” Grabbing the Rider by the clasp of his cloak, he threw back the white hood and ripped away the mask.
Then he just as suddenly let go, stumbling backward looking like he’d seen a ghost.
The leader of the White Riders was a woman. She looked to be in her fifties, with hair just beginning to go gray and a handsome, fine-boned face that had clearly been quite lovely once, despite the blackened eye, bruised forehead and bloody nose marring it now. She coughed once, then managed a weak smile.
“Mamie,” he choked.
“Hey, Joe.” She coughed again, and cleared her throat. “That was some damn fine shooting out there, boy. You did me proud.”
“…how long,” he said tersely, clenching his hands into fists at his sides.
Mamie heaved a sigh. “You wanna hear how I got roped into the Riders’ scheme and was trying to bring ’em down from the inside? Sorry, Joe. This has been my show from the beginning, from Calhoun on down. It did get a mite out of hand, I’ll grant you.”
“A mite out of hand?!” he said incredulously. “Why would you do this? You nearly destroyed the whole town!”
“Let me see that,” Toby said softly, kneeling beside her. He took her mangled hand in his own and lit up. She winced, averting her eyes, but gradually relaxed. The blood remained on her face, but the bruises faded away after a few seconds.
“Thanks, kid. Appreciate it.”
“That’s…the best I can do with this,” Toby said solemnly, still holding her hand. Two fingers were missing, the remainder twisted out of place. “Mana burns are awful things. You’re lucky the wand’s power source didn’t blow; I don’t think you would’ve survived that.”
“Wasn’t gonna happen,” she said with a hint of a grin. “My Joe’s the best damn shot I ever saw. Maybe the best ever to live. He know more ways to disable a wand than most people know ways to fire one.”
“Joseph,” Trissiny warned. The Kid, his face twisted in a furious snarl, had pulled out a wand and leveled it at Mamie.
“You—you—I should end you right here,” he choked.
She shook her head wearily. “Can’t be that way, Joe. It’s like the paladins said. This was rebellion; somebody’s gotta swing for it. When the Empire gets here, you give ’em the White Riders and especially the gang’s leader, neatly gift wrapped. Imps are very generous with folks who help ’em put down rebels, but if they don’t have somebody to pin this on, they will go out and find someone.”
“You ain’t been alive long enough to’ve seen a Burning,” she replied. Mamie’s voice had a soft rasp that hadn’t cleared up under Toby’s healing; it sounded like the result of a lifelong smoking habit. “Every few decades, the forest gets a mite overgrown, so the elves just up and light the whole sucker on fire. Burns out the underbrush to give things a chance to grow again, and the ash nourishes the ground. If they didn’t, well… What a tangled mess that’d turn into. They work carefully so the trees themselves don’t catch, and in the end, the forest is cleaner and just alive as it was to begin with. More so, once it’s had a chance to heal.”
Activity around them had come to a stop, elves and townspeople alike staring and listening. Mamie panned her stare around at those assembled, then smiled wearily and shook her head. “Most of you wouldn’t see it, but this town has been dying for years. The Sheriff and the mayor took the spirit of law out of it; Hoss and his cronies made it worse. We could’ve come back from the brink any number of times, but that would’ve taken a leader stepping up and the mass of residents showing some sense. Nobody but me seemed inclined to try…” She laughed bitterly. “And the funny thing about being the old whore running the brothel is, no matter how much effort I put into taking care of this town and everyone in it, there’s not a chance y’all would’ve followed me if I’d tried to bring back order the right way. That only left me one option.
“Sometimes, the only way to clear out the damage is with an act of controlled destruction.”
She simply knelt there, looking up at them calmly while they stared.
“Lady,” Ruda said at last, “your control could use some serious fucking work.”
Mamie shrugged. “Can’t really argue with that, can I? This all went farther than I’d planned on. I really did figure Joe would’ve stepped up before it got nearly this bad.” She turned her gaze on Joe, expression unreadable. He turned his back, ramming his wand back into its holster. Mamie sighed and lowered her eyes. “Do y’all mind awfully if I stand up? Any whore my age has spent enough time on her knees, they start to protest at the treatment.”
Toby helped her gently to her feet, earning a nod of thanks. Trissiny accepted a coil of rope from a Sarasio resident who had been tying up Riders, and approached. “Hands out, please,” she said firmly. “I’m going to need to bind you.”
“You do that behind the captive, girl,” Mamie said with a grin, turning around and presenting her wrists. She turned her head to look at Trissiny sidelong over her shoulder. “Even a well-behaved prisoner might be planning something. Take it easy with the right one, if you don’t mind. All respect to your buddy’s work, but it’s a mite tender still.”
“Only one more thing to work out,” Trissiny said, lashing her wrists efficiently together. “We need to know what you did to disrupt the town and how to undo it.”
She stepped back and Mamie turned back around, frowning. “I, um…may have missed something. Here I was thinking this was all finally settled.”
“It’s been a long day,” Trissiny said sharply. “Nobody here has the patience for any more dissembling. We know you’ve dabbled in witchcraft, and we know how useful fairy magic is for manipulating emotional states. Whatever you’ve been doing to pit the citizens against each other, and all of them against the elves and vice versa. It needs to end. You are going to tell us how.”
Mame stared at her, and then, to Trissiny’s baffled annoyance, burst out laughing. “Oh,” she said, shaking with mirth, “oh, you poor kid. I haven’t done a damn thing to mess with anybody’s mind. Come on, there’s a whole forest full of elves right there. You think they wouldn’t have noticed that? Reclusive or not, they’d have sent shaman over to bust it up if I even tried.”
Trissiny frowned. “But…”
“Look around you, paladin,” Mamie said, still grinning, but there was a harsh edge to it, now. “All the suspicion, the hate, the pointless bickering for brutally high stakes? Unless they’ve really changed what paladins do in the last thirty years, this’ll be your life. The path to slaughtering people wholesale begins with trying to help them. Because that’s how you find out that they just aren’t damn well worth it. Given the choice, most folks’d rather cling to their delusions than save their own lives. Pfft, witchcraft. Humans, elves, or whatever-else-have-you, this is just what people are like. No. Damn. Good.”
She hung her head, still chuckling, while the onlookers stared in silence. Every eye rested on Mamie. It was as if the townsfolk and elves were afraid to meet each other’s gazes.
“Well handled,” said Professor Tellwyrn, stepping forward. The crowd parted silently to let her approach. “Well done indeed, I would say this redeems your lackluster performance in the Golden Sea. Everyone is in good shape to finish the semester. Now, for a little extra credit, recall the lists of classic logical fallacies you were supposed to learn by heart, and spot the ones you just heard.”
“Appeal to emotion,” said Shaeine evenly. “She seeks to impose her personal despair on everyone listening.”
“Special pleading,” added Toby. “Broad claims about the nature of all intelligent beings are almost never correct, you’d have to pretty much make your own examples to make that stick. Even this situation is more complex than she makes it sound.”
“Tenuous, but I’ll grant it,” Tellwyrn nodded. “Anyone else?”
“Fallacy of the slippery slope,” Trissiny said grimly. “Setting out to help people does not have to end this way. It doesn’t have to end any way in particular.”
“The, uh, genetic fallacy,” Gabriel chimed in. “Like Toby said. There’s no evidence to warrant that everybody just sucks.”
“That, in fact, is a more correct match for Mr. Caine’s argument,” Tellwyrn agreed.
“Pertaining to that, the black-or-white fallacy,” said Vadrieny, still perched on the roof above. “Nihilism like that grossly oversimplifies…anything.”
“So you are listening when Teal is in class,” Tellwyrn said, grinning. “I can’t always tell.”
“Oh! Oh!” Fross dived through the group, chiming in excitement. “The gambler’s fallacy, the composition/division fallacy, the anecdotal fallacy! Her whole argument is based on taking one scenario which may or may not even be hypothetical and applying it to all of life!”
“Very good, Fross.” Tellwyrn folded her hands, looking self-satisfied. Mamie was staring at her, flabbergasted. “There are any number of reasons why someone will try to bring you around to their worldview, but in the case of a vanquished opponent whose view is inherently nihilistic and has nothing concrete to gain by persuading you, it is almost always out of an emotional need for validation. In short, if they can convince you that everything is hopeless and meaningless, they can avoid facing the prospect that they have wasted their own lives on wrong ideas.
“People are as noble, as depraved or as pitiful as they choose to be. A situation is exactly as hopeless as you choose to let it be. I am pleased with your performance, students, because you didn’t just round up the bad guys and beat them down, though it was in your power. Helping this town meant reminding the people here that they can help themselves. Now, there’s every reason for us to believe they’ll be fine when we’re gone. That is the measure of a successful mission.”
She turned and strolled back toward the Shady Lady. “Good work, kids. We leave bright and early tomorrow; we’ll need to give Mr. Paxton a ride, after all.”
“So…yay!” said Fross. “We won!”
Joe looked at her, then at Mamie, who dropped her eyes from his gaze. He turned and trudged after Tellwyrn. Around them, people began moving back to their various tasks, though there was now a murmur of muted conversation from every direction.
“Yeah,” said Gabriel quietly. “We won.”