“Bring me the case,” Tariq ordered Deraun, stepping back as the slender outlaw’s descent set a small avalanche of pebbles skittering to the canyon floor.
As they watched, Jagati fogged the air with a series of ripe curses, most of them aimed at John, who ignored her.
So did Tariq.
Now the satchel was almost in his hands, the shadow traders’ leader seemed to relax. He even stepped closer to John. “Tell me,” he asked, keeping his weapon trained on Jagati, “does she truly not know?”
“Know what?” John asked in turn.
“Ah.” Tariq smiled. “I see.”
“What,” Jagati snapped from her spot in the firing line, “are you two gabbing about?”
“Nothing, apparently,” Tariq replied, his attention sliding away from John.
“Although,” John said, “I do wonder how a man as careful as yourself could have made such a significant tactical error.”
Tariq’s eyes narrowed. “Error?”
Before he could inquire further, John’s hand snapped up to grab the shooter, pulling it towards himself so when Tariq’s finger tightened on the trigger, the plasma burst missed Jagati.
It did, however, hit Deraun, if the strangled exclamation from above meant anything.
“You put yourself in my reach,” John explained, using the leverage of the gun to pull Tariq around, throwing him back into the rock wall with enough force to crack the other man’s head against the iridescent sandstone.
Just then Deraun came thudding to the ground in a puff of violet dust. From beyond John heard a series of shouts and thuds which told him Jagati and Rory had followed his lead in doing the needful.
Sure enough, as John made his move, Jagati dove away from the falling Deraun, straightening in time to see Rory snapping an elbow into his left-hand guard’s arm to send her sword flying—which had the echo effect of scattering the guard’s nearest compatriots as they tried to avoid being sliced by friendly cutlery.
Jagati lunged for Rory’s right-hand guard, snapping an elbow across his jaw while Rory drove his boot into the same man’s knee with cartilage-snapping force. The double assault left the guard rolling in the dust while Jagati grabbed his shooter and Rory engaged in a dodging game of net the queen with the now-swordless left-hand guard.
By now the rest of Tariq’s company had recovered from the sudden show of resistance and were attempting to take aim at anything that moved.
An ominous splat of plasma from above (right, sniper) came so close Jagati thought she smelled her hair burning.
Another brace of thieves ranged outside the scuffle and apparently decided they’d have better luck taking out Rory.
Jagati used the whimpering right-hand guard for cover and started alternating shots between the shadow traders in the canyon and the sniper up above.
On the far side of the hot zone, behind the dust raised by their scuffle, a series of thuds, grunts and curses told her John was still busy with Tariq.
This is it, she thought. Any second now, someone’s going to get a clear shot and that’ll be the end—
“Hold your fire!” Tariq’s voice scythed through the muddle.
Or not, she thought, letting her gaze slide sideways to where the aristocratic Tariq was on his knees, both hands on his head.
Behind him, John held a gun to Tariq’s head. Given the same gun had been pointed at her head a few minutes ago, this gave Jagati a warm, fuzzy feeling deep inside.
Then a rebellious sizzle of plasma creased the air, leaving a glassy scar centimeters from Jagati’s elbow.
“I’d listen to him,” John suggested in a polite voice at odds with the mask of blood and dirt coating his features.
Tariq, his own expression far from polite, nodded once, and the rest of his crew lowered their weapons.
John nodded at the lot. “On the ground, if you’d be so kind.”
No one moved.
John murmured something too softly for Jagati to hear.
Tariq grimaced. “Do as he says.”
They did as he said.
“And your man on high,” John prompted.
“Woman, actually,” Tariq corrected before calling out, “Ysabel!”
At the top of the northern face, a figure grew from the amethyst crag and raised two empty hands before one foot shifted forward and, seconds later, a long-range crysto-plas repeater thudded to the canyon floor, raising a cloud of dust around it.
“And leave us,” John added.
Slowly Tariq’s people backed away, and even the sniper faded from view. Those on the ground paused only long enough to scoop up the wounded Deraun and the guard Jagati and Rory had trounced before making a subdued trek back to the angular tunnel.
“Thank you,” John said to Tariq while Jagati freed Rory’s hands.
“Think nothing of it,” Tariq replied with remarkable calm, considering his situation.
“I’m kind of surprised,” Jagati said, retrieving the satchel from where Deraun had dropped it. “You don’t strike me as the type to give up so easily.”
“But I have not,” Tariq observed with what appeared to be amusement. “This current reversal is only temporary.”
“How so?” John circled around so he could face the other man, the gun now trained on his opponent’s heart while, behind him, Rory started to disable the fallen weapons.
“Have you forgotten where you are?” Tariq asked. “We stand in the middle of Dyar’s Canyon, which is as inhospitable an environment as the Morton Barrens. Perhaps worse, for in the Barrens there are no alkali lakes to tempt a man when the thirst inevitably drives him to madness.
“It is an ugly way to die, alkali poisoning,” he went on, as if discussing the relative merits of clover versus sage for honey. “Fortunately for you, this will not happen.”
“I’m glad to know that,” John said.
Tariq smiled. “It will not happen,” he said, “because long before the thirst or the madness take you, my people and I will hunt you down and skin you for the sheer pleasure of it.”
“Skinning?” Jagati asked. “For cutting open one tent? A’ight, maybe we messed with your airship a little,” she recalled. “And shot a couple of your guys, but—”
“Not helping,” John cut in.
“I’m just saying,” she said as she shrugged, “skinning seems kind of extreme.”
“In my line of work,” Tariq told her, “one either lives by extremes, or dies by them.”
“Now that is what I call a motto,” Rory commented, before splintering an abandoned crossbow into the canyon wall. “You should put that on a plaque—or a mug,” he added, letting the stock fall to the ground with the rest of the shattered weapon.
“It’s a difficult life, I’ll grant you that.” John drew the glowering Tariq’s attention back to himself, “But it is also a given that objects of value, once stolen, may just as easily be stolen back. Most in the shadow trade consider it the price of doing business.”
“A point of view,” Tariq agreed, with an aplomb that belied his position of being on his knees in the dust. “But not one to which I ascribe.”
“Too bad,” Jagati said. “I’m not much looking forward to being skinned.”
Her lack of concern had not gone unnoticed by Tariq.
“And here it comes,” John murmured, watching as Tariq worked out the maths at the same time a low drone, as of thousands of bees on the swarm, presaged the approach of a small airship. It flew low, almost brushing the high ground, so that when it came over the open air of the canyon, the rope ladder which it had been dragging along behind fell within reach of those waiting below.
Tariq looked from the hovering Errant to the ladder Rory had just grabbed hold of, and back to John. “How?”
“I’d tell you,” John said, limping backwards to the ladder as Jagati began her ascent, “but I’d hate to spoil the mystery.”
At that, Tariq smiled, but it was not a friendly smile. “I hope you understand,” he said while John steadied the ladder for Rory’s climb, “by invading my house in this way, you have made me your enemy.”
“And by threatening my partner,” John said, “there is every chance I will shoot you the next time we meet.”
“Were our positions reversed, you would be dead already.”
“Is that a suggestion?”
The two stood, looking at one another while John’s crew completed their climb.
“Ladder’s clear!” Rory called from above.
“I’ve got you covered!” Jagati’s voice followed.
For a moment, John hesitated, the gun trained on Tariq.
At Jagati’s bellow, John holstered the shooter, took hold of the ladder, and began the awkward ascent.
“Tell me,” Tariq called after him, “do you know what is in that case?”
John paused and looked down. “Do you?”
“I know what it is worth to me.”
“Then we have something in common.”
Tariq’s head tilted as if considering that statement. “I very much doubt that.”
Rather than continue verbally fencing with the shadow trader, John resumed his climb, willfully ignoring the other man’s mocking laugh.