By Bill Williams
Gulliver was sipping a beer and practicing flipping a silver coin and watching the front door to The Shining Star when Xander tapped him on the shoulder. He caught the coin, but after a few too many rotations. When he slapped the coin to the table top, it was face down showing the back of the coin that had the sun rising on the bridge over Forever Falls. He glanced at the other man from under the edge of a heavy brow. "Xander, you're pretty sneaky for an old man."
With a practiced hand, Xander flipped his cloak over the bench and took a seat at the crude table across from Gulliver. "That's a terrible thing to say Gully. I won't be old for another fifty years." He looked around and smoothed out his gray satin vest. The bar was mostly empty in the middle of the afternoon. There was a small clutch of dwarves discussing something at a round table in the corner, but they were notorious for keeping to themselves. He peeked into Gulliver's beer mug. "What are you drinking?"
He lifted the mug and swallowed loudly before answering. "The cheap stuff." Gulliver thumbed a few drops of beer out of his moustache. "Why'd you sneak in behind me?"
"Just to see if I could do it," Xander said. "I'm working at being more spontaneous." He was dressed in gray wools and satins accented with black leather boots and belts including the ones that held his knives and longblade. Like most people in the bar, there was a hint of snow on his boots that never quite came off this late in the year.
"Doesn't dressing like a peacock and sneaking around make one or the other harder?"
"Sometimes." He thought about taking his gloves off for a moment, but thought better of it.
"Well, here we are." Gulliver was so nondescript that if asked later, no one would be able to remember a thing about him without magical assistance.
Xander grinned and motioned at the server, pointing at Gulliver's drink. He watched the coin flipping. "Do you have a new nervous habit? A new quirk?"
"Don't be funny, you haven't got the chops." Gulliver rubbed the coin between his thumb and fore finger. "Actually, with enough practice, you can flip a coin and, well... Nothing. Yeah, I have a new quirk."
Xander watched the server as she moved from the bar to their table. After she dropped off his drink, he placed a sealed envelope on the table and slid it closer to Gulliver. "This is it."
Gulliver forgot all about the coin in his hand. "How do I know that?"
"That's what I was told." He sipped the drink slowly and regretted that he had not gritted his teeth to strain out the hoppy chunks.
"Look Xander, I paid for that space and paid for the business license and there is still a hold up from the neighborhood committee. How do I know that I can stop paying that blood money any time in the near future? Your people are sucking me dry."
"It's not my people," Xander shrugged.
Gulliver finished his beer and pushed the mug toward the aisle. "It is you, you rich people are killing me."
"So, you hate the wealthy, but you want to be one someday."
"Right," Gulliver growled. He ran his fingers over the envelope. "There's no seal on this."
Xander struggled to look sincere. "I honestly don't know who wants the job done, Gully. That envelope was cut out a few times before it got to me. Some times it's good not to know too much."
Gulliver sighed. "All right, all right, all right. But this had better be the last of the problems with my paperwork."
"That's life in Haliford. You can't drop dead unless you have the right seal on the right document."
Gulliver slid a finger under the edge of the paper and got ready to break the seal. "You've got to pay to play, I guess."
Xander reached out and tried to stop Gulliver's hands from across the table. "Don't open that in here."
He shrugged and put the paper inside of his vest. "Fine. I'll be doing this job, whatever it is, tonight. If I don't contact you by morning, come looking for me."
Xander used a gloved finger to pull a chunk from the beer mug. He spoke without looking up.
"Good luck." But by then Gulliver was gone. He dry-spit a couple of times to try to get the taste of the cheap beer off of his tongue. When that didn't work, he decided to go home for a proper glass of wine.
Xander was updating his Continental Map in his favorite embroidered house jacket when he heard a rapping at the window to his third floor study. He quickly looked into the darkness and motioned at the window. "It's unlocked."
The window swung wide open and Gulliver stepped into the light after kicking the snow from his boots. His clothes were bloody and he had a layer of grit on him. He managed a smile and said, "I could use a drink."
Xander chin-pointed at the wine-cabinet. "Help yourself. Don't stain anything." He went back to the flowing writing style he used for the geographic features and inscribed the term Nytherkin Island next to a smallish land mass off of the Western Coast. When he finished drawing the letters, he corked the green ink and placed the quill in its holder. "I get the occasional update from the Mariner's Guild so I can flesh out my map of the continent."
"That's great." Gulliver was pouring a second glass. "I need some advice."
"Is that blood fresh?"
"You want to tell me whose it is?"
"Some of its mine, some of its hers..." Gulliver sat on the edge of a high gilded stool. "I'll make a long story short. The note gave an address and a box to steal and a couple of words of caution. The first word of caution was to burn the note after reading."
"And the other?"
"Don't open the box."
"Did you open the box?"
"I'm not an idiot."
Xander walked over and got a new, clean glass from the wine cabinet. He motioned and Gulliver poured for him as he held out his empty glass to his guest. "That's not exactly what I asked."
Gulliver ignored him and kept going with the story. "Getting into the place was easy enough. Climb a wall. Avoid a trap or two. Thump a few guards including a very curvy brunette who was good with a sword."
"Was?" Xander leaned away from his drinking partner.
"Okay, is. I didn't kill her. She won't use a sword as well for a while, but she should be fine in a month or so. Anyway, I matched the rune from the note to the rune on the box and there were a lot of boxes there. I got back out and went to the drop location."
"And there was trouble?"
"Of course," Gulliver said. "There was a trap at the drop location and I got a ten inch spike in the leg for my trouble. But it's just good business to try to kill the last guy to touch the package. It's part of the job and I'm fine with that. Keeps out the weekenders."
"Did you open the box?"
"Yes and no."
"That's not a real answer. Either you opened it or you didn't."
"Well, the box was sealed," Gulliver said. "And I wanted to know what was in it. So, I thought about opening the box and cast one of the prediction spells. It let me see what I would see if I opened the box and the box had a little kid's finger in it. I didn't break the seal, but I did see the finger."
"Good thing you didn't break the seal."
"It's a little kid's finger, Xander. Somebody cut a kid's finger off."
Xander nodded as he finished the glass. "It happens."
Red-faced, Gulliver shouted. "What do you mean it happens? Who does that?"
"It's called an assurance or in some cases a bond of assurance."
"So, it's extortion?"
"The opposite, really." Xander poured another glass and took a deep sigh before continuing. "People with a lot of coin spend a lot of it keeping their treasures safe. And children are a treasure..."
"Let me finish. There are times when a parent might have a finger of a child removed when that child is in danger or may be in danger in the future. That finger is sent away for safekeeping. In the event that the child is stolen or killed, the finger can be used to find the child's soul or if needed to generate a new body. It is a contingency plan. An assurance."
"That's disgusting," Gulliver said.
"Sometimes the finger is regrown, so the child is more or less intact. Or it is left off as a status symbol. That depends on the parents." Xander drank quietly and remembered how he learned of the practice. He waited as Gulliver thought about the new story.
"So why would somebody take the assurance finger?"
"Why do you think?"
Gulliver's brows rolled and pulled together. "Well, you could ransom it back to the family. Or if you wanted to take the kid, then you could have extra leverage with their back door gone. Or you could replace the real kid with a finger kid. Or..."
Xander put his hand on Gulliver's shoulder to stop him. "I knew you would see some new angles."
"Either way, that kid's in trouble." Gulliver put the wine glass down and stood up.
"And do you know who he is," Xander said.
"But it was a 'he'," Gulliver said.
"Don't do that," Xander said.
Gulliver nodded. "I cast a second spell on the finger and found the kid. I know where he lives, who he is."
"You use a lot of magic for a guy that flunked out of University."
"I didn't flunk out, I was pushed," Gulliver said. He straightened his bloody clothes. "And I'm square with them now, remember."
"Yeah." Xander closed the wine cabinet. "What are you going to do now?"
"I'm headed over there," Gulliver said as he shot a wicked grin at his host. "Do you want in?"
"That's a young man's game, Gully. But I'll watch your back."
Gulliver walked to the map and pulled the quill pen from the holder. He started scratching something out on a scrap of paper. "All of that time in temple has made you soft, Xander."
Gulliver walked to the window he had entered through. "Give me some time before you come around. It might take a day or two for something stupid to happen."
"So, you're not heading right over there tonight?" Xander was smiling.
He nodded and pointed at his host. "For you, that was funny."
"Be careful," Xander said. "And wait. Just wait." Xander raised his hands and waived them at Gulliver in deliberate wide arcs. The grit and dried blood fell like dust from the thief's clothing and left two clean boot-prints in the middle of the rug. "I can't let you leave like that."
He checked the window and looked at his clothing. "Thanks."
"I have a reputation to uphold." Xander drew his jacket in close around his shoulders. "Now climb down the wall and get out of here." When the window shut, he slid the lock closed and reset the trap. He considered Gulliver's problem for a moment before going to bed for the night.
A low wind disturbed the bushes and moved the loose strands of grass around Gulliver's hiding place just outside of the gate of the third nicest estate in the high section of Haliford. He finished his piece of mince pie and put the expensive waxed paper back in the fold of his cloak. Stamping his feet out of habit, he remembered that he had put a low-level heat glamour on himself a few hours ago. Distant city bells chimed midnight as a horse-drawn sleigh full of revelers slushed by on the snowy street a few yards away. They seemed to be celebrating the New Year a week early. Gulliver concentrated and cast a traveling ear spell to check on the family. The sound of snoring always made him smile. Then there was a soft pop from somewhere in the house and the traveling ear burst. Gulliver's world went white and he was numb.
When Gulliver awoke, his right side was wet from the snow he was pressing down. He had no real idea what time it was but it was still dark and a light snow was falling. Shaking the wet clumps out of his hair, he thought he saw the edge of a spell effect at the edge of the fence. It was snowing a little heavier on the estate grounds that was clearly lit by the large full moon. Gulliver put his hands on the wall and vaulted over. He ran toward the house feeling the cold air cut his lungs. The snow tingled when it hit Gulliver's face. The snow swirled along behind him as he ran at the corner of the house. The full moon overhead gave the snow a sparkle and the yard seemed to crackle with electricity. Rounding the corner, Gulliver guessed that whatever was happening was centered on the back yard away from the street.
The grounds were well manicured with clipped grass and sculpted hedges that formed a rough maze back to the center piece of the grounds, a large sundial in the center of a manicured lawn. Gulliver quickened his pace and lept the first hedge when he saw the tiny pajammed body on the sundial's face. He cleared a second hedge and a third. When he lost sight of the sundial for a step or two, he kept on moving until he made the clearing. He hesitated a step before running to the sundial.
The boy was around seven. He had looked younger in the detection spells. Despite a rough shaking, he would not wake up. When he pried an eyelid open, Gulliver saw that the kid's eyes had rolled back up into his head. The hair on his neck stood up and he heard muffled footfalls behind him. Gulliver had time to move a step to the right before something slammed into his back and he went flying across the frozen lawn. He skidded, pushing the snow up in a pile as he slowed. When he drew breath, he felt a familiar pain in his back. He looked back to see an unusual woman behind him.
"You must be the thief that wouldn't die," she said. She stood five and a half feet tall, but the antlers made her six and a half feet in total height. Her all too human skin was pale and purplish, but that might have been the cold. She was wrapped in silky veils that could not have given any protection from the weather. They were fixed to her by a belt of rough hide that had a variety of pouches. Her bare feet were caked with twinkling snow.
Gulliver guessed that she had rammed him in the back. "You must be the bad guy."
"Or visionary. That's for the history books to decide. But you know, the winners write the history books." She was pulling a hand full of glass beads from one of the hip pouches. "My name is Grizzel."
He rolled onto his back. "And you're a tuathan." The pain in his back came back in a rush and he suspected that he had a few cracked ribs.
She laughed. "Are the antlers the dead giveaway?" She pulled her arm back, preparing to throw the beads. "Maybe you're too stupid to die." Grizzel whipped her arm forward.
"Maybe," Gulliver back-flipped to his feet and started tumbling for the hedges as the red and green and yellow glass beads flew in his direction. The beads burst with a hot red fire, green electricity and yellow ice. Tumbling, he did not take a direct hit, but he felt the bursts. Gulliver shouted from just behind the hedge. "You're not supposed to be in the city."
"Deport me," Grizzel said as she made slow motions with her pale arms. A sparkling ball of energy appeared at her right palm and she slung the sparks at the thief.
Gulliver ran along the maze trail and dove into a tumble as the sparkling energy ball flew behind him. He had recognized the spell and it was one that did not miss. The sparkles hit him square in the back and drove him into the brambles of the hedge.
A trickle of cold white energy fell from the moon and landed on the child on the sundial. Grizzel danced with glee and leapt high in the air. "You're too late, thief. You're corpse will bear witness to a new age. Maybe I'll animate you and you can work for me." She danced around the sundial and celebrated in a strange language as the beam of moonlight crackled and thickened.
"The boy is a special child and this is a Holy Night. You should feel blessed."
Gulliver picked himself up out of the hedge and ignored the minor wounds from the branches. His cloak had protected him from the worst of the sparkles. Watching the scene, Gulliver crouched and began casting a spell. Dark energy crackled around his hands and with a whoomp, a ball of darkness appeared over the kid. The falling moonlight was cutting into the dark steadily, but it was stopped for the moment. He began casting again.
Grizzel screamed and started blasting wildly at Gulliver's spot in the hedge, but she had lost track of him in her celebration. She was walking toward, away from the sundial. Surprised by the webs forming around her, she stopped in her tracks. Fire burst from her fingertips and Grizzel burned herself free. The moonlight burned through the dark sphere and lit the child in a cold light.
Gulliver tumbled from the hedges and threw a knife at the woman with the antlers, "let's see you counter that." The spinning knife caught her square in the shoulder. She threw a bit of red ribbon at Gulliver and the strip of shining cloth grew as it drifted through the air. The thief drew his rapier and stabbed the ribbin as it wrapped around his arms and shoulders and finally legs. Gulliver fell over and wriggled a bit in the snow. He managed to get onto his back with his blade out in the air.
Grizzel walked over close to the thief and leaned in closer enough to gloat. "That ribbon will squeeze you until you pass out." She pulled out a dirty little blade. "It must be my birthday," she said.
"I doubt it," a new voice said from the direction of the sundial. Xander was wrapping the child in a blanket as he pulled him off of the snow-covered sundial. "You tuathans try to summon your god at the end of every year." Xander smiled as he drew his longblade. "But you never learn."
Grizzel started to scream, but stopped when the tip of the rapier blade slid out from her chest in a perfect bloodless thrust. She coughed blood once and then fell over dead in the snow pulling the thief over with her.
Purple-faced, Gulliver leaned into her and pushed the rapier blade up to the hilt. "Get me out of this," Gulliver gasped before he slipped to the edge of consciousness.
When he fully awoke, the heavy sparkly snow had stopped and Xander was cutting him free of the ribbons. "Thanks." He enjoyed the deep breath and the headache that came with it. "You did something extra when you quick-cleaned my gear, right?"
"Yeah," Xander said. "I put a tracer on you and came this way when you got knocked out again."
Gulliver sat up in the snow. "So, you used me as bait."
"Not really. I just watched your back." Xander cut Gulliver's legs free. The thick falling moonlight had stopped when he had wrapped the child in the cloth. He went back over to the boy and lifted him up with both arms. "I'll return the child to his bed. You get the woman ready to carry off. Keep whatever you can find." The light snow started filling in Xander's footprints as he walked to the house with the blanket-wrapped boy.
Gulliver cracked his neck and smiled. He stood and remembered the cracked ribs. "Gloryhog."