Things of import did not happen in the Shackled Crow. It was a fairly dingy tavern, far from any of the great winding obsidian and silver thoroughfares it was attached to the back of the abandoned Grand Temple of the Majestic, sitting like a remora on the hump of a dead whale. It was almost permanently in the shade and its clientele consisted of very dour men and women who nursed their drinks for hours and only talked when spoken to, or to order another drink. Some of them had been coming here for years and Keratch wasn't sure that could identify them by name.

He idly scrubbed a dirty cloth around a dirty mug. It was late in the afternoon, another couple of hours and the evenings drinkers would come in and order the same drink they ordered every night; the foul-smelling, worst tasting Savoron wine. Glisten and Hack would take the table in the corner, farthest from the cold hearth and sit in what could only be called nostalgic silence. Veshring and the old woman Nestri would glare at each other from across the room. Over the years Keratch had determined that they were married and resentful of that fact.

A bell toiled somewhere. Not in the tower over the ruin at his back, that cult had been outlawed decades ago. Keratch could remember being a child peeking through the shutters of his mother's pokey apartment as the fires were set and the monks' and priests' yells and then screams as the imposing double doors were sealed shut with them inside. In his more introspective moments, the tavern keeper wondered what had possessed him to buy the Crow after being witness to that horror. He had concluded that his sister was to blame.

Keratch stepped vindictively on a beetle as it scuttled surreptitiously through his feet. He crushed it with a satisfying crunch and reflected on the similarities between his sister and the face of a bug.

The Crow was set below the road, the door down a short flight of stairs, having used to be a storeroom to the temple and so when a person approached, a noticeable shadow would fall across the door. Keratch poured a draft of Ratgut Ale, expecting the bandy legged tribesman Nogust to push the door open.

A Paleface walked into the low-ceilinged room.

Normally new faces in the Shackled Crow were looked over once by the regulars and then summarily ignored until they left. Not so with this one, all the eyes turned to him and stayed on him, the white-swathed figure stepping forward lightly, like he was unsure of his footing.

Kertach knew that he was gaping and that trickle of dampness running down his leg was a wasted mug of good ale, but he couldn't stop himself. The Palefaces, that wasn't what they called themselves but it was what they were known as, were practically part of the mythology of the Slave City of Tal Mingus. While traditionally every citizen was meant to be the personal slave of the Tower Master, the Palefaces were said to dwell in the tower itself and serve at the beck and call of the Moribund – hence their name, the Blackstone Tower had no windows and their culture was almost entirely cut off from the sun. Compared to the wind and sun weathered features of most of the residents of Tal Mingus, the Palefaces stood out like a harlot in a monastery, even without their voluminous white robes. Keratch had never seen one before, not even caught the tail end of one like some people said they did, though he had heard some traders claim they delivered goods to a side door of the Tower, goods that were collected by silent Palefaces.

But he had never heard of one ever setting foot in a tavern.

It was almost enough to make one believe in the Moribund itself.

The Paleface looked at them all silently, one by one, slowly stepping into the dipped centre of the room. His eyes were wide and dark, his skin nothing like anyone Kertach had ever seen, even the one Northman he had come across had been more pink than white.

'Where is Exalted Maletch?'

The Paleface's voice was quiet and husky and his pronunciation was slightly off, as if he was unused to speaking Taleesian and Karetch wasn't sure he had head him right. But for all that he was a dull man, he was observant and he noticed the other people sitting at the tables stiffening. What was going on here? The Exalted had been the title for the High Priest in the old cult, but he had been burned alive with all the rest of them.

No one seemed in any rush to answer the question and so it fell to him, Kertach O Baseen, proprietor of the Shackled Crow to demonstrate that they were not all small-minded peasants here. He adjusted his grimy apron around his sizable waist and coughed meekly. According to tradition, as the household salves to the Tower Master, the Palefaces outranked even the Council members of the Shronoi Cabal, the de facto rulers of Tal Mingus – a certain subservience was probably in order.

'Uh, sir, the Exalted is dead, killed years ago.'

The Paleface looked at him, a penetrating stare that Keratch could not hold and he dropped his gaze to the floor. It was the first time he had ever been concerned about the sand and dirt stamped into the warped wooden beams that were the floor of his tavern. But then, it was the first time he had anyone as distinguished as a tower dweller judging him.

It was one of the most popular pastimes of the slave-citizens of Tal Mingus, speculating as to what went on inside the Blackstone Tower. Some believed the inhabitants lived a lavish life of decadence, though exactly who the inhabitants were depended on who you asked. Some said the Palefaces lived off the memory of the Moribund, others had the Shronoi as exploiting the immense structure that dominated the city. Others, more skeptical people, insisted that the tower was empty, that the Cabal has opened it centuries ago and had found nothing of any worth, but simply kept the legend of the Slave Driver alive to keep the city in order and their in hand. Karetch would be the first to admit that he was not a big thinker, he sometimes had trouble following were his coin disappeared to after all, and so he tried not to think about the Tower and its inhabitants at all.

And now here one was.

'That is unlikely. High Priests do not die in fires.' Again, that unease with the nuance of the language that made Keratch believe that Taleesian was not his mother tongue.

'Wouldn't you agree, Nestrilanis?' the Paleface didn't stop staring at the bartender, but Keratch could see Nestri gape and shudder. No one said anything for a while, but the fat old barkeep couldn't help but get the feeling that there was communication going on anyway.

The silence was broken when Nogust barreled into the tavern. He took one look at the scene arrayed in front of him through his tiny squinting eyes, spat, took his usual seat by the hearth and promptly began ignoring everyone not involved with getting him a drink.

Keratch almost giggled at the banality of the desert tribesman's entrance. The joke was that Nogust had ridden into the Tal one day and got so lost in its winding streets and alleys that he had fathered three children before he had found the Mason's Gate again. He had no idea who the Palefaces were apart from odd looking foreigners with demon-white skin.

Kertach used the opportunity that Nogust presented to retreat behind the safety of his bar, ostensibly to pour another mug of Ratgut for the tribesman, who was now spitting on his palms and sliding them back through his hair, a sure sign he would be making another attempt on Nestri tonight – but more to retain some semblance of authority in a situation where he rapidly seemed to be becoming irrelevant.

Hack decided to speak then, not once breaking into the fits that had so named him, 'He should be on his way, he drinks here every night.'

It was quite a shock to Keratch, so much so that he almost spilled some ale while he was pouring, something that he never did. The only regular who had not arrived yet was old Slop, who drank himself into a stupor every night. He was the Exalted? The High Priest to the Holy Guardian?

Gears started turning very slowly in his head. And Hack knew that already! Whip fend! Look at them all, they all knew that already! Hack, Glisten, Veshring and Nestri, they were all part of it. He grinned like a satisfied toad, had the last remnants of the old cult really chosen the tavern with a stones throw of their temple as their hidey hole? Like rats scurrying around the ruins of a palace the nested in faded glories. How could smart people be so stupid?

Someone important has obviously discovered their little deception, but it still didn't explain why the Paleface had emerged for them.

The man in question had sat down on one of Kertach's rickety chairs and seemed to wait until Slop, or Maletch, arrived. Handing the mug to Nogust, Keratch toyed with offering him a drink, wondering if he had any bottles of the Ushtami Brandy left.

The decision was made for him when he heard the snuffling and coughing and mumbling that indicated that Slop was stumbling his way down the stairs to the door. The Paleface stood, and a moment later all the cultists did as well, eyes locked on the door.

Slop staggered in, almost tripping as stone step morphed into wooden floor. To Keratch's untrained eye, he certainly didn't look like the High Priest of anything except beggars. He was old, hunched over, his face slack with jowly folds of skin. Tufts of grey-yellow hair sprouted out of his mottled scalp at random, giving him the appearance of a diseased dog. At the moment, his lips were contorted into a curse as he, surprisingly athletically, danced to keep his balance, arms windmilling about him.

He stopped dead as the utter silence of the room engulfed him.

His lips curled into a sneer and Keratch could see a look of sober cunning glint in his rheumy red eyes, but before he could say anything, the Paleface preempted him.

'Exalted Maletch, your presence is required.'

The High Priest snorted and flexed his gnarly fingers. The man has been old fifty years ago for goodness sake, what was he going to do? Punch the Paleface out?

'If the Shronoi Cabal wants me, they can come get me themselves, the gutless snakes. And you better tell them to bring a full cadre for you are standing on sanctified ground.'

Sanctified ground?! Kertach thought wildly, those bastard monks had sanctified his tavern to the Holy Guardian? An illegal cult?!

No more credit for them, he decided vindictively.

Keratch had almost no sensitivity to sorcery or he would have tasted the distinctive metallic tang in the air as the Exalted drew on his rusty old source, having lain dormant for so many years it was slow and sluggish to be called up. He did however see Maletch begin to glow from the inside, as if his skin were paper and a candle had been lit in place of his heart.

The cult of the Majestic was the premier religion in most of the surrounding region. It was a faith of peoples of deserts and plains, where all shadows were shredded by the sun and even the night blazed with stars, it was a faith of light. The magic of its priests was called the Blinding, and in its purest manifestations, it appeared as sheets of white luminescence.

When the Moribund had stolen (or bought, legends were unclear) the site of what would become his Blackstone Tower from the then Holy Guardian; his legion of slaves in tow had been mainly Taleesian in stock and so the cult had continued, even though the city they had built was no longer part the Majesty.

It was only in recent years, with rumours abounding that the Grand Temple was the centre of a plot to wrest power from the Cabal and return to the embrace of the Majesty and the Guardian's governance that the Shronoi had cracked down, perhaps as a show of power, perhaps in response to a genuine plot, only the councilors knew for certain.

All that Keratch knew was that a burned out storeroom would go for cheap, and that stories of the screaming ghosts of monks would keep his sister away, and that was good enough for him. He had not anticipated the ashes of a political power struggle to be gathering in his establishment. It was like sniffing a beautiful flower and having it smell like goat vomit. He was, however, slightly impressed by his first look at sorcery.

The Paleface was shaking his head, 'No Exalted one, as far as the Shronoi circle seem to be aware, you cult exists only in backroom shrines.' He pronounced 'Shronoi' differently to most, and it was not a Taleesian word, 'your master requires your presence at once.'

The glow in Maletch flickered as doubt blossomed on his craggy face and the other cultists looked at him in silent alarm.

'My master? The Holy Guardian is here? No, he can't be, I would have sensed it-,' the priest gulped and opened his mouth without speaking a few times, a fish out of water, 'You can't possibly mean..?'

Keratch had lost all handle on the conversation, so he just poured Slop's usual portion of Savoron wine and quietly placed it on the bar surface. He prayed silently to the Whip that this would all sort itself out peacefully.

'It's a trap Maletch!' Glisten growled, his forehead shining, 'the Cabal wants to destroy us once and for all. You must annihilate this imposter!' He pointed a fat finger at the Paleface, who stared blankly back at him, calm in the face of a death sentence.

The inner glow in the High Priest brightened, two halos forming around his hands and his irises disappearing in a pure white light. Keratch shuffled around so that he was no longer standing directly behind the Paleface.

Who cocked his head as if hearing something from a great distance.

'It is too late, he comes.'

Slowly, unthreateningly, the Paleface lowered himself to his knees, and then pressed his forehead against the dirty, ale-stained floor.

There wasn't time to be confused, all gazes snapped to look at the door, to watch for the telltale shadow above the wood.

Nothing so mundane.

Once, as a young boy, Keratch had stolen a sheet from a washing line and used it as a wall to hide from his sister (or as he had maintained ever after, to ensure his privacy to think important older brother thoughts). The tearing of the material and how it had fallen away when his sister had cut into it with their mother's cooking knife was very much like what happened in his tavern years later. Except that instead of a thin sheet it was the air, five pinpricks of darkness ripping through it.

And instead of his nightmare sister wielding a knife on the other side, it was the only half-believed in ruler of Tal Mingus.

The Moribund, the Tower Master, the Slave Driver.

In the Castings he was represented as the Whip, coiled up like a black leathery snake. In his own tongue, the language used by the Palefaces inside the Blackstone Tower he was called the Cayu'Yatai.

At a cursory glance in half-light, one might for a moment mistake him for a human, but anything more and it was immediately obvious that he was not.

The Moribund was a suitable name; he looked like a thing dead, gaunt beyond the point of life, cheek bones high and prominent. The head was completely hairless and if the Palefaces were white then he was bleached of all colour, skin cut through with the black of webbed veins. The mouth was wider than what was normal and almost completely lipless. He was monochrome, his clothing appeared to be a single sheet of liquid night wrapped around his emaciated body multiple times and, most disturbingly of all for Keratch; his eyes were utterly black, as shiny as marbles and unblinking.

One white hand was clasped in his robe, the other was hanging at his side and the fingers were over long and seemed to have one too many joints.

With his eyes as they were it was impossible to tell where he was looking, but one by one, they felt his imperious gaze fall upon them. Karetch almost fell to his knees and physically shuddered as that implacable, immortal regard swept over him.

The presence silenced them, and the urge was to join the Paleface in supplicating before the Moribund. Only Nogust seemed completely unaffected, sipping his ale and leering possessively over Nestri – no doubt the bald city man was competing for her affections.

The Tower Master was frowning, or perhaps that was how his mouth rested, but the thin lips parted to reveal fused pearly white teeth. His voice, when it came, was hoarse and wispy. Keratch strained to hear what was being said and quickly realised that he was not speaking Taleesian.

From the floor, the Paleface began to translate tonelessly.

'I summon you and instead of rushing to my feet you threaten my slave. It is the lack of obedience that galls. Have I not been a most lenient master?' The Moribund pointed one long, boney finger at the High Priest, draining the light from him and then the whole room, reducing vision to the fuzzy grey and black of twilight.

'Perhaps I have been too lenient with you most forgetful of species…I ask for so little in return for my benevolent rule.'

In a strangely human gesture, the creature waved his hand dismissively.

'Exalted, my Shronoi was disastrously incompetent in ordering the destruction of your cult. They have done nothing but create zealous patriots who have disappeared into backrooms and hidden shrines. They court the agents of the Holy Guardian to come into my city and that…' the Moribund snapped his teeth together,

'That vexes me.'

The Paleface stopped talking, his voice a human harmonic above the low whisper that was the Moribund's own exotic voice. It was clear the Tower Master was expecting some kind of reply from somebody as he waited, completely motionless. Keratch began to squirm in the silence; he had never been good around authority figures. Behind all the standing, entranced figures, Nogust was peering into untended wine glasses, and sneaking the contents into his own mug.

'Uh..Lor- master?' Maletch started, hands pressed together as if praying, which perhaps he was, 'I don't understand what this has to do-' He was cut short as the Moribund snapped his teeth together again.

'No, you do not understand human, which is why I order you to attend me. And instead I must drag you back to my tower myself.' Without warning, so much as a whispered cant, darkness dripped from the low slung rafters, sheets of cold inky blackness that tugged at the consciousness and sent Keratch to shivering. It was not long before he realized that the shadows were not simply darkness, but spreading windows into another place, a there. Because what was there but another here (a little further upon this line of thinking and Keratch would be stumbling onto the basics of the magic the Moribund is employing)?

The cultists, Paleface and the Moribund were all swept into the maw of the stone-vaulted other place. Keratch could see glimpses of dim silver lights and impossibly high ceilings before he was tugged forward and the curtains of displacement swept closed and the ordinary light of his guttering candles flooded his senses. A dagger of pain stabbed into his wrist as his thumb twisted badly against the bar.

They were gone, all of them, except Nogust, who was looking around with a blank look of momentary confusion on his face. Keratch leaned heavily on his bar, kneading his thumb firmly.

For a moment, he shook his head and sighed, searching for his cloth. For a moment he has felt part of something larger, an actor on the stage of life rather than just a spectator. He had witnessed sorcery, he had heard the voice of the Moribund… but now, he had a thirsty customer.

Things of import did not happen in the Shackled Crow.