Chapter 11: Who We Truly Are
“And that’s pretty much the sum of it.” Cora exhaled sharply and shrugged at Selorian. “Start to finish. Everything we’ve encountered, everyone we’ve met, all that we’ve done—it’s all led to this moment. And now it appears the Maker has thrown you into the mix. Your comment to the Council was the catalyst that got us here, and I think your testimony will be critical in bringing us to the final curtain.”
Selorian rested his hand on the door latch, a cold, calculating stare in his eyes.
“So,” Cora said with open arms, “please stay with us. Help us.”
Selorian studied the freeblades, his eyes rimmed with black paint and the piercings in his right eyebrow glinting in the candlelight. “I am disinclined to acquiesce to your proposition. Half a night in the stark confines of rural incarceration is an incongruous motivation to induce my continued participation in this charade. And your facile hand-waving of this fact is indicative of how little you understand this. I could compile a better band of freeblades from a grove of sapling elms. I assume, since you are a songsage, that you have omitted everything you find disreputable, which, given what you have shared, forces me to conclude you are truly the worst set of freeblades to have ever walked the surface of Kreth. Why would I ever consider staying with you? You would silence my idiomatic expression, squelch my latent talent, and suppress my opinion in favor of barbarity and mustached buffoonery. I see no personal gain, and I doubt your ability to uphold our arrangement.”
Cora dropped her arms and sighed. “You know what? You’re right.” She shrugged and pointed at Cuauhtérroc. “He’s an Audric savage, illiterate, and ignorant of civilized ways. He flies off the handle sometimes, and it scares me to death. But he’s loyal, confident, and wise. And I trust him explicitly. When I can’t figure things out, this ‘ignorant savage’ is my counselor, and you want to know the truth? He has never failed to give me sound advice.
“Elric here quit his family business and the local guard in search of an elusive ideal. He acts without thinking, makes inappropriate jokes and bodily noises, and he talks to his navel. But he’s brave and courageous, earnest and protective, and his light-hearted outlook on life shields me from becoming overwhelmed by danger and fear. I know without a doubt Elric would sacrifice himself for me, not because he owes me—which he doesn’t—but because he was taught that’s what honorable men do.
“You never met Ordin. He was bitter, persecuted, haunted by horrific memories, running from a prophecy he didn’t believe—a ship without a rudder. Everything was ‘stupid’ to him, and he spoke with unfiltered tongue. But he gave without expectation of reward and served without seeking anything in return. He kept us from harm and healed us when we wouldn’t listen. And, his hatred for the Maker’s enemies was an inspiration.
“These three men are outcasts, and one of them died, having never found his purpose. But he died a Dragon Slayer—” Cora paused, chewing on her words. “Actually, I rather like keeping it short. We’re the Dragonslayers—one word—and let the world take note. He died a Dragonslayer. No, we’re not some paragon of freeblading excellence, and we might never be. But right here—right now—we’re deep in the midst of a rinkin mess.”
The savant withered her with a patronizing glance. “Is that not of your own making?”
Cora huffed. “Maybe. I might be the worst leader of a freeblade company in a millennium, but what are we going to do—shop around for someone else while Alikon implodes and its boys are carted off to the Janwyn Chersonese? So maybe I’m young and naïve. I can’t make decisions and then second-guess the ones I do make. I fret about things and worry about my reputation. I cry. But I am honest and sincere, and I am determined not to let this town fall to the Nephreqin or the dragon-bloods. If I have to align with the greatest losers this side of the Seven Realms, then so be it. But know this: Vaeroloth will not gain the upper hand, not while I still have a song.”
Selorian’s hand slipped off the door latch.
“So,” Cora continued, stepping closer to the savant, “you are a self-absorbed, know-it-all sesquipedalian, obsessed with your purple fire, and dragging along your own personal rain cloud. Cuauhtie thinks you’re an evil man, Elric thinks you’re a gift from the Maker, and I don’t know what to make of you. But all I ask—all I expect—is that you show a redeeming quality: loyalty, bravery, wisdom, charity, selflessness. Pick one and show it, preferably in large measure. Testify against Vincent Schumann on our behalf, and the deal stands. First pick of our treasures—your one and only selection. Now…please, will you stay and help us?”
The savant paused, then laughed. “Why not? I don’t have a reputation to save, so there’s no harm in my going down in flames.”
“Not good enough,” Cora replied, folding her arms. “Will you stay? And will you help us?”
Selorian’s eyes flashed briefly with a lavender hue as swirls of eldritch energy wrapped around his fingers. Before he could answer, a sharp knock at the door startled him, and he snuffed the flame. He opened the door to reveal a liveried servant.
“Pardons,” the servant said with a deep bow, “but you have each been summoned to return to the Green Room immediately.” With another quick bow, the servant backed away.
Cora slipped into the open doorway but paused to regard the tall, gaunt savant. “I’m serious. We’re all deadly serious, and we don’t have time to wait for you to make up your mind. This is the final call: come with us or go your own way. I assume they’ll let you leave.”
The savant stared at her.
“Right now,” Cora said.
Selorian nodded firmly. “I will accompany you. You uphold your consideration, and I’ll help you apprehend Schumann.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Out of habit, Captain Hunt pulled out his pipe and began filling it with fresh pipeweed. It cleared his head and helped him think through a case. He lit the bowl and puffed a cloud of smoke as he studied the basement office. What are you doing, Schumann?
He combed through Schumann’s desk, taking care not to disturb the scene. What is your purpose in Cer Cannaid? Is it truly an innocent visit that you “forgot” to log? Or are you involved in a nefarious plot like that journal said? The very thought of Schumann being Nephreqin filled Hunt with bile. Sadly, there’s not much I can do about that. But this…killing off Cora’s crew? This is murder. I don’t care what they did, it’s not justice. It’s a complete perversion of justice, and I won’t have it.
Hunt searched the basement for inspiration clues—anything that might indicate how he should proceed. A plaque hung near the stairs leading outside, which read “The Decree.” Hunt snorted. In the Duchy of Alikon, that would mean the preservation of the Kedethian Houses that settled this nation ages ago, but to the Nephreqin that meant something altogether different: assassinations, bloody insurrection, and hostile overthrows.
Papyrus sheets on the desk contained the dates and addresses beside each of the members of Cora’s crew. He mulled this over; his next move was pivotal, and it could define—or end—his career. He would not stand idly aside while Cora and Elric were murdered, but if he foiled the attempt, his life or that of his wife, Lilane, would be forfeit. The captain sighed around his pipe. He was trapped: justice perverted on the one hand; a new widow and two orphans on the other. Deny his beliefs or sacrifice his life.
Within a dark corner of his mind, a plan slowly began to form. A risky plan it was, and the captain hated risk. Risk meant uncertainty. Uncertainty meant failure, and failure meant someone died. But it was all he had. Knowing the plan laid out on the desk, the only way to avoid being culpable for three murders was to give the freeblades a fighting chance. The only way to avoid a swift and brutal retaliation from Nephreqin spies was to make it look like he had nothing to do with it. He had to play both sides. Captain Hunt cursed under his breath.
With heart racing and sweat beading on his forehead, he took a clean sheet of papyrus and the quill from the inkwell on Schumann’s desk and forged a replacement note to the unknown assassins. His training in discerning forgeries now aided him in committing one, and he put the quill to paper with skilled hand, changing each address to a specific room inside the Lord’s Castle. By the Maker, I hope this works.
Hunt stuffed the original list into his pocket and returned the quill to the inkwell. He retraced his steps through the house, stepped onto the front porch, and relocked the door. Wary that Bray may be watching the whole thing from the shadows, he beat a hasty path from Schumann’s house to his.
At the writing desk in his own estate house, Hunt penned a letter to Lieutenant Reimart to double the castle guard on suspicion of a planned murder. A second letter went to his new—and unauthorized—division, the Shadowmen, led by Mason Rutland. He sent the sealed letters by way of armed guard to the barracks. Within the hour, an additional twenty guards and Rutland’s crew of four would be assembled in the courtyard awaiting his instructions.
With that done, Hunt uttered a quick prayer and hastened back to the castle.
* * * * * * * * * *
The Dragonslayers reconvened in the Green Room in silence. Cuauhtérroc stared across the table. Selorian hunched over, his hands between his knees and pulsing with purple fire. Elric’s leg bounced rapidly on the ball of his foot as his fingers tapped the table. If his accusation of treason didn’t pan out, they were finished, and possibly dead. Cora could barely sit still. Did Selorian’s timely if unwitting appeal to the law buy them an out? It all hinged on what the Council found. Surely, they could see the truth in those documents.
Gradually, the aldermen returned, entering through the side door, their faces somber and their lips sealed. Each took his assigned seat in silence, hardly giving the freeblades a glance. Not even Artus Calloway provided her a hint of their findings or decision, and the suspense gnawed at Cora’s bones like a ravenous dog. When Chancellor Prisido finally entered, everyone arose from their seats, and Cora grew nauseous with anticipation. He motioned for them to sit as he took his seat in the middle of the rectangular table. Setting the worn leather journal to one side, he opened a small folder and quietly shuffled through some documents.
“Where’s Hunt?” Prisido said, lifting his gaze to the captain’s vacant seat.
“He hasn’t returned from Schumann’s house,” Baskin answered. “Should we wait for him?”
“Let’s give him a few minutes,” the Chancellor said, still browsing through the papers.
Hardly a single minute had elapsed when Prisido spoke again. “Cora O’Banion, you should consider yourself fortunate that this newcomer to your group invoked Ordinance Fourteen. Reichtoven’s charge against Schumann was an accusation of high treason, which, if found to be slanderous, could be punishable by death. But we have found sufficient evidence to render the charge a…possibility.” Here, Prisido closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “For now, it merely stays our hand and requires a swift and thorough investigation, which Captain Hunt has begun. While we wait for his return, tell us about the sword, this ‘Schumann Slayer.’ I find the very idea of a weapon crafted to kill a specific person detestable. In the extreme. But if it exists, we need to deal with that as well. What do you know of it? Where is it?”
Cora thought back through their encounters and the valuables they had collected. She had no memory of anything resembling a powerful sword and received only blank stares from Elric and Cuauhtérroc. What would it even look like? Cripe, I hope it’s not still in that underground storeroom. Or, maybe that’s the best place for it.
“I don’t recall finding a magical sword, Chancellor,” Cora answered at last. “There is a battleaxe with an enchantment of some kind, but I haven’t had time to study it. We left a few rusted and abused blades in the caverns beneath Wilder Tower, but everything of value we have stored in an undisclosed location. Most of that came from the dragon’s hoard or the old man’s home at the top of the tower. I don’t remember there being a magical sword in that collection, but perhaps it is hidden away in a well-concealed place. We can perform a more in-depth search for it tomorrow.” If they don’t lock us up.
Prisido frowned. “I suppose it is a small comfort if the sword is lost, but I would much prefer we had it. So we could destroy it.”
“I understand,” Cora said.
“If this matter,” Prisido continued, tapping the tattered book at his side, “if what’s in this journal is true, there may be little time—very little time—to intervene. We will need all the assistance we have available. Therefore, by the power vested in me as Chancellor of—”
The side door flung open, startling those nearest it and vexing the Chancellor. Captain Hunt strode in and quickly took his seat, his breathing labored and sweat beading on his forehead. “I apologize for the interruption, sir, but I have what you requested.”
Prisido stared at him, which was as much acknowledgement as Hunt was going to get.
Hunt daubed his forehead and continued. “Right, I found Schumann’s logbook in a desk in his basement. It appears he does some ‘extra work’ on the side.” He slid the logbook across the table to Prisido. “There is no entry for his departure to Cer Cannaid two days ago. There are no signatures in his guest book at the front door for the past two weeks, but if memory serves me correctly, he has entertained guests at least twice during this time.”
Baskin and Pinehurst voiced agreement.
“Good,” Hunt continued. “The position of his basement desk suggests that he may have been receiving guests through his cellar door, as corroborated by the remnants of muddy footprints leading down the basement stairs to his desk.”
Prisido leafed through the logbook, his frown deepening.
“Also,” Hunt continued, “there was a faint red ring of a dusty substance on the floor before his desk, like the one we saw in his office. Does anyone know what that chalky stuff is? I’ve not seen it’s like.”
Murmurs amongst the aldermen, which were slowly building, now rose to a tumult. Various speculations rattled across the table, from a grandchild’s drawing to a repellant for a rodent infestation.
Cora slowly raised her hand.
“Yes?” Prisido said, and the voices died away as all eyes focused on her.
“Sir, if I may…I have some ideas from my studies of general arcana in secondary school.”
“Aren’t you a songsage?” Sebastian quipped.
Cora’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, I am. But I’m not a simple minstrel; I happen to be well educated in a variety of things. And a ring of red powder is frequently used as a catalyst in the craft of translocation.”
“Translocation, instantly traveling between two places. The powder is not required to translocate, and I’m not certain what the source of the powder is—cinnabar, mica, maybe rust. But it does seem to help get it right.”
Sebastian’s look of incredulity indicated his lack of comprehension.
“I’ve heard of such magic,” Prisido said, and Calloway nodded as if to validate the Chancellor’s thoughts. “Dangerous and unnatural. Miss O’Banion, are you saying Schumann has been ‘translocating’ recently? Did he suddenly appear in Cer Cannaid two days ago?”
“I’m not sure there’s a way to know where he went, sir,” Cora answered. “Or when.”
After a pause, Prisido closed Schumann’s logbook. “This is highly irregular. Schumann has kept meticulous notes of all his travels and activities since the first of the year. That is, until two days ago when he announced he was leaving town for Cer Cannaid to represent this Council at the Lady Karlina’s wedding. Why wouldn’t he have logged that entry?”
“Maybe he was in a rush and forgot?” Sebastian offered.
Pinehurst made a sound like he had choked on a fly. “Schumann may be many things, but rushed is not one of them.”
“Agreed,” Calloway said, “and I doubt he forgot. He remembers everything. Like that time we were on the road to Colfax to pick up a delivery of ensorcelled parchment for manufacturing spellstoring scrolls. I have been to Colfax probably two dozen times, but for some reason I got turned around and—”
Sebastian pounded the table. “But that would mean he purposely omitted the entry, and you have no proof of that. I cannot conscience besmirching the reputation of my fellow alderman, and frankly, I’m getting tired of this.” The alderman stood and drew a careful breath. “I hereby charge you, Artus Calloway—”
Prisido rose suddenly, pointing with an authoritative finger at Sebastian. “Sit down. And calm down. No one on this Council is accusing Schumann of anything. And no one is accusing anyone else. Do I make myself clear?”
Sebastian nodded and resumed his seat.
Hunt retrieved the folded assassin’s list from his pocket. Sweat again beaded out on his forehead. “Excuse me, sir. If I may add one more thing?”
The Chancellor acknowledged him, and Hunt slid the parchment across the table. “I am vexed in my soul over this and angered to my core. But before I say anything more—and before you unfold that document—I need to know what is said in this room can be held in secrecy.”
Prisido cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. “Should the freeblades leave?”
“No, sir. Actually, this concerns them.”
Cora’s heart sank to the pit of her stomach. What now? Is there no end to his prosecution? She wanted to leap over the table and strangle the man, or to shout at him as she had the writhing centipede. Her insides churned and bile rose to her mouth. She looked to her allies for assurance, but fear lined Elric’s face, and Selorian appeared ready to bolt for the door. Only Cuauhtérroc remained calm. Ignorance is truly bliss sometimes.
Prisido stood and addressed the room. “If there is anyone who cannot hold his tongue, let him leave now. For if he speaks of these things outside these walls, let him be accursed and let his tongue be the price.”
A chorus of aldermen responded. “Agreed.” No one budged. All eyes remained fixed on Prisido as he unfolded the parchment.
Hunt gave him a moment to read. “What you are looking at, sir, is a list of names, addresses, and personal details for each of the four original Dragon Slayers: Cora, Elric, Ordin, and the Audric.”
“Cuauhtérroc,” Cora blurted out to the captain. “The least you can do is state his name.”
“That’s enough, young lady,” Prisido replied, but his glare lost none of its fierceness when redirected to Hunt. “Use an even hand, Hunt.”
“My apologies,” Hunt said with a negligible tip of his head. “This list would be a curious collection of information but for the note scribbled at the bottom. Please read that aloud, sir.”
The Chancellor’s face went ashen, and he sagged in his seat as if his spine had collapsed. His voice sounded parched as he read: “You have your orders; these are your marks. Nightly, beginning Phoca 7.”
A collective gasp rippled across the table.
Hunt swallowed hard. “For those who don’t know, that is an assassin’s list. That’s right; these freeblades, not counting the new member, have been marked for assassination. I believe…by the Nephreqin. Now, sir…if you don’t mind, please tell us whose handwriting that is.”
Prisido could not speak for a long time. He looked around the room at expectant faces, worried faces, fearful faces. He glanced down at the parchment and trembled. “Schumann’s,” he said at last, then his hands fell limply at his sides and the parchment fluttered to the floor.
A cacophony of animated voices burst forth, filling the room with an uproar. Shouts and accusations, defenses and insinuations flew across the table as volleys of arrows fill the skies. Men shot from their chairs in anger and disbelief, and Hunt wound up embroiled in a rousing debate with Sebastian.
Cora heard her name tossed about frequently, but whether it was to praise or to vilify she could not tell. She feared the swelling debate would soon turn into an all-out brawl. The captain alone was armed, but she could charm one or two and maybe toss some concussive energy about. Selorian…
The savant had pushed his chair against the wall and leaned back with arms folded across his tattooed chest, as if none of this sudden mayhem bothered him in the least. A half-smile played at the corners of his mouth, and a faint glow of lavender curled around his fingers. Cora’s jaw dropped. He’s enjoying this!
With the force of command and the suddenness of a thunderclap, Sir Anthony Prisido slammed both his fists upon the table. “Enough!”
Words sliced off mid-syllable and actions froze. All eyes flew to the Chancellor.
Prisido’s face flushed with anger. “At this point, there can be no further debate. We have all the evidence we need to launch a full and speedy investigation. We have this journal, these documents, and a damning list in Schumann’s hand. As wretched a thought as it is, I believe Vincent Schumann is involved in nefarious dealings. He is at this very moment on his way to the palatial castle. We know not what he is planning, but we must send an envoy to Cer Cannaid to inform the duke. And, we must apprehend Schumann and bring him back to Westmeade for questioning.”
To his credit, Sebastian gave no response.
“Therefore,” Prisido concluded, “by the power vested in me as Chancellor of this Council, I give temporary reprieve of the Dragon Slayers’ probationary sentence. You are instead retained as this special envoy to the duke. Get your rest tonight, for you will take our emergency coachline to Cer Cannaid first thing tomorrow morning, and there will be no sleeping for three days. I will pen a letter myself for you to tender to Duke Lenair.”
“Sir,” Captain Hunt hastened to add, “I request that the members of this Company be retained within the castle tonight and leave directly from here on the coachline. I have already dispatched an extra contingency of soldiers to patrol these halls and ensure their safe keeping and departure.”
“Very good, Captain,” Prisido said. “Miss O’Banion, your freeblades will not leave this castle tonight. If there is anything you need—personal items, supplies, whatever—I will have it brought to you. Any questions?”
The following silence was all the prompting Prisido needed. “Then the Maker be with you all.” He gathered the documents together, closed the folder, and exited the room with both the folder and the leather journal beneath his arm. Cora suspected she’d never see that journal again.
* * * * * * * * * *
Under a waxing half-moon, Adella crept along the fortified walls of the Lord’s Castle. She paused as the footsteps of sentries scraped on a stone parapet nearby, her muscles freezing stiff lest any movement betray her presence. Long, flowing white hair tinged with the palest blue fluttered about her shoulders on the late evening breeze. It was her one indulgence, and many a mentor had warned her that those locks would be her undoing. Where stealth was required, a vibrant mane was counterproductive.
Adella understood stealth. Dark leathers tightly encased her feminine form, supple and silent as she moved with catlike agility on bare feet. Clasps were painted matte black, as were her hand crossbows and a multitude of throwing knives. Black leather bands wrapped her upper arms, home to both poisons and antidotes. A silk scarf of the deepest black, contrasting starkly against her platinum hair, wrapped snugly against her eyes, the trailing ends of which she kept tucked in her mouth. Stealth began and ended with shadow, and that scarf was tangible shade, a link to the Void itself. Through it she could see in darkness better than most people could see in the light.
Scuttling along the wall, Adella crouched low and rolled into a corner shaded from the moon’s light. Here, her agile form melded with and disappeared into the shade. Moments later, she emerged in a darkened alcove of the interior courtyard. The guards were far behind. Shadow-walking was a unique skill she had gained from years of grueling trials with darker powers. The silk scarf made the task much easier and opened her senses in the mists of the Void. She had paid a hefty personal price for the perfection of this skill, but the ability to step through Tenebrae made her one of the Skaen Sisters, the All-Father’s prized league of female assassins. And for that status, she would gladly give up her eyes entirely.
Adella slipped though the shadow of a low-cut hedge into that of a grand oak tree a hundred yards across the Estates. She loved bright moons, for such reflected light opened for her multitude portals into the Void. Entering a moonlight silhouette was as easy as stepping through a doorway.
Through the scarf, nothing shrouded in darkness escaped her vision. She scanned the open grounds and smiled at the absence of watchful eyes. Without a sound, she stepped back through the tree’s shade to emerge near the back porch of Tussex House. Her destination was just around the corner. When she was certain no one was nearby to observe her, Adella dashed around the porch to the cellar door lying horizontally over a steep staircase. She quickly opened it and crept down the stairs to the basement below.
Master Bray had marked this night; his network of spies was assembling, and Adella would serve as the catalyst. His instructions would be waiting on the basement desk. With Bray gone to Cer Cannaid to deliver on the All-Father’s commands, Adella knew her faithfulness here would be richly rewarded.
As expected, a stubby candle and a tin of flickersticks were near the door, and Adella soon had a dim light. Under the wavering candlelight, she scanned the room through the black silk scarf. Everything was in place as she expected, and no one crouched in waiting. Sitting atop the old desk was a small stack of papyrus sheets. She circled behind the desk and read the list of people marked for assassination. Curiously, all four were residing in guest rooms of the Lords’ Castle. Adella frowned; this was an important detail omitted from her instructions. But it mattered not. She would perform her duties faithfully, starting with the one named Cora O’Banion.
* * * * * * * * * *
After their meeting with the Council, the Dragonslayers met in Cuauhtérroc’s room to discuss their options. Curiosity about Schumann’s plot fueled wild and endless speculation long into the night, but they were no closer to reaching a conclusion. Selorian had fallen asleep on the settee, and Cuauhtérroc had long ago run out of things to say.
A long and overwhelming yawn contorted Elric’s face, interrupting what he was saying and swallowing his train of thought altogether. “Forget it,” he finished as he rose from the chair and stretched. “I’m bushed. See y’all in the mornin’.”
“Me too,” Cora said. “It sounds like we have a long, hard ride ahead of us.”
After wishing Elric a good night, Cora shuffled to her room. As she prepared for bed in the adjoining washroom, her eyes fell to the bathtub. This could be my last chance for a luxurious bath for who knows how long. And…it has running hot water!
Running water was not new to Cora, though she knew most people were unfamiliar with it. She wasn’t entirely sure how it worked, but all that really mattered is that when she lifted the handle, water flowed. But, running hot water…that truly amazed her. Scented crystals that dissolved in the water to release a soothing aroma…pure ecstasy. As the tub filled, the little washroom filled with steam, and Cora’s nose filled with the floral scents carried on the clouds of water. The cares and burdens of the past several weeks melted away. Tight muscles relaxed, and painful memories began to fade.
Cora locked the washroom door, laid a robe across the pedestal sink, and slipped into the steaming bath. She sighed deeply and closed her eyes.
* * * * * * * * * *
Adella enjoyed indoor jobs least of all. Though there were usually plenty of shadows, many were not large enough for her to step through. Even at night—perhaps especially at night—it was simply dark indoors. Darkness did not provide a portal to Tenebrae any more than daylight. Her silken scarf provided enhanced vision in total darkness, but the convergence of darkness and light was needed to travel through shadows.
She treaded carefully, her bare feet padding softly as she worked her way through the long and interwoven corridors of the castle. The lateness of the hour and the cover of night gave her the security she needed, but the castle guard seemed particularly watchful. And everywhere. It appeared as if someone was expecting her, and for a long moment, Adella wondered whether the All-Father’s plans had been discovered.
Following the guards on their patrols, she deciphered a pattern. Though they were many—uncommonly many—they were still predictable. Undaunted by their presence, she proceeded, and soon the target’s bedroom was in sight. With a quick glance down the hall, Adella slinked up to the door and tested the latch. It was unlocked. Foolish girl.
* * * * * * * * * *
Rather than going straight to bed, Elric sauntered down to the kitchen for a glass of goat’s milk before turning in. “I could live in a place like this,” he said as he surveyed the massive, well-equipped kitchen in the bowels of the castle. He turned back the glass of milk until it dripped down his handlebar mustache. A smile spread across his face as he wiped his mouth across his sleeve.
Poking around the cabinets, he gaped in wonder at the quantity and variety of food. Inside a large ceramic jar, he found thin, round treats made of soft dough and dotted throughout with dark gooey splotches. They smelled sweet, and he nibbled one. His eyes widened in delight as he eagerly gobbled it down. He had never tasted anything quite so delicious, and he found himself craving another glass of milk.
After devouring a half-dozen of the flat cakes, he thought of Cora. After all she’s been through, she needs to taste this. He grabbed three more of the treats and poured a second glass of milk. With a contented belly and a fresh wave of exhaustion sweeping over him, Elric headed for Cora’s room.
* * * * * * * * * *
Adella crept through the bedroom. The bed sat empty and waiting, but an array of cast-off clothing lay scattered across the quilt. Boots and a belt rested on the floor, and a rapier in its sheath stood against the side table. Atop the pillows on the bed lay a lute, the trademark accessory of a songsage. A flicker of candlelight caught Adella’s attention, the dance of flame beneath an anteroom door. Her mark was close. Creeping forward, steamy air wafted up to greet her.
She slowly tried the handle and found it locked—her first obstacle, but an elementary one to overcome. From within her sash, she produced a blackened set of lockpicks and released the latch without a sound.
A small roll of parchment held the magical script necessary to render her invisible to sight. She had exactly four such scrolls—one for each target—prepared for the exact moment of encounter. They were short-lived blessings, erasing her from sight for a time sufficient to get in, complete the job, and escape unseen. Adella hated relying on external power, but a badly scarred ear was reminder of what could happen when there were no shadows in which to escape.
She loaded her single-hand crossbow with a poison-tipped bolt and pulled the string taut. Carefully, she pushed the door inward and was met with a rolling wave of steam. A nude, red-haired woman rested peacefully in a tub of hot water. With a victorious grin, Adella raised her invisible arm, placed the tip of the bolt near the redhead’s ivory neck.
A knock at the bedroom door startled her. Someone was in the hallway.
“Cora?” called a male voice.
The woman in the tub stirred from her slumber.
“I got somethin’ fer ya,” said the voice in the hall.
The redhead sat up, and Adella squeezed the trigger.
The girl’s scream was muted, mostly reactionary. But it was unexpected. Her sudden movement evaded a silent and instant death.
Adella cursed as the redhead’s body convulsed in the water, her hands clutching the wounded neck, her emerald eyes wide in horrified panic. She would die soon, but not quickly enough. Nor quietly enough.
Adella froze and listened, pressing an invisible hand over the dying woman’s mouth. She cursed again as the bedroom door opened and booted feet rushed inside.
There was nothing for Adella, the Skaen Sister, to do. No shadow in the washroom was large enough to accommodate her. There was room behind the door, but candlelight reflected off the mirror and illumined the space between the open door and the wall. She could chance a rapid escape through the bedroom, but this man would undoubtedly sound the alarm. No, he also needed a swift death. She would ambush him from behind the door. At least she was still invisible. For now.
From the mirror’s reflection, Adella saw through the open washroom door and into the bedroom. A short, stocky man with blonde hair and long handlebar mustache scooped up the rapier from the bedside. His eyes scanned the room with haste as he called the redhead’s name. He spotted the open door to the washroom and quickened his pace. In the mirror, he would be able to see the space behind the open door, the place where Adella hid, but he would not see her.
“Cora!” he shouted again as he shoved against the washroom door.
The bottom edge of the door slammed into Adella’s toenail and rolled it backwards across the top of her foot. Despite a lifetime of training and all efforts to the contrary, she grunted in pain as her toenail peeled off.
* * * * * * * * * *
Elric’s breath caught as he entered the washroom. He hardly perceived that Cora was naked; rather, he saw the gruesome purplish splotch that covered the right side of her neck, from which extended the back half of a crossbow bolt. He saw tendrils of dark red swirling lightly in the steamy water. All this horror he pushed aside as the grunt registered on his ears.
Spinning to his right, he thrust Cora’s rapier behind the door. To his surprise, he saw nothing, yet he had struck something solid, something soft and fleshy. Another grunt followed. He threw the door closed and frowned at the strange sight of the slender blade buried into and protruding from nothing. As he pulled it back, the telltale sign of crimson coated its length.
A soft thump sounded at his feet, and a small pool of red began to form on the white marble floor. The absence of a body mystified him, so he poked at the pool with his sword, again striking solid flesh above it. A third moan, weak and fading, sounded at his feet.
In the stillness that followed, the horror of the scene came crashing back to Elric’s mind. His knees wobbled, and the rapier clanged to the floor as he threw himself to Cora’s side, lifting her sagging head from the water.
“Cora! No, don’t die! Don’t be dead, Cora! Not you…Cuauhtérroc!”
Elric tried brushing the wet hair from Cora’s vacant eyes. It seemed important. He gently slapped her cheeks. “Cora! Wake up!” The angry, festering wound in her neck said she might never awaken.
“Hello?” said a voice from the bedroom. “Did I hear someone calling out?”
“In ‘ere!” Elric responded.
One of the castle guards stepped into the washroom and gasped. “What have you done? Reichtoven?”
“I didn’t do nothin’, ya rinkin idiot! He did!” Elric pointed behind the open door.
“I see no one, but there is a lot of blood here,” the guard said gravely, picking up the bloodied rapier. “I’m afraid you’re under arrest.”
Elric laid Cora’s body into the bloody water and wheeled on the soldier. “Cripe, man!” With a practiced maneuver, he snatched Cora’s rapier from the confused guard, thrust it into the invisible assailant and left it protruding there, gently wobbling. “He did it, ya moron.” Elric turned back to the gruesome sight in the tub. “This is the famous songsage, Cora O’Banion, leader of the Dragonslayers, an’…” His voice cracked. “…an’ she’s my best friend.”
“What’s goin’ on in here?” called a second voice from the bedroom.
The guard turned and snapped a quick salute. “I discovered this man in the act of—”
Elric looked up from his misery at the sound of a familiar voice. Behind the guard stood a figure clothed entirely in black garb, a hooded cowl over his head and a mask drawn over his nose and mouth. It was difficult to tell, but the eyes seemed to be of different colors.
“Leave us,” the dark figure ordered, and the guard scampered away.
Elric’s heart raced, and he pulled the rapier from the thrice-stabbed body. “Who are you?”
A gloved hand reached up to pull back the cowl and lower the mask. “I reckon ya don’t recognize me. I’m—”
“Rutland!” Elric exclaimed, then blinked hard. “Rutland?”
His friend nodded. “Yeah, it’s me, an’ it’s a long story. I’m back with Hunt, but I got me a special team.”
Elric pointed at Cora’s body, and suddenly he was struck by her nakedness. He grabbed the robe laying across the sink and spread it over Cora lest Rutland see her. “I didn’t do it! He—”
The assassin’s body was now visible. Elric jumped with the suddenness of it and nearly fell into the tub. Black leathers encased the lithe form of a woman with silvery-white hair. “Um…she did it.”
Rutland nodded. “I know. We heard there was gonna be an assassination tonight, an’ it looks like ya done kilt the attacker.” He knelt by the tub and examined Cora’s neck. “This wound is on fire, but she still has a pulse. Just barely. Quick! Wrap her up and get her to the Solarium.”
Without hesitation, Elric pulled Cora’s limp form from the water, soggy robe and all, and raced with her in his arms through the castle and down the streets, never pausing to think if there was a faster way. His legs burned long before he reached the Solarium, but he never quavered. When at last an acolyte greeted him at the doorstep, he handed her over and collapsed.
* * * * * * * * * *
Mason Rutland turned his attention to the fallen woman. Three puncture wounds and a toenail ripped clean off. Awful way to go. Her platinum hair, nearly white, was stained with her blood. The same color as her glossy lips. A black silken scarf, tied around her eyes, hung loosely across her mouth. Imprints on the scarf suggested she had held it in between her lips. Rutland pulled this free and held it up to the light.
The gossamer fabric shimmered in the candlelight, almost as if it were trying to counteract the flames. He squinted at it, then at the woman. Why would you have this over your eyes?
His training as a soldier said not to tamper with evidence, and his recent experience with a shadow-walker said not to rink with strange women. But Rutland had outwitted the captain, and he had survived a Grotesque. Swallowing his doubts, he placed the scarf over his closed eyes and tied it behind his head. Drawing in a large preparatory breath, he opened his eyes.
He was in the Void, in Tenebrae, the realm of shadows.
Rutland ripped off the scarf and lurched over the side of the tub as waves of nausea swept over him. When his insides finally settled, he slumped against the side of the tub and stared vacantly at the dead woman near his feet. This is how she did it, how she shadow-walked. A dangerous, exciting, bold, deadly thought flooded his mind, and he slipped the scarf into a pocket. If she could withstand it, so can I. Somehow, some way, I’ll figger it out.
As he left the washroom, he met one of his Shadowmen, the men in his service. “Round up all the evidence. I got some…investigations of my own to do.” He strolled down the castle halls in a daze. By the Maker…I got no business rinkin with this. But, I jis know it’s the key. Cripe…what am I thinking?