Pride of her Parents chapter 10 – Trouble in South Spielburg (1/2)

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?”

“Thirteen.”

“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.

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