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The Emperor's Finest [Finished 24/11/07 | Downloadable]


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THE EMPIRE OF DRAMASKUS is crumbling. With its former colonies now warring against it, it struggles to maintain its power and prestige while malicious elements from within as well as without attempt to bring about its downfall. It is the greatest nation the world has ever known, and the mightiest in technology if not magic. Under the ever-watchful gaze of the Emperor's servants, it holds on against all odds.




In the reign of Emperor Terendal Garaz IV, in the Imperial Year 1891, a terrible, malign agency threatens the Empire. No mere agent can possibly hope to find or combat it. The burden falls upon the Emperor's Finest: those men and women in the service of the Emperor with the skill, tenacity and resourcefulness to seek the enemies of the Empire and punish them for their misdeeds, wherever they might lurk.




Larandus Zekar is such a man, though among the most talented and promising. He is tall and lean, decidedly Dramaskan in appearance with his brown hair and eyes. In his third decade of life, he is to prove himself as truly one of the Emperor's finest.




This is his story.

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MR VANDAIR, to the shock and horror of everyone and quite possibly his own, was dead.




They found him hanging from the iron railing of his tenth-floor tower residence's balcony. Suicide was out of the question; he had a noose around his neck made out of his own intestines.




By the time Larandus arrived at the scene, the man had been well and truly dead for at least five hours. A pair of ravens had already begun to make a meal out of him. Larandus had them chased off, and the body cut down. Vandair was the ninth victim in a spate of similar hangings all across the city. Thus far, there was no pattern to them, no motive to speak of, nothing to connect the victims to each other. After nine deaths, Larandus found that disturbing.




'Search his rooms,' he said to Siel, his aide and formerly one of the most notorious manhunters of Dockside. 'I want an inventory of everything. Get Dansh up here if you can.'




While Siel did as he asked, Larandus searched the body, kneeling on the iron platform of the balcony to do it. It was unlikely that anything would be left on Vandair's person, but it never hurt to check. He knew more than one case that had been solved because of a clue left on the body. This time, he was disappointed. Nothing but an old coin, worn with age to the point where the milling had all but disappeared, and the Emperor and Eagle on its two faces had been smoothed into invisibility. Larandus pocketed it.




Standing up and wincing slightly from sore knees, Larandus went back inside the apartment. It was small: two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom around a parlour. Vandair lived alone, a merchant and ex-Imperial Army. There was an old musket resting across a pair of hooks on the wall, with a bayonet in its sheath hanging beside it. Vandair had mounted his service medals on a blackwood plaque which rested on a bookshelf. The only signs of a struggle in the room were the overturned table and chair and a spill of food nearby. The dirty work was done outside, on the balcony.




His neighbours only thought to check on him when a woman hanging her laundry out on the balcony below noticed blood dripping on her clothes. By then, the killer was long gone.




'Nothing,' Siel told him as she stepped out of the bedroom. 'Just the usual stuff: clothes, shoes, underwear of about six different girls, you know the thing.' She looked tired, her clothing accentuating the dark circles under her eyes. None of them were sleeping very well. 'Dansh is coming up now.'




'Any ideas?' he asked her. Even after fifteen years of investigative work, Larandus still valued her opinion as something of an expert in manslaughter and murder in general, having had hands-on experience in the field, as it were. It had taken a lot of convincing at gunpoint to finally turn her over to his cause. It was worth it, as he was continually reminded.




She shrugged. 'Nothing to link him to any of the others. Just killed, nothing taken. Money's still there, jewelry still there. If it was me, I'd have taken his piece, at least,' she indicated the musket. 'Old, but still pricey on the black market.'




'You're not taking anything, Siel,' Larandus told her pointedly.




'Says you,' she retorted, taking an apple from a basket in the kitchen and taking a bite out of it.




The door opened, and Dansh walked in, looking pathetic and frail in the heavy coat he affected. He was to Larandus what a mage would be to any other investigator. For obvious reasons pertaining to the wild magic field in the city, Dansh was not. A telepath, and a brutally intelligent one, at that, Dansh managed to do with his mind tricks the things that would only leave a normal wizard as a smear on the wall from backlash. Most considered him a freak, which suited Larandus' purposes fine.




'You need something,' he said, stating the obvious.




'What do you hear, Dansh?' Larandus asked him by way of reply.




The telepath paused for a moment, turning his tousle-haired head this way and that, his squinted blue eyes looking beyond the normal bounds of space and time. Larandus could tell he was using his powers, partly from nine years' work with him, but mostly because the wooden flooring he stood on had suddenly filmed over with ice.




'Nothing,' Dansh eventually remarked with a shrug. 'Unless you want to hear about psychic screams of dying people again. A lot of killing is connected with that musket.'




'As well there should be,' Larandus told him. 'Service to the Emperor, and all that. Anything else? At all?' he tapped his booted foot impatiently. Four months, and they had turned up nothing.




'I'll check his records once we're back at the office,' Dansh offered. 'I doubt there will be anything that he has in common with any of the others, besides that they breathe the same air.'




Larandus sighed in disgust. 'Alright, we're done here. Get the browncoats up to clean this mess.'








They spent the next week making inquiries and sifting through the Imperial Archives for Vandair's personal file, cross-referencing it with those of the other victims. There were tantalising clues as to possible relationships, but nothing concrete. Larandus had an affinity for making connections that others would miss, but these murders had him puzzled.




'Is it some kind of ritual?' he mused while he sat with Dansh and Siel at a small cafe near the old barbican. 'I don't think anything else explains the brutality of the victims' treatment. Unless it's supposed to be a deterrent.'




'They're spaced too far apart for any rituals I know of,' Dansh said, his thin fingers tapping a steady rhythm on the table. 'Not even the death-priests of Amardia do things like this, at least not without leaving obvious signs of their work.'




'Agreed,' Larandus nodded. 'Unless it's a splinter sect. How about a mob action?'




Siel shook her head this time, her pale locks waving as she did so and catching the eye of some passing workmen. Larandus envied them. Whatever thoughts he might have engendered of romance with her, for she was certainly attractive in both appearance and manner, were dispelled early on. She was a cold killer. 'None that I can think of,' she was saying. 'Besides, we've been through that possibility, boss. No mob links on any of the victims. I'd know.'




Dansh gave a sudden start, and ice momentarily coated the table near him. Larandus raised an eyebrow. 'Message from the Palace,' said Dansh. 'They found another one.'








This one was in a smeltery. His co-workers had found him hanging from a crossbeam as they were coming in for the first shift of the day, still dripping blood onto a stack of iron ingots. A search of his home turned up nothing, as with all the others.




The body was left where it was found. The local watch cordoned off the area, and the smeltery workers avoided it, hurrying past when they had no choice but to walk near it. Larandus and Siel looked at the supervisors' records, while Dansh was running an identity check remotely, communing with other telepaths in the Palace who had ready access to the Archives.




It took two hours to complete the process. Telepathic communication was not the most reliable of methods, but Larandus did not want to waste time trekking back to the Palace just to look at more files. In the time it took for Dansh to run the background check, they found scraps of information about the victim from the smeltery records.




He was Toleyn Kleis, labourer, father of two. He had made no enemies in his fifteen years at the smeltery, other than a supervisor who died of disease a few months ago. He had no criminal record to speak of, and was a diligent worker, his efforts ensuring that the Emperor's forges were stocked with metals for swords, guns and armour. That was what the boss said. Dansh's check revealed nothing else.




There were still no leads. But a flash of inspiration suddenly granted Larandus with a hunch.




Acting purely on instinct, Larandus searched the body. There was nothing.




Frustrated, he was about to walk away when he saw an odd glint of light between two ingots. Kneeling down for a closer look, he found the coin, smooth and worn. He pocketed it. Two might just be a coincidence, but he was sure that if he searched the other victims and their surroundings more carefully, he would find more.








He did. Three more coins of the same sort turned up in one day. Larandus had Dansh check them over for psychic signatures. While the telepath did so, he took Siel into the Archives to run a quick search on known groups who used similar markers to identify its members.




It took hours. Hunting through the musty caverns of shelving and filing cabinets beneath the Imperial Palace, they went back further and further into the past, taking notes on everything they came across. It was tedious work. Servants had brought down food and drinks, but they were left untouched on the large, circular table Larandus had co-opted for their use.




Finally, after records became illegible some four hundred years into the past - Larandus made a mental note that the archivists be told to restore them - they stopped. By this point they had a stack of parchment half a foot high, covered in barely legible writing. The air-ducting system was whining audibly, and from the clock near the stairwell, it was close to midnight.




'Eight groups,' he said, breaking the whining silence. 'Two of them secret societies, the rest anarchists. Only two used blank coins, both anarchist cells, and one of them disappeared forty years ago.'




Siel stared at him blankly. This work was not her sort of thing, he knew.




'If we haven't found our killer, at least we know who they're killing,' he elucidated for her. 'Next, we find out why, but we'll leave that for later. Let's go. I'm hungry.'








The raid happened at midnight, two days later. It was a ground-level apartment, and to most observers appeared to have been boarded up and abandoned for several years. The front door was jammed so that even if the wooden planks over it were removed, it would not open short of being blown out of its hinges. The other entrance, a back door opening out into a dingy alleyway, was more cooperative. At the best of times, this place was enveloped in shadow. At high noon, sunlight would struggle to reach down here, past the many bridges and clotheslines strung between neighbouring towers high above, and the ever-present smog. At night, lamplight from the street would have to be physically thrown into the alleyway and start a fire before it would penetrate the gloom.




Larandus was not at all bothered. He was used to working in dark places. As were Siel and Dansh, after working with him for so long.




There had been a guard posted in the shadows near the back door. It would have been difficult to see him even in the daytime, but he was no trouble. By the time Larandus and Dansh reached the door, Siel was already wiping the guard's blood from her knife. Larandus had Dansh scan the area with his mind, doing nothing to help the autumn chill. He shivered a little in his long, grey coat. Standing too close to a telepath at work would do that to the greatest men.




'Nothing,' Dansh said after a moment, perplexed.




Larandus cursed. 'We can't be at the wrong place. They had a guard out.'




'They might have psy-shielded the place,' Dansh explained. That was an even worse alternative for Larandus. It meant that this cell had more resources than they knew about. Moreover, it meant they had their own telepath or telepaths.




'Cover us,' he told Dansh as he pulled his revolver from its holster, checked that it was loaded, then eased his sword in its scabbard. Larandus felt the chill once more as Dansh reached out with his mind and covered the three of them against psychic detection.




Larandus kicked the door down, sending splinters of wood flying inwards as he swept the room with the nose of his revolver. 'In the name of the Emperor, surrender yourselves to his justice!' he bellowed before he could even see through the dust. There was a lamp in here, and a soft orange glow permeated the small room. There were three more guards.




Larandus shot one in the throat, his revolver kicking and making a sound like a wine glass exploding as a tongue of blue flame licked from its barrel. The guard's neck exploded in a red mist as the large calibre round tore through it. The next guard barely had the time to pull a knife from his belt before Larandus put a bullet into his chest, knocking him onto his back and leaving a gaping hole where his sternum had been. The third one had pulled an old single-shot pistol from under his battered coat, but never had the chance to fire it. From behind Larandus, Siel had put a knife into the guard's wrist. A second later, and another knife was lodged into the man's larynx.




There was another door in the room, opening out into a stairwell leading downwards. Nobody had heard the commotion, or if they had, they had wisely decided not to charge upstairs for a look.




'Let's go,' said Larandus as he hurried down the stairs, Siel behind him and Dansh at the rear. Siel had taken the pistol off the dead guard upstairs, along with some propellant charges and lead balls he had in a pouch.




The stairwell turned at least ten times before they reached the bottom of it. There was a door with a little window built into it, which could be closed with a wooden hatch. Trying it carefully, Larandus found that it was locked. He had Siel pick it while he reloaded his revolver and tried to listen to what was beyond. It was silent.




Her work done, Siel stepped back from the door. Again, Larandus kicked it open with a bang, yelling 'Interior Ministry! Hands in the air where I can see them!'




In response, the four men in the room opened fire with crossbows and pistols from behind various pieces of furniture. Larandus rolled into cover behind a filing cabinet as shots zipped through the air where his head had been a moment ago. Siel overturned a table and hid behind it, pistol in hand. Dansh remained outside the door, out of sight. Besides the four shooters, Larandus marked a cloaked and hooded figure and another man in a green coat. He had little doubt that the hooded one was a telepath. They would know that another telepath was here, but they would at least be unable to shoot Dansh. During the mad rush for cover, Larandus had lost his peaked hat.




The shooting paused for a moment while their opponents reloaded. Larandus leaned to the side, picked out a man behind another upturned table and shot him through his meager cover. Larandus' revolver fired rounds which were better designed for penetration than their own pistols, and the bullet tore through the table. The man screamed, tried to rise again to shoot back, and Siel put a bullet into his skull. The other three leapt out of cover with swords in hand, thinking to overwhelm Larandus and Siel with numbers. The man in the green coat followed shortly after with his own sword and a pistol.




Larandus shot the first attacker in the leg as he pulled his sword from his belt. Stumbling forward, the bigger man still managed to take a swing with his sword, which was nothing more than a huge meat cleaver in Larandus' eyes. He knocked it aside with the basket hilt of his sabre, then emptied his revolver into the man's chest, reducing it to an unrecognisable pulp. The next attacker leapt over his fallen comrade and made a series of practiced cuts and thrusts at Larandus, which he, no blademaster himself, parried to the best of his ability, receiving a few painful gashes for his effort. Larandus capitalised on a sudden opening and skewered the man with his sabre. On the other side of the room, Siel grappled with the last of the thugs. The telepath was nowhere to be seen, but an open door on the far side of the room showed that he had escaped. The man in the green coat was slowly backing into the opening, his pistol aimed where Larandus wisely stayed behind cover.




He was just about to enter the passage beyond when Dansh stepped into the room and froze him by some power of the mind. Pulled out of the passage as though by some unseen hand, the man was hurled through the air and against the wall as Dansh applied pressure to hold him there. Brickwork cracked under him.




While Siel finished off her attacker, Larandus stood, nodded his thanks to Dansh and calmly reloaded his revolver in front of their prisoner. He pointed it casually at the man's stomach as he fixed him with a stare as he presented his badge of office.




'I am Larandus Zekar, Imperial Service. By the mandate of the Emperor, I take you into custody. Henceforth, you have no rights. I will demand answers and you will provide them. Do you understand?'




The man had fainted. Dansh released him, and he fell clumsily to the floor.




'Take him away,' said Larandus.

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THEIR PRISONER decided, rather unwisely, to be uncooperative.




Larandus paced around him. He was bound by the wrists and ankles to an uncomfortable iron chair with a wire-mesh seat. They had taken away his own garments and clothed him in nothing more than a pair of burlap trousers. They had co-opted a small, oppressive room in a City Watch precinct and a glaring white military searchlight to facilitate the interrogation. Between rounds of questioning, the prisoner was left alone in the cell, with only the blinding phosphorescence of the light hanging over his head for company. He had not been fed for two days, and his features were rapidly adopting a sunken appearance. His lips were cracked from lack of moisture.




'Name?' Larandus asked calmly, for the fiftieth time in three days.




'Up yours, Greycoat,' the prisoner responded, for the fiftieth time in three days.




Larandus stepped before the man. Now gaunt-faced, his dark eyes clouded with hunger and slowly deteriorating from the perpetual, harsh light, he still managed to exude an air of arrogant defiance. Larandus pulled his black leather glove tight over his right hand, then struck the prisoner in the face, for the fiftieth time in three days. Once, this man had been fair-skinned, but now it was almost impossible to see his true pigmentation under the mass of bruises covering his face.




Larandus stepped out of the room, locked the door behind him, and gave Dansh an inquisitive look. For the entire interrogation process, the telepath had taken his station outside the cell, probing the prisoner's mind with his to extract the information that beating and starvation could not. Unlike Larandus, he had had some measure of success.




They knew the man's name was Ancrus Zren. That was enough to help them find the man's personal file in the Imperial Archives, where the personal details of untold millions were stored for security purposes. From that, they also knew that the man was in his mid-thirties, a factory boss and colonial sympathiser, and that he had been detained for questioning once before on allegations of drug trafficking. He had a wife by the name of Alendra, but no children. He had no known associations with currently active anarchists, but Larandus knew that did not necessarily mean he had none. As extensive as the Archives were, and as powerful the Imperial Ministry of the Interior was, they were still insufficient for cataloging every minor detail within the Dramaskan Empire, let alone the rest of the world.




Asking him about his name did not help Larandus' interrogation at all, but the repetitiveness of the question focused Ancrus on resisting the urge to answer it, and gave Dansh an opening into the rest of his mind. Unfortunately, Ancrus had been implanted with a psy-shield, and they had to do everything they could to break it. Dansh had been startled to discover that it was beyond his ability to break with brute force, and so counseled Larandus to adopt the current method to help him lever it open. Eventually, he reasoned, when the prisoner breaks and at least admits his name, that would give enough of an opening in his will for Dansh's psychic probe to pry the shield off.




Larandus was not seeing results. If they did not break this man by tomorrow, they would have to start feeding him.




'Have the guards bring a small table, a loaf of bread and a pitcher of water. A clear one,' he told Siel, who obliged with a small smile, guessing his new tactic. 'If we give him a little incentive to talk, he might. Have a rest,' he said to Dansh, who had been standing outside the cell for the better part of an hour. The concrete under his feet and the bricks of the wall were cracking from the psychic ice layered on top of them. The building's vent fans were operating at maximum power, but after the dry heat of the interrogation cell, Larandus felt as though he had walked into a meat locker.




Dansh was all too willing to take him up on his offer. He collapsed into a chair, exhausted, his thin frame appearing weaker than ever after his mental exertions. Pathetic, that was how all telepaths seemed to be, as far as Larandus could tell. They all had frail bodies as a result of the tremendous energy their minds demanded from their otherwise normal metabolisms. If he kept Dansh from using his power for a week, the man's body would show almost immediate improvement, but he would suffer psychologically from not using his psychic ability. Still, for all its frail appearance, Larandus knew that Dansh had a constitution to rival any mage he had ever seen. During his years of service, Dansh had been shot, bludgeoned and stabbed almost as many times as Larandus had, and he was still going. He could take a surprising amount of punishment.




Siel came down with a metal tray a few minutes later, a loaf of bread and a clear glass pitcher of water on it as Larandus had instructed. A watchman came down with her carrying a small table. He gave Larandus a salute before departing, but refused to meet his gaze.




Entering the prisoner's cell once more, Larandus set up the table near the door, with the loaf and pitcher on it. Close enough that Ancrus could see it and smell the bread, but nowhere near enough for him to ever hope of reaching it, even if Larandus unbound his wrists.




'Name?' he asked again, doubting that he would get a different response. This was the fifty-first round.




'Up yours, Greycoat.' The fifty-first time.




Larandus punched him in the face for the fifty-first time, then left the cell once more. 'We're done for today,' he told Dansh and Siel. 'I need some coffee.'








The telepath who had escaped the raid on the night that they captured Ancrus had also managed to elude the best efforts of the Ministry to trace him. By law, all telepaths had to be registered with the Ministry for security reasons, just as all practicing magic users had to be registered with the Tower of the Art. This one had either managed to evade the vigilant eye of the Emperor's servants for some time, or was an unregistered foreigner. Being one of those vigilant servants, Larandus was certain that it was the latter. He had enough experience investigating illicit trafficking of goods and people to have a low opinion of Imperial Customs.




They were sitting at a top-floor cafe in the more opulent district of Dramaskus near the Palace, with fans working constantly to blow away smog and keep the air relatively fresh. The sky overhead was a matted grey, as is customary during the Dramaskan autumn. It looked like evening, though the clock said it was only a little past noon. Dansh was eating an almost-raw slab of beef and a side of greens and roots with gusto. Siel, across the table from Larandus, was toying with a few empty snail shells.




'There is definitely a resonance,' Dansh said between mouthfuls, 'between the subject and the evidence we found earlier.' He meant the blank coins, but Larandus had made it clear earlier that he did not wish for any definite word of the investigation being heard by uninvited ears. Few were those willing to eavesdrop on a Greycoat like Larandus, but those few were dangerous and necessitated caution. 'I do not doubt that they are connected. Perhaps we will find out exactly how so by tomorrow.'




Larandus nodded his agreement. They knew precious little, save that Ancrus was connected with an anarchist cell and a foreign telepath. He felt that it was his purpose to eliminate this threat - and every other of its sort - to the Empire as soon as possible, and every day spent without results felt to Larandus like a grievous dereliction of duty.




His musings were interrupted by one of the waiters approaching. 'Pardon me, sirs and madam,' he excused himself, 'but there are two watchmen here to see you. They have not given their names, but they say it is urgent.'




'Bring them,' Larandus nodded.




The waiter returned shortly, with two men in brown coats in tow. Larandus did not recognise them, but then, many were the agents of the Emperor's law, and he could not be expected to know them all on sight. They could well have been two of the watchmen from the precinct where they held Ancrus.




By the time the waiter reached his table, Larandus knew something was wrong. He did not need Dansh beside him tensing up with a forkful of salad halfway to his mouth to tell that there was something not quite right about these watchmen.




The revolvers in the men's hands were a dead giveaway.




With a shout of warning, Larandus pulled the table over and hurled himself at Dansh to bring the telepath to the floor. Siel was already out of her chair and diving for cover when the two revolvers barked, shattering crockery and splintering the upturned table. The other patrons of the cafe screamed and made a mad rush for the stairs down. The waiter who had brought the men was lying face down in a pool of his own blood before Larandus pulled out his own gun and snapped off a shot at the two gunmen, who had taken cover behind the table. Siel was crouched behind a nearby potted plant, a long dagger in one hand and the single-shot pistol she had retrieved from the raid in the other.




Dansh was on the floor beside Larandus, behind another table. He looked almost comical, with a fork still in his hand, but the set of his eyes dispelled any inclination Larandus might have had to smile at the absurdity of the sight. More shots cracked against their meager cover. The mere fact that they were not simply punching through the wooden table made Larandus want to thank the carpenters who had built the furniture. He made a hand signal to Siel, who began to sneak around to put herself in a better position behind the gunmen. Risking a bullet in the head, Larandus leaned out and took a shot at their two assailants. The bullet splintered the edge of the other table, making one of the gunmen duck down, but the other began to shoot in earnest, emptying his weapon's cylinders into the space where Larandus' head has just been.




'Any chance of calling up some real watchmen?' he whispered to Dansh. The telepath shook his head.




'The nearest station would be where we hold Ancrus, and if we are under attack here, then it is reasonable to assume that the precinct is also compromised.'




Larandus cursed. 'So our prisoner might be gone?'




'I would bet on it,' Dansh replied. When Dansh was willing to gamble, it was because he was right. Siel found that out the hard way.




'What's the next best thing?' Larandus asked, hoping that Dansh could find a watch precinct that could send aid to either the building where they held Ancrus, or to the cafe.




'No help nearby,' Dansh said, as if reading his mind. Of course, he probably did. 'I could fry their brains from here, if you'd like. Anything fancier, and I'd have to get a better view.'




'Don't,' Larandus told him. 'I want them alive, if I've already lost one prisoner.' Dansh nodded.




'I could strip their minds while they're busy trying to shoot you.'




'That's a better idea. Do that,' Larandus agreed as he leaned out again, snapping off another shot at the gunmen. More wood splintered, and more shots answered his. He broke open his revolver, tapped out the three spent shell casings and put in three more. He still had three other shots left in the weapon, but he did not like having it click in his hand in the middle of a firefight.




He tried poking his head out again, then pulled it back quickly to avoid a fusillade of shots. He heard one of the gunmen reloading his revolver, and made a dash out of cover and over to another table, which he upturned. At some point in his run, a bullet had grazed his leg, and now he felt the searing pain of the hit like an open fire in his calf. He could feel dampness oozing into his boot. Gritting his teeth in pain as he settled down onto one knee, he looked over the edge over the table and snapped off a pair of shots against the two gunmen, who both ducked to avoid them. The first one to raise his head again had it blasted open by another bullet, and the next, thinking he could take a free shot against Larandus, suddenly had a knife opening up a smile across his throat. Siel put a bullet into his head for good measure, to stop his thrashing.




From behind the other table, Dansh nodded to Larandus. He had levered open one of the gunmen's minds and extracted information. If it was not what they would have taken out of Ancrus', it was enough for a fresh lead.








They returned to the watch precinct an hour later, after explaining to the manager of the cafe what had happened.




It was a sad fact that even in the face of such carnage and loss, the woman was still more than willing to turn the situation to her profit. Larandus spent the better part of half an hour explaining to her why the Ministry would not provide her with compensation for her lost business. She was not even concerned about her dead waiter. He left in disgust after she made it clear that she intended to reap every benefit she could from the shoot-out in her cafe.




The watch house was a mess. According to witnesses, a stagecoach had stopped outside while armed men stormed in, bringing out a half-naked man a short time later and spiriting him away in the vehicle. The six watchmen on duty did not even stand a chance. Wherever the two gunmen had found the uniforms they wore, it must have been somewhere else as none of the bodies had been stripped. Larandus reasoned that their enemies must have tracked Ancrus here somehow and planned to break him out. How they managed it so quickly, and found out where Larandus and his two partners were having lunch besides, was an entirely different question, with possible answers that made Larandus uneasy to think about them.




Without Dansh, it would have been impossible to continue the investigation. He spent the remainder of the day probing the scene at the watch precinct for psychic imprints, and found a positive trace for the strange foreign telepath at the scene, probably where the carriage was. Moreover, he managed to extract a snapshot of the most intense moments of fighting from psychic resonance, a process which took hours but produced clear images of the attackers.




While Siel called in some of her many favours with elements of Dramaskus City's underground, Larandus had Dansh and a few other telepaths identify the suspects. By the time Siel returned to the Palace annexe where Larandus had his quarters, Dansh had enough raw data to cross-check against her findings.




By midnight, they had finished as much of their investigation as they could have, given the loss of Ancrus Zren. They still had no idea of the motive for the brutal hangings or the true nature of their enemy.




But now, Larandus knew where to strike, and when. And when that time came, he would find answers.

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IN THE MORNING before the raid, Siel was trying to force him into his dress uniform.




'No,' Larandus kept telling her, 'I don't believe I need to be in my grey and gold when I'm kicking in a door and shooting everyone I find behind it.'




'Just stop arguing, boss,' she was saying, laying out his clothes for the third time. Black shirt and breeches stared up at him from his bed. A knee-length grey leather coat hung near the door, adorned with gold braid and embroidery on the breast, cuffs and high collar. His peaked cap was on a peg nearby, with the golden Imperial Eagle on it gleaming. 'You need to be looking your best. You know that.'




'Looking my best?' Larandus wondered incredulously. 'In...' he looked over his shoulder at the clock, '... twelve hours, I'll be covered in blood and busy trying not to get shot or have anything important cut off. Looking my best is not exactly what I would call high on my list of priorities. Have you arranged things with the local watch?' he asked her, trying to change the subject. She gave him a withering look. Of course she had, the night before.




'You want to look inspiring to the men,' she reasoned, 'and besides, you can't count on me or Dansh doing that. I'm a woman, and he's a brainjob.'




'You know he doesn't like to be called that,' Larandus reminded her. She shrugged.




'And I don't like browncoats looking down at me because I have [bleep]. Doesn't stop them. As I was saying,' she rallied, 'you'll have to make them believe that they're really doing the work of the Emperor, and looking the part of a Greycoat is going to help that a lot. Remember, most of them are going to be ex-gangers, and if you want them to bend to the will of the mysterious, terrifying Imperial agent, everything you do and everything you wear has to remind them of that. You do your best to look the part, and they'll follow you anywhere because they know you'll lead them to victory, or at least shoot them if they try to run. That means the uniform.'




Larandus sighed and threw up his arms in disgust. 'Fine,' he relented, 'fine. Have it your way. But if I have my head blown off because of that damn eagle shining like a target on it, I'll haunt you to the end of your days, Siel.'




In truth, the uniform was not all that bad. It was designed with practicality in mind, after all. The shiny parts could be dulled with a bit of boot polish, and Larandus had to admit that the coat was very useful in the gathering chill of late autumn. He just chafed at having to wear the same clothes that he would meet with his superiors and the nobility in while putting the fear of the Emperor into some delinquent guardsmen and shooting dissidents. Of course, he also had to look good in front of the journalists who would crowd the scene afterwards, but that was a very minor consideration in comparison to coming out of the affair alive in the first place.




'Lord Sezarn is here to see you,' Siel told him as he was pulling on his boots. She gave him a look that more or less said she told him so about the uniform.




Lord Sezarn. The Minister of the Interior, and head of one of the Great Houses of the Empire. He was, for all intents and purposes, master of the Empire's security. As Larandus stepped out of his bedroom and into the main chamber of his private quarters, fixing his hat onto his head, he was reminded of just how much he despised this man. A few inches taller than Larandus' six feet, Lord Sezarn exuded an aura of menace and authority that understandably made most people he spoke to ill at ease. He was bull-necked and heavily muscled, obvious even under his gold-trimmed black uniform. His heavy face was clean-shaven except for a waxed mustache. He was, Larandus knew, brutally intelligent and had a force of personality that cowed many of his subordinates. He was a staunch defender of Imperial law.




Until, of course, Imperial law began to impinge on his personal image and prestige. Larandus had fought hard several years ago to have Lord Sezarn's own son hanged on charges of arson, attempted murder, murder, inciting unrest, rape and resisting arrest. The Minister would have none of it, and for his part fought tooth and nail to have the charges dropped and Larandus removed from his post. Eventually, the High Court settled matters by putting the boy under house arrest for a month and making sure that no news of the trial be publicised. Lord Sezarn saw the trial as a blow to his ego and his status. Larandus only saw it as an exercise in applying Imperial law equally to all citizens. Of course, the Minister would not see it his way, hence the enmity. The intrigue surrounding that trial had seen Siel hospitalised for a few weeks with grievous wounds.




And here he was, calm as you please, standing in Larandus' private sanctum for the first time in five years. Last time, he had been demanding Larandus' resignation at gunpoint. This time, he stood with his hands behind his back, an oily smile on his heavy face.




'To what do I owe this pleasure, Lord?' Larandus asked in a tone that he had had to practice to make it so calm. He used this tone so he would not haul off and punch the Minister in the face. Siel quietly absented herself from the room.




'I wish to offer my congratulations, Zekar,' Sezarn began, 'for your timely investigation and response regarding this urgent matter of Imperial security. I would commend you and your staff for your diligence and initiative, even in the face of great adversity.'




You pig, Larandus thought. You're saying this now to soften me up, and then you're going to take the credit for it when the newspapers come calling. He wanted to scream. What he ended up saying was, 'Thank you, Lord. I live to serve the Emperor and his law.' He placed some emphasis on the last word, making it abundantly clear to Sezarn exactly who and what it was the two of them ultimately answered to.




'These Sons of Zannariamus,' Sezarn continued, ignoring the slight, 'as they call themselves, they appear to be a resourceful group. Quite powerful, and cunning to hide themselves for so long.'




'Yes, sir,' said Larandus. The Minister was stating the obvious to irritate him.




'Did you find out why they were performing those brutal murders?' he asked.




'I have several theories,' Larandus said, maintaining his calm. 'The most likely one is that they are trying to remove any potential informers before a major operation. I wrote it in my report,' he reminded Sezarn.




'Of course,' the Minister nodded with a disgusting smile. 'I commend you on your courage, Larandus, for offering to storm their base of operations. However, as appropriate to the level of danger involved, I have detailed Agent Taldran and his retinue to support your efforts.'




'Beg your pardon, sir?' Larandus hissed with more than a hint of annoyance in his voice. Taldran was a dog. His cronies were no better than street thugs and common thieves. He had tried to have the lot of them shot for criminal neglect after a poorly executed raid which resulted in a residential tower being bombed and hundreds of people killed. Sezarn wouldn't have any of it; Taldran was his pet. A second cousin, Larandus found out later.




'I am confident in Agent Taldran's abilities and cooperation between the two of you to win the day,' was all that Sezarn said as a response to Larandus' protest.




'With respect, sir, I do not believe that Agent Taldran will be necessary. I already have a hundred browncoats ready to close off streets and bridges around the area, and fifty riot officers to storm the place. Agent Taldran's presence will only add unnecessary clutter to my preparations.'




'Nevertheless,' Sezarn said with finality, 'Agent Taldran will accompany you. Perhaps the efforts of his men will ensure that nobody escapes this time.'




Sezarn turned on his heel and exited Larandus' quarters without so much as a farewell. Larandus wanted to put a bullet into his skull right then and there, especially after that last insult. More likely, Taldran's toadies would help the enemy by their bumbling.




'He wants you dead,' said Dansh from a corner of the room. He was sitting by a small table, a book open before him.




'I didn't see you come in,' Larandus said, calming himself. There would be time to deal with Taldran later.




'I didn't see any need to intrude on your conversation,' the telepath excused himself, 'and you weren't expecting anyone, so I made you ignore me. Anyway, Taldran is supposed to make it look like an accident. In the heat of the moment, against the foul forces of the dissidents, the brave Agent Larandus Zekar falls in glorious battle. You know, that routine. It will give the Ministry a good name, bolster the Greycoats' reputation, advance Taldran's career, and remove you all in one move. Lord Sezarn is still furious about what he sees as your deliberate attempts to discredit his family.'




'Maybe if his family made a serious attempt to stop discrediting itself, I wouldn't have to keep trying to enforce the law,' Larandus retorted.




'Be that as it may,' Dansh said, 'I doubt that you can reason with Taldran like that.'








'Ready, sir,' the browncoat sergeant said, hefting his riot shield and his shock baton. Larandus gave him and his men a nod.




The building, a sprawling, one hundred and fifty year old mass of architecture, was once a small palace. Now, it was derelict, and as far as the local authorities of this part of the city were concerned, abandoned except for a few homeless people who slept on the wide steps leading up to its door. It was three stories tall, dwarfed by the newer residential and commercial towers built around it, its old stones stained brown by low smog and streaked by rain. An hour ago, Larandus had every street nearby sealed off, and crossbow-toting browncoats stationed at every possible avenue of escape.




In front of him were the five squads of riot officers he had requested. Fifty loyal men, in steel cuirasses and full-faced helmets, half of them holding tall riot shields and shock batons, the other half with crossbows. They had rigged up searchlights to illuminate the boarded facade of the mansion. More were on the other side to discourage anyone from escaping from there, where the light would give the browncoats there a clear shot with their crossbows. Taldran would enter the mansion through the back door with his twenty thugs.




Normally, the streets would still be crowded at this time of night. However, with the City Watch present in force, and rumours of Greycoat presence, most people were either staying indoors or avoiding the area altogether. The Belt, high overhead, was casting its silvery radiance on the scene when it was not obscured by clouds. Neither moon had risen yet.




'Let us administer the Emperor's justice,' Larandus said as he began to walk towards the mansion's front doors, sabre belted at his side, revolver holstered and black-lacquered body armour under his coat. He had decided to do away with the pleasantries of offering whoever was inside surrender. They'd had ample warning of this, of course. He had given them an hour to dig in, make plans, and soil themselves.




'The doors, if you will,' Larandus said to the lieutenant leading the platoon, who promptly obliged by having the men in his squad bring up a compact ram. In the space of a few moments, the huge double doors were battered open, and the riot officers were in, throwing flash- and smokeballs ahead of their advance. There was the sound of crossbow bolts smashing against masonry and against riot shields, and the dull, hissing crack of shock batons striking flesh.




There was more resistance than Larandus had expected. With Dansh and Siel behind him, he strode in through the doors, drawing his revolver and sabre as he came. For a moment, there seemed to be a pause in the fighting as the rebels registered the new arrivals, then the battle was rejoined in earnest. A rebel up the flight of steps leading to the second floor aimed his crossbow at Larandus, who promptly raised his revolver and put a bullet through the man's neck in a spray of blood. The two men beside him were also taking aim, but were too late. Siel was up the stairs before their crossbows were even in line, and one of them suddenly dropped his weapon, clutching at his throat where Siel had thrust a dagger. The other jerked madly, clutching at his eyes, which had suddenly begun to bleed. Another thrust of power from Dansh fried the rest of his mind, and he collapsed.




'That way,' Dansh pointed to a side corridor, his voice edged with adrenaline and the floor under him filming over with ice. 'I can sense that telepath in that direction, and I believe that is where their commanders would be.




Nodding, Larandus beckoned to Siel, who made her way back down the stairs as the riot officers advanced to the second level, two squads holding the landing while the others cleared out the remainder of the ground floor. They had orders to subdue every rebel they found, and seize every book, pamphlet, and anything else that might give a clue as to the Sons of Zannariamus' modus operandi.




Larandus followed Dansh's directions. They turned into a corridor, rebels coming out to meet them, swords, axes and knives in hand. Larandus shot one, then smashed the hilt of his sabre into another who strayed too close. He saw Siel vaulting over one, planting a knife into the back of his head as she landed, then ripping out the throat of the next one as she sprung up towards yet another. Then he was retreating slightly under the furious attacks of a rebel with a broadsword, letting the man tire himself out before exploding his chest with a pair of shots.




Then the remaining rebels were fleeing, Larandus pumping shots into their backs until his revolver clicked empty. He paused only long enough to reload, and then forged ahead.




After what seemed like an eternity, Dansh directed them into a room where he was certain the enemy's command cadre was. Kicking the door down, Larandus entered a great hall, likely what was once the mansion's ballroom. Desks and bookshelves were now scattered around the huge chamber, some overturned to serve as makeshift fortifications. At some point, someone had put a power generator in here and rigged up the walls with glowlamps, providing weak illumination. He could see the hooded form of the strange telepath on the far side of the room, with the sneering, still-bruised figure of Ancrus Zren beside him, directing a mob of rebels to charge. A few more men stayed with them as the disorganised crowd surged forward.




Larandus raised his revolver and snapped off shots at the charging rebels. The weapon barked again and again, each time felling a rebel in a spray of blood and bone shards. When it clicked empty, Larandus holstered it and set to work with his sabre, settling into an easy rhythm of attack and defence as the mob rushed around him. Siel was somewhere off to his right; he could not see her, but he could at least mark her position by the screams of men who underestimated her daggers.




To his left, he saw Dansh raising his hand against a pair of oncoming rebels with swords. The floor visibly split under him as he focused a vast amount of power, stopping the rebels in their tracks and then stripping their flesh from their bones with a fresh surge. Psychic ice coated the floor around him. Then, while he stood alone, the foreign telepath must have registered his presence, because he was in turn blown off his feet and slammed into the wall near the door, crumpling into a heap.




Larandus removed another rebel's arm as he backed slowly out of the press of men, shouting for Siel to take Dansh away and call the riot officers in. A rebel found an opening, and Larandus stumbled back, a gash in his side. He managed to recover enough to put his sabre into the offender's mouth and out the back of his head, then retreated as quickly as he could from the rest.




Suddenly, there were men coming the other way, hacking at the rebels with swords and bashing them with clubs. Larandus bumped into someone, and felt the barrel of a revolver pressing into the small of his back.




'Hello, Zekar,' Taldran hissed into his ear. 'How wonderful to bump into you here.'




'This isn't the time, you damn fool,' Larandus managed to gasp as the pain in his side reached a crescendo. 'Point your gun where it matters.'




'Oh, and who put you in charge?' came the spiteful reply.




'This is my investigation, you piece of filth,' Larandus hissed, turning around to face Taldran. In reply, the bigger man punched him in the face, knocking him to the floor.




Pain exploded in his side. The last thing he saw before he blacked out was Taldran laughing and aiming his revolver down at him.

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A MEMORY. Dramaskus City, Dockside district, eight years earlier.




The corpse was fresh. Larandus did not even need to touch it to check. Blood was still oozing out of the man's punctured lungs and steaming in the cold winter air. The snow around it was soft and pink. The killer was nowhere to be seen, but he knew who it was. He had only been an Imperial agent for five years, but already he was certain that no other would have carried out such a murder with cold-blooded efficiency and precision.




The fact that he knelt over what was once the most powerful crime lord in the district did not even faze him. The killer had had years of experience at their craft, if the Archives were to be believed. Larandus set great store by the Archives.




'Make a note of it,' he said to Avrick, his aide, gathering his grey coat around him as he dictated. 'The fifteenth day of Khenas, in the Year of our Empire 1884. Galran Dorin is found dead in an alley two blocks from his suspected headquarters in Dockside. Cause of death: ambush, severe blunt trauma to the head and multiple punctures to the lungs, possibly from a short, edged weapon. Addendum: this is the work of the manhunter "Shade". Investigation continues.'




Avrick nodded to him as he finished writing down the last few words. A young man of no more than eighteen years, Avrick had been detailed to him as a scribe and investigator in training. He needed field experience, apparently. This was his first assignment. He was a lanky youth, an inch shorter than Larandus' six feet, his brown hair cropped short and his blue eyes bespectacled. He looked small in his heavy brown greatcoat.




'Shade went towards the docks,' a voice said behind him. It was Dansh, his telepath. He had worked with the little freak for a year now, but he was still uneasy about him. At least a mage would wave his arms and chant when performing his tricks. A brainjob like Dansh would just stare at something and whatever it was he was doing would happen, with nothing to show for it except maybe a bit of ice on the floor. In the middle of a Dramaskan winter, it was difficult to see even that.




'How do you know?' he asked Dansh suspiciously. He was still unsure as to how the telepath performed his myriad tricks. Dansh gave him a withering look.




'Shade has a powerful psychic signature, owing to the weapons it carries. All one has to do is trace the most recent positions of those weapons, which seem to never leave their owner's person.'




Larandus gave a noncommittal grunt. He had no idea what Dansh was trying to say. He thought perhaps that a side effect of his mutation was that he thought too quickly. 'Whatever,' he said. 'Let's go, then.'




The walk to the docks took the better part of half an hour. They were almost deserted at this time of year, with only Imperial Customs patrol boats regularly speeding up and down the Sar Galun River, and trading boats limiting themselves to the port city of Liras, far to the south. A film of ice coated the water, especially around the dock pilings and other places where vessels did not regularly come and go. The jetties looked especially slippery. The vast stretch of open ground that would, in warmer months, be covered with traders' crates and barrels and shouting merchants and hurrying porters was instead merely an expanse of space where the bitter wind could pick up speed.




The sun shone weakly overhead. Tonight would be the longest night of the year, and while some within the city would be partaking in a number of religious observances, Larandus knew he would be spending it trying to hunt down a murderer, a task that, at this point in his career, he would not pass up even if he were a religious man.




'Where to?' he asked Dansh curtly, his breath misting in front of him. The telepath gave a shrug, then took a few steps forward.




'Shade has gone back into the city from here,' he said after a few moments. Larandus cursed. 'However,' Dansh continued, 'it seems as though its intent is to return here, or somewhere nearby, later this evening.'




Larandus shivered in his coat. 'Fine. Let's find somewhere to spend the rest of the day, then. Somewhere out of the wind.'








'Here,' said Avrick as he set down the tray on the table. 'They said they'll bring out the food later.'




Larandus gave him a nod and took a cup of coffee. It was a rich black, with only a small amount of milk in it. Ventaran, from the taste. In his years of service, and the years of apprenticeship and training before that, he had had plenty of time to learn to appreciate coffee.




The cafe was mostly empty. It usual client̮̬̉̉le of merchants and moneylenders were doing their business further south, where the river was not so treacherous and the winds not so bitterly cold. There were a few Imperial Customs officers lounging about, having drinks and a bite to eat before their shift. In their black coats, they looked like any number of other men and women in service to the Emperor, and the untrained eye would not mark them as any different from an attendant at the Palace or an Archivist. That was the idea. The Empire was run by a single, cohesive body, with its heart and mind in the Imperial Palace and its many extremities reaching out far beyond, even to foreign lands. It was monolithic, united, and powerful beyond any man's imagination.




In theory, of course. In practice, it was a mass of smaller entities, all with their own petty rivalries over jurisdiction and every scrap of power they could seize for themselves. There was corruption and favouritism. Having every facet of the Imperial Administration and every part of the Imperial Senate dominated by members of the Council of Nobles was the problem, as Larandus saw it. Of course, this was an Empire which had lasted almost two thousand years, so they must have been doing something right, under all that inefficiency and infighting. In theory, nobody was above the law, not even the Emperor himself. As far as Larandus knew, however, very few noblemen were ever called out for whatever crimes they might have committed. Larandus looked forward to the day when he would set a precedent by having a noble hanged.




The Customs men were talking easily amongst themselves. Of course, a few of them cast furtive glances over in Larandus' direction every now and then. Though they spoke freely, they watched their words. The grey coat of the Interior Ministry's agents struck fear into the hearts of every citizen, and every foreigner besides. They had a well-deserved reputation for vigilance, persistence and ruthlessness. Larandus' mentors had given particular emphasis to the deservedly lesser known Greycoat qualities, such as good judgment and integrity. They had tempered his natural affinity for all sorts of unpleasant activities with a strong sense of what was right or wrong for the Empire, and how a Greycoat must conduct himself to earn the respect of the citizens as well, rather than just their fear.




The food came, and Larandus set aside his musings to concentrate on the hot broth and its laudable virtues of warding off the chill and filling his empty stomach. Dansh, as always, ate with an eagerness that was astounding for a man who appeared so emaciated and frail. Avrick ate little, but he always did.




Later, after some discussion, Larandus had Dansh and Avrick scout out the place where they deduced Shade was to come later that evening. It was a warehouse near the docks, as good a place as any for illicit dealings in the middle of winter. Customs men did not bother to check them then; after all, why look for illicit goods in crates when there were no crates being offloaded?




For his part, Larandus took the time to visit the nearest City Watch precinct, labeled in Imperial Administration records as Dockside/3-17. It was a wholly impersonal name, detached in character from the dingy masses of habitation blocks and small businesses around it. Quite appropriate, as far as an Imperial institution went, in Larandus' thinking.




His badge of office saw him straight through to the watch captain in charge of the precinct, without having to experience the agonising sea of paperwork normally involved with such short notice visitations. Technically, he could commandeer the entire watch force for this district by virtue of his badge alone, but it never hurt to go through the formalities. After all, while his authority gave him the power to use all Imperial agencies at his discretion, it did not engender goodwill between him and those he commanded. Politely requesting this precinct's assistance in his plan would not only serve to maintain his integrity, but also shift some of the responsibility onto the City Watch.




The captain was a gaunt man in his mid-forties, shorter than Larandus and sporting a dark stubble that could have been used to sand diamonds. The watch officers in Dockside, as with most of Dramaskus City's poorer districts, were normally recruited from street gangs in exchange for pardons. This man looked the part. His name was Darenz, according to the name plaque on his desk.




'I wish to request the assistance of your men,' Larandus began without introducing himself. 'I am nearing the end of an investigation, and require manpower to secure the area around Warehouse 35/3r.'




'And the reason, sir?' Captain Darenz asked, politely, but with a cold tone that suggested he did not appreciate being asked to do things without question. Larandus liked him already.




'That is not essential information,' he replied anyway. 'Suffice it to say that there will be awkward questions asked if anyone was to leave that area without my express sanction.'




'I'm afraid I can't in good conscience send a good portion of my force to an area at the behest of even a Greycoat without knowing the reason,' Darenz insisted. Remembering himself, he added, 'Sir.'




Larandus smiled inwardly to himself. He was afraid that he would have to go through a number of watch precincts in order to find someone with a bit of backbone. This was the man he wanted for the job. 'I have it on good authority that the murderer known as Shade will be present at that location this evening. I would apprehend them.'




Captain Darenz was silent for a few moments, then nodded. 'As you wish, sir. Shade is notorious. I will see what I can do to help in neutralising this enemy of the Emperor.'




Larandus left Dockside/3-17 shortly after, with the Captain's assurance that he will have his men. He did not, however, tell the Captain what he really planned to do with this Shade.








Warehouse 35/3r was normally reserved for mining supplies and heavy machinery. At this time of year, it was an immense, echoing shell of iron, bricks and wood. The lights were off, but moonlight streamed in through huge glass panels set in the cavernous roof. Red and White moon were up tonight, and the interior of the warehouse was covered in alternating patches of strong illumination and deep shadow. There were a few people engaged in conversation at the very heart of the warehouse, in a patch of red-tinged silver light. Dust hung heavily in the air.




Larandus had quietly surrounded the warehouse's two entrances with the thirty men Captain Darenz had managed to spare. They had orders to arrest anyone who tried to escape, and shoot the ones who resisted.




Larandus pressed a lead ball into the muzzle of his single-shot pistol, then drew his sabre. It was safe to assume that one of those people inside was Shade, another the client, and the rest guards. He left Dansh with the watchmen, unsure of how useful the telepath would be in a fight. He had not thought to risk him yet, no matter how much he wanted to be rid of the freak. Avrick, he sent up through one of the warehouse's inactive vent ducts with a crossbow and orders to start shooting only when Larandus did.




He took five brown-coated watchmen with him, and stormed into the warehouse. Few of the guards inside had crossbows; the rest were armed with swords and clubs.




'Interior Ministry!' Larandus bellowed as he strode into the warehouse, pistol raised. 'Drop your weapons!' Of course, he did not expect that they would. Seeing him and the browncoats, the swordsmen formed up around their master, while a dark figure Larandus assumed was Shade melted into the shadows, disappearing as though it was never there. Three men with crossbows raised their weapons and fired.




One browncoat beside Larandus screamed as a bolt struck him in the chest, punching through his breastplate and knocking him to the ground. The others opened fire, without much success, the interplay of dark and light playing tricks on their minds and sending their bolts flying errantly into the darkness. Larandus sighted along his pistol and dropped one of the crossbowmen with a shot to the chest. Not stopping to reload, he thrust the pistol into its holster, drew his sabre and charged as another fell to a bolt from Avrick.




In moments, the battle was joined in earnest, with the swordsmen surging forward to engage, and the browncoats laying into them with cudgels and swords. Larandus knocked aside a thrust, then riposted, taking his assailant in the ribs. Pulling out his sabre, he thrust it forward and made a draw-cut against another of the thugs, opening up his stomach while one of the browncoats clubbed him savagely in the head. The man whom Larandus assumed to be Shade's client tried to escape out the other side of the warehouse, but met the browncoats there.




Larandus found himself outside the vicious hand to hand combat for a moment, and took the time to reload his pistol, replacing it in the holster again before leaving the floor of the warehouse completely and clambering up to the catwalks above for a better view. From higher ground, he might even have a chance to find Shade before it disappeared. He found it interesting that for all that Shade was notorious, none knew even if it was a man or a woman.




A muffled clatter somewhere in the darkness ahead alerted him, and he dropped into a crouch, his sabre low and his pistol in his other hand. Creeping forward, he was only dimly aware of the fighting below. His breathing and his heartbeat seemed far louder up here. He did not even want to blink.




Then he found Avrick, lying still in a pool of moonlight. Blood dripped down, over the edge of the catwalk and into the darkness of the warehouse below. His throat had been cut. Larandus quickly backed away from the light. He heard laughter.




'Who's there?' he asked the darkness. More laughter came in reply.




'You really think you caught me this time?' asked a woman's voice. 'You're good, Greycoat, but I'm better.'




Suddenly Larandus was knocked onto his back, a weight landing on top of him in the darkness. His mind dimly registered a faint, decidedly feminine scent. Only instinct made him let go of his sabre and grab the wrist of his attacker as she tried to drive a knife into his eye. They struggled for a moment on the catwalk, her trying to push the knife closer, and him trying not to die.




'I don't want to kill you,' Larandus managed to gasp out as he jinked his head to the side, the knife scraping across the iron catwalk a hair's breadth away.




'Then you must be stupider than I gave you credit for,' said Shade as she thrust again. He rolled to the very edge of the catwalk, almost falling off, but managing to put himself on top of the woman, who brought up her knee, knocking the wind out of him as it collided with his stomach. He retaliated with a punch to her side, then an elbow to her face. She tried to put her knife into his ribs, but he managed to twist just enough for it to tear through his coat and rip into his arm instead. He butted his head against hers, smashing the back of her skull against the catwalk. She countered with a punch that almost dislocated his jaw. He rolled off, pointing his pistol at her as he stood. The propellant inside whined as it primed.




'You'll be hanged,' he panted, aware of the warm dampness in his sleeve and the dead weight of his arm. 'I can save you,' he said. She laughed as she stayed on the ground, her face obscured by the shadows.




'Don't play with me, Greycoat,' she said, 'I won't try to bribe you.'




'I won't take your bribes, Shade,' he said. 'I am a servant of the Emperor. I think you could be, too.' She laughed some more.




'Oh, please. If I was, you wouldn't be pointing a gun at me.'




'You have a long record of killing other criminals,' Larandus pointed out.




'Less competition for me,' she reasoned.




'Competition for what? You only ever went for criminals.'




'Everyone's a criminal in Dockside,' she told him. 'Even the Customs men are criminals. The Emperor doesn't care about Dockside, so Dockside takes care of itself.'




'That's not true,' Larandus said.




'Prove it, Greycoat. Shoot me. That's what the Emperor would do if he cared. He'd get rid of the criminals and put honest men in their place.'




'I could use someone like you,' Larandus offered. 'A pardon in return for service. I don't like you, Shade. I don't like you because you are a criminal and an affront to the Emperor's law. Your continuing existence outside of custody is an insult to the Empire. I can take you into my staff and allow you to serve the Emperor with your talents. I am a great believer in efficiency.'




'You're bluffing,' she said suspiciously. 'You wouldn't. You'll take me and throw me behind bars, then hang me when all's said and done. Why don't you shoot me now and get it over and done with, instead of putting the bullet in my back later?'




Larandus complied, and pulled the trigger. The bullet punched through the catwalk, less than an inch from Shade's head. 'I would do it,' he said, 'but it would serve the Emperor better if I did not waste your talents by killing you here and now. You already lost me a potential servant of the Emperor tonight. Don't make me waste another.' She laughed as she stood up, knife in hand.




'That's nice, Greycoat, but your pistol only shoots once,' she said as she prepared to lunge.




'Yes,' Larandus agreed, putting a whining barrel against her forehead. 'That's why I carry two.'




In the darkness, he imagined that she grinned. That was how he met Siel.

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IT WAS IRONIC, Larandus decided.




He could still remember beating Ancrus in that hot, stark room, asking questions and finding no answers. Now Ancrus, clothed in finery once again, was laying into him with calculated punches. He was chained to a wall, he knew that much. He very much doubted that they were still in the old palace. The floor was tiled and slick with blood. Larandus regarded it with a sense of detachment even as he realised that it was his own. Ancrus was taking pleasure in this act of revenge. He imagined that the man was doing his very best to replicate the injuries Larandus had inflicted on him. Of course, he was using blades and hot irons as well, which was probably some way of repaying Larandus with interest.




He was stripped to his waist. His coat, shirt and other possessions were nowhere to be seen. All he had were his breeches. The manacles were chafing his wrists and ankles. There was an oil lamp on a table where Ancrus had laid out his instruments. It did not provide much light.




'How much do you know, I wonder, Greycoat?' Ancrus was saying. Larandus did not answer. He was not entirely sure if the man wanted him to respond at all. If Ancrus wanted answers, Larandus would not answer him.




Of course, Ancrus was not the only one in the room with him. The foreign telepath was there, watching intently, almost interestedly with his hood down, letting Larandus see his face for the first time. It was almost skull-like, and was set in a twisted little smile. The eyes were a dirty hazel and devoid of all emotion. The head was shaved completely bald and tattooed with symbols and images that Larandus did not recognise. He was not sure that he wanted to. The telepath appeared as spare as Dansh would have after hours of exertion, but something about this man seemed to suggest to Larandus that this was a more permanent state of emaciation. The rest of his body was invisible beneath his dark robe, but even then Larandus could see that his head seemed a mite too big. His fingers, long and little more than skin clinging to bones, were clasped at the small of his back as he paced back and forth.




Larandus could feel the telepath probing into his mind. That was what he was truly afraid of. Ancrus could beat him all he wanted; that would not elicit answers. He suffered worse from his mentors during his training. However, though he had been trained to resist telepathic interrogation methods, he still felt woefully defenceless against this rail-thin man who paced before him.




He concentrated hard on keeping the telepath's probing at bay. He tried going through some mental exercises he had been taught by his old mentors. It seemed like such a long time ago that he was nothing more than a novice at the Imperial Academy at Velind. He remembered long, sleepless nights in lightless chambers much like this one, constantly being harried by the instructors' agile minds.




He could taste blood in his mouth. Ancrus had struck him again. Now he was moving away, picking up some instrument from the table and returning to work on Larandus some more. He was not paying attention to whatever it was Ancrus was doing. He could dimly feel the pain, but he was too focused on resisting the telepath. Larandus had to give them credit. He would have done the same, except the sharp implements, he would have left to more expert practitioners, like Siel.




Siel. He wondered if she had escaped with Dansh when he told her to. Before Taldran came and ruined everything. Inwardly, he cursed Taldran. He hoped that he was still alive, so that he could kill him later.




'Yes, he is,' the telepath said suddenly. Larandus remembered that his thoughts were still being read. The telepath's voice was icy, a flat, breathy monotone. 'Thank you for reminding us.' He laughed, a disturbing sound coming from such a blank face. 'Perhaps we shall work on him later. He seems the type to be more cooperative.'




'He doesn't know anything,' Larandus said. Ancrus struck him again.




'I didn't ask you to talk, Greycoat.'




'Enough, Zren,' the telepath said, mercifully ceasing his probing and making for the door. 'We are done for today. Have the guards feed our guest.'




Ancrus gathered up his tools and followed the telepath out, casting Larandus a venomous look as he left. 'I still haven't forgotten, Greycoat,' he said.




'Neither have I,' Larandus replied, surprised at how hoarse his throat felt. The door slammed behind Ancrus. Looking down, Larandus examined the latest of his wounds. Ancrus Zren was quite thorough. He was not sure how he had so neatly removed those layers of skin from his torso. It stung terribly, but he was not going to give Zren the satisfaction of knowing his pain. It would be worse when the guards came to feed him, of course. Not trusting him alone, Zren had had the guards feed him for what he reckoned to be the past two days or so. Usually, the food was salty or sour, and the juices always dripped down his chin onto the raw skin of his body, multiplying the pain many times over. It was cruel and quite imaginative. Larandus fancied that he would have the same done to Zren if he ever had him in an interrogation chamber again.




He spent the interval trying to relax his mind. The pain was almost unbearable, but his resistance against the telepath's intrusions took paramount importance. At times like these, he honestly did appreciate Dansh working for him. To think that he had once counted Dansh as nothing but a freak. In retrospect, though, he knew that that had been a result of his own education: every man who did not conform was a potential threat to the Empire. He had, of course, tempered those lessons with experience, and knew to sort the useful from the dangerous. After all those years of working together, Dansh was the closest that Larandus had to a friend. A Greycoat's life was a lonely one.




The guards came and fed him in their characteristic apathetic fashion. It was almost as though they were under orders to spill the hot, spicy broth he was being fed onto his bloody torso. They neither seemed to enjoy nor resent their task. They had their faces wrapped in cloth, leaving only the eyes exposed, and they had goggles hanging loosely around their necks. Larandus wondered what place he could be held where the men had to wear such clothing. He knew that it must be somewhere close, if not in the great Elaman Desert to the north of Dramaskus. Sometimes, his guards would still have sand on their boots. The Elaman was an inhospitable place, with the air itself sucking moisture out of any exposed flesh. That would explain the guards' garb. Drystar, that valuable blue crystal which powered Dramaskan machinery and was the lifeblood of the Empire, was mined in the Elaman. Larandus did not know the exact details, for none of his superiors had decided that he needed to. He knew that the crystal grew by devouring moisture and stored it at high pressures, hence its usefulness in steam engines and in ammunition cartridges. Beyond that, he knew little.




'How's the weather?' Larandus ventured by way of conversation with his guards, after they fed him and gave him water. They looked at each other for a moment, unsure, until one spoke.




'Sandstorm,' was the reply. 'Pretty bad out. You prisoners are lucky, staying in all day long.'




Prisoners. That reminded him of Taldran. He could not help but blame him for this. If he had not come in and ruined everything...




He noticed a flicker of movement, near the door. The guards did not. Very few people would have. For a moment, he thought Zren or the telepath had returned, but he did not think that any other would have moved like that. He resolved to keep talking to the guards, so that they would not leave so soon, or notice what he had. 'Does he give you any trouble?'




'Who does?' asked the guard who had spoken before. He was stowing away the empty bowl and utensils into a satchel he was carrying. He had a slim blade at his belt, but was otherwise unarmed.




'The other prisoner,' Larandus said. Both guards gave a bark of laughter.




'Him? Ah, he's a good one,' said the talkative guard. 'Master Zren hardly has to hurt him and he talks.'




'Yeah, but he don't know anything useful,' said the other. 'You hear what that brainjob says? Okarth? He don't know what this one does, he says.'




Okarth. At least now Larandus had a name for the telepath. Of course, he was also somewhat relieved that Taldran knew nothing. He had rather expected it, but dreaded otherwise. Lord Sezarn would not have told Taldran anything he did not think he needed to know. Taldran was just a tool, if a favoured one.




'Don't let him hear you say that,' the talkative one cautioned his companion. 'He doesn't like being called that. He'll do something bad to you.'




'Something like this?' asked a shadow as it detached itself from the wall. A second later, and the talkative guard was uttering a muffled cry, with a hand clamped over his mouth and another driving a dagger into his neck.




Larandus was impressed. He had not even seen anything enter the room, and he knew what he was looking for. Before he could blink, and certainly before the other guard could draw his blade, his neck had been snapped, and a dagger had been inserted into his brain, just to be sure. Larandus smiled.




'Surprised to see me?' asked Siel, taking off her goggles.




'You took your time,' was all Larandus said.








The corridor outside the cell was empty. It was underground: the construction indicated as much. It had probably been bored through solid rock and later reinforced with concrete. Glowlamps hung from the ceiling at regular intervals, washing the tunnel with weak yellow light. They flickered feebly every now and then. Larandus could not see any other cells. They must have been keeping Taldran somewhere else. Siel indicated an open vent.




'Through there,' she said. How she managed to remove the grille and drop it onto the concrete floor of the tunnel without making a noise was beyond him. She knew tricks, and Larandus left it at that. She tried to teach him once, but gave up after a while, saying that he had no talent for sneaking around and doing whatever it was she did. He thought he did well, but clearly there was a huge disparity between their abilities.




He hoisted himself up into the vent, and she followed right after him, somehow pulling the grille back up into place after her. There was barely any room to crawl. He would have had trouble moving around in here naked. It did not help that he had stripped one of the dead guards of his garments. Siel said it would be necessary, and after the guards' talk of sandstorms, he did not argue with her.




'I've got Dansh outside with a flyer,' she was saying as they negotiated the tight vent ducts. He almost banged his head in surprise.




'Where did you get a flyer?' he wondered. 'I thought those things were restricted. As in, illegal unless we're in the right military departments restricted.' He could not see her, but he imagined that she was grinning.




'Dansh convinced Lord Sezarn that he'd be the only one who could track you. Well, Taldran. He pulled some strings. Guess he really wants his cousin alive.'




'He'd rather I was dead, though,' Larandus pointed out.




'Yeah,' she agreed, 'but he was on to us. We wouldn't agree to go fetch Taldran unless we get you, too.'




'He'll hate us for that,' Larandus said. 'He doesn't like me as it is. Now he's pulling secret military gear out for us. How did he do that, do you know?' She probably shrugged.




'Probably has a nephew where it counts. I didn't ask. That pig has too much family everywhere. His father was a good man, apparently. Had lots of children, pledged them all to the Emperor's service.'




'Where'd you get a pilot?' Larandus asked, shaking his head slightly. The cloth wrappings were uncomfortable, doubly so for having been worn by a man he had seen die. 'Don't tell me they're from Sezarn's family as well.'




'Nah, I got an old acquaintance. Smuggler, ex-military. Flew the earlier models, still has one hidden somewhere that the rest of the Empire doesn't know anything about. I think you'll like him.'




Larandus gave her the benefit of the doubt. He did not really see that he had much choice. If this smuggler was his only way out of this place, he'd take the chance. Of course, that was if they survived rescuing Taldran. He really did not want to, but now that Siel and Dansh had made that deal with Lord Sezarn, he did not have much choice in the matter, either. He did not like being left out of the loop like this.




'Here,' said Siel in the darkness as she opened a grille. There was more weak light outside. However she did it, she was down on the floor quickly and silently, the grille beside her. He followed her out into a tunnel remarkably similar to the one they had left earlier.




This was clearly where Taldran was being held. The tunnel looked as though it was used regularly. Siel had the cell door open without much difficulty, and they entered the poorly lit room. Taldran was manacled to the wall, much like Larandus had been. He visibly shook when he saw them enter, probably thinking them guards. Larandus felt a little satisfaction at that. He had not cowered. He did not give his captors that little victory over him.




'Calm down,' he growled at Taldran as Siel fiddled with the manacles. 'We're here to rescue you. Just be quiet and do what we say.'




'Zekar?' Taldran hissed. 'Don't bother,' he sneered. 'Lord Sezarn will send a rescue party for me. More than I can say about you. You can run out into the desert if you want, but I'm going to get home safely.'




'We are the rescue party, you disgusting piece of filth,' Larandus told him. 'Now shut up and put on these clothes. We don't want you dying, do we?'




Taldran opened and closed his mouth for a few moments, like a goldfish. 'You? I don't trust you, Zekar. I'm not leaving with you.'




'Don't worry,' Larandus said, 'I wouldn't trust me either if I had just bungled a raid and gotten me imprisoned and tortured for three days. Get up, you worthless sack of crap. Put on the damn clothes and I'll pretend for a while that you didn't screw up and almost get my team killed.'




'Up yours, Zekar,' Taldran said. Larandus dearly wished that he could just leave him here. It took a special sort of man, he reasoned, to deny rescue out of spite. He took a step towards Taldran and gave him a solid blow to the head, knocking him out cold.




'I don't think we'll be able to drag him through the vents like this,' he told Siel. She shrugged.




'We planned this out earlier. I thought this'd happen, so I had them land the flyer near here. We'll just carry him out.'




Bless her, Larandus thought. She thinks about my needs.




Taldran must have been speaking loudly earlier, because now Larandus heard guards coming towards the cell outside. Siel drew one of her knives, and Larandus picked up Taldran's limp body. The weight did not help ease the pain in his body. They would have to deal with the guards quickly and make a run for it. Siel knew the way, so he had her lead.




Outside, they found a trio of guards coming towards them. One had a revolver, the other two had short blades. The one with the revolver had a knife in his throat before he could shoot. The other two tried to press an attack on Siel, but she was too quick. One had his neck opened up with another knife as Siel pushed past him. The other only barely managed to turn around, then Siel's foot caught his head and snapped it violently in the opposite direction to his turn. He crumpled to the floor, dead. They hurried out, Larandus picking up the dead guard's revolver as he went, bending awkwardly under Taldran's bulk.




They eventually found their way to a weather-sealed iron door with a glass porthole. The guards were not exaggerating when they said the storm was bad. Larandus could see nothing but a brown blur, occasionally streaked with blue as the wind carried drystar. 'Are you sure about this?' he asked Siel as she made to open the door.




'We managed to get here fine, didn't we? Trust us, Larandus. Dansh knows we're coming,' she added. He could hear a shrill whine outside gradually increasing in volume. That must be the flyer. He had never seen one before, let alone been in one. 'Let's go!' Siel shouted as the door slammed open.




Almost immediately, the tunnel was filled with sand. They strode out into it, the thick material of their clothes protecting them, but the wind almost hurled them away. Larandus moved awkwardly with Taldran across his shoulders, concentrating on Siel in front of him as he took one agonisingly slow step after another into the billowing fury of the storm. Then, she was gone.




Looking up, he saw the flyer in front of him. It was bigger than anything he thought could ever fly. If he believed the myths, this was how big a dragon would have been. It was a sleek, black dart thirty feet long, with small wings on either side of the body. The whining noise was deafening here, and it came from engines set towards the back of the craft. Larandus thought he saw something that looked almost like guns of exotic craftsmanship under the nose, and a pair under the wings. Hands helped him heave Taldran inside, then pulled him up afterwards. A door closed, and his eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light inside.




It was cramped, and Siel was strapping Taldran into a seat. Dansh sat opposite him, the floor around him still iced over. He was probably shielding the entire flyer. Siel led him to the nose of the craft, where a man in a black bodysuit was sitting in front of a control panel. 'This is Xin,' she said as she helped him into a seat beside the pilot. 'He's a half-elf.'




Xin, who looked almost like a human except for his slightly pointed ears and oddly tilted eyes, gave him a grin. He had the elegant looks of his elven heritage, but did not look out of place in a flight harness. He put on his helmet with its dark glass visor and said, 'Strap in!' in his strange accent.




'Go, Xin,' Dansh called from behind Larandus. 'They have flyers, too, and they've spotted you.' Larandus heard Siel securing herself to a seat in the passenger cabin.




'Ready?' Xin asked Larandus with a grin that looked positively diabolical under the black visor that covered his eyes. Green light flickered along the panel before him, and the half-elf gripped the controls easily. 'Let's go!'




With a lurch, and no small amount of alarm, Larandus felt the craft shoot upwards into the air, tilting forward as Xin put in some forward thrust. They shot high above the sandstorm, which became an ugly blotch on the landscape beneath. Out of it, screaming after them, shot two black shapes, the blue glow of their engines picking them out against the storm.




'Sit tight and enjoy the ride,' Xin said with another disturbing grin as he moved a lever forward and the craft blasted through the air. Gunfire chased them, but Larandus was fairly sure that he was already scared half to death before the shooting even began.

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A MINUTE had not even passed since their escape from the swirling maelstrom, and already Larandus was convinced that deep down, hidden under his layers of cool confidence, Xin was insane.




There was simply no way that any man of rational thought could do what he did even with such a wondrous machine as the flyer. Once free of the sandstorm, Xin hurled their craft into a dive, pulling out and flying level no more than fifty feet off the ground. Dunes whipped through their vision in a dull blur in the morning sun. Xin was flying approximately eastward, though Larandus knew that Dramaskus must be towards the south, as the complex where he and Taldran had been held was set hard against a mountainside. The two rebel flyers were still hard on their tail, but Xin evaded their gunfire with ease. Their flyer was a dark sliver against the pale light of the morning, underlit by the glowing dunes.




On the horizon, Larandus could see the outlines of great pillars of rock rising out of the desert. The Teeth of Heaven, Dramaskan explorer crews called them. They stood out as a landmark in the trackless Elaman, and were used as a navigation point by drystar mining crews and trading caravans heading north alike. The Teeth were miles upon miles of storm-scarred rock rising up hundreds of feet into the sky, and treacherous winds blew through the narrow corridors separating the great pillars.




Larandus did not see how Xin expected to fly even this incredible craft through the Teeth. The instrumentation before him, back-lit with green light, was incomprehensible in function, but since the Teeth appeared on the horizon, one panel began to show tiny dots of light ahead. Larandus assumed that the two dots following them were the rebel craft. Xin only glanced at the screen occasionally, preferring, it seemed, to fly by sight as he headed straight into the oncoming beams of light the sun thrust around the Teeth and through the dust kicked up in the wake of their flight.




Gunfire tore great holes into the sand below them in snaking rows as the rebel flyers' guns chattered. The roar of the engines were loud in Larandus' ears. He felt wetness on his hands, and realised he had been clenching his fists so tightly that his nails had dug through the skin of his palms. A shot passed close by, and Larandus thought he could almost see how the heat of the slug threw light around the cockpit of the flyer as it streaked past.




He barely had time to take a hissing breath of shock before they were into the Teeth. Xin flew like a madman, banking the flyer this way and that, barely avoiding the rocks by inches at times. The grooved pillars around them were washed with the blue light of their roaring engines. More gunfire tore through the rocks around, scoring deep holes into the ancient rock.




Xin executed a series of turns with such alarming rapidity that Larandus was completely disoriented. Their pursuers were nowhere to be seen. The surveyor screen showed only a haze of light as the flyer's instruments were confused by the towering pillars of rock all around them. Xin appeared calm. He cut the flyer's thrust and settled them down gently onto the sand. The wind outside was making it swirl all around them, and the downblast of the engines only kicked up even more sand.




Larandus could hear his own breathing, hard and heavy as adrenaline pumped through his system. Behind him, he could hear Siel and Dansh also breathing heavily. He was thankful for that, otherwise they would have heard his heart pounding in his chest. Taldran was still unconscious when he turned around to check on the passenger cabin. Only he and Xin showed any signs of calm.




'What now?' he asked the half-elf as he turned around again to look out of the cockpit. 'You've lost them, but we don't know where we are, and they might just wait for us to come out of the Teeth.' Xin gave him another grin.




'Don't worry,' he said. 'I've done this plenty. Good trick for smugglers to know if they want to avoid Imperial patrols. See?' he said, indicating the surveyor screen. 'Nobody can see anything that's in here, unless they search from above the Teeth. Nobody does that because the rocks play tricks with the wind, and it's even more dangerous the higher up you get. Sudden updrafts and strange flows in the air. You earthbound don't appreciate these things.'




Larandus did not know what to say. He was still uncomfortable about not having any control over the situation. 'What will you do, then?' he asked the half-elf, for lack of anything better to say.




'I'll listen,' Xin replied simply. What he could possibly hear over the noise of the wind outside, Larandus did not know. It was likely some trick that he had learned. More likely, he had inherited some keener senses through his non-human blood.




Whatever it was Xin was searching for, he obviously found it a few minutes later. Larandus could not distinguish the roar of the other two flyers' engines over the wind, but Xin reassured him that he knew where they were. The wind and rock could have distorted the position of the sound beyond all possible location, but Xin appeared absolutely confident as he started the engines again and forced the flyer off the ground.




Designed with the desert in mind, and likely any other terrain, the flyer rose easily, without any hint of weather damage to any of its mechanisms. 'Nice toy,' Xin murmured as he rose, gradually shifting the engines to provide more thrust.




Then he was off again, weaving through the bewildering maze between the rocks. By the determined set of his mouth, Larandus knew that he was chasing something that only he could hear. His eyes were invisible behind his flight visor, but Larandus imagined that they would be narrowed in concentration.




Xin threw the flyer around a pillar with a deft manipulation of the engines, and suddenly they were behind one of the rebels. Its own engines burning with blue flame as it roared through the Teeth, searching for them, it was utterly helpless as Xin powered after it. The half-elf shifted his fingers on the crescent-shaped control device, resting them on what looked like a pair of gun triggers. He was murmuring something silently to himself. Another of the instruments on the panel chirped erratically. It must have been some sort of targeting system, but its returns were being distorted by the terrain. Xin was shooting with his eyes alone.




There was a short, muffled chattering noise as he opened fire on the rebel flyer. Blue fire erupted from the nose of the flyer and to either side of the main body as the guns roared into life. The other craft looked as though it had been kicked from behind by a gigantic boot as Xin's shots tore through its engines, sending metal debris flying to smash against the rocks and ping against the hull of their flyer. Tumbling forward, blue fire blossoming behind it, it smashed into a rock pillar and exploded spectacularly. Xin flew straight through the plume of smoke it left behind, navigating through the pillars once again. His smile was one of satisfaction.




'One to go,' Xin murmured as he nursed the controls and hurled the flyer through the Teeth.




He found the other rebel craft after another minute of hunting through the billowing sand. Its pilot must have noticed something amiss by chance, as it began to jink from side to side, avoiding Xin's aim. Even with inexperienced eyes, Larandus could see that this pilot was much better than the other one. The rebel threw his craft through the rocks almost as easily as Xin did, and eventually powered right out of the Teeth and out into open air once more. They rose high, then dived again, the rebel craft a shard of blackness against the sky and then the sand. Xin chased him relentlessly. Larandus felt nauseous after a few twists and rolls.




Then Xin smiled, and the guns of their craft roared once more, tearing off the rebel's wings as he turned prematurely. The craft seemed to shudder as its pilot fought to regain control, then vanished in a burst of fire and metal as Xin fired another stream of shots.




Seemingly without another thought, Xin banked hard and sped off southwards, seeking the smuggler's passes that would take them back into Imperial lands.








Xin touched down on a field to the north of Dramaskus City, in the shadow of the eastern mountains. The flyer's engines blew grass away in a rippling circle as it landed. Larandus was grateful to step out of the harness binding him to his seat and out of the craft completely, not letting himself become too comfortable until he was back on solid ground. Xin was powering down the engines as he, Siel and Dansh stepped out of the flyer, with a freshly revived Taldran in tow. The whine of the engine turbines slowly died away, but Larandus knew it was not over yet.




The field they had landed on had been agreed on beforehand by Siel and Lord Sezarn. A company of Imperial Musketeers was waiting for them as they stepped out of the flyer, all with muskets shouldered and black coats buttoned up against the stiff breeze. Larandus felt out of place in his stolen clothing, even with the goggles off and the head wrappings removed. The musketeers saluted him as one, then stood at ease while Lord Sezarn approached, a group of other nobles standing some distance away.




'Agent Zekar,' he said, without any warmth in his eyes, 'it is good to see you return alive and well.'




No thanks to you and your cousin, Larandus thought bitterly. He forced himself to be civil, however. 'It pleases me to aid the Emperor by returning two of his able servants,' he said, neglecting to mention that one of those servants had to be knocked unconscious before he would come. 'I trust that our absence did not cause undue distress, Lord.'




Two of the musketeers stepped forward to take Taldran into a nearby carriage. It had been modified with weaker versions of a flyer's engines, and floated a few feet above the ground as the small lift machines whined. It was drawn by two black horses, and had the Imperial coat of arms on the doors. Lord Sezarn stepped closer to Larandus, smiling as though he were about to privately thank him.




What he really said was, 'You only live at my sufferance, Zekar. I could have you tried and executed for endangering the Empire. Your raid failed. The rebels escaped. We have learned nothing from them. I could have you stripped of your rank right now and nobody would argue with me, you worthless bit of slime.'




Larandus smiled amicably as though accepting the lord's thanks, for the benefit of the audience. 'I'm sure the courts would like to hear both sides of the story, Lord. The records will show that you forcefully included Agent Taldran in the operation against my will as the chief investigator, and I am sure the City Watch's reports of the event will describe in detail how he and his retinue disrupted the otherwise controlled proceedings. I'm also fairly sure that you don't want to set any precedent for successfully prosecuting an Imperial agent such as myself, as you might remember that the case I filed against Agent Taldran some years ago is still open for appeal.'




Sezarn gave him a vicious stare that would have laid low any other man. 'I will have your badge someday, Zekar. When I do, you will regret crossing me.'




'I'm sure I will, sir,' Larandus replied smoothly. 'In the meantime, do you not have to look after Agent Taldran? He did not deal with the incarceration or the escape well.' Sezarn almost snarled as he stalked off toward his waiting carriage.




'Well done,' Siel murmured as she walked past him and towards the carriage that had been brought for them. He thought he saw her smile.








Xin did not come back to the city with them. Siel later told Larandus that he preferred not to enter Dramaskus City openly nowadays. Larandus suspected that part of the deal had not been to give Xin the flyer, and the real reason for the half-elf's absence was that he had absconded with the machine and was busy hiding it from Imperial eyes.




For his part, Larandus could hardly care for the Imperial Army's loss. Xin had been useful, and likely would later with that flyer in his possession. Siel was still not forthcoming about Xin' background, which Larandus found strange. She had never been open about her associates and their pasts, but when Larandus asked, she would always furnish him with information. Normally, though, he did not ask out of professional courtesy. She deserved some trust. However, he did find it somewhat strange that she was not willing to say anything about Xin.




When he asked Dansh about it, the telepath said, 'I would rather not know, if she doesn't want to talk about it. I'm sure you know how to use the Archives, Larandus.' He took the hint.




After Siel and Dansh had retired into their own quarters, Larandus took the time to visit the Archives. It was dark, and the glowlamps only provided minimal illumination. A few Archivists were still working, shelving books that had been used earlier. Greycoats were among the Archives' most frequent patrons, owing to their work. Many did not have the presence of mind to return the books and documents where they had found them as they ran off to follow leads. The protection of Imperial interests was very consuming work.




It took some time to round up all the files on people named Xin. It was not an uncommon name, especially given the Empire's rising population of elves and half-elves as immigrants kept coming in from the south to take advantage of business and security in Imperial lands. Security which was sometimes impeded by the sheer amount of paperwork that immigration created. Eventually, Larandus narrowed the files down to those who had been in the army at some stage. From there, it did not take long to find their mysterious pilot's file. By then, it was an hour till midnight.




He was still reading it when the sun rose, its light piercing the small, high windows of the Archives and shining in the airborne dust of the place. It was fascinating.




Xin had indeed been in the Imperial Army for a time, and had been piloting flyers in nearly all their different incarnations, developing a talent for the task. Before that, he had officially served as an Imperial Pathfinder. He had an extensive list of citations for bravery in combat beside his name. He had once held a position single-handedly for sixteen hours with only a carbine and a sword while waiting for reinforcements after his unit was pinned down in a Rallene ambush. He had several awards for marksmanship and close quarters combat, and was a qualified training instructor in unarmed disciplines. He was discharged from the Army proper after an illegal arms trafficking scandal which he managed to escape, but continued to serve by testing flyers. Eventually, they found that he was actually using the flight hours to smuggle drystar and guns, but were too late to stop him making off with one of the machines, presumably the one Siel had mentioned back in the prison.




The last entry said that Lord Sezarn had drafted a pardon for him, but revoked it after he stole a new flyer. That was an entry from the day before, only hours before Larandus began searching the Archives. Imperial record-keeping was quite efficient. Larandus was going over his notes one last time when he noticed something else. Xin, or Ming Xin Jai to use his full name, had been discharged for smuggling guns for certain criminal elements, some of which were tantalisingly familiar. Acting on a hunch, he cross-referenced some dates and names in the record with other files. By noon, he had found a name.




Before working for Siel, Xin had been smuggling for the Sons of Zannariamus.








Siel knew nothing about Xin's activities. Larandus later found out that she had been tight-lipped because she and Xin had been lovers for a time. When he made it clear that he wanted to find Xin and question him, Siel only gave him directions, but refused to come. He would have given her a direct order to accompany them, but thought better of it. Dansh agreed with him.




They took a carriage to where Xin supposedly stayed while in the city. It was a sprawling apartment complex in the slums near Dockside. Most of the rooms were empty. The walls were flaking plaster, and the glowlamps bolted to the ceiling were all dim with age and flickered erratically. Power was expensive for these people. They found Xin's apartment after twenty minutes of searching through the twisting maze of the building's corridors. Larandus did not bother to knock, opting to just force the door open with his shoulder. There was little resistance. These apartments were built for affordability, not security.




Xin had been expecting him. He only had a fraction of a second's warning before a boot connected with his ribs, sending him sprawling into the apartment's bare living room. His coat tore against a crack in the concrete floor. He rolled to the side in time to avoid his skull being kicked in, and only managed to regain his feet before another kick smashed into his stomach, knocking him back against the wall and winding him. Xin threw another lightning-fast kick that he barely ducked, and then he found the half-elf's knee ramming into his face. He tasted blood as his nose bled freely.




Larandus blocked another kick, then another, his muscles screaming in pain at the battering. Xin was good. But he was a Greycoat, and no stranger to hand-to-hand combat. He caught another kick on his forearms, then trapped the foot and pushed upwards, following up with a knee that smashed into Xin's side, cracking ribs. Not letting go of Xin's foot, he pumped an elbow sideways into the half-elf's face, opening the skin above his eye. Xin punched and elbowed, and Larandus stumbled back, his face and arms afire with pain.




Dansh was outside, he knew, but he was not accustomed to working on half-elves, whose minds worked differently to human minds on a fundamental level. Larandus did not fully understand the concepts behind a telepath's work, but he hoped that Dansh could do what he needed him to before Xin killed him.




He ducked another punch, then dodged a kick, retaliating quickly and landing a solid hit on Xin's ankle. The half-elf cried out in pain, but kept fighting. Larandus put some distance between them and finally managed to draw his revolver, pulling back the hammer and putting a bullet into Xin's leg before he could come any closer.




'You are not endearing yourself to me, Xin,' he said, trying not to pant.




'Suits me fine, Greycoat,' Xin replied, his customary grin gone as he lay on the ground bleeding. 'If this is about the flyer, you're not getting it back.'




'This isn't about the damn flyer,' Larandus hissed. 'Tell me about your previous employers before I put the next one into your skull.'




'I don't really know what you want,' Xin said. 'I don't remember much about that. Why are you in here shooting me instead of just asking?'




'I can't take that risk. You collaborated with anarchists who would harm the Empire. You have a history of taking advantage of Imperial resources. How do I know you're not still working with them, and the rescue wasn't just an elaborate ruse?'




'What do you want to know?' the half-elf practically screamed. 'Ancestors, I'm bleeding to death here. What the hell do you want to know that's so damn important?'




'Where did you meet with them? How did you contact them? Can you still do so?' Larandus threw out the questions one after another. He hoped Dansh was listening in his own way.




'Let me talk to Siel,' said Xin. 'I don't trust a Greycoat to keep his word.' For someone bleeding on a slum floor, the half-elf knew how to make demands.




'Let him, Larandus,' said Dansh, walking in. 'They implanted a shield in his mind. I can't break it.'




Larandus cursed under his breath. 'What else did they put in there? This might be a trap. Okarth might be controlling him. He might blow our cover when we make our move.'




'We have to trust him, Larandus,' Dansh insisted. 'It might be the only lead we'll find.'




Larandus stared hard at Xin for a few moments. The half-elf's face was a contorted mask of pain, but there was no anger or malice there. If he spared Siel all those years ago to take advantage of her talents, then why could he not do the same with Xin?




He shot the wall above Xin's head. The bullet tore right through the plaster and shattered a section of the concrete floor in the next room. He holstered the weapon. 'Fine,' he said. 'Ming Xin Jai, in the name of the Emperor, you are now under my custody. Don't presume that you have any rights.




'You're a prisoner now.'

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FOR HIS PART, Xin appeared more uneasy about being held captive than about his potentially imminent death.




It was a two hour journey by hover-coach from the tenement Xin had inhabited to the Imperial Palace. Larandus and Dansh sat on one side of the spacious interior, with Xin bound in front of them. Larandus had bound their prisoner's wounds hastily, and now sat staring at him. Dansh was busy firing off synapses in Xin's brain, forcing his body to slow down the bleeding. They had to reach the palace quickly, before Dansh became exhausted and Xin bled to death. Larandus' shot had not severed an artery, but the leg wound still oozed blood at a disquieting rate.




The coach glided through the streets of Dramaskus City silently, with the driver only having to slow the two horses that pulled it occasionally. Most people made themselves scarce at the sight of the black-enamelled stagecoach, with its golden eagle insignia and the eye and crossed swords of the Interior Ministry. People averted their eyes and scurried away like mice before a great cat.




The sky was a matted grey, stained with brown fumes rising from the city's foundries, manufactories and power generators, and the guttering torches which provided light in the poorer parts of town. It was only noon, but the overcast and the haze worked together to make it seem as though night had already fallen. The days were becoming ever shorter as winter crawled inexorably closer.




Larandus could tell that Xin was not too terribly comfortable at ground level. From what he knew, the half-elf had developed a love of flying that bordered on compulsion. On the ground, he did not have the freedom of the air, nor the speed and raw power of an Imperial flyer. He looked resigned and sullen. That may have been due in part to the revolver Larandus kept pointed at his chest.




Every now and then, the coach passed through a shaft of light that managed to pierce the clouds and was lucky enough to find a gap between the tall towers of the city and their multitude of criss-crossing bridges and clotheslines. When that happened, the coach would swerve ever so slightly as the driver, accustomed to the gloom that permeated the city's streets, would shield his eyes from the sudden burst of light. Those times were the only ones when the vehicle actually seemed to be moving. The low hum of the lift engines made the interior of the coach vibrate slightly, but otherwise, the lack of friction from the street and the measured pace of the horses made it quite a sedate ride. Quite unlike the bone-shaking speed and the rattling hull of a true flyer.




Larandus could see the transition between districts clearly as though an invisible wall hung in the air between different neighbourhoods and segregated different groups of people. For a time, the coach wended its way through the harsh, grid-like streets of the slums and then the workers' districts, which had been designed and built in the heyday of Imperial power and adhered to then-prevalent ideas of utilitarianism and stark order. The buildings were almost all identical, with concrete fả̮̤̉ades and iron stairs and balconies climbing up the sides. Most rose up seven storeys, and almost none were below four. Each would hold four or five families per story in small, cheap apartments. Some buildings held businesses on one or more levels: tailors, seamstresses, taverns, banks and the like. About a quarter of the buildings were abandoned. There were noisy marketplaces in every plaza, to provide the goods that could not be found on smaller roadside stalls or tower shops. Occasionally, there was an open space with a few dead trees, chain-mesh fencing and hints of grass breaking through old asphalt. Some of them had cast-iron hoops and goalposts for recreational activities.




Then, almost abruptly, there would be signs that the people were wealthier: there would be posts lining the road with real glowlamps set in them. The buildings would be older but better maintained, and some would be built of brick and mortar rather than just concrete around a steel skeleton. The towers might rise up to nine storeys, but some buildings might even have only one level - a mark of prosperity in the city of Dramaskus, where space was scarce. The clothes hanging above the streets and alleys between towers would be of better cuts and colours. It would be cleaner, and it would not be unusual to pass ten alleys without once seeing a robbery in progress. The people here could afford to live well, and every benefit of Imperial citizenship was enjoyed.




The hover-coach passed through the district known as the Old Wall, which, as its name suggested, hugged the ancient fortifications that once surrounded the old city, before it expanded to its current twenty-mile diameter. What was once the foulburgh had been developed over the years into a prosperous community of professionals, businessmen and other well-to-do people. There were some who had clawed their way here from life in the slums with only guts and sheer willpower. Most of them ended up in the City Watch, which meant that Old Wall was one of the safest places in Dramaskus City. No wayward youth, no matter their parents' wealth, would risk a confrontation with a browncoat who had been living by his wits and fighting real street gangs since he could hold a club, not when the guardsman was being paid well with taxpayer money to keep the streets in order.




Then, the coach passed through the immense barbican which was all that remained of the old city wall. Beyond it, there were only few buildings, mostly upper-class residences and a few businesses. There was far more greenery here, with great tracts of land used for parks or memorials to dead emperors or great battles. The nobility did not live here: their mansions and palaces were on the far side of the old city, well away from the rabble of the eastern districts. The road was arrow-straight now, and almost deserted save for a few other hover-coaches carrying dignitaries and Imperial servants. It opened out into Garaz Square, a vast plaza reserved for festivals and formal occasions. It was half a mile on a side, and the wind blew through the huge black and gold Imperial banners hung behind the great platform where the Emperor would stand to address the people.




Rain had begun to fall by the time the hover-coach reached the other side of Garaz Square and began the final leg of the journey to the Imperial Palace. The Emperor's Way, this final road was called. On either side, there were great banners fluttering in the wind. The land gradually sloped downwards until the road was on a raised causeway of rock and stone, high above the artificial valley. In ancient times, legend had it, this whole part of the city had been wilderness, and the first wooden fort of the Dramaskans once stood on the ground where the Imperial Palace was now built upon. When the city had expanded beyond the old walls, the land inside had been reclaimed by the mandate of the Emperor and turned once more into a semblance of what it once was.




Fat drops of rain pattered against the hover-coach's roof and windows, and fog hung low on either side of the road. There was an artificial lake down there, where the ancient moat was said to have been. There were rocky spires rising out of the ground, and there were nests of golden eagles on them. There was ample small game in the valley for them to sustain themselves on.




The rain was pouring down in sheets by the time the hover-coach reached the end of the road and passed through the gates. The Imperial Palace rose into the sky, more than eight hundred feet above the ground at its highest point. It was an awe-inspiring structure, with soaring arches and spires, great domes and towers. It was said that from the highest spire, one could see the entire city and the landscape beyond.




Xin had been gazing out of the window for the last stretch of the road. He was trying to hide his amazement at the sight of the man-made valley, and when they reached the palace, he looked a little more comfortable at the prospect of soon being in one of those high towers, away from the ground.




Dansh sent word of their arrival ahead by telepathic message. By the time their coach stopped and the engines' whines died away and the vehicle stood on its metal struts, servants had rushed up to the coach door with wide umbrellas and cloaks. They, too, averted their eyes from Larandus. Most of that was fear. Part of it was the sight of Dansh, who was not entirely accepted even among other Imperial servants.




He could have taken Xin into one of the dedicated interrogation chambers under the Interior Ministry annexe. Those were well-equipped, and were staffed by specialist interrogators who could keep a man barely alive for weeks. He could have decided then and there to simply have whatever Xin knew extracted from his mind with both physical and psychic interrogation.




However, he had a conscience, unlike many Greycoats. Instead, he had the half-elf taken to the infirmary chamber attached to his own quarters.








Besides Siel and Dansh, Larandus had a small staff of thirty people: scribes, porters, personal guards and physicians among others. It was a regulation, albeit a rarely followed one, that each Greycoat have at least two medically trained staff.




Larandus made it a point of pride - one of his few, at that - that he had spent a small amount of his personal fortune on training and equipping his three physicians, the brothers Feldren and Keldan, and their senior, Iliena. Feldren and Keldan had been civilian doctors in Old Wall for fifteen years before Larandus took them on. In two months' time, they would have been working for him for almost ten. Iliena had been a medic in the Imperial Army before earning her discharge. She had lost her left arm while tending to a wounded man in battle, and a tech-surgeon had replaced it with a multi-functional limb with built-in surgical tools. Between the three of them, Xin was in good hands.




Siel did not take the news that he had shot Xin easily, though she knew why he had done it. They were in the parlour of the annexe's living quarters. He had drawn up a chair by the window and was quietly sipping from a glass of Ventaran whiskey. She was pacing around on the carpet, staring at the Arragesh patterns on it.




'Why does he want to talk to you?' Larandus asked without turning around. The window distorted the scenery outside as rainwater flowed down its panes. Normally, one could see a beautiful vista from this window, which looked out from the fifth story of the Ministry building towards the valley that was once the old city.




Siel took a while to answer. He could hear her pacing back and forth, which he knew she did for his benefit. He would know she was pacing even if she had been customarily silent, because that was what she did in the rare times she was under stress. The noise was just there to remind him that she was not entirely happy. 'He doesn't trust you,' she finally said. He barked a short laugh.




'Our reputation always precedes us,' Larandus chuckled, quoting an old Academy axiom.




'It's not that,' she insisted. 'It's probably because you know he once worked with... with them. He knows how long you've been following this case; I told him when we were on the way to rescue you. It doesn't take a brainjob to figure out that you're probably desperate to close it, especially with Sezarn breathing down your neck. He doesn't trust that you won't do whatever it takes to get what he knows out of him. He won't even trust you to get rid of the shield without trying to mess around with his mind.'




Larandus stood up to face her, setting his whiskey down on the window sill. 'That is because I am willing to do whatever it takes,' he told her. 'As a servant of the Emperor, nothing less will suffice. That includes allowing him his request, if it will yield results without wasting valuable time. If he will not provide you with the information we need, I will see fit to use other means.' She looked as though she was about to protest, but Larandus cut her off. 'However,' he said, 'I will not be overzealous. You know that I always try to find the most efficient solution, Siel. You also know that I don't like to waste potential resources. That you live now is testament to that. I think he can be useful. I won't trust him until we clean out his mind of all traces of Okarth's influence, but after that, if you believe we can trust him, I will listen to your judgment.'




She nodded, understanding. Over the years, she had had plenty of opportunity to find that he was not an unreasonable man, as far as Greycoats went. He had been at the top of his class at the Academy, and experience had only steeled, not jaded him to Imperial service.




'I hope,' Larandus continued, 'that he does talk to you. For all our sakes. I think we're running out of time.'








Larandus spent most of the evening in the parlour with Dansh, waiting for Siel to return with Xin. She had agreed to speak with him in the formal meeting room, which Larandus had had purpose-built. It was secure against all forms of eavesdropping. Even Dansh could not reach into it with his mind. The rest of the staff were in their own quarters, except for the four guards, who were doing their rounds of Larandus' private chambers. The rain had not stopped since it began earlier in the day, and the night outside was uncharacteristically dark with clouds obscuring the light of the Belt and the two moons. Glowlamps lined the causeway leading to the Palace, attached to the banner poles. They were like tiny stars, seen from the window in the parlour. The banners that fluttered under them were like huge bats as they flapped in the wind and rain, nothing but shadows under the glowlamps. Far away, Larandus could dimly see the glowlamps lighting Garaz Square, like an earthbound constellation. Beyond that, the city was all but invisible through the downpour.




Dansh was sitting at the table in the corner, enjoying a book. Ezann's Litanies, Larandus knew from the cover. It was his personal volume. He did not claim to be a religious man, but he venerated the Great Emperors as any good citizen should, and respected their deeds. So did Okarth, apparently. The browncoats returned what they had found at the old palace earlier today, and among the papers was a copy of Ezann's work.




'What do you think of Ezann?' Larandus asked Dansh, for the sake of speaking. Neither of them had said a word for the past two hours.




'Mm?' Dansh looked up from his book. 'I think he is an excellent historian and poet. He certainly manages to maintain accuracy without compromising textual integrity, and his works have an epic feel which is laudable for a writer of his time. I must confess, though, that I find some of his metaphors quite simplistic and characteristic of his aristocratic background in their prejudices, but that is, of course, understandable.'




Larandus gave him a flat stare.




'That was, of course, not the answer you were looking for,' Dansh mumbled, clearing his throat. 'I should know better than to discuss literature with a fighting man.'




'That's not an entirely fair assumption,' Larandus pointed out, but of course Dansh knew that. It was a joke of his. 'Have you read what he says about the War of the Houses?' he asked. Dansh nodded, and he continued, 'What does he say about the cause of the war?' He knew the answer, of course, but if Dansh could come to the same conclusion, he knew he would be on to something.




'House Zannariamus tried to wrest control of the Great Alliance by destroying House Garaz,' Dansh recounted. 'It was not the Imperial House, then, of course, but it controlled the ancient church which in turn held the ancient Dramaskans together. They tried to frame House Garaz in a noble murder, but were later exposed and destroyed. Another House, Kellere, died out during the war. You know this. Why are you asking?'




'What if these Sons of Zannariamus have a similar aim in mind?' Larandus mused out loud. 'The Imperial Cult doesn't control anything now, but it certainly has a great deal of influence in legitimising the rule of the Emperor.'




'And if it falls, and lies spread through the populace, the Emperor might face a revolt?' Dansh continued his train of thought. He made a point of not just reading Larandus' mind. He considered it rude. 'It certainly has the sort of ring to it that most anarchist cells have.'




'Yes, but this group has plenty of resources at its disposal,' Larandus continued, smiling now that Dansh had caught on to his hypothesis. 'Perhaps there is some other agency behind it?'




'Perhaps,' Dansh agreed, 'but without further proof, we cannot jump to conclusions. Any number of parties would benefit from destabilising the Empire. Do remember that we are still at war with the Amardian Alliance and the Rallenes.'




Larandus was about to speak when the door opened. Siel walked in, Xin in tow.




'Well?' Larandus said.




'He'll help,' Siel told him. 'I think it's better if it comes from him.' Larandus gave Xin a nod. Dansh focused slightly, probably trying to read Xin's surface thoughts. The psychic shield would stop him probing, but it would not stop him from knowing if Xin were lying.




'She's convinced me,' Xin began in his slightly clipped accent. 'Maybe I can return to the Emperor's service after all.'




'Only if you can be useful,' Larandus said. 'Tell me what you know about the Sons of Zannariamus.' Xin shrugged.




'Not much to say. I used to meet up with someone who worked for them, used to sell guns and ammo. Bigger things like the flyers, they must be getting from somewhere else. Didn't really ask about their business, but they're definitely stockpiling weapons for something. Might be big. I don't have the records any more, but I must've sold them a lot.'




'How much is a lot?'




'I got a small waterfront property in Ventar,' he said. Larandus almost raised his eyebrows. Even a small house could set a minor noble family back a considerable amount.




'We'll have the Imperial Army's records searched for missing equipment. Where did you meet up with them, and how did you communicate?'




'There's a drop-off up north, near the mining town, Zelke. I'd leave a note there, and a week later, I'd get an answer saying if they're interested and when and where to meet the contact. The probably have an operative up there.'




'When was the last time you contacted them?'




'Four years ago,' Xin replied. 'I know other people have been selling to them since then. The arrangements might still be the same.'




'When did they shield you?'




Xin shrugged. 'Dunno. Never checked that.'




'Is that all you know?' Larandus asked. Xin nodded, and so did Dansh when he turned to make sure. 'Good. I think I might find you useful, Xin, if you would like to work for me. However, there has to be some measure of trust in return. I will have the psychic shield removed from you now, and you will have to trust us not to do anything untoward. Is that clear?' Xin nodded again, a muscle in his cheek twitching. He was clearly uncomfortable with the idea of anyone messing around with his mind. 'We're not sure if there's anything else that might have been put there. You'll have to trust us. In the meantime, get some rest.'




Siel was about to lead him away when Larandus stopped them again. 'Oh, and Xin? Don't take the bullet to the leg personally. I shoot all my employees at some point.'




Siel glared at him before leading Xin away.

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Siel was about to lead him away when Larandus stopped them again. 'Oh, and Xin? Don't take the bullet to the leg personally. I shoot all my employees at some point






lol very nice


looking forward to the next chapter


i loved the description of dramaskas city

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A MEMORY. Velind, Imperial Service Academy, fourteen years earlier.




Larandus ducked a punch from his opponent, retaliating with a swift low kick, his steel-toed boot cracking against a kneecap. He was puffing from exertion, his uniform drenched in sweat and stained with blood. He was bleeding from a split lip and bruises covered most of his body. His opponent was similarly sweating and injured, but they still had plenty of energy for the fight.




He took a punch on his forearm and dodged a kick. His opponent tried to follow and grab hold to throw him, but he was too fast. He moved inside the other student's reach and gave him a solid punch to a kidney. He followed up with a knee to the groin and a headbutt, then followed his opponent as he staggered backwards, howling from the pain in his genitals. He struck again, using the heel of his palm this time, and his opponent collapsed.




Then he was aware of the crowd of other boys cheering the fight on. There was a roughly circular space fifteen feet in diameter, and he was the only one left standing out of the original six. His knuckles were raw and bleeding, and the white shirt of his uniform was dirty and torn in a couple of places where he rolled on the ground earlier. His breeches were as stained as black could be, and his boots needed a polish. The dirt he stood on was muddy with blood and sweat, and the air was heavy with kicked up dust. The sun was a blazing ball of heat high overhead. It was a Dramaskan summer.




Above the entire scene were the columns and tiled roofs of the Academy. The fight had been in one of the instructional cloisters, and the place roared with unintelligible noise as the crowd of students cheered, laughed and jeered. The two masters in attendance were writing notes on clipboards. Many of the faces Larandus could see were smiling. He was not. It was painful to smile, and besides, he had blood on his teeth. Some of it was not his.




'Larandus Zekar,' called one of the masters, and almost immediately the crowd silenced itself, the students parting to create a space and snapping to attention, eyes fixed ahead and faces unreadable. The speaker was Olkan Verdren, one of the Academy's combat instructors. He was a wiry man, deceptively frail in appearance, and his black robes concealed muscles that were tough as whipcord. Many students discovered that the hard way on their first day. For Larandus, that was eight years ago. 'Congratulations,' said Master Verdren, without any hint of a smile. Word was that his face had been paralysed back when he was in the Imperial Army, and while the surgeons tried their best to fix it, he was now physically incapable of smiling. 'Full marks. Clean yourself up and head to your next class. These five,' he waved at the other combatants for the benefit of the audience, 'have earned themselves latrine duty for the week.' He paused to look at his clipboard, then called more names: 'Falon, Gierz, Kelsen, Ming, Rafilz, Taldran. Coats off and into the ring.'




Larandus did not stay to watch the next fight. Falon and Kelsen were as close as he had to friends here at the Academy, but he knew Taldran was going to win that fight. He did not like Taldran. He'd served with the infamous Agent Sezarn during his two years' compulsory field experience, and Larandus heard about the brutal executions they performed. His mentor, Agent Ryzal, taught him to abhor the methods Sezarn used. He did not speak out openly, though, despite his misgivings, for he was a friend of Agent Sezarn's father, the Minister, and did not wish to shame him. Lord Sezarn was a fair man, by all accounts. His son, however, was a piece of work. Taldran was no less of a snobbish oaf than his mentor.




With the sounds of the fight dwindling behind him, Larandus strode through the Academy's cold, echoing hallways. The interior was rich but severe in its execution: hexagonal black basalt tiles inlaid with golden Imperial Eagles, its walls a pale, creamy marble, its windows high and narrow, and the only wall hangings being a black and gold Imperial banner at evenly spaced intervals. The windows looked out onto the sweeping lawns of the Academy, and their glass was clear and clean by the efforts of hundreds of students on disciplinary duties. Likewise, the floors gleamed.




Larandus' dormitory was in the north wing of the Academy, in the second and third floors reserved for final-year students. He had spent the past seven years looking forward to the time when he would sleep in one of the larger senior dormitories, only to find that once there, he would have precious little time to enjoy their comforts. For five years, he slept in one of the junior rooms, little more than a cell with a hard pallet, a washbasin, and a small wardrobe for his few clothes. For two, he had slept wherever the demands of being Agent Ryzal's aide allowed him. All those years of sleeping in discomfort only made him appreciate the little time he could spend in his new quarters.




There were a couple of books lying open on the desk where he had left them the night before. Adreim's The First Emperors and Ezann's Litanies. The former he read because it was required reading, the latter because he enjoyed it. It was his final year at the Academy, and there was almost no time for things he enjoyed. He had no doubt that there would be none at all once he entered Imperial service. He struck the thought from his mind. Service to the Empire was pleasure in and of itself.




Gingerly, he cleaned up and made himself presentable with the washbasin in front of the mirror. He donned a fresh uniform and left the dirty set in the basket for the servants to clean later, wincing at the way the linen rubbed against his bruises. He pulled on his coat, knowing that the discomfort at wearing it in the summer heat was nothing compared to the disciplinary action that would be taken if he was found without it. There was nothing to be done about his lip at present. Limping slightly, he made his way to his next class.








It was a week later, and he was sitting in the Academy's huge dining hall with a bowl of stew in front of him. The clock showed eight, and the sky outside was dark. Falon and Kelsen were talking about some girls they had met out in the city over the weekend. Larandus' attention was focused on his food. He lifted up each spoonful mechanically, and consumed each mouthful with equal focused disinterest. He tried to avoid the onions. They did not have good onions here.




Falon asked him something, and he turned to look at his friend. Falon was popular with the girls in the city. He was easygoing, handsome and generous with his money. He was not what anyone would expect as a future Imperial agent. He would not be one either, Larandus thought, judging by his poor grades. Falon was good with a gun and had an ox's constitution, though, so he thought he would just join the army if he failed to make the cut for the Greycoats. According to Kelsen, the girls they knew in town were already calling him 'soldier boy' and giggling behind their hands as they said it.




'What was that?' Larandus asked Falon to repeat himself. 'I wasn't listening.'




'I asked if you wanted to come out to the city with us this weekend,' Falon said with mock exasperation. 'You never come with us.'




'I went once,' Larandus pointed out as he returned to his stew.




'Yeah, but that was once!' Falon insisted. 'You didn't even get drunk or anything. I'm sure there are women out there who would spend a night with you.'




'I'm sure there are,' Larandus echoed. 'But frankly, I am not in any hurry to meet them.'




'Zekar doesn't like women,' sneered Taldran as he walked past. 'Do you, Zekar? No, he doesn't. He likes to put his pistol into the wrong holsters, doesn't he?'




'Go away, Taldran,' Larandus sighed. He did not want to endure Taldran's taunting today. The last time he allowed himself to be baited, Taldran had been hospitalised for a week, and he had been cleaning windows for a month.




Taldran, however, would not be dissuaded. He was not above this simple taunting. 'Know who else liked that, Zekar? I heard a rumour, Zekar. I heard your father did, before he got himself killed. Did they tell you about that, Zekar? I bet they did. I bet they -' Larandus did not let him finish his sentence. He was up before Falon or Kelsen could stop him, and he had smashed his fist against Taldran's face before they could stand. Taldran was bigger than he was, but he did not finish at the top of the class in unarmed combat for nothing. Another two blows, and Taldran was reeling against the wall. Another, and his nose was broken. Another, and he was on the floor, whimpering.




'That's enough, Zekar,' said a cold voice behind him. It was Master Verdren. 'Go to my office. Now. You two,' he told Falon and Kelsen. 'Take Mister Taldran to the infirmary.'




It was rare for Larandus to snap the way he did. His blood boiled, and he wanted to beat Taldran some more. What he said was completely uncalled for. Larandus felt that Taldran had harassed him for all these years out of jealousy or spite. He did not actually know the reason. Perhaps he was just that way.




Master Verdren's office was a dark, cold room with wooden paneling on the walls and a single glowlamp on the desk providing illumination. The curtains were drawn across the tall lancet window. Apparently, Master Verdren did not like to see the stars.




'Shut the door and sit down, Zekar,' Master Verdren said, taking a seat behind his bare desk. Larandus had only ever been here twice before. There was an old musket hanging on the wall, and a suit of archaic plate armour stood by the door, an equally ancient halberd in its gauntleted hands. There was a painting of a battle scene, and a bookshelf creaking under the weight of the many volumes in it. On one of the shelves, there was a well-maintained sabre, its basket hilt chased in gold and the black scabbard inlaid with golden eagles. Larandus sat on the small wooden chair in front of the desk.




'While I approve of your efficient technique,' Master Verdren began, his face impassive as always, 'I do not feel that your fellow students are the best choice for practicing ambushes. What do you think, Zekar?'




'No, sir,' Larandus replied, meeting the master's gaze. He hesitated for only a moment before adding, 'He was insulting my father, sir.' Master Verdren nodded.




'Indeed. I heard. However, you should have maintained discipline. I realise that emotions might be running high at this time, what with your examinations over and graduation next week after you receive your results, but that is no excuse for students running amok.'




'Sir, I was provoked.'




'I realise that,' Master Verdren said. 'I would have done the same, in your place. Your father was a good man.'




'You knew him?' Larandus could hardly contain his curiosity. He had only really heard of his father, never saw him. The matrons at the orphanage were not very forthcoming, either. Remembering himself, he added, 'Sir.'




'For a while. He was very happy when he found out that you had entered this Academy. For his sake, I am proud to have been here to see your successes.'








'However, that does not mean that I can be lax on discipline. You will be scrubbing floors in the junior dormitories this weekend. It will help remind the students that even the best can be humbled by the system. I trust that you have made no plans for the weekend, Zekar?'




'No, sir.'




'Good. Go now. I will not make you apologise to Mister Taldran, but I expect that you will control yourself for the remainder of your time here. Is that clear?'




'Yes, sir,' said Larandus as he backed out of the room. Turning around at the doorway, he was stopped by Master Verdren.




'Zekar,' he called, standing up and taking something from the bookshelf. 'I think it is appropriate that you take this now,' Master Verdren said, handing him the sabre. 'It was your father's. The Imperial Army had it sent to me after he fell in battle. He died well.'




Larandus nodded, his face impassive as he took the weapon. It was reassuringly heavy, but he could tell that it was finely balanced. 'Any death in the service of the Emperor is a good death, sir.'




'Good night, Zekar,' said Master Verdren as he shut the door.








It was on an overcast day the following week when their graduation ceremony was held. They were out on the Academy's parade ground, with banners hung up and few in attendance. It was an important occasion, but not a big one. Fifty students out of the original cohort of six hundred were going on to enter Imperial service as Greycoats. Larandus finished at the top of every subject, but accepted his awards only half-heartedly. He was in his new dress uniform: plain black shirt and breeches with black leather jackboots, and a long, grey coat that went below the knees. He had a peaked cap with an Imperial Eagle on the front. A pistol was holstered under the coat, and he had belted on the sabre Master Verdren had given him.




Now they were standing in ordered ranks, in what would be the last time they would be together before going their separate ways. Rarely did Greycoats congregate in large groups, all of them being too busy seeing to their own affairs to spare the time for reunions, and many being at odds with each other ideologically. It was a sad fact that they all would be working for the good of the Empire, but few of them would see eye to eye about how one should go about doing that. Already, just in this past year, differences had begun to arise between the students. Some of it came from their mentors during field experience, but most of it was due to the simple fact that people did not all think alike. They were fragmented, but they had to present a united front to the rest of the Empire.




The Headmaster, Ulchen Tarndair, mounted the podium to speak to the assembled students. The other masters were seated behind him, and behind them hung great black banners displaying the Imperial Eagle sewn in gold thread.




'Servants of the Emperor,' he began in his great, booming voice, his scarred hands grasping the edges of the lectern as they did when he was about to make a speech, 'for that is what you are now, you who stand before me. Eight years ago, many more of you endured my address, but you who remain are those who have been deemed worthy to serve the Empire as only its finest can.




'Your trials here at the Academy were only the beginning. Some of you already have an idea as to the dangers you will face out in the world. Some of you will not have had very eventful apprenticeships, and those have been disciplined for not making enough of an effort.' There were laughs, and Tarndair waited until they died down before continuing. 'All of you are as prepared as anyone can ever be to combat the myriad threats that assail our great lands. Your loyalty to the Emperor and his Empire has been tested, and none of you have been found wanting. You are now among the most diligent and resolute servants of the Emperor. You are the shield of the Empire against all the malign forces which seek its downfall. What our mighty armies cannot defend against, we count upon you to combat. You are the bulwark, but you are also the sword in the hand of the Emperor. You will defend, but you will also punish. You will seek out those who threaten our great land and destroy their menace at the source.




'Many of you will die. But a death in the service of the Empire is nothing less than a hero's death, and that is what you all will be remembered as. When you die, there will be nothing but glory awaiting you. Your names will be held beside the names of the First Emperors, and They will smile upon your souls!




'For you are the Emperor's finest, and there are none more deserving of that name.'




There was applause and cheering. Larandus clapped softly, but he was silent. From the stage, he imagined that Master Verdren gave him an imperceptible nod and a smile that he could not possibly have made.

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IT WAS RAINING when they returned to the field north of the city to meet Xin.




The hover-coach rattled under the downpour, and the landscape outside its thick glass windows was dark. It was a late autumn storm, and rain lashed against the iron sides of the vehicle. The horses plodded slowly down the dirt track leading to the appointed meeting site, the driver hunched in his coat and wide-brimmed hat outside. Larandus peered out of the window, trying to find the flyer Xin was bringing. He saw nothing but the greyness of rain and tall grasses waving in the wind. There were occasionally clumps of rocks and trees to break the gently rolling contours of the land.




'You don't trust him,' Dansh said plainly, breaking the silence inside the coach. He was in a plain black robe, a dark green cloak with an ample hood folded across his lap. He looked even smaller than usual with the bulky clothing.




'Thank you, Dansh,' Larandus scowled. 'You can stop listening now.'




Dansh laughed, a reedy sound that sounded as pathetic as he looked. 'I don't need to read your thoughts to see that you are apprehensive about this deal with him. After all, you did try to kill each other only two days ago.'




'Are you sure that he's clean?' Larandus asked him, trying to change the subject. This brought another laugh.




'You've been asking that since yesterday. Yes, he is clean. I oversaw the process myself. That telepath... Okarth, you said his name was. He did leave a nasty surprise, but it was nothing we couldn't deal with after the shield was extracted.'




'Still,' Larandus insisted. 'I've got a bad feeling about this.'




'We know,' Siel told him. 'But it's not Xin. Don't worry, boss. He'll get us there safely or not at all.'




'The last part is what I'm worried about,' said Larandus. 'I know I said I'd trust him if you'd vouch for him,' he told Siel, 'but I know it when my gut tells me something's going to happen.'




'You're anxious,' Dansh said. 'It's the pressure. Try not to blame it on Xin. Remember, you didn't trust Siel to begin with. Nor me, for that matter.'




Larandus grunted, but said nothing.




'What did Lord Sezarn say yesterday?' Siel inquired, changing the subject.




'We've got until the end of the year to sort out this case before he decides that we've been negligent in our pursuit of the matter.' Larandus sniffed. 'So, we have four and a half months. I want this over earlier than that, not because of that fool's orders, but because this conspiracy has been going on for far too long before we even found it. It is our duty to the Emperor and his Empire to eradicate this threat as soon as we can. Moreover, Sezarn said that if we don't get results, he'll give the case to Taldran.'




'You don't like him much, do you?' asked Siel. She was idly honing the edge of a knife, her legs crossed in front of her. She was wearing a close-fitting bodysuit with dulled metal plates riveted over vital areas. She had a bandoleer across her chest with a goodly number of blades in it.




'No,' Larandus told her flatly. There was really no need for exposition. His dislike of Taldran had been clear to them since the day they began working for him.




'There,' said Dansh, pointing out the window. Larandus turned to look, and saw a faint blue glow through the rain. It had not been there before, so clearly Xin had been waiting for them before bringing the engines of his craft to life.




The coach stopped a short distance from the flyer, its forward glowlamps describing a clear path to the machine's open hatch. The hover-coach's engines' whine was drowned out by the deeper hum of the flyer's great thrusters.




This flyer was different to the one they had used last time. It still had the same overall dimensions and the long, sleek design was more or less identical, but it had no armaments under its wings, only below the nose. Instead of guns under the wings, it had another pair of engines. On the nose, just below the cockpit, the name Phoenix had been painted on in orange lettering. It was smaller than the other craft, only twenty feet from sharp nose to barbed tail.




'What's a phoenix?' Larandus asked Dansh as they stepped off the coach, pulling cloaks over their heads and making their way to the open passenger hatch of the waiting flyer.




'It's a bird,' Dansh informed him. 'A mythological one. The Shai-var elves say that it's made of fire and is reborn from the ashes when the fire dies out, which happens every thousand years or so. There's only one, apparently, and nobody has ever seen it.'




'Superstition, then,' Larandus dismissed the story. 'I don't suppose there is any chance that we'll all be reborn if this thing goes up in flames.'




'No,' Dansh agreed as they pulled themselves up into the flyer's belly.




Still remembering his last flying experience, Larandus elected to sit in the passenger cabin, allowing Siel to take the seat beside Xin in the cockpit. This flyer could only hold four other passengers, unlike the other, which could have taken eight. The passenger seats were arranged along the sides of the craft, and had a space beneath each one to stow gear. Larandus and Dansh buckled themselves in while the craft shuddered as Xin powered up the engines. Dansh looked uneasy in the pale amber light of the cabin. Apparently he did not enjoy flying, either. Small portholes showed nothing but rainfall outside.




'This is an older model,' Dansh shouted over the rising shriek of the engines. Larandus could barely hear him. 'Originally, the Imperial Army intended these to be scouting machines, but later decided that they preferred them to act as rapid insertion craft. Like mounted infantry, but airborne.'




Larandus laughed. He knew Dansh was only talking to keep his mind off the imminent launch. He probably knew this much from reading Xin's mind while they worked on the shield. 'Do they have enough pilots?' he asked.




'No,' Dansh said, 'but there's been talk about making a new division of the Army. For airborne training and operations, but Lord General Karlatos wants to keep everything under his tight control.'




Larandus was about to reply when the craft bucked violently. Suddenly he felt himself being crushed against his seat. His stomach felt like lead. Then the craft tilted forward, engines roaring, and they were away. Larandus kept his mouth closed and tried not to think about flying.




The Phoenix banked towards the north-east, and out of the portholes, Larandus thought he could see the ground tilting above them. His stomach turned. He was looking almost directly down, his harness tight against his chest and stomach. Then the craft righted itself, but Larandus' vision spun for a while longer. His ears popped as Xin brought them higher and put more thrust behind the craft. He did not like this. He felt helpless, buckled into his flight harness, seeing nothing but rain and the occasional darker blur as they flew through low clouds.




'Zelke in one hour,' came Xin's voice over the cabin's intercom. Larandus was not sure that he could endure flying for that long.








The rain had dwindled to a light drizzle by the time Xin landed the flyer in a forest clearing outside the mining town of Zelke. The downblast from its engines cleared away all the debris that had accumulated in the clearing over the years, and the force of its landing tore away grass and small shrubs. Larandus stepped out of the craft unsteadily, his legs dead from inactivity and his coat buttoned up against the wind. Dansh stumbled out after him, followed by Siel and Xin. They all had the hoods of their cloaks up to protect them from the rain. Xin carried a carbine, which was really nothing more than a long-barreled revolver. It was a scout's weapon.




Larandus had Siel and Xin lead the way into the town, which he himself had never visited. Zelke was huddled against the face of Mount Kalad, a sprawl of stone and wooden buildings with a few concrete and iron constructions at its heart, housing the town's Watch and administrative offices. There was better visibility up here due to the lighter rainfall, and Larandus could see the great mineheads and tunnel entrances in the distance. There was a paved road leading from the town, down towards the Dramaskan valley, along which the last caravans of the year were hauling wagonloads of ore for processing in Dramaskus' great foundries.




Until spring, Zelke would be a dead town. A few windows glowed through the swirling drizzle, but for the most part, the town seemed to be deserted. Puddles and mud were already icing over. It was much colder up here than in the valley below. The buildings were all constructed partly below ground to insulate them from the bitter cold in winter, and shield them from the blistering sun in summer. Winds roared through the mountains around Zelke, and howled around mining shafts and the natural caves that dotted the region.




They passed a patrol of watchmen on their way to the administration complex. Up here, they all wore fur-lined coats of dark green over archaic chain armour. Bandits were more of a problem in remote towns, and the rough terrain around Zelke only encouraged them. The guards held pole-arms of various descriptions, but they all had crossbows slung over their shoulders. They all had the hoods of their green cloaks pulled over their heads in the rain.




By the clock that rose above the administrative buildings, it was three hours past noon. It felt like it was already nighttime. The streets were so empty. Larandus was not uneasy, but it was certainly a strange sight to see streets all but deserted when they would be crowded in similar conditions in Dramaskus. It was uncanny.




Siel found them rooms in a well-to-do merchant's hostel near the administrative centre, named - rather unimaginatively, in Larandus' opinion - the Golden Wheel. It was a large two story building on the outside, but once inside it became clear that the bulk of its rooms were below ground. The staff, for their part, were polite and did not ask questions. Discretion was a necessity for dealing with their regular client̮̬̉̉le, and now that one of their guests was a Greycoat with his retinue, they were very discrete indeed.




Siel and Dansh made sure their room was secure. It was in the first basement, and was well-furnished, if not richly. It had small, high windows to let the light in, and it did not leak. The air carried a heaviness that was due to being underground. The vent fans were apparently out of commission for the moment, the power generators having been flooded in the recent downpours. The entire place was running on auxiliary power, and that was only enough to keep the glowlamps going.




'I will drop off a message tonight,' Xin said as they unpacked their luggage. 'Hopefully, there will be a response by next week, and we can be on our way before the first snows hit. This isn't a very nice place to be in winter.'




'I would think not,' Larandus agreed. 'Siel and I will come with you. Dansh can stay here and contact us if there's any trouble. The drop-off isn't too far out of town, is it?' Xin shook his head.




'Only half an hour's walk, but it's up in the mountains. They said it's for security reasons.'




'And their responses always come within a week?' Xin nodded. Larandus thought about that. 'So they must have a base somewhere nearby. Otherwise it would take them too long to check for messages, consider the offer, and leave a reply. I'll take some maps from the local council and have a look for potential locations. Siel, have the staff send our meals down, please.'








A few hours later, they left Dansh in the room and began the trek up into the mountains. Xin promised that the ground they were to cover was not too rough, and that they would be back soon. The rain was now a a fine mist, descending on Zelke like millions of tiny crystals. It did not soak them as it did earlier, but it obscured vision greatly. The sun was setting as they began their climb. They brought small portable glowlamps, but the going was not too terribly easy. Once out of Zelke, the land rose sharply, and they had to negotiate game trails still slick with mud from the earlier rainfall, with rivulets of water still running downhill. Zelke soon dwindled into a small cluster of lights in the land below, then disappeared altogether as they path twisted around the side of Mount Kalad. Larandus thought that they would be walking for hours. Occasionally, they had to hold on to the rough trunks of small trees to continue on their way, and once, Siel barely avoided a fall that would have broken her neck.




The trail was blanketed in twilight shadows, and their glowlamps cast stark shadows against the rock face. Larandus felt naked and exposed in the darkness. He only had his revolver and a few extra rounds, and Siel only took a pair of knives. Xin left his carbine behind in the Golden Wheel. They were not expecting any trouble, but Larandus found the entire place unsettling. In all his years of work for the Empire, he had seldom had reason to leave Dramaskus City, and in truth, he was out of his element here. His experience of the wilderness was sorely lacking, he realised. Siel was slightly more comfortable than he was, and Xin seemed to be perfectly at ease despite the flickering shadows and the strange noises. Larandus was more comfortable in the back alleys of Dramaskus' slums than out here on this trail on Mount Kalad. His eyes were moving restlessly, trying to find a threat. It was almost as though he wanted danger to find them, so that at least he could see it or know what it looked like. The darkness beyond the light of their glowlamps was unsettling him. In the city, at least, he had an idea of what would be in the darkness. It did not stretch away into infinity like the fog-obscured land below the mountain, punctuated only by tall spires of rock and the crowns of evergreens.




It was only half an hour after they left Zelke when they reached the drop-off, but were it not for the sun still being visible, Larandus would have sworn it had taken far longer. Below them was the obscuring mist of rainfall, lit up by the setting sun until it shone like amber. Zelke was a tiny clump of lights below, like a miniature star. The drop-off was an ancient ruin, set near the edge of a small ravine. Xin explained that it was a shrine to some abstract idea or another. Larandus thought it unlikely that anyone would visit it still. It was a small circle of rough-hewn stone pillars, the space in the centre no more than ten feet across. Some of the pillars had long since fallen, and the ones that were still standing were broken, their heads scattered along the ground. There was an eroded lump of rock in the centre which might have once served as an altar of some sort, and Xin left a sealed packet in a cavity in the side. Larandus wandered over to the edge of the ravine and gazed at the wonder before him, entranced. He had seen its like from his window looking out into the Valley of the Emperors, but the sheer scale of the shrouded land he saw from this lookout amazed him.




After what must have been five minutes, he turned around to tell his companions that they were returning to Zelke. Siel was nowhere to be seen. Xin was walking towards him, one of her knives in his hand.








Larandus' revolver was in his hand before Xin could open his mouth to speak. He pointed it at the half-elf's chest. 'Don't move any closer,' he said softly, eyes narrowed and menace oozing from him like a cloud. 'Explain yourself.'




Xin had a shocked expression on his face, and backed away slowly. 'Take it easy,' he managed to stammer. 'I didn't mean any harm,' he said.




Larandus' thumb pulled back the hammer on his gun, the metallic rasping and the click loud in the silence. He knew it had been a mistake to trust the half-elf. He should not have let his guard down. 'Where is Siel?' he demanded, the nose of the revolver still aimed at Xin.




'Right here,' she called out, stepping out of the trees. The knife in her hand dropped to the ground as she saw him, revolver pointed at Xin and a murderous look in his eyes. 'Boss! No!'




Slowly, Larandus pushed back the hammer and lowered his weapon in relief. So he did not kill her and was not about to plant the knife in his back. He felt stupid. The trek up here had stretched his fraying nerves, already stressed from the pressure of the task before him. He should not have allowed his unease to develop into paranoia. He did not trust Xin, but he knew that he should have known better. 'Anyone who is not your friend may be your enemy,' was the old lesson he had learned in the Academy. He had no true friends, so naturally he was a very suspicious man.




'Xin thought he heard something, and I went to check it out while he told you,' Siel told him. That explained the knives. Siel would not take any chances. If there was a threat, she would have wanted everyone to be armed as well as they could be. Larandus cursed himself. Of course she would not just disappear. Xin might be good, but he was not that good.




Holstering his revolver, he stepped away from the edge of the ravine. 'Sorry,' he mumbled to Xin as he walked past.




They took the trek back down to Zelke in uncomfortable silence.








Heavy rain began to fall again shortly after they returned to the Golden Wheel. It pounded against the walls and roof, and the noise reverberated through the entire structure and came as a dull roar to their rooms below the ground. The windows were obscured by water pooling outside. Siel was worried about the flyer, but Xin reassured her that it would be perfectly fine.




They found Dansh in the parlour of their suite, with Xin's carbine in his hands as he sat in a chair facing the door. He looked relieved to see them. The gun looked like it was straining his arms just holding it. Larandus did not want to see what would happen if he tried to fire it.




'Is there a problem?' Larandus asked as they shrugged off their damp cloaks and hung them on pegs by the door.




'Actually, yes,' Dansh said, uncocking the weapon and putting it on the table. 'Twenty minutes ago, someone swept the town with a psychic locator. I managed to shield myself, but I did not want to check if you three were in town already. I did not want them to know where I was, but if they caught you, I wasn't taking chances. It's a good thing we're still in the exclusion zone, because if they used a mage, I wouldn't have known.'




'There's something else,' Larandus said. He knew that expression on Dansh's face.




'Yes,' the telepath said. 'I ran my own sweep after the first one was over. I kept it slow so nobody could tell.




'Okarth is in Zelke,' said Dansh. 'He's looking for you.'

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FOR THE FIRST TIME since he entered Imperial service, Larandus was wracked with indecision.




On the one hand, he saw an opportunity to seize Okarth and eliminate the threat that he posed before any of his plans could come into fruition. On the other, he felt in his gut that capturing the telepath would prove to be a more difficult task than it seemed, and he did not want to back Okarth into a corner before he had all the answers he needed. It was unlikely that Okarth would talk if captured, and he did not want to risk Dansh in a psychic interrogation. He had seen what could happen when a desperate telepath was interrogated, and he knew he could not afford to lose Dansh at this point in the investigation.




Larandus convinced himself that he would not look for Okarth in this downpour. He would not know where to look, and the weather would only complicate matters if things spiraled out of his control. That was what he told himself. A part of him was secretly afraid of Okarth's power, reluctant to bare his mind to the telepath's ministrations once more. He was not sure that even bringing Dansh would help him. That part of him did not want to take risks.




Instead, he spent the next two miserable days in the parlour of their suite at the Golden Wheel, poring over regional maps and documents the administration provided him. Bandits operated from the caves scattered around Mount Kalad and the surrounding ranges, and Larandus was sure that in one of them would be where Xin's contact would be based. The information he had at his disposal was largely insufficient. The Ministry excelled at collecting information about people, but he thought it to be sorely lacking in knowledge about the back country and 'minor' criminal elements like bandits and highwaymen. To be fair, some of that lack of knowledge was due to the efficiency of law enforcement: petty criminals like those rarely lasted a week before seeing the inside of a prison cell or dangling from the end of a short rope.




The maps he had available to him were mostly old geological surveys, with a few extremely specific tactical maps that the Pathfinders used for training, or had been used in the past for eliminating bandit camps. There was one topographic map of the region, but it was a decade old and useless to him. The documents he took from the council archives were no more helpful. There were a few reports of old bandit activity in the region and measures that the local law enforcement took to curb it, but it left a greater part of the potential hideouts unaccounted for. Xin's contact could be hiding anywhere.




While he scrutinised the local records, he had Dansh blank out their suite from psychic detection, a process which took hours and left him unconscious for hours. It took him the better part of yesterday to recover his strength. Then Larandus had him systematically scrub the minds of every one of the Golden Wheel's staff of any trace memories of a Greycoat and his retinue staying at the hostel. The new story was that they were a group of Dramaskan thrill-seekers. For all intents and purposes, they were nothing more than a few bored, wealthy people with too much time on their hands and not enough sense, looking to 'adventure' around the area, but were stranded in Zelke until the rains let up. Danh had offered to deal with the local council staff's memories in the same manner, but Larandus thought it best not to tamper with the minds of Imperial servants. They would have been psy-shielded on the day they were inducted into their posts, at any rate.




Siel and Xin checked on the Phoenix twice a day, and after the third visit, they informed him that they had covered the flier with leaves and bracken to conceal it from prying eyes. They were quiet in each other's company, which suited Larandus fine. He did not ask questions. His own interactions with Xin were still awkward, and he knew the half-elf was uneasy about being alone with him. Larandus did not blame him; he had, after all, almost killed him twice. In time, he knew, they could learn to trust each other, unless anything happened before to prevent that.




The storm intensified on the third day, with lightning ripping across the sky and thunder roaring over the mountainside town. Their suite brightened every few minutes as a pearly bolt blasted against the mountain, or as the gloomy sky erupted in alabaster light. Most of the time, the thunder was a distant rumble, but occasionally it would be a sharp crack like an enormous whip, rattling the tiny windows of their rooms. Xin told them that it would be impossible to leave Zelke now until the weather improved, and they had no choice but to take his word for it. They had no experience of flying themselves.




They took their meals in their suite, preferring not to mingle with the staff any more than they needed to. It suited their cover identities as wealthy Dramaskans to prefer the company of others with money to that of simple servants and innkeepers in remote towns. The food was passable, if simple, and always hot. The power generators in the hostel were not being repaired anytime soon, not in this weather, so the vent fans were still out of commission. Their suite was thus almost perpetually cold and clammy, and the air sometimes tasted stale. It did not circulate overly well underground. Sometimes, they would venture upstairs and stand on the balconies for fresh air, but always they would do so in silence.




By the fourth day, Larandus had still found no results, not even the vaguest clue as to where the rebel contact would be based. Even though he was limiting his search to the immediate vicinity of Mount Kalad, that was still a considerable amount of land to search, and there was nothing to even indicate anyone living out there.




'If it helps,' Xin suggested, 'the bootprints the contact left around the drop-off always had pale dust in them.'




It did not, at least to any considerable degree. Pale dust could have come from any of a hundred natural caverns around Mount Kalad, whose entire north face was an eroded mass of sandstone. Still, a hundred possible caverns was better than the five hundred Larandus would otherwise be faced with.




By the fifth day, the worst of the storm was over, but still Larandus was hard-pressed to find a clue. They might have to wait for the meeting that Xin arranged, after all, rather than finding their rebels early and subjecting whoever they caught to rigorous interrogation. Larandus did not appreciate the delay. There was some good new, however, when Dansh ran a careful psychic search of the town and found that Okarth had left the previous day. Larandus was reassured, but not too much. That could mean that Okarth was baiting them to come out, or worse, was putting whatever his plan was into motion.




On the sixth day, they began to pack away their clothes and other possessions, and made ready to leave. Larandus returned the maps and documents he had borrowed to the council chambers, and met the other three out beside a deserted smithy as they came back from stowing their luggage in the flyer. It was still raining, but it had once again dwindled to a light drizzle, as it had on their first day in Zelke.




'Have the flyer ready,' Larandus instructed Xin. 'We're going to go up to the drop-off and take the rebels' reply. When we get it, I'll have Dansh contact you and you can pick us up directly from the mountain.'




'Why don't we just take the flyer up?' asked Siel. 'It'll save us the walk.'




'I can't do either,' Xin shook his head. Larandus realised for the first time that he had not seen the half-elf's cocky grin since their short fight back in Dramaskus. 'There's nowhere to land, and even if I had the gear to do it, none of you know how to mount or dismount from the air. Sorry.'




'No, it's okay,' Larandus said. 'Just wait down here and be ready. We might have to be away in a hurry, and it never hurts to be prepared.'




'Understood,' Xin nodded, and he jogged off into the rain towards his beloved machine.




Larandus was not taking chances this time. Okarth had known to search the town. That meant that for the entire time that he had been in Zelke, he had known that they were, too, but could not find them because of Dansh. He did not come across to Larandus as the sort of man to leave a threat at his back, and thus the logical conclusion was that he was setting a trap. Larandus presumed that Okarth would have known from the rebels in the area that someone had left a message at the drop-off, and that the coincidence would be obvious. Larandus was preparing for the worst.




He was fully armed this time, his revolver already loaded and plenty of ammunition in his pouch, and his sabre at his side. Siel had an array of knives across her chest, and Xin's carbine in her hands. Dansh was unarmed, but his mind was more powerful than any firearm, and he could defend them against psychic assault.




Cloaks held close against the rain, the three of them began the ascent towards the ruined shrine on Mount Kalad.








The mountainside shrine was as Larandus remembered it. The hike up was as arduous as it was before, but this time, they had a little more light to work with. Dansh was panting as they climbed. Stamina was not one of his gifts. By the time they were taking the last bend in the trail that would lead them to the drop-off, Dansh's hands were raw from holding onto a rough stick he had found earlier and used to help keep himself steady on his feet.




Ice was forming around Dansh's feet as they crept up towards the shrine. Tired as he was, Larandus was thankful that he still had the presence of mind to keep them concealed. He had to grab hold of Dansh a few times when he stumbled, his concentration on maintaining the psychic mask impairing his ability to notice the spots on the trail where water or mud had iced over.




Taking Dansh with him along the path, he had Siel circle around the shrine, hiding in the trees. He could hear movement. Someone was waiting for them.




There was a loud crack as a twig snapped. Larandus hissed a curse as he dragged Dansh down to the ground with him. He realised a moment too late that he was not the one who had made the noise.




Then a rebel was on top of him, the two of them rolling in the mud and trading blows as his opponent tried to plant a knife in his eye. He butted the rebel in the face with his forehead, then kicked him off. He rolled to his feet, drawing his revolver and blasting his opponent's chest open with a shot.




Gunfire cracked around them, hard rounds whipping through the undergrowth and splintering bark, kicking up fallen leaves. He could not see how many there were, but from the noise, there must have been at least five. He pulled himself around a tree, revolver in hand, searching for targets.




He saw a raised gun, and ducked back just as a bullet tore through the sodden bark of the thin tree he hid behind. Two more shots buzzed past, one of them splintering the wood some more. He returned fire, forcing his attacker down, and quickly relocated himself behind more substantial cover. Another rebel materialised in his field of vision, and he snapped off a pair of shots in quick succession, winging the man and forcing him out of sight.




The Sons of Zannariamus had been ready. Okarth was with them, Larandus was sure. It was only a matter of time before he saw the telepath.




He paused, reloading his revolver even though it was only half spent. He did not want to be caught in the middle of a bigger firefight with only three shots. The gunfire stopped. Now they were hunting.




He kept himself low, circling the clearing where the shrine was. Siel had once commented that he had no talent for sneaking, but by anyone else's standards, he thought, he could be as silent as a bribed Customs officer. There were faint shapes in the rain, moving slowly around the altar of the drop-off shrine. He did not want to lose his advantage of stealth for the sake of an easy kill, however.




Suddenly there was a rebel in front of him, also creeping through the undergrowth. For a moment, he saw a pair of bloodshot brown eyes above a mask of brown cloth drawn across a pale face. Then he was on the rebel, clamping his hand over the surprised man's mouth and striking him in the side of the head with the butt of his pistol. There was a shout; someone had noticed his rapid movement. Cursing, he rolled away into the undergrowth. He heard shooting: the short, shrill bark of revolvers and the deeper report of a carbine. Siel was trading shots with the rebels, but both sides had ample cover.




He heard more shouting from the far side of the drop-off. There were more rebels coming. He very much doubted that they would find any details of a potential rendezvous. As an afterthought, he also did not fancy their chances of escaping alive.




Then Siel dropped down beside him, a graze on her cheek from a close bullet. That shocked Larandus more than anything else. Either these rebels were extremely lucky, or very skilled. Larandus did not like either alternative.




'Find Dansh, tell him to get Xin up here,' Larandus told her in a whisper. 'Go!'




'Okarth will find us for sure,' Siel protested. 'We have to get away on foot.'




'We can't - not with Dansh as tired as that. We'll have to try and stall them. Do it!' he delivered the last in a hiss. It was an order, and he expected Siel to follow it, now of all times. She hesitated for a moment, and complied.




At the same time, Larandus began moving in the opposite direction, and snapped off a shot at one of the Sons hiding by the shrine. The bullet ricocheted off the altar, and multiple guns answered his challenge. He ducked away from the tree he was behind, and watched it as gunfire shredded it a second later.




Siel opened up from the other side of the shrine, putting a round through a Son's head. She had found Dansh, and the way she was breaking concealment meant that he had sent the message, and Okarth knew they were there anyway.




Then there were three men rushing out of the undergrowth at him. They had circled around his flank while the ones at the shrine drew his attention. Not stopping to curse his inattentiveness, he whipped around, revolver roaring. One of the men was spun around by the force of a bullet that tore into his shoulder, and fell onto the Son behind him. The remaining rebel barreled into Larandus, knife in hand. They rolled for a moment, trading blows.




Larandus did not have enough room to pull out his sabre. He did the best he could, given the Son's advantage in size. He used his elbows and his knees, throwing blows with fist and revolver grip that were answered with equal force. He felt his ribs crack under a punch.




Then his head was hanging over empty air, and rain clouded his vision, wind howling in his ears. In their struggle, they reached the edge of the ravine near the shrine. He pumped his knee up hard and pulled, throwing his attacker over his head and casting him down, screaming, into the foggy abyss below. Larandus stood quickly and drew his sabre, meeting his next two attackers head on. He gave one a gash across the chest, but they kept coming, forcing him back. He did not want to risk a look behind him to see how close he was to dropping off the lip of the gorge. He could hear rocks tumbling away as his heel nudged them.




One of the rebels advanced, and his head exploded. Siel was firing the carbine one-handed, the barrel wavering unsteadily without another hand to brace it. With her other, she was dragging Dansh. The small telepath was screaming incoherently, hands clawing at his face. Okarth had struck him.




Surprised, Larandus' attacker could not avoid the blow that he dealt him with the hilt of his sabre. He had little time to savour the little victory, though, as more rebels came. They rushed, disregarding their safety, intent on bringing them down with sheer numbers. Their eyes were wild with bloodlust. Okarth was driving them into a frenzy, desperate to be rid of Larandus and his retinue, heedless of the mindless waste of life.




Larandus emptied his revolver into the charging mass, and saw Siel doing the same with her carbine on the edge of his vision. Men fell, gore erupting in mists from shattered bodies. More stumbled over the corpses, but the greater balance kept coming. There were at least twenty of them, all dressed roughly, all carrying some sort of hand weapon: swords, knives, clubs, axes. Okarth had indeed been ready for them. Driven by his psychic goading, his men surged forward with insane abandon. This was a crowd that was single-minded in its bloodlust, and did not care about pain. It was unable to.




But ignoring pain was not the same as ignoring death: a frenzied man still died like any other, though without fear of the agony that would come. They were determined, but that would only carry them so far.




Battered and wounded in several places, almost senseless with the mental pain that accompanied the throbbing of Okarth's goading, Larandus barely heard the shrieking engines of the Phoenix over the pounding in his ears. By then, it had risen above the lip of the cliff, its nose-mounted gun roaring.




The charging crowd was vaporised. Shrieking, men were torn apart by large-calibre fire, their blood exploding forth from ruptured bodies. It was as though a gigantic rocksaw had just been employed on the hapless rebels. Then the fire stopped, and the survivors, who had been shielded by the sheer amount of bodies between them and the flyer, were charging again.




Xin pulled the flyer around, hovering perilously close to the cliffside, the passenger hatch open. 'Get in!' his voice called from the intercom by the door. That Larandus could hear it was a testament to how close Xin was taking the craft to the rocks. Another foot, and the shuddering engines would tear themselves off the craft as they ground against the cliff.




Siel threw Dansh in first, then followed after. Larandus barely cleared the lip of the ravine when a hot lance of pain tore into his mind. Gasping, he managed to grab hold of the edge of the hatchway, but little more. His legs dangled over open air beneath him. His sheathed sabre banged against the side of his leg, sending up fresh jabs of pain. His revolver tumbled away into the abyss, his blood dripping after it.




Okarth was behind him. He could only barely see the telepath over his shoulder, but he knew that there was an expression of cold, calculating rage on his face. He could hear Siel screaming. Dansh had already fallen silent.




There were two Sons left on the ledge with him. They jumped, one grabbing hold of the flyer's starboard wing, the other latching onto the engine cowling. Xin must have felt the impact, because he banked the flyer hard, away from the cliffside. Larandus was flipped against the hull, and grabbed onto the open door of the hatch before he slipped away entirely. He slammed onto the starboard wing as Xin righted the craft. The Son who landed on the engine was thrown hard over its exhaust vent, and shrieked madly as the blast of the thruster boiled him alive from the inside before hurling him against the cliff face, from which he bounced limpy into the yawning ravine.




The one who grabbed onto the wing steadied himself into a crawl, knife in one hand as he advanced. Larandus did not want to relinquish his hold on the flyer to draw his sabre. He kicked, and the Son recoiled before advancing again, eyes wide with madness. Larandus' next kick dislocated his jaw and made him lose the knife. The last sent the rebel tumbling away after his weapon.




'You are too late,' Okarth called from the edge of the cliff. 'My pawns are in place, and your Emperor will die.' Then he laughed, a short laugh, but it chilled Larandus to his core even as Okarth created fresh bursts of agony in his skull. 'You have failed. I will let you enjoy your torment.'




Almost blinded by pain, Larandus hauled himself into the flyer, shutting the hatch behind him as Okarth began to walk away. Almost immediately, the noise of the engines became much quieter.




'Xin!' he cried. 'Kill him!'




'On it!' came the half-elf's voice as he brought the craft around. 'I was waiting for you to get in!'




Larandus stumbled into the cockpit in time to see the gun roar into life. Bits of rock exploded along the clifftop, and trees were reduced to pulp. Okarth, however, was completely unharmed. He laughed, mockingly, his over-thin body exposed as his cloak fluttered in the wind, his clothes pressed against his bony frame.




Larandus fought down despair. They could not even destroy this monster. They'd failed. He'd failed. Unless...




'How quickly can you get back?' he managed to gasp out at Xin.




'In this weather? An hour and a half to Dramaskus,' Xin informed him. Larandus gave him a nod.




'In the name of the Emperor, do it!'




He stumbled back into the passenger cabin, his head swimming. He slammed against the wall as Xin pulled the flyer around, and only barely managed to strap himself in, the straps painful against his bruises and wounds. His vision wavered.




Dansh was unconscious on the floor. Hanging onto a rail for support, Siel was curled up in the corner, weeping softly. That was the first time Larandus had ever seen her cry. He did not blame her.




As the Phoenix sped, shrieking, away from the ruined shrine, Larandus thought that he could still hear Okarth laughing in his head.

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THE IMPERIAL PALACE was ruled by silence.




Valkair Sezarn, Minister of the Interior, stared out of the lancet window of his high office, watching the sky weep. The revolver in his hand felt reassuringly heavy. Reports were scattered across his expansive blackwood desk, all frantic, all begging for action. For now, he ignored them. There was more important work to be done.




In the distance, the Temple of the Emperors was burning. Orange light and dark smoke poured out from it into the misty rain. That had been the first move in the Sons' endgame. Already, the inner city was under lockdown, all flows of information stifled to prevent a mass panic. An accident in the power generators, they called it. The gates were sealed for the citizens' safety.




Sezarn snarled. Where was Zekar? He had run away without telling anyone where he was going. He would demand answers.




The clock struck five. Sezarn leaned forward and rested his forehead against the cold glass, helpless. Zekar's last report was on the desk behind him. Sezarn had been reading it for the last two hours. There was a conspiracy in the Imperial Palace, it said. Sezarn found it unthinkable. All his staff had been screened. Zekar was looking for more details, but now, Sezarn knew that it was too late.




He despised the upstart, but he knew deep down that Zekar was a faithful servant of the Emperor.




Suddenly there was a sharp burst of pain in his head. He gasped, dropping his revolver and eyes snapping open as he brought up both hands to steady himself. The agony almost brought him to his knees. His mind was being assaulted with barbed hooks and fiery brands, and terrible voices gibbered on the edge of his consciousness.




The voices.




He had been hearing them for some time now, thinking them only after-effects of the incredible stress his duties imposed on him.




The pain passed. Sezarn shook his head to clear it.




Picking up his revolver, he hurried out of his office, out of the Ministry and into the Palace proper.








Larandus bound his wounds as well as he could. The flyer's medical supply crate was not very well stocked, but it was the best he had to work with before reaching his infirmary. Injured as he was, he was not sure that he could spare the time for proper treatment.




The flyer was descending as it entered the Dramaskan valley, and Larandus forced himself to sit in the cockpit with Xin, watching as the tall, floodlighted spires of the Imperial Palace came ever closer. The Palace was a serrated mass of black stone, outlined against the lighter grey of the rain, its peaks picked out by amber lights streaming from below.




'Land there,' Larandus said, pointing.




'In this weather?' Xin protested. 'Too many obstructions. It's too crowded, we'll be torn apart. This thing's too old to do any fancy flying.'




'Do it!' Larandus ordered.




Smoke poured from the inner city, and Larandus felt as though there was a lead weight in his stomach. Were they too late? No, he reasoned. But they might be.




The scream of the Phoenix's engines echoed across the Valley of the Emperors as it slewed around to land. Spires and towers rushed up to meet them, the blue light of the flyer's wake playing across their sharp angles and glinting off their polished ornamentation. Xin struggled with the controls as wind buffeted the craft, lightning flickering overhead. Larandus gasped as the port wing clipped a spire, sending a violent shudder through the craft and a spear of black basalt tumbling to the ground below.




Shrieking like a great bird of prey, the flyer landed heavily in the courtyard just inside the Palace gates, kicking up mist as its engines blasted away the water on the ground. Larandus was out of his harness and stumbling through the passenger cabin before Xin had fully touched down.




Siel was still huddled in the corner, her knuckles white as she gripped the rail. She was still in psychic shock, her eyes wide open and her mouth operating soundlessly. Never before had she been assaulted the way Okarth had done, and her mind was not trained to combat such attacks. Larandus hoped that she would retain her sanity even after the vicious mental wounds the rebel had dealt her.




Dansh was still on the floor. His breathing was steadier now, but he was still unconscious. He had endured the brunt of Okarth's attack, and would need treatment to keep his body alive.




'Take them to the infirmary!' he shouted back towards the cockpit, over the roar of the engines. 'I have to go ahead. Stay ready to fly.'




He splashed down onto the courtyard, sabre in hand, while the flyer was still powering down. He did not waste time to take a firearm, and Xin's carbine was not, by his estimation, a good choice of weapon in the Palace's corridors. Though hardly a master, he trusted his sword.




His legs protested their agony as he ran up the wide steps leading up to the Palace doors. Once, he slipped and caught himself with an outstretched hand against the edge of a step, sending fresh jolts of pain through his aching body. He continued on, his cloak soaked and hanging heavily around him. Lightning played across the sky, lighting his way. The Emperor was in danger, he knew that much. As to where the threat would come from...




Larandus did not know. That alone terrified him.




He threw off his cloak at the door and entered the Palace in his grey and gold.








Sezarn hesitated for a moment as he saw the flyer touch down on the courtyard, spumes of water erupting around it. He saw a dark form leap out and begin to rush madly towards the Palace. Zekar.




He forged ahead, crossing the bridge and not slowing down even after he reached the dry comfort of the tower opposite. Zekar would be heading for the Eagle Hall, where the Emperor would be sitting in council with his closest advisors. Sezarn should have been there. Inwardly, he cursed the necessity of his duties to the Emperor forcing him to abandon him in his darkest hour.




More pain shot through his skull, and he faltered. Blinded, he missed an iron railing and stumbled down a short flight of steps. He felt rib break, and pure agony wrapped around him as he struggled to pull himself back up.




The voices were talking to him, giving him orders.




He rubbed his forehead, and his hand came away sticky and red with blood. The fall had split the skin. There was no time to worry about that now. He picked up his revolver and painfully regained his feet.




Sezarn ran on, towards the chambers of Rezagan. He would see to the Prince of the Eagle Crown.








The palace seemed to be deserted. Larandus stumbled through its wide corridors, with portraits of great lords and busts of past Emperors watching his every step. There were banners hanging from the high ceilings, the Imperial eagle flying ahead of him as he made his way to the Eagle Hall.




The hallway leading to the Eagle Hall's vast blackwood doors seemed to stretch for eternity. It was wide, wider than many streets in the city, and its tall crystal windows rose three storeys up its white walls, showing the rain that lashed against their ornate brass frames. There were balconies watching over the processional hall from high above, and far above them, the ceiling was painted to resemble a magnificent summer sky, the sun an enormous golden glowlamp with mirrors that amplified its light so that it was always daytime in the hall. The floor was of hexagonal black tiles, each inlaid with a golden eagle.




Innumerable side passages led away from the hallway, towards the various other parts of the Palace. Servants darted out of sight before him like nervous fish before a shark. Larandus thought nothing of it. He knew he did not exactly look the paragon of friendship and goodwill at the moment.




Finally, he reached the doors of the Eagle Hall. They were gargantuan in proportion, each one two storeys tall, the coat of arms of the Empire displayed across them and surrounded by an intricate laurel wreath which alone had taken a decade to carve. The doors were operated by hidden mechanisms which made them as easy to open as any other, despite their size.




Slowly, Larandus pushed the doors open.








Sezarn took the final flight of stairs, each step echoing in the marble hall around him. A black and gold banner hung high overhead. Glowlamps illuminated the hallway with pale light, and servants scuttled away at the sight of him.




By now, he thought, Zekar would be at the Eagle Hall. The time was coming.




Revolver in hand, he slammed open the final door, and faced the heir of the Dramaskan Empire.








For a moment, Larandus thought the Emperor was safe. Terendal Garaz the Fourth, Emperor of Dramaskus, sat on the far end of the hall, rising from the great throne as Larandus entered the hall. He was tall, his grey hair worn long and bound in a tail behind his head. He had keen, searching eyes and a bold, aquiline nose. He wore a simple robe of black silk, and clutched the Staff of the Eagle in his hand like a cane. There were a few nobles in attendance, and he could hear their shocked gasps as he strode in, sword in hand. Even from here, he saw that Lord Sezarn was not in attendance.




'Your highness!' he called out, taking his badge of office out of his coat and displaying it for all to see. 'Larandus Zekar, Imperial Ministry of the Interior.'




'What is the meaning of this?' shrieked an indignant, powder-faced nobleman. Larandus ignored him and walked steadily ahead, towards the dais where the throne stood.




'You are in danger,' Larandus said, mounting the steps. His sabre glinted in the light of the glowlamps. 'I will escort you to a safer location.'




'I'm afraid I can't allow that,' said a deep voice as a figure stepped out from behind the throne, grey coat buttoned up and peaked hat firm on his head, revolver in hand. 'You're just in time, Larandus,' said Eldrin Kelsen.








'Old friend?' Larandus whispered, disbelieving. Kelsen laughed.




'The same,' he said, his bulky frame dwarfing the Emperor before him. A livid scar split his face from eyebrow to chin.




'No,' Larandus breathed. 'You're dead. I saw the reports.'




'No thanks to the Empire that abandoned me,' Kelsen hissed. 'I've seen the light, Larandus. You cannot imagine the rapture.'




The court was frozen around them. It was as though time had stopped for a moment as Larandus stared at the dead, blank eyes of his old companion at the Academy. This was not the Eldrin Kelsen he knew, the rogue who was always free with a smile and accompanied Falon on his conquests in Velind, nor the Kelsen who spent hours in the chapels, praying to the First Emperor for guidance. The Kelsen he knew was dead.




'Okarth,' Larandus said. Kelsen laughed again, cold and mirthless. For a moment, Larandus saw a flicker of life in his old companion's eyes, and anguish played across his face like the lightning outside. No, this was not Kelsen, but a twisted, malicious mind in his body. Larandus did not want to believe that Okarth could truly force him to do something so contradictory to the oaths they had sworn. He would not have befriended a traitor. 'Fight it, Kelsen,' Larandus urged, the point of his sabre dropping.




'The Temple has fallen,' Kelsen said. 'The Emperors have forsaken Dramaskus. It is only a matter of time before the people learn of it, and then there will be chaos.' The revolver in Kelsen's hand lowered a fraction.




Then he fired, the sound deafening in the silence.




The Emperor stumbled forward with a gasp, the bullet punching into his back. The Staff of the Eagle clattered to the floor and rattled as it rolled down the dais' steps. Larandus caught him as he fell, but knew that it was useless. He felt the Emperor jerk as two more bullets found their mark.




'No!' he roared, and the court erupted in chaos.




He let go of the dead Emperor, knocking the revolver out of Kelsen's hand with a blow from his sabre's hilt. He followed up with a draw-cut that Kelsen forced away with the sheath of his own sabre, then stumbled back as the traitor bashed him with the hilt.




Larandus rolled painfully down the steps of the dais, then came up on guard as the assembled nobility rushed madly for the doors.




'What is it like to fail, Larandus?' Kelsen taunted as he slowly descended, sabre in hand. 'How does it feel to lose what you've tried so hard to protect?'




With a yell, Larandus lunged at him. Their clashing blades rang out in the empty Hall. The faces of dead Emperors looked disapprovingly down on them. Parry, feint, off-side cut - they traded blows. Larandus' strength was flagging, but he drew on his fury to power his efforts. They circled in the growing pool of the Emperor's blood, dealt each other wounds to add to the spreading crimson.




'Stop fighting, Larandus,' Kelsen urged him, his voice cold once again. 'You've failed. There's nothing more you can do. The heir dies as we speak. The Empire will fall.'




Larandus replied with a cut that opened Kelsen's cheek. There was a howl of pain. Now, Larandus wanted blood. He would put his wayward comrade out of his misery, at least, and free him from the clutches of the telepath. Okarth would pay. Kelsen had been a good servant of the Empire.




'Give up!' Kelsen managed to gasp. 'Find the light, Larandus, and you'll see what I, too, saw. Turn your back on this oppression and join us.'




'Millions will die,' Larandus told him. 'Millions of Imperial citizens, if there is no Emperor to guide them. Our enemies await the slightest sign of weakness, and without the Emperor, the people will falter and be easy prey.'




'It's a small price to pay!' Kelsen spat. 'The Empire is dying, Larandus, and in delaying its fall you only prolong its suffering.'




Larandus struck again, feigning an off-side cut which quickly became a sweeping cut from the other side and then a downward slash as he recovered. Kelsen lost an arm and his sabre, falling to the floor, his coat soaking up blood. The point of Larandus' blade hovered by his throat.




'The Empire will live,' Larandus told his foe. 'If it costs the lives of thousands, the Empire will live. We make sacrifices because the needs of the many outweigh the desires of the few. You rebels don't understand that.'




'A death in the service of the Empire,' Kelsen managed to gasp. His eyes were pleading, but his hand was searching for his fallen revolver. Okarth's control was slipping, but remained. Larandus crushed his fingers with a boot.




'Is nothing less than a hero's death,' Larandus finished the quotation as he bent down and took up the gun. 'But yours is.'




'The heir,' choked Kelsen, blood bubbling from his mouth as Larandus pointed the revolver at its previous owner. 'Save the heir,' he whispered as Larandus shot him.








The ascent to the Imperial family's chambers, Larandus remembered later, was the greatest trial he had ever had to endure in his life. It was not because of the physical exertion, though his entire body was aflame with agony as he forced himself up the many stairways that climbed the Palace. Blood pounded in his ears, and his legs were leaden. Each step reminded him that of his incredible fatigue since the skirmish on Mount Kalad, but he persevered.




No, the greatest challenge was fighting off the panic which welled up inside. If he could not save the Emperor, then he had to at least protect his son. He would not have the fall of the Empire on his conscience. Hot pain raged behind his eyes as he fought with all his will against despair. His hatred for Okarth sustained him. There seemed to be no end to the suffering that the rebel telepath would cause him. His two closest associates were ruined, the Emperor dead, and an old companion corrupted, all because of Okarth. When the time came, Larandus promised himself, he would make Okarth suffer. He never rescinded on his promises.




That meant he had to survive this climb.




Then he was stumbling down corridors, Kelsen's revolver in his hand, his sabre in the other. He only had to turn to the left here...




The door of the Prince's chamber was open. Despair gripped Larandus' mind like ice. He forced himself in.




Marcus Taldran was there, in the chamber, revolver in hand. In front of him, shielding the heir, was Lord Sezarn, pointing his gun at his own cousin.








'Step aside, Valkair,' Taldran was saying. 'Now.'




'I trusted you, Marcus,' Sezarn told him. 'Don't do this. The Emperor will hear of it.'




'The Emperor is dead!' Taldran hissed. 'Don't you realise, cousin? This is fated! It has been written that there can be no light until the Empire falls. My master has given me the honour of being the instrument of that light.'




'No,' Sezarn whispered. 'You lie. You are not Marcus! I've heard your whispering! Did you think I wouldn't have a bond with my own servant?'




Larandus stepped into the room just as Taldran's revolver barked. Lord Sezarn was thrown backwards as the bullet smashed into his chest. One more shot, and Sezarn was down the floor. Blood covered the rich furnishings around him. Larandus quickly brought up his revolver and fired, winging Taldran, who screamed as he turned around and fired back.




'Zekar!' Taldran bellowed as his shots tore into the doorframe Larandus ducked behind. 'I'll have you dead!'




Larandus broke cover, took aim, and pulled the trigger. There was a click. The revolver was empty. Taldran grinned wickedly, took aim, then pitched forward as Sezarn shot him from behind. There was a graze along the side of his head. He was unconscious, but alive. Glancing to see that the Prince was safe, Larandus hurried over to the fallen Sezarn. He still despised this man, but he realised that for all that he was unscrupulous, Valkair Sezarn was still a faithful servant of the Empire.




'Zekar,' Sezarn gasped. 'Tell me he was lying.' Larandus shook his head.




'I'm sorry, Lord,' he said. 'I could not save him.'




Sezarn's face contorted in anguish. It was his duty to oversee the safety of the Emperor, and he had failed. Larandus understood his pain. Decades of service, only to have it all end like this. 'You did your best, Zekar,' Sezarn whispered, blood pooling around him and trickling out of his mouth. 'I know you did. You are a good servant.'




'The Empire lives, Lord,' Larandus said, looking up at the Prince. Rezagan Garaz, now the Emperor Rezagan Garaz the Twelfth, twenty years of age, little more than a boy. But he would serve.




He had to.




He stepped forward now, his bearing regal, his appearance an echo of his father. He wore a simple black robe, as his father had. There was a golden eagle on the breast. 'Take Lord Sezarn to the Palace infirmary, Agent Zekar,' he said, his voice commanding. 'There is much to do.'

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