"Put your hands on the back of your head." And, louder, the woman said, "Do it!" Night. Stars blotted out by clouds. An ancient dark blanketing Arethil. As it had been before there were beating hearts. As it would be after every heart was dust once more. Anima stood on the dirt path leading to the farmhouse's front door. Walter, some ten paces before her, stood next to the dark-skinned woman, holding his torch. A pure and orange dread flickering in its flame. Four bowmen standing at the edge of its terrible light. Another in the second floor window of the farmhouse. Their arrows nocked. Their bows drawn. Arms quivering against the tension. The bowstring's pull, its siren call of death. Insects, near and far, chirping with delight. Awaiting a feast, should one come. "Walter," Anima said, "are you a good person?" He nodded. "I serve my kin. And all mankind." And Anima smiled. Said, "So be it." She slowly raised her hands. Entwined them. Slid them down onto the back of her head. As the dark-skinned woman came forward and pulled Anima's blackened shortsword from its sheath and tossed it to the ground and patted her down and found her other three weapons hidden in her boots and left bracer, Anima never took her eyes off Walter. Stared at him without blinking. Without breaking her smile. She had met him many days ago. A small town, Pine Crossing, on the edge of Falwood and the Aberresai Savannah, west of Alliria. Inhabited by humans and elves in roughly equal measure. He was a charming man. Talkative. Friendly. Boisterous. He bought her some wine at the local tavern. Drunk himself into a sloppy, smiling stupor. Got mad at another patron and accidentally punched the wrong man. Started a brawl. They stood back-to-back, fending off all comers. He ended up with a bloodied nose and a blackened eye. And he leaned heavily on Anima on their way back to his room at the inn. Thanked her as she nursed his wounds that night. Laughed, said it tickled, as Anima licked the blood from his face. And she fell asleep on his chest. Her head rising and falling with it. The warmth and closeness of his body soothing her. Bringing her dreams again. "Anything else? Huh?" the dark-skinned woman said. Anima awoke that morning before Walter. Shifted her head just so to look at his face. Stared at him until the sun peeked in through the window of the room. Until he opened his eyes and saw her smile. Mornin' sunshine. Good morning, Walter. I feel like I made some bad decisions last night. And as she brushed his cheek with the back of her hand she said, Not all of them. "Bring the rope," the dark-skinned woman said. Motioning to one of the bowmen. He was a courier and a gambler. One honest job, one dishonest job, he said often. And he knew a few tricks. Some sleight of hand with cards and ways to rig dice games. Some inside men on horse-racing and cock-fighting rings. It didn't bother him much. He would grin, push his hat up with a finger, and explain with confidence that if you weren't cheating, you weren't trying. And, besides, he would add, he only did it to assholes. "Don't try anything and we won't hurt you," the dark-skinned woman said. He had a delivery to make. In another town, Lansing, to the northwest. On the Cairou River. And the Savannah was a long and boring ride, even on horseback. Say, she was a fun woman, why not come along and keep him company if she had nothing better to do? The only bad part about his honest job was having a mountain of stories and no one to tell them to most of the time. Anima needed no more than a passing moment to decide. His bravado was more intoxicating than the wine could ever be. A fragile thing, precious and sacred to his very being, a glass that teetered on the edge of a table. And if it fell? Would it shatter? What manner of man was hidden inside the glass? "Put your hands down. Nice and slow. There you go, there you go. Now, cross your wrists behind your back," the dark-skinned woman said. And they rode north and west. And he told her his stories, and she leaned her head against his shoulder, and he showed her some of his gambling tricks, and she ran her fingers through his hair, and he held her close when the rains drenched the land, and she dragged her nails down his back, and he started the fires at night, and she basked in his presence and breathed in his air. "Good," the dark-skinned woman said, nodding to the bowman behind Anima. The bronze clock she wore as a pendant around her neck ticking. The word Ruth'ti etched into the metal. And as the cloth bag dropped down over Anima's head, she saw it. In the last instant of vision. Walter, dropping his gaze. Down and away. The harsh light of the torch laying out his guilt. Naked and damning. Behind his bravado, his swagger, his certainty that he had conquered all the world had to challenge him, hid the shame of his betrayal. The glass had fallen and broken. Deep within him, the crack in his soul. He had not the courage of his own conviction. He had believed his cause, and this ambush that served it, righteous. And in that moment, as he witnessed the bindings being tightened and the bag cinched shut, he saw an evil that he could not run from. For it had been inside him all along. Patient. Awaiting his gaze. Once seen, never banished. And you are watched forevermore. And Anima smiled. Said, "You will be remembered, Walter." Remembered. For this was the day he died. Now, he was like her. Witness to the darkness of which Mother had spoken and exalted. And it would consume him too. They could be kindred spirits in the maw of the infinite and callous. Anima and Walter. Holding one another's hands as they were gnashed. "Quiet," the dark-skinned woman said. "Let's go. Walk." The woman grabbed one of her arms. A man grabbed the other. Moving her forward. And she knew the man was Walter. She could feel him shaking. * * * * * Khadija Han paced in the ground floor living room of the farmhouse. A different farmhouse. Half a day's travel from the ambush spot. One actually owned by a Luminari loyalist this time, and one on the outskirts of Lansing proper. A trade town of some ten thousand inhabitants, just south of the three isles in the Cairou delta. Where the sparse trees of the Savannah gave way to thicker forests near to the coast. Yesterday night's gray clouds still hung low in the sky. Some distant thunder every now and again, but no rain or lightning yet. Good, good. She hated lightning. Feared it, even. A bad portent. It always brought misfortune. Think about it. Did anything good ever happen when lightning was tearing up the sky outside? No, of course not. Why would it, huh? Riddle me that. That's right. You can't. No one could. So of course she was right. A rolling thunder, miles away. She held the bronze clock in her hand. Wound it back to full tension. Listened to its melody. Tick, tock, tick, tock. And she let her eyes close as she shivered with delight, from her head to her arms to her hips to her legs. It was time to buy a new clock too. Another clock, of course. It had been a good month for the Luminari. The legitimate businesses owned by loyalists in Elbion and elsewhere had turned quite the profit, and the supply raids against non-human caravans had produced many spoils for the cause. As one of Trajan's favored, one of the truest of true believers, her share was plentiful. Such were the rewards for the faithful. And the money and spoils weren't the only thing going well this month. The Luminari's plans, missions, and tasks in service to the cause, operaris as they were called, were all succeeding brilliantly. Each bringing the Luminari one tiny, incremental step closer to the fulfillment of its sacred and secret promise to all mankind. And Khadija's own operari was well underway now. Threat of lightning outside and its nasty portents be damned. She could not--would not!--allow it to put a damper on the Luminari's success. Thanks to Walter Steadman, one of their newest recruits, they had captured one of the potentials on the list for her operari. Anima Contra. Half-breed mutt. In some manner of trouble with Elbion. Not one of Elbion's most wanted, but certainly unwelcome if recognized by the right people. And the Luminari had leverage over her. Something to coerce her into serving the cause. Everyone on the list fit that description. And now Khadija had one, safely tucked away in the farmhouse's basement and awaiting Trajan's arrival for a little chat. This operari was a go. Khadija's forearms shook with giddiness, and she held her clenched fists close to her mouth, standing up on the tips of her toes, unable to stop the spreading grin on her face. This was really happening! They were going to steal a powerful ritual catalyst, straight out of the heart of Elbion! And the traitorous College would be none the wiser to its theft, or even its very existence. A knock at the front door. Khadija composed herself. Put the clock pendant back around her neck and straightened out her tunic. Ran her hands through her hair. Wiped the grin off of her face. Good enough. She crossed the living room, stood behind the loyalist farmer who owned the house, enough to be out of view when he opened the door, and nodded. The farmer cracked the door. Enough to poke his head out. Then he stepped back and opened it all the way. Walter, along with two of the bowmen, entered the house. He looked sullen ever since last night. As if his faith had been shaken. Doubt was always the enemy of belief. Like a tiny crack in the cornerstone of a grand cathedral. Think about it. A little flaw like that could bring a whole building down. She would need to talk to him. Reaffirm his faith. "What news?" she said. Walter nodded. The faintest hint of defeat in his motions. "Word from the other team. They're bringing in another one from the list." And Khadija grinned. Strummed her fingers with excitement on the clock pendant around her neck. What a lucky, lucky day.