In the midst of the swelling, stinking sea of humanity, only one face did not wear a mask. “Step aside,” said D’Uvel, pushing his way through the crowd on the Street of a Thousand Taverns. D’Uvel wore no costume; instead he wore a dark wool cloak and rust-colored doublet, his plumed hat cocked rakishly to the side, unbuckled rapier at his hip. Shoving aside a drunk dressed in motley, he emerged into a side alley. It smelled of
urine and rotting cabbage, but was mercifully devoid of people. Stepping over puddles of vomit, he passed under an arch and onto a narrow, empty lane that ran parallel to the Street of a Thousand Taverns. His gate was steady and determined-- the deliberate stride of a man in a hurry.
He had nearly arrived at his destination—a drinking house called The Paladin’s Downfall—when three drunken, boar-faced men stepped into the light of a lone street lamp, blocking his way.
“Well, well!” said the first, a giant of a man with a low, protruding brow. “What have we here? A dandy, out for a stroll?”
“Perhaps he’s lost,” said the second, a shorter fellow holding a club. Look at those fine leather boots. No doubt he can spare a few silver coins to help a few less fortunate souls. Can’t you, dandy?”
“Step aside,” D’Uvel said. His voice was even, toneless.
The men burst into laughter.
“There are three of us,” laughed the giant, crossing his arms. “And only one of you.”
D’Uvel raised his arm from beneath the cloak and leveled his flintlock dueling pistol toward the men. There was an audible click as D’Uvel pulled back the firing hammer.
“So you can count to three,” he said. “Let’s see if you can count backwards. One…”
He never made it to two. The thugs raised their hands, murmuring apologies and stumbled off the way they had come, in search of easier prey. D’Uvel returned the pistol to his belt continued to the end of the lane, where the leaded windows on the Paladin’s Downfall glowed softly.
Inside, the Paladin’s Downfall was more crowded than usual. The taproom was bursting with masquers, the air a thick miasma of smoke, sour beer, and body odor. No one paid D’Uvel the slightest attention as he made his way through the crowd and up the wooden staircase to a second floor landing. After glancing behind to make sure he had not been followed, D’Uvel pushed open a door and entered a private dining room.
The room was small. A fireplace crackled, casting the room in deep shadows. The air smelled like wintergreen. The only occupant was a woman, sitting legs-crossed at a small table in the center of the room.
“You’re late,” she said.
“My apologies. Crowds…”
D’Uvel moved closer. She was in her twenties or early thirties—he couldn’t be sure, the full detail of her concealed by a black lace mask. She wore her dark hair up, a few coiled strands framing the straight line of her jaw. Her gown was purple, off the shoulders, the bodice pulled immodestly tight. She wore matching elbow length gloves and leather high-healed ankle boots. The wintergreen scent came from a short, thin cigar she held between her fingers. Weirdweed. It was a leaf smoked by wizards, primarily, thought to aid their concentration. He looked at her ring finger. She wore a skull-ring with two ruby eyes. Only members of the secretive wizards’ guild possessed such a ring.
“My name is Franz D’Uvel.”
“The Bastard D’Uvel,” she said cooly. “The Butcher of Karlstadt. The Terror of Carcosa. Killer of witches.”
“The same,” he said. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage. You know my name and I don’t know yours, miss…?”
“What’s the point of a masquerade, if not to remain anonymous?” she replied, red lips curling into a slight smile. “Our mutual friend recommended your services highly. He said your were a reliable man who understands the importance of…discretion.”
D’Uvel sat down slowly. “Then he also told you I insist on knowing the identity of my employer.”
“In good time. Here my offer first. You may choose not to accept.”
“You have heard the name Erik Von Dirk?”
“I’ve heard it,” D’Uvel said.
“And what have you heard?”
“He’s a gangster. Largest dealer of moonsnow in the city. He’s known colloquially as the Snowman. So what’s a good girl like you doing mixed up with a man like him?”
She took a shallow drag and exhaled toward the ceiling. There was a glimmer in her green eyes. “Whoever said I was a good girl?”
He smiled. She was becoming more intriguing by the moment. “Go on.”
“Erik has something that belongs to me. Something I want returned. Tonight. It’s a trinket, really—easily obtained by one possessing the talents of The Bastard D’Uvel. ”
“What’s the item?”
“Untie my corset,” she said, rising from her chair and turning her back to him.
His eyes moved from her neck, down her back, to her slender hips. She was stunning, no doubt, but the Bastard D’Uvel knew too many dead men to let down his guard that easily. The assassin’s guild was fond of employing attractive women. A hidden knife, a poisoned hairpin, a necklace that doubled as a garrotte—any could produce a swift, silent death. And on the Night of Masks, no one would be the wiser.
“Well?” she asked. “Are you going to untie me?”
“Raise your hands,” he said cooly. “Lace your fingers together. Keep them raised--good.”
He drew his poniard with his right hand and placed the tip against her back, dimpling the fabric. He ran his left hand down her back and hips, searching for weapons.
“Is this your idea of foreplay?” she asked.
“It’s my idea of forearmed. Who sent you?”
“No one sent me. I’m not an assassin. Don’t be stupid. Untie the corset.”
“No sudden moves.” Knife still in hand, he unfastened the top rows of the corset and yanked the laces through the eyelets, revealing the pale skin of her back. “Put your hands down and turn around. Slowly.”
“Try not to scream,” she said. She removed her gloves and lowered her hands to open the corset. There was a wet, sticky sound and a crunching, like bones being displaced. She turned and faced him. Then he saw.
In his life, D’Uvel had seen his share of wounds. He had survived his share of battles, seen men disemboweled, begging for death. But nothing could have prepared him for this.
She held her rib cage open, her chest cavity exposed, internal organs visible. Pulpy strands of flesh held the raw meat and bones together. In the center of her chest where her heart should have been was a black--thing. It was coiled, like a snake, covered with sharp spines. It pulsed gently, expanding and contracting with her breath. A tangle of black arteries connected it to her other organs, pumping blood. D’Uvel’s stomach churned. The room spun. He stepped backwards and fought the urge to vomit.
“When I said Erik VonDirk took my heart,” she said, “I meant it literally. He took it and used sorcery to replace it with this. I want you to get it back--tonight.”
After the initial shock had worn off and he had re-laced her corset, she told D’Uvel the whole story. Her voice was low, toneless. He tried to concentrate on what she was saying, but the words faded in and out. All the while he sat drinking bourbon, trying to wrap his mind around what he had seen. She finished and said nothing.
“Does it…hurt?” D’Uvel asked.
“Only when I breathe,” she said, her ruby lips forming a grim smile. “I use drugs to numb the pain. Over the years I’ve gotten used to it.”
“And the boy? Your lover?”
“Dead. Erik disemboweled him, right in front of me. He told me that since I had given my heart away to someone else, he would steal mine back and keep it forever. My heart, my real one, still beats. It’s kept alive in an enchanted vessel, a magic jar. Were I to get it back, I could replace this…thing.”
D’Uvel pulled his handkerchief from his sleeve and gave it to her. She dabbed her eyes.
“Why don’t you go to the authorities?” he asked. “Necromancy is expressly forbidden, punishable by death. Surely the Duke…”
She laughed. “Erik VonDirk is a friend of the Duke. He operates with impunity, under the Duke’s tacit permission. The Duke’s own nephew is addicted to moonsnow, and the Snowman makes sure he and his friends are well supplied. Erik lives like a nobleman in a mansion near the river, far from the slums and criminal classes. The City Watch protects it like it’s the Palace Rampant. He keeps my heart in a locked treasure vault in the topmost tower. Tonight, I intend to get it back.”
“Every year Erik holds a masquerade for the city’s nobility. It’s invitation only, and the invitation is inscribed with special gold ink. It took an expert forger and a lot of money, but I have an invitation for myself and a guest. Tonight, you and I will infiltrate the masquerade. Once inside I’ll make sure the guards are distracted while you sneak into the tower. I have a map. I know where all the guards will be. I know where Erik keeps his treasures and I have a key to the vault. You will steal my heart back for me. We will rendezvous back here when the cathedral clock strikes midnight. If you fulfill the contract, I am prepared to pay generously…”
She tossed a purse onto the table. A pile of newly minted gold talons spilled out.
“Twenty talons,” she said.
It was a small fortune--enough to keep him fed, housed, and sufficiently wenched for the foreseeable future. Most laborers didn’t see five talons pass through their hands in a year, let alone twenty in one night. Still, the Snowman was dangerous.
“It’s only easy money if I get out alive,” he said. “The Snowman will take precautions. There will be extra guards.”
“I need your help, Franz,” she said. There was a hint of desperation in her voice. “I’ll only get one shot at this. I can’t do it alone.”
He paused to consider. Twenty gold talons.
“Alone,” she repeated, her breathing heavy. She dangerously close, looking deep into his eyes.
“Two conditions,” he said. “First, I need to know your name. I want to know for whom I’m working.”
“Alexa,” she said. “What’s the second condition?”
“I’ll need a mask.”
With the exception of the Palace Rampant, Erik Von Dirk’s mansion had to be the most opulent home in Dreadmoor. It was located on the bank of the river Skuld: a six story castle, twisted towers clawing at the sky, amber windows glowing like lanterns in the night fog. Inside were parlors, galleries, and a massive ballroom. In the center of the marble floor, a swarm of gods and monsters danced to the music of musicians ensconced on a balcony overhead. Above, a massive chandelier glowed with the light of a hundred candles. Guests filled their cups from fountains running with wine, emptied them, then filled them again.
No one gave second thought to the masked woman in the violet gown and her rakish escort in a simple black mask as they passed through the massive entrance archway. D’Uvel and Alexa had arrived in a coach she had rented for the evening. Six burly guards at the front entrance gave them a quick look up and down. D’Uvel carried his rapier and poniard, but every nobleman did so—although most carried them only for ceremonial decoration. The pistol would never have been admitted and he had left it in the coach. Alexa produced the required invitation and the guards had admitted them without further inquiry.
Now they stood in the midst of the glittering throng, making their way toward the center of the cavernous floor. So far, so good, D’Uvel thought. He counted the guards, easily identified by their white livery. All had the lean, hard-bitten look of ex-mercenaries. All carried truncheons discretely at their sides.
“Care to dance?” asked Alexa. “It would seem suspicious to just arrive and make straight for the stairs.”
“Smart thinking,” D’Uvel replied, taking her gloved hand and putting his arm around her slender waist. He pressed her tightly to him and maneuvered into the center of the dance floor. Her body was soft and cold. He could smell her perfume now, lilac. What kind of monster could harm her? He felt his anger building. He wanted to hurt Erik Von Dirk, to kill him if at all possible. D’Uvel may have been a bastard, but the Snowman was pure evil.
“That’s him,” she said, motioning with her eyes.
Descending the stairs was a tall man dressed entirely in white, billowing cloak trailing behind him. The Snowman was thin and pale, much younger than might be expected of a man with his power. The left side of his face was handsome, with sharp, angular features. The right side of his face was concealed with a white, porcelain mask. Flanking him was a small retinue of armed guards. On the Snowman’s left arm was a young girl dressed as a fairy—obviously his escort for the evening. To his right was a lean figure, clad in black, rapier hanging at his side. He wore no mask; instead his face was tattooed with blue webbing, like that of a spider.
“That’s Spider Braaz,” she said. “Erik’s bodyguard and assassin. Watch out. His blade is poisoned.”
Spider Braaz was almost as legendary as the Snowman. He had once worked for Malken, another crime lord and leader of the Skull Gang. It was rumored that Spider liked to torture his victims until they begged for death. D’Uvel made a mental note not to find out.
Passing within inches of the Snowman and his retinue, they made their way up the main staircase to the second floor balcony. It was crowded with guests laughing, flirting, talking. D’Uvel could see his target clearly: a narrow side staircase, a single guard standing watch.
“Circle around behind that pillar,” Alexa said. “I’ll take care of the guard.”
“Don’t worry. Just go.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, leaning in and kissing him on the cheek. Without pausing for a reply, she turned and joined the crowd.
D’Uvel moved around the pillar and approached from the guard’s side, staying in the shadows, trying to stay out of his field of vision. He watched as Alexa sauntered up to the guard, smiling, and whispered something to him. Almost immediately his eyes became vacant and his jaw fell slack. She locked eyes with D’Uvel for a moment and then turned and walked away, the guard trailing obediently behind her.
In that moment, D’Uvel slipped into the unguarded archway and vaulted up the stone stairs.
The upstairs halls were deserted. Oil paintings and tapestries hung on the stone walls. Torches flickered in sconces along the corridor. D’Uvel could feel his pulse racing. Drawing his poniard from its sheath, he slunk through the dimly lit corridors until he reached a spiral staircase. He’d spent an hour studying Alexa’s maps. Everything--every hall, chamber, and archway was accurate, down to the last stone. Twice he heard the footsteps of passing guards and twice he evaded them. It was a simple matter; her maps had contained the precise locations of the guards and sketches of their routes, meticulously drawn in broken lines. How Alexa had come by the information he could only guess, but here were few secrets that could not be pried from disgruntled servants when the price was right. With grim determination he crept up the twisting staircase, at last reaching the fifth floor.
D’Uvel poked his head around the corner to make sure the corridor was empty. The staircase leading to the Snowman’s treasure chamber was just a few yards ahead. That’s when he heard the footsteps. Von Dirk must have posted an extra guard to prevent some clever thief from doing exactly what D’Uvel was doing. Stealthily, D’Uvel slipped behind a floor-length arras and pressed his back to the cold stone. He could hear his heart beating in his ears. Beads of sweat rolled down his forehead. He gripped the handle of his poniard tighter. The footsteps were moving closer. The guard would pass within inches of the arras. D’Uvel weighed his options. He could let the guard pass and do nothing, hoping he would not be discovered. But if the guard found him and raised the alarm, the whole operation would be ruined. He would never make it to the treasure room. Worse, The Snowman would surely double his defenses in the future. He thought of Alexa. Clenching his teeth, he raised the poniard overhead, poised to strike.
From a crack between the arras and the wall, D’Uvel watched the guard walk by, oblivious to his presence. Summoning every ounce of strength, D’Uvel pounced, plunging the knife into the right side of the guard’s neck. Clamping his hand on the guard’s mouth, D’Uvel dragged him backward into an alcove, kicking and gurgling. He pressed the poniard into the wound so the blood wouldn’t spray. Slowly, inexorably, the flailing ceased and the guard fell limp.
D’Uvel paused to listen. Nothing. Confident no one had heard the struggle, D’Uvel took a moment to conceal the body. Taking a torch from a wall sconce, he mounted the darkened tower stairs.
At the top was a small, round chamber containing a single door. There was a stained-glass window and D’Uvel did not doubt it was magically alarmed to prevent thieves from entering from the outside. On the floor was painted a black pentacle, with candles strategically placed at all five points. He looked closer. There were short chains and iron shackles bolted to the floor. A shiver ran down his spine. He imagined Alexa helpless, fettered to the ground, eyes wide with fear, the Snowman pulling her still-beating heart from her rib rage. The thought made him shudder, then seethe with rage. He felt the urge to kick the candles over, but thought better of it. No traces, no clues he reminded himself. He turned to the door.
It was heavy oak with a sturdy lock. From his belt purse he produced the key Alexa had given him and slid it into the keyhole. She had assured him the key would disengage the lock and any alarm system. He was about to turn the key, when he paused.
A thought suddenly occurred to him. What if she were playing him? What if she were using him as a pawn in some grand scheme? What if he had been hypnotized, like the guard, and she was manipulating him like a marionette, a child’s toy, on strings?
He knew nothing about her, really. He knew her name, Alexa, but that could be an alias. He had never seen her without her mask on, would not be able to completely describe her face. If he were to be captured by the Snowman, he would be able to give no details about his employer. He would undoubtedly be tortured and killed and his corpse dumped into the Skuld. No one would know he was ever here.
No, he thought, pushing the idea from his mind. Alexa wouldn’t betray him. He thought of her frail body--of the thing coiled in her chest--of tears forming in those emerald green eyes. She couldn’t be lying. He pushed the idea from his mind.
Holding his breath, the Bastard D’Uvel turned the key. The lock opened. He pushed the door inward and gave a small sigh of relief. No alarm. The girl hadn’t betrayed him.
Inside was a small room lined with shelves. Upon the lower ones were typical treasures: silver cups encrusted with gems, fine goblets wrought of gold, jewel encrusted necklaces, obscene oil paintings by outlawed artists, and neat stacks of gold talons and silver ducats. On the top shelves were items more macabre: potion vials filled with dark fluids, misshapen, horned skulls, unrecognizable creatures floating in jars. Most disturbingly, a collection of mummified heads, their skin stretched tight like parchment, eyes stitched shut, lined the topmost shelf--victims of the Snowman, no doubt.
He scanned the shelves. It was there, just as Alexa had described: an ornate jar containing what appeared to be a human heart. The heart floated in yellow liquid, pulsing gently, animated by an unseen force. The jar bore no label, but was the only one of its kind on the shelves. That had to be it. Holding his breath, he gingerly lifted the jar from the shelf. For a moment, nothing happened.
Then the heads started screaming.
“Thief! Thief Thief!” they yelled in unison, their demonic voices reverberating through the chamber. D’Uvel leaped back and slammed the door. The alarm continued, the door only slightly muting its sound.
“Fuck me,” said D’Uvel, cradling the jar in his left arm and drawing his poniard. He bolted to the exit and sprang down the stairs, taking them three at a time.
D’Uvel sprinted back the way he came, the sorcerous magical cacophony of screams still echoing off the walls. Hearing the tramp of heavy boots approaching from ahead, he ducked behind a statue. Three burly guards ran past him. As soon as he turned the corner, D’Uvel took off in the opposite direction. Doorways, tapestries and paintings blurred past. There was the main spiral staircase ahead. If he could make it there, he could make it directly to the ground floor and….
Another guard emerged from the staircase, blocking his path. D’Uvel skidded to a halt. For a moment, the guard stared stupidly, mouths agape. Then he raised his truncheon and charged.
“Stop, thief!” he shouted, barreling down the hallway.
D’Uvel’s hand instinctively went to his belt wear his pistol would usually be. He cursed as he realized it wasn’t there and drew the poniard instead, placing the jar on a nearby chair. The guard was on him, bringing down the truncheon overhead. D’Uvel ducked, spun and stuck out his boot. It caught the guard off balance, sending him stumbling forward into the chair, then to the flagstones. The jar wobbled and spun on the seat. D’Uvel steadied the chair with his boot and then sprang onto the guard, bringing the hilt of the rapier crunching into the back of his head repeatedly.
It had been a crude maneuver, clumsily executed. His fencing master would have chided him for the inelegance of the execution, but it had worked.
Turning, D’Uvel picked up the jar from the chair and checked it for damage. It had fallen onto its side, but there was no visible damage. The heart was still pulsing gently in the cloudy yellow liquid.
“There he is!” came a shout from behind. At least one of the guards from the first pack had heard the commotion and was doubling back!
D’Uvel drew and flung his poniard. It spun and slammed pommel first in between the guard’s eyes with a dull thud, knocking him backwards onto the floor. More boot steps followed behind. There was no time to retrieve the poniard--D’Uvel took off, down the main staircase, the jar tucked firmly into the crook of his elbow.
He descended the stairs as he could. As he went he pulled a pouch free from his belt and scattered its contents—barbed steel burrs--onto the stairs behind him. That ought to slow them, he thought. He’d just made it past the fourth floor landing when he heard shouts from below, and backpedalled to the landing. The guards from above charged headlong down the stairs, crying out as the caltrops penetrated their boot soles and bit into their flesh. Off balance, they crashed into one another and tumbled down the stone stairs, carried by their momentum.
D’Uvel smiled evilly as they rolled down the stairs toward him, a twisted ball of torn muscles and broken limbs. And that’s why they call me the Bastard D’Uvel, he thought, darting down the fourth floor corridor.
His triumph only lasted a few strides. He turned a sharp corner and slid to a stop. There, in the center of the dimly-lit hall stood the Erik von Dirk, flanked by Spider Braaz, and more guards. Their swords formed a wall of sharpened steel.
“Surrender now,” said Von Dirk calmly. “And I promise to kill you quickly.”
There was no way around them. He was outnumbered. He was facing three armed guards, a sorcerer, and a trained assassin with a poisoned blade. He thought of turning, but heard more boots approaching from the corridor behind him. The Bastard D’Uvel was trapped. Spider must have known what he was thinking, for he flashed a wide, yellow-toothed grin, the tip of his rapier green with venom.
“You can’t win,” said Von Dirk, a cruel smile on his thin lips.
No one moved. D’Uvel’s mind raced. The boots from behind were getting closer. He had only seconds…
D’Uvel barreled shoulder first through a door on his right and slammed it behind him, sliding the bolt into place. The door was thick oak. He had bought himself two minutes. Maybe.
His eyes darted across the room. It was dark, lit by a single flickering torch. He took an inventory: cold fireplace, long table and chairs, leaded windows. Fuck. No door out. He was trapped. Desperate, he pushed the windows and looked down.
A chill night wind rushed in, blowing out the torch. In the moonlight he could see the steep peaks of the rooftops and towers that made up the city’s jagged skyline. Below was swirling fog. The river Skuld was under the fog then, he guessed. He couldn’t be sure. He thought of jumping, then reconsidered. At four stories, the water would feel like stone. D’Uvel could swim, but clothes would weigh him down. And could the jar possibly survive the impact? Probably not.
Heavy shoulders slammed into the door, followed by a low groan.
“You kick a door, dumbfuck,” said a voice.
“You’re dead, thief!” came another. “There’s no way out of there!”
D’Uvel turned away from the window, back to the room. With the torch out, the room’s features were barely visible in the moonlight. He had seconds to decide. He couldn’t fight them. He couldn’t flee. He thought of Spider Braaz’s poisoned blade.
Heavy boots battered at the door.
D’Uvel grabbed the fireplace mantle. It was solidly built. He placed the jar on the mantle as far from the edge as possible. It would be safer there than on the floor or table. He looked at the stone arch surrounding the doorway.
Another kick. Splinters few.
D’Uvel leaped on the table, bounced to the mantle, and launched himself upwards….
Moments later the door burst inwards. Spider Brazz and four guards rushed inside and were greeted by the howling wind. It blew out their torch, plunging the room into near total darkness. The Bastard’s eyes, however, had adjusted.
“I can’t see nothin’.”
“Where is he?”
The Bastard D’Uvel dropped from his perch between the archway and ceiling, landing in the center of the pack, the impact sending them sprawling. Scrambling to his feet, he swung his rapier wildly. Screams told him at least some of the blows connected. Dropping to the floor, D’Uvel rolled under the table and proceeded to hack at their feet. Steel rang against steel as the guards and Spider lashed out blindly, striking at one another.
“I have him!”
“That’s me, you idiot!”
“Ahhh! I been stabbed!”
D’Uvel rolled under the table and sprang up on the other side.
“Imbeciles!” the Von Dirk shouted. Suddenly the room was illuminated by cold, white light emanating from The Snowman’s hands. D’Uvel could see everything now: one guard rolled on the ground, clutching his feet. Another was holding his face as dark blood rushed through his fingers. Two more were convulsing, having been struck by Spider Braaz’s poisoned rapier. Not even Von Dirk had escaped injury. His porcelain mask had been shattered, revealing the other half of his face. It was scarred and twisted, a mass of misshapen burnt tissue.
D’Uvel sprang onto the table and raised his rapier over Spider’s head. Before Spider could react, D’Uvel leaped on him, driving his blade into the assassin’s shoulder, down through flesh and bone, emerging out the lower right side of his back. Spider’s face smashed into the fireplace mantle, his outstretched hand grazing the jar containing Alexa’s heart.
D’Uvel watched in horror as the jar spun towards the edge. It wobbled there for a moment, then toppled over, plummeting toward the flagstone floor. Releasing the rapier, D’Uvel dove to intercept it, hands extended, fingers wide…
…and snatched it out of the air, underhand, just before impact.
“Well done, thief,” said the Snowman, his hands crackling with magical energy. Somehow Spider still stood, clutching the mantle, D’Uvel’s sword hilt still protruding from his shoulder. “But now it’s time to die.”
Von Dirk raised his hands. D’Uvel felt the hair on his neck prick up. He could see the malevolent glow in the Snowman’s eyes, could feel his hatred building. Green lightning danced on his fingertips, then shot outward.
At the last moment D’Uvel jumped behind Spider Braaz and grabbed him, using him as a shield. The bolt hit Spider center mass. He exploded, showering the room with meat and bone. The impact propelled D’Uvel backwards, off his feet, through the window, into the night air. He seemed to fall in slow motion, tumbling through the fog, hundreds of pieces of broken glass tinkling. As he fell, the jar slipped from his grip. His arms were flailing, he did not know if he was head up or down. An image of Alexa’s anguished face flashed through his mind. The fall seemed to last forever.
He hit the water with a smack. Weighed down by his clothes, in shock from the icy water, his head concussed from the impact, the Bastard D’Uvel sank quickly…
…and was gone.
In the private meeting room on the upper floor of The Paladin’s Downfall, Alexa sat, legs crossed, smoking casually. It was well past midnight. The taprooms on the Street of a Thousand Taverns were closed or closing, the shouts and laughter of the maskers growing ever fainter. The Night of Masks was over.
She thought of Franz D’Uvel. It was looking increasingly doubtful he would return. She had heard he had fallen out a top floor window of Erik Von Dirk’s mansion and into the river Skuld. She had watched from a distance as Erik’s soldiers had searched the banks for any sign of the D’Uvel, but they had come up empty. She might have tried to use her magic to save him, but had needed to conserve her power for the ritual ahead. She had to think of herself, and loss of one sell-sword was no great tragedy, in the grand scheme of things.
Still, she felt sorry for him. The poor fool had been hopelessly outmatched from the start. Who would have thought The Bastard D’Uvel, the Terror of Carcosa, the Butcher of Karlstadt would ultimately be undone by his own compassion? And now he was dead. Tomorrow his corpse would be found on the banks of the Skuld, then ignominiously tossed in a pauper’s grave. She sighed. Even a bastard deserved better than that.
She was about to leave when the door opened. There entered a man, shirtless, his breeches soaked, feet bare. His body was lean and hard, the muscles well defined. His steel blue eyes were half closed. One was swollen shut.
“So,” Alexa said, relieved. “The Bastard D’Uvel returns from the dead.”
“I failed,” said D’Uvel, collapsing onto the chair. “I lost the jar. I lost my shirt, my boots, my sword. I almost lost my life.”
“On the contrary,” she said. “You succeeded most admirably. I’m afraid I neglected to inform you of all the particulars of my plan. The heart you stole…was not mine.”
“What?” He squinted through his swollen purple eyelid.
“The heart you stole wasn’t mine. It was that of a rare beast, not even human. My heart was in Erik’s other secret chamber, deep in the cellar. While you provided the distraction, I was able to retrieve my own heart. It is now safely in place, in my chest where it belongs.”
She pulled down her bodice, revealing a jagged scar, faint and pink, as if it were already weeks old. She motioned to the table, to a neat stack of gold coins. “Your twenty talons, as we agreed, plus ten more for your…inconvenience.”
D’Uvel sat dripping in the firelight. His muscles were lean and hard. They rose and fell with his breath. On his face was a look of sheer incredulity.
“You used me,” he said in a low growl.
“Have you not done so with others?”
He opened his mouth to say something, then stopped. He couldn’t argue with her logic. He was alive. Wet and sore perhaps, but thirty talons richer.
“And now, monsieur D’Uvel, the hour grows late,” she said, rising. “Thank you for an entertaining evening, but I’m afraid the time has come to say farewell—but not goodbye. I have no doubt we’ll meet again soon. We make a good team, you and I.”
She walked out the door. The Bastard D’Uvel stood there stupidly, unable to think of what to say. By the time he went to the doorway, she had vanished.
On the floor, just outside, lay a black lace mask.
©December, 2015 Dan DeFazio
Dan DeFazio has previously been published in Dungeon Magazine. This is his first appearance in Swords & Sorcery.