Argentus slapped the right side of his neck. He pulled his hand away and examined his palm. A black speck ringed by red confirmed that he’d exterminated the mosquito that had been attempting to feast on him. Unfortunately, another was ready to take its place. He hated Maes Tol. The southernmost kingdom of Shaelar was renowned for its warm, almost tropical climate and being in Rellaysta made that most apparent. The capitol city was situated in the center of the Gulf of Rell, making it a chronically sticky, humid place, infested with cockroaches, lizards, and an unending number of mosquitos.
Argentus slapped his neck again, his irritation making the blow land harder than he intended. He yelped, and when he pulled his hand back, saw the mosquito zip away. “Dammit!”
“Stop that, lasa,” said an olive-skinned woman lying on her stomach at his left. She had long dark hair, big brown eyes, and her lithe figure was clad in black leather. “You’ll draw the attention of the wall guards.”
“I can’t help it, Arynda!” Argentus hissed. “They’re eating me alive.”
Arynda chuckled and hoisted a small looking glass to one eye. They were both lying on their bellies, concealed in the wide fan-leaved plants on the edge of a swamp just outside the perimeter of a walled manor house. It was nearly dusk, the sweltering heat still suffocating in spite of the sun being low on the horizon, and glowflies were starting to appear in the waning light.
Another mosquito landed on Argentus’ neck, and he brought his hand up again to slap it. Arynda lowered her small telescope and stared at him. Argentus met her gaze, and as if in challenge, followed through with his motion, bringing his palm down on the parasite feeding on his neck. Arynda rolled her eyes and went back to surveying the manor house.
“How do you stand it?” Argentus whispered.
“I think of your beautiful brown eyes, toned muscles, and that lopsided smile you…”
“Not being with me!” Argentus snapped. “How do you abide the biters?”
Arynda collapsed her looking glass and said, “They don’t bite me.”
Argentus was about to tell her just how ridiculous that was when he noticed not a single mosquito alighted on Arynda’s tan neck, nor were there any welts indicating that she’d already been fed upon. As if to drive the point home, a stinging on his bare forearm made him reflexively swat at another mosquito.
“Why don’t they bite you?”
Arynda smirked. “I’m too sweet.” She began to crawl backwards on her belly until Argentus could no longer see her in the underbrush. Another mosquito attacked his neck, and he slapped it. This time he felt the insect explode beneath his palm. Oh, how he hated Maes Tol.
He crawled backward until he descended a bank of moist dirt with protruding roots where he was able to turn and crouch. Arynda was already sitting, and pulling her long hair back and tying it into a pony tail. “No really,” Argentus began, “why do they not bite you? Do you have some kind of bug-repelling talis?”
Arynda just smiled at him.
He was about to press the issue, when something in his belt pouch made a soft chime. He fished out a palm-sized, round and smooth stone. It was translucent, tinged with a bit of purple from a shard of amethyst embedded in its center. It pulsed with a soft light as it chimed a second time. Argentus tapped the top of the stone and asked, “What is it Jaris?”
The disembodied voice of a man emanated from the speaking stone, as clear as if he were sitting next to him. “Wall patrols on the north and east at the top of every hour.”
Argentus glanced at Arynda. “It’s the same for the south and west, but I’ll bet you a hundred silver Aies that the night-watch patrols twice an hour with double the men.”
“No bet here,” Jaris replied.
“What about translocation?” asked another ethereal voice. It belonged to Kaul, the other member of Argentus’ team of thieves.
Argentus unconsciously touched an amethyst earring piercing his left ear. “Tried that. Duke Royce has a warding stone.”
“Damn,” Kaul swore.
“Did you actually expect the largest collector of talises in all of Maes Tol to not have a warding stone?”
Kaul didn’t answer.
“So what’s the plan?” Arynda asked, her glossy raven hair now pulled back tight. Divine Mother, she was beautiful.
“You’re sure there’s no sewer?” Argentus asked the stone.
“Not if we trust the plans we got from our informant,” Jaris answered.
“There’s got to be a secret passage in and out of the keep,” Kaul added. “There’s always a secret passage.”
Argentus sighed. “Probably. But the queen’s soldiers will be here tomorrow morning to procure the weapon talises and the other most valuable of the duke’s finds. So we don’t have time to waste looking for one.”
“Why not just attack the soldiers?” Kaul asked. “Ambush them when they take the road through the swamp.”
Argentus met Arynda’s eyes. He could see that her thoughts mirrored his own. Kaul was always so eager to resort to violence to accomplish their ends. It wasn’t that Argentus was against employing sword and bow, but he didn’t seek opportunity to kill like Kaul did. It was something about the man that made him uncomfortable.
“The four of us against fifty soldiers?” Arynda said into the stone and her tone was scathing.
“We have talises,” Kaul snapped.
“So-will-they,” Arynda said each word as if condescending to a child. “Weapon talises!”
Kaul growled. Argentus could picture the man clenching his fists or maybe even kicking a stone. He did not like Arynda, especially when she called him out on his foolishness. Argentus knew Arynda could take care of herself, but when they bickered—which was often—it invoked a tightness in his chest that he couldn’t completely attribute to nerves.
“So what do we do?” Jaris asked.
Argentus ran a hand through his messy brown hair. “Kaul and Jaris, I want you to attack the east wall at sundown—as soon as they double their patrols. That should make them pull guards away from their posts on the other walls to reinforce the east patrol. Arynda and I will go over the west wall, sneak into the manner, and raid the duke’s collection. If we do this right, we can be in and out of there in twenty minutes.”
“I’m not attacking the wall-guard with just crossbow bolts,” Jaris said.
Argentus ground his teeth. “Then what do—”
“—I need Arynda and her flame ring. Kaul can sneak in with you.”
Argentus opened his mouth to argue, but Arynda touched his lips with one of her fingers. “He’s right, lasa. We need something more powerful if we want the distraction to be effective.”
Argentus stared at her and then spoke into the stone, “Fine. But if she gets hurt, Jaris, I’ll cut off your balls.”
Jaris responded with a good-natured laugh. “And what do we do when they send out a company of knights to take us?”
“We’ll disappear into the swamp, and rendezvous in that village we passed on the way here.” Arynda said.
“Sounds good. Kaul’s already on his way.”
The speaking stone chimed again, and its glow faded.
Arynda scowled at him. “I don’t need you fussing over my safety, lasa! I can take care of myself.”
“Arynda, I…” he trailed off under her withering glare.
“Besides, lasa,” she said in a softer tone, “you need to worry about yourself. What with Osarr Rakahnas swearing to post your head on a pike outside the king’s palace.”
Argentus scoffed. “He’s just politicking, and I’m a relevant issue.”
“And sending that monster of a hunter, Orryn Ghostblade, was just a political stunt?”
Argentus nervously touched his shoulder. He’d run into the ruthless thief hunter in Jeryn, and only escaped with his life because he was able to teleport away. Still, the hunter had put his phase dagger through Argentus’ shoulder, pinning him against the stone wall of an alley. That whole episode had been the reason why Argentus had left Aiestal for Maes Tol in the first place. Thinking of the man’s dead green eyes made him shiver.
“Well that’s why we left.”
Arynda shook her head, making her ponytail wag. “His dagger tasted your blood, lasa.”
“Shouldn’t you be going?” Argentus snapped. He expected a tart retort from Arynda for snapping at her, but she leaned down and kissed him instead.
“Be careful,” she whispered.
Argentus silently stared at her, the earnestness in her eyes leaving him wordless. He watched her as she slipped away, and couldn’t help but touch his shoulder again. Had it not been for that monk with the healing ring, the wound wouldn’t have stopped bleeding. Another of Orryn’s tricks, the wounds from his phase dagger delivering an anticoagulant effect.
It was completely dark by the time Kaul arrived. Argentus knew the man was approaching long before he saw or heard him. This was due to Kaul’s new talis, a dread medal. A medallion that radiated an aura of fear for several feet. It had proven to be a treasure of a find – its uses in interrogation were invaluable – but the fool-man hadn’t quite mastered the use of it.
Argentus shut the fear out of his mind by reciting old prayers his sister had taught him. “Take that damn thing off!”
“Why?” Kaul snapped.
“Because it gives you away. You might as well be holding a glow orb and playing the lute!”
Kaul’s only response was a growl and a moment later the aura of fear faded.
“That’s better,” Argentus said.
“So how do we do this?”
“I’ll go in first and take up position,” Argentus said. “We don’t attack until Arynda and Jaris do.” He tapped a silver bracelet worn on his right wrist, and to him the entire world lit up as though it were day.
Argentus leapt up from his hiding place and ran towards the shadows just outside of where moonlight touched the ground. To his eyes, they were glowing a bright purple, an indication that they would conceal him perfectly. That was the primary function of the stealth bracelet—to show him where the shadows were thickest, and then to somehow pull those shadows up and around him and render him undetectable by both sight and sound. Of course direct light shining on Argentus would reveal him, even as he stood cloaked in the dark. After all, there wasn’t a talis that could make one wholly invisible, or at least if there was, no one had discovered it. Still, this marvelous piece of talis-craft gave him a distinct advantage, had facilitated an innumerable number of successful raids, and earned him the name people all over Shaelar were starting to call him—Argentus the Shadow.
Argentus darted from his cover to the base of the stone wall—it wasn’t unusually tall, perhaps fifteen feet—and flatted his back against it. He likely didn’t need to do this, as there was plenty of shadow where he stood so as to veil him, but it was an old habit he hadn’t quite been able to abandon. He fished in his belt pouch and produced a gold ring with an amethyst jewel capping its center. This was the last of his personal talises and, while not one that was considered tactically valuable, had served Argentus well in his line of work. It was also compatible with his other two talises, which he’d found out early on in his career wasn’t always the case.
He slipped it on, and immediately felt lighter, as though he weighed little more than a child. Reaching up, Argentus gripped the rough stone protrusions of the wall and hoisted himself effortlessly onto the wall. He climbed fast, faster than he knew he ought to be able to climb, feeling like a spider. He flipped up over the wall one handed, and landed in a crouch on the parapet. The soldiers patrolling the wall didn’t detect any hint of his arrival. Instead they just stood, slump-shouldered, staring out into the night, occasionally moving off to find a different place to stand, and then back again.
Argentus kept flatted against the tooth-like stone lip of the wall, crouching down and drawing his daggers. Sadly, these were not talises. Not like Jaris’ titan gauntlet, or Arynda’s flame ring. Still, they were forged of fine steel, gold leafed handles inlayed with trailing designs bearing the blade, and sharpened to a razor’s edge. And he was pretty damn good with them.
The minutes passed slowly until at last Argentus heard an explosion from the other side of the manner, and saw red light flash in the sky. Arynda and Jaris’ assault had begun. The wall guards began shouting, and one barked orders to the other three before flying down stone stairs carved into the interior of the wall that led down to the courtyard. He took all of his men with him, save one armored guard standing atop the wall.
Argentus waited until the other guards were out of sight before leaping out of the shadows. To the guard’s eyes, it would be as though Argentus had appeared in a cloud of black smoke. But before Argentus could strike, a sharp whistling sound punctuated by a thunk made him pull up short. The guard tried to scream, but only a sickly choking noise came out as he clutched at something in his throat. The guard frantically backed up until he reached the edge of the wall, and fell to the courtyard below.
He belted his daggers and glanced down over the parapet to where Kaul stood in the darkness, reloading a crossbow. Argentus was glad Kaul had taken out the guard. Thief and assassin though he was, Argentus preferred to avoid killing men when he could. It was something he decided was probably a holdover from his religious upbringing. Kaul, on the other hand, seemed to lust for blood and competed for even the very chance to kill, and Argentus was more than happy to let him do the knife work.
Argentus shrugged off a satchel he wore on his back, set it on the stone wall, and dug out a thin rope tied to a metal claw. He lodged the hooks of the claw into a seam in the stone teeth running atop the wall, and then tossed the slack down to Kaul. A moment later, the man appeared, and Argentus could see his mismatched eyes in the moon light—one brown and one blue. It added to the dangerous, unpredictable persona the man worked hard to cultivate. Argentus reached down and helped Kaul up onto the parapet.
“Give me your feather ring,” Kaul demanded.
Argentus scowled at him. Asking to borrow one’s talis was taboo in their culture. Of course, if a person chose to lend that talis, it was perfectly proper, but to ask? No one did that. Not even criminals. It was such an egregious breach of civilized etiquette that answering its rudeness with a duel was permissible under the law in most cities.
“You have your stealth bracelet and you won’t let me use my dread medal,” Kaul said, his tone less demanding.
He’s right. Damn him for a presumptuous bastard, but he’s right.
Argentus slipped off the feather ring and immediately felt as though he’d gained a hundred pounds, the ground seeming to pull him closer into its embrace. He gave the ring to Kaul who quickly slipped it on.
Another loud explosion from the other side of the mansion grounds prompted Argentus back into action. Kaul leapt from the wall, landing quietly in the courtyard below. Argentus cursed under his breath as he was forced run down the stone stairs. The two men kept to the shadows as they wound their way through a maze of bushes sculpted into various animals. Fortunately, all of the guards seemed to be participating in defending the east wall, leaving none in the courtyard. That struck Argentus as odd. Even during an attack, most guard units would keep patrols elsewhere to prevent their enemies from doing exactly what they were doing. He commented as much to Kaul, the man passed it off as luck, but Argentus wasn’t so sure.
The situation was the same inside the manner, heightening Argentus’ anxiety as they stole through empty corridors. Shouldn’t the duke’s servants and household have been roused by Arynda and Jaris’ attack, if not for fear then at least for the sake of curiosity?
“Something’s wrong,” Argentus whispered as he grabbed Kaul’s arm.
He threw off Argentus’ grip with a shrug. “What’re you talking about?” he hissed.
“Where is everybody?”
Kaul’s jaw tightened. “Asleep!” Another explosion from outside made Kaul survey the corridor, and the man no longer looked so certain.
“Exactly,” Argentus said. “I think we should pull out.”
“Weapon talises, Argentus! And they’ll be gone tomorrow, on their way to the queen and forever out of our reach!”
Argentus stared at Kaul for a long moment before finally nodding with a sigh. “Fine. But stay alert.”
Kaul just grunted, and the two resumed their skulking down the wood-paneled corridor. They followed a hand drawn map they’d gotten from their informant—something that had cost them an extra fifty Toles—until they reached a basement store room. The heavy, iron bound door was locked, but that barely slowed them and Argentus soon found himself inside a room full of ornate storage chests of various sizes stacked against all four walls. One of those walls, the back wall, was incongruously made of smooth grey metal.
All the chests had the queen’s sigil engraved into their locks, which were a bit more challenging for Argentus to defeat. He wrenched the first chest open and found a heart-stopping plethora of gold coins. The next trunk contained more precious gems than he’d ever seen before, but still no talises. It wasn’t until the fourth chest they’d opened that they found talises. But these were of the mundane sort; glow orbs, speaking stones, looking stones, and various other valuable, but utilitarian talises.
“Where are the weapon talises?” Argentus growled.
“Those are in the vault,” a man’s voice rang out behind them.
Argentus whirled to find a black man with long, dirty dreadlocks standing in the doorway of the storeroom, hand extended to dangle a small pendant on a chain before them. He wore a breastplate, but no other metal armor, and had two ornate daggers sheathed on his belt, one at each hip. His bare arms were heavily muscled, and his legs looked to be as thick as tree trunks.
“Ah, hell!” Argentus said.
The dark-skinned man smiled and shook the pendant. “This is the key to Duke Royce’s vault.” He motioned at the odd wall made of smooth metal.
Divine Mother! That’s a holding box! Only it was large enough to be a room. Argentus had never seen a talis safe that large—never.
Oryyn pocketed the pendant inside his belt pouch. “You’re not getting in, Shadow.”
Argentus’ mind raced and he berated himself for not withdrawing at his first impression of danger. Oryyn had laid the perfect trap for him. A large store of weapon talises located in a seemingly unprotected manner house shielded with a warding stone so he couldn’t teleport away. Argentus thought that by leaving Aiestal, he’d escaped Oryyn. But the man had obviously gone to great lengths to arrange this. Argentus wouldn’t be surprised if their informant had been a plant.
“All this just to capture me, Ghostblade? I’m flattered.” Argentus’ bravado sounded forced even to his own ears.
Orryn flashed another smile, and then drew his daggers so fast that Argentus only had time to duck as one of the man’s phase daggers spun above his head. The blade didn’t clank as it hit the wall, but instead blurred as it sank right through it, taking on a translucent ethereal form, like a ghost. A second later it reappeared in Oryyn’s hand looking completely solid once more.
The sharp snap of Kaul’s crossbow echoed in the square chamber, but the fletched bolt inexplicably changed course upon nearing its target, striking the stone wall instead. Orryn’s breastplate was some kind of shield talis. Not as powerful, or impressive, as Jaris’ shield bracelet, but effective enough to protect him from projectiles as was evidenced when Kaul fired a second time. Orryn laughed as the second bolt curved sharply and struck the ceiling. Well, stabbing him in the heart wasn’t going to be an option.
Kaul dropped his crossbow and drew a short sword. He leapt to the side, his reduced weight allowing him to take four running steps on the wall itself, sword held high. The thief hunter hurled another phase dagger, sending it spinning end over end and turning ghost-like as it connected with Kaul’s blade. Immediately it solidified inside the blade of Kaul’s upraised sword. The weapon snapped in half as the phase dagger pushed it out of its space. When Kaul landed weaponless before Orryn, the thief hunter swung at Kaul with his other phase dagger, ethereal blade passing through the flesh of his left forearm. It was only after Orryn finished his swing that a wound appeared, a red line appearing on Kaul’s arm and spraying blood. Kaul cried out and Orryn silenced him by slamming the bottom of his boot into Kaul’s chest, knocking him against the wall and to the floor.
Argentus was already in motion when Orryn turned back to him. The man let fly a backhanded swing with his empty fist, only, by the time it neared Argentus one of his phase daggers had materialized in his hand. Argentus reflexively threw himself to his knees, leaning back as he slid under Orryn’s swinging dagger. He slashed at the man’s leg as he glided by and heard the thief hunter suck in a sharp breath. Argentus pitched forward, then somersaulted, rolled, and came up in a crouch just in time to swing one of his knives up and slam it into the back of Orryn’s right calf. The dark skinned man bellowed in rage more than from pain, spun and kneed Argentus in the chest as he threw himself to his feet. The blow knocked Argentus back apace and he found a phase dagger spinning toward his face. He brought up one of his knives just in time to knock the blade aside, only it passed right through his own dagger. It was only a desperate lurch to the side that saved Argentus from death. But it wasn’t enough to avoid the dagger altogether.
Argentus screamed as the knife solidified in the underside of his upraised arm. He dropped his knife, and crashed into the stone wall of the room. The phase dagger embedded in his flesh vanished, and blood poured from his wound—bleeding that Argentus knew wouldn’t stop without a magical healing. He wanted to drop his remaining knife and grip his upper arm to stop the bleeding, but resisted the impulse. To drop his other knife would be to surrender to death.
“You’re not much without the use of your translocation talis,” Orryn scoffed. “Frankly I’m disa—” the man cut off abruptly, his eyes widening and his jaw snapping shut.
Argentus knew what had frozen the man. He could feel the icy wave of fear washing over him as well, threatening to paralyze him.. Perhaps Kaul’s dread medal did have a practical use for more than just interrogation or intimidation. Argentus warded off the fear aura by reciting,
Divine Mother of creation,
Rasheera the giver of life.
Our petition we send unto thee,
To deliver us from strife.
He threw himself forward and tackled Orryn to the floor. They went down, and Argentus found himself lying atop the thief hunter. He raised his remaining dagger, gripping the handle with both hands, ready to bring it down on Orryn’s face, but the thief hunter swung his arm into Argentus’ side, knocking him off of him. A clang resounded through the chamber as Argentus’ knife fell to the marble floor, and he began to frantically search for it. But instead of finding his knife, Argentus found the pendant Orryn had teased him with earlier. It had fallen out of the man’s belt pouch in their tussle, and glinted at Argentus from the floor just in front of him. It was the key to Duke Royce’s vault. The massive holding box built into the room like a wall. A room full of weapon talises!
Argentus seized the pendant and scrambled to his feet. He jumped and dove for the smooth silver wall at the back of the chamber. “Open!” he shouted.
Just as he was about to crash into it, the metallic surface liquefied and the substance parted enough so that a man-sized portal opened up directly in front of him. Argentus rolled as he hit the floor inside the vault. Once he was certain he was inside, he shouted, “Close!”
The rippling, liquid metal wall flowed back together, closing the portal and solidifying once more. Argentus breathed a deep sigh of relief and leaned back against a large wooden crate, glow orbs automatically waking to drive back the darkness of the vault’s interior. He tore a piece of his tunic and fashioned a tourniquet that he tied around his upper arm. It wasn’t enough to stop the bleeding, but it did slow the flow, which would buy him some time. He stood, and examined a pile of wooden crates stacked neatly atop one another, forming a pyramid shape.
These crates contained the weapon talises Duke Royce’s men had recovered from an ancient Allosian sea vessel drowned in the Gulf of Rell for goddess only knows how long. It must’ve taken the polymath’s months, and thousands of talis-assisted dives, to search out all of these priceless treasures; talises that would now hold an Apeiron charge since being brought within the influence of Rellaysta’s Apeira well.
One of the crates at Argentus’ left exploded into pieces and he spun around just in time to see a second phase dagger pass through the metal wall. It spun toward him, and Argentus had to duck to avoid it. It crashed into another crate, knocking it off the top of the small pyramid. Orryn wasn’t going to give up, even if he had to keep phasing in those damned ghost knives of his. Part of Argentus wondered why the warding stone didn’t inhibit the phase daggers’ ability to disappear and reappear back in Orryn’s hands, but he knew very little of talis-craft. Perhaps they just worked differently.
A spinning blade blurring by his head reminded him that he had more important questions to consider, such as how the hell was he going to get out of this vault before he bled to death, or before Orryn scored a lucky hit?
Argentus began frantically tipping over crates and prying them open. He started with the ones Orryn had shattered. All of the talises were wrapped in silk napkins. Made sense. The auditors probably didn’t want to risk touching the various magical weapons, especially if they weren’t sure what they did yet. That process, the actual cataloging, would take place at the queen’s palace over a period of months, her polymaths testing each talis until they knew exactly how it worked. So far, the hoard had really only been separated based on the educated guesses of the duke’s agents. So in theory, not all of the store would be weapon talises, but likely most were.
Another dagger spun through the solid metal wall, striking hard against a crate stacked above him. Some of the exploding splinters dug into Argentus’ upraised forearm. He was about to hurl a curse at the goddess when he noticed a long, slender bundle slide out of the broken crate. It struck the floor with a muffled clang. Twine kept the black silk cloth from falling away, but a metal point tore through the napkin.
It was a sword.
Argentus stared at it for a long moment, and then moved on. Melee combat was never his strength. He preferred a talis that would let him attack from a distance, like Arynda’s flame ring. Another dagger throw knocked down the crate which landed on top of the sword, tearing the cloth further to reveal a blade peppered with tiny green jewels. He couldn’t help but stare at the beauty of the blade. There was something about the sword that almost invited him to take it. He shook his head and stayed low as he sifted through the pile of bundled objects, careful not to let his skin come in direct contact with any of them.
Argentus tossed away several talises he couldn’t identify before coming upon another slender bundle. His heart pounded faster as he tore away the silk napkin and he grinned at what he found. He knew what this was—a concussion rod. He gripped its handle and a psychic signal confirmed it. This talis emitted an explosion of pure force strong enough to tear through stone walls. Perfect! Argentus snatched the vault’s key from the floor and gripped it in his free hand. If this vault were truly like the smaller holding box talises, then it would mean that any of its sides could be opened. Likely it was fitted into the building so that only the entrance was not walled in, which is what Argentus was hoping for.
“Open!” he shouted as he focused on the back of the vault.
The smooth metal wall liquefied and flowed open, revealing a gray stone wall. Argentus smiled and leveled the concussion rod at the bare stone. The air rippled in front of him, followed a half a heartbeat later by a sound that reminded Argentus of thunder. The stone wall exploded outward and, when the dust settled, an open corridor lie before him.
Orryn was certain to have heard that, as the cessation of daggers flying through the air confirmed. Argentus was about to scramble out of the vault, when the sword on the ground again caught his eye. I’m not leaving here without a treasure! And that sword did look like it would be exceptionally valuable even if it weren’t a talis. He grabbed it by the bundled handle and slid the blade under his belt so that the cross guard held it in place.
By the time Argentus entered the corridor, Duke Royce’s guards were already filing in, swords drawn and pointing at him. Argentus smiled and fired off another blast from the concussion rod, this time at the vaulted ceiling. Chunks of stone rained down, slamming ontothe empty floor between him and the soldiers. Veiled by a screen of dust, Argentus activated his stealth bracelet and broke right toward a connecting corridor.
He heard the guards shouting in confusion. To their eyes he would’ve simply vanished in the cloud of dust and debris. Less careful about staying to the darker parts of the hall, Argentus furiously sprinted toward a connecting corridor lit by moonlight that was pouring in through a row of tall windows. He wasn’t sure if Kaul had been able to get away, but he doubted the man had stayed to try and help him. Well, Argentus couldn’t blame him. He wasn’t sure he would’ve risked his life to help Kaul had their situations been reversed.
Argentus flew past a patrol of guards, startling them as he blasted out a window with his concussion rod. The shower of shards hadn’t even finished raining down upon the ground as he leapt out of the keep and into the courtyard. The exterior wall was all that stood between Argentus and the likely boundary of the warding stone. If he could just get beyond it, he could tele—
A searing pain in his left shoulder blade made him stumble forward and crash into the ground. The concussion rod flew from his grasp, and he chipped a tooth on the courtyard’s pavement. He made to rise, but something jutting out of his back sent a shock of pain through him, and he fell back to the ground.
“You are a very clever man, Shadow,” Orryn said as he drew near. “I was wrong to assume your skill and prestige were due mainly to the talises you possessed. Apparently, you also have a spark of intelligence.”
A booted foot fell in front of Argentus, and then he felt the knife in his back tear free of flesh and muscle. He screamed as warm blood spilled down his back. Orryn hadn’t needed to do that; he could’ve simply called the phase dagger back to him, but that would’ve been less painful. The dark-skinned, heavily muscled man sank down to one knee in front of Argentus and with the flat of one of his blades, he raised Argentus’ face by the chin so that their eyes met. Orryn flashed a set of immaculately white teeth and then brushed three stray dreadlocks out of his face.
“Would you like to know how much Rakahnas offered me for your head before I cut it off?”
“You can actually count?” Argentus said through clenched teeth. “I’m surprised.” The desperate quip only made Orryn’s smile broaden.
“More than the crown has ever paid for the head of any other criminal.” Orryn laughed. “You should be proud.”
A flash of orange light washed over the two men, accompanied by a wave of heat. Orryn snapped his head up just in time to see a ball of fire racing toward his face. Unfortunately, just before it struck the thief hunter, the fireball abruptly changed directions and streaked off into the dark, a heartbeat later setting a sculpted bush aflame.
Dammit! The shield talis Orryn wore also worked on magical projectiles.
“Arynda, run!” Argentus shouted.
Orryn stood, glancing around the courtyard.
Argentus tried to rise, but Orryn kicked him hard in the ribs as he stepped around him. Argentus fell back to the ground, wheezing. More flashes of fire lit the courtyard, stopping when he heard Arynda cry out in pain.
I need to get up! He tried again, but a new pain, similar to his throbbing shoulder wound but far more intense pinned him to the ground. He could feel another phase dagger materializing in his other shoulder. He gritted his teeth against an escaping scream, but it forced its way out. His vision blurred and he felt on the edge of syncope.
Then he saw Arynda’s face as she pitched forward into his field of vision and crashed to the ground several paces in front of him. No!
“She’s a pretty one, Shadow. Is she yours?” Orryn asked as he casually placed a boot on Arynda’s back.
“Go, lasa,” Arynda sobbed.
“Yes, by all means, Shadow. Go. Her head won’t fetch me the coveted fifty-thousand silver Aies yours would, but it’s a lot prettier.”
“Argentus!” Arynda screamed as Orryn pressed his foot down on her back.
“Get away from her,” Argentus growled.
Orryn just laughed.
Rage overcame Argentus’ pain, giving him the strength to rise to all fours. He looked around for the concussion rod, but couldn’t find it on the ground around him. He was weapon-less, worse than that, he was talis-less. No, that wasn’t true. He had that beautiful sword. He felt at his waist and touched the bundled handle of the sword. What did the weapon talis do? He’d seen sword-talises before, but mostly they were firebrands, or venom blades. Deadly to be sure, but would that help against Orryn’s phase daggers or shield talis?
Argentus tore at the silk cloth around the weapon’s handle until it fell free. Then he gripped the sword and slid it out from beneath his belt. As soon as his skin made contact with the cool metal of the wired handle, everything changed. The pain pinning him down abruptly muted, still there, but no longer overpowering. He was on his feet in a second, his fear retreating as a wave of confidence carried knowledge of sword techniques and strategy into his mind.
The phase dagger buried in his back suddenly pulled free from his flesh and dropped to the flagstones with a clank. Orryn’s smile faded. “How…”
Argentus began walking toward Orryn. The thief hunter stepped away from Arynda, and called both of his daggers so that they appeared in his hands. Then he hurled them at Argentus who casually moved just enough for the blades to spin by him, not stopping his advance on the dark man.
Orryn recalled his daggers and let them fly again. Again Argentus avoided them with little effort. He was only ten paces away now. Orryn’s eyes widened. His daggers formed into existence again in his hands, and his jaw tightened as he threw the right dagger. Again, Argentus casually stepped out of the way, the spinning blade missing his neck by mere inches. Orryn threw his remaining dagger, this time directly at Argentus’ face. The knife took on its characteristic ghost-like ethereal look once it left Orryn’s hand. Argentus knew he should be worried, knew that he ought to move out of the way, but he felt confident that he was in no danger.
“Lasa!” Arynda screamed.
Then, in a blur of inhumanly quick motion, Argentus snapped the sword up and struck the phase dagger out of the air. Two clangs rang out as the dagger struck the flagstone in two pieces.
Orryn’s mouth hung open, and though he choked out an unintelligible noise, he said nothing. Truth be told, Argentus was just as surprised, he just didn’t let it show on his face. He’d halved the phase dagger while it was still in its ethereal state, which shouldn’t have been possible. It should’ve passed right through his blade and then re-solidified as it sunk into his face.
Divine Mother! How powerful is this sword?
Orryn appeared to recover his wits and summoned his remaining dagger to him. But before he could let it fly, Argentus spun and hacked off the dark man’s upraised arm at the elbow. The thief hunter screamed as he clutched at his bleeding stump, the fountaining blood making it difficult for him to clamp his hand down on it. Orryn stumbled backward, tripped over Arynda, and fell to the ground. Argentus slowly approached, Arynda taking the opportunity to roll out from between them.
Argentus met Orryn’s eyes. His black skin was noticeably paled, and he trembled as he rocked back and forth cradling his bleeding stump. Apparently, taking off the man’s arm while he held the phase dagger was enough to sever his bond with the talis, because Orryn didn’t try to recall it. Either it was that, or the man had lost so much blood that he wasn’t thinking clearly.
Argentus swung the sword down in a diagonal cut, half expecting Orryn’s shield talis to rebuff the strike. It didn’t and Argentus’ blade sunk into the man’s right shoulder, passing effortlessly through his chest and exploding out of his left hip. Orryn fell to the ground in two pieces, like his dagger had.
Argentus heard the twang of bow strings, and spun around just in time to knock aside two arrows. A group of the duke’s archers had formed a line thirty paces behind him. They let fly another volley, which Argentus supernaturally dodged. He heard Arynda cry out behind him, and turned to find her gripping the shaft of an arrow that sprouted from her shoulder. That made him growl as he turned back just in time to see a half a dozen armored swordsmen shove aside the line of archers as they barreled toward him.
Argentus gripped the handle of the sword in two hands and charged his attackers. Part of him, a distant voice in the back of his head, warned him that what he was doing was suicidal, but the thought of his losing this fight just made him laugh. He whirled into the rushing soldiers, taking the head off of the first, and then ramming his sword through the chest plate of the second. The blade passed through armor as though it were made of paper.
It took him less than a minute to kill all six soldiers, and he did so without earning so much as a scratch. Argentus stood in a ring of dead and dying men, panting and covered in his enemy’s blood. He lifted the sword and stared at the large, round, amethyst embedded in the cross guard. More alarms sounded, and lights in the duke’s keep blinked on.
“Lasa!” Arynda hissed from behind him. “We have to go!”
Argentus laughed. If it weren’t for the ever bleeding wounds he’d taken, wounds that needed talis healing, he would be in no danger. With this sword he could handle twelve, twenty, Hell! a hundred men—all on his own! He activated his stealth bracelet, and the shadows of the courtyard wrapped around him. He turned to follow Arynda back over the wall.
Shadow men called him. It had been a good name. But now Argentus was something more than an invisible thief in the dark. Now he was invincible—the Invincible Shadow.
About The Soulless Grave [out July 6, 2015]
Adventure is the lure of fools, and excitement glamour to the gullible. The siren song of the world is as music to the wanderer’s feet, but that dance leads only to the soul less grave…
Kairah lies unconscious and upon the threshold of death, but her dire state has awakened her oracle heritage and she sees in vision a land stripped of all life. But is what she seeing the past, or the future?
Ezra, having learned that his nephew, Jekaran, has bonded the sword of the Invincible Shadow, is forced to return to the Rikujo crime syndicate for help in rescuing Jek from the custody of the king, who plans to execute him in order to take the sword for himself. But can he convince some of the most dangerous brigands in Shaelar that he is still the ruthless and cunning Argentus?
Using his illusory spell-craft, Jenoc has infiltrated the King of Aiestal’s court, and is on the brink of igniting another talis war; one that will cause humanity to wipe each other off the face of Shaelar. But when Kairah is brought to the king unconscious, he has to work quickly to set his plans in motion before she wakes and reveals him.
All the while The Eater draws ever closer…