FORTY YEARS EARLIER: The Relic Guild (part 3)

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Marney's stomach turned

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Marney's stomach turned. In the light of wall-mounted glow lamps, beneath dusty cobwebs and surrounded by ale barrels and racks of wine bottles, were three dead bodies. Two were skeletons, sitting with alarming normality at a table by the far wall, their bones stripped clean and white as though bleached. The third was a man, still in possession of his flesh, lying face down upon the cellar floor. The back of his head was a pulped ruin. His blood pooled on the flagstones beneath him.

Samuel stepped up to the body and used his foot to roll it over. There was a neat bullet hole in the dead man's forehead. Scorch marks on his blood-drenched white shirt, indicated where he had been shot twice more in the chest. His face was craggy, grey and desiccated, as if the moisture had been sucked from it. Thin black lines streaked out from a ragged wound on his neck.

'This is him,' Samuel grunted. 'This is Carrick. He's the treasure hunter.'

'Ah,' said Denton. 'Then we have our seller –' he turned, pointing over to the skeletons at the table – 'and one of these must be our buyer.'

As Denton moved over to inspect the skeletons, Marney controlled her fear, just as Denton had taught her. Her mentor had already mastered his emotions and he gave off nothing that she could sense. She could sense Samuel's alertness, however, and it was strong, finely tuned, despite his stoic exterior.

'Look at this,' Denton whispered.

The skeleton he was inspecting appeared human enough, except for the face. The nasal cavities and jaw were small, but the eye sockets were large and round, much bigger than any human's, giving the face an oddly triangular shape.

'This skeleton belongs to an Aelf,' Denton said.

Samuel swore and moved for a closer look himself. 'Can you tell which House it comes from?'

'Could be any one of a hundred.' The old empath pursed his lips, clearly confused. 'An Aelf? I wonder what he was trying to buy.'

Samuel walked around the table to inspect the second skeleton. This one was definitely human, a denizen. Its claw-like hands were placed either side of a simple contraption comprising a square dish of metal and four metal rods that rose from each corner of the dish to meet and form the frame of a pyramid.

Marney knew this skeleton belonged to an alchemist, and alchemists were always present at the sale of magical artefacts. The contraption between its hands was a testing device, used to authenticate the merchandise. The artefact would be placed in the dish upon a bed of iron filings. The rods would siphon a little of the artefact's energy, and whatever substance it transformed the iron filings into indicated how powerful its magic was.

Samuel studied the contents of the dish. He puffed his cheeks and said, 'Whatever was on sale was powerful.' He looked at Denton, and Marney felt Samuel's deep surprise. 'The filings have turned to glass dust.'

And that, Marney also knew, was as strong as magic got.

Samuel's look went to the sprawled corpse of Carrick the treasure hunter, and then returned to the skeletons. 'What happened here, Denton?' he said. 'I've seen these kinds of deal go bad before, but nothing like this.'

Denton's brief pause betrayed a little of his uncertainty. 'Hard to fathom,' he said. 'I can detect some residual emotion, which only tells me these people were alive a few hours ago. It seems, unsurprisingly, that their last response was shock ... but it's strange. There's something else I can't quite put my finger on.'

Marney felt a little detached from the conversation. In the gloom of the cellar, she gravitated towards a flight of stairs against the left wall. She stared up them, at the door at the top that led to the tavern. She was nowhere near as skilled as Denton in empathic magic, and she could not feel the residual emotions as he could, but she could sense that elusive something he couldn't put his finger on. It was coming from above, but it was vague – there but not there – and it was almost human.

'I wonder where the merchandise is now,' Denton said.

'Maybe the landlord took it,' Samuel replied bitterly. 'He probably had one look at this mess, grabbed what he could, and ran for it.'

'No,' Marney said peering intently up the stairs. 'I think he's still here.'

She flinched as Denton placed a hand on her shoulder. He too looked at the closed door at the top of the stairs.

'Yes,' he said, nodding approval. 'Well detected, Marney.'

Led by Samuel and his rifle, the group left the carnage in the cellar and ascended the stairs. At the top, the door was locked. Denton used his phial of acid to open it, and they crept into the tavern.

Marney supposed that at any other time Chaney's Den might have been described as a homely place – in a rundown sort of way. The bar area was a rectangular shape, though not particularly wide or long. The carpet was worn and threadbare in places, its pattern eroded by years of passing feet. Time and tobacco smoke had not been kind to the paint on the walls; and the varnish on the small, round tables and their chairs was in need of revamping.

The wall-mounted glow-lamps were on, but down low. There was an open fireplace, but it had not been cleaned, no fresh kindling and wood had been laid, and the fire had been left to burn to dead ashes. A few empty tankards lined the bar top, and the ashtrays on the tables had not been emptied. Chaney's Den appeared abandoned, but not to the senses of an empath.

There was a muffled thump from above. Marney worked to calm her anxiety as the group made its way through a door behind the bar, and then up more stairs to the tavern's living quarters. When they reached a landing, Samuel motioned for Marney and Denton to wait. He disappeared through an open doorway. A moment later the glow of the rifle's power stone signified his return, and Samuel beckoned his fellow agents in after him.

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