Sorcerers weren't normal, sorcery wasn't natural, and Quentin Rand didn't like either one.
Quentin had always made an exception for me, but just because you tolerated what a friend was, didn't mean you understood what they did. Nothing explained to me what Quentin was doing breaking into the townhouse of one of Mermeia's most infamous necromancers. Quentin was a thief—at least he used to be. And to the best of my knowledge, he wasn't a suicidal ex-thief. Yet there he was crouched in the shadows of Nachtmagus Nigelius Nicabar's back door, picklocks at the ready. While not the most efficient way to ask for death, it was one of the more certain.
I knew all about Nigel's house wards. The human necromancer did everything he could to inflate his reputation, but he didn't depend on it to protect his valuables. Magical wards were home security at its most basic, and Nigel had some good ones. But although they were nasty, they wouldn't kill—rumor had it Nigel liked to save that pleasure for himself. I guess when you worked with the dead for a living, your idea of fun was a little different from everyone else's. The city watch frowned on citizens taking the law into their own hands like that, but the watch was notoriously short-handed in the Districts. They couldn't prosecute what they didn't know about, and I'd rather they didn't know Quentin was here tonight.
Quentin occasionally works for me. My name is Raine Benares. I'm a seeker. I find things. Most times the people who hire me are glad when I do, but sometimes they're sorry they asked. Personally, I think people should be more careful what they ask for. Some things are better left unfound.
Seeking isn't the flashiest occupation a sorceress can put out her shingle for, or the most highly regarded, but it pays the rent on time. I've found the formerly unfindable for the Mermeia city watch, and since I'm an elf, elven intelligence has sought my help on more than one occasion. Most of what I'm hired to find didn't get lost by itself. It had help. Help you could depend on to use blades or bolts or nastier magical means to keep what they went to all the trouble to get. When that's the case, I go by the rule of me or them.
I also apply that rule to my friends. That's why I was cooling my heels in one of Mermeia's more aromatic alleys—to keep Quentin's moonlighting from earning him a one-way trip to the city morgue.
As a former career thief, Quentin knew the underside of Mermeia better than just about anyone. That's why I hired him. Well, it was one of the reasons. Our professional paths had crossed from time to time over the years. What I had been hired to find was often something Quentin had been hired to steal. It got to the point that I just started my search with Quentin to save myself a lot of unnecessary footwork. He didn't take it personally, and neither did I. However, I always extended to Quentin the professional courtesy of waiting until the object in question had left his hands before recovering it. That way he got paid while maintaining his reputation. But when the risks started to outweigh the rewards, Quentin thought that an early end to his career might keep the same fate from befalling his life. I helped him bridge the gap between thief and quasi-law-abiding citizen.
No fact, tidbit or rumor was too small or too hidden for Quentin to ferret out—given the proper monetary motivation. Greed still occasionally whispered sweet nothings in his ear, enticing my sometime employee to seek out additional means of income. Most times he didn't tell me the details. Most times I didn't want to know. Considering where he was right now, tonight wasn't one of those times.
The city of Mermeia in the kingdom of Brenir consisted of five islands that had been forced into existence by the determination of its founders, and kept from sinking by the greed of its merchants. A powerful force, greed. It made solid ground where there had once been marsh; built palaces and trading houses where there were reeds; and inspired humans, elves, goblins, and magic users of all races to live together in a city separated only by the canals that marked their respective Districts. Sometimes we even got along.
I cupped my hands to my mouth, blowing on cold-numbed fingers. I was trying to breathe through my mouth to keep my nose from becoming any more traumatized than it already was. The cozy little alley I'd found across Pasquine Street from Nigel's townhouse held a charm all its own. I'd put a shielding spell across the entrance, so unless Quentin walked over and looked in, he couldn't see or hear me. The alley walls were slick with something dark and damp and best left unidentified. The air was chilly but still warm enough to enhance the aroma of the garbage sharing the alley with me. And the stench of the canal a block away at low tide only further enhanced my sensory experience. I rubbed my hands together, then gave up and reached for the gloves at my belt. Not that I wanted anything to happen to Quentin, but it would be nice if all this turned out to be worth my while.
"You stood me up."
I yelped. I recognized the voice, which was the only reason my throwing knife remained in my hand, instead of being lodged in the voice's owner.
I blew out my breath. "Don't do that!" I sheathed my knife, though I was still tempted to use it, more from acute embarrassment than anything else.
Phaelan chuckled and stepped out of the shadows hiding the alley entrance from the street. My cousin looked like the rest of my family—dark hair, dark eyes, dark good looks, equally dark disposition. Next to them, I stood out like a flaming match at night with my long red gold hair, gray eyes, and pale skin. The hair and skin tone were from my mother. I assumed my eyes were from my father. Neither parent was around for me to ask.
Phaelan was the main reason having the name Benares was an asset in the seeking business. When looking for pilfered goods, it helped to be related to experts—professional pilferers all.
You could say our family was well known in the import and export business. The goods my cousin's side of the family imported never saw the light of day in a harbormaster's ledger, and the exports consisted of vast profits sent to secret family accounts in various banks in numerous kingdoms. Phaelan's natural talent was in acquisitions. Many times he neglected to get permission from the owners whose goods he intended to acquire; or when he did ask, his request often came from the business end of a cannon.
"Since when does spending the night in an alley rate above dinner with me at the Crown and Anchor?" he asked.
"Since Quentin's moonlighting again."
"Varek said you were staking out Nigel Nicabar's. He didn't say anything about Quentin."
When in Mermeia, Phaelan did business out of the Spyglass, and Varek Akar, the proprietor, served the dual purpose of business manager and social secretary for my cousin when he was in town. I didn't normally make my stakeouts public knowledge, but since Nigel was involved, I thought it'd be a good idea to let my next of kin know where to find me.
"That's because I didn't mention Quentin," I told him. "I'd rather the watch not get wind that he's working again."
"Varek knows how to keep his mouth shut."
"I trust Varek, but I don't feel the same way about his new barkeep. Quentin hasn't done anything illegal tonight."
Phaelan laughed, his voice low. "Night ain't over yet."
He was right, but I didn't have to admit it. If certain members of the watch knew where he was, they'd jump to conclusions, and then they'd jump Quentin.
Phaelan's ship had arrived in port late that afternoon, and the plan had been to meet for an early dinner. Early, because I knew he had plans later—plans that had everything to do with a woman, but nothing to do with a lady. My cousin had a strict threefold agenda on his first night in any port—get fed, get laid, and get drunk, in that order. Occasionally he would skip the food, but never the other two. When in Mermeia, my cousin could either be found in one of the city's less reputable gambling parlors, or enjoying the comforts offered at Madame Natasha's Joy Garden, and probably the attentions of Madame Natasha herself. This evening, Phaelan was positively resplendent in a doublet of scarlet buckskin, with matching breeches topped with high, black leather boots. At his side was the swept-hilt rapier he favored when out on the town. And unless my nose deceived me, his white linen shirt was as well scrubbed as Phaelan himself. An earring set with a single ruby gleamed in the lobe of one elegantly pointed ear. I knew all the fuss wasn't on account of me.
"You took a bath," I said. "And shaved. I'm impressed."
"Just fancying myself up for you, darlin'."
"I'm sure Madame Natasha and her girls will also appreciate your consideration."
He grinned in a flash of white teeth. It was the kind of grin that could get him anything he wanted at Madame Natasha's—or anywhere else in Mermeia—for free. He nodded toward where Quentin still waited by Nigel's side door. "So what's he doing here?"
"Asking for more trouble than he can handle."
The grin broadened. "From Nigel or you?"
"Then walk across the street and stop him. The Crown's still holding a table for us."
"It's not that easy."
"Being here wasn't his idea."
"So someone paid him well. Wouldn't be the first time. Let's go and let the man earn his money."
I didn't budge. "How much would it take for you to break into Nigel's at night?"
To his credit, Phaelan didn't have to think long. "More money than most in this city can lay hands to."
"Exactly. And Quentin's terrified of necromancers. There's more involved here than money, meaning whoever hired Quentin scares him more than Nigel does. Quentin's been trying to keep his nose clean and someone won't let him—and I don't like it."
"So ask him who it is."
"Quentin bought a new set of picklocks last week and started keeping to himself. I started asking him questions. He started avoiding me." I indicated the assortment of armaments and dark leather that made up my evening ensemble—all topped by a ridiculously large and hooded cloak to keep Quentin from recognizing me had he spotted me. As an added precaution, my hair was contained in a long braid and hidden under the cloak. "Hence the cloak-and-dagger routine."
"So if he won't tell you what he's up to, you're just going to follow him while he does it."
I nodded. "Exactly. And pull his backside out of the fire if need be. Afterward, we're going to have a little chat." I glanced back at the alley entrance. Phaelan hadn't brought any of his crew with him. That was surprising.
"My men only want to end up in an alley after they've been drinking all night—or if they're waiting for someone. Even if they knew they'd be sharing that alley with you, I'd have a mutiny in the making."
I didn't have a response for that. I'd have mutinied, too. We settled back and waited.
A chat with Quentin was a given, but I hoped pulling his backside out of the fire wasn't going to be a part of my evening. Though with Quentin's current track record, both were probably in my immediate future.
Two months ago, Quentin had been hired to steal an emerald necklace being delivered to a local duke. The jeweler reported the theft to the duke. His Grace wasn't home, but his wife was. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, the duchess despised emeralds—but they were the favorite gem of the woman she suspected of being her husband's mistress. Bad went to worse for both the duke and Quentin. The duke simply retreated to his country estate. Quentin had to hide in the Daith Swamp for three weeks. He emerged a changed man. I guess three weeks of eating nothing but silt slugs will do that to you.
I found out about all this after the fact. When Quentin got around to admitting his career relapse to me, he also admitted that the job could have gone better. My friends on the city watch thought Quentin's flair for understatement was exceeded only by his bad luck—or stupidity—depending on who you asked.
Yet here he was tonight, about to break into the house of the nastiest necromancer Mermeia had to offer. Some people were slow learners. But I would say that if Quentin was looking for a fate worse than eating silt slugs in a swamp, he'd come to the right place.
About ten minutes passed, and Quentin hadn't so much as flinched. I couldn't say the same for Phaelan. Three months at sea had taken its toll. There was something he desperately wanted to be doing right now, and standing in a stinking alley listening to himself breathe wasn't it.
"Go on, Phaelan. Nothing's going to happen here that I can't handle."
"Not a chance. Nigel isn't known for being understanding of trespassers."
"I'm not trespassing; Quentin is." I flashed Phaelan a grin of my own. "Besides, Nigel's not home. If he were, I wouldn't let Quentin within three blocks of here."
"Then what the hell's he waiting for?"
"Him." I indicated the upstairs gallery. A tall, thin figure carrying a single lamp proceeded at a stately pace down the length of the second floor gallery, putting out lamps and candles as he went.
"Nigel's steward," I clarified. "His reputation is almost as nasty as his master's. I did some asking around. It's the same routine every night. He puts out all the lights before going to bed. Nigel won't be back until just before daybreak. He's out making housecalls. For some reason, his clients seem to think séances have to be done at night. Since Quentin's the cautious type, he'll wait until the steward gets to the servant's quarters before he makes his move."
Phaelan's expression indicated I was in dire need of a life. I wasn't entirely sure I disagreed with him.
"How long have you been staking this place out?" he asked.
"Just once. The rest came from a few well-placed bribes. If Nigel doesn't want his people to gossip, he should pay them better."
"Any idea what Quentin's after?"
"Not a clue. But if Nigel holds it near and dear, you can bet it's a short list of people who want it—or want to be anywhere near it."
"So that explains your sudden maternal urges."
"I'm just here to make sure Quentin doesn't get in too far over his head."
"I'd say he's there already. You planning to follow him in?"
"Not unless something jumps out and starts killing him."
"Then how are you...?" Phaelan began. Then understanding dawned. "How did you get him to take a tracking stone?"
"Who says I asked him?" I shrugged deeper into my cloak. "Better safe than sensed. And as an added bonus, Quentin gets to go inside where it's nice and warm, and we get to stay here where it's nice and smelly."
Phaelan looked up at the now dark gallery windows. "I don't think anything in there is nice." He took a not-so-delicate sniff and looked down at his boots in disgust. "Or out here."
I followed his gaze, and took a whiff of my own. I had really been trying to ignore my boots. Though I'd rather be in a stinking alley than a necromancer's house. Especially this necromancer. I'd once heard Nigel's place described as forbidding. Just plain spooky worked for me. I think he had both in mind when he had it built. Not many people would want to live in a place that looked like a mausoleum, but then Nigel wasn't most people.
My back was starting to cramp, and I shifted my weight, trying to get comfortable. The more I squirmed, the worse it got. I hated stakeouts. My body didn't respond well to sitting or standing around for long periods of time. Then there was the boredom. I was almost hoping Nigel's steward would wake up, go looking for a nighttime snack, and find Quentin. At least I'd get to do something.
Just because I didn't really expect any violence tonight, didn't mean I wasn't prepared for it. I'm not exactly what you'd call physically intimidating. Thanks to my elven blood, I'm tall enough, but my small bones and slender build are designed more for running than fighting. For those times when speed or spells didn't discourage someone, I kept all sorts of interesting weapons, mostly the bladed variety, tucked here and there.
Quentin was even smaller than I was, and wiry—and could locate trouble faster than a lodestone could find true north. Though considering the section of the city we were in, I'd more than likely have to call on my alternate arsenal.
I'm a magic user of respectable ability, though most sorcerers would look down their noses and call what I do parlor tricks. In addition to my seeking skills, I can move small objects with my mind, maintain an image of myself in a place I've just left, and my shields are right up there with the best. Not the most powerful sorcery by a long shot, but in my opinion, power's overrated—plus I know how to fight dirty, magically and otherwise. It's always been enough to keep me alive. Singed around the edges doesn't count.
What I can't do is manipulate the wills of others, affect the weather, communicate with or raise the dead, turn base metal into gold, see into the future, or any of the other skills other sorcerers turn into a way to make a living. Not that I haven't tried a few. I think the words "young" and "stupid" went a long way toward explaining those efforts. I even tried pyromancy once, but I almost set fire to my cat. It was at least six months before he didn't run every time I struck a match.
I couldn't see Quentin anymore, but it didn't mean I didn't know exactly where he was.
"He's inside," I told Phaelan. "And he didn't set off any wards."
"You make it sound like a bad thing."
"It's not good. Quentin's employer either had Nigel's wards disabled ahead of time, or Quentin has a ghencharm."
Phaelan didn't exactly look enlightened. "Which is?"
"A talisman that disables wards. Quentin could walk straight through every ward in that house and not make a sound. Problem is you have to know ahead of time what wards are being used. Whoever keyed it would need inside information."
Phaelan shrugged. "So someone bribed one of Nigel's servants. So did you."
"I just got the household routine. Quentin apparently got the house. Someone in there really doesn't like their boss. Nigel's not going to be happy."
"So he's not the lovable type. I'd imagine not many necromancers are. Can you track him?"
I nodded absently. I was seeing more than just Phaelan.
Quentin was in the main part of the house now. A tracking stone only lets you know the carrier's location, usually without any details as to what they see. There could be occasional flashes of image, but that only happened with magically sensitive carriers, or those you knew very well. Quentin wasn't the sensitive type, magically or otherwise. Apparently I knew him well enough, because I got a hazy vision from his viewpoint of stairs leading to the second floor. No wards. No lurking stewards. Looked like Quentin had a good ghencharm. Phaelan and I might not have to charge in to the rescue after all. But I still had every intention of sitting down with Quentin for a very long talk when this was over, and if I needed extra muscle to hold him down while we chatted, so be it.
Quentin went straight to what looked to be a formal reception area on the ground floor. He crossed the room to a wall, pushed on something I couldn't see, and exposed a hidden staircase. Interesting. Quentin activated a tiny lightglobe on the interior wall, illuminating steep and polished wooden stairs. A plush carpet of deep crimson ran up the center. It was all a little much for Nigel's taste. Maybe select noble clients saw this part of the house as well. At the top of the stairs was a door with a screened panel that was just large enough to look through. Quentin looked inside, and so did I. An ornately carved bed dominated the room. I found myself grinning.
"What?" Phaelan asked.
"Just a fun fact to know and share. Conjuring up the dead relatives of Caesolian courtiers must only pay so much. It looks like Nigel supplements his income with a little blackmail."
Quentin was searching Nigel's room, and doing a very efficient and professional job of it for a reformed thief. Someone had been staying in practice. He'd just discovered a compartment in the headboard of the bed containing a jumble of small boxes and papers. He took out a white stone box. The entire thing fit in the palm of his hand. It had been sealed with black wax, but the seal had been broken. Quentin opened the box.
The world exploded. Or at least my corner of it.
I found myself on all fours like I'd taken a giant fist to the gut. If there was any air in the alley, I couldn't find it. My vision swam, and pain stabbed behind my eyes. I heard someone whimper. I think it was me. I pitched forward, my forehead landing in something I didn't want to identify, its stench the only thing keeping me from passing out. I dimly felt Phaelan's hands on my shoulders, lifting my face out of the muck. I was dizzy, nauseous, and had an urge to make my own contribution to the pile of scraps next to me.
"Stop," I managed.
Phaelan stopped lifting, but didn't let go. I was grateful. I don't think I could have stayed upright on my own. I raised my head slowly until my eyes were level with the street. I resisted the impulse to gulp air into my lungs. I took a few steady breaths. My vision began to clear.
"Raine?" He sounded worried. That made two of us.
I tried to answer, but my mouth was too busy breathing.
"Are you all right?"
I thought about nodding, but decided against it. "Think so."
"I think Quentin just found what he was looking for."
Unfortunately, I was right. Sometimes I hate it when that happens. Quentin showed no signs of putting the whatever-it-was back in the box, and my head hurt too much to maintain contact with him until he did. Fine. I broke contact. He was on his own. I assumed he had done everything he came to do, and would be coming out soon. I sat back against the wall of the alley, watched the door where he had gone in, and concentrated on breathing. Breathing was good.
No alarms went off, no lamps were lit in the servants' quarters or anywhere else in the house. The street was quiet. The few people who passed the alley with magical talent enough to see past my shields probably thought I was either drunk or had just been mugged. Either way, no one stopped to ask.
"What's keeping him?" Phaelan asked.
Glass shattered. A lot of it. It sounded like it came from the back of Nigel's house. This was followed by shouting. I recognized Quentin's voice. It sounded like he had found his good friend Trouble, and they had made their own exit from Nigel's bedroom. Phaelan helped me to my feet and then sprinted toward the back of the house. I ditched my cloak and followed as best I could. Considering how I felt, my idea of running more resembled a loping jog. No use worrying about waking the neighbors now.
Not surprisingly, Phaelan was the first to reach the back wall. He hoisted himself smoothly to the top and stopped, something my cousin rarely did. Phaelan only acknowledged one direction, and that was forward.
"Goblin shamans," he said.
That was unexpected. I heaved myself up beside him. As far as I was concerned, there were two types of goblin shamans—one good and one bad. These particular ones wore black robes lined in silver. Khrynsani. Quentin's new acquaintances were the bad kind. Why wasn't I surprised?
The Khrynsani were an ancient goblin secret society and military order, with even more outdated political ideas. The Khrynsanic credo was simple. Goblins were meant to rule, and if anyone disagreed, they weren't meant to live. Those who disagreed included every other race. Unfortunately, the minds behind the Khrynsani weren't simple, or without influence. Some of the most powerful families of the goblin aristocracy were secret Khrynsani members. The new goblin king was a Khrynsani and proud of it. So it wouldn't be long before the rest of the old blood nobility traded in their secret membership for openly fashionable affiliation.
Nigel hated all goblins, good or bad, so it was safe to say that these three weren't invited houseguests. Then again, neither was Quentin. But there they all were on Nigel's bedroom balcony. Quentin did the only thing a nonsorcerer and a human could do in his situation: he jumped. It wasn't a bad distance. Not a good one, either. But it was survivable, and his chances were better than staying where he was. Fortunately, Nigel was fond of bushes. It gave Quentin something to flatten beside himself when he landed.
The shamans didn't follow him, but four impeccably armed and armored goblins did. They effortlessly vaulted the railing and landed catlike on the ground below, missing the bushes entirely, covering the distance to the middle of the garden in about half the time as Quentin. The quartet obviously weren't street thugs, and they had made no effort to conceal their uniforms. Khrynsani temple guards. When Quentin found trouble, he didn't fool around.
Quentin was running toward the back wall, and us. He looked glad to see us. No surprise there. But the four goblins were gaining on him, and Quentin would never make it to the wall before they caught him. I swore and scrambled over the top, making a wobbly landing on the lawn below. Phaelan was right behind me. Quentin turned his back to us, leaving himself ample room to maneuver and drew a pair of long daggers.
The four goblins were larger and faster than I would have liked. But opponents, like family, were something you didn't get the luxury of picking for yourself. Realizing that Quentin's intention was to fight rather than escape, the goblins slowed, each leisurely drawing a scythelike saber. They saw Phaelan and me, but it didn't seem to have a negative effect on their morale.
Goblins were generally tall, long limbed, and leanly muscled, like elves. This quartet was no exception. Their features were angular, their large eyes dark, and their upswept ears slightly more pronounced at the tip than elven ears. Their pale gray skin set off their most distinguishing feature—a pair of fangs that weren't for decorative use only. Just because a goblin smiled at you didn't mean he wanted to be friends. The danger didn't detract from the race's appeal—some would say it fueled it. I guess all that sinuous grace and exotic beauty can make you overlook a lot, and there were plenty of half-breed children running around to prove it. Some said that elves and goblins came from a common ancestor; a theory hotly denied by the old blood of both races.
The full moon provided more than ample light to fight by. I'm sure the goblins would try to maneuver us into the shadows of Nigel's orchard. They could try, but the only place I was going was back over the wall when this was over. Not that I couldn't see well in the dark, but goblins could see better. What looked pitch dark to an elf or human was as bright as day to a goblin, which of course meant the perfect time to cross blades with a goblin was high noon in full sun. I didn't think the goblin who broke off from the group and was moving toward me would be willing to reschedule. Pity.
They fanned out to surround us. Two of the temple guards centered their attentions on Phaelan. Apparently they saw him as more of a threat. I don't think he was flattered. The one who had chosen me for a dance partner grinned, exposing an alarmingly sharp pair of fangs. His face, framed by long, black hair, bore several scars. That told me he'd made mistakes in the past. Good. Hopefully I could help him make at least one more.
He circled off and feinted a quick, stabbing attack. He wasn't serious yet, and I didn't take the bait. They didn't intend to kill us quickly. As long as things stayed quiet, and their work uninterrupted, they would want to play first. I agreed with the silence, but I had no intention of being anyone's evening entertainment. This toy had teeth.
The goblins wore tooled leather covered with a combination of blued-steel plate and scale armor. The single serpent of the Khrynsani insignia gleamed in vivid, red enamel over the heart. The etching in the steel made the armor look delicate, but I knew better. There were a few vulnerable points, but those were next to impossible to reach without getting yourself carved up in the process. Care and patience was called for here. Unfortunately, I wasn't well known for either quality. I let my breath out slowly and willed myself to relax. Let the goblin make the first move.
The first cut came at my left side, near the ribs. It was meant to annoy and test my defenses, not inflict serious damage. I parried it with my dagger, but wasn't lured into riposting. Not yet. The goblin was just out of my range, and I would have to completely turn my back on one of the two others circling Phaelan. I didn't want to find out the hard way that goblins were willing to share.
The goblin's grin dimmed. He lunged at my legs, but at the last instant flicked the blade's point up toward my abdomen. I leapt back and managed to deflect the blade, but just barely. The goblin's grin returned. He was playing again, but I wasn't.
I attacked, something he obviously didn't expect. The temple guard retreated, but not fast enough. My rapier darted out, giving me just the reach I needed. Only the top inch of the blade penetrated, but it was enough. I struck where his armor buckled at the top of the leg near the groin. The goblin's face blanched in pain and surprise, and a low hiss escaped from between his clenched teeth. His blade slashed down. He was aiming for my sword arm, but instead took a sizeable chunk out of one of Nigel's prized rose bushes. I grabbed the falling branch in my gloved left hand, and lashed out with it. The hooked thorns raked furrows in the goblin's unprotected face, and I was treated to language you wouldn't expect he learned in the temple.
I jumped back as the goblin's blade sliced through the space I had just vacated. Pain and the sudden absence of his target threw him off balance, and I slipped the tip of my rapier under the section of armored scales connecting his chest and back plates. His forward momentum pushed the blade on through. A tug and a sharp twist of my wrist extracted my blade as the dead goblin slid to the ground.
Quentin was leaning against an apple tree, dark blond hair hanging in his eyes, his normally tanned face blanched pale. I didn't see any blood on him, which was more than I could say for his opponent. The goblin was sprawled on the grass, one of Quentin's throwing daggers protruding from his throat.
Phaelan still had one goblin to contend with, and this one was showing more caution than his dead comrade. My cousin was armed with only a dagger, his rapier sticking out of a dead goblin's chest, probably caught on a rib. I was debating tossing him one of my blades when the remaining goblin attacked, moving faster than I thought any mortal creature had a right to. Phaelan dodged the first swing, and dove for the dead goblin's saber lying in the grass. He rolled as he hit the ground, the goblin's scythelike blade whistling past where my cousin's head had been an instant before. Phaelan grabbed the saber and brought it up, slicing into the creature's unarmored hip. It wasn't a killing blow, but it bought him some time.
My opponent had been scarred before I got hold of him. Phaelan's attacker had the high cheekbones and handsome, angled features of the old blood. There were no scars, and no doubt the goblin was proud of his face. That's where Phaelan struck. The goblin parried, but it wasn't a clean deflection. Phaelan's saber sliced through the creature's exposed ear. My cousin then followed the goblin's scream with a solid knee to the nethers.
Silence was no longer anyone's priority as the goblin writhed on the ground clutching his slashed ear, among other things. Dogs began barking and whistles sounded in the distance as the watch was alerted.
I felt something crawling on the air around us. I looked toward the house.
The goblin shamans had made no move to join us in the garden. They didn't need to. I couldn't hear the words of the spell they were weaving, but I could feel what it was doing. A power was building, and we didn't want to be here when they released it. It was particularly nasty, and would reduce us to smoldering corpses, if not ashes. I had no intention of being made into mulch for Nigel's roses. There were faster spells, but from the sound of things, the shamans were going for fun over speed.
I could shield us if I had to. I felt confident in my ability to keep us from being fried, but I felt less certain about being able to damage three Khrynsani shamans. This wasn't a time for a brawl—this was a time to get the hell out of here. But their spell was reaching its conclusion, so it wasn't my decision to make.
They didn't expect to be attacked, so they hadn't wasted any power shielding themselves. Their magical britches weren't going to be any farther down than they were right now. I didn't have to break their spell, just their concentration. My nose had already told me that Nigel's gardener had been fertilizing today; my eyes discovered he'd graciously left a bucket of said fertilizer for my use and enjoyment.
I could move small objects with my mind. A bucket of manure was a small object.
I tossed the bucket—and its contents—toward the balcony. As far as defensive spells went, it wasn't powerful, it certainly wasn't pretty, but it got the job done. At the very least, the goblin shamans were distracted. At the most, they were discouraged from trying to roast us. They also looked like turning me into rose mulch was the nicest thing they wanted to do, but I wasn't going to stick around and find out for sure.
Lights came on in the windows of the houses next door, and more goblins came over the wall beyond the orchard. They wore tooled leather and blued-steel armor, and wielded blades of the same fine steel—the sort of steel and leatherwork only royal retainers could afford. More temple guards joined the shamans on the balcony. Oddly enough, the goblins from the house didn't look happy to see the goblins from the orchard. Dissent in the ranks? Opposing factions? Either way, we weren't about to stay around to welcome any newcomers.
Phaelan used his foot to brace against the dead goblin's body, freed his trapped blade, and made for the wall. Getting over the top was a lot easier the first time, but then again, survival is a powerful motivator. A narrow alley ran on the other side of the wall. Once over, I had a feeling the goblins would only pursue us so far. I knew Mermeia. And Mermeia was teeming with humans and elves who would gladly serve Khrynsani temple guards their cods on a platter.
I swung myself over the top and dropped to the ground, slipping in something I didn't have the time or inclination to identify. Quentin followed, and I took this opportunity to lay hands on him. They weren't particularly gentle hands, but then after a fight with goblins who wanted me dead for no other reason than that I knew Quentin, I wasn't in a particularly gentle mood.
Quentin gasped, trying to get his wind back. "I've got to get to Simon Stocken's."
"What did you take?"
Quentin's expression was somewhere between mere panic and basic terror, probably inspired by the goblins, not me. "What do you mean?"
I gave him a shake. "What's in the box?"
He pulled a chain out of his shirt. On its end spun a plain, silver amulet. "You mean this?"
I winced, expecting a repeat of my alley experience. But there was no pain. No urge to be sick. I also couldn't believe my eyes.
"What is it with you and necklaces!"
Phaelan dropped down beside us. He couldn't believe we were still there.
Beyond going to see Simon Stocken, I didn't know what Quentin's plans were. But if it involved another extended stay in the Daith Swamp, he was on his own. Friendship only went so far.