Alaira ran out of the latrine, cocking her crossbow as she went. She turned a corner, took aim, and fired in one fluid motion. Her bolt struck the Kafiri soldier squarely in the back of the neck, piercing his throat and leaving him dead before he could make another sound. But there was no triumph in the kill. All Alaira could think about was how badly she wanted to bathe.
“Nice shot,” Modor said when he came up behind her.
“You just gonna stand there, or are you gonna help me clean up this body?” Alaira asked. She gave Modor a look that she hoped would take the decision out of his hands.
“Right,” Modor replied.
Without a word, he grabbed the dead man under the arms. Modor had little trouble lifting the man, despite the fact that he was literally dead weight. Alaira watched them go. She had no desire to witness what would come next. Modor already looked like utter shit. Foulness ran down his neck and the back of his head and all across his normally gleaming black armor. She could only imagine how much worse he would look after he had hacked two Al-Karfiri soldiers’ into pieces and then stuffed them down the toilet.
She pulled a rag from one of her belt pouches and began to wipe up the bloody streaks left behind by the soldier she’d shot.
I hope I die in soapy water, she thought.
* * *
“Pretzel while you wait, sir?” a voice asked.
Orisis turned. “What?”
A boy stood next to him hocking pretzels. He was a street vendor, Orisis realized. Of course, Orisis had known that Kafiri Square was a major Bregan marketplace, but still the boy had taken him completely by surprise.
“Do you want a pretzel, sir? While you wait, I mean,” the boy asked again.
“What makes you think I’m waiting?” Orisis noticed that he had been tapping his foot. He took a deep breath and uncrossed his arms. He tried to look casual.
“Sir?” the boy asked, “You been starin’ at the Tower there for nearly three quarters of an hour. Ain’tcha waitin’ for one of them wizards?”
Orisis sighed. Despite himself, he’d begun to question his decision to use Modor and his company to go after the Eye. Orisis still had no desire to go through the sewers, but that was little comfort considering that a goodly portion of his professional reputation now rested in the hands of a man he hardly knew. Still, given their method of ingress, the mission should be a relatively easy one. It should be all right, he knew. But Orisis was a man who was used to making his own luck. It was bad enough that he was not in a position to help events go his way. Not knowing what was going on was intolerable.
And yet, he reminded himself, using Modor had been a good play. Modor had no known ties to the Stone God. Even if things went wrong, the situation would be salvageable. Orisis just had to get into a position to help events fall in the direction he wanted.
Orisis looked down. The boy was still staring at him, making no effort to hide his curiosity. “He must be an important wizard to make a War Master wait.”
Orisis forced himself to smile. “All wizards think they’re important.”
“I’m surprised you don’t just go inside and see what’s keeping him.”
* * *
“Now, about those baths,” Alaira said when the others had joined her in the hallway.
“No time,” Modor replied. “We need to get the Eye before those two are missed. We can’t afford to be seen here, and you know it.” He handed Alaira one of the dead guards’ robes. “Here. This is a big place with a lot of soldiers. Nobody can possibly know everyone.”
Alaira couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “You think we’re going to be able to sneak out of here looking like this? And smelling like this?”
“We only have to make it up two flights,” Modor replied.
Xarian handed Alaira a warm, wet towel. She wondered where the Hell he’d gotten it. “At least wipe your face,” he said.
He shrugged. “Best I could do on short notice.”
Alaira wiped her face and her hair and tried not to think about the rest of her body. When she finished, she handed the towel back to Xarian. He smiled at her again. She shook her head. She turned back to Modor. “You’re pushing me too far this time. I hope you know that.”
“I’ll make it up to you,” Modor replied. “I promise.”
Alaira smiled. “You better.”
Behind Xarian, Alaira could see that Belle had already cleaned herself as best she could. And she already wore one of the guards’ robes. Alaira donned the other and then led the group to a nearby stairwell. Heading up the stairs she thought, Just two flights up, grab the Eye, and walk out. And then Modor will owe me one--big time. All I have to do is get us out of here without getting caught. That should be easy.
At the top of the stairs, the stairway opened onto an alcove, which in turn led to a massive stone-floored courtyard. Sunlight streamed in through sets of stained glass windows on every side. In the courtyard itself, a groups of soldiers drilled at weapons practice. All wore robes similar to the ones Alaira and Belle were wearing. Beyond the soldiers lay a set of shadowed archways leading back into the recesses of the Tower itself. Through one of the archways, Alaira could see sunlight.
We’re close, she thought.
She turned and motioned for Modor and Xarian to stay in the stairwell. Then she pointed to Belle and gestured for her to follow. And then, with one hand on her dagger, Alaira stepped out into the courtyard.
She more than half expected to be challenged by every soldier in sight, but no one paid the least attention to her. She and Belle walked up a set of stone steps without being seen. In the robes of the Tower’s soldiers, they were practically invisible. A moment later, they stood outside the room that War Master Orisis said belonged to Khalid Al-Kafiri, the present owner of the Eye of Giscaine. Alaira started to knock but then thought better of it. Instead, she turned the handle and walked boldly into the room.
“Excuse me, Master Khalid?” Alaira said without preamble, “I’m sorry to disturb you.”
“Yes? What is it?” the wizard asked. He turned.
He was an older man, perhaps sixty, and he smiled when he spoke. Alaira shot him in the forehead with her crossbow before he’d had time to fully register her presence.
“Blazing Bulls!” Belle cried behind her.
“Shut the door,” Alaira replied.
“You don’t think that was a bit brutal?”
Alaira didn’t turn answer. If Belle wanted to go on acting like a naive bitch, that was on her. Alaira wasn’t going to help by feeling guilty about doing what was necessary. Instead, she walked over to where the wizard lay in a pool of his own blood.
“I need a fucking bath,” she said more to herself than to Belle.
She turned back to the wizard. His dead eyes stared up at her. She ignored them. She ran her fingers under his robe. His flesh was still warm to the touch. At last her fingers settled on a heavy gold chain. As gently as she could, she lifted the dead man’s head and slid the chain out from around his neck. Alaira held up the chain and looked at it. A round medallion hung at its end. A single ruby of perhaps eight carats was set into the medallion’s center.
“Think this is it?”
Belle nodded. “Yeah. Orisis said he’d have it on him. You want to search the rest of the room?”
Alaira shook her head. “No. Let’s just get the Hell out of here.” She didn’t wait to see if Belle agreed.
A few moments later, the women arrived back where they’d left Modor and Xarian. Alaira saw that the men had grabbed robes and dressed. A part of her wondered where they’d hidden the new bodies. A larger part of her decided she didn’t care.
“You ready?” she asked.
Modor nodded. “Let’s go.”
Alaira followed Modor out into the courtyard. Xarian and Belle trailed behind. Modor took a circuitous route through the Tower’s open spaces, obviously trying to keep as far as possible away from as many soldiers as possible. Alaira approved. All she wanted was to get away without being noticed. The hard part was over. Now they just had to get out. Every step brought them closer to that goal.
But then Alaira heard a booming voice. “What the Hell is that smell?”
* * *
Modor turned and tried to look casual, but he very nearly lost it when he saw who was speaking. It was a gods-damned sand giant! In fact, there were three of the big bastards standing just off to one side of the Tower’s main gate in one of the looming alcoves. Modor’s heart hammered. He forced himself to take a deep breath. Sand giants could be dangerous, but they were hardly deep thinkers. And the gate was barely more than a few dozen feet away.
“Hey you!” a voice called from the other direction. Modor’s head whipped around. A human soldier, an officer judging by his red sash and dress saber, was speaking. “Where are you heading? And why on earth do you smell like shit?”
With an effort, Modor smiled at the officer. “Sorry sir,” he said, talking fast but not breaking his stride towards the front gate. “We got put on latrine duty. And then Master Khalid told us to—“
Modor never finished his thought. A massive bell’s tolling cut him off and sent all around him into a distinctly more alert posture. From the other side of the courtyard another voice called out, “Close the gate! Master Khalid’s been killed!”
“Oh hell…” Alaira said behind him.
The officer looked Modor in the eyes. “What’s this about Master Khalid?” He reached for his pistol with one hand and beckoned to the sand giants with the other.
There was no decision. Modor simply reacted. He slapped the pistol out of the officer’s hand and then forgot about him. The others would have to finish the officer. Modor needed to worry about the giants.
Modor looked at Xarian. “Can you take the last one?”
“I think so.” Xarian patted his blunderbuss. “But what about those first two?”
“Leave them to me,” Modor replied. He shrugged off his robe and drew Fang. His shield hung loosely at his side. He smiled.
“What’s this then?” asked the center giant. A head taller than his fellows, it was obviously their leader. It brandished a mighty hammer as it spoke. “You’d make a nice mid-day snack if you didn’t smell so gods-awful.”
Modor started to reply, but the giant struck faster than he’d imagined possible. He was barely able to get his shield up in time, and even then, the force of the blow knocked him from his feet. He rolled and spun to his side, landing beside his opponent. Fang slashed through a backhand. The blade caught the giant’s leg above its calf, severing the tendons behind its knee. The giant roared and crashed to the floor. Modor reversed Fang and slammed it home. The blade sank into the back of the giant’s neck all the way to its hilt. Modor let go and dropped his shield.
He unlimbered Claw. “Your friend was saying something about a mid-day snack?”
The second giant drew an enormous sword. It advanced more cautiously. “You will die in agony,” it promised. Its companion stepped to one side, flanking Modor and holding a huge axe.
The sword-wielder struck first. Modor scrambled frantically, barely dodging. The giant’s sword struck chunks from the stone floor. Modor recovered quickly, sending Claw through an overhand sweep he hoped would drive the giant back. But even Modor’s strength was no match for that of a sand giant. The giant’s sword turned Claw without issue. It stepped forward to deliver the killing blow.
Behind it, Xarian’s blunderbuss exploded. The third giant cried out in pain, holding its face and bleeding helplessly. The sword-wielder turned in surprise and saw its companion toppling backwards. Then it turned back to Modor. But it was too late. Claw hacked at the creature’s thigh. The giant’s quadriceps exploded, sending blood spurting in every direction. The giant lurched. Modor stepped in and caught it with a second strike as it fell. Claw opened its jugular. Its lifeblood gushed, coating Modor where he stood.
Modor turned. Alaira had killed the Tower officer. Belle had disappeared. Beyond them a squad of musketeers was forming by the front gate. Modor started to run.
But even as he ran, the soldiers scrambled to form ranks and fire.
* * *
Up until the bell sounded, Orisis had enjoyed his conversation with Kaj Al-Kafiri, the surprisingly young leader of the Tower which bore his family’s name. Orisis had been surprised by how easily he’d gotten in to see the Tower’s leader, but after a few minutes of conversation, he’d come to realize that the Al-Kafiri clan believed itself in need of a War Master. He didn’t as yet know why, but he sensed opportunity. It had made it easy to get Kaj to agree to take him on a tour of the Tower’s main defenses, and indeed, that was where they had been when Modor and company had emerged from the sewers. Orisis had watched with pleasure while for several long, happy minutes, it had looked as though Modor would get away cleanly—so to speak—while Orisis himself secured a new patron.
Orisis had never been happier.
But then the bell began tolling, and Orisis reluctantly remembered why he’d really come.
“Perhaps you’d like to retain my services now?” he asked Kaj. Like all of his clan, Kaj was a wizard, but Orisis had thus far found him to be a practical man as well.
But Kaj surprised him. “No, my friend,” he said. He laid a hand on Orisis’s forearm and gestured towards a darkened corner. “Watch this.”
Orisis did watch. When the sand giants emerged, he watched with something like trepidation. Trepidation that quickly became disbelief. He watched Modor slay one giant after another in rapid succession, and he tried not to gawk. But then a squad of musket infantrymen closed up at the front gate.
“Ah… the sand giants were just a diversion,” Orisis said in a voice he hoped sounded casual. “The musketeers will finish it.”
“Of course,” Kaj replied. He hardly sounded certain.
And indeed, even as he said it, Orisis watched one of Modor’s companions drop amongst the soldiers with a pair of knives in her hands. She was strikingly bald save for a shock of red hair at the back of her head. Orisis blinked. He hadn’t even seen her. As for the musket soldiers, their surprise was total. A pair of musketeers fell before the rest knew what was happening, and when the others did finally react, it was as a terrified mob rather than as a disciplined fighting force. Then Modor charged into them, laying them out two at a time with a massive claymore.
It was over before it began.
Kaj cleared his throat. “Uh... you mentioned that your services were for hire?” He didn’t look at Orisis.
Orisis thought it over. He could take Kaj’s money and confront Modor and his company, but that would get him no closer to completing his commission for Cindar Belam. And then too, Modor and his friends were already in a fighting frenzy. And they were formidable. If he had to take them, it would be better to do so from an ambush. Fighting them now would be both foolish and dangerous. Fortunately, the courtyard was starting to fill with gun smoke. And all eyes were on Modor.
Orisis drew his wakasashi and rammed it into Kaj’s gut. The wizard’s eyes went huge with surprise. Orisis twisted the blade to be sure.
“Sadly my friend, I already have an employer. Though I would have much preferred to do business with you as well.”
* * *
A few moments later, Modor led his people into the sunlight outside the Tower of Al-Kafiri. Kafiri Square was packed with people, and it seemed to Modor that all of them were staring in his direction. Most gawked. Some pointed.
Well, Modor thought, they probably weren’t expecting to see a war in the middle of their marketplace.
Beside him, Belle said, “Oh man... War Master Orisis is going to be pissed!”
“Tell me again why we didn’t go in through a window?” Alaira asked. “Wasn’t it because we didn’t want to get caught?” She patted Modor on the shoulder. “Good call, chief.”