Bow in hand and an arrow on the string, Miri crouched in the shadowy gap between two snarling gargoyles on the gabled roof of Griffingate House. She peered at the thick white fog in Laskalar’s Square and the folk who periodically stumbled out of it and fled down the alley. She strained her ears in an essentially futile effort to interpret the confusion of shouts and other noises emanating from the midst of the cloud.
Where was Aeron? Her nerves were taut with waiting, and it seemed to her that it was taking him forever to appear. True, the mist had materialized as he’d said it would, which indicated a part of the plan had gone off properly, but it didn’t necessarily mean he hadn’t come to grief.
The vapor disappeared. She scowled in dismay until Aeron dashed down the passage. For a moment she imagined everything was all right, then a man and a limping orc came chasing after him. They’d apparently spotted him when the fog vanished, just scant seconds too soon.
Miri’s fingers fairly itched with the urge to draw her bow, but Aeron had told her that no matter what happened, she wasn’t to do anything that would reveal her presence prematurely. She was still hesitating when the human Red Axe whirled a sling and let the bullet fly. Aeron didn’t duck or dodge, maybe hadn’t even realized that the cutthroats were behind him. The lead pellet slammed into the back of his head with a thud audible even high above the ground, and he pitched forward onto his hands and knees.
When Aeron had first hatched the scheme of using Sefris to rescue his father, Miri had thought him insane, but gradually he’d talked her around. She still wasn’t quite sure how, except that he was right about one thing. As a sorceress and expert practitioner of the Dark Moon’s esoteric style of combat, Sefris possessed capabilities they lacked. Moreover, Kesk and his wizard partner wouldn’t expect the monastic to join forces with Aeron, which gave her a good chance of taking them by surprise.
One difficulty with recruiting Sefris, however, was Aeron’s alliance with Miri. It was inconceivable that the Shar worshiper would take anything the rogue said at face value if she believed the partnership was still in effect. An even bigger problem was what to do with her once she’d outlived her usefulness. Aeron and Miri were both able combatants with their respective weapons, but even so, they doubted they could defeat Sefris in anything even vaguely resembling a fair fight. The monastic simply outclassed them.
Aeron conceived a single ploy to solve both dilemmas. He contacted Melder, with whom he’d had some sort of shady dealings in the past, and bribed him to take part in the charade of Miri’s capture and imprisonment. Despite her partner’s assurances, she herself participated with considerable suspicion and reluctance, for after all, the innkeeper actually had sent the yuan-ti slavers after her. But Melder kept his part of the bargain, making no effort to molest her or detain her when it was time for her to go.
That left her free to climb to the top of Griffingate House and lie in wait for Sefris to appear. For all the Dark Moon agent’s prowess, surely a well-aimed arrow could kill her if she never even saw it coming. Miri didn’t much like the idea of striking down a sister human being in such a fashion, but she accepted that it was necessary. Sefris deserved extermination as much as any goblin or troll Miri had ever battled in the wild.
But Aeron was down, not quite unconscious but plainly stunned. The Red Axes were hurrying toward him, the human in the lead and the orc hobbling behind. They were going to capture or kill him unless Miri deviated from the plan and intervened.
She didn’t see she had a choice. She loosed an arrow, which drove through the human Red Axe’s torso. He cried out and collapsed.
The orc whirled, peered upward, and oriented on her. The night could do little to hamper its dark-adapted eyes. It thrust out its leather-gloved hands like a wizard throwing a spell.
She recoiled, and a spear of lightning sizzled past her. The magic didn’t burn her, but the glare made her squinch her eyes shut.
It also shrank her pupils and carved a streak of afterimage across her vision, leaving her partly blind. She couldn’t let that stop her. She had to kill the orc before it hurled any more lightning, either at Aeron or at her. She stared down, believed she glimpsed her adversary, and shot by instinct as much as sight.
It was good enough. The shaft took the orc in its upturned face, and it fell down on its back.
Miri sighed with relief-and something lashed around her, pinning her arms against her body. Blinking, thrashing uselessly, she perceived that the moon-cast shadow of one of the gargoyles had warped into a tentacle, reared up, and grabbed her.
In the mouth of the alley, Sefris looked up at the result of her spell. She’d evidently arrived while Miri was fighting the Red Axes, and waited to pick off the victor.
The monastic swirled her hand through a mystic pass. Almost invisible in the night, jagged black blades hurtled upward. Immobilized, Miri couldn’t dodge. The magic pierced her flesh without breaking the skin, yet even so, the flare of pain was ghastly.
Dazed, Aeron noticed a curious thing. His wounded forearm and the back of his head were throbbing to the same beat. For a moment, he lingered on his hands and knees, hypnotized by that tempo of shock and pain, then remembered he was in danger. He dragged himself to his feet and lurched around-
— just in time to see Sefris savage Miri with bolts of darkness. The scout flailed, then dangled motionless in the coil of shadow that had caught her.
Smiling almost imperceptibly, Sefris stalked forward. Something had cut deep into her shoulder and soaked her robe with blood. Yet her movements flowed with the same sure grace as ever, and try as he might, Aeron could draw no hope from the fact of her injury. Somehow, it just made her seem all the more unstoppable and inhuman, as if she was Death itself come to claim him.
“Think about it,” he panted. “Nothing’s really changed. I still have The Black Bouquet. It will still be destroyed at sunrise if I don’t retrieve it.”
“My perspective has changed,” Sefris replied, still gliding forward past the corpses of the Red Axes. “I’m done playing your games. You claimed you could hold up under torture for a long while, but now I’m going to put it to the test. We’ll see if you can keep your secret while I mangle you one small piece at a time. Rest assured that if you do, after I finish with you, I’ll hunt down Nicos and make him pay for your stubbornness.”
Aeron backed away from her. He could feel the blood from his torn scalp on the nape of his neck.
“All right,” he said, “you win. I’ll take you to the book.”
“It isn’t that easy,” Sefris said. “You’ve played too many tricks. I need to pluck an eye or cripple a limb, so you’ll understand what truly lies in store for you. I need to hear you scream and beg. Maybe after that, I’ll find it possible to believe what you say.”
He lifted his weapons. For no reason, really, except mat he preferred to go down fighting. He knew he had no chance, or at least that was what he assumed until he glimpsed a stirring at the uppermost edge of his vision.
Terrified as he was, he nearly jerked his head higher for a better look. If he had, Sefris would naturally have turned and peered, also. Fortunately, at the last possible instant, his instinct for stealth asserted itself, and he managed to glance surreptitiously upward without alerting her.
Miri was squirming inside the shadow tentacle. She must have played dead so Sefris wouldn’t blast her with yet another spell. The monastic had turned her attention elsewhere, so the ranger was trying to free herself. If she succeeded, and Aeron stayed alive until she did, perhaps the plan could still work.
He retreated farther. Every second he could keep away from his pursuer was another moment for Miri to struggle free. Sefris broke into a sprint to close the distance. He wished he could think her reckless for rushing his long, sharp fighting knife that way, but knew she had no reason to fear it.
She leaped high, spun, and kicked at his head. Aeron jumped back, and the attack fell short by inches. He slashed at her foot as it whizzed by, but he was too slow.
She touched down, and instantly, her stiffened hands chopped at him. He hopped back once more, faked a thrust with the Arthyn fang when she followed, and lashed the cudgel at her head in a true attack. She ignored the knife, blocked the club with her forearm, and smashed her leather-wrapped fist into his solar plexus.
All the strength went out of him. He would have collapsed if she hadn’t caught him. Her fingertips dug into each of his wrists in turn. His hands spasmed, and he dropped his weapons. Still holding him upright, she manhandled him down the alley, no doubt seeking a dark spot where she could torture him undisturbed.
Sefris threw herself to the side, carrying him with her. An arrow from on high streaked past them. He didn’t think she’d been looking upward, but somehow she’d sensed it coming.
A second shaft flew at once. Heedless of the danger to the man Sefris still clutched against her, Miri was shooting as fast as she could. Ironically, at that moment, it was the daughter of the Dark Moon who had the greater care for his safety. She flung him aside to smack down on the ground.
Unencumbered, Sefris shifted back and forth, her spinning arms a blur, either dodging the arrows or batting them aside. In a few moments at best, the wounded ranger’s barrage must inevitably slow down, giving the sorceress the chance to cast another spell.
Which was to say that Sefris was still going to win the fight, and hurt as he was, Aeron had no idea how to change that. Even if he could muster the strength to find his fallen knife and attack, the monastic would just swat him down like a fly.
He couldn’t seem to catch his breath but forced himself to crawl. It was easier than walking and less likely to attract Sefris’s notice.
As he neared the dead orc, Sefris lashed lengths of black ribbon through the air. Up on the roof, a ragged bulb of shadow exploded into being. Caught in the dark flare, Miri wailed, lost her footing on the slanted tiles, fell on her rump, and slid. She plunged partway off the edge, then managed to snatch hold of something and catch herself. Her bow and most of the remaining arrows from her quiver tumbled toward the ground.
Aeron had to find the strength to rise. Otherwise, in just another second, Sefris would surely finish off the helplessly dangling ranger. He staggered up and charged the agent of the Dark Moon, shouting-or croaking… making noise, anyway-to divert her attention. She pivoted like a demonic dancer and lunged to meet him.
If the leather-and-copper gloves he’d removed from the orc’s body had needed him to speak a trigger word or make some special mystic gesture to activate them, he couldn’t have done it, but it turned out that the mere intent was enough. And if Sefris had been standing just a couple yards away, he was certain she could have dodged the magic. Fortunately, however, she herself was pouncing to close the distance, and the blaze of lightning caught her square in the middle of the chest. She shuddered and twitched, then fell. Aeron thought she clutched at him as she went down, but maybe it was just his imagination, for she didn’t stir after she hit the ground. She simply lay inert, a contorted husk giving off a sickening stink of burned meat.
It certainly looked like death. But Aeron found the Arthyn fang and drove it into her heart anyway, just to make sure.
Only then did he look up. Miri had hauled herself back from the brink.
“Are you all right?” she wheezed.
“Better than I expected to be, certainly. What about you?”
She knotted a rope around a gargoyle and used it to clamber to the ground, where she stood peering at Sefris’s smoking body as if she too couldn’t quite believe the Shar worshiper was dead.
“I think that if she hadn’t already been wounded,” Miri said, “we never could have beaten her, not even with the magic gloves.”
“I think you’re right.”
“Thank the Forest Queen it’s over.”
He took a deep breath, preparing himself for further exertion, and said, “Not yet it isn’t”
When Kesk staggered around the bend, he met three halflings slinking in the other direction. Lynxes, beyond a doubt. He would have known even if he hadn’t encountered them in the Underways, where honest people had no business. It was obvious from their abundance of weapons and the hardness in their wary eyes.
He knew the small outlaws could tell plenty about him as well. They could scarcely miss his broken tusk and fangs, his pulped, bloody features, or the anguished way he hobbled along bent half double. Accordingly, he knew what they must be thinking. There was their chieftain’s hated rival, alone, wounded, and ripe for the murdering at last.
Kesk had regained consciousness on the ground surprised to find himself still alive. Sefris must have rushed off somewhere in a hurry. Maybe she’d felt a need to chase after Aeron without further delay.
Thanks to her sneak attack, Kesk had lost the redheaded thief and Nicos, too. He was grievously hurt, as the agony in his vitals attested. The wizard had deserted him. Apparently off battling Sefris, pursuing the sar Randals, or simply blundering around lost in the conjured fog, none of his underlings were at hand to help him, either.
Still, he told himself, he was going to be all right. A priest of Mask could restore him to health. He just needed to return to the safety of his stronghold before the Gray Blades or any of his other countless ill-wishers found him in his current vulnerable condition. Accordingly, he rose and groped his way through the mist to the nearest entry to the tunnels.
To no avail, perhaps, for thanks to pure foul luck, the three Lynxes had discovered him anyway. He glared at them as ferociously as he’d ever glared in his life, and brandished his battle-axe, still wet with Sefris’s gore, for good measure. The haft almost slipped through his numb fingers. He certainly didn’t have the strength to swing the weapon.
“Do you think you can take me?” he snarled. “Me, Kesk Turnskull? Come on and try.”
The halflings gazed back at him for what seemed like a long while.
Finally, when he was sure they were going to call his bluff, the one in the lead said, “Why dirty our hands? You’re dead already, or so it looks to me.”
The Lynxes edged around Kesk, giving him as wide a berth as possible, and prowled on.
Kesk started to laugh, but it hurt his chest like the jabbing of a knife, so he choked it off. Once the halflings disappeared around the turn, he too trudged onward.
The mansion is close… the mansion is close, he told himself over and over again, to keep one foot shuffling in front of the other.
Finally he spied a glowing scarlet lantern and realized the encouraging words had become true. He felt a swelling of relief, and naturally, as if some malicious god was having a joke at his expense, it was at that moment that a familiar voice spoke his name.
Kesk stumbled around. Aeron and the female archer had crept up behind him. Apparently the lone-wolf robber hadn’t sold her to Melder after all. The report to the contrary must have been another trick.
It was immediately apparent from their level stares that Kesk had no hope of intimidating that pair of enemies. The woman was aiming an arrow. Aeron had his arms extended. After a moment-his eyes kept wavering in and out of focus-Kesk realized the red-haired rogue was wearing the lightning gloves that he himself had extorted from the wizard. It was quite possible that that same magic was going to kill him. The thought gave rise to a bitter mirth, and once again, he had to stifle a laugh.
“Track me, did you?” he asked.
“More or less,” Aeron replied. “It was obvious where you’d try to go.”
“Where’s the other bitch?”
“We killed her.” The human outlaw hesitated, then said, “If it was your axe that cut her shoulder, I guess the three of us did it together.”
“I’m glad of that, anyway. Now I suppose it’s my turn to die. Do it, then. But if you do, you’ll never know who my partner was.”
“I don’t care who he was,” Aeron replied. “You’re the one I want.”
Kesk centered his attention on the ranger. He knew she was his only hope.
“The wizard told me Dorn Heldeion wants to change how we live in Oeble,” said the tanarukk, “by bringing in a new and lawful way to make coin.”
She frowned at the mention of the name of her employer, a prominent member of the Council of Nine Merchants, chief deputies to the Faceless Master. Kesk realized that she must have kept the secret of the rich man’s identity from Aeron, and he’d given it away. If the lanky thief was even interested, he didn’t show it
“I don’t want to change Oeble,” said Aeron, “except for erasing you from the middle of it.”
“If you do want to make things different,” said Kesk, still directing his words to the ranger, “you can’t do it by killing me. Every city has somebody like me, and if you dispose of him, another just as bad pops up to take his place. The only chance to put Oeble on another path is for Master Heldeion’s scheme to succeed.”
“I told you,” Aeron said, “I like Oeble fine the way it is.”
“So does the wizard,” Kesk replied. “He just wants to run it is all. In time, he will. He’s clever and patient. He makes plans that take years to work themselves out. He’s the one who sabotaged Master Heldeion’s trading ventures and ran him into debt without Heldeion even understanding why everything was going wrong.”
“Why did he bother?” the ranger asked.
“Dorn Heldeion has too much influence,” said Kesk, clenching himself against another surge of pain. “When the magician has the Faceless Master assassinated, he wants to look like the only reasonable candidate to take over the job. That means ruining any potential rivals in advance. Though if Heldeion’s gamble pays off, if he gets his hands on The Black Bouquet, he won’t really be ruined. The coin-lenders will be happy to keep him afloat, knowing that in a couple years, the secrets in the book will rebuild his fortune many times over. So the wizard had to try to keep it away from him.”
“He failed,” Aeron said.
“At that scheme, yes,” said Kesk, “but if you let him go free, he’ll simply start over with a new one.”
“He must be a prominent member of the Council of Nine himself,” said the guide. “It would be useless to accuse him without evidence, or at least a witness more reputable than the leader of the Red Axes.”
“I can tell you where to look for proof,” said Kesk. “I can give you the name of the spy in Heldeion’s house. Squeeze him, and he’s bound to sell out the wizard to save his own skin.”
Aeron sneered and said, “Just like you.”
“The coward betrayed me first,” said Kesk, glaring back at the thief. “He ran out on me.”
“As you betrayed Kerridi, Gavath, Dal, and me,” Aeron replied. “And you know what, Pigface? I’m tired of hearing you oink.”
Aeron extended his arms straighter. A blue spark popped on one of his knuckles, and the smell of ozone filled the air. Kesk held himself steady. They could kill him, but they’d never see him cringe.
“Aeron,” the ranger said, her voice troubled.
“No,” he said.
“If he’s right, if we do need his help to give this sordid place a chance at a decent way of living…”
“Are you both deaf?” Aeron spat “I said, I don’t care about that. He tortured my father. He killed my friends.”
“I killed your friends,” said the ranger.
“I blame him, not you. Anyway, I don’t dare let the vengeful bastard live. Father and I would never be safe.”
“I vow by the War Maker,” said Kesk, “that I won’t come after either of you.”
“Liar,” Aeron said.
The ranger reached as if to take her companion by the arm, then, to Kesk’s disgust, thought better of it.
“All right,” she sighed, “I won’t argue any further. It’s your right to kill him if you want. In your place, I’d probably do the same thing.”
“Of course you would.” Aeron glared down the length of his leveled arms until Kesk’s nerves positively screamed with the waiting, then made a sour face, lowered his hands, and said, “Damn you, Miri, why did you have to prattle at me? Now I can’t do it, and I don’t even know why. Maybe I’m just sick of killing.”
Kesk felt lightheaded with relief. With nothing to lose by trying, he’d argued for his life, but had never actually expected his foes to heed him.
Most likely the scout would never have cause to regret it. She’d vanish into the wilderness, never to return. Aeron, however, was a different matter. When the time was right, Kesk would avenge this humiliation on the lone-wolf rogue and his father, too. Surely offering up a pair of human hearts would appease the War Maker for a false oath sworn in his name.