By John Van Stry


Kilrath turned the corner, following Banner closely as they walked down the street.† The last of the winter snows had melted and for once the wind wasn't blowing, making walking less of a chore than it usually was.† The cracked sidewalks gave away the age of this part of town, along with the older style of apartment buildings and shops crowded in close together.† This section of Parst was the old town center and showed its years unlike the more open and modern suburbs that stretched between it and the city where most of the population now worked.

"Listen, Banner really, it's all set.† I got the money saved up from all the other sales I made.† The guy will be there!† He's willing to make me a deal if I move the stuff for him here in Parst."

"So why do you want me there, Kilrath?"† Banner grumbled, they were already late for class. His ride down from the estate to town only brought him as far as the Clan's warehouse, and some days, like today, he had to help unload it first.† With graduation fast approaching he didn't want to screw up and get held over now.

"Come on, Banner, I need some muscle. You're pretty big and everyone knows you can fight!"

"This guy's from the city, how will he know?† You could bring anybody."

"Yeah, well ..." Kilrath shut up for a minute as they passed someone heading the other way.† There wasn't much foot traffic on the street this early in the day; Parst was only a small outer suburb of Ranz after all.† But still he waited until they'd moved on a safe distance.

"He's been around here a little bit."† Kilrath continued, "He's not going to risk an investment like this without checking us out a little, he's a very successful Tradesman after all."

"Tradesman!"† Banner snorted tail lashing, "He's a drug dealer, Kil!† Hell, you're becoming a drug dealer!† And what's this us shit?† I told you I'm joining the Forces as soon as we graduate!"

"I notice you don't mind spending the money I give you," Kilrath chuckled.

Banner sighed his ears drooping.† Yeah he liked the money, it was nice, and the work was easy, a lot easier than cleaning fish pens, or hauling nets out on the loch.† Especially in the winter. You didn't get any ice in your fur, or have to worry about ending up in the water and freezing to death.† Even when Kilrath's work was hard it was still easier than that.

"Besides, you always seem to know when there's gonna be trouble, and if there's gonna be trouble this time I need to know.† Come on, Banner, one last time," He wheedled.† "You can do that for me, can't you?"

"If I help you with this, then what?"† Banner sighed again, capitulating.

Kilrath's ears perked right up.† "Well, not much really.† I've got my first string of customers all lined up, so things should go pretty quick.† After this meeting they'll do the drops wherever I want.† This is just the big one. When I move this stuff I'm in with them and life is good."

They turned down the next street, one full of shops whose owners were starting to open their doors for the day's sales.† The school was in sight now. It was a large, very old building that predated most of the structures in the area.† Rumor was it was once a prison, and with the windowless classroom's Banner didn't find it very hard to believe.

"I don't know why you want to do this, Kilrath," Banner grumbled again shaking his head.† True he did owe Kilrath and not just because of the money either. Kilrath had always stood by him when he'd had troubles, helped him when he'd needed it. Plus they'd been friends forever.† But this just kept getting bigger and bigger all the time.

"Oh please!† Sure you do, the money, the qwenes!† You see how they chase after me now, how they chase after you!"† Kilrath's mouth opened in a grin and he slapped Banner on the back.

Banner nodded and agreed half-heartedly. Yes quite a lot of the females were willing to share your company if they thought you had money or dust.† And once they found out you had it, they were always there looking for it.† He had to admit the attention was nice, he had girlfriends now who were not only real lookers, but who came from some of the most prestigious and powerful clans in town.† It still made his head spin sometimes, that after years of being looked down on because his clan was so small and politically powerless to suddenly have this kind of attention.† He often wondered if the prestige and respect was Kilrath's real reason for wanting to get into the gangs and sell dust.† He was an orphan and had even less status than Banner did.

"Well just be careful, that run in we almost had last week with Tomlin's group," Banner sighed. "That would have been nasty if we hadn't gotten our tails out of there as quick as we had."

"And I have you to thank for that, too, Banner!† How you knew he was coming was beyond me," He said seriously.† "And that's why I want you there with me next week."

Banner nodded. He hadn't known that Tomlin was going to be there either, but he could tell something was up just before he showed.† As it was only Kilrath, him, and a couple of others, Tomlin's gang would have made a serious mess of them if they'd let themselves get cornered.† It was the closest call they'd had yet.

"It was just luck, Kilrath," he said shaking his head and smiling to himself thinking about the big party they'd all had later on.† They'd snuck into Tomlin's clubhouse, an old abandoned warehouse his gang had taken over, and boosted Tomlin's stash.† As far as he knew, Tomlin still hadn't figured out who was to blame.

"Yeah well, you're one lucky guy then, Banner, and by the time you get back from the Forces I'll have this town sewn up, you'll see!"



Classes that week were the standard fare.† For the most part everybody was just coasting the last few weeks until graduation, so none of the teachers were loading anyone down with anything major.† Since Kilrath had hit upon the whole drug idea, they'd both moved up in the social status of school, having money and qwenes after you did that, even if most of the students didn't know where it came from.† Many of the other students did suspect that they were up to something disreputable, or even illegal, but oddly enough that just seemed to enhance their reputation.† Banner couldn't figure that one out at all.† The 'in' crowd knew however, because they were Kilrath's biggest customers, so Kilrath and by extension Banner, were now part of the 'in' crowd too.

For his part Banner had earned his respect when he'd gotten into a nasty fight with an upper classman years ago and beat the guy.† The guy had been a whole lot bigger than Banner, one of the sports jocks, and everyone was impressed when Banner had wiped the floor with him.† Banner never told them that the guy was half drugged out of his mind, and he suspected the guy was too afraid to own up to it himself.† So suddenly he had a reputation and a lot of people figured that maybe it wasn't worth the effort to pick on the guy from that little clan up in the hills.† As far as Banner was concerned if it meant less fights and less hassles he was all for it.

Of course he was already turning into a pretty good fighter back then, and these days he was pretty confident he could take on anyone in the school, probably all of the teachers as well.† He'd been spending all of his meager allowance and every penny he could earn paying an old retired Forces instructor to teach him what he knew for years now.† He'd been in too many fights growing up with kids who thought that being in a bigger clan made them better, and who brought along a brother or two just in case they weren't.† So when he found someone willing to train him how to really fight, he'd sacrificed being able to buy a lot of things that most of his schoolmates didn't have to work for.† He still got into a few minor scrapes now and then, but he worked out and trained with his instructor religiously, so he easily maintained his reputation.† Plus he didn't go looking for trouble, and did try to be polite, especially to the teachers and Protectorate's Officers in town.† Which helped a lot every time he was forced to thump on some idiots.† The Authorities now tended to take his word against theirs.

But now Kilrath wanted to take his little small time thing and go big.† Banner had always had misgivings about it when Kilrath had hit on the idea earlier in the year, even if Dust was a pretty minor drug.† Yeah Kilrath had it a lot harder than he did because his friend had no clan. His mother had been disgraced and died shortly after having him, so he could understand his desire to get back at those who had bullied him.† But there was a world of difference between penny-ante dealing to your friends and classmates in school, and supplying stuff to every duster in the area!† He couldn't convince him to change his mind though, which considering how well Kilrath did in school, was a shame.† While Banner did reasonably well in his classes and got good grades, Kilrath consistently hit the top marks.† When the Forces people had come by to talk to all the males about their upcoming mandatory service, they spent some extra time with Kilrath.† They wanted him to volunteer for some of the more prestigious jobs in the Forces, apparently few non-telepaths had the knack for languages that Kilrath had, yet all he seemed to want was to join the underworld and try to avoid his service.

He really couldn't figure it out, because Kilrath wasn't a tough guy. †Banner didn't consider himself a tough guy, but he was far tougher than Kilrath.† He knew his friend was going to get eaten up alive someday if he didn't wise up, but until then he'd do what he could to keep him from getting in too much trouble.† That's what friends were for.

*††††††††††††††††††††† *††††††††††††††††††††† *


Nezoa smiled to himself and took another sip of c'shar from his mug as he sat in the small tea shop.† His assignment had been going quite well so far.† H'Chaul the drug dealer he'd been assigned to catch was a tricky one, no doubts about that, but then he'd never had a member of the Brotherhood sent to catch him before either.† It hadn't taken Nezoa long to worm his way into H'Chaul's organization, H'Chaul was always looking for bodyguards.† He'd gotten so powerful he didn't trust his life with the street thugs that made up most gangs.† He recruited from those recently out of the Forces who had records for violent and troublesome behavior.† There were always more than a few whose behavior skirted the limits.† It wasn't hard for the Brotherhood to alter a few files and then H'Chaul did all the hard work for them.

He smiled and nodded to the waitress as she brought him another cup. He liked this shop for two reasons; the first was that H'Chaul's thugs didn't come here; the waitress being neither young, pretty, nor easily impressed by thugs.† The second was the dark atmosphere and the small old tables strew haphazardly about.† It was quite easy for him to make his meets here with his partner without any watchful or suspicious eyes around.† Yes, this weekend he'd spring his trap, H'Chaul usually didn't show up at his deals, but he was taking on a new distributor and he made a practice of always being there the first time.

Nezoa shook his head tail curling angrily, the dealer acted as though he was running a trading house and not one of the larger dust operations in Ranz.† Vartra alone knew how many he'd killed to get to this position, but another week and his dealing days would finally be over.

#††††††††† #††††††††† #


Banner stretched as he finished the last of his chores for the day.† This time of year was easy; all the pens were full, including the fry pens, so there wasn't much do to beyond checking the water, servicing the filters, and feeding the fish.† Another month and half of the fry tanks would be drained to the loch, to help keep up the local populations, then the larger tanks would be harvested for the fish markets, cleaned out, and the fry transferred over.† Those tanks would then be cleaned until the next batch of eggs was harvested and the fry tanks restocked.† It wasn't the most exciting work in the world, but his clan, as well as fishing the loch, had been doing it here for centuries.

True they didn't do much of the fishing anymore, the clan had gotten too small to make a really profitable enterprise of that, but his older sister had this idea about sport fishing and his father, the Clan Head, thought the idea had merit.† The Clan house was huge, after all, and most of it was unused these days.† Same for quite a few of the outbuildings.

Turning it all into some kind of resort could bring in enough wealth so his Clan would be in a better position to merge with another one.† No one had said it outright, but another generation or two was probably all the Clan had before it became too small.† Then it would lose its status as a Clan and most likely be taken over by a larger one.† Far better to have the wealth to be able to decide the terms of the deal his older sisters and brothers felt.† He agreed, though he suspected the Clan name wouldn't survive.† With the emigrations to the new colony planets, most of the other small clans with whom such a deal could be brokered to his Clan's advantage were no longer on Shola.† Still, if nothing else his family was known for its resourcefulness.† Those who weren't didn't survive in the highlands for long.

Taking a quick shower he got himself dried and brushed and headed out, carefully avoiding any family members.† He had to meet Kilrath in two hours by the c'shar shop on the west end if they were going to get to this meeting with H'Chaul on time.† Banner suspected that being late wouldn't be a good idea.† He'd done a little checking of his own on this H'Chaul person.† He didn't sound like the kind of Sholan he'd normally want to meet in a dark alley, or even a well-lit one for that matter!† Yet that's what he'd let Kilrath talk him into doing.† He made sure he had all of his throwing knives hidden under his vest.† Taking weapons made him feel uneasy, but he knew H'Chaul's men would all be armed and showing up empty handed would be stupid.† Kilrath had mentioned that he thought they should probably have had guns, but Banner had made it clear that he wouldn't show with one. Most knife fights involved a lot of growling and posturing, a few cuts and then someone either backed down or ran away. But once people started shooting, the shooting usually didn't stop until someone was dead.

"Kilrath, there's only two of us, and there'll be a lot more of them." He had said, "And all of them are full grown adults!† If they decide they don't want to be nice to us, having guns will only get us shot."

"But we're supposed to be tough, Banner, able to protect our turf from rivals and not get ripped off ourselves. I don't want them to think we'll be a pushover."

"Fine then, I'll bring my knives. We can look tough, and hopefully if things go bad they'll only beat us silly and not shoot us okay?" He grumbled.† Kilrath did have a point that walking through the streets with that much money, and afterwards that much dust, might make them a tempting target.

"True," Kilrath had finally agreed, "You can live through a beating; getting shot has a tendency to be a bit more fatal."


††††††††††††††††††††††† #††††††††† #††††††††† #


Banner got there early, and was still pretty nervous, when Kilrath showed up.

"So you ready?"† Kilrath asked.

"Why are you asking me?† This is your deal." He snapped and then regretted it immediately. There was no need to take his nervousness out on his friend; he'd agreed to go along after all.

"After tonight, I'm really gonna be set!"† Kilrath laughed, ears perked.† His tail tip was twitching nervously though Banner noticed.

"Well I hope you've got Gella or Teffol lined up to help you after this.† Remember I'll be sixteen here in a few weeks and then I'm off."

"Sure you don't want to stay, Banner?"† Kilrath asked again.† Gella and Teffol were reliable, and were pretty big even if they were younger, but neither was as good a fighter, or seemed to have that trick of knowing when trouble was coming.† "In the time it would take you to get through your term of service you could be wealthier than you'll ever get in the Forces!"

Banner shook his head, "I still don't see how you're going to get away without serving, Kilrath, it is the law you know."

Kilrath shrugged, "Once I have the money I'll just bribe someone like Dhrasu's father did."

"He's a Clan Head though," Banner observed.† "And he's still having to do some service.† He'll just get to stay in this area."

"Yeah well, I'll have more than enough money to take care of it, don't you worry."† Kilrath looked at his watch.† "Time for us to go..."


*††††††††† *††††††††† *


Nezoa casually glanced at his wristcom as he took up his position next to H'Chual, a little telltale changed color, which indicated that the protectorate's people were all in position and awaiting his signal.† He looked around the alley, it was a lot more open than he'd have liked for a trap, there were six separate exits, and four of those were pretty wide so the trash collectors could maneuver their trucks.† It was a great place for a meeting, with good views in all directions and a lot of escape routes. It was a lousy place for a trap however.† He'd wanted to take them all down as soon as they got here; there was enough dust on H'Chaul's carrier to send the dealer up for a very long time.† But the Protectorate had over ridden that.† They wanted the goods and money to change hands, dealing was a much more serious offense.

They'd had to set the trap carefully; H'Chaul was no fool and wouldn't carry the drugs or money himself. H'Chaul had them drive around the area several times as well; to be sure there were no Protectorate forces in the area. Nezoa knew that the buyer would be approaching from the south; H'Chaul had given explicit instructions to him. So he'd made sure that one approach wasn't guarded.† It wouldn't do to have the buyer spot the Protectorate forces either.† Besides the sholan carrying the dust, and the other bodyguard, H'Chaul had two of his other thugs stationed to either sides of the alley.† Part of it was a show of force to impress the buyer, but H'Chaul never did anything by half measures and always traveled in force.

Exactly on time the buyer showed up, a short reddish male with definite markings like the desert clans.† Nezoa's ear gave a surprised flick, as the buyer moved into the light, he was only a child!† Fifteen, Sixteen at the oldest.† He could tell the Buyer was nervous, it was written all over his body language, but his voice was clear as he greeted H'Chaul's man, and then H'Chaul himself.

Nezoa's eyes then drifted over to the other male, the one who'd accompanied the buyer.† He was dark pelted, and well muscled, taller than the other one by half a head.† The vest he was wearing was obviously concealing several knives and he stood balanced on the balls of his feet.† Obviously the buyer's muscle, and just as obviously a youngling.† The second one's eyes were scanning back and forth trying to watch everything, he didn't look happy to be here, and Nezoa knew that after the Protectorate had closed in and arrested everyone, he'd be unhappier still.

Kilrath swallowed his nerves and tried to look respectful as he walked up to H'Chaul, "Greetings, Djani," he said carefully, he wasn't going to presume to call him by name.

"Greetings, Kilrath," H'Chaul responded smiling.† He appreciated the honorific; this youngling was smart and would help with his plans to expand his trade further out of the city.† Few would think to look at one so young as a dealer.† As long as he stayed small passing him off as not yet of age would be easy, and by the time that ploy would no longer work, he wouldn't need him anymore.† H'Chaul loved situations where he always stood to profit.

"So, Kilrath, have you brought the money?"

"Yes, Djani," Kilrath nodded and opened the small bag he had been carrying.

H'Chaul stepped closer to the youngling and looked down; yes it looked like Kilrath had the money all right.† He wouldn't count it until later; make the youngling think he trusted him.† If he crossed him, H'Chaul was a patient sholan, he'd get his due after the youngling was no longer of service.

"Ahhh good, Kilrath," H'Chaul smiled again and grabbed the youngling's shoulder in a fatherly manner, playing the role of the proud parent.† He noticed Kilrath's ears perk a little, his instincts were correct, this youngling had never had a father.† There was no telling what he might be willing to do to win approval.

Banner glanced around, growing more uneasy with each passing second, this was taking far longer than he wanted it to and something kept tickling at the edge of his awareness, like a gnat that wouldn't leave your ears alone.

One of the sholan's with H'Chaul was watching him and Kilrath in a way that made him uncomfortable and he could just hear the poison dripping off of H'Chaul's tongue.† The way he was trying to cozy up to his friend just rubbed his fur the wrong way.† He moved forward to keep close to Kilrath, trying to will him to just get it done so they could leave.† He didn't like this alley much, most of the exits were behind H'Chaul and his men, and this part of town was too far out of his regular stomping grounds.

Nezoa focused his attention back on the deal taking place, H'Chaul's carrier was now showing the drugs and H'Chaul was taking the money.† The buyer was reaching for the bag when Nezoa's finger pressed the hidden caller on his belt to summon his partner and the Protectorate forces.† He felt sorry for the two younglings, but it didn't compare to the strong sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that he'd soon have H'Chaul under arrest.

And then it happened.† Just as he hit the button the dark male's mane went up and he grabbed the buyer's arm.

Banner suddenly just knew.† Something was wrong, very wrong.† Ear's swiveling out he could swear that he heard the sound of several dozen ground cars starting up as well.†


"Run!"† Banner yelled, grabbing Kilrath and pulling him away. "Protectorate!"

Kilrath blinked, shocked.† The sholan carrying the drugs took off like a shot without a look back, so Kilrath grabbed for his bag of money, not wanting to part with it after so much hard work to save up so much.

H'Chaul grabbed the youngling's arm, not sure yet if this was a trick of some sort or not, grabbing the money bag tighter himself as his bodyguards reached into their jackets.

Suddenly for Banner, time slowed.† It reminded him of the time when he and his sister had been cleaning out the tank drains and a snake had appeared suddenly and gone for her.† Everything had seemed to stand still then, and he'd hit the snake with his belt knife from a good twenty feet away.† His instructor had told him that some sholan's had a gift that sharpened their senses and skills in dangerous situations.† He knew what to do.

Turning to the bodyguard on H'Chaul's right he jumped and swept his feet in an arc, the bodyguard seeming to move so slowly that he was like a practice dummy.† He knocked the gun out of his grip with the side of right foot, and struck him in the side of the head with the heel of the left.† He turned his head to focus on his next target, H'Chaul who still had a hold of Kilrath as his momentum carried him around, and he landed on his feet. Taking a step and letting his body continue the spinning motion from the kick he struck H'Chaul's face with the back of his fist, then planted his feet and followed it with a hard roundhouse to his chin.† H'Chaul released his grip on Kilrath.† The two lookouts were now drawing their guns, the closer one he threw a knife at without even thinking, the other one was out of range.† It was time to run.

Grabbing Kilrath he took off heading towards the alleyway, when the second bodyguard grabbed his shoulder.† Turning his head he bit the bodyguard's hand hard and pulled away as he was released.† He thought briefly about another knife, but strangely he suddenly knew that there was no threat from him.† He continued to push Kilrath as his friend started to run, and suddenly time snapped back into place as quickly as it had stopped.

"My money!"† Kilrath gasped.

"Forget it!"† Banner growled as they fell to all fours and sped out of the alley, the sounds of a shot ringing out over their heads.

Nezoa's swore to himself as he fired a shot over the fleeing pair's heads so as to maintain his bodyguard cover.† The other lookout had hesitated, he was too far back to get a clear shot, and then they were gone.† He pressed his bleeding hand to his lips to slow the flow and swore again.† How had that male known?


*††††††††† *††††††††† *


"Damn that was close!"† Kilrath panted as they heard yet another patrol car, siren blaring, go roaring by.† They'd been dodging Protectorate officers for twenty minutes now.† The whole area was buzzing with Protectorate sholans.

"Another second, Kilrath, another second, and you'd have been dead," Banner panted, his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath.† They'd barely beaten the protectorate officer to the exit of the alleyway, and played a chase and tag game for ten minutes after that, running on all fours through alleys, leaping fences and even diving between the heavy traffic of more than one road.

"I don't know what tipped you off, Banner, but I'm sure glad it did."† Kilrath's breath was slowing as he got it under control; his friend slumped against the wall.† "You saved my life.† This is why you have to stay, Banner.† Without you, I'd be dead or worse!† You've got to stay, I need you!"

Banner growled and turning on Kilrath he grabbed the other's arm, his own mane standing out as his claws dug into the other's arm.† "No!† NO!† I've had enough of this Kilrath!† Enough!† You almost got us killed this time!† Our lives over before they even started!† Can you imagine what this would do to my Mother?† My Father?† It'd kill them!† And you!† You have the Forces Officers trying to help you plan your career they want you so much!† They said you could have a promising career in AlRel, and you want to give that up for this?† Back alley meetings with scum like that?† You know how many people that Trader of yours back there has probably killed?† And for all we know he now thinks we're the ones who set him up!† Leave it, Kilrath.† You owe me now and I say leave it!† Leave it while you can, because as of this minute, I'm out!"

Banner released Kirath's arm and collapsed back against the wall, sliding down until he was sitting on his butt. He was utterly exhausted.† The outburst had taken a lot out of him, he couldn't understand why.† He looked over at Kilrath, his friend's eyes were so wide and staring he could see the whites.† Suddenly Kilrath began to shake.

"Kilrath, you okay?"† Banner asked, nudging him with a foot.

"Y... Yeah..." Kilrath said shaking himself.† "I... I never thought of it that way ..." He looked down at the scattered debris on the ground, his ears and tail drooping, "You're right that was close, too close."†

Banner watched as Kilrath gathered himself up, now looking as scared as he himself had felt when they had finally stopped and he'd been able to think about what they had just escaped.

"I think you're right," Kilrath said after a few minutes of silence.† "I'm not cut out for this.† I thought I was the cool calm one, but I have to admit that I'm shaking like a leaf right now."

"So is this it then?"† Banner asked slowly getting to his feet, tail drooping.

"Yeah, I think this is it."† Kilrath sighed, "I wish I had gotten the money though, we could have had a nice little party before leaving school."

Banner opened his mouth and smiled, "Hey, at least we got away right?† And don't worry; I've still got some left so we can have a party when we graduate.† Not like we'll have anything to spend it on in the Forces, right?"

Kilrath smiled back and chuckled himself, "I guess you're right about that, Banner.† Letís go find some food.† I'm starving."

"Sure," Banner smiled back, "let me dump this vest and the knives first.† Don't think I'll be needing this getup anymore."


*††††††††† *††††††††† *


"So what happened, Nezoa?" his partner Sharrin growled, "I know you too well to even think you triggered the alarm too soon, or gave yourself away..."

They were sitting in one of the whitewashed interrogation rooms at the local police station, except for the one sholan carrying the Dust, all of H'Chaul's men had been arrested and at this point were being questioned separately.†

Nezoa had been hauled into a room like all the rest and only now that the door had been closed was it safe to speak freely.† He glared at Sharrin and finished bandaging his hand.† "Damned if I know.† One moment things are fine, they're about to swap the money.† So I hit the signal so you could close the trap and pop!† That youngling acts like someone electrified him."

Sharrin's ears perked up, "What do you mean?† One of those guys was out cold and H'Chaul's face is all swollen up.† Not to mention you.† Those two do all that?"

"Nope, just one did all that."

Nezoa nodded at his partner's look of disbelief.

"The black one, when he grabbed his partner's arm H'Chaul grabbed his partner as well and he went off like an explosion.† Took out the other bodyguard, decked H'Chaul and that was his knife stuck in that handgun, not mine!† He never stopped moving, never hesitated, not an instant.† I got this when I grabbed him.† Lucky I didn't get a knife in the gut as well."

Sharrin, dropped down into the other chair, a look of surprise on his face.† He looked over Nezoa for a moment before he spoke again.

"You don't think it was luck at all, do you?"

Nezoa shook his head, "No, not really.† Someone's trained that youngling real good.† He took out the threats and took off.† He knew I wasn't a threat."

"Just as he knew when you signaled for us."

Nezoa nodded.


"Couldn't be, would have been spotted by the guild years ago."


Nezoa shrugged, "Could be, I'd say that he must have some kind of talent. Danger sense at the very least."

"Got a name on him?"

"No, but it's a small town, H'Chaul mentioned the buyer was from Parst and I'll write you down a detailed description.† I'd say you better get over there to check him out before he gets in any more trouble.† He's most likely talented, and definitely one heck of a fighter, it would be a shame to see him wasted in the Telepath Guild."

Sharrin frowned.† "That's assuming he has enough of a talent to show up on any tests."

"Well he's got to be due for the Forces' tests soon, so if he's got anything they'll probably find it."

"True."† Sharrin nodded, "I'll head over to Parst, track him down and evaluate him.† The Brotherhood can always use a good fighter, even if he isn't talented."

"If it turns out he's worth recruiting, I won't feel so bad about tonight.† So what's going to happen with H'Chaul?" Nezoa asked jerking a thumb towards the next room where the drug dealer was being questioned.

"We didn't catch his carrier, so without the drugs, and without the sale, he's walking."

"Damn!"† Nezoa swore.

"At least he doesn't know who tipped us off.† Your cover is still safe; we'll get him next time."

"Assuming that youngling isn't there again next time that is!"† Nezoa growled.

"Don't worry, Nezoa, I'll get after the youngling," Sharrin laughed.† "Think you can handle another month living with that scum?"

"What choice do I have?† At least if you recruit him I can make him buy me a few drinks once he graduates Stronghold."

"That's the spirit!" his partner laughed again and gave his shoulder a squeeze as he got up and headed for the door.

"Easy for you to say, you don't have to live with these bottom feeders!"† Nezoa growled ears flattening in distaste.


*††††††††† *††††††††† *


Banner was feeling pretty good about himself, since their near arrest Kilrath had been as good as his word and dropped the whole dust business.† Gella and Teffol hadn't been too thrilled at first when Kilrath had told them he was out of business for good.† They'd enjoyed the money and the other benefits as well.† But there was a big crackdown by the protectorate and other officials a few days later and at that point they realized that Banner and Kilrath had the right idea.

They had a nice graduation party and if some of the people turning up were bit disappointed by the lack of certain fare, Banner couldn't have cared less.† People like that weren't his friends, they just wanted to use him, though he had to admit, he'd been using quite a few of them back.† His birthday was coming up, and the day after that he'd be heading off to join the Forces. Even if nearly all of his classmates were joining -- well the other males at least -- he'd probably not run into any of them again for a long time.

As he walked through town heading back towards his Clan's warehouse he wondered what he should do after he served his time.†† Coming back to his Clan's farm didn't exactly thrill him, even if it was a pretty successful business or a holiday resort by then.† A career in the Forces wouldn't be bad, and he wouldn't be the first from his Clan to make a life of it.† He had to admit that, while he hadn't liked the illegal aspects of what he had been doing with Kilrath, it had been exciting.† A lot more exciting than farming fish!† Hopefully there would be something in the Forces he could qualify for that would feed that new appetite.

He looked up suddenly and noticed something down the far end of the street he had only rarely seen, Parst being somewhat out of the way and all.† A male sholan in black robes. Could it be a member of the Brotherhood?† They were the warrior elite and quite a few other things as well if the stories and rumors were to be believed.† He smiled as he noticed the others on the street moving discretely out of the way as the Brother came up the block towards him.† The only times he'd seen a Brother before he'd done the same.† People who attracted the attention of the Brotherhood tended to disappear, or at least that's what everyone said.

He did know the stories his father had told him though, from when his father had been in the Forces.† How one night during a break in the fighting a group had appeared from nowhere and sat down and ate with them, then vanished in the night.† The next morning they returned with the enemy commander.† His father had been very impressed, and Banner's father was not one who impressed easily.

Not only that, but they apparently were a brotherhood, almost like a Clan. They lived apart from the main of society and were a tight knit group, a separate guild, and he remembered a powerful and large one.† He wondered what it would be like to belong to something so large, so much like what his Clan once was long ago, before he had been born, before the wars had taken such a heavy toll on its members.

He made up his mind suddenly, getting one of those feelings that this was the right thing to do.

"Excuse me, Sir?" he found himself saying as the black cloaked figure drew even with him.† He noticed the Brother was light furred; his eyes a light color as well now that he could see beneath the hood.

"You want something, Kitling?"† He replied, looking down at Banner.

Banner bristled a little at the 'Kitling', but swallowed it.† He was the one looking for a favor after all.

"I turn sixteen tomorrow, Sir, and well," he hesitated a moment noticing the way the other was staring at him, "I was wondering about the Brotherhood, Sir.† No one much talks about it or seems to know anything much."

"So you thought you'd ask me then, is that it?"

Banner nodded.† He could feel the intensity of the male's eyes, watching him examining him.† "What's it like?"

"Thinking of joining are you?"† The Male's mouth opened in a grin.

"Maybe I am," Banner said trying not to growl.† He didn't appreciate being made fun of, but he had been raised to show good manners and this male was his elder.† "It is allowed, isn't it?"

"Think you can measure up?"

He could suddenly feel he was being weighted, and all he knew was that he didn't want to be found wanting.

"You tell me, sir," he replied doggedly and stared back, determined suddenly to not give an inch in this battle of wills, even though he knew he had no chance of winning.

"Very well, then," the male suddenly replied his whole demeanor thawing.† "There's a nice restaurant up the street here as I recall, we can talk about it over a meal."

Banner blinked surprised by the sudden change in attitude and the offer to share a meal.

"Yes, Sir, thank you, Sir."† He nodded and followed him off to eat.

††††††††††† "Please, call me Brother ..."


*††††††††† *††††††††† *


††††††††††† Father Cursurak looked up from his desk as Sharrin entered.† He'd been waiting for him to show up since he'd received the report from Nezoa on that male youngling he'd encountered over in Ranz.† As the Chief Recruiter for the Brotherhood, he had to pass judgement on anyone that was brought in, but Sharrin had worked for him in the past and he trusted his judgement.

"So, Sharrin, what do you have to report on Nezoa's male?"† He asked gesturing to the other to take a seat in one of the chairs across from the desk. He knew Sharrin had just arrived here at Stronghold, and riding herd on a youngling was tiring work.† He nodded as Sharrin dropped into the seat with a smile of thanks.

"Oh, definitely an empath, Father Cursurak, pretty strong one too.† Picked up everything I threw at him, though I don't suspect he was quite aware of it.† Untrained, but a lot of raw talent."

"Any trouble recruiting him?"

"No, actually.† Once I decided to approach him I used that old trick you taught me years ago to invite his attention.† I was surprised at how fast he picked it up.† Then I hit him with several different emotions in a row while he was talking to me.† He not only picked them up, but he held his own there and didn't lose control.† Got a little upset once, but still behaved himself."

"What about the drugs he was involved in?"† Father Cursurak asked, looking down at the report one his desk. By the Forces standards dust was a pretty minor offense and they often turned a blind eye to it.

Sharrin leaned forwards in his chair.† "Well I did a little investigating before I met him, had to anyway to figure out who he was in the first place."


"Seems mostly small time.† His friend was the one doing most of the driving behind the business. Looks like he was primarily along for the ride."

"Sounds a bit easily led."† Father Cursurak scowled leaning back in his chair and looking back up at Sharrin.

Sharrin shrugged and relaxed back into his own seat, "Maybe, maybe not.† Would have to ask to find out his reasons for it.† I could feel a strong sense of loyalty in him to his friends and family when we talked, could be he just got dragged in.† But you've seen the money and the status some of those dealers get.† That could be attractive to a young male just coming into his own as well.† It seems however that his friend has decided after the last run-in to drop out of the business for good."

"Really?" Father Cursurak's ears perked up and he looked over at Sharrin with interest.

"Yes, and considering the extent of this recruit's broadcasting abilities I wonder if they played a factor. From what I gathered talking to the retired Forces sergeant who was teaching him, Banner seemed to be excited by the idea of joining the Forces."

Father Cursurak nodded, considering a moment.† "Maybe.† What did his parents say?"

"Seemed to be pleased with the idea.† Family has a long military tradition; I gather they've encountered the Brotherhood before."

"Better still.† So I assume he's settling in downstairs then?"

"Yes.† I made sure he was well in hand before I came up here to report.† He looks to be a mixture of scared and determined right now," Sharrin grinned.

"Not unlike you were when I first saw you, eh, Sharrin?"† Father Cursurak chuckled.

"In that case I'm sure he'll be a very valuable addition to the Brotherhood,Ē he laughed in response.

Father Cursurak nodded and dismissed Sharrin after bidding him a good day.† He tossed Nezoa's report into the pile of other recruitment reports to be destroyed, no reason to let any of the past hang over a new recruit's ears.† Banner would pass or fail on his own merits now, the Brotherhood believed in new beginnings after all.