Read The Inquisitives [4] The Darkwood Mask Online

Authors: Jeff LaSala

Tags: #Eberron

The Inquisitives [4] The Darkwood Mask (31 page)

The building was long, five stories high with a clawlike chimney rising from the center of its crenellated walls. From within this architectural grasp dark vapors churned into the sky.

Jotrem’s presence proved more than useful. Among other Karrns, he was persuasive and commanding. Without needing to display Hyran’s writ, he gained entrance to the factory and convinced one of the senior workers to lead them directly to Lord Charoth. Soneste had to admit, Jotrem certainly had knowledge of his city, and she found herself wondering if she ought to have included him more in her investigation. But how would he have handled the Midnight Market? And she really didn’t want Jotrem to meet up with Tallis again. That couldn’t go well for either man.

No. She’d been right to go her own way.

The only caveat had been denying Aegis entrance. The man at the factory doors had made an incredulous expression when he first laid eyes upon the warforged. He was emphatic about the construct remaining
outside
the building. Aegis complied after Soneste instructed him on what to say if anyone troubled him.

“Everyone who knows of Lord Charoth also knows he has no love of warforged,” Jotrem said quietly to her as the worker led them through a series of chambers.

Soneste recalled Charoth’s quote in the
Korranberg Chronicle: “Had I been present during the peace talks, I would have pushed for the destruction of all existing warforged. They are obsolete in this time of peace and remain only as a reminder of the weapons of war the Five Nations have inflicted upon one another …”

They entered a room larger than any Soneste had ever seen. Engines of glass production filled the factory floor, manned by scores of workers. At the far end of the hall, two enormous, brick-walled cylinders rose halfway to the ceiling, capped with spinning blades that funneled thick, acrid fumes into the vents above. Attached to the base between the two monstrous machines a metal furnace roared with fire. The air was filled with the drone
of churning machinery. Metal walkways stretched across the room on several levels.

A team of men in protective gear were busy repairing the brick wall of one of the vats. Behind them, facing the nearest vat, a glasswalled room had been built into the wall overlooking the factory floor. An open-air metal bank of stairs led up to its door fifteen feet above the ground level. The room’s size and prominence told Soneste this was Charoth’s own office.

Looking for his robed and masked appearance through its transparent wall, Soneste was surprised to hear the wizard’s sonorous voice much closer at hand.

“Just one moment,” their escort bade them, approaching a knot of workers who had gathered around the former Cannith lord.

It was strange to see Charoth outside the sterile silence of his manor. Although he looked exactly the same, stately in his dark robes, metal-shod boots, and painted mask, here in his factory and among his employees he seemed more animated. His presence commanded respect.

Soneste pictured Charoth in the subterranean levels of the Orphanage, with magewrights and artificers operating under his orders as did the glassworkers she saw before her. Having never been to a Cannith forgehold, her imagination supplied the details: Spike-armored warforged stood as sentries as more of the living constructs emerging from a yawning creation forge. Charoth, unmarred and unmasked, stood in observance—a stern director with eyes like a hawk, searching for flaws among the facility’s creations.

“Ahh, Miss Otänsin!”

The vision faded away. The nearby workers quieted and turned to look at Soneste, an audience of dozens. This was
his
world, she reminded herself cautiously. “Good morning, Lord Charoth.”

“It is a pleasure to see you again,” the wizard said, his mask turning sleightly as he looked at Jotrem, “and a surprise. But I fear your presence suggests that there is yet a killer to be found.”

Soneste flushed. “Yes, there is.”

Jotrem spoke, breaking the tension. “It is an honor to see the inside of your factory, my lord. I have always admired it from the outside.”

“Thank you …?”

“Major Jotrem Dalesek, my lord,” the older inquisitive said, casting his head down with respect.

“Would you mind if we spoke with you?” Soneste asked. “We ask for only a moment.”

Charoth tapped the base of his cane firmly upon the ground. “Of course,” he answered then waved his gloved hand to the workers around him. “Give me some privacy.”

“Lord Charoth,” she began when the men shuffled away. “I have seen a good deal more of your city now. I merely wish to ask you some follow-up questions, now that I have … context.”

Charoth nodded. Soneste found herself staring at the narrow lenses that filled the eyeholes of his mask. She wondered what color his eyes were. “Have you found your prime suspect yet?”

“Briefly,” she answered, remembering her first meeting with Tallis in the alley—not far from here, in fact. “But I’m wondering why he hasn’t yet left the city. You would think a guilty man would run. I know from experience now that he is resourceful.”

“He is at that,” Charoth responded, his voice unreadable. “I would not easily be able to locate him for you, if that is what you intended to ask. I suppose I
could
attempt to have him contacted.”

A man like Charoth had the influence and—no doubt—a sizable network of informants. In her experience, even the most upstanding nobles had eyes in the underworld.

“There is no need, but thank you.” Soneste slung her haversack from her shoulder, unfastened it, then fingered the cloth-wrapped bundle of the assassin’s hand. “I wanted to ask you about a piece of evidence I acquired.”

“Of cour—” he began. Charoth turned, lifting his glass-eyed gaze beyond her. “Excuse me,” he said with unexpected venom in his voice.

A team of men approached led by a well-dressed, middle-aged dwarf with a long silver beard partially braided and bound with small crystal beads. Between the exotic stones and his stiff, even stride, Soneste pegged him as Mrorian noble. He walked with a sleight limp but eschewed any means of support. Dwarves from other parts of Khorvaire didn’t carry themselves with quite the level of smug pride as those from the Holds. His team of laborers included well-muscled dwarves and a pair of particularly enormous men.

“Why were my workers given such resistance at the door, Lord Charoth?” the dwarf demanded. His accent confirmed Soneste’s suspicions. “My papers are good!”

“Master Doragun!” Charoth bellowed, startling Soneste and arresting the attention of everyone else in the vicinity. “You misled me!”

The Mrorian stopped, his ruddy cheeks darkening. “I have done no such thing!” he answered with mounting anger.

Charoth struck the floor with the base of his glass cane. Electricity gathered at the stroke, then faded away. “Your men are no doubt respectable, honest workers, Doragun, but you said nothing of
those
!”

The wizard pointed with one gloved hand and all eyes turned to the pair of men at the back of Doragun’s team. Clad in oversized workman’s clothes, the “men” were, in fact, metal-plated juggernauts who made even the enormous Aegis appear slim. They stared back with flickering crystalline eyes, awaiting their employer’s defense.

Soneste tensed when an eight-foot-tall figure bristling with coarse brown fur padded onto the scene. A bugbear! Taller
and
cleaner than most, the tall goblin’s body was clad in a leather jerkin. A long black chain wrapped several times around his muscled frame like a piece of armor. One end hung over his shoulder, weighted with a thick metal spike. The creature’s lips twisted with obvious bloodlust, prominent incisors slick with saliva. He moved to stand beside Charoth, evidently quite willing to attack at his lord’s command.

“Be still, Master Rhazan,” Charoth said, but his masked visage had not moved.

Jotrem saw the bugbear as well, scowling as he placed one hand to the hilt of his sword. For one brief moment, the bugbear flicked its beady red eyes at the older inquisitive.

“Who I retain is not
your
concern,” Doragun returned. “You summoned me to perform a service, wizard, not to evaluate my staff.”

Charoth’s rage felt like a gathering storm. Jotrem shifted uncomfortably, while the factory workers looked away to avoid their lord’s wrathful attention. The men nearest the bugbear drifted away.

“Warforged are unwelcome in my presence,” Charoth said, “and they are forbidden in my factory. You will remove them from the premises immediately and expel them from your team while you operate under my contract!”

The bugbear snarled loudly. Charoth held up a hand to silence him.

Doragun gritted his teeth, flustered. The contractor stared defiantly up at the former Cannith lord, nervously smoothing out his silver beard. His bearing was haughty, but beneath the baleful gaze of the wizard’s mask, his pride was tested.

“My lord,” the dwarf said at last, “Ang and Tar are my best men. Their work is solid but delicate. They would be a boon to your—”

“No!” Charoth screamed. “They are
not
men!”

Soneste knew an opportunity was upon her. She abandoned her original plan, then shut her eyes and gathered her focus with a moment’s concentration. She formed the astral net with her mind then opened her eyes as she cast it into the empty space between Charoth and the Mrorian. Amidst the tension in the crowd, the spectral note of her mental voice went unnoticed.

“Lord Charoth,” the dwarf continued to protest, his face bright red.

Soneste willed the net to return. Emotional residue from all around snared within its invisible strands, slipping easily back into her analytical mind as it did.

The fury of an injured pride bled from the dwarf’s psyche. From the bugbear, Rhazan, Soneste could feel only bestial aggression mingled with a desire to please his master. He was obviously ordered to keep a distance when his master was conducting business.

Her net nearly slid without yield across Charoth’s mind. She felt from him a resistance she’d never experienced before, yet the emotions surging from the wizard were too strong to be missed.

There was anger, outrage at Doragun’s continued protests. But something overshadowed it all. What was it?

Soneste’s telepathic net snared other errant emotions from the workers nearby—apprehension in some, interest and even amusement from others not the subject of the wizard’s ire.

Sharp anxiety flowed from Jotrem beside her. It seemed absurd, especially for a hardheaded veteran like him. Was the Karrn afraid Charoth would level his anger against them? With the arrival of the Mrorian and his warforged, their interview was all but forgotten.

She maintained her concentration seconds longer, determined to learn more.

“This is not a matter of efficiency, Master Doragun,” Charoth was saying, his voice cooler now but carrying with it unmistakable menace. “This is principle. The work each warforged does for you denies a handful of honest, hard-working men who need the silver to feed their families. Karrns and Mrorians, it matters not. These walking weapons are not even worth the detritus from which they were produced!”

Doragun’s warforged workers took a couple steps forward, as if unable to bear the insult any further. Then Soneste felt it, flowing from Charoth like gushing oil.

Irrational, unmitigated fear.

“Take them
away!”
the wizard roared, magic carrying his baritone across the whole factory. Rhazan stepped in front of Charoth, clasping the spiked chain over his shoulder. The dwarf contractor stepped back, grumbling to himself in indecision.

Soneste relinquished her empathic power then took Jotrem by the elbow. “Let’s go,” she whispered. The older inquisitive complied all too quickly, and they walked unnoticed away from the scene even as the glassworkers around them began to disperse.

Jotrem led them to the factory doors as Soneste’s mind churned. What had happened to this man in that secret Cannith forgehold those six years ago?

Interlude

S
omeone had been talking to him, but the man in the velvet-padded chair did not hear the voice or the words. His mind was in another time and place, following the same path of memories as if a new outcome could be reached.

I have renewed my case to Lord Charoth once again, but he cannot be swayed
.

His months abroad have changed him. Outwardly, he is the same man. Severe, demanding, reliable. But there is a hardness in his demeanor, tempered perhaps by firsthand exposure to the war that rages outside the Orphanage. House Cannith labors, in other forgeholds across Khorvaire, to make weapons, armor, and devices to bolster each nation
.

Most would say this is to make the house rich. Others, like myself—and perhaps Lord Charoth at one time—like to believe that the devices of war that we create will ultimately replace the combatants entirely, will rid the need for shedding the blood of living men and women
.

Both the director and I were raised in Karrnath. Our father land, Charoth informs me, is not faring well. Two legions were recently crushed by the dwarves of the Mror Holds in an unwise attempt to seize some clan holdings. The Regent Moranna was forced to abdicate her position, and Kaius III, recently come of age, has taken the throne. Karrnath is weak, its enemies many
.

A sense of heaviness falls on me as our discussion concludes. In the silence, I know I have two options: submit to Lord Charoth’s order or resign my position under his command. Either way, Sverak will be destroyed. What does it really matter? I must ask myself. He is a tool like all warforged
.

Distant shouts draw our attention to the door. Lord Charoth, strong in body as well as mind, draws out his favorite wand. He opens the door and runs out like a watch sergeant investigating a crime. All that transpires in the Orphanage is the Director’s responsibility
.

I follow behind warily
.

When we step out onto the lower balcony, the sight before me stops me cold
.

Chapter
T
WENTY
-O
NE

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