The Bastard D’Uvel doffed his plumed hat and gave it to the attendant as he entered the foyer, a few wisps of evening fog following him inside. He ran his fingers through his blonde hair and straightened the lines of his black doublet.
“Monsieur D”Uvel,” said the valet with a nod. “Welcome back. It has been too long. What is your pleasure this evening?”
“Good evening, Andre,” said D’Uvel. “A game. Something to engage the senses and challenge the intellect.”
“This way,” said the valet, pulling back a green curtain and motioning inside. D’Uvel descended two steps into the grand salon. He scanned the room with his steel blue eyes. The tables were crowded with people playing card games like Scant and Hazard, and spinning the Devil’s Wheel. A roar went up as a fat duke rolled a seven, extending his lucky streak.
“Too pedestrian,” D’Uvel announced. “I was looking for something more unique.”
“I have just the thing.” Andre said, ushering him into a second salon.
The next salon contained a large X-frame. Shackled to it was naked girl, her body glistening with sweat, her tangled hair obscuring her face. Guests took turns flinging small darts at her lithe body, covered with red puncture marks. With each hit the girl emitted a gasp and her body trembled.
“The game is called Kiss; it is the newest rage,” explained Andre. “A favorite among the nobility. The louder the peasant girl screams, the more the house pays.”
A pretty young countess landed a dart in the girl’s right breast near the nipple, causing the target to cry out. The crowd cheered and exchanged chips.
D’Uvel felt his stomach begin to turn. “Too barbaric. Have you anything more—-cerebral?”
Andre seemed crestfallen, but motioned for D’uvel to follow him through an arch into the third and final salon.
It was darker, illuminated by a crackling fireplace and a handful of candles set on small marble tables. The room was empty except for a sole occupant.
She was beautiful, legs crossed casually on a plush settee before a chessboard. Her dark hair was piled on her head a few stray coils framing her straight jaw, others descending to her pale shoulders. Her corset was pulled immodestly tight, and she wore he wore black leather breeches and knee-high, high-heeled boots. The wintergreen scent came from the stub of a thin cigar she held casually between her fingers. Weirdweed. It was a leaf smoked by wizards, thought to aid their concentration.
“I think I can take it from here,” D’Uvel said, placing a silver shilling in the valet’s hand. He took the hint and stepped backward out of the room, closing the curtain behind him.
“You are not amused by Kiss?” she asked, arching her eyebrow.
“It doesn’t seem very sporting,” he said, moving closer.
“Join me for a game? Mr…“
“D’Uvel. Franz D’Uvel. I’d be delighted,” he took his seat in front of the white pieces. “Alexa--if I’m not mistaken?”
“Have we met before?” She regarded him with a casual disinterest. “I can’t recall.”
“It was during the Night of Masks. You wore a violet gown with a black cat’s eye mask. If memory serves, I barely escaped with my life.”
“You’ll have to forgive me,” she said, taking a quick drag and exhaling smoke at the ceiling. “I don’t remember. Or perhaps you’re not that memorable. In any event, I am in need of an opponent. Tell me, D’Uvel. Do you play chess?”
“I dabble,” he lied. In truth, D’Uvel played quite regularly. He had even made a study of the game, occasionally visiting the coffee shops around the University Theologica and playing the young scholars there. “Can I get you a drink?” he offered.
“You may. Wine, please. Red.”
Soon a serving girl had placed two crystal goblets on either side of the table in front of them. Alexa took a long sip.
“Please,” he said, motioning to the board. “I insist you go first.”
She moved her knight forward, followed a by a pawn and bishop. She played quickly, employing her queen to assault his left flank. It was the strategy of an amateur, D’Uvel noted. He took his time and countered slowly, feigning indecision, taking the opportunity to observe her more closely. She wore little makeup, save for her rogued lips, and her brow furrowed in concentration. She wore a black crepe scarf around her slender neck and the nails of her fingers were painted blood red. One was adorned by a skull ring with ruby eyes—-the kind worn only by members of the secretive Wizard’s Guild.
“Check,” she said.
He maneuvered his King out of harm’s way and positioned his knight so as to threaten her queen. She retreated and he quickly pinned her queen between his knight and bishop. Within just a few moves he turned the tide, rapidly trading piece for piece, but always ahead.
“Check,” he announced.
She scanned the board, nodded graciously and smiled. She placed her finger on the top of her king and tipped it over.
“It seems you’ve defeated me,” she said, stubbing out the remains of her cigar in the ashtray.
“A lucky move on my part,” he said. “Another game?”
“I think not,” Alexa said, yawning. “Thank you for an enchanting evening, but I must be going. Farewell, Mr. D’Uvel.”
“But the night is young,” he said, rising. “Why not play again?”
“This game has ceased to amuse me. I like risks, thrills. Perhaps the Devil’s Wheel…”
“A small wager then?” he offered.
She eyed him suspiciously. “And what are to be the stakes?”
She sat down again and crossed her legs, and said, “Very well. How about this: if I win, you will do whatever I wish for an entire night. If I should lose, I will do whatever you wish for an entire night.”
“Whatever I wish?”
Her red lips formed a lascivious smile. Her green eyes bored in on him. “Whatever you wish.”
D’Uvel considered. He was an experienced gambler, and an experienced gambler could smell a trap. Here was a stunningly beautiful woman, who happened to be a wizard, wagering on a game for which she had little apparent skill. Clearly this was a trap. She had, perhaps, deliberately lost the first match in order to gain his confidence. She was undoubtedly playing him for a fool, but to what end? Whatever she was after, it was clearly not a game of chess. Perhaps she had been lying in wait all night, just biding her time until an idiot with a sword walked in to challenge her. Well, if she thought he could be that easily gulled, she had another thing coming. It would take more than a tight bodice and a pair of heels to beguile a sword-whore with the cunning of the Bastard D’Uvel!
“I accept,” he heard himself say.
“Very well. Please—-go first.”
Cautiously, he opened with his knight. She countered with her pawn. Her play was quick and deliberate. His mind raced frantically. Rapidly, the pieces mounted on both sides of the board.
It took her all of five minutes to defeat him.
“A lucky move on my part,” she said.
He seethed. “You bewitched me!”
She laughed girlishly. “Mr. D’Uvel—-I don’t need a spell to defeat you. Your own arrogance did that. Now sit down and listen, and I shall tell you the night’s itinerary.”
He opened his mouth to respond but nothing came out but a hapless stammer. Defeated, he sank into the chair.
“Good then,” She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “What do you know about the Scriptorium of Vilius Rhune?”
He had heard the name. He had first heard it mentioned at the University when he was a student. “The largest private library in the city. Some say it rivals that of the Collegium Theologica itself. The owner and curator is called Villius Rhune. Some say he’s a hundred years old—-others a thousand. No one has actually seen him, so no one can say what he looks like. He never leaves the Scriptorium’s tower. It is said the Scriptorium is guarded by powerful magic and cunning traps. No one has ever entered the scriptorium and emerged to tell its secrets. Is this the library which you’re talking about?”
“The same. But it’s worse than that. Rhune has a cult of trained assassins who double as his librarians, guard the Scriptorium and accumulate rare books for him. Two nights ago one of the librarians came to my townhouse and nearly murdered me…”
She removed the scarf to reveal purple bruising on her neck from the ligature marks. “…and stole a book—-a rare book on the subject of alchemy, called the Libris Chymical. Tonight you will accompany me into the library, where we will recover the book in question.”
“Why do you need me? You’re a wizard. Why don’t you get the book yourself?”
“Every queen needs a knight. Call it insurance—a simple errand for someone with the prowess and cunning of the Bastard D’Uvel.”
D’Uvel sighed. It was going to be a long night, he thought.
The golden lights and drunken revelry of the Silver Moon receded as D’Uvel and Alexa walked through the fog-shrouded streets of Dreadmoor. D’Uvel moved with the mien of a panther, supple muscles tense under his doublet and cloak, rapier hanging on his belt. Alexa strode alongside him, her heels clicking on the wet cobbles. They had eschewed a coach, for the Scriptorium was not far, just across the bridge in the Scholar’s District, home to bookbinders, scribes, and lawyers, and the University—the renowned Collegium Theologica.
The buildings were dark and the streets silent in the Scholar’s District, the students having abandoned their studies in favor of carousing at the Street of A Thousand Taverns. The professors, meanwhile, had retired to the coffee shops to plot revolutions and demonstrations in the name of social justice and equality—-women’s rights, dwarf rights, goblin rights—-D’Uvel could not be bothered with any of it. He had been a student at the University once, briefly, years ago. He had entered ostensibly to study theology, but his actual studies included seducing barmaids, brawling, and occasionally writing bad verses. He had lasted once semester, after which he was expelled for dueling. And the duel hadn’t even been lethal. He had heard his opponent, the loathed Otto von Schnoss had survived the affair, albeit with one less testicle and a commensurate ability to replicate. Nevertheless, the scandal brought an end to Franz D’Uvel’s less-than-promising academic career. Now the lecture halls with their leaded windows were nothing but a distant, unpleasant memory.
They crossed a wooden footbridge that spanned a minor tributary of the River Skuld and turned the corner onto a lantern-lined street. They passed a single watchman with his truncheon, but he just tipped his hat and allowed them to pass without questioning. Why would he? To observers they appeared like a noble dandy and attractive consort out for an evening stroll. Even through the fog D’Uvel could make out their destination ahead.
The Scriptorium was so large it encompassed an entire city block. The main tower of the Scriptorium stretched into the starry sky, clawing its way toward the two moons above.
It was made of grey buttressed stone with large, round stained glass windows as were found on the great cathedrals of the city. Gargoyles perched on the roofs above, staring downward at the street. A high, ivy covered wall surrounded the perimeter, the only means of egress was a pair of ornate wrought-iron gates that were chained shut. Steps lead to a stone portico, at the center of which was a massive, ironbound door.
As D’Uvel walked closer, he imagined he saw the gargoyles craning their stone necks to follow him. He shuddered, but could not escape the thought.
“We’re behind watched,” he said.
“Undoubtedly,” Alexa replied. “I would expect nothing less from Vilius Rhune. Hold my arm and keep walking. Check for guards.”
He took her slender arm and lowered the brim of his hat to obscure his eyes. There were no guards; at least none that were visible.
“And how do you plan to enter without being seen?” D’Uvel asked.
Alexa kept strolling casually, mumbling some ancient language under her breath. She stopped at the wall that surrounded the Scriptorium. She turned to him and looked him in the eye.
“Kiss me,” she said.
“Kiss me, you idiot.”
He leaned down and kissed the side of her cheek, gently.
“Like you mean it,” she commanded.
Dutifully, he pressed his lips to hers. Her mouth opened, her tongue flicking playfully against his. It felt course, almost sandy, her breath tasting like wintergreen. He pressed her closer to him, pushing her up against the cold, ivy-covered wall.
“That’s enough, thanks,” she said abruptly, pushing him away. He opened his eyes to find he was surrounded by fog so dense he could not see more than an arm’s length away from him. It was if he stood in a cloud. “Now follow me.”
Leading him by the hand, she stopped at the massive gates and took hold of the iron padlock. Muttering again in another language, she passed her hand over the lock and it opened, just as surely as if she had inserted a key. Uncoiling the chains, she pushed the gate opened and ushered him inside, then wrapped the chains back around the gate so as to give the appearance they had not been tampered with.
Moving swiftly, they advanced up the stairs to the portico to the entrance. The ironbound door was embossed with skulls and menacing-looking runes in some arcane tongue D’Uvel did not understand. Alexa went to place her hands on the door; D’Uvel raised his arm to prevent her.
“Wait.” D’Uvel said. “This door may be trapped. Notice these strange runes…”
She let out a frustrated sigh. “This one says, ‘Silence, please.’ The other says, ‘No Smoking.’ Now step the fuck back and get out of my way.”
Cheeks flushed in embarrassment, he took a step backward.
“Patefacio,” Alexa said, placing her hands on the grey wood. The ponderous door opened with a groan. “Inside—quickly. And don’t touch anything.”
Within was a room unlike D’Uvel had ever seen. Whereas the Collgium library was long and rectangular, the Scriptorium, was built vertically. Ornate stone columns supported six floors around a center atrium in which D’Uvel and Alexa now stood. Intricately carved wooden staircases ascended to the top of the tower, connecting by a web of wooden footbridges spanning the center on every other floor. The atrium floor was made of finely polished marble with a spiral pattern. Rows of shelves spread out from the center like the spokes on a wagon, disappearing through archways and obscuring the library’s dimensions. No torches or candles burned. Instead, lamps hung from the ceiling on long chains and on sconces. They did not flicker but emitted a steady, soft glow.
“Moonstones,” she whispered. “They do not burn and are always cool to the touch. No chance of fire. Come. This way.”
She darted into the nearest stack. He followed. In doing so he brushed too close to the books and was startled by the rattle of metal links—-the books were fettered to the shelves by iron chains. Alexa scowled angrily and raised her finger to her lips. He shrugged sheepishly. The air smelled of mold, vellum, and tooled leather. The books were thick leather-bound tomes with gilt-edged titles in unpronounceable tongues. Alexa ran her finger over them. All were covered with a thick layer of dust.
Curiously, D’uvel noticed that although the shelves were dusty, the floors were swept clean.
More curious was the skin in the center of the aisle. It was pale and coiled. He knelt to examine it. It was similar to that of a snake—a large one, yet there were no scales. Instead it was smooth and hard like a shell.
Alexa tapped him on the shoulder and pointed down the aisle. A spiral staircase beckoned upwards to the next level. Alexa nodded to the staircase and motioned for D’Uvel to go first.
D’Uvel padded his way up the stairs, his senses alert, Alexa close behind. At the top he found himself on a narrow walkway with no railing. He peeked over the edge at the center atrium. None of the floors had railings—-Vilius Rhune must not be a wine-drinker, D’Uvel mused.
That’s when they heard it—a skittering followed by the tinkling of chains from below. They paused, absolutely still, and listened.
Seconds passed without any sound. They locked eyes, but said nothing. They didn’t need to. They knew something was following them, and that something was on the floor below. Alexa pointed upwards, motioning for them to continue.
On they walked through stacks, silently, methodically, pausing occasionally to run her finger along a spine, then moving on. They ascended another staircase, then another, winding their way upwards. It was near the top floor, in the center of an aisle that they found the corpse.
It lay face up on the flagstone, tongue protruding, eyes rolled upwards. He wore a dark grey tunic and breeches with soft, mouse-skin boots—-the clothing of a thief. On the floor near one hand was a knife in the other was a tension wrench and hook pick.
D’Uvel looked more closely at the face. He recognized the thick jowls and bulbous nose.
“I know him,” D’Uvel whispered. “His name is…was Fardulf. A burglar. And not a very good one, it seems. Operated out of the Drowned Rat in the Freemarket district. No doubt he was hired by some wizard or scholar to steal some ancient tome. Observe the edge of this knife. No blood. That means he was taken by surprise. Yet it’s curious. Were he stricken from behind he would have fallen onto his face. ”
“Look at the top of his head.”
D’Uvel lifted the head. The man’s disheveled mop of hair had obscured his injury. In the top of his head was a neat hole, not larger that the top of a wine glass. Inside the skull was nothing. The brain was missing, scraped clean.
That’s when they heard the sound again.
It was a skittering and clicking, not unlike a roach, but larger. Much larger. The hairs on his neck pricked up. He rose to his feet.
“What was that?”
Alexa raised her hands and spread her fingers wide, the air around her seemed to shimmer for a moment, bending like ripples on a pond.
“It that supposed to protect us?”
The noise came again, closer this time. D’Uvel drew his rapier and pressed his back to Alexa’s.
“Remember when you asked why I needed you?” she asked, breathing quickly.
“This is why.”
A shadow darted across the entrance to the aisle and rustled amongst the shelves. D’Uvel turned toward the stacks and drew his poniard. He followed the sound as it raced upwards, disturbing the chains.
There was a long pause. D’uvel stood crouched in fighting stance, looking upward, every muscle and sinew tensed. Seconds passed. D’Uvel could hear Alexa’s shallow breathing. Then, he saw it.
A pair of two-foot long antennae poked over the top shelf, groping. Then the thing sprang, dropping on top of him, a dog-sized mass of writhing legs and frothing mandibles. Instinctively, he leaped backwards, swinging his blade blindly. Something shot out at him, a proboscis or stinger of some sort, and narrowly missed his forehead. The speed of the creature was incredible, a blur of writhing legs and mottled flesh. It scrambled across the shelves and leaped again.
D’Uvel ducked, driving the sword along the length of the creature’s soft, fleshy body. Yet it did not die; it lifted itself up on its hind legs, pale intestines dragging behind it, and hissed. D’Uvel was frozen in terror as it lifted itself to its full man-sized height.
Then suddenly, it exploded.
Slime, innards, and legs flew everywhere, splattering the aisle and D’Uvel. The legs on the torso of the beast still twitched and writhed, its stinger waving impotently. D’Uvel turned to see Alexa behind him, her fingertips smoking, the air smelling faintly of ozone.
“Were you stung?” she asked.
“No,” he said, patting himself just to be sure.
“Bookworm. They paralyze their prey and then devour their brains. Some wizards raise them as pets. You’re sure you’re not hurt?”
“I’m fine. Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Alexa twisted the face of her skull ring to reveal a hidden compartment. Inside was a fine white powder. She placed it under her nose and snorted the entire contents. Moonsnow. Made from the meteorites thought to have come from the moon itself. Wizards used it as a source of magical power. Rubbing her nose, Alexa motioned down the aisle to the rows beyond.
“Shall we go? This way. What we’re looking for is on the other side of that bridge.”
At the end of the aisle was a narrow footbridge that spanned the room. It looked sturdy but had no railing. D’Uvel looked over the edge at the spiral pattern on the tiles five stories below. Taking a deep breath, he stepped across.
He was alert and on edge, waiting for another creature or one of the dreaded librarians to make a sudden appearance, but none did. On the other side an archway led into a hexagonal chamber. The walls were honeycombed with niches filled with hundreds of vellum scrolls and books. Every square inch, even above the doorways was packed with documents. Two more archways exited the room. D’Uvel could see staircases beyond.
In the center of the room which was a large desk. Chained to it was a tome of immense proportions. Hunched over it was an old man wearing thick rivet spectacles. His skin was tight and sallow, stretched tight over his skull. He smiled, revealing only a handful of rotting teeth and blackened gums. He held a quill, still dripping with ink, which he returned it to its pot.
“Welcome Ms. Braur,” he said in a voice as cracked and leathery as the books that surrounded him. He craned his head and adjusted the spectacles. D’Uvel held his rapier up, ready to defend himself.
“Are you impressed by my little collection?” he croaked, a smile on his thin, cracked lips. “Here are books so ancient that the languages they are written in are lost to antiquity. The civilizations which produced them have long disappeared from the face of our world, swept clean by the deserts, volcanoes, even swallowed by the sea itself. Yet, the books remain, their stories preserved, resting silently on my shelves. It would take you a lifetime to read them all. Fortunately, I have a lifetime. Several lifetimes in fact. My drugs and sorcery have allowed me to extend my mortal lease so that I might read them all. I was just perusing the Liber Chymical. Fine condition, although there is a bit of wear at the edges. No matter. Now. How many I help you?”
“I want the Liber Chymical back. You stole it from me.”
“Wrong!” he shouted, his voice echoing through tower. He opened the front cover and pointed with his clawed finger. There, on the inside, was a stamp depicting a skull and the name Vilius Rhune. ”See the Ex Libris. The Liber Chymical is mine—-stolen from this library decades ago by a cunning thief.”
“I found it on a quest in the Tomb of Bhak Bhazhul.”
“Then I thank you for returning it to its proper home.”
“You may thank me by letting me borrow it so that I may copy the contents, which, by the way, I was midst of doing when your assassin tried to strangle me.”
“No. I’m afraid it’s out of the question.”
“Books are written so that knowledge might be shared.”
“Ha!” he laughed. “To the contrary, books are written so that knowledge may be controlled. He who controls knowledge, controls thought. He who controls thought, controls people! But I grow weary of this discussion. You and your assassin have violated this sanctum, sought to steal from me, and killed my pet. And for that you must be destroyed!”
A garrote wrapped around D’Uvel’s throat and yanked him backwards off his feet. Instinctively he dropped his rapier and his hands went to the cord to pry it away from his neck. Impossible! He thought. No one snuck up behind the Bastard D’uvel. Yet someone unseen had done just that, and now they were dragging him through the archway and out of the room, back to the ledge.
Alexa heard D’Uvel’s strangled gurgling and whirled to see him being dragged backwards through the archway by a cowled figure. Seething with anger, moonsnow racing coursing through her veins Alexa, raised her hands. A massive charge built in her fingers and she was about to release it, when she glimpsed a second monk out the corner of her eye, garrote raised above her head.
She turned at the last moment, discharging a blue flash of energy into his torso. He was repelled backwards into a case of books. It exploded in a whirlwind of parchment and dust.
She expected the figure to stay down. Instead it stood, shook himself off and lowered its cowl. She saw its gruesome face in the lurid light of the glowstones. It was pale, bald, devoid of any hair, its skin translucent, under which could be seen a web-work of veins and capillaries. Its eyebrows had been plucked clean and it was clean-shaven, giving no clear clue to the creature’s gender. The eyes were black, the pupils pink.
Most disturbing were the lips. They were stitched shut with thick black thread in a crisscross pattern. It dropped the garrote and drew a serrated dagger. She was about to cast another spell when another hooded figure emerged from a third archway to her side.
“Meet my librarians,” Rhune said. “Both Brother Makin and Brother Crow have spent years studying the fighting arts of the Far East. Perhaps your sorcery might defeat one of them, but both? I think not.”
She was surrounded. Rhune was right. Her magic was powerful, but she could not hope to engage both of them at the same time. She had to stall for time.
“Why do you sew their lips shut?” she asked.
“So they can never reveal the scriptorium’s secrets, in the event there are captured.
“But why would they choose to serve you?”
“I pay them well. In drugs, mostly. Purple lotus. It places them in a constant state of euphoria. Over time, they forget who they are, where they came from. All they know is the taste of the lotus…and killing.”
“You’re mad,” she said.
“For a learned girl you’re most naive. Madness is all a matter of perspective. Good men. Evil. Sane. Mad. History is written by the victors. And now the time has come to write the last chapter of your story. Sadly, I will be the victor, and you will be nothing more than a footnote.”
“And now,” he said, his face contorting into a demonic leer. “Brother Makin and Brother Crow. Kill her…”
D’Uvel, kicking wildly, was dragged to the very edge. The thin chord dug into his throat, his gloved fingers working frantically to prevent his larynx from being crushed. The monk shoved him from behind, intent on either strangling him or pushing him over the edge. D’uvel dug his boots into the lip of the edge. A brick came loose and fell, shattering on the floor five stories below. Stars danced in front of D’Uvel’s eyes as his vision began to darken.
No! He refused to die like this. Still clutching the garrote with his left hand, D’Uvel groped for the pommel of his poniard with his right. There it was! He yanked it free from its scabbard and jabbed desperately behind him. The long point lodged in the monk’s right thigh, between the meat and bone.
The monk let go of the garrote and D’Uvel fell forward onto the bridge that spanned the center of the tower, gasping as the oxygen flooded back to his brain. He scrambled to his feet, he turned to see the monk standing on the ledge, clutching the hilt of the poniard.
Taking the pommel in both hands, the monk pulled it free. Blood ran down his leg, soaking his breeches, yet it gave no scream. That’s when D’Uvel saw that the monk’s lips were sewn shut. The pain should have been enough to fell any man. The blood loss enough to drop the largest opponent. But the monk limped on, dragging himself onto the bridge, D’Uvel’s poniard in his hand.
D’Uvel unclasped his cloak and wrapped it around his left forearm. He raised his hands and turned to the side, left foot forward, to expose as little of his torso as possible. He waited and crouched into a fighting stance.
The two stood for a moment in the center of the bridge, their muscled coiled and ready to strike. Slowly, the monk raised the poniard above his head.
And struck, driving down at D’Uvel’s neck. D’Uvel blocked the blow with his left forearm and struck the monk full in the face with his right foot. The monk teetered, but did not lose his balance. The two exchanged a flurry of blows, grappling for control of the blade. D’Uvel caught his wrist, twisting the blade away from his body and driving his boot into the side of the monk’s knee. It buckled with a crack and D’Uvel shoved, sending him over the edge.
No scream escaped his sewn lips. All that could be heard was the flapping of his robes as he fell. D’Uvel looked over the edge just in time to see the monk’s skull burst like a melon on the marble floor below.
A moment later Alexa burst through the archway and charged onto the bridge, carrying his rapier. They met in the center.
“You dropped this,” she said, handing him the hilt.
It felt good to have his sword back in his hand. “Thanks.”
“Don’t thank me yet.”
Two monks emerged from the archway, followed closely by Vilius Rhune, carrying the Liber Chymical in his claw-like hands.
D’Uvel turned to flee and found another two monks waiting at the other side of the bridge.
“Trapped!” Vilius Rhune cackled, emerging from the arch, fingers wrapped around the leather cover of the Libris Chymical. “There is no escape. You are surrounded on all sides.”
D’Uvel scanned the stairs. There were more robed figures, nine or ten in total, staring down from where they were perched on the staircases. In unison, they all drew serrated knives and brandished them menacingly.
Rhune grinned in triumph. “You cannot possibly kill all of them.”
“True,” Alexa said, closing her hand into a fist. “But we don’t need to.” She unclenched her hand to reveal a fire dancing on her palm, like a torch. She held it out and smiled evilly.
“If one of them takes so much as a step further, you can kiss your precious books goodbye.”
The flame flared blue. Alexa’s brow furrowed. She waved her fiery hand with a flourish, illuminating the thousands of scrolls that filled the niches of the room.
“Stop!” he ordered the monks, waving his hands frantically. He addressed Alexa. “You wouldn’t. You couldn’t. All this knowledge would be lost!”
“What difference does it make? I’m never going to read them.”
Vilius Rhune’s jaw hung open. They locked eyes, and he could see she meant it.
“Maybe we can make a deal,” he said at last. “I’m not unreasonable. After all, we’re both scholars.”
“I want the Liber Chymical back,” she said coldly. “I’ll return it after I finish copying it.”
“A reasonable request,” he said, approaching her slowly, holding book outward in his clawed hands. “Here. Take it.”
She snatched it from his hands held it tightly to her breast. He stepped back, off the bridge.
“One more thing,” she said. “Should your monks ever visit my house again, or should any retaliation be attempted on your part, the Bastard D’Uvel and I will return and burn this place to a cinder.”
D’Uvel tried his best to look steely, trying to push the thought of being strangled in his sleep by a cult of murderous librarians as far from his mind as possible.
“You have my word,” said Vilius Rhune, withdrawing into the shadows. His monks slid their daggers back into their sheaths and stepped aside. “Farewell Ms. Braur. Enjoy the book. After all…knowledge is meant to be shared.”
Cautiously, D’Uvel and Alexa descended the stairs and exited the tower into the night fog.
Back at the Silver Moon, Alexa and D’Uvel sat on either side of the chess board. The salon was empty, except for them. The Liber Chymical lay on the settee beside them. Full goblets of wine lay either side of the playing table.
“So,” D’Uvel said, taking a long swallow. “The book. Why is it so important to you?”
“Alchemy,” she said, taking a sip. She lay her glass down gently and twisted the face of the skull ring to reveal the secret compartment. She snorted the last of the white powder and shivered. “I need it so I can create moonsnow. Without it, my spells are far less effective.”
“I hate to seem like a nag, but isn’t that a dangerous way to live?”
She gave a small shrug and snapped the compartment shut. “Is it any more dangerous than selling your sword to the highest bidder? You’ll be dead long before me.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “Next question: what if I had won the match?”
“And why is that?”
“Because I’m an expert at chess. Moreover, I know the Bastard D’Uvel. The Butcher of Karlstad? The terror of Carcosa? I knew you would never be able to resist a challenge. Especially a challenge from a woman. Especially an attractive woman. I was always two moves ahead, so to speak.”
She was smart. He had to admit, she had gotten the better of him.
“Last question,” he said. “That kiss by the wall—-”
“—-A necessary diversion in order to make the ruse seem convincing. I apologize if I caught you by surprise.”
“So…that was acting?”
“Of course,” she said. “Our relationship is strictly professional. In our line of work, it’s best to avoid… entanglements. Don’t you agree?”
“Of course,” he lied, trying his best not to sound disappointed. “No entanglements. Strictly professional.”
There was a long pause as their eyes met. The silence hung there. Neither party was willing to break it.
“Good,” she said at last. “Then we understand each other. Care for another match?”
D’Uvel sighed. She was right. She was always right. She was always two moves ahead.
“Very well,” he said, taking another long drink from his goblet. “Your move.”
©August, 2016 Dan J. Defazio
Dan J. DeFazio's story "The Death of the Bastard D'Uvel" appeared in the December 2015 issue of Swords & Sorcery. He has also been published in Dragon Magazine.