Authors: Richard Lee Byers
scramble to his feet. He was still straightening up when the black unicorn leaped at him, crimson eyes blazing, horn shining with another infusion of malefic power.
He needed another moment to settle into a balanced fighting stance, but he didn’t have it. He’d simply have to manage as best he could. He tried to sidestep and cut at the same time.
The unicorn crashed into him. Flung him reeling backward and down on the ground. He was sure he’d taken a mortal wound, but when he ran his hand over his torso, he couldn’t find a puncture. Some part of the beast’s body had struck him, but he’d dodged the horn.
Something screamed an inhuman scream. Anton forced himself to sit up and look around. His foe lay on its side several feet away, the cutlass buried in the base of its neck. It gave a final cry, and its head thudded down onto the ground. Blood oozed from its mouth and nostrils.
Anton smiled then glimpsed a surge of motion from the corner of his eye. He turned his head, and another black unicorn charged him.
Tu’ala’keth’s steely contralto voice cried words of power. The grass beneath the unicorn’s hooves grew long and whipped around its lower legs. The beast’s momentum kept it plunging forward anyway. Bones snapped, and it crashed to the ground to shriek until the shalarin drove her stone trident between its ribs.
She then hobbled to Anton. The blinding luminescence on her face had disappearedshe’d probably extinguished it with a counterspellbut blood poured from the rent in her side.
“Are you badly hurt?” she asked.
“I’ve been knocked around,” he said, “and taken a little jolt of magical virulence, but I can still fight.
You’re the one who’s really wounded. Fix it before you bleed to death.”
“Yes, now that I have time.” She declaimed a prayer and pressed her hand against the gaping cut. Her webbed fingers glowed blue-green, and the gash closed. Meanwhile, Anton yanked his cutlass from the first unicorn’s carcass and looked to see what else was happening.
Kassur and Chadrezzan stood near the body of the third unicorn, which burned as if someone had dipped it in oil and set a torch to it. Sour-faced, the Talassans were glaring at him and Tu’ala’keth, but they turned away as soon as they noticed him looking back.
Anton realized it hadn’t been a Red Wizard who’d blinded Tu’ala’keth. It had been Chadrezzan, hiding in the shadows.
The knowledge infuriated him, but retribution would have to wait. The attack was faltering. The pirates were game, fighting hard, but as long as the Thayans’ bastion remained unable to be breached, they held an insurmountable advantage.
He turned to Tu’ala’keth. “Are you fit to keep fighting?” he asked.
She sneered. “Of course. Umberlee’s power sustains me, just as it does you.”
“Right. How could I forget? Look, I need to get to the side of the house to try my charm of opening.”
The glimmering membrane flicked across her obsidian eyes. “Do you think it will overcome the enchantment the Red Wizards used to seal the place?”
“It untied your magic tether, didn’t it? I’m lucky with that particular spell. But maybe not lucky enough to run across the clear space without taking a few quarrels in the vitals, or a lightning bolt up the arse.”
“I will shield you.” She raised the bloody trident over her head and chanted words in her own tongue. A
grayness thickened in the air. In a moment, most of the world vanished beneath a blanket of mist. The vapor smelled of the sea.
“The enemy will banish the fog quickly,” said Tu’ala’keth. “We must run.”
“Wait! I’ve lost track of where the doors and windows are.”
“I remember.” She gripped his hand. “Come on.”
They rushed the house. A quarrel whizzed down out of the fog and past his head. Evidently some of the Thayan warriors were shooting blind.
But that was the only missile that came anywhere near him, and the facade of the enemy fortress swam out of the murk. As Tu’ala’keth had promised, she’d led him straight to a door.
Just as they reached it, though, a pulse of magic that made his head throb scoured the fog from the air. They pressed themselves against the side of the house to make it awkward for anyone inside or on top to target them, and he began the spell. Knowing he had sufficient power to attempt it only a couple of times, and that the articulation needed to be perfect to overcome Thayan wizardry, he resisted the urge to hurry, even when quarrels thumped into the ground behind him.
As he reached the final word, silvery sparks danced on the surface of the heavy four-paneled door. He tried to twist the wrought-iron handle. It wouldn’t budge, nor would the door shiver even minutely in its frame. It seemed of a piece with the wall around it.
Footsteps shuffled overhead, and Tu’ala’keth rattled off a prayer. Anton glanced up just as the warriors on the roof overturned a cauldron. Boiling water poured down, but the stream divided as it dropped. It splashed, steamed, hissed all around him and the shalarin, but left them untouched.
“Next time,” said Tu’ala’keth, “they will drop
something besides boiling water. I will find that more difficult to deflect.”
“Point taken.” He resumed his conjuring.
In response, the entire surface of the door glowed silver. He twisted the handle, and the latch released. He and Tu’ala’keth scrambled inside, and blazing coals rained, thumping and rattling down on the spot they’d just vacated.
Anton cast about for defenders waiting just inside the entry. Feet were pounding above his head, but as yet, no one had appeared to bar the way. He turned and bellowed to the pirates: “Come on! Come on! We’ve got a way in!”
The freebooters dashed forward. The Thayans might have decimated them as they emerged from cover, except that Chadrezzan, shrouded from head to toe in vermilion flame, his serpent-staff held high above his head, hurled burst after burst of fire over their heads. While the barrage lasted, the Red Wizards and their minions had no choice but to hide behind their casements and merlons.
The first pirates reached the doorway. Anton and Tu’ala’keth led them deeper into the house.
It was a different fight now, through rooms, along hallways, and up stairs. With walls in the way, no leader could hope to oversee or direct more than a small part of it. Warriors lacked the space to stand in proper formation. Wizards and crossbowmen couldn’t harass their enemies safely at long range.
Which was to say, it was brutal, howling chaos, and in such a melee, the sheer viciousness of the pirates gave them the upper hand.
Or at least Anton thought it did. In truth, he too had only the haziest impression of what was occurring beyond the reach of his blade, and didn’t dare divert his attention from the enemies in his immediate vicinity to look around.
Finally, though, he killed another Thayan, cast about, and couldn’t find any more to fight. Durth yelled, “I saw a mage run up this way!” He scrambled up a staircase with a door at the top, and two of his fellow ores scrambled after him. The lookout grabbed the handle.
“Stop!” cried Tu’ala’keth.
The word was charged with magic. Durth froze for a heartbeat then turned to her in anger and confusion.
“It is warded,” the waveservant said. “I will deal with it.” She hurried up the steps, and Anton followed.
Tu’ala’keth gripped her dead man’s hand and recited an incantation. Power tinged the air green and made it feel damp. She thrust the tines of her trident into the door, and for an instant, a complex design, inscribed in lines and loops of scarlet light, flared and sizzled into being but without doing anybody any harm.
“Now,” said Tu’ala’keth, “we may pass.” She threw open the door.
Beyond the threshold was a richly appointed suite, surely the private quarters of the ranking Red Wizard in Saerloon. His leg torn, leaving bloody spatters and footprints on a gorgeous carpet as he limped about, the mage was stuffing various possessions in a haversack seemingly too small to hold them. It must be one of those enchanted containers that was larger inside than out.
The mage cursed and pointed an ebony wand with a milky crystal on the end. The attackers ducked for cover as best they could in the confined area of the top risers and the small landing.
With a roar, force exploded through the doorway and smashed the sections of wall on either side into hurtling scraps. Time seemed to skip, and Anton found himself lying amid a litter of wood and plaster on the floor at the base of the steps.
His ears rang, his whole body felt as if it were
vibrating from the impact, but he didn’t seem to be dead or maimed. He looked around for his companions. One of the ores had both legs twisted at unnatural angles with a jagged bit of broken bone sticking out of one, but other than that, it looked as if everyone might be all right. They were just battered and dazed.
The concussion had blasted away the top of the staircase, but a bit of the supporting structure remained, affixed to the wall. Anton used it to clamber high enough to peek into the Red Wizard’s quarters.
The wretch was gone.
Anton dropped back down to the floor, where Tu’ala’keth awaited him. “He escaped,” the spy admitted. “Used magic to whisk himself away with his most valuable treasures.”
“Will he return with more warriors?” asked Tu’ala’keth.
Anton grinned. “That’s the funny part. Thayan trading enclaves count as Thayan soil. They insist on it. That means the local watch and what-have-you carry no authority within these walls, and most likely they resent it. They won’t be in any hurry to come accost us even if a Red Wizard begs them.”
His slate-colored cheeks and forehead bristling with splinters, Durth shook his head. “Still when I think of the swag the dog just snatched away from us….”
“Don’t worry,” Anton said. “We still have the gold.”
And, as they discovered when they broke into the strong room, it was a lot of gold. It was as much as he’d ever seen in one placeenough to take everyone’s breath away.
Captain Clayhill turned to Chadrezzan. “It will be heavy,” she said. “Can you conjure some of those floating disks to carry it to the ship?”
The magician inclined his head.
“Then let’s move. The Sembians could still bestir themselves to chase us.”
“If they do,” said Tu’ala’keth, “the wind and currents will not favor them.”
Tu’ala’keth knew Anton had taken a late watch. She found him alone in the forecastle, gazing over the black, silver-dappled expanse of the moonlit sea. Knowing how humans depended on the glare of the sun, candles, and the like, she wondered if he could actually see much of anything.
She joined him at the rail and pointed to starboard. “Do you see the school of mackerel,” she asked, “swimming just below the surface? If the others were awake, we could net ourselves a good breakfast.”
“No,” he said, “I can’t make them out. You should sleep, too, if you want your side to finish healing.”
Beneath the silverweave she’d painstakingly mended, her wound gave her a twinge, as if agreeing with him
“I wished to talk to you,” she said. “You seem troubled.”
He snorted. “I’m trying to act triumphant. I must not be the dissembler I hoped I was if a creature who doesn’t even know humans can see through me.”
“You and I are the hands of Umberlee, sealed to a single purpose. That is why I ken your feelings.”
“Or you’re just shrewd.”
“Tell me what bothers you. Do you fear our charade is taking too long? It has occurred to me that while we play games above the sea, the dragon flight may already have laid waste to all As’arem… perhaps even all Seros.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “I’d just about decided you never felt doubt or worry about anything.”
“I am mortal and thus incapable of perfect serenity. Besides, Umberlee is demanding. It may be that she has
chosen us as her agents but is testing us, too. Or testing me, anyway, as an exemplar of the shalarins. She has set me a challenge, which I must quickly overcome, or she will give the wyrms leave to obliterate my race.”
“That’s a cheery thought. For what it’s worth, I’m told dragon flights run around erratically. They don’t always race from one big collection of victims straight to the next. So chances are pretty fair they haven’t chewed up all of Seros yet. I was actually pondering something else.”
A fish jumped, making a soft splash off the port bow. The deck rose and fell beneath their feet. “What were you brooding over?” asked Tu’ala’keth.
“Just that we’ve done, and instigated, a lot of killing.”
His tone was somber, though she had no idea why. Slaughter was a holy act when the slayer dedicated the kill to Umberlee. “And so?” she asked.
“So nothing, I suppose. The Grandmaster knows, after all this time, it shouldn’t bother me. I’ve stood and watched murders, rapes, and acts of torture, because to intervene would unmask me, thwart my mission, and so, theoretically, allow even more suffering elsewhere in the world. But it still does trouble me sometimes. Of late, maybe more than it used to.”
She groped for comprehension. “But the pirates and Thayans are both enemies of your people, are they not? Was that not part of the reason you bade me point Shandri Clayhill at Saerloon? So that whoever died in the course of the raid, Turmish would be the better for it?”
He nodded. “I wasn’t sure you understood that, but yes. Still, no doubt, the zulkirs are scum, and so are Red Wizards. You couldn’t rise in, or even stomach, the crimson order if you weren’t. But do you think every warrior, sailor, and dockhand we killed was a fiend incarnate? Or were they just ordinary folk doing
their jobs and trying to get by? Checkmate’s edge, it’s not their fault they were born Thayan. Some may even have been slaves.”
“They certainly were not fiends. Demons are magnificent entities. Viewed clearly, they afford us a glimpse of the divine.”
Her observation failed to divert Anton from his own chain of thought: “But really, I don’t mind Thayan blood on my knife. It’s the deaths of our shipmates that weigh on me because we knew one another.” He sighed. “When I first took up this line of work, one of my mentors warned me the hard part was befriending the enemy. Not the doing of it, but the consequences. Because when you betray them, you bear the guilt.”