… from The Coin:

Prologue

Year 1007 of the Fourth Age

“You! Trying to get into my himell again, huh?” A couple of clumsy fingers fumbled around the mug and plucked at the old coin. “You’re late! I’ve drunk it all! Waiter, one more!”

The young man slammed his mug against the board, and the coin bounced up. A number of stares tore through the curtain of cigarette smoke. A tiny kid sneaked under the table, scared by the crash, and peered up from there. He was watching the coin.

“Interesting, is it … Interesting. Look at this tarnish. Like I just dug it out of some tomb, heh?”

The kid pouted and hid.

The waiter, a scrawny, crooked half-elf, brought the order and an oily grin. “Hope you’ve got some credits to foot your bill.”

“Um … right. Wait a sec, lemme just get my wallet out.” The scholar rummaged through the pockets of his robe, scratched at the bald spot on his crown and peered around. “Seem to have lost my wallet. I’ll look for it again, please come back a bit later …”

He had a vague memory of someone picking his pocket while he was gambling with kobold cards. It wasn’t here. It was in the crypt of the dwarven bar, a block away. He’d left the place with a dreadful headache. Hope I paid my bill. Demon it, did I?

His head grew heavy. Smoke billowed up from the pipe of the ogre opposite him. He took a sip of himell, burped hollowly and fiddled with the coin again. It maneuvered between his fingers and sunk into the grooves on the table.

Was he supposed to use it somehow or hand it to someone? It was crucial … a matter of life and death, he said. Ugh, what a life!

The kid cautiously peeked out from under the table. His eyes followed the coin around. The scholar hiccuped, and the coin sprang from his fingers as if it were enchanted. He leaped to catch it and sprawled on the floor. Hoarse voices rose from the nearby tables. “Baldy fell down! Ha-ha!”

“Ouch!” the scholar cried and shook his hand in the air. “By Helior! Watch your step!”

The waiter, having stomped on his fingers, jumped back.

“And you watch your crawl!” grated the ogre opposite him and wiped liquor from his mouth. “Who cares if you’re a mage? You’re so smashed I’ll crush you easy as pie.”

“They … already did … my hand.” The scholar waved his fingers in front of the ogre’s face, sprawling on the table belly first. He couldn’t recall what he was looking for, but there was a nagging sense he was missing something. “And you, why are you foaming like a rabid beast? Have you got something special with the waiter, heh?”

The kid from before sneaked under a nearby table. That brat … what about him? Ugh … Where’s my wallet?!

Chapter 1

Log 1.1
4 Naonius of the hot season
Solnricht, the central square, 19:50

Lonely gray clouds shed tears over Solnricht. Although only a drizzle, the droplets urged the street salesters to cover their goods. The energy screens on the central square poured out information about the air temperature, the exact time, the population of the capital, and tons of advertisements along the lines of Ikel’s Salamis: Made of the Tastiest Saur Meat.

Mephodi caught a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror window of a Technomart. His hair looked as if the top of a palm-tree had been attached to his head. What’s the point of combing it at all?

Striding along the obsidian tiles, he peered this way and that, fixing his green eyeglass on the building signs. How can I be so careless, Darkonus demon it!

He pulled a communicator from the inner pocket of his robe. He pressed a button, and a hoarse voice came out. “Mephodi, I need you, buddy! I’m in Spak’s tavern. You remember it, right? I’ve brought you here before … Oh, just come! Please! It’s a matter of life and death.”

The speaker burst into coughing, and the communicator fell silent. Mephodi grew as angry as he had the first time he’d heard the message.

He did remember the tavern. He’d even talked with its owner, Spak: a huge green ogre, who had successfully passed the process of resocialization. Solnricht was a metropolis with a population of twenty million, fifteen of which belonged to the higher races: men, elves and dwarves; the other five were a motley mix, from thieving kobolds and resourceful goblins to ogres like Spak. Part of the lesser races had been subjected to resocialization; it was said to purge aggression, purify the animal nature and integrate new modes of conduct. The individual became a trifle safer for society and received the opportunity to join it. But Mephodi—and he was not alone—thought resocialization actually deprived individuals of their selfhood. He felt sympathy for the ogre Spak: he knew that the poor creature was just an experiment, a product of the activities of the United Dwarfo-Human Laboratories. He also knew, however, that had Spak not been resocialized, he’d have gladly smashed Mephodi, just for kicks.

Suddenly the eye behind the crystal eyepiece caught a familiar sight: a blood-red banner hanging between two tenements, advertising the newest model from the dwarven SMSNG communicator series. Whatever that stood for, the banner had become engraved in Mephodi’s memory and served as a landmark. He headed for the alley, but had to stop and step back. Some moron riding a do-it-yourself bike covered with street warrior slogans whizzed by him, almost running down a dreamy goblin kid. An old goblin leaped from the workshop opposite, grabbed the kid, and hurled him inside, screaming and hissing in his native tongue after the biker.

“Stupidity is a vice!” yelled the street warrior before disappearing down the street.

“What is this world coming to?” Mephodi muttered and turned into the puddle-filled alley.

The rain was getting stronger and might damage his communicator. Nowadays, even mages had come to rely on these buzzing bores. No student at the Institute of Magic would strain her senses concentrating magical energy when her connection to the world lay in her pocket.

Mephodi did not like his curriculum. Spells that were needed every day were not taught at the beginning as they should have been, but were left for the end. He’d learned how to make fireballs already in first level, yet he was still unable to communicate with other scholars via magic. All because the major donors of the institute were corporations manufacturing communicators. Such a practice stultified practical spells in the eyes of the public.

Thanks to his gift for deciphering runes and all sorts of ancient writings, Mephodi had access to far more information than his peers. He still couldn’t manage most practical spells, yet he knew things his reachuts did not even suspect. Watching him rummage through the dusty books on the uppermost shelves in the library, the other scholars and even some reachuts thought him crazy. Only Fadgnal, the reachut in General Theory, had fathomed the nature of his gift and had become his personal mentor. The old mage knew that Mephodi possessed something unique. He did not just translate the words written on a scroll or carved in ancient stones; he had a gift for penetrating their true meaning. Yet this gift was a two-edged sword. Ancient lore released formidable powers—and that always posed risks.

The drizzle that Mephodi had hardly noticed a while ago was turning into a downpour. He broke into a run and rushed into the tavern. He slipped in a puddle on the floor but managed to say an aerial spell. He flew past a group of drunken dwarves, did an impressive pirouette in mid-air and landed on his feet.

“I give him nine out of ten,” a dwarf blurted out. He sported a “kobold bathroom brush” haircut and plentiful facial piercings.

“Hic, eight out of ten,” said another, whose bald pate might well serve as a mirror.

“And I,” said the last one, wiping at his unsightly face, “ain’t giving him nothing. He splashed me all over, sorcerous swine! And with my own himell too, after you laid waste to it with your fat hands. Serves me right for letting you flapping them around!”

“I beg your pardon.” Mephodi felt embarrassed, but had no time to listen. He cast another air spell to dry his hair and robe and stepped forward.

“Oooh, Mephodi, what’s up!” Spak’s bass voice startled him. “Come, take a seat.” The ogre indicated a stool next to a man sleeping at the bar. “Rad’s been waiting for quite a while. Hmm, napping’s more like it.”

Mephodi’s smile came out rather lopsided as he walked around to the far side of the oval bar.

“Mephodi …” Rad half-rose and only then lifted his eyelids. He coughed, one hand still gripping a half-empty glass of something that looked like dwarven ale. “At long last! I’ve dozed off here … um … having a drink. It’s elvish fruit nectar, you know.”

“Right, and I’m your auntie,” Mephodi grinned, taking the place next to him. “Let’s cut the nonsense. Tell me why you called.”

“Ever the man of action!” Rad said. “All right, let’s see. Remember you told me about that thing … Your gift for reading, the funny writings and all.”

Rad paused to let Mephodi order a glass of juice and coughed almost until Spak brought the glass.

“We did talk about it, but what does it have to do with your problem? I hope you haven’t told the whole world what I can do?” Mephodi gave him a concerned look.

“You underrate me! I’m not that dumb.” Rad spun his index finger by his temple. “I know assolutely well it’s a secret. Between the two of us and the old fart. You know, Reachut Fadgnal.”

“First of all, don’t insult the reachut in my presence—he’s a decent man. Second, one says absolutely, not—”

“Oh, lay off me.” Rad buried his fingers into his hair. Although he was Mephodi’s age, his black, once very wild mane had now thinned out, especially in the middle, forming a desert island surrounded by an ocean of prickly hairs. “So here’s the deal. I’ve got, that is, I used to have a coin. Ohh, so much himell has flowed since noon … So, the coin, it was very strange, covered in writings. There was an image and … Huh, I’m sure it’s important. But while … okay, I’ll get on with it, I was playing a new game with kobold cards—when I felt someone pick my pocket. I saw the thief. A midget or something. The tiniest shrimp, I’m telling you. He vanished in seconds. Wasn’t a kobold. He had long ears, the filthy brat, but was no goblin either. His ears weren’t green. He must’ve used magic!”

Mephodi looked at him curiously. His intuition told him this story held more than met the eye.

“And just imagine,” Rad went on. “What a fool I made of myself. I couldn’t pay my check so I left my communicator as collateral. When I was settling things up with that moron the waiter, the bartender looked at me like I was a nasty insect. Ah, forget it. I wanted to talk with you about the coin. I have to find it because … Ugh, anyway, it’s important. And buddy, there’s more. I didn’t drink just here—so I can’t say where it happened. Dammit.”

“I see.” Mephodi sighed quietly. “Now, to start with, try describing the coin. Everything you saw on it.”

Log 1.2
4 Naonius of the hot season
Solnricht, the bar behind Kalavulda Station, 19:30

The usual afternoon crush in the bar behind Kalavulda Station lacked nothing. Dozens of dwarven mugs, oodles of humans, chaotically scattered but sticking out in their pretentious suits—humans always paid the utmost attention to their looks—and, here and there, a genteel long-eared elf, with annoyingly perfect manners and bearing. A baggily dressed kid wormed his way among the legs of pilots and passengers and collected the small coins that slipped from careless fingers. Kia noticed him right away. He had bright eyes, and his face hinted at elvish origins.

An elf thief! She watched him “discover” a few larger credits at his feet.

The little creep uses magic. She frowned, as she slipped her silver-gloved hand out of a large man’s pocket. Her fingers clutched yet another bulging wallet. The little elf cast her a piercing look. She winced under the visor of her light helmet.

She was a step away from the kid when he tripped over his baggy trouser-leg and tumbled down at her feet. She ran into him and fell over. She realized she’d dropped the wallet. An instant later, the kid held it.

“Long-eared scum!” growled the wallet’s hulking owner, lifting the kid by his loose sweater. The man’s fist shot toward the fragile face.

Kia was faster. She clutched his hefty hand and bent it backward. “He made a mistake, but he doesn’t have to die for it. Come outside and fight an adult.”

The grating voice startled both the attacker and his victim. The man measured up the elf’s defender. He let go of the kid, snatched his wallet back, grunting, and at last said, “I won’t fight you. If you’re as ugly as you sound, Helior murdered you when you were born!”

Kia tensed. The elf’s penetrating gaze had shifted from her visor to the voice modulator covering her mouth. “Get lost,” she told him, and turned very slowly, following each movement of the stranger with the side sensors of her helmet. “Don’t you ever lay your hands on a child!” she said in lieu of goodbye.

A fiery ball pulsed in her stomach. Any time she had to fight, fear all but paralyzed her. She knew her equipment would protect her. She could handle a much larger attacker. She would just bring him down and run away. But she couldn’t kill anyone. She dreaded the moment when she’d have to take a life.

“That’s enough for today,” she muttered as she walked out.

The stolen credits wouldn’t last her long. Until the end of the month? Or at least my birthday? Hah … I’m coming of age. She tossed her head. Eighteen years spent surviving and … What else? Is there anything?

The white stars overhead, the radiant night rocks from Aurelion’s asteroid belt, a favorite sight for all romantics, and the nondescript tramps hanging outside the bar hurled the word “loneliness” back at her. She turned round automatically, and she met the gaze of the tiny thief. He was studying her. Her intuition warned her of no danger.

“Well, you saved your hide today. Now go!” she said in her nasty transformed voice. For the first time in so many months, she regretted she could not take off her helmet. Her face, despite the short hair, remained a girl’s face.

She walked on, past Kalavulda Station. She didn’t plan to travel tonight. She wanted to compose her thoughts; the incident in the bar had jumbled them. The image of the bully she’d almost fought and the elf’s eyes haunted her. Tomorrow, however, she’d have to flee Solnricht. She’d worked all the larger bars. Someone would recall her suit, making the connection to their lighter pockets.

She ambled along the platform, which glistened under the bright night sky. There was no-one around. Still, she couldn’t get rid of the feeling someone was watching her. Her suit shone with a cold metallic luster, and in that moment, the world felt completely empty. Kia stopped and raised her eyes to the sky. The rocks of the asteroid belt seemed to summon her, up there, far away … Her delicate fingers gripped the heavy belt holding all the credits she’d “earned” during the day, and she heaved such a sigh that her breath came out of the modulator as a growl. Behind her, someone’s tiny footsteps froze.

Kia spun around and met the little elf’s curious eyes for the third time this evening. She got mad. She didn’t want to get involved in some kid’s silly tale. She hated to be part of anyone’s story. She also hated magic and the tiny trace of elvish blood that flowed in her own veins.

“You’ve got long ears, but they don’t seem to work!” Kia rumbled in her nasty voice. “Didn’t I tell you to go home?”

The elf tried to put on a stern expression; instead, his face twisted as if he was coming up with a new prank. He blew a raspberry at her, and Kia laughed out. She’d seen only human children act like that. She’d never suspected that a young elf could do it. You’re cute, there’s no denying it.

“You forgot your wallet.” The elf handed it to her with a sly smile.

“Keep it. Let it remind you that you have to be more careful,” the modulator rumbled. Kia turned around and walked on.

“You don’t have anywhere to sleep, do you?” The kid trotted behind her.

“That’s none of your business!” She grabbed his sweater and loomed over him. “Go away,” she hissed softly.

The growling whisper didn’t disturb the elf. He made another face and blew another raspberry. A noisier one. Kia wiped the spit off her visor with her free hand. “You’re an awful pest,” the modulator grumbled.

“I know a tavern close by,” he said as she let go of him. He smoothed out his baggy clothes as much as he could. “We’ll find a free bench or two. Drunks sleep at the tables there, no-one will care about us.”

Kia considered the idea, then looked into his bright eyes. Both of them certainly had enough credits to sleep in the inn where she usually stayed. But if they were to get there at this time of the night, they’d have to hang around the bus stops for more than an hour, and one of their victims might spot them. She felt as if the two of them were the only beings left on this planet; if she didn’t go with him, she’d miss her last chance for a normal talk.

“All right, lead the way,” she said more softly. “I won’t leave you alone in the night, but tomorrow you drop out of sight, okay?”

He strolled in front of her, dragging his long trouser-legs along the glittering platform. He looked so tiny Kia wondered if she’d invented him. A miniature, almost perfect fancy to help her drive away her loneliness and tension.

Log 1.3
4 Naonius of the hot season
Solnricht, Spak’s tavern, 20:11

The tavern was stuffy and noisy. The patrons were just regular barflies. The late hour had had its say: most heads swayed in a stupor above the tables.

“There, in the corner.” Kia leaned over so the elf could hear her. He turned his head, and his tapering ear rubbed against her visor. He burst out laughing. Kia squeezed his shoulder and lugged him toward her spot of choice. She hated it whenever she caught herself feeling affection for anyone.

The child sat on the broad bench next to her and almost propped his delicate chin on the edge of the table.

“Tomorrow, you have to go for real,” the modulator wheezed out; unwittingly, Kia had spoken aloud her thoughts.

She turned to face a skinny waiter with greasy hair. She ordered soup and argo juice. When he was gone, she looked at the elf’s face again. “You managed to pick his pocket while I was talking to him.”

“I just tried your way.” He smiled innocently.

“I saw you rely mostly on magic. This makes you careless,” rattled the modulator. “Learn to change places! Take long breaks from bars you’ve worked. You’re still very young, but don’t let yourself get caught. If they catch you, you’ll get a mentor right away, and that sucks. Mentors are like masters. You become their property.”

“Do you work for anyone?” The child trailed his thin forefinger along a deep crevice on the table, never removing his gaze from her.

“I …” she gurgled. “It is …”

The sleazy-haired waiter dumped a discolored cup full of greasy soup in front of them. Inside swam minced red vegetables, a few suspicious chunks of meat, and a rather long piece of hair which stuck up, like a straw.

The kid wrinkled his nose. “Do I have to eat it?”

Kia noticed that two strangers were glaring at them. One pointed at the kid and gestured nervously at the other.

“You’re gonna get me into more trouble,” she hissed. The gesticulating man chose that moment to rush at them. The elf froze, and Kia pulled him behind herself. “Hide and come find me when it’s over!”

“Rad!” cried the attacker’s companion and ran after him.

“Whatever you’re looking for, you’ve got the wrong address,” grated Kia’s modulator at them.

“I recognized him at once! I’ll teach him where ogres come from. He owes me something!” Rad looked angry, yet ready to solve the problem without a fight. He stopped in front of Kia, pointing at the elf. “He stole a coin from me which won’t do him any good in any bar.”

A long ear sticking up past the edge of the table vanished again.

“I said I’ve got something of mine on him,” snarled Rad. “Get out of my way if you don’t want to get hurt!”

“The child is with me,” said Kia. “If you want to get him, you’ll have to deal with me first.”

Rad thumped his fist on the table. The greasy soup spilled over and trickled down between the grooves. Kia did a backflip to avoid the fireball that shot from Rad’s hands.

Rad’s companion stepped between them, spreading his arms. “Please, let’s settle this like gentlemen!”

This guy, what world does he live in?

A sudden tumult burst out.

“That one!” yelled someone, pointing at Kia. “He robbed me yesterday!”

“Thieves!” another one cried.

“There he is! The little elf over there! He stole my credits before I knew anything,” a plump lady explained.

“Let’s get out of here,” Rad’s companion shouted.

“To the exit!” Kia pulled the elf out from under the table and hauled him across the crowd, squeezing his sweater. She pushed through with the energy lightgun. If worse came to worst, she’d turn her jetpack on. By Helior, hope I won’t have to. There’s such a crowd in here … someone will burn!

“Make way if you feel like living!” the modulator growled at a goblin, and the elf showed him his tongue. Rad and his companion followed them closely, shouting that they would deal with the thieves outside and didn’t wish for anyone to get hurt.

At the entrance, Kia decided it was time for the jetpack, and squeezed the elf’s sweater even tighter. Rad looked as if he’d figured out her intention, but didn’t stop her. It was the five men outside who did: wearing the blue and white outfits of the city watch, their energy quickguns leveled at the fugitives.

“Spak’s overdone it,” Rad muttered.

“In the name of Helior, surrender your arms!” ordered the preonor in charge of the patrol.

Kia set her lightgun on the ground and laid a hand on the elf’s head. “Hide the coin,” she whispered.

The kid smiled slyly. “If’th … my falithman,” he lisped. “Giving if away meanth bav luck.”

“We are detaining you for theft and commotion in a public place,” said the preonor, as they frisked everyone.

The elf dumped all coins from his pockets and blew a raspberry at the paladin struggling with his baggy clothes. Still, he seems a bit afraid, Kia thought. Didn’t spatter so much spit this time.

Log 1.4
4 Naonius of the hot season
Solnricht, Station Six of the city watch, 22:38

Kia looked daggers at Rad. Not that he could see her through the visor. The paladins had detached her jetpack and taken her lightguns, but hadn’t made her remove the suit. She’d lied it was a life-support system that only her GP could handle. I wonder what sort of freak they think I am.

They’d been forced into an empty group cell until the morning. It was too late to identify them or find out if they posed any threat to the other inmates.

We’ll have to sleep on the floor. She looked around the cell. They could’ve at least brought a mattress for the child.

Her suit threw a reflection on the polished wall. She could watch Rad gesturing at the other scholar—Mephodi, was it?—without having to face the two. Probably Rad couldn’t see any exit either. The doors were made of armored glass, capable of withstanding both heavy fire and powerful offensive spells. Kia sighed noiselessly, imagining the face of her mentor if he had to get her out of here. Dorios has connections all across Solnricht, she soothed herself. He’ll grumble a bit, fine me, and he’ll be all right.

The child, taking very little space next to her, almost lost in his baggy clothes, was quiet. Is he sleepy? Or worried enough to keep silent? He pretended to be asleep, but now and then opened an eye to peer around.

“I shoulvn’f have tholen in the favern,” he whispered after making sure the mages weren’t watching him. “Why vo they neev thith coin? If’th worth nothing, righf? Vo you wanf fo thee if?”

“Not now.” Kia watched the mages herself.

“I’ll hive if beffer. If’th unver my fongue!” The child gave a sly smile.

Rad turned his head toward them, letting his gaze linger.

The kid fooled you. You spat it all out. Kia laughed on the inside. Spoiled scholars. You don’t catch a thief with magic.

The child took a piece of pink bubblegum from his pocket and put it into his mouth. After chewing it well, he wrapped it around the coin with his tongue, spat it out, and stuck it to the white sole of his shoe. Kia’s visor turned back to Rad. He was whispering fiercely to Mephodi. The two looked as if they were about to start an argument. The child became tense again.

“We’ll be all right,” the modulator wheezed.

Mephodi kept glancing at them. It was Rad, however, who looked more belligerent. He itched to kick up a fuss, Kia could tell from a mile away. He argued and flailed his arms, massaged his sinuses and ranted about the coin. Kia watched them closely, but there were more pressing issues at hand. She had to find a way out, and soon. Things might get more complicated in the morning. Someone was bound to figure out her suit obeyed voice commands. They could make her remove it, which was as bad as being nude. I can’t wait for Dorios. Have to slip away during the night. I’ve saved some credits. Yes, I can buy myself off. I can go anywhere, but what’s the point? Dorios protects me. It’s a master-slave thing, but still … Oh, Darkonus demon it!

She threw an arm across the elf’s shoulders. He looked at her, but said nothing.

“You can stay with me awhile,” she whispered with a hiss. “I’ll teach you a few things. We’ll work together.”

“Guess I’ll stay.” The elf suddenly smiled. “Tomorrow, they’ll put us together in the thieves sector.”

Kia was about to praise his composure when she sensed some movement outside. Rad and Mephodi fell silent. The new shift of guards had arrived. The child also turned to look across the armored glass.

Are you going to eavesdrop across the handcuffing opening? You’d better go and stretch your arms. They’ll cuff you … or will they? Where will they get bracelets for these thin wrists? Kia’s laughter came out as a crackle.

The taller new paladin was an elf, and the other one, smaller and flabby, a human.

“Tarres, you look grouchy, dude,” the human said, rubbing at his potbelly. “Relax, take a drop after the shift. You’re a preonor now!”

“Easy for you to say, Caleb.” Kia could see the elf’s tense posture even from this far. “You’re still young. It’s taken you little to get here. I wasted all of my life. My father disgraced me when he dumped us. And I have had to prove to everyone I’m not a turncoat.”

Is it better to not deal with parents? Or to bear with a wimpy turncoat if your other parent is decent?

Tarres fell silent, staring vacantly into the distance. Caleb turned around to look at the cell. His eyes examined Kia first, the elf child next. The boy pouted and closed his eyes. The paladin went on to examine the other corner, where Mephodi and Rad argued in whispers.

So? They don’t look frightening either, do they?

“Why have they been left to sleep on the floor?” Caleb said. “We can offer them a free mattress or two. They don’t seem dangerous, and there’s a child too.”

“Sounds like they’ll enjoy your idea, preonor.”

The smug face of another elf, who seemed to have materialized out of nowhere, made the guards freeze. The emblem on the right side of his armor proclaimed him to be a quadronor: a fourth-rank paladin. “After all, it’s only fine gentlemen we’re dealing with here. Must be the crème de la crème of our society, wouldn’t you say, preonor?”

His eyes bore into Caleb. The preonor stood to attention, saluted and cried, “Confirmative, quadronor!”

His comrade gave him a scornful look.

“Why!” the newcomer said sarcastically. “An unexpected response, preonor. Quite unexpected. What’s your opinion, compatriot?” His mocking eyes rested on Tarres.

“Whatever you say, Quadronor Raphael.”

“So someone knows me here, after all?” Raphael’s face stretched into a grotesque grin. He stroked the few black hairs outlining his goatee, looked at the four prisoners and narrowed his eyes. “Now let’s examine the celebrities. Currently, Spak’s tavern is abuzz with talk of them.” He motioned for the paladins to open the door and strutted into the cell. He was made for wearing a uniform: tall, slim, with haughtily tapering ears and the gaze of a mountain bird—like the one painted between the two bright yellow suns on his blue pauldrons. The armor of his white and blue outfit sparkled with cleanliness. Heavy boots held his lean legs.

“My, what have we here?” Raphael stared at Kia’s visor, pointing dramatically. “Curious! And curiouser!”

What’s with your attitude, quadronor? It doesn’t suit you. Kia smiled. A self-loving clown. I’m gonna use that.

“So you’re the renowned Tin Man, are you not?” Raphael was just saying. “I’d love to see that gorgeous face.” He sneered. Apparently he knew everything the city watch had learned about the arrestees, including Kia’s hastily made-up lie about her life-support suit.

“It’s not funny,” she said, following his lead. Her intuition prompted her to keep his attention. “If I remove this helmet, I’ll die in a matter of seconds. You don’t want my death to weigh on your exalted conscience, do you?”

“Oh, what a pretty voice.” The elf’s face turned grim. Perhaps he disliked anything crippled and biologically weaker than himself. “First I must teach you some manners, young man. When you talk to a quadronor,” he gestured at his insignia, “you must address him as ‘Sir.’ When you talk about yourself to a quadronor, you may use the phrase ‘ungrateful worm.’ And pray don’t speak to me about conscience. Quadronors have none.”

He faced Mephodi and Rad next, tossing back his waist-long black hair, partly held in a ponytail. “Gentlemen scholars, how could you end up here?”

It was a well-placed taunt. Their stripes marked them as fifth-level scholars: the highest institute grade. To get involved in petty theft and commotion, after having studied magic for five years, and even worse, to not be able to avoid the consequences—it made them look like complete bumblers.

“Do you think your recent activities suit an exemplary scholar?” Raphael shook his head, much like an angry parent. “I expected more of you.”

He turned his back on them. His gaze pierced the elf child, who had huddled next to Kia. “Caleb, Tarres, I thought we decontaminated the prison recently!” he cried. “How did this little rodent survive?” He crouched, pressing his fingers against the floor. His eyes drew almost level with the child’s. “I heard you have something that concerns me.”

The child stiffened. Rad’s face paled.

So that was no pointless swaggering. He wants the coin!

“My subordinates couldn’t find it, but I am sure it’s still on you.” Raphael searched the child’s clothes. The elf remained stone-still, unresisting. Angry, the quadronor got hold of him and lifted him up as he rose.

“You can’t manhandle a child like that!” Kia shouted, when he turned the child upside down.

Rad, who had approached them, stopped short. He gawked at the child’s sole. There was a pink piece of bubblegum on it, and glinting underneath, the edge of the coin.

Raphael smirked, pulled the gum off and let the child down, looking triumphant. “Yes, that’s the one. Just as my father described it. Ugh, this is sticky,” he said, removing the coin and cleaning the gum off his fingers with a sour face. Seemingly unaware of his surroundings, he stared at his find, spellbound.

Rad bared his teeth. A fiery ball rolled between his palms. Mephodi, who stood calm behind him, put a restraining hand on his shoulder. That seemed to be all—but the coin suddenly slipped from Raphael’s fingers. The child skittered at his legs, snatched it and rushed to Kia. She was the only one who saw him thrust it into his mouth. Rad looked around in puzzlement, then back at the silly grin on Raphael’s face.

“What’s up, Rad, old buddy?” said the quadronor in an altered voice.

Rad turned to Mephodi, grinning. “No way, man! You’ve seized his mind? So you can do that too? You rule, Mephodi! You’re the best!”

“Quiet, we must hurry! The spell’s wearing off,” Mephodi gritted out.

Raphael looked deadpan. His arms straightened, like for a march, and his hands flexed into fists. He was obviously struggling to counteract the spell, but all he managed was a twisted face. He headed for the exit stiffly. “Guards, open up,” he ordered. “I’m letting you off your shift. There’s been a mistake here, and we owe an apology to the gentlemen.”

The guards saluted and obeyed the order without a murmur.

Mistakes seem to be common, then. Kia felt both happy and troubled. How many relatives and friends can a quadronor release on a single night? Even if they murdered someone …

She stopped and pushed the child behind her so she would walk between him and the scholars. Rad had just shoved past her rudely. Mephodi looked tense and concentrated.

The hell with those enchanters! No-one sues anyone for magic anymore, like they used to. She touched her holster. She’d set her sensors to let her see the child at the back, but also keep track of Rad’s neck in front. If she’d had at least one of her lightguns, she’d have felt safer.

Their cell was in the prison basement, but Mephodi apparently managed to ferret the shortest route out of Raphael’s brain. The quadronor escorted them, his face pale with internal struggle. He looked like a victim of a nasty headache. He halted briefly as if he’d sensed something wrong, but then he wished them sweet dreams and even saluted, apologizing once again on behalf of the city watch.

When they remained alone outside the police station and turned down the first quiet cross street, Kia tensed up, drew the child close to herself and waited for the next unpleasantness.

Rad spun toward them. Anger and excitement vied on his face. “You’ll have to give me back the coin, kid.” His eyes sparked with unmistakable menace.

“You’ll take it later,” Mephodi interfered, unexpectedly. “Now we must get away from here.”

“Do you intend to drag these lowlifes with us?” Rad looked puzzled. Kia squeezed the elf’s shoulder.

“They’re coming with us,” Mephodi said.

“Why, are you … I—”

“No bickering now! I said they’re coming with us.” The young mage’s face looked stern. “We’re wasting time, and Raphael is soon going to regain his senses … and you shut up. You owe me a communicator.”

“Hah! Poor you!” Rad snapped.

Kia decided to trust her intuition, although that troubled her for the first time ever. The two scholars didn’t pose a particular threat. She shot a glance at the child. He looked calm. His eyes reflected the asteroids in the night sky. The cold glow of the dead sun Darkonus barely showed against the bright stars, but it reminded them that the Dark God still had a few hours before giving way to Helior, the lord of daylight.

Mephodi led them along a broad, illuminated street toward the city center. The group followed him in silence. The mage was smart. He picked a route that would keep them away from any potential pursuers. However, they were quite a motley crew. Kia and the elf could easily be recognized from their descriptions, even by a paladin who’d never seen them.

“Now what? Are we gonna sit down in the middle of the city square and wait to get cuffed again?” Rad’s wrought-up voice startled the child. The elf twisted his mouth, probably probing at the coin. He looked up at Kia’s visor.

Mephodi said nothing.

“What did you do to that Raphael?” The elf’s eyes, large and bright, fixed on Mephodi’s face as soon as the mage stopped to wait for them.

“Nothing special.” Mephodi smiled. “A little spell. Actually, I ordered him to go back to the cell where we were and lock himself in. That’ll give us a long head start.”

The elf giggled, and Mephodi’s face brightened up. Perhaps he realized why the Tin Man protected the boy. The elf was like a touch from a better world.

“Excellent,” Kia said. “I think it’s time we went our separate ways. We’re grateful for getting us out, but—”

“But nothing!” roared Rad. “I want the kid to give me the coin back! Then, if you will, go to Darkonus or whatever demon you prefer.”

“I don’t have it.” The child stepped away from Rad, following his every movement.

“I think it’s in your lying mouth! Give it back immediately!”

The elf took out the coin, taking another step back. He wiped it into his pants, tossed it up, and as they watched him catch it, the coin vanished somewhere in his clothes. “I won’t give it to you! It’s my talisman,” he said proudly and blew a raspberry at Rad, showering him in spit. Kia’s modulator snorted loudly.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to settle this in the middle of the square,” Mephodi said. He turned to Rad. “Let’s go to your place. The paladins know we’re scholars and will look for us in the dorms, but they don’t know our names. Nor about your apartment.”

The elf’s eyes turned to Kia’s visor. They couldn’t stay in the street. They couldn’t hang around Kalavulda Station either. Mephodi’s offer sounded good, except for Rad’s demands for the coin.

Kia considered her options. She didn’t care about this coin, though it had roused her curiosity. She was more worried about the child. “We’ll come along,” she wheezed out, when Mephodi looked at her visor expectantly. The elf trustingly caught her hand, and she squeezed his little fingers in her glittering glove.

“Don’t be afraid,” she whispered, as they went down a street away from the square.

“I’m not,” he said.

“I’m Kia. How about you?”

“I know! I …” The elf raised his brows. “Haven’t met a boy named Kia. It’s funny!”

“How about you?” the modulator snarled, a bit more sternly.

“I …” He chuckled. “I’m Aik. Just Aik. Three letters, just like yours.”

Mephodi and Rad walked in front of them. The black-haired mage kept glancing at them over his shoulder. The blond one appeared to be deep in thought.

“We’re almost there. What’s wrong?” Rad said, as they turned round a corner.

“I’m thinking,” Mephodi said. Absently, he touched his green eyeglass.

They stopped in front of a twenty-story building. From below, it appeared to touch the brilliant asteroid rocks.

“Ugh!” The elf slumped on the ground.

“Aik! What is it?” Kia leaned over him, cursing the visor and the modulator.

“I feel sick,” the child sighed. “Guess I’m tired. Must be that soup in the tavern, though.”

“The soup? But you didn’t taste any of it.”

“Actually, I drank some of it as it poured across the slit on the table. I hope I didn’t eat that huge hair too.” Aik shrugged as he sat on the ground. The three adults burst into laughter. Hmm. Even Rad seems to like the pilfering kid.

Kia lifted the child with one hand and urged their host to lead them on. They all needed nice food and a bit of rest.