Read The Inquisitives [4] The Darkwood Mask Online

Authors: Jeff LaSala

Tags: #Eberron

The Inquisitives [4] The Darkwood Mask (9 page)

Bracing herself against the severe cold, she opened the leather folder Hyran had provided. According to the death report within, a total of ten had been slain.

The first three were the White Lions of which the guard had spoken, allegedly the first to respond to the massacre only to become victims themselves. They lay upon the hardwood of the foyer in dried pools of blood. The wounds were very precise, made in the grooves and joints of the half-plate armor by a slender, piercing blade. Such injuries were undoubtedly meant to slow them down until an opening presented itself, which it had—each man had a bloody stab wound in his neck, clear through to the other side.

“Khyber,” she whispered, breath clouding in the freezing air. The killer was a professional.

The death report stated that the soldiers’ bodies would soon be relocated to the Necropolis of the Valiant, the city’s morgue. An addendum stated that the seven remaining dead, the bodies of the Brelish ambassador and his party, were not subject to seizure by the state.

Soneste scowled. The fact that every Karrnathi citizen could be claimed by the royal corpse collectors upon death sickened her. Despite the war’s end two years ago, this decree had endured, allowing the remains of Karrnath’s citizens to be raised again to serve the state should the need ever arise. Was she really surprised? Karrnath was still under martial law. Here the draconian Code of Kaius prevailed over the more civilized Code of Galifar.

According to the
Korranberg Chronicle
, Karrnath’s undead troops had been recalled after the signing of the Treaty of Thronehold, but it was well known that they were hidden away in tactical reserve. From the chthonic air of this grim city, she wouldn’t be surprised if many of the skeletons and zombies waited somewhere beneath these very streets.

Just below the description and names of the three dead Lions was a transcript, an interview with the slain conducted by a Ministry cleric. She flipped through the report to ensure that no such spells were used upon the ambassador’s wife or their attendants. Soneste, despite her annoyance, would honor the family’s wishes.

The transcript was brief. Three questions had been posed to two of the dead Lions. Their cryptic replies described a “slim intruder in black garb who wielded two blades.” The intruder had turned away from the civilians the moment the White Lions entered the flat. Then it killed them.

Soneste stepped past the soldiers to examine the two menservants in the common room. The upended furniture and ruffled carpet suggested a nasty fight, and both men had dropped their weapons—ceremonial sabers—where they’d fallen. There wasn’t a single drop of blood on these weapons, although it was
quite evident that the killer’s had found their mark. A rapier’s blade, Soneste decided, for she’d delivered such wounds herself, though not with such strength or precision.

She surveyed the rest of the room, rubbing her gloved hands together to stay warm. The cold fire lanterns perched upon the walls had been deliberately shattered, and only a single intact globe remained, affixed to the low table that had been kicked over. Two fingers, the pinky and ring finger from a man’s right hand, lay severed on the blood-stained carpet. They belonged to neither of the servants. One man had his throat slashed open in two places. The other had probably died from blood loss, likely from the arterial wound to his thigh.

Soneste found the third servant lying near the threshold of the master bedroom, his unarmored abdomen punctured twice. An easier kill, that one. The first man to die. A black leather mask, which would cover only the forehead, eyes, and nose of the wearer, lay discarded near him. Soneste pocketed the evidence and continued her examination.

There was a confusing jumble of imprints in the plush carpet, made from the boots of the White Lions, the victims, and the Ministry’s initial inspectors. And, of course, the killer. Soneste stared at the pattern, envisioning a fight that could account for it: three men moving to engage the killer as he entered the room. The killer’s prints, which led in from the master bedroom—his likely means of entrance—were placed just so. They were spaced apart, as if he’d run in, but the prints went in and out again. The soldiers, those who hadn’t been slain, had eventually pursued him out.

She glanced at the dead guards. From the precision of his handiwork, the killer hadn’t been afraid of them. Why run at all, then? Why not slay the next three to arrive, too, and leave uncontested and on his own terms?

This was quite a puzzle.

Moving on to the other bedroom, Soneste found the door still hanging at a skewed angle. The killer had forced his way into this room. The victims within probably had sought refuge here. The
locking mechanism was battered. It had taken the killer a few attempts to bash his way through the reinforced door with a heavy, blunt object. She looked around. No such object presented itself. If it was a weapon, the killer took it with him. Once the lock was broken, a vicious kick—there was a sleight print made from the boot—had forced the door.

As Soneste stepped into the room, her stomach soured.

Maril, the ambassador’s wife, had fallen first, defying her attacker. Her richly embroidered skirts, a recent fashion for matrons of Wroat, were soaked through with her own blood. The nursemaid had been struck from behind, an easier kill. The two children, Renet and Vestra, had been claimed in quick succession, their bodies lying entwined. A ratty stuffed badger was still clutched in the little girl’s hand.

The light from her watch lamp flared brightly, momentarily beyond Soneste’s control. She steeled her mind, suppressing the anger that rushed to the fore and sought to overwhelm the light. She breathed slow and deep, just as Veshtalan had instructed. Now was not the time for emotions or the exertion of psionic energy.

Soneste turned away, needing to leave this room—at least for now. The report stated that Ambassador Gamnon had been thrown from the balcony, which was attached to the master bedroom and was likely the killer’s means of entrance. She would have to examine Gamnon’s body later since it had been thrown from the balcony and waited her inspection at the morgue, but she needed to see where his final struggle had taken place.

The shrill cry of children heightened Tallis’s awareness and set him immediately on the offensive. The shrouded intruder had come here to kill
.

As he chased the lissome figure into the common room he saw chaos unfolding. Two children were pulled, shrieking, away from the furniture by a nursemaid and their mother. A second and third manservant, as well as
the portly nobleman whose family was in peril, advanced upon the intruder with weapons drawn. A chair was knocked over, a table kicked aside
.

“What is this?” the father demanded, and Tallis knew at a glance that the man was certainly
not
Arend ir’Montevik, the one he’d come to steal from. The last time he’d seen
this
man’s face had been on Cyran soil years ago. The bullish features and the soldier’s body the man once possessed had been softened by age. His eyes weren’t as courageous now
.

Before the Brelish could engage the intruder, Tallis was there. He swept the pick end of his weapon at the intruder’s feet in an attempt to trip her, but the weapon passed through her legs as if she were mere illusion
.

“Keeper!” Tallis cursed, aware that he was contending with powerful magic. Those blades certainly looked real
.

The four men surrounded the intruder, but she gave no sign of unease. In a dramatic arch, the assassin swept both rapier blades at one of the servants, slicing open his throat in two places. Blood surged from both and the man fell. In the same backswing, she parried Gamnon’s sword stroke in a spray of fiery sparks. The noble’s long sword appeared to possess an enchantment of its own, but it did no good. All their weapons passed harmlessly through the assassin’s body yet again
.

Frustrated, Tallis aimed his weapon to parry her blades, knowing that attacks to her body would be futile. Tallis knew the presence of the undead only too well, and he didn’t think this one was one of them
.

Host, he swore silently, he had not come equipped for such an opponent. “This is not an illusion!” he said to the other men. “Use magic, if you have it!”

The second servant fell back a few steps, just out of reach of the killing blades. He pointed his free hand at the assassin and incanted a short phrase. Three bolts of glowing energy burst from his fingertips, slamming into her—and vanishing again without effect
.

“By the Flame!” Gamnon shouted. “Help! Someone help!”

To their credit, the Brelish noble and his remaining servant fought well, but the assassin’s blades were tireless and those few swings that reached through her defenses could not make contact. Tallis had yet to be attacked directly, allowing him to focus on averting strikes that would have proven fatal to the other men
.

“Who are you?” Gamnon asked, glancing to his would-be rescuer
.

The assassin’s blades did not allow for conversation, so Tallis ignored the question. Evidently the mask he wore made him every bit as mysterious to the Brelish. Both he and the assassin were intruders, after all, but only one was here to deal out death
.

The shriek of frightened children in the room beyond came again, magnifying his fury
.

The assassin stepped toward the remaining servant and swept her blades low, slicing deeply through his thigh. Blood sprayed. He dropped, screaming, to the ground. At the opportunity, Gamnon aimed an attack at her head, but she’d anticipated it. Her left rapier came up, cutting his own weapon from his hand. Two fingers dropped to the floor and he stumbled back, gasping from the pain but lacking the breath to scream
.

A metallic
click
sounded nearby, then the front door to the apartment crashed open, and three grim-faced White Lions strode in. They were battle-hardened men—they did not blanch at the bloodshed before them
.

“Stop!” one ordered as two of them advanced with axes braced. The third stood behind them, drawing back a bowstring and looking for a clear shot
.

As the assassin turned to face the newcomers, some of the wrappings fell away from her head. Beneath, a steel, tightly-visored helm did little to reveal her identity. She stepped over the fallen and approached the White Lions without hesitation. Tallis let her go, taking the moment to catch his own breath. At least this would buy them some time
.

“Gamnon,” he said sharply. He backed toward an adjoining bedroom door, where the women and children had retreated. It cost him a few seconds, but Tallis ripped the mask away from his face and dropped it
.

The Brelish looked back at him, incredulous. A semblance of recognition returned to his wild eyes. “Major Tallis?” he said. “She … must want me. Protect them, Major!” He pointed to the bedroom where his wife and children had retreated
.

Tallis nodded as he moved, searching for some means to combat this magical threat. His wand! If it was magic that made the assassin ghostly, perhaps he could dissolve it
.

He heard the clash of blades and the crunch of dented armor. An
arrow smacked against the far wall. When he heard the Lions’ shouts and their bodies drop to the floor, he took comfort only in knowing that more would arrive soon. The magic wards placed upon every room’s door would alert the Ebonspire’s guard to the threat, and even a professional assassin couldn’t survive against inevitable numbers
.

Gamnon dashed into the master bedroom where Tallis had first entered. With her opponents dispatched, the assassin turned to follow him. Tallis pounded on the other bedroom door
.

“Open the door, please! You must come with me!” This was their only chance. The Ebonspire was a veritable fortress, with many places to hide and many guards to help. If he could just get them out of here, they’d be safe behind an army of White Lions and he’d be free to escape. Tallis could hear whimpering within and none came to the door. Tallis hefted his hooked hammer, ready to force the door
.

Then Gamnon screamed
.

Tallis sprinted across the chamber, cursing again. In all his life, he’d never felt this helpless. Within the shadowed bedroom, he saw the balcony doors had been flung open. The assassin’s body was, for the first time, nearly still. Gamnon stood stiffly in front of her, her rapier-blades buried to the hilt in his body. He stared over his killer’s shoulder at Tallis, disbelieving
.

“Aureon, no,” Tallis mouthed, moving closer. His fingers slick with sweat, he drew the dispelling wand from his belt and discharged its power. Only a tiny flicker of light pulsed from its tip and he knew the spell had failed
.

The assassin pushed at her weapons forward, forcing Gamnon to stumble back onto the balcony, where he tripped on the prone warforged who lay there and fell back against the balustrade. The assassin’s left blade stabbed up, skewering the Brelish’s head, then swung her right blade against his exposed neck. Dead already, Gamnon made not a sound as his head came free with the assassin’s second cut. Transfixed by the savage deed, Tallis wondered vaguely if the killer wasn’t, in fact, even human
.

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