Crackerjack Valkan has all of the plans

                                His men are the finest of mercenary bands

                                He chooses his causes with caution and care

                                Wherever there's justice and freedom he's there




                                                                          Chapter Seventeen




            A thin haze of smoke wafted over the topside of the Rock when the Nighwarder aligned itself to the gravity plane and smoothly slid its way into the port.  Strangely, although there were several Bralian ships in various erratic orbits around the Rock, they were not challenged.  The docks, however, were swarming with royal guardsmen, most of whom seemed to waiting in the half-bored stances of men who were about to face battle.

            Quickly the crew made fast the ship to the moors.  The guardsmen watched impassively as this was done, a trio of them detaching themselves from the main group and approaching as the job was finished..

            One of the three turned out to be a captain, although the uniform he wore was not noticably different from his companions.  He was a young man, barely more than a youth, who would have been handsome in an almost femine way  if not for the grizzled and unkempt beard he wore.  He politely explained that the docks were closed, due to 'interior problems' within the city, and that all ships were grounded.  As a result, no-one would be permitted to leave the Nightwarder and the Nightwarder would not be permitted to lift.

            Reanyn listened quietly until the captain had finished, then shook his head.  "That doesn't exactly suit our purposes."  He produced a purse, opened it, and spilled a few gold pieces onto his palm.  "I need to get into the city.  Perhaps we could work something mutually beneficial out, just between the two of us."

            The captain licked his lips, staring at the gold like a starving dog.  "I think we can work something out, yes."  He gave Reanyn a hard look.  "Only one person goes.  The rest stay here."

            "Three," put in Barundar.  "No less."

            "Four," said Tianna.  "I'm coming too."

            "Three," said Reanyn flatly.  He looked at Tianna.  "You won't be coming."

            Tianna's face tightened in fury, but she bit her lip and kept quiet.

            "Three," the captain agreed at last.  "And absolutely no more."

            Reanyn smiled, and quickly passed the bribe to the captain, who pocketed it without a word, then directed his two companions to go aboard and take up positions on deck.  "It's required," he explained apologetically to Reanyn.  "All ships must remain grounded, and we have to station men on each to make certain."

            "Of course," said Reanyn with a slight bow.

            Reanyn drew Keryth aside as the captain turned away.  "Keep an eye out for trouble, and keep your weapons nearby.  I'm not certain what's going on here right now, but it's obviously trouble.  If you need to, overpower the guardsmen and lift ship, then check back periodically for us.  I don't care what the rules are about keeping ships grounded."  He looked over to where Tavras hovered.  "And keep a sharp eye on him.  I still don't trust him, and since he didn't volunteer to come along with me, I trust him even less.  At the first sign that any of the crew's minds are being affected by any outside force, kill him.  Don't hesitate; he's more dangerous than he looks."

            The gnoll gave a solemn nod.

            Reanyn turned to Barundar and Nym.  "Ready?"

            The giff smiled.  "Always."

            There was a line of pikemen at the end of the docks, three men deep, blocking access into the city, their pikes leveled towards that direction as if they were expecting an army to appear any moment.

            The captain Reanyn had spoken to led them to a point in the line, ordering the men to let the three through.  As soon as they had passed, the line closed again behind them.

            "I wonder what they're waiting for," ventured Barundar as they left the pikemen behind.

            "A battle, of course," stated Reanyn flatly.  "I've seen this before."

            "Yes, but who?" persisted the giff.  "Who are they waiting for?"

            "I've a feeling we're about to find out," said Nym as they entered the city proper.  The streets were quiet, and abandoned, although there was ample evidence that not long ago this street had been the sight of some violence, as there were broken windows and shattered doors up and down the street.  Some of the buildings had been put to the torch, and now lay in charred ruins.

            "Riots?" asked Barundar, surveying the damage.

            "Let's hope that's all it is," said Reanyn.  "At least we haven't seen any bodies yet."

            "Do we know where we're headed?" asked Nym.

            "This way," said Reanyn, leading.  "I've been to the Library of the Spheres before."

            "The what?" asked Barundar.

            "The headquarters for the Seekers in this crystal sphere."  Reanyn had turned onto Anchor Street, and was headed up towards the Greater market area when suddenly he stopped, his head cocked to one side, listening.

            "What is it?" asked Barundar.

            Reanyn motioned him to silence.

            A faint whisper of noise became apparent.  The faint shouts of fighting and screams of dying men wafted through the air.

            "There's your battle," said Nym.

            The sound swelled suddenly, becoming a roar, and far ahead, near the marketplace, fighting men spilled into view.  Royal guardsmen, apparently, being forced back by a larger force.  The three paused to watch for a moment, wondering who the other force could be.  Astonishingly, it became apparent that the other force was made up of royal guardsmen as well, along with men in various other uniforms.

            "Guardsmen fighting guardsmen?" Barundar spoke in wonderment.  "What is going on here?"

            "Those are Valkan troops," observed Nym, indicating the other uniformed men.  "At least they all seem to be fighting on the same side."

            "Let's get out of sight," said Reanyn, backing into a small alley, "we don't want any part of this."

            Quickly the giff and the dracon followed him, and the sounds of battle faded behind them.

            They wound through several back alleys, finally emering on Round Street.  They followed Round street down to Galley Street.  There was a rough barricade thrown up here, made of tables, furniture, wagons, and barrels which were piled up on each other.  About twenty dracons stood atop the barricade, holding crossbows and pikes.

            "Come no closer!" one of them barked as they caught sight of Reanyn and the other two bounty hunters.  "The dracon enclave is neutral!  We want no part of your foolish struggle!"

            Reanyn held up his hands placatingly.  "We are visitors to the Rock.  We simply wish to make our way to the Library of the Spheres."

            At Reanyn's words, several of the dracons took aim with their crossbows.  "Spies!" one of them barked in suspicious tones.  Many of the others began murmuring.

            The first dracon held up a hand and the others fell quiet.  "Then you'll have to go another way," he snapped unsympathetically to Reanyn.  "Assuming the Library still stands at all.  We're not letting anyone through."

            "Thank you for your help," said Reanyn.  The three backed away carefully.

            "What do we do now?' asked Nym when they were out of sight of the barricade.

            "We find another way," said Reanyn practically.

            They proceeded farther down Round Street until they reached Cuttle street, on the very edge of topside.  Cuttle street was abandoned as well, but here there was no sign of trouble; no broken windows or doors, no bodies strewn about, no burning buildings.  It could have been a normal day here, save for the lack of people thronging the streets.

            They pushed on, winding their way down Cuttle street to its end, where it merged with Whale street.  Here the smell of smoke was much more apparent.

            They followed Whale street back up to Galley street, where there was another barricade manned by the dracon.  They turned into a small avenue, and wound their way through a series of backstreets until they came out on Clipper street.  There were bodies strewn up and down its length, mostly women and children.  The buildings were in flames on both sides of the street, and to the right they had collapsed, blocking the way.

            "Great void!" exclaimed Barundar, catching sight of the bodies.  "This wasn't a battle, this was a massacre!"

            "I don't see one uniformed body," murmured Nym.  "Soldiers dying is bad enough, but this..."  His voice trailed off.

            "Yes, it was a slaughter," said Reanyn, "and no doubt a mass rape.  And they're all dead, so let's move on, before the buildings collapse on us."

            Barundar and Nym exchanged a look, and followed him.

            They picked their way down the street, moving away from the collapsed buildings and avoiding the flames, threading their way through the wreckage.

            They continued in this fashion until they reached the Great Market again.  They emerged not far from where the fighting had been only minutes before, but the area was fairly clear now.  A few scattered fights were continuing and the market was filled with dead and dying men, but the battle had clearly moved on.

            The three bounty hunters turned to the right, skirting the market, and turning onto Grand street.  The followed Grand street down to where Park street crossed it, then turned down Park street.

            About halfway down Park street, exactly at the wall which separated the middle quarter from the lower quarter, there was a military blockade.

            "Should we approach or try to backtrack and go around?" asked Barundar.

            "Those are Valkan's troops," said Reanyn, catching sight of the men's uniforms.  "I think we might be able to pass through.  Besides, if they've secured this section of the wall, you can bet they've got the other entrances to the middle city covered as well."

            They approached.

            About twenty meters away one of the mercenaries called on them to halt.  They did so.

            "Make ready to run," instructed Reanyn under his breath.

            "What?" asked Barundar in surprise.  " I thought you said they would let us pass."

            Reanyn shrugged.  "I could be wrong."

            "This area is under the control of the rightful heir of Bral, Prince Aric," called out one of the mercenaries.  "What is your business?"

            "We have no interest in the power struggles of Bral," admitted Reanyn.  "We only want to get to the Library of the Spheres."

            "You're out of the luck, then.  That area is closed to civilians.  My suggestion is that you get off the streets until this whole thing blows over."  The mercenary seemed almost bored.

            "Are you Valkan's troops?" asked Reanyn.

            "Maybe."  The mercenary shrugged.  "Why?"

            "Is he still commanding?"

            The mercenary shrugged again.  "Why?"

            "Because if he is, he might want to see me.  We're old companions."

            The mercenary looked him up and down, plainly unconvinced.  "Let's say I believe you," he said at last.  "Why should he want to see you?"

            "He owes me a favor.  Mention my name to him.  If he doesn't want to see me, we'll leave, no questions asked."

            The mercenary was still unimpressed.  "And what name would that be?"

            "Reanyn Al'Nuoth."

            The man was startled.  "The Wayfarer?"

            Reanyn nodded.

            the man considered, then motioned an aide forward.  After a brief conference, the aide scuttled off down the street.

            The mercenary leaned on his pike again, waiting.  He seemed bored again.  "You know," he said conversationally after a few minutes had passed, "I expected you to be taller."

            Reanyn grimaced.  "That's pretty much the going opinion."

            A few minutes later, the aide returned, and whispered in the mercenary captain's ear.  The mercenary straightened, surprise written on his features.  "Well, it seems that your name was good enough to get you through.  I hope you're who you say you are, because Valkaran is definitely not in the mood for pranks.  You're to follow me."

            "And my companions?" asked Reanyn.

            The mercenary considered.  "They disarm here, and they can come along.  If they don't, then they can wait here."

            "Agreeable," said Barundar, surrendering his battle axe and a dagger he kept in his left boot.  Nym followed suit.

            "Be careful with that," Nym instructed the man who took his arquebus.  "She's my baby, and I want her back in the same condition she's in now."

            "You too," said the mercenary, turning to Reanyn.

            Reanyn shook his head.  "I carry no weapons."

            The mercenary raised an eyebrow.  "Foolish, considering the state that the Rock is in."

            "I do not need weapons, so I don't carry them."

            The mercenary looked him up and down again.  "Just the same, I think I'd better check.  You don't mind?"

            Reanyn shook his head.  "Search away."

            The search was thorough, but only took a few minutes.  The mercenary was plainly surprised to find nothing.  "You really aren't carrying a weapon," he said wonderingly, half to himself.  "Insane."

            Three other mercenaries peeled off from the line and encircled the three bounty hunters.  "An escort," explained the captain.  He led the small group back through the blockade, back through the line of mercenaries, and down Park street further.  The streets here were filled with soldiers and aides, busily moving heavy weapons and supplies or carrying messages.  They were not all Valkaran mercenaries, but instead a mix of royal guardsmen, dwarven and giff mercenaries (not Valkaran troops, but different companies altogether), groups of halfling infantry, and volunteer citizens wielding whatever weapons they could lay hands on, as well as the more numerous Valkaran troops.

            They reached the end of Park street, and stopped in front of the Library of the Spheres, which, apparently, had been converted into an impromptu command center.

            The mercenary led them up the marble steps and into the open doors of the library.  They passed through the grand hall, and mounted a large staircase leading upwards.

            At the top, they approached a large room, the door to which stood ajar.

            "Wait here," cammanded the mercenary, entering the room.

            "-going to be closer than we thought," a voice said from within, easily audible where Reanyn stood, "If the Citadel hadn't fallen to us almost immediately, we'd be in real trouble.  The problem is that Cartan still controls the palace, and certain areas of the lower city.  And if he can maintain control, we're in trouble.  He's made a deal with the Chainmen, obviously, so they have a personal stake in his success - so that slavery becomes legal on the Rock.  And the Trading Company has a stake in seeing him succeed as well.  If we don't crush him now, they'll start shipping in Trading Company and Chainmen reinforcements, and we'll eventually be overwhelmed."

            "But where can they land them?" asked another voice, much younger than the first.  "We control most of the heavy ballistas; we'll just blast approaching ships out of the sky."

            "No, my lord," answered the first voice.  "We do not completely control the Topside skyline yet, and Cartan completely controls Underside."

            "What about reinforcements to our side?" the younger voice asked again.

            "Unlikely,  my lord."  This was a third voice, completely different from the first two, hearty and full of strength.  "All of my men are already on the Rock, as are the mercenaries of the Dwarven Boarding Company.  the guardsmen have mainly opted to support Cartan.  Those that will turn to you have done so.  And the members of the Pragmatic Order of Thought are probably all we can expect - perhaps more would come, but they will arrive to late.  The Shou have lined up behind you, but their help will not be much."

            "And the Fleet?' asked the young voice.  "Surely they will not stand by and see a man like Cartan take control?"

            "You would be surprised, my lord."  This fourth voice was smooth, golden, and light.  It certainly belonged to someone with elven blood.  "The Fleet is as likely to deal with Cartan as with you.  And help from them would be a long time coming in any case - their nearest ships are far away, and we cannot afford to wait."

            "No, my lord, we cannot," the first voice agreed, "especially now that the Long Fangs have come out for Cartan.  He has a formidable force behind him, and commands the high ground.  So far the populace is behind us, and we've managed to push his men back, but that will change if we wait.  We must press our advantage while we can."

            "And most of the guilds are holding their breath, waiting to see who will still be standing when the dust clears."  This was the elven voice again.  "We've already had reports that the Temple districts, Dracon Town, and the dwarven Districts have already sealed themselves off, in an attempt to remain neutral."

            "They should be rallying to us, Tareo."

            "What should be isn't always what is."  This was the third voice, gravelly but full of strength.  Then:  "Excuse me, my lord.  An old companion has arrived.  I will only be a moment."

            "Certainly, Valkan."

            Valkan emerged from the room.  He was a burly man of about fifty, armored with an old but well-polished breastplate, with a face which was stern without being unforgiving.  He came across as very serious.  He stared at Reanyn a moment before speaking.  "A long time, Reanyn.  A long time.  I did think never to see you again."

            Reanyn shrugged.

            "I hear you've got yourself a new name.  'Wayfarer' or something foolish like that."

            Again Reanyn shrugged.  "I hear something similar about you.  'Crackerjack'?"

            Valkan gave a bark of laughter.  "I suppose none of us can control what some fool writes about us.  You are aware of the situation?"

            Reanyn shrugged.  "I can guess.  Prince Andru died without declaring an heir, and now Cartan and Aric are both trying to sieze the throne."

            "It's a little more complicated then that.  Andru was murdered, by a very able assassin, who was able to flee the Rock."

            Reanyn lifted an eyebrow.  "That is an achievement.  Who was the assassin?"

            Valkan shook his head.  "Reports vary.  Could have been a sorceror, or a mindbender, or just someone who was very lucky.  My money says it was Twilight Jack, or someone like him.  Doesn't matter in the end.  The result is the same.  What is it you came here for?  Have you at last come back to lead men into battle?  We could use someone of your caliber."

            Reanyn shook his head.  "I care nothing for your war.  I'm only here to track a man down."

            "You're certain you won't change your mind?  We need you.  And our cause is just."

            "The cause is always just until the first engagement.  I'm retired from that life."

            Valkan frowned.  "You know me.  Do you think I would involve myself and my troops in a fight I didn't believe in?  We wish to install Prince Aric on the throne, and oppose Diadan Cartan.  It's pretty cut and dried."

            "It's always cut and dried at first.  Then someone wins, and takes control, and a new tyrant is born."  He shook his head, holding up a hand to forestall Valkan's indignant reply.  "It's not that I don't know you, Valkan.  It's that I've traveled this road before, many times.  How many petty dictators did I put in power?  How many 'men of iron' and 'great leaders' turned out to be exactly what we hoped to replace?  Sometimes they were even worse.  No, Valkan, it's not you I don't trust.  It's power.  In my opinion no man should have too much of it.  And whether Cartan wins or Aric prevails, the results will be the same.  The difference won't be worth the battle."

            Valkan stared at him for a moment.  "I'm sorry you feel that way.  I still believe in something."

            "So do I.  I'm going to track a man down, whatever it takes, and that's all I'm interested in.  If I have to call in old favors to do it, then so be it."

            "Who are your friends?" asked Valkan, indicating Barundar and Nym, who had been holding themselves back a polite distance.

            "Barundar and Nym," said Barundar, introducing both of them and making a sweeping bow - an interesting gesture considering his size.

            Valkan nodded.  "You are all after the same man?" he asked.

            "Not exactly," said Nym.  "But we are working together."

            "And how do you think I can help?"

            "Simply point us in the direction of the Seekers," said Reanyn.  "They have the information we require."

            Valkan chuckled.  "No doubt they do.  But that doesn't mean they'll give it to you."

            "We'll see," said Reanyn.  "I assume you've relocated them?'

            "As a matter of fact, we haven't.  They're in the building."

            "Staunchly neutral, I suppose."

            Valkan sighed.  "As always.  First them, then the dracon and the dwarves, then the guilds, and now you.  It seems I keep hearing the same tune today."

            "They can't have been too happy with you taking over their library for your center of operations."

            "It's only temporary," Valkan said defensively.

            "And all in the cause of justice, no doubt."

            Valkan frowned.  "I'll have an aide take you to them."  He turned away.  "I haven't the energy to argue.  I'm a very busy man just now, so if you don't mind I won't see you out."