Above the smog of industry, the air was cooling as twilight turned to night. In his tower rooms, the Brass Herald skimmed over the daily reports. The office was lit by two electric bulbs on the far wall, hissing and spitting little white bolts, barely casting light. A lamp on the desk lit the pages before him with far greater intensity.
Sitting back on his high chair, the Lord of Iron Fog considered the tallies and smiled. He leaned forward, flipping a switch. The filament glowed brightly and died, afterimage silhouetted against the low light in the austere study.
The Lord massaged the ridge of his long, curving nose and shut his eyes, adjusting. As he opened them and his vision cleared, tiny black spots dancing away, something changed in the room. The air moved, shifted just enough to catch his notice. He strained to see into the darkest corners.
Eyes like lightning flashed green, the face obscured by shadow and the ridges of a helm. Before he could move, she vanished.
His hand snapped out for the grenade strapped to the underside of the desk. Always prepared, but not fast enough. The serrated edge of an upswept blade slid across his throat, a hair from his flesh.
"That won’t be necessary," her voice was a velvet whisper.
"What can I do for you?" high and plaintive.
"Other way around, your Highness," she said, not quite mocking him. The knife disappeared into her sash as she spun to sit leisurely on the edge of the desk. She was all in shades of night, even her pale blue skin only another monochrome in the gloom.
For a moment the Herald was completely lost for words, but only for a moment. "Mortred! What the hell are you doing!?" he spat. The Phantom Assassin just stared back at him, a cruel twist to her mouth.
Eventually, "You summoned us".
"And here you are," breathing heavily, trying to regain a modicum of control.
"Why." More statement than question.
"I have a job for you. A contract for the Sisters of the Veil."
“Eeb.” The smirk dropped from her face and her gaze tightened on him. The silence stretched out, almost too long for him to handle.
Finally, “That’s going to be expensive”.
He smiled, “I wouldn’t have expected anything less”.
Far to the South, in much greener and more temperate lands, the second Merchant King of Revtel, Lord Sunbreeze, watched the sun begin to set. He sat in a tall, gold-wrought chair at the head of a long ironwood table dominating the center of the palatial atrium. Floor to ceiling vaulted windows let the burnt orange of the sky fill the room with molten light. A servant entered carrying a tray, balancing a faceted decanter of blood-red wine. He placed a delicate crystal flute before the king and another to his left, for the guest that lounged in a smaller, but no less ornate, gilded chair. The wine was carefully poured into each before the servant bowed, backing out of the room through the same door he had entered.
Lorlin Lasan sipped the fine vintage, admiring the wealth on display. Lord Sunbreeze had yet to speak, or even acknowledge his presence, but he would continue to wait patiently, however long it took. The opportunity for profit was enticing, but this meeting was unexpected and he was always suspicious of a surprise.
As the sun dropped below the horizon, Sunbreeze finally turned to face the assassin. His purple skin looked almost black in the fading light, but his eyes still shone a brilliant violet. His hair, large petals edged in carmine, seemed like a flower closed for the night. The Fae king smiled, “Welcome, Lorlin. Thank you for coming.”
“At your service,” the reptilian hiss was at odds with his bird-like beak, but a match for the forked tongue that flicked out and along his razor-sharp teeth. Hidden from view, the tip of his tail twitched back and forth, the only indication of anything but total repose.
“Do you enjoy your work?” It wasn’t a question he’d been expecting, but one the assassin could easily answer.
“I like gold, your Majesty.” Sunbreeze only smiled in reply, reaching for his wine and tasting it thoughtfully.
“As do I. What I do not enjoy is having my prosperity threatened”. It was said calmly but the venom beneath was unmistakable.
“Kwerthias is dead”. Lorlin’s eyes widened at that, unable to hide his shock, but he did not otherwise respond. The king watched this with something like approval.
“We don’t know who ordered it, but we know who took the contract.”
“It wasn’t us.”
“No. You wouldn’t be drinking my wine if it had been.”
“Ah,” he breathed out, inwardly relaxing, “You want revenge, this I understand.” Sunbreeze frowned, his long antenna making the expression more pronounced.
“We want,” he corrected, “To ensure nothing like this ever happens again.”
“We?” This was going too far but Lorlin preferred to know who his clients were.
The king did not seem offended, “There are only two of us left now. The Kings of Revtel. We,” with emphasis, “Have decided that we are stronger together.”
“Who do you want us to kill?” There was no more point in prevarication.
“The Phantom Assassin”. Sunbreeze waited to see the effect this would have. He was disappointed. Lorlin barely reacted, visibly at least. Inside he was anything but calm. He was not in the habit of accepting suicide missions, nor turning down kings.
“You can’t be serious. The Sisters will never let that stand,” he hissed.
“We will deal with the Sisters,” Sunbreeze snapped, “But Mortred must die.” He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and brought his anger back under control. “You will be sufficiently compensated,” he let that sink in. ”And we have created the perfect opportunity. She will be distracted. I am told you are up to the task.” Lorlin’s gaze narrowed. He wasn’t arrogant enough not to know that his vanity was his greatest weakness, nor that Sunbreeze was undoubtedly aware of this.
“Tell me.” He couldn’t resist the temptation.
“Midnight, three days from now. White Spire.”
Mireska floated along the cobbled street, enjoying the anonymity of the crowd. Her lilac wings emerged from strips cut into the back of a long leather coat, beating fast and close as she weaved through the throng. Most stalls were still doing business, their proprietors loudly hawking or haggling over an endless assortment of wares. Normally, she hated cities, but not this one. Here, the streets were a riot of color and sound. She saw Human and Fae, beside Tuskarr and Keen, even a lone Oglodi eyeing a trio of Kobold. Most did not look particularly wealthy, but nor were there any beggars to speak of, and the streets were clean, free of the detritus usually clogging such places. Limestone buildings, timber-framed, reflected a warm yellow glow only just beginning to fade, long fingers of light stretching out from between them.
One could almost be deceived into thinking that none of the customary corruption existed, but she knew it was there, beneath the surface. The thieves and assassins, smugglers, bootleggers, bookmakers, charlatans and thugs that haunted every city. Here, though, they were kept in check by the ruler of White Spire, the ineffable Momma Eeb. Magnanimous to her friends, merciless to her enemies, she kept the balance, and it showed in the subtle confidence of all her subjects. Mireska loved this city because it was free of fear.
She came to the place she had been looking for. An open courtyard separated the buildings to her left. She crossed over the sun-bleached, alabaster tiles, passing other pedestrians enjoying the space. Toward the rear, a large bolt of white cloth hung suspended on long wooden poles, casting a slanted shadow over the patrons below.
Mireska entered the teahouse through tall double doors swung wide, red paint cracked from heat and age. She hovered a moment before spotting a table in the corner where the light from oil lamps mounted on the walls didn’t quite reach. She felt reasonably safe, but she knew that the place was owned by the Guild, an irony she found amusing, but not so much so that she didn’t value her privacy.
A middle-aged woman ambled over with a clay pitcher and cups perched perilously on a wicker tray she carried by her shoulder, elbow crooked at her waist to support the weight. She smiled and it was genuine, but tired from a day of endlessly repeating the same exchange. She placed a cup before Mireska and filled it with a thick, sweet-smelling tea. Steam rose in a thin contrail, fading away into nothing, rich with the scent of apricots.
She ordered a slice of tango cream pie, cradling the warm cup as she watched the waitress sidle off to fetch it. The table rocked as the chair opposite was pulled out and a large figure dropped roughly into it. Shocked, Mireska looked up, ready to admonish the stranger, “I am not in the mood…” The rebuke died in her throat.
His lips curled back to reveal a ghastly smile, “It’s been too long.” She didn’t reply at first. The last time they were together, she had accepted his training, then abandoned his cause. He wasn’t the type to hold grudges but she had never been sure of his motives.
Hesitantly, “Good to see you, Lorlin.”
“Peace Mireska, we are old friends, are we not?” He was so hard to read.
“Of course, Lorlin, it really is good to see you,” her composure returning, “In town on business? You haven’t worked in White Spire for some time.”
“Yes,” his voice a sibilant whisper, “And I want you with us.”
She considered the offer, and who it was coming from, “What’s the job?”
“Burglary. There’s a legacy wardog in Eeb’s collection.”
“Come on, who would be that foolish?”
“No idea,” that was a lie, “We were hired by a broker.” She was suspicious, but to be honest, she needed the gold. Her self-imposed exile had not been as lucrative as she would have liked.
An uneasy silence settled as the waitress returned with the pie, laying the plate down and turning away without a word, as if she could feel the tension at the table.
“Double rate,” Mireska said it too quickly, expecting an argument.
“Done.” She frowned, skeptical, but not entirely sure why.
“That was too easy. What aren’t you telling me?” He only smiled in response, infuriatingly smug, but that was Lorlin, always confident he knew something you did not, and usually right about it.
He stood, tail unfurling to keep himself balanced, “Come, you should meet the crew.”
She stared longingly at the food in front of her, before pushing it away with a resigned expression and a drawn-out sigh. “Fine, let’s get this over with,” as she dropped a handful of coins onto the table and headed for the doors, not looking back.
He hesitated, uncertain. He wasn’t immune to the irony of hiring Mireska for this particular job. After a moment he shrugged and followed her out.
The light had faded to a soft magenta, dulling the details of any shape further than a few feet ahead. The assassin fell into step beside her, saying nothing, knowing she had no desire to speak. Neither noticed the figure under the far edge of the awning, back to the wall behind him, leaning into the shadows.
He started as he saw Mireska, his eyes like rough-cut rubies, wide above the tattered red veil covering his mouth. Amazed at his own luck, Gondar was almost disappointed when Lorlin joined her. Almost, for the Bounty Hunter relished any challenge. He lifted his hood, obscuring his features even further, and followed into the gathering night.
Lorlin led without leading, taking her along a winding path through the labyrinthian city, deep into the Warrens. Soon the streets became alleyways, clogged with refuse.
Finally, Lorlin stopped before an old inn, identifiable only by the rotting sign that hung lopsided from a single hook on a short mast extended from the wall above the door. The paint had peeled badly, but she could just make out the name Momma Knows Best beside two barely visible mugs of ale, carved in a toast, foam splashing out.
“Privacy isn’t cheap, but this place is,” Lorlin joked as he made for the door, which opened suddenly, revealing an enormous bulk blocking the entrance. Mireska let her gaze slide up the massive chest to the thickly knotted hair from which long, curving tusks emerged. The bouncer stepped back to let them pass before closing the door behind them.
The saloon wasn’t empty, but it was a long way from being full. There was none of the riotous noise one would expect from such an establishment, but rather, several patrons sitting alone, nursing tall, pewter tankards undoubtedly filled with the thin, bitter beer these places always served. Lorlin walked her straight to and up a set of stairs at the back of the room, nodding to the bartender as they passed, more in acknowledgment than greeting.
They soon found themselves on the third, and highest, floor, where they crossed the landing towards a single, lonely door. He knocked twice, hesitated briefly, and knocked three more times in rapid succession. Mireska heard a scraping sound, as of a chair being pushed back so its occupant could stand, and the shuffling gait of someone coming lazily to the door. As it opened inwards, revealing the brightly lit room beyond, she flinched at seeing the sly face looking up at her.
“I knew it!” She exclaimed, too loudly.
He shrugged, “Cloaked and daggered, Willow,” turning aside for them to enter. The Satyr prince stood hunched over, as if his spiral horns were too heavy to bear, but his bright green eyes shimmered with delight at the effect his presence was having.
Mireska pushed passed without ceremony. She had called Riki out for his alleged association with the Circle before, but he had never risen to the bait. Now she knew for certain, but that knowledge was bittersweet considering how much he was obviously enjoying the moment. She was so distracted by her thoughts that she almost missed the other occupant. A young Kobold female sat at one of four stools surrounding a plain wooden table, trying her hardest not to look interested, focusing too intently on her tightly clasped hands. She was noticeably smaller than Lorlin, but no less sinister for her size. In fact, if anything, she appeared more sharpened, more acutely serpentine.
“And you are?” Mireska asked, turning to Lorlin with an inquiringly unimpressed expression when she received no response.
“This is Debbi. The Cunning,” the epithet added almost as an afterthought, “Give her a minute, she’s been tracking Fae for months. Working with one now, especially you, has her somewhat on edge.” Mireska looked back at the girl, a blush to her cheeks the only sign she was paying the slightest attention.
Debbi’s gaze turned slowly towards her and there was hatred there, boiling with the heat of youthful pride. “You don’t look like your father, Princess,” her speech was laced with acid. She had meant it to be menacing, but her adolescence only pantomimed true threat. Mireska smiled, letting a little malice seep out.
“That ugly bastard? Gods forbid. I left him to burn.” The surprise on Debbi’s face was priceless, although her obvious inexperience could soon be a liability.
“I’m not sure about this one, Lorlin. A bit green, no?” The younger Kobold flushed a deep shade of purple instead and turned back to wringing her hands, visibly shaking.
“Back off, Willow. I brought her in. She’s more dangerous than she looks.” This seemed to calm Debbi but she didn’t reengage. Mireska was already getting bored and didn’t feel the need to press any further.
The door opened suddenly. The conversation forgotten, everyone in the room instantly focused on the sound, tensed like coiled springs, weapons already out, steel glistening in the lamplight. Rikimaru entered, awkwardly carrying two round-bellied bottles of rice wine wrapped in hessian, four simple wooden cups and a huge platter of fruit and cheese. He stumbled over to the table and dumped it all down before dropping himself dramatically into the chair opposite Debbi.
Realizing all eyes were on him, “What?” He had slipped out during the exchange and no one had noticed. Everyone relaxed. Lorlin just shook his head and shut the door. He would have preferred Nyx for this, but that damned insect was nowhere to be found.
Mireska took the closest seat, crossed her legs and folded her arms across her chest. As Lorin passed, he withdrew what looked like a scroll from behind his back and tossed it onto her lap. She had to sit up to catch it, giving him a petulant look. It turned out to be frayed parchment, rolled loose, but pinched in the middle where it had been threaded through the Kobold’s belt. She unravelled it, only to see her own face staring back at her. Confused, she turned to Lorlin.
He spoke before she could, “Lord Sunbreeze is offering a lot of gold for your return.’
Mireska swallowed, “You didn’t say safe.’ She wasn’t asking.
“No, I didn’t,’ he sounded more sympathetic than could be expected. Looking around, she realised all the faces watching her wore their own unique version of empathy.
“Your father is a tyrant,’ Rikki added, trying to sound kind.
She was tired of pity. Her gaze hardened and she tore the poster in half, casting the pieces aside. She spat in their general direction.
“He doesn’t scare me.’
“It’s not him you need to worry about. Those are up all over the city.’ Mireska sat back, resigned and angry both, but she still had the presence of mind to wonder if this was all that Lorlin had been holding back.
“Let’s get on with it then,’ she said, and all eyes turned to him.
As the false dawn broke, layering the sky in a kaleidoscope of muted color, Gondar moved for the first time in hours. Consciously stretching each limb in turn, working his joints back to full mobility, allowing his blood to flow freely once more. Even after he had recovered, he remained lying supine on the roof of the inn until he could feel the warmth of the day caressing his face. He could no longer hear anything from the room below, but he had heard more than enough eavesdropping throughout the night.
Making only the slightest sound, he slithered down the slanted roof, careful not to disrupt any loose shingles. Reaching the gutter, he twisted, sliding and rolling over the lip in one smooth motion. He caught the edge and lowered himself to full extension before dropping to the road two stories below. He landed in a tight crouch, absorbing the shock, effortlessly blending into the remaining shadows.
Straightening, he brushed some of the accumulated dust from his tunic. It had been a long night, but his patience was legendary and he already knew every ache had been worth it. All he had to do was wait, his chance would come. If anyone had been looking, they would have seen his cheekbones rise with the wide grin hidden by a strip of ragged cloth, but if anyone had been looking they would already be dead. Gondar didn’t leave loose ends.
He reached back and lifted his cowl, stepped fully into the shadow of the adjacent building, and vanished from sight.
The streets were already alive when Mireska finally left the decrepit inn. Crossing the taproom had been an experience she would not soon forget. Patrons slumped over tables or simply passed out on the floor, puddles of stagnant beer and shards of broken glass everywhere. The smell alone had nearly forced her back up the stairs, but she had little time to waste.
Ignoring the oppressive heat, she raised her hood and joined the traffic heading back to a better part of town. For the moment she would walk, no sense in attracting attention by making a spectacle of herself.
She let the crowd pull her along, in a generally straight line, and before she knew it, she was passing the same courtyard she had visited the day before. She was immediately annoyed at the thought of the long, circuitous route they had taken to reach the inn, but quickly realized it hadn’t been for her benefit. He was always careful, but seldom paranoid. There was something he wasn’t telling her, and something that could make Lorlin Lasan nervous was almost certainly something to fear.
Mireska soon reached her lodgings, a nondescript two-story building much like all the others along the street. It was rented from an ancient Keen she had met but once. She had the top floor to herself. It was small but comfortable, and thankfully not overpriced.
She had dozed into the small hours but hadn’t really slept. She would need to soon or risk being unprepared for the coming night. She gazed longingly at a wide divan and invitingly piled cushions.
The weight of worry washed over her, tinged with disappointment and a touch of exasperation. She turned to frown at a blackened iron cage perched on a stand of similar design. A small, somehow skeletal wisp flitted around inside, tiny arms grasping at nothing.
There was no need to explain the plan. It could sense her every intention. As their bond had grown, they had lost the need for words, but Jex was her confidant as much as her pet, her companion and protector. It was delightfully mischievous but bloodthirsty in equal measure.
“Lorlin made it sound so simple,” muttering to herself as much as the bright pink creature. “In and out. What could go wrong?” She wasn’t projecting the confidence necessary to mollify the wisp, which began keening, apprehensive and dire.
“Enough, Jex.” Mireska’s tone was sufficient to quiet it at once, send it hovering to the bottom of the cage, silently brooding.
“I’ll be back later. I need to see O’nia.” She left without another word. Not merely annoyed at herself for snapping at it, but rather with how much its sentiment mirrored hers. Something was not as it seemed and the itch at the back of her mind, like a splinter in her thoughts, was keeping her on a razor’s edge. She needed reassurance, and if not that, then at least she could procure some more appropriate gear.
The road leading up the hill was thick with a multitude of creatures. Horses jostled with carts drawn by bluehorn and elk, while those on foot, of every conceivable species, tried not to get crushed under hoof.
Mireska stayed to the fringes, occasionally having to dodge around half-constructed stalls or in between vendors arguing over territory.
Finally, the ground started to plateau and the street opened into a massive thoroughfare. Ahead, the walls of the track loomed over thousands of makeshift shops. Mireska waded into the maze, always keeping the stadium above her as she followed the winding path.
The place she was looking for was right up against the wall, near one of the main entrances, so she aimed for that. When she did find it, the door was locked, and banging on it loudly elicited no response. She was turning away when one of the neighbors started yelling at her in several languages at once.
Apparently, O’nia was at the races, the last place she wanted to be, now unavoidable. Waving an apology, she left the man shouting strange curses after her and headed for the queue at the eastern gate, nearby.
The wait was interminable but eventually, she was inside. It was like entering a different world. Here the chaos was more structured. Everyone was in some way gathered around the massive oval track that dominated the space. There were hawkers carrying trays among the crowd but there were no stalls, apart from betting kiosks at regular intervals, interspersed with grandstands and raised viewing platforms. It was noisy, but far more constrained than the cacophony of the sprawl.
Mireska moved closer to the track and the crowd thickened noticeably. Most were standing in groups, chatting among themselves, but all eyes were on the couriers as they came along the straight. For a moment she was caught up in the pageantry of it: The smell of turned sod, the indrawn breath as the couriers careened past, the cheers that followed them.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a familiar sky blue hood with long, pointed ears covered in soft white fur, sticking out on each side. She pushed through the throng until she was right behind him.
“Meepo.” No reaction, he was too focused on the race. She reached out, placing a hand on his shoulder, “Meepo!” He jumped visibly, spinning around and backing away at the same time, hands protesting, before he realized who had found him. He immediately stood as straight as his frame allowed, lifting his chin imperiously, characteristic fishbone bobbing up and down as he chewed on its end.
“Mireska! Shouldn’t sneak up on a guy like that,” his voice was high and rough after a lifetime on the street, but he was always cheerful, at least when he wasn’t afraid.
“You shouldn’t be here. Didn’t you lose enough last time?”
“Hey, can't win 'em all!” He bounced as he spoke, from one foot to the other. He never could keep still for a moment’s peace.
“The Ravenhooks are one thing, but the Circle is in town!” He froze awkwardly on one foot, his ovoid eyes bulging. He looked about to cry, but shambled forward instead, leaning in close. His gaze constantly darting from side to side, bulbous nose twitching.
“They’re not here for you, Meepo,” he pulled back a bit, keeping his head down.
“I'm sick of scrambling around in the dirt. Gotta find a way to get us back on our feet!”
“Just lay low for a while, and stop coming to the races!” He looked back at the track, remorseful like a misbehaved child caught in the act, then flashed Mireska a toothy grin.
“Thanks. I won’t forget this.” She just shook her head, smiling in spite of herself.
After asking around, all pretense at subtlety lost, she finally found the merchant on the far side of the oval. He stood to the back of a wide viewing platform partially extended over the track, surrounded by a number of comparatively younger men. The aging Fae’s skin had faded nearly to gray, but he seemed hale enough, ministering to his mercantile disciples.
She waited for the inevitable lull in conversation before the excitement of the next race began and, carefully threading through the crowd, came up beside him. Before she could speak, he turned toward her, a genuine smile curling the corners of his thin lips.
“My Lady, how may I be of service?” Always so proper, but this wasn’t the time.
“Willow will do, O’nia, and I need supplies: Arcane Boots, a Gem of True Sight, a Veil of Discord if you have one. As many Clarity as you can spare.”
“Of course, of course. Let us retire to my store.” She followed him down from the platform and out of the stadium, trying to remain inconspicuous even as he stopped to greet almost everyone they passed.
Back in the relative quiet of his shop, door closed, curtains drawn, he led her into a packed storage room at the rear. She waited, arms crossed, while he maneuvered several large crates to one side, revealing a short flight of stairs. He sparked a taper, lighting a large lantern, before leading her down to the basement.
He unlocked and let the heavy door swing slowly open, using the light to gesture Mireska forward into a room filled with contraband: Jewelry, potions, shields, and scrolls; a row of Blink Daggers hanging along one wall; even a Black King Bar mounted on a stone pedestal.
O’nia began searching for the items she’d requested, rambling on about the old days when he worked for her father. She didn’t hear a word, lost in examining the treasures on display. Before she knew it, he was handing her a bulky package wrapped in coarse brown hessian, tied with string. As she took it from him, his hand snaked out to grasp her wrist. She hadn’t realized how thin he’d become, the bones in his fingers almost visible through veined, near-translucent skin. She turned to see him looking up at her, eyes so earnest it made her want to laugh, or cry.
“O’nia…” His grip tightened briefly, knuckles turning white with the effort.
“What you do with this, my Lady, be sure that it is worthy of you,” releasing her, but letting go of something else entirely, the fervor drained from his face.
Speechless, Mireska mumbled some hollow gratitude, spilling gold as she fumbled with her pouch, rushing to leave the suddenly claustrophobic space. The merchant only stood there, watching her stumble back up the steps, with entirely too much pity in his eyes.
Having returned to her apartment to rest, Mireska was back on the still busy street, cage in hand, Jex hidden by a drape of heavy cloth. She headed for the agreed rendezvous, following an intentionally confusing route.
O’nia had only succeeded in adding to her uncertainty, but she needed to trust in the plan, in the crew, or risk making a bad decision at a worse moment. She shook her head to clear it and marched deeper into the city, towards the tall white tower standing over it all.
Lorlin paced nervously in the alley, back and forth from complete darkness into the shadows cast by lamplight spilling from several windows high on the wall above. Debbi sat cross-legged, running a whetstone along one needle-thin blade, trying to ignore him. Riki leaned against the wall opposite, arms crossed, chin on chest, to all appearances fast asleep.
“Waiting for something?” Debbi jumped at Mireska’s greeting, Lorlin spun mid-step, but Rikki just looked up slowly, amused.
“You’re late!” Lorlin hissed at her, clearly on edge.
“Well, I’m here now,” unhelpful, but she was anxious for some action, for the clarity of purpose that only real danger would evoke.
Lorlin loped passed, muttering under his breath. Debbi stood, unfolding from the floor. Mireska shared a look with Rikki before they all fell into step and followed Lorlin deeper into the void between buildings. Without light, it took some time to find the door recessed into the outer wall, hidden behind a curtain of tangled vines.
He whispered to the crew clustered around him, “Route should be clear by now.”
“If you paid off the right guards,” Rikki was smiling as he said it, but showing too many teeth. Lorlin gave him a sharp look, otherwise ignoring the comment.
“Stay close and stay alert. If you have to engage, keep it quiet. We get to the tower as quickly as possible. The treasure room is below Eeb’s private office. In and out.”
He lifted the heavy iron ring and turned it. The old wooden door swung inwards, opening onto more thick foliage. One by one they scrambled through into an unkempt corner of the gardens. Staying low, they followed the switching path back to the buildings at the rear of the compound surrounding the spire.
Rikki reached the door first, opening it carefully as the others came up beside him. No light came through the crack. In fact, Mireska couldn’t see a single light on this side of the wall. No guards at even distant posts, no torches lining the streets inside the complex. She was considering this when she noticed Lorlin signaling her to enter, obviously frustrated at the delay. No time to think, she followed into the pitch black of the half-open doorway.
They found themselves in a basalt vestibule empty of furnishings. Faint moonlight coming through narrow slits cut high on one wall illuminated the first few steps of a spiral staircase before the tight curve stole the light. It was unnaturally silent, apart from a susurration in the stone around them, as if the whole building was vibrating.
Lorlin led them across the room. As they neared the stairs, a dark mass separated from the shadow where the wall met the floor. Debbi leaned down and reached for the shape. As soon as she touched it, the body rolled over and into the feeble light, revealing a terrible laceration that almost completely severed the guard’s head from her shoulders.
Mireska, staring at the corpse, “What is going on here?”
“We don’t have time for this. Move!” Lorlin was already entering the stairwell, giving the others no choice but to follow him up into the tower.
As they cleared the last of the steps the low hum had become a deep reverberation all around them. Lorlin reached the landing first, crouching to the side of the open archway, Debbi and Mireska on his heels. Rikki was nowhere to be seen, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t close.
Emerging from the stairwell, staying low to the wall, they moved carefully into the corridor. Thirty feet ahead autumn lights flickered from around the corner. With each step, the temperature rose, as if they were walking into the mouth of an oven. Soon they could hear the limestone spitting as it baked in the heat.
A muffled shout froze them in place, only just audible over the growing din. A moment later something small and round flew across the air in front of them, bouncing off the wall before coming to a steaming rest just a few feet away.
“Down!” yelled Lorlin, as the grenade split open and a fountain of flame erupted into the air, liquid fire splashing across the walls, igniting everything it touched.
Only one man was crazy enough to throw that in close combat, “Hobgen!” Mireska was moving before the scream had even left her throat. As she launched herself into the air, wings snapping out, she pulled the shadows to her. They writhed over her body, rivulets of night draining the color from her, dark self emerging in patterns writ upon her flesh.
The twisting thermals whipped her around and away before any of the others could react. A moment of indrawn breath passed, and they were up, sprinting to follow.
They rounded the corner into a nightmare of fire and smoke, the roar deafening. Great torrents of flame spouted from alcoves set between marble pillars dripping molten stone. Tapestries burned. The eyes of windows black amid the inferno, flames licking out into the night like burning lashes.
The heat brought Debbi up short, raising her hands to shield her face from the sudden blast. Lorlin however, sprung off the wall and over the first line of flame, landing in a roll that barely slowed him.
They arrived in time to see Willow crash violently into the backs of two women veiled in midnight blue, even as a third climbed in through a window right beside them. As she leaped from the lintel, the silhouette of a long curving blade flowing out ahead of her, Lorlin left the floor.
They collided in midair.
The Kobold was far heavier, carrying them away from the writhing limbs of the two Sisters as they fought Mireska to regain their feet. Lorlin landed on top, dropping his shoulder into the woman’s chest. His weight forced the air from her lungs. She gagged for breath even as Lorlin drove his dagger deep between her ribs. Momentum carried him over.
Ahead, a Fae stood guard at banded bronze doors. His yellow skin shone golden in the fire’s light, his hair aflame. Hobgen’s gaze was locked on a fourth Sister, somehow barely visible, an outline in the chaotic shadows thrown everywhere by the raging fire. Lorlin squinted through the smoke and his eye caught hers, a single green flame amid the conflagration. He gestured, flicking blood from the dagger in his left hand. It shone like mercury, sizzling as it flecked the stone.
Mireska gained her feet and immediately kicked out, slamming her heel into the nearest cowl. She felt the satisfying crunch of breaking bone before turning to meet the second Sister.
The first let out a high pitched wale, grabbing at her ruined face, stumbling backward, coming far too close to the leaping flames. Within moments she was engulfed in fire, thrashing on the floor, screaming as she burnt.
Mireska paid her no mind, focusing on the Sister about to skewer her. She closed her eyes and centered, throwing her left hand out. Time slowed for an instant, every detail suddenly sharp in her mind. Then her eyes snapped open. Long, black tendrils snaked outwards to paint a shape warped by the confines of the space.
The Sister lunged forward, arms extended towards Mireska, steel shimmering inches from her face, and stuck fast, rooted in a writhing mass of glowing pink brambles rising from the dark glyph.
Rikki appeared, insubstantial in the preternatural haze, coalescing suddenly at her back and driving his knife between her shoulder blades, severing her spine. He shimmered and blinked, vanishing once more.
Mireska raised the iron cage high and Jex flew from it in a wash of violet light. Wisps of smoke rose from the glyph as it began to fragment, a shocking blue light glowing from within. As Jex reached the center of the seething magic, it let out a single piercing note.
The shape exploded. Energy ripped through the corridor, throwing everyone down, forcing the fire to curl away in a breaking wave. The collapsing spell imploded, sucking all the air from the room, killing the closest fires instantly, leaving only a crackling hiss beneath the falling ash. The sudden silence was punctured by a wild cry as Debbi smashed into another Sister coming at Mireska from behind.
Hobgen rose from where he’d been thrown, “Willow!?” Distracted, he did not see the blade spinning through the air toward him. At the last second, Lorlin leapt to tackle the Fae out of its path.
The dagger pinioned into one of the doors. Hobgen, on his back beneath the Kobold, saw the steel jerk once before a blinding flash stole his vision. Shadows tore the light apart as the Phantom Assassin burst from within, her blade scything through the air towards Lorlin’s exposed neck.
Suddenly, Rikki was between them, turning Mortred’s attack with his own weapon. He dropped, spinning away from the gliding edges, twisting into a low kick. He struck only air and shadow.
Debbi lifted herself off the dead Sister, drawing her thin blades free from twin wounds. Mireska stood to her left, shaking slightly. Debbi spun towards her, tail whipping around, and choked, eyes going wide.
The point of a wide curving blade burst through her breast, blood and cartilage spraying out. She screamed as Mortred tossed her body aside, still twisting to claw at the assassin before she crashed into the wall and crumpled to the floor, unconscious, bleeding out fast.
Two more Sisters emerged from the corona surrounding Mortred, the light dissipating as they stepped to either side of her. Together they advanced, weapons drawn.
Dropping the cage, Mireska reached towards them. Corruscating pink and black lightning shot from her palm, striking Mortred square in the chest, an ethereal crown forming above her head. Shock didn’t halt them for long, but the slight hesitation was enough. Lorlin and Rikki tore past Mireska, colliding with an opponent apiece, steel singing.
Mortred’s smile didn’t touch her eyes, there was only fury there. She leant into magic, taking the first step towards Mireska. The seconds ticked with each planted foot.
Just as the assassin coiled to strike, the spell reached its zenith and the air split, pressure dropping as power blossomed out from the center of her chest. Violent pink and turquoise light filled the bubble around her, before it burst into darkness, trapping her inside.
Lorlin drew his blade across a Sister’s throat, letting her body collapse to the floor. He saw Mireska sag as she let go of the magic and Mortred, stunned, immobile, but not for much longer.
Gondar saw his chance, and took it. Leaping from the shadows to slam the pommel of an evil looking blade hard into the side of Mireska’s head. He caught her as she fell, already binding her body in a length of thin cord. A moment later he hoisted the inert Fae onto his shoulder, sheathing the wicked dagger in the same motion, and blinked.
They reappeared by the window he had entered through. He reached with one hand, tugging on a rope hanging from a wall-mounted sconce and with half a backward glance, launched himself and Mireska out into the night.
Hobgen screamed, “Mireska!” and abandoned his post, sprinting to the window and throwing himself after them, leaving only an echo behind.
Lorlin saw the spell leaving Mortred, her whole body shivering as she fought to free herself. He spun at a shriek from behind him to see Rikki complete a vicious upward slash. Blood sprayed from the long laceration, chin to temple of the Sister he faced. The knife in his other hand found her stomach at the same moment. He drove the blade up to the hilt, the crossguard grating against bone. He held fast, watching the life leave her eyes before stepping back, letting her body slump down.
He locked eyes with Lorlin.
More Sisters of the Veil were appearing at the end of the corridor and Mortred was straightening, inertia dragging her blade through the half-completed swing.
“Too many. Sorry Lasan,” Rikki’s head lowered, shame evident. His hand twitched and a cloud of purple smoke exploded around him. He was gone before it cleared.
“Shit!” Lorlin took one look at Mortred, now turning to face him, Sisters fanning out to either side, and knew it was over. A glance at Debbi, torn apart, lying motionless in a pool of her own blood, was enough. He ran. Back the way they had come, now piteously alone.
Mortred raised her fist to forestall any pursuit, “Hold. The Circle will pay in due time.” Turning, she approached the now unguarded doors and grasped both of the protruding iron rings. Arms outstretched, her muscles straining, green fire dancing in her eyes, she began to pull. The metal and wood resisted at first, then started to bend and splinter under the incredible force. There was a loud crack as the drawbar snapped and the doors were flung wide.
The assassin entered a dark lounge, shapeless furniture barely visible. The only illumination came from a penumbra of candlelight in another room on the far side. She gestured for the others to remain and headed toward the source.
Reaching the doorless frame, she stepped into a richly appointed study: Lush carpet, walls lined with books, a chandelier of sparkling crystal that, unlit, cast no light. An ancient Fae in a once fine, now faded robe, sat at a writing desk in the center of the room. She was old and graying, seemingly frail but imposing nevertheless. A woman cast in brittle stone.
She looked up from the letter she had only just signed and smiled, but it did not touch her eyes, ghastly in the flickering light from several candles, all burning low.
Mamma Eeb opened her mouth but spoke no words. Her last breath wheezing out as her head fell forward. An ignominious end.
Mortred stood at her back, slowly drawing her blade free, watching the blood coagulate around the wound. It spurted as the last inch of steel withdrew, drops spattering the assassin, but the flow ebbed almost at once, the heart no longer pumping. She kicked the chair out, pulling the body back from the desk. Eeb was thrown unceremoniously aside, a ragdoll in death. Mortred reached for the letter, scanning and discarding it, irrelevant to her, nothing but empty, pointless words.
Gondar was several miles from town when he heard the distant bells toll. It was not yet light, but he kept his hood drawn, face mostly hidden by the ragged red veil. He took one hand from the reins, turning to lift the tarp covering the cart behind him.
Bound and gagged, Mireska could only glare at him, letting her fury show. Crimson eyes stared back, emotionless. Not fire, but blood swirling there as he blinked slowly, before releasing the tarp, draping her once more in darkness. She struggled against the ropes binding wrists to ankles, bending her spine, but if anything that only tightened them. Her hands were already swelling, not a good sign. The tears had come and gone, fear giving way to rage. She trembled with it, but rode the anger, keeping it close, lest she fall to despair.
Gondar cracked the reins, spurring the horse into a trot, he would ride until dawn. It would take a few days to reach Revtel, but he was in no rush. He knew that claiming this particular bounty would give him more pleasure than most. He let himself drift into memories of past pursuits. He sought the most challenging prey but was invariably disappointed by the hunt. Mireska, however, was inordinately powerful, had taunted him, and was now at his mercy, or lack thereof. Enjoying the victory, he watched as the stars disappeared in the pale light painting the horizon.
A hundred yards behind, two mirrored shapes crouched in the bushes by the side of the road. Both reached clawed hands to grab the shoulder of the other for support, yanking on the soft white fur. Wide eyes slitted under heavy lids lifted.
“He gotta stop sometime, right?” asked a breathless Meepo.
“We saw the posters. Know where he’s going,” replied an equally winded Meepo.
“Let’s rest a while then,” and Meepo sat down, while Meepo looked East, toward the first light breaking far down the road.
“We’ll free Mireska,” sitting.
“Mireska will owe us,” standing.
“It’s a perfect plan.”
“What could go wrong?”
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