Sheriff Decker was a big man in every respect, and it was much more apparent when he was seated behind his desk in the shabby little office from which he worked than out in the street astride his horse. Taller than McGraw and wider across the shoulders than two Joes, he had a powerfully muscled frame that even his rather impressive beer gut didn’t manage to make look soft. Beyond the physical, his personality filled the room. The scowl on his dark Western face had nearly enough force to keep them bodily at a distance, and even sitting still, there was a latent energy about him, as if he might spring up and charge right over them at any moment.
“Well,” Decker said after a long, silent perusal of each of them in turn, “this here’s complicated, ain’t it? I do not like complicated. Me an’ complicated have a bit of a history. Complicated tends to show up for dinner whenever it likes, which ain’t to say I’m enthused to lay another place at the table.”
“Oh, gods, a frontier poet,” Weaver groaned.
“Under ordinarily, uncomplicated circumstances,” the Sheriff continued, ignoring him, “I would just throw everybody in cells an’ have done with it. In fact, it wouldn’t be a legal stretch to put you three as well as Coulter an’ his boys on a work detail to rebuild Whiskey Pete’s.”
“Whiskey Pete’s?” Billie chimed. “The sign just said ‘whiskey.’”
“Other half of the sign broke off in a storm last winter,” Decker said. “Which ain’t exactly germane to the issue. First off, I know damn well Coulter an’ company didn’t blow up the saloon, so all I got them for is drunk an’ disorderly. Or, as they think of it, Tuesday morning. There’s also the matter that I’d be depending on the goodwill of my actual culprits to even get you into cells, as I know enough of your various legends to understand Pete’s place is just a taste of the havoc you could cause if you took a notion to. Speaks well that you came quietly down to the office. Less well that you’re the culprits of a goddamn bombing.”
“Culprit,” Weaver said pointedly, “singular. The gnome threw the bomb.”
“It was not a bomb!” Billie protested. “It was pretty much a great big music box taken to its logical conclusion! Brilliant lil’ gadget, if I say so meself. Uses sound waves, modulated through an arcane spell matrix ta hit solid objects with the full potential energy o’ their vibrations instantaneously rather than over time, an’ phased not ta impact living organic matter. An’ I put shielding charms on us anyway, ‘cos I’m responsible.”
“Right,” said Weaver. “So. It was a fancy bomb.”
“Shut up,” said Decker without passion. They did so, immediately. “The further issue makin’ this matter complicated is what you four are doin’ in my town to begin with. McGraw sniffin’ around ain’t so terribly unusual—I can see one o’ your type passin’ through from time to time. Hell, I do see it, an’ they never stay long, thank the gods. But four?” He leaned slowly back in his chair, which creaked alarmingly under the strain. “Only two things bring four individuals like you together in one spot: something expensive, or something bad. Am I dealin’ with just one thing, here, or both?”
McGraw leaned against his staff, distancing himself slightly from the group and dividing a sardonic look among them. Weaver just rolled his eyes; Billie chewed thoughtfully on her lower lip.
“Beggin’ your pardon, Sheriff,” said Joe, “but the matter’s a little sensitive…”
“Do I honestly need to remind you knuckleheads that you just blew up a saloon?” Decker grated. “You are not in a position to make discretionary calls about what I do or do not need to know. Spill it.”
“What I mean is,” Joe said doggedly, “this is the kind of thing that could have repercussions if it got out. A certain amount of frankly justifiable panic, if you get my drift.”
“Boy, I am a lot less worried about me spillin’ the beans to a random passerby than the four of you. A secret’s lifespan diminishes with every person who knows it; if you can keep it under your hats I sure as hell can.”
“That’s a significant if,” Weaver commented.
“Weaver, shut up,” Joe said irritably. “All right, Sheriff, do you know who Belosiphon the Black was?”
“My mama told me the same fairy tales yours did, I reckon,” Decker said evenly. “The rest of this explanation ain’t gonna make me happy, is it.”
“We’ve got solid reason to believe his skull is buried somewhere in this region,” Joe continued. “It’s a piece o’ work that basically radiates chaos magic. If it’s unearthed… Well. That would be real ugly for everyone in the vicinity. We’re here to find the thing and get rid of it.”
“By unearthing it first, I suppose,” Decker said, his expression giving no hint what he thought of this claim. “Okay, two questions. How do you know this, and just how the hell do you plan to get rid of it?”
“First,” said Weaver, “oracular divinations.”
“Which is bard-speak for ‘bullshit,’” the Sheriff observed.
“That’s a gross oversimplification, but in a general sense, not totally wrong,” Weaver allowed. “In this cace, all the oracles. Every oracular resource in Tiraas has suddenly stopped answering any kinds of questions to rant about this. That’s the classic warning sign of a potentially world-ending crisis brewing.”
Decker sighed, dragging a hand over his broad face and disturbing his hat in the process. “Okay. All right. That leaves the second question.”
“We’re takin’ it to Arachne bloody Tellwyrn!” Billie chirped. “She’s gonna get rid of it.”
“I’m in the very strange position of bein’ inclined to believe you can actually do that,” said the Sheriff. “All right…fine. Dangerous chaos artifact, four overpowered assholes here to deal with it. Could be worse, I guess. What are your leads?”
“That’s what we were in the process of obtaining when Mr. Coulter and his friends came over to introduce themselves,” said Joe.
“Matter of fact,” McGraw chimed in, “I’ve been hearin’ rumors that I think are extremely applicable. Sheriff, what do you know about this Mr. K an’ his operation up north?”
“You’re askin’ me for information?” Decker said pointedly.
“Yes, sir,” McGraw replied, tipping his hat. “I, personally, who have not blown up any saloons, am keenly interested in this topic for the reasons previously mentioned. I’d take it as a kindness if you could put off deciding what to do with these three for just a moment to bring us all up to speed. Might improve the level of cooperation you get from ’em, as a bonus.”
“For the record, once again,” Weaver said, “two thirds of us haven’t blown up any saloons, either.”
“Aw, stuff it sideways, y’big wally.”
Decker heaved a soft sigh. “Well, I suppose I can spare the very few moments it takes to tell the very little that’s known. This ain’t a situation where the local law is in on details the populace don’t know, McGraw. After a day of snoopin’ around, you probably know as much as I do. The long an’ the short of it is, this Mr. K turned up…lessee…six or seven weeks ago, claims to run his own mining company. We’ve never heard of him ’round her, but he’s got stationery and everything. Made his headquarters in Risk, a town ’bout thirty miles to the northwest, in the Badlands. Deep in the Badlands.”
“What kind of town is this Risk?” Joe asked.
Decker gave him a very pointed look, but answered the question. “A small one. Never more’n a hundred souls in its heyday, which was back before the Narisian Treaty. Risk was abandoned till Mr. K moved his people in.”
“What people are these?” Weaver demanded.
“Here’s a wild idea,” the Sheriff shot back. “Shut your hole for a minute an’ you’ll find out. This conversation is a favor I’m doin’ you, Mr. Weaver, an’ you’ve given me damn little reason.” He held the bard’s stare for a long moment in silence; Weaver just blinked his eyes languidly, his expression bored and vaguely disdainful. Finally, Decker shook his head and continued. “The Big K Mining Company consists entirely of dwarves. Dunno much about ’em, not even which of the Five Kingdoms they hail from. They do their work an’ ain’t interested in socializing. Which is probably for the best; folks ’round here aren’t best pleased at the only new work in years goin’ straight to foreigners. In addition to the miners, Mr. K has a few lieutenants who are known to be fancy-dressed city folk with weapons. So far, they ain’t shot anybody, but I know three folk who’ve had it made abundantly plain to them that that isn’t due to any lack of willingness or capacity. Risk is basically closed to everyone but the Company at present.”
“Is that legal?” Joe asked, frowning.
Decker shrugged. “Mr. K bought up the land he’s livin’ on, an’ got all the appropriate permits from the provincial and Imperial governments for his mining operations. He’s entitled to his security. I can see how he might feel the need, given how unhappy everyone in the region is about him.”
“This Mr. K himself,” Joe said slowly. “What’s he like?”
“Secretive,” Decker said curtly. “An’ that’s the long an’ the short of it. Nobody sees him but his lieutenants. Is that sufficient, now? Are y’all satisfied with the quality of intelligence you’ve been provided? Cos we still have the topic of your arrest to discuss.”
“Yes, that’ll do,” Weaver said condescendingly. “Can’t complain about the information, scant though it is, even if the quality of delivery lacked a certain—”
“Omnu’s balls, do you never stop?” Billie exclaimed, slugging him in the thigh.
“Why, yes, Miss Fallowstone, I do stop,” Weaver retorted, stepping away from her. “For example, when I find myself considering throwing a bomb in a saloon, I’ve got this little inner voice that tells me ‘hey, this just might be a bad fucking idea!’”
“Quiet,” Decker said flatly. Once again, he was instantly obeyed. “That is quite a story you’ve told me. Quite a story. If you haven’t surmised it yourselves, the only reason I was willing to indulge you in that sidetrack about the mysterious Mr. K is because he fits neatly into it. Doesn’t he? And you apparently didn’t know that goin’ in.” He finally straightened back up, placing his hands on top of his desk and beginning to drum his thick fingers against the scarred wood. “None of which proves anything, of course. Way I see it, I’m lookin’ at two possibilities: either y’all are full of shit an’ tryin’ to save your own asses from the jail, or there’s a real problem brewing, you’re here to help, an’ you’re a much better choice to make that attempt than me or my deputy. Guess you might say I’m on the horns of a dilemma, here. Mr. Weaver, I see that you have just opened your mouth. Do you have somethin’ constructive to add, or are you about to get yourself punched in the teeth?”
Weaver raised his eyebrows, but closed his mouth. An amused smirk remained on his face.
“Who is it you’re working for?” the Sheriff asked them. “A group like this doesn’t just spontaneously come together. Didn’t even when adventurers like you were a respectable thing; I know somebody with means assembled this posse.”
“I’m…not sure it’d be proper to name names,” Joe said, frowning. “Nor that it wouldn’t. It wasn’t actually discussed…”
“How many times do I need to reiterate that you blew away your negotiating position along with the front wall of Whiskey Pete’s? I ask a question, boy, I expect a prompt answer.”
“We’re workin’ for the Universal Church,” McGraw said. “The man who assembled the intel that sent us here is highly placed there.”
“Well!” Decker grinned at them, slapping his palms down on the desk. “Finally, we’re gettin’ somewhere. That there is a trail I can follow. So, it seems the most feasible move from where I’m sittin’ would be to stick the bunch of you in a cell whilst I make inquiries. I get word back that you are, indeed, agents of the Church, then not only is my mind put greatly at ease regarding the outcome of this…skull business…but I got somebody I can bill for damages to my town. Worst case scenario, Mr. K’s been operating for weeks an’ the world ain’t ended, so you’ve most likely got time to cool your heels a spell. Unless you have anything further to add?”
“That sorta brings us back to an earlier point, doesn’t it, Sheriff?” Joe said quietly. He reached up and tucked his thumbs behind the lapels of his coat, pointedly keeping his hands far from his wands, but stared Decker in the eyes unflinchingly. “If we decide not to go into cells… That is pretty much that, ain’t it?”
Weaver, Billie and McGraw all shifted position, staring at him in surprise. Decker’s face remained impassive. A moment of silence fell, broken when the Sheriff drummed his fingers once more upon his desk.
“I believe I already had the badge discussion with you, Mr. Jenkins,” he said quietly. “The Empire’s a big thing, an’ I’m an exceeding small piece of it. It’s a connected thing, though, an’ I ain’t so insignificant that notice won’t be taken if I get shot up in my own office.”
“There’s a wide range between going into cells and shootin’ you, Sheriff,” Joe replied. “Lots of things could happen that result in neither. You could do a good many of ’em yourself and still remain in control of the situation.”
“I will do what I deem in the best interests of my town and my position,” Decker said evenly. “You strongly hinting that you’ve no intention of respecting the law is actively coloring my opinions.”
“Is what it is,” Joe said tersely. “I think we’re gonna go, now.”
“Oh,” Decker said in deadly calm. “Is that what you think.”
They stared at one another, neither wavering.
“Well, damn,” Billie said. “This would be the perfect time t’rip a giant fart, an’ I don’t ‘ave one on deck. Ain’t that always th’way?”
“The dialect in here could choke a dragon,” Weaver muttered.
The Sheriff opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, the door burst open and his deputy rushed in, brandishing a sheet of paper.
“I am in the middle of somethin’, Slim,” Decker said sharply.
“Yeah, I know, but a scroll just came for you. Maddie brought it down from the telescroll office herself—it’s marked urgent. You better take a look.”
He stepped quickly around McGraw, who moved back to make room for him, and came around behind the desk to hand the telescroll to Decker. The Sheriff accepted it mutely, paused to give Joe one more warning look, then devoted his attention to the message.
He flicked his eyes across it once, then read it again more slowly. Then he looked up and stared at his guests, a frown slowly forming on his features. After reading the telescroll a third time, Sheriff Decker very carefully laid it face-down on the desk and folded his big hands on top of it.
“Well,” he said, scowling at them. “Well. That’s that. Guess you’re free to go.”
“Wait, we’re what?” Billie exclaimed. “Was that about us? What’s it say?”
“Allow me to enunciate,” Decker said, his expression growing truly dangerous. “I know how my dialect can be difficult for you highly educated city folk. You are free to get the hell out of my office. Posthaste.”
“Much obliged, Sheriff,” McGraw said respectfully, tipping his hat again. Pausing only to give the others a very significant look, he turned to head out.
Joe tipped his own hat. “Have a good one, gentlemen.” Decker glared at him.
Once outside, they continued on across the street, following McGraw.
“Where’re we goin’?” Billie asked.
“To a less occupied area,” the old wizard replied, “seein’ as how you three went out of your way to make yourselves as unwelcome as possible in town. I figure we’re better off grabbing a bit o’ privacy before we do anything.”
“Not to harp on it or anything,” said Weaver, “but once again, the gnome blew up the bar.”
“Oi, I will build you a new bar all of your own if ye’ll just drop it already!”
“You can’t tell from lookin’,” McGraw said, thumping his fist against a wall as he passed, “but a good third of Desolation’s abandoned. Construction like this, well… The windows break an’ the shingles come loose, but these houses’ll be here in a thousand years when dwarven archaeologists are diggin’ it all up. There’s ample space to tuck oneself away from pryin’ eyes. Here we go.”
He turned aside, ducking through a missing doorway into a small house that barely qualified as more than a cottage. It had no windows and the door was lying inside; the one open room had drifts of sand in all the corners and spiderwebs festooning the ceiling, but any furniture that had been there had been removed by its previous occupants. Or by someone since. It was dimmer than outside, and pleasantly cool in comparison with the street. Noon was fast approaching, and there was no cloud cover to speak of.
“So, about that last bit,” said Billie, clambering up onto the empty windowsill and seating herself, legs dangling, “what d’ye wanna bet Mr. Darling came through for us?”
“The Church can’t order an Imperial sheriff to back down,” said Weaver. “I know Darling works with the Empire, too, on some kind of council. Does he have the pull to do something like that?”
“Not legitimate pull,” Billie said, grinning, “but let’s be honest, how much o’ the shit that guy pulls d’ye think is in any way legitimate?”
“Timing’s wrong,” said McGraw, shaking his head. “Y’all only just got here. I’ve only been in town a day, which is not enough time for word to get back to Darling that you were about to be arrested. No, something else is brewin’.”
“Well, it was something good, anyway,” Joe said. “At least we have an ally.”
“Might be,” McGraw said, frowning. “Or… Remember this game of ‘he knows I know he knows’ that our employer is playin’ with the Archpope. Both of ’em have the goal of testing their pet adventurers against each other. Justinian’s got an interest in clearin’ a path for us to reach his people. Or, it could be an unknown party…almost anything, really. We’d best keep our eyes open. In any case, the Sheriff was right on one point: Mr. K having been around a few weeks and no disaster unfolding, we’ve got time to maneuver. For that matter, Mr. K’s been out here longer than the oracles have been actin’ up, if the timing we were told on both points is correct.”
“You can just say it,” Weaver said dryly. “His name’s Khadizroth.”
“That ain’t been definitively established,” McGraw warned. “But yeah, it’s a likelihood. I’ve managed to uncover a bit of info the Sheriff didn’t know: the composition of Mr. K’s personal group. He’s got three men and a woman workin’ for him, all well-dressed in suits and gowns. Two of the men,” he added significantly, “are elves.”
Weaver snorted, folding his arms. “Yup. That’s them.”
“Not that elves can’t wear anything they like,” Joe mused, rubbing his chin with a thumb, “but I’ve never actually seen one in a suit until… Yeah. Sounds like Vannae and the Jackal. What of the other two?”
“No idea,” McGraw said, shaking his head. “Though I’ve got a feeling we’ll find out when it’s good and too late, and not before. Meantime, as we do have a little leeway in our schedule, I suggest heading back to Tiraas for supplies and to check in with the Bishop. Once we head out into the Badlands, that’ll be it. I take it you found no sign of Mary?”
“Signs, yes,” said Weaver. “Mary, no. Moving on to a more immediate topic…” He turned to stare at Joe. “Kid, what the hell was that?”
“What?” Joe asked defensively.
“Wankstain McGee’s got a point, there, fer once,” said Billie. “That was just about as aggressive as I’ve ever seen ye, Joe. Hell’s bells, why’d you have to pick an Imperial sheriff to show yer claws to?”
“Why’d you have to blow up the saloon?” Joe asked irritably. Billie threw up her hands, letting out a despairing huff of breath.
“It’s a fair question,” McGraw said in a far milder tone. “Joe, if you’ve got some kind of beef with the Empire, I think it’s reasonable for us to want to know up front. Before we find ourselves dealing with any more lawmen.”
“Not…the Empire.” Joe turned his back to them, pacing over to the open doorway, and leaned out, glancing up and down the street. A stray dog was huddled in the shade of a low, broken wall some yards distant; there were no other living things within view.
“A name,” he said, turning back to them and folding his arms. “That’s what Darling promised me, from the Archpope’s oracles. I want the name of the man who tried to murder my friend Jenny and spooked her into leaving the world.”
“Leaving the world?” Weaver exclaimed, his eyebrows shooting up.
“That’s the Shifter we were telling you about,” McGraw said.
“Shifter, yeah,” said Joe. “She’s… Well, I don’t honestly understand what she is, I was always more interested in who. Jenny’s good people, some of the best I ever knew. But she’s some kind of a…a thing, traveling dimensions and existing in many at the same time. Well, she’s left this one. We had to go to the center of the Golden Sea to do it; there’s a major dimensional rift there. And the whole time, we were chased by a squadron of Imperial soldiers.”
“Go on,” Billie said quietly after a moment in which he paused to think.
“I’ll spare you the unnecessary details,” Joe continued. “We won; they died. I managed to have me a discussion with the squad’s leader before…well. Didn’t get the name of the person responsible, but I did learn the point of the thing was basically… They wanted to dissect her like some kind of scientific specimen. Study what made her tick, so they could try to figure out how gods work.”
“Holy shit,” Billie breathed.
“You killed an entire squad of Imperial soldiers?” Weaver asked quietly.
“One sergeant made it back out,” said Joe. “And that’s the kicker. I made sure she got back to civilization, and she would’ve reported in… And I’ve not heard one word about this since, which leads me to strongly suspect the project wasn’t legitimate or authorized. So… No, I don’t have a beef with the Empire, but I’ve been reminded just what kind of a thing it is. It’s a thing that has flaws which can be exploited. Most soldiers and lawmen, in my experience, are good, brave folks dedicated to doing the best they can, but some…aren’t. And behind every hundred or so soldiers, good or bad, is a powerful, well-fed man in an expensive suit, who may or may not be crooked as a rattlesnake with rickets.”
“I see,” McGraw murmured.
Joe nodded grimly. “Yeah. So, no, I do not trust government authority as much as I used to. And I definitely am not interested in being disarmed and placed in custody by anybody wearin’ a badge. If I commit a crime, I’m willin’ to face a magistrate, explain myself and accept whatever consequences come—provided those consequences are fair, and legal. Can’t assume they would be, is the problem.”
“Well,” said McGraw, “I guess we know where you stand, then.”
“No argument from me,” Weaver said, shrugging. “I’m not a fan of getting arrested either. And I doubt our Eserite boss will take exception to your views. All systems are corrupt, and all that.”
“I always thought that line sounded unnecessarily pessimistic,” Joe commented. “Some systems are corrupt, sure. That’s true anywhere. You can’t make assumptions about all of anything, though.”
“The rest of this discussion sounds like one we can have on the Rail,” Billie stated, hopping down from her perch. “C’mon, let’s haul ass back to Tiraas an’ report in. Maybe Darling’s got some more news for us. We’ve sure as hell got some for him.”
“I am so very sick of that damn Rail,” Weaver muttered.
“I’m gonna stay in town,” said McGraw. “I’m tryin’ to track down some old friends of mine who live in the area—the sort of folk who’re good to have on your side when you go wandering in the wilderness in search of hostiles. That’s a mite more involved than pickin’ up the local gossip, though. These aren’t the kinda people who keep convenient permanent addresses.”
“Typical,” Weaver said. “We get rattled around in a Rail can, and you laze around here drinking whiskey.”
“If it gives you some satisfaction to imagine that’s what I’m doin’,” McGraw said with a grin, “be sure to picture me puffin’ on a cigarillo. I don’t relax halfway. Anyhow, y’all had better move out. Try not to get lynched on your way back through town. And as a personal favor, if a mob does form, couldja refrain from blowing up any more buildings?”
“You know,” said Billie, “the more people tell me not to blow stuff up, the closer they come to being disappointed.”