Within the Great Beyond, he seeks to find a way
Thru Void like Ice, thru Flow like flame, to Crystal Spheres unknown
Barundar’s thick fingers tightened on the arquebus. “I wish I had my axe,” he muttered, not for the first time.
“So you keep saying,” said Jack dryly.
The giff grunted. “Well, I feel naked without it, that’s all. By the by, since we’re on our way anyway, isn’t it about time you told me where we’re headed?”
The giff grumbled again. “Well, if you’re trying to get me lost, you’ve done a fair job of it. I’m so turned around by now that I don’t even know which way the docks are. And us lurking in shadows all the way. Doesn’t suit me; I prefer a straight up fight.”
“Exactly what I’m trying to avoid.”
The two had made good time, twisting and turning through the back-alleys of Syrrus B. Jack had led the way, choosing only the least populated byways for his path, doubling back often, and taking great pains not to run across any of Trytius’s (or worse, Blackthorne’s) men.
But the twisting course was so convoluted, and so many times had they been forced to backtrack, that Barundar was forced to admit he was becoming a little lost. Not so lost as he let on, of course – he knew which general direction the docks were in – but he had no idea where they were headed, and wasn’t certain he could have found his way back to the whorehouse.
Jack hadn’t been particularly good company; he had been silent the whole way. Which was all right with Barundar, except that the assassin still hadn’t revealed where they were going and why. The giff’s infrequent questions were met with silence.
Suddenly Jack halted, his head cocked to one side as if listening.
So abruptly had he stopped that Barundar nearly ran into him.
Barundar fell silent, listening as well. “What is it?” he asked at last, his voice a whisper.
Jack didn’t answer, instead remaining silent and still as a statue.
Two long minutes passed, and then Jack shook his head, stepping forward.
“What was it?” Barundar asked again, worried. “What did you hear?”
“Pursuit,” said Jack. “A patrol, maybe five men.”
Barundar glanced back the way they had come and lifted the arquebus by the barrel, as if he were holding his axe. “Five men? What is that, two minutes work?” He grinned. “Nothing to worry about, though I do wonder how they followed us so quickly.”
“Nothing to worry about because we aren’t going to fight them,” said Jack, a trace of irritation in his voice. “And they didn’t track us. It’s just a routine patrol, most likely one of Blackthorne’s. They just happen to be following the same street we are. Now come on and keep quiet.”
Barundar frowned but followed, and Jack led the way swiftly. They turned to the right at the next bend, then to the left, then came to a dead end.
“Wonderful,” said Barundar, eyeing the blank and featureless wall that marked the end of the street. He turned back the way they had come. There were still no sounds of pursuit as far as he could hear. “Well, maybe they’ll pass this little cul-de-sac by, anyway. If they don’t, we’ll definitely have to fight.”
“No we won’t,” said Jack, who was bent down over a small sack, retrieving something. “Because we won’t be here.”
Barundar watched as the assassin rifled in one of his pouches, then produced something that glinted metallically.
There was a short rasp, and sparks flew, as steel was drawn over flint. A torch suddenly sputtered and flared to light, bathing the black street in an orange glow.
“They won’t miss us if we’re lit up like a gnomish firework” observed the giff.
Jack ignored him. He had moved over to a small grate set in the cobbled street. He started to lift it, then thought the better of it. He glanced at Barundar. “Forgot I was with a giff. Come here and lend a hand lifting this clear.”
Barundar shrugged and squatted over the grate, setting down the arquebus and taking hold of the heavy iron grate. He pulled, but the thing seemed wedged tight, so he braced himself with both feet, took a firm grip and gave a tremendous heave. There was a sound like the snapping of old metal and the grate came flying out of its place. Barundar grunted in surprise, almost smacking himself with it.
“It had hinges,” said Jack. “I only wanted you to fold it back, not rip it from its place.”
Barundar shrugged. “It was rusted, I guess.” He was looking down into the hole. It was pitch black down there, but he could hear the steady drip of water. “What’s down there?”
“An old sewer,” said Jack, taking the torch and stepping down into the hole. Apparently there was a ladder built into the side; Jack climbed down. “I found it earlier. It occurred to me that it would be an excellent way of crossing half the city without being seen.” His head, and then the torch, fell below the level of the street.
Barundar watched him descend.
“Hurry up and come down,” said Jack, apparently reaching the bottom and stepping away from the ladder. Barundar couldn’t see much more than the torch and the assassin’s upper body, and the fact that he was standing on something wet. “And draw the grate back in place once you’re in.”
* * *
They had raced the first two blocks from the whorehouse, and then Reanyn had dropped from a run to a quick walk. Two elves in flight would draw attention; a spelljamming sailor and his whore out for a stroll would be more common sight.
Reanyn had lead the way along twisting back-streets that were really not streets at all, but narrow spaces between and behind towering buildings - some alleyways so narrow that in places they had to go single file. All of Syrrus B was perpetually cloaked in darkness, but the path that Reanyn took followed only the blackest and most unlit ways – sometimes venturing so far from any used street (those that had streetlamps or torchlight) that Tianna could barely see him in front of her, and that only by the glow of heat from his body. This partly surprised her; most elves had some measure of infravision, but she had never had to use it before.
Tianna had quickly become lost as she followed Reanyn through the mazelike streets and alleys. For the most part they saw no one, and she sensed this was his aim in following such small by-ways. Occasionally she would catch a glimpse of someone on a larger street nearby as they darted from shadow to shadow, and once they had actually stepped over a man who was lying drunk in the center of the road, face-down in his own vomit. Twice Reanyn had inexplicably halted, turned, and led her back they way they had come, taking another turn when they had backtracked far enough. Tianna was uncertain whether Reanyn had backtracked to avoid someone ahead of them or whether he was simply becoming lost himself, though she tended to think the former was more likely, for he moved with purpose and speed.
And as they went, a creeping feeling descended on her that they were being followed. She would hear faint sounds that might have been footsteps coming from side streets or far behind. Reanyn had taken hold of her hand at the beginning of their flight, when they had sprinted from the whorehouse, and he had not released her since, so she could not halt (nor did she want to). But whenever she looked over her shoulder, which was often, she saw nothing but the empty cold alleyway stretching on behind her.
The darkness lent an eerie and alien quality to even mundane sounds like the drip of water, and the growing sense of unease that was stealing upon her was only aided by Reanyn’s silence and hurried step.
At last she saw dim light ahead, spilling from the mouth of where the little alley they were following met a larger road. It made no sense, but she felt a sudden relief. The larger road might be the more dangerous avenue of travel, but at least it was lit, and a relief from traveling in this perpetual darkness.
Reanyn was still leading, but she quickened her pace as they neared, first drawing abreast and then stepping fully into the street.
“Wait!” he hissed, dragging her back.
“What…!” she started to ask, as he yanked her back, then spun her, backing her up against the wall.
“Shh,” he hissed low, pressing close and putting his lips near her ear. It seemed to her he was going to whisper something more, but he reconsidered and kept silent.
A moment later a group of armored men trotted by in the wider street beyond. Tianna could not see much of them from her angle – Reanyn was purposely blocking her line of sight to hide her scar – but she could tell they were mostly human, lightly armored, and moving with purpose. They had the look of trained soldiers rather than unorganized mercenaries. After the many turns she had taken on her flight she could not be certain of the direction they were heading, but she had a feeling they were moving in the direction of the whorehouse.
If any of the passing soldiers saw them they paid no heed. A sailor carousing with a prostitute in a dark alley was hardly an uncommon sight on Syrrus B.
After a minute the sounds of the soldiers boots ringing on cobblestones receded in the distance.
Reanyn didn’t shift position until the sounds of their passing had long since faded to silence. Even then he held his place. Tianna glanced up at him.
He wore a thoughtful look. “Those were Duchess troops, if I’m not mistaken, and moving with a purpose. I wonder how she’s tied in with Trytius. Surely he can’t have shared information with the other pirate lords already…” He was musing to himself, but he had not shifted from his position.
Tianna became uncomfortably aware of how close he was, his breath tickling her neck, and it stirred a mixture of feelings within her. She was still miffed at being dressed like a strumpet, angry with him for jerking her about without warning, and irritated by the fact that he still hadn’t told her where they were going. But in the back of it all she was glad he was there. Since the moment she had met him, Reanyn had seemed an almost unstoppable force of nature, forceful, decisive, and lethal, and as much as she might begrudge the fact, he had already saved her life more than once. Even after Blackthorne’s ambush had proven he was not unbeatable, he was one of the most dangerous men in the spheres, and she felt safer at his side. She was, deep down, glad she was with him. And that fact irritated her more than anything else.
“They’re gone,” she said at last, putting a little ice into her voice. “Just because I’m dressed like a strumpet doesn’t mean I want to be pawed like one.”
He stepped back from her as if struck, eyes narrowing angrily. “Don’t flatter yourself,” he snapped, and then turned away momentarily, peering down the street.
She straightened angrily, self-consciously smoothing her skirts, but he turned back to her before she could reply.
“Look,” he said, “this next stretch we have to cross more populated streets. They won’t be major thoroughfares, so it’s likely we won’t pass too many people. But we’re bound to be seen by some. And everybody has a description of us. So stay close to me and keep your head against my shoulder to hide that scar of yours…”
Awkwardly he pulled her to him, into a walking embrace, and stiffly she complied.
“You’re holding me too tightly,” said Tianna.
Instantly Reanyn relaxed his grip on her, almost shifting away from her. “Sorry.”
“Now you’re not holding me tightly enough.”
He gave her an irritated glance. “Never satisfied-“ he said under his breath, then repositioned his arm over her shoulder. “Here. Is this better?”
“Better,” she said grudgingly. “At least I can breathe.”
They kept to the right side of the street, away from the flickering streetlamps and in the shadows. Tianna was surprised by how slow a pace they set.
“At this pace, I hope wherever we’re going is close by,” she muttered.
“We’re supposed to be lovers out for a stroll, enjoying each others company,” said Reanyn.
“Well, your shirt is making my face itch.”
“Look,” he said, “this isn’t… comfortable for me either, okay? So let’s just get through this and we’ll soon enough be rid of each other.”
For some reason, this last comment rankled her more than any other. “You’re a real charmer, Wayfarer,” she said sarcastically.
* * *
“It smells bad here,” said Barundar, wrinkling his nose.
“These sewers haven’t been used for years,” said Jack. “It’s not as though we’re up to our waists in filth.”
The sewers were winding tunnels that seemed carved from the very rock of Syrrus B itself. In most places the tunnels were round, but there was no uniformity. Here the walls were polished and gleaming, ahead they were rough and broken, and they were not straight anywhere, jagging and twisting, and doubling back on themselves. Likely this had been a series of natural caverns that early settlers had converted to a sewer.
As for how long these tunnels had been in disuse, Barundar could not say. There was not much more than an inch of brackish water underfoot, squishing obscenely beneath their boots.
Barundar winced as he bumped his head on the low ceiling for what seemed like the hundredth time. “It still smells bad,” he grumbled, rubbing the top of his head. It was a lucky thing that giff were built with some of the thickest skulls of any spelljamming race.
“Musty, that’s all. The rest is in your mind.” Jack was so used to hearing the meaty thump of Barundar’s scalp colliding with the rock ceiling that he didn’t even look back. The assassin was swift and surefooted, and while he was surely shorter than the giff, there were many places where even he ducked his head. Once they had come to a particularly low place where Barundar had been forced onto his hands and knees; the assassin had only had to duck down to pass. Thinking of putting his hands into that muck, Barundar unconsciously rubbed them against his shirt. They still felt slimy.
And so they continued.
At one point Jack came to a sudden halt, his head cocked as if listening.
“What is it?” asked the giff.
Jack shook his head. “Shhh.”
Barundar stood there, half bent over, listening. Off in the distance he heard a slowly building cry. It was something like a mix of a baby’s scream and a hyena, and though it was far distant it raised the giff’s hackles. “What is it?” he asked. “Something in the tunnels?”
If the sound had raised concern in him, it had had the opposite effect on Jack. The assassin started forward again, cool and decisive. “I thought it was soldiers for a moment. Should have known these tunnels would have other inhabitants.”
Barundar followed, still looking back in the direction of the unearthly yowling. “What other inhabitants, exactly?” he asked.
Jack shrugged. “I found the sewers; I didn’t have time to do a full study of the indigent ecosystem. Likely it’s some scavenger that would scamper in fright at the sight of our torch. It’s nothing to fear.”
“Fear?” Barundar snorted in derision. “I am a giff; I know nothing of fear. That howler will sing its song in a different key, should it come within reach of my axe.”
“You don’t have your axe.”
Barundar grumbled. “Don’t remind me. How much farther?”
Jack just continued on, holding the torch in one hand. “Not far,” he said after a moment.
The weird, undulating howl came again, and Barundar’s ears pricked up. It was still far distant but seemed closer than the first call. Despite his brave words the giff hurried forward to keep within the flickering light cast by the assassin’s torch.
* * *
“It’s risky,” said Nym, after consideration.
He was crouched behind a crumbling black parapet, gazing out at the docks below. Beside him was Cantoule, peering outwards as well. The view from the top of the broken tower afforded a nearly clear field of vision over the near end of the docks. Somewhere behind them both Julian sat with his back propped against one of the far parapets, Selithera just to his left.
One might have expected that Blackthorne’s blockade would have meant the docks would be nearly deserted, since all ships were ostensibly grounded. Instead, they were swarmed with men, most clothed like dockworkers but some bearing arms openly. As there were no ships coming in or leaving, there was no activity at loading or unloading cargo. Most of the dockworkers lounged where they were, dicing or napping, and a few stood in groups, talking low. All seemed to have abandoned the pretense of working.
As for Blackthorne’s blockade, no ships had lifted during the time that Nym had watched, but he had only recently taken position on the tower. Several ships looked rigged for lift, but none were in active use at the moment, though several had at least one or two crewmembers standing deckwatch (Syrrus B was not the sort of place one left his ship unguarded).
From where the small group huddled at the top of the broken tower there was a clear view of the Nightwarder as well. Keryth was nowhere to be seen, but Gryth was on deck, sitting with legs propped up on the railing of the forecastle, idly watching the dockworkers with half-lidded eyes. It did not escape Nym’s notice that the ogre had a clear line of sight in the direction of the tower where they stood, either.
But his eyes did not rest on the hummingbird long. His full attention was on the shops that lined the dock-front, shops that catered to the ship traffic which gave Syrrus B life, producing everything from sails to line to weapons. Shops that had supplies.
“Essential is what it is,” Cantoule countered the dracon. “You saw the flow charts, same as me. That sphere is out beyond known space. It isn’t going to be any kind of routine trip, and we’re talking about overloading the ship as it is.”
“The Wayfarer said himself the ship’s stores were at less than half capacity,” pointed out Julian from where he sat. Despite his expressed distaste for the wine, he had uncorked it, and now tipped it up, taking a swig.
Nym shot him a cynical look. “I thought you said you didn’t like the idea.”
Julian’s face screwed up for a moment in a bitter expression as he swallowed. “What? Oh no, I said that I personally wasn’t in favor of going. It is risky, just as you say, and I’m not big on putting myself in harm’s way. But we are, presumably, about to strike out on a long journey between spheres, with no other re-supply in sight. So if the old man wants to put his neck out to get a few supplies, I’m all for it.”
Julian quirked his mouth in a smile and gave a slight half-bow. “I like to think of myself as a pragmatist. I have no illusions about our chances of getting down there and procuring any measure of supplies with all those mercenaries present.”
“A necessary evil,” said Cantoule stoutly. “Only a fool lifts planet for a foreign flow with no foodstores.”
“Maybe,” agreed Nym cautiously. “But food and water will avail us nothing if we are dead. We may stare all we like and make wishes, but I do not see a way to get at any of it.”
Julian sighed, then stood, taking a look for himself. As he did, a slow thin smile formed on his lips.
Nym looked up at him. “What?”
“Oh, nothing,” said the elf. “Just that I think I see a way to get all the supplies we need. You fellows can’t see the trees for the forest, so to speak.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you’re looking in the wrong place. At least in my opinion.” Julian shrugged. “But what do I know. I’m generally a ‘useless person’, as I’ve heard you say before.”
“What?” Cantoule sounded irritated. “No more of your high-handed tomfoolery and riddles, elf. If you’ve an idea or see something we don’t, speak up.”
“Well…” said Julian, settling down beside Nym and pointing, “I was just looking at those. And it struck me that if you fellows were bent on doing something suicidal for provisions, maybe the less-suicidal course was better.”
Nym looked where he was pointing. And started to smile. “It could work.”
* * *
Elias Timoth kept his estate on the outskirts of the city, set squarely amidst the warrens and slums of the poorest section of the populated portion of the city. It was strategically placed; a good distance from the docks and the holdings of the other pirate lords, yet not so far that it would be cut off from reinforcements in the event of an attack. Yet it cut a strange picture to see the towering structure and well-maintained walls rising from the filth-strewn alleyways of the slum section.
It was composed of one squat tower – the main building - flanked by two narrower and taller towers, all within the featureless fifteen-feet walls. The central tower rose to a grand crystal dome which flickered with blue light coming from within, while torches and lamps lit the windows and heights of the two flanking towers, and all round the walls were posted lanterns and torches that were never extinguished. This, coupled with the fact that the surrounding streets were brightly lit by streetlamps (Timoth paid the lamplighter’s guild well to keep those in good repair, though there was always one or two which were broken and dark from the bravado of passing neighborhood street thugs who were wise enough to attack Timoth’s streetlamps rather than his giff guardsmen) made Timoth’s palace one of the most brightly-lit structures in the city – which was contrasted by its dark, dismal surroundings. It was a sparkling jewel glittering in the eternal night of Syrrus B.
There were two gatehouses that led into the plush garden area within the walls, each manned day and night by several guardsmen. Only one was visible from where Reanyn and Tianna stood, the south gate, where Jack had made their meeting place.
“What is it?” asked Tianna, surveying it from the dark shadows of a cul-de-sac Reanyn had found across the way. “Some kind of palace?”
“Of a sort,” he said. “It belongs to Elias Timoth.”
“Who’s Elias Timoth?”
Reanyn was scanning the darkened streets. So far he had spotted one patrol of four men – two humans and two giff. From Jack’s description, he knew there would be two, and he wanted to spot them both before he moved. “The Blue Man’s number one aide,” he answered distractedly.
Tianna gave him a blank look. “’Blue Man’?”
“Pirate Lord,” he said tersely. “Bankrolls half the city, supplies allies and starves enemies. So he doesn’t have many enemies, at least openly. Timoth is his strong right hand.” He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. He’s cut a deal with Twilight Jack for something, and each is planning to betray the other.”
“Wonderful,” said Tianna. “Someone Jack’s planning to betray. That probably puts him in the same boat as us.”
Reanyn grunted noncommittally and went back to scanning the street. Silently though, he was musing over her words. Betrayal was the assassin’s bread and butter, and while he thought he had the full measure of the assassin’s plan, he wasn’t certain. Twilight Jack was loyal only to himself, but he could be trusted to serve his own self-interest. But was aiding them really in his self-interest? And for how long? That was the question that had been irking Reanyn from the moment he had awakened from his injuries and found that the assassin had been his savior.
There was always a price to pay in the Nine Hells when one accepted the aid of the Devil.
“Well, we’re here,” said Tianna after a few minutes. “Now, where’s the assassin and what are we doing here?”
“Quiet,” said Reanyn. “There’s another patrol sweeping the streets. As for Jack, he should have… Wait. There.”
He pointed. About fifteen yards distant, back in the direction of the main city, there was a drain set low in the cobble-stoned street. Tianna only saw it because there was a faint orange light emanating from somewhere below, flickering lightly up through the metal bars that formed the grate.
It was so faint that she would never have seen it if Reanyn hadn’t pointed, and almost the instant she caught sight of it the light suddenly died, leaving the street in darkness again, and her to wonder whether she had really seen it at all.
And then a moment later she heard a slight rasping sound, as of metal shifting across stone, and as she strained to make it out she saw a darker silhouette against the darkness, soon joined by another.
“What is it?” she asked, pointing to the second, larger figure.
“They won’t see us; we should wave them over.”
Reanyn shook his head. “That’s Twilight Jack. They’ll see us.”
It was true enough. Jack struck out in their direction immediately, trailed by the less-certain giff, and a moment later he had joined them.
“You’re late,” Reanyn observed.
Jack shrugged. “You’re early.”
Reanyn nodded towards the grate the assassin had just climbed from. “An escape route?”
“Possibly. I like to keep my options open.”
Tianna thought it was time to speak up. “What’s the plan? Who is this Timoth and how does he help us lift from this rock?”
“Timoth is a man who is planning to betray us,” said Jack.
“Then why,” she asked sarcastically, “are we going to him? If the question isn’t too foolish.”
“Because we have the advantage of knowing that he will betray us. And we’re arriving ahead of his schedule. He won’t have had time to prepare for our coming.
“Now, a quick word before we begin. Stay behind me and keep your mouths closed. Wayfarer, you bring up the rear, just in case. You two,” Jack pointed to Barundar and Tianna, “keep silent as if you were mute. Timoth’s men will try to delay us, if they can. Once we start along our course speed is essential. And if fighting breaks out, we must be swift and decisive. Understood?”
“Fighting?” asked Barundar. “I thought you said we wouldn’t be fighting.”
“Just be prepared,” said Jack. “If things go well, they’ll escort us to where we want to go. But there is a chance that they’ll simply ambush us the moment we enter the compound, and hand our bodies over to Blackthorne.”
“I see,” said Barundar. “And me without my axe.”