Chapter Seventy-four

Croy’s blood pounded in his temples. His fingers twitched and tapped at Ghostcutter’s pommel. He needed to fight. He needed to kill something.

Balint had pushed him to this violent edge. She had bade him look over it, into the depths of his anger and his need for vengeance, and showed him there was no bottom to that gulf. There had been a time in Croy’s life when he thought mercy was a virtue, and that restraint had its place in battle.

That was before Cythera was taken from him. Before he saw what bloodlust truly meant. He had possessed a future before he came to the Vincularium. He had seen a wife, and children, a family of his own. Heirs to pass his name to, and perhaps even a son who could lift his sword when he was gray and old and unable to carry the Ancient Blade himself. He had dreams then.

Now he had a desire to kill, and not much else.

Supposedly Balint had a plan. She had some scheme that would let him kill every last elf, and end their race forever. He barely listened to what she had to say. He would happily have run back down to the throne room and started hacking and slashing, but she had stepped him back from the abyss just enough to suggest there was a quicker if less direct route to sating his hunger for elfin blood.

He was still considering whether to take her option and go for the surety of destruction, the total eradication of the elves-or follow his own instincts, which was only certain to be more gratifying.

“If you kill them one by one, are you sure you can get them all?” she asked. “Are you quite sure you will finish what you start?”

“Ghostcutter has never failed me yet,” Croy pointed out.

“And if one of them does get away-worse, a pair of them, a male and a female. If they outlive you, and restart their generation. Rebuild their numbers. What then? If the elves survive your attack, will you be satisfied? Letting them have what they took away from you?”

He frowned, liking none of this. “You want me to delay my revenge.”

“I want you to be smart about it, you pillock! There are too many of them for a direct assault, surely even you can see that. We’d be slaughtered.”

“If I die seeking vengeance, I die a noble death,” Croy told her.

“No, no, no! We have to get all of them, or it doesn’t count. And that means we have to be a little sneaky. When you make love to a woman…” she said, looking Croy up and down. The knocker on her shoulder waved its fingers in his direction, too. She frowned before continuing. “Not you, of course-I imagine you don’t have much experience in that regard.” She turned to face Morget. “When you make love to a woman, do you just rip her dress off and bend her over whatever happens to be handy?”

The barbarian laughed gleefully. His eyes grew wistful and he hugged himself.

“I can see,” Balint said, “that I’ve picked the wrong metaphor. No matter. When a real dwarf wants to woo, he flatters his sweetheart, and gives her little gifts, and kisses her gently, first. He doesn’t make a rush for the goodies until she’s already begging for it.”

“So your plan is to give the elves gifts, and tell them how beautiful they are before we slaughter them like pigs?” Croy asked. “That sounds like folly.”

Balint sighed deeply. “Perhaps you two should just follow me, and do what I say. It’ll make this much easier if you don’t ask a lot of questions.”

“Fine,” Croy said. “Just tell me when the time comes for vengeance.”

The dwarf led them up a long ramp toward the level above. They emerged into a darkened infirmary, with rows of short beds lining the walls and in the middle a great slab marked with ancient bloodstains. Hundreds of iron tools-most gone to rust-hung by chains above the slab, knives and saws and pincers. Compared to the surgical equipment Croy knew, it all looked quite hygienic and advanced.

Beyond the infirmary ward the hall opened up into a broad cobbled space that was empty save for a pile of wheeled carts, heaped up and left to fall apart and rot. Wide-mouthed passages led away from the main chamber in every direction, heading straight out into darkness, some tending upward, some down.

“Mine shafts,” Balint explained, “probably long since played out.”

The knocker jumped down from her shoulder and ran along the floor, tapping its fingers arrhythmically on the cobbles. It scurried away into the darkness, then hurried back and tapped out a complicated pattern on Balint’s leg.

“Our way leads through there.” She pointed toward a stone arch at the far side of the big room. Beyond lay a staircase that curved away from view. “Up that way are the kitchens, and past them the leather works. Our destination’s there. But we have to be careful now. My blueling tells me there are revenants up those stairs, standing guard.”

Croy nodded grimly. Then he glanced over at Morget.

The barbarian met his eye and smiled broadly. He nodded and hefted his weapon.

“Wait here,” Croy told Balint.

“No! We must be circumspect as a whore with her hand in a man’s pocket, unsure if she’s found his purse or his pr-”

Croy interrupted her foul figure of speech by dashing up the stairs. Morget came after, bringing a single candle to light their way. At the top of the stairs they found three revenants waiting for them, lipless mouths wide open in noiseless screams, hands and weapons already groping toward the two humans.

Morget took one apart with his axe before it could even reach for his throat. Croy brought Ghostcutter up and decapitated one, then sliced the hands off another with his backswing. The revenants kept coming, so he kept carving-hitting hard at their bony knees, slicing one in half and taking the arm off another. Morget took the other arm, then reached down and pulled the remaining bits to pieces with his bare hands.

The two of them headed back down the stairs. Balint waited for them there. The knocker’s blind face was wide with astonishment.

“The way is clear,” Croy told her. “Find me some living elves next time.”

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