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Authors: Richard Baker

Easy Betrayals

BOOK: Easy Betrayals
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Forgotten Realms

The Double Diamond Triangle Saga: Easy Betrayals

By: Richard Baker

 

Prelude The best-laid plans.

Killing the human boy was’a mistake.

I could have used him if I’d only managed to contain my rage. Quick and remorseless action in direct pursuit of a goal is one thing, but murder for the joy of it… I usually demand more of myself. Months of entrapment in Eidola’s shape—worse yet, entrapment in Eidola’s persona—have left me bereft of patience and subtlety.

Damn those interfering wizards! What sorcery did they use to pierce my disguise? If they hadn’t bound me with that cursed girdle, I could have eluded Aetheric’s magical warriors with ease. I’d be in Waterdeep, Piergeiron safely in my hands… not standing in some forsaken dungeon in the Utter East, thousands of miles from my mission.

But…

It’s still not out of reach. I don’t know what moved Piergeiron to send that stupid boy—was Noph his name?—to my rescue. Who else could I have duped into removing the girdle? I didn’t lie outright when I told the boy the magical girdle prevented my escape from Aetheric’s mundane shackles; I just neglected to tell him who had bound me and exactly how it interfered with my freedom of movement. You have to use your wits to weave a lie that isn’t a lie, after all.

When Noph removed the accursed girdle, he unwittingly freed me to do anything I want, to be anyone I can imagine. And how’d I thank him? In a moment of weakness I reveled in freedom with a wasteful and stupid act of violence. Better by far to have endured my imprisonment in Eidola a few hours more and allowed myself to be rescued. And yet… what if I was the victim of someone else’s deception? The Blackstaff must be involved in this, and he knows me too well.

I shed the mastiff with ease and stand for a rare instant in my natural shape. I’ve been so many others for so long, I’ve almost forgotten who I am. Where now? Filthy water laps and swirls in the hallway, draining down the stone stairs to the level of my former cell. Steel clashes, monstrous things scream and howl, and magic thunders in the chambers below. What was it Noph said? Piergeiron sent him to rescue me. That I doubt. The armored warriors and fierce rogues I fled from below probably comprised the real rescue party.

And what of this lasso? Somehow, that cursed boy found the strength to hurl a snare after me when I left him torn and dying. Have I exchanged one magical bond for another?

I’ll not be bound again! I fashion talons of steel with a moment’s thought, but the hempen coil resists my claws. I grow the bulging thews of a minotaur, and I cannot burst it. I shift to the boneless grace of an octopus, yet still it circles me. The lariat has me well and truly caught. Damn that wretched boy! Maybe I don’t regret killing him after all.

My natural form won’t do. I’ll need some cloak before I leave this place…. Eidola will serve. Noph’s companions can’t know that he saw me change. Rippling with the effort of the crafting, I create a high-collared leather jacket to hide the rope around my neck and coil the remaining line into my coat. Straight and tall, a broad-shouldered warrioress with smooth muscles and a face of heart-wrenching beauty… I’ve plenty of ploys I can try with this form. Tight-fitting leather pants and a corselet of shining mail complete the disguise. My right hand is empty. With a thought I grow a long, straight sword blade from my palm and craft an empty scabbard by my left hip at the same time.

With the girdle gone, I’m in a better position to finish my mission from a dungeon in the Utter East than I was in when I stood at Piergeiron’s side in Waterdeep. Aetheric’s interference has provided an opportunity I never could have created under the watchful eyes of Khelben and the other Waterdhavians.

If I can only make my way back to Waterdeep, all will still be well.

Armored men, clattering and bounding up the steps below. They pursue me?

What did the Blackstaff tell them?

If I’d spared the boy, I could have extracted what I need from him. Then I’d know if the men below are here to rescue me, or to make sure that I never return to Waterdeep.

Killing Noph was a mistake.

Chapter 1
Pursuit

Battered and exhausted, Belgin sprinted after the warriors of Tyr, splashing through the cold water that swirled and surged in the dim hallway. He caught one brief glimpse of a dark beast bounding up the stairs at the end of the corridor, trailing a cord, and then the creature darted out of sight in the stone labyrinth of Aetheric’s dungeons. “Rings, Belgin, go after the doppelganger. Join the damned paladins if you must, but make sure one of you slays her. We want our reward.”

Entreri didn’t waste words, reflected Belgin. Fine. He’d follow the assassin’s orders and be done with the whole affair. No mere chest of jewels could possibly compensate him for the pain and madness he’d already endured, and every moment he delayed in the execution of Entreri’s command only added to his losses.

He wheezed and gasped for breath as he floundered after Miltiades and Jacob. Water dragged at his tailored trousers and waistcoat, and a dozen bruises and sprains announced themselves as he drove forward. “Come on, Rings,” he huffed. The effort of speaking as he ran brought on a fit of coughing that raked his chest with fiery knives. Bright flecks of blood staining his beard, Belgin ignored his distress and staggered on. He’d had plenty of practice of late.

Behind him, the dwarven pirate known as Rings struggled valiantly to keep up with his human companions. The icy water stood chest-high on the dwarf, and he flailed and spluttered as he trailed Belgin. “Don’t wait on me,” the dwarf growled. “You keep the paladins in sight. I’ll catch up!”

“Not this time,” Belgin answered. He slowed and caught the dwarfs arm, towing him along. “If I object to anything that those two”—he nodded at the Tyrian warriors—”decide to do, I want you nearby to help argue my point.” Ahead of them, Miltiades reached the stairs at the end of the hall and clambered out of the water, his long shanks working like pistons as he propelled himself up the steps. Jacob followed a moment later, brandishing his two-handed sword like a promise of justice. They’ve spent the day fighting an untold number of fiends, Belgin thought enviously, and still they’re fresh enough to sprint up stairs wearing armor from head to toe.

Winded and shivering with cold, the moon-faced sharper took the steps as fast as he could, Rings following. “Why’d we… whew!… have to go chasing after… the doppelganger?” the dwarf complained. “I’m not made for… chasing down long-legged humans! If Entreri wanted her dead… he could have bloody well done it himself.”

“He’s got another game… to play… I think,” the sharper answered, puffing for breath. They reached a long, torchlit corridor at the top of the stairs. The two paladins still ran on ahead, mail and plate clattering like an engine made of kitchenware. Belgin paused for breath, leaning forward with his hands on his knees. “He was… very interested… in the bloodforge, you’ll recall.”

“Damn!” Rings scowled. “Now we’re out of his way. He can go get it without worrying about the two of us.”

Belgin bit his lip, thinking of the assassin’s inhuman speed and the cold, flat determination behind his eyes. “He wasn’t worried about us anyway, Rings.”

The dwarf glanced up to meet his eyes. Brass rings piercing his eyebrows glinted in the torchlight. “So what are we doing here? I’ve no need to meddle in the affairs of wizards and fiends. We can walk back down those stairs, collect Sharessa and Ingrar, and cut our losses now.”

“I’m not ready to cross Entreri yet. Maybe not ever,” Belgin said slowly. “Even if I didn’t think that he’d kill us in the blink of an eye for turning on him, I signed a contract to kill Eidola, whoever or whatever she turned out to be. We all did. I’m going to live up to my word at least this once. If we walk out of this now, then it’s all for nothing. Anvil, Kurthe, Brindra—they’re dead for no reason at all, and I can’t live with that.”

Rings held his gaze a moment more, then nodded abruptly. “You talk too much, Belgin, but you’re right. Come on—they’re getting away from us.” Fighting axe in one gnarled fist, the dwarven pirate loped down the passageway. Belgin straightened and ran after him. The hallway terminated in a series of twisting stairs and narrow guard chambers. They sprinted through mossy stone doorways and pelted across crooked arcades, the warriors ahead of them flitting in and out of the shadows like bright coins spinning down into a dark well.

In moments, Belgin lost all sense of direction. The paladins dashed from one room to the next as if they feared nothing, leaping headlong into each turn and twist of the chase. Consumed by their righteous rage, they had no thought for caution or subtlety, only justice.

Once Belgin saw Jacob turn his head to fix one eye on the following rogues, but then the noble warrior returned his attention to the chase. He thinks we don’t matter, Belgin realized. He narrowed his eyes and redoubled his efforts.

Abruptly, the chase ended. Belgin turned a corner and found the paladin and the swordsman halted in front of him, facing a vast open gallery. They stood on a precarious balcony, glaring out at the nighted space ahead. Rings barreled into the sharper from behind, almost knocking him flat. Belgin staggered and went to one knee.

“What? What is it?” Rings barked, crouching in the entranceway.

“Trouble,” answered Jacob. Belgin followed his eyes and gasped in horror. On the opposite balcony, a stone’s throw away, stood a creature of nightmare. Tall as an ogre, with scaly skin and a barbed tail that twitched and slashed the air around it, its great leathery wings draped its shoulders like a cloak of despair. A whip of fire dangled from one clawed hand. The creature turned to a shadowed vulturelike shape at its side and pointed toward the paladins. “Slay them,” it grated in a voice of stone. The vulture-thing launched itself into the air with a disheveled flurry of shabby, stinking feathers, joined a moment later by two more of its kind that dropped from the black recesses above.

“Beware the vrock!” shouted Miltiades, raising his hammer. The first of the fiends descended on him with clashing beak and grasping talons, crushing him to the ground. The paladin’s hammer rose and fell, then rose again with dark gore wreathing its silver head. The vrock’s companion stooped on Jacob, only to be driven back by the white razor of the warrior’s flashing sword.

The third soared over the fighters in the front and dove at Belgin. “Another fiend. Great,” he managed weakly, raising his cutlass in feeble protest. He slashed blindly as a storm of talon and and claw descended on him, ripping through the fancy leather jerkin to rake deep, foul furrows in the flesh beneath. Belgin screamed in pain and fear, ramming the point of his cutlass into the center of the vrock’s chest.

The blade slid in without a mark. Belgin wrenched it free, but the vrock only laughed, its voice clashing like cymbals of brass. “Mundane steel holds no power over one of my kind, mortal,” it hissed in delight. “You’ll need a better weapon than that to draw my blood.”

“How about this one?” From the creature’s flank, Rings struck out with his wicked axe, shearing through its scabrous wing. Belgin gagged in disgust as the creature’s black blood drenched and seared him. The dwarf hacked brutally at the fiend as it scrabbled away from him. “No one’s ever called the steel of my fathers’ axe mundane!” the dwarf shouted fiercely. “Take some of this back to the Abyss with you!”

Belgin regained his feet. In the corner of his eye he saw Miltiades standing, shouldering aside the corpse of the vrock that had assailed him, while Jacob slashed his foe to pieces with his great blade. At the edge of the balcony, the third vrock wheeled and lashed out with its talons, smashing Rings to the ground. With one quick step the sharper leaped into the air and planted his feet in the center of the fiend’s torso, catapulting it from the stone shelf. The fiend shrieked horribly, trying to hold the air with its ruined pinions, and spiraled out of sight into the darkness below. Picking himself up, Belgin looked around for the next foe.

“Forget the vrock! ‘Ware the balor!” Jacob shouted, holding his blade on guard against the fiery titan that stood on the opposite side of the hall.

For one tense moment, both paladins and pirates stood together, waiting for the powerful fiend to attack. It glared at them, its eyes burning. Then, in a motion so smooth and effortless it seemed impossible, it shrank and darkened into the form of a leather-clad human woman. Her teeth bared in a sharklike grin, Eidola laughed at them. “Not bad,” she remarked. “I see that Piergeiron didn’t waste his time with amateurs, excepting that boy Noph, anyway.”

“Hold there!” shouted Miltiades, brandishing his hammer. “You’ve much to answer for, monster! Surrender now, and you’ll live to see a fair trial in Tyr’s hall.”

“Forgive me if I decline,” the woman sneered. “I have places to go, paladin, and I think I’ll find my own way. Do yourself a favor and find some other damsel in distress to rescue.”

“I came halfway across the world to punish those who stole you,” the paladin grated. “Now your own lies have damned you. I don’t care how many secret allies you have here or what kind of deceptions you’ve created to deter me from my mission, monster—you’ve leagued yourself with the wrong patrons.” He paced forward to the edge of the balcony, eying the jump. “I’ll bring Tyr’s justice to you or die trying.”

“Now I remember why I detest paladins,” Eidola remarked. She turned to leave.

Moved by a flicker of intuition, Belgin stepped forward. “Eidola!” he cried. “Where are you going?”

“I don’t know,” she replied instantly. “I mean to find my way back to Waterdeep as quickly as possible, but I don’t know where I am.” Her face suddenly contorted in anger, and she reached up with one hand to tug at her collar. “What in the name of darkness?” she muttered. White hemp showed around the hollow of her throat.

Belgin grinned. He’d guessed right—Noph’s magical lasso retained its power to compel its victim to truthfulness, even though no one held the doppelganger captive. “Why did Aetheric imprison you? You were doing his work, weren’t you?”

BOOK: Easy Betrayals
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