The point-blank stream of bullets took the front of the High Shieldmarshal's head off as it drove him back, a loose-limbed, dancing dead puppet, until Gelgur plucked him out of the line of fire.
And stared over the limp, heavy body at Ralice, who was biting one knuckle hard to keep from screaming.
There was another, lower klack as the last firing triggered the clockwork that started the next battery of gun-barrels, and the gunfire started to pan sideways.
Gelgur flung himself over on his back with Kordroun's body on top of him, but before they'd bounced to a halt, the next battery had kicked in and the hail of balls were tracking back in the other direction. Ralice flung herself away, kissing the floor in her haste.
Then the firing ended, so abruptly that its echoes rang in their ears. They could smell scorched gunpowder, but see nothing beyond the dark doorway.
The dim light they were working in came from far behind them; a fixed gas-jet that was high up, out of reach.
It shed just enough radiance for Gelgur to make out the fear on Ralice's face, and that she was silently mouthing, "What now?"
He pointed at her and back the way they'd come, then slid free of Kordroun and pantomimed crawling.
When she nodded and obeyed, he tore a strip off the tail of Kordroun's jerkin, and crawled after her.
Twice he held up a hand to halt and listen, but there came no sounds from the doorway or the cellars they'd come through.
Gelgur wanted Ralice to climb on his shoulders and light the jerkin-scrap in the gas jet, but she gave him a disgusted look and ordered, "You climb on mine, old man."
He shrugged and obeyed, coming down with a flame that would light their way for not all that long, by the looks of it.
They split as far apart as the passage would allow, and went back to the door. Gelgur tugged off one of Kordroun's boots, dropped the flaming scrap into it, and tossed it through the doorway.
A portable frame had been set up inside the door, and on it were mounted half a dozen trap guns, clockwork rows and clusters of gun-barrels connected to tripwires; the sort of weapons that guarded the most important Gunworks vaults.
The tripwires were running everywhere. One battery pointed limply at the ground, and was spewing faint curls of smoke—obviously the one that had killed the High Shieldmarshal. Most of the rest were still loaded.
Gelgur picked up the heavy, faceless mess that was Kordroun. Hefting the larger man up in front of him as a shield, he staggered forward, right through the doorway.
Soon enough a second battery started up, and he flung himself at the floor, not caring where Kordroun's body fell, reaching up with his knife to try to jam the clockwork or force the barrels upward.
He managed the latter, murdering the ceiling loudly as he fought to sever the triggers leading to the last two batteries.
After some furious sawing of wires, succeeded.
His improvised lamp had gone out, and he went on working by feel, wresting barrels from mounts and shaking out balls and wadding, scooping some of them into his pockets.
Then he kicked the frame over and flung himself back out of the doorway, in case the frame itself was trapped.
Ralice was peering at him suspiciously. "We'll need another light; more cloth for the gas-jet. Get him back out of there—and I'll be having his gun."
Gelgur obeyed her wordlessly, handing her Kordroun's revolver and powder-pouch before looking for anything else useful.
The sword, of course, and the marshal's cloak—Ralice shuddered at its gory state, but Gelgur wadded it up for carrying—then Kordroun's coin-purse, a nasty little boot-knife and a matching saw, and a second, smaller gun—a single-shot flintlock.
"Here," he said to Ralice, holding it out. "Lighter. Easier for you than the revolver."
Her look of dismissal was withering.
She was still giving it to him, with enthusiasm, when they heard the first faint marshals' shouts, from the cellars they'd come through.
Wordlessly they rose and rushed through the dark doorway, past the trap-gun frame and on.
∗ ∗ ∗
It seemed they'd been fleeing forever, rushing through near-darkness, up stairs and through doors and across darkened rooms. The heart of the Gunworks never slept, but its extensive storage warrens were another matter.
They were stumbling-tired now, and the shouts and bobbing lanterns were getting closer.
As they plunged into a new passage, Gelgur changed direction again, and Ralice hissed, "Where are you going?"
"Trust me," he breathed, plucking at her shoulder and whirling her through a doorway right beside the one they'd just emerged from. " I know these ways well from years of patrols. I'm doubling back into the Works, to try to throw them off. They think we're trying to get out, and are heading for the routes we'll have to take, yes?"
"Yes," Ralice hissed wearily. "I just hope you know your way bet—"
Gelgur's hand clapped across her mouth, hard and heavy.
Enraged, she opened wide to bite—and froze.
"The two we're looking for," said a deep, drawling voice that couldn't have been much more than six paces away, on the far side of a wall of stacked crates, "are Bors Gelgur, an old drunk and retired shieldmarshal who may still have his uniform, and a kitchen wench by the name of Ralice Morkantul, who looks more like a big, burly lad. Gelgur knows the Works well, and is probably trying to get out the wagon-port nearest the Oldcogs and Tankard tavern. I've men waiting there already, but if we can catch the two of them between us and those doorguards, we can prevent them doubling back, and save having to hunt them the length of the Gunworks. So through here, and all eyes alert!"
A door creaked, and booted feet shuffled. Gelgur and Ralice waited, immobile and silent, for what seemed a very long time before Bors took his hand away.
"Sorry," he whispered gruffly. "You recognize the voice?"
Ralice shook her head.
"Trademaster Daerold Loroan."
Ralice frowned. "He's not a marshal, and never has been."
"Yet the marshals are obeying him," Gelgur said grimly. "This runs as deep as we feared. Come."
Without a word of protest, Ralice followed him into deeper darkness.
∗ ∗ ∗
"Where are we now?"
"Where they keep acid to etch inscriptions in gun barrels. The damage the spills do are why this is deeper than the storage cellars."
Ralice waved at the many large, round lids set into the floor. "Is that what these...?"
Gelgur nodded, and pointed. "That mark means acid—larger is stronger—and that one is acid-quench, to turn acid into harmless but reeking water. Avoid them all. We have to get—"
He waved at a far, dark corner of the room.
Out of which promptly stepped a man. Their guns came up—and wavered.
The man gave them a tight, pain-filled smile as he came toward them, hands empty. High Shieldmarshal Ansel Kordroun.
Battered but whole again, as if they'd never seen him killed in front of their eyes, his face blown off. So unless all they'd ever been told was wrong, and magic did work in Alkenstar, this must be a shapeshifter.
Unless the Kordroun who'd brought them together and led them through the Gunworks had been an imposter.
"Gelgur," Ralice said quietly, her gun—the revolver that had been Kordroun's—coming up again, "this can't be Kordroun."
Gelgur stared into eyes that were Kordroun's, yet couldn't be, and remembered seeing Kordroun firing at him in the alley and then another Kordroun joining him just after that. He tried to remember what he'd heard about shapeshifters—creatures called doppelgangers, yes. One had once been unmasked in the Duchy, long before his time...
Kordroun was striding steadily nearer. Dropping the little gun he'd scavenged from Kordroun's body into a pocket, Gelgur went to meet him, stepping into Ralice's line of fire.
"Ansel, old friend," he said firmly, putting a smile on his face as he slid his other hand into his other, already bulging pocket. They'd never been friends, old or otherwise.
The high shieldmarshal's smile widened, and he nodded.
"Oh, it's really him, all right," Gelgur said over his shoulder, to Ralice.
"What?" she exclaimed. "Gelgur, are you mad?"
"No," he replied calmly. "Not mad. Just close enough."
And he was. To fling a handful of balls from the clockwork trap-gun batteries into the shapeshifter's face, and a second handful under its feet.
It fell hard, and Gelgur game down on top of it, knife out and slicing hard.
Across the throat, and back again, deeper, blood that was the wrong hue spurting, sawing hard, beheading the thing.
Kordroun's mouth yawned in pain, stretching impossibly wide, as the head rolled away. It was going pale, the hair melting back into the whitening flesh. The rest of the body convulsed under Gelgur, limbs going long and thin and white.
Ralice fired twice into the rolling head, her face twisted in disgust. Gelgur calmly slid a vat lid aside with one foot, and kicked the shapeshifter's body into the acid. When Ralice lowered her gun, he added its head, too.
Sliding the lid back into place, he took the gunhunter by the arm—she was as pale as the doppelganger, her eyes wild—and led her away.
∗ ∗ ∗
The badge Bors had stolen from the real Ansel Kordroun got them past the gate guards, out through the wall and into the wildlands.
It was a cold, windy night, brightly moonlit when dark and ragged clouds weren't in the way, and Ralice peered this way and that, eyes still wide.
Gelgur led her around a hill, out of sight of the guards. "What ails you?"
Ralice gave him an angry glance. "I've never set foot outside the Gunworks before. Where are you taking us?"
"Out into the Mana Wastes," Geglur told her. "It's that or be killed, with Loroan hunting us, and Irori alone knows who all else in it with him. Blasts and bombards, the Ironmaster herself could be in this!"
"Kordroun briefed me," Ralice said slowly, something strange rising into her gaze. "He told me you and the Ironmaster were once..."
"Lovers, yes," Gelgur growled. "I didn't always look this bad, lass."
"Sorry, lass: Ralice. That was a long time ago. So I hear I'm owed an old debt by the Morkantuls, and have accepted as payment a medicine to cure a mysterious ailment that has hold of me—a medicine you, la—Ralice, can make me, if you can get certain herbs out in the Wastes. Which is why you've been granted leave from your kitchen duties to depart the Gunworks, and Alkenstar altogether."
Ralice gave him a wry grin. "I believe I know that tale." Her grin faded. "So I walk right out into where monsters roam and magic rages."
"Yes," Gelgur said simply. "I believe it's called 'adventure.' As opposed to staying here, which would be called 'a swift and messy death.'"
Ralice nodded, slowly, and extended a reluctant hand. "Then let us have a promises. Hear me: I will not be your bedmate."
"And I'll not do the cooking, until you teach me how not to poison us both."
The grin came back. "Done."
They shook hands, and walked on, into the night.
Gelgur knew better than to walk the Wastes without looking back often—but neither he nor Ralice ever caught sight of the lone figure skulking after them.
Which was probably a good thing. It would have been tiresome to have to kill Ansel Kordroun twice in one night.
Coming Next Week: A special sneak preview of the upcoming Pathfinder Tales novel Plague of Shadows, by Howard Andrew Jones.
As the creator of the Forgotten Realms, Ed Greenwood is one of the most famous RPG designers of all time. In addition to his game work, with such notable setting products as the Volo's Guides, Forgotten Realms Campaign Set, and City of Splendors, he's also written more than twenty Forgotten Realms novels (many dealing with his signature character, Elminster) and ten independent novels, the most recent of which is Falconfar.
Art by Colby Stevenson.