Darvus reached out to bat the rifle bore away and had his palm blown through for his trouble. He screamed at the spurt of blood.
She dropped the rifle even as her other hand closed on the butt of her pistol. All evening she'd debated how to play this out once she had the Andorens and her quarry in the same place. "Surrender or die, Chelaxians!" she cried.
As hoped, the words gave her startled and horrified allies pause. Perhaps it would also convince Dronsbech that the little force was united.
Dronsbech lashed out with his cane, discharging a blast of lightning that sent Lisette flying toward the window. She crumpled beside a mystified Karag, her gun tumbling toward the corner.
Vech shouted something about halting in the name of Andoran as she threw herself to her feet, ignoring the tingling in her extremities.
Lisette pulled at the second pistol even as Karag swiped at the nobleman with his axe. At least the dwarf didn't doubt her. Dronsbech dodged, and Darvus the supposed servant extended his crippled hand, fingers flicking in an arcane gesture. Lisette wasn't sure about the nature of the spell, but it set the poor dwarf twisting with a grimace. Dronsbech himself dropped behind Darvus, so Lisette shot the sorcerer. This time the bullet caught him in the chest, and he stayed down.
Vech again shouted for everyone to put down their weapons. Lisette was running out of time. If Dronsbech kept his cool, he could talk his way free, and she'd be hard pressed to escape a hanging.
He didn't, though. As the aristocrat shot to his feet, his features rippled like flowing water, his form broadening. In place of the kneeling nobleman sat a powerful hellspawn with red-gold skin and immense forward-pointing horns. His lower half was virtually identical to his assumed shape, yet his upper body was so layered in muscle that he had burst the seams of his shirt and coat. The hair that crowned his high forehead now seemed more like a furred spearhead.
She ripped her sword free of its sheath.
The young guard, Culcumber, extended a shaking sword toward the Chelaxian; Dronsbech batted him into the book case with a contemptuous laugh, then lashed out again with the cane, now resembling a tiny stick in his oversized hand. Another lightning blast hurled the charging Vech over the back of the desk.
Lisette's eyes flicked to her pistol, which had slid to the corner beside the window. Karag still lay on the floor, Kerrigan's rifle strapped to his back. There'd be no help from that quarter. Culcumber and Vech were both down and groaning.
Dronsbech—or, as she knew him, Kryllic—spoke in a low, dangerous rumble as he stalked toward her, teeth bared in a jaw open impossibly far. "How did you find me?"
"I followed the stench." She drew her sword, backing toward the pistol. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the dwarf shaking his tousled mane of hair. She needed to buy time. "There's more after me, you know. I told the whole guard force."
"You can't tell, can you? Go ahead—try to read my mind. Darvus couldn't, either."
"You've ruined years of work." Kryllic raised the cane, then turned his head at the sound of a noise behind him.
The dwarf had leveled the rifle. His shot burned past Kryllic's face and shattered the window. Lisette threw herself at the pistol, rolled to her knee, and fired.
Kryllic, stomping toward the dwarf, cried out in agony as the bullet, both holy and silver, took him in the back of the skull. He weaved drunkenly, then suddenly found himself impaled on the end of Culcumber's sword tip.
With that, he dropped, bleeding all over his lovely carpet. Culcumber, face stricken, stabbed his motionless body again and again.
"I think he's dead," Lisette pointed out.
Panting, the boy relented, his eyes round as saucers.
From outside she could hear screams, but all the footsteps sounded as though they were running away.
"Sorry I missed," Karag said.
Lisette shrugged. "You did fine."
Vech climbed to his feet from behind the desk, adjusted his uniform coat. His lips twitched in fury, setting his mustaches wobbling. "Would you mind telling me what just happened? What about your bowman?"
She frowned at the mention of her adversary, but kept her temper under control as she ticked off the salient points. "I misled you about the bowman so Kyrllic and Darvus wouldn't read your minds and be alarmed."
"You lied to us?" the lieutenant rumbled.
"I just killed two agents of Cheliax," Lisette said calmly. She had begun, almost without thinking, to clean and prime her pistol. "You should be thanking me."
"Wait," Karag said. "You planned all this?"
"I improvised some of it," Lisette admitted.
"So all that about the bowman," Culcumber prompted. "That was a lie too?"
"No," she said tightly. "The bowman is after him."
"So there's no bounty on the bowman?" the dwarf asked angrily.
"There's a bigger bounty on Dronsbech. You'll be snagging four hundred sails for him, Karag. Maybe I'll throw in ten for the boy, too, since he delivered the death thrust. Several times."
Culcumber was still too glassy-eyed to respond to the jibe.
"I still don't follow all of this," Vech said. "If Dronsbech—"
"Kryllic," Lisette corrected.
"Whatever his name was," Vech said testily, "could read minds, why couldn't he read yours?"
"I planned ahead and brought a charm to protect me. But he or Darvus could have read your mind like a book. Darvus tried to do it when you came in earlier. Didn't you notice the way he was looking at all of you? They were cautious, but not suspicious, because they could tell all three of you believed my tale. If I'd told you the truth—"
"But someone really was firing arrows earlier this evening," Vech protested.
"Yes," Lisette said. How thick was he? "The bowman."
The lieutenant's expression cleared. "So you were using us to help you get this bounty before the bowman could get Dronsbech himself!"
There came the sound of pounding feet, and then the shouting escalated as the door was pushed open. The guards who'd scattered to the perimeter thundered into the room. If not for Vech's uniform and the strange corpse, things might have gotten deadly, fast.
Matters really weren't settled until late into the night, and even then it seemed like almost half the city guard was there interviewing the staff, the guests, and the hired guards, none of whom admitted any knowledge about Kryllic's true nature or motives.
She and Karag waited to the side through it all. She tried not to think about the bowman. There'd been a chance, of course, that she'd catch him making a play at the same time. Finally, though, she'd been lucky. At that thought, her lips twisted into a bitter smile.
Karag had been silent for a very long time, and his gruff question startled her. "You think maybe you could teach me how to shoot?"
She considered the dwarf. "First I have to teach you how to load."
This was a little unexpected. Her smile grew more genuine. "I tell you what: I could use someone to ready the weapons. If you can load and prime fast, I can keep up a good steady stream of fire. Let's try it out for a week and see how quick you are."
Karag nodded once. "Sounds fair."
She grew conscious of the toll of a distant, lonely bell. "The bowman's my next target," she said. "I could use backup. It's a decent bounty. Not as good as Kryllic's, but decent."
"So all that about revenge—you were just making all that up." He shook his head. "You're a cold one, alright. I thought this whole thing was a matter of vengeance, when really it was all about the money."
"It's always about the money," she lied.
Coming Next Week: Down and out in the slums of Cassomir in Chris Willrich's bard-tastic new story, "The Cloak of Belonging."
Want even more Lisette and Karag? Check out the new Pathfinder Tales novel Stalking the Beast, available now!
Howard Andrew Jones is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novels Plague of Shadows and Stalking the Beast, as well as the independent historical fantasy novels The Desert of Souls and The Bones of the Old Ones. He's also edited eight collections of literary giant Harold Lamb's work, and currently serves as the Managing Editor for the iconic sword-and-sorcery magazine Black Gate. For more information, see his website at howardandrewjones.com.
Illustration by Kelly Perry