Soft torchlight flickered throughout the taproom of the small tavern. Save mine, every table was empty. Even the bar was deserted, the barkeep having left the room at my request. My requests were a promise of gold, followed by a threat of steel. The barkeep had only required the former.
Clustered around my table were four brothers and a single ebon skinned woman. All wore dark leathers over their black tunics. All were here because of my golden promises. All were thieves and killers.
“Why are we here, Tasson?” the woman said. Her name was unknown to the world; she was known as the Panther. She was a master thief, notorious for dangerous heists, and very expensive.
One of the brothers, Axus, opened his hand, and the fire from one of the torches floated to him and coalesced in his palm. “I’m here to help a friend,” he said, letting the flame write between his fingers. “I don’t know about you.”
The four brothers were elementals, mages with dominion over the elements. It was a rare gift, and for it to appear four times in one family was unheard of. Axus, the youngest, controlled fire, the eldest, Billus, controlled water, and the twins, Garus and Farus, held dominion over earth and air, respectively.
“The cat is here for her gold,” Billus said.
“Quiet, mage,” the Panther snapped, then, turning to me. “We all know the plan. Why did you call another meeting?”
“There’s been a change,” I said. “Suleth is being moved earlier than I had previously known. Everything must happen tonight.”
I paused as the news registered with everyone. The Panther took it silently, only a slight frown on her face, but the four brothers all objected loudly.
“We aren’t ready,” Farus said. “Billus and I haven’t had enough time.”
“Tonight?” Axus was incredulous. “Tasson, there is a feast in the castle tonight. The place will be crawling with guards. Is there no better time?”
“There is no other time at all. Suleth will be gone by tomorrow.”
Billus spoke up. “If there is truly no other chance, I would regret not taking it. I will follow you, Tasson, and I expect my brothers will do the same.”
The four brothers nodded their agreement, and I let out a sigh of relief. Each one of them was essential to my plan. Without them, I was doomed to fail.
I turned to the Panther, who had stayed conspicuously silent. “Are you still on board?” I asked her.
“Are you still paying me?”
Shoremont Keep rose high above the sea, a monolith of dark stone against the pale twilight. The keep had four thick round towers that rose high into the sky and, on the sea side, reaching low enough as to be buffeted by the waves. It was situated at the end of a narrow peninsula, with three gatehouses along the path.
This was the keep that I meant to break into.
My crew, excepting Axus, sat in a small boat, concealed by a mass of fog rolling in from the sea. It looked natural, but was far from it. Billus and Farus worked in tandem, pulling the fog over us like a grey blanket.
“We’ve been building it up offshore for the past couple of days,” Farus said. “We were hoping to have more, but by tonight this is the best we can do.”
It would be enough, I hoped. I could still see the outline of the keep, but with any luck the guards would be unable to spot our small black vessel.
“When are we getting started?” the Panther asked. She sat at the back of the boat, her black leathers wrapped in a heavy gray cloak. “The damp of this fog is starting to soak me though to the bone.”
“We have to wait until Axus give the signal,” I replied. “Have some patience.”
“You’re not paying me to have patience. You’re paying me to—“
She was interrupted by a flash of flame that outlined the castle in an orange glow. It was the signal we had been waiting for, so, as soon as it appeared, Billus willed the waves into action. They propelled our craft quickly and quietly towards the castle walls.
Axus’s fire had been our signal to move, but its purpose was twofold. He had assaulted the first gatehouse, setting it ablaze, and drawing the keep’s guards towards his position. As I drew nearer to the walls, I could no longer see their silhouettes standing watch.
Once we had climbed onto the rocky shore, Billus, Garus, and I lifted the boat out of the sea and started up towards the castle walls. The Panther moved a step behind us, slinking along with the shadows.
Garus stepped up to the wall and put his palms on the dark stone.
“Are you sure you can do this?” Billus asked.
The Panther laughed. “Is now really the time to ask that? If he couldn’t do it, I would have liked to know before we made this the crux of our plan.”
Billus ignored her with a shake of his head. “Can you?”
“Let’s hope so,” Garus said.
With a snort, the Panther stepped further back.
Garus closed his eyes and focused, a grimace on his face as he worked. I sat for a moment as nothing happened and doubted. What if this didn’t work? I had no other options.
Then, with a deep rumble, the stone between Garus’s hands parted. The noise wasn’t loud, but it resonated, as if a great roar was being muffled.
Garus fell to one knee, panting. “That was as quiet as I could make it,” he said. “I had to do it slowly, but there’s still a chance a guard heard it.”
I put a hand on his shoulder. “You did well enough.” In all honesty, he did better than I had hoped. I would have been fine with an earthquake, as long as it gave me entrance to the keep. I looked at the Panther and gestured towards the opening. “Lead the way.”
The passage wasn’t large. The Panther could make it through standing, but I had to bend over to follow her. The three brothers stayed behind. We followed it to the end, where it opened into a shadowy corridor lit by a single flickering torch.
As I stepped out, I ran into the Panther, who had dropped to a crouch. In the poor light I could barely make her out as she sat watching the corridor.
“There aren’t any guards,” I said, and tried to move past her, but she grabbed my wrist in a vice-like grip and pulled me back. She was much stronger than I had thought her to be, based on her size.
“This is my realm now, Tasson,” she said. “Your job is gold and quick talking. My job is steel and shadow. And I can’t do my job if you go running ahead of me. If you want to make it out tonight, alive and with Suleth, you follow me.”
I nodded, not wanting to make noise of any kind, and crouched down behind her. After a few seconds, she began to move, fluid and silent on the stone floor. She led me up into the higher levels of the keep, twice stopping me from stepping out into the view of a guard. As we neared the top of the South Tower, I realized that I would never have made it without her. She seemed to sense guards before they came into view, and a locked door was barely a hindrance to her.
We stopped just below the highest floor in the South Tower. The top floor was a single room, I knew, and it was where Suleth was being held. The only way in was a single trapdoor that was undoubtedly guarded on the other side.
“There’s no way around it,” I said, unsheathing my sword. “We’ll have to burst through quickly. A quiet fight would still leave us a chance to escape.”
The Panther put her hand on the tip of my blade and pushed it down. “Now who is the impatient one?” she asked. “There is always a way around.” She turned and climbed out a window, her hands and feet expertly finding cracks in the stone. “I’ll knock on the trapdoor when I’m ready for you to come through.”
I stood there for a few seemingly endless moments before I heard anything, then, a muffled thud. Had that been the knock? No, I decided, that had more likely been the sound of a falling body.
I heard two more thuds, and then a sharp rapping on wood. I pushed open the trapdoor and climbed into the tower room.
It was nothing like the prison I had expected; it was one of the most mundane rooms I had ever seen. There were four round windows, a low roof, and cracking walls, against which were piled crates and barrels. A thin layer of dust covered everything, except for the three guards bleeding on the floor, their throats cut.
The Panther grabbed the front of my tunic and shoved me against the wall, livid. I once again came to appreciate her deceptive strength. “There is no one here, Tasson,” she growled. “What is your game?”
“There is no game,” I replied, lifting my open hands. “I’m as confused as you are.”
Suleth should have been in this room. My source within the keep had been very clear. My source…
As I heard raised voices and boots on the stairs below, everything fell into place.
“It’s a trap!” I said, and with all of my strength, flung the Panther out the southern-facing window. She was surprised enough that I was able to do it, but I hoped I had been able to throw her far enough. Before I had much time to dwell on my choice, I followed her.
The night air whipped at me as I fell towards the sea. I hoped that I would be able to clear the rocky shore. If not, this would be an embarrassing way to die, and I knew the Panther would haunt me through the ten hells.
Just before I hit the sea, water rushed up to meet me. It curled around me and cushioned the impact, holding me in a swirling liquid orb. Looking over, I saw Billus standing on the boat, focusing on another orb, this one holding the Panther.
As soon as we were on the boat, with Billus taking us speedily away from the keep, the Panther rounded on me. “You bastard!” she shouted. “You just threw me out a window!”
“It was how I had planned to leave all along.” I tried to sound collected as I relayed my plan, but my shivering betrayed me. “I never thought to have to do that.”
“Where is Suleth?” Billus asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. I felt a cold rage sweep over me. “He was never there. I’ve been played.”
“I thought you said there was no game,” the Panther spat. “And yet your informant, whose identity you’ve never told us, betrayed you?”
“There has always been a game,” I said. “It seems I just didn’t know who was playing.”