Tag Archives: Sheriff Decker

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“What the hell?” Weaver demanded.

Sound carried a long way over the Badlands; they had known something peculiar was afoot in Desolation long before reaching it. Once the weathered stone buildings of the town hove into view, the distant cacophony was compounded by the sight of people moving about in the streets, in greater numbers and with much greater energy than they had seen them do before. Though hints had begun to form as soon as they drew near enough to pick some meaning out of the noise, it wasn’t until nearly reaching the outskirts of the town itself that the three could be certain what was going on in Desolation.

It appeared to be a party.

Approaching the town from the same direction in which they had left, the group entered through the old streets leading past mostly abandoned buildings rather than the main avenue. As such, the citizens were a peripheral presence until they were well into the town itself, heard but glimpsed only in passing. From what little they could hear, everyone seemed to be in a good mood.

Now, finally emerging into the central avenue, the group had to stop and stare. The street was all but filled, and all the festival atmosphere lacked were decorations. Whatever was happening had apparently not been planned, but resulted in most of the town’s population milling about, laughing, talking, shouting and drinking. Two groups of musicians could be heard, both playing exuberantly in the same frontier style, but between their unpolished performances and the multiple tunes running it was impossible to tell what banjo was supposed to be harmonizing what fiddle. As McGraw, Billie and Weaver arrived, gaping, a great cheer went up near Terminus Station, where most of the crowd seemed to be centered, followed by a loud toast to the Emperor’s health and more cheering.

Mere moments later, they were spotted. A general hue and cry went up, people rushing forward toward the three. Unlike their previous encounter with Desolation’s agitated populace, though, everyone was smiling. In moments they were being cheerfully slapped on the back and possibly congratulated or thanked. Between the general noise and the fact that a good half the crowd had clearly been well into their whiskey, it was hard to tell.

Several townsfolk stumbled back as a great puff of wind burst out from beneath Billie, where she had dropped a small object. The gnome lifted upward on a levitation charm, grabbing McGraw’s sleeve and clambering up to seat herself precariously on his shoulder.

“Well, damn!” she shouted, grinning madly. “I should blow up towns more often!”

“Why is it,” Weaver demanded, “that once everyone’s smiling you’re willing to take—”

“All right, all right, everybody give ’em some air! Land’s sakes, you’re gonna drown ’em. C’mon, clear a path.”

Somewhat reluctantly, the still-shouting citizens shifted, creating an opening through which Joe approached, smiling and gently shooing people away.

“Kid, what the hell did you do?” Weaver demanded.

“Exactly what I said I was gonna do,” Joe replied, tucking his thumbs into his belt and grinning. “How was your trip? Any luck?”

“Good bit of luck, in fact,” said McGraw, having to raise his voice over the din. “Maybe we oughtta discuss it in a quieter environment. Care to bring us up to speed, here?”

“Better yet, I’ll show you.” Joe turned to head back toward the Rail station, grinning and beckoning. “C’mon, I think you’ll like this!”

They continued to be shouted at, backslapped and offered drinks all the way to the station. It wasn’t far, fortunately, and while some of the most earnest carousing seemed to be taking place in its immediate vicinity, the station itself was an island of order, watched over by Imperial soldiers. Easily a dozen of them, enforcing a perimeter between the station’s occupants and the crowd outside.

A caravan was resting on the tracks, its hatches open; more troops were unloading crates, while others carefully unpacked them and laid out an orderly selection of arcane equipment. Sheriff Decker stood off to the side with two portly older men; he gave the approaching group a long, unreadable look upon their arrival.

“The rest of the Imperial Surveyors are already spread out through the town,” Joe noted as he escorted the others toward Decker’s group. “The uniformed folks currently unpacking are with the Army Corps of Enchanters. Looks like there’ll be plenty of work for everyone pretty soon.”

“What work?” Billie demanded, still from her perch on McGraw’s shoulder. She was a little too wide in the bottom to make it a comfortable position, but held her balance well enough. The old wizard made no complaint, but moved rather more slowly and carefully than was his usual custom.

“You remember Sheriff Decker, of course,” Joe went on as they joined the three men. “Allow me to introduce Mayor Tweed, who’s in charge in this town, and my old friend Heywood Paxton, Imperial Surveyor.”

“Mornin’, Elias,” the slightly younger of the two overweight men said cheerfully. “Bout time you brought me somethin’ other than trouble! And these’ll be Gravestone and the Tinker. Lemme see if I can figure out which is which!”

“This is a real honor, all of you,” added Paxton, grinning. “A real honor! Upon my word, the older I get, the more fascinating people I get to meet! Perhaps I should blame Joe, eh? Seems every time I encounter a paladin or dryad or famous wandfighter, he’s lurking around somewhere!”

“Well, I’ll take the blame for this one,” Joe said easily, “since I did bring you out here, an’ all. Last time, though, you came to my town.”

“Indeed, indeed! And I do hope you won’t take this the wrong way, Joe, but so far I’m enjoying this one a lot more.”

“At the expense of repeating myself,” Weaver said flatly, “what the hell is happening here?!”

Paxton turned to look at Joe in surprise. “You didn’t tell them?”

“I told ’em what I was planning,” the Kid said with a shrug. “Maybe they didn’t believe me.”

“Uh, point of order,” said Billie, finally hopping down. Despite the drop being easily twice her height, she didn’t so much as grunt upon landing. “You told us you were gonna go try to get the Empire to come out and help here. Since you were talkin’ about moving a massive bureaucracy off its bum in the space o’ one day, we all ‘ad a laugh an’ ignored you. Because that’s stupid, Joe. Grumpypants has a valid question.”

“Well, Mr. Jenkins gets a good share of credit, here,” said Paxton, chuckling, “but not all of it. We didn’t just spin all of this out of thin air; the plans have been percolating for a good few years now. Joe got myself and Bishop Darling on board, though, and we were able to light a fire under the relevant Imperial departments, and…here we are!”

“Where?” Weaver exclaimed. “Where are we?”

“It’s the most miraculous thing!” Mayor Tweed enthused. Beside him, Decker folded his brawny arms, looking far more skeptical. “No less than three major Imperial projects being constructed in and around Desolation! Look here, we’ve got it all laid out.” He turned and gesticulated at the wall of the ticket office, which was plastered with maps, blueprints and documents. They made little sense at first glance, having been slapped into place rather haphazardly, but Tweed carried on explaining. “First, the Rail line’s being extended—they’re finally putting in lines to Puna Dara and Rodvenheim! About time, I’d say. And that will make Desolation a hub, not just the end o’ the line. An international hub, even! Plus!” He leaned over to slap a hasty diagram of what seemed to be some kind of tower. “Zeppelin docks!”

“Zeppelin docks?” McGraw frowned. “Here? Why?”

“A step forward in another long-envisioned project,” Paxton explained. “You see, my friends, the common theme of these projects is diversification. In terms of transport, the Empire is heavily depended on its Rail network to get anything around. The Rail freeze this spring was an object lesson in how risky that can be. Zeppelin transport is many times slower, of course—but it’s a lot safer.”

“Really says something about the Imperial Rail service that a conveyance which can fall thousands of feet is safer,” Weaver commented.

“And that ties right into the other big deal going here,” Paxton continued. “The biggest deal, in fact! You see, a major transport freeze has the potential to cause more than just economic harm. A disproportionate amount of food comes from the Tira Valley and Great Plains—that’s the lion’s share of the really good farmland on this continent. In the old days, of course, kingdoms grew only as much as they could manage to feed themselves, but now, there are entire provinces that have to import food just to break even. The Stalrange, the Wyrnrange, the Tidestrider Isles… Tiraas itself doesn’t grow so much as an apple. There are places that just couldn’t survive if not for Imperial produce. A famine could be caused not only by a transportation crisis, but any localized disaster affecting our crop-producing regions.”

“What, aren’t there storehouses?” Weaver demanded.

“You’re gonna farm in the Badlands?” Billie said skeptically.

“In the mines!” Mayor Tweed said, beaming.

They all stared at him.

“I’ve a few thoughts on that,” Weaver said finally, “but I’ve been asked not to express such things to people who hold Imperial office.”

“It’s about Tar’naris,” Paxton said. “We learned a lot from the terraforming project there. Underground farming isn’t innately easy, but with the right enchantments, equipment and upkeep, subterranean farms turn out to be a lot less vulnerable to certain problems than conventional ones. Weather, for example, is a non-issue. The Surveyor Corps has been kicking around the idea of doing something similar on a smaller scale for the Empire’s benefit for years. Desolation has numerous underground spaces that are already cut in usable shapes, even better than natural caves. Better yet, it’s got a huge underground aquifer—there’s a natural lake far below the bedrock. This will be our test case!”

“Construction!” Tweed enthused. “Lots and lots of construction! Commerce routed through the town from all over the Empire! And ultimately, we’ll become a food-exporting province! My friends, by bringing us to the Empire’s attention, I can say without exaggeration or embellishment that you have saved this dying town from the brink!”

“Huh,” Weaver mused, studying the wall of charts and plans.

“Step one is scouting the land, of course,” said Paxton. “My own colleagues are at work in the area, and the Aces are gearing up to follow suit, as you can see around you.”

“Aces?” Billie inquired.

“Army Corps of Enchanters,” Joe explained. “It’s an acronym. Anyway, gentlemen, my apologies for interrupting your planning. If I could borrow my friends for just a moment? We need to have a word in private.”

“Of course, of course!” said Mayor Tweed. “And you’ll have to be our guests afterward. Heroes like you deserve to be celebrated!”

“Feels odd to be arguing against that,” Weaver muttered as Joe led them a distance away, toward an end of the Rail platform not being used by the Army to offload their surveying equipment. “In honesty, though, all we’ve done here was blow up the saloon.”

“Excuse you, I blew up the saloon,” Billie said haughtily. “I’ll take yer share of celebratin’, if y’don’t want it.”

“Elias, can you arrange us a little privacy?” Joe asked.

McGraw glanced thoughtfully at the nearby soldiers. “Well…”

“Oh, don’t mind us,” said a passing woman wearing a lieutenant’s bars. “There’s no law against sound-dampening effects near Imperial personnel.”

“All righty, then,” the old man said with a grin, and tapped the butt of his staff twice against the ground.

The sphere that sprung up around them was only barely visible, rippling like heat waves off the desert; its primary effect was to cut off sound from outside the bubble.

“Thanks,” said Joe, his expression growing more serious. “I need to pass on word from Darling: this stroke of good fortune comes with a warning. These plans were all things that’ve been brewing for some years already, but havin’ ’em all put into effect now is the result of more intervention than he could muster. It was Lord Quentin Vex who added his weight to the initiative that got all this in motion.”

“Vex?” Weaver frowned. “The head of Imperial Intelligence.”

“We’ve been seein’ signs of his handiwork out here, too,” McGraw commented, extracting a cigarillo from his case. “Much smaller ones, though. This is a whole different animal. What do the Imps want out here?”

“Almost certainly the same thing we do,” said Weaver.

“The reality is,” Joe continued gravely, “some of these projects are…less feasible than others. It’s lucky the underground farming is gonna be the biggest, because that’s the one they’re most serious about. The bit with extending the Rail…”

“Way ahead o’ ye,” said Billie. “Rodvenheim an’ Puna Dara are sovereign states; y’can’t just build infrastructure to their gates. That’s gonna require diplomacy, and I know bugger all about international relations but it seems t’me if either o’ them wanted a Rail line they’d’ve had one long since.”

“The zeppelin thing may be premature, too,” Joe added. “Right now, zeps are strictly military transport. Expanding them to carry civilian passengers and freight is a good idea, I think, but the fact is we’re talkin’ about building an installation for an infrastructure network that doesn’t exist.”

“Well, the key to making something exist is to actually build it,” Weaver pointed out. “I don’t see how any of this affects us, anyway. We’ll be long gone before any of these grandiose plans can fall through.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re not responsible,” Joe retorted.

“No, the fact that we’re not responsible means we’re not responsible! Even you, kid, don’t have the power to make the Empire do this—the Empire does what it wants. And we aren’t even involved!”

“I helped!” Billie chimed. “I cleverly created a sense of urgency by blowin’ up th—”

“Will you button it, you sadistic crotch goblin!”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw commented, puffing on his cigarillo. “It wouldn’t be the first time. But the Tirasian Dynasty has always ruled by carefully managing people’s opinions—both powerful interests and the general public. Sharidan’s pretty damn good at that game. Lord Vex is a crafty old crow himself, an’ not about to undermine the Emperor. However it may look from our limited perspective, Joe, I can’t imagine the Empire would invite the kind of unrest they would be by making grand promises out here and then yankin’ the rug out from under the whole province. In the age o’ scrolltowers and newspapers, that kind of hanky-panky could have continent-wide repercussions.”

“I guess,” Joe said, frowning.

“I’m not much inclined to trust governments myself,” McGraw said with a grin. “But this one knows its best interests and is reasonably competent. Surprising as it is to see them actually workin’ out here…well, I think the odds are good they intend to see the work done.”

“On a more pertinent note,” said Weaver, “how does all this help us? It’s great for the town and all, but…”

“It’s about positioning,” said Joe. “Previously, it was us and Khadizroth’s group, head-to-head in the Badlands. He had a defensible position, forcing us to go on the attack, and we were both out of favor with the locals, making the population a big fat variable. Now, Desolation is not only crawling with Imperial interests, but the local folks think we’re the bee’s knees. We have a secure fallback position, one we can deny to his group. Thanks to all this, the advantage is ours.”

“It is very early in the game to be counting chickens,” McGraw cautioned. “Still, you’ve got a good point there, Joe. Our position looks a lot better than it did yesterday. Now, concerning the other allies I’ve found for us—”

“Uh, lads?” said Billie, pointing. “I can’t exactly read lips through this shimmery bit, but that crowd looks suddenly less celebratory than it did.”

They all turned to follow her finger. Indeed, the motions of the large knot of people that had formed on the outer edges of the Rail station were far more aggressive than previously. Tellingly, Tweed, Paxton, and Decker all looked alarmed by this, and the soldiers had stopped what they were doing and taken up weapons.

“Oh, this could get bad in a hurry,” Joe said worriedly, striding forward through the wall of the bubble. The others swiftly followed suit.

Outside the dampening bubble, the crowd was indeed angry. There was no more music; there were threats and insults. Joe had to raise his own voice considerably to get a path opened up toward the center of the cluster. “Hey, hey, hey! C’mon, now, I thought this was a party! Let’s all settle down, here. What’s all the fuss about?”

He fell silent as the crowd finally parted, their seething voices subsiding somewhat as he deflected their attention to himself. In the middle of what had been a knot of citizens clearly on the verge of serious aggression stood two dwarves, a man and a woman. They wore simple working clothes and seemed wary, but not particularly alarmed at the prospect of the mob trying to form around them.

“They don’t belong here!” shouted a woman from the back of the throng. A chorus of agreement rose around her.

“Job-stealin’ tunnel rats!”

“Go back under yer own mountain!”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” Joe exclaimed, holding up both hands. “People, please! C’mon. Look, I understand what’s been happenin’ here,, but you can’t just go blamin’ every dwarf you see for what the Big K company does.”

“They’re with Big K!” a man in the front shouted accusingly. “Ask ’em!”

“That’s true, in fact,” said the male dwarf. “Excuse me, Mr. Jenkins, isn’t it? My companion and I…”

Anything else he said was lost in a rising tide of imprecations from the surrounding crowd.

They fell quiet again when Joe drew his wand and fired it thrice into the sky. Rather than its usual quiet beams, he let loose several satisfyingly loud bolts of lightning.

“Okay,” Joe said into the relative quiet which ensued. “I take your meaning, folks. But let me pose you a hypothetical, all right? We all know the Five Kingdoms have been hit as hard as this region by the Narisian Treaty. Now, suppose some dwarven outfit came out here hirin’. Suppose they were lookin’ for experienced miners to take on work up in the mountains themselves. Payin’ well, so you could afford to send money back an’ take care of your families. Wouldn’t you folks jump on that?”

People muttered uncertainly; the dwarves simply watched Joe with speculative expressions. On the Rail platform, the soldiers stood ready, not going back to their work, but not moving to intervene yet.

“I think you’d have to be crazy not to,” Joe continued, grinning disarmingly. “But there you’d be, in dwarven country, takin’ jobs from the folk who live there an’ probably not makin’ any of them happy. But…well, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta, right? We all need to eat, an’ provide for our people. C’mon, we’ve had a big stroke of good luck in Desolation, today. Let’s not take out our frustrations on honest folk just tryin’ to make a living.”

“That Mr. K’s an asshole,” someone grumbled very loudly. “Pushin’ us around…” This brought another chorus of surly assent, but the general mood of the crowd had become much calmer.

“Well, now, let’s see a show of hands,” said Joe with a broad smile. “How many of you have never worked for an idiot or a jerk? Not once?”

Chuckles ran around the crowd now; only a few hands appeared in the air.

“Luke, you put your hand up this second!”

“Hey now, Pa, you run a good outfit, but remember that time you was sick an’ Uncle George had ta run the store fer a week?”

That brought outright laughter. People began to drift away, some looking abashed. In the next moments, a fiddle struck up a tune, joined quickly by a banjo and tambourine.

“Well, well, well,” Billie drawled quietly, jabbing her elbow into Joe’s thigh. “Talented, cute, earnest, and he knows how to work a crowd. You’re dangerous, boy.”

He coughed awkwardly, beckoning to the two dwarves, who stepped up onto the platform, McGraw and Weaver moving back to make room. The nearby soldiers stared very pointedly at the few remaining townsfolk who continued to watch the visitors with hostile expressions, but nothing further came of it.

“That was rather impressive,” said the woman, smiling up at Joe. “In fact, you remind me of Mr. K, somewhat.”

“I…have no idea how to take that,” he said frankly.

McGraw cleared his throat pointedly. “There somethin’ we can help you folks with?”

“Yes, in fact,” said the male dwarf, removing his hat and bowing politely to them. “I suppose there’s little need to ask who you are; the descriptions are quite distinctive. Mr. K would like to talk with you all, in a quiet and civil manner, at your earliest convenience.”


 

“I’m sorry I never manage to take you anywhere nice,” Teal said.

Shaeine turned her head, raising her chin so that Teal could see her smile even from the depths of her hood. “Everywhere is nice, so long as you are with me.”

The bard couldn’t repress a grin at that. “Hee… You are smooth, you know that?”

“Yes, I do.” Shaeine momentarily pressed the back of her hand against Teal’s. Much as she wanted to take Shaeine’s hand—or, to be honest, to take her in her arms—Teal respected her reserve as always. Spending time over the summer with Shaeine’s family had been very instructive. In any case, even if she had been tempted to doubt the drow’s affection, such nascent doubts were always swiftly washed away as soon as they found themselves in private.

“It bothers me, though,” she said more soberly as they continued to stroll. It was a quiet street, out of the way, but not deserted by any means. One wall of the entire block was formed by the exterior of the warehouse complex, beneath which was Malivette’s basement with its secret tunnel to Dufresne Manor. The rest was all shops, though—quiet, genteel shops, frequented by people who, one and all, had a suspicious stare for a figure in cowled robes walking alongside a short-haired girl in a man’s suit. “Having to hide you. You should be treated with more respect.”

“It would be one thing if I had to hide,” Shaeine pointed out. “There are no such laws, and frankly I doubt showing my face would lead to violence, or danger. We are simply acting to ward off misunderstandings. The initiative, the choice, are still ours.”

“Mm,” Teal mused. “You know what I mean, though.”

“Yes.” Again, that deft little hand pressed against her own. “I am proud to be seen with you, too. I get the better end of this deal; at least everyone can see how lucky I am.”

Teal couldn’t help grinning again. “Almost too smooth. How do you expect me to learn Narisian reserve if you won’t stop making me smile?”

“I am selfish. I’ll risk any hardship to enjoy your smile.”

After that comment, she couldn’t make herself withhold it.

They reached the end of the warehouse and turned around, heading back. Waiting for Trissiny to get back from the Imperial Army barracks, hopefully with the other two paladins in tow, was tedious business in the basement; Teal and Shaeine had volunteered to take the watch more for the chance at some fresh air than because they feared any kind of attack. Indeed, the street was peacefully quiet. It was a pleasant place, in truth, enough so that they could almost ignore the way people glared at them.

“Morning, dears,” said a flower seller as they neared; she had been turned around, rummaging in the back of her stall, on their previous passing. Now, the woman smiled, leaning forward and holding out a small bunch of violets. “I’ve just the thing to brighten your day!”

“Well, why not?” Teal said, coming to a stop and accepting the violets. “Oh, look how fresh these are! How much?”

“Nonsense, my lady,” the woman said warmly. “On the house, for you.”

“Oh!” Teal blinked in surprise. “Well, that’s very… I mean, I don’t want to put you out.”

“It is no hardship,” said the flower seller. “Merely a pittance. I think the three of you are more than due a spot of kindness.”

Muted sounds of activity continued up and down the street, but an island of total stillness fell around the flower stall.

“Excuse me,” Shaeine said evenly, “the three of us?”

“Some more hidden than others,” the woman said, still wearing that placid smile. She stepped to the side, moving with a pronounced limp, and began hanging bunches of wildflowers from the posts holding up her awning. “I know what it’s like, having to conceal who you are. Not, of course, in the way Lady Vadrieny must, but I’ve worn a cloak or two in my time. Rather stifling, aren’t they, Lady Shaeine? My apologies, I don’t actually know the right formal address in your culture.”

“I think you had better explain yourself,” Teal said quietly.

“Of course! My name’s Vanessa. Oof, sorry… You don’t mind if I sit down, I trust?” She pulled a wooden stool from the corner of her stall over to the front and perched on it with a soft sigh of relief. “Ahh… Getting better all the time. I’m afraid my leg just hasn’t been the same since I was in the Cathedral.”

“Your…” Teal narrowed her eyes. “The Cathedral?”

“The Grand Cathedral,” Vanessa said matter-of-factly, “in Tiraas. A broken femur is not a small thing, I’m afraid.”

“That is a fortuitous place to have it happen,” said Shaeine. “At least there were healers present, yes?”

“Oh, yes indeed,” Vanessa said, twisting her lips in an expression that was very nearly a sneer. “They healed it right up. Then broke it again. Then healed it, then broke it… Had this happened over a long stretch of time, I’m sure I’d have been able to count how many times. It was all back to back to back, though, on and on. Enough of that in one prolonged sitting, and strange things start to happen to your mind. You lose all sense of time, of place, of who you are… Eventually, there’s nothing but the pain. That’s the whole point, of course. As a side effect, the healings get less and less effective. The more repetitions, the more likely you’ll have lingering effects.”

“Y-you…” Teal stuttered. “Why would… Who are you?”

“I’m Vanessa,” she said with a patient smile. She produced a bundle of dark purple wildflowers from a drawer and laid them out on her stall’s counter. “You know very well who I represent, my lady. And I know what you’re here for. Tellwyrn’s little assignments aren’t generally of interest to us, but it’s a worthy thing you are doing. This poor city is in bad shape, and the authorities aren’t having any luck straightening it out.”

“What do you want?” Shaeine demanded.

“To help.” As she spoke, Vanessa deftly braided flowers together with a long strip of black ribbon, gradually forming a wreath. “In whatever way you need. Your group is a potent force, to be sure, but you are at a disadvantage in dealing with diffuse troubles such as Veilgrad’s. Dozens of issues are rising up in every corner of the city—of the province. You need more pairs of hands, the ability to cover more ground than the nine of you can alone. We stand ready to serve.”

“If you intend to threaten us,” Shaeine began.

“Threaten you?” Vanessa’s hands clenched on the forming wreath. She stared fiercely into Teal’s eyes. “The dark lady has countless warlocks, and can always get more. You are irreplaceable. Threaten you? I would spend the last drop of my blood protecting you, if that is what it required.”

“What…” Teal swallowed heavily, unable to tear her gaze away from the woman’s. “What did the Church… What did you tell them?”

“Tell them? Oh, please,” Vanessa smiled again, bitterly. “This is the twelfth century. No professional tortures anybody for information, that’s terribly counterproductive. No…you torture someone to get the attention of whoever cares about whoever you’re hurting. It’s not so bad, in the end. I’m getting help from a shaman; she says I should be mostly able to walk as normal after a couple of years of the right therapy, though I’ll always be able to feel when it’s about to rain. And they got my friends’ attention, all right,” she added darkly. “The Universal Church does not employ torturers at present. They haven’t any left.”

“I cannot believe the Church would do such a thing in the first place,” Teal said sharply. “And I certainly have no reason to trust you.”

“Of course,” Vanessa said agreeably. “Trust is earned; you hardly know me, after all. I am simply making the offer, my lady, because I hate to think of you not knowing the resources that exist at your disposal.” She smiled, warmly, holding Teal’s gaze with her own. “When you need help, call for us. We will come.”

“I don’t need that kind of help.”

“Right now, at this moment? No, you don’t. Far better to continue enjoying your day. I’d recommend against making assumptions about the future, though.” Vanessa shook her head. “Have you discovered anything about Veilgrad’s problems? Our working theory right now is that there is a chaos rift somewhere in the area. That can become a catastrophe the likes of which you can hardly imagine. Never turn down help.”

“I could call for the police,” Teal said. “Have you arrested.”

“For what?” Vanessa chuckled. “Don’t worry, my lady, I am not offended; you’ve had some unfortunate accidents of education. Experience is a good teacher. Just remember what I said, girls. When you need us, call.”

It was a shady street, but it was nonetheless shocking when the shadows swelled up around Vannessa, then receded, leaving nothing behind but the flower stall.

On the counter sat the small wreath of dark flowers, braided with black ribbon.

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Sheriff Decker was a big man in every respect, and it was much more apparent when he was seated behind his desk in the shabby little office from which he worked than out in the street astride his horse. Taller than McGraw and wider across the shoulders than two Joes, he had a powerfully muscled frame that even his rather impressive beer gut didn’t manage to make look soft. Beyond the physical, his personality filled the room. The scowl on his dark Western face had nearly enough force to keep them bodily at a distance, and even sitting still, there was a latent energy about him, as if he might spring up and charge right over them at any moment.

“Well,” Decker said after a long, silent perusal of each of them in turn, “this here’s complicated, ain’t it? I do not like complicated. Me an’ complicated have a bit of a history. Complicated tends to show up for dinner whenever it likes, which ain’t to say I’m enthused to lay another place at the table.”

“Oh, gods, a frontier poet,” Weaver groaned.

“Under ordinarily, uncomplicated circumstances,” the Sheriff continued, ignoring him, “I would just throw everybody in cells an’ have done with it. In fact, it wouldn’t be a legal stretch to put you three as well as Coulter an’ his boys on a work detail to rebuild Whiskey Pete’s.”

“Whiskey Pete’s?” Billie chimed. “The sign just said ‘whiskey.’”

“Other half of the sign broke off in a storm last winter,” Decker said. “Which ain’t exactly germane to the issue. First off, I know damn well Coulter an’ company didn’t blow up the saloon, so all I got them for is drunk an’ disorderly. Or, as they think of it, Tuesday morning. There’s also the matter that I’d be depending on the goodwill of my actual culprits to even get you into cells, as I know enough of your various legends to understand Pete’s place is just a taste of the havoc you could cause if you took a notion to. Speaks well that you came quietly down to the office. Less well that you’re the culprits of a goddamn bombing.”

“Culprit,” Weaver said pointedly, “singular. The gnome threw the bomb.”

“It was not a bomb!” Billie protested. “It was pretty much a great big music box taken to its logical conclusion! Brilliant lil’ gadget, if I say so meself. Uses sound waves, modulated through an arcane spell matrix ta hit solid objects with the full potential energy o’ their vibrations instantaneously rather than over time, an’ phased not ta impact living organic matter. An’ I put shielding charms on us anyway, ‘cos I’m responsible.”

“Right,” said Weaver. “So. It was a fancy bomb.”

“Shut up,” said Decker without passion. They did so, immediately. “The further issue makin’ this matter complicated is what you four are doin’ in my town to begin with. McGraw sniffin’ around ain’t so terribly unusual—I can see one o’ your type passin’ through from time to time. Hell, I do see it, an’ they never stay long, thank the gods. But four?” He leaned slowly back in his chair, which creaked alarmingly under the strain. “Only two things bring four individuals like you together in one spot: something expensive, or something bad. Am I dealin’ with just one thing, here, or both?”

McGraw leaned against his staff, distancing himself slightly from the group and dividing a sardonic look among them. Weaver just rolled his eyes; Billie chewed thoughtfully on her lower lip.

“Beggin’ your pardon, Sheriff,” said Joe, “but the matter’s a little sensitive…”

“Do I honestly need to remind you knuckleheads that you just blew up a saloon?” Decker grated. “You are not in a position to make discretionary calls about what I do or do not need to know. Spill it.”

“What I mean is,” Joe said doggedly, “this is the kind of thing that could have repercussions if it got out. A certain amount of frankly justifiable panic, if you get my drift.”

“Boy, I am a lot less worried about me spillin’ the beans to a random passerby than the four of you. A secret’s lifespan diminishes with every person who knows it; if you can keep it under your hats I sure as hell can.”

“That’s a significant if,” Weaver commented.

“Weaver, shut up,” Joe said irritably. “All right, Sheriff, do you know who Belosiphon the Black was?”

“My mama told me the same fairy tales yours did, I reckon,” Decker said evenly. “The rest of this explanation ain’t gonna make me happy, is it.”

“We’ve got solid reason to believe his skull is buried somewhere in this region,” Joe continued. “It’s a piece o’ work that basically radiates chaos magic. If it’s unearthed… Well. That would be real ugly for everyone in the vicinity. We’re here to find the thing and get rid of it.”

“By unearthing it first, I suppose,” Decker said, his expression giving no hint what he thought of this claim. “Okay, two questions. How do you know this, and just how the hell do you plan to get rid of it?”

“First,” said Weaver, “oracular divinations.”

“Which is bard-speak for ‘bullshit,’” the Sheriff observed.

“That’s a gross oversimplification, but in a general sense, not totally wrong,” Weaver allowed. “In this cace, all the oracles. Every oracular resource in Tiraas has suddenly stopped answering any kinds of questions to rant about this. That’s the classic warning sign of a potentially world-ending crisis brewing.”

Decker sighed, dragging a hand over his broad face and disturbing his hat in the process. “Okay. All right. That leaves the second question.”

“We’re takin’ it to Arachne bloody Tellwyrn!” Billie chirped. “She’s gonna get rid of it.”

“I’m in the very strange position of bein’ inclined to believe you can actually do that,” said the Sheriff. “All right…fine. Dangerous chaos artifact, four overpowered assholes here to deal with it. Could be worse, I guess. What are your leads?”

“That’s what we were in the process of obtaining when Mr. Coulter and his friends came over to introduce themselves,” said Joe.

“Matter of fact,” McGraw chimed in, “I’ve been hearin’ rumors that I think are extremely applicable. Sheriff, what do you know about this Mr. K an’ his operation up north?”

“You’re askin’ me for information?” Decker said pointedly.

“Yes, sir,” McGraw replied, tipping his hat. “I, personally, who have not blown up any saloons, am keenly interested in this topic for the reasons previously mentioned. I’d take it as a kindness if you could put off deciding what to do with these three for just a moment to bring us all up to speed. Might improve the level of cooperation you get from ’em, as a bonus.”

“For the record, once again,” Weaver said, “two thirds of us haven’t blown up any saloons, either.”

“Aw, stuff it sideways, y’big wally.”

Decker heaved a soft sigh. “Well, I suppose I can spare the very few moments it takes to tell the very little that’s known. This ain’t a situation where the local law is in on details the populace don’t know, McGraw. After a day of snoopin’ around, you probably know as much as I do. The long an’ the short of it is, this Mr. K turned up…lessee…six or seven weeks ago, claims to run his own mining company. We’ve never heard of him ’round her, but he’s got stationery and everything. Made his headquarters in Risk, a town ’bout thirty miles to the northwest, in the Badlands. Deep in the Badlands.”

“What kind of town is this Risk?” Joe asked.

Decker gave him a very pointed look, but answered the question. “A small one. Never more’n a hundred souls in its heyday, which was back before the Narisian Treaty. Risk was abandoned till Mr. K moved his people in.”

“What people are these?” Weaver demanded.

“Here’s a wild idea,” the Sheriff shot back. “Shut your hole for a minute an’ you’ll find out. This conversation is a favor I’m doin’ you, Mr. Weaver, an’ you’ve given me damn little reason.” He held the bard’s stare for a long moment in silence; Weaver just blinked his eyes languidly, his expression bored and vaguely disdainful. Finally, Decker shook his head and continued. “The Big K Mining Company consists entirely of dwarves. Dunno much about ’em, not even which of the Five Kingdoms they hail from. They do their work an’ ain’t interested in socializing. Which is probably for the best; folks ’round here aren’t best pleased at the only new work in years goin’ straight to foreigners. In addition to the miners, Mr. K has a few lieutenants who are known to be fancy-dressed city folk with weapons. So far, they ain’t shot anybody, but I know three folk who’ve had it made abundantly plain to them that that isn’t due to any lack of willingness or capacity. Risk is basically closed to everyone but the Company at present.”

“Is that legal?” Joe asked, frowning.

Decker shrugged. “Mr. K bought up the land he’s livin’ on, an’ got all the appropriate permits from the provincial and Imperial governments for his mining operations. He’s entitled to his security. I can see how he might feel the need, given how unhappy everyone in the region is about him.”

“This Mr. K himself,” Joe said slowly. “What’s he like?”

“Secretive,” Decker said curtly. “An’ that’s the long an’ the short of it. Nobody sees him but his lieutenants. Is that sufficient, now? Are y’all satisfied with the quality of intelligence you’ve been provided? Cos we still have the topic of your arrest to discuss.”

“Yes, that’ll do,” Weaver said condescendingly. “Can’t complain about the information, scant though it is, even if the quality of delivery lacked a certain—”

“Omnu’s balls, do you never stop?” Billie exclaimed, slugging him in the thigh.

“Why, yes, Miss Fallowstone, I do stop,” Weaver retorted, stepping away from her. “For example, when I find myself considering throwing a bomb in a saloon, I’ve got this little inner voice that tells me ‘hey, this just might be a bad fucking idea!’”

“Quiet,” Decker said flatly. Once again, he was instantly obeyed. “That is quite a story you’ve told me. Quite a story. If you haven’t surmised it yourselves, the only reason I was willing to indulge you in that sidetrack about the mysterious Mr. K is because he fits neatly into it. Doesn’t he? And you apparently didn’t know that goin’ in.” He finally straightened back up, placing his hands on top of his desk and beginning to drum his thick fingers against the scarred wood. “None of which proves anything, of course. Way I see it, I’m lookin’ at two possibilities: either y’all are full of shit an’ tryin’ to save your own asses from the jail, or there’s a real problem brewing, you’re here to help, an’ you’re a much better choice to make that attempt than me or my deputy. Guess you might say I’m on the horns of a dilemma, here. Mr. Weaver, I see that you have just opened your mouth. Do you have somethin’ constructive to add, or are you about to get yourself punched in the teeth?”

Weaver raised his eyebrows, but closed his mouth. An amused smirk remained on his face.

“Who is it you’re working for?” the Sheriff asked them. “A group like this doesn’t just spontaneously come together. Didn’t even when adventurers like you were a respectable thing; I know somebody with means assembled this posse.”

“I’m…not sure it’d be proper to name names,” Joe said, frowning. “Nor that it wouldn’t. It wasn’t actually discussed…”

“How many times do I need to reiterate that you blew away your negotiating position along with the front wall of Whiskey Pete’s? I ask a question, boy, I expect a prompt answer.”

“We’re workin’ for the Universal Church,” McGraw said. “The man who assembled the intel that sent us here is highly placed there.”

“Well!” Decker grinned at them, slapping his palms down on the desk. “Finally, we’re gettin’ somewhere. That there is a trail I can follow. So, it seems the most feasible move from where I’m sittin’ would be to stick the bunch of you in a cell whilst I make inquiries. I get word back that you are, indeed, agents of the Church, then not only is my mind put greatly at ease regarding the outcome of this…skull business…but I got somebody I can bill for damages to my town. Worst case scenario, Mr. K’s been operating for weeks an’ the world ain’t ended, so you’ve most likely got time to cool your heels a spell. Unless you have anything further to add?”

“That sorta brings us back to an earlier point, doesn’t it, Sheriff?” Joe said quietly. He reached up and tucked his thumbs behind the lapels of his coat, pointedly keeping his hands far from his wands, but stared Decker in the eyes unflinchingly. “If we decide not to go into cells… That is pretty much that, ain’t it?”

Weaver, Billie and McGraw all shifted position, staring at him in surprise. Decker’s face remained impassive. A moment of silence fell, broken when the Sheriff drummed his fingers once more upon his desk.

“I believe I already had the badge discussion with you, Mr. Jenkins,” he said quietly. “The Empire’s a big thing, an’ I’m an exceeding small piece of it. It’s a connected thing, though, an’ I ain’t so insignificant that notice won’t be taken if I get shot up in my own office.”

“There’s a wide range between going into cells and shootin’ you, Sheriff,” Joe replied. “Lots of things could happen that result in neither. You could do a good many of ’em yourself and still remain in control of the situation.”

“I will do what I deem in the best interests of my town and my position,” Decker said evenly. “You strongly hinting that you’ve no intention of respecting the law is actively coloring my opinions.”

“Is what it is,” Joe said tersely. “I think we’re gonna go, now.”

“Oh,” Decker said in deadly calm. “Is that what you think.”

They stared at one another, neither wavering.

“Well, damn,” Billie said. “This would be the perfect time t’rip a giant fart, an’ I don’t ‘ave one on deck. Ain’t that always th’way?”

“The dialect in here could choke a dragon,” Weaver muttered.

The Sheriff opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, the door burst open and his deputy rushed in, brandishing a sheet of paper.

“Sheriff!”

“I am in the middle of somethin’, Slim,” Decker said sharply.

“Yeah, I know, but a scroll just came for you. Maddie brought it down from the telescroll office herself—it’s marked urgent. You better take a look.”

He stepped quickly around McGraw, who moved back to make room for him, and came around behind the desk to hand the telescroll to Decker. The Sheriff accepted it mutely, paused to give Joe one more warning look, then devoted his attention to the message.

He flicked his eyes across it once, then read it again more slowly. Then he looked up and stared at his guests, a frown slowly forming on his features. After reading the telescroll a third time, Sheriff Decker very carefully laid it face-down on the desk and folded his big hands on top of it.

“Well,” he said, scowling at them. “Well. That’s that. Guess you’re free to go.”

“Wait, we’re what?” Billie exclaimed. “Was that about us? What’s it say?”

“Allow me to enunciate,” Decker said, his expression growing truly dangerous. “I know how my dialect can be difficult for you highly educated city folk. You are free to get the hell out of my office. Posthaste.”

“Much obliged, Sheriff,” McGraw said respectfully, tipping his hat again. Pausing only to give the others a very significant look, he turned to head out.

Joe tipped his own hat. “Have a good one, gentlemen.” Decker glared at him.

Once outside, they continued on across the street, following McGraw.

“Where’re we goin’?” Billie asked.

“To a less occupied area,” the old wizard replied, “seein’ as how you three went out of your way to make yourselves as unwelcome as possible in town. I figure we’re better off grabbing a bit o’ privacy before we do anything.”

“Not to harp on it or anything,” said Weaver, “but once again, the gnome blew up the bar.”

“Oi, I will build you a new bar all of your own if ye’ll just drop it already!”

“You can’t tell from lookin’,” McGraw said, thumping his fist against a wall as he passed, “but a good third of Desolation’s abandoned. Construction like this, well… The windows break an’ the shingles come loose, but these houses’ll be here in a thousand years when dwarven archaeologists are diggin’ it all up. There’s ample space to tuck oneself away from pryin’ eyes. Here we go.”

He turned aside, ducking through a missing doorway into a small house that barely qualified as more than a cottage. It had no windows and the door was lying inside; the one open room had drifts of sand in all the corners and spiderwebs festooning the ceiling, but any furniture that had been there had been removed by its previous occupants. Or by someone since. It was dimmer than outside, and pleasantly cool in comparison with the street. Noon was fast approaching, and there was no cloud cover to speak of.

“So, about that last bit,” said Billie, clambering up onto the empty windowsill and seating herself, legs dangling, “what d’ye wanna bet Mr. Darling came through for us?”

“The Church can’t order an Imperial sheriff to back down,” said Weaver. “I know Darling works with the Empire, too, on some kind of council. Does he have the pull to do something like that?”

“Not legitimate pull,” Billie said, grinning, “but let’s be honest, how much o’ the shit that guy pulls d’ye think is in any way legitimate?”

“Timing’s wrong,” said McGraw, shaking his head. “Y’all only just got here. I’ve only been in town a day, which is not enough time for word to get back to Darling that you were about to be arrested. No, something else is brewin’.”

“Well, it was something good, anyway,” Joe said. “At least we have an ally.”

“Might be,” McGraw said, frowning. “Or… Remember this game of ‘he knows I know he knows’ that our employer is playin’ with the Archpope. Both of ’em have the goal of testing their pet adventurers against each other. Justinian’s got an interest in clearin’ a path for us to reach his people. Or, it could be an unknown party…almost anything, really. We’d best keep our eyes open. In any case, the Sheriff was right on one point: Mr. K having been around a few weeks and no disaster unfolding, we’ve got time to maneuver. For that matter, Mr. K’s been out here longer than the oracles have been actin’ up, if the timing we were told on both points is correct.”

“You can just say it,” Weaver said dryly. “His name’s Khadizroth.”

“That ain’t been definitively established,” McGraw warned. “But yeah, it’s a likelihood. I’ve managed to uncover a bit of info the Sheriff didn’t know: the composition of Mr. K’s personal group. He’s got three men and a woman workin’ for him, all well-dressed in suits and gowns. Two of the men,” he added significantly, “are elves.”

Weaver snorted, folding his arms. “Yup. That’s them.”

“Not that elves can’t wear anything they like,” Joe mused, rubbing his chin with a thumb, “but I’ve never actually seen one in a suit until… Yeah. Sounds like Vannae and the Jackal. What of the other two?”

“No idea,” McGraw said, shaking his head. “Though I’ve got a feeling we’ll find out when it’s good and too late, and not before. Meantime, as we do have a little leeway in our schedule, I suggest heading back to Tiraas for supplies and to check in with the Bishop. Once we head out into the Badlands, that’ll be it. I take it you found no sign of Mary?”

“Signs, yes,” said Weaver. “Mary, no. Moving on to a more immediate topic…” He turned to stare at Joe. “Kid, what the hell was that?”

“What?” Joe asked defensively.

“Wankstain McGee’s got a point, there, fer once,” said Billie. “That was just about as aggressive as I’ve ever seen ye, Joe. Hell’s bells, why’d you have to pick an Imperial sheriff to show yer claws to?”

“Why’d you have to blow up the saloon?” Joe asked irritably. Billie threw up her hands, letting out a despairing huff of breath.

“It’s a fair question,” McGraw said in a far milder tone. “Joe, if you’ve got some kind of beef with the Empire, I think it’s reasonable for us to want to know up front. Before we find ourselves dealing with any more lawmen.”

“Not…the Empire.” Joe turned his back to them, pacing over to the open doorway, and leaned out, glancing up and down the street. A stray dog was huddled in the shade of a low, broken wall some yards distant; there were no other living things within view.

“A name,” he said, turning back to them and folding his arms. “That’s what Darling promised me, from the Archpope’s oracles. I want the name of the man who tried to murder my friend Jenny and spooked her into leaving the world.”

“Leaving the world?” Weaver exclaimed, his eyebrows shooting up.

“That’s the Shifter we were telling you about,” McGraw said.

“Shifter, yeah,” said Joe. “She’s… Well, I don’t honestly understand what she is, I was always more interested in who. Jenny’s good people, some of the best I ever knew. But she’s some kind of a…a thing, traveling dimensions and existing in many at the same time. Well, she’s left this one. We had to go to the center of the Golden Sea to do it; there’s a major dimensional rift there. And the whole time, we were chased by a squadron of Imperial soldiers.”

“Go on,” Billie said quietly after a moment in which he paused to think.

“I’ll spare you the unnecessary details,” Joe continued. “We won; they died. I managed to have me a discussion with the squad’s leader before…well. Didn’t get the name of the person responsible, but I did learn the point of the thing was basically… They wanted to dissect her like some kind of scientific specimen. Study what made her tick, so they could try to figure out how gods work.”

“Holy shit,” Billie breathed.

“You killed an entire squad of Imperial soldiers?” Weaver asked quietly.

“One sergeant made it back out,” said Joe. “And that’s the kicker. I made sure she got back to civilization, and she would’ve reported in… And I’ve not heard one word about this since, which leads me to strongly suspect the project wasn’t legitimate or authorized. So… No, I don’t have a beef with the Empire, but I’ve been reminded just what kind of a thing it is. It’s a thing that has flaws which can be exploited. Most soldiers and lawmen, in my experience, are good, brave folks dedicated to doing the best they can, but some…aren’t. And behind every hundred or so soldiers, good or bad, is a powerful, well-fed man in an expensive suit, who may or may not be crooked as a rattlesnake with rickets.”

“I see,” McGraw murmured.

Joe nodded grimly. “Yeah. So, no, I do not trust government authority as much as I used to. And I definitely am not interested in being disarmed and placed in custody by anybody wearin’ a badge. If I commit a crime, I’m willin’ to face a magistrate, explain myself and accept whatever consequences come—provided those consequences are fair, and legal. Can’t assume they would be, is the problem.”

“Well,” said McGraw, “I guess we know where you stand, then.”

“No argument from me,” Weaver said, shrugging. “I’m not a fan of getting arrested either. And I doubt our Eserite boss will take exception to your views. All systems are corrupt, and all that.”

“I always thought that line sounded unnecessarily pessimistic,” Joe commented. “Some systems are corrupt, sure. That’s true anywhere. You can’t make assumptions about all of anything, though.”

“The rest of this discussion sounds like one we can have on the Rail,” Billie stated, hopping down from her perch. “C’mon, let’s haul ass back to Tiraas an’ report in. Maybe Darling’s got some more news for us. We’ve sure as hell got some for him.”

“I am so very sick of that damn Rail,” Weaver muttered.

“I’m gonna stay in town,” said McGraw. “I’m tryin’ to track down some old friends of mine who live in the area—the sort of folk who’re good to have on your side when you go wandering in the wilderness in search of hostiles. That’s a mite more involved than pickin’ up the local gossip, though. These aren’t the kinda people who keep convenient permanent addresses.”

“Typical,” Weaver said. “We get rattled around in a Rail can, and you laze around here drinking whiskey.”

“If it gives you some satisfaction to imagine that’s what I’m doin’,” McGraw said with a grin, “be sure to picture me puffin’ on a cigarillo. I don’t relax halfway. Anyhow, y’all had better move out. Try not to get lynched on your way back through town. And as a personal favor, if a mob does form, couldja refrain from blowing up any more buildings?”

“You know,” said Billie, “the more people tell me not to blow stuff up, the closer they come to being disappointed.”

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9 – 8

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“This is the worst kind of town,” Weaver stated. “Big enough that finding McGraw—or anything else—will take some time and effort, small enough that no part of that will yield anything interesting.”

“Aye, that’s great,” Billie said. “Speak up, ye haven’t managed t’piss off everyone in the station yet.”

“Nobody’s paying us any attention, you half-wit,” he snorted.

Indeed, hardly anyone was around at all. A few people moved lethargically through the street outside the shade of the Rail station’s overhanging roof. A man behind the ticket booth appeared to be half-asleep; the lone Tiraan soldier on duty gave them a single disinterested look before getting back to her busy schedule of lounging on her staff, looking bored.

Terminus Station was by far the most interesting thing to be seen. As the three of them stepped away from the caravan, it eased forward from its stopping point next to the platform and onto a question mark-shaped loop, slowly circling about to face back the way it had come. There was a small gap in the Rail between the end of this and the point where it straightened out again; the caravan shuddered slightly as it passed over that, but moments later was heading back to Tiraas, gathering speed, and was out of sight in just a few more seconds. The station itself was small and almost entirely outdoors, consisting of a roof supported by pillars, with no walls except around a small section which contained the ticket office and doubtless a few other facilities. It wasn’t very clean, being lightly seasoned with windblown dust and dirt, but at least everything was in good repair.

Unlike everything else within view.

Desolation, a small to middling town, stretched out to all sides, occupying about a square mile of land, if that. It may or may not have seen better days, but it surely deserved them. The buildings were of local stone with timber framing and slate roofs, almost universally. The street running alongside the Rail station was paved, but badly in need of repair, and every cross-street in view was simply dirt. Stone was cracked and pitted on nearly every structure, roof tiles were missing or broken, a few window had cracked panes and one just across the street was even boarded over. Between this and the apparent somnolence of the few people out on the street, the town was a very portrait of hard luck.

Beyond the buildings, though, the view was quite impressive; Desolation stood at the meeting place of three landscapes. The Stalrange formed an uneven gray wall rising skyward to the west, close enough to be undimmed by the haze of distance; to the southeast stretched out the prairie that became the Golden Sea not much farther beyond. In the north, though, were the Badlands, a rolling terrain of fancifully-shaped stone outcroppings, worn smooth by aeons of erosion and broken jagged in enough spots to keep it interesting. Hardy weeds sprouted from any gap that provided them a foothold, waving in the wind, and twisted, scrawny bushes clung to the sides and even the tops of rock formations, brown and almost leafless.

“Welp,” Joe said, tucking his thumbs into the pockets of his duster, “when in a new town and lookin’ for information, step one is to find the nearest watering hole.”

He nodded across the street at the building with the boarded-up window. The un-boarded ones were wide, and sheltered beneath an awning that shielded a few rickety-looking rocking chairs from the mid-morning sun. The establishment’s only sign simply said “Whiskey.” Whether or not that was the place’s name, it made effective advertizing.

“Ah, good,” Weaver said with a sigh. “It’s been ages since I last got tetanus from a shot glass in a disgusting frontier hellhole. One more thing to scratch off my list for this trip.”

“How ’bout you let us handle the talking?” Joe suggested.

Whiskey, if that as indeed its name, was nothing if not scenic, at least from the outside. It had the obligatory swinging double doors, and even an old man apparently sound asleep in a rocking chair out front, his hat pulled down over his face. Its interior was dim, lit only by sunlight from the windows and a few candle-sized fairy lamps spaced along the walls. There were larger ones not currently in use; half of their smaller cousins were apparently broken. A man with an ostentatious waxed mustache stood behind the bar reading a newspaper, while a skinny teenage girl in an apron lounged against the far wall. She straightened up as they entered. Around a table in one back corner sat six men, in varying states of filth and shabbiness, playing poker, several half-empty bottles of whiskey sitting among their cards and small piles of pennies. They, too, paused and turned around to give the new arrivals a cold, silent inspection.

The three crossed the room to a table near the front windows and seated themselves.

“Good choice,” Weaver muttered. “Lots of folks here to pump for intel.”

“Ashner’s knickers, y’great grump, it’s barely past ten in the morning,” Billie said, rolling her eyes. “How many d’ye think’ll be loiterin’ in a bar? Most folk have better to do with their time than the likes of us.”

“Worth talkin’ to the waitress, at least,” Joe murmured. “They know more’n most about the comings and goings of any town.”

He fell silent as the young lady in question approached. She was no more than seventeen, and lean both in frame and with the slightly hollow-cheeked look of someone who didn’t eat well. Blonde hair was yanked back from her skull in an indifferent ponytail; her expression was, at best, wary, and at worst pondering whether it had an excuse to be hostile.

“What’ll it be?” she asked tersely.

“Shot o’ whiskey!” Billie chirped. “Like the sign says, aye?”

“Wasn’t someone just saying it’s barely past ten?” Weaver said, giving the gnome a scathing look. “Water.”

“And water for me,” Joe added politely, tipping his hat to the girl.

He got a very cold look in return. “Big spenders,” she said with a scowl, then turned and flounced off back to the bar.

“Seriously,” Weaver said to Billie, “pace yourself. I am not hauling your drunk ass all over this podunk town.”

“You are such a pain in the bum, Damian. If I get meself drunk on one shot o’ whiskey, I’ll ‘ave ta return ta the old country in disgrace.”

“You’re pocket-sized! A shot is like a bucket to you!”

“Oh, is that how it works? Damn, I’ve been doin’ it wrong this whole time.”

Joe sighed heavily. “Guys. Just be nice to the girl, please? That means no sexual harassment, Billie. And you.” He pointed accusingly at Weaver. “Just don’t talk to her at all.”

“Oh, mustn’t I?” the man deadpanned. “But how ever will I get over the loss of the scintillating conversation I’m sure that unwashed guttersnipe—”

“Shut,” Joe growled, “up.” Weaver grinned at him, but subsided.

The girl returned, bearing a tray and a disgruntled look.

“Thank you kindly, miss,” Joe said warmly before she could speak, placing a doubloon on her tray. Her eyes widened and the latent hostility in her expression diminished considerably. That was a great deal more than their drinks were worth.

It turned out she was honest. “That, uh, I… I’ll have to go back to the bar to get change for this, s-sir,” she said with an awkward attempt at formal courtesy.

“Don’t worry about that,” Joe said with a smile. “I’m sure you can find a use for the extra. My name’s Joe. What’s yours?”

“April,” she said warily, finally setting their glasses in front of them one by one. Billie immediately grabbed her shot and tossed it back in one go, under Weaver’s disapproving stare.

“April! That’s pretty. Maybe it comes from knowing a few elves back home, but I’ve always been partial to names that mean something,” Joe said. April’s smile was growing steadily more sincere, relaxed, and pleased; at the compliment, she actually blushed slightly, ducking her head. “Listen, I hate to pester you, but we’re lookin’ for a friend of ours who’s supposed to meet us in town. Older fellow, a Westerner, goes by McGraw. You wouldn’t happen to have seen him around?”

April’s eyes widened and she looked them over more carefully. “You know Longshot McGraw?”

“I gather that’s a yes, then?” Joe said with a grin.

She nodded, still staring at him. “Yeah, he’s in town. Came through here jus’ yesterday, askin’ fer the news. Used to be a reg’lar sight in Desolation, I hear tell, though he ain’t been through in a couple years. Not since I was too young to pay attention, I mean.”

“You wouldn’t happen to know where he’s holed up?”

April emitted a short, disbelieving laugh. “Not here. I ain’t heard, sorry. Not many boarding houses in town; we don’t get much in the way of travelers since the mining dried up. They even took us off the regular Rail stop roster,” she added bitterly.

“Sorry to hear that,” Joe said gravely. “Well, I’m sure we’ll run across him sooner or later. I gather Desolation’s had a bit o’ trouble lately?”

The girl’s expression had grown dour again, but this time she didn’t seem to direct the sentiment at him—at least, she continued talking animatedly. “Desolation ain’t had nothin’ but trouble the last ten years. You folks from Tiraas?”

“Oh, all over,” Joe said vaguely. “Sarasio, myself, over on the other side of the Golden Sea. Actually,” he added thoughtfully, glancing over at his companions, “it suddenly occurs to me I don’t actually know where you guys hail from.”

“Can’t think of a single reason you might need to,” Weaver said sardonically.

“I heard stories about Sarasio,” April said, nodding. “Almost as bad as here, I hear tell.”

“What happened to Desolation?” he asked quickly to avert a digression into that subject.

She twisted her lips into a sour little moue. “Elves happened, that’s what.”

Joe stared, taken aback. “Elves? What’d they do?”

“First it was the darklings,” she said, clutching her tray to her chest and scowling as she continued to chatter on. “Them an’ their damn treaty. Oh, I’m sure a load a’ free ore every year’s great for all them factories down in Tiraas an’ Calderaas, but this here’s mining country. You know what happens to mining country when some idjit drow suddenly floods the market with cheap metal? Prices crash, everything crashes, mines close, good folks are out o’ work… And then, then, as if that weren’t bad enough, the goddamn Cobalt Dawn come pourin’ outta the Golden Sea, raidin’ an’ killin’ an’ tryin’ to take over the whole damn province. Least the Army crushed those bastards like they deserved,” she added fiercely. “Only damn knife-ear I ever wanna see again’s one swingin’ from the gallows. Turquoise an’ coal are the only things keepin’ Upper Stalwar Province afloat anymore, an’ they ain’t enough to float everybody.”

“Turquoise and coal, huh,” he prompted, when she showed signs of trailing off.

“Yeah,” April continued, nodding again. “Apparently they don’t have turquoise down in Tar’naris, an’ the dwarves buy a lot o’ coal. They need it fer their machines. That’s not a real big trade, though—they used ta sell metals to the Empire, too, an’ they were hit almost as bad as us by the Narisian Treaty. Maybe worse—least we can grow food up here, an’ hunt some. Dunno what the dwarves eat, ‘less they buy it from us. Them hills’re lousy with good silver, copper, lead, even a few gold lodes closer to the mountains, an’ it all just sits in the ground, cos o’ them damn elves.”

“Well,” Joe said slowly, “now I feel bad for makin’ you recite all that. Sorry, miss, I hadn’t realized things were so rough ’round here.”

“Yeah, well, if you find your friend, you’d hear it all anyway,” she said. “He asked for the news, too. That’s all history, just what it’s like in Desolation these days. Now we got trouble with dwarves an’ Mister K, too, like we need any more damn trouble…”

Joe had to will himself not to stiffen or do anything abrupt to alarm her. Billie and Weaver both straightened up in their seats (she was standing on hers), staring at the waitress. “Mister K?” he asked in a deliberately mild tone. “And dwarves? Sorry, I thought it sounded like you got along pretty well with dwarves in these parts.”

“Till very recently, we did,” said said, bobbing her head again in that distinctive way she had. It was actually kind of cute. “It’s just insult on top of injury, is what it is. A new investor showed up from the capital, real secretive fellow, don’t like folks askin’ after his business. But he’s digging! Startin’ up a whole venture, up north. Makes his headquarters in Risk, bout thirty miles from here into the Badlands.”

“What’s he digging for?” Weaver demanded.

“Nobody knows!” April said in exasperation. “Cos big fancy Mister K don’t hire the hardworking folk who live here an’ desperately need the work. Oh, no, he contracts a whole company a’ dwarves to do his digging! There was like to’ve been a lynching, ‘cept it turns out he’s got this posse—”

Abruptly, she broke off, going pale and looking over their heads and across the table. Clutching the tray closer to her chest, April backed rapidly away, turning once she was out of reach to skitter back over to the bar, which she ducked behind.

Moving slowly and very deliberately, the three of them turned to face in the other direction.

The card players had abandoned their game, and now approached, coming to a stop less than six feet away. They arranged themselves in a rough line, faces coldly blank, some folding their arms, others keeping hands pointedly near holstered wands. In the center, a broad-shouldered man who stood half a head taller than any of his companions studied them slowly, each in turn, slowly chewing at something with a rolling motion of his jaw that made his greasy mustache undulate. After a long, silent moment, he turned his head to the side and spat a wad of tobacco onto the floor.

“You’re in our spot,” he said flatly.

“Didn’t see any names on it,” Joe replied, noting details. The smell of whiskey, reddened eyes and noses, a slight sway in a couple of them, even standing still. That was both good and bad. Drunk men tended to be more aggressive than they otherwise might, but they couldn’t shoot a wand or throw a punch nearly as straight as sober men.

“Well, I’m tellin’ you now,” the big man retorted, fixing his eyes on Joe’s. “Move it.”

“Let’s not do this, gentlemen,” Joe said calmly. “C’mon, let us buy you a round.”

“You hard of hearin’, boy?” the man thundered, sneering down at him. “Get yer fancy-dressed ass up outta my seat, an’ get the fuck outta my bar!”

“Watch your language,” Joe said coldly. “There are ladies present.”

“The fuck you just say to me?!”

“Omnu’s balls,” Weaver said dryly, “are you shambling inbreds drunk? As I was just mentioning to this degenerate little trouser goblin, it’s not even noon.”

“You asked for it, asshole,” the ringleader declared, taking a slightly unsteady step forward and raising his fists.

Two seconds later, he was stumbling backward with pinpoint holes burned through both his feet, his wands falling to the floor from his severed belt, and Joe was upright, weapons raised.

“Now then,” Joe said reasonably, as the burly man’s compatriots caught him. He sagged in their arms, looking stupefied and apparently uncertain why his feet weren’t working properly. “As I said, boys, let’s not go through this. It’s cliché an’ of no profit to anybody. Y’all just go back to your game, an’ your next round’s on me. Fair?”

The big man gaped at him, remarkably like an unwashed fish with an unflattering mustache. He finally got a semblance of balance, leaning against one of his friends. For just a moment, Joe dared to hope that would be the end of it.

“Get ’em!” another man roared, and the rest surged forward, fists upraised. Quite incidentally, they dropped their erstwhile leader to the ground in their rush to storm the table.

There were a few very uncertain seconds in which Joe was tested to his limits; he was out of his element at close range, especially with a bunch of larger individuals rushing him. The sound that Weaver produced from his flute threw all of them way off balance, however, allies and enemies alike, but while the five remaining local boys were sent reeling away, Joe managed to keep his feet. His innate sense of balance was giving him flawed information, so he ignored it, extrapolating from the numbers his eyes were feeding him. Not perfect, but it kept him upright and shooting despite the dizziness. It helped a great deal that, unlike his assailants, he was sober.

Weaver only held that note a few beats, blessedly, by which time Billie had managed to dig something out of her pockets.

Whatever it was sure made a lot of noise.

Two minutes later, they were the only ones still standing.

The brawl had moved into the street without observing such niceties as the door. When the last of the local drunks were laid out on the cracked pavement, it was among the fragments of stone and smoldering wood that had been the front wall of the saloon. One of the swinging doors had been flung clear across the road and now rested on the roof of the Rail station.

“Billie,” Joe said in exasperation, “that was an indoor, close quarters fight. What the h—what were you thinking, throwing explosives?”

“Says the kid who was shooting wands,” Weaver commented.

“Oi, how did I ever end up crewing with such complainers?” the gnome said cheerily. “It’s not like I didn’t throw shielding charms over all of us. C’mon, Joe, don’t argue with results, aye?”

“All the places I’ve been, all the things I’ve done,” Weaver said, “and I think that might just have been the dumbest fight I have ever been in. I mean, c’mon, I’ve been roughed up in nearly every town I visited, but this is the first one where I didn’t do anything to deserve it. If you morons wanted your asses kicked that badly, you could’ve just gone to the nearest Silver Legion barracks and ordered a sandwich.”

“I would advise against that,” Joe cautioned a semi-prone man who was reaching for a holstered wand. At the warning, the fellow cowered back from him, raising his hands in defeat.

“Look alive, chaps,” Billie said more quietly. “We seem to’ve put a dent in our popularity.”

More figures had come out to investigate the noise. An awful lot of them were carrying wands and staves, and at the sight of three out-of-towners standing over six felled locals and the ruins of the central watering hole, many were beginning to scowl and level weapons at the trio.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Joe said, raising his voice, “this is a mite awkward, but it ain’t exactly what it looks like.”

“Be honest, now,” Billie said merrily. “It’s pretty much what it looks like, innit?”

A sharp buzz rose near them, followed by a flicker of blue light that was scarcely visible under the bright morning sun, and McGraw abruptly materialized.

“Yup,” he said fatalistically. “Never fails. When I can’t find you three, all I gotta do is listen for explosions.”

“That’s not entirely fair,” Joe protested.

“It’s pretty fair,” Weaver disagreed.

“You!” the big man from earlier bellowed. He had limped out of the remains of the saloon and was clutching one of the support posts out front, which was currently listing slightly and no longer supporting anything. With his free hand, he pointed unsteadily at McGraw. “I shoulda known these assholes were with you!”

“You probably should’ve, yes,” McGraw commented. He subtly raised his voice, turning to address the gathering (and increasingly angry) crowd as much as the man. “Congratulations, Coulter. You managed to pick a fight with Gravestone Weaver, Tinker Billie and the Sarasio Kid. I’m pretty sure that makes you the dumbest son of a bitch on the frontier. The bards will sing of your legend for years to come.”

“Oh, I will make damn certain they do,” Weaver said, grinning unpleasantly.

At the introductions, the crowd’s tone changed; they began to pull back uncertainly, and most of the weapons present were suddenly pointed skyward or at the ground. Coulter, gaping at his erstwhile opponents, forgot to keep himself braced upright and tumbled face-first into the street. With a defeated groan, the post toppled onto his back.

Hoofbeats pounded the pavement and the crowd drew back further as a pair of riders approached at a quick canter, coming to a stop close enough that Joe and Weaver reflexively backed away from the horses. The man in the lead, astride a black mare, had a wand in his hand and a silver gryphon badge pinned to his vest.

“Damn it, McGraw,” he shouted, “what did I clearly tell you? Did I stutter? Do I need to put it in writing? What part of ‘don’t cause trouble’ was so goddamn difficult to understand?”

“Now, Sheriff, let’s not go jumpin’ to conclusions,” McGraw said reasonably. “I only just got here myself. These folk are friends o’ mine, and it ain’t in their nature to go pickin’ fights.”

“Ain’t that Coulter ass-up in the street, there?” the fellow behind the Sheriff said, lifting the brim of his hat to get a better look.

“Coulter started it!” April said shrilly from the gap where the front of the saloon had been. “Jus’ walked up an plumb took a swing, outta nowhere! When’re you gonna send him off to real prison, Sheriff? Every time you toss ‘im in that jail, he just comes back out meaner and dumber, an’ I don’t see you gettin’ yer butt pinched every day over it!”

“Well, that’s a story I’ve no trouble believing,” the sheriff growled. “You got anything to say for yourself, Coulter?”

The big fellow groaned, twitching feebly under the fallen post.

“He okay?” the younger man asked, glancing at Weaver. “Mebbe I oughta fetch Bones…”

“You do that, Slim,” the sheriff said grimly. “Have him meet us at the jail, because that is exactly where these idjits are goin’.”

“Great,” said Weaver. “We all done here, then? Can we go?”

“You just hold your horses,” the lawman ordered. “I’m perfectly willin’ to believe Coulter an’ his boys started this hoedown, especially with Miss Moseley there backin’ you up. But I also know these boys brawl with fists, not wands, and they ain’t even packin’ whatever ordnance did this. So unless someone comes forward to testify that wall drew on you first, you’re all comin’ down to the office for a chat.”

“Pardon me, Sheriff,” Joe said politely. “My name’s—”

“I know damn well who you are, boy, I got ears,” the sheriff retorted, staring down at him. “An’ I also know I’m not about to haul the four o’ you off anywhere you don’t choose to go. However, I think you are gonna choose to come along politely. Not because Saul Decker’s askin’ you to, but because of this.” He tapped his badge with the tip of his wand; Joe just barely suppressed a spontaneous lecture about wand safety. “This means if you refuse to respect the law in my town, you are instigatin’ a long-term shootin’ match with powers against which you will not prevail, an’ I think you all know it. Honestly, you morons, look around you.” He jerked his head in the direction of the smashed storefront. “Does this look like a town where folks can afford to fix shit like this? Are you proud of yourselves?”

Weaver just raised an eyebrow sardonically, but Joe had to gulp down a physical surge of guilt, and even Billie looked abashed.

Decker sighed and shook his head. “Sam, grab a couple volunteers and help the boys get safe to the jail. The rest of you, follow me. Now.”

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