The robed one held out his left hand, dangling what looked to be a cord-wrapped scroll. Grobba smiled and reached for it. No sooner did his fingers close around the scroll than his throat opened in a blood-curdling scream. The scroll burned away and smoke curled from blackened flesh. Though Grobba snatched back his hand, the flame consuming his flesh continued to burn.
The robed man spoke, his voice so light it might have issued from a flute. “I said from the beginning your greed would be your death.”
Of all the things Vorgell feared and hated in this world, dark magic rattled him the most. Though he had often called Grobba an oily weasel, he would not stand by to see Grobba be cheated—and also robbed of his life. Vorgell unsheathed his sword and leaped at the figure stepping toward the bundle Grobba had dropped.
“Villain! Reverse your spell! If you do not, I will spill your blood!”
The robed man turned and brandished a knife in his right hand, his left still groping for the fallen bundle. Within the hood, light eyes the color of snake bellies glared from a sallow face. He had just begun muttering a few foul words when he screamed, the chant interrupted by a short sword slicing deep into his knife arm. The knife fell to the hard ground. Madd lifted his sword for a second blow if needed.
The man uttered a single word and lightning flashed forth from the earth itself, snaking into their blades. Vorgell staggered backward and dropped his smoking weapon. Madd, too, no longer held a sword. With a triumphant cackle, the man lurched for the hide bundle. He came face to face with a tail-thrashing, crest flaring basilisk.
Petal hissed and the green gold nictating membranes on her eyes retracted.
All color bled from the robed stranger. Within moments he was a deathly shade of ash gray, not to mention as immobile as a rock. Because he was a rock.
Madd shot her a thankless glare. “We were handling things just fine. Turning people to stone doesn’t solve every problem, you know.”
Petal hissed at him, too, but with her membranes restored and her crest flat against her scaly body. Their fallen foe no longer presented any threat. Vorgell turned his attention to Grobba, who was still writhing nearby, his screams shrill with agony. Madd joined them and was already fumbling for something in his pouch.
“Help me!” Grobba’s entire right arm crackled and burned from within, sending forth curls of foul-smelling smoke. With his left hand he grasped Madd by the front of his tunic, as if doing so could force the help he needed. “Cut it off! My arm! Or the magic will take it all!”
Vorgell caught Madd’s nod of agreement. Amputation was a drastic cure, but it was quick and worth a try. Because his sword might be cursed also, Vorgell unhooked his Scurrian war axe. It was a heavy weapon, but good for such work. But as he stood to deliver the blow, he saw he was already too late. The fire eating its way through Grobba’s flesh had reached his shoulder and begun to burrow into the torso.
The dying man sensed it. “He did me in, the bastard. He killed me. I am a greedy fool, to think an enemy would not be false. Listen”—Grobba gasped what might be his last breath—“take it. The Sun Staff. Do not let”—wild-eyed with pain, he dragged in another breath—“the Salid of Anssif destroy—” Only a scream issued forth then, followed by silence, and Grobba’s body began to crumble to ash.
Because they could not help him, Vorgell and Madd went back to where the hide bundle lay on the ground beside stone fingers that but a short time ago had been very much alive. Vorgell knew enough to be wary. He used the blade of his axe to nudge open the wrappings. Whatever was inside was made of gold. It was heavy and glinted with golden promises within its concealment.
“Don’t open it,” warned Madd. “We need to think about this.”
“Don’t you want to find out what it is?”
“You heard Grobba. It’s the Sun Staff. I know what it is, all right? The Sun Priestesses trot it out for ceremonies in the Temple. Only the Sun God or his Virgins can wield it. I didn’t think anyone could ever steal it.”
“What does it do?”
“Do I look like a Sun Priestess? I don’t know. Turns a bunch of old stones into warriors or some such thing. When the High Priestess holds it aloft, she invokes the Protectors of Gurgh.”
Madd looked frustrated as he pushed back a handful of overlong hair. Vorgell could not help but admire his partner’s fine features. It was his good fortune to partner with the prettiest thief in all Gurgh or anywhere else he had been. He looked around for Petal and saw her sunning on a rock.
He squatted down and, taking care to touch only the silky soft hide that hid the staff, folded enough away so he could look upon the artifact. It appeared to be made of gold. A heavy disk topped a thick rod inscribed with writing. The disk showed a falcon face and wings, and below that a wall and many more figures he could not interpret.