A simple Shapierian thief finds herself become something she never wanted to be, and must embark on her own quest across Glorianna to redeem herself and reunite with the Hero she loves.
Unique to this story: spectacular Mary-Sue
Chapter 1 - A Mistake
Chapter 2 - Shapierian No More!
Chapter 3 - Itsumo Kawai
Chapter 4 - Nightfall
Chapter 5 - Demons and Darkness
Chapter 6 - Mirror, Mirror
Chapter 7 - Sechburg
Chapter 8 - Magic and Mayhem
Chapter 9 - On the Road
Chapter 10 - Trouble in South Spielburg
Chapter 11 - New Quests
Chapter 12 - Silmaria
Chapter 13 - Looking Forward
Chapter 14 - Various Ends
Chapter 15 - Forms of Hell
Chapter 16 - Horror and Heartache
Chapter 17 - Dance of Destinies
Chapter 19 - Blood of Love, Death of Death
About the sequels
Chapter 10 – Trouble in South Spielburg
Spielburg had not always been a nation. Less than a century before it had been a bloodstained land ruled by various warlords, all that remained of the even older nation of Alchenwäd. Every town and city stayed defensively shut behind its great stone walls, valuables safely stored in its war-time retreat vault. Even after the nations to the east destroyed each other and peace fell over what would become a great kingdom, it was still fifty years before the land could recover from its heritage of violence and open its doors and gates to outsiders. Some wartime traditions still remained, though, and few cities could be found without a near-useless stone wall and vault.
Eventually the place became merely a tame sort of wilderness dotted with small cities and tiny towns, hardly united by their common tongue and the more common merchant language. Little leaders devoted to peace, none claiming titles greater than perhaps baron, often held several of these villages under their casual rulership. The countryside was peaceful, prosperous, and happy, but there were a few who sought to unite it. Some of these went about this violently, but the people, mindful of their gruesome past, always resisted. Some sought to gain the lords’ approval and thus their loyalty, but none could perform a feat great enough and of enough wide-spread interest. That is, until the Baron Stefan von Spielburg (the first) led his small but well-trained army against a particularly troublesome wizard and his seemingly endless hoards of devils. Inspiring loyalty in the towns he passed on this particular quest, he managed to rally an army larger than any that part of the world had ever seen, united for a just and righteous cause (and dispersed immediately the battle was ended), to defeat the enemy. After this, nearly every minor ruler put themselves willingly under his jurisdiction, and by a generation later the land of Spielburg was formed. Certainly there were pockets who refused to acknowledge Stefan as their master (though he unassumingly retained his title of baron instead of claming a rightful kingship), but these were few and not powerful enough to trouble the small-time fiefs (as they now called themselves). Or so everyone thought.
Among Stefan’s efforts to further unite the country was the setting up of a post, the ordination of a more structured tier-government system, the regulation of goods prices and currency laws, and the dubbing of his land “Spielburg” after the name of his little town. The latter was now the capital, but the huge nation-wide festivals (established by Stefan himself) were held in the greater city of Piek to the northeast across the mountains. Stefan did not find the duties of a near-king particularly difficult, for the nation looked after itself to a large degree. He merely had to receive reports from his various under-lords (who out of respect had discarded the title of baron from among their ranks) and keep track of the general state of finance and economics across the country. The matters of his own valley were of more direct concern to him, however, and thus his life was as busy as it could reasonably have been expected to be.
His son Stefan (the second) did not relish his upcoming position as both Baron of Spielburg and Baron of Spielburg, and by the end of his teenage years was known as quite the hooligan in all the surrounding towns–in the hopes that his father would reconsider passing the position on to him. However, upon the assassination of the first of Spielburg’s royal line, the younger Stefan settled down with a heavy heart to assume his father’s place. Only his marriage to the lovely Elisse von Ärden a few years later cheered him up enough to put any enthusiasm into the job. The search for Stefan’s murderer was soon given up when no sign nor remotest clue could be found leading to his identity. Apparently there were still those who wished Spielburg to be unruled, or to be ruled by other hands than the current. A great deal of trouble might have been saved if his lordship had been a little more attentive to his rebels, or had not been so quick to abandon the search for his father’s killer upon the birth of his first child.
But En Shevil did not know all this. Had she, she would not have cared, for she would not have realized how it pertained to her. Her personal dealings–Deathscar, Achim, and all that–had almost made her forget that there was a real world out there that just might be willing and able to pull her into its own dealings for an adventure or two that was totally irrelevant to her own life, however much heartbreak it caused her in the process. She would have done well to have asked Achim about his troublesome adventure previous to his heroics in Spielburg.
The little party traveled for days along the foot of the Spielburg mountains, enjoying the beautiful countryside and each others’ company. Actually, Elsa did not enjoy Singing Man’s company, though Toro seemed to put up with him fairly well. En Shevil found herself more and more fond of the man every day, though he always did put off her questions with bits of song. She also grew to like Elsa a great deal: the warrior’s stoic, straightforward manner and perfect honesty were quite appealing to the other warrior. En Shevil taught her a few basic maruroha moves — there was one spin-kick in particular Elsa liked — and helped her brush up on her thief skills. In return Elsa showed her something that En Shevil had never thought in her lifetime to see.
Toro and Singing Man were not present, both having gone to a nearby pond to bathe. Elsa, seated on a rock, unslung her pack and pulled it out in front of her. “There is something you would like to see,” she said, looking around. “I have brought it from Spielburg as I did not want to leave it in the care of my brother.” She drew out a large, heavy-looking object wrapped in cloth and held it out.
Only mildly curious, En Shevil took it and pulled its padding off. Startled beyond expression, she nearly dropped it on her own feet when she saw what it was. “The Blackbird!” she gasped.
“I attained it sometime during my time with the brigands,” Elsa said.
“I — I don’t believe it!” En Shevil stammered. “It’s so…” Staring at its fine detail and sleek silvery-black coloring, she had no word to describe it. “I was once hired to steal one of the fakes…” she murmured. “I still can’t believe — is this really the real thing?”
“It is. I thought you would enjoy seeing it.”
En Shevil ran her hand up and down the bird’s chest longingly. Hearing the approach of the two males she regretfully began wrapping it up again. “What are you going to do with it?”
“I don’t know yet. But I will put it to good use, I assure you.”
It was exactly one week later that they reached the somewhat large (for Spielburg) town of Stuartsgeiden. En Shevil was not very interested in helping.
“But you must!” the innkeeper cried. “We have no warriors here, not even any adventurers. He’s been taking our children and threatening to kill them if we tell the baron; then he demands taxes of us, and food. We’re starving! Not a single adventurer has passed here in weeks — the last one refused to help us too. We’re running out of resources.”
“Who is this man?” asked Elsa, coldly angry.
“All I know’s that his name is Telmiquor. He’s got lots of men holed up in there, and creatures under his control too. I think he wants to rule Spielburg, and he’s been there for more than a year raising a secret army. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s got other towns like us. He has our children!”
En Shevil sighed at the weary desperation in the man’s eyes and voice, and finally asked, “How many children?”
“Great mother of Iblis, thirteen? How can you let him take your kids like that?”
“We have no choice when he sends ten men and four saurus rexes into town and breaks down people’s doors. As far as I know he hasn’t killed anyone yet, ‘cause we’ve been good with his demands. But we can’t hold out much longer. Our winter stores were enough, but we don’t know if we can afford what he needs for the summer. And his demands don’t get any smaller, either.”
En Shevil glanced at Elsa, annoyed, and saw the determination in the other woman’s face. And to be honest, En Shevil didn’t think she could refuse at this point anyway. But it was a nuisance. Achim could be dead for all she knew, and here she was preparing to play Heroine for a little town with no connection to her. She knew she was being selfish, but she could not help regretting the time she knew they were going to lose.
Singing Man spoke a few brief, rhyming lines about what a devoted parent would do for their child, and Toro remained silent. “We’ll help you,” En Shevil said heavily. “Where’s the vault?”
Stuartsgeiden was tucked into a corner where a mountain arm jutted westward from the main range. An out-of-the-way little place, En Shevil was not surprised that this Telmiquor had managed to keep his residence and tyranny a secret from the rest of the inattentive country. Like the innkeeper, she also would not have been surprised to learn that the despot held other towns under his sway: the apparent scouts she had met some time earlier suggested he was at least branching out. Leaving Antwerp and most of their equipment at the inn, the adventurers headed up into the mountainous back yard of the town towards the vault in which Telmiquor had taken residence. Routing a minor tyrant and keeping a dozen children alive in the process was not her idea of fun. She’d had enough of that in Sechburg. But children were children, and she was not backing out now.
It was dusk, and they had reached the approximate location of the vault’s main opening. Proceeding with extreme caution, they skirted as best they could the wall of the overhanging cliff until they were within view of the door.
Like most vaults — Elsa had given them a brief rundown on that particular tradition — the latter was designed to be accessible by only one man at a time in order to be the most defensible. A guard stood before the door, looking alert but not very watchful. Apparently the invaders had not experienced any resistance from the villagers to make them vigilante. Still, En Shevil’s party had decided, on the way up, not to risk a frontal assault if at all possible. As Elsa reminded them (and she knew from experience), every fortress had a back door. They retreated to where they could talk.
“I say we split up and search for another way in,” said En Shevil uncertainly. Her knowledge of tactics was what she’d picked up twelve years ago playing Capture the Banner in school. That had been in a desert. “We can meet back here in an hour or so. Any of us can take down whatever comes our way –” She glanced uneasily at Singing Man, not sure whether this applied to him — “so we should be safe.”
Elsa nodded. “We should split into groups of two.” Without hesitation she added, “I will go with Toro around the guard and to the west.”
En Shevil smiled in the darkness, resisting the urge to laugh. “All right, we’ll meet you back here in an hour.”
“Good luck,” Elsa bade them, and was gone — doubtless glad to be away from Singing Man.
“Can you climb?” the latter asked immediately.
What a lucid question! “Yes.”
He gestured back behind them and said, “Let’s climb the cliff.”
Still surprised at his sudden prose, she accepted the idea and started back eastward. She did not quite know how far to go, but assumed it would be wise to leave the guard far enough behind that their ascent would not be heard.
Singing Man pulled a rope and grapnel from his pack, and after pulling loose a few tangles from the cord he flung the hook into the darkness, where it took hold of the cliff with a clack. En Shevil found a handhold and pulled herself upwards as Singing Man tested his rope. “Race you,” he offered in a quiet, challenging tone.
“Very well,” En Shevil grinned, and began to climb.
Minutes later he was several feet ahead of her when his grapnel slipped and his feet scrabbled on the rock to find a hold. En Shevil took a firm grip on the edge of the alcove where her hand was, and swung out to catch him as he toppled backwards. Bracing her joints for his weight, she held his wrist tightly, knuckles white and arms straining, until he could find a place to stand. “You win,” he gasped, staring up at her with startled eyes.
She looked away; his eyes were so blue! “Come on,” she said firmly, and they continued.
On the top of the cliff, Singing Man disentangled his rope from where it had wound around his arm and leg upon falling, and hooked his grapnel onto his belt. “Now which way?” En Shevil wondered.
“If we are searching for a back entrance, we ought to start at the back,” he replied. “That means south.”
En Shevil pursed her lips, brows lowered. Why was he acting so differently? Because Elsa was gone? She began to think there was more to this man that she’d originally guessed. Besides how handsome he was in the moonlight, of course. “South it is, then,” she agreed, and started in that direction. They walked quietly for about three quarters of an hour before they found anything, and this was not quite what they were looking for.
In a dense, rocky thicket of immense size they stumbled on a nest of huge eggs, each one at least a foot across, off-white with veins of darker cream. Stumbled was indeed a good term for their discovery, for En Shevil nearly fell on top of them as she forced her way out from between three trees and a thick, prickly bush. To avoid crushing the eggs she was forced to do a half-flip, landing quite painfully on her lower back a little way ahead. “Watch out for the eggs,” she groaned to Singing Man who followed.
Climbing sorely to her feet to the sounds of his careful removal of self from the bush, she realized they were not alone in the tiny clearing. Before her was a low, natural ‘tunnel’ of close shrubbery that plunged into blackness and was probably an easier way out than that they had taken in. Emerging from this, crouching low, was an irate, though rather frightened-looking, young saurus rex. The closed scratch-wounds on En Shevil’s neck throbbed and itched just looking at the creature.
“Uh-oh,” Singing Man said as he hopped on one foot in an attempt to disengage the other from the underbrush.
“If we can get to the tunnel, we could back out of here and she probably won’t hurt us,” En Shevil said tensely, hoping desperately that they could get out of this one without being forced to kill a young mother. Singing Man glanced at the eggs and nodded.
At that moment the beast attacked, darting out at En Shevil so quickly that only instinct saved the maruroha from losing a limb. Dodging out of the way at the last possible moment, En Shevil rolled up to her feet to gape in shock at her apparently insane companion; for Singing Man had tackled the creature and was now attempting to wrestle it from behind, strong arms holding the gigantic tooth-filled mouth shut. The saurus was tossing its head and whipping its tail, and several times Singing Man’s feet were thrown out from under him. “What are you doing?” En Shevil shouted, forgetting herself for a moment in amazement at his actions.
Singing Man actually laughed. “I’ll catch up to you!” he replied, grinning, and En Shevil simply stared at him. He was crazy. She backed, crouching, part of the way into the tunnel and watched him. It was a strange rodeo, the bucking saurus frantically trying to throw the playful man and he laughing like an idiot as he was flung here and there and dragged off his feet. It was not long before the saurus gained the upper claw, as it were, and Singing Man fell violently to the ground under its great legs. He rolled, but was not fast enough to avoid a hard swipe in the stomach. The saurus hissed and growled, lowering her head for a deadly bite, but was knocked backwards by En Shevil’s foot as she sped forward and jumped to her friend’s defense.
“You idiot!” she said, though not entirely unkindly. “I’ll cover you.” The saurus thrashed on the ground, struggling to gain her feet once again, and Singing Man crawled from the thicket through the narrow tunnel. En Shevil backed into it behind him, swords out to deter the creature from following.
Once out on the rocky slope beyond the cramped home of the saurus, En Shevil turned on Singing Man accusingly. “What’s wrong with you? You almost got yourself killed in there!”
Panting and smiling widely, he responded happily, “I haven’t had a good wrestling match in months!”
“You’re crazy. We’re supposed to be looking for a back door to a stupid fortress, not wrestling stupid saurii.” He continued to grin, and she looked away from his flashing teeth. All at once the image of him bouncing and flopping around on the saurus’ spine came into her mind, and she began to giggle. “Let’s head back,” she said, taking the lead down the mountainside and trying not to laugh out loud.
“We did not find any sign of another way in,” Elsa said dejectedly. “What did you find?”
“Nothing but a saurus rex and her clutch,” En Shevil replied with a yawn. “What do you say we go for the front door? I want to get this over with.”
Elsa frowned. “I still do not believe that is the wisest way.” They were all silent for a moment, though Singing Man was humming softly.
“Man in inn say bad man have animals,” said Toro at last. “Maybe saurus rex bad man’s animal.”
“That is a possibility,” Elsa considered. “Perhaps it was a guardian of some kind.”
“So we have to go back up there?” En Shevil said in a dull tone.
“You will have to lead us,” said Elsa, totally ignoring the fact that Singing Man had gone with En Shevil as well.
En Shevil glanced doubtfully at Toro. “We’ll have to go up around to where the cliff is lower,” she said, “unless you can climb, Toro.” The minotaur shook his head, so En Shevil turned and led the way eastward up the mountain.
This time it took them nearly an hour and a half to reach the thicket again, mostly because approaching it in the dark from the opposite direction made it difficult to find; even when they were there En Shevil was not entirely sure it was the right place. “If we don’t find anything,” she asked wearily, “can we please go in by the front?”
Elsa did not respond, but began skirting the trees and scrambling over rocks, looking carefully for some sign. En Shevil sighed and followed. “Toro take Singing Man other way,” the minotaur said, and the two males headed off around the thicket in the other direction.
“Look here,” Elsa hissed, stopping short and dropping to her knees. It was the proverbial clue, a scrap of cloth. “I was correct.”
“Either that or this saurus has an offensive streak,” En Shevil muttered, but Elsa was pushing her way into the thicket. En Shevil took a few running steps backwards to where they had separated from the others and called, “Come here!” Then she followed Elsa.
The latter had stumbled, her foot caught deeply in a mess of branches and leaves that almost looked, upon close examination, hand-woven. Elsa was twisted around trying to get free, and remarked when En Shevil appeared, “I believe we have found it.”
“Elsa OK?” Toro asked from over En Shevil’s shoulder.
“Yes, I am fine, Toro,” Elsa said as she finally yanked her foot out. “Help me clear this away.” The two women tugged at the mess, and began to expose a blackness that breathed forth cool, wet air into the foresty dimness around them.
“Well, this may be the back door,” said En Shevil as she stared into the hole. Under the deep shadows of the trees in the pre-dawn, there was no way to tell how deep it was or what lay inside. For all they knew it could be some creature’s nest. “Who goes first?”
“Toro tallest,” Toro said. “Go first.”
“Be careful, Toro,” Elsa said as the minotaur seated himself with his legs dangling into the darkness. Then he was gone.
There were scuffling noises below as of hooves on stone, and Toro spoke in an echoey voice. “Tunnel. And ladder.” A moment later the ends of ladder slats clacked against the side of the hole, and the three humans looked at each other. “Let’s do this,” En Shevil sighed, and pulled herself down.
For a moment her mind was clouded and she could see nothing, but then the tunnel came into focus: low, mostly natural it appeared, rough and downward sloping. The draft was stronger, with a cold, definite moisture on it, and it chilled her. Shivering, she stepped forward to stand by Toro as the others descended. When they were all gathered, she unhesitatingly and wordlessly took the lead, deeming her vision to be the best. Ducking an outcropping, she walked carefully through the narrow way as it twisted, rising and falling, in no coherent direction.
It was featureless, the blank, ragged rock faces around and above her. There was little rubble or other loose material, and their footfalls were hushed. Her movements became mindless as she stared before her into deep greyness and interminable turns of the tunnel. Soon she had lost all sense of where they went, and her hand instinctively sought the wall to her left. The world shrank to vague blankness in her thoughts.
The way forked, each road looking equally level and the branch to the left slightly smaller. The others drew up even with her as she stopped, dulled mind not registering the need for decision. She might have remained there for several minutes, still as the stone around her, until Singing Man said, with an apparent effort, “Which way?”
His hushed voice fell onto their ears strangely loudly, like a stone into calm water, startling them all. No echoes spread from it, yet off to the left they imagined they caught an answering noise like a whispered word. En Shevil took a hesitant step in that direction, then stopped. A heaviness had gripped her and a desire to be in a warm inn bed, not here in this cold darkness seeking something she did not remember.
“Careful,” Singing Man murmured, and she wagged her head rapidly to clear the cobwebs from her mind. Looking around at her companions, she found the same dullness in their eyes, and wondered obscurely, not really wanting to know, what it was.
“Left?” she said in a thick tone, and Elsa gave a slight shake of her head — of confusion, not disagreement. Toro stood silently, eyes nearly closed.
Singing Man pushed past her, almost roughly, and started into the left tunnel at a walk that was almost a stagger. Groping at the stone to either side, En Shevil followed like a beast, intent on staying with him. The darkness pressed around them as the other two stumbled after.
This path was straight; they could not go wrong. Grey walls sank into blackness as vision gradually departed, and the heaviness of the air calmed En Shevil’s actively apathetic desire to be elsewhere into a passive, stuporous indifference that was content to let her keep walking until she ran into something and stopped.
The boundaries disappeared, and they were walking through shallow water. It was shockingly cold, and a start went through her as she realized what that had done to partly awaken her. Something was wrong. But now Singing Man had stopped inexplicably before her, and as she halted Elsa ran into her, fumbled with her hands, and also ceased movement. Toro’s heavy, bestial breathing was the only sound for some time.
At last En Shevil roused herself a mite and looked around. All was in darkness. Why could she not see? She was falling rapidly into a daze once again, and almost struggled to regain what she had forgotten; did she want it? Elsa was by her. Toro was a few paces back. Singing Man was on her right as she turned. Eyes glowing in the blackness were before her.
She studied them carelessly. They were bright grey-silver with irises of blue almost indistinguishable from their massive black pupils. They were sharp and downward-turned, not like a human’s. Their was a familiarity in their tilt that made them pleasant, somehow. She did not know. And then the ring of steel came as a second cold awakening to her.
She grappled with listlessness and gained some ground. Pulling her own swords free, she repeated Elsa’s silent challenge of the thing. Presently came the short sswish of Singing Man’s dagger and, finally, the slow creak of leather as Toro took his great axe from its bands at his back.
The creature blinked slowly, but made no move. Whatever it was in those eyes that she recognized was stronger now, and some faint smell entered the air as a sound like spreading wings broke the silence. She shuddered at the scent, for some unrecollectable memory was connected with it. The animal gave a whining, hissing growl and took a splashing step towards them.
Dully they awaited it, weapons held slackly in their numb hands. As the eyes bobbed to the left and right, as if with the swinging of a great head, they seemed to take in acutely each of the companions in turn. They settled on En Shevil, narrowing, and in her they found the same familiarity she had found in them.
The creature struck her, sharp claws raking her chest and throwing her backwards. In the fractured moment wherein they touched, En Shevil could feel along with the pain a contact with the enemy: it hated her, in a way that a nation of men might have blood feud with another.
Malevolence. Blood. Pain. An open wound, and she held ready weapons. Her mind, blunted as it was, lay unprepared as torrents of replying rancor swept over it, bringing madness and a sudden hunger for death. Death. Her hands tightened, and she sprang to her feet, her unweakened Deathscar side taking total control in that one moment. Rage driving her, she hurled her body, all deadly kicks and sword-thrusts, at the monster, the creature that was her kin and had dared harm her. Its wings beat, its claws slashed, but it could not withstand her sudden fury. She found its neck and hewed it, driving her swords deep into its body with delight and wrath. She stabbed it until it was dead, and its blood coated her.
Then she turned to find other prey.
As the invisible foe struck at their companion, its mind-numbing influence fell from the others like a veil and the world was clear once again. They could not see, but could hear well the scufflings of battle before them. Elsa fumbled for the torch at her belt, stepping backwards cautiously as she did so. As she struck a light, all fell silent.
There was a dragon dead before them, decapitated and bleeding at a number of points across its body. Its blood mingled with the water at their feet, which seemed to spread the entire length of the good-sized cavern. Beside it stood En Shevil, drenched in blood, hunched by the beast’s severed neck. A light was in her eyes, and a darkness. She panted like some unwholesome creature, and her empty hands twitched. Her lips curled as she looked at them, and Elsa took another step backwards in dismay. En Shevil gave a distracted shake of her head, and sprang forward towards the bearer of the light.
“En Shevil!” cried Singing Man suddenly, in a tone so commanding and forceful that Elsa turned her head in amazement. En Shevil stopped, crouching like a beast in the water, and gazed at him with throbbing eyes. A grimacing expression of agonized confusion, of struggle, passed over her, and her clenching hands lifted and half-clawed at her face. Collapsing to her knees and bowing her head to the ground, she pulled herself into a trembling ball, shaking and gasping.
As that voice spoke her name, the haze lifted from the human side of her mind and she contested bitterly, momentarily, for the regain of her sanity. Deathscar could not overwhelm her so suddenly when she was at full mental strength, not when the killer had been pushed so far back over the last few months. And it had been that voice that brought her out, that gave her back her will and let her fight. But she could not face them.
Elsa, in no way bereft of human understanding, put out her torch. With an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and a deep breath, En Shevil sat up. Echoes of rage and madness were still singing through her mind, and she turned her thoughts at once to the distracting pain of her new, latest wound. Many more wounds and she would be totally unable to move. She struggled to her feet, and stiffened as she felt someone’s hand on her shoulder.
“Do you need help?” Singing Man asked in her ear.
She had the sudden impulse to fling herself into his arms, put her head on his chest, and cry. But that hadn’t done much for her the last time she’d tried it, and now she was covered in blood anyway. Some of it was hers. Yes, she did need help. “Bandages,” she gasped. What she really wanted, she realized, was for him to sing a song to comfort her. But this was hardly the time.
“Toro has,” said the minotaur. He of all of them, most likely, least understood what was going on, and that was to En Shevil’s liking. As she bandaged herself blindly, she fought an increasing sense of shame that threatened to consume her. She had shown him — shown them — her worst side, and now how could he — they — ever trust her again? This was intuitive, and her logic gave her the reasonable conclusion that he understood. Elsa had already told her as much, in not so many words. She cast about for her swords, and remembered she had left them in the beast’s smoldering body. Not looking too closely at its cooling carcass, she found her blades and wiped them clean, replacing them at last and readying herself to move onward. They still had a quest, and to it she now looked forward as a distraction from her feelings and a noble task to ease her conscience.
“This was obviously a trap — a guard,” Elsa had been saying, to cover the awkward silence. “We should have taken the right path. Now we must go back.”
This time Singing Man led the way, silently, followed by Elsa, En Shevil, and Toro. The maruroha’s last action before leaving the room was to splash water from the far side onto her arms and face, cleansing — she hoped — the dragon’s blood from her skin. On the creature she spared not another glance.
The right path led down, curving gently and seeming more worn than the left way had been. The moisture in the air increased, and the cold became greater, so much that they were shivering after not very long. En Shevil became more and more nervous, and realized eventually that her thief’s instincts, dulled before by the dragon’s strange effects, were giving her a warning. Finally with an effort of will she stopped them.
“If there was a trap down the wrong way, there should be a trap down the right way as well; probably one that can be bypassed. We should look out.”
Singing Man smiled, stepped aside, and gestured that she should take the lead. “Of such manners my awareness falls to naught,” he said, speaking again in his old manner.
En Shevil stepped forward, putting all her thoughts to watching for traps and forgetting what had just happened. Her throbbing chest helped, but also hindered as it brought back emotional images. The fact that she found no traps did not do her any good either. However, eventually she reached it, and it was not difficult to spot.
The alcove in the ceiling held a massive slab of stone that would be dropped instantly onto the path if the triggers on the walls or floor were so much as brushed. These were easily avoided, but to what use they could not see: the tunnel’s ending was closed by a low door of rock, smooth, that quite obviously contained another trigger for this trap — or perhaps a different one. The trap could not be set off from afar and then bypassed because the door would be blocked by the stone, which would also make quite an impressive noise in its falling.
En Shevil described the layout to her less darksighted companions. “Let us hope that the door does not need magic to open,” Elsa said. They all stood uneasily for a moment just outside the trapped area.
En Shevil shook herself, pulling her long-retained lockpick from her pocket. Oddly, it was the same lockpick she had won from her parents so long ago, and almost the only thing she still carried from Shapier. “You all stand back here,” she said, and went forward with extreme care to the door.
The weight she seemed to feel hanging above her head was not just that of the rock. The trap on the door was intricate, involving quick-moving stone chips that had to be lined up by even quicker fingers. She began to sweat as she maneuvered her way through the long and complicated process of disarming before she was even able to pick the lock beyond the trap.
Something snapped, and she froze as a wave of hot fear washed through her and she waited motionlessly for the stone to fall. But all the sound signified was the realignment of the trap components to form a small keyhole. From there it was relative child’s play to pick the lock, and finally the door swung ajar.
Further examination showed that to open the door all the way was to set off the suspended trap, and so they must pass through one at a time with profound delicacy. En Shevil took it upon herself to guide them all, one by one, into the opening, trembling in fear each time one of them came too close to the wall. But finally they were all through, and leaving the door half open behind them they faced the next room.
The moisture which had for so long chilled them came from the lake, widening out from blackness to grey reflection across the high-ceiled cavern in which they now stood. Its depth could not be guessed, but its span could be placed at more than a hundred feet across. Its opposite bank met the cavern’s far wall, and a huge tunnel opened onto it and shed light over the dark stone, spilling forward onto the water. The bank on which they stood was fairly smooth, composed of stone and some loose almost-dirt, sloping very gently into the mere. A narrow, crumbling path, perhaps a foot above the pristine surface, led along the wall to their right. It looked treacherous, slimy and very small, but it was the only way across.
Hugging the wall carefully, none of them wishing to risk the depth of the black water or the noise of swimming (those that knew how), they made their slow way over the lake to the other shore. They gathered at the far side by the mouth of the new tunnel, looking at each other for a plan.
“So now we have a frontal assault from the back?” En Shevil said softly, voice trembling. Her entire body was still subject to flutters from the fading nervousness of the trap. “I hope this helps us.” She examined the tunnel from where she stood; it looked recently-dug.
“I will go forward and look,” said Elsa.
“No, let me,” En Shevil replied at once.
“You braved the trapped door,” Elsa told her firmly. “Now it is my turn.” As well as En Shevil could have done it, she crept forward into the tunnel and disappeared. She returned a while later, as softly as she had gone. “There is another cavern beyond,” she said, “but this one has been hewn by men. It is filled with great stores of food, barrels and chests and so on. There are many openings to other chambers. I could not tell which might lead out of the vault. There are also many men there: some seem to be guarding, but most are relaxing, it would seem.”
“We fight?” Toro asked, his voice gravelly with quietness.
“We need a better-constructed plan,” Elsa said, “and I may have such a plan. There is a sort of catwalk, a natural thing, along the room’s wall near the ceiling. If we could climb up to this without being seen, we would be invisible to the men, and would be able to survey them as long as we needed without their notice.”
En Shevil nodded. “How close is it to the opening of this tunnel?”
“It is not very accessible from there, I am afraid. We will have to sneak some way into the room before we will be able to climb to it. But the room is only lit by torches on the walls –” she gestured to the tunnel, where two similar torches provided the light they had seen from the other side of the lake — “and we should be able to hide behind the crates and barrels far enough.”
“Toro not thief,” the minotaur said worriedly. “Cannot sneak so good.” Singing Man nodded his head in rueful agreement.
“Maybe you and I should go up there just to make a plan on how to attack them best,” En Shevil said to Elsa.
Elsa was still for a moment, then nodded. “We will see the points at which they most need to be taken by surprise. Then we will attack from above, and you two can enter when you hear the sounds.”
“Is this even going to work?” En Shevil asked, doubting once more. She was about to continue by saying that none of them were particularly superior warriors with the power to take on an entire roomful of men, but stopped, remembering a cave full of trolls and, earlier, bands of mercenaries sent to kill Deathscar. Think of the children, she told herself, and stop being silly. You’re not going to think about Deathscar any more, remember? “I guess we have to try,” she finished belatedly.
Elsa nodded shortly, and headed for the tunnel. Silently En Shevil followed.
The room was as Elsa had described it, and they had little trouble darting from barrel to box to massive chest without the notice of the men. These the maruroha studied as they went. They were mostly of Spielburg line, tall and blonde or brunette with middling amounts of facial hair and blue or brown eyes. Many were clad in simple, clean clothing of various middle class varieties, but some were armored. All bore weapons, and even those relaxing on benches by the long tables in the middle of the room seemed wary and ready for a battle. This was not going to be easy, for En Shevil would like to kill as few of them as possible.
They made their way to a spot where a long crevice in the wall sloped backward out of the reach of torchlight, slimy with dripping water but probably the only place they could climb undetected. With a wary backward glance at their enemies they quickly clambered up the treacherous rocks one at a time, both nearly falling at several points, arriving slimy and wet at the top. There they flung themselves down and surveyed the scene.
From above, the view was startlingly comprehensive. Their obvious target for surprise was the clustered group of armored men standing near another passage across the room from the women’s entrance point. With this bunch gone, the others would be fairly simple to take out. But En Shevil had the itching suspicion that nothing good would come of this raid until they had removed Telmiquor himself.
She looked to Elsa, who nodded with shared thoughts, and they began making their silent, vigilant way along the catwalk towards the other end of the room. Once there, they crouched, ready to jump. En Shevil found one man minus a breastplate who was destined to break her fall, and probably his back. After a fingered countdown, they leaped.
The ambush effect was completely lost when Elsa, her long upward-flying braid catching on a sharp rock outcropping, cried out as her head was jerked up and her entire weight was borne up by her neck. Only by some strange miracle of physical impulse was she saved from having her neck snapped. The men looked up at her shout, and En Shevil’s fallbreaker moved out of the way. The maruroha rolled painfully to her feet as Elsa slashed clumsily with her sword at her restraint. A foot and a half of braid was shorn away and left hanging from the catwalk’s edge as the warrior fell to join her companion on the floor and commence the attack. All thoughts of surprise now ruined, the two of them began to fight back-to-back, calling for their friends to join them.
En Shevil let instinct move her, the battle impulses of her blood moving her body for her, mind elsewhere. Chaos ebbed and flowed around her, and she dodged and wove between its torrents to the point of exhaustion. Still thinking of something else, she opened her sanoko and reawakened her tired frame. She kicked and drove and ducked and leaped and almost danced, until she found herself in a little square with her friends, standing in the middle of the room with the few remaining, wary men skirting the walls and watching them with hatred in their eyes. They did not dare attack again.
“We’d better split up,” said En Shevil, panting, watching the retreating men alertly. “We need to find the prisoners and make sure they’re safe.”
Of all the things they did not expect at that moment, an explosion was fairly high on the list. As it tore through the wall to their right they were all flung aside, friend and foe alike, and new blood was in her eyes. Rocks fell from the ceiling, pounding into the ground with cracking noises all around her. Rubble spattered against them like glass, and men cried out. The tunnel from which the fireball had issued was blasted to new dimensions, a gaping hole into a newly-visible chamber from which now came a host of monsters.
“Slay me these intruders!” cried a man’s voice, and the beasts jumped forward: saurii of both common and rex varieties, a number of blue-black, almost liontaurish animals, and two small dragons.
At the sound of the voice En Shevil was filled with momentary inner confusion, for the command was so powerful as to make her almost believe she had to obey it. What kind of magic did he possess to control people in this way? For most of those creatures — the dragons at the very least — were sentient beings of intelligence. Probably not the saurii, she reflected, but still they deserved their free will.
She screamed as the giant blade of an axe came down inches from her hand as she propped herself up on the ground. Looking around in startled bewilderment, she saw that Toro had raised his weapon high for another stroke. She rolled out of the way and jumped to her feet. “Toro!” she cried, but he swung at her again. “Elsa, he’s under that guy’s spell!”
“Toro!” Elsa shouted in a high-pitched, almost frightened voice. Toro continued to assail En Shevil, who now had to worry about other attackers behind her. The men, newly confident now that their master had released his creatures, were rallying once again. The creatures themselves were enough of a problem without having to deal with an entranced member of their own party.
In a blur of motion she fought, chaos taking her thoughts and few coherent ideas entering her mind. Dodge Toro’s practiced swings, fight her way through masses of enemies towards the right side of the cavern. She had to find Telmiquor. This was her one clear objective. Every now and then she called out Toro’s name in the hopes of bringing him out of his hypnosis or whatever it was.
A dragon was before her, and even in her fighting mode she saw the same strange familiarity in its eyes as she had in those of the dragon she’d killed earlier. It reached out with a claw and batted at her, but hesitantly as if fighting some inner struggle. She darted forward and touched it, remembering how she’d been able to understand the other dragon’s thoughts with physical contact.
The dragon did not want to hurt her, but he felt compelled to obey the commands he had been given. En Shevil was suddenly angry at the mistreatment of this noble creature, and wished even more that she could find the wrongdoer and make him pay. With all her heart and soul she willed the dragon free of his enslavement, that he could fight at her side.
Magic moved through her blood, responding to her will somehow, and there was a flash of light where the palm of her hand lay on the dragon’s neck. He gave a great bellow and cried out in the dragon tongue. “Now for vengeance!” Whipping around, he took a huge bound, ten feet forward towards the blasted tunnel. En Shevil, still reeling and terrified from what she had just inadvertently done, could make out the shape of a man standing in the open way, arms crossed at his chest, watching the fray. He opened his mouth in surprise and anger as the dragon approached him, and cried,
“Traitor! My men, to me!”
A small explosion trembled the floor, and the dragon was flung to his side with a gaping wound. The invaders flew towards Telmiquor at his bidding, swarming over the dragon with furious attack. En Shevil could watch no more, for Toro was about to cleave Singing Man in two as the latter struggled with one of the huge catlike creatures. En Shevil seized Toro’s arm, knowing that if she could not repeat the wonder she had just accomplished, she was lost. She grasped her courage center, as Tsukishiro had taught her, and concentrated on whatever magic lay within her. Not knowing quite how she did it, she willed Toro back into his own mind.
The minotaur’s tensed arms slackened, and he dropped his axe and bellowed. Singing Man, startled, looked behind him in time to receive a slice across his shoulder from the claws of his opponent. En Shevil cast a dagger at the cat thing and felled it. “Toro free!” said Toro from behind her. “Thanks!”
En Shevil, still shocked beyond believing at her own powers, realized that they would have a definite advantage if she were to free all the enslaved creatures. She darted between Elsa and a saurus rex and quickly flashed it out of submission. It did not seem to have much effect, for the monster turned immediately on her. At least Telmiquor could no longer command it.
A black cat thing fell on her, and she grasped its wrists as its claws dug into her arms. A moment later it screeched, teeth gnashing, and let go of her. “Thank you, my friend,” it hissed in a feminine voice. “Now I shall be paying someone back.”
Soon En Shevil encountered the second dragon, and it too was freed. Its words to her were, “So, child of the south seas, our breeds shall fight side by side for once.” She did not understand, but nodded anyway.
The other dragon was dead, she saw as Telmiquor’s men retreated from its broken body. The man himself was still standing calmly in the doorway, having ordered his men to fight the now-freed creatures bent on Telmiquor’s destruction. En Shevil had to get to him. He had to pay for doing this to dragons. As she fought her way towards him, she liberated more of the enemy, bringing them over to her side. Soon she was close enough for a challenge.
“Telmiquor!” she cried, and he regarded her with a look of scorn. She wasn’t sure what to say next, knowing from experience that she was not very intimidating, so she simply pressed forward. Once she stood beside the body of the dead dragon, about ten feet away from him, she brandished her swords. “You’re going to pay for what you’ve done to those people, and these creatures.”
He laughed, and pointed both fists at her feet. She jumped out of the way just in time to avoid the ground’s exploding underneath her. But she rolled towards him and came up too close for him to try the same trick again. Darting behind him she prevented his retreat down the passage. Then she stepped forward, swords out, driving him towards the battle.
But at the end of the blasted tunnel he turned sharply and ran along the wall of the greater chamber, heading for the lake room. He’s trying to escape! she thought, following faster.
“To me!” cried Telmiquor hoarsely, obviously afraid. Was it the blood all over her clothing? Perhaps it was the battle-light in her eyes, or her new-found magical powers that frightened even herself. Or maybe he was just a coward who could do no more than hide behind his men and animals. She thrust at him with Oyin, dodging a blow from something to her left that she could not see. Telmiquor sent a badly-aimed shot behind him, and a point on the ceiling exploded. Huge boulders showered down across the entire far side of the room, and several torches went out. The battle was significantly quieter then, and En Shevil hoped fervently that none of her companions had been caught under the rain of stone. She killed a man who attacked her in a defense of his master that she found bizarrely fanatical. Telmiquor was far ahead, and she put on greater speed. He sent another explosion to rock the room beneath their feet, dropping nearly everyone to their knees or worse. En Shevil knew she would have bruises later, on top of the other injuries she’d taken this evening.
But scrambling to her feet she pressed onwards, swords scraping the floor as she stood and arms flailing as she strove to keep her balance while running before she was fully upright. Telmiquor turned in the archway, his shape framed against the darkness of the next room, and saw her plunge towards him through the tunnel. Raising his hands he fired several wild shots, standing still and trying to aim but still missing wildly. There were flashes, rumblings and crunchings, loud cries. She had reached him, still not quite coordinated on the heaving cavern floor, when the world came crashing down around her.
When En Shevil awoke from her thirty-second blackout she found herself literally in pure darkness. Harmless rubble covered her from head to toe, and as she climbed cautiously to her feet she coughed as flurries of dust filled her nose and mouth. Her throbbing head and shifting eyes would not let her concentrate enough to see; she had to have light. Searching her pockets she found her tinderbox, somewhat battered, and a small candle-like torch she’d picked up somewhere. It did not provide much light, but gave her a fairly good idea of her situation.
Half in the lake, the color of its dark waters guessable but not apparent, lay Telmiquor, quite dead with Oyin through his chest. She stepped forward gingerly and retrieved her weapon, swishing it through the water a few times to clean it. She did not replace it in the scabbard immediately, but set it aside to dry. Sayeto lay where she had fallen, probably having been turned away by that delightful little magic she’d unconsciously worked on it so long ago. She glanced back at Telmiquor again with satisfaction. They had won the battle, then, but what was to become of her? She turned.
The passageway was completely blocked; of this there was no doubt. A draft was coming at her from somewhere among the massive heap of stones that plugged her escape from this hole; the cool air, after the heat of battle, made her skin prickle. If air could get in, perhaps sound could get out. “Elsa?” she called, hoarsely for her volume and not as loudly as she wished. “Toro?”
The rumble of distant rockslide sent tremors through the floor, and she tensed with worry. “Can anyone hear me?” Her shouts sent a flurry of little echoes reeling through the darkness, eerily twisting her voice and throwing her words back to her as a taunt. She sat down.
If Telmiquor was dead, the fight was over. Effectively. But from what she had gathered so far, his men were loyal to an extreme and the battle could well go on for some time. Of course, she had no idea how many might have died in this latest explosion. She was lucky she was still alive.
“What is it?” said a voice from nearby.
En Shevil jumped, heart thumping, to her feet, Sayet at the ready. She nearly dropped her little light.
“It can’t be…” said the voice, which she now recognized as Singing Man’s. Taking relieved steps forward, she held out her candle — and recoiled in horror as she caught sight of him. Half-buried under more rocks than she could ever lift, his broken body was spreading a pool of blood that threatened to trickle down into the lake and join Telmiquor’s. But Singing Man’s eyes were open, his face expressionless. As he turned his head from side to side absently and rambled, delirious with pain, she watched his blank, unseeing eyes with horror. “Tell me? Don’t…” He gave a sudden cry, a gut-wrenching half-scream of pain. “En Shevil?” he gasped, and she fell to her knees at his side.
“I’m here,” she said. He struck out with a hand, blindly hitting her in the face, and she took it in hers. Immediately he applied a painful amount of pressure, his visage contorted with agony, and gasped.
Then the wrinkles smoothed and his look was distant again. “Stefan… I don’t… No!” En Shevil, brows lowered, shook her head in sorrow and growing pain: his nails were digging into her hand. “Cursed… father… …sin?”
What did all this mean? “Singing Man,” she said. “Please don’t do this…”
He snapped out again suddenly with a scream. “In the name of all the gods…” he began, his voice so bestial with suffering that she nearly tried to shake his grip on her hand. But he calmed momentarily, and repeated her name. His calm led to another lapse of clarity. “Must atone… will protect my sister.” He shut his eyes tightly, tears squeezing from them in torrents. “Devote my life…” His voice sank to a whisper. “…she must never know.”
His eyes sprang open, full of pain and awareness once more. For a third time he spoke her name, so softly she had to bend over to hear him. “En Shevil,” he said again, and a fifth time, “En Shevil.” The last syllable was inaudible.
With his last strength his raised his head, his lips meeting hers for one ephemeral moment. Then his eyes went dull, his hand limp; the air was very still, very cold.
It was years before she moved again, as if after having been turned to stone. With solemnity she laid his arm at his side, and very slowly got to her feet. With a jerky sluggishness she turned and took a halting step away from him, her motions belying her inward heart. Torrents of grief, meaningless sorrow in waves, strange abstract misery of a kind she’d never felt before–washing through her like a sudden tide. This was an ocean she did not fear, but drowned in none the less. She suddenly stumbled, falling over something in the darkness and landing in a crumpled ball in the hard floor. She did not get up.
After long moments she drew herself upright again, cold and forlorn, and felt for what she’d fallen over: Singing Man’s pack. Searching for her dropped light she rekindled it and sat there, hugging the bundle to her as tears fell from her eyes in streaks through the blood, dirt, and sweat that grimed her face.
Mechanically she opened the bag, absently reaching into it for no reason her mind could dredge up. To her surprise, she found it mostly full of papers, neatly folded or rolled to create the most possible space. One of these parchments she opened, and at first only stared at it, her mind not registering the symbols before her as letters and words she knew. Finally her brain became unclouded and she read:
Oh, beauty love, I see the stars upon your eyes a-streaming,
And they like emeralds set in gold do blind me with their gleaming.
And so I turn my eyes away, and look not on their light,
For mine, unworthy of your gaze, are only fit for night.
Elsa’s eyes are blue, she thought, though the relevance of that statement she could not tell, for the phrase, ‘only fit for night’ was continually echoing through her head. Shuffling to another paper she frowned as she read:
When dark the morn, from misted cove the jealous foam-tide sliding,
To grasping world to bare the face of emerald pools abiding,
The passage of the salted birds to open sea-bed hiding,
Went, glimm’ring, on the light of starvéd winter sunrise riding.
Asleep within the brilliant shimm’ring light of morning falling,
The music of the heavens far upon her ears recalling,
Removed from whims of tempest-riven songs of ocean squalling,
A maid, a syren, lay in airy, earthly glare appalling.
Awake to find no ocean waves into the tide-pool spilling,
Trapped within the bed of lazy stars and urchins milling,
Malignant wind her salty, sea-soaked tail of azure chilling,
With terror of a brittle, sun-carved death her heart was filling.
Trembling from the lack of that his mortal frame demanded,
His nature sea, his stumbling feet on sunny dull-beach landed,
The vessel of his love and life by treachery disbanded,
A youth for his own self-made fate, survival, was short-handed.
Twixt sea and sand, by no familiar constancy surrounded,
His tortured ears by unheard songs of hunger ever hounded,
Haunted by the vengeful roar of waves that in them sounded,
Across the rock-strewn waste of dueling worlds his pleas resounded.
She did not quite understand it, but shuddered at the vivid oceanic images, so like her fear and her sudden new sorrow. She grieved, though, that he would never finish it. She pulled free another, this one nearly empty:
My fields may not as yet be wide or proud,
My harvest small, though healthy, strong, and fair,
But any lands I have-these I have plowed,
Each furrow deep and cut with greatest care.
She shook her head, turning to look at his cold face not far from her. What did it all mean? She could not tell. Tears were beginning again to brim in her barely-dry eyes–tears of sorrow deeper than those she shed for his death. This man had been great. Could have been great. The strange sadness of his first poem contrasted with the thoughtfulness of this one… I can’t take any more of this. She rose quickly, but her hands still grasped his pack. As papers spilled out, she scrambled to catch them before losing them to the draft and the lake. In doing so she could not keep herself from reading the next poem to cross her eyes:
With solemn haste the agitated painter’s hand
The untouched canvass sweeps with laden brush,
Though eager to be done and farther back to stand,
Aware that nothing good comes out of rush.
The colors swirling from his tools in sweeps of light,
Imagination’s full strength in his grasp,
Meshing as the hoped-for picture comes aright,
Prayed for with his paint-stained hands a-clasp.
In frenzied meditation now the notes are laid,
When in a moment’s triumph they are wrought
And through the blithe composer’s mind are quickly played,
Upon the staff, to writing now from thought.
The music, independent, swiftly glides along
In smoothness to his great felicity.
The oft-imagined sound of his inspired song
At last has from his thoughtful mind come free.
To play but for a moment angels at their toil
Is ever in the thoughts of man on Earth,
Unashamed the treasures of the heart to spoil,
And to astounding works of art give birth.
“Angels at their toil?” she repeated. It seemed to fit him somehow, though again she did not really comprehend the poem’s meaning. She pressed the paper to her heart, tear-filled eyes turned downward. He was so… What was the word she wanted? It did not matter. He was gone.
Eventually, possibly after a hazy, dreamless doze, her common sense returned to her and she remembered the path around the lake to the back entrance. As she was bundling his papers back into his pack, she happened to catch sight of one that was not like the rest. Unrolling it she read what appeared to be a signature:
“Erik Heimst, bastard of baronet Stefan von Spielburg, protector of royalty, poet extraordinaire — Hero of the eastern lands.”
Crumpling the paper in her hand, she nodded as all the pieces fell into place in a mystery she’d never really known existed and didn’t want to think about. “She must never know,” she said, quoting him and understanding the words now. Protector of royalty. She raised her candle-torch and touched it to the paper’s edge, then set the signature down on the floor and watched it burn. The draft blew it suddenly out onto the lake, where the flames died sullenly down and the ash dispersed across the rippling black mirror. With one last forlorn look at him, certainly a hero in her eyes, she left the cavern.
The battle, after Telmiquor’s violent exit, had become early a slaughter. Those men who did not retreat and had not been killed in the various collapses of roof and wall were confused, frightened at the loss of their master and the sudden free will of all their former allies. They were easily defeated.
At last the prisoners were reached, after the seemingly endless few hours of carnage spent to find them. A cheetaur led Elsa and Toro to the barred-off room where a surprisingly calm group of dirty children and one grown man were held. Toro smashed the lock with the butt of his axe, and their quest was completed. As Elsa absently took into her arms a miserable youngster that threw itself at her, she was worrying about En Shevil. She’d come to like the Shapierian woman a great deal, and feared En Shevil might now be dead. She knew the other could take care of herself, but did not think even a warrior of the maruroharyu could survive an avalanche.
“Toro like kids,” Toro said, and Elsa looked down at the wide-eyed rescuees that were beginning to forget their fear in delight at the minotaur: he could lift them with a hand as if they were weightless. One shrieked as Toro effortlessly placed it on his high shoulder. Elsa’s own shoulder was serving at that moment for a nose-wipe, after which the little girl, her tiny hand clenching tightly a lock of Elsa’s newly shorn hair, buried her face in the warrior’s neck with a whimper.
Elsa pursed her lips. “We must bring these children home. If En Shevil is still alive, she will take the passage and meet us in the town.”
“I will show you the way out,” the strange man said. He also had a child in his arms, and others were crowding nervously around his legs. “My name is Jaladior.” He set his burden down and took it by the hand, and led them from the room.
As they went, Elsa firmly took her mind off En Shevil and asked Jaladior if Telmiquor had kept any treasure, other than that of the town, in the vault.
“He’s been gathering money from across Spielburg for a year at least,” Jaladior replied. “This town isn’t his only project. Since his goal was ultimately to rule Spielburg in your father’s place — yes, I recognize you,” he added with a smile — “he sent men and creatures to play this same game in towns all over this southern area. Some were more successful than others.”
“My brother should be warned of this immediately,” Elsa said, brows lowered. Then she looked at Jaladior. “Who are you?”
“I’ve been his prisoner since he came over from Faledioa.”
“Faledioa is across the eastern no-man’s-land,” Elsa said in confusion. “It is days’ travel from Spielburg’s eastern border. Why would a Faldeioan want to rule my father’s kingdom?”
“He always was a greedy child,” Jaladior sighed ruefully. “Ever since his brother was killed trying to pull this same ‘vault’ trick in Fehlover, Telmiquor turned sincerely beastly. More than he was before, of course.”
“But what was his interest in you?”
“I’m an armaments development specialist, trained in Alsioacor.” He looked at her expectantly, but she admitted to never having heard of the profession or the location. “I suppose not. Perhaps you know the name Bindwei?”
Elsa nodded, but their conversation was cut short as a group of men ambushed them. Elsa, putting the girl-child forcefully down and shoving her back, stalled her first attacker with a high kick En Shevil had taught her. As she drew her sword, she heard Jaladior’s urgent shout: “Not in front of the children! Come on, kids!” Elsa changed her tactic and attempted to drive the men into the small room where they’d been hiding. With wide sweeps of her sword she sent them dancing backwards, and Toro’s axe was even speedier.
Once secluded and away from easily-disturbed young eyes, the two rescuers dispatched the new threat with ease. Elsa strangely found herself trying to avoid any more blood on her clothes. She’d never before even considered the effects of bloodshed on innocent minds, and thought back to when she’d been an eight-year-old child in a campful of brigands. She didn’t remember ever having cared, but perhaps that had been one of the side effects of Baba Yaga’s spell. Lack of squeamishness had certainly been a part of it later.
Reunited with the children, who were looking uneasily at the doorway from which the men had come, Elsa tried to remember what she and Jaladior had been talking about. Conversation had never been one of her strong points. But there was no need, for they reached the bottleneck exit of the vault. She and Toro went out first, back to back, to ensure there would be no further ambush. When they were certain, they brought the children out and set off with all haste for the town.
The exuberant, ecstatic and overwhelming response from the townsfolk was rewarding enough, but in that afternoon they were offered the entire town treasury, rulership of Stuartsgeiden, endless free food and lodging at the inn, a festival named in their honor, and any number of other minor treasures from individual parents. But Elsa said, “We do not even know the fate of Telmiquor yet,” and declined all recompense for the more beneficial prize of several hours’ sleep at the inn–in a room for which she’d already paid. But her dreams were contented.
When she awoke, much refreshed, after at least eight hours of untroubled sleep, she found En Shevil sitting silently by a massive fire, perfectly still. Silhouetted against the roaring blaze on the hearth, the wounds and grime that covered her were not visible — only her attitude of deep weariness and sorrow. With a cry Elsa sprang up and ran to the other woman’s side, but the maruroha did not move. “I am glad you are alive,” she said, placing a hand on En Shevil’s chair.
“Yes,” En Shevil said dully. “I’m alive.”
A new thought struck Elsa, who realized at that moment she had not given a thought to their fourth companion. With a concern and sudden fear she’d never thought to feel, she opened her mouth to speak. But she could not find the words, and they went on in silence. Finally she tried again. “Is he…?”
En Shevil nodded. “Singing Man is dead.” She continued to stare into the fire, and Elsa bowed her head. It seemed like hours before either one spoke further.
En Shevil nodded again, wordless.
They slept for several more hours, as it was now the middle of the night, and arose quite prepared to face a grateful populace the next morning. En Shevil seemed out of sorts, but somewhat recovered, and advised them to stay in the inn’s parlor and rest. “If we wait here until about noon, the mayor will show up. We can tell him what he needs to know, and be gone.” They had all agreed, unanimously, to depart as quickly as possible, when their duty was discharged, in order to avoid the embarrassment of a banquet or such nonsense. It turned out they’d all had awkward experiences with banquets.
“How do you know he will come?” Elsa said.
En Shevil shrugged and said nothing, as if she did not care.
They were first joined by Jaladior, who sighed as he sat down at their table. “Well, how am I to thank you for rescuing me?” he asked.
“I will have none of that,” Elsa commanded. “We are sure to receive far too much praise from this little town as it is.”
As if to punctuate her remark, there was a knock at the door, and the friendly innkeeper popped his head through. “A family wishes to visit you and thank you for rescuing their daughter,” he said. “Do you wanna see them?”
Elsa and En Shevil exchanged a look, at which the latter sighed and stared down at the table. “We will see them,” Elsa said.
The meeting with the Nähehälte family was brief and tear-filled, involving much wringing of hands and squeezing of daughter. So were the ensuing meetings with the Eientriff, Pilzefallendorf, and Schau families, although two of these had sons to squeeze instead of daughters.
It was about noon when the mayor showed up.
The innkeeper, by now probably sick to death of announcing their visitors, put his smiling head into the room once again. “The burgomaster is here,” he said a little wearily.
“We will see him,” said Elsa, nodding. She had a little smile on her face at how true En Shevil’s words had been.
The innkeeper’s smile widened. “She’s not a he,” he said. “I’ll show ‘er in.”
The burgomaster was a tall, curvaceous woman with large red lips, long flowing hair, and deep blue eyes. Surprisingly she was alone. She greeted them with a smile so warm it dispelled all their immediate thoughts (that she must have been elected for her looks) “I am burgomaster Dierch,” she said, “but you must indeed call me Scharne.” She took Elsa’s hand, since the latter was the only one standing. “You, of course, are Elsa von Spielburg, but I don’t know your companions.”
Elsa returned the woman’s smile and looked at En Shevil. “This is En Shevil,” she said, “a maruroharyu warrior from Shapier.”
En Shevil unsmilingly stood to shake the mayor’s hand, then returned to her seat.
“And this,” Elsa continued, “is Toro, my bodyguard and faithful companion.”
“My, my,” said Scharne brightly, not hesitating to shake his large hand, “but you are big. I’m pleased to meet you as well.” She turned to Jaladior.
“And I,” he said with a wave of his hand, “am merely a former prisoner of Telmiquor.”
“Congratulations on your escape, then,” said the burgomaster heartily, shaking his hand like the rest of them. Then she turned back to the other three. “And you are the heroes of our town. You’ve saved our children, given us back our vault — they’re up there right now getting our things out; then they’re going to close it up for good — and destroyed our enemy. How can we thank you?”
Elsa could not help continuing to smile, this woman was so open and friendly. “You may thank us by allowing us to depart in peace,” she said. “We were glad to have helped, but we do not wish excessive thanks.”
Scharne opened her mouth to protest, but En Shevil cut her off. “There is one thing you can do for us. There were four of us when we came to this town. You can reward us by burying our friend.”
A silence fell in the room at this somewhat blunt statement, and finally the burgomaster spoke in a hushed tone. “I’ll see to it. Who was it?”
“A man named Erik,” En Shevil said. Elsa looked up at her sharply, surprised that En Shevil knew his real name. “He killed Telmiquor.”
They agreed to stay for his honor-memorial service, to be held tomorrow; they would depart the next day, and Jaladior would go with them.
The whole town had gathered for the service, which was to be conducted by the burgomaster herself. With bowed heads they stood around the grave, where Scharne had promised they would erect a monument to him. When asked if they had anything suitable to put on it, En Shevil had wordlessly made a copy of one of Singing Man’s poems, and written under it his name with the epithet, “Poet extraordinaire, Hero.” The song did not really fit the situation, but somehow it seemed to fit her own personal relationship with him, and its haunting, mysterious tone made her think of him. Now as Scharne spoke, hushed and calm, the words were running through her head.
Under the dog star sail
Over the reefs of moonshine
Under the skies of fall
North, north west, the stones of Faroe
Under the Arctic fire
Over the seas of silence
Hauling on frozen ropes
For all my days remaining
But would north be true?
All colors bleed to red
Asleep on the ocean’s bed
Drifting in empty seas
For all my days remaining
But would north be true?
Why should I?
Why should I cry for you?
Dark angels follow me
Over a godless sea
Mountains of endless falling,
For all my days remaining,
What would be true?
Sometimes I see your face,
The stars seem to lose their place
Why must I think of you?
Why must I?
Why should I?
Why should I cry for you?
Why would you want me to?
And what would it mean to say,
That, “I loved you in my fashion?”
What would be true?
Why should I?
Why should I cry for you?
“And we will never forget him, nor what he has done for us and for our children.” These were the burgomaster’s last words, and the assembly stood silent for long moments. En Shevil realized she was crying, and Antwerp was forlornly bouncing into her hand, trying to get her attention. She turned away, and Elsa looked at her. “I’ll be back,” she murmured, heading away from the memorial and moving east. She needed to be alone for a while.
She walked for some time, eventually climbing a rocky ridge to stand on a little ledge far from the ground below. She stared out over the forest, thinking wearily over the last day and a half. Somehow she had to come to grips with what had happened: she had gone back, if only for a few moments, to Deathscar. Singing Man had died. Erik had died. Had he died thinking her an inhumane killer? Was she an inhumane killer? She tore her mind from that path, trying not to fall into her loop of Deathscar thoughts. She nodded slowly, though, a resolution forming: she would no longer conceal her identity. She would allow those whom she had hurt to find her, to claim some sort of recompense from her, any sort besides her life. She would push Deathscar so deep within herself that the killer would never emerge again. It was frightening, though — the thought of dropping her disguises and allowing the world to know who and what she was. It was frightening and strange.
Too strange. It was strange in a way that even its strangeness was frightening. There was no way she could possibly get across to herself or anyone else the volume of the strangeness she felt, not even if she mentioned the fireflies.
Fireflies… Where did that come from? Where had she heard that before? She slapped a hand to her mouth abruptly, a violent shudder paralyzing her body. “Sweet sandy mother of Iblis,” she swore between her fingers.
She was going insane. Again.
A tingle ran up and down her spine, and lowering her dark eyebrows she turned. The demoness stood straight from a crouching position — she’d been climbing the rocks — and held out her empty hands. En Shevil pulled her swords free and took a defensive stance.
The demoness sat down on the crag and hung her feet off the edge, swinging her legs. “I don’t suppose you want to give me my sword back,” she said.
En Shevil stared at her suspiciously, slightly surprised. “How do you know I have it?”
“I don’t,” said the other sarcastically. “I’m just making shots in the dark.” She turned and looked at the human. “Who in Hades else would have it?”
“Well, I don’t,” said En Shevil. “I have a silver dagger, though, with the same design on it.” She had been hoping to interest the other woman, and she succeeded.
“You have the dagger of Cvonyet? Let me see it!” She jumped up and faced En Shevil, tail flicking back and forth.
The human backed warily away. “Why do you care?”
The demoness’ face softened slightly. “It was forged by my ancestor, as was my sword.”
“Chollichihua is your ancestor?” laughed En Shevil, congratulating herself on almost saying the name correctly that time.
“Chollichihaua,” said the demoness coldly. “Yes. After she finished forging the weapons for the five nations, she returned to Tejato to…”
“I know that part,” En Shevil interrupted brusquely, wondering why she stood there listening rather than killing the woman again. “She came back to be queen and was killed by your people.”
The demoness raised her eyebrows. “Killed? Is that what you humans think? Typical. Not killed; kidnapped.” En Shevil, still holding her swords, half-folded her arms, face unchanged. “Oxinlingkaeuou, a second in the attacking force, took her as a prize as well as the sword of Unus whom he slew in taking Chollichihaua. But he became enamoured of her and sought for years after a way to return her to her own world. It was this selfless effort that made her begin to care for him. I am of their descendants.”
“And what is your name?”
“And what do you want from me?”
Askgaella smiled. “I only want to possess you, and be free of Hell forever.”
“Forever until I die,” growled En Shevil.
“I can’t…” The demoness turned her head, and then her whole body, away from En Shevil and walked several paces. But the maruroha had caught that look in her face, the tone in her voice. Under the other woman’s sarcasm and self-assurance there was fear, and anguish. She seemed trapped somehow, by something even En Shevil the ultimate prisoner could not understand. She felt a strange stirring of pity inside her, and realized suddenly that without this woman’s intervention she would have been successful in killing herself. Now in her clearer state of mind she realized that that at least deserved some thanks.
“You know me only as Deathscar?” she asked the demoness in a softer tone than she’d used before.
“Deathscar is all that matters to me.”
“Is that true?”
“No, I just said it to mess you up.”
En Shevil had never met someone so sarcastic before. “My name is actually En Shevil.”
“And I care because…?”
“Maybe you don’t have to possess me to be free of Hell.”
“And you’re such an expert on the demon military that you would know, of course.”
“It’s impossible talking to you!” cried the human, brandishing her swords once again. “Why don’t you just leave before I kill you?”
“Fine, but you just look out: you can’t watch for me all the time; I’ll have you and you’ll never get free again. Just like me.” She turned and made as if to walk away, waiting only until En Shevil lowered her guard to fling herself backwards into the unsuspecting human’s chest and throw her to the ground. “I won’t be trapped in Hell,” she growled as they wrestled, Askgaella trying furiously to break the swords from En Shevil’s grasp and En Shevil attempting to wriggle her way out of the demoness’ hold before they both rolled off the rocky cliff.
Scratching and kicking, the two women grappled for mastery of each other until finally En Shevil managed to throw her dark assailant partway off, enough to regain one of her swords and force Askgaella away. Panting, muscles tensed, demoness and human regarded each other. En Shevil bent slowly to retrieve her other sword, then took a step nearer Askgaella menacingly. “Go; leave me and never come to me again,” she commanded.
“You’ll have to kill me,” growled the other.
Askgaella straightened in surprise. “Whyever not?”
“Maybe I’m not as cruel as you are,” En Shevil snapped. “Maybe I don’t want to send you back to Hell.” Maybe I want to thank you for saving my life all those months ago.
Askgaella quickly regained her composure. “I think not,” she taunted. “I think you’re worried about your precious soul. Well, you’ve lost it already, human. No Elysium for you.”
“You fiend!” screamed En Shevil, enraged. “You devil!”
“Demon,” corrected Askgaella coolly. “Will you kill me now?”
“No!” In a fit of anger, En Shevil threw herself over the edge, catching hold of rocks immediately beneath her and clambering down at a dangerous pace. So irate she could barely see, she reached the forest floor before she realized it, and shrank into a tight ball of anger on the mossy ground. “No,” she repeated sulkily. “I’m not going to Tartarus, I’m not.”
On the clifftop, Askgaella stared at the spot where En Shevil had last stood. I don’t believe it, she was thinking. That I could say that and she still wouldn’t kill me. With a slight pang of remorse, she turned and headed back, away from the human forever. She could not bring herself to hurt her now.
Whatever her resolutions, no one else knew of them, and that was her downfall. For at that moment Askgaella was conscious of a great wind all around her, a sudden searing heat at her back as if some huge creature were breathing directly behind her; a massive force slammed her to the side, sending mountains of pain screaming through every limb with the shock that threw her into the rock wall to her right. Her body dissolved before it could slide to the ground, only long red stains remaining on the rock to indicate she had been there. The dragon that had killed her blasted the spot with flames, evaporating the blood and the last trace of Askgaella, then descended towards where the human still crouched on the cold ground.
En Shevil’s head snapped up in shock, and brushing her tears away she stood. “Orono!”
“I have slain thy foe,” the dragon informed her, settling to the ground and wrapping her tail around En Shevil’s leg.
“The demoness? You killed her?” The dragon inclined her great head and brought it down again. “You shouldn’t have.” Even as the maruroha knit her brows, shaking her throbbing head, she felt a certain pang of satisfaction. She pushed it strongly away. “So what are you doing here, anyway?”
“I feel that in thy deserts is an explanation.”
“An explanation of what?”
“Thy state, thy past, and thy future.” En Shevil just shook her head in confusion, so Orono continued. “Bandis was my daughter. She gave to thee her life essence that though mightest live. Why, I know not. But the bond that before her death I shared with her liveth on in thee, for thou carriest now her life force in thy body. Thou art my daughter in her place.” En Shevil was beginning to cry, in sorrow and bafflement at this strange story.
“Why your daughter?”
“I loved my daughter,” said Orono softly. “And though I oft neglected them, I loved those duties that were mine as a parent. I will not so easily let them go.” En Shevil almost laughed through her tears. I’m her daughter because she has to have someone to baby, she thought. “However, that part of Bandis which was dragon and now liveth in thee proveth far too strong for thy mind, and is that which caused your madness.”
En Shevil took a step backwards in sudden shock, forgetting the tail about her ankle and falling to the ground. “You mean…” she faltered. “You mean I went crazy because I’m part dragon?”
Orono nodded slowly. “Thy dragon half hath given thee power and madness: magic thou hast now, that thou hadst not before; but far too strong for a human’s holding is the essence of a dragon. Thy madness, though cured, will after time again return.”
“It already has,” En Shevil said quietly. “I just noticed it today.”
The dragon sent a spiraling thread of magic through the human’s body, so suddenly that En Shevil gasped and sprang to her feet, away from Orono, in startled fear. Orono bobbed her head and said, “Thou art cured, for the time. Take a care that thou killest not too much in anger, for the heating of the blood wilt bring to the surface thy dragon side, which in thy poor frame turneth thee only to ill.”
“But what can I…” En Shevil began, but Orono interrupted her.
“I cannot understand thy speech unless thou usest magic or touchest me. At any rate I must go; thy human friend approacheth, and thou hast now much to think on besides.” She rose into the air with a great beating of wings and stirring of winds.
Hair whipping out behind her, the human stood and reached out her hands. “But Orono, wait!” she cried.
“Find thy true path, and we shall meet again!” the dragon cried, clearing the treetops now and wheeling about to face the south. Her next words brought back sparklingly distant memories of En Shevil’s father: “Live up to thy name, my child!”
“En Shevil?” Elsa said in wonder, gazing up at the receding shape. “What was that?”
“A friend of mine,” the maruroha said softly, eyes upraised until the dragon was out of sight. Then she looked at Elsa. “Shall we go?” The other woman nodded slowly, and together they began the trek back to the other side of the ridge and Stuartsgeiden.
The song En Shevil provides from Erik’s collection is Sting’s Why Should I Cry For You? The rest of Erik’s poetry is stuff I started and never finished.