On Location With...

Part 1 - Duty

Apprehensively, Schrau Cadnos tugged at his uniform jacket in a much-practiced way. What was before a crinkled mass of greened leather suddenly became a potent symbol of authority.
Despite the casual tone of the message, despite the assurances from his fellow sentinels, despite the fact that it was standard procedure to receive important assignments directly from Gilgal, Schrau was nervous. Nervous, and prepared for punishment duty. So he was no longer his usual scruffy self, dressing up for a dressing down.
He stepped into the office to find he wasn't exactly alone with Gilgal. Schrau didn't notice the stranger, his attention firmly locked onto the mountain of the man that was the former paladin.
"You asked to see me, sir?"
"Sit down, sergeant Cadnos." Gilgal sternly said. He seemed less than cheerful. In fact, his tone sounded almost career-killing.
Schrau did so. Oddly, there was a brief musical note from the direction of the third person in the room, but Schrau did not look.
"We've just received word from Raji..."
Well, that settled that. Schrau had been wondering which of the enemies he had made had firmly set him in their sights since being ordered to Gilgal's office. Raji suggested that it was Odie, who had no doubt finally managed to get bored with waiting for bounty hunters to deliver the goods and instead went straight to his own guildmaster to reign him in.
"Oh?" Schrau said.
"Yes," Gilgal sighed. "Cadnos, there's no easy way to say this..."
"Then just say it, sir." Schrau finally said, almost wishing that he hadn't used such an annoyed tone at his superior.
Gilgal glowered at him. "Cannis Rande, come here."
There was a suggestion of movement from the far side of the office where the mystery stranger was, and Schrau stood to be greeted by a fellow vulpin.
A runty vulpin a full two hand spans shorter than he, dressed up in the ridiculously garish wear of a minstrel and wielding a lute protectively. As short as the vulpin was, he was making brave strides to equalling the height of a normal human with an amazingly puffy blue hat and a three-foot long brown feather stuck into the pin at the front. Schrau inwardly groaned, the feather was a kanku's tail feather, and they rarely donated one to anyone.
"Herro!" Cannis cheerfully said, tucking the lute beneath one arm and extending the other in offer of a handshake to Schrau. The vulpin sentinel stared idiot-like at the hand before tenderly returning the handshake.
"As you may already be aware, the musicians of the bard guild have long found that recounting tales of adventure and bravery in taverns and otherwise polite company has been a veritable money-spinner." Gilgal's tone of voice was far from impressed, it was in fact the same tone he used for days afterwards anyone snatches the last donut from beneath his fingers. "Now, the bard guild have received the impression that the sentinel guild has been largely under-represented in such heroic tales."
"And that means...?" Schrau enquired, practically begging Gilgal to fill in the gap.
"Young Rande here has been sent from the guild to observe a typical sentinel in action." Gilgal continued. "As you are currently unassigned to any duties at the moment, and since you seem to prefer working solo, Rande has been assigned to observe you as you fulfil your duties."
In other words, Schrau should have worked more on his people skills rather than following up pointless leads in order to find his fellow slaves. If, too, Schrau hadn't been trading blows with a Fallen on Welstar, he might have been around for the latest round of assignments and would have escaped this sort of punishment duty.
Well, he supposed that was the sort of life a solo sentinel deserves. Schrau once again wished he had a regular partner. Maybe he would latch onto one of the new constables, only letting go until either of them dies.
"So... What you're terring me is that the bards, desperate for new revenue, have sent one of theirs to watch one of ours as they work. And then...?"
"They will return back to their own duties with many tales of sentinel adventures. The guild believes that such tales would be very popular with the masses."
Which guild? Schrau almost found himself asking aloud. "Ah, I see." He glanced sideways at the runty Rande, who openly returned the look with one of combined wide-eyed innocence, excitement, and "I don't know what the hell I've gotten myself involved in but I don't care!" idiocy. "Um... Rande, could you excuse us for a moment?"
"Of course!" Rande ebulliently replied. "And I must say that it is an honour to be serving one such as yourserf!" The bard bowed, then left the office.
Schrau waited a three-count, then said, "Okay, how have I messed up to deserve this?"
"I beg your pardon, sergeant, but Rande was assigned to you." Gilgal grunted. "Other bards will come, and they too will be assigned to other sentinels as they become available."
"Sir, I refuse to berieve that Seijirou or Meiris would have to put up with some garishry-dressed twit forrowing them around composing ditties whire they prumb the depths of the dungeons of Sikkar-knows-what-menace-dwerrs-within."
"Well, maybe not on such dangerous missions, but every sentinel will do this duty. Eventually." Gilgal's eyes misted over briefly. "It's vital that this experiment goes well. Ensure it does."
Schrau caught the undertones of what Gilgal was meaning to say. Please ensure that this doesn't go well. By the light of Sikkar, make sure this is the last we hear of this crazy scheme.
Still, he had to voice his opposition, especially since it was his only way out of this. "Sir... Tavern entertainment? The sentiners know about tavern entertainment, sir, and usuarry it's because we have to put an end to it."
"I know, sergeant. I know. Now, onto your assignment-"
"I thought this baby-sitting duty was my assignment?" Schrau replied quizzically.
"No," Gilgal replied, slightly peeved. "As I said, you are Rande's assignment. I have one for you. Sentinel duty."
The brief fear returned. Bumped down to punishment duty, and now he would have a bard tagging along. "What would you have me do, sir?"
"The mayor's daughter has been kidnapped."
Schrau groaned. "Again? What's this, the third time this month?"
"Fourth, actually. Yes, I know that rescuing her is usually punishment duty-"
"-Which it is-"
"-But, well, considering you will be escorted by someone whose combat training extends as far as beating someone to submission with his instrument this is ideal."
Schrau knew that some bards were formidable fighters. Some even had blade skills Schrau hoped to learn himself one day. Clearly, Rande was about as useful in a fight as he looked.
"Who is it this time? Thieves?"
"No, that was the last time."
"I thought the trimers kidnapped her rast time?"
"No, that was the time before. Stop correcting me." Gilgal consulted his notes. "Ah yes. A wandering bandit group. Some country yokels bored with farming and have decided to turn their attentions elsewhere. The, uh, Morton gang."
"Morton?" Schrau tried to pull the name from his memory. "I don't seem to know them."
"Three brothers. Rod, Tod, and, uh, Bod." Gilgal sighed as he offered Schrau a piece of paper.
"Country folk should not be arrowed to name more than one of their chirdren without consurtation." Schrau grunted as he snatched the case notes. "Okay, Meriree wirr be back with her father by sunset."
"I know she will." Gilgal nodded. "Oh, and make sure Rande gets a good view."

Part 2 - Step Right Up

"Good, good." Cannis muttered as he scribbled busily at the piece of paper he had produced from somewhere in his eye-bending suit. "This is good stuff."
"Just... Just drink your beer. Please." Schrau sighed as he stared at the bottom of his ale tankard. Their chosen venue for the sentinel's descent into alcoholic oblivion was the Flying Barnacle Bar in Sauronan's harbour. A well-lit and decidedly cheerful bar compared to the dingy Golden Boar Restaurant & Casino that Cannis had wanted to see. When the bard pushed the question to the sentinel, Schrau had said in not so many words that a sentinel was as welcome to the Golden Boar as the Nameless One was to a Sikkarian wedding.
The sentinel had finished his paperwork on the brave and dashing (according to Cannis) if routine (according to anyone with half a brain) rescue of Merilee, the mayor's daughter.
Schrau had told Cannis. "If we had mayoral elections," a word he wouldn't attempt to say to anyone except fellows of the lupin metarace. "then the sentinels would vote for a mayor without a daughter. Every last one of them."
"I don't understand it, why hasn't the mayor hired a bodyguard or something."
"Because bodyguards draw a regular wage." Schrau mumbled into his beer. "It's cheaper just to force the sentinels into their duties every time she gets kidnapped. Cheaper than to even put decent locks on her door and windows..."
"Ah! How exciting! The sentinels, honoured lawmen and eternal guardians of the mayor's treasure!"
Schrau resisted the urge to point out to Cannis that most sentinels sought promotion to rise above Merilee-watching duty. The rest found novel ways to kill themselves so they wouldn't be bothered by that shrill, simpering voice ever again. Instead, he downed his beer and considered ordering another.
"So which one of the bandit leaders came at you with that scythe?" Cannis asked.
"Tod." Schrau replied, unsure himself. In all likeliness it was Rod or Bod, but when a country bumpkin with delusions of grandeur attacks you with a large farming implement, one made more of an effort to run him through rather than ask for proper identification.
"Good, good." Cannis muttered as he scribbled busily at the piece of paper, running the last few lines beneath his breath.
Schrau glared at the minstrel, wishing against all hope that he'd shut up and drink his beer. Instead, the bard continued to scribble on his piece of paper. "Rande..."
Cannis looked up from his paper and set Schrau in that patently adorable wide-eyed gaze that made the sentinel wish that the Bardmasters had instilled the young vulpin with a dose of reality before sending him to the sentinels. "Yes, sir?"
It was the 'sir' that stopped him from continuing with his prepared tirade. Nobody had ever called him 'sir' without meaning to be sarcastic, menacing, or impolite. The junior sentinels wouldn't call him 'sir' even if he wanted them to.
One word, but it was all that Schrau needed that he was dealing with someone well beyond the edge of reason.
"Um... Oh, never mind."
Cannis nodded sympathetically, before returning to his piece of paper. "I've almost got it, just... One... Ahah!" Cannis finished scribbling at the paper and smiled widely at it. "Perfection!"
"Great." Schrau mumbled. "Will you drink your beer now?"
"Alcohol fogs the mind and trips the tongue, sergeant." Cannis quickly said, hungrily eying the small stage at the front of the bar. "Perhaps..."
"Perhaps, what?" Schrau quietly snapped back.
"Perhaps I could, uh, we could benefit from a presentation of my works."
Schrau warily glanced at the small stage. Of course, the Flying Barnacle accepted open entertainment, but the normal clientele of seamen preferred shanties than tales of daring-do. Still, there were a couple of swashbucklers that would no doubt enjoy a well-written tale.
If Schrau could trust Cannis' work to be well-written.
The rest of the patrons were the types of malcontents that made Schrau wary. The type of people he would be harassing during working hours, and the type that would be harassing him the rest of the time. Still, bars were universally accepted as neutral ground, so they kept their distance.
Maybe he should look at Cannis' work before granting him permission, but a familiar shape on the other side of the bar sidled over that caught his attention.
"Go on. Enjoy yourself." Schrau grunted, waiting for Cannis to spring to his feet before he picked up both ale tankards and moved towards the bar. At least he'll be able to drink Cannis' beer in peace for the next few minutes.
"Now there's trouble." Laere, the vulpin barmaid observed as Schrau sat at the bar while Cannis made his preparations up on the small stage. Laere smiled and took the empty tankard away while Schrau sipped solemnly on Cannis'. "So, how badly did you screw up this time?"
"Ugh..." Schrau mumbled. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Try me." Laere leaned forward, causing a few of the bar patrons to lean in. "You wouldn't believe half the stuff I've heard over this board."
Schrau regarded his beer and sighed, "Bloody bards. They think there's money to be made of the sentinel guild, so they've sent young Cannis here to observe me in my duty."
"Doesn't sound that bad." Laere looked over at the bard as he practiced some scales while expertly ignoring impatient members of the audience ordering him to get on with it. "He's cute."
"Laere, you say that about every vulpin male that walks in here, and some of the females." Schrau informed her.
"I do?"
"Yes. You said that about me."
"Oh." Laere smiled sweetly. "But I meant it with you."
"Thanks. I think." Schrau took another long pull from the tankard. "If he doesn't start soon, then he's likely to be dragged off."
With that, Cannis finally began to strum on his lute. The kid didn't play too badly, even if he did miss the lead-in to the words and was forced to replay the entire tune from scratch. Not many people noticed.
Eventually, he began singing. Schrau refused to allow himself to listen to the words, preferring to observe the audience's reaction. Still, there was no disguising the overly-simplistic nature of the lyrics.
"He's not bad." Laere observed.
"He could do better." Schrau agreed.
"Oh, don't be so hard on him." Laere paused to catch a line of the song. "Hey, did you re-"
"No." Schrau bluntly interrupted, before draining his ale.
Laere smiled and filled another tankard before pushing it towards hum. "Well, perhaps it wouldn't do you any harm if everyone believes him. That's what good bardship is about, after all."
"I suppose so." Schrau agreed, sipping his beer. "Still, we shouldn't get to attached to these bards for the sake of the guild and our own egos."
"So, what is this?" Laere asked. "Some sort of test case?"
"Some sort is right. Gilgal made it pretty clear that he hopes that this trial is unsuccessful."
"Oh, I see."
"Yes, but the trick will be causing Cannis to fail without getting him killed."
"There's always a trick." Laere informed him. "You know what they say - One vulpin is a trick, two vulpins is a conspiracy, three-"
"-is a coup... Yeah, I know." Schrau grinned. "Still working on swindling this place from beneath Zeke's tentacles?"
There was a jingle of various coinage from the direction of the stage as Laere grinned wickedly. "Now why would I do that? Zeke's been good to me." She glanced across once again at Cannis. "Well, at least the boy will be able to pay his own way."
"Seems that way." Schrau conceded.
"So how long have you got him for?"
"I dunno." Schrau mumbled. "For as long as it takes, I suppose."
"When you've finished with him, can I keep him?" Laere asked, grinning widely.
"I'll see wh-"
Suddenly, Schrau became aware of nearly every pair (Or otherwise) of eyes being fixed on his person, mainly from the tougher members of the crowd. Cannis had stopped playing too, and in fact had the look of one who had realised that he had managed to screw up a good thing beyond all previously thought-of ways.
"Did I miss something?" Schrau quietly asked Laere.
"Well, I think the last line of the song was 'And there is none in the worlds that can defeat me.'" Laere surreptitiously began moving fragile objects away from Schrau. "And Cannis did make certain gestures during his tale that without a doubt made everyone know who in this bar he was singing about. Did you really say that?"
"No. Have I just unwittingly challenged everyone in this bar to a fight?" Schrau moaned.
"Yes, very impressive too, I didn't even see your lips move."
If it suddenly gets dark in a brightly-lit bar, then it's because you're short and a bunch of tall and bulky people have decided to stand up. Xodars could crush rocks in their hands, and some of the off-duty sailors that were approaching Schrau looked as if they could crush a xodar.
"We'rr be havin' no troubre here tonight, gentremen." Laere growled, her hand surreptitiously reaching for the four feet of a mahogany peacemaker hidden beneath the bar. Even without turning his head, Schrau could tell that the owner, Ezekiel, was doing the same thing further down the bar.
"Oh, we'll be as civil as possible." The lead sailor said, a man with an impressive collection of tattoos across his entire body that gave him a sun-blackened look from a distance. Schrau inwardly groaned and began to loosen himself up so he could quickly draw his weapons. "We jus' wanted to see if what that li'l pipsqueak bard said is true."
Schrau quickly put on his best diffusing smile. "Werr, I'm sure you're smart enough to know that bards are prone to exaggeration, it makes good entertainment mister, uh..."
"Me name's Dod, Dod Morton." The sailor grinned, with half his teeth shining gold and the other half deciding not to put in an appearance this, or any other, night.
"Oh." Blast, now he could see the resemblance. Remove the tattoos, and maybe take his head off his shoulders and he'd look just like the dearly departed Rod Morton, or maybe even Tod.
"Well then, me brothers were idiots and some'll reckon that the worlds would be better off without 'em." Dod continued before his eyes flamed furiously. "Bu' havin' some pipsqueak sentinel jus' mouthin' off about them. 'tis not right y'know."
Schrau heard the scrape of wood on metal hooks behind him, and saw the sailor reach for the hilt of the cutlass at his waist.
"What say ye, sentinel?"
Schrau had lost control. Things weren't bad yet, but they would irrevocably be so the second someone threw something at him. Everyone in the bar was looking at him, wishing for a fight, and palming empty tankards, glasses, and candle jars. Someone was going to throw something, and even if he didn't react to that then Dod would use the distraction to unsheathe his sword. Then there would be a fight, and maybe some old-fashioned swinging on the chandeliers if Schrau was any judge of tavern entertainment.
"Risten, Morton; I-" Schrau began, right at the moment a tankard caromed off his forehead.

Part 3 - Beat 'n' Black and Blue

Cannis Rande walked about a pace behind Schrau, complaining all the while as they walked through the busy streets of Sauronan. The sentinel let him because, simply, he would have a really good excuse to begin complaining about the young bard.
"-but we could be out hunting for thieves and murderers and other ne'er-do-wells!" Cannis moaned. "We could be having an adventure! Like last night! Oh, last night..."
Schrau whimpered and brushed at the bump on his forehead, before letting his hand fall to the black mark across his throat. While at the slave den, that which he referred to as his 'family's curse' burned bright with pain. Since escaping to freedom, it had settled down to an annoying throb throughout the day, every day, even while asleep and in his dreams. Some days were worse than others, such as today.
"Oh, adventure eh?" Schrau said, deciding now was as good as any time to begin transferring his misery to someone else. "You mean having to fight and arrest a bunch of sailors because of something I didn't say? Or to be clipped by the backswing of Laere's club? Or to have a very fat man and a chandelier nearly drop onto you because the former foolishly believed the latter could hold his weight?"
"Well... Yes."
Schrau snorted. "And while I was doing all that, what were you doing?"
"Um... Taking names."
"You were taking names because?"
"Because it would be useful for the tale..."
Oh yes, that had been a sight worth seeing. Bards for years to come would tell tales of the Brave Sir Rande as he asked, "Erm, who is that man with the eye-patch?"
"So on our next adventure will you be taking names? Or maybe clonking someone across the head with your lute? Because either would be good for me."
Cannis tried to come up with an answer for this, somewhat aware that there was no right one. Schrau snorted once again and stepped aside to let someone pass.
"I also collected the money." Cannis hazarded. "You know, the money I earned for my performance."
Schrau nodded, once, and chose not to add that it was also the money that had been generously given to Ezekiel to help pay for repairs to the Flying Barnacle. Schrau was actually grateful that Cannis had eventually stopped complaining about that.
"Cannis, this is a standard patrol. Do you know what the word 'standard' means?" He didn't let the vulpin bard answer. "It means we all have to do it; regardless of rank, seniority, or standing within the guild." Or how concussed you are after a night in a barroom brawl.
Still, Schrau liked patrols. All you had to do was watch for trouble, arrest the occasional pickpocket and cutpurse, and generally not put your head on the block while the cruel world keened the axe.
"This is as much a part of the sentinel guild as hare-brained adventure, Rande."
"I suppose so."
"Now keep your eyes peeled for anything untoward." Schrau ordered. "If we're lucky, it'll be a quiet day, and we can go get drunk somewhere instead of filling out tedious paperwork."

Schrau yelped as he heard the voice ring out across the busy street on the basis that he knew exactly what had said that word. As Cannis turned to see, Schrau snatched the puffy blue hat with its ridiculously large feather off the bard's head and hid it behind his back.
"Hey! That's my-" Cannis began, before the sentinel kicked him on the shin to silence him.
Breaking through the crowd was a short and very irate kanku, zeroing in on the sentinel. "Sentinel! I say, sentinel!"
"Yes sir, how may I be of service?" Schrau asked the birdman, his hands still on the hat behind his back.
"I have been robbed!" The kanku moaned. "One minute I was walking down the street, and the next my money pouch is gone!"
"Oh, I see." Schrau slowly said, fully aware that the likelihood of finding the thief was slim to none. "Did you see the thief?"
"Um... I'm afraid not." The kanku said, looking briefly abashed before scowling once again. "Aren't you going to write this down?"
For a moment, Cannis was unsure as to what the sentinel would do. He looked across and saw the lawman's mind practically ticking over madly. Then, with exaggerated care, he brought both of his hands around to the front of his coat. "Of course, mister..."
While Schrau produced a notebook and pencil and took the details of the robbery from the kanku, Cannis surreptitiously stepped to the side to have a look behind the sentinel. His hat was there, balanced perfectly on his tail.
It didn't take long for Schrau to finish talking to the kanku, though by that time his tail was straining under the pressure of keeping the hat balanced.
"Do you think you'll get my money back?" The kanku pleaded.
"I doubt it, but I wirr try and find the thief." Schrau said as he began the motion of slipping the notebook back into his pocket. A universal move, telling the kanku that he wasn't going to write anything else down and whatever happened afterwards wasn't important.
The kanku looked crestfallen. "Oh blast, and I had just won big on a game of Find the Lady."
Schrau's ears twitched, and he smiled and flipped open his notebook. "Interesting." He jotted down something. "Werr, thank you for your information, you've been most herpfur."
"Okay." The kanku said before noticing Cannis for the first time. "Eeh, you're a short one. Maybe you should wear a hat to make up the difference."
"I usuarry do." Cannis sulked, but refraining from saying anything until the kanku turned around and walked off. "What was that for!?"
Schrau returned the hat. "Do you know what feather that is? It's a kanku tail feather."
"Yeah, so?"
"Have you ever tried to take a feather from a kanku?" Schrau asked, once again not expecting an answer. "You'd have an easier time taking a vulpin's tail, they don't just fall out you know."
"And how would you feel if you saw someone wearing a vulpin tail on his head?"
"Oh." Cannis mumbled. "Sorry. So what was so interesting about him winning a Find the Lady game?"
"A lot, if you know who typically runs such games in the city. Come on." Schrau said, dragging Cannis into an alley while unbuckling his belt. "It's even more interesting if you really knew how many people actually win such games." He removed his green leather coat and turned it inside out. It was lined with blue velvet, the inside pockets in places where outside pockets would be on a normal coat. Midway through turning the coat inside-out, Schrau had unclipped the badge and now slipped it into one of the pockets.
Schrau put the coat on, straightened it, and wrapped the belt around his waist with the buckle at his left hip. He then removed the money purse from around his neck, opened it and put some gold coins into it, before tying it securely onto his belt at his right hip and slipping it into a pocket.
"Give me your hat."
"Oh, you ask this time." Cannis grumbled, handing the headpiece to the sentinel who removed the feather and handed that back to Cannis. With a smile, Schrau removed his circlet, stuffed it into the hat and squeezed it into a shape less associated with Rajian turbans before putting it on his head.
"Just as well I checked my weapons in back at the guild. Such swords make people nervous, and I would have had trouble incorporating them into this disguise." He adjusted the collar of the jacket to cover the black mark on his neck. "How do I look?"
"Nothing like a sentinel." Cannis admitted.
"Just as well you wear a blue hat then." Schrau grinned as he led Cannis back out of the alley. "Well then, I'm feeling lucky right about now."

"Josh Ranner." Schrau quietly told Cannis some distance away from the man standing behind a barrel. On top of the barrel was three cards and a small pile of gold coins. "Master of disguise, expert pickpocket and cutpurse, general malcontent, operator of the loosest card game in town, really bad at conning people out of money at Find the Lady."
"Really?" Cannis asked. "I would have thought he would have been better at that, being so bad and all."
"There's a reason." Schrau said. "Fastest hands in all of Sauronan, but a half-blind old lady can see how he moves the cards."
The man, obviously a merchant, currently at the game cackled as Ranner flipped over one card. The grubby human shrugged his shoulder, dumped a fair amount of coinage onto the pile already on the barrel, and nodded at the merchant who scooped up the winnings without a second thought before producing a coin purse and filling it.
"Any merchant worth his apron would have checked the money first, but he was happy and excited at winning." Schrau whispered. "But Ranner now knows two things, the first that he hasn't lost any money and the second is that he now knows where exactly that merchant keeps his money. If Ranner never sees him again, then he doesn't mind, but I'm willing to bet my badge that some time in the near future that merchant will be bumped by an apologetic man on the street and will later find that his purse is gone." Schrau tugged at his inverted coat. "Come, bard. Remember that I am wealthy merchant who has just decided to be lucky and you are my bardic assistant."
They stepped over to the barrel, where Ranner grinned at them through a thick beard that Schrau knew was fake. "Afternoon, sirs, feelin' lucky."
"That I am, sir." Schrau said, pulling the purse out of his pocket and withdrawing a fair amount of coinage. "It has been a very good day, so far, and I feer that it can onry get better."
"Well then," Ranner said, flipping the three cards over and pointing at the queen of hearts. "Find the lady and I promise it will." He flipped them back over and moved them in a highly complicated, but possible, way. Even Cannis knew that it was the left card.
Schrau pondered his move, his eyes moving as if he was replaying the sequence in his mind. "Hmm... I think..." His finger hovered over the middle card. "That one." He quickly pointed at the left card.
Ranner turned the cards one-by-one from right to left. Sure as it was day, the leftmost card was the queen of hearts. "Tsk, shocking sir." Ranner mumbled as he produced some coins and dumped them onto Schrau's pile. "Another game, good sir?"
"No thank you." Schrau grinned as he scooped the coins without a second thought and slipped them into his money pouch which went back into his pocket. "I don't want to tempt fate further. Good day to you, sir. Come, Rande." Schrau nodded and turned away.
Cannis almost lost Schrau as he surged through the crowd. Eventually, they wound up near the market district of the city, whereupon Schrau stood before a large building. "When it comes to gold, there are three types of people you cannot fool - You cannot fool dwarves, you cannot fool trolls, and you cannot fool the more serious merchants of this city. Ugaak here represents two of those three."
The massive troll looked up from his forge. "Yessir, 'ow can I 'elp you?"
"Ugaak, it's me." He untied his change purse and tossed it at the troll, who snatched it out of the air with ease. "There's some fake coinage in that purse. Separate it from the real, blacken the fake coins, and keep some of the real coins for payment. Quickly now, we don't have much time."
Ugaak grinned and set to work, carefully sorting the coins and toasting the forgeries with some of the cooler coals of his forge. He waited for them to cool down, palmed about ten of the hundred real coins, before refilling the purse and throwing it back to the sentinel. "'ere you go."
"Thanks, Ugaak." Schrau waved as he removed his badge from his pocket and slipped it into the purse before securing it. "Come, Rande."

"So we just wait?" Cannis asked.
"Wait, and walk." Schrau corrected. "Two of the most important disciplines a sentinel can learn. Wait and walk and everything will happen for you."
"But how will we know? You said he was a master of disguise."
"You won't know, I will. Patience."
"My head's getting cold."
They had walked halfway across the city, occasionally stopping at various stalls and landmarks, and still no one had so much as bumped into the faux merchant.
"Soon." Schrau whispered, before he rocked from a close encounter with a well-dressed and smooth-cheeked man.
"Terribly sorry." The man said, tipping his hat. Schrau nodded and smiled and, when the human lowered his hand, snatched it and snapped one end of a manacle around the wrist. A thin razorblade fell from the sleeve of the human's jacket.
"What's the meaning of this!?" The man demanded.
"Josh Ranner," Schrau said, glancing at the blade. "Sergeant Cadnos of the sentiners. You are under arrest."
The man snorted. "Sentinel? Pull the other one, it might just jingle. Where's your badge?"
"Under your hat, in that purse you just rifted from me, arong with about a hundred in gord and a hundred in fake and brackened coinage."
"Preposterous!" The man snarled. "Now let me go!"
"Maybe you should try and prove your innocence, Ranner." Schrau suggested.
"I... I..." Ranner stumbled before pulling hard on the shackle which Schrau still held. The move was designed to off-balance the sentinel, and would have done if he had not been prepared for it. Ranner changed direction quickly and aimed a punch at his head with his free hand.
Schrau ducked the blow, stepped through bringing Ranner's bound arm across his own body, and struck at the back of his knee. Cannis hadn't even seen the sentinel draw the black truncheon from one of the coat's many pockets, and as Ranner sagged to the floor the human began to wish he hadn't.
Schrau twisted Ranner's arm around his back and lifted the hat off the human's head. A leather purse fell off and dropped to the ground. "Cannis, if you would be so kind..."
The bard knelt down and picked up the purse with it's cut thong and opened it. He reached into it and pulled out the badge and a handful of real and fake coinage.
"That seems good enough evidence for me, mister Ranner." Schrau announced, cuffing his hands behind his back. "Now, if you would come with me, I'm sure Girgar would rike to have a word or severar with you." The sentinel grinned. "You were right; I found the rady, and my day just got better."

Part 4 - Bridge

Schrau found Cannis studying the Pillar of Law as he emerged from Gilgal's office. Two days from sleeping in his own bed, Schrau wanted to get back to his apartment on Welstar and sleep until the bard problem went away.
"So Cannis..." He said, checking the ship schedule pinned to the board on the wall. "Where are you staying?"
Cannis tore his attention from the monolith. "Oh, uh, well I have rented accommodation in Keystone city."
Schrau faked a smile. "Oh well then, seems we're heading in the same direction. The ship leaving to Welstar departs at Valley arch. Let's not dawdle."

It was a clear night, not even Wysoom's usual storm clouds could obscure the moonlight. Schrau led, the wind whipping his coat while Cannis skulked a few feet behind practicing scales.
Eventually, they came to the Valley of Dreams. A fairly shallow valley, with a gentle slope down to the calm river below. The archway glinted in the starlight at the other side of the Valley.
The slopes were easily traversable, several sentinels had taken it at full pelt in pursuit of a criminal making a bid for freedom. A bridge had been erected high across the river to save people the bother of getting their feet wet. A rope bridge, but a fairly rigid one. Though a creaking, swinging rope bridge was traditional one would not have lasted a day in Wysoom's keen winds. Stepping onto the bridge was very much like stepping onto a rock precipice.
Schrau stepped onto the first slat of the bridge before turning around. Cannis stood there, several feet further away than he had normally been lurking all night.
"Something the matter?"
Cannis swallowed hard. "Um... It's just, uh, I, uh..." Schrau guessed that the young bard was trying to figure out the least embarrassing way to continue his sentence. "I want to go first." The words came out almost as one.
Schrau raised an eyebrow. "Umm... Sure, but why?"
"It's just..." Now the young bard looked nervous. "...If I fall, someone, uh, you'll have to stop me, and it's better if I'm in front of you, right?"
Ah, he was afraid of bridges. Schrau grinned, his vision dipping for a brief moment as a shadow passed over the Trireme moon. "Okay, but this is a pretty good bridge." He gripped both rope handrails and tried to rock the bridge. "There's looser ground around, the only way you'll come off this bridge is if someone knocks you off." Schrau stepped off the bridge and let the bard pass.
Another shadow passed over the moon, Schrau glanced up as he turned. Not a cloud in the sky. Strange...
As he returned his attention to the bridge, a shadow dropped heavily onto it a few feet before Cannis. Schrau heard the familiar noise of a weapon being drawn.
"Cannis!" Schrau yelled, reaching for his blades.
Too late. A shimmering black blade lashed out and caught the bard on the face. An slight upwards sweep, it would have been a decapitating blow if Cannis had been an average-sized vulpin. Instead, all the blow did was knock his hat off, lift the bard off his feet, onto the rail, and over the edge.
Schrau drew both of his blades, the dwarven steel shimmering blue. The shadow leapt back and landed near the centre of the bridge. In the still of the night, the sentinel could hear his charge rolling down the slope. He could hear bones break.
A quick shift in priorities; Cannis was severely injured and needed aid. The attacker was now no longer important but had to be dealt with.
Schrau could make out the shape of the shadow. Horned helmet, wings, heavy body armour...
"Daste." Schrau growled. "I see you've recovered from your wounds?"
The dragonian nodded.
Regardless of what he wanted from the Fallen, of his desire to find his people, Schrau knew that Cannis' need was much greater than his. Schrau stepped forward, feeling the first slat of the bridge beneath his foot. The bridge was firmly anchored at the ends, rather than simply beginning where the cliff ended. "Oh, you shouldn't have done that, Kuroryu...."
"Perhapsss..." The Fallen hissed. Schrau caught a whiff of odour even at this distance. Sweet, like berries.
"No, rearry, you shouldn't have done that. You've made three mistakes, Kuroryu." Schrau lashed out with both of his blades, slashing at the handrails which snapped under tension. The entire bridge creaked as the tense ropes that supported the bridge sagged. "The first was picking a fight on a rope bridge..."
Daste roared and began sprinting towards the sentinel, his Fellblade raised high.
Schrau struck downwards, severing one of the ropes that held the wooden slats together. Not sufficient to break the bridge, but what had been a finely-tuned and engineered feat of a bridge was now lacking two of several means in which to keep itself taut. "...Second was retreating near the middre of the bridge..."
The bridge pitched sideways under the Fallen's bulk, and Daste managed to stop and spread his wings. Either for balance or for flight, Schrau wasn't certain.
"Now the third... The third mistake was wounding my bard...." Schrau grinned, taking another step forward. He placed his foot down onto the rocking bridge and pressed hard.
The bridge rocked again, and this time Daste fell off. Schrau heard a crack as one of his wings caught the bridge. Broken or otherwise, the dragonian would be unable to fly in the near future.
Schrau tried to listen for a splash below, or at least the sound of metal against ground. He heard neither. Another world rift.
Schrau gritted his teeth and sighed. Well, at least he knew that he wouldn't be bothered soon. Now all that was left to do was find out if Cannis Rande was in one salvageable piece.

He tried to open his eyes, but neither of them worked well enough to let him see. He couldn't feel a thing except pain. He couldn't even remember his name. He heard rustling, and received the impression of movement about him. He tried to ask what was going on.
His words came back to him as a monosyllabic gargle.
"Huh? Oh, Cannis..." Yes, that was his name. "...I was rather hoping that you'd stay out for this."
Cannis tried to ask what was wrong. He must have managed it because the voice replied; "You're in a bad shape. Open wound above your right eye caused by the blade, but I've patched that up with a, heheh, homemade poultice and some bandages."
Cannis tried to move his hand to touch the wound, which required him to try and remember where his arms were. Instead, he had nothing but searing pain to reward him.
"Both of your arms are broken, pretty badly too." The voice... An angel? No, someone he knew. "I've put them both in splints and bound them to your body. It'll make carrying you awkward, but better than having them hang loose." Another rustle. "Now for the bad part. Your right leg's broken, and it's in a worse condition than the rest of you. I'm going to have to set it before I can put it into a splint. And that will hurt like hell."
Suddenly, something was stuffed into his mouth. "Now, I'm not going to ask you if you're ready - It has to be done, and if you brace yourself it'll hurt a lot more. Don't worry, Cannis, I just happen to know a biomancer around these parts. Oh, and I've found your hat, unfortunately. At least it'll be useful for this."
Hat? Before Cannis could try and pull something of worth from those words something clicked in the lower part of Cannis' conscious, and he tried to scream.
Instead, he fell into blackness.

Cannis woke with a startled yelp. The gloom of his surroundings smothered the bright edges of pain in his vision.
"Oh, he's awake."
The bard suddenly checked his limbs. His arms and right leg were aching, but in surprisingly good condition. He was also lying in a bed; a soft, comfortable bed.
Okay, a bed. Not quite a grassy slope, much of an improvement in fact. He could see a bookshelf along the far wall, and a book on the bedside unit. Cannis tried to concentrate on the title; The Biomancer's Textbook.
Sitting beneath the one window in the room was Schrau and a female vulpin, her fur was not the usual ruddy red of most vulpins, but a dazzling silver instead. Between them sat a small table and a chessboard, a game in progress. Schrau was looking at him with more interest than concern while the other vulpin studied the board in contemplation. She made a move, and Schrau noticed it before writing something down on the notebook at his right hand.
"Cannis Rande, this is Corliss Bowne; biomancer, fully trained to put you back together after something takes you apart."
Cannis put a hand to his forehead, the wound was gone too but he couldn't open his right eye. "What happened to me?"
"Basically," Corliss spoke in a soft, soothing voice, "I had to expend a lot of magic to heal you. Your injuries were survivable, but would take a very long time to heal."
"My eye!" Cannis said, running towards the verge of hysteria flapping his arms and hoping to fly. "What happened to my eye?"
The biomancer smiled in amusement. "Well, it was a pretty bad cut, and when struck by a Fellblade it leaves... It leaves a little of its essence behind to hurt you more."
"I've lost my eye, haven't I?"
"Uh..." Corliss laughed. "No. No, Schrau here worked up a little something to clean the cut and do something for the pain." She glared at the sentinel. "But when he was making his spit-and-plant poultice, he forgot to check what he was putting into it."
"Oh, it wasn't my fault I grabbed a handful of herbs that make a good muscle relaxant." Schrau complained, his voice slurring slightly. "At least it was good for the pain too..."
"Anyway, you'll be unable to open that eye for as long as Cadnos here will be unable to talk properly."
"It could've been worse, there was some poison ivy on that slope too..."
Cannis flopped back down onto the bed, then noticed something blue and haggard at the foot of his bed. It was his hat, the feather broken, and beaten severely. It looked as if something had taken a huge bite out of it.
Then he remembered Schrau telling him that he had found his hat shortly after stuffing something into his mouth. "My hat!"
"Yeah, sorry about that." Schrau mumbled as he made his move and jotted something down on the notebook. "Check. You would have rather swallowed your tongue when I set your leg?"
"I liked that hat..." Cannis complained.
"We'll buy you one even more ludicrous." Schrau promised.
There was a click as Corliss bumped a piece on the board with one of hers. "Checkmate."
"Dang." Another scribble. "Anyway, it's late, I'd better be going." Schrau stood up and gathered his swords. "Cannis, you'll have to stay here under observation. I'll be back tomorrow to check on you."
Corliss rose. "I'll see you out."
"Why do I have to stay here?" Cannis asked.
"I'll explain later." The biomancer said as she led Schrau to the door.
"Who was that?" Cannis mumbled, "His breath smelled funny."
Schrau stopped mid-stride. "Yeah, it did, didn't it?" He shook his head, "Anyway, I'll see you both tomorrow."
Cannis waited for Corliss to return from showing Schrau the door. As he did so, pain started creeping back into his body.
The door clicked shut, and Corliss moved towards a water barrel in the corner of the room. She used a ladle to fill a wooden mug with water before walking over to Cannis. "Here, drink this."
Cannis weakly accepted the mug and sipped at it. The water was sweet, not like the hard and slightly salty freshwater of Wysoom. "Thank you."
"Anyway," Corliss dragged a chair to the side of the bed and sat on it. "Time for an explanation. As I said earlier, I had to use a lot of magic to heal your limbs. It does wonders for the body, but doesn't do anything to the mind. Simply put, your mind still thinks your arms and leg are broken."
"Really?" Cannis mumbled before continuing to drink heavily from the mug.
"Yes." Corliss sighed. "And if you keep exerting yourself, well, your mind will become so convinced that your limbs are broken that they will. Suddenly. Like twigs."
"I didn't think the mind could do that?"
Corliss grinned widely. "Maybe you should hang around with a few more biomancers and psionicists than a scruffy sentinel."
"Oh." Cannis said, before realising something. "I'm in your bed."
"Your need is greater than mine." Corliss told him, brushing a lock of hair from her eyes "I'll have to stay up all night to make sure nothing happens to you."
"What can happen?"
Corliss smiled once again. "Hopefully, nothing. There was a little something in that water I gave you to put you in a deep sleep, with some good company too I'd wager. You'll wake up tomorrow, bright-eyed and bushy tailed."
Cannis tried to nod in agreement, but found his one eye rapidly closing. He fell once again into blackness.

Part 5 -Look At All Those Idiots

Schrau stood in front of the statue of Fortitude, whistling a few bars of "May We Have Grace". A few of the guards and people in the Adventurer's Guild of Abarack stared curiously at the vulpin sentinel, especially since the song was traditionally associated with one of Welstar's most notorious band of thieves.
"Who keeps moving these things anyway?" Schrau asked the nearest Diamond Guard, who simply shrugged. "Oh werr." He closed his eyes and spread his arms, looking rather ridiculous. "Be strong!"
Nothing happened, Schrau opened his eyes and glared at the iron statue. "Oh come now, I dragged a bard five mires to the nearest biomancer rast night..." He closed his eyes again. "Be strong!"
"Why do you do that every day?" The Celestial Guardian at the far end of the room asked Schrau as he opened his eyes. "You look like a twit."
"Yeah, werr, I have a reputation of being crazy to uphord." Schrau grinned, dusting off his jacket before saluting the Guardian. The sentinel turned on heel, stepped into the transportation room of the Adventurer's Guild of Sauronan, and stepped into a shimmering green portal.
Through the training hall, whistling all the while. Schrau nodded and saluted a few of his fellow sentinels as he stepped into Guildmaster's office and saluted Gilgal as well.
The human scowled at him. "Must you whistle that song?"
"It's the onry upbeat one I know." Schrau told him.
"I'm surprised your bard isn't with you for musical accompaniment." Gilgal said, in a tone that suggested that he wasn't surprised at all.
"Did you read my report?" Schrau asked.
The Guildmaster nodded. "Of course." He prodded a piece of paper on his desk as if it offended him. "And I must say it amuses me greatly. This Fallen, you say, mistook a bard for you and failed to kill him? That doesn't seem to be the sort of mistake a Fallen makes."
"Yes, that occurred to me as werr." Schrau said, recalling the scent that both he and Cannis had smelled last night. "I think he may have been herped in making that mistake."
Gilgal looked over his beard at the vulpin. "So where is Rande?"
"Under the care of a biomancer. Corriss Bowne, I berieve you know her?"
"There are at least five other biomancers closer to the Valley than Bowne, sergeant." Gilgal informed him. "Why her?"
"Because I wanted a biomancer that could understand what that twit was saying. He was halfway deririous in pain rast night." Schrau grinned. "Besides, I trust her."
"I see. So, you'll be going after this Fallen I trust?"
"With permission, and with preasure, sir."

Schrau stepped into the Flying Barnacle, past the usual display of rummies and soaks, and sat at the bar. Ezekiel was at the far end of the bar chatting, while a changeling male served.
"Morning, officer." The changeling said with an easy smile. He was handsome, ruggedly so, with sparkling eyes behind thin glasses.
"Is Raere in today?"
"Laere?" The man confirmed, always a wise precaution. "Yeah, you're talking to him." His smile turned into laughter as he saw the sentinel's reaction. "I get that a lot."
"Isn't Raere a-"
The supposed Laere leaned against the bar. "There are two explanations, officer. There's the simple one that we give to most folk because it's the easiest to believe, and then there's the truth. Which would you rather?"
"Well then, the simple answer is that I am a mystical being..." Laere's eyes widened to suggest wonderment. "I'm a shape shifter, I can be whatever I want to be and I do so a lot."
"You'd have to be drunk to berieve that." Schrau mumbled. "And the truth?"
Laere cast a sidelong glance at Ezekiel. "Ever wondered why the prices are so high here?"
"I had, often."
"Wages. See, Zeke hires a lot of bar staff." Laere raised a eyebrow. "A lot. And whoever works any given shift is, well, better suited for the clientele if you catch my drift."
Schrau glanced over his shoulder and saw that there were a lot of women in the bar, particularly seelie women. "That... That makes sense in a twisted way." He turned back to the barman. "So, Raere, if that is your name-"
"It is."
"Zeke has hired two bar staff with the same name?" Schrau asked incredulously.
"We're all called Laere. It's the most common name in the universe, did you know that officer?" Laere shrugged. "Well, except for Ka!ix, but she's thinking of changing her name just to fit in."
"So Zeke has hired dozens of bar staff of every race and creed, of every gender, and they're arr carred Raere? Except for Ka!ix."
"Well, almost. Not every race and we're looking for a few more men. We don't have a vulpin, thinking of a career- No, I guess not." Laere sighed. "Surely you know by now that old Zeke is crazy."
Schrau nodded. "I was wrong, you'd have to be drunk to berieve that one. Anyway, I'm here on business."
"Oh?" Laere asked.
"Yes, I'd rike to identify a certain drink." Schrau said. "Reaves a distinctive scent on one's breath. Smerrs kinda rike sweet berries."
Laere removed his glasses and polished them on his apron. "Any particular type of berry?"
"Might be... Strawberries. Yeah, strawberries."
Laere nodded. "Well, a lot of drinks taste of strawberries. Even some that have never been within two planets of a strawberry. Crypt mouldwine, for example..."
"Pretty strong?"
"Oh no, if you can get drunk on that stuff you shouldn't be in the game of drinking."
"I need something that's good enough to impair a dragonian."
"Ah, now we're getting somewhere." Laere murmured. "What colour dragonian?"
"Sabre." Schrau answered. "Brack."
"Then we're talking about Soselian Paira fruit liqueur. Acid breath, reacts with it and gives off a sweet strawberry scent." Laere grinned. "Anything else I can help you with?"
"Yeah, do you serve this stuff?"
Laere shook his head. "No, but I know somewhere that does."
Schrau groaned. "So do I."

Schrau took a deep breath and stepped into the Golden Boar Restaurant & Casino. It wasn't that the Golden Boar was a particularly rough pub, just that it had a lot of back rooms. Back rooms used for prostitution, for harbouring wanted felons, as meeting places for criminals. The more hidden rooms had been used by thieves as hideouts several times in the past. The sentinels made it a policy to send someone around there every month, make a few arrests, seize property, that type of thing. Eventually, the manager would be detained and someone else would take over and perpetuate the cycle.
Before his eyes settled in the gloom, Schrau announced; "Now, before I start, do any of the Morton brothers that I haven't kirred or arrested yet drink here?"
There was some nervous coughing from the far end of the room, and someone asked; "'ere, 'as Nod been in t'day?"
"Naw, not for a week now..."
Schrau sighed happily. "Good." He sidled up at the bar and glared at the barman. He didn't ask for a name, since he'd no doubt read it on the arrest docket next week. "Do you have any Soserian Paira fruit riqueur?"
The barman leered. "Drinking on duty, officer? Betcha old Gilgal would be happy to hear that."
"Did I ask for any?" Schrau snarled. "All I want to know is do you serve it?"
"Maybe, what's it to you?"
"Been serving that stuff to dragonians?"
You could see it in a malcontent's eyes the second they decided that they would be better off lying outright. Sometimes it was better than an admission, since you couldn't automatically discount any half-truths that someone said but you could do so for the next few words out of an outright liar's mouth. It also didn't help the barman that he was so obviously reaching for something beneath the bar. "No, can't say I 'ave."
Schrau grinned. "Oh come on, the best thing you could have done was say that you weren't working the rast time a dragonian was in here."
"I wasn't working last night." He pointed to the corner. "Ask the boys."
"Did I say anything about rast night?"
The barman jolted slightly, almost as if he had stepped onto a mousetrap.
"If you had just admitted it, I wouldn't feer as good about myserf as I do now." Schrau whispered. "So what say you just terr the truth and I-"
The barman pulled hard on something beneath the bar, but was nowhere near as fast as Schrau. The sentinel pressed one of his blades against the barman's unshaven neck and kept the other free just in case. "Put down the thunderstick, before I put you down."
"Listen! I don't know nothing!" The barman wailed as he replaced the thunderstick beneath the bar.
"You know everything." Schrau hissed, twisting the blade and slicing off a small patch of skin. "You know that dragonian was in here rast night, you know what he was going to do, I bet you even know who he is! Daste Kuroryu, sound famiriar?"
"How did you know that-" The barman began before realising that he was saying exactly the right things that would get him into a lot of trouble.
"Prease, finish that sentence." Schrau requested. "Or do you want me to do it? 'How did you know that I knew him' maybe?"
"I... I'm saying nothing!"
Schrau pressed the blade tighter. "Seems to me you should whire you stirr can. Give me Kuroryu."
"He... He was in here last night! Happy? Him and that damn Fellblade."
"Who were they talking to?"
Schrau looked around the room. "I hardry think that he came in here for a drink to steady his nerves, not if he was pranning on kirring me rater that night. Rucky for me that he did." But not lucky for Cannis. "So, it's not hard to berieve that he was here for another reason and just happened to get drunk in the process."
"Some guy!" The barman snapped.
"Some specific guy?" Schrau glanced to the door to the back room. "Don't make me go in there."
"Malachi Norren!"
"I know him." Schrau whispered. "Merchant, usuarry dears with Soserian exports. Where is he now?"
"This time of the day? Um..." The barman concentrated. "He... He usually plays chess in the park."
"Werr then, I think I may go and join him. Thank you very much, sir."

Part 6 - Chess

Cannis slowly woke up, feeling not so much as top of the world but definitely several sedimentary layers below it. The sunlight hurt both of his eyes, his limbs felt as if they had been carved out of wood, and his tongue felt as if something had crawled onto it to die. Not a small something either.
"Good morning." A friendly, if tired, voice said. Cannis turned his head to look at Corliss, and the spasm of pain that wracked his neck made him wish he hadn't. The biomancer had already picked up her textbook and started muttering to herself. "Sorry to leave you like this, but I'm needed." She opened the book, read a few lines, and snapped it shut. "Some people fell of the Valley bridge."
"How many?" Cannis croaked.
"Quite a few, I'm afraid. Five other biomancers living in the area and they need me as well. Anyway, I'll be an hour. Feel free to help yourself to breakfast. Relax, and you'll be fine."
And with that, Corliss left the room. Cannis heard the outside door slam loudly. With nothing else to do, he swung his legs out of bed and stood uneasily. Walking slowly, he stepped over to his hat and picked it up. It was in a sorry state, a huge bite mark missing from this side. This jogged another memory, he fished inside his mouth and pulled a thin scrap of blue felt from between his teeth and lips. He couldn't find his lute, though sounds of shattering wood flickered through his memory. He would have to buy another one.
Cannis wondered what could be done about breakfast, then decided the effort to fix up something was too great and that he wasn't hungry anyway. Besides, he could always finish off his hat.
He scanned the titles on the bookshelf. There was little fiction among the titles, as the shelves had been stuffed with medical and anatomical or biological studies of all the races in the universe; even a few maintenance manuals for constructs which hadn't appeared to have been read at this time. Cannis reached for a book regarding vulpins, opened it up, and began flicking though it. There were notes written in some variety of shorthand on loose scraps of paper among the pages, with quite a dense load among the pages explaining and dealing with psychological problems. Cannis closed the book and placed it back; he could barely read and understand the text of the book, much less try and fathom the biomancer's shorthand.
The chess board had been reset sometime during the night. Cannis couldn't remember seeing either Schrau or Corliss replace the pieces after Schrau lost the game. Schrau's little notebook was still next to the board, a standard sentinel-issue notebook but obviously not the one he used day-to-day as part of his occupation. He flipped it open, more shorthand. Schrau clearly practiced notation chess. Flipping through the pages, Cannis noted that Schrau always played as black and white won every time. Cannis wondered if Schrau was just bad at chess or if he always let Corliss win.
Well, Corliss would be gone for an hour. Cannis didn't know notation chess, but he turned the board so he could play both sides and started to follow the first of the written games.

Schrau sat down on the stone seat across from a thin, dark-skinned merchant and smiled. "Mister Norren, I presume?"
Malachi Norren was midway through a game by himself. There were numerous such chess tables dotted around the fringe of Sauronan Park, though players had to supply their own pieces. Malachi's pieces were small and stumpy, though expertly carved out of some type of stone. The king and queen were barely taller than a rook in a standard set of pieces.
Schrau mentally took a note. If the carvers of these pieces didn't follow standard sizes, then it must mean that they couldn't, and the stones used in crafting the set were barely larger than the pieces themselves. The set was probably rare.
A flicker of surprise passed across Malachi's face. "Sergeant Cadnos, is it? I must say it's a surprise to see you here today."
"Of course, if you had heard that I had been murdered rast night you would be ress surprised, am I right?"
"I suppose denying the fact would be pointless." Malachi sighed. "So, are you here to interrogate me, or do you wish to play a game?"
"I suppose a game wirr herp pass the time." Schrau said.
"Do you have a preference?"
Schrau smiled. "White, if you would be so kind."
Malachi began setting the pieces. "Do you play often, sergeant?"
"I do," The sentinel fixed the merchant in an easy smile. "Though I must say that I haven't won a game in months."
Malachi smiled back.

The door opened loudly enough to startle the bard. Pieces scattered everywhere and Cannis began to hurriedly gather them. A jolt of pain told him that it was a big mistake.
Corliss giggled lightly and stooped to help gather the pieces. "Sorry. I forgot for a moment that you were here. Sit down, Cannis."
Cannis did so, and Corliss sat opposite him after picking up all the chess pieces. "Um, thanks." Cannis quietly said. "If you want, I'll be going now."
"No, stay," Corliss told him. "Schrau will come here to pick you up later."
"What if he's busy? I could always go to the sentinel guildhall and wait for him there."
"He'll be here." Corliss said confidently. "So, do you play chess?"
"Not very well." Cannis said, almost disgusted. "Never liked chess."
"Oh? Why?"
"Because there's always a group of old men playing it in the corner. Or dominoes. They don't pay attention to you."
Corliss laughed. "I'm not a big player of the game myself, but it does help people recover, so I keep a board here all the time. You'd be in great company with Schrau then."
"He doesn't play very well." Corliss answered. "Lost every time I've played him. Always insists on playing black, too. Strange."

Sentinels were observant, their name was as much a clue of this. Sentinels may not be intelligent against even most standards, but they were highly perceptive and what they could understand or figure out by just watching had to be better than stock intelligence any day of the week.
Schrau was also cynical to the core. You don't spend a childhood growing up in a slave den watching your people suffer day in and day out and still maintain a cheerful attitude to life. Some had chosen to express themselves through violence, others through despair, Schrau had chosen cynicism.
Chess was meant to be a game of equals. Schrau didn't believe this for a second, since hearing of the game he had made a point to figure out which side had a natural advantage over the other.
The answer was simple: White. White always moved first and thus had a natural upper-hand over black. Too, the back rank of both sides were positioned so that the queen of either side occupied the square of her colour; white queen on white, black queen on black. From the point of view of the white player, this placed both kings on the right-hand side of the board.
Most people were right-handed. Given an equal choice between right and left, people went with whatever hand was dominant. People navigating mazes tend to follow the rightmost wall. Thinking mainly of moving pieces on the board, the white king was in an easily defensible position while the black king was open to attack.
Granted, it wasn't much of an advantage, but Schrau had seen pretty much everything white could do against black.
"You were talking to Daste Kuroryu rast night." Schrau informed Malachi as he moved his first piece. They were odd to the touch, not quite stone but unyielding. Some type of wood, perhaps? "Some time before he attacked a bard on the Varrey bridge."
"Oh, so it was a bard he killed?" Malachi said.
"Did I say the bard was kirred? No, wounded, but not bad enough to end his existence."
Malachi studied the board, no doubt thinking several moves ahead even before moving his first piece. Schrau did not possess such thought processes, but compensated by knowing when his opponent was thinking ahead and figuring out something to foil his plans. Schrau was a reactive fighter.
"Still, it's hard to believe that Daste failed to kill either of you." Malachi said. "Fallen usually do not make such mistakes."
"I had assumed that something aided him in that. A bottre of Paira fruit booze, perhaps?" Schrau glanced up. "I was in the Boar today, they had a fresh, virgin bottre on the sherf. Soserial, your area of expertise."
"Correct." Malachi muttered. "And I can see fool's checkmate coming a mile off."
"There's a hurt there." Cannis noted. "Something happened to him, didn't it?"
"You can tell?" Corliss responded.
"Kind of. He's wounded, deep down in his soul." Cannis regarded the black king in the light. "Bards can feel these things."
"How much has he told you about himself?"
"Nothing. I've only known him two days."
"Well, that's unsurprising." Corliss snorted. "He wouldn't tell you if he asked you."
"You know?"
Corliss stared off into the distance. "You could find out for yourself. There's public records about what happened to him. Especially if you're a vulpin."
"What happened?"
"There was a small vulpin village on the outskirts of Charthur. Practically on the border of Charthur and Keystone."
"I've never heard of a village like that?"
Corliss glared at the bard. "I said was, didn't I? Anyway, one day a pack of slavers came and killed a lot of people, they took people too."
"He was a slave?"
"He was a baby when they took him." Corliss rubbed her cheek. "He never knew anything but the slave den growing up. Anyway, one day when he was old enough, the slaves got together and decided that one of them should make an escape attempt. Schrau was chosen. But instead of escaping to freedom, he stayed behind unknown by either the slaves or slavers." Corliss began to fiddle with the white queen on the board. "They killed all the slaves, Schrau killed all the slavers. He managed to get out, but was exhausted and severely beaten. We found his body in the forest."
"The biomancers." Corliss explained. "He was near death, we brought him back. Where there's a spark of life, we can cause it to burn brightly. Well, not me personally, I had barely entered basic training when we found him." Corliss sighed. "He thinks he owes us everything."

"Yes, I have dealings with the Kuroryu family." Malachi Norren quietly said. "As does Astane Tasna, whom I believe you have met."
"I have."
"We're very much in the same business; Tasna and I. Of course, we deal in different commodities. I deal with trinkets, resources, materials that exists within the Kuroryu realm."
"I know she dears in sraves produced by the cran." Schrau said. "Serrs them to Ustov on Perdow."
"I know of your history, Cadnos, and Astane doesn't deal in the vulpin slaves Aldar Morris sold them. No, Tasna sells on people that the clan have no longer any use for, prisoners, kidnapped people, even family members."
"They serr their own?"
"Occasionally. Usually the daughters, but sometimes sons that have disappointed the family."
"Then Daste-"
"Left on his own accord." Malachi took a moment to tut at Schrau's carefully-planned foolish move. "For different reasons. Do you know who leads the clan?"
"I heard it was the father."
"Exactly, but not in the way you believe. Koras Kuroryu holds the title of the Lord of Agony. Something that holds little value outside the clan but is of prime importance within."
"Rord of Agony..." Schrau mused, remembering that dragonians were immortal. "How is succession, if any, decided?"
"Through conquest, a fight to the death between the current lord and he who wishes to succeed him, though the eldest son still within the family has first opportunity."
"If he succeeds, could the other sons charrenge him?"
"No, only the sons of the Lord of Agony may challenge for position."
Schrau snorted. "Tough ruck for Daste then..."
"Yes, the youngest son would have little or no chance to succeed, unless of course the current lord is enough of a warrior to see off all his sons and the youngest is something short of amazing. Check."
Schrau hastily moved a bishop to take the rook threatening his king. "Check. Are any of the Kuroryu sons strong enough to defeat Koras?"
"I'm afraid not, the only one anywhere near his ability is Kanno, the eighth son. And Daste, of course."
"How far away from succession his he?"
"Twenty-ninth son. Check. I must say you are quite a bad player Cadnos, losing your queen like that."
Schrau stared off into the distance. "Hmm. Koras was not happy with his son joining the Farren guird, am I correct?"
"So... Does he pose a significant threat to Koras?"
"Daste, no, the Fellblade on the other, so to speak, hand might. Given time." Malachi smiled. "In fact, given time Daste and the Fellblade might pose a significant threat to the entire clan."
"Daste has desire to become the new rord then, which was why he reft the famiry unit." Schrau moved a pawn one step nearer to Malachi's back rank. He could almost hear the merchant mutter beneath his breath as he realised that there was no way to prevent it from reaching the back rank. Too, it also revealed a bishop aimed straight at his king, check. He moved his king in response.
"That he does."
"Werr then, you've been most herpfur, mister Norren." Schrau moved the pawn.
"Excellent. Would you like your queen back?"
"Hmm?" Schrau looked surprised. "No, I think a knight may be far more usefur. Checkmate."
Malachi nodded. "Interesting. Your first win in months, sergeant."
Schrau smiled. "An ord sraver saying springs to mind, Norren: 'To be that effin' bad at something you need to know something about the subject.'"
Malachi harrumphed and stood up, adjusting the lie of his clothes. "I'll have to ask Astane about that. Keep the pieces, Cadnos. They're not worth as much to me as they would be to someone else. Good day."
Schrau watched the merchant storm away, but Malachi hadn't made ten paces before stopping. "Oh, and another thing Cadnos, you should be bloody grateful that I convinced Daste to have a drink or two when he found me last night. He's a glutton for Paira fruit."

"...But he also blames us." Corliss continued.
"Because..." Corliss sighed. "Because there were a lot of illnesses, a lot of injuries. They were slavers, not physicians. So they hire- Bribed some biomancers to keep a dirty little secret." Corliss' voice sounded bitter, but her face was incomprehensively calm.
"I didn't think slavers would care much about their slaves."
"Well, they couldn't afford to lose too many slaves, but often the biomancers were brought in to treat the slavers." Corliss cracked a smile. "The slaves had claws, had teeth, and were often diseased and infected with Sikkar-knows-what. Accidents happened whenever a slaver got too close. Sometimes grievous accidents, though there were quite a few embarrassing ones too from what I heard."
"I can imagine."
"Try harder than that." Corliss shrugged. "Anyway, we had no ideas about those among us until Schrau escaped. While he was still recovering, one bi-" Corliss reconsidered using the title. "-someone tried to silence him forever. Fortunately we stopped her. Anyway, he came to, names were named and the rotten ones were cast out. We saved him, and he will be eternally grateful for that, but inside him a small part still hurts. A pain that those few biomancers caused."
"I see." Cannis said. "Um, so what hurt are you harbouring?"
This time, the eyes of the biomancer flared with an angry glare. It caught Cannis by surprise. "How dare you-"
The door swung open and Schrau stepped in. "Sorry I'm late. Got caught up in business." He placed a cheap wooden box down on the table next to the chessboard.
"Hello. Did you find what you were looking for?" Corliss asked, all trace of anger gone from her voice.
"Ugh, almost. I know what caused that Fallen's lapse of judgement, and I just learned more about the workings of a certain dragonian clan than I could care about."
"What's this?" Cannis asked, pointing to the box.
"Chess pieces. Don't say I don't get you anything, Corliss." Schrau grinned. "Anyway, still no closer to find Daste, not entirely sure what I'll do when I find him. I'd better-"
"Interesting." Cannis mumbled as he opened the box and removed one of the white rooks from the set. "Carved Soselian Panappa seeds."
Schrau and Corliss glared at the bard in surprise. "Come again?" The biomancer asked.
"The, uh, Panappa is a fairly hardy fruit-baring tree." Cannis started to twitch nervously. "The, uh, the fruit is eaten by large herbivores. The seeds aren't digested and eventually pass through where they grow into new plants."
"I see," Schrau said. "Is it a rare plant?"
"Um, no. Fairly common." Cannis put the piece back. "But also localised."
"Great! Where?"
"Between the Great Canyon and the river." Cannis said apologetically. "Sorry I can't be more specific."
"Oh." Schrau said, defeated.
Corliss picked up one of the pieces. "So, if I get you, these seeds are eaten, passed through, and dumped in what is essentially a pile of fertiliser, am I right?"
"So if we were to get these seeds, we'd have to reach into the dung heaps and pull them out."
"It would have to be fresh dung." Cannis said. "And I mean fresh. If it's not steaming by the time you get to it, then the seed would have sprouted and would be useless for carving. I can't imagine someone doing that as a job, but..."
"Slaves would do it." Schrau quietly said.
Corliss smiled. "I told you he'd be good for something, sergeant."
"Don't remind me."
"Um... What have I done?" Cannis asked, uncertainly.
"Oh, you've just been helping me with my enquiries." Schrau grinned.

Part 7 - One-Thirty-Nine

"I'm sorry, sir." Schrau said, hints of confusion creeping in at the words. "I thought you wanted me to find the dragonian that attacked Cannis."
"Despite your efforts, sergeant, I don't believe that we will be able to reach a satisfying conclusion at this time." Gilgal tossed a thin file onto the desk in front of him and gestured for Schrau to pick it up. "Other, more important duties must come first."
Schrau took the file and started reading. "Rooks rike a bunch of missing persons reports."
Gilgal nodded. "Yes, some odd disappearances in and around the Rampant Rex."
Schrau's ears twitched. "The Rampant Rex? In Edon?" On Sosel. This was getting more interesting.
"The very same. We think there may be a press gang operating in the vicinity, or at least general abductions. You're probably wondering why the local watch isn't dealing with it."
Schrau looked up from the case notes. "Hmm? Oh, no, it never crossed my mind."
"I see." Gilgal asked, growing more concerned. "No complaints?"
"None whatsoever, sir." Schrau rose sharply and saluted.
"Only you would normally express an opinion that you would chew your own arm off than go to Sosel at this point."
"We arr have to exorcise our demons, sir. "Cannis and I wirr head over there as soon as he's procured repracement equipment from the bard guird on Raji."
"What? Oh, yes..." Gilgal's huge hairy eyebrows raised an inch. "He won't be billing us, will he?"
"No sir. It was an off-duty incident."
"Oh, good. Anyway, get to the bottom of these disappearances, sergeant. We're counting on you."
Schrau saluted once more and turned on heel, barrelling out of the office. "Cannis? Can you meet me in the Adventurer's Guild in Edon when you've finished?"
The bard nodded. "Okay, why?"
Schrau grinned widely. "Adventure!"
Cannis didn't stop tuning his new lute as they walked through the streets of Edon City, the finest city of Sosel. Schrau had to admit that he looked a lot less ridiculous with his new headwear; his old hat had been a puffy construction in blue felt that approximated a Rajian turban, this time Cannis had gone for an authentic turban in blue silk. He certainly looked the part.
"We're almost there." Schrau told Cannis. "Have you ever been to the Rampant Rex before?"
"No, why? Is the entertainment particularly good?"
Schrau glanced up at the sky. "At this time of night, I daresay the bar is in full swing."
The door to the bar was a cloth flap. This was important because an unconscious catfolk was propelled backwards out of the door to hit the wall opposite heavily. As the feline collapsed, Cannis noted that the wall he had hit was smooth and worn compared to the rough bricks around.
"We're here." Schrau announced grandly as he pulled the cloth flap aside and led Cannis in. A full scale brawl was taking place within the Rex.
"Looks like a one-thirty-nine in progress." Schrau mumbled. "Find a table along the wall, sit down, and enjoy."
"A what? One-thirty-nine?"
"I'll explain." Schrau said as a man leapt off a table to swing on a chandelier before placing both feet into the face of a troll halfway across the bar. "Yep, a one-thirty-nine."
The vulpins found an unoccupied table in the corner of the bar where though could watch the brawl in progress. "Shouldn't we be doing something?"
"We? You mean I?" Schrau snorted. "Nope, the watch are already on their way. They know better than to try and stop a brawl in progress."
"Well, would you like to be arrested halfway through a performance?" Schrau gestured wildly at the fight. "This is tavern entertainment, in a way. Did you know that there are only four-hundred and sixty-seven different bar brawls in the universe?"
"Excuse me?"
"Four-hundred and sixty-seven different bar brawls, Cannis." Schrau waved his hand dismissively. "Oh, there are always minor variations. But the big events, the events that show up on our reports, the events that everyone remembers are few and in certain orders. Depending on which brawl is in progress." Schrau pointed at a muridan at the bar engaging in a knife fight with a human. "Any second now, barmaid will lift a full barrel of beer and smash it over his-" There was a splintering of thick wood, followed by the loud splash of liquid.
"You're pulling my leg, right?"
Schrau shook his head. "Nope, sorry. Dragonian over there knows that slaad but haven't recognised each other, yet." The two turned to punch each other's lights out. "Cue comic recognition." The pair stopped mid-flow, exchanged a few hurried words. "And now they'll turn to attack each other's attackers." Cue the double-thump of two bodies hitting the floor.
Cannis winced over the splintering of wood. "And you know all this?"
"To the letter. Every sentinel, watchman, and city guard does. Saves time on paperwork too. Bald human, table three." Both met, the former shattering the latter. "You're an expert on one type of tavern entertainment, Cannis, and I am on another. Knife."
On that word, a throwing knife embedded itself in the wall between their heads with the comic sprang of a ruler being struck against a table rather than the usual no-nonsense muted thump of a professionally thrown knife. "It's winding down now."
And, sure enough, it was. Schrau kept up the commentary, but actual combatants were few in far between. Eventually, the final two brawlers collapsed in exhaustion at the same time the watch arrived to drag away the unconscious bodies. One of the watchmen looked at the carnage with a critical eye and muttered, "Looks like another one-thirty-nine."
"You should see a forty-two in progress, Cannis." Schrau said as the bar staff proceeded to sweep the splinters of wood and glass out of the door and started to lay down fresh sawdust. "That's the sort of fight bards sing about."
Once the floor had been cleared, the barman yelled, "Bards!"
"What's this?" Cannis asked as bards stood up, appearing seemingly out of nowhere. Cannis had not noticed them before, unusually so since the average bard could only blend into a hallucination.
"Well, the floor is cleared and customers are bored, so the minstrels get up and play so people can dance. Get up there, pay is two-hundred, two-fifty if they like your performance. I have work to do."
Cannis did so, nodding confused acknowledgement to his fellow minstrels. When the group settled down to playing, Schrau stood from his seat and sidled over to the bar before the floor got too thick.
"Good fight tonight." He said to the barman as way of greeting.
"Ah, ye should've seen the three-thirty we had in 'ere last week." The barman grinned. "Brought tears t'me eyes, sir. What can I do for you?"
"I've heard that there have been a few-" Schrau began before someone tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Excuse me, sir."
Schrau half turned, only to see a black-gloved fist heading towards him at speed.

Part 8 - Headaches

Schrau was at the point of his recovery where he was mostly conscious, but the parts of him that were wished that this was not the case. It was an old and familiar sensation to the sentinel, who subconsciously felt for the shackles around his wrists.
Nothing but worn fur met his fingers. Slowly, Schrau hauled himself upright in an effort to clear his head. Well, he was in a cell, an impressively dank cell. Aldar would have been proud if just one of his cells had turned out like this one.
Schrau's weapons had naturally been taken, but his jacket with its many pockets stuffed with various pieces of equipment was still with him. Good, though they had taken the two truncheons he kept hidden in his right sleeve and left hip pocket.
The vulpin fumed. He had a mission, which was to get to the bottom of the disappearances in Edon city, and if he had time to ask around regarding the Panappa seed trade then all the better. His frown turned to a grin as he belatedly realised that he was probably very close to the source of his given assignment. All that stood between him and his objective was a door and very likely some guards.
He took a quick stock of his surroundings. The room had served some other function before being converted into a cell. Schrau sat on a bench that had been dragged into the room as an impromptu bed. There wasn't a shutter or peephole on the impressively thick door, and the door handle had been removed from the inside. The ceiling was high and the jamb above the door was wide enough. If Schrau wanted to, then he could easily perch above the door.
Schrau kicked beneath the bench, hit something, then leapt off the bench to pull the chamber pot from its hiding place.
"Perfect..." Schrau whispered. It was a huge, solid iron chamber pot that, while old, hadn't been dented at all. To the connoisseur this pretty much meant that it couldn't be dented rather than nobody had done so. Even better, while it had been emptied it had never been cleaned; the inside capacity of the pot was about two inches in diameter less than it had been on the day it was forged with mineral growths that Schrau didn't dwell on. It was heavy, it was hefty, and it wouldn't break on the first impact.
Schrau could sit above the door and wait for someone to step into the room, but there was no telling how long that would be. Instead, he hurled the pot at the door where it bounced off and dented the woodwork. Schrau caught it on its return and noted the echoing of the impact down a hallway outside.
He leapt up the wall, perched on the ledge, and waited.
He didn't have to wait long. The door creaked open and a man stepped in. Clearly, he was not an expert at the business of cell warden, as he stepped into the room without checking for any occupants or the chamber pot.
Nobody ever does. That's why so many guards wake up with headaches in their own cells.
Schrau leapt, pot clutched in both hands and slammed it hard onto the guard's head before he could make a sound. The guard flopped onto the floor with a soft thump and Schrau checked behind him just in case he had backup.
None. Perfect. Chamber pot in hand, Schrau peeked around the door to see into the corridor beyond. One other human sat there, his back to him. The vulpin, grinning all the while, sneaked up on the man and knocked him out as well.
Okay, time to do another quick check. Both wardens had keys but no discernable uniform that could be identified. They had been playing poker, with some coinage on the table but his weapons sat between them. They had been playing for his equipment.
Annoyed, Schrau took his swords and began strapping them to his back. It was then that he realised something: There was only one cell.
One cell for nearly fifty disappearances. Schrau couldn't hear anyone else, couldn't smell anyone else, and saw no evidence of anyone else.
Slavery and press gangs had been suggested as possible causes for the disappearances, but in both cases the captors kept the prisoners together before moving in bulk, if only to allow time to break their spirits before moving on. It wasn't profitable or indeed sane to transfer people out one person at a time.
People were vanishing. Forever.
Still, until Schrau got his paws on some hard evidence, he had no reason to suspect that he was taken by another group capitalising on the disappearances in the area to cover their own deeds. He checked his weapons one more time and prepared himself to move on.
Then a voice, tinny and indistinct, said; "Hey, we got one more to come down."
Schrau froze, knowing he was in trouble. An unknown group of people with one innocent on the way, and the two wardens unconscious. Schrau stared at the fluted mouth of the speaking tube and wondered if anyone had heard him or how long it would take for someone to walk from there to here.
Schrau glanced up the corridor, wondering if he could drag the unconscious guard back to his place at the table, position them both so it appeared that they were sleeping, and take out the newcomers from behind.
The sentinel unsheathed his swords. Screw that. Time for the more direct approach.
Four figures with a fifth between them arrived at the foot of the stairs. They were dressed in loud, ludicrous colours beneath black cloaks. The first said, "Hey, who the hell-" And then he lost his head.
Schrau reached into the group and grabbed the shirt of the unconscious prisoner, dragging him behind himself and skewering the second. The third man died as Schrau raked his blades across his throat. The fourth actually managed to clear a weapon before Schrau nailed him with an overhead chop. As the dead man fell, Schrau felt his sword being pulled with him and let go.
"Damn it." Schrau mumbled. The blade had lodged in the man's skull at nose level. It had cleaved his brain in two but would make the job of removing the sword a difficult one. Schrau grabbed the hilt, placed a foot on the man's neck, and tried to pull his blade free when a groan from behind caught his attention.
It wasn't the guard, but the prisoner returning to consciousness. A small vulpin bard with a blue turban.
"Cannis." Schrau said, unfeelingly. "What a lovely surprise. Help me with this, will you?"

They didn't even try to clean up the bodies, though they did drag the second warden into the same cell as the first and locked them both in. Schrau addressed Cannis' concerns that both men would die by telling him bluntly that one would die a while before the other.
"So what happened to you?" Cannis asked. "Only I asked the barman what happened and he told me that a bunch of sentinels had dragged you off, saying that it was an internal affair."
Schrau had wondered about this, then noticed the four men wearing clothes of a bard near the stairwell. "Oh, so that's how they did it."
"Did what?"
Schrau tugged at his leather jacket. "Anyone can buy or make one of these coats. A circlet, a badge, and anyone can pass themselves off as a sentinel. Same with bards, bright colours and an instrument and it won't matter if you couldn't play it; you'd still look like a bard."
"What's less likely to raise suspicion, Cannis? A group of four men dragging a sentinel away, or a group of four sentinels dragging a sentinel away?" Schrau shook his head, "Anyway, how did they catch you?"
"Well... When I found out that you'd been taken by sentinels, I thought I'd go to the watch house to see what I could dig up, then..."
"You were jumped?" Schrau asked. "Okay, so we know how they work. Let's stop this."

Part 9 - The Book of The Dead

"So where are we?" Cannis asked as they ascended the staircase away from the cells.
Schrau sniffed the air. "I'd say we're still fairly close to Edon. Definitely on the same side of the river." Another sniff. "Close to one of the volcanoes, if I'm any judge."
"No," Cannis said, slightly annoyed. "I mean where are we? Whose place is this?"
"Oh, sorry. How am I supposed to know?" Schrau Answered as he peered around the corner. "Hells."
"What?" Cannis whispered loudly.
"Hush boy, they'll hear us." Another glance. "About a dozen or so men, changing clothes. Uniforms, rather. Hmm, it appears that coal slate does make a fairly good imitation Fellblade."
Six of the men were, in fact, in the traditional full body armour of a Fallen knight, with quite passable replica Fellblades. Most people would just take steel and blacken it to make what would be a passable weapon, but not a passable imitation. Coal slate certainly looked the part, but would not do as a weapon even in a pinch.
"We'll wait for these guys to go, and try and get by the rest."
"What, we're not going to attack them?" Cannis asked, sounding rather disappointed.
"Cannis, there will be six armed men between us and freedom, I can take maybe two of them out if they're expecting us, which they will be if we walk from here to there. That would be just great, I can hear the songs from here. 'Brave sirs Cadnos and Rande, slain for they thought they had the upper hand.' Write that down, son..."
"What if we surprise them?"
Schrau shook his head. "No, we can't. The corridor is too well lit."
"But if we could?"
"Two to three backstabbed, another dead before he could clear his weapon. Two on one odds are survivable." Schrau harrumphed and started to think deeply. He grinned. "Cannis, do you know 'May We Have Grace?'"
"What, you want me to sing it?"
Schrau shook his head. "No, do you know the song?"
"It was about the Black Sheaf, Welstar's premier gang of wandering thieves." Cannis nodded. "So?"
Schrau grinned. "Long before Casna Aurnos was born-"
"Never mind, anyway, long before the current former greatest vulpin thief in the worlds there was the Red Paw, remember? Also known as Bardur Cadnos."
The bard's eyes widened impressively. "You're descended from the Red Paw?"
Schrau nodded. "Father's great-grandfather. Actually, it wasn't his thieving that made him famous, but rather his reputation as a confidence artist. One of the greatest, in fact."
"He once took possession of Abarack's entire Diamond Circle!" Cannis gasped.
"And sold it back to the city for a ruinous price." Schrau sniffed disdainfully. "It was that stunt that got him hanged. Anyway, I'd be such a disappointment to him. I think he's been turning in his grave since I joined the sentinels - Anyway, that's not important. Do you know what his greatest lesson was?"
Cannis looked uncertain. "Err... I think it was-"
"'If you cannot make your opponent not to expect the unexpected, then make them attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible.'" Schrau removed a set of shackles from his pack. "Cannis Rande, turn around and place your arms behind your back. You're under arrest. Oh, but before you do, take off your turban."

"I'm terring you, I'm not the bard you're rooking for!"
The six members of the abduction group turned towards the source of the whining. Various palms rested on hilts and as one they tensed. A vulpin sentinel was shoving a shackled vulpin bard towards them, the lawman with a single shimmering blue blade in one hand.
"Werr then, I don't see any other bards around here, do you?" The sentinel smacked the bard with the flat of his blade. "Three hours I spent tracking you down through those tunners!" The vulpin cursed beneath his breath.
"Who the hell are you?" One of the gang asked.
Schrau looked at the man as if for the first time and glowered. "Sergeant Sondac," He snarled as he presented his badge for inspection. "Sentiner guird. I have been charged with bringing this rogue to justice." He tugged slightly at the blue scarf around his neck and glowered once again. "Who's in charge here?"
The six men exchanged glances, unsure whether to humour the sentinel or disembowel him. "Why should we tell you, pipsqueak?"
Schrau sighed. "Risten, I've been chasing this bard for hours through underground tun- Passages. They stopped the moment your cerrs started - Hore in the warr beneath the bench, I wonder how many peopre got out."
This time the six men exchanged concerned glances rather than wan ones.
"Anyway, I thought I'd talk to whoever's in charge here to see about the frankry shoddy security here. More so, since I caught the miscreant here of arr praces I have to discuss the matter with whoever's in charge here. Savvy?"
"But I'm not the-" Cannis began.
Schrau punched him in the back. "Hush, boy." He returned his attention to the men. "So?"
"Yeah, well..." The first one began, uncertain.
"'Ere, weren't the last two candidates we brought down here vulpins?" One of the men asked.
"Yeah, a sentinel and bard." A third offered, now all six men exchanged suspicious glances.
"Oh, another sentiner?" Schrau offered. "Do you have a name?"
"The only other vurpin I remember was scruffy Cadnos." Schrau continued. "Mark on his neck."
"Hmm, he vanished about a month ago." Schrau snarled. "I wirr have to talk to your boss about this."
The first man growled and stepped towards Schrau. "Listen here. We-"
Cannis was unsure what came first; Either Schrau stabbing the first man or unsheathing his second sword and killing the second. Either way, the next two died quickly and without managing to draw their weapons. The last two backed off and drew their swords.
"Perhaps I wasn't insistent enough." Schrau snarled as he stretched his neck with a slight popping noise. "I'm afraid I must speak to your boss..."

"It's only the library." Cannis moaned. "I want to get out of here."
"And I have a duty to perform." Schrau announced. "Besides, don't you know that all criminal lords keep their deepest secrets in plain view in their libraries?"
"Do they?"
"Well, that's yet to be proven." Schrau said as he dragged the bard into the musty-smelling room. "But there's no reason why it shouldn't be true." Schrau bobbed down onto one knee, bowed his head slightly, and stood up quickly.
"What was that-" Cannis began as he pushed the doors shut, before he noticed the statue at the far end of the room. "What is that?"
The statue, in black crystal, was of a massive robed figure carrying a scythe in one hand. The scythe blade sparkled brightly even in the gloom.
"Zaraklyn." Schrau explained. "The god of death."
"You worship him?"
"Oh, no." Schrau shook his head. "Sikkarian, but the sentinels respect Zaraklyn which isn't the same as worshipping him." Schrau noticed the book on a pedestal at the foot of the statue, as well as the reverence with which the statue had been placed in. "Zaraklyn demands no worshippers, but I think someone is attempting to be one..."
Schrau opened the book at the first page and began reading, while Cannis stared at the statue. "A fairly worthless crystal," Cannis noted. "I shouldn't think a god would like tha- Ohoh, I spoke too soon."
"The scythe blade." Cannis pointed. "It looks to be pure diamond."
Schrau glanced up. "Amazing." He mumbled half-heartedly before returning his attention to the book. "This just seems to be a list of names... Wait a minute..."
"These names... They're the names of the missing persons." Schrau flicked rapidly through the book looking for the last entries.
Two names: Schrau Iestyn Cadnos and Cannis Urdov Rande.
"Iestyn?" Cannis asked, clearly amused.
"Hey, that's a proud Charthurian name, Urdov." Schrau slammed the book shut and noted the name in gold lettering on the cover, The Book of The Dead. "You know what this is?"
"A list of dead people?" Cannis hazarded.
"Evidence." Schrau grinned as he took the book and slipped it into his pack. "Maybe we should-"
The library doors creaked open. Schrau half-turned and saw a silhouette in the doorway carrying a small candle.
"Hide!" Schrau whispered before noticing that Cannis was no longer with him. He was, in fact, hiding between a pair of massive bookshelves. Schrau cursed the bard and hid behind the statue.
Paws resting on the hilts of his swords, Schrau held his breath as he waited for the newcomer to finish his duty. He heard someone bow before the statue, and say; "Wh-Where's the book!?"
Schrau swung around the statue, his blades flashing in the gloom. No way was he going to let this one get away.

Part 10 - "Are We Nearly There Yet?"

"Where are we heading now?" Cannis whined as they skulked through the dark corridors of the dungeon. Schrau led the way with his swords already unsheathed, casting a dull blue glow into the gloom. The vulpin sentinel turned and scowled at the bard.
"Hopefully, we're on our way out. Otherwise..." He didn't need to finish the sentence.
"We could have asked that man a few questions," Cannis replied. "You know, before you slit his stomach open."
"Questions take up valuable time. Besides, doomed men don't really have good enough reason to answer questions."
"How did he know he was doomed?"
"Well, when a sentinel with a pair of magical blades leaps from behind a statue, your average scribe realises that he isn't going to walk away from the encounter unscathed."
"Anyway, aren't you the slightest bit curious as to who is in charge here?"
Cannis smiled. "Oh, that's easy. It's a man called Hoshi Nokai.".
The sentinel stiffened. "How do you know that?"
"He wrote a dedication in the back of that book he was writing."
Schrau's hand went to his pack where the book should have been. He half-turned and saw Cannis clutching the volume protectively.
"I, uh, snuck it out of your pack. I was curious."
Schrau growled and snatched the book from Cannis' hands, opening it to the back. He began to read aloud. "'This is the Book of The Dead, a mute testimony to those who have fallen according to the demands of the Great Lord Zaraklyn. I, Hoshi Nokai, am but a humble servant to the Great One and dedicate this tome in his name.'" Schrau sighed. "You know what this means."
"We're not dealing with a psychotic killer, we're dealing with a psychotic author."
"I thought we were heading out."
"We were."
"So why are we heading up the stairs?"
"Because that's where we're going."
"But I would have thought the exit from the damned place would be on the ground floor."
Schrau sighed. "Okay, when was the last time you saw a window in this place?"
"Um... I haven't yet."
Schrau nodded. "Okay, no windows. There are no windowless towers on Sosel that I know of, unless you know of one, do you?"
Cannis shook his head.
"Okay, now considering that we're not in a windowless tower, that means..." Schrau turned to the bard, giving Cannis a glower that reminded the young vulpin of a particularly harsh teacher from his youth.
"Then, that must mean..." Cannis hesitated.
"We're underground?"
"Brilliant!" Schrau exclaimed, his voice echoing down the spiral staircase "We'll make a sentinel out of you yet!" Schrau heaved a sigh and carried on. "Yes, if we're underground, then every step brings us closer to the surface at best."
"At worst?" Cannis asked, a sense of dread returning.
"Look at the stairs, Cannis. What do they tell you?"
Cannis looked down. The stairs were fairly new and well defined, except for a worn track in the middle of each step.
"Look closer." Schrau insisted.
Cannis did so. The track in the middle, though washed clean, seemed to have slight traces of...
Cannis sniffed. "Blood?"
Schrau nodded. "Think prisoners. Think sacrifices."
"They were dragged up the stairs, cutting their legs on the way up?"
Schrau nodded.
"But I thought we were on our way out!" Cannis whined.
"Or to find our good host." Schrau said as they arrived at a doorway halfway up the stairs. "Whichever comes first." Schrau growled as he drew his blades.

The study was gloomy, without any form of illumination save for a small ring of windows almost at the ceiling. Pale sunlight streaked through the windows, it must have been high noon on Sosel.
There was also a desk against the far wall, bare save for a half-finished book and what appeared to be a giant crystal paperweight. The man sitting at the desk was scribbling away almost in complete darkness. Bald, dark skin, a thin black moustache and half-lidded eyes that seemed to sparkle in the gloom.
"Ah, sentinel." The author said without even looking up from his book. "You know it is rather remarkable, I didn't want to risk bringing you into my home, but my master demanded your sacrifice."
Schrau took a step forward. "Hoshi Nokai, I am arresting you on the charges of abduction and murder."
"I have had all varieties of warriors within these walls, sergeant." Hoshi Nokai continued, ignoring the sentinel's charge. "Many of whom were, it must be said, greater than you in skill and strength, often in both. Do you know why I would have rather let you be?"
"Maybe we can discuss this rater, Hoshi." Schrau snarled. "Or we could not discuss it at arr. Your choice."
"You are resourceful, Cadnos." Hoshi said. "You are resourceful and resent being bound, being caged, being imprisoned. You would do anything to free yourself." The man glanced up briefly before returning to his work. "And Rande... Young Cannis Rande. Nowhere near as resourceful, nowhere near as strong, but as driven as your master here. You have a dream, Rande? A goal?"
Schrau glanced over his shoulder briefly, where Cannis was trying to back away in embarrassment rather than fear. "I, uh, I-"
"Come on, Rande. Share your dream." Yellowed teeth glinted in the gloom.
"I want... To be the greatest.... Bard ever." Cannis eventually said.
Schrau shook his head. "Enough games, Nokai. Just who do you think you are?"
The human sighed. "I am but a humble servant."
"To Zarakryn?"
Hoshi nodded. "Yes. He demands sacrifices. The Great One tells me the names of those he wishes to be with him, and I arrange matters."
Schrau shook his head. Applied theology was quite low on his list of studies, but from what he had read Zaraklyn only took the souls of the dead once their time had come, and did not want to hurry the process any, well, barring the occasional plague from time to time. Zaraklyn was a servant to death, not the cause of it.
"You doubt my words, do you not?" Hoshi said. "Then maybe you should find out for yourself. Tell me, Cadnos, what is your goal?"
The vulpin's lips curled back and he took another step forward. "I-!"
"Oh, not to find your fellow prisoners, that's as plain as day. After that, what will you do with yourself, Cadnos?" Hoshi stood up, and where Schrau expected a man of average Soselian height he found over seven feet of taught muscle. "Maybe to become the greatest sentinel alive, to lead the guild? To be the greatest swordfighter in the worlds? Maybe something more personal, hmm? A wife, children, a future?" Hoshi shook his head. "No Cadnos, you have not thought any further into the future than that day when Kuroryu and his clan will lay dead and your people will be free. You will be a spent force, Cadnos, doomed for eternity to merely spiral back towards mediocrity. Oh Rande... You will never become the greatest bard alive by recounting the tales of this... This person. Such a waste." Hoshi stepped around to the side of the desk. "But Cadnos, maybe you should thank me. For when you die, you will never have to face up to the miserable life that lies before you."
"That's enough, Nokai!" Schrau snapped. "If you won't come peacefurry, you wirr come in pieces!"
"Is that so?" Hoshi goaded, before waving his hand. Suddenly, dozens of candles blazed into light all around the room at the same time, blinding both vulpins. "Maybe it's time that you saw exactly what you are up against, little vulpin."

Part 11 - The Poison Star

When Schrau could see once again, he could see that Hoshi's left eye was nothing more than a massive diamond, which glittered coldly in the empty socket. His other eye, while perfectly normal, matched the artificial one in blazing intensity. Hoshi finished tying the sash around his waist, giving definition to his muscled body from his broad shoulders to his slender waist.
"This was once a diamond mine, Cadnos." Hoshi quietly said, reaching for the desk. "But before then, it was a temple dedicated to my Lord and Master. As you have seen, the massive blade I display in the library was one of the artefacts of the old temple. This was another."
Hoshi picked up the crystal paperweight on the desk, and Schrau could now see that it wasn't a paperweight at all. It was instead a massive diamond - Actually, two diamonds. A long and slender diamond attached to a large and thick gem, forming a mace. A quite unusual weapon.
The head of the bludgeon was surprisingly hollow. Inside sloshed a dark, viscous liquid that gave the head a sickening dark green hue.
"Among the texts found in the ruins of the temple, far at the bottom of the mine, were records referring to this very weapon." Hoshi's voice took on an edge of wonderment and respect as he held up the gem mace for inspection. "Some records referred to it as the Will of Zaraklyn, but most as the Poison Star; the true weapon of the Great One, not that cheap farming implement that many think of now." Hoshi spat the words. "No, Zaraklyn once walked amongst the mortals deep beneath the surface of Sosel, a defender of his people until... Until he was cast out." Nokai beamed and adjusted his grip on the Star. "The texts speak of times when Zaraklyn held the Star, and the head would shatter and release its cleansing liquid deep into the lungs of those who sought his downfall, before reforming whole once again. He held this weapon against the hordes of-"
"Kanun!" Cannis squeaked. "That wasn't Zarakryn at arr! You're talking about the story of King Kanun!"
"What?" Nokai demanded, suddenly taken aback.
"There was an ord Soserian king named Kanun, who made his parace using the finest diamonds of Soser, and he carried a magicar mace of diamond with poison in the head and-" Cannis babbled before Schrau quickly silenced him by stepping on his foot.
Hoshi shook his head. "What lies do you speak? No, this is the Will of Zaraklyn and-"
"Oh, enough!" Schrau snarled with a flourish of his swords. "Can I finish arresting you now?" He then turned to Cannis. "Get back and stay out of this, and if you ever think of correcting an insane murderer at the peak of his insanity ever again it'll be a simple coin toss to see if I'll kill you first."
Cannis gulped down a breath, nodded, and retreated to the door but not out of it. A fairly good vantage point if there ever was one.
Hoshi started to circle the sentinel, visibly shaken at Cannis' correction but still intent and focused. The Poison Star glittered in his hand. "Like I said, sentinel. I have met many warriors that were your better."
Then he struck. Lunging with a casual ease, he struck Schrau on the left hand as the vulpin raised his blade to parry the weapon. Schrau felt bones crack and the hilt slip from his grip. As the blade of dwarven steel struck the ground and bounced on its lanyard, Schrau suddenly felt nauseous and dizzy. He backed off quickly, dragging the sword behind him.
He noticed two things regarding his condition; first, the fingers on his hand was broken but not severely and the second was that the weapon had somehow poisoned him. He shook his head to try and clear the fog that clouded his mind.
"Fascinating, is it not?" Hoshi intoned. "The Star poisons all it touches, save for he who actually serves Zaraklyn's Will. All is required is but the sweetest of caresses, and the unbeliever will rot from within." And he swung the diamond mace again.
Schrau leapt back, but couldn't avoid the head as it clipped his ribs. Again, he felt sick, so sick in fact that he instantly collapsed to his knees and vomited onto the marble floor. Shivering violently, Schrau tried to comprehend how that strike managed to poison him despite being shielded from his actual body by layers of hair, velvet, and leather.
"Get up!" Hoshi commanded. "I'm not through with you yet!"
Weakly, Schrau got to his feet and used his one blade to sever the lanyard of the other. Unable to hold the sword, it would be a dead weight and potentially deadly encumbrance tied to his waist. Schrau took a deep breath, forced most of it out, then stepped back and adopted a fencing pose; shattered paw at his waist, sword arm with fist at sternum level and blade pointing up. Just like Aldar taught him.
Hoshi swung the mace, spinning on heel and bringing the emerald-tinted diamond around in a dizzying pattern that Schrau somehow managed to avoid. The vulpin retaliated, with a frigid breeze from the magic contained within his sword he lunged, striking into Hoshi's chest and penetrating deep.
Hoshi grunted and stepped back, clutching at his wound. Schrau forced back the grin that came with knowing that, now, Hoshi's lung was filling slowly with blood and other fluids with every breath. A potentially fatal strike, but not immediately so.
The human coughed and spat blood. Scowling at the sentinel, he waved a hand.
Schrau felt the gust of air that knocked him off his feet, he felt his mangled hand twisting as he rolled along the floor, but he didn't feel Hoshi's approach as he stopped rolling - He instinctively reacted to it.
Too late, as he rolled aside from Hoshi's crushing blow, the head of the Poison Star smashed deep into his tail. Schrau felt bone and cartilage crunch beneath the strike and was once again gripped by a wave of nausea.
"You are weak, Cadnos. You do not have the strength to better me."
Schrau hauled himself up onto his knees and studied his broken hand, unable to speak.
"You should be grateful, Cadnos. Your life ends here. No longer will you have to realise just how miserable your existence will-"
Then the sentinel became acutely aware of the sound of splintering wood. His head snapped up, blurring his vision for a moment, and he saw Cannis land clumsily on his feet. The bard clutched the broken neck of his lute with both hands as splintered wood rained down off Hoshi's head and shoulders.
Schrau found that alone to be somewhat of a miracle. The human was over twice the height of the bard, and yet Cannis had managed to strike him squarely on the head with his instrument. Certainly a brave act, but somehow a stupid one as well.
"You- You insolent-!" Hoshi sputtered as he swung his weapon, catching Cannis squarely on the muzzle.
The bard spun on his vertical axis so violently that his turban managed to unwind itself. Blood spattered along the path of his flight, and Schrau heard teeth rattling along the floor on the other side of the room. Cannis landed heavily on his back, his muzzle badly broken, almost unrecognisable.
Schrau slowly got to his feet and released the lanyard of his remaining sword. Hoshi was already stepping towards the unconscious vulpin with cruel intent, while Schrau started towards his other blade.
"See how you fall." Hoshi quietly said, watching the little vulpin breathe shallowly. "See how pathetic, how weak you are."
"I see." Schrau flatly said, using the lanyard of his sword to tie the hilt into his ruined fist. The sentinel managed to squeeze all emotion, even pain, from his words as the bones audibly cracked. He tied the remainder of the leather strap around his wrist several times, ensuring that the whole assembly was perfectly tight.
"You seem unconcerned, Cadnos, maybe even uncaring. Your charge lies dying at my feet, testament to your failure to guard him."
"You shouldn't have done that, Hoshi." Schrau shook his head. "You rearry shouldn't have done that." The sentinel glared at the human's back before tucking his foot beneath the blade of his sword and flicking it into the air. "That's my bard." Schrau growled as he snatched the blade from its descent. "You've broken my bard, and I have to pay to have it fixed, you bastard!"

Part 12 - A Deserving Case

Corliss Bowne staggered tiredly towards her front door as a typical Wysoomian rainstorm raged. The biomancer remembered at the last moment to secure the sash of her nightgown, and adjusted her mussed hair before swinging the door open.
Two vulpins, bloodied and soaked by the rain stood there. The tallest swayed slightly and his left hand was wrapped tightly in bandages while an obviously broken tail hung limply behind him, looking very much like a drowned muridan. The shortest was being supported by his companion, untouched except for his horribly broken muzzle which was wrapped along with his head in a long blue silk scarf. The shortest was unconscious, the tallest grinning manically.
"Dear lord..." Corliss whispered to the unconscious bard. "Bring him in, Schrau. What happened?"
As Schrau helped Corliss to put Cannis on the only bed in the room, he explained, "Some trouble back in Sosel."
"Sosel? This happened on Sosel and you brought him here?" Corliss blinked. The interplanetary transport of Sosel to Wysoom dumped anyone using it on an island far to the north. "You swam all the way here carrying him?"
"No, Perdow's pod was closest." Schrau grumbled. "Tangling with bandits had to be better than swimming several miles in the rain."
"Never mind that. What happened here?"
Schrau rubbed his muzzle dry with his one good hand. "Long story short, broken jaw and nose for the bard, maybe some whiplash, and also acute poisoning. I've done all I can for that, but something may remain in his system - His heartbeat is way down, otherwise, he's stable as can be. Sleeping like a babe. Over here, broken fingers, cracked rib, and a mangled tail. Poison's all out of my system now, thank you very much."
"Who did this?"
"I'll let you have a copy of the report when I've finished it." Schrau waved his shattered hand. "Can I get a little healing over here?"
Corliss harrumphed and waved her hands. "Vurna mortis sana... Better?"
Schrau rubbed his newly repaired hand. "Much. Thanks."
"You mentioned poison, what kind?" Corliss asked.
Schrau dropped his pack to the floor and gingerly pulled a bundle of black cloth from the pack. "I can't say yet, I'm going to take this to the alchemists later and have that bunch of lunatic fireworks merchants try and fathom it." He carefully rolled the cloth away, revealing the Poison Star.
"Is that diamond?"
"The purest. Don't touch." Schrau warned against Corliss' encroaching paw. "Any contact is enough to get hit by a heavy dose of the poison, even on the grip. I found that out the hard way."
Corliss shook her head. "How would you use such a thing?"
"The maniac swinging this about seemed immune to it."
"Two ways to develop immunity; counter-poison, or subject yourself to increasingly powerful doses until you develop immunity."
"True." Schrau wrapped the Poison Star up in its cloth. "Anyway, I'm interested in finding out just what kind of poison we're dealing with here."
"Be sure to let me know."
"I will." Schrau grinned as he stood.
"So why did you bring him all the way here?" Corliss asked.
"Not many biomancers I know on Sosel or Perdow." Schrau leered. "Besides, I don't know of many that look as good as you in a nightgown. Some of them scare me."
As Corliss scowled, Schrau knew he had scored a minor victory. It was easy to embarrass Corliss, sometimes you could do that with just a look. It was harder to scare her, but nearly impossible to get her angry. "Why, you-"
"Well, I'd better go." Schrau nodded in the direction of the unconscious Cannis. "Send the bill to the guild. This happened on location in guild hours."
"Anything so you don't have to pay, hmm?" Corliss said accusingly.
"Actually, they'll probably take it out of my wages." Schrau shrugged, moving towards the door. "G'night, Corliss. Try to get some sleep."
The sentinel snapped off the biomancer's peeved snarl by slamming the door shut behind him.

Part 13 - The Greatest Evil

Schrau tenderly licked the end of a fresh quill pen before dipping it into ink and putting nib to paper. He read the last few lines of his report and tried to construct the next few paragraphs in his head. Normally, he would have just written a quick summary of the incident and passed the work onto one of the junior officers as a lesson in report writing, but this time he decided to kill a few hours by doing the work himself.

"...The disappearances in and around the Rampant Rex were attributed to abduction groups under the employ of Hoshi Nokai, where they would disguise themselves as fellow persons of the target in order to reduce suspicion in their actions.
"Prior to abduction, the name of the target would be written in a volume titled The Book of The Dead. The scribing of the name would take place prior to or during the abduction, and not following the sacrifice as one may expect.
"Most of Nokai's servants were slain during our escape. The two cell wardens committed suicide during their own incarceration. As for the group disguised as Fallen knights, no trace save possibly for shattered coal slate discovered on the intersection of Barrier and Progress in Edon remains. The name of their intended target remains a mystery."

Schrau looked up across the desk. Sitting there, poring over the Book of The Dead and comparing the names to the missing persons reports was a clerk that had been assigned to Schrau for the purpose of completing the report. His name was Josworth, the sort of human you could drop into any accountant's meeting and lose within three seconds.
"Josworth, how could someone mistake Zarakryn for a king Kanun?"
Josworth looked up over his half-moon spectacles. "Can you read Soselian, sir?"
Schrau shook his head.
"Well, the symbols representing the name of Zaraklyn are but one stroke away from the symbols representing the name of lord Nara Kanun. A simple error, sir."
Schrau raised an eyebrow. "I thought such errors were quite uncommon in the Soserian ranguage."
"But they do exist, sir." Josworth smiled. "In fact, it is said that errors are so uncommon as to make the few that will occur truly spectacular."
"I see." Schrau said, returning his attention to the mess of paper before him. Next to the sheet he was currently writing on was a slightly-singed written report delivered by hand by a still-smoking member of the alchemist guild.

"Among the artefacts attributed by Nokai to Zaraklyn was a weapon known as the Poison Star. A highly magical diamond mace with the ability to poison any that it comes in contact with, save for Nokai himself. On inspection of the poison contained within the diamond, it was hypothesised that prolonged non-fatal exposure to the agent would mentally degrade the subject to insanity. While this would explain the greater nature of Hoshi Nokai, several questions remain such as how he was able to acquire so much knowledge about the history and intentions of his victim."

Schrau scowled at the alchemist report. The one thing he wanted to know about the poison was summed up in but one word, which he extrapolated onto his report.

"The origin of the poison is inconclusive. No other such venoms exist within the known universe, either natural or synthetic.
"Nokai's mania, coupled with what might possibly be a simple writing error on behalf of those who wrote the original reports of King Nara Kanun, allowed the subject to believe that he was serving the God of Death, Zaraklyn. It is unknown if Nokai's subjects shared the same belief, though I did witness one subject pay respect to the statue of Zaraklyn in the library."

Schrau blinked once again in confusion. Something didn't add up quite right.
"How much do you know about this Nara Kanun, Josworth?"
The human shook his head. "Very little, I'm afraid. Until today, I wasn't even aware that he commanded a weapon of any form, and typically the primary weapon of a warrior or king is typically much more than a footnote in their history."
"So you don't know if Kanun used a scythe at arr?"
"A scythe? I'm afraid not." Josworth shrugged. "If anything, scythes are uncommon on Sosel due to the low agricultural demand of the planet. Witnessing a scythe in the hands of a peasant on Welstar is to be expected, but one in the hands of a Soselian king is quite rare."
Schrau nodded in agreement. As deadly as a scythe was in combat, especially in the hands of an annoyed farmer, royalty did not subscribe to that particular thought. Besides, attempting to use a scythe in the wild jungle floor of Sosel would be madness - You couldn't swing the damn thing, and a machete was better for cutting hanging vines.
Schrau looked into Nokai's eye, or rather the massive diamond that had replaced his missing one. Cleaned, it was a perfectly brilliant white diamond that seemed to exude age. It certainly wasn't a replacement eye that Nokai had cut for that purpose.
"What about this diamond?"
"I'm sorry sir, I haven't the faintest idea where that would fit into the legend of Kanun. However, he did command a mine with arguably the largest growths of diamonds in the known universe. From what you tell me that diamond would be but a mere bauble compared to what he could possibly command."
"It's never something simple, is it?" Schrau growled, returning to his work.

"Nokai was slain during my encounter with him. During that battle, Cannis Urdov Rande..."

Schrau couldn't help but chuckle.

"...the bard assigned to observe me throughout my duty was grievously injured at Nokai's hands. At this time, he is recuperating under the care of biomancer Corliss Bowne and is expected to make a full recovery. I have word that the Soselian authorities seized the mine during my return to Wysoom, and that Nokai's operation is utterly destroyed.
"Nokai believed that he was performing a service to the sacrifices he made, he believed that by ending the lives of those he abducted that they would never have to realised that their lives would amount only to failure. On inspection of the Book of The Dead and with reports from remaining family members and colleagues of the victims, Nokai only succeeded in killing among the best and brightest of a generation.
"It is unsure how in his mania that Nokai chose his victims. It still remains a mystery how Nokai was able to produce full histories of his victims. That knowledge died with Nokai..."

Schrau looked up from his page. "Josworth."
The clerk looked up over his glasses. "Yes, sergeant?"
"I hate paperwork. If anybody needs me, I'rr be in the Barnacre."

Part 14 - Fine Tuning

"And how are we feeling today?"
Cannis managed to open his eyes and lick his cracked lips for the first time in days. Corliss stood over him with a bowl of sweet-smelling broth and a wooden spoon, the first time she had served him a meal that could be eaten through a straw. The bard sat up, rubbed his eyes, and moaned.
"Well, it could be worse." Corliss smiled. "At least this time the damage was restricted to above your shoulders."
"I feel like I've been hit by a thuul." Cannis groaned. "That weapon didn't even look heavy."
"It wasn't. From what Schrau told me, it was actually quite light as far as bludgeons go, but that man swung it with a lot of strength."
"Oh." Cannis blinked. "Hey, I'm in your bed again."
"Hopefully for the last time." Corliss absently said. "Anyway, do you feel up to getting out of bed?"
Cannis shook his head. "Maybe. I don't know."
"Well, that's too bad. Gilgal wants to see you at midday today." Corliss shrugged. "So get your mangy tail up and dressed before you get hurt again. Not my words, mind you."
Corliss nodded. "Yeah, and he could teach you a thing or two about being mangy."
"Okay, okay, I'll-" Cannis began before Corliss shoved the bowl of broth beneath his nose.
"Eat. It'll do you good." Corliss practically thrust the bowl and spoon into the bard's unresisting hands. "It'll do you about as much good as following that scruffball sentinel would do you bad."
"How often do you follow him around?" Cannis asked.
Corliss chose to ignore the loaded point of the question. "When I have to, I do so at a safe distance. Eat up."

Gilgal's famous eyebrows did their 'albatross-in-flight' thing as he scowled at Schrau. "I expect some decorum from my sentinels, sergeant."
Schrau finished off the chicken leg he was chewing on, stripping right back down to the bone. "Noted, sir." He threw the bare bone over his shoulder where it bounced off the wall. "But I would assume that sir would expect his sentiners to be more agreeabre and active if werr fed."
The guildmaster growled and studied the sentinel's report for a moment. "What is your assumption regarding this meeting?"
"Regarding my recent case, perhaps. The answering of issues I faired to report on in my summary."
"Actually, no. But you raise an interesting point Cadnos."
"Thank you, sir." Schrau nodded slightly. "I have Josworth proughing through arr the records he can find for anything pertaining to Nokai, but at this moment I have no idea whatsoever regarding who he was and where he came from, no affiriations or arriances, in fact I'm not even sure how he managed to keep his rittre base of operations suppried."
"You hurt my ears when you talk like that."
"Thank you, sir." Schrau beamed, pleased at having accomplished something. "Regarding the artefacts... As they say, 'sodomy non sapiens.'"
"Which means?"
"Means I'm buggered if I know. The diamond scythe is not a scythe as far as we can terr, the statue of Zarakryn is much newer than the brade, which reads me to berieve that Nokai had it put there himserf. Despite sitting on the rargest diamond mine in Soserian history, there is rittre erse other than the brade, the Poison Star, and this..." He produced Nokai's replacement eye from a pocket and held it up for inspection. "...To terr of the wearth of the mine."
Gilgal regarded the giant jewel. "Must you keep that with you?"
"If I sord it, then the diamond market would devarue armost overnight." Schrau shrugged, slipping the diamond into his pocket. "As for the Star and the scythe... Werr, I think you can guess."
The door to Gilgal's office clicked open, and Cannis peered through the crack. "Are you expecting me now, sir?"
"Ah, yes. Mister Rande." Gilgal warmly said. "Come in. Sergeant Cadnos was just working out some kinks in his poorly-written report."
The sentinel fumed silently, but actually refrained from saying anything. Somewhere in the universe, a wise oracle stared into her seeing equipment and mumbled words of concern.
"I've just received word from the Bardmasters of Raji, Bard Rande, and they are rather displeased."
Panic flourished brightly on the bard's face. "B-b-b-but I've done all that I can! I know I haven't been writing as much as I should have done, but I've sent regular progress reports to the guild when I have been able to and-"
"Calm down, Rande." Gilgal glowered at Schrau, who took a brief moment to inspect the ceiling. "The bards are displeased with sergeant Cadnos here, and not with your performance."
Cannis balked. "But why? He has taken care of me, and he... Well, he's certainly given me a lot to compose about. It was my failings that resulted in my injuries, not Sch- Sergeant Cadnos."
Gilgal picked up a piece of paper from his desk. "According to their enquiry, the sentinel guild in general and sergeant Cadnos in particular placed you within mortal and unnecessary danger on several occasions. Particularly considering your general lack of training, Rande."
"You never tord me he wasn't trained." Schrau quietly said.
"And you must be less observant than you believe." Gilgal smoothly riposted. "However, the Bardmasters wish to see you return to Raji at the soonest possibility whereupon you will be assigned to a senior bard to complete your training. They believe that there is little merit or reward in this type of pairing with a sentinel, and say that you should be proud in your unique experience."
"Oh." Cannis said, sadly. "May I say something?"
"Go ahead."
Cannis turned to Schrau. "It has been an absolute honour to serve with you, I have seen more and experienced more than I would have done through normal bard training. I will always remember everything that has happened - Well, except for the parts when I was unconscious."
"Wercome to my worrd." Schrau said, shaking Cannis' hand. "Good ruck, Cannis, and..." He leaned in and whispered close. "Keep your dreams in sight."
"I will." Cannis whispered, slightly teary. He stepped back, saluted, and said, "Farewell."
Schrau returned the salute. "Dismissed."
Schrau held the salute until Cannis had left the room, before finally sagging and sighing in relief. "He hurts my ears when he speaks rike that."
"Yes, I noticed that as well. Do you have an explanation?"
"Werr, apparentry Corriss craims that-"
Gilgal shook his head. "I'm sorry, I almost didn't undertand a word of that."
Schrau growled and continued. "Anyway, his jaw couldn't hear very werr, something to do with necrosis of the tissue and arr that crap."
"Which had the effect of erasing the normal speech impediment for your race, hmm? Loosened his tongue, so to speak."
Schrau nodded. "Truth is, we haven't had the heart to terr him."
"You think he doesn't already know?"
"Maybe not." Schrau sighed.
Gilgal raised an eyebrow. "Feeling a little sentimental, sentinel?"
Schrau shook his head, "What? No. Not at arr. I won't miss his companionship if that's what you mean." Though the bard's uncanny ability to intercept near-fatal blows instead of the sentinel would be missed.
"I see." Gilgal quietly said, rising to his feet. "Anyway, for what it's worth, congratulations, deputy."
Schrau's ears twitched. "What was that, sir?"
A shiny lump of metal bounced along the desk, teetering close to the edge. Gold-plated, rather than the silver-plate of Schrau's current sergeant's badge. Schrau stared at the badge suspiciously.
"Normally, there's some sort of ceremony, but I think we can forego it this one time."
"But why?" Schrau asked, still unconvinced.
"Well, it's hard to say that your recent performance has been faultless. Esoteric would be a much better word. Nevertheless, you have achieved results each and every time." Gilgal shuddered for a brief moment. "Besides, thanks to those same esoteric methods, we no longer have to consider the bardic menace, at least for a little while. Uh, that was a bonus to rather than sole cause of my choice in promotion."
"Um... Thank you." Schrau said, his hand fumbling over the silver badge at his breast, with the other reaching for the deputy's badge.
"Wear it with pride, deputy."
"I wirr." Schrau said, finally deciding to salute.
"I know you will. Oh, and one more item of business." Gilgal's eyes narrowed. "I know your vendetta, I know your purpose. Normally, I would discourage such behaviour with my officers, but seemingly each and every one of them are secretly or otherwise pursuing their own interests. You know what you must do?"
Schrau nodded, finally pinning the badge to his coat. "Yes sir."
"Then do so, with my blessing."