Belden Kaylaros was
The people close to him knew that only one thing in the world was more dangerous. When Belden
was bored, trouble was never far behind. He knew this as well, and accepted it. In a way, he looked
forward to the inevitable signal that would herald his return to a life of death-defying challenge. His
blood never burned hotter than when he was shedding it in the name of raw adventure.
But this time, when trouble came, it affected his kids. Suddenly he wasn't bored anymore. Suddenly
he was mad. And those close to him knew that nothing in the world was more dangerous.
* * *
It started one winter's
day, as he was sitting in his study at Pierroc Royale. His desk was piled
papers that required the Baron's signature. Normally, the mundane matters of running the barony were
handled by Jaenyth, but on some things, Derrek was insistent. The yearly accounts for his holding had to
be reviewed by him personally. His eyes stung from hours of reading the lists of every single item in the
households of each of his subjects. He had to make sure that no peasant had more oxen than was his due.
It was mind-numbingly tedious work.
Silverwing, not helpful in the least, sprawled across the end of the bed, snoring. Every so often, his
wings and tail would twitch as he pursued golden drakes through shady wooded groves. His mate Glory
had flown recently, and she was brooding over her latest nest of eggs. Silverwing went about with his
chest puffed out proudly, but not even his devotion to Glory and the pride of impending fatherhood had
prevented him from going after Amelia's green Clover when the younger drake flew her own mating
flight a few months past. Only extremely timely intervention by Jaenyth prevented both Silverwing and
Belden from engaging in behavior which, though undeniably delightful, would have proved disastrous for
It was not the first time he'd been tempted by the nearness of the copper-haired druid. Ten years
ago, he and Amelia had shared a remarkable night in the woods. Though he dearly loved his wife, his
mind occasionally wandered to those memories. Amelia had given him a son, a fine agile lad who was
already showing a talent for the bow. For the first several years of his life, he had been raised in the
woods with only his mother and the forest creatures for company. But Amelia knew that her son needed
to have other people around, other children to play with, a father to look up to. And so, with Jaenyth's
dubious permission, Amelia and Brian had come to live in Wolfhaven. Brian became fast friends with
Derrek and Aylara's son Alan, and with Belden's great-grandson Dorlyn, son of the Baron and Baroness
of Redhall. Those friendships had a cost, though. Brian was a good-looking boy, with hair the color of
autumn leaves and eyes that ranged from forest green to bright sea-blue depending on his mood. His
elven heritage gave him attractive features and pointed ears, while his human blood made him tall for his
years. The combination caught the eye of the giggly Princess Alyssa, Alan's younger sister. With
maidenly determination, she decided that Brian was destined to be her "honey", and wasted no
opportunity to follow him around and gaze after him with longing sighs.
Silverwing snorted and rolled over, breaking Belden out of his reviere. He realized that he'd been
thinking about his son instead of finishing the accounts. He shook his head and picked up a sheaf of
papers. It was hardly his fault. The paperwork was dull, and Brian was a fine son. He handled the stigma
of being known as Belden Kaylaros' bastard with ease, having inherited his mother's knack of not caring
what society thought. Amelia herself was still thought of as Belden Kaylaros' mistress, though nothing
had happened between them since that one incident. It was unfortunate for her. Amelia was an amazingly
passionate, responsive woman who needed the attention of a man. But nobody in Algareth was willing to
risk Belden's wrath. He would be pleased if Amelia found someone, because she was a close friend and a
worthwhile woman, but in a secret corner of his heart he was glad she hadn't. He would miss her. After
some initial difficulties, she and Jaenyth became good friends. Amelia fit well into their household. The
gardens flourished under her care, and she handled the kitchen and housekeeping tasks that Jaenyth had
little patience for. It was like having two wives. Without the bedroom bonuses, of course. Even Belden
Kaylaros did not dare touch the woman widely believed to be Belden Kaylaros' mistress. Only one man
had the outrageous gall to do that. A few months ago, Amelia had given birth to her second child, Todd.
During her pregnancy, Jaenyth openly suspected Belden of being involved. He denied it, of course, but
there was a slinking doubt in his mind dating back to a winter's night when he had come home extremely
drunk after an evening at the Whispering Nymph with Brennis, Kev, and a few of the younger knights.
Jaenyth had been away in Annis-Mara, attending some family function. Barely able to walk, he had
needed Amelia's help to get upstairs. He remembered her capable hands undressing him, tucking him
into his bed. He couldn't remember anything after that, but when Amelia began to show, he wondered.
He never quite dared ask. But it turned out that the child's father was Harry. Of course. A lot of people
shook their heads in amazement in anticipation of how Amelia's sons would turn out.
He finished the last of the accounts and stretched. Silverwing mimicked the motion, then bolted
abruptly awake as another drake appeared in the room. It was Brennis' blue, Squire, and he was
chittering anxiously. A note was tied haphazardly to his leg.
Belden raised an arm and the drake landed, claws digging deep. He untied the massage and unrolled
it. His granddaughter's normally precise handwriting was ragged and uneven. It was a short message, but
it was enough to chill him to the bone.
Assassins just tried to kill my children!
Onyx was a professional thief and ran Derrek's secret intelligence network. It was understandable
that she would have made enemies in the course of her career. But Onyx herself would not be an easy
target for assassins. Her children, eight-year-old Dorlyn and baby Rachel, were more vulnerable.
Brennis was a good man, a strong knight and a brilliant tactician, but he was not equipped to deal
with a situation like this. Belden snagged his swordbelt from where it hung on the back of his chair and
wrapped his hand around the magic pendant that would take him to Redhall in the blink of an eye. He
guessed that the Holts were behind it. It had been years since they'd had trouble from Holtun, because he
had single-handedly wiped out most of the ruling family. It looked like he might have missed one.
He appeared outside of Redhall, since his grandson-in-law still was slightly uneasy about magic.
Brennis did have a sense of humor, though, and the customary arrival spot for teleporters was a small
clearing with a padded bench for those who needed to recover from the trip. Belden had no time to rest.
He headed for the castle at a run.
The guards recognized him and let him in. One of Brennis' younger squires told him that the Baron
and his men were out patrolling the north woods, looking for signs of the assassin. The Baroness was in
the nursery with the children. He took the stairs two at a time.
His granddaughter whirled to face him as he opened the door. True to her bloodline, she had a knife
ready. Her green eyes were wide and dangerous, her dark hair whipping around her face. Dorlyn, face
solemn beneath too-long blond bangs, sat in a rocker with his feet dangling off the floor.
"Oh, it's you," Onyx said. "How ya doin', old man?"
He looked at her closely, realizing that her tone was a mask for her fear. Without a word, he walked
over to her and took the knife out of her hand. She flung her arms around him and pressed her face
against his chest. Her shoulders shook.
"They almost killed them," she gasped.
He stroked her hair, keeping an eye on the window in case someone should show up to finish the
job. Dorlyn looked at him seriously. In her cradle, Rachel cooed.
"Who?" he asked.
"I don't know, damn it," she said, brushing an angry hand across her eyes. "It was so damn fast!
The bastard got away! Bren's out looking for him now, but they won't find anything."
"Tell me what happened."
"Two attempts," she said, regaining control of herself but not moving away. "Bren took Dorlyn
riding. He heard something and got his shield up in time to stop a crossbow bolt. He sent Squire back to
warn me, so I came in to check on Rachel. She was having her nap. When I opened the door, I saw some
guy standing over her, holding a pillow on her head. I tagged him with a knife, but he got out the
window and over the wall. When I started to go after him, another crossbow bolt missed me by inches."
"Is Rachel all right?"
"I think so. He didn't get enough time."
"What about you?"
"I want them dead."
He gave her a crooked grin. "Don't worry. They will be."
"I bet you think it's the Holts," she accused.
"Well, why not?" he asked defensively.
"There aren't any Holts left, you old geezer."
"So I'm thorough."
"Well, whoever it is, they've got to go." She held out an arm and Dorlyn ran to her side. "I may not
be the world's best mom, but these are my babies, damn it! I'm not letting anyone take them away from
"You're not alone, kiddo. You're not alone."
Onyx ruffled her son's hair, then did a rare thing. She glanced up at him and smiled. "Thank you,
Belden," she whispered. "I don't know what I'd do if something happened to my little ones."
He smoothed her hair, feeling somewhat embarrassed and self-conscious. He and Onyx rarely
expressed the deep bond they felt, covering it with banter and insults. He loved her. She was his only
reminder of a daughter he'd never known, his only tie to a life long changed. She was half-elven, but her
elven blood did not come from him. Her mother had been conceived when Belden Kaylaros, reluctant
hero, had been only Belden, human foundling. Onyx's human heritage linked her with the royal family of
Dalanar. Not only did she remind him of her mother, but of his twin sister, who he'd likewise never
known. Deirdre, whose birth gave him the chance to live, had become a great spy. He suspected that his
sister would have approved of this young woman. Onyx was more valuable to him that she would ever
"Are you gonna stab 'em in the eye, Granpa Belden?" Dorlyn asked shyly. The lad was in awe of the
mythical hero that was both his great-grandfather and the father of one of his best friends.
"Do you think I should, Dor?"
The boy chewed on his lip, glancing at the crib. "They tried to hurt Rachie too, and we haven't even
got to know her yet. Maybe they need to be stabbed in both eyes."
"Both eyes. All right. As soon as I catch up with them, that's what I'll do."
Dorlyn grinned and went over the whisper into the crib. "Didja hear that, sis? Both eyes!"
"Bren's going to think you're a bad example to the kids," Onyx said.
"I've been telling you that for years. I was a bad influence on you before you even knew I was
alive." He let go of her and went to the window.
A standard, nondescript crossbow bolt was stuck in the frame. He looked around. Seeing no
enemies, he reached out and pulled the bolt free. The tip was smeared with a greenish-black paste. Part
of it had rubbed off on the frame, but he knew poison when he saw it. He set it on the table, frowning.
"One of these days, you're going to have to raise a kid yourself," she was saying. "Then you'll know
what a pain it is. It's not easy to raise them up right with disreputable sneaks like you coming around and
filling their heads with notions. Both eyes indeed!"
"Listen to you. You sound like an old fussy nanny."
"Gods, I do, don't I?"
"Better do something about that."
"Look out," she teased. "You're starting to sound like Harry again. One might think you're letting
this hero business go to your head."
"I'm no hero," he protested. "How many times do I have to say it?"
She laughed and spread her hands. "I'm not getting into this arguement with you. It's like the one
Harry and Wildfire always used to have about who left who. There's no way to win."
He snorted. "Anyway, hopefully someday I will have kids to raise. Brian's great to have around, but
I'm looking forward to having some with Jaenyth."
"Not for lack of trying, I'm sure," she said, raising an eyebrow.
He grinned. "Hell, no! If practice made perfect, we'd have a hundred kids by now."
"Practice what?" Dorlyn asked brightly, apparently recovered from his scare.
Onyx stepped on Belden's booted foot as he opened his mouth to answer. It didn't really hurt, but he
chose diplomacy and coughed instead.
"How is she?" Onyx asked.
"Sleeping," Dorlyn said. "When's she gonna be old enough to play?"
"Not for a few years. She's still a baby."
"She better not grow up like 'Lyssa," Dorlyn muttered darkly. "'Lyssa's a brat."
"Count your blessings, boy," Belden said. "If not for your father, you'd be betrothed to her."
"Uh-uh. She's sweet on Brian."
Belden groaned and shook his head so his russet hair flopped in his face. "Poor kid."
"Oh, come on, if he grows up at least halfway like you, he'll love having a pretty girl chase after
"Yeah, but it'll be for all the wrong reasons. She wants to marry him."
Onyx laughed. "Better not let Jaenyth hear you talking like that."
Dorlyn looked puzzled, but said nothing. Belden patted him on the head, recalling how much he had
hated that as a boy and noting by Dorlyn's squirm that he felt the same. It was funny the way a person
changed between childhood and adulthood. The more time he spent around Brian and the other kids, the
more he realized how precious they were. A sudden fierce protective urge swept through him. While he
drew breath, no one would threaten these kids.
Some of that fierceness must have shown in his grim expression, because they stared at him with
identical looks of alarm. He quickly masked his emotions and gave his granddaughter a one-armed hug
while squeezing Dorlyn's shoulder.
"Don't worry," he said. "I'll take care of it."
"Fourcity?" Onyx asked.
"Best place to start. You can always send one of the drakes to me if something comes up."
"Be careful," she said.
He chuckled. "Me? Careful?"
"Nobody can hurt Granpa Belden," Dorlyn said admiringly.
"No," Onyx corrected. "He's been hurt plenty of times. He just can't be killed."
"You be careful too," he said, suddenly serious. "That isn't jam on the end of that bolt. I don't want
to see any of you get hurt."
* * *
He cinched the strap
that held his spare quiver to his backpack. For this trip, he elected to
behind the marvelous energy bow that needed neither arrow nor string. Ordinary wood and steel was too
good to waste on the scum of Fourcity, let alone the precious starfire magic. If any of the dogsbodies
were involved, he would have a bit more of a challenge, but he had killed them with his bare hands
before. He still shivered when he recalled a blood-soaked night when he took on the dogsbody leader of a
mercenary troupe that had attacked an orphanage. He had left the leader chained to a tree, one arm
wrenched off, face and body a shapeless bludgeoned mass, mouth stuffed with assorted parts of choice
anatomy. The savagery with which he'd fought the dogsbody was unlike anything he'd ever experienced.
He was taking little on this trip. Just his weapons, armor, and the item of teleportation. Not even
Silverwing was going along. He left his baronial signet, but kept his wedding band.
Suited up, ready to go, he wandered to the window and tried to figure out what he would say to
Jaenyth. She was currently in the woods surrounding the castle, hunting a troublesome pack of giant
ferrets that had been raiding the henhouses. Below, in the yard, Amelia was sitting on the grass, the sun
setting her copper hair ablaze. Around her was an array of seeds, herbs, dried fruits, and the other things
she used in the making of her potions and remedies. Nearby, Todd lay sleeping in a woven reed basket.
A yearling fawn dozed next to him. The doe and stag grazed clamly on the shrubs at the edge of the
yard, ignoring the antics of a half-grown wolf cub.
Belden first ran into Moonchaser while out riding one night. The cub's mother was dead in a trap,
and he could not leave him there to starve. Brian's birthday had been coming up, and the boy had been
delighted with the gift of a furry, friendly, bundle of mischief. The two were practically inseperable.
Belden watched his son, criticizing his stance as he hurled a stick. The stick sailed over his mother's
head. Moonchaser, who was long on enthusiasm but short on foresight, bounded after it, scattering dried
blackberries. Amelia shrieked in surprise. Moonchaser saw her at the last minute, scrambled his legs
under him, and tried to jump. He was too low, and she grabbed him out of the air. His weight bowled
her over and she fell on her back. Her skirts flew up, revealing her legs to mid-thigh. She didn't have the
athletic legs of a warrior like Jaenyth, but they were still quite nicely shaped. Very pretty legs that he
should not be looking at.
Moonchaser leapt away, looking embarrassed, while Brian doubled over in laughter and Amelia sat
up, straightening her skirts, trying to look stern but failing. Belden could not make out the words as she
reprimanded her son, but her smile belied any real anger. Moonchaser crowded behind Brian, hanging
his head, but his tail was shaking with suppressed wags.
Finished with her scolding, Amelia began picking up the mess of her herbs. Brian and Moonchaser
retreated to the edge of the clearing to play.
Shaking his head, smiling, Belden started to turn away to finish his preparations. Then he saw
something that riveted his attention.
Moonchaser was frozen in place, hackles raised, pelt bristling, lips skinned back from teeth that
were very sharp and not the least playful as he stared into the forest. Brian reacted instantly to the
invisible threat, leaping to one side. And so it was that the dagger which had been aimed for his throat
plunged into his shoulder instead. Brian yelled in pain, but he kept his wits. Even as he fell to one knee,
he fumbled for a knife of his own.
Before Amelia could even get up, Belden was in motion. He placed one hand on the windowsill and
vaulted out, never minding that it was a three-story drop, trusting to his incredible reflexes and uncanny
luck to protect him. By the time he hit the ground, Arelon was silver fire springing from his fist. He
raced across the grass.
Amelia leapt to her feet, screaming her son's name as she dropped a stone into the pocket of her
sling and began to whip it around her head. The three deer sprang lightly to stand over the basket holding
baby Todd. Clover streaked skyward.
Moonchaser dove through the bushes. Leaves and branches flew everywhere. Belden heard a man's
voice raised in alarm. Moments later, as Brian was struggling to stand and Belden had crossed half the
distance, a man burst through the bushes with Moonchaser snapping at his legs. He was dressed in
mottled green and brown, forest colors, and he held a long thin sword as he charged toward the half-
Amelia loosed her slingstone and it whizzed harmlessly into the trees. She cried out in fear and
frustration. The man thrust.
Brian brought up his knife and managed to parry the blow, but he was using the wrong hand and the
force knocked the blade from his grip. Moonchaser tore a ragged gash in the man's leg and suffered a
heavy kick in the ribs. The wolf cub yelped and stumbled.
The man advanced again on the unarmed, wounded boy, face tight with desperation as he raised the
"No!" Belden knew he was still too far away. Even if he threw Arelon, it would be too late. Amelia
The blow never landed. Out of nowhere, an arrow transfixed the man through both temples. His
back arched and the sword fell. He raised both hands, feeling the feathers and barbed steel point on either
side of his head. His face contorted hideously. He toppled to the side like a felled tree. The point of the
arrow lodged in the earth, nailing his head to the ground.
Belden skidded to a halt beside the dead man and slowly turned his head. At the edge of the clearing,
chin raised defiantly, hair stirred by a mild wind, stood a tall elfwoman in hunting leathers. A bow was
in her hand, another arrow already set to the string. It almost seemed that she was surrounded by a
nimbus of golden light. Their eyes met, and he felt a huge, foolish, proud grin spread across his face.
Jaenyth never let him down.
Amelia dashed up beside him and threw herself on the ground beside Brian. The boy was gasping,
blood staining his sleeve and shirtfront. Belden swiftly knelt, setting aside his sword, and steadied the boy
as he started to collapse.
"Oh, Aslan," Amelia moaned as she got a good look at the wound. Her frantic green eyes sought
The weapon jutting from Brian's shoulder was a black and white dagger with a motto inscribed
around the hilt. The motto was as hated and familiar as ever.
I have sought him. I have found him.
"Fourcity," he muttered, feeling his fists clench. "It isn't Onyx's kids they want. They're after
* * *
Some places never changed.
Fourcity was one of them. And some people never changed, no matter
how they might seem to on the outside.
It had been a long time since Belden Kaylaros crept across a rooftop in the dead of night, his face
smeared with black greaspaint to cut the glare of the nearly-full moon. He was grimly amused at how
easily he shed the skin of a nobleman and reverted to his thiefly origins. Hadn't his first views of most of
Andur been from dark rooftops? He'd arrived in the teeming city of White Sands, a place of rough
sailors and mercenaries. All of his money had been spent on ship's passage from Dalanar, and to
augment his meagre finances, he had adapted to the life of a burlgar with uncanny talent. His instincts
remained true. Though the roof beneath him was old and creaky, his movements were nearly soundless.
Below him, the streets of Fourcity were alive with activity. The respectable merchants had long since
closed up their shops and retired to well-lit rooms behind well-locked doors. Like a werewolf, Fourcity
changed with the arrival of night. Shadowed doorways harbored thugs, thin rolls of foul-smelling weed
dangling from the corners of their mouth. Harlots lingered on corners, the warm summer night
permitting them to reveal most of their charms. In many cases, the women were underfed, and what
should have been enticing curves were bony mockeries of seduction. Their faces all bore the same
desperate, tired, haggard look. More than a few held squalling infants. Groups of armed men swaggered
down the narrow streets, talking too loudly and never letting their hands stray far from ready blades.
Belden felt his lip curl in disgust. Fourcity was the Zardi of Andur, except that it lacked Zardi's
vibrancy. In the Haven city where a person could buy anything, the people were dangerous, but they
were alive and exciting. Here in Fourcity, the people seemed hopeless and dead inside.
He suspected that it was partly due to the dogsbodies. For some reason, Fourcity harbored large
amounts of the fiendish creatures who lived off of the fear and misery of others. He knew more about
them than he cared too. One of his dearest friends, Wildfire, had been a victim of a clan of dogsbodies
for most of her young life. The creature he had slaughtered that horrible night outside a burning
orphanage had been one of Wildifre's so-called cousins. Wildfire's daughter, Belynda, who had been
named for Belden in a roundabout sort of way, was blessed with the gift to see the creatures. Belden had
no such talent. Nor did he possess a magic blade like Harry's dagger that reacted to the presence of a
dogsbody. All he had was his warrior's instinct. Lucky for him, that was enough. He could detect certain
differences in the way some of the people below moved, and guessed that they were the ones that
harbored hideous demons beneath their masks of humanity.
But the dogsbodies were not his targets tonight. Not specifically. If any of them happened to get in
his way, he would slash them to bits without a moment's regret, but tonight he was after other game.
Assassins were his prey tonight.
The injury of his son still seethed inside of him. He could not get the image of Amelia out of his
mind. She had not said a word, hadn't needed to. All she'd done was raise her tearful, stricken face to
him. He'd knelt beside her as she called upon Aslan to heal their son, and Brian's small hand had closed
on his in a firm grip.
Jaenyth had seen the fierce deterimination in his eyes, and had not challenged him when he told her
he was going to Fourcity. She was a strong-willed woman, but she was also wise, and knew when no
amount of talking would change his mind. She simply touched his cheek and said, "Go." Minutes later,
he had arrived at the city in the midst of the war-torn Duchies.
He crawled to the edge of the rooftop and studied the gap between this building and the next. It
didn't look too forbidding, so he rose to a crouch and launched himself into the air. Catlike, barely
dislodging a single shingle, he landed on the other roof. Two buildings farther down was his target, the
headquarters of the Fourcity Freemen, the assassins' guild.
It was a morbidly large building, but the main industry of Fourcity seemed to be crime and murder.
Three stories of grimy brick rose above a shuttered and desolate tailor's shop on one side and a noisy
tavern on the other. Across the street, an old guardhouse loomed forbiddingly in the moonlight, the
broken-out slats on several of its windows making Belden think briefly of an old dog, missing a few teeth
but still capable of a good bite.
He dropped to the roof of the tailor's shop. It was extremely loose and shaky. He slowed his
progress to a bug's pace, feeling his way carefully from one board to another. Most of his attention was
focused on the guildhall ahead of him. Mellow candlelight gleamed behind some of the shutters, and once
or twice he glimpsed a shadow moving in front of a window.
A brief but tempting urge to just wipe out everybody in the whole bloody city nagged at the back of
his mind. With effort, he dismissed it. There might, against all odds, be one or two decent, innocent
people in Fourcity. He had no trouble killing criminals, but he didn't particularly want to kill anyone who
didn't deserve it.
The wall of the tailor's shop butted right up against the sturdy brick of the guildhall. He saw that it
would be an easy matter to get right under one of the windows, reach up to the sill, and haul himself up.
If the shutters were locked, he would have a slight problem, but he'd picked locks in worse situations
He smiled sadly as he remembered one of those times. He and Harry had been locked in a dungeon
cell together. Belden's hands had been encased in one of the devious dwarven thief-balls, a heavy metal
contraption with barbed finger holes, locking around the wrist. Harry's entire head had been locked in a
heavy hood with a gag attatchment. Somehow, the idle son of a Pandathan mage had learned to pick
locks and wiggle free of bonds. But, while the simple wrist bindings had been no trouble, he'd been
unable to get the hood off. His best weapon, his voice, was efficiently silenced. And Belden's best
weapons, his agile hands, were likewise useless.
The situation had looked impossible, except for a couple of small bonuses. While in White Sands,
Belden had gotten a magical tattoo of a lockpick on his lower right calf. Though that leg had been
crushed, broken, and mangled more times that he cared to remember, that night it had saved them. Harry
had been able to get at it, and partially free Belden from the ball. After that, it was child's play to free
themselves, escape from the Overlord's dungeon, rejoin Wildfire and Diana, and get away. What none of
them had known at the time was that their escape had been planned and permitted. Blade, the second-in-
command of the Overlord's own son, had really been an old friend of theirs in disguise. Before Belden
had learned the truth, he'd killed her. Many times over the intervening years, others had tried to
convince him that he wasn't responsible for her death, but he refused to believe them. In another world,
one without a Jaenyth Maran, Artreide might have been the perfect woman for him. He would never
forgive himself for what he'd done.
In the distance, a gout of flame roared skyward. He dismissed it with a shrug. There were a few
alchemists in Fourcity, and occasionally the more volatile aspects of the profession came into play. Even
if the fire spread to burn down the whole city, it wouldn't be that great of a loss.
He shook the memories of Artreide out of his head with some difficulty, lingering on the time they
had played hide-and-seek in the secret passages of the Southern Baron's castle while still clad in brief
swimsuits, lithe bodies oiled and speckled with sand. She had been topless, and despite his extraordinary
nightvision, he had "accidentally" let his hands wander into forbidden territory while seeming to feel for
the wall. Taking a deep breath and forcing that image to retreat, he studied the windows, looking for one
that was unlit. Spotting a likely target, he made his way across the sagging roof.
A board gave way beneath his questing hand with a damp cracking sound and he froze, cautiously
pulling his fingers out of the opening. If anyone should happen to open a shutter now and look out, he
would show up very well in the moonlight. The sound seemed to draw no unwanted notice, however, so
he continued onward.
The fire on the other side of town appeared to be spreading. If he was lucky, it might attract
attention away from his activities. He selected a likely-looking window and gingerly stood. The boards
dipped alarmingly beneath his weight. He reached for the sill.
I don't suppose you're in Fourcity trying to kill off the assassins' guild, a voice said out of nowhere.
With the stunning reflexes of a man with speed as his middle name, Belden jerked in alarm and drew
his sword. The sudden movement knocked him off-balance. He took a step back, realized his mistake
even as the loose boards gave way, and plunged ass-first through the roof of the tailor's shop with a
Even as he landed in a dusty and abandoned bin of cloth scraps, he realized two things. First, that
the voice had come from inside his head rather than the window above him, as he'd initially thought.
Second, that the voice was one he recognized, the smooth, smug, and confident tones of Harold Ethelbald
Harry, he thought, trying to cover his embarrassment and the sudden urge to sneeze. What the hell
do you want?
Looking for you, Harry replied. Where are you?
On a roof outside the Fourcity Freemen's hall, he lied, glancing up through the ragged hole. No one
had opened any shutters to investigate, so maybe his misstep had gone unnoticed.
Beld, I don't have a lot of time. Listen. The assassins didn't do it. Somebody else made it look like
they did, so you'd go after them. You're being tricked. Used.
Belden had known Harry to lie whenever it suited him, and suspected he'd been the victim of
Harry's lies himself from time to time, but he knew his friend well enough to know that Harry would not
lie about something this important.
Who are they? he thought, his tone cold and deadly enough to chill his own bones.
He heard Harry's mental sigh, the wordless thought of a man who was up to his eyes in shit and
improvising with all his might. The Tristani, he said. It's hard to explain, but they're after me, and
they've gone after your kids to keep you from helping me. As long as you're on wild goose chases all over
Fourcity, you're out of the way.
What did you do? Belden thought accusingly.
I made a bet with Tristan, Harry admitted.
Trust Harry to never give a complete answer. Belden had seen it before. It annoyed the hell out of
Derrek. Harry would drop some leading statement, and wait happily for a prompt from his audience
before getting to the good stuff.
He started to deliver the desired response, when the import of that remark struck him. You made a
bet with who?!
Tristan, Harry said in a tone that meant he thought it should be perfectly clear. You know, god of
I know! How did you ... never mind.
And he's not just after you and Onyx. There was an attempt on Lillith and Warren just a few minutes
What was this bet? Belden asked. He had a familiar feeling that he often felt when discussing things
with Harry, a feeling of overpowering odds and schemes far beyond the range of any nice normal life.
Oh, just my soul against immortality, Harry threw off nonchalantly. Remember that little Cataclysm
we took care of a while ago? Well, it wasn't the real thing. The real test is still happening, and Tristan
doesn't think we can make it. So we've got a little side bet going.
I don't know why I even talk to you.
Anyway, he's afraid that I'm winning, so he's doing everything he can to mess things up. He's got
his clerics busy trying to interfere with my people, and also to get rid of all the competition. See, Beld,
the fewer non-Tristani thieves there are, the more work there is for his clerics, and the more power he
So what are you doing to stop it?
Not much, Harry admitted. I'm in jail.
Harry sighed again. In Pandathaway. I've been framed for the murder of a Councilmember.
Belden covered his eyes with one hand and groaned. Please tell me you don't want me to break you
No, I'm fine. I'm only staying in here because Luke'll be mad if I escape. I can't afford to piss him
off any more right now.
So what do you want me to do? Take on a whole Tristani temple by myself?
Well, now that you mention it ...
Damn it, Harry ...
What's the matter? Too much for you?
No! he flared. Let me handle them. I still owe them for the kids.
Oh, by the way. A lot of Tristan's power comes from the amount of stolen merchandise stored in the
temples. Toss it out in the street or something.
When I get done here, you're going to sit down and explain this whole thing to me, Belden thought.
I'll try to be out of jail by then, Harry promised. Always one to have the last word, he cut the
"Shit," Belden said, untangling himself from the rubble of his rapid descent. He sheathed his sword
and brushed the worst of the dust from his clothes.
The Tristani. Now he wasn't just dealing with scum-of-the-earth thieves and assassins. He was
dealing with scum-of-the-earth thieves and assassins who had the power of a god behind them.
He opened the crooked door of the shop a tiny crack, peering both ways down the narrow street.
Next door, the Freemen went blissfully about their business, never knwoing how close they had come to
complete annihilation. Wraithlike, still shedding bits of thread and cloth, Beldedn slipped down the street
and into a welcoming alley.
He had a bad moment when he realized that he didn't know where the Tristan temple was, but the
problem was solved when he remembered that this was Fourcity, after all, one of the few places where a
temple to the god of thieves could operate unmolested by the city guard. The governing of the city was in
the hands of the representatives of the four dukes, and the loyalty of the guards was as changeable as
Wildfire's moods. With a minimum of searching the decrepit back alleys, he soon located the entrance to
It was, on the surface at least, a plain building of weatherbeaten dark stone. The doorway was
flanked by two pillars vaguely shaped like gigantic knives. Since the building itself was rather small,
Belden assumed that the bulk of the temple rooms lay underground.
He started toward it, but faded quickly back into the shadows at the sound of two men approaching
on feet nearly as silent as his own. One of them wore the garb of a Tristani priest, but the other was clad
in a simple outfit of mottled green and brown, virtually identical to the clothes of the man Jaenyth had
shot through the head. That one was favoring one arm, and as they turned to enter the temple, Belden
caught sight of a wide bloody bandage wrapped around his chest. He recalled Onyx's claim that she had
tagged Rachel's would-be assassin with a knife. He moved toward them, so quietly that he almost seemed
to float. His sharp ears caught a fragment of a sentence just before the door was opened.
"-- bitch got me with a knife --"
Those few words were enough for Belden. The soles of his boots whispered against the cobblestones
as he broke into a run. The two men never saw him coming. The doors closed just as he passed through
them, plunging them all into darkness lit only by a lantern at the end of a hall. The men had only just
realized that they were not alone in the hallway when Arelon sang through the shadows, slicing deep into
the neck of the man in green and brown. The cut was not enough to sever his head, but he toppled to the
floor amid a horrible gurgle of blood.
The other man reacted with a swiftness that surprised Belden. He parried a lightning-fast knife thrust
and drove Arelon through robes and armor and into vulnerable flesh. The priest choked but did not die,
striking again with the knife. The point of the blade dug into Belden's armor, leaving him untouched.
Before he could sound an alarm, Belden yanked his sword out and drove it home again. The man
Standing over the fallen bodies of his foes, bloody sword in hand, Belden suppressed an urge to
throw back his head and howl. The Tristani would regret crossing his path, if any of them lived long
enough to regret anything.
Head up, alert, he pressed further into the darkness of the temple.
* * *
The Tristani never
knew what hit them. He tore through them like a wolf in a sheepfold, an
spirit that seemed to blaze with silver flame. His memories of that night were mercifully dim, except for
a few vivid images. He remembered one young priest, barely more than a boy, who landed not just one
but two telling blows before Arelon opened him from navel to backbone. He remembered two of them
that would not go down, fighting him with the inhuman ferocity of the dogsbodies until at last he beat
them to the ground. He remembered a hag-faced woman whose crossbow bolt grazed his head, tracking a
thin line of blood in his hair. He remembered a scything door trap that would have cleaved him in half if
not for an amazingly acrobatic leap and roll. He didn't know how many of the Tristani he cut down as he
roared through their temple like a whirlwind, but he remembered a circle of them closing on him with
wickedly long-bladed knives, and he remembered stepping over the huddled bodies, still in a circle, his
armor pierced in numerous places.
He remembered the great vault, filled with coins and items stolen from countless victims, and he
remembered several trips through the bloody corridors, his shield held like a tray heaped with goods
which he cast into the streets and the waiting hands of dozens of wretched commoners. He remembered
them following him, yelling with joy like children at Yuletide as they rolled in the piles of coins, stuffing
On one of his trips outside, he remembered a great firey glow in the sky, as if the city was burning.
He paid it no mind, for what was a city in flames compared to the fire of rage that burned undiminished
in his heart? Somewhere, the Antris, the high priest, had escaped him. He remembered a fleeting glimpse
of a tall figure in black ducking behind a tapestry, but he had been unable to find the catch that released
the secret panel.
When the vault was full of poor folk filling sacks and hand-pulled carts, and the vault was rapidly
emptying, he tore down the tapestry and ran his fingers across the wall. Panting, eyes stinging from
blood and sweat, heedless of the countless wounds that throbbed, refusing to think about the way some of
their blades had glistened with that odd greenish-black substance, he had at last triggered the catch and
the panel slid open.
He raced toward the light of a flickering candle, moving so fast despite his many injuries that the
crossbow bolts triggered by his rapid and careless passage struck the wall behind him in a series of
impacts. In a tiny room at the far end of the corridor, he saw the tall form of the Antris, looking up in
alarm from the table heaped with items of obviously great value. Behind him, the door of a wall safe
As Belden burst into the room, intent on his target, the Antris shrieked in genuine terror and bolted
for another hallway. Belden's foot struck the table and gems flew everywhere. He regained his balance
effortlessly. Knowing how he must look, eyes wild, hair flying, teeth bared, he raced after his prey. The
hallway was dark, but his elvensight allowed him to easily follow and even gain on the fleeing man. He
was only heartbeats behind the Antris when the floor gave way beneath him and his foot plunged into a
He felt a sudden blinding agony in his right knee, the poor abused leg that had been hurt so many
times before. His momentum carried him forward to slam into the floor, knocking the breath out of him.
His sword went flying, skittering across the stones. His forehead rapped the floor hard enough to blur his
At the sound of his fall, the Antris spun and came back toward him, brandishing a knife. His hood
had fallen back, and as his sight cleared, Belden could see that his opponent was an ugly man of middle
years, a sneer twisting his mouth, with small black eyes that gleamed greedily as he regarded the
"Now you will pay, filthy bastard," the man snarled.
Belden tried to think of a witty retort, came up with nothing, and decided to let his actions answer
for him. As the man approached, the knife weaving hypnotically back and forth, Belden opened his hand
and summoned Arelon with a thought.
The hilt of the magical elven blade smacked satisfyingly into his palm. He rolled, gritting his teeth as
new pain flared in his leg, and thrust Arelon's point upward into the Antris' groin. The keen blade
pierced deep. The priest's eyes widened and he squealed horribly. Belden hit the hilt of his sword with
his other hand, driving it deeper. Blood gushed down the blade and spilled over his hands. The priest's
knife flashed down and struck him between the shoulderblades.
Belden ripped his sword free and grabbed the Antris' ankles, wrenching the man off his feet. They
tumbled across the hall and crashed into the wall with crushing force. Belden let go of Arelon and seized
double handfuls of the Antris' wiry grey hair and slammed their foreheads together. The Antris' head
rocked back and struck the wall. His eyes rolled back and he went limp.
Bending his arm at a cruel angle, Belden found the knife lodged in his own back and pulled it free.
As he brought it in front of him, he saw the poison smeared across the blade.
"This is for my kids, you son of a bitch," he said, and slashed the knife across the man's throat.
* * *
He opened his eyes,
and saw the death-contorted face of the Antris inches in front of his own.
Belden knew he'd been hurt, hurt badly. He could feel the poison working through his veins. His
hands shook like a palsied old man's as he steered Arelon back to its sheath. Sweat broke out in huge
drops on his brow, and shivers wracked him.
"Damn it, I won't die here," he said, his voice weak and hoarse.
He summoned an image of Jaenyth in his mind, beautiful, spirited Jaenyth. Her chestnut curls were
blowing in the wind, her warm brown eyes twinkling at him. Strengthened by that image, and by the
desire to see the stars again, he started to drag himself down the passage. After only a few yards, his
arms felt like they were breaking. His right leg trailed uselessly behind him. He couldn't seem to make it
move, and he realized it must be broken again. With his left leg, he was able to push himself along in a
clumsy, crablike motion. He felt a draft of cool air on his fevered face.
When he reached the door and somehow fumbled his way to the handle to swing it open, he looked
back. He blinked. Surely he hadn't crawled that far? The body of the Antris was lying in a heap almost a
hundred feet behind him. The distance had felt like a hundred miles. His limbs spasmed. It was all he
could do to haul himself through the door and into the street. He rolled onto his back and looked up. All
he wanted was a chance to see the stars, just one last time ...
The stars were blocked by a cloud of smoke that filled the night sky and blotted out the light of the
He stared at the smoke, smelling its thick stench, seeing the reflected glow of fire, even hearing the
hungry, greedy crackle of flames. Recalling his earlier wish to see the city burned flat, he realized that it
seemed to be happening.
Fourcity was burning.
* * *