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Wychlaran part 3

The boy knew that he had been extremely lucky to even escape the camp with his life. The warriors had been everywhere, not to mention Them. But they had been preoccupied with guarding against an outside threat, never noticing the small dark shape that slowly crept past them. Since then he had been travelling by night, hiding as best he could in the daytime. The first time he stopped he had barely been able to sleep at all, certain that they would come swooping down on him and drag him back, if not kill him on the spot. But by now the fear had dulled from acute panic to a slow simmer, more easily ignored. They hadn't found him yet after all. Perhaps he would be lucky. The boy mentally chastised himself at that thought. He couldn't afford to count on luck. He had to be good enough not to need luck. Good enough to make his own luck.

Travelling had been hard. As he was forced to remain constantly on guard against pursuers or random patrols the foraging for food couldn't be allowed to take much time. The boy studied his ribs and thin legs and arms with detached interest. He had lost weight, quite a lot of it. The hunger had been bad at first, but by now it had subsided to a dull ache. That probably wasn't a good thing, but there wasn't much he could do about it. He had left the plains behind some days ago and entered the mountains. Hiding was easier here, but the food even more scarce than before. He was feeling dizzy now, dizzy and weak. If he didn't reach the other side soon he knew he probably would die. He was used to walking long distances, but nothing like this. Squinting his eyes into narrow slits against the glaring sun he kept putting one foot forward, then the next. It worked, for a while. But that afternoon found him slumping to the ground in the shade of a large rock, too exhausted to get to his feet again. The hunger he could barely feel by now, but the thirst…His throat was on fire, his lips cracked and dry. There had been no water to be found that entire day and almost none the two days before that. So now he would probably die, and he would never be able to pay Them back for what They had done. The boy almost thought he was about to shed a tear at that thought, but his eyes remained dry.

The notion came to him that he hadn't cried since before the day They came. Perhaps he couldn't anymore. The person he had used to be was dead, after all. Just as dead as the woman he had killed. Did that make him an undead then? The idea was strangely amusing. Undead didn't need food or water. There was a half-crazed look to the boy's sunken eyes as he stared at the dead woman's dagger and wondered whether drinking his own blood could help ease his burning thirst.

And then the dark shape bent over him. To the boy's delirious mind it was Death itself come for him. But then his vision cleared and he saw that it was only a man after all. A man with a shaven head, his eyes sharp and alert, his face decorated with a serpentine pattern of black tattoos. The man spoke to him, shook him, asked for his name and what he was doing here.

The boy forced his bleeding lips into the semblance of a smile. Suddenly the man's insistence that he answer all these questions seemed very funny. He spoke his name. It didn't matter now. What was he doing? Dying. What did it look like? Where was he from? North. Why had he left? Because they hurt him. Because he wouldn't give up his life for them. Because he had killed someone to keep his freedom. The man looked very interested at that. Would the boy like some help? A safe haven away from harm. An education. A chance for revenge. All he needed to do in return was to tell the man all he knew about his homeland. About Them in particular. That, and give the man his loyalty. The boy thought about this a moment. Then he nodded. After what had happened he wasn't sure his loyalty could be freely given to anybody anymore. But at the right price, he was fully prepared to sell it.

Edwin was shaken forcibly awake the next morning, the excited Poppy waving a letter in his face. "Good news!", she exclaimed. "Dekkie seems to be on to something. He wants me to go meet him. Take a look."

Edwin squinted at the letter, rubbing his eyes. It had been hastily jotted down on the back of an old menu.

Poppy, it read. Meet me at the intersection of Boot Street and Cobbler Lane at your earliest convenience. And Poppy? That does mean 'at once'. D.

"See?" Poppy said. "We'll go see him right now. Go on, hurry and get dressed." Edwin yawned and hastily pulled his rags on. Poppy assisted him by smearing his face liberally with grime and dust, making him look like a true urchin. The halfling then took him by the hand and led the way into the streets of the Outer City.

The meeting-place turned out to be an intersection between two fairly narrow but heavily trafficked streets. There were several small shops around, and people steadily passed in and out of them. The people here weren't quite as ragged and desperate looking as they had been in many of the other parts of the Outer City that Edwin had seen so far. Still, among the more respectable shopkeepers, matrons and day-workers were more than one member of the morally flexible classes. A gambler was standing on a street-corner trying to entice passersby into playing a game involving a glass bead, three empty cups and amounts of money that the victims really couldn't spare. A group of large and thuggish men passed close, jostling anybody who got in their way, now and then punching or kicking when people didn't move aside quite fast enough. A skinny man carrying a heavy sack of flour was pushed aside and fell, giving them a hateful glare but saying nothing. On the other side of the street a few urchins were shouting taunts at a bent old woman selling apples, imitating her hobbling walk as she tottered by. And inside a dark alleyway Edwin could just about make out a dark shape, like that of someone trying to stay out of sight. Edwin nudged Poppy and the halfling carefully turned her head.

"I see", she said in a quiet voice. "Let's go." Walking at a slow but deliberate pace they entered the alley. It was dark and damp, and seemingly empty. But a soft rustle up ahead hinted that they might not, in fact, be quite alone. Edwin shivered, not entirely because of the cold.

"Apples?" a quavering old voice said right behind them. "Buy some nice apples? Half the price for the lady Raven?" Poppy whirled around, instantly whipping out a throwing dagger and pointing it at the stooped old woman.

"What are you doing following us?” the halfling assassin demanded. "And what do you know of Ravens? Speak up or be sorry."

"What do I know of Ravens?" the old crone cackled, baring a gap-toothed grin. Wild strands of dirty white hair stuck out in all directions from under her bonnet and she was wrapped in so many shawls that she looked like a walking laundry basket. Some of them smelled like wet dog, others like a dirty carpet after said dog has used it as a toilet. The basket she clutched to her flat breast as possessively as if it had contained a cache of diamonds did indeed contain apples. Dirty brown apples, as wrinkled as the ancient hag's skin, what little could be seen of it. "Only what I get told, little one. Friend of yours told me, yes he did. Told me to find you. You want to see him, maybe? Or maybe buy some nice apples? They help you sleep better at night, oh yes they do."

"Maybe", Poppy said cautiously. "That would depend. What did this friend look like?"

"Why, like a Raven of course", the hag said, chuckling to herself. "A black raven. Said he'd sent you a letter. Asked me to go bring you. You coming or what?"

"Fine", Poppy said. "But you go ahead, or no deal."

The old woman nodded silently at that and then set off along the alley. It got progressively darker as they walked along, and after a minute or so Edwin could still hear her shuffling footsteps, but he was no longer able to see her. Then the footsteps stopped and there was a dim light up ahead. It was coming from the other side of the alley, and now Edwin could see the old woman silhouetted against the alleymouth. Funny. She hadn't looked that tall before. Then she turned around and took off her bonnet.

"Have you two any idea of the calamity you almost caused?" Dekaras asked before removing the white wig that almost entirely obscured his face. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at the sight of my student gallivanting around the Outer City without permission. Why on earth I should expect him to keep out of mortal danger and occupy himself with his studies is quite beyond me. But you, Poppy. I expected better of you than to let this child persuade you to accompany him on his little expedition."

"Uh, hi Dekkie", the halfling said with an embarrassed grin. "Good to see you. Er, nice teeth."

The tall assassin gave his friend and colleague a withering glare before responding. "Black paint", he said. "And I've told you before not to call me that." He paused and rubbed his back. "An efficient disguise, but hardly a comfortable one", he said. "I hope I haven't developed a permanent crick in my back from bending over that long. Now kindly explain your idiotic actions, boy. Briefly, mind you. We haven't much time to spare."

The air was chill up here among the rooftops. He noticed the fact, filed it away for further reference and then forgot about it. It wasn't cold enough for his fingers to stiffen up. That was the important thing. As he waited he thought about the mission ahead. It wasn't his first one, and his training had prepared him well. Objectively speaking there was no need for concern. On the other hand, it was the first time he encountered one of Them since he had left. And it would be more than one. The young man smiled to himself at the thought. It wasn't a pleasant smile, more like a baring of teeth. With luck he would be able to handle two. But he had been careful in his planning. He didn't intend to depend on luck.

Then they were suddenly there, stepping out of the house. Two of them, as he had suspected. Secure in their arrogant knowledge that no one would be able to recognize them for what they were. No one but the unseen watcher above who recognized them all too well, particularly the older one. He would never forget the exalted luck on her face as she led the circle of women that drained him of his inborn gift, took it into herself to be used for her own purposes. That face was the last thing that drifted across his closed eyelids every time he went to sleep, lodged inside his mind like an invited guest. He had memorized every detail of it.

Despite the fact that years had passed since last he saw her a tiny sliver of icy fear shot through him, making his jaw clench. Then it was ruthlessly squashed as he made himself concentrate on the hatred instead, the constantly burning embers of it deliberately fanned into flames. Not hot though. A cold fire of hatred, a focal point to hold on to. He almost wondered that the old woman didn't feel it lash her skin and sear her bones.

He would have preferred to take her out first, but the younger woman was in the way, as were the two warriors. Soon they would pass around the corner and it would be too late. The young man made his decision, gently squeezing the trigger of the crossbow. A gurgling scream from the younger woman was cut off as a second bolt hit her square in the throat. Not much time left.

The two burly warriors were working themselves into a frenzy by now, wanting to sink their swords into the unseen enemy's body but unable to spot him. They were unimportant. The remaining woman was not. Swiveling the crossbow around to take aim again he saw her turn around, saw her look him straight in the eye, even from this distance. Saw the recognition in her eyes. She raised her hands raised and started an incantation. Spitting out a brief curse the young man threw himself aside, across the narrow rooftop and over to the other side. Seconds later the huge fireball struck the chimney he had been hiding behind, making it burst into a million pieces. The heat-wave almost made him lose his grip and fall and he felt rather than heard a second fireball approaching. Acting more on instinct than out of any rational thought he leapt, just barely managing to catch hold of the drainpipe of the next building as the spell took out the entire roof in an inferno of flames. And then he was on the ground, hardly remembering having climbed down, and running as fast as his legs could carry him for cover. As he reached the cover of shadows between the buildings he decided that while the mission hadn't been a complete success, at least it hadn't been a failure. One of the witches was dead, and hopefully the other would think twice about crossing the border in the near future. For now, it would have to do. For now.

"I see", Dekaras said once Edwin had finished his explanation. "While I appreciate your willingness to help you really shouldn't have come here. We are in great danger, and you being here makes it worse."

"What's your worry?" Poppy asked, her round face tense.

"Divination spells", Dekaras said tersely and without further explanation. "I would have preferred to take the boy home, but I cannot afford further delay. They are close enough to finding us as it is. I must act first. Poppy, you stay here and keep our young friend out of trouble if at all possible. I'm going inside." He nodded briefly in the direction of the dark building next to him and started peeling off his disguise, letting shawls and skirt drop inside the apple basket until only his more customary black garments remained. He then extricated a thin rope with a grappling hook from the basket, threw it onto the roof and started climbing up the rope until he reached a closed window. Some brief maneuvering later the window swung silently outwards and the assassin disappeared inside.

"I wonder what that was all about", Poppy mused.

Edwin didn't answer. He kept staring up towards the window, hoping to see his teacher emerge. But nothing happened, and all was silent. Then he heard a faint rustle of robes behind him and started to turn around. Before he had the time to complete the motion the stunning spell hit him and all was black and silent.

When Edwin next came to he was being carried. He struggled weakly against the unfamiliar arms, but to no avail. He barely had the strength to move. The person carrying him was very large, and wearing a woolen vest that smelled like it was fresh off the sheep. He thought he could glimpse Poppy out of the corner of his eye, still unconscious and being carried as he was. Then they were inside the house and he heard a woman's voice from somewhere behind him.

"You may as well come out", it said. It was the voice of the woman in the park, the woman from his dreams. "If you do, you have my word that they will remain unharmed."

The brief silence that followed sounded almost contemptuous. "The word of a wychlaran isn't worth more than your stinking breath, Othlor", Dekaras' voice spoke from somewhere inside the shadows. "But it appears you leave me no choice but to comply." Edwin wanted to shake his head in negation, but it wouldn't obey his brain's commands and he saw his tutor walk out of the shadows staring at the woman behind Edwin with an expression of cold hatred such as the boy had never seen on his face before.

"Take him", the woman said triumphantly. Edwin tried to scream but a large hand covered his mouth and the darkness swirled up around him once more.

The second time Edwin awoke he was lying outstretched on a low bench, the wooden surface cool and hard beneath him. As he carefully peeked from under half-closed lids he could make out Poppy's small form next to him. The halfling didn't stir from her enspelled slumber. A very large man with a sword almost as large as he was stood next to the bench. It was probably the one who had carried him before, Edwin thought. At least the smell was the same. And then he heard voices from the other side of the room, opened his eyes more fully and bit back a frightened gasp.

His teacher was sitting on a chair against the other wall, his hands manacled behind him with heavy chains and his legs similarly tied together. This didn't seem to satisfy the younger of the two women facing him however, as she kept watching him nervously, looking like she had somehow found herself on the back of a tiger and wasn't sure if she would be able to get off alive. Edwin recognized her. She was the younger of the two women from the park, dark of skin and hair, and wearing a dark blue dress. Her hair was pleated into a multitude of tiny braids. The other woman he recognized as well. She was the older one, the one he had heard referred to as Othlor. Her white hair was tightly gathered together in a bun and there was a very pleased expression on her angular face.

"Your plan failed, vremyonni", she said. "We might not have been able to find you alone. You are apt at hiding your tracks. But the boy, now. That was different." She held out a small object and Edwin was surprised to see the lollipop he had dropped in the park when the two women had first appeared. Dekaras said nothing, but Edwin could tell that he too knew it for what it was. "Yes", the old woman said. "I suspected you were around, vremyonni. There were rumors. And my magic tells me much. When I found this I knew what child had chanced to lose it. Finding him was easy. But then you had already left. It took a few nightmares sent by me to persuade him to come look for you, but not as many as I had thought. The little beast seems to be fond of you, vremyonni. I wonder why."

"I thank you not to call me that", Dekaras said, his voice icy. "As you are well aware, I refused that as soon as I knew what it meant."

"What do you mean?" the younger woman asked. "A vremyonni is highly honored at home, honored above all others."

"Oh, yes", the assassin sneered. "Honored like a calf fattened for the slaughter. At least the animal gets a swift death. You sicken me. You wychlaran, the proud Witches of Rasheman. The benevolent rulers, beloved by all. But what of the male magic users, witch? What of them? Allow me to tell you the sordid truth. They are taken from their parents at the same age that the witches enter higher training. Then they are brought deep into the mountains, where they become virtual slaves. The vremyonni then spend the rest of their artificially lengthened lives holed up in little caves in the mountain, manufacturing magical items for the witches to use. And they never, ever get to leave. Now call me insane, but somehow that doesn't quite sound like an acceptable future career to me." The warrior standing next to the prisoner moved as if to strike him, but the old woman held up her hand.

"Let him speak", she said. "It makes no difference."

"Unless they refuse of course", the assassin said, his voice dripping venom. "Which I did. What is your name, witch?"

"Endarra", the dark woman said, not taking her eyes off him. Little beads of sweat were forming at her forehead.

"Well, Endarra, the ones who refuse suffer a different fate. As I found out, much to my chagrin. A circle of witches came for me, and when I refused they used their magic to try to make me regret my decision. I was born with the magic, witch. The same as you were. But your Othlor there, your Elder, she and her friends stole it from me."

"A necessary evil", the old woman said, her voice impassive. "We cannot have rogue magic users around. We will not tolerate that. They must be neutralized. The ritual is an ancient custom."

"So, little witch", the assassin said, "would you like to know what it felt like? I imagine it is a bit similar to having your heart ripped out of your body while you are still alive to appreciate the sensation, a fate that I would be only too happy to inflict on your beloved Othlor. Many vremyonni do not survive the ritual. I learnt that after coming here."

"Yes", the old woman said. "Let us speak of your coming here. Your crimes against your country do not stop at refusing to lend yourself to her aid. You killed a wychlaran on the night of your defection. You have killed many since. Among the apprentices they call you 'the Wraith'. The silent death in the night. How many dead, vremyonni? How many dead for your pride? And you have even allied yourself with our country's ancient enemy, helping to betray us all."

"My country?" Dekaras said. The play of shadows across his sharp features made them resemble a devil mask. "Rasheman betrayed me first, when she demanded I become her slave rather than her servant. Now I serve where I choose. The Red Wizard who saved my life when I was dying in the mountains gave me the means to do that in return for your precious secrets and my services. He was a worthy Master, and while his son is weaker the third generation looks very promising. As you can see, I have made an alternative career for myself instead of the one you kept me from. In answer to your question, none have died for my pride, but many have died because of your greed. And the one kind of death I take great pleasure in is when I get the chance to eliminate a witch foolish enough to enter Thay."

"Endarra, leave us", the Othlor ordered. "You are not yet trained enough to deal with the evils of this one. You too, Berk. Andres." The younger witch reluctantly left the room, as did the two warriors. "Our coming across you was accidental", she said as she coolly regarded her prisoner. "We come seeking the Children. The Spawn of Bhaal. Being a servant of Murder you must know about that."

"I serve no god", the assassin said contemptuously. "Least of all a dead one. I have heard whisperings of the Children, but their whereabouts are unknown to me and I have made no efforts to learn more."

"Oh, but I think you have", the old woman said, leaning forward. "I know of your skills, you see. You could have a higher position than you do. Yet you stay in the service of a wizard who seems to be more than half idiot and the rest of him a fool. Why, if you do not hope to reap some great benefit? I think one of the Children is very close by. Very close by indeed."

Her sharp eyes flickered towards Edwin and the boy did his best to look comatose. He thought he could probably move his limbs now, but he was too afraid to try. Then he heard his teacher chuckle mirthlessly to himself. "The boy?" Dekaras asked, sounding incredulous. "A Child of Bhaal? Oh, you witches never cease to amaze me with your stupidity. I am intimately familiar with his parentage and I can assure you that no god was involved. And if I remain in what some might call a humble position it is because I am perfectly comfortable where I am and because my loyalties, when freely given, are very strong. Make of that what you will."

"I do", the Othlor said, her eyes narrowing dangerously. "I do not trust you. But I am a diviner, and I have ways of finding the truth out. It was always my intention to bring you home alive, if at all possible. Not with your mind intact, of course. We do not need that. But rogue vremyonni may still serve with their bodies that their bloodline need not be lost. You would have been a powerful one, I think. A pity it couldn't be, but any children of yours will likely be equally strong in the Art. We will find out when the time comes. Right now your mind can be put to use a final time. You know the truth. I will have it. You can resist, but not forever. And the boy could wake up to see it. You wouldn't want that, I think. Or you can cooperate, and it will all be over before you know it."

Edwin wanted to scream, but the terror of the situation was too much and not even a whimper passed his lips. He didn't want to look, but not seeing, not knowing was even worse. Poppy still hadn't moved.

"I will cooperate", Dekaras said, his voice outwardly calm. "But you will find nothing to your liking if you enter my mind."

"I am sure of it", the woman said. "But I will risk that. Good bye, vremyonni." The words she muttered were unfamiliar to Edwin, but he recognized the language of magic when he heard it. A soft white nimbus enveloped the witch and then spread out to encompass the assassin. A minute passed, and another. Nothing seemed to be happening. And then the Othlor staggered back with a horrible scream, tearing at her face with long fingernails, clawing at her eyes. The blood was streaming down her cheeks by now and still she kept screaming, no longer as loudly as before but rather a high-pitched keening that was even more terrible. Finally ceasing her clawing at her now empty eye-sockets she pressed her hands to her chest, her face as white as a sheet, and crumpled to the floor, dead.

A few seconds passed. "Fascinating", Dekaras said and opened his eyes. He too was a little paler than usual as he saw the corpse on the floor. "I hardly dared hope that would happen." He then turned his head towards Edwin. "It was very good of you to manage to keep still, boy", he said, his voice warmer than before. "Unfortunately I need you to be brave a little while longer. In the right pocket of her robes is the key to these chains. I need you to get it and unlock them for me." Edwin nodded hesitantly and stumbled to his feet, not daring to trust his voice. Before he could get very far the door burst open and Endarra rushed inside, closely followed by the two guards.

"Othlor!", the witch screamed. "No! NO!" She spread her fingers wide, drew her head up and started an incantation. Edwin didn't wait to find out what it would be. There was no time to think, only to react. The spell was out of his mind and out of his hands almost before he knew what he had done and a bright red ball of energy struck the witch in the face, burning and searing. The witch screamed and faltered, losing her concentration. Her spell fizzled and died as she stumbled blindly forward, directly into the path of the bound assassin. Tied to the chair as he was, and with his ankles and wrists bound Dekaras still was able to pull his legs up and kick the woman aside. She fell into the arms of the two warriors, temporarily blocking their progress. Nevertheless, that probably would have been the end of the battle if it hadn't been for Poppy. The halfling had come to unnoticed by all and swiftly darted across the room, grabbed the key from the dead woman's pocket and unlocked the chains that bound her friend. Edwin took the opportunity to hide under the bench as the two assassins faced the two warriors. He had a feeling things were about to get rowdy.

Both of the berserkers made the fatal mistake of ignoring Poppy in favor of her taller friend. As they both rushed Dekaras the halfling silently charged, her head lowered. A small, but very hard halfling skull hitting you in a sensitive area is enough to make a grown man drop whimpering to the floor, where Poppy promptly bit him in the leg and snatched a dagger from his belt, after which she proceeded to jerk his head up by the hair and cut his throat.

Dekaras meanwhile had sidestepped the second attacker, whose violent charge carried him straight across the room and into the wall, head first. He didn't have a chance to stop. That by itself wasn't enough to break his neck, but the blow he received immediately afterwards was.

The surviving witch vainly tried to get into a sitting position. Her face was a burnt ruin, charred and broken. "Please…” she said. "Please…"

"Poppy", Dekaras said, his face impassive. "Get the boy out of here. I won't be long."

As Edwin was forcibly pulled outside by a halfling whose face held no trace of dimples he heard the voice of his tutor behind him. "I am sorry", Dekaras said. "You fought bravely but you leave me no choice. I cannot afford to let you report back to Rasheman. I will have no other wychlaran come after me here. If it is any comfort I will make it a much swifter end than the spell you were about to try on me would have been."

"Please", the woman said. "My…my little Dynaheir. There is a child back home who needs me."

"Then", the assassin said in an almost inaudible whisper, "we do have something in common after all. Who would have thought that, wychlaran?" As promised, the witch died quickly.

They went back to the Ravens Nest at first. Even the adults thought a short rest seemed in order before returning to the Inner City. As for Edwin, he was extremely tired out and took great pleasure in his tutor carrying him. Despite or perhaps because of everything he fell asleep on the way and only awoke when he was placed on Poppy's bed. Dekaras sat down on the floor next to it, muttering something about halflings living in holes as cramped as their skulls and too small to stand up straight in.

"Just the right size for normal-sized people, Dekkie", Poppy said with the ghost of her normal happy smile on her lips. She busied herself with putting on another kettle of tea. "Just the right size. So are you going to tell me what happened in there or what? One minute I'm unconscious and having a really nice dream about horses and butterflies and the next there's this screaming witch falling down dead without anyone even touching her. Now, I know you're good at what you do, but killing people simply by looking at them seems way too creepy."

"That wasn't exactly what happened", Dekaras said, his attention fixed on some point far off in the distance, ignoring even the irreverent nickname. "I don't know how much either of you heard or for that matter understood, and not all of it is relevant. It was all long ago. But to sum things up, I had good reason to hate that witch, more than I hate any other Rashemani witch. She tried to use me for her own purposes. She robbed me of what was mine. Since I was only a few years older than our young friend here I have spent the last few minutes every time I'm going to sleep trying to think up a new, more inventive and more painful way of killing her than the last one. That is quite a lot of nasty ways of dying and I have a vivid imagination. The Othlor was a powerful diviner and thought nothing about trying to use her magic to probe my mind. But in her eagerness she ignored the fact that for every action there is a reaction."

He shrugged. "In opening oneself up to another person's thoughts one cannot help but make oneself a little open to them as well. Had I been a wizard she would have put up safeguards. As it was she thought she could safely ignore that, and that was her mistake. When she entered my mind my every reason for hating her and every way I ever thought of killing her came back to me and she felt them all. And since I was, after all, once trained to use my mind to shape reality she literally felt them all, one after the other. The pain must have been excruciating. It wasn't a spell exactly, but the effect of it was enough to give her a nasty shock too great for her heart to handle. A very interesting thing and very fortunate. I had no way of knowing it would work, and even if I do hate depending on luck I suppose I shouldn't complain." He turned to see if Edwin was awake. "Good reflexes back there, boy", he said a little sadly. "The Magic Missile can be a very useful spell."

"I - I killed her, didn't I?” Edwin said, his voice shaking.

"No. She was alive when you left. You must remember that."

"But…but I hurt her all the same. I mean, I know I had to. She was bad. Those witches all are for what they did to you, and when I grow up I want to get them back. But I hurt her really badly and the way she looked…" He choked back a sob and when he felt his teacher put his arms around him he couldn't hold back the ones that followed.

"I know", the assassin said. "Believe me, I know. It will get better. I promise."

The boy cried himself out before settling down on the bed. As he closed his eyes he felt the blanket tucked around him. "Stay with me before I sleep?" he asked in a small voice.

"Of course", the answer was. "Of course I will. You've proven very adept at getting yourself into trouble. I should think we both deserve the comfort of knowing exactly what you are doing for once. Now go to sleep."

It was a few hours later that they returned to the Odesseiron Mansion after an uneventful walk through the city. Edwin held his teacher's hand a little tighter as they passed through the gate, nervous about his Mother's imminent reaction. Poppy had wisely remained behind, saying something about wizards not being all that subtle when they got angry and preferring to be a halfling rather than a toad. As they passed through the garden Edwin felt some surprise at how ordinary it seemed, just as if nothing had ever happened. On one of the lawns his Mother was sitting in a chair, reading. Now and then she looked up and gave the statue in front of her a satisfied look.

"My baby!" she cried out as she spotted her son approaching. Edwin was chagrined to find himself publicly kissed and fussed over as his teacher watched with some amusement.

"Everything in order, I hope?" the assassin asked. "Did my friend's letter reach you?"

"Oh, yes", Elvira said in a dangerous voice. "It said: I have your son. He is unharmed and will be returned to you eventually. Await further instructions. A friend. Yes, that was very reassuring."

"Oh, Poppy", Dekaras sighed. "We really need to teach you a little proper turn of phrase."

"But at least he's safe", Elvira admitted, kissing her son again. "And…what of you? Is everything in order?"

"Yes", the assassin said with a satisfied smile. "The witch is dead and the danger is past. Did anything interesting take place in my absence? What of Master Galen's painting?"

"Oh, he gave that up", Elvira said, pointing at the statue in front of her. "That's his new fling. It seems our son persuaded him to take up sculpture." The statue was a very lifelike portrayal of Galen Odesseiron, complete with a surprised look on his face. A pigeon also seemed to appreciate it as it landed on his head and relieved itself.

"That is very good", Dekaras said, raising an eyebrow. "I must admit to some surprise at his skill."

Elvira smiled. "Not so much his skill as mine", she said. "You see, when I learned about him stealing the stones of the bridge that the Tharchion's carriage was passing over I got a little upset. I'm afraid I told him that if he wanted to practice sculpture that badly I would be only too glad to help." She patted the statue affectionately. "I rather like him this way", she said. "Very restful and quiet. Still, I suppose I'll have to turn him back soon or his brother will fuss. Tomorrow. Or the day after. The next week at the very latest."

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Last modified on , March 2 2003
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