Now there were more footfalls on the stairs, and when Lunice straightened, she saw a tall man standing at the landing, looking at her. Given the situation, she'd have been unsurprised to see him angry, or horrified, or stunned into silence. What she did not expect, what threw her out of the red, killing fog that had begun to engulf her, was the almost thoughtful expression on his face. This man was taller than the guards she had killed- nearly as tall as she herself, which was rare- and posessed dark, sanguine features. His eyes, she noticed, were very nearly black. His hair spilled in untidy ringlets to his shoulders, curling around his unshaven chin.
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He wore armor made from a patchwork of different places and cultures, but worked by expert hands, and perfectly fitted to him. He appeared to favor deerskin over fabric. He wore high boots of fine doe skin. In one hand he held a thin, curved sword of dark metal.
"You're a bit late, aren't you?" he said.
This remark was so confusing that she forgot all about the men lying dead at her feet.
"What?" she said, tilting her head.
"Your friends should already be on their way out. Or are you working independently?"
Lunice decided that this was the single strangest thing that had happened to her all day.
"I have no idea what you are talking about," she said. "Who are you?"
"Logartha," said the man, running one hand through his untidy curls.
"The Pirate Lord?!"
Logartha nodded, smiling lopsidedly. "Strange world, no? And who would you be?"
Before she could think better of it, her mouth betrayed her. "Lunice...I..."
"And what is an elf doing breaking into the my palace and killing my guards, Lunice?"
"You have taken men under my command captive," she said. Here, finally, was level ground for her to work from again. She raised her sword, and leveled the tip in Logartha's direction. He was standing maybe ten feet away. She could reach him in three steps, if she had to. "I am here to negotiate for their return. By any means necessary."
Logartha threw back his head and laughed. Lunice groaned inwardly, and prepared herself to spring, but what the strange, tall man said next threw her off-balance yet again.
He said: "You're far too late, then. I suspect they must be to the Main Gates by now."
Lunice said: "What?"
"I gather that you are not with Merrick's party after all, then?"
Lunice gaped. "Merrick?"
They both turned to look through the doorway to Lunice's left. Standing there, grinning like a madman, was the madman himself. Wekli stood behind him, looking pale and weary, but otherwise unharmed. He smiled when he saw her, and Merrick tipped her a wink. Then he turned his attention to Logartha.
"Everything gone smoothly?" he asked.
The Pirate Lord nodded. "Just as planned. I suggest you leave soon, however. The Priest will be at your heels the moment he discovers you."
"No he won't," said Merrick.
Logartha raised an eyebrow. By way of response, Merrick brought out a large black dagger- curved, much like the tall pirate's sword- and took a moment to wipe some ichor from the blade with his shirt.
Logartha's eyes widened. "That was..."
"Aye," said Merrick, not meeting the other man's gaze.
"He will find another husk as soon as he can. You would do well to get out."
"And I intend to. May I have my friend Lunice back?"
"Aye...for now." Logartha said, and smiled a devious smile, and sheathed his curved sword. Lunice crossed the floor to where her two companions stood. Later, she would be angry at having been treated like property- and angry at herself for being in a situation where she had no control- but for the moment, she was utterly confused; nearly docile.
"I will have to sound the alarm as soon as you leave, you understand," said Logartha.
"Of course." Merrick grinned. "I'd be disappointed with anything less."
Logartha sketched a jaunty bow, and Merrick gave him one in return.
"Farewell!" he said. "I hope we have the opportunity to meet again under better circumstances!"
"Aye!" said the pirate. "But next time, I want a swing at you. Now get out of my palace!" He grinned.
Merrick ducked back out of the doorway and started down the corridor beyond, moving at a brisk run. Lunice and Wekli hastened to keep up with him. Lunice threw her companion a questioning glance. He returned it with a shrug. No, he didn't know what was happening either.
They came out through a doorway and went down a set of dark stone steps. Then another. Then another. Merrick led them down a hall and across a massive, darkened ballroom. Lunice caught a fleeting glimpse of a chandelier the size of a fancy carriage. Then they were through the doorway at the far end of the room, and down another set of steps, this one much narrower. They were wet near the bottom, and the door at the end was shut. It was narrow, made of flimsy wood. Merrick gave it a good, solid kick, and it burst outward.
Daylight hit their eyes, startling and bright. A semicircle of men were standing around the door when it flew open, and they leapt back in surprise. Lunice recognized the remaining members of the crew, Gnarl and Anseo among them. They looked frightened and vaguely ill, but very much alive. There were also six or seven men and women in dark red vests and black breeches. The one nearest her, a compact, muscular woman, bowed perfunctorily to Merrick.
"Ranja," she said. "Is it done?"
Merrick held up the black blade. The woman's eyes widened, and she traced a symbol in the air before her. Several of the others did, as well. "Keep it back, Ranja," she said. "It has powerful curse. You bring a high doom to yourself even now, holding it."
"Aye," said Merrick. Their eyes met for a moment. Neither said anything. Lunice could almost feel something unspoken passing between them. Then the woman touched a hand to her lips.
"I release you from the burden of Ranja," she said. "And I pray that we meet again, in better times."
"I pray the same, Magdelaena."
"Mara guide your steps."
The woman turned to face the others, and spoke to them in a language Lunice did not recognize. They moved as one toward the city, slipping away without a sound or spoken word. In moments, they were gone.
Merrick ran to Captain Anseo and knelt down. The captain wrapped his arms around Merrick's neck from behind, and Merrick stood.
"We must hurry," he said, addressing both the crew Lunice and Wekli. "They will-"
Just then, the palace bell began to ring. The long peals echoed over the courtyard, reverberating into themselves in a cacaphony of raucous noise. Lunice could hear yelling voices very faintly over the din.
Merrick threw them all a last look, and then set off across the courtyard.
None of them needed to be told to make haste.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.