by Gregory Weir
The clock standing against the wall marked out even seconds with its pendulum. Tick, tock. The shadows leaned across the hallway between the windows, and the moonlight glinted off of the marble tiles. At the end of the hallway was the master’s door, guarded by two orcs in matching armor who stood at attention despite the late hour.
And then came the song.
It was a low humming that echoed down the hallway in time with the clock’s measured sounds. The guards strained their ears and eyes, but saw nothing.
And then came the assassin.
It was human-sized, but there were no other visible clues; its face was covered in gray cloth, its leather armor hugged its chest to mute out any signs of gender, and its only smell was that of soap and weapon oil. The assassin walked past a window, stepping in time with its song. For a moment, it was lit by moonlight, and then it vanished into the shadows again.
The guards didn’t look at each other. They were too well-trained and confident in each other for that. They just set their lances to hold off the intruder: the butts of the weapons braced against the corner of the wall behind them and the points angled to intercept an attacker’s chest.
The humming turned into a wordless song, sung in a middle register between masculine and feminine. The music spoke of swift shadows and sharp blades, and the footsteps sped up, no longer in sync with the clock. The assassin flashed by another window, illuminated only long enough for two knives to glitter in the light: one long, one short.
The guards tightened their grips on the hafts of their lances and lowered the visors of their helmets.
One more window revealed the assassin leaping, impossibly high, and coming down over their lances with the points of the knives shining brightly in the moonlight.
Morim woke up with his lungs burning. His whole body was cold. His joints were stiff, so stiff that he couldn’t move. He struggled to remember, to somehow grasp with his mind where he had just been, to hold on to some detail. But there was nothing.
“That one was the hardest yet,” a voice said. “You almost stayed dead this time.”
Morim turned his head, and saw the arena healer through eyes clouded by quickly-reversing decomposition. The cleric was an old man who looked as if he practiced his arts on himself in his spare time. Eye patch. Stitch scars down the temple. False teeth. Morim had woken up like this enough times that he had the man’s face memorized.
He realized he’d never asked the man’s name.
The healer turned away to a small writing desk awash with papers. “You can’t keep dying so often or you’ll be lost forever,” he said. “Worse yet, you might turn into something else. Your body and soul need time to heal.” Morim’s head spun. What was the healer talking about? “I’m benching you for three months,” the old man said.
No. No, no. Morim tried to speak, but his throat was cracked and raw and swollen. He tried to sit up, to grab the healer and shake some sense into him, but his joints were full of jagged ice and molten glass. Darkness overtook him.
Day five. Morim was counting. On day four, he’d finally been able to stand up. The only thing worse than having the healer stop him from fighting was knowing that the old man was right. Every other time he’d died, he’d been back up and crushing heads in three days or less. But this was his second death this month. That sort of thing wore on a person. It had worn a hole in Morim.
The hole was in his chest.
The healer had applied salves, bandages, said words over it. But only so much could be done with death marks. Morim still had a hole the size of a medallion in his chest. When he changed his bandages, he could see his ribs.
Morim had a collection of death marks. The bloody star in his right eye. The piercing in his ear that never closed up. The black stain that wrapped around his left hand like a centipede. They had nothing to do with his injuries; they were the price taken by whatever courier brought him back from death.
Morim slid himself out of bed carefully. A huge human bed, not built for dwarves. He landed heavily on the ground and winced as it jarred his bandaged chest. He took a few experimental footsteps. He could feel the altitude; knew that he was two stories above ground and that the ground was near the sea. It was an air pressure thing. He felt exposed all the time. It was a dwarf thing.
But Morim wasn’t a dwarf anymore. That person had died and stayed dead. Now he was just the shortest gladiator in the city arena.
And he wasn’t even that anymore.
Day twenty. Morim sat in a traveler’s tavern: the Wandering Swan. It was the only sort of place in the city that he knew something like peace. He was the fifth best gladiator in the city, and knew a certain notoriety for his physical stature and the passion with which he chased death. This inn, however, was frequented only by non-natives: adventurers, caravaneers, and tourists. Few people would know his face, distinctive as it was. He sat at a secluded table and made his ale last as long as he could. Dwarven ale was expensive, but booze made from fungus spoke to his body much better than that made from barley.
“Hey!” a voice called out. Morim slumped in his seat, making him even shorter than usual. He knew that tone of voice, and he knew what was coming next.
“You’re that guy!” the human said as he walked up to the table. He was dressed in chain mail, clearly cheaply-made to Morim’s martial eyes. A sword at his side, weighted more for dueling than for real combat. A rich kid playing at sellswording, Morim guessed. Purebred human, of course: a thankfully rare occurrence. “You’re that crazy arena fighter, aren’t you?” the kid continued. “I saw you fight the last time I came through town!” He turned to face his table of companions. Morim glanced at them with one bloodshot eye. A threesome of dandies, each with their own poorly-chosen armor. “This guy is crazy!” his assailant called out.
Morim looked up at the man. “That’s right,” he said in his stony voice. “I’m crazy.” He slid his chair back and stood up, placing his head even with the kid’s shoulder. The kid looked down at him, and his face paled. Grizzled combatants hesitated in the face of Morim’s stare, so this kid was no match. “They say I don’t care if I live or die. You know I once shoved a fork into a guy’s crotch for looking at me funny?” The young man’s eyes flicked for just an instant to the discarded fork on Morim’s table, and his lips moved in the shadow of an apology.
Morim held his gaze for just a moment, then slammed his hand down on the table beside the fork. The kid jumped and made a noise like a startled goose, then backed away, turned, and scurried back to his table. Morim turned back to his drink with a pitiable smile.
Quiet, musical laughter came from behind him. He whipped his head around in time to see a young man, not much older than the kid he’d spooked, sit down next to him. The man was dressed in loose-fitting clothes over a well-worn leather breastplate. Caravaneer wear. Mostly human, from the look of his face, but not purebred like the ponce Morim had scared away. He wasn’t armed, but he did have a leather case at his belt, the sort that protected magical tools or a musical instrument.
“Seat’s taken,” Morim said, to stop the man before he had a chance to start.
“No, it’s not,” the man said, and scratched his temple. “Name’s Brea. And you’re Morim. And you’re out of work.”
Morim had a swig of his ale, then winced as he saw how little was left in the tankard. “Sounds like you know all about me,” he grunted. “Which means I don’t even have to tell you I’m not interested.”
Brea grinned. The rudeness washed over him without making a dent in his contentment. Morim hated him for that alone. “You sing a sad tune,” Brea said, “But I think I can play with it all the same. Here’s the deal. I’ve got…”
Morim glared at the man, looking him right in the eyes. “I don’t care what you’ve got,” he growled. “I’m not interested. Just over two months and I’m back in the ring. Doing… what I do.”
Brea’s grin didn’t fade. “And wouldn’t you rather keep yourself in toadstool ale and whatever else dulls the pain during that time?” he asked. “Like I was saying, I’ve got a job. It pays well, but it’s dangerous.”
Morim looked at his drink. One healthy swig left, or fifteen minutes’ worth of tiny sips. “How dangerous?” the dwarf responded.
Brea shrugged. “If we’re not at the top of our game, we end up face down in our own entrails,” he said, his grin relaxing into a peaceful smile.
Morim looked the guy over again. “‘We,’ huh?” the dwarf muttered. Brea wasn’t looking for an employee, it seemed, but a coworker. “Tell me more.” He drained his tankard.
The two men walked along the river in the moonlight. Around them, the city of Diadem slept restlessly. Muttered voices drifted out of an alleyway, but when they walked past it, it was empty save for two mangy dogs that watched them pass suspiciously. Overhead, a mage-noble’s ornithopter buzzed by, its heartcrystal glowing pale rose. A goblin slipped out of a drain across the water and scurried along the riverbank, leaving behind four more close-set pairs of shining eyes in the darkness of the sewer tunnel.
Morim’s head barely came up to Brea’s shoulder when he stood straight, and at the moment his head was bowed in thought. “So these nobles are getting knocked off, along with their bodyguards?” he asked, and looked up at Brea. “And no one knows who’s done it?” He hadn’t been paying a lick of attention to the news.
Brea scratched at his jawline. The human had a bit of patchy beard there, not enough to bother shaving. “Not just nobles,” he said. “Merchants, one guild leader. Six so far, and the only thing they have in common is they’re all on the city council. Only twelve council members left.”
“So, what?” Morim asked. He eyed a passing trio of orcs warily, but they just continued down the street in lock-step. “They just show up dead?”
Brea winced. “Well, more or less,” he replied. “Cut up with long knives. The one bit of real evidence is that servants at a few of the houses heard… humming.”
Morim stopped in his tracks. A passing fish made a quiet noise that rippled out toward the riverbanks. “Humming,” he repeated. “You’re telling me these people are being killed by a Piper?”
Brea took a few more steps, then turned around to look at Morim. “Is that what dwarves call them?” he asked. “Pipers? The elves call them Singers of the High Song. We mongrel folk usually call them True Bards or Fair Minstrels.”
Morim felt his heartbeat throbbing in the hole in his chest. “They say even queens will tremble when they hear the drone of a piper’s song,” he said with gruff reverence. “Anyone can play a song that’s true, but pipers can play truth itself. I never thought they really existed.”
Brea’s mouth twitched. “They exist,” he said. His hand touched the leather case at his belt. “And I have a feeling this assassin’s one of them.”
Morim grunted. “And you want us to sign on as guards in a house that this boogieman might target?” he asked. “You got a death wish?”
“No,” Brea said. That infernal smile slowly appeared on his face. “Do you?”
Morim and Brea walked through the sunlit halls of Tirah Manor. Most of the council members held hereditary positions; they were either nobles, well-bred mages, or descendants of merchant clans. Mercha Tirah was one of the few exceptions. She was the leader of the Artist’s Guild, and she wasn’t even of pure blood. More human than not, she had the bones of a halfling with the skin and ears of a goblin from the Southern Reaches. She’d gained her status through talent and business sense, and she wasn’t about to get killed by some assassin. Morim didn’t know how Brea had convinced her to take the two of them on as extra guards. When he’d asked, Brea had just hummed softly under his breath.
“So,” Brea chirped, startling Morim out of his political reverie. “Where do you think we should set ourselves up?”
Morim scowled and peered out a slit-thin window, too narrow for even a goblin child to slip through. “Place is a fortress,” he grumbled. “Good stone walls, only two main gates. The mistress’s standing guard will have those covered.”
Brea turned a corner, and Morim followed him down a hallway lined with paintings that were surely on loan from the guild’s archives. The human paused for a moment in front of a large gong sitting against a wall, surely imported from some foreign land. He extended a hand to touch the burnished brass surface. Morim surveyed the heavy door across the hall from the instrument.
“That’ll be the mistress’s room,” he said. “Good central location, no windows. Quite a few hallways leading toward it, which isn’t the best. ‘Course, to get here they have to come up the way we did, from the front gate, or from the back gate through the courtyard. Still seems like those gates are the choke points.”
Brea tapped the gong gently, and it rang with a whisper. He followed Morim as the dwarf turned to proceed down the corridor. They emerged onto a gallery overlooking the central courtyard of the manor. Trees swayed around a central fountain. “Maybe the standing guard has it under control after all, then,” Brea said cheerily.
Morim snorted. “Aye,” he replied. “We might as well just sit under a tree and…” He stopped, and looked up at the open sky above the courtyard, ringed with the tile edges of roofs. “Well, sandy soil,” he swore. “The stupid bastards have a big hole in the middle of their damn castle.”
Brea smirked, and unslung a crossbow from his back. “Nicer out here than watching those boring old gates, anyway,” he said. Morim went to grab a chair.
Torches sputtered in sconces around the courtyard, and the starry sky glittered overhead. Night sounds echoed: droning bugs, creaking trees, and the occasional snore. The central location of the courtyard and the branching halls gave an assassin near-countless ways to approach the guildmistress’s bedroom, but Brea and Morim sat outside the most direct route. Brea sipped coffee, and Morim nursed a clay flask of wakecap tea.
“So,” Brea said.
Morim hacked and spat over the gallery railing. They sat wordlessly for several more minutes.
“So,” Brea said again. “They say you got exiled from your hive.”
Morim had a swig of his tea. “I don’t talk about that,” he said.
Brea nodded, and unsnapped the clasp on the leather case on his belt. He took out a wooden recorder, polished to a dull gleam. He set it in his lap. A bird croaked somewhere above the city. Brea lifted the recorder to his lips and began playing softly.
“I was one of the palace guards,” Morim said. Brea nodded, his notes gently tickling at Morim’s ears. The dwarf continued. “We protected the queen, her consorts, and her midwives. It was pretty much a ceremonial position. No one attacks a hive unless they’re at war, and we’d been at peace for… what? A hundred years?”
Brea’s music drifted over the courtyard. It was a wandering, coaxing melody with a deep, gruff tone.
“But there was also politics,” Morim said. “And when politics and romance get mixed up…” He had another sip of tea. “One of the consorts thought he wasn’t getting enough time with the queen, or enough sway over policy. Either way, I was on guard when he entered her chambers with a knife hidden in his belt.”
Brea played softly. His coffee steamed beside him.
“I saw him heading toward her from across the room. I couldn’t stop him. Not really. Except… what I should have done, what my duty was, was to throw myself in front of the blade. I could have done it. But I saw him going for her, and I remember thinking: I don’t want to…”
Brea suddenly stopped playing. He sat up, alert. A sound was drifting in from over the city.
Morim blinked as if waking up from a daydream. He looked at Brea, and his eyes narrowed. “Hey, wait a sec. Did you just-”
“Shh!” Brea hushed him. “Listen!”
Someone was humming.
“Shit,” Morim said. He picked up his war hammer and slid out of his chair, dropping to one knee and peering out at the courtyard. He spared a glance for Brea. The man had his eyes closed, and was swaying slightly with the music. Morim’s scowl deepened, and he whipped his head back around just in time to see a gray blur drop from the rooftops and land on the gallery directly across him. He squinted, but the figure was lost in the gloom.
Brea opened his eyes and began to hum softly. The two songs were dissonant, warring with each other. Brea picked up his crossbow from the floor and trained it on a spot across the courtyard. Morim spotted the gray figure slinking along the wall toward a side hallway, and moved forward to intercept it.
In the light of the torch, the invader was more visible. He (or she) had a face wrapped in gray cloth, with only dull black eyes exposed. It hummed as it peered at Brea and Morim, and the edges of its form fluttered and blurred, as if blown by wind or rippled by heat. The dissonant twin humming hurt Morim’s ears, but he ignored it as he gripped his hammer at the ready and advanced on the figure. “Slow your step,” he barked.
The figure’s only response was to slowly draw two knives. One was a bit longer than its forearm, and the other was half that length. The steel sang as it slid from its sheath, and that note harmonized with the assassin’s music. For an instant, the dissonance was masked, and the figure faded in front of Morim’s eyes, turning into a blur that darted down the nearby hallway toward their employer’s chambers.
Brea stopped humming mid-measure, turned, and ran toward another hallway. He kept his crossbow at the ready, in an easy and professional grip. “Follow them!” he shouted to Morim. “I’ll meet you there!”
Morim scowled. “Screw you,” he said, but ran after the assassin. His legs were shorter, but years in the arena had taught him how to keep up with taller opponents. He followed the humming down the tile-floored hallway. He could catch only glimpses of the assassin ahead: a scrap of gray cloth here, the gleam of a razor edge there. It was like the torchlight shied away from the song.
Morim came around one last corner, and could see the doorway to Mistress Tirah’s bedroom ahead. The heavy door was still closed, but Morim knew that it would only take a moment for a trained assassin to get through, lock or no lock. He shifted his grip on his hammer, and raced for the door.
Just before he reached the door, Morim checked his pace. Some instinct honed from years of arena battle told him to stop. There was a glint of light. Morim couldn’t see the assassin, but he saw the edge of the blade flash in a backswing, then move toward his neck with horrible speed.
A faint crack echoed from down the hall. In the instant before the bolt struck, Morim spotted Brea beside the next side hallway, crossbow raised. The bolt whizzed through the air in Morim’s direction, and the world exploded in sound. The gong across the hall swung drunkenly below its stand, and its cacaphony washed over the whole hallway. The song hiding the assassin was entirely overrun, and the grey-clad figure reappeared in front of the dwarf, the knife momentarily withdrawn.
Morim’s weapon moved before the ricocheting crossbow bolt hit the ground. His hammer smashed into the assassin’s side with a crunch of ribs, and the figure slammed against the door with a thump. Lockpicks rang as they fell to the floor. The assassin slowly turned back toward Morim.
As the gong’s sound faded out, a dark red stain spread on the front of the gray robes. The assassin’s shorter knife stuck out from between its ribs. The sudden impact against the door had trapped the hand holding the weapon, and drove the blade in up to the hilt.
The assassin suddenly yanked the knife from its chest and flung it at Morim. It trailed blood as it flew through the air. He turned to one side to get out of its path, and felt a few drops of the assassin’s blood land on his face. In Morim’s moment of distraction, the figure ran past him, back the way they both came, toward the exit. Morim turned to give chase with Brea close behind.
The guards at the gate must have heard the shouting or the gong, because they were running up the stairs as the assassin was headed down. Morim thought they should be ashamed of their shoddy discipline, all leaving their posts at the first distraction. Unfortunately for them, he didn’t have time to cuss them out. They had to learn their lesson the hard way.
The wounded assassin leaped from the top of the stairs. Its boot landed firmly on the shoulder of the lead guard and sent him toppling backward down the steps toward the rest. The first few landed in a tangled heap on the landing, but the assassin was already turning to descend the next flight. There was a spray of blood as the assassin’s long knife sliced into the one remaining guard. It was a shallow chest wound, but painful enough to crumple him to the floor.
Morim and Brea rushed down the stairs after the assassin. Morim didn’t check his stride when he came to the pile of bodies; he just paid them the kindness to not step on any sensitive bits. Brea was a bit more considerate, and hopped over the central banister rather than navigating the tangle of battered guards.
The assassin was almost out of sight when the pair came out into the first-floor courtyard, but the trail of blood made their quarry easy to follow. “Make sure to pace yourself,” Morim grunted as he ran. “Bleedin’ like that, he’s got less stamina than us if we’re not stupid about it.”
Brea just nodded, and kept an easy pace behind Morim. The dwarf cursed the man’s long legs and followed the gray-cloaked figure out the now-deserted main gate and into the city. The assassin wasn’t humming anymore. Maybe the knife had hit a lung, or maybe stealth seemed futile. Either way, the figure was fully visible as it sprinted down the crystal-lit streets of the noble’s quarter.
Tall walls of stone and furious hedgerows lined the road. Sounds of chamber music blended with the cries of purebred magic beasts and the rhythmic throbbing of security wards. The cobblestones here were smooth, flat, and neatly-interlocking, unlike those in the poorer parts of the city.
The assassin dodged a carriage that rattled out from a side street. The lacquered vehicle was drawn by four black horses. Brea peered ahead, then turned down a side street in pursuit of the carriage. “Keep on his tail!” the man yelled as he sprinted off.
Morim swallowed a curse and kept following the figure in gray. They took winding streets between palatial estates. The assassin began to slow, weakened by loss of blood, and Morim began to close the gap between them. Ahead of the two, the road sloped down to the river, where an arching stone bridge led to the docks.
Brea clung to the back of the carriage as it took the old wooden Outer Bridge across the river and headed up Pale Street. He jumped off and raced toward the stone High Bridge just in time to see the assassin running across it toward him. Brea leveled his crossbow.
“All right, fair minstrel,” Brea said. “We’ve got you. We’ll get you to the guards, get that wound treated.”
Morim ran up behind the assassin. He panted and wheezed, but held his hammer tightly. The assassin looked from one of them to the other. The cloth covering its face was wrapped tightly, and there was still nothing to see but a pair of dark eyes. It clutched one hand to its blood-sodden chest, and took a step back to stand against the bridge railing.
“Why’d ya do it?” Morim asked, confusion audible through his gasps for air. “Why’d you kill all of them?”
The assassin spoke. “For the song.” The voice was smooth, full, high for a man but low for a woman.
Morim twitched his head to one side to remove an annoying lock of hair from his vision. “The song?”
“The Song,” Brea said, pronouncing the capital “S.” “The world has a song to it, Morim. Only some can hear it. But the song’s sour. It’s never right, never quite in tune or on beat.” He glared at the assassin in accusation. “But how on earth is killing seven people — or more! — supposed to improve the Song?”
The assassin turned slowly and looked down into the rolling water that passed beneath the bridge, two stories or more down. “There is a garden,” the voice said. “In Old Diadem. Overgrown, and the music it makes is…” The figure let out a very nearly erotic sigh.
Morim wrinkled his brow. “I heard about that. The council is gonna make it a park or something. But they all agreed. The place was gonna be protected.”
The assassin whipped around, and Morim’s grip tightened on his weapon. But the figure’s hands were empty. “They did not all agree!” the voice growled. After the exertion, the dark stain on its robes was spreading faster. “Eight of them wanted it left wild. The other ten wanted to fund a cleanup. A cleanup!” It drew a wheezing, bubbly breath. “The music it made would have been…” The assassin trailed off, and turned back to face the river.
Brea looked at the figure with tired, old eyes. “People have a part in the song too, minstrel,” he said, and he lowered his crossbow.
Morim looked at Brea in confused rage, and took a step forward. Before he could say anything, the assassin spoke.
“And all of those parts must end some time,” the figure said. With a single smooth move, it vaulted over the railing of the bridge. An eerie, beautiful humming rose on the wind, and then was silenced with a sudden crunch.
Morim rushed to the side of the bridge in time to see the assassin’s body swept downriver. A plume of red spread from a gash in its skull. The body twisted and tumbled like a ragged cloth. It bounced hard off of a dock piling a few blocks downstream, then was lost in the darkness.
Morim sat in the Wandering Swan. He nursed his ale and looked at Brea. “So who was he?” the dwarf asked. “Or she?” he added as an afterthought.
Brea shrugged. “True Bards can be anyone,” he said softly. “W… they could be any person with a bit of extra music in them. Each one can hear the Song, but that doesn’t mean they all agree. See, the folks you call pipers, you think they’re special because they can sing truth. That’s not the case. They’re special because they can hear the truth. And sometimes, that truth…” He lifted a spoonful of soup to his mouth.
Morim frowned. “So you believe that craziness?” he grumbled. “That eight, ten people had to die to save some garden from being cleared up?”
Brea poked at a floating carrot. “Everyone’s got different taste,” he replied. “I like a full band, Morim. The more voices, the better. Some musicians prefer a… purer, simpler sound.”
Morim touched the bandages at his chest that covered his latest death mark. “I could have died today, Brea,” he said. “Without an arena healer to bring me back courtesy of the house. I could have died for good.” He sipped his ale. “If you hadn’t hit that gong.”
Brea pushed his half-full bowl of soup away. “And?” he responded.
Morim looked into his mug. “Don’t think I want to be an arena fighter anymore.”
Brea grinned. Morim just scowled, then had another swig of ale. In the distance, a song drifted out of another tavern, carried high on drunken voices. He was at ground level. He could feel it. It was a dwarf thing.
And Brea just kept up that infuriating smile.