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IV. The Best Thief

1.

The Storm Queen sighted Baharna in sunny midmorning, and by noon they were sailing between the beacons Thon and Thal. Ryel couldn’t remember if they were kept lit on sunny days and couldn’t tell from the deck, looking almost straight up as the ship glided between the towers. The City of Baharna rose behind its docks of porphyry, sloping steeply up a ridge like a giant wave turned to stone, with buildings as a low stony moss. Stepped streets ran up from the front street, with many gates and bridges from building to building. The lower town was dotted with huge trees and also with domes and cupolas and little towers; the upper streets had tall old houses and odd steeples. Far up on the horns of the broken mountain that wore Baharna like a pretty blouse, grand temples stood.

“Quite a sight,” said Ferd as he stopped in his work for a moment to stand with Ryel and Arkmar. “Pity we’re not coming in at night, the lights all over the hillsides give you quite the view indeed.”

“Quite,” said Ryel.

“Ah,” said Ferd, “I won’t pester you more. I have my work, and I see you’re already at work yourself.” He slapped the elf on the back and headed off shouting at his crew.

“Is it true?” said Arkmar. “Working already?”

“Well, what does the map say?” Ryel replied.

“There’s a red spot on the map right here,” said Arkmar.

“Was there a red spot on the ocean floor?”

“You know, I thought it was just blood. But there, you can see it: it’s blurry because it’s under water, I suppose.” He examined the map closely, then got a magnifying glass out and examined it some more. “I still can’t tell exactly where in Baharna,” he began, and then he stopped and looked at Ryel.

“The court house,” said Ryel. “It’ll be in the court house.”

“Why?” asked Arkmar, as they both gazed on the baroque monstrosity, a porphyry amalgam of minaret and dome and turret and crenelation and arches upon arches upon arches. If any building could eat, it would be this one: it had half a dozen toothy mouths and any number of stone tentacles.

“Because it’s just so logical,” said Ryel. “Ever been there?”

“I think we established early in our relationship that I had never been on this lovely island. Have you ever been there?”

She smiled at him in a way that he did not find comforting. “Once,” she said. “No, twice. Strictly speaking. But this time I’m going as a civilian.”

“A what?”

Ryel and Arkmar took leave of the crew and captain of the Storm Queen and went ashore: Elena was nowhere to be seen. Probably filling out paperwork, Arkmar supposed. Then he was hurrying to keep up with Ryel as she hurried through the market, stopped on a dime and made a deal on the slightly nasty necklace, and then charged off toward the criminal courts of Baharna. They came hiking up the shallow steps of the Main Street, up from the quays, and walked across the central plaza, from which the higher parts of town rose ever more steeply.

“What a burg,” said Arkmar. “What do you think of that shape? Sloping up like that?”

“It’s mostly concave up,” said Ryel, stopping a moment to take in the ridge sides on this brilliant sunny day. Cloth of all colors billowed from a thousand balconies, and people of a dozen shades of skin wore a thousand colors of clothing or none at all, mixing and milling, dealing and stealing all across the circular common. Ryel gave the slightest hmph and strode on, up the pale stone steps and into the maw of the biggest mouth Baharna’s criminal courts had.

Arkmar caught up with her as she stalked up a high-arched corridor in a crowd like a current in a storm sewer. Twenty yards on, it opened out into a vast circular space under a squat dome.

“Wait right here,” she advised him. The dwarf did as he was bid. He took up an examination of the statuary: naked women slaying horrid beasts.

Ryel marched on into the middle of the dome’s floor. Its complex designs, with stars of green and gold and red overlapping with regular polygons of blue, were ignored by almost everyone else hurrying across to this or that office or courtroom. But smack in the middle stood a little man, not even Ryel’s height, ageless and wiry with a halfway bald head of short reddish hair, dressed in a sort of business black. He was studying the glass polygon at his feet, two yards across and the center and focus of the entire floor.

Light welled up from it. Something hard and bronze-like could be seen, mistily, down there in the light in the glass.
“Thaeron,” said Ryel from behind the man.

“Hush,” the man said without turning around. “I’m working.”

She came and stood right next to him. “I can see that. Whatcha gonna do? Smash and grab?”

He crouched down and took one more good look. Then he stood up, still not turning. “Well, I would have to assume,” he said, “that, contrary to my personal preferences, you are not going to turn out to be a fevered dream brought on by my recent sea voyage. So.” He turned around and fixed her with a flat glare from his very pale blue eyes. “Ryel.”

“Old man.”

“Funny, from you, aren’t you five million years old or something?”

“Or something.” They glared at each other for some seconds more. “So if you’re done here for now with your work, if you’ve earned your fifteen minute coffee break, shall we go chat somewhere, somewhere where I can use your name in a conversational tone? Is there anywhere like that?”

“Maybe in one of the deeper caverns, Ryel,” said Thaeron. He walked past her quickly, went six paces toward the arched corridor to the outside, then stopped. “Coming?” he asked the air around him.

“I’m right with you,” said Ryel, coming up to stand next to him. They continued to face forward, not turning to look at each other. “Can we collect my dwarf?”

“You have a dwarf.”

“I seem to have picked one up, yes. He keeps saving my life.”

“How nice. You always worked alone, but perhaps that’s why you were never especially successful at what you did. Perhaps you just needed to team up with someone who could bring some competence to the table.”

“You should try it yourself.”

“I work better alone.” Finally he turned a quarter turn to look straight at her. “Would you prefer a dive, or something on the three star side?”

“Oh, a dive,” said Ryel.

“I thought so.” He smiled a tiny smile. The two turned and resumed walking. “The easier to lose your dwarf,” said Thaeron. “Is that him?”

2.

The three of them, Arkmar the dwarf, Ryel the elf maiden and Thaeron the human, left the great law courts of the city of Baharna, turned in the plaza and started up the sloped streets of the ridge side. Thaeron and Ryel did not speak, but they both seemed to know where they were going. Suddenly, as they turned on a side street, Thaeron bent slightly to the side and said to Arkmar, “My friend tells me you are a dwarf.”

“You are very observant, my good—well, I can’t make the usual offer of service without knowing to whom I am offering it, correct?”

“My name is Mister Man,” said Thaeron. “Now if that is correct, and you are indeed of the Iron Kindred, then there is something you should know.”

“Is it about you?” asked Arkmar.

“No, it is not. My friend,” and Thaeron stopped completely and looked down a few inches into the dwarf’s dark eyes, “I want you to know that even though I, indeed, am honored to be a paid member of the Guild of the greatest of professions, in that I am a thief, I am not the thief who stole the Knife and the Chalice.”

“The Knife and the Chalice?” replied Arkmar, trying not to lose his distrust of the man before him, but preserving those initial capital letters.

“Don’t get me wrong,” said Thaeron, while Ryel looked at him with a slight smile. “It’s not that I do not covet such things as these. But I would be too concerned about retribution. I will steal from warriors and priests and wizards and beasts, but from the great houses of the Dwarves? They may not be speedy but they do not give up the chase. And their hands are heavy. Do I not speak the truth?”

“Of course you do, get on with it,” said Ryel.

“Elf,” said Arkmar, “please to stay out of this for just a moment while I figure out what if anything this fellow has to tell me. So you are definitely saying that the Knife and Chalice have been stolen? From the House of the Kindred?”

“Here in town,” said Thaeron. “But please. Do not take my word. Go ask at the House.”

“He’s just trying to get rid of you,” said Ryel. “Send you off on a wild goose chase.”

“Then come,” said Thaeron, “that’s most likely true, so come have a beer or two with us and don’t think about it anymore.” The thief smiled his little smile at Ryel, then strode past her. Eight paces on he turned, gave them both a smile, and went down a few steps into a tavern whose sign proclaimed its name as “Tavern.”

“So,” said Ryel once the three of them sat in a tiny booth behind a curtain, with three mugs and a bottle of dark wine. Thaeron sat on one side, Ryel on the other, and Arkmar pulled a stool over and sat on the end of the table just inside the curtain. “What brings you to the Isle of Oriab? Last place where you’re not under warrant for arrest?”

“On the contrary,” said Thaeron, “I am still free to come and go as I please in many places, such as the wood of the Zoogs, the upland moors of Fanark, and of course the many lovely abandoned cities of Dream World. And you? Why don’t you tell me why you’re here?”

“Because you haven’t told me why you’re here.”

“Or what your name is,” said Arkmar.

“Well,” said Thaeron, “speaking only to my friend the elf maiden here, and not because I do not love the dwarf races, rather due to my restraint in not wishing to fan the flames of—well, as I say, Ryel, it is not anything to do with certain items recently stolen from a certain kindred’s House in this fair city.”

“Honestly, you are so full of shit,” said Ryel. “Why I am here is my own business. You could say the exact same thing, so why don’t you? You say you don’t want to work with someone else. What bullshit. You wouldn’t even be talking to me if you didn’t want to use me in some way or other.”

“But that is the furthest thing from my mind,” said Thaeron. “Really, Ryel. I am a great liar but I am not in the habit of lying to you. You know perfectly well what I am here for, because you saw me studying it. Secondarily, now that you are here, for whatever mysterious reason you are here, I find I would rather like to make love to you. Naked, of course, so that neither of us can stab or steal from the other one, not easily at any rate. Neither of my goals, and those are my only goals aside from the usual ones of finding good food, good drink and the finest in entertainment—neither of my goals has anything to do with the heist that has the entire town talking.”

Ryel smiled at him for a long moment, and Thaeron held his firm expression, as if to underline his simplicity of intent. Then Ryel said, “Hark. I do hear the sound of many things, the songs of birds, the cries of the hawkers in the streets, the slow grinding of stone deep within the unquiet earth of Dream World. But oddly, one thing I don’t actually hear is people talking about the Chalice and the Knife or whatever.”

“The Knife and the Chalice,” said Arkmar.

“Yes, that’s how they usually say it,” said Thaeron.

“What happened.”

“Tell me first you do not think it was my doing,” said the thief.

Arkmar slowly stood.  He pulled out a fat heavy knife and set it on the table flat, as if in evidence. “If you did,” he said, “then I will see your guts scattered for the gulls to eat. I will use this knife, unless I find one even duller than this is.”

“Well,” said Thaeron, “again, you would be better off going to the House of your Kindred, and they would tell you all you need to know, except who did it, because that is not known. So I know one thing that they do not, and only one: that it was not me. In witness to that fact, I tell you that it was not a well done job. The thing was done from the sewers underneath the House, and the whole area stank of sewer gas for hours after. Do I stink of sewer gas? No,” he said before either of them could get in a cutting remark, “I stink of smugness and mistrust, but not of something so specific as rotting sewage. You see, the sewers of Baharna, the really bad ones I mean, not just the storm sewers—!”

“He likes to talk, doesn’t he?”

“He certainly does,” replied Ryel, “it’s one of the things he’s known for.”

“The sewers are kept sealed, and only opened if absolutely necessary, which makes them excellent for moving about unknown but unfortunately every time you surface, you make yourself very known. And these thieves, their bright idea was to come up out of the sewers and then return to the sewers, tracking their slime all the way into the House, into where the two aforementioned items are kept, and back out. So you see—!”

“They have slimed and defiled the Sanctum,” said the dwarf. He seized up his knife and said, “I will be back, Ryel. And you, if this is not sooth, in any one tiny detail, expect to get a good look at your own steaming entrails before tomorrow dawns.”

“Arkmar!” said Ryel. “He’s—!” But Arkmar was already gone. Ryel stood and stepped out from behind the curtain, but the dwarf had already disappeared out the door of the Tavern. She pushed past the curtain and sat back down. “You are an asshole, Thaeron.”

“Ah. Thank you, I think. I told him no lies. I told him much truth. And he did want to know, didn’t he?” He smiled, but she didn’t. He went on, “And now we are alone, we can have a nice little talk.”

3.

Arkmar had his doubts. But he did not have doubts about what he was ethically required to do. He had complete clarity on that. And while his doubts about the human thief did not diminish even a little bit, his doubts about the story went away as soon as he found himself within a block of the House of the Iron Kindred.

The Dwarves did not have a resident population anywhere in the west of Dream World, but they were all over the place, traveling, sight seeing, doing business. There were three Great Kindreds, and oh, the Centaurs and Mer-folk and Orcs and Giants and Trolls and Ogres and all manner of Little Folk were miffed to be left out of that grouping; but of the three Great Kindreds, the Dwarves considered themselves and were considered by the other two to be the odd ones out. Perhaps it was their rather different approach to sex, or the fact that the other two were not unnerved by having sky over their heads. Perhaps it was that the Elves believed themselves the Superior Kindred, and the Humans considered the Elves to be the Superior Kindred, while the Dwarves Begged to Differ.

But for whatever reason, Humans and Elves alike were always surprised to know that Dwarves were such excellent dreamers. They seemed surprised that Dwarves dreamed at all, and that those dreams weren’t always bound up with gold and steel. Steel and gold: business before pleasure. But that was just how the Dwarves were completely misunderstood by everyone else, including their close cousins the Gnomes, who considered themselves the artsy ones.

The Dwarves’ alienation from the other kindreds also meant that when they got in trouble, they needed to find dwarves to help them out. Thus, the existence of Houses of the Kindred in most of the major cities of Dream World: they had a whole castle just outside Inquanok. The House in Baharna was small: the sea did not appeal to the Dwarves by and large, and the fact that Oriab’s main mineral export was “lava” was not much ameliorated by the beauty of the things humans carved from this cooled lava. Gold was easier had elsewhere.

Still, it served a vital function. And if it had been attacked, and its precious relics stolen, its priests possibly killed, its precincts defiles, then it was incumbent on any dwarf who came to Baharna to try to help out. Dwarves relied on each other.

Just before he turned the corner and saw for himself, Arkmar suddenly thought of Ryel. Ryel. What was she about? He ought to have lots of doubts about her too, no matter what his contacts told him. But he felt oddly sure about her. She would help him. If he asked. It would be more productive than sleeping with that slime ball. He laughed and shook his head. No, she might not see it that way.

In any case, he would not ask for help.

And there is was, before him: the House desecrated, its nearest window burst outwards, the corpse of a dwarf priest on the pavement outside, and the horrible stench hovering around the large and disturbingly decorated manhole cover in the middle of the empty street. He had thought the stench horrible two blocks away. He had forgotten, apparently, what horrible really meant within the stench community.

Arkmar cast aside his doubts, set his jaw, straightened his steel cap and headed for the House.

“So what shall we talk about?” asked Thaeron. “Who is the best thief in Dream World?”

“Are you neglecting to claim the Waking World for a reason?” replied Ryel. “Perhaps in your waking life, you are a scribe, or a functionary of some sort, or possibly an accountant?”

“Who says I have a waking life?”

“Who says I’m curious? So this heist at the Dwarf House.”

“I had nothing to do with it, really,” he replied. “It wasn’t a heist even, really, more of an armed incursion. Not the work of a thief in the true sense. But let’s not talk about that, shall we? I merely made use of it as a diversion.”

“All right,” said Ryel, “let’s talk about what does matter to you. 1. You. End of list.”

“If you’re asking, I will tell you, my dear. I care about two things, not one. I care about my craft, and I care about making love to women, which is my other craft.”

“Your other craft.”

“Laugh if you like. You know it’s true. I work just as hard to be the best at the one as at the other. And here, in Baharna in, oh, whatever year it is today, the one means that object in the floor design in the criminal court, and the other means Ryel the Elf Maiden.”

“You want to steal the thing under the glass, and you want to get into my pants,” said Ryel. “Well, I can tell you which one is easier, but maybe I should make the second one as hard as the first one so you’ll appreciate it when, if ever, I fuck the afterlife out of you.”

“My dear Ryel, you don’t have to work hard to make it hard.”

“Oh, ha ha. I suppose you call that flirtation. Men like you. I do hope you don’t think I find your overconfidence arousing.”

“A challenge, my love. Two challenges: the more difficult the better. Yes, my dear, please do all you can to make it hard.”

“So tell me, what makes you want that thing under the glass in the court house?”

“Oh, I have a dealer.”

“For what, bronze thingies found in difficult conditions? Do you have any idea what the thingy actually is?”

“No,” said Thaeron. “I was told to come here and look there. I was told it would fetch a good price.”

“Any particular price?”

“Of course,” said Thaeron. “We were quite specific. I won’t say any more, of course. I know you consider yourself to be in the business too, though you would never deign to apply for membership in the Guild. Why, are you now thinking of attempting the same deed? Going to offer to help me?”

“No, actually,” said Ryel, “though you were right about the first thing. I do think I ought to attempt the deed.”

“My dear, it may not be true that if I set my sights on your vagina, I will necessarily win through to that hallowed vale. I know I offer the best service in this world or several others; I know a really good orgasm is great for your health; I know you are a connoisseur; still, suit yourself. But if I set my sights on obtaining a particular item belonging to others and under guard, I will obtain that item and I won’t take long doing it. I am setting out to steal the thing we saw. I have a contract and I honor my contracts. If you also set out to steal it, before I get there, you will fail.”

Ryel thought about that for a bit. She sat smiling at her mug of dark wine. She raised that eyebrow of hers, the right one, the really limber one. She took a drink, refilled her mug and turned her eyes on Thaeron.

“I propose a wager,” she said.

“A wager! To obtain the thingy?”

“Yes,” she said. “Name your prize, and I will name mine.”

“You may name any prize you like, my dear, for I will not lose.”

“All right. Let’s say one thousand standard one-ounce pieces of iridium.”

“Iridium forsooth,” said Thaeron. “Not gold or platinum.”

“It’s more expensive,” said Ryel, “and I think it’s shinier. Your price?”

“Your pussy, one night,” said Thaeron smiling. “Dusk to dawn.”

“Deal,” said Ryel, sticking out her hand. ** when? tomorrow night?

4.

It was still only late afternoon of a sunny, muggy day when Ryel left Thaeron at the bar and headed out onto the street. She stood a few seconds in the sunlight thinking which way to go, and then the obvious occurred to her and she went in search of the House of the Iron Kindred.

Ryel’s mind was working a mile a minute, but it was oddly calm at the same time. She didn’t trust it, this calm in her thinking. She figured the capture of the third of the mysterious Pieces, the bronze thingy under glass at the court house, was well in hand, and still her elvish brain picked over the surfaces and nooks of the plan for flaws and snags. At least she could rely on Thaeron: he was so untrustworthy as to be predictable. She turned her mind to the other things she needed to accomplish tonight.

Ryel came around a corner, just as Arkmar had, and saw the House before her. The scene was no less messy now than it had been, though the spell had dissipated.

“Elbereth,” she said. “This place wasn’t robbed, it was attacked.”

She crossed the plaza and knelt by the fallen priest. She wasn’t ever sure about dwarf gender, but she guessed this was actually the rare female: its beard was short, thin and rather uniform. The wounds were nasty, varying from long jagged cuts to fat punctures to big bites taken out. They stank and the corpse was rotting rather more thoroughly than one might have expected.

Ryel looked up. In the open door of the House stood a dwarf, glowering at her as if she had done the deed. She did not have to read his mind to read his mind. She rolled her eyes one last time out of his sight, and then turned, putting all her attitude in a little box, and started over toward the house. She brushed her pants off and took it slow, walking as if weary or saddened. She didn’t have to fake that.

The dwarf priest standing scowling in the door did nothing beyond scowling in the door as she approached. Finally, she was within ten feet, and she stopped. Looking partway up but not daring to meet his eyes, she said, “I offer my sympathies, holy one.”

The priest frowned on. She raised her eyes to his.

“Holy one,” she said, “is that the proper way to address you? I wish to do whatever does not offend you, father.” He still frowned. She could just tell he was actually alive, and not a mannequin or a dwarffequin. “Believe it or not,” she went on, “I have a friend who is a dwarf and I think he came here. I wonder if he is still here, or what. May it please you—?”

It was unlikely anything much pleased the dwarf priest just now, and Ryel understood that. But after a few more seconds of disdain, he raised his eyebrows as if in surrender, stepped forward, put his hands in front of him palms together, and bowed slightly. “You are Ryel,” he said. “The Elf Archer.”

“I am.”

“Your friend is Arkmar the Bald.”

She suppressed a smirk. “Yes. He is. I take it he has been here.”

“He has been, and he has gone. But he told us you might come to seek him.”

“And what did he tell you to tell me?”

“He told us to tell you to mind your own business.” The dwarf priest did not blink or show any expression.

I will mind what I consider my business to be, she thought, but she said, “Your House was attacked from Beneath.” She was studying the dwarf’s face, almost entirely covered by beard or nose. He moved his head slightly in a way that seemed like agreement. “And I am going to go way out on a limb and say it was ghasts.”

“You know of these creatures. You have fought them?”

“Yes, actually, though never in their native habitat. They stole something from you, I am told.” Again the barely perceptible nod. “They got away back to their home territory with your loot.”

“That is not a term we like to use in this regard.”

“I take it back. My apologies: please allow me to rephrase my statement. The ghasts escaped to the Beneath with what they stole from you. Well, even I know that cannot be borne. So you arranged a party to pursue them, retrieve the treasures, exact revenge. They cannot be seen to profit or even to survive such an audacious assault on the House of the Iron Kindred.”

The priest bowed slightly. “What you say, Elf, shows that you understand at least the basics of Dwarvish thinking. I honor you.”

“Well, thank you. Am I right? Did Arkmar go with them?”

“But you fire wide of the mark, Ryel,” said the dwarf priest. “We were ten priests in this House, and three servants and three young ones. We fought them room to room. Many were the slain of their warriors, but they are terrible fighters and they bear no weapons for their teeth and claws are so fell. There were a hundred of them, if not a hundred and twenty. Of the sixteen of us that I counted, only I and four others survive. And we need four, at the very least, to conduct the necessary rites. And the fifth is a child. We could not pursue the attackers when they fled. And we could not hire mercenaries or call upon the City Guard; even if they were willing to take on this fight, the Kindred must right its own wrongs. Elves feel this as well, do they not?”

“It’s complicated,” Ryel said. “So Arkmar?”

“He went alone. He would not be gainsaid.”

Ryel turned away from the priest and said to herself, “Arkwad, you dope.”

Ryel stood there thinking things through. She couldn’t tell the dwarf priest that she, a mere elf maiden, was going to try and save the bacon of one of the Iron Kindred on quest to recover stolen relics of the Dwarves. Durin’s folk could be so persnickety about stuff like that. It didn’t even matter that the priest might have no relation to or knowledge of Durin the Deathless. Durin the Deathless was not even Deathless of course; he had died on a number of occasions.

And because she could not dishonor the House, or the Kindred, or Arkmar, or something or other, by offering to help (she, a mere elf maiden), she also could not go opening that disturbingly decorated manhole and jumping in. The priest would know what she was about and it would be a Dishonor that Could Not be Borne. What the priest would do in such a situation Ryel had no idea, but she was sure there was some absolutely necessary course of action, even at, or preferably at, the risk of losing his own life, Arkmar’s life and, well, the heck with Ryel’s life, it didn’t count for that much anyway.

So she gave him just one sympathetic over the shoulder smile and headed off down a side street. A few blocks away, she found an armorer, not a dwarf but a burly human of the local stock, not a dreamer but perhaps the great great great grandchild of dreamers. She bought a few things: a decent helmet, some heavy rope with a couple of nice hefty block and tackle sets, and half a dozen very special arrows, tipped with a film of silver. Ghasts loved gold like they loved blood. But silver, not so much. Perhaps they were evolutionarily related to werewolves.

“You going someplace dangerous,” observed the human armorer.

“Isn’t everyone who comes in here?”

“You going Beneath,” he said. “You need good sword.”

“Okay,” said Ryel, knowing that he was just trying to make a sale, but knowing also that he was right. “What sort of good sword do you think I need?”

“One like this,” said the armorer. He turned around and pulled a long, closed box off the top shelf. “Lookie.” He set it down on the table he used for a sales counter and, with a mild flourish, pulled the top off.

Ryel looked in. She allowed herself to go oooh. “May I?” she asked. He smiled and gestured to go ahead. She took it out, her left hand on the hilt, her right hand near the tip. She held it up, then swished it with her left hand, then flipped it in the air to her right and made a theatrical thrust. It was surely very pretty, but it seemed a bit precious. “Nice balance,” she said. “Nice weight. But it doesn’t seem—how shall I say this?”

“Give,” he said. She gave. He took the handle in his left hand, then switched it to his right with the slightest of flips. Then he raised it over his head and brought it down on the box, which shattered into kindling. “Don’t need box if you buy sword,” he said, grinning.

“No, you don’t need the box,” she said. “How much?”

“Five hundred gold.”

“Five hundred? You joke. One hundred.”

“Four.”

“Let’s just settle at three and call it quits,” said Ryel. “I hope you don’t think I carry three hundred gold pieces with me at all times. How’s your gem assessment skills?”

“Show.” Ryel pulled out a nice big ruby she had taken from someone she had killed who had deserved it. But by the same token, Ryel was not terribly attached to the thing. The big guy held it to the light, laughed and shook his head. “One hundred, three hundred, five hundred, who knows?” he said. “I can tell folk is five hundred. Is a deal.”

“Excellent,” said Ryel, taking the sword. “No need for a scabbard, I’ll be using it straight away. Any good entrances to Beneath around here?”

“Sure. Down my back stairs.”

“Really?”

“Oh yah. Get plenty customer come up that way. Come, elf girlie!”

5.

Ryel followed the armorer human back behind his table and into his back room, full of arms and armor in half repair and tools of all sorts. There were at least three hot little fires going, two of them maintaining molten metal in pots. She could have spent hours poking around in there. Instead, she followed him on through a sort of kitchen and down steps that looked carven from the native igneous rock. At the bottom there was a large landing, a square stone-walled room with a low stone ceiling and a single large well-built and well-bolted door. The armorer peeked through a peep hole, then flipped the deadbolt and pulled the door open. Beyond, a stairway that looked like it had been carved out of rock by drunks with pickaxes wound steeply and crookedly down into a darkness that could properly be described as Stygian.

“Bell,” he said pointing to a cute little steel bell on a bit of rope, hanging from a prong driven into the rock next to the door. “Ring ring ring. Three little rings. I will hear and come.”

“You can hear this?”

“Sure,” he said. “High end hearing not affected too much yet.”

“And the ghasts and gugs and stuff?”

“Gugs not fit in passage to here. Ghasts—they hate bell.”

“Oh kay,” said Ryel. “Well, thanks. If I come back alive, I’ll have a dwarf with me. Maybe I’ll buy him something.”

The drunken steps wound down into the rock. Ryel paused a moment and rummaged in her bag, coming up with a bit of stick she’d once picked up in Mirkwood and polished to the point of its mother no longer recognizing her own stick child. It was about six inches long and, archer though Ryel was and archer for life, she had a few things she’d learned to do with it, back there in jolly old Mirkwood. She held it out and wiggled it a bit in the black thick air, and it took on a slight glow. In about fifteen seconds it was bright enough she could see the drunken stairway’s walls, staggering away into the rock.

The steps spiraled downward steeply, sometimes winding to the left a bit but mostly bending right, counterclockwise. The ceiling was never far above Ryel’s head, and sometimes lowered to the point that she had to crouch as she walked downward. She hated it and said so, several times, to herself. It grew warm and stinky. She took off her hat and stowed it in her back pack, then she opened her shirt a few buttons and rolled up her sleeves. She had never gotten around to buying a new jacket: she certainly didn’t need it here. The turning and twisting, the hot moist thick stench, the steep descent: Ryel began to get dizzy.

Then without warning she was out in the open, sort of. The steps, which had been stumbling downward through the rock they were carved from, suddenly staggered right through the ceiling of a large open volume of space. Ryel was six steps down and trying to keep up with a tight turn when she realized that there was no wall on her left: she shrank back to sit on the steps behind her. Looking out and around, she could see distant fires here and there, as if she were on the pass over the Misty Mountains at night, looking east over the upper Anduin valley. But whereas there the lights would be those of little cabins and villages, or possibly the cabins and villages themselves if the goblins had set fire to them, here they were probably ghouls keeping the ghasts at bay.

“I’m not liking this little trip at all,” she said out loud. “I do believe this is the worst vacation I’ve ever been on. Arkwad had better still be alive down there or I’m going to be very pissed off.”

She took several deep breaths, then started on down again, now steadily spiraling around a crooked pillar of rock. In a hundred more steps she reached a wide table of rock, through which the steps kept on going. She stepped out onto the table and walked the ten or twelve paces to the nearest edge: yep, it’s a long way down. She took several deep breaths. She smiled and sighed as if she were in a pine wood in the spring.

“Definitely,” Ryel said to herself. “Definitely not liking this at all.”

Suitably reminded of the value of gradual descent, she returned to the stairway and resumed her downward course. In another two hundred steps she came out on another table, and took another short rest. The steps on this last set had been in rough shape: chipped, cracked, some of them worn down to little bits of ramp, and many of them slippery with Ryel didn’t want to know what. She was getting near the bottom, where things could reach that did not have the stamina or the cleverness to go far up this crazy stairway to heaven. For instance, dholes: they were known to be slimy, although they were not actually known for certain to be anything else besides large and frightful.

Ryel hurried on, and soon found an even faster way to get to the bottom of things: one of the steps was chopped off at a diagonal, and slimed, and the next one was plain missing, and the next several were worn badly and covered with a thick coat of something that, one hoped actually, was snot of some kind. She slipped, she flailed a bit, and then she was flying off the steps and into space. She was plummeting. She experienced about two seconds of free fall and then it ended with a plop.

“Eww,” said Ryel. “It’s shit. By the Valar, it really is shit.” She laughed out loud. “This is really the shit,” she said. “If you’re going to fall off a stairway spiraling into the Abyss, this is just the shit you want to fall into.” She laughed some more, climbing out of what was in fact a pile of manure about four feet high and at least ten feet across.

She shuddered. She was thinking, even though she had hoped she wouldn’t: her big, fast brain just couldn’t help itself. She was thinking of the creature that would have left that.
Then she was swinging her sword, her newly acquired sword, around in a swift flat arc. The ghast that led the attack on her was decapitated: its head hit the next one in the head and knocked him out. Ryel leapt up in the air over the next three and came down swinging at two more behind them: two more heads bounced away.

The three now past her turned to the attack. They were more careful, playing for time in a way that made Ryel wonder. So she fought them listening: yes, there were sounds of creeping behind her. The ground below them was both slippery and crunchy: it was, in fact, made up of bones perhaps fathoms deep. Back and forth the elf danced with the three ghasts, until she was sure at least two more were about to attack from behind: then she drove at the one on her left and slew him, slicing him into several pieces, and leapt over the other two, sheathing the sword informally in her belt. Before they could turn to attack again, she rolled and came up firing her bow, putting an arrow in the big open mouth of one, then an arrow in the neck of the other.

She pulled out her sword again. Four more ghasts advanced warily.

A ripple in the bones behind them drew Ryel’s attention. “Look out behind you, you dopes,” she said in the common tongue of the Abyss. They smirked, to the extent that they could with mouths so large and with such tusks.

Whatever dholes are, Ryel learned, they have toothy tongue-like appendages that they can stick up above the bones, and they have a taste for ghast. This one continued its course as it made its meal, and headed straight for Ryel. She leapt up into the air, wondering if she would clear it.

At her highest point, however, she was seized somewhat gently under the armpits. “What the—?” she said, in Sindarin. The paws that held her tickled her as unseen wings bore her upward. “Damn it,” she said, “nightgaunt. Arkwad, this is going to cost you.”

Ryel allowed herself to be carried away from the scene of the dhole’s feeding. Allowed: that was the way she described it to herself. The nightgaunt at first swooped almost horizontally, but presently it began beating its huge membranous wings to raise it and its cargo higher off the bony ground. Ryel was fairly sure she did not want to go higher.

Was the nightgaunt an animal? If so, what sort? Should she try the language group of birds? Of giant insects? Of faceless creatures of the nighted abyss? They hang with ghouls: she could try the ghoulish language, if she knew it. Ghouls are not really human, but they aren’t animals either. So—?

“Hey up there,” she tried in the talk of the giant eagles. Nothing. What the heck, let’s try insects: still nothing. She tried meeping, which she knew was what the ghouls did when they spoke, but she couldn’t think how to say anything with her meeping other than Good evening, do you have any change for a gold piece?

So she tried that. It didn’t exactly work, but it did something.

The nightgaunt suddenly changed its course. It stopped ascending, and banked to the left. Its tickling hold tightened to a comforting grip on Ryel’s upper arms. Ryel was no musclebound specimen, any more than any other elf maiden would be, but she was a particularly well practiced archer and she had the shoulder and arm muscles to prove it. She could hang with this guy for hours if need be, although hours from now who knew where they would find themselves or how far they would have gotten from that stupid dwarf.

Why were dwarves so easy to manipulate? But then she was the one who was being carried by a huge and mostly mindless flying creature a few dozen feet above the bony carpet of the great Abyss. If Arkmar was being manipulated, then what was Ryel being?

“Good evening,” she said to the nightgaunt, “do you have change for a dwarf? You’re a very good thingy, aren’t you?”

The nightgaunt adjusted its flight again: now it dropped a little more and seemed to sway left and right as it passed over the hills of bones. Ryel tried to concentrate, to differentiate shapes in the dark. Did the ghasts have some sort of city or stronghold? Was he imprisoned, or hanging from a gibbet where she could at least see him?

Then among the many sounds of the Abyss, crashes and screams and huge rustlings and cries of deadly despair and the calls of demonic things, she heard something that got her a little excited.

“Good evening,” Ryel said to the nightgaunt in words of ghoulish she was remembering as she spoke them. “Do you have change for a sounds of battle?”

The creature turned and headed straight for the nearest sounds of battle. And there, now she could just about see it, there was a boulder perhaps three times her height and just as wide, and something was producing sounds of battle from the top of it while other things milled and crashed around its base like sickly surf.

“Okay, lower,” she said in Sindarin. “Good evening,” she said again to the faceless flying tickler carrying her. “Sounds of battle, not actual battle? Ergh,” she went on, switching to the common tongue, “just don’t drop me. Okay?”

Ryel adjusted, and the thing carrying her adjusted to her adjustment. She managed to get her bow ready, and then she managed to get an arrow out and put it on the bow. “Lower,” she said, “a bit lower,” trying to pretend it understood what she was saying.
Yep. Definitely someone standing on the rock, silhouetted against the glow behind. Oh yes. Definitely flying creatures attacking it: not faceless, but rather covered in horns and with swinging, barbed, no doubt venomous tails.

“Hey Arkwad,” she cried out. “Get ready?” Then with a fwang she loosed an arrow and it took one flying demon in the back of the head. It cursed and spiraled down to land among the mob of ghasts threatening the rock from below. “Good shot, Ryel,” said Ryel, readying another arrow. Fwang! Another flying demon came crashing down. The ghasts seemed to be tearing up the crashed demons: eating them was one thing Ryel had never even considered.

Now she was in close. She shouldered her bow, and said, “Good evening, please not to drop me please.” In response the nightgaunt dropped a few more feet and took her in flat at rock top level. The third flying demon came at her, but it had no strategy, and she had this nifty sword. A swing and a slash that chopped its horrid head in half. A fourth demon was just stooping upon Arkmar, who was wielding his own sword to great effect: swinging it back and forth in a lovely weave, he suddenly was up under its guard and its arm went skittering off into the crowd. As it flew past him screaming, his weaving blade took off that barbed tail. Then he turned in shock to the approaching apparition.

“Grab my feet,” she shouted. “Grab! Grab!” And grab he did. “Up! Good evening, I would like to try the up,” she said to the creature, and up it climbed into the thick air, easily carrying Ryel and the dwarf who clung to her ankles and knees up, up away from the disappointed ghasts.

6.

In the event, the nightgaunt did no more for the elf and the dwarf than to carry them off to a low peak several minutes’ flight away and dump them there fairly gently. The peak was bare rock, flat on top, covered thinly with bones and the dung of flying creatures. They landed, Ryel first, then Arkmar on top of her, and rolled apart. They sat up, both of them looking wistfully upward as the nightgaunt flew on. They were alone. But finally Ryel had a chance to share with Arkmar what she was feeling.

“You stupid stubborn ignorant stupid stone-headed stupid rock-head,” she said. “If I weren’t completely witless I would have left you down there.”

“Well, why didn’t you, you stupid elf?” replied Arkmar. “I was doing fine. I got back the Chalice and the Knife.”

“You still have them?” Arkmar got a pained look as he felt over the pockets of his leather under-coat. Then he smiled in relief as he found the shape of the Knife and then the Chalice. “Arkmar, I am going to have to see them.”

“What?”

“Honestly. The trouble I went to. I at least deserve to see them. You are going to give them back to the House, and you should, but you better show me the damn things or I am going to feel I didn’t get my money’s worth. So show me.”

“All right, all right,” said Arkmar. “Just so you have a good reason.” He pulled out of one pocket a knife, of very simple design, bronze and leather hilt, silver steel blade, hilt and blade each about six inches long. It looked like it could be used to slice hairs lengthwise. He handed it to her and she examined it, and then she handed it back to him and he handed over a surprisingly small silver steel cup with a long silvery stem. It seemed a bit smaller than a normal wine glass: Ryel was used to dwarves who drank from mugs the size of their heads. She handed it back and both items went back into their pockets. “What do you think? Satisfied?”

“I am, which is good,” said Ryel. “Because if you’d dropped them I would have had to kill you.”

“If I had dropped them,” said Arkmar, “I would have insisted on you killing me.”

Ryel got up and walked around in a circle. She sat back down. “So I don’t even know where we are,” she said. “You know what? Fuck this. Fuck this place.”

“I don’t like it any more than you do,” Arkmar started.

“Oh, I doubt that,” Ryel interrupted him. “I think I don’t like it a lot more than you don’t like it. I’m rubbish down here. I just don’t get into the whole rotting and bones vibe. Because you know what’s cool, is that if the bones are like ten feet deep and there’s like this Abyss all under Dream World so it’s like thousands of miles across, like, how many dead people does it take to make that many bones?” She laughed, then gagged. “It really makes me want to throw up a little.”

“You did good back there. I mean, considering you’re rubbish and all that.”

“Gee, thanks. I managed to talk a nightgaunt into saving our asses.”

“You managed to hang in there with a fully armored dwarf hanging from your legs. I’m surprised your knees didn’t just dislocate. I could’ve been dropping into those bones holding your feet.”

“Elvish ligaments are very strong,” she said as if it was the dullest explanation ever.

“And the shooting, I have to say, I’ve never seen that kind of shooting from someone being carried by a flying creature.” He hauled himself up with a grunt. “So where do you think? I think that way.” He pointed toward a very faintly lit area in the distance, amidst all the totally dark areas.

“Arkmar, I have no idea where we are or where we need to go. What? That way? Okay, why not? You lead. What makes you think it’s the right way, again?”

“I think I came down over there,” he explained. “There’s a sort of road down from that hatchway in the street by the House of the Kindred.”

“How sure are you it’s that way?”

“Ninety percent,” said Arkmar instantly.

“Good enough for me. Arkmar, I am going to stop whining right now until we get out, but don’t think I’m not whining on the inside.”

“You may resume whining at any point thereafter,” said Arkmar. “I will never say you didn’t have cause to complain. But I hope you at least understand my motivations.”

“Yours I get,” said Ryel. “Not so sure about mine. But, so, you’re going to have us just go down all the way back to the bones, then all the way up—?”

“Unless you have some clever way of calling one of our flying friends.”

“No, Arkmar, I don’t. So lead on.”

He stood near the top of a steep slope: the peak seemed mostly buried in bones, which were at their angle of repose already. She joined him and they gazed down looking for some clever idea to come to them. While they stood, they heard distant shrieking from above them and a few seconds later they were hit by a thin shower of broken bones and nightgaunt poop.

“Well, I suppose I might as well try this way—!” he started, setting foot downslope and lifting the other foot to follow. Immediately his downslope foot slipped out from under him and he landed on his butt on the slope and then he was off, sliding downward cursing.

“Is that how you do it?” said Ryel. “Well, I guess I should give it a try too.” She pitched herself down on her rear end and joined in Arkmar’s avalanche of bones. Several times their path flattened, they slowed down and they almost managed to stop the slide, but each time they then went over a short cliff, landed with a thud and slid on. Finally they tumbled to the bottom and lay half covered in bits of bone and turd.

“You okay? I’m not,” said Arkmar lying on his back.

“I think I broke,” Ryel started, and then she stopped herself. She sat up. “No whining.” She got up. “Come on, Dwarf. Still got the Knife and the Chalice?”

“Yes ma’am.” He sat up and rummaged in his backpack and pulled out his never-used jacket. From the left pocket he pulled a simple golden cup with a golden step, writ round with runes. From the right inside pocket came what appeared to be a folded up collection of small knives: aside from the case being wrought of mithril, it might have been from the army of a certain mountainous nation famous for skiing and neutrality.

“That’s the knife?” Ryel asked.

“That is the knife,” said Arkmar, unsure whether to laugh sheepishly or be offended.

“Let’s go,” said Ryel. “I have a bathtub calling my name.”

7.

Of the remainder of their journey their memories were fortuitously scant. Arkmar and Ryel wandered about in the bone plains in nearly total darkness for hours if not days or weeks, and finally they found wall before them with a ramp climbing up it. The wall was one face of a pillar of sorts, miles across, and the ramp wound around it several times before ending at a set of wooden ladders up several hundred feet.

“You have got to be kidding me,” said Ryel.

“It wouldn’t be very funny,” said Arkmar. “Come! No whining yet, but soon.”

Yet when they made it up the ladders and climbed up into the storm sewer, and then climbed up a very slimy iron ladder, pushed aside the hatch and climbed out onto the street in front of the House of the Iron Kindred, in the pouring rain, Ryel was too tired even to complain.

“Got to return the things,” said Arkmar. “And take part in a vigil. See you tomorrow?”

“I’ll be at the Royal Baharna Hotel,” said Ryel. “I’ll probably still be in the bath.”

Ryel managed to stumble down the stepped streets, half in a haze, in the pouring rain, and find the justly famous Royal Baharna Hotel. She mumbled her way through check-in, found her way to the second floor, took off all her clothes and, with just the briefest thought of the lost lamented jerk Glosvar (hope he’s happy with his Lothlorien princess), fell on the big bed and into slumber.

She woke up in the late afternoon, rose, still naked, peeked out the window to make sure there was a climbable tree a credible distance from it, made sure the window was open just a crack, and then went and began filling up the tub. Oh yes, Baharna had bathtubs: and this one, round and silvery, was a masterpiece. She avoided the mirror, in which she had a sneaking suspicion she would see something that reminded her of Glosvar, that jerk. For instance, her nipples, which were large considering her quite small breast size: Glosvar had praised them and lavished much attention on them. As he probably had with half a dozen of her friends, actually. That jerk.

A minute later Ryel was in the tub and the soapy water was rising, covering her body and her memories with cleansing suds. She ducked under and scrubbed out her hair, and then she scrubbed the rest of her thoroughly: that Abyss, it was just a dirty mess down there. The water got disgusting disconcertingly fast: so she drained the tub, rinsed herself off, and then filled the tub again.

Ryel lay in that masterpiece of a bathtub and closed her eyes. In a few minutes, she seemed sound asleep.

There was a very, very slight sound from the window in the bedroom. It was a lot fainter than the lapping of the water in the tub. Ryel suppressed a smile.

Hands were on her shoulders, male hands, firm and gentle. They worked her shoulders until she leaned forward a bit, her eyes still closed, and then they began working her upper back too. Ahh, those thumbs, those dancing fingers, kneading out her muscles, loosening her tensions. She was softly sighing.

The hands moved down her back, down her sides, and then the left one continued up and down her side while the right hand stole around her arm, landed on her belly, then glided up to fondle the underside of her right breast. She sighed and smiled, and leaned back, and as she found lips kissing her neck, the other hand cupped her left breast. He was expertly fondling her, and finally with a laugh she got his face to kiss her. He smelled clean and he had shaven within the past hour.

“You better be Thaeron,” said Ryel. She opened her eyes. She looked down at his hands. His left hand descended to hold her side and his right hand disappeared for a moment behind him. Then it was there again, in front of her face, holding a bronze-ish piece of tubing in the shape of a common letter F, with a curious small side cylinder, of solid silvery metal. The hand turned it left and right, letting Ryel get a good look at it. Naturally she reached for it, and naturally it was snatched away.

She turned and rose to her knees, the water at her waist. And there he was, his shirt and boots off but still in his thief pants. He held the bronze-ish piece back and up in the air. “No, no,” he said, standing up, “this is just to show that I earned my prize. I hope you don’t think I trust you.”

Ryel stood too, still in the bath. She grabbed him by the belt. “I don’t trust you either,” she said, pulling it loose, then deftly unbuttoning his thief pants. “But frankly, it’s all about the tubing,” she said huskily, pushing those loose pants down. “Mmm, no underwear. Thanks.”

“Ryel, ah,” said Thaeron, as Ryel stepped out of the tub, dripping all over him.

“Oh look,” she said, “I got you all wet. Well, fair is fair.”

“I thought,” Thaeron said as Ryel finished undressing him and paused before rising to bestow a few wet kisses below the waist, “that as I won the bet—!”

“You would get to choose the positions,” said Ryel, not yet rising nor stopping what she was doing. After a moment she looked up at him and said, “You were wrong.”

“Oh demon gods of bliss,” he muttered, or something to that effect.

Ryel rose and took him in a kiss, and then bore him back against the wall. Necking seemed like the thing to do for some minutes. Presently Ryel found herself doing things to Thaeron that were simply more comfortable in bed, and she dragged him out and threw him down on top of the sheets. She climbed on near his feet and knelt looking at him in the late twilight.

“What are you doing?” he asked, smiling.

“One cannot help pause to admire a work of art,” she said. “Before one mounts it and takes everything it has.”

“By the Gods, Ryel. Oh my.” He was lying on his back on the rug.

“Mmm, Thaeron,” said Ryel, lying on her stomach next to him, her legs stretched out.

“Aren’t you glad you lost?” he said.

“Sure,” she said. She rose up to her knees. “Glass of wine?”

“Sure.”

A minute later, they were sitting on the floor, passing the bottle and also Thaeron’s tiny smoking pipe.

“So,” said Thaeron, “where do I rank?”

“So,” said Ryel, “just curious. What did you do to get the piece?”

“Ah, well, I am not going to tell you that, but then you don’t have to tell me what you tried; it wouldn’t help me to know that, because whatever it was, it didn’t work. But you should still tell me where I rank. It’s your chance to insult me, right?”

Ryel got up on her knees. She threw one leg across Thaeron’s stretched-out legs. “You’re good,” said Ryel. She bent forward and tickled his chin. “You might be great. I don’t know. You’ll have to prove it to me.”

“You’re quite good, too, Ryel. Among Elves—!” He stopped. “Oh by the gods, Ryel.”

“Just resurrecting the dead,” said Ryel. “You knew Elves could do that.” She moved up and took several kisses, then stood up and offered him her hands. She pulled him up. They embraced, kissing passionately, almost as if they were fully clothed. Then she held him at arm’s length and looked into his green eyes. “Are you ready to prove it?”

“Evidently,” he said. They both looked down: he was right.

“Then,” said Ryel, but instead of saying more, she pushed him down on the bed again and climbed on top of him. He raised his hands to fondle her really very nice little tits, but she took them and pushed them back over his head. “Here’s how you prove it,” she said. She held down his left hand and used both her hands to tie his wrist securely to a post right behind his head. He laughed, but not nervously; the most his right hand did was threaten to be naughty. She let his hand be a little naughty, and then she pushed it down and tied it to the same post. “Now hush,” she said, and there followed the best nine minutes of Thaeron’s life, awake or in dream.

Thaeron was effectively unconscious, lying naked on his back with his hands tied to the post behind his head with a smile on his face in the candle light. Ryel sat straddling him, looking down on him with a smile of her own, still enjoying the feeling. Oh, he was good, all right, for a human. He was well practiced and in good shape physically, and quite possibly his manhood was enhanced by an herbal formula: Ryel knew a variety of those and could whip a decent one up herself with ingredients available in any market in Baharna (or any dell in eastern Mirkwood in the summer). She shifted left and right, back and forth, up and down, not quite ready to relinquish her hold on him. She bent forward and kissed his nose, then, on a whim, gave the thief a thorough smooch. No reaction. She sat back up, smirking.

Ryel sat in the saddle for one more very pleasant minute. She stretched her arms high above her head and yawned, then let her hands glide down over her breasts to her legs. Oh, he was good all right. But she was better. She had sucked away all his energies and left him in a smiling coma. She would not have been able to do that to Elladan or Elrohir or that cute younger son of King Thranduil. She would not have been able to do that to Glosvar—oh, no, he would have gone all night and looked smashing at breakfast the next morning. Jerk.

Somehow, sitting there so comfortably upon her throne, Ryel found herself thinking about how far she had diverged from her old path. What would Glosvar think if he could see her now? Ryel almost laughed out loud. How had she come to be what she was? What was she anyway? What was this job she was on? She frowned. Whatever it was, it was time to be about it.

Ryel rose up, found she had to rise a little further than she’d thought: oh, those herbal supplements, they really did work. She rose up off of her lover, swung her right leg off him and slid off to stand by the bed. She danced over to the pants he had left in the bathroom. A quick search revealed the bronze-ish thingy among the folds of one of the loose pant legs. In a pocket near it, she found a nice addition: a ruby the size of a large grape. Ryel danced back into the bedroom and slipped them both into her bag.

“That’s how I did it, honey,” she said to Thaeron, who smiled on in sleep.

Ryel dressed quickly, pulled on her boots, got her backpack on, then looked back at Thaeron, dozing in the light of a guttering candle. She thought about giving him a good night kiss, but she decided that it would be gilding the lily, and besides, he might wake up.

Then she was out the door and down the hall and down the stairs and into the lobby of the Royal Baharna Hotel. She traipsed over to the desk, where a dreamy looking young female human native of Dream World looked up. “Um, leaving?” asked the young woman.

“It was a great stay, actually,” said Ryel with a sweet smile, tossing her key to the girl from twenty feet away. “I have an early meeting.”

8.

The chant had gone six rounds, and was well into its seventh. Arkmar, not the dwarfiest of dwarves, was beginning to have his patience sorely tested. He was not sorry that he had answered the call, any more than he was, really, surprised that the elf maiden had needed to bail him out. But at this point he was sure he would never again forget why he had stopped going to the Shrine in the beardless teen years of his mid forties.

The surviving priests had no doubt survived because they were just so darn hard core.

But Arkmar had heroically brought back what the ghasts had taken. Naturally he was needed to properly restore the dignity of the shrine, and naturally they needed to honor him by allowing him to take part in the vigil. So he pushed his complaints down and pretended it was an honor.

When it was finally over, he got up to take five and noticed a dark figure at the back of the shrine, barely visible in the light of the lamps of sacred oil. With one quick backward glance at the priests, who were stretching and chatting softly, Arkmar approached the figure.

“Elf,” he whispered. “You have some nerve. That’s a compliment.”

“Thank you. You have nerve too.” Arkmar walked past Ryel and she followed him across the antechamber and out the door into the street. The first trickles of light were dripping into Baharna. “You got your stuff?”

“Ah,” said Arkmar. He went back inside and came right back out with his leather backpack. “In a hurry?”

“Oh yeah,” said Ryel. “I’ll show you why when we’re on the road out of town.”