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Raz's place backed up to the river, nestled between a warehouse and a covered pier that serviced the local fishing fleet. Not for the first time, I was thankful for the fair weather. The smell down here was unbearable in the heat of summer.

It was early, so most of Raz's regular customers were still out on the river. I walked in, pulled up a stool, and ordered a beer. After it arrived, I asked the barmaid if her boss was around.

"He won't show until late afternoon, when the night crowd starts coming in. You want to leave him a message?"

I dropped one of my shiny new coins on the bar. "No. I want you to wake him up. Tell him an old friend has something he might be interested in."

The barmaid made the coin disappear, and made off for the back room. I sipped my beer while I waited. It was warm and watered down, as usual.

Eventually, Raznaak "Raz" Skullsplitter lumbered through the doorway, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes with one massive hand. He held a well-used meat cleaver in the other. It was at least as long as my forearm.

Raz was a half-orc, though on a good day he could pass for human. The biggest tell was his fingertips. They grew thick, black claws instead of regular nails. Raz usually filed down before business hours. He hadn't gotten to it yet this morning.

As he walked into the room he hefted the cleaver. "Who the hell is waking me up, and why does he deserve more than ten seconds to live?"

"Can the tough-guy talk, Raz. I'm not a tourist."

He broke into a wide grin, exposing the only other tell about his heritage: histwo tusk-like lower canines. "Dillon? Dillon-sodding-Cross?

I tipped my warm beer at him. "In the flesh. How's business?"

Raz tossed the cleaver into a collection bin behind the bar. He poured himself a drink. "Lousy. The new Interior Minister passed a bottle tax, of all the stupid things. It's cutting all my profits on hard liquor."

"And how's your other business?"

Raz's people were river pirates once upon a time. Raz himself was smart enough to get out before the Imperial Army took much interest. That was a whole other affair, one that happened mostly before my time. Long story short, the rivers in this part of the Empire were safe nowadays, and Raz was a "legitimate businessman," with a small side interest in import and export.

That's what his books said, anyway.

Raz grunted. "Even that's been dry lately. My wine runner got pinched by Imperials three months back. Exotic animals aren't selling. And rare artifacts are a non-starter. People want them, but no one's gone delving up North in at least half a season."

"Any indication why?"

"Some damn fools resurrected an undead king. Rumor has it half of Carinhead is crawling with ghouls." Raz hawked and spat. "Have you ever heard such a sorry damned excuse in your life? They don't want to go dungeon-diving because of a few sodding ghouls? I swear, it's like no one has a bloody sense of adventure anymore."

He drained his glass, belched, and poured another. "Anyway, how about you? What brings you crossworlds again?"

"Usual. I'm tracking a missing boy."

"What's the runt's name?"

"Wyatt Collins." I gave a description and a Cliffs Notes version of his story.

"You think because he went through the water on your side, he ended up in the water here?"

I shrugged. "Stands to reason. You hear of anyone picking up a water-logged stranger recently?"

Raz shook his head. "If they did, they didn't bring him in on the river. I'd know about it."

"Any other rumors I should look at while I'm in town?"

"Depends. What're they worth to you?"

One good thing about Raz. He was a straight businessman. He'd sell you information as readily as he'd sell you a pilfered sack of jewels. He didn't let notions of friendship get in the way, which meant you got no special favors if he liked you. But you always got what you paid for.

It was refreshingly honest, as far as these things go.

I opened my bag. I pulled out a small pouch of gems, some polished gold rings, and an Arabian-style jeweled dagger. Raz examined each, appraising them.

"Any of these magical?"

"Not sure. I grabbed them all in a hurry."

The big half-orc pocketed the gems and the dagger. He kept poking around at the rings. "There was some trouble up near the palace recently. About a week back, give or take."

"Oh?"

"Town criers and one-sheets are saying it was an alchemical fire. But there's rumors it had something to do with the Twin Magi."

The Twin Magi were the Emperor's court wizards. They weren't really twins. People called just them that because they shared their power on some metaphysical level. I didn't quite understand it, because I'm not a wizard. I just knew they'd been joined at the hip for as long as anyone could remember.

"One of them cause an accident?"

"That's the official story. Rumor has it someone else was involved. A third party."

"A new apprentice?" If so, it could be the kid I was looking for.

Raz scooped the rings into one meaty palm and pocketed them. "An assassin."

I let out a low whistle. That was big news. And it was unlikely to be a coincidence.

I left Earth around four hours after Wyatt Collins. Given the variables involved in crossworlds travel, anything from a week to a year could have passed between our respective arrivals. So the timeline fit.

As for the attempted hit itself?

I thought back to the witness statements from the swimming pool, about how Wyatt moved like he was in a trance. That told me a wizard was probably involved on this side. Either with an illusion spell or some kind of charm effect.

Did someone with a grudge against the Twin Magi summon him? Did he or she convince him the Twin Magi were evil, and needed to be killed?

While thin, it was as good a lead as any. Next step was to learn if the would-be assassin survived the attempt. And I wasn't about to trust Raz's second-hand rumors about that little detail.

"Any chance you can get me into the Etherial Tower?"

Raz grinned even wider. "That's a big favor, Dillon. And expensive."

I pulled my last trinket out of my bag of tricks, the one that had caused the street vendor's kit to go all google-eyed.

At first glance, it was a statue about the size of a bowling trophy. It was made of gold, but not heavy enough to be solid. It depicted a fairy or sprite, holding a human-sized goblet between her outstretched hands. The expression on her face was remarkably lifelike.

Raz looked it over. "This what I think it is?"

"Gold-dipped fairy. Genuine, near as I can tell."

Now it was Raz's turn to let out a low whistle. "Where'd you get this?"

"Same place I got the other stuff. In some god-forsaken desert kingdom on the other side of nowhere."

"Can you authenticate it?"

"No. But I can tell you I grabbed it out from under a bunch of cultists, and they were pissed off about it." I finished my beer. I didn't ask for another one. "So. That enough to get me in? Or do I need to go asking somewhere else?"

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BrainLeakage

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