• Andrew M. Trauger

Chapter 8: The Savant

Updated: Nov 26, 2021


Despite rapidly falling temperatures, the Company of the Dragon Slayers slept soundly beside the stream throughout the night, perhaps the most soundly any had slept in a solid month. The soft ground, burbling stream, fresh breeze—even the calls of nocturnal woodland creatures—all seemed designed to soothe their aches, both bodily and emotionally. It was as if Nature itself recognized the freeblades’ need for a deep, immersive slumber free of worry and pain, a night of blissful rest given as reward for their dedication to one of Nature’s own.

The next morning, they broke camp in quietude and sobriety, fully aware they would be leaving behind a friend. Regardless of his rougher edges and questionable motives, they would miss Ordin. Elric’s shoulders sagged as he stood next to the mystic’s grave. Uncharacteristically quiet, he slowly scratched Shinnick’s ears as he stared at the mound of rocks. I reckon I’m gonna miss ya callin’ me stupid…stupid as ‘at is. Ya had a way of growin’ on folks, like a moss. Or a wart. But…a friendly sorta wart, I reckon.

He knelt beside the wolf and put his nose to the animal’s muzzle, staring deeply into his golden eyes. “I don’ know if ya know what I’m sayin’, Shinnick. I ain’t really got a clue what to say, tell the truth. He was a good guy.”

Shinnick held still, and his body relaxed as if accepting the consolation.

“I promised I’d take care of ya, but I reckon that was prolly jis empty words. I reckon ya jis wanna be free, right?”

To Elric’s complete surprise, Shinnick licked his face. In the moment, Elric forgot that the animal was a wild wolf, embraced Shinnick’s neck, and rolled with him to the ground as he would have an overgrown puppy. And for that moment, Shinnick let him have his play. The two tussled and scrapped for several minutes, tumbling about on the leafy ground until Elric was spent.

Shinnick left Elric lying on his back and wandered back to the pile of stones, a soft whimper escaping his throat. After catching his breath, Elric joined him beside Ordin’s grave once again. “I know. We’re all kinda sad.” He knelt again beside the wolf and brought his head around to look the animal square in the eyes. “Shinnick…” He swallowed the lump forming in his throat. “Be free. Go.”

The wolf held its gaze on Elric briefly, then turned away and bounded off into the wooded hills and out of sight.


* * * * * * * * * *


The journey away from Ordin’s gravesite began with heavy hearts. But as the Company traveled eastward, the trees eventually gave way to pasture, the hills flattened, and the sweeping scenery of pastoral landscapes dotted with fencerows and farmhouses lifted their spirits. Cora regaled the other two with Ordin’s story: their first encounter on the road, the lightning strike, his battle with fear of the Roark, and the many events inside and beneath Wilder Tower. She wanted to remember him; memorializing the departed mystic refreshed their weary souls.

Morning gave way to mid-day, and they stopped beside a small creek to eat the provisions the Dokari gemmers had given them. Water from the creek cooled and refreshed. Because the orchards were nearing harvest, they picked a handful of apples and pears to supplement the tasteless “hardtack” they had been given.

Cora gasped in surprise when she retrieved the pouch of gems that had paid for their passage, tied with a note to the bundle of provisions. It read: “Ye have more need of these than me. Maker’s blessing.” Her eyes brimmed as she contemplated this final generosity. “Would you look at this?” she said, holding the pouch aloft.

“What is it?” Elric asked.

Cuauhtérroc frowned. “It is dees rocks Cora O’Banion geeve to dees Dokari. Why do you have dem?”

“They gave them back,” Cora answered, then read the note. “As surly as the Dokari were, I never would have expected such kindness.”

Elric grunted. “Don’t make no sense comin’ from a cursed race.”

Cora sighed at him. “You didn’t even believe they existed until a few days ago. I hardly think you should be offering an opinion on their motives now. But it is curious: if they are cursed, as we ‘sun-soakers’ say, why would they wish the Maker’s blessings on us? Could it be that we don’t have a clue about them?”

Cuauhtérroc nodded. “Dees mainland people are not right about all dees people leeving outside of dees mainland. Dey need to use dees two ears and not dees one mouth.”

A crisp wind blew in from the north. Cows grazed in a nearby pasture on lush grass that waved in the breeze. Billowy white clouds rolled overhead, a sign of clear weather. A flock of geese in their characteristic “V” formation honked overhead, and a lone jay called in the distance. Surrounding them was the simple beauty of the Maker’s good earth, and Cora contemplated the savage’s words. He was right.

When the meal was done, Cora pushed them onward, driven by an urgency to their mission. Seasons had changed while they were belowground, and the loss of time concerned them. They needed to return to Westmeade as quickly as possible and deliver the news that Vincent Schumann was a Nephreqin agent. They could only guess what the alderman was planning.

As the sun reached its zenith and warmed the land, they stopped near a homestead to rest beneath the shade of an oak tree. Squirrels frolicked and chattered above them, gathering acorns for the coming winter.

“We need a cart,” Cora said, leaning her pack against the trunk of the oak. She glanced down at her attire, borrowed clothes from the Dokari. Brown linen trousers hung loosely about her hips and bunched around her ankles. An unbleached linen shirt draped across her shoulders like a tunic, always sliding down one arm or the other and exposing far more of her chest than she preferred. “And I need some…feminine clothes.”

Elric dropped his gear beside hers and rolled his aching shoulders. “That’s no lie. Ya look like yer wearin’ a tater sack.”

“I guess we can afford a little time to rest,” Cora suggested. “And if I smell even half as bad as you two, we also need proper baths.”

Elric grimaced, “Well…”

“You don’t need to say anything, Elric,” Cora said with a roll of her eyes. “I already know I smell pretty bad.”

“You smell like dees busuk,” Cuauhtérroc said. “Very bad stinky.”

“Like a steamin’ pile o’ fart pebbles,” Elric offered with a grin.

“Elric!” Cora exclaimed. “Cuauhtérroc, you don’t tell a woman she smells bad.”

“Do you want me to say dees lie?” the savage asked.

“No, you don’t have to lie, but…you don’t exactly have to tell the truth, either. In fact, you don’t need to say anything. Either of you.”

Cuauhtérroc furrowed his brow, studying the songsage.

Cora shook her head and sighed. There was no point trying to explain anything to these two: one couldn’t understand, and one didn’t want to. She drew in a measured breath. “So…let’s see if we can find a cart in the next village.”

Thirty minutes later, they continued to the hamlet, a quaint community of about a dozen thatched roof homes. They found a farmer willing to supply their needs, and quite happily. The man’s eyes bugged at the sight of the garnet Cora produced from her pouch, a gleaming crimson stone worth far more than a ten-year-old horse and a two-wheeled cart. As Elric and Cuauhtérroc unloaded their gear into the cart, Cora stepped into his barn and filled a clean trough with water for a makeshift bath. After the men had taken their turns, they changed into clean clothes and ate a mid-day meal with the farmer’s family.

During the meal, Cora inquired of their whereabouts. “Where exactly is this village? On a map.”

“Ain’t never used a map,” the famer replied, “but we ain’t that far from Heavener. Can get there and back in a slow day. ‘Bout ten miles, I’d reckon. Wouldn’t you say, Ma?”

The farmer’s wife nodded. “If ye hurry, ye might get there a-fore sundown, too.”

“The Lucky Duck’s a modest inn,” the farmer added.

Cora sipped carefully from her glass of water, as it contained unidentifiable specks floating about in it. “And where is Westmeade? We came from there on a hunting trip, and I’m afraid we got lost.”

“Well…” The farmer stared at the ceiling as he thought. “It’s north o’ here. Last time I went that fer, it took most o’ three days to get from Heavener to Westmeade. Ain’t had much count to go up thataway, not in many years.”

Elric’s mouth silently repeated “three days” as his eyes widened.

Cora shared his alarm. She could hardly believe they had traveled so far. “And…” She wasn’t certain she wanted the next answer. “And what is today’s date?”

The farmer looked across to his wife. “Ma, when did we go to market with ‘at load o’ wheat?”

“Vespira 25 it was, an’ right a-fore it rained.”

“That’s right,” the farmer said with a nod. “An’ so that makes it Phoca 4 today.” His eyes narrowed. “Are ye sure yer jis lost, or are ye in some kinda trouble?”

Cora stared down her allies just long enough to keep them from providing a truthful answer. “We’re fine.”

But her mind raced with the implications. They had been beneath Wilder Tower and on the lake for two full weeks. They had missed two of their weekly reports to the Council, assuming anybody still cared about that. Sir Hunt had promised to lock them up for missing a meeting, but if he knew they were over fifty miles outside the city walls, he’d lock them up for sure. Cora released a forlorn sigh. That ought to make him quite happy.


Just before sunset, they reached Heavener, which seemed to have nothing going for it. A roadside sign boasted “Home of the Rune Stone,” but Heavener didn’t seem to be home to much else. Several buildings were boarded up, and the roofs on a couple of the dwellings had fallen in. For a stopover between Westmeade and the capital city of Everglade, Cora had expected that it might be better off. Most communities sprang up wherever a day’s ride or walk would take a man, and those towns with the good sense to accommodate road-weary travelers often prospered. Heavener had failed to capitalize on this.

The farmer’s assessment of the Lucky Duck as “modest” quickly received a downgrade to “tolerable.” Hardly more than a large farmhouse, it boasted only four upstairs rooms for rent, a single public washroom, and an outhouse. The front parlor of the house had been converted into a small tavern that barely sat a dozen people. But, as it was the only inn in town, Cora booked two of the rooms for the night.

In the dining area, the satisfying smells of home cooking greeted them, though nothing and no one else did. A couple of dreary eyes glanced up as they entered, and for a second, Cora wondered if someone had died recently.

They took seats at a short bar near the kitchen, and Cora struck up a conversation with the bartender, a man with weathered skin and worry lines etched into his brow.

“Excuse me, sir,” the songsage said with a gentle smile.

“What can I do fer ye, Miss?” The bartender didn’t return the smile. He wasn’t being impolite nor did he appear to be in a foul mood; it rather seemed that he didn’t smile. Cora imagined the bartender might once have been a farmer who fretted overly much about failed crops or diseased herds. Perhaps a stoic expression had been etched into his face as firmly as his land had been etched by wind and rain.

She remained cordial. “My company and I have had a long day of travel from the hill country to the west, and we are very glad to see your welcoming light, good man. Would you mind telling me where, exactly, this warm village is?”

“Well, Heavener is ‘bout three days south o’ Westmeade an’ ‘bout a day north o’ Berenad, if you’re walkin’.”

Cora felt a small lump form in her throat. The farmer had been right. Two weeks of wandering around but only three days away. If we push it, we might make our next meeting. But thoughts for what awaited them in Westmeade rained on any hope she possessed. By now, she was certain warrants had been issued for their arrest. They might never get around to sharing their findings until the new trial, assuming they were granted that grace. I suppose the Sentinel League has been dispatched to haul us in.

“So, ya wanna eat?” the bartender asked. “We got taters an’—”

The front door to the tavern opened behind Cora, and as the bartender looked over her shoulder at his new customers, his expression darkened. Cora turned in her chair and saw a tall, thin man, his shirtless torso an insipid sort of pale, as if he had never once been exposed to the sun. Scattered across his chest, arms, and neck was a latticework of runic tattoos, but Cora could not discern whether they were merely decorative or signified something important. More striking than his wan complexion contrasted by dark runes was the unnatural blackness of his perfectly straight shoulder-length hair, the black lines tracing the edges of his eyes, and the multiple piercings of his ears, nose, and eyebrows. Black leather pants clung tightly about bony hips. Dark eyeliner amplified the shadowy circles beneath his eyes, and his black painted lips gave his overall appearance a cloud of perfect brooding. As he entered the tavern, his right hand flashed with a deep lavender glow, vanishing as quickly as it appeared. He could not have drawn more unapproving glares had he been pretending to be a woman in a frilly pink dress.

Cora turned back to the bartender, fully aware that her countenance must resemble the look of concern on the proprietor’s face. He looks like trouble.

“He looks like trouble,” the bartender muttered, and Cora wondered if she had spoken her thoughts aloud.

The newcomer approached the bar and sat next to Elric. He dipped his head in a brief nod, though it seemed directed at no one in particular.

The bartender regarded him with a wary eye. “I don’t want no trouble out o’ ya, all right? Just order a meal an’ be off.”

Cora pulled inquisitive eyes from the gaunt figure and ordered a baked potato smothered in bacon crumbs and sour cream. What was that purple fire he flashed?

“We ain’t got no sour cream,” the bartender grumbled. “Or bacon.”

Elric leaned over to Cora. “How can they not have any bacon?”

Cuauhtérroc scooted forward in his seat. “I want dees reebs weeth Blackie sauce.”

The bartender shook his head. “We only got ribs in the winter.”

“Well, I want steak an’ veggies,” Elric said.

“Ain’t got no steak.”

Elric held out empty hands of disbelief. “How’s that even possible?”

“Well, what do you have?” Cora asked with a raised eyebrow.

“We got taters an’ carrots, taters an’ peas, baked taters, fried taters, boiled taters, an’ mashed taters. Or, ye can jis have carrots an’ peas.”

“Fine,” Cora said, “give the three of us potatoes and carrots.”

The bartender nodded and turned to the tattooed man at Elric’s right. “An’ what’ll it be for ye?”

He looked up and peered at the bartender beneath rings that pierced his eyebrows in four places. “I would prefer roast duckling, lightly browned, grilled asparagus with garlic butter sauce, a garden salad with red vinaigrette dressing, followed with a flaming orange crepe souffle. And a Kourlotte vintage red wine. Please.”

The bartender’s scowl grew more deeply engraved. “Taters an’ carrots for you, too.” As he left for the kitchen, Cora heard him mumble “arse.”

She leaned forward to look past Elric at the tattooed man. “You know your cuisines; I’ll give you that. What’s your name?”

Silence.

“Look, I don’t mean to interrupt some deep thoughts of yours, but if—”

“Selorian.”

“Excuse me?”

“My name is Selorian.”

“Well met, then,” Cora said. “This is Elric, and sitting here to my other side is Cuauhtérroc. And I’m the songsage, Cora O’Banion.”

Elric hitched a thumb in her direction. “She’s kinda like our leader.”

“Thank you, Elric,” Cora said with a roll of her eyes. “We’re a freeblade group, the Assiduous Company of Indefatigable Dragon Slayers. We’re working on a commission for the city of Westmeade at the moment.”

Selorian lightly applauded. “That is possibly the most ostentatious name I have yet encountered. Truly pretentious, but…I like it.”

Cora sat up and beamed. “Do you? I had a hard time convincing these guys of its merits.”

Selorian checked his black-lacquered fingernails. “I apologize if I conveyed that there was any merit to the name. Rather, I like the brazen conceit embedded in it. You have chosen words that simultaneously impress the gullible, confuse the dense, inspire the destitute, and somehow still manage to display an elevated level of contempt for all of them. Quite remarkable.”

The songsage glared at him as a moment of uncomfortable silence passed.

“What is dees fire you make in dees hand?” Cuauhtérroc asked. “How does it not burn you?”

“You mean this?” A swirling sphere of lavender flame, like a miniature purple sun the size of a grapefruit, hovered an inch off the palm of his hand. He held it over the bar and stared at it, his gaze bordering on affectionate. With a shrug, he closed his hand around the sphere and extinguished it. “Some call it eldritch energy. As to its substance and derivation I am benighted—perhaps it originates in the depths of my soul, perhaps…” He turned to the savage. “…yours. Regardless, I simply create it. Then I employ it.”

“Fer what?” Elric asked.

A chair squawked on the wooden floor as its occupant scooted away from a table. Standing tall and wearing an irritated frown, a pudgy man with a bulbous nose pointed at Selorian’s back. “Hey, you!”

Cora spun around in her seat, as did Elric and Cuauhtérroc. Selorian never flinched.

“Hey,” the man said, “I’m talkin’ to you.”

Selorian shrugged. “So?”

“We don’ want yer kind here. Now, get.”

“I was unaware that an oppressive hierarchy was being employed in an establishment that is missing three-quarters of its menu. Does that not seem unnecessarily arbitrary and perhaps a bit counterproductive? To you?”

“I said get.”

Selorian created another roiling ball of purple flame and raised the hand holding his miniature sun. “This says go back to your seat.”

The portly man blinked and trembled. “I dunno who or what you are, but you needa put that out right now.”

Selorian glanced over his shoulder and lowered his glowing hand. A nearby candle flickered, dimmed, and extinguished.

“I said right now,” the man barked.

A second man, a weathered ranch hand thick of frame and neck, scowled at Selorian. “Go on now. We don’t take kindly to dragon-bloods.” He pushed away from his table with such vigor that his chair flipped over. His boots clomped on the wooden floorboards as he approached Selorian.

Without looking back, Selorian’s eyes flashed a pale lavender. “And you would be wise to return to your table.”

“Are you threatenin’ me?” the second man said. “Freak?”

Another pair of candles extinguished as a dark aura hovered around Selorian. The ball of energy pulsed in his open hand. With a sniff, he spun and flung the ball at the pudgy man.

The man’s body seized and fell hard to the floor, his arms and legs curled in tight and twitching. Foamy saliva dribbled from his mouth as his eyes lolled about. Then he stiffened and lay still.

Cuauhtérroc reached for his macana.

Cora’s jawed dropped in shock. She jumped up from her seat and rushed to the fallen man’s side. He had a solid but rapid pulse. “He’s alive!” she called out in relief. “Look guys, I think we all need to settle down before somebody does something truly stupid.”

The rancher stormed forward and shoved Cora aside. “Outta my way, wench.” She stumbled back and crashed into an empty table and set of chairs. He jabbed a stubby and dirty finger at Selorian. “You’ll pay fer that, you dragon-touched squit!”

Selorian breathed a single syllable, painful and hideous like the wail of a dying alley cat, but soft and airy like a whispered lullaby. Darkness enveloped the room, and from within the darkness came a man’s scream. Then the thump of a body on the wooden floor.

The kitchen door flew open, and normal light returned, excepting two more candles. In the doorway stood the aproned bartender, eyes wide with alarm and anger. “What in the Nine Hells is goin’ on?”

Half a dozen people about the tavern stared unblinking at the pair of men lying motionless in the floor.

Cora gathered herself and crawled out from behind the overturned table.

“Relax,” Selorian said. “The man will live, though I expect two inevitable results: he’ll leave us alone, and he’ll loathe food for the next few days.”

An older woman in the corner pointed at Selorian. “He done it!” she cried, looking at the bartender. “I seen he done it. He’s a cursed man, Lowry.” She rose and, with grim determination in her shaking hand, stepped closer to Selorian. “He lives in shadow, that one does. He got them marks…dark symbols of a jinadaar. Cursed! Cursed, I say!” The woman hastened from the tavern, repeating her accusation along the village streets.

Selorian watched her go, then shrugged. “Ignorant people should not be given a voice. Not a word that woman said is true.”

The portly man began to stir, and he sat up, wincing and clacking his tongue as if he had tasted something rancid. He looked up at Selorian and scrambled to his feet, a look of pure terror in his eyes. He helped his rancher friend to stand, and together they stumbled out the door. Neither of them looked back. Four other patrons also left their meals and drinks unfinished and exited the house. The room fell silent.

Cora picked herself off the floor, watching Selorian with some trepidation as she set the table and chairs aright. What have you done?

Selorian sniffed and turned to the bartender. “How’s that exquisite meal coming?”

Lowry, the bartender, scanned his tavern. There were no customers, no happy people calmly eating and drinking his wares. He wiped his hands on his apron and walked quietly to the front door, pushed it open, and gazed out into the empty streets.

He stepped back inside with a frown so fierce he could crush a walnut in the crease of his forehead. “Get out.”

“What?” Cora exclaimed.

“You heard me,” he said with a quaver in his voice. “Pack up your things an’ clear out. You ain’t welcome here no more.”

“Hey, he ain’t with us,” Elric countered, pointing at Selorian.

Lowry remained firm, as firm as his trembling body would allow. “No, I seen you come in together, an’ I seen you sit down together, an’ you ordered your meals together. As I see it, you’re gonna leave together. Right now.”

“Sorry,” Selorian said. He flipped a gold stallion onto the bar, and slipped out without another word.

Lowry jerked a thumb at the front door. “All of ye. Get on outta here.”

Cora stood to full height, brushed the dust off her sleeves, and gave the bottom edge of her blouse a quick tug. “Elric, Cuauhtérroc, fetch our belongings.” Then the songsage stormed outside.

She caught up to the tattooed source of her troubles half a block away. “Selorian!” she growled at his tattooed back.

He spun on his heels just in time to see the hand that slapped him.

“How dare you! You ruined everything, you…you monster!”

He rubbed his cheek. “Monster?”

“That was our meal, you stupid buggard, and our bed and—for the love of Beauty—that was my bath! How could you be so heartless and cruel, you horrid piece of…!” She bit her tongue, for the next words would have elicited a shriek from her mother.

Selorian raised a pierced eyebrow. “Ordinarily, a man in my position would avoid further provoking the irate songsage, but in this case I rather think I would relish hearing you scream. Might be a truly unique experience.”

Cora reached back to slap him a second time, but he caught her arm. Not with his hand, but with swirling, coruscating waves of lavender. An icy chill slowly crawled up her arm. “Stop it,” she said with quiet nervousness. “What are you doing?”

“You were going to slap me.”

“No, I mean it. Stop it…whatever ‘it’ is.”

Selorian released the energy. “Of course. But wisdom would suggest you not make a habit of attacking the ones you need.”

Cora smoldered as she shook feeling back into her arm. “You are the last person I need.”

Selorian coughed lightly. “I see. You’re on a commission for the city of Westmeade, I believe you said. As it happens, my own travels are taking me north—”

“No!” Cora said emphatically, folding her arms. How dare you ask for my company!

“Your current situation suggests a lonely night in a hayloft, and I doubt in this backwater hamlet you will succeed in finding a remedy.”

“I had it remedied, you moron. And I said no.”

“So, in your eyes, I am a monster and a moron, a stupid buggard, heartless, cruel, and a horrid piece of—let me guess—peyin? Or something else you aren’t supposed to say?”

Cora recoiled at the vulgar term, though it was precisely what she had been thinking. “Well—”

“To others, I am a dragon-touched squit, a freak, a dragon-blood, and some ‘type’ they don’t take kindly to. In less than thirty minutes, I have been subjected to a long list of stigmas, threatened with bodily harm, and tossed onto the street. I dare say Heavener is not quite the idyllic village it was promoted to be.”

After a pause, Cora folded her arms. “What is wrong with you?”

Selorian raise a pierced eyebrow. “Whatever do you mean?”

“This…this persona of yours, this attitude, this…this business of poking people in the eye and feigning innocence.”

“Seriously? I ordered my sustenance, with obvious hyperbole on the side, flashed some eldritch energy at the Audric’s request, defended myself from an onslaught of peasantry—nonlethally, I hasten to add—and remained perfectly composed as insults mounted and I was extricated from the tavern. Can you elaborate on your question?”

Cora opened her mouth to respond, then clamped it again.

Selorian offered a half-smile. “I have been subjected to harsh treatment most of my life. You are hardly the first person to compare me to a pile of peyin.”

“Do you not ever stop to wonder why that is?”

His eyes flashed as he grinned. “Could it be the fifth ring in my left ear? Is that a bit much?”

Cora huffed and rolled her eyes. “Look, I’m sorry I called you a monster. And a moron. You did show a remarkable talent for getting under the skins of quite literally everyone, which is kind of monstrous and moronic, but I don’t really know you, so…sorry.”

“Quite magnanimous,” Selorian replied. “In a similar vein, might I express my own heartfelt contrition for divorcing you of your bath?”

“See?” Cora said, slowly shaking her head. “That’s what I’m talking about. You said all the words—rather scholarly words, too—but I don’t believe you could be any more disingenuous.”

“And the scathing indictments continue.”

“Well, I don’t have time to argue. I have to repair our evening.” No thanks to you.

Selorian held out his hands. “My offer of assistance remains.”

Cora shook her head. “I said no. We’ll be fine.”

“I do hesitate to persist, seeing that you might simply hurl more baseless accusations at me, but if you would afford me the opportunity to rectify my previous calamitous behavior, we might find an accord.”

Cora cocked her head. “What in Kreth are you talking about?”

Selorian studied her, as if seeing her for the first time. “You’re sad.”

Cora clenched her jaw and walked away. “I don’t have time for this.”

“Your eyes are sad,” Selorian called out to her. “The eyes reveal much about a person. Yours speak volumes, and that will either be to your great benefit or sudden downfall. But I was not mistaken. You have experienced great sorrow…perhaps a friend or loved one has died.”

Cora’s train of thoughts derailed to the gristly scene of Ordin’s death. A chill crawled up her spine, and she froze in her tracks. How could this man know? “Are you some sort of diviner?” she asked, returning to him.

Selorian smirked. “Not really. Actually, not at all. I’m a savant, and you’re an easy read.”

A savant. Cora had heard of them: inborn magical talents of unknown source. Some said they were gifted of the Maker, like the avatars of old. Others said they channeled dark powers from the Great Dragon. No one truly understood them.

She looked crossly at him. “Yes, a dear friend of ours died several days ago. But you needn’t be so smug. It was painful and…and I don’t feel like talking about it.” Especially not to you with your pierced eyebrow.

“You are in possession of naught but brawn and beauty, little more than sword and song. A typical freeblade team has need for both arcane firepower and divine administrations. I can provide the former…”

“What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand? We’ve gone nearly a year without an arcanist, and we don’t need one now.”

“Ah, so your fallen comrade was a cassock, then.”

Cora felt another twist in her stomach. How does he sense so much about us? “He was a mystic of the Grove,” she said with simmering defiance. “And a dear friend. Something you’ll never be.”

A second-floor window of the Lucky Duck flew upon and Elric thrust out his head. “Hey Cora!” he shouted down into the street. “Is he gonna join us? Cuauhtie don’t like ‘im, but we shore could use some help with ol’ Vincent Schumann.”

“No!” Cora yelled back. “Are you done with our gear yet?”

“Almost.”

“Then hurry up!”

“Yes ma’am…” The blonde head receded back into the room, and Cora turned to face the savant. His visage, dark upon pale and uplit by an iridescent purple glow, sent a shudder through her spine.

Selorian sniffed and lobbed the small globe of purple into the road, sending up a shower of rocks. “I know this Schumann of whom he speaks. Having troubles with him?”

“Cripe, Elric,” Cora seethed through clenched teeth. Just once I’d like you to think before you speak. “Stop that,” she barked, staring at his purple energy.

The savant paused, shifting his gaze from his glowing hand to her frown. He closed his hand.

Cora studied his dark recessed eyes and sunken cheeks; it was hard not to gawk at his many facial piercings or blackened lips. Though he was responsible for ruining their night, he had made at least a shallow apology and now offered assistance. It was a loathsome proposition, made worse because it came from a walking mockery of death. “What do you know of Schumann?” she asked frostily.

Selorian flashed a quick derisive grin and looked away, studying his black fingernails. “I know he frequents Everglade throughout the year.”

Cora scoffed. “He’s on the ruling council; of course he would visit the capital city.”

“Yes, but perhaps he should not visit the places in Everglade that he does.”

“Such as?”

“Such as a little, out-of-the-way tavern called the Ebony Ternion.”

“A tavern? He has a drink or two? Really, Selorian, you’re not telling me much. We’re done here.”

The savant sighed heavily and rubbed his forehead. “I hate it when people are so obtuse. The Ebony Ternion is a truly obnoxious name for a seedy, flea-bitten tavern in a part of Everglade where the people haven’t a copper to spare on the luxury of cheap ale. It’s such an insufferable name that one must wonder what it means, that perhaps the words might be exchanged for something more telling, such as—oh, I don’t know—Black Three-pointed Circle? Which, if you’re any kind of a student of history, you’d instantly recognize as a meaningful description of the Nephreqin’s ideogram. As it turns out, the Ebony Ternion is a complete front, for deep in the bowels of that grimy place is an enclave for the Nephreqin itself, perhaps even their operations center for all of Alikon. And that is where your Schumann friend is seen frequenting.”

Selorian returned to inspecting the back of his hand as Cora gaped speechless at him.

“You may ask me to join at any moment,” he offered with a grin.

Cora wanted nothing more than to kick Selorian in the teeth, but she knew opportunity when she saw it. They had ample evidence to bring charges, but an eyewitness who could corroborate clandestine activities—that just might bring a conviction. “How do you know all this?” she finally asked. “How do I know it’s true?”

Selorian sniffed. “I’m a wanderer, and my peregrinations provide ample opportunity to observe. What I have noticed is a swelling apprehension throughout the lands regarding the Nephreqin. People talk, and their colloquy is increasingly filled with suspicion. I have made inquiry into this, and I have learned that certain aldermen are, shall we say, not entirely opposed to the chatter. They are, in fact, supportive.”

Cora’s glare softened somewhat. “And you’re prepared to testify before the Council of Westmeade against one of their own?”

“Indubitably. If the reward is sufficient.”

“Naturally,” Cora said with a roll of her eyes. “What’s your price?”

A brief flash of lavender washed over Selorian’s eyes as he grinned. “During your various violent expeditions, you doubtless uncovered a number of valuable treasures. It is the specialty of freeblades to unearth lost artifacts, and I suspect it comprises much of your encumbrance. I require first selection of your present rewards when your company deigns to distribute them as spoils.”

“That is out of the question,” Cora replied. “We earned that.”

“But that is the only selection I want; the first. Nothing more. Ever.”

A long minute passed as Cora regarded the savant, looking as best she could past his exterior trimmings to the heart of the man, who, by all standards was an audacious cad. He was insolent and arrogant. But he held something she needed. Corroborative proof. A witness.

She unfolded her arms. “I will need to discuss this with the others.”

“Then am I to infer that you are permitting my attendance? Assuming they agree?”

She ground her teeth, tearing the words from her mouth. “Assuming they agree, yes. You may accompany us to Westmeade. We’ll see what happens after that.”

The savant nodded. “Fair enough.”

“Can you at least stop fiddling with that infernal purple flame?”

Selorian shrugged. “Perhaps. I have never tried.”

“Well,” Cora said with a huff, “I’m going to check on the guys and make plans for the evening, which you wrecked for us.” Three steps away, she came back and jabbed a finger into Selorian’s chest. “You had better be worth it. And right.”

The savant lowered his eyes to the finger pressed against his hairless sternum. He slowly lifted his gaze to meet hers. “Certainly.”

Cuauhtérroc and Elric had just finished loading their gear into the cart as Cora approached. She leaned against a hitching post with her hands in her pockets. She had been longing for a refreshing bath and a relaxing evening, but that would have to wait for yet another day. “So…if you two are okay with it, Selorian will be joining us for the trip to Westmeade.”

Elric nodded, but Cuauhtérroc furrowed his brow. “Why do dees? He is your eenemy.”

Cora crossed her arms and looked over her shoulder at the savant standing in the distance. “I’m not sure what he is—a thorn in my side, perhaps. Likely he’ll cause more trouble than he’s worth. He did cost us a room and a warm meal, but he’s not my enemy…not yet.” She frowned as the savant flung small globes of violet energy into the ground. “I can’t stand his creepy demeanor, his cocky arrogance, or his constant fiddling with that rinkin purple fire. I got chills when he spoke in that foreign tongue. But…he’s not my enemy. He does know our true enemy, though.”

“Really?” Elric exclaimed. “He knows ol’ Schumann? Mebbe he can use some o’ that purple fire on him.”

Cora shook her head. “No, he is a corroborating witness against Schumann. We need him to testify before the Council, not attack the alderman. I think we’ve got all the evidence we need, but his independent testimony will be huge. However, if Selorian proves to be trouble, I’ll cut him loose and we’ll take our chances with what we’ve got. Oh, there’s this: he gets just one—and only one—pick from our treasures.”

“That ain’t so bad,” Elric said.

“The first pick,” Cora added.

“Oh.”

“But that’s it. First pick and nothing else. Then he’s gone. So…any objections?”

Elric shrugged. “I dunno. I guess not. Jis so long as he don’t pick what I want.”

Cuauhtérroc paused before answering. “You weel have to watch dees one very careful. I do not theenk he is dees good man.”

With a sigh, Cora nodded.“I think you’re right.”

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