The air was thick with heat. It took some force to push through the people to the bar, and then greater force to push back the other way. Ki'ol Semorra slipped between the shoulders of two merchants, lifting a purse from a pocket on his way, and took his mug of ale outside into the stark cold.

Talin was leaning against the rail, flipping a dagger over and over in one hand, gazing absently into the snow. Ki'ol perched beside him and slurped his ale noisily.

"Where are the others?" he asked, warming one hand in his armpit.

"Praying," Talin said. He threw the dagger down, letting it bury itself in the snow beside the road.

"I got some money," Ki'ol said, helpfully, brandishing the merchant's purse.

"We'll need a lot more than that."

"Would you like me to steal off some more people?"

"Don't steal, Ki'ol." Talin picked up his dagger and sheathed it purposefully. He took a long, deliberate breath of the cold air. "I'm considering offering the Band's service to the Black Priests."

Ki'ol choked on his ale. "Act as mercenaries? Are you mad? Salahim will never agree, and Elohm would rather die than work for the Black Priests."

"Salahim and Elohm will do as I say or leave us. If their loyalties lead them on a separate path, so be it. I need the money."

"Do you need it that badly?"

Talin turned his tired face towards him. "I need it." As if the question was necessary. They all knew how much they needed the money. How much Talin needed the money. He was desperate, not that it would show on his face. If he was turning to the Black Priests, he was running out of ideas.

Ki'ol sipped his ale again, feeling the hot, thick liquid warm his throat. It had been a long time since they'd been so far north, and he didn't like the cold. He glanced up at the big man beside him, running his eyes over the heavy slope of the shoulders, weighed down by so much trouble, the muscle beneath his tunic, the firm clasp of his hand around the hilt of his sword. Talin was a formidable sight. The Black Priests would be fools to send him on a chase.

Salahim came trudging through the snow, his cloak dragging along the road but wrapped around his slender form against the cold. His face was glowing, his eyes sparkling.

"I hope you prayed for money," Ki'ol said flatly, draining the last of his ale.

"I prayed for whatever we need to succeed," Salahim said quietly. "It may not be money. It may be something very different."

"Sure." Ki'ol tossed the merchant's purse from hand to hand idly. "Seen the others recently?"

"Elohm and Na'elia are still at the grove. Last I saw of Kelisa, she was with some of her kin. They were trying to convince her to leave the Band and go home with them."

Ki'ol whistled through his teeth. "That's the last thing she needs. She's been restless enough as it is without that temptation."

"I'm sure she'll make the right choice." Salahim sat next to him and blew into his hands. "She knows how much we need her."

"She also knows that it's freezing here and she'd be a hell of a lot warmer in her homeland, and she'd have her kin around her so she didn't feel like an exile."

"If she leaves, she leaves," Talin said. "It's her choice. Nobody is in the Band by force." He sighed. "I don't know how we'll manage without her, though." Ki'ol looked up at him again. The warrior was deeply troubled, more so than recent months. It was taking a long time to find what they needed.

It had been a strange journey from the south, leaving the warmer countries behind and trekking into the snow and ice of the north. Ki'ol found himself dreaming of his own land, bathed in warmth and gentle rainstorms. The lush green of the forests was a far cry from the bleak and frozen north. Kelisa had found the journey the most difficult. She had wept for days as they left her elven kin behind and travelled into the cold. She had stayed very quiet since they'd arrived at the border town. She'd met some moon elves who were planning a pilgrimage to the south. They were trying to persuade her to go with them.

"She always did find it difficult to adapt," Salahim said after a while. "The other two never found it a problem."

"They're half human," Ki'ol said. He rummaged in his bag for some tobacco and some papers. As his fingers began to work deftly, rolling neatly, he watched his two half-elven companions saunter down the road towards them. He struck a quick match just as Na'elia glared at him, and breathed in the heady smoke deeply.

"There is a strange imbalance here," Elohm said, shaking his head. "Some force is at work."

"The grove was empty," Na'elia said quietly. "All our kind have gone. It felt as if people are searching."

"We are," Talin said. He straightened up a little and fiddled with the buckle on his bracers. Ki'ol grimaced slightly as he recognised the signs. The warrior was building up to something. Probably revealing his plans to the others.

"I can't help but wonder if we are searching for something that cannot be found," Elohm said quietly. Na'elia said nothing, but the expression on her face showed the same thought. Talin looked at them both for a moment.

"If you don't wish to stay with the Band, you are free to leave. None of you are oath-bound." He shrugged his shoulders. "Some of you may feel the need to leave when I tell you what I intend." He stopped. "Where is Kelisa?"

"Still with her kin," Salahim said. "Shall I go and get her?"

"Be quick," Talin said. He watched the paladin hurry away through the snow and fiddled with the buckles on his bracers. Ki'ol drew another long breath, hoping to calm himself down. He couldn't stop fidgeting, and it wasn't good.

It was few minutes of the Band stamping around in the cold and the snow before Salahim returned with Kelisa. The elf looked miserable as she shivered beneath the layers of cloak and fur, and assumed her place beside Elohm. Ki'ol half-smiled to himself, mildly amused. Or it might have been the leaf started to loosen his mind. The priest and the mage had always been close.

Talin looked at the Band. "We have a choice to make," he said. "I have decided to offer the Iron Band to the Black Priests. I understand they are hiring mercenary groups for some sort of mission or quest. The reward is substantial, and you all know how little we have. I believe the humiliation will be worth it." Ki'ol heard the tension in the big man's voice. It must be grating for him to seek out a commission, to offer the Iron Band's service so freely. Talin glanced at Kelisa. "Some of you may not wish to join me. I know you are all far from home, and this land is unfamiliar in its customs. I know some of you may not allow yourselves to serve the Black Priests on account of your faiths, and some of you may just decide you don't want to hassle." He met Ki'ol's eyes at that. "None of you are sworn to follow me. If you wish to leave, you may do so now."

There was a long silence. Ki'ol finished his cigarette and threw it down on the snow where it hissed and died.

"I'm with you," he said, "come Hell or high water." It was easy for him. He had no faith or homeland to think about. He just wanted something to do. For the others it was not so simple.

Salahim looked long and hard at his hands as he searched his mind for guidance. After a while he looked up. "Much as my faith requires me to answer to one god alone, I understand your plight, Talin, and so far you have not led us astray. I will trust you, and myself. If I may visit my Order and tell them of our intention, I can obtain permission and blessing from the Lord. We have seen much together, my friend, and I will not leave you now."

"I, too, am with you," Elohm said. "You know of my dislike of the Black Priests, and I will not hide it, but I will stand with you, Talin. I only hope the Elder Spirits can protect us from their will."

It was just up to the women, now. Na'elia leaned on her staff and thought long and hard. It would be more difficult to persuade her to take Elohm's decision. She held the faith of the Elder Spirits in slightly greater regard. As she thought, Ki'ol watched Kelisa. She, too, was struggling for a conclusion.

"I will follow you," Na'elia said suddenly. "I cannot leave now. I have seen what is at stake, and it is too precious to trust that you will succeed without me. My heart and soul is yours." She touched her heart, proving her loyalty.

It just left the elven mage. Kelisa chewed her lip slightly. She could probably feel everybody watching her. Ki'ol watched her closely. He hoped she would say yes, but from what he could see, she wasn't keen. He'd known her too long to be fooled by her body language.

"You do not have to come with us," Talin said quietly. "I know your kin are returning home, and you are free to join them if that is what you desire." She looked up again sharply and tightened her hands around her staff.

"I know how much our mission means to you," she said, her voice shaking, "and I am honoured to have been part of it this far. I am sure you will find her, and I hope this quest from the Black Priests will give you what you need to complete the mission. I am sorry that I cannot be with you any further, but I wish to return home." She looked around at the rest of the Band. "I will miss you all, you are all my dearest friends. My blessing to you."

She hefted her staff and pulled her cloak around her a little tighter. Elohm and Na'elia exchanged a few words with her in their native tongue, and Salahim just took her hand and smiled to her. Ki'ol caught her eye and nodded. He'd never been very close to her. She went to Talin and looked up at him, as if asking his forgiveness. He looked back at her sadly.

"I'm sorry you are leaving us," he said. "You have been a valuable companion." He kissed her cheek. "Go in peace."

And so she left them, walking away into the snow to find her kin and head south to the warmer lands. The Iron Band went to have one last mug of ale before they hammered on the door of the Black Temple.