Skein of Shadows
Wir, Lharvion 11, 998 YK
Somewhere beneath the Menechtarun Desert, Xen’drik.
Donathilde ir’Thul stepped over another fissure in the tunnel floor, cursing. She’d already twisted her ankle in one such fungus-covered chasm, and had had to slow down what was left of her small group while she performed a brief healing spell; she wasn’t about to let that happen again. The fragment of the draconic Prophecy that Baron Breven had given her spoke of a night when “the Anvil next is silent, the Book is closed, the Warder dreams.” It had to be referring to when three of Eberron’s twelve moons were dark-Vult, Rhaan, and Eyre. By her calculations, tonight was the last night when that condition would be met for at least another four years, and the next alignment wouldn’t be perfect like this one, as Rhaan would just be moving out of the dark phase while Vult moved into it. If she didn’t find what she was looking for now, this whole expedition and the deaths of her men would be for nothing.
There were only three of them left, after entering Tarath Marad with a contingent of thirty. House Deneith had paid only cursory attention when the vast caverns beneath Xen’drik’s Menechtarun Desert and the jutting peaks of the Skyraker Claws had been discovered earlier this year. They became much more interested when powerful artifacts started appearing in the Stormreach Marketplace, and in Khorvaire itself. Determined to beat the other twelve dragonmarked Houses to the loot, they’d sent in Tilde, a former instructor at Arcanix and a draconic Prophecy hobbyist. With her had come thirty Blademarks, some of whom had served with her brother, Leoned. Now, only one of Ned’s former comrades-at-arms remained, the others having fallen to the perils of this deep, dark place.
“I don’t like this, my lady,” Harun said, eyeing the close tunnel walls warily, his long sword out and ready. Though there was nothing unusual about that-they’d learned early on that one did not sheathe one’s weapon in Tarath Marad, not even while sleeping.
“Is there anything you do like, Run?” Tilde rejoined halfheartedly as she stroked the fur of the small bat on her shoulder. She was tired of the Blademark’s constant grousing, but in truth, she didn’t like it much herself, and judging from her familiar’s restlessness, neither did he. Though that was no great surprise-there was nothing in this Hostforsaken pit to like.
Harun grunted, but didn’t respond. He kept his attention focused on the floor and ceiling, sparing an unfriendly glance at their Umbragen guide, Xujil. The black-eyed drow had come highly recommended by Brannan ir’Kethras, the Wayfinder whose money and persistence had been instrumental in unearthing the caverns of Tarath Marad in the first place. Apparently, Xujil’s people, a heretofore unknown branch of the dark-skinned elves, had been looking for a way out of their underground home just as eagerly as Brannan had been looking for a way in. But while the Umbragen had come to the surface after a centuries-long exile, seeking new magic to defeat their ancient enemies in the depths, Brannan’s goals-like most of those of the members of the Wayfinder Foundation-had been a bit more mercenary. Discovering new cultures meant cornering the market on their artifacts, though the Wayfinder’s exclusive access hadn’t lasted long, and now he made the bulk of his money outfitting other people’s expeditions into the deeps, including providing guides like Xujil.
When it came to their guide, Tilde couldn’t blame Harun for his suspicions. The drow spoke seldom and with odd inflections; he practiced disturbing, barbaric rituals; and he moved with an eerie, oily grace, as if he were made of the very shadows that had already housed so many horrors on this damnable expedition. First there had been the ranks of ghouls in the desert night, then bloody slimes that dripped from the cavern ceilings, subsuming and inhabiting the bodies of whomever their rancid ichor touched, and finally that unholy behemoth in the lake that had wiped out half of what was left of their party.
And then, of course, there were the spiders.
The eight-legged creatures crept and climbed at every turn, more and more of them the deeper Tilde’s group went into the vast network of caves. Giant hairy spiders, swarms of smaller transparent spiders, spiders with scales, even creatures that looked humanoid but scuttled about and spun webs like the arachnids that crawled all over them. Dol Dorn, but it was disgusting! Tilde was no shrieking maidservant to be frightened of an insect or a mouse, but there was something so alien and repulsive about these deep spiders, with their creeping, segmented legs and their knowing, multifaceted eyes that she couldn’t help but shiver whenever she encountered one-right before she blasted it back into the depths of Khyber, of course.
Harun didn’t much care for spiders either, going out of his way to crush the creatures underfoot whenever he saw one, even the ones that appeared harmless-if that word could truly be applied to anything in Tarath Marad. Xujil had tried to stop him from destroying a fat-bodied female, heavy with eggs, shortly after they entered the caverns, and the Blademark hadn’t trusted him since. Truth be told, neither had Tilde. The only thing spiders were good for was getting rid of flies, and considering bats like her little Shieldwing did the same thing without biting you in the process, there really was no earthly need for the abhorrent creatures at all.
As if awakened by her disparaging thoughts, a mound of fungus to her left began to tremble as she passed. The mosslike green growth sloughed off to reveal an egg sac ready to burst and release its chitinous burden on the world. Before Tilde could bring her own magic to bear, Harun was there, stomping on the sac with his heavy boots, the look of relish on his face not unlike that of a child jumping in puddles after a welcome spring rain. Xujil looked back as the Blademark ground the pulpy mass into the rock, his dark face betraying nothing and his eyes too veiled to read. Still, the hairs on the back of Tilde’s neck bristled, and she vowed to watch the drow more carefully from here on out. As Ned had always loved to say, when dealing with the unknown, there was no such thing as too cautious.
They followed the drow for an indeterminate amount of time through the dim tunnels, and the only sure evidence Tilde had that they weren’t actually walking in circles was the gradual disappearance of the omnipresent fungus. She’d become so inured to the monotony that the reason for the fungus’s absence didn’t register until Harun called for a stop at the entrance into a small cavern, pointing down to a portion of the tunnel floor made of the strange living rock they’d seen several times on their journey. Marginally softer than the inanimate stone around it, the rock held only the faintest of impressions, but the Blademark could read them easily, even in the gloom.
“Footprints. Booted. A lot of them.”
He and Tilde looked up at Xujil expectantly.
The drow came back to where they stood and glanced down at the stretch of stone, which to Tilde looked no different than any of the surrounding rock.
“Sentries,” he confirmed. “We are below the City of Shadows. What you seek lies ahead.” He blinked at them, owlish. “Vigilance is recommended.”
“Oh, truly?” Harun scoffed. “A Deneith is ever-vigilant, elf-and ever-vengeful.”
The old saying made Tilde think of her brother again, and she reflexively reached for the medallion at her neck. Made of thin gold, the chimera-inscribed disk had been Ned’s gift to her when he entered the Blademarks, leaving her alone in the big old house that had belonged to their parents. She was already deep in her own studies by then, and would leave for the Tower of the Twelve soon after, but he knew how the loneliness would weigh on her in the meantime. He’d given her the necklace as a reminder, and a promise. If she ever needed him to come home, all she had to do was snap the thin gold in two and send half of it to him. Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, the moment he saw that half-moon shape, he would return to her.
The irony being, of course, that it was he who’d needed her help in the end, and he’d had no medallion of his own to send. So he’d died in a cavern not so different from the one she stood in now, while his partner, Sabira “Saba” Lyet d’Deneith-the self-styled “Shard Axe”-had stood by and done nothing to save him.
Tilde tried to shake the dark thoughts from her mind, her lank blonde hair bouncing in response to the violence of the motion. She hated that thoughts of Saba were never far behind whenever Ned crossed her mind. If she could have erased the Sentinel Marshal from her memory completely-or better yet, from Eberron itself-she would gladly have done so. But like it or not, Sabira and Leoned had been inextricably linked, first by their partnership and then by his death, which had vaulted her to her position as both a Marshal and a dwarven folk hero. Tilde would never be free of the other woman until one of them was dead-preferably Sabira.
But she’d be the one who got there first, waiting to greet her red-haired nemesis in Dolurrh if she didn’t focus on the task at hand, especially now that they were finally getting close to their goal. In addition to the narrow time frame, the Prophecy fragment had also spoken of a treasure bound by eight locks that could only be opened by “a daughter of Stone and Sentinel”-a phrase which Breven had been certain applied to her, the last remaining scion of the ir’Thul line, known of old as the House of Stone. His interpretation ignored the fact that her mother had given up the Deneith name when she married into the ir’Thul family, so Tilde was not technically a member of the House. And while that fact hadn’t stopped Ned from serving in both the Blademarks and the Defenders Guild, it had meant Tilde’s own studies had been relegated to the Arcane Congress at Arcanix. The wizards in the Tower of the Twelve would accept only members of the dragonmarked Houses as their students and teachers, and Breven had not seen fit to intercede on her behalf as he had on Ned’s. He’d said it was because he needed her eyes and ears in Arcanix, but in all her years there, both as a student and later on staff, he’d only ever asked her for information once.
She didn’t regret her time there though. In an odd way, she supposed she should be grateful to Breven, because if she’d gone to the Twelve, she never would have met Idris. A beautiful young elf too clever for his own good, Tilde had fallen in love with him immediately. He’d quickly become her favorite student, and if some whispered his affection had more to do with his desire to graduate at the top of his class than his desire for her, his tender words and gentle touch had made them easy to ignore.
But then he’d decided he needed to prove himself, the night before she was set to administer the Maze of Shadowy Terror test to him as part of his final exams. There, he’d fallen prey to one of the magical creatures inside, and by the time she’d found him, it had been far too late. She held him in her arms as he died, and then resigned her post the same night.
And had promptly been chided by Breven for it, the first and only time he’d ever taken any interest in her teaching career.
Still, she was Deneith, in blood if not in name, and she served the House with honor, regardless of whether that service was condemned, rewarded, or acknowledged at all.
Which was another mental path that would only end in thorns. She shook herself again, causing Shieldwing to click at her in annoyance. She didn’t need to dwell on the injustices of the past; if she succeeded in bringing this artifact-whatever it was-back to Karrnath, Breven would have no choice but to recognize her as the woman whose actions had raised Deneith to preeminence.
Both Brannan and Xujil had assured her that the treasure in question was in fact a powerful magical device from the Age of Giants that would give its wielder control over the depths of Khyber itself, though neither of them had been very clear on what that actually meant. Xujil’s people could not use the artifact themselves-their own magical power came from a force they called the Umbra-but they wanted it removed from their enemy’s arsenal beneath the city of the Spinner, whom they also called simply “the She.” A service Baron Breven was more than happy to provide, since he desired to harness that power for the gain and glory of Deneith. They were already the greatest of the dragonmarked Houses on Eberron (or so Breven liked to claim), and the fact that the Prophecy called out their mark specifically was only proof that they were meant to be the greatest below it, as well. All Brannan cared about, of course, was his finder’s fee.
But none of them would get what they wanted if Tilde’s group wasn’t able to deliver the artifact to the surface, and the worshipers of the Spinner weren’t likely to just hand such a prize over to them, no matter how politely they asked. So they were sneaking in through a series of tunnels Xujil’s people had discovered in their long war against the Spinner, but which they had never been able to utilize to any great effect themselves because the passages were simply too narrow to accommodate an invasion force. But while no invading army could use the close, labyrinthine tunnels to infiltrate the city, a single spy-or, say, a small party bent on thievery-might just be able to manage it without getting caught.
Tilde had been checking periodically for magical signatures as they traveled through the depths, using both Shieldwing and her arcane abilities to look for traps, hidden passages, and creatures lying in wait, while Harun did the same with his more mundane skills. She had to assume the drow was doing likewise, since he’d helped them avoid more than one unpleasant encounter as he’d led them downward into the dark. But now, with the end of their quest so near, the sorceress drew on her innate power to enhance her awareness, not trusting to intermittent castings. So she wasn’t surprised when the small cavern they’d just entered proved to have no exit.
“Secret door?” Harun asked as he felt the blank stone in front of them with one hand; the other was still wrapped firmly around the hilt of his sword.
Tilde shook her head.
“No-it’s just what it looks like, a wall of rock. But what we want is on the other side. I can feel it.”
The power emanating from beyond the stone must be incredible, indeed. Tilde felt like she’d stepped too near a bonfire, and the heat would burn her even if the flames did not. No wonder Breven wanted whatever was on the other side of that wall. It wouldn’t just make Deneith the mightiest House-it would make it the only House.
“One of the eight locks?” the Blademark asked.
Tilde glanced at him sharply.
“Maybe,” she conceded. “But if so, it’s one I’ll have no problem unlocking.”
So saying, she reached into a pouch on her belt and withdrew a small handful of seeds. She spoke a word, drew in a deep breath, threw the seeds into the air in front of her face and blew out again as hard as she could. Propelled both by her breath and her magic, the tiny missiles slammed into the rock wall, burrowing deep into the stone until they disappeared from sight, leaving the gray surface smooth and whole.
Nothing happened for long heartbeats, and she felt Harun shift impatiently beside her. Then an opening appeared in the stone, large enough for a gnoll to walk through unimpeded.
Tilde gestured to Xujil, who had stood by watching curiously as she worked.
The Umbragen hesitated for a moment, then inclined his head and stepped into the blackness. Tilde followed, Shieldwing alert on her shoulder, and Harun took up the rear.
The passage continued for about ten feet, then opened up into another cavern, this one alight with the glow of unfamiliar runes carved into the walls at regular intervals. Tilde counted them swiftly, unsurprised to see that there were eight of the purplish sigils, one on each wall.
Though the runes pulsed with a power of their own, it was nothing compared to that coming from a stone outcropping in the center of the room. On its unhewn surface rested a circular chest with no visible seam separating lid from base.
As soon as Tilde stepped into the room, Shieldwing catapulted from his perch on her shoulder with a high-pitched screech, careening about the chamber in crazed circles, slamming into ceiling and walls indiscriminately. Though Tilde couldn’t hear it herself, it was clear she had triggered some sort of alarm when she entered the room.
She pivoted on one foot, grabbing Harun as he entered the chamber and pulling him bodily from the passageway she’d created. As the sole of his boot cleared the tunnel, she dismissed her spell and the wall closed off behind them, leaving them trapped in the chamber with no visible means of escape.
“How much time?” the Blademark asked, his eyes scanning the chamber as he tried to assess from where and in what form the Spinner’s guards would come.
“Enough,” Tilde answered tightly. She’d prepared for such a contingency; she hadn’t expected to just be able to walk out of the city’s bowels with one of its most potent relics. In fact, she didn’t intend to walk out of the city at all-as soon as she had the artifact in hand, she’d be plane-shifting back to Brannan’s camp, and then from there to Stormreach, where a House Orien courier waited to take her and the device the rest of the way back to Karrnath.
She just had to get her hands on it first.
As she moved forward, intent on her purpose, Xujil cried out a warning.
“ ’Ware the floor!”
Tilde paused, foot in midair, and looked down. Old stains, black in the runelight, told the tale of those who’d come before and triggered a trap. Her blood would have joined theirs, had Xujil not been watching. She stepped back and nodded her thanks to the drow, inwardly cursing her own inattention. She’d been too focused on the prize, but she wouldn’t let that happen again.
She studied the floor. She was no stonewright, but judging from other dark stains, a ring of traps encircled the outcropping-probably spikes, if she had to guess. Scorch marks farther in attested to yet more traps.
Those would be easy enough for her to bypass now that she knew they were there, but she had to assume the circular chest was trapped as well.
“Harun, toss me a dagger.”
The Blademark peeled a blade from a brace he wore across his chest and flipped it to her, never taking his eyes off the surrounding walls and their purplish, pulsing runes.
Tilde caught the dagger easily by the hilt, and hefted it in her hand for a moment, gauging its weight. Then she reversed it so that she was holding it by the blade, aimed, and threw.
The weapon flew through the air, straight at the chest. Just before it would have reached the smooth wood, electricity arced out from the base of the chest, forming a crackling blue shield. The dagger bounced off the magical barrier and clattered to the floor, its blade twisted and smoking.
But Tilde had the measure of the chest’s defenses now and was able to dispel them with an arcane word. Another word, along with a feather from her pouch, and her feet left the ground. She sailed up and over the perilous floor to land safely beside the rock outcropping and the treasure it held. As she did, she heard a voice in her head.
Welcome, Daughter of Sentinel. I have been waiting for you.
The voice was soft, feminine, and utterly mesmerizing. Tilde thrilled to the words, her pulse pounding in her throat, then despaired and nearly cried out when the voice went silent.
She understood intuitively that the only way to get it back was to open the chest, but that doing so required blood. She slammed her palm down onto a shard of rock jutting from the outcropping then jerked it sideways, cutting a long gash in the soft skin. As the blood began to seep from the wound, rich and red, she smeared her hand across the smooth, curved wood.
The voice returned, and a shiver of pure pleasure coursed through Tilde at the approval she heard there. A noise started behind her, like stone grating on stone, and she thought she heard Harun call to her, but the words came from a vast distance and were soon forgotten as she basked in the voice’s approbation.
As the voice purred in her mind, the top of the chest spun and lifted of its own accord, floating up into the air to reveal the coffer’s contents.
Inside, on a cushion of rich crimson velvet, rested a figurine the size of Tilde’s head. A spider, its limbs formed of an iridescent metal and its abdomen a sphere carved from the largest, most flawless Khyber shard Tilde had ever seen. Light pulsed and swirled in its blue-black heart, and Tilde could not stop herself from reaching out to it, even as a small voice in the back of her mind screamed at her to stop. But Tilde could no more heed those distant screams than she could the tortured ones coming from Harun’s throat, somewhere behind her.
As her fingertips brushed the surface of the dragonshard, the metal spider reared up and sank its icy-cold fangs into her wrist. Pain unlike any Tilde had ever known stabbed up her arm and into her chest, and she knew she was being poisoned. But even as she thought that, the pain changed, became hotter, sharper, more intense. She realized it wasn’t just poison flowing through her veins.
It was corruption.
As she fell into unconsciousness, she found some last vestige of will to reach up and snap her gold medallion in half. With the last of her strength, she called out to Shieldwing. The bat, still half-mad with the noise of the high-pitched alarm and now with his mistress’s agony, flew at her, his claws gouging her throat as he snatched the chain from around her neck.
“Ned…,” she murmured regretfully, sinking into darkness, only to hear the voice respond again, this time with obvious hunger.
Mol, Lharvion 23, 998 YK
Sabira Lyet d’Deneith stretched and yawned without opening her eyes, luxuriating in the feel of the soft feather mattress and fine linens. After a week of hard riding on the back of a recalcitrant carver, she’d have been happy with a cot and a blanket, so the huge bed seemed like a gift from Olladra, the Sovereign Goddess of Feast and Fortune. As did the man Sabira shared it with.
She reached out blindly toward the other side of the soft mattress, expecting to feel the warmth of Elix’s skin beneath her seeking fingers. Instead, all she felt was a tangle of cool sheets.
She cracked one bleary eye open to confirm what her hand had already told her. Elix had left sometime while she slept, not wanting to wake her after the exhausting week she’d had. Sunlight slanted into the bedchamber from the west, and Sabira realized she’d slept through half the night and most of the day. She needed to get up. Today was her Badge Day-the anniversary of the day she’d been inducted into the elite ranks of the Sentinel Marshals-and though Elix had tried to hide it from her, she knew he had a special dinner planned in her honor. And while she still wasn’t sure it was an occasion worth celebrating, she wasn’t churl enough to spoil his surprise, especially now that they had a chance to be together without any unwanted missions or unhappy memories to come between them.
Throwing the blankets off of her, Sabira scrambled from the bed and went to the wardrobe. Though she still had a room over at the Whetstone, she spent enough time at Elix’s family manor that she’d moved most of her clothing and other personal belongings here to his suite of rooms. She opened the intricately-carved darkwood door to reveal several sets of clothes hanging neatly, including those she’d worn last night, now cleaned and pressed. Her shard axe hung in its harness on the back of the door, the Siberys dragonshard from which the urgrosh derived its name glinting golden in a stray sunbeam.
She paused, considering. The urgrosh was so much a part of her, she felt naked when not wearing it for any length of time, but it was hardly appropriate dinner attire, especially in the home of one of the wealthiest and most influential members of House Deneith. Count Wilhelm d’Deneith-Elix’s father and her old partner Leoned’s uncle-might not say anything about her spending more nights than not under his roof, but he’d definitely have a scathing comment or two for her if she showed up at his table with a weapon on her back.
She ran regretful fingers over the shard axe’s leather-wrapped haft and turned her attention to finding something suitable to wear. Wilhelm also insisted that his houseguests dress for dinner, which was why she seldom stayed to eat.
After a moment of indecision, she selected a pair of gray leather pants with marginally fewer stains than the rest. Then she chose one of Elix’s crisp white tunics emblazoned with the Deneith chimera done in the House’s signature green and yellow-the lion head on her right shoulder, the goat on the left, and the dragon front and center on her chest. Her boots had also been scrubbed while she slept, so after plaiting her copper-colored hair into a quick braid, she pulled them on, spared a quick glance at the mirror hanging on the back of the other wardrobe door, and decided it would do. Wilhelm should know her well enough by now to realize that clean was about as close to dressed up as she was ever likely to get.
She exited Elix’s rooms and followed the long hallway to the massive double staircase that dominated the manor foyer. Thick Brelish rugs silenced her footsteps, and the portraits of generations of Deneiths watched her impassively as she passed beneath their hard eyes and proud chins. She paused, as always, at the last painting on the left before the hallway gave way to the foyer balcony.
Leoned’s dark eyes looked down on her, and not even the artist’s heavy hand and penchant for grimness could completely hide the twinkle that always lay in their depths, accented by the small scar above his left eyebrow. A scar she had given him, during a sparring session where he hadn’t moved quite fast enough.
Once, that familiar face would have filled her with sharp guilt and suffocating grief, but now there was only a deep sadness and, sometimes, the beginnings of a smile. Ned had been a good partner, and he would have made an outstanding Marshal. She wouldn’t be celebrating her own Badge Day this evening if it weren’t for him and the sacrifice he’d forced her to make, but she no longer blamed him for that. Just as she no longer blamed Aggar, the dwarf he’d died to keep safe. Or even herself, for choosing between them.
Well, most of the time, anyway.
A bell sounded somewhere on the lower level, and Sabira left off her musing to hurry down the staircase and into the small, intimate dining room just off the kitchen where the Count usually took his meals. To her surprise, the room was empty.
Frowning, she made her way through the kitchen toward the formal dining room, her mouth beginning to water as the scents of all her old favorites wafted enticingly around her. The heady aromas of vedbread-still warm enough that the cheese inside would be gooey-brine sausage stew, and apple and ice-berry tarts filled the air, and her stomach grumbled in response. Sabira realized she hadn’t eaten when she’d arrived last night; she’d been too tired to do more than take a quick bath and tumble into bed, and Elix’s waiting arms.
The thought of the young captain eased the frown from her face, and the corners of her mouth were just twitching upward when she pushed open the servants’ door and entered the dining room. The fledgling smile froze on her lips when she saw the room’s occupants.
There were guards at both the kitchen door she’d entered through and on either side of the dining room’s main doors. Stone-faced dwarves in the livery of House Kundarak stood at attention, battle-axes in hand. She didn’t have to be a mage to know those blades were heavily-spelled, possibly the equal to her own urgrosh, the absence of which she felt sharply in the face of this unexpected threat.
Count Wilhelm didn’t even allow his own guards in the dining room; he considered it uncivilized. If there were warriors from another House here, it couldn’t be with his permission.
She tensed, mentally calculating how long it would take her to reach the knives on the table and how much damage she might be able to do with them before the dwarves brought her down. But as she surveyed the men sitting around the table, she saw that they were relaxed and seemingly unconcerned about the armed dwarves in their midst.
Count Wilhelm was at the head, of course, his brown hair shot through with silver and still worn in tight military fashion, though he hadn’t served Deneith in that capacity in many years, leaving that to Elix, and Ned before him. But he still sparred with his swordmaster every morning, and Sabira knew soldiers half his age who weren’t as fit of form. There was no paunch hiding under the bloused shirt he wore, no slackness in the muscles that propelled him to his feet at her entrance, followed by three others.
Elix, in another of his tunics, this one green with a small chimera embroidered over his heart, beat his father to his feet and smiled hugely at her over the laden table. Across from him, on Wilhelm’s left, was another dwarf-Aggar Tordannon, the heir to the dwarven city of Frostmantle and her own brother, now that she had been formally adopted into his clan by the Ceremony of Blood, Steel, and Stone. His fiery red beard clattered as he stood, the newly-polished beads woven into its many braids dancing with the sudden movement. True to form, Aggar’s clothes were as glaring as the Deneiths’ were understated-a scarlet tunic sporting the Tordannon crest, bright purplish blue pants and a cloak the color of new spring leaves, edged in orange. Just looking at him for too long made her head ache.
But not as much as the sight of the man standing beside him. Though she hadn’t seen him in almost two decades, Sabira would recognize that stubborn set of jaw and the hard glint in those gray eyes anywhere-she saw them every time she looked in the mirror. The tension that had just begun to ooze away returned in full measure and her hand reached instinctively for an axe-haft that wasn’t there.
Khellin Lyet, lately of Dreadhold.
“Saba,” he said, the smile twisting his thin lips not quite making it to his eyes. “So good to see you again.”
Sabira highly doubted that. That last time she’d seen him, he was being led out of a courtroom in Karrlakton after having been convicted for the attempted assassination of Baron Breven. Considering it was her testimony that had sent him away, she imagined she was the last person in all of Eberron he ever wanted to lay eyes on again.
He was certainly on her list of least favorite faces, which begged a question.
“What in the name of the Dark Six is he doing here?”
Khellin’s smile widened, and even though her question hadn’t been directed at him, he replied with more than a hint of smugness.
“Why, I was invited, of course.”
Sabira turned her gaze to Elix, whose own smile disappeared at the look on her face.
How? was another good question, considering Khellin had been sentenced to life, and no one got out of Dreadhold, Eberron’s most secure prison, on good behavior. Though she saw now that the older man still wore magewrought shackles on his wrists, so it was only a temporary furlough. Which also explained the presence of the Kundaraks. The dwarves were in charge of the prisoners at Dreadhold, and it was clear they felt their duty extended beyond the walls of that massive island fortress.
“I asked him here, Saba,” Elix answered, holding out a pleading hand to her. “Come, sit, and I’ll explain everything.” When she hesitated, his gaze softened. “Please.”
That was when she noticed the black velvet box sitting on the place setting next to his. Long and thin, and marked with the symbol of Boldrei, the Sovereign Goddess of Hall and Hearth, it was just the size to hold a necklace.
Or a bracelet.
Her knees went weak as she realized suddenly why Elix had arranged for her father to be released from prison, however temporarily. Why he’d asked Aggar, her hearthbrother, to come. Even why his own father was here.
This wasn’t a Badge Day celebration.
It was a betrothal party.
She wasn’t sure what she’d been going to say. They’d only just admitted their feelings for each other a few months ago, having banished Ned’s ghost once and for all. And even though she loved having him to come home to-or having a home at all, for that matter-that little black box and everything it represented frankly terrified her, and she wasn’t entirely sure why.
Was it because, on some level, it would mean giving up a measure of freedom? But freedom to do what? Sleep with any man she wanted? There was only Elix. Freedom to remain a Marshal? Elix was a Deneith-he’d never ask her to give that up. Freedom to come and go as she pleased, traipsing over miserable ground to track down dangerous criminals for ungrateful clients and not nearly enough pay? Was that really a freedom she wanted to keep?
Was it because she still harbored some feelings for Ned, because deep down, she’d wanted him to be the one to give her such a bracelet, and not Elix? But, no. Leoned had been her partner, closer than even a spouse, and that hadn’t stopped her from caring for Elix, then or now.
Or was it because, in her heart, she knew that as much as she loved him, she wasn’t good enough for him, and never would be?
She was saved from having to answer by the big double doors at the other end of the dining room crashing open and a harried-looking steward rushing in, followed almost immediately by Baron Breven himself, the dragonmark on his cheek standing out in sharp contrast against the lividity of his face.
“Wilhelm! What is the meaning of this underling refusing me entrance? Since when-”
Then the bald, stern-faced patriarch of House Deneith caught sight of Khellin.
“What in the name of the Dark Six-?”
Sabira bit back a vindicated smirk as the head of her House was reduced to the exact same epithet she’d used at the sight of her father.
Then Breven saw her, and understanding dawned. He looked over at Elix pityingly.
“You’re asking her now?”
Wilhelm moved out from behind the table quickly, hurrying over to the Baron and casting a dark look at his son as he passed.
“My lord, please accept my apologies! If you’ll just join me in my study-”
Breven interrupted him brusquely.
“No time for that.” He held up a necklace from which dangled a golden semicircle depicting half of the Deneith chimera. Sabira and Elix exchanged shocked looks of recognition as Breven continued. “Tilde’s gone missing.”
“… the drow-Xujil, I think his name was-made it back to the surface with the bat and gave the medallion to ir’Kethras, who had it couriered to me in Karrlakton.” They sat around the dining room table, the spread of Karrnathi delicacies untouched and long-cold before them. Khellin had been removed from the room under armed escort and was being held on Baron Breven’s private airship, which was docked at the nearby tower. Considering that the crew of the Barony was fiercely loyal to Breven, down to the Lyrandar who piloted it, Sabira wasn’t entirely sure he’d be making it back, Kundarak guards or no.
When no one else responded, none of the Deneiths willing to state the obvious in front of Wilhelm, whose face was white with grief, Aggar finally spoke up.
“It’s been almost two weeks, then. What reason is there to believe she’s even still alive?”
Breven cast a glance at the Count, and Sabira thought she caught a glimpse of something suspiciously like sympathy there. He carefully avoided looking at her.
“After Leoned died and we were unable to recover his remains from that cave-in, Tilde created a sort of reverse summoning spell to return her body to my study in Sentinel Tower in the event of her death. She didn’t want Wilhelm to have to suffer that same uncertainty twice.”
Elix’s hand closed over Sabira’s beneath the table. She didn’t dare look at him for fear of releasing the tears that burned suddenly behind her eyes, but she returned his grasp with a grateful squeeze.
“So you want to send in another party to do what, exactly?” she asked when she could be sure her voice wouldn’t break. “Rescue her? Or put her out of her misery?”
Wilhelm blanched at her words and even Elix looked appalled, but Breven didn’t blink.
“As your hearthbrother said, it’s been almost two weeks.”
Twelve days, and at least twice that to get another group back down to the city of the so-called Spinner of Shadows. If Tilde wasn’t dead by then, she’d no doubt wish she were.
Which didn’t explain why Breven wanted to send someone after her in the first place. Tilde was a powerful sorceress and a family friend, but neither of those was reason enough for Breven to risk another thirty men, regardless of what torture she might be enduring. She hadn’t had access to any great House secrets; she wasn’t technically part of the House at all.
“Two weeks in which your precious artifact has been sitting there for anyone to take, now that Tilde’s opened at least one of its locks, you mean.” Breven’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly, and Sabira knew that she was right. This wasn’t about Tilde at all.
But then why was he here? He hadn’t needed to play messenger boy with Tilde’s medallion-any of his lackeys from Sentinel Tower could have brought Wilhelm the news of her loss.
No, the House patriarch wanted something specific from someone in this room, and Sabira had a sinking feeling it was her.
Elix had come to the same conclusion.
“You mentioned that you became aware of this artifact because of some snippet of the Prophecy the Wayfinder Foundation had recovered,” he said. “What exactly did that snippet say?”
The draconic Prophecy was an ages-old pattern of portents and omens written in the skies, in the earth, and on the very flesh of the races of Eberron, in the form of the dragonmarks borne by the great Houses. The dragons of distant Argonnessen purported to study these signs to determine the future and understand the past, but Sabira put little stock in such things. Prophecy of any sort was so subject to interpretation that it could mean anything to anyone, and so became little more than an excuse for people to do what they wanted under the aegis of divine or mystical guidance. As far as she was concerned, the draconic Prophecy was no different, save for the fact that dragons were more able than most to ensure that their interpretations were accepted and adhered to.
Breven regarded Elix for a moment, considering.
“It’s not even a snippet, really. Just a few incomplete couplets found on a tattered parchment, most of which had either rotted or been burned away.”
Elix and the others looked at him expectantly.
The Baron gave a half-shrug and dutifully recited:
“Far beneath the clawing desert
In the belly of the She
Lies a treasure, plainly hidden
With eight locks but just one key
When the Anvil next is silent
The Book is closed, the Warder dreams
Comes a daughter, Stone and Sent’nel
When he trailed off into silence, Sabira finished the rhyme for him.
“What? ‘… not what it seems?’ Or maybe, ‘… met with screams?’ You sent Tilde into the depths below the Menechtarun where Dol Dorn knows what was waiting for her, based on that?”
Breven bristled, the dragonmark on the left side of his face stretching taut.
“She wasn’t coerced, if that’s what you’re implying, Sabira. She interpreted the Prophecy the same way I did-the same way scholars far more versed in the subject than anyone in this room did-and she was more than willing to do whatever she could to serve her House.”
More like, she was more than willing to do whatever she had to in order to finally be acknowledged by that House-a House that continued to punish her for her mother’s decision to marry outside of it, long after her mother was dead and buried. But Sabira kept that observation to herself. Breven already knew what she thought, and Wilhelm wouldn’t welcome the reminder of his sister’s choice to place love ahead of duty.
Her stomach growled audibly and Sabira decided she was done pandering to convention. She grabbed a slice of vedbread, no longer warm and gooey, but still fragrant and, more importantly, filling. The men watched her devour it in silence, Aggar lowering his head a bit to hide a smile.
When she was finished, she washed it down with a glass of fruity Orla-un wine. She’d have preferred the tang of Frostmantle Fire, but Wilhelm had all but banned it from his house after the last time she’d drunk her fill of the potent dwarven whiskey. From what she remembered of that night, it had been a wise choice on his part.
Only after she’d drained the goblet did she address the room again. It was telling that none of them had spoken into the silence-they knew as well as she did why Breven was here.
“Well, let’s jump past the games and the posturing, shall we? I’m sure everyone else is just as hungry as I am, if a bit more polite.” She looked at the man she’d once considered a surrogate father after Khellin had been imprisoned, but there was no filial feeling left in her hard gaze, and he knew it. “You want the treasure and you need another daughter of ‘Stone and Sentinel’ to fetch it for you. That about sum it up?”
Aggar’s head was almost on his plate and the beads in his beard tinkled softly with his suppressed laughter. Breven wasn’t quite so amused.
“While your adoption into the Tordannon clan does, perhaps, qualify you as a ‘daughter of stone,’ that’s not why I’m here.”
Sabira’s eyebrows shot up at that. He didn’t really expect any of them to believe that, did he? The appellation applied to her just as surely as it did to Tilde-maybe better, since no one could claim Sabira wasn’t a Deneith.
“The simple fact of the matter is that I need someone-a Marshal-who knows Stormreach and Xen’drik, who knows the deeps, and whose loyalty to the House is not entirely in question.”
Ah. So Breven didn’t trust Greigur, the captain of the Sentinel Marshals’ Stormreach outpost. Having dealt with the over-reaching soldier many times herself, Sabira couldn’t say that she blamed the Baron. If this treasure was worth losing another thirty lives over, it was something that could easily split the House, turning them into another three-headed gorgon, like Cannith. Or worse, another Phiarlan, whose Thuranni line had split off in 972 YK after exterminating a third family line, the Paelions, for an alleged assassination plot against Karrnath’s king, Kaius III.
A plot some whispered her own father may have had a hand in.
“There are other Marshals who fit that description,” Elix said, and Sabira knew him well enough to know how hard it was for him to keep the challenge from his voice. “Why not ask one of them?”
Sabira waited, wondering if the Baron would keep trying to pretend this had ever been about saving Tilde.
“None of them are avail-” he began after a moment, but Wilhelm interrupted him.
“Stop. Just stop,” he said, his voice ragged. He’d been looking down at his plate, but now he raised pained eyes up to meet Breven’s. Pained, but strong. Resolved. “Sabira’s right. This isn’t about my niece, it’s about the House. You don’t have to try and pretty it up for my sake, my lord. This family has sacrificed for the glory of Deneith many times, and will no doubt do so many more. Of course your primary concern is retrieving the artifact, as well it should be. Rescuing Tilde is a… a secondary consideration.”
Breven couldn’t quite hide a triumphant smile, though he quickly smoothed it over with a conciliatory look.
“You’re a very wise and reasonable man, Count; I’ve always said as much. Your loyalty to the House has never been in doubt.”
Sabira couldn’t be sure, but she thought the Baron placed a slight emphasis on “your.”
Then he turned his gaze on her and she lifted her chin in response.
“Well, Sabira. Will you take this mission for the honor and protection of your House?”
She didn’t miss a beat.
Even Aggar’s jaw dropped at that, but Sabira ignored him, and Elix, and the long velvet box sitting between them on the table. Her eyes were on Wilhelm, who wore the same stoically anguished expression as he had on the night when she’d had to tell him that Ned had died, and that it was her fault. When she spoke again, it wasn’t to Breven.
“No, I won’t do it for the House. But I will do it for Ned.”
Zol, Lharvion 24, 998 YK
You don’t have to go.”
They’d argued about it most of the night, until the sky turned violet in the hours before dawn and Sabira reminded him that there were better ways to spend what little time they had left together.
“You know I do, Elix.”
They were sitting around the table in the smaller family dining room, enjoying a light breakfast of fruit, ved cheese and bread: her, Elix and Aggar. Breven had departed shortly after he’d gotten what he wanted, giving her the name of her contact in Sharn as well as a letter of credit drawn on his personal account before he left. Khellin’s reprieve from his prison cell was long over; he’d never returned to the manor, and Sabira hadn’t cared enough to find out if that’d been the Baron’s doing, or the Kundaraks’. Wilhelm hadn’t come down this morning; his steward sent word that the Count was feeling ill.
“Then at least wait a few days, so Aggar and I can accompany you-”
“Every day I wait is another day Tilde is left to Host knows what horrors. Whatever our differences in the past, I can’t leave her to that. I can’t watch your father go through that again, regardless what he thinks of me.” Maybe because of what he thought of her. “Can you?”
Elix’s hazel eyes glistened. They both knew the grief the Count had felt over Ned’s loss; it had paled in comparison to their own.
Sabira reached out a hand to caress his cheek, the one not marred by the Mark of Sentinel.
“Especially not if he’s going to be my father too.” Well, some day.
Elix caught her hand in one of his, turning his head and pressing her palm tightly against his lips for a long moment. Then he kissed her wrist lightly, right where a betrothal bracelet would lay, before relinquishing his hold.
“You knew?” he asked, his lips quirking into a rueful half-smile.
“Having my father here kind of gave it away.”
Aggar mumbled something from around a mouthful of bread and silverfruit jam. It sounded like, “Told you so.” Both Elix and Sabira ignored him.
“I know it’s a silly tradition, but I wanted to honor it-and you.”
Sabira smiled softly at that.
“So what did he say?”
“I said, ‘Have you taken leave of your senses?’ when he asked me,” Aggar answered, wiping cider from his beard with the back of his hand. “I offered to get a Jorasco to come take a look at him, maybe do a cleansing ritual.”
“Quiet, you,” Sabira warned, throwing the dwarf a stern look she couldn’t quite hold.
Elix’s own smile faltered a bit.
“Does it matter? I realize now it was a mistake securing his release.”
Sabira quirked an eyebrow.
“That bad, hmm? Well, it can’t be any worse than what I’d have called him.”
Like assassin, traitor, excoriate, steaming pile of carver dung-and those were the nice things.
“He said you were always more Breven’s daughter than you were his, and if Elix wanted to marry you, he was asking the wrong man for permission.”
The three of them turned to see Count Wilhelm standing in the open doorway, still in the clothes he’d worn the night before. From the dark circles around his red-rimmed eyes, it was clear that he hadn’t slept.
“Have you told her yet what I said, Elix?”
Elix’s smile disappeared completely.
“Father-” Elix began, his voice holding a tone of warning Sabira had never heard him use with the older man before. Wilhelm continued on, either oblivious or uncaring.
“I said ‘no.’ ” The unveiled disgust in the Count’s words was like a slap in the face, and even though Sabira had her own doubts about her worthiness to be Elix’s wife, hearing his father give voice to that same sentiment so contemptuously made her hackles rise. Who was he to tell her she wasn’t good enough?
Only the man to whom she’d said those exact words when she’d tried-futilely-to apologize for not being able to save Ned.
Wilhelm continued, oblivious to both her anger, and her guilt.
“No to having that scum Khellin under my roof, no to having his traitorous line linked to mine and no to having you one day bear the title of Countess of the Wood Gate.”
Vulyar had three entrances. There was the Iron Gate in the northeast, which led to Irontown and the Mror Holds; the Sand Gate in the south, which since the Day of Mourning had led only to Fort Bones and Gatherhold in the Talenta Plains; and the Wood Gate in the northwest, which led to the rest of the Five Nations and was named for the several forests that awaited travelers who took that road out of the city-the Nightwood, Shadowmount Forest, and of course, Karrnwood. Each gate served one of the city’s major wards, each of which encompassed several minor wards and was governed by a titled member of House Deneith. Wood Gate was by far the most populous of the three major wards, though Iron Gate was understandably the most prosperous, since all the lightning rail shipments from the mines in the Ironroots came through there.
Sabira hadn’t even considered the fact that accepting Elix’s still unvoiced proposal would also mean eventually accepting a role in the politics of Vulyar. It wasn’t a thought that particularly thrilled her. Then again, neither was the fact that Wilhelm clearly didn’t think she was suited for the position-even if she did agree with him.
“I told him that d’Sark girl would have been a much better choice for the family.”
Elix stiffened beside her, but Sabira couldn’t look at him. She’d never been more grateful for a chair in her life; she might well have fallen otherwise, the blow was so sharp, so unexpected.
Tabeth d’Sark had trained under Elix for a year back in ’93. She’d been a Marshal at the Vulyar outpost after that, and Elix had known her well enough to take her on a dangerous mission into the Blade Desert-a mission from which she had not returned. Elix still carried the weapon that had killed her in his traveling chest.
Though Sabira had never met the other woman, she had met Tabeth’s twin, Tobin, a Defender with curly brown hair, sculpted features, and eyes nearly as gray as her own. She remembered feeling a pang of jealousy thinking how beautiful his sister must have been, but at the time she’d pushed it aside, deeming the emotion silly and unwarranted.
Apparently, she’d been wrong.
“Saba, I-” Elix began, but his father wasn’t finished yet.
“But I may have misjudged you, Sabira. You bring my niece back to me, and I’ll withdraw every objection I ever had to your marrying my son. I’ll even step down as Count and leave Wood Gate to the two of you as a wedding gift, if that’s what you want.” His eyes blazed as his gaze bored into hers. “Just bring her back, Sabira. After Ned, you owe me that much.”
What could she say to that?
An uncomfortable silence settled over the room after Wilhelm left. Sabira stared at her plate where the velvet box had sat the night before, unwilling to look over at Elix. Not wanting to see the truth of his father’s words there.
Logically, she knew she had no right to be angry, or even hurt. She was the one who’d left him behind, fleeing his arms in the wake of Ned’s death, ignoring his letters, rebuffing his every attempt to reach out to her. How could she blame him for turning to someone else for comfort, when she’d given him no reason to believe he’d ever find it with her?
But logic was a tepid brew that did nothing to ease either the cold taste of betrayal from her tongue, or the hot pain lancing through her heart.
Predictably, it was Aggar who spoke first, clearing his throat apologetically.
“I can’t go with you, Saba-I got word late last night that Father needs me back in the Holds-but I think I know someone in Sharn who may be able to help you. He’s been looking to get out of Khorvaire for a while, anyway. I’ll go make some inquiries.” She heard the beads in his beard clack as he pushed back from the table and crossed over to her seat, but she didn’t look up or acknowledge him. He gave her shoulder a tight squeeze with one hand, then paused for a moment by Elix’s chair, presumably offering him the same gesture. Then he walked quickly from the room, making sure to close the door behind him.
She expected Elix to say something, to offer an apology, or excuse, or anything. What she didn’t expect was him for him to push her plate out of the way and slam the bracelet box down angrily on the table in front of her.
She hesitated, her hand hovering over the black velvet, not quite touching the embroidered copper hearth that was the sign of Boldrei, the Sovereign invoked to bless marriages.
Inside was a mithral disk set at the center of a thick-linked chain. The circle bore a crest that Sabira didn’t recognize at first, but as she lifted the bracelet out of the box to examine it more closely, she gasped.
Two weapons were crossed on a field of thin mourngold, a violet-blue metal made from gold alloyed with mournlode mined from within the heart of the Mournland, what had once been Cyre, beneath the Field of Ruins. Many claimed the mottled iron ore could be used to turn undead, but the dwarves-and this bracelet was undoubtedly of dwarven make-seldom used it for that purpose, preferring instead to combine it with other metals to yield an incredible variety of colors. The mourngold plating was probably worth more than the rest of the bracelet combined.
Even more impressive than the alloy, though, were the weapons themselves. One was a simple broadsword, its pommel a closed fist, identical to the one Elix usually wore. The other was a tiny replica of her own shard axe, perfect in every detail, down to the sliver of a Siberys dragonshard at its tip.
In addition to the miniature weapons, detailed etchings graced each quarter of the circle. Above the crossed haft and blade was the Deneith chimera; below, the wolf of Karrnath. To the left was the mark of Wood Gate, three trees with sword blades for trunks. The etching on the right looked slightly different from the others, and it took Sabira a moment to realize that an older carving had been painstakingly filled in and then replaced by a newer one-the Tordannon crest.
“Turn it over.”
Sabira did. On the back was an inscription, with a date.
It was the final couplet from Theodon Dorn’s popular poem, “The Marshal and the Maiden.” Every Deneith knew it, and could recite it by heart, especially the last two stanzas:
The Marshal saw that time had fled
And though she pleaded and implored
Tears cutting worse than any sword
“Farewell, my heart,” was all he said
She knew then in her deepest core
He was Deneith, trueborn and bred
And even if they one day wed
He’d always love his duty more
But Sabira saw that some of the words had been changed, and they altered the meaning considerably:
He swore that if they one day wed
He’d never love his duty more
Below the two lines had been inscribed a month and a year. Aryth, 991 YK. The same month Ned’s remembrance service had been held, in this very house. Where Sabira had embarrassed herself by getting very, very drunk and Elix had taken her to his rooms so she could sleep it off before she could do something she’d wind up regretting. Only she’d wound up in his bed with him instead, and had fled Karrnath the next morning, unable to face either Ned’s death or Elix’s need.
He’d likely commissioned the betrothal bracelet that very day, not realizing she wouldn’t be coming back for another seven long years. In ’91-two years before he even met Tabeth.
She raised her eyes up to his and the fear she saw there nearly choked her.
“Tabeth was beautiful and strong, a credit to the Marshals, and I will admit I was attracted to her-but only because she reminded me of you. I almost kissed her, once, at some function we had here. That’s what my father was talking about-he saw that part. He didn’t see what happened after I called her by your name.”
Sabira snorted, amused in spite of herself.
“You couldn’t walk for a week?”
“Or see out of my left eye,” he said ruefully.
With a laugh, Sabira leaned over and kissed him full on the lips, a familiar and welcome warmth spreading through her as his arms wrapped around her, pulling her close.
“That’s nothing compared to what I would have done to you,” she murmured after a moment.
Sabira pulled back reluctantly and turned to look over at the doorway where Wilhelm’s steward stood, looking decidedly embarrassed.
“Your pardon, Captain, Marshal, but there’s a coach here waiting to take Sabira to the docking tower.”
Breven certainly hadn’t wasted any time.
“Tell them I’ll be right out.”
She turned back to Elix.
“You be careful in Thrane. To them, you’ll always be a Karrn first and a Marshal second. And we all know how much they hate anything Karrnathi.” Which made his being summoned there by the Keeper of the Flame-the head of the Church of the Silver Flame herself-all the more unusual, and all the harder to refuse. Though he’d tried, when he’d learned of Breven’s plans for her. He’d wanted to cancel the trip and go with her to Xen’drik instead, but the Baron had expressly forbidden him to do so. The needs of the House came first. As always.
“You, as well.”
Sabira carefully replaced the mithral bracelet back in its box and handed it Elix, who took it reluctantly, the question he wasn’t willing to voice plain in his gaze.
“Keep that safe for me, won’t you?”
His relief was almost palpable, and his smile could have outshone the sun.
Sar, Lharvion 28, 998 YK
Sabira reached the City of Towers four days later. Normally, the journey from Vulyar didn’t take that long by air, but the crew of the Cantrip had refused to fly over the dead gray mists of the Mournland, opting instead to follow along its northern edge until they reached Thronehold, then bearing southwest from there. Irritating as the delay was, the annoyance was somewhat counterbalanced by the knowledge that even Breven couldn’t compete with the power of superstition.
It was late afternoon when she arrived, but she’d already been able to see the lights of the city for miles. Located in the middle of a manifest zone linked to the plane of Syrania, the Azure Sky, which enhanced magic related to flying and levitation, the city grew to impossible heights, reaching from the Cogs deep underground to the floating island district of Skyway, home to the wealthy and powerful. And every level was lit up by everbright lanterns that had been twisted into fantastical shapes to advertise both business and pleasure, the riotous colors making the city look like a crystal sparkling in the sunlight. Either that, or a floating oil slick. Sabira could never quite decide.
Sharn was situated on a series of five plateaus bounded on two sides by rivers and on the other two sides by cliffs. It was divided into districts not only by plateau, but also by height. Sabira was supposed to meet Lord Boroman ir’Dayne, the head of the Wayfinder Foundation, at the foundation’s office in Korran-Thiven, one of the many financial districts in Upper Central Plateau. The Cantrip docked nearby, in Highest Towers, and Sabira disembarked, trying to orient herself amidst the tall buildings. Before she’d done more than identify north, a gnomish boy came running up to her, envelope in hand.
“You the Shard Axe?”
Host. Could she escape that name nowhere?
At her short nod, the boy handed the envelope over, then stood by expectantly, obviously waiting for a tip. Sabira dug in her pouch, found a copper crown based on feel alone, and flipped it to him. From the boy’s frown, it was clear he was used to more from customers in the wealthy upper city, but a glare sent him scurrying without complaint. Considering the Sivis message station was just around the corner, he was lucky she hadn’t sent him scurrying with a boot to his rear.
She opened the envelope and read the short message.
I found you a partner for your expedition. Meet him at the Glitterdust around the sixth bell. He’ll be the one fleecing the customers at the card table. Try to make sure you’re not one of them.
Wonderful. After having most of Arach d’Kundarak’s men arrested for drug smuggling on her way from Stormreach to the Mror Holds, the last place in Sharn she wanted to go was the Glitterdust, where members of the dwarf’s crew often spent their shore leave. While she was sure most of the crew of the Dust Dancer were still in custody, Arach was a member of the Aurum’s Gold Concord. He had the resources to replace men faster than they could be apprehended. He probably already had a new airship and a new supply of dreamlily to peddle. And a bounty on Sabira’s head worth twice what he paid for both.
Still, unlike Tilde, she wasn’t going to be able to go into Tarath Marad with a contingent of hand-picked Blademarks-not that it had done the sorceress any good. If she knew Breven, she wasn’t going to be able to rely on anyone from Deneith at all; the Baron wouldn’t want to risk Greigur’s involvement. Which meant Sabira was going to need all the help she could get, and she couldn’t afford to be too picky about details like who they were or where they came from. Or where they wanted to meet.
By her reckoning, that gave her about an hour to get down to Deathsgate, an unremarkable adventurer’s quarter in Middle Tavick’s Landing. Unremarkable, save for the Glitterdust, nestled under the massive Bridge of Giants that connected the district to the necropolis of Haldren’s Tomb. Though the rest of the quarter served the lower class inhabitants of the district, the Glitterdust catered exclusively to those with far heavier pouches. She could only hope Aggar or the mysterious unnamed partner had thought to put her on the guest list, since she didn’t have enough coin on her to bribe her way in, and the Glitterdust didn’t take letters of credit.
She hailed a skycoach, one of Sharn’s graceful boatlike vessels that sailed through the city’s airways, lit from within and without by glowing blue everbright globes. She gave the driver her destination, ignoring the skeptical look he gave her in return. Sabira knew she was hardly dressed for the place, but she had a fashion accessory he didn’t know about, if it came down to that.
As they descended into the city, the ubiquitous rain began again. It wasn’t actual precipitation, of course-only Skyway and the upper city ever got that. No, the rain experienced in the middle and lower levels of Sharn was actually runoff from the upper wards-brackish water that flowed down daily when the streets of the wealthy were cleaned, dousing those below so that those above wouldn’t have to risk dirtying their expensive shoes. Sabira knew there were other, architectural reasons for the false rain, but she wasn’t an architect, so she didn’t really care to learn them. She was just grateful for the charm that kept the inside of the skycoach dry and warm and somewhat free of the urban cacophony as the vessel threaded its way between other coaches and lifts, thin gaps between towers, and even the occasional gargoyle or griffin.
Residents of the City of Towers often joked that it took about an hour to get wherever you were going in the city, regardless of whether it was from one district to its neighbor or from Skyway to the Cogs. The truth of the matter was, of course, that it took however long the coach drivers decided it was going to take, and an hour was about what most people were willing to pay for before they started getting unruly.
Sure enough, the sixth bell was sounding throughout the city as the driver pulled up near the Bridge of Giants. Having lived in Xen’drik, which had once been the home to actual giants, Sabira always found the grandiose title of the massive stone edifice amusing. It might be large by human standards, but it would have been dwarfed beside a true relic of the Age of Giants, like the statue of the Emperor that stood guard over the Stormreach harbor.
Digging out gold from her pouch this time, Sabira stepped off the coach and was immediately enveloped in a fine mist that smelled vaguely of feet. She hurried over to the spiral wrought-iron staircase under the bridge and wound her way down, the wail of shardhorns and the scent of Thunderherder bacon rising up to greet her before she’d made it halfway.
The door to the club was guarded by hobgoblins in ornate armor, but the blades at their sides were practical enough, and Sabira found one pointed at the middle of her chest before she could so much as open her mouth.
She knew from experience that this wasn’t the greeting most of the club’s clientele got, but then most of them didn’t look like they’d gotten lost on their way down to the slums of Lower Dura, either.
“Sabira Lyet d’Deneith.”
The hobgoblin who’d kept his sword sheathed made a show of looking at the list he held in one clawed hand, but it was clear he had no intention of letting her in, whether her name was on it or not.
“Sorry. Better luck next time.”
Sabira gave the green-skinned oaf her most provocative smile.
“Are you sure there’s nothing I can do to get inside?” she asked, tossing her coppery hair over her shoulder coyly and licking her lips.
The bouncer with the list snorted indelicately, but the one with the sword lowered it an inch or two to get a better look, his fanged mouth widening in a lascivious grin.
“Show me what you’ve got under that shirt and we’ll see.”
Sabira’s smile widened.
“Oh, I was so hoping you’d say that.”
She reached slowly for the top laces of the simple tunic she wore over her armor. The moment the hobgoblin’s eyes focused there instead of on her other hand, she slapped his blade away and was inside his guard, her urgrosh out of its harness and its Siberys shard spear tip pressed up against the hobgoblin’s throat. Then she carefully pulled her Marshal’s brooch from underneath her armor, making sure the light of the club’s everbright lanterns caught its enameled surface so there was no missing the Deneith chimera it bore.
She held it up on its leather cord so the other bouncer could see it as well.
“I’m thinking maybe you might want to check the list again?”
The other hobgoblin didn’t even bother glancing at the paper in his hand. He pushed the club door open and waved her in.
“Welcome to the Glitterdust, Marshal. Enjoy your stay.”
Inside, the club was divided into two distinct areas. On the left was a dim dining area filled with wealthy patrons busily feasting on all manner of delicacies prepared by the House Ghallanda chef that the club’s owner kept on retainer. In addition to the Glitterdust’s signature bacon-wrapped shrimp, Sabira could make out the aromas of roast threehorn from the Talenta Plains, honeyed chicken in panya leaves, and even the distinct tang of dwarven ironspice drifting up from something that looked like it might once have been an alligator. But as tempting as the club’s menu was, Sabira turned her attention to the right and the lounge.
Even more poorly lit than the restaurant, the lounge boasted leather-upholstered booths and tables, a large dance floor already filled to overflowing and a stage on which the gnome Hart Brantby was currently performing with his band, the Jumping Horns. Luminous red and purple glitter snowed steadily from the unseen ceiling and in the sparkling light, Sabira searched for the card tables.
Though the Glitterdust didn’t officially sanction gambling, players in the know could always find a game here. Sabira had played here herself, and won big more than once. But tonight she was more interested in the players than the stakes.
She found two tables in the corner of the lounge farthest from the stage. At one, three elves were playing a game of Elements with the corresponding four-suited deck. Though it was popular among dabblers, true gamblers preferred the more challenging five-suited games, like her own personal favorite, Jarot’s Bluff.
The players at the second table were engaged in a regional variant of the game that involved progressive betting. It was a particularly aggressive form of Jarot’s Bluff that could yield enormous pots in a very short amount of time-and equally enormous losses. Breven’s letter of credit weighed heavy in her pack as she felt the familiar itch to join in the game, but she fought the urge, contenting herself with examining the players instead, wondering which of them could be Aggar’s friend.
None of them were dwarves, which made identifying the likely candidate a bit more challenging. Two of the players-humans-had respectable stacks in front of them, and a third-a female shifter-was not far behind. The last two players at the table, a gnome and a smallish warforged, looked like they only had half-a-dozen antes left between them.
As she focused on the two humans, trying not to draw any unwanted attention to herself, someone jostled her, and her hand closed reflexively around her pouch. She turned to see a heavily-muscled half-orc whose tattoos, ritual scarring, and mohawk identified him as a member of the Jhorash’tar clan from the Ironroots.
He was eyeing her shard axe with a derisive look.
“Funny,” he said, somehow managing not to lisp around those oversized tusks. “You don’t look like a dwarf.”
“Funny,” she replied in kind. “ You do.”
Implying that a dwarf might have mated with an orc was an insult so profound to both races that she was lucky there were no dwarves within range to hear it. As it was, the half-orc’s eyes went red, and she barely dodged the fist he sent sailing at her mouth.
So much for keeping a low profile.
She responded with a kick to the half-orc’s knee, which he couldn’t quite twist far enough to avoid, and she followed it up with an elbow to his jaw which probably hurt her more than it did him. As she shook her arm to relieve the shooting pain, the patrons at the surrounding tables scrambled away, going just far enough not to get hit by any bodily fluids. Sabira could already hear bets circulating; the Jhorash’tar was a ten-to-one favorite.
“You’ll pay for that, you Karrnathi whore,” the half-orc growled, spitting a mouthful of blood at her feet. Nice to see she’d done some damage, after all. Unfortunately, she didn’t really have time for a bar brawl, as fun as it might be to teach this buffoon some manners and watch a score of pampered nobles lose money because they were stupid enough to bet against her.
With a regretful sigh, she flashed her brooch.
“That’s ‘Sentinel Marshal Karrnathi whore’ to you,” she said brightly as a groan of disappointment went up from the gathering crowd. “So unless you want to spend the rest of the night in some dank little cell that smells like piss, with a roommate who probably smells worse, I’d suggest you go find someone else to lavish with your oh-so-considerable charms.”
The half-orc actually looked like he was considering his options for a moment, so she casually reached behind her and unharnessed her urgrosh.
“Do you have any idea what it takes for a human to be awarded one of these? No? Do you really want to find out?”
The half-orc bared his teeth at her in frustration, but as she watched, the scarlet hue slowly faded from his eyes. Apparently he took after his human side when it came to brains, because he shook his head once then turned and stomped toward the dance floor, shoving a hapless waiter out of his way as he went.
As people returned to their tables and small pouches of coin changed hands, Sabira heard the sound of light applause behind her. She turned to see a male dwarf with a wild tangle of blond hair, a short, neatly trimmed beard and piercing brown eyes. He wore a blue silk shirt, its bloused sleeves rolled up to display the corded muscles of a master smith, though Sabira highly doubted that was the smug-looking dwarf’s true occupation. One wrist boasted a finely wrought golden band studded with tiny silver charms. At his waist was a similarly-crafted scabbard bearing the Kundarak manticore, though the hilt emerging from it was strangely curved, with a flask of some type of glowing liquid built into its pommel. Sabira regarded him curiously as she replaced her shard axe in its harness, her not-so-subtle way of telling him she didn’t regard him as a threat.
“Nicely done. Wish I could get one of those badges myself-seem to come in handy. Though I don’t suppose many people would accept the idea of a dwarf Marshal.” He cocked his head to the side. “Then again, most people wouldn’t accept the idea of a human Tordannon, either, and yet, here you are.”
Ah. Aggar’s mystery partner had arrived. She should have guessed he’d be just as smart-mouthed and sarcastic as her hearthbrother.
The dwarf stuck out a hand.
“Greddark d’Kundarak: Security Specialist, Artificer and Master Inquisitive, at your service. I believe Aggar has mentioned me?” He had-Greddark was the tinkerer-cum-investigator who’d taught Aggar how to cheat at Jarot’s Bluff. And not very well, either. “Though I suppose that’s Cousin Aggar now, what with his father marrying a Mountainheart. Which would make me your cousin now, too, I suppose.”
Sabira shook his hand.
“I suppose so.”
Greddark’s gaze moved to a point somewhere over her left shoulder and he frowned.
“Well, this little family reunion has been delightful, but I think we might want to move it outside. There’s about a half-dozen men and a dwarf with a hook for a hand headed right for us, and none of them look very happy.”
Sabira glanced back and swore.
Skein of Shadows
Sar, Lharvion 28, 998 YK
Host damn it! The last time she’d seen the bald dwarf, he’d been being led off in manacles, cursing her name. When she found out who’d authorized the release of the Dust Dancer ’s first mate, she’d have their badge. That was, assuming she made it out of the Glitterdust alive.
“Friends of yours, I take it?”
Sabira snorted, surveying the lounge. Thecla and his group of thugs were between them and the club entrance, so there was no going out that way. As she scanned the crowded dance floor, she saw what she was looking for-a set of swinging double doors next to the stage. There would be offices on the other side, and if she wasn’t mistaken, a hallway connecting to the kitchen-and an exit.
She just had to get there first.
“Care to dance?” she asked Greddark, motioning toward the writhing mass of sweaty bodies with a jerk of her chin as she began angling through the tables in the general direction of the double doors. The inquisitive realized what she was up to immediately and followed suit, hand on his hilt. Thecla saw where she was headed from the other side of the lounge, and waved for his men to do the same. Catching her eye, he grinned widely and brought his hook up and across his throat.
Sabira rolled her eyes. Someone had been watching too many plays at the Ten Torches Theater down in Lower Menthis. Or maybe at the Livewood back in Stormreach; the ridiculously dramatic gesture did seem more like something the House Phiarlan actors there would favor.
She and Greddark reached one edge of the cavorting mob just as the first of Thecla’s men reached the opposite one. They slid in easily among the dancers, who were whirling to a fast-paced tune from Brantby’s shardhorn, accompanied now by a half-elf on a flute and another on a set of tribal drums from the Shadow Marches. The rhythm coursed up through the dance floor as well-dressed men and women gyrated around her, their laughing faces spinning close and then away again as she made her way toward the stage. At one point, a tall man in a long black surcoat picked her up and spun her in several wild circles, but since the maneuver gave her a good view of her pursuers’ positions and moved her closer to her goal, she decided not to gut him.
In the air, she glanced upward, worried about smacking her head against one of the red everbright globes that floated above the dancers. As she did, she caught a glimpse of the delivery system for the never-ending glitterfall that gave the club its name, and got an idea.
Back on her feet, she quickly found Greddark and leaned close to whisper in his ear, the only way he’d have a chance of hearing her over the pounding music.
“Got a dagger on you?”
The dwarf cocked a bushy eyebrow at her. Then he surveyed the crowd for a moment and stepped away from her. He bumped up against a man dancing with a bottle of wine in each hand, then returned to her side a moment later, a long knife with a bejeweled pommel in his palm.
“I do now.”
He nodded when she finished explaining her plan, then stood by as she sidled up to her erstwhile dance partner, shoving a svelte woman in a clinging glamerweave dress out of the way and holding her hands out to him, an arch look on her face. The man laughingly obliged, hefting her back up into the air and spinning her, his face a little closer to her chest than she would have liked. She threw her arms out and her head back, her hair fanning out in a coppery arc behind her.
She heard Thecla’s shout even above the noise of the crowd and waited until his men had nearly converged on her position before bringing her arms down sharply on either side of the tall man’s neck, hitting the pressure points there and momentarily causing him to lose feeling in both hands. As she’d expected, he dropped her with a howl and she landed in a crouch in front of him, Greddark’s signal to act.
The dwarf launched his borrowed dagger into the air with deadly accuracy. Though most of the glitter that fell on floor and dancers alike was illusory, the sparkling substance in hair and on clothing had become a sort of status symbol among the club’s patrons, so enough of the real stuff fell during the night to feed the egos of the Glitterdust’s many customers. Greddark’s throw hit the main rope holding the canvas bag full of red and purple glitter closed, severing it cleanly. The entire evening’s supply came down all at once in a thick cloud, blinding and choking those on the floor below.
Sabira and Greddark, the only ones who’d been expecting the glitter bomb, covered their mouths and ducked low, worming their way through the screaming crowd toward the stage. They were out in the open and through the swinging doors in moments, but a quick glance backward showed Sabira that Thecla, at least, had not been fooled by the colorful diversion. The first mate’s face when he saw her was murderous.
The door opened onto an intersection of two hallways, one leading straight ahead and one bearing left, curving around behind the backstage area on the other side of the wall.
“Kitchen, stage, or offices?”
Sabira pursed her lips, thinking quickly. If they ducked through a backstage door, they could skirt the crowd and head for the club entrance. But there was no guarantee all of Thecla’s cronies would have made it out of the morass of glitter-coated dancers, and they would be easy targets on the stage, backlit by strobing lights. Plus the crowd itself would present an obstacle, as affronted patrons streamed from the lounge demanding their money back for their dry dousing. The corridor leading to the offices was a straight shot and probably offered the quickest way out, except for the fact that that entrance was probably better guarded than the front, considering all the money came and went through there.
That left the kitchen. The dinner rush had just started, so it would be crowded, but it would allow them access to a back alleyway and a more likely means of escape than any of the other exits. And it would at least have the benefit of an array of sharp utensils to choose from if they were somehow backed into a corner.
Sabira unharnessed her shard axe as she moved down the hallway, just in case some of Thecla’s men had the same idea she did and cut through the backstage area to block off their escape route. She heard movement in front of her and signaled to Greddark, who drew his own blade, which she could see now had a groove running down its length on either side. Then they rushed around the bend, weapons raised, and Sabira nearly beheaded Hart Brantby as the glitter-covered gnome squealed and dived to the floor at the sight of her, whining about having already paid Daask and pleading for her to spare his shardhorn.
Daask? So the Droaamish crime syndicate was putting the squeeze on the Glitterdust now? Interesting. Too bad she didn’t have time to do anything with the information, but she’d be sure to pass it on to the proper authorities when she got the chance-the proper authorities being any Marshal other than her, of course.
“Sorry,” Sabira muttered, moving around the musician to check the door he’d just come through. The backstage area was dark and empty; apparently the horn player hadn’t alerted the rest of his band when he decided to vacate the premises. Given how he cowered against the wall using his beloved shardhorn as a shield, she wasn’t particularly surprised.
There was a sound of wood slapping against stone somewhere behind them and she heard Thecla call out.
“You, down that way. You three, with me.”
She and Greddark didn’t need any further encouragement. They broke into a quick trot, passing through another set of double doors and into the muggy kitchen, which was abustle with cooks, servers and delivery men hauling in casks of Nightwood ale from the back alley on soarsleds.
Dodging steaming dishes, hot stoves, and the occasional rolling pin, the duo made their way toward the back door, open to the evening air to both cool the occupants on a busy night and to allow the brewers easy access to the wine cellars below.
“There they are!” Thecla was inside the kitchen now, but he must have realized he couldn’t keep them from reaching the exit. He took a different tack. “A hundred dragons to whoever keeps the redhead from leaving!”
A hundred? Just how much had that crystallized dreamlily shipment she’d impounded been worth, anyway?
Sabira tensed, preparing to be mobbed by House Ghallanda halflings, but the kitchen staff ignored Thecla’s offer-apparently their jobs were worth more to them than platinum. Either that, or their fear of the club’s owner overcame their greed, which was perhaps not so remarkable if Daask had its hand in the Glitterdust’s till.
The delivery men, on the other hand, had no such compunctions. The two nearest Sabira aimed their empty soarsled at her knees, and only a quick twist of her hips and a sidestep worthy of the dance floor saved her from being served up to Thecla on the floating disk like a pig on a platter.
Greddark, behind her, proved a bit more nimble, grabbing the soarsled by its leading edge and whipping it around, sending it back into the gawking delivery men with a grunt. The two went down flailing, knocking a cooling rack full of oven-fresh beesh-berry tarts from their perch and onto their exposed arms and heads. Their yelps of pain almost succeeded in drowning out Thecla’s growl of frustration.
She leaped over the writhing men, Greddark on her heels, and was almost to the door when another pair of delivery men entered with another soarsled, this one burdened with a cask of Brelish redeye brandy. Moving too fast to avoid a collision, Sabira did the next best thing and went low, rolling under the wooden disk to safety.
As she sprang to her feet, Greddark yelled.
“Sabira! The cask!”
She didn’t stop to ask why; instead, she brought her urgrosh around and slammed the axe-blade into the smooth wood of the barrel. It exploded into a shower of splinters and alcohol. Greddark jumped out of the way as the crimson flood poured out onto the floor. He brought his own weapon to bear and for a moment, Sabira thought the dwarf had taken leave of his senses and was actually trying to attack the gushing liquid. Then she saw him push a button on the hilt of his short sword. Alchemist’s fire raced from the flask in the pommel down the length of the blade, setting it aflame. When Greddark thrust the sword into the pool of brandy, the whole thing went up with a loud whoosh, nearly singeing his boots.
As the kitchen staff erupted into movement to try and douse the blue and orange flames, Sabira looked over the conflagration at Thecla, who was effectively trapped, unless he decided Arach’s bounty was worth burning for. Olladra knew, for a hundred platinum dragons, she’d consider it.
But Thecla apparently valued his appearance more than that and made no move to cross the flames, instead standing on the other side and glaring, his good hand clenched into a white, quivering fist.
When she saw he was giving up, Sabira flashed him a smug smile and raised her hand in a quick wave. Then she and Greddark darted out the door and into the alleyway, the smell of burnt alcohol fading away behind them as they made their way out into the street and hailed a coach.
As they climbed in, Sabira looked over at the inquisitive.
“Clever. I just hope Breven’s letter of credit will cover my half of the bill.”
Greddark’s lips twisted in an amused smile.
“Better hope it covers the whole thing.”
“And why is that?” she asked warily.
The dwarf laughed.
“You don’t honestly think I gave them my real name, do you?”
Sar, Lharvion 28, 998 YK
The last of the seven bells was just echoing off the high towers of Upper Central Plateau when Sabira pulled the rope outside the door of the Wayfinder Foundation offices in Korran-Thiven. A deeper note sounded from somewhere within the thin minaret attached to the tower that housed Riak’s Fine Imports. The main tower boasted massive darkwood doors and an intricate carved facade of scenes from inner Xen’drik-quite accurate, from what Sabira could see, though she’d only been there once herself. In contrast, the Wayfinder spire was plain and unremarkable, the only thing differentiating it from a thousand other similar pinnacles throughout the district was a small gold-plated placard next to the pull embossed with a simple “W. F.”
There was no answer for several long moments, and the armed guards in front of Riak’s started giving them unfriendly looks. Of course, in a financial district more obsessed with hoarding wealth than acquiring it, neither the guards nor their demeanor were that unusual. Still, Sabira didn’t particularly want to have to flash her brooch at them to get them to mind their own business-the fewer people who knew she was here, the better, especially if Greddark decided he needed to dabble in arson again.
Finally, a middle-aged woman in silvercloth pants and a matching brocaded jacket opened door.
“You’re late,” she said, looking down her nose disdainfully at Sabira’s glitter-spangled hair. Sabira resisted the urge to brush the sparkling dust off her shoulders and returned the other woman’s irate look with one of her own. After all, she wasn’t the one who’d taken a quarter bell to answer the door. But Sabira had dealt with that aristocratic arrogance more times in her career than she could count, and she knew bringing that fact to the other woman’s attention would be pointless-among the rarified circles of Sharn’s upper city, the truth was always secondary to the balance in your House Kundarak account.
“And getting later the longer we stand here,” she rejoined pointedly, “so if you’d like to let us by…?”
The woman harrumphed, but stepped aside and waved them in.
“Lord ir’Dayne is feeling particularly unwell this evening, so this meeting will be kept short.”
The meeting would last however long it took to make sure Sabira got what she needed, and if the snooty woman in silver didn’t like it, she’d gag her and chain her to a chair. But Sabira decided to keep that to herself for now, since she needed the other woman to guide her to ir’Dayne. The halfling head of the Wayfinder Foundation was widely rumored to be more than a bit paranoid, and Sabira didn’t doubt the office was full of nasty surprises for unwelcome visitors.
Though the small tower was nothing compared to the foundation’s Fairhaven Conclave, it still contained its fair share of oddities and wonders. The short entry hall was filled with Aerenal tapestries, a bookshelf heavy with Dhakaani pottery and trinkets from places as far away as Sarlona and Argonnessen, and various stuffed figures, including the biggest owlbear Sabira had ever seen. A glass case lit by a floating golden everbright globe featured the claws and stinger of a scorrow from Xen’drik, each one easily twice the size of Sabira’s head. The scorrow, a horrible centaurlike hybrid of drow and scorpion, was one of the most feared predators in both Xen’drik’s deserts and her jungles and the foundation had a standing offer for any who were brought in to one of its outposts alive for study. This one, which a placard identified as Menezthadazz, sire of Mendexethazz, hadn’t been that lucky. Then again, considering how the foundation might choose to “study” such a creature, maybe he had.
As the woman led them up several flights of stairs, Sabira was struck by the office’s air of disuse. While the foundation’s headquarters in Fairhaven was always humming with activity, whether it be visitors to the vast two-story museum, students attending lectures, or adventurers getting ready to leave on or returning from foundation-sponsored expeditions, the stillness of the Sharn office was more akin to that of a library. Or a tomb.
Maybe that’s what it was, Sabira thought. Ever since Boroman had returned from his last foray into Xen’drik, he’d been slowly wasting away, the victim of some curse for which even the greatest healers and wizards in Khorvaire could find no cure. Though the halfling tried to remain active in the everyday affairs of the foundation, and still retained executive control over its Conclave, he’d been retiring to the Sharn office more and more frequently over the past year, supposedly to “recuperate.” Given the office’s convenient location in the financial district, Sabira wondered if he weren’t actually getting his affairs in order.
The silver-clothed woman paused before a nondescript door on the tower’s third level and knocked once. Though Sabira heard nothing from the other side, the woman gave her and Greddark a stern look and then pushed the door open and led them inside.
Based on what she’d seen below, Sabira had expected to find an office crammed with a desk, shelves groaning under the weight of maps, and bizarre collectables from the world over shoved into every nook and cranny. Instead, the woman ushered them into a small, almost utilitarian bedroom dominated by a huge canopied bed.
In the middle of the bed, dwarfed by massive pillows and nearly buried in paper, lay a halfling wrapped in a green velvet robe and sucking on a long, curved pipe. Sabira recognized the pungent aroma of firepepper leaves, native only to the volcanic fields of Xen’drik. The Sulatar drow of the region believed the leaves of the potent pepper had healing abilities, but most found the cure worse than the disease, and Sabira couldn’t blame them-the acrid smoke from ir’Dayne’s pipe was already making her eyes water.
“You may leave us now, Hendra,” the halfling croaked, his voice reedy and tired. Hendra’s tight face registered surprise for a moment, but she quickly covered it with her habitual haughtiness. She inclined her head, but cast a warning glance at Sabira and Greddark as she left, closing the door quietly behind her. Sabira was sure the other woman was just on the opposite side of the door, ear pressed up against the wood as she strained to hear what went on inside the small room.
“Come closer, Marshal.”
Sabira complied, though Greddark hung back.
“You, as well…?”
“Greddark d’Kundarak,” the inquisitive supplied, apparently more willing to use his real name when there weren’t as many witnesses to impending mischief.
“Ah.” Then the halfling’s eyes narrowed. “The same Greddark who was kicked out of the Tower of the Twelve after the death of-?”
“Yes. The same,” the dwarf interrupted flatly, his face hard.
Sabira had known that Greddark had been asked to leave the arcane institution founded by the dragonmarked Houses, but she’d never known why. She’d always assumed it had something to do with his gambling-or, more accurately, with his cheating.
Well, now she had a better idea why he wanted to leave Khorvaire.
“Cleared of all charges, as I recall, though Helanth d’Medani still bears a grudge.” At Greddark’s narrowed eyes, the halfling gave a small laugh that turned into a coughing fit. Wheezing, ir’Dayne continued, “You forget-the main House Medani enclave is just down the road from here, in Wroat. It was all over the broadsheets.”
Wonderful. Sabira wondered how many of the half-elven House’s bounty hunters would be dogging their steps to Xen’drik.
“Not what we’re here to talk about,” Greddark said brusquely.
“No, but almost as entertaining,” the halfling replied with an impish grin that made his careworn face look surprisingly youthful. Though Sabira wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about him describing Tilde’s disappearance and the death of thirty Blademarks as entertainment.
Ir’Dayne shoved some papers aside and patted the bed beside him. It was then that Sabira noticed there were no chairs in the room.
“Sit, Marshal. It’s rude to make an old halfling crane his neck looking up at you.”
Though Sabira didn’t relish being that close to either the halfling or his pipe, she once again complied. Breven had told her to humor the head of the Wayfinder Foundation, and though she wasn’t normally the humoring type, she had a feeling honey would work better with this particular fly than bile.
She sat carefully on the edge of the bed, trying not to crush the maps and letters acting as a second blanket for ir’Dayne. She saw a map of the western half of the Menechtarun Desert, bounded on the north by the mountain chain known as the Skyraker Claws. A town was marked in red at the southern base of the mountains, the name “Trent’s Well” written beside it in small, precise letters. There were also manifests for an airship called the Seeker, a bill of goods from Riak’s, a Silver Flame prayer book and several old, yellowed parchments covered with strange writing that Sabira thought might be Draconic.
“Now, I’m sure Hendra told you I’ve been easily fatigued of late-aptly named, that one-so I’m going to try to keep this as brief and to-the-point as possible.” Sabira bit her cheek at that; considering that two halflings could take an hour just to say, “Hello, hot enough for you?” on a warm spring day, succinctness wasn’t something she’d come to expect from the small but fierce race.
“I’m assuming Breven gave you the pertinent facts?”
Sabira nodded, listing off what the Baron had told her.
“Brannan ir’Kethras discovered the caverns of Tarath Marad near an abandoned settlement on the edge of the Menechtarun-Trent’s Well, I’m guessing?” she asked, gesturing to the map. At ir’Dayne’s nod, she continued. “He was led there by a bit of Prophecy he’d unearthed on an expedition to the ancient giantish city of Tharkgun Dhak. The same Prophecy that indicated that a Deneith woman was needed to unlock a powerful treasure… though what exactly that ‘treasure’ might be is still a little unclear to me.”
The halfling puffed on his pipe for a moment before answering, his eyes having taken on a far-away expression. Sabira wondered if he was thinking of his own ill-fated expedition in the jungles of Xen’drik-maybe in Tharkgun Dhak itself. Ir’Dayne shook himself, his thin, wispy hair floating about his head in response. Sabira noticed the halfling wore a stud in his right ear, a dark bluish black gem that could have been a sapphire, but was more likely a Khyber dragonshard. Her distaste for the Wayfinder grew. While she understood their value, after her experiences with the murdering Nightshard in the Mror Holds, she tended to distrust anyone who would actually choose to wear the dark stones on their person.
“Not just any Deneith woman, as I’m sure you know. But, yes, a great treasure, one that could change the balance of power both under the surface and above it.”
He rummaged around for a moment on the bed, then found a stone tablet with more strange writing on it.
“Soon after Brannan made contact with the Umbragen-drow who fled into the depths of Khyber to escape slavery, though we still know very little about them-he discovered more of the Prophecy, which he and I both believe is related to this same treasure.” The halfling’s voice had taken on a lecturing tone, and she and Greddark exchanged longsuffering looks.
“Bound by eight locks
Her Heart breaks free
And bathes both worlds
“ ‘Heart’ is often another word for treasure, and the likelihood of there being more than one treasure with eight locks is very slim, so I think you’ll agree that our conclusion is the correct one.” As the Wayfinder continued, his voice grew stronger and a bit of color returned to his cheeks. He really was in his element playing the role of professor of antiquities. Sabira almost felt guilty for being utterly uninterested. Almost.
“The reference to ‘Her’ also correlates to the first bit of Prophecy,” he said, briefly holding up another chunk of stone with more of the same writing on it, though it was black and glossy where the first was a dull gray. “Though we’ve yet to fully understand who or what ‘She’ is, though ‘Spinner of Shadows’ would seem to indicate a weaver of some sort. A female spider deity peculiar to the Umbragen, perhaps-or at least to a splinter group thereof? My guess-”
“I thought the drow in Xen’drik worshiped scorpions, not spiders?” Greddark interrupted with a frown.
Ir’Dayne shrugged. “Well, scorpions and spiders are in the same class of animals, so it’s not as much of a stretch as it might appear. Add into that the fact that worship of an exclusively male deity like Vulkoor would naturally tend to alienate the female portion of the population, and it isn’t too surprising that worship of a similar, but more feminine aspect of the divine arachnid would gain a foothold among some of the drow. Those that worship the genderless Umbra are actually the most interesting of the three, since-”
The halfling caught himself, realizing he’d gone off on a tangent. He took another pull on his pipe before righting his course.
“In any case, though we don’t know the exact form this artifact takes, it seems clear it can only be unlocked-and probably wielded-by a female member of House Deneith, so we informed Baron Breven of our findings, and offered to help him recover it-for a small fee, of course.”
“And I believe you know the rest.”
Sabira highly doubted that, but she figured she knew enough, at least.
“Although there is one more thing…,” he added, digging again at the mound of papers, coming up with an old tattered bit of cloth pressed between two thin sheets of glass. “Ah, yes. Here it is.
“This was recovered in Waterworks beneath the Stormreach harbor. I believe it’s variant of the same Prophecy.”
He brought the glass-encased strip of fabric up to his face and squinted to read it. Sabira could see it was part of an ancient tapestry, though the writing was different from that of the other bits of Prophecy she’d seen.
“Then again,” ir’Dayne said, as if reading her mind, “since it’s written in a little known dialect of the ancient giants, I can understand why some of the others think differently. But I thought you should know about it, since it may change the nature of your mission.
“Her fate known e’re she graced the womb
Her birth signals her people’s doom
Her blood that both of stone and shield
The world will be her killing field.”
Wir, Barrakas 4, 998 YK
It doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means, you know.”
Sabira didn’t look over at the inquisitive, instead keeping her gaze on the city of Stormreach spread out below them. As the Seeker skimmed through the air toward Falconer’s Spire, Sabira couldn’t help but marvel, as always, at the architectural medley that was Stormreach. Remnants of giantish ruins, scavenged hulls from sunken ships, floating towers reminiscent of Sharn, Thrane curves and Karrnathi angles all coexisted in a surprisingly cohesive tapestry of colors, textures, and shapes. It was, in its own very peculiar way, beautiful.
Though she’d only been gone a couple of months, it still seemed as if the city had reinvented itself entirely in that time, with walls and buildings springing up where she didn’t remember there being any before. But that was the way of Stormreach, as it was of the inhabitants who lived here-constantly changing, ever growing, always surprising. It was what attracted so many explorers and adventurers to this vast continent, and what kept them coming back. No matter what it had been like when they left, they could be guaranteed it would be different when they returned.
In many ways, the city was the exact opposite of places like Krona Peak and Frostmantle in the Mror Holds, which prided themselves on constancy, and even some of the older human cities like those in Karrnath, too steeped in tradition to change easily, let alone willingly. Natives of Sharn, on the other hand, might find the city’s growth a bit too staid for their tastes, which probably explained why it had taken so long for groups like the criminal Boromar clan to find their way to Xen’drik’s shores. But that was changing now, too, and the city that had once been little more than an outpost for outcasts was becoming a metropolis in its own right. Where would the castoffs go when that happened? Farther south, into the jungles and desert? Even farther, to the edges of civilization, like Everice and Frostfell?
It wasn’t just idle musing on her part-the farther those who’d broken the law ranged, the farther Marshals like her would have to go to find them, wherever they were in Eberron.
Or under it.
The Lyrandar piloting the Seeker swung her expertly over the harbor, giving his passengers a magnificent view of both the lighthouse and the giant Emperor Cul’Sir with his double handful of light spearing up into the heavens. They passed over the Marketplace with its iconic red tent and then docked smoothly at Falconer’s Spire under the watchful eye of Zerchi the Spire-Keeper.
As they waited for the gangplank to be lowered, Sabira turned to Greddark, finally deigning to respond to his comment.
“And what do I think it means?”
The dwarf cocked a blond brow at her tone.
“Oh, I don’t know… that you’re destined to destroy everything and everyone?”
“Well, see, that’s the funny thing. First the Prophecy was referring to Tilde, and then Tilde failed to regain the artifact-or only partially succeeded, at any rate-and now suddenly it refers to me. And if I don’t make it back, then they’ll find someone else… Granite d’Deneith from Lakeside, maybe. That’s how prophecies and oracles and auguries work-they predict what someone in power decides they’re going to predict, and even if they don’t, they’re made to. It’s all a bunch of superstitious nonsense-something I’d think a self-proclaimed inquisitive and artificer would know.”
“Prophecy is just another form of magic, which both artificers and inquisitives use quite liberally. Why wouldn’t I believe in its power?”
“Precisely. You use magic and make it do what you want it to. Just as people like ir’Dayne and Breven use Prophecy to do what they want it to.” She looked at him askance. “If the Prophecy is real, then whatever it predicts is going to happen regardless of what we do, so why bother with it at all? Unless you want to use it to control what other people do.”
Greddark laughed and shook his head in mock amazement.
“Aggar was right about you. You are a dwarf in a human body.”
“Better than a human in a dwarf’s body, Sir Shortbeard. And what was that back in Sharn, anyway? ‘Make mine tea.’ Tea? Really?”
After ir’Dayne had dropped his “end of the world” bombshell, he’d succumbed to a long coughing fit, making further conversation impossible. When he’d recovered, he’d summoned Hendra, who’d taken them to a small sitting room while the Wayfinder wrote out a quick letter of introduction to his cohort, Brannan ir’Kethras. Hendra had offered them drinks while they waited. Sabira had requested Frostmantle Fire. Greddark had asked for Silverleaf tea.
“It’s a drink that stimulates without dulling the senses or loosening the tongue,” he responded haughtily. “Something quite beneficial in my line of work-and in yours, too, I would imagine.”
“Like I said,” Sabira replied smugly. As far as she was concerned, the dwarf had just proven her point for her.
She was saved from having to hear his response by the airship captain, another Lyrandar.
“Wayfinder Kupper-Nickel can take you the rest of the way from here, if you can afford him. He’s the warforged lurking around the base of the docking tower-can’t miss him.”
Sabira nodded her thanks to the fair-haired half-elf, then headed down the gangplank, Greddark in tow, fuming.
Wayfinder Kupper-Nickel was not, as it turned out, lurking at the base of Falconer’s Spire, but Loghan d’Deneith was. The mustached and goateed lieutenant called out to her as she and Greddark passed by.
“Sabira! Change your mind about helping me with my little problem?”
She paused, considering. She wasn’t going to help him, of course-the idea of leaving the Gladewatch garrison undefended in an attempt to lure the area’s raiders into an ambush was lunacy, and not something she wanted any part of. But Loghan might know where the warforged Wayfinder had gotten off to, so it might actually be worth a few moments of her time to speak to him, just this once.
“Still not interested in leading soldiers to their untimely deaths just so you can try to jump ranks, no. But if you help me with something, I might be able to recommend a few men who are a little more suicidal than I am.”
“Done!” he said, a little too eagerly for her taste. “What do you want to know?”
“Have you seen Kupper-Nickel?”
The Deneith man arced a curious brow.
“Headed out to the desert? What for?”
“My dwarf friend here’s spent a little too much time underground; Rhialle over in the Jorasco enclave prescribed some sun. Now, do you know where the Wayfinder is or not?”
“I’m pretty sure he headed over to the Cannith enclave, probably the Burnished Bull. Warforged seem to like it there; I guess because it’s where all the artificers go to drink.”
“Probably because they serve tea,” Greddark muttered, but Sabira pretended not to hear him.
“Thanks, Loghan. Try down at The Rusty Nail. Ask for a fat halfling named Gurobo, or find him at the bar. He’s got a long brown goatee and wears spectacles-I think he thinks they make him look smarter. Anyway, don’t let his appearance fool you; he’s actually a very accomplished wizard and he’s got a lot of friends. I’m sure he’ll be happy to help you out.” Well, for a price, but she’d let Loghan do his own haggling. And then Gurobo would help himself to a little more while the lieutenant wasn’t looking. Which would serve him right for going ahead with this ridiculous plan in the first place.
“Obliged,” the Deneith man said, nodding at them both as he headed off for the tavern.
“Come on,” Sabira said to Greddark after the lieutenant had left. “Let’s go get you some tea.”
Sabira was wary as they walked the short distance through the Marketplace toward the Cannith enclave. It was a little too close to that of House Kundarak, and if Thecla had already been released from custody, it was a fair bet that Arach had, as well. If he’d ever actually been arrested at all. She would have preferred to wait for the warforged Wayfinder to return to his post, but there was no telling how long that would take, and Sabira could well imagine every hour they delayed being tallied on Tilde’s skin with a bloody stylus.
She could have gone to the Phiarlan enclave and found Iosynne. The fair-haired elf archer led a caravan out to the desert on a fairly regular basis, but that would take days compared to hours on the airship. Sabira simply couldn’t afford the delay.
Or rather, Tilde couldn’t.
She tried not to think about the fact that Ned’s sister might already be dead. Or what it would mean for Sabira-and Elix-if she were.
The gates to the Cannith enclave were emblazoned with a stylized bull overlaying a tower that represented the House’s Manufactury, a vast complex that was home to all the enclave’s offices, warehouses, laboratories, and workshops. The foundation of the Manufactury was a golden gear, and three golden houses floated in the background-one each for Cannith South, Cannith East and Cannith West. The House had fractured after its ancestral forgehold in Cyre was destroyed on the Day of Mourning and the House patriarch was killed, leaving no direct heir.
Tellingly, the crest portrayed one house larger than the other two. Sabira was sure that must be Cannith South, headed by Merrix d’Cannith and controlling the family’s holdings in Breland, Zilargo, Darguun and now, apparently, Xen’drik.
As they entered through the gates, Greddark paused.
“It’s very… blue.”
Sabira snorted. It was that. Everbright lanterns in the shape of dragonshards adorned virtually every curved cornice, rounded windows blazed with light, and the undercarriages of magically-powered lifts similar to those in the City of Towers glowed even in the noontide sun. And they were all a bright, blinding blue.
“Maybe it’s Merrix’s favorite color?”
The Burnished Bull was on the left, but Sabira’s attention was caught by a House Cannith monitor challenging a group of three warforged just to the right of the enclave gate. Though she couldn’t hear everything, it seemed clear that the warforged were unhappy at being treated as mere laborers-or worse, virtual slaves-and were taking out their frustrations verbally on the hapless human. Sabira decided she didn’t particularly want to be around when the argument moved from heated words to unsheathed blades.
She led Greddark over to the tavern, passing beneath the sign that spun between two dragonshard-tipped horns. The motif was carried throughout the entire establishment-and indeed, the whole district-with the ends of steam pipes fashioned to look like snorting bulls and posts and poles on every edifice echoing the curvature of a gorgon’s horns.
The Canniths liked to style the Burnished Bull as an open-air establishment in the same vein as the Bogwater over in the Phiarlan enclave. But where the Bogwater was spacious and open to the sky, the Bull was dark and cramped, huddled under a wooden building supported by heavy vertical timbers, with some tables situated in the resulting shade and others open to the elements on a small patio. Posters were tacked up on some of the posts and on the patio walls, advertising everything from repair services for warforged to custom goggles for artificers. One small sheet showed a picture of an iron defender and offered grooming services, but Sabira was fairly certain it was meant as a joke.
The still was actually the most remarkable thing about the tavern. Like everything else in the ward, it glowed blue. Pumping pistons and shifting gears moved around its central vat, but Sabira was fairly sure they were only there for show, to make the tavern’s tinkering patrons feel as if they’d never left their cluttered workshops.
Despite Loghan’s assertion, there were only two warforged in the tavern, one of whom was the barkeep. The only other patrons were a halfling woman in a teal dress, a female elf with dark hair lounging against a post and reading a book, and another elf-blond and male-sitting on the patio admiring the view. None of them looked like artificers to her, a fact which the second warforged was loudly lamenting. She was beginning to wonder if Loghan might have misled her.
Greddark, who’d been content to follow her lead since they’d met in Sharn, stepped around her and walked up to the bar, taking the seat beside the complaining warforged.
“I understand you’re in need of an artificer? You’re in luck, friend. Darkgred d’Kundarak, Artificer and Other Things, at your service.” He stuck out a hand to the warforged. “What seems to be the problem?”
The warforged turned to him, the violet crystals of his eyes glowing. Though the metal construct’s face wasn’t capable of expression, he appeared to be sizing Greddark up. Seemingly satisfied with what he saw, he took the dwarf’s hand and answered.
“Dark Red? But your hair is white.”
Greddark blinked and Sabira had to stifle a laugh. His hair did look white in the glow from the still.
“ ‘Dark’ is fine. And you are?”
“Kupper-Nickel. And as a matter of fact, I do need an artificer’s service-either that, or a carpenter’s.” He lifted up a metal plate on his left arm to reveal sinuous muscles formed of wood. There were several discolored patches where the brown fibers were cracked and flaking.
Greddark clicked his tongue.
“Dry rot. Made a trip to the islands recently?”
“How did you know that?” If the warforged had eyebrows, Sabira was sure they would have shot up in time with the Wayfinder’s surprised tone.
“It’s caused by a fungus-not something you’d be likely to get doing airship runs to and from the desert. And it requires more moisture to take hold than you’d get here in the city, even with the constant drizzle.” Sabira was so used to the periodic warm rain that she hadn’t paid any attention when it had started again, but this was the dwarf’s first time in Stormreach, so of course he’d noticed. “Could have gotten it spelunking, I suppose, except it looks like the light in your right eye is a little dim, so I’m guessing you haven’t been seeing as well in the dark as you normally do. You’d have noticed the difference if you’d been underground recently.”
Sabira was impressed. She knew the dwarf was good at what he did-Aggar wouldn’t have sent him along otherwise-but she hadn’t expected him to be quite so observant. She resolved to be a little more careful what she revealed around him from now on.
The bartender spoke up.
“So he will lose the arm, then?”
“ What?” Kupper-Nickel exclaimed, his voice somehow managing to convey a higher octave than his vocal chords were actually capable of making.
“No, no,” Greddark hastened to assure him. “It’s true, when found in a building or a ship, a carpenter’s first reaction is usually to hack out the affected wood and graft in new timber, but you’re neither of those things-and I am not a carpenter. I’m an artificer, and we do things the right way.”
He pulled one of the silver charms off his gold armband. It grew in his hand until he held a short length of carved ivory that bore a large sapphire on one end and a diamond on the other. He grinned at Sabira.
“Whipped this up when Aggar told me we were going into the desert. Didn’t think I’d get a chance to try it out before then.”
“Try-?” Kupper-Nickel repeated, but Greddark grabbed the warforged’s wrist and jabbed the blue tip of the wand into the diseased wood.
“Don’t worry, this won’t hurt. Much.” He thumbed a silver switch on the side of the wand and said, “Desiccate!”
Nothing seemed to happen for a moment, but then she saw the warforged stiffen. She watched as the blue color bled from the sapphire and into the diamond on the other end, like water flowing from one vessel to another. When the once-blue sapphire was as white as the diamond had been, Greddark thumbed the switch again and removed the wand from Kupper-Nickel’s arm. It shrank back down to the size of the other charms, and he replaced it on his bracelet.
“How’s that feel?”
The dark spots on the warforged’s arm had lightened to match the color of the rest of the wood. The Wayfinder used his other hand to peel off chunks of dried-out wood like scabs, revealing normal-looking “muscle” below. He opened and closed his empty hand a few times, and Sabira watched as the wooden sinews flexed in response.
“Good as new,” the warforged replied, a smile that would never grace his face still infusing his words with pleasure. “But what did you do?”
“Trick I learned from a ranger I knew once, actually. ‘If it’s dry rot, then dry it’s not.’ It’s simple: Fungi need moisture to survive. Get rid of the water and the fungus dies. I actually figured we’d find the hydration properties of the wand more useful, but even when an artificer gets it wrong, he gets it right.”
Sabira rolled her eyes. Greddark was a little too self-satisfied for his own good, but before she could find just the right quip to bring him down a notch, Kupper-Nickel laughed, a strange tinny sound made even more bizarre by the fact that the warforged’s mouth didn’t move.
“He does indeed! What do I owe you, Dark, Artificer and Other Things?”
“How about passage to Trent’s Well?” Sabira answered quickly before the dwarf could respond. While Boroman ir’Dayne had written them a letter of introduction to Brannan ir’Kethras, he hadn’t given them any means of actually finding the head of the Tarath Marad excavation. And while she could have bought passage easily enough with Breven’s letter of credit, she wanted to save the bulk of that money for supplies and something resembling decent mercenaries.
“Fair enough,” the Wayfinder replied, holding out his hand. Greddark shook it somewhat sullenly before shooting a glare at Sabira.
The warforged turned to the barkeep, Glaive, to settle up his bill. Sabira took the opportunity to move closer to the dwarf, lowering her voice.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
“I was going to tell him he could buy me a cup of tea.”
Wir, Barrakas 4, 998 YK
Kupper-Nickel told them they were in luck. He had a desert run planned for today, but he had to leave right at the fourth bell. Gratitude notwithstanding, he had a schedule to keep. If they weren’t at Falconer’s Spire and aboard his red-winged airship by then, he’d have to go on without them and they’d either have to wait another two weeks for him to return or find someone else to take them. But considering the majority of the trips to Xen’drik’s interior were funded one way or another by the Aurum-which meant Arach-that wasn’t really an option. So Sabira’s next order of business was getting a group of men together to accompany her and Greddark across the desert and into the darkness below it. Quickly.
“Why not just go to the captain of the Sentinel Marshal outpost here?” the inquisitive asked as they sat at a table at the Burnished Bull. “Once he knows Breven sent you, surely he’ll give you his best and brightest for the task.”
Sabira laughed at that.
“First, Greigur wouldn’t give me charge of his best men if Dol Dorn himself appeared and commanded it to be so.” The Sovereign God of Strength and Steel, most Marshals revered either him or his sister, Dol Arrah, the Sovereign Goddess of Sun and Sacrifice. Though if Sabira had been pressed to choose, she would have eschewed them both for Olladra. At least the goddess of luck didn’t pretend she was anything other than fickle.
“Second, Breven doesn’t want him to know anything about it. Greigur would be far more likely to send his own men after the artifact than he would be to help the Baron retrieve it, so we’ve got to make sure he doesn’t know anything about it. Which is going to make hiring a handful of Deneith soldiers under his nose a very tricky proposition.”
“Why do they have to be Deneith?”
That gave Sabira pause. Breven hadn’t told her she needed to hire men from the House; in fact, he hadn’t specifically told her she needed to take anyone with her at all, though he must have meant for her to do so when he gave her access to his bank account.
But thirty Blademarks and a powerful sorceress had gone down into Tarath Marad, and the only one who returned was their guide. If Sabira was going to follow in their footsteps, she wanted the best warriors she could find at her back. She’d just assumed they’d be wearing the Deneith chimera on their armor, but Greddark was right. There were other mercenaries in Stormreach, ones whose services could be bought without Greigur’s knowledge, and their steel was just as sharp as that of anyone who wore the green and yellow.
Sabira chuckled self-deprecatingly. As often as she ridiculed others for their blind obedience to the House, her assumption that Deneith warriors were superior to any others simply by virtue of their name was just another side of the same coin. She was suddenly glad she wasn’t traveling with either Aggar or Elix-both of them would have seen her hypocrisy in an instant, and only one of them might have kept quiet about it.
“They don’t, necessarily. But I don’t know who else we can find, hire, and supply before the fourth bell.”
Greddark shrugged. “How about some warforged? A lot of them don’t seem too happy working for Cannith right now; I’d bet they’d jump at the chance to prove they’re more than just two-legged toolboxes.” He looked over at Glaive, who was bringing them two mugs of cider, since the tavern sadly carried neither tea nor dwarven whiskey.
“No offense meant,” he said to the warforged.
“The mere fact that you are concerned I might be offended proves that,” the barkeep replied as he set down their drinks. “How many warriors do you need?”
Sabira chewed her lip thoughtfully. Tilde had gone in with thirty men, but the very size of her party could have led to its demise-the larger the group, the harder it was to pass unnoticed by the things that lurked in the shadows, or to maneuver in tight places when such notice could not be escaped.
She looked over at Greddark inquiringly, but the dwarf shrugged, as if to say, “It’s your show.”
“It’s not a question of how many,” she said after a moment. “It’s a question of how good they are.”
Glaive nodded his approval.
“In that case, you will want to speak to Bardiche. He is a warforged in search of a purpose-better you give it to him than the Lord of Blades.”
“The Lord of Blades?” Sabira repeated in surprise. “I didn’t know his cult extended this far outside the Mournland.”
She didn’t know much about the shadowy figure, and everything she had heard was full of exaggeration and contradiction. By all accounts a powerful and charismatic warforged, the Lord of Blades was rumored to be building an empire for the living constructs out of the bones and ashes of the nation that had once been Cyre-though for what purpose, no one could truly say. She’d heard him variously described as a teacher and a prophet, a warlord and a madman. The truth, of course, was probably somewhere in between those extremes.
What she hadn’t heard was that he had any interest-or sway-in Stormreach. That would certainly explain the unrest among the Cannith warforged. Though the Treaty of Thronehold had given the warforged their freedom at the end of the Last War, there were many people who still regarded the metal men as little more than slaves. Even the most enlightened tended to see the warforged, who had originally been created as weapons of war, as painful reminders of that century-long struggle. Few accepted them as actual people, let alone individuals with abilities and desires that might well have nothing to do with warfare.
If asked, she would have said Stormreach, home of misfits and outcasts, was a perfect haven for warforged-or anyone, really-struggling to find acceptance in the wider world of Eberron. Apparently, she would have been wrong.
“There are many Bladesworn among my brethren now,” Glaive replied. “Some say the Lord of Blades himself has come to Xen’drik, seeking an ancient device that will give him ultimate power.”
“Lot of that going around,” Greddark said, and Sabira kicked him beneath the table.
“So where can I find this Bardiche?” she asked a little too loudly, giving the dwarf a dirty look.
Glaive seemed oblivious to the exchange. More likely, he just didn’t know what to make of the silly fleshlings.
“When last I saw him, he was near the Maker’s Gate with two others, arguing with one of the monitors. If he has not yet been taken into custody for his impertinence, you may still find him there. You will know him by the dramatic flourishes he uses when he speaks. I believe his makers may originally have intended for him to serve House Phiarlan.”
“Wait. They arrest people for impertinence here? You might as well turn yourself in now, Sabira,” Greddark quipped, pushing the bench back to avoid another blow to his shin as he made to rise.
Before Sabira could think of a properly scathing rejoinder, Glaive put a hand on the dwarf’s shoulder to stop him.
“Your pardon, Dark Artificer, but having seen your skill in aiding Kupper-Nickel, I am hopeful you might be able to assist another of my brethren who has all but lost the use of his right arm. The Cannith artificers want to remove it and replace it with a blade or a hammer, or some other implement of war. Perhaps even something similar to a rune arm-”
“Rune arm!” Greddark interrupted with a disdainful snort. “Don’t know what the Canniths see in them. Bulky things. Make it impossible to drink your tea. Give me blade or a wand any day.”
Glaive paused for a moment, nonplussed. When he was sure the dwarf’s outburst was over, he continued.
“But Jester has worked diligently to master the lyre and fears that he will no longer be able to play once they are finished with him. If you could perhaps offer him another alternative, I know he would be very grateful. He might even be willing to join you on your quest. While he longs to play at the Livewood, he is quite agile and his services might be of use to you.”
Greddark looked over at her, and Sabira shrugged.
“Go. I can talk to Bardiche myself. Though I’m not really sure we need two jesters on this trip. Maybe if the warforged turns out to be funnier, I’ll take him with me instead and you can stay here and keep pretending you’re a Cannith instead of a Kundarak.”
She gave him an acid smile and stood up.
“Better than pretending I’m a Deneith,” the dwarf muttered under his breath as she walked away, but she acted like she hadn’t heard him.
“… can’t loiter around here all day. Move along.”
The Cannith monitor-a different one from when they’d first come into the enclave-was waving his crossbow around as the lead warforged responded theatrically, wringing his hands. The gesture was both amusing and somewhat pathetic, given his face’s total lack of ability to convey the accompanying anguish.
“All we want are jobs. A mission, a reason to exist. If we cannot find that here, where we were made, then where can we?”
Glaive was right. Bardiche would have fit right in with the players of House Phiarlan. He’d have made an excellent actor if he’d been anything other than a warforged.
“That’s not my problem,” the monitor replied impatiently as Sabira approached. “You need to move along. Word is the warforged are becoming a danger to the peace-loving residents of this ward.”
“If we are a danger, it is because you made us this way!” the amethyst-eyed warforged replied angrily.
Just then, the Cannith man noticed Sabira.
“These warforged are too stubborn for their own good,” he complained to her, obviously thinking her an ally by virtue of the fact that she was made of flesh and bone instead of metal and wood.
“They’re trying to get rid of us,” Bardiche protested, turning to her, “pretend we don’t even exist!”
One of the other two warforged, a green and yellow model with green crystals for eyes who looked like he’d been custom-forged for House Deneith, moved up to stand beside Bardiche.
“We were made to be stronger than flesh. Why should we let flesh push us around?”
His voice was low and ominous and Sabira had to resist the urge to reach for her urgrosh.
The red-eyed warforged behind him spoke up.
“House Cannith made us, and now they treat us like dirt. Maybe the Lord of Blades is right…”
“Right about what?” Sabira challenged, knowing this wasn’t her battle but not able to let the inherent threat hang in the air, unaddressed. “That you should rise up against the fleshlings and take what is yours by force? Is that what he’s preaching? War against the combined might of every breathing race on the face of Eberron? Because that’s what you’ll be facing if you rise up against Cannith-you have to know that. Eradication, not revolution. Is that really what you want?”
Green Eyes looked at her, his hands flexing at his sides. The monitor was no longer waving his crossbow around-it was aimed, and cocked.
“We never asked to be created! But now that we have been, Cannith owes us-”
“ Nothing,” Sabira replied coldly. “So what if you didn’t ask to be made? Who among us did? The mere fact of our existence doesn’t somehow entitle us to anything more than what we can earn with our sweat and buy with our blood. Why should warforged be any different in that respect than their creators? Or would you rise up against the Sovereigns themselves, then? Your fate would be less certain, at least, if not any less miserable.”
“All we want is freedom-” the apologist for the Lord of Blades began, but Sabira interrupted him too.
“Which you were given at the end of the Last War. I don’t see any chains keeping you here. If they exist, they’re of your own making.”
The two warforged stepped back, muttering, and the monitor lowered his crossbow, looking relieved. Sabira turned to Bardiche.
“Glaive sent me here to find some warriors for an expedition I’m outfitting, but I’m thinking these are probably not the warforged for the job. So unless you know some others…?”
“You have to understand-” the would-be actor began, but Sabira held up a hand to forestall him.
“No. No, I really don’t. I’m looking to hire blades, not philosophers.” Or, Host help her, anarchists. She might bend or sidestep the rules from time to time, but she at least acknowledged their existence. “If you can’t help me, I’ll look somewhere else.”
Bardiche gave her a short, apologetic bow.
“It is true, we seek a mission, but not, I fear, the one you’re offering.”
Since she hadn’t actually offered it yet, Sabira knew it wasn’t the job they were rejecting so much as the opinions that came with it, but she was fine with that. The last thing she needed was to head into the depths of Tarath Marad wondering if she might wake up with a warforged blade in her belly because she’d had the temerity to be born with a pulse.
As she turned to walk away, the warforged reached out a quick hand to stop her. The monitor’s crossbow snapped back up and his finger had pulled the trigger halfway home before she could wave him off.
“There is one who might be interested. Guisarme shares many of the same beliefs about the Lord of Blades and his mission that you seem to. Perhaps you would find his company more… favorable… than ours.”
She could hardly find it less so, but she didn’t think that really bore mentioning.
“He is working on a ventilation shaft two flights up. Pass the Gorgon on the left side and another set of stairs on your right and you should find him there in a small courtyard.”
“The Gorgon?” Not particularly helpful, considering the bull iconography was rampant in Cannith’s enclave, even more so than the chimera was in Deneith’s.
“The giant floating bull’s head.”
Ah. That narrowed it down. Even she knew where that was, and all her previous trips here had begun and ended at the tavern.
“Good luck to you,” Bardiche said, extending his hand.
Sabira hesitated a moment before accepting the grasp.
“Can’t say as I wish you the same, considering, but I hope you and your brethren realize that you’re freer than you know before you do anything rash.” Of course, she didn’t have a lot of faith in epiphanies, so she planned on making sure she wasn’t around, just in case.
She nodded to the monitor and then made her way up the two flights of stairs to the level that featured the Gorgon. As Bardiche had said, it was essentially an enormous bull’s head atop a floating pedestal that seemed to be powered by a gigantic blue orb that glowed and crackled with arcane energies. It was an ostentatious display of power and craftsmanship, one far more suited to the larger metropolises of Khorvaire than to this wild jungle continent. Toven d’Cannith, the head of the enclave, had certainly outdone himself. The sight was enough to make the true heads of the House-Merrix, Jorlana, and Zorlan-green with envy. Either that, or white with fear.
First Greigur with his royal purple crest that had nothing of the traditional Deneith green and yellow in it, and now Toven with his Gorgon to rival the relics of the giants. Sabira was beginning to wonder if all the dragonmarked Houses arranged for their overly-ambitious scions to be sent away to Xen’drik before they could cause problems on the larger continent.
Then again, if that were true, the population of Stormreach would be much, much higher.
Sabira saw a warforged hammering at the side of a building in a tiny dirt courtyard that boasted a single tree and some tall bushes. As she neared, she saw it was indeed a ventilation shaft he was working on, with a large fan that circulated air to workers in levels far below the enclave.
The warforged noticed her and paused in his work. He regarded her with unblinking violet eyes.
“They like to talk about House Cannith and its amazing devices,” he said conversationally. “But somehow they never seem to mention the folks who keep those devices running, day and night.”
“Well, they are the House of Making, not the House of Maintenance,” Sabira replied, wondering belatedly if Bardiche’s idea of “favorable” had anything in common with her own.
Guisarme surprised her by opening his mouth wide in a booming laugh that echoed off the walls of the small enclosure.
As his laughter was trailing off, Sabira heard a noise behind her and turned. A small crowd of men and women had gathered at the sound. None of them looked happy, and some of them bore naked steel.
“Kanjira said the one who attacked her had a hammer-that must be him. Get him!”
Wir, Barrakas 4, 998 YK
Sabira pulled out her brooch and held it up. “Not happening, folks. I’d suggest you put those weapons down and back off until I can get to the bottom of this.” The group hesitated, not yet unruly enough to challenge a Sentinel Marshal, even if the odds were ten to one in their favor. “Now. What exactly is it Guisarme here is supposed to have done?”
A thin man stepped forward, spurred on by a large woman in garish purple skirts who could only be his wife. Her face was bright red and contorted with hatred as she looked at the warforged, and Sabira was concerned the woman might collapse in an apoplectic fit at any moment.
“That warforged attacked my daughter behind the Crafting Hall! He hit her in the head with that hammer and took her pouch! And now we’re going to teach him a lesson!”
The Crafting Hall was across the square, one of several buildings-like the one Guisarme was working on-that faced the Gorgon and saw a lot of foot traffic. It seemed an unlikely place for a robbery, especially in the middle of the day.
“With that hammer there?” Sabira asked. The crowd was on her right and Guisarme was on her left, so she stepped back toward the building as she gestured, to give the angry parents and their followers a better view. Guisarme held out the small sledge he’d been working with. “The one that is completely free of blood?”
“So? He wiped it off!”
“On what?” Sabira countered. “His clothes-the ones he’s not wearing? The nonexistent grass? Oh, I know. He wiped it off on a rag which he then stashed in the same place where he put the money he stole, somewhere in between this little courtyard and the Crafting Hall less than one hundred feet from here. All while about a dozen people and their iron dogs milled around, including a handful of Cannith monitors. Yes, that makes perfect sense.”
“In the bushes, then!”
Well, that was barely possible, she supposed, though it would make Guisarme the stupidest thief she’d ever encountered. Either that, or the cockiest.
“Look for yourself,” she said magnanimously. As Kanjira’s mother moved forward, Sabira shook her head. “No, not you.” She didn’t trust the woman not to cut herself behind the bushes and drop her own pouch to fabricate evidence against the warforged.
“You.” She pointed at an orc who’d wandered over to the edge of the crowd, attracted by all the commotion. “What’s your name?”
“Skraad Walor,” he replied. “It’s a travesty, seeing a proud warrior treated this way.”
She wasn’t sure if he meant Guisarme or Kanjira’s mother-or possibly Kanjira herself, who was conspicuously absent from the mob that had formed to avenge her.
“Actually, a travesty is what I’m trying to prevent. So, if you wouldn’t mind…?”
The orc pushed his way through the crowd, which had grown in number, though it didn’t yet include any House Cannith monitors. Surely the enclave’s security must be aware of the situation by now. Sabira had to wonder what they were waiting for.
He crossed the dirt yard in three steps and shoved the bushes aside, bending low to examine the ground and disappearing behind the greenery in the process. After a moment of searching, he reappeared, holding up something in his left hand.
A bloodthirsty cheer went up from the mob until the orc stepped back out onto the dirt and proceeded to smooth out the crumpled up paper he’d found. It was a copy of the Stormreach Chronicle.
“Droaam Expedition Lands in Xen’drik!” he read, in a surprisingly good imitation of a Chronicle newsboy. “Invasion Rumors Spread!”
He made a show of examining the broadsheet front and back.
“No blood. No pouch. No warforged prints, either. Sorry.” He balled the paper up and threw it back into the bushes.
Sabira turned to Kanjira’s mother, who was even redder than before, though Sabira would have bet a hefty sum that particular shade of crimson wasn’t humanly possible.
“It seems like you have the wrong warforged. Maybe you might want to get back to Kanjira and try tracking down the real culprit now? Though he’s probably halfway to the harbor by this time.”
Several of the members of the crowd started to move away, murmuring in disappointment. Sabira was relieved to see more than one sword make its way back into its sheath. It would be nice to settle this without having to bloody her shard axe.
Kanjira’s father placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder, but she shrugged him off. Another man moved up behind her, and by his size and florid complexion, Sabira guessed he was either Kanjira’s maternal uncle or her brother.
“I don’t care what you say, I don’t care who you are-I know that warforged attacked my daughter, and he’s going to pay!”
“Melcare!” her husband yelled in warning, but it was too late. The woman pulled a dagger from her voluminous skirts and darted around Sabira to try to get at Guisarme.
With an annoyed sigh, Sabira set her feet and grabbed the woman’s long braid as she passed. Just as the slack played out, Sabira put all her weight on her right foot and yanked as hard as she could. Melcare’s head snapped back and she was lifted several inches off the ground as Sabira pivoted and then released her hold in one smooth motion. The woman went tumbling into the dirt courtyard, skirts fluttering as she fetched up against the base of the tree and lay there, unmoving.
“What have you done to my mother?” the red-faced man shouted, drawing a pair of long knives from sheathes hidden in his sleeves and advancing toward her.
“Pulled her hair and got her dress dirty?” Sabira replied, reaching around to unharness her urgrosh as she took a step back to give herself more room to maneuver. “Considering she drew a weapon against a Sentinel Marshal, she’s lucky she’s still breathing. Are you really that anxious to find out how far your family’s luck-or my patience-will hold out?”
“Save it, you metal-loving bitch!” he growled, bringing one blade down in an overhead strike while he lunged at her midsection with the other, as if he were trying to enfold her in a deadly, drunken hug.
Sabira whipped her shard axe out and across, catching his left elbow with the cheek of the axe and sending the knife headed for her stomach flying into the courtyard. The force of her blow rocked him back and the other blade went wide. On her backswing, she brought the sharpened dragonshard that formed the spear tip of the urgrosh down into the meatiest portion of the man’s right thigh, then jerked it back out again with equal force.
As blood spurted, he dropped the other blade and clutched at his leg. A kick sent him sprawling onto the ground, where he rolled around in agony.
Sabira turned to face what remained of the crowd, her shard axe held across her body in an easy two-handed grip.
“So. Who else is feeling suicidal today?”
There was a sound behind her and Skraad yelled, “ ’Ware the mother!”
Sabira spun, expecting to see Melcare. Instead, the blade the woman had thrown skimmed Sabira’s cheek before impaling itself into the wood of the building behind her with a quivering thunk.
Stupid, stupid, she chided herself, even as she advanced on the woman who stood up against the tree, dagger held out in front of her. The scar would serve her right for disregarding a potential foe just because she looked more like a washerwoman than a warrior.
Melcare’s eyes were wide and frightened, but determined. She’d thrown her son’s knife, which had landed on the ground near her when Sabira disarmed him. While the woman was definitely skilled with a blade from a distance, it was clear she wasn’t as comfortable in hand-to-hand combat, and the dagger shook in her grasp. But she didn’t lower the weapon as Sabira stalked toward her; instead, she raised her chin defiantly.
Sabira had no desire to hurt the woman. Melcare obviously really believed Guisarme was the culprit, all evidence to the contrary, and she was simply trying to protect her daughter-and now, her son. Sabira could understand the maternal instinct, even if she didn’t share it.
Ideally, she’d disarm the woman and put her in shackles, but that would mean putting her shard axe aside while there were still potential enemies at her back. Sabira had already let her guard down once today and had blood seeping down her face as a result. She didn’t particularly want to add blood from a sword thrust to the ribs into the mix.
So she did the next best thing. She transferred her urgrosh to her left hand with a flourish meant to distract the other woman. When Melcare’s eyes left hers to follow the axe, Sabira pulled her right arm back and punched the hapless woman under the chin. Melcare’s head snapped up against the trunk of the tree and her eyes rolled back, showing the whites. As she dropped the dagger and her knees gave out, Sabira caught the other woman around the waist with her free arm and lowered her to the ground. She made sure to step on the dagger blade this time, just in case the woman was a better actress than she let on.
Then she straightened and looked back at the father. He was alone now, save for three House Cannith monitors who had their crossbows trained on Sabira. The rest of the crowd had disappeared, deciding they hated warforged less than they wanted to be arrested.
“Drop the-” one of the monitors began, then caught sight of her brooch. He lowered his weapon, motioning for his companions to do the same.
“Your pardon, Marshal. We heard a commotion and came to see what the problem was.”
More like, they heard a commotion and watched until they were certain they wouldn’t have to lift a finger themselves to resolve it before stepping in to take credit for keeping the peace. But what were a few pertinent details among fellow defenders of law and order?
“The ‘problem’ is that you stood by and let a mob form to persecute an innocent warforged and got a Sentinel Marshal wounded in the process. You’re just lucky I don’t have time to take this up personally with your superiors, but rest assured that Captain Greigur will hear about this and he will make the time.”
She had no intention of filing a report with Greigur, of course, but the monitors didn’t need to know that.
“According to this man here, Marshal,” said another of the monitors, clearly taking umbrage at her tone, “he and his companions were trying to conduct an orderly, lawful citizen’s arrest on this warforged when you interfered and wounded two unarmed Cannith residents in the process.”
Sabira’s brows shot up and she couldn’t suppress an incredulous laugh. She kicked the dagger toward him.
“Sure, they’re unarmed now — how exactly do you suppose they got that way? Or do you think maybe I threw that knife at myself?” she asked, pointing to the blade stuck in the wall near the ventilation shaft.
“The Sentinel Marshal speaks truly,” Guisarme said, though after seeing the dark looks he got for it, Sabira sort of wished he hadn’t. She didn’t really think his support would earn her any favor in the monitors’ eyes. “The fleshlings accused me of assaulting their daughter, but I have been here working on this ventilation shaft since the first bell. Those were my instructions, to work until the fourth bell, or until the fan was fixed, whichever came sooner. As you can see, two of the fan blades are still in need of straightening. As I have not yet completed my task, I have not left my post.”
“The ’forged is right,” came a gruff voice from above. Sabira looked up to see Skraad standing on the stairs that overlooked the courtyard. She’d wondered where the orc had gotten off to, but assumed he’d left when the monitors showed up, like the others. She saw a hand crossbow hanging from his belt that hadn’t been there before and realized he’d moved to better cover the courtyard. “Humans came looking for warforged blood, and his was the most convenient. If the Marshal hadn’t been here, you’d’ve had a corpse to clean up instead of two rabble-rousers to arrest. You should be thanking her, not aiming a quarrel at her.”
The third monitor, a woman who hadn’t spoken yet, leveled her crossbow at Skraad.
“You telling us our job, orc?”
Skraad raised his hands and shook his head, backing down. Probably a wise choice.
Too bad Sabira wasn’t the backing down type.
“Somebody has to, apparently,” she said. “I’ve no doubt a crime was committed, but not by this warforged.” Not this time, anyway. Sabira wasn’t about to vouch for the metal man’s innocence in any other regard. Dolurrh, he could have assaulted Kanjira, for all she knew-the mob just didn’t have anything resembling actual proof of it. “So let’s not compound one wrongdoing with another, hmm?”
The first monitor-the one who’d had sense enough to apologize for pointing his weapon at her-spoke again, but his voice wasn’t nearly as conciliatory the second time around.
“You’re absolutely right, Marshal. Which is why I’d suggest you and your new friends leave the enclave now while you have the chance. I can’t guarantee that mob won’t be back, and we can’t be everywhere at once.”
It wasn’t a particularly subtle threat, but she supposed it didn’t need to be. Brooch or no, this was Cannith’s enclave, and even the authority of the chimera would only stretch so far.
“Well,” she said, looking over at Guisarme, “I did come here to offer you a job.”
“I already have a job,” the warforged replied, gesturing to the bent fan blades.
“No,” Sabira answered, shaking her head. “No, I don’t think you do.”
Guisarme turned to the monitors and read the truth of her words in their faces. With a noise that would have been a sigh in a race that actually needed to breathe, he hefted his hammer up onto his shoulder.
“Well, then, House Cannith will have to find someone else to keep this machine running for them. And I will retrieve this, as it is part of my armor and so technically belongs to my new employer.” His hand darted into the spinning fan blades faster than Sabira could see and pulled out a finger plate he’d used to jury-rig the fan. With the bit of metal removed, the fan slowed to a stop with a clanking noise and black smoke started wisping up from the shaft in a matter of moments.
Sabira bit her lip to keep from laughing and looked up at the orc.
“What about you? Interested in a job?”
Skraad’s nostrils flared.
“How much I make and how many I get to kill,” the orc said with a grin.
“Plenty of both where we’re going.”
The grin widened.
“I’m in. Just have to say good-bye to my brother Garsk first.”
“Meet us at the Bull in a quarter bell, then. We leave on the hour.”
As the orc jogged down the stairs and out of sight, Sabira slapped her urgrosh back into its harness. Then she strode over to the monitors, sidestepping Melcare’s son, who was still lying in the dirt and whimpering softly, even though the blood had long since stopped flowing from the wound in his thigh. He glared at her as she passed, which she thought was rather unfair, considering she’d intentionally avoided the femoral artery. You’d think the man would be grateful he was still alive to feel the pain, dull as it must be by now.
She stopped by Kanjira’s father, who at least had the grace to look embarrassed.
“I hope you find who attacked your daughter. Just make sure you have the right guy before you try to gut him this time, hmm?”
She smiled up at the monitor who’d invited her to leave.
“Great enclave you have here. I’ll make sure to tell all my friends not to visit.”
Then she walked away with Guisarme at her side, wondering how in the name of Khyber a Sentinel Marshal, a dwarf, two warforged, and an orc were going to be able to accomplish what a powerful sorceress and a seasoned group of Blademarks had been unable to. Given a hand like that in Jarot’s Bluff, she’d have folded without a second thought. Unfortunately, quitting wasn’t an option. She could only hope winning still was.
Wir, Barrakas 4, 998 YK
Greddark wasn’t waiting for them at the Burnished Bull, but a small warforged with reddish armor was. Glaive introduced him as Jester, though it wasn’t really necessary-the lyre on his back and the rapier at his hip gave him away. Considering the last warforged Sabira had seen carrying a musical instrument had lifted her pouch back in the Mror Holds, she resolved to keep an eye on this one. Given the choice, she’d trust a self-proclaimed thief over a bard any day-at least you knew the thief would try to rob you; the only question was when. With a bard, the questions began with “if” and ended in “how” and the only one you’d ever really know the answer to was “why”-because it would make a great story.
After his introduction, Jester told her that Greddark had instructed him to wait at the bar for her, and said that if he wasn’t back by the time she arrived, to head for the airship and he would meet them there. Then the dwarf had gone over and spoken at length with the dark-haired elf woman before leaving the enclave via the Maker’s Gate.
That piqued Sabira’s curiosity. Was the dwarf’s craving for tea really so strong he had to go seek it out right before they were scheduled to leave? He was worse than a pampered noblewoman in her eighth month!
She strode over to the elf, whose head was buried in her book. The elf woman looked up as she approached, and Sabira caught a glimpse of the book’s title: True Teachings on Death and Resurrection.
Ah. The elf was a Flamer. She should have guessed.
One of the newer religions on Khorvaire, worship of the Silver Flame revolved around a human paladin, Tira Miron, who, together with a couatl, had merged with a pillar of argent fire almost seven hundred years ago to stop a demon from escaping Khyber and destroying all of Eberron. Its worshipers believed that Miron had become immortal in that union and spoke to their leader-the so-called Keeper of the Flame, the one who’d summoned Elix, who was currently an eleven-year-old girl-through the silver fire that still burned beneath Flamekeep, their holy fortress in Thrane. They saw it as their mission to rid Eberron of all evil, though from what Sabira could tell, the exact nature of that evil varied from worshiper to worshiper.
Take, for instance, your average Stormreach Flamer. They saw nothing wrong with raising a fallen comrade from the dead, calling them back from their rightful place within the Flame to continue the battle against evil. On Khorvaire, though, Flamers would consider such an act to be the vilest form of sacrilege.
Sabira wasn’t a Flamer, but having grown up in Karrnath, where the honored dead were often brought back to a semblance of life to continue to protect and defend the homeland, she thought she’d probably side with the Stormreach faction on this one.
“Hail, brave wanderer. I am Inamil Mattor, and in the name of the Silver Flame, I welcome you to this place,” the elf woman said as she approached, giving her a wide, friendly smile.
“I understand my friend spoke to you before leaving the enclave,” Sabira replied, by way of introduction. “Any idea where he went? We’re sort of on a tight schedule here.”
“I speak to many lost souls here in Stormreach,” Inamil responded, her smile losing none of its shine at Sabira’s terseness. “And any who call evil an enemy is one whom I would call friend.”
Sabira sighed. What was it with the people in this enclave, anyway? She really didn’t have time for yet another philosophical debate.
She held her hand up at shoulder height.
“Dwarf. About this tall. Not much in the way of a beard, and he was probably asking if you knew of any taverns in the area that serve tea.”
“Ah. Master Gared. Yes, we did speak. And no, he was not interested in tea. Though, now that you mention it, they do serve a…”
Gared? Really? If the dwarf was going to continue using fake names wherever he went, Sabira was going to have to insist that they at least be a little more original. And he was going to have to give her note cards so she could keep them all straight.
“Yes, that’s wonderful; I’ll be sure to pass it on,” Sabira said, trying to hurry the woman up. “Now, where did you say he went?”
“I didn’t,” Inamil replied, her infuriating smile not slipping an inch, “because I don’t know. But Gared did ask me if the Church maintained a library in Stormreach. I of course mentioned the Sanctuary, which does have an extensive archival collection…”
The Sanctuary was, in theory, an asylum for worshipers of the Silver Flame whose struggles against evil had driven them past the brink of sanity. Better known to locals as “the Catacombs,” the asylum was an imposing domed structure crowned and flanked by great bowls of flickering argent fire. Sabira had been there a time or two to help out a Flamer friar with his wayward niece. But despite its orderly appearance and religious cast, the so-called Sanctuary wasn’t any different from a dozen other similar institutions throughout Khorvaire-it was a place to get rid of the inconvenient and incriminating without actually killing them; nothing more.
Which didn’t explain why Greddark had decided to pay the place a last-minute visit on their way out of Stormreach. But considering that the first of the four bells that marked the hour were beginning to echo throughout the enclave, it wasn’t an answer she was going to get right now.
Sabira thanked the elf woman for her time and then gestured for the others to follow her. Skraad had rejoined the group and Sabira outlined the basics of the expedition to the three of them as they headed through the Maker’s Gate and back out into the Marketplace. She kept it simple; there would be time enough for details when they were in the air.
The Sanctuary was just to the north of the Maker’s Gate in a small, oddly-shaped courtyard that housed only the asylum and a central fountain. The flagstone plaza had three obvious exits: The Maker’s Gate in the southeast and two other openings in the high walls that surrounded the courtyard, one in the west and one in the northwest. The western exit led to the ramshackle district known as Soulgate and the northwestern one opened up into the area of the Marketplace that housed the entrances to both the Kundarak and Jorasco enclaves.
Of course, in Stormreach, you’d be a fool to ignore the less obvious exits-namely, the ladders. For just as Stormreach was a city of many eras, cultures, and races, it was also a city of many layers.
There was the city proper, the only one that most people ever saw, where the more civilized races held sway-humans, elves, halflings, and dwarves. Sabira didn’t consider the half-orcs to be civilized, and after today, the idea of warforged holding anything resembling “sway” was clearly laughable, but Stormreach did have a sizeable population of both of those races, as well.
Then there was the city below. Consisting primarily of the sewers formed from remnants of the giants’ ancient plumbing system, this underground world housed tribes of kobolds and troglodytes, gang hideouts, and all manner of wandering creatures.
Finally, there was the city above, a series of rooftops, balconies, and wooden bridges accessed by the ladders that clung tenaciously to the sides of buildings and walls in every district of Stormreach. The domain of cutpurses and petty thieves who knew the Stormreach Guard was too lazy to follow them up into the heights, the city above also offered a way to cross most of any given district without ever touching the ground-as long as you were nimble of foot and immune to random attacks of vertigo, that was. Since Sabira was neither, she tended to steer clear of that part of the city almost as much as she did the sewers, and the Deneith and Kundarak enclaves. And the House Cannith enclave now too.
Though give her another week here and she’d probably find herself forced to travel the heights just to avoid all the people out for her blood. Good thing she wasn’t staying even another hour.
Since she wanted to avoid the Kundarak enclave, Sabira headed toward the Soulgate exit. As she led the group past the fountain, she spied Friar Renau on the other side. She paused, debating whether or not to ask the old man if he’d seen Greddark when the dwarf saved her the trouble by hurrying through the asylum gates, tucking something into his shirt. When he caught sight of Sabira, he jogged over to her. The last of the four bells was just beginning to ring.
“What are you standing around for? We’re going to be late!”
Sabira opened her mouth to respond and then thought better of it. He was right-even if his jaunt into the Catacombs was part of the reason they were behind schedule. It was just one more thing she would deal with once they were aboard the airship and headed out to the Menechtarun.
If they ever actually made it that far. As they headed out of the courtyard toward Falconer’s Spire, Sabira heard a shout behind them.
“Stop that dwarf!”
“I think that’s our cue to run.”
Sabira didn’t even bother to ask why; the crossbow bolt that whizzed past her ear told her all she really needed to know.
“This way!” she cried, sprinting toward the western exit. They were halfway there when a group of men in silver armor walked into the courtyard in a group, laughing and chatting.
Wonderful. She’d forgotten that the fourth bell was shift change.
As the Silver Flame guards behind them started yelling at the guards in front of them, Sabira changed direction, making for the northwestern exit instead. She offered up a quick prayer to Olladra that Arach wouldn’t choose that precise moment to walk out of the Kundarak enclave with a dozen of his own guards in tow, but Sabira wasn’t sure the goddess of luck could hear her over the indignant cries of the Flamers-or that the Sovereign would answer Sabira’s supplications even if she could hear them.
But it seemed her luck hadn’t completely run out, for the walled area outside the courtyard was empty, save for a dwarf panhandler who shouted dire warnings at them as they passed by.
She led her motley group past the stump of a massive giantish pillar that separated the gates to the neighboring Kundarak and Jorasco enclaves. Magewrought notice boards floated at the base of the stone edifice, offering jobs for those either in need of coin or in want of fame. As the first of the Silver Flame guards entered the grassy enclosure behind them, Sabira had an idea. She stopped near the closest board and grabbed one of the metal dragon wings that formed its edge.
“Guisarme, Jester! Help me with this. Gred-er, whatever-you and Skraad grab that one!”
She tried to pull it around, but even with the help of the two warforged, it wouldn’t budge.
“No, like this!”
She looked over to see Greddark cutting off the ballast bag that hung from the stylized dragon tail on one side of his notice board. As the heavy sack hit the ground, the board canted at an angle and he and Skraad were able to move it. Working together, the duo forced it out onto the pathway, where it would hamper their pursuers. Then they quickly began dismantling another notice board.
She and the warforged followed suit and they soon had six listing notice boards strung out across the small enclosure, forming a bobbing blockade that would provide some protection from the crossbows the guards carried and would slow down their pursuit for a few moments, at least. Hopefully, that would be all the time they needed.
With Sabira back in the lead, they sprinted for the exit in the western wall. She almost thought they were going to make it out, but then she caught a glint of silver through the arch and realized that some of the Flamers had circled back through Soulgate to cut them off.
Greddark saw them at the same time and slowed to a stop.
“What so we do now? We’re trapped!”
Sabira cast about frantically for a way out and her eyes fell on the ladders on either side of the archway.
“Up!” she said, heading for the ladder to the left. As she scrambled up the rungs as fast as she could, she felt a rush of wind. A crossbow bolt with silver and white fletching buried itself into the stone mere inches from her face, but Sabira ignored it and kept going.
There was a cry below her as one of the bolts struck home. A quick glance showed Skraad just behind her, breaking the bolt in his arm off with his teeth while he fired his own crossbow with his other hand. His aim was truer, and one of the Flamers on the other side of the notice boards went down with a quarrel in his shoulder.
That left only one crossbowman to worry about; all the rest of the Silver Flame guards carried melee weapons.
She reached the top of the wall and leaped over a low railing while the others clambered up behind her. Greddark was last, and once he was clear of the ladder, he primed his alchemy blade and struck the top rung, setting the wood aflame. Nobody would be following them up.
Unfortunately, it also left them with no way to get down. Unlike most of the city above, the section of the wall they stood on didn’t readily connect with any other structure. There was only another ladder attached to the side of a pillar, leading farther up.
Greddark, realizing their predicament, looked over at her, and she shrugged.
“Might as well go as far as we can,” she said, and headed up the second ladder.
From the top of the pillar, they could just see the argent fire that topped the Sanctuary over to their right, and the draped awnings of the Marketplace’s Remembrance Plaza behind them, to the left. The iconic red tent was too far away to jump to, and wouldn’t have done much to break their landing in any case.
To the north stood their goal, rising up over the Marketplace, glowing blue in the late afternoon sun-Falconer’s Spire. So close and yet so utterly out of reach.
A red-winged airship that must be Kupper-Nickel’s was just taking off from the docking tower.
“That our ride?”
Sabira nodded to the orc.
As the blue elemental ring encircling the airship hummed to life, Sabira could just make out the tiny figures moving about the deck. She wondered if any of them could see her-if any of them were even looking.
“Onatar’s cold forge, but I wish I had a spyglass,” she muttered.
Something passed in front of her face, hovering a hair’s breadth from the tip of her nose. She pulled her head back to focus and saw it was the requested spyglass, being offered to her by the red-armored warforged.
“My lady commands,” he said with a bow.
Sabira took the proffered glass and held it up to her eye. Suddenly it was if she were standing on the deck of the Wayfinder’s airship, not on top of a pillar over more than a hundred feet away. She could see Kupper-Nickel standing near the wheelhouse, talking to the Lyrandar pilot. If only there were some way to get his attention…
“Gred-” Damn it, what was she supposed to call him? “Make your sword flame up again!”
“It doesn’t work that way,” the dwarf protested, drawing the blade to show her. “See, first I have to prime it, like this, then I have to hit some-”
Sabira tossed the spyglass back to Jester and yanked the hilt from Greddark’s surprised grasp. Then she whirled, slamming the flat of the blade up against Guisarme’s back with an echoing clang. The short sword erupted in flames, and Sabira pulled it back before it could harm the warforged. Then she began waving it back and forth over her head.
“Jester, the spyglass! Do they see us?”
The red warforged put the glass up to his rubylike eye and peered toward the tower.
“I don’t believe-no! I mean, yes! The warforged sees us! He’s pointing and yelling at someone!”
The airship turned and began heading toward them.
Sabira thumbed the same button Greddark had used to prime the alchemy blade to extinguish the flame and handed the sword back to him with a satisfied smile. Then she turned to Guisarme.
“Sorry ’bout that,” she said with a small, apologetic shrug. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“I have no doubt.” The warforged’s tone was noncommittal, but Sabira thought she detected a trace of sarcasm.
“Glad we’re all still friends,” Skraad interrupted, “but do you think we could see about something a little more important, like getting the rest of this crossbow bolt out of my arm?”
As Greddark sheathed his blade and moved over to examine the wound, the orc looked at Sabira.
“Oh, and by the way-that fee we talked about? You’re gonna need to double it.”
Mol, Barrakas 9, 998 YK
Zawabi’s Refuge, Xen’drik.
The sky was just shading from amethyst into rose as Kupper-Nickel’s airship left the ocean behind and began its lofty passage over the sands of the Menechtarun. Even this early, Sabira could feel the heat rising up from the desert below. If it was this bad in the air, she could only imagine how much worse it would be on the ground, once the sun actually rose. She hoped the airship would follow the coastline the rest of the way to the Skyraker Claws and Trent’s Well. The towering mountains, still a good day’s flight away to the west, were already a blue-black smear against the lightening sky.
To her surprise, though, the airship turned south, heading deeper into the gold-orange sea of dunes. She crossed the deck to the wheelhouse and found the Wayfinder giving instructions to the Lyrandar pilot, a half-elf woman who didn’t look too pleased at being told how to do her job.
“Why are we heading into the desert?” Sabira asked. “Wouldn’t it be faster-and cooler-to just keep flying over the ocean until we reach the mountains? Then turn inland once we get there?”
Kupper-Nickel had shown them the map shortly after he’d rescued them from the burning pillar in the Stormreach Marketplace. Trent’s Well was located at the base of the Skyrakers, which formed the northwestern border of the Menechtarun, separating the desert from the Barren Sea. The excavation site was on the southern face of the mountains, so it seemed logical that they would follow the path she’d just described. There was no reason to go inland any sooner, and plenty of reasons not to.
“You are awake.”
Sabira blinked at the warforged’s statement of the obvious, then realized he was expressing surprise at seeing her up so early. Since the living constructs didn’t need to rest themselves, the sleeping habits of other races seemed to be a constant source of fascination for them.
This wasn’t the first day of the trip she’d been awake at this Hostforsaken hour; far from it. Her sleep had been restless ever since they got to Xen’drik, and her dreams had become more vivid and intense the farther south they’d gone. Awful scenes of Tilde being overwhelmed by vague, faceless creatures in some dark cavern, her screaming face made nightmarish in the nacreous glow of fungus that was the only source of light in the depths. Of the sorceress cocooned in bloody webs and strung up over a bottomless pit, her blonde hair hanging down over her face like some ghastly parody of a bridal veil-or a funeral shroud. Of her turning to look accusingly at Sabira, who was incorporeal in this dreamworld and helpless to do anything more than watch as something devoured Tilde from within in the space of a few agonizing moments, leaving only her eyes staring out of a grinning skull-brown eyes that were the mirror image of Ned’s.
And then she was in another cavern, this one in Korran’s Maw in the Mror Holds, and it was Leoned who hung there, not Tilde, wrapped in chains instead of silk and dangling over a pool of scorching magma. He stared at her with that same accusing look, begging her to save him even as the roof collapsed and he plunged to his death in the magma below, his cries of “Save me, Saba!” echoing in her ears, even though he’d never uttered those words in life.
But that wasn’t the worst part. Because, in the dream, as he hit the bubbling surface of the molten rock, his features changed yet again. She’d woken up three nights in a row now with the sight of Elix’s face disappearing beneath the magma, his hazel eyes filled with angry recrimination.
“Yes, I’m awake,” she said, giving herself a mental shake. These weren’t the first nightmares she’d had, and with the life she led, they weren’t likely to be the last. And even if they were some of the worst she’d ever experienced, they were still just figments of an overworked, overtired imagination, and worth no more attention. “Now, why are we going inland?”
“I received word from Wayfinder ir’Kethras in the night. He is not at Trent’s Well, as I had thought, but in Zawabi’s Refuge, a small oasis just south of us. We will meet him there, and you can continue your journey overland.”
“Overland?” Sabira asked incredulously. “Why in the name of Dol Dorn’s notched blade would we want to do that?”
“Traveler’s Curse,” the Lyrandar pilot supplied. “I’m none too happy going as far inland as the oasis, but at least the effects there seem minimal. There’s no way I’d go all the way to the Claws by airship overland. Even flying over the sea to get there was going to cost three times my normal fee.”
Sabira had heard of the curse, of course-you couldn’t travel anywhere in Xen’drik and not know about it. The time- and distance-twisting magic was named not for how it supposedly affected those journeying into the heart of Xen’drik, but for the Traveler, the Sovereign God of Chaos and Change. Though why the god would choose to visit his discord in such a direct way only on the jungle continent and not across the face of Eberron was anyone’s guess. Perhaps it was some remnant of the ancient war between dragons and giants that had shattered Xen’drik so many millennia ago.
Whatever its source, the Traveler’s Curse was used to explain why no two parties that followed the same path to the same destination ever got there in the same amount of time-or if they got there at all. Sabira had always chalked it up to lazy or incompetent captains trying to find something besides their own failings to blame when someone else beat them to the prize, but the Lyrandar didn’t seem to fit that profile. And Kupper-Nickel himself was nothing if not efficient. Maybe there was some truth to the stories after all.
Or maybe Kupper-Nickel had realized the work Greddark had done to repair his arm wasn’t worth the Lyrandar’s ridiculous fee, and so had decided to cut his losses.
“Tell me he’s at least got earth sleds?” Piloted by dragonmarked members of House Orien in much the same way those of House Lyrandar commanded their airships, earth sleds were land barges that harnessed earth elementals to allow them to skim over the ground like their waterborne counterparts skimmed over waves. She’d only ridden on a sled once, back in the Holds. Her hearthfather, Kiruk Tordannon, had lent her his own private vehicle on her way from Krona Peak to Frostmantle and the sled had traveled twice as fast as any caravan could have made the trip. If she absolutely had to traipse through the Hostforsaken desert heat, she wanted to do it as quickly as possible.
“Not to my knowledge, no. I believe he uses wagons, drawn by camels.” At her look, he added helpfully, “Magebred camels.”
So they might move at three tortuous miles an hour, instead of two. Wonderful. She looked out over the starboard railing to the Skyraker Claws in the hazy distance. They were at least five hundred miles away. Even assuming the House Vadalis-trained animals needed minimal rest, it would still take well over a week to reach the mountains. Unless, of course, the Traveler’s Curse were real and worked in their favor, something not even a gambler like herself would risk actual money on, let alone people’s lives.
“There’s got to be another way.”
“Got to be another way to do what?” Greddark had come above while she and the warforged had been talking and now moved so that he was standing beside Sabira.
“Cross the desert between Zawabi’s Refuge and Trent’s Well.”
The dwarf took a moment to digest the implications of that.
“I’m guessing we won’t be using Greddetta, then?”
Greddark had named the airship after himself soon after they boarded, using a bottle of Old Sully’s left over by a previous passenger. He’d been affronted that Kupper-Nickel hadn’t had the vessel properly christened, calling it foul luck. The Wayfinder had argued-convincingly, Sabira thought-that it made no sense to name a tool. Even warforged had only been numbers to their creators before the Treaty of Thronehold, or else they had been called by the names of the weapons they bore or the tasks they performed. It was an insult to the constructs who had actual souls and personalities and yet were treated with less respect than a ship which had neither. When the ship could choose a name for itself, then Kupper-Nickel would honor its choice. Until then, it was simply “the airship.”
“No. Your lovely namesake will be returning to Stormreach just as soon as her crew can push us off the gangplank, I imagine,” Sabira replied.
“We will do no such thing!” the Wayfinder protested.
“Aye,” the Lyrandar woman said with a wink and a grin. “We’ll make you jump.”
The half-elf hadn’t been joking. Zawabi’s Refuge had no docking tower; it had few actual buildings to speak of. Instead of a traditional berth, the Lyrandar navigated through a series of narrow canyons until she came to an outcropping on the gorge’s eastern rim, framed by curved pillars of stone reaching up into the sky like grasping fingers. A sizeable house surrounded by several improbably green trees sat back from the edge of the canyon beside the makeshift dock, and massive purple crystals grew out of the ground in the distance, blindingly bright in the morning sun.
But while the airship slowed, it didn’t stop at the house. Instead, the Lyrandar piloted the ship a bit farther down the canyon and then lowered the gangplank off the port side of the deck, away from the tree-framed house.
Sabira looked over the railing. Below them on the canyon floor, a field of sharp red rocks thrust out from the parched ground, each as big as a man.
“You can’t be serious.”
One of the crew, a sailor named Quilli, joined her at the railing. The halfling woman was a constant fixture on the airship’s deck, the youthful innocence of her face and voice belied by her sharp tongue and salty wit. Sabira had thought the dwarves undisputed masters of the curse until meeting the vulgar sailor. But given that the halfling had been able to make both Greddark and Skraad blush in the same breath, Sabira was no longer quite so sure.
“Not there, Marshal,” Quilli said, managing to pack a world of scorn into the title. “There.”
The halfling was pointing to a narrow ledge at the base of a tall rock pillar jutting up from the gorge’s western face. It was a good ten feet away from the end of the plank, and every now and then, a gust of wind blew through the canyon, making the wooden board quiver.
“Not to pry, but why exactly are we disembarking on a practically non-existent ledge on this side of the canyon when all the buildings-and, I’m assuming, the oasis-are on that side?” Greddark asked, gauging the distance to the ledge with a skeptical expression on his face.
“Zawabi refuses to allow Brannan’s caravans to stay within the refuge. They are camped on the top of the canyon wall, above us,” Kupper-Nickel responded, coming over to stand by the gangplank.
“So… why are we down here and not up there?” Greddark asked, his annoyed tone making it clear he didn’t think he should even have to be posing such a ridiculous question.
Just then, another strong gust of wind shrieked down the canyon, buffeting the airship and slamming the elemental ring into the rock wall. The dwarf, who’d had his feet planted firmly on the deck, swayed, but didn’t fall, the legendary immovability of his people serving him well. Sabira and the airship crew, including Kupper-Nickel, likewise stayed upright, though Sabira had to reach back a quick hand for her shard axe, drawing stability from the urgrosh’s enchanted haft.
The two other warforged were not so fortunate. Guisarme went down on one knee and the smaller, lighter Jester, who’d been standing beside Quilli looking at the rocks below, pitched forward over the railing with a decidedly human-sounding yelp. Quilli reached for him, but he wore no clothing for her to grab, and her hand slid ineffectually off metal and smooth wood.
Sabira reacted without thinking. Her urgrosh was out of its harness in an instant, and she was swinging the shard axe down toward the bard’s spine to a chorus of the crew’s shocked gasps. As the bard began to tumble headfirst into the gorge, Sabira snaked her weapon in, gouging his backplates and snagging his lyre strap behind the axe-head of the urgrosh. In the same motion, she twisted the haft in a two-handed grip while throwing her weight backward. The shard axe’s magical stability kept her from being yanked off the deck of the airship along with the falling bard, but it couldn’t keep her from sliding across the wooden surface on her backside. As she reached the railing, she braced her feet on adjoining balusters and bent her knees so she could bear more weight. Even so, the leather-wrapped haft was almost ripped from her grasp, and she knew she had mere moments before the lyre strap snapped.
“Little help here?” she grunted, even as Greddark and Kupper-Nickel reached over the side of the railing to grab Jester by the ankles and haul him back up onto the deck. Another spiteful gust shook the airship as they worked, threatening to send all four of them pitching over the railing. But the Lyrandar righted the ship in time, though the elemental ring took a chunk of rock the size of Sabira’s head out of the canyon wall in the process, and she barely avoided having it replace her flesh and bone one as it shot out across the deck, propelled by the unhappy union of air and earth. As it was, everyone on deck was showered with stone shrapnel, and a sliver the length of Sabira’s forearm embedded itself into the deck mere inches from her thigh.
She was surprised when a red-gold hand reached down to help her to her feet, and even more surprised when the arm attached to that hand gathered her into a rib-crushing hug.
“Thank you, my lady! Your quick thinking-and quicker action-kept me from ending up a pile of scrap metal and kindling at the bottom of this accursed gorge. I shall write an epic in your honor that will put those unimaginative dwarf bards to shame!” Sensing that Sabira was having trouble breathing-or perhaps tipped off by the blue tinge in her lips-the warforged released her from his embrace. As Sabira drew in great gulps of the dry desert air, Jester continued, the frown his face couldn’t show still evident in his voice. “But how did you know I’d had my lyre strap reinforced?”
She hadn’t, actually, but it had been an easy bet to take. Most bards spent more money on their instruments than their weapons, and held their music closer than their purse strings.
“Easy,” Greddark supplied with a nonchalant shrug, saving her from having to admit that, educated as it was, it had still been nothing more than a guess. “The strap doesn’t hang as loosely as it would if it were mere leather, and you can see metal showing through in places.”
Before either she or the warforged could answer the inquisitive, the Lyrandar pilot rounded on him in belated response to his earlier question.
“ That’s why we’re not up there,” the half-elf snarled, her face contorting with effort as she fought to calm the affronted air elemental and return the ship safely to the center of the gorge. “You think the wind’s bad down here, wait till you get up top. I’m not risking my ship-or my life-just to spare you lot some climbing.”
Fair enough. But that reminded Sabira of the question she really wanted answered.
“Why doesn’t Zawabi want the Wayfinder expedition inside the refuge?” she asked, frowning as she thought back on the warforged’s words. Kupper-Nickel had told her about the djinn who controlled the oasis from his circular prison at the eastern edge of the small settlement. The Wayfinder had, however, neglected to mention that the powerful creature and the man who was supposed to lead her to Tilde were at odds with each other.
“He believes nothing good can come of opening the pits of Khyber up to surface exploration.”
“You’ve seen the trouble Lailat’s caused,” Quilli piped up. “Can you blame him for being worried about what ir’Kethras might stir up?”
“Who is Lailat?” Sabira asked before the dwarf inquisitive could beat her to it. The two warforged and the orc gathered around to hear the answer.
It was Kupper-Nickel who responded.
“A demoness known as the Queen of Six Swords who dwells in Serpent’s Pass. Zawabi has long feuded with her, but there is little he can do against her directly from the confines of his circle.”
“Six swords?” Greddark asked, puzzled. “So, what? She’s indecisive? Uses a different one every day and rests on Sar? Doesn’t sound like much of a threat to me.”
“No…,” Sabira said slowly, thinking. A female demon who used six swords and laired in a place named for a serpent. She’d received training on all manner of foul creatures she might face in the performance of her duties for House Deneith. Though she’d never encountered one, she knew what Lailat must be. A single one of the demoness’s foul sisters had once wiped out almost an entire contingent of Deneith Defenders who’d passed too near her lair in the aptly named Demon Wastes of western Khorvaire.
“No. If I’m right, she’s a very dangerous threat indeed.”
At Greddark’s quizzical look, she continued.
“Lailat is a marilith.”
The only change in Greddark’s expression was a slight raise of his bushy eyebrows; her revelation had clearly not enlightened him.
“A marilith is a demon with the upper body of a six-armed woman and the lower body of a snake. One of them took out Lavira Tagor’s entire bodyguard in the Labyrinth.” Well, most of her bodyguard. One man had survived to see the then-Keeper of the Flame back to civilization. With the help of a tribe of orcs who worshiped their own Binding Flame, the lone Defender had guided Keeper Tagor back across the Icehorn Mountains into the relative safety of the Eldeen Reaches.
What the Keeper had been doing in the Demon Wastes at the time was anyone’s guess, but Baron Breven had decided it wasn’t worth the lives of any more of his people and canceled the religious leader’s contract after that.
Greddark did look surprised at that, and even more so when Jester interrupted.
“Oh, I think I know that one! Though in the version I heard, one man survived. Of course, I’m sure that was pure embellishment on the part of the storyteller. It makes for a more exciting story if a single survivor lived to tell the horrors that the Keeper himself would never reveal. I’d have done the same, if I’d been the bard spinning the tale. Then tailored the manner of those horrors to the tastes of my audience, to better encourage their coins into my hat.” The red-armored warforged paused, metal finger to lipless metal mouth. “Well, if I had a hat, of course. I should probably see about acquiring one.”
“One Defender did survive,” Sabira said shortly, sorry now she’d brought it up. She couldn’t help thinking of Elix being summoned by the new Keeper, and wondering if whatever mission the girl had for him might end the same way. Or worse. “But that’s not the part of the story that should concern you.”
“Oh?” Jester asked, and Sabira made a note to see about outfitting the would-be bard with moveable eyebrows. She was sure some artificer-maybe even Greddark-could come up with a trick to make it work, and it would add even more drama to his theatrical tones, make those coins jump from purse to hat that much faster.
“ One marilith took out close to a dozen Defenders-that’s more than twice our number of extremely well-trained fighters, in case some of you aren’t quite so good with math. The djinn who controls this place can’t even face one of them alone, but she and her kind are not what he’s afraid of-they’re not why he won’t let ir’Kethras set foot in his oasis.”
She paused, waiting for the question.
Surprisingly, it was Skraad who obliged.
“Then what is he afraid of?”
“That whatever we’ll find in Tarath Marad will be even worse.”
Mol, Barrakas 9, 998 YK
Zawabi’s Refuge, Xen’drik.
After Jester’s scare, Sabira declared that there would be no jumping from the gangplank, Zawabi’s paranoid edict notwithstanding. There was more than one way off an airship, as she well knew-though the last time she had cause to leave one without the benefit of a gangplank, there’d been a few enraged yrthaks involved. After she related the tale to Greddark, the artificer made a few adjustments and their motley group disembarked the airship on life rings, tethered to the deck with long ropes and weighted down with sand bags for a speedy, but relatively safe, descent.
When they were all on the narrow ledge, spread out like statuettes on a shelf, Sabira barked out quick orders. She wanted to get moving before the wind blasted them again. The footing was much less sure here, and they no longer had the dubious protection of the railing between them and the canyon floor. And while the distance they had to fall from the ledge was shorter than it had been from the deck of the airship, it would also now involve bouncing off the canyon wall, so the end result was likely to be the same-bloody and decidedly unpleasant. Better to get on firmer ground where the capricious wind was an annoyance, not a deadly threat.
Sabira sent the two warforged and Skraad climbing up the western side of the canyon to where ir’Kethras’s caravan waited. Meanwhile, she and Greddark made their way up the eastern side toward the settlement, where Kupper-Nickel had told them they could find the other Wayfinder. Quilli had agreed to accompany them at Kupper-Nickel’s insistence, ostensibly to keep them from coming to unexpected harm on the precarious route to the oasis. Sabira had no doubts about the sailor’s real job, however-preventing them from doing anything to anger Zawabi and endangering the warforged Wayfinder’s berthing rights.
They followed the narrow ledge along the canyon wall, in some places having to inch along slowly with their backs pressed up against the sheer rock. Sabira couldn’t fathom how ir’Kethras was able to get supplies up this tortuous route. Breven had mentioned that the Wayfinder was a wizard; perhaps he teleported them from the oasis to the caravan? She certainly hoped so. She didn’t really want to have to make this trip twice.
The ledge finally widened out and joined the rising canyon floor. As they climbed upward, small patches of green scrub began to appear, nurtured by water from the nearby oasis. By the time they’d reached the plateau that housed the djinn’s settlement, they were greeted by massive trees older than Sabira and Greddark put together, their drooping green limbs dotted with white and purple flowers.
The path led them up behind one of the settlement’s large white stone and wood buildings. As they passed it on their right, Quilli told them it housed Masei’s Imports, which was actually an export business. Sabira imagined it wasn’t a particularly profitable one-in order to export products, you had to have things people actually wanted to buy. What could the owner possibly have to sell, other than sand, rocks, and an occasional scorpion stinger?
Another building on the left played home to a dwarf smith and her team of apprentices who made finely crafted weapons for those foolhardy enough to come to the desert without their own. Greddark perked up at the woman’s name.
“Forgemaiden? I knew a pair of sisters from that family back in the Holds. Hair like molten gold, arms like warhammers, legs-”
“I don’t really want to know what their legs were like, thanks,” Sabira said quickly, wrinkling her nose in distaste. Dwarven compliments ran the gamut from utilitarian to graphic and often included detailed descriptions of the exploits that had prompted the appreciative remarks in the first place. Not the mental image she wanted in her head when she met Brannan ir’Kethras for the first time. Or ever, really.
“I wonder if this Jaidene is a younger sister, or maybe a cousin. Come to think of it, the hilt on my blade is a little loose. Maybe-”
“You’d have better luck at the Watering Hole at this time of day,” Quilli interrupted with a salacious grin, pointing up ahead and to the left. “She’ll be taking breakfast there with her apprentices and the refugees. So the forge’ll be empty, if she decides to finish early and give you a look at her… warhammers.”
“Onatar’s branding iron, don’t encourage him!” Sabira swore at the halfling sailor, but Quilli just laughed.
Greddark quirked a bushy eyebrow at the two of them.
“I think I’m insulted. I assume we’ll be leaving at sundown. That’s not near enough time for a dwarf of my considerable knowledge to truly appreciate a good warhammer.” He harrumphed and stalked off in the direction Quilli had indicated. The two women followed him up a wooden ramp onto a stone patio that boasted a large bonfire and several long tables filled with people eating and talking quietly. A dark-skinned human woman in red dancer’s silks greeted them warmly as they entered the outdoor tavern.
“Hello, travelers. My name is Oh’tula.”
She gestured to the end of one table where three spots were just opening up as an old human couple followed another red-garbed woman toward some wagons clustered not too far away. As they took the newly-vacated seats, a yellow-eyed warforged came up to them.
“The name’s Raff. I run this little watering hole. Can I get you something?”
Greddark opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again as he caught sight of something just beyond the warforged. Sabira, who was sitting across from the dwarf, turned to look at what had caught the inquisitive’s attention. It was another dwarf-a woman, with long blonde hair flowing free except for a single braid over each ear and thickly muscled arms adorned with wide gold bands. Jaidene Forgemaiden, she presumed.
As Sabira turned back, Greddark was rising. He returned Sabira’s dark look with a shrug.
“What? The hilt really is loose.”
Then he looked up at Raff with a hopeful expression.
“Tell me you have tea, and I may never leave.”
As Greddark sipped his sweet mint tea and plied his countrywoman with news of their homeland in exchange for information on the desert, Sabira sampled cactus sap and boiled scorpion and waited for ir’Kethras to arrive. Having fought many of her breakfast’s larger brethren in the islands north of Stormreach, Sabira was somewhat dubious about trying the desert delicacy, but she found that the meat inside the hard carapace was actually both tender and flavorful. The sap, on the other hand, was thick and oily and left her wanting to go drink from the oasis.
“In the desert, water is a kiss.”
Startled, Sabira looked up to see yet another dwarf standing in front of her, this one with an odd spiraling tattoo that started up on his forehead, curved down across his right eyelid and continued on to his cheek. There, the swirling design almost disappeared into a thick brown beard that was plaited into two heavy braids, both of which were free of adornment. He wore a blue shirt, brown vest and green pants and boasted a painful-looking sunburn across every exposed inch of flesh.
“Wayfinder Skavyr,” he said by way of introduction, understandably not offering her one of his very red hands. He nodded at the halfling. “Quilli. You and your tart tongue can run back to Kup now. I’ll take responsibility for your ‘guests’ for the nonce.”
Quilli snorted, clearly not liking being dismissed, but liking her job of nursemaid to Sabira and Greddark even less.
“You just make sure Zawabi knows that,” the sailor said warningly as she stood. “After what happened last time-”
“Is that old rust-bucket still complaining about that? Brannan paid him for his losses. I don’t know what he’s so worried about, anyway. What’s Zawabi really going to do from inside that circle? The djinn needs Kup as much as Kup needs him-who else is going to ferry fighters out to this Forge-forsaken place to do his bidding, if not the Wayfinders?”
Quilli’s expression hardened and she crossed her arms in front of her chest, waiting. Still seated at the table, Sabira had a lower vantage point, and she could see what the dwarf couldn’t-the halfling’s fingers twitching toward the dagger she wore on her belt.
Skavyr heaved a long-suffering sigh.
“Fine. I’ll make sure the djinn knows. Happy now?”
Quilli’s fingers relaxed, as did Sabira. She wasn’t sure what she’d have done if the sailor and the Wayfinder had come to blows. She had a feeling Zawabi wouldn’t consider his refuge to be part of her jurisdiction as a Sentinel Marshal, and she didn’t think she could argue the point. Nor did she know which Wayfinder it behooved her to ally with-Kupper-Nickel or Brannan. Brannan could take her to Tilde, but Kupper-Nickel was the only one who could get her home again afterward. Then again, there was a better than fair chance she wouldn’t make it that far, so she should probably put her money on Brannan.
“Fair winds and following seas,” Quilli said to her, touching the brim of her hat briefly before taking her leave of them.
Skavyr slid into the halfling’s seat across from Sabira.
“ Sarrgh,” he muttered under his breath, and Sabira blinked at the insult.
“I think it’s rather unlikely that her father was a manticore, considering her lack of facial hair,” she remarked. “Her mother could have been an orc, I suppose-I’d have guessed a kobold, myself.”
Skavyr looked at her in shock for a moment, then threw his head back and laughed. His great, throaty guffaws rang off the rocks, echoing through the canyon settlement. Judging from the surprised looks he got in response, the Wayfinder wasn’t normally prone to mirth. And given the way his laughter trailed off into hoarse coughing, that was probably a good thing.
“Brannan didn’t mention you spoke the language of the Holds.”
“I imagine there’s a lot he didn’t mention, since there’s a lot he doesn’t know,” Sabira replied. The Wayfinder appeared to reassess her, his eyes taking in everything from the urgrosh on her back to the scars on her armor. She waited for the inevitable recognition, but if the dwarf knew the significance of the weapon she bore, he gave no sign of it. Sabira felt a moment of relief. And if there was also a brief, unexpected sting of disappointment, she pretended not to notice.
“Probably so,” the dwarf agreed affably enough. “He asked me to be on the lookout for you. He’s busy buying a severed gnoll’s paw from our local dust and dung seller, who swears up and down it’s actually a rakshasa hand. As if anyone who got close enough to one of those fiends to maim it would live long enough to try and hawk its body parts out here in the desert. Either way-paw or hand-Brannan got pretty excited when he heard about it. Ran straight over there. No idea what he’d want the thing for-some new spell he’s working on, I suppose. Anyway, I’m sure he’ll be back as soon as he’s done haggling.” Just then, a female drow walked up the ramp, ignoring Oh’tula’s greeting as she made for Raff. Her face was scarred and marked with white paint and she carried a scimitar in one hand, eschewing a scabbard.
“Well,” Skavyr amended quickly, “he’ll be over as soon as he’s done and she leaves. Calyx Shattermoon. Just as nasty as the Vulkoorim she abandoned, that one.”
Sabira studied the drow as Skavyr sat in Greddark’s spot. She had heard of dark elves who worshiped Vulkoor, a primitive scorpion deity revered in both the deep jungles and dry deserts of Xen’drik, but she’d never encountered one herself. The drow who lived outside Stormreach were far more likely to belong to the Sulatar, a tribe with an affinity for fire in all its many forms. Sabira knew little about the history of the drow, but as near as she could piece it together, back when the elves had been slaves of the giants, the Vulkoorim rose up against their oppressors while the Sulatar remained loyal. The two tribes had been at odds ever since.
Sabira wasn’t quite sure where the Umbragen fit into that hazy picture, though if she had to hazard a guess, she’d peg them as an offshoot of the rebel Vulkoorim. The fact that at least a portion of them appeared to worship yet another creature with too many legs lent some credence to that theory. She supposed she could ask Brannan, if the Wayfinder ever deigned to make an appearance.
Or maybe she’d just ask the Vulkoori woman.
“You could do that, I suppose,” Skavyr commented when Sabira evinced her curiosity. “But you should probably know she almost killed Brannan’s guide the first time he brought the Umbragen into the refuge. Called him ‘viler than even the clawborn.’ Considering the clawborn are the ones who bound her and left her helpless in a scorpion breeding pit as part of her initiation rites, and she thinks he’s worse… well, I wouldn’t necessarily go around advertising that you and he were going to be traveling partners soon. At least not where she can hear you and has room to draw a blade.”
Good point. Maybe she’d just stick with her original idea of asking Brannan.
As she waited for the Wayfinder to finish up his paw-haggling, she quizzed Skavyr about his experiences in the Menechtarun. Every so often, she’d overhear snippets of Greddark’s conversation with Jaidene-purposeful on the inquisitive’s part, she thought, to impart information to her without seeming to do so. But the multitude of dwarven voices around her, including a few scattered refugees from a prospecting mission gone wrong, reminded Sabira sharply of her latest visit to the Holds, though it was never so hot there, or so dry. And of course remembering the cold, hard mountains made her homesick for Karrnath, and the warmth of Elix’s arms.
But thinking of the Sentinel Marshal captain brought back a sudden image of him from her dreams, splashing into that pit of bubbling magma, incinerated in a matter of agonizing seconds. The scene was so vivid that she could actually smell the hint of burnt flesh and hair and she thought for a moment she might vomit up her breakfast. But, no, it was just another specialty from Raff’s Watering Hole-goat, or maybe boar. Sabira took a deep, steadying breath and tried to focus on what Skavyr was saying.
“… sent me to the Demon Sands on a mission of discovery, but all I’ve discovered is that dwarves and deserts don’t mix…”
Sabira smiled politely, not really listening. She was thinking about the gnoll’s paw he’d mentioned, wondering if it could really be a rakshasa hand and, if it was, what sort of spell would require such a thing as a component. The possibilities were rather chilling.
“… Wayfinders want to know more about the Menechtarun and its hazards. We’ve already mapped out the major points of interest,” Skavyr went on, oblivious to her rather obvious inattention. Sabira was amused by his arrogance-or, rather, that of the Wayfinders. The idea that the foundation had truly discovered all of the Menechtarun’s secrets was laughable. The desert was roughly half the size of the Five Nations combined, and nowhere near as populated. Maybe the Wayfinders had sussed out the secrets of the area around Zawabi’s Refuge, but there was no way the group had learned everything there was to know about the entire desert. Ir’Kethras’s discovery of Tarath Marad was proof enough of that.
As if summoned by her thoughts, a tall man in white robes walked up to the table. His features were bronzed and weathered by long years in the sun and his dark hair was liberally sprinkled with gray, but he was still surprisingly handsome. Even more so when he smiled, revealing perfect teeth. Sabira noticed that he, like Boroman ir’Dayne, wore a Khyber shard earring in his left ear. She wondered it if were a sign of rank among the Wayfinders. Skavyr wore no such jewelry, and of course Kupper-Nickel didn’t have ears.
“Marshal!” Brannan said, sticking out a calloused hand to her. “So glad you made it here without incident!” He looked about the small patio. “But where are the others Kup mentioned? The warforged, the orc, and the artificer?” He picked out Greddark easily in the thinning crowd. “Ah, there he is! Already chatting up the Forgemaiden, I see. Many dwarves do seem to thrive here in this rugged environment, despite Skavyr’s assertions to the contrary. Master d’Kundarak certainly appears to be right at home. I’m beginning to think it’s less that dwarves and deserts don’t mix, and more that Skavyr and sand don’t.”
Sabira laughed at that, deciding she liked the human Wayfinder.
“Well, I’m sure you have many questions for me, but I think perhaps it would be better to wait until we reach the caravan to have that discussion.” He gestured toward the clustered wagons, where several warforged were guiding soarsleds laden with supplies toward the path Sabira and Greddark had taken up from the gorge. Unlike typical sleds, these had metal runners attached to their underbellies, so they could skate over the tops of high dunes even while weighted down with water and food. “It looks as if our supplies are ready, so if you’d like to gather your companions, we can get started.”
Sabira cast a dubious eye at the sky, where the sun was already blazing above the eastern horizon.
“ Now?” she asked incredulously. “We’re not going to wait for nightfall?”
“Oh, no,” ir’Kethras replied, shaking his head. “Traveling during the heat of the day is far preferable. We know the risks posed by sun and sand and can take measures to avoid or mitigate them as necessary. Moving through the desert in the darkness, though? The Menechtarun is perilous enough when you can see your enemies. We’d none of us survive if we tried to travel through it blind.”
Sabira stood, nodding her thanks to Skavyr.
“I’d love to see Tarath Marad,” the dwarf said, grimacing in pain as he rose to join her. “Just imagine-the cool, sunless depths, solid rock instead of sand, and no wind save that created by the forge bellows. Ah, paradise! I would travel with you, but I can hardly move. Blast this sunburn!”
Greddark, seeing her stand, took his own leave of Jaidene.
“… fair Forgemaiden. Perhaps when I return, you can teach me some of those crafting techniques.” He winked at Sabira as he said it, and she realized she couldn’t tell if he was bluffing or not. For the first time, she wondered what it might be like to face him over a card table, or on a field where the stakes were quite a bit higher. She’d thought Aggar had sent the inquisitive along on this mission more to get him out of Khorvaire and away from the bounty hunters chasing him than because his skills would prove particularly useful. But after seeing the deft way he pumped Jaidene for information without her realizing it, Sabira was no longer quite so sure.
She watched him appraisingly as he crossed the stone patio to her side. Once there, he gave her a quick grin.
“What’s the matter, Sabira? Jealous?”
“More like nauseous. Come on. It’s time to earn your pay.”
They backtracked to the spot where they’d disembarked from Kupper-Nickel’s airship, following behind the warforged and their laden sleds. The soarsleds were tethered to their handlers, so they couldn’t be caught by the wind and sent spinning across the gorge. The long leather straps also served as safety lines for the warforged; in the event that one of them slipped, their connection to the floating sleds would keep them from plunging to the canyon floor.
As they trekked up the side of the canyon, Sabira noticed that the rock changed color from a dull red to a bright yellow. Crystals sparkled in the canary-colored layer and the air was suffused with the distinct odor of rotten eggs as they passed by.
“Sulfur,” Greddark commented, as if Sabira wouldn’t recognize the smell. It permeated her dreams often enough-those of Korran’s Maw, where Ned had died, and those of the caverns under Frostmantle, where Orin Mountainheart had lost his life. She’d seen her share of corpses-many of them brought to that state by her own hand-and she was no stranger to the scent of decomposing flesh. But to her, the association between the sunny mineral and loss was so strong that death had only one smell, and it was not the sickly-sweet odor of decay; it was the sour aroma of sulfur.
“Lot of volcanic activity in this area at one time,” the dwarf continued, though she hadn’t asked him to elaborate. He paused to scrape some of the yellow crystals off into a vial from one of his belt pouches, filling it to the rim. As he stoppered the glass tube and returned it to its pouch, he saw her dark glance, and shrugged. “It’s very useful stuff-works in everything from healing balms to bombs. Jaidene tells me it goes for five sovereigns and some change back at the refuge. Of course, they prefer it mixed with bat guano, but I’m sure the pure stuff would fetch a comparable price.”
Sabira briefly considered offering him the bulk of his pay in the form of rocks and excrement, but then thought better of it. With her luck, he’d agree, and she’d be left to scrape his fee off the walls of bat caves while the tiny flying rodents nested in her hair. Host, but she hated the furry beasts! She still remembered the time Tilde’s pet bat had attacked her. What was that awful thing’s name, anyway? Scarwing? No, that would be too logical for Tilde, naming the creature after the jagged scar it bore on one of its wings, a remnant from some predator who unfortunately hadn’t finished the job before Tilde arrived on the scene to save the day in proper Deneith fashion. No, Shieldwing, that was it. It had happened shortly after she and Ned had become partners. Tilde hadn’t approved of her brother’s new assignment and had let Sabira know about her displeasure in no uncertain terms. Though the sorceress later claimed the bat had acted on its own, Sabira was sure the woman had set the little animal on her purposely, knowing she wouldn’t dare lift a hand against Ned’s sister’s familiar.
Funny. She’d give anything to see that stupid flying rat now, even if the damned thing was about to bite her on the cheek.
They left the sulfur deposits behind and soon reached the end of the ledge, though they were still fifty feet short of the canyon rim. Ropes dangled down from the edge, knotted at regular intervals to make climbing easier. But the warforged ignored them. Instead, one by one, they fiddled with some switches on the sleds’ control panels and the laden disks began to rise slowly toward the top of the gorge. As the sleds reached shoulder level, the warforged handlers would reach out to grab a second tether on the opposite side of the disk, then let the sled lift them up into the air, their bodies forming dangling metal Y’s beneath the crystalline circles. Sabira watched them float up into the air, almost like dandelion fluff blown by a wishful child. At the rim, unseen hands pulled the disks out of sight, presumably to unload them. Within a few moments, the only ones left on the ledge were her, Greddark, and ir’Kethras.
She reached for one of the ropes, but Brannan stopped her.
“Patience, Marshal. No need to climb when we can ride.”
Sure enough, three sleds soon came floating back down, a warforged handler guiding each, though this time from the top instead of the bottom. The trip back up the canyon wall was much quicker than she expected; the sleds rose faster now that they were no longer burdened by barrels of water and crates of food and other supplies. Sabira was glad she’d had some time to digest her breakfast beforehand. She didn’t think Brannan would find her puking over the edge of the disk particularly impressive.
A caravan of twelve camel-drawn wagons waited near the rim, sheltered in the lee of some large boulders. Several hands reached out to pull the sleds in as periodic blasts of wind screamed by thick with stinging sand. She could see now why the Lyrandar had been unwilling to bring Kupper-Nickel’s airship up this high-it would take a skilled pilot indeed to keep the vessel’s bound air elemental from heeding the siren call of its lesser, freer brethren.
As she and Greddark rejoined Guisarme, Jester, and Skraad and introduced them to ir’Kethras, Sabira noticed a drow hovering off to the side. Unlike Calyx or the Sulatar Sabira had faced, this elf bore no scars, tattoos, or war paint. His dark skin was perfectly smooth, as though it had been carved from a chunk of obsidian.
“Ah, Xujil!” Brannan said when he noticed the elf. “Come join us, and meet Donathilde’s friends! They’re the ones you’ll be guiding back down to try and rescue the poor girl.”
The elf moved forward, his black eyes taking them all in with unblinking intensity, but before he could speak, one of the warforged hurried over.
“Boss, I think we’ve got a problem. Dust storm moving in.”
Sabira looked to the north where the construct was pointing. Squinting, she realized that what she had at first glance assumed was a distant cliff was actually a towering wall of windborne dust, headed their way.
The warforged caravan master shook his head. “We could save the supplies and the party, but we’d have to leave the wagons and the camels up here, and it’ll take weeks to replace them.”
The Wayfinder’s frown deepened.
“Shelter here, then, or try for the Bones?”
“We’ll take losses here. The Bones are big enough to house the whole caravan, but we might not make it in time.”
Brannan smiled, grimly amused.
“The choice that is no choice. How apropos.” He turned to the warforged who’d clustered about, awaiting their instructions. “You heard him. Finish loading those supplies and mount up! We’ve got a storm to outrun!”
Mol, Barrakas 9, 998 YK
The Menechtarun Desert, Xen’drik.
The caravan was a mix of traditional wheeled wagons and artificer-created schooners with mechanical segmented legs that skittered across the sand like ungainly, cloth-covered scorpions. The wheeled wagons were drawn by three-humped camels and sported runners on the underside of their wooden beds, much like the modified soarsleds the warforged had used to bring supplies up from Zawabi’s Refuge. A good choice, Sabira supposed, for the terrain-the wheels could be used on rockier ground, and the runners for traveling across sand. A better choice would have been to outfit the entire caravan with the mechanical wagons. An even better one would have been to use earth sleds, but apparently Brannan used the considerable wealth he’d gathered through various Wayfinder Foundation expeditions for other things.
Or maybe he just couldn’t find any House Orien pilots willing to work in these conditions, Sabira thought sourly as she pulled the edge of her cloak up to cover her nose and mouth. Sand was already being whipped into a stinging frenzy by the approaching storm, tattooing every bit of exposed flesh with fine grit. She could only imagine how bad it was going to be when they were inside that towering wall-Brannan’s assurances notwithstanding, she didn’t think they had a chance in Dolurrh of outrunning it. At least the cloud of dust was beginning to obscure the sun, and the wind somewhat mitigated the ovenlike heat, drying the sweat that was already trickling down her back, even though it was barely past the seventh morning bell. Small blessings, she supposed. The only kind she was likely to get on this journey, though from which of the Sovereigns they came, she couldn’t say, and wasn’t sure she really wanted to know.
Brannan directed Sabira and her group into the back of one of the multi-legged wagons at the front of the line, already having to shout to be heard over the wind. The Wayfinder hopped into a seat at the front and took the controls, Xujil at his side. The wagon lurched into motion, humming with magical energy and scrabbling across the sand much faster than Sabira had expected. The other mechanical wagons followed, and the three-humped camels were not far behind, having been specially bred not only to hold water in their third hump, but to move more quickly than their mundane counterparts. Though she had no point of reference to measure by, she’d guess they were moving as fast as an earth sled, and had both more maneuverability and a larger carrying capacity. She revised her opinion of Brannan’s parsimony; the man wasn’t cheap, he was just brutally efficient.
Inside the covered wagon, she was free of the worst of the sand’s assault, though the heat beat through the white canvas with no wind to temper it, and Sabira was soon sweating again in the close environs. Thankfully, warforged didn’t perspire, so it wasn’t like being confined to the Defenders’ barracks after a morning of tough drills. Yet. She had a feeling it wouldn’t take long for her, Greddark, and Skraad to do a fair imitation of said barracks-especially the orc, who likely didn’t make a regular habit of bathing, so would exhibit the effects of too much sweat with too little air circulation much sooner than either her or the dwarf. She felt a momentary pang of envy as she glanced over at Guisarme and Jester-warforged couldn’t smell either.
Sabira was sure she’d be envying them for a lot more than just their lack of olfactory nerves before this journey was finished. Warforged didn’t sweat because they didn’t drink water, so they were ideal companions in the desert, unlike their flesh and blood counterparts, who wouldn’t last more than a few days without the precious substance. Just thinking about it made her thirsty and she found herself mentally calculating how many barrels of water there were versus how many would need to drink from them. Here again, though, she had to admire Brannan’s efficiency, for the bulk of his men were warforged who needed neither water nor food on the long trek, and who also wouldn’t be as bothered by the heat or the sand. Aside from the “fleshlings” in her wagon, she’d only seen two other groups comprised mainly of non-constructs-probably treasure hunters seeking to plunder the depths of Tarath Marad. Or else scholarly types from Morgrave University or the Library of Korranberg, who were also seeking to plunder the depths below the Menechtarun, but with somewhat less mercenary intentions.
“So, you want to tell us who the Defender was?”
Sabira blinked at the dwarf’s question, uncomprehending.
“The Defender who survived the marilith attack,” Greddark supplied pleasantly enough, though there was a calculating glint in his eye. “Seemed like you had a little more venom than usual in your voice when you were talking about him, and somehow I don’t think it was for the Keeper or the demoness.”
Host damn it. She’d known the inquisitive was too observant for his own good; she should have kept that part of the story to herself. Though if he really thought he had any idea of her normal amount of virulence, he was going to find himself not only sadly mistaken, but badly in need of antivenom.
Sabira considered her options. She could ignore the question or try to brush it aside, but she doubted Greddark would let it go. The dwarf had been chewing on it since they’d left the djinn’s refuge; he’d only become more insistent the longer he went without a satisfying answer.
She could bluff, but he not only knew she was a card player, he played himself. He would be expecting that, and it would only serve to whet his appetite further.
Or she could do what she always did on the field of battle, whether she fought with words or with weapons: Meet the blow on the axe-end of her urgrosh, turn it aside, and follow up with the spear tip to her opponent’s gut.
“My father,” she replied shortly. “Who should be safely back in Dreadhold now, where-with any luck-he’ll rot for the rest of his miserable life.”
Her answer caught Greddark-not to mention her other companions-by surprise, but she didn’t give him time to regroup before she countered with her own attack.
“So,” she said, mimicking the dwarf’s earlier tone precisely, “you want to tell us why you stole a book from the library in the Catacombs?”
She’d wanted to ask him before now, but he’d holed up in the engine room of Kupper-Nickel’s airship for most of the trip, supposedly helping the warforged Wayfinder improve the vessel’s efficiency. Probably trying to avoid being asked this very question.
Greddark smiled and inclined his head appreciatively at the reprisal.
“Not stole. Borrowed. That is what one does at a library, no?”
“Not when that library is under the control of the Silver Flame, no,” Sabira answered. “Unless, of course, you happen to be a Flamer yourself. Or an agent of theirs.”
She waited a beat.
Skraad leaned forward to hear the dwarf’s answer, a frown forming around his long tusks. Sabira wasn’t surprised; he’d incapacitated one of the Silver Flame guards and was likely now wanted in Stormreach as a result. She imagined the orc wouldn’t be too happy to learn it had all been some ruse on Greddark’s part.
Not that she really thought the dwarf was working for the Church. Though the Flamers would sometimes commit a lesser evil to thwart a greater, she didn’t think that pragmatism stretched so far as to include working with a suspected murderer and the cousin of an Aurum member. And even if it did, Aggar would never have sent Greddark to help her if he’d known his cousin was freelancing for some Archbishop or another when he was supposed to be working for her.
If he’d known.
Greddark snorted derisively.
“Despite my friend Andri’s best efforts-no, I am most decidedly not one of the Purified, and my temporary appropriation of one of their sacred texts was done without the Church’s knowledge, or approval.”
“Not quite without their knowledge,” Skraad growled, rubbing the spot on his arm where he’d taken the Flamer bolt. But the orc seemed satisfied with Greddark’s answer and settled back into his seat on the long bench with a minimum of grousing.
“Fine,” Sabira said, not willing to let the inquisitive off so easily. “So you did steal a book. The question remains. Why?”
He hesitated, and she imagined he was going through the same list of options that she had earlier. She wondered what his choice would be.
Surprisingly, he went with honesty.
“It’s a dictionary of ancient Draconic,” he said, withdrawing the tome from inside his shirt and passing it to her.
Sabira took the slim volume from him and carefully examined it. The writing on the leather cover, though unfamiliar to her, was crisp and utilitarian, with none of the gilt, scrolling embellishments she would have expected from such a valuable tome. Inside, the pages were thick and yellow with age, and smelled vaguely of old, stale incense. She closed it and offered it to Skraad and the warforged in turn. Only Jester accepted, taking the proffered book and leafing through it, turning the pages almost reverently.
“Still doesn’t answer the question.”
“It’s that fragment of prophecy ir’Dayne was looking at-the one carved on the chunk of obsidian. Something’s bugging me about the translation. When I heard there was a Flamer library in Stormreach, I figured Olladra was giving me an opportunity to figure it out.”
“You read Draconic?” Skraad asked, though whether it was surprise or disdain that colored the orc’s words, Sabira couldn’t be certain.
Greddark nodded. “Pretty well. And speak a little. You hang out with a paladin of the Silver Flame for a couple of months, you’ll learn it too. Whether you want to or not.”
“So, let me get this straight. You remember words from a rock that you glanced at for all of five and a half heartbeats-written, I might add, in a language with which you’re not entirely conversant-well enough to later look them up in a reference book to ascertain their precise meaning? Because you think a Wayfinder with years of experience doing exactly that got it wrong?” She must have raised her voice, because Xujil glanced back from the front of the wagon, his dark face impenetrable.
“More or less.”
“More or less,” she repeated, making an effort to keep her tone even. “So what is it about the translation that you don’t like?”
Greddark cleared his throat and recited the lines.
“When the Anvil next is silent
The Book is closed, the Warder dreams.”
He looked at her expectantly.
“Yes, that’s what it said. It’s referring to when those three moons are dark. So?”
“ So, it uses three different words-‘silent,’ ‘closed,’ and ‘dreams.’ But there’s a specific word in Draconic for that phase of the moons. Why not just use that word, if that’s what was really meant?”
“Poetic license?” She looked over at Jester, who nodded.
“It does add to the verse’s lyricism.”
“Maybe. Or maybe it was a mistranslation, and those words don’t mean what we’ve been told they mean. That’s why I needed the dictionary-to find out for sure.”
“Wonderful. I’m sure once I explain that to Archbishop Dryden, he’ll completely understand the need for removing it from the library. Oh, and for skewering one of his guards in the process.”
“Well, if you really think he needs to know. About the book, I mean. I’m sure he’ll hear about the guard-though I should point out here that that wasn’t technically my fault.” He glanced over at Skraad, who was beginning to frown again. It wasn’t a particularly reassuring sight.
“What do you mean, he doesn’t know about the book? Isn’t that why the Flamers were chasing you?” Sabira had to work hard to keep her voice from going up a half-octave again out of sheer frustration.
Greddark actually had the audacity to look affronted.
“Please. Not only am I a master inquisitive, an artificer, and a security specialist, I am also a member of the House that bears the Mark of Warding. I could have removed half that library’s inventory without anyone being the wiser.” He moved his hand to his chin, then checked himself. Sabira imagined he’d been going to pull at the beard that was no longer there-or at least not of any length to facilitate worrying. “That’s not what triggered the pursuit.”
Sabira raised her eyebrows and waited expectantly for him to continue, but the dwarf was still in a huff over her questioning his thieving skills and refused to do so. She bit back a longsuffering sigh and prodded him.
“So what did?”
The inquisitive-artificer-security specialist-book thief actually looked sheepish.
“I’m pretty sure I killed one of his pets.”
Archbishop Dryden had two huge iron defenders who followed him around like the dogs they were modeled after. She was pretty sure he’d even named them-Tira and Jaela, after the paladin who’d merged with the Silver Flame and the girl who served as that Flame’s current Keeper.
“You killed one of the Archbishop’s dogs?” Sabira asked slowly, making sure she’d heard the dwarf aright.
“They’re not dogs. They’re constructs-and not even particularly useful ones. I can’t understand why the artificers here in Stormreach insist on churning the things out like everbright lanterns. They should try something a little more challenging, like those furry little flying messengers. At least those can talk. I use one myself-a customized and improved version, of course.”
Of course. Sabira watched as Skraad’s frown turned to a scowl. His right hand was flexing ominously. She wondered if he would attack Greddark.
She wondered if she’d bother to try to stop him.
“I don’t understand what the fuss is, frankly. It’s not as if they’re warforged-they don’t have souls. Easy enough to rebuild the thing from its original schematics. Maybe use some adamantine in the teeth this time-they break much too easily.”
“I’ll be sure to mention that to the Archbishop,” Sabira said acidly. “Maybe over tea.”
“Look, the Hostforsaken thing jumped on me for no reason. It was self-defense, plain and simple. Barristers would fall all over themselves to take this case, it’s so cut-and-dried. Easy money.”
“Did the iron defender attack you before or after you took the book out of the library?”
Sabira and Greddark both looked at Jester in surprise.
“After. But I disabled the alarm spells at the library entrance,” the dwarf replied, somewhat defensively.
The red-armored warforged held the book up, with the inside of the back cover facing them. A small sigil was sketched on the flyleaf, glowing a faint red.
“Yes, but did you disable the one in the book?”
“Onatar’s impotence!” Greddark swore as the warforged closed the book and handed it back to him.
“Well,” Skraad quipped, no longer scowling. If anything, he looked amused. “I’d guess the Archbishop knows about the book now.”
They rode in silence for some time after Greddark deactivated the rune. The wind was beginning to pick up, and Sabira was considering cutting a strip off the bottom of her cloak to use as a mask against the blowing sand when Greddark leaned forward suddenly, peering out the back of the wagon with a frown on his face.
“Hey, Jester. You still have that spyglass handy?”
The warforged nodded and produced the instrument from a pouch tied to a metal loop built into his hip plate, handing it over to Greddark.
“What, you like the sand so much, you want to see it close up?” Sabira asked skeptically as the dwarf extended the telescoping glass to its full length and placed it up against his eye. “Don’t worry-even moving as fast as we are, I have a feeling it’s going to catch up with us sooner rather than later.”
Greddark ignored her.
“The clarity with this glass is amazing-where did you get it? I used to have one-got broken in a tussle with some shifters back in Thrane-but it didn’t have near the distance this one does. Some truly fine craftsmanship went into this.”
Oh, for the love of Olladra’s weighted dice! Was the dwarf really waxing poetic about a spyglass, of all things?
“I… acquired it in the Cannith enclave, from an artificer there,” the warforged admitted, not sounding particularly sheepish about it.
“Well, next time you’re there, maybe you could acquire his schematics for it too,” Greddark commented as he pulled the glass away from his eye so he could examine its exterior appreciatively. “I’d be willing to pay handsomely for them.”
Sabira stared at the dwarf for a moment, not quite sure she’d heard him right, but figuring she probably had.
“I’m going to pretend you didn’t just try to solicit a burglary in front of a Sentinel Marshal,” she said.
“Good idea,” Greddark replied, bringing the spyglass up to his eye and peering through it at the approaching dust cloud. “Since you don’t technically have any jurisdiction here in the desert and you can’t arrest me for a crime that I haven’t actually committed yet, anyway.”
Sabira narrowed her eyes. Greddark, looking through the glass, couldn’t see her expression, but the others in the back of the wagon could, and they all moved surreptitiously away from the dwarf.
“Actually,” she said, casually unharnessing her urgrosh and laying it across her lap, Siberys spear tip pointed at the dwarf, “my jurisdiction is wherever my shard axe and I say it is. Something a confessed thief who is also wanted by House Medani might want to keep in mind before he starts planning additional crime sprees in my presence. Especially since Medani bounties are notoriously generous-even better than Marshal fees, sometimes. Don’t make me curious to find out how much better, hmm?”
She liked Greddark well enough, and she had no real interest in either arresting him for petty theft or turning him over to the Medanis, but he’d challenged her authority in front of men she was supposed to lead, and there was only ever one appropriate response to that. Slapping him down-hard-before anyone else had any similar ideas.
Greddark moved the glass away from his eye and glanced down at her shard axe, one eyebrow arching upward at what he saw. She’d positioned the weapon in such a way that a quick forward thrust would ensure that there would be no more Forgemaidens in his near future, if ever. They were awfully far from a House Jorasco healing center, and there were some wounds you didn’t really want to trust to a potion.
He inclined his head to her with a grudging grin.
“So noted. All future crime sprees will be planned out of your hearing, to give you plausible deniability. Satisfied?”
“Hardly ever,” she replied with a smirk of her own, pulling the urgrosh back a bit as the others in the wagon visibly relaxed. “But it’ll do. Now, why don’t you tell me what’s so interesting about that dust cloud?”
Greddark didn’t answer immediately. Instead he held the glass back up to his eye with one hand while he fumbled inside his shirt with the other. He pulled out a stylus and began scribbling numbers and equations on the side of a nearby crate, muttering under his breath as he did so.
He finally returned the spyglass to Jester-somewhat reluctantly, Sabira couldn’t help but notice-and spent a few more moments scribbling on the crate. Then he circled a number several times, nodding in satisfaction.
“That’s what I thought.”
“ What’s what you thought?” Sabira asked impatiently.
When Greddark turned so he could address everyone in the back of the wagon, Sabira knew they’d have to endure a lecture before getting an answer. She repressed an annoyed sigh. She’d been through enough training talks as she’d worked her way up the ranks in House Deneith to know that any sign of apathy would only make the lecturer go on that much longer. She’d become passably good at feigning interest over the years, but it was a skill she still hadn’t fully mastered. She wondered briefly if the trick with the shard axe would work a second time, to encourage the dwarf to get to the point faster, but she decided against it. If he was anything like the other tinkerers she’d known, she’d wind up having to actually impale him to get him to stop talking. It wasn’t worth wasting a healing potion over.
“I don’t know how familiar you all are with prevailing wind patterns…”
Sabira nearly groaned. Maybe it was worth it, after all.
“… winds in this part of Xen’drik should be from east to west, so any storm powered by those winds would also follow that route. We are traveling southwest at the moment, so the wind should be coming at us predominantly from behind, on the left. And, indeed, if you look outside, you’ll see that the various ropes, tails, and robes are being blown to the right.”
“So… what’s so noteworthy about that?”
“Well, my dear Marshal, if you look at the dust cloud, you’ll notice that it is not approaching us from the left, but from the right. In other words, it’s moving against the prevailing wind. And making headway.”
Sabira looked. The dwarf was right.
“It’s not a natural dust storm.” It wasn’t a question.
“No,” Greddark replied. “I’m not sure it’s a storm at all.”
“Well, what else could it be?”
The answer came from the back of the caravan, a series of metallic cries carried up the line of wagons on the unnatural wind.
“ ’Ware the dragon!”
Mol, Barrakas 9, 998 YK
The Menechtarun Desert, Xen’drik.
Jester dug his spyglass out again and handed it over to Sabira without being asked. She held the instrument up to her eye and was momentarily disoriented as the leading edge of the dust storm zoomed into focus so sharply she would swear she could make out individual grains of sand as they sped through the air. She blinked twice, then began scanning the sky.
“Low and to the left.”
That didn’t bode well. It meant the dragon was smart, creating the storm to distract them while it approached from another direction to avoid detection. Likely not a juvenile, then. So they’d have to deal with spells in addition to the dragon’s breath weapon and other physical attacks. Wonderful.
Sabira ran through a mental list of dragons that would be most comfortable in this hot, dry environment. It was short, but sobering. Copper, brass, red, maybe blue. But any dragon could live anywhere; the Blademarks drove that into the head of every recruit during their long hours of training. You had to be prepared for anything when dealing with one of the magical flying reptiles.
She’d never faced one herself, though she’d been drilled in how best to defeat those most likely to be found on Khorvaire. The closest she’d come had been her battle with those yrthaks over the Thunder Sea just two months ago. A lot of good men had fallen that day. If they had to fight off a true dragon, a lot more would fall on this one.
Sabira finally caught sight of the dragon, skimming low over the dunes as it approached.
It was nothing like the dragons in the books she’d studied during her training. The reptile was covered in brownish-gray scales everywhere except for its head, which was covered in a mass of thick, short horns and resembled nothing so much as a lamprey, or perhaps a morning star crafted by an overeager smith. Winglike membranes stretched between two parallel lines of spines that ran along the length of the creature’s back, from the base of its spiked head to the tip of its tail.
“What in the name of Olladra’s larder is that?” she asked as she handed the spyglass back to Jester, vaguely repulsed.
“A sand dragon,” Brannan answered. He’d given the controls over to Xujil and climbed into the back of the wagon, rummaging around in one of the crates. He came up with a handful of green-fletched bolts and a crossbow, which he held out expectantly. “Well? I certainly can’t operate the thing.”
Sabira took the weapon impatiently from him and selected a bolt. But before she could load it into the groove, Greddark snatched it out of her hand.
The dwarf ignored her exclamation, instead examining the bolt with a furrowed brow. Then he turned a baleful eye on the Wayfinder.
“You just happen to have bolts enchanted to pierce dragon scales?”
“Actually, I happen to have bolts enchanted to pierce any number of things. This crate alone holds silver bolts, bolts blessed by practitioners of every known religion on Eberron-and some unknown ones-and bolts that will bring a giant to its knees… probably even some that might do the same to a dwarf, if I dig deep enough.” The Wayfinder flashed that perfect smile. “You never know what you might face on an expedition. It pays to be prepared for every eventuality, no matter how unlikely. It’s kept me in business this long.”
Greddark harrumphed and grudgingly handed the quarrel back to Sabira, who quickly loaded it into the crossbow and moved into position, using the feed trough at the back of the wagon to steady her aim.
She could see the dragon without the spyglass now, a dark speck rapidly growing in size as it approached from the north. As it glided through the air, Sabira could see it wasn’t quite as large as she’d been expecting-the size of two of the wagons shoved together, maybe. She revised her estimate of the creature’s age-no more than a young adult, if the facts she’d learned as a Blademark could be applied to dragons she’d never seen in any of their libraries.
Hopefully, that should mean the reptile would rely less on magic and more on mundane attacks. But without knowing what sort of breath weapon the creature had, she wasn’t sure if that was a benefit or not.
“So,” she asked over her shoulder as she tried to keep the crossbow level while the wagon bumped along over the desert floor, “sand dragons. What do you know about them?”
“Not much,” Brannan answered from behind her. “I’ve never encountered one out here before, but I’ve heard stories.”
“Stories?” Jester asked, and Sabira could just imagine the red-armored warforged leaning forward eagerly on his bench.
“I’ve heard they can create sandstorms-a tale I think we can safely confirm-and that they prefer to attack from underneath the sand. Not much else.”
Wait. If sand dragons preferred to come at their prey from beneath the sand, then why-?
Sabira didn’t even have time to finish thinking the question. As the dragon came within bowshot of the rearmost wagons, it suddenly veered up and over the caravan, well out of range of both arrow and quarrel. As it crossed above their wagon, Sabira scrambled forward to the front, poking her head out beside a startled Xujil. She watched as the dragon swooped down behind a row of high dunes ahead of the caravan and disappeared. Though she scanned the horizon in front of them, she didn’t see it reappear.
“Stop the caravan!” she shouted to Brannan without turning.
There was utter silence behind her.
“Have you lost your mind?”
The Wayfinder’s voice was politely amused, as if he were humoring a lunatic while trying to determine if she were dangerous or not.
Now Sabira turned, her eyes narrowed and her jaw set.
“The dragon is ahead of us somewhere, on the ground. Under the ground, if the stories you’ve heard are to be believed.” She waited for understanding to dawn on the Wayfinder’s features, but his face remained affable and unenlightened. It was Xujil who caught on first.
“The beast is using the storm to herd us,” the drow said, the soft, oily words the first he had spoken in her hearing. Sabira was surprised at the anger behind them. Then again, she supposed that for someone who was used to leading others, being guided himself against his will must rankle.
“Classic hunting tactic. And we’re the buck with the trophy rack.”
Brannan took the revelation in stride.
“If we halt the caravan, we have no chance of outrunning the storm, and it’s the greater of the two dangers facing us. The dragon can only attack one wagon at a time; the storm can wipe out the entire caravan.” The Wayfinder’s expression was no longer so affable. “There is no choice here, Marshal. We press on, ambush or no.”
And as much as it galled her, Sabira couldn’t refute his logic.
“If that’s your decision, then at least have the caravan advance in a row instead of a column. That way we can bring more force to bear against the dragon when it attacks.”
Because that attack was as inevitable as the storm bearing down on them from behind. No predator would pass up such easy odds, least of all a dragon.
Brannan regarded her for a moment before his smile returned, a grin that Sabira would almost have called flirtatious, in other circumstances, on another man’s face. On Brannan’s, she couldn’t help but regard it as calculating. Though the Wayfinder hadn’t said it in so many words, he’d made it abundantly clear that his bottom line was the main factor in any decision he made, including this one. That it was also the safest decision for the men in his employ was completely beside the fact, Sabira was sure.
“As you will, Marshal,” he replied, inclining his head to her. He glanced at Xujil, who’d looked back over his shoulder at Sabira’s command to stop the caravan, and was now waiting for instructions. “Slow it down.”
As the drow obeyed and turned back to the controls, Brannan dug around in a satchel tied to the rear opening of the wagon. He pulled out a length of bright red cloth, then leaned out the back of the wagon into the wind. With one end of the cloth clutched in each hand, he slowly spread his arms out, so that the red fabric was a bright, visible slash across his chest. After a moment, he brought his hands back together in front of him, and then repeated the gesture two more times. When he was sure the next wagon in line had gotten the signal and was passing it on, he balled up the cloth and replaced it in the bag.
“That’s rather primitive,” Greddark remarked, no doubt thinking up a way he could rig a more efficient system with some Dust of Disjunction and a little spit.
“Ah, ‘primitive.’ That’s a dwarven euphemism for ‘cheap,’ is it not?” Before Greddark could answer, the Wayfinder continued. “It may seem simple, but it’s the most effective means to communicate between wagons when the wind is howling too loud for voices to be heard and the glare of the sun blinds you to anything but the brightest colors.”
“There are spells to bypass those difficulties,” the dwarf argued. “Cheap ones too.”
There were even spells that would protect the entire caravan from both sun and storm in the first place, Sabira knew, but they were also quite a bit more expensive than a few strips of cloth torn from the tent in the Marketplace.
“There are,” Brannan agreed. “But there are many places in the desert where such spells do not function as intended. If at all.”
Sabira frowned at that. Though such areas were common in the Mournland, where a magical cataclysm had wiped the nation of Cyre from the face of Khorvaire in the space of a single day, she’d never heard of any similar places outside the bounds of the dark gray mist. Then again, Xen’drik had been through its own cataclysm millennia ago, so perhaps the existence of pockets of warped magic here should not be such a surprise, after all.
“So map them and go around,” Greddark said, clearly still perturbed at the Wayfinder’s earlier insult, veiled though it had been.
“If it were that simple, I’d have paid for an army of surveyors to blanket the desert twice over and staked out the path for all to use,” Brannan said patiently. Sabira had no doubt that was true, though the Wayfinder was conveniently leaving out the part where he’d charge travelers half a year’s wages for the privilege of doing so. “Unfortunately, these areas never seem to appear in the same spot twice-another manifestation of the Traveler’s Curse, perhaps. In any case, it’s impossible to either anticipate or avoid them. Hence, the different colored cloths. And verbal signals and lamps as required. We’re not complete savages.”
Sabira turned back to the front of the wagon quickly to hide her grin and escape Greddark’s glower. Despite her objections to Brannan’s business practices, she couldn’t help but admire the Wayfinder’s wit. In fact, it was one of the things she found most attractive in a man. She supposed it was a good thing he wasn’t a couple of decades younger, or Elix might not appreciate the stories she returned to Karrnath with.
Thinking of her not-quite-betrothed reminded Sabira again of the stakes riding on her return to Vulyar. If she’d known she was going to have to face a dragon on the way to rescue Tilde… no. It wouldn’t have stopped her from coming. She’d see this through and her debt to Ned and his family paid, one way or the other. Only then would she be truly free to give Elix the answer to the question he’d been waiting so very long to ask.
As Xujil slowed the wagon, Sabira scrambled up into the seat beside him, and she could hear her companions moving around in the wagon behind her, preparing for the attack. Other wagons began appearing on either side of theirs, flanking them. Soon, the caravan was advancing in a horizontal line across the desert, the dragon’s storm at their backs and the dragon itself somewhere in front of them, waiting.
But not for long.
Sabira scanned the ground ahead again, eyes narrowed against the glare as she turned her head in a slow arc from side to side. Xujil was on her left, operating the mechanical wagon’s controls via a series of levers and glowing dials. Beyond him, another multi-legged schooner skittered across the sand, its driver likewise joined by a crossbow-wielding copilot. To her right, one of the magebred camels pulled another wagon. A gnome with a wand sat atop the animal, hunkered down between two of its three humps. Two other gnomes sat on either side of the wagon driver, one with a crossbow and one with a dragonshard-tipped staff. Sabira was glad to see the diminutive passengers. They were obviously from the Library of Korranberg in Zilargo, and while the library wasn’t a school of magic per se, it employed some of the mightiest practitioners in Khorvaire to protect its vaults and expand their contents. If she couldn’t have a contingent of Blademarks at her side to fight a dragon, she’d take a gaggle of spellcasting gnomes, and be glad for it.
The gnome closest to her-the one with the staff-caught her eye across the gap and winked at her. He’d seen the Siberys shard on her urgrosh peeking over her shoulder and probably thought she was a fellow mage. She was just nodding back at him when the ground in front of his wagon erupted in a spray of sand and a loud, inhuman bellow.
Sabira whipped her crossbow over, but what she saw momentarily stunned her.
The sand dragon had burrowed beneath the path of the oncoming caravan and waited until they were just above it. Then it launched itself upward, coming up underneath the camel and crushing the animal and its hapless rider between its huge, spike-framed jaws. The camel shrieked in pain as sharp teeth ripped through its abdomen and the force of the dragon’s massive bite broke the magebred animal’s spine. Its horrific lowing was accompanied by the higher-pitched scream of its rider as the gnome lost both his legs and the lower half of his torso to the dragon’s hunger.
Quickly shaking off the horror of the attack, Sabira leveled her borrowed crossbow and squeezed the trigger, letting the enchanted quarrel fly. Bolts and spells flew at the dragon from the gnomes’ wagon and from the schooner on the far side of it, but the mundane missiles clattered off the reptilian creature’s tough scales and the spells fizzled and popped in one of the magic-warping zones Brannan had warned of. Only Sabira’s bolt struck home, slamming into the dragon’s neck and sinking deep.
With a roar, the dragon tossed its head, trying to dislodge the quarrel and the pain it brought. The movement tore the camel’s corpse from its harness and overturned the gnomes’ wagon, sending it tumbling toward the one Sabira rode in. Only some quick maneuvering on Xujil’s part saved them from a similar fate. The drow pulled on two levers while simultaneous kicking a third forward with his left foot, and the mechanical wagon scuttled sideways and forward, just ahead of where the wreckage of the other wagon landed in a cloud of sand and splintered wood.
Sabira had been reaching for a second green-fletched bolt, but the unexpected movement knocked the quarrels from her lap as she struggled to maintain her seat. Two landed in the sand outside the wagon and one fell to the bottom of the driver’s platform, got wedged between control levers, and was promptly bent when Xujil forced those levers in opposite directions. That left one on the seat between her and the drow. As she snatched it up and began to fit it into the groove, Xujil shoved her aside, just as the dragon’s tail went whizzing over the platform where her head had been a half a heartbeat ago.
The drow’s touch was oddly cool, and she couldn’t stop herself from shrugging it off as quickly as possible. She tempered the action with a muttered “thanks”-the elf had probably just saved her life, after all-then sat back up, aiming and letting her last quarrel fly. It skimmed off the scales on the dragon’s left hind leg just as the creature disappeared in a crater of sand that quickly closed over the burrowing reptile again and then lay ominously still.
“ Damn it!”
“Not your fault.”
Sabira looked up in surprise to see Skraad perched atop the wagon’s front opening. The orc must have climbed out of the back of the wagon and made his way across the ribbed canvas to get in on the action. She caught a flash of green from the hand crossbow he carried-apparently Brannan had found a few more enchanted bolts. A good thing, considering she’d lost or wasted most of hers.
“Should have hit it; your aim was perfect. Must be more of that mixed-up magic the Wayfinder was talking about. Looks like it doesn’t just affect spells, but spelled items too.”
The orc’s hair was billowing about his face in the wind, so she couldn’t see his expression, but she knew he wasn’t trying to placate her-that would imply a concern for her ego she was quite sure the orc didn’t feel. Still, it was good to know the failure hadn’t been hers.
Not that it changed the outcome any. The dragon was still out there, and it hadn’t had a chance to finish feeding. It would be back.
She’d barely finished forming the thought when the ground directly in front of their wagon exploded, showering them with sand and warm chunks of what she realized belatedly were masticated camel and gnome flesh.
Out of ammunition, she tossed the crossbow aside and reached back to remove her shard axe from its quick-release harness. She leaped off the driver’s seat just as Xujil brought one of the wagon’s mechanical legs down on the dragon’s neck, trying to pin it to the ground and keep it from burrowing back into the sand or flying away. The dragon turned its head so the metal limb slid off its scales, ripping through the membranes of its left wing on the way down. With a roar of pain and anger, the dragon drew its head back and slammed forward, knocking the wagon off its legs as easily as Sabira would swat a spider. Skraad leaped free, but Sabira couldn’t see what happened to any of the others inside. And she didn’t have time to worry about it, because the dragon had finally noticed her scrambling to her feet on the ground in front of it.
With a snort of recognition, the dragon opened its great maw and inhaled, as if trying to suck her into its lungs. She stood fast as her copper hair streamed out in thick ribbons around her head, knowing what was coming. And knowing that she’d have mere seconds to dive out of the way once the dragon let loose with its deadly breath.
But the dragon was a step ahead of her. It brought its tail around behind her, forming a spiked and scaled barricade, blocking her retreat. Then her hair fell limp as the dragon stopped drawing air in and closed its mouth. Its intelligent amber eyes locked with hers for a long moment as the dragon held its breath. It cocked its reptilian head to one side, as if considering.
Then, the dragon opened its massive jaws and began to blow.
Mol, Barrakas 9, 998 YK
The Menechtarun Desert, Xen’drik.
And then Guisarme was in front of her, his backplates to that gaping maw as he shielded her from the great wind that emanated from the dragon’s throat like a shrapnel-filled gale. As she crouched in front of the warforged, she could see bits of metal and wood sliced off his body as if by a multitude of invisible and impossibly sharp knives. Then the force of the dragon’s breath toppled him on top of her, and they went down, the warforged curling around her like a mother protecting a newborn.
“Flaywind,” the warforged said, his voice reverberating in her ear but unable to drown out the cries as others without the benefit of a construct shield succumbed to the fury of the dragon’s breath, the flesh scoured from their bones in a matter of endless, agonizing moments.
After an eternity, the screams and the wind stopped and an eerie silence reigned. Just as Guisarme was peeling himself off of her, another sound cut through the stillness.
“Everybody off the sand! Now!”
Guisarme stood and pulled her up with one arm, strips of shredded wooden tendons hanging down from it like fringe. As she regained her feet, she saw Brannan standing on the overturned wagon, brandishing a glass globe. Red and yellow flames raged within.
The dragon’s tail was disappearing into the sand as she and the warforged raced for the wagon. Skraad and Greddark were helping Jester aboard, and from the strips of missing metal and wood on the red-armored warforged’s backside, she could see he’d tried to protect the orc in much the same way Guisarme had shielded her. Unfortunately, the bard wasn’t as big as Skraad, and blood oozed down the orc’s arms from a dozen long gashes as he strained to lift the warforged off the sand.
As she ran, Sabira almost tripped over a small skeleton. As she sidestepped the glistening bones, she saw a dragonshard-tipped staff still clutched in an ivory fist. Apparently the gnome’s magic hadn’t worked any better than her last crossbow bolt had.
Which made her question why Brannan thought his ball of fire was going to do any good. Spells clearly weren’t working correctly in this area, and a part of her wondered if the dragon had somehow known that and that’s why it had herded them here.
Jester was up on the wagon now, turning to help her and Guisarme as they made it to the tattered canvas. She quickly harnessed her urgrosh and grabbed the bard’s outstretched hands, using him as a counterweight to keep her boots from slipping as she clambered up an exposed steel rib. Xujil appeared next to Skraad and reached down to help him and Greddark hoist the larger warforged up. As Guisarme’s feet left the sand, the drow shouted, “Clear!”
Brannan threw the orb. It arced through the air, carried several feet south of where the Wayfinder had aimed by the approaching storm. But Brannan had taken the wind into account and the glass shattered against the sand right where a telltale berm had appeared, heralding the dragon’s next attack.
Fire burst out of the broken orb, washing over the sand in a molten wave. Steam rose in a great cloud, too thick for even the rising winds to disperse and Sabira watched from the safety of her perch as the sand began to melt and fuse into a vast block of glass.
“Was that… alchemist’s fire?” Greddark asked in amazement, and Brannan laughed.
“More or less,” the Wayfinder replied with an exultant grin. Catching Sabira’s eye, he added, “The dragon was probably counting on us not being able to attack it with magic. I’m sure it wasn’t counting on this.”
Sabira turned back to the transmuting sand, which was just beginning to reach their wagon. Guisarme was still only halfway up the side, the damage done to his legs by the dragon’s flaywind making it difficult for him to climb. She was just moving over to help the others haul him up when Skraad let out a small cry. Sabira was too far away to see exactly what happened, but suddenly Guisarme was dangling from one arm, his foot mere inches from the molten sand as Greddark and Xujil struggled to pull him back up.
And then the warforged was falling, his ungainly weight too much for the two to bear alone. He landed in the liquefied sand with a plop, and his heavy body sank about halfway in, so that only his face and upper chest were free. His jaw hinged open, but no sound escaped, and the light in his purple crystal eyes went dim.
“No!” Sabira shouted, and she would have leaped down to help him if Brannan hadn’t grabbed her from behind and pulled her bodily backward.
“Do you have some sort of death wish, Marshal?” he hissed in her ear, his hold surprisingly strong as she struggled against him. “Just wait. When the sand cools, we can dig him out, and maybe your artificer can revive him.”
She relaxed in his arms, feigning acquiescence, but the Wayfinder wasn’t fooled. The strength of his grip didn’t lessen.
“How long?” she asked sullenly, unable to take her eyes off of Guisarme’s inert form.
Brannan hesitated. When she tensed again, he answered, “That was one of the strongest batches I’ve ever seen. Days, probably.”
She sagged against him at the news, and this time his hold did slacken. She jerked out of his grasp and turned to face him.
“You know we don’t have that kind of time,” she spat at him, furious at his matter-of-fact tone. She could see the dragon encased in the massive block of translucent, glowing glass, and even at this distance, its amber eyes burned with hatred. “Was this wagon carrying water, or just a lot of magical toys?”
Brannan’s lips compressed into a thin line.
“Don’t be foolish. All the wagons carry food and water, along with weapons.”
“Good.” She made her way over to where the others were gathered above Guisarme and put a hand on Greddark’s shoulder. The dwarf looked up at her with anguished eyes.
“His hand slipped off Skraad’s.” A quick glance showed Sabira why; the orc’s forearm was covered in blood. “Then when he saw that his weight was going to pull the drow and me down with him, he just… let go.”
Sabira squeezed his shoulder in sympathy.
“We might still be able to help him. I need you and Skraad to climb down into the wagon and hoist a couple of barrels of water up to us. We’ll pour it out on the sand-that should make it cool faster, and we can get him out sooner.”
Greddark looked uncertain.
“That sudden a change in temperature could very well crack the glass-and Guisarme with it.”
Sabira’s gaze was unwavering.
“Would he be any worse off than he is now?”
The dwarf didn’t hesitate.
“Then get moving. I don’t think this sand-to-glass trick is going to slow the dragon down for long, so we need to move quickly.”
“You can’t possibly mean to waste two full barrels of water on one warforged.” Brannan’s voice was sharp with disbelief and anger.
Sabira didn’t bother to turn.
“Yes, actually, I can.”
“I won’t allow you to-”
She rounded on the Wayfinder.
“You won’t allow me?” she repeated, her tone low and dangerous as her hand hovered meaningfully over the release for her urgrosh’s harness. “How exactly were you planning on stopping me?”
She felt Xujil stir, but didn’t turn. Greddark was there to handle him if the drow really felt defending his employer was worth getting disemboweled over.
Brannan’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t answer immediately. Weighing his options and running the numbers, no doubt.
“Each barrel of water holds enough to keep ten men alive for a day. Do you have ten men who are volunteering to cut their ration short for two days for the sake of this warforged?”
“There’s one less camel now,” Sabira countered, “and the gnomes won’t be using their share, assuming it survived the wreck of their wagon. And if need be, yes, my men and I will gladly reduce our rations for the sake of ‘this warforged.’ Whose name, by the way, is Guisarme.”
“Very well. Rest assured that I will hold you to your word, if it comes to that.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” Sabira replied.
With Jester’s help, Greddark and Skraad were able to lift up a pair of heavy wooden barrels and hold them in place on one of the steel ribs. Directly below the barrels, Guisarme’s body lay partially encased in cooling glass. Sabira set her feet as best she could on the taut canvas, unharnessed her urgrosh and brought the axe-head down on the first barrel as hard as she could. The wood split like a kobold’s skull and water gushed out, running down the side of the waterproof fabric and onto the sand below. For the second time today, Sabira was engulfed in a cloud of steam as heat and cold battled for supremacy. Greddark and Skraad tossed the remains of the empty barrel off the wagon and moved the second one into place, and Sabira cleaved that one in twain, as well.
As they waited for the resulting steam to dissipate, Sabira frowned. The wind from the storm should have torn the billowing clouds to shreds, but they still hung in the air, a bizarre pocket of humidity in the arid climate. Come to think of it, the wall of wind-driven sand should have overtaken them long before now.
She turned back to regard the dragon’s dust storm, only to see that it was battering itself to pieces against an invisible wall a few hundred feet beyond the line of wagons. The unnatural storm must have hit the edge of the zone that had warped all their spells thus far. The magic that propelled the sand and wind could go no farther, and so low dunes were forming along the boundary, like a row of burial mounds. Nice to see the Traveler’s Curse working in their favor for a change.
There was a soft thud below her. Sabira whipped her head back around to see a large melon rolling lopsidedly across the hardened glass, a wet bruise visible intermittently visible as it rotated.
“I think it’s safe now,” Greddark said. “Jester found a pick and some shovels. Let’s go dig him out and we’ll see if I’m as skilled as I like to claim I am.”
At her nod, the warforged handed her a shovel; Skraad was already holding one. Sabira felt a momentary pang when she saw that his arms were bandaged. Jester had apparently found more than just mining equipment in his foraging. She should have been the one to see to it that the orc’s wounds were treated, but her guilt was overridden by satisfaction at the knowledge that she’d chosen wisely, with men who didn’t need explicit orders from her to do what needed to be done, quickly and efficiently. She’d been on her own for so long as a Marshal that she’d all but forgotten what it was like working with a unit of well-trained warriors.
Greddark grabbed the pick and jumped down first, followed quickly by Jester and then Skraad. Sabira came down last; though she wanted Guisarme freed just as much of the rest of them, she knew they were driven by more than just camaraderie. She knew the great weight of guilt and grief that came from having a partner who’d been hurt because of your actions, or lack thereof. She’d carried that burden herself-still did, in many ways, though it was no longer as heavy as it had once been. She understood their urgency and let them take the lead, because, while she wanted to rescue Guisarme, they needed to.
“You do realize that when you break the glass surrounding him, you’re also breaking the glass around the dragon? The glass that is currently the only thing keeping it from resuming its rather devastating attack?” Brannan asked from his place at the top of the overturned wagon.
“Well, I guess you’d better make sure the caravan is ready to move the moment we’re finished, then, hadn’t you?” Sabira answered, not bothering to hide the disgust in her voice. Though it wasn’t directed at the Wayfinder, so much as at the fact that he always seemed to be right.
Greddark kneeled down to examine Guisarme, then the glass around him, trying to find a point where he could start chopping at the transparent block without causing further injury to the warforged. After a moment, he chose a spot about a foot away from the construct’s right side. The dwarf muttered something under his breath, and Sabira thought she caught the words “Onatar,” “Canniths,” and “show them how it’s done,” but she couldn’t be sure. He swung the pick up and back and then brought it forward with a grunt of effort, the muscles in his arms bulging.
The crack of metal on stone reverberated across the sand and chips flew up in a spray of sparks and broken glass as the pick slammed into the block with the full force of Greddark’s anger behind it. A thin line appeared in the translucent surface, spreading out in both directions from the crater created by Greddark’s blow. A second strike widened it a hair, and a third made a gap big enough to inset a shovel blade.
“You two start here while I go work over there,” the artificer said to Jester and Skraad before stepping over Guisarme’s body to find a similar weak spot in the glass on the other side. The two set to work with gusto, wedging the shovels into the crack and working the blades back and forth to widen it further.
Sabira joined Greddark on the far side, waiting for her turn. As she did, she noticed warforged braving the sand to scavenge what they could from the ruins of the gnomes’ wagon. After they’d removed a miraculously intact barrel and two mostly intact crates, one of the warforged emerged from the wreckage carrying a small body. Sabira recognized the crossbowman from the driver’s seat. The warforged wrapped the gnome’s corpse carefully with a swath of torn canvas and then laid it out on the ground near the ruined wagon.
As she watched, he and his fellow constructs began piling pieces of broken wood and other flammables beside the body, building a small pyre. When it was large enough, the first warforged-who Sabira now realized was the gnomes’ driver-picked up the shrouded body and laid it reverently on the wooden mound. Another warforged retrieved the skeleton of the staff-wielding gnome and laid it beside the first gnome’s body. Of the dragonshard-tipped staff, there was no sign, but Sabira supposed the living constructs’ respect for the dead didn’t extend to destroying their belongings. They were Brannan’s men, after all.
The driver looked in her direction, probably awaiting permission from the Wayfinder. After a moment, the warforged nodded, then pulled flint and tinder from a pouch at his hip. He struck the flint against his thigh and had the tinder smoking in moments. A short time later, the gnomes’ pyre was sending up a trail of black smoke into the sky, an offering to whatever gods of the Sovereign Host the two might have worshiped. The warforged driver stayed for a moment with his head bowed and Sabira wondered for the first time what the living constructs thought about death and what came after. She should ask Jester; somehow, she was sure he’d have given the matter some serious consideration.
While Sabira had been watching the impromptu funeral, Greddark had finally located the weak spot he needed. As Sabira turned back to him, he brought the pick down in a vicious arc. The second crack was even louder than the first, and this time the pick stuck fast.
The dwarf struggled to pull it free for a few moments, then glared up at her.
“I could use some of that legendary Shard Axe strength right about now.”
Sabira almost snorted at that. If there was anything “legendary” about her, it was her temper, or maybe her stubbornness. Definitely not her strength. Of course, she knew the dwarf was really talking about the enchantment on her urgrosh that gave whoever held it the stability and stamina of his rock-loving brethren, but now probably wasn’t the time to quibble over semantics. Or to remind him of the fact that it might not work, given the nature of the area they were in.
She pulled the shard axe off her back and then grabbed hold of the pick, so that both the urgrosh’s haft and the handle of the pick were in her grasp. She felt a surge through the leather-wrapped wood, but didn’t know if it was the urgrosh’s enchantment or some Traveler-twisted variant.
There was only one way to find out.
“On three,” she said. “One… two… pull!”
With what amounted to two dwarves yanking on the pick, it was either going to give way or break.
It broke, and both Sabira and Greddark stumbled backward, the shard axe in Sabira’s hand and what was left of the pick handle in Greddark’s. The head of the pick remained firmly lodged in the glass, its recalcitrance proving even more noteworthy than Sabira’s own.
But not for long.
“This is ridiculous,” she said impatiently as she regained her footing. “Move.”
Greddark obliged, opting not to bristle at her tone when he saw the dark look on her face.
Mimicking the dwarf’s earlier stance, Sabira brought her urgrosh up and back and then down. The adamantine axe-blade sheered through the head of the pick and shattered the glass in a two-foot radius, showering her with tiny stinging shards even as the blow freed Guisarme’s left arm and upper torso from their crystalline prison.
“Does it always do that?” Greddark asked after a moment, his voice registering awe. He was clearly shocked by the damage her blow had caused.
Almost as much as she was.
“Not usually.” She wondered if there might be some way to harness the effects of the Traveler’s Curse. She’d take the urgrosh’s enchantment not functioning at times if this is what happened when it did work.
She was about to pose the question when a deeper crack sounded below her, followed by a rumbling.
“That would be the glass near the dragon beginning to break,” Brannan said from behind her. While she and the others had been working to free Guisarme, the Wayfinder and Xujil had commandeered another mechanical wagon and its crew. A few warforged were just finishing up transferring the last of the supplies over from the overturned wagon. “We need to leave. Now.”
She had to give the man credit. He managed to keep all but the tiniest trace of smugness from his voice.
Now that Sabira’s shard axe had broken most of the glass encasing Guisarme, Greddark was able to clear the rest away. He dug some implements out of his shirt and various pouches, including a vial of what looked like oil and another of what looked like curdled milk. He muttered incantations under his breath, trying this spell and that to resuscitate the warforged, but without success. Finally, he looked up at Sabira, his eyes shadowed.
“I think he can be revived, but it’s beyond my skill. He needs to go back to Stormreach, to the House Cannith artificers. They’ve got the time and materials there to do what I can’t here.”
“So who’s going to take him back?”
Her question hung in the air, much as the steam cloud had earlier. As the warforged’s employer and the group’s leader, Sabira knew the job should fall to her, but she couldn’t abandon her quest. There was too much riding on it.
She could see similar conflict on the faces of her companions. They all wanted to see Guisarme to safety, and they all knew they couldn’t afford to. Even Jester, whose face couldn’t betray expression, still managed to convey his quandary by hanging his head, as if in shame.
“I’ll take him.”
Sabira turned to see the driver of the gnomes’ wagon, pulling along a soarsled weighed down by two chests marked “Property of the Library of Korranberg.” Sabira also saw books poking out of the mouth of a burlap bag and, finally, the dragonshard-tipped staff.
“I have to return these items to the doyen’s family. I can transport your companion back with me, as well.”
Doyen? The staff-wielder had been one of the luminaries of Korranberg? That wasn’t going to go over well back in Zilargo. She wondered briefly who the gnome might have been, then decided it was probably safer if she didn’t know.
“Thank you,” Sabira said gratefully, relieved and chagrined at the same time. It didn’t matter that it couldn’t be helped-leaving a man behind still stuck in her craw like a mugful of Old Sully’s gone bad. Which was, she supposed, the difference between her and Brannan. They might both choose the needs of the group over the needs of the individual, but she at least felt bad about it, and money was never a factor.
“I can give you a writ-” she began, reaching for one of her own pouches, but the warforged waved the offer away before she could make it.
“I’m taking one of my fallen brethren home, either to be restored to his former glory or to be laid to rest. One does not pay an honor guard.”
Sabira nodded her understanding.
“Of course; I meant no offense. But Guisarme no longer has anything to go back to, thanks in part to his decision to join us on this expedition. If the artificers can revive him, he’s going to need money, to pay for the repairs if nothing else. And he’s still owed payment for making it this far.” She dug out their agreed-upon fee from her money pouch, plus a handful of extra platinum. If asked, she’d say it was hazard pay, but she knew in her heart it was blood money. “And maybe you can talk to Kupper-Nickel on the way back. He might be able to get Guisarme reinstated to his old job, if he still wants it.”
The driver took the proffered coins without comment and deposited them into his own pouch. Then he stood aside as Skraad and Greddark lifted Guisarme’s body and placed it carefully on the sled. There was no ceremony, and no words were spoken as the driver led the laden soarsled away, but somehow it felt no different to Sabira than the funeral she’d witnessed earlier.
No, that wasn’t strictly true. She hadn’t known the gnomes, and neither of them had saved her from being filleted by a dragon. Their deaths were regrettable, but ultimately elicited only a distant, almost clinical pity from her. Guisarme’s death-if that’s what this truly was-did much more than that.
They watched the warforged driver until he disappeared over the dunes that were all that was left of the dragon’s sandstorm.
As they were turning back to Brannan’s new wagon, another deep rumble sounded from the vicinity of the dragon.
“And now we really are out of time, Marshal,” the Wayfinder called to her. “We’re leaving, with or without you.” True to his word, the mechanical wagon began to hum as Xujil powered it up at his signal.
Skraad broke into a sprint, followed by a surprisingly fleet Jester. Sabira could have outrun them both, but she doubted the same was true of Greddark, so she matched his pace instead. Ahead of them, the orc and the warforged clambered up onto the back of the wagon. Greddark reached it moments later as it was starting to move. Sabira pushed him up from behind as the others reached down to pull him in. Then more hands reached down for her and lifted her up into the wagon just as it began to skitter forward faster than she could have run.
Brannan set her lightly on her feet and released her, grinning sardonically.
“I was beginning to think you’d grown tired of my hospitality and decided to walk all the way to Trent’s Well instead.”
“What, and miss out on the opportunity to annoy you for another week?” Sabira replied, meeting his grin with a thin smile of her own. “Not on your life.”
Zol, Barrakas 17, 998 YK
Trent’s Well, Xen’drik.
Despite the Wayfinder’s justifiable concern, if the sand dragon did indeed escape its glass cage, it apparently decided they weren’t worth chasing, for they saw no further sign of it. They sheltered in the skeleton-like rock formation known as the Bone that night without incident, and the caravan made its way into Trent’s Well a week later, having encountered nothing more serious than assorted mephits and a rabid jackal after that first eventful day of travel.
The small settlement at the base of the Skyrakers was nothing like Zawabi’s Refuge. Where the djinn’s oasis had large, well-built homes and lush trees, Trent’s Well was a mixture of tents, wooden shacks, and disabled wagons situated around an old, crumbling stone well. A path led from the makeshift village up a rocky slope, and a group of armored men were heading up it as Brannan’s wagon skittered to a halt near the largest tent.
“What’s up there?” Sabira asked from her place beside the Wayfinder. She’d taken to riding in the front on the second day of the trip, when cramped quarters and short tempers had combined to force Xujil and the wagon’s original warforged driver to move to another covered cart. The final straw had been when the construct made the mistake of saying they should have left Guisarme to rot instead of endangering the entire caravan trying to save him. After that, it had been either transfer the warforged to another wagon, or bury him, much as he’d suggested be done to Guisarme. Xujil had gone with him, ostensibly to keep him from causing any more trouble, but in reality Sabira thought being around so many surface dwellers wore on the drow’s nerves-or at least being around the eating, breathing, sleeping ones. She didn’t blame the drow for making the move. After being kept awake by Skraad’s cattlelike snoring the last few nights, she’d been contemplating finding another wagon herself. But at least it had kept her from doing more than dozing, and hence, from dreaming, so she hadn’t complained too loudly. Another of the Sovereigns’ small blessings, she supposed. Blessings which were getting smaller all the time.
Since none of the others had wanted to take Xujil’s place next to the Wayfinder after Brannan-predictably-sided with the driver, Sabira found herself there, scanning the sky and sand in front of the caravan, while the rest of her companions took turns doing the same out the rear of the wagon. None of them wanted to be caught unprepared again. Not after the price it cost them last time.
“Up there? That’s what you’re looking for,” Brannan replied, bringing Sabira’s attention back to the present with that damnably perfect smile as much as with his words. “The rest of the settlement, and the entrance to Tarath Marad.”
Sabira eyed the steep slope skeptically, wondering where they’d found room for a town between the boulders and the bluffs.
“Kind of hard to build on that, I’d think,” Greddark commented from behind her, echoing her thoughts. “Well, I mean, for humans. Dwarves are smarter. We wouldn’t bother-we’d just excavate.”
Brannan glanced over his shoulder, turning his smile on the dwarf who’d poked his head out from the back of the slowing wagon to survey the town.
“Indeed. Then the settlers of Trent’s Well must have been veritable geniuses, because they built their town inside a cave that was already there.”
Greddark harrumphed and withdrew back into the wagon, muttering something about unloading. To keep from laughing, Sabira asked another question.
“They dug the well here, but settled up there? That doesn’t seem like the work of ‘veritable geniuses.’ ”
Brannan’s eyes sparkled with amusement.
“Well, just between you and me, the original settlers were thieves, murderers, and pirates who fled from Stormreach when it was founded because it was too ‘lawful,’ if that gives you any idea of their nature. They built their homes here after sinking the well. But, as you can see, the only thing that survives from that time is the well-the people and the town are lost to history.”
“What happened to them?” She expected some story of horror rising up from nearby Tarath Marad to envelop the unsuspecting citizens of Trent’s Well. Brannan’s tale was quite a bit less bardic.
“They all died. One of those foolish Flamers would probably tell you it was divine justice, but the causes were far more human-greed and stupidity. Two of the residents got into a fight over a handful of silver and one of them wound up dead in the well. The winner thought it would be better not to tell anyone about it and instead left town. When he returned with the regular supply wagon a month later, thinking the whole thing would have blown over and he’d be welcomed back with open arms, he found the entire populace dead in their homes, victims of some virulent illness.”
Sabira just stared at him.
“They drank from the well?” she asked incredulously.
“They didn’t know it was tainted until it was too late.”
Sabira could only shake her head. An entire town dead over such a small amount of coin. What a waste. Even if they had all been cutthroats, bootleggers, and worse.
“What about the survivor?”
The Wayfinder chuckled as he powered down the wagon.
“Well, the stories differ, but the most common one is that, overcome with remorse, he went looking for a burial place for the townspeople and providentially found a nearby cavern large enough to house a new settlement, complete with a water supply that couldn’t be poisoned-an underground river. He promptly founded a new Trent’s Well, in memory of those poor souls and their unfortunate mishap.”
Ah. The tale was obviously the most common because it painted the survivor in the best possible light following his little “mishap.”
“And now?” She sort of hoped Brannan would tell her the intrepid survivor was at the bottom of the old well too.
If possible, Brannan’s smile grew wider.
“Him? He’s the mayor.”
The large tent Brannan had stopped next to turned out to be a tavern of sorts, with something that looked like a convulsing wolf painted on either side of the entrance. While the Wayfinder was busy overseeing the unloading of the caravan, Sabira and the others went inside.
The interior was hot, dusty, and dim and filled with tables and chairs made from whatever was available-broken bits of crates and wagons, boulders with roughhewn flat surfaces, even the bones of what Sabira surmised were camels, though she didn’t want to look close enough to make sure. A long bar constructed of wooden boxes stood along the far wall, with a warforged who could have been Raff’s twin serving as barkeep.
Sabira wasn’t entirely surprised to see that the place was full of soldiers, miners, and scholarly types, even at this hour-the place was probably only habitable from sunset to mid-morning, after all. And as more and more powerful artifacts came out of Tarath Marad, more people would come here to seek their fortunes. In another month’s time, there might well be two such taverns in the sand.
A bored-looking shifter woman swayed to a kobold’s pipe on a shoddily-constructed stage opposite the bar-the tavern’s namesake, no doubt. The patrons appeared to pay her little mind, but whenever she missed a step, rocks flew from several points inside the tent, causing her to bob and weave in a much more lively imitation of actual dancing.
Sabira found the one open table and waved to what she hoped was a server as the others took what passed for seats on either side of her. When the harried gnome reached them, she didn’t ask them what they wanted, just dumped three mugs in front of them, then stuck out her hand expectantly.
“What’s this?” Greddark asked, sniffing at the rim with a grimace of distaste. Sabira was willing to bet it wasn’t sweet mint tea.
“Tainted Well-house brew. All we got left till the next shipment comes in from Stormreach. Four coppers each. Got some oil for the ’forged if he wants, but that’s a full sovereign.”
Jester politely declined as the others dug out the required amount of coin. After the gnome had left, they looked at each other, no one wanting to be the first to try the foul-smelling concoction.
“It’s not a very auspicious name,” Jester remarked unhelpfully. Sabira decided this probably wasn’t the time to share with them the story of how that name had come about.
“Well, then it matches everything else about this trip,” she said wryly. “Bottoms up.”
The others followed half a breath after her, upending their mugs and swallowing. Sabira had braced herself for a taste to match the smell, but the ale was smooth, going down like velvet with a pleasant earthy flavor and a warm finish.
“Mushrooms,” Greddark said decisively. “And cactus sap, if I’m not mistaken. Probably the flowers too. Could use some ironspice to liven it up, but it’s not bad. Not bad at all.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his fist and signaled for another.
“Might want to slow down there, mate,” a man at the neighboring table said-a Vadalis, judging from the quick glimpse Sabira got of the dragonmark on his neck before his long blond hair fell forward to cover it. Probably a handler for the magebred camels; if Brannan used them, it stood to reason other expeditions did too. “Stuff’s more potent than it looks.”
“Thanks for letting me know. I’ll order a double.”
Sabira gave the dwarf a dark look and turned on her seat so she was facing the man.
“You’ll have to forgive my friend. He got a little too much sun on the way here, and heat makes him cranky.” She shrugged apologetically. “It’s a dwarf thing.”
The man’s eyes flicked over her once, taking in the quality of her armor and the Siberys shard adorning the urgrosh on her back.
“Deneith?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
She nodded, holding out her hand.
“Laven d’Vadalis,” he replied, shaking her hand. “Didn’t expect to see any more of you lot here after the last group didn’t make it back.”
“Pretty blonde took ’em down-Blademarks, I think. None of them ever came back up again.” His eyes-hazel, like Elix’s, Sabira noticed with a sudden pang she forced quickly away-narrowed. “Well, except their guide. One of the Unders.”
“Drow who live under the mountains and the desert, came up when the caverns were opened. Umbragen’s the name I think they use, but most everyone else just calls them Unders.”
“Yeah, because they get under your skin, and stay there,” one of Laven’s companions interjected. “Like a cactus needle, or a scorpion sting.” The woman’s comment was greeted with grunts of assent from the others at their table.
The corner of Laven’s mouth quirked upward.
“Glynn’s just mad he turned her down,” he quipped, which earned him a half-hearted punch from the woman and chuckles from his friends. Then he turned serious again. “You here to finish what the blonde started?”
Sabira gave him her most ingenuous smile, then lied through her teeth.
“I’m here to get rich. Aren’t you?”
Laven laughed and raised his mug.
“I’ll drink to that.”
As the Vadalis man gulped down his own Tainted Well, Sabira took stock of him and his companions. Laven wore boiled leather armor and carried a worn but well-kept sword. Glynn was similarly dressed, with a brace of daggers across her chest. The two others at the table were also human, one in battered chain and the other in heavy robes Sabira suspected had been fashioned out of a wagon covering.
She revised her assessment of Laven and his group; they probably weren’t animal handlers, after all. They looked more like hired hands down on their luck, hoping to make a little coin. A situation she just might be able to help them with.
“So, who’s the best person to work for out here if I want to accomplish that goal?”
Laven set his mug down and regarded her curiously.
“You look more like the order-giving type than the order-taking,” he said after a moment.
“Maybe I just want to know who my competition is,” she replied with an arch look. She didn’t really want to spend time playing games with him, though. She couldn’t go into Tarath Marad with only three swords at her side-not if she wanted to come back out again. Best just to get straight to the point. “Who are you working for?”
The Vadalis man blinked once at her directness.
“We’re sort of… independent contractors,” Glynn answered for him.
Sabira shifted her gaze to the other woman, whose close-cropped black hair did little to hide either her scars or her age.
“Not enough work in Stormreach for you?” Sabira asked her. This was the crux. She wanted men who’d follow her into the depths. She needed men who were desperate enough to do it.
But there were degrees of desperation, and to the reasons behind it. Guisarme, Jester, and Skraad had ultimately followed her because she offered them a better choice- not the only one. Hiring men without options was like loading your quiver with warped quarrels. Sure, some of them would fly true, but it only took one to break in the groove and render the crossbow useless, and you defenseless. She needed to make sure Laven and his group weren’t here in Trent’s Well because there was nowhere else they could go.
The dark-haired woman shrugged.
“I get bored easy.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Sabira thought she saw Laven wince. She wondered when Glynn had gotten bored of him.
“So you’re looking for money and excitement?”
“Aren’t you?” Glynn countered, throwing her own earlier question back at her with an impish look.
Sabira smiled. She had a feeling this partnership would work out just fine.
She was about to open her mouth to begin the negotiation process when a hush came over the tavern and all heads turned toward the entrance. Sabira turned to look as well and saw Xujil standing there, scanning the room. His gaze fell on her and he started toward her table. As he passed, people hastily got up from their tables, leaving coin beside their unfinished drinks on their way out.
When it became clear what the drow’s destination was, Laven glanced at Sabira.
“Another cranky friend of yours?”
Sabira met his eyes coolly. If working with the drow was going to be a problem, she needed to know it now. She could find other men to go down into the caverns; she couldn’t find another guide who knew the route Tilde had taken.
“Something like that.”
“Well, this should be fun, then.”
Sabira turned back in her seat to face the drow as he stopped next to her table, the only one aside from Laven’s that was still occupied. Even the kobold piper and shifter dancer had left the tavern, leaving them alone, except for Raff’s twin, who might have been a statue for all the attention he paid them.
“Marshal,” the drow said by way of greeting, and Sabira almost groaned. That was going to drive Laven’s price up, she was sure.
“Something I can do for you?” she asked shortly, not bothering to hide her annoyance.
“The mayor asks everyone who enters Tarath Marad to register with him and pay a small usage fee, to help offset expenses incurred by the town in housing and feeding so many extra people. Since Brannan is unable to register for you, he requires your presence.”
Sabira cocked an eyebrow at that. That was some pretty shrewd governing for a guy who dumped a dead body in a well and didn’t think there’d be consequences.
“Where is he?”
“At the mayor’s home, in the cavern,” the drow replied, unperturbed by her less than welcoming tone.
“Tell him we’ll be along shortly.”
“Brannan asked me to bring you-”
“I’m sure he did, but we’re in the middle of being unavoidably detained. Tell him we’ll be there just as soon as we’re done here.” She knew the drow was from a culture alien to her and that he hadn’t been on the surface long enough to acclimate, but he would have had to be from a completely different plane of existence to mistake her expression.
Xujil inclined his head.
“As you will.”
She waited until the drow had exited the tavern before turning back to Laven and Glynn.
“I believe we were just about to discuss you coming to work for me?”
Glynn gave her a wide smile, and Sabira could fairly see the coin pile growing in the other woman’s head.
“Ir’Kethras too? You do run with some interesting folks, don’t you… Marshal?” Laven asked, hazel eyes gleaming.
Sabira kept her own smile intact, though mentally she was sticking long needles in the soft spots between Xujil’s toes. Rusty ones. Possibly coated in poison.
“Just Sabira. I’m on vacation,” she replied airily. “And as far as Brannan goes-well, you said you wanted to get rich. No better way than by learning from someone who already is.”
She looked Laven and his companions in the eye, one by one.
“We’re going into Tarath Marad, farther in than anyone else has lived to tell about, and that drow everyone seems to hate is the one who’s going to lead us there. I can pay you one hundred platinum apiece. Half now, half when we get back, plus a percentage of the profits on anything we find that we wind up selling. You provide your own weapons and your own bedrolls; I’ll provide the rest. Wealth and a wild time. What do you say?”
Laven didn’t hesitate.
Zol, Barrakas 17, 998 YK
Trent’s Well, Xen’drik.
As they made their way out of the Shimmying Shifter-a rather ironic name, given that the dancer had barely been moving-Laven introduced Sabira and the others to the rest of his group.
“This here’s Rahm, and this is our resident wizard, Zi,” he said, gesturing first to the man in chainmail, who nodded affably, and then at the bald man, who didn’t. “Don’t mind him. He lost his robes in a game of Jarot’s Bluff. Been in a mood ever since.”
That explained the poorly-sewn canvas he was wearing.
“Who’d he lose to?” Sabira asked, idly curious.
Ah. Well, she’d come close to betting the clothes off her back a time or two herself, so she wasn’t one to judge, but she did wonder what the other woman had done with the robes. The dark-haired woman didn’t seem to be any more the dress-wearing type than Sabira was.
“It wasn’t the losing that upset him so much as her trading them for a couple of new daggers,” Laven continued. “He wasn’t too happy about that.”
“Please,” Glynn scoffed. “That cheap Thrane cotton wouldn’t have stopped a gnat bite, let alone a blade. At least the canvas is thick enough to offer some actual protection. I probably saved his life.”
“How very philanthropic of you,” Greddark interjected wryly. “I’m sure the profit you made had nothing to do with it.”
Glynn looked at him askance.
“Of course it did. Wouldn’t have been a point to it, otherwise.”
Greddark laughed at that, and the others joined in easily. Well, all except Zi, but Sabira was pretty sure she saw the corner of the wizard’s mouth twitch upward when he thought no one was looking.
She hid a relieved smile of her own. Integrating two very different groups into one cohesive team was a difficult enough task under the most ideal of circumstances, and these were anything but. It helped that everyone seemed to have a sense of humor. The better they got along, the better their chances of surviving this mission.
Well, some of them, anyway. She held no illusions that everyone who went into Tarath Marad with her would come back out again, not when thirty Blademarks and a powerful sorceress hadn’t been able to do so. But her little group of misfits had something Tilde’s men hadn’t-a willingness to break the rules. Whether or not that would be enough to keep them alive remained to be seen.
“So, tell me why everyone in Trent’s Well seems to hate our guide,” Sabira said in a low voice as the others began to chat and swap war stories behind them. “What did he do-poison the water supply?”
Laven didn’t seem to get the joke. When he looked over at her, his face had grown serious.
“Not just him. All the Unders-well, the few of them that stayed up on the surface, anyway. Wasn’t here when it happened, but from what I’ve heard, it seems they didn’t take too kindly to being discovered. They’re fighting some kind of war against some other Unders down there and I guess they thought the folks in the expedition were allied with their enemies. Followed ’em back up here and slaughtered the whole mess of ’em in their sleep before Brannan could talk ’em down. Killed their families too-women and children. Even an infant. Townsfolk would’ve started their own war if the Wayfinder hadn’t intervened. Got the mayor to grant the Unders amnesty, or some such-probably by appealing to his bank account. But not before the townsfolk took one of ’em and skinned him alive, then staked him out over a nest of scorpions.” Laven shook his head, bemused. “Funny thing is the other Unders didn’t seem to care that they killed him, just that they let scorpions defile his corpse.
“Anyway, now there’s a few of ’em who guide expeditions down into the caverns in exchange for ‘surface magic.’ Brannan and the mayor pretty much run the whole thing-make a nice profit off it too.”
“Apparently,” Sabira said, remembering Xujil’s matter-of-fact comment about a “usage fee.” The drow had seemed oblivious to the hostility of the taverngoers-he certainly hadn’t evinced any guilt or shame that she could see. She dared to hope he hadn’t been involved in the tragedy Laven had recounted, but she had to be sure. A good player could still win with the deck stacked against them, but not if they didn’t know about it beforehand.
“So exactly what role, if any, did Xujil play in all this?” she asked.
They were walking up the steep slope now, and it took the Vadalis man some time to answer. Sabira thought at first it was because he was winded, but then she saw his face.
“Your guide? He’s the baby-killer.”
The conversation lulled after Laven’s revelation, and Sabira focused on her surroundings. Mostly so she wouldn’t have to focus on the fact that the drow that was going to help her find Tilde was the worst sort of murderer, someone she’d gladly bring to justice herself if she didn’t need him so badly. She wondered if Tilde had known, or if it would have made a difference if the sorceress had. By all accounts, she’d been as much at Breven’s mercy in this situation as Sabira herself was. Maybe more, because Sabira liked to at least imagine that she could have refused. With Tilde’s all-consuming need to be accepted by the House that had turned its back on her mother, Sabira wasn’t sure Ned’s sister had really had that option.
The path wound its way up the side of the mountain in between boulders larger than some of the mechanical wagons below, and along the edge of sheer escarpments that promised a painful end to anyone inattentive enough to step out of its globe-lit boundaries. Small tufts of desert grasses grew here and there, brown and sickly but stubborn. Lizards long since grown accustomed to the steady tramp of feet up and down the slope sunned themselves unconcernedly on small rocks, or scampered away with a hiss if they felt themselves threatened. Every so often they would have to press themselves up against the edge of the path as other groups made their way back down from the caverns, usually with empty soarsleds after a delivery of supplies, but some few bringing back spoils from their expeditions. Sabira saw piles of what looked like hardened cobwebs, a cluster of black blades with cruel, serrated edges, and slabs of stone covered with alien glyphs that glowed an angry red in the sunlight.
“More draconic?” Sabira heard Skraad ask behind her, gently ribbing Greddark, who she imagined had probably been quite intrigued when those slabs passed by.
“No. Though it does look somewhat familiar… a little like the writing the duergars use, but harsher. More primitive.”
Sabira felt something cold tiptoe down her spine at the dwarf’s words. She’d never seen duergar writing, and only knew one word in their language: eddarghe. The name for a ghastly white flower that was also shared by the half-duergar assassin who’d kidnapped and tortured Ned, and had ultimately been responsible for his death. Eddarga- Nightshard — had also killed almost two dozen people in her decade-long killing spree, almost adding Sabira, Aggar, and the entire population of Frostmantle to her tally before she was done.
Sabira had hoped to never cross paths with another of the deep-dwelling dwarves again-though she knew Gunnett, Eddarga’s sister and accomplice, was still out there somewhere, plotting against Aggar and the rest of the Tordannon family. Her family, now. But it somehow hadn’t occurred to her that she might encounter duergar on this excursion into the depths, and the idea filled her with dread. A dread she quickly stomped on and kicked aside. She was here to save Tilde and if any of Nightshard’s distant kin got in her way, they’d suffer the same fate the assassin had. It was that simple.
They rounded a boulder the size of a small house and the cavern that housed the rest of Trent’s Well and the entrance to Tarath Marad opened up in front of them like the mouth of the mountain. Here, the path was shadowed, and the everbright globes along its edge sprang to life, bathing them all in an icy bluish light. As they walked from the heat of the desert morning into the relative coolness of the cave, Sabira couldn’t repress a shiver that had very little to do with the temperature change.
The last time she’d gone beneath a mountain, her companion had died-a slow, agonizing, brutal death. She couldn’t help but wonder which of her new companions would do the same on this trip.
Several buildings dominated the floor of the huge cavern, situated on either side of a rushing river that flowed in from the west and went back out again on the east side. A stone bridge led from one side to the other, lit by more of the blue everbright lanterns, though these ones floated overhead instead of protruding from the ground.
Sabira could see a smithy, what looked like the sort of general supply store common to rural towns and even a small tent with a hand-lettered sign set outside that read, “Artifact Collector.” There were other buildings, built mostly of stone and scavenged wood, that Sabira assumed were homes.
It didn’t take much guesswork to determine which one belonged to the mayor. A massive two-story structure, it was the only house that boasted a facade constructed from the remains of giantish ruins, complete with massive faces on either side of the door. They had to have been transported all the way from Stormreach at considerable cost. Sabira wondered again at the “usage fee” and the mind behind it.
There appeared to be a line of people waiting to see the mayor, so Sabira turned to Greddark.
“No point in all of us wasting our time here. Why don’t you take the others and see what sort of supplies you can scrounge up for us? I’d like to head out tonight. Tomorrow, at the latest.” She pulled out Breven’s letter of credit. “Charge what you need to; don’t worry about the cost.”
“Because none of us will be around for the Baron to collect from if we go over his limit, anyway?” Greddark asked semi-seriously as he took the paper and tucked into a pocket.
“No. To make sure we are,” she replied, making sure they all heard her. Whatever her private thoughts on their odds, she needed to project confidence. “What we don’t have in quantity, we’re going to have to make up for in quality. Nobody I’d trust more to make that call than a dwarf.”
“A fellow dwarf,” Greddark corrected, raising a few eyebrows among Laven’s men. No — her men, now. Best to make sure they knew it before they headed into the darkness.
“Greddark’s my second in this. Whatever he asks or tells, it comes from me. Clear?”
Laven answered for them all.
“As a diamond, and twice as precious.”
“Get to it, then. Hopefully I’ll be done with this nonsense by the time you get back.” As they began to disperse, she called out. “Zi! A word?”
The wizard looked at Laven first, but the Vadalis man ignored him, sending a not-so-subtle message that he wasn’t the one Zi should be asking for direction anymore. Sabira appreciated the support; she’d had a feeling the bald man would prove troublesome.
Zi walked over to her side, looking at her warily.
“Where’d you get your training?’
“Excuse me?” He drew himself up, clearly affronted that she’d felt the need to ask. But she had neither the time nor the inclination to coddle his ego.
“It’s a simple question-the kind I normally expect my employees to provide an answer to, not another question. Do I need to repeat it?”
Zi’s face was a smooth as his head so he had no brows to draw together in anger, but he didn’t need them. It was there in his eyes and in the hard set of his jaw.
“No, Marshal. I learned from my mother, who learned from hers. I’ve had no formal training.”
Sabira hadn’t been expecting that. While self-taught mages weren’t unheard of, most at least spent some time studying with the masters at Arcanix, or the Tower of the Twelve, or one of the other smaller arcane colleges throughout the Five Nations. Well, she amended silently, most who were any good.
“What would be your assessment of your skills in relation to say, an instructor at Arcanix?”
“I have no idea; I’ve never met one,” Zi replied bluntly. “Why that particular unit of measure, if I may ask?”
Sabira figured it wouldn’t hurt to let him know, and it might just make him reconsider his superior attitude.
“Because the pretty blonde who went down into Tarath Marad taught there for several years, and all her power and ability didn’t suffice to bring her back out again.”
“So you are here to finish what she started,” Zi said, a smug smile forming at the corners of his mouth.
Well, so much for improving his attitude.
“Maybe I am, maybe I’m not, but I can tell you one thing- you won’t be part of it either way, unless you give me an idea of what you can do. Now.”
Zi considered her for a long moment. Then he shrugged.
“I don’t know what you want from me, Marshal. A list of spells? Would you even know what half of them did?” A valid point, she supposed, but she needed some way to quantify his abilities. She wasn’t used to working with magic-wielders who didn’t also wield more mundane weapons.
She shrugged, waiting.
“How’s this, then? I was born and raised in the Demon Wastes. I left home at eighteen and made it to Sharn, on my own. I lived there for five years before I signed on with a crew out of the Lhazaar Principalities. I rose to first mate before the captain lost a race with a hurricane and steered us into Shargon’s Teeth. I was the only one who survived, and I’ve been in Stormreach ever since. Saved Laven from some trouble in the sewers a few months back and decided to follow him out here when the guard got a little too interested in him.” His dark eyes burned into hers. “Don’t let the pauper’s robes fool you. I may not know cards, Marshal, but I know magic.”
Sabira was impressed in spite of herself. Surviving to age eighteen in the Wastes was an accomplishment in its own right, but to have made the two-thousand-mile journey from there to the City of Towers by himself, crossing some of the wildest and most dangerous terrain in all Khorvaire, was a feat worthy of a bard’s tale. Which might be exactly what he was feeding her, but somehow she didn’t think so-mostly because he didn’t seem to think she was worth the effort. If arrogance was any indicator, he and Tilde probably had comparable skills, based on that alone.
“Well, I guess we’ll find out, won’t we?” Zi inclined his head to her, not quite respectfully, but probably as close as she was going to get until the first time she pulled his backside out of the fire. “Make sure Greddark procures some new robes for you, though. I don’t want someone mistaking you for a tent in the middle of the night. Could be awkward.”
She turned away from him, not waiting for a reply. It was both a dismissal and a show of power-you only turned your back on someone who you either knew wouldn’t attack you, or who you knew you could defeat if they did. It wasn’t a tactic you used on someone you respected, but just as she had yet to earn the mage’s respect, he had yet to earn hers.
The line had moved while she’d been putting Zi in his place, and there were only three more people between her and the door.
“Name and business?” the bored-looking doorman asked the half-elf at the front of the line, but before he could reply, Brannan stuck his head out and waved her up, earning her venomous looks from the people she bypassed.
“Making new friends?” the Wayfinder asked as she brushed past him and entered the mayor’s foyer.
“No thanks to you and your tame drow,” she responded with a little more rancor than she’d intended. But not much.
Brannan’s eyebrows arched.
“My tame drow?” he repeated, before a look of understanding dawned. “Ah. The locals have been telling stories, I see.”
“Yes they have-quite entertaining ones, too, I might add. It’s a regular Livewood Theater out there. Or maybe the Phiarlan’s Carnival of Shadow would be a better comparison. With you as the ringmaster, of course.” At the Wayfinder’s puzzled look, she continued. “A ‘usage fee,’ Brannan? Really? From the guy who didn’t know a corpse would contaminate the town’s stagnant water source? Tell me you’re not behind this, and getting a percentage of it in addition to whatever you’re charging for hiring out your murderous guides.”
Sabira turned to see an older, heavy-set man with strokes of gray at each temple and two lifetimes’ worth of wrinkles on his face. The man’s shifting blue eyes widened in recognition when he saw her, though she was certain she’d never met him before. He hid it quickly, but Sabira had seen enough. The look, coupled with the too-symmetrical features and eyes that couldn’t quite stay the same color, let her know exactly what she was dealing with.
The mayor was a changeling.
And there was only one changeling on Xen’drik who would know who she was on sight.
She kicked the mayor in the chest, knocking him back against the foyer wall, then had her urgrosh out of its harness before either he or Brannan could react. With the Siberys shard tip pressed against the mayor’s throat, she leaned forward and smiled.
“Hello, Caldamus. Fancy meeting you here.”
Zol, Barrakas 17, 998 YK
Trent’s Well, Xen’drik.
What do you think you’re doing, Marshal?” Brannan asked, his voice more curious than concerned.
“Just catching up with an old friend,” Sabira replied, not taking her eyes off the mayor. She was aware of Brannan in her periphery and tracked his movements by the sound of his breathing, which was steady and even. For now. That could change in an instant, she knew, and if it did, she’d have to decide which of them to take out first. It wasn’t a choice she particularly wanted to make-they both deserved it so richly. “Isn’t that right… Mayor?”
“I have no idea-” Caldamus began, but stopped when Sabira applied pressure to the shard axe. A single drop of blood appeared on his neck, then snaked a slow red trail across the folds of old, wrinkled flesh.
“Save it, or I’ll just break your jaw again. Maybe add a leg or two in this time while I’m at it.” Changelings were masters of disguise and could take on the form of any comparably sized humanoid, but their features reverted to their natural blank state when they lost consciousness. “Then Brannan will see who you really are for himself.”
Assuming, of course, the Wayfinder didn’t already know, a possibility she couldn’t rule out.
The mayor sighed in resignation and Sabira watched as the skin on his face slackened and seemed to melt, then grew lighter and smoother, even as the whole shape of his head changed and became thinner and sharper. His features reformed into the pale, nearly noseless visage of a changeling.
“Sabira. Good to see you again.”
She didn’t let up on her urgrosh. If anything, she had to resist the urge to keep pushing the spear tip forward. Riv Caldamus had murdered a Defender, after all. And while she hadn’t been close to the man, Goren ir’Kados had been well-liked and well-respected and she’d mourned his loss along with the rest of her House.
“I doubt that very much. Now tell me what in the name of the Mockery’s toothless grin you’re doing back in Xen’drik when you should be chained up in an Aundairian prison.” She’d arrested him herself the last time she’d been in Stormreach, and she was none too happy to see him free, and here of all places.
First Thecla, and now Caldamus. She was beginning to think someone was going along behind her bailing her collars out as fast as she could arrest them, just to annoy her.
And it was working.
“Same thing you are, I imagine. Protecting the interests of my employers and making sure they aren’t left behind when the balance of power shifts because of what’s happening here.”
Sabira blinked. That was surprisingly direct.
“Why you?” She didn’t have to ask why he wasn’t still in prison-if he’d ever even made it there. He was one of King Boranel of Breland’s Dark Lanterns; the royal had obviously pulled some strings to secure his agent’s release.
“Why you?” he countered, then answered his own question. “Because we know the area. If not well, at least better than any of the other people our respective superiors might choose for the job. And in my case, because there are those in Khorvaire who weren’t thrilled to learn that I’d been found not guilty and set free. It seemed prudent to be elsewhere.”
There was a lot of that going around, apparently.
“Yeah, well, there are those here who aren’t exactly thrilled about it, either,” Sabira muttered, but she pulled back on the shard axe. If he’d been found not guilty in a court of law-even if it was a rigged one-then there was nothing she could do. At least not until he killed someone else.
“So, what did you do with the real mayor?”
“Has anyone checked the bottom of the well?” At her dark look, he held up a quick hand. “A joke, Marshal. Relax. He’s enjoying a state-funded holiday in Sharn. He’ll be returned unharmed and well-compensated to his position when my presence is no longer required.”
“And when will that be?”
Caldamus’s smile was bitter.
“Whenever my employers decide. But they weren’t terribly pleased that I’d been apprehended after my last mission, so I doubt they’ll be recalling me any time soon.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Sabira replied, her voice oozing insincerity. She stepped back and returned the urgrosh to its harness. “Next time I’ll just bring you in dead and save you the demotion.”
“How thoughtful.” He dabbed at the blood on his throat. “Hmph. Now see what you’ve done? I’m going to have to go raid the Mayor’s private stock of healing potions in the back to take care of this. Wouldn’t do for the locals to see their beloved leader injured.”
“I hate to interrupt your charming reunion,” Brannan remarked sardonically from behind them, “but there is still the small matter of the registration and usage fee?”
Sabira looked over at the Wayfinder, who was gesturing to a wooden podium topped by a large leather-bound book.
“Worried about your percentage?” she asked, crossing over to the podium. As she brushed brusquely past him, Caldamus gave a small, nearly inaudible gasp. Sabira didn’t turn; the changeling might be intimidated by the Wayfinder and his wealth, but she wasn’t.
At the podium, she scanned through the ledger entries. Name, purpose, date of entry, date of return, estimated value of artifacts retrieved. The last page was nearly full, with the earliest dates ranging back a week or more. There were a surprising number of her kinsman here, judging by the names, the most common of which was “A. Deneith” It was a common enough alias; the House name had become synonymous with “mercenary” over the years, so whenever someone was traveling incognito, they borrowed the surname. She was surprised Greddark hadn’t used it yet.
She flipped back until she found Tilde’s entry. The names of the Blademarks who’d accompanied the sorceress read like an honor roll of the dead, and Sabira had to swallow more than once as she skimmed the list. Many of these men had served with her and Ned when they were in the Blademarks; some she’d even counted as friends. The last name was the hardest to bear: Harun Edel d’Deneith. She’d saved his life from a rampaging carver outside of Fort Bones in Karrnath, and he’d asked her to stand for him at his wedding. He and his wife had named their first daughter for her. Little Bira would be nine years old now, and missing her father terribly.
As Sabira flipped forward again, she couldn’t help but notice how many of the lines in the “date of return” column remained empty. No wonder Caldamus was collecting his fee prior to entrance into the caverns-more than half of those who entered never returned.
She left the podium without writing in the book; there was no way she was paying Breland-or Brannan-for the privilege of adding eight more ledger entries that might remain forever incomplete.
Caldamus, who’d resumed the human visage of the mayor, blocked her path.
“I really must insist you register and pay the fee, Marshal.”
“Why? You already know I’m here; probably already trolled through my mind to find out who I’m with too.” Caldamus’s eyes widened slightly at her words, and she saw his gaze flick quickly in Brannan’s direction.
Had the Wayfinder been unaware of the fact that the changeling was also a telepath? Interesting.
“-Can go straight to Dolurrh for all I care,” Sabira interrupted, losing patience. “You didn’t strike me as a complete fool the last time we met, Caldamus, but maybe the desert sun has addled your brains in the interim, so I’ll make it easy for you-I’m not paying.”
The changeling launched himself at her, reaching for her throat. The move caught Sabira momentarily off guard, because while his face was contorted as if with fury, his eyes were urgent.
He was acting, and it could only be for Brannan’s benefit.
Sabira decided to play along, wondering what Caldamus was up to. She sidestepped the attack, catching the changeling by the collar and hem of his shirt and using his momentum and a quick twist to heave him over her hip. As she pivoted and his mouth passed by her ear, he whispered, “Couldn’t read him before.”
That wasn’t exactly a surprise. Most people who dealt in secrets knew how to shield their thoughts from prying minds, and Sabira was sure the Wayfinder had a lot of secrets.
Caldamus landed on his back in the middle of the floor, the breath whooshing from his lungs. Sabira bent down to pull him back to his feet, her legs braced for the extra weight. He surprised her by grabbing her wrist and slamming his foot up into her stomach. Her body curled involuntarily around the unexpected blow, and he used the sudden shift in her weight to his advantage, yanking on her arm and twisting his own hips to throw her to the side where she collided with the podium, knocking it over with a crash.
He was on her before she could scramble to her feet, his hands around her throat and his face in hers as he pretended to squeeze.
“Could when you touched him,” he breathed before she smashed the ledger she’d grabbed into the side of his head and he rolled off her with a yelp.
She was on him in a heartbeat, knee in his spine as she grasped a handful of hair and yanked his head back.
“Hatred and hunger, Marshal,” he murmured. “Watch yourself.”
“Yeah, thanks,” she muttered under her breath, disgusted with the changeling. And with herself-she’d almost believed him. She slammed his head into the floor. “ There’s your ‘usage fee,’ Caldamus.”
When he groaned and struggled weakly, not yet unconscious, she did it again. Harder.
“And that’s for Goren,” she added as the changeling slumped and lay still beneath her. His hair began to grow longer and lankier in her hand as he morphed back into his natural form. She released her fistful and clambered to her feet.
“Feel free to keep the change.”
She collected Xujil from the mayor’s sitting room and left Brannan to explain to the next person in line that the mayor was suddenly indisposed. She and the drow guide met up with the others in front of the smithy. She was pleased to see that Zi was sporting a new set of dark gray robes which instantly made him seem both more competent and more dangerous. It was a tactic House Deneith often used in conflicts, both on the battlefield and off. Well-kept uniforms weren’t just a utilitarian requirement or a means of increasing morale or solidarity. Much as the fine dress and displayed wealth of a diplomat reminded those he negotiated with of his nation’s resources, the sight of even one soldier in livery was a similar reminder that there was a greater might behind him that could be brought to bear against his enemies. It was both a warning, and a threat.
And the color would make Zi harder to see in the shadows of Tarath Marad, and consequently harder to target. Always a plus, especially for a wizard.
Greddark handed her a heavy pack, which he’d already rigged to go over one shoulder, so as not to interfere with her shard axe’s harness. He and the others wore helmets with inset everbright lanterns, and goggles hung about their necks. Greddark passed a pair over to her, followed by a helmet.
The dwarf nodded.
“Food, water, climbing gear, weapons. Light for when we don’t mind being seen; low-light lenses for when we do. And you? You get us registered, and our fee paid?” he asked as she placed the goggles about her own neck and strapped on the miner’s helmet, buckling it firmly under her chin.
“More or less.”
At his quirked brow, she shook her head. “Later. For now we should get started. We’ve still got a long way to go.”
At her gesture, Xujil took the lead, and the group fell in behind him. Sabira and Greddark came first, followed by Laven and Zi, then Glynn and Jester, and finally Skraad and Rahm, taking up the rear.
The drow led them over the stone bridge and toward the back of the cavern where there were no buildings and no everbright lanterns to light their path. A forest of thick white and yellow stalagmites sprouted up from the cavern floor here, some of them reaching up to join thinner stalactites that dripped from the ceiling. The twisting formations obscured the back wall of the cave from view until they came to a gaping hole in the stalagmite thicket. Shattered rock littered the ground here, and it was obvious that the opening had been created by an explosion of some sort. The debris had been moved aside by the explorers who came after, so it was impossible to tell the directionality of the blast from their pattern or the scorch marks that remained in the surrounding stone pillars.
“Tell us again how Brannan came to find you, Xujil,” Greddark said as they walked. “For the benefit of the newcomers.”
The drow paused and turned toward them. With the blackness of the entrance to the depths behind him, and framed as he was by the jagged remains of both stalagmites and stalactites, it looked for a moment as if the earth itself had opened up to swallow the guide. The illusion was fleeting, but powerful, and Sabira shivered. She hoped it wasn’t an omen.
“My brethren and I had been sent out to find magic to aid us in our fight against the Spinner of Shadows; we believed we could do so here, above. We knew we were nearing the surface, but we could not find an egress from the caverns. The area had been plagued with quakes and tremors and we were about to retreat back below to search for a safer exit elsewhere when Brannan’s people happened upon us. One of the quakes had opened up this hole-” he gestured to the wall behind him “-and Brannan blasted his way through the stalagmites to find out where it went. He found us.” The guide cast an inscrutable glance behind Sabira. “I believe it is likely the ‘newcomers’ know the tale from there.”
Laven grunted at that, and Sabira could almost feel him reaching for the hilt of his sword. She’d have to make sure she issued a “no killing the drow” order when they stopped to camp.
“Shall we proceed, Marshal?”
Sabira nodded at the drow.
Xujil turned and led the way through the yawning mouth of the quake-spawned cavern. As Sabira stepped from the cave that housed the bulk of Trent’s Well into the narrower, cooler passage, the drow’s voice echoed eerily back to her through the darkness, disembodied and alien.
“Welcome to Tarath Marad.”
Zol, Barrakas 17, 998 YK
Tarath Marad, Xen’drik.
The everbright lanterns on their helmets lit up the passageway with a soft blue glow, revealing walls that sparkled with ore.
“Lava tube,” Greddark remarked, reaching out to touch the silvery vein nearest him. “Nickel. Some copper. Explains why there aren’t more dwarves here. Not worth mining.”
“Lava?” Sabira asked, reminded of her nightmares: Ned falling into the pool of magma, Orin losing his legs in the mud pot beneath Frostmantle. Both of them morphing into Elix in the agonizing moments before they died.
Greddark heard the sudden anxiety in her voice, and knew its cause. Or thought he did-Sabira hadn’t told anyone about the dreams she’d been having ever since she returned to Xen’drik. The only one who even suspected was Jester. Since he didn’t need to sleep, he knew how little of it she actually got.
“They’re old, dormant. This area hasn’t seen volcanic activity in centuries. Nothing to worry about.”
“The dwarf speaks truly,” Xujil said, his voice floating back to them as if from a great distance. Even though he was only a few feet in front of them, they could hardly make out his form; the light from the helmets didn’t penetrate far in the blackness of Tarath Marad. “The molten rivers have not flowed here below since before giants fell. The depths are a place of cold, and have always been so.”
Somehow, Sabira didn’t find that particularly comforting.
The passageway branched several times, and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the route the drow took. Sometimes the tunnels angled downward, and sometimes they climbed sharply upward. Sometimes Xujil went right and sometimes he went left. Once after he’d taken three sharp lefts in a row, Sabira was convinced they’d just gone in a circle.
“This is ridiculous,” she muttered to Greddark, who shrugged.
“Near as I can figure, we’re directly below Trent’s Well, but we’re heading out under the desert.”
Sabira actually stopped to stare at him.
“How can you possibly know that?”
He gave her a mocking grin.
“It’s a dwarf thing.”
She winced. She supposed she’d probably had that coming.
“Problem, Marshal?” Laven asked from behind them.
“Nothing a swift kick won’t take care of,” she muttered as she waved him off and hurried to catch up to the drow.
After a time, even Sabira could tell they were heading downward. The air was cooler, and the veins of ore had given way to patches of nacreous fungus that glowed without the benefit of the magewrought lanterns. The tunnels were bigger and less well-defined here as well, occasionally widening out into small caverns with a multitude of exits. She knew now why no one from Trent’s Well had exacted revenge on the Umbragen guides-they were the only ones who could navigate down here. Without Xujil or Greddark, she already knew she’d never find her way back to the surface. She was hopelessly lost.
She was just about to call for a break when she heard a soft hiss from behind her. She stopped and whirled, reaching for her urgrosh. Greddark’s blade was already out, though it did not yet dance with flames.
Laven moved up to her side.
“Skraad thinks we’re being followed,” he said in a low voice, his own hand on his hilt. “A group of men; he’s not sure how many. Maybe more than us. What do you want to do?”
Xujil had come back to see what the holdup was.
“There is a side tunnel ahead that leads to a vacant cavern,” the drow offered. “It is a dead end, but it will afford us room to battle.”
Sabira pursed her lips. A corner was usually a good place for an ambush-unless the guy between you and the door had more men and more weapons at his disposal. Then it was usually a good place to die.
On the other hand, if their pursuers were in fact just another group of explorers who happened to be traveling the same direction they were, then getting out of the main tunnel would allow them to pass Sabira’s group by without being any the wiser.
“Show us,” she said to Xujil, deciding. She pulled her goggles on and switched off the lantern on her helmet, gesturing for the others to do the same. Soon the passageway was dark, lit only by the intermittent glow of fungi.
The drow was a shadow, black on black, and Sabira wouldn’t know where he was if she hadn’t been looking straight at him when she doused her light. As it was, she had trouble tracking him as he moved and followed him more by sound than by sight, a task made even harder by the noise from her fellow spelunkers.
Xujil seemed to realize her difficulty and crept back to guide her and the others into the side passage. It was a good thing too. Sabira’s eyes were playing tricks on her in the darkness; she thought she’d seen him in the main tunnel up ahead of them. If he hadn’t returned, she would have followed that imagined movement and missed the offshoot completely.
Though it was hard to determine distance in the dim green glow, the cavern Xujil led them to was larger than Sabira had expected, and filled with pudgy stalagmites. Water dripped somewhere at the cave’s unseen edges and all she could see of the ceiling were the tips of the longest stalactites.
As the others entered the cave after her, she unharnessed her shard axe and silently signaled for her companions to take up positions on either side of the entrance. She put Rahm, Greddark, Glynn, and Laven on the right, while she situated herself on the left side closest to the entrance, with Skraad, Zi, and Jester fanned out beside her. She told Xujil to take cover and stay out of the way.
And then they hunkered down and waited.
Skraad heard them first, tensing in his spot. He had his hand crossbow up and trained on the entrance. She motioned for him to hold off on any attack until they had the measure of the group following them. When hunting, it was always better to make sure the cage was full before slamming the door closed. Skraad passed the order down the line and Rahm did the same on his side of the cavern.
A moment later, Sabira could hear them too. They were disciplined and trying to be stealthy, but they were no more native to the depths than her own group was, and every so often a dislodged pebble would clatter across the stone floor or there’d be a grunt as someone slipped in a patch of moss. She had to assume there were two more for every one she heard, which meant a contingent of at least a dozen.
Not just another group of explorers, then-unless they were planning on robbing Sabira and her group of their supplies. Which wasn’t as farfetched as it might seem, considering the cutthroat nature of these expeditions, especially the “academic” ones. She’d heard it said that the only thing more deadly than a House Thuranni assassin was a scholar from Morgrave looking to publish. Considering that the person who told her that was laid up in a House Jorasco enclave after getting in that scholar’s way when he said it, she didn’t think he was being facetious.
Still, theirs wasn’t the most well-equipped group Sabira had seen getting ready to head into the depths, and there’d been better candidates logged in Caldamus’s ledger just a day or two ahead of them. While it was possible they were just some explorers looking to neutralize potential rivals, it wasn’t a hand Sabira would bet on.
Who, then? Caldamus? It was unlikely the changeling would have enough people working for him here to be able to drum up such a large party on such short notice, even masquerading as the mayor.
Brannan? Caldamus had claimed to sense hatred emanating from the Wayfinder. But even if the changeling had been telling the truth-and if he had been, it was only because he saw some personal benefit in doing so, and not because he wanted to help her-it didn’t make any sense. Brannan was all about the bottom line, and he’d make far more off of Sabira and her group if they were actually successful than if they died en route.
Another dragonmarked House that had somehow learned of the artifact she’d been sent to retrieve? She wasn’t foolish enough to imagine that spies had not infiltrated Deneith, even as far up as Breven’s inner circle. For that matter, there were other groups outside the thirteen Houses who might have an interest in her mission, if they’d learned of it. Any of the royal families, for instance, or leaders of other nations, like the hags who ran Droaam. Even the dwarves’ Iron Council, though she rather thought they’d have approached her directly-she was technically their subject now that she’d been adopted into the Tordannon clan.
But which of those groups had enough of a local presence to launch an assault so quickly? She’d received her mission just three weeks ago, and been in Xen’drik only two. She ran through the list: Kundarak, Cannith, Phiarlan, Jorasco.
Had Greigur finally decided to make his move?
But, again, it made no sense. Any of the groups interested in the artifact that Baron Breven wanted so desperately would wait for her to actually find it first and then attack her. The timing was off.
And then she had no more time to wonder. A clang of metal against stone sounded just outside the entrance to the cave. Whoever it was, they were here.
Sabira tensed, waiting for the first one to enter the cavern. She saw something sail by in the darkness, and then the world exploded in a white flash.
Temporarily blinded by the light, she heard the rush of booted feet and the clang of a crossbow bolt striking ineffectually off armor.
Then the cacophony of engagement as their enemies located the members of her group and began to attack. Greddark’s blade flamed, casting hellish shadows as the cavern walls echoed with the music of battle; the high, ringing tones of steel on steel melding with the lower, more brutal notes of steel on flesh.
A shout sounded to her left. Zi’s voice, raised in anger, and power. Suddenly, the light winked out and she could see again, albeit with white spots of light still dancing on the periphery of her vision.
A sword was hurtling down at her head and she jerked aside just in time, the blade denting and sparking off her spaulder as it slid past.
That was going to leave a bruise.
Her attacker, a tall man who looked vaguely familiar in the darkness, cursed spectacularly as he tried to recover from what he had intended to be a killing blow. Sabira took the opportunity to swat him aside with the butt of her axe, catching him in the side and sending him flying. She didn’t have time to gloat, however, for the man hadn’t been alone. His dwarf companion, shorter and earless, lunged at her with a long knife in each hand.
Sabira brought the spear end of her urgrosh around, slamming it into one of his hands before drawing the haft back and thrusting. The dwarf dropped his knife as he took the Siberys shard in his gut.
“Stugrim!” the other man shouted as she pulled the shard axe back out with a wet squelch. Stugrim fell to his knees, dropping the other knife and clapping both hands over his stomach to stem the flow of blood. It was then that Sabira noticed he was missing three fingers, which looked as if they’d been chewed off.
Something tickled the back of her brain, a memory she couldn’t quite grasp and hold on to. She knew these men, even if she didn’t recognize the name. But from where?
The answer shouted to her from the back of the cave.
“Tell your people to stand down, Deneith. I’ve got your guide.”
An everbright lantern flared to life, revealing Xujil, the tip of a hook resting at the base of his throat.
Of course. The man with the sword had been at the Glitterdust, and the dwarf called Stugrim, who was even now bleeding out at her feet, was Ears, one of the crew of the Dust Dancer.
“Thecla. I’m beginning to think you have an unhealthy obsession with me, and, frankly, it’s getting a little old.”
Sabira took the opportunity afforded by the light from the first mate’s helmet to assess her situation. Rahm was down, as was Jester, but she had no idea if they were just hurt, or worse. Greddark and Skraad each had three men on them-which she thought was a little insulting-and the dwarf’s sword was no longer aflame. Laven was standing in front of Glynn, shielding her from another two as she held the stump of an arm up to her chest. Zi had only one attacker, whom he’d been trying to fend off with a wand, using it like a club. Three bodies lay on the floor in addition to Ears, but all in all, her group’s performance had not been stellar.
“I told you Arach would have you hunted to the farthest corners of Eberron for what you did,” the dwarf replied, blue light shining off his sweaty bald pate. The first mate looked quite a bit worse for wear since the last time she’d seen him in Sharn. The glamerweave coat and silvercloth breeches he’d worn on the Dust Dancer were long gone, as was the jeweled scabbard he’d been so fond of. It seemed that Arach hadn’t been too pleased when his henchman, already out of favor, had been involved in nearly burning down his favorite nightclub.
“Funny, I don’t see him here. Unless he’s one of the corpses littering the floor?” She nudged Stugrim’s lifeless body with her boot for emphasis. “No? Then it kind of looks like this is all you, and Arach has nothing to do with it. Which would make sense, since I’m sure he fired you for incompetence about two seconds after he found out you’d lost me, and trashed his doxy’s place of business in the process. I’m actually a little surprised to see you still alive.”
“Bringing you to him will change his mind, I’m sure.”
Dol Dorn’s broken blade, had the dwarf learned nothing? Sabira might have found it in her to pity him if he weren’t standing there threatening her with that ridiculous hook shoved up in Xujil’s face.
“Right. Because he’d never just kill you after you turned me over to him. He’s far too honorable for that.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw Greddark wince, but it was hard to be sure in the gloom.
“Enough talking!” Even from here, she could see the angry set of Thecla’s jaw.
Good. The madder he got, the stupider his decisions would be.
“Or what? You’ll kill the drow? Go ahead; I don’t really like him that much, anyway.”
“Brave words. How will your people find their way back to the surface, then? Did you leave some trail we didn’t find as we followed you?”
“We have our ways.”
“Your dwarf soarsledder? We’ll kill him too. And I wouldn’t count on teleporting. Something about this area seems to cause those spells to fail rather spectacularly.”
Sabira looked at Xujil for confirmation and the drow gave a slight, almost imperceptible nod.
Okay. So maybe they didn’t have as many ways as she’d thought.
“Let me get this straight. I go with you, and you let my people go free? And then you’re going to hand me over to Arach in exchange for reinstatement as first mate of an airship he no longer owns? Is that how you’re imagining this is going to work?”
The hook at Xujil’s throat was beginning to shake and Thecla’s scalp was taking on a purplish cast in the blue light.
“I’d say that sums it up fairly accurately, yes.”
Sabira made a show of looking him over, exaggerating the skepticism on her face and in her voice, so that none of his men would miss it.
“So the man who fired you is going to be so pleased when you deliver me that he’s going to welcome you back with open arms, forgiving all and showering you with wealth? Huh. Think he’ll do the same for your men?”
Thecla’s face was definitely turning red.
“They’ll be well-compensated.”
“Really? By whom? Because I hate to say it, but it really seems like you’ve fallen on some hard times since we parted ways in Sharn. How were you planning on paying them, exactly? I mean, I doubt Arach’s going to award that oh-so-generous reward to you-if anything, he’ll probably use it to help rebuild the Glitterdust. And it looks like you can barely afford to eat, let alone pay these men enough to make kidnapping and conspiring to murder a Sentinel Marshal worth their while.”
The man who’d first attacked her had regained his feet while she spoke and she saw him glance quickly over at Thecla. Just as she’d suspected; the former first mate hadn’t bothered to inform his men who their quarry was. She wondered if they even knew that he was no longer actually working for Arach, or had any authority over who got the bounty the Aurum member had placed on her head.
“I said, enough!” the dwarf shouted, his face apoplectic. He jerked his arm back, clearly intending to impale Xujil on his hook, but the drow moved almost faster than she could see, reaching both hands up to grab the wicked implement, then twisting and ducking. Even across the cavern, she could hear the crack as the hook broke free of the bone in Thecla’s arm.
The dwarf howled and something white with a lot of legs dropped from the ceiling, landing on him. Sabira saw Xujil backpedal even as she jumped back herself, eyes and axe going up.
There was nothing, but as she scanned the cavern in the dim light, she saw other figures dropping on the men, irrespective of which group they belonged to. She counted six in all before she heard a soft whump behind her.
As she began to turn, shard axe raised, Thecla screamed again, a sound of pure horror and excruciating pain. It cut off abruptly, leaving only echoes.
And then his everbright lantern winked out, plunging the cavern back into darkness.
Zol, Barrakas 17, 998 YK
Tarath Marad, Xen’drik.
Sabira’s eyes adjusted quickly, but not before she took a blow to her leg from a spiked club. Staggering backward, she finally got a good look at the creature that had dropped from the roof of the cavern.
It stood on two legs and had two eyes, but that was where any true similarity to a man ended. Its eyes were faceted, reflecting her image a thousand times over in the dim fungal light. Sharp, slavering mandibles protruded from its mouth, clicking at her hungrily. Stringy black hair ran from the top of its mottled gray head down its back like a horse’s mane. Four arms sprouted from its torso, each with two elbow joints. Three of its long-fingered hands grasped weapons-the club and two serrated knives-while the fourth was free to guide the silk thread shooting from the aperture in its bared stomach.
Sabira dodged the sticky substance and a knife lunge, slashing down with her urgrosh. She caught the thing’s free arm at the second elbow joint, sheering it cleanly. As it shrieked and fell back, black blood spurting, Sabira heard another sound behind her. Whirling, she almost took of the head of the man who’d attacked her, but checked her blow at the last moment.
“We’ve got a bigger enemy,” he said, sword in guard position and eyes on the spiderlike creature. “Truce?”
She frowned, considering. She didn’t really want a battle on two fronts. But he was Thecla’s man, and whether or not she could trust him now that Thecla was gruesomely dead hinged on one question: Had his loyalty been to the dwarf, or to the promised coin?
A question she didn’t have time to ask, let alone answer, as the wounded creature’s cries brought more of its brethren down from the ceiling.
“Truce!” she shouted, spinning to fend off attacks from five arms at once. Her new ally spun as well, moving closer to her as he batted away a half-dozen weapons. After a moment, they were back-to-back.
“Olog,” he said over his shoulder.
“Sabira,” she replied, impaling one of the arachnoids on the urgrosh’s dragonshard. “Pleased to meet you.”
They fought in silence for a time, slashing, chopping, and stabbing until they were both covered in ichor and had a small circular berm of body parts surrounding them.
When she could, Sabira spared a glance to her left, where Skraad fought. Like her, he’d allied with his former attackers, and the orc was just pulling a brawny fist out of the crushed mandibles of one of the multi-legged creatures. Beyond him, she was glad to see Jester back on his feet, fighting alongside Zi, whose left hand crackled with dark energy as he pointed it at the ceiling and brought stalactites down on the heads of their opponents.
Across the way, Laven was on one knee beside Glynn, both of them with their backs to a thick stalagmite. The Vadalis man had a knife in his gut and was trying to fight off two of the creatures with his sword. Glynn threw daggers with her good arm, and though she picked her targets carefully and her aim was deadly, she was down to her last two blades.
Two of Thecla’s men had a scimitar-wielding arachnoid between them, but it was somehow managing to fend them both off with its four blades.
Greddark was standing over Rahm’s body. He’d beaten back all of his attackers and was momentarily alone. As she watched, he stabbed his alchemist’s blade into the ground and pulled a charm from his bracelet. It grew in his hand until he was holding an emerald-tipped wand. Then he shifted it to his off hand and grabbed the sword again, slapping it against one of the creatures’ corpses to set the blade aflame.
As a second wave of the arachnoids advanced, Greddark brought the wand and the sword together in front of him, thumbing a switch as he did so. Green liquid streamed from the wand, catching fire. With his hands holding hilt and shaft together as if in prayer, he sprayed the oncoming creatures as they descended from the roof.
A chorus of inhuman screams echoed from their mouths as the spiderlike things began to burn with verdant fire. The silk they spun seemed especially flammable, and the green flames raced up the ropes they’d descended on to set the entire web-covered ceiling ablaze, catching several more of the creatures as they were coming out of dark holes Sabira hadn’t been able to see before. Flaming bodies fell from the roof, only to continue burning on the stone floor, for roll and bat as they might, the creatures could not put the flames out.
Following Greddark’s lead, Zi switched tactics and was soon sending balls of fire across the cavern, picking off the arachnoids that weren’t already burning. The stink of charred hair and flesh soon filled the small cavern.
“We need to get out of here!” she called, dispatching one of the flaming creatures that writhed in misery near her. She crossed over to where Greddark stood, Olog following her.
“Is he-?” she asked, gesturing to Rahm as the dwarf thumbed his wand off and extinguished his blade.
“Just unconscious, I think. Took a blow to the head, first thing.”
“Can you get him up? We need to move.” The smoke from the burning webbing was getting thicker, and her eyes were beginning to water. Soon they would have trouble breathing.
“I think I’ve got something that will do the trick. What about him?” he asked, jerking his head toward Olog.
Sabira turned to the man.
“That’s a good question. What about you?”
Olog held up a hand, palm out, shaking his head.
“I’ve got no quarrel with you, Marshal. My employer is dead; anything I was contracted to do for him is now void. I just want to get out of here and get back up to the surface, where I belong.”
She looked over at Greddark, who shrugged.
“Sounds good to me.”
Sabira glanced at Olog.
“Well, let’s go see if your comrades agree, shall we?”
She led him over to the two men who’d been fighting the scimitar-wielder, who was smoldering now at their feet from one of Zi’s blasts.
Olog stepped up.
“We’re done here. Thecla’s gone, and so’s any hope we had of payment. I say we cut our losses and get out of here while we still can.”
The two men who’d been fighting alongside Skraad came over, as did the orc and Jester. Zi went to go check on Laven and Glynn. Sabira wanted to join the wizard, but she needed to see this resolved first. It wouldn’t do the Vadalis man and his former lover any good if she got them embroiled in yet another battle. Though the odds were better now, and technically they had Olog and his fellows outnumbered, Laven and Glynn weren’t the only ones who were hurt, and Sabira wasn’t sure how much more her group could take.
“Who put you in charge?”
“No one,” Olog replied matter-of-factly. “Stay if you want. Fight if you want. I’m leaving, and I’m taking the compass with me.”
“Compass?” Sabira repeated, wondering what good knowing which direction was north would do when they were so far underground.
“I believe he is referring to this.”
They turned to see Xujil approaching them from the far side of the cavern, holding a golden divining rod in his hand.
“Where in the name of Onatar’s bare chin have you been?” Greddark demanded suspiciously as he came toward them from the other side, supporting a still-woozy Rahm.
The drow shrugged.
“Hiding. The chitines are ancient enemies of my people. It seemed prudent.”
“It seemed-?” Greddark began, but Sabira interrupted him, his murderous expression reminding her that she hadn’t gotten the chance to issue the moratorium on drow-throttling.
“What is it?” she asked quickly, before Greddark could decide dropping Rahm and sending him back into unconsciousness was an acceptable price to pay for the chance to strangle the drow.
“It uses some magic I am not familiar with to find a path. The hooked one carried it, along with this.” Xujil held up a bulging pouch that clinked with the movement. From the looks of it, Arach may well have paid Thecla the bounty on her head up front. No wonder the dwarf had been so eager to get back into his former employer’s good graces.
“If you’re not familiar with the magic it uses, then how do you know what it does?” Greddark asked. Seeing Sabira’s warning look, he’d opted not to incapacitate Rahm, but his voice made it clear he was deeply unhappy with that choice.
“The sorceress Donathilde carried one similar to this. I was unable to retrieve it when she was taken.”
“Yes, I imagine that would be pretty hard to do when you’re hiding,” Greddark muttered. He looked as if he might continue, but Sabira’s furious glare changed his mind and he relented, lapsing into sullen silence.
Olog moved forward in the quiet that followed, holding his hand out to the drow.
“I’ll take that.”
Xujil cocked his head to one side curiously.
“I believe that is the Marshal’s decision. She commands here.”
Sabira waved that off before anyone else could take umbrage. Tempers were running hot enough as it was-a coward ordering seasoned warriors around was only going to make things worse.
“It’s fine, Xujil. Give it to him. We don’t need it; we have you.” Her smile was brittle, but the drow seemed not to notice. Inclining his head to her, he did as she ordered. “Give him the pouch too. Whatever’s in there, he and his men have more than earned it.”
She hoped that her implied acceptance of Olog’s leadership would sway the others to do as he suggested. The fire still raged above them, though its flames were losing their greenish hue, and the smoke it was generating tickled the back of her throat like a fish bone. Worse, her nose was beginning to run. Somehow she didn’t think either dripping snot or a hacking coughing fit would impress her audience or help Olog’s case any.
Olog took the rod and bag and looked over at the other men.
After a moment, the one who’d originally questioned Olog’s authority nodded.
“We split the coin five ways?”
“And what do we tell Arach if he comes looking?”
Olog glanced over at Sabira.
“We tell him the truth. That the last time we saw her, the Marshal was standing over Thecla’s dead body in the middle of a burning cavern and we don’t think there’s any way she could have made it back to Trent’s Well alive.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” she muttered. Olog just grinned.
“I think you’re going to need to take them with you too.”
They turned to see Zi leading Laven and Glynn over to them. Laven’s abdomen was wrapped several times around with bandages and the stump of Glynn’s arm was a mass of freshly healed scars, but neither of them looked like they’d make it to the cave entrance, let alone any deeper into Tarath Marad.
Laven met her gaze.
“This is where we get off. Sorry we couldn’t stick with you for the whole trip.”
Sabira crossed over to him and clasped his shoulder lightly.
“Nothing you need to apologize for. You did your House proud.” She glanced over at Glynn. “And at least you weren’t bored, right?”
The dark-haired woman gave her a wan smile in reply.
Sabira turned to Olog.
“You have any problem escorting my people back up to the surface?”
He shook his head.
“I think we can manage that.”
She looked over at Zi and Rahm.
“What about you two? You still in? Perfectly understandable if you want to head back with Laven and Glynn. No one would blame you, or think worse of you for it.”
Rahm pulled away from Greddark and stood to his full height. The fire reflected off his battered chainmail, making it shine like gold.
“Job’s not finished, and neither am I.”
Sabira nodded, accepting the man’s pledge, then waited for Zi.
The wizard’s response wasn’t as quick. He looked uncertainly at Laven, unconsciously chewing his lip. It wasn’t the gesture of a self-confident mage who’d navigated through untold horrors on his own, and Sabira wondered just what their history really was.
“It’s okay, Zi,” Laven said. “Any debt between us has been paid.”
Sabira arched a curious brow at that. Laven saw, and elaborated.
“Zi saved my life back in Stormreach. According to the customs of his tribe, that makes him responsible for me. So he’s been hanging around with me ever since-doesn’t think I can survive on my own.” The Vadalis man cast a rueful eye at his bandage-swathed abdomen. “Looks like I proved him right.”
Sabira felt for the wizard. As a Blademark and a Defender, she’d commanded her share of men-men whom she was responsible for, whether she’d saved their lives or not. It was a heavy burden that you never truly stopped carrying, and she was secretly convinced it was the reason so many of her fellows aspired to the ranks of the Sentinel Marshals. Because a Marshal was only responsible for herself and her partner. If she had one.
“Go with Sabira,” Laven said. “Whatever mission she’s on, it’s far more important than anything you could do for me.”
“How do you-?” Sabira began, surprised, but Laven interrupted her with a weak smile.
“Please. Everyone knows Marshals don’t take vacations.”
Once Zi had agreed to stay, they quickly scavenged what they could from the dead, divvying up supplies and giving the bulk of them to those remaining in the caverns. Olog wanted to build a pyre for his fallen companions, but as they started gathering the bodies, Greddark noticed blisters forming on the exposed skin of the corpses.
“No time!” he declared, alarmed. He dropped Stugrim’s feet and quickly examined his own arms. “Everybody out! Now!”
“What is it?” Sabira asked, even as she wrapped an arm under Glynn’s shoulder and started helping the other woman quickly toward the exit.
“The smoke! It’s acidic!”
So that’s what the green liquid that had streamed out of Greddark’s charm-wand had been. She had thought so at first, until it caught fire and wouldn’t go out.
“What kind of acid burns for hours and poisons the air as it does?”
They were at the entrance now, and Sabira handed Glynn off to Olog as she and Greddark waved the others through.
“A few of them, actually, but this is the only one I know of that burns green.”
The scratch at the back of her throat had become unignorable and she started to cough. When she’d recovered, eyes still stinging, she looked over at the dwarf. They were the last ones in the cave.
“So what is it?” she croaked, trying to clear her throat.
“A little something I created in my lab,” Greddark replied as they stepped into the passageway together. “It’s actually one of my biggest failures.”
“Why do you say that?” Sabira asked, breathing easier as they hurried away from the smoke-filled cavern. “It seemed to work great… well, except for a few unpleasant side effects.”
Greddark shrugged a little sheepishly.
“I was trying to make tea.”
Zol, Barrakas 17, 998 YK
Tarath Marad, Xen’drik.
Back in the main tunnel, she and Olog shook hands.
“Olladra’s luck, Marshal,” he said.
“To you, as well,” she replied. “Take care of my people.”
She shook Laven’s hand next.
“Stay safe, Vadalis.”
“Cleave some skulls, Deneith.”
“I’ll do my best.”
After Olog led his group, limping and lorn, back up the tunnel and out of sight, Sabira turned to what remained of her own small group.
Greddark, Skraad, and Zi appeared basically unharmed, though a few small blisters had appeared on the wizard’s scalp. Rahm’s color was returning and he looked more alert. Xujil was unruffled as always. But Jester hung back, and though his face could bear no expression, he looked positively despondent.
She walked back to where he stood, staring down at something in his hands. As she neared, she could see it was the mangled remains of his lyre.
She stopped next to him and he looked up, his rubylike eyes glowing dully.
“She was destroyed in the chitines’ attack. She bravely took the brunt of a blow that would have disabled me.” He made it sound as if one of their companions had stepped between him and a strike at his heart, sacrificing herself to save him. Sabira supposed she shouldn’t be surprised-he was a bard talking about his instrument, after all.
“I’m sorry,” she said, trying hard to be, and failing miserably. It was a mindset she couldn’t really comprehend. A lyre could be replaced; the same couldn’t be said for the men who’d died today. Even if some of them had been trying to kill her.
Though come to think of it, she did feel worse about the lyre’s destruction than about Thecla’s death. And she could think of several people whose unfortunate demises would upset her less than, say, scratching the cheek of her shard axe would. So maybe she understood the warforged bard better than she thought.
“What do you want to do?”
“What good am I without her? If I can’t play, I might as well return to the Canniths and become the war machine they want me to be.”
“Well,” Sabira began slowly, “you’re welcome to do that, of course, and no one will think any less of you if you do. But consider this-is your goal to play the songs of others, or to play your own? Because the only way to write those songs is to live the stories in them. You can do that if you stay here. I’m not so sure the same can be said about returning to House Cannith.”
Jester looked as if he might be considering her words. It was so hard to tell with warforged.
“But… she can’t be fixed.”
“Maybe not, but would she want you to stop playing because of that?”
Sabira was starting to feel a little foolish, talking about the lyre as if it were the bard’s lover. But she’d lost three good swords in a little over a week; if she had to coddle the warforged to keep that from becoming four, then so be it. It wasn’t as if she’d never looked the fool before, and for less cause.
“No,” he said softly, the red crystals of his eyes brightening. Then louder, more resolutely, “No, she wouldn’t. She’d want me to go on, to honor her memory by living those stories and writing those songs, just as you said.” He squared his shoulders. “I’m in, Marshal, till the climactic battle and the convenient epilogue! I’m your bard.”
Sabira’s smile was a little strained, but she doubted the warforged noticed, busy as he was composing “The Ballad of the Marshal and the Martyred Lyre” in his head.
“Glad to hear it,” she said, turning to move back to the front of the group. Jester’s hand caught her on the shoulder before she could go. She looked back at him questioningly.
“Thank you, Marshal,” he said quietly, his voice earnest.
“You’re welcome,” she replied, uncomfortable with his gratitude and what she’d done to earn it.
Back at the front, she fell in beside Greddark and motioned for Xujil to head out. Zi and Rahm took up positions behind them, and Skraad and the bard brought up the rear.
“Touching performance,” the dwarf said under his breath, knowing his voice wouldn’t carry. “I almost believed you cared. Maybe you should think about taking up the lyre yourself. You certainly have a talent for telling stories.” Sabira thought she detected a slight emphasis on the word lyre.
“Stuff it,” she hissed back angrily. But as she walked down the dark tunnel, she wasn’t sure who her ire was really directed at. The dwarf was the easy target-he’d called her on her manipulation of the naive warforged. But she was the one who, despite her own distaste for being used as a pawn, hadn’t hesitated to do it to someone else.
Far, Barrakas 27, 998 YK
Tarath Marad, Xen’drik.
The next week and a half passed in a blur of shadows, sameness, and growing paranoia. The pervasive gloom coupled with tricks of light and sound had everyone on edge. The strange forces at work here in the depths-the ones, Xujil placidly informed them, that also made teleportation back to the surface an iffy proposition-manifested in new and fun ways at every turn. Pockets of magical darkness made both the everbright lamps on their helmets and their low-light goggles temporarily useless. Even when they could see, they couldn’t trust what their eyes told them. Sabira kept glimpsing movement out of the corner of her eye, multi-legged black shapes skittering across wall and ceiling. Once she even thought she saw something that looked like a cross between a lizard and a spider watching her from the shadows, but of course when she blinked, nothing was there.
Echoes sounded where nothing was there to make them, or returned to the group tenfold and distorted beyond recognition. The bland rations and water alternately took on the rancid taste of foul mud, or the coppery tang of blood. Some of the group had had hallucinations wherein the features of the person walking next to them had stretched and morphed into something evil and alien. Rahm had almost skewered Zi the first time it happened, and now none of them could stand to look any of their companions in the face, for fear of what they might see there.
The only ones who seemed to be immune were Xujil and Jester. The drow was a creature of Khyber, so it was understandable that its madness would not faze him, but Sabira was surprised at the warforged’s resistance. Was it something in the air, or the water, neither of which he needed to survive here? Or did it have something to do with him being a construct, and the pathways to his fabricated brain just different enough to remain unaffected by the phenomena the rest of them were experiencing?
Whatever the source of his apparent immunity was, Sabira wished she shared it. The nightmares were becoming both more intense and more frequent, and they were beginning to plague her waking hours now in addition to the few moments of sleep exhaustion forced upon her.
Greddark’s face had become Orin’s, burning and melting as his legs had done beneath Frostmantle, leaving nothing but a grinning, accusing skull. Rahm had become Elix, leaning in for a kiss, only to have a tentacle covered with staring eyes snake out of his mouth, hungrily seeking hers. In reality, the chainmail-clad man had simply leaned toward her at a rest break, asking her to pass over a canteen of water.
It got so bad that Sabira actually welcomed the few encounters they had with denizens of the deep. As soon as either Jester or Xujil confirmed that the threat was real, she was the first one in, wielding her urgrosh with abandon. Though the cave spiders and blood oozes-nightmares she had some hope of destroying-were a poor substitute for those she couldn’t.
She found herself constantly fingering the half of Tilde’s medallion she carried in her pocket. Elix had given it to her before she’d left Vulyar. She didn’t ask how he’d acquired it, but she knew his father would have been loath to part with it. He told her it was for luck, but she knew him better than that. He was afraid that if Tilde was still alive when they found her, she might not be in her right mind. He knew that while the sorceress might not recognize Sabira as a friend, she would almost certainly remember Ned’s necklace. Elix hoped that would be enough to keep her from killing Sabira outright.
Having seen what the sorceress could do, especially when she was angry, Sabira hoped so too.
The tunnel they’d been traveling through had been getting narrower and shorter for some time, and while some of the passageways they’d been in had clearly seen other feet, this one looked relatively untouched, at least by any of Tarath Marad’s new explorers. Its inhabitants were, of course, another story.
Xujil made his way back to them.
“The tunnel ahead is blocked by an ancient deadfall, but a small opening exists. We will have to crawl for some distance, but we will be able to pass through unharmed.”
Greddark frowned, peering over the drow’s shoulder in the gloom. None of the luminous fungus grew here, and even the everbright lanterns were starting to wane.
“Can’t we just clear it?”
Sabira couldn’t blame him for asking. Despite their love of mining and being underground, many dwarves had a paradoxical fear of tight, enclosed spaces. Sabira didn’t much care for them herself.
“Perhaps with the proper equipment, a dozen duergars on a leash, and the luxury of time, yes.” Xujil blinked at him. “But as we do not seem to have any of those things to hand, I believe crawling is our best course of action.”
Sabira held up her hand to forestall Greddark’s retort.
“I’ll let the others know.”
She passed the information down the line, then gestured for Xujil to lead the way. As they followed the drow, Greddark caught her sleeve.
“A dozen duergars on a leash?” he repeated in a low voice.
Sabira didn’t miss a beat.
“Can you think of a better place for them?”
She didn’t wait to hear his answer, instead following the drow as he climbed quickly up a pile of broken rock to a small aperture and, crouching down, disappeared into it. Eyeing the sharp rubble, she shrugged her pack off and dug in it for a moment, coming up with a pair of leather gloves. Slipping them on, she replaced her pack and began the precarious ascent, careful to test each hand- and foothold before putting her full weight down. The guide had made the climb look easy, but she was no elf, and this was going to be challenging enough without having her palms cut to ribbons in the process.
At the top of the stone pile, she glanced back to see the others following her lead, digging their own gloves out before coming up after her. Then she turned back to the dark opening and, with a quick prayer to the sun goddess Dol Arrah to light her way, she bent down and crawled inside.
The everbright lantern on her helmet threw the rocky passage into sharp relief, painting the low roof and narrow walls with harsh blue and black angles. As she made her painstaking way across the shattered stone, she peered forward for any sign of Xujil, but she could see nothing ahead of her but darkness.
Sabira’s world soon compressed into the small island of light cast by her helmet’s lamp. The walls were so close now that all she could hear was her own labored breathing and the scrabble of her hands and knees against jagged, unforgiving rock. Stinging sweat trickled down her forehead and into her eyes, blurring her vision. She could feel the tons of earth above her pressing down, eager to crush her for her temerity in daring to traverse the depths. She crept slowly along, becoming convinced with every passing moment that the drow had led them into a trap and that the tunnel would never end. That it had somehow closed up behind her, cutting her off from her companions, and that she had no choice but to crawl eternally forward until she ran out of food and water and the everbright lantern gave out, leaving her to die alone in unending darkness.
As if in response to her fearful thoughts, the lamp flared and then went black. Sabira froze in place for long moments, her heart in her throat. But then the more rational part of her mind broke through the sudden, foreign terror, telling her she’d just entered another region of magical darkness. All she had to do was keep moving and she’d soon be out of it. The everbright lantern would work again and she’d find her way out of this tunnel and into… well, another tunnel, but at least it would be bigger and less oppressive.
She allowed the calm, logical thoughts to wash over her, repeating them to herself until her breathing was even and she could move forward again, no longer paralyzed by fear.
She made it about a foot and a half before she heard a low, hungry whisper, right beside her, where no one could possibly be.
With a yelp she couldn’t contain, Sabira scrambled forward, blind. She felt the sharp rocks slicing through clothing and flesh, but barreled on, heedless. She slammed against the wall as the tunnel made an abrupt turn to her right, and then she was out of it, tumbling down a steep slope and landing on her back in warm, sticky mud.
Xujil stood above her, his head cocked to one side as he looked at her curiously. Then he held out an ebon-skinned hand to her.
She took it without thinking, so grateful to be out of the crawlway and back into what passed for the open down here that she didn’t even mind his clammy grasp as he pulled her up from the sucking mire.
“Are you well, Marshal?” he asked.
She took quick stock of her injuries and nodded. The cuts and bruises were nothing compared to the blow to her pride. In all her years as soldier, with all the horrors she’d faced, she had never felt as terrified as she had in that moment, trapped in that tunnel with something unseen as it whispered her name.
Rationally, she knew the fear had been Khyber-wrought, and not her own-or, at least, not entirely. But that knowledge did nothing to lessen her shame. She was just glad none of the others besides Xujil had been there to see it.
Once on her feet, she turned to survey her surroundings. She stood at the base of a curving cavern wall that stretched up into the darkness high above her and off into the distance on either side. The chamber was easily three times the size of the one that housed Trent’s Well; the largest that she had ever seen. Multicolored fungi glowed on the rocks, lighting up the vast cave with muted hues of violet, gold, emerald, and ruby.
She’d landed in a subterranean swamp, fed by an unseen water source. Thick, ropy grasses grew at its edges. Beyond it, wide-boled gray trees thrust up out of the rocks, towering over the bizarre landscape as their full, domelike canopies scraped against the sparkling stalactites that dripped down from the unseen ceiling. It took Sabira a moment to realize that the strange forest was actually composed not of trees, but of gargantuan mushrooms.
There was a sound behind her and Sabira looked to see Greddark emerging from the high tunnel and making his way carefully down the rocky slope. She searched his face carefully, but saw no trace of the terror she’d felt. Apparently, the dwarf had not heard his name called in the darkness as she had. She tried to ignore the disquiet that followed on the heels of that thought, but was not entirely successful.
The others exited from the tunnel one by one and soon they were all gathered beside the swamp.
“What is this place?” Jester asked, his voice full of wonder. Though she knew it was inaccurate, she could easily imagine tiny gears whirring in his head as he struggled to find a rhyme for “fungus.”
“Gharad’zul,” Xujil supplied, “the Forest of Decay.”
“Lovely,” Sabira said. “How fast can you get us through it?” She didn’t even like mushrooms in her food; she certainly didn’t relish the prospect of traipsing around the gigantic fungi like tiny garden bugs begging to be squashed.
“As fast as your people can move,” the drow replied, and Sabira thought she detected a hint of alacrity in his voice. Considering the guide could travel much faster through his native environs without them, she supposed it was warranted. That didn’t make it any less annoying.
“Well, let’s put word to deed and see, then, shall we?”
The drow nodded and headed off at a brisk pace, skirting the swampy area. Bubbles rose from the surface, trailing them as they walked, but nothing emerged to confront them. Xujil led them under the forest canopy, which was really a series of overlapping mushroom caps with gills the size of the mainmast on a House Lyrandar galleon. Smaller mushrooms the height of a man grew about the trunks of the fungal trees and more of the variegated luminous fungus carpeted the forest floor like moss. Fluffy spores floated in the air, disturbed by their passing, and Sabira didn’t have to tell the others to cover their noses and mouths to keep from inhaling them. Who knew what the tiny things might begin to grow once inside a humanoid host? Sabira suppressed a shudder just thinking about it.
The forest was eerily quiet. No birds trilled in the nonexistent branches and no animals scampered through the absent underbrush. Even their footsteps were muffled, sloughing through wet fungus instead of crunching over pine needles or twigs. The air was stagnant and smelled of sweet rot and old dirt. Sabira found herself picking up her pace almost unconsciously, and the others followed suit, casting wary glances about them as they hastened through the alien woods.
Before long, she began to hear a soft, rhythmic sound. It started so gradually that she didn’t mark it at first, but when she found herself swallowing several times to moisten a suddenly dry palate, she realized what it must be.
“Are those… waves?”
Just as she asked, they broke free of the woods and found themselves standing on the rocky shores of a vast lake that stretched out into darkness. Black water lapped sluggishly at the jagged beach, driven by some unseen force out upon its impenetrable surface.
Xujil had mentioned traversing a body of water with Tilde’s group, but he hadn’t quite conveyed the size of said body. Sabira had been expecting a river like the one in Trent’s Well, or, at most, a pond. Nothing like this.
Sabira scanned the shoreline, looking for a way across and coming up empty. It was a dead end.
She rounded on their guide, suspicion flaring.
“You were supposed to lead us to Tilde. Unless the city she’s being held in is underwater, you’ve got some explaining to do.” She reached back to unharness her urgrosh. “ Now.”
“It is well you reach for your axe, Marshal,” Xujil replied. “You will need it.”
Was the drow actually threatening her?
He continued on, unperturbed by either her anger or the shard axe now in her grasp.
“There is a reason this path has remained untrodden by the surface-dwellers, save the sorceress and her men. They do not know the secret of crossing the sunless seas.” He paused, finally seeming to understand that he was in danger. “I do.”
Sabira lowered her weapon slightly, eyes narrowing.
Xujil pointed behind her.
“That is how we cross.”
Turning, it took her a moment to see what he meant. A stand of mushrooms as tall as the mayor’s house sprouted from a nearby inlet. Two of the mushrooms lay on their sides, felled not by rot, but by blades. Their enormous caps were missing.
When she turned back to him, the drow’s smile hinted at smugness.
Far, Barrakas 27, 998 YK
Tarath Marad, Xen’drik.
They set to work hacking at the stem of another of the giant mushrooms, Sabira with her urgrosh and the others with small hand axes from their packs. Xujil, as usual, stood aloof. Zi watched from afar as well, his strength not lying in his woodcutting skills.
The mushroom’s stem was thick and rubbery, and even the adamantine blade of Sabira’s shard axe had some difficulty chopping through the odd pseudoflesh. The more mundane axes had even greater trouble, and it took the five of them working in concert to bring the towering fungus down. The sound of their blades hacking into the tough stem echoed off the cavern walls, and when the fungal tree fell, the noise ricocheted back at them like a distant avalanche.
“Well, that’s going to attract some attention,” Sabira commented as she and the others moved toward the cap to begin detaching it and hollowing it out. Skraad, who’d been doing double duty with an axe in both hands, hung back for a moment, catching his breath.
“Oh, no, I’m sure this cavern is ‘vacant,’ just like the last one was,” Greddark replied acerbically, casting a dark look over at the drow as they quickly severed the cap and began removing the planklike gills. The dwarf, not the most trusting of souls by nature, had become downright hostile toward Xujil ever since the guide had pulled his disappearing act back in the chitines’ cavern. In the Holds, the words “coward” and “welcher” were synonymous, and there was no more vile insult. The drow was lucky Greddark hadn’t already gutted him, just on principle.
“Technically, the cave was vacant when we entered. The chitines were likely attracted by the sound of our battle with Thecla’s men,” Jester offered from the other side of the felled trunk. Unlike the others, his voice betrayed no sign of strain, and no sweat touched his metal brow. Sabira wished, not for the first time, that Guisarme was still with them. She wondered if he’d made it back to Stormreach, and if so, if the artificers there had been able to repair him.
“Whose side are you on?” the dwarf growled, but Sabira ignored him, her mind elsewhere. Thoughts of the fallen warforged led inevitably to Laven and Glynn. Two more wounded under her command.
Wounded, but still alive, she reminded herself. According to Xujil, she was doing better than Tilde had at this point, and with fewer resources from the outset. Sabira supposed she should take some sort of pride in that fact, but such self-congratulation rang hollow and false. She couldn’t help feeling that if she’d been a better leader, her three missing companions would still be with them.
Then again, remembering the horrors of the past week, and the voice in the crawlway, they were probably better off where they were.
“Keep an eye out for-” she began, turning to speak to Zi. As she did, there was a whoosh as something hot blasted past her, followed by a scream that did not stop.
Whirling, she saw Skraad, his body engulfed in eldritch fire. Behind him, two man-sized mushrooms advanced on fleshy, leglike stalks, tiny eyes glowing within the round caps that served as their heads. Huge, bulbous arms sheathed in what looked like spine-covered greaves slammed down on him from either side, stabbing into the burning orc as he struggled frantically to put out the licking flames.
She looked back over at Zi, wondering how the wizard could have missed the mark so badly, only to see the bald man in the grip of another walking mushroom, this one with long, tentacle-like arms that were wrapped around his throat, squeezing. The wizard’s mouth worked soundlessly as he clawed at his neck, trying to free himself long enough to speak another spell. As Sabira watched, another shambling fungus stepped forward, driving a spiny staff into Zi’s gut, and pulling it away bloody.
“Myconids!” Xujil shouted. “Get the boat into the water! They cannot follow us there!”
The drow ran lightly along the shore to the severed cap and began pulling it out toward the lake, Jester and Rahm joining him. Sabira and Greddark turned to face the forest, which was now alive with movement as dozens of the walking mushrooms marched inexorably toward them.
“Use your wand!” she said to the dwarf, holding her shard axe in front of her as she backed slowly toward the water’s edge. More and more of the myconids swarmed out of Gharad’zul until she was sure the entire fungal forest had uprooted itself and was advancing toward them.
“Can’t. Used up all the acid. Look like they’re impervious to fire, anyway-or just willing to ignore it,” he replied, not bothering to prime his alchemist’s blade as he unsheathed it. He’d shoved the handle of the small axe through his belt and now held his sword out before him in a double-fisted grip.
Sabira’s eyes moved past him to where Skraad fought futilely against a half dozen of the creatures as they rained blow after blow down upon him, seemingly unfazed by the flames. Sabira wanted to run to his aid, but she knew it was already too late as the orc fell beneath the onslaught and disappeared from sight.
A commotion sounded behind her and Sabira glanced back, dreading what she would see. An enormous round spore had floated over the water toward Xujil and the others as they dragged the makeshift boat into the lake. Rahm must have seen it first, for he’d moved to engage, drawing the pseudopod-covered sphere away from the drow and the warforged and thrusting at it with his sword. As he did so, the sphere erupted, showering him with what looked like green dust. She could only watch helplessly as the man began to scream and choke, the flesh around his nose and mouth bubbling as he inhaled the poisonous spores. He threw himself into the water, flailing about, trying to wash the toxins away. Too soon, the thrashing quieted and Rahm lay still, the back of his head bobbing up and down in the oblivious waves.
She tore her eyes away from Rahm’s lifeless figure, shaken out of her horrified reverie by the urgency in Greddark’s voice. The boat was in the water and the myconids were mere feet away, reaching for them with spine-covered arms and rootlike tentacles.
She didn’t need any further urging. She turned and ran.
Sabira reached the boat first, splashing through knee-deep water and clambering aboard, aided by Xujil and Jester. Greddark was right behind her, and as soon as they were both safely inside, Xujil handed them sections of gill, which were thick and hard like wood.
They got about a hundred feet from the shore, which was lined now with the myconids, their caps forming an irregular and menacing horizon against the incongruously cheerful light of the luminescent fungus.
Xujil looked over at the dwarf questioningly.
“They will have more of the gas spores. The water is no barrier to them, unless we are farther out.”
Greddark whirled, causing the boat to rock unsteadily. His brown eyes blazed with barely suppressed fury.
“You are about two very short breaths from being thrown overboard, so my recommendation would be for you to stop speaking while you still can. Bad enough you lead us into a virtual ambush with those-what do you call them? Chitines? Then you bring us into a forest of living mushrooms and don’t bother to tell us that they might not take kindly to us chopping down one of their big brothers. And all the while, you manage to avoid getting a scratch on you while friend after friend of mine falls. So you’ll pardon me if I’ve decided I’m done taking orders from a coward.”
Xujil blinked at him.
“The warforged was correct; the chitine cavern was empty when I reconnoitered it. And the myconids are normally content to stay rooted in place. They did not attack Donathilde and her men; I had no reason to believe they would attack you. But if you are implying that I want you dead, I could have accomplished that feat at any time, while you slept,” the drow said bluntly. “What reason would I have had for bringing you all the way down to the Deeps, when I could easily have slit your throats in the Shallows, if that had been my intent?”
“Well, considering you like to keep duergars as slaves and murder infants, who knows? Maybe it’s what passes for fun down here.”
“Ah,” Xujil said, nodding. “So that is the crux of your dislike. The child.”
“It’s definitely not a mark in your favor.”
“We have been at war with the Spinner of Shadows since before you of the surface began manifesting the mark of the dragons. Before that, we were enslaved by the giants and suffered their enduring cruelties. Our enemies are implacable and unrelenting, and always have been. They would not hesitate to exterminate us, given the chance, so we cannot hesitate either. The child of my enemy is also my enemy, and deserves no more mercy.”
“But the people of Trent’s Well weren’t your enemies,” Sabira said, disturbed to find herself unable to fault the drow’s cold logic.
“A fact we did not discover until it was too late.” He looked at her, and shrugged helplessly. “Our magic may be different from yours, Marshal, but not even we can change the past.”
“I can’t believe you’re buying that,” he said to her in disgust. Looking at Xujil, he narrowed his eyes. “Just stay away from me, drow, or you’ll find out that no one does ‘implacable and unrelenting’ better than a dwarf. Now stop rowing.”
Shrugging again, the guide obeyed. Greddark rummaged around in the packs at the bottom of the mushroom boat until he came up with a light crossbow and a clip that held five bolts. Setting them aside, he dug in his pouches until he came up with the vial of sulfur he’d scraped from the canyon walls at Zawabi’s Refuge, and another half-filled with a thick red liquid. He unstoppered both vials and carefully shook half of the yellow powder into the liquid, which Sabira guessed was some sort of oil. Then he replaced the corks in both, secreted the sulfur back in his pouch, and shook the remaining tube vigorously until the powder had completely dissolved, turning the liquid a rich carnelian color. Then he unstoppered it again, poured the concoction over the heads of the five quarrels, and loaded the clip into the crossbow.
“What are you doing? What good are five crossbow bolts against a few hundred of those?” Sabira asked, jerking her head toward the shore.
“Sulfur,” the artificer replied, picking up the crossbow and sighting it carefully, “mixed with certain types of oil, creates a potent fungicide.” Then before she could respond, he pulled the trigger, three times in quick succession. “For Skraad. And Rahm. And Zi.”
The bolts flew across the water, thunking into the pseudoflesh of three of the largest myconids.
“Sovereigns,” Xujil murmured, and by his tone of grudging admiration, Sabira knew he wasn’t calling out to the Host. “They lead the colony. If they fall, it falls with them.”
“Good,” Greddark said, firing twice more, this time at two gas spores that hovered over the edge of the water. As the quarrels struck home, the spheres exploded, showering their fellow fungi with the dwarf’s creation. “Might take a few days, but by the time we get back here, we shouldn’t have to deal with them again.”
“What have you done?” Jester asked in a shocked voice, the first time he’d spoken since they left land.
“What I had to,” the dwarf replied shortly, attaching the crossbow to his belt, opposite his sheathed alchemy blade.
“But… to destroy the whole colony…?”
Greddark looked up.
“They’re not people, they’re fungus. And even if they were, like your drow friend here said, ‘The child of my enemy is also my enemy, and deserves no more mercy,’ ” he said, and Sabira wondered if he realized that he hadn’t just repeated Xujil’s words, he’d mimicked both the guide’s tone and inflection perfectly.
They rowed in silence after that, paddling far out onto the lake until they could no longer see Gharad’zul behind them and there was nothing but cold, black water around them on every side. Sabira lost her bearings quickly, but neither Xujil nor Greddark seemed concerned. She decided it must be living underground that gave the two races their innate sense of direction. Apparently, it wasn’t just a dwarf thing. It was also a drow thing. Or at least an Umbragen one.
She almost chuckled at that, but quickly recognized the humor for what it was-an inappropriate but understandable reaction to the sudden deaths of so many of her companions.
She’d lost comrades-at-arms before; you couldn’t have lived through the end of the Last War without seeing someone you cared about die. She’d even lost more than three on one mission-or even six, if you counted Laven, Glynn, and Guisarme. But the difference was that then, she’d at least been able to strike a blow against the ones who’d killed her friends. This time, she hadn’t even had a chance to fight back. And, of course, before, those men hadn’t been under her command.
She had to remind herself, again, that she’d forced no one to join her on this mission. They’d come of their own accord, judging the rewards to be worth the risks. And if they’d gotten far more of the latter than the former, that was not her doing.
None of which, however true, gave her even the slightest bit of comfort.
She found herself wishing suddenly that Elix were here. As a captain of the Sentinel Marshals, he’d had to deal with losing men, even with ordering them to their deaths. It was something every Deneith soldier trained for, but that few ever had to actually face. She knew Elix wouldn’t be able to make the pain or the guilt go away-that was her burden, the price of command. But he’d at least be able to show her how not to hate herself for it.
And as she thought it, she wondered if that’s why she’d balked at the idea of marrying him. Not because she wasn’t good enough for him-no one was, and besides, who in love ever truly thought they were worthy of that love being returned by the object of their affection? No one who actually was, surely.
No, that beautiful betrothal bracelet and everything it represented terrified her because it was a partnership of the most intimate kind, and one thing you learned early in her House-and especially as a Marshal-was that no partnership lasted forever.
Partners got reassigned, or quit. Or died, usually in horribly painful and gruesome ways. Or maybe that was just her partners, but then, that was sort of the point, wasn’t it?
It had happened to every partner she’d ever cared for-Ned, even Orin. She didn’t want it happening to Elix. Especially not because of her.
As if summoned by her thoughts, a vision of the dark-haired captain sinking below the surface of that magma pool swam before her eyes, quickly morphing into one of him aflame and being buried under a rising tide of fungus. She blinked the sight away and stared out over the black water, straining to see something, anything other than the man she loved dying over and over again in increasingly awful ways.
The light from her helmet did little to pierce the darkness. When she looked down into the water directly, the blue beam broke into a thousand reflections in the black water, giving her the illusion that the boat was gliding across the surface of a vast Khyber shard, its binding magic calling out to them, hungry and eager. She looked up again quickly, shaking the thought away.
As she did, she thought she saw a dark smudge in the distance. Moving forward carefully, she pointed it out to the drow, who nodded.
“We are nearing the opposite shore. Once we set foot on land again, we will be in the domain of the Spinner of Shadows.”
“Who-or what- is the Spinner?” Sabira asked. Boroman ir’Dayne had said that the Spinner, or She, of Shadows was a deity peculiar to the Umbragen, but the drow spoke of her as though she were an actual, physical being, something akin to a queen.
Xujil looked at her, uncomprehending.
“She is… the She,” he said at last, “is the Spinner of Fate, the Queen of Shadow, the Well of the Umbra, the Womb and the Pit. She is Tarath Marad. She is… all.”
“Yeah, okay. Sorry I asked.”
She moved back to her position near Greddark at the stern of the boat, staring out over the water at the approaching shore. They were getting closer. She could feel it.
Something moved below the surface of the lake a few feet off the starboard side of the vessel, humping up above the waterline and then back down again before she could point it out to the others. She’d never bothered to replace her shard axe in its harness, and now she put her makeshift oar down and grabbed the weapon, leaning over the edge of their floating mushroom cap.
“What is it?” Greddark asked, instantly alert.
“I thought I saw something,” she said, scanning the opaque water.
“A leviathan,” Xujil said from the front of the boat, paddling faster.
“ What?” she and Greddark exclaimed in unison.
“We happened upon one on our last crossing, but the sorceress defeated it. They are normally solitary. I did not expect to encounter another.” Xujil had told them that Tilde’s party had fought something in the water. He had failed to adequately communicate what that something was. “I would suggest we increase our pace.”
Sabira grabbed her oar again and the four of them rowed in urgent unison, racing toward the ever-expanding shoreline. She actually thought, for a moment, that they might make it.
Then she felt something bump into the rubbery hull of the boat.
“It’s under-” she began, but before she could get the rest of the warning out, the prow of the boat lifted out of the water, dumping Xujil and Jester into the dark drink. Sabira dropped her oar as the boat continued to rise, grabbing her urgrosh in one hand and clutching at the lip of the cap with the other.
And then the boat was flying through the air, her and Greddark along with it.
Far, Barrakas 27, 998 YK
Tarath Marad, Xen’drik.
As Sabira splashed into the icy water and went under, she caught a glimpse of something huge, yawning, and full of teeth snatching the upended mushroom cap out of the water and disappearing back beneath the surface.
As the thing submerged again, Sabira could feel the pull of its wake carrying her down. She fought against it, hampered by the shard axe in her hand but unwilling to release the weapon. The frigid water leeched both the warmth and the strength out of her limbs and her lungs were burning by the time she breached the surface.
Treading water, she fumbled her urgrosh back into its harness and cast about frantically for her companions. She saw a blue light bobbing off to her left, then begin moving toward land. That must be Greddark. She peered ahead, trying to make out Xujil, who had not been wearing a helmet, but she couldn’t find him. And though she swam in a circle, scanning the water all around her, there was no sign of Jester.
Sabira struck out for the shore, expecting at any moment to feel the jaws of the leviathan closing around her, but she reached the shallows without incident. She climbed wearily to her feet and waded toward Greddark’s light. Xujil was helping him up out of the water and as she neared, she saw a deep gash in his thigh where he’d been scored by the behemoth’s teeth. She hurried forward and grabbed his other arm, and together she and the drow half-carried, half-dragged him up the rocky beach until they found a flat rock they could set him on.
Once he was propped up, Sabira pulled the pack that was still miraculously on her back off and handed it over to the drow.
“See what you can find to help him.”
As she turned back to the lake, her hair a sodden copper veil in front of her eyes, Greddark stopped her.
“What are you doing?”
“Going back for Jester,” she said, brushing wet locks out of her face in annoyance.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Sabira. He’s a warforged; with all that metal, he would have sunk to the bottom by now. You’re not going to be able to find him, no matter how deep you dive.”
“-he also doesn’t need to breathe,” Greddark said, speaking over the top of her, “so he can just walk along that bottom until he reaches the shore. If we wait, I’m sure he’ll come climbing out of the water in proper bardic fashion in no time.”
They did wait, into the night and for most of the next day, but Jester never resurfaced. Sabira spent much of her time walking along the edge of the lake peering into its impenetrable depths, searching vainly for the faintest glimmer of blue. Greddark gave up trying to dissuade her early on, instead turning to drying out their cloaks and the contents of his myriad pouches, and taking stock of their now very limited supplies. He’d quaffed the last healing potion and the wound on his leg was already a faint scar. When Sabira returned from her latest circuit up and down the lake shore, she saw him paging through what was left of the Draconic dictionary.
He looked up as she approached.
“Ruined,” he said regretfully, showing her the ink-smeared pages. She could make out a few individual words here and there that hadn’t been destroyed by the water, but by themselves, they meant nothing. “I can’t believe they didn’t ward it against water damage.”
“I doubt they were expecting any rain in the Catacombs,” Sabira answered, but the sarcasm was perfunctory. Her mind was still out on the lake. Under it.
“Though it does look like a few entries survived here where the pages stuck together… hmm…,” the dwarf trailed off as he set the book back in his lap and began gently prying the leaves apart.
“How long do you intend to wait here, Marshal?”
Sabira looked over at Xujil, who’d returned from his own reconnaissance of the lakeshore, though he hadn’t been looking for Jester. He’d already written the warforged off.
“As long as it takes.”
“I should think that is highly inadvisable. The Spinner’s followers do patrol this lake, however irregularly. And there is still the matter of the sorceress, and your rescue miss-?”
“Don’t you dare try to tell me my duty,” Sabira snarled, interrupting him. “Nobody knows that call better than a Deneith, and no one answers it faster.”
She clenched her fist at her side to keep from punching him in the face. Mainly because he was right.
Xujil blinked at her.
“And stop doing that! What are you, some Hostdamned bird?”
The guide was spared from trying to formulate a response that wouldn’t get him hit by Greddark.
“Ha! I was right!”
Shooting Xujil one last furious look, Sabira turned back to the dwarf, attempting to rein in her temper.
“Right about what?”
“The translation. It was ‘the Warder dreams,’ right? If it had really been referring to Vult, the Warding Moon, going dark, it would have used this phrase here.” He pointed to an entry still legible through the wash of indigo ink. “That’s the phrase used about Rhaan, the Scribing Moon, in the first part of the couplet-‘the Book is closed.’ So that bit really is talking about the dark phase, but the dreaming part, that’s wrong. The word used is actually this one.” He flipped the page. “Dormant.”
“Dormant, dreams, what’s the difference? Maybe it just didn’t fit the rhyme scheme.” She didn’t want to talk poetry with the dwarf. It reminded her too much of Jester.
“The word is the same one used for a dragonmark that hasn’t yet manifested.”
That brought Sabira up short. Each of the twelve moons of Eberron was associated with one of the dragonmarked Houses. Olarune, the Sentinel, was the moon tied to her own House’s Mark of Sentinel. Vult was linked to the Mark of Warding.
To House Kundarak.
“So you’re saying the actual translation is talking about an unmarked member of your House?”
“And are you? Unmarked, I mean?” She hadn’t seen a dragonmark on him anywhere, or noticed him using any powers she would associate with one, but that was hardly conclusive. The mark could easily be hidden beneath his clothing, and they hadn’t really needed any warding.
“I am,” he said again.
So the snippet of Prophecy that she refused to believe in mentioned both a “daughter of stone and Sentinel” and an unmarked member of House Kundarak. Both of which happened to be here, now, five days before Rhaan was set to go dark again. Wonderful.
“What about the silent Anvil part?” she asked, dreading the answer.
“I don’t know,” Greddark admitted, shaking his head. “That part of the dictionary is completely ruined. I don’t know what it’s referring to-only that it’s not referring to Eyre going dark.”
Eyre was the Making Moon, associated with House Cannith. Sabira couldn’t help but wonder if Jester would have been able to help them figure it out.
Then another thought struck her.
“But Tilde didn’t have any dwarves with her. So if that’s really what the Prophecy is talking about, she couldn’t have fulfilled it, or opened any locks.”
Greddark shrugged helplessly.
“But I — we — can.”
Sabira frowned in disgust.
“Do you ever feel like a piece on the world’s biggest Conqueror board?”
The corner of Greddark’s mouth twitched.
“Well, that is sort of the point of a prophecy, isn’t it?”
And it was exactly why she hated it. Bad enough being manipulated by other people. Throw in the Sovereign Host or the Silver Flame or the dragons or something greater than them all, and it was like saying nothing you did mattered. No choice you made was truly yours; it had been preordained millennia before your race was even born. You were nothing but a performer in some cosmic play, acting out a script you could never see but were doomed to follow, regardless.
To give credence to prophecy was to admit that life was meaningless, and that was a worldview she simply would not- could not-ascribe to.
“Well, to Dolurrh with that,” she spat. “We’re not here to fulfill any Hostforsaken prophecy. We’re here to get Tilde, get that artifact, and get out. Nothing more.”
Greddark’s grin widened above his short, straggly beard.
“You really don’t like being told what to do, do you?”
Sabira couldn’t help but grin back.
“I guess it’s the dwarf in me.”
Then the smile faltered and she became serious again.
“We’ll wait till morning. Or what passes for morning in this pit, anyway. If Jester hasn’t made his way back to us by then, we’re moving on.”
“I do not understand your reluctance,” Xujil said. Sabira was ready to punch him after all, but when she turned to him, his face was creased with perplexity rather than challenge. “You must know the warforged has perished.”
“I’ll tell you what I know. Of all the people under my command, Jester was the only one who wanted to turn back, and I convinced him to stay. Wherever he is right now, he wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for me. So we’re staying put, to give him as much of a chance to find us as we possibly can. I owe him that much.”
Xujil started to blink and stopped himself. Instead, he inclined his head to her.
“As you will, Marshal.”
He walked off, and Sabira returned to the shoreline, to watch, to wait, and above all, to hope.
Sul, Rhaan 1, 998 YK
Tarath Marad, Xen’drik.
Sabira awoke from a vision of Elix drowning in the darkness of the sunless sea, Jester holding one ankle and Guisarme holding the other as he struggled to make it back up to the surface. To her.
Greddark’s hand was on her shoulder, and he looked wary, like she might have tried to hit him in her sleep. Given the nature of her dreams, she probably had.
“It’s morning, Saba, and there’s still no sign. What do you want to do?”
It was the same question she’d asked the warforged bard, and her answer was the same as his had been.
“We move on,” she decided, climbing to her feet. Though, in truth, it wasn’t much of a choice. They couldn’t go back. The leviathan had eaten their boat, and there were no mushrooms on this side of the lake with which to replace it.
They pulled on their cloaks and gathered what few things they had left, doing their best to erase all sign of their passing. It wasn’t hard; the land here was rocky and barren, resisting tracks, and they’d done without a fire for the past two nights.
Xujil led them through the twisted landscape, staying closer than was his wont as he guided them over the broken ground. To Sabira, it looked as if some petulant giant had lifted the cavern floor here and thrown it back down again in a fit of temper, then stomped off without bothering to clean it up.
“I thought you said the molten rivers hadn’t flowed here since the giants first clapped your people in chains,” Greddark commented as they climbed over a jutting rock and then had to leap across a narrow but deep fissure. Sabira was pretty sure that’s not actually what the drow had said, but she was interested in his answer. The terrain was starting to remind her of the area beneath Frostmantle, which was most definitely still active-or had been, until the rising magma had been funneled off through a planar gateway into Risia, the Plain of Ice, thanks to Aggar and a persistent scholar named Goldglove.
“They have not,” the guide replied. “There are greater and more dangerous forces in Tarath Marad than mere elements.”
Greater forces than those that caused mountains to rise and laid entire cities to waste in a single night? Sabira would lay odds that they were unfriendly, and probably xenophobic too. Lovely.
“And how likely are we to encounter these… forces?”
Xujil blinked at her. He seemed unable to help himself.
“You plan to steal an item of power from the Spinner, Marshal,” he said at last, as if a more direct answer to her question would be too obvious to voice.
“You know, sometimes being direct really is best. ‘Very.’ That’s all you had to say. ‘Very.’ ”
The drow apparently took her literally, for he did not speak again for some time. Though that could have been because clambering up and down the jagged chunks of stone took all the breath out of him. It certainly did her.
What seemed like an eternity later-but probably was really only the entire day, and maybe part of the night-they finally reached the far wall of the huge cavern. Sabira was sure they’d traveled so far they must be halfway back to Zawabi’s Refuge by now, or else out underneath the Thunder Sea. She was completely turned around and had no sense of what direction they were traveling in. She considered asking Greddark, then decided against it. The idea of millions of gallons of water or even tons of sand sitting somewhere above her head, with nothing separating them but the cavern ceiling, which might or might not be all that thick, made the hair on the back of her neck stand at attention.
Some things it was better not to know.
Several tunnels opened up before them like choices in a rigged shell game. Except in this case, Sabira figured the loser was the one who picked the right shell. Lucky for her.
Xujil turned to them, his face grave.
“We are entering territory patrolled by the Spinner’s followers. You must be quiet as the tomb, and if I gesture to you to move or to stay put, you must do as I say quickly and without question. Otherwise, I cannot guarantee your safety.”
Like he’d guaranteed Tilde’s, Sabira wondered? But there was no point in baiting the drow. He was the only one who could get them where they needed to go.
“You will also need to extinguish the lights on your helmets and use only your goggles from this point on. Unless one of you has other magic that enables you to see in the dark? Donathilde cast a spell on herself and her companion.”
Companion. Singular. One of Deneith’s most powerful sorceresses and thirty of its best Blades, and by the time they’d made it this far, there were only two of them left. She felt a flash of anger at her House’s patriarch. What artifact could possibly be worth so many lives? But she knew the answer, as sure as if Baron Breven himself were here to whisper it in her ear.
One that could save-or end-many, many more.
She and Greddark thumbed their lamps off and pulled their low-light goggles up. They were instantly engulfed in darkness, for this part of the cave had none of the luminescent fungus that had lit their way previously. Sabira couldn’t see the dwarf next to her, or even the hand in front of her face. She hadn’t realized how dependent on the blue glow of the everbright lanterns she’d become down here, and she felt a moment of stark, primal fear before she was able to detect the faintest light emanating from the mouths of some of the tunnels.
As her eyes adjusted, she was able to make out Xujil’s silhouette against the nearest of these, and Greddark’s at her side. The drow motioned for them to follow and led the way into the third tunnel from the left, which seemed to Sabira to be no different from any of the others. More and more patches of glowing green fungus appeared as they went on, and soon she could see as well as if she’d had been using the everbright lantern; maybe better.
In addition to the mosslike fungus, they began to encounter spider nests and webbing with increasing frequency. There’d been spiders during most of the trip, of course, but they’d generally been small and of no great concern. Sabira was not one of those people who had an unnatural loathing for the eight-legged creatures, and she was willing to leave them be if they did the same for her. But these egg sacs were bigger and promised less aloof inhabitants. When one began to tremble as she passed, she didn’t hesitate, stomping on the sac before its inhabitants could burst out and make their acquaintance.
Xujil looked back at her, his usually placid face tight with anger.
“Quiet as the tomb, Saba?” Greddark whispered as she scraped the pulpy mess off her boot and onto a nearby rock.
“Sorry. I thought he meant a Karrnathi one.”
Karrnath had turned to the dead to bolster their forces during the Last War. Even now, most of her citizens considered it a great honor to have one of their fallen relatives restored to unlife to continue to serve their country. There was a saying in Karrnath: A quiet grave is a disgraced one. Which was part of the reason she wanted her body burned when she died. She loved her country, and her House, but she’d already made far more than her share of sacrifices for both of them. She had to draw the line somewhere, and if duty dictated that line could not be drawn in life, she was going to make damned sure it was in death.
Of course, she supposed if she died down here, she wouldn’t have to worry about it. There was always a bright side.
When her boot was clean enough that she wouldn’t leave a trail for any vengeful spider lovers to follow, she waved for Xujil to continue.
The relative sparsity of cobwebs and the occasional boot print in patches of strange, spongy rock attested to the fact that they weren’t the only ones to use these passageways, but aside from more egg sacs that wisely stayed still in Sabira’s presence, they saw nothing else in the tunnels for hours. Xujil did have them hide in crevices and side passages a time or two, but she neither saw nor heard what prompted the drow to take cover. Given that at one point she had to squeeze into a crack coated with bat guano-which Greddark promptly collected off her clothes afterward-Sabira had a sneaking suspicion the guide might just be doing it out of spite.
They came to another fork in the tunnel, and Xujil led them down the smaller of the two passages. The luminescent fungus was meager here, and the webs thicker, though there were no spider nests that Sabira could see. At one point, the tunnel narrowed so that they had to crawl for about ten feet, and Sabira had a sudden flashback of that other crawlway, and the voice that she’d heard. She braced herself for a repeat performance, but whatever had called her name before remained blessedly silent.
It had probably only been a figment of her imagination, anyway, brought on by the claustrophobic tunnel and the general madness that was Tarath Marad. She didn’t really believe that, but she was nevertheless grateful for the reprieve.
Then they were crawling out onto a thin ledge that overlooked another vast cavern. But this one, instead of housing a forest of sentient mushrooms and a black sea, held something stranger still.
But it was not the sort of city she’d come to expect from the drow of Xen’drik’s surface, primitive and disorganized. No, this city was a veritable fortress metropolis that would rival the craft of Krona Peak and the might of Karrlakton, the Sentinel Marshals’ base of power.
Towers carved from enormous stalagmites jutted up from the ground like Khyber’s own teeth. Sheer walls crowned with massive iron spikes spanned the distances between, and Sabira could see dark-skinned figures marching along their tops in crisp, orderly lines. A wide road, busy despite what her exhausted body was telling her must be either a very late or very early hour, led up to a set of gates. The tall metal doors were each adorned with a huge, red-eyed spider whose legs ended in blades. It took several moments for Sabira to realize that the arachnids were not, in fact, carvings. They were real, and as she looked on, one of them snatched a passerby up from the road and devoured it. None of the other drow even slowed.
“The City of Shadows,” Xujil intoned quietly, and Sabira suppressed a groan. She was a Marshal, not a spy or an assassin. If she needed to enter a city, she didn’t try to infiltrate it, she flashed her badge.
But there had to be a way. Her mission couldn’t end like this.
“The spyglass-” she whispered, before remembering that it had been Jester’s. Cursing inwardly, she inched closer to the edge of the rocky shelf to get a better look.
From here, Sabira could see that the wall traveled straight for a distance, then angled off to the right and left.
“An octagon,” Greddark breathed beside her, and she realized he was right. Though they could only see three of the eight walls, the angles the stone edifices made with one another could form no other shape.
“Eight walls, eight gates. Eight locks?”
“And us with no key,” he replied.
She turned her head to look at Xujil.
“And Tilde’s in there somewhere? You’re sure?”
The drow nodded solemnly.
“If she still lives, she is there.”
“So how did you get in the first time? Disguise yourselves as locals? Scale the walls? Invisibility?” She already knew that Tilde hadn’t used teleportation, but she couldn’t really see the sorceress being able to pull off any of those things successfully, not even making herself invisible. If the road outside was any indication, the city was just too crowded; Tilde would be exposed in no time.
Which is probably why she’d gotten caught.
“We did not enter the city,” Xujil replied. “What she sought was not there. But I cannot guide you where she went, for only a mage can tread that path.”
And that meant they had no choice but to free Tilde, because they couldn’t get to the artifact without her. Not that Sabira had ever intended to do anything else, despite what Breven wanted. Because it wasn’t what he wanted that mattered to her.
She looked at Greddark.
“Please tell me you have some nifty artificer trick or crazy invention that will get us through those gates.”
The dwarf gave her a sly smile.
“As a matter of fact, I think I do.”
Mol, Rhaan 2, 998 YK
Tarath Marad, Xen’drik.
Xujil led them back through the web-filled passageway and down towards the city. On the way, Greddark explained his plan in quiet tones.
“When I was a student at the Tower of the Twelve, I invented a planar doorway. There were already spells that could bypass physical and magical barriers, but I wanted one that could do both at once. It opens up a portal through whatever material the wall is made from-stone, wood, metal. Then it shifts you to another plane as you pass through, which circumvents any magical impediments, and returns you instantly to your starting plane once you reach the other side of the barrier. It’s ingenious, really-”
“-if you do say so yourself-” Sabira interjected under her breath, but Greddark continued on as if he hadn’t heard.
“-as long as you’re prepared for what you find on whatever plane you shift to.”
Sabira raised an eyebrow.
“I sense a story there.”
Greddark’s expression turned grim.
“The doorway is opened with a byeshk dagger. I lent it to a fellow student who wasn’t ready for what she encountered on the other side.”
His regretful tone jarred a memory from earlier in their trip.
“The Medani who died? The one ir’Dayne was talking about back in Sharn?”
Sabira digested that for a moment.
“So what are we going to find on the other side?” she asked.
“A floating city in the plane of Syrania. If we’re lucky.”
“And if we’re not?”
Greddark’s grin returned, albeit somewhat more subdued.
“That’s what feather fall tokens are for.”
They continued on in tomblike silence after that, Xujil warning them that they were nearing the tunnels that led to the cavern, and the city it held. Though they had seen many people moving on the road, the passageways remained empty.
“Where is everyone?” Sabira asked, breaking Xujil’s edict because, while she was glad they hadn’t yet had to fight off any She-worshiping drow, the mere fact that they hadn’t was suspect.
“We have arrived at the beginning of the Holy of the She, a three-day ceremony that culminates in the sacrifice of the Spinner’s enemies. All those who worship Her must return to Her city by midday. At that time, the gates are barred, and Her children are let loose to roam the cavern, devouring those whose lack of faith is evidenced by a similar lack of punctuality.”
At Sabira’s disbelieving look, the drow shrugged.
“I did encourage you to hurry.”
“So how long do we have until the gates close?”
Xujil cocked his head to the side, considering.
“Perhaps as much as an hour?”
As much as that? Lovely.
“Then why are you taking us the long way around?” Greddark demanded, frowning at the drow’s revelation. To Sabira, he added, “If we’re heading for the gate we saw from above, we’re going in the wrong direction.”
Sabira looked over at the drow expectantly, certain he’d have some logical and not entirely pleasant explanation. He always did.
“We cannot approach by that road. That gate is for drow only; we would be apprehended immediately. We must use the Slave Road. If you wear your hoods up and we cover your exposed skin with mud, your size is such that you should be able to pass as my duergar slaves long enough for us to near the walls.”
Somehow, Sabira was certain the drow would enjoy that little charade.
“Why don’t we just mingle with what’s left of the crowds and go in through the gate, then?” she asked. While Greddark’s inventions had worked well so far, crossing between planes was a risky proposition and a malfunction at the wrong time would be worse than deadly. If there was an easier way in, even if it was only marginally safer, they should take it.
“The Guardians Above,” Xujil answered. It took Sabira a moment to realize he meant the giant red-eyed spiders.
“Perhaps they would not notice the dwarf-his blood is near enough that of a duergar, so they might not mark him as an enemy. But they would certainly notice a human.”
Sabira carefully kept her gaze away from Greddark. She didn’t want to see his face at being so casually likened to a gray dwarf.
“So the drow we saw them eat earlier, that was one of your people, trying to infiltrate the city?”
“Perhaps. Or perhaps the guardian was merely hungry.”
“So we masquerade as duergar until we get near the walls, and then what?” Greddark asked, still bristling over the drow’s unintended insult. At least, Sabira thought it was unintended. With Xujil, she couldn’t really be sure. “They’ll definitely notice if we walk up to the gate and then don’t go through.”
“There are tents outside the Slave Gate for slavers and traders who are not allowed in the city. Their occupants will have fled to avoid the children of the Spinner. We can hide there until the gates are closed, then use the planar doorway to enter the city unobserved.”
“And what about those ‘children?’ ” the dwarf pressed. “What exactly are they, and how long do we have until they show up?”
“The Guardians Above are Her children,” Xujil replied, as though that should have been self-evident. “When the gates are closed, they roam free.”
“Oh, so about the time it takes to be skewered, then,” Greddark muttered. He added something under his breath in Dwarven. She recognized the saying, one that loosely translated to: “If the Host makes it easy on you, it’s because they think you’re incompetent.”
It didn’t take them much longer to reach the end of the tunnel. Before exiting into the cavern, they removed their goggles and mixed the last of their water with gray dirt from the tunnel floor, forming a thick paste. Then Sabira and Greddark spread the mixture over their hands and faces, stepping back when they were done to regard one another critically. At first glance, as long as their heads were covered, they might look like gray dwarves, especially if that’s what you were expecting to see. The illusion was completed when they grudgingly handed their weapons over to Xujil and let him bind their arms loosely with ropes.
Putting herself willingly in another person’s power galled Sabira, but she supposed there was no better test of loyalty. She could only pray that the drow passed.
Xujil led them out into the cavern, and Sabira risked a glance up at the city. They were much nearer the wall here and Sabira could see a cluster of drab, torchlit tents huddled outside the gates. Beyond them, red firelight gleamed off the bladelike appendages of the guardians, each one easily the length of a greatsword. She didn’t need Xujil’s urging to look back down again.
The road beneath them was smooth from centuries of use and they moved swiftly along it, soon reaching the tents farthest from the wall. As they passed through the vacant camp, a deep tone sounded from somewhere within the city.
“I misjudged! The gates are closing! Come!”
Xujil pulled the ropes that bound them and the knots loosened and fell away. He returned their weapons and then he led them on a crouching race through the hide-covered tents, choosing a path that kept them out of view of the wall. Then there were no more tents, and the metal gates were clanging shut.
All pretense at stealth abandoned, they raced for the sheer stone wall.
Xujil reached it first, and turned toward the gate with a look of panic. Sabira could hear the scrape of metal on metal as the guardians began to crawl down from their posts.
Greddark reached the wall and fumbled for a charm on his bracelet, this one a tiny dagger. It grew in his hand until it was over a foot long and the purple metal shone with its own light. He plunged it into the gray stone above his head and then turned to her and Xujil.
“Take my hands!”
She obeyed, grabbing his right hand with her left while the drow grasped the other. As he began to walk into the wall, his body disappearing as it came in contact with the stone, Sabira felt pain lance along the back of her thigh. Turning awkwardly, she saw one of the guardians, its bladed leg raised for another blow.
Without thinking, she dropped Greddark’s hand and whirled. She heard Xujil cry out as she brought her urgrosh down in a two-handed grip, slamming the spider’s leg away, then rotating her wrists and catching another of its segmented limbs on her backswing. The swordlike segment fell to the ground in a spray of black blood and the guardian chittered in agony, skittering backward. Sabira turned and lunged for the wall, catching the fingers of Xujil’s outstretched hand just before he, too, disappeared into the stone.
She felt a strange stretching sensation and then she was falling through an endless expanse of vibrant blue sky, clutching the drow’s hand desperately as the three of them tumbled through perfection in utter, peaceful silence.
And then her foot hit the ground on the other side of the wall and they were inside the City of Shadows. Xujil pulled them quickly into a nearby alleyway, hunkering down behind some crates as they put their goggles back on.
“Stay here, and stay hidden. I will attempt to find where the sorceress is being held.” Sabira nodded her agreement, touching her hand gingerly to the back of her leg where the guardian had scored her. Her hand came away bloody. Greddark saw and quickly produced bandages from somewhere on his person. As he began wrapping her leg, Xujil checked to make sure he could exit the alleyway without being seen. Before leaving, he looked back at the two of them. “And if you should encounter any of the Spinner’s smaller children, do not harm them. Here, inside Her city, She will know.”
“Yeah, won’t be long before She knows about the one outside the city, either, so I’d suggest you get moving,” Sabira said, wincing as Greddark cinched the bandage tight. Then the drow nodded and disappeared around the corner, leaving them alone in the darkness.
As they waited for the drow to return, it became obvious that this part of the city was all but deserted. Even in the darkest alleyways and most secluded parks of a metropolis this size, the bustle of so many people living their lives could still be heard. Children crying, drunks brawling, dogs barking, vendors wheedling, guards shouting as they chased down thieves. But in the City of Shadows, silence reigned. That, more than anything, drove home the foreignness of the Umbragen, in a way Xujil’s odd mannerisms and brutal beliefs had not yet managed to.
She heard a faint scratching sound beside her and looked over, expecting to see the spiders Xujil had warned her not to squish. Instead, she saw Greddark using a small stone to etch tally marks in the dirt.
“Counting the moments until he comes back?” she asked, keeping her voice low so it wouldn’t carry. “Didn’t think you’d miss him that much.”
“Counting the days,” Greddark replied.
Sabira frowned and felt dried mud crack and fall from her forehead.
He looked at her askance.
“I don’t think you want to know.”
Well, she was sure she didn’t, now.
“I think I’ve figured out the Anvil part of the Prophecy.” More mud fell, from around her mouth this time.
“I think the word that was translated as ‘silent’ actually meant ‘at rest.’ It’s a subtle difference, but an important one, considering what today is.”
Sabira felt her heart moving into her throat.
“And what’s today, besides the beginning of some spider goddess’s three-day Festival of Quietude?”
“It’s the second of Rhaan. Onatar’s Rest, the one day of the year the forges go quiet in the Holds.”
Sabira’s heart was joined by her stomach. Onatar was the Sovereign God of Fire and Forge, but he had another colloquial name.
“It’s just a coincidence,” she said after a moment, but even she could hear the uncertainty in her voice.
They didn’t speak again after that, each of them lost in their own thoughts. Sabira refused to believe that forces beyond her ken had engineered events so that she and Greddark would be here, in this unlikely place on this unlikely date, to fulfill the conditions of some bit of mediocre poetry. Greddark must be mistaken about the translation-Breven had been adamant that the “three dark moons” interpretation was the correct one, and multiple scholars with far more knowledge and experience than the dwarf had agreed.
Then again, Sabira knew from personal experience that being certain didn’t always mean being right.
Something tickled her wrist, and she went to slap at it without thinking. Greddark grabbed her hand before the blow could connect and she looked down to see a swarm of tiny spiders crawling across her forearm. The multi-legged horde migrated over her arm, across her open palm and down her leg, congregating around the bandage on her thigh, where blood was beginning to seep through. It seemed for a moment as if the creatures were tasting her, and Sabira had to suppress a shudder of revulsion. She suddenly understood people who hated spiders much, much better.
The last stragglers were just disembarking from her boot when Xujil appeared at the mouth of the alleyway and quickly made his way to them.
“Come. I have found her.”
Tilde was being held in a small chapel away from the main temple complex where the majority of the city’s population had gathered for their observance of the Holy. Here, Xujil told them, she would undergo a cleansing ritual so that on the appointed day, she would be an acceptable offering for the Spinner. The sorceress would be attended by priestesses at designated times during the three days leading up to her sacrifice, but for the most part, she would be left alone. They had a chance to free her, if they moved quickly enough.
Two drow in ceremonial armor guarded the door, the crest on their black breastplates depicting a red-eyed, blade-footed guardian. Greddark took them out with two crossbow bolts to the forehead and they collapsed with a clatter.
Sabira hurried across the open courtyard and up the stairs, eyes alert for movement from the surrounding buildings, but all was still. She stepped over the body of one of the drow, noting the scars on his cheeks. Not so different from their Vulkoorim brethren after all, it seemed.
She pushed one of the doors open slightly and squeezed through, stepping quickly to the side to let her eyes adjust to the deeper gloom here and to avoid making herself a target. Greddark followed suit, moving to the other side of the door. Xujil came in last, and Greddark had to pull him out of the meager light coming through the open door.
Though she listened for long moments, she heard nothing but her own breathing and that of her companions. The chapel was deserted.
Except for the sanctuary.
Lit by torches that burned red, what appeared to be an altar carved from some black, iridescent metal and fashioned in the shape of a spider sat upon a raised dais. And on that altar lay a blonde, pale-skinned woman.
There was something wrong about the way the sorceress’s body lay, and Sabira approached cautiously, wondering if they were too late and Ned’s sister was already dead. She eschewed the main aisle, opting to walk along the church’s wall, beneath the overhanging balcony. Greddark again followed her lead, walking up the other side, his crossbow trained on Tilde while his eyes scanned the balcony above Sabira for movement. Xujil hesitated, then followed Sabira’s path as he, too, searched the balcony for any errant guards.
As she neared, reaching the chancel, Sabira realized abruptly what was wrong with Tilde, and she felt a moment of horror mixed with profound pity.
The sorceress had no legs.
Oh, Tilde. I’m so sorry I didn’t get here sooner.
Even as she thought it, Tilde reared up from the altar, its metal legs bucking with her movement.
And then Sabira realized she hadn’t even begun to comprehend the true horror for the situation, because Tilde wasn’t on the altar, she was the altar. Where her hips and legs had been before, the metal spider’s body now grew, melding with her flesh as if she had burst from her mother’s womb thus made.
Or her mother’s egg sac.
The sorceress wore a halter of black silk. A golden chain hung about her neck, the half of Ned’s medallion twinkling in the light, framed now by the bones of a tiny winged mammal. And in her abdomen, where her navel should be, a sphere carved from a large, flawless Khyber shard pulsed with blue-black light.
“Hello, Saba,” she said, smiling.
Welcome, Daughter of Stone and Sentinel.
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
Mol, Rhaan 2, 998 YK
Tarath Marad, Xen’drik.
Before Sabira could react, torches flared to life throughout the chapel. She looked back to see the balcony full of spider-armored drow, all with crossbows trained on her and Greddark. More drow filled the rows of pews and stepped up from the shadows of the sacristy.
“Xujil,” Tilde crooned, “my faithful servant. Come forth and receive your reward.”
The guide, who Sabira realized belatedly was no longer behind her, materialized in front of the sorceress, or spider, or whatever she was now.
“My lady,” he replied reverently, bowing low before her as Greddark spat out a string of virulent curses. Sabira understood the sentiment-she’d had her doubts about the drow, but he’d had rational, believable explanations for his actions at every turn and she’d had nothing to hang her suspicions on.
Which in retrospect should have been her first clue. No one was that logical all the time, especially not an elf.
Xujil turned to give Sabira a short, mocking bow as well.
“For the record, Marshal, I don’t really like you that much either.”
The drow’s sneering smile became a gaping, bloody hole as one of Tilde’s legs punched through the back of his skull and exited out his mouth in a spray of scarlet. The sorceress lifted the guide by his head, let him dangle there for a moment, and then tossed him to one side like trash.
“Xujil,” she said chidingly. “No one turns their back on me. Not anymore. Not ever.”
Sabira stared in stunned shock at the thing that had once been Ned’s sister. Tilde saw her expression and covered her mouth with one long-nailed hand, feigning shock.
“Oh, dear. Was I not supposed to do that? I know She only takes their hands when She’s displeased, but I think even Her patience would have been tested by this one, don’t you?”
“What happened to you?”
Tilde’s smile widened, and Sabira saw fangs.
“ She happened to me. I am so much more now than I was, more than I could ever have hoped to be on my own. And this is nothing compared to what I will become, soon.”
Sabira saw for the first time that Tilde’s eyes were no longer brown, like Ned’s. They were red, and hungry.
“But at what cost?” she asked, letting her revulsion leak into her voice, wondering if there was anything of Tilde left inside that strange hybrid body. Anything of Ned.
“Only my mortality. My humanity. Nothing I truly needed, and a small price to pay for what I’m getting in return.”
“And what’s that? A few extra legs and bad teeth?”
Tilde’s smile evaporated like tears in the desert.
“I have always hated you and that smart mouth of yours. It will be a pleasure to sacrifice you and your little friend when the time comes.”
“Ah. That’s the real price, isn’t it, Tilde? Bringing me here, with that little trick with the medallion? You knew I would come in his place.”
The sorceress shrugged, her eight segmented legs moving in perfect synchrony with her slim human shoulders.
“She wants you, Saba, and what She wants, She gets. And when She does, She’ll give me the power to take what has been so long denied me. And She’ll give me Idris.”
Idris Ismorah, Tilde’s protege at Arcanix who’d decided to try the Maze of Shadowy Terror without a proctor, before he was ready. And more than her protege-it was widely rumored that he’d been her lover, and she was as good as admitting that now.
The sorceress had been unable to save him from his own hubris, and he’d died in agony in her arms. Sabira had often thought the experience should have made Tilde more sympathetic to her when Ned had died, since she, too, had been helpless to save a man she loved from a horrible death. Instead, it had fueled Tilde’s hatred for her, as she became convinced that Sabira had not simply watched as her brother died, but that she’d actually chosen not to save him.
As if Sabira wouldn’t have gladly traded her life for Ned’s in that moment, and in countless others that had passed since then.
“And Ned, Saba,” Tilde said, her voice almost gentle. “She’ll give him back to me, as well. You like to boast that you would have given your life for him. Well, now’s your chance.”
Sabira started at the sorceress’s words. They echoed her thoughts so closely, it was almost as if… of course. The medallion.
Tilde was no telepath, but she could enchant items in her sleep. It would have been a small matter for her to place a spell on the medallion so that it would transmit the thoughts of whoever held it, and maybe even influence them. After all, there’d been no real reason for Elix to give the necklace to Sabira, especially knowing how much it meant to his father.
“The nightmares, too, Saba,” Tilde said with her fanged smile. “Don’t forget those. Crafting them was so much fun. Almost as much fun as seeing you writhing helpless in their grasp.”
With a curse to rival Greddark’s, Sabira snatched the golden half-disk out of her pocket and threw it to the ground. It skittered across the stone floor and came to rest against the base of the dais, where it lay there in the red firelight, twinkling at her accusingly.
“Get out of my head, you sadistic bi-”
The sound of a hundred crossbows being ratcheted back in unison echoed through the small chapel.
“Now, now, Sabira. Your harsh language is upsetting the children.”
“She can’t do it, you know.”
They both turned to look at Greddark, who still had his crossbow trained on Tilde, waiting for Sabira to tell him when, or if, to pull the trigger.
“The Spinner. Whoever- whatever — She is, She can’t bring them back. It’s been too long. And even if She could, what would they be? Ismorah was torn to shreds by the Maze and not even Leoned’s bones could have survived that magma pool. Is that what you want, a lover who is less even than a zombie and a brother who is nothing more than a wraith?” The dwarf had clearly done his inquisitive homework before he’d agreed to come with her to Xen’drik; Sabira was impressed. “And that’s leaving aside the most important question of all-what makes you think either of them wants to come back?”
Tilde’s red eyes narrowed and she tossed her blonde hair over her shoulder, an incongruously human gesture from such an inhuman being.
“Do be quiet. You’re boring me.” She gestured, and Greddark stiffened, his mouth slamming shut of its own accord, his eyes growing round and panicked as he realized he couldn’t move. Then she turned back to Sabira. “You really should have taught him not to interrupt while the adults are speaking.”
“You’re avoiding the question, Tilde. What makes you think they’d want to come back… to you?” Tilde might have untold power now, but she was still the insecure daughter of a House that needed but didn’t want her. Sabira could use that against her. Would use it, and without mercy. She had no other choice. “You know the answer. They wouldn’t. They don’t want you. No one’s ever wanted you, only what you could do for them. Not Idris, not Breven, not even your precious Spinner. If She did-if She really thought you were worthy-then why did She have you go to so much effort to bring me here?”
“Stop it, Saba.” Tilde’s voice was low and dangerous, and her eyes were wild. “I’m warning you.”
“Or what? You said yourself She wanted me. She’s not going to let you harm me.”
It was a mistake, and Sabira saw it in the sudden gleam in Tilde’s eye. It was her only warning before a dozen crossbow bolts buried themselves in her back, sending her to her knees on the stone floor, in too much pain to even scream.
“Oh, no. She doesn’t care if I hurt you-in fact, she likes it better that way. Pain amuses Her. Just so long as I don’t kill you, I can do whatever I want. And there are so very many things I want to do to you, Sabira.”
Sabira reached out one shaky hand, grabbing the pew beside her to keep from falling. She could barely breathe through the fire in her back, her belly, her lungs. Drawing on the strength of the urgrosh she still held, she managed to gasp out one bloody word. Despite Tilde’s claim to the contrary, she feared it might be her last.
Tilde laughed, a cold, brittle sound with no true mirth in it. Because there could be no mirth where there was no joy.
“And you know the answer to that, Sabira Lyet d’Deneith.” The sorceress spat her name out like rancid meat, and as the world darkened around the edges of her vision, she realized that she did.
“Bravo. Perhaps you are as smart as Ned always said you were. In exchange for you, She will give me the power to bring the House that never wanted me begging to its knees.” She giggled then, a mad sound that curdled Sabira’s blood. “Just as you are now.”
“… not… begging…”
“Oh, but you will be.”
Another dozen crossbow bolts thunked into Sabira’s chest, tearing through her armor like a paper target and piercing her heart. A cry of anguish was ripped unwilling from her throat as she slammed back into a pew, then slumped to one side as the life drained from her in tiny crimson streams.
Ned, she thought as oblivion reached up to swallow her whole. And my dear, beloved Elix. I’m so sorry. I failed you both.
And then ice, and fire, as every nerve in her body screamed and she was brought rushing back from the edge of infinity by two drow soldiers pouring healing potions down her throat and over her myriad wounds. Sabira bit through her lip trying not to give voice to those screams, and then hot agony blossomed there as well as the drows’ magic sealed the jagged wound closed around her teeth.
Sabira blinked tears and blackness away and saw Tilde watching her with an expression of false concern. Behind her, Greddark still stood immobilized and forgotten. But as Sabira struggled to focus through the fog of pain, she thought she saw his left eye twitch.
“Leaving so soon? We’re not nearly finished here yet.”
Yes, there it was again. His eye had definitely moved; he almost winked. Either Tilde’s spell was wearing off, or she wasn’t able to maintain it at the same strength while her attention was on Sabira.
Which meant Sabira had to keep it there.
“I suppose… practice makes perfect.”
Tilde’s blonde brows shot up and she actually laughed.
“You have spirit, I’ll give you that much. I’ll enjoy breaking it.”
At Tilde’s command, the two drow stepped back, taking their places in the silent ranks. They hadn’t bothered to take Sabira’s urgrosh when they’d had the chance; they clearly didn’t see it-or her-as a threat.
She was going to have to change that.
She climbed unsteadily to her feet, using the blood-slicked pew for support.
“Jealousy is so unbecoming in a lady, Donathilde. Good thing you aren’t one.”
“Jealous? Of you?” Tilde scoffed. “Look around you, dear. I’m the one with the power here.”
“Here, maybe. Not on the surface. Not in Karrnath. Not anywhere it really matters.”
Tilde didn’t bother with the soldiers this time. She held out a hand and sent a bolt of pure, crackling energy lancing toward Sabira’s heart.
Sabira threw herself to the side, tucking into a ball and coming up on her feet in the main aisle. The lightning passed so close to her that her left arm tingled as if asleep and the hair on that side of her head stood on end.
Tilde swore and sent another bolt at Sabira, too quickly for her to dodge this time. It hit her square in the chest, lifting her off her feet and throwing her backward. She closed her fist around the shaft of her urgrosh as she bounced off a pew and landed facedown on the floor. She could feel her heart spasming in her chest. Bright dots of light filled her vision. Pain radiated down her arm and up her shoulder, into her back. Her heartbeat slowed as she lay there gasping weakly for every labored breath.
She felt herself lifted again and bodily turned to face the dais. A hand grabbed her jaw and jerked it open, then poured a sour, burning liquid down her throat. As she coughed and sputtered, her heart resumed its normal rhythm and she shook her handlers off, raising her head to glare defiantly at Tilde.
“That all you got?”
A huge, unseen fist slammed her down into the floor like a hammer, and she distinctly heard a crack as the bone in her right leg twisted underneath her and broke. But even as it did, the healing potion still coursing through her system went to work, knitting the bone back together with a thousand fiery needles.
Sabira groaned and struggled to her feet, using her shard axe first as leverage, then as a prop to keep her from falling again.
“Gonna have to… do better…”
Tilde’s eyes blazed crimson.
“Well, I know how much you love bats.”
There was a rush of air behind her and Sabira whirled, almost losing her footing again as she brought up her shard axe just in time to block the reaching talons of an enormous bat as it swooped down on her from above.
Teleportation might be chancy in Tarath Marad, but summoning, it seemed, was not.
The bat, easily the size of a horse, clicked and roared in anger as it soared past, banking sharply to avoid the drow in the balcony.
Hampered by the small confines of the chapel, the bat came at her again, but not as fast. Sabira set her feet firmly and waited.
Surprise no longer on its side, the creature had to rely on brute force. Instead of diving down to strike quickly and dart away, Sabira could see it was bringing its full weight to bear, intending to crush her. She’d have one chance, and one only.
As the giant bat plummeted toward her, Sabira reversed her grip on her urgrosh so that she held it spear-end up. The Siberys shard glowed orange in the red light of the torches. She waited until it was almost upon her, then ducked down, simultaneously thrusting the shard axe up into the air.
Into the bat.
Screaming in shrill rage, the bat, unable to check its flight, slammed down onto the dragonshard, impaling itself. Hot blood splashed over Sabira as the creature’s mass bore her down bodily to the stone floor.
Sabira was trapped under the massive mammal, unable to move as the thing flapped and writhed in agony on top of her. She gasped desperately for air, but the creature’s furry body was pressed up against her face, smothering her. Her chest heaved uselessly, crushed beneath the bat’s inexorable weight.
Once more, blackness impinged on her vision, beckoning seductively.
And then the weight was gone, and cool air rushed into her bruised lungs once more, pain lancing into her side with every tortuous breath. She’d broken a couple of ribs this time, and the potion the drow had forced down her gullet had spent itself mending her leg. There’d be no instant healing this time, but she was fine with that. She was tiring of this game.
She climbed to her feet once more, lurching to one side and almost falling before she found the strength to straighten. She used the movement to hide a glance at Greddark.
The dwarf blinked twice. He was ready whenever she was.
Sabira turned her attention back to the gloating sorceress. As she stared at Tilde, trying to regroup, she was mesmerized by the swirling Khyber shard in the woman’s abdomen, pulsing rhythmically, just like a heartbeat.
“Just think, Sabira. This is only a taste of what’s in store for Breven when he gets his precious artifact. When I deliver it to him personally in his study in Sentinel Tower.”
At her words, several things clicked into place at once. ir’Dayne, lecturing them back in Sharn:
“Bound by eight locks
Her Heart breaks free
And bathes both worlds
“ ‘Heart’ is often another word for treasure…”
Breven, pretending sympathy to get her to do what he wanted back in Vulyar:
“… Tilde created a sort of reverse summoning spell to return her body to my study in Sentinel Tower in the event of her death…”
Sabira’s own heart pounded as she realized the truth. Whatever the artifact was that Tilde had originally been sent here to retrieve, she had found it-it was what had transformed her into a being half-spider, half-woman, and totally alien. It had merged with her, and she with it. The Khyber shard was now her heart, and she was the artifact, the power Breven wanted to make his House supreme. But instead of elevating Deneith, Tilde planned to use that power to level it, to pay the Baron back for his years of disregard. Even if it meant dying in the process.
“No one turns their back on me. Not anymore.”
As the sorceress raised her hand for another spell, Sabira held up her own. She didn’t think she could withstand another attack, healing potion or no. She needed to end this now.
“Can you… can She… really bring him back?”
Tilde paused, eyes narrowing.
“Ned… you said She’d… bring him back… in exchange for me. For fulfilling the Prophecy… setting Her free.” Tilde hadn’t said that last, but it was the only thing that made any sense. Why else would a being powerful enough to corrupt a sorceress as strong as Tilde need her? Because She was trapped in a prison. One with eight locks, and just one key.
That was the real treasure here-freedom. To bathe both worlds-Khyber and Eberron-in tyranny.
“Then… just do it,” she said, taking a step toward the dais. “I’m… tired. Tired of fighting… you, Breven.” She was, she realized, and the truth behind her words gave them a sudden strength. “Tired of the needs of the House… always outweighing my own. It’s not worth it any more. But Ned is. He’s the only one who ever really cared about me.” Elix’s face swam in front of her eyes and she thrust it regretfully away. “The only one who ever cared about either of us, Tilde.”
“Ned…,” Tilde repeated, her eyes taking on a faraway look, her voice small, and lost, and sad. Confusion washed over her face, and her hand dropped.
“ Now!” Sabira shouted.
Greddark pulled the trigger and his crossbow thrummed. A small thump sounded as the bolt struck home, catching Tilde in her left shoulder, just above her heart. As she turned, screaming in fury, to blast the dwarf, Sabira summoned the last of her strength and began to run.
She sprinted down the aisle, leaped from the seat of the second pew to the back of the first, and launched herself at Tilde.
The sorceress spun back, bringing up two of her segmented legs to stab at Sabira, but she twisted in midair and brought the spear tip of her urgrosh down, straight into the pulsing blue-black center of Tilde’s heart.
As Siberys shard met Khyber, both crystals flared with unbearable light.
And then the world exploded in a deafening flash of gold and darkness.
Mol, Rhaan 2, 998 YK
Tarath Marad, Xen’drik.
Sabira picked herself up from atop a pile of broken bodies and twisted wood, shaking her head to make the roaring in her ears stop. Somehow, her shard axe was still in her hand, its dragonshard tip unharmed.
Greddark limped over to her, one arm hanging torn and useless from its socket.
“We’ve got to get out of here!”
The explosion had blown out one wall of the chapel and collapsed part of the roof, and chunks of wood and stone were raining down. The drow soldiers who hadn’t been killed in the blast were starting to climb to their feet. Through the gaping hole in the wall, Sabira could see drow streaming out of the larger temple, running for the ruined church.
Of Tilde and her Khyber shard heart, there was no sign, though Sabira thought she saw a twinkle of blood-slicked gold and ivory beneath a nearby bit of fallen rock.
“How do you propose we do that?” she asked. One of the drow a few pews back had caught sight of them and called to his fellows. They were beginning to advance, many drawing their swords. Some of them still had their crossbows and were scrabbling about for bolts.
“Gimme mom’nt,” Greddark muttered, his words almost unintelligible as he struggled to pry one of the charms off his bracelet with his teeth.
“Not sure we have one.”
Sabira hefted her shard axe in front of her defensively, scanning what was left of the chapel nave. More drow were recovering and moving toward them, on every side, surrounding them. There was no way out but to fight.
“ ’Rab sis,” Greddark mumbled around a wand he had clenched in his teeth. Sabira grabbed it, pulling it out of the dwarf’s mouth. Thirteen crystals ran the length of the slender rod, all dull and lifeless.
“We can’t teleport,” she reminded him as she handed it over.
“We’re not. Plane-shifting. It’s all the rage.”
There was a commotion at the back of the church.
Something was coming through the doors.
“What are you waiting for? Let’s go!”
“No time!” Sabira shouted. The drow in the back were beginning to scream as the something reared up and tossed two halves of a mangled body into the air. Sabira caught a glimpse of black scales and multiple legs. It was one of the lizardlike spiders she thought she’d imagined back in the tunnels. And it had brought friends.
A lot of them.
And they were heading straight for her and Greddark.
“… the right one… sensitive trigger…,” the dwarf continued, fiddling with some settings on the wand. Sabira grabbed his broken arm and he winced.
“Just pick!” she yelled, then jabbed at the wand herself as the lead reptile cleared the crowd of screaming drow and launched itself at them.
There was a flash of colorless light and Sabira felt that strange stretching sensation again. And then they were floating in a mass of roiling orange and purple clouds as green lightning crackled around them.
“What the…?” she began, looking around in stunned amazement. As she watched, the clouds hardened into crystal and they were standing on a vast pearlescent plain. It began to rain blood.
“Kythri, the Churning Chaos. You didn’t let me finish the calibrations, so it sent us to the closest plane. Kythri is coterminous right now, but that could change at any moment. Sort of the nature of chaos.”
“Now what?” she asked as the plain dissolved beneath them and they fell into a sea of gritty golden ooze, which evaporated and hardened again below them into black rock scored with innumerable fissures. Fire shot up from the cracks, showering them with stinging sparks.
He thumbed a switch on the wand.
“Now we go home.”
Mol, Rhaan 2, 998 YK
Trent’s Well, Xen’drik.
They landed in the desert outside of Trent’s Well, not far from the Shimmying Shifter. At Sabira’s look, the dwarf shrugged.
“I needed a focus.”
“And it just happened to be the only place where you can get a decent drink. Why am I not surprised?” She shook her head. “Come on. Let’s go find Brannan, get you patched up, and get out of here.”
They made their way slowly back up the steep path and into the cavern that housed the rest of the settlement. As they entered, Sabira shivered. After Korran’s Maw, the caverns below Frostmantle, and now Tarath Marad, she didn’t think she ever wanted to be out of sight of the sun again.
There was no line outside the mayor’s house and she pushed the door open, not bothering to knock. She was beyond niceties at this point.
She walked through the foyer and into the sitting room. Brannan sat in a high-backed seat, sipping from a glass and talking to someone in a chair across from him. He stopped mid-sentence when he saw her, nearly dropping his drink.
“Sabira!” he exclaimed, standing quickly. The man in the other chair followed suit. As he rose and turned, she could finally see who it was.
The dark-haired Marshal rushed across the room and gathered her into a tight embrace. For a too-brief moment, the horrors of the past weeks drained away like ice in the new spring sun. Then he sighed and stepped back from her, searching her face.
“Tilde?” he asked.
She could only shake her head sorrowfully.
She related the story of Tilde’s last moments as succinctly as possible, leaving out the awful things she and the sorceress had said to each other at the end. As she talked about the aftermath of the explosion and the attack of the spider-lizards, Greddark interrupted her.
“Those weren’t spiders. They were dragonspawn. Gloomwebs, if I’m not mistaken.”
Sabira looked at him.
“ Dragonspawn?” She thought back to the sand dragon that had attacked them outside of Zawabi’s Refuge. Of all the wagons in the caravan, it had just missed theirs.
A dragon-and then dragonspawn-attacking out of nowhere, bent on stopping a mission triggered by the Draconic Prophecy. Sabira couldn’t deny the truth of it any longer. The Prophecy was real. And she was a part of it, however unwilling.
Had been. Hopefully it was over, now that Tilde was dead.
Greddark gave her a rueful smile.
“So which Conqueror piece did you want to be? I’m thinking paladin.”
“Queen,” Elix said decisively, touching her cheek. She reached up to press his palm even closer, drawing strength from the simple gesture.
Greddark chuckled, then moaned, grabbing his arm.
Brannan bustled over to him.
“There are healing potions in the back. Let me get them.”
Greddark arched a brow at her and she gave a barely perceptible nod. She wasn’t sure what role the Wayfinder was really playing in all this, but she didn’t trust him. If he was leaving her sight, she wanted someone else’s eyes on him.
“I’ll come too,” the dwarf said. Brannan shrugged and led him out of the room.
After they had left, Elix removed his hand, went over to a small, flask-laden table, and poured her a drink. As he brought the glass over to her, she detected the distinctive tang of ironspice.
“Frostmantle Fire,” he replied to her unspoken question. “I brought it with me.”
Which reminded her.
“What are you doing here? Did Breven get impatient waiting on his prize?”
Elix shook his head.
“You first. You said Tilde’s death stopped the Prophecies-plural. What did you mean?”
She took a quick sip before answering, feeling the warmth of the potent liquor flowing through her, bolstering her. It was a poor substitute for Elix’s embrace, but it would do for now.
“There were three different bits of Prophecy in play, not just the one Breven told us about,” she said, then recited them all for his benefit. “Greddark figured out that the first one had been mistranslated-it wasn’t referring to all three moons being dark, just Rhaan. When that moon was dark and an unmarked member of House Kundarak-the dreaming Warder-arrived with the ‘Daughter of Stone and Sentinel’ on the day of Onatar’s Rest, then the eight locks could be opened.”
“You and Greddark? And Onatar’s Rest-that’s today, right?”
“So were the locks opened, then?” he asked, looking confused. She didn’t blame him. She wasn’t completely sure she had it all right herself. Even if she had to believe the Prophecy was real, the interpretations were still all too suspect. “And if so, what was behind them?”
“I don’t think so,” she replied. “I think Tilde was the Heart in the second Prophecy. She was certainly intending to bathe this world in tyranny, anyway, and by the looks of it, she’d already done a pretty good job of it down there. And that ties into the third Prophecy, too, the one about her people being doomed from her birth-I think that means her transformation into… whatever she was-and the world being ‘her killing field.’ But I kept her from ‘breaking free’-to the surface, I guess. Which she would have done if she’d been able to sacrifice me to the Spinner, like she’d planned. And since she didn’t break free-or sacrifice me, thankfully-then the locks stay closed and the She stays put.”
A sudden widening of Elix’s hazel eyes was all the warning she had.
She spun, the blade in Brannan’s hand skimming along her battered armor instead of plunging through it and into her back. His eyes blazed red.
“But you did free her, you smug little fool-when you killed her. And now all that remains to secure my Queen’s release and regain Her favor is your death!”
He lunged at her again and she sidestepped, pulling her urgrosh from its harness as she did. He recovered and came at her again. She swung at him, going for his skull. He moved at the last second, and the axe-blade of her urgrosh caught his Khyber shard-studded ear, sheering it cleanly from his head and taking off most of the left side of his face with it, exposing glistening muscle and bone.
As the chunk of bloody flesh fell to the floor with a wet plop, the black Khyber shard still twinkling in its midst, Brannan stepped back with a growl and his humanity fell away, revealing the feline features of a tiger standing on two feet, dagger held in a clawed hand whose palm faced outward instead of in.
Brannan ir’Kethras was a rakshasa, an ancient servitor of the demons bound below Khyber long ago by the dragons of Prophecy.
“Not Brannan. Shakvar,” the fiend snarled, lunging again.
Sabira twisted out of the way, forgoing a riposte as she moved into position on one side of the rakshasa, allowing Elix to step up on the other, broadsword in his hand.
Shakvar laughed, and suddenly Elix stiffened, a look of grief and terror on his handsome face.
“The richest wine cannot compare to the taste of a mortal’s fear,” the rakshasa purred, his feline mouth splitting into an evil grin made even more demonic by the ruined half of his face. “And the best part is, when he recovers from the illusion of watching you die, he’ll get to experience the real thing.”
Sabira stabbed at him with the spear end of her urgrosh, hoping the dragonshard would have the same effect on the fiend as it had had on Tilde. His backward hand closed around the sharpened crystal and pulled her close as he stabbed out at her with the dagger in his other claw. As he did, she noticed the color of the fur on his wrist didn’t quite match that on his hand and she suddenly knew why he’d been so interested in the gnoll’s paw back at Zawabi’s Refuge. Then his blade caught her in the shoulder and bit deep. Shakvar twisted it back and forth, laughing.
His laughter was cut short as a thrum sounded behind him and the head of a crossbow bolt protruded suddenly from the arm that held the shard axe. He dropped his hold and yanked the dagger from Sabira’s shoulder, turning. As she stumbled backward, she saw Greddark leaning against the door jamb, crossbow hanging down from his good hand and blood seeping from a knife wound in his chest. He took a step forward, trying to raise the crossbow again, but it slipped from his weakened grasp to clatter across the floor. Then Greddark followed, falling to his knees and then forward onto his face, his hand outstretched, reaching for Sabira. Then he shuddered once and lay still.
Shakvar snorted and tore the quarrel from his arm, tossing it aside. He turned back to face her and Sabira could only watch in horror as the wound sealed, striped fur closing over it as if it had never been. A quick glance at his face showed that even the wound from her own enchanted urgrosh was beginning to heal over, though much more slowly.
Shakvar saw the look on her face and sneered.
“Your petty weapons can’t hurt me,” he crowed. “You might as well-”
The rakshasa’s gloating cut off abruptly as Elix appeared, Greddark’s blow having disrupted the fiend’s illusions long enough for the dark-haired Marshal to break free of them. He lunged forward and suddenly there were three rakshasas facing him, all laughing scornfully.
Elix didn’t waver, thrusting the length of his cold steel into the Shakvar in the center, the one who’d first taken the dwarf’s quarrel in his shoulder, though none of the three showed any trace of that wound now.
It was a mistake. Though Sabira would have made the same choice, from where she stood, she could see what Elix couldn’t-dust motes dancing in the wan light of the everbright lanterns, disturbed by the movement of the rakshasa on the right and not by the other two.
Not by Elix’s target.
She didn’t stop to think. As Elix’s blade slid ineffectually through nothing, Sabira darted forward, not even having enough time to raise her urgrosh in defense, intent only on coming between him and the claws heading for his unprotected throat.
Shakvar’s razorlike talons caught her in the same shoulder he’d skewered, gouging out chunks of flesh as she tried belatedly to bring her shard axe up to block.
Sabira cried out in agony, and in relief. She knew that the blow that had all but left her arm useless would have torn Elix’s head from his body, and that realization nearly buckled her knees beneath her.
She’d almost lost him, like Ned and Orin and all the others. Almost had her worst nightmare made real, and all without telling him how she really felt.
As a regret deeper than grief and more painful than any physical torment she’d ever experienced coursed through her, she cried out again, this time in fear. Fear that she’d never get to tell him what he most needed to know. What she most needed to say-out loud-to him, to herself, and to the world.
She was interrupted by a bark of laughter.
“Oh, now that is delicious,” Shakvar crooned, his feline grin marred by the exposed jawbone, which even now was regaining flesh, muscle, and fur. “Your fear is even sweeter than his. As your despair will be also.” His smile widened. “He can’t hear you. He’ll never know. I’ll make sure of that.”
Sabira risked a glance from the smirking rakshasa over to where Elix stood, once again transfixed by Shakvar’s phantom images.
The rakshasa laughed again, and Sabira did indeed feel a rush of despair as she realized she couldn’t hurt him. He would kill her, and Elix. He would release the Spinner, and whatever destruction Tilde might have wrought would pale in comparison to the devastation She left in her wake.
She looked at Elix, frozen, tears rolling down his face as unimaginable horrors unfolded before his eyes. She looked at Greddark, unconscious and maybe dead, sprawled out on the floor, his gold bracelet shining in the light of the everbright lanterns. And then she looked back at Shakvar, smiling his smug, inhuman smile at her.
“Giving up so soon? I’d expected more from the vaunted Shard Axe, the precious Daughter of Stone and Sentinel.” He gave a small, unconcerned shrug. “But, then, I suppose you’re in a hurry to give your pitiful life its only true measure of significance.”
To Dolurrh with that. She might not be able to save Eberron, or Elix, or even herself, but she wasn’t going down without a fight.
With a growl to match his, she reversed her hold on the urgrosh and charged, swinging as she came.
It was a wild blow, born of fury and futility, and she knew she’d never land it even as she brought the axe-head down. Shakvar didn’t even bother to move, pivoting on one clawed foot to avoid the too-wide swing and plunging his dagger under her ribs and up into her lung as she rushed by. He stood back as she stumbled forward and fell, collapsing to one knee on the floor near Greddark. She dropped the shard axe and grabbed her injured side with her hand.
And with her other, she reached out and snatched a certain silver charm off the dwarf’s golden bracelet, feeling it grow in her grasp. She thumbed a switch on the slender rod, then broke it off so it couldn’t be moved back. Then, rolling to the side, she threw.
The wand caught the surprised rakshasa in the chest and he fumbled to grab it with his backward hand. As his claws closed around it, he triggered the sensitive mechanism, and with a flash of colorless light, he was gone.
In the silence that came after, she heard a small gasp, and then Elix was kneeling at her side.
“Saba…,” he moaned, the nightmares of his visions coming to life before his eyes.
“Healing potions…,” she reminded him through gritted teeth. “In the back…”
He was gone and back again in moments, holding her gently in his arms as he poured a thick, sweet concoction down her throat.
Warmth coursed through her, starting in her belly, then spreading to her shoulder and out to every abused extremity. A soothing drowsiness descended on her and she moved in Elix’s arms, trying to get closer to him.
“Strong…,” she murmured.
“Only the best for a Queen,” he said softly, smiling.
“Or a Countess?” she asked, and his smile grew so bright she had to look away to hide her tears.
“Feeling better already, I see.”
Blinking, she craned her head to look over at the dwarf, still unmoving on the floor.
Elix nodded and laid her back carefully on the floor, then went to check the dwarf. After confirming that stubborn artificer was not, in fact, dead, Elix rolled him over and poured more of the same potion down his throat, only to have the dwarf choke and cough and vomit it back up all over him.
Grimacing, Elix turned him on his side until the spasm passed, then tried again, more slowly this time. In the time it took for the dwarf’s eyes to open and clear, Sabira was able to sit up on her own. By the time he could get up from the floor, she was ensconced in one of the high-backed chairs finishing off the last of a fresh glass of Frostmantle Fire. She handed another glass to the dwarf as Elix helped him over to the other chair.
“Sorry it’s not tea,” she said as Elix pulled up a third chair beside hers and sat.
Greddark took a long drink before replying, nearly draining the goblet.
“Sometimes the senses need dulling.”
“Especially after I let that pampered schoolboy Brannan get the drop on me in the storage room. Though, in my defense, I was distracted by the dead changeling lying on the floor. And he was actually a rakshasa in disguise.” He looked at her over the rim of his glass. “What happened to him, anyway? I assume you somehow managed to kill him, since we’re still here and he’s not.”
“Not exactly.” At his quirked brow, she added, “I sort of borrowed your plane-shifting wand. I might have broken it, too, right before I threw it at him and he disappeared. Wherever he is, I’m guessing he won’t be back here for awhile.”
Greddark started to laugh, then winced and thought better of it. As strong as Elix’s healing potion had been, Sabira had a feeling neither she nor the dwarf were going to be engaging in any belly laughs any time soon.
She looked over at Elix curiously.
“So, now that we have a moment, are you going to tell me what you’re doing here? You said it wasn’t because Breven got impatient. What, then? Did you argue religion with the Keeper and get kicked out of Thrane? Or did you just miss me that much?”
The other Marshal had been quiet since he’d healed her and Greddark, and she found herself missing his smile. She wanted it back.
Unfortunately, asking that question wasn’t the way to get it. If anything, Elix grew even more pensive.
“She had a dream about me.”
“Who? The Keeper?”
Elix nodded, and Sabira felt some of her earlier dread returning.
“It didn’t involve a pool of magma, did it?”
It was Elix’s turn to look puzzled.
“No. She had a dream of the progenitor dragons, Siberys and Khyber, fighting a mighty battle at the feet of Emperor Cul’sir. Only she knew in the dream they weren’t the actual dragons, but their champions. Two women that I loved, and which of them won would depend on me.”
Sabira made a face.
“Champions? You sure she didn’t mean pawns?” she asked, and a chuckle quickly muffled by the sound of gulping came from Greddark’s direction.
Elix didn’t laugh.
“She was talking about you and Tilde, wasn’t she?” he asked, his hazel eyes dark with sorrow.
Remembering the sight of the Siberys shard of her urgrosh driving into the Khyber shard in Tilde’s abdomen, Sabira could only nod.
“Seems as though.” And the Emperor had to represent Xen’drik. Though as far as Sabira knew, there was nothing at the base of his statue in the Stormreach harbor except a blank cliff wall.
“But I got here too late. The battle you two fought was already over, and it had nothing to do with me.”
Sabira shook her head sharply.
“No, Elix. It had everything to do with you.” At his pained, questioning look, she leaned forward to take his hands in her own. “I’d never have gone after her if it weren’t for you. And I’d certainly never have fought so hard to get back.”
He frowned again.
“I thought you said you were doing it for Ned…?”
Sabira smiled ruefully. She had thought so too. At first. It had taken the journey to Tarath Marad and back for her to realize the truth.
“Because I owed my old partner a debt I had to finish paying off before I could enter into a new partnership.”
Elix’s eyes widened and the darkness in them began to give way to the light of something that looked a lot like hope.
“I don’t suppose you still have that box with you?”
Elix nodded and freed one of his hands from hers long enough to pull the thin black rectangle out from beneath his tunic. Sabira wasn’t certain, but she thought she saw it shaking slightly.
“Saba, are you sure?”
She almost snorted at that. She’d never been more sure of anything in her life.
“I almost lost you once, Elix, back when I left Karrnath. And then again, here in this very room. I don’t want to risk losing you a third time.”
“Nor I, you. But we’re Deneiths; either of us could die tomorrow. Odds are, one of us will.”
“All the more reason,” she replied with a light laugh.
“Saba, I’m serious. The Keeper said the fight between the dragons in her dream wasn’t the end of their war, but the beginning. Whatever chain of events was set into motion or furthered along its path by the discovery of Tarath Marad, it’s not finished.”
“It never is. And neither are we.”
He looked at her for a long, intense moment, then nodded.
“In that case…”
He slid off his chair on one knee in front of her and opened the velvet box to reveal the mithral and mourngold betrothal bracelet within.
“Sabira Lyet d’Deneith Tordannon, as Greddark here below and the entire gathered Host above are my witnesses… will you marry me?”
She thought about the Keeper’s words and what they could mean for Xen’drik, and Eberron. What they would almost certainly mean for her. More fighting, more pain. More loss.
And then she looked into the eyes of the man who would be by her side through it all and gave him the only answer she possibly could.