“You want us to walk away?” I asked. “That’s it?”
“That’s it.” Levaunt promised. “Sell your trinket, make your fortune and open avenues for the future. Do this for me, and my friends become your friends, my associates become your associates. Every merchant, every banker, every fence.”
“And if we refuse?”
“My friends become your enemies, my associates close their doors to you.” Levaunt shrugged. “You’re free to walk out the door with your possessions, and you need not fear Sahir or my men unless you try to break the rules. Play nice, obey the laws, and you’ll have nothing to fear. Of course you’ll starve along with Tatianna, but I’ll not kill you.”
Baen and I had long since learned how to keep our faces mostly unreadable, and after a few moments all she did was look at me an shrug. “What do you think, Kaede?”
It was a simple question, casually delivered but we both knew its weight. Accepting the offer could mean an enormous step forward in our mission. If any of Coalpaw’s theories were correct there would be no-one who knew more about The Misericode than Mishael Levaunt. The money too was tempting, for it would only be a matter of time before our supposed comrades began to wonder our coin came from. Coalpaw, Tatianna, and even Fotti were as much our friends in this as Levaunt could be, and he had the advantage of being better connected. As Coalpaw had been a stepping stone to Tatianna so would she be a stepping stone to Levaunt.
“We need time to think about it.” I said suddenly, startling myself with my own words. Baen’s jaw tightened somewhat, and I thought I detected the tiniest of frowns flash on her face. “Give us a day.”
“A day?” Levaunt arched an eyebrow, then shared a quick look with Sahir.
“They are friendly with her.” The first mate said. “This isn’t an easy decision for them, captain.”
“Loyalty.” Levaunt nodded. “An admirable trait.” He turned back to us. “A crew is family, but you’ve not been with Tatianna and her people long enough to truly be one with your new brothers and sisters, have you?” He took a long series of swallows from his wine before setting the glass down carefully. “Very well. One day. Sahir will come to your inn tomorrow for your answer. Agreed?”
“Agreed.” I said, still somewhat surprised at my own decision.
“You can go then.” He said, gesturing for our possessions to be brought forward. “And give the good deputy my regards.”
“We might kill him.” I warned, not entirely sure why I was still speaking as I sheathed my sword. “You don’t care?”
“Care?” He looked at me, the bemused expression gone replaced by something that might have been surprise. “He’s not one of my crew, and I only look after my own.” He shrugged. “I thought that would be obvious.”
Baen was silent as we left The Cloven Maiden, and I was grateful for the absence of questions. I wasn’t entirely sure why I hadn’t immediately agreed to the captain’s offer. It certainly wasn’t loyalty, for the Order had trained us better than that, and it wasn’t because Tatianna had saved – or thought she had saved – my life from the Lionguard. It wasn’t Coalpaw either, for all that I had to admit I was starting to warm to the charr I hadn’t lost sight of the objective or what he and his captain were to us. But the sight of him rushing blindly, recklessly to protect her refused to leave my mind, nor did the image of Tatianna, screaming wildly as she attacked the Lionguard to defend me.
“We’re here.” Baen said flatly, cutting through my thoughts and pulling me back to reality. It was late afternoon now, though I’d barely noticed the hours passing, mulling over my choice. “I was expecting guards.”
“So was I.” Baen’s eyes narrowed as she studied the narrow, two-story building of wood that Fiegrsonn called home. “Are you sure this is the place?”
“Yes.” She said. “As that idiot novice described it.”
“Looks like the deputy’s less legal activities have been paying well. Corruption must run deep if he gets away living like this.” It was small by my standards, but it was more than I would have expected of a lawman.
“Come on.” Baen said. “Pretty sure I saw movement at the open window up there.”
The neighbourhood seemed quiet, so I didn’t worry about being spotted as we made our way up to the front door. It was a sturdy thing, too heavy to break down without drawing attention and I was musing whether or not it was worth trying to pick the lock when Baen touched my shoulder and pointed. I realised the door was ajar, darkness within showing through the crack, and as we drew closer it became clear that something had broken the heavy thing open.
Cautious now, we advanced slowly, Baen peering through the crack in the door before pushing. It swung open with a harsh scraping sound, the bottom corner dragging against the floor and we both froze, ears straining for some sign that our intrusion had been heard. I heard nothing, no cry, no sound of weapons being readied, and breathing a collective sigh of quiet relief we pushed the door all the way open and slipped silently inside.
The air stank of blood, gore, and excrement – the stench of the freshly slain – and I drew both my pistol and my sword, not wanting to take any chances. I pulled the hammer of the gun back with my thumb, wincing at the loud click. Baen’s hatchet was in her hand as she blinked rapidly to force her eyes to adjust to the gloom.
Two Lionguard lay dead in the hallway. The closest, a human woman, had her stomach torn open and a look of disbelief frozen on her face. One of her arms had been ripped out at the shoulder and lay further down the hallway at the foot of her comrade, a norn man who’s skull had been crushed against the wall. Splatters of red blood, white bone and other, unnameable gobbets of flesh lay scattered around the ruined corpse.
Baen crouched beside the first body, touching the dead wrist. “Not all cold, nor entirely stiff.” She whispered, pushing on the limb. “Less than an hour.” Which meant that whatever killed them might well still be near.
I considered, for a moment, what might have done this. A charr or another norn, perhaps, though they’d have had to be very skilled to come in and take out two trained laymen without anyone hearing, and that didn’t address the issue of the method. What kind of power did it take to crush a norn’s skull like that?
I tried not to gag from the stink as I stepped gingerly around the pools of blood, Baen’s vision guiding me as best they could. We were about halfway across when another pair of eyes suddenly came into my range, and I caught her arm as I tried to make sense of what I was seeing.
The vision was strange, sharper than any eyes I’d ever seen through, yet oddly tinged with a sort of greenish fog. I could see a muzzle, of sorts, protruding below the eyes, not like that of a charr, though the haze made it difficult to be sure of anything I was seeing. Whatever it was, it wasn’t moving, looking at what appeared to a horizontal bar of relative brightness in what was otherwise near complete darkness.
“There’s something here.” I whispered to Baen.
“I don’t know.” I said under my breath as we continued our slow advance, my pistol held ready to come up at a moment’s notice. “But I don’t think it’s Fiegrsson.”
“Let’s check upstairs.” She said quietly after a moment, nodding.
Reaching the top of the stairs, we stayed low as Baen scanned the darkness. A candle flickered in the last of its wax on a low table by the window to our right, the same one that Baen had seen movement through from outside. To our left was a short hallway leading to a door, and when Baen nudged it soundlessly open with her boot we found ourselves looking down at Fiegrsonn.
The norn, wearing only a pair of linen breeches I presumed were sleepwear, was almost unrecognisable. The once burly, almost disturbingly broad torso was emaciated, dessicated like a corpse a century old, grey and dry as dust. His entire body was contorted, bent backwards and his now-sunken face twisted in an expression of horror, his wide eyes and mouth gaping open in a silent scream. If it hadn’t been his house, his unpleasantly familiar greasy hair and scarred face I would have doubted it was him at all. I swallowed bile as Baen crouched beside the body, her eyes studying the remains.
Never in any of my reading or travels had I heard about something that could have done this. The lawman looked as though he had been mummified like the ancient Elonian kings, the moisture stripped out of him and the corpse preserved in some hallowed tomb.
Whatever it was, whatever it was capable of, I knew it was still here, still staying hidden, and with a house like this there weren’t many places for it be. I patted Baen on the shoulder, and she nodded and rose, scanning the room with her axe held ready. We saw nothing, but when looked at the bed, and I realised, too late, where the creature was hiding.
As a child, there had been many things I had not been able to do due to my eyes. I certainly could not read in the conventional way, and writing remained difficult for me to this day, even with someone looking over my shoulder. Some games, such as cards, had been impossible for me to play without cheating, but Lucan, Cymea, and later Akemi had found ways of making certain others work. Playing hide-and-go-seek, for example, was one that we had enjoyed our particular version of as children, though I was always the seeker. The game would become different, with less focus on where the hiders were and more on what they were looking at. I would have to find them based on what I saw through their eyes, and before Akemi grew a little older and realised the same spot would not work more than once, she’d always had a favourite place to hide.
A horizontal area of white in a sea of darkness should have been obvious to me, but with the greenish haze obscuring the details and my mind distracted by what the thing might be, it had not come to me until Baen had looked at the bed.
“Back!” I shouted, and Baen threw herself into the hallway as the heavy wooden bed was hurled at us like a child’s toy, and a high-pitched shriek like nothing I had ever heard or imagined tore through the air.