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Pennance: Part One

By Quillblade

 

For Mikey;
Somewhere out there is a brother I lost.


It was dark, and wet, and cold. The driving wind pushed layer after layer of rain through the city, smacking against the windows, causing even those reinforced with wire mesh to shudder under its touch. A flicker of sheet lightning briefly lit the streets, but the gentle roll of far-off thunder was nearly drowned by the moaning, twisting gale.

No one should have been out in this, but Theodore Anastare was desperate. Turning quickly from the door of the university where he taught forensic science, he hitched his raincoat closer about his neck and stumbled forward through the rain. Normally, the doctor might have stayed for hours longer -- and perhaps by then this storm might have drained itself dry -- but since the last month he always hurried home. His wife was very ill with bowel cancer, and Anastare wished to be with her as much as possible as she fought the disease; at home by choice, rather than in a hospital...

Behind his glasses his eyes were becoming more than a little moist, and it wasn't the rain. As he reached up to wipe them dry, a figure rose from the shadows of the street and almost collided with him. Anastare took a step back and then to the side, excusing himself as he did so. The man gave him a flat, unfriendly glare over his shoulder as he shambled off.

Anastare frowned, straightening his glasses as he did so. The city's full of thugs. It's a wonder a normal citizen can even find a place to live, let alone walk the streets safely at night. Despite their good intentions, the police don't seem to be doing a thorough enough job!

Continuing on his way, Anastare couldn't help but glance over his shoulder. His heart jolted briefly as he saw the man had stopped and was staring after him, still with that glare, although the peculiar light cast by the streetlamps seemed to turn the bulky face into a pocked skull. Rain glistened from his shadowed beak. Unnerved, he kept his head looking forward, quickening his steps a little. It was not far to the car park, he comforted himself, and it was patrolled by heavy security. There was a corner to turn up ahead, and he would be out of that disquieting glare.

Upon turning the corner, he found himself confronted by two more men, almost identical in height and build to the first man. His footsteps faltered and stopped, but somehow he managed a smile and moved to walk around them.

One stepped forward and barred his path. He was grinning, but not in a nice way.

Anastare drew himself up, doing his best to look confident. "Excuse me, sir," he said, putting a meaningful emphasis on the words. When that failed to work, he tried to cross the road.

A strong hand caught his arm; a flash of light caught his attention. It did not come from the sky, but from the hands of the two men. Wrenching himself from the thug's grip, Anastare was alarmed to see that each held a brightly glowing sword, the silvery light pulsating in time to the rain. Only one kind of man used energy sabers, he knew, and it was the type of man he had no wish to get involved with.

"You're Brotherhood, aren't you?"

He didn't need to say anything more. Hardly a duck in the country didn't know who and what 'the Brotherhood' was, even when the second half of the name was not mentioned. There was only one Brotherhood. His aggressor only nodded slightly, not to the doctor's question but to the men creeping up behind him. The doctor found himself seized again, and this time held fast.

Struggling was no use at all. The doctor was shaking, but tried not to give in to his fear. "What do you goons want?"

The grinning one stopped grinning. "You."

Anastare's scream for help was abruptly cut short.

*****

The university would have been silent, but for the furious howling outside. The old janitor whistled quietly to himself as he washed the floors; the cheery sound faded beyond the next hallway, overpowered by the sound of the storm. Thunder sent shudders through the building.

On the second floor an office window was moving, but not in time to the battering wind. A circle of rubber-edged steel was pressed against the glass, while a tiny beam of light carefully sliced around it. The only sound was a low hum, a sound insignificant against the wind, then a small, sharp crack as the glass came away.

With infinite care, a metal shaft was slid into the room, telescoping quickly until it almost touched the opposite wall. For a moment it wavered there, shaking as gravity fought to pull it down, before it was straightened and cautiously manipulated until the end lighted on a keypad a few feet from the office door. Unfolding from the tip, a wire and plug snapped into the side of the pad; a row of numbers appeared one by one, until with a beep and a green flicker of acknowledgement, the second floor security shut off.

The telescoping shaft retracted itself swiftly, and the window lifted. Two figures nimbly swung into the room, pulling off the straps which had held them in place hanging from the roof. One was tall, a little over six feet, dressed in black and a black ski mask obscuring most of his features, with the exception of his large bill. The other was smaller, of a finer and feminine build. She also wore black and a ski mask, but was somehow considerably more stylish in wearing it.

After making sure his partner was ready, the tallest of the pair tapped the side of his head, muttering a brief, "We're in," into the almost invisible headset he wore.

"Gotcha." The slightly fuzzy reply was equally short.

Bayard Stormwing sighed and straightened the headset, for it had become slightly lopsided during the climb down the side of the university. In doing so he bumped the microphone, and heard the voice at the other end wince as the metallic screech rang through the transmission. "Oops. Sorry, Range."

His younger brother's reply was mumbled and inaudible, but he was certain he didn't want to hear the words anyway. Turning to his partner, his sister Felicity, he found she had already taken the code-breaker and was hard at work on the other side of the room, hacking into the door lock. Bayard shook his head with a slight smile, joining her in front of it. Other people tended to forget that she was as good a thief as her brother, probably because she seemed interested only in clothes, boys, makeup, and all the typical 'girlish' things.

The code-breaker again flashed green for go. "You may open the door now, Bayard."

She was also the dominant twin, and Bayard obeyed her without thought, even though, as the Honor Blade of the duo, he was technically the one in charge. He slid the door open a little way, peered out, made sure there was no one else on the landing before slipping noiselessly into the hallway. It was dark, but a single light shone from down the stairs, and he could just hear someone whistling when for a moment the storm went silent outside.

Then the thunder growled again. What a miserable night, he thought, glancing to the windows. I pity anyone who's out in this rotten weather. Thankfully, the wind had blown the rain from a different direction to the wall they'd been scaling down, but the chill mist curtaining around the sides had still made their clothing damp and the trip unpleasant.

Felicity put a hand on his shoulder and nodded toward a door at the far end of the hallway. It looked like any other door, but for the plate on the front embossed with FORENSICS ROOM.

Inside was... well, a laboratory. It was nothing like the cliche mad scientist get-up, nor was it in any way similar to the infirmary at the Brotherhood. It was white, and clean, with everything neatly stored away, and a back room, where photographs and slides were developed. Bodies were not stored here; this was a university, after all, not a morgue. There was a larger site downtown where all the postmortems and such were carried out. Here was one of the many smaller places where the results were scrutinized; just another one of Keltor City's attempts at cost saving.

There were some pieces of evidence here which the Brotherhood wanted destroyed, linking some of its thieves to a crime they hadn't committed. Privately, Bayard suspected the New Enforcers, but this was not a common belief so he kept that to himself. Most suspected one of the Brotherhood's rivals, or perhaps one of the many smuggling groups they'd managed to anger over the years. It was too fine a job, said the majority, for it to be pulled off by a smattering of bullies masquerading as a resurgence of the Enforcers.

Bayard knew they were more than that. So did his family, the Leader, the Loremaster and her apprentice, the rest of the Council and a couple of outsiders, but that was all. It was being played down for now. The Brotherhood left the Enforcers alone. And until just recently, their last plan for the destruction of the Blade having been unwound to square one right under their beaks, the New Enforcers had left them alone too.

He tried not to let these thoughts overtake all his senses, and kept glancing back out of the room as Felicity went through the cabinets, her gloved fingers flicking nimbly through the files. The last thing they needed was for the janitor, or someone else, to surprise them.

"Found it!" said Felicity, holding up a manila folder, attached to which were a number of technical documents, photographs of fingerprints and two small clear packets of more tangible evidence. All of it very cleverly falsified.

He tapped the side of his headset, but before he could say anything Ranger spoke up. "I heard her, Bayard... wager that half the neighborhood could, as well." Wisely, Bayard decided not to pass that one on. "You better get outta there, no sense in hanging around."

"Agreed." He looked up. "Come on, we'd better go, Felice."

She nodded, tucking the folder under her clothing as she walked past him. They had just reached the top of the stairs when there was a brief shout from below, and the light went out.

Bayard froze, exchanging an alarmed look with his sister. The shuffling sound of someone moving around (dragging something heavy, maybe?) came from below, so there was at least one person down there. Then silence. The kind of silence one got when something bad was about to happen.

A silent flash of lightning lit the hallway, and he started down the stairs. Felicity caught his arm, her expression concerned. "Wait, what are you doing?"

"Going to look."

"Bard, what the hell's goin' on?" Ranger demanded through the wire.

"I'll be back before you can count to a hundred," said Bayard, to both of them. He removed himself from his sister's grip and turned off his headset, handing it to her. "Wait here."

As quietly as possible he skimmed down the stairs, hesitating at the bottom. The howling wind masked all the smaller noises, which put him in a dangerous position. If he couldn't hear anyone coming, he would end up as just so many roasted feathers. Cautiously he moved along the closest hall, noting that the floor was wet and slippery -- the janitor had been over this area not too long ago.

There was a certain smell in the air, tangy and metallic, only faint but Bayard recognized it immediately: blood. His guard went up further and he stopped, straining to hear something -- anything -- which could be someone waiting around the corner.

The storm quieted for just a few moments, but it was enough. The swish of a door, the tap of a footstep, just behind him...

Bayard spun around, his fist lashing out. It connected solidly with the jaw of the man attempting to sneak up on him, who stumbled back with a curse, spitting blood. There was more blood on his hands, too, and on the saber dangling loosely from the right. Eyes narrowing, Bayard activated his own saber, stepping back into a defensive crouch. "You're not of the Brotherhood," he said flatly. "Who are you?"

"Just one of the shadows," replied the man. He handled his blade inexpertly, Bayard noted, but with enough confidence that he might get in a couple of lucky blows that would be painful if not disastrous should they fight.

The man himself was another matter entirely. Bayard had no wish to fight this hulking mound of flesh and sinew that could probably reach out and snap his neck with no trouble at all. However, he'd given Bayard some priceless information: there was more than the one.

If it hadn't been so dark, Bayard may have been able to tell much earlier that another attack was coming. As it was, he didn't realize until the man in front seemed to relax a little that one of those others was obviously coming up from behind.

He ducked. A silvery blur scythed overhead. But he wasn't quick enough to escape the next attack from the 'shadow' in front of him, which whirled forward and kicked him in the chest. Bayard flew back, but somersaulted and was on his feet in time to block the saber coming for him. The clang of steel on steel echoed along the empty hallway.

Should have listened to Felicity, he thought. Should have listened to Ranger. Did I? No, of course not... and haven't they always said my curiosity would be the death of me?

Blocking the next blow, Bayard pulled his saber back and turned from them, dodging around the corner. Immediately he skidded on a mixture of blood and soapy water, tripped over the prone body of the janitor who lay bleeding and most likely dead next to the tools of his trade. Working directly on instinct he kicked the bucket over, having no time to feel any revulsion or pity for the corpse. The frothy water spread quickly over the linoleum. Upon rounding the corner the thugs skidded, slipped, and slammed into the walls and floor, cussing loudly.

Allowing a brief smirk to pass his face, Bayard pushed himself upright, snatched up his now-bloodied saber and ran around the long way back to the stairs. "Felicity!" he yelled, and then gave a yelp of shock as she appeared right next to him.

"What happened to you?"

"No time, gotta go, janitor dead, being followed. Come on!" He grabbed his startled sister by the sleeve and pulled her up the stairs. Looking over his shoulder, he was astonished -- and not a little suspicious -- to find that the so-called shadows had not come after him.

They stopped then, and Felicity stepped back warily. "Bayard, you're all bloody..."

"Don't worry," he said absently, peering down to the halls below, "it isn't mine."

Still no one came. And now, above even the roaring gale, he could hear the unmistakable sound of sirens in the air -- too close, far too close. Felicity heard it too, and her eyes grew wide. He stalled her words with a raised hand. "You have the evidence, don't you?"

"O-of course, but Bayard, what happened?"

"Give me the folder."

For once, his sister didn't argue, handing it over quickly. Bayard wiped his hands on his damp clothing before opening one of the evidence packets, some kind of metallic pin or clip. He shook it into his hand, studying it carefully, then swore under his breath and dropped the pin to the floor.

"We've been set up, that's what happened," he said grimly, grinding his boot on the planted alarm. "It was a trap for the Brotherhood. And we played right into their hands." Motioning to the headset she held, he said, "Tuck that into your clothes. And take off your mask, I have an idea."

*****

He stood in the rain, the only one of them not wearing a raincoat or jacket of some sort. This was not because he felt himself stronger than everyone else. No, it was simply because, in his eagerness to get out there to the scene of the crime called in a bare ten minutes ago, he'd forgotten to wear one.

Now he was paying the price for that forgetfulness, he thought with a dry smile. He tried to ignore the icy rain as, arms folded, he stared up at the university.

Everything was pitch black -- this was mostly to do with it being a stormy night with no moon or stars out to give even a glimmer of light. But it was also to do with the way the walls and roof had all been painted black to keep the place at a warm but level temperature. It seemed empty, but the report was of at least one dangerous and armed individual on the premises.

Armed with a saber. That took little to no wondering about whom they were dealing with. And that meant this would be no ordinary case. The Brotherhood, though supposedly an ordered 'society' had of late been somewhat unstable in that order. It bothered him a little, but then, they were thieves...

He had practically begged to be sent out. The Captain argued forcefully against it, but eventually agreed -- with reluctance. But only after he'd assured the old man that nothing would get blown up in the process. After last week, his continued position on the force was dangling in the wind on a thin thread, and he was trying his best to tread carefully.

Unfortunately, even on tiptoe Lucus 'Luck' l'Orange managed to cause destruction. He looked a little guiltily back at the trashcans he'd creamed with his unorthodox parking methods...

"Sergeant?"

He snapped off a salute as he recognized the superior officer, but the show of respect was just that, a show. The lieutenant strode purposefully toward him, his trench coat gleaming with the rain sliding down it, spiky blonde-brown hair and tan feathers contrasting unpleasantly with his dark uniform. He eyed the broken bins with something between amusement and resignation. "I see you haven't changed."

"You have though, Mac."

Two years ago his long-time partner and best friend, Uthur MacQuacken -- known to Luck as Mac -- had received a promotion. Luck hadn't, but that had been okay, and he'd toasted Mac's continuing success. At the time he'd had no doubt at all that one day soon he'd be heading up the ladder as well.

But months went by, promotions never came, and he lost contact with Mac. The next time he saw his friend, Lieutenant MacQuacken was a cool man with a reserved sense of humor and no tolerance for the usual pranks that Mac had got up to -- and no tolerance for Luck.

Now this man shrugged lightly, and let the matter rest. "You know the situation, don't you?"

"An' I'd be here if I didn't, sir?" asked Luck, only mildly sarcastic.

"I'm surprised to see you at all," said MacQuacken dryly. "This isn't the type of case you're generally assigned to. You prefer the shoot-em-up scenario. This is a hostage situation, which requires caution. It... ain't your scene."

Luck's mouth twitched in irritation. "Wit' all due respect, sir, the Captain put me on this job an' I intend to do it." He dropped any hint of formality; it was beginning to ache on his tongue. "Now what the hell d'ya mean, 'hostage situation'? Reports said nothin' about that. Some joker armed wit' a saber, that's what I heard."

Was it just his imagination, or did the Lieutenant look smug? "That 'joker' has a young woman hostage, possibly a late-working student. And there are two men dead on the ground floor, the janitor and another man we've yet to confirm the identity of."

"Do we know who he is? The thief?"

"Brotherhood." And MacQuacken shrugged as if that was all that mattered.

It wasn't, to Luck, but he bit his tongue on that one. It would not look good on report that twice in the last year he'd been fraternizing with the enemy.

But the Brotherhood was so big on honor. Killing was against the rules, he knew that much. Then again, he thought sourly, having such close blood ties to the Blade might be warping his judgement, no matter what he might outwardly say about his uncle and cousins. Thieves are as thieves be, live by the sword an' rot in prison. They've all made their own beds.

And yet he found himself fervently hoping it wasn't any of them in there...

"--So your... natural talents... might be of some use to us after all."

Luck tried to sound as if he'd actually been listening. "Mm-hm. How?"

"A raid group would draw attention where one man may be able to slip inside. The Brotherhood man can't be looking in more than one direction at once, so we'll need to keep his eyes forward, while our man gets in and either overpowers the thief, rescues the hostage, or both."

"Which job do I get?"

"You go in."

Now that was more like it! Finally something to do. Plus, as a bonus, it would get him out of the rain -- and yet, wondered Luck, why did the plan seem far too simple for something needed to be treated so 'cautiously'?

He looked up speculatively, as if searching the higher windows of the university, but in reality he was watching MacQuacken from the corner of his eye. The man's expression was its usual implacable mask, but there was something in his stance that was expectant and tense, as if this was a decision that would change the world.

Or maybe it was all in his imagination. "I'll do it."

MacQuacken smiled, and for a moment he looked more like the man Luck used to know. "I never doubted you for a moment, Lucus."

"Keep 'em off me, pal," he said, studying his old friend's reaction.

There was actually a faint wince, and that hurt more than any disapproving reprimands that this 'Lieutenant MacQuacken' personage had ever given him. "We'll do what we can," said MacQuacken, and with that the man turned on his heels and marched away.

Lucus hung around his car for a while before heading at a walk down the street, where he became lost to the rest of his fellow police in the pool of shadows. The alley he had vanished into was narrower than usual, and he could touch both walls without fully extending his arms.

Perfect, he thought.

Springing up, Lucus slammed both hands and feet against the walls and began to climb, inch by inch. It was a slow and rather painful process, the rough brick scraping at his palms, and by the time he pulled himself onto the roof the muscles of his limbs were screaming with complaints. He took a few moments time out to massage some life back into them.

A decorative skylight shaped like some kind of extensive glasshouse protected him from the view of anyone watching out of the southern university windows. Peering around it, he noted that there was quite a distance between this roof and that of the ancient and unused dorms, set above the university and now mainly used for storage. A distance, yes, but it was not an unconquerable distance.

He stood up, judged the gap more thoroughly, and walked back to the other side of the roof. It was a running jump, and the world seemed to temporarily change to slow-motion as he dove through the air, before he landed on the slick-wet sloping roof and fell flat against it. Almost immediately he started sliding down again.

Bloody hell, bloody hell, bloody she-yittin' hell...! Luck dug his fingers into the cracks around the ridged tiles, and his fall halted. Gritting his teeth, he began another slow and painful climb, pulling his weight over and up the roof to a flatter section, once used as an observation platform. Although what the students would have been observing he had no idea. Some nights the air pollution was so thick you could hardly see the two moons, let alone the stars.

The platform had a door leading to it from the dormitory halls, and he headed for it as soon as he was back on relatively firm ground. It was, of course, locked. Resting one hand on the handle, he groped through his pockets for a piece of non-standard-issue equipment he'd learned to appreciate over the last year: lockpicks.

He smiled wryly, knowing his colleagues back at the station would be shocked to learn that, every once in a while, Lucus l'Orange employed subtlety in gaining entry to a suspect residence...

The door, once opened, swung back on its hinges with a soft but plaintive squeak. It revealed a flight of dusty stairs going down to the dormitories, and no light whatsoever, so as soon as he'd stepped inside and closed the door behind him, he was plunged into thick and choking blackness.

It was quiet. Finally Luck realized that the thunder, the lightning, and the typhonic winds had stopped a while back, which left only the nearly imperceptible patter of rain to be heard.

The stairs were old but did not groan as he walked down; neither did the hall they led to. In the dark he stumbled, bumping against an empty cardboard box left in the middle of the corridor. Silently he cursed it, and moved on more carefully, feeling his way forward. He was so engrossed with trying not to make a sound that he didn't notice the soft murmur of voices until he was almost on top of them.

He stood at the top of a flight of stairs that twined down to the level below, and then on again to the level below that, probably continuing the entire way to the ground floor. There was a room just in front of him, where those voices were coming from. He couldn't make out the words, but one of the voices was distinctly feminine.

Okay, we have one girl, he thought, either the hostage or a thief. And at least one guy. Possibly a third person, too. Now there's a scenario. "Three against one," he said in a quiet whisper, checking his gun out of habit. "With that one being me, it's fair enough kinda odds, eh?"

This was usually the time that Mac would give some quip about his ego problem and Luck would roll his eyes and they'd both go an' bust the baddies -- together. But 'Mac', as his friend and colleague, was dead. For the first time in his life, Lucus felt acutely alone.

Nevertheless, he pushed it aside, and crept in closer. There was a double-paned glass window next to the door, but it was dark beyond and he could see nothing. A window opposite faced the western front of the university, and he could imagine the hostage-takers keeping a close eye on the police out there, waiting for the demands to be called.

Luck considered his options of entrance, but since he had promised to leave the place intact, he opened the door silently and slipped inside. Immediately he knew that he had been duped; one of the voices was speaking Franzian. It was a recorded tape.

Which meant someone was waiting for him...

He whirled around, but the hallway behind was empty. And that was when someone tapped him on the shoulder from inside the room. "Don't make any sudden movements, please."

Please? Luck felt that a little ludicrous coming from a double-murderer. In any case he lowered his gun... for about, oh, five seconds. Spinning around he ducked and kicked out, catching the thief a heavy blow to the leg that knocked him to the floor. Lucus immediately jabbed his gun into the man's chest and clicked the safety off.

"I'm Lucus l'Orange of the Keltor City Police," he said, "an' you are under arrest. Ya can come quietly or we'll make some noise about it, but either way, pal, you're screwed."

"Luck..." said the thief thoughtfully. "Hah, I'd hoped it would be you. Then again, of course it would be you. It couldn't have happened any other way."

This caught him off-balance, especially as he realized the voice was familiar. He stood up slowly, keeping his gun trained on the man's chest. "Who are you?"

"Bayard Stormwing."

Awww... damn it. The voice certainly was familiar. Bayard and his younger brother Ranger were the two thieves he'd worked with about ten months ago. "What the hell are ya doin' here?"

"Retrieving false information."

"There are two men dead."

"They killed the janitor. I didn't know about anyone else."

"You have a hostage."

"Of a sort."

"You're a thief."

"I know."

"Who's 'they'?"

"The New Enforcers."

There was a sickly and metallic smell in the air, one that Luck was all too familiar with. His arm, which had begun to drop, rose up again. "You've blood on you."

"I fell on a dead body."

"Unpleasant. An' convenient."

"Look," said Bayard impatiently, "what do you expect me to say? I haven't done anything. The Brotherhood is being framed for crimes that none of its members have committed! Please, at least help me get my sister out."

He frowned. Sister...? Oh, of course. The 'hostage'. Tricky, Stormwing, very tricky. "You're both thieves, kid, possibly murderers. If there's blood on you, there's blood on her as well, even if it's only in the metaphorical sense. Ain't in my nature ta let ya go."

"I'm not asking for me," was the quiet reply. "I'm only asking for her. I saved your life once, if you remember. You owe it to me. A life for a life, Luck. Help my sister."

Lucus hissed a sigh between his teeth. Caught, like a rabbit in a snare. A part of him was yelling frantically: don't do this! You can't give in! He's a criminal! You don't owe him anything, whether he helped you or not!

But he remembered all too well the feeling of hanging from that shattered window of a Metropolis skyscraper, about a thousand feet up in the air. Seeing Bayard lean out at the risk of his own life to pull back to safety a man who, by definition of his job, should have been his mortal enemy...

His expression puzzled, Luck turned to face his rescuer. Bayard was kneeling beside the prone body of Raymond Ringtail, MP -- the last person Luck would ever have picked to be dressed in traditional Enforcer uniform. Yet there the guy was; and packing strength enough under that armor to toss him through the window, too.

If nothing else, this proved that there really was a resurgence. He had no reason to doubt the thief's word. And now...

"Ya saved my life, why? I ain't exactly on your side."

"Well, no, you're not. He's still alive, by the way," the man added, patting the unconscious Enforcer on the back. "I'll make a call to the cops, get them to pick him up."

Luck smirked. "Why not toss him outta the window?" he asked.

He'd only been joking, but Bayard looked at him in shock, so the joke had obviously not been appreciated. "The Brotherhood doesn't kill unless it's necessary. It isn't now. I hope it won't ever be. As for why I saved you, well, you didn't deserve to die. And like it or not, while we may not be on the same side, we do have the same goal right now. Stop the Enforcers."

"True enough." Retrieving his gun from the far side of the room, Luck shoved it back into the holster at his hip and scanned the desk. "Guess we better start findin' what we came here to get, right? Ringtail there's gonna be sleepin' for a while."

Bayard stood, brushing down his clothes, and limped up to the desk. He put a hand on Luck's shoulder. "You owe me one now, though," the thief said. Luck looked up sharply. "It's not a question of this-for-that, l'Orange. It's a question of honor."

"All right, okay, I owe you." Luck shrugged off his hand. "Now let's get on with this..."

"I know you remember."

The man who'd saved his life -- and who may have taken others' -- was watching him, waiting for an answer. Luck continued to fight with himself for a few more moments, before finally dropping his arm with a sigh. "Yeah," he said, feeling strangely tired. "Yeah, I owe ya one."

*****

Time was ticking on. For the ninth time in the last two minutes, Lieutenant MacQuacken looked irritably at his watch. There had been no signal as yet, and he was becoming impatient. What the hell was l'Orange doing in there? Playing a game of Glacier with the damn thief?

If he took much more time, then the Lieutenant would be forced to assume the man had been unsuccessful and send an unbacked patrol in, a dangerous and risky move on his part. Lucus was expendable. The elite forces were not.

But there was something happening now, he could see it. Movement behind the windows of the ground floor. The great double doors of the university entrance rocking slightly. Around him, the sound of thirty-six guns cocking filled the air, as the doors opened, and the thief came out, holding tightly to a frightened and weeping young woman, a saber pressed under her chin. He was tall and solid of build, a half-caste Nijhro with the blue hair that immediately marked him as one of the Stormwing clan.

Lucus appeared after them, gun trained, but keeping back by ten feet. "He wants safe passage or he'll kill the girl!" the man yelled.

"If I see anyone looking trigger-happy," the thief said, "I'll cut her throat. Now back off!"

MacQuacken almost swore out loud. This wasn't what he'd wanted. Lucus had not been sent in to bring them down, only to hold the thief while a team came in to take him off his hands. What with this and the hostage woman, it could not have happened worse.

He reluctantly signaled for his force to lower their weapons, but stood half turned away from them, one hand reaching for the revolver concealed beneath his coat as he watched, with obvious frustration, the thief slinking out from their grasp. He couldn't let him escape. Too much had been placed on this arrest. And so he drew his gun, aimed, and--

"Mac, no...!"

--fired. The thief dodged. The shot went wide. The nearest six members of MacQuacken's force ran forward. In the midst of the ensuing chaos, the hostage was released, and she skittered away up the road to the close intersection, where she hesitated, looking back.

Without much of a struggle, the thief was grabbed and roughly slapped in handcuffs. Another of the men slowly approached the hostage, speaking quietly and soothingly. But she kept back, her hand moving down to a covered, metallic object at the side of her dress that no one had noticed before.

"Felicity! Run!"

MacQuacken jerked his attention back to the thief, staring at him in surprise, then growing horror. Something had just gone very wrong...

"Run!" yelled Stormwing. And run the young girl did: slipping under the arms of the cop attempting to catch her she sprinted down the street, disappearing quickly into the night.

"She's one of the thieves!" MacQuacken yelled. "Shoot her, damn it, shoot her!"

A few shots were fired, but none of them caught her, and she was soon lost. Furious -- with himself, with his men, with the thieves and most of all with Lucus for ruining everything -- he turned and dented the nearest car door with a vicious kick of his steel-toed boots.

Luck watched this display of fury with a strange kind of detachment, and glanced to where Bayard was being shoved into one of the other cars, his head 'accidentally' banging against the rim of the door twice before he was finally pushed in headfirst and strapped down. His gaze moved up to the street, where Bayard's sister Felicity had gone.

It hadn't been planned that way, but she was safe now. His thoughts were elsewhere. Mac... how could ya've done that? If she'd been a real hostage, and him a common thug, she'd have been dead as soon as ya fired. He'd have dodged whether I warned him or not...

Warned him? Yes, in a way, he had tried to warn Bayard, even though it was unnecessary. That was an unsettling realization, and he turned his mind from it quickly.

There was a car coming from the opposite direction. He focussed on it. A dark blue Cadillac with smoked glass windows and a retractable roof, the driver's window rolled down, a slender arm resting on the top of the door. There was a gasp from MacQuacken's direction, and a sudden pouring forth of orders -- stand to attention, and the like. Whoever this was, she was important.

The car stopped just a little way ahead of him, and MacQuacken pushed past to open the door for the woman. She was pale and petite, a spine tingling-ly beautiful Cardakian woman in standard police uniform, perhaps two or three years older than himself, with a bouffant of wavy pink hair. Slim, but possessing a coiled strength about her that left him in no doubt that she was dangerous -- in more ways, he thought, glancing at the look on his one-time friend's face, than one.

He was being ignored for the moment, as the two talked in hushed voices. The wind was blowing toward them and he could only make out a few words here and there, but from what he could hear and from their expressions as they spoke, it was serious. The woman was angry, and Mac was attempting to calm her down by being reasonable -- in itself strange, since he hadn't been acting all that reasonable just a moment ago. As nonchalantly as he could, Luck wandered closer. Eavesdropping was a very bad habit, but it was one of his few, and he liked to indulge in it whenever he could.

"...not acceptable."

"I understand, ma'am." There was something new in MacQuacken's eyes, a fanatic light that was akin to absolute worship, and Luck felt oddly ill at the sight of it.

"The bodies have been discovered?" the woman demanded.

"Yes, ma'am. The second has not been officially identified as yet, but we're progressing well."

Not officially identified? Luck frowned. So he's made some guesses, or what? Geeze, Mac, ya keep too many secrets these days...

"And our fallen thief?" She looked suddenly interested. "He was Stormwing?"

"Yes."

"Which?"

"The elder son, ma'am."

Her interest faded. "Oh." A shrug, and a brushing-off flip of her hand. "Well, you know what to do with him. And this time," she added, her eyes narrowing, "try not to let him get away."

"Yes, ma'am, I'll make sure of it."

Who is she? Luck wondered, staring hard at the woman's back. She had no rank, no pips or stripes on her uniform that he could see but had the bearing of a captain or higher... someone with power and the willingness to use it.

As if she could feel his gaze, she turned around and smiled at him. He'd never seen such a smile before -- thin with no warmth at all and a cruelty, like tiny needles of ice, at the edges. Dropping his gaze, he read the name attached to her badge: Oriel Ino'Kauo. Why is that so familiar? Never seen her before, but Mac's fawnin' over her like a puppy to its mother... or a man to his lover? He looked up again thoughtfully.

Perhaps it was a jump to conclusions, but he was almost certain that this woman was the cause of the changes in his old friend. It wasn't the only reason he took an immediate dislike to her; that smile, and her eyes, and the way she spoke were predatory, and they told him to run, run, run, let me hunt you, catch you, kill you...

He wrenched his gaze away from hers, became aware that he was shivering and tried to stop. Well, he thought, heading a little too quickly back to his car, this job was over and done with. Oh, he'd probably be called to testify, but really this was the end. Back to his desk for another month before he'd be 'allowed' out on the streets once more...

An' ya let one of 'em go. Ya helped a criminal. That makes you as bad as they are.

He could be tellin' the truth.

Then what? You'll testify against him -- lie under oath, what's more, about how he escaped -- always doubtin'? But he ain't gettin' outta this even if you don't. Whatever lawyers he can cook up are gonna be bought by the prosecutors in a blink. He's goin' to the chair.

That thought gave him pause. When Luck had first "met" Bayard, admittedly under rather strained circumstances and almost a year ago, he'd seemed a nice enough guy -- for a thief. It seemed crazy that this man, who'd gone to such great lengths not to let harm come to anyone, friend or foe, could have killed in cold blood.

But it was not his problem. And neither, for that matter, was Oriel Ino'Kauo. Glancing briefly back at the crowd, Luck suppressed another instinctive shudder. Whatever her relationship with Mac was, he decided then that he would do his best never to cross paths with that woman, or the lieutenant, again.

*****

Ranger was angry -- more than that, he was thoroughly raging furious. On top of this, he was also worried as all hell. But he was good enough at not showing certain emotions that he managed to carry off an at least semi-casual look as he sat just slightly outside of the ring of people discussing his brother's fate. However, his patience and his self-control were rapidly deteriorating as time flowed on.

The decision was looking to be bad. No one was to attempt a rescue yet.

This infuriated him, even though he couldn't fault Kel and the Loremaster's reasoning. It was the Enforcers, after all, who guarded his elder brother in a high-security prison somewhere in the city of duCaine Metropolis. He was inaccessible for the moment.

But their reasoning did nothing to help Bayard. Effectively, it damned him. "I told you, I'm not just going to sit back and watch my brother rot in prison!"

"We can't risk a rescue now, Ranger," said Kel with a sigh. He'd already been over this about a half dozen times in the last thirty minutes, so his tiredness was understandable.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know," Ranger replied irritably. "The Enforcers an' whatnot. But... damn it!" He jumped to his feet and started pacing, forgetting, for the moment, the five others in the room. The only ones who mattered right now were Kel and Milantha. As Leader and Loremaster, they were the final decision-makers here. "I'm tellin' you, there's gotta be another way than just waiting around 'til a better time when he's unguarded! Don't you get it? There isn't going to be a 'better time'. Once the trial's underway, Bayard's gonna be watched like the crown jewels of Gacia, twenty-four seven. You won't get a team within shoutin' distance of him!"

The Loremaster's fingers were steepled, tapping against her desk. The Council meeting had taken place, as usual, in the Hall of Archives. It was the only room in the Lair that offered the space and privacy needed for such meetings. Only half of the Council was currently present: Kel duCaine, Milantha, Leila and Duke l'Orange, and Ender McMallard. Koran, the Loremaster's apprentice and now jokingly referred to as 'the librarian', played as a part of his training the role of witness and scribe to the proceedings. In addition to this Felicity and himself were there as speakers -- although Ranger had not actually been invited, had merely come along with his sister, a fact that Milantha now pointed out. "Ranger, if you don't sit down I will have to ask you to leave... a courtesy only, mind you, since we could have your unasked for presence removed at any time with or without your consent."

Ranger glared for a moment, but sat down again without comment. It was really stupid to be angry at her, he knew that; this wasn't her fault. If he had to lay the blame on anyone he should lay it thick on the Enforcers, but they were too far out of his reach.

"Kid's got a point though," said Duke, and Ranger hid a smile. Of all those on the Council, Duke was the one he'd counted on from the start to give him a sympathetic ear. "Havin' had a certain amount a' experience in this particular area," the man continued sardonically, "I'd say that waitin' around for a safer chance is only gonna put Bayard in a risky position himself. An', knowin' as we all do the idea of Enforcer justice, I think we can figure out for ourselves what the sentence a' any trial's gonna be..."

"Death," said Felicity, her voice a whisper. Duke put a hand on her shoulder.

Leila was nodding slowly. "An' a' course, they'd carry out that sentence soon as possible."

Astonishingly enough, it was Ender who spoke up next. Despite having been a member of the Council for a number of years now, he still rarely offered opinions unless someone asked him directly. "I don't think," he said quietly, "that Bayard would be killed right after they pronounce him guilty; not there, in the courtroom. We'd have at least a window of... maybe a couple of hours as he's being transferred to Death Row when security will be at its lightest. It still won't be easy, but the percentage of success would be much higher."

The rest of the Council all nodded, mouthing various agreements. Even Felicity seemed a little cheered. But Ranger, forgetting Milantha's warning, shot to his feet again. "Listen to you guys! No matter that you're all talkin' about rescuing him, you're takin' for granted that he's guilty!"

"Boy," snapped Kel, "you've already been asked once, sit down." This time Ranger didn't, but the steel-haired man continued as if he had. "Of course we don't believe that Bayard's guilty, but the fact remains that whatever we believe will not rate particularly high with any lawyer. And the New Enforcers will buy out any that might show an inkling of sympathy. Bayard will be judged guilty as soon as he sets foot in the courtroom. There is nothing we can do in that respect."

Ranger had gone very quiet, and was staring at Kel as if the man was a total stranger. "You're wrong, Kel. There are a lot of things we can do."

Milantha sighed. "Ranger," she began warningly.

"No need, Loremaster," he said, turning his back on them, "I'm on my way out anyway."

It was impossible to slam the Archives door, as it opened and closed automatically. But for just a moment, as it whirred shut behind him, Ranger really wished he could have rocked the walls. As it was, he left quietly for his own room. He needed a place to think.

He wasn't particularly surprised to hear, not long after he'd reached the stairs, the sound of footsteps running after him. "Ranger, wait!" called Felicity. Ranger stopped, but didn't turn around until she'd reached him. "Please," she said, touching his arm, "don't be angry at them."

The relationship he'd had with his sister had until the last few years been tense to say the least, and there had been a time when she wouldn't come within ten feet of him, let alone touch him. Now, as if to make up for lost time, they were as close as siblings could be; he even babysat her toddler son at times when she and Kai needed some time alone together. It had certainly been a long but welcome step.

He shrugged a little. "I'm not angry at them... well, okay, I am sort of. I'm angry that they don't seem to be doin' anything to help him now. They know the Enforcers as well as I do... hell, they should know 'em better! Bayard might not even live to see his trial. An' if he does, if he's pronounced guilty an' we can't get to him like Ender suggested..."

"I'm worried about him too, you know, and so are mother and father... it isn't only you!" She sighed, running a hand through the bangs of her hair. "Listen, brother, come back with me for a while. Kai won't mind having you there, and Meka will be glad to see you."

"I'd like to, Felice, but..." Ranger shook his head, and slapped his hand against the stones. "Gods, I hate not bein' able to do anything! Dad was condemned for over a decade 'til everyone finally got the truth about the Enforcers, now they come back with some kind of smear campaign and Bayard probably ain't got a fortnight, forget a decade!"

"He'll come through all right."

"You really believe that?"

She stared at him, then looked away. "I had nightmares last night about Bayard sitting in some dark and horrid cell, with all these laughing shadows around him. And then the laughter turned to anger and people were pointing and screaming and cursing at him... Ranger, I worry for him so much, and I'd do anything to see him out of there right this instant, give up my own life if needs be. But I can't, there's nothing I can do except wait, and hope that some miracle will save him."

Ranger was staring along the hallway, back toward the Archive Hall, his expression distant. He seemed to be watching a replay of some old memory or another. "I've never really been one to believe in miracles," he said slowly. "I prefer to make my own."

"What are you talking about?"

But he was already moving quickly up the stairs, leaving her behind. He stopped halfway, turned, and motioned for her to follow. "Felice, I'm gonna need your help with this one. And... Let's see... Tasmin, Liam and Jason, I know I can count on them as well. Well? Come on, we gotta move fast! We've already wasted an entire mornin'!"

*****

Somewhere in the distant world of the city above, it was mid-afternoon. Bayard could tell this, not by any sign from a window, for there were none in this underground jail, but by the clock set in the wall of his cell. It was perhaps the only furnishing in the cell worth looking at; there was a moth-eaten and soiled mattress in one corner, a hand-basin where the water ran brown and the taps and inside of the sink were rusty, and a chair that was all but falling apart.

Bayard had simply lain down on the hard, cold floor rather than chance the 'bed' left for him. It was not very comfortable, but it was better than sleeping on something which, by the sight and smell of it, had often been used as a lavatory as well as a bed.

He knew it was designed to be like this. This was, after all, an old Enforcer-run prison. The New Enforcers had apparently taken over the establishment and fixed all its discomforts up to their usual minus-five-star standard. It gave the impression of being a run down sort of place, but it was really very secure. A tiny camera in the corner monitored everything that happened, and should he touch the rusty bars of the cell he would get an electric shock of enough voltage to throw him to the other side of the room.

He'd found that out the hard way.

The other security measure was the warden: a large fellow, seemingly composed of a melding of iron and muscle with pale and patchy-bald skin stretched taut over this solid block. Not very bright, Bayard had discovered, but intelligence didn't matter too much when you could simply rip the arms and legs off anyone who tried to pick a fight.

Sitting there, his back against the wall, Bayard stared through the bars, down the long hallway where numerous, identical cells were set in the dismal concrete walls, toward the enormous door at the farthest end. There hadn't been movement there for some hours, not since his meager breakfast of bread and (slightly sour) milk had been delivered. He was growing bored... and, he had to admit, a little bit frantic. There had been mentions of a trial, but he had to wonder whether he'd be interrogated in the usual Enforcer-style, forced to plead guilty to something he never did.

But -- they had said two men?

He'd known about the janitor, the poor bastard, but there was another they were treating as more serious. A doctor, whose name he hadn't caught. He'd been a little preoccupied at the time; drugged into near-insensibility by the Enforcers as his 'crimes' were read out he barely had enough awareness of what was happening to plead innocence. Actually, he'd done so numerous times, until finally they had to drag him out of the room so that the rest could be read out in peace. That had been late last night, before he'd been thrown into this pit of despair...

Sighing, he shifted position; he was beginning to get a stitch in his side.

A clank came from the door and he sat abruptly upright, staring again down the hall. Was this it, then? He rose to his feet nervously, hand automatically reaching back for the hilt of his saber, before he remembered that it had been confiscated almost as soon as he'd been shoved into the police car. There were a lot of quiet voices outside, but he couldn't make any of them out, although one was definitely the warden. For such a big man he had the most ridiculously whining voice.

The doors opened slowly and reluctantly, and the warden thundered into the room. His footsteps echoed like cannon shots. The next person into the room was a taller, leaner young man of around Bayard's age, possibly a couple of years his junior, although he carried himself as if he'd been around and seen a lot. With slick dark hair, fairly long and tied into a neat 'tail at the back, and silver feathers, he could have been any half-caste Nijhro; he was, however, dressed in a smart black and gray outfit that while not a suit still gave him a businessman-like appearance.

Facially, however, he was incredibly familiar, although Bayard couldn't quite place him at first. It was a thin face, currently set in a strong expression of horror and disgust.

"What the hell is this?" the man demanded. "I wouldn't keep a rabid canid in such a place!"

"Ain't after havin' visitors much, Mr Martel," whined the gaoler.

The man -- Martel -- whirled on him furiously. "I will not have my client jailed in such conditions. It's against every clause in the Avian Rights Act! And if you don't believe me, I'll quote them all to you until your miniscule brain understands."

Bayard held his breath. Whoever the guy was, he was pushing his luck; the warden had gone purple in the face. Surprisingly, however, he made no violent move, only nodding curtly. What was that the man said? His 'client'? This was his lawyer then. Well, thought Bayard wryly, his charitable attitude was bound to change as soon as the New Enforcers got his price.

And still there was something about him...

Finally the lawyer turned and looked at Bayard directly, and he found out that the phrase 'heart leaping to your throat' wasn't just exaggeration. His heart not only leapt; it did back-flips along the way. Oh, dear Drake, no. No, no, no... what are you doing here?? He wanted to scream it out loud, but that would just make the warden suspicious, and if that didn't kill the kid he'd at the very least end up in a cell too.

"As soon as I'm finished here," 'Martel' said, in perfectly accented Ingallish -- something that he had never been able or bothered enough to manage before, "I will order an immediate transferal to Weststation Six. They at least keep their inmates clean and fed."

"We feed'd 'im."

"Oh, I'm sure you did. Wormbait, in all probability."

The warden gave a sour grunt as he stopped at Bayard's cell and de-electrified the bars. "Youse gots a visitor," he said, in his grating nasal voice. To the other he added, "Five minutes max. An' youse gots a camera on ya the whole time, sos no funny stuffs."

"Do you expect me to be smuggling in a large file," asked 'Martel', looking amused, "or perhaps a pound of plastic explosive to arrange some kind of prison escape? Be realistic, old boy; if I did that I'd be out of a job, wouldn't I?"

Another grunt was all the answer he got.

"Of course, I'd prefer it if you at least removed your aromatic presence to the other end of the room, or even better entirely outside of it. Company policy, of course. I wouldn't dream of insinuating that you smell worse than these filthy cells. The camera's silent, I take it?" he added, before the warden could latch onto the fact that he'd been insulted again.

A muttered affirmative.

"Capital. Don't worry," he continued, "if things become rough, I can always scream for help."

There was a screeching sound as the warden unlocked and opened the door, and let in Bayard's visitor. It was him, and now that Bayard could see him more clearly he noticed that the deep navy hair had been dyed jet-black, and where a sapphire jewel usually sat through his beak, the young man had seamlessly patched over the hole. A bit of makeup had been applied to change the usual deep shadows around his eyes, but the eyes themselves remained the same as always: a constantly changing shade of blue-green that right now had an added gleam of mischief in them.

The door slammed shut again just as soon as the man was through, and they waited until the footsteps died away before speaking.

"The camera isn't silent," Bayard said quickly.

"Of course not," said Ranger. "They'd be fools not to have audio on these cameras. Otherwise, who knows what people might get away with?" He looked around for a chair, spotted the single one in the corner, and decided against it. Shrugging, he stepped forward with his hand out. "I'm James Martel, your barrister."

Bayard shook the offered hand. "I'm Bayard Stormwing, your innocent client."

"That's my firm's belief." Or had he said 'my firm belief'? "Since I've only a few minutes here, I'll be uncharacteristically blunt. Responding to your plea of innocence in regard to the murders of Doctor Theodore Anastare, age forty-three, and janitor Carson Keyne, age sixty-eight, the firm I represent has decided to take on your case."

"I... well... thank you," he stammered awkwardly, doing a rather bad job of hiding his surprise. So far as he knew, Ranger had approximately zero lawyering experience; though he did have a lot of experience in talking his way out of trouble.

"No need. I just have one question to ask." Ranger leaned forward, completely serious. "Did you kill either of those men?"

"No. I did not."

"Are you certain of that? Not even by accident?"

"I swear to you, Mr Martel, I never put my blade to anyone. I will admit guilty to burglary, but I refuse to say that I'm guilty of something I know I didn't do."

"Then that's all I need to know for now." Ranger tucked his hands behind his back, watching him thoughtfully. "I believe you," he said quietly, "and I'll do my best to make sure that your sentence is a just one." A quick flash of a smile. "For a small and negotiable fee, of course."

"Of course," said Bayard dryly. You had better be joking, brother-mine, or you're going to be sorely disappointed. I know what your 'small and negotiable' fees are like.

There were so many things he wanted to ask -- was this what the Council had decided? Bayard somehow doubted it. This had his brother's signature all over it and none other. Then more personal questions, such as how was his family taking it? Were they okay? Did Felicity escape unharmed? And how was Tasmin?

Circumstances, however, only let him ask one. "You think you can do this?"

"They've got a pretty solid case," 'Martel' admitted, "but I'm confident that myself and certain others may be able to weaken it in some pretty vital points. However," he added, glancing at a watch on his wrist, "I believe my few minutes are almost up. I'll schedule more time from the authorities to get a full interview from you in the near future. As soon," and his voice gained an edge, "as you have been moved to more sanitary surroundings."

Bayard smiled slightly. "Thanks."

"As I said, no need." After spending a brief moment straightening his suit, he turned and knocked crisply on the jail door. Predictably, the warden arrived within a few seconds. "My business here is concluded for now, old boy, if you could let me out of here. Oh, and one other thing," Ranger added as the door opened for him. "If by some chance the men sent here to transfer my client somehow get lost or can not find him, then I shall be very... upset."

For just a moment, and without any obvious outer sign, Ranger looked quite able and ready to rip the limbs off the warden, and the big man shrank back. He was a bully, and like most bullies was weak at the heart of it. "Yes yes, I'll bring 'im to 'em myself," he whined ingratiatingly. "Youse no worries."

"I appreciate your readiness to help your fellow man," said Ranger, with only a trace of sarcasm.

*****

The car waiting around the corner and a hundred meters back from the prison was thoroughly nondescript. It was of a common make with an uninteresting shape, dull gray rather than black or red, as those colors tended to stick in the mind and were often useless for inconspicuous casing. The license plates were attached, but so smudged with grime that it would not be difficult to get entirely the wrong registration number from all but a close scrutiny.

Sitting in the driver's seat, tapping her hand in time to the low bass beat of a CD, Tasmin waited anxiously. It had been a little over twenty minutes since Ranger had walked in, but although he'd said to give him half an hour before assuming something had gone wrong, she worried anyway. And she worried sick about her fiancé.

Bayard had only proposed to her last week. It had certainly taken him long enough, she thought with a sly grin. But that grin faded as she remembered the situation they were in: it may be that she'd never see him again, and that thought would have made her cry, if she hadn't already used up all her tears in private.

Movement at the gates caught her attention, and she looked up to see Ranger coming out of the prison. She watched as he paused to slip on some shades, before heading down the road in the direction of their car at a deceptively casual pace.

She managed to curb her concern and curiosity until he was seated in the car beside her. "Well, how is he?" she asked. "What'd ya find out? What's gonna happen?"

"Just a moment, I have to make the call."

His reluctance to talk only heightened her concern, but she bit her tongue and waited -- more waiting! -- while he pulled out his cellphone and dialed an unfamiliar number. She knew what he was about to do, of course; it was all part of the plan, and a particularly vital one as well. It was still frustrating.

Ranger talked for quite a few minutes, most of it spent persuading these people of who he was, that his firm was legitimate. Seeing as it had taken Tasmin almost five hours straight to create the barrister firm 'Draken and Martel' and all its requirements, finances, clientele -- indeed make the entire business up from scratch, not to mention create a citizen profile for James Martel -- she hoped it was worth it.

Apparently it was. Ranger hit the 'end call' button with a thankful sigh. "That's done. Bayard's going to be transferred within a couple of hours. I actually had to threaten legal action against those idiots before they got the picture. Oh, they believed me all right, and absolutely after they looked me up. You've apparently made me a very interesting personage."

"Yer still speakin' like the guy," grumbled Tasmin.

"Oh, sorry." He sat back, rubbing his jaw reflectively. "Bayard's fine. They've got him in an Enforcer porcine-sty and ain't been treatin' him too well, so I guess we made our entrance at the right time. He'll be gettin' more comfortable surroundin's soon enough."

She leaned on the steering wheel, looking at him sideways. "So ya got in wit'out any trouble?"

"There was a bit of a problem at first... damn near killed me. No, not them," he said quickly as her expression became alarmed, "the waitin', while they processed my ID. I got full trust in yer abilities, babe, but it was still kinda nerve-wracking."

Tasmin made a brief noise of agreement, and started the car. "There's no goin' back now, is there." She sounded satisfied, but there were still butterflies dancing the rumba in her stomach.

"Never was, Tas. Never was."

*****

It had taken over the usual hour to return to Keltor because some roadwork had started on the highway, creating a traffic jam, which delayed them for a further forty minutes. Having spent some hours the previous night to put this and the following two days into a very tight schedule, Ranger was understandably annoyed.

But, as Tasmin had said, this was no reason why he should have taken over the wheel and driven through all the neon orange cones. "We're gonna have ta get another car now," she muttered. "Those guys back there were screamin' blue murder an' callin' the cops on us."

"Won't matter," he disagreed. "We'll have to change it anyway. No lawyer worth his expenses would be caught dead in something like this. I'll use my own car."

This had surprised her. Although Ranger was the owner of a beautiful classic ivory BMW, he rarely ever drove it, preferring instead the more maneuverable and modern motorcycle. But over the years he had, with Tasmin's considerable assistance, made a number of additions to his prized car, including bulletproof glass, remote control driving, a machine gun in the trunk, and something he evasively referred to as a 'firewall'.

"Y'know," she had said suddenly, "I'm surprised ya didn't call yerself James Bond."

"Nah, that's my dad's title, not mine."

"Ya seem ta be doin' a good job a' impersonatin' it."

That was then, and this was now, as they drove down a grimy street in Keltor -- generally speaking, all the streets were grimy, but this was one of the worst -- and turned into a run-down shed sitting just off the side of the road. The door rolled open as they approached, and so did the floor, revealing a ramp heading down into the darkness of the Brotherhood's garage.

Few other people were in the garage at the time, and none spared the pair more than a brief glance. Despite this, neither spoke until they had parked the car, given up the keys, and were in the Lair and out of anyone's immediate earshot. "Well, now what?" asked Tasmin.

Ranger made a face, reaching back to pull the tie from his hair. He shook it out again and shoved the tie into a pocket. "Now? I gotta stand in front of Kel an' tell him I disobeyed his orders... yet again." He gave her a reassuring smile. "But don't worry, I'm sure he won't kill me too bad."

He'd taken for granted that Kel would be in his usual place in his office, at his desk with head bowed over the latest sheath of paperwork needed doing. That had always been the most likely place to find him, since Kel seemed to feel more at ease with his office than with his family. Ranger had not expected the man to be sitting in conference with the Loremaster and Leila, and so when he barged in without knocking it took a moment or two for Ranger to realize that the Leader of the Brotherhood wasn't alone.

By that time he was already speaking. "Yo, Kel, I need to... oh."

The group looked up at him with one collective frown, but Kel's gave way to a lopsided smile. "If I may judge by the speed of your entry and your unusual mode of dress, I take it that you're not here for a little extra tuition."

"Uh, no." Ranger glanced at the others. Although their presence made little difference, seeing as they'd know about it soon enough, it did make him feel a bit awkward. Milantha's, in particular. He was used to dealing with Kel on a one-on-one basis, and while Leila's opinion of him was fairly neutral Ranger knew for a fact that the Loremaster didn't like him at all. "Okay, you're probably all gonna yell at me for this one, but please hear me out before you do so."

He paused for a moment, as if trying to think how to put everything in words, while in reality he was only adjusting the speech he'd written out in his head almost half an hour ago to suit more than the one person. "Okay. I realize that you, as a part of the Council, have made your decision regarding my brother's immediate future. What they were I can only guess," he added with a quirk of a smile, "because I was not present at the time. What I know is that the decision did not involve getting Bayard out of the Enforcer hellhole he's in right now, before the trial. Which, by the by, is only one week away."

Milantha pursed her lips, watching him intently. "What did you do, Ranger?"

Another mental revision. Since the Loremaster had felt it necessary to cut to the chase so soon he had to delete almost a whole paragraph, some parts of which he'd rather liked. "Without a lawyer, Bayard hasn't got the chance of a sinner in heaven--"

"That's an interesting way of putting it," said Kel dryly.

"Thank you. As ya said last night, the Enforcers'll buy out anyone he can get to represent him soon as they can find the right price. However, maybe if we managed to find him someone who was incorruptible..." Again Ranger paused, although that was mostly because he recognized the irony of his words. "Or, if you can't find that, someone who really wants to get him out of there and won't accept bribes on the matter..."

They were beginning to catch on, he could tell. Leila leaned back in her chair and put a hand over her eyes, sighing. Shaking his head, Kel seemed to agree with her silent but obvious opinion of Ranger's rationality. "No. It's too risky."

"It's also too late."

"What do you mean?" asked Milantha crisply.

"It means I've already started, Loremaster. I've been to the Metropolis, to the Enforcer jail where Bayard was being held, and I've had him transferred to a prison that, to my knowledge, is not or not entirely Enforcer-run. Sure I ran a few risks," he admitted, "maybe even broke a few rules along the way, but I got out of it alive, and so did Bayard. And for those risks he's considerably safer than he was this morning."

A very cold silence was all that met this for a while. He looked around warily, meeting their eyes one by one. They were angry, Leila showing it the most as usual, having gone pale around the mouth and knuckles as she dug her fingers into the chair. Ranger carried on hurriedly. "But think," he said, "if I can get his sentence down only to burglary, there's a better chance that we'll be able to get him out."

He met their eyes again, this time defiantly. "I told you before, I'm not going to sit back an' just watch this happen. Yes, the plan's complicated and dangerous... which makes it highly in character for me doesn't it? But I want to help him. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't try."

"You've put a number of people at risk, Ranger," Kel said, in a soft and even voice that belied his actual feelings.

"No," he contradicted, "I've only put myself at risk. Anyone else I've involved are in positions where they have ample space an' opportunity to run should things go wrong. I'm not quite the thoughtless asshole I was a couple years ago."

This earned a slight smile from Leila. "No," she allowed, "but yer still too damn impulsive, kid." The smile faded slowly, replaced by seriousness as she exchanged glances with her fellows. "I bet ya got Tasmin mixed up in this, didn't ya?" Her voice was almost a sigh of resignation, but also amused in a grim sort of way. "Can't see her sittin' out on it. Who else?"

"Felicity, Jason, Liam, and one other whom I haven't contacted yet."

Kel smiled wryly. "Not a particularly, shall I say, stable group...?"

"It's one I can count on."

"Yes, I suppose it is."

The three Council members turned to look at one another. Something seemed to pass between them, though whether it was good or bad news for him, Ranger wasn't sure. A few tense moments passed, slowly, very slowly. Finally, Milantha nodded slightly. "All right, Ranger," she said, but her voice was cooler than usual. "You've done too much for us to order you to pull out now... as you no doubt planned. However, you can let no one else know of this, only those few you mentioned. And while they can come and go as they need, you, Ranger, are effectively ostracized for the moment."

He blinked. "What...?"

"It's too dangerous otherwise, for yourself and for us. You will have no contact with any member of the Brotherhood other than the five you've chosen, and then only as much as necessary." Her expression was grim, and the faces of Kel and Leila echoed this. "You've already done much to jeopardize your own position and life, Ranger. Your new rank does not mean you can get away with bending the rules any more than you did before, but for this one time we will ignore it."

"Do you agree with this?" asked Kel quietly.

Ranger grimaced inwardly. Ostracized... exiled, in other words. Damn. Never saw that one comin'... He didn't hesitate for too long, though. Carefully he nodded, already starting to feel unaccountably cut off. Isolated. Alone. "I agree. If it helps Bayard, I'll do it."

*****

It was not a large room, far longer than it was wide, and only wide enough for two or three people to walk down together. There was a single door where you entered and exited, and at the opposite end, following the stretch of black carpet, was a chair -- no, a throne. A tall throne carved of fine blackwood decorated with slivers of greasy gray-white moonstone in a scaled pattern. Around the arms and the arch of the back wound burnished silver ropes, and where they stopped -- at the very top of the throne, at the very end of the arms -- the ropes melded together and became silver skulls. Behind this rose a fountain of thin steel blades, hanging over the throne like the branches of a willow tree, tinkling at the slightest gust caused by the opening door. The effect was beautiful and disturbing.

The blades jangled. The seated occupant did not look up from her contemplation of an old skin-bound book, not until the man was kneeling before her. She closed the book with a clap. "Do not kneel to me, MacQuacken. I am not the Lady we await."

"You surely look like her, ma'am," said MacQuacken softly.

Oriel smiled. As all her smiles this one had no warmth, but there was a faraway wistfulness to it as well. "No, the Lady is more beautiful than anything on this world." The distance vanished from her eyes as they passed over him, becoming hard as the wood she sat upon. "You have come to tell me no good news," she said.

It was not a question. He rose to his feet. "I'm afraid not, ma'am. Stormwing has somehow managed to get himself a lawyer, one that we have not yet bought out. This man, one James Martel, transferred Stormwing to Weststation Six not two hours ago."

"You're a fool, then," she snapped. "It is a minor problem. You should not have even brought this to my attention. Buy the man, quickly, before this can be taken further."

"It's not that simple, ma'am." MacQuacken was picking his words carefully now. His mistress and lord had a temper on her that hurricanes would respect. "My men dropped a number of hints concerning sizeable amounts of money while Martel was at the prison. Either he's incredibly dense or he's not given to taking bribes, because he didn't pick up on any of them."

Oriel stroked one of the silver skulls absently as she thought, and MacQuacken pulled his gaze away from her, concentrating on the carpet. Despite having given himself to this project body and soul -- literally so, in fact -- the sight of that throne, those gape-mouthed skulls, still gave him a slightly queasy feeling down in his stomach.

"Everyone has a price," was her eventual decision. "If not money, there are... other things, other needs, other desires. Find his weaknesses, and you will have found his price. Have you searched through his record?"

He grimaced. That had proven to be another waste of time. "Graduated from law school with honors. His record's almost spotless, except for a few blemishes in his teenage years. No material we could use as blackmail. The man's an atypical upstanding citizen."

"Or simply very clever," she said thoughtfully, picking up her book again. "I've never known a lawyer not to have bent or broken a law or two for his own purposes. This will be... entertaining. I want him bought, or removed, one way or another. Find his price, MacQuacken. And remember, while this may seem like only a small step, if you fail I shall have your skull to replace one of these."

Bowing low, MacQuacken walked out of the room backwards, and once the doors had closed quickened his pace until he was well away from the Lady's Throne-room. Oriel barely noticed him leave, so absorbed was she with her book. Every page, from beginning to end, was completely blank, which made them all the more interesting. There was a key to reading the words hidden there, she was certain, but even though she had studied it for many months now she was no closer to finding that key.

Her lack of progress frustrated her; if there was one thing she abhorred more than chaos and crime, it was failure. It ate at her, pushed her harder, only to be more disappointed. Putting the book aside for now, Oriel sat back in the throne and let the Lady's whispers comfort her with prophesy of power, wealth, and a world of regimented order.

*****

Boredom was a kind of poison, Lucus l'Orange reflected, sitting with his feet up on his desk and leaning back in the chair. A mild poison. A little bit would just make you lethargic and unresponsive, while a lot could kill you. Currently, his life registered nine-point-five on the Boredom Scale, and it was slowly creeping up to a major ten.

He didn't like not having something to do. He liked action -- he liked car chases -- he liked shoot outs -- he liked being out there in the middle of things having fun with his job. But after the other night's escapade he was being blamed for letting the girl-thief get away. This was unfair, he felt, but also sadly true. And now he was stuck with a desk-job... his desk.

"Clean this place up and check that paperwork, kid," had been the Captain's exact words. "Drake knows what's there, I can see a heading dated six months ago."

Well, he'd done that, found nothing of much interest, signed a few things that needed his signature and hadn't expired yet -- and, man, did he ever want out.

Lucus glanced furtively about the room. His desk sit directly up against the wall, and like all the others in the offices had a screen two thirds of the way around it. There was a window next to him, open to let the fresh polluted air of Keltor into the sickly air-conditioned room, and a blind rolled up to the top, the pull-string hanging down. Luck pushed back out of his chair and glanced out the window. The window was two stories above ground level, but that didn't deter him. He'd gotten out of tighter fixes.

There was grappling hook-and-cable in one of his drawer. He brought it out, attached it to the window frame, and crawled out into the open of Keltor. If anyone saw him abseil down the side of the building, or -- with a quick jerk of his wrist -- pull the grappling hook away from the window and roll it up, no one made any fuss about it. A couple of kids skateboarding along the street watched him curiously, and waved as they rolled past.

He let out a satisfied sigh, tied the rope around his waist like a second belt and retracted the hooks of the grappler. Freedom! And probably a good ticking off from the Captain when he got back, but that was nothing new. He could deal with that. Luck l'Orange could deal with anything, except boredom.

"Now, what to do..." He glanced around at the empty street. No crime here. There rarely ever was, outside the Keltor Police Force building, except perhaps for the occasional spot of illegal parking. Well, as there was nothing of much interest here, he'd move on...

Oh, wait. Luck quickly took his badge off and tucked it into the holster with his gun. There wasn't much sense in immediately giving himself away. His gun, however, stayed where it always did -- enough people in the city carried guns for protection that it wasn't too conspicuous.

He loved Keltor. It was large enough to be classed as a city, but not big enough to be a true, choked-up metropolis. The air always tasted faintly of smog and burned petrol, the pavements and buildings thickly speckled with grime. It was dark, crooked, and generally the place to be if you liked having fun and didn't mind the occasional rough and tumble experience.

Looking about, a sign caught his eye: old, with a piece missing, but it pointed the way toward Keltor Central Park. He grinned. The park was a very familiar place to him -- when he was a kid, his parents would take him there all the time. He remembered the boats on the river most of all, the little tub-like water vehicles that buzzed up and down the 'safe' section of river. Every visit he'd ridden on them, loved every moment of it.

Of course, the boatman had gone out of business long ago, and Luck's relationship with his parents had degraded over the last few years. Sighing, he wandered in the direction of the park, wondering what had happened that had caused that rift in his family.

I haven't changed all that much, have I? Neither had his parents that he could recall. He remembered, vaguely, that they'd argued a lot just before he'd moved out, although the reason why was lost in the mists of time. For a while he'd called them up every second week, just to say hello, ask how they were doing, those sorts of thing. But his calls had become forced and half-hearted after a couple of months, until he found himself putting them off for another day.

In the last four years, he realized suddenly, he'd talked to his parents -- properly talked, that is, not counting the occasional grudging phone call on birthdays and Snow Festival -- perhaps only five or six times.

Trying to take his mind off such unpleasantness, he quickened his pace a little as he walked under the faded brick archway and entered Central Park. There he looked around. The grass had been mown recently. Much of the autumn leaf-litter had probably been raked up too, but after such a blustery weekend a fresh layer of red, gold, and brown had fallen over the top. The lawn and the path both were covered by this crackling mass, each step crunched them underfoot.

Luck headed for the riverbank, to the bench next to one of the willows that stood bowed with the tips of their leaves in the water. He was mildly disgusted to find someone had tagged the back of the chair with graffiti, spoiling the otherwise pretty scene.

Of course, prettiness and serenity weren't really his thing -- all he could do was stand at the side and look across the river. Not a particularly thrilling experience, especially as the water itself had degraded further since even the last time he'd taken a good look at it.

The other side of the river was also not a wonderfully bright scene. Straight in front of him were the squat, moldy gray buildings that the Keltor docks were primarily made up of, and looming over them were the darker gray silhouettes of the city central, framed by a gray, clouded evening sky. Gray... gray... gray... That was a bit of a theme with Keltor. Even a lot of the inhabitants were gray, and that wasn't necessarily because of their natural feather color. Never black and white, he thought wryly, but always shades of gray.

He heard the crunch of footsteps on the leaves and looked up with feigned nonchalance. A young man was heading purposefully toward him, and smiled a brief greeting as Luck caught his eye. He frowned, not liking being recognized in such a friendly manner by a person totally unfamiliar to him. That sort of thing usually led to trouble, in his experience. Then again, in his experience, almost everything led to trouble somehow...

"Hey," said the man, upon reaching him. "I saw you make your grand escape from the station, just as I was goin' in there to find ya. Thanks, this makes it much easier for me."

The voice, though, that was familiar. Luck tried to place it as he nodded outwardly, his hand straying back to his gun; just in case. "Yeah well, I always aim to please. Okay, so, who the heck are ya an' what do ya want?"

The man rolled his eyes. "Well, I was considering keepin' up an air of mystery and intrigue by not telling you my name, but seeing as you're probably gonna shoot me if I don't--"

"Ranger Stormwing," he said. The young man grinned and gave a flourishing bow. His hair was dyed black, his clothing neater and on the whole barely resembled the smart-ass con man Lucus had known him as the year before, but the attitude was unmistakable. "I don't think," he continued coldly, "that we got anythin' to talk about. I've done you an' yer precious Brotherhood enough favors already. Do me one an' leave me alone from now on."

For once, Ranger looked entirely serious. "I can't do that," he said, and Luck was astonished to hear a trace of regret in his voice. "We need your help again, man."

"This is about your brother, ain't it? Kid, there's nothin' I can do. He's dead already."

"No he's not!" snapped Ranger. "He's alive, an' I'm gonna get him outta there, one way or another. But I need your help to do so. Look," and he sighed, "I'm not asking you to go throwin' yourself into our little world of sin an' darkness, okay? I'm asking you to think about justice. You know that Bayard didn't kill those men, otherwise you wouldn't have helped him."

Luck scowled and dropped his gaze to the ground. He didn't want to hear this, he'd almost managed to convince himself that he was in the right -- and now this... this crook was tearing down all those protective walls that had taken so many long hours to build. "I'm not gonna listen ta this."

"Oh, you are gonna listen. You're a cop, man; you're supposed to be upholding the laws of avian rights and justice. But now a man is getting framed for a crime he hasn't committed. You're just gonna sit back and watch it happen?"

"Yes!"

Ranger studied him thoughtfully, then shook his head. "Then I guess that badge of yours ain't worth shit, l'Orange."

Drawing his gun in one quick movement, Luck pressed it against Ranger's forehead. "By all rights, as a cop, I should be arrestin' your ass, kid. You're a thief. I'm a police officer. That means we are on different sides, do ya understand that? I've hung my job, my life, in the balance too many times fer a bunch a' guys who break all the rules fer a livin'!"

The young man didn't budge, and didn't blink. He just kept on looking right at him from underneath the trigger of the revolver. "At least we don't leave innocents to die."

There was a long, tense pause. Every instinct in Luck's body and mind told him, shouted at him, screamed at him, that he should take the man back to the station and have him locked up. That was the proper course of action for any by-the-book cop. That was what his father would have done. Wasn't it?

Something -- an old memory -- fountained up from the past.

"I can't be like you, dad, don't ya get that? I do things differently! My way!"

"An' is your way always better?"

"For me, yeah, it is! Just stop tryin' to run my life!"

"I'm not trying to run your life, Lucus." Rance's expression was pained. "You're letting yourself be run, don't you see that? They're trying to split us apart."

He'd never thought much about whom his father had meant by 'they', at the time. But his parents always had their enemies, not the least of whom being the man who'd kidnapped him, Luck, when he was just a couple of years old. He didn't remember anything of that, now, except that it had been his uncle Duke -- not his father -- the Brotherhood -- not his family -- who'd found and rescued him.

"At least we don't leave innocents to die."

Luck's gaze refocused on Ranger's face in a glare. "You're messin' wit' my head. Stop it."

"Who, me? Nah. It's messed up enough already."

"Takes one ta know one," he shot back without thinking.

"Well, of course," replied Ranger lightly. "I'm insane and proud of it."

Another pause, but this time Luck made up his mind. Reluctantly, he withdrew his gun and shoved it back into its holster. "Okay, okay, I'll help ya. But after this one we're through, you got that? I don't owe you guys nothin' anymore, so stop callin' on me whenever you thieves get yourselves into fixes ya can't get out of again."

"Good. Testify."

Luck blinked. "I think I missed the words 'do not' somewhere..."

"No, I need you to testify. Say what really happened that day, and before."

He swore loudly, wishing he'd had the foresight to ask what had to be done before agreeing so recklessly. "Damn you, kid, that'll get me fired! I can't say that! It's over the line."

Ranger hand snaked out and grabbed him by the front of the shirt. "I said this before, l'Orange: your job is to protect the innocent, defend the laws of justice, am I right? If you don't do that, then your job's as good as lost anyway. Because you'll be no better than Oriel an' the Enforcers."

That name! Oh, geeze, and that would mean... would mean... damn it, Mac...

"Y'know, this is all real great," he managed to say, as Ranger let him go, "comin' from a thief an' a confidence trickster. Remindin' me of my duty an' all, when most days ya'd be sittin' around plottin' the downfall of all that's right an' just..."

"See, that's where you're mistaken. There has to be law and justice, like there has to be chaos and disorder, otherwise the world wouldn't function right. I happen to specialize in the chaotic part of life, while you stand for justice. At the moment though," Ranger continued, tucking his hands into his pockets, "I'm a man who doesn't want his brother to die. If you look at it that way, forgettin' the whole black and white business, then is it still so bad?"

Luck stared at him, remembering what he'd been thinking not ten minutes before. "Never black and white," he said, "but always shades of gray."

*****

The night was late, and the lights out. The hallway was dark, but not silent. The various grumblings of the other inmates along the row disturbed the peace, and Bayard could have almost wished for the quiet solitude of the Enforcer prison.

Almost. Here in Weststation Six he'd a cell to himself, a proper bed on which he now lay staring at the ceiling, and he'd had a proper meal -- the first in the last twenty-four hours. It was, however, still a prison. The other inmates were bored, some of them crude, and had first taken to spitting insults at him from their respective cages. After prolonged abuse failed to get any reaction from him, they quieted down.

It was not a great place, but it was better than being within easy reach of the Enforcers.

Bayard had no doubt that they'd come to question him. They mightn't be able to get away with beating him black and blue while they did so, but he was too important a piece to them to be lost. Why he was important, Bayard wasn't sure. That he was still alive meant that they had some reason to see him stay that way. Interrogation as to the whereabouts of the Brotherhood had been tried many times, and it had never worked. Besides, the Brotherhood always came back for their own, one way or another...

Is that it, then? The thought was like ice sliding along his back. Is Oriel trying to lure the Brotherhood into some kind of trap? Or is there something else I'm missing? Oh, damn you, Ranger... for once why couldn't you have followed Kel's orders?

He'll be all right, stop worrying, Bayard told himself sharply. He knows how to take care of himself, probably better than you do, considering the mess you've gone and got yourself into now. If he didn't, he wouldn't be Honor Blade. You trust him, don't you?

Of course I trust him; he's my brother.

Well, then?

But Oriel--

No, no. I'm just not going to think about this. Sighing, Bayard dragged the pillow over his head and lay staring at the wall beside him. This is crazy. I'm crazy. An old memory of something Ranger had once said when they were younger came to mind. "It's not so bad talkin' to yourself, or even arguin' with yourself, it's when you start interrupting yourself that ya can safely say you're goin' nuts..."

"This is him."

"Even in the dark I am not blind, Lieutenant."

Bayard visibly jumped at the sound of the voices just outside his cell. He hadn't heard their approach, and the usual howl of the other inmates at the sight of anyone coming down the halls had, somehow, been avoided. Sitting up cautiously, he stared out of the bars and saw two shades flitting about in the hallway.

He felt his feathers prickle, and belatedly realized why the inmates were so quiet. In the dark cells, all he could see were glimpses of white teeth and white eyes, but he wondered how many of them really understood why they watched the woman in silence. It was like watching a hunterfel in the wilderness: sleek, beautiful, and with claws that could gut a man in less than five seconds. You maintained careful distance and shut up.

"Evening, Oriel," he said, not unpleasantly. Bayard was always polite, even to enemies. "Odd hours you're keeping, but I expect that's nothing out of the ordinary."

One of the shades whispered across to his cell door and leant against the bars, curving a slender arm through to the other side. "Night hours are the best for those who don't want to be seen where they are not supposed to be. As you well know, thiefling. But I am here on business, and the exchange of pleasantries is pointless since I bear you no good will."

"What do you want?"

"The world."

"That's direct enough. And you're here to... what, kill me?"

Oriel smiled; even in the darkness he could feel its chill. "Not yet. No, in fact, I'm here to do you a favor, Stormwing. I am here to warn you. Do not let your friends of the Brotherhood interfere, they do not understand my reasons. Your death will serve us all in ways you can not imagine."

"Do you know," he replied, "that doesn't make me feel any better?"

"I care little about your personal feelings, Stormwing, only about your death."

He stood, ducking his head to avoid the hanging light bulb, and walked toward her. Bracing his arms against the thick iron bars, he looked into her face. He couldn't see her eyes, only blackness where the shadows ran together. "What are you planning, Oriel?"

"Now if I told you that, it would spoil all my secrets. And a woman must have her secrets."

She was so near, so close. Just by moving his arm a little he could have touched her, grabbed her, pulled her closer and-- and what? Bayard stepped back quickly, confused. He couldn't be sure whether he'd wanted to hurt her or just to hold her, and he didn't like either feeling. "Am I so very important in the grand scheme of things, to you?"

"You are a stepping stone in the direction of a new and beautiful future, Stormwing." Her hands gripped the bars so tightly it seemed as if the metal was crushing under her fingers. "Your bones will be the foundations upon which an empire of light shall rise, and your blood will baptize it." Oriel laughed shortly, harshly, her hands returning to her sides. "Yes, thiefling, you are important. But not so much as others."

Disturbed, and not only by her obvious madness, Bayard swallowed nervously. "Others like you, for instance, or your lackey over there?"

He heard a brief and angry mutter before Oriel silenced the other with a flick of her hand. "No, Stormwing. I am merely the vessel through which knowledge of this future shall be spread. I ready the world for its coming... but I am a no more than a strand in the shining web. Without me, the light will still come. No, thiefling, I was referring to your brother. Ours are not the only futures written in the Void."

Bayard throat went dry. He stared numbly at her for a few seconds, trying not to think about what he'd just heard. "You're insane," he croaked.

"Sanity," she said calmly, "is debatable. You will find yourself believing, soon enough. Come, Lieutenant, I have done what was needed. I have given him the message." She began to merge back into the shadows again.

"Goodbye, thiefling. We will meet again, sooner than you would wish." With these final, perhaps even melodramatic words, Oriel turned to leave. At the last moment, before disappearing entirely out of Bayard's sight into the dark of the hall, she looked back. "Remember -- your people must not interfere with my plans in any way. I will kill them if they attempt to do so."

A few moments later, noise came back into the prison. Quiet murmuring. The occasional laugh of unwinding tensions. Bayard noticed none of this, staring into space as he was, and he also failed to notice that the two Enforcers had vanished as soundlessly as they'd arrived.

Ranger...?

The two brothers had been present when the Brotherhood first heard of the New Enforcers, had seen the grim expressions on the Council faces, had stood and watched as Kel duCaine picked out the reconnaissance teams meant to gather information about this possible new threat. And Bayard had listened to his brother's fuming afterwards...

"I don't get it! Why not me? Why not you? We're just as good as the rest of 'em. The two of us together are probably better than a lot of 'em." Ranger's fist slammed against the table. "You know what, screw Kel. Screw 'em all. I'll keep a look out for myself."

"Ranger, that's..."

"Not against orders, Bard. Has anyone said I can't? No. So, until someone says otherwise, I'm gonna do what I can to help."

And as he always did, Bayard followed along with his brother's plan. It had ended with the two of them bound at either side of a thick pole, aching, bleeding, bruised, and interrogated by a woman maybe a year or two older than Bayard himself.

She was a beauty. Not just pretty, as many girls were, but gorgeous, statuesque. Beautiful, yes, but beautiful like an ice sculpture -- and just as frosty; her smile chilled the air, when and if she smiled. It had been a repulsive beauty to him, but he'd heard Ranger's appreciative murmur. Even now, Bayard wondered how his brother managed to be thinking like that at a point where they seemed about to die any second. But he also remembered the interest the woman, Oriel Ino'Kauo, had shown in them.

"Who are you?" she asked, and her voice was a whip, snapping past their faces.

"Joe Doe of County Mo."

"I am Zaltar, defender of the universe."

Bayard looked around at his brother. "Hey, why didn't I think of that?"

"Because you're not Zaltar," said Ranger.

"Point," he admitted.

Their banter only served to irritate the woman more. "I remain unamused. Of course, if you wish to spend your last hour in extreme pain, then by all means continue your facetiousness. But if you would rather survive a little longer then you will tell me what I need to know."

Ranger grinned at her. "I've faced worse threats from my aunt."

"Very well." She motioned to the guards, two heavyset men apparently chiseled out of stone for all the expression and intelligence they showed. "Rip the tall one's head off."

As huge and powerful hands grabbed his neck, he heard his brother yell out. "No, wait! I-I'm Ranger an' he's Bard, we're common thieves, okay, now let him go already!" The hands receded again at the woman's command.

"Ranger. And Bard." Although she only knew the shortened version of his name, a nickname that Felicity had given him many years ago when she couldn't say it properly, she seemed to know them. "Your hair is blue," she said suddenly, looking closer at Bayard, before her eyes flicked to Ranger and his darker, navy hair. "You are Stormwings. Bladers."

"I know you, too." Ranger spoke so calmly. "Oriel Moonflight."

"No longer, Stormwing. I am Ino'Kauo."

Something in her voice, something in her face. He wasn't sure what it was not, at the time he hadn't been paying enough attention, instead keeping a wary eye on the guards. Now his head ached through trying to remember it, and he lay down on the bed, sighing. All he could think of was that Ranger was in trouble, his brother was in danger. When I see him again, I'll tell him to go. I won't risk his life. Whatever Oriel is up to, I won't let her... let her hurt him... brothers have to look after each other...

Finally his thoughts let him fall asleep.

End Part One

 

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