Tag Archives: Slim

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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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