“I can’t help feeling all this celebrating is premature,” Joe murmured.
“That’s ‘cos it ain’t for us,” said McGraw, gesturing around at the saloon with his pint. The front wall of Whiskey Pete’s was currently boarded up, but materials and tools had already been stacked outside preparatory to actual repairs. Pete himself, while appreciative of Joe’s Imperial contact funding the reconstruction, had expressed a preference for using local labor rather than the Army personnel currently swarming over the town.
“Nonsense!” Billie proclaimed. “We are the heroes of the hour! Well, Joe is, an’ the rest of us vicariously.”
“That’s what I mean,” said Joe. He glanced around, receiving a round of cheers and upraised mugs in response, to which he felt obliged to nod and smile. The festival atmosphere in Whiskey Pete’s was reflected in the rest of Desolation today, though it was more muted than yesterday’s initial celebrations, and somewhat more sober—outside the saloon, anyway. People had dried out and gone back to work, and in some cases, to work for the first time in weeks. “Everybody in town’s acting like everything’s settled. But we know…”
“Everything is settled, far as they’re concerned,” said McGraw. “Don’t pooh-pooh everybody’s parade, Joe. Don’t forget about the danger still out there, either, but let the people have their party. They deserve it.”
“I’m inclined to agree with the kid on this one,” Weaver grunted. “A party’s an excellent opportunity for all manner of destructive bullshit. You know how many conquerors have been assassinated at their victory feasts?”
“I reckon we’ve likely got the rest of today,” McGraw mused. “At least. Plans take time to put into effect, and that’s assuming they’ve already got plans formed.”
“Well, Mr. K may be the planner,” Weaver replied, “but after Hotshot’s little stunt this morning, the Jackal is gonna be the one out for blood. And frankly, he’s the one who worries me the most anyway.”
“I do appreciate you kickin’ his attention my way,” Billie said cheerfully. “Right neighborly of ye, not hoggin’ all the action fer yerself. Ye great wanker.”
“Anytime,” Weaver said, taking a gulp of his own drink.
“As I said,” McGraw repeated, “we’ve likely got today. I wouldn’t advise dawdlin’ past that point, though. It better serves us to go on the offensive—we’re the ones with a secured base of operations and superior forces.”
“What ‘appened ta my idea?” Billie asked. “Let ’em dig up the skull an’ just take it from ’em?”
“As explained,” Weaver said, rolling his eyes, “that’s ceding the initiative and control of the timetable to the enemy…”
“Not to mention,” Joe added, “it’s best for everybody if the skull never gets dug up in the first place. If we can drive them off before that happens, this whole thing may be moot.”
“Did ye miss the part about all the oracles goin’ tits up in th’rhubarb?”
“Uh…” He coughed. “That’s one way to put it, an’ no, I didn’t. But it seems to me the Big K company is the principal risk of the thing gettin’ found.”
“Kid’s got a point,” McGraw noted. “Prophecy’s a tricky beast. Sometimes there ain’t nothin’ you can do to avoid ’em, but sometimes you can. If we do manage to beat and scatter the dragon and his friends, it might be worth pausin’ to check with Darling and see if the oracles are still goin’ nuts over this thing. That may do the trick. If the possibility exists, I’d say it’s worth pursuing. Joe’s right—best for everybody is if that damn thing stays wherever it’s buried.”
“I’m just a little nervous,” Joe said, glancing around again. “Sittin’ around relaxing while people are out there plotting against us.”
“Drink your sasparilla,” Weaver snorted. “The shit will fly in its own good time. Better to be rested and fed before we go charging back out there.”
“It’s a good instinct, Joe,” McGraw added with a smile, “but don’t let your paranoia override your situational awareness. This here town’s full of soldiers right now, and we’ve got Raea and the others patrolling the area outside.”
“Elves have to sleep, too,” Joe pointed out.
“That they do, but elves are more alert in their sleep than you are on your best day. It’s as secure a place as we can reasonably ask for at the moment. Nothin’s gonna happen tonight.”
Weaver abruptly straightened up in his chair, turning his head in a slow arc to pan his gaze around the saloon, ignoring the good-natured greetings thrown his way from the other patrons.
“What?” Joe demanded. “You hear something? Your, uh, friend…?”
Weaver grunted, finally relaxing back into his customary slouch. “Guess not. I half expected something to blow up the second he said it wouldn’t.”
“Y’do realize the world ain’t one o’ yer bard stories, aye?” Billie said.
“And there’s also the matter that things are less likely to blow up since you’ve got both hands on your pint,” he shot back.
“Aye, there’s that,” the gnome agreed cheerfully, tipping her mug back and having another gulp of ale. It was absurdly oversized in her tiny hands.
“Here, now,” Joe said, frowning. “I hate to be a meddler, but—”
“Yes, Joe, I will be perfectly sober come mornin’, an’ probably come bedtime, too. Even fer a gnome, I can handle me liquor, an’ we don’t have constitutions as delicate as you tall folk. Me mum used ta give us stronger stuff than this fer a cough remedy when I was a wee biter.”
A man in sweat-stained flannel and denim came skittering through the open doorway, where the swinging doors had once hung, barely catching his hat in time to prevent it being hurled off by his abrupt stop.
“Fire!” he shouted. “Fire at th’sheriff’s! We need hands out here!”
There was a bare beat of startled silence before everyone rose with a great scraping of chairs and clatter of boots, rushing toward the exit.
“Okay, so my timing was off,” Weaver said, standing and pushing his own chair back more leisurely. “The principle still applies.”
“There are any number of reasons a fire could break out,” McGraw said, rising as well. “Don’t borrow trouble.”
“I think we all know better,” Joe muttered, following. Billie sighed dramatically, giving her half-emptied pint a mournful look, but hopped down from her chair and came after them as they made for the door.
The crowd was a lot easier to follow than it was to get through; despite the fact that much of Desolation was allegedly back at work today, there was no shortage of rubberneckers clogging the streets. In the early afternoon sunlight, the actual glow of the fire could barely be seen, but the column of smoke rising from the sheriff’s office must have been visible for miles around.
Onlookers aside, the townsfolk had organized themselves remarkably quickly. A bucket train was already working, passing water to the office from the nearest town well. As the adventurers arrived, having to push somewhat impolitely past the crowd (or in Billie’s case, slip between their legs), another bucket of water was hurled onto the flames, and quickly handed off to a boy who darted back toward the well with it.
Sheriff Decker knelt to one side next to his deputy, who was laid out on the ground, coughing violently. The sheriff’s expression was terrifyingly blank. In the near distance, a woman was leading the two resident horses away down the street, and having to devote as much attention to calming the animals as guiding them.
“How’s it look?” McGraw asked, bounding up to him with a speed that belied his age. “He gonna be okay? Any other casualties?”
“Here for your situation report, are you?” Decker asked coldly. “Obviously, nobody but the great Longshot McGraw an’ his friends can handle a crisis on the frontier.”
“Saul, when things are settled you an’ I can sit down over drinks and you can be as much of an asshole t’me as you like,” McGraw said with uncharacteristic curtness. “Right now, though, how can we help?”
The Sheriff sighed. “Best to keep out of it, Elias. This only just broke out; they’re keepin’ it from spreading with the water. Those Imperial types are scattered all over, surveying and whatnot, but I’ve got folk fetchin’ some. Healers and mages on the way to contain this an’ help Slim.”
“’m okay,” Slim wheezed unconvincingly before dissolving into another coughing fit.
“He ain’t burned,” Decker said grimly. “Got a good lungful o’ smoke, though. Could be bad if one o’ them healers doesn’t get here pronto.”
“Oy, laddie, can ye stifle it long enough ta swallow?” Billie asked, coming up beside Slim and producing a vial of red fluid. “Cram this down yer gob; healing potion’ll do fer any serious damage to yer lungs, though it won’t do shite fer the coughing reflex.”
“M-much obliged, ma’am,” Slim said weakly, reaching for it with trembling fingers. Decker snatched the potion from her hand and uncorked it, gently holding it to the deputy’s lips.
“There we go, partner—you were right, they’re good for a little somethin’ after all. Just try to get this down without coughin’ it back up…”
“Somethin’ about this ain’t right,” McGraw said, staring at the burning office through narrowed eyes.
“Rarely have the words ‘no shit’ been more apt,” Weaver replied.
“Not that, the nature of it. That’s elemental fire—it’s magical. You don’t feel it?”
The bard frowned. “Not really, but I’m nowhere near as attuned to magic as you. Kid?”
“Nothin’,” Joe said, shaking his head. “But…same goes. If you say it’s magic, McGraw, I believe you.”
“Witchcraft,” McGraw murmured. “Or, more correctly, shamanism…”
“All right, all right, let’s everybody keep yer pants on, I got this.” Billie swaggered forward, producing a fist-sized (human fist, anyway) object from another pouch. It bore an alarming resemblance to the sonic explosive with which she had blasted out the front wall of the saloon. “You lot in the front, there, may wanna clear back a bit! This won’t hurt ye any, but may not be good fer yer togs.”
“Oh, gods, she’s doing it again,” Weaver groaned. “You can’t bomb a fire out, you demented pocket monster!”
“Ain’t a thing under the sun I can’t bomb out, gobshite,” Billie replied with a manic grin, drawing back her arm to throw. “Fire in th’hole—but not fer long!”
The bucket train dissolved, the nearest townsfolk sensibly scattering as she hurled the canister straight into the flames pouring out of the office’s front door. McGraw gestured with a staff, conjuring up a translucent wall of blue light between the group and the fire.
Sure enough, there immediately came a sharp bang from within, followed by a loud and peculiar hissing noise.
Suddenly, instead of flames and smoke, the windows of the office were spewing a thick white foam. It blasted out of the open door in a wet spray, puddling in a thicker form on the ground that oozed out over the doorstep. The townsfolk continued shuffling backward, but McGraw let the shield collapse. Not only was the foam causing no further damage, but the fire itself appeared to be vanishing under it.
“Well, damn,” Weaver said, lifting his hat to scratch his head. “There’ll be no living with her now.”
“There was no livin’ with me before, peckerwood!” Billie crowed. “Behold the power o’ modern alchemy! Maybe next time ye’ll think twice before oh come on!”
A tongue of flame erupted out the door, propelling a gout of foam in front of it. Smoke again began to trickle out the windows; the fire was clearly heavily dampened, but just as clearly not out.
“Bullshit!” Billie roared, dancing up and down in agitation. “That’s cheatin’, that is! That there is foolproof fire-retardant foam, there’s no way that bastard’s still burning!”
“As I was sayin’,” McGraw drawled, “that ain’t natural fire. It’s pure elemental flame, put there by witchcraft. Which means it won’t quit till the spell’s canceled.”
“Can you do that?” Decker demanded.
The old wizard shook his head. “Not reliably. Best I can do with arcane magic is try to cut off the air flow, but that won’t stop elemental flame. I’m afraid your office is a loss, Saul,” he added ruefully. “That stuff’ll burn right through stone and brick. You’ll need a new floor, walls…everything.”
“Figures,” the sheriff muttered. Slim coughed again, but already seemed to be doing much better for having forced down a mouthful of potion.
“The Imps’ll have clerics,” said Joe. “If the fire’s fae in origin, just tell ’em to bless the space—”
“I know my Circles, thank you,” Decker said bitingly.
“That elf,” Weaver said, scowling. “The shaman, Vannae, Khadizroth’s friend. He wasn’t at the meeting.”
“Welp, that’s one thing that fits neatly together,” Billie said, also frowning. She seemed personally offended by her device’s failure to extinguish the fire. “But what the ‘ell was the point a’ this? It’s property damage an’ a ruddy inconvenience, but even if they’d nailed the sheriff, that wouldn’t stop the Empire. Hell, it’d probably just draw the Imps’ anger. Still will, most likely.”
“A distraction,” said McGraw, stroking his beard with the hand not holding his staff. “From what, is the question. K and company would seem to be most interested in us, but we weren’t targeted.”
“Speakin’ of that,” Joe said, looking around at the muttering onlookers, “this has been going for a few minutes, and no sign of troops. This is the Corps of Enchanters and the Surveyors out here, mostly. Aren’t they pretty on the ball in a crisis?”
The four of them stared at each other for a moment, then turned as one and sprinted back toward Terminus Station.
The crowd was less concentrated now and only slowed them momentarily; in fact, once away from the burning office, their speed was improved by the general lack of people everywhere else on the streets.
There was activity around the station, however, and all of it military. The four of them slowed upon drawing in range of the soldiers standing watch over the Rail platform, chiefly because said soldiers leveled staves at them. All four raised their hands peaceably, McGraw tucking his staff into the crook of his elbow to do so.
“That’s close enough, citizens,” the nearest soldier said. “Move along.”
“What, is the Rail platform closed?” Weaver demanded. “Who’s allegedly in charge of this—”
“Whoah, whoah,” McGraw said soothingly. “Let’s be polite to the nice boys an’ girls who’re just doin’ their jobs, which involves pointing weapons at us…”
“What happened?” Joe demanded. “Is everyone okay?”
“Move along,” the soldier repeated sharply. “The situation is being handled and is none of your concern.”
“Was there an attack?” Joe persisted. “We might know who’s responsible. He also set fire to the sheriff’s office in town; they could use some help down there. It’s an elemental fire that’s only partially contained. They need divine casters to stop it completely.”
The soldier, who wore a lieutenant’s bars on his collar, glanced aside at one of his fellows and nodded. “Go check it out.”
“Yessir.” The other man raised his staff to rest it over his shoulder and darted off toward the crowd down the street.
“Now, what do you know about this?” the lieutenant demanded, keeping his scowl—and his weapon—trained on Joe.
“If we’re right,” said the Kid, “it’s an elvish shaman—”
“Is that Joe?” called a familiar voice from behind the soldiers. “Joe? Ah, and the rest of you, too! Splendid, very good. At ease, men, let them through; these are friends and valuable allies.”
The troops relaxed and lowered their weapons on command, though none of their expressions grew any less tense. The group parted, though, revealing Heywood Paxton behind them. He was red-faced and the right side of his coat was liberally flecked with ash, but he beckoned Joe and his companions forward with a look of relief.
“Glad to see you, my boy—and the rest of you, of course. I had a feeling you’d be along soonish. Just too bad you weren’t here five minutes ago!”
“Heywood, what happened?” Joe asked, peering around as he stepped up onto the platform. There were no active fires, but the evidence of them was abundant. Aside from the ash marking Paxton’s sleeve, there were large scorch marks on the floor, the wall of the stationmaster’s hut, even the ceiling. Two of the folding tables that had been set up to serve as a makeshift field office were reduced to smoldering wreckage.
There were about a dozen soldiers on site, all looking tense and unhappy at the very least. Two were sitting in folding chairs against the office wall, being tended by a third wearing the white badge of an Army cleric. The injured, a man and a woman, both had scorched uniforms, and the man’s hair was singed partially away, but evidently the cleric had had time to work; neither evinced signs of active burns. That would have been any healer’s first priority, as burns could leave lifelong scars if not healed immediately. Both wore the glassy-eyed expression of people in a state of shock, though their healer, while attentive, did not seem alarmed about their condition. The matter was apparently in hand.
“It was the damnedest thing,” Paxton said with a shaky little laugh. “I was just tending to some of my very tedious paperwork, when an elf in a suit came streaking out of nowhere at me, brandishing a knife. He threw bottles of some kind of alchemy in all directions—you see the results around you. I daresay that would have been an ample distraction for most guardians; every one of these men and women is getting a personal commendation from me for how rapidly they pulled together, even with half the station on fire, that Jackal doing his best to kill me and my silly old self wallowing around in the wreckage of my desk.”
“Ye sure got the fire out quick-like,” Billie observed.
“Credit for that goes to Lieutenant Taash,” Paxton said, nodding gratefully at a soldier whose insignia was set over the blue badge of a battlemage; she gave him a tight smile before resuming her wary study of the perimeter. “That, and saving my rubbery hide. I do believe it was the most adroit use of magic I’ve ever had the privilege of watching! She was directing gouts of wind and water in all directions, putting out flames, and still managed to keep spurts aimed at the assailant to push him away. Needless to say, that’s the only reason I’m here to regret that second helping of dessert! A much more limber man that I wouldn’t have a prayer of outmaneuvering an elf unassisted.”
“That…probably wasn’t the Jackal,” McGraw said slowly.
“Well, I’ve never met the fellow,” Paxton admitted, carefully lowering himself into one of the surviving folding chairs. “I mean, he was a wood elf in a pinstriped suit. The description doesn’t match anyone else I’ve ever heard of. Though I suppose that’s not conclusive… Anyhow, once Taash had his distraction under control and he was facing a dozen good Tiraan soldiers with staves, he took off.”
“Mm.” Joe narrowed his eyes, glancing at the lieutenant who had accosted them at the edge of the station. “You fired on him?”
“We sure tried,” the man said in an aggrieved tone.
“Was it like…he wasn’t where he seemed to be? Like you shot right at the man, but the bolts went through empty space anyhow?”
“You’re familiar with this effect?” Taash said sharply, stepping over to join them.
“More and more it sounds like Vannae,” said Joe. “A shaman we’ve faced before. I managed to take a few shots at him myself and had the same problem.”
“Those look like enchanter wands,” said the lieutenant, nodding at the weapons holstered at Joe’s belt.
“That’s Joseph Jenkins, Khavouri,” Taash said with a faint smile.
“Yes, I know,” Lieutenant Khavouri said, giving her an annoyed glance. “One weakness of those otherwise superior weapons is they shoot in reliably straight lines. These are standard-issue Imperial Army battlestaves—they shoot lightning.”
“So I see,” Weaver remarked, examining some of the burns.
“Lightning arcs,” Khavouri continued doggedly. “You don’t dodge a lightning bolt, even if you’re an elf. Electricity will go right for the path of least resistance to the ground, which compared to the stone and wood construction here, would’ve been the man’s body.”
“Unless he’s got a good shielding charm, of course,” McGraw said. “As we’re not lookin’ at a friendly-fire incident here, I’m assumin’ all of you do.”
“Standard policy,” said Taash.
“I’ve seen the effects of grounding and shielding charms,” said Khavouri. “They’re distinctive; bolts are redirected or blocked. This was like Jenkins described: the shots just didn’t hit, and they should have.”
“That can be done by a shaman, too, against lightning,” said Weaver. “It’s the only reason the Cobalt Dawn did as well as they did when they invaded. Otherwise one good volley would’ve wiped them out.”
“Anybody can put on a suit,” said Joe, turning back to Paxton. “More and more this sounds like Vannae; the Jackal would’ve finished you off, Heywood. With all respect to you ladies and gentlemen, of course,” he added, tipping his hat to the nearby soldiers. “That…man…is utterly ruthless, and he’s killed people behind some of the best defenses in existence. Trust me, I’ve had cause to research his career in detail. The Jackal doesn’t get chased off.”
“Does Vannae, though?” McGraw mused. “I seem to recall the fellow givin’ us a fair amount o’ trouble previously.”
“A distraction, innit?” suggested Billie. “He dolls himself up like the Jackal, makes the Surveyor ‘ere think ‘e’s a target, an…” She trailed off and blinked. “An’ then what?”
“So he sets a big destructive distraction in order to commit…a big, destructive distraction?” Weaver wrinkled his nose. “That’s either one very bored knife-ear, or we’re missing something important.”
“Tell you what,” said McGraw, “you folks carry on this discussion, lemme know what you figure out. I better go catch Raea up on this.” He vanished with a soft crackle and a flash of blue light.
“Who’s Raea?” Paxton asked, blinking.
“His shaman friend,” said Weaver. “She and some other elves are helping scout the Big K base. They’re…I dunno, somewhere. Around the town, keeping watch.”
“You put plains elves around this town?” Khavouri said incredulously.
“We didn’t put them anywhere,” Weaver sneered. “They went where they chose, and we didn’t try to tell them they couldn’t. If you wanna have a go, knock yourself out.”
“Peace, please,” said Joe. “The immediate question is, what are we gonna do about this?”
“Who do you think ‘we’ is?” Khavouri demanded.
“We are,” Billie said helpfully.
He ignored her. “This is an Imperial matter. A rogue agent assaulted Imperial interests; the Empire will deal with it. You lot, whoever you are—”
Another soldier softly cleared her throat. In fact, it was the young woman who had been alone on duty in Terminus Station the first couple of times Joe and company had visited. She gave Khavouri a meaningful look; he broke off, snapping his jaw shut, and grimaced as if tasting something sour.
“…and, as per Imperial policy,” Khavouri continued in a calmer but not happier tone, “I am classifying your group as adventurers and invoking the necessary protocols. That means you get sent head-first into…whatever is going on. You can either succeed in thwarting it or serve as a distraction while the actual soldiers take coordinated action.”
“Pleasure doing business,” Weaver said sarcastically.
“It occurs t’me we’re havin’ a conversation with two lieutenants,” Billie noted. “Who’s actually s’pposed t’be in charge around ‘ere?”
“Ah, Captain Causewick is off supervising one of the surveying teams,” Paxton said almost apologetically. “Naturally, I have no actual rank as such, at least not with regard to the Army, but…it seems I’m the most senior Imperial officer present. And, for the record, I concur with Lieutenant Khavouri’s assessment. Though I’d perhaps have put it a trifle more diplomatically,” he added reproachfully to the lieutenant in question.
“I’m still stuck on what the point of all this might be,” said Billie. “It seems roundabout and…well, just plain weird. They risk a lot, cheesin’ off the Empire like this. None of ’em struck me as that dumb, ‘specially not Big K ‘imself. What’re we missin’?”
“Depends on what K an’ his crew do an’ don’t know,” Joe said grimly. “If they’re aware that Mr. Paxton is a friend of mine, threatening him is a tidy way to keep me pinned down here, an’ possibly the rest of you with me.”
“Here, now,” Paxton said, frowning and leaning forward in his chair, which creaked in protest. “I absolutely refuse to be the cause of you being hampered. The blaggard caught us off-guard before; now I’m surrounded by the Empire’s finest, all on high alert. You go and do what you need to out there.”
“Oh, I’m with you on that,” Joe said darkly. “In fact, I think Khadizroth and company have just launched themselves to a higher level of priority. If Raea and the others are on board,” he said, turning to include Billie and Weaver, “I do believe it’s time we group up and start moving. They won’t have had time to dig in their defenses yet. Let’s not give it to them.”