Dejected, defeated, Sapphire staggered from the capitol building pondering what she was going to tell the others. Perhaps out of sympathy, or as a cruel reminder of how far she had fallen, ‘Ankhirasha had given her a tiny pouch of silver coins. Still, the sum probably wouldn’t satisfy their transporter, let alone get them to Kassar.

It was a long, slow walk to the gate. There at the entrance were the others, waiting for her. Surprisingly they all appeared quite pleased. Sapphire walked through the gate and was about to speak when Pahwon rushed to her.

“We’ve got support; the Prussians have agreed to help us.”

“Really,” she said surprised, “huh-oh, that means…”

“Right, we’re heading back home,” Tossmek said quickly.

“Oh goodie,” Rudolpho muttered.

“Let’s get a move on,” Dusty called.

Elated, Sapphire shook her head, wondering why she hadn’t thought of the Prussians in the first place. After one final look at her sister’s palace, she clambered onto the wagon. The caravan headed for the east gate, winding through the twisting streets of Kharo’ic. The rows of dingy adobe hovels looked almost identical, giving Pahwon the impression that they were going in circles. Before he could voice his concern, however, the massive east gate appeared around the next corner.

As they passed out onto the great plan, Pahwon felt his optimism returning. He pulled out his lucky hat and dawned it, rubbing the worn Emblam with his thumb. Then he looked back and watched the city of Kharo’ic sink out of view. He settled down for a long ride, feeling more confident now than ever before. This was their moment, he thought, and no matter what stood in their way, they would win through. He knew this deep down and it became the truth.

Soshet yawned, trying to concentrate on their mission. Before her stretched the harbor, the great Port of Kassar. Looming in the distance was the small island fortress where the king was held. A cool sea breeze blew in, reminding her of the peaceful walks she once took there. Talaku poked his head out behind her, giving the all clear. With that she retreated into the abandoned building, hoping to get a good look at the pirate’s movements.

In the upper floor they found a good vantage point. Here they made a small nest, passing the binoculars back and forth. It became clear that the pirates had a main ship at the far end of the harbor and several smaller ships closer to their end of the harbor. The patrols along the walkway seemed surprisingly light, suggesting the pirates where growing complacent. All the while she jotted down notes of everything, feeling truly alive again for the first time since the day of horror.

All at once there was a great commotion. The pirates all rushed to the edge of the docks. She looked around for the source of the disturbance, a shout coming from the masses. Finally she spotted the cause. Giorgio Montague had returned. His ship approached the dock, the vessel showing signs of damage, though how it had happened she could only guess. When the ship docked it became obvious something dramatic had happened. The admiral stormed down the gangplank, his face contorted in fury.

As the admiral walked quickly down the road, an idea came to Soshet.

“We should follow him.”

“Wait, what?” Talaku exclaimed, springing to his feet. “Soshet, he’s dangerous. We can’t just go after him.”

“We’ll have to be sure and not get caught then,” she replied, “besides, this whole enterprise is dangerous.”

With that she quickly pocketed her notes and dashed down the stairs. Reluctantly Talaku followed after her. Soshet had lost sight of the admiral, but had a good idea of where he was going. She led the way toward the palace, which had been converted into the pirate’s mainland stronghold. They arrived before the admiral, or so she assumed, but unsurprisingly found the front entryway guarded.

Undeterred, Soshet worked her way around the perimeter wall and found a possible place of entry. In the garden section the wall ended and was overtaken by a row of tall hedges. The pirates must have assumed that something solid ran through the centre and the plants simply grew around them, as there were no guards on either side. Soshet pushed through them, arriving on the palace grounds.

A long, dead lawn stretched to the gleaming white structure. Large domes topped the main buildings, though there were few other decorations. A sense of unease crept through her at the sight. Soshet told herself that she had come too far to turn back and marched across the moat of dead grass.

Carefully, she crouched below a massive window, and listened for anything useful. A pair of feet approached her from behind. Terrified, she spun around, coming face to face with Talaku. She sighed, getting back into her position. Barely a moment had passed when the sound of heavy doors bursting open echoed from within.

“Ah, I have been expecting you, Giorgio,” Came a man’s voice from just above Soshet’s head. “Have trouble in the south?”

“Argider, what have you done?!” Giorgio screamed. “First I lose some of my best men to the Magnus Empire, who somehow have become involved, and now I hear you’ve sent half my men on some wild goose chase?! Are you MAD?!”

“Temper, Giorgio, the way I hear it, you lost your men to some mercenaries hired by a shipping company. Really, now, I thought you were the best?”

“Were are the rest of my men Argider?!”

“They have gone in search of spoils; to Osobnyakgrad just up the Highway.”

“Fantastic, we’re nearly defenseless until they return. Should the Empire…”

“Please, Magnus would not dare. He’s a paper tiger, and nothing more. They wouldn’t dare intervene. The beating you too in Samek just proves that you weren’t worth the money you were paid.”

“Watch it, little man.”

“Don’t fret, this is just a minor inconvenience. My liege’s army will crush Krauss’ hired thugs, and any dissident who would risk their royal family’s lives. Return to the fort Giorgio, I’ll keep you appraised should anything important come up.”

“You know you’re insufferable when you think you have it all figured out, Argider?”

With that the room went quiet. Soshet looked at Talaku before realizing he wouldn’t have understood a word of it. The sound of approaching footfalls drove them into full retreat. They charged through the hedges and into a narrow alleyway. After rushing round the next corner and down three blocks, the two slowed, their panic subsiding. Beside a small bakery they stopped for a moment to regroup, both panting from the run.

“So what did they said?”

“Apparently half their men are gone, a raid on Osobnyakgrad, or something like that,” Soshet replied, “I’ll have to add that to my notes.”

“Err, I’m ready to head home,” Talaku said shaking his head, “this has been quite a day.”

“Yeah, I suppose it has.”

Cautiously they made their way out of the mostly abandoned neighborhood, the vacant houses making Soshet uncomfortable. Those who still braved the streets passed by quickly, their eyes darting all around. Finally they arrived back at her apartment building. Without warning Talaku leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. Soshet blinked, a strange feeling coming over her. He turned to leave

“W-wait, Talaku,” Soshet said quietly, rubbing her cheek, “why don’t you come in for awhile?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he replied noncommittally. “Well, actually…ok then.”

Soshet placed her hand on his arm and lead the way upstairs. They sat in her small living room and relaxed for a while, Soshet getting them coffee. Time seemed to pass slowly, the world outside oddly quiet. After what must have been several hours, Talaku spotted the sun starting to set. Wanting to get home before dark, he promptly rose to leave. Soshet jumped up, dropping her long empty cup to the floor.

“Eh, I need to get going Soshet,” he said hesitantly.

“No, please, I don’t want you to go,” she said quietly.

“But, but I, should,” he stammered, holding the door.

“Please, stay,” she insisted, walking up to him. “Please stay with me.”

He gently embraced her, Soshet reaching around the closing the door.

The caravan trundled down the broken down roadway, vacant desert stretching in all directions. Pahwon put away his carving for fear of cutting his finger open and leaned back for the long ride ahead. Though it felt good returning to Tuparium, the arid north seemed as unfamiliar as the Niemibian wastes. The Via-Dmitriev had certainly seen better days, he thought, pulling the brim of his cap down. After several hours he checked the surroundings again. Still a dried wasteland, though in the distance a few huts could be seen huddled around an oasis.

“Sigh, anything noteworthy coming up?”

“Oh, but of course,” Dusty replied, “Osobnyakgrad is just over the horizon.”

“Really,” Pahwon said sitting up, “I’ve hear it’s a city of mansions stretching as far as the eye can see.”

“That’s it, and we’ll be there by nightfall. Probably run into a few old acquaintances from Dmitriev’s days.”

Dusty was overcome by a dreamy expression which disturbed Pahwon deeply. He returned to his seat, trying to ignore the man’s mumblings. The road smoothed somewhat as the caravan neared Osobnyakgrad, allowing Pahwon to rest fairly undisturbed. In his mind he saw the royal family, or rather the faceless people he knew to be them. He reached towards them but found he had no hands.

The wagon slammed to a halt, jarring Pahwon awake. The visions of his dream were replaced by a new image. The city below was inflames. For a moment he believed the sight before him was just another part of the dream. Then he tasted the smoke.

“By Innana.”

The roaring of the fires and the screams of its fleeing citizens could be heard even from their vantage point. While he stared, dumbstruck, another mansion went up in flames. Pahwon clenched his hands. A pair of shrieking survivors ran towards them, desperation written across their blackened faces. There was a loud bang and one of them fell to the ground.

A man in a dark cloak, a smoking musket cradled in his arm, dashed up the hill and leaned over the fallen figure. The pirate began rifling through the still squirming man’s pockets. Before he realized what he was doing, Pahwon found himself barreling toward the killer an ax in hand. The pirate stumbled backwards, fumbling with his weapon. Pahwon got their first, smashing him upside the head with the blunt edge.

He fell to the ground beside his victim, writhing in pain. Breathing heavily, Pahwon stood back to examine his handiwork. Within moments Tossmek and Hiwei where next to him, Sapphire only a few steps behind. Hiwei leaned over the pirate’s victim and searched for the wound. Under the light of Sapphire’s lantern she found the bloody hole in his torso.

“W-will he live?” Asked his companion.

“Maybe,” Hiwei replied, a glow emanating from her hand, “please, stand back.”

Another shot rang out, sending them all to the ground. Another pirate was just down the hill, though he was now retreating. Pahwon considered running after him, quickly getting to his feet. Tossmek laid a hand on his arm.

“B-but, no, no we have to.”

“Hey, get back up here!” Dusty called, “we need to get while the gettin’s good.”

“No!” Pahwon called, “we need to get these villains!”

“You crazy?” the smuggler retorted, “you’ll get killed!”

“They’re all drunk!” Pahwon said, “if your men help, if you assist us, I’m certain we can take them!”

“What we do something like that for?”

“The loot?” Pahwon suggested, “I don’t know, perhaps the chance at grabbing some of the reward money these aristocrats will offer might tempt you?”

“Pahwon, what are you doing?” Tossmek asked incredulously, “I mean, this is all a risk, but going head on, it just seems, uh.”

“We have the element of surprise,” he said calmly, “And we’re sober, we can do it Tossmek; we will save this town.”

“Err…”

“Come on men,” Dusty called, “let’s get down there and make some-save lives, that’s it.”

The smugglers hopped form their wagons and started into the city. Pahwon scooped up the fallen pirate’s musket and handed it to Tossmek. She took it hesitantly, then nodded.

They descended into the city, passing by a number of fleeing residents. At the back gate of the nearest house a pirate and the house’s owner were fighting. Without hesitating Pahwon dashed forward and clubbed the pirate on the back of the head. He fell to the ground, dazed. The grateful owner quickly thanked him before hauling the pirate into the yard.

He sighed, knowing there were many more to take his place, and continued down the road. At an intersection just ahead, a pair of them were kicking an old man where he lay. Tossmek took aim and fired, winging one of them. The two spun around, drawing their pistols. The initial enthusiasm quickly wore away as he took cover. They fired high and wide, giving Pahwon and Dusty time to close in. At the last moment Pahwon let the ax flip around, striking with the blunt edge.

The other pirate was not so lucky, getting the full force of Dusty’s scimitar. He staggered back, falling in a pool of blood. Pahwon gulped his heart back down. Hiwei aided the old man, Tossmek giving her cover.

“He should recover,” she said breathlessly, “Oh, Pahwon, this is…”

“Look alive,” Tossmek shouted as another foe stumbled into the street.

She fired, the shot slamming into his chest. A cold sensation filled her stomach as the man staggered, then dropped to the ground. She stepped back, looking away from her deed. Pahwon reached out a hand and rubbed her shoulder gently.

“Men, we need split up,” Dusty barked, directing the others down the side road, “Come on, kids, let’s get a move on.”

They cautiously moved up the main road, taking cover whenever possible. Terrified residents slowed at the sight of them. At the steps of the next mansion Pahwon spotted a trio of pirates hauling their loot from the building. One had claimed a young woman, dragging her along by her ponytail. He tapped Tossmek on the shoulder before going in. She fired, wounding the lead one. With lightening speed Pahwon dashed up and clubbed down a second.

Inspired by his actions, or perhaps just seizing the opportunity, the young woman punched her captor in the jaw. While staggered from the blow, Pahwon jumped up and smacked him to the ground. With the resistance ended, the young lady kissed him lightly on the cheek. Barely a second passed before gunfire erupted down the street. A pair of pirates advanced down the street towards the attackers.

Sapphire pulled herself into a shrub and waited for an opening. They were within inches of her, almost done reloading. It was then she sprung into action grabbing the iron gun barrels. With a cold chill their hands froze to the icy metal, stopping them in their tracks. While attempting to pull their burning hands free, Sapphire cooled them both down. In shock form the sudden temperature change, the pirates went down with barley a whimper. Several locals approached them looking confused. One ran over to the young lady and embraced her.

“Thank you, young man.”

“It-t was nothing,” Pahwon assured him, making his way down the street. “Just take care of these ruffians, would you?”

He gravely nodded, walking up to the dazed pirates. Deciding he didn’t need to know how the man intended to take care of them, Pahwon hurried away. Down the road around a block they spotted a torch team entering a manor. Sapphire rushed in first this time, sending a jet of freezing air towards them. This succeeded only in getting their attention. With the pirates taking aim she dove for cover behind the wall. The pistol shots flew wild and the men bid a hasty retreat.

By the time the others got there, the pirates had taken cover behind the far fall and were tossing stones and taking potshots from around the corner. Two more joined them, running from the now blazing mansion across the road. Tossmek returned fire but her one shot missed. Emboldened, the five of them began advancing down the street all in a line.

Hiwei burst from cover, summoning energy into her palm. She took aim at the one in the centre, sending the white hot blast straight into the barrel of his musket. The explosion knocked them all down, permanently. They emerged from cover and inspected the damage. It was nearly the same as the river, though this time no one rose back up to shoot her.

She shrugged and moved on down the road, the others following after. Dusty in particular looked a bit disturbed by the sight. Down a side road came another pair of pirates, these retreating for some reason. Pahwon and the Smuggler smashed them down, spotting the rest of the smugglers men at the other end.

“Oy, boys!” He called, “How many more you think?”

“Not many!” One replied, “These drunks make pickings.”

“We’ll meet in the city centre!”

“Alright boss!”

They continued down the road, armed locals starting to march back into the heart of their town. By the time they neared the city hall, a full blown mob was all around them, the pirates in full retreat. The last of them barricaded themselves in the large town hall. Hoping to gain an advantage, Pahwon cautiously approached a side door. The others followed close behind, hoping he had a plan.

They neared the door just as a torch bearing pirate peered out. With a blast of cold Sapphire extinguished it and sent the man reeling back inside. The Smugger burst in after him, finishing off the downed man. A shot rang out as a pirate down the hall fired upon the intruder. Hiwei spilled in through the door and fired a blast of her own, putting the man’s musket out of commission.

He yelped, dropping the now red hot metal. It hit the rug which went up in a flash. With the last of her waning strength, Sapphire blew out the fire before collapsing from the exertion. They advanced through the smoky hallway, voices shouting in the distance. Strangely they met no resistance in any of the large meeting chamber. A loud noise was emanating from the crowd outside.

Hesitantly, Pahwon approached the windows and peered outside. The people seemed to be making a quite a commotion. With one last look back at his compatriots, he pushed wide the front door and stepped outside. The remaining pirates had surrendered, the prisoners lined up on the stairs. At the sight of him the crowd rushed up the stairs, momentarily frightening him to the core. Then he realized they weren’t trying to kill him, but celebrating him.

He felt shame wash over himself, knowing he had done little to turn back the attackers. Pahwon looked back and beckoned for the others who slowly emerged. The Smugglers eagerly approached the crowd, accepting their accolades. Sapphire was staggering from over exertion, being lead by Hiwei. The whole thing seemed surreal. Tossmek arrived at his side and put her arm around his shoulder. Slowly they descended the stairs through the crowd, wondering what it all meant.

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