"Helms don't have feelings," a sultry female voice announced sharply. "They really don't care if you leave them in those crates. Now go. Bendrar and I need to confer."
Boots went, hastily.
From her hiding place behind a stack of shipping crates, Tantaerra leaned forward, trying to get as close to the conversation as possible without being seen. Bendrar was Loryn Garldrake's son, and the woman giving orders had to be Semdeira Sarpent.
"Ah, good, good, you're both here," said a hearty voice; Loryn Garldrake. "Ben, we were hoping to leave you out of this, but things have changed, and we need you to be able to say and do just the right things if you're questioned by the guard. This is all happening rather fast, but... uh..."
"Let me," Sarpent interrupted firmly. "Our plan has always been to find a scapegoat for when the General Lords send for us, someone we can blame for tricking us—supplying us with inferior weapons and armor. A scapegoat who promptly gets killed, the body too damaged for any priest to work with. The dead defend themselves poorly. He takes the blame, we pay whatever fines the Lords want to levy, and if need be we depart Molthune. The problem is, a certain official here in Canorate is suspicious of us already. Too soon."
"We intended to frame Alsaerdus," Bendrar's father put in, "and rid ourselves of a big creditor, but he's out of the country. So we need someone else. Right now."
"Hence Master Hroalund," Sarpent purred. "Knife-hurler and trap-spinner. Who insists on providing his own knives for his traps, and has many suppliers, some Drumish—and high Molthuni officials dislike those who have too much to do with foreigners. What we sent to kill him the fastest, tidiest way failed, but our cleverness at engaging him has brought him right here, and we have his demise in hand right now. When he's dead, we'll claim to have killed him and his assistants in a desperate fight, because they tried to murder us when we confronted Hroalund about shoddy knives he'd provided to us."
"You're going to, ah, kill him here? Now?" Bendrar sounded nervous.
"No." Sarpent's voice was crisp. "At his shop. If the bloodcoats want to search and pry, we want them to be confiscating and rummaging his stock, not ours."
"Never you mind where and when yet, son. For now, get out to the front counter before Indur and Yelhar do anything foolish, and run things until closeup. Make certain no patron gets near Hroalund or sees his work. A trap someone's seen is useless to us."
Tantaerra heard Bendrar hurry away.
"Tonight," Garldrake muttered. "Velar will come at nightfall. Shall I tell him to bring Urling and Taethur?"
"No. Too apt to be clumsily over-enthusiastic. We need far quieter, during and after. I know who to get."
In her hiding place, Tantaerra grit her teeth. That was it, then. Garldrake and Sarpent had to die, or the lives lost would be hers and the Master's. The rest of the staff she could take down with her sleeping darts–without their masters, the underlings would be no problem when they awoke, if indeed they even knew of the plan. For Sarpent and Garldrake, though...
Well, mercy was just one of many things a humble slave couldn't afford.
Nine darts were gone, all well sped, and the Master long since headed home by the time Bendrar Garldrake met the tenth—and dropped a decanter as he slumped.
The crash brought Loryn Garldrake around the corner at a run. He had a decanter of his own. Upon seeing a dark-swathed assassin—even a half-sized one—standing above his unmoving son, he howled and threw the glass carafe without hesitation.
It shattered just above Tantaerra's head, drenching her with something reeking and sticky.
She ran, but Garldrake snatched a long horse-lance down from a wall-rack and used it more wisely than she expected. Instead of trying to spit her, he swung it like a club, raking her feet out from under her.
Tantaerra landed groaningly hard on her hip against a wardrobe—and then he lowered the lance to run her through.
"Hah! Roast halfling on a spit tonight!"
Tantaerra promptly grabbed the wardrobe doors and toppled the massive thing over on top of herself.
The falling furniture caught the lance-tip and bore it down. It shrieked along, digging a deep gouge out of the polished floor, before breaking—but held up more than long enough for a hurrying halfling to hurl herself out from under the wardrobe.
And turn to race right up the lance-shaft at its wielder.
Garldrake got his belt-dagger out and slashed at her viciously, forcing her to leap aside, but her next leap slammed her headfirst into his crotch.
Garldrake shrieked and went down, and Tantaerra jumped up and down on his nearest ankle, repeatedly, until something broke under her.
He shrieked—and suddenly Semdeira Sarpent and three ruthless-looking men were in the room, drawn daggers gleaming in every hand.
Tantaerra used her next dart to stab Garldrake, and fled.
The rooms were dark, and there were many of them, but after three she saw the curtains and remembered the chart. The Master never seemed to hurry, but his work was swift, and she was shorter than the height his trap-bows would be set to fire at in here, so one of them should be just... here.
It was. Not loaded, but cocked and with its trip-line in position. Ready to demonstrate to Garldrake and Sarpent when—
Well, why not now?
Tantaerra dropped a dart into the little launcher's maw as she passed, then ducked around behind the next shelf. Deliberately jostled armor clattered.
One of the killers chasing her went for the bait, but Tantaerra was already two shelves away, loading trap-bows for all she was worth. She heard his heavy fall, grinned, and went right on scurrying, keeping low.
Before she slipped out of that room, a second of Sarpent's professional slayers had gone down.
Whereupon a tense, straining silence fell. Sarpent and her last slayer were closing in far more warily, and Tantaerra was running low on darts.
If she didn't move fast, they'd—
Too late. A door closed, and she was shut in an end room full of stock shelves.
She could hear her pursuers hastily moving things on the other side of the door. Blocking aisles, no doubt. Those display frames of spears and lances, set on their sides, would make deadly walls of sharp points. And a cargo net from their back room draped over the shelves could entrap a climbing or leaping halfling.
Then came a sound she knew well. Twice. Thrice. Three crossbows cocked, and no doubt loaded and laid ready.
Bright light flared under the closed door. Then the door slid open, and Tantaerra saw the last assassin standing ready with a crossbow.
The light came from an unshuttered storm lantern Sarpent was carrying into the room with a stepstool. All menacing catlike grace, she hung it on a ceiling-hook, lighting the room brightly.
"Let there be an end to all skulking games," she purred smugly, retreated to the doorway, and took up a loaded crossbow of her own.
Then she and her hired killer waited.
Tantaerra, comfortably flat on the floor under a shelf, smiled coldly, and resolved to wait them out.
A lot of tense silence stretched before Sarpent and the assassin grew restless enough to enter the room and explore.
Which was Tantaerra's cue.
She heaved herself up off the floor, shoulders against one side of the shelf above her, and toppled it toward the doorway.
It crashed into the shelf next to it, and both shelves groaned, leaned, and started to fall. The swearing assassin got clear just in time—and the lantern fell, bounced clangingly amid falling stock, and ended up on the floor, half-crushed but alight. Tantaerra tossed her hood into its blazing interior.
Flames flared up, spreading swiftly across the polished floor, and Semdeira Sarpent spat something less than ladylike. Tantaerra scuttled along that aisle, back into darkness, straining to see where her foes were.
As it turned out, they were both in the room with her and staring at the open doorway, waiting for her to try to dart through it. Tantaerra found something suitable on a shelf and threw it through the opening—and two crossbow bolts chased it.
The flames spread merrily, and she repeated the gambit. Just one bolt, this time. Neither of them went for her next throw, but a distant shout told her someone had smelled smoke, and when she flung something much larger—a shield—two bolts rang off it.
Tantaerra knew how long it took to recock a crossbow. Line and trap ready through her belt, she risked a run.
There was Sarpent. Throwing a knife at her.
Tantaerra sneered. She'd demonstrate knife-hurling—and did, her own spinning blade striking aside the one coming at her.
The last hired assassin came charging out of the darkness. He avoided the little trap she was dragging along with contemptuous ease, but Tantaerra slowed, then sprinted again and tugged on the tripline. The little trap-bow sprang through the air and landed under the man's boots. He stumbled, staggered, clawed at her—and Tantaerra stabbed him through that reaching hand with one of her sleep-poisoned darts.
Then she was through the door into the next room, with Sarpent hard on her heels.
Time to play the agile little monkey. Tantaerra swarmed the nearest shelf to get out of reach.
There were the lance-barriers, and there was the netting overhead, just as she'd suspected. Sarpent jumped and grabbed at it, trying to pin Tantaerra atop the shelf—and succeeded.
She was stuck, but not helpless. Tantaerra snatched up pieces of armor from the shelf and flung them at Sarpent's face, one after another, until she saw blood on that enraged but hitherto unmarred visage.
"Who are you, you little rat?"
"A concerned citizen," Tantaerra panted, not slowing her armor-flinging.
The arms-dealer tried to fend off the rain of sharp metal and get closer.
"Citizen? You're a halfling! Slave, more like!"
"You want my Master dead—my master who's done no ill to you!"
"So you're Hroalund's wench, then? I should have known. But well enough—showing the guards how you attacked us in our own shop can only help us when we explain how we were forced to kill you both in self-defense!"
Then Semdeira Sarpent was close enough, with a needle-rapier in hand. She stabbed at Tantaerra.
Who kicked out at it, desperately—and shrieked as her foot got skewered.
Sarpent snarled and pressed the advantage, stabbing again and again.
Tantaerra twisted and arched and flung stock frantically, emptying the shelf and getting free of the netting. Sometime during all of that, the rapier skidded along her side, slicing open smoke suit and skin beneath.
She felt icy, and there was a lot of blood on her and all over the shelf.
She flung herself at Sarpent and managed to scissor her legs around the woman's sword arm, clinging to the blade's ornate knuckle guard and bearing the rapier down. Sarpent slapped at her, and Tantaerra clawed right back, the room a whirl around them as the arms-dealer tried to shake her off the blade. Sarpent tore at her ear and hair—and Tantaerra slapped her fingers across her foe's face, smearing her own sticky spilled blood into those glaring eyes.
The shriek was impressive.
When it sank into words again, they were a strangled, "Get off me, slave!"
"Certainly," Tantaerra snapped—and drove the second to last of her poison-tipped darts through the palm of Sarpent's descending hand.
Sarpent shrieked again, going wild.
"Oh, be quiet," Tantaerra snarled, driving the last of her darts deep into Sarpent's throat—and kicked her way free.
The arms-dealer went down, staring at Tantaerra in horror and disbelief as she choked and gurgled on her own blood. Yet already the poison was closing those terrified eyes.
Tantaerra was more interested in what she could see of the end room. It was now an inferno of raging flame.
"Ah," she panted, turning to burrow through the stock on the nearest shelf behind her and so get clear of the barriers and netting, "that has become useful."
Sarpent dead, Garldrake and the hired slayers all too asleep to escape the flames, their splendid business burning down. Satisfactory work, indeed.
Of course, those weren't the only people in the building. The ordinary staff she'd put to sleep were going to need to be woken up. Fortunately, Tantaerra never used poison without also bringing along the antidote, and there was a wide variety of sharp instruments with which to deliver it.
Already the smoke was hiding the high ceilings from view. Tantaerra sighed and sprinted for the stairs.
She was two rooms away before she wondered which useful tools the Master might have left, that she should fetch before the entire building burned down.
She settled for stuffing a helm full of coins to pay for them, instead. Better to save the people—but nobody said heroes had to work for free.
When Master Argulk Hroalund cautiously opened the door, three throwing knives at the ready in his free hand, an exhausted and bloody halfling stood on his back doorstep.
Through the blood, she gave him a triumphant grin. "Your traps worked well."
Then she reeled and toppled.
Before his frantic grab could catch her, Tantaerra put a hand down to the cobbles and flung herself into a somersault that brought her unsteadily to her feet again.
Limping and wincing, Tantaerra handed her master the coin-filled helm, and gave him a harder grin.
"Bath," she said. "Something to drink."
They were not requests.
Her Master smiled down at her. "Of course."
She smiled back, and fell into oblivion.
Like Tantaerra the plucky halfling? Read more of her adventures in the new Pathfinder Tales novel The Wizard's Mask, coming soon!
Coming Next Week: An action-packed sample chapter from Ed Greenwood's The Wizard's Mask
As the creator of the Forgotten Realms, Ed Greenwood is one of the most famous RPG designers of all time, with a veritable dragon's hoard of game setting products under his belt. In the Pathfinder universe, he's the author of the new novel The Wizard's Mask (also featuring Tantaerra) and the short web fiction story "Guns of Alkenstar." In addition, he's written more than twenty Forgotten Realms novels (many dealing with his signature character, Elminster) and ten independent novels.
Illustration by Mariana Gomez