None of the Federation sentries spared more than a passing glance for the gray-robed pilgrim as he wound his way through the isolated watchtowers that bracketed the road leading up to the east gates of Arishaig. None of those who occupied the towers and could look down on all who passed; none of those stationed to either side of the gates themselves, armed and ready to act to defend the city should a threat present itself. Not even any of those standing atop the walls overlooking the approach, all of whom had the longest span of time and clearest opportunity to observe him.
He was beneath their notice.
He was ragged and sweat-stained, and while he walked steadily enough, there was an air of weariness about him that confirmed his visible circumstances. Others traveling the road passed him by easily, and none of them paid him but a moment’s notice, either. The pilgrim was hooded, so it was impossible to see his face within the shadows of his covering—not without making an effort, and no one felt inclined to do so. He was just one more visitor to the Federation Capital City, one more visitor come to view the most wondrous Southland edifice constructed in the last fifty years.
Indeed, the city of Arishaig frequently astounded the men and women of the Four Lands. Rebuilt after the demons of the Forbidding had burned it to the ground, it was nothing if not formidable. Constructed to withstand any attack launched against it—whether by demons and dragons or things more fearful still—Arishaig had become a fortress that defied all attackers. Its walls soared hundreds of feet high and were thicker than the tightened formation lines of a shield-and-spear rank. Its battlements were studded with flash rips and rail slings loaded and ready to release, all mounted on swivels that directed fire accurately and broadly. Airships were situated on elevated landing pads in each of the four corners of the city proper, with flits and skiffs and other assorted quick-moving fliers readily available for the use of First Response—the company formed years earlier to serve as an initial line of defense against all assaults on the city.
Within, an inner wall shadowed the outer, and within both rings the entire population save those engaged in labor on the outlying farms worked and resided. Five million people lived within Arishaig now—and some claimed there were even more. Even the bulk of the Federation army was housed and trained inside those walls. And at its exact center, the Phoenix Tower—symbol of a Federation city raised from the ashes of the old—towered above all, rising more than thirty stories into the clouds. The Coalition Council occupied it. The Federation government’s offices, living quarters, healing centers, education adjuncts, and food storage warehouses formed a compound more than a mile square.
All this awaited the traveler in the gray robes, but he kept his eyes on the road ahead. He already knew what lay within. He had passed this way before.
A flurry of skyward motion, coupled with the sound of expended power from diapson crystals exploding through parse tubes, caught his attention, and for a second he slowed. Ghost Flares roared overhead, the fastest of the airships, looking like naught but black shadows as they flashed past. All eyes turned skyward to watch. Even the gray-robed pilgrim paused.
But only so he would not attract attention by choosing to move while the others stood still.
At the gates, he waited in line for permission to pass. Others crowded ahead of him, and he let them do so. Patience in all things, he reminded himself. When it was his turn to approach, he did so almost reluctantly, his robes dragging the ground, his head lowered.
The soldiers judging the merits of those seeking admission barely looked at him. “Name?” said one.
“Raushka.” His voice was as weary as his look.
“I am from Sterne.”
A moment’s hesitation. “I seek medical care.”
Now the soldier looked up. “What sort of medical care?”
“Surgery to repair flesh damaged in a fire. I require a reconstruction.”
Another soldier stepped forward to join the first. Both peered at him questioningly. “Where were you burned?” the new man asked.
The soldiers exchanged a glance. “Let me see,” said the first.
The pilgrim hesitated. “I would advise against it.”
“Fellow, we are soldiers,” said the second. “What we have already seen would turn your innards to jelly. Let us be the judge of what we can and cannot stand to look upon.”
A long silence. “As you wish.”
He lifted his head slightly and pulled back the hood. The soldiers’ faces turned ashen. People around them gasped and flinched back. One woman turned her head and vomited. The pilgrim stood without moving, his face and head exposed, his eyes—or the one eye that remained—fixed on the soldier who claimed to have seen the worst of everything.
“That’s enough,” the soldier said, shaking his head in dismay. “Cover yourself.”
The pilgrim did so, again assuming a slightly bent position so that his face retreated once more into the hood’s shadows.
The speaker took a deep breath. He didn’t even bother looking at his fellow. “If there is help for you here, it surpasses any form of healing I am familiar with. Go on, now, and find it if you can.”
The pilgrim moved on, into the shadow of the gates, into the throngs that crowded the streets beyond. Behind him, there were mutterings and exclamations, oaths and wardings. Everyone was unsettled by what they had seen.
Just as the pilgrim had intended.
When the door to his shop opened an hour later and the pilgrim walked through, the old man who was the shop’s owner and sole occupant glanced up in the manner of the soldiers at the gate, but was quicker than they were to revise his level of interest. The pilgrim was not who he appeared to be; the owner recognized this at once. It was his business to deal with men and women who specialized in deception and trickery, and he knew this one. So instincts honed on a thousand such encounters kept him from being caught off guard.
The gray-robed horror approached the counter and stopped. He did not look up. He did not lift his face into the light. “You have what I ordered?”
“I do,” the old man replied. “Do you wish it now?”
“In a minute. Tell me, is your business much improved since leaving Sterne? Is it not doing better in Arishaig?”
The question seemed innocuous, but no question asked by this man ever was. “I am content.”
“You traffic in so many wondrous things. It must be easier finding them here, in such a large city.”
“It is easier, yes.”
“And you remember it was I who sent you here? I who told you to leave Sterne before the unfortunate events involving the Red Slash? You remember this?”
“I could hardly forget. And I will always be grateful.”
“But where there are greater opportunities, there are greater temptations, as well. Opportunities present themselves—opportunities that require acts once believed unthinkable. What does it matter if you commit a small betrayal when doing so might result in the acquisition of a considerable fortune?”
The old man went cold. “Such acts serve little purpose if you are a dead man. It is much better to stay faithful to those who have been faithful to you.”
The pilgrim laughed softly. “I would expect you to say as much.”
“Is there some reason you think I have deceived you?”
“None. I ask only to reassure myself. If you were to lie, I would see it in your eyes. Why don’t you show me what you have been holding for me?”
The old man took the pilgrim into the back of his shop. This establishment was much like the one he had managed in Sterne—small, cramped, and shabby, filled with this and that—a place where no discernible order or purpose revealed itself to any save himself. He still mostly provided information and access, although now and then—and for his better customers—he also provided supplies. He had done so for this man, this monster.
The back of the store was much like the front, although so crammed with boxes and crates that almost no open space was available. The two of them barely found room to maneuver as the old man released the spring catch hidden in the wall behind the false crate and pulled out the garments hung within.
“You may try them on here, if you wish,” he offered.
The pilgrim lifted his head far enough that his distorted features were revealed. The old man shuddered inwardly but kept from showing his horror. “An imaginative disguise,” he managed.
A thin laugh. “Not a disguise, exactly. More a reordering of flesh, blood, and bone through a careful employment of magic. I wished to look a certain way and I found the means by which to do so. I took no chances of discovery.”
The shopkeeper bowed in acknowledgment. “Very clever.”
“I will need a basin filled with hot water, towels, and a mirror.” The pilgrim’s face lowered once more into shadow. “Can you provide me with these?”
The old man beckoned. “My apartment is next door. Come.”
They went outside. The old man locked the door to his business behind him, then walked a dozen steps to another door. A stairway took them to an upstairs hallway. His was the second door on the left. He unlocked it and they entered. Once inside, he started to lock the door behind them when the pilgrim stopped him.
“Go back to your shop and wait for me there. Leave the key to these rooms. I will lock up when I am done and return the key before leaving.”
Bowing, the old man did as he was ordered. There was never any question of doing otherwise. He left the apartment, went back down the stairs, and returned to his shop. He took a few minutes to close up his hiding place in the back room and reseal the false crate front. Then he waited, occupying himself with cataloging the cost of his services and watching the clock on the wall tick slowly toward the new hour. He was not afraid of this man, but he was wary. It did not matter that he would never betray him. If the man even suspected he had, he would be dead. There was no predicting a man like that. He would rest easier when this business was finished.
He did not have to wait much longer. Approximately thirty minutes later, the shop door opened. The man who entered was garbed in black robes of fine quality, with silver embroidery woven into the edges of the sleeves. A patch was sewn into the breast panel over his heart—an insignia well known throughout the Four Lands. It was called the Eilt Druin and displayed the image of a hand holding forth a burning torch. It could be found on the robes of all members of the Fourth Druid Order.
The face of the pilgrim had changed yet again; now he was someone else entirely. The shopkeeper did not know this man, and he thought it would be best if he forgot him right away. If he took even the memory of that face to the grave with him.
“Excellency,” he said instead. “Always your servant.”
The other man made no response but merely handed back the key to the shopkeeper’s apartment. The old man took it and pocketed it. The man who pretended to be a Druid then handed him a fistful of credits—far more than the shopkeeper had expected for his services.
“Remember this,” the man said. “I always reward those who serve me well, and I always find out about those who don’t.”
Then he turned and went through the door, his black Druid robes billowing out behind him. The old man walked to the doorway and watched him go. Even after the stranger was gone, he waited almost an hour, just to be sure. Then he closed up his shop and retired to his apartment. Once there, he counted out the credits he had been paid and swore he would never do this again.
But he was lying to himself; he would always do whatever this man told him to.
Because it was never a good idea to say no to Arcannen Rai.
publishes May 24, 2016!
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