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  • Andrew M. Trauger

Ch. 8: The Temple of Thieves

Updated: Feb 21, 2021

By midday, the worst of the damage to The Savory Salmon was completely restored, and carpenters were busy building new tables and chairs. Cora pressed forty gold stallions into the innkeeper’s hands to replace things that had broken in the blast. Work progressed constantly until shortly after lunch, when Ordin approached leading a relatively healthy but weak Celindria. Many who were previously suspicious of the mystic now viewed him as a smallish sort of hero for his part in saving the pretty reeve from death.

Ordin could only shake his head.

After the noontime meal, they saddled up their horses and traveled down the eastern road. They were miles from the last homestead they had seen and the sun was beginning to set when Celindria motioned for them to stop.

“There was a struggle here,” she announced, walking about the roadside with delicate, almost dance-like steps, her eyes fixed on the ground. “Evidence everywhere…footprints, drag marks…maybe a body.” Like a bloodhound, she suddenly stood upright and pointed deeper into the forest. “They went that way.” Then she trudged into the woods, following the trail for a short distance.

“Shinnick could do better,” Ordin remarked, scratching his wolf’s ears. “She don’t need to be out here.”

Celindria returned to the road, panting and dripping with sweat. “It’s too dark to chase that trail,” she said. “But I did see a wagon on its side and covered with brush.”

Moments later they stood around the overturned wagon several yards into the forest, hastily pulling away the forest debris that had been piled on it.

“What do dees letters say?” Cuauhtérroc asked as the wagon’s side came into view.

Cora let out a low whistle, “It says ‘Calloway’s Emporium,’ and that would be our Artus Calloway. This is where it all begins.”

“You look exhausted,” Cora said, noting her condition. There’s a cool breeze blowing in off the lake. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

The reeve’s natural impulses said to deny and deflect, snap a caustic quip at Cora to cover her deficiencies. Instead, she collapsed against a tree. “I think I’ve had enough for today.”

“Let’s make camp here,” Ordin announced. Then he shucked his pack and began gathering sticks for a fire.

Celindria coughed and wiped her sweaty forehead.

“You’re not well enough for this, are you?” Cora asked.

“I’m fine,” Celindria muttered. “I just need to eat and get some sleep.” She pulled some jerky out of her pack to eat. Minutes later she had managed only to sniff it, then with an exhausted sigh she stuffed it back where it belonged.

“Well,” Ordin said with a yawn, “since I saved your butt last night instead of sleepin’, I’m goin’ to bed.”

As morning dawned, Ordin had the campfire stoked and ready to cook a breakfast of coneys, wild berries, and yesterday’s sourdough bread from the Savory Salmon’s stores. Somewhere nearby a twig snapped, and the mystic grabbed his crossbow. He breathed a quick word to Shinnick and sent the wolf on a perimeter sweep of the campsite.

No one else was awake, and Ordin frowned. I reckon it’s just Shinnick and me, then.

Quietly, he stepped away from the campfire and locked the string on his bow. He knew Shinnick would flush out anyone hiding in the brush so he approached the edge of camp with the stock pressed to his shoulder.

A low growl rumbled deeper in the woods, then footsteps scrambled within a nearby copse of trees. He dashed forward, crossbow raised, and found a hooded figure, armed with only a dagger. Shinnick crept along, teeth bared in a menacing snarl, forcing the intruder toward his master.

“All I have to do is give the word,” Ordin said, “and he rips out your throat.”

The hooded man glanced away from the wolf only briefly, then he glanced back a second time. The pale white skin caught him off guard, and the crossbow aimed at his head arrested his heart.

Ordin grinned. “Look, don’t be stupid. It’s not even physically possible for you to escape.”

The man dropped his blade.

Shortly before breakfast—the coneys were only slightly overcooked—the whole group stood around their prisoner while Shinnick stared him down.

“What do we do with him?” Cora asked.

“I ain’t gonna ask you again,” Ordin said with folded arms. “What were you doin’?”

The man tried to stand taller, perhaps even broader, but his voice still faltered. “I was out huntin’.”

“Don’t be a moron,” Ordin quipped. “Nobody hunts with a dagger. Now start talkin’ or Shinnick gets to have you for dessert.”

A noticeable wave of fear swept over the man as he glanced down at the wolf. But he remained resolute. “I ain’t sayin’ nothin’, you leprous cur.”

“Cuauhtérroc,” the mystic said without showing a hint of emotion, “can I show this man your tribal club?”

The savage looked at his prized weapon. “You want dees macana?”

“Yeah, just for a second. I’d like to give this fool a good look at it.”

Cuauhtérroc pondered the request. He had never let another person hold his macana before.

“Look, it’ll only take a second. I promise I’ll give it right back.”

Reluctantly, Cuauhtérroc handed Ordin his obsidian-studded club.

Ordin felt the macana’s balance. He ran a white finger across the black rock studs embedded in the wood. Then he slammed the club with all his force into the brigand’s arm.

Bones snapped, and the man screamed out in pain.

Cora also screamed in shock and anger. “Ordin! What the—!”

Ever so calmly, Ordin flipped the club around and handed the haft end back to Cuauhtérroc. “Now, tell me what you were doin’ or he’ll break your other arm.”

Cora scowled at the impulsive mystic and tried a different approach. “We don’t want to hurt you, but you are going to tell us where you’ve taken all the loot you stole from Calloway’s Emporium.” She pointed to the overturned wagon outside of the camp. “You see, Mr. Calloway hired us to find his stolen goods, and we’ve been commissioned to kill those who stole them. But we’ll spare you that fate if you help us do our job.”

The captured bandit stared into Ordin’s icy blue eyes as long as he could. He winced as pain shot through his broken arm, and he regarded the obsidian club once more before meeting Ordin’s gaze again.

“Fine,” he groaned, “I’ll tell you where we stay, but I ‘spect you’ll get rinkin lost, an’ even if you manage to find it, there’s plenty more like me down there. You’ll never get your stuff back.”

“Don’t be so sure, you pig-headed mongrel,” Celindria said, steeling herself against a roiling knot in her stomach. “I can track down a week-old trail in the snow. I’ll find your pathetic little camp, you miserable excuse for a man.”

After breakfast, Ordin grabbed the prisoner’s broken arm and bade him march.

“Take it easy!” the man whimpered.

“Not hardly,” Ordin replied. “In fact, I might break the other one just so it’s easier to tie ‘em around a tree.”

The man’s horrified look brought a satisfied grin to the mystic’s alabaster lips. “And if we have a hard time findin’ the camp, you’ll have a hard time findin’ your head in the mornin’.”

Three hours later, they stopped and rested. Their travels had been an endless series of small hills, rocky creeks, and never-ending trees. Now, with the sun high overhead, they were weary with the miles they had traveled. Ordin pulled their prisoner aside and shoved him against a tree.

“Look, we’ve been at this long enough,” he growled at their captive. “I don’t think you’re takin’ us anywhere. Even our reeve doubts there’s anything out here.” He turned to Celindria, who was leaned over and grabbing her knees in fatigue. “I swear by Creation and all that’s sacred that if we don’t find your rinkin camp before the sun sets, my wolf will eat you for dinner.”

Cora quickly chimed in, “And if you give us what we want, we’ll spare your life and let you go free.” She gave Ordin a fierce look that shouted “you need to calm down.”

“It ain’t much further,” the brigand mumbled.

Aided greatly by the threat of bodily harm, the captive quickly brought their travels to an end. As they crested a small hillock, the view opened upon the shallow valley of a gurgling creek, wherein sat a large stone building with a massive flight of crumbling stone steps leading up past several vine-covered columns to heavy doors in the back of a wide portico.

“There,” the prisoner said, “that’s where we stay.”

“It looks like an ancient temple,” Cora whispered.

“Well, that’s stupid,” Ordin retorted. “What’s a temple doin’ way out here?”

The outlaw merely shrugged.

“So, what now?” Cora asked.

“Everybody lay low,” Celindria said, “while I scout about and see what we’re up against.” With a weary grunt, the reeve stood and pulled deep from her reserves. Then she scuttled off into the trees.

Ordin spoke soft words into his wolf’s ear, and the animal bounded in another direction.

After nearly an hour, Celindria returned. “Here’s what we’ve got,” she began with a tired sigh, “I think it is a temple…or it was. Those steps run all the way around the building, as do the columns. There’s an open porch in the center of the building, accessible from both sides, with a tall statue in the center, arms outstretched. The head of the statue is missing, but I found symbols elsewhere—looks like a Solarium of Light.”

“A Solarium?” Cora cried out, and everyone instantly shushed her. In quieter but still astonished tones she continued, “Why would there be a Solarium in the middle of a forest? There’s not a decent-sized community within miles of here.”

“Got me,” Ordin said with a look of indifference.

Celindria softly cleared her throate. “Can we focus here? It’s definitely still in use as the thieves’ lair. There are a couple of sentries at both entrances.” She looked around. “In a place like this, they probably are there more to ward off wild animals than to guard against us. Still, they’re armed.” She paused, regarding their captive. “What are we going to do with him?”

“We tie heem to dees tree,” Cuauhtérroc answered.

“That’s great, Jungle Boy, but as soon as we leave, he’s going to yell.”

Ordin stuffed a rag in the man’s mouth. “How’s that?” Then he whispered into the wolf’s ear. Shinnick bristled and growled at the captive. “If you so much as flinch,” he said, leaning in close to the man, “he’ll eat you.”

“Is everyone ready?” Cora whispered, as she opened her escritoire, pulled out a sheet of parchment, and began to write.

“What in the Nine Hells are you doing?” Ordin asked.

Cora looked toward the temple and sighed. “Penning my final words, Ordin” she said, “in case…you know.” She quietly folded the sheet and slipped it into the prisoner’s pocket. “You’ll be glad to know,” she said to the captive, “that if we fulfill our commission, you will live and I’ll be back for this.” With that, Cora took up her lute and rapier. “Let’s go.”

With Celindria leading, they crouched low and crept toward the temple until only a small clearing lay between them and their unsuspecting guards. There were two guards on the portico between them and the headless statue. One meandered about eating an apple, and the other sat on the stone floor at the top of the stairs, his back leaned against a column and his chin resting against his chest.

A dull grunt startled Cora as Cuauhtérroc heaved a rock into the forest. The guard with the apple immediately froze in mid-bite, and peered attentively into the trees. Ordin followed with a second rock, and the guard started, pulled the apple from his mouth, and rushed back to wake his sleeping companion. Moments later the pair ventured off into the trees.

Cuauhtérroc quickly bounded out from his place of hiding, and the others followed him. His dark eyes darted to and fro as his gripped his macana with both hands, ever ready to strike an enemy. He led them to the base of the steps leading up to the portico, and they gingerly walked up the marble slabs.

In the center of the temple stood the headless statue, making its outstretched arms seem absurd. Vines and creepers covered part of the statue’s base and most of the western wall, blanketing parts of the floor and winding around the statue’s feet and legs.

As they approached, they caught a glimpse of a pair of guards patrolling the opposite side of the temple across the vestibule. Cuauhtérroc suddenly ducked down behind the vines and motioned for the others to do likewise.

When the guards moved beyond sight, Cuauhtérroc quickly led the group around a vine-entangled column and into a small alcove. He paused, surveying the central vestibule and searching for a way to proceed. Ordin tapped him on the shoulder and pointed down a dark passageway into the temple. The savage nodded and led the troupe away from the open vestibule.

Celindria sniffed the air as she reached the end of the corridor. “Something doesn’t smell right,” she whispered. “It’s more than musty. It’s…deathly.” She flinched and retracted her hand from visible presence of fungal growths along the walls.

“Hey,” Ordin whispered, “Don’t touch the mold.”

Cuauhtérroc pulled up short, staring down the length of a dimly lit hallway.

Cora wanted to conjure a light, but she feared alerting the thieves to their presence. It’s amazing we haven’t been spotted yet.

“Why are we stopping?” she asked.

The savage said nothing and continued to stare down the corridor. His breathing came in short, steady bursts through his nose, as if he had just run a mile.

“Cuauhtie?” she prodded.

“My name ees Cuauhtérroc.”

Cora grimaced. “Sorry. So, what’s next…Cuauhtérroc?”

“I do not know, Cora O’Banion. I never fight in dees beelding.”

Celindria said, “I’m sure we just have to walk down the hall and look in every room until we find the stolen goods, and then get the rink out of here.”

“It won’t be that easy,” Ordin said, shaking his head. “There’ll be more guards, and likely the guildmaster’s sittin’ in his comfy chair sippin’ wine and waitin’ for us. He’s probably gonna be well-protected and well-armed.”

“That’s why we brought the rage monster,” Celindria quipped, jerking her thumb at Cuauhtérroc.

As if on cue, Cuauhtérroc growled and strode down the hallway without looking back to see if anyone was following.

After a short distance, the savage stopped. “Here ees a room,” he whispered as he slipped past the door.

Celindria’s face contorted in disgust. What is that smell?!

Before the rest of his allies had quite caught up to him, Cuauhtérroc reemerged into the hallway. “No one is here. Only dees bed and dees box.”

“Well,” Ordin said, brushing past him, “let’s have a look at the box, then.”

Moments later he walked from the room holding a small leather pouch. “Meh. Small change…not what we’re lookin’ for. By the way, what are we lookin’ for?”

“It’s on the commission,” Cora said, “Swords, armor, a crystal dagger, elixirs…other stuff—”

“Does anyone else smell that?” Celindria suddenly asked, burying her nose in the crood of her elbow.

“Yes,” Cuauhtérroc answered. The others nodded.

“So…what is it?” Celindria asked, her eyes searching their faces.

Ordin pointed further down the hall. “It’s comin’ from there—from that…interesting…”

In the far corner of the hallway was an intricately engraved door decorated with ornate hinges and other accents. Woven into the carvings were symbols of Light and scenes of piety and sacrificial service to the Maker. Ordin crept closer and looked the etchings over quickly as he knelt on the floor. He whispered a prayer and with closed eyes gently ran his fingers across the patterns. “There’s death on the other side, and I hear someone movin’.”

Cora quickly read the ancient text, thankful for her language studies. “That’s because this is the mausoleum.”

Cuauhtérroc flashed his macana. “Someone ees coming.”

Ordin squinted at him. “Did you hear what I just said? Someone’s in there with a bunch of dead stuff. Either he’s a survivor and he needs some help, or he’s just killed some folks and he needs some justice. It don’t matter which; I’m going in.” He grabbed the handle and shoved the heavy door open.

“By the Maker!” he exclaimed as he quickly covered his nose and mouth and pulled the door shut again. “Never mind!”

It looked as if he were going to heave, and the sharp odor of carrion that swept down the hall made Celindria double over with nausea.

Only Cuauhtérroc remained focused, with his dark eyes fixed on the next corner about thirty feet away. “Dey come.” He clutched his macana and dropped into a battle-hardened posture. The panther pelt across his bronzed shoulders seemed to move with a life of its own as muscles flexed and tensed.

The shadows of the approaching men gave way to their makers, a small band of resident thieves—five men brandishing crossbows and swords. When they rounded the corner and saw the savage braced for combat, they scrambled into position. Two in front dropped to a knee and set their crossbows while the other three stood with swords and prepared to engage.

Cuauhtérroc bellowed an ear-splitting shout and charged down the short passage. Ordin quickly joined him.

Cora froze. What am I doing? What have we gotten ourselves into? I’m going to die! I’m not ready to die! I just wanted to have the Sword of th—

“Cora!” Celindria’s pitched scream awakened the songsage to the fact that a crossbow bolt had just whizzed past her head, fluttering her bright red hair. “Get back!”

Cora ducked around the corner out of the line of ranged attacks. She was suddenly keenly aware that a pitched battle was raging around her. Focus!

Across the way, Celindria half-sat, half-crawled against the opposite wall. Her face was ashen and twisted with pain. “After the next volley of bolts, go,” she said to Cora. Each word seemed forced with great effort.

Cora nodded. “I’ve got an idea.”

When a crossbow bolt struck the wall near Celindria’s arm, she bounded around the corner. As she charged, she heard the unmistakable sound of a woman vomiting behind her.

Cuauhtérroc and Ordin danced the blades with several men. One of the thieves already lay motionless on the floor in a crumpled heap, and another staggered against the back wall clutching a severely bleeding head.

Midway to the conflict, Cora skidded to a stop and traced several quick loops in the air with her hands, each one growing larger until she reached her full armspan. Sonic energy pulled from the clashing conflict before her coalesced on her arms, weighing them down as if she were carrying a pair of feed sacks. She brought her arms together in front of her with a loud clap, releasing that energy as a concussive blast. Three of the bandits slammed into the wall, their bodies battered by the sonic wave.

She hadn’t counted on the echo.

When she revived, Celindria stood over her, looking like walking death. “Are you all right?” she asked.

“I think so,” Cora said, checking her tender face. “I…guess that looked pretty stupid.”

The reeve smirked. “You slid on your arse all the way back to me, so yeah.”

“Thanks…how are you doing?”

Celindria shrugged and helped Cora to her feet. “I’ll make it. You’ll be glad to know that sound thingy you lobbed into the corner made things a lot easier for the boys. So, I won’t poke too much fun at your failed acrobatics.”

Cuauhtérroc stood over the slain thieves, his blood-spattered body looming tall and menacing as he stared down the last length of hallway that ended in a pair of double doors. “We go now,” he said.

Ordin grumbled as he rifled through the dead men’s belongings. He tossed a nicked sword aside and looked up in disgust. “This is stupid. Why can’t these Ogrians ever have any good stuff?”

“We go now,” Cuauhtérroc repeated, his dark eyes fixed on the double doors at the end of the hallway.

“Wait a minute, Cuau—” Cora began, but her breath caught in her throat when she saw him. He was bleeding from several wounds, including a slash across his brow that had covered his face and chest with blood. “Cripe!” she exclaimed hoarsely.

Cuauhtérroc looked at her for only a second before turning back to the path before him.

“Hang on,” Ordin said, “Lemme see what I do to settle Celindria’s gut. I told you she wasn’t ready for this.”

He placed a white hand on her shoulder and closed his eyes while his thin lips silently mouthed a prayer. The reeve felt a slow wave of warmth spread through her body, beginning on the shoulder under Ordin’s grip and sweeping down her arm and across her chest, filling her completely.

“That was nice,” she said with a weak smile. “So, am I cured now?”

“No, but that should hold you till we get outta here,” Ordin said, offering her his waterskin. “Drink.”

“I’ve got one, thanks,” Celindria said, holding out her hand.

Ordin looked her in the eye. “No, drink mine.”

“I’m disgusting, Ordin. You don’t want my nasty mouth on your—”

“Cripe, would you just take a drink already!”

With a small half-shrug, Celindria accepted the mystic’s waterskin and took a swig. Her eyes widened immediately. “What is that?” she whispered as if she’d been let in on a wonderful secret.

Ordin smiled. “A little Mystic blessin’. We call it riffle water. It does more than wet the whistle; it soothes the soul, don’t it?”

Celindria nodded. “That’s almost worth getting sick for.”

Ordin patted her shoulder, then he stood and joined Cuauhtérroc’s side. The savage stood a full head taller and loomed over him, his dark skin contrasting the mystic’s pasty white like the shadow of a ghost. The panther warrior’s breathing exited in short spurts, punctuating his impatience.

“You know they know we’re comin’,” he said to the savage, “and they’re waitin’ for us to walk right into some kind of trap.”

“Yes. Dey wait for us.”

“So…we should probably have a plan. You know, think about what we’re gonna do before we—”

“We go now,” Cuauhtérroc announced for the final time. He started walking, his stride quickly closing the distance to the end of the hall and the double doors.

Ordin swore. “Ladies, brace yourselves. If the whole guild’s hangin’ out down there, then it’s about to get ugly.”

Celindria and Cora were only halfway down the hall when Cuauhtérroc grabbed both handles and pulled the doors open wide.

He and Ordin filled the doorway, weapons drawn.

Celindria trained her bow on the first person she saw, a middle-aged man with long graying hair, dressed in fine Trelini clothing. A bottle of wine sat on the table, a portion of its contents in a glass in the man’s hand as he reclined in a wing-back chair. The smug expression on his face and the bright feather in his felt cap suggested strongly that he was the ringleader. Celindria smirked as she sighted her arrow on him. Sonuvacrap. Whitey called it.

He raised his glass as if to toast them. “Welcome to my h—”

Celindria loosed her arrow, which danced and wavered dangerously close to Cuauhtérroc’s head as it streaked into the room and ended the man’s mock gesture of cordiality. The glass flew from his hand as he instinctively reached for the fresh wound in his shoulder, spraying a stream of wine across his lap, the floor, and nearby wall. Shards of glass scattered across the floor.

Two heavily built men jumped from either side of the open doors, bringing down swords upon Cuauhtérroc. The jungle warrior barely blocked one of the attacks with his macana, but he received a deep cut in his side from the other. Ordin leaped into the room, whirling and spinning, lashing out at anything that moved.

The guildmaster stood and drew his blade. “For that you will pay dearly,” he growled, frowning at the wine stain on his expensive clothes.

Grabbing her lute, Cora began to sing, wrapping her music with magical energy, weaving into her song a loud arcane word aimed at the guildmaster. His knees buckled and he sagged against the table, upsetting the open bottle of wine. Then he rolled with the bottle onto the floor.

Now soaked through with the spillage vintage, the guildmaster cursed much more vociferously, his dark eyes focused on the songsage. For the moment, Cora thanked the Bones that the doorway was filled with fighting men, even though that meant she could not assail them with sonic energy.

Cuauhtérroc and Ordin engaged the bodyguards in an intricate and deadly clash, trading parry for parry and blow for blow. As they pressed, the doorway opened, the guildmaster stood, and Celindria shot him again.

Crossbow bolts from within the room sailed through the open doors, forcing Cora and Celindria to duck and dodge out of the way.

The guildmaster rolled out of the line of fire, flipped the table on its edge, and shouted furiously at his men. “Somebody take out that rinkin wench!” He pulled his longsword and, gritting his teeth through the pain, snapped off the two arrow shafts protruding from his torso.

Between crossbow volleys, Cora repeated the tripsichord refrain, collapsing men briefly as if she had kicked them in the crooks of their knees. Frequently, it gave her allies enough advantage to keep pressing, but soon the fighting shifted deeper into the room, and Cora lost line of sight. Without a visible target, her spellsongs were much less effective.

One of the thieves fell, covered in slashes from Ordin’s scimitar. But some of the blood on the mystic was his own and leaked from two deeply embedded bolts from a crossbowman standing against the back wall. The bowman slid another bolt into the slot and pulled on the string. Ordin inhaled sharply, winced in pain, then ran straight for him.

Cuauhtérroc whirled and bashed the head of one thief, then knocked a sword from another and followed with a crushing blow to the man’s chest. He leaped over the flipped table to engage the guildmaster, and the leader met him with the upward thrust of his longsword. The savage barely avoided the deadly maneuver, crashing into the leader as he landed on the floor beside him.

The guildmaster fell back and braced against the table legs extended out from the underside of the table. Cuauhtérroc bore down with his macana, but missed as the leader dodged aside. The follow-through struck the table leg, shattering it, and the guildmaster toppled over. Lying on his back, he swung wildly with the sword, rolling away from repeated blows of the obsidian club.

The savage continued to press, crashing table, chairs, and a drink cart layered with stemware. Slivers of glass rained down on the guildmaster. He spat curses at the savage and threw the broken cart into his path. From the temporary safety of the ruined cart, the leader stood quickly and braced for more.

Celindria reached around her shoulder for another arrow, but her hand swiped only air. She reached again but found nothing.

“You’re empty,” Cora said.

The reeve craned her neck to see her quiver. “Cripe,” she growled. “Then I guess I’m going in. You coming?”

Cora recoiled in shock. “Me?”

“Yeah, you have a rapier, don’t you? Use it.” With that, Celindria ran the short ways down the rest of the hall and entered the melee. As she passed by the doorway, she yanked an arrow out of a fallen man. Dropping to a knee, she flipped her bow into position, nocked the bloody arrow, and shot it underneath Cuauhtérroc’s raised arm. Leaving a light mist of crimson in its wake, the arrow pierced the guildmaster’s chest.

The guildmaster froze, stunned by this sudden turn. He coughed, but his right lung refused to provide air. Helplessly, he looked up at the savage, his eyes pleading for mercy.

Cuauhtérroc smashed his skull.

Cora remained in the hallway for only a moment, watching Celindria kneel and shoot the used arrow into an unseen portion of the room. She regarded her lute for a brief second, then pulled her rapier and weighed her options. I’m a singer, not a fighter.

“I’m not a fighter!” she wailed into the empty hall.

“Then this will be easy,” said a voice suddenly behind her.

Cora spun rapidly and was greeted by swift jab into her midsection from a dagger. She screeched in pain, high and intense, her green eyes bulging.

The thief pulled out the dagger and reached back to plunge it once more into Cora’s belly.

Instinct moved Cora’s arm where courage would not, driving her rapier between the man’s ribs.

It was her first drawing of blood, and Cora’s entire frame trembled at the sudden realization. Harder and harder she pressed, pushing the slender blade deeper into another human. A cacophony of emotions exploded within her even as the man’s scream of agony assailed her ears. Her mind seemed to shut down, as if it was utterly opposed to being a part of the bloodshed. Images of agony flashed before Cora’s stunned vision, blood spurting from gaping wounds, screams of pain that ended in thick, syrupy gurgles…a man dying, and she held the bloodied blade. Her consciousness refused to participate, objected vehemently to taking a life.

The dagger fell with a clink, and the brigand’s body quaked and buckled. Cora pulled her rapier from his torso and let the man fall to his side, a pool of blood forming on the stones beneath him.

The sharp, metallic odor of blood filled the hall, and Cora felt sick, her emotions crashing into each other, fear tangling with hatred embroiled with relief wrestling with dread and snarling with joy. She reached out a hand to the wall to steady herself. Steady…they need me…I need to sing… The hall began to spin as colors faded. Hold yourself together, Cora…

Darkened walls turned pale, then disappeared entirely as she toppled over into unconsciousness.

Ordin lay weakly against a wall, his breathing haggard and shallow. Cuauhtérroc panted hard, spent of energy, and leaned over the upended table to support himself. His head hung low and the panther pelt dangled across one shoulder. His long, black hair, matted with blood and sweat, draped down both sides of his face.

As she rifled through the articles in the room, Celindria limped painfully from a wound in her right leg. “There’s got to be some ointments in here somewhere,” she said through clenched teeth. “Commission said so.”

The pain of her dagger wound pounded Cora back into consciousness. Her eyes flew open as her breathing escalated. She put a hand to her side and hissed as a fresh sting of pain shot through her torso. Warm blood trickled down her side, but despite the pain, Cora pressed her hand against the wound and forced herself to stand.

She staggered to the end of the hall, dreading what she might find. As her astonished eyes surveyed the room, her clean hand flew to her mouth. All the thieves were dead. Blood seemed to be quite literally everywhere—on the floor, on the walls, splattered all over each of her friends, and pooling underneath each of the thieves’ bodies. The air reeked with a morbid mixture of blood and wine. Chairs were broken and scattered, the food spoiled and ground into the stone floor. The grisly scene shocked the songsage’s senses, but she was greatly relieved that her friends were still alive, if barely that. By the Maker…

Regret consumed her. “I’m so sorry!” she said as tears filled her eyes. “I…I passed out. You needed me and I was a pathetic heap of useless…” Sobs of grief finished her thought.

Cuauhtérroc raised his head and regarded her. The fury, the passion, and the blood-rage were gone, replaced it seemed with severe exhaustion. His eyes had lost their brightness. “Cora O’Banion. We all leeve and dees men are dead.”

“But I feel like I abandoned you,” she said with quavering voice.

“Don’t be stupid,” Ordin said through a shot of pain. “You fainted. It happens.”

“But I don’t want to faint.”

“Then buck up a bit.”

“Here it is!” Celindria announced in pain, holding up a brass key. The others hardly had energy enough to acknowledge her, much less show any enthusiasm.

“What is it?” Cora asked.

“It’s a key, you moron,” the reeve retorted, but there was a hint of joy in her voice. “A key to this broom closet, which I’m guessing is where they’ve stashed all the loot.”

Celindria limped to the door in the back of the room and fit the key in the lock. When she returned, she wore a smile that struggled against the pain in her leg. “There’s a lot of stuff in there. Several crates marked with Calloway’s name, probably everything on his list. And there’s other stuff, too…lots of money…looks like they’ve been at this a while.”

Cora took the vials from the reeve and delivered them to Ordin, who sniffed one and downed it quickly. Then, with his strength renewed and many of his wounds healed, he rose stiffly and began the time-consuming process of petitioning the Maker for his allies’ health.

Bazos sat on the vine-riddled steps of the ancient temple’s portico, staring out into the woods, his crossbow laid across his lap. He sighed out of sheer boredom. “Hey Tolly,” he said to his fellow guard, “I thought we was gonna get some relief ‘bout noon.”

“Yeah?” Tolly said.

“Well…” Bazos said, picking at one of the vines, “the sun’s bakin’ me an’ I’m starvin’. How long we gotta sit ‘ere an’ wait?”

Tolly shrugged. “Till we get relieved.”

“There ain’t nothin’ out there. Never has been. Never will be. Nobody knows ‘bout this ol’ temple, an’—”

Someone cleared a throat behind him. Bazos tossed a nonchalant glance over his shoulder, fully expecting another pair of guild members finally coming out to relieve his duty. “It’s ‘bout rinking time—”

A spear sailed over his head and lodged in a nearby tree, the haft audibly wobbling with vibration.

Bazos and Tolly scrambled to their feet, but their legs trembled beneath them. They eyed the copious blood, the ripped clothing and matted hair on the four strangers standing with readied weapons before the headless statue.

“He doesn’t have to miss,” Cora said with an extra measure of hubris.

Celindria raised her bow, and Ordin sighted in his crossbow.

“And they won’t,” Cora continued. “Now, you have two basic choices: run as far from here as your puny legs will take you…or die here and now.”

Bazos and Tolly briefly glanced at each other and took off running through the forest, never once stopping or looking back.

Minutes later, Cora stopped at a small tree where a dejected thief was tied and guarded by the watchful eye of a gray wolf. She slipped a hand in his pocket to retrieve her written will. “We won,” she said with a flip of her scarlet hair.

Supren, Shinnick,” Ordin said as he rubbed the wolf’s ears and fed him some dried meat. Then, as Ordin removed the prisoner’s bonds, he jabbed an alabaster finger in the man’s chest. “Don’t get any ideas about takin’ off. Have y’all got a cart?”

The thief nodded.

Ordin grabbed his arm. “Then let’s go get it. You’re gonna haul all our loot into town.”

“My arm’s broken,” he complained.

“Do you want me to break the other one?”

The thief shook his head.

“Then start marchin’.”

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