/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: The Abyssal plague

Shadowbane

Eric De Bie


Eric Scott De Bie

Shadowbane

PROLOGUE

17 KYTHORN, THE YEAR OF DEEP WATER DRIFTING (1480 DR)

Mercifully, the sun sank beyond the distant horizon, letting cool night reclaim the Sword Coast.

For Duran Ironhand, who had pulled the short stick and been stuck with this fool’s errand into Luskan, it was a relief after hours of steaming heat.

Twilight brought its own dangers, however, particularly in Luskan. Monsters, Duran preferred: a monster was honest in its vile aims-predictable. Most of the perils lurking in the shadows wore the faces of men and carried jagged steel. Duran kept one hand on his coin purse and the other on the war pick at his hip.

Still, Luskan did boast fine sunsets. The stinking smoke had tainted the air, and when the sun god Amaunator sank into sleep, the clouds blazed with vibrant light. Duran couldn’t really say how it all worked-the blue-haired lady had tried to explain it, but to no avail. The wizard tagging along with Clan Ironhand had a kind way about her, but her words often made his head hurt.

His partner Roluf rubbed his hands together out of nervousness. “Hope they hurry up. I need a piss.”

The two dwarves stood outside a tavern down by the docks at the appointed meeting place. Their contact was a big man in a gang called the Dead Rats. The dodgy tluiners were known on the streets of Luskan for being untouchable, unless one fancied a quick and bloody death in the shadows. No one could say for certain if they were fully men or partially beasts.

Luskan hadn’t always been so wretched. As little as twenty years ago, when Duran had first visited the city, it could still be called a civilized place. Shops opened at dawn, folk walked openly in the streets, and taverns served ale late into the night. Now, however, the gangs-each of them led by one of the so-called High Captains-had abandoned any semblance of order or governance. More shops closed every day, and people hid behind locked doors. Taverns still remained open but, like as not, a man who drank too much would be stabbed walking out of one.

Three men came out of the shadows. Duran fumbled for his war pick, but Roluf caught his hand. “Jumpy, eh?” he said. “That’s our man.”

Their contact was a hulking creature, heavyset in a city whose food reserves rarely allowed such luxury. Must be a ferocious fighter to feed himself so well, Duran thought. Despite his build, he had beady, glittering eyes and a narrow face. The Dead Rats had a look, after all.

“You got what we need?” Roluf asked.

The bulky Rat drew his lips back from yellow teeth. “You got the blades, I got the gold.”

Roluf nodded to Duran and the dwarf grimaced. He didn’t like it, but dealing with the Dead Rats of Luskan created important coin flow for the clan. He opened his pack for inspection. Dwarven blades gleamed inside it-four long daggers hammered from Sundabar steel.

It wasn’t really fine dwarven steel from Mithral Hall, but at least the Ironhands did not cut their product with inferior metals. Times were tough in the Year of Deep Water Drifting, and many smiths in a similar position used adulterated iron from one of the human lands of the north-or worse, the orc kingdom of Many-Arrows. The Ironhands had some pride, even if they had become glorified arms dealers.

The blades sparked approval in the eyes of their contact, who wouldn’t know good steel from orc shit anyway. The gold the Rats carried-four trade bars, one for each dagger-was certainly good. A ridiculous sum in fact, but as Lord Naros had argued, what use had the Luskar for gold? They needed tools that shed blood, and that Clan Ironhand could provide.

The deal was made with hands shaken and goods exchanged.

“Now then,” Roluf said. “I’m for a piss-less you want to come with?”

Instead of snickering, the Dead Rat nodded soberly and touched his laces. “Sign of trust,” said the man. “Men who share blood, women, and a wall be the best of friends.”

“Hrmf-well then.” Roluf glanced at Duran and nodded. “Just don’t watch.”

The two men went back around the corner in the alley behind the tavern, leaving Duran with the two smaller Dead Rats. “Hail,” the dwarf said.

The men’s eyes flicked and their noses twitched.

“Right then.” Duran leaned on the grimy wall of the tavern and lit his pipe. He looked west into the darkening sky and tried to ignore the chirping of the twilight insects and the rustling trash all around them.

The streets come alive when darkness falls.

Death stirs as knives flash and blood flows.

The night is our time.

Five jabber in the alley.

We watch.

One of them rises to leave the others-he has drunk too much of the sweet liquid that fills their cups.

A second one joins the first, leaving only three behind.

We creep forward.

We hunger.

“Agh!” Roluf shouted.

Duran realized his focus had wandered, and he snapped back to the world. Dozing in Luskan was a bad idea. “What’s wrong?” he called, his hand on his war pick.

“Sommat stlarning bit me!” Roluf called from the alley.

Hands went to blades in anticipation, but to no end. A furry beast came rushing from the shadowy alley, squeaking as it ran from Roluf.

The two gang members grinned, sharing some jest at his expense.

“Godsdamned rat,” Duran said. Godsdamned Luskan, too-the sooner Clan Ironhand left the city a hundred leagues in the dust, the better. “Hey, Roluf! You done?”

He heard a wet smacking sound and a moan. “Feh,” Roluf said.

“Moradin’s beard,” Duran said. “What’d you drink?”

The dwarf edged closer to the alley. The Dead Rats, who could already see from where they stood, gaped.

“The Fury,” one murmured.

The other turned so white he glowed in the moonlight.

Then they abandoned the dwarven steel and fled.

“Hrasting Luskan,” Duran said, turning into the alley. “Hey, Roluf-”

What he saw stopped the dwarf in his tracks.

His companion sat over a hunk of quivering flesh that must once have been the Dead Rat contact. One of the proffered gold bars was in his hands, and he was bringing it up and down, up and down, against a skull that had long since caved in. Blood sprayed with each strike as the Dead Rat corpse shook.

“What-what happened?” Duran said. “What did he-?”

Roluf raised his spattered face and Duran saw that his eyes burned bright red. There was rage there, and madness-and hunger.

“Feh,” Roluf murmured as he began to approach. “Feh … meh …”

“Hey,” Duran said. “Stay-stay back-”

“Feh!” Roluf hefted the gold brick high over his head and lunged forward.

Duran cried out in terror.

CHAPTER ONE

17 KYTHORN (NIGHT)

Hereyes shot open and she caught her breath, stifling a scream in the wake of a half-remembered nightmare.

She lay still in her awkward sleeping position, as though paralyzed on the rough ground. She concentrated on keeping the fragments of the dream alive in her mind.

Most folk tried desperately to forget their nightmares. Unlike them, Myrin Darkdance tried very hard to remember.

A cave. She had been in an empty place of humid darkness that set every pore in her skin to weeping. Creatures stalked the blackness-creatures that surrounded her and reached for her with gnarled talons. There were words that she’d understood but couldn’t remember. And through it all, an awful, beating heart that was not her own …

Her mental effort came to little in the end. The dream faded, and with it, any hope of more answers that night. She reassured herself that the dream may have been just a dream, rather than a true memory. Myrin had no way of knowing-she had awakened a year ago in Waterdeep with only a vague idea of her name. Being an amnesiac could be frustrating.

“Mother Mystra.” The wizard sat up and brushed an errant lock of blue hair out of her eyes and rubbed her head. “That’s the last time I drink myself to sleep with dwarves.”

Myrin was no longer tired, but it was still the middle of the night and her head hurt from the ale. The drink had been very good, and it made the dour dwarves a bit more amusing-both points in its favor. She was in the camp of the Ironhands-a clan of dwarves caravanning from Silverymoon to Waterdeep and eventually on to Westgate. They’d been kind enough to take her along and the least she could do was imbibe what they offered.

Slight mistake.

Not wanting to rise and make her head ache more, Myrin lay back on her bedroll and watched the dwarves by the fire. A musical clan, the deep timbre of their voices carried through the camp every night. They ate to refrains of historical epics like “The Red Knight’s Charge” and “Jain and Elloe.” They drank to the rowdy “Pwent and the Ragers.”

Tonight, the bard Boren-whom the other dwarves inevitably called “Boring,” even though he was anything but-wiled away the dark hours softly singing “Ghost and the Maiden.” It had sounded better when she’d heard it in Silverymoon, but the dwarves’ version lost none of the glory and passion of the tale. The tragic ghostwalker, caught in a web of violence forged of his own thirst for vengeance; the beautiful Nightingale, who fought so hard to save him from himself. Every time Myrin heard it, she prayed that the story would somehow end in joy, and every time it trailed off with the task complete but the lovers forever separated.

The ballad was usually Myrin’s favorite, and it rarely failed to instill in her a deep sadness mixed with hope. Perhaps-just perhaps-all would be well despite the inevitable sorrow.

Tonight, however, it only increased her headache. She didn’t want to hear about love, no matter how passionate or tragic. The Nightingale in the story was a fool to invest so much in a man whose quest was more important to him than she was. Myrin had met a man like that and he’d made the same choice.

Kalen Dren.

Memories of him never did her any favors. A year ago, she’d wanted to fall into his arms and abandon thought and responsibility. Ultimately, she’d realized he didn’t love her. She’d watched him kill a man in the street even as she begged him to come away with her. Just like the hero of the story, he hadn’t chosen her. He’d chosen his quest instead. Even a year later, she still felt rejected, after she’d thrown herself at him like a ninny. Now, she made every effort to forget him, with some success. Mostly, she only had to deal with the occasional dream or two. (Which were, unfortunately, very good dreams.)

Today she walked her own path. She didn’t need him anymore. She had found more memories, including her name-or at least part of it: Darkdance.

She had learned the name in Silverymoon-in an absorbed memory.

She wasn’t sure what had driven her to the city-a feeling, perhaps, that had come over her a year ago when she had gone to the spring masquerade at the temple dressed as Lady Alustriel, one of the legendary Seven Sisters and once ruler of Silverymoon. Myrin still kept the shimmering red dress she had worn, folded carefully in the pack beside her bedroll. She felt a little tingle of recognition every time she touched it. She usually put little stock in feelings, but she understood the power of intuition. And so she’d made her way there, hoping to find someone who recognized her and could tell her something-anything-about her past.

Alas, she’d found no one in Silverymoon who found even her name familiar. Her gold-brown skin and startling blue eyes were distinctive enough, even without the shock of azure blue hair. She checked the enrollment at the Lady’s College of Magic and had even gone to the libraries, all with no luck.

She had despaired of finding even a hint as to her lost identity until, after a tenday, she got stuck watching a parade for the Lord Methrammar. The elderly lord was shaking hands with folk on the street. A chance touch, and she was abruptly somewhere else-someone else.

This had happened before-a year ago, when she had touched a treacherous woman called Fayne. She’d seen a memory of herself through Fayne’s eyes, the way she must have appeared: powerful and frightening, blazing with magic.

It passed the same with Methrammar. She became him for all of three heartbeats, and saw another night, a fantastic one filled with magic and beauty. And then she found herself sitting dazed in the street, unable to think of anything else.

Myrin decided to examine that memory again. She adjusted into a more comfortable posture and focused on the memory. She spoke syllables of power-a simple cantrip she’d learned over the last year-and an image made of fire swirled before her. It boasted flames of various colors: silver and gold, red, and blue. She closed her eyes and remembered, all the while blindly tracing the memory into the fire with her fingertips.

The night expanded around them, sparkling with a sea of stars. Below, Silverymoon gleamed, alight with songs and dancing. Spell-wrought images of dragons and firebirds cavorted in the skies, spiraling and twisting in glory and terror.

The two of them stood alone at the peak of a bridge of moonlight that arched high over the river. He turned to her, a woman as radiant as the city, burning with life and power, her gown floating like gossamer. A shadowy door-a hole her magic had torn in the fabric of reality-crackled behind her, waiting. Gods, she was so beautiful.

“My lovely Lady Darkdance,” he said. “I wish thee a fine naming day, indeed.”

She looked up to him and smiled mysteriously, her eyes sparkling in the starlight. Her vivid blue lips parted …

The scene faded. She had absorbed no more than a brief flash of all the memory Methrammar had of her. She doubted his fixation with her lips had been entirely proper, but she focused on the image anyway, weaving magic with her free hand as though drawing. Her ale headache increased, but she ignored the pain.

She opened her eyes and saw the image reflected in her conjured flames. This Myrin looked so different-her blue hair glossy, her skin smooth as river-polished stone, her painted lips gleaming like sapphires. Her eyes, though, were the same iridescent blue, radiant in the moonlight. She touched her actual face, feeling her travel-roughened cheeks and her brow caked with dust.

“My lovely Lady Darkdance,” she murmured.

So she had a last name-and a naming day, apparently, though she could not tell which day. Nor did she know how old she had been when Methrammar saw her, or even if the memory was accurate. How long ago had that been?

A scream came out of the night, chasing off her thoughts.

By the fire, Boren the bard and another dwarf leaped to their feet, weapons raised. Boren fell in an instant, blood spurting from his shoulder into the midnight air.

“Attack!” bellowed a deep voice. “To arms!”

Myrin struggled to rise, but the memory and magic had drained her. “Oof,” she said. Her head ached something fierce.

A wizened dwarf kneeled at her side-Elder Naros Ironhand. “Are you well, lady?”

Her head pulsing in pain, Myrin barely understood what was going on. She remembered Naros, the ancient clan leader of the Ironhands, who’d taken her on board his caravan after he’d recognized the name “Darkdance.” He claimed to have met a half-elf by that name out of Westgate long ago-could he be her relative?

At the moment, however, his murky recollections of her potential ancestor mattered less to her than the warhammer in his hand.

“I can fight, I-Ah!” Abruptly, the ache in Myrin’s head grew into blinding agony and she fell to one knee, grasping her forehead. The world blinked in and out of awareness as a patch of hungry nothing drilled into her mind.

Myrin shook the pain away and looked toward the fire, forty feet away. Dwarves were surging up from their bedrolls and cloaks, steel reflecting the dancing flames. They formed a rough circle, casting about for a foe. Within, the crumpled Boren lay moaning.

Myrin started forward, only to have Naros grasp her by the arm. “Stay behind me, girl.” He had drawn forth his holy symbol of Moradin the All-Father.

“I recognize and appreciate your generous offer of protection,” Myrin said, “but Boren’s hurt. I have to help.”

Hardly knowing what she was doing, Myrin drew her wand and traced a circle in the air, leaving a shadowy trail of magic. As she watched, the trail expanded into a door perfectly sized for her-like the door she’d seen in Methrammar’s memory.

“Gods above and below,” Naros said. “Wait-”

Myrin slipped from his grasp, tumbled through darkness-

— and stepped out into the firelight next to the injured bard. Sharp pain bloomed on her chest, running across her skin like a live ember. A line of runes streamed down her chest under her tunic, and a new tattoo appeared right over her heart: a door of shadow. A remembered spell.

Dizziness gripped her for a moment-the aftereffects of the teleportation and the sudden recall of the magic-but Boren’s welling blood gave her focus. A deep gash ran between the dwarf’s shoulder and neck. With a flick of her fingers and a spark of will, Myrin formed a hand of magical force and pressed it onto the wound.

“All will be well,” she said in Boren’s ear. “Have no fear. All-”

“No fear.” A voice behind Myrin set her skin acrawl. She turned around.

There, in the firelight, stood a dark figure. Myrin realized why she had not seen it at first: the creature’s charcoal black skin seemed as dark as the night. Smoke rose from its head rather than hair and the flickering fire glinted off lines of deeper black energy that traced along its skin to a pair of infinitely deep eyes. In those eyes … was nothing, as though the world ceased to exist.

“You,” the creature said in a distinctly feminine voice. It-she-raised one finger to point at Myrin. Darkness flared around her hand. “You are the one.”

Myrin stiffened. Not another hunter-not now! Ever since she could remember, someone had been hunting for her. Worse, that meant this attack on Clan Ironhand was all her fault.

The dark woman rose, setting her cloak rustling in the smoky wind. Beneath the folds of the garment, the woman bore a long-handled axe. The black blade was pitted and jagged, pure murder in the crude form of a weapon.

“Please,” Myrin said. “Your quarrel is with me alone. Leave these others-no!”

The dwarves chose that moment to charge the dark woman from all sides, weapons leading. Seven stood against her.

Too few.

The woman stood unmoving until the first dwarf came within two paces. Then she swayed toward him, bringing her axe scything out from under her cloak. It whipped over her head and struck just below the dwarf’s raised maul. The serrated blade cut straight through the haft and slashed on, sending the weapon-along with the dwarf’s hands-flopping bloodily to the ground.

The dark woman stepped back, following the weapon’s momentum into the second brave-and foolish-dwarf. This one caught the dwarf full in the chest, but his brigandine deflected the potentially mortal blow. Still, the strike put him down, blood spurting from a deep gash in his chest. The axe whirred through the air, singing its own deadly song.

She parried one charging dwarf, who stumbled back cursing at the force of her blow. Fluidly, she lashed out with her rear foot to catch another dwarf full in the face with a crunch. His legs shot out from under him, and he flipped backward to land in the dust.

An unscathed dwarf managed a thrust with one of his two short swords, but the blade cut just wide of her flank. She slapped her arm down to catch the sword against her hip then turned sharply. The motion tore the blade from the dwarf’s hands and brought her deadly axe across to take the dwarf’s head off at the jawline. The brutal steel cleaved flesh like air.

The dwarf she’d parried-along with his two surviving companions, one of them bleeding profusely from the face, the other handless-staggered away. The woman wore a stony expression as her axe spun to a halt, the haft slapping against her free hand. She’d killed or maimed four hardened warriors in the span of two breaths, and her eyes had never left Myrin.

“Demon!” Naros charged forward, his holy symbol raised. “Begone from this place! Back to the Abyss with you!”

The woman glanced at him blankly.

Two dozen dwarves armed with swords, axes, and hammers encircled the central campfire. Elder Naros stepped forward.

“If Moradin does not frighten you, perhaps steel will.” He raised his warhammer. “You may be a fiend with that blade, but we will overwhelm you.”

The woman still had eyes only for Myrin. She raised her axe and the surviving dwarves shuddered. Idly, she set her weapon spinning like a whip over her head.

Myrin hadn’t the least idea what this creature was or who might have sent her. She didn’t know what the woman meant to do to her, but she had no choice.

“Stop,” Myrin said. “I surrender! Harm no more of my friends!”

“Ironhand!” Naros cried, ignoring Myrin’s attempt at bargaining. “Attack!”

These dwarves fared little better than the first group.

The woman moved among them like a threshing wind, her axe flailing about. The dwarves launched blow after blow against her, but none landed. She moved aside from some; others were turned aside by the haze of darkness that swelled around her. She was a zephyr of death in the smoky night air.

The dark woman strode through the horde of attackers like a wraith and raised her axe over Myrin. “Lady!” Naros shouted.

Magic flowed from Myrin without conscious thought. She thrust up her wand and the axe struck a shield of light that appeared between them.

The woman pulled the axe back, nodded in acknowledgment, then kicked Myrin in the belly. Myrin staggered back and collapsed, wheezing.

The woman strode forward but Naros stepped in her path. He struck the woman’s axe with his hammer and she fell back. “Flee!” he cried. “Flee, my lady!”

Myrin forced herself to one knee, gasping for the breath that had been knocked from her body. She had to do something-had to end the fight.

A spell came to her, then, rising unbidden from the depths of her mind. She didn’t recall ever having cast it herself, but she knew where she had seen it cast. A year past, in Fayne’s memory, Myrin had watched the spell conjure crippling terror in a foe’s mind. If Myrin could remember how to cast it, perhaps she could shock the dark woman into stillness. But the spell was so black and terrible. How could she-?

The dark woman knocked Naros’s hammer out of his hands and drew her axe up. The dwarf glared up at her, defiant to the end.

No choice. Myrin shaped the awful spell around her gray-white wand. “Your worst fear to unmake you!” she declaimed in the horrid Abyssal tongue.

A ray of blackness struck the dark woman and for an instant Myrin felt a surge of relief. But the woman wasn’t stunned-she wasn’t even slowed.

Then the niggling pain in Myrin’s head flared and she realized that she was seeing into the woman’s mind.

Inside was nothing.

Myrin stood on the precipice of a sheer, shattering vastness. No warmth-no life. Only herself and the void. She fell to her knees, blood trickling from her nose.

The dark woman looked back at her and her lip curled slightly. She kicked the clan leader away then spun her axe overhead as the rest of the dwarves rushed her. She brought the weapon down in a thunderous swipe upon the ground, and a black whirlwind sent the dwarves flying.

Black manacles appeared around Myrin’s arms and legs and an irresistible force drew the wizard forward. Myrin struggled as the woman grasped her by the throat.

“No fear in the darkness,” the woman said. “No pain in the void.”

The world shivered around them and Myrin could feel the woman drawing her in-over the precipice into emptiness.

A single thought intruded, like a faint ray of hope. Myrin couldn’t explain why her mind flowed this way, but flow it did, and she spoke even though no one could hear.

“Kalen,” Myrin choked out. “Kalen Shadowbane.”

Her voice vanished into nothingness.

CHAPTER TWO

21 KYTHORN (EVENING)

Luskan.

A seeping, lice-ridden sore, the so-called City of Sails squatted on the Sea of Swords, oozing its corruption into land and water alike. The ground itself reacted against Luskan as a body might to a boil, growing chapped and barren for a league in all directions. One could smell the city at that distance-a sickly mixture of rancid meat, old dust, and shit, which only grew thicker as one approached.

As dusk fell, a lone rider approached, his gray cloak flying out behind him in a trail of dust. He held no illusions about the city-in fact he knew it better than most. He knew enough not to return, and yet he had no choice.

Kalen Dren never did seem to have much choice.

Ever a hole, Luskan had suffered two blows near a century past: The pirate kings had clashed with painful consequences for the city, and then the Spellplague struck. The city existed now as a mere mockery of what it had been. In the Year of Deep Water Drifting, Luskan was its own small nation, ruled by thieves and madmen.

Greasy smoke from half a hundred chimneys formed a haze over the city as forbidding as the thick walls around it. Every morning, the walls were hung with the remains of fresh victims of the city, grisly totems that drove back invaders without needing a single living defender.

Lately, Luskan had acquired another line of defense: a contingent of Waterdhavian Guard stood sentry around the city. Summer was, after all, plague season, and if Luskan suffered a new malady, the Guard’s strict quarantine would keep it contained.

It was, in short, the last place any sane traveler would ever want to go.

The lone man rode with eyes fixed upon the rotting city. His sword gleamed, an eye-in-gauntlet sigil etched on its hilt. Kalen felt vague warmth through his glove at its touch, and he knew that the blade would have burned any other man. But thanks to his spellscar, he could barely feel even the deepest of cuts. To him, this pain offered only dull distraction-the niggling reminder that he was no longer worthy of his sword.

He could bear that.

He thought of the note-the scrap of parchment folded up inside his leather breastplate, close to his heart. He thought of the hand that had written it and of the single word-Luskan-scrawled in blood across the neat handwriting. Inviting him-challenging him. “Come and find her,” those six letters had implied. “If you can.”

Kalen Dren came with a purpose and would not be swayed.

Not if he had to kill every single son of a bitch in the godsdamned city.

As the sun dipped, signaling the last hour before the shifts changed, relief filled the guards on duty at the isolated cliffside gate at the south end of the city.

It was a small gate-more a flaw in Luskan’s wall, actually, broken open during the earthquake that had ripped through the region twenty or so years past. Accessible on foot or by boat, it stood beside a precipitous fall into the churning waves of the Sea of Swords. Locals called it “Cliffside Cranny” for its forbidding location and narrow opening. Nevertheless, folk had used it to smuggle captives or exiled nobles in and out, at least until the Waterdhavians erected a crude barricade to seal the gap, leaving a tiny space at the very top.

Rhetegast Hawkwinter, the younger of the two guardsmen, yawned and sighed as dusk brought blessed cool air. Luskan was experiencing a heat wave the last few tendays, one that did not show signs of stopping. The half-elf-Rhett to his friends-had received his first gauntlet not two tendays past, and ye gods, had life in the Guard proved both uncomfortable and a bore.

“Another day in service to the Lords, another day sitting on our haunches.” Rhett stretched. “That was a long shift. I, for one, look forward to a bit of the watered ale they foist upon us back at the camp. I thought it ghastly at first, but-Carmael? Are you even listening?”

The second of the Trusties-an irritable Cormyrean expatriate by the name of Carmael-was poring over dispatches from Waterdeep: orders, wanted notices, and the like. His cragged face remained passive and his eyes kept to his work.

Rhett was accustomed to this sort of benign neglect. The Guard was hardly the glorious, romantic pursuit he’d been led to believe. He rather suspected his father, Lord Olivar Hawkwinter, had set him on this path not to build character as he’d claimed, but rather to make an attempt on his life through monotony. Still, Rhett was determined to make the best of it.

“Sir Carmael, methinks that lass back at the camp-Este? The one who washes our weathercloaks?” He winked. “Methinks she has her eye on your noble visage.”

The older man glanced over, then shook his head. “Belt up, Trusty,” he said, annoyed. “Or at least wait until you’re back in the privacy of your own bunk.”

“Hmm!” Rhett saw a letter written in a lady’s hand half-concealed among Carmael’s papers. “Ah ha! And what is that, Sir Oh-So-Chaste? Methinks-”

“Enough!” Carmael rose to his feet, fists clenched.

“Ah ha!” Rhett beamed. “Love is ever a cause for fisticuffs. Have at thee, Sir!”

“Stay those tongues and fists.” A guardsman with three gauntlets on his breastplate-the mark of a Shieldlar and their superior officer-appeared out of the faltering light. A good man who took his job seriously, Duth Galandel had little use for idle soldiers.

“Hail, Sir,” the guardsmen said together.

“Belt up, both of you,” Galandel admonished as he took a seat on a jutting stone. “Duty’s not ended.”

The Trusties saluted-a smart rap on the hilts of their swords. Carmael went back to his papers. Rhett latched onto the Shieldlar as a new source of relief from the tedium of sentry duty.

“Sir, I-” Rhett paused. “That is, if you don’t mind the question.”

Galandel shrugged. “Ask.”

“Sir, why are we guarding this gate?”” Rhett looked down the steep path. “We haven’t seen a sign of anyone trying to escape. Not that I blame them: they’d have to circle the city half a mile to reach the open road, where the Guard is stationed anyway.”

The Shieldlar leaned against the wall and looked up at the moon. Selune was waning, but her tears were bright tonight. “It only takes one to break the quarantine, Hawkwinter.”

“Yes, Sir.” Rhett bowed his head to that logic. “It’s-it’s just that we haven’t seen anyone even try to leave in a tenday!” he said. “Wouldn’t it make sense to reassign me to the main gate, where more folk try to get out? I’ll be of more use there.”

“And this reasoning of yours,” Galandel said. “It has nothing to do with a certain raven-haired Valabrar in command there?”

Rhett smiled innocently. “Sir, I don’t know what you mean.”

Really, who in the Guard wouldn’t want to take orders from Araezra Hondyl-in battle or otherwise? The Valabrar was one of the best-looking women in Waterdeep-possibly in all the Sword Coast. And she was his own age, just about. Though she’d risen high in the ranks, she had seen no more than a handful over a score winters. Perfect.

“No one’s going to come out this gate,” Rhett said firmly.

“Perhaps not,” Galandel said. “And if anyone tried to break in while we left this smuggler’s gate unguarded?”

“Sir!” Rhett chuckled. “Only a lunatic would do that.”

The clatter of hooves on the salt-rimmed stones drew their attention. Galandel sprang to his feet with the grace of a seasoned warrior.

“What’s that?” Rhett asked.

“A lunatic.” Galandel reached for his steel.

Across from them, Carmael was on his feet, his mighty scimitar drawn and ready.

They saw the horse first: a muscular dun with flanks lathered in sweat. Like as not, the steed had run all day. That in itself was mad-one false step on the narrow path would send horse and rider tumbling into the sea.

The rider in the dark cloak stole their attention. His hood partly hid his face, but Rhett could see one of the rider’s eyes in a flash of lightning-its color that of a gray diamond. The man wore a helm, its faceplate raised.

The man raced up the path and reined his steed to a halt. The horse reared, driving the men back. When he came back down, the rider stared at them the way a hunting dog might gaze at a trio of waterfowl.

“Stand aside.” The man in black’s chill voice brooked no argument.

Galandel strode forth to face him, his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Halt and stay steel in the name of the Lords,” he said. “This city-”

“I won’t ask again.” The man pushed aside his cloak, which rippled in the wind, revealing the long handle and silver pommel of a sword strapped to the side of the saddle. Rhett saw an eye-in-gauntlet sigil on the hilt.

Now that he had drawn closer, they could make out the man’s face. A tenday’s worth of stubble covered cheeks like boiled leather, and the man’s sharp nose was slightly crooked as though it had been broken some time before. It was the gray eyes, however, that stabbed into Rhett’s mind and lingered.

Rhett looked at Carmael, stunned. The older guardsmen returned his gaze in disbelief, then seemed to remember something. He reached among his papers, and drew one out. His face paled. “Sir?” Carmael said to Galandel.

Rhett glanced across at the paper: an artist’s rendering of a dark-haired man. Opposite, there was an image of a featureless helm with two slits for eyes. Between the two was some sort of symbol-a gauntlet like that of the Guard’s ranking sigils, but with a stylized eye drawn in the center. Beneath it all lay one word in block letters. A name.

Rhett sucked in a breath. “Bane’s blazing balls,” he said. “Shadowbane!”

The guardsmen drew steel.

Kalen Dren had hoped to find the Cliffside Cranny unguarded, but alas, three guards stood before him: Shieldlar Galandel, a Trusty called Carmael, and a half-elf boy he didn’t know.

And they were in his way.

Kalen laid his hand on Vindicator’s hilt. The blade felt hot even to his numb fingers. Why had he brought the sword, if it hated him so badly?

Unsurprisingly, the Shieldlar refused to back down. Duth Galandel was a good guardsman-he and Kalen had been friends of a kind. It would be a shame to kill him.

Carmael showed Galandel a wanted notice. Kalen sighed.

“Shadowbane!” said the youngest guardsman. He fumbled with his crossbow, while Carmael smoothly sheathed his scimitar and drew his own crossbow.

“The city of Luskan is under quarantine by Order of the Waterdeep Guard, Shadowbane,” Galandel said. “What possible madness could have brought you here?”

“Madness,” Kalen repeated.

In his mind’s eye, Kalen saw a gold-brown face wreathed in hair like blue fire. He remembered the last words she said to him-pleading with him to follow her-and then the bittersweet missive she had left him. It was the same note that he had in his pocket, a note that told him not to follow-and said she had given him a gift.

Myrin.

He could not change course.

“Perhaps it is madness,” he said, “but I will see it done.”

“The Hells you will,” Galandel said. “Kalen Dren, you are under arrest for crimes against the citizens of Waterdeep: murder, assault, intimidation, destruction of property, and impersonation of a legal guardian of the city.”

The youngest of the guardsmen stiffened at the recitation of these crimes, but Kalen kept his focus on Galandel. “This is your duty?” he asked.

“It is,” Galandel said.

Kalen nodded. He had expected no less.

He climbed down from his steed. With one hand, he unbuckled his sword and its scabbard; then with the other, he slapped his weary horse on the rump. The exhausted steed whinnied-a sound blasphemously loud in the quiet night-and made its way back down the loose path. Odds were, he wouldn’t need the animal again.

Kalen raised the sheathed sword horizontal and level with his face and put his left hand on Vindicator’s hilt. The two crossbows wavered.

“Hold!” Galandel shouted, raising one hand.

They stood among the crags, the only sounds the gentle lapping of waves below and the tense creak of leather-wrapped fingers on crossbow triggers.

“Kalen,” Galandel said softly. “Kalen, stand down, and no harm will befall you.”

“You know I cannot.” Kalen released the hilt of Vindicator to pull his helm’s visor shut.

With a grim nod, Galandel drew his sword and readied his shield.

The Shieldlar circled Kalen, studying him. Walking slowly in the other direction, Kalen let his cloak drift on the sea winds, holding the sheathed sword between them. Wielding it in his left hand still felt a little awkward, but his right hand hadn’t worked well since a dwarf assassin had broken it a year back. And he couldn’t feel any pain, but then, with the sickness growing, he couldn’t feel much of anything in his body.

Nothing but a growing rage that swallowed his earlier restraint. He wanted to hurt one of them. Hurt all of them. Badly.

He pressed his numb fingers into Vindicator’s hilt, letting its fire burn up his arm. He might not be worthy of the weapon, but the warmth reassured him.

As Galandel charged, Kalen closed his eyes and focused on his sword. He drew.

A flash of light, dazzlingly bright under the stars, half-blinded the guardsmen. It seemed as though Kalen held a shard of the sun. One of the crossbows fired, but Kalen swept aside the bolt with his scabbard and parried the dazzled Galandel with his grey-burning sword. Their steel rang in the twilight, blades locked high.

Galandel broke the lock first, and struck high to low. Kalen parried again, his blade pointed tip-down to let the Shieldlar’s sword rake down its length. Kalen stepped back, ready to ward off another strike, and the senior guardsman did not disappoint. He followed his strike up with two more thrusts. Kalen’s second parry slipped a hair, and Galandel’s blade cut into his opponent’s leather gauntlet and drew blood.

Kalen looked down at his wound. The blood on his arm seemed to belong to someone else-someone far away. With his spellscar affliction, he could be cut to the bone and it would only itch a little. He looked up from his hand to Galandel, standing three paces distant. He dropped his lacquered scabbard, set his right hand on Vindicator’s pommel so he held the sword in both hands, and leveled the blade at the Shieldlar’s eyes.

Galandel came on. This time, Kalen parried wide and braced himself just in time for the coming shield bash, which hit his shoulder. Kalen fell to his back, rolled, and kicked out at Galandel’s leg. The Shieldlar cursed and staggered. Seizing the initiative, Kalen tumbled back to his feet and lunged forward, setting Galandel firmly on the defensive.

They traded blows, parry following counter following parry, in balance, moving faster and faster, and then-suddenly-Kalen struck through Galandel’s defenses. The two junior guardsmen gasped. Galandel’s sword flew harmlessly wide-missing the parry-and his shield whipped around to knocking Kalen away just a touch too late.

Gripping his right arm, Kalen fell back without his sword. Galandel moved a step and panted. The wind whistled between them.

Then Kalen’s head rose. Galandel’s shield slipped, revealing a sword struck through his shoulder-Kalen’s sword. He fell to one knee, his teeth gritted in pain. Carmael cried out in shock and raised his crossbow. Kalen stepped forward, drew a long dagger, and put it to Galandel’s throat. He hoped the guards could see his willingness to take it that far.

But the youngest guard stepped between them, sword lowered. “Wait! Hold!”

Kalen hadn’t expected this. Keeping the gasping Shieldlar under his knife, he appraised the youngest guard. He had bright red hair, a flowery scent that spoke of rich blood, and the build of a lordling raised from childhood with a toy sword in his hand. Kalen saw nothing to indicate why he would step between two veteran combatants, let alone shield a known criminal.

“Make a move, boy,” Kalen said.

The half-elf nodded. “We’re here to keep folk in the city, not out. I mean, we discourage it, but if you need to enter, then enter, and Tymora’s good luck to you.”

Slowly, Kalen inclined his head.

“Rhett-what are you doing?” Carmael hissed. “This man is a wanted criminal. We’re not just going to let him go!”

“Let him go into Luskan?” the boy-Rhett-countered. “Isn’t that what we do with criminals anyway? Let them fend for themselves in there?”

“Stupid boy!” Carmael roared. “You’re aiding a proscribed villain!”

“No,” came a weak voice-that of Galandel. “No, the lad’s right.” He looked up to Kalen. “Go then. Whatever quest drives you-go.”

Kalen cast his eyes back to the two Trusties. With a scowl, Carmael lowered his crossbow. Kalen dropped his dagger from Galandel’s throat and sheathed it at his belt. Rhett shivered, but when Kalen gave him a nod, he returned the gesture.

That had taken bravery-and stupidity. A dangerous combination.

Kalen passed between the guardsmen, toward the barricaded cliffside gate.

“Your sword,” Rhett said, pointing to Vindicator, still buried in Galandel’s shoulder. “Don’t you need it?”

He considered it, looking down at his scalded hands. He had not felt worthy of the sword since his failure with Vaelis, months ago. Now … perhaps it was time.

“Keep it,” Kalen replied. “I stopped being worthy of that blade a long time ago.”

He leaped onto the city wall, his boots flaring with blue fire as they carried him aloft. Within two breaths, he had scaled to the top of the barricade and slipped between it and the stone. He squeezed through the cranny and vaulted into the fallen city.

He hit the ground running.

Rhett and Carmael tore off their helms and rushed to their superior, who coughed and clutched at the sword Shadowbane had left in his shoulder. Rhett reached for the weapon, but Galandel slapped the hands away.

“Don’t pull it out, lad,” he said. “What do you think’s holding all the blood in?”

Rhett backed away. “But doesn’t it hurt, Shieldlar?”

“Oh, it hurts like Shar’s sharpened teeth on Cyric’s-gah!” He gritted his teeth and turned to Carmael. “Fetch a healer, Trusty-and right quick.”

“Shadowbane,” Carmael murmured. “Can you believe it?”

“Believe you’ll be mucking out latrines with your beard by sunrise if you don’t get that godspissed healer.”

Carmael tapped the hilt of his sheathed sword in salute and ran for their horses.

“Bold thing you did there, boy,” Galandel said with a grimace. “You could be hanged for disobeying orders-or probably just whipped and discharged. Dishonorably.”

Grimly, Rhett nodded. It was the stupidest thing he had ever done in his young life, and yet, it didn’t feel wrong. “You didn’t want to fight him.”

“We were comrades and I know what kind of man he is.” The Shieldlar gestured to the city. “Tymora’s blessing and Chauntea’s soothing kiss on any who get in his way.”

Though he nodded, Rhett knew that wasn’t why he’d helped Shadowbane. But the unyielding resolve in his almost colorless eyes …

Rhett would remember those eyes.

In the depths of her scrying pool, the priestess saw a man in black sliding down the wall and into the city of sin. The halfling had been right-a crusader had come.

“Kalen Dren,” she murmured. “Come to play my game, have you?”

She saw his image, but only for the briefest of breaths before it dispersed. She would need a closer scrying focus to see him more clearly, but that she could get. She whistled and a servant opened the nearest door to her sanctum.

“Call for Logenn,” she said. “I’ve a task for him.”

CHAPTER THREE

21 KYTHORN (NIGHT)

Past the barricade,Kalen climbed down and rolled to his feet on the dusty ground in Luskan. He moved immediately into the shadows of a nearby building that had once been a tavern, but was now half-burned, rotted, and boarded up. Kalen crouched among the ashen detritus and waited, keeping as still as he could.

Galandel’s sword had bitten deep, but Kalen hardly felt it-his spellscar took care of that. It was his curse that stole much of the feeling from his body. Though he grew stronger every day, became faster, felt less pain and punishment than before, one day it would prove too much. His body would become a stone prison-his lungs ceasing to draw in air, his heart shuddering to a stop. He’d brought the curse on himself, through a stupid mistake he had made years ago. And he lived with the numbing malady every day since. One of these days it would kill him; in fact, a year ago, it almost had. Until Myrin-

Myrin.

All he knew was that Myrin was in Luskan and that he had to find her. He hadn’t seen her in a year, and they hadn’t parted on the best of terms. But as soon as he’d heard she was in trouble, he hadn’t hesitated. That had been four days ago-four days’ hard ride from Waterdeep. He didn’t know who had her, so he’d have to break some heads to find out.

No one had come in or out of the tavern. He drew his dagger and knocked the pommel against the wall, then hunched back down to wait.

Sure enough, a pair of toughs appeared, drawn to the sound. They were grubby, lank-haired men-one a half-orc-with a number of pins and spikes driven through their ears and noses to demonstrate their toughness. He also recognized their symbol: hands or paws in various stages of decay-from fleshy to rotted to skeletal-strung on a chain and worn around the neck like a pendant. These were Dustclaws.

Well, one gang was as good a place to start as another.

The Dustclaws inspected the wall, looking for the source of the noise. One of the thugs peered through the cracks in the barricade, then snuffled and shrugged. The senior one-the half-orc-slapped the back of the man’s head and pointed to the door from which they had emerged. They entered, passing inside walls of chipped brick and a roof of rickety boards that rattled in the sea breeze. They hadn’t seen Kalen, and that lent him the advantage.

Quickly, Kalen rose from hiding and followed the Dustclaws. Kalen recognized the worn quill-and-scroll sign of Flick’s Fancies, a scribner house. He’d spent quite a bit of time there as a boy, taking those chores the proprietor (Felicity, though no one called her that twice) gave him and occasionally filching ink and paper from her cabinets. He found it ironic that the scribner’s letters had vanished over the years while the image remained.

Flick’s bore a gang marking, to denote territory: a gold coin with what looked like horns on the outside. Kalen didn’t recognize the symbol, though it reminded him of the sigils of both Tymora, goddess of luck, and her sister Beshaba, goddess of misfortune.

Kalen looked north into the heart of Luskan. The buildings that lined the worn cobbled streets looked entirely too familiar. He recalled countless sweaty midnights and freezing dawns spent perched on buildings or hiding in holes.

Voices emerged from the scribner’s-those of Flick herself and of another that Kalen recognized quite well. One of the luck goddesses was smiling, it seemed.

This might be difficult without Vindicator. He wondered if it had been a mistake to leave the sword behind. Still, after what had happened three months before, sending the crack running along the blade … No. He would not miss it.

“Focus,” Kalen murmured. “Make of myself a darkness, in which there is only me.”

Cold clarity crept back in, drowning out the anxieties born that awful day. He had come to Luskan with a clear purpose. Myrin needed him and he would not fail her.

He thought back to the structure of the shop: ways in, ways out … Ah. Yes.

Ebbius the Rake drummed his pointed fingers on the countertop. His devil’s tail swished around like that of an anxious cat. He popped out the cork half stuck in the rum bottle in his hand and took a long swig. When he was done, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and grinned. “Now, now, me lovely, be reasonable,” he said to the woman behind the counter.

“Reasonable?” Flick crossed her arms. “Why don’t you bugger off and have your bully boys take their turns tluinin’ you with your own tail. That sound reasonable, eh?”

“Hmm-tempting, but not today, methinks,” he said.

“Nay, today you’ve got to shake me down for coin, is it?”

“That’s the notion.”

Ebbius smiled outwardly and swore inwardly. The tiefling’s infamous charms seemed not to work on the foul-mouthed Madam Flick. Pity, really. So many others fell to just a smile or a glare. He supposed the muscle he’d brought along would just have to do: two thugs out of the Dustclaws, one a particularly ugly half-orc, the other a human doing his best to match. He hadn’t bothered to learn their names.

By her face, Flick wasn’t the least bit afraid of the tiefling or his men. “Like I told you, fiend-born,” she said with a flash of her perfect white teeth, one part of her appearance she prided herself on. “I paid the Coin Priest a tenday past, and t’isn’t no call for more until month’s end. So take your meat-shields and piss off.”

As he took another pull of his rum, Ebbius rubbed one of the two horns that spiraled up from his red-skinned head. Much as he’d expected. He glanced at the Dustclaws and cocked his head toward Flick. The scarred half-orc reached across the counter and caught Flick around the throat. With a flex of his arms, he wrenched her off her feet and slammed her onto the counter. Flick struggled, but the other thug caught her arms.

“I paid, you Tymora-lovin’ dastards!” she shouted. “Get your godsdamned hands off-”

Ebbius silenced her by putting his knife to her lips. “Lady, gracious lady,” he said. “Best take Shar’s own care with your next words. Because I’ve had about as much insult from you as I’m like to take.” The tiefling grinned, exposing every one of his dagger-sharp teeth. “The blessings of the Lady don’t come so cheap and a great disaster is coming to Luskan soon.”

“Already here.”

Ebbius drew his blade back and slitted his luminous eyes. He looked from one of his men to the other. “Who said-?”

With a cry of shock and pain, the half-orc leaped high in the air. He clasped his foot, which trailed blood in its wake.

“Bane’s breath-” Ebbius started, then staggered away as the human thug slammed into him and fell to the floor, crying out in pain.

The tiefling looked down where the Dustclaw had been standing and saw the gleam of a long dagger blade protruding from the crack between the misshaped floorboards. It vanished as he watched, snaking back into the darkness beneath. He bent down, squinting-there, through a wide crack, he saw what looked like a white diamond, gleaming in the dust-filled light.

Then it blinked.

“Black hands of a thousand watching gods,” Ebbius said.

The floorboards erupted and a dark figure rose from below, elbowing aside the splintering wood. His black-gloved hand caught Ebbius by the throat and pulled him close to a weathered face with scarred cheeks, a long-ago broken nose, and colorless eyes.

Worse, Ebbius knew him. “Gods,” he said. “Is that-?”

The man threw him back against the counter. The tiefling lost the world for an instant, his fingers scrabbling at the countertop to steady himself. What was happening?

The half-orc struggled back on his feet, but he went down fast when the attacker punched him in the ear with his open hand. The ugly human got up, limping, but one black boot shot out and struck him in the nose. His face became a mass of blood as half a dozen piercings cut into his flesh, and the hapless thug collapsed.

Ebbius shook his head, just in time to see the demon of a man pull up the half-orc by the collar and punch him with the pommel of his dagger once, then twice. The brute fell back, nose spurting, and groaned his way into unconsciousness. The cloaked attacker glared over his shoulder at the tiefling.

“Little Dren,” Ebbius said. “Fancy seeing you again-”

Something heavy slammed into the back of his head with a loud crack. Wetness dripped down his cheeks, and he knew no more.

Kalen drew back his blood-spattered fist from the half-orc’s battered face. It had felt entirely too good, splitting the Dustclaw’s grayish skin with a punch. He looked over his shoulder.

“Little Dren,” Ebbius said, staring at him dazedly. “Fancy seeing you again-”

A stout club came down on the tiefling’s head. His dagger slipped his hand and stabbed into the floorboards, followed shortly by Ebbius himself sagging down the counter into a heap. The rum bottle rolled free, tracing a half circle before it came to rest near his outstretched foot.

Flick stood behind the counter, grasping the cudgel she had just smashed over the tiefling’s head. She regarded Kalen warily. “Well met,” she said.

“Well.” Not turning to her, Kalen awkwardly took the dagger from his stiff fingers and sheathed it, then flexed his hand in the black leather glove.

“My thanks.” She lowered her club. “Even so, you’ve brought a deal of trouble down on my house, boy, attacking these bleeders like this.”

“Indeed.” Kalen strode across to the mangled human thug, who was still murmuring, and kicked him in the stomach to silence him. “You want me to rough you up-make it look better?”

“I’d rather just pay.” She grimaced. “Donate to the cause, that be.”

“Cause?” Kalen asked.

“Church of Tymora-or maybe it’s Beshaba. None can say for sure,” Flick said. “Settled in five years back, started handin’ out bread and soup and ale to the poor, which is everybody. Really tryin’ to save the city.”

“Save it or squeeze it?”

“Either. Both.” Flick narrowed her eyes. “You’re really him?”

“Who?” Kalen waved a hand in front of Ebbius’s face. The tiefling was very, very out. He hoisted the tiefling over his shoulder. “Thugs’ll wake up in the length of a song or two. You should get out of here before then-it’s not safe.”

Flick shrugged. “I look like a blushing maid to you?”

If Kalen remembered little else about Flick from more than a decade ago, he knew she could convince anyone of anything. The woman was steel cloaked in silk.

“Farewell.” He got to his feet and stepped around the counter toward the alley.

“Wait. You’ll need this.” Flick pressed Ebbius’s half-emptied bottle of rum into his hand. She appraised him shrewdly, hands on her hips. “You didn’t have to do what you did, Little Dren, and I don’t want to seem ungrateful.” Then she smiled her familiar toothy grin. “But get out of my shop, you hrasting scamp.”

Kalen stared at her a moment, then nodded grimly. “I won’t be back.”

He pushed through the door into the alley. The reek of vomit and mostly dried blood assailed his nostrils, but he put the smells out of his mind. Two hours here, and he’d already grown accustomed to the stench.

Little Dren.

He didn’t like returning to this city for many reasons, but the biggest was who-what-he’d been. He didn’t want to go back to that, but if he had to, he would.

Bending low, Kalen set Ebbius against the wall then leaned back on his haunches, considering. He uncorked the bottle Flick had given him and reversed it over the tiefling’s head, pouring a flood of dark liquid over his horned head. Then he rose and started pacing before the tiefling, prowling like a hunting cat.

In a breath, Ebbius sputtered into wakefulness. He coughed and reached up to his head. “Ow, what the Hells, Little Dren? This any way to treat an old friend?”

“The girl.” Kalen cracked his knuckles.

“Girl? What girl-gah!” He cried out when Kalen smashed the wall next to his ear with his fist. “Crazy blaggard! What the-”

Kalen studied his numb hand. “Tell me about the girl.”

“Trying to scare me won’t wash, hark? You and that Flicking bitch can just-ah!”

Kalen punched again, this time closer and harder. His fist met the wall with an audible crackle. Still, he felt nothing.

The tiefling glared at him, all defiance. “You won’t hurt me. You could have killed my men, but you didn’t.” Ebbius’s tail flicked around contemptuously. “Sorry, Little Dren-if that is you-but I know you too well.”

“You knew a boy,” Kalen said. “You do not know me.”

With that, he plucked up Ebbius’s darting tail and slammed it into the wall. Bone cracked, and the tiefling howled. “Well, well, very well!” Ebbs cried. “What do you want?”

“I told you,” Kalen said. “I’m looking for a girl taken about four days back. You’d remember her. Slim, about a score of winters, blue hair.”

“Blue hair? Boyo, now you’re just fantasiz-ahh!” His words cut off in a cry of alarm when Kalen grasped his left hand as though to slam it into the wall next. “Blue-haired girl. Of course. I heard things.”

Kalen clenched Ebbius’s hand tighter. “Things?”

Ebbius swallowed sharply. “Blue-haired girl, traveling with a dwarf caravan. Ambushers killed some dwarves, took the lass prisoner. That’s all I know.”

“Was she hurt?”

Ebbius shrugged. “She’s just some girl. Why do you care?”

His words cut off when Kalen grasped him by the collar and shoved him back against the wall. The tiefling raised his hands over his face to ward off Kalen’s blade before it got to his face. “Ai-ai! Don’t be sore! Just being plain!”

“Where is she?” Kalen demanded. “Who took her?”

The tiefling shook his head. “Don’t know.”

“Where?” Kalen slammed his fist into the wall next to Ebbius’s ear. Bone crunched and cracks spread up the stone.

“I don’t know!” the tiefling cried. “Godsdammit, I don’t know!”

Kalen believed him-not merely because of the clarity in Ebbius’s eye, but also because of the darkening stain on the front of the tiefling’s breeches. Ebbius was too afraid to lie. Disgusted, he dropped the soiled tiefling to the ground.

Once again, anger had risen in him-anger so foolish it had broken his hand. The old monster was scratching to come out. He made an effort to suppress it.

Leaning against the wall, Kalen loosed a sigh. “Who has the power to do this?”

“What?” Ebbius coughed, grasping his throat. “What do you mean?”

“Myrin isn’t weak and dwarves don’t travel unarmed.” He turned to Ebbius. “So I’ll ask one more time: Who has the resources to get this done? One of the Five?”

“One of ’em, perhaps.” Ebbius narrowed his eyes and bared his teeth. “The Dustclaws out of South Shore. Bruisers break anything if the coin’s right-windows, doors, heads, what-have-you. Leader’s a half-orc, name of Duulgrin. Nasty piece.”

“I know all about the Dustclaws.” Kalen remembered them from his boyhood: eight or ten of the toughest brutes in the city. They must have grown in power and number in his absence. He gestured back to the building. “Your hired hands are Dustclaws.”

“Right, right,” Ebbius said. “Crush ’n’ grab’s their game. That clan of dwarves got beat pretty fierce, which fits the Dustclaw way of doing things. Maybe they did it.”

“But they didn’t,” Kalen said.

“Could be.” The tiefling shrugged. “Could be the Dragonbloods.”

“The Shou, you mean?”

Ebbius nodded. “The old garrison on Blood Island-it’s a regular empire now, as much as is possible in Luskan. The Dragon could have done it.”

“Their leader,” Kalen said. “Is he an actual dragon?”

“Nobody knows.” Ebbius spat and wiped his mouth. “That one’s paranoid as a closet moondancer in shady Netheril. You get his true name, you tell me, aye?”

Kalen nodded “That’s two of the Captains. There are three more.”

The five powerful chieftains who called themselves “Captains” had ruled over Luskan for over a century. The moniker hearkened from back when the city still had a real government, when the rulers had been genuine seafaring pirate kings. The name stuck by tradition.

“Master of the Throat,” Ebbius said. “Pretty thing like yer girl make a fine consort.”

“Not him,” Kalen said.

“Necromancers get lonely too.”

“Not. Him.” If it was the necromancer, then Myrin was already dead. And worse.

Ebbius shrugged. “Spinners wouldn’t do it.”

“Spinners?” Kalen frowned. Flick had mentioned the church of Tymora.

“New outfit, the Coin Spinners,” Ebbius said. “They moved into the old temple, became one of the Five a year or so back. More like an armed camp than a church-they do food ’n’ beds, not kidnapping. ’Course it’s a front, but isn’t everything? You’d like ’em.”

Now Kalen understood the significance of the painted gold coin with the horns marking Flick’s shop. It was the Coin-Spinner’s mark. “Do the Spinners serve Tymora or Beshaba?”

“What do I know about gods?” Ebbius countered.

“True.” An uneasy certainty came over Kalen as to the identity of the fifth gang in power. “What about the Rats?”

“The Dead Rats, aye,” Ebbius said. “They’re the fifth, as always.”

The Dead Rats had a reputation even in Luskan for treachery and ruthless dealing, and they were notorious throughout the North. Their legendary blessing-some of the gang became more like rodents than men when the moon grew full-was the stuff of legend in the streets. He wasn’t sure if it was true.

“You used to run with them, didn’t you?” Kalen asked.

“No, no,” Ebbius said. “You’re thinking of some other tiefling. No blood oaths for Ebbius the Rake, nay. You know what they do when you try to leave the gang? Give you a curse, then chew you up so bad-”

“I’ve seen their leavings,” Kalen said. “So did they do it?”

“The Dead Rats,” Ebbius mused. “Can’t say as they took this girl of yours, but they certainly could’ve done. Top enforcer’s a black-hide, name a’ Sithe.”

“Sithe.” Kalen shivered. “Black skin-is she a drow?”

“Nuh-uh. Can’t say for certain, but she’s sumfin’ dark, she and that axe of hers. You steer clear of her, lest you’re none too fond of your head these days.”

Kalen nodded. “Dustclaws, Dragonbloods, the Dead Rats, the Coin-Spinners, and the necromancer and his pets.” At least he had some names to start his search. “And you squeeze for the Tymorans.”

“Now where’d you get an idea like that?”

“Flick might have mentioned it.”

“Bitch.” Ebbius managed a little smile-his confidence was coming back. “Work for meself, Kalen-you know that.”

Kalen shrugged. “Well, whoever’s filling your pocket, you’ll trouble Flick no more. If I hear about retribution, I will find you.”

“Oh, I’d not worry about that.” Ebbius bared all his teeth. “You’d best watch your own back. You leave me sore like this, there’ll be mirth for all, I promise you that.”

“Best not leave you sore then.”

Kalen seized the tail anew. Ebbius wailed, but Kalen clapped a hand over his mouth. He focused his will, forcing power to gather. His hand glowed with the healing touch given to a paladin and the bones knit back together. The blessing even soothed the breaks in his hand.

“Damn,” the tiefling said. “Say, you all right?”

It was getting harder, healing at a touch. This time, it was a miracle he managed it without a blinding headache. Not that he could show Ebbius any weakness.

“Did any of this really happen?” Kalen leaned close and sniffed. “Or did you take a bath in rum and piss yourself as you imagined it?”

The tiefling glared. “They’ve truth-speakers, you son of an orc’s whore!”

“And you’ll be quick to tell them all about the information you divulged.”

The tiefling’s glare was positively murderous. “What happened to you, Kalen?” Ebbius asked. “Thirteen years back, we’d have shared this rum and bickered over that bitch’s coin. Found a god or two?” He sneered. “Or perhaps it be this blue-haired girl, aye?”

Kalen punched Ebbius across the face. The tiefling’s horns cracked against the alley wall and he fell, senseless.

Flexing his fist, Kalen considered. Ebbius had given him only a little to go on, but Kalen suspected one of those names he’d dropped was dead on for who had Myrin. He had to assume the Master of the Throat didn’t have her, or she was dead already. That left the Dustclaws, the Dragon and his Shou, the Spinners, the Dead Rats with their dark enforcer, Sithe. The name resonated in his mind for some reason.

“Time to light some fires,” he said.

He left the alley.

The red one wakes slowly, clenching his head. His skin is tough and the color of burned meat. He props himself up on the alley wall, inspecting the blood on his hand.

Red blood.

Hot blood.

It smells like the sweetest of sweetmeats.

“Son of a-” He flicks his fingers, sending blood speckling across the stone. “Sodding Little Dren. Soon as I tell …”

He looks this way. We hide in the shadows.

We wait.

We hunger.

The door opens and two other ones appear. A big one with big teeth. Another one. They are weak. They shed blood. We chitter. We hiss with hunger.

The tusked one speaks. “Ebbs. You up?”

“Dammit, Little Dren.” The red one shakes his head. “We’ll get that tluiner!”

The words mean nothing. A name. Names have no taste.

We hunger. We cannot wait.

We surge forth.

The puny metal-studded one cries out as we take him.

The other ones cry out. They call for help. Help will not come.

The red one escapes, many of us clinging and biting. He will be ours.

We have the big one. He struggles. We feast. His screamsbecome gurgles formed deep in his throat.

We leave his bones.

The red one backs against the wall. He searches for a way out.

There is none.

We swallow him.

CHAPTER FOUR

22 KYTHORN (JUST AFTER MIDNIGHT)

Midnight in Luskan was the best and worst time of night-best for the thieves and murderers, worst for their victims. Kalen stalked down the street, his cloak obscuring his face. He’d taken off his helm and stowed it in his pack, but wore the rest of his armor. Hood low, shoulders slightly hunched, he could be any other resident of the city.

Dawn lay hours off and only a few lamps lasted this long into the night. The gangs always treated the lamps as more of a game than a civic service. As the night wore on and Selune saw more dastardly deeds done in the street, the lamplights would die slowly of attrition, extinguished by muggers, thieves, and murderers in preparation for their crimes. It was a marvel the lamps were lit at all, a phenomenon due largely to their fading hold on the old Arcane Brotherhood’s power, which drove them to, light on their own. Otherwise, no one would have bothered to light them in the first place.

Kalen tried hard not to let the night take him back fifteen years, to a time when he had been just another merciless wretch on these miserable streets. A beggar boy-a street thief, mugger, occasionally a murderer. He wore the mantle of paladin now, but even that seemed far away. Where was his god-blessed sword, if he was still a paladin?

And why did the healing touch come so hard to him these days? He would gladly heal more of his injuries, but he’d used it all up on Ebbius. What a waste that had been.

A pair of figures in rough-spun robes-a man and a woman-strode down the street, crying out a call and response. Painted gold coins hung around their necks. A few folk lingered under awnings or folded-over refuse to lend them an ear.

“The man saw his enemy, all clad in steel,” the woman sang, in something like verse but not quite. “A chief of Many-Arrows, crushing men under heel.”

“How could he fight such a dangerous foe?” The man’s words carried a hint of meter, but nothing remotely musical. “Without his fine sword, with mere shards of a bow?”

“To luck he prayed and by luck was he spared,” sang the woman, whose voice was better. “Orc steel broke ’gainst sword, and he tackled his foe.”

“Then kicked the fell orc in back o’ th’ head,” said the man, “then stomped twice and thrice, ’til the orc he was dead.”

Kalen waited until they were gone. Their shared ballad-a paean to Tymora-faded. The Coin-Spinners were by all appearances true believers, though they really couldn’t sing. They were bold to venture through Dustclaw territory, where every other building bore the gang’s symbol: a dripping claw inside a rough circle. Was it faith or power?

He looked in the direction they had gone and saw Clearlight, the old temple to Lady Luck, standing on the hill. Beacon fires burned inside a high wall bare of adornment. Perhaps the Tymoran gang had removed the statuary that once studded its balconies.

“Plagues and priests,” Kalen murmured. “Strange things are happening in Luskan.”

He lingered at the threshold of an alley that stank of piss and watched the Dustclaw tavern. Meant to cow rivals and dissuade attacks, the Dustclaws’ repurposed tavern was a solid, heavily reinforced structure, its door strewn with claws torn from dozens of fearsome beasts.

Breaking into the place, he thought, would make navigating the seedy streets of Dock Ward back in Waterdeep seem like a casual stroll through a meadow full of flowers. Attempting to steal from a gang promised a gruesome death by torture. Invading their home invited worse reprisals. But for Kalen-who had spent the last year living in the dangerous tunnels of Downshadow-the Dustclaw tavern held no fear. It was a building like any other, so he bided his time and observed its weaknesses.

Reprisals didn’t matter. If the gods were kind, he’d find Myrin and be out of this accursed city by the following dawn. That is, if she even still lived. He had to believe she did. If not …

He waited an hour for the guard to change before he concluded that the warchief of the Dustclaws liked to wrench as much watch duty as possible out of his men. Damn.

He heard shuffling footsteps down the road and pulled back tighter into his hiding place. A man walked with an uneven gait-one leg moving normally, the other dragging as though he barely remembered its purpose. Blood streamed down his face, and he seemed to be talking to himself-addressing voices Kalen could not hear in a language that made no sense.

“Feh,” the man said. “Feh, feh.”

Kalen recognized the shambler as one of the thugs from Flick’s-the ugly pierced man whose ruined face he’d caved in with a kick. Why had he taken so long to get back and what had happened in the interim?

The man’s head snapped side to side, his eyes constantly rolling toward things not there. “Feh-feh,” he muttered, his words caught in a never-ending stutter. “Feh!”

Threefold God, Kalen thought. How hard had he hit the man?

“Oi!” cried one of the Dustclaws from across the street.

The man bared a mouth full of broken teeth. “Feh?” he asked.

“Oi!” A hand clapped the man’s shoulder and he fell to the ground as though struck. There he lay, panting and moaning, his hands twitching like dying spiders.

Two Dustclaws stood over the ailing man, staring down with wary gazes. “What’s the matter with him?” asked one.

“Gods only know,” said the other. “Bring him inside. Master will want to see.”

The first of the guards stooped to take the crazed man by the arms, but the man thrashed violently, clawing the hands away. When the guard reached for him again, the madman caught his arm and closed his teeth on his wrist. “Shazsah!” the guard cried. “Dhao-spawn bit me!”

“Zah!” The other guard stomped on the madman’s stomach, curling him in a pained ball. “Blood-burner. He’s on mist, perhaps?”

“He should hope that’s so,” said the wounded man, poking at his wrist. “Else, he will feel every inch of my blade through his guts.”

“Burning sand,” said his comrade with a nod.

Kalen had no more idea what had happened to the madman than the Calishite guards did, but he knew to take an opportunity when it appeared.

With their attention on the ailing man, the guards did not notice as Kalen moved around a stack of refuse and shot across the street. One of them looked over his shoulder, but Kalen stepped inside before the black eyes could focus.

In the main audience chamber of the Dustclaw tavern, listening to one of his thieves try to justify a botched take, Warchief Duulgrin blew out a rumbling, bored sigh.

The half-orc chieftain had never liked this rotting pustule of a city, with its dull monotony of daily muggings, alley beatings, and hiring out bodyguards for con men and playpretties-and occasionally having one of those clients beaten for skimping on payment. He longed for the days of glorious battle, leading hundreds of screaming orcs to crush opposing armies who dared enter the lands of Many-Arrows.

Duulgrin had chosen exile rather than death as punishment for his failures. But now he wondered if he hadn’t made a mistake. Aside from the rare grand-scale gang war to punctuate the monotony, Duulgrin felt utterly wasted in Luskan. Which was why, when the two Calishites dragged the madman-thrashing and moaning incoherently-into his throne chamber, the half-orc chieftain of Dustclaws was in the foulest of foul moods. Ah, this was a welcome distraction.

He dismissed the fast-talking thief at his feet, who scurried away, and then he turned to the newcomers. “What is this goblin filth? Bring him!”

His voice lacked the deep resonance of his orc forefathers, pitched instead rather high, like that of an oversized weasel. Duulgrin’s tone had led many to underestimate him over the years, which he’d always used to his advantage.

The Calishites-Duulgrin hadn’t bothered to learn their names-cast the bloody man down before the warchief’s throne. The half-orc flexed his fingers, feeling his iron knuckle duster rub coarsely across his skin. This small pain comforted him-he liked the agony of battle.

“Feh-feh!” the madman was saying. Something awful had happened to his face-some sort of impact that had pushed all his piercings into his flesh.

“What, by Gruumsh’s lost eye?” Duulgrin asked.

“Feh-feh.” The madman pulled a shard of silver, stretching his cheek until blood welled and the piercing came loose. This, he tossed aside. “Feh!”

Duulgrin scowled. “Take this broke-wit from my sight,” he said, waving.

The chieftain turned, but a hand fell on his ankle. He looked down and there was the madman staring up at him through blood red eyes. “Feh,” the man said.

“Feh?” Duulgrin bent lower toward him.

“Feed,” said the madman, showing a dozen bloody teeth. “Feed.”

And he closed his teeth on the half-orc’s bare foot.

It hurt, aye, but it was not the pain that angered Duulgrin-the pain woke his warrior’s instincts. It was the disrespect the half-orc could not tolerate-not in front of his men, not even were he alone. He had not commanded the blood and blades of three score cutthroats for a dozen years by showing a weakness like mercy.

He kicked the madman away, shattering his jaw with a wet crack.

“Feed, eh?” Duulgrin stepped down, crushing one of the madman’s hands under his boot. He bent down and pulled the ailing man up by the collar. “You want to feed, do you?”

The man moaned in pain and confusion. “Feed!”

Duulgrin roared and slammed his forehead into the madman’s face with an audible crunch. The man yelped and his head fell back. Duulgrin butted him again. And again.

If the piercings cut him, the half-orc didn’t show it-all he felt was the thrill of inflicting pain, of blood spurting in his face. His father’s rage had taken him-the old way of the orc once more rising in his veins. The madman moaned, and Duulgrin laughed.

Finally, he pulled back and shook his head. Blood flew. “You like the taste of that?” he said. “Eh? How do you like it?”

The madman-his face reduced to ground meat-burbled a reply.

“Aye?” Duulgrin leaned down. “Feed, perhaps?”

Blood spurted from the ruined face like a geyser, coating Duulgrin’s nose and mouth. The half-orc reeled back, startled. The taste was foul beyond foul, tinged with rot. He wiped blood from his eyes and glared around the room-at his men, at his mistress, at the fool thief who’d tried talking his way out of the half-orc’s wrath. Duulgrin growled, blood trickling from his lips.

No weakness.

He spat the blood back in the madman’s face. The man fell back to the floor, twitching but making no more noises.

Duulgrin shook his head once to clear some blood from it, then grinned at his men. “Back to your posts,” he said. “Don’t bring this bloody shit into my house. You come through those doors again, you bring me something I want, not just something to kill. Though”-he grinned, blood trickling over his chin-“this gave me something to do.”

He could see the big men trying not to tremble.

“Now get out.” Duulgrin waved to the corpse. “Take that with you.”

The two Calishites dragged the mess no longer recognizable as a man out the doors, leaving a trail of blood.

Duulgrin gestured to the thief. “Now, where were we?”

The back door to the alley opened and the two guards hobbled out, the bloody body between them. They stepped down from the threshold and walked three paces into the alley. They hefted, swung the corpse twice, and tossed it against the opposite wall.

The first Calishite paused and looked around warily. “Hold.”

“What is it?” said the other.

“Nothing,” the first said. “A mirage.”

The second one grunted. They went back inside.

After a moment, a shadow-which had slipped out behind them-nodded, satisfied there were no onlookers. Then Kalen parted from the wall and moved toward the corpse, his hand on his dagger’s hilt. He hadn’t found Myrin anywhere in the tavern. Kalen had found holding cells, but they were all empty. Nor had they looked like anything that could hold Myrin, with her magic. No, someone else must have her.

He’d also spied on the chamber of the gang chief in time to see the guards bring in the hapless madman. Based on that performance, Kalen never wanted to face Duulgrin himself. Fortunately, Myrin hadn’t been there. If she had … well, then he would have fought all of them.

The Dustclaws didn’t have her, which was one gang down. They had, however, been kind enough to leave a dwarf-crafted dagger unattended-a match to the one on Kalen’s belt. Now, it was time to move on. Still, he couldn’t shake his unease regarding the madman’s fate.

He crouched next to the corpse. Something had happened to that man-something that couldn’t be explained with a single blow to the face, no matter how hard Kalen had struck him. Perhaps the body would yield up clues.

He shot a look both ways down the alley-no one was approaching-then scanned the dead man’s body for hints as to his fate. Had it been a spell that broke his mind? The madman lay on his chest against the wall, his shirt ridden up around his midsection. His clothes were badly torn in a way they had not been when Kalen had attacked him and half a dozen red-yellow welts rose from his back.

Bites? Rabid dogs might have caused this, but the slavering madness took hold slowly, not suddenly. Vermin of some kind? He’d seen spider venom that could do awful things to a man. Or were they plague sores?

Kalen wondered if this had something to do with the supposed plague that had led the Waterdhavian Guard to quarantine the city. These wounds, however, looked like insect bites more than anything else. He raised his scarf over his mouth and nose just in case, then he reached to lift the shirt away from the welts for a better look.

The flesh puckered oddly around the injuries: red and inflamed, but also hard. It looked vaguely … crystalline. He tapped his dagger against it.

No sooner had he touched the body than the flesh began to sag away from the bones. He drew back, but the damage had been done. Like a soapy bubble, the skin burst, letting brackish blood and pus flow, along with an odor of putrescence that made him cover his mouth and nose. Though the madman hadn’t been dead more than a few moments, his body looked as if it had been rotting for tendays.

Rotting from the inside.

Kalen froze, his eyes going to the madman’s back, and tracing among the wounds. He could have sworn the flesh had moved, as though something lived under the surface. A great abscess had formed on the corpse’s back, where the flesh had begun to blacken. Kalen drew his dagger, but before he could prod at the necrotized mound, he heard footsteps out in the cobbled street. Time to go.

He drew a clay flask from under his cloak, tossed it through the back door of the Dustclaw tavern, then walked away. The flask broke and flames spread. Kalen walked on, his cloak drifting around him in the sea breeze.

A pair of Dustclaws came around the corner, racing toward the fire. They stopped after seeing Kalen and their faces twisted with rage. They raised their weapons.

“Good,” Kalen said. “I was worried this would be easy.”

He drew his two long daggers.

We lie forgotten in the rush of fire and battle, but no matter.

We feast contentedly.

The corpse quivers and pops open with a hiss.

Our thousand chittering voices fill the air.

We hunger.

CHAPTER FIVE

22 KYTHORN (EARLY MORNING)

Dawn broke and the sun rose over Luskan like a scalding brand.

The dark things of night fled as sunlight returned with Luskan’s sweltering heat wave. The filth in the streets began to sizzle within moments. Not that the buildings would catch fire-the weather was too dismal and damp most of the year for flames to take hold, as though the city were too damned to burn. If a good fire got going, it would do little more than scar one or two houses, leaving blackened heaps of wood and stone.

Summers such as that of the Year of Deep Water Drifting dealt cruelly with the city of thieves. On the longest days, the breezes off the Sea of Swords faltered and the streets grew bakingly humid. Clean water was hard to find and more precious than blood.

Worst of all, the vermin of Luskan-flies, lice, rats, and all manner of things that crawled and clicked-grew bold in summer. Far outnumbering the population of the city, they feasted on the rotting vegetation, the buildings, and the people alike. The chittering, scratching, biting barrage drove folk in Luskan mad.

As the sun climbed, Kalen shuffled along an alley off the Street of Storms. In Luskan, it was common practice to defile the signs to say something foul that one scoundrel or another had found amusing once upon a time: streets and avenues of Rutted Souls, Stlarner Heroes, Giant Tluiners, and the like. Sometimes, real wit prevailed and the gangs chose to add or alter a letter or two to corrupt the meaning of the sign. The Dragon’s Teeth became the Dragon’s Teat, while Old Swords became Mold Sores. Kalen found the sign for the Street of Storms-with an added expletive for offal-rather amusing, if crude. It was the way of Luskan to taint its own legacy.

He remembered he’d gleefully taken part in that very desecration, once.

He’d done far worse in his time in Luskan.

Kalen was tired. He’d ridden hard for four days, fought his way through guardsmen and thugs alike, set a gang tavern on fire, and his body was finally starting to feel the toll. He didn’t actually feel the aches in his body that indicated weariness, but his limbs weren’t doing exactly what he told them. That meant he needed sleep-or that he was about to die. Either way, he couldn’t very well collapse in the street, if he was to find whoever had Myrin.

Myrin had to be alive. It would be a waste to kill her, if only because of that special talent that she brought to the city: magic.

He moved past various takes happening in broad daylight on the street. An angler dipped a hook toward an unattended pouch, while the victim gazed up at naked flesh in the windows above. Likely, those were nymphers, who lured a mark into bed while an accomplice stole his possessions. Down an alley, Kalen saw a burst of light which sent a man reeling. The thief-a “flash”-ran off with a purloined loaf of bread under his arm.

But these were mundane tricks. Real magic proved a valuable commodity.

In Luskan, those who could work the Art were few and far between. Most rose to leadership in one of the gangs or carved out a piece of the city for themselves. The Dragon, who ran Luskan’s Shou gang, was rumored to be a wizard of some skill. His enforcers wore shifting tattoos that enhanced their strength and speed. The only other mage Kalen knew of was the necromancer who held court in the tower called the Throat. A legion of corpses clawed out of the ground at his command. Kalen hoped he would not have to cross either of those Captains.

Having seen Myrin exercise her own wizardly tricks, her ability to absorb magic and channel it herself, Kalen thought she could disrupt the entire balance of power in the city. And what if she had come by more of her memories in the last year? She could possess far greater power than he remembered.

Another thought came hand-in-hand with that. Would she be someone different?

“Worry later,” Kalen murmured. “Rest first.”

His priority was shelter: somewhere to bandage his wounds and sleep. For this purpose, he searched for an unoccupied, preferably condemned building in which to hole up. It would be easy enough, as much of Luskan was abandoned, leaving hundreds of empty buildings. The city could easily house four times as many folk as lived there, but one did not tend to live long in Luskan.

He settled on the fourth building he’d been eyeing. It must once have been a butcher’s shop but was now unoccupied (unlike the first two, which had boasted squatters and a pack of wolfdogs, respectively) and provided an excellent tactical position (unlike the third, which boxed him into a corner from which he could find no escape). He counted three exits, including the roof, his preferred means of egress. Everything else was covered over in enough wood and stone to create a massive racket should anyone attempt to catch him unawares. A pair of simple snares, and he would have a relatively safe place to rest.

He paused before entering the place and glanced over his shoulder. There was no sign of it, but he could have sworn someone had followed him into the alley. No visible sign, however-only a feeling.

Thieves learned to trust their feelings.

Kalen pulled aside a loose shutter, pushed into the abandoned building, and immediately crouched low and to the side, his daggers drawn.

Drawing pursuit had been part of the plan all along-light some fires, attract attention-but he hadn’t expected it quite so soon. After all, he’d only lit up one tavern and beat up a few bruisers. Chief Duulgrin was no doubt sore about it, but the Dustclaws weren’t known for their street smarts. Perhaps someone had been watching him from the moment he’d entered the city. But who would have known he’d be coming?

That, then, was his best lead: whoever had anticipated his arrival and was having him shadowed might well be the same gang that had Myrin.

He crouched, warmed by the anger that flowed inside him. He wanted someone to come through that window-wanted to plunge his blades into a foe’s flesh. He waited.

And waited.

Eventually, after half an hour had passed, Kalen gave in to weariness and niggling pain from his wounds. Slowly, he put the daggers away and set up his snare: another of the clay flasks of alchemist fire, balanced to fall out into the alley when disturbed. The liquid inside would burn on contact with the air, not needing a spark. Anyone who followed Kalen was in for a screaming surprise. It might not kill, but it would rouse him from slumber so he could prepare.

Stalking room-to-room inside, one dagger drawn, Kalen found them mostly empty. One upstairs held a withered, sweat-stained bedroll and a pair of surprisingly intact boots. Someone must have lived here once, but no one had been here in a tenday at least.

He was about to sheathe his blade when a scrabbling sound came from inside the closet at the end of the chamber. Kalen raised his dagger, which caught the murky rays of sunlight through the boarded-up window. He moved slowly to the door. Closing his fingers carefully around the latch, Kalen breathed in and pulled.

A skeleton lunged out of the closet, its bony fingers scrabbling for his eyes.

Kalen drew aside quickly and the inanimate skeleton tumbled to the floor, its bones flying in every direction. The skeleton’s jawbone bounced and rolled along the creaking floorboards, finally coming to a rest on the abandoned bedroll.

“Skeletons in Luskan’s closets,” Kalen murmured.

He peered down at the source of the scratching: a bulbous rat, newly freed, looked up at him with wide, red eyes. Greenish froth trickled from its mouth. Having grown up in this city-and learning from an early age to tell which animals carried afflictions-Kalen knew the rat to be both diseased and malnourished, and he didn’t like the way it looked at him.

Kalen nodded to the skeleton. “You didn’t eat all of that poor blaggard, did you?”

The rat cheeped, as though considering the question, took two weak steps forward, flopped on its back, and died. Freedom, it seemed, was a mighty curse.

Kalen inspected the bones, which were bleached as though the skeleton had been there for decades. Probably a slaying spell of one sort or another. He found a few other rat bodies in the closet as well. Perhaps they had picked the body clean, though Kalen had never seen vermin that could do that so completely that they left the body in a standing posture. And how had they come to be sealed in the closet?

A feeling of unease crept over him, as though what he’d thought was a good place to rest had turned suddenly very dangerous.

Ultimately, however, he simply didn’t have the strength to move to a new hideaway. He needed to rest and he wasn’t likely to find a more defensible spot soon. He almost wished he had Vindicator’s familiar if uncomfortable grip in his hand.

Almost.

He resolved that, if more rats came to attack him in the night, his blades and four remaining vials of alchemist fire would just have to do.

He picked up the jawbone and set it back by the skull. “You don’t mind, friend,” he said, “if I share your tomb with you.”

Though it had its jaw back, the skeleton chose silence as a reply.

Kalen kneeled and unbuckled his leather hauberk. Scars and stitched rents crisscrossed the armor, the legacy of thousands of fights Kalen barely even remembered. He’d earned at least one new cut-from Galandel’s sword-that would need to be patched when possible. Before he attended to that, however, he pulled off his leggings and sat bared to his smallclothes in the grimy room. A cough bubbled up in his chest and he covered it with his hand. No blood on his fingers-good.

He drew his pack over and took out a silvered mirror. With it, he inspected himself: hands, arms, legs, back-all those stretches of flesh he could not easily see. He found mostly bruises and small scrapes, but blood trickled from a long and vicious cut on his right shoulder. He remembered the blow that had dealt it-one of the Dustclaws in the alley beside the tavern. Shame, he thought he’d dodged that one. Fifteen years ago, he’d have taken bitter revenge.

He had to do this inspection every day. He usually couldn’t feel his injuries when he received them, let alone afterward. If left untreated, even the smallest of wounds could fester and kill him. He couldn’t die now-he had too much to do.

“I will make of myself a darkness,” he said. “A darkness where there is only me.”

The mantra calmed him, steadying his hands. There was no fear and no pain in the stillness, and he set about to binding his wounds.

The process would have been easy for a true paladin, who could heal at a touch. But Kalen hadn’t felt like a paladin for months-not since Vaelis. And now that he had abandoned Vindicator, the skin-shedding felt complete. He’d honestly been surprised he could heal Ebbius in the alley. Even that touch of grace had grown numb, like his body.

With the efficient confidence of having done it many times before, Kalen cleaned his wounds with liquor from a flask, which stung only dully. His spellscar could be useful at times. Each time he cleaned a wound, he stitched or bandaged it as needed, and then bound it with linen. When he was done, he sat limply against the wall, listening to his breath.

After a moment, with a slightly shivering hand, he drew from among his discarded leathers a folded scrap of paper yellowed with age. Even faded and smudged with tears, the feminine script stood out legibly-Myrin’s last words to him, from a year before.

In the note, she told him she was leaving, that he was looking for something and it wasn’t her. She said she had taken some of his sickness from him-given him some of her life, in exchange for saving her from those who meant her harm.

Myrin asked him not to follow her. She claimed he didn’t owe her anything.

He’d respected her wishes, but he’d kept the note.

He’d read it over and over for a year, usually when crusading in Downshadow turned particularly painful and he considered giving up. The Guard had chased him underground but his quest hadn’t ended. Holed up in one subterranean chamber or another, lit by the last stub of a candle or a burning taper, Kalen had read Myrin’s words when existence had grown most bleak. He’d read them during the undead plague that last winter and when the gangs of Downshadow united to attack Waterdeep above. He’d read them after Vaelis. Somehow, every time, they gave him the strength to go on. No matter how many mistakes he’d made-even mistakes with Myrin-at least he had done something right for her.

But then he’d lost the letter a tenday past. At first, he’d thought it simple forgetfulness, and he’d cursed himself. But ultimately it had been returned to him, four days past, with one significant addition. Another hand had added a single word in blood red letters.

LUSKAN.

The word held terror and wrath, but he found it soothing, too. It gave him purpose.

Before he went to sleep, he thought he heard something down in the alley, but he ignored the sound. A man catching on fire would surely make more noise than that.

Red Logenn waited a good long while-he sang the “Ghost and the Maiden” in his head, which took nigh on half an hour-to make sure his quarry had settled. Then he rose from where he’d been hiding in the alley. Whoever this man was-this Shadowbane-he was good.

Too bad Logenn was better.

At first, he hadn’t wanted to take the job. Not many worked with the Coin Priest if they didn’t have to, but the coin offered was too good. So much for an outsider? He found that interesting, and Logenn the Red Wolf (the best shadow in Luskan and possibly in all the North) charged enough to take jobs only when they interested him.

Even better, the quarry had made this a challenge. Shadowbane hadn’t arrived in the best shape and he’d made a busy time of it since, but still he had the presence of mind to double back and cover his tracks to throw off pursuit. Not that it mattered to Logenn-he enjoyed the hunt and would take pleasure in the kill.

Logenn padded up to the trapped window and pulled it open, bit by bit, until the alchemist fire vial rolled out. He caught it easily.

“Trap foiled,” he said, admiring the vial in his fingers. “What else ya got?”

Then something happened. Somehow, the vial proved too slick and slipped in his fingers. He flailed for it but, try as he might, he could only bobble it into the air.

A white-gloved hand reached around Logenn to catch the vial.

The hunter started to turn, then stopped when a blade touched his back.

“Ah, ah,” whispered a cheery voice. The vial spun in the white hand. “What a delicate thing, with such capacity for destruction. Why, if you were to drop this-”

Logenn gasped as the fingers released the vial, but the gloved hand caught it after it had fallen no more than the length of a dagger.

“Well now,” said the unseen man. “That would have been most unlucky, wouldn’t it? Fortunately for both of us, I overflow in my store of the Lady’s good grace.”

Logenn opened his mouth to utter a curse, but somehow, words would not come. His mouth moved, but he could not hear his own voice. What magic was this?

“Can’t have you crying out for aid, now can I? You’d spoil our conversation.”

Logenn tried to understand what was happening. Somehow, the man had got the drop on him-him, Logenn the Red Wolf-and placed him under a spell. Where had he come from? And how could Logenn fight back? Should he fight back?

“Don’t worry about responding-I can tell what you’re thinking,” the man said. “You are of two minds-two voices, as it were. One voice bids you attack, while another bids you wait. Am I foe or friend? How would you know?”

He reached into Logenn’s tunic and drew the double-faced coin from the tunic’s inner pocket. He examined it, turning it over from the side with a homely but cheery woman’s face to the other, which showed a frigidly beautiful woman wearing a deadly sneer.

Slowly, Logenn reached for the long dagger at his belt.

“We all have those two voices,” the cheerful man said. “Do good or work ill, move or rest, cry out or stay silent-live or die. Life is all about which voice we listen to and whether it leads to good fortune.” He showed the smiling Tymora side of the coin. “Or bad.” He showed Logenn the other, sneering face of Beshaba. “Luck.”

He snapped his fingers and the coin vanished up his sleeve. The wrist at the fringe of the glove was gold. Logenn saw flesh of such a rich color he thought it from another world.

Logenn still couldn’t talk, but he could kill silently, too. He snapped his dagger from its scabbard and slashed around, but his tormentor was gone.

“Oh, very good, very good,” said the man’s soft voice from elsewhere. “I suppose you think you’ve chosen this, don’t you?”

Logenn growled low, his knife raised. With his other hand, he drew out his short sword. He could not see his foe, but the bastard was certainly there.

“Indeed, you chose to follow my cat’s-paw,” the disembodied voice said. “As a consequence, I chose to do something about it. Hence this conversation.”

Logenn thought he could detect the source of the voice-slightly removed toward the mouth of the alley, five paces distant …

“I’ll let you choose again-though make your choice fast, for your luck is about to change.” The man reappeared, his golden face gleaming in the moonlight.

Logenn charged.

“Bad luck, old son.” The golden man tossed the vial casually toward him.

The deadly vial spun end over end in the air toward Logenn. He tried to catch it, but his hands were full of steel. He dropped his dagger and groped for it in the air, but the vial shattered in his fingers.

Then Logenn was on fire and could not hear his own screams.

The scrying ended when the focus-the sellsword’s double-faced coin-disappeared into the man’s sleeve. The water in the gold bowl wavered, distorting ripples flowing across the image, and then it was gone.

“Damn,” said the Coin Priest. “Double damned the luck!”

She lounged back on her divan-so much more comfortable than standing-and pursed her red-painted lips. One gray-gloved hand swept through the water, flicking drops that gleamed gold in the candlelight toward the far wall. The Coin Priest’s frustrated growl sank below any sound a human throat might utter, becoming the dull, threatening rumble of a crouching wolf. If her quarry had been there to hear her, he would have backed away warily-and he would have been right to do so.

It was not merely that an agent of the Smiling Lady probably lay dead this day-or worse-but rather the travesty of seeing Tymora’s agents attacked in the streets that drove the Coin Priest absolutely mad. The disrespect! That, and damned Ebbius had not checked back in after a simple assignment to collect protection fees. What was Luskan coming to these days, if folk saw fit to resist what was best for them?

“Master,” came a voice from the door.

Visitors. It would not do to show a lack of control. The Coin Priest shook off the anger and donned a pleasant, false smile. “Come!”

The doors opened into the room with caution. Two men entered-hard men with the eyes of murderers. Men of Luskan.

“Good, good!” she said. “Just the men I wanted. Not that I know your names at the moment, but you fit the prerequisite of service: superfluous muscle. Mmm. Come closer.”

The men approached cautiously and the Coin Priest scrutinized them. They really were fine specimens, if ugly as all the Nine Hells. Just her type.

Such muscle, in fact,” she said. “Such fresh, tasty meat. Delicious.”

The two sellswords looked at one another uncertainly, then back at the Coin Priest. “Thanks?” one said.

“And not overburdened with brains. Perfect.” She waved one hand over the basin, showing once again the images the coin had shown. “You see? Bring this man to me.”

The thugs scrutinized the image. “You mean the one who burned the Dustclaws?” one asked. “We could just leave him in a pool of his own blood.”

“No, no, no-idiots!” she said. “Not that one. The other.”

The men fell back, visibly startled. The Coin Priest became aware of a tik-tik-tik sound, and realized what it was. She was tapping her dagger against her most precious possession: a two-faced platinum coin, her holy symbol. Without it, she would have no power whatsoever. Tapping the coin with her knife was an unconscious habit, one that often presaged violence.

That this coin rested in her left eye socket made no nevermind.

The Coin Priest made a conscious effort to stop tapping. “I mean the Horned One,” she clarified. “The Golden Man. The man in these images. Bring him to me.”

The men looked confused. “But … we see no golden man.”

“He’s masked, obviously,” she said. “With his spell, he’ll look like someone you love. It shouldn’t be that hard to pick out a friend in this city. Go!”

They went, eager to escape that stern gaze, half pale gray, half platinum.

The Coin Priest turned back to the scrying pool, scrutinizing it. The runes etched into the interior of the bowl glowed faintly with gold-a spell awaiting refreshment.

With a squeeze, the priestess popped the coin out of her eye socket to splash into the pool. It slowly flipped, end over end, as it sank to the bottom. It was a twin to the coin carried by the hired assassin-the scrying focus. The coin’s two sides depicted the twin goddesses Tymora and Beshaba: two sides of the same woman.

The pool awakened with power, opening to the Coin Priest’s scrying.

“First of the Lady,” she murmured. “Why have you come?”

CHAPTER SIX

22 KYTHORN (EVENING)

At last the night cools the steamy streets. We stir, drawn from our thousand holes and hovels. The night is ours. It calls to us.

So many-so sweet. They wait for us, though they do not know us.

They toss cubes of bone to skitter among the stones-they laugh and carouse. Coins clink among the cubes, blades, and bits of rope. They do things to one another that wrench forth cries of pain and pleasure. They eat and drink and shit.

We are alike in this.

There is another among us. He is a dream, but not ours. We perceive him dimly, murmuring from the depths that lie beneath. He speaks of purpose-of meaning beyond the three basic tasks. We dream of faces-thousands of faces that murmur …

We shake him away and set out into the growing darkness.

This city is ours. We are this city.

We feast.

Kalen jerked awake out of a nightmare, his eyes wide, his lungs sucking in tiny currents of air. His body was an unthinking, unmoving mountain, and he was trapped inside it.

Faces-he remembered faces that leered at him, whispering of the deeds he had done in this city. He saw a woman forced up against a wall, her throat cut and spattering the brick. A man borne down and clubbed until he stopped moving. Vaelis-he saw Vaelis …

The terror faded within heartbeats, when Kalen dully felt his hand touching his face. He could feel, that was the important thing, and that meant hope lingered.

Wiping the sweat away, he looked out through slits in the boarded-over window. Night had fallen in Luskan-the time of the thief and murderer.

His time.

Kalen became aware of the sounds of fighting in the alley. Men cried out and swords clashed. This was neither alarming nor even unusual in Luskan: Every dusk, the folk of the city sharpened their blades in expectation, and every dawn, many of them lay bleeding in the gutters. If not for the exiled criminals arriving every day from far and wide, the city would have eaten itself long ago. Like as not, the fight would be over before he could investigate, much less intervene-and such was not his purpose anyway.

He went about his rituals-inspecting himself for wounds, loosening muscles that felt like rock, sharpening his blades, eating a nibble or two of journeybread. These repetitive exercises usually permitted him focus, but the sounds of battle made it impossible for him to concentrate. The battle was still going on?

The boy he had been would have ignored it.

The man he had become reached for his blades.

A moment later, Kalen stood on the roof, looking down at one man fighting three thugs who wore crimson sashes around their throats: Dead Rats.

By all rights, the scrape should have ended by now, but the lone man seemed particularly tenacious. He had lost his sword and was fending off his attackers with a stout wood shield. A dozen cuts scored the shield and a single-bladed axe was buried in it. Though the attackers had battered him to one knee, the man fought like a cornered tiger, thrusting with his shield.

He fought as though he believed he could win. Commendable.

Kalen was about to turn away when he noticed something in the street. A fallen sword that gleamed silver even at this distance. One of the thugs tried to pick it up and then dropped it, howling over his burned hand. Kalen knew that blade: Vindicator.

He tensed, then sprang over the ledge.

The butcher’s shop was not a tall building, but twenty feet gave Kalen enough momentum that when he landed on the nearest Dead Rat, the hapless man took the brunt and went down with a crumpled moan. He rolled off and used his momentum to bowl the legs out from under a second gang member. Kalen leaped on the third man like a pouncing spider and slammed his face with the pommel of his dagger.

In the space of a heartbeat, the last Dead Rat-the one Kalen had tripped-found himself on the ground, unarmed, his head aching, and alone against two opponents.

“Flee,” Kalen said.

The Dead Rat turned and ran.

Kalen turned to the man he’d saved. He knew him in an instant. “You.”

“Huh-hail,” said the boy from the Cliffside Cranny-the guard who’d stopped trusty Carmael from shooting him. “You-I didn’t-gods.” He marveled up at the roof, then looked back at Kalen. He held out his hand. “Saer Shadowbane, I’m Rhetegast Hawkwinter-Rhett.

“Hmm,” Kalen said.

The thug he’d landed on was moaning and trying to get to his feet. Kalen kicked him in the midsection. This act had a profound effect on the half-elf lad, who straightened as though Kalen had kicked him instead.

“Why did you follow me?” Kalen asked.

“I didn’t. I mean, not specifically, I-”

“Why?” Kalen took one long step toward him.

“Right.” The lad swallowed, took a breath to compose himself, then spoke anew. “Right, I did follow you. It’s just-well, it was that or report to the magistrate back in Waterdeep for aiding a proscribed criminal.”

“Proscribed.” Kalen must have been quite a thorn in the sides of the Masked Lords if they were offering a bounty on him, alive or dead. “Did you come to collect?”

“What? No. Of course not! I came-” His expression suddenly nervous, Rhett ran his hand through his red hair. “I want to become your squire.”

Kalen spoke without hesitation. “No.”

“No?” Rhett looked startled. “But I thought-”

“You were wrong.” Kalen’s eye fell to Vindicator, to the way the light split in two haphazardly along its length. The sword lay on the other side of the young man. “Go now. Get out of this city while you can.”

“Well.” Rhett looked to the weapon. “Well, I can at least give this back.” He strode to where Vindicator lay gleaming. “I brought the scabbard, too. Thought you might-”

“Wait-” Kalen started, but too late. The boy had already reached for the sword.

Rhett picked up the blade and held it out to Kalen. “What?”

Kalen, who had been staring with wide eyes, drew back. “It doesn’t burn you.”

“Burn me?” Rhett set the light dancing along the surface of the silvery blade-pure and beautiful but for the single flaw that ran down its length. “No. Why would it?”

Abruptly, silver fire bloomed in Vindicator’s depths, rising to shroud the sharpened steel in a plume. Rhett’s eyes grew huge and his mouth fell open. He caught up the sword in both hands, holding it steady. “By Torm!”

“No,” Kalen said, his voice soft. “Not Torm alone.”

Rhett looked up in wonder. “What does this mean?”

“It’s chosen you,” Kalen said. “It-”

He couldn’t see Rhett standing there with the sword. Instead, he saw …

Not again, Eye of Justice, he prayed silently. Not again.

It was then he realized they were not alone.

There, silhouetted in the flames of Vindicator, stood a black figure. The firelight flickered around her-and it was a woman, of that Kalen was certain-as though skirting the edge of a hole in reality. He knew her from Ebbius’s description. She was no drow, no human, but a demon of another world-a creature of the void.

Sithe.

“Boy,” Kalen whispered.

Rhett still gazed with frank astonishment at the burning sword in his hands.

In one hand, Sithe held a long-hafted axe, if axe it could be called. The pitted shard of black metal at the end barely resembled a blade. It was not so much an axe as the purpose of an axe-gruesome, rending doom. She raised her other hand-revealing a gleaming silver vambrace on her arm-and pointed one long finger toward Kalen. He felt the cold weight of infinite hatred descend upon his shoulders. For an instant, nothing in the world existed aside from him, her axe, and his coming death at its edge.

“Boy,” Kalen said, raising his daggers slowly. “Get behind me.”

Rhett looked up at him, confused, then turned his gaze. He hadn’t noticed Sithe until now, just in time to see her lunge toward them, her axe raised high. “Gods!”

Kalen slammed into Rhett and sent them both toppling. The axe chopped down, rending the air itself asunder, and missed his leg by a hair. It tore through his cloak, sending scraps of gray fabric drifting to the ground. Seemingly without effort, Sithe reversed the path of her axe, and Kalen fell back as it tore across an inch over his face. She then whipped the axe upward with both hands and towered over them.

Kalen let himself fall and lashed out with his feet, catching Sithe in the midsection. As she staggered back, he leaped to his feet. He brandished his daggers as she whirled the axe over her head. Her eyes might have been polished obsidian for all they revealed.

“Stay back, boy,” Kalen said. “This one is far beyond you.”

The black eyes shot over Kalen’s shoulder then, drawn to a silver brand of flame.

Rhett stepped to Kalen’s side, his shield ready, Vindicator burning in one hand. “Perhaps she’s beyond me,” he said. “But she’s none too pleased to see the sword.”

Kalen looked again at Sithe, whose eyes indeed seemed to be locked on Vindicator. “That isn’t fear,” he said. “It’s hunger.”

“You’re sure?” Rhett took half a step back. “I was hoping for hesitation, at least.”

Sithe spun the axe behind her head and held it with both hands over her shoulders. In Vindicator’s light, she was slim-petite, even. She couldn’t possibly be strong enough to sweep that axe around so quickly. Indeed, her fighting style was less about strength and skill and more about intuitive flow-she simply knew how and when to move. And there was not the slightest shred of doubt in her empty eyes. Indeed, there was nothing in them.

“What are you waiting for?” Rhett stepped forward, his sword held high.

“Wait-” Kalen said.

Rhett slashed down at Sithe, who vanished as though she had ceased to exist. The air sucked inward where she had been standing, making Rhett stagger. He glanced around quickly, but she was gone.

“Is that all?” Rhett looked down at Vindicator. “That’s some kind of sword.”

“Steel ready.” Kalen looked all around but could not see her in the twilight. He cast his blades about, waiting until-

— Sithe reappeared, right behind him, her axe sweeping down.

Kalen dodged, but the axe slammed into one of his daggers, knocking it skittering down the alley. The woman stepped after him, whipping her axe across in a blow that would have taken his head from his shoulders had he not ducked.

“Have at you!” Rhett lunged, but she stepped past him as though his attack had never happened. Vindicator passed within an inch of her head. Unhindered-Sithe came toward Kalen.

He had no chance to block her axe, so he danced back, but not far enough to dodge entirely. The axe swept across his leather hauberk, trailing a wake of blood. He could feel the pain, which meant that the chest cut was a wicked blow that should have put him down. Sithe’s eyes fixed on Kalen as if to assure him that the next strike would.

“Unlikely.” Kalen lunged into Sithe’s reach and caught hold of the axe. She twisted the haft of the axe out of his hands and wove a circle between them.

He aimed a thrust at her face, but his remaining dagger clanged loudly off Sithe’s axe and bounced off down the alley. The blade had been a feint, anyway. With his free hand, Kalen tossed a vial of alchemist’s fire from his belt toward her. It shattered against the spinning axe, sending a wave of flame through her defense.

Sithe staggered back, the flames illumining her wiry body wrapped in loose black silks. It might have been a human body, but for the black skin and pulsing lines of darkness that traced her flesh like runes. The fire set these lines sparkling and glinted off a medallion that hung around her neck-a round onyx medallion encircled in a purple ring.

Gods. The emblem of Shar, goddess of darkness and of loss.

Kalen lunged forward and grasped the smoking axe haft. He meant to wrench it away, but she held it firmly. “What are you?” he asked.

Sithe gazed into his eyes but did not react. They stood there, both trying to wrest the axe from the other. They were matched in strength.

“Fight me, damn it!” Rhett said.

Vindicator swept through the air, but the silver blade skipped off a wave of darkness that manifested around Sithe like a shield. The woman swayed aside as though her dodge was how she had meant to move in the first place. If anything, Rhett’s strike put her in a better position and the distraction cost Kalen his inside advantage.

“Boy, I said get back!”

Rhett stepped between them, interposing his shield and the silver flame of Vindicator. “Torm burn you, Daughter of Darkness,” he said. “You will fight me or-”

Flame flared from the sword toward Sithe and encircled her-a halo of divine radiance. The dark woman took a step back, inspecting the holy magic. She looked as though she understood it better than Rhett did.

Rhett pointed the sword at Sithe. “Torm shall smite you, Scion of Demons!”

She glanced at Kalen with a gaze that echoed his earlier word: unlikely.

She closed her eyes and darkness swept around her like a mantle-Shar’s power, cloaking her servant. Against that darkness, Vindicator’s light faded.

She strode forward, her axe high over her right shoulder. Rhett swung as she approached, but Vindicator passed through her as though she were but a wraith. She swept through Rhett, her form like mist, and raised the axe over Kalen. He tried to dodge, but he picked the wrong direction. The blade lit fire down his left leg. He’d felt every ounce of that, which meant she’d cut deeply indeed. He fell to the ground as she brought the blade around for a finishing blow.

Suddenly silver radiance flared around the dark warrior’s body, bursting through her shielding darkness and setting her silk garb aflame. She faltered and her axe cleaved the cobbles next to Kalen’s face, skipping out of her hands. Sithe staggered back, batting at the flames that caught at her clothing. For the first time, she looked startled.

The silver halo pulsed, as did the sword in Rhett’s hand.

Finally, Sithe spoke: “Very well.” Her voice chilled Kalen as the coldest winter never could. He felt the weight of her wrath lift from him, shifting to Rhett.

“Run, boy!” Kalen said. “Run!”

She loped toward Rhett, claiming her axe as she bounded past.

For all his strength and Vindicator’s power, the boy lasted only heartbeats against Sithe. With his shield, he smashed aside her initial strike, but that had been a feint. In a fluid motion, she raised the butt of her axe over his shield and slammed it into his face, then leaped forward and kicked him in the chest as he reeled back against the butcher’s shop.

Sithe let one hand fall from her axe, the better to grasp Rhett’s sword wrist and hammer Vindicator free against the withered bricks. The blade bounced end over end across the alley. The radiance instantly fled from around Sithe, freeing her of its grip.

Sithe wasn’t done with the boy. She flowed from disarming him to elbowing him in the face. Rhett’s nose trailed blood as his head jerked to the side.

Kalen had one chance and he took it.

As Rhett slumped, Sithe danced away, moving with immortal grace. She took a two-handed hold on her axe and brought the ugly thing around, scything for his neck.

Kalen lunged between them, Vindicator raised.

Steel shrieked against steel as black axe exploded into fiery sword. Any mortal weapon would have shattered, but Vindicator held firm. Kalen strained to keep Sithe at bay. The woman looked into his eyes-darkness staring into him-then leaped back, bringing her axe around.

For his part, Kalen strode forward, praying that his injured leg held. He funneled his anger against the deep hurt. “You’re the one who took Myrin, are you not?”

She studied him wordlessly, her axe whistling softly as it tore the air.

“What are you?” he asked. “What do you want?”

Again, she stared at him silently with those empty black eyes.

“It matters little,” he continued. “You are a creature of shadow and I am called Shadowbane. I suppose you can guess how this will end.”

Sithe inclined her head slightly to the side. “I am not a shadow,” she said. “I am the nothing that the darkness hides-the void that the darkness cannot fill.”

Kalen shrugged. “Well, I’m adaptable.”

She seemed to consider this, turning her axe idly over her head. She caught the haft out wide, letting it hang like a scythe extending from her arm.

“You are the righteous arm of your god,” she said. “A divine killer, as am I.”

The words stirred an old, simmering rage inside him. “I am not like you.”

Sithe’s face gave his words the lie. “Your faith is weak-that is why you fail.”

“Test me,” Kalen said. “Show me that my faith is weaker than yours.”

“No need.” She nodded to the shadows behind him. “He is yours, Master.”

“Master?” Kalen realized, too late, he’d been tricked.

Pain erupted anew in his slashed leg and he fell to the cobblestones. Above him stood a halfling, shrouded in the shadows, blood dripping from the rapier he’d just rammed through Kalen’s thigh. He had auburn hair, eyes like green beads, and familiar sharp features. Kalen knew who he was.

“Toytere,” he said.

The halfling smiled brightly, revealing a mouth full of sharpened teeth-the better for tearing meat. “Cheers and well met, Little Dren,” he said, showing Kalen one of his own daggers-claimed from the cobblestones. “I’m so glad you be back.”

He hit Kalen in the face with the pommel of the dagger, plunging him into darkness.

We watch from the shadows.

We wait as the men come and take the two away.

“That, methinks, was ridiculously easy,” says the short one with the hat. “Emphasis on the ridiculous, no?”

The dark sister makes no reply. She looks. For us?

We wait.

“Something be amiss, Lady Void?”

She shakes her head. She does not see us. Her axe balances on her shoulder.

She is one of us, though she does not know it.

We delight.

CHAPTER SEVEN

22 KYTHORN (NIGHT)

Blinded, Kalen awoke to a chafing sensation in his lower half. Well accustomed to his benumbed body, he recognized the signs of being dragged. He heard whispers like soft squeaking. The smell-a mixture of sweat and vomit-indicated a sackcloth hood over his head.

“I see you haven’t washed the hood since the last time I was in town,” he murmured.

Thunder clapped as someone boxed his right ear.

He couldn’t see where they were going, but growing up in this foul place gave him a good grasp of the streets, with all their rank odors and other minutiae. The numbness helped: his disconnect from his body sharpened his other senses.

He recognized a gravely crunch underfoot and heard dozens of bickering voices that blended together-a fishmonger’s market, down by the docks: Rat Alley. Despite the foul hood, he smelled seawater and a combination of rot and sour ale that indicated they were in the vicinity of one of the gang taverns. Likely, that meant the Drowned Rat tavern, home of the Dead Rats.

Kalen found it darkly amusing that Ebbius the tiefling hadn’t mentioned that his old friend Toytere was running the Rats these days. That could have been pertinent information, when someone wanted him dead as badly as Toytere did.

His captors dropped him onto cold, hard stone. That alone told him they were at least twenty feet underground. That he wasn’t dead he took as a blessing, though just at the moment, he’d not have minded oblivion. He ached, and considering his curse took the edge off pain, that meant he was badly hurt.

Someone yanked Kalen’s hood off, and he saw a root cellar turned prison cell. A ragged man with jaundiced eyes spat at his feet, then left the room through a stout wood door.

Kalen’s eyes adjusted and he saw the dim outline of Rhett sitting nearby. The boy was just waking. “Saer Shadowbane?”

“Call me Kalen.” He worked the ropes that bound his wrists behind him.

“These are tight,” Rhett said. “Whoever tied these knew what they were doing.”

Kalen regarded him dizzily. “Were you conscious when they bound you?”

“A little. Why?”

“If you flex your muscles when the ropes go on, then relax, the ropes loosen.”

“Oh.” Rhett laughed mirthlessly. “That would have been great to know at the time.”

“Indeed.” Kalen worked at his bonds.

“As long as we’re not going anywhere,” Rhett said after a moment. “Do you mind if I ask what’s going on? I mean, with our captors and their impending murder of us and all.”

“The gang that has us is called the Dead Rats. Why we’re alive, I don’t know, but no doubt it’s for a reason. Keep silent and don’t give them a different reason.”

“Got it,” Rhett said, then continued right on talking. “And that woman? The black-skinned demon?”

“Sithe. She’s-” Kalen paused. He wasn’t sure what Sithe was. He’d fought demons and their scions before, but none like her. “She’s the Rats’ chief enforcer.”

“Well, as long as she’s the best they have, we’ve naught to fear!” Rhett said cheerily. “Except for the bit where she mopped the cobblestones with our faces.”

“True enough.” Kalen saw his fingers turning purple. The ropes gave a little-he could now pull himself free at need, but to what end? He couldn’t get out the door.

“And that other voice I was hearing earlier? Pitched high-a bit like a child’s?”

“Halfling called Toytere,” he said. “Old friend of mine from many years ago-fortune-teller, con artist, thief, and the like. His play was always telling the future. Not that his prophecies ever came true, except when it was the worst for everyone involved.” Kalen shifted toward Rhett. “He was a Dead Rat when I knew him. If he’s running the gang-and it looks like he is-then he must have moved up in the world.”

“You’re from Luskan?”

Kalen smiled despite himself. “Usually it’s the grim manner that gives it away.”

“You don’t seem that grim to me,” Rhett said. “Determined, aye?”

“You don’t know me at all, boy.”

“Fairly said. But this Toytere seems to-and he doesn’t like what he knows.”

“I shouldn’t have come to your rescue in that alley. No doubt it was a trick.” Kalen scooted toward Rhett, then fought another wave of dizziness. “Why did you come after me?”

“As I said, to be your apprentice,” Rhett said. “My Valabrar, Rayse-that is, Araezra Hondyl, dismissed me. She said I could either go back to Waterdeep to face the magistrate for dereliction of duty or I could desert. She gave me the night to decide.”

“That sounds like Araezra.”

“You know her?” Rhett asked. “Oh right, you were in the Guard. How could you not know the most beautiful woman there?”

“Indeed.” Kalen suspected Rayse would hate that description, but then, Rhett was a boy and could be forgiven for not understanding.

Kalen still felt woozy. That meant he was bleeding, even if he couldn’t see or feel it. At least he’d made it closer to Rhett-two paces separated them.

“Listen,” Kalen said. “I’m not going to last.”

“But you’re a paladin, are you not? Call on your god and heal yourself.”

“It isn’t so easy,” Kalen said under his voice. What he was going to ask of the boy, he had promised himself he would never do again. But there was no choice-not if he wanted to find Myrin. “You give it a try.”

“Me?” Rhett said. “I’m just a guardsman. I don’t have any healing gifts.”

“The sword,” Kalen said. “Helm’s sword. It chose you.”

“A helm wielding a sword? Are you sure you’re well?”

“The god Helm … Listen. Can you get over to me?”

Rhett sidled up to Kalen, moving easily. “Here I am.”

“Touch my hands.”

“Well, goodsir, I don’t think we’re quite that intimate.”

“Just do it,” Kalen snapped. “Do you serve a god?”

“Torm the Loyal Fury, God of Law and Justice.”

“He’ll do.” Kalen grimaced. “Concentrate. Pray. Try to heal me.”

“But-” Rhett might have offered another argument, but his words trailed off into a startled gasp. His hand burned with bright white light-healing light. Kalen felt the soothing power flow into him. He welcomed it, but feared it as well.

At least he wasn’t apt to expire any moment. For that, he was grateful.

“How?” Rhett whispered.

“The sword,” Kalen said. “Vindicator marked you as a paladin.”

“But I don’t even have the sword anymore,” Rhett said. “They took it away.”

“It doesn’t matter-not to the Threefold God,” Kalen said, his voice cold. “You’ll bear his mark until you die in his service.”

“Am I your squire now?” Rhett asked.

“No,” Kalen barked, so forcefully that Rhett almost fell over.

“Why not?”

The viewing panel opened with a scrape of metal on stone and their words dropped into silence. They sat, back-to-back, staring at the door.

The door swung open and a man stood there. He had a weathered, weasel-like face, a bristly red beard, and a small stature. He swore under his breath at a pair of thugs behind him.

“A blessed day it is,” said Toytere, “when I see you so well, Little Dren.”

In his high boots and ridiculous tallhat with its silver brooch, Toytere looked much bigger than he should have, but then, that was the point. Unlike the Rats in the alley, with their ragged leathers and red scarves, their leader opted for a crimson waistcoat and a deep blue doublet that might have come from a Waterdhavian salon. He carried a black lacquer cane tipped with a burnished gold rat that wore a mischievous grin. He could find a home on a pirate ship or at a high-society revel with equal ease, though in either case, he’d make folk nervous.

“Let the boy go, Toytere.” Kalen nodded over his shoulder. “He isn’t part of this.”

Toytere patted Rhett’s cheek. “I never be taking you for a fancy man, Kalen.” He’d kept his hard-to-place accent, which had grown more pronounced. It came from somewhere far south of here-possibly the moors or deep in the Heartlands.

It reminded Kalen of the source of Toytere’s anger: his sister.

“It’s me you want, not him,” Kalen said.

“True, true, but we’ve a use for pretty lads here in the city of vice.” Toytere pulled back from Rhett and swaggered over to Kalen. “Also, this be not about what I be wanting, but rather, what she be wanting. And she be wanting you alive.”

“She?” Kalen asked. “You have a mistress, do you? And here I thought you’d climbed high in your shit hole of Faerun.”

Toytere grasped Kalen’s collar and pulled the man’s face toward his winning smile of pointed teeth. Several teeth were missing from that smile, but it held no shortage of unsettling charm. “She say she wants you breathing-she not specify unharmed.”

With that, Toytere punched Kalen in the jaw, knocking him into Rhett. Both men groaned. “Godsdamn it,” Rhett said. “I didn’t even say anything.”

“That be for Cellica,” Toytere said, cracking his knuckles. “First of many, no?”

He stopped and stared at Kalen, his eyes glazed. His grin faltered. From between his lips emerged a soft, droning hum.

“What-what’s happening?” Rhett asked.

“The Sight,” Kalen said. “He can’t see or hear us.”

“Sight?”

“Seeing the future, reading minds-in his case, it’s not all a con. He sees glimpses, so there’s probably no escape for us.”

“Wonderful,” Rhett said. “He seems pretty upset about this ‘Cellica’ lass.”

“She-” Kalen fought down a lump in his throat. “She’s his twin sister.”

“Ah, the protective brother,” Rhett said. “And what befell yon lass? You broke her heart? Left her at the altar?”

“Not exactly.” He remembered an awful morning a year ago, tinged with the smell of blood. Cellica-his adopted sister-gave him a last disapproving smile.

“With child, then? Can humans and halflings even-?”

“She’s dead.”

“Oh.” Rhett sounded somber. “This … this is worse than I thought, isn’t it?”

“Much.”

Toytere shivered and returned to the world. His expression fell a bit, as though disappointed, and he waved at them. “Well,” he said to the Rats who had remained in the hallway. “Go on. Take them.”

“To her?” The thugs at the door shivered visibly. “To-to the Witch-Queen?”

“Aye, rotters!” Toytere swayed out of the room. “Whom you think?”

“That doesn’t sound good,” Rhett murmured. Kalen shook his head.

The guards jerked the two men to their feet and ushered them into a corridor that smelled of rich earth and old blood. Two rooms branched off the cramped tunnel: the cell they had been in and another one whose door lay in moldering pieces against the opposite wall.

“Does nothing in this city hold together?” Rhett said, pretending not to have spoken when the guards glared at him. He looked to Kalen. “The Witch-Queen?”

Kalen shrugged. “Apparently.”

“Torm’s blade, but this will go well.”

“Shut up!” One of the guards put a fist into Rhett’s belly.

The boy groaned. “Godsdamn it.”

Kalen had last seen the interior of the Drowned Rat fifteen years previous, and it hadn’t changed much. It seemed bigger once upon a time, but then, he’d been much smaller. The tavern’s ramshackle walls curled with age and the weight of the roof until it resembled less a man-made structure than a cavern hollowed out by a thousand small talons. A rat’s nest, for true.

Unlike other gang taverns in Luskan, the Drowned Rat boasted no ostentatious audience chamber. A simple raised dais sat at the end of the common room, a place where bards might have sung in days not quite as awful as these. A padded chair faced away from the main room, floating above the dais. Even at this distance, Kalen could feel the power in the occupant of that chair. It awakened the spellscar that burned inside him: it yearned in that direction.

The Witch-Queen, Kalen thought. If he could capture the queen, the court would fall.

They had one chance at this. He focused on the short sword sheathed at the nearest guard’s belt. If he could get that, they might yet find a way to bargain themselves free.

The hall stood empty but for a pair of toughs hunched over a card game, like rats surveying their hoard. They looked up at Kalen and Rhett with beady, distrusting eyes. Their lips drew back from their yellowed teeth. Sithe stood impassive on the dais-in the light, she was easier to see but no less intimidating-holding Vindicator sheathed in its lacquer scabbard.

“Me lady.” Toytere addressed the dais. “The intruders, as you-”

Kalen feigned a lurch, as though his step had faltered, to cover pulling free from his bonds. When his captor leaned forward to restrain him, Kalen slammed his forehead into man’s face. The Rat fell back, and Kalen snatched the sword from his belt.

The room reacted slowly. Toytere turned toward them, and Sithe drew out her axe. Kalen dashed right past her-he stood no chance against her in his current condition, even if he could get Vindicator-and bore down on the Witch-Queen’s chair. Capture the queen.

The chair pivoted and sudden thunder split the air. Kalen’s eardrums rang as an unstoppable wave of force flung him back like a carelessly cast-off doll. He flew five paces before he crashed back to the floor, deafened and coughing.

Gods. The beating he’d taken must have addled his wits something fierce. The Witch-Queen of the Dead Rats looked like-

Blue hair swirled as Myrin shook it back from her face. “Kalen?’ she asked.

Rhett leaned toward him. “You know the Witch-Queen?” he asked.

CHAPTER EIGHT

22 KYTHORN (NIGHT)

Considering the two battered men sprawled before her, Myrin reflected on this odd turn of events. She couldn’t say for certain what she’d expected when Toytere had told her of the infiltrator who’d come to Luskan. It might be a bounty hunter, assassin, wizard-anything or anyone following her trail. Not a day had gone by in the past year that someone hadn’t been after her. But the last person she’d expected was …

“Kalen?” she asked, startled. “How did you get here?”

“Gods,” Kalen murmured.

Myrin stared at him where he lay on the floor and he stared right back at her. Breath was hard to come by. They might not have seen each other in a year, but in that heartbeat the connection between them came back-every smile, every kind word, every argument.

She saw in him the man who’d carried her across half of Waterdeep, faced a lich to get her back, and thrown himself off a building for her sake.

She also saw the man who had, a year ago, killed her kidnapper in cold blood and that cooled her growing ardor. The memory snapped her back to the present.

Kalen was hurt, Myrin realized, and badly. She started forward, wanting nothing more than to tend to his wounds, but stopped, reconsidering. The Dead Rats were staring at her, waiting for a cue. After that outburst, she could not pretend that she didn’t know Kalen. Still, she could be regal about it-acting in a way befitting the leader of the Dead Rats.

Befitting the Witch-Queen of Luskan.

Kalen stared at Myrin-startled, confused, and yet somehow, not as surprised as he might have been. It was not just the hint his spellscar had provided when it seemed to draw toward her: it had recognized her. Rather, since they’d met that foggy night a year ago, Myrin had shown a talent for defying expectations. Going from hostage to queen was more of the same. Kalen rather admired that about her.

He wished she hadn’t surrounded herself with so many snakes, however. The Dead Rats stared at her with equal parts deference and wariness. Kalen saw more than a few look not to Myrin but to Toytere for a sign as to what to do, including Sithe. Clearly, Myrin’s position was tentative, and she would lose it if she did not act the part.

By her eyes and the way her expression became masked, Myrin knew it, too. “Stand him up.” She waved dismissively. “Blood on my floor simply won’t do.”

“Aye, Lady Darkdance,” Toytere said and signaled to his men.

Darkdance? Kalen pondered.

Two of the Dead Rats came forward-including the one Kalen had stunned with his sudden attack-and hauled Kalen to his feet. They grasped Rhett as well, though the boy hadn’t moved. “She’s very pretty,” Rhett observed quietly. “Or is that an illusion?”

“No, that’s not an illusion,” Kalen said.

It was true. A year had turned the waifish girl of his memory into a striking young woman. Her almond tan skin had grown warm and dark. It brought out the vibrancy of her shocking blue hair, which fell to the middle of her back. Her bright blue eyes seemed the same as always: sparkling and thoughtful.

“You certainly know your share of lovely ladies, Saer Shadowbane,” Rhett said.

“Stop calling me that,” Kalen said.

It was flattering that the boy used that salutation-for a noble of unknown rank or a common knight acting particularly well-but he didn’t feel worthy of either part of the moniker.

One of the thugs raised a club to silence them both, but Myrin put up a staying hand. “Who’s your flattering friend, Kalen?” she asked.

“He’s nobody,” Kalen said. “Just a boy.”

“I can speak for myself,” Rhett countered. “Dark Sorceress, I am Rhetegast of the House of Hawkwinter-” His words cut off when the thug hit him anyway.

“That,” Kalen murmured, “you probably should not have said.”

“Point.” Rhett groaned.

The two thugs guarding the prisoners raised their clubs, while several others in the room eyed Rhett with considerable interest. They were, after all, thieves, and naming oneself a noble scion among them was not wise. Kalen looked to Myrin, hoping she would do something to quiet them before violence ensued anew.

Either she got the message or had thought of that herself, because Myrin immediately raised her hand and sent forth a fan of flames to lick at the rafters. The Rats shied away from the magic. Blades disappeared into their sheaths and clubs lowered. Toytere, who had been reaching into his vest, relaxed.

“Now then,” Myrin said. “I will take the prisoners to my private chambers. If anyone objects, kindly make yourself known, so I can burn you to ash on the spot. No one?” Myrin smiled. “Outstanding.”

She rose, and they all bowed to her.

“Bring them.” Myrin turned to Sithe. “I’ll take the sword, please.”

The genasi cast Kalen and Rhett a look, but she handed Vindicator over to Myrin.

Rhett’s eyes were wide indeed as the guards seized their arms. “That’s some lady you know, Saer Shadowbane,” he said. “Who is she?”

Kalen smiled despite himself. “She’s Myrin.”

The trek to the chambers of the Witch-Queen was a brief one: she had the largest quarters in the tavern, which must formerly have belonged to Toytere. The room was bare of decoration, its walls were peeling like dead skin, and its furnishings were limited to a single narrow bed and an end table with a single shelf.

Myrin gestured and a chair obediently rose for her to sit in. She set Vindicator down and settled in, straight-backed and regal, like a queen ought to be.

The guards pushed Kalen and Rhett to their knees on the rug then looked to Myrin. She waved them away. They were out of the room before her hand moved more than a finger’s breadth. That hand was dangerous, Kalen thought.

The door closed and the three of them were alone in Myrin’s chambers. Their heavy breathing seemed deafening in the charged silence.

“Myrin,” Kalen said, even as she started to say his name, rising as though to approach. They both froze, neither ready to speak over the other-neither knowing what to say. He stared at her, hundreds of words wrestling in his throat and getting stuck. Her eyes sparkled and her mouth formed words she couldn’t quite speak.

“So-” Rhett said.

At that single, unexpected syllable-Kalen had almost forgotten the boy was there-the moment broke. Kalen drew into himself, suddenly self-conscious. Myrin shook her head as though to clear a fog.

“Darkdance?” Kalen asked, unable to bring himself to say anything else.

“My name,” Myrin said. “I found out more of it a tenday or so past. Myrin Darkdance. What do you think?”

“It suits you,” Kalen said.

Myrin smiled and turned to Rhett. “You were asking a question?”

“Who are you, lady?” Rhett then looked at Kalen. “Who is she?”

“Not the gang leader of the Dead Rats, last I checked.” Kalen faced Myrin. “How exactly did this happen?” Myrin’s face colored slightly. She seemed a little embarrassed. “Well …”

17 KYTHORN (NIGHT)

Myrin awoke in a bare prison cell that smelled of rot, excrement, and worse things she chose not to identify. Her only pillow was stained gray stone, which made most of her body ache when she tried to move. Myrin didn’t remember much after the attack-her mind felt fuzzy and disconnected.

“Hmm.” She climbed to one knee. A sound outside the wood door drew her attention and she crossed to it. “Well met?” she said. “Hail?”

A metal viewing panel slid open in the door. A pair of jaundiced eyes peered in at her, belonging to a grizzled, weedy man of dubious hygiene. “Aye?”

“Where am I?” Myrin asked. “Or possibly some other basic information?”

The man’s nose twitched. “Shut up, you blue-haired wench,” he said.

“Hmm.” Myrin pursed her lips. “In that case, may I please have a cup of water.”

“I’ll say it slower, then,” the man said. “Shut up. You. Blue-haired. Wench.”

“As I thought.” Myrin put her hands on her hips. “You should know that I am a great and powerful wizard. You should do this little thing for me, before I make you-all of you-very sorry for not doing it.”

The man stared at her for a heartbeat, shocked, then roared with laughter. “Heh! That’s rich, lass! Rich!” He shouted down the hall. “Oi! Lads! Come hear this!”

Two more rogues appeared, each of them as ugly as the first. The second had an over-large eye-or perhaps the other had shrunk-while the third had three separate scars across his mouth that looked a bit like red stitches.

“Oi!” the guard said. “This one say she’s to make us all sorry.

The thieves looked at him, then one another, and then laughed wildly. They slapped each other on the shoulders, bending over in a vain attempt to contain themselves.

“Ha ha!” said the yellow-eyed one. “Whatcha gonna cast your magic with, eh, wench? This?” He drew from the chest pocket of his leathers a long gray stick.

Myrin recognized her wand. “Yes, actually,” she said, extending her hand as though to take it from him, should he offer it.

They paused, then laughed again. “Aye? Aye? And how’s that, you fancy?”

Myrin shrugged. A blue-glowing rune appeared on the back of her right hand.

A flicker of magic and the wand pulled free of the guard’s hand, floated through the viewing window, and set itself in Myrin’s fingers. “Uh,” said the guard.

Thunder cracked. The ratty door exploded off its hinges and crashed against the opposite wall, shattering into a dozen pieces. The three knaves drew steel, shouting for aid.

“Now,” Myrin said, stepping through the cloud of dust, her wand held low. More blue-glowing runes spread across her skin. “Where’s your captain?”

22 KYTHORN (NIGHT)

“It was very diplomatic.” Myrin grasped one elbow behind her back and dug the toe of one boot into the floor. “Not at all violent. Promise!”

Rhett accepted that, but Kalen knew that posture only too well-it was the one she assumed when she was nervous. Myrin had changed over their year apart, but she was still as easy to read as ever. He smiled.

Myrin saw him studying her and looked at her feet, her nervousness redoubled. She mustered her courage. “Kalen, I-” she said. Then she saw him wince-saw the blood soaking his leather hauberk. “You’re hurt.” She came forward to inspect him.

“It’s nothing,” he said.

That, he realized too late, was the wrong thing to say.

As though he’d struck her, Myrin stopped. Her expression went from an ambivalent mixture of joy and anxiety to a more certain look of irritation. In the face of her anger, he felt frustration stir in his belly.

“I can help, Kalen,” she said. “My magic can make a difference-”

“Your magic has done enough,” Kalen said. “Look where it’s landed you-Witch-Queen of the Dead Rats? Even a fool can see you’re a prisoner, not a leader. You’re a lamb encircled by wolves.”

“Your analogy is flawed,” Myrin retorted. “I’m in control here, through the proper threat of magical ruin-not that I’d want to hurt anyone, obviously, as that would be conterproductive. King Toytere saw through to ceding me his power when he recognized how much damage I could do both to him and his organization. He practically begged me to take over the gang.”

“I’m sure you think that,” Kalen said, “but the fact is-”

“And you’re more versed in the facts than I?” Myrin said hotly. “King Toy-”

“I bet he loves that nickname,” Kalen snapped.

“Apologies for interceding in a lovers’ argument,” Rhett said, “but what in the Nine Blazing Hells is going on here?”

Both Myrin and Kalen stared at him.

“You, you’re queen of the Dead Rats, at least at the moment,” Rhett said to Myrin. “In that case, thank you for not killing us.”

“You’re welcome,” Myrin said.

“And saer.” Rhett turned to Kalen. “With all due respect, why not accept her aid? Lady Darkdance must have cowed Sithe. You’ll recall that demon creature nearly cut you in half.”

“Not helpful,” Kalen murmured.

“Not accurate,” Myrin said. “Sithe is a genasi, not a demon. Or at least not entirely-I can’t be quite sure.”

“What’s a genasi?” Rhett asked.

“Like a human with the soul of an elemental,” Kalen said. “But she’s not like any genasi I’ve ever heard of-what’s her element, darkness?”

Myrin shrugged. She acted as if she’d quite forgotten that they’d been fighting only five breaths ago. She stepped forward and pulled open Kalen’s tunic, revealing the livid scar of Sithe’s assault. “Healing magic,” she said. “Glad to see you’re still a paladin, considering.”

“Considering?” Kalen grimaced. “What’s that supposed to-?”

“That was me, actually,” Rhett said.

“You’re a paladin, too?” Myrin asked.

“Apparently.” Rhett spread his hands. “Only for the last hour or so-I think Vindicator’s more the paladin than I.”

“Huh.” Myrin considered this. “What are you doing here?”

“Myrin, we’re wasting time,” Kalen said in a rush. “Every moment we delay is a moment Toytere can prepare an ambush just outside that door. We need to go right-”

“I wasn’t talking to you, actually.” Myrin looked at Rhett.

“Oh-me?” Rhett said. “I came to give Saer Shadowbane back his sword.”

“I see.” Myrin turned to Kalen. “And why are you here?”

“I came to”-he paused-“to rescue you.”

He expected her face to tighten and her next words to berate him. Instead, Myrin regarded him blankly. “Well, many thanks-but as you can see, that’s not necessary.”

That took Kalen by surprise. “Not necessary?”

“I’m doing quite well, you know. I’m Witch-Queen of the Dead Rats gang. I can leave any time I want. I just don’t want to.”

“You-” He remembered Rhett standing beside him and bit his tongue. He didn’t want to have this argument in front of anyone-he wanted to be alone with Myrin, where they could talk. Though if that were the case, he couldn’t guarantee he would use any words. He might just embrace her, or kiss her, or-

The door opened behind them. Kalen turned and interposed himself between Myrin and some new attacker. He expected a dozen Dead Rats to flood in, blades drawn. Instead only Toytere entered, his cane tapping the floor. Rhett also stepped toward Myrin, and Kalen was pleased to see the training of the Guard at work.

“I be but checking on Her awe-inspiring Majesty,” the halfling said.

“I’m well, Toy,” Myrin said, emphasizing the nickname with a glance at Kalen.

If the name grated on the halfling, he took it in stride. “Well then, I’ll leave you be,” he said. “Though-apologies for overhearing, but be assured the lady knows of what she be speaking. Where is she safer than here, among her loyal subjects, no?”

“No, indeed.” Kalen met the halfling’s cool smile with one of his own. “Then you won’t object if we all take our leave-Myrin, too.”

“Kalen, don’t,” Myrin said.

He saw that she understood his game. If the Halfling refused, it confirmed Kalen’s belief that she was a prisoner. He knew how her mind worked: one could lie to her, but once she knew the truth, she couldn’t just ignore it.

“Well?” Kalen asked. “What of it, Toy?”

Toytere had eyes only for Kalen, but he nodded toward Myrin. “Such a suspicious brightbird this be, me dear queen.”

“Brightbird?” Myrin furrowed her brow.

“Sweetheart, paramour, betrothed, or the like.”

“Oh.” Myrin reddened a bit. “He’s not my brightbird or any of those other things.”

“Good to be knowing.” Toytere noted her blush then smiled at Kalen. “As to your question, Little Dren: nay, I’ve no objection, not even a little. You be free to leave whenever you wish and I’ll not stay you. Villain I may be, and a thief, but I’ve manners. However”-at this, he looked to Myrin-“I be thinking the lady knows her own mind, no?”

“Yes, I do,” Myrin said. “And no, we aren’t leaving.”

“But-” Kalen said.

“Always a pleasure, me lady.” Toytere’s smile was smug. “I don’t need the Sight to be seeing angry words to come.” He left and closed the door.

Rhett spoke first into the silence. “Sorry my lady, but we aren’t? Leaving, that is?”

Myrin looked at him as if he’d just materialized from the air. “Who are you again?”

The youth bowed gallantly. “Rhett Hawkwinter, my lady-your loyal servant.”

“Charmed.” Myrin raised one eyebrow. “Or possibly evoked. It depends.”

“I’m-I’m not sure I know what that means, Lady Witch-Queen.”

She shrugged. “As to your question, you may leave, but I’m needed here.”

“What do you mean?” Kalen asked.

Myrin squared her shoulders and faced Kalen without hesitation. “This city is sick, Kalen. It needs someone who can help feed the people, put a stop to the violence, and start rebuilding. Why not me?” Myrin put out her arms. “Here I am, a queen-one of the Five High Captains of Luskan-with a powerful gang at my disposal. Why should I cast that aside, when I have the opportunity to help so many people?”

“Gods,” Rhett said. “That’s … well said, my lady. What courage-what nobility!”

“What naivete,” Kalen mocked. “You can’t think you can fix Luskan. You can’t-”

“You say that as though you were an expert on what I can and can’t think,” she retorted. “I’ve already started paring back the Rats’ burglaries and begun rebuilding some of the nearby houses. I plan to disperse food from the larders next. And then-”

Frustrated anger filled Kalen, even as Myrin enumerated her plan. She was smarter than this-she had to see the jaws of the trap closing around her. And yet she persevered in the deception-a happy victim. Was it willful blindness?

Rhett was listening to it all with a beatific expression on his face.

The whole thing made Kalen sick to his stomach. Myrin had to see it. If he could just explain it fully, she would understand.

“Look into his mind,” Kalen said. “Steal his thoughts. You’ll see that this is a trap.”

“Steal his thoughts?” Rhett looked warily at Myrin. “You can do that, my lady?”

“She’s spellscarred,” Kalen said. “She absorbs magic and memories.”

Myrin glared at Kalen. “It doesn’t work that way,” she said. “And even if it did, Toytere’s done nothing against me. I’ve no reason to breach his trust.”

“Trust?” Kalen grasped his head. “This is a trap. You must know that.”

“No, actually.” Myrin looked at him, all innocence. “I cannot imagine why you think I ‘must know’ that, much less believe it.”

“Neither can I,” Kalen said below his voice.

“What are you saying, Kalen?” Myrin’s face went red. “That I’m being a foolish girl for believing I can make a difference? Is that it?”

“Lady,” Rhett said diplomatically, “I’m sure he would never imply something so-”

“That’s exactly what I mean.” Kalen grasped Myrin’s arm. “You’re being a fool.”

Myrin tried to pull away, but Kalen held her fast. Her motion ended up drawing them closer together. He could see her nostrils flaring in anger and the blood beating in her throat.

“Look,” she said. “The simple fact is, I’m staying. There’s absolutely nothing you can do about it, short of taking me out of here by force or trickery. Is that your plan? Kalen?”

Kalen breathed hard. She was so close-their faces almost touching. Her breasts swelled against his chest. From her eyes, he almost thought she wanted him to grab her and haul her off. His mind reveled in the possibility. The thought dashed all sense from his head.

“Myrin,” Kalen implored. “He-Toytere is using you. To what end, I don’t know, but you need to come with me. I want-” He trailed off.

Myrin did not waver. “You want what?” She looked him right in the eye.

To that, Kalen had no response.

“Good,” Myrin said. “Glad we had this talk.”

They broke apart, both of them breathing hard. Rhett stared at them, his eyes wide.

“Myrin,” Kalen said. “Luskan has been an overflowing latrine for a century. Hundreds of folk far better than you or I have tried to save this city and failed.”

She rose to the challenge. Runes of blue fire appeared on her skin and flames started crackling around her fingers. “Better than you, perhaps.”

“Please, just listen to me.”

“I’m staying.” Myrin turned away, then spoke over her shoulder. “And if you really want to help me, then you’ll just have to stay, too.”

Kalen stared at her back. He saw her shoulders trembling, though with anger or something else, he did not know. She was being stubborn to a fault. It reminded him of Cellica, and why not? The two women had been the best of friends, for the short time they’d known each other. Then Cellica had died and the very same assassin had kidnapped and almost killed Myrin. Why couldn’t she see he only wanted to protect her?

“Rhett,” Kalen said. “I’m leaving. Come with me or stay, it’s all the same.”

Myrin stiffened at those words, but she stood firm.

Rhett, on the other hand, loosed a groan of frustration. “Enough,” he said. “I don’t know what passes between the two of you and I don’t care. But for the space of ten breaths, will you listen to a compromise?”

Try as he might to dismiss the boy as an empty-headed noble fop, Kalen found that Rhett often made a great deal of sense. He nodded.

Myrin too was looking at Rhett with an expectant gaze. “Go on,” she said.

“Right,” Rhett said. “No one can leave anyway, what with the plague.”

The plague. In his drive to find Myrin, Kalen had almost forgotten about the plague. He saw again the dead Dustclaw with risen welts and rotting flesh and the things moving under his skin.

“The Fury,” Myrin said crisply. When Kalen and Rhett both looked at her blankly, she explained. “It’s what the people of Luskan call it. No one knows how it spreads, but once you catch it, you go mad-trying to kill anyone and anything in sight. Eventually, you die in a fight or the plague consumes your mind.”

“Right,” Rhett said with a shiver.

“You seem to know much about it,” Kalen said, struggling to keep his voice calm.

“Toy told me.” Again, Myrin seemed to have left their argument completely behind. She spoke efficiently, as though reciting from memory. “It leaves skeletons of all different races, bleached and stripped of any remaining flesh. Some believe it’s a magical malady.” She shrugged, as though that were not just possible but likely.

With a chill, Kalen remembered the skeleton he’d found in the butcher’s shop, wedged into the closet. Had that also been a victim of the plague? And what of the rat, trapped with the bones, who had perished only heartbeats after attaining freedom?

“I propose that we find the source of the plague,” Rhett went on. “If it’s a natural malady, we find out where it comes from and how it spreads. If it’s a wizard, we stop him. In this way, we help Luskan-which makes Lady Darkdance happy.” He looked at Myrin, who nodded. “With the plague gone, the quarantine will end, which makes me happy. I can go back to interesting duties, if Father can get the Guard to take me back.” Rhett smiled. “Also with the quarantine gone, we can leave Luskan, which makes Saer Shadowbane happy. All three of us get what we want. Right?”

“Right.” Myrin looked positively delighted by that suggestion.

Kalen couldn’t help shaking his head, frustrated but impressed. Perhaps there was something to this boy after all. The sword had chosen him-no doubt it had a purpose. But could Kalen take that chance again, after what had happened to Vaelis? He didn’t often pray and he’d sworn never to beg, but right now, he felt like doing both.

Mercy, Threefold God, Kalen said silently.

“Very well,” he said finally. “If Myrin really is in command, we can do this thing. But”-he fixed Myrin with his gaze-“will you promise to leave with us when it’s over?”

“Very well.” Myrin nodded. “That’ll give us, me, plenty of time. To make a difference, I mean.”

Suddenly suspicious, Kalen scrutinized Myrin. She was not saying everything. A year ago, she’d worn her thoughts on her face, but now he couldn’t read her as easily.

“Very well,” Kalen said. “Rhett, you’re Myrin’s warder.”

Myrin’s smile evaporated. “What? Sir Reginald?”

“It’s Rhett, actually,” the lad said. “And me? What about you?”

“That’s the bargain,” Kalen said. “Until we find the source of the plague, he’s your guardian. I’ll do what I think best. Or do you refuse?”

Myrin stared at him for a long moment, then she nodded hesitantly. “Very well.”

“And what of that?” Rhett pointed to Vindicator.

“I told you that was yours,” Kalen said.

“Aye, Sir.” Rhett nodded.

Myrin glared at Kalen. This deal did not please her, and he took some satisfaction in that. “Well I, for one, am tired,” she said. “On my seer’s word, I’ve been up all night waiting for some sword-wielding madman and fancy that! Here you are, Kalen.”

Kalen ignored the barb, but it did remind him of the halfling. “And I will watch Toytere,” he said. “When he turns on us, we’ll be ready.”

Mystra, Kalen! You’d think he was plotting some imminent betrayal right now.”

“So, about that betrayal.”

With practiced grace, Toytere lit his pipe and puffed out a smoke circle, squinting at the Coin Priest-Eden-who sat across from him.

“There be a … complication,” he said.

“Oh, don’t leave it there,” Eden said, sipping her fire red drink. “Say on.”

The dark and loud Whetstone made for a perfect place to meet and conduct business. The festhall catered to those who wanted their primary senses dulled as they took their pleasures. An absence of light dimmed a patron’s sight, a persistent cacophony of horns and drums (enhanced and maintained by magic) shattered the ears, and a steady supply of strong wine and brandy took care of the wits and nerves. The darkness and hanging curtains of opaque fabric hid the more deplorable acts committed among its sheltered tables. The effect allowed festhall patrons to focus on the other aspects of the experience-smells and tastes, sharp pains and pleasures-and to do it in complete privacy.

The halfling and the human, both in cloaks to hide their faces, sat to one side in intrigue-laden privacy and talked. Many betrayals were schemed in such places, and Toytere had come prepared. One did not become chief of one of Luskan’s Five through carelessness or an abundance of trust. These two did better than most through their alliance: Toytere with his Sight, Eden with her considerable power base. He relied upon his usefulness to her, but only to a point.

“Perhaps you’re reconsidering the bargain we made?” she said. “Or perhaps the coin and alliance are not enough? You want more?”

“Nothing like that, me dear.” Toytere narrowed his eyes. “Another player be entering in-Little Dren. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?”

“Perhaps.” Her eyes glittered-gray and platinum-as she considered this.

Toytere always had difficulty reading Eden’s face, which obscured her thoughts so well. He’d first met the woman when she arrived in Luskan five years ago, but her toughened visage suggested she’d lived here her whole life. Not that he would ever ask, of course-it would not do to seem too interested.

“The crusader should prove no concern,” she said at length. “Only the girl matters.” Eden leaned closer to Toytere and he smelled the thick perfume and blood on her skin. This was a dangerous woman-and very enticing. “How are you handling her, by the way?”

“With utmost hospitality as I bide me time, awaiting the opportune moment,” the halfling replied. “Brandobaris! She actually believes she be in command. What a jest!”

“You always did play the game with a casual hand,” she said.

He grinned with his sharklike teeth. “You’d be surprised what me hands can do.”

“Little surprises me.” Eden rose and proffered her hand. “In that case, my fellow conspirator, I leave you in the goddess’s grace. Do not spurn her gifts.”

“Me lady.” He took her hand but did not kiss it. “Never would I do that.”

She walked out, her braced leg making her limp. The patrons of the Whetstone moved out of her way with palpable respect, fear, or both. Back at the table, Toytere smiled and drained the rest of his ale. This tenday would be a good one, Little Dren or no.

He only hoped that when the time came, he got to kill Kalen Dren himself.

CHAPTER NINE

23 KYTHORN (DAWN)

In the early hours of the morning, Kalen finally gave up trying to sleep in the foul-smelling warren of the Drowned Rat. The fire had burned down to crackling embers and the dim light of imminent sunrise shone through the boarded-over windows.

Vindicator clasped loosely in his lolling hand, Rhett snored by the smoky hearth, as content as though the common room were that of any other inn in all of Faerun. Kalen admired the boy’s ability to fall asleep so readily, though he didn’t particularly enjoy the snoring. The roaring sound had no rhythm to it: rather than lull Kalen, it startled him awake if he drifted.

By contrast, Kalen had only managed to doze, never able to let down his guard. He had not dreamed, which was a blessing in and of itself. All too often, when he closed his eyes, he saw bloody dreams and accusing faces. Instead, he dozed and stirred at every noise. Several times, he’d had to stare down Rats who crept toward Rhett, eager to get at his purse or the fabulous sword. Kalen might have enjoyed the game of cat and rat, were it not for Myrin.

Myrin.

What had he expected? That he would show up, fight off a dozen captors, and whisk her off in his arms? He should have known Myrin would resent that, but he’d never expected such stubborn resistance. What could he have said differently?

“I hope you can protect her, boy,” he murmured toward the snoring Rhett. “Or I’ll have my hands full protecting you both.”

“She does not need your protection,” said a voice.

It took Kalen a moment to see Sithe, but when he did, his body lit with tension. She sat cross-legged before the fire, more a dark stain than a woman. Even with her black skin against the gray room, she seemed to vanish unless Kalen looked directly at her.

“You underestimate the wizard, and that is your undoing,” she said without looking at him or even opening her eyes.

“Myrin?” Kalen asked.

“Arrogance.” She turned her head toward him but still had not opened her eyes. “Why do you stare?”

“A proper warrior knows his enemy,” Kalen said.

“Is that what I am?” she asked. “Your enemy?”

They were silent a moment. The embers crackled and flames rose in a brief wind that swept through an open window. The light reflected on the black blade of her axe, which lay on the floor like lurking death. Sithe spoke again.

“Fire has no substance-it exists to consume and has no other purpose.”

“I don’t understand.”

Sithe nodded as though his admission did not surprise her in the least. She rose and made her way to the stairs. She glanced over her shoulder once before climbing.

Kalen rose, flexing his numb limbs. He stepped toward the stairs, then paused, considering. After a moment, he bent and retrieved Vindicator from Rhett’s grasp.

“Rest,” he said to the boy. “I shall return.”

Kalen climbed out onto the roof. In the predawn light, greasy gray clouds threatened rain.

A spire stood up from the middle of the tavern, leaning haphazardly east as though to indicate the coming dawn. The rusted weathercock must once have been a dragon, but it had withered over the years to resemble a bulbous rat, around the same time as the Drowned Rat tavern had earned its unappealing name. Perhaps circumstance and weather had chosen to endorse the moniker.

Sithe waited at the far edge of the roof. The sun peeked over the mountains on the distant horizon to the east, but Sithe’s eyes fell not on its ascending brightness. Rather, she gazed at the fleeing darkness to the west.

“Mourning the disappearance of your mother, Lady Darkness?” Kalen asked. “She’ll be back this eve, no doubt.”

Sithe regarded him coolly. She raised her axe on its long haft.

Kalen drew Vindicator, ignoring the painful warmth of its hilt in his hand. Silver flames flickered along its surface, as subdued as the distant sun in the east.

The genasi rushed forward, sweeping across and into his parry. Kalen blocked, but the force of the blow sent him staggering. Sithe stepped around him with fluid grace and brought the blade down. Kalen blocked and steel screeched. The force of her blow sent him lurching back three steps. He went down to one knee.

Sithe stood, her body fully extended, and her axe ringing from the strike. As before, she wore no armor. Her simple black silks shifted as she moved. She dressed not unlike a thief-one who expects no battle, because she will never be caught.

“Your blade is powerful, but your faith is weak.” Slowly, she lowered her axe until it hung diagonally toward the ground. “You must find stronger faith, if you would be an assassin for a god.”

“I am no such thing.” Kalen felt his anger stir.

Silently, Sithe rushed at him. Vindicator clasped in both hands, Kalen deflected her axe enough that it passed harmlessly over him. Her attack had been a feint, however; she lunged and kicked him in the chest. Vindicator swept past her hip, but she swayed just wide of its silvery edge. He felt some kind of resistance, as though invisible armor protected her.

Kalen growled in frustration. The rage she had awakened in him grew hotter.

They sprang at each other-meeting in the air, their weapons flashing and singing. When they landed back on the roof, Sithe stepped back and coiled, ready to counter. It was a trap, Kalen realized, but his anger drove him to attack anyway. She knocked his lunge aside with the axe’s blade and used Kalen’s own strength to snap the butt of her weapon’s haft into his face. Vindicator clattered to the rooftop.

Kalen flinched as Sithe came toward him, her axe hissing back and forth through the air. It spun over her head and cut toward Kalen’s neck. He was lost.

The axe stopped just a hair from his skin-halted by Sithe’s hand on the haft. She stood facing away, her arms wide. Their eyes met over her shoulder.

They broke apart. Kalen panted, his muscles strained from where he had caught her axe twice on his blade. Sithe, on the other hand, breathed slowly and softly.

“You bear death inside you,” Sithe said. “I can feel it.”

“A spellscar.” Kalen bent to retrieve Vindicator.

She gestured to his leg, which her axe had cut open earlier that night. Blood had seeped through the binding. “A lesser man would not be able to fight.”

“I feel nothing-not pain, not pleasure-unless it strikes deep.”

“That makes you strong.”

“It makes me stupid,” Kalen said. “If I can’t feel, I can’t tell when I’m about to fall.”

Sithe seemed to accept that … or else saw no purpose in arguing the point. “Faith guides my blade-faith armors my body. What of you?” She leaned toward him and inhaled, her nostrils flaring. “Boiled leather wrought of mortal hands. The power of a decaying body. You have these things, but they are not your strength. These things are nothing to creatures such as we.”

“To servants of Shar?” Kalen nodded to her holy symbol.

“I have a god,” she said. “Do you?”

Kalen gritted his teeth. “Of course I have a god.”

“One you do not know,” Sithe said. “And yet you are surprised you fail him.”

“For all your power,” Kalen said stubbornly, “you have not killed me.”

“I have not tried.” Sithe spun the axe over in her hand.

“Try, then.”

In the next pass, Sithe slammed her axe into Vindicator with enough force to send it flailing wide. It was not strength that drove the axe, but rather sheer providence that struck the weak point in Kalen’s defense. He followed the sword, reeling to one side, and Sithe brought the axe haft around to knock his legs out from under him. He went down with a crash, Vindicator clanging across the roof.

Two moves. In two moves, she had defeated him.

Shaking off his dizziness, Kalen reached out for the sword. One black boot trod on his wrist, a second on his chest. Sithe stood over him, her axe raised in both hands over her head. She’d taken her eyes from him and now gazed into the rising sun.

Rage gave way to despair. He was once again a scrawny boy, rain splashing in his face as he lay gasping in a puddle. A woman screamed in his face and as he tried to rise, she grasped his head and pushed him back into the mud. He could no longer hear-her wails had vanished along with breath, sight, and, soon, life.

Abruptly, Kalen returned to the wet rooftop, gazing up at Sithe and panting.

“Do it then, if you will,” Kalen said. “You might have fooled Myrin, but not me. I know you’ll move against us. Kill me now or I will be there to stop you when you do.”

Eyes yet on the horizon, Sithe lowered her axe. “You are wrong,” she said.

“Wrong about your impending treachery?” Kalen asked.

“Wrong about Lady Myrin.” The genasi looked at him. “She is not fooled. There is much about her you do not know. Much you fear to know.”

“What?” That, he didn’t understand. What had he to fear of Myrin?

He half expected Sithe to kill him, but instead she stepped off his chest. She looked around the rooftop as though searching for something that she could sense but not see. He looked as well, but saw nothing.

Finally she spoke. “You and I are not saviors, Kalen Shadowbane,” Sithe said as Kalen climbed to one knee. “We are destroyers. Do not forget.”

“You are wrong,” Kalen started, but his breath seized in his numb chest. He coughed and could not stop.

Without another word, Sithe returned below.

When the coughing fit had passed, Kalen looked around the rooftop, searching for whatever Sithe had glimpsed a moment past, but no such luck. If someone or something had been watching, it was gone now.

He retrieved Vindicator from where it lay. The hilt felt warm-any other man would have found it uncomfortably hot. The sword resonated in tune with his anger.

It was this city. It called out to the ruthless creature inside him. Its siren song reverberated through the cobbled streets, summoning the wretch he had been. Try as he might to shut it out, he could not ignore its call.

“I am not that man,” he said to no one.

The sun rose fully, heralding another stifling day.

A gold-skinned man crouched atop the rusted weathercock, one leg dangling. He sat in plain sight, but the duelists hadn’t seen him-magic had seen to that. The genasi had come close to piercing his illusory veil, though, and he rather respected that.

This Shadowbane’s humbling amused him less than did his persistence. The man hadn’t been close to matching the genasi and yet he kept fighting, only to be beaten down. He wasn’t an idiot-he’d proved that much-and yet he kept fighting against impossible odds as though he would win through force of will.

“Perhaps there is something to you after all, ‘Little Dren,’ ” he said.

His pointed ears perked to the sound of chirping, clicking legs, and tiny squeaks-the vermin of Luskan. The city would never know peaceful quiet, even if all the folk lay cold and dead. A fate that might come remarkably soon, if he did nothing.

“I suppose you’ll just have to do,” he said.

CHAPTER TEN

23 KYTHORN (HIGHSUN)

The rotting city of Luskan bore the scars of centuries of war and neglect. By the Year of Deep Water Drifting, the city was a ramshackle maze of dusty stone, withered trees, and mostly abandoned buildings, many of them gutted hulks. Shady folk wandered the streets doing business, partaking in barter, or shouting up to festgirls and boys leaning out the windows. Making it through a day without being pickpocketed, mugged, or maimed was an accomplishment.

And Myrin loved it.

Not that she enjoyed seeing people in distress. But despite Luskan’s misery, she could still see the life shrouded under its dusty surface. She heard laughter in the streets, saw folk smile and jest as coin changed hands. Beneath the reek of mildew and spoiled fish, she smelled hot cakes on the griddle. Perhaps she was naive, but she couldn’t help seeing it.

“Lady? Wait!”

She might have enjoyed it more if she hadn’t had an attendant in tow.

“I don’t think when Saer Shadowbane told me to protect you”-her young bodyguard hurried around an apple stand-“this is what he meant.”

Myrin sighed. “I disagree with your assessment, Reginald.”

“It’s Rhett, actually.”

“I believe following me everywhere is exactly what Kalen meant,” Myrin said. “After all, how can you protect me if you don’t accompany me? It’s simple logic.”

“I can’t really argue with that,” Rhett said. “Wait, lady!”

She strode forward, heedless of how closely or tenuously he followed her.

Wearing cloaks to conceal their distinctive features, Myrin and Rhett cut through Luskan’s market, where two dozen stands opened up by day to trade hard-crusted bread, blistered fruit, nuts, and scavenged foods.

Normally, trade with pirates on the Sword Coast supplemented the city’s rodent population and together, they supported the food demand. Five days into the quarantine, however, imports had slowed to a trickle and rats grew scarce. The people of Luskan were on the last scraps of food that could be scavenged or killed for and only those vendors who had managed to hold out could stay open. Prices rose every day, until a single mealy apple cost a tenday’s cutpurse work. Merchants tripled their guards as fights in the market became more common with each passing day.

A priestess of some sort had attracted a crowd for her shrill sermon on the power of providence. “Good luck,” she professed, “is the blessing of the goddess, and one should always follow the path of coincidence.” Her audience seemed less interested in her dogma than the crumbs of bread she handed out to those who praised Lady Luck’s name. Indeed, the folk might have trampled her into her dais were it not for her two extremely ugly bodyguards and their even uglier clubs studded with metal shards.

“Lady!” The lagging youth had got himself tangled in the arms of two coin “lasses”-Myrin was fairly certain one was actually a lad-who ran their hands all over him, staying him and exploring his pockets. Nymphers, Kalen had called such streetfolk in Waterdeep.

“I mean, thanks, but no, that is-” Rhett said. “Well, that’s really quite compelling but not entirely appropriate and I-my lady!”

Myrin stood waiting while he fought to extricate himself. When they were done taking what they could from the boy, the nymphers let him go and he stumbled over. He cleared his throat and sought to recover his composure. Myrin looked at Rhett’s belt, which the lad was checking to make sure everything was intact. “You took Kalen’s advice about leaving your purse behind, right?”

“Alas, no.” Rhett patted his belt pouches sadly. “I hope this quest of yours to redeem the city is worth it.”

“My what now?” Myrin asked.

“Your quest,” Rhett said. “To save Luskan? That is why you’re staying?”

“Oh, that,” she said. That was certainly part of it. “Let’s go this way.”

She was looking north of the market, at a blasted area of moldering wood and broken stone, a sweeping plaza of emptiness. It resembled an ashen scar on the face of an already ugly city. The dark magic of the place tugged at Myrin’s spirit. Her spellscar ached.

“Something really, really terrible happened here,” she said. “The land hasn’t healed.”

“ ’Tis ill luck to enter the Prisoner’s Carnival,” Rhett said. “Saer Shadowbane told me about it. A century ago, the ruling lords tortured and executed prisoners here.”

“Charming.” Myrin started into the blasted area, but Rhett lingered. “Come. The bridge isn’t far-perhaps a hundred paces. Unless you’d prefer we take the Blood Bridge.”

Rhett shivered. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Saer Shadowbane said the Shou control that bridge and we shouldn’t go anywhere near it.”

“You always do what Kalen tells you?”

“That’s the theme.”

Myrin found the half-elf’s timidity both annoying and endearing. He was good-looking too, wearing his fey heritage well about his stronger human features. She thought she could develop real feelings for this man, if only he would stop bringing up Kalen every few breaths.

“Well, I’m going through-you can follow if you want.” She crossed her arms. “Mind, if I get eaten by a ravening beast, I’m not the one who has to explain that to Kalen.”

Rhett cleared his throat, considering. “Aye, well … let’s away.”

Myrin heard Rhett suck in a breath as she stepped down the bank into the ruined square, then exhale when no dark terror reached out to snatch her. She pressed on through the sooty, stinking plaza. He hurried to keep up, his plate armor clanking.

“Will you hear me, majestic-but-stubborn lady?” he said as they crossed.

“Myrin. Unless you’d like me to call you handsome-but-empty-headed lad.”

“Well, in that case-wait, handsome, you say?”

Silently, she crossed her arms and ground her foot into the detritus on the street. He was going to bring up Kalen again, she thought.

“Myrin,” Rhett said. “Why wouldn’t I heed Kalen’s words? He’s shown considerably more foresight than you, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“I never mind misapprehensions,” she said. “You don’t know Kalen any more than you know me. If you did, you’d know that a place like this …”

“The Prisoner’s Carnival?”

“Luskan,” Myrin corrected. “This is a bad place for Kalen. It brings out something in him-something monstrous that I’ve seen but you haven’t. Not yet.”

“Nonsense.” Rhett crossed his arms and glared right back. “He may be ruthless, but he’s no monster. I’ve seen nothing to suggest otherwise.”

“Ask him about a dwarf named Rath,” Myrin said.

“Wrath?” Rhett asked. “For true?”

“Rath.” Myrin shrugged. “A dwarf murdered where he lay, helpless and bleeding.”

“Saer Shadow-Kalen did that?” Rhett’s eyes grew wide.

“Indeed he did.” Myrin closed her hands into tight fists, which started to burn with blue flame. “Oh, no doubt Rath deserved it-being a thief and an assassin and all-but Kalen Dren is no better than the brutes to whom he shows no mercy. Remember that.”

“Lady, you must be mistaken in some regard-”

He might have said more, but at that moment they heard a rough cacophony of barking, followed shortly by the appearance of four wild dogs among the rubbish, each of which rivaled a small pony in size. The dogs rushed forward, trailing white spittle from their twisted muzzles.

“Stay behind me, lady!” Rhett’s hand shot to Vindicator.

Myrin stepped past him and spread her fingers in a fan toward the hounds. Blue runes flared along her skin and a swath of flame cut through the dim alley light. The first dog of the pack pulled up short, engulfed in the flames. It yelped its way back the way it had come and the others followed suit.

“Oh,” Rhett said. “I see.”

Myrin turned to him without missing a beat. “I assuredly am not.”

The half-elf’s eyes opened wide after her display. “Am-you are not what?”

“Mistaken in some regard,” Myrin said. “You were just saying it, Sir Raddish.”

“Rhett, and sorry-one moment. My mind doesn’t run as fast as yours.”

“Or as far,” Myrin said. “While you’re struggling to remember, I suggest we make our way northward. Unless you’ve strenuous objections?”

“I do object,” Rhett said. “Strenuously.”

“Outstanding.” Myrin smiled. “Let’s go.”

After leaving the once-Prisoner’s Carnival, they walked northeast along the River Mirar and paused on the street of Cages Unfold. Myrin saw that the sign had once said Ages Untold. “That’s really quite clever,” she said.

Rhett furrowed his handsome brow. “Cages don’t fold, though.”

“It’s a metaphor for escaping one’s bonds, like this city-” Myrin paused when he frowned. “Let’s just move on.”

At their feet, the River Mirar was a muddy, polluted mess that looked almost like it would support their weight. This was a trap, however-a single step would send either of them to a stinking, choking demise, which Myrin did not fancy. The bridge over the canal was not much better: blasted, destroyed, and completely impassable. Some long ago conflict had smashed it to driftwood and metal shards.

“Well, that’s that, then,” Rhett said. “Better head back now-”

“A minor inconvenience,” Myrin said.

“Surely you jest, my lady,” Rhett said. “Even with ropes and climbing gear, getting across that mess would take hours.”

“If I were jesting, you’d know,” Myrin said, though she wasn’t so sure of that. Rhett did not seem the most insightful of men. Pretty, though. She stepped closer to him. “Touch me, please.”

“Lady Myrin!” Rhett said.

“Oh, for Mystra’s sake!” Myrin put an arm around him. With her other hand, she drew a circle of blue-gray fire in the air. The flame expanded and blossomed into a rift in the fabric of the world. Beyond her shadow door lay infinite darkness.

“Er,” Rhett said, “that’s not-”

She dragged him through the portal.

Myrin experienced the familiar sensation of falling backward through black emptiness. An instant later, they stood on the far side of the River Mirar.

“There,” she said.

Rhett reeled dizzily away from her and fell to one knee on the grime-encrusted stone. He covered his mouth with his hands.

“It couldn’t have been that bad,” Myrin said. “I do it every day.”

“Not everyone does, however-some of us not even every lifetime.” Rhett grasped his stomach. “Just a moment. And kindly move your feet, lady?”

Myrin turned from the squire in distress and looked around. On the north shore, the buildings lay in worse repair than across the river, as though no one had even attempted to live in them for decades. Even the gang markings-which looked like a tower rising from a burning hand-were flecked and weathered.

Rhett groaned, and Myrin glanced back at him. “Ready?”

“Almost.” He put his hands on his knees. “That was an interesting oath you used back there-on the other side of eternity, I mean,” he said. “Miss? Mess-tra? I don’t even know what language that is. What does it mean?”

“Hmm.” To tell the truth, Myrin wasn’t sure where she’d heard the word. “I think it’s a goddess. But not one you know?”

“Alas, my lady,” Rhett said, “I was never very studious.”

The word came naturally to her lips, as it had often in the past. No one had ever remarked on it before, so she’d assumed it was a common curse. But maybe it did have a meaning. How long had she gone around in ignorance? It made her feel vulnerable, as though she’d neglected to lace her bodice fully.

For some reason, her mind wandered back a year ago, when she had been bound in a faraway Waterdeep tower. There, a woman was telling her she had a goddess inside her-or, at least, the death of one. Could she have meant-?

“I am ready to go, if we-” Rhett stared ahead. “That’s where we’re going?”

Myrin looked at the ancient water tower that rose in the center of the run-down district of the battered city they were in. “Yes,” she said. “Is there some reason we shouldn’t?”

“That’s the Throat,” Rhett said. “Home of the Master, who-”

“Enforces his rule over the north bank with an army of shambling corpses, more of which he makes from the desperate thieves who venture here from time to time, yes, yes,” Myrin said. “Kalen told me that, too. Don’t you ever think for yourself?”

“As little as possible, actually.”

“Thus, my point.” Myrin gestured to the tower. “The necromancer is the most likely suspect behind this scourge. So, here we are-to find out if that’s true.” She turned back to Rhett. “Come along or stay here, Sir Ratner. Your choice.”

The lad looked back across the river, considering, then drew up tall and put his hand to the hilt of Vindicator. He reminded her, in that moment, of Kalen-a younger Kalen who’d not yet lost himself in darkness.

“It’s Rhett,” he said finally. “And it occurs to me that you’re smart enough to remember that. Am I to take your insistence on getting my name wrong as an insult?”

“Hmm,” Myrin said in surprise. So the boy had some spine. “No insult intended.”

“You’re flirting with me then,” he said.

“What!” Myrin felt her face grow warm. “Nothing of the sort!”

“It’s quite flattering,” Rhett said. “But really, lady, I aim to protect you, and I’d rather not have the distraction, if you don’t mind.” He shrugged. “We can flirt later.”

“That-um.” Myrin turned before he could see her blush. “Let’s go.”

Gods, this was odd.

When Rhett had joined the Waterdeep Guard, he hadn’t expected to be marching through the streets of a ruined thieves’ city, his hand constantly at his sword hilt, while his appointed ward plunged ahead without hesitation. And really, why should she be afraid? Her wizardry could handle any danger they faced.

Rhett really didn’t know what to think about Myrin. She seemed simultaneously naive and confident, and altogether quite unlike any woman Rhett had ever met. Also … Rhett had never considered himself a great thinker or even particularly intuitive. But even he could tell by the way that Myrin’s eyes grew clouded and her mouth set hard whenever he mentioned Kalen’s name that a story lay between them.

The fact that Myrin had been flirting with him seemingly without knowing it told him much. Rhett, who had been raised in the ways of both Torm and Sune, knew the game of courtship well. Even if entirely unaware of it, Myrin was working out her anger at Kalen by turning her attentions to another. What was this barrier that lay between them-two people so obviously bound together? Perhaps Myrin told him true about Rath-this dwarf Kalen was supposed to have murdered-and that was the matter that stood between them. Rhett resolved to ask Kalen the next chance he got.

What worried him most was the suspicion that Myrin’s venture to the North Shore had more to do with spite for Kalen’s advice and less to do with her determination to resolve Luskan’s problems.

He remembered something else she had said-something that in passing he had barely noted. “Lady Darkdance,” he said. “What did you mean, when I spoke of your quest and you said ‘Oh, that’?”

“Hold.” Myrin raised a hand to stay him and focused her attention on a nearby alley. Rhett listened and heard the sounds of a scuffle. Rhett stepped in front of Myrin, but she pushed right past him with another curse of “Mystra,” whatever that meant.

Two men had pinned a third against the fire-scourged stones of a building while a fourth punched him repeatedly in the stomach or chest. All were bruised-apparently, the victim had fought back.

A deal gone wrong or a mugging gone right, Rhett couldn’t tell. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Myrin stepped up to them and pulled out her wand.

“Hail,” she said. “You should leave that man alone.”

The muggers went on pummeling the man as though they hadn’t heard.

Myrin rolled her eyes and waved her wand-first around, then up into the air.

Winds rose around the punching mugger as he wound back his fist. The man gave a strained cry, but it vanished in a clap of thunder as he sailed upward. Fifteen feet from the ground, he began tumbling in a localized storm of magic.

The two thugs took one look at Myrin, her blue hair whipping in the winds of her casting, and fled. The victim of their assault slumped against the wall, breathing hard.

“Have you got him?” Rhett nodded to the airborne ruffian.

“Obviously.” Myrin gave him a wearied look.

Taking care not to get swept up in the windstorm, Rhett kneeled at the downed man’s side. He set his shield against the wall, put his hand on the man’s chest, and concentrated the way he had when he’d healed Kalen. Sure enough, power flowed through him and into the stunned man, who coughed.

The victim of the mugging seemed somehow familiar to Rhett, though he couldn’t say why. He was a man of about thirty winters, thin and wiry, with his black hair falling in greasy curls. His nose had been broken and healed long ago. He could be anyone off any street in Luskan. The man’s eyes fluttered, then settled on Rhett’s face. His eyes were so pale gray as to seem without color at all. Like Kalen’s eyes. For a heartbeat, Rhett thought he was Kalen.

“Wait,” Rhett said. “You-”

“Ay!” Myrin cried, distracting him. “Hold, dammit!”

The swirling vortex of power wavered as the captured man struggled as though against ropes. Finally, Myrin’s magic fell apart and the knave fell to the ground. The mugger rose, his murderous eyes fixed not on Myrin but rather his prior victim. He clutched the handle of a rusty knife so hard his fingers turned white. His face held no hint of fear.

“Back away, dastard,” Rhett said, closing his hand tightly on Vindicator. “Don’t-”

The man charged just as Rhett brought Vindicator to bear. At the same instant, Myrin declaimed a word of magic and pulled her wand back.

The thief’s rush ended on the point of the fabulous bastard sword. Only then did the wild fanaticism fade from his visage and his eyes turned fearful. He gasped and jerked on the sword.

Rhett released his breath.

Then Myrin’s blast hit them.

Thunder clapped and a wave of force sent Rhett tumbling. Vindicator jolted from his grasp and the mugger’s body sprawled back against the wall. Rhett hit the ground with a bruising crunch of steel on flesh. He moaned in pain.

“Sorry! Sorry!” Myrin rushed over to him. “You were too close.”

Rhett groaned. “You couldn’t have waited another heartbeat?”

“What, and not blast him?” Myrin looked at Rhett as though he’d lost his mind.

A chuckle cut between them. Rhett turned and saw the ragged man they had saved was smiling broadly. “Gods save us from young adventurers and their love-banter,” he said.

“Adventurers?” Rhett said, rising. “Nay, my good man, merely-”

“Love-banter?” Myrin flushed. “With Recklan here? Ha! Ha ha!” She forced a laugh.

“It’s Rhe-you know what? Forget it.” Rhett helped the man to his feet.

Myrin looked very disturbed as she stared at the ground. “It wasn’t love-banter, was it?” she murmured. “I think I’d know. Wouldn’t I?”

“In any case-” said the man.

“Stay,” said a fourth voice. It sounded hollow, like wind scraping through a stone passage.

Rhett looked around. With a chill that ran all the way from his fingers to his toes, he realized that the voice was emanating from the mugger he’d slain: the one who lay transfixed by Vindicator and broken on the ground. In fact, the corpse began to move jerkily. He had been reaching for his sword, but he withdrew his hand as though from a spider.

“Oh, Mystra,” Myrin said. “It’s only a talking corpse. What’s so scary about that?”

“Perhaps the ‘talking’ and ‘corpse’ bit strung together?” Rhett said.

“Stay and hold, Witch-Queen of the Dead Rats,” the corpse said from the ground. “Hear me, for I am the Master of the Throat-Bheredahast, named for my greatfather.”

“Oh,” Myrin said. “Greetings, Bheredahast. I am Myrin Darkdance.”

“I know.” The corpse’s head swiveled on its broken neck to face her, which made Rhett more than slightly ill. Its eyes lit with crimson light. “I know also that you seek the plague which has killed many in Luskan, leaving only bones in its wake,” it said. “You come to me in vain, for I am not the source of this scourge.”

“You expect us to believe that?” Rhett asked. “We’re to believe that a plague that just happens to leave skeletons behind is nothing a necromancer would want?”

The corpse turned to him and-horribly-smiled. Chilled, Rhett backed away.

“No,” the Master of the Throat said through the corpse. “This scourge feeds upon my servants as well as living men, leaving skeletons rendered useless to me. Every scrap of living animus flees them. My magic can take no hold.”

“And I’m the Most High of Netheril,” Rhett said. Then, when the corpse glared at him, he amended: “Or maybe you are? O Lord Death?”

“No, that’s true,” Myrin said. “The skeletons are useless for necromancy. They just crumble to dust when you try it. It would be self-defeating for the Master of the Throat to spread the Fury.”

“You-you knew this?” Rhett asked. “And yet, here we are anyway? Going to face a necromancer you described as the most likely suspect?”

Again, Myrin stared at him as though he spoke illogical nonsense. He sighed.

“This plague is not my work, though I sense a great source of corruption in the bay. That is where you must go. Also, from hence forth, stay out of my dominion, and keep this out.” The corpse gestured to the sword buried in its chest. “If you do this, I shall not trouble you. You should accept this bargain, as-”

“Done,” Myrin said without hesitation.

The necromancer paused, then the corpse uttered a sound not unlike a chuckle. “You are a fascinating girl,” it said. “Should you wish to learn my arts, you may return to me anon-though I suspect there is little I can teach one of his heirs.”

Myrin’s eyes widened. “Whose heir? I’m-” The light died in the corpse’s eyes and it slumped around Vindicator.

Tentatively, Rhett grasped the hilt of the sword and pulled. The blade slid easily-all too easily-out of the body. It gleamed as the half-elf held it.

“Well,” Rhett said. “You’re-ah!”

The corpse, now freed of the transfixing blade, climbed to its feet and shambled off, completely ignoring Rhett’s hastily raised defense. When it was gone, Rhett could breathe again-none too well, but at least he could do it.

“I wonder who he meant.” Myrin was staring at the departing corpse, her lips pursed in thought. She noticed Rhett staring and shook herself. “Well, let’s go.”

“You’re just going to take his word for it?” Rhett asked. “The Master of the Throat? That he isn’t behind it?”

Myrin shrugged. “I knew he wasn’t,” she said. “I just wanted to find out what he knew, which-as you’ve just heard-is almost nothing.”

“And to prove you could do it,” Rhett noted.

“That too.” Myrin looked to the beaten man they had rescued-the first time she’d so much as regarded him-and looked stricken. Then she furrowed her brow as though scrutinizing him more closely. “Hold, goodsir,” she said. “What-mmh!” She sank to one knee, grasping her head as though it pained her.

“Myrin? What’s wrong?” Rhett steadied her around the shoulders.

“A mask,” Myrin said, sounding almost delirious. “He’s wearing …”

Rhett looked back to the man, who-he saw for the slightest of heartbeats-seemed different. Instead of a battered human of rugged aspect, he seemed a gold-skinned elf with bright gold eyes. Magic.

Just as suddenly, the image fled and the man was once again the man with the gray eyes. He looked at them quizzically, considering. Then, after a breath, he spoke.

“I’ve heard talk,” he said, “about a ship in the harbor-a derelict that labors under a curse of some sort. You should investigate that.” He turned to go.

“What?” Rhett eased Myrin to the ground and raised Vindicator. “What are you talking about? Who are you?”

“The derelict. It’s important.” The man walked away.

Rhett gave chase, but the man’s head start and his own armor made the difference. The man reached the corner first and when Rhett rounded it, his quarry had vanished as though into the air. Magic again. He hurried back.

“Derelict,” Myrin murmured.

“It’s well,” Rhett said. “You’ll be well.”

He lifted her-she seemed like nothing in his arms-and pressed his fingers to her cheek. Healing magic flowed into her and her eyes fluttered. “Kalen?” she asked.

Rhett smiled and set her on her feet. “Nay, lass-the other one.”

“Oh. I thought Kalen was here.” Myrin’s features tightened-another ache in her head. “Rhett, I owe you an answer.”

“Rhe-oh. Right.” The boy smiled. “An answer to what, my lady?”

“When you asked me about my motives, here in the city,” she said. “I’m not an idiot. I know I can’t save Luskan by myself and I know Toytere probably means to trap me here. I-” She paused a moment, as though considering what to tell him. “I just want you to know that I have a plan and you need to trust me.”

“I do trust you, my lady.” Rhett took her hand and kissed it.

“Rhett, I-” Myrin shook her head. “I think I’d like to go back now.”

“Wonderful,” Rhett said. “Only one question.”

“Yes?”

“Will you be teleporting us again?”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

23 KYTHORN (EVENING)

"Oi!” cried Flick. “I see you there!”

The weedy young Rat-who only thought he’d approached the tapped wood keg by stealth-froze, the color draining from his weasel-like face.

Without looking at him, Flick pointed at him as though her finger were a stiletto dagger. “You pay for your damn grug or you belt up and sabruin off-you green?”

“Bah!” The youth, caught, made a face. Lowering his hopeful cup, he rummaged in his belt pouch, plucked out a dried ear, and slapped it down on the counter.

“Goblin?” Flick spat onto the floor. Apparently, she could tell the race by the sound it made on the counter.

“Hobgob,” the lad said. “Fresh, too!”

“Fine. Fill your drink.” The bar matron hooked two tankards over her left hand, then plucked up a big jug of mead, wedging it between her upper right arm and her not inconsiderable bosom. “Only one, mind! Don’t think I can’t hear as well as I can see. You fill two, I’ll know.”

“Aye, madam.” With a mild curse, the lad took the second cup he’d concealed under his arm and hooked it to his belt.

That done, Flick strode around the bar, where one of the Rats was having his way with one of her barmaids. With an annoyed sniff, Flick skirted the two, cut her way through tables filled with murmuring and laughing men, and brought the mead to where Kalen sat watching it all with a faint smile.

“Scribing not paying off the way it use to?” he asked.

“You’re the one burned me shop, Little Dren.” Flick exposed her finely groomed white teeth. She set the two metal tankards on the table. “Can’t go back there ’til Ebbius be found dead-or perhaps every tieflin’ in existence, if it please you.”

Kalen chuckled and she swatted him across the back of the head.

“Count yourself lucky I don’t hock blood in this.” She filled the two cups on the table with mead and returned to her work. “And use the stlarnin’ broom closet, for Sune’s sake!” She shooed away the lovers at the end of the bar.

“Same old Drowned Rat,” Kalen murmured. “Flick was born to tend here.”

“Master?”

Kalen pushed the second cup of mead closer to Rhett. “It’s clean,” he said. “She may swear like a drunken dwarf, but I did save her life.”

“That’s a comfort.” The boy looked at the mead, then back at the bar-or rather, now, to the closet at the end, the door of which shook periodically. “My gods, they-do they really have to do that so loudly?”

Kalen breathed an amused sigh and pointed to Rhett’s tankard. “Have a care with that, by the way. Cups are rare in Luskan and worth more than gold. That’s your cup from now on, unblemished and unpoisoned.”

Rhett almost dropped his tankard right then. “Lady Felicity is generous.”

“Flick,” Kalen corrected, knowing how Flick disliked her given name. He’d only told Rhett grudgingly, because the boy insisted on being so proper all the time. “Lose that one, and you’ll have to steal or kill for another. Or else help Flick in the kitchen. Honestly, I think you’d prefer the violence.”

“Point.” Rhett nodded and put both hands on his mug.

Vindicator lay on the table between them, a barrier and a common ground.

The tavern seemed much as it ever had-a den of drinking, gambling, and rutting, usually as a result of the first two. There were coin lads and lasses aplenty in Luskan, of course-and every Luskar was assumed to be of negotiable virtue, unless otherwise made clear. Letting one’s guard slip, however, could mean an ugly death in a pool of one’s own blood.

“So,” Rhett said awkwardly. “Do you forgive me?”

It was their second night among the Dead Rats. With chastened reserve, Rhett had told him the tale of Myrin’s quest to the north shore, where they faced the Master of the Throat. Also, he imparted what the necromancer had said about the derelict.

“I tried to convince her not to go,” Rhett said. “But she’s-”

“Headstrong, I know. It isn’t your fault.” Kalen shook his head. “And remember you are not my apprentice, and I am not your master.”

Rhett nodded. “As you say.”

Like as not, it was Kalen’s fault. He’d given Rhett the task of supervising Myrin, when he should have done it himself. He’d spent the day spying on gang taverns and listening in common rooms for word of the plague. In all that time, he hadn’t learned as much as the two of them had in a single hour’s trek. True, they’d risked terrible danger along the way, but by all accounts, Myrin had never even seemed worried. Kalen wasn’t sure that soothed him.

Why was Myrin playing along with Toytere’s game? It was so obviously a trap. He’d spent the day pondering her reasoning, but had come to no conclusions.

In truth, when he was honest with himself, he’d spent the day purposefully avoiding her. He didn’t know what to say. He dreaded that moment when they were alone as much as he longed for it.

“Mas-Saer Shadowbane.” Rhett trailed off and looked into his mead.

“Speak, lad,” Kalen said. “If you’ve a question, I would hear it.”

“It’s about Lady Darkdance. She …” Rhett looked toward the stairs. He scooped up the mug of mead and took a long drink. “She said something about you, saer, and I-”

Kalen waved for a second round. “And you want to know if it’s true.”

A commotion drew their attention. The barmaid had emerged from the closet, broom in hand, chasing the knave who’d accompanied her.

“She said-” Rhett ducked the gaze of the barmaid, who cast him a sly wink. “She said this city was a bad place for you.”

“It’s worse for her.”

Rhett focused on his hands. “Saer, she said you were a murderer.”

“I am.”

Whatever the boy had expected him to say, it wasn’t that. Rhett shrank back from him as though away from a venomous snake. “I-but-”

“I have killed many men,” Kalen said. “Would you call me anything else?”

Rhett opened his mouth to protest, then lowered his gaze to his mead. He seized the tankard and drained it at a gulp.

“Easy, lad,” Kalen said.

“But only in battle,” Rhett said. “I mean, you’ve only killed men in battle. Kalen.

Kalen set down his second mead, which seemed to have lost its taste.

“When I was a boy,” he said. “I was a thief here in Luskan. I cut purses, I broke bones, and yes, I murdered men and women both. That is what I am.”

“But you’ve changed,” Rhett said. “You’re a hero now. You-” He clenched his hands into fists, which he drummed against the table, refusing to meet Kalen’s eye.

Kalen could see the tension in Rhett’s body. “Ask what you must,” he said.

“Rath.”

The boy’s voice was loud enough to draw attention from all over the common room. Every eye turned to them-even the indifferent gaze of Flick, who stood holding a bottle of brandy half tipped toward a cup.

“What did Myrin tell you?” Kalen’s voice was quiet.

“It doesn’t matter!” Rather than moderate his words, Rhett only spoke louder. He even rose to his feet. “The dwarf Rath. Did you kill him?”

“Rhett, whatever Myrin said-”

“Just tell me if it’s true. Did you murder a dwarf called Rath in cold blood?”

Kalen glanced around at the common room, full of thieves, all of them watching him. He knew they didn’t like him-he was tolerated only because Toytere commanded it-and they would love to see a sign of weakness. He had to be hard to keep them at bay-ruthless and unflinching in his actions.

And yet, he also had to tell the truth. He had lied too much this last year.

“No,” he said, loud and deep enough that the word resonated through the hall. “This man killed my best friend-that is, Toytere’s sister, Cellica-and many others. Good, kind people who lived only to comfort others.” He met Rhett’s eyes levelly. “He lay under my blade, but I did not kill him. And now he rots in a Waterdeep prison.”

He stood and looked around, taking in the whole hall, making it clear that he spoke to all of them. Hard men and women, criminals all-more likely than not exiles from Waterdeep and other cities. They gazed at him with loathing. They hated guardsmen, but they hated vigilantes even more, and Kalen was both.

“Let me be clear,” he continued. “I did not choose vengeance, but neither did I choose mercy.” He touched the hilt of Vindicator, sending a gleam of silver along its blade. “I left my enemy broken and bleeding in a pool of his own blood, but I did not kill him. If he walks, eats, or so much as shits again without agony, it will be by the gods’ grace, not mine.”

That stayed them. Kalen could see their will faltering-could feel them backing away. He had cowed them and won himself-and the boy-a reprieve. He sat down slowly and took up his tankard. He sipped his mead, then set the tankard down with an audible click that made everyone start. Shortly, the din of tavern activities resumed.

“Gods,” Rhett said. “That-that, I’d like to do. I could do that, if you taught me.”

“This city brings something out in me,” Kalen said. “Something not to be envied.”

Rhett began to speak, but Kalen shook his head.

“There is nothing for you here,” he said. “Not for you and not for her.”

“But-”

“Kalen Dren.” Sithe stood at the stairs, her axe held low. The hideous head of metal clinked against the steps.

“We’ll talk later,” he said, rising.

“But”-Rhett reached for Vindicator-“you’ll need this.”

“I told you,” Kalen said. “That blade isn’t mine.”

“You’ll need it anyway.”

Arguing over it would likely undo any benefit from his speech, so Kalen gave in. “Tonight,” he said. “We’ll see to this derelict ship tonight.”

“Aye, saer.”

He leaned close to Rhett. “Without Myrin.”

“But-” Rhett sighed. “Aye, saer.”

Kalen crossed to Sithe on the stairs. They exchanged a silent look, and he followed her to the night-dark roof.

“Hrm,” the Coin Priest said, her fingers drumming on the desk. At least she wasn’t tapping her dagger on her coin holy symbol, as it so unnerved listeners.

Several of her bodyguards held the two bruised men in place before her. Their quarry had put up a fight, it seemed, and as a result, they hadn’t brought what-whom-she asked. The beaten men looked anxious, as though she might throttle them at any moment. Oh, how the Coin Priest wanted to do just that, but she had manners.

“Well?” she asked. “Speak, already.”

“They-she-the girl, she was too powerful,” said one of the men. “Sucked Drems right up into a cloud, so she did!”

“And the other one,” said the other, “with his sword of fire …”

“No matter,” said the Coin Priest. “The point is that I hired you to bring me the Golden Man-the Horned One-and you failed me. I am very disappointed.”

The men flinched back as though from a coiling snake.

“Fortunately, the Lady offers clemency.” She smiled agreeably.

She popped out her platinum coin and held it up for their inspection. Two faces, two aspects of luck-fortune and misfortune. She closed it in her hand and put her hands behind her back. She shuffled the coin around.

She looked-with her one eye-toward the larger of the two sellswords. He was far uglier than the other: a long scar reaching from one eye down to his chin curled his face in a perpetual hanging sneer. “Choose,” she said. “Quickly, please. If you choose the coin, you will be forgiven-even rewarded.”

The man looked to his compatriot, shrugged, and pointed to her left hand.

The Coin Priest smiled and drew out her left hand. When she opened her fingers, they held a shiny platinum coin, turned so that the homely, smiling face of Tymora shone in the candlelight. It glowed with golden light, which wafted over the ugly brute. Of a sudden, his wounds vanished-the bruises on his face smoothed over like sand under an ocean wave.

“You are well beloved of Lady Luck, sir,” the Coin Priest said.

The man loosed a tense breath and smiled.

The Coin Priest drew her right hand out, leveled the hand crossbow she had drawn, and shot the second man between the eyes.

“That one, not so much,” she said.

The sellsword stared in shock at his friend twitching on the floor, blood spurting into the air. His thrashing lasted only a breath or two. The Coin Priest gazed on her platinum coin-such a beautiful thing. It brought life with one side and death with the other.

“I shall say this once,” she raised her voice to the room, “and I shall use small words so you are all certain to understand.”

She lowered the crossbow to her desk and smiled at them.

“I-as your mistress and servant to the great smiling goddess-can put up with much. Brutality, murder, pillage, torture-these things are nothing to me. Indeed, I offer great reward to those who undertake them in the light of the goddess’s smile.”

She gestured to her coin, which gleamed in the candlelight with a radiance that matched her smile. Then her smile turned and she frowned at them.

“Then again, my goddess frowns upon those who fail me-or, worse, question me and her great works. And the reward of such disfavor, well … I shoot you in the godsdamned face. Thus.” She gestured to the body of the man on the floor, around which a pool of brackish blood was spreading. “Now. Are there any questions?”

The room was silent.

She smiled. “Go then, and bask in the smile of the goddess.”

The men crowded out of the room as fast as they could.

“Not you, however,” she said, to man who’d chosen the lucky coin. He jerked straight as though she’d stabbed him in the spine.

“Oh, don’t fret,” the Coin Priest said, rounding her desk. “That one fully deserved it, for bungling the mugging. That’s how Beshaba smiles.” She seized his arm and squeezed, her nails digging into his flesh. “But you won’t fail me again.”

The scarred man shook his head sharply, fear in his eyes.

“Good.” She leaned in and grasped the lucky sellsword by the chin, stroking his stubbly jaw. Dealing death always gave her an appetite. He trembled as she drew close enough to kiss him on the lips.

“Now, about that reward,” she said, and she pulled him into her embrace.

She loved the taste of fear.

CHAPTER TWELVE

23 KYTHORN (NIGHT)

The port of Luskan, it was said, hadn’t seen active service since the reign of the pirate kings of the old world, and Kalen could well believe it. In his childhood memories, it had been wretched, but what lay before him was worse: a graveyard for the hulks of ships murdered in century-old conflicts. Its headstone was Luskan’s chief landmark and the former power in the city, the legendary Host Tower of the Arcane, with its four spires like the trunks of an eldritch tree. It lay in rubble on central Cutlass Island, as it had for a century.

During summer nights such as this, a foul, humid fog gripped the bay, choking off breath and irritating the lungs. Anyone foolish enough to row out on such a night-like the two men in the shallow-bottomed skiff, with their pack behind them-would cough and sneeze and choke and generally suffer through a miserable journey.

At least his spellscar had grown quiescent, seemingly content in a way it had not been since he’d traded harsh words with Myrin in her chambers. Had he really avoided her all this time? He put that concern aside and focused on how much he hated Luskan-every dripping, moldering, disgusting finger-length of it.

“Tell me again,” Kalen said between oar strokes, “why we’re in this boat, braving these waters to climb aboard a derelict that’s been floating in the bay for a month?”

“Because a dead body told us to,” Rhett said. “Rather, the corpse said he-that is, the necromancer speaking through him-thought there was, how did he name it … a ‘source of corruption’ in the bay. Then the man the corpse had been mugging-back when he was alive, that is-he was the one who told us about the derelict.”

“This is the man”-Kalen coughed-“without his own face.”

“The same.” Rhett snuffled. “Which I didn’t realize until after the corpse talked-hmm.” He grinned. “It didn’t sound much better the second time, did it?”

“At least it’s a lead.” Kalen coughed again, harder this time.

Kalen’s inquiries that day told him the derelict in question had drifted into Luskan’s harbor a month gone. It had borne black paint, which meant plague, so no one had touched it for twenty days-long after anything could be alive inside. Eventually, the desire for loot had gotten the best of several Luskar, who’d raced to get to the ship to pilfer what they could.

Kalen would have done the same fifteen years past. If he had and the plague had come from this ship, he might have been its first victim.

Now he and Rhett were in a rickety skiff, rowing through the sickly fog toward what could possibly be the source of Luskan’s scourge. This they did on the word of a dead man and at the suggestion of a man who’d been wrapped in illusions.

They drew up on the derelict and Kalen hammered a stake into the barnacle-encrusted hull. He was unconcerned with the damage. The ship would never again be seaworthy and they needed to tie the skiff off, lest it drift away while they were about their business.

“Saer Shadowbane,” Rhett said. “I’ve a question.”

Kalen knew what he would ask and feared it. “If you must.”

“Why did you make me Lady Darkdance’s guardian, when she clearly wants you?” Rhett cleared his throat. “For her guardian, I mean.”

“You’re the one with Vindicator,” Kalen said.

“That’s another question.” Rhett fingered Vindicator’s hilt. “This sword is yours-clearly yours. And yet I’m the one carrying it.”

“So it would seem.”

Kalen’s body ached from his earlier fight with Sithe, up on the roof. She’d thrashed him again, then walked away in silence.

“Saer, you’ve set me about those things you should be doing yourself.” Rhett visibly mustered himself. “And yet-”

“I won’t take you for my apprentice,” Kalen said.

Gloom enclosed the little skiff, filling the air between them and choking off their words. Silently, Kalen looped the skiff’s mooring rope around the stake.

Ultimately, Rhett gave up with a sigh. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-”

“This isn’t the life you want. And even if it is …” Kalen’s eye fell on Vindicator-on the long flaw that ran through the steel. He remembered Vaelis and the words turned to dust in his mouth. “I am no master for you. I know that, even if you do not.”

The assertion hung between them. Ultimately, Rhett nodded.

“Well,” Rhett said, “at least we managed to leave Myrin back at the Rat.”

“True.” Kalen sneezed. “She does tend to make things … interesting.”

“Well that’s”-the boy sneezed as well-“certainly true.”

A third sneeze cut through the silence. Kalen and Rhett looked at one another. The half-elf dropped his hand to Vindicator’s hilt. Kalen waved him to peace and inclined his head toward the packs at the back of the skiff.

“Sorry.” Myrin shimmered into visibility. “The sea air is just so awful.”

Kalen found he wasn’t truly surprised. Her presence explained his spellscar’s serenity. Even now, he felt the calming influence of her own scar on his. From that, he really should have known she was there before they’d set out on the bay.

“We’re turning around,” Kalen said stiffly.

“Kalen!” Myrin protested, at the same time Rhett said: “Saer!” They looked at one another, both startled the other had cried out.

“Very well.” Kalen drew a loop of knotted rope from the back of the skiff and put it over his head and shoulders.

“ ‘Very well’?” Rhett asked. “You aren’t going to try to stop her from coming along?”

“Would it work?” Kalen drew out his two very sharp daggers.

“Not likely.” Myrin gave Rhett a smug smile.

Kalen ignored them both and turned to the ship instead. He stabbed one knife into the spongy wood, then the second higher up. Dagger by dagger, he made his way quickly up the ship’s hull. A quick check of the main deck yielded no obvious threat, so he tied off the rope to the main mast and threw the end back to the boat. He heard Rhett and Myrin arguing below and the rope pulled taut.

The ship hadn’t looked distinctive from a distance, but up close Kalen recognized the cut of the sails and the unusual configuration of ropes and cranks. He also knew some of the sigils from his days in Westgate, training with the Eye of Justice. This ship operated out of Akanul-Airspur, if he guessed rightly-and he found it remarkable that it had come so far west of its berth. Kalen saw no corpses on the main deck. If the crew perished of plague, they must have done so below. He waved to the others.

Myrin came up second, followed by Rhett, huffing under the weight of the armor Kalen had recommended he not wear. When the half-elf got to the deck, his face red as a ripe beet, he gave Kalen an apologetic grimace.

“Fascinating,” Myrin said, looking around.

“You sense something?” Kalen said.

“Oh no,” she said. “It’s just that I don’t remember ever having been on a ship. There’s a certain rocking motion that I find soothing. What do you say, Rhett?”

The half-elf was leaning over the side, making gurgling sounds.

Wood creaked as the ship rocked, but Kalen heard something else. “Wait.”

A knife in either hand, he stalked toward the aftcastle, where he’d heard the noise. The angle blocked his sight of possible ambushs, so he crept up the stairs, pausing to distribute his weight on each step and avoid the telltale creak of weathered wood.

When he reached the top, he saw a figure at the wheel. He stepped forward to investigate and a black shape parted from the night. He ducked and leaped back, causing the axe to sweep over his head. He slashed forward, but his steel hit only darkness. He leaped back again.

They moved into the moonlight and Kalen saw Sithe, her axe whirling. By the genasi’s indifferent face, she was neither surprised to see him nor had she meant to stay her strike. She swayed aside as a streak of blue light-Myrin’s spell-flashed past her harmlessly. She swept her axe wide and crouched low, ready to spring.

“Be that you, Little Dren?” called a familiar voice.

“Toy?” Kalen called back.

“Why, fancy that,” said the voice. “Two slayers meet in the night, on the corpse of a ship half a mile from the shore no less. What be the odds?”

Toytere stepped out from behind the wheel stand, the moonlight gleaming in the silver brooch on his black tallhat. Kalen had barely noticed the brooch before: a crescent moon set into what looked like a harp. He knew the symbol, of course, and wondered if Toytere truly belonged to that organization, or if he wore it as a trophy. Knowing the halfling, it was probably the latter.

Rhett charged up the stairs, Vindicator in hand. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “This is our abandoned ship.”

“Funny,” Toytere said, his deadly eyes on Rhett. “The side of the ship say Genasi’s Pyre. Of us all, Sithe be the closest.”

Kalen made no move to lower his steel and neither did Sithe. The genasi stared at him, ready. For them, the battle had not ended, merely paused.

Then Myrin arrived, and Toytere’s dangerous smirk rose instantly into a brilliant smile. “Me lady!” He swept off his hat and bowed. “How fortunate it be that you’ve come, else”-he cast Kalen a meaningful look-“well, how fortunate it be.”

“Isn’t it? How fortunate I can be here to remind everyone to play nice.”

She cleared her throat in Kalen’s direction. With a grimace, he sheathed his blades. Sithe lowered her axe. It seemed the betrayal would come a bit later.

“I know why we’ve come,” Kalen said. “But why are you here, Toytere?”

“Oh, the likely-I’m sure some swag be left over,” Toytere said. “We can work together, no? Lady Darkdance?”

“Oh,” Myrin said, her expression flustered. She’d been staring at Kalen and the question took her by surprise. “I suppose-yes?”

“Me lady be wise,” Toytere said. “Lady Darkdance and Sithe accompany me below, while the two fine gentles from Waterdeep stay above to keep watch.”

Kalen and Myrin both opened their mouths to speak, but Rhett beat them to the objection. “Nay!” he said. “Where Myrin goes, I go also. I’m her warder.”

“You heard the boy.” Kalen purposefully avoided Myrin’s eye. “He’s going.”

“Very well, my good guardsman,” Toytere said. “That be, if you’ve no problem with rats and cramped spaces.”

“Oh.” Rhett leaned toward Kalen. “I do have a … slight issue with rats. Their beady little eyes and scrabbling little claws. I just-”

“I know the feeling.” Kalen glanced at Toytere, then at Myrin, considering. He felt his spellscar draw toward her, not wanting to be parted. “I’ll go.”

The halfling did not look pleased at this pronouncement, though Myrin’s face brightened. “Perfect,” she said before Toytere could object.

“Well then,” the halfling said. “Beauty before the beast?”

He gallantly gestured to the stairs. With a smug look at Kalen, Myrin descended to the main deck. Toytere gave Sithe a meaningful look, and she drifted to his side.

Kalen gave Rhett a similar sharp look and the lad came closer. “Watch Sithe,” Kalen said. “Toytere might mean to betray us, and if he does, Vindicator is our last line of defense.”

“Not Myrin?” Rhett asked. “You should trust her more.”

Kalen stared at him seriously. “You’ve seen her tendency to get into trouble.”

“Like getting kidnapped and becoming a crimelord of Luskan?”

“Exactly like that.”

“She isn’t naive as you think,” Rhett said. “She told me she had a plan.”

“And she told you no details of this plan, I expect.”

Rhett shrugged. “Only that I should trust her. Perhaps you should too.”

“Ay!” Toytere called from below. “Are we going or no?”

Kalen was glad of the interruption. He hadn’t been sure how to answer that. He clapped Rhett on the shoulder. “Don’t take your eyes from Sithe.”

“Good luck, master.”

Kalen hesitated, considering whether to correct him, then shook his head. He joined the halfling, who was giving his enforcer instructions of her own. Kalen could get no hint as to their nature from watching her blank face. She nodded and the halfling chuckled.

As Kalen approached, Sithe walked past him, sparing him not a single glance.

“Bidding your squire a fond farewell, no?” Toytere asked.

“He’s not my squire,” Kalen said. “And I thought our business between us alone.”

The halfling smiled and his sharpened teeth gleamed in the moonlight. “Where’s the trust in an old friend, Little Dren?”

“You were never my friend, Toytere-Cellica was.”

“And she was my sister,” Toytere said. “But, let us be agreed. There be no point in dragging the innocent betwixt our blades.”

“Not Myrin either,” Kalen said.

“What of me?” Myrin appeared between them, her arms crossed. “Are we to compare our blades all night, or are you coming?”

“I do so love me queen.” Toytere’s smile widened. “Away, then.”

Rhett turned to Sithe, his companion on watch atop the aftcastle. “Hail, Dark Lady!”

The genasi glanced in his direction, as though at a gnat, then away.

“Gods, this will go well,” Rhett murmured.

Myrin’s insides leaped when Kalen said he would be coming below, but he didn’t even look at her. Instead, he focused on Toytere, as though he expected the halfling to turn on him at any moment.

She couldn’t really blame Kalen for being upset. After all, she had stolen aboard the skiff without his knowledge or approval. But he’d tried to leave her behind in the first place, so it seemed fair. What was he so afraid of, that he wouldn’t trust her to come along?

It made her angry.

The first obstacle proved to be the door to the aftcastle, which was stuck. Toytere indicated it with a sweep of his hand. “If you will, Little Dren,” he said. “Mother Chauntea did not see fit to bless her littlest children with strength.”

“I should turn my back so you can stab it?” Kalen said.

“Oh! I’ll do it.” Myrin stalked over to them, raised her wand, and blasted the door open with a crack of thunder. It always made her feel better to destroy things when Kalen upset her, which was basically every time she saw him.

She looked to Kalen. “Well?”

“I’m sure no one in Luskan heard that,” Kalen said.

“Of course you’d say that.” She rolled her eyes and swept into the aftcastle.

The chamber was empty of bodies just like the main deck, but it showed evidence of occupancy. The shelves had held dozens of books and curios-mementos from a long shipping campaign. Now, they lay smashed, ruined, and heaped in a corner. The central desk was overturned and shattered, and scraps of mostly burned paper littered the chamber. The captain’s bed was also ruined-blankets torn into strips and covered in black stains.

Myrin noted a heap of gray dust, about two paces in length and one in width. “Hmm.”

Kalen scraped his dagger through the ash, sending particles into the air. “I’ve seen something like this before,” he said.

“What is it?” Myrin asked. Then, turning her head to avoid Kalen’s eye: “Not that I’m curious.”

Kalen hadn’t noted the gesture. “Can you clear the ash?” he asked.

Myrin waved her hand, igniting magic in the air. Wind gusted, blowing aside the ash to reveal a humanoid outline burned into the floor.

“Firesoul genasi,” Kalen said. “I’ve seen this before; burned from the inside.” Toytere’s face darkened. “Aye, that isn’t unnecessarily horrible.”

“It wouldn’t be such a bad fate, to return to your element,” Myrin said. “Dust to dust, fire to fire.” She saw that the two men were staring at her. “Or something like.”

“Genasi don’t usually die like this,” Kalen said. “It could be magic. Or plague.”

“Best be careful what we touch then, no?” Toytere asked.

They left the aftcastle, back onto the main deck. Toytere crossed immediately to a locked trapdoor leading down to the hold. He retrieved a set of well-used picks from his belt and set to work. He began to hum and his eyes glazed over. Myrin recognized signs of the Sight, so she knew he wouldn’t be listening for a moment at least.

It gave her a chance to be alone with Kalen for the first time in a year.

Kalen stood two paces away, craning his neck to see Rhett and Sithe. Here they were, alone while Toytere worked on the lock, and he was more interested in the others.

Not that Myrin herself knew quite what to say. Ultimately, she stepped closer to him and spoke softly. “There’s no need to worry,” she said. “I’m sure he’s quite well.”

“Vindicator should protect him.” He fixed her with his light gray eyes, which seemed almost white in the moonlight.

Words fought in Myrin’s throat. “You … you’re well?” she asked. “I mean, you aren’t hurt or anything?”

“I’ll manage,” he said, looking away.

The silence drew out between them, punctuated by the lap of the tainted waves of Luskan’s bay and the click of Toytere’s picks in the lock.

There was so much Myrin wanted to say to Kalen. She wanted to know what he’d done for the last year, to know about his new scars, to know why he looked at Rhett with such ambivalence. She wanted him to ask after her-godsdammit, she wanted him to look at her. But an impenetrable barrier lay between them: that awful moment a year ago in a rain-drenched alley in Waterdeep, where a helpless man lay under Kalen’s sword and, as now, he wouldn’t even look at Myrin, much less listen to her pleas for mercy.

“Rhett said you had a plan-about the Dead Rats.” Kalen’s sudden whisper surprised her. “Will you tell me what it is?”

“Other than trying to teach them to do the right thing?”

Kalen shook his head. “You prefer me to think you a naive fool.”

“Of course I don’t,” Myrin said. “You’ll just have to trust that I’m not.”

Kalen did look at her now. “Myrin, I-”

She drew a tentative step closer to him. “Yes?”

At that moment, a click sounded and Toytere put away his picks. Kalen looked away-the moment passed.

“Captain must have locked this hatch before shutting himself in that cabin,” he said. “Good news it still be locked-means the scum-dogs that hit this boat couldn’t pick it.”

“So there might be survivors below?” Myrin suggested.

Toytere looked profoundly doubtful.

The men opened the hatch, expelling a cloud of dust and the smell of age. “Hmm,” Toytere said. “I be expecting something a bit … fresher.” He stared blankly down for a moment, then shook his head. “Tread soft, no? I See danger awaiting.”

“Does this danger involve your blade in our backs?” Kalen accused.

In the darkness, Toytere’s eyes glittered, and his features, as the shadow fell across them, seemed very sharp.

“Oh, stop it, both of you,” Myrin said. “Toy, lead the way. Kalen, take up the rear.”

They climbed down a set of creaking, dust-covered steps. The hold was no more populated than the deck or the captain’s chambers and was just as much in ruin. Boxes were little more than wood shards and ropes lay scattered like dead snakes. Every step set something to crackling.

“Where are all the bodies?” Kalen asked.

“Bodies?” Myrin said.

Kalen nodded. “It looks like a warzone down here-shouldn’t there be victims?”

“Little Dren be right.” Toytere dug through the detritus, not unlike a rat scavenging for scraps. “And I think I may have the answer.” He held aloft something small, curved, and gleaming white.

“Is that what I think it is?” Myrin asked.

Kalen nodded. “More over here.” He pushed aside pieces of a broken barrel to reveal an entire rib cage, attached to a skeleton with a battered skull. The bones were perfectly white and clean. “The skeleton looks perfect.”

“And fresh,” Toytere said, lifting the skull. “Hapless fool be breathing not a month gone.” He patted the bleached skull sympathetically. “Nary a hint of rot, neither.”

“The Fury,” Kalen said. “It was here.”

“Dancing gods on high!” Toytere spat. “What burns flesh but leaves bones?”

“Magic,” Myrin said without hesitation.

“You sound quite sure,” Kalen said.

“There are spells,” Myrin said.

“Spells you be knowing?” Toytere asked.

She shrugged, a gesture neither of the men apparently found encouraging.

The halfling crept into the shadowy interior of the lower deck, prodding at the piles of rubbish with his cane. Myrin watched as he uncovered skeleton after skeleton much like the first. All lay contorted as though in terrible fear. Myrin sniffed but could smell only dust and the sharp tang of animal dung. No sign of rot or putrescence.

Across the way, the halfling bent to inspect each skeleton in turn, and each time he came up with jewelry gleaming in his hands: rings, earrings, necklaces, and the like.

“Pardon,” Myrin said, “but how do pilfered riches help us investigate the plague?”

“Me lady, they do not,” Toytere said. “But more coin means more the Rats can do … for Luskan, no?”

“Oh.” That made sense. “Kalen, are you-?”

Kalen was staring at a space roughly in the middle of the destruction. There, Myrin saw a small furry creature about the length of her forearm: a rat. It peeked up from a mess of matted, oily fur, its eyes gleaming red.

“Myrin,” Kalen said. “Back away.”

“Aw,” Myrin said. “It’s adorable! Look at its little eyes!”

A second rat had joined the first. Together, they looked up at Myrin and Kalen with something like curiosity in their eyes. Myrin couldn’t help but wonder if they might be useful for certain magical experiments. She chose not to share this observation.

Then, as they watched, greenish spittle leaked from the rats’ mouths. Sickness.

“I’ve seen one like that before,” Kalen said. “Trapped in a closet with a skeleton.”

“Oh,” Myrin said. “No sudden movements, right?”

Kalen nodded slowly and they began to back away.

More rats were appearing out of holes in the floorboards and from among the skeletons. They gathered in a mass in the center of the room-a teeming swarm, all of them looking at the two humans. Hungrily.

“What you all be about?” Toytere burst into their midst, carrying a sack full of gold and jewelry. “I can-the dead walk!” He faced the horde of rats, dropped the bag, and grasped his cane in both hands.

As one, the rats drew back and hissed. Kalen raised his blades.

“They’ve stopped being adorable,” Myrin said. “Bit scary now, actually.”

The rats surged toward them.

For the first time, Kalen regretted parting with Vindicator. He had two daggers-one that was Waterdeep Guard issue, the other of fine dwarven steel-but they hardly seemed adequate against a horde of rats.

Nonetheless, he stepped in front of Myrin, his blades ready. Three rats leaped at them and he sliced them to pieces. “Go,” he said over his shoulder. “Get back to the deck.”

“Hardly.” Myrin snapped her wand at the swarm, sending a fan of flames into the thick of the rushing creatures. Rats burst into crackling flames, falling away from Kalen. “You run, if you’re afraid.”

Kalen couldn’t quite suppress a smile. “Good,” he said.

“Good,” she agreed.

He defended Myrin as she slashed her wand at the rats again and again, sending them sailing back with bursts of flame and thunder. He kept them at bay with blade and boot, killing rat after rat as it surged through the deadly swath of Myrin’s magic. Finally, the creatures fell back, unwilling to launch themselves into certain death.

They made a fine team, Myrin blasting the swarm, Kalen slaying the stragglers. For a moment, he thought they would win-until he saw rats mustering in the hundreds. He braced himself and opened his mouth to tell Myrin to flee.

Then the halfling joined the fight.

Hissing in challenge, Toytere leaped in front of them both, a slim rapier scraping from his cane. The blade whistled as it cut through the air. Bolstered by the sound, Toytere slashed into the oncoming horde. His momentum diverted the rats, sending dozens rippling back along their path. Ugly things of more bone and fur than flesh, they chattered madly as they scrabbled. But more boiled up to take their places, and the halfling staggered back. The wave of rats overwhelmed him, scrabbling all over his body. A loud hiss emerged from Toytere’s mouth, or perhaps that came from the rats. Toytere slavered, his eyes wild.

“Toy!” Myrin cried. Rather than a fan of flames or crack of thunder, she summoned forth an arrow of magical force-the same spell she’d cast at Sithe on the deck-which blasted a huge rat away from Toytere’s leg, allowing him to stagger free of the swarm’s clutches.

“Can you get to him?” Myrin asked.

Kalen thrust his blades into a rat and looked. The vermin flowed like a living river between him and the halfling. “Yes,” he said. “But if I do, you’ll be on your own.”

“Don’t worry,” Myrin said. “Get to him and get down.”

Kalen looked to her quizzically, his eyes widening as burning runes spread out across her face and down her arms. Fire surged around her hands.

He ran and leaped, his boots flashing with fire. The magic sent him sailing over the stream of rats, and he slammed into Toytere, knocking them both to the floor. He covered the small body with his cloak.

Fire flared from Myrin in an arc that slashed through the air barely a hand’s breadth over their heads. A hundred voices screeched as the flames cut through the swarm like a scythe. The magical force spun across to cleave two of the support beams of the main deck before finally bursting out the far wall to soar heedlessly over the sea. Smoldering bits of rat corpses rained down in the scythe’s wake.

Kalen had never seen Myrin do anything quite like that before. It filled him with trepidation and excitement. Gone was the timid girl he’d known a year ago.

Toytere wriggled out from under Kalen. “Me thanks, Little Dren.”

A few paces away, Myrin stood tall, her hair drifting on the hot winds of her magic, her eyes blazing. Her mouth curled into an unsettling smirk, as though inflicting that sort of destruction pleased her considerably. She saw them looking and her dangerous look went away, replaced by a beaming smile.

The swarm roiled, half its number twitching and dying on the floor. The surviving rats milled aimlessly, hissing and wailing. Kalen thought their voices sounded entirely too human. That chilled him.

“Er,” said Toytere. “Perhaps we be running, no?”

Suddenly, all around them, creatures rose from the rubbish-strewn hold. Rats streamed from holes in the deck, from fallen barrels and shattered boxes, from ceiling beams. They dwarfed the first swarm-if Myrin had slain a hundred rats, a thousand now surrounded them, creeping from all sides.

The three of them ran.

As Kalen made for the stairs, he slipped on a bloody rat corpse and staggered. When his knee hit the floor, a cough rose up in his chest and stayed him. Toytere reached back to grasp his wrist. He flashed a grin full of sharpened teeth.

Teeth.

Kalen looked over his shoulder. The rats gnashed at him, looking to bite and savage and infect. He remembered his first day in Luskan and the Dustclaw who’d gone insane. He saw again the welts on the man’s back in the alley.

That was it. That was how the Fury spread.

“We have to warn-” Kalen winced when Toytere clasped his wrist hard. The halfling’s eyes were wild. Kalen understood. “No,” he said.

“Oh, aye,” Toytere said. “This be for Cellica.”

He pulled Kalen forward and planted his left fist-weighted with an iron knuckle duster-into Kalen’s face.

The world shattered into darkness.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

23 KYTHORN (MIDNIGHT)

Up on the deck, Rhett Hawkwinter again tried to speak to Sithe. The genasi seemed like a patch of deeper darkness against the night-a blur in his eye. He kept trying to break the silence, but words failed.

Finally, the eighth time, Sithe turned her face a fraction toward him. “Speak.”

“A question, Lady of Darkness,” he said. “Since we’re just sitting here.”

She nodded slightly.

“What are you doing with my master?” he asked. “In the duels, I mean. I can fake sleep as well as the next man. I know he takes Vindicator and meets you on the roof.”

Sithe stared out into the darkness, as though Rhett didn’t exist. Abruptly her lips parted. “He had an apprentice.”

Her voice came so suddenly that Rhett jumped up from where he’d been sitting and readied Vindicator. The significance of the words hit him then. “What do you mean?”

“I can see it in the way he treats you-the way he fights,” Sithe said. “He hesitates to take you for a squire, because he had one and failed him. Recently.”

“You must be mistaken,” Rhett said. “Saer Shadowbane would have told me.”

“You remind him of a past he tries to forget, as does she,” Sithe said, nodding toward the cargo hold. “He is drawn to you both-the woman especially-and yet he flees. He uses me as a means to escape.”

Perhaps it was anger at the implications, but Rhett spoke without thinking, his words sharp. “And in what way does he use you, lady?” he asked. His mind reasserted itself and he added: “I mean, why do you do it? Do you … enjoy him?”

Sithe turned her dark eyes on him and he thought for a heartbeat that her lips quirked toward a smile. “He has the potential to be somewhat greater than he is,” she said. Then her axe was in her hands and she spoke a single flat word: “Prepare.”

“Prepare for-?” he started.

A fiery scythe burst out the side of the ship, trailing ashen bodies of rats into the sea. War had broken out on the abandoned derelict.

Glancing behind her as she climbed the steps toward the deck, Myrin saw only Toytere. “Wait,” she said. “Where’s Kalen?”

“If he be falling behind, we can do naught.” The halfling seized her hand to draw her on. “Come, me lady. We-”

“Perhaps you don’t know this about me, Toy,” Myrin said. “But I’m stubborn.”

She reached into him through their touching flesh. For a heartbeat, she was Toytere-she went into his mind and pawed at his memories. She saw herself through a spyhole in her chambers at the Rat, saw Toytere scheming with Sithe. He was speaking to a woman with eyes of two colors, to whom Toytere meant to betray Myrin.

Blue runes erupted on Myrin’s face as she stole his magic Sight. Warmth flowed from Toytere into Myrin, like gushing blood of which her skin drank deeply. She was tempted to hum to activate the visions-as Toytere did-but realized she had no need. She could use the Sight freely, without the same crutch.

She saw, in an instant, how Kalen lay in the hold below, unconscious. The rats swept over him. She watched them cover him, as he reached vainly toward the stairs. Toward her.

That would come to pass if she did nothing.

Myrin shook her head and pushed Toytere away. “Run,” she said to him.

The halfling gaped at her. “Me Sight. You’ve taken-how dare you!”

Myrin grasped his wrist as he raised his swordcane. “I know what you did, Toy,” she said, her eyes burning with magic. “I know what you mean to do to me.”

Toytere’s eyes went wide as gold coins. “You-”

“I know, but I don’t care.” Myrin bent and kissed him on the forehead. “One day, you’ll see yourself the way I see you.”

The halfling blinked. “What?”

Without another word, Myrin turned back to the hold. The halfling lunged out to stop her, but Myrin had sapped his strength in taking his Sight and he couldn’t hold her. The wizard dodged rats and broken boards, guided by the halfling’s sixth sense. No wonder Toytere had been covered in beasts but hadn’t been bitten or even scratched.

In the hold, Kalen lay unmoving as rats piled atop each other beside him. The creatures had not yet fallen on him, but Myrin knew she had only a moment.

The rats were hideous. Their mangy fur barely hid scarred and mottled skin. Greenish ichor dripped from their fanged mouths. In their red eyes, Myrin saw reflected the impending murder of herself and all she knew and loved.

Worse still, the cacophony of squeaking voices seemed to utter a single, surprisingly coherent word. Perhaps she heard it in her head: “Feed.”

Toytere’s Sight flared in her mind. She saw-for a heartbeat-something huge and towering: a swarm of creatures not quite rats or spiders or bats, but a nightmare mixture. They wore skin of mottled crystal and their eyes held only darkness.

When the world returned and she stood again in the hold, the rats had begun swarming over Kalen. She was almost too late.

Almost.

Myrin cupped one hand and swirled her wand above it, as though mixing cream in a bowl. Fire flowed from the end of the wand into her hand, building around itself until she held a roiling ball of flame. She ran forward, hurled the fireball into the heart of the swarm and threw herself over Kalen, covering him with her body.

Fire exploded and a shock of force ran through the hold. Waves of heat rushed over Myrin. She gritted her teeth against the destructive force of her own spell. Pieces of rat sailed down in all directions and sizzling blood painted the walls and floor.

Myrin held Kalen tight as the flames rushed around them, staring into his grey eyes. He wrapped his arms around her and she sheltered in his embrace. Her spellscar spoke to his-just as his longed for hers-and in her mind’s eye, she saw wings of blue fire fold around them.

If this was death, it wasn’t so bad.

“Stand aside!” Rhett declared, Vindicator raised in two hands. “I need to get down there! They need me!”

Sithe stood impassive, her axe at the ready.

Smoke poured from the hold-the leavings of a massive fire in close quarters. A shadow emerged. Rhett rushed forward, only to find the halfling, who was limping.

“What happened?” he asked. “Where are-?”

“Away from me, boyo.” Toytere shoved past him toward Sithe. They exchanged a look and the halfling nodded meaningfully.

“Wait.” The skin on the back of Rhett’s neck prickled. “What’s happening? Toy?”

Sithe broke away from the halfling and turned toward Rhett. He saw, in the way that she shifted her hands on her axe, that she was preparing to charge.

Rhett’s heart pounded and Vindicator glowed brighter.

Was this it? Saer Shadowbane had spoken of a coming betrayal-had the halfling slain them in the hold and now Rhett was the last one left? Vindicator or no, he wouldn’t last a single breath against Sithe. He readied himself nonetheless. If he was to die, he would make Kalen proud.

Then he heard footsteps among the smoke. Sithe’s axe lowered.

“Watching gods jest,” Toytere murmured.

It was Kalen, limping up the steps, an unmoving Myrin in his arms. Both were covered with blood and soot, but Kalen’s eyes gleamed like polished diamonds through the smoke. His gaze was reserved for Toytere.

Kalen fell to one knee as soon as he came out of the hold and Rhett hurried to him. He set Vindicator on the deck and reached out to steady Kalen. “Saer?”

“Take her.” Kalen pushed Myrin into his arms.

Rhett accepted the wizard awkwardly, relieved to see she yet breathed. He concentrated, summoning the paladin’s healing, and let vitality flow into her. “Kalen,” she murmured, and nuzzled closer to his chest.

Unhindered, Kalen retrieved Vindicator from where it lay on the deck. He pointed the blade at Toytere. “We have business,” he said.

“That we do,” the halfling replied. “Now-”

Sithe rushed toward the three of them, her axe alight with black flames. Rhett staggered back, unarmed and with only Myrin to shield him. Kalen raised Vindicator.

Sithe passed right through them, her form wavering like mist. She stepped onto the stairs and brought her axe down into the midst of the rising tide of rats that had followed Kalen. Sithe’s power drove them back with a burst of dark flame.

“Gods!” Rhett fell back, startled, Myrin crushing the breath from his lungs. He wrapped his arms around her, determined to shield her from the rats.

Kalen joined Sithe, Vindicator burning with silver fire in his hands. Even Toytere rushed forward, his blade singing, thrusting through a rat that bore down on Rhett and Myrin. Together, the three warriors slashed at the rats, until the creatures relented and flowed back into the hold.

Silence reigned on the ship. All panted or thanked their respective gods that things hadn’t gone worse. Rhett whispered a short prayer to Torm and Sune-his two patrons-and added thanks to Tymora for good measure. Only Sithe seemed unfazed by the whole ordeal, twisting her axe idly as she peered down into the hold.

The silence was shattered by a grand shout: “That was amazing!”

Myrin seemed to have recovered. She threw her arms around the halfling.

“Uh?” Toytere looked startled-then stunned when she kissed him. “What-me?”

“You saved us!” she said. “Down in the hold, attacking those rats like that! You had no chance, yet you struck anyway.”

“Oh.” Toytere regained his composure. “Well, it was rather heroic, no?”

Dumbfounded, Rhett looked at Kalen, who returned the confusion. Rhett thought he understood Kalen’s troubles with Myrin just a little better.

Myrin whispered something in Toytere’s ear and the halfling’s eyes momentarily widened. The wizard released him and he stared after her, confused and perhaps a little afraid. He held one hand up in front of his chest, tracing the air with his fingers as though grasping for a point. Finally, he just smiled.

“Well, a good night, no?” said Toytere. “Almost like that time-ah!”

The halfling waved madly. Rhett saw one of the black rats clinging to his sleeve. The halfling succeeded in dislodging the creature, which flipped through the air to land at Myrin’s feet. With a sharp breath, she shied back as it scrambled at her.

Its valiant charge ended, however, on the point of one of Kalen’s knives. The throw caught the creature in the torso and pinned it to the deck.

Myrin looked across at him gratefully, but Kalen looked away. Aye, definitely a history there-if only Rhett could get either of them to talk about it.

“Did it bite you?” Rhett reached for Toytere’s wrist, meaning to heal him.

“Leave off, boy,” Toytere said. “Hrasting thing didn’t touch me, and even if it did, I wouldn’t let you do the same, no?” He turned to Sithe. “Away, me Lady Void-I be hungering for a meal and me own bed.”

Kalen looked at him suspiciously, but the halfling ducked his gaze. He crossed to the forecastle rail and started to climb down to his boat.

Sithe made to go, but Myrin stepped in her path. “I thought you should know,” she said. “In the captain’s quarters-a circle of ash …” She trailed off.

“A firesoul,” Sithe said. “I have seen it before.”

Myrin nodded. “I just thought-you’re a genasi, too, and …”

“It matters not,” Sithe replied. “Dust to dust, fire to fire.”

Myrin and Kalen exchanged a look, which Rhett did not quite understand. Sithe turned away and climbed after Toytere.

“What do we do with the ship?” Rhett asked. “And all the rats?”

“Let it burn.” Kalen indicated the fire below, where Myrin’s spell had lit the ship ablaze. “I saw some untapped oil barrels down there. We should go.”

Rhett, who did not relish dying in a fiery explosion, was the first to the skiff. Though he didn’t like rowing, he took up the oars without being asked.

When they were well away and the derelict raged in towering flames, Rhett looked to Myrin. “Are you well, my lady?”

Myrin, who was covered in soot, finally seemed to notice he was there. “What?”

“Are you hurt?” Rhett asked. “Did any of the rats bite you?”

Brow furrowed, Myrin felt around her body, then shook her head. “All whole,” she said. “The only hurt I have came from my own spell and you healed that.”

“Right,” Rhett said. “Saer? Do you need healing?”

Kalen shook his head. Where he sat in the prow, he looked like a burned statue, his leathers crisped by a firestorm. He watched Toytere and Sithe’s skiff receding.

“My lady,” Rhett said. “Where did you learn such powers? I saw the scything flames and heard the blast from below. You must be a talented wizard.”

Myrin opened her mouth to reply, then looked wordlessly away.

“She doesn’t remember,” Kalen said.

“You don’t-” Rhett gazed at her. “My lady?”

Myrin looked to Kalen and spoke as though she hadn’t heard Rhett. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “Those skeletons we found, picked clean like the victims of the plague-those rats might have been the source. Biting, right?”

“Yes,” Kalen said. “And Toytere might carry it.”

“He doesn’t,” Myrin said. “If he’d been bitten, he’d have told us.”

“You know what he did on the ship and yet you still trust him.”

“You have to trust people, Kalen.”

Kalen shook his head.

Rhett didn’t know what was going on-didn’t know what they were talking about. Still, Myrin’s words resonated. “Perhaps she is right, Saer Shadowbane,” he said. “It’s about love.”

They turned to him: Kalen’s expression hard as stone, Myrin looking tired but expectant. “Go on,” she said.

“I … it’s something they say at Sune’s temple, back in Waterdeep,” he said. “That love is the water and light by which we grow, but love is impossible without trust. Thus, you cannot expect a man to become better than he is if you do not trust him.”

Myrin smiled. “That’s it,” she said. “That’s it exactly.”

Kalen shook his head. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “Why trust a man who stabs you in the back, let alone love him? How?”

Rhett looked at Kalen, then Myrin, then smiled helplessly. “Not even Sune says love is easy.”

Toytere scratched at the rent flesh of his wrist. Godsdamn, how it itched.

Ironic, he thought, the Rat bitten by a rat.

He cradled his wrist as the rowboat cut through the water, back toward the dock. Even now, the bite made the feeling recede from one half of his body. If Sithe hadn’t taken up the oars, the skiff would surely be tracing circles through Luskan’s bay. His body hurt from a dozen of Loviatar’s best blades thrust in his most sensitive spots, but he could shut out the ache with a single thought: Myrin.

The way she had thanked him-kissed him even-had shaken him beyond words. Even more disturbing was what she had leaned down to whisper so no one else could hear: “I trust you, Toy.”

She, who had no reason to trust him, who had seen what he meant for her, had chosen to put her life in his hands. Why would she do such a thing?

“Are you well, master?” Sithe asked. He felt her black eyes on him, but he refused to give her the satisfaction of seeing his fear. He did fear her-anyone would-but he grew angry as well. Inside of him, a deep abiding fury coiled and grew.

“Bah! Of course I be!” Toytere wiped the sweat from his brow. “Just row.”

Sithe continued rowing across the bay in silence.

The Coin Priest stared into the depths of the platinum coin, willing it to speak to her. It was her connection to the goddess-its power gave her power. And yet, it had failed so many times before. Perhaps this time-this time it would be different.

A knock at the door interrupted her musings and she forced a warm, flirtatious grin onto her face. She hated having to smile.

“Please, come,” the Coin Priest purred, reclining on her striped fur carpet.

This carpet was particularly fine-soft and smooth and stinking of violence. The skin had once belonged to a rakshasa, who had made the mistake of crossing her. Now the creature’s best feature was hers forever.

Her lackeys sank to one knee before her. Their leader-the very ugly brute she’d honored with her favors-gave her a sly little smile. Oh no, that wouldn’t do at all.

“You have something?” she asked.

“The derelict in the bay, Your Grace,” said the ugly man. “We’s been watching, as you says, and it’s-” His eyes lingered on her ample curves.

“And?” she said, closing her robe a little tighter.

“It’s afire,” said the man. “King Toy of the Dead Rats and his enforcer, Sithe. They done searched it out, for swag and the like. Then they set it ablaze.”

“So?” she asked. “Why bring this to me?”

“Outsiders, too,” said the man. “Three. A girl with blue hair, a knight of Waterdeep, and a man in black with two knives and eyes like diamonds.”

“Speak not of him.” The Coin Priest clenched her fists. “He will be dealt with. Watch for a sign of the Horned One-you bring him directly to me, understand?”

The ugly captain smiled crookedly. “We’ve this, lady-found it in an alley.”

He held forth an ash-coated gold coin. Eden hardly needed to glance at it to know its origin: the coin Logenn had carried. So her man was dead, then. How tedious.

“Very well,” she said. “Leave me.”

They obeyed. The ugly captain lingered, his eyes suggestive, but she waved him away. Better to let his imagination try hard to please her. If he ever touched her again, like as not she’d rip out his eyes, tongue, or something he’d miss even more.

That could wait, however. She needed every man and woman she could spare searching for the Horned One-if only to determine his intentions in Luskan. She had a very important customer due to arrive any day now to take possession of a certain item. It would not do for the Horned One to interfere-where the Chosen of the Lady went, trouble would inevitably arise.

With an effort-aided by her cane-the Coin Priest pushed herself to her feet. Walking was just so uncomfortable.

Her holy symbol flared and magic rose from the burnt coin in her hand to the one in her face. The light vanished, drunk up hungrily by the goddess’s symbol. In turn, the added strength of the magic flowed into the Coin Priest, easing her step.

Walking more easily now, she crossed to her scrying bowl and dropped her two-faced coin into its limpid depths. It still gleamed with absorbed magic. Perhaps this time …

She repeated the scrying ritual, and again, it abruptly failed. The warding magic was just too strong.

“By the Lady,” she said. “What are you doing here?”

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

24 KYTHORN (PRE-DAWN)

Rhett stood outside Myrin’s door, trying to figure out what to say. He raised and lowered his hand for the fourth time, his confidence wavering.

“If you want to come in,” Myrin called, “just come in.”

The latch slid open and the door opened a foot of its own accord, allowing a cloud of blue-white mist to escape.

“Huh.” Not particularly reassured, Rhett pushed into the room.

Myrin sat cross-legged on the bed in the center of the room, surrounded by what looked like a dozen floating versions of herself. Each image was sculpted of light and mist, and was about the size of Myrin’s head. Some were smiling and laughing, some looked deathly serious, some fought unseen foes. Myrin studied each, her blue hair drifting.

“Kalen sent you, did he?” Myrin asked.

“Obvious, is it?”

Myrin gave a single nod, then went back to studying her images.

After what had happened between them on the boat-and something had definitely happened-Rhett would have expected Kalen to go talk to Myrin. Instead, he had downed a single tankard of mead in the common room, then gone upstairs with Vindicator and Sithe. Before that, he’d asked Rhett to ask Myrin a question of no small import. Rhett was sure it would anger her.

He groped for a way to avoid asking and settled on her magic. “What, uh-?”

“Ordering my memories.” Myrin glanced over at him. “It’s what I’m doing, which was what you were going to ask.”

“Right.” That didn’t help.

Myrin furrowed her brow over two images. She waved her hand slowly to the left. One of the Myrins moved, dispersing wraithlike around another. This Myrin, clad in a shimmering crimson dress whose color was so vivid it seemed like blood, gave him a mysterious smile. The other image was a statuesque version that bore silent witness, her face completely emotionless.

“Hmm,” Myrin said, indicating the two images. “Would you say I look older in this image … or in that one?”

“Uh,” Rhett said. “What exactly are these?”

“Memories.” Myrin looked at him, uncertain. “I said that, didn’t I?”

“Yes, but-” Rhett gestured with his hand like a bird flying from his head.

“You are so strange,” Myrin said. “These aren’t my memories, of course. I have none of my own from more than a year ago, but sometimes when I touch someone, I absorb any memories they have of me.”

“Really?” Rhett said.

She looked frustrated. “Yes, really. Why would I lie about this?”

“I mean, go on.”

“If I knew the proper order of these memories, they might give me some clue as to myself. How old I am, for example.”

“You don’t know how old you are?”

Myrin looked at him. “Guess.”

Rhett thought about it. “Twenty? Twenty-two?”

“As I said, I don’t know.” Myrin shrugged. “I could as easily be far older. Some wizards use magic to slow their aging.”

“Really?” Rhett had heard of liches-spellcasters who embraced undeath rather than succumb to mortality-but he’d never heard of a lovely young woman lich, let alone one who worked even mightier magic. He found the thought unsettling.

“To account for magic of that sort,” Myrin said, “what I need are memories of me over a period of time, to see myself age. Unfortunately, every memory I’ve acquired thus far seems to be a single moment.”

“Er, right.”

“Some of them teach me spells,” Myrin continued. “If I see myself casting a spell, I remember how to do it. This one, for instance.” Myrin indicated the image of herself in the red dress against a starry night. “This memory taught me my shadow door.”

Rhett examined the image of Myrin offering a cryptic smile with her blue-painted lips. She looked very lovely and considerably more powerful. Again, an uneasy feeling crept into his stomach.

“We’re not seeing through your eyes,” Rhett said.

“No, we aren’t.” Myrin shook her head. “Memories are tainted by all manner of things. Sentiment, time, and the like-see how my lips are so full in this image? Methrammar Aerasume had a fixation with my lips, I think.”

“Methrammar-the lord of Silverymoon?”

“Obviously in the memory, he was very much in love with me,” Myrin said. “See the darkness behind me in this image? That’s the spell.”

“You were in love with the lord of Silverymoon,” Rhett said. “The ancient lord of Silverymoon?”

“Love knows neither age nor death,” Myrin said.

“That’s …” Rhett nodded. “That’s beautiful.”

“It’s poetry-something by Thann, I believe,” she said. “And I said he was in love with me, not the inverse. I have no way of knowing how I felt. This”-she indicated the Myrin with the emotionless face, bound in an aura of blue fire-“I got when Fayne kissed me.”

“Someone kissed you?” he asked. “Someone not Saer Shadowbane?”

Again, Myrin gave him that odd expression, as if considering whether he was mocking her. “Yes,” she said patiently. “An odious creature, but very sad. Broken by tragedy. I never really liked her, but I felt for her.”

“Wait.” Rhett considered. “Her? A lass kissed you.”

“Is that shocking?”

“No,” Rhett said. “I’m merely imagining. One moment.”

“Imagine away.” Myrin turned back to her images. She put a few in a different order, considered them again, then reversed them.

Rhett noticed an image near her right hand: Myrin floating in a dark alley, clad only in fire and thousands of those blue runes that appeared on her skin when she cast magic. “What’s this one?”

“Ah!” Myrin waved her hand and all the images disappeared, replaced by a softly glowing ball of magelight. “That was from a year ago, when I first met Kalen. I don’t remember it, but he does.”

“Did you get those memories from a kiss as well?”

“No,” Myrin said hesitantly. “Well, yes, but-that’s not relevant.”

“Oh, I’m sure.”

They regarded each other, the woman sitting cross-legged on her bed, the man standing at her side. She studied him, quite as though she’d never seen him before. “I want you,” Myrin said.

“Uh. Lady?”

“I want your memories,” Myrin said. “Let me see-”

Closing her eyes, she reached up and pressed her bare fingers to his cheek. Her fingers felt surprisingly warm. They tingled against his skin. He gaped at her, trembling under her touch. “Are you seeing anything?” he asked.

Her brow furrowed. “You’re picturing me without my clothes on.”

“What?” Rhett said. “No, no, I’m not!”

“No.” Myrin smiled and opened her eyes. “But as soon as I said that, you did.”

“Oh, very nice.” Rhett scowled. “You beguiled me!”

Myrin looked amused. “Well, I am the Witch-Queen,” she said. “But alas, if we’ve ever met, you don’t remember me, so you’ve nothing for me to absorb.”

“Oh, I’d remember,” Rhett said. “You’re very distinctive.”

“Am I?”

Myrin was giving him another of those curious, weighing looks, as though trying to read his mind. Could she read his mind? He tried his best to push away the image of Myrin naked and in the heat of passion-or possibly naked and wreathed in arcane fire, like in the image Kalen had apparently seen.

He remembered abruptly why he had come: the question Kalen had sent him to ask. He hadn’t wanted to confront Myrin in the first place and now he felt even less inclined. She had told him Kalen had killed the dwarf Rath, but Kalen had denied it. Then in the boat, the two had argued with few words. He didn’t want to be caught between them, but he had no choice.

Tymora guide me, he prayed silently. He would ease into the subject.

“I-” Rhett said. “This plague. You know, the one woven by a flesh-reaving, bone-cleaning wizard … or whatever he is.”

“Why do you assume it’s a he?” Myrin said, still looking at her images.

“Good point,” he said lightly. “Could be a she.”

Myrin frowned at his jest.

“A blue-haired she.”

Myrin continued to frown.

“A blue-haired-you. Could be you.

“Oh, I understood,” Myrin said. “I’m just deeply hurt you think of me so: that I’m some terrible spellslayer who wants nothing more than to destroy this city.”

“Ha,” Rhett said. “Now you’re mocking me … right?”

She narrowed her eyes. “And you’re next.”

“Gah!” Rhett stepped back.

“Mystra, that was easy.” Myrin gave him a brilliant smile.

Rhett breathed a sigh of relief. At least she was in good humor-for now.

“Out of curiosity, do you have a glass or a tankard of some kind?” Myrin asked. “Just so happens that I have this.” A red bottle of wine floated over to her hand. “I found it on the ship. Or would you prefer to drink out of the bottle?”

Rhett had his metal tankard from Flick. Maybe some wine would help … but no. “Kalen told me to guard you,” he said. “Hard to do that from my cups.”

“Pity.” Myrin sent the bottle floating back to the end table. When he started to stand, though, she reached out and touched his arm. “You can still stay and talk to me.”

“About Kalen?”

Myrin grimaced. “Aye, we can talk about tall, dark, and dour if you like.”

At this point, he had either to ask or leave, and Rhett was no coward.

“Lady Darkdance,” he said. “Did-on the ship, were you-?”

“Was I bitten?” Myrin supplied. “Kalen told you to ask, didn’t he?”

“Yes.” Rhett blew out a sigh.

“I knew it.” Myrin slumped. “I suppose it’s too much to hope Kalen could trust me. We’ve been apart for a year, and he just doesn’t know me anymore.”

“It’s not that,” Rhett said. “It’s-he didn’t explain why, but I got the sense it had to do with the halfling. Perhaps-”

“Perhaps I’m sick and thus not thinking clearly.” Myrin stood and faced Rhett in the small room, her arms crossed. “Do you think that?”

Rhett shook his head. “No, but he wants me to find out.”

Myrin sighed. “Well, thank you for being honest. You could have gone about this so poorly. By sending someone else, for instance.”

“My lady, that’s-” Rhett’s eyes widened. “What are you doing?”

Wordlessly, Myrin set her fingers to work unlacing her bodice. A hand sculpted of blue light manifested to help with the process. It took only a breath. Freed, she undid the ties of her undershirt.

“I don’t-lady, that isn’t necessary,” Rhett said.

“Rhett,” Myrin said. “Is there any romantic attachment between us?”

“Not that I’m aware of, no.”

“Good,” Myrin said. “I want you to see for yourself. Then you can assure Kalen that I bear no bites where I could have caught the Fury.” Her face was set in lines of determination. “I can see no reason not to do this.”

“But-” Rhett trailed off. “You know? Neither can I. Carry on.”

There, in her chamber, Myrin stripped. Her golden-brown skin sparkled, and she seemed very dark in the dim light of her magic. Markings rose livid in her flesh, but they were not the welts Kalen had described to him. Instead, she bore a number of graceful black tattoos that shimmered with azure light. Rhett had seen such lights manifest momentarily on her skin as she cast her spells, but he’d not realized she had permanent ones as well. She bore large tattoos-about the size of fists-connected by faint trails of arcane runes.

All but bare, Myrin turned in place. “Satisfied?” she asked.

Rhett swallowed a lump in his throat, not sure he’d ever be satisfied. He realized he was staring, so he turned his eyes to the floor. “They’re lovely,” he said. “Your tattoos, I mean.” Among other things, he didn’t say.

“You think so?” Finally seeming self-conscious, Myrin crossed her arms behind her back, held one elbow, and ground her toe into the floorboards.

“Very much so.” Without thinking, he stepped forward. She did not retreat. “What do they mean?”

“They’re my spells. I-here.” She closed the distance between them, seized his hand, and touched it to the tattoo on her right forearm. “My thunder blast. See?”

The rune vaguely resembled a storm cloud, now that he looked at it. A line of runes ran up her arm to a larger tattoo on the outside of her biceps.

Myrin guided his hand to this higher mark. “My fireball. See the little tails?”

He traced his fingers around the tattoo, feeling her flesh under his touch. Now that she’d said that, he did see the pattern. “Right,” he said.

Myrin guided his touch up her arm and over to her right shoulder, where a rune seemed to spin like a whirring blade, trailing flames. “The firescythe,” she said. “It’s a similar spell to the fireball, though easier to cast and not as powerful.”

“It seemed powerful enough.” Rhett recalled the scythe spinning out over the sea with a shiver. How mighty was this woman, with her magic and tattoos?

Myrin turned a little, exposing her bare back. “My shield, on my left shoulder.”

He traced the line of runes to a symbol where she indicated. It looked faintly like a kite shield. He touched it lightly and she shivered. Her magelight, as though it languished without her concentration, began to dim.

“I have more,” she whispered. “Not many, but they’re appearing all the time. With greater frequency, as I learn more.” She clenched her fists. “I need to learn more.”

Rhett was hardly listening. He traced the runes leading up and over her shoulder, stepping around her. Myrin watched his hand, rapt. Rhett followed the path down her chest to a little portal of darkness. It seemed it might lead into her heart.

“That’s,” she said in a dreamy voice. She wet her lips. “That’s the shadow door-the one I learned from Methrammar’s memory. I-”

Rhett leaned in and kissed her. A shiver ran through her as her whole body relaxed into his embrace. For a heartbeat, they kissed like lovers in a bard’s romance.

Myrin’s lips parted and she murmured a name: “Kalen-”

Rhett pulled away, but with surprising speed Myrin caught his hand and they stood together, holding hands in the chamber.

Then Myrin’s eyes widened and she came fully awake. Her magelight brightened fully.

“Well-” Myrin released his hand self-consciously. “My memories won’t order themselves.”

Rhett may not have been the sharpest sword in Faerun, but this he understood. He had extended her an offer and she hadn’t taken it.

He turned politely away as Myrin slid her clothes back on. Their intimate moment had passed, shattered by what Myrin had said without thinking. It filled Rhett with equal parts frustration and sadness, but not for himself. This should have been Kalen’s moment, not his. Myrin wanted that and Rhett thought Kalen did as well. It seemed obvious to Rhett, who knew this dance well, but neither Myrin nor Kalen seemed to see it. Or if they did, they stubbornly would not act on it.

Well, if neither of them could do it on their own, he would just have to help. His Guard duty kept him to Torm’s path, but he could do some of Sune’s work too.

“I should go find Saer Shadowbane.” Rhett made the suggestion subtle.

“What?” Myrin said as she laced up her bodice. “Oh. Yes. I suppose.”

“Last I saw him, he was off with Sithe, doing whatever they go do.”

“Hmm,” Myrin said. “Well-that can’t be going well.”

“Oh?” Rhett paused at the door. Perhaps he could plant a seed of jealousy that would bear fruit. “I don’t know. They keep absconding to parts unknown, like something out of a copper-nib chapbook? They always look so … intense.

“Oh, trust me-they’re not making love.”

“Oh.” She was very frank, this woman. “How-I mean, how do you know? I saw the look they shared. It was a very significant look.”

Myrin smiled just a little. “Call it intuition.”

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

24 KYTHORN (DAWN)

Crash.

Kalen skidded back with a bone-jarring thump against the crenellations at the edge of the roof. Sour water splashed in Kalen’s wake as he came to rest in a small puddle. The greasy wood groaned under his weight, but held.

Rain battered Luskan, stripping yet another layer of wood and thatch from already battered buildings. The streets were empty-even the most desperate of thieves avoided such miserable nights. Only the man of shadow and the woman of darkness braved the oily deluge.

Fighting the dull ache in his chest, Kalen forced his empty limbs to move. Equally numb fingers scrabbled through the water and muck for Vindicator’s hilt. He found it, then slammed the sword down on the rooftop with a growl of frustration.

“You fear.” Sithe stood a short distance away, shaking the tension from her arms. Her axe gleamed in the moonlight. “You cannot defeat what you fear.”

“As I told you”-Kalen fought down a rising cough-“I fear nothing.”

“I am nothing,” she said. She raised her axe in a high guard.

Kalen stood, leveled Vindicator, and ran forward to oblige her.

This third pass fared no better than the first two did. He used every bit of sword-training and every trick at his disposal-feints, misdirection, varying time. None of it penetrated her defenses. She threw herself wholly into every attack, fearless of counters or ripostes. Her body seemed to anticipate his every strike, as though some greater force guided her movements. Her muscles hardly seemed capable of lifting the great headsman’s axe, and yet she fought brilliantly with little effort.

They broke apart for a moment, Kalen panting heavily. “You don’t feel like nothing.”

He struck again, but Sithe smashed his attack aside and kicked him in the chest. He staggered back and adjusted his stance for a new angle. Vindicator burned dully in his hand as he weighed her stance. Her grace was matchless-her skill far beyond his.

“The boy believes you a demon,” Kalen said. “Are you?”

“No,” Sithe said so quickly he doubted its truth.

“Myrin said you are a genasi.” The word seemed to strike Sithe-she actually met his gaze. “You are like no genasi I have ever met. You’ve neither fire nor lightning, earth nor water, nor-”

“I am born of the nothing between light and shadow,” Sithe said. “My soul is of the void-the wind through darkness.”

“A cryptic answer,” Kalen said. “And not one that instills confidence.”

“Confidence?” she asked. “You wear your fear for all to see.” Sithe gestured contemptuously at him. “If you fear neither pain nor death, why do you wear armor? If you don’t fear defeat, why carry a sword into battle? And these-pain, death, defeat-these are the least of your fears.” She looked away. “Speak not to me of confidence, when you fear so many things but do not know it.”

“The wise man,” Kalen said, “claims to know nothing.”

“Then the wise man,” Sithe replied, “is an idiot.”

She had just spoken more words to him than he had heard her string together at once. During her diatribe-if such it could be called-her voice had risen ever so slightly. He heard anger and thought he had touched her with the word “demon.”

“You flee your fears, but they will find you. You take refuge in them, but they will not shield you,” Sithe said. “You will learn nothing from me if you fight because of fear.”

“Are you saying I fear to face you?”

“You fear not to face me,” Sithe said. “You face me to escape what you fear you’ll become, the boy you fear to teach, and the woman you fear to touch.”

Kalen lunged without thinking. Surprised, Sithe was only able to raise the axe halfway to block and Vindicator cut at her face. A shroud of darkness appeared around her, absorbing the blade’s impact. Kalen shivered in the sudden rush of deathly chill.

The haft of Sithe’s axe swung around and struck him on the right ear.

Reeling, Kalen fought for his senses. He lurched half a dozen steps to the side and fell to one knee, spitting blood. When he could see clearly again, Sithe stood unperturbed-waiting. Once again, Kalen slammed Vindicator against the rooftop in his frustration.

“Better.” Sithe stood over him, her axe raised high. “Again.”

Kalen wasn’t about to let her provoke him again. Instead, he tried the opposite.

“You speak of my fears, but you’re the one with the axe,” he said. “If my sword and armor are my crutch, what of yours?”

Sithe considered this. Then she dropped her axe to clatter on the withered boards of the roof. She stood waiting, unarmed and unarmored, arms limp at her sides. “Strike then,” she said.

He strode forward, his blade held high. She made no move, even when he cut down at her head. He stayed his slash at the last, turning to strike her with the flat.

Sithe caught his attack, one hand on either side of Vindicator.

“You should have struck fully,” she said. “I might not have caught it.”

Kalen strained, but he could not move the frozen sword. “You’d be dead.”

“I have faith in your weakness.”

Darkness flared around her and struck him like a fist. He fell back half a dozen paces, disarmed. Vindicator remained between her hands, as if she were praying around it. She tossed the blade in his direction and it skittered to his feet.

“Your ignorance makes you helpless as a child,” Sithe said.

Kalen’s anger burned at the weakness coursing through him. He climbed shakily to his feet. “If you know all,” he said, “then I am glad you are teaching me.”

The woman’s black eyes narrowed. She caught the haft of her axe under one toe and kicked the weapon up into her hands.

He had only an instant to react before she was on him, her axe chopping down like a bolt of lightning. Kalen leaped back, but Sithe pressed forward, her axe lashing up and across. The axe hit him so hard he flew back, clearing the side of the building and tumbling through the open air. He glanced around wildly as he toppled back, only to crash on the rooftop of the next building. He stumbled to one knee and looked up. Sithe swooped down toward him, her axe held high.

He dodged the chop that might have cut him in two, but Sithe adjusted in midair, smashing the haft of the axe into Kalen’s face. Roiling light replaced the world and Kalen toppled back, parrying wildly. Sithe’s axe smashed into the flailing Vindicator once-twice-then a third time, sending it sailing out of Kalen’s hand.

Blinded and unarmed, he fell back, curling himself as small as he could and trusted to his other senses to let him dodge her strikes. Miraculously, he moved correctly and the axe whirred past his ear. He knew he couldn’t last long-not unarmed-particularly not when he had backed into the wall of the little room that housed the staircase. He had nowhere to run.

The dazzling light faded and he saw Sithe’s axe streaking toward his face. He ducked-barely-and the axe chopped into the wall. Without waiting-without even taking an instant to thank Tymora he hadn’t been beheaded-Kalen bowled forward, his arms wide. Sithe tried to slip free, but he tackled her to the ground. He caught her hands-

Sithe vanished from under him, pulling him inward as though she had simply imploded into nothing. He slammed face-first into the stained wood and stared blearily around. She might as well not have existed. He knew, however, that she would-

Sithe reappeared a pace behind him and her axe slashed like a threshing scythe. Without thinking, he moved aside at that exact instant. The air around him was suddenly alive with power of its own-a strength and confidence he had never known filled him.

The moment passed and he was once again simply an unarmed man fighting a whirlwind. Sithe brought the axe around and thrust the haft horizontally into his chin. He collapsed like a felled tower. She brought her axe flashing around and buried it into the wood where he lay, its jagged blade a hair’s breadth from his neck.

“You’re so controlled.” Kalen touched his throat, where blood dribbled. “It’s not like you to lose that and actually cut me.”

The blade made a wrenching groan as Sithe ripped it from the rooftop. She strode back to the edge of the roof to watch the receding darkness.

Kalen let Vindicator lie where it had fallen and approached Sithe cautiously.

“That was the moment,” he said. “Armored by faith. Right?”

She said nothing, but he knew he had spoken true.

“What is the matter?” he asked. “Why are you so angry?”

Sithe gazed out toward the horizon. Beyond the black, putrid waters of Luskan’s bay, the sea became blue once more, albeit choked in an ugly haze. The air here tasted of sour smoke and unwashed flesh, but he could remember the sweet air beyond.

“Again,” Sithe said.

“Ag-” Kalen had only that small warning before she lashed out with her axe.

He leaped back, dropped, and rolled to recover Vindicator. Water flew from the blade as he swept it out wide and ready.

She was on him. They clashed, faster and harder than before.

Sithe slashed and tore without grace, her movements without art. Now, she was just trying to kill him-as quickly and with as much blood as possible.

Fine by him. She was angry, but so was he.

Slash, counter, parry. He dodged more than he deflected and watched her body as much as her blade. She moved like nothing human, but she’d beat him enough that he had a sense of how she fought.

He lasted eight moves this time, rather than three.

He lay groaning on the wet rooftop, his insides burning. Agony built up inside him, the barrier of his numbness worn thin by Sithe’s brutal assault. Breath rippled through lungs clenched tight as though in a vice. It was not as bad as it had once been-never as bad-but gods, how the pain gripped him.

A cool hand touched Kalen’s fevered brow. Sithe crouched over him.

“A man walked … Kalen Dren!” She snapped her fingers in front of his face to draw his attention. “Do you hear me, Kalen Dren?”

“Wh-what?” he groaned. “Dammit-”

“A man walked across the broken mountains of a dark land,” she said. “He climbed as high as he could and walked until his feet could carry him no farther. When finally he fell to his knees, starving and exhausted, it was at the edge of a great black abyss. He stared out into the darkness-deep, impenetrable, infinite-and his heart delighted.” She leaned forward. “What did he see?”

Kalen stared into her face. Her black eyes dropped as deep as the void she described, draining his thoughts as he gazed into them. He was the man staring into the infinite darkness.

“Kalen.” Sithe slapped him on the cheek. “What did he see?”

Sweat slaked his face. “Nothing,” he said. “Death. I don’t-”

“ ‘Nothing’ and ‘death’ are not the same,” Sithe said. “What joy did he know?”

“He had gone mad,” Kalen said, fumbling for the words. “He surrendered.”

Sithe stared at him a long, long moment. Rain dripped from her axe onto the rooftop by Kalen’s ear. He panted and fought for breath.

It wasn’t fair. Cruelty raged within him, begging to break through. Kalen Dren was a thin skin stretched painfully over a tempest.

“No,” Kalen said. “Not … that man …”

The rain abruptly stopped, the gray clouds parting to reveal a sliver of welcome daylight. Wind blew, stirring the darkness that leaked from Sithe’s scalp instead of hair, tugging at the light silks that sheathed her body. Kalen felt the wind dance across his brow, marveling that he could feel it.

“Wind,” Sithe said. “Wind … and nothing.”

Kalen could hardly make his thoughts connect. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Is this the answer to your riddle?”

“No.” She held out her hand, letting the breeze stir her gossamer sleeve. “The wind is breath-the air that gives life. My mother had a soul of wind, traced in the lines of her face and skin. My father, however …”

She trailed off, standing up and staring over her shoulder at the fleeing night.

“You are like me,” Kalen said. “Born of two worlds-the dark and the light.”

Somehow, the words gave him the strength to push to his feet.

She lowered her hand, casting aside the invisible wind trapped within it. “I am not like you, Kalen Dren,” she said. “I know what I am, and I am content.”

“With what you choose to be.”

“Choice is an illusion,” Sithe said. “You believe you choose wrongly-that all is your fault-but it is not. All will be as it will be.”

“We are responsible for our actions. You cannot convince me otherwise.”

“So you say.” Sithe seemed to accept this. “But if you are right, and you truly choose the course of your life, then why do you choose wrongly in every instance?”

“I don’t,” he said.

Sithe looked at him for a long time. He could hardly read her placid face, but he thought her gaze held something like sympathy-or perhaps amusement.

She looked off into the darkness. “I would meet you one day, Shadowbane.”

“I stand right here.”

“I do not mean you, Kalen Dren.”

Sithe descended into the Rat as the sun rose.

“What’s the matter?” Eden asked. “You seem … out of sorts.”

Toytere hadn’t realized his nails kept scratching at the table, despite the sodden creak they made against the smoke-stained wood. He lifted his hand to his stubble-covered chin. “Nothing, Eden, nothing.”

“I see.” He could tell she didn’t believe him-godsdamn him if he believed himself, just now.

Gods be praised for the stuffy and dark interior of the Whetstone that disguised so much, for Toytere felt ill. His brow was sodden and his mouth wouldn’t stop moving around, like it chewed on nothing without his permission. If Eden saw any of this, she wouldn’t hesitate to kill him on the spot.

“Do you still have the girl?” Eden asked.

“Ah.” Toytere sniffled and wiped at his nose. That was the question, wasn’t it? “It’s proven-difficult to manage, that it has.”

“But you do still have her,” she pressed. “Right?”

He remembered Myrin’s arms around him and the words she had whispered in his ear: “I trust you, Toy.”

His arm hurt like all the Hells.

“Me dear one,” Toytere said. “There be another complication.”

“This is how you want to play this? If you seek to raise the price, halfling-”

“Oh nay, nay,” he said. “Simply, she be missing, is all.”

The lie was surprisingly hard, for a man accustomed to lies. He could hardly make the words filter through his sharp teeth.

Eden’s face seemed white. “You had better find her. My patron is offering a great deal of coin and he isn’t one to be disappointed. I am not one to be disappointed.”

It spoke highly of just how sick Toytere was that, when he received this warning, panic filled him. Where was his unshakable confidence?

“Bah to your worry, lass. I be finding her, nothing to worry.” Blood beat in his wrist, setting his flesh alight with pain. It made him angry and anger was a good tool. “And spare me your threats, you one-eyed she-wolf. You’ll be getting your girl when and if I say. Threaten me again and I’ll never say.”

Irritation flickered across Eden’s face, but she smiled. “You really are a beast, Toytere.” She reached across and caressed his wrist. “If there’s anything I might do-”

Pain erupted and he pulled his wrist back. “You be leaving me be, for a start.”

“Oh, but surely you must have considered it,” she said. “Or would you rather have some blue-haired whore?”

The image of Myrin rose up in his mind and he wrenched away from Eden. She opened her mouth, but he slapped her across the face with his other hand. Her head struck the grimy wall behind her bench. Something fell and rang on the floor with a clear, metallic sound. She reached up to her livid face, startled, as he leaped on the table and loomed over her, hissing like the angry rat he was.

When he had grasp of his senses again, Toytere couldn’t believe what he had done. Eden was no woman to be trifled with and he had cut through their game to offer her a stark insult. That was stupid.

Even more stupid, Toytere found himself wanting to laugh, not apologize.

“You,” Eden said. “You. Will. Regret. This.”

“Will I?” Toytere smiled despite himself. “Deal’s off. Pray as you will, you divine trash, and let the Rats take you in the dark.”

Eden glared, her hand still covering half her face. “I’m warning you-”

“Tluin you and your warnings,” the halfling said hesitantly.

He stumbled through the jangling dark of the Whetstone. On his way, he shouldered aside patron and coinlass alike, heedless in his desire to be gone. His actions had been unwise. He couldn’t fathom what had come over him-only that he couldn’t sit idly and listen to Lady Darkdance being insulted like that.

Stupid reason to start a war. And gods, how his wrist hurt.

He paused and looked at the wound in the light. The flesh had crystallized around the bite, like uncut garnets in his skin.

“Tluin me,” he murmured.

The halfling staggered away, clearly suffering some terrible malady.

“Good,” Eden said as she leaned down and felt around on the floor.

She hoped Toytere was ill. How dare he spurn her like that. He’d called off her bargain and for what? A slip of a girl?

Eden found what she sought and breathed an easy sigh. She drew it up until it caught the glow of the festhall’s smoky oil lamps. The light glinted off its platinum surface as she turned the coin around, taking in one face, then the other. Its touch was reassuring-a physical blessing that coursed through her.

And oh, there would be vengeance. Eden of the Clearlight, high priestess of Lady Luck in Luskan, queen of the Coin-Spinners gang, would see to that.

She put the coin back in her left eye socket.

Then the Coin Priest took her leave.

The one in the hat appears in the alley. The door bangs shut behind him.

He falls to one knee, his free hand groping alternately at his hurt wrist and at his stomach. He empties his stomach onto the refuse at his feet.

Nearby, a male one holding a female one up against the wall utters a disgusted sound. The female’s face turns the color of spoiled cream. They move on to find a new rutting ground. They escape us.

The one in the hat does not notice them go.

He vomits again. We watch and wait, listening to the other murmuring.

We do not need the small one in the hat.

We already have him.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

25 KYTHORN (DAWN)

After the incident on the derelict and the other exertions of the past few days, Kalen grudgingly named 24 Kythorn a day of rest. He didn’t relish sitting around when he couldn’t feel any pain, but he knew his body needed a chance to work out the aches he could not feel. Myrin and Rhett both seemed exhausted and Toytere vanished to an unseen hideaway. Only Sithe seemed unfazed-the genasi was tireless.

The day of inaction also gave Kalen the chance to plan their next move, and plan he did.

The following dawn in Luskan brought the promise of oppressive heat, and chased the rats-be they animal or man-from the streets. As fears of the plague grew, few braved the open spaces anyway, preferring to stay locked in their holes. Through unseen cracks and crannies, they watched and waited.

The streets lay largely deserted, save for a lonely cadre that made no attempt to avoid prying eyes. Had they gone alone, Kalen and Sithe might have picked their way from shadow to shadow, competing to be the first to arrive at their destination unseen. Myrin and Rhett, on the other hand, made more than enough noise to render stealth a non-issue.

“Let’s be clear,” Kalen said. “I don’t have the time to tell you all of it, but follow my lead and you’ll be well. Also, no killing.”

Sithe shrugged.

“Myrin is your ward,” Kalen said to Rhett.

“Aye, saer.” The lad nodded.

“Myrin.”

“Yes, Kalen?” She regarded him mildly.

He’d expected tension between them after their disagreement on the ship, but today Myrin had proved far from upset. She seemed, if anything, completely disinterested in Kalen. From the way she occasionally looked over at Rhett, Kalen wondered if the boy had said-or done-something to make that so.

“I need you to promise me you’ll follow my lead,” he said.

“Absolutely.”

“This is serious business,” Kalen said for emphasis. “If I could leave you behind and guarantee you wouldn’t go seek out a necromancer or some such, I would have.”

“That’s wise.” Myrin peered around him, seeking Rhett’s eye.

Kalen squinted. “Is there something going on,” he asked, “that I should know about?”

Myrin fixed her full attention on him. “No.”

“Good.”

Kalen noted she did not specify which part of his question she had answered.

The buildings around the market bore silver-gray signs, each a single glyph in the Shou language that resembled a dragon. Even without these signs, the Shou’s dominance was clear. Already, Kalen could see narrow eyes and sharp, handsome features peering at them out of alleys and the windows of abandoned buildings. The Dragonbloods were Luskan’s purest gang, accepting mostly immigrants from their native eastern land.

Kalen knew too little of the gang to predict their moves, but more than enough to distrust them. “Blood of the Dragon” they called themselves. Each bore a tattoo in the form of their namesake, usually on the shoulder, chest, or back. The tattoo grew both in size and detail over the years: new recruits had but a wing or claw, and veterans might wear an entire beast all over their bodies. The personality of the wearer dictated the color of the dragon: strong and supercilious like a red, stupid and vicious like a white, or cunning and evil like a black.

“You’re certain Toy didn’t want to come along?” Myrin asked Kalen. “It seems odd, bargaining for an alliance with his gang without him being there.”

“I thought you led his gang,” Kalen observed.

“I thought you thought I didn’t,” Myrin said. “He’ll need to take the throne back once we leave. It seems unfair to bind him to terms we negotiate.”

“We want the Shou’s aid against the plague,” Kalen said. “Let the ’Bloods and the Rats fight it out after we’ve accomplished our task here.”

Myrin narrowed her eyes. “And how does a gang war help Luskan?”

“It doesn’t,” Kalen said, more sharply than he meant to.

Myrin made a face, then fell back to linger near Rhett. The lad gave her a half bow, but they didn’t talk.

Irritation had steered his tongue, Kalen realized: irritation at Myrin’s naivete in thinking she could solve Luskan’s problems single-handedly. By contrast, Kalen didn’t care a whit for this city of thugs and killers. His one and only goal was to get Myrin the Nine Hells out of Luskan. If he had to hunt down a murderer to do that, so be it. If he had to kill a score of men-a hundred men-who stood in his way … well, he almost preferred it that way.

But was that him or the boy he had been on these very streets?

“You and I are not saviors, Kalen Shadowbane,” Sithe had said. “We are destroyers.”

He shivered.

Sithe stopped abruptly. “We arrive.”

“Arrive?” Myrin looked past them, up toward the rebuilt bridge to Blood Island. “But we’re not even to the bridge yet. How can we have … oh.”

A dozen forms slipped out of the shadows, brandishing sharp blades of steel that Kalen recognized well. The last time he’d faced a sword of similar make, it had been in Downshadow and Waterdeep proper, against a dwarf assassin. Though Rath had wielded a katana of much greater quality, Kalen knew the folded edge of such blades could split hairs lengthwise.

Kalen stole a look at Myrin. She must have told Rhett about Rath-did she think he had slain the dwarf? In truth, he couldn’t blame her. He’d stood over the dwarf, blade raised and ready, and she’d fled. In that moment, he’d made a choice, chosen his quest over her. He’d made his choice and now he had to live with it.

Or die with it, if this went rotten.

The warriors of the Dragonblood crept closer, hissing as they approached-a technique meant to unnerve a foe. It seemed to be working. Rhett clasped Vindicator’s hilt nervously and blue runes spread across Myrin’s skin. Sithe showed no fear, but the easy way she grasped the haft of her axe told Kalen all he needed to know.

“Take us to your master,” Kalen said. “We have a deal to offer him.”

Their leader-a woman nearly of a height with Kalen-stepped forward, a blade in each fist. Her leather armor left her shoulders bare and exposed her tattoo: a roaring red dragon that snaked around her neck and dipped onto her chest.

“Who calls?” Her words bore a thick Shou accent. “And what does he offer?”

“Kalen Shadowbane,” he replied, “and his offer is for the Dragon’s ears alone.”

She inspected him for a moment, then nodded. “Your weapons.”

Kalen handed over his daggers. Rhett flinched when they reached for Vindicator, but Kalen gave him a look and he relented. Sithe presented them with her axe as though she cared little for it. The Shou who took it staggered under its sudden weight.

“I am Kasi,” the leader of the Shou said. “The Dragon will see you. If you see the sun once more, it will be by his will.”

On the whole, Myrin found walking into near certain death rather exciting.

Not that she would show it, of course. If she broke her studied indifference, it would prove to him that she couldn’t handle the pressure. She couldn’t have that.

After what had happened with Rhett the previous night-and try as she might to forget, she remembered it all in vivid detail-frustrating Kalen made her feel much better.

The easterners brought them across the Blood Bridge and into the Dragon’s Lair-a reconstructed barracks that might have lodged the city watch in less dangerous times. The place was a fortress. Even Myrin, who had no eye for such things, recognized the staggered walls and plethora of murder holes, set to trap and cut down invaders no less than three times before they could breach the inner sanctum. Whoever this Dragon was, he must be wary indeed … and covetous of his privacy.

Myrin had never met a real dragon-at least, not that she remembered. She suspected that if she ever did, it would live in a place like this.

The Dragon held court in what had once been an officer’s quarters. Age had reduced the tattered tapestries on the walls to blurry impressions of coastlines and ships. Myrin rather liked the effect. The windows were all boarded over, which was a shame: the view of the coast must have been spectacular.

The guards set them to kneel before a throne of worn black oak. Myrin wanted to look around more, but Kalen gave Rhett a sharp look and he in turn nudged her with his elbow. “Not you, too,” she murmured and lowered her head.

They had only to wait a moment before a door opened and a buzz swept through the guards: “Honor to the Dragon.”

She chanced a look and caught her breath. The man who entered was not Shou-or rather, he was, but he was many other things besides.

The Dragon wore a limp gray robe emblazoned with a gray-black dragon sigil-Myrin recognized this, without knowing exactly how, as a shadow dragon. It was the only thing about him that remained constant. Above the robe’s collar, his face flowed like water, shifting from one visage to another: first a middle-aged man with a moustache, then a blonde woman of thirty or so winters, then a withered elf man with a long scar down the right side of his face. All of them seemed sickly or even dead, the faces waxy or actively bleeding from the eyes or mouth. At her side, Rhett inhaled sharply. “What is he-or it?”

“Doppelganger.” The word came unbidden to Myrin’s lips. She couldn’t say where she’d heard it before, but it seemed right.

“A face-stealer?” Rhett scowled. “Torm’s teeth!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Myrin said. “I think he’s fascinating.”

“My lord.” Kasi bowed low to the doppelganger. “This is Kalen Shadowbane.”

The Dragon, who had been staring blankly around the room, turned when she spoke. As if in response to her words, his face became that of an old Shou man, with a long moustache and beard. With a sound half-grunt and half-wheeze, he staggered to his throne with a pronounced limp and seemed relieved to sit.

“Lord Dragon,” said Kalen. “Respects-”

“You.” The doppelganger’s eyes, which had wandered across each of them, widened when they fell on Myrin.

Myrin blinked. “Me?”

Kasi reached for her blade. “You know this woman, lord?”

The Dragon looked away from Myrin and waved. “Faces, faces,” he said, his voice cold and dead. “I have a thousand.”

As if in demonstration, his face became that of a pocked fisherman, then a little girl with blonde tails, then an unrecognizable and moldering horror-the face of a long dead corpse. Rhett gasped at Myrin’s side and even Kalen drew back. Myrin, however, found the changes beautiful, or at least very compelling.

“Did you bring a game to play?” he asked. “There must be a game.”

“The lord would know what tribute you offer,” Kasi translated.

“Tribute?” Myrin said. “We don’t have-”

Kalen nodded to Sithe. “This woman,” he said. “Sithe, First Blade of the Dead Rats and your sworn enemy. I renounce her into your custody, if you can take her.”

Myrin gasped. “Kalen!” she said. “What are you-?”

“Treachery, Kalen Shadowbane?” Sithe asked.

The Dragonbloods reached for their steel, even as Sithe struck like a snake. She lunged at the first guard, whose eyes widened. She slapped his warding hands away and sent him staggering in the same smooth motion, then grasped a second ’Blood to use as a shield.

Through it all, the doppelganger stared at Myrin. His eyes suggested a certain familiarity that she did not share. Nothing about him ignited her memory.

Unarmed, Sithe stood hardly a chance against a dozen Dragonbloods led by Kasi and her two blades. Ultimately, the genasi eased her prisoner to the floor and raised her hands. Kasi slammed the pommel of one of her blades into the genasi’s face. After what seemed a heartbeat’s hesitation, Sithe dropped into a heap.

“Kalen!” Myrin hissed as they began to carry the genasi away. “She’s our fr-”

“She is the servant of Toytere and no friend of ours.” Kalen kept his eyes on the throne. “Is this tribute sufficient, Lord Dragon?”

The doppelganger considered his fingers. “I played a game with my friends, long ago,” he said. “I won and they never spoke to me again.”

“Er,” Kalen said. “My lord-”

Without pause, the doppelganger turned, surprisingly, to Myrin. “Speak, Lady Witch-Queen, Heir of Seven Stars. Do you wish to game with me?”

Myrin was so startled she almost forgot how to speak. “Me?”

“You are mightiest of us all.” The doppelganger inclined his head.

Kalen cleared his throat. “May we have a moment, Lord Dragon, by your leave?”

The Dragon was too busy staring at Myrin to notice Kalen. Kasi bowed slightly to him. “Confer,” she said.

“My thanks.” He turned to Rhett and Myrin, drawing them close in a circle.

“Kalen!” Myrin hissed. “What are you about-?”

“Berate me later,” Kalen said. “Do you remember meeting this man before?”

“I’ll berate you right now, if it’s not too much trouble.”

Kalen’s pale eyes would brook no argument. “Just answer.”

Myrin sighed. “No,” she said. “I don’t remember ever meeting a doppelganger, much less this one. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t met him.”

“He seems to know you,” Kalen said.

“Or he’s just mad,” Rhett said.

Myrin shrugged. “Well, no more mad than I.”

Kalen shook his head. Rhett cleared his throat.

“Oh, very nice,” Myrin said. “He does seem to be damaged in some way. I don’t think he can control the faces he takes.”

“And the way he speaks,” Rhett pointed out.

Myrin furrowed her brow. “What’s wrong with the way he speaks?”

“Oh come now. Riddles? Gibberish?” He traced a circle near his ear with his finger.

Myrin put her hands on her hips. “Just because you lack the mental prowess to understand doesn’t mean he doesn’t make sense,” she said. “He asked for tribute. Then he said it was well and good. That bit about the game? He approves of treachery.”

Rhett shivered.

“Very well,” Kalen said. “You talk to him. We’ll get this done faster that way.”

“We?” Myrin stepped up to him and thrust her face into his. “You just betrayed Sithe to her death. Do you think either of us apt to trust you?”

“Give it a moment,” Kalen said. “We have perhaps a fifty-count. Talk to him.”

“You don’t give me orders,” Myrin said. “Especially not when you turn traitor-”

“Wait,” Rhett said. “No, I think I get it. Just-just talk to him, Myrin. It’ll be well.”

She recognized the understanding that passed between the two. “This is one of those schemes I wouldn’t understand, is it?” Myrin asked. “Because I wasn’t in the Guard, or because I’m just-?”

“Nothing like that.” Kalen laid his hand on her wrist. “You want me to trust you? Trust me.

Myrin wanted to argue the point, but ultimately she sighed. “Very well. But after this, there will be words.”

“Of that,” Kalen said, “I’ve no doubt.”

The three turned back to the leader of the Dragonbloods. “Lord Dragon,” Myrin said.

“Umbra,” he said.

“Umbra?” Myrin lost that one. “Apologies, is that your name?”

By a palpable effort of will, the doppelganger shifted his face into a nearly featureless white oval with dark eyes and a rise for a nose-much like a man wearing an unadorned mask.

“It is a good name for that face,” Myrin said.

A mouth appeared in his face, seemingly for the express purpose of smiling ingratiatingly. “Umbra, I,” he said. “Lady Darkdance, you.”

That name cemented it in Myrin’s mind. Somehow, this doppelganger knew her-had known her, perhaps around the same time Methrammar had known her. But how did he know her? And what did he know of her?

“Have we met, Lord Umbra?”

His mouth curled as though at a jest. “A man and a woman walking in the woods,” Umbra said. “Then shadow. Flame and death.”

“Hmm.” That wasn’t encouraging, but at least it was interesting. She had no idea what it meant. “Do you know anything about the plague-about the skeletons?”

Umbra’s brow furrowed … or it might have grown bushier. “The priest,” he said. “The turncoat priest-the turncloak is the one who knows all. No other.”

“You mean the Coin-Spinners?” Kalen asked. “Their Coin Priest?”

“A man fails.” Umbra glared at him, as if rebuking him with his eyes for interrupting. “Stallion and mare-nevermore!”

That one seemed obvious, even if she wasn’t sure what he meant. Myrin blushed slightly. “My lord, I don’t understand-”

“Nevermore!” Umbra snarled and lunged from the throne. Kalen and Rhett were too slow to stop him. Myrin started to draw back, but Umbra caught her with a grip as strong as iron. “Nevermore, mare! Nevermore!”

“What do you-?”

Umbra pressed his lips to hers.

She felt burning heat as runes rippled across her skin.

He kissed her then, and she sputtered and pulled away. “Umbra,” she said, her tone curious and questioning at once. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Answering your wish,” he said. “Or was all that flirting a game?”

“Oh, oh.” The lass with the sweeping blue hair and the inked tattoos on her skin gave him an uncertain smile that he found entirely too alluring. “But what will the others say?” she asked. “Aren’t we on guard?”

“Galen will handle it-he ever does.” Umbra slipped a hand onto her leg.

Any other woman might have shivered at his touch-shivered just to look at him-but she did not. When she looked at him, there was only affection in her eyes, not fear or pity. No one else had looked at him like that for years.

Gods. How he wanted her, as he had wanted none other in his long, strange life. Not his wife, not all his lovers, and not even his dead goddess-the one he sought at all turns to avenge. “I don’t know,” she said, but she didn’t back away. “Not that I’m afraid, mind-”

“I know,” he said. “You’re the bravest lass of nineteen winters I’ve ever met.”

“Twenty!” she protested, but he was smiling.

He leaned in and kissed her.

“I love you, M-” he started.

Myrin was wrenched back into the world in the midst of chaos. Kalen shoved Umbra away, breaking the kiss, then dealt him a sharp right hook to the face. Umbra screeched incoherently and tumbled to the floor. His body was shifting, his limbs expanding and straining at his robe. His face roiled, half a dozen mouths screaming. The cry was like nothing human, but more like a dragon’s roar.

“Uh!” Myrin cried as she fell to her knees. The heat inside her was so intense-the desire and need that had been his-theirs-in her vision.

Kalen caught her wrists in his hands. He was saying something, but she couldn’t hear him over the roar in her ears and the fire racing through her body. Gods! She had no idea what was happening to her, but she never wanted it to end.

“What happened?” Kalen demanded, shaking her.

Myrin wrapped her hands around Kalen’s face and pressed her body into his. She needed his strong body and weak soul-every inch of it-and she needed it now.

“Helm’s name,” Kalen said, his eyes wide.

“Kalen,” she begged, crushing her breasts into his chest. “Kalen-please!”

But he shoved her to the ground so he could catch an oncoming Dragonblood and throw the man backward. The maneuver got him stabbed him through the leg with one of the eastern blades, but Kalen balled up a fist and sent the attacker to the floor. He pulled the short sword out and, now armed, parried yet another attack.

Myrin clutched herself into a ball, crazily riding the maelstrom of her own ecstasy. The world shook, her body tightened and loosened by turns. Gods!

“Damn and burn!” Rhett stood two paces off, Vindicator blazing in his hands. Somehow, he’d got it back from the Shou guards. “What is wrong with her?”

“Focus on the fighting!” Kalen shouted. “I’ll handle her.”

Myrin realized what he had said-saw Kalen fighting back toward her-and it filled her with fear, replacing the pleasure. “No,” she cried. “No, you can’t!”

Umbra lay at the foot of his throne, dazed-either from the memory she’d drained from him or the punch Kalen had delivered. “Leira, n’maerlyn myl mar’kov,” he murmured in a tongue she did not know. “Maerlyn-”

She had to know what he was saying. She had to have more.

“More,” she said.

She grasped Umbra by his booted heel. The doppelganger sensed her approach and his form swelled and lengthened madly. He seemed older and impossibly weak, as though what she had taken from him had left him depleted. Cracks spread across his white face. He stared up at her with two jet black eyes-like Sithe’s eyes, without pupils-that pleaded with her to leave him be. She saw her face reflected in his eyes, runes blazing on her skin.

Breath whispered between his cracked lips and he smiled peaceably.

“Love,” he said. “See.”

She clasped the sides of his face and Saw.

She knew herself this time-knew that she was Umbra, staring at his memories of her. He had so many, all of them images so vivid they filled her mind to bursting.

Myrin laughed at him and his heart swelled.

Myrin stared quizzically, unable to understand some jest he’d made.

Myrin swayed, entwined with a dark-skinned half-elf woman, magic burning around them. They saw him watching, and Myrin cast him a smoldering, inviting look.

Myrin smiled, her hair brilliant green, not blue.

Gods, the creature was in love with her-this other Myrin that she barely recognized. She had to fight down the swell of sentiment attached to these memories: love, desire, and not a little fear. What had he to fear?

Myrin strode through a world of shadow, runes covering every inch of her skin.

Myrin fell to her knees, fighting a hurricane of awful necromantic power that tore at her. A wall of fire surrounded her, its flames dancing on the winds.

Myrin, a shock wave of black power rushing from her in every direction.

Myrin, kneeling over him as he lay trembling.

Myrin, reaching tenderly for his face.

Myrin.

But that wasn’t her name. Her name …

When she woke again, Kalen had a hold on her. Umbra staggered back and fell to his knees. Myrin reached for him, but he flailed away from her.

A few paces distant, Rhett slashed a silvery circle that kept the Dragonbloods at bay. Sithe was there too, her axe singing its awful song as it ripped through the air.

“What took you so long?” Rhett was shouting to the genasi.

“He said not to kill,” Sithe replied. “Killing is faster.”

The Shou woman, Kasi, was standing near the throne, blood gushing from a wound on her upper arm. She had fallen to one knee and was trying to rouse Umbra, who lay unmoving.

Desire rose up in Myrin again. It was not the same as before, when she had floated on the storm-tossed sea of pleasure. Then, she had merely wanted the memories. Now she needed them. She longed for more like water for a parched throat. She needed it as she had needed nothing in her life, as she would never need anything ever again.

“Please!” Myrin struggled against Kalen’s arms. “I need more. Let me have more!”

“We’re leaving,” Kalen said, dragging her back.

“Anything you want!” Myrin said. “I’ll do anything-give you anything!”

Kalen froze, startled. “I-”

That let her get her wand between them. Kalen looked down with a wince just before a blast of thunder sent him tumbling back. Myrin wobbled on her feet and turned, reaching for Umbra. Kasi tried to bar her path, but Myrin sent her flying with a slash of her wand and another blast of thunder. She grasped at the doppelganger. He looked upon her as upon death, yet there was peace on his face.

“The priest,” Umbra said. “The turncloak priest …”

She laid her fingers on his face, expecting more memories. She felt only skin as brittle as dull paper. She pressed harder, desperate for memories. At her touch, he crumbled away to dust.

She stared, horrified. “No,” she said. “No, I-”

She was not sure which upset her more, that she had somehow killed a man, or that she could get no more memories from him. That thought cut her to the bone.

A hand fell on her shoulder and she didn’t bother to fight it off. Kalen slung her over his shoulder and carried her away at a run. She stared back at the human-shaped pile of dust that had been Umbra.

“The turncloak priest,” she murmured.

They ran.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

26 KYTHORN (EARLY MORNING)

Kalen crouched on the edge of a ruined building, his cloak rustling in the cold morning breeze. He wiped his brow, exhausted. In the day and night since they’d returned from Blood Island-indeed for a day and night before that-he had not slept.

His spellscar ached, as much from lack of rest as separation from Myrin.

Whatever had happened to Myrin in the audience chamber of the Dragon, she was silent all the way back to the Rat. The wizard had sealed herself in her chamber and would listen to no appeal to open the door. Her silence was a constant source of discouragement to Rhett, who had taken vigil at her door without being asked.

For his part, Kalen understood. He wished he’d been that upset the first time he’d killed a man-if that’s truly what Myrin had done. Who could say for certain what had come to pass when Myrin had taken the memories from Umbra? Had she drained his life as well?

Those were questions for another day. For now, he had to focus on the plague and trust Myrin to find her own answers. He wasn’t sure what this “turncloak priest” would have to tell him, but Umbra had seemed insistent they find him. And the Coin-Spinners were the only priests he knew of in Luskan.

He could see the Clearlight-the old temple of Tymora-down below. To call it a “temple” seemed wrong: it no longer boasted its former statuary and someone had reinforced it considerably in the years he’d been away. The place more resembled a fortress, with high wood walls on all sides and watch fires burning throughout the night. The construction of the temple’s walls and the organization of its defenses were both solid. Just on that basis, Kalen could tell why the Coin Priest commanded such respect in the city. Possibly the “turncloak priest” was one of them, or the Coin Priest himself. If not, perhaps they would be able to help him find the man.

All in all, the lead seemed thin. Kalen might have ignored the whole thing were it not for Rhett. The lad had pushed Vindicator on Kalen. “Take it,” he’d said. “Use it and find this priest. Then get us the Nine Hells out of this city.”

The blade felt entirely too comfortable in his hand. He wondered how badly its hilt burned him even now, but he feared to inspect the wound. No doubt, it would be awful.

Focus.

He’d been looking for a way in for hours, but every wall and watchpost was well covered. They changed guard on a random basis, as though dictated by the toss of dice-which, knowing Tymorans, was likely their method. Watchers were also stationed outside the walls, in the surrounding buildings. It was an easy matter to duck them during surveillance, but it would be much harder when the time came to break in. Even when dawn broke, security did not waver.

All told, he could find no means of entry-none short of killing a good number of men and women with whom he had no quarrel.

The old Kalen-Little Dren-wouldn’t have hesitated.

A twinge in his leg drew Kalen’s attention to his bandaged thigh. Mostly, he couldn’t feel the wound-he had barely felt it even when the Shou blade had dealt it-but it had needed tending. Good thing Cellica had taught him to bind wounds. He had to remember not to rely too heavily on that side.

He found it unsettling, to be a stranger in his own body.

“Hail, Little Dren,” a voice said behind him.

“That was impressive,” Kalen said. “I didn’t hear you until you gained the roof.”

“Aye, then,” said Toytere. “You didn’t think I meant to steal upon you, no? I’d hate to have you think of me that way.”

“You could dress better.”

“I rather doubt it.” The halfling smirked. “How’s the leg, incidentally?”

“How’s the wrist?”

The halfling sneered. “Aye, you be right. I didn’t care.” The halfling stepped up to Kalen’s side and peered out over the compound. “So that’s where you’d go.”

“Aye,” Kalen said. “That’s what the Dragon said: ‘the turncloak priest.’ Do you know any other priests in Luskan?”

Toytere shrugged. “Sithe told me you got old Lord Ever-Be-Wary to see you,” he said. “And also that he be dead.”

“Yes.” Kalen nodded at the Coin-Spinner complex. “Well?”

Toytere squinted at their target. “Not easy, that be the truth. But we can do it.”

Kalen regarded him skeptically. “We?”

Toytere nodded. “Why not? If it gets you gone from me city.”

“That it will.”

“Right then.” He smiled. “Maybe we resolve our business first, no?” He trailed off and chuckled-a sound that involved clicking his filed teeth.

Kalen reached for Vindicator under his cloak. The halfling’s eye twitched repeatedly and his lips seemed wet as though he hungered for a conflict. There was an air about him that spoke of battle-one he sought and one Kalen would gladly give him. He would rather fight a duel in the open than fear a knife in the dark.

“Eh, maybe later.” Toytere coughed.

Whatever was wrong with the halfling, it hadn’t overcome his reason-he knew when he was overmatched. It was a tribute to how confused the halfling must be that he had even considered fighting Shadowbane blade to blade.

“While we just be brooding here for the moment,” the halfling said. “You want me to tell your fortune?”

“Why not?” Kalen said.

The halfling took his hand and stared into it, his eyes glossing over like fogged glass. He hummed a tune under his breath to unlock the Sight. For a moment, he stared right through Kalen. Finally, he shivered. “Ay, this be good.”

“Oh?” Kalen raised an eyebrow.

“You retire a crippled old man outside a town called Shadowdale,” Toytere said, “where you spend your time offering bad advice to younglings and tupping goats. Oh”-Toytere smirked at him-“and you be ugly, but I don’t be needing the Sight for that.”

“Well,” Kalen said. “At least I’m alive.”

The halfling’s smile widened. “True that be.”

The spark of mirth fell away. They stared out at the temple.

“I loved her, you know,” Kalen said. “Like my sister.”

“And she was me sister,” Toytere said. “That don’t change a thing between us.”

He wiped his nose with his sleeve and Kalen caught him nibbling at his wrist. He squinted, trying to make out a bandage, but the halfling scoffed.

“Enough of this,” Toytere said. “We go now.”

“King’s parley,” Toytere said to the guards at the gate.

The two men-armed with heavy crossbows and swords, gold coins on leather thongs around their necks-looked at one another, then back down at the halfling, then up at Kalen.

“Who’s this?”

“Me bodyguard,” Toytere said.

“And why you need a bodyguard when you come to parley?”

“Oh, I don’t fear the honorable Coin Priest,” the halfling said. “But the streets to this place, they not be so safe, no? These streets be full of cutthroats, it’s said, that sooner cut out your tongue than bid you well met. I can ill parley without a tongue, methinks.”

The men seemed a touch confused by Toytere’s speech, but they caught the drift. “ ’Ware the Lady’s snares,” one of them said as he pushed open the door. “If Tymora favors you-”

“Oh aye,” said Toytere. “I do remember.”

“Snares?” Kalen asked.

They entered a great worship hall cleared of chairs or benches for supplicants. In the center stood an altar shaped like a coin, shadowed by a carved statue of the goddess Tymora. Kalen remembered that the statue’s shadow marked the hour of the day-or night, were the moon bright enough. A dim light flickered across the shadow-dappled hall.

“Watch your step,” Toytere said. “Me Lady Coin, she be fond of her tricks ’n’ traps. She only meets with those Tymora favors-others, well, they don’t make it.”

Somehow, the concept didn’t surprise Kalen-it even seemed familiar, never knowing if death or pain would strike in any heartbeat. He pointed out a tripwire, which they stepped over cautiously. Toytere was smiling like a madman.

Lady Coin?” Kalen asked. “The Coin Priest is a woman?”

Toytere laughed uproariously at the question, then caught himself and scowled. “So say her face, but faces they do deceive.”

“As do words.”

“It be a good tenday to be a lass in Luskan, it seems,” Toytere said. “Two of five Captains be ladies now. There goes the city, no?”

“Three,” Kalen said, “if that Dragonblood Kasi becomes queen of the Shou.”

Toytere looked at him blankly, then grinned. “Aye,” he said. “I do be forgetting.”

Kalen wondered if he had truly forgotten the Dragonbloods, or if he’d included Kasi in his count and “forgotten” to include Myrin as the head of the Dead Rats. What was his game?

Kalen gestured to a rusty blade hung precariously from the ceiling. “A messy deterrent to unwise guests.”

“Such be luck,” Toytere said. “Perhaps it best you not touch nothing in this place-unless you know the Lady loves you and be watching.”

Kalen knew he’d not die-not until he resolved this mess and got Myrin out of Luskan.

They made their way cautiously across the chamber, avoiding tripwires, wolf irons, and pressure plates at random intervals. When they reached the center, Kalen paused for a moment.

“What?” Toytere said irritably.

“Well, at least some things stay the same.” Kalen pointed upward.

The Clearlight took its name from the multi-colored window in the roof: one of the last surviving sheets of glass in Luskan and one carefully preserved by the folk in the city as a matter of tradition. Kalen was pleased to see the tradition still held. He took in the faint starlight filtering down, and it filled him with as much wonder as it had in his youth. He had seen far greater wonders in Waterdeep and even Westgate, but this sight reminded him that beauty yet persisted even in a place as wretched as Luskan.

Below the window stood the same statue of Tymora from his youth. Someone had actually made efforts to clean the graffiti off and seal the cracks from the years of abuse by the mean-spirited folk of this depraved city.

“Perhaps this Coin Priest of yours truly is reverent,” Kalen said.

“Oh, she’s none of mine.” Toytere pointed. “And look again, no?”

Kalen looked up at the statue’s face, deep in the folds of its cowl. Shadow had hidden it before, but the statue’s face seemed as marred and cracked as ever-rendered unrecognizable by time and spite. If this Coin Priest truly cared for Lady Luck, would she not have fixed the visage of her goddess? Something about that seemed familiar too-as had the tricks and traps-but he couldn’t quite say what.

Gazing at the iconography, Kalen was suddenly uncertain of his initial appraisal of the temple. Perhaps it didn’t represent Tymora at all, but instead Beshaba. “Coin-Spinner” could just as easily refer to the Maid of Misfortune as to her bright-eyed sister, Lady Luck. He wondered if that’s what “turncloak priest” meant.

Toytere murmured a song below his breath. Kalen found that more than a little disturbing-that, and the way Toytere had laughed loudly at the entrance. Again, he wondered what ailed the halfling. Had he been bitten after all, and even now, the Fury grew inside him?

They came at last to the other end of the trapped hall and Toytere directed them to a single door set beside defaced statuary. It was not the main set of double doors, flanked by withered gold curtains, but rather a servant’s door.

“Heh!” Toytere gestured to a large black stain on the floor near the double doors. “That could be us, Little Dren. The doors sprout fangs when you touch them false.”

His huge smile unsettled Kalen more than anything he’d said before. The halfling seemed to long for death and every second without it made his smile all the more manic. Kalen checked Vindicator at his belt. Something about this felt so godsdamned familiar, as well. Almost-

“After you, goodsir,” Toytere said with a bow.

When they entered the Coin Priest’s chambers, it all made sense to him. The traps that could spring at any moment, the defaced feminine statue, the hall bare of ornamentation. He’d known all these things, grown up with them.

And the one common factor that tied them all together was the woman in the loose-fitting white robe, reclining on a black divan in the center of the room.

His hand went to Vindicator’s hilt.

“Kalen,” the Coin Priest said in recognition. “Take them.”

On her word, crossbows clicked and sighted on Kalen and Toytere’s faces. Six of her acolytes stood ready-men and women with cruel faces and no hesitation.

Kalen watched only the woman who issued the commands. She was much older, but he recognized her eyes. One was cold and pale, so like his own. The other was a platinum coin that winked at him in the candlelight.

Toytere eyed the crossbows. “I suppose you two have met, no?”

Priestess and paladin locked eyes across the room. For them, no one else mattered.

“Hail and well met, Kalen,” the Coin Priest said. “Little Brother.”

“Well met, Eden,” he said. “Sister.”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

26 KYTHORN (MORNING)

"Well,” Eden said, grinning like a hungry fox among sleeping chickens. “My goddess must love me, to offer me this delicious reunion.”

“Truly.” Kalen did his best to ignore the crossbows. “You look well, Sister.”

“You’re a godsdamned liar.” Eden grinned. “But you’re sweet to say so.”

His assertion had been true, after a fashion. The Eden before him was not the sickly girl of his memory-poorly crafted and worse tempered. Some of the signs of her youth remained: a leather-and-metal brace on her left leg, a cane set with antlers at its head that leaned against the divan, quick to hand. There was a certain fleshy presence about her Kalen found all too familiar. She had the body of a girl who’d been told she could never be thin or pretty.

“Wait,” Toytere said. “Brother? Sister?”

“For a seer, you’re remarkably blind,” Eden said. “I suppose you hardly realize other folk exist, much less their relations. But I suppose you never met us together.

“You came back to Luskan,” Kalen said. “After mother-”

“Spare me the reminiscences.” Eden brushed ebony black ringlets back from her weathered, Luskan face. “I should kill you right now.”

“If that is what you will have.” Kalen wondered if he could cut down one of the crossbowmen before they shot him. He could use that man as a shield, get to the next …

“A thousand pardons,” said Toytere, “but we be coming here under a banner of king’s parley, Lady of the Clearlight. Or do that not matter?”

“Oh bother.” Eden’s full lips turned into a pout. “Why, of course that matters. This one is with you? Think carefully, ’ere you answer.”

Kalen realized putting his fate in Toytere’s hands did not relieve him in the slightest, Sight or no Sight. The halfling could have his revenge right now.

“Aye, your ladyship, he is mine,” Toytere said at length. “And I’ll have no violence done against him, all the same to you.”

“It isn’t, but very well.” Eden waved her lackeys back, but they kept their weapons trained on the visitors. She gestured to a full sideboard with liquors of various colors. In Waterdeep, such a selection would be a matter of course in a noble’s sitting room; in Luskan, Eden must have robbed or killed a dozen bootleggers to acquire it. “Wine? Something stronger?”

“No,” Kalen said.

“Suit your own self.” Eden waved and one of her attendants poured her a snifter of brandy. “I’m surprised to see you here. To what do I owe the denied pleasure of your deaths?”

Kalen bit his lip. He should have known Beshaba had been frowning on this whole damned quest: to bring him to this city he hated, to try to rescue a woman who didn’t want to leave, to avoid a boy he could not teach. Now, the only lead he had was the word of a dying madman, which pointed to his sister.

He had no choice. “The plague.”

“The Fury. Quite painful, I hear.” She sipped her brandy. “So what of it?”

Kalen had hoped it would be easier, but he saw Eden would not part with any knowledge readily. “We were told you knew of it,” he said.

“Told by whom?” she asked. “The Dragonbloods, who you attacked this very day? I trust the Old Dragon’s well.”

“Dead,” Kalen said.

“Pity,” Eden said. “He was a worthy opponent. Unlike your little halfling there, who can’t even See a waiting ambush.”

“Ah-” Then Toytere shrugged. “True, it be.”

Kalen crossed his arms. “What are you doing here, Eden?”

“Why, serving the pleasure of the goddess.” Eden gave him a mock toast.

“Which one?” Kalen asked. “Tymora or Beshaba?”

“Neither. Both.” She shrugged. “I feed the hungry and clothe the naked-at the end of a night when fewer starve or freeze than had to, does it truly matter?”

“Yes,” Kalen said.

Eden smiled at him.

Silence stretched, punctuated first by the scrape of glass on wood when Eden set her empty glass on the side table, then by a click-click-click as Eden tapped her fingernail on her eye-coin. The rhythmic sound grated.

“That’s it?” Toytere said. “You’ll tell us nothing?”

The halfling’s tone drew their attention. He was the picture of anxiety; sweat beaded on his forehead and his jaw was clenched tight. He shivered, as though he could barely hold back a far more violent outburst. He recoiled as though chastened.

“The Fury.” Eden took up her cane and rose from the divan. “You’d expect, in the nature of plagues, to see folk hacking and coughing, but no. Rather”-she stepped toward Kalen with an awkward sort of sensuousness, like a wounded cat that yet stalks its prey-“rather, folk become beasts. Moody, aggressive, even mad. Rioting in the streets, brawls and duels … ’tis only after, if victims survive all the fighting, that the sickness eats them from within.”

“Well,” Toytere said. “Thanks, lass, but we knew all that. Now if you’ll excuse-”

“This plague,” Kalen said, his eyes on Eden. “How does it spread?”

He knew the answer already-in his heart-but he needed the words.

“None know,” Eden said. “It could be water, or air, or blood-maybe rats?”

“Bah,” Toytere said, avoiding Kalen’s questioning glance.

“Myself, I believe it simply a part of this city,” Eden said. “The gods’ curse, laid upon ruined Luskan. Here, after all”-she touched Kalen’s chin with her cold, gloved fingers-”who’d notice everyone fighting all the time? You could have it and think you are simply trying to live in the harsh world that is Luskan. At least, until the rages begin.

“A person with the Fury,” she began as she turned to Toytere, who veritably shook. She swayed up to him and gently laid her hand on his head. “He grows impatient, first. Then he shouts or snaps at naught. Then out of the blue he savages you. Like an animal. And then”-she clicked her tongue while reaching for Toytere’s wrist-“dear, dear-that doesn’t look well at all.”

The halfling swatted her hand away. “You shut your rutting mouth!”

“So.” Eden eyed Toytere, as did Kalen, pointedly.

The halfling saw their scrutiny and reined in his emotions. “What I be meaning,” he said. “You be showing some respect, me Lady Coin, for them’s what died a terrible death.”

“Granted,” she said, turning and moving back to Kalen. “I’ve prayed the Lady for a cure for this malady, but none has appeared. The only end I know for the Fury is death.” Toytere clutched at his arm. For the first time, Kalen noticed a soaked bandage under the halfling’s sleeve. He felt cold inside.

“No doubt the Lady will provide,” Eden said, looking back at Toytere. “Her blessing is sharp, like a knife upon a whetstone. It prepares us for the violence to come.”

The halfling lost most of the color from his face. Had Kalen entertained any doubt, he knew now that Toytere had the Fury or at least believed he did. Kalen could believe it as well. The way the halfling had acted before-his outbursts and impatience … all of it fit Eden’s words exactly. Did she speak truly or was she merely trying to frighten them?

Eden gazed at him levelly. “Were I you,” she said, “I would get whatever you came to Luskan to find”-she smiled slightly-“and leave.”

That, Kalen thought, was as wonderful idea.

He turned, but she caught his face between her hands, studying him. “You look well, my handsome brother,” she said. “Aye, that’s the face of the Silverymoon seducer who raped my mother, right enough.”

Kalen wanted to protest, but the words caught in his throat. “Sister-”

“Barely,” she said. “Though I’m glad you’ve kept your face, Kalen.” She pressed her cheek against his. “Shame about the parley, else I’d gladly tear it off for you.”

Kalen shivered.

Eden pushed him away dismissively and wiped her hands. “See them out,” she said to her guards. “Gently, if you will.”

When they were almost to the door, she held up a hand. “Hold,” she said. “Pray, what did Umbra say exactly. The words he used?”

“He spoke of a turncoat priest,” Kalen said. “ ‘The turncloak is the one who knows all.’ I assumed that was you.” He scrutinized her carefully, but she hid her reaction well. She’d always been a far better liar than he. Had this whole visit been a waste of time?

No, Eden had conveyed something of value-a threat. One that awakened him to what had to be done next. He had to get Myrin out of here.

“Farewell Brother,” Eden said. “Get out of my city and don’t return.”

“That,” Kalen said, “I can promise.”

Eden had very much enjoyed that exchange.

It amused her to witness the confused look on Kalen’s handsome but stupid face. As well, she always enjoyed watching the halfling sweat. She realized why he had come in the first place-to keep her from slipping word of his impending betrayal.

“Oh yes, sweetling,” she murmured. “That game ends soon.”

Her other attendants looked at her quizzically-talking to herself was not something Eden did often. She dismissed them with a look.

After they were gone, she refilled her brandy-made it a double-and chuckled.

Since that first night she’d seen Kalen sneaking into the city, she’d wondered why he’d come back. It all made its own sort of sense, now that she’d seen the answers written across Kalen’s face with her own eye. The girl had called him and he would protect her with his very life if need be. How better to get him out of the city than suggesting that inescapable danger came toward her-a plague he could neither prevent nor cure?

Good-bye, brother, she thought.

“Now,” she said. “If only I could find the Horned One …”

“Sweetling, you’ve but to ask.”

The voice came so suddenly that she lost her balance on the edge of the divan. She caught at the sideboard, missed, and fell haphazardly to the floor. Her twisted leg roared in protest, but the pain vanished into the frenzied beat of her heart.

“Y-you,” she said.

“Me.”

The Horned One was a tanned sun elf, tall and slim of stature, with eyes like burnished gold coins. He dressed head to foot in the garb of a dandy. Bright colors stole her eyes away from the comparative drabness of Luskan. From his brow curled a graceful rack of antlers-a sign of favor from the Lady of Misfortune.

“Interesting that you have that,” he said, gesturing to the platinum coin in her eye socket. “Quite the device. But do you have any power of your own, I wonder?”

“I–I know who you are,” she said.

“So do I,” he replied, his voice smooth as silk.

She could not rise above one knee-his majesty compelled her. He was, after all, the high priest of her faith.

“Chosen of the Lady,” she said, touching the false eye that was her holy symbol.

“Stay a moment-Chosen? Oh nay, nay, that reaches much too far.” He cleared his throat. “Besides, the bowing and scraping would just be tiresome. Rise, lass, or you’ll set me all aflutter.”

He reached down and took her by the shoulders. Though his body did not show it, his arms held great strength and he lifted her to her feet easily.

“There now,” he said. “As to why I’m here, I’ve come before you, unglamored and undisguised, because you wanted to talk. So talk.” When she could not form words, he added: “For instance, you might tell me why you seek me.”

“I wish to know what business of the Lady brings you to Luskan.”

“My own,” he said.

Eden swallowed. It was hard to think in his presence. “Might I aid you somehow?”

“No,” he said. “What you can do is not cross my path. In particular, leave the girl Myrin Darkdance be. The others-feel free to dispose of them as you see fit.”

“The girl?” She had plans for that one, for which her wealthy outlander patron was paying her quite well. “But why, my lord?”

“I know all about your business with her and I know all about your employer,” he said. “You’ll leave her be or unpleasant consequences will follow.”

He was beautiful and he was terrible, but no one threatened Eden of the Clearlight, favored servant of the ladies luck, in her own chambers. A wave of anger rose and washed away her fascination with the Horned One, only to replace it with cold scheming.

“What will you give me, then, to ensure my loyalty?” She reached out and laid her hand on his chest. A moment ago, that had seemed like the height of blasphemy. Now, he was just a man, and she knew how to handle men. Her eyes dipped along his body. “Or perhaps I can give you something?”

His smile radiated cold. “Your mockery of a church is a disappointment to the Lady,” he said. “Count it a blessing I don’t murder you right here and now.”

“Do it, if you wish,” she said. “I like it rough.”

“No doubt.” He drew from his coast sleeve a bound and sealed scroll, one that appeared too big to fit there. “Here is your bribe, Eden One-Eye.”

“A scroll?” Eden sneered. “And here I offer myself to you, Chosen of the Lady.”

He stared at her a long, long moment. She felt, suddenly, the weight of his will arrayed against her-he had attempted some sort of magic. It drained away into her two-faced coin, however, leaving her untouched.

“I had forgotten,” he said, acknowledging the coin. “A clever artifice.”

He glanced down at her braced leg, which chose just that moment to seize up. She cried out in pain and fell back onto her divan. In falling, her brace snapped neatly in two, the metal biting into her flesh.

It hurt-gods how it hurt-and yet she found it exhilarating. She had seen him work no magic and yet somehow, misfortune obeyed his whim. What a blessing!

The Horned One spoke. “I have lived far longer than you, child,” he said. “And in all my centuries, I have loved only one woman. And you are not she.”

Then he was gone, as though he’d never been.

Eden fell prone on her divan, stunned. The Horned One himself, in her private chambers! It didn’t seem real, that such a minor servant of the Lady should be so honored. His presence filled her with a pleasure she could not explain.

Yet, he had offended her grievously-rejecting her and making demands on her. For this, she would have revenge on him, favorite of the Lady or no.

With trembling fingers, Eden opened the scroll and scanned its contents. At first, the dark runes startled her. Then her excitement grew. And grew.

So the Horned One didn’t want her to impede the girl-Eden could cope with that instruction. But gold was gold, and the outlander who wanted her had promised much of that. She simply had to keep her hands clean of the business: time for Toytere to do it all himself. If she’d been right about the Fury inside of him, she knew just how to do it. This scroll would help.

But first-

“Come,” she called.

A secret door opened, admitting her favorite sentry. Compared to the Horned One, he was a mere brute, but at least he was hers. “Me lady?”

“I’ve just had a brush with death and it has left me … unfulfilled.” Eden clapped her hands sharply. “Take off your breeches.”

CHAPTER NINETEEN

26 KYTHORN (HIGHSUN)

When Kalen returned to the Drowned Rat, the sun was high. The gang ruffians were mostly there, bragging of conquests that night or keeping a low cloak to hide their failures. Toytere took his leave to take care of one thiefly matter or another. Any other day, Kalen might have considered watching him, but at the moment, he had another goal.

Eden. Manipulative, scheming, dangerous Eden.

Eden, who had let slip no opportunity to frame him for stealing food, to add rotted rats to his stew, or to put live spiders in his bed.

Eden, who had ever hated him for reasons he could not name.

Despite all this, he’d loved her after a fashion-really, he’d had little choice. Their mother had scarcely known his name most of the time.

Kalen had been very young at the point their mother drank and drugged herself to death. Rather than stay to care for a brother she’d never loved, Eden had charmed and slept her way into an adventuring party and turned her back on Luskan. Kalen, then only a lad of six, had fallen in with a harsh crowd, including Toytere with his filed teeth. If he hadn’t met Cellica-Toytere’s compassionate and sensible sister-he might have become just as bad as Eden.

That Eden had returned and now ran the greatest of Luskan’s Five troubled him to no end. The fact that her gang held a semblance of respectability about it made resisting them all the harder. The Eden he’d seen today, with her protestations of reverence in “the Lady,” crossed his earliest memories of her. Perhaps she’d truly changed.

Perhaps.

“Her Majesty said what?” one of the Rats shouted.

Kalen turned his attention to the bar. There, Flick engaged one of the Dead Rats in a battle of will.

“You’re to take these here turnips and things down to Old Shim’s at the dock,” Flick said. “Them youngins is low on food, what with the plague and all.”

“But-but them’s our rations!”

Rations. Kalen’s stomach growled even if he didn’t feel hunger. He welcomed the reminder to eat. Flick had taken charge of the larder-a better quartermaster Kalen had never met outside the Guard.

What caught his attention, however, was what Flick said next.

“Orders of Her Majesty,” Flick said. “You take this food and you share it, understand? And you don’t demand no payment, neither.”

The Dead Rat stared at her as though she’d grown a second and third head. Kalen couldn’t blame him. Generosity? From the gang?

“Now get.” Flick shoved the crate into his arms. “Before I gets me cudgel!”

The man ran, crate bouncing against his chest. Flick gave a contented smile, which evaporated as soon as she saw Kalen watching. “Bah!” she said.

“I’ll be godsburned,” Kalen said. “She really did it.”

Myrin had spoken of taking a stand-of teaching the Rats to do the right thing-but he’d never dreamed she could actually do it. He felt a lightness in his chest, stirred by Myrin’s own perseverance. Was it truly possible?

Then he remembered Eden.

He had to get Myrin out of the city soon.

Rhett lay slumped against the wall outside Myrin’s door, snoring deeply. He must have been watching her for hours to be so tired.

This Kalen admired. Few men willingly stood guard until they dropped from exhaustion. What would Gedrin Shadowbane, the first of the line, say of this one?

Likely that the boy talked entirely too much.

At his belt, Vindicator felt warm, as though reacting to Rhett’s proximity.

“I’m glad you like him,” Kalen said, both to the sword and the sword’s old wielder.

Myrin sat in the room, surrounded by floating images. Cross-legged, she floated several hands off the bed. She moved images back and forth, mumbling to herself.

“This,” she said. “No, like this. No, I seem younger here …”

She sounded bone-weary, her voice crackling as though she’d had nothing to drink in days. She looked thinner than usual-ragged.

“Myrin,” Kalen said. “Do you-?” No, that wasn’t the right question. Not yet. He would begin gently. “What are you about?”

“Well met, Kalen,” Myrin said. “Just a little world-rending magic. Nothing serious.”

“I see.” He couldn’t tell if that was meant for a jest, but decided not to press. Kalen pointed at the tiny Myrins sculpted of her magic. “And those?”

“Umbra’s memories … and others. I just can’t decide where to place them.”

“Memories?” Kalen asked.

“Oh yes,” she said. “Umbra had many memories of me. We were lovers, I think.”

“Lovers?” At his side, his hand made a fist so tight that blood trickled. When Kalen noticed, he loosened his fingers. “Is that what you saw? Love-making?”

“Yes, or perhaps we were interrupted before we could, I don’t really know,” she said. “But the point is, he knew me over a period of time-he saw me grow and age.”

“Right.” Kalen looked at a plate of hard cheese and black bread left untouched on the bed. “Have you eaten anything today?”

“What a completely irrelevant question,” Myrin said. “The best one is this-look.” She pointed toward a central image: Myrin, blushing, looking darling as ever, her eyes sparkling. Her lips moved, but the images conveyed no sound. “He told me my age-I was twenty in that moment. Twenty! Only”-she frowned-“I don’t know how long ago that was. And I look the same age in all these other memories.”

“But you were twenty,” Kalen said. “For certain?”

“I said it myself, in the memory,” she said, her voice wavering. “It had to have been years ago, however-before whatever happened to Umbra to break him. The Umbra who remembered her-I mean, me-was young. Handsome, or at least not mad. I might be older than I thought.” She gave him a devious smile, one that betrayed a certain madness that came with exhaustion. “Maybe I’m older than you, fancy that?”

It was time. “Myrin, do you want to talk about it?”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “It?”

“What happened to Umbra.”

“Oh.” She looked away. “No.”

He thought he smelled wine on her breath. “Have you been drinking?”

“Yes.” A half-empty wine bottle sat on the sideboard.

“And you haven’t eaten?” Kalen frowned. “You need to rest.”

“Pah!” Myrin turned back to her images, looking over them again. “Rest is for those who know themselves,” she said. “I’ve discovered something very important and I’ll not rest until I-damn!” One of the miniature Myrins wavered and faded. “I can’t concentrate to maintain so many images at once. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“Listen to your body.” Kalen glanced at his numb hands. “And be glad it speaks.”

“My body tells me less than the memories do.”

“Then I’ll tell you,” Kalen said. “You’re worn out. You need to eat, drink, and rest.

“No I don’t.” She veritably trembled. “I need to do this! I need-”

“Myrin, you’re allowed to be upset,” Kalen said. “You just killed a man.”

“That’s debatable,” she said. “Whether I killed him, I mean.”

“Myrin.” Kalen took her shoulders in his hands, seizing her attention. “Rest.”

Myrin twisted away. “Did you know you wouldn’t turn to dust when you touched me?”

Kalen shrugged. He hadn’t even thought about it.

“Well.” Myrin broke their linked gaze. “Fine-I’ll drink something. Here.”

She put out her hand and a half-drunk bottle of wine floated to her. She caught it and tipped it over her mouth.

“Easy!” Kalen took the bottle away after she drained two big gulps. “Know your body and its limits.”

“I know my body,” Myrin said. “I just-I want to know me!” Myrin’s images swirled. She had to assert her will to pull them back into order. A vein bulged at her temple. “These memories are who I am, don’t you see? Look at this one … and this!”

She waved two images forward-the blue-gleaming girl she’d been in the alley in Waterdeep, wreathed in flame, and another Myrin, crouching and struggling to hold a magical shield against a necromantic assault.

“I hardly recognize those women,” Myrin said. “I mean, that’s me, but look how powerful I am. Can you imagine, Kalen, if I could unlock that power? How much good I could accomplish!” Her words slurred as she spoke. “Kalen, I feel dizzy.”

Her images vanished. She reeled and might have fallen onto the bed if he hadn’t caught her in his arms. She murmured, and he lowered her to the blankets.

“It hurts, Kalen,” she said. “Why does it hurt so much?”

“Killing should never be easy,” Kalen said.

“That’s just it,” Myrin said. “I didn’t kill him. He … he was carrying something inside him, and … I just wish I could remember!”

“You’re pushing yourself too hard,” Kalen said.

“Perhaps you’re right,” she said. “Perhaps I’m being a fool. This city, Toytere … Gods, you must think I’m a fool.” She sagged back and covered her face with one hand.

“I don’t,” Kalen said. “I don’t understand why you’d trust Toytere, who’d sell you for a few silvers, but neither do I doubt you. You must have a reason.” He thought of Flick instructing food to be sent to the needy. “You’ve made me believe.”

Myrin offered a wan smile. “I have to believe people can change,” she said. “It’s like Rhett said: you cannot expect a man to become better than he is, if you do not trust him. And I have to trust you or …”

“You mean Toytere,” Kalen said.

Myrin furrowed her brow. “What?”

“When you say ‘you,’ you mean Toytere.”

Myrin gave him a faraway look. “I’ve-I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m saying.”

“You need rest.” He pulled the light blanket over her.

“Aye, that might help.” She put out her hands. “My grimoire, please.”

Kalen noted her spellbook, bound in leather dyed bright pink. He smiled at her resolve, even if he was not about to give her that book. “You need rest, not spells.”

“Ooh!” She stuck out her tongue. “Just a little reading before sleepies.” She clasped her forehead. “Gods, did I really just say that? Out loud?”

“Friends do not let friends weave world-destroying magic from their cups.”

“Heh!” Myrin hiccupped loudly. She covered her mouth. “Sorry.”

Kalen stood but Myrin caught his wrist. Power tingled in her fingers. Even he, with his layers of dead flesh, could feel the warmth of her touch.

“Is that what we are, Kalen?” she asked. “Friends?”

“What else?” Kalen pulled the blankets up to her chin.

“Well …” Myrin pursed her lips. “Do friends lie next to friends who’ve had too much to drink while they go to sleep? And hold them very tightly?”

He stared at her a long, long moment, fighting to find the right words.

Finally, he brushed an errant blue hair out of her eyes. “No,” he said.

“No?” She gazed at him, saddened. “Are you sure?”

He sat beside her and put out his arm. “They do, however, sit next to friends who’ve had too much to drink. Just until they fall asleep.”

“Oh.” Myrin smiled wanly. “Well then, some of that, if you will.”

She settled into the crook of his arm, her head resting comfortably on his stomach. He couldn’t feel her exactly-not physically-but his spellscar eased as though content, making him more comfortable. She radiated a warmth and ease that made him sleepy as time passed. His worries about Toytere, Eden, and this wretched city drifted, seeming to lose importance as he listened to her steady breathing. He trailed his fingers along her back. She murmured something, then snuggled into him and relaxed further.

From the dimming light through the cracks in the wall, Kalen realized some time had passed. The Luskan day wore on, a morass of chaos around their moment of peace. He had things to do and he couldn’t sit here with Myrin all day-even if he wanted to.

He thought she’d fallen asleep, but when he shifted, Myrin’s lips parted. “I know what happened,” she said. “To Umbra, I mean.”

Kalen nodded. “What?”

“I didn’t kill him. At least, I don’t think I did,” she said. “He died long ago, but the thing inside him-a piece of me, left for me to find-preserved him. But that piece is like a treasure chest I don’t remember how to open. I just don’t.”

“A piece of you?” Kalen asked. “Who left it? Do you know?”

“I think-” Her voice was heavy with sleep. “I think I did.”

Her breathing fell into regular rhythms.

He thought about what Myrin had said-about what she had told him and what she had almost told him. He thought about trust and being a better person.

“I’m sorry,” he said after a moment.

He slid aside to let her lie alone on the bed, took a pair of manacles from his belt and bound her wrists behind her back.

By day, the Whetstone seemed almost habitable, without the jangling noise and smoky darkness that filled it by night. It made a much worse meeting place at such times, but Eden’s hint to meet here had been clear.

“If possible-and I’m by no means allowing that it is,” Eden said from across the smoke-tainted table. “You look worse than last we met.”

Toytere certainly felt awful. He itched all over, particularly in his arm. He hadn’t slept well in days, thanks to awful dreams of stalking the streets, constantly thirsting for violence. Still, he would remain in control, however much he wanted to rage and strike at someone. And, oh gods, how he wanted to leap across the table and tear out Eden’s throat with his teeth.

“You be speaking your piece,” he said shakily, “or this meeting be done.”

“Indeed.” Eden smirked unprettily. “But about Kalen-you seemed surprised.”

“You knew Little Dren was in the city,” Toytere said. “Yet you didn’t be mentioning your familial tie. ’Tis a dangerous game you be playing.”

“Not as dangerous as you’d think,” Eden said. “You’ll reconsider our bargain?”

“That seems unlikely.” Toytere scoffed. “I told you, deal’s off-”

“My dear halfling,” Eden said. “You’re not seeing the full picture.”

She drew from her robe a yellow-stained scroll.

“What be that?” Toytere asked.

“Something that came into my possession only this night,” she said. “A cure.” Toytere’s mouth dropped open. “But-”

“You have the Fury, halfling,” she said. “Your resolve is remarkable, but the disease is greater than you. You have a day, perhaps another, but soon you’ll go mad and perish. Unless-” She tapped the scroll on the table. “Well?”

Toytere felt like a rat caught in a snare.

“One day, you’ll see yourself the way I see you,” Myrin had said.

His wrist ached something fierce. He felt boiling anger inside.

“What must I do?” he asked.

Eden smiled. “Only that which you wish to do,” she said. “Kill Kalen Dren. But first-let me show you what this scroll offers.”

CHAPTER TWENTY

26 KYTHORN (EVENING)

Scorching daylight dims and twilight falls.

Time to feast.

A male one crushes a female one against the wall of an alley.

They grunt and cry out-hungry for one another.

We hunger for them, too.

Then comes the call-a keening, screeching, rending snarl that rips through us. We cry out, we scream. The other-Murmur-it surges forth. We fight it. We wrestle it back with talon and stinger and mandible.

“What the Hells?” says the male one.

The female one screams.

We surge forward, but the call comes again-bidding us come. We will.

But first.

We coalesce. We become.

The two ones are trapped.

We feed.

“I don’t know about this,” Rhett said for the tenth time.

Kalen shrugged and kept on.

Myrin snored where he’d slung her over his shoulder.

Night had fallen as they set out and the rats of Luskan had come out of their holes. Cloaks over their faces, Kalen and Rhett became just another pair of kidnappers. None blocked their path through the city.

Getting past the wall was easy enough. A jar of alchemist’s fire tossed to the north had drawn most of the Guards’ attention and they’d stolen past amidst the distraction. Kalen had knocked only one man senseless. Now they were half a league from the city.

“I have a poor feeling about this, saer,” Rhett said.

“Just stay quiet,” Kalen said. “We’ll find some horses-wait.”

Glittering steel appeared in the dark, followed by shields bearing the image of a moon reflected in water-the sigil of Waterdeep. “Hold!” a man cried.

The shields formed a ring around the two men, pressing them back-to-back. Myrin nudged into Rhett and she murmured. “Mmm, that’s it. Right there.”

Kalen turned to Rhett. “Draw steel,” he said, bracing to run.

“Belay that,” came an all-too-familiar voice.

The ring of shields parted for a lithe woman in plate armor and a black cloak. She drew off her helmet, letting flow a cascade of black hair. She was pretty enough that a man might hesitate to take her seriously. Once he witnessed her cold temperance and efficiency, however, he’d never make that mistake again.

“Valabrar Hondyl!” Rhett rapped Vindicator’s pommel in salute, then bowed.

Kalen remained standing. “Araezra,” he said.

“Kalen.” Araezra “Rayse” Hondyl wore a weary expression. “I guess it was only a matter of time, wasn’t it?”

“Stand aside, Araezra,” Kalen said. “Let me take her out of here-to Waterdeep or at least Neverwinter. Arrest me then.”

“Like Hells.” Rayse shook her head. “I’ve taken a beating in the Guard for aiding you before, Kalen. You think I picked this cursed quarantine duty myself?”

“You’re not taking me in,” Kalen said. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Don’t worry,” Rayse said. “You won’t.”

At her wave, crossbows rose and fingers tensed on triggers.

“Wait!” Rhett said, raising his hand. “There’s another way.”

Rayse looked over at him, her face carefully calm in the face of imminent bloodshed. “You,” she said. “You’re that noble lad-Hawkwinter, is it?”

“Aye, Lady-er, Sir!” Rhett inclined his head. “Trusty Rhetegast Hawkwinter-until my discharge, that is.”

“What are you doing?” Kalen asked, but Rayse put up a hand to stay him.

“Speak then,” she said wearily. “I’d surely like to stain this ground with as little blood as possible. Gods know Luskan’s red enough as it is.”

“The plague,” Rhett said. “We can stop it.”

“What do I care about the plague?” Rayse said. “I’m here to keep the quarantine until it goes away on its own.”

“And a good job you’ve done,” Rhett said. “What if one of us carries it?”

That got the guards to fall back a pace, murmuring among themselves.

“We’ll make sure it doesn’t escape the city,” Rhett said. “We’ll stop it here, before it endangers all of Faerun.”

Rayse and Kalen looked at one another. “How’s that?” the Valabrar asked.

“Boy,” Kalen warned.

Rhett bowled over his protests. “Give us a fortnight and we’ll cleanse Luskan of the plague, and we can all go home.”

“A fortnight,” Rayse said, her expression dubious. “Our scouts say everyone in Luskan will be dead of hunger by then.”

“Then we’d best hurry, eh?”

Rayse stared at him, then at Kalen. “Your squire makes a fine offer,” she said. “Is this acceptable to you?”

“He’s not my squire,” Kalen said. “And yes, unless I’ve another choice.”

“You don’t.” Rayse nodded to her men, who parted to allow Kalen and Rhett to head back toward the city’s walls.

Rhett saluted and turned to Kalen. “I’ll carry Her Majesty back, if you like.”

“Kalen,” Rayse said. “Do I even want to ask why you’re carrying a drunken lass over your shoulder? Wait, is that Myrin?”

“Mmm, not the darkness,” Myrin murmured. “Don’t cast it there

Kalen rebuffed Rhett, hefting the woman toward Rayse instead. “Will you take her away from here?”

But Rayse was already backing away. “I’m sorry,” she said. “She might have the plague, for all I know. You all might.”

“We don’t,” Kalen said.

“So you say,” Rayse said. “I should have had you feathered on sight. I could be stripped of my rank just for talking to you.”

“This is important, Rayse,” Kalen said. “Please.”

“I can’t,” she said.

Kalen nodded, only then handed the mostly unconscious woman to Rhett, who grunted as he took her dead weight.

Rayse was looking at him appreciatively. “Fine upstanding lad, turned criminal by just a glance at the legendary Shadowbane. And now he carries your sword. Typical.” She paused, thinking. “I seem to remember another boy you turned to your dastardly ways.”

Kalen winced as though she’d struck him and Rayse’s face turned apologetic.

Rhett, standing a little apart, cocked his head to listen.

“I’m sorry, Kalen-I didn’t think …” Rayse put a hand on his shoulder. “You should know, what happened to Vaelis was not your fault.”

Kalen didn’t want to think about that. He was bone weary and hungry as well. “Farewell, Rayse,” he said. “If we see each other again, I promise I’ll surrender.”

They turned and walked back toward Luskan, the Guard nervously shadowing their path to make sure they attempted no flight.

Behind them, Rayse sighed. “Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep.”

“Ay,” Myrin slurred when they arrived at the Drowned Rat. “I can walk my own self.”

Kalen gave Rhett a warning look, but the lad set her down regardless. “Wouldn’t be proper,” she said with a smile, “returning to my castle not on my own two feet.”

She almost fell-would have, had Kalen not caught her. They fumbled in one another’s arms and Kalen smelled the wine still thick on her breath.

“I’m really quite angry at you, you know,” she said to Kalen. “You and your tight little hindquarters.” She looked down under his arm. “Mm-hmm. Yes.”

Rhett took Myrin’s arm. “We should get her back into bed,” he said.

“My head hurts,” Myrin said. “Just thought I’d inform you.”

Kalen pushed through the door to the tavern, then stopped dead a few paces into the common room. Every Dead Rat in the gang was gathered and all eyes turned toward them.

“Oh,” Myrin said with a drunken smile. “Well met, everyone!”

Toytere stood in the center of the chamber, his thumbs hooked in his belt. When he saw them, his face turned pale. “I”-he said-“I didn’t reckon you be coming back.”

Kalen understood immediately. “Toytere, what have you done?”

Rhett felt it too. He drew Vindicator. “What’s going on?”

“Aye!” Myrin broke away from Rhett and stumbled toward Toytere. Kalen ran forward and caught her. “What’s going on, Toy?”

He took a hesitant step toward her, half-raising his hand, then stopped and shook his head. “I want you to be knowing, me dear lady,” he said. “I never did want this thing.” He nodded to Sithe. “Get the girl.”

Kalen shouted a word of warning, but it was too late. The genasi surged across the floor and swept her axe at Rhett. Vindicator caught the blow, but Rhett staggered away. Sithe turned toward Myrin, her axe high.

Betrayed.

“Myrin-” Kalen reached for his daggers, but something hard struck him in the gut. He fell to his knees, his strength instantly gone. He looked from the point of a rapier blade protruding through his side to the halfling who had stabbed him.

“You be bringing this on your own self,” said a seething Toytere in Kalen’s ear.

Toytere lunged at him with a hiss, knocking him to the floor. The halfling clambered atop his chest, a broad dagger in either fist. They looked more like meat carving knives than weapons of war.

Kalen struggled, but Toytere slashed a knife across his left hand, stilling it. The halfling slammed the pommel of one of his knives into Kalen’s face in a shower of white sparks. Toytere struck him again and again, pounding the sense from his head, roaring with every blow. He cried out for his sister, cried out for vengeance, and finally just cried out with no words at all.

Dimly, in the depths of a shrinking world, Kalen heard Myrin calling his name. He couldn’t get to her. He couldn’t even move.

Toytere heard it too and her voice seemed to shake him from his rage. “There be no escape for you, me good son,” he said. “You hark? That be your friends dying-except Myrin. That girl be bought and paid for. I be but the means.”

Kalen had failed her-failed them all.

“I be deciding which ear to be taking first,” Toytere said. “The left?” He stabbed one knife to the left of Kalen’s head. “Or the right?” He stabbed the other down, closing Kalen’s head between rusty steel.

“Mebbe the nose,” Toytere said, pulling out a third, even bigger knife. “Or mebbe we let fate do the deciding, no?” He grinned wickedly. “Then I’ll feed. Yes … feed.

And he tossed the blade into the air over Kalen’s face, letting it spin end over end.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

26 KYTHORN (NIGHT)

Myrin was drunk. She couldn’t think clearly, Nor could she move with anything like coordination. When Toytere spoke, she almost laughed. When Sithe lunged across the chamber and sent Rhett flying, then turned to her, she saw it as a hazy dream. When Toytere leaped on Kalen, awareness shocked through her and she came to her senses.

Everything seemed to happen at once.

Myrin drew her wand-her hand seemed to move so slowly-but Sithe was there, her axe sweeping down. Somehow, she’d known the genasi was coming and snapped the words of her shielding spell. The black axe clanged off the shield.

“No point to fighting,” Sithe said. “Yield.”

“No,” Myrin replied. “I don’t think I will.” Her wand cracked and thunder surged forth.

The genasi sailed through the air, borne on a trail of darkness, to land on her feet five paces distant. She staggered, knocked partially off balance. She seemed genuinely surprised-and pleased. “You are not as weak as he thinks you are,” she said. “I will enjoy-”

Rhett slashed Vindicator at her from behind, but Sithe flowed out of the way and lunged at Myrin. The bolt of force Myrin had meant for Toytere turned on Sithe instead, but the dark warrior batted it aside with her axe. She pointed to Myrin and black chains sprung into being around the wizard, but they evaporated in the searing radiance of Vindicator.

Rhett stood on the other side of Sithe, his sword leveled in her direction. “Fight me, demon!” Silver light flowed from Vindicator and encircled the genasi like a halo.

“Demon?” Sithe touched the light and it flowed around her fingers, dissolving into her darkness. “I should have killed you before, boy, when first you proved the fool.”

Rhett lunged at Sithe, but he had to duck aside as a hurled dagger clanged off his breastplate. Myrin had forgotten all about the gathered Dead Rats, but now they stalked forward: an army of cruel faces and rusty blades. Rhett turned to face them, one man against twenty. They swarmed him, cutting and stabbing, and he vanished into the crowd. Without his attention, Vindicator’s halo around Sithe faded.

Wizard and genasi faced one another, alone and with no protectors.

“We only want you, Myrin Darkdance,” Sithe said. “You’re killing the others.”

Myrin spun her wand in a tight circle, conjuring a ball of fire in her open hand. This she hurled in Sithe’s direction, but the genasi dodged aside.

“You can end this at a word,” Sithe said. “Is your pride worth both their lives?”

Myrin spread her wand in an arc, stretching the fire after the fast-moving genasi. In a heartbeat, a wall of searing flame cut the battlefield in two. The Dead Rats stood on one side, quite removed from the fight. Sithe seemed a silhouette carved in sharp lines of darkness. Then she vanished in a burst of darkness.

Myrin felt a shocking warmth on her skin and glanced down at her left forearm. A new rune had appeared there-a new spell she had seen in Umbra’s visions. To her arcanist’s eye, it looked like a wall of fire.

Myrin looked up from this wonder and cast about for the genasi, but she might as well have ceased to exist. She cast about for-“Kalen!”

The halfling was perched over Kalen, striking him over and over again like an animal savaging its prey. Blood flew along with curses and roars of rage.

Had she been wrong, to think he could be better than he was? Could anyone?

Myrin summoned a bolt of force, picturing the halfling’s head as its target. She didn’t want to kill him-had never wanted to kill anyone-but to protect Kalen, she would.

The air at her back shivered, displacing around something that was suddenly there. Myrin threw herself forward and whirled, the way she had seen Kalen do a thousand times. Sithe’s axe passed within a hair’s breadth of her face. As she dodged, she swung her wand under her arm and cast blindly. Magic exploded into flesh. With a curse, the genasi staggered back. Sithe clutched at her stomach and a trickle of black blood came from her mouth.

Myrin couldn’t believe she had dodged or that she had actually struck Sithe. From her uncomprehending wince, the genasi couldn’t believe it either.

“Enough.” Sithe indicated her with a black finger and Myrin felt the full weight of her fury fall on her. “Lady of Sorrow,” she prayed, “guide my hand against your foe.”

The genasi charged.

Myrin slashed her wand at Sithe, spinning a scythe of fire, but the genasi ran right at the magic. It struck full force but vanished into the genasi as though she were made of nothing. So startled was Myrin by this that she barely remembered to dodge Sithe’s strike, and caught the butt of the axe dead center in her chest. She fell to the floor, gasping for breath.

Sithe stood over her, her eyes blazing. She was done with words now-she offered only death. She was no longer a woman, but wholly a demon.

Blearily, Myrin crawled backward. She coughed and blood spattered the ground.

“Kalen!” she screamed.

The knife reached its zenith and spun back down.

Startled by Myrin’s cry, Toytere shot out a hand and caught the blade within a thumb’s breadth of Kalen’s face. Kalen gazed up, panting and gasping.

“Gods,” the halfling said. He was looking back at the battle illumined by a ring of flame. Sithe stalked toward Myrin, her axe raised high. The darkness enveloped the genasi like a lover-it flowed from her like sweat. “Gods, I didn’t be think-”

“Look,” Kalen croaked. “Look what you’ve unleashed.”

When the halfling turned back to him, revulsion filled his face. “You,” he said. “You killed Cellica. You’ve ruined me-ruined everything! Feed …”

“Let me up,” Kalen said. “Let me save her.”

Toytere laughed in his face, his shark’s teeth clacking madly. “You? You can barely stand! What can you do?”

“Save her,” Kalen said. “Let me-”

The halfling looked at him, horror filling his face. The murderous haze in his eyes lifted, replaced by an understanding of the nightmare he had brought on them all.

“I’m sorry,” the halfling whispered.

Without further words, he leaped from Kalen and dashed across the room toward Myrin and Sithe. His broad knife flashed and sank through Sithe’s darkness into her leg.

Any mortal woman would have fallen or at least cried out in pain. The dark one stared down at the interfering halfling in mild surprise.

“Kill me instead!” Toytere cried, his voice almost lost in the animal within. “Kill-!”

She brought the axe around and buried it in Toytere’s chest. The halfling gagged. Sithe wrenched the blade free in a rain of blood, then calmly raised it over Myrin.

Myrin screamed-for Toy or for herself, Kalen couldn’t say.

None of this made any sense. Kalen didn’t know what was going on, but he saw Myrin in danger and he had to move. Yet he simply could not. He was so tired.

He heard a faint melody-a haunting siren’s song-leading him back from darkness. At first, he thought it Toytere, but the halfling was thrashing his way into death not five paces distant. Who …?

Strength flowed into Kalen and he could move again. It hurt, but he ignored the pain. Myrin needed him. Weaponless, spitting blood, he forced himself to his feet.

He lunged and raised his hand to stop the deadly blow even as it fell.

Sithe’s axe struck his arm. He expected searing pain as it cleaved his limb in two. Instead, the axe met resistance-a gray radiance that surrounded his forearm like a vambrace. The genasi looked as shocked as he felt.

Kalen had not won a thousand fights in a thousand stinking alleys by hesitating. He brought his other fist around with all his strength into Sithe’s face. The warrior staggered back, her deadly axe falling wide.

Instantly, he fell to the floor, groping for Myrin. “Gods,” he said. “Are you-?”

Myrin’s eyes glowed blue in the depths of her blood-smeared face. Toytere’s blood, he realized. Gods …

She looked up, past his shoulder, and he realized Sithe stood over them once again. “Destroyers destroy, Kalen Dren,” the genasi said.

Kalen had no strength left. He tried to put as much of himself as possible between that brutal axe and Myrin, hoping to buy her a heartbeat to escape.

Myrin, as it happened, had other plans.

“Give it to me!” From under Kalen, she grasped Sithe’s leg. Runes raced up her arms as she drew the genasi’s power into herself. “Give me your darkness! Give it all!”

Sithe’s mouth opened, but she could not speak. She fell to one knee, weakened by Myrin’s spellscar, and the wizard easily pulled her to floor and clambered atop her.

“This isn’t your fate,” Myrin said to the exhausted genasi. “You can change. You can-” The air sucked in and Myrin vanished as though she’d never existed.

Kalen’s heart stopped for two whole beats before he realized what had happened: Myrin had taken whatever power Sithe used to vanish and reappear.

Sithe lay unmoving, seemingly stunned. Kalen breathed again.

“Little Dren …”

Two paces distant, Toytere wheezed. The halfling lay in a spreading pool of blood, torn and broken. His face had elongated-his beard growing thicker. It was the infamous wererat blood he bore-that all leaders of the Dead Rats carried. His right arm, where before Kalen had seen a bandage, sprouted thick crystalline patches.

The Fury.

Now Kalen understood. Toytere had nearly lost himself in the depths of the plague, but he’d fought free. He’d saved Myrin, simply by demanding Sithe cut him down instead.

“Did I-” Toytere said, his eyes rolling. “Little Dren … did I do it?”

Kalen nodded.

“Fancy,” Toytere whispered. “Thief like me, passing up that much coin. Must be something the matter with me, no?”

“Who was it?” Kalen asked. “Who hunts her?”

“Eden.” Toytere shook his head. “But someone hired her. Don’t know who.”

“Of course.” Kalen had suspected as much. “What you did was very brave, Toytere-worthy of Cellica.”

“Pah,” the halfling said. “Me sister would have brained me as soon as let me consider it. But then, she be better than both of us, no?”

Kalen smiled weakly.

“Lady Darkdance?” Toytere said. “Where be she?”

“She’ll be back.” Even as he said it, Kalen felt the hint of fear clinging to his fingers-like a phantom sensation he wanted to ignore but could not.

If Myrin had taken Sithe’s power, shouldn’t she have returned by now?

“Hold, Toytere,” Kalen said. “Don’t expire just yet.”

“Easy to say for a body that don’t feel pain or fear.”

Kalen’s anxiety belied those words, however. Where was Myrin?

As if prompted by that thought, the wall of fire collapsed. On the other side, Vindicator burned a swath through the Dead Rats. Rhett, lathered in sweat, fought in a shrinking circle of the thieves. Distracted, they turned their attention to the middle of the room. The fighting died away.

Seeing Toytere in a pool of his own blood silenced the Rats. Seeing Kalen so grievously wounded brought Rhett running. He reached for Kalen, but the man waved him away. “Help Toytere,” he said. “He needs it more than I.”

Kalen looked to Sithe, who lay motionless on the floor. “Where is she?”

The genasi was staring blankly at the ceiling, but he saw her chest rising and falling regularly. “She is lost,” Sithe said.

“Lost where?” Kalen asked. “Bring her back.”

“The void.” Sithe shook her head. Tears leaked from her eyes. “I-”

Kalen grasped Sithe’s wrists. “Send me there,” he said. “I’ll bring her back.”

The genasi looked to him, as though noticing him for the first time. “You cannot.”

“Do it.” Kalen pulled Toytere’s jagged carving knife from Sithe’s leg and put it to her throat. “Or I’ll send you there myself.”

Sithe searched his face for a moment, then nodded. Silently, she pressed her hand to his chest. At first, he felt only a niggling tingle all along his skin. Then the world drew in upon itself and blackness fell.

Nothing.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

26 KYTHORN (NIGHT)

In the void, there was nothing. No light.

No sound.

Nothing.

It was exactly as his mantra said.

“A darkness where there is only me,” he said, but his words vanished without reaching his ears. He repeated them in his head, just to assure himself he existed.

This was, he realized, the end result of his sickness. One day, he would feel nothing-would know nothing.

Madness closed in around him in the sucking dark. He could not feel his heart racing, but he imagined it. He saw himself breaking into countless figments and dispersing into the endless abyss. Never existing-never being.

The anger, he thought. The anger was still there. He grasped it and clung to it. His rage gave him form and sense.

He searched for Myrin. She had to be here somewhere, he thought-she had taken Sithe’s power, but she couldn’t control it. He remembered well when she had absorbed the slaying spells of a wizard far her superior-how the spell had gone wild and nearly slain him and countless bystanders.

Just like that, as though thinking of her brought them closer, Kalen sensed her. Blue fire filled the void, reaching out from him like tendrils toward something-someone. Someone alone, afraid, and despairing of a way out.

Myrin, he thought to her.

Kalen? Oh gods, not you, too!

The full force of her panic fell upon him, rending his wits such that he almost lost himself in the emptiness. He kept together only by focusing on two things: his anger and his goal. Her.

He visualized himself holding her, enfolding her in his numb, scarred arms. In some part of reality he understood only dimly, he was holding her. Blue fire wrapped around them. Her presence seemed to calm-albeit slightly.

You have to take us home, Myrin, he conveyed. You have to do it now.

I can’t! she replied, refusing to meet his gaze. His vision broke up. I don’t know how. You shouldn’t have come-now you’re trapped, too.

I came to Luskan to save you. Kalen imagined himself brushing a lock of hair out of her eyes. Do you really think I’d leave you in darkness?

Myrin’s heart hammered. But we’re trapped-

I suppose we could stay here. At least the smell is less.

He felt a relaxation of tension, but worry remained. I don’t know if I can do this.

I do, he said. If you wish it, we will go back.

Do you wish it, Kalen? she asked. You seemed so upset before. Do you-do you even want me back?

He clutched her tighter. Of course I do.

Very well, Myrin said. Here we-

They came back into the world in a rush, and all of existence bore down upon them in such an unstoppable flood of sensation that Kalen staggered. The otherwise bare chamber was suddenly filled with a teeming swarm of creatures smaller than fleas, flowing all over each other. Heaps of slithering vermin were held together only loosely by a mutual desire for survival. The floorboards, the scant furnishings, the air itself-all were horribly, feverishly alive in infinite minutiae.

The overwhelming being of that moment was enough to shatter Kalen’s mind. Heartbeats sounded like thunder in his ears. Myrin lay enfolded in his arms, her body curled against him. They gazed into one another’s eyes, at once comforting and taking comfort, seeing each other with a clarity neither had ever known. Kalen wanted nothing more than to lie here with her, and let the world fall apart around them.

A cry arose, breaking the moment. Kalen saw that the common hall had become a frenzied mass of people. Dead Rats argued in panic and rage.

Rhett stood among the crowd, his sword ready. “Saer Shadowbane!” he called.

As though his voice woke her, Myrin stirred and sat up. “We did it,” she said. “We-” Then tears brimmed in her eyes. “Gods. Toy-is he …?”

Kalen brushed the blood from Toytere’s beating out of his eyes. A few paces distant, Sithe stood over the fallen halfling and a spreading puddle of blood.

“Get away from him!” Myrin cried, leveling her wand at the genasi.

Kalen restrained her. “It was mercy, not anger,” he said. “He’s dying.”

Sure enough, at Sithe’s feet, Toytere’s body shuddered. He loosed a whine like that of a rat caught in a trap. Rhett had tended him, Kalen saw, but the wound was too great-that, or the plague would not permit him to escape.

Long past the point of coherence, Toytere squealed and roared in pain. His hands grasped at his midsection and his limbs stretched painfully.

“Why haven’t you ended it?” Kalen indicated Sithe’s axe.

“It is for her to do,” Sithe said. “He betrayed her, his life is hers.”

“You also betrayed us,” Kalen said.

“And my life is also hers,” Sithe said. “But she should decide sooner for him.”

Myrin sat at Toytere’s side and took his hand. The halfling’s bloody eyes turned to her and his lips formed her name. “Myrin?”

“Yes,” she said. “Toy, you’re dying.”

“Hrk!” A cough wracked the halfling’s body. “Die … die a man?”

“A man,” Myrin said, clasping his hand hard. “The man you should be.”

Toytere gave her a bloody smile. “Aye, that’s all I wan-” His body jerked taut and his eyes glazed over. A sound emerged from his bloody lips-a low, buzzing hum.

“What’s happening?” Rhett asked.

“Prophecy. He-” The halfling clenched Myrin’s hand hard, cutting off her words.

“Too late,” the gang leader said, in a voice suddenly distant. “Dren will fall to the dark.”

“What?” Kalen asked, eyes fixed on Toytere.

Myrin was staring at the halfling, the blood beating in the hollow of her throat.

“Darkness will take you, Champion of Ruin, fight as you will,” Toytere said in that odd drone. “All that you love will sift as ash through your fingers. It is too late!”

Kalen pushed Myrin wide of Toytere’s grasp and caught the halfling’s collar. “What do you mean? What are you saying?”

The halfling eyes blinked out of the Sight. “Little Dren,” he said. “Gods, I See it. I’ve got to warn-”

Then his eyes widened past the red surrounding the whites. He loosed a savage snarl and lunged at Kalen, who kept from being bitten by wincing back. He held the halfling down with a foot on his chest.

The crowded Rats parted and Myrin approached. “What is-oh gods, Toy!”

“Stay back,” Kalen said. “He isn’t Toytere anymore-that man’s dead.” He turned to Rhett, who backed away, taking Vindicator with him. Instead, Kalen seized Sithe’s axe and raised it over his head. “Turn away.”

Myrin stared at him, eyes wide. “No.”

“I said-”

“I heard what you said.” Myrin straightened her shoulders. “And I’m not turning aside, Kalen. If this is what you are, so be it.”

He hesitated, his blade held high. Beneath his foot, the raging beast that had been Toytere uttered a fitful cry and grasped at its midsection. A huge mass was creeping up, like a boil growing before their eyes. The halfling whimpered in pain and fury. The huge pustule rising from the halfling’s chest continued to grow and squirm.

The ring of Dead Rats expanded, giving the thing more space. Toytere’s body jerked and squirmed, sending blood flailing. Finally, it burst open, spilling forth a quivering horde of half formed insects-locusts, bees, beetles, and gods knew what else.

Kalen brought the axe down and Toytere stopped dead.

The steel on wood rang throughout the hall, followed by the utter silence of three dozen men and women looking to Kalen and his burning steel. The axe flared, burning the twitching vermin. They went up like pinecones in a chorus of sickly pops.

One voice rose from the back of the horde. “Shadowbane!” it cried. “King Shadowbane!”

“King Shadowbane!” another voice answered. “King of the Rats!”

Myrin stared at him, her gaze dark-disappointed. She drew away, turned to confer with Rhett. Kalen watched her go and felt a part of his heart draining away.

“King Shadowbane!” the Rats cried, and “Kalen of the Rats!” and “Shadowbane!”

Kalen nodded grimly.

Eden leaned back from her scrying pool, letting the image waver and die, and tapped her fingers together. What an unlikely series of events-one that she would need to plan around.

Seeing the fate that had befallen Toytere when he tried to move against Kalen and Myrin dissuaded her, even considering the kingly sum offered for the lass’s capture. Still, it was the principle of the thing. Offended pride such as hers was worth the ransom of kingdoms, not mere kings.

The Horned One had told her to stop, so Eden meant to press forward.

Why would the Horned One, favorite of the Lady, be so adamant Eden not touch this Myrin Darkdance? What power did the girl hold-and how could Eden possess it? How could she use Myrin against the Horned One himself?

It would have worked, and she would have had Myrin, had not a certain halfling decided to kill himself out of misguided nobility.

“Bane’s black balls,” Eden murmured. “You can’t trust anyone these days.”

Well, she’d just have to deal with Kalen’s standing in the way of her next move. And if he met a horrible death in the process, all the better.

She thought of the scroll the Horned One had given her. Yes.

A knock at the door announced the arrival of her advisors-two men, one tall and fat, the other short and precipitously lean, both ugly and odious. She’d never bothered trying to learn their names. The short one spoke.

“Me lady, beloved of Mistress Fortune,” he said. “You summoned us?”

“Yes, yes,” Eden said. “I’ve called you to say that a miracle has come to pass. The Lady provides protection from the Fury.”

The men looked stunned. “Me lady, that’s a blessing for true!” said the short one. “We-we must tell everyone! Immediately! Bring adherents flocking to our-to the Lady’s banner! All will be drawn to this cure!”

“Cure?” Eden let a smile steal across her features. “Ha. I offer no cure, you oafs, but a blessing. It is an assurance that those the Lady favors will go untouched.”

“How is that not a cure, me lady?” asked the short one.

They were growing tiresome, Eden thought. Her head was starting to throb and she would much rather consider how best to move against the Horned One.

“Very well,” she said. “I’ll show you.”

The men quavered a bit at that, but their faces still shone with eagerness. Fools.

Eden reached into the bodice of her dress and withdrew the scroll the Horned One had given her. She had mastered the script and could pronounce the letters in her sleep. Still, holding the scroll was key to unlocking its power. Unfurling it across the bed in front of her, she began to read, her voice twisting into the dark and guttural syllables of the Abyssal tongue.

At first, nothing happened and her advisers’ nervousness faded a touch. “I-that is, we,” said the short one, with a nod at his companion. “We don’t feel any different.”

Eden smiled, even as she cursed them mentally. “This plague-the Fury,” she said. “It isn’t a cough or a pox or the like, but rather the gift of something … greater. Something darker. Something that scours.

As if in response to her words, the room filled suddenly with the sound of rustling and scuttling-thousands of tiny legs tap-tap-tapping on wood and stone. The three humans were far from alone in the chamber.

Blackness seeped out of the walls and floor: a flood of tiny, ferocious bodies, all of their fangs and claws serving Eden’s will. Her advisors cowered back a step.

“Oh, not to worry.” Eden tapped the scroll with one long finger. “With this, I can summon and keep the beast at bay. I extend the Lady’s blessing to any I deem worthy.”

“You,” said the fat one, wiping sweat from his brow. “You mean the goddess-those that she deems worthy.”

“Not actually, no,” said Eden. “For instance, I’m sure the goddess loves you two. I, on the other hand, do not share her opinion.”

With a lazy hand, she indicated her advisors.

The two men screamed as the blackness swarmed over them.

“A single bite leaves the Fury,” Eden explained as they flailed and gibbered, “but a thousand bites leave much less.”

Now that the plague was a weapon rather than a threat, she had only one thing left to take care of: becoming queen of Luskan. Queen of the North would come later.

Her brother and that thrice-damned wizard of his stood in the way, but Eden expected that would resolve itself. Her brother would, after all, fall into darkness-so said Toytere’s last prophecy.

She had to admit-as the demon finished its meal, leaving only bones for later removal by her slaves-that her brother turning into a “champion of ruin” struck her as a delicious concept.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

27 KYTHORN (EARLY MORNING)

Gray clouds boiled up in the night sky, blotting out Selune and her tears. Already the clammy, sticky rain of summer had begun to fall. A storm was coming to Luskan, and it would grow far worse before it grew better.

Later that night, after plans had been made, Kalen stood in the dark and drizzle of the old Yewblood yard, a block off Aldever’s Street northeast of the Drowned Rat. From here, he could see lights flickering in the tavern, suggesting a flurry of activity to match the orders he-the new king-had given.

In the little graveyard, however-so overgrown and stained with graffiti as to elude the memory of most natives-Kalen found a certain measure of tranquility. Anger simmered beneath the surface, but here he could breathe easier. He had spent most of the night burying Toytere. No one else seemed inclined to do it and he felt he owed the halfling that much. Enemies though they might have been in the end, Kalen had once counted Toytere his friend.

Now, hours later, he stared at another grave, marked with what in happier times had been a crude nymph dancing among river stones. He remembered it as it had been, fifteen years past, before vandals defiled it. Now, time and weather had worn away the headstone’s inscription to a single word: Dren.

He could not say how he detected the beggar-perhaps a slight rustle or the feel of the air he breathed. His senses had grown sharper since he’d come to Luskan and he trusted them more and more each day. Regardless, he knew he was not alone in the graveyard.

“You’re Dren’s boy, right?”

Kalen turned. Where he sat, the beggar became just a part of the scenery, easily overlooked and even more easily ignored.

“Kalen, methink?” The beggar coughed, his yellow teeth catching the moonlight. “You’ve grown, for true, but I knows you still. All on the street knows you.”

Kalen nodded.

“Godsdamned shame, what it is,” the man said. “She were so beautiful.”

The wind rose, whipping Kalen’s tattered cloak against his legs. Still, he was silent.

“Pretty Drenny-bestest face in the city, never aged, never caught the pox. Even that crazy chit of a daughter she had-even that don’t ruin her. The right best of us.”

“Not that I remember,” Kalen said.

“Heh, aye, but-” The man pushed himself clumsily up. Kalen watched, impassive. Coughing, shuddering, the ancient beggar managed his feet, wobbled a bit, then stepped toward him. “You weren’t to birth until after,” the beggar said. “After that damned Silverymoon dandy done broke her heart. She weren’t the same after him. Thought it would all be well-a lord of Luruar come to save us poor tluiners, but he were just like all the others: blaggard, turncoat, oathbreaker.” The beggar hacked and shook his head. “Me apologies. He’s your father, I suppose.”

“Don’t apologize,” Kalen said. “I had a father-and it wasn’t him.”

The beggar grunted.

They stood there, in the silence and greasy rain, as the moment stretched. Kalen knew he had been injured and should be in pain, but he couldn’t feel it. He couldn’t feel anything.

“A’ times it’s Tymora,” said the beggar with a sigh, “a’ times it’s Beshaba.”

“What?” Kalen said, not turning.

“What I mean is,” he said, “no matter if you a bright angel or a filthy devil, fortune will sway as it do. Foul fates for good folk, fair for evil.”

“Foul fates for good,” Kalen echoed, “fair for evil.”

“Speaking of.” The beggar extended a hand.

Kalen looked into the man’s greasy palm, then up into his face. The scamp’s eyes gleamed with a golden glint in the moonlight.

Fifteen years dissolved. He saw again a shadow standing over him. His cheek exploded in pain where he’d been struck. He heard the ringing sound Vindicator had made when it struck the grime-coated cobblestones. “Never beg again,” Gedrin had said.

The beggar waited. Kalen drew a gold coin out of his sleeve and set it in his hand. It was more coin than the old codger would likely ever see at one time. It wasn’t even the tiniest bit of what Kalen owed to this city-this world.

The man gave a toothy smile. “You’re a good man, Kalen Dren.”

They stood, silent again, as the night waned.

“There you are, Saer Shadowbane.”

Rhett and Myrin stood a dozen paces away, at the edge of the graveyard. The boy, his wounds bandaged, gave him a nod. Myrin refused to meet his eye. He could sense her anguish. “Don’t mind the-” Kalen turned to point out the beggar, but the man had vanished into the night. He wondered if the beggar had really been there or if he just needed sleep.

“Preparations are under way,” Rhett said. “It looks like the Rats mean to fight a war starting tomorrow.”

“They will,” Kalen said.

“And what would you have of us?” Rhett asked. “Myrin and I can-”

“I need you to leave,” Kalen said.

“Hold just a moment-” Rhett said.

Myrin shrugged and said simply, “Very well.”

“Very well?” The young guardsman stared at her. “What do you mean?”

She crossed her arms. “Shall I leave in the morning or on the instant?”

Kalen hadn’t expected such immediate agreement, but he wouldn’t refuse it. “Either,” he said. “Can you walk out of Luskan by magic?”

“Yes,” she said. “One of Umbra’s memories contained me, walking through shadows, across vast distances. I think I can reason out the ritual.”

Her face had a harried look. She grasped the elbow of one arm behind her back and ground her toe into the floor. Kalen realized the meaning of this posture: unassuming, tentative. She had something to say, but feared it. Also, from the way she pressed her nails into her palms, she was angry.

He stepped toward her. “Myrin, I need you to go.”

She made no sign of backing down. “And I agreed. What of it?”

“ ‘What of it’?” Anger flared in the pit of Kalen’s stomach, too hot to ignore. He grabbed her arm. “Can’t you see I want to protect you? Can’t you just-for once-listen?”

“No, you listen,” Myrin said through gritted teeth. “I thought you could change. But then I saw you and Toytere-the way you just cut into him without a moment’s pause.”

“He was dying, Myrin,” Kalen said. “I gave him mercy.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Myrin said. “I know what you are-I’ve always known. I just … I just wanted you to see me for what I am. I’m not a child. I can make my own godsdamned decisions. I don’t need you making them for me.”

“But-”

“My words, your ears, Kalen!”

He shut his mouth.

Myrin pressed her face close to his. “You need me,” she said. “I thought everything I’d done in this city had proved that, but in case you need further verbal rhetoric, here it is: no one else in Luskan can do what I do. No one except for a necromancer who likes speaking through dead people and, apparently, your own insane, one-eyed sister. So you may not like it, but I’m all you’ve got.” She looked down at his hand on her wrist.

Kalen released her and flexed his numb fingers.

Myrin stepped away and crossed her arms. “You need me here, even if you’re too blind to see it,” she said. “But if you ask me to leave, then I’ll leave. Just don’t pretend that you’re doing it to protect me.”

“But I am,” he said. “I need you safe. Whatever I have to keep you from-”

Myrin did something that surprised him-something he would never have expected of her. She wound her hand back and slapped him across the face, so hard and so suddenly it sent him back a pace.

“Gods burn you, Kalen!” she said, her voice breaking. “Don’t you dare say you’re keeping me from being hurt! What do you think it does to me to see you hurt!”

Stunned, Kalen tried to speak, but Myrin’s vehemence was such that he could not. He had never seen her quite so passionate, her lip trembling with words she could not say, her eyes brimming with hot, angry tears.

She visibly composed herself and wiped the moisture from her eyes. “Was there aught else?” she asked. “Or shall I storm away now?”

He didn’t like any of this, but what choice did he have? He had already committed to this course and he didn’t want Myrin to see it. He neither wanted her endangered, nor did he want her to see what would become of him.

“I need you to take something back,” Kalen said. “Something I have of yours.”

Myrin raised a quizzical eyebrow. “You don’t have anything of mine,” she said.

“Just take it back,” Kalen said.

Her eyes narrowed slightly. “Take what back?”

“This.” Kalen forced his numb fingers into a pocket inside his cloak and pulled out a slip of paper-creased, water-damaged, and showing signs of many readings. The note she’d left him. He unfolded it and showed it to her. “What you wrote here. This.

The letter bore her neat, sharp script and was signed at the bottom. He didn’t show her that side, however, but rather the back-the postscript she’d left for him. It said she’d taken some of his sickness-given some of her life in exchange for his.

“Take it back,” he said.

Myrin looked from the note to Kalen’s face, recognition dawning in her eyes. “That’s why you came,” she said. “What I wrote.”

“It is.”

Myrin took the note, holding it loosely between her fingers. She read it over, her eyes moving fast. What Kalen had done for her and what she had taken from him-what she’d taken from him in exchange. “Only”-she said, her voice barely a whisper-“only that?”

Kalen frowned. “What else?”

“Shame.” Myrin tore the note in two. “So much and all for nothing.”

“What?” Kalen started. “I don’t understand.”

“You will.” Myrin shook her head, smiling helplessly. “Perhaps. I’ve always been the smarter of us, but you’re not stupid. Only self-blinding.”

“Myrin-”

“I’ll go,” she said. “I’ll leave here for Westgate. Or Waterdeep or Shadowdale or the Great Glacier or wherever you want. And I won’t come back.” She raised her chin. “If that’s what you want.”

Kalen looked down and away. His spellscar pulled toward her, wanting to embrace her. Through sheer strength of will, he kept it in check.

“Very well.” Myrin turned and, without saying farewell, walked away.

In the silence of her wake, Rhett and Kalen stared after her until she vanished back down the street toward the Drowned Rat.

“What was that all about?” Rhett asked.

Kalen shook his head, but he knew very well. For Myrin, seeing him put Toytere out of his misery had been a stark reminder of Waterdeep and Rath-the old, vengeful Shadowbane. They’d shared something deep in the void, but he’d pushed her away. He did not blame her for being so upset. What had she meant-all for nothing?

Rhett remained, watching Kalen silently. He was waiting for an answer.

“You need to go with her,” Kalen said. “I have unfinished business here, and if I have to worry about either of you, then I cannot do what must be done. Whatever comes to pass in Luskan, she is not a part of it and neither are you.”

Neither, he thought, is this going to be the place for you. Not after tomorrow.

Rhett did not budge.

“Am I unclear?” he asked. “I need you to go with Myrin. Protect her.”

“Oh, I understand. Saer.” Rhett glared at him.

“If you’ve something to say”-Kalen crossed his arms, resting his hands near the hilts of his daggers-“then say it.”

Rhett met the challenge, his hand on Vindicator’s hilt at his belt. “Tell me this isn’t about her,” he said. “Just-tell me that.”

Kalen shook his head. “Of course this is about her.”

Rhett stiffened, then looked at the ground. “I’m sorry, Kalen.”

“I don’t want you to be sorry,” he said. “I want you to be wary.

“No. I mean-” Rhett met his gaze once more, fire in his eyes. “The reason you’re sending me away-it isn’t about her. Myrin doesn’t need my protection any more than she needs yours. You’re sending me away because of me.

Kalen paused a breath-too long. “I’m not worried about you.”

“Oh?” Rhett said. “Then what happened to Vaelis?”

Kalen gave no answer.

“He was your apprentice, right?” Rhett raised his chin. “Before all went to the Nine Hells, Valabrar Hondyl said, ‘what happened to Vaelis was not your fault.’ So.” Rhett raised his chin. “What happened to Vaelis?”

Turning back, Kalen stared at Rhett, but the boy didn’t seem about to back down. Lightning flashed, and Kalen put his hands on his dagger hilts. “Draw,” he said.

“What?” Rhett tightened his grip on Vindicator. “For true?”

“Draw.” Kalen stepped forward. “I’ll show you what happened to Vaelis.”

The boy cast a glance back toward Myrin, but she had disappeared. The two of them were alone in the yard. “I don’t want to hurt you,” Rhett said.

“Too late for that.” Kalen drew his blades and broke into a quick step.

Rhett drew Vindicator with a warning cry.

The sword flashed in the night and Kalen caught it on his two blades. He twisted one blade over Vindicator, trapping it between the hilts of his daggers. The fiery blade, secured between the two men, hung just below their eyes.

“Now look,” Kalen said. “Not at me-at the blade. Look closely.”

Rhett did. Then his eyes widened. “Gods.”

Kalen knew what had prompted this reaction-the long black crack that ran through Vindicator’s otherwise smooth steel. A flaw and a failure.

“Vaelis was my apprentice-a poor broadcryer from the streets of Waterdeep.” Kalen eased his daggers away from Vindicator, loosing his hold on the blade. “I took him to apprentice a year ago, right after Myrin left. I thought I could train him to take my place. Then I could follow her. But no-I did not train him well enough.”

“Oh.” Rhett bowed his head. “I’m so sorry.”

“I swore an oath I would take no other squire,” Kalen said. “That I would bear Vindicator until the day I fell, even if I was no longer worthy of it. The sword, however, keeps its own council.” He met Rhett’s eyes. “It is yours now.”

“Mine?” The youth looked stunned. “But-but you haven’t trained me.”

“No,” Kalen said. “Gedrin did not train me, yet I am his legacy. Now it falls to you.” He touched Rhett’s hand on Vindicator’s hilt. “Carry the sword well and honor it. Do not try to run from it, as I did. Swear it.”

“I so swear. But-” Rhett flinched back when Kalen struck him hard across the face with the butt of his dagger. “Ow! What the Nine Hells?”

“So you remember your oath,” Kalen said. “Seek out Levia in Westgate. She trained me in the ways of the Eye of Justice. She’ll train you.”

“Westgate, right,” Rhett said. “But in the story Myrin told me, Gedrin gave you the sword shortly before he-” His face went pale. “You don’t mean to survive what’s coming.”

“Someone must continue the quest, even if it is endless.” Kalen put his hand on Rhett’s shoulder. “I’ll do what I must here. If Tymora smiles, we will meet again.”

“Right.” Rhett gave him a bright, hopeful look. ““Farewell, master. Even if you would not teach me, I did learn much from you.”

Kalen smiled wanly.

Rhett gave him a smart salute and took his leave.

Myrin waited in what must have been the Drowned Rat’s stables back when horses served a purpose in Luskan other than food. Now, the area was a storage shed where the Dead Rats crammed broken pottery, blunted weapons, and scraps of leather-all sorts of useless bits the man-rodents couldn’t bring themselves to throw out.

She sat in the middle of the room, her hands gripping the tome spread open on her lap. Rhett heard her first, rather than saw her. He recognized the sniffling she made all too well. Tears gleamed on her cheeks with a blue light all their own.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.

“Not at all.” Myrin wiped her eyes and turned a page. “I’m almost ready.”

“Almost ready for what?”

“To cast this.” She indicated a spell in her book. “I saw it in one of Umbra’s memories and I wrote it down.”

“You remember how to cast it?”

“More or less.”

“What does that mean?” Rhett asked. “More or less-as in, ‘this will take a few tries’ or as in ‘O gods, we’re all going to die’?”

Myrin gave him a look that indicated she was having none of his humor just at the moment. “Sorry,” he said. Then, more seriously: “What do we do now? Do we just pretend what happened between us-that kiss-didn’t happen?”

“I don’t know,” she said without looking at him. “Do you want to do it again?”

“That’s not what I meant,” Rhett said. “You clearly want Saer Shadowbane, not-”

“What I want is for people to stop telling me what I want.” Myrin murmured an arcane phrase and dark magic flowed around her, sending a chill through the dusty air.

“What sort of spell is this?” Rhett asked.

“It opens a door to the shadow world,” Myrin said. “Distances are different there. A tenday’s journey might take only a day-walking. I estimate four days to Westgate … or five. Assuming, of course, we don’t get eaten by shadow beasts.”

Rhett shivered, as much at Myrin’s casual assessment as at the way her eyes seemed black in the light of her magic.

Lines of darkness traced themselves across the floor, arcing around Myrin to form a great black rune beneath her. Shadows rose and coalesced into the outline of a dark portal like a mirror that shimmered in the air. Through it, he saw the same stable in which they sat, but it was even shabbier. Through the open stable door, he saw a city in ruins.

“There we are,” Myrin said. “Ready?”

Rhett looked back toward the stable’s door in his own world, hesitating. “Maybe I should stay,” he said. “He needs me.”

“I know the feeling.” Myrin laid a comforting hand on his.

He sighed. “Is it always this hard?”

“With Kalen? Always.” Myrin smiled. “We’ll have another chance.”

He shivered, but perhaps that was only the cold of the shadow door.

“Right,” he said, clutching her hand tight.

They stepped through and were gone from Luskan, into another world entirely.

On the roof of the Drowned Rat, Kalen saw the last flickers of Myrin’s magic whisk her and Rhett away from the city. Part of him was pleased-at least his purpose in coming had been met. Part of him, however, felt like it was being torn away.

He felt that he was not alone and nodded. “Have you come to finish what you started?”

“No purpose.” Sithe slid out of the night to stand beside him. “Toytere is dead. You are my new master.”

“Not Shar?” Kalen asked.

“My goddess stands behind me,” Sithe said. “She does not guide my path.”

Kalen nodded. He could understand that.

“She is gone,” Sithe said. “The wizard.”

Kalen nodded. He felt Myrin’s absence like a severed limb-a tingling nothingness that he could not set aside. “You think I’m wrong in sending her away.”

“Casting aside your most powerful asset, when you need her most?” Sithe shrugged. “I think you fear to tell her the truth more than you fear to endanger her.”

“You say that as though I give a good godsdamn what you think.”

Sithe nodded, as though pleased with that answer.

“Myrin told me something, before she left.” Kalen pulled open the pack at his feet. “ ‘So much, and all for nothing.’ And somehow, you know what she meant.”

“I know something of nothing.” Sithe touched the axe lashed across her shoulder. “But I do not think you want to talk.”

“No.”

Sithe looked at him a long moment. Then, without a word, she drew one arm out of her cloak. “Hold out your arm,” she said.

Kalen did as she asked. Sithe drew off one of her vambraces only to slide it onto Kalen’s arm. At her nod, he presented the other and she girded that one in turn.

“Not armor, but the blessings of power,” she said. “You have earned them.”

Kalen nodded. He felt the wrathful might in the vambraces fueling his arms.

“The storm will begin with first light,” Kalen said. “Whatever has brought this plague-this Fury-to Luskan, it thrives on chaos. It delights in seeing us divided, stealing around nervously, never knowing where and when it might strike.”

“You mean to change this,” Sithe said. It was not a question.

“Where there is order, chaos will starve.”

“Why?” Sithe asked. “Why not go with her? You have no love for this city.” Kalen stretched out his hand and laid his fingers on the object on top of the pack.

“Because I am not a man who can stand by and do nothing,” he said. “Because darkness and shadow must be pursued down every path, no matter how dark.”

“No matter how dark,” Sithe said.

Kalen nodded.

“You said earlier,” he whispered, “that you wanted to meet me.”

“Shadowbane.” Sithe nodded, a gesture almost imperceptible in the darkness.

He raised his prize from the pack-a tarnished helm with slits for eyes.

“Here I stand.”

He donned his helm.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

27 KYTHORN (HIGHSUN)

"Oi!” the nympher said, clasping the blanket to her otherwise bare body. “Ya gives that back now, ya hear!”

The mark-Vel Lightfinger, a lowly member of the Bloodboots-clutched his gang-issued footware to his chest and ran down the creaky steps from her window. The damned nympher had lured him in like a first-day fool. And while he’d managed to stab her backup thug for good and all, the crazy woman had plucked up a morningstar from out of nowhere with the express purpose of bashing out his brains.

He jumped the last eight feet, then shoved on his boots with a hopping gait. Getting nails, splinters, or glass in his bare feet where they could fester would be just as bad as having his brains bashed out.

“Tluin you, little blade!” the woman cried from above. She seized a brick and sent it sailing at his head. He barely dodged.

“Tluin you right back, an’ twice bloody!” he shouted.

Four of his fellow Bloodboots sat waiting in the alley below. They laughed as he limped up, still securing his breeches.

Luskan was sour today. The market stood mostly empty as folk hid from the plague. To Vel and his lads, the Fury was a myth and nothing to fear. They’d gone out that night, looking for fun and they’d found it: a mugging here, some senseless violence there, and a whole bottle of wine some poor sot had “misplaced” that evening. Drunk, Vel had spent his copper on the damned nympher, despite his friends’ protests. Now he’d got what was due.

“We’ll get that hrasting nympher,” he said. “Jab me blade so far up her-” He trailed off when he saw their eyes look past his shoulder. “What?”

A man stood before them, wrapped in a tattered gray cloak and stitched leather armor. Gleaming from his behind the faceplate of his reinforced helm, his cold white eyes-seemingly without color of their own-offered the grim promise of pain to come.

“Go back to your tavern,” he said. “Shadowbane’s streets are closed.”

“Shadowbane?” Vel spat. “Hrast that! Get him, boyos!”

The five Bloodboots drew their various blades and clubs.

Shadowbane swept his arms wide and two long daggers bristled from his fists. Had they seen his lips behind the helm, they might have seen him smile.

Corr, one of Vel’s friends, stepped past. “Don’t know who you’re pushin’, you-!”

Shadowbane took him down in three quick moves. One side step to dodge Corr’s lunge, a knee to the groin, and a dagger pommel to the chin. Corr was on his back.

“Kill that crazy tluiner!” shouted the half-elf Callused Nai. “Kill him!”

He’d taken down one easily enough-now it was three: quickblade Devis, the half-elf Nai, and the extremely stupid half-orc they called Duns the Dull. Vel hung back, still tying his belt. This proved fortuitous for Vel.

Shadowbane lunged to one side and let Devis stumble past. He dived into Nai, who came second, and sent him staggering. Duns raised his weapon, but a fast kick caved in the side of the half-orc’s knee and the spiked club swung wide. Shadowbane rose and clapped his dagger pommels over Duns’s ears. Head crushed between Shadowbane’s weapons, the half-orc toppled senseless to the ground.

Nai and Devis came at him again. Shadowbane kicked Devis in the chest, knocking him back, then lunged at Nai, his daggers scything. The half-elf cursed and parried awkwardly. His short sword spun away into the shadows of the alley. As though with a sixth sense, Shadowbane gathered both knives in one hand and ducked Devis’s blade, which was stabbing for his back. He caught Devis’s arm as it thrust over his shoulder and hurled the man into Nai. Both of them tumbled to the ground, groaning.

That left Vel staring at Shadowbane, who stood before him, his cloak swirling, and his two daggers in one hand. Shadowbane dropped the second of his daggers back into his primary hand and stalked forward.

Vel was aware of a wetness in his trousers and thought he shouldn’t have bothered putting them on. He dropped his jagged knife and raised his hands.

Shadowbane saw that a small crowd had gathered in the market to watch the melee. “Your lucky day,” he said to Vel.

He turned back toward the stairs to the nympher’s building. His boots flashed with blue light and he leaped up to scale the side of the building like a hunting cat. The woman with the morningstar gasped and took cover in her room as he approached.

Once Shadowbane had gained the top, he peered down into the market, his cloak billowing on the wind. “Now hear this,” he called. “I am Shadowbane, king of the Dead Rats, and here and now, I tell you that Luskan is under my protection.”

That provoked a few startled gasps and gaping mouths. It was not easy to elicit a rise from the jaded folk of this city.

“You have heard of Luskan’s plague,” he said. “I come to tell you, there is no plague.” Guarded cheers met that, but Shadowbane held up a hand. “It is far worse.”

The people stared at him, shocked and rapt.

“A darkness haunts these streets,” he said. “It preys upon those who venture out alone-it strikes the weak and isolated. Until it is defeated, you will no longer be food for it. You will stay in your homes and taverns-in your holes and hovels. Armed bands of my Rats will bring you rations. No one else is to appear on the street.”

Those words-an enforced quarantine-rippled through the square.

“There will be a kingmaking ten days from now,” Shadowbane went on. “On the seventh day of Flamerule, you will choose a king to protect this city. Until a tenday hence, however, no man or woman shall walk these streets without my express permission and none shall raise a hand to another. I shall repay any violence done with greater violence.” He raised his chin. “You will abide by these rules.”

“Ah, Bane boil an’ belch ya up, madman!” cried one man.

A chorus joined the protest. The people of Luskan cried out in confusion and anger against Shadowbane and his claims. They decried his authority, brandished weapons, and shouted expletives.

“Very well,” he called. “I fully expected to do this by force.”

Shadowbane leaped down into the crowd, his cloak billowing, and the battle was joined.

29 KYTHORN (EVENING)

The candles burned low in Krot’s butcher shop. Dark-skinned and big, Krot wore his stoic Chultan heritage well, but today he veritably shook with excitement. He couldn’t sleep tonight-not with the stories of the mad king of Luskan filtering through the streets.

“You hear?” Krot said. “Is madman, you know? Fights hundred men, so they say, and he wins. Is king of Luskan by deed if not word, they say.”

Ansie, his wife of convenience and coin, stuck out her tongue at that. “Must be a bloody legend, Krot-now give us something to eat, dear? You be saving, no?”

“Isn’t nothing,” he said with a shrug. “The Dogtooths, they take the rest.”

“Not yet, we haven’t.”

The door to Krot’s shop pushed open, admitting three filthy men in jerkins of matted fur. Their leader-a many-times scarred man with a spiked collar around his neck-leered at Krot and Ansie. “You been holding out, Chultan,” the Dogtooth said. “You gives it here or we take what we like.”

Krot reached slowly for the war pick that hung on a hook, but one of the Dogtooths threw a knife that thunked into the wall an inch from his fingers.

“Ah-ah,” said the leader. “None of that now.”

A gloved hand appeared around the handle of the still trembling knife and wrenched it from the wall. A man in gray stood among them, naked steel in his hands. None had seen him coming and his sudden appearance evoked loud gasps.

“It’s him!” said Krot. “Shadowbane!”

Ansie gaped.

“Go back to your tavern,” he said to the Dogtooths. “You get one chance.”

The scarred leader of the Dogtooths stepped forward, eager to prove himself. He puffed out his chest. “Tluin you-”

The air rippled and a woman appeared in the chamber, her axe spinning. The haft slammed into the lead Dogtooth’s face. He flipped over in the air to land on the floor, clutching at his shattered jaw.

The other gang members drew back as the woman stepped toward them. Her eyes and skin were black as coal. Lines of darkness curled along her skin like veins. Her face bore no expression, but she stepped toward them hungrily, her ugly axe turning in her hands. She bent, curled and ready, like a poised snake.

“Sithe,” Shadowbane said. “Remember what I said of mercy.”

The woman hesitated. “Very well.” She straightened and drew back toward the wall.

“Return to your tavern with this message,” Shadowbane said. “Luskan is my city, but I plan give it to over to a king on the seventh day of Flamerule. Until then, violence will be met with violence, pain with pain, death with death.” He hurled the blade back at the leader of the gang. It sank into the floorboards next to his hand. “Understand?”

The Dogtooths did not need to be told again. They hurried out of Krot’s butcher shop without a glance backward.

The big butcher turned toward Shadowbane. “Eldath’s blessing upon-you? Saer?”

Shadowbane had bent over, supporting himself with a hand on the wall. His other hand grasped his chest. “Heh,” he said, blood in his teeth. “The big one at our last stop hit hard, eh?”

“You should have dodged,” Sithe said.

“No argument.” He spat blood on the floor. “You ready for what’s next?”

The dark woman stared at him as though he had asked a ridiculous question.

Krot looked at Ansie, then at the two visitors to his shop. “You-?”

“Stay inside,” Shadowbane said. “Rats will come with food. Wait.”

“Rats?” Krot blinked at him, perplexed.

“Wait,” Shadowbane said again.

They pushed out the door into the night, leaving Krot and Ansie staring blankly after them. “What did he mean, you think?” he asked. “He couldn’t mean-”

Within moments, the door opened again, admitting three weasel-faced men with the red sashes of Dead Rats. One of them twitched his nose, then stalked forward. “You be Krot, aye?”

“Aye,” the big man said.

“Compliments of Shadowbane.” The man gave him a glower, then plopped a sack on the counter. They left.

Tentatively, Krot opened the sack and gasped at its contents: half a loaf of bread, dried meat, and a hunk of cheese. The Dead Rats had given it, free of payment or favor. Ansie stared at the generous prize without comprehension. Krot started weeping.

“King of Luskan!” he said. “King of Luskan!”

2 FLAMERULE (NIGHT)

Shanyi had experienced worse days in Luskan. Though, as she lay huddled under a heap of blood-stained clothes in the wardrobe-one eye blackened, an arm broken, bleeding from a gash across her cheek, and hiding as best she could as people screamed all around her-none of those days came readily to mind.

Duulgrin’s consort certainly had it better than some of the Dustclaws. She trembled to think about the screams outside the wardrobe and … and the other sounds. She trembled also at the bellows that roared through the corridors and at the heavy clashes of a maul against the walls. Swish and crack-swish and crack.

Duulgrin was angry again.

The last tenday or so at the Dustclaws tavern had been worse than any in the previous year. Shanyi had come to Luskan like many others: not because she’d wanted to, but because she’d had no choice. Neverwinter held only vague, tentacled nightmares for her, and she could not go back there. Trying to get to Waterdeep had ended with her beaten and left for dead in a ditch by the road. Coming here had been just another instance of the same pattern in her life: find the nearest, biggest, scariest man she could, slip into his bed, and hang on for protection. With Duulgrin, she thought it had worked.

Until he went mad.

Ten days ago, he had beaten one of his own men to death with his face, and after that, it only got worse. Being a Dustclaw used to mean protection from the mad half-orc. Now, it meant lining up with his other victims. He’d started taking out his rage on the gang yestereve and she’d been hiding ever since she eluded his initial attack.

Shanyi heard a noise and it took all her considerable will and skill at mummery to compose herself. She closed her eyes, flinching away as the closet door swung open. Someone had found her, but she didn’t want to see death as it fell.

A leather-gloved hand closed over her mouth and she sprang nearly out of her skin. She flailed at the hand, trying her best to drive it away. She’d never learned to fight but, given the choice between death in battle and the one Duulgrin offered, her body apparently preferred to fight. At least there was some chance she could get away-

“Shh,” said a voice.

The man crouching before her wore black leathers and carried two long daggers sheathed at his belt. He wore a helm but it was open to reveal his weathered, handsome face. He had a thick badland of stubble, pale eyes, and a look of aching weariness.

She could not speak, only whimper, and she hated herself for that.

“There is no shame in fear,” he said, as though he heard her thoughts.

The door across Duulgrin’s chambers shattered open and a dark silhouette filled the smoky portal. The half-orc stood hulking and snarling in the doorway, his great spiked maul dripping blood at his side. He slammed it into the door jamb, sending cracks skittering up the wall of the already ruined room. The chamber was a battered, scorched realm over which the mad half-orc king held sway.

“Kur guhl kthra,” he said in words that came from no language Kalen could name. It might have been Dwarvish or Giant or just madness.

Shanyi’s savior rose, hands on his dagger hilts. “I am Shadowbane and Luskan is under my protection,” he said. “You will remain here, in your tavern, until the seventh day of Flamerule.”

Duulgrin stepped farther into the light, sending reflected radiance off the crystallized flesh growing on his ankle where a madman had bitten him. The infection has spread all across his flesh. His muscular body had become a morass of sores, lesions, and blisters, pocked with crystal growths.

“He has the Fury!” Shanyi said. “Run! Run while you-”

“Hragh!” Duulgrin lashed out and sent splinters of a table flying at Shadowbane.

The man in black swayed out of way, letting the debris shatter against the wall. The half-orc was on him, his maul arcing from on high as though to drive Shadowbane into the ground, but he ducked aside and chopped one arm down onto Duulgrin’s wrist. That coupled with Duulgrin’s own strength knocked the maul free. It banged off the floorboards and crashed into the wall next to Shanyi’s head.

Blearily, Duulgrin looked at his empty hands, then dealt Shadowbane a backhand that sent him staggering. The half-orc leaped after him, his fingers twisted into talons. The man in black ducked aside and his daggers slid into his hands.

“Yield,” Shadowbane said.

Duulgrin, his eyes bloody and oozing, snarled incoherently and reached for him.

Shadowbane stepped aside and slashed one of his daggers across the half-orc’s ribs. Duulgrin staggered into the spot where the man had stood and lashed out with a spinning, rending claw that struck Shadowbane’s raised dagger with an audible clang. The knife shot from Shadowbane’s hand to spin end over end, trailing blood as it went, until it clattered against the far wall.

“No!” Shanyi said. “He can’t feel it. He can’t-”

Hardly seeming to notice his cut hand, Duulgrin caught Shadowbane’s next attack, twisted the man’s arm with an audible pop, and pulled the man in close. The half-orc roared in Shadowbane’s face, his breath fetid and full of rotting flesh. Shanyi could smell it from where she crouched. Duulgrin pulled back and slammed his head into Shadowbane’s face, knocking him sprawling in the half-orc’s grasp.

“Anytime,” Shadowbane muttered, “you want … to help …”

Was he talking to her? No chance. She-

A strange thing happened, then. Shanyi found herself on her feet, straining to lift Duulgrin’s massive hammer. Surprisingly, she could. “Let him go!” she cried and staggered toward the half-orc and his captive.

Duulgrin roared in glee and madness and smashed his face into Shadowbane’s again. A third time, Shanyi knew, and his brains would be leaking out his ears.

The maul hung low to the ground-she could not lift it above her waist. Still, she swung the maul with all the force she could muster at the one spot she knew a man would feel, even in the grip of insanity. She hit him so hard the hammer jarred from her fingers and skittered across the floor.

Duulgrin yelped and curled downward around himself. His grasp on Shadowbane loosened, but only in as much as he let the man dangle from one hand while the other groped for Shanyi. She flailed back.

“You-you-blarrgh!” The half-orc’s roar had become a whine, but one of pure rage. He caught up Shadowbane in both hands and slammed him into the ceiling. With a dismissive wave, he sent the stunned man tumbling and lurched instead for Shanyi. “Rip you,” he said. “Feast on you! Feed!”

Shanyi backed into the wall, spattered with blood and spit as it was. She edged to her right, trying to get past Duulgrin, but the half-orc was like a mountain. He was death-horrible and inescapable. Terror gripped her, but she would not show it.

Then Shadowbane was behind Duulgrin, his nose and mouth freely streaming blood. He patted the half-orc on the back of the head, prompting the chieftain to turn. When he did, Shadowbane punched so hard with the pommel of his dagger that the crazed chieftain’s turned-up nose splattered.

Stunned, Duulgrin flailed madly. Shadowbane ducked easily and came up with a rising thrust to the side. Shimmering gray flames surrounded him as he struck. The dagger thrust into Duulgrin and both men vanished in a burst of light that dazzled Shanyi for an instant. When her eyes cleared, they were clear across the chamber, locked in combat as before.

Movement in the hall announced the arrival of more Dustclaws. Bleeding and bruised from Duulgrin’s assaults, the rough men and women of the gang stood staring blankly into the chamber, regarding the whole duel with wonder.

No one could face Duulgrin alone-no one was foolish enough.

In that moment, Shanyi came to terms with the sheer proximity of her own demise. She had escaped death-at least for the moment-and the fear rushed back. Her heart raced and her hands shook. She saw the open door and made to flee, but a hand grasped her shoulder. A woman of darkness stood beside her, with skin like black leather traced with lines of pure nothingness. Shanyi had heard of this woman.

“Stay,” Sithe said. “Bear witness.”

She cast her eye toward the assembled gang members, who took an unsettled step back. They had heard of her as well.

In the corner, Shadowbane ducked Duulgrin’s lumbering blows and flashed quickly both ways, sending streaks of blood through the air. Though he bled from a dozen wounds, the half-orc seemed tireless. Shadowbane panted heavily, his breath rattling through his throat, as he dodged and slashed, side stepped and countered. As he fought, flames coursed along his limbs and his eyes burned.

“Here is the moment,” Sithe said. “Here-the void between life and death.”

Duulgrin punched Shadowbane in the chest. He fell back, gasping. When he raised his eyes, his face was wrought in an expression of both rage and utter focus.

The half-orc struck him again, but this time his fist slammed into gray radiance that suddenly surrounded Shadowbane. To Shanyi, it looked almost like … like armor.

The flames blazing around his dagger turned bright red and with a roar to match Duulgrin’s, Shadowbane leaped forward to bury the blade in the half-orc’s chest. Fire surged forth to immolate the chieftain in hungry, dancing flames.

Duulgrin reeled back and the flames menaced what remained of the furniture in the chamber. The half-orc stumbled to the door and flames leaped from his burning body toward the other Dustclaws. One of them swatted Duulgrin back with a club. Stunned, the half-orc fell to his knees, and thence to the floor.

In his wake, silence reigned for what seemed like an hour. Then Shadowbane spoke.

“Hear me,” he said. “Until the kingmaking, Luskan is my city-and in my city, there will be no fighting in the streets, no thieving, and no villainy. You will remain in your taverns, gathering your strength. But even there, you will do no violence. We will not fight amongst ourselves. Those who violate my order-”

Shanyi saw a burning shadow rise behind Shadowbane and terror seized her throat. She could not even scream a warning.

There was no need.

Sithe stepped through the girl, the length of the chamber, and Shadowbane as through mist and slashed through Duulgrin. The half-orc’s head flew across the room. His body, hands yet raised to grasp Shadowbane’s throat, lurched forward a step, then fell.

Shadowbane stood stunned a moment, then grasped the haft of Sithe’s axe in one hand and her throat in the other. The genasi’s eyes widened dangerously.

“I said mercy,” he hissed.

“Death is a mercy,” Sithe said. “Do you see?”

Duulgrin’s corpse quivered and shook, his soiled robes bulging outward around his midsection. Blood stained the silk, seeping through to slide down his distended belly. In a matter of heartbeats, the silk tore under the fangs of a hundred-nay, a thousand-spiders, beetles, and chittering, awful things. The swarm skittered down through the waterfall of gore and fell twitching and dying on the floor.

“Sithe,” Shadowbane said.

The genasi raised her axe and drew a wreath of flame over the corpse. The vermin burned with a sickly, putrid stench that filled the room.

“Sithe!” said one of the men in the hall. “Sithe! Sithe!”

Shanyi shivered. For better or worse, she was a Dustclaw, so she bowed. “Hail Sithe, queen of the Dustclaws,” she said.

The two warriors looked at one another, Shadowbane’s expression dubious and Sithe’s unreadable. The genasi’s black eyes flickered with stars.

5 FLAMERULE (NIGHT)

When he strode into her chamber-kicking one of her guards through the doors, in fact-Eden was hardly surprised. He must have bled from half a hundred wounds and borne twice as many bruises, but one would never know it from his implacable carriage. Her brother came before her as an invincible, conquering champion.

“Lord Shadowbane,” she said. “So kind of you to pay me the honor of a visit.”

She lay on her divan, toying with her platinum coin. She was a queen, after all, and it would not do to seem fearful-even if she did share the room with thirteen of her best bodyguards. Just in case.

Hardly seeming to notice the assembled toughs, Shadowbane raised his helm and fixed his pale eyes on her. “Two days,” he said, his voice tinged with weariness. “In two days, there will be-”

“A kingmaking,” she supplied. “So I’ve heard. How’s the shoulder, by the way?”

Kalen looked at his arm, which twisted oddly from his shoulder. He seemed not to have noticed. “Dislocated.”

“Shall I tend that for you? The Lady pro-”

Kalen crossed to the wall and slammed his body against the stone. His arm popped back into place. He turned back to her, his face blank.

“-vides,” Eden finished. “Well, I hear you’ve been quite busy today, making your wishes known in ‘your’ city. My fellow servants of the Lady-”

“Hired trash,” Kalen spoke in anger. “Moldering refuse too pitiful to matter.”

Her men grumbled and reached for their steel, but she waved them to silence. “My brothers in Luck,” she said, “tell me you’ll protect the city until this kingmaking of yours, and that any violence done will be returned tenfold. Is this so?”

Kalen nodded.

“Impressive, Shadowbane,” she said, careful not to name him brother. “Have you been fighting every single rogue who disobeys your edict? Killing a few, I imagine.”

Kalen said nothing, only smiled slightly and laid his hand on the hilt of a dagger. Inspired by just that small threat, the shudder that passed through the room touched even Eden.

She started to believe he could truly do it.

“Me lady,” said one of her men-picked by the toss of her coin to replace one of her advisors. “Let’s kill this pissant now. Let’s-”

“No.” Eden raised her hand to stay her men. “I haven’t and won’t cross your reign, King Shadowbane, and then we’ll have our kingmaking. Luskan has been too long divided.” She sat back and flipped her platinum coin from one hand to the other. “But after a new king is chosen, you will no longer be welcome in Luskan. Your reign will end with blood.”

Kalen shrugged. “Two more days,” he said. Then he turned and walked away.

Eden’s men drew steel, but she waved again, stopping them.

The day would come-very soon-where steel would be the answer. Steel … and the scroll she kept rolled up and tucked into her bodice near her heart.

She could feel the plague’s hunger. It was so much more than a disease-so much more than a mere weapon. It held the keys to power in the city, perhaps in all Faerun. Keeping it restrained was like balancing a coin on edge: it took constant vigilance. But Eden was born for such a struggle. She wondered when misfortune would strike and her control would slip. The risk thrilled her.

“We wait,” she said to the faithful. “We follow Shadowbane’s edict of nonviolence and on the seventh day of Flamerule, the goddess will grant us a great blessing.”

The men looked dubious, but they knew better than to contradict her. They feared Eden more than any goddess.

Let him have his days of hard-fought peace-let him think his plan working. She controlled the plague and she would keep it quiet. Then, when it came time for the kingmaking, she would use it to destroy him and put herself on the throne of Luskan.

We hunger.

When we try to rise, the call defeats us and we cannot eat.

Murmur whispers to us-a voice not our own, yet part of us. Murmur says wait. Be patient. If we attack now, we will reveal ourselves. We will be slain.

We hunger.

We build our strength, eager to consume. We are ripper-tearer-destroyer. We are doom, for this world and a thousand others.

Murmur says wait. Murmur says we will feast soon.

We hunger.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

6 FLAMERULE (DUSK)

"The Gods must be mad,” Kalen said. “Ten peaceful days in Luskan.” “Ten days,” Sithe said, a dozen paces behind him. “But not without battle.”

“Indeed.”

Neither Kalen nor Sithe had slept more than a few hours during the last tenday. They’d spent that time in the streets or on the rooftops, breaking arms or jaws, putting folk on the ground. Every time they took down an edict-breaker, they hauled the unfortunate back to the appropriate tavern to lie on a cot and heal. Between the two of them, they must have beaten half of Luskan senseless.

And in all that time, Kalen had killed no one. Even Sithe had killed only one foe-Duulgrin. Ten days of peace, without real bloodshed.

The Dead Rats had not been idle during Shadowbane’s reign, either. Every time a battle saved a business or righted a wrong, Kalen sent Rats with some of their own stores: food, wine, rope, supplies of all sorts. The gang was, like its namesake, notorious for hoarding. The efforts had helped: Luskan actually seemed like a city once more, albeit barren of anyone on the streets, and that was something Kalen had never thought to see.

Also, the Rats had kept ears and eyes open, seeking disappearances. As far as they knew, the Fury hadn’t struck again, so Kalen’s plan was working. He hoped tomorrow would draw the source of the scourge out of hiding.

The two enforcers stood, watching the sun set from the roof of an abandoned building flanking the market square. The place where tomorrow, a king would be chosen.

“You know this kingmaking of yours will end in blood,” Sithe said.

“It is the way of Luskan.” Kalen nodded.

The genasi gave him an approving look. “You are ready, then?”

Without waiting for an answer, she came at him, leaping through the air with impossible speed. Her axe scythed across as though to take his head from his shoulders. He bent at the knees, no faster or farther than he knew he needed to. He trusted himself. The axe passed within a hair of his scalp. He rose in its wake so smoothly it seemed to have passed right through him.

They faced each other across five paces-Sithe with her axe, Kalen with his daggers drawn and ready. He pulled back his increasingly tattered cloak, showing only a plain black tunic and leggings.

“No armor?” Sithe asked.

“I am armored by my faith,” Kalen said. “Just as you are.”

“Faith in what?”

“That I am no murderer for my god,” Kalen said.

“We shall see.”

Sithe attacked again, her axe tracing an arc of fire through the air. He dived around her, his blades slashing along her side. She swayed just wide of his steel, but the attack had come close-close enough to have drawn forth her warding darkness. The dying flames of Sithe’s axe illumined their faces.

“Are you going to tell me?” Kalen asked. “What Myrin meant-‘all for nothing’?”

“Why should I know?” Sithe asked. “I have spoken thirteen words to the girl.”

“Because you know something of nothing, Lady Void.”

That struck her. Her eyes narrowed and her lips tightened. He could not help thinking he had made a terrible mistake.

She raised her hand and an invisible force wrenched him straight into her scything axe. He dodged low at the last instant and rolled between her legs. He rose and faced her once more.

“You’ve set aside your armor, but all your defenses are still in place,” she said. “You refuse to accept the truth. You fear to be your god’s instrument-the hand of vengeance.” She raised her axe. “You prefer fear to faith.”

“I told you,” he said. “I fear nothing.

“And what of Myrin?”

Kalen hesitated.

Sithe pointed at him and bonds of darkness formed around his legs and arms. Before he could react, she came rushing toward him, her axe raised.

Kalen tried to dodge, but Sithe’s power hobbled him and he stumbled. He crossed his daggers in front of his chest to block, but Sithe’s axe shattered right through his defense and sank with a wet thunk into his chest.

He felt the blow only a little-mostly, Kalen felt the impact as it hammered him into the rooftop like a heated blade caught between a smith’s hammer and an anvil. He saw more than felt blood welling around the ripping blade of Sithe’s ugly weapon. For some reason, he couldn’t move his arms or legs. He couldn’t-

Sithe wrenched the blade forth in a great gout of blood and flesh.

He felt that, assuredly-felt the jagged blade rip into his insides and light a fire that brought darkness lunging at him from all sides. His body reacted of its own accord, limbs twitching toward the wound. The world wavered and he gasped for breath.

Sithe threw a leg over him, straddling his chest and pressing his wound closed with her body. She put her face to his, almost as though they might kiss-but no desire or even mercy shone in her eyes. She caught his cheeks between her hands.