The notices appeared on the walls of taverns and brothels throughout The Second City. A sizeable reward offered by the mayor of Brume, City Under the Sand, for the removal of a Dalyan spider-witch who had taken up residence in their temple.
Most patrons of those taverns and brothels had other matters uppermost in their minds and ignored the notices or treated them as a joke. After all, only a fool believed in the existence of spider-witches.
An ancient cult of female assassins who swung from webs, climbed walls and ate the hearts of their victims? Ridiculous.
I, however, considered the chance to see proof of myth and magic in this dreary world, no matter how slim, well worth the journey.
This time of year, the sun hung over the sand lands without break, and the desert crossing would be a gruelling affair. But Allard needed little persuading.
The blistering heat and endless sunshine of the sand lands provided the perfect excuse for his favoured state of undress. He was shirtless, striking poses and flexing muscles, before we’d even ridden through the Second City’s ebony gates.
I swear, even his horse was rolling its eyes.
* * *
“Does everyone have one of these maps?” said Mayor Grantham, a portly man, bald except for a fringe on either side hanging over his ears.
He waved a piece of parchment at the ragtag group of men in front of him. We’d each been given a copy with detailed drawings of tunnels and stairways.
I stood at the back of Brume’s Grand Meeting Hall, a surprisingly bright and airy cavern far beneath the surface, cooling myself in the path of a gentle breeze. The ancient builders of Brume had found a way to bring fresh air and sunlight into their underground dwelling without visible sign of window or air vent — a remarkable feat of engineering.
“As you can see,” continued the mayor, “the traps on the way into the temple are marked. A word of warning — the maps are only a rough guide. Remain vigilant and you should have no trouble. Put a foot in the wrong place and, well, I’m sure you can imagine.”
Looking around, I can’t recall ever seeing as unimpressive a bunch of mercenaries as the men in front of me.
A shield party of three held centre stage, led by a bulky man nearly as wide as he was tall. Bits of stuffing peeked out from the rips in his gaudy red leather armour, scratched and scored from many violent encounters, and he carried an enormous iron shield painted in luminous colours. He stood between two smaller men tucked in close, like chicks underwing, each holding a long spear.
Off to one side, a skinny boy fiddled with a crossbow. By his rusty banded armour with the insignia sanded off, I judged him recently demobbed from one of the orphan armies. That, or a deserter. Not many child soldiers survived to do either, so perhaps he knew how to use his complicated-looking weapon.
And lastly, two chatty scruffbags, who wouldn’t have looked out of place in a leper colony. A scrawny couple with patchy beards, oily hair and scabby faces, wearing rags that no doubt hid a multitude of sharp objects. They had gone round introducing themselves as Corgis and Andus, making jokes and wishing everyone well.
There are some people who can tell, just by the way you stand, how proficient you are with a weapon or how well you can throw a punch. These two looked like they only needed a glance to know where you kept your coin purse.
The mayor wrung his hands, but kept his smile fixed in place. “Now, please don’t think just because we’ve revealed our temple secrets that you’ll be able to come and go as you please in the future and relieve us of our sacred relics — don’t pretend you haven’t considered it, heh, heh.” His nervous titter received only cold stares. “We will, of course, be refitting our entire security system once you’ve cleared the temple of our unwanted guest.”
“Never mind the map,” said the beefy leader of the shield party, scrunching up the parchment in his hand and throwing it on the floor. “What I want to know is what he’s doing here.” Big Boy jerked a thumb in my direction, but kept looking straight at the mayor.
“Ah, well, I’m not sure what you mean.” The mayor glanced over to where I was leaning against a wall. His merchant’s smile remained on his lips, but his shifty eyes betrayed his anxiety. “The reward is open to anyone who helps slay the Dalyan woman. Is there some kind of problem?”
“Yes,” said Big Boy, “there is. I don’t want him in there with us.”
“Fine,” I said. “You go in first and tire her out. I’ll mop up once she’s done with you.”
He shoved his shield at one of his men, who struggled to hold it upright, and placed a hand on the sword hanging from his belt. Perhaps his girth owed more to fat than muscle, but he looked like he knew how to handle himself in a skirmish.
“Maybe I should take care of you now.” He pulled his sword an inch or two out of its scabbard. “Before you get the chance to stab any of us in the back. That is why they call you Grin the Cheat, isn’t it?”
The problem with the killing business is that, generally speaking, the bigger the opponent, the bigger the beating he’s going to give you. Someone like me, slight of build and fairly short — taller than most women, which is the important thing, I like to think — doesn’t stand much chance in a fair fight. Which is why I never fight fair.
I pushed myself off the wall. “Just the two of us? Or will your snatch-puppies be joining in?”
They immediately took up their standard formation. Shielders use their largest, best-armoured member to soak up attacks while the others attempt to outflank and attack from behind. It works well against large, dumb beasts like snow bears or rock lions; less effective against anything with a brain.
Reputation helps me avoid most pointless altercations, but every now and again some cocky brute will take a look at me and decide the stories must be exaggerated. Especially if he has a couple of chums to back him up. That’s where having a brute of my own comes in useful.
Unfortunately, Allard, my sword-wielding accomplice, was on the other side of the room inspecting the buffet that had been laid on for us: roast lizard, jellied insects and a range of other unidentifiable delicacies.
“I should say, for any of you expecting a show, sadly, I am travelling light.” I opened one side of my jacket. Hanging from the lining were three daggers, the blade of each glinting a different hue. “Each of these is coated with poison, obviously. This one is jupp berries. The slightest nick and you bleed from your eyes and ears and everywhere else until you have no more blood in your body. A little monotonous, but gets the job done. This one is valodian root. You may not have heard of it, fairly rare. Brain fever, insanity, suicide all in a matter of seconds — can be entertaining, depends on the method of suicide. And this one is cheem tree sap. One stab and your heart explodes. Bang! You’re dead.”
I opened the other side of the jacket to reveal three more daggers.
“Now, on this side, we have the nasty stuff—”
“Enough,” said Big Boy, grimacing like he’d swallowed a quart of his own piss. “We came here to do a job, not waste time on you.” He turned and spat on the floor, leaving a large glob of phlegm on what had been a very nice rug.
The mayor gave the rug a good long look before returning his attention to the big shielder. “My friends, are you sure you don’t want to work together? She really is quite deadly.”
“I don’t know what you were thinking letting Grin the Childkiller into your town,” Big Boy continued. “I just hope you’ve got your families somewhere safe.”
I prefer Grin the Blade, or Grin of the Seven Knives. Grin the Cheat is what gets thrown at me most often. I can’t say it’s a name entirely without foundation. Grin the Childkiller is my least favourite moniker. In my defence, there are some men who just won’t listen to reason, not unless you wipe out their entire family.
“One last thing,” said the mayor. “It is our custom, before embarking on matters of great importance, to share a rare Brume delicacy. It is not something we normally allow strangers to partake of, but for this special undertaking, an exception has been made. We call them desert pears. They are extremely refreshing and energising. Great luck and fortune falls on all those who consume them.”
The mayor turned and indicated the long table laden with food and Allard, standing there with an empty bowl, the last of the desert pears disappearing into his mouth.
It took him a moment to realise we were all looking at him. “What?”
The mayor’s mouth hung open. “You ate them? You ate them all?”
Allard shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. “No. Of course not. There’s plenty more food. Enough for everyone. I can’t eat any of the fatty stuff. I can in my bulking-up phase, but I’m in my cutting phase at the moment. See?” He raised his arm to show off his incredibly well-defined bicep. “That’s why I only had the fruit.”
“But they were for everyone.” The dismay was as strong in the mayor’s voice as it was in his face. “They are extremely rare and hard to procure.”
Allard looked horribly embarrassed. He was a tall man, taller than anyone else in the room, and carved out of granite. His head was shaved, and his shirtless body was devoid of any hair. A sword hung from either hip, the one on the left an iron longsword, the right one a curved sabre. Who would dare chide such a man for eating too much fruit? The mayor didn’t seem able to help himself.
“My friend, you have deprived your fellows of their delicious good luck.”
Allard lifted a platter of burnt and mangled critters off the table. “They can have some fried lizard.”
“Gah!” The mayor rubbed a hand over his bald pate. “What’s done is done. Come, let us depart for the temple. This way!”
He threw a last look in Allard’s direction, shook his head in disgust and stomped off.
We followed him through a doorway and down a steep flight of steps cut into the living rock, spiralling into the depths of the earth.
The stairwell deposited us on a wooden jetty that extended over an underground lake covered in a thick mist. The water gave off an eerie silver glow, suffusing the mist with a white light, which both allowed us to see and walled us in.
This was the source of Brume’s great wealth, said to rival even that of the Four Great Cities. The only water this far into the sand lands meant all traders travelling between the Great Four, criss-crossing the vast desert known as The Heart of the World with their huge caravans, had to make Brume part of their journey.
A craft waited for us at the end of the jetty. A spindly-limbed old man, who would have been nearly Allard’s height if he weren’t hunched over, stood at one end of the boat with a long pole gripped in his gnarled hands. His eyes were milky white, and drool hung from his lips.
“This is Jorn, our ferryman,” said Mayor Grantham, his voice carrying traces of irritation and his eyes constantly returning to glare at Allard when he thought he wasn’t looking.
Allard, for his part, kept his focus on anywhere but the mayor, although the way he fingered the pommel of his swords, he was probably fully aware of the attention.
“He’s blind, deaf and mute,’ continued the mayor, “but nobody knows their way across the water better. He’ll get you to the temple entrance.”
The craft wasn’t more than a couple of planks of wood nailed together. The sides barely kept the water out.
“Right,” said Big Boy. “We’ll go across first, take care of the spider-woman or whatever she is, then we’re out of this shit-hole. Have the bounty waiting for us. The rest of you, don’t get in our way and we won’t have any problems.”
He gave me a leery look and then stepped gingerly onto the bottom of the boat. His companions joined him. They stood there, bobbing up and down. After a few moments Big Boy realised they weren’t going anywhere.
“How do we get this thing moving if he can’t hear?”
The mayor stepped forward and grabbed the ferryman by the wrist. The claw-like fingers sprang apart, and the old man held out his hand as if asking for payment. The mayor placed three of his fingers on the centre of the palm, then one, then three.
The old man snatched back his hand and immediately pushed off with his pole. The three passengers uttered various curses, wobbling comically as the craft disappeared into the mist.
“What happens if they kill her before we get there?” Allard asked me.
I turned to the mayor. “What do you think, Mayor? Will those three get the job done?”
The mayor shrugged his shoulders. “I really think you should all work together.”
“See?” I said to Allard. “They’ve got no chance.”
Allard turned away, stamping his feet like he was cold. It wasn’t like him to get anxious.
“All right if we go next?” said Corgis, the uglier of the two guttersnipes, my ranking being based on number of boils per face.
“Sure,” I said. “Take the kid with you.”
The boy shot me an angry glare. “I work alone,” he said, lips twisted into a snarl.
“Fine,” I said, “but you can share a boat ride, can’t you? Sooner you get across, the sooner you can kill the spider-witch.”
He didn’t have anything to say to that, but continued to glare. With some people, reputation is useless. Especially if they’ve never heard of you.
After a short wait the craft returned, gliding out of the whiteness. The old man stuck the pole deep into the water and turned at the very last moment, so he was sideways on as he nudged against the end of the jetty.
The three ahead of us clambered aboard. The mayor gave the signal, and off they went.
Allard was even more antsy as we waited this time. He kept looking around and huffing.
“Are you feeling all right?” the mayor asked, his irritation now sounding more like concern.
“I didn’t mean to eat all your precious pears. You should have told us they were special.”
“My fault entirely,” said the mayor. “I’ve just never seen anyone eat that many. They can cause ... cramping. Are you sure you don’t feel anything?”
“I’m fine,” Allard said somewhat testily, and then turned to make a big show of keeping watch for the boat.
“So, this Dalyan spider-witch,” I said to the mayor. “You’ve seen her? With your own eyes, I mean.”
The mayor grimaced. “We had an infestation of giant moles. A herd of them, came straight out of the temple walls, blind as our own Jorn, but deadly. They killed many of our men. Then this woman appeared and claimed to be the last of her kind, looking for a place to stay. Food and lodging, that was her price to clear the temple. It seemed more than reasonable. I should have known better. After she killed the moles, she killed anyone who entered the temple. I was the one who let her in there. It’s my fault. Why she chose to stay in there, I cannot say. My only desire is for her removal before she desecrates the temple any further.”
He hung his head, a pained expression on his face. It was a beautifully performed speech. Well rehearsed. I didn’t believe a word of it.
The craft returned once more, and Allard jumped on board, nearly capsizing the damn thing. I followed, although not quite as eagerly.
“Good luck,” said the mayor. “Please don’t break any of our religious artefacts.”
I waved ta-ta. Allard only scowled.
Once we got away from the jetty, the mist quickly enveloped us. Large rock formations rose out of the lake, but our sightless pilot navigated around and between them without slowing.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked Allard.
“Do you think he can hear us?” Allard said, pointing at the old man.
“It doesn’t matter. When we get to the other side, we’re going to kill him.” I watched for any reaction. Nothing. “No, I don’t think he can hear us.”
“What about the mayor? Do you trust him?”
“Not even a little bit.”
“Me neither. He’s up to something. People who act all polite and generous one moment, and then go crazy as soon as you eat some of their fruit, you can’t trust people like that.”
“You’re still annoyed about that?”
“I’m not annoyed. He didn’t have to make such a song and dance about it though, did he? Right in front of everyone. It’s not like I didn’t leave any food for the rest of you.”
“You did eat all the pears.”
“Yes. And I wish I hadn’t.” He put a hand on his ridiculously chiselled stomach muscles. “I don’t feel good.”
He didn’t look good either. Even in the dim light, I could tell his face was swollen, an obvious indication he wasn’t reacting well to the desert pears.
I stuck my fingers into one of the pouches hanging from my belt and took out a pinch of sawdust.
“Here,” I said to Allard, “smell my finger.” I stuck my finger under his nose.
One sniff and he was bent over the side of the boat puking his guts up. The sawdust was mixed with dried mong fish, easily the foulest smelling thing I’ve ever come across. It was the best way to cleanse a body of any impurities, quickly and from both ends.
Allard stood up, rocking the boat from side to side, unbuckled his sword belt letting both swords clatter to the bottom of the craft, then pulled down his britches.
“Ah no, what have you ...” He crouched down with his arse hanging over the side and groaned loudly as the water churned under him.
“People drink that, you know,” I said.
“Don’t care,” he said, grimacing. “They can enjoy the added flavour.”
All the while our ferryman kept on punting, unaware of the act of horror happening right under his nose. He did sniff the air suspiciously a couple of times.
After a few minutes, stone steps appeared ahead of us, rising out of the water and leading to a large archway. Torches guarded the entrance and provided enough light to see the carvings of warriors fighting creatures with leonine heads. There were no signs of the others.
I hadn’t bothered to ask which deity the temple was dedicated to. They tended to be much of a muchness: some being with extraordinary powers who only used them when you weren’t around. Judging by the scenes of mayhem that covered the arch, some kind of good versus evil mythos. Although it wasn’t clear if the art was in celebration of the men or the monsters.
Allard jumped off the boat clutching his stomach. At least he had pulled up his britches. I put one foot out of the craft, soaking my boot up to the ankle, and grabbed the old man by the wrist. He opened his palm as he’d done for the mayor. I took out a dagger and nicked the old man’s palm with the tip of the blade. The paralytic poison took effect immediately and he collapsed in a heap, his knees making an unhealthy series of cracking noises as he went down, the pole still in his grip.
Allard gave me a questioning look. “Is he dead?”
“No, I just want to make sure he’ll be here when we come back.”
“Perhaps we should kill him. He might raise the alarm.”
“Don’t worry, he won’t be doing anything for a good long while.”
We passed through the temple entrance into a long passage lit by small braziers mounted in the wall. The soft orange light flickered in the steady stream of air blowing past us.
Allard peered into the gloom. “How far to the main chamber?”
“I don’t know,” I said, looking at the map. “There’s no scale on this thing. The first trap is at the end of this passage.”
Allard stepped forward, there was a click and we both threw ourselves flat on the ground.
Darts fizzed over our heads, bounced off the opposite wall and clattered onto the floor. I got on my knees and picked up a few. They were about the length of a finger with green feathers. The sharpened tips were coated with a blue goo. I slipped a few into a pouch. You can never have too many poisoned darts.
Allard rose to his feet and brushed himself off. “This map, not so accurate then?”
“Wait here,” I told him and went back to the boat where the the old man waited immobile. It took some effort, and possibly a couple of broken fingers, but I got the pole out of his grip. I pulled it out of the water and found it to be much longer than I thought, at least as tall as Allard and half as much again.
“What’re you going to do with that?” he asked when I returned.
I let one end drop onto the floor in front of me. As I walked, the far end slid across the ground, hopefully setting off any traps well before we reached them. Allard shook his head dismissively, but stayed behind me all the same.
We reached the end of the passageway without encountering any more traps. Ahead of us, steps went down and turned back on themselves. Navigating the pole around the corner took some doing. I could see Allard twitching to snap the thing in half, which was his usual answer to most problems.
There were no flaming braziers in the next passage. The walls were slick with water that gave off a silvery blue glow, similar to the lake. Once our eyes had adjusted, it was possible to see, but visibility was greatly reduced. There was also a noticeably sharper downward slope.
The map indicated a trap, somewhere near the other end of the passage. Or possibly not. The lowered end of the pole bumped and skipped along the ground, then it suddenly tipped forward, indicating a gap or a hole.
We approached carefully and found a pit with large iron spikes. Impaled on one of them was the boy soldier. The pit contained only five spikes, which seemed a little inefficient — you could easily fall in and not hit a single one. Unfortunately for our boy, he’d landed on the central spike and the tip had punched through the back of his head.
“You’d think he’d have tried harder not to hit the point with his face,” said Allard as we shuffled past on the thin ledges either side of the pit.
“Maybe he was pushed,” I said.
Once we reached the other side, I dropped the pole. I took another look into the pit and lowered myself into it, hanging from the lip for a second before dropping down.
“What are you doing?” Allard asked.
“Just a moment, I want to get something.”
The spikes were about waist high and spread out, making them easy to avoid; at worst you might snag a limb. Far from deadly.
I weaved through them until I reached the body seemingly hovering in mid-air, arms spread out like he was still falling. I unstrapped the boy’s crossbow from his back. I also took the small quiver of stubby arrows hanging from his belt. After that I gave him a quick once over and removed a number of green-feathered darts from his body, the same as the ones I’d picked up earlier.
Allard lowered a hand to pull me out.
“Do you even know how to use that thing?” he asked, indicating the crossbow.
“Might come in handy. Spider-witches jump around all over the place. Probably.”
Allard didn’t look impressed. “These modern weapons are all the same. The more bits and pieces, the more chance they’ll break just when you need them.”
“I found a bunch of these stuck in him.” I showed Allard the darts.
Allard gave them a quick perusal before shaking his head. “Not having a very good day, is he?”
“It also means somebody reloaded and reset the trap for us.” I had hoped going in last would mean most of the traps would have been triggered by the others. Apparently that was not going to be the case.
“Lucky we’ve got your big stick then,” said Allard with a sneer. And then waited for me to walk ahead of him.
The next couple of passages presented few problems. My big stick set off various spikes, darts and trap doors before they had a chance to do any damage. None of the traps were where the map said they were supposed to be, so we dispensed with it.
The stick, on the other hand, turned out to be something of a revelation. I was seriously considering starting up a business selling them: Grin’s Big Stick Emporium. Allard was unamused by the idea and gripped the hilts of his two swords even though there was nothing to fight.
He had been getting increasingly agitated as we descended into the lower levels, and I thought maybe the weird blue glow bathing the tunnels was starting to give him the creeps. At least, I hoped that’s all it was.
I let him have a go with my big stick to help distract him while I practiced with the crossbow, firing arrows into the gloom. It was easy to use, but the reloading was fiddly. Lots of winding up and putting things in their proper slots. I had to snatch my fingers out of the way a couple of times for fear of them being lopped off.
It was an effective weapon for sure, although not as impressive as my big stick, which Allard was clattering against floor, walls and ceiling. He was working himself up so much, I was afraid he was going to break it and had to take it back.
At the next set of stairs, we heard a distant howl.
“What was that?” I whispered, straining to hear. “The wind?”
“Sounds like someone in pain,” said Allard, drawing his longsword.
We proceeded with caution.
The route ahead was blocked by a large slab of stone that appeared to have fallen out of the roof. Pinned under the stone, with stricken looks etched into their faces, were the two beggar-thieves who had crossed the lake with the boy soldier.
“Help!” cried out Corgis as we approached.
“Help us!” joined in Andus. “We’re trapped.”
The slab was too symmetrical to be caused by a natural cave in. The two men under it groaned and winced, although there was no blood. They might have broken a bone or two, but they would live. If they could get out from under the rock.
“It doesn’t look that heavy,” said Allard. “Why would they install a trap this easy to overcome?”
“Speak for yourself,” said Corgis between grunts. “I’m built for speed, not strength.”
“I haven’t been feeling well,” said Andus.
Allard grabbed the underside of the rock and lifted it without too much effort. “See?” And then he dropped it back down. The look of relief on the two men’s faces transformed into cries of agony.
“We found your little friend back there,” I said. “Give him a nudge, did you?”
“Who us?” said Corgis. “Course not. Silly bugger got a face full of darts, ran off screaming, stumbling all over the place. By the time we caught up with him he was sucking on one of them iron spikes.”
“Wasn’t even that many spikes in there, he must’ve had to thrown himself on top of one,” said Andus. “You going to let us up then? We’d be ever so grateful.”
“These really are the worst designed temple defences I’ve ever seen.” Allard sounded genuinely annoyed by the shoddy workmanship we’d encountered so far.
I could see his point. For people who prided themselves on their great skills in construction, nothing so far lived up to the popularly held image of Brume.
Poorly drawn maps and easily avoided traps hardly spoke of artisans at the peak of their powers. It was almost as though the traps were intentionally terrible.
I reached into my pouch and took out one of the poison darts I’d picked up.
“That’s them!” said Andus. “That’s what drove the boy crazy.”
I pulled up my sleeve and pricked my skin with the tip of the dart.
“Hey!” called out Corgis.
“Don’t!” called out Andus.
Allard didn’t say anything. He already knew that not only was I adept in the use of all known poisons, I was also immune to them. Not a particularly difficult thing to achieve, although quite dangerous.
In order to build up immunity, all you have to do is poison yourself. In the beginning the doses must be very small. You put a drop of the poison in a large jug of water, mix it well, and then take a drop of that and put it in another jug of water, and so on. Once the weakness of the potion overcomes your fear of an excruciating death, you take a sip.
Then you fall to the floor writhing in agony for a couple of days, pleading for anyone within earshot to give you a quick death. Once the fever breaks and the projectile diarrhea subsides, you do it all again.
Slowly, over the course of weeks, you work your way up through the less diluted solutions, until finally, should you still be alive, even a full dose will do you no harm. Simple.
Years of experimentation had familiarised me with every toxin produced by flora, fauna or fungus, so I already had a pretty good idea about the blue goo on the end of the dart. The mild tingling and sweatiness on my fingertips I experienced after pricking myself left me with no doubt.
“Blue toadstool. Not very dangerous. Gets your heart racing a bit, some dizziness, maybe some itching.”
“What about the boy?” asked Allard.
“He might have panicked. Could be he was especially sensitive to it, being so young. I don’t think any of these traps are meant to stop people getting into the temple. I think they’re here to soften us up.”
I climbed on top of the slab, ignoring the protests from below. The other side was clear. Above was an indentation in the roof with holes where pins had held the slab in place. Allard joined me, which elicited even more protests and a few choice insults.
“Are we going to leave them here?” said Allard.
“What do you suggest?”
“Wouldn’t be good to have them at our backs if they got free. Killing them would probably be best.”
The protesting beneath us suddenly ceased.
This was the second time Allard had suggested killing someone posing no immediate threat. In fact, he hadn’t been acting his normal self since he ate all those pears.
“Not like you to be so quick with a death sentence.”
Not that I cared too much about the fate of grubs under a rock, but Allard seemed to be practically salivating at the prospect. While he’d always been ready to smash heads together or throw himself into a brawl, I’d never known him to perform an execution. I looked at the pole in my hand, and then at the roof. By angling the pole, I was able to plant it on top of the slab and wedge it against the roof of the tunnel, making it almost impossible to lift the slab from beneath.
“Look after my stick,” I said as I stepped off the other side of the slab. “I’ll be back for it later.”
Allard lingered a moment, a look of aggravation on his face, but then he followed.
We set off, stickless, with curses ringing in our ears.