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Authors: Auston Habershaw

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BOOK: Iron and Blood
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Her hiding spot was an abandoned grain silo, its roof long since fallen in, its base ringed in thick snowbanks. It stood perhaps twenty yards from the walls of the fortress—­close enough to smell what she needed to, but far enough that there was no way the poor eyesight of any human guards could spot her in the dark and snow, even if she hadn't been hiding.

Hool didn't want to hide. She was tired of stalking—­she wanted to pounce. She wanted to kick the doors of the big house down and kill the men inside. She would rip them apart until they told her where Api and Brana were, and then she would go and get her pups. Then she would find Hendrieux, skin him alive, and make his flesh into a cape. She would wear it whenever humans came near, so they would know that she was not to be trifled with.

Tyvian Reldamar, however, had forbidden her from doing this.
Trust me, Hool,
he had said,
if you charge in there alone, you won't be saving anybody—­these aren't half-­drunk taverngoers, these are trained Delloran soldiers in armor. Even you can't kill all of them.

Her job was to wait and watch. When she was
she had found Hendrieux, she was supposed to send up a signal to tell Reldamar he was here. He had suggested a fire, which only proved how little the human knew about setting fires. It was snowing too hard and everything was wet—­a fire was out of the question. Even if she could start one, Reldamar's half-­blind human eyes couldn't see it anyway, nor could his tiny human nose smell it unless he was right next to it. Come to think of it, even their hearing was terrible. Sometimes Hool wondered how humans managed to survive at all.

The same door behind the walls opened again. It was a man this time—­big, heavy, wearing mail that clanked as he walked. There was a smell of pipeweed about him that was concealing his personal scent. She stuck her nose higher in the air and breathed more deeply.

“Hey, girl! Where are you? We ain't finished, you and I!” the man called into the dark.

The woman was still vomiting, so she didn't answer. Hool couldn't understand what compelled humans to drink that much poison. On the Taqar, the gnolls only partook of such poisons during acts of penance or when testing resolve—­such things weren't for
. Maybe this woman was one of those they were forcing to take it. Hmmmm . . .

“Hey!” the man yelled. “You ain't sneakin' away, are you? Not after I was so nice!” His boots crunched through the snow in the courtyard beyond the wall, getting closer to the woman.

The woman took a deep breath and moaned. “Comin', milord. Jus' . . . jus' cleanin' meself up, is all.”

Hool snarled softly; she found herself pitying this female who was too weak to claim her own mate. Hool had never let a male give her orders—­she was always alpha, and any male who thought to challenge her would feel her teeth at his throat. This woman weighed less than Brana, and was weak and skinny as a stick. She would be claimed by any man who wanted her. She needed to eat more and get stronger.

“There you are!” the man said, pulling open the door of the outhouse. “Ugh . . . you smell like death.”

The man was closer now, and Hool got a better taste of his scent—­the sweat in his boots, the oil he used on his armor, the leather wrapping around the hilt of his sword. She'd encountered this man before, walking with Hendrieux when they had killed the beer-­smelling men in the ugly house. He was one of Hendrieux's guards—­if Hendrieux wasn't here, this man would know where he was.

“No more waiting,” Hool muttered, and crept slowly out of the silo, the snow barely stirring as she passed. The streets were empty and dark, but she knew her silhouette would show up clearly against the new fallen snow if she were to head directly down the street, and she knew that eyes were watching the street from the fortress. She kept to the edges, blending in with the piles of trash and the run-­down facades of the buildings—­a shadow with gleaming, copper eyes.

The man was growing angry with the woman, and she was pleading with him. Hool didn't pay close attention, however—­she was concentrating all her senses on moving quietly and not being seen. The air was still but for the falling snow and the gurgle of the narrow stream beyond the fortress—­there was no tightening of a bowstring, no gasp of recognition to be heard from the catwalks or battlements.

The woman fell back. The man had struck her. “Foul bitch! You think I'll pay for you now? I've paid your worth already in the drinks you poured down your ugly mouth. Get inside!”

The woman screamed instead, which made the man angrier. Hool heard him kick her in the stomach, making her retch into the snow. Hool knew she didn't have much time—­the weakling woman would go in the house soon, and the man would be gone. She darted across the last ten feet of snow and leapt to the top of the wall, balancing like a great cat atop the crumbling crenellations.

The man was beneath her, no more than five yards away, hauling the sobbing woman to her feet, his cheeks red from the cold. If he were to look up, he would see Hool's eyes—­she knew they were glittering in the light from the windows of the house. She made a decision; she pounced.

She landed squarely on the woman's back, pinning her facedown in the snow. The man's eyes grew wide, but Hool had him by the throat and threw him down as well. She sat atop his chest, her teeth bared. “Where is Hen-­droo?”

“Gods! It talks!” He struggled against Hool, but her weight and strength were too much.

Over her shoulder Hool heard the sentries on the second floor of the house moving to inspect the noise. Hool snarled and dragged the man by the mail shirt into the outhouse and slammed the door. The smell and sound of the filth-­choked stream below filled the air, burning Hool's nostrils. Space was tight in the tiny outhouse; Hool's snout was pressed up so close to the man's face that she could feel his breath against her tongue. He, presumably, could also feel her hot, thick breath as she growled at him. “You will tell me where is Hen-­droo or I will rip off your face.”

The man quivered in her grasp. “Hann save me! A gnoll!”

Hool shook him, which in turn shook the entire outhouse. “Answer me!”

“Okay! Okay! Just don't kill me!” Tears were brimming in the man's eyes. Hool curled her lips at his cowardice. “Captain Hendrieux is inside—­well guarded. You'll never get in alive!”

“You are lucky.” Hool said.


“I am not going to kill you,” Hool said, and then crumpled the man's body into a ball and shoved it down the vomit-­ringed hole in the outhouse floor. He cried like a child, struggling weakly as he slid down the short tunnel and landed with a plop in the swift current of the stream below. It occurred to Hool that he would probably drown now, and she scolded herself for lying to him.

She slipped out of the outhouse and hid herself behind the woodpile. The woman she had tackled sat up, swaying from the effects of the poison in her blood. “Wh-­What? Hello? Something hit me . . .”

“Go home, stupid weak girl!” Hool hissed at her, her ears cocked to hear the sentries above—­they were elsewhere, but she could hear the footsteps of another one drawing close.

The woman looked at Hool, her bleary eyes trying to focus. “Hey . . . you're . . . you're one of those things.”

“I am not a thing. Go home now!”

The woman got to her knees and shuffled across the snowy yard, reaching her hand out. “Wow—­you're a lot bigger than the other one.”

Hool froze. “Other one?”

The woman giggled and lay back in the snow. “Yeah—­they got one, just like you. Smaller though. In . . . the . . . storehouse.” She closed her eyes.

Smaller one.

In the storehouse.

When the sentry passed, Hool crept up to the unconscious woman and sniffed her clothes. It was very faint, but the scent was there—­a musky, woody sent, mixed with dry wildflowers.

It was Brana. He was here, and he was afraid.

Rage bubbling through her like molten iron, Hool turned her attention to the massive house.

Reldamar or no Reldamar, she was going in there, and she was getting her pup.


yvian's wrists, arms, and shoulders were knotted with cramps and raw with pain thanks to his incarceration, but he refused to let it dampen his spirits. He had passed the interminable hours playing “I Spy” with Myreon. Myreon, unfortunately, was a very poor accomplice for this enterprise, since all the Mage Defender seemed intent on doing was brooding, moaning, and cursing him in every way she knew how. She also was a bad guesser.

Since their meeting with the Hanim, the scenery in the dungeon had become more interesting. True to her word, the Hanim had stationed five mark-­slaves to watch them inside the dungeon itself. There were two at the top of the stairs to guard the exit and three more on the dungeon floor to keep watch over Tyvian and Myreon's persons. The mark-­slaves, not the most imaginative fellows, took their orders quite literally, and stared directly at the two prisoners the entire time. Tyvian had been counting blinks for the past hour or so, and had concluded that the big one on the right was nervous, since he was blinking constantly, while the squat one in the middle was calm, and the tall one on the left wasn't even real, since he hadn't blinked at all.

“I'm telling you, Myreon, that tall one is a simulacrum.”

“Who gives a bloody damn which one is a simulacrum or not?” she snapped.

“Myreon, I am trying to engage you in conversation to distract us from our predicament. The least you can do is play along.”

She groaned. “I'm sorry, Tyvian, but no amount of inane small talk on your part is going to distract me from the fact that I am chained
in a
Kalsaari dungeon

“Stop yelling—­I'm right next to you, you know. Besides, it could be worse—­you could be wearing a skirt instead of breeches, and then you'd be upside-­down

“Go to hell,” Myreon snarled, and thrashed in an apparent attempt to spit in Tyvian's direction.

“You are going to wear yourself out, you know.”

“Wear myself out
for what
, you insufferable boob? Perhaps some physical demands might be made of
when you whore yourself out to Her Eminence, but I assure you they will not be asking
to perform calisthenics while they probe my brain for sorcerous information!”

“No one is going to probe your brain for Arcanostrum secrets, I assure you,” Tyvian stated, standing on his tiptoes and flexing the blood back into his fingers.

Myreon rolled her eyes. “You've been saying that for hours now, and I am beginning to think I would prefer being cut in two during a botched escape attempt rather than endure your insinuations at the existence of a successful one.”

“How's the headache?”

“I have been stuck upside-­down for the better part of a day now, how do you
it is? I can hear my blood pumping in my ears more loudly than I can hear your babble, which, as it turns out, is the best part about this whole affair. Now, would you please leave me alone?”

“We've tried this already, Myreon—­if I can't talk to you, I have to talk with our jailors here, and they are terrible conversationalists. Why, the short one there only smiles when I insult his parentage, and what fun is that, honestly?”

Myreon addressed the largest of the three slaves watching them. “Could you
send somebody down here to torture me? Having to listen to this man is worse than anything you lot could
dream up.”

Tyvian grinned. “I daresay your wits are getting keener, Myreon—­that one was pretty good. Perhaps you should hang upside-­down more often.”

Myreon said nothing, and Tyvian assumed she was glowering. He couldn't say he blamed her either—­he was getting rather impatient himself. He had expected his plan to come to fruition at least an hour or two ago, at the latest. He might have given up hope had he not remembered his mother's first rule of manipulating others:
Always have faith in the capabilities of those you use. Like any workman, if you choose your tools well, they will perform their duties as expected.

They'll be here,
Tyvian assured himself,
it's just a matter of time.

As if on cue, a series of bells began to clang with such rapidity that he knew it had to be the work of an alarm. His suspicion was confirmed when the two guards at the top of the stairs exchanged nervous looks and drew their scimitars.

Tyvian smiled. “Ah! Excellent—­here they come.”

“What? Here
comes?” Myreon asked, her voice losing the sardonic edge it had maintained for the past few hours.

“Our ticket out of here, of course.”

“I thought you said we

“We aren't—­we're
being broken
out. Semantics, I know, but they're important when being compelled to answer questions.”

Myreon turned this over for a moment, and then asked, “By whom?”

“The Defenders, of course. And possibly Hacklar Jaevis, though I can't guarantee that.”

“Wh-­What? The Defenders? Here? How would they know—­”

“I left a note for them, of course.”

Myreon's mouth was hanging open, which Tyvian thought was peculiar, given that she was upside-­down. “How did you—­”

me you were trying to escape. There are only a finite number of ways that can be done from that room with the resources I left at your disposal. Predicting this was really only a matter of reading spirit engine schedules.”

it! I just
knew it!
” Myreon said, squeezing her eyes closed. “I
you were playing me.”

“Myreon, I'd thought you'd be pleased—­your friends are here to rescue you. Doesn't that make you happy?”

She brightened for a moment, but then narrowed her eyes again at him. “Wait . . . how does this help you?”

“Well, I presume they'll take me along with you, seeing how I'm a wanted criminal and all.”

Myreon snorted. “That's a tremendously large presumption.”

“Maybe. I'm fairly confident in it, though.”

wouldn't take you with me.”

“Yes, you would.”

“No, I wouldn't!”

“I don't see the point in us arguing about this—­we'll know who's right soon enough.”

Myreon let air hiss between her clenched teeth. “I hate you.”

The two prisoners didn't speak to each other until, a few minutes later, Jaevis kicked in the door at the top of the dungeon stairs. The Illini bounty hunter's black eyes blazed over his blood-­caked beard, and the twin sabers in his hands were crimson with gore. He killed the two slaves guarding the stairs with two vicious, disemboweling strokes—­whose tattoos, as Tyvian had guessed some time ago, were imitations of the real things—­and charged down the stairs toward the dungeon floor, shouting curses in his language with a hoarse voice.

“Jaevis!” Myreon yelled. “The tall one is a fake! He's a fake!”

“Will you shush!” Tyvian hissed. “No need to ruin the surprise!”

The simulacrum mark-­slave was the first to meet Jaevis in battle at the foot of the stairs, but the phantasmal being's combat skills were somewhat lacking. It lifted its broad-­bladed scimitar high over its head as though intending to cleave Jaevis into two neat halves, and Jaevis, using his higher position on the stairs to his advantage, cut the simulacrum's arms off just below the elbows and, as part of the same flowing movement, dragged both his blades along the thing's throat. Had it been a real person, the amount of blood would have been impressive, but as it was, the being simply vanished into a pink fog and Jaevis charged through it to meet the actual mark-­slaves, whose magical tattoos were gleaming with red and purple light.

Each of the mark-­slaves, even the shorter one, was bigger than Jaevis both in height and weight, and their magically augmented strength made their bare hands deadly weapons. This Jaevis clearly knew, and so he circled the two men beyond their grasp, forcing them to draw their scimitars against him.

Like the simulacrum before them, they were poor swordsmen, and they hacked wildly at the bounty hunter, each swing designed to kill. Jaevis elegantly evaded their attacks with a series of dodges, feints, and skillful parries. Tyvian, having fought Jaevis before, noticed a ­couple of the same moves being used again, but was impressed at how well the bounty hunter adapted to fighting multiple opponents—­an advantage, Tyvian imagined, inherent to fighting with twinned slashing blades like the two short sabers.

Then both mark-­slaves rushed Jaevis, hoping to overwhelm him. The bounty hunter, having little room to retreat, dove into a somersault that shot him between the two brutes. Coming up behind them on his feet, he thrust his blades backward into the spine of one of his opponents. This, by all accounts, ought to have killed the slave outright, but the protective signs upon his body were sufficient to allow him to turn around, still upright, with Jaevis's blades still firmly planted in his back.

Thusly disarmed, Jaevis retreated, drawing a stiletto from a sleeve. The mark-­slaves discarded their scimitars and advanced on him with their bare hands, which glowed with murderous red light.

“Jaevis!” Tyvian shouted. “The keys! Throw me the keys!”

“Watch out for their hands!” Myreon added. “They have Fey enchantments on them!”

“Gods, Myreon—­he can
that they're glowing! Don't distract the man!” Tyvian snapped.

Ignoring both of them, Jaevis put his stiletto in the eye of the injured mark-­slave with a quick throw. This injury was enough to drop the brute, who wailed pathetically on the ground as blood spurted from his new wound.

“Well done!” Myreon cheered. “They can't put tattoos on their eyes, now can they. Ha!”

Jaevis moved to recover his swords but was met halfway by the other mark-­slave, who delivered a left hook that exploded on his shoulder with a burst of flame and an audible pop. The blow threw Jaevis through the air and dropped him in a heap five paces away. He barely had time to recover before the slave was on him again, foot raised to stomp the bounty hunter into an early grave.

Jaevis rolled away at the last moment, drawing another knife and slashing at the slave's leg in the same motion. The slave's tattoos flashed and the blade failed to leave a mark.

“Where are the Defenders?” Myreon snarled, eyes following the fight with manic attention.

The mark-­slave looked down at where Jaevis had attempted to cut him and laughed. Before the bounty hunter could scurry out of reach, he seized Jaevis by the scruff of the neck and threw him bodily against the stone wall between Myreon and Tyvian, who heard at least one bone break on impact and hoped it wasn't Jaevis's skull. The bounty hunter slumped against the wall, stunned.

“Jaevis! Jaevis, wake up!” Myreon prodded the Illini frantically with her casterlocked hands. The mark-­slave, still chuckling, advanced slowly, cracking his knuckles in preparation for the final blow. Despite Myreon's prodding, Jaevis didn't stir. “Where the
are the Defenders?”

“Kroth!” Tyvian swore. Jaevis dying would put a
hole in his plan. There had to be something he could do . . . but what?

He noticed, then, that his right hand—­his
hand—­was tingling. It wasn't pain, per se, but rather a feeling of
, as though his hand needed to be wrung or swung around to get out some kind of stored energy. Tyvian yanked against his chains—­nothing. He yanked again, this time as hard as he could. He felt something give. Could he actually . . . ?

It took one more pull to snap the chain that held Tyvian captive. Everyone—­Myreon, the mark-­slave, even himself—­stared at what he had done. “Hann's boots,” he whispered, looking at the broken chain in his hands.

This was the distraction Jaevis had been waiting for. The bounty hunter, evidently not as stunned as he had appeared, leapt from the ground, knife in hand, and slashed the blade along the one other place besides the eyes that mark-­slaves didn't have tattoos. More blood than Tyvian had seen in some time spilled from between the slave's legs, and the man screamed at a pitch that seemed likely to shatter windows. Jaevis shoulder-­checked the slave onto his back and watched him writhe in pain for a moment before recovering his sabers and turning to Myreon and Tyvian. “You will come with me now.”

Tyvian fished the keys to Myreon's chains from one of the dead guards. “Nothing would give me more pleasure, Mr. Jaevis.”

A pair of Defenders—­breathless, wounded, with their firepikes gleaming—­appeared at the top of the stairs. “Hurry up, bounty hunter! We've got trouble!”

When Myreon was freed, Jaevis pointed to some spare shackles on the wall and said, “Put those on Reldamar. He is prisoner.”

Myreon grinned, rubbing the feeling back into her hands. “Nothing would give
more pleasure.”

Tyvian grinned back. “I
you you'd take me with you.”

BOOK: Iron and Blood
2.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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