(written with comic at page 414)
(set after the end of the comic)
It is said that a person's life flashes before their eyes when they are about to die. No such thing was happening to Varden as he stepped up on the stool. No such thing happened as they placed the noose over his head. As they tightened the noose, he noted with displeasure that someone had made the rope too short. The error meant that he wouldn't fall far enough to snap his neck, but rather drop a bit then be strangled by the noose. Most unpleasant.
The more he thought about it, the less it seemed like an unfortunate accident – it was planned, as was everything that led up to this point. So the mayor uses the short-drop method he banned...
It has all started with an innocuous offer to steal a gem from the mayor. Naturally, Varden had checked the right channels to make sure the offer wasn't a trap. And there lay his first mistake.
It was his first 'job' after he got back from Inverloch, and he wasn't himself. He should have admitted that fact to himself, he decided, instead of trying to prove he was all right. I violated that rule… to keep my heart out of my head. I got attached, I got torn off, and then I tried anyway.
The executioner had noticed the rope, and was apparently wondering whether it mattered or not. Varden took the moment to glance around, looking at the gathered people. Far too many guards, and many of the onlookers deeply cloaked – they were probably the mayor's men.
His mind floated back to stealing the gem, how he had taken the keys from the guard, how he had walked through the halls like a ghost, how he had snagged the gem… the thrill, the ease…
However, his mind had been off the job. He didn't notice how suspiciously easy it all was. He didn't hear the guards waiting behind the curtains. His mind was on her…
I suppose that was my life flashing before my eyes, he decided, No more tricks to save me now…
"Varden, you have been found guilty of eight counts of thievery, fourteen counts of grand theft, two counts of blackmail, eleven counts of evading authority, one count of willing participation in illegal da'kor rings, and one count of murder. For these crimes and other unnamed ones, under the mayoral oversight of Rhyll you are hereby sentenced to death by hanging."
Varden's eyes were slits. How had they known about those last two crimes? None of the people who had seen him fighting Acheron and killing Berard could place him at the scene without placing themselves there as well… would… how…
Suddenly it all snapped into place. Peering closer at the cloaked figures, he could determine feminine forms on some of them… definitely not the mayor's men. Elves.
As the executioner walked towards the lever, he could see one of the cloaked figures hands moving, lips mouthing inaudible words.
With a grunt, the executioner pulled the lever, and the trapdoor fell open. Varden now stood on thin air. Thin magical air. The crowd gasped.
The crowd gasped more as the ropes tying Varden turned to dust. Guards were running up the stairs to get him, but his real worry were those archers on the roof with arrows.
Sprinting into the guards coming up the stairs, he dodged through them so the archers couldn't fire without endangering their own.
A moment later, he was into the crowd, holding the sword he had lifted from a guard, making a clean beeline for an alley.
"Damnit, you fools!" yelled the mayor, "He's getting away!"
As Varden scrambled through the crowd, he realized that his cover was working against him – though the archers couldn't shoot him, the crowd impeded his movement, and the guards could cut him off by running around the crowd.
That wouldn't work at all.
Cursing himself for not thinking up escape routes while standing on the platform, Varden doubled back, heading for the mayor and looking for any cloaked figures. A blackjack came swinging out of the crowd, and Varden only partially managed to avoid the blow. It hit him in the shoulder, numbing his arm.
Staggering backward, Varden willed himself to stay aware through the pain. Ducking a second blow, Varden realized his cover was clearing – fast. With a quick lunge, he slashed the assailant under the arm, causing the burly man to drop the blackjack. Leaping to the side as an arrow planted itself where he had stood, Varden dashed past the man to the fleeing mayor.
Why hadn't he seen any of the cloaked figures?
Varden tackled the pudgy man to the ground, and then rolled the mayor to get his blade on the man's throat. Wondering how the man could sweat so much, he backed against a building's wall.
"One move and the fat man gets it!" he yelled, suddenly aware that the town square was empty. Was he really that scary? Indeed, even the guards had gone, leaving the entire square devoid of souls.
But not the roofs.
"What do you want, dead man?" called the derisive voice of an archer.
"I wouldn't call me that yet! Put down your bow, or your boss gets a second smile!"
"And after you kill him, then what? Flee? Ten feet to cover. Six corners you can't see. I might put an arrow in you, or you might just get skewered by my fellow. Probably the former, but I'm biased."
" But…" Varden bit back a reply. He could inch along the wall with his hostage, but around the corner…
"And don't think I care about the mayor. This is Rhyll – one body is a move up for everyone. Go ahead; gut him like the pig he is!"
"What kind of sadist are you?" yelled Varden, frustrated by the impossible situation.
"What kind of sadist are you!" the archer yelled back, aiming his bow. "I'll shoot you both!"
There was a stench coming from the mayor's pants, but Varden didn't care. There had to be a way out! Was the archer bluffing about his 'fellows'? The bow was aimed at him now, but if he chanced a dash for cover?
A sound from around one of the corners changed his mind, and Varden looked for other avenues of escape. The archer could fire any moment now…
But he hadn't.
In fact, the other guards could come around the corners and attack him if they truly didn't care about the mayor.
But they didn't.
Varden was tempted to guess the valued the mayor's life, but something nagged at him. Some about how everything had happened. Too controlled. Too…
Shoving the putrid mayor away from him, he raised his hands.
"Then at least kill only one!"
The archer smiled, and cloaked figures hustled the mayor away.
"Or are you an elf!" he yelled.
Still smiling, the archer lowered his bow and waved his hand around a bit. With a puff of magic, an illusion melted and the cloaked figure of an elf stood where the archer had.
Pulling off his hood, the elf hopped off the building, slowly drifting down two stories. White hair floated around from the levitation spell.
"Kayn'dar!" Varden cried.
"You are correct, thief Varden."
"This was all a set-up?" finished the white-haired elf. "Yes and no. We did not set you up during your capture, but much of this rescue was for show. To make you think."
"After freeing me, your people didn't just disappear – you replaced the guards and herded the townsfolk out. Then the rest was a farce, a test."
"You are correct again."
"Would you have shot the mayor if I had continued to delay?"
"Would you have 'given him a second smile' as you said?" the elf answered, the smile suddenly gone.
Varden paused for a moment, considering his feelings. It wouldn't have been the first time he killed a man, but it would be the first time on purpose… he could have easily, but he was… was too soft.
"No," said Varden, "I…"
A corner of Kayn'dar's mouth twitched. "Forgive me from reading your mind, but it was necessary to make sure you were sincere."
"You… you what!"
The elf gestured, and magic birds fluttered around the two of them.
Clean out of the teleport, Varden grabbed the elf's shirt. "You know very well what I think of mind-reading. You should know better than most, I should add."
"Varden, you could have very well just li—"
"I don't care! You elves still prod around people minds for damned purposes."
"It was for…" Kayn'dar began. Something behind Varden caught his eye, though, and he stopped.
"It was for me. To make sure you have changed." came a familiar voice.
"Lei'ella!" Varden gasped, releasing Kayn'dar and spinning to face the voice.
"I said I would never consider a thief, Varden, not even you." Kayn'dar grumbled about the crudeness of humans in the background, smoothing out his robe. "Are you a thief still?" she asked, standing up and approaching Varden. He shook his head.
"Not anymore," he said, smiling as they embraced. "Not any—" he started to repeat, but his mouth suddenly found more important things to do.
Kayn'dar shook his head at the two, and left Lei'ella's house. Shiara was waiting for him, after all.