Demon of Justice Chapter 37
"Avoiding an Arms Race"
thought you delayed writing this chapter partly so you could write some more
HEERO: Then why didn’t
CHRISTY: We did! But Mel has been a dirty rotten stopout and not
posted it. She hasn’t even put up more than half the old chapters
MEL: I stalled on chapter thirteen, okay? There was... stuff, and
the heater, and that stupid tummy bug, and Loki, and arthritis, and... look,
I’ll get to it.
DUO: *suspiciously* Mel? You’re blushing.
want to rewrite the lemon and I can’t bring myself to post it before deciding
what to do.
CHRISTY: This is the first I’ve heard of
MEL: Well, when we wrote it we had never done a lemon before. I
don’t think we’d even managed a lime. So we got Steelsong to do it, and it’s
good, but... it doesn’t have the same feel as the rest of our stuff, and it
doesn’t really fit the way we were characterising the guys up to that point and
afterwards, and so I want to redo it. Buuuut then I think about how it’s been up
on the net for yonks already, and--
MEL: --and I’m not sure if we should. I’m kinda
stuck. Christy? You decide!
CHRISTY: ...Mel, just post the rest of the
fic so we can put the new chapter up. Nobody cares about the lemon. It’s sex,
explicit boy-on-boy-on-boy action, yay, that’s it.
Well you got over that fast.
MEL: Christy has spoken! I don’t have to
think about it any more.
‘Avoiding an arms
I feel like a mob of small children
are about to mug me, Wufei thought wryly.
The crews of three halfling
warships -- four ships, counting the crew of the Osprey -- certainly made
a crowd large enough to count as a mob, though they were much quieter and
better-disciplined. Gathered on the beach, carrying an assortment of weapons and
lanterns, they were muttering among themselves, looking back and forth between
him and Nataku looming above them in the darkness. Uthmar and Arwen had
explained his place in their group and the background leading up to it, and now
they were waiting for... what? A decision? For the assembled crews to come to a
consensus on whether or not Wufei and Nataku had to die anyway?
were all about three feet tall.
You didn’t think of Uthmar and I and
the rest of us dwarves as children, Karthan snickered in his head. Or did
You’re all about four feet tall, bearded, and built
like brick walls, Wufei snorted. They’re a lot thinner than you. I’m sure
they’re stronger than they look, the weapons they’re carrying are proof enough
of that, but the point is that they look like five-year-old human children with
horns. Admittedly, some of them look like five-year-old human children wearing
impressive false moustaches...
There was a sputter of laughter, but
when Karthan ‘spoke’ again his mental voice was more serious. Keep your mind
on the weapons and moustaches, not their height, if you can, he advised.
Halflings as a race have a reputation for cowardice, but that doesn’t apply
to Marfangers. They may be small, but that just means that more of them can
attack one target at once, they’re harder to hit, they’re nearly as strong as
humans and they’re fast.
Back in my own world, I spent a
lot of time over the last couple of years taking advantage of people
underestimating me based on my age and size, Wufei told him dryly. I’ll
keep it in mind.
“I have a question,” growled the halfling who seemed
to be commanding the three warships. He had a surprisingly deep voice to be
coming from such a narrow chest, a restrained moustache, and what looked like a
couple of metal bands fastened to his horns -- decoration or reinforcement,
Wufei couldn’t tell. “Two questions,” he corrected himself.
Commander?” Uthmar said politely.
“Not for you,” he snapped, jerking his
chin towards Wufei. “I’m asking the demon.” His mail leggings jingled as he
stamped towards where Wufei was leaning against Nataku’s foot, coming to a halt
with fists on his hips and his chest thrown out, breastplate gleaming in the
lantern light. “Why’d you save my crewman?”
Wufei blinked, eyebrow
lifting. “Because he needed it.”
A faint noise, a muffled laugh perhaps,
came from where Vaijon and the rest of the Order of Torframos’s men were
standing. “He does that,” somebody muttered.
“Huh.” Commander Morash’s
chin jutted out aggressively. “Fair enough. What do you plan to do
“Well.” Wufei considered for a moment. “Sharna seems to be devoting
a lot of his attention to trying to kill me, so I think annoying him is a good
basic goal. I haven’t worked out the details yet, but killing his priests has
been working so far.”
Morash barked a laugh, and the predatory grins
gleaming from half the assembled halflings suddenly made it much easier to
remember they were adults. “Ah, now there’s a goal I can be agreeing with,” the
commander said, eyeing Wufei with new respect. “So you’re not feeling any sort
of obligation to Demon Breath for bringing you here?”
Wufei snorted. “Why
would I? I had a perfectly good home in my own world, friends closer than family
and a cause to fight for. It’s nice enough here, I suppose, but it’s not where I
want to be. If I owe Sharna anything, it’s a kick in the teeth!”
then,” Morash grunted, nodding briskly. “Damned if I’m going to stand in your
way. Anyone think different?” he called, looking back over his shoulder at the
assembled crews. Several of them shrugged or nodded, muttering to each other
again, but the commander’s eyes were on the blue-robed mage; Adric had his arms
folded and a half-smile on his face, clearly not objecting. Turning back to
Wufei, Morash grinned and stuck out his hand. “Pleased to have you on our side,
Sir Demon. Better than what I was expecting to happen tonight!”
* * * *
“Krashnark?!” Yurgazh said incredulously. “Girl, he’s had less
to do with mortals in the last few hundred years than-- than Silendros
has,” he sputtered, naming the Goddess of Stars.
“That’s a fair enough
thing to say,” Mathel shrugged, “but that’s also the past, and it’s not the way
things are going to be from now on. I’ve seen him, Captain.” She leaned
forward, meeting his eyes with an intense stare. “Seen him and spoken to him,
closer than you are to me now. I owe him my life, and if he says it’s time for
hradani to stop ignoring the gods then I believe him... and if you’re minded to
cut me down for worshipping a Dark god, now’s your chance.”
set. “He’s Dark all right. How’s worshipping him any better than following one
of the others?”
“That’s fair, too,” she allowed, smiling slightly. “All I
can say to that is, look at what they do. You know what the rest of the Dark
gods do, what they’re like. Would Sharna appear in one of his temples and say
‘No, sacrifices aren’t what I want, stop that’?”
The captain’s ears
flattened as he looked at her incredulously, and her smile broadened into a
“Krashnark did,” she said softly. “Sharna wants us to lick his
boots and like it; Krashnark wants us to be ourselves. I think... if we choose
to follow him, he can get us to a place where we can be proud of what we
are. Rightfully proud! Not the sort of pride Black Churnazh has, that he hugs to
himself at night thinking of how he’s got his foot on our necks,” she spat. “And
if it really is time for us to choose a god to follow, who else can we follow
but Krashnark? The other Dark gods have done too much to us over the
centuries; and for all they talk about loving mortals, none of the Light gods
have lifted a finger for us in over a thousand years.”
back against his desk, hand loosening slightly on his swordhilt. “Why now?” he
asked quietly. “He’s the god of War, and there’s been war enough without him
ever bothering to show up. Is he waking up now because it’s about to get
“I don’t know,” Mathel told him frankly. “He hasn’t said, and
truth be told, I -- we -- haven’t asked yet. But really, Captain... we’re
hradani, and Bloody Sword hradani at that. Half the world fears us, the other
half hates us, the Horse Stealers just stepped all over us in a war that
Churnazh looks to be starting up again, he’s beginning to lose the support of
the other Bloody Sword cities, and the Sothoii are just waiting for us to look
weak. Did you think it was going to get better?”
grinned despite himself. “You never know. Miracles do happen.”
Captain... you need a god for that,” Mathel grinned back.
* * * *
“Aw, ‘Lena, babe, please don’t cry,” Duo said, helplessly
patting her shoulder. “We’re not going to just up and vanish on you tomorrow!
Um... guys? Little help here?”
To everyone else’s surprise, it was Heero
who reached out and started awkwardly rubbing Relena’s back. “Relena-- ‘Lena,”
he said quietly, using Duo’s affectionate term for her. “We can’t stay. It took
us a while to work it out ourselves, but we really can’t.”
not?” she asked, voice cracking. “Milliardo thought he couldn’t--
shouldn’t-- stay, but he, he changed his mind, why can’t you?”
we’re not as much like him as you might think,” he told her gently. “Zechs only
piloted Tallgeese because it was the best way he could serve his cause. He can
give it up, forget those skills, and be happy in a different life. We...
“You don’t know that,” she said angrily, twisting away
from the soggy patch she’d created on Duo’s shirt. “You haven’t
“It doesn’t matter whether we can or not, really,” he shrugged.
“Say we could be happy as ordinary people. Say we stayed here and tried to build
a normal life for ourselves. You know the people in the interim Government,
‘Lena; you know how the people who are going to be running the world think.
Would we be allowed?”
“...I don’t understand,” she whispered,
staring at him wide-eyed. “You-- but-- why wouldn’t you be allowed to be
“You think of us as people because you know us, Relena,” Quatre
sighed. “A lot of people are going to think of us as weapons. Well, we
are weapons; and most politicians will either want to use us, or make
sure nobody else can.”
“Gundam pilots arms race,” Duo snickered. “Sorry,
hon. We’ve hashed out this same conversation about three times since yesterday,
so we’ve had time to get used to the idea. You can protect your brother, but
even you don’t have enough political oomph backing you up to protect all of us.
Besides, we want Wufei back, and apparently that trip only works
“Oh. Yes. I... almost forgot. Wufei needs you... more than I
do. I shouldn’t be selfish.” She laughed, a little bitterly, wiping her face.
“I’m Relena Peacecraft. I don’t get to be selfish any more.”
rolling his eyes. “Hell yes you do! ‘Lena, we just bullied your brother into
staying put so you wouldn’t lose him again, what do you call that?” He held up a
finger to stop her as she turned to him, horrified. “Yes, I know, that’s not why
we did it, and it’s as much for his good as it is for you, but think about it.
If you look at it one way, we did it for perfectly innocent and benevolent
motives. If you look at it another way, we totally ignored his desires and used
emotional blackmail to get what we wanted. Half of life’s decisions are like
that, so yeah, we’re being damn selfish by skipping off into another dimension
to have fun with our friend Wufei and avoid having to get rid of our toys. At
the same time, we’re sacrificing our lives and friendships here and selflessly
flinging ourselves into the void, removing ourselves as a source of conflict.
The truth is somewhere in the middle.”
Relena blinked. “Duo... I’m a bit
confused here. Are you telling me to stop whining, or that it’s okay to be more
“Yes!” he said triumphantly, grinning at her. “Though I’d
probably tell you not to be emo instead, I’ve had good luck with that word
today. ‘Lena, I’m sorry. I really am. I know it seems like we’re abandoning you,
but we’d have to leave one way or another; it’s kinda hard to hide from law
enforcement and sleazy politicos while you’re dropping in for your weekly lunch
with the Vice-Foreign Minister.”
“You did just fine during the war even
with me turning up on your doorstep all the time,” she pointed out
“That’s exactly my point, babe. You kept finding us, and we
had to keep abandoning safehouses before OZ followed you. They were kinda
incompetent, really,” Duo mused, “but if half the world government ended up
looking for us -- and they would -- we’d have to get serious about
hiding, and that means no contact with anyone known to associate with us. Which
means you.” He shrugged.
Relena accepted yet another tissue from Quatre
and blew her nose, sniffing. “Are you sure you were running away from OZ, and
not me in my persona as Heero’s creepy stalker?”
“OZ. Honest. Though it
was kind of a package deal,” he grinned.
finally left, Duo collapsed onto the sofa, letting his crutches rattle to the
floor. “Argh,” he groaned, letting his head fall back and rubbing his eyes.
“It’s not even lunchtime and I’m exhausted. No wonder Zechs gave in when ‘Lena
was crying at him! She’s got a freaking weapon of mass terror
“That must be it,” Heero nodded, picking up the crutches and
leaning them against the wall within Duo’s reach. “It couldn’t possibly have
anything to do with you getting hardly any sleep last night.”
“I’m a damn
Gundam pilot and walking weapon, Heero, or did you miss the whole conversation
reminding Relena of that little fact? It takes more than a few hours of missed
sleep to get me down. Princesses crying at me definitely counts as more.
--Unless I’m getting old in my teens. God. I’m using crutches, that’s halfway to
a cane isn’t it? I should stand out on the front porch shaking them at kids and
yelling for them to get off the lawn.”
“We don’t get kids on our lawn,”
Heero pointed out. “They’re all over on the other side of the street, looking at
the gossip ladies’ cats.”
“Well that spoils my fun. Go bribe them with
cookies or something to get them over here so I can shake my
“I don’t think that would fit with our cover story, Duo...
unless you really want people to think you’re high, and reinforce the rumour
about you being kneecapped in a drug deal gone wrong, in which case I’ll
probably get arrested on suspicion of luring juveniles with adulterated baked
Duo’s head snapped up, eyes wide. “Holy shit, don’t tell me that
one actually got started!”
Heero smirked. “I told you what would
happen if you chopped the leg off those jeans. It’s not a very popular rumour,
but it’s out there. The gossip ladies assure me they’ll squash
“Since when did you start talking to Miss Immy and Miss Neppy?” Duo
“Since I was working on the car out in the driveway
three days ago, to keep up my side of the cover story, and they came over for a
“Oh man, I feel for you! I know what they mean by a
‘little chat’ -- I have fun, but you aren’t exactly the happy chatty type. Three
“I got away with two,” Heero grimaced, “but it was at the expense
of a promise to keep them up to date on how the engine runs. Which one’s which,
by the way? They never got to formal introductions.”
“They don’t,” Duo
snickered. “They just start in like they’ve known you all your life. Miss Immy,
real name Imogen Sands, is the taller one; Miss Neppy is the shorter one with
darker hair, real name Niobe Hawthorne. Three cats each, Miss Neppy is
considering getting a puppy, both widows in their early seventies, best friends
since they were about five years old, moved in together roughly twenty years ago
when their husbands died.”
“Were they talked to death?”
snorted. “How dare you malign two sweet and only slightly garrulous elderly
women? Cop shot in the line of duty, and plain old age -- Miss Immy apparently
has a thing for older men.”
“I’ll believe that when I see the death
certificates.” Heero grimaced again. “I have to admit, though, you were right
when you said they could be part of our security system. Nothing gets past those
two, and since they started talking to me they’ve kept me up to date on
practically every vehicle that’s come down this street. I gather they’re telling
me about cars because they believe I’m interested in them.”
they tell me about everyone’s medical problems and accidents,” Duo nodded.
“Nothing anybody would want to keep secret -- they’re really good about not
passing on anything embarrassing or malicious -- but I know who fell off a
ladder winterproofing their house, that sort of thing.”
“I get all the
pet-related news,” Trowa said mildly, leaning on the doorframe with a drink in
his hand. “Last I heard, Quatre was getting clothes and caffeine talk; Miss
Neppy is just as much of a coffee fiend as he is.”
“How do they find the
time to talk to everyone if they’re spending two or three hours with each one?”
Heero asked incredulously.
“They don’t,” Trowa shrugged. “It’s just that
everyone else is up to date; with us, they’re trying to get through several
years worth of gossip in one go.”
* * * * *
“Well,” Holderman said
dryly, rubbing tired eyes. “That’s a new record, even for us.”
grunted assent, leaning on the rail and squinting towards the rising sun as the
Wind Dancer slid smoothly through the calm waters of the Bay of Kolvania.
“We needed to make good time while we had blue water to sail in,” he pointed
out, voice harsh with fatigue. “Even I’m not about to sail at night once we get
inland. We’re going to need to take pilots aboard... hells, we’re going to need
maps. Gods only know if any landsman’s drawn maps we can trust,
Holderman laughed. “Aye, well, they do tend to concentrate on
unimportant things like roads and towns, Captain.”
“Uff. You know more
about the inland geography than I do,” Evark said, stretching with both hands in
the small of his back. “Know anything about the Bellwater river?”
little,” his first mate admitted. “We shouldn’t need to worry about shoals or
picking a route until well after we hit Riverside, about thirty leagues in;
there’s nowt but the main channel, and it’s good and deep. So long as we set a
watch to keep an eye out upstream for snags and floating trees, we should be
fine. After Riverside, though, there’s about fifteen leagues clear sailing on
the Morvan River -- same channel, just a different name -- and then we’ll reach
the Lower Saram. That splits into four or five separate branches, and I’ve no
idea which is the best one to take. If I remember rightly, three of them come
together again below Derm, but at least one of those has a reputation for bad
“So we’ll need to pick up a pilot, or a good map. Better a
pilot,” Evark mused, “they’ll know the landmarks where we’d have to puzzle them
out. At Riverside?”
Holderman shook his head, yawning hugely. “Saramfal.
The city lies in the first fork we’ll reach in the Lower Saram, a pilot based
there will have better local knowledge.”
“Sounds like a good idea. We’ve
got a course to sail and daylight to sail in; get to your bunk and get some
sleep, man. I’ll need you awake to take over the noon watch. Given a bit of luck
and fair winds, we ought to make Riverside just after dusk if you’ve remembered
the distances right.”
* * * * *
“I’m glad to be off again,”
Karthan muttered, half to himself and half to Wufei, sending the thought down
the link. “That wasn’t a good spot to be spending the night.”
Wufei’s reply was tinged with sleepiness; he’d slept in Nataku’s pilot chair
again, Gundam resting on the sea floor, and was taking longer than usual to wake
up. What was wrong with it?
That, the dwarf thought grimly,
looking towards a treeless ridge on shore. Above the beach where they’d talked
to Commander Morash and his crews, silhouetted against the dawn sky, a ragged
group of figures were watching the Osprey set sail. This is about the
northern edge of Wild Wash territory. We weren’t far off shore, and they have
boats; Captain Grantik made sure the anchor watch were armed and wary, and the
Order set sentries as well, but it wouldn’t have been pleasant if they’d decided
to come for a visit.
Hradani, yes? Uthmar said something about
them, night before last... The thought paused, fading out, then resumed.
Karthan? What is it about hradani? I’ve only met Cord and Naiya, and they
seem to get along well with everyone, but whenever someone mentions other
hradani people seem... wary.
Um. Karthan rubbed his nose,
frowning. Wary is a good word for it, yes. Cord and Naiya aren’t typical,
Wufei; that’s not to say that all hradani are murderous brigands, but plenty of
them are. Even the ones that are mostly law-abiding when they’re sane are
When they’re sane?! What do you mean by
Grimacing, Karthan glanced towards the prow of the ship where
Cord and Naiya were standing along with several of the Order of Torframos,
staying out of the sailors’ way. Hradani are berserkers. All of them--
well, all of the men. They run mad, and not just in battle; from what I’ve
heard, and seen myself as well, it doesn’t take much to set some of them off,
and they’re almost impossible to stop.
I spent about ten days in
that village, Karthan, Wufei sent stubbornly. Nobody there was expecting
Cord to go berserk.
So he’s a calm one, Karthan replied. He
still went crazy during the fight against Sharna’s temple guardsmen, while you
and I were stuck underground. He and Naiya are good people, Wufei, I’m not
disputing that. The fact remains that a lot of hradani aren’t, Wild Wash
definitely included, and even if every one of them took up charitable works and
joined a priesthood people would still be wary of them because of what
happened during the Fall of Kontovar!
Karthan muttered aloud, leaning his elbows on the rail and rubbing his temples.
“Now that he can speak fluently, I keep forgetting how much he doesn’t
know...” Kontovar is the landmass to our south. Twelve hundred years ago, the
followers of the Dark Gods destroyed the Ottovaran Empire and drove the
survivors north to Norfressa before they were wiped out by the last white
wizards calling fire from the sky. The hradani were their shock troops, the
first fist of the Dark armies. People have long memories for something like
That’s the short version. The long version
involves us getting to the Motherhouse and spending a few days in the library
...Twelve hundred years, and people are still holding their
ancestors’ sins against an entire race? Even if every single hradani
living back then chose the side of the Dark Gods, which I sincerely doubt, their
It was all of them, Karthan interrupted.
Every one. The way I heard it, they were compelled or manipulated or
something-- I don’t know the details, which is why the long version requires the
Motherhouse library, but--
yes. The dwarf blinked, taken aback by the force Wufei put behind that
single word. It’s why hradani hate wizards; Carnadosa’s dark wizards did
So we’re talking about ancient history that wasn’t
even their fault in the first place, and the other races still blame the
hradani instead of the ones who did it to them?! Dear gods but this world
is fucked up! Wufei raged, and Karthan flinched as the link between them
“Ow,” he muttered, rubbing at his forehead. “Put that way,
I can see his point...”
Seething, Wufei glared at the
screen showing him a camera view of Osprey’s hull from below, dyed green
by the depth of water above him. Twelve hundred years! Twelve hundred years
and how many generations? How many changes in the story as it’s been passed
down? How many people with a vested interest in it being ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and
having ‘them’ be the villains? I’d bet the version the hradani tell would focus
more on the, ha, details that the dwarves seem to have half forgotten. Who knows
if it would be any more accurate, though--
Something about that last
sentence seemed to echo significantly.
Who knows. Who does know
what really happened?
Nobody alive today is going to know the
pure, unadulterated truth, even if...
...No. Not ‘nobody’. No
mortal alive today knows the full
pulled his attention away from yet another temple, turning his thoughts towards
his prospective Champion. He sounds angry-- =*What’s
I need a history lesson, if you have a
=*Always. Which history? Or should I ask
I want to know about the Fall of Kontovar. Specifically,
the role the hradani played.
Krashnark’s mouth curled into a wry
smile. ...Ah. Yes, I should have anticipated something like
It didn't take him long to decide how to handle the
=*The hradani were victims, even more
than the people they killed. Given the choice, virtually all of them would have
fought against My Father’s forces. They were not given that
Wufei blinked, startled by the blunt admission. “You don’t
=*What would be the point of lying to you? You’d find out
soon enough, and I owe you truth at the very least.*=
Somehow, Wufei could feel Krashnark settling down for a long
explanation. =*Before the Fall of Kontovar, the hradani were one of the most
respected Races of Man. They were known for their calm natures and good sense.
They were also,*= his voice turned dry, =*large, strong, and swift to
“Perfect soldiers, in other words,” Wufei said, just as
=*Exactly... apart from the niggling little matter of free
will,*= Krashnark agreed. =*The wizards -- my sister Carnadosa’s
followers -- were magically powerful, but at a disadvantage on a battlefield.
Major spellcasting takes time, and can be disrupted if your enemy reaches you.
White wizards, Semkirk’s followers at the time, coordinated well with the other
Light gods’ forces and were able to shelter behind, say, a shield wall formed by
Torframos’s dwarves or Lillinara’s warriors. We Dark gods and our followers...
don’t do that. The Carnadosans had to provide their own shielding force. They
“An entire people?!”
=*It was the
nature of the spell they cast,*= the god told him, sounding mildly
regretful. =*Instead of affecting just those hradani within their reach, they
aimed to... twist... the nature of the race. My sister helped. The hradani
became larger, stronger, faster to heal, resistant to magic... and berserkers,
under the control of the wizards. They were an extremely effective
Wufei choked. “You almost sound like you
Krashnark’s tone darkened. =*I don’t. I am the God of War,
and My worshippers fight and die by their own choices, for their own causes.
Their actions in battle are their prayers to Me, and I do not presume to control
them. The magical compulsion of an entire race, forcing them to fight and die by
another’s will, was an abomination. However. I am also My Father’s
Steward and General, and my duties in that role have nothing whatsoever to do
with whether or not I ‘approve’ of My siblings and their
He paused, then went on when Wufei didn’t reply. =*The
wizards controlling the hradani died when Wencit of Rum and the last members of
the Council of Ottovar blasted the continent behind the refugees as they fled,
and the surviving hradani escaped north as well. The refugees from the other
races turned on them, and hunted them nearly to extinction. They’ve survived --
barely -- by making strength and self-sufficiency their religion, in place of
the gods they reject. Their males are still berserkers; they call it the
“Didn’t anyone understand that it hadn’t been their
=*Some did. Most didn’t care.*= Wufei felt Krashnark
shrug. =*They were a far easier target than the wizards who were truly to
blame, after all. Can you look at two humans, dressed alike, and point out which
is the wizard? No. But you can easily look at two mortals and pick out the
hradani. They couldn’t hide, Wufei, but the wizards could-- and the other
humans knew it. It was far safer to target hradani than it was to try to hunt
wizards when one of them might be standing right behind
“True,” Wufei sighed, anger draining away. “I suppose it’s
human-- mortal, whatever-- nature. It was certainly easier for OZ to convince
most of Earth’s population that it was ‘us versus them’, Earth versus the
colonies, than it was for them to admit that the real problem was some of their
=*You understand, then.*=
“That doesn’t mean
I have to like it.”
“So... what about
their current reputation? Are most hradani ‘murderous brigands’?” Wufei
=*No. A significant percentage of them are brigands,
whether murderous or not, but most? Hardly. Of course,*= Krashnark added,
sounding darkly amused, =*the humans and dwarves who spread that reputation
almost never admit to all the raids that go the other way, into hradani lands.
It’s to the point where everything is in revenge for something else, though the
hradani were attacked first-- not that many others remember
The conversation paused again, and a quiet, brooding silence
filled Nataku’s cockpit... eventually broken by a
The mental equivalent
of a disbelieving expression flicked into Wufei’s mind, and he smirked. “All
right, it was something. You really were being optimistic, weren’t you? Thinking
that I might agree to serve you even with this sort of history behind the Dark
He could feel Krashnark grin, a cold shark’s expression. =*What
has history got to do with it? As I said, I am the God of War, and that means
whatever war my worshippers choose to fight. If you requested my aid in a
crusade against my little brother, for example, I would give it
Wufei blinked, then grinned back, just as coldly. “But not
against your father, I’m guessing.”
Time passed, slowly, but peacefully for
once. Wufei welcomed his temporary isolation, cut off from outside contact
except for Karthan’s thoughts and Krashnark’s mental visits; even those
distractions were kept at a distance, both unwilling to bother him unless he
called first. He ate ration bars and more of the small nearly-grapefruit, glad
of the variety, and had time to think and heal over the next couple of days,
cuts fading to white scars and then vanishing completely.
* * * *
Elsewhere, others had time to heal as well-- or
“How is he?” Evark asked, low-voiced. Chihar
“Stable, for now,” the halfling surgeon sighed.
good or bad?”
“Both. Good, because he’s not getting any worse. Bad,
because he should be getting better.” Chihar sighed again, pulling
at his goatee. “He’s running a fever, low, but constant. I can keep feeding him
febrifuges, I’ve got the herbs, but that’s just a stopgap measure. The chop to
his leg went to the bone, and that’s where I think the infection is. It’s not
going to clear unless it drains, and I doubt I can lance that deep without
killing him. He could go on like this for years, or he could fail and die in a
five-day, that’s how delicate the balance is. He needs a healer.”
pendant under Evark’s tunic twinged, cold and warning, and he grimaced. “Pray he
makes it to Hurgrum and they’ve got someone as can help him, then, because he’s
not getting one here,” he growled, glaring up at the white walls of Saramfal,
capital of Saramantha, pearl of the elven kingdom. “Seems like Foam Beard still
wants to keep him secret.”
“Secrecy’s not going to help him if he dies of
“And a healer’s not going to save him if we get boarded by
a shipful of Sharna’s dog brothers,” Evark snapped. “Chihar, I know he needs
more than we can manage ourselves. I know! But Korthrala wants him to
live as much as we do, maybe more, and he’s still warning me off, which tells me
that one word in the wrong ear will get us that shipful of
“Korthrala’s worried about agents of the Dark gods,
here?!” Chihar gestured at the city. “They’re elves. Half of them
were alive during the Wizard Wars, they’re not going to serve the gods that
drove them out of Kontovar!”
“You haven’t been to Saramfal before, have
you?” Holderman asked, moving up behind the pair.
“Because it may be an elven city, but there’s not much chance of us
actually dealing with elves,” the first mate told him, leaning on the rail. “The
docks are in the Trade Quarter, and that might as well be a separate
“And I’m not about to trust elves just because
they’re elves,” Evark muttered. “I’ve seen trader captains sell out to pirates
for money, or fear, or just because they felt like being on the side doing the
looting for once; I don’t reckon elves are any more immune to changing
Holderman turned out to be right. Not only did
the Wind Dancer’s crew not deal with elves as Evark negotiated fees for a
pilot to Derm; they didn’t even see one. The Trade Quarter was run by the
Merchants’ Guild, down to having their own guard force and city council, and the
population seemed to be mostly human and dwarven. There were a few halflings
skittering around the edges of the crowds -- not Marfangers, judging by their
height and behaviour, so the crew weren’t tempted to mingle -- and even a couple
of hradani serving in the Guard.
And half-elves. Evark glanced to the
side as his pendant chilled warningly, and the dwarf he was talking to followed
his gaze to the elegantly garbed lord and his human underlings.
seen him in Bortalik,” Evark said in explanation, pulling his attention back to
the conversation and trying to appear casual. “Didn’t know the Purple Lords did
their own business up here, though.”
“They’ve got an embassy to Saramfal,
and a separate one to the Trade Quarter,” the dwarf shrugged. “That one comes up
every few months; I think he’s a courier for the Council of Lords, but he does
plenty of trading on his own account.”
“Makes sense, if he’s here
anyway,” the halfling captain shrugged, carefully not looking sideways again
even though the hair on the back of his neck was prickling; the half-elf had
been heading in his direction. “So, how much is it to hire a pilot just to Derm?
I’m not sure when we’ll be coming back downriver.”
“You aren’t thinking
of heading further east, are you?” the dwarf asked, scratching his beard. “I
doubt there’s any branch of the Upper Saram that’ll reliably take a trading
ship; the merchant caravans all switch to carts at Derm.”
“No, no,” Evark said calmly, waving one hand dismissively and rolling his eyes
to disguise his reaction to that piece of information. “It’s just that I’m on
charter, see, and my principal doesn’t talk about his schedule with the hired
help. Gods only know when he’ll be ready to sail back; I’m not about to pay a
pilot to stay on board while we sit at the docks twiddling our
“That sounds terribly inconvenient,” a cultured voice drawled
above his head, and he barely managed not to spin around with his sword drawn.
“Captain... Fletchhollow, wasn’t it?”
“Pitchallow,” he said cheerfully,
turning with an eyebrow raised instead of his weapon. “M’lord Serthan, if I’m
not mistaken? I hope the spices I sold your factor last month have given
satisfaction-- and did your lady wife like the silk?”
“I’ve heard no
complaints,” the half-elf sniffed, folding his hands inside his flowing sleeves.
“What’s this I hear about a charter?”
Overhear, you mean, you
point-eared nosy bastard-- “That? I’m headed upriver to Derm. There’s some
cargo space to spare if you’d like to send anything along? I’ll even give you a
discount, seeing as how I’m headed there already.” He cocked his head
attentively, trying to look mildly avaricious. No Purple Lord would ever believe
an innocent expression from a Marfang Island halfling, but they’d believe a
trader captain looking for extra profit any day.
Serthan blinked. “Isn’t
Derm a little out of your usual range?”
“My principal didn’t want to have
to change ships, so he needed one that could both handle blue water and go
upriver without bottoming out on the way. Thus my hire,” Evark shrugged. “He’s
paying well enough.” And thank the gods Holderman and I managed to come up
with a plausible story before it was needed...
“And who is
this so-financial principal?” the lord drawled, expression sharpening just a
“Someone who’s also paying for privacy, m’lord,” Evark said
“Really!” Serthan huffed, seemingly offended, and
yet... there was something off about his manner. “I don’t see why you can’t tell
me. Aren’t I a good customer?”
“Of course, m’lord!” As Purple
Lords go. Which means you’re terrible by any other standard. “So you’ll
understand that I can’t discuss my principal’s business,” the captain continued,
spreading his hands. “After all, I didn’t discuss your business when you
were planning that little trade coup with Southern spices to Belhadan, did I?
It’s the same now.”
The half-elf practically pounced. “So it’s some trade
Evark let a flicker of alarm show on his face. “Uh, I didn’t
“Oh, you can’t fool me, Captain Fitcharrow,” Serthan
said playfully, waving one finger in the halfling’s face. “Hmm, Derm; I’ll bet
it’s weapons. No? Armour then. Don’t bother to deny it, I can read you like a
book. Well then, I shan’t keep you...”
Evark waited until the half-elf
was well clear, then snorted loudly and turned back to his previous
conversation. “Ass,” he said, voice loud enough to carry a little. “One day
someone’ll bite that damn finger of his off.”
“I gather it’s not weapons
or armour, then?” the dwarf grinned.
“It’s not even trade! Just between
you and me--“ he leaned closer and dropped his voice slightly-- “somebody’s
looking at Baroness Ernos’s daughter as a future match for their young son.
Getting an early march on the competition, like.”
“I should say so! Isn’t
the girl about four?”
Off to one side, the last member of Lord Serthan’s
retinue abruptly put down the fruit he’d been bargaining for and walked off.
Evark pretended not to notice.
On his way back to the
docks after finishing his bargaining, the halfling captain took his time,
strolling around the market and making several small purchases. He seemed
indecisive, passing stalls with a shake of his head and then doubling back for a
second look at the merchandise, but eventually he worked his way to the wide
street that led down to the docks (called, imaginatively enough, Dock Street)
and made his way back to Wind Dancer.
“How’d it go?” Master
Holderman asked quietly.
“Serthan Du’hai Ardun is here, and being more
curious than I like,” Evark told him under his breath. “I think I fobbed him
off, and I’m pretty sure nobody was following me, but all he’d have to do is
send someone straight to the docks. Assuming he remembers the ship’s name better
than mine, though that could have been an act,” he added as Holderman swore
quietly through a fixed smile. “Is everyone on board?”
“Aye, Chihar came
back just before you.”
“Good. I want us ready to cast off the moment the
pilot gets here, and I want the lookouts on watch for any ship that seems to
“Reckon Serthan was looking for our passenger?”
or someone else taking a message to hradani lands.” Evark thought back to the
quiet conversation he’d had with Brandark when the half-bard had first woken up.
“I’m thinking Demon Breath isn’t quite sure what all happened.” He gave
Holderman a meaningful jerk of his chin towards the companionway. “From what
he told me, the leader of the ones hunting our passenger’s friend had a
cursed sword of some sort, but he was a bad swordsman and a fool to boot, and
went down early in the fight. I reckon he had to be the only real link Sharna
had in the group, or one of the others would have picked up where he left off;
and without someone he can focus on, a god can’t often see things in our world.
So it’s fairly likely the Scorpion knows the friend is dead -- if he was
important enough to be hunted down that way, his death would be important enough
to be noticed -- but for all he knows, there’s twenty hradani making their way
home with the news that the Dark have their fingers in the pie up
Holderman grimaced. “That’s not exactly news I like to be
carrying myself. Who’s to say we aren’t going to deliver the news to someone the
Scorpion’s got his claws on? I mean...” His voice trailed off and he looked
eloquently at his captain.
“Aye, they’re hradani,” Evark nodded,
answering the comment Holderman hadn’t voiced aloud. “But I’m not about to write
them all off, same as I’m not about to trust all the elves. Korthrala likes our
passenger, so he’s not following the wrong gods, and Foam Beard also
wants this message delivered, so there’s got to be people up there it’s safe to
deliver it to.” He grinned suddenly, smoothing his moustache. “Besides, we’ve
fought enough of the Wild Wash to know that they may be smugglers, bandits, and
pirates, but the most of them are honourable smugglers, bandits, and
The first mate snorted. “Oh, aye, weirdly honourable maybe but
I’ll give ‘em that. All right, so we’ll be good messenger boys and see how it
goes. Did you arrange for a pilot to take us all the way, or just to
“Hells, I’d almost forgotten that!” Evark scowled, tugging at his
short hair. “We’ve got a pilot to Derm, but we probably won’t be able to sail
any further than that. The Upper Saram’s not reliably deep enough.”
Phrobus piss on it! What are we going to do, then?”
“Damned if I know.
Find a trading house and hire a couple of carts, maybe. There are regular
caravans, so we’ll manage something.”
“We always do.” Holderman
managed half a smile, watching the dock traffic over his captain’s shoulder.
“Knowing you, we’ll likely also come up with three trade deals and a cargo
contract. --Is that the pilot?”
Evark turned and followed the pointing
finger, squinting at the dwarf making his way purposefully towards their
mooring. “Looks like. He’s wearing the right colours, at least.”
got moving, then,” his second grunted, and stalked off, already bellowing
orders. Evark stayed at the rail for a moment, eyes automatically following the
dwarven pilot as he thought back to an earlier part of the
Brandark didn’t know how many of the Navahkians lived,
but he thought there were some, he mused, rubbing his chin. So for all I
know, there really may be other hradani on their way home... though I don’t know
how eager they will be to spread the story, given as how it was their own prince
gone over to Sharna and waving a cursed sword. They might. And if Demon Breath
is digging his claws into one of the hradani cities, he’s likely to be moving
So who else is out there right now, dodging
cultists and praying he makes it to someone as can do something about
* * * * *
Kairic studied the little village from the
shadow of the trees, scratching his stubble and frowning. He’d taken longer to
reach it than he’d originally planned, even factoring in Greediguts’s lameness;
he wanted nothing to do with any Purple Lord forces right now, and the forest
was uncomfortably cluttered with scouting parties. Only caution, wariness, and
an unreasonably large helping of luck had enabled him to come this far without
being sighted; now, however, it looked as if his luck might be running
That’s one hell of a lot of horses and armoured men, he
mused, crouching lower behind his sheltering bush. Damn. If I didn’t know
better, I’d say the army was quartering half a regiment here... and since I
don’t know better, that might be exactly what they’re doing. Narrowing his
eyes, he tried for a moment to find an angle that would give him a better view,
then sighed and sat back on his heels.
I can’t see any banners, and
from this far away I can’t make out any heraldry on their surcoats. They’re
wearing brown and blue, I think. If I want to get any more detail than that I’ll
have to work my way around, come at the village from the side without all the
fields... so, do I want to? Or do I want to give up on this village and
head for somewhere else?
...Head somewhere else, I think, he
decided regretfully. It’ll mean Greediguts goes a while longer without being
re-shod, but this deep in Purple Lord lands the only armed forces that size are
going to be the army, or some lord’s personal forces. That’s not Yithar’s
colours, but given how he looked when he passed me I’d say he was being hunted,
so any of his relatives who come across me are likely to want to hush things up
by hushing me up. No, I’ll swing further west--
and sharp laid itself gently against his neck and cheek, and he
“You look awfully suspicious lurking there like that, friend,” a
calm female voice said from behind him. “How about you come out where we can see
each other properly, and you explain what you’re up to?”
can explain,” a harder voice chimed in. “Personally I’d be happy to stick
you right here and now, so I suggest you don’t give me any extra reason to do
it. Hands where we can see them and turn around, nice and
Carefully, Kairic brought his hands up to shoulder height and
shuffled around on his knees, leaning away from the blade. Close inspection --
closer than he really wanted -- revealed it to be a leaf-shaped spearhead, held
admirably steady and polished bright enough to show him his own warped,
wide-eyed reflection. It swung slightly as he turned, coming to rest with its
point just barely pricking the hollow of his throat, and he resisted the urge to
swallow hard as he looked up at his captors.
Three armoured women wearing
moon-badged blue surcoats looked back at him. One was frowning darkly,
suspicious blue eyes never leaving his own; there was a vicious scar running
down her right cheek from hairline to throat, pulling the corner of her mouth up
into a half-smile, but her expression could never have been mistaken for a
friendly one. The other two were genuinely smiling, obviously amused, and even
though one of them was holding the spear at his throat Kairic immediately judged
them as far, far less dangerous.
Overriding everything else,
though, was an immense feeling of relief. Sisterhood of Lillinara -- which
means the ones in the village wearing brown are probably Order of Torframos, not
the army. I’m safe.
Three sets of eyebrows lifted in surprise
as Kairic grinned broadly, spear still at his throat and hands still lifted in
surrender. “Gods preserve us, am I glad to see you!”
blinked, then cocked her head towards the scowling woman without shifting her
gaze. “Do you know, Kerry, I think he’s serious?”
cropped black hair wafting in the breeze. “So long as he’s not thinking good
looks and a pretty smile will get him out of trouble.”
thinking that relying on good looks and a pretty smile would probably get me
into trouble, since I’m sure you’ve seen it all before,” Kairic assured
her honestly. “I was planning on doing exactly as I’m told and answering
questions with the truth. Will that do?”
Almost unwillingly, the
unscarred side of her mouth twitched up to match the other for a moment. “It’s a
start,” she admitted. “I think I’ll wait to see what exactly this ‘truth’ is
before I give you any guarantees, though.”
“Well, I know you aren’t going
to like it,” he shrugged, relaxing a little more as the spear-wielder pulled her
weapon back a judicious finger-width or two. “But it’s not me you’re going to be
mad at, so I’m not tempted to make anything up.”
“...Now that sounds
interesting,” the spearwoman murmured, regarding him with considerably
more curiosity. “And more likely to be truthful than we were expecting, I think.
Come along, then; I’m looking forward to hearing this story of
HEERO: Mel? Why are you surrounded by
DUO: Yeah, why aren’t they all looking at Trowa like
MEL (prying her keyboard out from underneath a cat): Christy’s in
the shower, so she told them to ‘help’ me write the babble.
they obeyed? I’m impressed.
MEL: If you can call this
TROWA: By their definition, it is.
MEL: True. *sigh*
Anyway, how’s the chapter? Any complaints? Not that we really care if you don’t
KRASHNARK: I don’t completely hate it.
horrible happened to me, though I’m not impressed with what I found out about
MEL: Don’t blame me for that, David Weber wrote that
in. I gotta say, though, the guy really needs to keep better notes when
QUATRE: How so? I read the first one, and he seemed to keep
the plot on track without contradicting himself.
MEL: Oh, he doesn’t
stuff up his plot. He messes up names. There’s four different spellings of one
minor character’s name, and two possible spellings of Saramfal, and that’s just
the ones I care about because I’m using ‘em in the fic. Bah. Oh well, I guess I
can just pick the spellings I prefer, though it’s a bugger when you’re trying to
look them up for reference purposes.
DUO: Stuff the names, you made
Relena cry at me!
MEL: Well, what did you expect would happen? Here you
are, making friends with her and everything, and then you tell her you’re
leaving when she’s already having a really stressful day. Of course she cried at
DUO: To repeat what we’ve said all through this stuff: you wrote it,
it’s your fault!
MEL: Literary necessity.
BRANDARK: Don’t start
that again! Bahzell died the last time you cited literary
MEL: He looks pretty healthy to me.
BAHZELL: I wouldn’t
be after relying on that to get you out of the responsibility, if I were
MEL: Oh, I’m not. I’m relying on threatening you guys with
BRANDARK: ...Apart from the stuff Norcumi wrote, I haven’t seen any
sign of this so-called porn. I don’t think it exists.
challenge her to prove it!
DUO: Yeah, it ends up worse if she’s writing
to get back at you... oh, too late.
[Mel grins evilly.]
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