Humming anxiously under his breath, Tarrant watched as the last cart of treasure arrived from the docks as the sun set. This time was always torture and ecstasy for him: he could hardly stand the waiting, and yet he could not help his excitement for the game to come. Tarrant shadowed the cart from the docks to Hawkthorne Tower, then slipped around the back.
It was time to begin.
With all the activity around the front gate, where the Blackscale Blades were delivering the great treasure, the servants' entrance stood only lightly guarded. Two armored men flanked the back door, one of whom wore the key around his neck as a badge of office. Tarrant was familiar with Lord Doreset's favored mercenary company and knew their procedures.
Tarrant swaggered out of the alley. A thick brown cloak dipped in low-class swill covered his identity. As he approached, Tarrant sang a dwarven song in a low-pitched, slurred voice, crafting bubbles that floated through the air toward the man with the key.
"Shove off, you!" shouted the other guard. "Go be drunk on your own—Drohn?"
The guard's partner smiled like a child and plucked at the bubbles of song that floated around him. When he saw Tarrant, his smile widened, and he stared.
"Magic!" hissed the first guard. He reached for his sword, but a different spell caught him before he could draw. He blinked, swayed on his feet, and looked confused. He pointed his sword at Tarrant half-heartedly.
Gislai appeared. "Your need for attention is your least likeable characteristic."
"I make up for it in other ways," Tarrant sang, and resumed his song with a chorus to keep the beguiled guard interested.
The priestess rolled her eyes and chanted a second spell. Her half-orc visage wavered and changed into that of Captain Nemerath, an authoritative human Blackscale captain of Tarrant's acquaintance and occasional liaison. The guard captain's armor—unfastened slightly for appearances—made a perfect disguise for Gislai. "You seem troubled, soldier. What's your name?"
The guard looked relieved to see her. "I'm Rholf, captain."
"A good strong Ulfen name," she said. "Named for your father, were you?"
He nodded, then turned his attention back to Tarrant. "This one... is he yours?"
Tarrant recognized Gislai's little mischievous smile all too well—she was considering betraying him. He kept singing, and Drohn sat down so that he could listen better.
Finally, Gislai nodded. "He is a friend. We've come to check the locks on the gate."
"Locks." Rholf looked at the strong iron lock on the door. "Drohn has the key, but—" His expression grew suspicious. "But I can't just give—"
"Oh, we don't need the key," Gislai said. "That wouldn't be much of a test, would it? My associate is suitably skilled. He'll test the lock."
Eram Many-Fingers appeared from the shadows, his eyes darting back and forth nervously. He stepped up to the gate and slipped his lockpicks out of his belt. Meanwhile, Gislai took Rholf aside. Every one of her words, smiles, and seemingly unintentionally touches strengthened the spell. It really was a wonder to watch such a natural con artist at work.
With Rholf suitably distracted, Tarrant nodded—the signal for Eram to make his move. He didn't even touch his picks to the door, which would have triggered the warding magic anyway. Instead, he crept up on the distracted Drohn and took his chain of office—along with the key—right off his neck.
Tarrant wove a new thread of the song, suggesting Drohn shuffle off to the nearest alehouse. When Drohn had wandered out of sight, Tarrant let the song trail away. "Gislai."
The half-orc cast him an annoyed look, then shared a few more words with Rholf. The guard nodded and left. "He'll go back to guarding the gate—once he finds Drohn, wherever the man got off to."
Tarrant nodded. "Your spell is very effective."
"Aye, for one guard. And now it's expended. What happens when we face a group?"
"No worries," Tarrant said, patting the satchel at his hip. "I've a plan for that, too."
At his signal, Arlif and Ephere emerged from the alley, both clad in thick cloaks. They crossed to the door and entered. The elf gave Tarrant a brief nod that made him smile.
"That, right there?" Gislai pointed to the elf. "That's dangerous."
"Whence this dislike for our companion, 'captain'?" Tarrant shed his filthy cloak to reveal a Blackscale's trademark mail beneath. He sang a brief song of disguise and took the shape of Rholf. "Is not your Calistria an elven goddess?"
"That just means I know how treacherous elves are," Gislai countered.
"As I said."
They stepped through the door into the inner guardroom and found the others in a tense standoff with three more Blackscales—two humans and a dwarf. Axe in hand, Arlif stood between them and Ephere. Eram was nowhere to be seen, the coward. Blades slid from sheathes.
The Liespinner hadn't earned his name by hesitating. "Down arms! A thousand apologies, my lady ambassador!"
The Blackscales looked confused. "Ambassador?" the dwarf rumbled.
On cue, Ephere threw back her cloak, revealing a gorgeous gown of green silk, lined with silver stitching. Tarrant had acquired this dress in one of Absalom's most fashionable boutiques.
"Ambassador Saleae Epheldera of Kyonin," Tarrant said. "Here to inspect the ancient elven treasures recovered during the recent expedition."
The dwarf, presumably the commanding officer, shook his head. "We were not informed."
"Yes, well, the honorable Viridian Crown has heard of our recent exploits, and..."
"I am an expert on the artifacts of Kyonin." Ephere held up her ensorcelled gauntlets, which crackled with magical power. "My kinswoman, Queen Telandia, knows of this dragon you slew—an old beast with an even older hoard. She will pay handsomely for relics that predate our people's return from Sovyrian. But this—" Ephere drew up to her full height. "This is not how I am accustomed to being treated. First drunken guards, and now insolence? This is an insult to me and to the queen."
Confronted with an offended noble promising a reward, the Blackscales quickly put their blades away and offered apologies. Ephere's natural affinity for deception touched Tarrant's villainous heart.
"Someone under my command mucked this up," Gislai said. "I'll bet it's that damned Drohn—always drinking on the job. Where's your good-for-nothing partner, Rholf?"
"Apologies, Captain," Tarrant said to her. "It won't happen again."
"See that it doesn't." Gislai looked to the Blackscales. "Stand easy, gentlemen. You're not at fault here."
At first, it seemed the guards might press for more answers, but ultimately they relaxed. At a nod from Gislai, they sat back down to a half-finished hand of Towers.
Tarrant and his party pressed through the cloakroom and closed the doors behind them. It disappointed him that the guards hadn't asked why such a noble visitor would enter through the servants' door. He'd had a lie all prepared for that—"a matter of diplomatic delicacy." Shame, but an unused lie was an unspent arrow.
Perhaps, he thought, they didn't care. Perhaps they recognize a robbery in progress and had just given Tarrant their tacit approval to take Lord Doreset for all he was worth. He liked to think they had.
Eram appeared from around the corner, rubbing his hands together and glancing back at the site of the near-disaster. "Finally, you return," Tarrant said. "No troubles?"
"None," the halfling murmured.
"Are you well?" Gislai asked, narrowing her eyes in suspicion. "You seem even more twitchy than usual."
"No, not at all!" the halfling protested. "I'm fine! Just fine!"
"If I didn't know better, I'd think you were planning something."
"Only the plan!" Eram said. "Promise!"
"I'm sure it's fine." Tarrant turned to the others. "That was exciting, wasn't it?" He touched Ephere's arm. "You did well."
The elf nodded. Behind her, Gislai groaned.
"You noted them well, I hope?" Tarrant slipped vials of blue potion to Arlif and Eram. "In case anything else goes wrong."
"What is this?" Eram asked. "Escape in a bottle?"
"Something of the sort," Tarrant said. "Let's move on, shall we?"
They stepped past the entry chamber into a larger hall where the walls pulsed with warding magic. Torches burst into life at their approach, revealing a solid vault door at the end of the hall. Tarrant felt the oppressive warding magic all around him, like an invisible wall of water. "Beyond here, anything we bring from the vault will no doubt trigger—"
Eram took a step deeper into the hall, and the wards whined to angry life. Two hulking iron statues shivered, pulled away from the walls, and pointed massive swords at them.
"—Guardians." Tarrant took Drohn's chain of office from Eram and presented it to the guardians. "Hold!"
The golems stepped closer, oblivious to his command.
"Stop?" Tarrant tried. "Desist?"
The golems raised their swords, and the would-be thieves reached for their weapons. Ephere's arms lit with fire and lightning. Eram slipped two daggers into his hands and Arlif unbuckled his greataxe. Tarrant wondered if his music would touch such creatures. He doubted it.
Then Gislai—still in disguise as Captain Nemerath—stepped forward, seized the chain from Tarrant, and raised it to the golems. "Zarahtas!" she declaimed.
Instantly, the guardians lowered their swords and returned to their places.
"Good thing I bothered to get the passphrase from Rholf," she said as they crossed through the hall. "For security, one guard had the chain, one had the code. Apparently, Doreset had the golems changed after he had you thrown in prison."
"Outstanding." Tarrant strode past the resting golems and sized up the doors. "You know, these doors were specially built in Nex with the finest magic coin can purchase. They have no ward that needs to be renewed daily, but rather several persistent enchantments imbedded in the doors themselves. It would take several wizards multiple castings to suppress them, and by that point, the alarm spells would sound. Damned impressive, not to mention expensive." Tarrant beckoned to Eram. "Rod please."
"What?" the halfling said.
"Why do you think I asked you about the job in Cassomir? I know you're carrying the rod, so just give it here."
The halfling grumbled, but sure enough, reached into his haversack. His arm extended all the way into one of the small pockets, and he pulled out a foot-long silvery rod. "Be welcome to the cursed thing anyway."
"I sense a story there, no?" Gislai said.
Eram shook his head frantically.
Tarrant took the rod, which hummed slightly in his hand, and held it in front of the door. "Arlif, Eram, this is as far as you go—Gislai, you too."
"That wasn't the plan!" the half-orc protested. "I'm certainly not leaving you with her."
Ephere seemed unconcerned.
"As long as she's at your side," Gislai said, "I'm at the other."
"I never object to working between two lovely ladies." Tarrant smiled. "I'll have that potion back, then. It's important you not have it."
Gislai looked perplexed, but ultimately she rolled her eyes and handed the vial back.
"Outstanding." He tucked it into his tunic. "Arlif, Eram—time to part ways."
The big Ulfen warrior turned and made his way back across the golem-guarded hall, and Eram—after a longing look at the vault door—joined him. Gislai stood her ground stubbornly.
"I didn't realize you cared," Tarrant said. "I'm touched."
"Touched in the head, if you think I'm letting you in there alone," she said. "What's to keep you from taking your fill of gold and leaving nothing for us?"
"Prudent." Tarrant tapped the rod against the door, setting off a series of pops and crackles as its antimagic cancelled out the door's many enchantments. The magic left its mechanical locks in place, however.
He began a song the elves of Kyonin used to welcome ships from distant lands, which his mother had first heard from traveling musicians. It had always been one of his favorite ballads as a boy, and now as a man, it provided focus to his magic. Soft green light swirled around him. At the climax of the spell, he reached out and knocked once on the massive vault door.
He cast the spell and knocked again, but still, the doors remained sealed.
"How terribly embarrassing."
Tarrant began the song a third time, but Ephere laid her hand on his arm. From beneath the folds of her gown, she drew a hollow mithral tube about twice the length of her slender hand.
"Is that what I think it is?" Gislai asked. "Well isn't that convenient. And suspicious."
"Nonsense! Thank you, Ephere." Tarrant handed her his rapier. "Have a care with this."
Ephere tapped the rapier's pommel against the tube, which resonated with a deep, clear tone. The locks on the now mundane door clicked, and the vault opened to them, shedding golden light that bathed their skin.
Gislai sucked in a sharp breath.
"Outstanding," Tarrant said.
The sheer size of the hoard stunned them to silence. A kingdom's ransom in coins and jewels overflowed from open chests. Cut gems the size of a clenched fist lay carefully arranged atop bolts of fine silk and damask. Ancient swords and shields adorned marble statues inlaid with silver and jewels. The most impressive piece was, by far, a statue of a dragon, wrought of pure gold and studded with rubies the length of its tail.
"To work." Tarrant pulled a red silk bag from his tunic, into which he began shoveling treasure. However much they put in, the bag never seemed to swell.
"Avoid the relics—tricky to fence," Gislai said. "Hard coin and jewels spend better."
"Good thing Eram stayed away," Tarrant said. "He'd likely die of a burst head."
"I might do so myself." Gislai held up a platinum tiara. "Look at this! A lass could get used to—"
Then a keening wail filled the room, roaring out into the tower: an alarm spell. Tarrant turned to see Ephere pointing her war gauntlets at them. He reached for his sword, only to remember that the elf had taken it at the door. He winced.
"Don't move," she said. "Lady Altara will be here soon."
"I told you not to trust her," Gislai murmured.
"That's really comforting," Tarrant said. "Why, dear lady? Have I offended you? Why would you side with those poorly appointed Hellknights over us?"
Ephere reached down and pulled her bodice open just enough to reveal a long-faded scar, like a brand. There, she traced the forefinger of her right hand across her flesh, lighting a burning star to mark herself. That was why she'd been keen to hide her skin earlier, and why that spot on her chest had felt hot under his touch. It was a symbol Tarrant recognized all too well.
"Hail Asmodeus." She pressed her lightning gauntlet to Tarrant's head and shocked him into darkness.
Coming Next Week: The final chapter of Erik Scott de Bie's "Proper Villains."
Erik Scott de Bie is the author of several Forgotten Realms novels, most recently Shadowbane: Eye of Justice. In addition, he's published numerous short stories for a variety of anthologies and collections. For more information, visit erikscottdebie.com.
Illustration by Carlos Villa