Aeron met the Dead Cart on Balamonthar’s Street. As he would have expected by late afternoon, the mule-drawn wagon carried several corpses, which were starting to smell, and was heading to dump them in the garbage-middens southeast of town.
Hairy and dirty, his limbs twisted out of true by illness or an accident of birth, Hulm Draeridge leered down at Aeron from the seat.
“Hop in the back,” he said. “Save me the trouble of lifting you up and chucking you in.”
Aeron snorted and said, “I’m not ready to take that ride just yet.”
“That’s not the way I hear it.”
“It doesn’t matter if people are looking for me, tanglebones, not as long as my wits are sharper than theirs. It’s all part of the sport. Speaking of which, if anybody asks, you haven’t seen me.”
He tossed the driver a silver bit, and Hulm snatched it from the air.
“I’ve already forgotten you,” the driver said, “as completely as will everyone else ten minutes after you’re dead.”
Keeping an eye out for Red Axes, Gray Blades, and female rangers, carrying the saddlebag hidden beneath his cape, Aeron strode on into a little cul-de-sac crammed with various commercial endeavors. A tinker’s grindstone whined and spewed sparks as he sharpened a hoe. A small-time slave trader cried the virtues of his half dozen shackled human and goblin wares, who sat around his feet in apathetic misery. Hooded falcons stood on their perches, the bells on their feet chiming when they shifted position. The Whistlers, one of the city’s smaller and less successful gangs, had stolen the birds at midsummer and were still trying to dispose of them at bargain prices. Unfortunately, the average citizen of Oeble didn’t know how to hawk and had no interest in learning.
Aeron, who likewise lacked any experience with the fierce-looking raptors, playthings of noblemen and merchants with lordly pretensions, crept past the perches a little warily, slipped into a tower, and climbed a corkscrew flight of stairs. Somewhere in one of the apartments, a baby cried. In another, bread was baking. The appetizing aroma filled the shaft and made Aeron’s mouth water.
Burgell Whitehorn lived on the third floor. Aeron tapped on the gnome’s door, then positioned himself in front of the peephole. After a while, three latches clinked in turn as someone unfastened them. The door swung open, and Burgell frowned up at his caller.
Skinny and flaxen-haired, his skin walnut brown and his eyes a startling turquoise, Burgell stood half as tall as Aeron and had to climb up on a stool to look out the peephole. Like most habitations in Oeble, that particular tenement had been built for humans, and smaller residents coped with the resulting awkwardness as best they could.
But at least the relative largeness of the apartment gave Burgell room to pack in all his gnome-sized gear. The front room was his workshop, and it contained a bewildering miscellany of tools: hammers, chisels, saws, lockpicks, tinted lenses, jeweler’s loupes, and jars of powdered and shredded ingredients for casting spells. A fat gray cat, the mage’s familiar, lay curled atop a grimoire. It opened its eyes, gave Aeron a disdainful yellow stare, then appeared to go back to sleep.
Despite the jolly reputation of his race, Burgell’s welcome was no warmer.
“What are you doing wandering about, in broad daylight, no less?”
“Hulm Draeridge more or less asked me the same thing,” Aeron said, “but I won’t get any business done hiding in some hole. Can I come in?”
“I don’t think so. Look what happened to the last wizard who helped you, and that was before you angered the tanarukk.”
Aeron sighed and said, “I’m sorry about Dal, but he knew the risks. I’m not asking you to take the same kind of chance. I just want you to do your usual kind of job. You won’t even have to leave home.”
“Why not do it yourself?”
“Because it’s not my specialty, and this particular chore calls for an expert.”
Aeron had had enough of discussing his business in the stairwell. He pushed forward, and the little gnome had little choice but to give ground. Aeron shut the door.
“All right,” Burgell said. Irritation made his tenor voice shrill. “Do come in by all means. But you know, I don’t work cheap.”
“So I recall, from all the times you’ve bled me dry,” Aeron replied as he extracted the steel case from the saddle bag. The gray metal gleamed in the sunlight streaming in through the open casement. “Whatever’s inside this is valuable. I’ll cut you in for one part in twenty.”
“One part in five.”
“Greed is an ugly thing.”
Aeron grinned and said, “I might at that. One part in ten.”
“Done, but I’ll need some coin on account. Just in case the box turns out to contain something you can’t sell.”
“Trust me, whatever it is, I’ll find a way to turn it into cash. But if this is what it takes to stop your griping and set you to work…”
Aeron opened his belt pouch and extracted several gold coins. In so doing, he nearly exhausted his funds. It was a strange thing. Though no gang chieftain or lieutenant, he was a successful thief by most standards. Yet the profits refused to stick to his fingers, and it wasn’t only because his father’s pain-killing elixirs and poultices were so expensive. Maybe he spent too many nights carousing in the taverns, bought the house too many rounds, “loaned” too much gold to needy friends who never paid him back. Yet why risk his neck stealing coin if not to enjoy it once he had it? When it ran out, the solution was simply to steal some more.
Burgell bit one of the coins, a Cormyrean dinar, then dumped the clinking lot into the pocket of his shabby dressing gown. He gestured to a stubby-legged work table that, like the rest of the furniture, was sized for little folk, not men.
“Put the box down there,” the gnome said, “and tell me what you can.”
“It was in this saddlebag when I first laid hands on it. I was invisible at the time, but even so, the pouch screamed a warning and painted me with light.”
“Whatever you call it. Anyway, it hasn’t done that since, so I guess it was a one-time spell. But when I tried to pick the lock of the coffer itself, it boomed like thunder. The noise actually hurt.”
The wizard nodded and muttered, “Layered protections. Never a good thing.”
“Truly? Is that your expert opinion?” Aeron teased. “Look, here’s where we stand. I don’t know if the thunder will sound a second time or what other wards may lie in wait behind that one, but I need you to dissolve them all.”
“Any sign of purely mechanical traps? Spring-loaded poison needles, finger-snipping pincers, or the like?”
“I didn’t see any, but I wouldn’t rule anything out.”
“All right,” the gnome said. “Stand back.”
Taking his own advice, Burgell muttered a cantrip then he pointed his finger at a brass key lying on the workbench. The yellow metal oozed in a way that baffled the eye, as if changing shape and size from one moment to the next. The key floated up into the air and inserted itself in the strongbox’s lock. It jerked, trying to turn, but evidently it couldn’t shift the tumblers.
Thunder crashed, painfully loud in the confines of the flat. Aeron couldn’t help flinching, even though he’d known what to expect. A framed diagram, depicting the interplay of the primal forces of the cosmos or some such gibberish, fell off the wall. The gray cat leaped off the spellbook, dashed for cover, and vanished behind a wooden chest.
“The sonic ward is still active,” Burgell said.
“Is that the only way you had of finding out?” Aeron asked. “I could have done that. Come to think of it, I did.”
“You’re lucky you didn’t shatter every bone in your arm. Noise can hit like a mace, if properly focused. That’s why you need someone who can manipulate his tools without touching them to do the poking and prodding.”
“Just try to poke more quietly.”
“Why is it that folk go to the trouble to hire a master, then insist on telling him how to practice his art? Hush, and let me work.”
Aeron sat down on a divan. It was where he customarily sat when consulting Burgell, but as usual, he heeded the impulse to lower himself cautiously and make sure the miniature couch would still bear his weight
The gnome stuck a jeweler’s loupe into his left eye and examined the lockbox from every angle. Eventually he drew himself up straight, slashed his left hand through the air, and rattled off a string of words Aeron couldn’t understand.
Magic blared like a dissonant trumpet fanfare. Blue light pulsed through the air in time with the notes. The strongbox jumped, spun like a top, and crashed back down on the table, still closed. The brass key popped out of the lock.
“Shadows of Mask,” Aeron swore when the commotion had run its course. “Quietly, I said. What in the name of the Nine Hells is wrong with you today?”
“Nothing. You brought me a special problem. I’ll solve it, but it’s likely to put up a bit of a fuss in the meantime.”
“Then let’s at least muffle the ruckus as best we can,” Aeron said as he rose and headed for the window.
“I’ll have to light the lamps,” Burgell said with a frown. “It’s a waste of oil.”
“One of the coins I gave you will keep you in fuel until spring.”
“It still doesn’t pay to be a spendthrift. But all right.”
The gnome waved his hand, and the various lamps lit themselves. Aeron closed and latched the casement.
After that, the human had nothing to do but return to his seat and watch the mage work. Burgell spent interminable minutes peering at the strongbox through various colored lenses, periodically muttering strings of mystical words at it. To no effect, as far as Aeron could see.
In time, having watched the master cracksman work before, Aeron grew puzzled.
“Aren’t you going to use any of your pigments or powders?” he asked.
“If I think it necessary,” Burgell said.
“It’s just that I remember when you opened that priest’s wardrobe for-“
“Do you want to reminisce about old times, or do you want me to crack the box?”
Aeron shook his head, slumped back on the couch, and tried to dismiss the unpleasant feeling gnawing at his nerves. He couldn’t believe it was legitimate. He and Burgell had worked together a score of times, and the gnome had always proved trustworthy. Yet, watching the little wizard stare and mumble just then, comparing his ponderous caution to the energy with which he’d attacked other locks, traps, and spells of warding, Aeron couldn’t quite shake the suspicion that something was wrong.
He thought maybe he shouldn’t be trying to shake it. An outlaw, after all, survived by heeding his instincts. Perhaps he was only striving to ignore them because he’d just lost Dal, Gavath, and Kerridi, and it pained him to think he might lose Burgell in a different but no less final fashion.
“Burg,” he finally said, “did someone get to you?”
The gnome blinked and asked, “What nonsense are you talking now?”
His turquoise eyes, brilliant even in the soft lamplight, glanced down and to the left as he spoke. Aeron was fairly certain it was what gamblers called a “tell”-a sign Burgell was lying.
“It occurs to me I’ve never known you to work with the casement open,” said Aeron. “You usually don’t want folk peeking in at your business.”
“We’re on the third floor.”
“Someone could spy from one of the upper story apartments in the tower across the way. But let’s say you wanted someone to know I’d shown up here. Then the open casement would help you signal.”
“Did you see me wave a flag or write a note and fling it out?”
“No, but you triggered the thunderclap, and that kind of clumsiness isn’t like you, unless you did it on purpose. You followed that up with more noise and flashing light, and since then, it looks to me like you’ve just been stalling, waiting for somebody to burst in through the door you didn’t bother to relock.”
Burgell backed away from the work table and snatched a scrap of ram’s horn from his pocket. He lifted it above his head and jabbered words of power.
Aeron leaped up from the couch, charged, dived across the low table, and slammed into Burgell, presumably spoiling his conjuration. He hurled the gnome to the floor, dropped on top of him, and poised an Arthyn fang at this throat. Despite the circumstances, and his own anger, the human felt an irrational flicker of shame for manhandling someone so much smaller than himself.
“Get off me,” Burgell panted, “or I’ll turn you into a beetle. I’ll boil your blood.”
“Don’t talk nonsense. You’re no battle mage, and even if you were, you’d need a demon’s luck to get off a spell before I cut your throat. Now, who turned you against me?”
“The Red Axes.”
“Well, at least it wasn’t the law. Do the Axes have a crew watching the place?” Given that Kesk had all of Oeble to search, and his normal business affairs to manage, that seemed unlikely. “Or just a beggar or streetwalker who’ll carry word to the gang?”
If the latter was the case, Aeron might have an extra minute or two in which to make his escape.
“I don’t know,” answered the gnome. “They didn’t tell me.”
Aeron’s anger clenched tighter inside him.
“Curse you,” he said, “why would you do this? I thought we were friends.”
“We are,” the gnome replied. “That’s why I tried to shoo you away from my door, but you wouldn’t have it. Once you bulled your way in, I had no choice.”
“That’s a load of dung.”
“No, it’s not I didn’t like betraying you, but I have my own neck to worry about. I can’t afford to anger Kesk Turnskull. Please,” the gnome said, his voice breaking, “anybody would have done the same!”
“And anyone would do what I’m going to do now.”
But just as Aeron was about to drive the dagger in, his rage abruptly twisted into sadness and a kind of weary disgust.
“Or not, apparently,” Aeron said, “unless you try to get up, call out, or throw another spell.”
He rose. Burgell stared at him as if he feared the human was only feigning mercy, toying with his victim before he made the kill.
He shouldn’t have worried, if for no other reason than Aeron plainly didn’t have time for such an amusement. He stuffed the strongbox back in the saddlebag, then scurried around the workroom, snatching up a selection of Burgell’s tools. When he ran out of room in the pouch, he stuck them in his pockets and inside his shirt.
Next he opened the casement and peered outside. He didn’t spot any bravos striding through the little marketplace below with obviously hostile intent. That didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t there, but it was marginally encouraging even so. Above him, the blue sky was unobstructed, which was to say, it didn’t have a Rainspan cutting across it, connecting Burgell’s spire to another. The only way to effect a departure above ground level would be to crawl across the slanting roofs and leap from one to the next. It would be slow, dangerous, and sure to attract attention in broad daylight.
All things considered, Aeron thought he’d take his chances in the street. He pulled up his hood. Many folk would go without on such a warm, pleasant autumn day, but even so, a covered head would likely be less eyecatching than his red hair.
As he opened the apartment door, it occurred to him to demand his gold back from Burgell. But even if he hadn’t been in a hurry, he wouldn’t have bothered, wouldn’t have wanted to talk to his false friend any more than necessary, and so he simply ran down the steps. The infant had stopped wailing, but the stairwell still smelled of warm, rising bread.
Aeron hoped to reach the exit before any of the Red Axes appeared to block the way, but when he peered over the second floor landing, he saw that he hadn’t been that lucky. The door below him opened, and two figures, Tharag the bugbear and the peevish human who’d lost to the hulking goblin-kin at cards, appeared in the bright, sun-lit rectangle. The Red Axes exclaimed at the sight of their quarry and scrambled up the steps.
Aeron retreated to the far end of the landing, drew his largest Arthyn fang, and settled into a fighting crouch. At first, the Red Axes advanced on him with cudgels in their hands. Then they caught sight of the saddlebag tucked under their intended victim’s arm, realized they didn’t need to take him alive to discover its whereabouts, and readied their own blades.
Aeron waited until they were nearly in striking range. Then he stuck his knife between his teeth, planted his hand on the railing that bordered the landing, and vaulted over.
At least he didn’t have as far to fall as when he’d jumped off the parapet at the Paer. The landing jolted him, but he weathered it, and when he looked up, he discovered that his gamble had paid off. The Red Axes weren’t so keen to kill him that they were willing to leap after him and risk breaking their own bones. They were scrambling back the way they’d come, which meant Aeron would have no difficulty reaching the door ahead of them.
Grinning, he charged out into the sunlight, only to trip and fall headlong. Something bashed him across the shoulder blades.
He flopped over onto his back. The paunchy, tattooed Whistler who’d been selling falcons stood over him, swinging one of the perches over his head for another blow. It was a clumsy sort of improvised quarterstaff, but it would do to bludgeon a man into submission.
Aeron wondered fleetingly why that particular rogue was meddling in his business. Maybe Kesk had bribed or intimidated the Whistlers into joining the hunt. Or perhaps the wretch was acting on his own initiative. He might want to curry favor with the Red Axes and move up to membership in the more successful gang.
Either way, Aeron had to deal with him quickly, before Tharag and his partner ran back out the door. He tried to twist himself around into position to strike back, but didn’t make it in time. The perch hurtled down, and the best defense he could manage was to catch it on his forearms instead of taking it across the face. The blow crashed home with brutal force. Aeron gasped at the pain, and some of the folk in the crowd laughed and cheered the Whistler on. As far as the thief knew, they had no particular reason to favor his assailant over him except that the vendor currently held the upper hand, and the citizens of Oeble tended to enjoy watching a bully administer a good beating.
The perch jerked up into the air. Aeron finished swinging himself around, pulled his knees up to his chest, and lashed out with a double kick. His heels caught the Whistler in the knees, something cracked, and the gang member stumbled back and toppled onto his rump. Aeron hoped he’d crippled the poxy son of a whore.
Alas, he couldn’t linger to find out. He had to keep moving. He scrambled to his feet and pivoted this way and that, trying to see what was going on. Squealing, people recoiled from the dagger in his hand, and in so doing, somewhat impeded the advance of the pair of shaggy, long-legged gnolls shambling in his direction.
The hyena-headed Red Axes with their glaring yellow eyes and lolling tongues were blocking the mouth of the cul-de-sac. Aeron had at most a few heartbeats to find another way out of the box. He cast about, looking for a passable alleyway between two of the surrounding spires. He didn’t see one.
His only option was to bolt into another of the buildings surrounding the dead end. He dashed toward a doorway, and something smashed down on the top of his head. He collapsed to his knees amid a scatter of clay shards, dry earth, and withered stalks, and he realized someone had leaned out an upper story window and dropped a flower pot on him.
A second such missile shattered beside his right hand and jarred him into action. Shaking off the shock and pain, he scrambled on into the tower.
The building had shops on the ground floor, an ale house to the left and a cobbler to the right. Since their windows opened on the same cul-de-sac he was trying to escape, they were of no use to him. He ran on down a hallway, past the stairs twisting upward and several closed doors that likely led to apartments, seeking a rear exit into the next street over.
Alas, the corridor was a dead end, too. And when he spun back around, the gnolls, Tharag, and the human Red Axe were coming through the entry at the far end.
Aeron tried one of the doors. Locked, and he had no time to pick it or try to break it down. He tested a second.
That one was open. He scrambled through, barred it, and looked around.
As he’d expected, he’d invaded someone’s home. The boarder, a haggard-looking, red-eyed woman still dressed in her night clothes, sat at her spinning wheel, performing the labor that likely kept her housed and fed. She gaped at him in fear.
“Sorry,” he said, then sprinted toward the one small window.
Behind him, the door rattled, then started banging. The woman gawked for another moment, then she rose and scurried toward the entry. She might not understand what was going on, but she knew she didn’t want her door battered down. Aeron almost turned back to restrain her, then he decided his chances would be better if he just kept running.
He squirmed out the window onto a narrow, twisting lane that, like the cul-de-sac, connected to Balamonthar’s Street. He dashed to the major thoroughfare, then strode onward through the crowds, no longer running-that would make him too conspicuous-but hurrying. After a few minutes, he permitted himself to believe he’d shaken his pursuers.
He reached under his cowl and gingerly fingered the sore spot where the flower pot had bashed him. He had a lump coming up-it would go nicely with all the bruises he was collecting-but to his relief, his scalp wasn’t bloody. Apparently the hood had protected him a little.
So, he’d escaped relatively intact. Outwitted the rest of the world again. He felt the usual surge of exhilaration, the thrill that, as much as the easy coin, accounted for his devotion to the outlaw life.
Yet it wasn’t quite as potent as usual. Perhaps Burgell’s treachery was to blame. Or the discovery that the Whistlers had joined forces with the Red Axes to hunt him down. Or the way the onlookers had cheered to see him beaten, or the unpleasant surprise of the pot crashing down on his skull. What had that been about?
Shadows of Mask, had all Oeble turned against him?
No, surely not. He just needed to settle this affair of the strongbox, and things would calm down. After a moment’s thought, he headed for home, to pick up the lantern he kept there.