Tag Archives: Short Story

A Most Unusual Guardian, Part Four

A Most Unusual Guardian
By Aaron Canton
—Part Four—

 

 

There was little light in the vault hallway, except for the glowing sigils carved into the walls at various intervals. The patterns on the floor tiles were almost invisible in the murkiness of the hall, and Jadie could barely make them out even when she crouched. A faint breeze blew in from a few ventilation shafts, but there was no hope of entrance or exit via those; all had fine meshes of threads across their openings that were charmed to blast alarms if even a single one was cut. There were concealed traps in the walls and the floors, more alarms set to go off every few feet if there was too much light or sound or any of a dozen other signs of intrusion, and even if Jadie made it all the way to the far end, she’d have to defeat the toughest door she’d ever gone up against: a massive metal slab with both a magical and a physical lock that had to be flipped simultaneously or the alarms would fire. And then, of course, once she dealt with Gerard, she’d have to beat every trap all over again in order to get out.

She let out a soft sigh and looked behind her at the door out of the vault. Getting onto the Renatta grounds had been as easy as scaling the fence and dodging the guard patrols, but breaking through the upper door which led down to the vault hallway had taken about thirty minutes of intermittent lock-picking mixed with ducking behind hedges so that passing guards didn’t see her. That alone would have specified this vault as one of her hardest missions yet. But this hallway was something else entirely, especially since she barely had any tools to work with, and the thought of turning around and leaving was feeling awfully attractive.

“But I have to try,” she muttered to herself, opening her backpack and setting one of her few tools—a large, heavy rock she’d stolen from a local garden—onto the ground behind her. “Violet needs me.” She took a deep breath. “Let’s go.” She took one step forward—she heard something thrum around her, some magical system gearing up as it registered her presence and began counting down the seconds until it concluded she was taking so long she must be a thief—and she nodded to herself as her ordeal began.

Her vines extended out of her sleeves and dropped to just above the ground, then swept back and forth over the tiles in front of her. The plants moved lightly, with as little pressure as Jadie could manage, but also quickly enough that they made soft swishing noises as they passed over the stones. One tile wiggled a little and Jadie yanked back that vine, hoping she hadn’t set off what was probably a pressure plate; the one next to it held firm, so Jadie pushed down harder with the vine. It remained still, which was promising, and normally Jadie would have then run another test with a heavier plant or rock—but she was on the clock and had already bled enough time on this one tile that she couldn’t waste more. So she tensed, took another deep breath, forced herself to step onto the stable tile…

And nothing happened.

But there were still many more tiles to go, and that was just in this one section.

Jadie turned, pulled the heavy stone onto the tile she’d just vacated, and swept the stones in front of her again until she found another safe one. Unfortunately, she couldn’t just test all the tiles by dropping the heavy stone on them, as that would set off alarms and summon guards; nor could she test any tile at all with the thoroughness she wanted for fear of running out of time. All she could do was control her plants as tightly as she could, sweeping over the ground in front of her without wasting a single second and rushing forward as soon as she thought she had a safe square. She made her way through the second tile, then the third, fourth, and fifth, and Jadie let herself think she might beat this first section without trouble.

Then Jadie stepped onto a plate that she’d swept, but instead of supporting her weight like she expected, it moved downwards.

There was no clearance to jump away, and if Jadie tried to just yank her leg back she’d overbalance and fall across several tiles, setting off the alarms for sure. So instead, she snapped her wrist and sent the vines back at the heavy stone one tile behind her. They wrapped around it immediately and yanked her backwards against it, securing her on the tile she knew was safe and getting her off the trapped one before the alarm went off. For a moment, she could do nothing but tense up, sure the slight pressure she’d applied to the trapped tile had set off an alarm, but nothing happened, and she realized she’d gotten off of it in time. Still, sweat was pouring off her forehead, and she wanted nothing more than to collapse somewhere and nap.

But there was no time, so she made herself keep going.

It took just a few minutes for her to reach what her architectural plans said was the end of the section, though it felt like much longer, and Jadie sighed with relief when she was done. But of course then there was the next set of tiles, and many of these had magical wards that would go off at the faintest touch of anything at all that wasn’t protected by the proper counterspells. Had Jadie been able to get the supplies she’d needed, she might have been able to carve counterfeit wands to mimic the counterspells and satisfy the wards. But of course that was impossible, and so Jadie would have to fake it. She knelt as she opened her pack, then took out a large chunk of rotting wood and focused on her magic.

And the phosphorescent moss on the wood began to glow.

Jadie had first encountered this moss back when climbing through the caves in Viscosa’s cliff wall in order to deal with Nemeroth, and she’d never wanted to return to them, but she hadn’t had any other options and so had reluctantly climbed halfway down the cliff wall to the cave entrance and then scrounged around until she’d found the moss she needed. She couldn’t use a torch, after all; the wards in this hallway would have been charmed to sense that. But she didn’t think the wards yet existed that could see if someone was holding a chunk of faintly glowing moss. And with this moss, she had a chance of seeing the warded tiles… and knowing which ones were safe and which ones weren’t.

The light of the moss wasn’t much, and some of the fine details of the tiles were still obscure, but Jadie could make out most of the sigils now and matched them to the ones described in the notes she’d stolen from the mage’s hall and hastily memorized. The first two wards she saw would, if she was recalling the notes correctly, set off a fireball, and the third would summon a ball of acid on her head, but the fourth had been listed as a ‘safe’ symbol, so Jadie stepped on it. Once more, she tensed up, but after a few seconds, no alarm had sounded, so she wiped the sweat from her forehead and continued.

Jadie worked her way through the rest of the second set of tiles in a similar fashion. The third set included physical traps again, the fourth had more magic wards, and the fifth was a combination of both types. The last set was excruciating to get through; she found scrambling to haul the rock, hold the moss, and maintain her balance difficult.  On those increasingly tiny tiles, making sure she didn’t touch even the corners of the traps and wards was even more trying. Her hands grew slippery from sweat, she frantically blinked her eyes to try to clear them so she could see what she was doing, and every step she took felt like it might be her last before the alarms sounded.

But they didn’t. Jadie made it through. And at long last, she stood directly in front of the heavy metal door—now her final obstacle to getting into the vault and setting her trap.

Smiling slightly at last, Jadie pushed her heavy rock to one side, stepped under a ventilation shaft in the hopes it would dry some of her sweat, opened her pack again, and took out a set of conventional lock picks along with a little dagger. “Almost,” she muttered. “Just one door. And it’s not like I haven’t cracked doors before.” She chuckled as she approached it and held up the moss, examining the wards carved into the surface. “This’ll all be worth it when I see the look on Gerard’s face—”

The vault door swung open, and Gerard the Fang smiled at her from inside the vault. “You mean, this look?”

Jadie’s mouth dropped. “No,” she murmured. “No, you—”

“I must say, I’m impressed,” Gerard said, stepping out of the vault door and beaming at her. “I genuinely didn’t think you’d make it through the hallway, Jadie. Especially without using a torch. You really are a talented thief. But…” He withdrew a hand from his pocket and flashed two brilliant green stones dangling from golden chains—the Renatta heirloom amulets, Jadie guessed. “You’re too late.”

Jadie glowered at him and racked her mind for what she could do next as she tried to stall. “If you already had the amulet, why were you waiting around?” she asked. “You could have just left.”

“Yes, I could have, but I wanted to watch you. Like I said, you’re supposed to be a prodigy, so I was truly curious just how far you’d get.” Gerard gestured at the vault door, which Jadie saw had a small glass dot near its top. “The vault was installed with a peephole so the family can hide inside it in an emergency and then look out to make sure any ‘rescuers’ are actually on their side and not, say, bandits. So I figured, why not stay for the show?” He smiled wide, and his teeth gleamed even in the dull light. “It turned out to be a pretty good one, I’d say.”

“Right.” Jadie let out a soft breath, still thinking furiously. “And what happens now?”

“Now? Well, let’s see.” Gerard put a hand to his chin as if thinking. “I plan on leaving, Jadie. And since killing or fighting you might trigger an alarm, you’re perfectly free to leave as well… and you’ll do so right by my side, I imagine.”

“Right by—” Jadie cut herself off. Why, she wondered, would she want to be right by his side? She didn’t trust him one bit, not since he’d proven he wasn’t the awesome, noble thief of legend she’d thought he was but was just a greedy jerk who’d steal from anyone to enrich himself. She was at the edge of the trapped tiles, which was a few feet in front of his position by the vault door, and she had every intention of maintaining that distance as she worked her way out. The only reason she’d want to be near him would be—

Would be if she were going to pickpocket Gerard on the way out.

Then it hit her. Gerard thought he was in a competition with her, where the winner would be the one who walked out of the vault with the amulets. He assumed Jadie, at heart, was just like him: he only cared about possessing the amulets and so assumed that was all Jadie wanted too. But Jadie didn’t want the amulets for herself. She just wanted to get Violet’s back and return it to its proper owner, preferably without getting arrested in the process. That was it.

Jadie couldn’t beat him; he was too good of a thief. But that was all right. She didn’t actually need to win. She just had to make sure Gerard lost.

And that, Jadie realized, would be one of the easiest jobs she’d ever had.

The young thief stepped up to the veteran and dropped her hands to her sides, holding them loosely and flexibly as if getting ready to grab at his pockets. Gerard grinned and tossed a mocking salute at her before stepping onto the first safe tile. She followed, watching him draw his hidden dagger and tilt it so he could see her reflection in it. He was looking at her hands and sleeves, she saw, presumably so no matter how she grabbed at him, he’d know and be able to react.

So she didn’t grab at him.

She instead thrust out with her vines, had them grab the heavy stone behind her, and then hurled it onto one of the alarmed tiles.

A magical caterwaul blasted through the tunnel, and the light wards turned an ugly red. Gerard’s mouth dropped, and for one precious moment, he was frozen in shock. “You—they’ll catch us both! They—”

Jadie leapt up onto his shoulders, then jumped up again and grasped the lip of a ventilation shaft. She swung herself up and into it, ignoring that she was ripping through the alarm threads as all the alarms were already going off anyways. The shaft was tight enough that she could jam her feet against one wall and her back against another, and as soon as she’d caught herself and made sure she wouldn’t fall, she spider-walked up the passage—but only for a few feet. Then she urged one vine out of her sleeve, split several strands off with her dagger, and let them drop to form a lattice over the shaft opening that looked pretty much like the threads which had been there before.

And then she waited, because she had to hear what happened next.

Heavy, clanking footsteps sounded from the vault entrance a moment later, and she heard men shouting as they entered the room. A reedy voice yelled several words in a language Jadie didn’t know, presumably the spell to turn off all the wards so the guards could get through without killing themselves, and then a man in a much rougher voice screamed something Jadie understood perfectly well. “You! Get down on the ground! You are under arrest!”

Jadie wondered idly if Gerard had guessed that she might run for the vents. If he had, she knew, he’d have thought she’d try to get the amulets before fleeing—but of course if Gerard didn’t have the amulets on him when he was caught, the grounds would be sealed like a drum and searched top-to-bottom until the precious necklaces turned up. Jadie would surely be caught under those circumstances, so she wouldn’t have tried to escape that way, so Gerard had probably dismissed any concerns he’d had about her trying for the vents. But of course if she went for them without the amulets…

That was a whole different story.

Down below she heard the sound of fabric ripping, and then a shout from a guard. “Found the amulets! Both of them!”

“So my daughter didn’t lose hers,” came Baron Renatta’s furious growl. “It was stolen.” He let out a dark chuckle. “Those were gifts of the king, thief. Do you have any idea what the punishment for stealing them will be?”

“I didn’t act alone,” said Gerard in a calm voice. “My partner crawled into that vent. Check it and you’ll find her.”

“The vents are all sealed with their alarm threads,” rejoined a guard. “Nice try—we won’t let you distract us. Now come on; we’ve got a trip to the jail ahead of us.”

There was silence, and then Jadie heard Gerard give a resigned sigh. “Very well,” he said at last. “Congratulations. You’ve caught Gerard the Fang.”

The Gerard the Fang?” repeated the guard. “Stopped by… a simple wardstone?” He snorted. “I guess you’re not as good as the legends say.”

A thin chuckle drifted through the air, and Jadie shuddered when she heard it. “Believe that if you want,” Gerard said. “I’ll be out soon enough to show you all otherwise.” His voice rose. “But know this. I have been a thief for approximately forty years. I have been caught one dozen times and put in jail for a combined sentence of about nine hundred and eighty years. On average, I have only served ten days before breaking out. My shortest consecutive stay in jail was a day and a half; my longest, six months. I will escape soon. And when I do… I will find the person who put me there.”

Jadie sighed to herself as the guards hauled Gerard away below. So she had a rival now, she thought, and hers was determined to bring her down as soon as he got out of jail. That was just great. But at least for the moment she was safe, and Violet would get her amulet back, and she’d also punished Gerard for what he’d done—his formerly unblemished reputation now had a major stain upon it. She could almost imagine his face when he heard stories of how he’d stupidly blundered onto a wardstone and gotten arrested. That, she thought, was a humiliation he well deserved.

Jadie smiled to herself, savoring the thought for a moment longer, and then resumed climbing out of the shaft.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The vent opened onto the grounds, and Jadie glanced around and verified nobody was around before hauling herself up. Now all she had to do, she thought, was—

“Thank you, Miss Candy Person!”

Jadie swiveled to see Violet standing up from behind a nearby bush. The little girl smiled bashfully at her but said nothing, so Jadie asked, “How did you know where I’d be?”

“Sometimes I see things.” Violet blushed and began to rend her nightdress in her hands. “I can’t explain it. But I saw you’d be here and that you’d help get my amulet back.” She paused. “And I saw—I saw that you had powers too. Do you? Can you show me?”

So Violet had a little bit of magic, Jadie thought, and furthermore the girl probably had no one to share her talents with. Jadie glanced around to make sure there were no guards, then nodded and coaxed a vine—the uninjured one—to slip out of her sleeve and rise in front of Violet. The little girl’s mouth dropped as the vine waved in front of her. “Wow!” said Violet. “That’s so cool!”

“I try.” Jadie smiled at her. “Your amulet’s back—now the king’ll know you didn’t lose his gift. Do you need anything else?”

Violet shook her head. “Thank you so much,” she said. “You’re a really nice candy salesgirl. And, um…” She hesitated. “I saw that you’re leaving town, but if you’re ever back and I see something that might help you, I’ll try to let you know. Is that okay?”

Given she now had a personal enemy who would shortly go after her, Jadie figured she’d need all the help she could get. “I’d like that,” she said. “Thank you, Violet.”

The little girl beamed.

“Now…” Jadie looked around. The grounds were big, and she wasn’t quite sure of the way out. “Ah…”

“There’s almost no guards on the east side,” said Violet, eyes twinkling. “I know ‘cause that’s how I sneak out when dad chastises me and I wanna go out anyways.”

Jadie giggled, and Violet laughed as well. Then the thief said goodbye to the little girl one last time, waved, and rushed away, heading for the walls of the Renatta property and the city beyond.

A Most Unusual Guardian, Part Three

A Most Unusual Guardian
By Aaron Canton
—Part Three—

 

 

Architecture firms; vendors of building supplies—wood, metal, hired men to dig and build; government offices where zoning and building permissions were handled, filed in triplicate, and then buried in a maze of paperwork; mage halls containing magic-trained mercenaries prepared to serve in whatever capacity their mystical arts could assist with; restaurants, cafés, and the seediest of pubs where said mages congregated after work; more firms, more vendors, more offices…

It was nearly midnight by the time Jadie dragged herself to the little inn she’d decided would be her new base of operations. Her room at the Stately Lady was too obvious and ostentatious; Gerard might know of it already. So she instead removed the flower from her hair, wrapped herself in a cloak and hood, and checked herself into a quiet room in the Flaming Pitch just outside Viscosa’s walls. There, she thought, she could go over what she knew and suspected about Renatta’s vault so she could work on her plan.

The broad strokes were simple: Gerard had the amulet, and Jadie wanted it. She didn’t know where he was, where he was staying, or what safe houses he might have—but she knew he’d break into the vault soon so as to steal the second amulet. She just had to get into it first, wait for him, then get around him and lock him inside the vault before fleeing and tipping off Renatta that a thief was around. Then Renatta could have Gerard arrested and interrogated until he gave up the location of the first amulet—or until he simply dropped it, if he had it on him. And then Violet would be happy again, and Jadie could go to Warus with a clear conscience.

Actually getting into the vault was another matter entirely. Jadie had found the mages, architects, and builders who had set up Renatta’s new treasury. Although she’d convinced them to tell her much of what they’d done—and burgled their offices to look at the detailed schematics—so far all that was accomplished seemed to intimidate her. The vault was a new basement structure next to the Renatta mansion consisting of one room set at the far end of a long, narrow hallway. That corridor was an absolute nightmare to get through without knowledge of the “safe” path. There were sections with physical traps that would launch arrows dipped in paralyzing powders or simply drop the intruder into a pit while sounding an array of magical alarms, followed by sections full of wards that would wreck any intruder. Some of the trapped sections were even timed, with spells set to go off if a visitor stepped on the entrance ward but didn’t reach the exit one in time (presumably on the basis that an intruder would be more hesitant and take longer than someone who actually knew the route). One could make their way through easily by knowing the right path, the flagstones to step on and those to avoid… but of course that was the one thing she hadn’t been able to finagle out of those who had built the vault.

Yes, she had her plant magic, and she was a pretty good thief besides, but this was the hardest mission she’d ever tried to crack by far. She didn’t even know if her instructors could manage it, much less her.

But if she was having trouble, she decided, Gerard might be having more—after all, however talented he was, he didn’t have her plant magic. And besides, he was arrogant enough that he might wait a few days for the baron to bolster security before making his run for the amulet. So Jadie probably had time. She could get local supplies, write to Westwick and have them send her some resources, do more scouting, maybe find some former employees of the baron’s who could be persuaded to talk—

She entered her room while deep in thought, saw the pile of gold sitting on the table, and swiveled just in time to see Gerard the Fang walk into the room behind her. “Jadie Rivers,” Gerard said, eyes twinkling. “Your ten percent.”

“What?” Jadie asked after a few moments of reeling from shock. “What ten percent?”

Gerard shut the door behind him and bowed slightly. “From the little job we did earlier. You were gone when I got back to your vantage point on the street, and you didn’t seem to be coming back to your room at the Stately Lady, so I took the liberty of giving it to you here. The amulet was already valuated by my client, so I figured I could take care of the payment here and now.” His mouth curved upwards into a smile. “After all, good help deserves to be paid promptly—and you were superlative, Jadie. Well done.”

Jadie took a deep breath to clear her mind enough to work out what to say next. “How did you find me?” she demanded at last.

Gerard clicked his tongue. “Surely you were taught the easiest way to follow someone is to simply figure out where they’re going and beat them there? I know how the thieves guild trains its students to look for hide-outs—places outside the center of town and away from guards, places frequented by day laborers and short-term guests where they won’t be noticed, places with solid walls so the rooms are defensible if an enemy does manage to track you down… really, when you think about it, this was the most suitable place by a mile according to all the rules you know. So I chatted with the clerk, paid to assign you this room when you arrived, and waited for you to show up.”

Jadie flushed in embarrassment. “Then why wait around?” she asked. “You could have just left the gold. I’d have figured out where it came from.”

“Well, when someone does a job for me and takes off before I can pay them, it makes me curious.” Gerard raised an eyebrow. “Something wrong?”

She knew she could try to bluff or lie, but Jadie had a feeling that wouldn’t work on Gerard the Fang. And besides, Jadie thought, he needed to know she hated what he’d done to Violet. She was representing the Westwick Thieves Guild, after all. He had to know they wouldn’t tolerate this.

“You robbed a child,” she said at last. “I thought you were going after the father. I mean, he totally deserves it. But you stole from the girl.” She clenched a fist. “You hurt her, and she didn’t deserve it. She’s just a kid.”

Gerard looked at Jadie for a long moment before a smile slipped across his face. “Really?” he said. “A thief with scruples? What are they teaching at your guild?”

“That we have a responsibility to others,” growled Jadie. “That because we take, we also have to give back; protect; look out for innocents.” Her eyes narrowed. “What client was so important that you robbed the girl instead of anyone else in this city?”

“A Warus warlord,” said Gerard easily. “The trinket I took was a gift from the king signifying his favor. A lot of warlords would like such a jewel that indicates they’ve earned the favor of the king of Raleigh. It tends to… help one’s negotiating position.”

“The king obviously didn’t give the amulet to a warlord!” insisted Jadie. “Somebody will tell the king—”

Gerard chuckled. “Really? Would you? Knowing there was a chance, however faint, the king really had given the amulet to that warlord and he might interpret your comment that he could never have done such a thing as calling him stupid for making that decision?” He shook his head. “Nobody will challenge it. My client will enjoy a very nice advantage in the trade negotiations. And I, of course, had the satisfaction of putting one over on Baron Renatta, who was so crude as to boast at a dinner party last month that thanks to his new vault, nobody could rob him—which I took as a personal challenge. Of course, catching him napping outside the vault is no big deal… so I’ll have to crack the vault itself later. Just to show I can.”

Jadie didn’t respond for a long moment. She had to get rid of him, she thought, so she could work out her plan to break into the vault. If she got all her supplies quickly enough, she could probably do it within a few days; maybe she could scare him into laying low until then. “I’ll report you to the Westwick Thieves Guild,” she said at last. “They’ll stop you.”

“I would be honored if they tried,” said Gerard lightly. “It’s been too long since I’ve had a proper nemesis. The last one was… almost three years ago, I think. I almost wish I hadn’t dropped him into that cursed tomb; he made things fun.” He shrugged. “But that’s for the future. Will you tell your guild about me before or after you try to break into the vault yourself and steal my prize?”

Jadie’s mouth dropped. “What—”

“My dear Jadie, I’m just as capable of finding out who Renatta hired to build his vault as you are. I talked to a few key apprentice mages and assistant architects when I arrived in town, told them to let me know if anybody odd questioned their masters. And you would not believe the reports they sent me today.” His eyes gleamed. “You want to hit the vault before me so you can get the second amulet for yourself. Come on, Jadie. We’re both thieves. You can protest about robbing kids all you want; we both know we both want the same things.”

That wasn’t true, Jadie thought—she didn’t want the amulet; she just wanted to stop Gerard. But if he’d finally made a mistake about her, she wasn’t going to tell him. “Yeah,” she insisted. “I do. And I’ll get it too.”

Gerard chuckled. “Jadie. I do respect your abilities, and in ten years or so you may be one of the best thieves in Raleigh. But right now, Renatta’s vault is… quite simply, it’s out of your league. I myself may have some difficulty. A novice like you? No chance.” He held up a hand. “As a professional courtesy, from one thief to another—you aren’t ready for this.”

There was no hint of deception in his voice that Jadie could make out—he meant it. And he was probably right too, Jadie knew. But she couldn’t stop; Violet needed her. “Guess we’ll see soon enough.”

“We certainly will,” said Gerard. “Tonight, in fact.”  Jadie couldn’t stop her mouth from dropping, and Gerard’s eyes twinkled. “Yes, Jadie. Tonight. In and out by sunrise. Exactly at sunrise, in fact, because that’s when a silver caravan passes by the Renatta mansion, and I figure I might as well nab that too while I’m here. What, were you thinking I’d need a few days to get ready?” He turned towards the door, but then looked back at her and shot a grin over his shoulder. “Sorry, Jadie, but that’s the difference between a talented amateur and a pro like me. So if you’re really dead-set on trying this, then… well, good luck. You’ll need it.”

When he reached for the door, Jadie grasped at her vines and sent them at him in pure desperation—but his eyes flicked down to the reflective brass of the doorknob, where the vines were dimly reflected, and he easily spun to the side and dodged. “Really?” he asked as Jadie’s vines retracted. “That’s it?” And then he slipped out the door before Jadie could attack him again.

Jadie waited until his footsteps had faded away before slamming the door shut and locking it. Then she sank to the ground, putting her head in her hands. “Now what?” she muttered. “I have to get into the vault tonight? I don’t have supplies, tools, help from Westwick—what am I supposed to do?” She thought of her mission, the crucial job she had to do in Warus. Maybe, she thought, she really should give up and lie low until it was time for her to leave.

But then she thought of Violet, with her red cheeks and tear-streaked face. And she thought of Gerard’s smug face, his glib dismissal that anything mattered besides seizing goods from whoever had them. She couldn’t let that stand. She had to do something.

After all, if she did otherwise—if she took from others but did nothing to help those who needed it—was she really all that much better than Gerard?

After a long moment, she pushed herself to her feet, then went to a counter and spread out the plans stashed in her pack. If she had to get into the vault tonight, then she would. That was all there was to it.

A Most Unusual Guardian, Part Two

A Most Unusual Guardian
By Aaron Canton
—Part Two—

 

 

“Sweets!” Jadie yelled, waving green and purple frosted candies at the crowds in the busy street. “Frosted, freshly baked sweets! Perfect for boys and girls of all ages!”

A few passersby turned to glance at Jadie, who blushed. Her barker’s costume had been thrown together in about five minutes when she’d sprinted into the nearest clothier and grabbed the brightest, gaudiest, most barker-esque dress they had that fit her. Even then, she’d had to steal a cap from a stranger in the crowd and a pair of gloves from a windowsill in order to finish the outfit. The candy was even worse, as she’d lifted the first tray she could grab from a nearby bakery only to realize once she’d rushed away from the store that the candies were too small to actually catch anyone’s eye. But none of that mattered; the costume and candies were all she had, so she’d just have to find some way to make them work and attract the attention of the girl who Gerard had robbed.

And she needed to attract her attention, because she had to know if there was some kind of reason for what Gerard had done. Maybe the child’s father used his daughter to hide his most valuable possessions in her pockets on the basis that most thieves wouldn’t think to search a young child for a priceless treasure; Jadie had learned of that tactic in her training. Or maybe the father had stolen some present for his daughter and Gerard was trying to return it to its rightful owner, even if that upset the girl. Or maybe the kid was fine, and Gerard had simply gotten her to wail and carry on in exchange for a toy or a sweet, and he planned to rob the father blind during that distraction.

Jadie knew none of this was likely. But as long as there was any doubt whatsoever, she couldn’t make herself believe the great Gerard the Fang pickpocketed innocent children. And so she had to find out for sure.

The entourage fixed the carriage and guided it down the street to Jadie’s position, with Gerard no longer in sight. As the carriage began to move past her, Jadie shouted, “Fresh candies! Delicious, wonderful candies! Perfect to cheer you up if you’re sad or make you feel even better if you’re happy!” She tossed a few candies around, ‘accidentally’ sending one through the window of the carriage. “Guaranteed to bring a smile to your face!”

She beamed at the carriage as it rolled past, and moments later, there was a call from within, and the driver pulled back on the horses’ reins to stop the vehicle. Then the door opened to reveal the daughter, with her cheeks red from crying, and the scowling father behind her. “Um, ma’am?” asked the girl. “Can I have a candy?”

“You certainly may!” chirped Jadie as she tossed the candies from one hand to another and flipped one up so the girl could catch it. “You look like you could use one!”

“Uh-huh.” The girl pocketed the candy and gave Jadie a coin in exchange. Her pigtails were askew, and she wouldn’t meet Jadie’s eyes. “Thank you, ma’am.”

She turned to go, but Jadie quickly said, “What’s the matter? Why’s a little girl like you so sad? Did you lose something?”

The father glared and opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, the girl sniffed and nodded. “My heirloom amulet got lost.”

“Oh my. That sounds serious. Here—you can have another.” Jadie passed her a second candy, which brought a brief smile to the girl’s face. “What’s your name?”

“Violet,” sniffed the girl as she sucked on the candy. “Violet Renatta.”

Jadie’s eyes widened slightly. There was a noble family with some land out in Western Raleigh called Renatta, and if Jadie remembered from her lessons correctly, the current heiress to that title was a little girl named Violet. So this was Baron Renatta’s daughter, as well as presumably the baron himself behind her. “And how long have you had your amulet, Violet?”

“All her life,” said the father, with an air of trying to hurry the conversation along. “That’s why it’s an heirloom. They’ve been passed down parent-to-child for centuries, ever since the House of Renatta was founded. Now if you’re done, Violet—”

“I wore it every day. And I took real good care of it ‘cause Daddy said it’s one of two amulets the king gave my great-great-great-great-granddad way back when!” Violet clutched her hands to her chest like she was hoping she could somehow feel the missing amulet where it had used to dangle. “And he said I should always take care of it ‘cause it shows the king really liked our family and so everyone should be nice to us. But the carriage broke and I lost it and Daddy says that’s like losing the king’s favor and—”

Jadie managed not to scowl at Baron Renatta, who was doing enough scowling for the both of them. “It was priceless,” the baron muttered in a voice he clearly intended only Violet to hear. “We will talk about this—at home. Now come along. And miss?” He caught Jadie’s eye. “It would be wise for you not to mention an amulet was missing.”

The thief quickly nodded. “Of course, sir. I wouldn’t dream of it.” And then, as both Renattas turned to go, she realized she had to know one more thing. “But you still have one amulet, right? So surely the people will still know the king supports your family?”

“But I can’t show it to anyone!” Violet wailed. “Daddy put it in this super-secure vault last month, and I can’t get it! And Countess Essett’s daughter is visiting next week, and I just know she’ll say all kinds of mean things if I don’t have it. She’ll say the king took it back and doesn’t like us anymore or—”

“Violet!” snapped Renatta. “Enough!” He took a long breath. “You know it is vital to our family fortunes that we retain at least one amulet, if only so we can show it to the king when he visits and prove we still value his ancestor’s gift. That is why it will remain in the vault, guarded by the best protection spells money can buy, where nobody can steal it… or lose it… or see it at all except when I come down to get it for him. Yes, the other noble families will talk when they observe you no longer have your amulet. Yes, the family will suffer for your carelessness.” Violet’s eyes welled up at that, but the baron didn’t seem to notice. “But so long as the king knows we value his favor, we will still endure. Now. Let us get home before you lose anything else.”

Jadie watched them go, struggling not to say anything. Baron Renatta was a louse, and ordinarily she’d love to take him down a peg, but right now she had bigger problems. If the Renatta family was seen as less legitimate on account of the theft, that could blow back onto other members of the family who weren’t completely obnoxious. That wasn’t fair to them. And even setting that aside…

Gerard had robbed a child. He hadn’t paid Violet to throw a fake fit; he wasn’t trying to get anything back to its rightful owners; he had no decent motivation Jadie could see. He’d just wanted a rare and valuable amulet and so had taken it. And if that made an innocent little girl cry… Apparently that was a matter of no concern to Gerard the Fang.

Jadie flushed red with anger. She stole from rich adults who had so much money they’d never notice the loss or from bad people who deserved to be taken down a few pegs. Sure, it might be wrong in some strict ethical sense, but she wasn’t really hurting anyone. This, though, was different. This was nothing but naked greed and a complete disregard for innocents that might be hurt.

And it wouldn’t end here. Baron Renatta had mentioned a high-security vault with the other amulet. If she knew anything about Gerard the Fang, she knew he’d be going after that next, both to complete his set as well as to say he’d beaten the best security systems on offer yet again. In fact, Jadie guessed that Gerard might even have done this deliberately to raise the challenge for himself—rob Violet and get the baron into such a tizzy that he’d boost his own security measures. Then it’d be even harder to break in… and even more glory would go to anyone who could manage it. That seemed like the kind of thing Gerard would want.

Jadie knew she had a responsibility to stay out of trouble for the next few days so she could go on her trip to Warus and resume her actual duties for the thieves guild. If she was arrested trying to stop Gerard, she would be fired from the ambassador delegation and would have no chance at stopping the anti-Raleigh conspiracy she was trying to root out. But despite all that, she couldn’t let this go. She didn’t know how, but she would get that amulet back for Violet. If that was the only thing that would dry her tears, then that was what Jadie would do.

And the only person standing in her way was the best thief she’d ever heard of.

Jadie’s heart sank. This, she thought, would be tough.

A Most Unusual Guardian, Part One

A Most Unusual Guardian
By Aaron Canton
—Part One—

 

 

It was the bronze cane with the cobra-shaped head and the silver tip that made Jadie Rivers realize she had just bumped into a legend. The man had already slipped past her, an older gentleman with graying hair, tanned skin, and a softly wrinkled face, and Jadie was half a dozen steps away down the crowded Viscosa street when she realized she recognized his cane from her thieves guild briefings. And then she saw the rest—the tiny spot below the man’s left ear, the subtle motion of his hand as it drifted past the pockets and purses of those around him, the minute bulge in the back of his cloak which Jadie knew concealed a knife coated in a paralytic agent so powerful that even an elephant would be felled with one scratch. There could be no doubt about it: she had just encountered one of the greatest thieves in the world, the man who had robbed palaces and temples, burgled warlords and pirates, plundered ancient ruins and pilfered priceless treasures from the strongest vaults ever built. She had just bumped into Gerard Falcoron, or as he was known in the criminal underworld, Gerard the Fang.

And then she touched her pocket and realized, to be more precise, she had just been robbed by Gerard the Fang.

But though such a realization would normally have upset the young thief, she could only smile to herself as she moved after him. There was no shame in losing to the best—and besides, as much as she loved gold, that was nothing next to the knowledge she had been so near a legend. She had grown up hearing stories and legends about Gerard the Fang. That he would deem her worthy of robbery was almost an honor.

Almost, she thought, but not quite. She needed to get her gold back. Her own reputation, not to mention her ability to afford that fancy dinner at The Stately Lady she was looking forward to, was at stake. She was due to leave town in just a few days as part of an ambassador delegation to Warus, where she would smoke out elements of an anti-Raleigh conspiracy as part of her service to the Westwick Thieves Guild. Once the delegation left, she’d be spending a long time traveling on dusty roads and camping out in the largely unsettled nation of Warus. Until then, she fully intended to avail herself of all the luxuries Viscosa made available to a bright young thief in her prime—but those luxuries required there to be money in her pocket. And so, even as she marveled that his stature, his form, and his muscled arms were just as perfect as they’d been described to her, she forced herself to hurry after him.

She wasn’t sure what gave her away, but once she had narrowed to within a couple body-lengths of him in the crowded street, he drifted away from her. His motions didn’t look deliberate or even hasty, but she noticed that suddenly he was always standing such that there were more and more people between the two of them. If this kept up, she’d never catch him; he’d screen himself until he reached a shop or an alley where he could completely disappear. Jadie would have to do something drastic to get him to acknowledge her.

So she pulled back a sleeve just slightly, thought about how wonderfully fun it would be to reach out and grab the silver-haired gentleman a few steps ahead of her, and flicked her arm—allowing the vines wrapped around it to uncoil, reach out, and yank back on Gerard’s wrist before he could do anything.

Gerard was too skillful to stumble, and he instead let the motion turn him around so he could see his adversary. Even though Jadie was already tucking her vines away, she saw his eyes flick to the few bits of green still visible as she pulled down her sleeves and knew he’d seen them. But that was all right; in fact, she realized she preferred he knew of her talents. “Um, hi!” she called in a voice somewhat more rapid than usual as she approached the legend, remaining just out of his arm’s reach in case he tried to take something else from her. “Mr. Purse, I think you have my Fang.”

The older thief blinked in confusion, and Jadie’s cheeks reddened. “I mean—I’m Purse, you have my Mister—no, um, you Fang my purse, er—” She cut herself off, blushed furiously as she took a deep breath, and blurted out, “Mr. Fang, I’m really excited to meet you, I’ve heard all about you, and could I have my purse back please?”

She cringed, hoping against hope Fang didn’t just roll his eyes and turn away from the stuttering mess she’d become, but instead, Fang’s mouth quirked upwards in a smile. It wasn’t a sincere smile—it didn’t reach his eyes—but it was, at least, a mark of respect. “Sure,” he said in a sonorous voice. “Here you go.” He drew a bag from the folds of his cloak and tossed it to her—

But Jadie had been trained by the best instructors the thieves guild had to offer, and she knew better than to catch a random object being thrown at her. After all, it could be poisoned, or enchanted, or even something the authorities were hunting for. It was moving too fast for her to dodge, so she instead grasped for the vines around her arms and focused on her magic again, rapidly urging them to lunge forward and shield her. And lunge they did, springing out from beneath her sleeves and intercepting the bag just before it would have fallen into her hands. They caught it, held it in front of her—and she saw it wasn’t her moneybag at all, but instead a red sack with a sigil etched on one side.

“A charm spell,” she murmured as her vines dropped the bag and retracted again. The spell markings were in faded gold thread that blended into the red fabric, but though it was faint, she still recognized the design from her training. Had she touched it, she would have been made to feel more trusting of the thief in front of her—not much, by any means, but enough to convince a typical victim that Gerard had surely returned the right bag. The victim would then let Gerard go, would carry on with her day as before, and wouldn’t notice the theft until much later, when she next went for her moneybag and found an empty red pouch instead.

But Jadie was no ordinary victim of theft. Having blocked the spell, she looked up at Gerard with a faint smile on her face—only to see his own smile had grown and now reached his eyes. Then he bowed down before her like he was introducing himself at a ball. “You’re as good as they say, Miss Rivers,” he murmured as he took Jadie’s moneybag out of his pocket and tossed it to the ground before her. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Jadie’s mouth dropped, and when she picked up her bag, her hands were so unsteady she missed and bounced her fingers off the ground twice before grasping it. “You—you know me?” she managed.

“The thieves guild prodigy? Of course I know you.” Gerard straightened up, eyes twinkling, and swept an arm at a nearby café. “I’m on a job, but I have a minute or two. I would love to make your acquaintance.”

Jadie’s heart, already beating fast, began to race like it was trying to burst out of her chest. She might get to see Gerard the Fang demonstrating his mastery of his profession—and even better, she could make a dependable companion of him! She glanced down at herself, wishing she’d worn something other than her usual green-and-brown traveling clothes or even styled her loose, brown hair nicely—maybe added more flowers—but now there was no time and she’d just have to make do. “Of course!” she said quickly. “I, uh, whatever you want, Mr. Fang, sir! I—”

“Please. We’re practically colleagues. You can call me Gerard.” The thief moved towards the café, and Jadie hurried to keep up with him. “And what should I call you? Do you have an alias?”

He wants to use my nickname, Jadie thought before reminding herself she didn’t actually have one yet. “Just Jadie is fine,” she said as they entered the café. Gerard led her to a booth in a dark corner, and she sat across from him, still gazing at his roguish face “And, um… What do you know about me?”

“You?” Gerard grinned. “I know you’re the youngest recruit ever to graduate the thieves guild. I know you have an unusual facility with plants, always wear a flower in your hair, and have vines wrapped around your arms that cause those almost-but-not-quite invisible bulges in your sleeves.” Jadie blushed, and Gerard chuckled. “So yes, I did recognize you as soon as I saw you, not just after you’d used your vines. I hope you don’t mind me giving you a little test, but I just had to see if you were as good as I’ve heard.”

Somehow, Jadie’s smile grew a little more. He hadn’t just heard of her, he knew everything about her. “I don’t mind at all, you can test me any time you want,” she said, realizing she was babbling again. “I mean, I’m just, I mean—”

Gerard held up a hand, and Jadie fell into grateful silence. “Relax,” he said. “You don’t need to worry about impressing me. You already have—I know you were behind that whole thing with Nemeroth last week. Well done. He was a pox on the kingdom.”

Jadie’s mouth dropped again. Nemeroth had been a high-ranking bureaucrat who had abused his office to steal diplomatic gifts and similar shipments, plundering the kingdom just to line his own pockets. Jadie might be a thief, but she was first and foremost a patriot and wasn’t about to let that stand. And though her plan had been incredibly dangerous—she’d gotten herself caught by Nemeroth and his thugs so she could get close enough to plant incriminating evidence on him—she was still happy she’d taken him down. But she hadn’t told anyone; even her superiors in Westwick hadn’t gotten her report yet. “How did you know that?” she managed.

“I talked to a few contacts in the guards. They told me Nemeroth had been with an innocent civilian when he was caught, and wouldn’t you know it, that civilian’s description exactly matched that of Westwick’s most promising young thief.” Gerard grinned. “Just as a tip, using the guards to take down opponents for you is great when you can swing it, but try to disguise yourself first at least a little. That way people like me can’t find you out. And hey, if you do have to go to the guards for something legitimate, you won’t need to worry about them recognizing you and wondering why you keep getting into trouble.”

“Right.” Jadie wished she had some way to record Gerard’s advice, but she had neither parchment nor anything to write with on her. “Sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about. You beat an opponent who had a lot more resources than you did… and you did it with style. Like I said, you already impressed me. And today? You showed me you really are as good as your teachers think you are.” He raised a hand as if tipping a hat. “In ten years, maybe five, they’ll probably be telling legends about you instead of me.”

It took Jadie a few moments to recover from that and formulate her next question. “Thanks, really, I really appreciate it—I mean—” She blushed again as Gerard chuckled. “Can you tell me any stories?” she asked at last. “Famous places you’ve been? People you’ve met? Stuff you’ve… done?”

Gerard’s eyes gleamed, and he opened his mouth, but then a faint drumbeat sounded from outside, and he hesitated. The drums repeated, growing slightly louder, and he sighed. “Sorry. Like I said, I’m on a job. But if you wait for me here, I’ll be back in a flash, and then I’d be happy to share any stories you want.”

He rose, but Jadie jumped up even before he finished. “Can I watch?” she blurted out, acutely aware she was embarrassing herself and yet unable to stop. “Or—I mean—if you possibly needed someone to watch your back or help in any way at all—what I mean is, I’d love to—”

She fell silent as Gerard’s smile flattened out and he examined her. “I don’t usually work with partners,” he said. “It’s not my style. And for this job—I mean, really, all I’d need is someone to stand on a rooftop and distract the local soldiers if a patrol shows up. It’s not exactly glamorous—”

“I’ll do it!” said Jadie, a desperate smile on her face. If she got to work a job with Gerard the Fang… Well, she couldn’t think of many opportunities that would come close. She would get to watch a true master of their craft, someone who was rumored to have never failed to loot whatever he was after. You couldn’t get that kind of demonstration anywhere else. “Don’t worry,” she insisted. “I won’t let the soldiers come anywhere near you.”

Gerard was silent for a long moment before nodding. “All right. I’ll cut you in for ten percent. Your best bet is—”

“Building on the other side of the street, two doors back, since it’s tall and has crenellations to hide behind,” said Jadie immediately. For a moment she felt like she was back in the guild training halls, desperately trying to ace every test and convince her teachers they hadn’t made a mistake by accepting her at such a young age. “There’s an alley, and the walls of the building are rough enough to scale. I can be up there in less than a minute.”

Gerard said nothing for a moment, but then his smile returned, and he inclined his head. “Exactly what I was going to say. See you soon, Jadie.”

Jadie’s heart leapt at his words, and it kept thundering away as she slipped out of the café as quickly as she could. Without seeming to rush, she worked her way through the crowds to the building she’d mentioned and raced up the rough wall towards the top. Nobody looked at her, and even if someone had glanced into the alley and seen her halfway up, she would have already made it to the roof by the time they’d done a double-take and looked again. Jadie then ducked behind a crenellation and quickly peeked around it to look around, noting both Gerard’s probable target—an entourage of what looked like dozens of bodyguards and servants surrounding an ornate carriage shining with gold filigree and pulled by white-coated horses, all approaching her position from farther down the road—as well as a squad of palace soldiers marching towards the entourage from the opposite direction. She quickly thought through her possible options, settled on the simplest, and pried up a loose chunk of stone from a crenellation. Then she gripped it with both her hand and vines and threw it as hard as she could.

The stone flew straight and true, helped by Jadie’s vines as well as her strength, and slammed into an alleyway just behind the squad with a loud smash. The palace soldiers spun around and searched the alley, no longer looking towards the carriage and its guards. And Gerard—whom Jadie saw had slipped out of the café without her noticing before—was glancing up at her with a gleam in his eyes. “Thanks,” he mouthed. “Now watch this.”

He stepped forward, heading towards the approaching group. Jadie’s breath caught as he reached them. A guard motioned for him to move aside, he nodded and began to do so…

And then Gerard the Fang made his move.

Despite her close focus, Jadie couldn’t see exactly what Gerard did, but suddenly a guard in front stumbled into a pedestrian. The guards rushed forward to help their comrade, some of the pedestrians didn’t move out of the way fast enough, and as the two groups pushed against each other, Gerard was shoved forward. He bumped into another guard, and this time Jadie did see Gerard’s technique, a little hook with his foot in a smooth, subtle maneuver, and that guard fell sideways, grabbed Gerard for balance, and almost thrust him towards the carriage to catch and stabilize himself. Now the pedestrians were mixing into the formation, the guards were trying to regain control—and Gerard let himself be buffeted and pushed forward, shoved by the crowd or pulled by falling guards, until he was at the carriage. He made a flicking motion with his hand, and for a moment, nothing happened.

Then one of the carriage wheels broke off.

He’d flung something, Jadie realized. Maybe a dart in just the right spot, maybe acid, maybe some spell to unmake the joint. Whatever it was, he’d broken the carriage—and nobody suspected a thing.

Now the guards were rushing all over the place, some trying to calm the whinnying horses, others trying to push back the pedestrians who crowded around the accident. Gerard wound up pushed against the carriage in the crush, ignored by all as they fought for control. Then the carriage door opened, and a fat man, dressed in ornate robes with a ridiculous number of expensive gemstones glittering amidst their fabric, jumped out, followed moments later by a little girl who was probably his daughter. Both brushed past Gerard as they hurried into the midst of their guards. “Get off the road!” the man screamed. “There’s an alley—get off the road, calm the horses, and fix the carriage! Do it now!”

“Just buy another!” called a wag from the crowd, “And next time, make sure the wheel doesn’t fall off!”

The rich man blushed red as everyone in the crowd laughed, and even Jadie was so caught up in the moment she didn’t realize for a few seconds that Gerard had slipped away. When she looked back, she saw nobody by the carriage except for the rich man’s entourage. The theft was already done.

Jadie played it back in her head and focused on when the rich man had brushed up against Gerard. That must have been it, she thought. He’d snuck his hand into the man’s pocket or robes and taken some incredibly valuable object. A signet ring, perhaps, which could be used as proof of identity to let Gerard impersonate the noble at, say, his bank in order to clean out his accounts. Or some magic wand with incredible powers. Or maybe Gerard was doing the same thing Jadie had done with Nemeroth; maybe this man had done something bad, and Gerard had slipped the proof into his pocket and was even now going to call the guards—

But then the girl patted her dress, gasped, patted it again, and began to cry. “Daddy!” she wailed. “My heirloom amulet is gone!”

And Jadie’s mouth dropped as she understood. Gerard the Fang hadn’t robbed the rich man, the merchant or noble whose ostentatious wealth practically screamed that he’d done something to deserve being taken down a peg.

Gerard the Fang had robbed a child.

The Golem Maker of the Hills, Part Four

The Golem Maker of the Hills
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Four-

 

The next morning was bright and sunny, though the mountain chill remained in the air and hit Grannick as soon as he stepped out of the inn. Rather than complaining, though, he stretched and tilted his head so the wind played over his face and helped rouse him. That, at least, was familiar; the inn with its draft-proof walls, luxurious mattress, and fine mulled wine he’d had with his dinner had seemed like another world.

“Do you need anything else, sir?” asked the innkeeper, a slight man named Nerril. “Breakfast? Perhaps you’d like to borrow some archery equipment to go goat hunting?”

Grannick looked back at him. “I don’t need anything right now. But if you could gather everyone in the town square in an hour, I’d appreciate it.”

Nerril frowned. “Why?”

“It is for…” Grannick trailed off, and for a moment he wondered how someone good at this, like Laika, would respond. “A surprise,” he finally said. “One that everyone in the village needs to see.” He smiled, trying to match Laika’s energy. “Nobody will want to miss it.”

Nerril still looked confused, but Grannick saw a hint of intrigue on the man’s face as well. “All right. I’ll tell my staff,” he said, then hurried back inside. A moment later, Grannick heard him call, “Madelor, get up! Meeting at the town square in an hour!”

For a moment, Grannick was reminded of his first real battle, when he’d gone up against a massive boar, survived its attempts to gore him, and ultimately smashed its head in. Like then, his heart rushed, and a fiery exuberance spread through him. He chuckled quietly, then caught himself and hurried off to tell others about the meeting.

Over seventy people were in the town square by the time the hour was up, Maltra—though not Laika—among them. There were also about twenty golems made of stone, mud, grass, and even one of marble present. The mayor walked up to Grannick before the latter man took the stage. “Mr. Aldermair,” he said. “I heard you called a meeting. Do you mind me asking what for?”

“I wanted to talk to the whole town about the golems I’m ordering,” said Grannick. He leapt onto the stage despite the heavy armor he was wearing, earning a few claps and whistles from the crowd.

Maltra frowned, and Grannick again felt a foggy confusion creeping over him, but he pushed past it. Laika, he guessed, would just start talking to people without getting sidetracked, and he would do the same. So he turned away from Maltra and called, “Everyone! I’d like to talk to you about the golems of this town! I—”

The crowd immediately applauded, and Grannick saw a few other children cheering on their parents’ shoulders. He winced and held up a hand. “I am a mercenary who hunts bandits,” he said. “But there is only one of me, and there are a lot of bandits.” He paused as a few people laughed. “So I want to buy some golems to help me. I was thinking…fifty or so.”

A hush fell over the crowd, and then the applause and cheers returned, even louder than before. Maltra’s suspicion fled from his face, replaced by naked greed, and he smiled unctuously as he climbed on stage and then bowed. “We are at your service,” he said. “And would be happy to provide you with all you might need for your duties.”

Grannick nodded. “However, I cannot stay long. There are too many bandits. And I must leave soon to fight them.” He paused, wishing he knew how to make his thoughts fit together better when he spoke, but he plunged on like he was sure Laika would do. “How long will it take you to fill my order? If longer than a week, I must—“

“We can do it in three days!” said Maltra, earning another round of gasps and whistles from the crowd. “Of course, there will be an express fee, but for an order of that size, I’m sure a sizable discount could be arranged.”

“Yeah, Laika’s real fast!” shouted a kid from the front row. “She can make a mud golem in two seconds!”

So the townspeople didn’t know what Laika was going through, Grannick thought. They believed she could whip up golems in a few moments, like she’d shown Grannick, and didn’t know that she took so long to make a saleable golem that she was working fifteen-hour days. “That works,” he said. “But first, can I talk to Laika again? I have, uh, a few more questions.”

“Of course, of course!” said Maltra, beaming. “Anything you say, sir!”

He left and returned ten minutes later with Laika stumbling behind him. Her hair had been styled into more elaborate braids, and she was now wearing a fancy blue dress, but the dark circles under her eyes were visible. When they got to the stage, Maltra nudged her, and after a moment, she pressed her hands together and managed to chirp, “Hi, Mr. Grannick! What would you like to know?”

There was forced cheer in her voice, and Grannick wondered if Maltra had threatened to increase her workload if she made him look bad. A white-hot rage coursed through him again, but he kept his hands off his war hammer and said, “I want golems to help me hunt bandits. If I asked you for fifty golems, could you make them for me?”

Laika looked down, looking small and exhausted. But when she spoke, it was with a bright, “Yes, sir!”

“Is that more than you usually make?” He looked back at Maltra. “What kind of orders does she usually—”

“I can do it,” interjected Laika, shooting a quick glance towards the smiling Maltra as she spoke. “I do orders like that all the time.”

“You do?” Grannick frowned and tried to look confused, which wasn’t hard. “How long does it take you to make each golem? I’ve heard that archmages spend weeks on a single one.”

Laika opened her mouth but then hesitated, and then Grannick saw a glimmer in her eyes like she knew what he was doing. “Not me,” she said at last, speaking a little more strongly. “I can make one golem an hour.”

Nobody spoke for a few moments, and then the crowd began to murmur as a few people worked out how many hours per day Laika would have to work to meet the deadline her father had set. For the benefit of the rest, Grannick added, “But your father said you could turn out this order in three days. If you do one an hour, won’t you be working…?” He took a few moments to do the math himself. “About seventeen hours a day for the next three days?”

The crowd started to look uneasy. Maltra’s smile slowly faded into a grimace, and then he said, “Well, she doesn’t usually work those kinds of hours…but you’re a special customer who needs our help to keep us all safe. After all, we wouldn’t want bandits to get through while we were waiting for more golems, would we? Now—”

Grannick turned away from him and looked at Nerril. “What was the most golems this town ever sold in a day?”

Nerril hesitated. “Well, three months ago there was that trade caravan that got lost and stumbled into our valley. When those merchants learned about us, they all wanted one…think they took home about twenty or so. Left the very next morning.” He paused, then turned to Maltra. “Wait. You said Laika could make one golem every few minutes. Now you’re saying she needed twenty hours for that order?”

“No, no.” Maltra forced a laugh. “The one-hour is just for the very best, hardiest golems she makes, the kind that this mercenary would need. For common, conventional golems she really does need just a few minutes—”

“But Mr. Maltra,” said Laika, “You told me I’m not supposed to make golems fast anymore because they fall apart too quick and you can’t sell them. You said that all my golems need to last for at least three months, and you know I need at least an hour to make a golem last that long.”

Maltra’s face had gone pale, but Grannick didn’t give him a chance to recover. “Laika,” he said. “How many hours a day do you spend building golems?”

“Fifteen, Mr. Grannick,” she said, eliciting gasps from the crowd. “Mr. Maltra says if I spend less time on it then I’m letting everyone down.”

“Now, dear, don’t tell stories,” Maltra hastily interjected, before turning to the others. “You know my ward has a very fanciful imagination. She told you all last year that I was overworking her, but you all saw that wasn’t true—”

“You told us it wasn’t true, and we believed you because you’re the mayor!” shouted an elegantly dressed woman. “But now you yourself said she needs an hour to make each golem and that you’ll have her do fifty in three days!”

“Liar!” screamed someone else.

Maltra hurriedly glanced between Laika, Grannick, and the crowd before settling on the latter. “Look, even if…even if the situation isn’t ideal, we can all see how essential my girl is for our economy. Without her, we’d still be a ramshackle collection of huts. Now we have a proper smithy, a full inn, two taverns, a cleric—”

“We didn’t know you were making your daughter work sixteen-hour days to get those things!” shouted an older man. “What’s wrong with you?”

The crowd surged forward against the stage, forcing Maltra to back up. He grabbed at his daughter, but Grannick stepped between them. “You should go,” said Grannick. “I don’t think they want you as mayor anymore.”

Maltra scowled, but when he advanced on Grannick, the hulking mercenary let his hand drop a few inches closer to his hammer, and the mayor’s face lost all color. He turned and rushed away.

Then Grannick realized Laika was hugging him. “Thank you, Mr. Grannick!” she said, leaning her head against him as if tempted to go to sleep. “Mr. Maltra says I have a duty to make golems for the town, but…”

“He was wrong,” said Grannick.

Laika was quiet for a moment. “Mr. Grannick? If I stop making golems, is the town going to be hurt?”

Grannick paused, wishing he’d thought further ahead. “I don’t know. I—”

“Excuse me.”

Grannick and Laika both turned to see a collection of well-dressed individuals Grannick guessed were the merchant class in town. Nerril was there, as well as a broad-shouldered man with soot-stained hands who was probably the smith, a woman Grannick had briefly seen that morning running the general store, and a few others.

“We wanted to apologize,” continued Nerril, looking at Laika. “We didn’t know how your father was treating you.”

“And we also wanted to say you don’t need to worry about golems anymore,” said the blacksmith. “We’ll be fine if you stop.”

“Really?” Laika asked. “Mr. Maltra said the town would collapse.”

The shopkeeper shook her head. “We’ll use the golems you already made to carve a road out of the mountains; they should last long enough for that. The inn, smithy, everything else you earned for us, we can use them to make this town into a base for whoever wants to come here. There’s always trade caravans coming over these mountains. A proper town with an inn, shops, a doctor, and everything else people might need will have plenty of business.”

Laika brightened and then straightened up as if a load had been removed from her shoulders. Grannick couldn’t help but smile. “That’s great!” she said. “That’s really, really great!”

The merchants apologized a few more times, which Laika accepted, and then the crowd dispersed. Laika stayed with Grannick, though, and after a few moments she asked him, “Where should I go now, Mr. Grannick? My parents are dead, and Mr. Maltra won’t want me anymore.”

Grannick hesitated for a long moment. “Would you like to come with me?” he asked at last.

Laika’s mouth dropped. “Really?”

“Yes.” Grannick knelt so he was level with Laika. “I was sent into these mountains to find the gold from that wagon. But you found it first, so you deserve a share of the reward. I can take you back to the city with me so you can get it, and then we can find a place for you to stay.” There were mages Grannick knew of that might want a talented apprentice and a few nobles who might appreciate the chance to have an heir with talents besides squandering the family estate. Social situations still weren’t his strong suit, but with Laika helping him, he was sure he’d find her something.

“Yay!” Laika hugged Grannick again. “Although…does that mean I have to give up Goldie?”

“Yes,” said Grannick. “It belongs to someone else. But don’t worry. In the city, there’s all kinds of toys and other things you could make golems out of, if you wanted. I could help you look.”

Laika was silent for a few moments, and Grannick worried she was upset over the loss of her favorite toy, but then she nodded. “I want a really good toy in exchange for Goldie, though.” she said. “Promise?”

Grannick grinned. “Promise.”

As Laika ran off to get her golem, Grannick rose. For the first time in ages, he realized, he felt good while within the boundaries of an inhabited settlement.

Maybe other people weren’t so bad after all.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“You have no idea how grateful we are,” Vanarl said from across the table. The merchant’s face was the picture of contentment, and he’d just set down a tip for the waiter that was more than the price of his actual meal. “Losing all that gold would have been catastrophic for my branch of the guild. Believe me, when we have any future jobs, you’ll be the first name we think of.”

Grannick grunted his approval, paused, and then said, “Thanks.” He was sitting at ease on a rough chair in the Renzeya Adventurers Guild and drinking a mug of ale. “Anytime.”

Vanarl nodded, then inclined his head as someone made a squeaking sound near the top of the staircase. “And how is she doing?”

“Laika?” A smile came unbidden to Grannick’s face. “She’s good. Thanks for understanding—”

Before he could say anything else, a gleeful squeal sounded, and Laika slid down the stairs on a few carpet squares which had been golem-ized and were gamely gripping onto Laika with their edges.  They also hovered just above the stairs, courtesy of a spell cast by one of the more magically inclined adventurers who frequented the guild. “Wheee!” squealed Laika. “Yay!”

“She seems to be fitting in well,” said Vanarl. “I suppose it’s a more hospitable environment than her home, anyways.”

Grannick had debated adopting Laika himself, but he knew it was impossible; he routinely went on missions into war zones, bandit strongholds, and environments so inhospitable they made the mountain valley look like pleasant farmland, none of which were any place for a young girl. So when he’d stopped at the Adventurers Guild and notified the couriers he’d completed his mission for Vanarl, he’d also mentioned to Cedric Renzeya himself that he had a little girl with him and needed to rent her a room for a few days while he worked out what to do with her.

But Laika was so excited during her stay in the guild—spending hour after hour listening to the other adventurers tell their stories, playing with children of the other warriors who sometimes stopped in to see their parents, or curled up with the journals of heroes who had left copies of their memoirs in the guild’s extensive library—that she didn’t want to leave. When Cedric Renzeya had seen her using a little golem to sweep out her room so she didn’t have to ‘waste time’ that could be spent playing, he’d broached the idea of having her stay permanently. Grannick, who could find no flaw in the arrangement, had agreed.

The most notable signs of Laika’s presence in the guild were the new golems wandering around. While Renzeya had pledged to never force Laika to make golems, he’d also given her access to various unusual stones, metals, and plants in case she wanted to practice, so she usually spent an hour or two a day making golems out of new things and seeing what they could do. The golems in turn were put to work at various little jobs around the guild, from sweeping out the rooms, to caring for an ill adventurer with a contagious disease that might have infected a human caretaker, to guarding the door. The latter task was handled by two iron behemoths who had been trained to knock down any intruder and to bow and bang their staves in unison when Renzeya or Laika herself came in to make for a more dramatic entrance.

Grannick also noted that a few new books about swashbuckling pirates had found their way into the guild library, and the backyard now frequently featured ”sparring practice” where Laika and a half-dozen other children dueled with golems while the actual warriors of the guild—most of whom had been charmed by Laika’s cheerful attitude and helpful nature—shouted advice and encouragement. “Yes,” she said. “She’s doing well. And she—”

“Mr. Grannick! Mr. Vanarl! Hi!” Laika scurried over. “Thank you again for the gift! I love my new dress!” She glanced down at the brilliant blue fabric of her outfit, which had been enchanted by a mage in Vanarl’s merchant guild to always sparkle and glimmer even in the worst lighting—their way of showing their appreciation, Vanarl had said, for Laika’s help in securing the gold and bringing it back to him. “It’s really pretty!”

“Thank you,” said Vanarl, smiling at her. “It’s good to see you again, Laika.”

Laika beamed and turned back to Grannick. “Are you gonna stay long? Miss Naphkator’s been teaching me some really cool sparring moves, and I wanna show you!”

Grannick nodded, and Laika’s smile somehow got even wider. “Thanks, Mr. Grannick!” she called before scurrying off. “You’re amazing!”

Vanarl chuckled. “I don’t remember you ever staying in town longer than you needed to before,” he said. “And for that matter…the job I mentioned, with that bandit ‘king’ in Warus I need you to stop before he intercepts our next shipment. I suppose you don’t need to leave for a few days since our convoy’s been delayed anyways, but…waiting around like this isn’t like you, is it?”

He trailed off, and Grannick shrugged. “I guess not. I’ve never really got along with other people. But…I’m learning that some of them are worth getting along with.”

He grinned and raised his glass, listening to the merry hubbub of the guild around him, as well as the happy laughter of the greatest golem-maker in the land.

 

The Golem Maker of the Hills, Part Three

The Golem Maker of the Hills
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Three-

 

The man who answered the door at Laika’s house looked nothing like the girl. He had brown hair that was going silver with age, a sharp, angular jaw, and piercing grey eyes that focused on Grannick with an unsettling intensity. “Howdy,” said the man with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “You here for a golem?”

“…maybe?” Grannick hesitated, realizing from the man’s exasperated look that this wasn’t the right answer. “I mean, I heard golems might be useful but don’t know much about them, so…?”

That seemed to satisfy the man, who gave a sharp nod and pushed the door open all the way. Grannick found himself escorted into a comfortable living room with a big settee, two easy chairs whose like Grannick would have had trouble finding even in Viscosa itself, and a roaring fireplace which completely shut out the evening’s chill. The rural cabins Grannick had slept in before had always been drafty if not overtly leaky, but this one felt completely solid. “This is a nice house,” he managed.

“Thank you.” The man gestured for Grannick to sit on the couch, which he did, wincing as his armor dug into it. “A testament to my girl’s skill. This used to be a one-room cabin before she found her gift.” He waved his arm towards the window, which looked out towards the inn and a smithy. “So did most of the village. But when you have multiple caravans coming weekly…well, it does good things to the town economy.” He stuck out a hand. “Anton Maltra. Mayor.”

“Grannick Aldermair. Mercenary.” Maltra raised an eyebrow at that, and Grannick hurried on. “I’ll admit, I was surprised to see so much merchant activity given the remote location…”

“Most of our trade’s with other mountain villages,” said Maltra. “There’s lots of old mining paths around these parts which helps keep everything connected. So if the people in Hastral, the town a day to the west, want golems, they’ll all come over here, and we’ll trade favors…We make them so many golems, they fix up so many houses, or trade us so many goods, or whatever we need.”

Grannick slowly nodded. “Will you build a road next? So actual merchants can get here?”

For a split second, the mercenary thought he saw a frown on Maltra’s face. “Maybe,” he said. “But there’s something to be said for not being on everyone’s maps. We prefer nobody getting in our business.”

Grannick remembered how reluctant Laika had looked upon returning home, and his sense of unease grew. “Speaking of business,” he said. “What kinds of golems can I get?”

“Any you want.” Maltra grinned. “And for you, we wouldn’t even ask much. You said you’re a mercenary, right? We had a few problems with this one village, about a week north, selling us defective goods. If you could go over there and…recover our golems until they’re properly paid for…we’d be happy to trade you whatever kind of golem you’d like.”  He leapt to his feet. “Come—I’ll show you for yourself.”

He led Grannick out back to what the mercenary had assumed was a shed. Upon entering the room, though, he saw it was full of tables laden with every conceivable material. There were rocks, minerals, plants, even animal furs and skins. And in the middle was Laika, sitting cross-legged and slowly placing stones into the approximate shape of a person.

“Laika!” called Maltra.  His voice sounded calm, even kind, but his eyes maintained their hard, almost cruel glare. “This customer wants to see how you make golems.”

Laika turned, and her eyes—which looked much more tired than when Grannick had met her, though not even an hour had passed—widened. “Mr. Grannick?” she asked.

Grannick looked at Maltra, who had given him a sidelong glance. “We met up the valley. She was—” Laika’s face suddenly paled, and though Grannick didn’t know what that meant, he cut himself off anyways. Then Laika interjected, “Getting more materials for the Hastral order, Mr. Maltra.”

Grannick frowned. Though he rarely spent time with children, he knew they didn’t generally address their parents by their last name.  “Mr. Maltra?” he repeated.

Maltra frowned for a moment before sighing. “Laika’s parents passed away two years ago. It’s the village custom for the mayor’s family to take in orphans, and we did so, but she still thinks of her deceased parents as her ‘real’ mother and father. Of course, I’m hoping that will change soon.” His face said that it had better change soon, and the tense undercurrent in his voice concurred. “I hope you didn’t bother Mr. Grannick.”

“I didn’t,” said Laika before Grannick could comment. “I just needed to get some river quartz—”

“We should have plenty of that.” Maltra frowned, and this time he didn’t bother to hide it from Grannick. “Dear, we’ve been over this. You have a wonderful gift which is of such benefit to our village…and those with gifts have an obligation to share them. If you spend your time rushing over the mountains for raw materials which we already have, then you can’t make as many golems for the people who need them.”

Grannick frowned. “How many does she make in a day?”

“Well, she can do a simple one every few minutes, but those fall apart quickly. To make one durable enough to sell, she usually needs an hour, and she does about fifteen or so of those in a day.” Maltra saw Grannick’s shock and smiled genially. “Worried about being last in the queue? Don’t be. If you agree to help us with the ‘recovery’ job I mentioned earlier, I’ll bump you to the front of the line.”

Grannick, who hadn’t cared about the queue at all, tried to think of what to say. “The mountain villages need fifteen golems a day? When will they have enough?”

“Laika’s golems tend to last for about two or three months,” said Maltra. “After that they stop working, and their owner usually wants to buy another, so we’re expecting to be busy for the foreseeable future. Of course, if Laika takes longer. she can make them last for longer periods of time, and we’ll make sure she takes as long as she needs with yours to ensure it works for years.”

That meant Maltra was deliberately having Laika make weaker golems so they would fall apart and the village could sell more, even if it trapped his adopted daughter in a never-ending cycle. “I suppose she has a lot of golem toys?”

Laika again paled, but Maltra was watching Grannick and missed it. “She really doesn’t have time. There’s so many golems to make for the benefit of the village and the…the family.” He chuckled. “Don’t worry; she won’t put off yours because she wants to make a toy for herself. She’s very conscientious and understands that family comes first. Right, dear?”

“Right,” murmured Laika. She had been assembling the stone golem while they were talking, and Grannick saw it was now in the rough shape of a human. Then she took a deep breath and pressed her hands over the stones; after a long moment—longer than the mud golem outside had taken—it began to glow.

A hot rage creeped through Grannick, but the only response he could think of was to pulverize Maltra, and he was relatively certain that wouldn’t help. “I’m not a mage,” he drawled, “but I know some mercenaries with magic, and they told me that if someone overuses a gift like that, they could get hurt.”

Maltra waved his hand airily. “I won’t let it come to that,” he said. “I consider her to be my daughter, after all. Besides, she likes making golems. Now!” He clapped his hands. “What kind of golem do you want?”

Again, Grannick felt like he should say something, but his thoughts felt leaden and slow. “I don’t…”

“Well, you can put up in the inn for a couple days while you think about it.” Maltra ushered Grannick out, and the mercenary realized Maltra wanted his ward to get back to golem-making without being distracted. “Any stone, any gems, anything. Get our property back from that village which cheated us, and we’ll make you any type of golem you want.”

Before he could respond, Grannick found himself out in the backyard with Maltra closing the shed door behind him. He took a long breath and almost turned to go back inside but stopped short. He didn’t know of anything he could do. All his basic plans—killing Maltra, grabbing Laika and fleeing, smashing up the place until Maltra agreed to treat Laika better—would probably terrify Laika, not to mention make it impossible for him to convince her to give him her gold golem. But if he didn’t do anything, a young child would continue to work fifteen-hour days in a stuffy shed so her father could add another floor to his house.

Ironically, he thought, Laika would probably be better at this than he was. She was outgoing and gregarious; if she was the adult and he was the trapped kid, she could surely talk Maltra into doing the right thing and letting him go. She’d even been willing to talk to him, a total stranger, so…

Then he paused.  Maltra was bad, but he wasn’t the only person in the village. There were others who might help. If he could use Laika as inspiration and talk to them like she had talked to him, he might have a chance. And while this wasn’t anything like the challenges he was used to, he wasn’t going to walk away from it. Laika needed him as much as any of the merchants he’d served as a bodyguard or the nobles whose keeps he’d defended from monsters did.

And he would come through.

The Golem Maker of the Hills, Part Two

The Golem Maker of the Hills
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Two-

 

“Your name’s Grannick?” Laika tossed her ball to her golem, then looked back at the mercenary. “That’s a really cool name!”

“…thanks,” growled Grannick in his usual guttural tone. Even his voice sounded odd in his ears. When he was on missions, he could go for weeks without seeing or talking to another person. That usually suited him fine. While he had no real objection to companionship, he had never been good at idle conversation, hence him spending most of time in the wilderness. But now there was a little girl who seemed to have somehow obtained the gold he needed, and he had to admit he had no idea what to do.

Stealing the gold wasn’t an option. As long as Laika kept the golem animated, it would surely resist him, and it was so heavy that not even he could wrestle it into submission for the entire three-day trek out of the mountain. And while he knew he could threaten her to make the golem serve him, he would not terrify an innocent child. He would—

“What’re you doing all the way out here?” Laika chirped. She wore a rough brown dress, and her long blonde hair was tied in braids. Her shoes had the scuffed, ancient look of old hand-me-downs. “Are you lost?”

“No,” said Grannick.

“Just passing through?”

“No.”

Laika wrinkled her forehead for a moment before gaping. “Then are you a mountain climber?” Her mouth turned up into a big grin, and the golem’s ball soared past her face unnoticed as she smiled at Grannick. “That would be so cool!”

Grannick felt a stronger sense of unease than when he’d battled the wolf. “No,” he repeated, struggling for the right words. “I’m…a mercenary. I’m looking for—”

Bandits?”  The girl gasped, then scurried to a nearby tree hanging over the mountain stream and broke off two branches before tossing one to the golem, which raised it as if it was holding a sword. “I like playing bandits. I beat Goldie two out of three times!”

She paused expectantly, and after a moment, Grannick realized he was supposed to say something. “…good job?”

Laika beamed at him before turning back to her golem. “En garde, bandit scum!” she chirped, and the two swung sticks at each other in something Grannick supposed might have been a child’s impression of how sword-fighting was supposed to work.

He waited for a few more moments, but the girl seemed absorbed in her fight, so he finally called, “Where did you get Goldie?” It wasn’t a great question, since he knew where the gold had come from, but the only other thing he could think to offer was a critique of her sword-fighting skill, and he was reasonably certain that calling out her bad form would not help him. “Did a wizard make him for you?”

“Nope! I made him!” Laika jabbed her sword forward and poked Goldie’s nose, leaving herself so open that a trained fighter could have cut her in two with a single swing, though Goldie only jumped back and held his “nose” between two golden hands. “I was out playin’ one day an’ I saw a big wagon lyin’ there! So I went to see if anyone was in it, and nobody was, but there was lots and lots of gold! And I really wanted a shiny friend. Lorelei Potrick has this doll with gems for eyes, and she’s always makin’ fun of me cause I don’t have anything like it…”

Grannick forced himself to nod occasionally. “The golem,” he interjected as soon as Laika stopped talking to take a breath of air. “How did you make him?”

Laika shrugged. “I just made it. I’m good at making stuff move around. Like…” She waved for Goldie to stop poking at her with the branch, then quickly gathered up a double-handful of mud from the river’s bank and spread it on the ground in the rough shape of a person before laying her hands over it. A faint shimmer arose from the mud, and after a few seconds, it wiggled its arms and legs, then heaved its body up and took two unsteady steps. “See?”

Grannick’s eyes were wide. He had seen a few people touched by the Strain before, but never so young and not to that extent. Golem-making was usually the province of ancient wizards with countless artifacts and charms to focus their power, not to mention acolytes to help out where needed. He doubted the girl even knew what a magic artifact was.

But Laika didn’t seem to notice his awe. “Most of the ones I make real fast fall apart quick, though. They’re boring.” She stuck out her tongue at the mud golem, which was already crumbling away. “But I bet Goldie’ll hang around longer!” She turned back to Grannick. “Wanna play catch with him?”

The mercenary looked at Laika blankly. “Um.”

She pressed her hands together. “Please? I’ve really wanted to show Goldie off to someone ever since I made him!”

Grannick moved opposite Laika as his mind worked. Something about what she said seemed off, but while he could identify a single shadow out of place on a battlefield—indicative of an ambush—talking to children was not his forte. He cursed to himself that he ought to be capable of getting past a small girl, but it had been so long since he’d interacted with children that he didn’t even know where to start. If her parents had been with her, then maybe—

But even if her parents weren’t present, they were surely in the vicinity. He’d been mountaineering for years and still found it challenging to get to this valley; there was no child alive that could reach it unassisted. If he could get in touch with them, he could explain the gold golem really belonged to his employers, and they could surely convince their daughter to give up her new toy. “I’d like to,” he slowly managed. “But we should ask your parents first. I’m sure they wouldn’t want you playing with a stranger…”

He trailed off. Laika looked down, wringing her hands together in her dress, and then Grannick realized what had disturbed him. She had made it sound like nobody knew about Goldie, not even her parents, which was odd. “Um…” he said. “I mean…”

“It’s okay.” Laika looked up at him with a fake smile. “I gotta go home for supper soon anyways. Nice meeting you, Mr. Grannick!” She hurried to Goldie and murmured a few words into its ”ear” before sprinting along the river bank, the golem following on her heels.

Grannick hesitated for a few moments before pursuing them, moving as silently as he could without losing speed. He wasn’t the stealthiest individual around, but he’d done a few infiltrations before, and he knew how to move his body so his armor didn’t clank, his footsteps didn’t scrape on the rocks, and his war hammer didn’t smack into his armor despite its best efforts. And so he ran, slipping between the plentiful rock outcroppings and the rapidly lengthening shadows, and before long he followed the girl around the bend of the mountain and stood on a ridge overlooking a meager village.

About one hundred wooden buildings had been erected between the banks and the slopes of the surrounding mountains. They were much nicer than Grannick would have expected given the remote location; he’d stayed in crude huts built by mountain-dwellers before, but these buildings were perfectly straight and had smooth, finished walls he’d never seen that far off the main trade routes. Somehow the town had managed to attract artisans to build their homes. They’d attracted actual merchants too, given the brass doorknobs, silken clothing drying on a line, and other luxury goods scattered about. And then there was an actual inn, a two-story building with a tavern and attached stables, in a town so distant from civilization he doubted it was even on a map. Compared to a city like Atalatha, or even a prominent town on a trade route, it was nothing, but it put every other rural hamlet Grannick had ever seen to shame.

But before Grannick could do more than note the village’s strange wealth and wonder if it had been obtained through trade, outside assistance, or open banditry, he saw Laika and Goldie stopping behind the most distant houses. Laika hugged her golem and then waved goodbye while Goldie slipped into a little cave formed by the mountain. Once he was hidden, Laika headed to one of the nicest houses in the village, larger than its neighbors and with a sizable shed built in the backyard. But before she knocked on the door, she had to visibly steel herself, and her smile was almost gone by the time she raised her hand.

Grannick frowned. Though he rarely dealt with children, he thought she looked much less happy to come home than he would have expected. And now that he thought about it, the girl’s golem talents might explain the village’s wealth. What artisan wouldn’t take a trip into the mountains if they might get a golem—the kind you never saw outside archmage’s laboratories—out of it? Maybe that had something to do with Laika’s unhappiness?

A few more moments passed before Grannick slowly descended towards the village. He still had no idea what to do, but it was increasingly obvious that he had to do something.

The Golem Maker of the Hills, Part One

The Golem Maker of the Hills
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part One-

A bitter wind howled through the mountain pass and shook the few trees hardy enough to grow on the rocky heights. The ancient ridges, narrow enough that wagon convoys had to proceed single file, dropped off so abruptly on the cliff side that a single errant step could send a man screaming to his death. The only wildlife were the sure-footed goats which could climb the mountain slopes and the wolves which chased them down, the one too fleet of foot for most human hunters to pursue, the other far too dangerous. Even the sun could be lethal there when it melted the icy snowcaps in the springtime and sent massive drifts plunging to sweep away anyone in their path.

Grannick looked around and allowed himself a contented sigh. Cities were fine, on occasion, but only in the wilderness did he truly feel at home.

The mercenary continued rappelling down the cliff face as the sun reached the horizon, noting as he did so he probably had only half an hour of daylight before he’d have to make camp on the frigid rock. There were no inns or taverns anywhere within three days’ walk, but he had a waterproof tent, enough food and water for four more days, and a war hammer that could reliably bring down beasts and monsters alike. Neither hunger nor thirst nor wild animal would drive him from the mountain before he’d finished his mission. And if finished early, well, he still might stay for a couple extra days. Just for a little break before going back to Viscosa and turning in his prize.

He had been preparing to set up camp on the ridge above when he noted the faint depression in the rocky trail, a groove in the pebbles and dirt on the path which could have come from the wagon he was looking for. So he’d knelt, ignoring the sharp rocks jabbing into his leggings, and examined the rut as closely as he could; there seemed to be a pattern in the tracks which matched the Vanarl clan’s wagon wheels he’d examined back in town. Another groove, even fainter, was spaced one wagon-width away, and its markings ran all the way to the edge of the ridge. There they had vanished, but when he had looked over the edge, he could see a few broken tree trunks sticking out of the cliff at odd angles…exactly as would be expected if something heavy had fallen through them and crashed to the valley below.

Vanarl, the merchant who had rushed up to Grannick in the Renzeya Adventurers Guild and pleaded for help, had said his caravan had been carrying a massive amount of gold when a sudden squall hit them and spooked the animals. Though only one wagon had vanished during the storm, it would still have been laden down with enough treasure to smash right through bushes and trees as had happened on the cliff face. And so Grannick had abandoned thoughts of making camp for the night, instead driving a piton into the ground with his war hammer, tying a thick rope around it, and starting the long rappel down. After all, experience had taught him that lost treasure could have fallen into the hands of wandering monsters or even bandits within hours of its separation from its guards, and if it had, he needed to start the pursuit immediately. Waiting until the next day wasn’t an option.

That had been over an hour ago, and now at last his climb was almost at an end. He descended several more feet to a small tree growing up and out of the rock wall, sticking out from the cliff at an angle that made it impossible to see around and would tangle his rope if he tried to drop through it. A quick brace against the cliff wall and a few blows of his hammer, however, smashed through the nearest branches and gave him a clear view of the valley floor immediately below him, including an open space large enough for him to land in—and, several feet next to it, the broken frame of the wagon. Grannick smiled and lowered himself past the remains of the tree and dropped the last few feet to the ground. He stretched his fingers, slightly sore from the coarse rope, then turned towards the wagon…at which point he saw the slavering wolf step out from behind it.

Grannick’s heart sped up slightly as he hefted his hammer, focusing on the wolf with his conscious attention while in the back of his mind automatically analyzing the situation. The cliff wall was behind him, so he couldn’t dodge backwards. The wolf’s belly was thin enough to indicate hunger, but not so thin as to show weakness.  His left arm was slightly sore where he’d banged it on a rock during his climb and would be a fraction of a second slower than usual. Even the shadow of the cliff was worthy of his attention; it was now deep enough that Grannick would have to be careful not to move into a dark spot where he wouldn’t see the wolf coming.

Those thoughts, and hundreds more, flashed through his mind as he extended his hammer in a motion made smooth and sure by experience. The wolf sprang forward just as he swept his hammer, and the two collided with a smashing sound that reverberated through the valley. Then the wolf fell, its skull smashed, and Grannick walked past it without even looking down to check the body. He’d felt the impact running up his weapon, and it had told him, with absolutely certainty, that his single attack had been lethal.

The fight ended in less than five seconds.

It took Grannick a similar length of time to observe there was no gold in the pile of shattered wood and iron that had once been a wagon. But there was a path leading away from the wagon, trampled plants and footprints visible in the dirt despite the coarse, rocky nature of the thin soil on the valley floor. Whoever had made those footprints had been very heavy. Or, Grannick thought, had been carrying something that made him so.

As Grannick pursued the footsteps down a rough incline and towards a rushing mountain stream, he kept one hand on his war hammer. Virtually anything could have taken the gold: local tribes of goblins, or thieves, or even another band of mercenaries. But his hand didn’t grow sweaty where it gripped his war hammer, his heart barely quickened, and when he looked around, it was with a calm, easy gaze. There was no enemy he was likely to find in the woods, he thought, that he couldn’t beat with his war hammer or—if necessary—his fists. He’d fought monsters and men so often, battle was second-nature to him. There was no fight he couldn’t win.

Then a bush to the side of the path rustled, and Grannick turned to see a little golden figure tumble out of it. It looked almost exactly like a real person, but its entire body was the lustrous yellow tint of gold. As it trotted towards the stream, Grannick saw on its shoulder one of the Vanarl clan’s seals which had been stamped into each gold bar before transport. Grannick’s eyes widened, but he quickly caught himself and raised his war hammer. This was a mage’s work; a wizard had obviously come across the gold and animated it so it could walk itself out of the mountains with no need to be carried. There was an arcanist about who Grannick would have to deal with if he was to recover the property.  He’d fought wizards before, and while they could be challenging opponents, he knew how to beat them. His hammer and his knives—

Then the bushes parted again, and a young girl who couldn’t have been older than ten years old chased after it. “Goldie, wait!” she called, and the gold golem obediently stopped. “You forgot to carry me with you!”

Grannick watched, stunned, as the golem—one of the best Grannick had seen, moving with fluid motions that looked completely lifelike—bent down and waited for the little girl to climb on its shoulders.

Then the girl glanced back and saw Grannick. “Hi, mister!” she chirped. “I’m Laika! And this is Goldie, my best friend!” She waved, and the golem did too. “Do you like him?”

Grannick stared at the duo, and though he was still holding his war hammer, he knew that for the first time in years he was looking at a problem it couldn’t solve.

Trellach v. Damar, Part Three

Trellach v. Damar
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Three-

Trellach took a breath. Prentiss couldn’t be invincible, she thought; the game of Lords was too complicated for any individual to master every facet. She just had to find something he didn’t know. Yes, he was a champion who probably knew as much as anyone else about the game, but—

She caught herself. He had been a champion when he was alive. Now, though, he’d been dead and out of tournament play for thirty years. Damar had said he, Prentiss, worked out his own variations, but the game was so vast, he couldn’t possibly have matched the last thirty years of Lords theory on his own. The tactics developed recently had to be new to him. Trellach just had to find and exploit them.

A smile played over her lips as she realized what she could do. “I win,” she murmured. “I figured out his weak point, Damar.”

For the first time, the necromancer seemed puzzled. “Really? What is it?”

“You’ll see.” When she had been studying Lords, Trellach had come across games by what was called the ‘sapper’ school, a group of players who had risen to prominence fifteen years prior following a series of high-profile wins by their most fervent advocates. These players didn’t control strong central outposts with powerful pieces like the ‘outpost’ school did, nor did they try to block off such outposts with mobs of weaker pieces like the ‘blockade’ school. Instead they waited for their opponents to extend themselves by setting up outposts of their own, then attacked, undermined, and destroyed those outposts, much as sappers dug tunnels under castle walls to collapse them. Trellach had never used the tactics of the sapper school, and advocates of other play styles had worked out responses to said tactics five years prior… but Prentiss wouldn’t know that.

So Trellach surrendered the central position and withdrew her army to the outer edges of the board. Prentiss immediately seized the opportunity to build up a stronghold in the center of the board, which controlled a huge swath of territory and pinned down most of Trellach’s army. However, every move that strengthened his outpost resulted in him concentrating his forces a little more, and soon only his knight was providing support from a position outside the outpost while all the rest of his significant pieces were packed together in a seemingly impenetrable formation. If she sacrificed her last priest to draw off that knight, Trellach thought, she could set up a wave of her remaining soldiers, overwhelm the outpost, and remove most of his remaining pieces… provided she hadn’t missed something. But if she was wrong and Prentiss resisted her final assault, she’d be out of material.

Trellach took a long breath as she examined the board. She couldn’t see any way Prentiss could get out of it. Yes, he was a master—a fact she was now acutely aware of—but that didn’t make him invincible. And besides…

I’m smarter than these people, she thought to herself. I’m smarter than all of them.

She moved her priest. Prentiss’ hand darted towards his knight, hesitated for a second, and then—just as Trellach’s heart began thundering in her chest—he grabbed it and took the bait. She barely waited for him to let go before making her own next move, advancing the first soldier towards his army. He immediately knew; she could see his eyes darting along the board while he searched for a way out. But it was just as obvious he didn’t know what to do about it, because when the death knight moved again, it was the exact move the outpost school dictated. That left another wing of his formation undefended, so Trellach attacked, and things proceeded from there.

It took another fifteen moves, but eventually Prentiss was down to a single soldier, while Trellach still had three of her own. She maneuvered around his remaining piece and pinned down the general, then swept it from the board once Prentiss tipped it over. “I win!” she shouted, realizing she had been sweating. “So much for your death knight, Damar!” She turned to the necromancer, who looked genuinely impressed.

“Congratulations,” he said. “I’ve never known anyone to beat Prentiss.” He inclined his head. “You are a magnificent player.”

Trellach smiled to herself. Using obsolete tactics wasn’t what she would call magnificent, but it wasn’t like Damar or her citizens were smart enough to know the difference. “I am. And now, as per our agreement, you will perform hard labor until you have paid off your debt to this town.” She nodded at her mages. “Take him away to the dungeons.”

She looked back at the crowd and opened her mouth to proclaim how her victory had destroyed the vandal who had done such harm to them, but she realized her mages weren’t moving. All four stood stock-still while Damar stretched and yawned. “Actually,” he said, “I think I’ll be leaving now—many things to do, you know. Good day, baroness.”

“You will not.” Trellach scowled at her mages. “I said, take him to the dungeons—”

“Why won’t I?” asked Damar.

Trellach stared at him. “Because the rules we agreed on—”

“I thought the rules didn’t apply to nobility?” Damar winked at her and walked past her mages, none of whom even turned in his direction. “Rather unfair, isn’t it? You expect everyone else to follow the rules, but you don’t seem to care to follow them yourself.” He chuckled. “Are they just for those who aren’t as clever as you?”

“Listen, I don’t know what—”

Damar waved his hand, and Trellach’s mages suddenly shimmered as a magic veil fell away from their bodies. All four were rotting, and Tyrn’s skin even shuddered as if worms were buried within it. The citizens in the amphitheater gasped and screamed while Trellach gaped. “How—” she began at last. “That—”

“They were dead the moment they broke into my camp to abduct me,” said Damar, pacing across the stage as if in a lecture. “Literally, actually; I set up a ward to kill any living thing that crossed it and raise it as a zombie. I find it gives me peace of mind.” He smiled politely. “But I had to admit at being curious as to what kind of foolish noble would try to arrest a necromancer, of all people. So I had that Tyrn fellow cast one of those illusions he was so fond of when he was alive, made your pet wizards look all nice and lively, and came back. After calling a few friends, of course.”

Before Trellach could ask about the friends, several forms in the crowd shimmered and resolved themselves into robed figures. The surrounding citizens jumped back as quickly as they could. “You have no right!” yelled Trellach. “You—”

“You had no right to try to kill me because you didn’t like my spell,” said Damar. “So I suppose we’re even.”

Trellach flushed. “Why did you even go through with the game if you could have left at any time?”

“To see how good you were!” Damar gestured at Prentiss, who stood perfectly still, just like Trellach’s mages, now that the game was finished. “Prentiss is a fine player, but he’s not exactly up to date on the latest moves. So, once you challenged me to a game, I figured I would stay and see how you did. And I must say, you exceeded all my expectations.” He grinned. “Do you know what this means?”

Trellach thrust her hand towards her sword, but the zombified Tyrn muttered something, and the blade crumbled to dust. “That—that I’m good enough you won’t kill me? Like I promised—”

Damar laughed, an ugly sound that echoed through the amphitheater. “Incorrect, I’m afraid,” he said. “But don’t worry. Your talent, at least, will live on.”

The baroness tried to back away, but Damar muttered something in a tongue she didn’t know, and the world went black around her.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Damar nodded with obvious pleasure as Trellach’s body, fresh off from crumpling to the stage, rose again. The necromancers in the audience clapped politely, and he bowed until the applause died down, then had his newest death knight bow as well before taking her place near Prentiss. “Thank you,” he called to them. “You’re too kind.”

Someone screamed, and a few people immediately cringed away, as if worried Damar would kill them all on the spot, but the necromancer just beamed at them.  “You don’t need to worry,” he said. “My actions were taken only against your noble ruler who tried to kill me. We won’t hurt any of you…unless you give us cause.”

Nobody said anything, and Damar’s smile grew. “Well, we necromancers will be on our way. Although—we might be stopping back here now and then to resupply, rest, and so forth. We may even put up a little guild hall…oh, about where her house used to be.” He gestured at the death knight that had once been Baroness Trellach. “That won’t be a problem, will it?” He waited, but there were again no comments. “Excellent! I knew we could count on this town.”

He chuckled and turned to leave the stage, but just before he got off of it, some brave citizen shouted, “You knew? Did you plan all this out?”

Damar hesitated, then looked back. “Of course not!” he chirped. “I mean, I would have had to predict the completely random attack of rats that plagued this town, that Trellach would try to kill me, even that she’d challenge me to the one game this particular death knight is good at.” He grinned. “I’d have to be very clever indeed to work all that out in advance, wouldn’t I?”

He bowed once more to the citizens, and his zombies and death knights did the same. Then they all walked out of the amphitheater and were gone.

Trellach v. Damar, Part Two

Trellach v. Damar
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Two-

“…but I was not about to let this intruder get away with damaging your property and insulting you!” Trellach held a clenched fist up to her chest as her mages moved Damar to one side of the empty Lords board set on the amphitheater’s stone table. “He made it clear he believes we are too weak and foolish to stand up to him! Well, I will prove him wrong—in your names!”

The crowd clapped, though Trellach knew they didn’t really understand what was going on. But that was fine; they didn’t need to. All they needed to do was watch her humiliate their enemy and cheer for her when she drew her sword and cut off the mage’s head. Within a few weeks, they’d blame Damar for every misfortune that had befallen them, and Trellach would be as secure as ever.

“As your baroness, I have a wide latitude for what punishments I may inflict on those who would harm us,” continued Trellach, walking to the other side of the Lords table. “And I have made this a most fitting one. If Damar believes himself to be so much wiser than us, then we will play each other in the ultimate test of wisdom—the game of Lords. If he wins, he owes us nothing; I will pay to fix your property and accept this as my due for falling before a monster who thought nothing of upending your lies. But if—when—I win…” She swept an arm towards her audience. “He will do hard labor from morning to night, every day, until he has repaid us for the harm he wrought!” She turned towards Damar as the crowd cheered behind her. “I’m sure you’d much rather be doing important magical things—”

“Not really,” interrupted Damar in a quiet voice that somehow carried through the entire amphitheater. “I have a few spare hours before I need to leave town, so I suppose winning a quick game of Lords is as good a diversion as any.”

Trellach allowed herself a smirk. “Confidence is one thing, but in Lords there’s no substitute for good moves.” She dropped one hand to the side of the board, where a bunch of pieces had been readied for her to place. “Tyrn. His magic—”

“We placed bindings on him before you arrived,” said the mage, who nodded at his colleagues. “He cannot cast anything that targets another living being. That includes himself—no spells to boost his intelligence or anything like that.”

“Good.” Trellach picked up her general, the one mandatory piece, and smiled at Damar. “You may place your pieces first, wizard.”

Damar brightened. “Excellent!” He turned towards the crowd. “Prentiss! Mr. Prentiss, could you come here, please?”

“Prentiss? Who—” began Trellach before she heard a murmuring in the crowd and saw a very pale man in ragged clothes stumbling down the amphitheater steps. “Stop him!” she snapped to her mages. “There’s no asking for help in Lords!”

“I’m not asking for help.” Damar returned her smile. “Prentiss is a magic construct I whipped up one day when I wanted a good Lords opponent. He’ll be playing on my behalf.”

“What? That isn’t—”

“If you’re really cleverer than me,” said Damar, and suddenly his voice echoed across the amphitheater again even though he barely spoke above a whisper, “then surely you can beat one of my zombies.”

Trellach glared at Tyrn. “I thought you bound him?”

“Indeed he did!” chirped Damar. “Quite well too, really. But I was only bound to not cast spells on other living beings. Prentiss, as it happens, is quite deceased.”

Trellach examined the construct, which had reached the stage and was climbing up the stairs. The face looked familiar, and she realized it matched the one she’d seen in an old book. “That’s Matthias Prentiss!” she hissed. “The great Lords master who died thirty years ago!”

Damar nodded briskly. “I wanted a Lords partner, and I figured, who better than the man who revolutionized the game? So when I heard of his death, I simply went on over to the gravesite and brought him back as a death knight. We play every few days, and if I may say so, he’s even better now than when he died.” He chuckled. “Anyways, good luck beating him, baroness. I’m sure you’ll do splendidly.”

Tyrn moved forwards, magic crackling in his hands, but Trellach held up a hand to stop him. If he did anything now, she’d look weak in front of her people, like she couldn’t handle Damar after all. If she was to recover her pride and her dignity, she had to beat Damar as he was now, champion helper or not. “I will,” she told Damar. “Shall we?”

Prentiss was a thin old man with wispy hair and a completely blank expression. When he reached the board and moved besides Damar, he set up his pieces quickly and efficiently, choosing the classic formation: six soldiers—the weakest piece in the game—bracketing one knight in his second row and an array of archers and bards complementing his priest, mage, and general behind them. Trellach, for her part, went with her own usual strategy. She placed her general in the very back, then added two priests—whose special ability let them paralyze opposing pieces—and one mage—who could shoot halfway across the board in a single attack—in her center row. She filled every remaining space in her three deployment rows with a soldier.

The resultant board reminded Trellach of Lords books she had read when preparing for tournaments. Prentiss had used the traditional arrangement of pieces, now the favored army of what was called the ‘outpost’ school. It featured strong pieces, which could vault around the board and establish secured positions, and weaker pieces that protected and supported the stronger ones. Trellach, though, was a leading proponent of the ‘blockade’ school and had chosen an army to match. Her pieces were weak but numerous enough to clog the board, preventing Prentiss’ strongest pieces from making full use of their moves. Add in a couple priests to prevent opposing forces from fleeing and a single mage for a little firepower, and it was an effective way of shutting down a wide variety of enemy formations, then drowning them in sheer numbers. The result was the classic armies of the two largest schools of Lords would go up against each other… and, if Trellach remembered correctly, the blockade school won about sixty percent of such games.

“All right,” she said, smiling to herself. “Your move, Damar.”

Prentiss swiftly reached down, gripped a soldier, and shoved it forward two squares—the most common opening move in the game. Trellach moved a soldier one square, beginning what would soon become an inexorable crawl of her soldier army up the board. “I hope you brought some interesting variations,” she said. “Lest we all be bored to death.”

“Oh, no need to worry about that,” said Damar. “Why, in a few moves I daresay you’ll be completely and totally lost!”

Trellach scowled again, but Prentiss moved, and she returned her focus to the game.

The first dozen moves were straight from textbook, as both Prentiss and Trellach developed their sides according to the fundamental principles of their schools. On move thirteen, though, Prentiss moved an archer instead of the bard tradition dictated. This left his forward position slightly weaker, since the bard wasn’t there to ‘boost’ the pieces and enable them to move farther, but now his right side was stronger on account of the additional archer poised to fire into Trellach’s lines.

Trellach reached for her priest to move it one square to the right and paralyze the archer, but just before she picked it up, she saw what Prentiss was doing. If she did that, he’d be able—in only seven or eight turns—to exploit her underdeveloped left side and set up a forward base there. She instead moved a soldier, one which would both put a slight amount of pressure on the archer while also securing crucial squares on the left side of the board. Rather than rescue his archer, though, Prentiss just moved his mage to attack on an entirely unexpected angle, and Trellach once again scrambled to catch up.

Prentiss unleashed variation after variation, quickly departing from any book Trellach had read and moving the game onto a path of his own. As Trellach fought to puzzle his strategies out, she realized that each of Prentiss’ plans was thought out at least ten moves ahead, and if she missed a single one, then over the next fifteen moves, she’d find half her army isolated and captured. Soon her head pounded from the effort of trying to deduce Prentiss’ moves.

“Sometimes I have him play against himself for a week or two,” called Damar in a light tone. “Just working out new variations. What do you think?”

Trellach ignored him as Prentiss made another move. She narrowed her eyes, trying to work out his plan, and advanced one of her soldiers another two squares, but as soon as she let go, she felt she’d made a mistake. Prentiss swiftly moved his knight halfway across the board, and Trellach immediately saw he was concentrating his army to attack her formation in a spot she couldn’t reinforce without critically weakening herself elsewhere. All she could do was sacrifice a soldier to blunt his attack and buy her a turn to catch up, then dig in and hope he couldn’t press his attack.

But he did. Prentiss took the soldier she threw in front of his knight and maneuvered his pieces like a scalpel to tear into her weakened army. Over the course of ten turns, he widened the crack in the side of her massive army into a great rift, then worked his soldiers into where they could target her troops at their leisure. It was all Trellach could do to keep as many of her pieces alive as she could, but every turn worsened her position. When Prentiss forked her general and mage, forcing her to sacrifice the latter piece to rescue the former, she felt a wave of despair and heard her citizens whispering anxiously. “No,” she muttered. “I am not losing to a zombie.”

“Yes, you are,” said Damar in a pleasant tone.