Read The Inquisitives [4] The Darkwood Mask Online

Authors: Jeff LaSala

Tags: #Eberron

The Inquisitives [4] The Darkwood Mask (3 page)

Then came the screams.

Sergeant Bratta took the spiral stairs three at a time until he reached the final landing. He was in excellent physical shape, but the Last War hadn’t trained soldiers to climb stairs as much as sprint across battlefields. Behind him two more Lions followed, laboring for breath. The silent wards had revealed the presence of intruders on the thirty-fourth floor. Not surprisingly, in the midst of the crisis, the tower’s only lift had become disabled. Typical
civilian device, unreliable in times of need.

He found the doors already breached, apparently forced open by the White Lions who’d been stationed outside the ambassador’s door. The light in the common room came from a single everbright lantern affixed to a low table, but it had been knocked sideways and the glass was spattered with blood. A casual glance at the room revealed the fate of the soldiers. Three good men dead, as well as the civilians.

“Sovereigns!” Rage welled within him at the sight. The Lions behind him fanned out, ready to act on his command.

The only man left standing within wore a black outfit vaguely reminiscent of an army uniform, but it was slashed and torn. He was dark-haired, lathered in sweat, and holding some kind of pick. The man stood half in shadow, staring at the carnage mutely. He looked familiar, but Bratta couldn’t think of how he knew this man.

“Drop the weapon!” Bratta said, aiming his crossbow.

The murderer looked up. “No, you don’t under—”

“Not another word until I say so. Drop the weapon!”

The man broke into a run and dived into an adjoining room, faster than he looked. Bratta ran after him. When he stepped into the master bedroom, he saw the silhouette of the murderer retreating onto the balcony. Bratta raised his crossbow and loosed, feeling grim satisfaction when his target grunted in pain.

But the bolt didn’t bring the man down. As Bratta and his men rushed to follow, he saw the murderer grasp the railing’s edge and swing his body over and disappear from view.

“What in Khyber—”

On the balcony, Bratta nearly stumbled over the fallen hulk of a warforged and slipped on the blood at his feet. His subordinate dropped his axe in favor of the bow, staring over the edge in an attempt to sight down their target.

“He’s a cursed wizard!” the private said. Bratta glared as the killer landed in a blur on the roof of an adjacent tower, clear across the wide gap. It seemed as if he had flown from the balcony below.

The soldier drew back his bowstring and released, but the
arrow snapped against one of the tower’s parapets. Bratta loaded his crossbow as fast as he could and loosed a second bolt at the man as he disappeared into the darkness. Then he was gone.

“Sergeant,” the bowman said, looking over the balcony’s edge to the wisplit street below. “There’s another body down there. I think it’s the ambassador’s.”

Chapter
T
WO

The Sharn Inquisitive
Sul, the 8th of Sypheros, 998 YK

“S
hadow, hide me,” Zzar hissed in his native tongue, calling to his god among the Dark Six. He preferred to hunt in secret, waiting for his quarry to come to him.

The sun had risen only two bells ago, but already there were so many people to choose from. Zzar remembered, for just that moment, his home in the Howling Peaks and the wing of fools he’d left behind. Let them scour the mountains for the tiny scalefolk and the occasional lost explorer. Let
them
scratch at rocks when there was no sport left!

But not Zzar, no.

The humans who’d survived Zzar’s attack that day had offered him a new life. “Come to our city, Sharn,” they bade, speaking in perfect Terran and pointing to where the sun perished each day. “We can give you sport of a different kind. We can give you silver, esteem, and the fear you deserve.”

Zzar had humored them, quit the mountains of his birth, and indulged in the sights, smells, and tastes of this city—where another wing took him in. The humans gave him silver for his hunting skills and promised him more if he was fast about it.
During the sunless hours the towers looked like a great cluster of stalagmites, pitted with glowing lights and webbed together with bridges for the flightless. It was oddly beautiful at such times. During the sun-lit hours, the city was dazzling and painful to his eyes, but he was already growing accustomed. Even so, he much preferred the hunts that took him to the highest districts, where there were more places to sit and watch and fewer prying eyes. Where it was a little more like home.

A skycoach soared close overhead, distracting Zzar from his thoughts. On impulse, he scraped one taloned hand against its hull, drawing deep grooves and dislodging a sizable chunk. As the splintered wood fluttered down into the city below, one of the vessel’s occupants cursed at him. Zzar laughed in reply but held his course. Humans created such ridiculous flying vehicles to imitate his kind.

Though exciting, the encounter was all too brief, and it only banished whatever it was he’d been thinking about the moment before. No matter. It was time to focus on the hunt anyway. He’d wheeled around the crowded residential district of Ivy Towers long enough with no success. His wings unfurled to their full span, then snapped together with a surge of speed as Zzar ascended once more.

Red-glowing eyes studied the urban landscape beneath him, searching for his quarry. His employers’ description returned to mind. “Her name is Soneste, Zzar. Say it with me. Soneste. A young and pretty human, hair the color of wheat, light skin. She is always armed with a thin sword and often wears a blue coat.”

Blackfeather Slayings Solved by Local Inquisitive

SHARN—An inquisitive employed by Thuranne d’Velderan’s Investigative Services, the Tharashk-sponsored agency located in Warden Towers, personally cracked the so-called Blackfeather case on Far, naming the man responsible for the long-unsolved serial killing of thirteen nobles in 991 YK
.

Soneste Otänsin, a native of Starilaskur but a resident of Sharn, first came to note for finding Shauranna Rokesko last Olarune when the royal aide had been kidnapped by a cell of Emerald Claw agents. Now Soneste has discovered the true identity of the killer known for fifteen years only as the Torchfire Wraith, leading to the arrest of Aldem ir’Shorem, a former actor and playwright once rejected by the Blackfeather Troupe
.

“We never expected to find that devil,” said Werick Faldren, captain of the Menthis Plateau garrison of Warden Towers. “He killed thirteen young men and women in cold blood and left the Torchfire district paralyzed with fear for a long time.”

Aldem, the heir of the ir’Shorem estate, is now in the custody of the King’s Citadel and faces a dozen charges of murder
.

“I’m very proud of Soneste,” said Lady Thuranne d’Velderan, head of Investigative Services and a dragonmarked member of House Tharashk. “She single-handedly brought a notorious criminal to justice and closure to the families of his victims.”

The family of Aldem ir’Shorem, the aristocrat from Ocean View whose guilt was brought to light by Soneste’s investigation, could not be reached for comment …

The chronicle had gone to print earlier this morning, was already available at vendors throughout the city, and would be distributed abroad within days. Hundreds—thousands—of the
Sharn Inquisitive’s
readers would be seeing Soneste’s name in print for the second time. She had her own copy, of course, but she’d already committed every word to memory, an easy feat ever since Veshtalan taught her how with but a few moments’ concentration. Still, she couldn’t wait to see her friends’ reactions, couldn’t wait to hear from her mother in Starilaskur after she’d read the story. It might just cheer her up.

The world looked different now. People walked the skybridges as they always had. Soarsleds and skycoaches glided among the multi-leveled districts. The Watch roved the bustling streets in pairs. Lifts rose and fell from one level to another. Yet to her, somehow it all seemed more invigorating. What she did seemed
to
matter
, now more than ever, and people would know it! After eight years in Sharn, she’d never felt more a part of the city. It had all started with finding the kidnapped Shauranna, but this was something more, a mystery none could solve—and she solved it, following one clue after another.

“Miss Otänsin?”

Soneste shook her reverie away. She turned her eyes from the window back to the young woman who sat across from her, who was scratching notes in a small book even as she waited for a response.

“I’m sorry,” Soneste said. “Could you repeat the question?”

“How many homicide cases have you been involved in now?” The young woman wrote down her own question. She carried no bottle of ink. Soneste suspected the pen possessed an enchantment enabling it to produce its own indefinitely.

“Ten,” she answered. “Three of which were solo. This one and the Rokesko case are certainly higher profile than the rest.”

The young woman nodded, then turned her book face down and stared back. “Do you think the ir’Shorem family will hold a grudge against you for incriminating Aldem? Or ever seek to do you harm?”

“Uhh, I don’t …”

The question had caught her off guard. Soneste recovered herself and looked evenly into the young woman’s eyes. Soneste somehow
felt
like a veteran inquisitive talking to her.

In a job that required snooping around where she wasn’t welcome, Soneste had learned how to defend herself. At her hip she carried a magewrought rapier, a few tricks in the pockets of her shiftweave coat, and she always kept her Riedran crysteel dagger hidden in one boot. The beautiful weapon had been a parting gift from Veshtalan, an apology for cutting his mentorship short a mere five months ago.

“No,” Soneste said. “I don’t think they’re that foolish. Their favorite son is facing the gallows. The public’s eye is fixed firmly upon the ir’Shorem family. They’ll behave for a good long while.” She let her fingers caress the steel hilt of her rapier.
“Regardless, I can take care of myself, Miss … I’m sorry, what was your name again?”

“Kereva. Scarla Kereva.”

Of course, Soneste had memorized the chronicler’s name when she’d first introduced herself—a vital skill in her trade, a task made easier since Veshtalan’s tutelage—but she’d decided to remind the chronicler who
she
was by comparison. An inquisitive like Soneste shouldn’t have to bother with the names of those beneath her.

Beneath?
Had she just thought that?

“Of course. Scarla.” It sounded like an elvish name, but the scuffs on the girl’s boots and the frayed lace at her sleeve did not affiliate her with the loftier elven neighborhoods of Sharn. Scarla probably lived in an apartment somewhere in Rattlestone or Kenton—like Soneste once had. Working class.

The Rokesko case, cracked nearly eight months ago, had changed everything for her. Thuranne, her boss, had intimated that Soneste could expect cases of higher profile from now on—wealthier clients had already been asking for her—which meant she would be able to afford a higher standard of living. Perhaps prematurely, she’d already moved to a new apartment in Ivy Towers. It had a spectacular view, staring across the city chasm to look upon the towers of Middle and Upper Dura. Quite a nice step up.

Now the ir’Shorem case had brought her further accolades, as evinced by the chronicler in front of her. The second
Sharn Inquisitive
article naming her was already out, and now they wanted to print an exclusive interview with her in the next edition.

Soneste had always enjoyed her work. Yet how important, after all, was finding people who didn’t want to be found, spying on unscrupulous merchants, or locating stolen jewelry for people who could hardly notice its absence? Perhaps the cases themselves would be more satisfying now. With a single apprehension, she’d brought a serial killer to justice and one of Sharn’s most upstanding families under scrutiny. She had to admit, she knew she
should
be careful.

The coach continued its bobbing pace, winding around another massive tower and setting across a long bridge that led to Ivy Towers. She was halfway home from the Sivis message station.

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