Almighty Cantoule is a spiritual man
He preaches the word in every land
His zeal and purity are a well-known fact
His tolerance is none for any evil act
On occasion, someone would ask the Storyteller who the most dangerous man he'd ever met was. After all, in his time the bard had run across the most lethal and feared men in the multiverse. He'd met ruthless killers like Bryth Savengrift and Killjoy Zendos; bounty hunters like Cyril Blackthorne and the Wayfarer; cold-blooded assassins like Twilight Jack and Pretty Mary; skilled mercenaries like Lonely Pyrador and Tessa Waxhawe; blood-thirsty warriors like Skullcrusher Velm; powerful spellcrafters like Silvermane; even psychopathic murderers like Sydney Laeroth. Legends and nightmares all.
But the person the Storyteller maintained to be the most dangerous person in the multiverse was Almighty Cantoule.
This might have been surprising to anyone who hadn't met Cantoule. He was, after all, only an aging human man with a slightly bent back and a stubbly white beard who wasn't, all in all, much to look at. He wasn't an assassin, or a bounty hunter, or a mercenary, or a wizard. He wasn't even a priest (although many mistook him for one when they heard the name the Storyteller had stuck him with). What he was was a simple disciple of Tyr, the god of lawful good.
And that was what made him so dangerous. Cantoule had a ferocious gleam in his eye; an inner vision. At the age of fifty-four, for no particular reason, Cantoule decided that the time was ripe for the preaching of the word. And he had decided that he was the man to do it.
Cantoule's every waking minute was spent in converting the universe to Tyr. His methods? Preach, preach, bellow, preach, preach. And if a listener heard all of Cantoule's arguments and still didn't convert, Cantoule figured there was permanent evil on the listener's soul.
And for evil of any sort, Cantoule had no tolerance. That was what he was famed for. Sending evil-doers to final judgement.
Aside from fervent religious discussions, Cantoule had one other addiction: alcohol. To say he was a drinking man would be like saying crystal spheres were 'pretty big'. He drank morning, noon, and night.
How did he square this with his religion? He claimed that Tyr had created him different from other men - that alcohol was like water for him. And, for all that, he might have been right. Certainly his tolerance was legendary.
Cantoule (he didn't particularily like the surname 'Almighty' that the Storyteller had given him, feeling it was blasphemous) owned his own craft, a refitted squidship, and used it to get from here to there. His money came from 'donations' from converts, or 'final contributions' from deceased evil-doers. That wasn't always enough to get Almighty Cantoule by, though, so, from time to time, he used his ship to ferry passengers, or transport cargo. Not surprisingly, when he took on passengers, the entire voyage was spent in proselytizing.
Of course, someone like Cantoule wasn't likely to remain popular in any specific place for very long. Most ports threw him out after two days. So Cantoule, strangely enough, wasn't always aboveboard in his dealings with the law. In fact, sometimes he might even have been labeled a smuggler.
But Cantoule always said that he lived according to a 'higher law' and that mankind's laws didn't apply to him.
Twilight Jack had never heard of Almighty Cantoule, and wouldn't have cared if he had. At the moment he and Julian Sandstar were considering their next move.
"What is Syrrus B?" asked Julian. The two were winding their way through the darkening streets, hurrying through the thinning crowds. "A moon, a planet, or a spaceport? I've never heard of it."
"I'm not surprised," said Jack, veering to the right suddenly to avoid an overturned vendor's wagon which was blocking the way ahead. "Syrrus B is a very small, movable planetoid located somewhere in the Devros asteroid field. Its exact position is a well-kept and ever-changing secret."
Jack was setting a brisk pace, and Julian was having a little trouble keeping up, dodging his way through the throng. "Why?"
"It's a meeting place for pirates and smugglers. Although the people who live and operate on Syrrus B aren't generally wanted by the law, those they serve and trade with are - a good reason to keep the place secret." Jack spotted a pair of royal guardsmen making their way through the throng and suddenly turned left into a small back alley, deftly avoiding a possible confrontation. "Every few months or so," he continued as they passed through the small alley and into a parallel street, "the planetoid is towed by a high-tonnage spelljamming craft to a new position within the field. Of course they don't tow it far, just a few thousand miles or so, but considering how dense the Devros field is that's quite a feat."
An old man with a crooked smile stepped in front of them, holding up a finely wrought necklace (obviously stolen) and extolling its virtues. Without pausing, Jack touched the man's arm, moving him out of the way.
"How do you know all this?" Sandstar had a little more difficulty getting around the man, who had clutched at his shirt, but he managed to shake the fellow off.
"I've been there twice before. It's been around for a little while."
"So you know where to find it?"
Jack shook his head. "I do not."
"So how do we get there?"
"We find ourselves someone who knows how to get there."
"But we're heading away from the port district!" protested the elf.
"We cannot return to that area of the Rock. They'll be watching the ports."
Julian was surprised. "Who's 'they'?" he asked. "I thought we shook our pursuers when we sent word for our ship to sail."
Jack stared at him. "You still don't realize the kind of people we're dealing with, do you? These are intelligence men, working for intelligence-gathering organizations. That's plural, as in more than one. By this time tomorrow, the Rock will be in complete chaos as a general war of succession ensues. There will be no way to prevent it. And we will be the prize. The group who can present us on a platter as the 'assassins' will have solid claim to power." He shook his head and continued on. "Our little ploy may have relaxed security, but you can wager your life that they are combing the Rock for us."
Julian let that sink in for a few moments. "Then where are we going?"
"We're going to find ourselves a helmsman and a navigator who can take us to Syrrus B."
"Aren't you forgetting something? Won't we need a ship?"
"I've already got a ship," said Jack. "Well, I've got one in mind, anyway," he amended after a moment.
Mystified, Julian asked what he meant, but Jack kept his silence, and it soon became apparent that Jack would say no more on the subject, so Julian abandoned efforts to learn more, and simply concentrated on keeping up.
By this time the Rock had rotated enough that the fireworld had disappeared over the horizon, and the streets were now clothed in full night, illuminated only by the flickering light of greasy torches and streetlamps. The streets were still crowded with passerbys, who were lent an unnatural aspect by the uncertain light.
Jack led on for several minutes before stopping at a major intersection.
"Wait here," instructed Jack.
"What? Why? Where are you going?"
"Don't worry," said Jack, "I'll be right back. I just have to take care of something. Keep a low profile. Remember that there are still people combing the city for us."
Jack melted into the crowd. Julian tried to keep one eye on the assassin, but lost him in moments.
Julian stepped back out of the press, and found himself on a corner next to an unlit streetlamp.
Occasionally someone or another would pause, stepping out of the throng to take their bearings, but for the most part Julian stood alone.
Long minutes passed. A young member of the Lamplighter's Guild appeared with a long taper, and stayed long enough to light the streetlamp before hurrying on.
Still more time passed. Julian sighed to himself, wishing there were a bench somewhere nearby. His calves were aching from the long walk and, judging from past experience, it seemed likely that Jack would be gone for some time.
He felt a touch at his shoulder, and nearly jumped out of his skin.
"Finished," said Jack. There was no way of knowing how long he had been standing there.
"Where did you go?" asked Julian.
"I doubled back on our trail," answered Jack.
Jack shrugged. "Because we were being followed."
Julian's head whipped around as he scanned the crowd behind. "Followed? Since when?"
"Sometime before Aric showed up. I knew the moment he did that someone was following us."
Julian shook his head. "I don't think I understand. What does one have to do with another?"
"How else would he have found us?"
Julian was taken aback. "So he put a trail on us?"
"Not just him. There were three of them in all, and none of them were working with or even aware of the others. It took me a while to spot the third one. He was pretty good. That's why I waited so long before doubling back."
Julian peered back the way they had come. "Well, where are they?"
"They won't be following anyone anymore."
Julian stared at him. "That quickly?"
"Well, why didn't you tell me what you were doing?"
"What purpose would that have served? You were the bait. They might have suspected I was on to them if you had started looking for them - which I suspect you would have done. Now, come along. We have a helmsman to hire."
* * *
Within the darkened confines of Yggdrisal's Alehouse was the strangest sight Julian had ever seen. A mighty fire roared away in a larger than average hearth, taking the chill from the air, but that in itself was nothing unusual. The place was filled with the usual roughs, ladies of the night, thieves, spacers, and traders. The alehouse itself was virtually identical to dozens of others on the Rock.
The difference was that here there was no gambling, no whoring, no fighting, and - except for one older gentleman with a crooked back - no drinking. (The older gentleman, Julian observed, was drinking quite heavily, while thumping a table and espousing some religion or another and condemning the vices of gambling, whoring, fighting, and drinking, among others.)
Julian shook his head in bewilderment. Religious fanatics were fairly common, both in groundling societies and in spacegoing ones, but usually they were tolerated by ordinary people for one or two minutes at the most. Yet here one was, bellowing out doctrine in the middle of a tavern/brothel, and the crowd, rather than laughing raucously in his face and tossing him out on his head, was listening quietly and respectfully.
The reason became more apparent as Julian threaded his way through the crush enough to see the pocket of empty space which surrounded the old man. There were two rough-looking men lying sprawled out on the floor there. It was difficult to tell whether they were dead or merely unconscious. The old fellow ranted on, referring to them whenever he mentioned 'sinners and evil-doers' and the 'wages of sin'. It didn't take long to figure out what had happened.
Julian looked at the old man with new respect. The two toughs were large fellows, obviously well-acquainted with brawling, and the old man didn't even seem to have a weapon.
"Now we come to the most important part of our discussion, brethern and sisters!" the white-haired man declared fervently. "It's all very well to talk about doing good and avoiding evil, but it's what's in your hearts that counts - so you'd better reach down deep into your hearts and decide that you want to support the tenents of true faith and pure goodness! Well, what is your decision?"
There was a half-hearted murmur from the crowd.'
The old fellow scowled. "I said it's time to take a stand, brothers! Do you stand with these sinners," he gestured at the two fallen men, " or do you stand on the side of righteousness?"
This time the agreement was much more quick to come, and decidedly more enthusiastic.
The old man gave a pleased nod. "Excellent! Then now's your chance to prove it! Reach down, deep down into your purses, and bring out some gold, to further the preaching of the word!"
The crowd became decidedly unenthusiastic.
The old fellow's scowl returned. "Was I wrong? Am I surrounded by evil-doers like these?" Again he gestured at the two bodies.
There was a general rush from the assemblage to reassure him that, no, they certainly were not.
"Then dig deep, brothers! Dig deep, and prove it!"
To Julian's utter amazement, the crowd began to comply, albeit grumblingly. He stared at the old man, who was now graciously acepting the 'donations'.
There was another touch at his shoulder. "What are you listening to that crackpot for?" asked Jack, slightly annoyed. Julian shrugged, uncertain of what to say. "Never mind," Jack said dismissively, "I think I've found us a pair of helmsmen." He turned and led the way back through the room, to a small candlelit table in the back corner.
"The brothers Frosthallow," Jack said, introducing the two men who lounged at the table. One was a big fellow, with curly dark hair, a profoundly ugly face, and an unkempt appearance. The other was average-sized, slender, with straight brownish-blond hair, an almost-beautiful face, and a charming smile. It was difficult to believe the two were actually brothers. The big one gave Julian a brief and peremptory nod.
Jack turned to Julian. "Each has good experience in spelljamming. Justin," Jack indicated the smaller man, "the older one, is an invoker of no small ability, while Breck, the younger brother is a general-class mage. They have reason to keep clear of the authorities just as we do, and have agreed to leave upon the hour. Unfortunately, neither of them knows the present position of Syrrus B."
"Pleased to meet you," the one Jack had named as Breck said gruffly. His brother only gave Julian a silent nod.
"Brethern!" The old man had made his way through the crowds, collecting his donations, and was now nearly at Julian's side. "I notice that you have failed to contribute! As I realize that you are good-hearted lads, I realize this must have been an error on your part, which I am sure you will want to remedy." He held out an open bag which was already nearly filled with silver and gold pieces. "Perhaps I can be of assistance."
Jack stared at him. "Not unless you happen to know the exact location of Syrrus B."
The old fellow's smile melted into a stern frown. "A den of sinners and iniquity! One of the foulest and most evil ports in the multiverse! I fear for your souls, brethern, should I take you there."
"I'm not particularily worried about my soul," said Jack. "I'm more concerned with getting to Syrrus B. Are you saying you can take me there?"
The old man considered. "I can," he said at some length, "but only if I cannot persuade you to avoid such an immoral place."
The old man shook his head sadly. "Those who hear do not listen. I will take you, but such an action would demand a very high donation indeed. The work of Tyr cannot go forward without money."
Jack stared at him. "Of course not. How much gold would Tyr demand?"
The old man was affronted. "Tyr is not an extortionist! This money must be given freely, with no strings attached!"
Jack shook his head. "I don't know anything about Tyr. It's you I need, not him. So guide me. How much would be a good sum to volunteer?"
The old man looked miffed. "Well, I should say as much as your conscience tells you to give - no more and no less." He mulled over the concept for a moment. "Around one hundred and thirty gold pieces would be appropriate."
"I should tell you that you'll be departing the Rock with us, and you'll have to leave any ship or crew you have here behind. And we will be leaving as quietly as possible, for reasons of our own."
The old man was suspicious. "The authorities are after you? Why?"
"I assassinated Prince Andru today," Jack answered offhandedly.
The old man shrugged dismissively. "Oh, that. One more sinner down. I have no problem, then. I don't live according to men's laws. Man's law is arrogance. Tyr's law is the only true law." He frowned. "But if I have to leave my ship, I should think that that would call for a larger donation. Say two-hundred and fifty gold."
Julian could no longer keep his silence at the ridiculous sum. "Two hundred! That's outrageous!"
The old man fixed him with an unforgiving eye. "Who would cheat Tyr? You? Tyr does not barter, and neither will I."
"Done," said Jack. "We leave immediately. I hope you don't need to fetch anything from your ship."
The old man shook his head. "Tyr demands I travel light." He hefted the bag filled with gold and silver. "This is all I need."
"Good. By the way, I'm Jack, this is Julian Sandstar, and those are the Frosthallow brothers."
The old man nodded. "And I am Cantoule."
"Almighty Cantoule?' asked the larger of the brothers.
"You'll watch your tongue when you travel with me," barked Cantoule. "Just because some fool elf wrote a bad poem giving me a name other than the one Tyr blessed me with doesn't mean I'm going to tolerate casual blasphemy."
The large man held up his palms placatingly. "Forgive me, father. I had intended no offense."
"It's not me you should be apologizing to, but Him," Cantoule responded gruffly. Nevertheless, Cantoule's anger seemed somewhat allayed. He turned back to Jack. "So, when do we leave?"
"Immediately," said Jack.
"What is the ship you've got in mind?" asked Justin, the older brother.
"Yes," asked Julian, " and how do we get to it without entering the port district?"
Jack smiled. "The ship isn't in the regular ports. We'll be taking the former Prince Andru's personal yacht, a shrikeship called the Princess of Bral. He has a small docking facility on his estate."
"We're going straight to the Prince's estate?" Julian was incredulous.
"Of course," said Jack. "It's the one place they won't expect to find us."