For a moment, nothing made sense. Then Sefu realized that he and Leyli were lying twitching and entangled on the floor. She looked sunburned in spots and patches, and bits of her robe were smoking.
His spastic, helpless shuddering subsided, and to his relief, hers did too. "Are you all right?" he croaked.
"I think so."
"Stay down." Following his own advice, still shaking a little, he looked around for Olhas. The gillman was drawing himself to his hands and knees. Behind him, the window frame was gone, and little flames danced around the splintered hole where it had been. There was a similar hole in the ceiling.
"Lightning bolt," Olhas groaned.
"I know," Sefu said. He'd seen the effects of such spells during naval combat, when mages tried to blast each another's ships to pieces.
Plainly, Domitian and his followers had somehow tracked Leyli, Olhas, and him to the tenement. Spotting his quarries through the window, the rakshasa had hurled the thunderbolt. Fortunately, since he was on the ground and the flop was on the third story, the angle was bad. The lightning hadn't hit any of its targets squarely.
"Can Domitian throw another one?" Sefu asked.
Olhas shook his head. "I don't know."
Sefu turned back to Leyli. "How many ruffians does Domitian have working for him altogether?"
"Maybe a dozen?"
"We shouldn't stay here," Olhas said. "That door won't keep anybody out for more than a moment."
"I know," Sefu said. "Give us some cover."
Olhas faced the remains of the window and rattled off a rhyme. On the final syllable, he flicked his fingers like he was flinging drops of water. Thick gray fog puffed into existence in the center of the space.
"Now, up there." Sefu pointed at the hole in the ceiling.
Olhas flashed a grin. "Right." He jumped, caught hold of the ragged edges, and hauled himself up. Sefu lifted Leyli up to his friend, then jumped and clambered through the hole himself.
At the moment, this flop was unoccupied. Good—they had enough to worry about without a terrified tenant demanding explanations.
"They'll know where we went," Leyli said.
"But they'll need a moment to think about it," Olhas replied, "and during that moment, they'll be vulnerable. Step back from the hole."
Sefu hurried to the door and pressed his ear against it. On the other side, rushing footsteps thudded on the stairs, and then something crashed. Someone had kicked in the door to the room below.
Behind Sefu, Olhas whispered. After all the battles in which they'd stood together, Sefu understood what the gillman had in mind. At the moment their foes gathered underneath the hole and peered up, he'd step up to the edge and drop an attack spell on their heads. It would work if his timing was good.
Meanwhile, Sefu drew his sword, eased open the door, and stalked down the stairs toward the third floor landing. When the screaming started, he broke into a run, bounding down the remaining risers three at a time.
He burst back into the flat he and Olhas had rented to see that Domitian hadn't ascended the stairs himself, nor had he sent every ruffian at his command. The first wave consisted of five half-orcs. One was on his knees shrieking with his hands clapped over his eyes. A second was rolling on the floor in an effort to extinguish the yellow flames leaping up from his clothing.
That left Sefu to contend with the other three. The first one was easy enough. He was still turning around when the Wave Rider dropped him with a cut to the head.
But Sefu wasn't fast enough to kill the others before they came on guard, and as they did, he recognized Red Eyes and the Runt. Maybe they'd volunteered to break into the flop because they wanted to finish what they'd started on the Avenue of the Hopeful.
"Come on, then," Sefu said, retreating toward the landing. If he made it out the door, the half-orcs would have to come at him one at a time.
But they didn't let him get that far. They bellowed and rushed him.
The deceptive, evasive footwork, alternately gliding and explosive, that was a mainstay of many a swordsman's game and had served Sefu well in the Irorium was impossible here. The flop was too cramped. Fortunately, he'd learned a less elegant but still effective style of fighting on the decks of pirate ships, squashed in among dozens of other frenzied combatants with scarcely room to shift an inch. He parried Red Eyes's head cut with his blade and, not caring if he cut himself, grabbed the Runt's scimitar just as the latter was starting his attack. He snap-kicked Red Eyes in the knee, and the larger half-orc stumbled backward.
The Runt pulled on the scimitar. Sefu had to let go, otherwise the edge would have sliced his fingers to the bone or severed them entirely. But he cut while the ruffian was still yanking his weapon backward. The broadsword sheared into the Runt's chest. The half-orc's knees buckled, and he collapsed.
By then, Red Eyes was limping forward again. Sefu met him with a feint to the flank that drew a sweeping parry, then slashed his throat. The half-orc fell backward.
That should have been the end of it. But amazingly, the ruffian who'd been rolling on the floor had succeeded in putting himself out, and he was still game. He rushed Sefu with an axe raised high. Sefu half-severed the half-orc's weapon hand with a stop cut to the wrist, then braced himself to keep his foe from knocking him over when they slammed together. He succeeded in bulling the tough backward instead, and dropped him with a cut to the flank.
Making sure they were all really dead or incapacitated, Sefu took another look at the half-orcs. Then, blood dripping from his off hand, he strode back out onto the landing. Nobody else was coming up the stairs, not yet, but after a moment, Olhas and Leyli hurried down.
"Your hand!" his sister said.
"It's nothing." Sefu looked at Olhas. "That was a good start. But there are still only two doors in or out of this building, and you know Domitian's watching them both."
"So what do you think?" Olhas asked.
"Take the fight to them. Before they realize the lightning bolt didn't do any serious harm to either one of us, and that we killed the first troupe of clowns they sent in after us."
Sefu grinned. "We're still outnumbered and have no idea what other tricks the rakshasa can play. But those petty quibbles aside, I like it."
"Let's go, then."
"Wait." Leyli scurried into the flop and returned with a dirk, no doubt pilfered from one of the fallen half-orcs. "I know I don't know how to fight," she said, "but just in case I have to."
"Just try to stay away from them," Sefu said. He led his companions down the stairs.
He half expected more foes to intercept them before they reached the ground floor, but nobody did. "Front door or back?" he asked.
"They may be expecting the back," Olhas said, sliding a scroll from his sleeve.
"The front it is, then. Start reading, and I'll yank it open."
When he did, no one was in view. But when Olhas recited the final syllable of the trigger phrase, the two half-orcs who'd been pressed against the exterior wall to ambush whoever stepped through both flopped to the ground, overtaken by magical slumber. Sefu stabbed one of them in the chest as he rushed outside.
A voice bellowed, "They're here!" The call almost covered the clack of a crossbow, but not quite. Sefu threw himself to the ground, and the quarrel whizzed over his head.
He cast about, spotted the half-orc who'd shot at him, scrambled up, and charged. Realizing he couldn't cock and reload in time, the ruffian drew his sword. Sefu beat it out of line and cut to the chest. The half-orc dropped.
Sefu looked for the tough who'd shouted, and found him just as Olhas's darts of green light plunged into his torso. The half-orc fell, and he was the last foe in sight. Sefu wondered if he and his companions might actually be able to get away without any more fighting, and then, summoned by their comrade's cries, more enforcers ran around the corner of the building.
Sefu saw with a pang of dismay that there were at least half a dozen. Leyli's estimate had been low.
Despite the magic he'd already expended, Olhas proved to have enough left for at least one more potent attack. A red spark flew past Sefu into the midst of the half-orcs. There it boomed into a burst of flame that tore one of the men apart and flung two more through the air with their forms ablaze.
The rest faltered, and unwilling to let them recover their nerve, Sefu went for them. As he moved, he felt a sort of tingling rawness in the air around him, and caught a smell like the advent of a storm.
He leaped to the side. Another lightning bolt blazed past him while he was still in the air. Standing with his arm outstretched at the thunderbolt's point of origin, Domitian popped into view, the charm of invisibility that had hidden him until this moment dissipating with the force of his attack.
Sefu slammed down onto the ground. Hot pain burned his skin, and his muscles jumped and clenched. Refusing to let that stop him, he floundered to his feet.
"Get Domitian!" Olhas called. "I'll handle the others!" He chanted words of power at the top of his lungs, drawing the half-orcs' attention, making sure they understood he was about to cast a spell.
Sefu lunged for the rakshasa.
He half expected Domitian to throw a third lightning bolt, but perhaps that magic needed a moment to renew itself, or maybe the rakshasa had simply lost faith in his ability to kill this particular foe with magic. For instead, he lifted his scimitar into a high guard and dropped his mask of humanity.
With its bared fangs and four glaring, slit-pupiled eyes, Domitian's true form was even more hideous than Sefu had imagined. But if the rakshasa expected the sight of it to make him falter, he was doomed to disappointment. It only made Sefu angrier.
He sensed Domitian's mind trying to pierce and twist his own, but that didn't work either, not anymore. It never had, really, and now it was just an annoyance, like a buzzing fly.
Sefu plunged across the distance and cut at the cat head on the left. The broadsword rang and rebounded from an invisible shield. Domitian's curved blade whirled at the Wave Rider's midsection. Still in the lunge, Sefu parried, then cut at the rakshasa's groin. Again, an unseen something interposed itself between the sword and its target.
Sefu gave a snarling cry, more expressive of determination than frustration. He recognized this magic as something Olhas sometimes used. And so Sefu understood that the conjured defense wasn't impregnable. It could be penetrated just like the guard of a common warrior.
Recovering forward, he feinted high, then low, then slashed at the cat face on the right. This time, the shield failed to jump in the way.
Unfortunately, it didn't have to. A stroke with all Sefu's strength behind it, a blow that should have sheared through bone to cleave the brain inside, merely sliced a shallow gash on Domitian's low, broad brow and skipped aside.
Domitian riposted with a chest cut. Sefu just managed to parry, then slashed at the rakshasa's extended sword arm. The broadsword tore the creature's sleeve but glanced off the skin beneath without leaving any mark at all.
Domitian laughed, his mirth ghastly in the high, inhuman voices of the cat heads. Then, perhaps deciding that he'd now taken Sefu's measure, he came on the offensive.
Though competent, Domitian wasn't as able a swordsman as his foe. But with his invisible floating shield and his innate resistance to harm, he didn't need to be. Screeching and spitting, contemptuous of anything Sefu did to try to stop him, he attacked relentlessly.
Sefu had to retreat one step, then two, then another, while rage burned hotter and hotter inside him. He would not let this loathsome creature win. But he also had no idea how to prevent it.
The scimitar flashed at his lower leg. Sefu jumped back, but a hair too slowly. He felt a sort of thump and fell on his side.
Domitian yowled and raised his blade to deliver the killing stroke—and went rigid instead. As Sefu scrambled to his knees and jerked his sword into some semblance of a guard, he saw Leyli behind the rakshasa, and the hilt of her dirk protruding from the creature's shoulder. Though it had by no means delivered a deathblow, the knife had penetrated the thing's hide.
Sefu's mind raced. Sailors' tales were full of mythical monsters that could only be killed in certain ways, or by specific types of weapons. Despite his own strength and a career soldier's barrage of pricey charms, his broadsword had done nothing—yet Leyli's dirk had bit through.
Well, if the edge of his blade couldn't slay a rakshasa, maybe the point could do the job.
Domitian whirled toward Leyli. She was too close for him to use the scimitar, so he raked at her throat with the talons of his off hand. She flung herself backward. The claws missed with barely an inch to spare.
"Get away!" Sefu gasped. "I can take him!" He heaved himself to his feet.
He discovered at once that his wounded leg didn't want to bear its fair share of his weight. He was going to limp.
He was also going to be using his heavy blade in a manner for which it was ill designed. A broadsword was a cutting weapon. Many warriors never used the point at all, except to administer the mercy stroke to a fallen, helpless foe.
But to hell with all of that. He now knew how to kill his adversary, and that was the only thing that mattered.
Trying to look like he could barely stand, Sefu exaggerated his hobble. Domitian took the bait and cut. Sefu parried; the blades clanged together, and the jolt shivered up his arm. He feinted low, then extended and exploded into a lunge.
The tip of the broadsword pierced Domitian's chest, at the spot where a human carried his heart—and, if the gods were kind, a rakshasa did, too. Then something clipped the underside of the blade; it was the rim of the invisible shield, which was jerking upward in an effort to knock the sword away. Pain stabbed up Sefu's lead leg—the wounded one—as his foot came down on the ground, and he toppled sideways.
But neither Domitian's attempt at defense nor the loss of balance mattered, because the broadsword drove deep. Once Sefu finished falling and lifted his head to look, he saw the rakshasa sprawled motionless with the blade sticking up out of him and swaying slightly from side to side.
That meant it was safe to look around the rest of the battlefield. Just visible in the dark, a half-orc was running away down an alley. The other ruffians lay dead or incapacitated with Olhas standing in the center of them. Sorcery alone hadn't been enough by the end. The gillman held his own bloody sword in his hand.
"Are you all right?" Olhas called.
Sefu inspected his leg and clamped a hand over the gash. Leyli came scurrying to help him, tearing a bandage from her robe. "I need a healer," he gritted, feeling the gnawing pain in a way he hadn't before, "but I'll live. What about you?"
"Fine." The gillman grinned. "No thanks to you. You did notice that there at the end, I was heroically fighting twenty foes while you diddled around with one."
Sefu snorted. "'Twenty?' I suspect it'll be a hundred, the next time you tell the tale. Why don't you make yourself really useful and go hire a litter? Or at least borrow a wheelbarrow."
"A wheelbarrow?" Olhas laughed. "Who do you think you are, the Primarch?" Positioning himself beneath one of Sefu's shoulders, he directed Leyli to take the other, and together they lifted Sefu until he was standing precariously on his good leg.
"Come on, soldier," Olhas said, "let's get out of here before anyone starts asking questions."
Together, the three of them limped down the road, and off into the night.
Coming Next Week: A long-awaited sample chapter from Winter Witch.
Richard Lee Byers is the author of more than thirty novels, including the first book in R. A. Salvatore's War of the Spider Queen, and the co-creator of the critically acclaimed Young Adult series The Nightmare Club. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. For more information, visit his website.
Art by Colby Stevenson