The Scribe (Part 4)


“I’ve brought presents.”

Anders gestured for Vulfang to take the man from Courtney, and accepted the bag with a raised eyebrow.

“Messenger bird,” she explained, looking about the room in the abandoned building they’d found the magic circle in. Jorah was still sitting next to the circle, deep in meditation.

“You didn’t dispel it?” Her superior asked.

“I didn’t want to risk damaging the message in case there was a special code word.” Courtney answered, not sure from his manner if he was pleased or annoyed.

She got her answer when his lips curled a bit on the edge, and he nodded in approval. “You show promise.” He said, thrusting his hand into the bag and pulling out the flapping and struggling black messenger spell. It looked like a shadow that had gained a third dimension.

“Thank you, sir.”

Holding it by the back of the neck, Anders examined it for a moment, and Courtney saw his eyes glow yellow. Then he reached into his coat and produced another long yellow paper talisman, sticking one end in his teeth while he began to twist it with his free hand.

“Any luck with the circle?” Courtney asked Vulfang.

“Jorah says they’ve used it more than once,” said the agent, tapping a sleep talisman onto the unconscious man’s forehead to keep him that way. “He’s still trying to determine how many times, and what orders the victims were given.”

“I see…” Courtney looked at the circle thoughtfully, wondering how the victims felt. Did they know their own minds had been stripped away from them?

“You okay?” Vulfang asked her as he walked over. “You look like hell.”

“Yeah, I’ll be okay.” She lied. “It’s hot out there.”

In point of fact, Courtney had almost passed out on the return trip, and been forced to rest in the shade of a rooftop awning before continuing back. The heat exhaustion had left her pale and a little shaky, but again, she didn’t want to show weakness in front of her new superiors.

Vulfang reached behind his back and produced a thick green plant stem from one of his belt pouches, offering it to her. It looked slightly rotten and smelled it as well.

“Chew on this a while. It’s high desert cactus.”

“I really don’t…” She started to refuse, but saw the serious look in his eye and finally took it from him. “Do I have to?”

“If you want to stay standing.”

“Right,” she stared at the root a moment, and then popped it into her mouth and started to chew. Surprisingly, it didn’t taste so bad at all. In fact, it tasted somewhat like a very juicy licorice.

She looked at Vulfang in surprise, and the large man winked at her. “Not too bad, right? You’ll be right as rain in a few.”

“Good, because she needs to go back out again.”

They both looked at Anders, who was looping the now ropelike talisman around the bird’s neck. He tied it off at the end, and said a few whispered words- the talisman melted into the bird’s shadowy form.

“I’ve put a tracker in it,” he explained. “It’ll leave a trail that can only be seen with mage-sight, and you’ll follow it to its destination.”

“Okay,” Courtney agreed. “Let’s go…” Then a wave of dizziness washed over her, and she had to steady herself. “…In a minute.”

“Take ten,” Anders said, holding up the bird. “I need you both to get there intact.”


Arthos Manning was watering his plants when the bird arrived- fluttering in through his window to land on a nearby chair-back.

Frowning, Manning waddled over to where the bird sat and held out an open hand. Obligingly, the bird leapt onto it, and with a whispered word from Manning the bird was replaced by a rolled-up paper scroll. He wasn’t expecting a message today, he considered as he unrolled the paper- who could this be from?

His first indication was the size and poor penmanship of the words, and then when he read it his eyes went wide with panic. How had they been discovered? This was terrible!

Rushing over to a nearby desk, the plump middle-aged man ripped the desk drawer right out in his haste- its contents cascading down onto the tile floor. Uncaring, he thrust a hand into the hole left by the drawer and produced a leather circle which had been hidden inside.

Ripping free the cover, he gave a code-word and the mirror instantly began to glow.

A moment later, a face appeared on the mirror.

“What is it?” Growled Colonel Haman of the Slate.

But however hard Arthos Manning tried to reply, the words would not come out. It was as if his whole body was frozen- for that was exactly what the paralysis talisman that had been stuck to the back of his head had done.

“Manning?!? Manning!!” The Colonel yelled, but to no avail.

Slipping the cover back on the scrying mirror, Courtney smiled.

“Don’t worry Colonel, you’ll see your friend here soon enough.”


“This isn’t right.”

From the top of the temple steps, Courtney and Anders watched as a line of delegates filed past security and into the Temple of the Golden Host for the peace conference between the Empire and the Rebel Army. Earla Brightblade at the lead, minus her chief of security, walked up the steps to meet the Minister of the Left, who bowed and led her inside.

“You’d best get accustomed to it, this is politics.” Anders told her from where he leaned with his back against one of the towering marble pillars. “This conference is more important than your notions of justice.”

“Is that why you brought me here to see this?” She fixed him with her slate-blue eyes, and he met hers evenly with his brown.

“It is.”

She was the one who turned away, disgusted.

They had captured Colonel Haman quickly enough before he’d escaped, and under interrogation he’d confirmed what they’d learned from the spell circle they’d found next to the bookstore. Two scribes, a cook, a servant and two guards had been put under their control, all of them targeting different people. It was a timed operation, with some acting as a distraction while the others would strike. All very carefully planned to bring an abrupt end to the conference, and all apparently done under his single authority.

“There’s no way she isn’t behind this,” Courtney spat. “With those eyes of hers, she could see them coming as clear as day.”

“You’re saying despite the assassin targeted at her, she was in no danger?”


“And you’d be right.” He agreed. “The target was most likely her co-leader, Sturm Gallan, as she’d have to share anything she gains from the negotiations with him. Perhaps he has something she wants hidden, or knows something… Well, regardless, we have no proof, and without proof, only the Colonel will take responsibility. At least, until she negotiates his freedom as part of the treaty.”

“What?!?” Courtney looked at him, aghast. “We’ll let him go? After what he did?”

“Someone once said that politics is the art of compromise. One life to save thousands, isn’t it worth the cost?”

Courtney looked down, considering.

“I still don’t like it.”

“And you’re not required to,” he shrugged. “Just to follow orders, even when they don’t agree with your ideals. Can you do that?”

With only the briefest moment of hesitation, she nodded.

“I can.”

He studied her for a time, then seemed to come to a conclusion.

“I believe you. Welcome to the team.”

“Thank you,” she said. Suddenly not feeling all that happy about getting what she’d wanted.

“Oh, cheer up.” He clapped her on the shoulder. “It’s not as if he’ll get away completely free.”

She looked up at him, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

Anders gave an evil grin. “As part of our investigation I believe we should test that spell circle before we erase it, with a few modifications, of course. I think the Colonel will make a nice volunteer.” He winked. “She can decide if she wants to keep the Colonel around after that, never knowing what orders we gave him.”

Courtney laughed. It wasn’t justice, but it was close enough for today.


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The Scribe (Part 3)

Shocked, Courtney tried to run around the counter, but by the time she’d gotten around it Anders had already thrown the old bookseller to the ground.

Whipping out a small strip of paper from his pockets, Anders slapped it on the struggling man’s forehead, at which point the struggling seller suddenly went limp like a broken puppet. “Here,” Anders said, thrusting the book the man had been carrying into Courtney’s hands, then he whipped out a scrying mirror.

Courtney looked at the book, “A Study of the Grey Fawn-Mouse” it was called, but a quick check with mage-sight revealed nothing unusual about it, it was a normal book, with the only exceptional thing about it being a rather nice rendering of a fawn-mouse on its grass green cover.

Moments later, Vulfang and Jorah slipped inside the front curtain.

“Check upstairs, watch for traps.” Anders ordered, and the two men rushed past and up the spiral staircase at the back.

“Sir, this book..?” Said Courtney, now somewhat confused.

Anders, who was now rooting around through the seller’s pockets, didn’t bother to look up, but began to explain. “Courtney, what color are the books in the front window?”

This caught the young woman by surprise, she hadn’t really thought about it. “I don’t know”, she admitted. “Should I go look?”

She caught Anders rolling his eyes and decided to stay where she was.

“Brown,” Anders told her. “Most decidedly brown. All of them.”


Finishing with the seller and not finding anything, Anders shifted his attention to the rear of the counter. “Why place a bright green book among a collection of brown ones in a front window?”

That’s when it hit her.

“A signal, he was sending a signal.”

Anders nodded. “Somewhat late, but at least you finally arrived at the proper conclusion. Didn’t you notice how his manner changed when I mentioned the scribe? He clearly wanted us gone, and there had to be a reason for it.”

Finishing his search without finding anything, Anders stood up. “No scrying mirrors, or other means of signaling. So you’re holding the one we want.”

Courtney looked down at the book again, impressed. She never would have thought of that.

“Anders, upstairs!” Jorah called down.

“Cover the door, but don’t let them see you do it.” Anders ordered, gesturing at the wooden boards that lay next to the entrance.

When she’d done as he ordered, Courtney checked the bookseller to be sure he was still out. A large black and purple blotch was starting to form on his temple where he’d hit his head when Anders had thrown him down, but the sleep talisman Anders had used was firmly stuck to his forehead. He wouldn’t awaken until someone removed it.

Then Courtney slipped up the narrow stairs and into the upper level. The place was a messier version of the store below, with cushions for sitting and clothes strewn about. She followed the sounds of her comrade’s voices into another room, and through a hole which had been knocked in a side-wall. Next to the hole, a hanging carpet lay crumpled on the floor- the hole’s former covering.

Inside what Courtney took to be the abandoned building next door, she found her comrades standing around the edges of a large, empty room. The only illumination was from a half-covered rear window, but it revealed nothing but an empty room, the middle of which Anders and the others were peering at carefully.

She was almost going to ask why, but suddenly she stopped herself and did the obvious thing- she switched to mage-sight.

The moment she did, it literally all became clear.

The room which looked so darkened and dusty under normal sight was actually ablaze with lines of yellow and orange magic everywhere. The majority of it was concentrated around a circle in the middle of the room about the diameter of a wagon wheel, which was what Anders and the others were examining. Moving closer, Courtney could see the very tight weaves of the circle’s structure, and recognized the sharp angles of Hathiri style weaves.

“A casting circle for a mind control spell.” Jorah said, before she could ask for confirmation. “This is where they did Biddleton.”

Anders nodded. “Vulfang, take Courtney up on the roof and do a survey of the marketplace. Find out who was supposed to catch that signal. Jorah, I need to know how many times this thing has been used. Can you do that?”

“I can try,” said the gentleman, slipping down into a crosslegged position next to the casting circle.

Vulfang clapped Courtney on the shoulder. “Let’s go, kid.”

Following the large man up a ladder at the back of the building, the two agents crept low across the roof, before they reached the edge, Vulfang stopped her. He pulled a hood up to hide his broad, shaved head that we gleaming in the midday sun, and motioned for her to do the same.

Instead, Courtney shook her head. A moment’s concentration later, she vanished from sight, her Armor of Saltea throwing a stealth weave over her whole body. If she moved there was a visible distortion, but as long as she was still she was effectively invisible.

Now Vulfang was the one to be impressed. “Must be nice.” He said, shaking his head, then the two of them dropped to their elbows and crept forward to the front edge of the building.

“Look for anyone showing a lot of interest in the building,” he told her. “After seeing all of us go in, they should be getting pretty antsy about now.”

Courtney started to indicate she would, then remembered that he couldn’t see her, and just settled down to work. There were a lot of people on the market street, but all seemed to be busy going about their business and showing little interest in anything to do with the bookstore. She started checking the other buildings as well, and while there were many open windows, almost none were occupied.

After a few minutes, Vulfang whispered “Check the bun seller.”

It took her a moment to find him, but sure enough, partway down the street was a bun seller’s stall, and she saw the turbaned head of a skinny man pop out from behind the edge of the stall and look at the store beneath them. As they watched, he casually walked out and past the store, pausing to try to get a look inside the window of the bookshop, and then continued in a look back to his own stall.

“Not very professional, is he?”

Vulfang smiled at her comment. “He’s just a little extra hired help. You keep watch, I’ll report this in.”

A few minutes later, he was creeping back up beside her again.

“You can leap around, right?”

“Yes,” Courtney said. “Like a rabbit.”

“Good. Here’s the plan- Anders is going to put the book in the window, and we’re going to see what he does. If he runs, you follow. If he sneaks off to use a mirror, we grab him.”

It made sense, and Courtney said as much.

So they lay there on the hot roof and waited. This is where her armor had a decidedly large disadvantage, Courtney decided. While the stealth weave was active, her armor was manifest around her in the physical world, but it had no system for cooling, and literally became a wrapper she was stuffed inside. It didn’t physically get hot, but it did keep her from cooling and so she suffered from a real chance of overheating if she exerted herself in the armor or was in a hot environment with it on for too long.

She wanted to pull back and release the armor, giving herself a chance to breath, but it could be needed at any moment, and she didn’t want to look weak in front of Vulfang. So instead she lay there, getting ever more uncomfortable in the midday sun.

Then, just as she was about to retreat and escape from her personal prison because she couldn’t stand it anymore- something happened.

Using mage-sight, she could look through physical barriers and see the pale green and yellow silhouettes of people. Behind the bun-seller stand she watched as he summoned a boy, gave the child something, and then sent the boy running down the street.

“You’re up. Keep in touch.” Vulfang told her, and Courtney pulled back from the edge, stood up, and began running across the rooftops in pursuit of the boy. The buildings that didn’t share a wall had only small alleys between them because of the dense need for space, so it didn’t take much for her to keep up with the boy.

She used mage-sight to track him as he sprinted among the awnings and between the sellers and their stalls until he ducked into a restaurant two blocks away. It also let her follow his progress as he made his way through the crowded tables to finally stop next to a man, give him something, and then leave.

Ignoring the boy now, she crouched on a rooftop across the street and waited.

After a few minutes, the man casually got up and walked to the back of the restaurant and out a rear doorway.

Sighing, Courtney took a look down at the market street below, did a quick estimate, and decided her odds. Then she took a couple steps back, and with a running start threw herself into the air over the street. Thanks to the magical enhancements of her armor, she soared over the sellers and bystanders to land with a hard crunch on the restaurant roof with room to spare.

Not having time to be be impressed with herself, she dashed forward to the back edge of the roof and looked down.

The man was alone in the back alley, and was unrolling a piece of paper on top of a wooden barrel. As she watched, he pulled out something and started to write quickly on the paper, scrawling down a message. The paper shone with a light orange tint, so Courtney wasn’t surprised at all with what happened when the man was done.

He pulled out a knife, cut the tip of his finger and dropped a little blood on the corner of the page. Instantly the paper came to brilliant orange life as the blood activated the spell and the paper was transformed into the shape of a messenger bird about the size and shape of a pigeon.

This was her time to act, and Courtney took it.

Vaulting over the edge, she dropped down from above and grabbed the bird, then, before the man could react to the invisible demon he faced, she backhanded him into the wall, rendering him unconscious in a cloud of yellow alley dirt.

“In you go,” she said to the bird as she grabbed the sack the man had been carrying and stuffed the magical messenger inside.


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The Scribe (Part 2)


“Yes, we’re here assessing possible assassination threats to yourself or others at the conference.”

Earla smiled again. “If you want a list of people who may wish me dead, it will not be a short one. It’s been a long war, and peace isn’t quite as popular as you might think.”

“I would think peace is always welcome,” Anders offered. “Just so long as one benefits from it.”

“Are you looking for those who don’t?”

“I’m a practical man,” Anders agreed. “I find simple motives the most compelling.”

The General frowned, her affected mirth draining away. “That too is a fair list, but I believe I may shorten it quickly enough. I will have my secretary give you a few names before you go.”

“Thank you, it would be appreciated.” Anders replied as Colonel Haman returned with a pair of servants carrying food and drink. “Is there a name I should pay special attention to?”

Earla thought a moment. “Tyla Bonheur is where I would begin.” She offered.

“Then I will start there,” said Anders with a curt nod, and he stood up so fast Courtney had to jump to her feet to keep up with him. “Thank you for your time, General Brightblade.” He placed a hand across his chest and bowed slightly. “I wish you success in your negotiations tomorrow.”

The rebel general mimicked the gesture, wished them well, and then pair made their exit.

Courtney didn’t speak until after they’d retrieved the list from the general’s secretary and left the building. Anders hadn’t said a word, so she thought she too should remain silent. Despite this, she felt as if she was going to burst if she wasn’t able to ask questions, and did so as soon as they were in the private safety of their carriage.

“Do you think she’s involved?” She asked her superior.

“I think everyone’s involved, trainee.” Anders told her with a slight hint of amusement. “Don’t you?”

The younger woman wasn’t sure how to answer this, and hesitated before finally replying- “I think she’s the one we’re after.”

“Why? Let me hear your reasoning.”

“It’s those Orbs of Truth- there’s no way anyone could get close to her without her seeing their intent. She’d also see any delayed spells, so it’d be useless to put ensorcelled people around her unless she already knew about them.”

Anders nodded. “A reasonable assumption. Nothing provable, but reasonable.”

“So what can we do, sir? Put her under surveillance?”

“Even if she is responsible,” Anders said, pulling a small circle of leather from the folds of his longcoat. “She won’t leave any direct connections with whoever is conducting this operation.” Then he undid a small hook and flipped open the leather circle to reveal a tiny scrying mirror the size of an egg.

“Hebris,” he said, using the mirror’s activation codeword. Almost immediately, the bespeckled face of a young male clerk appeared in the mirror.

“Hawkins,” said the clerk.

“Give me a connection to the chief, Hawkins.”

“One moment, please, sir.” Said the man, and in Anders’ mirror Courtney could see the receiving mirror being lined up with another mirror of the same size which had the image of Lord Brigham on it.

“What have you got, Anders?” The Lord asked, when the two mirrors were aligned with each other.

Anders told him what they’d learned so far, including Courtney’s thoughts.

“Spell analysis on the scribe is still ongoing, we’re trying to avoid bringing him in unless we need to, as we don’t want to tip the opposition off.” The lord told them. “I have an appointment with the Minister of the Left in an hour. Black and Ding are currently en-route to Sturm Gallen’s residence. I’m going to have them do the interview with him.”

Anders frowned. “I was going to do that myself, sir. Is there a reason?”

“Jorah and Vulfang have turned up a missing piece of time in the scribe’s itinerary, and I want you to focus on that. It seems a more likely line of investigation.”


The city of Kul-Margat was an ancient trade city which sat on the Western border of the Empire, where the last of the mountains of the South met the vast expanse of the Kahli Desert. Carved, as much as built, from the deep brown stone of a mountain, it was home to thousands, and at any time had thousands more passing through its gates. Trade was the city’s reason for being, and most of its narrow, twisting streets were dedicated to the shops that seemed attached to the first level of every house.

Courtney and Anders met Vulfang and Jorah in an outdoor cafe on one of the lower levels frequented by travelers. Courtney spotted the two men almost immediately, the hulking Vulfang with his scarred face and the more fashionable Jorah with his slicked-back black hair being easy to spot in a tent filled with desert tribesmen. Both were dressed in civilian clothes, as were Courtney and Anders now, their uniforms traded in for pale cloth robes and colorful scarves.

“Yo! Friends!” Vulfang raised a glass of the local brew to them as she and Anders threaded their way through the tables of tea-drinkers. Courtney tried not to look at the other things arrayed on the tables, not wanting to lose her lunch.

“Vulfang. Jorah.” Anders said as they took their seats.

“How’s he treating you, new girl?” Vulfang asked Courtney.

She shrugged. “Well enough.”

Vulfang laughed. “Then you’re getting off luckier than that last recruit…What was his name?”

“Tomkins,” Anders said, clearly not eager to discuss the subject.

But Vulfang ignored him. “Yeah, Tomkins. Anders here had him begging for a transfer after the first week. He must like you.”

“I believe,” Jorah put in. “That it’s because you share a commonality. Like you, Courtney, Anders is an alumni of the Ferring School in the Capitol. Did he tell you that?”

In point of fact, Anders had talked little to Courtney since she’d joined the unit two weeks before, and even today had said almost nothing outside of the topic at hand. She was surprised to find out that he was a Ferring graduate, though. It was a school for the children of high ranking officials, and she’d pegged Anders as a scholar’s son.

“I wasn’t aware.” Courtney said, trying to avoid looking at Anders. “He doesn’t talk much.”

The others laughed. “Enjoy it while you can,” Vulfang finally said. “Once he gets used to you, he won’t shut up!”

“What have you learned?” Anders said, trying to steer the conversation back to the mission at hand. “Anything more about the missing hours?”

Vulfang turned to Jorah, who nodded. “Indeed. We were able to determine from a servant at the governor’s house that he asked directions to a bookstore here on the gate level. It seems someone had told him where he could find a book on medicinal desert flowers, and he went in search of it.”

“Do we know who that someone was?” Anders asked.

Jorah shook his head. “No one knew, but he reappeared several hours later, and it was the next day that he was spotted. He had just come in the day before with the Minister of the Left’s party, so this seems the most likely time.”

“Agreed. We’ll check it out. Let’s go.”

As the four of them left the tent, following Jorah, Courtney leaned in and asked Anders “Sir, what year did you graduate? I don’t remember seeing you there.”

Anders’ jaw tightened. “I didn’t graduate.” He half-growled, keeping his eyes straight ahead.

Courtney decided she’d best do the same, and let the subject lie.


They found the book store wedged in between a flower shop and boarded-up home on a bustling market street- the blue icon of a book barely visible on the sandblasted sign that hung above the front doorway. Courtney and Anders went inside first, with Vulfang and Jorah loitering nearby and pretending interest in a local carpet seller’s wares.

The old bookseller, standing behind a short counter to their right as they entered, smiled at them warmly. “Friends! Welcome to my humble shop.” He said through bad teeth as he looked at them expectantly. “How may I help you?”

The shop was a long and thin room filled to the brim with leather bound books, scrolls and various piles of vellum that filled it with a musty scent that Courtney associated with teacher’s offices and her own father’s study. At the back, a single small staircase twisted up into the dwelling above.

“I was recommended a book by a friend, and told you had a copy.” Anders said casually, giving a brief description of Biddleton the scribe. “He told me I could find a book on medicinal wildflowers here.”

Hearing this, the bookseller frowned. “No. No book on that here.” He said, his face becoming serious. “The man you seek didn’t come here.” He added, and then began to fiddle around behind the counter, agitated.

“Are you sure?” Said Anders, watching him intently.

“Quite sure,” said the seller without looking at them, then he picked up a book from behind the desk and began walking toward the front window to place it with the others on display. “You may look for it here, but you will not find the book you’re looking for.”

Inwardly, Courtney shook her head. This clearly wasn’t going to be much of a lead, and she was about to ask Anders what to do next when suddenly Anders yelled “stop him!” and leapt over the counter.


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The Scribe (Part 1)


by Robyn Paterson

(Fantasy, Espionage, PG)

“He was tagged by one of the guards on his way into the castle.”

Anders nodded, looking down at the image of the man on the scrying mirror. The man in question was just entering his twenties, mouse brown hair, slight stoop, clothes just a bit sloppy and ill-fitting- typical scribe. He didn’t look like much of a fighter, either, and hardly like an assassin- which was reasonable since he was supposed to be neither of those things.

“Do we know what he’s been infected with?” Anders asked, not taking his eyes off the man, who was simply sitting at a desk arranging papers.

“We got Kulhaven to do an analysis,” Lord Brigham answered. “He’s been hit with a Class 4 delayed action Mind Control spell- Hathiri in origin. We’ve got intelligence running it down, but I expect it’ll come up as one of the standard types.” Then Anders’s boss, the director of Imperial Intelligence , stroked his long red beard. “Good bit of luck, that. If they’d used one of the more recent spells with a cloaking weave, the guard’s mage sight might not even have caught it.”

“Yes. Good bit of luck.” Anders repeated, sounding more thoughtful than certain. “So, who at the peace conference are we to assume is the target?”

“Kiri?” Lord Brigham looked over at one of the other people who stood around the table in which the scrying mirror was embedded. A striking ebon-haired woman with pale skin and eyes such a bright blue that they glowed with a soft luminescence in the darkened room.

“Tomorrow’s peace conference between the Cutwater Rebels and the Empire will be attended by sixteen delegates- eight from each side, plus their scribes and personal attendants. The most likely targets are the heads of the rebel army, Earla Brightblade and Sturm Gallan, or the Minister of the Left, Lord Rathcombe. The deaths of any of these people would result in the dissolution of the conference, and the continuation of the war.

“It is possible others might be the targets, but since we assume that the goal of the assassination attempt is the continuation of hostilities, they will be the most likely choices. In addition to this, Lucas Biddleton, the scribe in question, is slated to sit to Lord Rathcombe’s left. Killing the Lord from that position will be relatively easy, assuming he’s also got some form of weapon smuggled in with him.”

“The pen will be enough,” Anders commented, tapping the side of his throat. “If he hits the right spot. There will likely be poison in the ink as well, or some sort of enchantment to make sure the job is done properly. Assuming the Lord is the target, and assuming that Biddleton is carrying the weapon and not having it delivered.” Then he looked at his boss. “How are we going to handle this, sir?”

The aging warrior glanced around the table at the eight assembled members of the Imperial Eidolon Corps, “For the time being, we’ve just had Biddleton put under surveillance. Our goal isn’t to stop the assassination, that’s the job of the security detail on the conference. Our goal is to learn who’s behind this and gather enough evidence to make sure they’re dealt with.”

“Understood.” Anders replied, turning to look at his team. “Alright people, listen up. Since time is critical, we’re going to split into four. Vulfang and Jorah, you’re going to do a background check on the scribe. Interview family, friends, neighbors and anyone else you can. Kiri, you and Kulhaven need to continue your covert analysis of that spell someone’s put on him. We need to know what the trigger is, and anything else you can get from it.  Black, you and Ding need to check the rest of the attendees to the best of your ability, also check the rooms where the conference will be taking place. You’re looking for any method by which something could be passed to Biddleton during the conference.”

Then the thirty-something man with the shaggy brown hair looked at the remaining member of his team, a tall, blonde woman with broad shoulders and a steely gaze. “Courtney, you’re with me. Everyone else, keep in touch.”

This got a round of affirmations, and the team went into action as Anders and his partner walked from the table, heading for the nearest door. Anders pulling on a gray longcoat and tanned fingerless gloves as they went.

“Captain, where are we going?” Courtney asked, striding along beside him.

“To interview the attendees.”

“But, you just assigned Black and Ding to deal with them?”

“No, I assigned Black and Ding to check them, not talk with them. That will be our job.”

“Oh. I see.” Courtney nodded. “Who will we begin with, then?”

Anders smiled. “When faced with a choice between two evils, trainee, always pick the one you haven’t tried yet.”


“When we go in,” Anders told his partner while they were waiting. “Note everything.”

Courtney nodded, and at a mental command let the faceplate of the armor she wore slipped over her eyes. As it did, the world suddenly shifted to the view through mage-sight. Now the world was patterns of energy weaving in and around everything, blue and green for inert natural energies, and brighter yellows and oranges and reds for energy which had been twisted and woven into constructs.

Instead of seeing Anders in the black-piped crimson of the Imperial Security service, with his long face and shaggy brown hair, she instead saw a vaguely man-shaped fuzzy yellow blob. His protective magics and anti-scrying spells preventing her senses from penetrating more deeply into his true nature. Similarly, when she looked down at herself she saw the magical Armor of Saltea that she always wore, but which was normally invisible and intangible around her body. A second skin of full armor that existed in astral space and only manifested to aid her or protect her. To anyone else, she too would appear to be wearing the normal security service uniform.

A quick check of the front sitting room of the mansion they were visiting revealed a number of spells for monitoring and listening in, as well as several dormant security traps for the unwary thief. These were all relatively minor weaves, not meant to deal with someone whose magics were stronger than you could find in the marketplace. This was merely a wealthy merchant’s home in a frontier city, after all, not a place of espionage and covert operations. Although with the leader of one of the rebel armies here, she did think it poor that the host hadn’t beefed up security a little.

At last, a servant appeared and gestured them into the audience room, where behind a large antique desk with gold inlays sat the rebel leader, Earla Brightblade. She was older than Courtney expected, with salt and pepper hair and deep lines in her leathery face, but the young woman could also see how Earla may have once been a striking figure. Not that she wasn’t impressive now, with her bright purple silks and blue sash, but what immediately drew Courtney’s eyes were Earla’s own- she didn’t have any.

In place of eyes, Earla Brightblade had two clear glass spheres, and in the middle of each hung a red gem shining like a miniature star. Orbs of Truth, Courtney thought as the General rose to greet them and offered a hand. They were rare, even rarer than the armor Courtney herself wore, and she had only heard of them, never seen a pair. Even though this woman was the enemy, it raised her quite a bit in Courtney’s estimation. To have your eyes ripped out and replaced with these artifacts took a lot of courage, even if they allowed her to see “the truth of the world”- whatever that meant.

“Welcome, friends.” Earla smiled, motioning them to the seats arrayed before the desk. “May I offer you tea? Or fruit? The merchant whose home I stay in specializes in fruits from the Southern jungles, so do feel welcome to ask for whatever you may wish.”

Anders sat, declining the offer. “No. No. Thank you, General Brightblade. We don’t wish to impose on your host’s profits, nor do we plan to take up much of your time.”

“Of course,” the older woman slipped back behind the desk. “But you will not be offended if I partake? I have been working so hard I seem to have missed a meal or two. Haman, could you see to it?”

The tall, gruff looking man in the white clothes of a desert warrior who stood beside the general’s desk nodded. “Of course, General.” Then he marched back out the way the pair had come.

“Colonel Haman of the Slate,” Earla said once they were alone. “My chief of security, and the head of my house guard. I saved his life during the Red Gorge incident, and he has been with me ever since. If you are here to discuss changes in security arrangements for the conference tomorrow, he would know them better than I would.”

“We are, but I think General, that you are the one who can better answer our questions.”


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New Years Evil – Part 4 (End)

From nearby, I watched as Lin-Xi and the other detectives flanked the head table, shooing any visitors away and addressing the remaining executives, their spouses, and the President’s wife. She informed them that they would need to be searched, and gave them the excuse that it was standard procedure. Each would be taken to a nearby room and searched by one of the officers, and once she finished she selected the MC and had him taken away.

I hadn’t told her who I suspected because I didn’t think she’d believe me anyways until I had proof, but I was pretty sure that proof would appear shortly if a search were conducted.

I watched as each member of the table was taken away by an officer of the same sex, and saw each of them return. When it was time for the President’s wife to go, I paid careful attention to see if she reacted at all, but the thin woman merely stood with a sad dignity and followed Lin-Xi to the area to be searched.

Now was the crucial time, and I’d find out if I was right.

It seemed like I had to wait forever, but after a few minutes she and Lin-Xi returned. Lin-Xi looked no happier than before, but now there was a slight pep in the step of Mrs. Lin, like she had found a new freedom.

She returned to the table with the others and sat down, reaching for her sunglasses and putting them on to cover her puffy eyes. The other executives at the table began to fawn over her, and the police apologized again for the bother. My girlfriend threw me a decidedly unhappy glance as she made her own apologies to this soon to be very rich widow.

My gambit had failed.

Still I watched her, this woman I was sure had framed her rival for the crime she had committed. It was she who Harold told me had added the music to tonight’s game to cover the sounds of her crime, and it was she who wore dark sunglasses under the guise of having a headache that would let her see in the dark the moment they were removed. She was also the only one to gain from the President’s death tonight, whether for money or revenge, I couldn’t say.

Now she was about to get away with it.

I could only imagine how that felt.

Then, as I watched, her sad, proud expression suddenly turned to one of worry and panic, and she leaned in to talk to the MC next to her, pointing with a trembling finger at the stage. The MC and another A-O Soft executive jumped to their feet and quickly moved to where two police officers had begun to inspect the prizes. At first, they were polite, but a moment later they were shouting at the detectives.

The shouting came to sudden stop when one of the detectives reached down behind the flat-screen TV set and came up with a powder-blue shawl wrapped neatly into a small flat square. When he unfolded it, he revealed two white gloves, the red stains on them bright enough to see even from where I was standing.

Mrs. Lin collapsed for the second time that night.

This time, there was no one to catch her.


Mrs. Lin later revealed during questioning that she’d known of her husband’s affair for some time, but had been content to let it go in the name of their children. However, shortly before the party she’d overhead him promise Melody that he’d divorce his wife once the company had gone public and money was no longer an issue. She’d also learned that the two of them planned to meet secretly during the contest by having matching butterflies, and that was the final straw.

She created a third butterfly identical to the ones they would both be wearing and had it printed onto her shawl so that she could lure her husband in once the lights had gone out. Then, she’d waited until the right time, taken off her glasses, and grabbed a knife from another table to make her move once the game started.

Once she’d found him and stabbed him while the loud music provided cover to any noise, she retreated to the stage to hide her gloves and shawl inside the back panel of the TV, which she believed the police would never think of searching as the no longer to be awarded prizes had no relevance to the case at hand.

The strange butterfly I’d seen during the contest had been her lifting the shawl off her neck, and the flying effect had been because it was on a moving fabric, not a hard button. She’d also made a mistake and lost one of the screws for the panel during the whole affair, which I’d found on the floor and which had led me to the TV as her hiding place.

After it was all done, she’d simply returned to her seat and waited, letting her rival have the secret rendezvous with the now dying President Lin, and making her look like the guilty party. Even without the blood or weapon, any witnesses on the floor would have seen two golden butterflies meet and the only two golden butterflies in the game were Melody and the President. Melody was as sure as convicted, whether she’d managed to find the President or not.

“I have to wonder why she did it,” Lin-Xi said as we were having breakfast at a traditional place in XiMenDing near her office the following week.
“Didn’t she confess?”

“No, not what I mean.” She replied. “Why did she make the third butterfly? All she needed to do was find him the dark and stab him, a third wasn’t necessary.”

I considered a moment. “I think it was a test.” At her raised eyebrow, I continued. “She probably wasn’t sure she could do it until she came to him and he thought she was Melody. Once she heard him say another woman’s name, that’s what gave her the strength to finally act.”

“Sounds stupid.”

I laughed. “Only to someone as un-romantic as you.”

She snorted. “Still stupid, she’s in jail because of it, and her husband is divorcing her.”

It was true. President Lin had survived thanks to a combination of his wife’s lack of strength, his own fitness and Lin-Xi’s quick thinking. He was recovering in the hospital, and had his wife served up the divorce papers while she was still in jail. I didn’t know what would happen between him and Melody, although I suspected this whole thing might put a damper on their relationship. Still, there was some justice…

“I heard A-O Soft can’t go public now,” I commented. “After so much negative press, nobody’s gonna buy their stock. His golden payday is going to have to wait for a while, and their game sales have dropped as well, so it might never happen.”

Lin-Xi considered that over a fork full of Dan-Bing. “Does that mean you won’t be working there?”

I shrugged. “My contract ended at the start of the new year anyway, doesn’t matter.” Then I sat up. “Oh, but that reminds me, I got a text from one of my other clients- they’re having a Beginning of the Year Party and want me to come. You interested?”

She sighed. “What does this company do?”

“They’re a farm machinery company.”

“Oh, sounds boring.”

“Not really, they’ve got a really interesting theme for the party this year.”

“Oh, what is it?”

“It’s a murder mystery dinner.”

I ducked and ran off to pay the bill.


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New Years Evil – Part 3

Under Detective Lin-Xi Kang’s orders, the company executives did their best to get the frightened employees and guests back to their seats. Lin-Xi had ordered the doors to the party be sealed to prevent anyone from leaving, and had building security standing guard until the police arrived.

She also had two of them watching over Melody, who was now sobbing on a nearby chair.

I shook my head sadly. I couldn’t believe Melody had done this- what was wrong with her? This just seemed so senseless, and there was no reason for it. Why kill a man who was about to make you rich? Now, with the President’s death the Public Stock Offering would have to be put off, and maybe never happen.

But, she had been standing there with the bloody knife in her hand, there wasn’t much doubt who’d done it. The only real question was why?

Leaving Lin-Xi to her work, I wandered back over to our table, where the rest of the guests where consuming the wine and snacks that remained.

They asked me if there’d been any news, and I replied that we were still waiting for the police to arrive. Then I commented that I couldn’t believe that Melody had done such a thing.

To my surprise, that didn’t get quite the reaction I expected.

“He probably got smart and dumped her,” Franci commented, and a few of the others around the table nodded.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Melody and the President, they were…you know…” Mr. Lai commented. “Spending a lot of extra hours together.”

“Has anyone actually seen them?”

Franci and another receptionist nodded. “They both go to a bar a few blocks from work, Mr. Lo in accounting saw them go in, so did a few other people. They’ve been doing it for almost a year now.”

That was pretty damning, and not entirely surprising. Melody was flirty, but she was also ambitious, and President Lin was definitely an active and aggressive man. It didn’t take much imagination to see them together, or to imagine the hows and whys.

But that still didn’t explain why she’d kill him.

“Was he going to fire her?”

Not that any of them knew of.

“Did he cut her out of the stock options?”

No, as Vice President, she had huge amounts of company stock.

“Then maybe he really did call it off.”

On this, they agreed. It seemed the most likely answer.

With this information, I grabbed our jackets and headed back to where Lin-Xi waited. As I passed the head table, I saw that the wives of the other executives were consoling Mrs. Lin, who had her head in her hands sobbing. It was getting cooler in the room now that the excitement was gone, and I was surprised nobody had gotten her a jacket to cover her bare shoulders. I would have said something, but my Mandarin is terrible, so I decided to just leave them be.

While I’d been at the table talking, police from the local station had arrived to take over from the building security, and ambulance attendants were working on President Lin. He still seemed to be hanging in there, so maybe his family wouldn’t lose a father tonight after all. But, gut wounds were tricky, so all we could do was wait and pray.

“Did you try talking to her yet?” I said to Lin-Xi when she had a free moment. This made her brow wrinkle, as it usually did when she was annoyed by something. “She says she didn’t do it. Stupid lie.”

“What did she say happened?”

“She said she found him standing with the knife in him, but didn’t know it in the dark. Then he fell over, and since she was holding the knife it came out in her hand.”

I glanced over at the weapon laying next to the body- one of the silver steak knives that were found at every table. No doubt it was covered in her bloody fingerprints.

“Y’no,” I said, thinking aloud. “I wonder if she might be telling the truth.”
Lin-Xi gave me a long look, then cursed in Mandarin. “Foreigners, you think every little white face that plays with you is innocent.”

So, she was still jealous.

“That’s not fair,” I protested. “Why would she do this, and then claim she didn’t do it? Everyone can see she did it, so why not own up to it? There’s something wrong here.”

“When my team gets here, they’ll sort things out.” Lin-Xi turned away. “Go take a seat. I need to work.” Then she went over to where the ambulance attendants were getting ready to load President Lin onto a stretcher.

I watched her go, thinking about the events of the evening. What had happened during those three minutes the lights were out? I couldn’t help thinking it had something to do with that flying butterfly I’d seen earlier during the contest, but what?

I needed more information.

I set out in search of Harold Wu.


When I was done talking to Harold, I knew I had to find Lin-Xi.

I didn’t have all the pieces yet, but I had enough.

The problem was, I also needed to convince Lin-Xi, and that clearly wasn’t going to be easy. She’d already set her sights on Melody, and if I didn’t act it was very possible the culprit might walk right out of the party tonight completely free.

“Lin-Xi,” I said, slipping up to her. “I need you to do me a favor…”

“Sit down, Mark.” She didn’t even look at me, not a good sign. “The officers will come to take your statement soon.”

“I’ve been asking around, and I know why he was stabbed.”

That got her attention, and she turned to look at me. “Why?”

I shook my head, “I need you to do two things for me first.”

Dark eyes narrowed on me. “I can have you arrested for withholding information.”

“You could,” I admitted. “But then you’d have to explain to the rest of your co-workers and your boss why you arrested your boyfriend. That’s going to be fun gossip.”

She let out an exasperated sigh and shook her head. “What do you want?”

So I told her.

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New Years Evil – Part 2

Lin-Xi and I had barely started on the snacks when the MC of the evening, the company’s Vice President of Marketing Mr. Zhou, took to the stage and announced that dinner would now be served. We drifted back toward to our seats, stopping to say hello to a few of my other students, and then settled in at our table.

As it turned out, the wise person who’d arranged the seating had carefully picked employees who had worked overseas to sit at our table, so with the exception of two spouses, almost all of the ten people seated there spoke English. I suspected I had Melody to thank for this, although I couldn’t be sure. I resolved to thank her later.

As it was, Lin-Xi was seated next to Mr. Lai, one of the marketing people, and the two of them got to talking about something in Mandarin that I couldn’t follow. However, since Mr. Lai was pretty funny, and Lin-Xi was laughing at something, I gave thanks for small miracles and was just happy that she was enjoying herself.

I, meanwhile, was next to Franci Hung, one of the receptionists who had lived in the UK for a while in her long-past student days. She’d been there for my first classes at the company, but had soon dropped out citing family issues with needing to pick up her kids from their after-school classes. She was a cheerful enough woman, and liked to talk about her kids, so I just mostly listened while she caught me up on their progression.

We’d only been there a few minutes when I heard Mr. Lai say something excitedly to the other table members in Mandarin, and all conversation suddenly stopped. I followed their gaze to Lin-Xi, who looked uncomfortable.

“Mark, you didn’t tell us your girlfriend was a police officer.” Mr. Lai said, excited. “You said she was a government worker!”

I shrugged. “She is. I just didn’t say what department.”

In truth, I can be a bit of a private person, so I don’t usually mention to classes what Lin-Xi does unless specifically asked. It usually had results like this, so I’d learned fast just to keep it quiet.

After that, the others began asking Lin-Xi questions in Chinese, but since I couldn’t follow I went back to chatting with Franci. Soon the first of many courses of dinner arrived, a big plate of steamed Oysters were placed in the middle turntable for us to share and we all began our slow dinner.


After the last course had been served, the MC took the stage again and announced that it was now time for the games to begin. He invited the president of the company to join him up at the microphone, and the jovial, red-faced leader began to speak to his workers.

The speech was in Chinese, but thanks to Mr. Lai’s translation, I was able to follow along. Then, after thanking everyone for coming and their hard work, he announced that it was time to start the game and directed everyone to put on their buttons. After that he directed all of us to stand up, with the men lining up on the one side of the dance floor and the women lining up facing them across the floor.

“In our game, Linna and Bess,” he explained, “the two young girls are lead to their destiny by magic heart butterflies, and so tonight butterflies will lead us as well.” Then the lights on the stage turned off, and now we could see that the President’s badge glowed in the dark. It wasn’t very bright because most of the lights were still on, but you could faintly see the image of a golden butterfly on his chest.

“Each magic heart butterfly has only one perfect partner out there, and when the lights go out, your job will be to find your partner in the dark while the music plays. When the music is done playing, those who have found their partner will be eligible for one of the prizes from the stage, including a vacation in Hawaii and a trip to Japan.”

When the now excited employees finished clapping at that, he continued.

“Please be careful, and try not to be too friendly to the people you meet in the dark. You never know, they might be your boss!”

Then, as the employees laughed, he hopped down off of the stage and made his way over to the men’s side. As he did, I looked carefully for Lin-Xi, and plotted my way to her. There was no doubt she was my match, and I needed a new TV! Although, I wouldn’t complain about Hawaiian vacation either.

At a signal from the company president, the MC raised his hand and began counting down. When he hit zero, the lights were switched off and the sound of a trendy Taiwanese pop-song filled the air. The room was almost completely black and a line of glowing butterflies of many different colors, shapes and sizes had appeared on the other side of the dance floor.

I looked down at my badge to see a half-yellow, half-orange butterfly with spiral-patterned wings, while all around me people rushed into the dance floor like a swarm of bees desperately trying to find their special flowers. Not wanting to be left behind, I desperately began to search through hot darkness of the now-crowded dance-floor.

It was surprisingly hard, the many people moving and turning kept me from being able to see the butterflies, and several times I saw ones similar to mine that turned out to be different on closer inspection. Once, I even chanced upon one that I thought was Lin-Xi, only to see it was pure yellow colored instead of my mixed design. Then an even stranger thing happened- the golden butterfly, which should have been a static badge on someone’s chest, suddenly began to flap its wings and flew upward a short distance before vanishing completely.

Had my eyes been playing tricks? I wondered. Or, maybe I saw someone grab their badge and hold it high into the air so that their partner could see it? But, I was certain I had seen it move- seen the wings flap in the air.
Regardless, that didn’t seem like a bad strategy, and since there was no rules against it, I snatched the button from my chest and held it high, staying in one place and turning slowly around. The last verses of the pop song were playing, and I prayed that Lin-Xi would be able to see it in time.

Then, just as the music began to fade, I felt someone grab my shoulder.

“Mark, is that you?” I heard a familiar voice say.

I turned to face her, seeing her silhouette as my eyes had begun to adjust to the dark. Bringing down my butterfly, I tapped mine against her matching one.

“They match,” I said, and then a thought struck me and I leaned in for a kiss…


On came the lights, and I found myself face-to-face with a surprised Lin-Xi.

She reddened. “What are you doing?”

Despite her unconventional nature, Lin-Xi was actually very oldschool conservative Taiwanese at heart, and didn’t go in for public displays of affection. So, while she certainly didn’t mind kissing in private, doing so in public was one of our long-running disagreements.

“C’mon, it was dark. Nobody could see us…”

Lin-Xi blushed even more, which looked even cuter, and I was about to say something when suddenly there was a blood-curdling scream from nearby.

We both spun and looked. There, a few meters away, President Lin lay on his back on the floor in a pool of blood, his chest heaving. Standing above him was Melody Xie, the front of her orange and yellow dress streaked in blood and a bloody steak knife in her hand. She was staring down at him in horror, making half-gasping noises that sounded like sobs.

It was a surreal scene frozen in time, and then reality clawed its way back into the room. Lin-Xi was the first to move, her training kicking in as she bolted from next to me over to where Melody was standing over the body.

They were speaking Mandarin, so I could only guess what they were saying, but some things are universal enough. Lin-Xi told everyone to get back, and told Melody to step away from the body and put down the knife. It seemed like Melody was in shock, and it took a few tries to get her to listen, but once she started to come out of it she just dropped the knife and then fell to her knees crying.

As Lin-Xi rounded the body, she pointed at various people in the crowd and called out orders, telling them what she wanted them to do- ambulance, police, towels, get people back. Then she pointed at me and motioned for me to come over.

“My phone, get it.” She said, standing over the fallen Melody.

I did as she asked, rushing back to the table and grabbing her mobile phone from her jacket. As I was returning, I heard another cry, and saw the MC and a group of executives holding Mrs. Lin, the president’s wife, who looked like she’d just fainted. I shook my head, poor woman.

Then I rushed the phone to Lin-Xi, who already had several people trying to stop the bleeding with towels. She took it and dialed, had a quick conversation, and then hung up and slipped it into her belt.

“I’ve got a team on the way,” she said. “They’ll be here in a few minutes.” Then she gestured at the knot of men who were caring for Mrs. Lin. “Can you call those company bosses over, I want to speak with them.”

“Sure,” I said, but as I turned to go over to them I heard a crunching noise and felt something underneath my shoe. Looking down, I saw a small screw on the ground and reached down to pick it up. Black, with a rounded top and perhaps a centimeter long, I thought maybe it had fallen from someone’s camera. Not wanting anyone to slip on it, I pocketed it and went over to find the MC.

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New Years Evil – Part 1


(Modern, Mystery, PG)

“Why do I have to do this?”

“Because,” I said, straightening my tie. “The Company President asked me to bring you. And, it’s good relations.” I glanced at the elevator panel- we were almost to the top floor. “Besides, you look great.”

Lin-Xi didn’t return my smile, keeping her dour expression. “The food better be good.”

I imagined it would be. A-O Soft wasn’t just celebrating their year-end party, the maker of the mega-selling Linna and Bess mobile phone game APP was going public in a few weeks. The founder, and many of the others at this party, were on the verge of becoming very rich people, and I didn’t expect any expense would be spared for tonight’s festivities. They’d rented out the whole rooftop restaurant at one of Taipei’s top hotels for their party, after all.

I was going mostly as a courtesy, since I’d been teaching English classes to a group of their employees for the past few months. I’d have liked to think it was because they treated me like an honorary employee and enjoyed having me around, but my more cynical side commented that it also looked pretty good to have a foreigner at the party. Whichever it was, an opportunity for a free meal at one of the best hotels in town was not something to be wasted.

The elevator dinged and the door slid open to reveal a hallway and a decorated table staffed by a man in a suit and a woman in a soft green evening gown. The man, one of my students at the company who used the English name Harold Wu, grinned and called us over. Harold was a balding software engineer in his mid-thirties, and a gregarious man with a loud laugh and an infectious smile.

“Teacher Mark!” He said, pronouncing my name “Mah-kuh” as most Taiwanese did, “Welcome to the party. It is good to see you.”

“You too, Harold.” I shook his hand, and then introduced Lin-Xi. “This is my friend, Ms. Kang.” Of course, that Lin-Xi was my girlfriend was obvious, but she hated the term “girlfriend” in English, as she thought it made her sound like she was a child, so I used “friend” as a neutral substitute.

Her sour expression gone, Lin-Xi was suddenly bubbly and friendly, and she and Harold exchanged greetings in Mandarin. While they did, I said hello to the receptionist who was manning the table with Harold; she likely didn’t speak much English, so she just smiled back. Then I looked for our names among the buttons that were laid out carefully in rows of two on the table before us, but when I did I came up short.

“Harold,” I interrupted. “I think the printing company cheated you. These name tags are all blank.”

At first Harold looked confused, and then when I pointed down he suddenly laughed. “Oh! Ah, no. No. It’s okay, these are supposed to be like this.” He picked up a pair and offered them to myself and Lin-Xi. “Please, put these on. These are the for game later.”

“A game?” While Lin-Xi pinned hers to the front of her light green blouse, I examined mine. It looked like the buttons we’d wear as kids that said things like “Hang in there!” or “Glee club rocks!”, but was completely blank. Having a thought, I started to hold it up to the light, but Harold stopped me.

“Hey, no cheating.” He smiled, “It’s the President’s surprise.”

Resolving to check it later, I smiled sheepishly and put it on, then Harold gave us our table assignment and, with promises to talk later, we continued on down the hallway to the restaurant’s main doors. The company logo was displayed large across the glass doors in blue and green, surrounded by Chinese characters I couldn’t read. I guessed it was the company name and a greeting and didn’t bother to get Lin-Xi to translate it for me. Not that it mattered, because the moment we approached they automatically opened to admit us.

Inside the party was in full swing, and well over a hundred finely dressed people were mixing and mingling around the room while servers moved among them pouring drinks. The very large room was laid out into three sections: a small open area, which was right ahead of us; a collection of large, round tables to our right; and an elevated stage to our left. Blue, green and white paper streamers had been hung from the ceiling, and the whole place had a festive feel to it, like the New Years party it was.

Lin-Xi and I first went down to find our table, but it was empty so we just claimed our seats with our coats and then turned to head for the snack table. It was already seven-thirty and I hadn’t eaten since lunch. Lin-Xi didn’t bother with lunch most days, so I didn’t have to ask how she felt. We were making our way through the crowd and almost there when we ran into Melody Xie, the company’s VP of software development.

I had ten students at A-O Soft: two receptionists, three software engineers, two marketing planners, one accountant, and Melody. Of the group, which I taught Tuesday and Thursday evenings from six-thirty to nine, Melody was by far the one who needed it least. A confident, capable, and charming woman in her early thirties, she’d done her graduate work in the United States and Singapore before returning to Taiwan to join A-O Soft. As a result, her English was almost perfect, and I think she really just took my class to keep an eye on the rest of them.

This woman in a sunset colored dress greeted me warmly, and after I’d introduced her to Lin-Xi she leaned in and said, “Now I know why you don’t answer my texts, you bad boy.”

Caught off guard, I glanced at Lin-Xi nervously and tried to come up with a reply. Melody was the mischievous and flirty type, and she said things like this all the time, I normally didn’t mind, but that wasn’t in front of my very jealous Lin-Xi.

“Well, ahh…” I stammered. “It’s…”

For her part, Lin-Xi merely raised an eyebrow and said in a flat tone. “He’s welcome to text anyone he wants. I don’t care.”

The scene could have turned very ugly, but Melody was very much a master of social kung-fu, and knew how to keep things under control. “Don’t worry,” she told Lin-Xi with a mock sigh. “I just keep asking him about our homework, but he refuses to let business and personal life mix. Good for you, bad for me.”

And on that note, I suddenly found my voice. “Melody, is the President here? I really should thank him for inviting us.”

She nodded. “At the head table, over near the stage.”

“Thanks, can we talk later?”

“Call me anytime.” She winked, and we parted ways.

As Lin-Xi and I made our way to the head table, I glanced at her- she was quiet and serious again. “She was just joking,” I said. “She’s like that.”

“You seem to know her well.”

I winced, there was going to be a lot of repair work to do later. “She’s just a student.”

“And you’re her lucky teacher. It must be nice.”

I was starting to think maybe bringing Lin-Xi to this party wasn’t such a great idea after all when the head table came into view. President Lin was standing on the other side of it talking with two other Taiwanese men I didn’t know. He was a large, broad-shouldered man with a shaved head, stylish wire-framed glasses, and wore a very expensive tuxedo.

As we approached, he caught sight of us out of the corner of his eye and said goodbye to the men, turning to greet us. “Mark,” he said in heavily accented English. “Thank you for coming. Is this your girlfriend?”

Before I could reply, Lin-Xi introduced herself and they shook hands.

“Thank you for inviting me,” she told him. “It’s a beautiful party.”

He smiled broadly. “Mark is like one of my worker, and he is very strong at teaching. I wanted to see the woman he caught.” Then he winked at me.

“She is very pretty. You are lucky man.”

Normally, I would have made a joke at this point, but given the current temperature of Lin-Xi’s blood, I decided that the best course was just to smile politely and say, “Yes. Yes, I am.”

Lin-Xi thanked him as well, and then the president turned and called to his wife, who was sitting near him at the table. A thin, slightly frail looking woman, she was in a light purple shoulder-less evening gown and had her hair finely done up in a styled form above her head. Around her bare shoulders was a baby-blue shawl, and she wore a pair of dark blue-tinted sunglasses.

She turned to look at us slowly, and gave a thin smile. “Hello,” she said without getting up, then she also added “Ni hao,” to Lin-Xi. “Thank you for coming.”

We both greeted her back, and then she turned away from us.

“I’m sorry,” President Lin frowned and tapped his temple. “She has bad headache.”

I assured him it was okay and that I understood. Then I tapped the badge on my shirt and asked, “Are we playing a game?”

This brought the smile back to President Lin’s face. “Of course! Wait and see. There is big surprise coming, and you can win prizes.” He gestured over to the nearby stage, where at the back a pile of prizes for the evening’s games waited. Most were wrapped up like Christmas presents in boxes, but a few larger items like a bicycle, a large stuffed bear like you’d see at a carnival, and a large flat-screen TV merely had red bows attached.
I gave an appreciative nod. “Looks nice. What kind of game is it, sir?”

But he wasn’t telling, and after some of the other guests joined us, I let my hunger get to me and we wandered off to find some food.

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The Troll – (Part 4, end)

Thorin ran.
He ran fast and hard, letting his instincts guide him through the forest. The long hours, the training day and night- it had all been for this, and now that training was all that stood between the young ranger and certain death.
Behind him, the troll thundered along, its long legs making up for the slower strides as it chased after Thorin- chased after the bone necklace the ranger boy wore draped across the back of his neck.
But Thorin couldn’t worry about that now, he could only worry about the route he had planned so carefully in his head. Turning right at the tree with the cut, turning left at the rock with the mark on it, and leaping over the log he’d marked with an errant branch. Every point brought him closer to his goal, and every step seemed to bring the troll closer to him!
Finally, with the troll’s grasp only inches from his throat, he hit the edge of the dry riverbank and leapt into the air. Green and brown were traded for sun-bleached white and grey stones as the ground fell away underneath him, and the dropoff at the river’s edge left him hurtling through the air. Despite the dropoff of several feet, he didn’t have time to stop and climb down, and could only hurl himself into the air and hope that he could make the landing.
When he came down, his foot slipped, but he managed to keep himself from falling by dropping into a shoulder roll on that side and come up running without losing any momentum.
It was a close thing too, for as he came up the troll exploded from the bushes in a mighty crash and landed where he’d been only moments before. The mighty beast was too single-minded to be concerned about the change in surroundings, and continued its mad rush at Thorin, but this time there was no series of obstacles to slow it down- it was a straight flat run to the other side of the river, and the troll had the advantage.
Still, seemingly heedless of his poor situation, Thorin ran. When he hit the thin wide trickle of a stream, he began jumping from rock to rock. Using each of the small boulders as a bridge to avoid the slowing grasp of the water, hopping his way across the water.
Of course, the troll didn’t care about getting wet, so it continued its rush after him as it hit water that just barely came up to its knees. It slowed the beast down, however, and that gave Thorin the moments he needed to get a head start as he rushed toward the forest cover of the far side.
But, instead of running, Thorin stopped on a rock halfway across the green water and turned to face his pursuer. In a single motion, his bow was in his hand, and an arrow, one of his last, was being drawn back.
He loosed it.
The arrow shot harmlessly over the troll’s head.
This caused the wading troll to pause for a moment, surprised by his prey’s sudden change of heart, but only a moment, and then the troll let out a roar and was rushing at him again like a charging bull.
There was little Thorin could do but dodge, and he did, jumping to another rock, and using the boulders as cover to slow his pursuer down. As long as he stayed ahead of the now-slowed troll, and kept the large rocks between them, he was out of the troll’s reach.
And then, the unexpected happened- as he was leaping between rocks, the troll scooped up a chunk of floating wood and threw it at him. The driftwood caught him just as he was landing, knocking him off the rock and sending him tumbling into the river.
Surprised, Thorin splashed around for a moment, and struggled to get his feet under him. When he finally did, a shadow loomed over him, and he was forced to dive aside as the trolls club-axe cleaved the water where he had been. Frantic, all Thorin could do was try to put one of the boulders between him and the troll, but now the troll was the one with the advantage, and it easily maneuvered around the smaller human to keep him from escaping.
Then the troll’s huge hand was gripping Thorin’s chest and hauling him from the water, pulling him out to slam him against one of the boulders. Thorin let out a cry of pain as he was pinned against the rock and for a moment the world went black, then it returned to blazing color as he found himself face to face with the troll.
Dripping, hurt. The two faced each other.
Thorin was surprised to find he wasn’t afraid. His heart was beating hard, but he didn’t feel fear- only determination. For once, he had done his job. For once, he had acted like a real leader. He thought of his father, and hoped that this final sacrifice would be enough.
The troll raised his club-axe, and Thorin turned his head and closed his eyes. As he did, he wondered whether the sound of thunder that rushed in his ears was the sound of his heart or…
Then he and the troll were both swallowed by a wall of water.


Thorin’s first sensation was the feeling of lips pressed against his.
Then his eyes shot open as he coughed and gasped for air, clutching at his throat. He remembered the thunder and the drowning blackness, and now… He was alive?
He looked over at Feena, who was kneeling next to him.
“You owe me,” she said, wiping her mouth with her arm and spitting.
Thorin rasped. “You owe me for being so damn slow. I told you to open the floodgates on the dam when you saw my arrow.”
Feena tapped her bandaged arm in the sling. “One hand, remember? It was stuck.”
After a moment, Thorin nodded. “Yeah. It’s okay. Good work.”
“You’re welcome.”
He looked around the riverbank, seeing only rocks and wood.
“Did you see it? Where is it?”
Feena shook her head. “I only found you. The water probably washed it downstream.”
Thorin pulled himself to his feet. “We’d better check.”
They found the troll a short time later, its green scaled chest heaving as the creature lay face-up in the shallow water at the river’s edge. Its club-axe was nowhere to be seen, and one of its arms was bent at an odd angle.
“It’s hurt,” Thorin said, watching the bruised and battered creature.
He heard a knife being drawn. “But it ain’t dead…yet.”
Thorin watched his teammate step forward, preparing to cut the creature’s throat. He couldn’t help feel sorry for it, and reached out to grab her arm.
“Maybe it will leave now,” he said. “It’s hurt. We should just let it go back.”
“Go back?!? Are you crazy?” Feena shook of his hand. “Who knows how many people this thing has killed? Look, if you can’t handle it, just go over there. I’ll do it.”
“No,” Thorin stood his ground, stepping between her and the troll. “It’s a living thing.” He doubted he was in any condition to stop Feena, but he felt he had to try. He was done letting her push him around. “We need to respect that.”
“It’s a killer,” Feena stared him down. “A killer, a monster, and a…”
“…a father.” Came another voice, and both of them turned around.
From the forest, Myra emerged, and behind the elfin girl a small troll dressed in rags followed.
“Or mother,” she continued. “This is Apple. It’s child.”
As Thorin and Feena watched, the young troll rushed past them to the larger one, kneeling down next to it and began to wail. The larger troll, awakened by the sound of the little one, opened its eyes and lifted a hand to stroke the arm of the wailing child.
“I found her in the human settlement,” Myra continued. “I believe they were using her as a slave.”
Thorin considered. “Maybe that’s why it came here. To get this child back. The other trolls are just trying to help this one get back its child. This was a rescue mission.”
“Trolls ain’t smart enough for that,” Feena commented, but Thorin shook his head.
“Yeah, well, looks like they are.”
Then there was the sound of wood cracking as the larger troll pulled itself to its feet, towering over the rangers. Holding the little one to its side, it looked down at the three, its lips pulling back to reveal snarling teeth.
“Put your knife away.” Thorin ordered Feena.
“Do it.”
With a snarl of her own, Feena thrust the hunting knife back into its sheath at her hip.
Summoning his courage, Thorin stepped forward and pointed downstream, toward the Southlands.
“Go,” he said.
He doubted the troll understood his words, but it seemed to get his gesture, and then it took the little one’s hand and gave the humans a final snarl before it turned and left.
Watching it go, Thorin felt conflict in his heart.
Had he done the right thing? Trolls were trolls, and this one was clearly dangerous.
And yet, as he watched the display of parental love before him he couldn’t help thinking that maybe they weren’t so different from humans after all. So, maybe there might be hope yet.
Fatigue began to take him again, and he almost fell over, only staying up when Myra helped to steady him.
“Are you okay?” She asked, her large brown eyes filled with concern.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “I’ll be fine.”
And, for the first time today, he meant it.


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The Troll (Part 3)

Thorin was already regretting this.
He was standing alone in a clearing with the troll before him- so close he could hear the chuffs of air and see its nostrils flaring as its small black eyes peered at him, and then glanced warily around the clearing.
This troll was no fool, Thorin decided, then considered that foolish trolls were often dead long before they could reach the size this one had. He’d managed to stop the troll by just standing there alone with his bow ready- if he’d known it was this easy, he’d have done it before.
But his rest wasn’t long, and the troll began to stride toward him across the grassy space- necklace of bones tinkling as each step brought it several feet closer to Thorin until it was looming overtop of the young ranger. Then it stopped, and looked down at him, a slightly puzzled look in its eyes.
It’s wondering why I haven’t run, thought Thorin. I am too.
Then the Troll leaned in, and bared it’s teeth at him- a wave of hot, stinking breath blowing against his face. It hissed. A challenge? Or maybe a warning?
Either way, Thorin didn’t react, he just stood there, his bow ready to fire at the beast, and the two of them stared at each other.
Then the troll’s eyes went wide and it suddenly reared back, twisting around.
Thorin took this as his cue and began to back away, and the troll’s spinning revealed a smaller form was now attached to its back- Feena! Riding the bucking and twisting troll like a tiny child riding on her father’s back.
Thorin heard a torrent of swearing, and then saw the reckless girl drop to the ground and roll away. She waved the troll’s necklace in her hand, and shouted “I’ve got it! Shoot him! Shoot him!”
It had been Feena’s plan to distract the troll like this, and he hoped it worked. In a quick motion honed by long hours of practice, Thorin raised his bow, took aim at the troll, and fired. The troll was following the retreating Feena, so Thorin had a clear shot at the back of it’s huge knees, and despite their movement, he was sure he could score a hit.
But, as he watched, the arrow was again knocked aside by an invisible force.
The plan was a failure, the necklace wasn’t the talisman they’d hoped it was!
Even worse, as he watched, the Troll’s club-axe sliced the air where Feena’s head had been a moment before. In this kind of open area, the Troll was faster than they were!
Panicking, Thorin realized he had to do something and began to run after them. Slamming his bow onto the clip on his back, Thorin pulled out his knife, the only thing that seemed to work on this creature, and ran in. He thought maybe he could distract it- jab it in the back of the leg. But he feared this would be more like a mosquito bite than a critical blow.
Then the unthinkable happened- Feena was just a bit too slow and the club caught her shoulder. Her body was suddenly sent tumbling across the grass to where it lay- unmoving.
Every curse he knew went through Thorin’s head, but he knew that if he focused on her, he would only be assigning both of them to the funeral pyre. Instead, he let the adrenaline surge push him to run faster, and jumped over a rock to bring his hunting knife down into the troll’s calf as hard and deep as he could.
The troll screamed, this time in pain, and while the knife didn’t do much damage, it definitely got the creature’s attention. It swung around, Feena forgotten and those dark eyes now on Thorin.
Eyes filled with murderous rage.


Myra watched the farmers pack to leave.
It had been difficult to convince them at first, but her official ranger sigil and sincerity had broken through their prejudice. It also helped that someone had earlier reported hearing the sounds of warfare to the east where the main force of Rangers was engaging the trolls.
Then a noise caught her attention, and Myra turned to see a couple leading their crying child from a nearby house. They looked like tenant farmers, and their child was yelling up a storm.
Myra went over to them, and all three of them suddenly froze, the parents watching the elf with caution while the child stared at her in wonder. Myra leaned in to the open-mouthed child and said “Do not worry, little sister, it’s just for a little while. Until the storm passes, you need to be brave for your parents. Can you do that?”
It took a moment, but the little girl nodded her head.
“We’re sorry to trouble you, ranger.” Said the mother. “She’s just a stubborn child sometimes.”
Then the little girl looked up at her mother, “But Apple’s in the barn! What about Apple?”
“Apple will be fine,” her father told her. “You’ll see her when we come back.”
The child looked at Myra again, “Will you protect Apple?”
Myra nodded. “Of course I will. We rangers are sworn to protect everyone.”
At that, the girl’s mother began to shuffle her away, and the child waved at Myra as she left.
“You don’t need to worry,” said the father. “Apple will be fine. Don’t bother yourself with it. Really.”
Myra caught an odd tone in his voice, and couldn’t shake the feeling he was nervous about something the child had said.
“Of course,” Myra nodded. “The people of this settlement are my responsibility. The livestock are too difficult to move.”
Looking slightly relieved, the man said his thanks and left to join the parade of people heading north into the hills. But, there was something about the way he acted that bothered Myra, so once he was gone, she went to the barns behind the headman’s house.
Slipping inside the dusty building, she could hear the livestock moving around and grunting, and walked among the stalls. It was a normal barn, and the animals here were what one would expect to find in any farming settlement. As she walked past the pigs, she wondered which of them might be Apple- perhaps a piglet? That would be the thing a farmer’s child would worry about. Well, she’d do what she could to steer the troll clear of this place, if it came to it.
Then, as she was about to leave, her eyes fell on the final stall going wide with shock at what they saw.


Thorin leaned Feena against the tree- trying not to make anything worse.
“I’m okay,” the girl kept chanting, but it would have been more convincing if she didn’t keep coughing up blood.
“Let me check you over,” Thorin said, defaulting to his training. He had always been good at the medical side of the Ranger arts, and for once that might actually be useful. With gentle fingers, he poked and pressed the girl’s sides and arms, and then suddenly leaned forward and stuck his ear to her ample chest.
“H-hey!” Feena blushed, “W-what are you doing!”
“Be quiet and breath as deeply as you can,” he ordered and for a moment the only sound in the forest was that of the birds and insects. Then he said, “I think you broke a rib, but it’s not poking into your lung. You also broke your left arm and your shoulder, but I’m not sure how bad. The healers should be able to help, but we’ll need to get you home.”
Feena shook her head, “We can’t go home. The troll is still out there.”
Thorin frowned. She was right, their attack had done little but get Feena injured, and even he was lucky to have escaped the Troll’s wrath by hiding from it in the forest. After it couldn’t find him, it had scanned the skyline and then resumed its northeasterly course.
“There’s nothing we can do,” he declared. “That necklace wasn’t the source of its power, and we don’t know what is.”
“It’s the club,” said Feena with certainty. “It’s gotta be the club.” Then she paused, “Or its loincloth…or boots…” Listing off the only other two objects the troll had, “No, it’s gotta be the club.”
Thorin generally agreed, it did make sense to put protective war-magic on a club, especially for a species like a Troll, but… “It doesn’t matter, there’s nothing we can do. Myra’s at the settlement by now, and we’ve slowed it down. Our job is getting you home.”
Feena looked at him and then shook her head in disgust. “No wonder they call you Thorin Shaking-leaf,” she said. “Hastur was crazy to make you the leader of this team.”
Thorin, who was starting to rummage through his carry-pack, just nodded. “You’re right. I don’t know why he made me the leader. It’s not like I can do anything useful like you or Myra. I’m not a very good ranger.”
Feena nodded. “You got that right, if I was in charge…”
Suddenly Thorin’s head snapped up and he looked at her with sharp eyes. “If YOU were in charge? Feena, you WERE in charge! This was YOUR idea to attack in the first place. I’m not a bad leader because I suck at fighting- I’m a bad leader because I listened to YOU instead of following orders.”
The ranger girl stared at him, open mouthed. “I…” Was all she could manage.
“A good leader takes care of their team, and I screwed up.” Thorin said. “So now, let’s do the right thing and go home.”
Then Thorin went back to his pack, and found the map he was looking for. Unrolling the vellum scroll on the grass in front of them, he took a minute to figure out where they were, letting his finger slide across the map. He found the nearby mountain peaks, and then the place they had started and followed that up toward the settlement along the river, noting where they had likely encountered the troll.
They weren’t far from the settlement now, and he traced his finger along the river that ran just north of them until he came to… Thorin’s finger stopped, and he cocked his head in thought. Then he looked at the ranger girl, who was watching him carefully.
“Feena, do you still have that troll necklace?”
Feena blinked, and then reached into her side-pouch. “Yeah, I’m gonna show it to the kids when we get back. Watch ’em freak out.”
That made Thorin nod again. It was possible then. They could do it.
“Feena, I have a plan, but I’m going to need your help.”
“A plan to get us home?”
“A plan to stop the troll.”

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