The spheres cry out, they sing the song,
Of wanderings far and journeys long.
I hear their call, it holds my heart.
My road the void, my path the stars
"Sorry," the dwarf said. "No Seekers on Syrrus B. Never have been, far as I know... Seekers," he added with a shake of his head. "What would Seekers want with a place like this?"
"Thank you," said Reanyn. "Two silvers, you said?"
The dwarf nodded. "Two per week. That gets you docking priviledges, no more. You want to load or unload, it's an extra five for every forty tons." He pursed his lips and gave the Nightwarder a considering look. "We don't patrol the docks or protect the boats either. Someone comes along and decides to pirate your ship, don't complain to us. If I was you, I'd post some of the crew to guard her. She's a pretty little thing; she'd fetch a fair price on the black market."
"Good enough." Reanyn proffered the required silver. "Any other ordinances or laws I should know about?"
The dwarf mulled that over for a moment. "Not really any other laws here, so I guess not."
Reanyn nodded and turned back to the Nightwarder. The dwarf gave the ship one last look, then turned and trundled away down the dock.
"Different dockmaster," said Keryth as Reanyn swung over the rail. "Last time it was a human."
Reanyn shrugged. "Different rates, too. No doubt there's a new council member in charge. The politics here..." He shrugged again. "Still, they always respect gold. That much never changes."
"There was no dockmaster, last time we were here," rumbled Barundar. "It doesn't seem right, somehow, to have to pay now when we didn't have to pay then." He grumbled as if it were his silver that had been spent, and not Reanyn's.
"And the Seekers?" asked Nym. The dracon was lounging by the port railing, busily cleaning his arquebus. As he spoke, he hefted the weapon, eyeing the barrel tube critically.
Reanyn shook his head. "He said there aren't any here, and never have been."
"Doesn't mean much," said Barundar. "I never heard of Seekers on Syrrus B either. Just means they're keeping a low profile."
"If they're here, we'll find them." Reanyn turned to Keryth. "I want the ship ready to lift the moment I return."
"The crew is tired," said Keryth. "We're undermanned, and Gryth has had no sleep for two days. Chowat is in no better condition. They need rest. I would not wish to navigate the Devros belt again with either of them manning the helm."
Reanyn shook his head. "The moment I return, we lift. We don't have to go far, just away from here. Every two-bit bounty hunter and soldier-for-hire in the universe is after Windhook. Once we've got him, we lift."
The gnoll nodded somberly. "As you say, kitchva-lanrac." He hadn't complained on his own behalf, but after thirty hours with no sleep, Tianna realized that he must be flagging as well.
"Post a guard while we're gone. The rest of the crew can rest." Reanyn turned to Barundar and Nym. "I assume you're coming along?"
The dracon smiled. "Wouldn't miss it."
"Then let's go. I want to get this done as quickly as possible." He jerked a nod toward where Tianna sat. "You're with me. You know Windhook by sight; you can verify I've got the right man."
Tianna groaned. Ordinarily, she would have been happy to be included, but at the moment there was nothing she would rather do than collapse in her bunk and get some much-needed rest. The journey through the Devros belt had not been easy, and every hand had been needed. "Right," she sighed, hauling herself up to her feet.
* * *
Jack brought the small brass spyglass to his eye, adjusting the focus of the lens. Yes, he thought, they've arrived. Just as expected.
He crouched on one knee, peering through the broken attic window, three stories above the street. Below him, a man and a woman argued, the low rumble of their shouts vibrating the shaky wooden floor. It was a sheer drop to the street, but the old building was constructed of aging wooden planking, with plenty of uneven places to afford a handhold, so Jack had no difficulty climbing it. Getting up without being seen had presented more of a problem, but in a city of eternal night, keeping to the shadows was a relatively simple task.
Across the street, two men in gray cloaks waited impatiently on the steps of the two-story building which stood there. Glancing furtively around, one of the men stepped to the door again and knocked, a complex series of taps.
"Three quick... two slow... then three quick again," said Jack quietly, impressing the code on his memory.
A few moments passed, then a small shutter opened, and a pair of suspicious eyes peered out. Jack tightened the focus, zooming in on the man on the steps. He leaned forward and spoke a single word. The angle was good; nearly three-quarters of the man's face was visible, and most of the mouth, but reading lips was tricky at the best of times.
"Slytentacles," said Jack under his breath. His lips twisted in amusement as he spoke. It was a nickname for Trytius; he doubted the illithid would be pleased to learn his men were using so obvious a codeword.
The door opened and the two cloaked men were admitted.
Several minutes passed with no visible action. Then the door swung open again, and two different gray-cloaked men emerged. As Jack watched, they stepped out into the street, laughing and joking, and after one of them had paused for a quick stretch and yawn, made their way down the avenue.
"And so the guard is changed," said Jack, swinging the spyglass upwards, to focus on the small, barred window on the third floor.
It was still darkened. "And our prisoner sleeps on." He knew from past observation that the window was too small to see anything of the room beyond, even when dim light spilled from it, but he waited a moment longer before lowering the spyglass.
Moments later, he was standing before the door, swathed in a gray cloak.
He tapped out the code, just as he'd watched the other men do.
After finishing he positioned himself so that he was looking back out at the street. It would appear that he was watching for passerbys, but from this angle anyone looking out the door would have a difficult time making out his face.
The small shutter slid open. "What do you want?" a rough voice demanded.
Jack half-turned, meeting the other man's eyes. "Slytentacles," he said softly, urgently. It must appear urgent, if he were to break routine without arousing suspicion.
The man on the other side of the door gave him a hard, measuring look, then slid the shutter closed again.
A moment passed, then there came the heavy sound of a bolt being turned, and the door groaned inward.
"What is it?" asked the man, blocking the doorway.
"Important," Jack said, looking up and down the street. "Can't discuss it here. You going to let me in, or do I put you on report?"
The line of the man's lips hardened in anger, but he stepped aside. "Get in then."
Jack nodded and swept past him, into the room beyond... and found himself staring at the business end of a crossbow. The second guard was holding it, his finger on the trigger mechanism, and a hard look in his eye.
Behind him, Jack heard the door being closed, and the lock being engaged again.
"Nice try," said the crossbowman. "Almost got it right. Password's 'skytentacles', not 'slytentacles'. Who are you? Answer quick or you’re dead."
Jack shrugged. "Lips are hard to read at twenty yards in the dark. Doesn't matter, though." He looked from one to the other.
"Why not?" asked the man behind him.
"Because I'm inside now." Jack exploded into action. He took a quick half-step forward, his hand darting out in an incredibly quick motion. Steel flashed in the dim light.
The crossbowman fired, falling backwards, but the bolt never flew. Instead, the weapon exploded in his hands as the severed bowstring whipped backwards with tremendous force. He uttered a strangled cry as the bowstring brushed past the left side of his face, severing his ear as if it were a knife.
Jack whirled as the second man attacked, a length of bared steel in his hand.
Seeing that Jack was armed, the man stepped back, using his sword's superior reach to hold Jack at bay. "Palthos!" he cried in alarm. "Palthos!"
Jack used the momentary pause, his free hand snapping back towards the crossbowman, who was staggering backwards, hand clapped to the side of his head. He seized the remnants of the crossbow, yanking it from the man's hands.
At the same moment, the swordsman leaped forward, his blade sweeping out in an expert manuever.
Jack half-leaned, half-ducked as the point of the blade whistled past. His dagger struck again, and the man staggered back, a ragged gash torn into the leather armor which protected his torso. The wound was on the man's left side, but to his credit, he did not glance down at it or move to cover it. Instead he darted forward again, thrusting, and Jack was forced momentarily to give ground. "Palthos!" the man shouted. "Palthos! Gods above, man! We're under attack!"
From overhead came the quick clumps of boots on wood.
Smart, thought Jack grudgingly, a third guard.
He hurled the broken crossbow at the swordsman.
The swordsman was thrown off guard only for an instant as he knocked the wreckage away, but that instant was enough. Suddenly Jack was within striking range, far too close for the man's sword to be effective.
The man tried to fall back, but Jack seized his sword arm at the wrist, applying a painful lock, and with a cry the man was forced forward.
He crumpled like a wet rag as Jack's dagger found its mark, sliding between the man's ribs and under his breastbone, piercing the heart.
Jack jerked the weapon free and half-turned, then was flung forward as powerful arms seized him from behind. It was the crossbowman, who had lurched forward and locked Jack in a powerful grip.
The man's grasp was strong but untrained. Jack shifted slightly, loosening the man's hold, and swept his dagger back, burying it in the back of the man's throat.
He made a gasping cough and went limp, but his arms locked onto Jack in a death grip, tangling him and pulling him to the floor.
At the top of the stairs a third guard appeared, running and cocking a second crossbow.
If he gets the chance to fire, thought Jack distractedly, his eyes measuring the distance, he won't miss, not at this range.
Jack was grappling with the hilt of the dagger, but it was caught in bone, and at this angle he could not force it free.
He looked around, then spotted the unfired bolt from the crossbow, laying on the floor a few scant feet away.
It'll have to do, he thought, snatching it up.
The third guard had halted in the middle of the stairs. He had finished cocking the weapon and was now raising it.
Jack slung the arrow with all his might.
There was a meaty sound as the point connected with the guard's left eye. The man toppled backwards soundlessly, his weapon discharging as his trigger finger reflexively contracted. The bolt went whistling over Jack's head, thunking into the body of the guard who had seized him.
Jack disentangled himself, standing. He peered up the stairs at the third guard's body, then ascended.
He looked down at the corpse. The bolt he had flung protruded several inches from the eye socket. There had not been enough force behind the throw to sink it deeper, but apparently it had gone in far enough to reach brain tissue.
Jack shook his head. "Clumsy," he muttered. "Blind luck I'm not dead." Not one throw in a thousand would be so lucky.
Then he started up the stairs.
At the top he found a small room, lit by a sullen yellow lantern which rested on a makeshift table that had apparently been made by setting an old door atop a pair of crates. Three old chairs of different makes were pulled around the table, and a deck of cards lay there, arranged into three different hands.
On the far side of the room was a heavy, oaken door, set with three different steel bolts. The mechanisms were rusty but workable, and in moments he had unlatched it.
He snatched the lantern from the table, pushing the door open.
"Jarren Windhook?" he asked, peering into the darkness.
There was a groan to his right, and he turned, hefting the lantern so he could see.
A pale-faced girl, blinking in the unexpected light, was cowering back in a makeshift cot, ratty blankets pulled high over her nightgown. "Who?" she asked, frightened. "Please don't hurt me! What do you want?"
* * *
"Sorry," said the round-faced man, "don't know anything about Seekers."
"You are Hyrund Skaltos?" asked Reanyn.
The man nodded. "That's right. All my life. Just like it says on the sign." He jerked a thumb towards the door. It wasn't visible from within, but just above the sill hung a rough wooden sign, weather-stained and beaten, which read: 'HYRUND SKALTOS - HERBS, POULTICES, HEALING AND RELIEF FROM PAIN'.
Hyrund was a short man, vigorous and healthy but with a roly-poly body which bordered on fat. The fringe of hair which surrounded the dome-shaped bald head was gray, and his eyes were brown.
"Hyrund Skaltos was the name given to me by the Seekers on Bral," said Reanyn.
The bald man shook his head again. "Sorry, like I said, I don't know anything about Seekers."
"I was told you were the contact person for the Seekers on Syrrus B."
The man offered a gentle smile. "There are no Seekers on Syrrus B."
Reanyn glanced back at Barundar and Nym. The dracon shrugged.
Tianna had been wandering through the little shop, picking at the little packets. Reanyn caught her eye, then glanced at the bald man. In reply to his unspoken question, she gave a nearly imperceptable shake of her head.
"Is it possible there's another 'Hyrund Skaltos' in the city somewhere?" asked Barundar.
The man considered. "No," he said at length. "Not that I've ever heard of. Be a pretty fair coincidence, wouldn't it?"
"This is a pretty fair coincidence," said Reanyn. "They gave me your name and your description, and told me to come to you."
The bald man shrugged. "Well, who can figure Seekers, right? Now, if you don't mind, I've got to get back to business. So unless you were looking for a special herb, or had a malady I could help with... ?"
"If this is a question of money-" started Reanyn.
"I'm always interested in money," said the man, "but if you're after Seekers, I fear I have nothing to sell you."
"Do you have anything for headaches?" asked Tianna. She glanced up, somewhat surprised to find she'd spoken aloud. "Sorry," she said, feeling Reanyn's eyes on her.
"Why yes," said the short man. "Whistleweed, thorndown, Kyllian bark... I've got a hundred things for headaches. As to which is most effective, well, that depends on the symptoms."
"Well," said Tianna slowly, as if uncertain whether to continue, "I don't know if it's all that important..."
Reanyn gave her a half-shrug. "Go on," he said. "I didn't know you had headaches."
"Just recently," she said. "They've been getting worse." She turned to the short man, placing fingertips to her temples. "It pounds... not really here, but inside. This is the general area." She lowered her hands, feeling foolish. "Well, it's just a headache, that's all."
"May I?" asked the short man, stepping forward.
Tianna was confused by the question, but before she could refuse he had gently placed a palm on the left side of her head and pressed the fingertips of his other hand to her temple. He stood up on tiptoe, slowly turning her head from left to right, looking into her eyes as if seeing something beyond them.
"Well!" he exclaimed, releasing her. "This is surprising! I'm afraid conventional remedies will be not be effective, no indeed."
"What do you mean?" asked Tianna.
The bald man ignored her. He looked instead at Reanyn. "Who did this?"
"Did what?" asked Reanyn. "You see something amiss?"
"I see the deft touch of a master mindbender," said the short man. "Blocks upon blocks; wards. Whole areas of her memory have been sealed off. This is very serious indeed."
"You mean you...?" asked Reanyn, surprised.
The man gave a self-deprecating bow. "I have some small training in the Art, yes. Nothing compared to the one who did this."
"Can you... restore her?" asked Reanyn, suddenly very interested. "Unseal her mind?"
The man shook his head. "Not I. My skill does not even approach the magnitude. These blocks... they're warded. Should I make a single mistake... her mind would be shattered, and likely mine as well."
"Damn Tavras," said Barundar, shooting Reanyn a look. "I knew he was trouble."
Tianna had paled while listening to the man speak. "What... what did he do to me? This is why I'm having headaches?"
Reanyn stepped closer. Hyrund gave a painful yelp as Reanyn brushed his shoulder, clapping his hands to his ears. "Back!" he cried.
Startled, Reanyn took a step back. "What?"
The short man gave him a withering look, shaking his head as if to clear it from ringing. "Don't you know what your little toy does?" He jabbed a thumb towards the starjewel which rested around Reanyn's neck, hanging over his breastbone. It was concealed under his clothing, but the man pointed as if he could see it.
"My... toy?" asked Reanyn.
"Your starjewel. It emits white noise - the psionic equivalent of a volcano's explosion. Put it too close to an unshielded mindbender and you'll turn his mind to jelly. Here I am, trying to help your friend, tuned in to her mind, and you come sneaking up on me with that thing."
"Sorry," said Reanyn. "I didn't know it worked that way."
Hyrund was still massaging his ears. "Well, now you know. Keep back, so you don't hurt me. As for her, there's nothing I can do that would not damage her further."
"Nothing?" asked Tianna, fighting down a wave of fear and nausea. "What about me? What can I do?"
Hyrund shook his head sadly. "There is nothing you can do. At least his workings are stable - beyond a few headaches, it shouldn't worsen."
"There must be someone, surely, who can help," said Reanyn.
"Master psionicists are a very rare breed," said the man. "I know of only two men in the entire universe who could handle a problem this complex, and them only by reputation. They might be able to help, but I doubt it. Only the one who did this to her will be able undo it with surety."
"He's dead," said Tianna.
"Dead?" Hyrund was surprised at the suggestion. "Oh, I think not. His signature pulses with life. The link he forged between you is active."
"Link?" demanded Reanyn. "What link?"
"One of the strongest I've ever encountered. With it, he could track her into the planes."
"He can... read her thoughts?" asked Reanyn.
The man shook his head. "No, no, nothing like that. But he can home in on her with it. He can track her across the Void."
Barundar and Nym exchanged glances. "That means he can track us, as well" said the dracon.
"Can you disable it?" asked Reanyn.
The man shook his head. "I wouldn't try. One mistake - one - and her mind would be destroyed."
Tianna looked at Reanyn. "Then I endanger the mission. I'll have to separate from you - charter a ship..."
Reanyn shook his head. "No. We'll use Tavras's little ploy against him. He said he was acting under orders. I want to know whose orders. And if he's the only one that can undo the damage to you.... He doesn't know we've learned of his link. We'll set a trap for him; wait for him to come to us. Just as soon as we get Windhook and get off this rock." He shot the Hyrund a look. "Which brings us back to why we came here in the first place."
The man threw up his hands. "Don't look at me. I told you before, I don't know any Seekers. I've no idea why they would send you to me. And as far as Jarren Windhook goes... I've never even heard of the man before."
Reanyn stared at him. "It would seem your psychic abilities are more refined than you led us to believe."
"Windhook. I don't remember mentioning his first name. Yet you seem to know it."
The man looked flustered. "Well... well of course I know it," he managed after a moment. "Why, everyone does. He's the one that all those bounty hunters are after, right? You can't blame me for having... for having common knowledge."
"A moment ago you said you'd never heard of him."
"Well... well, it took me a moment to place the name, didn't it? Knew it sounded familiar... Look, that doesn't mean I know him."
Reanyn drew an envelope from his vest. "Recognize this?" he asked, proffering it.
"No," the man said reflexively, peering forward.
"Take a long look. It's the official seal of the Seekers. You'd know it if you were one of their operatives."
"But I told you... I don't know anything about the Seekers..." His voice trailed off.
"You'll notice the seal isn't broken, and that the letter is addressed to you." Reanyn handed it to him. "Go ahead, open it."
The man took the envelope, uncertainly, slowly turning it over and over in his hands, peering first at the seal and then at the scrawled handwriting.
"Open it," repeated Reanyn.
The man looked up uncertainly, then, with a shrug, broke the seal and removed the paper.
"It's a missive from Nychus," said Reanyn, "head of the Order of Seekers in this sphere. He directs you to surrender Jarren Windhook to us upon arrival, as agreed."
The man's brows furrowed as he read. He looked up at Reanyn, then down at the letter again. A second time he read through the brief order.
"Well?" asked Reanyn.
"They sold him out," muttered the man in disbelief.
"Not quite," said Reanyn. "They realized the wisdom of handing him over. Windhook will be safer with me than anywhere else in the universe. Am I to take it that you admit you are a Seeker, now?"
"Oh... Well, as to that..." He offered a weak smile. "Can't blame me for trying to protect a brother." He tapped the missive chidingly. "You should have showed me this first off. First off."
"Done is done," said Reanyn. "Now, if you don't mind, we'll just collect Windhook and be gone."
"Well, that presents something of a problem," said the man.
"Problem?" asked Tianna. "What problem?"
Reanyn hushed her. "What problem?" he asked.
The man gave him a determined look. "They might have sold him out," he said, tapping the letter, "but I haven't."
He took a step forward. "You see, he's a friend of mine. And this is Syrrus B, where we do things a little differently. So this," - he raised the missive - "doesn't mean a whole lot to me. You want Windhook, fine, maybe I can arrange something... if the price is right."
Barundar snorted, a light chuckle that turned into a hearty, rumbling laugh. "So it is about money, after all!"
"We can come to an arrangement," said Reanyn, ignoring the giff.
The man eyed the giff narrowly, but nodded. "Good. I can arrange a face-to-face meeting between you and Windhook, as long as you meet my price. But understand, if he doesn't want to go with you he doesn't have to. And if he doesn't want to meet with you, too bad."
"He'll want to," said Reanyn. "When can I see him?"
The man gave a half-shrug. "It'll take time to arrange," he said. "Two days."
"One," countered Reanyn. "I don't have that kind of time to waste."
The man considered. "Tomorrow," he agreed, after a moment. "I'll arrange a time and place after I've spoken to Windhook."
Reanyn nodded. "And the price?"
The man pursed his lips. "Well, I don't want to be greedy... Shall we say two-thousand gold?"
Tianna snorted. "That's outrageous!" she sputtered.
Reanyn ignored her. "Done."
The man's eyes widened. "In that case, make it three-thousand."
Reanyn stared at him. "I thought we'd settled on a price."
"You agreed too quickly. On Syrrus B that means you were willing to pay more." He grinned. "I told you we do things differently here."
* * *
Julian ducked back behind the corner of the building.
In the street ahead, a fire raged, mingled with the shouts of soldiers.
It was the inn that was afire - Lem's Pride.
In the street, facedown in a pool of black blood, was the bald innkeep. Nearby lay seven other bodies, all still and broken. Two of them he recognized as the prostitutes from the common room; the others he could only assume were other patrons.
Twilight Jack was not among them.
Idiot, thought Julian, did you really expect he would be?
He peered around the corner, trying to keep his breathing calm, and get a clear look at the soldiers. Jack had discussed this possibility with him, made backup plans.
Remember their uniforms, he thought. Jack had been specific about that. If one of the power groups in the place had decided to eliminate them, he wanted to know which. But in the bright light of the roaring fire, all he could make out were the soldier's silhouettes. Still, he strained his eyes, looking for any identifying marks.
"No sign of the elf or the human, mistress," reported one of the soldiers, his voice a faint rasp over the roar of the distant flames. The comment drew Julian's attention; it was that of an underling to a superior. And if he could spot the superior...
One of the soldiers stood taller than the others - well over six feet, Julian estimated - and the armor he wore seemed to sparkle silver in the light of the flames. "Widen the search. One or the other will be nearby. We need them neutralized." It was a woman's voice, and Julian stared in surprise. Was it possible? Is it her?
Abruptly a chill came over him, and he ducked back behind the corner again. The uncertain light made it impossible to tell, but it seemed to him that she had turned, and stared straight towards him.
"Good enough," he said aloud, his voice shaky. "Good enough." He turned and sprinted down the small alley. Jack would find him; he had said he would if this happened. The important thing was to get somewhere safe. And the safest place was the middle of an anonymous crowd.
An inn ransacked; soldiers combing the streets for him; Julian reflected with amusement that it was not the first time this had happened since he'd met Twilight Jack.
As adrenaline rushed through him, a fierce grin split his face. He knew where to go.