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Spinner of Lies

Spinner of Lies


Bruce R. Cordell Spinner of Lies

CHAPTER ONE

    THE CITY OF AIRSPUR, AKANUL
    16 LEAFFALL, THE YEAR OF THE AGELESS ONE (1479 DR)

    One rainy evening, while Demascus was playing a game of tiles on his rooftop balcony, the memory of killing his lover returned. He was studying a game board that spelled out improbable actions, fiery emotions, and especially dubious curse words. The latter were courtesy of his absent opponent. He nodded thoughtfully, then laid down several square playing pieces, each carved with a single letter, to spell the word conspire across a space marked with crossed wands. That multiplied the value of his play by two … and he realized he’d just catapulted into the lead! When Riltana sees this, he thought, she’s going to curse me out as a rat-hearted cheater. He grinned.
    Riltana had a flare for laying down high-scoring words, probably thanks to the windsoul’s colorful vocabulary. He’d discovered her talent a few months ago when she’d decisively beat him at a game that she said he “might find interesting.” Since then, they’d set up each game on the roof. It was convenient for Riltana; she could drop in and make her play whether he was home or not.
    Demascus was fascinated by tiles, despite the fact that Riltana trounced him five times out of six. It wasn’t only that he enjoyed a challenge and anticipated the day his skill would rival his friend’s. No, the real reason he couldn’t get enough was because sometimes the words on the board unlocked splinters of memory.
    For instance, CONSPIRE. That was a word to conjure with. The two syllables suggested a wanton trespass, a meeting high above an unsuspecting-
    A gust of wind sprayed cold rain in his face. His chain of thought collapsed. “Shadow take it,” he muttered. He rubbed water out of his eyes. And just like that, the world went gray, as a recollection flung him somewhere else.

    A woman stood in a hallway, her features soft in trembling candlelight. Her shoulders were bare and her eyes smoldered like distant storm clouds. Her name was Madri, and Demascus loved her.
    He stood a few paces from her, and he wore only loose trousers, baring his elaborate ash-gray designs. The marks ran down his arms and across his back like the ghosts of tattoos. His bone-white hair was wet and his pale skin tingled from the bath.
    “Coming to bed?” she asked, winding a curl of hair around one finger in languid circles.
    His blood surged higher. It pounded in his temples like a drum. I can’t go through with this, he thought. I can’t …
    “What’s wrong? You’ve been quiet all night. It’s not like you, Demascus.” Madri’s impish expression wavered.
    “I took a new commission,” he said, his voice dull as a worn blade. “One I wish for all my lives I hadn’t accepted. If only I’d known who …”
    “You accept commissions without knowing the target?”
    “Sometimes.” Because whomever the gods choose always deserved death. And when had he ever refused? Never. Even …
    Oh, Madri! What secrets do you keep? How awful they must be.
    “You’re not frightened, surely,” she said, misreading his reticence. “If I’m to believe a quarter of your stories, even demigods fear your name, if they’re unlucky enough to learn it.” She laughed and came to him. Her scent, a sort of orange-peach fragrance with undertones of cedar, was solace. He breathed it in for the last time. Then he took her supple shoulders in his hands.
    “It’s not that I’m afraid, Madri. I’m paralyzed by … grief. And I regret that it’s come to this.” Her arms went around his waist to draw him close. He slid his hands up from her shoulders, tracing the line of her neck until he cupped her head. “I’m sorry,” he said. Even as she gazed at him with incomprehension, he gave a savage twist.

    Pelting rain brought Demascus back to the rooftop patio. Water streamed down his hair, under his collar, and saturated his smallclothes. He was standing beyond the protection of the awning with no memory of having moved. And his throat was sore, as if he’d been screaming. The city lights were nebulous beneath the sleeting downpour, and the wind tugged at him with icy fingers. A few more steps and he’d pitch over the roof’s edge. From somewhere below, a wailing child cried for its mother.
    “Burning dominions,” he whispered. What in the name of all the gods of shadow had he just witnessed? That woman-Madri-he’d seen her before. Images only, flashes of memory with no context. In each of these, she’d glared at him with naked animosity. Now he knew why.
    One of his former incarnations had been snakehearted enough to kill his own lover. By all that’s holy and sovereign, he thought, I’m a monster. I …
    No, no-I’m not-thatwasn’t me! That was an earlier incarnation of me, not me. I’d never do that. He shook his head in accompaniment with his denial. The atrocity of the recollection was not his to claim. He’d never even imagine it!
    Except … except he must have. He’d done more than consider committing such an atrocity. And if the reasons were irrefutable, who’s to say he’d been wrong? Especially if a lord of creation commanded him. Disposing of those selected by the gods had been his purpose. He was an instrument of fate, as he’d discovered when he pulled his blade from the mausoleum of his last life. What he had become, however, with his reduced abilities and incomplete memory, was disputable. If any of his former selves felt gnawing remorse over the vision of Madri, he doubted they could have long claimed the title Sword of the Gods.
    The cold rain still streamed down. Rain dripped under his boot cuffs and pooled around his toes. Whatever else, he thought, I’m not the person who did that! That person … shared my name, that’s all. If I believe otherwise, I’m only a stumble away from the sanatorium. It’s time to stop rooting for memories. It can’t be worth this.
    Except that was a lie. Necessity required he continue striving to remember his previous lives. Learning all he’d once been, and everything he’d once done, was the only way to protect himself from a potential cavalcade of enemies he didn’t even remember making. Enemies his previous selves had made, he corrected himself. That distinction mattered, if only to him. Unfortunately, the events of a few months ago had revealed that his enemies would continue to pursue him, life after life, incarnation after incarnation.
    They weren’t after his life; they were after his soul.
    He stared up into the rain, as bleakness settled over him. Even if he jumped and smashed himself along the cliffside city below, it would be no escape. I’ll just reform into a new mortal shell somewhere in a few years and lose all the progress I’ve gained this time around. Which was maybe what his worst enemy-his nemesis-intended. The Madri recollection might be the very thing Kalkan had manipulated him into recalling, thanks to the rakshasa’s unholy knowledge of the future. The rakshasa, though dead, had proved to be the ultimate puppeteer. Perhaps Kalkan foresaw he’d kill himself in a fit of despair and so seal the fate of Demascus’s next incarnation. Kalkan wanted to turn Demascus into an unforgiving fiend exactly like himself. Why? But Kalkan would be out of the picture for a few more years, until the rakshasa returned to renew his blasted purpose …
    Demascus glanced once more into the night, then stepped back from the edge. He gasped, after releasing a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. His hands trembled as he recalled the touch of the woman’s shoulders and the trust in her tumultuous eyes. Madri … Who were you? Is this awful vision all I will ever know about you? Probably. You’re long dead, and have been for who knows how many years …
    I need to leave Airspur. Maybe find someplace in Faerun where none of my previous selves ever visited. Throw away the Veil, the sword, and start over completely-
    Something dropped from the storm, tumbling out of control. It smashed right through the skylight he’d spent a small fortune installing. As the bark of shattering glass cut the air, he realized the shape had worn a black leather mask. It was Riltana!
    Five figures arrowed down from the night, hot on the windsoul’s trail. Four crashed through the shattered skylight, amid falling pieces of glass, rain, and his friend, landing in the living room. The fifth landed on the rooftop as easily as Riltana normally would, no worse for wear from a plunge off some higher city cliff or mote. The figure was gaunt, with colorless eyes. He gripped a black blade and wore gray leather without insignia or decoration.
    “Who the Hells are you?” said Demascus.
    “Your end.”

CHAPTER TWO

    THE CITY OF AIRSPUR, AKANUL
    16 LEAFFALL, THE YEAR OF THE AGELESS ONE (1479 DR)

    The gaunt man advanced across Demascus’s roof.
    Demascus sighed in relief. Sometimes fate was kind. He couldn’t have asked for a more perfect distraction from the maelstrom battering his mind.
    He relinquished confusion and regret; he wasn’t even sure what he should feel guilty about. It was easier to let go. A familiar spike of joy in the face of drawn weapons shattered his doubt. This newcomer was about to discover the only ending on this night would be his.
    The world slowed, making it seem like each raindrop was a distinct globule suspended in air. Even as Demascus’s adversary tensed to attack, he seemed to freeze in place. The deva’s hands itched for Exorcessum, but he’d had no reason to bring his blade to the roof. It was locked in a trunk under his cot. He really should keep his sword closer, especially after all the trouble he’d gone through to find it. But the weapon was so unwieldy. Even sheathing it on his back was awkward. How had his previous selves managed it? No matter. His current weapons included his Veil, which seemed to function only about half the time; and the single scroll-shaped charm woven into his hair-useful in conversations where lies were flying like crows-but not so much against swordplay.
    And by the way the newcomer’s tar-colored blade seemed to eat light, the weapon was enchanted with some kind of nasty surprise. Demascus swiveled side-wise toward his foe to bring one of his favorite weapons into play. His heel lashed, once into the man’s stomach, a second time into his neck, and finally where the stranger’s fingers wrapped around the hilt of his blade. It was like kicking a bag filled with sodden earth, not flesh. But the sword came free. Demascus snatched it out of the air even as his foe’s eyes dilated with pain. Or maybe just surprise. It didn’t matter; Riltana was squaring off against four foes by herself in his living room.
    A row of ghostly runes faded onto his borrowed blade in pale imitation of Exorcessum’s designs. He hewed the intruder with the man’s own sword, and the man dropped like a limp rag from the force of the blow, though no blood came. Demascus dismissed the attacker and gazed into the gaping hole in his skylight. A jagged shadow thrown up from a glass splinter offered a convenient path, so he stepped into its embrace. His next step was out of a different shadow, this one thrown by an overturned divan one level down.
    Riltana was on her feet. Four adversaries ringed her, menacing the genasi with black iron weapons. One intruder was huge, another tiny, the third dressed all in yellow, and the last was a woman with painted red fingernails as long as daggers … they all had the same feral, hungry look and colorless eyes with only tiny black circles to mark their irises. When the one in yellow screamed and leaped at Riltana, Demascus saw long incisors in her mouth. Vampires? He swallowed. He hoped not. He’d faced vampires before. At least, a previous version of himself had. Probably. Uncertainty made him hesitate.
    Riltana dove beneath her opponent. Her adversary managed to score the back of her armor, but the windsoul came to her feet in one piece. She’d exchanged places with her attacker; the vampire stood in the center of the wrecked living room and Riltana’s back was to a wall. Time jerked back to its too-rapid pace as he unwound the Veil from around his neck. The black iron weapons made him nervous. What if the one in his hand decided to betray him? The Veil of Wrath and Knowledge would serve as a backup weapon if it came to it.
    “Demascus, when you’re done standing there like a beer-addled tosser, maybe you could help?” Riltana yelled.
    Oops. “You should’ve let me know you were bringing guests,” he replied. “I would’ve set more places.”
    The woman with red dagger nails spun at the sound of his voice. Before she’d half turned, he stabbed her. The sword plunged to its hilt in her side, but the woman didn’t seem to mind. She snarled, “The thief has a friend. Kill them both! Retrieve what she stole!”
    Demascus realized Riltana had filched from the wrong household. He wanted to tell the woman that he’d had no part in Riltana’s thievery. But before he could say anything, the red-nailed woman blurred forward and grabbed Demascus’s wrist. He gasped; her fingers were like ice. He released the sword and jerked back his hand. But she didn’t let go, and her eyes blazed with hypnotic power.
    She whispered, “Blood. It tastes like danger. So sweet and thick …” She bent her head to his neck. He elbowed her in the face. If anything, she was more solid than the man on the roof, and her grip was a glacial manacle sucking away his body’s warmth, his vitality. If he didn’t get away, he’d collapse, drained of life. She wasn’t a pushover like the vampire on the rooftop.
    With a cry of command he summoned a flare of divine light from his skin and clothing. The vampire flinched at the radiance, and he stepped across the room and down the hall within the woman’s wavering shadow. She’d feel differently once he retrieved Exorcessum-
    “Watch out!” came Riltana’s warning from down the hallway.
    Something bit him on the shoulder. He spun, spattering his own blood on the walls. The man he’d dispatched on the rooftop crouched there, his mouth red with Demascus’s flesh. Burning dominions, the thing had actually bitten him! That couldn’t be good. He fought back the urge to shrug off his coat and examine the wound then and there in the hallway mirror. He wouldn’t know what to look for anyway-two holes where the incisors had gone in? Discoloration?
    The female vampire stood a few steps behind him. When his eyes skittered across hers, she tried to catch him in a hypnotic trap. He averted his gaze.
    The woman’s touch had hollowed his stomach like he’d eaten bad fish, and the expanding burn on his shoulder was worrisome. A regular bite would ache just the same, right? He realized … he was sort of afraid of vampires.
    Stop it, he commanded. Remember who you are. Or, anyway, who you once were.
    Demascus stood with one foot in light and one in shadow. He recalled how his friend Chant remarked awhile ago that a deva could draw his strength from either, and that on the whole, Chant preferred the light.
    Demascus, however, reveled in the dark. He shook out the Veil, throwing a shadow into a plane few could see. That gloom fell across the vampire like an immaterial shroud, and through its gauzy lens all of the vampire’s strengths and weaknesses were made plain. Seven points of pale light flickered through the creature’s body. Their gleams revealed to him a creature animated by necrotic vigor. An undead was stronger, faster, and more resistant to hurt than living flesh, and its wounds would mend supernaturally quickly. But it wasn’t invulnerable. The root of the vampire’s power lay in the bottommost point of illumination, which pulsed red like spilled blood. In that flicker, Demascus discovered what he should have known all along.
    The vampire would burn away instantly in full sunlight; too bad he was fresh out of sunshine. Of course, he wielded the next best thing: the radiance of the gods’ wrath.
    But without his sword to channel it, his options were limited. He could try the same thing he’d-
    The male vampire lunged, arms out, to ensnare the deva in a wrestler’s grapple. Demascus made no move to stop him. The bloodsucker pulled the deva close to its chest, baring Demascus’s neck. The deva whispered an oath of light. His voice was a quill that scrawled a burning mark of divine brilliance, the promise of destruction. The mark erupted, and the vampire blew apart in gobbets of golden illumination, sizzling gore, and a smell of decay so pungent Demascus gagged. Weren’t they supposed to turn to grave mist and slink away? He was pretty sure that was the case. But he’d touched something of his deeper power, accidentally, when he’d called the light. That undead wouldn’t be coming back in any fashion whatsoever.
    The back splatter of radiance and burning flesh had caught the female vampire nearby. She screamed as smoking holes marred her previously flawless skin. Her scream bubbled to a sigh as she transformed into a pillar of mist. Ha! he thought, I knew it! Mist!
    Thuds, scrapes of metal on stone, and Riltana’s curses echoed down the hallway from the living room, muted by the grave vapor. Demascus checked his instinct to plunge through the roiling bank to Riltana’s aid. Though she faced three all alone, he still hadn’t retrieved his best weapon! And what if the red-nailed vampire re-formed around him as he rushed through?
    He flung open his bedroom door and dove for the long chest containing his sword. As he worked the latches, he heard Riltana scream in equal parts fury and pain. “Hold on!” he yelled, clicking the last latch open.
    “What’re you doing back there, having a lie down?” came her muffled reply. He could tell by the hoarse timbre in her voice that she was desperate. Demascus snatched up his sword. The cross guard was an intricate affair of opposing styles, as if the smith had managed to forge two or three weapons into a single whole. Nearly as long as two regular blades laid end to end, it still felt light as a switch of hazel wood in his hands. The sword trembled, and for a moment he saw … Madri, the woman he’d killed!
    Demascus opened his mouth in surprise. He wanted to tell her he was sorry for what his previous self had done, to explain that he wasn’t that person anymore.
    But the image blurred away, leaving him alone.
    A shattering crash broke his paralysis. He launched out of his room and down the hall, holding Exorcessum before him. The enigmatic runes, scarlet down one side, porcelain on the other, gleamed with secret magic he hadn’t quite puzzled out. But some visceral part of him recognized the touch of the hilt and the sword’s balance. Dangerous, wild, uncontrollable joy filled him again as he returned to the fray.
    A tangle of mist curled up and out of the hole in the ceiling. It could have been the scarlet-nailed vampire or the one Riltana had bested while he’d been gone, because the one wearing yellow had disappeared; only two foes remained.
    One was the hulking genasi vampire wielding a hammer of black iron. The other was little more than a child, darting in and out of range of Riltana’s knife and whirling a short sword.
    “Riltana, why’re there vampires in my home?”
    She said, voice tight, “They’re just stray dogs. Followed me here.” Then she fended off a hissing attack from the smaller one. Riltana was dressed in the black leather and face mask she wore to hide her identity and provide protection while she acquired things that didn’t belong to her.
    “So you’re filching from vampires now?” he asked.
    Before Riltana could answer, the large one came at Demascus with a swiftness that belied its hulking frame. It’d probably been an earthsoul before undeath lightened its skin to a shade nearly as stark as the deva’s own. The hammer came around, scribing an arc that would connect with his head. He brought up his sword and deflected the strike, but the impact nearly ripped Exorcessum from his hands. The thing was strong, even for an already preternaturally powerful vampire.
    The deva considered his options … which felt an awful lot like grasping at straws blowing in the wind. It was at times like these that he wished, more than ever, he had the artifact called the Whorl of Ioun. It was the key to recovering his true powers. For instance, he knew he could call forth divine radiance; he’d just blown the one in the hallway to tatters. But as he reached for that same divine brightness again, he found only a void. What the Hells?
    “So,” he said instead, “Riltana, why don’t you just give back whatever you stole, and maybe they’ll leave?”
    The windsoul shook her head and frowned. “Hey! I didn’t take anything! I just peeked at some artwork in their private gallery. Who knew they’d get so upset over a drop-in art critic?”
    The small one hissed, “She’s a thief! She must die for her trespass.”
    Riltana chose that moment to execute a pirouette, extending her sword high and steel-toed boot low. The vampire wisely ducked the sword, so the windsoul’s boot swept the little thing’s feet. Only its supernatural reflexes saved it from falling flat on its back.
    Part of him wanted to chastise the windsoul for bringing the attack on herself, and by extension his home. But most of him was glad he had something to kill, to take his mind off … things. And if anything needs killing, he thought, it’s vampires. Killing again, anyway.
    The big one whirled his hammer over his head, then changed the weapon’s trajectory mid-swing, again showing off immense strength. The hammer came straight down and caught Demascus by surprise, clipping his right shoulder. The pain was shattering.
    Something woke to the agony, rising up from a hidden reserve of his soul. A scarlet sun rose over the horizon of his consciousness, and everything was different. He forgot about Riltana, about whether or not she’d taken something from these vampires, and about his own lack of culpability. He felt bathed in purpose. He wanted to move. To act. To slay.
    He grinned at the hulking creature of the night before him. Of its own volition, one hand relinquished Exorcessum’s hilt, gathered a clot of shadow from thin air, and threw it like a dart into the vampire’s forehead. The creature shivered, then ceased to move as it strained against the immaterial barb pinning it to the air.
    Demascus laughed. With the casual ease of an executioner, he lopped the vampire’s head from its shoulders. The creature withered to impotent mist and dispersed. His glee redoubled, as if he’d downed a couple of fiery shots of whiskey and anticipated a couple more. The sound of heavenly horns sounded distantly in his mind.
    He turned his gaze to the last visible foe. It had scuttled away from Riltana and clung like a spider to the living room ceiling at the lip of the shattered skylight. The thief had apparently missed its departure, because she was casting about for her foe behind the remnants of living room furnishings.
    “Face me,” Demascus intoned, his voice resonant with power. He pointed Exorcessum at his adversary.
    The vampire’s head swiveled all the way around to stare directly down at him. Its eyes sought to burrow into the deva’s mind. This time Demascus didn’t look away. The compulsion in the white-eyed stare broke on his mind like a straw of sugar fluff. This sniveling child-monster was a joke for someone like him-he was the Sword of the Gods!
    He stared back at the vampire and said, “You should never have come here. You’ve sealed your fate.” He flicked the Veil of Wrath and Knowledge. Its parchment-pale length unfurled with a snap, and the far end wrapped around the vampire’s left foot. The small creature shrieked as Demascus yanked it off the ceiling. Its right arm snapped when it hit the ground at the deva’s feet. He stomped a boot down on the broken arm, riveting the creature in place. It was a child, in truth-a firesoul boy aged about thirteen winters-turned to undeath. He had become an abomination. He snarled and tried to scramble away, but Demascus just pressed harder. Surprise, quickly replaced by abject fear, washed across the creature’s face as it realized something more than the deva’s weight trapped it. Demascus was actively preventing it from turning into escaping mist with his stare alone.
    “You see?” Demascus said. “I am fate’s agent. You can’t elude me. Because your thread ends now.” He dragged his sword through the creature’s body, releasing a pulse of the same light that illuminates the heavenly domains. The vampire burned to a human-shaped silhouette of ash in a heartbeat. No hint of grave vapor remained.
    “Who’s next?” Demascus asked, and his gaze fixed on the only remaining person in the room.
    The windsoul’s eyes widened. She raised a hand and said, “Hey! Wake up, idiot! Remember me? Your friend, Riltana, the friendly genasi?”
    What was the windsoul going on about? Of course he knew who she … oh. The red glaze of murderous euphoria leaked away like steam off a too-hot mug of tea. With it went his momentary familiarity with a staggering suite of avenging prayers and assassin’s tricks. In the absence of his manic rapture, the room seemed duller, cluttered, and all too real. Is this how he normally lived in the world? And his shoulder still hurt where the vampire had bit him. He rubbed it and winced.
    “What just happened?” he said. Events of the previous few moments were foggy and disconnected, like a dream. Hopefully he hadn’t done anything too embarrassing. But as he let the tip of his sword fall, he guessed that was a forlorn hope.
    He cleared his throat and said, “Don’t worry-I’m me again.”
    Riltana laughed, somewhat nervously, and said “Demascus … sometimes you scare the living shit out of me.”

CHAPTER THREE

    THE CITY OF AIRSPUR, AKANUL
    16 LEAFFALL, THE YEAR OF THE AGELESS ONE (1479 DR)

    Riltana rubbed her chin and studied Demascus.
    Was he still possessed by the memory of killer incarnations, or was he back in the land of the sane? Shadow had swirled around him like dark wings while his eyes had become two radiant stars, the shape of peril personified.
    Demascus had destroyed the last two vampires with no more effort than she would’ve needed to swat flies, while exhibiting palpable joy. A moment earlier, he’d barely been able to stand toe-to-toe with these creatures. He’d obviously touched a fragment of his previous self, however briefly. She’d seen him do it only twice before. He only ever managed it by accident. But when he was able to call it up, the visage of the Sword of the Gods was terrifying. When his attention had fallen on her like a coffin weighted with bricks, she’d considered fleeing. Then the shadow had dispersed and the celestial glow of his eyes dulled to nothing, revealing the man-actually, the deva-she’d come to know the last several months as her friend.
    “Back to being not entirely crazed?” she asked, forcing a certain casual lassitude into her voice.
    He blinked a few times, then said in a deadpan tone. “Riltana, I told you last time; if you’re going to stop by unannounced, the least you could do is bring dinner, too.”
    She laughed, louder than she’d intended. That was the Demascus she knew. She righted a side table and said, “I owe you for more than a few dishes this time.”
    “Yeah. You’re moving into the territory of real coin.” He fumbled with his sword, trying to sheath it in a half scabbard strapped to his back. Finally he snorted and laid it on the floor. He draped his wrap in a casual loop around his neck, letting both ends hang low.
    The scarf-the Veil of Wrath and Knowledge-was how she’d first met Demascus. She’d stolen it from him in front of Chant’s curio shop. Demascus and Chant tracked her down to get it back. A lucky thing, or she’d probably be dead in the caverns below Akanawater Falls.
    Little seemed to get Demascus down for long, even his own absent past. His unflagging humor made it easy to call him a friend. That and the sad fact that with Carmenere gone, Riltana could count on one hand the number of people who’d put up with her. Though he sometimes frightened her so badly she thought she would pee her leathers, she knew she could count on him in a tight spot.
    “Well?” he said. “Are you going to explain why rain is falling into my living room? I liked that skylight.”
    On the other hand, even the most accepting friend eventually finds a limit.
    “It’s not what it looks like,” she began, then stopped as a yawn caught her mid-sentence. Gods, it was late. She wanted to collapse into a senseless heap. But Demascus deserved an answer. Just maybe not the whole answer …
    “What it looks like,” Demascus said, “is vampires. Where in the name of all the gods of shadow did you find bloodsuckers in Airspur?” As he talked, he carefully rubbed one shoulder, which was spattered with blood, and winced.
    “I had no idea they were vampires, I swear! I thought I was visiting some prissy noble’s home.”
    “Visiting? Or something else?”
    She gave an exasperated shake of her head. “All right, yeah, I was sneaking in. I got a lead. Do you remember the painting of Queen Cyndra that went missing?”
    “I might be able to bring it to mind,” he replied dryly.
    Of course. She’d related the story every time she had a little too much to drink. She’d wanted to surprise her friend, Carmenere, by commissioning new paintings in the same style as the famous portrait of Queen Cyndra. Cyndra was the first queen of Akanul and mother of Queen Arathane, Carmenere’s royal aunt. This had required that she borrow the Cyndra painting for a few days as reference for the artist she’d hired. It would’ve been perfect. It should’ve been. Carmenere should have been thrilled beyond words …
    But it hadn’t gone down like that. Her leech-fondling “friend” Threneth ran off with the canvas, leaving her in the lurch! Instead of presenting Carmenere with a gift that would’ve blown the woman’s stockings off, Riltana had come off as complicit in the theft of a one-of-a-kind painting of a beloved regent of Akanul.
    Carmenere hadn’t believed her protests of innocence.
    The worst thing was, had she been in Carmenere’s place, she doubted she would’ve acted any differently.
    “Well,” she finally continued, “like I said, a hot lead fell in my lap. I got a tip the painting was gathering dust in House Norjah here in Airspur. So I went to take a look.”
    “House Norjah?”
    “Kasdrian Norjah is a merchant lord who bought his noble title years ago. Word is he and his house deals mostly in old books and scrolls. And they make out damn well supplying parchment and inks to the Crown, the Bibliotheca, and to a few wizardly guilds that go through that kind of stuff like nobody’s business.”
    “So-you broke into House Norjah. Did you find the painting?”
    “No. Just a bunch of sheep-straddling vampires! Whom I had the misfortune to disturb. I fled, but they followed. And they were fast! All of them, even the ones who didn’t used to be windsouls before they … um …”
    Demascus nodded, and finally let loose with a prodigious yawn of his own. “Well, we beat them for at least a day, assuming they can make it back to the grave dirt that spawned them before sunup.”
    “How do you know that?”
    He nodded, “Just one of the few fragments I do remember.” He shrugged.
    “Good. Let’s hope they lose their way home, then,” she said. “Anyway, it’s time for me to go. I’m sorry-”
    “If they recognized you, they probably sent someone to your loft. No, safer if you stay here tonight. I have a guest room that’s not smashed up, unless you were here earlier and I didn’t notice.” He smiled. “Plus, I want your help cleaning up this mess tomorrow.”
    She almost told him everything then. But she was tired. And after all, that could wait until morning, too.
    “All right,” she said, “And thanks.”
    “Sure,” he said. His gaze fell to the shoulder he was still massaging, where he’d been wounded. “I’m sort of worried about this bite-do you think I’ll wake up a vampire?”
    Demascus, a vampire? A scary thought! “You’re the vampire expert,” she said.
    “Hmm, right.” He thought for a bit, then said, “Well, I’m probably all right. I expect you’d have to be fairly weak-minded to fall under a vampire’s sway with just a single wound.”
    “Couldn’t hurt to put some ointment on the bite,” Riltana said, “or take some healing elixir, if you’ve got any.”
    He nodded. “Good idea.” Then his shoulders slumped. He let out a long breath. “And before I forget, tomorrow I have something I want to … ask you about. Something unpleasant I remembered right before you and your new friends showed up.”

    Morning shrugged off night’s dim embrace. Airspur disgorged a colorful populace across suspended streets and floating plazas. The hooded figure crossing Sapphire Bridge was just one of the many early risers in Airspur. Her stride was confident but not swaggering, determined but not hurried. It wouldn’t do to draw attention, so her hood hid her distinctive features. Her leather armor, scuffed and scarred, looked ordinary enough on casual inspection. She’d furled her cloak and coerced her crystalline spear to the opacity of dull wood. She’d taken one additional step to protect her anonymity. The circle she’d scribed on her forehead with spellbound chalk was enchanted. While it lasted, most simply ignored her, or if they saw her, they soon forgot about it, unless she spoke to them.
    No one who saw her would have any reason to suspect she was their ruler.
    The hardest part had been getting out of the palace without her royal bodyguard. It wasn’t a trick she could pull often, lest it be discovered. The elite detachment of peacemakers assigned as her protectors took their duties seriously. If they discovered she was out and about without them, the individuals stationed outside her door would be punished by their superiors, no matter her royal decree. As long as she was back in her palace rooms before anyone gathered the temerity to check on Queen Arathane, it would be all right. She had some time.
    The home she sought was in a neighborhood high along the cliffs, which meant it was upscale by most standards. It even had a small, attached courtyard shielded from the street by a stone wall and a gate. The gate was not latched. She pushed through and walked the short flagstone path to the front door. The courtyard was littered with pots containing all manner of plants, only a few of which seemed distressed. Someone had a green thumb.
    “Who’re you?” came a soft voice.
    Arathane whirled. The courtyard had been vacant when she entered. Yet a human woman stood there in swirling green finery with eyes as stormy as any genasi’s. She gave off a scent akin to citrus and cedar.
    Arathane said, “I apologize; I hope I haven’t mistaken the address. I’d heard a man named Demascus had taken residence here. I need to speak with him. Are you the householder?”
    The stranger looked Arathane up and down, suggesting with a curl of her lip that she didn’t much care for what she saw. Arathane was unused to such insolent behavior. She was halftempted to pull her hood down to see what this odd woman thought of her then. Of course, compromising her anonymity to put the woman in her place wouldn’t be wise.
    Instead she said, “It doesn’t matter whether you’re the householder or the gardener. If he’s here, please let Demascus know that an envoy of the Crown has a message for him.”
    The woman laughed, and shook her head as if in wonderment. She said, “I’m not a messenger-or anything-any longer, and certainly not for the likes of you.”
    Arathane frowned, wondering if the woman had pierced her disguise, and if so, what the woman hoped to gain by provoking her. The queen decided not to give the stranger the satisfaction of a response. She turned back to the door, grabbing the brass knocker, and rapped on the plate. When she glanced back to see the woman’s reaction, the stranger was gone.

    Demascus finished sweeping up the last shards of skylight glass. With the broken furniture removed, the living room only looked halfwrecked. The wood floor was still damp, and only two chairs and a coffee table remained intact. Not to mention the gaping hole in the ceiling. He’d have to get someone to fix that before the next storm. Much as he’d enjoyed the extra light from the skylight, maybe the fixture was the wrong choice, given Riltana’s proclivities. He studied the windsoul, the artist of his misfortune. She was wringing towels into a bucket. Riltana’s high-flying style was usually something Demascus appreciated without remorse. But she’d never let vampires into his home before.
    “Riltana, we need to deal with this. Maybe we should visit House Norjah and try to make nice,” he said. “I’d rather not find surprise visitors with fangs in my home again.”
    She nodded glumly and gave her cloth another twist, forcing out a last trickle of water. “Yeah. I just wish they’d had the damn painting I was looking for.”
    His mouth quirked. That was the only apology he was likely to get. Ah, well. He said, “Did they have any paintings?”
    “Yeah. Interesting ones, too …” She glanced at him sidelong, as if she was hiding something. Before he could tell her to spill it, she said, “Listen. What’d you want to tell me last night? You said you’d remembered something?Something you wanted to ask me about?”
    Oh, right. He wished he hadn’t said anything at all. He’d awoken that morning resolved to put the horrendous vision out of his mind. The best thing he could do was to treat the image as just one more of a thousand crazy memory fragments with no bearing on his new life in Akanul. Plus, the windsoul had tried to change the topic.
    “I’ll tell you about it after we get this mess straightened out. Let’s concentrate on House Norjah. Starting with who gave you this hot lead about a painting?”
    Riltana looked at him with a stubborn set to her jaw. She recognized the brush-off. But he didn’t feel like explaining to Riltana how one of his former selves had taken out a contract on his lover. It was too appalling.
    Riltana said, “All right. Awhile ago I asked Chant to put out the word I was looking to purchase the painting of Cyndra, no questions asked, of any art collector who’d lately ‘happened’ upon the canvas. A couple of days ago, a human showed up with a tip.”
    “A human? There’re only so many in Airspur. What was your contact’s name?”
    Someone knocked on the door before she could answer. Demascus yelled, “Who is it?”
    “An envoy of the Crown, here to speak with Demascus on royal business,” came the muffled reply.
    “The Crown?”
    “Yes-the queendom has an appeal.”
    “Open the door!” hissed Riltana. “Remember how much we got paid last time?”
    He hushed the windsoul and went to the entrance. Chant’s cat Fable had appeared at the knock and now loitered near the exit. She pretended no interest in the situation. Demascus wasn’t fooled. Fable was boarding while Chant’s pawnshop was closed. Though the cat had proved a reasonable houseguest, she usually tried to bolt outside at the least opportunity. Lucky for Fable she hadn’t gotten underfoot last night.
    Demascus opened the door. A tall woman in a hood stood in the opening. She gazed around the room, then looked up. “What’s wrong with your roof?”
    Without the door to muffle it, Demascus was struck by how familiar the voice was. “Do I know-”
    The figure drew her hood back. Demascus’s jaw dropped. The person outlined in the golden light of the rising sun was Queen Arathane. He’d recalled their first meeting more than once. The queen’s magnificent white gown had left her lavender-hued arms and shoulders bare and showed off the silvery lines that traced her arms and throat and spiraled her cheeks. She’d worn her hair as a bundle of crystalline braids on which rested a white circlet of rulership. The memory was indelibly inked into his brain.
    That morning Arathane was dressed the same as when they’d cleaned the last vestiges of the abyssal plague from beneath the Firestorm Cabal’s motherhouse. Her stiff hair was pulled back in a simple braid. She wore no crown. And yet … to Demascus she was as stunning as she’d been in that first encounter.
    Her gaze locked on his, holding him in place. She coughed and said, “Are you going to ask me in, or just stand staring?”
    Merciful lords, get hold of yourself, he thought. “By all means, welcome. You caught me off guard. Sorry about the mess. I’m in the middle of … redecorating.” Apparently he hadn’t stifled his infatuation with Arathane as well as he’d hoped. Damn it!
    The queen entered, but paused just inside the doorway. She glanced again at the damp floor and piled furniture with a lift of an eyebrow, then nodded at Riltana.
    Demascus wondered if he was dreaming. The queen of Akanul? In his home? Looking at her made him feel breathless, which was a surprise. He hadn’t seen her in months. Seeing her now, he realized something was familiar about her. She reminded him of someone. Someone he’d just seen, actually … By all the gods of light and shadow, Arathane was as tall as the woman of his vision last evening! And she had the same stormy eyes …
    “Have you heard anything I’ve said?” Arathane inquired. Demascus realized the monarch had been talking. For how long, while he’d stood like an idiot? He closed his open mouth.
    “Snap out of it, Demascus,” Riltana said. “You can moon over her anytime.”
    Damn the windsoul for putting such an embarrassing face on his discomfiture. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get much sleep last night. Riltana showed up late with unexpected guests, and I’m afraid things got a little unruly.”
    The queen chuckled. “Sounds fun. Though I sense you’re not telling me everything. I’m sorry I disturbed you with no forewarning. And it is good to see you again.”
    He felt his mouth stretch into a goofy smile. His body didn’t give a shadow’s scream about his resolve to eradicate the queen from his thoughts. “What were you saying? I promise I’ll pay attention this time.”
    “I was wondering about your gardener, or maybe your householder, whom I met outside?”
    “I don’t have a gardener,” Demascus said dumbly. “But I got this lease from a dwarf who smells like fried onions. Is he out there?”
    “No dwarf. A human woman. It’s not really important, but she was quite rude.”
    He glanced into the courtyard. Empty.
    Fable made a try for freedom. He slammed the door before the cat could slip out. Fable sniffed as if to say, “I didn’t really want out,” and sauntered away, tail straight up.
    “She’s gone now,” Demascus said. “I hope it wasn’t one of our, um, unexpected guests from last night come back to check on things.”
    Riltana gave him a skeptical expression and said, “They’re not really known as early risers.”
    Oh, right. He glanced at the queen. The monarch had no doubt run into streets filled with strangers on her way to his house. Her identity hidden, he doubted anyone had called her Your Majesty or made allowances a ruler might be used to. Except the queen didn’t strike him as someone who’d remark on a passing commoner’s inability to pierce her disguise. Which meant someone particularly noteworthy really had been loitering-
    Arathane waved a hand. “It doesn’t matter; I was only trying to make small talk. I came here for a more serious reason.”
    “Would you like some tea or coffee?” Demascus blurted. He realized he was falling woefully short of being a good host. He was used to Riltana’s and Chant’s visits, and of course Fable’s extended stay. The thief was unimpressed with social niceties and had never once gotten her nose out of joint over not being offered a place to sit or a refreshment. The cat cared only that she was fed on a regular schedule. But a queen! She was probably-
    “Don’t bother; I have to get back before the bells strike the next hour.”
    “At least have a seat,” Demascus said, and gestured to one of the two chairs that hadn’t been smashed. “Then I’m guessing you’ll explain the serious reason that brought you here without a royal escort.”
    Arathane sat with a dancer’s ease on the edge of the chair. Demascus pulled up the other chair, and Riltana brought a stool from the kitchen. The queen glanced at Riltana and said, “I’m sorry things didn’t work out between you and my niece. With Carmenere’s new diplomatic position in Tymanther, I expect you don’t get to see much of each other.”
    Riltana colored, and said, “No, we don’t.” The topic was a sore one for Riltana. Demascus had learned not to mention the silverstar. The thief had driven her friend away by exploiting Carmenere’s link with the queen, and, through that link, access to the palace and a certain painting.
    “I’m sorry,” said Arathane with complete sincerity.
    Riltana nodded, managing a smile. “But that’s also not the reason I’m here,” the Queen said. “And to answer your question, Demascus, if my regular escort was with me, I wouldn’t have come to you. It’s not seemly that I openly hire ‘outside contractors’ to deal with issues of state. But the trundling wheels of bureaucracy sometimes fail to keep up with a rapidly evolving situation. And the Firestorm Cabal still has a way to go to earn my trust …” She shook her head.
    “Yeah, I wouldn’t trust a Firestormer as far as I could fling a dead rat,” said Riltana.
    The queen nodded. “Essentially. So, in the meantime-”
    “You want to hire us for something dangerous,” Demascus suggested. “Great. I’m in.”
    Riltana smacked him on the shoulder. “Some bargainer you are.”
    “I’m sure Her Majesty will pay us a fair commission for whatever she has in mind,” he replied, grinning. “Go on, Your Highness.”
    She returned his smile, and it was like the sun had come out. “Something’s happened to Akanul’s arambarium mine. All contact was severed six days ago. We’ve dispatched two separate teams of elite peacemakers; neither has returned. Reports about possible causes are sparse, conflicted, and seem almost designed to panic the Stewards. I’m afraid, based on essentially no real intelligence that the Stewards are going to do something incredibly foolish, like blockade the Bay of Airspur and then declare war on Tymanther!”
    “Hold on. What’s arambarium?”
    “Arambarium is-”
    “And why would the Stewards-and you, presumably-declare war on another sovereign nation over it?”
    “Because,” said the queen, “Tymanther and Akanul have never been-”
    “And what’s Tymanther’s connection to arambarium?”
    Arathane held up her hands. “Stop! I’ll answer your questions. But only if you stop interrupting me.”
    “Sorry,” said Demascus. He put his finger to his lips and gave Riltana a look. The windsoul rolled her eyes, but nodded.
    Arathane took a deep breath and settled farther back into her chair. She said, “Arambarium is an extraordinarily rare mineral. It looks like polished silver in its natural state. Those with an interest in such things have long recognized the mineral as inherently magical and as a possible component in a variety of rituals. However, a few decades ago Akanul war wizards secretly discovered that the power locked within even a single grain of arambarium was far greater than anyone previously realized. More than that-arambarium is uniquely tuned to elemental and primordial magic. Used as a component, arambarium could enable spells of air, earth, fire, and water and other violent energies to be stepped up by orders of magnitude! A warship with an arambarium-alloyed keel can cut through the sea much more quickly. A staff of fire wrapped in arambarium thread could rain down destruction on an entire neighborhood. And a genasi soldier outfitted with an arambarium-laced harness is one few would dare to cross swords with.”
    “Well backstab me and call me a rat’s aunt,” said Riltana in a reasonable tone. Demascus shushed her.
    “But as I said,” continued Arathane, “arambarium is rarer even than the most exotic spice. We know of only a single deposit in all Faerun-the mine my mother secretly established just off Akanul’s coast. In the decades since we’ve been extracting the mineral, only a few precious pounds have been dug out from tiny, meandering veins. Then, a few months ago, we found the mother lode.”
    Demascus lifted an eyebrow.
    “The arambarium we’d been mining up to this point is nothing compared to what the miners stumbled upon in a deep cavern. The Stewards were making plans to exploit the new find when … everything went dark.”
    “What’s the Tymanther connection?” said Riltana. “What would the dragonborn care, even if they knew about it?”
    Demascus interjected, “I doubt any rival nation would be happy learning that its neighbor just found a way to dramatically upgrade its military power.”
    “That’s what the Stewards believe, and that Tymanther has taken action,” said Arathane. “For no good reason! It’s all rumor derived from speculation based on zero evidence. We need to confirm whether Tymanther really is our enemy in this matter. If so, attacking our mine … is an act of war.”
    “Huh,” said Arathane.
    “But if they’re not responsible,” the queen continued, “our misguided response could cause a war where none was needed, while whoever’s really responsible for depriving us of our arambarium supply continues unchecked.”
    “You need someone to find out what’s actually going on at the mine,” said Demascus.
    The queen nodded, “And report back, which is demonstrably harder than it sounds. We need clear intelligence before we devise a response. A bungled policy could do more damage than no policy at all.”
    “You said you’ve already sent peacemakers?” Riltana asked.
    “Yes. Not to mention a special team of spies hand-picked by the Steward of Earth. But we’ve heard nothing. The mine is a blind spot. Not knowing what’s going on there is a like a tumor in the underbelly of Akanul.”
    “Where’s the mine?” said Demascus. “You said it was off the coast? Give me landmarks to steer by, and I’ll see what’s going on.” Anticipation of finding trouble made his heart beat faster. Or maybe it was just Arathane’s presence. He couldn’t be sure. He also suspected he was being more than a little rash.
    “Hold on!” said Riltana. “I’m expert at sneaking into places-you need me along, too. But I don’t work for free. Neither does Demascus, except he’s too polite to remind you.”
    “You’ll be compensated,” said Arathane. “And you’ll have my thanks, if you succeed.”
    Riltana shook her head. “More coin I don’t need. What I do need …” The woman dropped her head, then looked up again. “All I would like is a small favor. Could you … could you tell Carmenere that I’ve agreed to help you? And that I’m thinking of her? Since she took that diplomatic post in High Imaskar, I’ve lost track of her. And I …”
    The queen considered a moment, then said. “I will. In the next diplomatic courier package the Court of Majesty sends east, I’ll include a personal letter and make sure Carmenere sees it.”
    Riltana smiled shyly. Demascus blinked. He’d seen the windsoul knocked unconscious by a goblin sneak, nearly ripped in two by a rakshasa assassin, and curse a streak so foul that he was certain the gods themselves blushed. This was the first time he’d ever seen Riltana vulnerable.
    Demascus cleared his throat and said, “Anything else you can tell us, Your Highness? Even an insignificant hint could help us prepare. In my business, preparation is usually key.” He was glad she didn’t immediately ask him what his business was. She probably wouldn’t like the idea that he could sometimes call on the half-forgotten skills of a master assassin.
    Arathane shook her head, then stopped and raised a hand, “You know, there is something. Not much, but … a peacemaker report a few months ago came to the Steward of Earth’s attention, and he mentioned it to me. I didn’t think anything about it at the time. Something about trouble on the wharf, in one of the warehouses shippers use to store cargo. Warehouse … fourteen? The detail that stands out in my mind is how, despite that shipyard workers reported sounds of a bloody conflict inside, when the peacemakers showed up, there was no evidence of anything amiss.”
    “And how’s that connected with the mine?” said Riltana.
    The queen shrugged and said, “On the same day, the speaking stone on the island went dead for almost an entire bell before we reestablished communication. We never did find out what caused it. Anyway, the phantom conflict in the warehouse and the speaking stone lapse occurred near the same time. Could be just a coincidence. I haven’t given it a moment’s thought until now.”
    Demascus said, “We’ll run by the warehouse when we book passage out to the island. Speaking of which-where exactly is the mine?”
    She stood and produced a parchment from her belt pouch. “The coordinates. What’s written here is a state secret.”
    “It’s safe with us,” said Demascus. He reached for the parchment, but she took his hand before he pulled away.
    She said, “Be careful, Demascus. We never did find time to have our chat. When you return, hopefully with news less dire than a Tymanther aggression on Akanul soil, let’s remedy that.”
    “Uh, that … that would be good,” he managed to respond.
    “Yes,” said the queen. “I suspect it will be.” She released his hand, nodded to him and the windsoul, and departed his house.
    Demascus was off balance too much to open the door for the monarch of Akanul, so he just watched her back recede as she walked across his yard. She cut quite a figure …
    He slammed the door as Fable slunk up. “I’m too quick for you, cat,” he said. When he finally turned back to Riltana, he saw she was grinning, all signs of vulnerability gone from her face.
    “What?” he asked.
    “Could you be any more transparent?”
    “What’re you talking about? I-”
    She shook her head. “Even a half-wit could see it. Damn, for someone so normally put together, you’re like a starving dog in a butcher shop whenever she’s around.”
    Demascus chuckled. “It’s that obvious?”
    “Yeah. I’m afraid it is.”

CHAPTER FOUR

    THE CITY OF AIRSPUR, AKANUL
    17 LEAFFALL, THE YEAR OF THE AGELESS ONE (1479 DR)

    Riltana flew among the hovering citymotes. The wind caressed her like a lover’s arms. It bore her up when she asked, but only for a breath, before gently letting go.
    She paused on a rusting bridge cable to take in the grandeur of the city.
    The streets wound switchback paths up the cliffs, and steep stairs cut nearly vertical ascents between buildings. Suspension bridges arced between earthmotes above and below. Titanic pillars of stone rose from the sea, and gleaming elemental spires hung with crystalline clarity throughout the middle air. But today, the normally sunbaked streets and bright cliffs were dim beneath a shroud of clouds. An approaching storm darkened the iron sky, threatening a downpour of torrential strength. Normally she hated the rain, the dark, the sun-concealing clouds.
    But not today.
    Today, Airspur smelled sweeter than it had in months. The piling thunderheads looked like fairy castles. She wanted to fly up to them and see who lived inside. She wanted to sing. Maybe do a little jig. The queen was going to write to Carmenere on Riltana’s behalf! All Riltana had to do was help Demascus check out some moist piece of rock off the coast and see what kind of idiocy the miners had got up to. Easy. She imagined a gold-foil envelope, stamped with the queen’s seal in red wax. The envelope would be delivered to Carmenere’s rooms in faraway High Imaskar. She could see Carmenere breaking the seal, then reading her royal aunt’s message that pled for the estranged silverstar to make peace with Riltana …
    She pumped her fist and grinned at a pigeon roosting on a nearby suspension line. If Arathane put in a word for her, the stubborn silverstar was bound to see reason! Carmenere would never have taken the diplomatic post so far from Akanul if she and Riltana hadn’t quarreled. Probably …
    The sooner she and Demascus accomplished Queen Arathane’s little job, the sooner the message would be dispatched. Riltana had volunteered to investigate the warehouse while Demascus chartered a ship in the dock district. Demascus had wanted them to stick together, but she’d insisted they split their efforts to save time. Patience wasn’t one of her strengths. Besides, she wanted to distract herself from thinking about the near disaster of last evening. I was so close! she thought. That damned painting was supposed to have been in the House Norjah gallery. Her black market inquiry, courtesy of Chant’s connections, had finally produced a lead. The odd woman who’d responded had seemed so legitimate, knowledgeable, and convincing. She’d known things only someone familiar with the painting of Queen Cyndra could’ve described. Why had a stranger pretended the missing painting was in that shadowy gallery?
    Riltana frowned. Eventually she’d get that painting back, oh yes. And Hells help anyone who stood in her way. Or maybe not. Maybe it didn’t matter anymore. Having Carmenere’s queenly aunt on Riltana’s side was a surer road to reconciliation than anything Riltana could hope to accomplish on her own. Maybe she didn’t need the royal painting to impress Carmenere …
    Frankly, given what’d gone down at Demascus’s apartment the previous evening, it was lucky things had turned out as well as they had. The goddess Tymora must be smiling down on Riltana. So why do I feel so guilty?
    She knew why, of course. Because of her own damnable impulsiveness. She couldn’t help herself when certain situations reared their heads. Like finding herself alone with a surfeit of valuable and easily transportable goodies. Riltana smacked a fist into her palm. The pigeon on the suspension cable startled and winged off. She hadn’t been completely honest with Demascus. The Norjah vampires were right to call her a thief. When she’d slipped into their gallery and found no sign of the painting she’d sought, well, she helped herself to one hanging there instead. As compensation, of course; she’d paid a pretty sum to the woman who’d given her the tip. Riltana couldn’t be expected just to eat that coin, right? She’d only realized that she might be diving off a higher cliff than she’d reckoned when she lifted one of the paintings from its hook. The illustrated figure began whispering to her secrets of thievery and concealment-
    Reflexively, in the moment of surprise, she transferred the framed canvas to the nonspace her gloves accessed. Then, while still wondering if she’d merely imagined a talking canvas, an alarm tripped. Probably an alarm wired into the hook on which the painting had rested. A horde of pig-straddling vampires roared into the gallery. She’d fled, and they gave chase. Even through the empty air! When Riltana realized she wasn’t going to lose them, she headed to Demascus’s home. The deva had helped her out of binds before, though never one so serious. She blinked. It was too late to change what’d happened. All she could do was deal with any consequences from House Norjah. Later. After she and Demascus handled the arambarium situation and Riltana received her reward from Queen Arathane. It might not even be too much to imagine that Carmenere could receive Arathane’s letter within just a couple of tendays!
    She pitched forward off the cable and dove past an entire cliffside neighborhood in mere heartbeats, braking on wings of wind at the last instant. She came down like a honeybee on a petal, her boot heels barely clicking the shingles of a warehouse roof.
    The queen had identified this warehouse. Thanks to her dawdling on the bridge, Demascus was probably already down along the wharf talking to potential ship owners about a charter. She’d have to make up for lost time.
    Riltana dropped from the rooftop into the middle of the busy street. A gaggle of dockworkers glanced at her. Most likely they saw just one more courier wearing Airstepper Guild robes on her way to deliver a package to a captain or merchant in the dock district. The robes perfectly concealed her newly enchanted leather armor. Pricy, but paid for with the reward she’d earned when helping the queen with the plague demon hiding beneath the Firestorm Cabal several months earlier. She sauntered through the open front door of the warehouse. Sweat-soaked workers were wrestling crates into compact rows that stretched back to the far wall and halfway to the ceiling.
    A genasi with a quill and scroll noticed her. “Can I help you?”
    “Yeah. I’ve got a message to deliver.”
    “I’m listening.”
    “It’s a document. I’m supposed to deliver it directly to the owner of this place.”
    The genasi shrugged and pointed at a short flight of stairs leading up to a landing halfway up one interior wall. “Lord Pashra isn’t here.”
    “Mind if I wait?”
    “Fine. But stay out of the way.” The genasi returned his attention to the workers.
    Riltana sidled up to the foreman. He was totaling cargo manifests. Apparently this Lord Pashra did a mean business in turnips, potatoes, and onions. That explained the pungent odor. Nothing mineral related. Not that she had expected it to be so easy.
    “Yes?” the genasi said, noticing her still standing next to him and ogling his tallies.
    “You know what? The smell of all these onions is making me sick to my stomach. Mind if I go wait up by the office?”
    The genasi waved a hand. “If that will get you out from under my feet.”
    Riltana took the stairs. When she reached the landing at the top and peered back, neither the foreman nor the workers spared her so much as a glance. They were absorbed in their task of finding a more efficient packing configuration to make room for a “mess of beets” from Turmish. If they were acting unconcerned to throw off suspicion, they were doing a damn fine job … Too good. Riltana had the sinking feeling she was on the wrong track and wasting time. Well, she was here. She should at least take a quick look around to make certain.
    She faded back from the railing until she was right next to the office door. She tried the handle. Locked. But not for long. Riltana pulled a thin wire and a couple of other oddments from the cuff of her robe. With her back to the door and her eyes on the warehouse floor, she tried to give the impression that moving crates was the most fascinating thing she’d ever seen. She inserted the pick into the lock by touch. It was an exploratory poke, to see how many pins she was dealing with … and whether or not Lord Pashra had fortified the lock with a trap. But the telltale tightness of a mechanical trigger connected to something nasty, or the faint tingle that usually warned her of a hex, was absent. All she needed for the simple mechanism was a tension wrench, a slight turn, a few taps with the wire used like a pick … and click.
    She opened the door just enough to slip through, and entered. She didn’t quite shut it behind her; she wanted to hear if anyone came up the stairs-
    A flicker of movement by her boots made her freeze. She let out her breath as she watched a spider scuttle away across the scratched plank floor, probably terrified she would stomp it flat.
    The space was too big to have originally been an office. Pashra must have converted an ancillary storage room. A ramshackle table squatted in the center of the chamber, surrounded by stools. Another table was shoved into the far corner, creating a makeshift desk. It was layered with a mess of open scrolls and parchment pages. A lantern bolted to the wall over the desk bathed the room in yellowish light. Shelves in one corner held a litter of colored stones, books, scroll cases, and what apparently was a collection of dining plates from all over Toril. Then Riltana caught sight of a map on the wall between the desk and shelves that showed both the continent of Faerun and a land mass to the west labeled “Returned Abeir.” The word “Menzoberranzan” was written in red ink on the map some miles northeast of Waterdeep. The name seemed vaguely familiar, but Riltana couldn’t place it. Something to do with elves, maybe?
    “Now,” she murmured, “If I were secretly funneling a super-rare elemental mineral out of Akanul, where would I hide my secret ledger describing my treachery in exact detail?” She chuckled. Finding such a record wasn’t out of the question. Criminals had at least as much cause to keep track of their merchandise as did legitimate merchants. In her experience the difference between legal and illegal wares was mostly dependent on how richly bribed the public officials were.
    She sorted through paperwork. Manifests, lists of ports, projected prices for various vegetables, notes of intent to buy or sell various amounts of said vegetables, and upkeep costs for boats and warehouses … didn’t this Pashra have some sort of filing system? The disarray was almost comical and definitely ordinary.
    Something came into focus about a foot in front of her, its shadow large on the clutter of documents. She leaped back with a curse even as she saw it was another spider, this one hanging on a slender web she’d missed in the lantern’s dull light. She’d never been especially afraid of spiders. Until she’d seen the nightmare called Murmur feed several people to its pit of bugs. They’d been devoured alive, swarmed by hungry spiders and other insects … Her stomach felt funny. She swallowed, and focused on the tiny arachnid dangling in front of her. It’s just a spider, she told herself. It can’t hurt you. Unless it’s poisonous.
    Either way, it was an ugly bastard with a body nearly as thick as her thumb. She could even make out its little eyes, like tiny buttons, fixed on her.
    “All right, blister, that’s how you want to play it?” She grabbed a handful of papers and rolled them up. As if it guessed her intent, the spider sprinted down its web line and disappeared somewhere behind the desk. She leaned across the morass of papers and noticed a hollow she’d missed in the wall. As she peered inside, her eyes widened.
    The hollow crawled with spiders. Too many to count, boiling over each other and across some kind of bulky object. A … person, wrapped in a shroud of lacy webbing. She could make out features frozen in a rictus of open-mouthed terror, beneath a suffocating white layer.
    “Oh, shit!” Most of the spiders were coin size, but a few were larger than her palm. She eased back.
    “Greetings,” a voice said.
    Riltana spun. A watersoul genasi stood just inside the door, now closed. Damn.
    “Who’re you?” she said. Something wasn’t right about him. The sea-foam hue of his skin was unnatural, as if the watersoul suffered some kind of sickness or blight.
    “I’m Pashra. The question is who’re you?”
    She swallowed, and forced herself not to glance back down into the hollow.
    “I, uh, got a message to deliver. A document. For you, I guess, if you’re the owner.”
    The genasi said, “That’s me. Can I ask why you’re going through my desk?”
    She raised the incriminating papers she’d rolled into an impromptu spider-swatter. “What, these? I thought I saw a bug.”
    The man uttered something that almost sounded like a curse, but not in any language she knew. “Put those down, give me whatever you’ve got, then get out.” The genasi smiled. He sure had a lot of teeth …
    And what was with the way his shadow was so much larger than his frame? The jagged silhouette on the wall almost looked like it had horns …
    “You’re no genasi,” she said.
    The man sighed and glanced sidelong at something on the door frame; another spider. This one was big, too. It had a black abdomen and a white head.
    As if addressing it, he said, “You see? She’s a spy. Now help me silence her-your wall-crawling pets are good for more than watching me, aren’t they?”
    Piss on a shingle! You just had to tell him you pierced his disguise, she thought. Did it make you feel smart? ’Cause now …
    Pashra sucked in breath so large his chest visibly expanded. Then his body followed suit. He ballooned outward and upward, growing larger and larger, until he was the size of an ogre. It was his true size, she guessed, though his skin color remained unchanged. Coarse black hair was tied in a braid down his back, horns protruded from his forehead, and his mouth was so filled with oversize teeth that it didn’t even properly close. Oh yeah, plus he’d somehow come into possession of a sword that could pass as an oversized meat cleaver.
    “What are you?” she asked.
    “Does it matter?”
    “I suppose not.” She loosed the tie on her Airstepper robe. It fell, revealing her ebony armor and providing easy access to her sword and daggers. She leaped. The air hurled her like a ballista spear across the chamber. If she could stun Pashra, knock him away from the door-
    Pashra uttered a mystical word. Vapor swirled from the tip of his cleaver and caught Riltana before she was halfway across the wide office. Cold like the inside of an ice cave painted a frost glaze across her armor and skin.
    She fell out of the air. When she hit the central table, two of its four legs buckled. She rolled behind it, putting its sloped face between her and Pashra. The leech-son could cast spells! Her teeth chattered as the shock of Pashra’s magical chill slowly abated. It doesn’t mean he won’t bleed, she thought. Let’s see how he likes daggers. Two small blades, one from each glove, appeared in her palms. All right-
    A spider the size of Chant’s pet cat dropped on her. She stabbed it through the abdomen before it could fasten its pincers. It tumbled away and twitched on the floor, legs curling up around the leaking wound. A glance back at the desk showed a swarm of the spider’s siblings emerging from their hollow and scuttling toward her. Most weren’t nearly as large as the one she’d just dispatched, but there were so many she could hear the patter of hundreds of tiny legs.
    “Damn web-spitting offal eaters!” she cursed. She flicked the dagger away, replacing it with a mountaineer’s spike from her gloves. Then she jumped straight up and punched the spike into the wooden ceiling and dangled from the attached carabiner. She hoped it would keep her out of reach of the spiders on the floor. At least until they figured out they could climb up the walls and across the ceiling.
    And there towered Pashra, horns pointed at her like swords, much closer than before. When he saw her looking at him, he grinned and raised his weapon. What was he? An ogre, yes, but a smart one.
    She hurled a dagger with her free hand. Its point plunged into Pashra’s right eye. The creature howled, a terrifying sound halfway between a wolf’s night call and a hunting panther’s roar. The sound rippled through the air, knocking Riltana from her handhold. It roiled the spider swarm and blew out the tiny office window. Rain from the storm outside blew in.
    The windsoul managed a half-graceful landing, despite a trickle of blood from her left ear. A residual ring hung in the air-or maybe that was in her head. She worked her jaw and blinked, trying desperately to gain her bearings. There was two of everything …
    Where was Pashra? She squeezed her eyes shut then opened them. Her double vision merged back to normal, thank Tymora. She fixed her gaze back on Pashra. He hadn’t advanced, but neither was he down. Instead, the blue-green hulk was carefully working the dagger out of his eye. Red fluid oozed from the socket, but when the blade came free, Riltana watched with horrified amazement as the punctured eye gradually re-inflated, until it was completely whole once more. Pashra swung his rejuvenated gaze on her and said, “I’m an oni mage. And you’re overmatched, little spy.”
    Yells of concern filtered through the closed office door. By the sound of it, the workers wondered if Pashra was all right. Apparently they didn’t know his secret identity as a monster. She needed to distract him. So Riltana fished.
    “What’s your connection to the arambarium mine?”
    The oni’s overlarge features stretched into an expression of surprise. “You know we’re after the arambarium?”
    She grinned. “We do now, chump. Thanks for confirming.”
    Pashra scowled, then said, “Who exactly is ‘we?’ ”
    Riltana carefully straightened. She’d managed to gain a little time with her spontaneous falsehood. Maybe she should try to extract a little more information before she fled. “Let’s just say,” she said, “we’ve had our eyes on you for quite a while now. Your efforts to panic Akanul into a premature strike aren’t going to work. We know you’re trying to stampede the Crown of Majesty into some kind of overt action against Tymanther.”
    “Ah. You think that’s what I’m doing?”
    “It’s obvious.”
    The oni shrugged with lazy insolence and said, “You’ve figured me out. Oh, no.” The last dripped with so much sarcasm that Riltana knew she had missed something.
    “I mean,” she said, “it’s obvious that’s your cover story.”
    Pashra laughed, and it wasn’t a mirthful, happy sound. He glanced back at the lone spider nearest him and said, “She knows nothing, Chenraya.”
    A voice-female, disdainful, and cold-seemed to issue from the tiny arachnid on the door frame. “Take her alive. She obviously knows something or she wouldn’t be here. Then bring her to me in person-this homunculus body is good for scrying and communication, but little else. We’ll drain her mind as easily as pouring out a cup. Then we’ll know.”
    Shit! I might be out of my depth, Riltana thought. Despite the oni’s spell and obvious size advantage, she figured she was fairly evenly matched with the thing, assuming she could stay clear of the spiders. But the presence of a talking arachnid, or someone who was apparently using the arachnid to talk remotely, suggested Riltana didn’t really know the score.
    Time to get gone. She glanced at the broken window-
    And saw a spider the size of a street vendor’s cart bearing down on her.

CHAPTER FIVE

    THE CITY OF AIRSPUR, AKANUL
    17 LEAFFALL, THE YEAR OF THE AGELESS ONE (1479 DR)

    Rain stung the water in the Bay of Airspur. Ships huddled close to their moorings, gray silhouettes half-visible through the downpour. Demascus strode the boardwalk, collar up and hands jammed in his jacket pockets. He was tired of being soaked to the skin. Unfortunately, winter along the coast of the Sea of Fallen Stars meant regular deluges.
    He was looking for a ship to charter. But he’d paced up and down the docks a few times already like a sleepwalker, not really seeing anything as the cold seeped into his bones. Instead, the scene where a former version of him killed a woman named Madri kept cycling past his mind’s eye. Another circumstance created by another him that was now being visited on Demascus. How fair was that?
    Madri had been a beauty, no denying it. So like Queen Arathane in height and posture … He shook his head. He couldn’t afford to notice similarities. Madri is your past, he thought. No. Not even your past. She’s got nothing to do with Arathane, for shadow’s sake! For that matter, the queen, while uncommonly approachable in his experience with royalty, had done nothing more than smile and chat with him. She was a monarch! Nothing more. Even if she were interested-
    A boom of thunder brought him back to the moment. He looked around and realized he’d started on his fifth trip through the dock ward.
    How much time had he wasted? Enough. Just pick a boat, already.
    Demascus stopped walking and reviewed what he’d seen. Most of the ships had been too small or too large and work-a-day for his needs. Only a few seemed somewhat promising …
    There! A caravel, triple-masted, with two square sails and one triangular. An elaborate figurehead hung at the ship’s stem-a half-painted, half-sculpted woman with shimmering green scales in place of clothing. She glared into the rain, her eyes unnaturally brilliant. And she apparently gave the ship her name: Green Siren II. Now why did that seem familiar?
    Dodging some hurrying dockworkers who were shepherding a cart overloaded with sodden grain sacks, he boarded the ship. He asked the first person he saw, a woman wearing a red scarf over her hair, to fetch the captain.
    “Why should I?” she said.
    “Because I’m looking to charter this ship, and I’ve got coin burning a hole in my purse,” Demascus said. Then he ducked under the forecastle awning to get out of the rain. The crew person gave him the once-over, and left. In search of the captain, he hoped.
    Less than a song later, a man clambered up from the hold. Demascus guessed he was the ship’s owner because of his ridiculously prodigious hat and his confident swagger as he approached. A gold-trimmed coat that swept the ship’s deck and a slender sword in a silver sheath completed the picture of a man unafraid of flamboyancy. Or at least someone who didn’t mind cutting a figure reminiscent of the pirates that once hunted the waters north of Akanul nearly a century earlier.
    “My crew tells me you’re looking to hire Green Siren?” The man produced a pipe and miniature coal urn from a pocket in his great coat. He set about lighting it with an ember pot.
    “Depending on how well the captain can keep confidences, yes.”
    “They say Captain Thoster is a better secret-keeper than most. And Thoster, by the way, would be me.” The man held out a hand.
    Demascus shook it. Thoster’s grip was cool, but strong.
    “Demascus. I need a fast ship, and one that can defend itself if necessary.”
    “Danger is just a reason to charge more coin. But seriously, you ain’t never heard of Green Siren? Fish piss, we once made the Sovereignty give up the Sea of Fallen Stars. ’Course we had a larger crew back then, and damn it if the city hasn’t come back … Still, this ship’s able enough. What’s the cargo?”
    The scroll charm woven into Demascus’s hair, a token paid to his last incarnation by an avatar of the god Oghma, didn’t so much as twitch in response to the captain’s boast regarding the aboleth city. The man was telling something close to the truth, so he was more capable than he appeared. Green Siren might well be the ship.
    “The cargo is me and a few associates. We’re headed for an island just off the coast, one not marked on any charts. And if I hire your craft, you’ll have to forget about it afterward. ”
    “Ho, a place not on the charts? I like the sound of that. And to answer your question, lad, I can forget nearly anything, if coin is plentiful enough.” Thoster blew out a puff of smoke.
    “My patron’s pockets are deep,” Demascus said. Arathane had told him to charter a ship, after all. It wasn’t like he had the coin to pull that off on his own.
    “And as it turns out, I’ve got time on my hands,” said Thoster. “I’m waiting on a cargo of Chondalwood green-spice before I can ship back across the sea. So if we can do it in the next few days, Green Siren’s your ship.”
    “How about later today?” said Demascus.
    “Today? Umberlee’s creaking knees! Can’t you see what’s blowing in? This storm ain’t fit for any ship to sail in, not even mine. No one’s putting out for at least a day or two, until this blows over.”
    Demascus peered up at the flashing clouds smothering Airspur like a damp blanket. The frothing waves rolling into the bay were alarming. If anything, the captain was underestimating the fury of the storm. Burning dominions, he thought. Arathane’s not going to be happy about a delay.
    “When’s the soonest we can put out?”
    Thoster squinted into the storm, sucked contemplatively on his pipe, then said, “You never can tell with the sea. ’Course, I’m a better judge than most. Tell you what, Demascus. Show up here in two days, and if this ain’t blown over, I’ll buy you an ale. What’d’ya say?”
    Demascus nodded. “It’ll have to do. Assuming we can negotiate a price my patron is comfortable with.”
    “Of course. But if this mysterious patron of yours has coin to burn, as you-”
    The captain broke off and cocked his head, listening.
    “What-” began Demascus, then he heard it, too. A thin cry echoing down the street from the edge of the warehouse district, where it abutted the wharf. It was like a wolf’s howl, but somehow more raw and threatening.
    “Never heard anything like that before,” said Thoster.
    “Sounded like something chasing down prey,” Demascus replied.
    “Well, nothing to do with us, I expect,” said Thoster.
    “Maybe not. But then again, someone needs help.”
    Thoster raised his eyebrows as if the idea was wholly novel to him.
    “I’ll see you in two days,” said Demascus. He flung himself down the rain-slick gangplank and onto the pier. The captain was probably right. The disturbing howl had nothing to do with him. But if some kind of creature was loose in the city, then it needed to be dealt with in case it took a while for peacemakers to arrive on the scene. And if nothing else, Demascus was good at “dealing” with things.
    Besides, Arathane had identified a warehouse as a location of interest related to the sudden silence at the arambarium mine. Which Riltana had gone to investigate. Odds were miniscule the noise and Riltana were connected, but … Demascus increased his pace. The gray pall allowed him no easy shortcuts through shadow. And the bulk of his too-large sword, which he’d strapped onto his back and then forgotten about, was a hindrance as he ran. The scabbard rapped the backs of his calves every few steps, as if trying to trip him. Demascus slowed. Probably smart, anyway, given how slippery the street was with rainwater and runoff. Luckily he didn’t have far to go.
    A scattered crowd of bemused warehouse workers were pointing at one building. He dashed over, taking a few more scabbard slaps for his trouble. A broken window gaped high in the exterior wall, and shattered panes glinted on the street. Muffled bangs and cries issued from inside the gray and brown structure. The warehouse address and the place Riltana had made for earlier in the day were one and the same. Of course.
    Demascus pulled the sheath off his back and drew the blade. The sword snuggled into his grip as if it’d missed him. He dropped the scabbard and ran inside.
    Genasi workers fought a pitched battle against a horde of spiders. Spiders?
    Lords of light, he thought, was the swarm demon they’d burned in the pit below the motherhouse still alive? How could it be? We roasted everything in that damnable hole. Although … he’d seen a few smoke-scorched moths escape, but they’d certainly expired. Right? Regardless, he’d been certain the spiders, roaches, and other crawlers had all been destroyed.
    A woman’s voice screamed something unintelligible. It issued from behind the door at the top of a short flight of stairs.
    The deva swept his blade through a fat brown spider that was menacing a fallen earthsoul. Then he charged up the stairs. Something growled and moved behind the door, throwing a finger of darkness under the frame that brushed his boot. Just like that, he was through.
    Demascus found himself in the shadow of a hulking humanoid with tangled black hair, horns, and a sword easily as long as Demascus’s own. A name swam up from the blackness of some previous life … Oni. The thing was an oni mage, wielding a weapon ideal for its size and strength. A fearsome opponent. Great.
    Just beyond the oni flitted Riltana. She parried and ducked the creature’s frighteningly skillful sword strokes even as she stomped on and danced around another damnable swarm of spiders! A few were larger than any spider had a right to be. One especially bloated creature lay on its back, its hairy legs yet convulsing as ichor leaked from a dagger-shaped hole in its abdomen.
    Demascus raised Exorcessum, intent on decapitating the oni with one perfect stroke-
    “Pashra, behind you!” came a woman’s voice. Demascus flinched, because the voice came from just above and behind him.
    The oni ducked beneath the deva’s swing and shuffled a quarter turn out from its original position. Instead of standing directly between Demascus and Riltana, the oni now formed one point of a triangle made up of Demascus, Riltana, and an oni apparently named Pashra. The oni was going to be trouble. Not to mention all the spiders trying to swarm over the windsoul. As well as whoever had warned the oni, someone he’d failed to-
    He slapped at a burning sting on his neck. A spider fell away. No, not a spider; its tiny head wasn’t arachnid. It was a woman’s head with white hair!
    “Gods!” Disgust pulled his face into a grimace.
    Pashra laughed. The spider scuttled, but Demascus stomped on the tiny hybrid abomination. It popped under his boot like a rotten egg and squirted a messy green fluid everywhere. The tiny head spoke once more in a dying wheeze, “You’ve earned the enmity of the Queen of the Demonweb Pits, subcreature …”
    That’s probably not good, Demascus thought.
    “Chenraya!” the oni exclaimed, his delight transmuted to consternation.
    Demascus took the opportunity to draw a deep line of blood down the creature’s right arm with Exorcessum’s rune-carved edge.
    The oni howled and retreated a halfstep, parrying Demascus’s follow-up swing with a clang of iron.
    “What’s a Demonweb queen?” asked Riltana, who’d taken advantage of Demascus’s attack to slip up close to the oni. She planted a dagger into Pashra’s left kidney.
    The oni howled.
    A familiar joy infused the deva, as the rhythm of conflict beat in his blood.
    Demascus closed with the oni … then stumbled. Uh oh. He couldn’t feel his feet. And his fingers were going numb. And why was everything suddenly all misty? He realized the Hells-spawned spider had poisoned him!
    He dropped to his knees. Exorcessum was nearly jarred from his grip. Nausea wrenched his stomach with a gruesome green claw and pulled. His battle elan slipped away. It couldn’t compete with the urge to sickup all over the floor.
    “Demascus!” yelled Riltana. The oni turned its back on the deva and tried to divide the windsoul in two with a swift downward stroke. She deflected the blade with her short sword. The stroke’s force sent her staggering back into the throng of spiders.
    Merciful lords, he thought, give me the strength to ignore his insult. He gagged, and drooled a line of spittle. Breakfast was about to make an encore appearance-
    A white rune on Exorcessum flared. When it washed across him his nausea vanished. Feeling returned to his hands and feet, and a little strength. The rune dimmed, becoming more a scar than a design. Still on his knees, he drew a gaping wound diagonally up the oni’s back with Exorcessum’s tip. Blood poured from the wound. It was the oni’s turn to collapse.
    “Demascus!” yelled Riltana. “Get these things off me!” Spiders mobbed her entire lower body. The windsoul’s eyes were wide with terror as she swatted and rolled, but the insects continued to pile on.
    He came to his feet and stepped around the motionless and bleeding oni. Riltana was hyperventilating. How was he going to extract her before they chewed her to the bone or poisoned her to death? Heartbeats counted!
    He let Exorcessum clatter to the floor. He ripped the Veil from his neck and whipped the end so that it swirled around Riltana, spiders and all, wrapping them in an embrace of the Veil of Wrath and Knowledge.
    The oni’s shadow beneath the door had given him entry into the office, a shadow forged by the wavering office lantern. That same light, and the shadow of a dead spider the size of a wheelbarrow, would provide his next stepping-stone. The question was, could he bring Riltana along but not the spiders?
    He stepped, willing his friend to accompany him across the gap of nothingness that lay beneath the world’s facade and to leave mandibles and web-shrouds behind. He flashed into a fell echo of the room, where surfaces were uncertain and shadows writhed like centipedes up the walls.
    A weight like a thousand-pound anchor yanked him up short. It tried to drag him down into the darkness from which there was no escape. Soul-draining cold sucked at his determination to retain his grip. His mind and body ached to let go of the weight and escape. But he didn’t let go, because the burden was Riltana, and to abandon her here would be the death of her. Or worse.
    He screamed into the void of gloom, straining his entire spirit. He shuffled, bent-backed and head down, pulling on the stretching fabric of his scarf …
    And stepped back into the warehouse office, only three paces from his origin, with Riltana in tow. Sans spiders. They’d made half the trip, though, but he’d shed them in the Shadowfell, where he’d nearly lost the windsoul, too.
    “Shank me with a dull spoon,” she murmured. “Don’t ever do that again.” She sat down hard.
    Demascus tugged the Veil from Riltana as he wheeled to face the wounded oni.
    Pashra was gone. He’d left behind only a slick of spilled blood.
    “The bastard got out while the getting was good,” muttered Riltana.
    “What happened?” he asked. “Even for someone with your talent for angering the natives, I’d expect you would have thought better of mouthing off to an oni.” He helped Riltana to her feet.
    The windsoul shook her head. “As if I know what the Hells an oni is. When Pashra caught me going through his desk, he looked like a watersoul. Then when I saw his shadow didn’t match his guise, I called him on it.”
    “So he had no choice but to attack you?”
    “Um … yeah. I know, I know. Sometimes I can be a little too, um … impulsive.” She rubbed at her eyes.
    “That, or maybe you just have special needs. You know, like some nobles’ children?”
    “Which nobles’ children?”
    “The inbred ones they ship off to those special manors in the country …” He took a step back so when Riltana tried to swat him he was out of range. Or he tried to; he actually caught his foot on a dead spider and only just managed not to fall on his face.
    It was Riltana’s turn to steady him. “You all right?”
    “A spider bit me. One with a … a woman’s head.”
    “Yeah, I saw that one. Pashra was talking to it earlier. It said something about, um, demonwebs? You know about those, too?”
    “Demonwebs …” The phrase was familiar, but its meaning danced just out of reach. He shook his head and continued, “The spider’s bite was poison. I neutralized it, but a little venom is still in my blood. I probably wouldn’t have noticed, except that dragging you clear of those spiders really taxed me. I’m not sure I could do it again.”
    Riltana said, her tone suddenly serious, “Thank you for that. I nearly lost my head when those things started crawling on me. If you hadn’t … anyhow, thanks.”
    He nodded. “Happy to help. Let’s see what kinds of secrets Pashra and his little woman-headed spider were so desperate to keep.” Demascus retrieved his sword, then remembered he’d dropped Exorcessum’s scabbard just outside in the rain. He sighed, and leaned the blade against the desk.
    “I was trying to be circumspect last time,” the windsoul said. “Trying to make it look like no one had been here. I guess we don’t have to worry about that anymore.” She opened a drawer and pulled out sheafs of parchment. She scanned each one, then tossed them, one at a time, over her shoulder.
    He joined her. Each parchment, tracking grain density, pay, and the fluctuating rates of exchange rates in Cormyr versus Impiltur, and so on, went fluttering behind him to land in a growing drift. Lone spiders occasionally crawled aimlessly across the desk, but they were squashed nicely with a swat. He’d developed a real hatred of crawling, many-legged things during his time in Akanul.
    “Look,” Riltana said. She pointed down into an open drawer.
    “What?” He leaned over.
    “False bottom.”
    Then he saw it-faint seams outlined the shape of a rectangle.
    The windsoul reached into the cavity and pressed along one side. The panel popped out. Inside the narrow space rested a thin leather ledger and a tiny chest.
    “Pashra, Pashra, Pashra,” said the windsoul as she retrieved the curio chest. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to hide your valuables in false-bottom drawers? It’s the first place any good thief looks!”
    Demascus grabbed the ledger. It was a record of cargo originating from an island just off the coast referred to as “the burial site.” He was disappointed to find no mention of the name of the ship responsible for providing transport. Odd. He doubted the cargo was just floating down from the sky into the warehouse. He paged forward. The cargo started appearing only a tenday ago. Which was about how long ago communication with the mine had ceased. According to the ledger, the cargo had been routed through this warehouse, a stopover on its way to “the new nexus.” No address for the nexus, either. But it was someplace in Akanul, if not Airspur itself.
    “I bet this is the real deal,” Riltana said, interrupting his perusal. She held the palm-sized chest in her hand, and the lid gaped open. It was mostly empty, except for a sprinkle of iron-hued grains.
    “Arambarium?” he said.
    “Gotta be.” She removed a glove, wet a finger, and carefully pressed down on a grain.
    “Careful,” he said.
    “Yeah, yeah.” She retracted her hand and held out her finger so they could both inspect the silvery grain adhered there.
    “Doesn’t look particularly special,” he said.
    “It … I can’t tell what temperature it is. One moment it’s warm, the next it’s cool as ice.” Her eyes were wide as she stared with rapt attention at the arambarium chip.
    “Maybe you should research the effects of raw arambarium contamination before you hold that too much longer.”
    She said, “This is research, Demascus. Why don’t you get back to the ledger?”
    He snorted, but did as she suggested.
    Paging forward, he discovered that the arambarium routing through the warehouse had stopped the day before. Apparently, new arrangements were going to be made for “the final excavation.” No clues were forthcoming on what that might mean. The document disgorged two final pieces of information. A name, penned into the margin of the first page, read “Master Raneger.” With the name was the note, “May prove amenable.” Another note, written in a different hand, said, “The Gatekeeper has been enticed to guard the new nexus.”
    He didn’t know who the Gatekeeper was. But Raneger … he was the criminal who Chant had once described as the most successful malefactor in all of Airspur and owner of the infamous Den of Games. His power lay in the fact that the peacemakers had never traced anything back to him. And perhaps he’d made an ally of one of the Stewards, though which one was debatable. Chant once owed a debt to Raneger so steep that the pawnbroker’s life had been forfeit. But that was water under the bridge. Despite at least one serious attempt on his life by Raneger, Chant had paid off his debt. Then, in what seemed like a feat of idiocy, Chant had taken a position with his former enemy at the Den of Games. Working for Raneger. Demascus still couldn’t figure out how that had come about. Chant’s shop was only open now by special appointment, which was why Fable, the finicky cat, was Demascus’s house guest.
    The deva snapped the ledger shut. Riltana flicked the arambarium grain from her finger into the chest, closed it, and replaced her glove. She closed her hand over the chest, and it vanished from her palm. “A down payment for services rendered,” she decreed.
    Demascus doubted there was anything the woman wouldn’t steal. Part of her appeal, he supposed, was that brashness. Besides, it might be handy to have some arambarium of their own. He’d ask her not to dispose of the material in the chest to the highest bidder-maybe they could find a use for it. A discussion for later, though.
    “Let’s get out here,” he said. “We’ve got an appointment.”
    “Did you charter a ship?”
    “Yeah. But the storm’s got them all stuck in the harbor. But that doesn’t mean we’ve got nothing to do.”
    “What?”
    He pointed to the ledger that contained Raneger’s name. “What say we pay a little visit to the Den of Games?”

CHAPTER SIX

    THE CITY OF AIRSPUR, AKANUL
    17 LEAFFALL, THE YEAR OF THE AGELESS ONE (1479 DR)

    It amazed her every time. and terrified her, because of what her new ability probably meant. Nothing natural could do what she could. Simply … appearing where she wanted to go. Or else, almost as often, in some random market or water pipe lounge around Airspur. Sometimes, she’d find herself standing on an earthmote high over Akanul or on the lip of the North Wall gazing into the wasteland of Halruaa.
    Halruaa had once been a vibrant land of high magic. Back when …
    Back when I was still alive, she thought. Admit it, Madri. You’re a gods-abandoned ghost. Stop lying to yourself. You’re nothing more than a haunt with delusions of carrying on.
    She shook her head. The rain made her hair a sodden tangle that wrapped her neck like seaweed. She shivered. A dead person couldn’t feel cold, could she? A dead person couldn’t feel at all!
    When Madri had watched Demascus board the ship, the familiar rage shook her, but with it came a nugget of hope. No shell of life could feel such a pure rage, surely! Please, Kelemvor, Lord of the Dead, grant that I’m not a wraith just going through the motions, looking for peace denied me by an untimely death. Unfortunately, other clues also suggested she’d left the realm of the living. Usually she didn’t dwell on them. But with Demascus now out of sight in the shadow of the ship’s forecastle, and the relentless rain coming down like a shroud, her mind wandered.
    The signs perched on her shoulders like crows. She never seemed hungry. Or thirsty. Gone were the headaches that once assailed her if she didn’t indulge with a bowl of exotically blended tabac each day, even though she hadn’t smoked in months. But the most damning evidence of all was that sometimes hours or even days would pass in a dark dream of nothingness, as if she was simply gone from the world, without form, or substance, or mind. If that wasn’t the affliction suffered by a disembodied spirit-and she was going to hold fiercely to the opposite of that proposition-then what was she, exactly?
    A different answer had occurred to Madri a few days ago, when she’d lured Demascus’s windsoul friend to the Norjah manor. The items of power in the vampires’ secret gallery were exceptionally potent examples of divine craftsmanship, and she needed one. As she’d waited for the windsoul to create the distraction Madri counted on, her mind flashed to an image of Exorcessum. The sword possessed as much divine power as any one of the paintings, though that strength slumbered. Was it possible that damned assassin’s tool had … What? Plucked a guilty image from the memory scraps still blowing through Demascus’s mind of Madri and … breathed life into it? Well, pseudo-life, anyway.
    Exorcessum was the very first thing she could recall after her death. He’d just found the sword, after misplacing it in some mausoleum called Khalusk. Her first recent memory was of standing there, glaring at Demascus, who’d stared dumbly back as if he’d never seen her before.
    She radiated anger. Her wet hair steamed with the heat of it. Which was more infuriating? she wondered. To meditate on the treacherous lunatic who’d snapped your neck while you were gazing at him like a love-struck idiot? Or to wonder if your entire current existence was nothing more than a part of someone’s fragmented memory? Am I a recollection given a sham existence by an errant pulse of divine energy from a mishandled magical artifact?
    It was her new fear. When she wasn’t nervous that she might be an unquiet spirit, she worried she was something even less real. At least if she was a ghost, she possessed a splinter of her former life. But if she was only a memory inflated like a festival balloon and let go over the city, then she couldn’t trust anything in her own head. It was all just borrowed; it was all just her as he had thought of her.
    Madness lay down that path. She knew it. If she continued on, trying to learn her exact status, she would probably be sorry. Just drop it, Madri!
    Unfortunately, it wasn’t in her nature to let questions remain unanswered. As a plenipotentiary of Halruaa, the hand-selected emissary-and spy-of Zalathorm himself, the eldest of the Council of Elders who ruled Halruaa, it had been her job to find information … And she’d been shattered to discover Halruaa had dissolved in the Spellplague, not long after her own death. Decades upon decades earlier. She’d been gone from the world for close to a hundred years …
    Madri gritted her teeth. She couldn’t let herself get distracted by the minutia of the past. She tried to focus on any interesting activity aboard the ship with the siren-decorated prow. Keeping an eye on Demascus was the most important thing now. She had to wait for her chance to collect the last ingredient for the ritual. The ritual that would ensure her revenge, and more.
    An accomplished eavesdropper, Madri was fully cognizant of Demascus’s commission from the queen of Akanul. She’d seen the whole meeting that morning in the deva’s home. Demascus would likely find himself in a dangerous spot if the queen’s story about losing contact with her secret mine was accurate. And it would give Madri an opportunity to grab what she needed much sooner than she’d expected.
    The weather, however, had other plans. Demascus wouldn’t be going to sea today, she judged. The storm was too fierce. No ship captain would risk a vessel in such waters. So why keep watching? Foolish to remain out in the worsening downpour like a jilted stalker. After all, she could be-
    Flicker.
    She was standing in a shadowed corner of the Copperhead, an Airspur water pipe lounge she’d appeared in several times this month. As usual, when she made such transitions, no one noticed. The patrons continued to lounge about the comfortable chamber, drawing in water-cooled smoke and releasing it with the grandeur of exhaling dragons. The Copperhead reminded her of a place she’d frequented in her old life. The odor of a dozen special blends of tabac, the sound of bubbling smoke through water, and the relaxed demeanor of the customers were so familiar. If she closed her eyes, she might well be in that other place and time. Closing her eyes also helped because, in Halruaa, there’d been no genasi.
    She’d become used to the elemental people of Akanul the last few months. All except for that queen who’d given Demascus his commission. Arathane. Her mouth tightened. Even though the woman had probably handed Madri the opportunity she required to advance her own plan, she’d taken an instant dislike to the monarch. The genasi was too familiar with Demascus.
    What, are you jealous? Of someone competing for the affections of your killer? She smirked at her own foolishness. The mind is a tangled thing. Did the queen truly have an interest in Demascus? It was improbable, though not impossible. Madri recalled how she herself had been intrigued by him, despite her lofty responsibilities. Queen Arathane, regardless of her station, might be similarly impressed with the deva, even though he seemed only an echo of what he’d been.
    She didn’t like to consider it. She should return to the crypt and see if any new instructions were forthcoming from the single entity that knew she walked in the world. Instead, she lingered in her corner, watching patrons drift in and out of the rain.

    Madri and Demascus had met in a water pipe lounge. Zalathorm had arranged for her to meet the visiting “champion” of epic repute, the mysterious deva who’d rid Halruaa of a secret menace, to see what she might learn. No one knew the details, not even Zalathorm. It had been enough that Mystra, the patron goddess of Halruaa, had let it be known through her servitors that Demascus had done Zalathorm a great service. Madri’s job was to learn more in the guise of genteel companionship.
    Madri viewed her meeting with Demascus as one more state function. Certainly the stakes were potentially high, but she was used to that. Zalathorm worried that Damascus might turn out to be a secret agent for Estagund, who’d somehow fooled even divine beings. It had happened before.
    They’d met under an umbrella, one midday. Demascus, who she’d thought of then as a pale-skinned human, acted like he’d rather be anywhere else. He refused to so much as look at her, talking only of politics, of temples and gods and their clergy, and other meaningless jabber. He wouldn’t speak about Mystra, the “great favor” he’d supposedly done the people of Halruaa, or anything of real substance. He disdained even trying a single draw on the water pipe. And he’d caught her glance only once-she saw that his eyes were the color of ancient glaciers-then he quickly looked away.
    If it hadn’t been for that one passing glance, Madri would have thought him one of the biggest bores she’d ever had the misfortune to meet. And that would have been that.
    Zalathorm was disappointed with her report, but sometimes even someone with her skills in finding out the obscure and hidden comes up dry. She’d done background on Demascus, using a mix of her mundane and arcane resources, and found so little that she’d become sure that, at the very least, he was an expert in obscuring his past. Hells, he could even throw her off the trail. It made her curious, but she had other issues to fill her mind.
    A letter came for her two months later from Demascus, asking that they meet again at the same place. She penned a reply and gave it to the messenger. And instantly regretted it. She wasn’t looking for another opportunity to learn what Zalathorm wanted; she wanted to see the stranger’s startling eyes again. What a fool you are, Madri! This is no assignment. Remember what an ass he was?
    In his message Demascus had said, “I hope you’ll accept my apology for acting the hound. I wasn’t ready for a social engagement. Sorry I subjected you to my worst self, still tired from my previous task. But if you’re available, I’d like to see you again and apologize in person. You’re one of the few people I know in the city.”
    When she met him the second time, it was a cool evening. They sat at the same table as before, this time with candles flickering between them. The smells of smoke, body heat over crushed roses, and violets mingled in the air. He looked right at her. His eyes were wells, leading down to depths of experience she could hardly imagine. They talked for hours.
    Later, when the evening had drawn to a close, they kissed goodnight. Her chest, the hollows behind her knees, every part of her body seemed to fill with light. Her hands clutched briefly across the small of his back, pulling him into an embrace. What was she doing?
    She’d been struck insane, obviously.
    When they drew apart, she suggested they meet for a third time. And so their romance began.

    A glum-looking watersoul banged into the Copperhead, and Madri’s reminisces went up with the smoke of a dozen exhalations.
    Damn me, what’s past is past, she thought. I’ve got to focus on the present. Halruaa is gone, and I’m in Akanul. Thanks to … Demascus himself, perhaps.
    She remembered when he’d last gazed at her in Halruaa, with sorrow scribing his face like talons. As if he was sorry for what he was doing, even as his hands tightened on her head, for the final sharp twist …
    Darkness seemed to stretch forever.
    Until she was somewhere else, a mausoleum. Demascus, the Sword of the Gods, was there, too. Except that he was clutching his blade like a child just out of weapons training. He gaped at her with wide, ice-blue eyes. If Madri hadn’t immediately lapsed into another fit of timeless nonexistence, she would have gone for his throat.
    “Madam, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there,” a voice said. She shook her head, clearing the memory and returning to the moment. The proprietor of the Copperhead was wiping down a table, scant feet from her. He was hardly more than a kid, pierced with flashing jewelry, and staring with a question in his eyes. “Follow me. I’ll set you up with a pipe.”
    “No, no, I’m fine,” she replied. “I came in to get out of the rain.”
    “Ah. I suppose that’s all right. If you change your mind, just head up to the counter there.” The kid gave her a curious stare.
    She sometimes forgot that, though she could appear and disappear without drawing attention to herself, as if people in the vicinity had just edited her into or out of their consciousness, it didn’t mean she was invisible.
    Time to leave. She concentrated, hoping that if she fixed carefully in her mind the image of where she wanted to go, she could avoid too many more random hops …
    Flicker.
    Earthmotes drifting through piles of lightning-lit clouds.
    Flicker.
    A cliff face on which the Sea of Fallen Stars lashed its rage.
    Flicker.
    A floating obelisk, cratered and crusted like a fossil dug from the living rock of Toril and set adrift in the sky. Tentacles hundreds of yards long slithered down its sides. What? Was she even in Akanul any-
    Flicker.
    Darkness and the smell of loose earth. The odor, despite its sour tang, was a welcome one. She was back. Madri mumbled a charm. A light caught in the lantern mantle. The glow revealed a small side table and chair. A silvery mask, blank but for two shadowed eye openings, lay next to the lantern on the table.
    She dropped into the chair. It was the one comfortable piece of furniture down here. She eyed the mask, wondering if it had a comment or instruction for her. When the mask remained quiescent, she turned to look at the stone wall opposite her. The surface possessed a couple of notable features-a narrow flight of stairs leading up to a secret door and a painting.
    Red velvet draped the painting, hiding the visage scowling beneath it. The first time she’d locked eyes with the entity called the Necromancer, illustrated on the canvas, it had spoken words of horror to her. She’d fallen to the floor as her body spasmed out of control. Afterward she’d retched, but nothing came up. The image she’d seen, a face composed of broken pieces of reality, screaming in frozen unending agony at its splintered flesh and mind … Gods!
    That event further sustained her hope that she wasn’t a ghost. Ghosts didn’t have fits, did they? Or try to puke up their guts?
    After she’d collected herself, Madri had procured a drape for the painting. She had a feeling that, no matter her status, too much undirected exposure to the Necromancer could permanently damage her.
    She glanced away. There were two more interesting features in the room. The first was a fissure across the floor that dropped into darkness. She’d made no attempt to plumb it, other than throwing a single pebble into the cavity and failing to hear it strike bottom.
    The second was a heaped pile of grave dirt. Madri pushed herself out of the chair and approached the black mound. Close up, the sour odor was mixed with the reek of a rotting carcass. Beneath the dirt lay the shell of Kalkan Swordbreaker. Kalkan who, one day soon-far sooner than Demascus could hope to be ready for-would be reborn. When this self-styled nemesis of the Sword of the Gods woke, he’d help Madri exact vengeance against Demascus. So the mask promised, at any rate.
    Her nose wrinkled with the odor. But she patted the waist-high pile of soil like it was a pet. “You’d better actually be in there, Kalkan, slouching back to the world to live again. Because sometimes I worry I’m imagining all this as I spin in my own grave …”
    “Kalkan is real enough,” said the mask on the table.
    She turned. “You’re awake?”
    “Evidently.”
    Madri hated the mask. It had found her flickering around Airspur, afraid and alone. It gave her purpose and promised revenge on the one who had killed her. But it also toyed with her, sometimes telling her minor falsehoods as if it enjoyed tripping her up. As if it couldn’t help but weave falsehood with truth, despite her allegiance to it.
    “Fossil,” she said, for that’s what she sometimes called the mask for lack of any better name, “is your master any nearer to waking on his own?”
    “What makes you believe I serve Kalkan?” came the cold, androgynous voice.
    Her lips thinned. “You told me Kalkan Swordbreaker was divinely appointed to keep Demascus in check-”
    “Correct, lest he grow too powerful on Toril,” the mask interrupted, only to fall silent again.
    She waited for the mask to continue. Of course, it did not. It was just like Fossil to speak in riddles, when it wasn’t making outright fabrications. So be it, she thought, I’m a champion riddle solver.
    “You once described how Kalkan, like Demascus, was doomed to return to the world again and again.”
    The mask lifted off the table to hang in the air, facing her. She had piqued its interest. “You also referred to yourself as a reanimated angel remnant who once served a god of Toril who had been wronged by all others,” she continued. “You made it sound like that was in the past, that the deity was dead or imprisoned … But now I think it’s possible you still serve that one and not Kalkan at all. Which is it?”
    The mask didn’t speak for so long that she was readying herself to shout at the obstinate thing when it said, “It doesn’t matter. What matters is that our purposes are aligned. You seek to punish Demascus. Kalkan is the vehicle by which that shall be accomplished. Be glad you’ve been brought into this at all, figment.”
    Figment? That was a new one. She stored that away for later reflection. “You still haven’t described how it’s going to work. Punishing the deva as he deserves will be tricky, since he’s guaranteed to return from the dead.”
    “The Swordbreaker has pursued Demascus down through the centuries. He has a plan.”
    “Of course,” Madri said. “In fact, I saw him again today. He seeks to charter a ship.”
    “As Kalkan predicted,” the mask stated.
    Everything she did was predicated on some sort of scheme devised by Kalkan. A scheme so tangled that it could’ve been drawn up only by someone with impossibly precise foreknowledge of the future. As a plenipotentiary, she had some experience with the divinatory school of magic. She’d always found divination imprecise at best, and useful for only a few hours of forward-gazing. Whatever magic Kalkan possessed, it was something that defied all the theory and teaching she’d received in Halruaa.
    Then again, Kalkan was a rakshasa, a creature with access to secrets few others knew. Upon its death, a rakshasa was guaranteed eventual reincarnation. When it did reappear, it retained all the memories and knowledge of each and every one of its former selves. A rakshasa had lifetimes to learn from its mistakes, and each rakshasa had the cumulative wisdom of a thousand lives, giving it firsthand knowledge of history and the experience from tens of thousands of schemes. During his existence, Kalkan had apparently gathered many powerful secrets.
    The sooner she and Fossil could move forward with the ritual, the sooner Kalkan would return to the world and take up after the deva once more. She’d once asked why just she and Fossil couldn’t go after Demascus themselves. The mask simply refused to answer. Which told her it was more concerned with Kalkan’s return than her own vengeance. She was just another tool, one that would gain satisfaction when Kalkan’s plan finally saw the deva to the end he deserved.
    “Demascus can’t go the island immediately,” she said. “Not today, probably not for several days. A storm has all the ships held in port.”
    “A storm? I don’t recall that being part of …” The mask trailed off.
    “So, what other ingredients does the ritual require? I’ve gotten you the whispering painting, the one called the Necromancer. And you said the last ingredient could be gathered when Demascus visits this mysterious island. What must I do when that happens?” She waited for the thing to continue.
    Silence.
    She approached it and tapped a fingernail on its smooth face. “Anyone home?”
    The mask settled back down next to the lamp. It’d lapsed back to sleep, or whatever it did when it wouldn’t talk. If it was a spirit bound to an object, perhaps it ceased continuity for a while. Like when she experienced her own episodes of time loss-
    She waved the thought away like an annoying gnat. Anyway, Fossil had called her “figment.” Though it probably only did so to make her wonder-she’d made the mistake of mentioning her latest fear about her status to the mask.
    Just to be sure, she tapped Fossil again. Nothing. She was tempted to pick it up and toss it down the chasm, just to see if anything would happen. No. She had a more pressing need to take care of while Fossil was “out.”
    She faced the draped picture. If Necromancer could provide instructions to Fossil on how to resurrect Kalkan early … it could damn well do something for her, too.

CHAPTER SEVEN

    THE CITY OF AIRSPUR, AKANUL
    17 LEAFFALL, THE YEAR OF THE AGELESS ONE (1479 DR)

    Peanut shells covered the floor and crunched underfoot. The mouth-watering aroma of sizzling bacon filled the air. And a trio of musicians dressed in garish scarlet robes performed a raunchy melody to an audience that included a raft of empty tables, a slumped-over man in a green jacket, two squabbling women wearing too much makeup … and Chant Morven.
    Chant had expected more people in Digger’s Bar, since the private lounge was connected to the Den of Games. He’d been down here a few times when it was shoulder to shoulder.
    He crunched toward the back of the lounge. People said if you drank down three full draws of Digger’s Ale, you wouldn’t ask for a fourth. Instead, your friends would be carrying you home. Better hope you have friends, or instead you’d wake to the tender mercies of a press gang assembling a crew for some distant harbor.
    The rear of the lounge was one continuous bar. And there sat Jaul. Chant’s son was leaning over the counter-top to whisper a confidence to Digger. Jaul shared none of his father’s stoutness; the young man took after his mother that way. The trio of daggers Jaul was so proud of rode on the young man’s belt in identical scarlet sheaths.
    Digger was a black-bearded dwarf who smelled of hops and pork. He’d been Jaul’s friend from the time the boy was eleven years old. Chant blamed Digger for introducing Jaul to the Den of Games and to Raneger. If not for Digger’s constant encouragement, Jaul wouldn’t be taking coin from Raneger. It still rankled …
    Chant sat down next his son. “I’ll have what he’s having,” Chant said to Digger. “And some of that bacon.”
    The dwarf said, “Sure, sure.” He gave a contemptuous sneer.
    “Well?” said Chant, glancing at the tapped keg.
    Digger chuckled and finally moved to fill a tankard.
    Jaul studiously ignored his father. He rubbed at a tattoo visible on his left wrist. It was the tattoo Raneger had given him, a crystal dagger inside a crashing wave. Chant hated it. It was a sign of allegiance to the crime lord that many of Raneger’s people displayed.
    Chant forced a smile and said, “Jaul, glad you’re here. How … How’re you doing?”
    “Fine,” snapped Jaul. His eyes went to the playing cards scattered across the bar. He began to sort through them. Silence stretched.
    Chant knew the young man resented him. He had for years. Growing up human in a city predominantly populated with genasi had been hard. Too many bullies, and later, too many scuffles where the onus was always on Jaul to show he, as the human, could fit in or prove himself. Then Jaul started hanging out with a dissolute rabble of nobles with nothing better to do than make pests of themselves. The peacemakers were fair enough, but they had no tolerance for pranks. Childish shenanigans could easily transform into something worse. And as the lone human among his new “friends,” Jaul was always the one the peacemakers noticed.
    After Chant’s wife died, it would’ve been easy enough to leave Akanul. And he probably should have. But his pawnshop business was just beginning to turn a profit, and his nascent network of secret gatherers was becoming something more than a mere idea. He’d had coin on his mind; it was how he’d coped with the disintegration of his marriage.
    Jaul had fallen through the cracks. He’d paid too little mind to the boy. Digger had probably saved Jaul’s life when he ran afoul of some toughs. According to the story Chant heard, Digger had charged into a melee that pitted Jaul against five others with nothing more than an improvised club. Since then, everything Digger said was law to Jaul. So when Digger told the young man there was a job for him at the Den of Games, nothing Chant could do or say made any difference. Well, he had made one difference-he’d managed to completely alienate his son and give Raneger the hook he required to make sure Chant wouldn’t flee his debt.
    “Why’re you still here, anyway?” Jaul said suddenly.
    “I’m waiting for my ale-”
    “No, Pa, you know what I mean. Why’re you still working at the Den? Digger says you paid your debt to the house. You can go back to your pawnshop anytime.”
    “Ah. Yeah, I’ve paid my debt. Raneger isn’t sending goons after me anymore to threaten my life-”
    “That never happened!” said Jaul.
    “It did. Open your eyes.”
    Jaul looked disgusted. But he said, “All right, maybe. Probably just to scare you. But if Raneger sent you reminders, then I really don’t understand why you’ve taken on here. You must hate it.” Jaul gestured with his mug at the room. Ale sloshed over the rim.
    Chant sighed. He knew Jaul was right. But he also knew his son drank too much for so early in the day. However, pointing that sort of thing out to his son was the best way to end a conversation. He decided to be honest.
    “Couple reasons I’m here,” Chant finally said. “First, it’s the only way I can see you. You’re still my blood, and I want to look out for you.”
    Jaul rolled his eyes. “Just like you used to?”
    Sharkbite! Chant clamped down on the anger that was his automatic response. His son knew all the right triggers. “Second … well, the job I took, the one that paid me so well I was able to pay off Raneger’s crazy claim, well, it was dangerous. I got on the wrong side of Chevesh. He’s a fire mage that-”
    “The crazy wizard?” Jaul turned in his seat to face his father. His eyes had gone wide with interest. Jaul hadn’t looked at him like that in more than a year. Maybe several years.
    “Yeah, he’s crazy all right,” said Chant, warming to the topic. “A human trying to graft himself with genasi firesoul heritage. But the only thing he’s managed to accomplish is to bake his own brain.”
    “What’d you do? Why’s Chevesh after you?”
    “I asked him if he was responsible for some bad stuff going down around the city a few months ago. Nightmares coming to life, demons appearing and killing people. We had to sneak into his tower-”
    “Damn, Pa! You snuck into Chevesh’s? What’d you find?”
    Chant took his beer from Digger. He sipped and then said, “Chevesh had nothing to do with the abyssal plague we were hunting down, turns out. But he was mighty put out when he found me and Demascus in his sanctum. We managed to get away with just a few burns. But he recognized me, and he swore vengeance.”
    Jaul shook his head, but not in disgust or fear. In admiration!
    Chant continued, “I’d hoped that since he was soft in the head, Chevesh would forget. But, oh, how wrong I was. He hired assassins.”
    Jaul swallowed his beer wrong. When the coughing subsided, he said, “Mystra’s Corpse! And you fought them off?”
    “No. I should say, he tried to hire assassins-he thought he had. Chevesh contracted with someone on Raneger’s payroll. Raneger, who’d just collected my debt, had his proxy pretend to accept. Then Raneger summoned me to the Den and revealed the signed contract. Said that he’d be willing to permanently lose the thing if I’d put my secret-gathering network at his disposal for one year. That was six months ago.”
    “Wait, wait. Master Raneger did that for you? Because … because he wanted to use your network?”
    “Close your mouth, son, you look soft in the head. Is it so unbelievable that your old man built something that Raneger might value?”
    “I guess not.” Jaul’s mouth twitched; an incipient grin.
    Score one for the old man, Chant thought. He sipped his beer, hiding his own smile. Then he frowned. Impressing his son by revealing how a master criminal was exploiting the pawnbroker’s network wasn’t exactly how he wanted to mend fences with Jaul. He wanted to pull him out of this situation, not make it seem like something reasonable. Chant suspected he was a terrible role model. It was no wonder his boy-
    “Hey, Pa, I’m heading over to the Plaza of Dancing Dolphins tonight. They got good music there, a better grade than this rat piss.” He waved at the musicians in the corner. “It might be all right, if you wanted to come?”
    On the other hand, Chant thought, he couldn’t argue with results. “Sure, I’d like that.”
    Digger came to check on Jaul. The dwarf frowned to see the pawnbroker still there. That’s right, thought Chant, eyeing the greasy dwarf. Jaul and I are family, and I’m not letting you or this organization turn us against each other again.
    A tug on Chant’s sleeve turned out to be one of the musicians. “What?”
    “Someone’s looking for you.” The musician pointed at a pale man with tattoos the color of ash.
    “Waukeen’s empty purse!” Chant said.
    Jaul glanced at the stranger. “Who’s that?”
    “Demascus!” Chant called, and waved the deva over. Behind him came Riltana. The pawnbroker grinned. Both were dripping wet. The storm must still be howling outside. “A reunion,” he said. “Digger, ale for my friends.”
    He opened his mouth to ask Riltana how Carmenere was, then closed it. Sometimes he could manage tact.
    Jaul eyed the damp strangers.
    “Jaul, meet Demascus and Riltana. And this is Jaul, the apple of my eye.”
    “Nice to meet you,” said Demascus, and offered a hand. Jaul didn’t react for only a moment, just long enough to be rude, then shook.
    Riltana nodded and said, “Hey kid, nice to meet you.”
    “Chant,” said the deva, “It’s great to see you again. It’s been too long.”
    The pawnbroker smiled. “Decide to try your hand at some games? I can steer you to a couple of tables that aren’t fixed. And how’s my cat?”
    “No games today,” said Demascus. “And Fable is settled in well. A little too well. I think she believes she’s the master and I’m her servant.” Chant and Jaul both chuckled
    “Actually, I have something I want to talk to you about,” Demascus said. “Fairly serious … is there anywhere we can talk?”
    Riltana let her gaze rest on Jaul for a couple of heartbeats, just long enough to imply his son’s presence was an annoyance.
    Jaul stiffened as he realized he’d suddenly become the odd man out. Sharkbite! Not when he’d just made so much headway!
    Chant raised his hand and said, “Demascus, I have no secrets from my son. What’s on your mind?”
    Demascus frowned. “Chant. This is sensitive material. I trust you and your son can keep it confidential?”
    Chant glanced at Jaul, who licked his lips and nodded. Chant was already regretting his words. Of course the boy couldn’t keep a secret. Why, just-
    “Great.” Demascus leaned in, and Riltana followed his lead. “There’s been a mining disruption,” said the deva, “and the Throne of Majesty is concerned it’s actually a covert attack by a foreign power. Queen Arathane is desperate for some actual intelligence at the mine site before the Four Stewards force some sort of military action based on fear, not facts.”
    “News to me,” said Chant. His mind automatically started a list of people who’d pay good coin to hear it … He pinched off that line of thought. Demascus was his friend, and this particular secret was not his to sell. Old habits were hard to break.
    “What kind of mine?” said Jaul.
    Demascus raised a finger to acknowledge the question, but continued on his original tack. “Here’s the thing. We found documents that suggest Raneger is somehow connected to the mining disruption. Know anything about it?”
    Chant stroked his chin. Mining? “No. Master Raneger has his fingers in a lot that goes on in the city, legal and less so. But I don’t think he’s got the infrastructure to support that sort of operation.”
    “A mining disruption-what’s that mean?”
    Chant glanced at his son. The boy was persistent. “Jaul’s got a point. What’s this really about?”
    “A mine operated by the Crown has gone silent. It’s a secret excavation, so I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of it. But Raneger may have.”
    “What kind of mine?” said Chant.
    Demascus leaned even closer and said, “Arambarium.”
    Arambarium? Sounded like a mineral he should know about, but he was coming up blank.
    But Jaul was nodding. “Master Raneger was talking to some people about arambarium a few tendays ago.”
    Chant and Demascus speared Jaul with surprised looks.
    “Who was Raneger talking to?” said Riltana.
    “Not sure-I caught it in passing. But I remember they said ‘arambarium’ because it was a new one on me. It stuck with me.”
    “Anything else?” said Demascus.
    “Something about moving the goods through some warehouse. But our game was over, so I took off.”
    Chant looked at his son, an odd feeling in his stomach. “You play games … with Raneger? In his receiving room?” The idea of Jaul having such a casual relationship with the low-down snake made his blood run cold.
    Jaul shrugged. “He gets lots of visitors, some of them pretty odd. I’m usually the least impressive person in Raneger’s court. Except at cards.” He chuckled. “Raneger likes cards. And I’m pretty damn good, Pa.”
    “Jaul,” said Demascus, “Can you get us a meeting with Raneger?”
    “Probably.”
    Chant opened his mouth to protest, then closed it. Then opened it again and said instead, “What if this arambarium is a secret we’d rather Raneger didn’t know that we knew? It could be dangerous to question him on the topic.”
    Riltana slapped Chant’s shoulder, “Then I guess we better be ready to fight, huh?” She grinned.
    Jaul clapped his hands and shook his head. “Don’t worry. I’ll tell Raneger you’re with me.”

    Raneger’s dim receiving room was vast, supported by a double row of marble columns, with a pool recessed in the middle of the floor, giving the air a moist, dank quality. Sometimes the crime lord invited the keepers of fighting drakes and sword moths to provide bloody sport. Other times he hosted musicians, or elaborately costumed dancers, or even the occasional jester.
    Chant particularly hated jesters. He was glad to see none were in attendance. However, the rest of Raneger’s “court” was present as Chant and his friends were ushered in. Chant recognized several faces among the varied bunch of bootlickers, bounty hunters, and other scoundrels seeking the crime lord’s favor. What kind of secret monger would he be if he didn’t?
    Ah, but who’s this? A man stood before Raneger, tall and kingly. A gemstone was bound on his brow like a crown. But if he was slumming in Raneger’s court, the man was probably a fell dignitary of a foreign power. The symbol of a dark skull on a gold disc on the man’s belt cinched it-the fellow must be some kind of Zhentarim mercenary or captain.
    “Until next time, Lord Numegista,” Raneger said to the man. “I look forward to your next visit.”
    Chant’s ears pricked. What an odd tone. Raneger actually sounded respectful!
    The stranger swept out without so much as a glance in their direction. His green eyes were fixed on some internal question. When he had some time to spare, Chant decided he would put out feelers. It might be interesting to know who Numegista actually was. A Zhent able to command the deference of Akanul’s most accomplished crime lord was someone Chant should know, too …
    Raneger motioned them forward. Jaul moved to the edge of pool-it seemed the crimelord never left his aquatic basin. Chant and the others followed, though not as close as his son.
    “Jaul, you didn’t mention we’d have guests,” said Raneger. “I suppose you have a good reason to disturb my court?” The waters of Raneger’s pool sloshed against the sides.
    “Disturb? But I thought …” said Jaul, and swallowed. The young man mopped at his brow, surprise evident on his face.
    “You thought what, whelp? That because I show you more favor than most, that you can abuse my trust and bring beggars to my pool?”
    Jaul opened and closed his mouth, apparently speechless.
    Chant didn’t give a shark’s fin who Raneger was-no one could treat his son that way! He opened his mouth to tell Raneger to go drown himself or something even more irrevocable, but Demascus beat him to it, saying, “Master Raneger, I apologize for using Jaul’s good graces to burst in on your business; I assure you, he’s blameless. I have a question for you, and hope you’re willing to answer it.”
    Not really what Chant had been about to say, but perhaps the diplomatic route was the better choice. He mollified himself by patting Jaul’s shoulder. Jaul shot him an angry look for his trouble. Oops.
    Raneger shifted position, sending ripples up and down the pool. A wave broke over the side and a sheet of water slid across the tiles of the receiving chamber toward where most of the court stood in small groups.
    Riltana looked horrified as liquid sloshed over her boots. She glanced longingly at the exit but held her ground.
    Chant felt liquid seep into his own boots and soak his feet. Wonderful. But if he got out of this meeting with only wet socks as the worst consequence, he would count himself lucky.
    “And who’re you?” Raneger jerked his immense bulk upright, sending an even larger wave cascading across the tile. His head was then fully visible-humanoid, but so bloated with fat one might easily mistake Raneger for some sort of grotesque creature.
    “I thought he was a kind of high elf,” Riltana whispered in Chant’s ear.
    “Most people do,” he whispered back.
    Demascus stepped closer. “The name’s Demascus. Thanks for the audience. I appreciate that you’re a busy man, so I’ll be brief; I found a clue linking you to a fairly thorny situation.”
    Raneger’s szuldar blazed suddenly, producing chasing spirals of green light that barely outlined something horribly swollen and large beneath the pool’s surface. Raneger might be a watersoul genasi, but only just. “Speak on, Demascus. But know this. As soon as you leave here, I’ll discover everything there is to know about you. Who you know. Where you live. And what’s important to you. So do not make me angry.”
    Demascus eyed the misshapen watersoul. His expression seemed to darken, as if he’d stepped back into a shadow. Uh, oh.
    Chant cleared his throat, trying to catch the deva’s attention. Now wasn’t the time for Demascus to call his “other” out to play.
    “I wish you luck in that, Raneger,” said Demascus. “Because I’ve been trying to do exactly the same. Maybe you can tell me what’s important to me, because I’d dearly like to find out.”
    Raneger narrowed his eyes, obviously not understanding.
    “But if you’re through with threats-what do you know about Akanul’s arambarium mine?”
    Raneger’s expression froze. “What authority do you have that makes you believe you won’t suffer immediate retribution from me? Why should I not kill you, rather than answer?”
    “Because I think you want to know what I know.”
    Chant sweated. What the Hells had Demascus led him and Jaul into?
    Finally Raneger gave a tiny nod. When he spoke, his voice was as cold as ice. “Arambarium is a mineral. The Throne of Majesty has been secretly harvesting it from an island off the coast.”