Some of his men had had an affinity for explosives over the years, but not Christoff. At times they could be effective, but they were inelegant, uncontrolled, tactless: all traits that the bandit leader would never willingly espouse. At the moment, though, he didn’t just dislike explosives; he hated them. Whatever that woman had used on the mouth of his cave, it had managed to collapse the first ten feet of the hillside, crushing six of his men who’d been a little too quick for their own good. It had taken hours for those behind them to finally remove enough rubble and pulped bodies to make their way into the open air again.
“They’re too far gone,” Remi said apathetically. “We don’t even know which way they went.” The sharpshooter spun his new pistol a time or two in his hand.
Christoff gave him a wordless, sideways glance, then turned his attention back to the forest before him, staring at it intently, as if to ferret out his quarry simply with his gaze. It was a little warmer that night than it had been for the week prior, but the chill still hung in the air. He flipped up the collar on his coat and crossed his arms stiffly.
“Which way should we go, boss?” Gregor asked, lumbering up behind the two.
The leader turned briefly to see who spoke to him. Recognizing the big ape of a man, he turned back to his perusal. “We’re not chasing them, Gregor,” he replied, running a tense finger along the scar on his face.
“But—” the large man contested, “they’re injured, and they saw our hideout. And they have your rocks!” He added the last one as though he had any idea what it meant.
“Yes, I know,” the scarred man replied, gritting his teeth. He still didn’t turn to look at his oversized underling.
Gregor went on, pointing out into the wood, “We could catch them if we—”
“Shut up!” Christoff yelled, turning to face a man who stood at least half a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier. Jamming his finger into Gregor’s chest, he drove the man backwards toward the wreckage of the cave mouth a few inches at a time: “We can not catch them, Gregor, because we don’t know where they went. They have more than an hour’s lead; our lair is exposed; and between the charr and that bitch with the explosives, the gang is down nine men.” He stopped driving the big man but continued to glare at him spitefully as he waved him away. “If you want to do something, then use those muscles of yours to clear the entrance. Leave the brainwork to those who have one.”
Gregor, turned and trudged off toward the filthy men and women still moving the pile of boulders from around the mouth of the cave. Once he was gone, the leader turned back, snapping at Remi, “And you, stop playing with that pistol and do something useful. Go get a tally of all the gunpowder left after that blast, and—”
“Boss?” He was interrupted by someone else. Remi’s eyes widened.
The leader flared his nostrils only a second before he spun around, grabbing the newcomer by the coat. “It is rude,” he growled, “to interr—” He paused, still holding Smidge’s coat. To the man’s side was a bound asura, smaller than most, cloaked and hooded in black, with only his bright yellow eyes shining out beneath the cowl, reflecting the firelight by which the other bandits were working.
“Boss,” the shell-shocked guard went on, “I’m— I’m sorry. We— ah, Miranda and me, we found him snooping around up on the hill, we did. Just before the explosion, see. Thought you’d want to know, but— but we can take him somewhere—”
“No,” Christoff said, releasing his man’s collar. He gave the coat a quick dusting with his hand as he collected himself. New considerations flooded his mind. “You’re right, Smidge, quite right. Very good. I do want to talk to our— guest. Remi,” the leader said while narrowing his gaze on the asura, “relieve Smidge of our new little friend, and bring him with me.” With that, he dismissed the guard, and turned toward the cave mouth.
He walked several yards ahead of Remi and the captive, past the other bandits still working to clear the entrance, through the narrow tunnel precariously dug through the fallen stone, and on into the caverns. He quickly realized just how horrible a condition his previous captives had left their hideout in. He could barely take two steps without crunching shattered bits of wood underfoot. Even the escapee’s own belongings were a scattered mass of debris, leaving little if anything to salvage. He skirted around a pair of corpses, men killed at the monstrous charr’s hands. One no longer had legs; they’d been hacked off in a single stroke. He remembered that clearly enough from the struggle. All Christoff had lost, and he still didn’t have captives to show for it, all because of that charr. It was always the accursed charr. Every bit of it infuriated him, but he kept that to himself, aware that a second opportunity had now presented itself.
Passing the decimated main room, he took a torch from the hand of a man doing cleanup. He, Remi, and the asura made their way farther into the caverns, beyond the partial stone wall erected by the sylvari and down the winding corridor into the mess hall. Since no damage had come to that room, the torches on the walls were still lit, casting a warm, dancing light around the room.
Christoff gestured at a table, and Remi promptly pulled out a chair and forced the asura into it. Giving his torch to Remi, he seated himself across from the suspicious trespasser, who’d yet to say a word. The sharpshooter stood to the side, pistol in hand again. He was clearly uninterested in what transpired, but ready and happy to shoot the prisoner at a moment’s notice.
Across the table, each one silently sized up the other, the asura without expression and the bandit leader with his usual smirk once again drawn across his face. Remi had pulled back the prisoner’s hood, revealing minuscule, downward-pointed ears barely sticking out from under a thick head of wild, dark-red hair. As was the case with some asura, his irises were so wide they stretched almost the whole width of his eyes, revealing no whites. There was just yellow, the lemon yellow of a cat’s eyes, fearlessly taking in all the sights of the room at once.
“So, my little friend,” the man began, leaning in to rest his crossed arms on the table, “what should I call you?”
The asura blinked slowly and shifted in his chair. “Whatever you like. I don’t care.”
Christoff narrowed his gaze. “No, I think you misunderstand. What is your name?”
The little figure leaned back in his chair. Even under his light weight, the shoddy chair squeaked. “What’s yours?” he asked.
The leader’s lips tightened briefly, before spreading back into a smirk. “You don’t seem to grasp the situation. You are my captive. I’ll be asking the questions.”
“Be that as it may,” the asura replied curtly, with his bound hands resting in his lap, “you clearly want something from me, or I would not be sitting here. So, bookah, you’re going to have to play the game too. What should I call you?”
The bandit lord considered for a moment, trying to contain his frustration behind his tightening smirk. In the end, he thought, it wouldn’t matter what the asura knew; he’d never see the light of day again anyway. “Christoff,” he said. “I am Christoff Veritas. And your are?”
“None of your business.”
At that, the smirk almost disappeared from Christoff’s face, but he caught it. In fact, after a second of calculation, it returned, even more confidently, and he too settled back in his seat. “Cleverly played,” he mused. “I can tell you and I are going to have an enjoyable conversation, asura—which is what I’ll call you, since you refuse to give me anything else.”
Remi yawned, already tiring of the mind games his master was playing.
“No matter,” Christoff went on, waving away the asura’s slight. “My men found you snooping around outside our hideout, apparently interested in our small outfit here. Or perhaps you were interested in the captives we’d taken?” He raised an eyebrow, still inspecting those large yellow eyes. “It does seem rather coincidental that we should see two asura in this region on the same day. Perhaps there’s a connection? Maybe you were part of their group, straggling a bit behind?”
The asura snickered, his ears rising with each chuckle. “I’m not telling you anything.”
“Oh, no,” the bandit said, shaking his head. “Of course not. I’m just musing out loud. Captive audience, after all.” He grinned. “But it is odd,” he carried on, looking to the back of the room as he considered his own thoughts out loud. “Odd, I mean, that your friends would leave you behind upon their escape. They had to have known you were still out there. What kind of friends do that? Or perhaps they were just business associates? I’m not entirely clear on the nature of your relationship. Never had a chance to converse with the other asura—large, awkward fellow, that one.”
“I have no notion who you’re talking about.”
Christoff paused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, his eyes falling periodically on the asura to read anything his face might tell. Nothing appeared. “And the sylvari,” the man went on, smiling as he shook his head. “I didn’t have time to ask him about other travelers. He just kept talking about some idiotic mission he was on. Never have seen someone so willing to share so much useless information. To be frank, I almost wanted to torture him into shutting up.”
At that, the asura’s ears perked just a little, and his eyes tightened, almost imperceptibly. Then he resumed his previous disinterest.
The man stretched, still staring off across the room in thought. As he brought his hands back toward him, he reached his long fingers into his hip pocket and rustled around a bit before slowly sliding them back out with something nestled lengthwise between his fingers. Christoff fidgeted with the object for a moment, still thinking. Then, with a sigh, he tossed the object in the air, absently catching and tossing it again as he mulled over his thoughts.
The asura’s eyes went wide, following the purple shard of stone, marbled and gently glowing. It rose in the air and fell, over and over, those nearly glowing eyes tracing every movement. Christoff saw it, and his coyly thoughtful expression parted into a toothy smile.
“Oh,” he said innocently, “you like my rock? Pretty thing, isn’t it? I picked it up off the good Sergeant.”
The asura clearly did not anticipate this turn of events, and he found himself for the first time lacking a clear plan of action.
“What do you know about that?” the captive finally cracked, leaning forward and pointing with his bound hands.
“This?” the man asked, his scar creased by the proud smile drawn wide across his face. “Oh, believe me, I know plenty. All that my father knew, in fact. Which was all that his father knew before him—kind of a family thing, you see. The real question is, what do you know about it? I imagine more than the sylvari.”
The asura scowled, back to being immovable. “My employer doesn’t trade information.”
“Oh,” Christoff repeated his words, “your employer. Yes, I understand what that means. You really don’t know anything, do you? You’re just a lackey, a common servant: mindless, talentless— maybe not useless, per se, but certainly expendable.” He leaned across the table, bringing his hand up beside his mouth, between them and Remi. “I understand. I have lots of employees myself.”
The asura’s jaw clenched, and Christoff knew he’d done it.
“I am neither mindless nor talentless,” the asura burst, sneering, “and I am certainly not expendable. Now Wepp, he’s expendable, but I’ve made more successful acquisitions for the Inquest than anyone in any krewe!”
Remi, who’d been checking the pistol’s sights against items around the room, rolled his eyes.
“Oh,” the bandit leader replied, feigning surprise. “The most successful acquisitions for the Inquest, you say? That’s impressive. They’re a fairly recent group in your asuran culture, aren’t they? I’m sure they’re grateful for your service. And your discretion.” His respect morphed into guile.
The asura stopped, instantly aware that he’d played into his captor’s hands. “So, you got what you wanted,” he begrudgingly admitted. “Now what?”
Smiling, the human raised an eyebrow. “You think I got all I want?” he asked. “Don’t be so sure, asura.” The man slowly rose from his chair. It squeaked even more than the asura’s. “Remi,” he beckoned, walking to his lieutenant.
The gunman had re-holstered the weapon and was now paying closer attention, arms crossed in front of him. He nodded at his master’s behest and came closer. The two positioned themselves to block the captive from hearing their words or reading their lips.
“Let him go,” Christoff whispered. “Make it look like we’re keeping him prisoner, maybe even talk about killing him, but let him escape when he makes his attempt. He will make an attempt.”
Remi gave him a questioning eye.
The leader explained, “We may not be able to follow those fools, but I have a feeling he can.” He then paused, reaching into his coat and pulling out just the edge of the letter he’d confiscated from the sylvari. “Besides, we now have other matters to attend to.”
Remi still didn’t understand, but he acknowledged the request with a nod and stepped toward the asura, grabbing the little prisoner by the hood and pulling him up out of the seat. Pushing him ahead, the bandit gunman drove the captive out of the room with a gun to his back, leaving Christoff alone in the mess hall.
A satisfied grin crept across the bandit leader’s face as he crossed his arms and considered the day. It had had its losses, but the win may have outweighed them. He slid his right thumb up out of a fist, and with it rose that dim, pulsing purple stone, something he’d never intended or even expected to find. But, there it was, in his hand, and he couldn’t take his eyes off it. His fathers had waited for generations; this material, and all it meant, had been lost to their people for that long and longer. Now here it was again, and there was more of it, not much more, he had to admit, but enough to experiment with, enough to practice on. His forebears had handed down the spells father-to-son since the great defeat, but not one of them had been able to use them. Now he was, or soon would be. If he played his cards right, if he could master the spells, he had a chance to permanently ingratiate himself with the Demagogue, and possibly those higher up. Changes were coming, and he intended to be at the center of them.