Trytius, the Flayer of Minds!
Devourer of Souls, the Bane of Mankind!
Half in shadows, half in light,
He rules the world of endless night
In contrast to the rest of Syrrus B, which lurked in perpetual darkness, the docks were ringed with a series of lamplights which, coupled with the many lanterns on the ships themselves, threw the whole area into comparatively bright illumination.
This was always the busiest spot on the asteroid, with ships coming and going, goods and slaves continually being unloaded, and workers, crews, and captains thronging the docks.
Reanyn lay motionless atop the broken tower, watching it all through the small brass spyglass he held pressed to one eye. Even as he watched a group of gromman dockworkers finished loading a gigantic whaleship with a square, tightly roped-together block of goods. The loading crane swung back, and a few moments later the whaleship ponderously began to lift. It was the third ship so far that Reanyn had seen lifting, and already the pilotship catamaran was rising, leading the bigger ship upwards and into the tunnel far above.
So Blackthorne’s blockade must have lifted, he thought, or at least been relaxed. There was never any way he could have maintained it for any real length of time anyway.
But even if ships were now coming and going, Blackthorne obviously hadn’t given up. Reanyn’s practiced eye picked out several men at various points on the docks who were armed and waiting, some not even bothering to hide their weapons. A group of human mercenaries lounged beside a pair of huge casks on one section of the dock, warily eyeing anyone who passed. Farther down, a pair of dwarves stood in the center of the way, each brandishing crossbows.
And those were just the obvious ones. There were a half dozen or so giff toting bales and hauling crates, all armed and keeping close to the area where the Nightwarder was docked, and not far away a broad shouldered man with a bald head and an eyepatch strode up the length of the dock, a clipboard in hand. He seemed to be taking notes, but he was armed with a war axe and Reanyn had already seen him pace the length of the docks three times.
Reanyn shifted slightly on the moldering stonework of the tower top, turning the spyglass to his own ship.
There was no sign of Gotam or Vimal, but both Keryth and Gryth were on deck. The ogre was lying on his back near the helm, fingers hooked behind his head and feet propped up on the railing, apparently napping.
But Keryth was seated on the forward end of the bow, straddling the elongated ‘beak’ of the hummingbird-class ship. He appeared to be whittling a small piece of wood, but his eyes were not on his work. Instead the gnoll seemed to focus his attention alternately between those on the dock and the great empty blackness of the farther reaches of the cavern.
Excellent, thought Reanyn. He rose to a half crouch, lowering the spyglass and reaching for the small hooded lantern that he had set on the stones beside him.
The tower had been an excellent choice for observing the docks. Even though a few shops and taverns lined the streets that surrounded it, the tower itself had stood long abandoned, massive holes gaping in its stone walls and nearly the entire roof rotted away. Once a wooden roof had covered it, but now only a partial skeleton of rotting woodwork remained. The stones from which it had been constructed were now loose in their settings, the mortar long weathered away, and now they were continually damp with moisture, many covered in mildew and other unpleasant-smelling algae.
Still, it was tall enough so that from its top Reanyn had a clear view of nearly everything on or around the docks, and since no one that passed on the street below ever thought to look up it suited his purposes admirably.
He lifted the signal lantern and swiftly tripped the hood so that the light shined once… twice… three times in quick succession, then raised his spyglass again.
No one on the docks seemed to have noticed, which Reanyn had expected, but neither, apparently, had Keryth. The gnoll still sat whittling, and his gaze was directed towards those who were passing on the docks.
Keeping the spyglass to his eye, Reanyn used his other hand to signal again with three quick bursts of light.
This time Keryth’s gaze swung towards him. The gnoll gave a slight nod, still whittling.
Now that Reanyn was certain he had his attention, he began signaling in earnest, using the code most sailor’s employed to send messages, but spelling his words out in Wravvish.
‘DO NOT SIGNAL BACK IN SAME MANNER’ he sent. ‘FIND ANOTHER WAY’
He paused, waiting.
Keryth slowly stretched, then stood, apparently bored with his whittling. He strode to the midsection of the deck and picked up two pieces of wood that were lying there. He next lifted a piece of rope and began lashing the two pieces of wood together, moving back towards the bow. He settled back into his former perch again, each leg splayed out over each side of the ram, and continued his lashing. At first Reanyn didn’t understand what he was doing, but as he watched the longer piece of wood would raise, then lower, then raise again as the gnoll worked the lashings.
‘ARE YOU WELL?’ Keryth sent. ‘HEARD OF AMBUSH.’
‘SAFE AND WELL, SOME INJURIES AMONG OTHER COMPANIONS,’ Reanyn sent back, then, curious: ‘HOW DID YOU HEAR?’
‘DOCKWORKERS TALK. ASSUMED WE NOT SPEAK COMMON’
Of course, thought Reanyn. Most spelljamming ports weren’t keen on goblinkin; it only made sense that Blackthorne’s mercenaries would have assumed that Keryth and the other Wravvish didn’t speak common.
“I see you’ve found a way of signaling them.”
Twilight Jack stood a few paces behind him, looking thoughtfully out at the docks.
“What are you doing here?” demanded Reanyn, annoyed that the assassin had crept up on him unheard.
“Same as you, I imagine. Determining the viability of contacting your crew.”
“How did you know I’d be here?”
Jack shrugged. “I didn’t. I’ve used this spot before to watch your ship; it’s a good vantage point. You simply happened to pick the same place.” His eyes were still focused on the docks below. “So how will they be able to signal you back? Remember, Blackthorne is using them as bait. It won’t go well for them if his men realize that they have a way of contacting you.”
Reanyn turned back grudgingly. “I’ve worked out a method.” He lifted his spyglass, and saw that Keryth was finishing signaling something he had missed while turned away.
‘PLEASE REPEAT’ he signaled.
‘SHIP WATCHED CONSTANTLY. DO NOT APPROACH.’
‘AM AWARE,’ he sent back. ‘AMBUSH BY BLACKTHORNE. HAVE YOU SEEN HIS SHIP?’
‘BLACKTHORNE IS HUMAN, HUMANS LOOK ALIKE. SHIP DESCRIPTION?’
Reanyn thought for a moment, then looked at Jack. “Blackthorne has a nightwolf-class, doesn’t he?”
Jack shrugged. “By all reports. Though he owns several other ships, and I’ve heard he also flies a lamprey-class striker.”
‘NIGHTWOLF’ Reanyn sent back. ‘OR LAMPREY’
‘NEGATIVE,’ came the answer. ‘ALTHOUGH CATAMARAN HAS RUN CONSTANT SHUTTLE SERVICE FOR UNKNOWN SHIPS OUTSIDE.’
Jack had watched all this quietly. “Interesting code,” he remarked. “I admit I have no idea what either of you is saying. It looks like standard signal, but the letters are scrambled. That last message he sent – AWISTRA – what is that supposed to mean?”
“Outside,” said Reanyn, still watching Keryth through his spyglass. “He says that no nightwolf-class or lamprey-class ships have come or gone since we arrived here, but the catamaran pilotship has been running constantly, probably ferrying to larger ships stationed outside the asteroid.”
Jack nodded. “Makes sense. Blackthorne may not have been able to maintain his blockade, but he’s still got ships out there ready to blow your hummingbird to bits if it lifts. Not that it would even get that far.”
Reanyn glanced at him “What do you mean?”
“I’ve counted four separate weapon placements around the city, all manned by experts and all aimed up at the tunnel mouth. Blackthorne isn’t taking any chances.”
‘SHIP PREPPED FOR IMMEDIATE LIFT’ Keryth sent. ‘GIVE THE ORDER AND WE WILL DUST THIS ROCK.’
‘NEGATIVE,’ Reanyn sent back quickly. ‘HOLD POSITION. SHIP IS TARGETED BY HEAVY WEAPONRY.’
“Nightwarder is a fast ship,” Reanyn said to Jack a moment later. “If we were to lift on her, it’s unlikely that any of Blackthorne’s weaponry could hit us.”
Jack shook his head. “They aren’t even aimed at the ship. They’re aimed at the tunnel mouth. And if we lift on her, soon or late we’ll be entering the tunnel mouth. It’s an easy shot for a pre-aimed weapon. And there’s another thing. One of the weapon placements is a heavy bombard operated by Linton Corun himself.”
“Linton Corun is on Syrrus B?” asked Reanyn in surprise.
“Apparently. And he’s been hired by Blackthorne to blow your ship to splinters if it lifts. Which I have little doubt he’ll be able to do. They don’t call him ‘one-shot’ for nothing.”
Reanyn considered. “A problem,” he admitted.
On the Nightwarder, Keryth was signaling again. ‘WHAT IS YOUR ORDER?’ As Reanyn watched, Gryth stood and stretched, lazily approaching the gnoll.
Reanyn glanced. “What is your plan?”
Jack was quiet a moment. “I’m not certain I really have one yet.”
“My crew is asking me what to do,” Reanyn said pointedly. “I’m not certain what to tell them, because I don’t have any idea what you have in mind. So start talking or you can find another ride out of here.”
“Ask them if they’ve got supplies stocked for a long voyage, if they’re completely ready for an immediate lift.”
Reanyn stared at him.
“Go on, ask them.”
Reanyn turned back to the ship and sent a quick series of flashes. ‘IS SHIP STOCKED AND READY TO DEPART?’
‘UNABLE TO PROCURE ANY SUPPLIES. DOCK WARDEN WILL NOT ALLOW GOBLINKIN OFF SHIP. STORES ARE LESS THAN HALF CAPACITY.’
“Well?” asked Jack.
“No,” said Reanyn. “The ship’s stores are less than half full. But that’s more than enough for any normal voyage.”
“We don’t yet know how long this voyage will be. Half is better than nothing, but full is better than half.”
“Why does it matter how full the stores are if we’re taking Timoth’s hammership?”
Jack shook his head. “Timoth is certain to betray us. On the off chance he doesn’t, I’ve been spreading rumors about his ‘secret hammership’ and our plans to use it to escape.”
Reanyn stared at him as if he were mad. “Why? You’ll compromise our effort.”
“It’s a distraction, nothing more. I figure the tale will pull some of Blackthorne’s ships from their position at the mouth of the tunnel, give us a chance to run his gauntlet. When he learns there might be another way off this asteroid, he’s going to have to divert resources to cover it.”
“But if Timoth really betrays us, then Blackthorne is going to know exactly where our escape route is. He’ll have ships waiting outside to pound that hammer-class to bits, and likely he’ll put some men inside to ensure we can’t retreat.”
Jack shook his head. “You don’t understand. That hammership is Timoth’s private escape route. There’s no way he’s going to tell Blackthorne about how to find it, especially not from the inside. The most he’ll give away is where the exit tunnel lets out, so that once we’ve launched Blackthorne can destroy us in the void.”
“I don’t see how that helps us.”
Jack arched an eyebrow. “If the hammership launches and is destroyed, Blackthorne will presume us to have been on it. And if Blackthorne thinks we’re dead then it helps us, trust me.”
Reanyn mulled it over. “It sounds tricky. How are you planning to launch the hammership without a crew? Or more important, a helmsman?”
“I’ve got a few ideas. In the meantime, simply tell your crew to stand ready for anything, including evacuating the ship.”
Reanyn considered that for a moment, then lifted the signal lantern again. ‘MAINTAIN READINESS FOR IMMEDIATE LIFT OR POSSIBLE ABANDON SHIP.’
He would have sent more, but Jack suddenly pointed. “You’ve been spotted,” he said urgently.
Reanyn followed the line of his arm and saw that one of the mercenaries was standing and pointing up in their direction. Another was approaching the first, his brow knitted in a perplexed look, also looking up in their general direction, and a few of his fellows were also turning to look up.
Reanyn immediately lowered the lantern, which was already hooded, and dropped into a half crouch.
“This tower is black against the darkness,” said Jack. “They can’t see us. And only one of them saw your lantern. If you don’t signal again, he’ll have a difficult time convincing his fellows that he actually saw anything at all.”
Reanyn said nothing, only watching. The mercenaries stood about, most craning their necks in the general direction the first man had pointed. After a few minutes most lost interest, and a few laughed openly at their fellow. The first mercenary still stood looking, a scowl etched on his face.
‘ARE YOU THERE?’ Keryth sent after several minutes.
And then again, when there was no answer: ‘ARE YOU THERE?’
After a few more minutes with no answer, Keryth stood, stretched, and turned to Gryth, who had taken a seat nearby. The ogre nodded somberly a few times as the gnoll spoke, and then Keryth left him there and went below.
“You found Cantoule, I take it?” Jack asked at last.
Reanyn nodded. “I sent him back with Julian. With any luck, they’ve puzzled out Windhook’s code already.”
* * *
“Twilight Jack, Twilight Jack, Twilight Jack.”
Naldo licked his lips again, watching from his hiding place. “Twilight Jack,” he muttered again, the words sounding almost like a feverish prayer.
This was the one. The moment Rory had always told him about. The big score. The moment where he could make his fortune or meet his end, depending on how he played it.
He’d followed Twilight Jack and the old man through the winding maze of streets, always keeping far behind and to the shadows. So far behind that he had nearly lost them twice. But he wasn’t about to make the mistake of trailing too close.
This was Twilight Jack, after all. The same man as in the Storyteller’s ballad. Naldo had no doubts about how long he would live if Twilight Jack found out he was following him.
So he’d kept back, and well hidden, even though neither Jack nor the human he was with ever glanced back. And now he had stationed himself across the street diagonally from the three story building they had entered.
“Twilight Jack,” he muttered again, looking at the structure. He couldn’t keep a crooked smile from forming on his lips.
The assassin had good taste. Olaf Jornson ran one of the best whorehouses in Syrrus B (and there were several to choose from). The rooms were posh, the girls were comely and free from disease, and even the food was supposed to be good. Naldo had never been able to afford it, but maybe once he made his big score…
That was only half the reason for his smile. If Twilight Jack was interested in prostitutes than it was even less likely he would be on the lookout for Naldo. And it was twice as likely that whoever came for the assassin would catch him unawares.
Now all Naldo had to decide was who to sell the information to.
Briefly he entertained the idea of going straight to Blackthorne – that was where the big money was. But he quickly dismissed the idea. Twilight Jack was a killer, but Blackthorne was a monster. Too many of those who had dealings with the bladesinger died screaming, and Naldo had no intention of adding himself to the list. Besides, Naldo had no idea where to find him, and didn’t trust any of Blackthorne’s underlings, who would likely cut him out of the score.
And that was the whole problem. Naldo knew he was no fighter. He’d once cut a drunkard’s throat for a few coppers in the slum section, but that had been mostly luck, and he’d caught the fellow unawares. There were a lot of rough people hunting for Twilight Jack and those others with him, and none of them were likely to want to split any ‘finder’s fee’. A quick sword thrust and they’d rid themselves of Naldo and one less split in the reward.
Besides which, Naldo wanted someone who wouldn’t involve him any further in the matter. When they burst in on Twilight Jack, a lot of people were going to die, and maybe they wouldn’t even be able to kill the assassin. The last thing Naldo wanted was to have a vengeful Twilight Jack after him. He wanted to be as anonymous as possible, and planned to be very far away from here when the ambush occurred.
So who would fit the bill? Not Blackthorne, or any of his men. Far too risky. An information broker? Too unreliable – if they were willing to sell information on Twilight Jack, they’d be more than happy to sell out Naldo if things went wrong. One of the powers-that-be? Possibly, though their vengeance wouldn’t be pretty if the ambush they set went south. Still, they had the resources to take down Jack, the funds to give Naldo ample reward, and the motive to do it (the larger reward Blackthorne would give when they presented the assassin’s head to him).
Mentally he ran through the list. The Blue Man? Too difficult to contact. The Duchess? Naldo had had sour dealings with her people in the past, which they might not be so willing to forgive and forget. Red Marlin was even on planet, so he was out. And no-one in their right mind ever actually chose to go to Blackwood, not unless they wanted to end up on a neogi dinner plate. And Trytius…
Naldo thought about it a moment. Trytius was powerful; the illithid had gold, muscle, resources. And he had a good reputation for keeping his word and keeping his silence. And Naldo had never crossed him, that he knew of.
The crooked smile widened.
“Twilight Jack,” he muttered again, backing a half step into the shadows, still watching the three story building with feverish eyes. Then he turned and hurried off, breaking into a run after a few steps.
Naldo was going to get his big score.
* * *
“This is Cantoule?” Tianna asked dubiously, looking the old man up and down. She didn’t sound impressed. “He doesn’t look like much.”
Cantoule grinned. “I don’t claim to be much, lady. Just a humble servant of Tyr, in whose light we all dwell.”
“This is Tianna Snowmantle,” put in Julian cheerfully when she didn’t immediately answer. “She fancies herself a Fleet officer. Isn’t she sweet?”
Cantoule’s grin faltered a bit when he caught sight of Barundar. “You!”
Barundar held up a finger. “Don’t start.”
“Godless, no good, axe-loving, back-stabbing, hippopotamus-faced, filthy, contest-cheating-“ Cantoule’s voice started low and gained volume as he went, a fierce frown now etched into his face.
“Easy old man,” warned Barundar. “I never cheated and you know it.”
“Neogi-eating, unrepentant, bone-headed spawn of an angry spacesea giant!” Cantoule’s finger was still shaking.
Barundar’s mouth moved, but no sound came out. “Neogi-eating?!” he sputtered at last.
“I take it you know each other,” said Julian, looking from one to the other.
“We’ve met,” said Nym dryly.
Cantoule turned his glare on the dracon. “I see you’re still keeping bad company, Nym. Tyr only knows why you haven’t left this dunderheaded giff yet.”
Nym smiled. “Tyr only knows,” he agreed. “But I thought you would have forgiven him by now.”
Cantoule gave Barundar a piercing look. “Tyr forgives who he may,” he said pointedly, “but forgiving is not forgetting. And for the unrepentant there is no rest.”
Barundar threw his hands up in disgust, turning away. “Fagh! I can’t talk to him. You try, Nym.” He stalked to the window.
“Hrumph,” said Cantoule, watching him go. “Still stubborn as a krynnish mule.”
“I’m almost afraid to ask,” said Julian, “but what exactly is the quarrel between you.”
“It was a drinking contest,” said Nym mildly. “Barundar won.”
“Cheated is what he did!” said Cantoule emphatically. “Tricked me! And made a mockery of Tyr’s holy work!”
“Tyr’s work involves drinking contests?” asked Tianna.
“Don’t get him started,” said Nym.
“Tyr’s work involves saving souls!” declared Cantoule emphatically. “And when Tyr’s holy funds are pirated by a no-good cheat, Tyr takes mighty offense, that’s what!”
“I see,” said Tianna carefully, backing a step.
“Speaking of holy funds for Tyr,” said Julian, trying to steer the old man back on track, “we’ve got some for him, if you can decode Windhook’s letters.”
Cantoule fixed him with a suspicious look. “Don’t try to act like you’re concerned with Tyr’s work. That’s mockery, and Tyr doesn’t take well to that. Neither do I. Just you remember that for the unrighteous, the day of eternal judgment and damnation waits for no man.”
Julian didn’t know what to say to that. “Uh… okay,” he conceded at last.
Cantoule nodded once, as if in confirmation, then turned back to Nym. “Alright then, let’s get to it. What’s this astrological puzzle everyone’s so concerned about?”
Nym gestured towards the table. “See for yourself.”
The old man approached, turning one of the pieces of parchment around as he looked at it. “Humph. Well, you’ve got them in the wrong order, for one thing.”
Quickly he sorted through the various papers, holding each up to the light for a moment and squinting at it. Then, muttering under his breath, he began rearranging their placement on the table, forming them into a pattern.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said at last, stepping back from it and gazing at the whole.
“What?” asked Tianna. Then, after a moment: “What is it?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, his frown of concentration deepened and he pointing at different places on the pattern and muttering. “If that’s…? Well, then that would be… But that can’t be right, unless…”
He shook his head again. “Well, I’ll be damned.”