By Steve Semler
Revision: 10/29/2017 10:41 PM
Copyright © 2017 by Steve Semler. All rights reserved.
Maxmillian Rottweiler stopped mid-stride in the center of the empty trade road. Something he couldn’t quite place drew his head to the left. He squinted through the dusk at the building before him. The big warrior’s sandy-blond brows knit with concentration, as though his mind was trying to pass a juicy, ripe thought through a particularly small keyhole to his forebrain. With sudden clarity he said, “I have to go in here.”
His elven companion followed his gaze and snorted, “The Brightwhisker Crossing Adventurers’ Guildhall?” One slender eyebrow made a skeptical arch. Sounds of revelry leaked out from within. “You want to go in there?”
“The Light is guiding me.” He had left his polished plate armor behind at the Crossing’s inn, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t still on duty. The shimmering Watchers’ sigil on the pommel of the greatsword slung over his shoulder identified him as a foe of Shadow. His earnestness was almost palpable, but at least he wasn’t glowing.
Cinnabar Silvertree scoffed. “You’re just following the sounds of a party!”
The burly young paladin shrugged. He turned toward the door, still wearing a puzzled frown. “Maybe. The innkeeper’s daughter did point us in this direction, though.”
Cinna studied the building. It was even bigger than the Crossing’s caravan inn, and that was built to shelter several long merchant trains, their staff, and animals for up to a week. The guildhall was made of whitewashed brick, two stories high with a bell tower at the north end. Glass window panes, glossy black painted shutters and trim, and fresh slate tiles on the roof. Probably three dozen private rooms inside, plus all the club rooms, service facilities, and inevitable trophy and storage space. There was a stable yard around back. Just for the guild members’ use, she guessed. Soft, golden-green spell lights sat comfortably in their brass sconces near the entrance and stable. She wrinkled her nose. The place smelled new. Of course, the whole village was less than a year old, but the scent of this place was unnaturally fresh, like it had been plucked from a guildhall tree and placed just-so a few paces off the trade road to Catalina.
She shook her head. “They’re fun while they last, but no ‘Adventurers’ Guild’ has ever survived more than two-score years before folding or angering the sponsoring lords badly enough to get its charter revoked. Even the big one up in Catalina has disbanded and reopened under different leadership several times over the past century. Kind of a bother renewing my membership each time, actually.”
Max shrugged. “Whatever you say. I wouldn’t know. But, we need to stop in and see what’s going on.”
The ranger nodded and followed him to the door.
* * *
A hearty celebration raged inside. Past the foyer with the double row of carved griffon pillars there were dozens of people of different races and professions. They were conversing, drinking, and enjoying themselves. A waiter passed by with a tray and Cinna snagged a pair of drinks. “Here,” she said, pressing a large mug into the paladin’s mitts.
“Thanks.” He looked about the common room with curiosity. “Looks like they are enjoying themselves.”
The elf spotted a bespectacled gnome woman with a bright green Mohawk and shouted to be heard over the din. “Hey! What’s the occasion?”
“The last demon portal was closed yesterday! Invasion over! The Kingdom is safe again!” The gnome raised her goblet to the elf in a comradely salute.
“Aha! Thanks! Congratulations!” Cinna nodded around the room. “You all did that?”
The gnome tittered and jiggled with laughter. “Oh, no! Not everyone! But we all helped out, here and around! Most of us just beat back the gnolls, but some did take the fight all the way to the demons and their masters.”
“Well done, and congratulations!” She smiled and raised her wine glass to the gnome.
Max was still staring. Cinna elbowed him gently. He muttered, “Lots of kinds of people here. Humans, dwarves, gnomes, tabashi….” He nodded toward the back. “Ishan, a couple of elves, some orcs. Even a few Shadow-touched.”
“Surprised? Problem with that?” Her smirk was a little challenging, but curious. She brushed a lock of crimson hair back behind her long, upturned ear.
He shook his head. “No problem. Just surprised, I guess.”
“Dunno.” Max shrugged. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a mix getting along so well. Kinda neat, actually.”
The elf sniffed and nodded. She sipped her wine.
Max took a swig from his tankard and gawked some more. His face split in a smile as he realized what she had given him. “By the Light! This is good dwarven brew!”
“Smells like Dwithers pale ale. Am I right?” The corners of her eyes crinkled mischievously.
“Yeah, I think so.” He tasted it thoughtfully. “Whatever it is, it’s good. Thanks.”
“My pleasure. Now, let’s see if you can figure out what brought you in here.”
“Right.” The paladin wandered back toward the dining room. Cinnabar followed in the wake the broad-shouldered human created behind himself.
* * *
“Maxmillian Rottweiler, a young Watcher, and Cinnabar Silvertree, the esteemed ever-wandering protector of the Wonderwood! Excellent! I am very pleased to make your acquaintance!” The upright tomcat approached with his hand out to clasp the paladin’s wrist in a hearty greeting. Max took it by reflex and nodded, studying the tabashi. The catlike fellow was nearly his own height, though much more wiry. Pale green slitted eyes returned his gaze with a touch of amusement, set in a face full of silver-ticked dark gray fur. The tabashi’s whiskers and ears were crooked forward attentively. His mane and head fur were trimmed neatly into something almost resembling a goatee. He wore a silver pin-striped silk vest and midnight blue trousers. His otherwise sleek appearance was marred in several places by scars that made irregular lines in his fur. His boots were polished, but well-worn. Max noted the hang of the man’s baldric. The tabashi was quite at ease with the dark-hilted longsword at his hip. He introduced himself, “Renlar Silverstep, Guildmaster of this fine establishment!”
“Call me Max. Glad to meet you, sir.” He was puzzled. They hadn’t been in the village for more than an hour. How had the guildmaster recognized the two of them?
Master Silverstep smiled enthusiastically at Cinna and offered his hand. His tail swept a graceful arc behind him as he bowed. “Lady Ranger!”
She accepted his greeting with a sly smile. “Master Silverstep. You are the uncle to the fine young ginger-furred lady managing the desk at the inn, then?”
“Indeed! Did she tell you I wanted to meet you?”
Cinna gave him a diffident half-shrug. “She suggested we come this way. We were headed toward the mayor’s residence, but Max’s senses stopped us halfway there and… well, you see the rest.”
“Excellent! One doesn’t meet many paladins, even in my business.” He smiled.
“Just so. They’re usually more trouble than they’re worth!”
Max snorted and gave her arm a little shove. “Hey!”
Cinna turned to him and grinned. “What do you want, sonny?”
“Be nice, grandma!” he protested.
The guildmaster glanced at the two of them and shook his head. “‘Grandma?’ You aren’t truly related, are you?”
Cinna laughed and shook her head. “No, of course not! Does Max look like he has even a drop of elven blood in him? No, but since I knew his great, great, grandparents when they came to this part of the kingdom, it’s sort of a running joke between us.”
“Cinna’s more like a mentor, or whatever,” the paladin added. “Been wandering these forests and mountains since before God needed to shave! I’m just her latest project.”
“And young as you seem, they don’t appoint Watchers who haven’t passed all sorts of trials, do they?” the tabashi observed, whiskers forward with curiosity.
“No, sir, they don’t.” Max’s face grew pensive for a moment. Then, he chuckled and smiled. “I think you have need of us, or I wouldn’t be getting that little push in the back of my head! What’s the story?”
“Let me show you to my office, and I can explain. Here, this way.”
The guildmaster waved to the majordomo, who nodded. He led Max and Cinna through a series of doors to an expansive office. It was remarkably tidy for showing all the signs of a busy administrator of dangerous contracts and adventures. The furniture was dark wood with plush upholstery, all seemingly new and unscuffed. Master Silverstep closed the door behind them. He asked, “Would you like drinks or refreshments? There is a party going on, you know.”
Max looked into his mug. “Another one of these dwarven ales?”
“Certainly, Sir Max. Lady Ranger?” She shook her head and he nodded. “Anything to eat? You haven’t been at the Crossing long enough to enjoy a decent meal, yet.”
“Maybe later. Business, first.”
Master Silverstep nodded and flowed into the important-looking chair behind the desk. A look of concentration passed over his face and his lips moved in silent speech. He turned his attention to his guests. “Now then. Yes, I need your help with a matter that is both personal and of interest to the Crown. There is some danger should this leak out, so I must ask for your cooperation in keeping this between us, to the extent possible.”
As they nodded, he hesitated and waited for the waiter to knock, enter, and serve Max his second ale. After the server left, he continued. “This begins with the personal matter. My mate—ex-mate, at the moment—Merrel Shadowpad, lives in the city. She’s a sneak—and a damned skilled one—working for the Clanmother, Hishta Blackshadow. I’m not sure if you are aware of it, but tabashi toms aren’t exclusive with our affections. That’s the way things work, and why the queens have more of the money and power. But Merrel told me to keep my paws off other females; she wanted me for herself. I don’t know, maybe she was feeling overly possessive or something. Regrettably, I soon had a dalliance with a beautiful merchant queen that came through the Crossing, and Merrel found out. She disavowed me and told me that if I showed my face in Cherry End, she’d kill me! Meanwhile, she hasn’t been exclusive herself, but that isn’t the point, really. I have to visit the city! And, I don’t want her mad at me forever, either.”
He looked out the window and stumbled a bit over his next admission. “We’re much better together than we are apart, even with that temper of hers. She’s feisty, but she might calm down if I soothe her pride.”
Max tried to piece this together in his head. He frowned, but Master Silverstep regarded him and continued before he could form a full question. “I need to extend both an apology and a gift. Merrel has always wanted an enchanted assassin’s blade. The kind you hear about in stories, where the killer steps out of the shadows and makes a single strike, and the target falls instantly dead. That sort of thing. Now, being a skilled warrior with more than a little of an arcane bent to my own talents, I have been seeking something like that for her for some time. I never had any real success finding one, but this recent situation provided me with a touch more motivation than before.”
“And you found one,” Cinna filled in.
“Correct. But I can’t obtain it myself. The opposition is more than I can handle. I need help.”
“But, isn’t that kind of weapon evil? Or touched by Shadow, or something?” Max asked, his frown even deeper than before.
The tabashi cocked his head to the side for a moment, considering how to answer the question. His tail tip twitched behind him. “No, not evil. This one by all counts is neither malevolent nor possessed by a spirit. It simply bears an enchantment that gives it special abilities when wielded by someone skilled in those arts.”
“Arts of assassination?”
“Yes.” Master Silverstep held up a hand to forestall the protests looming behind the paladin’s uncertain expression. “The weapon is merely a tool. The one who uses it chooses her victims. And I would much rather place such a weapon in service to the Crown, instead of leaving it in the hands of Shadow cultists, where it currently resides.”
Max’s eyes flew wide. “Shadow cultists have it?”
The tabashi nodded. “Indeed. A school of hobgoblin shadowblades, in fact. Assassins. They call themselves the Iron Shadows. This group did the work of those who summoned the demons here in the latest invasion. When I followed the clues and information that various of my guild members provided, I discovered this nefarious academy high in a mountain valley beyond the Cairn Hills. Looking at the disparate pieces of the puzzle, I believe that their presence might explain a number of mysterious deaths in this region. As for the blade, I presume that the head of the order, a shadowblade grandmaster called The Demon, holds it, but I don’t know that for certain. What I do know is that it is most definitely in their possession.”
“How?” Cinna asked.
“By rumors confirmed, a couple of neophyte assassins captured and interrogated by magic, and several triangulated divination spells.”
“What did you do with the prisoners?”
Master Silverstep smiled with satisfaction. “Turned them over to the Count’s lawkeepers! They won’t be troubling anyone for some time, at least!”
“You didn’t kill them?” the paladin wondered.
“Certainly not! Once I had captured them, they posed little further threat.” He chuckle-purred. “I’m not a bloodthirsty savage, to slay defeated foes.”
“I’m glad to hear that. But I’m a little worried about how your mate would use this weapon.”
The guildmaster dipped his head once. “She will use it to protect the interests of the Blackshadow clan. Those interests have long aligned with those of the Count and the kingdom. Who can say what the future holds, but I feel confident that prosperity would be better served by putting it in Merrel’s hands than by leaving it with the Iron Shadows.”
“And it is likely to put you back in her favor,” Cinna noted.
“Yes,” he acknowledged. “My challenge is a mathematical one, after a fashion. The previous equation between us has been altered. I must add more value to my side to restore the balance, and to do that I need your help. Conditions have changed, and I have to solve for ex.”
The elf sniffed with amusement and waited as she watched the paladin puzzle it out. Wheels turned behind Max’s blue eyes and then light dawned. “Oh! Ha ha! Good one! Solve for ex! Yes!”
“Then you will help me?” The guildmaster looked earnestly at both of them in turn.
Max looked at Cinna. She nodded and he replied, “Yes. We will help.”
* * *
The mountains threw the north side of the valley into shade as they made their way up the path Cinna picked for them through the evergreens. The scent of sun-warmed fir trees was crisp on the breeze. If Renlar’s map was accurate, the Iron Shadow fortress should be less than a mile ahead. The elven ranger seemed to know exactly where she was going.
Max consulted the voices in his sword, Dragon’s Hope, while he followed Cinna and the guildmaster as surreptitiously as he could. The tabashi was clad in a suit of irridesium plate armor, a sort of dark twin to Max’s own polished mithral protective shell. The characteristic iridescent sheen played over the surface of the black metal as Renlar moved, barely visible under the shadowy canopy of the firs and taller pines. He bore an unmarked shield of the same metal; hooked on his back, for now. Max had seen the guildmaster don shield and draw his sword quick as a flash several times over the past few days. The tabashi was tough, adroitly holding the line against the gnolls and Unseelie fey they had encountered on the journey through the wilderness to the assassins’ academy.
“I sense only a minor rift,” whispered the echo of the noble dragon, Benshannazar. “It has been open for a long time, but it is stable. It is only wide enough to allow corrupting thoughts to leak through. The fortress that lies ahead was constructed around the rift. There is no danger of Shadow incursion from this one. Your quest is important to obtain the weapon Master Silverstep seeks and to weaken the evil of the foes you face, rather than to close the Shadow rift.”
“I’ll close it anyway,” Max promised.
“Of course,” the dragon agreed. His presence faded, stepping aside for one of the other two echoes in the sword to speak.
“There is no immediate threat of arcane magic. I will be ready to protect you as needed, Max,” the next voice whispered in his head. “As always.”
“Thank you, mother,” the paladin replied. The echo of his mother, the Watcher mage, Lorna Rottweiler, slipped away.
“You could try checking with me, first, for once!” complained the third whisperer.
“You always have the most to say. What do you see?” Max asked the echo of Zkydraksis, his draconic nemesis.
“Shadow.” The dragon’s whisper was almost petulantly terse.
“Stupid question. Is an agent of Shadow ever not deceptive? But, no, nothing significant to concern yourself with. No possessed foes or demons hiding in human form within many miles. Ordinary quasi-mystic warriors, no more than that. Stepping through shadow, inflicting pain and death with their arts and poisons, that sort of thing. Nothing you can’t handle, if you heed my warnings. IF you attend to anything at all, that is.”
“I will try.”
“See that you do! You only seem to endanger yourself when you spend too much time listening to those other two voices. Nobility so often ignores self-preservation!”
The echo of the second dragon faded with a mental huff. With the advisors in his sword silent for the moment, Max kept wending his way after the others. Cinna was taking her time picking the path, but that made it easy for him to follow. He supposed that it also kept them from being observed by the Iron Shadow sentries. The elf was sure to have spotted them long before they could detect the group. That was one of the many things she was skilled at. Soon she gave the signal for the trio to stop. She crouched beside a spindly fir tree that sported branches drooping with pale green needles. She picked up some fir needles from the ground and rubbed them idly between her finger and thumb, enjoying the scent.
“This is as far as we can approach directly without being seen,” she told them. “The hobgoblins have strong enough dark vision to see us at night, so we gain no advantage by waiting for dusk. They will be watching the path and keeping a lookout from the other walls of the fortress. As far as they know, the only ways into their stronghold are through the front gate and any of those secret passages they’ve no doubt installed since they moved in. Any other obvious approach would require climbing up some slopes and rock faces that you boys would not want to attempt in plate armor.”
“Recommendations?” Renlar asked her.
The crimson-tressed elf winked at him with a smug grin. “This place is recent construction, as far as I’m concerned. It was built only one hundred and twenty years ago, give or take a few. It was orcish work, originally. The Yellowtusk Clan had an officer training school here. They wanted to raise and train griffons as flying cavalry, but they didn’t really have the patience to make that work. Their beastmasters kept getting sent out on mercenary contracts. The few that survived had to start again with unruly griffons. The Yellowtusks suffered so many battlefield losses against the ishan invaders that they married into and were absorbed by the Firefist Clan. This place was abandoned long before that. I happen to know that there is a griffon spire entrance we can reach mostly unobserved. I’ll scout it out to make sure that we can pull you two up to the top, but it’s on a protected corner of the fortress, so they may not bother to guard it.”
The tabashi shook his head and chuckle-purred, “You certainly know many, many helpful secrets, Lady Ranger!”
“Aw, she’s just showing off. You get used to it,” said Max.
Cinna stuck her tongue out at him. “Renlar, assuming that your talents don’t include invisibility or transformation, then I think we should go through that spire entrance. I can sneak in close and scout it out properly, then you two can come up. We’ll be able to move freely within the place from the northwest mountainside wall to the courtyard for as long as we can stay hidden. Once someone spots us, they will call for help. Hobbies are a pretty disciplined bunch of warriors, and these Iron Shadows will be elite even for the hobbies. Once the alarm goes up, I’ll create distractions to keep them going in different directions. We take each group in turn. Keep to cover. The objective is to find the assassin’s blade. Max, can you do that?”
The paladin nodded. “Once we get close enough, yes. I can sense it through the sword with Lorna’s power.”
“Good. Renlar, you said that you could hold the line, but that you couldn’t take them all by yourself. Can you keep them busy enough for us to whittle down any that we have to fight?”
“Yes, of course. If Max can help with healing in between strokes of that mighty sword of his, it would help greatly.” The tabashi inclined his head to the paladin courteously.
“Excellent. That’s the plan, then. Be ready to counter their poisoned weapons—throwing spikes, hand blades, whatever. The students or initiates should be pushovers, as long as you don’t get overconfident. Plow through them as you need to, but focus your attention on any lesser masters that the lord of this place might have, and help me preserve my mobility. I’ll put down the riff-raff and then join you in defeating the master.”
Renlar beamed with anticipation, whiskers forward. “I am eternally grateful that I asked for your assistance! We have more than a mere chance at this; I believe we will succeed!”
“You can believe it! Just stay flexible. We won’t know what we really face until it’s there in front of us, all sharp and pointy.” Cinna stood and adjusted her camouflage cloak about herself. “Max, do you sense anything, yet?”
“Yes. There’s a rift inside. A small one. The dragon says it’s stable. I can feel the presence of Shadow, too, but nothing is stomping up and down shouting for my attention. I’ll work up a poison ward for us three while you’re scouting ahead. It’ll be ready when you get back. Takes a while to build up the Light for protection that specific.”
The ranger nodded once and snuck off beyond the trees toward the cliff.
* * *
Max ducked under a blast of fire and spun to his left. He brought his sword around and down in an overhand arc to bite blade-deep into the neck muscle of the Iron Shadow master, just beneath the edge of the ornate dragon mask he wore. Max tried to kick the hobgoblin warrior off his weapon, but the assassin twitched forward and slapped the sword away to the side with his uninjured arm.
Renlar was two steps in front of him, holding off three more of the initiates. The Iron Shadows wore no armor, but their agility and fighting senses were keen. Just not keen enough. The tabashi dropped yet another black-garbed initiate. That made eight between the griffon spire and the greater hall they were moving toward. The students wore no masks, but the assassin initiates and masters each had a personalized mask of carved and lacquered bettlewood. The master Max fought was able to blow out some kind of fiery dragon breath. His mask was, unsurprisingly, that of a ruddy dragon’s head. Before Max could recover and swing again, the dragon master was up close, trying to sweep the paladin’s legs out from under him and strike a lesser-armored spot beneath his armpit.
Mask or no, Max figured the hobgoblin couldn’t take too many blows to the head. He struck the master with the forehead of his helmet as he twisted away from the side attack. The sweep attempt wasn’t as strong as it could have been and Max just stumbled and regained his footing as the Iron Shadow master reeled. The paladin brought his sword up from the right and down across the assassin’s other shoulder. The man spun and slumped to one knee. Max followed up by spitting him through the back. That done, he assisted Renlar with another one of the initiates. Within seconds, their little battle was finished.
Shouts of alarm and surprise echoed throughout the fortress from different directions. Cinna’s distractions were apparently doing their job. Max nodded to the set of bronze-clad doors on their left leading away from the courtyard. “That way.”
Renlar nodded and moved forward to the open doors.
The pair slipped through the doorway into a cavernous stone hall decorated with war trophies. Shields, weapons, banners, and occasional skulls hung on the walls. Windows high in the hall let in sunlight, but the room felt shrouded in gloom. The flames of torches guttered and danced in their cressets. Shadows shifted and moved of their own accord. Hardwood benches ringed the chamber. A sort of throne or commander’s seat was placed at the top of the raised steps at the far end of the hall, but most of the stone floor of the room was open. Larger banners with the Iron Shadows heraldry—a black ghost with yellow eyes on a blood-red field ringed with black—hung on the walls to either side of the throne. The room appeared empty of foes.
“Do not be deceived!” whispered Zkydraksis’ voice from Max’s sword into his mind. “The grandmaster is here, with others, hidden in shadow!”
“Give me sight!” Max whispered in return. Power flared over him and he could see the shimmering outlines of the Iron Shadows. Two of them stood at points along the walls, but one stood stolidly before the throne, watching him with arms crossed. Each wore a master’s mask. At the left wall was a tall female with an oval ghost-faced mask ringed with long, wispy fur. Against the right was a shorter, stockier male wearing a mask like a spider. It had several shiny black eyes and stylized spider legs on its sides. The grandmaster stood before the throne; a powerfully built hobgoblin in close-fitting black robes. He wore a mask resembling the head of a ba’lor demon, a powerful lord of Shadow. Its eyes glowed with green fire.
“Feh.” the grandmaster’s voice seemed to echo from everywhere in the room at once. “A paladin. You face your doom here, bringer of Light.”
“And, uh… Your reign of terror and Shadow is over, Demon!” Max retorted. Renlar gave a feline sneeze of amusement, but said nothing.
“One left, one right, plus the big guy in front of the throne,” Max informed the tabashi. “You see them?”
“No, Max, but I have a sense for where they are. Cinnabar draws close. Securing the way behind us, I believe.”
Max stepped forward and let the Light flow from him. With each step, the shell of illumination expanded. As he stopped in the center of the hall, it surrounded him at twice the reach of his sword. Renlar quickly moved forward to join him within the shield.
“Why do you intrude here?” the grandmaster demanded, voice again echoing from everywhere and nowhere.
“I bring justice! And I close doorways to Shadow. That’s reason enough.”
“You have meddled in things you should have left alone. Now we will kill you, and your friends.”
“Fight me!” shouted the paladin, sword at the ready.
The two assassins at the left and right attacked in a blur of motion. As they entered the shell of light, they became fully visible. Renlar burst into action. He slashed at Spider Mask with his sword and then whirled and stuck Furry Ghost Mask hard with his shield. Each of the masters countered. Spider’s vicious steel claws slid harmlessly over the tabashi’s irridesium armor. Furry Ghost simply spun around the shield and hit the warrior sharply on the side of the head with the heel of her palm. Renlar winced and thrust at her chest, and then her hip as she dodged. The irridesium blade only nicked his nimble foe.
Max kept his eyes on the grandmaster and his barrier of light at full strength. He elbowed sideways as Spider tried to jab him with poisoned claws. This threw off the assassin’s attack, but did no real damage. Renlar took advantage of the opportunity to pivot and stab Spider, sliding back a half-step to draw both of the Iron Shadow masters a little off Max.
“Come on! Fight me!” Max roared at the grandmaster.
The demon-masked humanoid vanished. Max spun and caught a new glimpse of his foe in the shadows of the doorway. The paladin grunted and called on the Light. The lord of the Iron Shadows was limned with a soft golden nimbus, ruining any chance he had of hiding further.
The Demon barked a command. The two Iron Shadows fighting Renlar tumbled acrobatically out of his reach. As they did, The Demon threw a double handful of fiery stars at the paladin and the warrior. The miniature missiles flicked forward and exploded around the heroes. Renlar dropped into a crouch and ducked behind his shield. Max just relied on his shield of faith and his natural stubbornness.
Painfully singed, but otherwise intact, they stood ready as Spider and Furry Ghost leaped back into the fight. This time, Max spun and swung his greatsword at Furry Ghost as she aimed a flying kick at his head. His blade connected first, dealing the assassin a nasty wound. He followed up as she tucked into a painful roll, scoring another hit. Renlar blocked Spider’s flurry of attacks with his shield and twitched his fingers around the hilt of his sword, casting a spell that pelted the hobgoblin with a burst of magical missiles of force.
The grandmaster regarded the barrier of light as his underlings fought. At his command a demonic shadow emerged from his mask to envelop Max’s barrier of light. The adventurers felt a momentary chill, but Max gritted his teeth and the barrier held. It flared briefly and the shadow was gone. He called out defiantly, “Whatever that was, it’s not going to work!”
The Demon said nothing, but jumped forward to join the attack himself. His form shimmered, but Max could see clearly through whatever illusion the master assassin had conjured. A straight sword with a slender, dull black blade was in his hands. He shouted another command and both Spider and Furry Ghost struck at Max; one high and one low. Both attacks were solid hits, rattling the paladin even through the plate armor and padding. Renlar took advantage of the opening to pass his sword through Spider’s thigh. With the paladin distracted, The Demon stepped inside Max’s guard. The black blade thrust up between the paladin’s belt and the lower edge of his breastplate. Not deeply enough to reach vital organs, but enough to draw blood.
Max sucked in a breath and pulled back, punching the crossguard of his sword at the master’s demon-masked face as he did so. His resolve strengthened the barrier of light. The Demon simply ducked to one side to avoid the blow. Max turned his wrists and spun the sword back toward his foe. The grandmaster slipped in close, grabbed the paladin’s armored gorget, and pulled to the side. Max was ready with a sturdy shoulder pauldron and an elbow to block the Demon’s takedown attempt. He continued to bash the hobgoblin leader with elbows, shoulders, knees, or his forehead as the grandmaster kept up the close-distance fight, but each blow added to the toll of fatigue the paladin was taking and did little to damage the assassin.
Spider and Furry Ghost tried to assist their leader in killing the paladin, but Renlar was there at every turn with another slash or stab of his sword. He forced them to attend to his attacks or risk further wounds. Their blood now spattered the stones of the great hall floor. The assassins moved more slowly now, barely dodging the tip of the tabashi’s sword.
A silver-fletched arrow sprouted from between Furry Ghost’s shoulder blades. The hobgoblin assassin twitched and then fell over lifelessly to the floor. Max stepped back into the space where she had been and brought his sword around to a more effective distance from the grandmaster.
The Demon leaped over the space between Max and Renlar to land with them between him and the archer, Cinna. He threw more fire stars at her as she stood to one side of the doorway to the great hall. Elven reflexes prevailed and she dodged the hail of missiles, escaping all but the most minor damage.
That was enough of an opening for Max. He managed a spinning, full extension slash with Dragon’s Hope that struck the grandmaster, unhindered by the hobgoblin’s shifting cloak of illusion. He poured the full power of the Light into the blow and nearly took the assassin’s arm off with the force of the attack. The Demon staggered back grasping at the wound. An arrow slid past his neck as be jerked aside to dodge a killing wound from Cinna’s longbow. Renlar took the opportunity to shield bash Spider away for some breathing room and made a low lunge at the grandmaster’s abdomen. This time, The Demon couldn’t escape. The tabashi’s blade bit savagely into the villain’s vitals.
Cinna’s next two arrows laid out Spider as The Demon reeled back from Max and Renlar. The paladin pressed forward with another flurry of hacking blows. Too close to shock to avoid them, these, too, struck home. The black sword fell from his grasp and the Iron Shadow grandmaster fell bleeding to the floor.
Max groaned and looked down at the blood oozing from his waist. Wincing, he stepped closer to the grandmaster’s body. With a quick glance upward, he intoned, “Light take them, if God so wills it,” and brought his sword down sharply, beheading the villain.
Renlar had already scooped up his prize—the assassin’s blade—from the floor and checked the bodies of the other two hobgoblins. As she closed and barred the doors to the courtyard Cinna asked, “Can you two heal up? We shouldn’t stay any longer than we have to. The rest of them will soon figure out where to look for us.”
“Yeah, no problem,” the paladin grunted. He took a deep breath and allowed the barrier of light to recede back into himself. He gathered the energy and concentrated. “Renlar, you first.”
The tabashi paused in his search of the bodies and accepted the healing light Max poured into him. “Much better, thank you, Sir Max.”
Max gave him a weary nod and did the same for himself. Bruises faded, his wounds sealed, and vitality returned. “All right. I’m close to tapped out until I get a good rest. The rift is right below us. How do we reach it?”
“I passed a locked gate barring the way down some stairs to a lower level. Are you ready? I can take you there.”
“Yes, let’s go.” Max glanced around the hall. There was nothing left to accomplish here. It was time to close the rift and go.
* * *
“All right, you’ve found me. What is it that you would like to talk about?”
At the tabashi woman’s casual gesture, Max and Cinna sat on the thickly upholstered couch before them in the third-story parlor. It was no small matter to have arranged a meeting with Merrel Shadowpad, Renlar’s mate. The guildmaster had changed his mind no less than five times on the way to the city, but reluctantly decided that he had to stay outside the city walls to honor her last instructions. He sent his companions into Cherry End with convoluted instructions for finding and then enticing the feline enforcer to meet with them. It had taken a couple of days, but they had arrived after sunset and been shown in by the reclusive feline.
She was a study in stereotypes. Merrel wore black leather armor cut in a fashion that revealed more than it protected, almost tauntingly emphasizing her feminine curves. Her fur was silky and black from the tips of her ears to the end of her tail, but for a slight lightening to a steel gray at her eyebrows, chin, and throat. Her eyes were a luminous pale green. She moved sinuously, with slow, graceful movements that seemed almost exaggerated, posing at every turn. Her voice was smooth and sultry, elaborately rolling her R’s. Merrel had four sheathed daggers that Max could see—two at her forearms and another pair strapped to her thighs beneath her leather skirt. He didn’t doubt she had more weapons tucked away elsewhere, as well. Plus her claws, of course. She looked exactly like one would think a female tabashi assassin should look.
“We are bringing you a gift, in the hopes of mending a relationship,” Cinna replied.
“Oh? Who are you with, then?” Merrel’s ears perked forward.
“Renlar sends his apologies. And this.” Cinna unwrapped the silk cloth from the scabbarded weapon. She held it out for the tabashi to examine.
Merrel’s ears went back, making almost a crescent shape across her skull at the mention of her ex-mate’s name. “He wants me back, and tries to bribe me.” She sniffed derisively and drew back.
“Well, at least look at the sword!” Max urged. “He went through a lot of trouble to get this thing for you!”
“Did he tell you what happened between us? How I told him to stay true to me? And then how he tumbled to the first pretty thing that passed through his village?”
Cinna laid a restraining hand on Max’s thigh. “Yes, he mentioned that. He was being quite honest about it all. I have to admit, though, that I’m confused.”
“About what?” Her tail lashed irritably.
“Why try to tie him like that? You can have your pick, but you put these restraints on him, even though he was away from you and missing your company up at the Crossing. I know enough tabashi to know this was unusual.”
Merrel’s ears and tail relaxed, and then drooped a little. She admitted, “I didn’t want him to go.”
Cinna waited. “And?”
“And so I thought I’d test him a bit.” The tabashi tried to look nonchalant about it. “That glamorous merchant queen? The one that seduced him so easily? That was me.”
Max’s jaw dropped. Cinna just smiled slyly.
“And he didn’t even notice! Not once did he suspect it was me! He was perfectly comfortable doing his own tomcat thing, courting me, letting me put the moves on him, and completely forgetting what I had told him not a week before!”
Cinna shook her head ruefully. “No wonder you were angry.”
“So after I got back to the city, I told him what he could do with himself.”
“You must be a persuasive actress. He has quite a strong will, from what I’ve seen of him in combat.”
“What do you mean?” The tabashi’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“He implored us to help him win you back. And then led us to the only place he could find an assassin’s blade, which he knew you have always wanted. He fought through the Iron Shadows with us to get it, shrugging off pain and spells so that he could regain your favor,” Cinna explained. “If Renlar didn’t recognize you in your disguise, then you must be skilled at maintaining the act. If he succumbed to your charms when he knew he should not, then you must also be very persuasive.”
“Well, I… had not considered it that way.”
“He also did say that he is much better off with you than without you, if that matters.” Cinna added this in a casual, almost offhand manner. Merrel nodded slowly. The tip of her tail flicked back and forth twice without tension.
Max’s eyes flicked back and forth between the two females with fascination. Cinna patted his thigh. “I’m afraid this is all rather new to Max, here. He is still learning how things really work.”
Merrel looked at the paladin appraisingly. “Hrr… I suppose so.” She looked down at the sword and drew it from its scabbard. Her slitted pupils widened slightly.
Cinna grinned and said cheerfully, “But, gift and message are now delivered! Quest complete! Is there anything you’d like us to tell your mate? He’s still waiting outside the city, as instructed. Probably rather anxiously, I’d guess, from the twitch of his tail.”
“Yes, please.” She paused while she tried to find the right words. Max was surprised to realize that her whole seductive kitty act was gone now. Merrel decided on a message. “Tell him that I’m prowling tonight, and that he is more than welcome to join me. He’ll know what to do.”
Cinna stood. Max hastily followed her lead. The ranger bowed graciously. “I will make sure he gets the message. Good hunting.”
* * *
“It sounded like she’s taking him back. Am I right?” Max asked as they emerged from the last of the basement passages and walked up the steps to the street several blocks away.
“Yes. She is.” The elf sounded quite satisfied with herself.
Max walked beside her for a couple of blocks before saying anything more. He was trying to puzzle it all out. Eventually he sighed and shrugged his broad shoulders. “I guess I just don’t get it.”
Cinna stopped and put a hand on his arm. Her eyes were serious as they met his. “Max, loyalty tests and deceptions never grow love between two hearts. Love grows when nourished and shared, not when it is forced into twisted, uncomfortable patterns.”
“Well, of course! But didn’t Merrel know that?”
Cinna’s sly smile was back. “She’s so used to trickery that she forgot who she should not use it on. Fortunately, I think she sees what resulted from that.”
“You think so?”
“Yes. And with ‘ex’ cancelled out of the equation, I think both sides now balance properly again, and all is as it should be.”
“Uh huh. I’ll take your word for that. I’m not all that good at math.”
Cinna laughed and they walked on through the city to deliver their message.
* * * * *