Read The Inquisitives [4] The Darkwood Mask Online

Authors: Jeff LaSala

Tags: #Eberron

The Inquisitives [4] The Darkwood Mask (5 page)

“And … their heads too?” Soneste asked, afraid to imagine it.

“No. Only Gamnon’s.”

Soneste sighed with relief. “Then a cleric needn’t speak to Gamnon himself. His family, the servants—any of them might be able to say what happened. We could bring a cleric of the Host and stay out of the Cult’s way.”

Thuranne shook her head. “It’s not that simple. The ir’Daresh family were respectable followers of the Silver Flame, and Maril ir’Daresh’s family has already forbidden any necromancy to be performed on her body, her children’s, or the servants—though the Host only knows how far they’ll get with that claim. You might be able to work around the family, but it would take too long.”
Thuranne’s face softened. “Besides, put yourself in their place. Would you let Karrns raise a loved one’s corpse to get answers Sharn’s brightest young inquisitive could work out on her own?”

The question brought Soneste’s mother to mind. She pictured her staring out their third story apartment window in Starilaskur, still waiting for her father to return home from the war. Of course, he never would.

“Point taken,” Soneste said, wondering idly if the killer had targeted the ambassador’s family for this very convenience. “Where did the massacre take place?” she asked. Even as she spoke, Soneste felt an unmitigated loathing for the killer. She didn’t care if the children were Brelish or Karrns. No one had the right to harm a child—especially now, in a time of struggling peace. The haunted face of Shauranna Rokesko came to mind. The young aide had spent a week in her captor’s deranged presence before Soneste had led agents of the Watch to their hideout in the Cogs.

“The ambassador’s chambers in a tower known as the Ebonspire, a sort of hostel for prestigious visitors of the city.”

“Ebonspire. Sounds like a fun place.”

“Thank you, Soneste, for taking this. It might be easier than you think.”

Soneste nodded. “I’d better be on my way then. Do you know when the next run leaves?”

Thuranne made a curious face. “Well, the good news is you won’t have to take the lightning rail. The bad news is to you need to be there
today.”

Chapter
T
HREE

The Priest
Sul, the 8th of Sypheros, 998 YK

G
an dreamed of the perfect woman.

She was tall and slender like he, but possessed none of the androgynous features of his race. Tresses of black shot through her snowy hair and her eyes were luminous, silver-white. On this occasion, she wore a silken gown of form-fitting red—a shift-weave garment like those he’d seen blue-blooded socialites wear in Sharn.

Gan approached his dream courtesan, poised to steal a kiss and perhaps a little more.

Of course, it wasn’t exactly a dream. He’d been awake for hours now. The state into which he’d submerged himself for most of the day idealized the world and fashioned anew his imagined temptress. The Traveler knew the women of Karrnath were far too cold for him and lacked the subtlety his affections demanded. Not even the Midnight Market offered companions fitting for someone of Gan’s caliber.

But now she was slipping away. To his dismay, the entire waking episode was fading, the crimson-clad form transforming into another shape altogether. She wasn’t just teasing him again
by shapechanging. This metamorphosis was not of her—or his—volition.

Her form diffused into oblivion, slowly replaced by a voluminous shape of midnight blue. A multicolored mask of lacquered darkwood resolved in perfect, horrible clarity, framed by a deep and shadowed hood. The expression carved into the artificial face was familiar—the perpetual frown Gan feared above all others.

Powerful wizards often crafted masks and enchanted them with defensive properties to grant their wearers aid on the battlefield. Others wove divinatory powers into them to better discern an enemy’s own defenses. Gan’s employer had done so to hide his own loathsome face.

Gan was dimly aware that he was being held upright by strong, well-muscled arms and that he was no longer in the bedroom of his personal flat. He could just make out the shapes of workroom machinery and somewhere nearby he could hear the muffled roar of a great furnace. With each second, he became more cognizant of where he was and under whose scrutiny he was bound. The fingers that gripped his arms were rough and pitiless. Pressure had decidedly given way to pain.

“My lord?” he croaked, forgetting how dry his mouth could become.

“It was my understanding, Gan,” Lord Charoth said in his dry monotone, “that dreamlily did not render its user unresponsive, drooling and oblivious to the world around him.” He held up an empty glass vial in one gloved hand. Gan saw only a drop or two of the precious iridescent liquid within.

Dread wormed its way into his stomach. He couldn’t bring himself to speak again.

“Indeed, I was under the impression that it induced in its user a state of euphoria which stripped him of all fear, as well as precision and strength of will.”

Charoth paused, then looked up to the massive figure who held him upright from behind. “Is it your professional opinion, Master
Rhazan, that Gan is lucid and fully emerged from his episode?”

Rhazan! Gan felt the bugbear’s powerful hands release him, but before he could fall, a heavy black chain dropped before his eyes. It was drawn immediately backward to close tightly around his neck, the barbed links cutting into his skin. Gan gurgled with pain and struggled for air, though he was allowed only enough to remain conscious and aware.

“It is, my lord,” the thug rumbled.

Charoth turned to regard Gan again. At least he thought so. It was always difficult to tell where the Masked Wizard’s gaze was directed.

“Unless, of course, the user in question is a dreamlily
addict
. As I was unaware of your dependency—or indeed of your possession of the illegal drug at all—I find myself sorely disappointed.” Charoth paused again, tilting his head sleightly. “Have I been remiss about your well being, Gan?”

“No, lord,” the changeling managed to gasp.

How many times had he stood by as his employer spoke this calmly to men and women who’d earned his wrath? Gan had watched others beg, weep, and wet themselves under such scrutiny. He was not accustomed to bearing it himself. He steeled his nerves, determined to maintain his courage. He was, after all, too important to be dismissed from service. Charoth needed him.

“How very comforting to hear,” Charoth said, straightening.

He made a small gesture with one gloved hand, and Rhazan relaxed his cruel chain. Gan was able to stand again on his own feet. He longed to massage the raw flesh of his neck, but suffered in silence to salvage his dignity.

“But there is still the uncertain matter of your whereabouts last night. I was entertaining guests, Gan, and you were not there to attend me. Could it be that you had simply forgotten? Or had I given you personal leave?”

Gan made his face impassive, relying upon the malleability of his changeling skin to hold it still. Last night’s errand was one
of his own freelance jobs—not something he wished to connect to his employer. In one panicked moment, he remembered that he’d fallen into the ‘lily’s embrace at his flat in the morning hours—what time was it now? Charoth’s men must have found him there. What had they seen? What had he left out as evidence of his deed?

“Lord Charoth,” came another voice, a woman’s impatient hiss. “This is taking too long.”

By the Traveler! Was
she
here, too? Gan hated the old crow and her condescending tongue.

“My lord,” he answered, attempting a sleight bow, but his neck only rattled the chain Rhazan still held ready. “I am sorry … for all of this. But you
had
given me the night off, as well as today. I would never have indulged in … any diversions had I expected you to call on me today.”

“Ahh. My own apologies, then,” Charoth answered. “My memory isn’t as sharp as it once was. All that remains, then, is the matter of my negligence regarding your personal vice.”

The Masked Wizard gingerly pulled one glove from his hand, an act Gan had never seen before. An unpleasant aroma arose from the mottled flesh of his lord’s hand. Gan could see almost every vein in the wizard’s hand, resembling black worms beneath the unwholesome skin. He tried desperately not to wince at the sight or smell and knew Rhazan must be doing the same. Their lord’s disfigurement was not something of which his retainers spoke. It was understood.

Charoth held up the glass vial with his hideous hand, seeming to inspect it in the firelight. There were no windows this deep within the factory, and Gan assumed they now occupied one of the storage rooms beneath factory floor. The heat alone gave testament.

“Dreamlily is a
Brelish
problem, Gan, trafficked through the black markets of Sharn. I will not waste your time or mine to ask you how or why you procured this filthy substance in our city. It has no place in my employ, and you will not use it again.” Charoth tossed the vial to the floor at Gan’s feet, where it shattered into several pieces.

“Of course, my lord,” Gan answered, head bowed. “It will … not be a problem.”

The old priestess laughed. She stood somewhere in the shadows beyond. Gan couldn’t even glare at her.

“You mean to speak the truth, Gan, but addiction is a tenacious thing. It takes only a single
weak
link to break a strong chain. I will not have such a poison compromise your excellent skills or the integrity of my estate. Understand, you are a worthy investment, and I mean to protect that investment. Master Rhazan?”

Charoth nodded to the bugbear, and the spiked chain was drawn back again, harder now. Gan tried to scream, but the thug’s fist slammed into the small of his back and robbed him of his breath. Dropping hard to his knees, his pale flesh was ground hard into the broken shards of glass. Through the haze of agony that followed, Gan was aware of his employer watching his anguish without comment. He could almost see those sickly fingers clutching the vulture-headed, blue glass cane his lord always carried.

The crushing force of Rhazan’s grip returned and Charoth began to evaporate from Gan’s view, as slowly as he’d first appeared.

“Are you still alive?” Valna asked, drawing a scimitar of razor-edged bone. The dead woman smiled, rotted teeth elongating into fangs, then she slashed at his throat
.

Tallis woke from the nightmare with a reflexive spasm.

He opened his eyes. Distorted visions of bloodshed crowded his mind, leaking from his dreaming conscious like brackish water. He thought of the war, of the battlefields he’d surveyed and the hundreds who had fallen. Surely what happened last night could be nothing worse than that. What was the slaughter of one family compared to the thousands slain in the Last War?

“Not good,” he said to the ceiling above him.

Realizing that he lay in bed, Tallis sat up. Every bruise and cut on his body chose that moment to protest the harried flight of the
night before. He remembered the White Lion who had trained the crossbow at him, then looked to his leg where the bolt had pierced him. A fresh bandage was wrapped tightly around his calf, but he could barely feel it—the result of magical healing.

Tallis surveyed the room, which smelled faintly of familiar incense. The curtains of the small basement window were drawn, but he could see the glimmer of daylight beneath. His magic rods lay on a small table alongside his belt, a dagger, and his darkvision lenses—one of the frames was now empty.
Damn
. Those were on loan.

He was dressed only in his smallclothes, and the purplish flesh of the bruises along his arms and legs stood out. His torn clothing from the night before was in a bundle on the floor. His boots sat against the wall next to a fresh set of clothes, neatly folded. The crossbow bolt had made a sizable hole in the fine leather of his boots.

“Oh,
not
good,” he said again, wondering how much Verdax would charge him for the repair. Flesh, it had always seemed, could be mended more easily than enchanted leather.

With a start, he realized that his hooked hammer was missing as well. He strained to remember where he’d lost it. After clearing the roof of the adjacent tower, Tallis couldn’t recall what had happened next. He only remembered running.

The distant murmur of voices had Tallis moving to the door, where he cracked it open and listened. Beyond lay a dark hall with brazier light spilling down a narrow stair from the main floor. Tallis proceeded up the stairs. When he reached the first landing, he stopped to listen to the conversation in the chancel above. Sound carried well within the stone halls of the temple, especially here in the undercroft.

“—will come to an end, as all things do.” The voice was strong, delivered with a conviction Tallis could associate with none other than his friend Lenrik.

“But what of his
soul?
” The other voice belonged to a woman of middling years. She sounded frightened, desperate to be convinced.

“Mova, your son was—
is
—a soul. He had a body, yes, but he has passed from it. What you saw was the vessel your son once possessed—and nothing more. That body, that shell, is a property of the crown now, and though our faith protests such indignities, in the end it does not matter. We are spiritual beings given life by the Sovereign Host—all of us—and we will transcend physical limitations at the last, as has your son.”

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