The weather in Bloodstone was as miserable as ever. Garth sat by the fire in the Leper's Arms inn, wondering how he was going to cope with the cold, when in Samarkand he had barely required a shirt. He was just going to have to grow used to it again.
Albion had changed much during his absence, if Bloodstone was anything to go by. Houses and shops had been patched up, and orders of the Albion guard patrolled the once lawless streets. The statue of Sparrow down by the waterfront remained untouched, a constant reminder to the town's residents of their renovator.
Garth wasn't really surprised to find that Sparrow had fixed up Bloodstone. Reaver had owned the town after all, and though Sparrow wasn't a petty man, Garth wouldn't put it past him to do this just to spite the Thief. That renovating the town had helped so many people was a fortunate by-product. Sparrow really didn't like Reaver, and Garth couldn't blame him. They had remained together for the briefest of times in Samarkand before Reaver had bounded off without so much as a goodbye. Garth had been quite happy to see the back of him. He could only listen to Reaver talk about Reaver for so long. He had snapped at Reaver a few times; Sparrow had to be some sort of saint to be able to suck up to Reaver, to get him to join their cause.
The one thing Garth had been surprised to hear about Sparrow was that he and his family were now living in Castle Fairfax. That he had been crowned King had been no shock - Sparrow was like Albion's dumpling, he was so popular - but that he had chosen to live in the place of his childhood trauma was startling. Garth personally never wanted to see the place again. Even thinking of it made him uneasy, reminded him that he had aided a madman, of his failure to prevent the death of Sparrow's sister. He found it difficult to look Sparrow in the eye, knowing that he could have saved that little girl and kept Sparrow from a world of hurt.
He would have to see Sparrow eventually. The man would throttle him if he found out Garth had returned without letting him know. Garth chuckled absently and sipped his water. The salty air parched his throat.
His thoughts drifted to Hammer. Though that hadn't really gotten along, she was the Hero that Garth had spent the most time with, and he missed her at times. She was witty, despite her rough appearance, and he missed their banter. He hoped she was all right, studying up north with the warrior monks. The whole ordeal with Lucien had affected her more than she liked to let on.
He was pulled from his thoughts when a drunkard, probably in his mid thirties, saw fit to join him at his table. Garth prepared himself for confrontation, well aware of how violent drunks could be, but this man seemed amiable.
"Yer a new face!" he exclaimed, plunking down in the chair opposite. "You just get here?"
Garth nodded silently. He found it difficult to trust after everything he had been through.
"I thought so. Yer from Samarkand, ain't ya?" the man smiled, and Garth cautiously decided that he was harmless enough.
"That's right," he said. He took a calculated sip from his drink, watching the man over his tankard.
"Yer accent ain't as thick as the others though. You been here before?"
"I've spent most of my life here." Garth replied. "I left five years ago."
The man threw his hands into the air. "Five years, 'e says! You got some catchin' up to do!" He lowered his hands and extended the right one. "Name's John," he said simply.
Garth took his hand and shook it. "Garth."
"They say you get them marks when you're a Will user," John said suddenly. "Are you that Garth what told Lucien to shove it some years back?"
Perhaps John wasn't the simpleton Garth had pegged him as.
"Indeed, though it wasn't quite like that," he replied carefully. "We simply disagreed, and I left his service."
John didn't pay any attention. "Brilliant!" he exclaimed, banging his beer tankard on the table for emphasis. "Bloody brilliant! I like a man with some balls! Ain't never been the same around 'ere since the bastard sent his men in to get Reaver." He sobered suddenly, withdrawing into himself. "I lost me sister in that attack." he said quietly. "Her little girl, too."
Garth remembered that day all too well, but Theresa had ordered him and Hammer to wait for Reaver and Sparrow on the beach, and to stay away from the town. Hammer had wanted to help the people so badly that she had almost taken off. Garth felt a pang of guilt now, knowing that he could have saved this man's family.
"I'm sorry," he said formally.
John's grin returned, though his outgoing manner remained elusive. "Thanks," he said. "We're copin', for the most part. And we feel safer knowin' we've got trained guards to protect our arses!" He gave a bark of laughter.
Though Garth was sure he knew the answer, he had to ask to confirm his suspicions. "Has Reaver returned to Bloodstone?"
"Oh, heavens, no!" John was laughing now, his brief bout of grief forgotten. "He ain't been 'ere since the attack that day! Pity, he was a fun bloke to party with. I heard he's in Oakfield now."
"Oakfield?" That had taken Garth by surprise.
John nodded enthusiastically. "You know, that place where them Shadow Templers attacked a couple o' years back?" His grin widened when Garth nodded. "I 'eard he helped rebuilt the place; restore it to its former glory and all that bull. He's prob'ly the mayor or something now."
"Beats me. You'd have to ask him." John shrugged. "They say the King's got something' to do with it, though."
Of course Sparrow had something to do with it, Garth realised. If Reaver had really returned, Sparrow would want to keep him well within the public eye, his every movement scrutinised, and what better way to do that than to put him in charge of an entire town?
That didn't explain why Reaver had agreed to such a thing, though. Reaver was distrustful as much as he was untrustworthy. And he was smart - he would have realised Sparrow's intentions.
"Temple o' Light's back too," John continued, and Garth's attention quickly snapped back to him. "Run by a woman what's teaching them monks to fight. Mallet or something' 'er name is."
Garth cocked an eyebrow, hiding his surprise well. "You mean Hammer," he said plainly.
John pointed at Garth excitedly. "Yeah, yeah, that's it!" he yelled, bouncing in his seat. "She ain't one to piss off, if ya catch me drift."
Garth chuckled, though his mind was racing. "No, she isn't," he said lightly. He was amazed that Hammer could live in the same town as Reaver; she had hated him as much as Sparrow had. Garth figured she was there to keep an eye on Reaver personally. There was none Sparrow trusted more than Hammer.
He decided that on the morrow, he would ferry to Westcliff, and from there he would catch a coach to Oakfield. He wanted to know exactly what the hell was going on with his fellow Heroes.
Even in the dimming light followed sunset, it was plain to see that Oakfield was flourishing again. Garth had last visited the place with Hammer, when Sparrow was fetching Reaver. Back then, it had been an ideal setting for a horror story; the fields were brown, the trees were barely alive, houses were ruined, and people barely dared to venture outside. Now, the greenery was returning, plant life flourished, beautiful houses lined the streets and curious gazes followed Garth wherever he went. He could forgive them for their stares: he doubted many of them had ever seen a Samarkand native before, let alone one covered in Will scars.
At the Sandgoose inn, the looks increased; there were already many people here. Some were crowded around the town's bard, their first or second drink for the night in hand. Others were choosing to test their luck against the Games Master. Most were simply lounging around. Aside from the Albion Guard uniform, Garth noticed a reoccurring outfit: a short sleeved, lightly coloured robe that ended above the knees, pulled in by a cord at the waist, tight trousers that were tucked into calf-high boots, and black, fingerless gloves. Perhaps these were the new Temple of Light monks. John may have been a drunkard, but his information proved true enough.
Garth paused, wondering whom he should see first. From his standing point, he could see what was obviously the largest house in Oakfield, located by the sea and overlooking the rest of the town. That was most likely Reaver's house. The Temple of Light was located on a hill just outside Oakfield, Garth knew, but he had no idea where Hammer actually lived. He supposed Reaver's place would be a good starting point, then.
He sighed and followed the wide streets, making his way towards the mansion. To one side of him fields stretched endlessly, green as they had been before the Temple of Shadows attack. But to the other side of him, houses and houses lined the streets, the ocean barely visible between them. Oakfield was beginning to rival Bowerstone.
That was definitely Reaver's doing, Garth knew. He would restore Oakfield, but not to its original form. He was creating a whole new town. Despite all the guards and the apparent lawfulness of the town, Reaver had still found a way to tell Sparrow to stick it. Sparrow had loved Oakfield before its destruction.
Garth shook his head, and chuckled in spite of himself. As much as he disliked the man, he had to admire Reaver's dedication; if Reaver didn't like someone, he would always find a way to slight them.
Reaver's house was more beautiful than his old mansion in Bloodstone. The garden was larger, one side finishing at the small cliff that overlooked the ocean. The house was huge, and Garth could only guess how many rooms it had. Nodding to the man working in the garden, he climbed the steps to the front door and rapped on it.
"The Master don't like visitors after dark," the gardener said suddenly. Garth looked at him thoughtfully.
"It's a good thing the sun is still setting then, isn't it?" he replied. The gardener laughed.
"Fair enough. But he won't answer the door."
Garth turned his gaze back to the door. Was Reaver the type to lock his doors? Garth doubted it. Reaver was so assured of his own abilities that he would think no one would dare to rob him and make it out alive.
"Of course he wouldn't," Garth murmured, answering the gardener. Ignoring the man's alarmed exclamation, he pushed open the door and went inside.
The foyer was only subduedly decorated, but that simply added to its charm. Surprisingly enough, the walls weren't lined with portraits of Reaver, though perhaps he simply hadn't gotten around to commissioning any yet. The staircase probably led to Reaver's bedroom, the one place Garth wanted to go even less than Castle Fairfax. He'd heard tales of Reaver's carnal exploits, after all.
He went through the door to his left, and found himself in the sitting room. Bookshelves lined one wall, and Garth itched to examine them. A mahogany desk was by the window, a small fire roared in the fireplace, and Reaver was sitting in one of the armchairs in the centre of the room, reading a book. He hadn't looked up once, but Garth knew Reaver knew he was there. The Hero of Skill's senses were especially sharp, he probably heard the door open.
"The time: can you tell it?"
Reaver didn't bother to look up from his book when he spoke. Garth smiled grimly. Every single one of Reaver's expressions were perfectly practiced; Garth wanted to startle him into showing true emotion.
"Of course I can." he replied calmly.
Reaver's head shot up, and for a split second Garth saw the surprise on his face. It was gone a moment later.
"Ah, Mage. To what do I owe the pleasure?" his tone was amiable. "Are you thirsty? Hungry? Frisky? I can have all three taken care of at once, if it pleases you."
He gestured to an armchair across from him. Garth sat, and found that he was actually thirsty - he hadn't really had anything since leaving Bloodstone, but he could live without food. Water, however…
"Water would be much appreciated." he said. He raised an eyebrow. "Kindly leave out the prostitutes."
Reaver snorted. "Surely you didn't expect me to employ a prostitute? You never know what you may catch. Regardless, half the fun of bedding someone is the thrill of the chase!"
Garth was about to comment when Reaver plucked a small bell from the coffee table and rang it delicately.
"I do love this part," he gushed to Garth, and then a plump, middle-aged woman with a sweet face hurried through the door. "See! They come when they're called!"
If the woman was offended by Reaver's words, she hid it well. "How can I help you?" she asked, her lips curling into a smile.
"I have a most welcome guest," Reaver said, a note of condescension not entirely absent from his voice. "He needs water." he glanced at Garth suddenly. "Or would he prefer wine?"
Garth baulked at the suggestion; he couldn't help it. He hated alcohol in all its forms. Reaver chuckled.
"I guess that means no."
He spoke to the maid a little more, but Garth paid no attention. He was too busy just looking at Reaver.
He had never really taken notice of Reaver; during the whole ordeal with Lucien, he just hadn't had time to scrutinise their newest recruit. But now he had all the time in the world, and Reaver's dashing attractiveness hit Garth like a powerful wind. Reaver was tall and proud, not a hair out of place even though he tossed his head to laugh or scoff. His smile was both enticing and dangerous, as though daring its recipient to try their luck with him. His eyes were a greenish grey and crinkled charmingly in the corners (perhaps he was physically older than Garth had first thought?). His skin was a golden brown, and the hue suggested that perhaps his blood wasn't entirely Alban.
Garth was captivated.
Reaver's blunt observation pulled Garth from his thoughts. It took all of his self control not to blush.
"My apologies," he said. "It's just… It's been a while."
"Five years in fact, if I've counted correctly." Reaver nodded, that rottenly alluring smile still in place. Garth wanted to zap it off. He stayed silent, however, as the maid returned with a large glass of sparkling clear water.
"Thank you," he said, taking it. She smiled.
"I'll begin preparing dinner soon, Sir," she said to Reaver. "Will your guest be staying?"
"Yes," Reaver replied before Garth could speak. The maid curtsied and quit the room.
"Such a brilliant cook," Reaver mused, to himself more than to Garth. "I'm quite pleased at the chance to show her off." His eyes returned to Garth suddenly. Garth returned the gaze evenly as he sipped his drink. He was pleased to find it icy cold.
"Did Sparrow send you?" Reaver asked finally.
Garth cocked an eyebrow; his suspicions had been correct. Sparrow had planted Hammer here to spy on Reaver.
He didn't answer right away, preferring to let Reaver simmer in his paranoia for a moment as he sipped his drink again.
"You think I'm here to spy on you?" he said finally, and he bit back a chuckle as Reaver scowled. "Is that why you're so on edge?"
"I wouldn't put it like that," Reaver's smile was forced now. "Suspicious, perhaps, but not on edge."
"Ah, of course." Garth took another sip of his water before deciding to have mercy on the man - not that he really deserved it. "No, Sparrow didn't send me. I arrived in Albion last night, and I've not yet seen him. I heard rumour that you and Hammer were here."
"And you thought to visit me first? I'm flattered." Garth didn't miss the mocking note in Reaver's voice.
"I didn't know where Hammer lived. Your house gives you away."
"Fair enough. But didn't you think to ask for directions?"
Garth had expected this, but that didn't make it any less annoying. He sighed heavily. "I don't like to draw attention to myself," he said firmly.
"Then you shouldn't have become a Will user, my dear fellow!" Reaver said, grinning, and Garth wanted to throttle him. If only Reaver never spoke; he was quite pleasant to look at. "Those pretty blue lines stand out. So do your clothes and your very ethnicity, come to think of it."
Garth ignored this comment. He'd seen Hammer riled up over Reaver's remarks, and preferred not to replicate her anger. She'd looked barbarous, and rather than cower in fear Reaver had laughed at her.
The moments ticked by as they sat in silence. Garth busied himself by reading the book titles on the shelves - not an easy feat for someone with only one eye - fully aware of Reaver's scrutinising gaze. He felt like the tables had been turned, as he was normally the one giving out that expression. It was like Reaver was reading his mind, or undressing him with his eyes, or something equally wanton that made the heat rise in Garth's face.
"Tell me," Reaver said finally, and Garth let out a silent sigh of relief. "Why did you come and see me, specifically? I know you have questions. And remember what curiosity killed."
Garth heeded the warning well, knowing how volatile Reaver could be. He was especially dangerous in that he hid his displeasure until the very last moment, and by then it didn't matter. Garth would choose his words carefully.
"I guessed that Sparrow asked you to do this job as a means to keep you in the public eye, to monitor your behaviour," he began. Reaver nodded, looking bored. "Knowing this, why did you agree to the job?"
Reaver relaxed slightly. Garth had no idea what Reaver had expected him to ask, but apparently his question had put the man at ease.
"Simple," Reaver chuckled. "Easy money."
"That's it?" Garth was genuinely surprised.
"That's it. Well…" Reaver suddenly looked thoughtful, as though he was debating how much to reveal to Garth. Finally he came to a conclusion. "I love a good challenge, and Oakfield was more dilapidated than Bloodstone had been." He laughed suddenly, a wicked, depraved sound that sent unexpected shivers down Garth's spine. "And Sparrow imposed all of these… restrictions on me, so finding a way to defy him was a challenge in and of itself."
"So why agree if you hated the regulations?" Garth asked. Reaver gave him an exasperated look.
"I just told you: easy money! Good god, man, clean out your ears! One can never have too much money!"
"You say easy money, and yet you were just declaring your love of a good challenge." Garth pointed out. Reaver paused and blinked at him, as though that contradiction had never occurred to him.
"Ah, the paradox of life," he said finally, his face taking on an absurdly dreamy expression. "You know, Sparrow felt guilty for not defending Oakfield from the Temple of Shadows, but he was locked away in the Spire when it happened. He mourned the loss of all those lives, so what did he do? He slaughtered every single member of the Temple of Shadows."
Garth nodded grimly. He knew all about that incident. They had just returned to Albion, and he had been with Theresa when it happened. It was the only time he had seen Theresa worried as she muttered hopelessly to herself about giving in to the darkness in one's heart. She had monitored Sparrow quite closely after that, and had seemed relieved when he didn't embark on anymore irate killing sprees. Garth certainly had been.
Silence dragged on again, until Reaver spoke. Garth realised the hush actually made Reaver uncomfortable. He was the one to break it every single time, after all.
"What are your plans now?"
Garth was surprised he had even asked. "To see Hammer and Sparrow. I honestly don't know after that. Perhaps I'll return to my Tower in Brightwood."
"I wouldn't count on it," Reaver scoffed, and Garth stared at him. "I hope you like Oakfield, because Sparrow will most definitely ask you to return here. I can't be trusted, after all." He sounded genuinely annoyed as he spoke the last statement, and though Garth couldn't really place why, he had a few theories.
"You're right," he sighed instead, preferring not to question it. "I had hoped I wouldn't have to buy a house anywhere."
"Then rent it from me," Reaver suggested, grinning.
"Then live with your Hammer friend. Actually…" Reaver paused again, looking thoughtful as he studied Garth. "Mage, are you familiar with the concept of keeping one's friends close, and one's enemies closer?"
"Of course I am," Garth replied carefully. He knew where this was heading, and he wasn't sure if he liked it.
"Live here," Reaver said firmly, confirming Garth's suspicions. "Free of charge."
"What's the catch?" Garth asked instantly.
"I'll know your every move," Reaver replied, smiling grimly. "Of course, you'll know mine too." He chuckled darkly, startling Garth. "It's like it's Sparrow and Hammer against me. Imagine the look on Sparrow's face if I'm able to bring you over to my side!"
"Another one of your 'challenges'?" Garth asked.
Reaver's smile grew. "Quite."
Garth cocked an eyebrow. The whole concept of 'sides' seemed rubbish to him. Still, he thought, perhaps he should stay. Reaver was a centuries old criminal, and was bound to be stuck in his ways, despite whatever promises he made to the contrary. Perhaps Garth could keep him on the right track, and stop him from killing so frivolously. The Thief had a sadistic disregard for human life.
"Why did you allow Hammer to rebuild the Temple?" he asked suddenly, as though it would help him reach his decision. Reaver gave him a sharp look.
"Are you joking?" he sounded reproachful. "I'm certainly not looking to get on the bad side of that barbarian anytime soon. She can do as she pleases."
"She's rough around the edges, but she's no barbarian," Garth replied curtly. He paused, wondering if his next question was actually a smart thing to ask.
"Are you scared of your fellow Heroes?" he asked finally. He prepared himself for Reaver's temper.
It wasn't as bad as he had expected. Reaver didn't even reach for his pistol. "I'm no coward," he spat. "But I'm not a fool, either. I've no interest in turning against myself the three people in the world strong enough to kill me."
"Shouldn't a gunshot from a civilian be enough?" Garth asked, genuinely curious.
"Maybe so. But I would hear them coming." Reaver lifted his chin proudly. "Should we continue discussing the possibility of my execution?" he asked abruptly.
"Tempting, but no," Garth replied, and he couldn't bite back his chuckle as Reaver scowled. The King of Thieves, Hero of Skill, was pouting like a toddler that didn't get its own way. "And thank you. I will stay." He could easily leave when he grew tired of the arrangement, after all.
"Excellent," Reaver looked satisfied. "I'll have the maid prepare your room, away from mine so I don't keep you up at night." His smile turned wicked, and once again Garth felt the heat rush to his face. "Make yourself at home."
"This doesn't mean we're friends," Garth said suddenly. After all the double-crossing Reaver had done, it seemed like an important point to make. Garth still did not like the man, and he refused to acknowledge that this little session had warmed him up to the Thief.
"Of course not. I've already told you my reasons for making the offer," Reaver said flatly. "Oh, and also I have a thing for accents." He leaned forward in his seat, his smile now utterly debauched. "Yours has thickened, you know."
This time, Garth couldn't stop himself from blushing heatedly. Reaver had no boundaries.