Russ Teigen took a deep drag on a coffin nail, then flicked it into a nearby gutter, where it sputtered out in the rushing water. He made for the tavern door, quelling the urge to cough. He hated the fucking things, the way they irritated his throat, the drifting light-headedness. But it beat back the nausea and, facing a scene like this, he needed all the help he could get.
The runner had said it was just past the second bell when Remy Cordonne had stumbled into the common room of the Muddy Boot, blood spurting from a gash in his neck. He collapsed to the floor seconds later, efforts to staunch the flow too late and far too little.
The body had scarcely hit the floor before the fighting started. The late Remy was well-liked, and tensions were already high in the Muddy Boot — a full company of Karpeshi Bravos drinking in the same tavern as a warband of Vashen Bluetongues.
It was a wonder Remy had been the first victim.
Luckily, a patron had run for the Watch when the fighting started and it had been no more than a quarter bell before they had arrived, truncheons in hand, to break up the escalating brawl. It was only once the dust had settled that they’d thought to send for him.
The tavern door cracked open, and a man clad in rumpled Watch livery stepped out.
“Ah, Inspector — took your sweet time getting here.”
“Got here as soon as I could, Officer Clements. Looking shabby as usual, I see.”
A wry smile stretched across the patrolman’s face. “Look, old man — some of us actually work through the night, instead of just when some poor bastard gets butchered.”
Clements winced. “See for yourself. I’m dying for a smoke.”
Teigen nodded, stepping past the patrolman and into the Muddy Boot. As he took in the scene, he saw that despite the Watch’s timely intervention, the scene of the killing would yield little in terms of information. The fight that followed Remy’s untimely end had surely destroyed any minute clues — the bloody bootprints tracked around, and indeed, on top of the corpse.
Confined to the two corners were the rival groups — and no doubt culprits — licking their wounds. There didn’t appear to be any severe injuries — nothing more than bloody lips, black eyes, and likely a few broken ribs.
Fucking sellswords. Didn’t they meet enough violence out on the road?
Teigen approached the counter, where the exasperated owner swept up glass shards from more than one broken bottle.
“Garrett, at this point I have to wonder if it’s something in the ale you’re serving these boys. Three killings this year alone, all in your tavern.”
The one-handed innkeeper smiled ruefully. “Ale? No — I suspect it’s the cooking. I never mastered the art, y’see? Had a friend who specialized in that out on the trail, but I never inherited the knack. Good to see you, Russ. Wish it was under better circumstances.”
“That’s Inspector Teigen to you, Garrett.”
“Dear man — you wound me. After all the time we’ve spent together, a bit of familiarity wouldn’t hurt.”
“We wouldn’t be so familiar if you could keep your patrons from slaughtering one another,” Teigen said, the hint of a snarl in his voice.
“I can’t control the grudges they bear when they walk in that door, Inspector. If they don’t kill each other in here, they’ll do it out there. And besides,” he said, eyeing the two rival mercenary groups, “as ornery as these fuckwits are, I don’t think it was either of ’em that did it.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
“Be my guest. But let me ask you this — have you ever known a Karpeshi Bravo or a Vashen Bluetongue to take a man from behind?”
Teigen pursed his lips in annoyance. As he surveyed the two groups, he had to admit the innkeeper had a point.
Fucking sellswords. A right pain, dealing with ’em. You walk with death day after day out on the road, only makes sense you bring a piece of it everywhere you go.
The Karpeshi Bravos were ostentatious, passionate fighters who brought their rapiers to bear on any man or monster foolish enough to impugn their honour. Or sometimes simply for the thrill of it. Those present in the Muddy Boot looked to be coming down from a long night of revelry — rumpled capes, ale-stained collars, and the odd spatter of blood on their frilled shirts.
The Vashen Bluetongues were in every way inapposite. They did not dress in gaudy, garish clothing — in fact, it was unusual if they wore anything more than their breeches, weapon harnesses aside. Savage warriors hailing from the mountains north of Cinderwake, they were known to enter unstoppable rages on the field of battle, induced by chewing a root native to their craggy homeland. Whatever elements produced the rage also stained their teeth and tongues, rendering them a deep indigo.
Eyeing each group in turn, Teigen stepped carefully around the body, approaching the Bluetongues first.
“Pursuant to the decree of the Blackburn Spire and under the gaze of our Lord Emperor, I am duly required to inform you that anything you say can and will be used against you in any adjudication following this investigation.”
A hulking woman clad in blackened leather spat, a glob of blue-tinged phlegm splattering at Teigen’s boot. He did not flinch.
“Whatever you say, little copper. You and I both know the tin soldiers could not care less about what we say. They will rip whatever they wish from our heads if you give them the excuse.”
Teigen sighed. “Your name, Ms…?”
She spat again. “I am not ‘Ms.’” There was a frenzied, fervent look in her eyes. “I am Grissa, daughter of Grindholm, son of Greben, and I lead this warband.”
“Noted,” he said. “Well, Grissa, the Adjudicants will follow any procedures necessary to pursue justice under the Emperor’s Law.”
“Sure — the laws they write. You’d love to hang the lot of us, just ‘cuz those prissy boys on the other side were cowards enough to stab Remy in his back.”
“Oh, that’s rich!” A voice from across the tavern interrupted her. “A gang of savages like you, accusing us of planting a knife in our friend Remy. Fuckin’ rich, is what that is.”
Teigen turned to face the speaker. It was a younger man, maybe just south of thirty, seated with the Bravos. Boots of fine, tooled leather were slung casually up on the table, and he picked at his fingernails with a needlepoint stiletto. A shock of golden hair fell down over the shaved side of his head, and he wore a green coat of brocaded silk.
“And you are, sir?”
“My name is Florin Lavarri. Once winner of the Duke’s Gauntlet, former Knight-Errant to the House of Stelvanni, and leader of this company.”
“Sorry,” Teigen said dryly, “not much for gossip. You’ll have to wait your turn, though, Mr. Lavarri — I’m speaking with another witness.”
The swordsman wrinkled his nose. “Whatever you say, Inspector. Though before you come to any rash conclusions, why don’t you ask this of Grissa, daughter of savages. Did she kill Remy because he was bad in bed, or the fact that he was fucking other people?”
From behind Teigen, the comment was answered by a throaty laugh.
“Do you think I have not also had my share of lovers, pretty boy? Or that I am jealous, like one of your dainty lowlander girls?”
“I think you’re a vicious fucking dog, just like the rest of your shit-smeared tribesmen.”
Grissa did not rise to the bait. “Just because I fuck like a dog does not mean I behave like one.” Her lips bared, revealing a toothy, blue-stained smile. “Not like you prissy cunts. You are like the lapdogs your ladies like — trained and groomed, but all you do is ‘yap yap yap’ and piss all over yourselves at the sight of danger.”
The Bravo’s face grew redder with every word. He came to his feet in a rush, snatching a sheathed rapier from a nearby table. As he moved to pull the blade free, Teigen whistled. The Bravo froze, suddenly very aware of the half-dozen arbalests now trained on him.
Teigen regarded him coldly. “As I said before, Mr. Lavarri, I’m currently questioning another witness. Please try to contain yourself in the meantime.”
The Bravo sat down with a huff, a vein pulsing visibly on his forehead. The situation defused, Teigen took a seat across from Grissa.
“Now — where was I? Grissa, daughter of Grindholm, son of Greben. Surname?”
“You are an odd one, for a copper,” the warrior’s eyes were narrowed, locked intently on his.
“I don’t follow.”
“Most of your kind flock to the frilled bastards over there,” she said, nodding to where Florin sat, “and they use any excuse they have to string up my people. Even when we did not do the things you say.”
Teigen shrugged. “I prefer to see the whole picture before I cast any judgement.”
She snorted. “Very well, copper. You have stones, to stand up to the Bravos like that. Some of them have friends in high places.”
“That may be. Regardless — am I to understand, based on our earlier interruption, that you and the deceased were engaged in a romantic relationship?”
“Remy? Yes, you could call it that. There was not so much romance, but we enjoyed each other’s company.”
“And it didn’t bother you that Remy had other … partners, as Mr. Lavarri referred to? Assuming those allegations have merit.”
Grissa shrugged. “Why should I feel anger for the way the man chooses to live? Which men and women he chooses to lie with?”
“Well, most people — ”
“My tribe is not ‘most people,’ copper. All your talk of ‘nobility,’ but your nobles are the most barbaric of all. They kill each other for the most meaningless things — who slighted who, which lady was deflowered by who, whatever. In the Vashen, we do not quibble over these things. You fuck who you want because you want to, and we know that you do not own another body unless you both desire to be owned.”
Teigen studied her face as she spoke. Her eyes — framed as they were by black warpaint — were wistful. Her gaze drifted away, lingering on the bloody corpse of Remy Cordonne.
“Remy was kind to me, copper, and for this I am sorry he fell. As I said — he was good company, and a gentle lover. Me and mine had no reason to see him dead.”
Her eyes settled back on Teigen’s. They were filled with a sad, brutal honesty that made him avert his gaze.
“Very well, Grissa Fyndhorn. Thank you for your cooperation.”
As he stood, he was interrupted once more by the hulking warrior.
“Ah — one more thing, copper. If you think Remy was killed by a jealous lover, maybe you should start with that one.” She pointed one crooked finger to Florin Lavarri.
Grissa shrugged. “He did not take it well when Remy chose to lie with me instead of him.”
“The information is much-appreciated.”
Teigen straightened his coat, taking a moment to survey the tavern. Clements had returned, sporting a less-rumpled tabard. Perhaps he’d found time to return to the barracks and acquire a change of clothes. Garrett made a show of sweeping up broken bottles, but the barkeep’s eyes told a different story. He was on edge, watching for another fight, and Teigen didn’t blame him. At a glance, the Bravos were restless. Narrowed eyes, knuckles white on rapier pommels. The Bluetongues weren’t much better — despite Grissa’s civility, Teigen didn’t doubt that she and her warband would wreak bloody havoc, given the provocation. The Muddy Boot was a powder keg waiting to be set alight, and him stuck fast in the middle of it.
He approached the table where Florin Lavarri sat. The Bravo’s face — striking as it was — was twisted in disgust.
“Did you enjoy your conversation with the savage, Inspector? Tell me — what kind of nasty lies did she spread about me and my compatriots?”
“Nothing you need concern yourself with, Mr. Lavarri. Now, if you wouldn’t mind — what exactly was your relationship with the deceased?”
Florin rolled his eyes, letting out an exasperated sigh. “Don’t put the cart before the horse, Inspector. As I’m sure that unwashed whore told you, Remy and I were once lovers.”
“What do you mean ‘and?’ Remy and I were lovers, and then we weren’t. What more do you fucking want?”
“How the relationship ended, for starters.”
Florin shot him a withering look. “I didn’t kill him for breaking things off, Inspector. We dallied for a time, but I had duties on the road, and he was not a man accustomed to waiting.”
“You’re saying he had another partner lined up?”
“Gods, you’re thick. Yes, a series of them. Culminating in that bitch over there,” he said, pointing to where Grissa sat. “I say — I’ll never see why he deigned to do it. To roll in the mud with one of those stinking, squalid, execrable creat — ”
It was then that a carafe of wine collided with Florin’s head, sending shards of emerald glass exploding out, pelting Teigen and the nearby tables. From his reclined position, the Bravo toppled backwards, his face a ruin. Blood and wine splashed crimson as his form hit the floor, indistinguishable from one another.
As Teigen turned to see who had thrown the bottle, several things happened at once. Poised and bloodthirsty as they were, the Bravos came to their feet as one. The table between he and Florin was upended, sending Teigen sprawling to the floor. The brawl reignited around him: shouting, shattering glass, and the meaty impact of fist against flesh.
He began to crawl, arm over arm, towards the entrance to the tavern. Standing up would only draw more attention, and — yes, there it was — the twang of the Watch’s arbalests, firing into the melee. It wouldn’t do to be shot by his own men.
Yet, as he neared the edge of the brawl, a brutal impact to his right side knocked the breath from his body. A second impact — the tip of a boot, he now realized — nearly lifted him from the ground, flipping him onto his back.
Gasping, the edges of his vision black and indistinct, he looked up to see the bloody face of Florin Lavarri. The Bravo’s eyes, glittering and dispassionate, stared down into his own.
“I don’t intend to let you insult my honour and then scurry away like a rat,” he spat. “In fact, I don’t intend to let you leave here at all.”
There was a cold whisper of steel as the Bravo freed his rapier from its sheath. Teigen tried his damndest to breath, to roll over, to do anything but lay there like a capsized tortoise. But he couldn’t, not in time.
It was then that he heard the footsteps. One, two, three. Heavy footsteps, so heavy that the floorboards squealed and protested under the weight.
It was strange, Teigen reflected. What the mind chose to focus on, in the moments before the end. He wondered what Remy Cordonne had thought of, in those crimson moments before oblivion. Florin’s blade flashed down.
And then — the razor point of the rapier, Florin’s green coat and hard eyes — all pulled away. In a blink.
In its place; piteous choking, the feeble kicking of legs, and after a moment, the hideous cracking of bone.
It took an agonizing moment for Teigen to regain his breath. He brought a hand to chest. Ribs broken or bruised, almost assuredly. He sat up, taking stock of his surroundings.
A gasp escaped; shooting pain through his chest and ribs. Where the Bravo had stood previously was now a hulking figure, clad in plate armour of gleaming steel. A visored face stared down at him, and one outstretched arm held the corpse of Florin Lavarri.
“Bloody hells…” He stared up at the figure. Florin’s face — handsome as it was — was now a deep purple hue, eyes bulging out like a frog’s. The Bravo’s neck was crushed, his head lolling about in a grotesque pantomime of a drunkard. Around them, the sounds of the brawl had ceased, the Bluetongues and Bravos both looking on, paralyzed by the brutal display
“Are you unharmed, Inspector?”
“Yes, Adjudicant. Relatively speaking.”
Teigen scrambled to his feet, nearly losing his balance in the process.
The armoured figure stared up at the face of Florin Lavarri. He tossed it casually aside; the corpse crunched wetly to the floor, a sprawl of limbs. The Adjudicant strode past Teigen, putting himself between the Inspector and the now-ceased brawl.
“Citizens — I suggest you drop your weapons and return to your seats. I am Adjudicant Lorne, and I will henceforth be conducting this investigation.”
The two groups looked warily from side to side, assessing the situation. Slowly, shakily, they all began to sit, the scraping and creaking of chairs unnaturally loud in the otherwise silent tavern.
Save for one. A Vashen warrior — a little on the younger side, he held a broken bottle in one hand, and the wild twitching in his eyes belied a recent imbibement of the Bluetongues’ signature root.
“Fuck you, tin soldier,” he snarled. “I have heard stories, but I am not afraid of you.”
“Citizen — I gave you a direct order. I suggest you comply, else I will be forced to employ other means.”
“Fuck your orders,” said the warrior, stepping forward, brandishing the makeshift weapon.
“Very well.” Arcane energy shone from within the Adjudicant’s visor, spilling out like iridescent purple mist. His voice rang out again, this time a half-octave lower. “Drop your weapon, Citizen, and return to your seat.”
The Vashen warrior froze misstep. A vein pulsed absurdly near his temple as he tried futilely to resist the Adjudicant’s command.
After a few tense moments, the struggle went out in his eyes, the broken bottle slipping involuntarily from a claw-like grip. Teigen studied his face as the warrior walked, stilt-like, back to his upended chair, righted it, then slumped down into it. His expression was locked into a grim rictus, the horror visible in his eyes as his body moved without his consent.
Then the helmed visage turned to face Teigen.
“Inspector — a word, if you please?”
“Walk with me a moment, Inspector.” Turning on a heel, the Adjudicant approached the counter where Garrett stood. Teigen followed silently.
“Innkeeper — I require a quiet place to converse with the Inspector. Where might I find such a place?’
“S’pose the kitchen might work. Down the hall, then take a left,” he said, gesturing down the hallway where, not two hours before, Remy Cordonne had made his final entry to the common room.
“That will suffice. Thank you, innkeeper, for your cooperation.”
The Adjudicant took several steps toward the hallway, then turned to address the room.
“Citizens — as this investigation is now under the jurisdiction of the Paladins Adjudicant, note that the premises are furthermore sealed, and will remain so until resolution of this matter.” The Adjudicant’s helmed face turned to address the Watch, many of whom bore bruises and cuts from their futile attempts to keep the peace. “Regrettably, this does extend to you, Officers. We have made arrangements for the remainder of your shifts to be covered elsewhere. No one may violate the building’s quarantine, including you. Thank you for your continued service.”
Ignoring the grumbles of the overruled Watch, Adjudicant Lorne made for the kitchen.
“With me, Inspector.”
As Teigen followed the Adjudicant, he studied its gait, looking for the seams where the armour had been welded on. It was hard to believe that there was a human being in there — or at least, what had once been one.
The Paladins Adjudicant were an ancient order, nearly as old as the Spire itself. Armour-clad crusaders, oath-bound to enforce peace and justice in the name of the Emperor. Didn’t make them any less of a pain in the ass to work with, though. The locals called them tin soldiers, and damned if the moniker wasn’t accurate — the way they stomped, ironshod, over the subtleties of any investigation.
Teigen had to respect the commitment, though. He was envious, in a way, of the kind of certitude it took, to seal oneself in that monolithic plate and never look back. Of course, that wasn’t the depth of the Adjudicants’ devotion — in order to truly join their ranks, adherents had to die in actuality, only to be returned to their armour in eternal undeath.
What better way to prove your fidelity, than bucking the temptations of the mortal coil? Well, Teigen could think of more than a few, none of them involving a ritual knife to the heart.
The hallway was dark, but it was easy to follow the sound of the Adjudicant’s footsteps to the kitchen. The room was messy, filled with dirtied dishes and meals mid-preparation.
“I’m sure you must be wondering why we’ve commandeered your investigation, Inspector.”
“Not particularly,” he said, finding an open place on the counter to lean against. “I’ve worked with the Order enough to know when asking questions is unwise.”
“You may wish to reconsider that policy, at least in this case.”
“And why’s that?” He could feel his hands shaking — needed another nail, needed it bad. Feeling shame, he stuffed them into his pockets.
“There is a clear and present threat to the people of this city, Inspector. Without expedient action, it will slip through the Watch’s fingers.”
“Glad to hear you have such faith in us, Adjudicant Lorne. Really makes us coppers feel appreciated,” he said, flashing a spiteful, lopsided smile.
“Your sarcasm is unappreciated, Inspector. I came here in good faith, not to tyrannize your men and usurp your investigation.”
“Oh did you, now? Then tell me, what is this ‘clear and present danger’ you speak of?”
The Adjudicant was silent, the faceplate of his helm betraying nothing. The very sight of it made Teigen’s blood boil.
“Let me guess — you’re ‘not authorized’ to tell me. Don’t worry, I’ve heard this whole spiel before. You and your order are no different from those fuckin’ cretins out there, running roughshod over the people who have to live here every day — ”
“Very well, Inspector. I would tell you what I know, if you would merely let me finish. Though I imagine you will soon wish that I had refrained.”
Teigen was taken aback. Never, never, never had an Adjudicant parted willingly with information, not like this.
“Um, okay. Apologies. Carry on.”
“Though it pains me to go against my orders, I have determined that it is necessary to brief you, if we are to live out the night.”
“What are you talking about? What the hell is going on?”
“We are running out of time, Inspector. Our diviners determined that the murder of Remy Cordonne was not committed by man, mortal, or any other creature of nature. A demon of the blackest kind stalks the Muddy Boot tonight, Inspector. A Skinwalker — a fiend that can walk and talk and wear a man’s face as if it were its own. Brutal, capricious, and above all — nearly impossible to catch and kill.”
“Bloody Hells, Adjudicant. And you’ve trapped us in here with it?”
The helm stared grimly back. “If we do not dispatch the Skinwalker by dawn, the Paladins Adjudicant will burn the Muddy Boot to its foundation, with us inside. Such a creature cannot be permitted to walk free.
Teigen stepped back into the common room, his stomach in a roil. He was greeted by more than a few suspicious looks, from Watch and tavern-goers alike. In their position, he’d have felt the same — the Adjudicants only left the Spire on their own terms, and when they did, they sure as hell didn’t let on why. To be seen in one’s confidence…
Well, it painted an unwelcome target on his back.
After the Adjudicant had filled him in on the situation, they’d taken a few minutes to compare notes. The extant threat of the Skinwalker made his earlier investigation seem trifling. What did it matter who Remy Cordonne had been screwing, if the real killer was some fiendish monster?
Regardless, he had gotten one vital piece of information from the Adjudicant. In order to wear a person’s visage, the Skinwalker needed two things: the subject’s face and heart, both ingested.
“Inspector Teigen, sir,” one of the Watch approached. “Some of these suspects are hurt. Bad.”
As he surveyed the tavern, Teigen saw that there had been more than a few injuries sustained during the brawl. Some minor, some decidedly not — lacerations from broken glass, broken arms, and three bolts from the Watch’s arbalests which had struck home.
“Sir — we need to get these men to the physiker, quarantine or not.”
“I’m afraid that’s out of the question, Officer,” came the Adjudicant’s voice from over Teigen’s shoulder.
“Hold on — Officer…?” Teigen asked.
“Officer Donovan, ask the innkeeper if he has linens he doesn’t mind losing. We can use those for bandages until the quarantine is lifted.” He turned to face the Adjudicant. “A word, if you please?”
The two of them stepped back into the hallway, while Donovan scurried off to find bandages.
“Quarantine be damned, Adjudicant. Donovan is right — these men need a physiker.”
“That may be so, but it does nothing to change the situation.” The Adjudicant leaned down, his voice coming at a whisper. “I told you — if we do not apprehend the Skinwalker by daybreak, they will all die — injured or not.”
Teigen glared up into the Adjudicant’s faceplate. “And I’m telling you, it’s going to be difficult to conduct any kind of investigation with all that fucking chaos in there! Do you want me to do my job or not? Either you let these men go, or go fetch them a physiker.”
The Adjudicant was silent, and for a moment, Teigen feared he had overstepped his bounds. “Very well. I cannot let them go, but I possess the means to treat the most serious wounds. I will do so while you conduct your investigation.” The Adjudicant turned to leave, his booted footsteps heavy on the floorboards. “Remember, Inspector — we are running out of time.”
The situation quelled for the time being, Teigen moved to inspect the corpse of Remy Cordonne for the second time. As he’d concluded before, any subtle clues on the body were no doubt destroyed during the first brawl, as the two companies trampled over top of it in their haste to pummel one another.
Teigen knelt beside the body. Trampled and blood-soaked as they were, Remy’s clothes were fine; a shirt of delicately embroidered silk, over which he sported a half-cape of green velvet. Inspecting the wound once more, Teigen found that the gash in Remy’s throat was straight and even — the sign of a wound inflicted in one clean motion, by a blade with a razor-keen edge.
Gruesome to be sure, but notably, Remy’s face and heart remained intact. Assuming the Adjudicant’s information was correct, the Skinwalker had no intention of wearing Remy’s visage.
So why, then? Why come to the most fortified city on the continent, saunter into a mercenary bar, and butcher an aging courtier? Teigen didn’t know much about demons, but he’d been on the Watch long enough to know that there was something else at play. Once he found that missing link, the rest of the timeline would fall into place.
The bells rang to mark the hour — fourth bell already. The murder of Remy Cordonne was a formidable challenge in its own right, even given sufficient time and resources. Before dawn seemed an insurmountable barrier. But there was no time to dwell on that now.
He straightened and made his way to the bar. Garrett leaned behind it, keeping a cool eye on the rest of the tavern. If the innkeeper felt the exhaustion of the late hour or any strain from witnessing Remy’s grisly demise, none of it was apparent on his face.
“Think you’ve got this one sewn up already, Inspector?”
“I’m afraid I can’t discuss any ongoing investigations, Garrett. You know that.”
“Can’t blame a guy for trying,” he said, wearing a lazy smile. “What can I help you with, then? We’ve got plenty of liquor, and rooms by the hour. Though, I should mention — we’re fresh out of clean linens.” The innkeeper gave Teigen a very pointed look, gesturing to where two of the Watch were shredding bedsheets to create makeshift bandages.
Teigen sighed. “That won’t be necessary. I need to know what Remy was doing here tonight, aside from leading a parade of jilted lovers.”
“Well, he was a regular here, you know that. A frequent client of the local courtesans. Usually rented rooms by the hour. Or two. Tipped well. You know Remy — nice guy. I never got any complaints about him from the girls.”
“Was there anything unusual about his behavior tonight?”
Garrett frowned, his brow furrowed in concentration. “Now that you mention it, he did pay for a full night up front — that’s rare for him.”
“Did he mention anyone he might be meeting here?”
Garrett shrugged. “Not that I’m aware of. You’re welcome to check his room, if you like. That would have been room … 4,” he said, thumbing down a ledger behind the bar. “I’ll come up and let you in. I’d send Lenore up to do it, but she seems to have run off.”
The innkeeper led him up the stairs — two small flights with a landing between — then to the tavern’s second floor. The stairs made a T intersection with a cramped and poorly-lit hallway. Garrett turned to the left, the jangling of his keyring oddly loud in the relative silence. A smudged window at the end of the hallway shined enough moonlight to reveal four rooms on each side. Garrett made his way to one marked “4” and unlocked it, the fingers on his single hand oddly dextrous.
The room was unremarkable. Teigen took a step inside. Pulling a match from his coat pocket, he lit a nearby lantern to get a better look. There was a bed pushed against the far wall, a chest of drawers, and a small writing desk to the right of the door. The floorboards were scuffed from years of wear and tear, but there was nothing to suggest any kind of struggle — no bloodstains, overturned furniture, or broken belongings. In fact, there was nothing to suggest Remy or his attacker had been there at all — the linens on the bed showed no signs of an occupant.
Teigen walked to inspect the chest of drawers, but found nothing inside. Garrett entered the room after him, giving the room a once-over.
“Not much out of place here.” Placing his stump on the mattress, the innkeeper knelt to look under the bed.
“No sign of his bag, though.”
Teigen’s head snapped around. “A bag? You never mentioned a bag.”
“Must have slipped my mind, I suppose,” Garrett said sheepishly. “He doesn’t usually carry one, but he did tonight.”
“What did it look like?”
“I didn’t get the best look at it,” Garrett said, his eyes distant. “It was a satchel made of dark leather, I remember that. Oh, and it seemed rather heavy — he was favouring his shoulder when he set it down.”
“We need to find that bag — where else could it be?”
The innkeeper shrugged. “Haven’t the faintest. S’pose we can check the common room.”
Teigen took one final look around the room. If Remy had been there, he had left no trace. He exited the room, snuffing the lantern on his way out. Garrett headed for the stairs, and he followed suit. That satchel might well provide the answer for why the Skinwalker had taken the risk of coming to the Muddy Boot that night.
As Teigen descended the stairs, his boot slipped — ever-so-slightly — in something slick. He knelt and put a finger to the wet spot. It smelled of iron.
“Garrett — seems we’ve found ourselves a blood trail.” The innkeeper paused ahead of him, already down to the landing. “Find me a lantern, will you?”
“Sure — back in a moment.”
Teigen lit a match, using the faint glow to inspect the wet spot. It looked to be a bloody bootprint — no doubt left by Remy as he hurtled down the stairs two bells before.
Yet — half the print had been wiped away. When the innkeeper returned with a lit lantern a minute later, his suspicions were confirmed. Someone had tried to hide Remy’s trail — and hastily.
“Garrett,” he said, looking up from his kneeling position, “how many people have come up and down these stairs since the murder?”
The innkeeper thought for a moment. “Hmm… I’m not sure. Not very many. The Watch closed it off as soon as they arrived, and before then most of the patrons were occupied.”
“I’d hardly call brawling an occupation, but well, here we are.”
Garrett knelt to inspect the partially removed print. “Someone tried to hide this.”
“Did a decent job, too. Hold that light high.” Keeping low, Teigen ascended the stairs, careful not to miss any other prints. They were few and far between; some on the steps’ nosing, others splattered against the riser. When he made it to the top, he cast his eyes out in either direction.
There it was — another partial print, this one parallel to the wall, only a thin sliver still visible.
Curiously, it was on the right side — opposite Remy’s reserved room.
Vaguely aware of Garrett at his back, still bearing the lantern, Teigen followed the obscured footprints. They were hard to make out — the flatter ground made it easier for the saboteur to wipe them away, so some remained as mere droplets of dried blood.
At last, they led him to the end of the hall, to a door that bore no number. From his position low to the ground, Teigen saw a faint crimson smear beneath the crack.
He straightened. “Garrett — what’s behind this door?”
The innkeeper frowned. “It’s Lenore’s room. She’s one of the serving girls. Good kid — she never causes any trouble. You don’t think she …?”
“It’s where the trail leads. Whether she’s responsible or not, I have no way of knowing.”
“Of course. I’ll ah… I’ll let you in.” The innkeeper’s hand shook as he fumbled with the keys.
The door swung open with a creak, and Teigen suddenly wished it had stayed closed.
Even by the meagre light shed by Garrett’s lantern, Teigen could see that the small room was streaked with gore. Crimson, nearly black in the low light, the blood oozed down the walls. The modest bed, pushed to the far wall, was sodden with the stuff, white sheets stained dark, so very dark.
Teigen closed his eyes, willing his stomach to still. He could feel the gorge rising in his throat, hot bile on his tongue. Not here. Not like this. Not while you’ve still got a job to do.
After a moment which seemed to last an eternity, the bile receded. Blinking furiously, he looked to Garrett. The innkeeper looked at the scene with cold detachment, but to Teigen’s eye, his knuckles were bone-white in their grip on the lantern, his fist trembling.
On the verge of opening his mouth, Teigen thought better of himself. Never was much good at that sort of thing.
Swallowing, he stepped into Lenore’s room. The carpet made a sickening squelching noise as he entered, and he nearly lost his composure again. The room was small and rather bare, especially if the serving maid actually lived here. There was a series of small oil canvases lining the wall over a writing desk. Most were blood-soaked, but those that weren’t showed a good hand at landscape painting. Besides the canvas there was little adornment. An armoire, a bed, the desk, and a small basket that appeared to be filled with dirtied linens. No body to be found.
Garrett stood outside, as though unwilling or unable to cross the threshold, still gripping the lantern.
“This is… too much. Too much blood. For just one person.” He looked to Teigen, his eyes haunted. “What the fuck is going on here?”
“Keen eye you’ve got, Garrett. One would think you’re familiar with the result of slitting a throat.”
“You know goddamn well I was a merc before I bought the Boot. Answer the fucking question, Teigen.” The innkeeper’s eyes were angry, and Teigen didn’t blame him.
“I can’t. Not yet.” Garrett’s eyes flared in anger, and Teigen held up a placatory hand. “Not yet. But I can tell you this — Remy was into something big and bad, and finding that satchel is our first step to finding out what that is.”
A shadow passed across the innkeeper’s face. “Don’t make me regret helping you, Teigen. I’ll drag this bastard down and end them, if your investigation doesn’t manage it.”
“I’ll make sure it doesn’t come to that,” Teigen said sadly. The innkeeper’s expression was difficult to read.
Swallowing again to tamp down his rapidly worsening nausea, Teigen resumed his search of the room. Reluctant, Garrett stepped in to do the same.
The doors of the armoire, gore-splashed as they were, opened to reveal a clean interior. Inside hung a half-dozen dresses in plain cloth, which looked to be well- and oft-repaired. A small container at the bottom of the armoire revealed a series of horsehair brushes, oils, and pigments. No sign of the satchel.
Lenore’s writing desk was much the same. A few half-finished canvases, a series of trinkets and baubles, and a fashionable if plain hat.
“Teigen — you may want to take a look at this,” Garrett said, his voice faint.
The innkeeper stood overlooking the small mattress, his grip on the lantern slack. Teigen followed his eyes down to where, among the blood-stained bedclothes, he saw a leather bag.
“That’s the one.” Garrett stepped closer, setting the lantern on the ground. The satchel’s clasp was unfastened, so he merely flipped it open.
“What did Remy bring here that was worth killing for? And why?”
“I don’t know,” he said truthfully, inspecting the bag. The leather was well-worn and creased, as though something rectangular had been stored inside.
Perhaps he could figure out what, if he could get a closer look. He leaned down to pick up the lantern — and froze.
“Garrett…” he said, his voice catching, “you may want to step back.”
“What? Why — ?”
“Just do it.”
Teigen knelt, studying the fell pattern illuminated by the lantern. A blotchy, but unmistakable blood-streak along the floor, leading directly under the bed-frame.
He reached to pull the sheet up, hoping desperately not to see what he knew was there.
Alas — if only he could be so lucky. Lenore’s face — or what remained of it, gouged down to the bone — stared back at him, matched by a gaping hole where her heart had once been.
Teigen seized a nearby chamberpot and vomited into it, his stomach heaving nothing but bile.
His fingers shook as he struggled to light the nail. Cold — it was too cold out here in the alley. Too damned cold, when a man couldn’t even summon the composure to light a nail.
So why was it, then, that he couldn’t stop sweating?
The match snapped in his grip. Teigen cursed, fetching another from his breast pocket. He struck it, then finally, blessedly, the nail caught and he dragged deep.
Along with the acrid smoke came clarity and calm, and for the moment, a stopgap against the roiling in his gut.
As he dragged it down to the ashes, the fifth bell began to ring. Not long now. Not long before the Boot would be set aflame, and him with it.
He thought back to Lenore’s body, wrought asunder and stuffed beneath her bed. It seemed that the stench of death hung in his nostrils even now.
After his episode, he’d stumbled out of the poor girl’s room, needing a nail, needing it bad. Garrett had watched him go, eyes cold. He’d expected more questions from the innkeeper — and the fact that his expectation had gone unfulfilled worried him.
He looked to the street, eyes peeled for the Adjudicants’ cordon. The Muddy Boot’s side alley was nothing out of the ordinary — merely a few feet across, it housed a series of large waste bins, and the ground was slick from the earlier rain. A cast-iron gate divided it from the street proper, padlocked. Not that it mattered — take one step past it, and the Adjudicants would smite him down. He stole a look through the bars, and thought he could see the glint of burnished steel. Not long now, not long at all. But he had all the pieces now. Most of them, anyway. The death-smell still in his nose, he lit another nail.
It wasn’t worth speculating on the nature of Remy’s parcel — not at this stage, not after they’d discovered the empty bag. The important thing was, the Skinwalker had come to the Boot that night to get it, whatever it was.
Whether Remy knew the intended recipient of the parcel was hard to determine. Took stones to play courier to a demon.
So how did Lenore fit into the picture? Teigen trembled; there was that corpse-smell again.
How else? Remy was a flirt — that was the first thing he’d learned about the man. He pictured Remy — easy smile, eager to impress. “Just have a look at this box, darling — the buyer’s a real recluse, they say.”
Whatever it was, he imagined the Skinwalker didn’t take kindly to prying eyes.
So what then? Teigen thought hard, dragging the nail down to cinder. In the demon’s haste to recover the bag, Remy gets away. His throat’s slashed, but he gets away nonetheless. The tavern erupts in chaos. The Skinwalker covers its tracks, wears Lenore’s face for its own, saunters off into the night, parcel in hand?
That didn’t seem quite right to him. No — the Watch.
The Watch had set a cordon, long before the Adjudicant had ever arrived. But that was it — end of the road. No sight of Lenore — or more accurately, the demon who wore her face. Garrett had said as much half a bell before.
He lifted the lid of the nearby waste bin, moving to flick the butt of the spent nail inside — and froze as a wave of fetid air greeted him.
The death-smell was back, and not just in his imagination. The body within had yet to begin decomposition, but the air was thick with bloody iron and the stink of shit.
Teigen stared down at the corpse, bile in his throat. Faceless; heartless, just like the last. But where Lenore’s body had still worn the threadbare dress she served in night after night, this corpse wore the unmistakable livery of the Watch.
For a moment, the ground seemed to shift underneath him, stomach lifted in his gut. Then he was on his feet once more, coasting on a wave of rustweed-fueled detachment.
Kill Remy to keep him quiet, kill the serving girl to wear her face, then disappear into the rain. The thing the demon hadn’t counted on was the brawl, and the swift arrival of the Watch. Fine — kill a Watchman, walk out same as before. Only — the demon found its way blocked yet again, this time by a higher authority. There was a sickening irony to it. When did the killing stop?
When they were all ash, most likely.
The Muddy Boot was much the same as he’d left it. The two groups of sellswords sat on opposite sides of the tavern, eyeing each other with distaste, but there had been no further violence.
Those wounded in the initial struggle were clustered together, many swathed in makeshift bandages. Among them sat the Adjudicant, using the divine magics at his disposal for healing.
The six Watchmen were stationed at various points throughout the common room — two by the front door, Donovan by the hall which led to the stairs, kitchen, and alley. One stood guard over each of the campaigner groups, and the last — Clements — stood with the Adjudicant.
Teigen eyed each of them in turn. One, he knew, wore the guise of a man. But how to tell? The grisly scene outside; the Watchman’s missing face. It did more than give the demon a second skin, it also made it impossible to know the identity of the victim, at least without time enough to conduct a detailed autopsy.
And time was in desperately short supply.
Despairing, he studied each of them in turn, trying in vain to spot an inconsistency — a spot of blood, an odd posture, a hair out of place.
Then he locked eyes on Clements. The Watchman stood with easy confidence, fingers hooked into his belt, surveying the room.
The realization hit him like a thunderbolt. He remembered the patrolman’s last words to him: “See for yourself. I’m dying for a smoke.”
Clements, shabby as he was, hadn’t changed his tabard — Teigen knew his friend better than that, well enough to know the patrolman wouldn’t walk out on a scene for something so trivial as that. He’d gone out into that alley, same as Teigen, to drag a coffin nail and collect his thoughts. The Skinwalker had been waiting there for him.
The disguise was good. Whatever black arcana the shapeshifter commanded made for a nearly perfect replication.
Nearly perfect. Though the neatly ironed trousers and spotless white tabard had tipped him off, the longer Teigen looked, the surer he was. The imposter’s limbs were ever-so-slightly too long, moved on joints that seemed preternaturally flexible. As though aware he was watching, Not-Clements’ eyes locked on his.
In that moment, he saw comprehension flash in strangely reptilian eyes. Damn it all. He’d never been much good at subterfuge.
Teigen charged forward, pulling his shortsword free.
“Adjudicant — there’s your mark!” he bellowed, pointing to the impostor. The paladin whirled, hand already on the broadsword strapped to his back.
But the Skinwalker was faster. Before anyone could react, the demon scythed forward, a long, blade-like protrusion severing the Adjudicant’s arm at the elbow.
Clements was gone, and in his place stood an abomination. Teigen only had time to catch a glimpse of the thing before it was on him. Pebble-like grey scales, a long, sinuous body, and yellow eyes filled with hate. The demon leapt forward, its forearms transformed into long, razor-keen claws. Claws that had shorn through the Adjudicant’s plate like a sickle through wheat.
Teigen dove to the side as the Skinwalker crashed to the ground, rending the floorboards where he’d stood a mere moment before.
The tavern was in chaos, now. Bravo and Bluetongue alike were on their feet, shouts of “Monster!” on their lips.
Teigen scrambled backward, knocking over chairs and tables behind him, anything to slow the demon down. He spared a look.
Quicker to react than the rest, a young Bluetongue rushed the demon, battle-axe in a high arc over his head — surely a killing blow.
The Skinwalker stepped aside, flowing like water. With a thunderous crash, the axe impacted, leaving the warrior open for counterattack. The demon stepped close, bringing its blade-arm up, cleaving the warrior’s head from his shoulders in one smooth motion.
As gore rained down around it, Teigen got his first good look at the creature. The Skinwalker’s true form could be described as humanoid only in the vaguest sense. It was a foot taller than a man, standing on two back-jointed legs. Its head was oblong and completely hairless, with a wide maw. Each arm, rippling with sinuous muscle, ended in one long talon. Once again, its baleful eyes were leveled on him, yellow and vertically slitted.
Then it was on him, one blade-arm sweeping in an arc which would surely take his head. Teigen stepped backward, brought his shortsword up to block. Two things happened at once: the demon’s blade-arm met his own, tearing the hilt from his hand as the force of the blow shattered his sword to pieces, and he tripped backwards over an upended chair. As he fell, the Skinwalker’s slash passed above his head, missing him by inches.
He sprawled to the floor, the breath knocked from his body. The demon stood above him, let loose an unearthly shriek —
Which was cut short as an enormous battle-axe impacted its side, the wound spilling out black ichor across the floor. Grissa was there, the Bluetongue chieftain’s eyes rolling wildly in a berserker rage.
Then she was trading blows with the thing, the solid iron slab of her axe evidently enough to withstand the Skinwalker’s claws. For a time, it seemed she was driving the demon back, her relentless assault leaving little opportunity for counterattack.
Until she slipped up. Grissa’s axe, as it whirled around, impacted one of the tavern’s heavy oak tables, sundering it. But for a moment, the axe head was embedded in the wood, and the half-second she needed to pull it free was all the opportunity the demon needed.
The Skinwalker flowed past her guard, opening its maw to reveal rows of serrated, shark-like teeth, biting down on Grissa’s shoulder. The reaction was nearly immediate; the warrior’s body stiffened, battle-axe falling from her nerveless fingers as black-red poison spread through the veins surrounding the bite. Shrieking in victory, the Skinwalker reared up, bringing both blade-arms around, as though to decapitate her like a pair of shears.
Only for the blades to stop short, held back by a field of radiant golden light. Snarling in frustration, the Skinwalker took several more shots at the transfixed berserker. Each of them glanced off the divine barrier.
The demon’s oblong head turned to where the Adjudicant stood, hand outstretched, maintaining the shield spell. A hissing voice emanated from the creature, shocking Teigen.
“You should have stayed down, godly man. Now I will rend you to pieces.”
The Adjudicant reached back awkwardly with his remaining hand, unsheathing his broadsword. The blade gleamed with radiant energy, but looked overlarge gripped in a single gauntlet.
“You may try, fiend. I have faith that my God will protect me. Can you say the same?” The Adjudicant assumed a fighting stance, broadsword before him. “Come then, fiend — I will smite thee to cinder.”
The floor shook as the two behemoths met, the air filled with the demon’s hissing and the clash of blade against blade.
Even one-handed, the Adjudicant’s swordplay was masterful. The radiant blade seemed to come alive in his hand, blocking strike after blistering strike from the Skinwalker, each clash emitting a burst of concussive energy that rattled the shutters.
The Skinwalker’s fighting was chilling to watch. Whatever inhuman musculature was found in those back-jointed legs, it afforded a kind of agility that Teigen had never seen. It leapt from table to table, even springing from the ceiling to launch a furious assault on the paladin.
And with horror, Teigen realized that the assault was working. Slowly; surely, the Adjudicant was being driven back. The paladin was fighting a purely defensive battle. For every dozen strikes he deflected, one slipped through his guard, leaving deep scores through his plate mail. The demon was testing him, waiting for the opportunity to deal a mortal blow.
And at last, the demon found it. Drawing back on its haunches, the Skinwalker leapt over the paladin’s head. The Adjudicant, ready to parry the blow from above, raised his sword high. But instead of springing from the ceiling to attack its foe’s center mass, the Skinwalker rotated in the air, landed low, and launched an attack under the paladin’s guard. Slashing out, it took the Adjudicant’s leg at the knee, sending the armoured warrior crashing to the floor.
The demon reared its head and let loose an earsplitting screech, proclaiming its victory to all onlookers. Even prone, the Adjudicant brought his sword up to guard, but the Skinwalker pushed it away with one taloned foot.
The demon’s jaws unhinged like a snake, preparing to take the paladin’s head in a single bite —
Only to be interrupted as a shape blurred past Teigen, too fast for his eyes to follow. A figure — concealed until now in the shadowed hallway — swarmed over the demon, hacking down savagely, penetrating the creature’s thick scales with a succession of brutal stabs.
The Skinwalker’s screech of victory turned to one of pain. With inhuman flexibility, its blade-arms stabbed backward, but the attacker was ready, flipping backward through the air to land on two feet.
Garrett. The innkeeper had shed his apron, clad only in a white linen shirt and dark breeches. His eyes were filled with cold anger, and in his hand he bore a wondrous weapon — a dagger, embossed with rotating clockwork, flaring with arcane power.
The Skinwalker snarled, turning its gaze upon the newest challenger. “Is there no end to these pests?”
“You should never have come here,” the innkeeper said through gritted teeth.
A strange, grating noise emanated from the demon, and it took Teigen several seconds to realize that the Skinwalker was laughing.
“What an attitude you have, morsel. Well, you’ll change your tune soon enough.”
And with that, the demon sprang forward, blade-arms outstretched —
To a place where the innkeeper no longer stood. Garrett’s form flickered, his slim body moving with preternatural speed. By the time the demon arrived to strike at him, he was flying, flipping through the air, delivering a wide kick that crunched into the demon’s skull, sending it tumbling to the floor.
The Skinwalker had met its match in speed.
The combat which followed was breakneck, impossible to follow as the two combatants clashed in split-second bursts. With each exchange, the demon’s body bore more and more wounds, leaking a trail of black ichor that sizzled when it made contact with the wooden floorboards. Despite the grievous wounds it had sustained, the creature showed no sign of hindrance.
But disaster struck — after one fateful exchange, the innkeeper vaulted back, but his hand was empty.
The sound of laughter grated forth once more from the demon, and Teigen saw — with horror — Garrett’s blade still embedded in its side.
“You may have hurt me, human, but this is the end.” The Skinwalker leapt forward, surging toward the weaponless innkeeper.
Before Teigen had a chance to react, Garrett’s hand flickered, pulling something free from his belt. Hand arcing out, he cast it toward the charging demon.
There was a clattering noise as the bola — its counterweights linked with garrote wire — bit into the Skinwalker’s legs, sending it crashing to the floor.
Garrett was there before the fiend could react, sending a boot squarely at the side of its scaled, hairless head. The demon, stunned from the impact, lay still as he wrenched his dagger free, skewering one of its arms at the elbow, pinning it to the floor.
He sunk a knee into the demon’s other elbow, using his hand to press its blade-arm into the floor.
Weaving to avoid the Skinwalker’s snapping jaws, he called, irritated, over his shoulder.
“Adjudicant, drag your carcass up off the floor — I know you’re still in there. And please, this time,” he said, his voice dripping with derision, “do go for the heart.”
Teigen followed the innkeeper’s eyes to where the Adjudicant’s body lay. Despite the catastrophic wounds he’d sustained — two limbs shorn from his body and the dozen or so gashes through his armour — the paladin did not bleed.
At Garrett’s call, the armoured warrior levered himself up on the stump of his severed leg, no doubt supported only by the plate cuisses. As the innkeeper fought to keep the demon restrained, the Adjudicant half-walked, half-crawled towards them. Fragments of his armour rattled free as he went, rent to pieces by the Skinwalker’s earlier assault. Indifferent, he struggled forward, broadsword clenched in his gauntlet.
As the paladin inched forward, the demon redoubled its resistance, letting out a wordless howl. Heedless, the Adjudicant clambered over its prone body, struggling as a rivet suddenly popped loose in his armour.
“Do it,” Garrett spat. “Do your duty, Adjudicant.”
The paladin ignored him, finding his footing. Bringing the broadsword high above his head, the Adjudicant spoke a prayer in a language Teigen couldn’t understand. The blade burned brighter, divine power awakening within it. At the sight of it the demon thrashed harder, but could not escape the inevitable end.
Brighter, brighter; the sword blazed with radiant light too intense to look upon. Prayer complete, the Adjudicant plunged the blade down, spearing the demon through the center of its chest.
The light detonated within the demon, blasting out in rays of pure sunlight. It began to scream in earnest as its body was perforated by the divine smite. The demon’s body grew stiff, then slackened. Bits of scale cracked, then drifted down in a smattering of ash.
The Skinwalker was no more.
Garrett ripped his dagger free and stalked out the door, past a crowd of astonished onlookers.
As the mid-morning light filtered through the shutters, painting the Muddy Boot in amber, Teigen watched the last of the patrons filing out. The door was flanked by two Adjudicants, each adorned in the order’s now-familiar plate armour. One bore a spear adorned in gold, the other a maul inscribed with arcane sigils.
The room finally empty, Teigen crossed over to inspect the corpse of the Skinwalker. It was flaking into ash, now, as though the slightest breath could send the thing scattering. Evidently whatever magics animated the thing did not agree with the material plane.
“I must say, Inspector, I am impressed by your performance — and I am thankful for your assistance in this matter.”
Teigen looked up to where Adjudicant Lorne sat. As he was rendered immobile by the battle, the other paladins had simply placed him in a handcart — presumably for transportation back to the Spire, where his tattered armour could be repaired. If the position embarrassed him, he did not show it. Through the rents in the plate, Teigen thought he could see the Adjudicant’s pale, dead flesh.
“It’s my job, Adjudicant. Case closed.”
“That may be so, but know this — you have done a great service for your city.”
Boots creaked as a young man approached, clad in chain mail and a tabard that bore the crest of the Adjudicants — perhaps a squire who had yet to swear his oath.
“Sir — the relic has been recovered. The demon had cached it away in the refuse.”
“Very well.” He looked back to Teigen. “Inspector — I will take my leave. I have no doubt we’ll meet again.”
“If so, I hope it’s under better circumstances,” he replied drolly.
“I doubt that very much. Take care, Inspector.”
The squire took the handles of the handcart, struggling as he swiveled it around, making for the door. Another armour-clad figure joined them from the hall, a rectangular package held under one arm, wrapped in brown-streaked linen.
The Adjudicants filed slowly out, led by the two which had previously been guarding the door.
Teigen hung back, watched as the procession passed Garrett. The innkeeper sat on the front stoop, a nail dangling from his lips. Adjudicant Lorne signaled for the cart to stop.
“I do not know you, innkeeper, but I am thankful for your aid in felling the demon.”
Garrett kept his gaze forward, made no move to address the Adjudicant directly.
“Get out of my bar. And take your war with you.”
The Adjudicant said nothing, but after a few moments, he signaled to the squire to move on. Teigen watched the cart trundle away, disappearing down the cobblestone street.
He took a seat next to Garrett, digging through his pockets for a nail.
The innkeeper’s eyes were raw and red-rimmed. He seemed older now than Teigen had ever seen him, as though all the life and easy charm had been leeched away. The dagger he’d used during the battle was jammed into the wood of the stoop at his side, cold and inert. Whatever magic had animated the intricate clockwork had evidently been exhausted.
“For what it’s worth, Garrett…” he said, uneasy. “I’m sorry.”
“I know.” The innkeeper blew a puff of smoke, then craned his neck up, staring into the morning sky. “I guess you lost a friend, too. I’m sorry.”
There was a long pause.
“How did you know? What the demon was, I mean? And how to slay it?”
“Saw the girl — saw Lenore. My company dealt with one of those, back in the day. Pretty telltale sign, that is,” he said, gesturing to his face, then heart.
“Hard to forget.”
“Lost a friend, the first time. Now I’m down one more. She was a good kid — didn’t deserve to get wrapped up in this.”
Something like despair crossed Garrett’s face. “No matter how far I try to run from the shit, it’s always at my back. Always. Tell me, Russ — when does it end?”
Ashing his nail, the innkeeper stood and walked back into the Muddy Boot, not waiting on an answer.
Teigen stared down at the coffin nail in his hands, and the match. Resisting the urge, he stuffed them back into his pockets.