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"Now," Tebes growled, "you are all going to point to the richest person in this village."

Linduin blinked hard, amazed at himself. Had he actually managed to get bored with the process of extorting tax money from terrified villagers? He supposed that he should be counting his blessings; at least this time nobody had tried to resist. Had he actually been educated in a manner commensurate with his intellect, Linduin might have known something of the concepts of "minimum acceptable force" and "deterrence", but his experiences heretofore of chopping wood and making tea had done a surprisingly poor job of preparing him for his current circumstances.

Just as Tebes' boot was beginning its trajectory towards the target of the villagers' acquiescence, a groaning sound occurred outside the tavern's door. Everyone turned to look as it abruptly slammed open, disgorging a tired and sore figure in a hooded black robe.

The walk from the bandits' camp had not been an easy one; bereft of her usual traveling enchantments, Cheis had no protection from the elements, no internal stored texts to read, and -- most importantly -- none of her usual hygiene maintainers, which at one point had necessitated a deeply inelegant watery bowel movement against a large moss-covered spruce. But Cheis of Veraleigh had endured far worse in her time, and never thought to complain even to herself. Upon sighting the tavern, however, an increasingly desperate desire for a chair to sit down in had begun to assert itself, and as a result she had failed to take the measure of the situation before announcing herself. This was not a terribly serious error under normal circumstances, but it helped to explain what followed.

Tebes of Reth was, unmistakably, a very bad man. In his youth, he had committed a number of very vile acts, and had had many dreadful experiences visited upon him in turn by others. His personal habits were abominable, his temperament odious, and his imagination largely limited to forms of creative cruelty. But it should not be said that he did not have redeeming characteristics: he was a firm believer in law and order (as long as he was in charge of its disposition) and possessed downright remarkable views on equality (never one to withhold a boot from another deserving thereof, regardless of race, gender, or creed). He was a lover of animals, had spent most of his adult years perfecting a shockingly subtle skill at cooking, and carried in his deepest heart of hearts a wistful longing for a girl he had once kissed at seventeen. But most importantly, he was unquestionably good at his job; he excelled at all of its aspects and had done truly impeccably at all of its functions, completely by himself, for many years. Among the many and varied skills crucial to this capability, he was especially good at appropriate response. He kicked when a kick was enough, clubbed when clubbing would do, and only drew steel when absolutely necessary. And so when his sword hissed out of its sheath immediately upon locking eyes with Cheis of Veraleigh, it should be noted what a resounding testament to his acuity such an action represented.

For exactly and precisely one second, no one moved. Then a very large number of things happened all at once.

***

To say that Ciel-Upon-The-Sea is a beautiful city is, of course, the height of understatement. Its glass spires catch the sun and the stars with equal facility; its streets are wide where width is charming, and narrow where narrowness is exciting. It has every conceivable cultural accoutrement, with parks and residential areas nestled snugly against shopping districts and universities in a highly serendipitous manner which produces some of the most content citizens in all the realms. The bloody and vicious trade of the Celi'sa Shipping Corporation which provides such opulence, stretching further and more inescapably than any polity, is nowhere to be seen here amongst the precisely-maintained flowerbeds and well-swept porches. Viewed from above, even the city's municipal layout forms pleasing shapes, with spirals and squares arranged precisely in fractal patterns of sublime mathematical beauty. August scholars debate rarified theory in the halls of its educational institutions, and such privation and squalor as exists is kept confined to areas deemed suitable for such things. And so it was something of a shock to everyone involved when a five-hundred-foot-tall pillar of bloody crystal erupted violently from the earth at the intersection of Nutmeg and Chancery and began vomiting horrors onto the populace.

In seconds, the death toll was in the hundreds; within minutes, it had exceeded a full thousand. Screaming survivors scrambled as fast as their bloody stumps would carry them away from the epicenter of the imbrication, followed by swarms of disembodied fangs and boiling pockets of deadly sensation. Hours from now, when the incursion had been contained, a tenth of the city's population was dead, dying, or psychologically destroyed beyond all function; the damage to its logistical and civic processes were thorough and lasting, and it would be some weeks before even basic services were restored to much of the population in the less fortunate areas of the city. Demands for answers produced little; the devastation had come seemingly from nowhere and had been provoked by nothing anyone could determine. The only fact that everyone could agree upon was that at the foot of the shattered tower, buried far beneath one of the busiest streets of the metropolis, had been a small metal box.

Hundreds of miles away, Velinaer received an error packet and swore.

***

Cheis of Veraleigh, no stranger to war, knew her peril instantly and reacted appropriately. Her hands moved quickly to form the necessary gestures for the one killing curse at her disposal, but Tebes of Reth's blade leapt towards her neck with no hesitation, and she was forced to conclude that her opponent defecating his intestines out would do her no good if she had no throat with which to laugh derisively. Abandoning the somatic rune she had been tracing, she instead slapped the blade with her bare hand. For most people, this would have resulted in nothing more impressive than the loss of one's fingers; but Cheis's bones, possessing computationally infinite hardness, rejected the blade as if she had parried with a handful of very dense nails. Tebes of Reth, surprised, was knocked back a single pace.

Across the room, Linduin stared gormlessly at the unfolding situation. A more shrewd member of the villagers than most, noticing his inattention, began to move stealthily into his blind spot.

Cheis, pressing her advantage, rushed forward, making a play for close proximity within the reach of Tebes' blade. She blocked a kick, took a punch in the face with equinamity, and very nearly managed to bite off Tebes' left ear before a deftly executed elbow strike caught her in the jaw. Reeling, she lost focus for the briefest of moments.

Tebes, still acting almost entirely on instinct, took a stuttering half-step backwards and ducked, narrowly avoiding a chair that had been thrown by the village's headman, who was nothing if not open to profitable opportunities. Without even bothering to comment, he drew a knife from a hidden pocket in his jerkin and hurled it swiftly at the headman, taking him directly in the throat. The gurgling and screaming which followed had a slight chilling effect upon the incipient riot brewing amonst the rest of the villagers, but not for long.

Approximately an inch above the floor, completely unobserved by anyone, a slithering wisp of blackness crept through the doorway. Insidiously and tenaciously, it began to cross the distance between the door and Linduin.

Cheis, regaining her faculties, spared an eighth of a second to contemplate ceasing hostilities, but a glimpse at Tebes' expression of professional murderousness quickly dispelled any such thoughts. Bracing herself with a sigh for yet another in a very long line of bloody struggles, she bent to pick up a chair as Tebes thrust at her chest. The strike which should have taken her through the heart glanced off her cheek as she nudged the blade out of the way with her face, leaving a long line of bright blood and a glimpse of twisted teeth through the open flap of skin. She wished she'd brushed them more recently.

Behind Linduin, another of the villagers drew a thick cudgel from a pocket, but flinched guiltily when the headman's anguished scream interrupted his concentration. Linduin, hearing the motion, half-turned.

Tebes assayed a quick riposte and slash, but only managed to catch the legs of the chair Cheis had thrust at him; the blade cleaved cleanly through, scattering three of the legs to the floor while leaving the fourth gripped in Cheis's ascending hand. The makeshift club, its business end splitered and jagged, executed a graceful moulinet before plunging into Tebes' left forearm.

The wisp of blackness slithered forward another inch.

At the sight of a villager preparing to bludgeon him, Linduin reacted without thinking. The axe in his hands, seemingly possessed of a life all its own, leapt forward and buried itself in the man's shoulder. The two of them stared at each other, processing this development.

Tebes of Reth, now truly awake and paying attention, dropped his sword with his left hand and caught it with his right. Simultaneously, both he and Cheis decided that it was time to stop fucking around.

The wisp of blackness inched yet closer.

The villager that Linduin had struck screamed, adding his voice to that of the dying headman, and the other villagers broke. Swarming forwards, they began to rush towards the door. Linduin, panicking, yanked his axe out of the other man's body, creating a cascade of blood.

Tebes of Reth executed a flurry of flowing strikes, his sword moving in tight arcs from each blow. Cheis parried with the palm of her left hand, the back of her right forearm, and the top of her head, each blow leaving a gash but no mortal wound. Her left thumb touched the knuckle of her third finger, and her right hand twisted into a claw that prescribed a quarter circle.

The wisp of blackness reached Linduin's boot.

Cheis, abandoning her defense, stepped backwards and raised both hands high with palms upward in a sweeping gesture; Tebes, taking the offered opening, lunged forward... and froze, motionless. His eyes watched, unbelieving, as his right arm bent backwards at the elbow with a resounding crack and brought the sword around in a sweeping arc behind him towards the back of his own neck.

After all, there's no rule that says you can't control a skeleton that someone else is currently using.

Linduin, stumbling backwards from the melee, felt something make contact with his boot and be kicked away. The villagers rushed towards him, howling, and he hacked and swung blindly, merely hoping to keep them at bay. Things became very confused for a number of seconds.

When the rush had finally stopped, the tavern was something of a mess. Tebes' headless corpse stood attentively in front of Cheis, both arms bloody, while Linduin struggled to stand and panted for breath in front of three wounded villagers and one man who had simply decided to sit down and have a drink rather than get involved in any further nonsense. Cheis, annoyed, tucked the loose flap of skin between her teeth and bit down to keep it from flopping around while she dug in a pocket for a needle and thread.  The rest of the villagers, sensibly, had fled.

Finally, Linduin managed enough breath to speak. "Are... are you going to kill me?"

"Depends," mumbled Cheis, "are you going to try to kill me?"

"No!" Linduin gasped. "I didn't want to... he would have..."

Cheis nodded, stitching herself up. "Right. Sure."

Linduin felt his gorge rise. "Can you, um..." he pointed at Tebes' body, now swaying slightly.

"Oh. Was he a friend? Sorry." Cheis made a cutting gesture with one hand, and the body fell limply to the floor.

For a couple of minutes, both of them focused on merely recovering. Then, moved by some unknown impulse, Linduin raised his hand in an awkward wave. Cheis stared.

"I'm Linduin. Linduin Kayle," he ventured.

"Cheis of Veraleigh," said Cheis of Veraleigh. She turned towards him, mustering a half-smile.

Linduin's eyes, which had been showing signs of drifting shut, opened widely as Tebes' corpse stood up behind her. The smile on Cheis' face abruptly changed into a slack-jawed expression of shock as Tebes' sword went straight through her chest.

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AMBLE

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