Authors: Keith Baker
“I came down here a time or two during my guild training,”
Lei said absently, studying the ships.
This wasn’t much of a surprise, considering that it was Lei who’d known the directions to Greenman Pier, but all the same Daine wondered what business a young Lei might have in such a dingy neighborhood. “Why was that, exactly?”
“Oh, combat training.”
Daine glanced at her, but her face was a picture of distracted innocence. “You couldn’t do that at the enclave?”
“My instructor said it wasn’t the same if you learned under controlled conditions. Though I don’t know … looking back on it, perhaps he was just trying to get rid of me.”
“Yeah … perhaps.”
Pierce paused, and Daine almost walked into him. Pierce pointed toward the river. “I believe that is our ship.”
Greenman Pier was, surprisingly enough, green. Daine couldn’t make out the names of the vessels docked there, but Pierce’s eyes were far sharper than his. The ship Pierce had chosen was a small boat, its hull stained black and silver. The sails were black, and the kraken’s arms of House Lyrandar were emblazoned on the main sail.
“There’s a wind spirit bound to the sail,” Lei said thoughtfully. “See how it’s rippling slightly, but none of the others are? Should make for a swift voyage, even if it’s not as fast as an airship or a larger elemental galleon.” She pondered the ship for a moment, and just as Daine was about to start walking she spoke again. “Who is she?”
“Lakashtai?” It had to come up sooner or later. “We met her at the King of Fire months ago, during that whole business with Teral and the brainsucker. She bought us drinks. Remember?”
Lei rolled her eyes. “Of course. She bought us drinks, and eight months later, she shows up and threatens to kill you, and on that basis you’re about to jump on a boat with her? She said you sought
. Well. Yeah.”
“I don’t like this. I don’t like
. How do you know anything she says is true?”
“I don’t, Lei. All I can tell you is that I trust her. I had a problem when we first came to Sharn, and she helped me with it. You don’t have to come.”
“Don’t start that again.” Lei looked back at the boat. “It’s just … did you ask for her help this time?”
“No,” Daine admitted. “She just showed up.”
“How did she even know you were having problems?”
“Because I am the cause of them?” The voice was right behind then.
Daine and Lei spun around. There was Lakashtai, a backpack slung over a shoulder and her cloak draped across one pale arm. She was wearing dark blue breeches tucked into tall boots of black leather and a sleeveless shirt with the same indigo hue. A wide black belt was wrapped around her waist, dark leather laced with an intricate, mazelike pattern of silver lines. Her only other adornment was a silver pendant bearing a large green crystal. The stone was exactly the same shade as her eyes, and it too seemed to glow in the shadows. Seeing their expressions, she laughed musically.
“Will you stop DOING that?” Daine said. His sword was already in his hand—he’d drawn it as he was turning.
She nodded solemnly. “There was no door to knock on.”
“Some people just make noise. It works wonders.” Daine studied the kalashtar woman. “Lei has a point though—how
you know I was in trouble?”
“You told me.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Oh, but you did.” She pointed at his belt, and Lei blanched. “When I helped you before, I left a crystal for you. It’s in your pouch right now.”
Daine reached into the pouch and produced the sliver of emerald crystal. He did have the vaguest memory of picking it up after she’d helped him fight off the changeling that had been attacking his mind, but since then he’d completely forgotten about it. “This?”
“Yes. Think of it as a sort of alarm. I wanted to be certain that your treatment had been successful. If anyone tampers with your thoughts,” she tapped the green stone of her pendant, “I can feel it. I should have found you sooner, but distance is a factor and I’ve been far from Sharn.”
Daine looked down at the shard, a little disturbed that the thing could actually peer into his mind. He tossed it to
Lakashtai. “Great. Now we’re all here, you can have it back.”
She shook her head and tossed it back to him, and he instinctively caught it. “Keep it,” she said. “Now more than ever, you are in need of protection. I do not know what lies ahead of us, and I must know if your status changes.”
He didn’t like it, but it made sense, and Daine slipped the stone back into the purse.
“Now,” Lakashtai said, “our ship awaits. Pardon the pressure, but I think it would be best if we were to leave swiftly.”
She walked toward the pier. Her posture was straight, every step precisely measured. Just like her appearance, there was something about her that wasn’t quite right—something just a little too perfect.
Lei and Daine exchanged glances, but Daine couldn’t think of anything to say, so they followed.
“Why are you going to Xen’drik, anyway?” Lei asked as they walked down the green pier.
There were a few other ships moored at the docks, but few signs of people; the sun had set, and Daine imagined that most of the sailors were at Cliffside taverns. Even looking at their ship, he didn’t see any movement in the rigging or people on deck.
“I am afraid that is not my secret to tell,” Lakashtai said.
“You have finally emerged from your last war, Lei. My people have a struggle of their own, and it is far from over.”
“For you, it ends here.” A figure leapt down from the deck of the Lyrandar vessel—a lithe figure in a long, dark cloak. Her face was hidden by her hood, but Daine could see the glow of green eyes, and he remembered that voice. Catching Lei’s eye, he glanced down at his hands, placing his right index finger on his left thumb. She blinked slowly, her hand dropping down to her belt. Pierce had also seen the motion—
prepare to engage, supernatural threat
“Tashana.” Lakashtai stepped forward, raising her hands before her. There was surprise in her voice—was there even a touch of fear?
“Must we go through these useless motions of battle?” the other woman said.
Though she appeared to be unarmed, she had the menacing aura of a predator, a tiger waiting to unsheathe her claws. She stepped forward and passed into the pool of light from a hanging lantern—and in that moment Daine caught a clear glimpse of her pale features and the white braid wrapped around her throat. There was no question—it was the woman from his dream.
Sword and dagger were in his hand in an instant. Pierce’s arrow flew to his bowstring, and Lei pulled a short wand of polished densewood from her belt, but as Daine took his first step toward the stranger, he met her gaze—and a wave of rippling force spread out toward him. It was just the vaguest distortion in the air, the shimmer of heat in the desert. When it struck him, there was no heat. There was no sensation at all. All feeling, all thought seemed to recede, and he hardly noticed when his hands fell to his sides. Though he couldn’t turn his head to look at Pierce and Lei, the sound of bow, staff, and wand striking the ground told him they were as powerless as he was.
Whatever the force was, Lakashtai had evaded it. The kalashtar woman brought up her hand in a sweeping arc, and Daine saw that it was glittering with light; as it passed across her torso, every sparkle became a jagged shard of green crystal flying toward the foe. Tashana howled with rage and pain as the storm of glass slammed into her, but she was still standing when the burst had passed.
“How many of you do I have to kill?”
Tashana ripped away the shreds of her cloak, and darkness boiled out from beneath. Oily mist surrounded her, forming the ghostly outline of the terrible creature he’d seen in his vision. The few sailors on the docks scattered, a few pausing at a safe distance to watch the spectacle; none showed any interest in getting involved or summoning the watch.
It was more like a dance than a battle. Lakashtai moved with unnatural grace, as if she knew every move her enemy was going to make; she would duck or spin just far enough to avoid Tashana’s shadowy claws. Her expression was one of calm determination. As impressive as her efforts were,
Lakashtai had no time to counterattack; her every thought was on defense, and it was clear that her skills would not protect her forever; the next pass left her with a long gash along her forearm, darkness parting flesh as a blade cuts grass.
The sight of blood against the pale skin gave Daine new resolve. He was weak and numb, but it was nothing compared to the horror he’d fought just hours before, and that memory was fresh in his mind. Reaching within, he called on that same energy—anger, sorrow, anything he could
—and threw that fury against the dull weight that seemed to hang across his muscles. Feeling returned, a slow throbbing as if his entire body was being jabbed with needles. Ignoring the pain, he dropped to one knee and snatched up his weapons.
Even as he broke free from the paralysis, the shadowy creature finally caught up with Lakashtai. A powerful backhanded blow threw her down against the boards of the pier. Her enemy raised a massive claw high in the air to deal the final blow.
Daine flung his dagger, and the blade cut through the monstrous silhouette to pierce the upraised hand within. Tashana howled, pulling the dagger from her and flinging it aside. He was charging forward even as she turned to face him.
There was no time to think, and Daine let his instincts take over. Her claws were long, but his blade was longer. He took full advantage of that reach, pouncing in with a quick thrust and then darting back before she could strike. As Daine fell into the rhythm of the battle, he began to grow more confident; in time, he was sure that he could wear her down.
Presently, Tashana stopped trying to hit Daine. She matched his movements, and they slowly circled one another. “You’re a fool to stand with her,” Tashana said. Her voice was distorted by the shadows, inhumanly deep and slow.
“Just doing what comes naturally,” Daine said.
Something was bothering him—after a moment he realized what it was. Tashana’s dark shroud was shifting, twisting into a new shape. What did it mean? What was she doing?
“Then learn the price of your folly.” The mist faded completely, and Daine froze in horror.
The figure beneath the darkness was not Tashana—it was Lei. Blood was streaming from her maimed hand and a dozen
small wounds. Her eyes rolled up in her head and she fell to the ground. Without thinking, he dropped his sword and ran toward her.
There was a terrible cry of pain, and in that instant Lei was gone. The dark figure was there again, right in front of him, but now two white-feathered arrows were protruding from her chest. A moment later the cry faded away—and so did Tashana.
Turning around, Daine saw Pierce, his great bow in his hands. Behind him, Lei—uninjured—moaned and rubbed her head.
“What happened?” she said, gingerly kneeling to pick up her fallen weapons.
“I don’t know,” Daine replied. He looked over at Lakashtai, who lay crumpled against a wooden pylon. “But I think we’d better find out.”
ierce, check the ship,” Daine said. There were no signs of movement on the deck of the
, no sounds beside the rhythmic motion of the water. “It’d be just our luck if she killed the crew.”
Pierce nodded and moved cautiously up the gangplank.
“Lei, with me,” Daine knelt beside Lakashtai and studied the fallen kalashtar. Her shoulder wound was deep, but there wasn’t much blood—and she was still breathing. “Do what you can.”
Lei produced a small rod of green wood and slowly passed it over Lakashtai’s shoulder. The wand began to glow with a pale light, and the injured flesh began to knit together.
“Well, I’m certainly feeling better about this trip. Do you suppose she’s got more friends like that?”
“I’ve seen that woman before, Lei. Tashana.”
Lei’s eyes narrowed. “You’re full of surprises today. Any other women I should know about?”