Viscount Curfew, the ruler of Dullitch, has gone missing. In the middle of the night, with his entire palace guard inexplicably asleep, the viscount disappeared from his bedroom—a skillful kidnapping that will require help from the sharpest minds in Dullitch if the city is ever to see its leader again.
Enoch Dwellings is as wily as he is arrogant. One of the capital city’s best detectives, he is called upon to root out the perpetrators. But Jareth Obegarde, a half-vampire and rival sleuth, refuses to let the case go without a fight. Grappling for an advantage, Dwellings turns to Jimmy Quickstint, a gravedigger and former thief; Parsnip Daily, a professional tracker with a short-term memory problem; and even Lusa Mardris, Jareth’s newly discovered daughter. Pursuit of the kidnappers leads Enoch and his crew on a wild journey into battle with everyone from a deadly shape-shifter to a master swordsman, all of whom demand one price in exchange for Viscount Curfew: blood.
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The Dwellings Debacle
The Illmoor Chronicles
By David Lee Stone
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2005 David Lee Stone
All rights reserved.
Night ... and down came the rain.
Guard Marshal Tikki LaVale didn't think much of Dullitch's wall-top sentries, not because he had particularly high standards or was in any way difficult to please, but simply because the sentries in Dullitch were that bad. Consequently, when a shadow appeared on the rooftops of the city's eastside, moving at an impossibly high speed and leaping chimney stacks as if they were pebbles, Tikki immediately determined to give chase himself.
Saying nothing to his lazy subordinates on the eight o'clock shift, he backed slowly away from the window, walked casually out of his office, climbed carefully down the rickety ladder that separated his own sentry box from those on the lower level, sneaked out of view along the dark alleyways opposite the city wall and promptly shot off across town like a crossbow bolt.
Tikki could run fast — he'd been able to ever since he was a boy — and he could also hurdle, so nothing short of an unexpected high wall was going to slow his progress. There were certainly no unexpected high walls in this part of Dullitch, where the houses were so close together that their upper stories were affectionately known as "kissers."
Tikki dashed up the ridiculously narrow, uneven cobbled lanes until he found a house with something that thieves would have referred to as the "golden drainpipe." Spotting the property out of the corner of his eye, he hurried over to it, shinned up the pipe, scrambled on to the ramshackle roof and produced an old but very trusty spyglass from the depths of his jerkin.
The rooftop view appeared, and was quickly twisted into focus. It took Tikki a moment to find the shadow — mainly because the rain was lashing his face — but once he'd spotted it, he immediately knew from the divergence of direction and the incredible urgency of pace that it could only be heading for one location: the palace.
Tikki took a deep breath, and put on a burst of speed that he usually reserved for downing ale in the Ferret at closing time. In just under ten seconds, he'd crossed six roofs and made a very unlikely-looking jump between two buildings loosely linking the rich and poor districts. Recovering quickly, he dropped onto the dodgy slates of Finlayzzon's and, unfurling a coil of rope and a miniature grapple, managed to get halfway along the jutting buttresses of Karuim's Church before slipping in the unforgiving rain and sliding awkwardly to the street below.
No time for such a mistake ...
He groaned as he struggled up from the mud, then swung the rope around in a wild arc and began the frantic climb back to the top of the church. Progress was fast, but not nearly fast enough for Tikki's liking. Finally, engraved with grit, grime and countless scratches, he hauled himself onto the highest of the church's many spires, locked the grapple in place and lowered himself gently over the side.
Drawing level with the palace walls, he kicked himself away from the church's north face and landed squarely on the battlements opposite. His rope was more difficult to retrieve this time, so much so that he almost left it, but eventually perseverance paid off.
So ... around the palace wall ...
... through a door in the (alarmingly empty) guard post ...
... and down the spiral staircase.
Then outside, across the palace gardens ...
... grappling iron ready ...
... swing ...
... and up to the palace roof.
Tikki LaVale, through determination, speed and an outstanding knowledge of the city's myriad byways, arrived on the roof of Dullitch Palace, sparing just enough time to draw his sword as his target landed on the other side of the building's wide roof.
The shadow — for it was wreathed in a black, billowing cloak — rolled as it landed, depositing a small box on the rooftop, then leaped up and drew two swords with such speed that, for a moment, Tikki thought he might have imagined the move. Anticipating an immediate strike, he knelt and readied his own blade.
Then came a shock; as the figure drew near to the Guard Marshal, it pulled back the hood covering its face.
Relief flooded over Tikki LaVale.
"Human," he said, gritting his teeth against the pelting rain. "I'll admit I'm surprised; I thought at the very least you'd be Elfin. What's in the box? Doomchuck powder? An explosive of some kind? Oh no, I see it's moving. A poison lizard, then? Very original."
The stranger paid no attention to Tikki's words. Instead, he darted forward, whirled the two blades in a complicated web and swiftly struck out with them.
Tikki blocked both shots with his own sword.
"Two things," he said, squinting through the downpour. "One: though I'm impressed with that turn of speed you showed in getting here, I should advise you that I was further away, and I still got here first. And two: it wouldn't be fair of me not to tell you that — with the possible exception of Viscount Curfew himself — I'm probably the best sword in the city, so don't even think —"
Tikki was interrupted by two immediate strikes, followed by a somersault and a third. Still, despite the fact that he parried all three, the action worried him enough to take a step back and study the face of his attacker.
"Who are you?" he said, gazing from the small, beady eyes to the straggly, rain-soaked hair. "What do you want here?"
The two men circled each other, looking for an opening.
"I assume you're here for the viscount," Tikki went on, while measuring the time between lightning strikes to see if it would aid his cause. "Who sent you? Legrash? Phlegm? Spittle? Hmm ... funny, somehow you don't look like an assassin ..."
The fifth blow was aimed directly at Tikki's face, and he dodged it with comparative ease: perhaps the talk was helping.
"I say you don't look like an assassin because assassins are usually smart enough to keep themselves covered up," he continued, smiling through a particularly vicious rumble of thunder. "Then again, maybe you're just confident ..."
Nothing was spoken by the stranger, but a sixth strike followed, then a seventh.
Tikki dived down to block the last blow, and realized with sudden, terrible horror that he'd left himself open to ...
Tikki grabbed for his throat, but he'd incorrectly predicted the stranger's move: the throat wound was merely a scratch to divert attention from ...
He staggered back, the stranger's second sword buried deep in his chest, and ...
... down came the rain.
The swordsman dragged the body of Tikki LaVale across the palace roof and deposited it beside one of the more magnificent buttresses. Then he retrieved the box he'd been carrying and crept carefully toward the upper stairwell hatch.
When he pulled on the brass ring and lifted the sturdy hatch, relief flooded over him: there were no guards on duty at the top of the tower. Ha! That would make the task so much easier than he had anticipated.
The swordsman slipped inside the tower and began to descend the spiral staircase: his box was shaking now, as the creature inside fought to escape its squat prison.
Down. Down. And out: into the main body of the palace.
The swordsman kept out of sight, expertly nipping between shade and shadow to ease his path through the drafty corridors.
At length, he arrived at Korvan's Kitchen: the very heart of Dullitch Palace. A plaque above the doorway reminded all of Korvan, the legendary and somewhat officious cook who served Lord Bowlcock, the first Duke of Dullitch.
The swordsman didn't bother to study the plaque, however, choosing instead to sneak around the edge of the kitchen, narrowly avoiding two stout servants that supported a giant soup-cauldron between them.
When the kitchen was blissfully empty, the swordsman made his move. Accepting that the solitude wouldn't last long, he swiftly tossed the box onto the nearest workbench, snapped off the catch and yanked open the lid. Then he snaked a hand into the silky depths of the inner case and pulled out a small, wriggling creature with a thick head of fur, three black eyes and a gleaming set of tiny, needle-sharp teeth.
The swordsman whistled at the creature, which abruptly ceased its struggling and began to mew like a contented kitten.
"Saving up that wonderful noise?" he whispered, and, reaching down with his other hand, he produced two wads of cotton wool from his robe.
As if sensing imminent danger, the creature began to struggle again, clawing at the fist that held it aloft by its hair.
A tabby cat watched from a nearby bench as the swordsman jabbed a cotton-ball firmly into each ear, and drew a thin and extremely nasty-looking blade from his belt.
"The stage is all yours," he said to his restless captive. Then he stabbed it vigorously in the stomach.
A few minutes later, the swordsman replaced the dead creature inside its box, and prepared to leave the kitchen. He stepped over a number of prone servants and several patches of shattered glass on his way to the first floor.CHAPTER 2
Viscount curfew looked up from his writing desk, his quill poised over the leather-bound diary that lay open upon it.
Another flash: how he hated lightning. Still, his fear of the electric wrath was as nothing to his fear of the noise that always followed it. Thankfully, he had his earplugs firmly wedged in, and the mirrors had all been turned to face the wall: safety, first.
The viscount stared out of the window opposite his desk at the rooftops of eastern Dullitch. It was a humid night, something that would undoubtedly help to prolong the storm.
Still, he was far too busy to worry about such things: storm or no storm, he had work to do.
Curfew returned his attention to the diary, and was about to put quill to parchment, when there came a loud clatter from the direction of the stairs.
The viscount sighed, threw down his quill and stomped over to the bedroom door. However, because he was at all times a cautious man, he drew his sword before he opened it.
No assassin, then, he thought, casting an annoyed glance at the men in grimy overalls who were attempting to fold a white sheet at the top of the stairs. He noticed that, as usual, his room guards were both fast asleep.
"You two!" he snapped at the sheet-folders. "What are you doing?"
The largest of the pair, a veritable lion of a man, turned to face him.
"Cleaners, guv: we're putting these sheets away."
Curfew rolled his eyes.
"Well, try not to make so much noise."
"Right you are. Sorry, guv."
"Hmm," Curfew began, a frown developing on his brow. "They look weighed down in the middle: do you have someone wrapped up in there? You do, don't you?"
In answer to this, the big man heaved at one end of the sheet, and a bruised and battered body fell out.
Curfew started, and strained to see the face of the prone figure.
"Isn't that the fellow who delivers the vegetables?" he inquired.
"Dunno," hissed the second sheet-folder, who was a good deal smaller than his companion. "Isss it?"
"Yes! What happened to him?"
"He ssstuck his nose in where it wasn't wanted; gave usss some trouble while we were trying to scrub the floors."
"He looks dead."
"Nah," growled the giant. "He'll be all right with a jug of ale thrown over 'im."
Viscount Curfew sighed.
"Fine; just keep the noise down, will you?" he snapped. Then he turned and shut the portal behind him. Unfortunately, in doing so he failed to notice that the ears of his snoring room sentries were bleeding.
Back in the bedchamber, Curfew muttered under his breath and carefully locked the oak door: then he turned around a second too late to avoid a gloved fist slamming into his face.
He fell back against the wall, shook his head and frantically brought up his sword, just as the assassin he'd been expecting to see in the corridor drew his own weapon.CHAPTER 3
It was early morning in Dullitch, and the icy shades of the night before were just beginning to recede.
Down in the square, the first market traders were starting to assemble their stalls and several greedy merchants were preparing their caravans with great enthusiasm: it was all business as usual.
Up at the palace, however, things couldn't have been more different ...
Milquay Spires, royal secretary to the ruling lord of Dullitch, awoke in a pool of his own blood, which was never a good sign ...
He tried to lift his head, but it felt too heavy and he triggered off an unbearable neck pain in the process.
What had happened? Why couldn't he remember anything?
"Help!" he shouted, but the sound came out muffled, as though he was talking through a mouthful of cotton wool. Moreover, his arms and legs were numb.
"Guards! GUARDS!" He was shouting now, booming at the top of his voice, yet it still felt like whispering, even in his head.
"P-please ... somebody."
Spires found, to his frustrated embarrassment, that he was crying. Tears formed in the corner of his eyes and saliva dripped from the edge of his mouth onto the carpet.
The secretary gave one last gasp before his vision faded, and he lost consciousness. Time passed ...
... and nothing happened.
Eyelids flickered in the light.
"Is this the end? Am I dead?"
It took a few seconds for Spires to recognize that he was speaking real words, very clearly. He tried again, saying: "Somebody help!"
Then he realized that he didn't need assistance.
Spires began to peer around him. His office was not only devoid of attackers; worse than that, it was entirely normal.
Still no memory ...
... and still the blood.
The viscount's secretary jerked his neck around in order to look behind him, sharply feeling the pain he'd suffered previously.
His suspicions were immediately proved wrong: there was no one standing over him with a sword, no one rifling through his desk and no one climbing precariously out of the window. There was nothing, in fact, but heady silence.
Right, then ...
Spires bit his lip as he pushed himself off the ground, partly because he was expecting some sort of surprise offensive but mostly because he was sure that several of his bones were broken. It would have surprised him to know that neither was the case.
Attaining his stance, the secretary took a deep breath and tried to think. The first word he thought of was "theft," and, being a man devoutly respectful of his gut instincts, he gritted his teeth and started to look around.
When a cursory search of the room turned up nothing, he limped across to the office's grand wall-mirror to study his reflection. There had been a heavy thunderstorm the night before, so all the palace mirrors had been turned to face the wall at the request of the superstitious viscount.
Spires reached up to turn his mirror around, and started when the glass fell out of it and shattered into shards on the carpet. He muttered a curse, stepped back from the mess and crouched down to grab a shard large enough to look into. Then, viewing his fractured reflection, he slowly turned his head as he tried to locate the source of the crimson pool he'd been lying in. Odd: he could find nothing that looked or felt even remotely unusual.
Still, there was something wrong, here ... something missing.
Spires started up another search of the room, but this time he spared no quarter: desk drawers went flying, pictures were taken down and carpet edges were wrenched from the boards beneath them. Nothing.
He hurried over to the fireplace and, crouching down, snaked an arm around the stone. Feeling his way nimbly with thumb and forefinger, he dislodged the palace deeds that had been secreted inside the fireplace since Viscount Curfew's ascendancy. Finding the scrolls intact, he carefully replaced them.
No theft, then. So what on Illmoor was wrong?
Spires desperately tried to think, but it was only when he closed his eyes that the missing element presented itself.
Silence. There was absolutely no noise from the corridor.
Gasping with the realization, Spires darted forward and flung the portal wide. His personal sentry guard, a stout fellow called Morkus, was struggling to his feet, using a chair to pull himself upright.
"Wh-what's wrong, Mr. Secretary, sir? What is it?"
Spires looked down at the carpet, which was stained where the man had been lying.
"I didn't fall asleep, sir! Honest! I just —"
"Woke up? Yes, so did I. Can you remember anything?"
Excerpted from The Dwellings Debacle by David Lee Stone. Copyright © 2005 David Lee Stone. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsSelected Dramatis Personae,
Part One: Problems at the Palace,
Part Two: The Investigation,
Part Three: The Tracker,
Part Four: Lostings,