Bells for the Dead

by Howard Andrew Jones

Chapter One: The Wrong Target

Lisette slowly brought her rifle to rest on a dirty shingle at the apex of the roof, checking a final time to ensure the weapon's barrel was still smudged. The afternoon sky might be overcast, but Lisette took no unnecessary chances. There were enough necessary ones already. A sunbeam might break through and glint off any undulled metal.

There on the civic building roof, far above the narrow streets, she had a fine view of the bowman. He perched in a small bell tower overlooking the central square, some fifteen feet below and two hundred away. Like many structures in Oregent, the bell tower was tall and slender. The folk of Oregent seemed to like high and cramped almost as much as they liked their damnable bells.

The bowman stood in the shadows, awaiting his own prey, so still he might have been a statue. His finely crafted weapon of polished oak was just a sliver of darkness in his hand.

Lisette ticked off the precautions she'd taken while waiting for a wave of anger to pass. In her dark form-fitting clothes, black hair tied off in a ponytail, she'd be unlikely to draw attention against the soot-blackened slate tiles, even once the report of the gun echoed erratically off the roofs around her. Only a handful of the city's buildings stretched as high as this, and few of them had windows looking out toward her. So narrow were most of the town's avenues that anyone on the street would have a difficult if not impossible task spotting her. The bowman was fast, and she'd likely get only one shot. She hadn't had time to repair her other rifle, and she'd have to be very lucky indeed to hit the bowman from such a distance with either of her pistols. It was this rifle, or nothing. And so she steadied herself, counting slowly down from ten while she lined up the shot.

She spied the hawk in the same instant she heard its screech. It dove into her peripheral vision from the upper right, a keening brown blur with dark claws. She jerked reflexively even as her finger stroked the trigger.

The rifle kicked into her shoulder, and the acrid smell of gun smoke hit her nostrils as the weapon bellowed. She cursed, knowing instinctively that the shot was spoiled even as she saw the bowman slip into cover behind one of the bell tower's structural supports.

His hawk pulled out of its dive only a few feet away, and her frustration got the better of her. She clasped the warm barrel of her rifle and swung out at the thing. She missed by only a few inches, knowing a brief moment of satisfaction as the animal shrilled in alarm.

But in striking out she overbalanced and slid down the shingles. Her ire vanished in an upswell of panic. She flipped to her side, then her back, scrabbling one-handed on the sharp tiles. She dared not release her hold on the irreplaceable rifle, but she could find no purchase. The cobblestone street lay a killing distance below, some sixty feet even beyond the twenty of dormered roof.

Sheer luck sent her sliding toward an elaborate gargoyle outcropping above a downspout. She grabbed the hideous creature's waist with one hand like a desperate lover, then lay half entwined with it as she caught her breath.

A trio of arrows arced up and over the roof. She shifted desperately.

The damned bowman was so good that all three struck the position where she'd just been lying. They hit the dirty shingles and clattered away, one rolling past her to a windowsill beneath the dormer on her left. If she'd remained where she'd been propped, any one of them would have skewered her.

The hawk, meanwhile, was circling back and calling out. Was the vile creature actually signaling her position?

As if things weren't bad enough, from somewhere below came the whistle of one of the Oregent city guard.

Lisette cursed a blue streak, shouldered the rifle, and untangled herself from the gargoyle enough to set one foot on the cracked stone sill to her left. It seemed solid enough. This wasn't the window she'd entered by, but she didn't wait to see if it was unlocked when another arrow chipped off one of the gargoyle's ears.

One good kick from her black boot broke the peeling wood frame and fragmented the window. She threw herself in after, hearing the clatter of more arrows striking the frame even as she dropped into an empty storage room.

She dashed into the empty attic hallway, diverted briefly to the room cluttered with old chairs where she'd gained roof access. There she retrieved Kerrigan's damaged rifle, her hat, and her shoulder bag. In moments she was hurrying out the lower window she'd jimmied open, then out onto the roof of the annex. She retraced her steps across the flat rooftop at a jog. She didn't see the hawk, and the arrows had stopped, but she heard the whistle of the city watch, closer now, and someone shouted, "There's a woman running up there!"

It hadn't been one of her better days. She should have stuck with her original target and worried about the bowman later.

A second whistle blew, and then was promptly drowned by the ringing of some set of great brass bells. The clanging was so thunderous that it set the roof below her shaking in sympathy.

She hated those bells. People in the city seemed so tuned to them that they could tell which particular temple called them to worship, and knew which factory called for shift change. Almost it seemed that people moved at the behest of the bells rather than the other way around. A whole city governed by implacable metal monsters.

She ran on, ducking around a spire and dropping onto the slanted roof of an apartment building before leaping a narrow alley to a two-story stone affair. This was the closest she'd yet gotten to the ground, and she hurried a little farther before spotting a dark alleyway. Just what she needed.

And then she saw that the space was occupied. Three men were turned away from her toward the alley's mouth, facing a stout figure beside a youth lying in a widening pool of blood. The trio advanced menacingly on the short one. She grimaced as she knelt and scanned the surrounding rooftops. This looked like the best way down anywhere nearby and she'd have to get to the street to lay low. The depressingly efficient Oregent guards would already be combing the rooftops.

And so, panting and tired, she swung to the coping and dropped.

She felt the shock of the twelve-foot fall. In other circumstances, she would have absorbed it with a roll, but she had two rifles slung over her shoulder. One of the three bravos must have heard her, and he turned, lifting a sword.

She'd talked her way out of plenty of tough scrapes, but this was no time for niceties. She shot the man point-blank with one pistol and was pulling the second free even before he crumpled. His mouth opened, and he might have screamed, but it was difficult to hear over the reverberating crack of the powder.

The second of the bravos turned from his target—a blond dwarf armed with an axe—and she fired a second time. In the confined space the blast echoed like thunder, but when this man dropped, his shrieks outlasted the echo.

Lisette cursed again. This wasn't what she needed. The whole job had been rotten from the beginning. She'd warned Kerrigan...

There was no time for that.

The last assailant seemed to think his best option was to simply run clear, but the dwarf caught him with the axe as he dashed past and brought him down with a spray of blood. It was a swift, efficient cut, and left the dying man no air with which to cry out.

Lisette had both pistols back through her sash now, and considered the dwarf while she pointed her second rifle at him—Kerrigan's rifle. Hopefully the dwarf wouldn't notice the damaged hammer, or know what it meant. Both ignored the third thug moaning in an ever-widening stream of his own blood.

The dwarf proved a rugged, plain fellow with a weathered leather jerkin. There was no missing the battle lust in his eyes.

"Do I have to fight past you, too?" Lisette asked.

"I suppose I should thank you for the assist." His accent was eastern. He frowned as the whistle of a watchman sounded nearby. From his strained expression, she suddenly knew that he was as leery of the law as she was. Was he an outlaw? A bandit? Someone from a local gang?

"You can thank me by getting me into hiding." If the guards detained her, even for a little while, she'd lose her chance at the target. Both targets.

The stout dwarf grunted, then lowered the axe to snatch up a heavy-looking bag lying beside the dead boy at the alley's mouth—a fallen ally? He considered her warily as it clanked with the unmistakable jangle of coins. "Come on."

He walked at such speed it was almost a jog, and she shouldered the rifle to fall in beside him. They'd just made it down the winding lane across the street when the alarm whistles shrilled more vehemently. The guards were close.

The dwarf sped up to a full run, and she loped silently at his side. She could easily outpace him, but there was no point—not if he really did know the way to a safe house. He ducked suddenly down an even narrower passageway between an older stone building and a newer brick one, this gap so thin they had to sidle sideways. Twenty paces in, just a few feet before it dead-ended, a blackened rope hung against the grimy bricks. From the alley opening it was completely invisible, indistinguishable from dirty building in the darkness.

Clever. The dwarf shoved his bloody axe into its holster and clambered up. Mostly he used his arms, but he pushed off the wall with his boots and was soon up to the blank face of the second floor.

Lisette didn't think there was time to waste, so she scaled quickly, using opposing walls for leverage. It was no simple feat, but she thought nothing of it until the dwarf reached a third-floor window and noticed her beside him. His eyes widened in surprise, and he went into the darkened opening without comment.

She slipped in immediately after, reaching back to steady the rope lest its movement catch attention. She then considered the room, alert for ambush.

There was no one else inside the cramped and musty place. The dwarf settled on a bench, breathing heavily through his mouth, presumably trying to make as little noise as possible for him. She heard footsteps rush past the main portion of the alley.

From somewhere below came a strain of fiddle and a woman's laughter, high and a little unnatural. They were above one of Oregent's many taverns, she realized. "What—" she started to ask, and then was drowned out by the pealing gongs of a nearby clutch of bells. Had it been another quarter hour already, or was this some other interval of time being marked?

The dwarf scowled throughout the two-minute long episode. She took the time to inspect the rest of the room. The bedframe and the dirty mattress. The warped floorboards. The single dresser with its sagging left leg. There was a candle sitting upon this last, but she didn't move to light it.

"I hate those bells," the dwarf muttered when the sound had finally ebbed.

Lisette smiled wryly. "What's that batch ringing about?"

"I think another mining shift has ended," the dwarf said, though he didn't sound certain.

"You're not a native, I take it."

"No," the dwarf agreed. "And neither are you."

"Right. But it looks to me like you have some business connections I don't."

"Is that so?" The dwarf listened at the open window, his head in profile so he could also watch Lisette.

She heard a whistle, but it was now quite far away. During the ringing she'd planned her next move, and she acted on it now. "I'm thinking you owe me a favor."

The dwarf snorted. "Way I see it, the favor's already paid. You weren't out to save me. You were on the run and dropped in on the middle of the fight."

He was shrewder than he looked. "Fair enough. But, as you're a businessman, let's say I've got a proposition for you."

"Let's say you do," the dwarf told her cautiously. "There's money?"

"A little. I don't need that big a favor."

"What kind of favor?"

"I'm looking for someone."

"What makes you think I'd know her?"

"It's a him. He might travel in circles familiar to you."

The stout outlaw kept his tone flat. "What circles are those?"

Lisette snorted. "Don't play games, dwarf."

"It's Karag."


Karag likely has ties to the underground—but then, he is a dwarf.

"Alright, Karag. It's easy to see you're no more a friend of the city watch than I am. I'm guessing that bag of coins isn't something you'd want to be caught with."

He glanced down at the bag at his feet. "Not much of a guess."

"I'm not sure what you were doing, and I really don't care. I need to find someone. And I'll bet your boss knows someone who can help me. I'll pay you both. But the man I'm after is going to slip away if I don't move fast."

"How much money?"

"For some introductions? Five sails for you. If your boss knows the way, I'll cut him in for more."

The dwarf shook his head. "That's pretty cheap. Look, lady, let me offer you some advice: If you go poking under the wrong rocks in Oregent, you'll end up dead. You don't just wander in and start asking around. It gets people suspicious. And you start throwing around gold, they might just knife you to take it all."

"They can try," Lisette said softly.

He eyed her sidelong. "What do you want this guy for?"

"I'm delivering flowers. What do you think?"

Karag grunted. "What'd he do to you?"

"He killed a friend."

At this, Karag nodded. He pointed to her waist. At the pistols, she realized as he spoke. "You a witch?"

She forced back a laugh. "No."

"Sorceress?"

"No."

"What are you, then?" he asked with a truculent growl.

"I'm just a lady hunting a killer, and I'm willing to pay for information."

Karag grunted again. "Come on, then. I need to report to Belvar in any case. My advice, keep things simple."

She smiled thinly. "Oh, I always do."

Coming Next Week: Into Oregent's seedy underbelly in Chapter Two of Howard Andrew Jones's "Bells For The Dead"

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

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Editor

Excellent intro to this story. Nice mix of action with the character interaction. Having recently finished Stalking the Beast, it's fun to see how this pair met. I'm sure many readers here will love to see more of Lisette.

Sovereign Court RPG Superstar 2009 Top 32, 2010 Top 8

Yes! Now if only we get Kerrigan art.

I'll admit, I enjoyed Liette and wanted to see more of her. She's a neat character.

For a Chel. :P

The Exchange

"A whole city governed by implacable metal monsters." I like that. I can't wait to find out who Lisett's targets are.


Pathfinder Comics Subscriber; Pathfinder Legends Subscriber

Agreed. I love fun language like that. They are just bells, they don't really "govern" the city. Yet they do. It makes the bells sound like intelligent Iron Golems.

I'm guessing the one she just missed is a Ranger and the hawk is an animal companion.

-Aaron


Pathfinder Adventure Path, Roleplaying Game Subscriber

I was already interewsting in "Stalking The Beast." I'm sure my the end of this I'll be adding it to my cart. :)

Liberty's Edge

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Maps, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Roleplaying Guild Subscriber; Pathfinder Comics Subscriber

Now this, this is my kind of story. I have to say I am rather enjoying all these real women characters. Such an awesome change of pace and long overdue!

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