Night of Zealotry, A Tale of the Assassin Without a Name #3

Prefer to read on your Kindle? Night of Zealotry is part of The Assassin’s Blade, a compilation of the first seven Assassin Without a Name stories. The Assassin’s Blade is available for free as part of your Kindle Unlimited subscription.

MY PROFESSION IS ALL ABOUT finesse and skill. But sometimes, it’s about running—or in this case, sprinting—across rooftops, with a near-moonless night overhead and an angry host of Black Guard mercenaries giving chase. It’s one of those situations where you wonder how the hell you got into it, until you remember you signed up for this knowing full well the Guard’s reputation for vengeance. You see, they don’t like it when you kill someone under their protection. They like it even less when you do it right under their noses. I understand they’ve a reputation to maintain, but it’s not my job to help them maintain it. Nor is it to make this an easy chase for them. Hindered by their heavy armor, the distance between us was growing with each step. It didn’t help their cause that I knew these particular rooftops better than I knew the streets because I’d spent weeks studying and planning for this job. I knew which gables were hidden from the eyes of sentries. I knew which rooftops were no more than a leap away. I knew—

—when someone was about to crash into me. Too bad I realized it too late to avoid him. If the Black Guardsman was trying to bring us both down, he succeeded, tumbling us across the slanted rooftop and guaranteeing that our momentum was going to carry us right over the edge unless one of us did something. The Guardsman didn’t seem to have the first inkling of an idea, so I took it upon myself to detach my grappling hook from my belt, snap the prongs open, and scrape it along the cedar shingles until it stuck fast. Too bad my assailant didn’t have the sense to hold onto me. He kept sliding, right over the edge and into oblivion. I got myself up and started running again long before he’d hit the ground.

“Stop right there!” one of the Guardsmen yelled from too close behind me.

Not likely.

I sprinted across the remainder of the rooftop and, with the mad scramble of booted feet in pursuit, jumped. The next rooftop was too far for me to reach. The mercs must have known that, for they let out a litany of curses, not out of concern for my safety, but because they thought I’d just committed suicide rather than face their tender mercies. I’d as much interest in the one as the other, and so I’d timed my jump to land precisely on an adjacent balcony instead. Easy enough to swing over the railing from there and lower myself to the next balcony below before the Guardsmen were able to look down, get over their surprise, and realize I was escaping.

I was almost to the ground when I heard one of them land with a crash at the starting point of my downward escape route. Black Guardsmen don’t lack for courage, I’ll give them that. But they do lack agility, for I was already at the bottom of the alley before the first of them had figured out how to even swing himself down one story.

There were three ways out of this alley. I started along the easiest, which just happened to be straight ahead, until I saw a pair of Guardsmen scramble into view. The Guard must have cast their net wide to get men in front of me already, so I wondered if I’d have any better luck with the other two ways out. I didn’t with the second, as I spotted more Guardsmen coming. That left the third route, which was a narrow offshoot I wasted no time diving into. It was clear, but only until I took the first turn and almost ran right into a Guardsman so burly he’d barely managed to squeeze himself into the alley’s narrow confines. He was turned at an angle by necessity, which limited his reaction to my sudden appearance. I leaped at him—but not to attack—as I grabbed hold of his arm, stuck the toe of my boot on his belt, and hoisted myself up and over. I hit the ground running, not looking back to see if he was pursuing or taking a moment to consider how I’d gotten around him.

The alley widened, just in time for two more Black Guardsmen to spot me. They had swords drawn, and were already so close I felt the need to draw my long knives. These weren’t pig-stickers, either. Each a foot and a half of curved steel with serrated back edges for when I was in a bad mood, the mere sight of them had stopped more fights than I could remember. No such luck here, which was fine with me as I decided I wanted to give these Black Guard mercs a try to see how good they really were. Damn good, it turned out. They almost had me; in a fair fight, I’d be dead. But I never fight fair, so just when they had me against the wall—literally—I dropped into a crouch and stabbed one of them in the foot. I leaped through the gap made by the one who was now yelling in pain, then I ran again. The burly one from the narrow alley emerged, along with some others, to give chase. But no one knows this city’s back alleys better than I do. It took some doing, but I lost my pursuers.

Once I had, I slowed to an easy walk to recover my breath. I felt at my belt to ensure the scroll case I’d pilfered from tonight’s mark was still there. It was. Good thing; killing the artificer—a man by the name of Aravar Tillwood—had only been half the job. Delivering the item to my client was the rest.

I stayed to the alleys, avoiding the main streets as much as possible. At this time of night, they were empty anyway, though it never hurt to exercise caution. I wasn’t worried about the Black Guard now, or even in the near future. They’d come looking, I was sure of that. But they’d never find me. They didn’t know what I looked like, for one, since I always wore a mask on jobs like these. Also, it helped that Alchester was such a big city. The biggest in Kallendor, which is fitting since it’s also the capital. People call Kallendor the Fiefdom of the Horse Lords. I call it the Fiefdom of the Horses’ Arses. Cavalry renowned throughout Uhl and all that doesn’t impress me much. As for Alchester itself, it’s got all the requisite sights and smells one might expect to find in a large, modern city. Markets full of exotic goods, an airship dock considered first in its class, fine or rowdy taverns and brothels depending on your preference, and wine shops galore, the lattermost of which fit my tastes more often than not. I make no excuses regarding my love for wine; it may very well be my only vice.

Killing people? That’s not a vice. Not for me, anyway. It’s just what I do. I won’t say indiscriminately, because I’ve been known to let a job pass if it doesn’t feel right. Sometimes, not feeling right might lie in the circumstances. Sometimes it might be the mark. Every job is different, so it depends. As for Aravar, it came down to a simple matter of his time being up. Someone wanted him dead for one reason or another, and if I hadn’t done it, someone else would have. Sometimes, there’s nothing more to it than that.

“The night isn’t even half over,” said a voice above me, “and somehow you’ve managed to piss off half the city.”

I knew someone had been following me for a few blocks now. Because the person had been alone, and sticking to the rooftops, I knew it wasn’t a Black Guardsman. But I had not been expecting her.

“Hello, Elizabeth.”

I looked up. Standing on a second story balcony, with hands gripped lightly on the railing, was a woman I’d not seen in over a year. She didn’t return my greeting, but instead fixed me with that penetrating stare of hers. I hated it when she did that, and she knew it, too, because she made me suffer through another few moments of it before she hopped over the rail, landed in a crouch before me, and stood, all in one fluid motion. She hadn’t lost her moves. Or, by the pinched lips and narrowed brow, her temper.

“What were you thinking?”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow, my d—”

“Don’t you dare call me ‘dear.’”

She was dressed in dark, tight-fitting satin. Her auburn hair—never long—was tied in a short ponytail. She had no visible weapons, but I knew they were there.

I held my hands out, palms up. “Wouldn’t think of it.”

We have a history. Most of it good, but some of it bad. If you ask her, she’ll probably tell you the exact opposite.

“You…are…an…idiot!”

She already stood close, but with each word she inched closer, until she was staring right up into my eyes. Liz had the most beautiful, scary eyes. Once you saw them, you never forgot them. Auburn like her hair, but flecked with gray. When the light hit them just right, they became a depthless, mesmerizing display that was easy to get lost in.

“Aravar was under Black Guard protection,” she said in a tight voice.

I had to shake myself free from the spell of those eyes before I could speak.

“I know.”

“Then you also know the Guard will come after you with everything they’ve got. They’ll hunt you the rest of your life. They’ll kill you.”

I shrugged. “They’ll try.”

She scoffed, not impressed by my bravado. “They’ll keep trying until they succeed. You shouldn’t have taken this one. You should have left the artificer alone.”

“How do you know about Aravar?” And why the interest, I wondered?

“You stepped on a Guild contract. An outstanding Guild contract.”

Oh. Black Guard mercenaries were one thing. Alchester’s thieves’ guild was another entirely. The Guard doesn’t base out of Alchester. No one’s going to do them any favors. But the Guild has been here longer than I have. The streets, back alleys, and rooftops are theirs. They let the rest of us use them as long as those who need to pay, pay, and those who should stay out of Guild business, stay out. I had a pretty good idea what the Guild had been contracted to steal, too. The precedents were clear: hand over the goods. Thieving wasn’t my usual thing, anyway. But this contract was a little different. Kill Aravar, secure the scroll, and deliver it to the man with the gold coins. Those were the requirements, with half the money paid up front and the rest when the item was delivered. If the Guild thought sending Liz to ask nicely was going to convince me to hand it over, they were mistaken. I’d already reneged on one contract not too long ago; I didn’t plan to do so again, especially when the messy part was already done.

“Sorry, Liz, but this one’s not paid in full. The goods aren’t mine to give up.”

“Is that what you want me to tell Thjorn?”

Thjorn ‘Heavyhammer’ Targalas. He’s the leader of Alchester’s Guild of Thievery and Backstabbing. To say he’s big is an understatement. He’s a hillman out of Anolga, and from what I’ve seen, bigger than big is the only way those barbarians come. Needless to say, he’s the sort most sane people never want to find themselves up against, myself included. Still, a deal’s a deal, and I intended to honor mine, regardless of the unforeseen consequences.

“Tell him I’m under contract. Same commitment any member of the Guild makes on any given day. He’ll understand.” I hoped he would, anyway. “Not my fault I executed—no pun intended—my contract first.”

Liz shook her head. “It’s not enough that the Guard is hunting you. Now you want the Guild on your arse as well. You are an idiot.”

I smiled. “Just a man doing a job.” A job she never liked, but she knew what I did long before we got involved. It’d been her decision to stay and, ultimately, hers to leave. It’s not something I think about often, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it ever.

“The Guild contract went to Brady,” she said. “It’s back to begging for him if he doesn’t come up with a decent score soon. He’s got kids, you know.”

Not my fault the thief’s a bumbler. Or a family man.

“Like I said, Liz, this one’s not paid for yet. If you want, follow me to my exchange. But please, take the goods after I’ve gotten my money.”

She kept staring at me a little while longer, then she humphed and walked a few steps away. “I was only supposed to ask you to hand the scroll over, not take it from you.”

“Lucky me.”

“Yes, lucky you. For reasons I’ll never understand, Heavyhammer tolerates you more than some others. He was hoping to appeal to your sensibilities. I tried to tell him you don’t have any, but he wouldn’t listen.”

“That’s very funny, Liz.”

She let out a breath. Or perhaps it was a sigh of resignation. “I said what I came to say. If you change your mind, you know where to find us.” She turned to go. I didn’t think she intended to say anything else, but then she looked over her shoulder and said, “Try to stay alive, all right?”

I said nothing back as she disappeared down the alley and into the dark. I stared after her for a time, but since I was still on the clock, I got my mind off the past and back onto the present as I went to find somewhere to while away the time until my scheduled meet-up. The Lazy Minstrel fit the bill well enough. It’s a shat hole-in-the-wall tavern, but it’s a safe place. No client meetings. No talk about what I do. They think my name is… It doesn’t matter what they think my name is, because it isn’t my real one. No one knows that except my dear sister, who I haven’t seen in a few years now despite her being right here in Alchester. Oh, I keep tabs on her, make sure she’s getting along all right. But she’s moved on from the old life, and doesn’t need me coming around reminding her of it like Liz just did to me.

I settled into my usual chair at my usual table. They make sure it stays vacated for me and keep my supply of syrah safe, which that oaf Abelard provides to me on a regular basis for sparing his life not too long ago. Our original arrangement was a bottle a week delivered to Lady Bellum’s. But since I often split my time between the pleasant atmosphere of Bellum’s and the wretched smokiness of The Lazy Minstrel, I thought I’d also have the deliveries split. Abelard was more than happy to oblige, especially after I’d reminded him of the alternative.

Ophilia, who ran the place, noticed my arrival, and so a girl was dispatched to bring me one of my bottles and a clean glass. Soon, I was watching the tavern’s dim light sparkle from the syrah’s deep purple color while the peppery smell permeated my olfactory senses. The serving girl knew my routine and wouldn’t return except to clean up after I’d left. I’ve been coming here for a long time, and never once have I asked her name. That doesn’t mean I don’t know it. Gabrielle. That’s her name. Then there’s Ruth, Sonja, and Teresa—and Beecher, who works the door and helps clean up the bigger messes, such as when someone gets overzealous with the girls. I’ve never said more than a handful of words to any of them. But I know their names for the same reason I know that the gentleman front center, with the brace of daggers across his chest, always drinks a mulled ale. Other side of him, the fella with the tick in his left cheek likes to sip a ‘34 Mullender’s. A good vintage, though a tad dry for my taste. Man in the other corner, with the really bad view of the room’s entries and exits, comes in at three in the afternoon and leaves by midnight most nights. There’s others scattered about. I know something about each of them because I make it my business to know. Simple observation is all it takes. I may not always be the smartest person in the room, but I’m always the most observant. Little things, too, which might seem irrelevant to some, but which might save my life someday. For example, I know fourteen steps gets me across the room and out the front door. Eight to the kitchen. Another five and I’m in the back alley. I chose this corner of the establishment because I can see every person coming and going. It’s mostly in shadow, too, so anyone looking my way really has to look to see what I’m about. Such interest is obvious, too, and usually a good warning sign. In my line of work, there’s no such thing as being too careful.

I nursed three glasses of my syrah while waiting for the agreed upon meeting time. With a half hour to spare, I left The Lazy Minstrel. My client knew the city well enough to select a little-used corner of the temple district where we could make our exchange undisturbed. I’d made my usual observations concerning the man at our first meeting, though I remained sketchy concerning his identity. Not that it mattered. That he’d a need for my special skills and the coin to pay for them was all that did.

My mind wandered as I walked down Cabble’s Way. Mostly, I considered Liz’s visit and the fact that someone had commissioned the Guild to steal the scroll. Another player was involved. One who wasn’t necessarily interested in ending the artificer’s life, but someone with the resources to hire a trained thief at the highest level. Such knowledge piqued my interest in the contents of the scroll case all the more. Easy enough to take a peek. I didn’t, though. I was already beginning to think I’d stepped into something bigger than a simple kill and grab, so the less I knew at this point, the better. It was safer that way.

I arrived at the designated meeting spot early because I wanted to scope the scene out. Make sure my client wasn’t planning a double-cross—that sort of thing. I stayed in the shadows, watching, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. My client arrived early as well. Guess he was anxious to get the goods. I stayed put, watching as he crossed from my side of the street to the other. He stopped at the middle section of an old stone wall, which had once been part of a temple but which now remained the only part of the structure still standing. A single bell rang out across the city, my cue to get this over with.

No words were exchanged. I simply approached him and held the scroll case up so he got a good look at it. It was fashioned from bone, with bands of copper at either end and elegant patterns etched up and down its length. He responded in kind with a pouch full of gold crowns. It was a quick transfer, and then we were both on our way.

I was halfway down the street when I felt the presence of others around me. Call it a sixth sense. Call it magic. Call it whatever the hell you want. I’ve just always had an intuition when my life was in danger, like I knew it was right now. I had my long knives in either hand right before a trio of shadows bounded over a fence just ahead and came at me. Three more emerged from a dark alley at the street’s other side. Dark robes, shaved heads, and tattoos galore on faces and arms just about summed up all six of them. The ones coming from across the street were far enough away that I’d only the first three to worry about for the next few seconds. Those three were on me all at once, with krises flashing. The feeling that I’d stepped into something bigger just got worse.

I deflected the first assassin’s blade with one of my own. He overextended himself, and while I was tempted to drive my other knife home and finish him off, I had the other two to consider. I evaded the swing of the next, and blocked the third, letting the man’s blade slide along mine before I sliced him across the face with a backhanded swipe. Both his cry of agony and his backward motion were expected, which gave me enough room to turn my attention back to the first one. He tried some fancy move or other on me. I let him finish, then I took his feet out from under him and, before he’d hit the ground, slashed him across the throat. The second one lunged again. I cut his arm deep enough that he dropped his weapon by reflex. Bad move. I stuck my knife to the hilt into his abdomen, yanking it free as the last one standing tried to thrust his blade into my eye. A quick, hard slash lengthwise down his arm was my response. I wrapped an arm around his throat and finished him off with a knife to the back just as the other three arrived on the scene. I expected them to come to the realization that I’d just taken out their fellows without breaking a sweat, and so turn tail and run. Instead they kept coming. I backed away a little, giving myself some room. The three of them leaped over their fallen comrades as if they were refuse and nothing more. No flanking here; all three came straight at me with no hesitation. In the second before we clashed, I saw what drove these men. A light shone from their eyes, and it was not a nice, bright one, either. Their robes and tattoos pegged them as acolytes of one sort or another, while the feverish glint in their eyes reminded me of a certain zealot I’d killed recently for trying to bring the dead back to life.

The furious nature of their assault limited my initial response as I deflected blades coming from all directions at once. It was a good strategy, meant to overwhelm me, though it was anything but intentional. These men were driven neither by tactics nor rational thought; otherwise they would have had enough sense not to test me after I’d already put down three of their fellows. Feeling a lesson wasted on them, I dealt with them cleanly and quickly. Their attacks were wild, but slow, so the next time one reached in with his blade, I cut his arm to the bone. A thrust to the gut and another into his kidney finished him off right before I spun him around and sent him flying into one of the others. While the one tried to disentangle himself from his dying fellow, I took out the other acolyte with a slash and stab to his throat. He fell to his knees, gasping as his lifeblood flowed from him. The last one should have taken that as his cue to flee. Instead he flung himself at me with renewed fervor. I decided to spare him. Not out of kindness or pity, but because I wanted to question him. I knocked his dagger aside, then rapped him across the head with the hilt of my knife. Easy enough when only one of them remained. He went down, but he was only dazed, and still had plenty of fight in him. I put my boot down on his weapon arm, neutralizing the threat from his dagger.

“That’s enough of that,” I said.

He agreed, but not completely, as he pulled a knife from beneath his robe with his free hand. I thought he meant to stab me with it, but he had other ideas. With a sneer across his face, he plunged it right into his chest. He gasped, then the sneer faded along with his life. I could do nothing but watch.

Once he had expired, and I’d gotten over the shock of what he’d just done, I searched him, but I found nothing worthwhile. I considered searching the others but was mindful of the city watch or someone else coming along. With so many bodies lying about, the less time I spent here, the better. But I at least gave their tattoos a thorough examination. The first had three separate but similar patterns running from the back of his neck, over the top of his skull, and to his forehead. Etched all in black, each patterned band consisted of a series of circles and other geometrical shapes that converged into the largest of the tattoos right at the center of his forehead: a black sun with jagged edges and rays of darkness beaming out in all directions. It was the same on all the rest. None of it meant anything to me.

I went back to the place where I’d just made the exchange. The acolytes or priests or whatever they were had attacked me because of the scroll. No other explanation made sense. But did they think I had it in my possession still, or were they trying to kill me simply because I knew about it? I had no answers, but figured the man who’d hired me to steal it from Aravar might. Too bad I found him face down in the gutter a short distance from our meeting place. A quick examination revealed knife wounds in his back and the scroll case missing. Shaved heads, flame-bladed daggers, and a will to commit suicide not being the modus operandi of either the Thieves’ Guild or the Black Guard, I knew we had yet another player in the game. Whatever was written on that scroll must be damn important.

I considered my options. My role in this was supposed to have been done the moment I’d delivered the scroll. But the zealots had all but voided that outcome. They’d come after me once; nothing saying they wouldn’t do so again. Being hunted is an occupational hazard of mine—kill enough people and sooner or later a relative or associate of the mark acts on a compulsion for revenge. But I’ll take vengeful aristocrats or members of the gentry—hell, even Black Guard mercs—over zealots any day of the week. At least they’re sane. But men like those I’d just faced? Their behavior went beyond simple insanity. In my experience, only god or country motivated such conduct. Since I didn’t peg those baldies as having any sort of loyalty to the latter, it had to be the former.

Religious fanatics, then, which were the worst kind as far as I was concerned. The gods died out a long time ago, which didn’t necessarily keep people from believing in something, but it had put a damper on religion as a whole. Some legitimate churches remained, like Father Kem’s, a man I did some work for in the recent past, but most had been relegated to cult status, with minor and often insignificant followings. As for the gods themselves, people have taken to calling them the Old Gods. As far as I know, there haven’t been any New Gods come round to step into their shoes, so no telling which dead one these fanatics had chosen as the object of their devotion.

With seven bodies now lying about, I decided to move on sooner rather than later. I could figure out what to do about all of this along the way. I knew I was going to have to do something. At the very least, I needed to know more about the men who had tried to kill me.

Looking to lose myself amidst Alchester’s nooks and crannies, I took Bellevue Way through Low Town and down into Beggars’ Quarter. It’s a rough place at the best of times, but no one bothered me. It occurred to me that I wasn’t too terribly far from Brady’s apartment. Brady, Liz had said, would have been the man to fulfill the Guild’s contract if I hadn’t beaten him to it. I considered paying him a visit to see what he knew, but I doubted he’d even been present when the deal had been brokered. That task would have fallen to one of Thjorn’s lackeys. All of which meant that if I wanted answers, I was going to have to pay Guild House a visit.

Guild House, or just the House to those in the know, is not a place one sneaks into if one values their life. So as I made my way through Beggars’ Quarter, I made sure to take wide, visible paths where I knew Guild operatives watched my every step. Thjorn would know I was coming long before I was granted an audience with him. If I was granted an audience. He might just throw me in a pit for a few days as a lesson not to interfere, knowingly or not, in Guild business. Liz had been right about his tolerance of me—let’s just say I’ve done a favor or two for him. But his generosity only went so far, especially considering how important this scroll was turning out.

The House was in one of Alchester’s older neighborhoods. In this case, older didn’t mean run-down, for while the manors lining the curved, cobbled roads were of a more traditional style, with tall windows, flat roofs, and moss-covered brick, they and the grounds surrounding them were well kept. Guild House was no exception, though you wouldn’t know it from the street, given how well it was hidden behind its tall, ivy-covered wall.

Two men at the gate confiscated my weapons. They had enough sense to remove my boot knives along with the obvious ones at my belt, but they completely missed the smaller gundi blades I had concealed up each arm. Amateurs. “I’ll want those back,” I said, right before one of them shoved me through the gate. It clanged shut behind me.

Another pair escorted me in. The front of the main house was mostly dark and quiet but for a few wisps of laughter and muffled conversation coming from an open window or two. I wasn’t led inside but around and into a garden that stretched out into the evening darkness. Just when I thought I was headed for that pit in the ground after all, a small building materialized. It had the look of a guest house about it, or perhaps a separate office. I remembered the place from previous visits back when Liz and I were an item, but I’d never been inside. I got that chance now. Within, a man I’d never seen before waited for me. He was the only one there.

“Guess I’m not going to get to see Heavyhammer?” I asked him.

The room was lavishly furnished, with plush chairs facing a great desk and a fireplace which wasn’t lit. My escort had remained outside, so it was just the two of us.

“No,” the man said, his voice flat and even-toned. He had dark wavy hair, a dark mustache, and a goatee oiled to a point. Beneath a filigreed jacket he wore a silk shirt with a ruffled cravat around his neck. He looked like a member of the gentry trying too hard to look like a member of the gentry.

He gestured for me to sit in one of the chairs before he took a seat behind the desk. Placing both hands upon the desk’s surface, he said, “Master Targalas is otherwise occupied presently. My name is Gustav Preyton. I handle many of Master Targalas’s affairs, including the one I assume you are here about.”

“Oh? You know why I’m here?”

“Of course. You are here to hand over the item—a certain bone scroll case—which you procured from one Aravar Tillwood. As you know, Guild contracts supersede all others. I know that our agent in the field made you aware that your contract conflicted with our own. Your presence here tells me you are aware of this precedent. Because you have come to us with it so quickly, we are willing to overlook any transgressions this matter may otherwise have caused.”

How to break this to him? The direct approach had gotten me this far. “I don’t have it.”

He blinked once. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me.” I stood, perhaps too quickly, as Gustav leaned back hard enough to set the legs of his chair screeching across the wood floor. I kept myself from smirking only through great effort. “Thing is, Gustav—can I call you ‘Gus’?—I’d already given the scroll to the man who’d hired me and was on my way home when I was ambushed. They gave my client the same treatment, though he didn’t come out of it as well as I did. They took the scroll. So, as I was saying, I don’t have it.”

Gustav’s face took on a look of thoughtfulness. Or at least I thought that was what the pinched lips and narrowed brow were supposed to indicate.

“Describe the ones who attacked you,” he said.

I did. When I got to the part about tattoos, he cut me off.

“Black sun on the forehead?”

“That’s the one. Maybe you should tell me what you know.”

I didn’t think he’d tell me anything; there’s no such thing as free information where the Guild is concerned. I was therefore surprised, and a little suspicious, when he answered straight away.

“They call themselves the Jakaree, the Bringers of the Dark Light. They are a religious sect, devoted to a god whose identity remains somewhat of a mystery, though it hardly matters since the gods are all dead. Their leader is a man named Onius. He and the other Jakaree arrived in Alchester about a year ago from distant parts. Since that time, and up until recently, they’ve kept to themselves. They have a compound at the city’s southern edge. One of the old Emory properties.”

The Emory district was abandoned and mostly forgotten. Because of that, it was a better place than most to set up camp free from the prying eyes of others.

“‘Up until recently’? What kind of noise have they been making besides waylaying honest businessmen such as myself?”

Gustav stood. “I’m not at liberty to divulge everything we have learned, but suffice to say, you and your client were not the only ones who were attacked this night. An attempt was also made against the party which hired us.”

“Jakaree?” As if I needed to ask.

Gustav nodded. “Fortunately, our client—whose identity shall remain anonymous, of course—had adequate means of defense and so, like you, escaped unscathed.”

“How did they even know to go after him?” He, or she, hadn’t been anywhere near the scroll.

“That is something we are still endeavoring to determine.”

I felt I’d learned enough. Time to go before I wore out my welcome. “You continue endeavoring. I, on the other hand, have other things to—”

“Unfortunately, Mr…? There doesn’t seem to be a record of your name, as far as I can tell. Never mind. Keep your anonymity. But you’ll need to cancel whatever other plans you had this evening.”

I waited for him to explain.

“You have left us in a very undesirable position. Unlike yourself, when the Guild commits to fulfilling a contract, we fulfill it.”

He was referring to Abelard. Practice leniency one time, and the world never lets you forget it.

He went on. “The Guild has a reputation to uphold. Fortunately for you, you can help us maintain it. Since you no longer have possession of the item in question, we would like to enlist your aid in retrieving it for us. We would like for you to retrieve it tonight.”

“You want me to steal it back? Why? Did Thjorn give your regular staff—you know, the ones who actually steal for a living—the night off? Surely you’ve someone better suited for this sort of job. Brady, for example. I hear he’s one of the best.”

More like one of the worst, though I didn’t expect Gustav to acknowledge that. I’m not even sure why I had mentioned the man’s name. Maybe I remembered what Liz had said about him needing the score. Maybe I was thinking about his kids. Maybe I didn’t want to get any deeper into this mess and was thinking, Better Brady than me.

“Mr. Marsh is capable, as are many others. But, given the nature of the situation, what with the involvement of religious zealots, we would prefer to utilize an asset outside of the organization, in order to minimize Guild participation in this matter. I am sure you understand.”

I understood perfectly. It meant they were worried about retaliation from these Jakaree lunatics. From what I’d seen of them, I didn’t blame the Guild one bit.

“Of course,” Gustav said, “by ‘we,’ I really mean Master Targalas. He is the one who suggested this plan and recommended you for the job. Please keep that fact in mind before you make your final decision.”

I supposed I should feel flattered. Heavyhammer’s approval was not easily won, nor was it easily refused, if one valued their well-being. Realizing I had little choice in the matter, I let out a breath of resignation and accepted the job. Not halfheartedly, either. In my line of work, you’re either committed or you’re not. Going halfway only increases your chances of getting killed. With that in mind, I fell into my usual thought process when planning a job.

“You said they took over one of the old Emory estates? Which one? I’d like a few days to scope the place out and—”

“As I have already indicated, we wish this matter settled this very night.”

“I suppose you’ll want me to deliver the case tied up with a bow, too?”

Gustav’s lips curved in the slightest of smiles. “Given time and opportunity, the Jakaree might move the scroll beyond even the Guild’s considerable reach. We cannot allow this.”

“Tell me what else you know about the Jakaree then.”

Turns out he didn’t know much more than what he’d already told me. Secretive bunch, those Jakaree. Smart, too, keeping quiet for so long while they went about their business. If I wanted to know anything more, I’d have to learn it firsthand. Gustav at least gave me some useful details concerning the estate they’d holed themselves up in, as well as a general description of Onius—shaved head, black sun tattoo, and maroon robes—which really didn’t help at all since that’s how they’d all looked so far, and then only one detail remained.

“This may not be my usual sort of job, but I still expect the same payment.”

I didn’t think they’d pay me at all, but I also didn’t think it hurt to ask. He surprised me for a second time when he agreed.

“You’ll have it, along with the appreciation of the Guild.”

Huh. Maybe I should have doubled—maybe even tripled—my fee.

“Once the job is done, one of our agents will find you outside the compound. The exchange will be made then.”

“How will I identify this person?”

“I suspect you’ll know her on sight.”

The same bruisers who had led me to the garden house ushered me back to the main gate. My weapons were returned to me right before another shove sent me back out onto the street. The gate clanged shut again and that was that.

I looked up, gauging the time by the location of the moon’s sliver. A little after two o’clock. Plenty of time to infiltrate a den of zealots, steal back the scroll, and stop in at Lady Bellum’s for a nightcap. But only if I got a move on.

I arrived about an hour later at the edge of the old Emory estates. They’re a district unto themselves, named after the family of the same name, who once had owned all of the land around this part of Alchester. But the area had been unoccupied since the conclusion of the Emory-Falstaff Wars. That conflict happened long before my time, but it had been described to me as an intra-city civil war between the two ruling, founding families of Alchester. The feud had lasted long enough that the Emorys had felt the need to build a wall around this entire portion of the city to protect themselves from the Falstaffs. But the Emorys must have started fighting amongst themselves as well, because each estate—they’re more like small castles, actually—has its own wall, and there might once have been a moat or two for all I know. No one had lived at these estates for a long time, except for vagrants and now, apparently, the Jakaree. Some stay away on account of the remoteness—it’s a part of the city that’s long been neglected—but most avoid it because of the stories of Emory family ghosts haunting the place. Real or not, I’ve no quarrel with spirits this night; so as long as they stay out of my way, I’ll gladly stay out of theirs.

The ground, which sloped upwards before reaching the main Emory wall, was dotted with enough trees that I used them for cover as I made my approach. I was up and over the wall moments later, dropping down into a crouch and not moving again until I was sure no one saw me. The Jakaree priests might occupy only one of the estates inside the Emory district, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t have roving scouts. I made my way through, rather than around, the first building I came upon. It was surrounded by a sorry excuse for a wall, which was the state of the house as well. Still, it was good cover as I slipped inside and came out the other end. After a bit more skulking across one property and then another, Gustav’s directions proved true and I found myself staring at the wall to the Jakaree compound.

“About time.”

Elizabeth’s whisper came to me from behind a pile of discarded stones, where she crouched low and blended with the shadows. I settled next to her.

“You’re early,” I said. “You’re supposed to meet me after I’ve retrieved the item.”

“Change in plans,” she said.

As before, she was dressed for nocturnal skulking, though now she’d a hood over her head and a sash covering all of her face but for her eyes. This time, the hilts of her knives were easily seen at her belt. Her gaze never stopped scanning the top of the compound’s wall as she spoke.

“Did Gustav mention anything about the Black Guard?”

I had my face covered as well, so it was easiest to just shake my head in response. She took note of the gesture from the periphery of her vision.

“They know about the Jakaree stealing the scroll from you. They also know about this compound. They’re on their way here now, to take the scroll back.”

I found that…puzzling. Why were the Black Guard still interested in the scroll? Their involvement as far as it was concerned should have ended with their employer’s death. Unless their guarantee included recovering stolen items, which I didn’t think it did. Or…unless Aravar hadn’t been their actual employer. The idea had merit. Aravar had money, but not the kind needed to maintain his own private security force on premise day and night. So maybe someone else had been paying the bills. Still was paying the bills, I corrected myself. Whoever this person was, he or she wanted the scroll as badly as all the other interested parties. But Black Guardsmen coming here didn’t really change the job. It was still a sneak and grab. I said as much to Liz.

“It’s not just a sneak and grab, you idiot.”

Again with the name-calling.

“Bad enough every priest inside that compound is going to try to kill you,” she said. “What do you think the Black Guard will do once they realize who you are?”

“I wasn’t planning on being seen, you know.”

I scanned the wall with her, looking for any sign of a sentry. There were no lights along the wall, nor were there any bobbing torches to give away a guard’s presence. The trick, then, was to use the night sky as a backdrop by looking for the silhouette of anything that passed in front of it. There might not be more than a sliver of a moon, but there were stars. Even so, I almost didn’t notice when a lone guard finally did come into view. He was damn hard to make out, but I thought I saw the characteristic domed head of one of their priests. He walked at a steady pace from left to right, then was gone. Now we had to wait to see how long it took him to come back.

Elizabeth, who had seen the guard as well, spoke once he was out of sight. “You and I both know things rarely ever go as planned. You need someone to watch your back. I’m going with you.”

“So the Jakaree and Black Guard can try to kill you as well? I appreciate you meeting me here with the warning, and I’ll thank Gustav for not telling me about the Guard sometime in the near future, but you know I work alone.”

“Not always.”

She had me there. We’d pulled a few jobs together back in the day. In truth, we worked well together professionally. Just not so much personally. Still, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of having her accompany me on this one. I knew she could handle herself in a scrape, but I also knew she was no killer. Not unless her back was to the wall, anyway. I’d a feeling if she waited that long on this job, it might be too late.

“Things could get tricky real fast in there, Liz. The Jakaree give new meaning to the word ‘fanatic.’ Since you seem to know more than I do about all of this, you probably already know that six of them waylaid me earlier. All six are dead, and it wasn’t for lack of mercy on my part. They kept coming until I had no choice but to put them down. If I’m discovered, and if the mercs arrive right at the wrong time, it’ll be chaos. The situation may call for steps you aren’t willing to take.”

She turned to look at me, not speaking until I met her gaze with my own.

“I’m prepared to take whatever steps are necessary. I’m not letting you go in there alone, and that’s final.”

Her words, and those eyes of hers, silenced any more protests, so I said only, “I’m touched by your concern for my well-being.”

Inside, I was still trying to figure out her gesture. When Liz and I had split up over a year ago, it hadn’t exactly been under amicable terms. We hadn’t seen each other since, so for her to come back into my life so abruptly and with such concern for me was, at best, suspicious. At worst? I didn’t want to think about that. Liz might be a thief, but she couldn’t be so dishonest that she’d set me up or lead me into a trap. I did think she’d hold information back, though. As we got back to business, I resigned myself to keeping an eye on her until this was over.

The priest on the wall walk passed by again. A minute thirty, with no other guards in sight. Plenty of time to get over the wall and drop down into the compound with no one the wiser.

We waited for him to make another round. While we did, we discussed our plan. Beyond the wall we saw a tower rising high into the night sky. It was the tallest structure in sight and, high places creating the perception of security and all that, it was the most likely place we’d find the scroll. The tower was therefore our target.

As soon as the guard passed by again, we moved. I reached the wall first, whereupon I used my fingers and the toes of my shoes inserted into mortar gaps to climb. I didn’t hear Liz behind me, but I knew she was there. She was as quiet as they came. At the top of the wall, I didn’t see our sentry, so I pulled myself up onto the narrow walkway and lowered myself down the wall’s other side. Back on the ground, I made myself small while I waited for Liz to join me. If I hadn’t been looking for her, I might never have known she was there as she fell in beside me. I began to wonder if I shouldn’t have sent her in on her own.

I gestured at a guard I saw across the yard who had his back to us. Liz saw him, too. We stayed low, sticking to the wall until we reached an unhitched wagon, which provided cover while we scoped out the way ahead. One more priest, across the way. He faced our direction, but remained none the wiser regarding our presence, even as we raced low through the dark to the edge of the main house, where we discovered another structure in back. Longer than it was wide, it was maybe a story and a half in height, with stone walls and a nondescript flat roof. Two flaming braziers—the only light I’d seen so far—were at its entry. I didn’t see anyone coming or going, but I heard a sound coming from within that sounded a lot like chanting.

The tower was equidistant from the main house and the apparent Jakaree place of worship. It had a lovely little copse of trees around it which, after we were sure the way was clear, provided a nice bit of cover as we made our way to the tower’s base. A door was located front and center—too bad we’d no plans to use it. Instead we went around the opposite side, using the trees’ thick branches to conceal our initial ascent as we started up. I’d kill to be able to use my grappling hook and a rope or, even better, have an airship drop us off on the roof. But the tower rose too high for a throw of the grapple, and I hadn’t had the foresight to arrive in style. So we did it the old fashioned way, with fingers, toes, and straining muscles. I led, though halfway up I felt I might be slowing Liz down. I’d already done this once tonight, though, back at Aravar’s, whereas Liz was fresh. Such thoughts soothed my ego the remainder of the way up.

Once I’d gained the rooftop, I felt a rest was in order, so I slumped into a sitting position while the sweat soaking me through sent a chill up and down my spine. Liz dropped down next to me, a slight heaving of her chest her only sign of fatigue. She made no complaints about the rest, though she made better use of the time than I did, inspecting the lock on the rooftop access door. By the time I moved to join her, she already had her tools out and had started working at it. A few minutes later, the lock was picked. The tower’s occupants had had the foresight to bar the door from the inside as well, but Liz, who was as experienced as they came, had a tool for that as well.

Cracking the door, we peered down into darkness. A wooden ladder led into what was probably a little-used storage area. We took the ladder, closing the rooftop door behind us. I took out a glow-stick, removed the separator tab, and shook it to get the alchemicals within good and mixed up. The resulting light was enough for us to find a door leading out. Towers tend to have spiral stairs; this one was no exception. There were no other rooms at this highest level, just the narrow stone stairs, so we took them down to the next floor. The glow-stick revealed a circular chamber about ten paces across, the exterior of which was lined with doors. Each was shut tight with no light leaking from underneath to indicate the presence of any occupants. The stairs kept winding around, leading us down to the next floor where the dim light from a single torch proved a sufficient substitute for my glow-stick. There being no ‘off’ button on a glow-stick, I left it on the stairs where its light blended with that of the torch. It would exhaust its supply of alchemical fuel soon enough.

This floor proved to be unoccupied as well, despite there being several rooms off the central chamber. I’d no idea of the number of Jakaree in the compound, but I wasn’t surprised that the highest rooms in the tower were empty. No one likes having to climb so many steps on a regular basis. Still, someone clearly came up here to keep torches lit; we found more and more of them as we continued our descent.

We were between floors when we heard a sound too faint to identify. It wasn’t getting closer, so we kept moving until we saw a half-open door with flickering light beaming out. I heard the noise again: a scratching sound, like a quill on parchment, and a chair creaking and then pushed back as its legs scraped against the wood floor. Footsteps sounded too, causing both of us to pad forward till we were at either side of the doorway, in case whoever occupied the room decided to come out. Papers were shuffled and pages turned, and then the person within returned to the chair and we heard the sound of the quill scratching away once more.

I peered inside, seeing a study or library with a single figure sitting at a desk. His bald head was down as he wrote on a single piece of parchment. His head kept moving to his left, his gaze straying over a scroll held flat by weights. Next to that scroll was the bone case I’d stolen from Aravar.

I leaned back, slipping one of my shorter, killing knives from its sheath. The motion proved a sufficient signal to Liz as to my next move. We’d both go in, but I’d be the one to do what was necessary if it came to that. It didn’t. The man, who was less energetic than the ones who had attacked me on the streets, was so engrossed with his work that he never even saw us coming. Rather than risk spattering the documents on the desk with blood, I rapped him over the head with the hilt of my knife before easing his body to the floor.

While I occupied myself with that business, I assumed Liz would gather up the scroll. I was wrong. She’d come into the room right behind me, but hadn’t gone much further than a few steps. Instead, she’d become completely captivated by whatever was on the wall to her right. I looked to see what had her so fascinated.

Drawings and schematics covered the entirety of the wall. Of varying sizes, each was drawn in exquisite detail. Liz seemed interested in all of them, while I found my attention drawn solely to the largest one right at the wall’s center. It detailed a superstructure of gears, cylinders, and other components whose names and functions I couldn’t guess, all surrounding a sun-shaped object that looked an awful lot like the black sun tattoo I’d seen on the Jakaree priests’ foreheads. I tore my gaze from that one drawing to give the others a more thorough look. They were more of the same, though these had other configurations and none had the sun at its center like the largest one.

Liz stepped closer to the wall. “What in Uhl is all this?”

I took a look at the papers on the desk. The one I’d stolen from Aravar wouldn’t have looked out of place pinned to that wall. It looked like the priest I’d knocked out had been using it as a reference, for his parchment had the beginnings of yet another device on it. I lifted it to get a better look, but after only a few seconds realized that now wasn’t the time. We were here to recover Aravar’s scroll, not gawk at a wall of mechanical gibberish or figure out what the Jakaree were up to. I furled the scroll up and slipped it into its case, then let Liz know we were done here.

“I’ve got the scroll, Liz. Let’s go.”

She nodded, her attention still on the diagrams. It took another priest entering the room to finally break her concentration from them.

He came in unsuspecting, his full attention on a small mechanical device he carried in both hands. “If we adjust the modulators, then the barrier’s resistance—”

This was the first time I’d actually heard one of the priests speak. He did so with a strange accent, and my bet was that he was about to say something very insightful. But then he looked up and saw the two of us. The shock of discovering two intruders was enough to make anyone panic. This one didn’t disappoint. The black sun tattoo on his forehead turned into a furrowed mess as his eyes went wide, his brow rose in surprise, and he took an involuntary step backward. I’d put my knife away, otherwise I would have flung it at him. Liz, whose reaction time was better than good, took care of the priest for me. Spinning around, she leveled a kick right into his midsection that not only doubled him over, but also sent him staggering back out the doorway.

Everything would have been fine if he’d simply crumpled to the ground right there beyond the threshold. But Liz had kicked him too hard. Once past the doorway, he tripped, fell over, rolled, and went right back down the main stairs. He was too discombobulated to shout anything coherent, but I didn’t think it mattered with all of the other noises he made as he tumbled down the steps. The device he’d been carrying went with him, its clattering distinctly separate from the man’s grunts and yelps of pain.

No words passed between Liz and me. We both knew the gig was up. I drew my long, curved knives, and then we went out together, wasting no time as we followed in the wake of the tumbling priest. We found him right at the next floor. He wasn’t moving, which was good for us. But two more Jakaree with clubs at their belts, come to see what the commotion was all about, were already coming up the stairs and into view. They got over their surprise at seeing us much better than the other one had, showing no hesitation as they charged. I took the initiative, meeting them halfway as I ducked under the clumsy swing of the first, slashing him deep as I passed. I blocked the blow of the second and gave him the same treatment as the first. Neither was a killing stroke, but it gave each of them something else to think about while I spun around, stabbed one in the back, then slashed the other across the throat. It was over for them just like that.

“Let’s get moving,” I said to Liz.

Expecting more guards, we descended to the next level. I didn’t hear anyone stomping toward us, though, so as we came upon a window halfway between floors that looked out over the compound, I stopped to reconnoiter the area. There was the main house, with lights shining here and there, but with none of the sort of activity I’d expect to see had someone sounded the alarm. I saw the place of worship, too, which for some reason had a rectangular opening in the roof. Not a small rectangle, either, but one wide enough that there almost wasn’t a roof at all. Damnest thing, too, for right through the center of that opening I saw a machine that looked pretty close to what we’d just seen displayed on the study wall. Light from torches held by Jakaree priests standing all around it made its metal shine. Or maybe it gave off a glow of its own as it spun and whirled around the exact thing I was hoping wouldn’t be there: a ball of energy so dark it was a sphere of utter blackness amidst the machine’s otherwise metallic sheen.

Liz saw it from over my shoulder. I couldn’t see much more than her eyes, with her mask covering everything else, but her narrowed brow told me she was very interested in what we were seeing. Too interested, I thought, as I prepared to question her. Before I could, she cut me off.

“We’ve got company.”

I was ready for more priests, but that wasn’t what she meant. She had her head turned, listening, and I heard it now, too. Shouts, coming from the direction of the compound’s gate, and steel ringing on steel. The Black Guard had arrived. Good. We could use the chaos they were bringing with them to cover our escape.

No one greeted us at the next floor. Doors were closed and the stairs wound around and around, leading us down to the next level, still with no further Jakaree obstacles to overcome. Another floor of nothing and I got the feeling that most of the priests were in the place of worship, watching their machine do its thing.

We did finally see another priest, guarding the way out of the tower. He proved a slight distraction for me as Liz slid past and went to the door. Before the priest’s body had hit the ground, she gave me the all-clear, and out we went.

It had been quiet when we’d come in. No longer. Jakaree streamed from the roofless building, disappearing into the dark as they ran to stop the Black Guard invaders. In the distance, but drawing closer, we heard the sounds of battle. We made ourselves small, hiding amidst the tower’s trees as we watched the flow of priests leaving the place of worship diminish to a trickle. I had the utmost confidence in the Black Guard and their ability to win the day, or night as the case may be, and so I didn’t think it a good idea for us to stick around any longer than necessary and risk them finding us.

I turned to Liz to point in the direction of our escape route, but she wasn’t there. Not next to me or even close by, but slinking toward the Jakaree holy place.

Part of me wasn’t surprised. I no longer had any doubt that she knew something. I considered grabbing her and, if necessary, dragging her back over the compound wall. In fact, as I followed in her footsteps, that’s what I half intended to do. But she was already too close to the Jakaree building. A commotion would only alert any priests remaining inside to our presence. I reached her before she did anything stupid, as if she hadn’t already done so, squeezing her arm to get her attention while I motioned back the way we’d come. She shook my hand loose in response and, drawing one of her knives, padded along the exterior wall toward the building’s entrance.

I shook my head. This is why Liz and I never worked out. Not because we disagreed about things from time to time, though we did often enough, but because she always knew something that I didn’t. It had been aggravating then and it was aggravating now. More aggravating, actually, because we were right in the thick of it, with an easy way out, and here she was, dragging me in deeper. I wasn’t going to leave her, though, which I think she knew. I shook my head again. She was taking advantage of my chivalry, plain and simple.

I let Liz lead since she seemed to have some idea of what we were walking into. The sounds of battle from across the compound were very close now. It seemed a strange show of force on the Black Guard’s part just to retrieve a single scroll, but then nothing had seemed normal this night. No more time for idle thought as Liz slipped inside. I was right behind her, long knives ready.

My attention was immediately drawn to the machine and the ebon sun at its center. It had four legs supporting a circular base, the surface of which was ringed with vertical prongs that surrounded and seemed to contain the dark circle of energy. The sphere was not smooth, but a crackling ball, shifting and shimmering while three distinct metallic bands spun around it on as many different axes. Neither the sun nor the bands had any physical connection to one another, but the machine shook and vibrated all the same. It remained in place only because each leg was bolted to the floor.

All but four of the priests had left to deal with the Guardsmen. Those remaining had taken stations around the machine, as if they meant to guard it until it finished whatever it was doing. Those four saw us, but only the two closest moved to engage. Liz took the first; I took the next. Mine had a wild look in his eye as he raised his kris, as if he’d already been worked into a fervor. Or maybe he was just ticked off that I’d come into his home uninvited. Either way, I was surprised to find him a more worthy opponent than the others I’d faced so far. Nothing about his appearance marked him as unique, yet something about the way he handled himself told me he was. His attack suggested skill, but also discipline. He was holding something back as he gauged my worth as an opponent. This was not the tactic of the zealots I’d come to know.

I found my earlier reservations concerning Liz misplaced, as she dispatched her opponent in rapid fashion with knife slashes to his chest, abdomen, and, finally, neck. His death prompted the other two to leap into the fray. One headed for Liz; the other, for me. By a stroke of luck, and probably a desire to make me look bad, Liz finished off her new assailant right away, while here I was still trying to do away with my first. But this one was definitely different from the others. Stronger, faster, more calculating. I’m not saying he would’ve had me—we seemed evenly matched—but external forces came into play just then, so I’ll never know for sure. When I say ‘external forces,’ I’m talking about Black Guard mercenaries, whose rush onto the scene was preceded by a scattering of Jakaree priests fleeing ahead of them. With so many others streaming between us, my exchange with the unique one was immediately ended as we were separated. But, as is sometimes the case, when one opportunity is lost, another rises to take its place. In this case, that opportunity came in the form of a Black Guardsman who wore a mail shirt and a helmet like the others, but who had the insignia of a captain fixed to a black sash hanging across his chest. One look was all it took for him to recognize me. He raised his sword so the tip pointed straight at my heart.

“You!”

Others Guardsmen took notice. Enough that I decided to turn and run rather than face a host of mercenaries all by my lonesome. Turns out the priests weren’t exactly in a full rout; many of them had turned to square off against the mercs rather than surrender more ground. At least their bravado bought me and Liz time to get the hell out of there.

The Black Guard captain got caught up in the melee between his men and the Jakaree, so I was safe from him for the moment. It took no time at all to find Liz, especially since she’d come to a stop right in front of the machine. A priest dove in to take a swing at her, so I disemboweled him, kicking his body away when I was done. I don’t think Liz even noticed.

She’d gathered up an assortment of thick iron poles, which might have been used in the machine’s initial construction, and had one poised over the machine as if she were preparing to throw a spear.

“What exactly are you doing?” I asked her.

She ignored me, so I figured it out on my own. She was studying the timing of the machine’s rotation. Before I could say anything else, she rammed the pole straight into the heart of the machine’s motion. Not only had she timed it perfectly, but the pole actually stopped the machine with a very loud clang that drew the attention of every single person in the room. Across the way, I spotted the one who’d given me so much trouble. Other priests looked to him for direction. So there was something special about this one. This must be Onius, I realized, the Jakaree’s high priest. Onius gestured for the others to continue the fight with the mercs, while he personally made his way toward me and Liz. I moved to intercept, but was immediately cut off by a maelstrom of daggers and swords. Onius saw my dilemma and came around the machine’s other side. Meanwhile, I found myself squaring off against the Black Guard’s captain once more. Only this time we were almost face-to-helmet. He didn’t waste time with words as he swung his long sword at my head. I ducked and rolled, coming up running as I slipped through the other combatants on my way back to Liz.

Amidst the chaos, I heard the machine emit a horrible groan. I’d no idea what was happening over there and no time to look, as another Guardsman took a swing at me. I backpedaled, neither wishing to engage someone in chain mail nor wanting to actually kill the man. They already had enough reasons to want me dead; I wasn’t about to give them any more. But they might not give me a choice. One purposely shoved a pair of priests out of the way to get to me, and another merc was behind me, blocking my way. I supposed I’d have to engage them after all. I’m not sure who would’ve had the worst of it, but fortunately, I didn’t have to find out, for just then the machine came back to life. This time, it was a spectacle. I heard the iron rod snap and the machine whirling back into motion as lightning-like flicks of dark energy shot out in every direction. They were random, and impossible to dodge. One shot out in front of me, bringing with it the smell of something pungent and smoky as it engulfed the merc before me in a shell of blackest energy. He vanished, only a haze of smoke remaining behind to mark his passing. I backed away, but where was I going to go? Others had seen it, too. They ran. I wanted to as well, but I had to get to Liz.

I spotted Onius, right by the machine and almost on her now. If she realized the danger, she paid it no attention as she raised another of the iron poles over the machine, ready to drive it home. I ran, but so did Onius. In that last moment, with dark fingers of lightning-like energy shooting from the machine in all directions, he dove at Liz. I did the only thing I could: I leaped straight for him, knowing full well that our momentum would carry us directly into the machine. I figured, best case, broken bones. Worst case, I wouldn’t be around any longer to have to worry about it. Or maybe Liz would stop the machine’s motion just in time.

No such luck.

As I hit Onius full-on, I remember seeing the machine’s metallic bands and other machinery spinning to meet us, then everything went dark. I hadn’t lost consciousness, though, because I was aware, for the briefest instant, of a cold so penetrating that it cut right to the center of my bones. Darkness, too, so dark I’d never seen such pure black. Then the cold and darkness were gone, and I was back inside the Jakaree’s holy place. The high priest was next to me, feeling the same piercing pain in every part of his body that I did as we writhed on the floor together.

Somehow, amidst the pain, I realized the machine’s motion had stopped again. This time, Liz had a handful of the poles jammed in there. It seemed to hold, though the machine was none too pleased with the situation. It bucked and hissed, and the black sphere of energy at the center started to lose cohesiveness. Liz was at my side then, helping me to stand. Good thing, too, because I couldn’t do it on my own.

“We’re leaving,” she said.

Somehow, she got us through the chaos and outside. It helped that everyone was running from the building with reckless abandon. Something was happening—I only realized what after I was slammed to the ground by the concussive force of the machine exploding. Liz got us up again. I ventured a glance back, but it was all darkness and smoke.

We encountered no resistance as we went back to our point of entry. The front gate would have been a nice, easy walk with no more climbing, but the Black Guard wouldn’t have left it unguarded. Liz had to almost carry me to the wall, but by the time we reached it, I felt I’d gained enough of my stamina back to lift myself over with only a little help.

We headed in a straight line away from the Jakaree compound, stopping at the run-down mansion I’d passed through earlier to allow me time to finish recovering. My strength came back steadily now, and the pain that had been like a thousand tiny icicles piercing my skin soon diminished to almost nothing. Still, I had the memory of those brief seconds rattling around in my head. Mostly, there’d been darkness, but not only that. I’d seen something else, too, right at the end. Something I didn’t want to think about just then, or maybe ever.

Liz was looking at me funny. I knew she wanted to know. Well, I wasn’t telling.

She pulled down the sash covering her mouth and asked, “How are you feeling?”

“Better.” As I slumped into a crouch, it dawned on me that I should be the one asking the questions. Curiosity alone hadn’t led Liz into that building. “What the hell was all that?”

She didn’t respond right away. She was leaning against the wall with her arms crossed, probably trying to decide how best to answer, or if she should answer at all. I wasn’t planning on allowing her to leave without at least telling me something. Finally, she sighed and said, “I didn’t come here strictly on Guild business. Another organization asked me to accompany you in order to do some reconnaissance.”

So much for all the concern about my well-being and talk of watching my back.

“They call themselves the Warders.”

“Never heard of them.”

“They’re mixed up with the Jakaree. Have been for a long time. In fact, they followed them here to Alchester all the way from the Freelands.”

The Freelands. A hodgepodge of independent provinces and principalities fancying themselves ‘free’ because they’ve sworn loyalty to neither king nor god. It seemed an ironic place for a religious sect to go about their business.

“The Warders are involved in a secret war with the Jakaree. They’ve a difference in…ideologies.”

“Care to elaborate?”

“Not really. Not yet. Tell you the truth, before tonight I thought most of what they’d told me was so much nonsense, but the money was good and the jobs easy. But now, I’m not so sure what to think.”

“You can think about answering my questions.” My tone had more than a hint of irritation in it. “What exactly were the Jakaree doing with that machine? And what did Aravar’s scroll have to do with it? And what’s the Black Guard’s interest?”

“I don’t know anything about the machine, and that’s the truth. The Warders exist to keep the Jakaree in check, if not to outright destroy them, so when I saw the machine active, I knew the Warders would want me to stop it. And so I did.”

“You expecting a bonus for showing extra initiative?”

She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Yes, actually. I might even be able to negotiate something for you.”

“Thanks, but no thanks.” I needed more time to sort all of this out before I started taking money from people I knew nothing about. Not that I didn’t do it as a matter of routine on any given day, but this wasn’t any given day. I stood, finding my balance restored. All but the last lingering touches of the pain were gone now too. “What about the rest of it, then? What were the Black Guard after?”

“They wanted the scroll back, and the machine if they could have taken it from the Jakaree. They weren’t working for Aravar, which I’m sure you figured out. They’re on the payroll of another entity, the Progressives.”

Another association I’d not heard of. I must fraternize in the wrong social circles.

“Let me guess. Their ideology is in conflict with the others as well, except…except everyone wanted the scroll.”

“Yes. I don’t know any more about what’s written on it than you do. What I do know is that the Jakaree wanted it bad enough to kill to get it, and to silence anyone who knew about it. Based on things I’ve heard the Warders say, that machine was probably only one step of many in the Jakaree’s plans.”

“I think you set them back some.”

Liz shrugged. Then, before I could continue my line of questioning, she said, “I know you want to know more, but right now I can’t tell you anything else. There is a secret aspect to this war, after all, so I’m not sure how much the Warders would want you to know.”

I wasn’t sure how much more I wanted to know. But I didn’t think I was done with this business, so I would want answers…eventually.

“I have some questions of my own for the Warders,” Liz said. “Questions I didn’t even think to ask before tonight. Maybe once I’ve gotten some of those answered, I can tell you more.”

“Fair enough.” Sensing our time was drawing to a close, I took the scroll case from my belt. “I suppose you’ll be wanting this?” I said, flipping it to her. She plucked it out of the air. “It sounds like you’ve made up your mind about who gets it. What do you plan on telling the Guild? They’ve a client expecting it too, you know.”

In all, four different entities wanted the scroll: the Jakaree, the Warders, the Progressives, and an as yet to be revealed person who’d had the sense to avoid direct involvement altogether thus far.

“I can handle the Guild.”

“Just don’t pin it on me. I did my job.”

She smirked. “Don’t worry. It won’t get back to you. Promise.”

Memories of that dark place wouldn’t leave my mind, so I felt compelled to ask, “What will the Warders do with it?”

“They’ll destroy it, just like they destroy anything that’s of interest to the Jakaree.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because they’re the ones who hired you to kill Aravar. And I think…Aravar may have been a trial run. I think they wanted to see what you could do. That’s how they initiated contact with me at first. They may want you to go after Onius eventually. They’ve tried taking him out before, but obviously they’ve not had success.”

It’s nice to know I have future employment possibilities.

Liz pushed away from the wall, looking like she meant to approach me. But then she stopped and narrowed her gaze. “You know, you and Onius went in one side of the machine and came out the other.”

I took in a deep breath and let it out. “Yes, I know.”

That was all I planned on saying about that. For the time being, she had her secrets and I had mine, and Liz not pressing me meant we’d leave it at that.

She approached me then, looking straight into my eyes before she leaned in and kissed me full on the lips. She pulled away only reluctantly, or at least that’s how it seemed to me.

“I know you probably don’t believe me,” she said, “but I meant what I said about watching your back. The Warders were only part of the reason I went in there with you.”

I nodded, neither believing nor disbelieving her right now. I’d figure it out later.

She put the scroll away. It was as good a sign as any that it was time to go.

“You all right to make it out of here on your own?” she asked. “It wouldn’t hurt for us to split up.”

“I’ll be fine. Already feel like my old self again.”

“Good. Make sure you stay that way. I have a feeling we may find ourselves working with one another again. Maybe even soon.”

“Thanks for the warning.”

She smiled, then she turned and left.

I didn’t stick around much longer either. As I exited the mansion, I saw the sun’s first rays beaming over the city. I waited, staring into its red-orange brilliance until it hurt my eyes. I wanted it to burn away the memories of that cold, piercing darkness, but if Liz’s smile wasn’t enough, what good was a flaming ball floating across the sky going to do?

Before I set out, I made sure the other scroll case I’d secreted away remained secure. You see, while Liz was so enraptured by the diagrams on that study wall, I was stuffing the parchment I’d first picked up into Aravar’s bone case, and the original scroll into another. The one I’d given her was, of course, not the genuine article. It never hurt having a decoy, though I didn’t initially think I’d be using it on Liz. But then things hadn’t exactly gone down the way I’d expected either. She’d check to make sure something was inside the case before handing it over to her employer, but she wouldn’t know how to spot it as a fake.

The Warders, however, were another story. They’ll figure it out soon enough, and then I expect they’ll come around to pay me a visit. I’ll be ready for them, just as I’ll be ready for Onius, if he’s even still alive, and the Black Guard too. I got a good look into their captain’s eyes. He wasn’t going to let this one go easily.

As I left the Emory estates behind and got myself to more familiar ground, I stayed in the light and shied away from shadows. This night of zealotry might be over, but I had a feeling it was not going to be my last.

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