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A WHEEL OF TIME COMMUNITY
Quibby

Infiltration (Ascension Arc: Part Two)

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"I know it's not common practice to stop for a couple of well-armed people, captain.  I really appreciate your help."

 

The captain of the ship Firefly nodded, then held out his rough hand.  "Gratitude is all well and good, but I do be needing payment.  You did say that you were able to pay."

 

Mehrin nodded back, then withdrew two gold crowns, Andoran weight, from a pocket.  Placing them in the captain's hand, Mehrin replied, "That should cover the ride."  Reaching into a different pocket, he then withdrew a further three crowns.  "And that should cover any added expenses we may have created."

 

The captain's face remained expressionless, despite the coins.  Mehrin knew that it was far more than the journey and food had been worth, but he could afford to be generous.  The ship needed several repairs, and what he had paid the man would go a long way towards making them.  I can afford to be kind.

 

Of course you can.  You have to assuage your conscious somehow, don't you?

 

Shut up.

 

Mehrin also knew that he was taking a large risk by paying so much.  Anybody who had seen him pay the man would consider the fact that there was probably more in his possession.  Mehrin was not worried about the crew of the ship; they had seen him and Eb exercising and sparring together on the deck.  He doubted that any of them had a desire to end up wishing that they were dead.

 

With practiced ease, Mehrin slung his travel sack over his shoulder and climbed the gangway up to the docks, Eb following behind.  Once again on land and amongst people, Mehrin could feel his perception shifting, his eyes slightly unfocusing in order to take in as much peripheral vision as he took in direct vision.  Immediately, two men in an alley drew his attention.  One was fingering a knife, and the other looked as if he had a small club.  Normally, he would have ignored a threat as miniscule as the two would offer, but Mehrin felt a need to vent some pent-up frustration.  Stopping in his tracks, Mehrin turned to fully face the two, causing them to start upright from the walls where they had been leaning.  With an exaggerated stretch he allowed his coat to open, revealing the bullwhip and knife at his belt.  When he was sure that they had seen the weapons, he smiled coldly and tipped his hat in their direction, then turned on his heel and walked up the street towards the inns.

 

"That was foolish, I know," he said to Eb, "but I feel better for it.  Nothing like a good threat to calm the nerves."  Stretching again, he fell into step next to her as they proceeded up the street.  "We should find an inn for the night.  I could use a bed that doesn't rock.  Besides, it-" 

 

A flicker of motion in the corner of his eye caused Mehrin's head to snap around.  Taking in the full detail of the alley and buildings next to it, Mehrin saw nothing of interest.  There was a clothesline hanging in the alley, and the clothes were moving in the breeze.  Nothing to worry about.

 

"Anyway," Mehrin continued, "we can ask around, find out why the Whitecloaks are interested in me.  I should probably not be the one asking the questions, though.  Might lead to certain awkward conclusions."  Something started gnawing at the back of Mehrin's mind, something that worried him.  In a low voice he added, "Take care.  There's something wrong."

 

Glancing into the next alley, Mehrin saw another clothesline, and the worry suddenly dawned on him.  The clothes hung still; there was no breeze.  Eying the clothesline carefully, Mehrin muttered, "We're being watched."

 

OOC: Go ahead and bring us to the inn.  Noting weirdness is a good thing.

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Eb turned from the men in the alley a full second after Mehrin did, dagger hilts still resting ready at the edges of her palms.

 

"That was foolish, I know," Mehrin said, "but I feel better for it. Nothing like a good threat to calm the nerves." Eb raised an eyebrow at her ex-commander's mention of nerves, but stayed silent as he continued talking about inns and beds that didn't rock. She scanned the alleys and roads around them watchfully as they walked, knowing instinctively that Mehrin was doing the same thing with a focus on his side. She felt increasingly wary. Maybe it was just the sudden transition from sea to land, going from a boatful of people to a city swarming with them, Mehrin's moves with the captain and the men in the alley, the uncharacteristic mention of nerves...

 

Mehrin stopped mid-sentence and whipped his head around to peer more intently into an alley before continuing. Eb noted a clothesline, swinging clothes, nothing else. 

 

"We're being watched," Mehrin finally muttered, and Eb was not inclined to disagree. She gritted her teeth and decided to keep her knives right where they were. The blades were were already loose in their sheathes under her sleeves and though she couldn't see an immediate use for them, there was no real reason to go putting them back just yet. She nodded almost imperceptibly at Mehrin and set her mind to the task at hand. Whitebridge. Inns. Answers. 

 

She'd only been in the city once before, years ago after she'd first left Ebou Dar, but she still remembered where the quietest and busiest inns had been - and the places she'd deemed the safest from the Whitecloaks at the time. Of course, it was - ironically - a lot easier to avoid Whitecloaks as a lone, thieving street rat than it would be as a couple of 'well-armed people'. Especially when one of those people was a notorious six-foot-three giant wearing a distinctive black leather greatcoat, flashing a bullwhip and carrying an oversized sword. With a scowl at the thought of Whitecloaks and the whole messy situation, Eb veered down the next main street and headed towards the other side of town. 

 

They crossed the marketplace adjacent to the main square. If they were being watched or followed, Eb didn't see enough out of the ordinary to single out anyone specific as their watcher or tracker, despite her constant scanning of the stalls, streets and the people in them. Still, she trusted hers and Mehrin's instincts and not much else. A scowl settled over her face as she spied The Wayfarers' Rest across the square. "That one looks good for a meal and a chat with friendly faces... from the outside," she nodded towards the inn and gave Mehrin a pointed look. Her knives stayed where they were. The inn was reasonably large and bustling with business, being directly on the route to Caemlyn. Years ago, patrons of the inn had provided her pockets with much needed coin and valuables. Today, she guessed, they would provide news and information. Hopefully some of that information would shed light on what the blasted Children actually wanted with Mehrin bloody Deathwatch. There was only one way to find out. She looked at Mehrin, "Is that the sort of inn you're looking for?" and quieter, she added "What's the plan?" 

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Mehrin glanced at the inn as he waved Eb towards the nearest alley.  Three floors, staircase on the outside leading to the top floor, thatch roof.  "That will be perfect," he said as they made it to the mouth of the alley.  As soon as they were out of the main street, Mehrin set down his travel sack, pulled his sword out of its harness and took off his greatcoat, leaving him wearing only a shirt and breeches.  Leaning his flamberge against the wall, he reached around inside the sack until he found a leather vest, which he pulled over his shirt.

 

"I'll go inside and ask for a room on the top floor.  I'll tell the innkeeper that we are a secure parcel delivery service, and that my wife and business partner are waiting outside with our deliveries."  Pointing towards the stairs, Mehrin continued, "I will get the room, then you come up the outside stairs.  Once we've gotten ourselves settled, you go downstairs, introduce yourself to the innkeeper, and get a meal to bring upstairs.  Keep your ears open for any rumors."  A thought struck him, changing a part of the plan.  "Once you get back upstairs, we'll eat, sort out watches, and settle in for the night.  I would have liked to go downstairs and listen for a bit, but there's already too much of a chance that somebody in there will recognize Mehrin bloody Deathwatch when I ask for the room."

 

 

Eb directed her scowl- by now, Mehrin could chisel it in granite from memory- back in his direction.  "If you're so bloody worried about being recognized, why are you the one going in?"

 

With a small smirk, Mehrin replied, "Smile."

 

The scowl only deepened, and Mehrin could see the long and varied litany of profanities passing behind her eyes before she finally looked away and muttered, "Fair point."

 

As a final thought, Mehrin tossed his wide-brimmed hat at Eb as she moved towards the stairs, earning him yet another glare.  He ignored it, a talent that he had developed over the recent past, and walked boldly towards the front door of the inn.  Inside, he found exactly what he had expected.  Since the inn was on the main road out of the town, it was bustling.  There were three strongarms, something that Mehrin had rarely seen before.  There was one right by the door, an obvious hulk of a man larger than even he was, then one by the stairs, a muscular woman who looked like she could break a table in half.  The third was sitting near the middle of the room, nursing a flagon with three empty pitchers on the table.  The eyes that seemed to catalog everything that he saw gave him away.  Mehrin did his best to ignore the number of people inside.  Without the greatcoat or the flamberge or the hat, Mehrin knew that he was less obvious.  It was impossible to hide the scar over his eye, but the cover story should take care of that.

 

Still showing the same confidence, Mehrin walked to the counter and waved down the man who was obviously the innkeeper.  "Good evening," he said.  "I would like a room on your top floor."

 

"Costs extra tonight," the innkeeper said, his attention divided between Mehrin and the common room.  "Have a few guests who want as much privacy as they want up top."

 

Mehrin nodded as if he understood.  "I can live with that.  I'm a courier with some... rather delicate packages outside.  My business partner is outside with the parcels, and I will bring her up to the room once it's secured."

 

The innkeeper's attention snapped from the common room to Mehrin.  "'Her?'  Not common for a man to be traveling alone with a woman as only a 'business partner'."

 

"I know," Mehrin replied.  "She is also my wife, and I would match her against any three men that you would send against her."  The innkeeper's expression paled at that.  As if he didn't notice, Mehrin added, "She will be down for our dinners after we get settled."

 

"Right," the innkeeper replied.  "Four silvers for the room, and five coppers each for dinner."  Without a complaint, Mehrin slid the coins across the counter with no bribes.  No reason to bribe if the innkeeper was being reasonable and not-too-curious.  The innkeeper searched around behind the counter for a moment, then came up with a key.  "Second room from the outside door, top floor.  Have a good night, sir."

 

With a smile and a nod to the man, Mehrin turned and went straight up the stairs to the outside door.  Opening the door, he leaned out and waved to the obviously impatient shape waiting on the street.  He consciously avoided going outside to help Eb haul the gear up the stairs.  If she was going to be surly all the time, Mehrin was more than happy to give her a hard time about it.  A steadily increasing volume of swearing tracked her progress up the stairs.  As Eb stepped through the door, Mehrin unlocked the door to their room and held it open for her, as only a gentleman should do.  The vicious grin he offered her at the gesture was entirely for his own amusement.

 

A few moments of shuffling gear around had everything settled, including Mehrin into a comfortable-looking tall chair in the corner of the room.  "All right, you're up.  I didn't hear anything down there.  The innkeeper knows that you're coming.  Hopefully you'll hear something.  If not, just get back up here and we'll work out what we're doing from there."

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"I'm bloody up, alright," Eb gave Mehrin a pointed glare and scruffed her hair with both hands for a moment.

 

"Got yourself ruddy comfortable?"

 

He grinned, again. In response, she raised an eyebrow slowly, reached down to the bed, freed a throwing-knife from the sword brace she'd just offloaded, and flicked it around her thumb. Just for a second. And then she slid it into the corresponding place in the strap under the back of her shirt and studied her ex-Commander for a second or two more. With a twisted grin of her own, she gave a half-nod and turned toward the door.

 

"Don't wait up." She lifted the other eyebrow at him and slipped out onto the landing.

 

Closing the door behind herself, she shook her head and made for the internal stairs. There was no point doubling back outside and entering from the front door now. Chances were, whatever trouble was following them already knew they had a room upstairs, and this route at least allowed her to become familiar with both entries and exits. Unless walls had moved since the last time she was here  - not impossible, if she believed even half of what she'd overheard on the ship -  she was fairly confident in her understanding of the common room and side wings from the last visit. But this top floor? Entirely new ground.

 

She reached ground level and paused to let her legs catch up, wondering how in the Light Mehrin had been able to get his sizable frame up that low, tight stairway and hall - at all. The stairs and the stone floor beneath her - solid as they were -  still seemed to dip and slide like that ship under sail. She'd never had to deal with the rock-and-rolling sensation like that for so long, even hopping boats through the canals of the Rahad. The after-effects now called for some attention though. It was like running, on a wet roof, amidst light winds and a drizzle of rain - she made sure of her footing before she moved.

 

The din coming from the common room was about the level of noise she remembered from last time. It would be busy, then. Good. Maybe something extra could be gleaned about whatever in the Light was going on to make Mehrin-bloody-Marvon the centre of attention for a bunch of bloody Whitecloaks and whoever in the blasted Shadow was following them now. Scowling at that thought, she stepped away from the stairs, towards the noise in the main room.

 

A solid mountain of a woman noted her arrival, turning around ever-so-slightly to glance in Eb's direction and then, apparently, dismissing the need for further thoughts of her from her mind before they'd even really begun; Eb grinned. The heavy at the door barely even glanced at all. A wiry mouse of a man leaning against a wall near to him, however, started and all but scurried out. Right. Eb's eyes narrowed, but she stopped herself from running - or casting a knife - after him. Too much distance for anything but the knife. And, she knew, both options would essentially destroy the opportunity for  information, on too many levels. 

 

Instead, she made a decidedly dedicated and plausibly ignorant beeline for the counter and the keeper's attention. It wasn't that hard to pretend that was all she cared about - her stomach was growling and she was definitely keen for that hot meal. A man in the centre of the room, just to the left of her now, slumped slightly in his chair even as he subtly tracked her every move. And that makes three...

 

...Four?  There was another one to the other side of the door, a little further down, and he was watching more subtly. Eb filed away his features in her mind, reached the counter and cleared her throat. 

 

"Yes, Miss? What can I - yah!" despite himself, the man actively winced when he caught sight of the largest scar on her face, curving around her eye and down her cheek. "What can I, ah, do for you?"

 

"Food, hopefully," Eb said, slipping onto the nearest stool. "Seeing as it's already been ordered."

 

"Ah - yes. Well, almost. I was just about to pass that message on, in fact," he looked toward the kitchens, "I'll get them cooking it, right now."

 

Eb cocked her head to one side with a scowl. The man paled further, and left. She turned to watch him, using that as the excuse to check behind her again. Everything was still the same: door-guard and stair-guard still ignoring her, table-man and side-of-door-man still watching her every move.

 

Nothing else of interest. She turned back to the bar in time for the keeper to return.

 

"It uh, won't be long,"

 

Eb nodded curtly and fixed him with a very direct stare. He blanched.

 

"Should we be expecting trouble tonight, staying here?" She cut him off before he bothered trying to placate her with a lie, "Four hired guards. Lot for one room."

 

"Just... precautionary, M'lady."

 

"Oh?" She tried, without succeeding, to keep the scorn at being called a 'lady' out of her voice.

 

Here the innkeep's eyes shuffled to the side, for all the world like he would rather have been anywhere else, discussing anything else, with anyone else, than talking about these possible security risks to customers. Especially a woman he'd just been warned about. He looked her over for a second and then leaned closer.

 

"Fact of the matter is," he began, "that there's been too much talk of some awfully ...violent ... thefts and murders, just recently. To the East." He poured a drink, for himself, and drank it. "And," he continued, voice more hushed, "-and they say there's a chance that this... Mehrin Deathwatch will be headed our way. And that man recently destroyed a troupe of a hundred Whitecloaks by himself, because they stopped him on the road." He paused to look Eb over for a moment. "Now, I've been told you can handle trouble yourself, and looking at you, I don't doubt it. It'll do you well, perhaps, with such goings on. But, I'm not going to sit by and watch this place become easy pickings for trouble like that! Bah. These, good help is hard to find and costs a pretty penny, though. Your count is out, woman! This room's only got three!"

 

"Fair enough." Perhaps he was lying, Eb couldn't be sure. It wasn't the smartest idea for the man to blurt out security details, but then again, four would be a lot of muscle for one inn's common room. She had managed to keep her expression  neutral throughout the man's explanation - even at the mention of Mehrin. Now she turned toward the kitchens again, in time to notice a serving boy coming towards them with a covered tray in each hand. And also to note that table-man, stair-guard and door-guard were all in place, but side-of-door-man was, most definitely, gone.

 

"Ah! Here's your dinner! Hopefully none of that... information has reduced your appetite!" The innkeeper came around to her side of the counter to transfer the meals.

 

Eb looked at the two trays, wondering how she was going to carry both back up the stairs at once.

 

"Not at all, " she growled, "Not at all."

 

Taking one in each hand she headed to the main entrance. This time she would take the outside stairs.

 

---

 

"Mehrin-flaming-Marvon, you wool-headed, soot-dusted idiot!" she cursed at herself a much as at him, realising too late that she'd used his name out loud. Still, the frustration was real. She finally pushed the door open with one foot, balancing on the other. "You could've bloody-well helped - we're here because of you, after all! Just because you're flaming famous!" She rolled her eyes and dumped the trays on the small table at one side of the room, turning to face him, still sitting comfortably in his corner-chair. 

 

"No, really, you are. Destroyed an entire troupe of Whitecloaks, single-handedly, because you were on the road." She turned her attentions to the trays. "Which might've explained why they were looking for you - if it hadn't happened after they took you prisoner," she shook her head and uncovered one of the plates. The smell hit her nostrils with force. Her stomach growled.

 

"Oh, and yes, we've been followed. Two men, at least. She gave their descriptions and then pulled out a knife to start tucking into her dinner. "They both split though. No sign of where they went, and I get the feeling that they'll be back." 

 

She shovelled a mouthful of vegetables into her mouth and threw Mehrin's cutlery towards him.

 

"Plan?"

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Mehrin's nonchalant attitude lasted until the door closed behind Eb as she made her way downstairs. The click of the handle slipping into place made him slump in his chair like a puppet with cut strings, all the tension that he had been hiding suddenly appearing on his face. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. Somebody- maybe one person, maybe more- was moving against them in Whitebridge, and he could not see why! Even if somebody had managed to trace Eb and him to the river, there were countless places where they could have put off. The fact that somebody was waiting for them in Whitebridge spoke of somebody with knowledge of their movements. Somebody knew where they were, and that information was being fed to others. The name 'Ayrik' came to Mehrin's mind immediately, but he set it aside just as quickly. It was not unreasonable to believe that his personal tormentor had returned, but focusing on one person would leave him blind to other possible explanations. The simple fact was that identifying and neutralizing the source of information was a long-term goal. The short-term goal was survival.

 

With a goal in mind, the next step was figuring out exactly how they were going to survive. Traveling with Eb provided some advantages. There would always be somebody looking out for him. By now, Mehrin knew that if somebody was going to stab him with Eb around, it was probably going to be her doing the stabbing. The problem was that even veterans needed to rest from time to time. Mehrin could still feel the ground moving underneath him, a relic of their time on the Firefly. Eb was probably feeling something similar. Like it or not, they had to stay put tonight. They would have to set a watch, and Mehrin had the feeling that it would be decided by a coin flip or something equally arbitrary.

 

There was also no hiding the tension from Eb, not in the long term. Mehrin knew that she was just as aware of their uncomfortable situation as he was. His refusal to acknowledge the situation before sending her off to eavesdrop in the common area was not because he didn't trust her; he was hoping to leave her impressions untainted by the idea that things were about to go horribly, horribly wrong.

 

Again, Mehrin looked around the room. Small, only two visible entry points: the window and the door. Rigging both the window and door with some of the little tricks in his sack would prevent them from admitting anybody uninvited. Glancing up, Mehrin checked the ceiling. They were underneath the peak of the roof, and the thatch looked to be in good condition. Probably just changed. A thought crossed the back of his mind, bringing a small smile to his face that vanished as soon as it appeared.

 

The smile reappeared again as Mehrin started digging around in his travel sack for a couple of his tricks.

 

By the time he heard Eb cursing her way back up the outside stairs, Mehrin had rigged the window with two wires to reinforce the lock, as well as a razor snare on the floor under the window. The door would be wedged shut on top and bottom in addition to the lock. He had just lit his shuttered lamp and sat down when he heard, “Mehrin-flaming-Marvohn, you wool-headed, soot-dusted idiot!” Very shortly after, Eb kicked in the door. “You could've bloody-well helped- we're here because of you, after all! Just because you're flaming famous!” That... doesn't sound good, Mehrin thought as Eb threw the two trays of food onto the small table in the corner of the room. Even as she was throwing the trays, the diatribe continued. “No, really, you are. Destroyed an entire troupe of Whitecloaks single-handedly, because you were on the road.” It took a moment for the sheer stupidity of what she had told Mehrin to sink in, though he had no time to comment. She was in true form this evening, it seemed. “Which might've explained why they were looking for you- if it hadn't happened after they took you prisoner.”

 

Mehrin had his face in his hand before Eb had finished her ranting. It apparently wasn't enough that he was becoming a household name. Now he couldn't even get captured and nearly bloody killed without turning into a flaming hero! Bitterly, he wondered what he could do to make Eb the hero of that story. Not only was that the truth, but maybe she would stop being so bloody angry if she could get a taste of just how outrageous the whole situation was becoming. Defeating an entire troupe of Whitecloaks on his own? A string of profanities that would have shocked Eb roared through Mehrin's mind. Now they would never let him be.

 

Even through his frustration, Eb's next words were like a bucket of icy water. “Oh, and yes, we've been followed. Two men, at least.” Even as she described the two and continued her thoughts, Mehrin was running through scenarios. Somebody was going to make a hit on them tonight. They had them located and relatively secluded. Not doing anything would be foolish on their part. Mehrin's eyes jumped through everything that he had prepared for this very possibility. He could see nothing more that would prepare them for the inevitable. Even as he came to the conclusion, Eb asked the question as a single word: “Plan?”

 

Mehrin didn't answer immediately, instead pulling one of the plates of food towards himself and settling into the business of putting something in his belly. Even so, he was considering the next move. He had a plan, but did he risk telling it to her? Part of the plan required her to do something that he was uncertain that she could do if informed, but... Mehrin swallowed the mouthful of potato that he had been chewing and looked up across the room at the woman who had risked everything to pull him out of the middle of a flaming Whitecloak camp. He thought he knew his answer to the same question, but he needed to know hers. Likewise, he thought he knew how she would react to him and his question.

 

Still, the only way this would work...

 

A look of deadly seriousness settled over Mehrin's expression as he locked eyes with Eb from the chair where he was seated. “Before I tell you everything, I need to ask you this. I need to ask you this because your part in the plan is going to go against your every instinct.

 

Eb... do you trust me?”

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Eb gaped at Mehrin around her last mouthful of food, wiping her knife clean on the cover-cloth as she swallowed both the chunk of meat and his words. Trust? She pushed the plate away and stood, arms folded, watching him. She felt for all the world as if she'd been dropped to the bottom of a deep canal with lumps of rock tied to her legs.

 

In her mind's eye, she saw Mehrin's form in a myriad of different roles and poses. Mehrin Deathwatch, a blur with a bullwhip and a hat. Mehrin the Trainer, throwing her a second sword. Mehrin the Sparring Partner, flicking up an unruly spray of sand. Mehrin the Commander, dismissing the honorific. Mehrin the Drunk, stumbling past to his tent. Mehrin the Defender, spinning past one nightmare beast as she brought her mace to the snout of another. Mehrin the Traveler, tipping his hat or opening his coat to flash the lengths of leather coil. Mehrin the - whatever he was now- with the occasional odd tic to his expression and the apparently never-ending tendency to punish himself for the past. Mehrin Tavrin Callas, cheese-knife held casually in his hand - a potential last-ditch counter to a camp of Whitecloaks about to pounce. Mehrin the Escaped, dragging her onto his lap across the back of a horse, as if she were a sack of flour. Mehrin, watching her over the edges of both their blades by the river. Mehrin, spinning at her during a spar on the deck of the ship. Mehrin, grinning wickedly at her from the top of the stairs. Mehrin, watching her, closely now, from across the room.


Torn between the instant, automatic 'no' of screaming Rahad-instinct and the slower, expanding 'yes' of a truer answer, she tapped her knife absently against the outside of her thigh and looked back at him, just as directly.

The hair on the back of her neck stood straight out.

 

"More than most," she said squarely, doing her best to loosen the suddenly white-knuckled grip on the neck of her knife.

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Watching the play of thoughts and emotions that crossed Eb's entire body- the tension, the uncomfortable nature of the question to her, the play of her thoughts as she forced herself to focus on the question- was almost as intriguing as it was terrifying.  In brief flashes, Mehrin saw moments of vulnerability, something that he had never seen before in her.  Did I go too far?  She had trust issues; Mehrin had known that for quite some time.  Still, seeing it play out in such a way was more than he had expected.  After an interminable period, she finally managed to pull herself together enough to say, "More than most."  The blunt delivery was belied by the tension that was still evident in her stance.

 

Mehrin chose to barely acknowledge the response.  "I'll take it," he said.  "I've reinforced the window, and I'll make sure that the door does not move.  However, one of us needs to sleep.  We can't keep on with the half-awake watches that we've been doing.  So, here's what you're going to do: sleep."  The shocked reaction was everything that Mehrin had expected.  Raising a hand to forestall any response, he continued, "Get rested.  I'll wake you in six hours, and we'll switch.  Hopefully our stalkers will let us rest through the night."  A smile, both cold and mischievous, crept onto Mehrin's face.  "If they don't, though, here's what is going to happen..."

 

As Mehrin explained the plan, a similar look slowly worked its way onto Eb's face, as well.

 

***

 

It had been five hours since they had put out the candles in the room, and Eb was asleep.  Through half-lidded eyes, Mehrin once again checked the defenses that had been laid out.  Every obvious approach had been accounted for.  Still, the tension was there, the knowledge that something was coming.  Mehrin had learned to trust that tension, the fight-or-flight instinct that most people ignored.  He had always assumed that it was a part of the mind that made connections that the conscious mind could not make, and trusting it had saved his life on several occasions.

 

But why do you bother?  Mehrin had not allowed himself to ask that question for quite some time.  The same instinct that had him sitting awake tonight was prodding that question with all the insistence of a spear in the belly.  Some part of him wanted to live, yes, but the cold light of reason saw that a part of him had been courting death for quite some time.  Time and time again he had thrown himself into impossible situations, and time and time again he had escaped nearly unscathed.

 

The cold light of reason also played through many of the events: facing down twenty Seanchan in Tanchico.  Sheer audacity and incompetence from the Seanchan had saved him there.  Incompetence had also saved him in the village with Stromblade.  The first assault had been on horseback, but experience and incompetence had saved him there.  Rowul himself had been laughable compared to that.  The journey back to the Borderlands from Cairhien, an ambush by highwaymen.  He had spotted the scout, and he had prepared for it.  He had ended up cut and bruised, but the guards had prevailed.  However, etched into his mind was the face of a young boy, terrified as a man held a blade to his throat, then horrified as Mehrin reached out with his whip and plucked an eye from the man's head in a move as practiced as if he had done it with his fingers.  Instinct, skill, planning, and improvisation had saved him many times, but his decisions had put him in those life-and-death situations every time.  Was he choosing to die, or choosing to live?

 

The question was tied to another one.  Mehrin's half-hooded eyes moved from the window to the woman in the bed.  For the first time that he had ever seen, Eb was asleep.  Not the restless half-sleep that was so common for a soldier, but truly asleep.  There was no tossing and turning, no mumbling.  The scowl that was such a permanent part of her was smoothed away, leaving what looked like a completely different person, striking in a way that was all her own.  It was her doing that Mehrin was asking these questions.  She was the one who was making him wonder whether he was fighting to live or trying to die.

 

Mehrin was uncomfortably aware that there was something else there.  Every duel, every argument, every conversation, there was something off.  A strange intensity, an odd look.  Sometimes it seemed to Mehrin that there was more that was not being said or shown than was obvious.    Something was happening there, under the surface.  As he sat watching Eb through half-closed eyes, Mehrin wondered what went through her head whenever they planned, argued, fought...

 

Mehrin's eyes slowly closed, his head settling onto his chest.  His breathing slowed.  A quiet thought, quickly silenced, felt as if he was betraying the sleeping form across the room...

 

***

 

Arlynn had never seen such dedication in a man to stay awake.  She had lain completely still on the roof, a strange device consisting of two mirrors in a wooden tube held barely past the upper edge of the window.  For hours she had watched the big man in the chair.  His eyes had grown heavier over the course of the night, his breathing deeper.  Finally, after so many hours of silence, the big man was asleep.

 

During the intervening hours, Arlynn had examined the room.  She had immediately noticed the wedges in the door.  There was no way that she could have come in through there.  The window itself had proven tempting, but there were two small cords, possibly stiff wires, reinforcing the lock there.  Most assassins would have stopped there.

 

Arlynn was not most assassins.

 

Arlynn had planned for this possibility.  The window and door were impassible, but the roof...  There was only one thatcher in Whitebridge, and when word had been brought to her that Mehrin Deathwatch had taken a room on the top floor of an inn with a thatched roof, she had begun to prepare.  Arlynn had tested several roofs in Whitebridge.  It was fair to say that Whitebridge's thatcher was a master of their craft, but they used the same basic technique on every roof, and hours of careful testing had given Arlynn the key that she needed to enter the room.

 

Pulling the spy tube up above the window and onto the roof, Arlynn slowly slithered her way back up towards the peak of the roof, her hands slowly feeling along the rough thatching until- Yes, that's it!  Slowly, agonizingly slowly, Arlynn's fingers worked their way through the woven mass that was the thatched roof of the inn.  Minutes passed like hours, but Arlynn was patient.  Eventually, her patience paid off.  A small section of the roof lifted up with barely a rustle, and Arlynn slipped her tiny form through the narrow gap and dropped soundlessly into the room.

 

Instantly, Arlynn's eyes focused on the big man in the chair.  Arms crossed, chin on his chest, deep breaths.  Nothing to worry about there.  Her eyes turned towards the woman in the bed.  She was also dead to the world.  Perfect.  From the small of her back, Arlynn drew a small, narrow dagger, its edge coated with a fast poison.  One small nick, and the big man would be relegated to the past tense.

 

One step, and Arlynn froze.  The big man's head moved slowly upward, his eyes locking on her.  No, his eyes were still closed.  His arms, though, settled onto the small table in front of him.  Eyes still closed, Mehrin Deathwatch smiled a cold smile and said, "Hello."  Before she could react, a hand flicked out precisely... and opened the covers of a shuttered lantern.

 

Light flared in the room, and Arlynn's arm flew up by reflex, her eyes burning in the sudden light.  She had just enough time to realize that she was in trouble before a hand closed around her entire neck and squeezed tighter than should have been possible.  Instinct tried to drive the dagger in her hand into the unseen force that had seized hold of her, but a hand as hard as iron had wrapped itself around her wrist and twisted.  There was a grinding crunch, and Arlynn had barely enough time to realize that her wrist had been broken before her head bounced off a wall hard enough that sparks flashed behind her eyes.  She had no chance to recover.  The hand around her neck had only closed tighter, and the sparks had barely faded before she felt her head bounce off the wall a second time, a third, a fourth.

 

Arlynn was surprised that her head had not bounced a fifth time.  Agonizingly, her eyes crept open, and she found herself looking down into the dark eyes of death itself.  There was no expression on the big man's face, only an emptiness that spoke of coming oblivion.  In that moment, Arlynn knew that she was not going to leave that room alive.  "You awake yet, Eb?" Deathwatch said in a voice as cold as midwinter.  "We have a guest."  The tone drove a spike of fear through her chest, and her only working hand palmed a needle out of her sleeve.  A quick jab, and-

 

Another hand closed around her good wrist, stopping her from doing anything more than nicking her own hand.  At least I didn't fail there, she thought as the spike-haired woman stepped into her sight.

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The would-be-assassin's eyes widened momentarily after the catch of her wrist. A barely-focused gaze wobbled from Mehrin to Eb and back again. 

 

Spin-stop, spin-stop, spin-stop, spin... 

 

Eb's free hand flicked a knife in impatient circles. The figure pinned to the wall was hardly a threat at present, but she would have been dead already had Eb not known the plan.

 

Lips pressed into a pencil-thin line, Eb stepped closer and used the flat of her knife to open the loosely furled fist the woman had made. A tiny needle, dull in the lamplight, was stuck point-first in the not-so-soft flesh of her palm. Eb scraped it, none too gently, down onto the table. She shifted the table further to the side with her foot.

 

"Poison?" It was more a judgement than a question, but their 'guest' gave a wry grin and croaked a raspy, breathless, "yes," as Eb wiped her blade clean on the outstretched sleeve and set about removing concealed weapons from all the usual spaces, and then some. The pile on the table grew considerably; needles and thin, bevelled throwing discs joining narrow-bladed daggers, a spy tube, a pair of knives and a blowgun with several darts before Eb was satisfied nothing significant was left. She nodded almost imperceptibly at Mehrin and he lowered his arm, sliding the now-shivering intruder slowly down the wall, his shadow seeming to swallow her bit by bit until she touched the ground. 

 

A second knife joined Eb's first. Spin-stop, spin-stop. Spin-spin-stop.

 

"Why?" she growled at the figure on the floor, "Talk". In response, the figure coughed, a barking sound that spoke of crushed cords and swelling tissue but also, somehow, portrayed a dazed and quietly derisive laugh before continuing, broken and hacked:

 

"T... talk? D.. do your w.. worst. D.. dread.. lord d..does beh..better. 'Deh.. Deathwatch d..ies or y..you d.. do'. th..hey said. L...looks li.." the coughing intensified,  "...like f...for... n...now it's... m... me..."

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The words had barely left Arlynn's mouth before she realized that they were the wrong words.  The world still did not make any sense.  She felt queasy, the room was spinning around her, and her answer had come from a place that was not connected to her training.  Sluggishly, she cursed her addled mind, though even that lacked any strength.  Great Lord, but the man was strong.  Still...

 

It took an effort that would have moved mountains, but Arlynn pulled her mind into the present an gave Deathwatch a dazed smile.  "You won't escape, big man," she stuttered, the effort of making words adding to her dizziness.  "We will... always be there.  Waiting."  There was a lead weight settling into her body, a slight coldness creeping through her veins.  It was working.  "You can't stop... the ine... vitable."

 

There was a moment, an odd moment where the big man's face went empty, as if he was considering something.  It passed quickly, and it was replaced with a coldness that seemed to creep from his grasp around her wrist and throat and into her body.  Slowly, he lowered her from the ceiling, but still held her above the floor.  He held her gaze for a moment, the coldness radiating from him like a bizarre oven.  Then the look changed to something worse.  Deathwatch smiled, and the grip on her throat released completely.  Arlynn dropped from where she was held against the wall, only to bounce against the iron grip held against her wrist.

 

Her broken wrist.

 

Agony coursed its way up her arm and exploded in her head like an Illuminator's display.  Deathwatch didn't even react.  "You are a Darkfriend," he said in a voice empty of anything human.  "You probably have allies watching for your return.  By now, they know that you failed.  However..."  During the pause, the coldness in human form lifted on her broken wrist, dragging even more pain out of the limb.  "However, you cannot afford to scream, can you?"

 

Discipline kept Arlynn silent, but a growing terror pressed down the creeping coldness that was the poison coursing through her body.  "If you scream," Deathwatch continued, his voice still empty of emotion, "you risk drawing attention to yourself, a woman dressed in grays, blacks, and browns meant to hide you from prying eyes."  Her eyes crept up, finding the face of the grave itself staring back at her.  "Anybody who found you would know you for what you are, and your friends who are waiting for you cannot call the alarm, either.  Finding the body of an assassin would bring... unwelcome questions."  As if to prove his point, Deathwatch quickly jerked up on her arm, on the broken wrist.  Another wave of pain coursed down her arm, but she kept her jaw clenched around the scream.  The barest moan was all that escaped her mouth.

 

Deathwatch smiled icily.  "More, your friends can't say anything to the watch, either.  Doing so would bring too much attention to themselves."  The big man turned suddenly, causing her body to swing back and forth on the broken bones of her wrist.  There was no hiding the intense pain that crossed her face, pain stronger than anything that the poison could overpower.  Deathwatch's free hand reached to the window, and with a pull that caused Arlynn to swing even more from her broken wrist, he pulled the wires away from the catches.  It took him no effort to push the window open.

 

Arlynn had enough time to realize what was about to happen before Deathwatch shoved her out the window, leaving her dangling three stories above the street by her broken wrist.  "You can't scream," he- no, not he, it- said.  "Your allies can't raise an alarm."  Slowly, he began to swing her by the hand.  In a moment of numb disbelief, Arlynn looked up at her arm, at the point where she was swinging.  A point that was well below her wrist.  It didn't take long for the grinding, stabbing pain to burst in her skull, dragging a keening wail from her.  A wail that she kept clenched tight behind a locked jaw.

 

The smile that suddenly turned darkly jubilant told Arlynn all that she needed to know.

 

The rocking only grew it speed and strength, and it was all that Arlynn could do to not scream as bone ground against bone, tore apart muscle and tendon and vein.  She was certain that she could feel her arm stretching out, straining without the structure that should have held it together.  The numbness from the poison was not even noticeable against the grinding, stabbing pain...

 

And then, at the top of a swing, the iron grip around her wrist released, and Arlynn felt herself flying through the air and down the alley.  Her body was turning, and the pain eased enough for her to focus on the cobblestone that made up the ground.  She had enough time to admire the precision that Deathwatch had used in throwing her before her life ended in a sickening, wet crunch as her skull cracked against the cobbles.

 

***

 

Mehrin made sure to smile as coldly and madly as he could down both directions in the alley before he pulled himself back into the room and closed the window and curtains behind him.

 

Then he collapsed back into the chair, fighting the overpowering need to vomit.

 

He was not a cruel man.  He did not enjoy causing pain and suffering.  He did not live to bring misery to the world.  But he was a tactician, a strategist, and he knew how to use an advantage that was given to him.

 

He nearly lost the fight again.

 

There were hot tears coursing down his face, his breath was coming in gasping sobs.  Even so, the rational part of his mind was telling him that he had done the right thing.  Mehrin Deathwatch had a reputation for violence, for bringing pain and suffering.  If he could make the Darkfriends behind this attack afraid of bringing the Deathwatch down on them, maybe he could eliminate an opponent from a stones board that was becoming increasingly complicated.  The fact that the voice was right did nothing to help.

 

He was a killer.  He caused pain and death.  But he had never done anything to make it worse.  He had never stepped on a dying man's throat to watch him suffocate, even though he knew several who had.  He had never stabbed more than he had to stab to kill a man.  He had never burned a man to hear him scream, even if he knew others who had.  He killed to survive, and he did not make people suffer, even if they deserved to suffer.

 

Belatedly, Mehrin became aware that he had an audience.  "I-" he started before another sob stopped him.  Calm, deep breaths.  It's done now.  Nothing to do but move on.  The thought did nothing to calm him.   Another deep breath.

 

Another.

 

"Ayrik is back," he managed after a time.  "At least we know who we're dealing with."  His voice was raw, his throat tight.  You would make a horrible Questioner, he thought, trying to ease his tension.  "Go-"  Mehrin cleared his throat.  "Go back to sleep.  I need to think, and the Darkfriends won't dare make a move against us tonight. "

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Eb cursed. Crouched at the ready, she kept her eyes fixed on Mehrin's form, rocking at the window. She'd expected him to be taken out the instant he'd crossed there, but somehow the seconds and minutes continued to drag on without retaliation. 

 

Her heartbeat pounded in her ears. The surreal sound of shirtsleeve scuffing against wooden sill accompanied muffled moans from the darkfriend as she swung. By the end of her broken arm. Eb gritted her teeth, biting back a new wave of nausea and a stronger string of profanities. The swinging movements intensified.

 

" You won't escape, big man," the woman's threat to Mehrin replayed in her mind. "You can't stop the inevitable."  

 

And then, suddenly, the words came to life. Eb saw - watched helplessly - as her ex-commander's body jerked violently  away from the window. Almost in slow motion, he sank to the floor, blood blooming from a bolt-hole in the flesh of his throat. His eyes were wide, lifeless.  

 

Blood and bloody ashes, Mehrin!

 

She snarled, shaking the scenario from her mind. Her hands clenched tight around her knives, choking them at the hilts.

 

What in the Light have you gotten us into?  Darkfriends, assassins, dreadlords?

 

The swinging stopped. There was a second of utter silence. A wet and not-so-distant crunch. No calls of alarm, no clatter of footsteps followed. No thwack of crossbow bolts to Mehrin's chest.

 

He leaned out and leered down the alley in both directions, then abruptly shut the window, drew the curtains, sank into a chair. Eb stood, releasing the breath she'd been holding with a sharp hiss.

 

"Wh - " she bit the admonishments off before they even really begun.

 

Mehrin sat in the chair, pale and looking for all the world as if he was about to vomit. She took a step back.

 

He retched and his face contorted, crumpled. Tears began to flood down his cheeks. He gulped at the air, chest heaving, again and again. Eb drew a deep breath and turned her head away, and then back. Her hands squeezed harder on the hilts of her knives. The heartbeat in her ears picked up in tempo.

 

"I -" he choked on the words, looking lost, and Eb felt her mouth go dry, her throat constrict. Mehrin drew deep breath after deep breath. Each one felt to Eb like he was sucking all of the remaining air from the room. 

 

Finally, he managed, "Ayrik is back. At least we know who we're dealing with."

 

He cleared his throat before continuing, "Go - go back to sleep. I need to think, and the Darkfriends won't dare to make a move against us tonight."

 

Eb stared at him. 

 

"Go back to sleep?!" she shoved her knives back into her sleeves to stop herself from throwing one at him.

 

"Go back to sleep? Mehrin-bloody-Mahrvon, you are - " she snapped her mouth shut. She couldn't finish the sentence. Her hands shook, and for once she didn't know whether it was because of the recent release of the tension they'd held along with her knives, or because the whole world had just turned itself upside down, and she was afraid. She folded them into her armpits. Eyes wide, she looked to the table of abandoned assassin-ware. To the window. The floor. Mehrin's face. 

 

"Who," she paused, pushing aside the memories of a name being murmured here and there in hushed tones around the campfires after Mehrin's first disappearance from the Band.  

 

"Who in the blasted dark is Ayrik?" 

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The nausea was beginning to pass, but the disgust was still there.  Perhaps it always would be.  Mehrin, staring at the floor, wrapped it up and set it aside for later.  He would deal with it when he had time.  Now, though, was a different matter.  There was something else bothering him.

 

Fear.

 

Fear had a smell, a taste, a look.  Fear could be felt by those around the person, and in the heightened senses of the moment Mehrin felt fear, but not his own.  Something had shaken Eb beyond anything he had ever seen from her before.  It was shown in the closed-off way that she stood holding herself in the corner of his eye.  There had to be a source for that fear, one that had nothing to do with the assassin's failed attempt.  A flash of intuition, something that he had learned to trust on the battlefield, gave him a possible answer.

 

"'A commander must never show fear,'" Mehrin said quietly.  The words were not his.  They belonged to an ancient commander named Alyssia Maharevenn, a woman whose very presence on the field had once caused an entire army to retreat without offering battle before the Compact of the Ten Nations had been signed.  She had written several treatises on tactics, and Mehrin had laboriously read every single one of them after he had been named commander of the Band.  A part of Mehrin had always wondered if she was some distant ancestor of his parents based on her name, but he had never looked into it any further.  She was not the only one he had read.  Reading was never a strong point for Mehrin, but he had forced his way through every book that he could get his hands on about command and tactics. 

 

He continued, "'The confidence of the entire army lies with its commanders, and fear undermines confidence.  A commander who shows fear to her soldiers has lost the battle before the first arrow has flown.'"  Slowly, Mehrin's eyes moved from the floor to meet Eb's eyes.  "She was right, wasn't she?  Never thought to see me lose control like that, I'd guess."

 

Unfortunately, Eb had asked The Question, and if she was going to be prepared for whatever came, Mehrin had to answer.  "Do you ever think," Mehrin began, his eyes once again falling to the floor, "that the Creator sometimes has all the creative ability of a drunken gleeman who is trying to make up a story?  That's apparently my life."  Even preparing to say it had Mehrin shaking his head at the evident stupidity of it all.  "I have an evil twin brother named Ayrik Drayven.  Yes, it really is that ridiculous.

 

"My daughter, a child that I never knew existed, ran away from her mother and found me at the Citadel.  I did the best that I could as a father.  I gave what free time I had to being there for her.  I assigned her a minder.  Remember Aldar Gesparion?  Used to use a rapier on the battlefield, took a bad injury at Bandar Eban that left him barely able to walk.  I took him on as my assistant in the office to keep as much work away from my desk as I possibly could.  When Renalie showed up at the Citadel, he immediately took her under his wing, and I made the arrangement permanent."

 

A small, sad smile crossed Mehrin's face for a moment as memories stirred.  "For a time I was actually happy.  I had a daughter, a career, even somebody who I thought would want to share it all with me."  The smile turned cold and dark.  "Then he showed up.  The bastard, apparently a channeler, stepped out of a gateway in the middle of the night and stole Renalie from me.  Aldar hurt him badly- the idiot thought that he could fight him with a sword, and even a crippled man was more than a match for him.  I think he was trying to hide from the Asha'man.  Probably couldn't win a stand-up fight."

 

Memories stirred, threatened to drag Mehrin down with them.  Aldar, his back broken, barely able to breathe.  He had known that he was dying, and he had asked Mehrin to make it a quick death for him.

 

He had done so with only the barest twinge of guilt.

 

An empty room, a letter.  Gloating.  Rage.

 

Drea.  Comfort.

 

A decision.

 

"I don't know if Renalie is still alive.  Ayrik never told me," Mehrin growled, the darkness that he kept bottled within himself tinting his words with red rage.  "For all I know, he dropped her into the blackness inside of a gateway, leaving her to spend the rest of her life screaming as she fell through eternal nothingness."  The darkness clamored forward, seeing the chance to finally be free.  "I don't care.  If she's alive, I will find her.  If not...  The Shadow cannot bury him deeply enough to escape me."  A sudden burst of anger forced the darkness back down.  Mehrin would use it when he needed it, not before.  "That is why I left.  If there was a chance that I could find her, then I had to take it."  Shaking his head, Mehrin continued.  "She is likely long dead, but I can't stop until I'm sure.  I have walked from one side of this Light-blasted continent to the other searching for her.  Drea left the Band with me, and he even managed to drive her away from me.  I have been alone for so long, and for the bastard to show up now and try to kill me now..."  The rage was too much.  Mehrin's closed fist struck the arm rest of the chair, and he felt it break underneath his hand.

 

"Expect everything," he growled.  "This is just the beginning..."

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"Light, Mehrin -" Eb ran her hands roughly through her hair, gripping the roots near the nape of her neck and giving a sharp tug upwards before dropping her arms to her sides.

 

"I just -" So many thoughts competed for focus in her mind she felt like her head was about to burst open. Her heart, too, still felt like it was attempting to ram itself out of her chest.

 

She shut her mouth, opened it again.

 

He was right. Fear, unbridled fear, did this. Undermined confidence. Preceded loss. Robbed one of the power to think, sometimes as effectively and as insidiously as the assassin's poisoned needles.  

 

"This is hardly a usual battle though," she grumbled, and louder, "And I'm no bloody good at-" she waved her hands around, trying to encompass the table of assassin-ware, what she'd just heard, the window where she couldn't have countered a threat, the space between each of those and Mehrin, Mehrin's mood, his actions of vulnerability and her utter inability to address them, the intrusive visions of him sinking lifeless to the floor, now with an element of dreadlord.

 

She scowled when the words wouldn't come, and waved some more, trying to indicate the tangled press of feelings in the air, within herself, that his news had stirred. "At this."

 

She scowled harder.

 

Fear was something she remembered the feeling of, something she worked hard to stay ahead of, stay harder than. It was something that trained her as a child in the Rahad, something she had learnt to turn into instant focus or fury. It was not something she usually felt. Feeling it - feeling anything - was exasperating. Terrifying in itself. She barked a laugh. 

 

She looked to Mehrin and walked across to kick, unnecessarily, she realised too late, at the wedge underneath the door and make sure it was secure.

 

She could feel what she assumed was Mehrin's gaze on her in part, but for that moment she didn't turn around. Forehead resting against the back of the door, she consciously turned down the emotions and began to try and order her thoughts on his story, the consequences and any possible solutions ahead.

 

"Is it really, though? The beginning?" she asked quietly, "And if so, what really is this the beginning of?"

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Mehrin was silent for a long moment.  What was happening?  A Dreadlord had decided to drop whatever he had been doing for the past several years to murder him.  But in this way?  A whole platoon of Children?  A Darkfriend assassin?  This was convoluted beyond stupidity.  Why didn't Ayrik just step out of a gateway and incinerate him?

 

He found that he didn't have a good answer to Eb's question.  With all honesty, Mehrin answered, "I don't know for certain.  All I know is that this will only end when either he is dead... or I am.  And I certainly have no intention of dying."  A small smile crossed his face briefly.  "I fully intend to kick the Dark One in the stones before I die, and I can't do that if this bastard kills me."  As quickly as the smile appeared, it was gone.  "Expect everything, and you won't be disappointed."

 

****

 

It had been four days since Deathwatch and the woman had left Whitebridge, and Gerrain, Sabeth, Roshan, and Erebit had not left the basement of the mansion since Arlynn had been killed.  Only a master mason would have been able to spot the small rectangle in the wall where bricks had been removed and a hollow dug out to hide the body of the assassin, then replaced.  Gerrain and Roshan had been hiding outside the inn when the big man had hurled Arlynn from the window, and Roshan was still occasionally sick whenever he remembered the popping sound that her head had made when it struck the cobbles.  Arlynn's features had only grown worse in the brief time that it had taken to remove her from the street and into the basement.  Before they had begun to pack in the clay around her corpse, her head had turned purple and her eyes were bulging grotesquely.  Roshan was happy to set the final bricks between the assassin and himself.

 

"So," Gerrain started before falling silent.  He seemed to be trying to find words.  But what was there to be said?  They had failed, and one of the best assassins that the Shadow had ever known was rotting behind a wall of bricks.  Roshan was wondering what he would add, hoped that it would be something that they could draw some inspiration from.  They were behind, true, but there were other assassins that they could recruit.  They could come back from-

 

"You failed."  The cold pronouncement drew angry glares from everyone present to the figure that had just stepped from a hole in the air.  "You had your orders," the Dreadlord Ayrik Drayven hissed.  "You let Mehrin and that new wench of his escape.  I understood that you were the best that the Shadow had to offer."  The Shadow-blasted raven that seemed to follow the man around croaked harshly at the assembled Friends of the Dark.  "It seems that I was mistaken."  The slim features narrowed in contempt as Ayrik's gaze fell on Gerrain.  "You are the leader here.  You will explain yourself to me, worm."

 

Roshan's guts twisted in fear.  A Dreadlord was an enemy that no mere Darkfriend wanted.  However, Gerrain's gaze never wavered.  "No, Dreadlord.  You will explain to your superiors."  Drayven's features twisted in rage, but Gerrain continued without concern.  "Our circle was one of the strange ones.  We are five- I mean, four.  And we are experts in our area.  Assassination, discord, chaos.  These are our areas."  An expression that Roshan had never seen on Gerrain's face appeared: rage.  Rage and despise.  "We were contracted by you, and we all contacted our circles.  Every single ally that we have knows of the contract you gave us.  And we know that you have driven us to assassinate a man who you wanted dead."  Gerrain's face grew hard.  "We pursued your personal grudge, and as a result one of the Shadow's greatest asset is now dead behind that wall.  You can threaten us all you want.  You can even destroy us right here.  We know that."  Roshan was not fond of Gerrain's seeming disinterest in their fates.  He fully intended to live until the Great Lord was free.  "What you don't know," Gerrain continued, "is that our message has spread through the Friends, and we have had replies."  He leveled his gaze on the upstart Dreadlord.  "What do you think your master M'bela would think of this?  I can assure you that any retribution you drop on us will be revisited to you tenfold by the one who holds your leash.  As far as we are concerned, we are through.  Find some other circle, if one will have you.  As far as we are concerned, you can cast yourself into the Pit of Doom and leave us be."

 

Roshan expected the Dreadlord to react beyond the growing redness in his face.  The rage was there; he could almost feel it like an oppressing heat in the room.  But there was no retaliation.  There was no physical reaction at all.  The Dreadlord merely opened a gateway behind him, and as quickly as he had appeared, Drayven was gone.

 

Gerrain nearly collapsed as the facade that he had shown fell apart.  Sabeth was there almost as soon as he hit the floor, her arms wrapping around his shoulders as if she could protect him from whatever might come.  Roshan could see him trembling, see the tension of what he had just done twitching out of him.

 

However, with a single nod, Gerrain told them all that they were done in Whitebridge.  Their chapter in this... this idiocy... was over.

 

The Dreadlord was on his own.

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