The wind howled. Bitter rain swept down from an angry sky. Corig Malan wrapped his cloak tightly about his shoulders and stared at the road ahead of him winding through the rocky terrain like a convoluted grey serpent. A gully on his left demarcated the edge of the Spider’s Web Forest, while to his right the great Sasparin River flowed.
He shrugged off the cold and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. His destination neared. The Leeman estate was not too far from town, but it still seemed a miserable journey to make in this gods-be-cursed rain. But he was a bounty hunter. And he had been summoned.
Ahead, a stone fence came into view. It spread across the landscape like an angry scab. The road led to a large, iron gate in the middle of the fence. Corig walked up to it, reached out and placed his hand on the cold, wet metal. Not a soul was in sight. He pushed his way inside and continued along a path now turned to mud.
The Leeman house itself was fashioned entirely from stone like the keep of a castle; it was shaped like a rectangle with a large circular tower at one corner. Windows like gaping mouths decorated the facade, and a huge portico offered visitors a temporary respite from the storm. Several ancient gargoyles stood forlornly along the roof, leering down like spectral deities waiting to cast judgment.
Corig hurried to the shelter of the portico. The front door was large and made of oak. He grabbed the brass lion head knocker and gave three short raps on the wood. After a moment, he thought to shake off his cloak and straighten his hair. He was meeting a potential employer after all.
The door creaked open. A thin man with a charcoal colored shirt and even darker colored trousers peered out. “Yes, may I help you?” The voice was tired, careworn.
“Corig Malan, here to see Sir Jonas Leeman. I am expected.”
“Of course, the bounty hunter. Come in.” The thin man ushered Corig into a large sitting room. A half dozen blue-cushioned chairs stood against the walls; the man motioned for Corig to take a seat in one. He declined, preferring instead to stand. A large spiral staircase wound its way up from the back of the room, its cherry wood banisters polished to a waxy sheen. Three portraits of rather aristocratic looking figures hung on the walls. A chandelier depended from the ceiling, casting glittering light as if from icicles around the room. “I shall announce you.”
Corig nodded, turning to study a portrait of a wizened man with grey hair while the servant ascended the stairs. The man in the painting wore an opulent, gem-studded robe. He clasped an iron rod capped with a carving that looked like the talon of an eagle. The mix of shade and pigments captured the bearing of a man of power, a person used to getting his way.
The servant was gone only a few minutes. His return was announced by a violent sneeze coming from the top of the stairs. Corig watched as the man carefully walked back down into the sitting room. “I hope you can do something for him… put him at ease or something.” The servant’s face was a mask of worry.
“He hasn’t been the same since the mistress left. I’m beginning to fear for his health. He has rants of madness. I can hear him screaming and cursing sometimes. And he hasn’t eaten a thing in nearly a week.”
“I’m a bounty hunter… it sounds like you need a physician.”
“He asked for you. And I sent for you.”
Corig scratched his head. He could not remember ever having had dealings with Sir Jonas Leeman in the past, but as a bounty hunter, he was well known in his chosen profession. If the man had need of someone with his talents, it was not beyond the realm of possibility that he might seek Corig out. But what did that have to do with the man’s poor health?
The servant handed Corig an oil lamp turned down as low as possible. “He likes to keep his room dark. Don’t turn up the light. And keep your cloak wrapped about you. The room is very cold.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Corig said. Grasping the lamp firmly in his right hand, the bounty hunter ascended the staircase, the servant at his side. The man still sniffled as if he had run outside in the rain for a long period of time.
The staircase ended in a long hall, dimly lit by lanterns hanging at intervals across its length. A long, thick, green carpet covered the floorboards muffling their footsteps. The servant led Corig to a large wooden door, knocked once, then opened it. “The bounty hunter, Corig Malan, sir.” The room beyond was shrouded in darkness.
Corig stepped through the doorway with lamp in hand and was hit by a wall of cold air. The chill sucked at his breath, making him feel as if he had just run a mile. Frosty white mist hissed from between his clenched teeth. He shivered. The servant had mentioned a chill, but this was damn near freezing!
“Corig Malan?” The voice came from the depths of the room. At the edge of his illumination, Corig saw a shadow move.
“It is good that you have come.” There was something strange about the man’s voice. It had an eerie quality that Corig could not quite put his finger on. Like an echo, perhaps, as if the man spoke from the depths of a tomb. “Let us not waste time on small talk, but get right down to business. I wish to detain you for your services.”
The man certainly is not one to beat around the bush, thought Corig. Out loud he said, “You do realize I am a bounty hunter… I collect bounties. I’m not a physician. Your servant seemed to think – “
“Elderan worries too much. I need you to kill my wife.”
Corig was taken aback. “Kill your wife?” Clearly, there must be some mistake.
“Yes, she is plotting my death and -“
“Sir,” Corig said, emphatically, “I am a bounty hunter, not an assassin. I bring criminals to justice. I do not mete out my own brand of vigilanteism.” Obviously, Sir Jonas Leeman had the wrong idea what it was that Corig did.
“But you killed Lorin Mahkrell?”
“Yes, but that was an act of self-defense. I kill only when there is no other way.”
“Ahh, I see.”
“Is there anything else? I’m sorry I cannot help you.”
“But, perhaps, you can. There is still the matter of my wife you see. And if the truth be known, if she is put to death by the law, it is just as good as if it were done by you. She did plot my death, and that makes her a criminal. You can track her down and bring her to justice, can’t you?”
Corig was somewhat nonplussed. Apparently, the woman had not committed a crime, she merely had the intent to commit one. What did his bounty hunter code of ethics say about that? Was a criminal innocent until successful? In all likelihood, this was a lover’s spat that was escalating out of control. Was he sure he wanted to be caught in the mix?
“I can pay you two hundred gold for your services.”
Corig smiled. “Do you have any evidence?” They would have to build a case, of course. It wouldn’t do any good to haul this woman in without a scrap of reasoning to charge her with.
“I saw her hide a vial in her boudoir. I’m pretty sure it was poison. That was the morning before I got sick.”
“You got sick?”
“Yes. It was early in the morning, after breakfast. My stomach knotted up on me. I wanted to throw up, but couldn’t. Felt like death warmed over. Finally, managed to crawl into bed and lie down and rest. When I woke up, I confronted her with my suspicions. She got really scared and fled the house. Haven’t seen her since. That was a week ago.”
Corig shook the corner of his cloak. It was getting stiff from flakes of ice forming out of freezing rainwater. By all the gods, it was cold. “Can you get me the vial?”
“I start to feel nauseous whenever I try to leave the room. I think it is some residue of my illness. You’ll have to get it yourself.”
Corig frowned. He’d never heard of an illness like that! This man’s condition was one of the strangest he had ever encountered. “Fine. Show me to the boudoir, then.”
“Right on your left. Through that door.”
Corig turned to the door, grasped the handle, and opened it. He walked through a short hallway, into another chamber beyond. Almost immediately, he was greeted by a blast of warm air and sighed in relief.
Turning up the lamp, he scanned the room. A large canopied bed sat against one wall complete with velvet pillows and tessellated bedspread. A tall gilded mirror stood in the far corner of the room, its shiny surface alive with the reflected light of the lamp. A pace away from the mirror stood an elegant vanity carved from cherry wood and etched with leaves of ivy along the edges. A smaller, silvered mirror was strategically placed atop the dressing table to provide proper perspective for a preening woman. A cherry wood chair completed the vanity set.
Corig walked purposefully across the room and pulled the chair aside. The vanity seemed the obvious place to start, so he placed the lamp on top of it and began opening drawers and rifling through them. He brushed aside a matching ivory comb and hairbrush to reveal a small vial of clouded glass with a cork stopper. He retrieved it, and lifted it up.
It could be perfume, he thought, as he examined the exterior of the bottle. There was no label. But it’s in the wrong drawer. After a moment’s hesitation, he uncorked the vial and lifted it to his nose. Almost immediately he gagged. Sulfur mixed with rotting meat. Nothing else could describe that odor. And he knew what it meant. Deathroot. One of the nastiest poisons in existence.
A wave of dizziness washed over him as he lowered the vial. He took a deep breath of fresh air, then quickly peered through the top of the vial. All he saw was smokey glass and a few brown stains. The vial was empty.
He replaced the cork stopper and retrieved his lamp. What did it mean? Clearly, poison had once been in the vial, but now it was empty. Not just any poison, either, Deathroot. A vial of that stuff should be sufficient to kill ten men.
He began walking back toward Sir Jonas Leeman’s room lost in thought. He barely remembered to turn the lamp back down before entering the icy cold chamber. He gripped the empty vial in one hand, squeezed it, as if by force he could extract the answers that eluded him. “I found it,” he said.
“Good,” Sir Leeman’s strange otherworldly voice responded. “We have our evidence then. We have proof she was plotting to kill me.”
“Well,” Corig began, “Not exactly. The vial is empty. It had poison in it at one point, but its gone now. I don’t know what it means exactly, it’s almost as if the poison’s already been… used.” Corig felt a tingling sensation dance down his spine. A disturbing thought had seated itself in his mind and suddenly would not let go. “I’m sorry, sir, but I have to turn the light up for a moment. It won’t last long, there’s just something I must check out. If you don’t mind.” It couldn’t be. It was just a crazy thought. It couldn’t possibly be true… But he had to know.
“Go ahead. Just be quick about it.”
Corig located the moving shadow of Sir Jonas Leeman and fixed his eyes on him. He was hard to discern in the near total darkness. Carefully, he turned the knob on his lamp increasing the light by a fraction, then he twisted it rapidly, increasing the light to full power. Sir Jonas Leeman began to scream. “Off! Off! Turn it off!”
But Corig could see him clearly now, and the sight chilled him to the bone. The man stood in the center of the room; he had thrown up his hands to his face to ward off the light. But the light surrounded him, passed through him, limned him with golden fire. His flesh and robes seemed to glow with a spectral unholy power and they shimmered into translucence. The master bed behind the man could be seen through his flesh and clothing, blurred but still recognizable. Lying beneath the covers of the bed was a still form that Corig guessed was a very cold, very dead body.
Mercifully, Corig turned down the light. Sir Jonas Leeman stopped wailing. After a moment, he managed to gasp. “What? What was so important that I had to endure that?”
“I have discovered what your problem is, sir,” Corig said.
“My problem? My wife is trying to kill me, that’s my problem. You have the vial, you have the evidence. What else could there be?”
“Sir, you are already dead.”