…a light in the distance that only she could see, whose name was perhaps death, perhaps happiness…

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



1
Chapter 1 - A Mistake
2
Chapter 2 - Shapierian No More!
3-4
Chapter 3 - Itsumo Kawai
Chapter 4 - Nightfall
5-6
Chapter 5 - Demons and Darkness
Chapter 6 - Mirror, Mirror
7
Chapter 7 - Sechburg
8
Chapter 8 - Magic and Mayhem
9
Chapter 9 - On the Road
10
Chapter 10 - Trouble in South Spielburg
11
Chapter 11 - New Quests
12
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 18
Chapter 19 - Blood of Love, Death of Death
About the sequels


Chapter 13 – Looking Forward

The rain was very wet, as rain always was, but not the driving, stinging, wind-plagued rain of Tarna; it was an almost pleasant, cheerful storm. Her velvet cloak at first repelled the huge, fat drops, but before she reached the arena she was soaked through, and glad to shake her cape from her shoulders and look about her. “Good evening,” she said to the guard, studying him. With another glance around to determine that he was the only obvious fighter in the room (no need to make a fool out of herself, after all), she said, “You are Kokeeno…?” She had forgotten the surname.

“I am Kokeeno Pookameeso,” he replied, “of the Silmarian Guard.” He spoke as if he did not like the fine quality of his voice and wished to roughen it, which was a shame, for his tone was lovely. This was one of those people she would stand and speak with for hours just to hear his voice.

“I am Dazah,” she said.

He examined her, with what thoughts she could not guess as his stance did not change and his face was invisible. “I look forward to this combat,” he said at last. “May the best warrior win.” She decided then that she liked him: from what she had heard lately, a woman who fought was held in contempt. And strange-looking she was!

The fist after-effect she had noticed of the transportation device was that it reverted her body to a more or less original state, though still matured to her 19-years’ age. All her scars were gone (mixed emotions had come with that revelation), as was her hair besides a fine, reddish, downy sort of baby-fluff coating her head. Her skin was soft — too soft for her liking, for she found that she bruised and scratched rather too easily — and had regressed to its Aryan paleness as if she had never spent seventeen years in the Shapierian desert. She worried for the first time in her life about sunburn. And more to the point, she was wearing a strange purple mask she’d found in Erasmus’ castle — she couldn’t count on any hood to stay down over her face during a fight, and she wanted to test her skills after that farce in the other layer without revealing herself. All in all, she would not have blamed Kokeeno for laughing at her.

“My greetings to all of you,” Ferarri said from his high stand over the audience as they prepared to fight. He obviously had some spell or other augmenting his voice, for even from down in the arena doorway En Shevil could hear it. “Welcome to the arena, and tonight’s spectacle of deadly combat. Tonight, the champion of this contest is someone most of you know. He has served the city of Silmaria for many years as a guard. He has proved himself to be both valiant and brave. Ladies and gentlemen, I call to battle Kokeeno Pookameeso!”

The man in question stepped forward from the opposite side. “I, Kokeeno Pookameso, shall defend the honor of the guards of Silmaria.” The crowd cheered.

“Tonight’s challenger,” Ferarri continued, “is a ninja of mysterious powers. I call to battle Dazah!” En Shevil stepped forward and nodded to Ferrari, then to Kokeeno as the crowd booed her. She had decided not to speak (though she had been instructed to introduce herself) in case Achim were watching. Ferarri obviously noted this (it fit with her pseudonym, after all). “Let the contest begin!”

Rather regretting she had to harm such an apparently nice person, she went to. Her first move was to flip over him, landing on her hands behind him to strike the small of his back with her feet. This both threw him of balance and most certainly bruised her (armor on one’s opponent was thoroughly disagreeable). She realized she would have to use her katana, much as she had wanted to avoid it, if she was ever to get anywhere against his armor. Sweeping it free in a graceful arc, she brought it around with her right hand to strike him (she hoped; her back was to him) in the stomach.

She spun, barely in time to block the spearhead that came swinging around as he mirrored her movement. They were facing each other again, and the guard suddenly surprised her by aiming a kick at her stomach. She blocked it with her knee — he was only wearing sandals, after all — and brought her katana down towards the leather-covered spot on his lower left bicep. Naturally he jerked his shield up to block the sword, but in doing so he threw himself off balance, being already on one foot and now forced backwards from the top. As he teetered, she kicked him in the head, getting a screaming spear-wound in her thigh for it. He fell, however. Jumping back with a grimace, she waited for him to rise, then darted to his left and gave the elbow of his shield-arm a hard crack with her left hand. His arm stiffened and he let go the shield, crouching back and stabbing at her with his spear. She sprang again out of the way, then did a triple flip to land behind him a second time.

He was not to be fooled by the same trick twice, and threw himself aside before she could knock him in the back again. But she instead darted after him and stabbed the back of his right knee, kicking his left. He thrust his spear-butt backwards into her stomach, momentarily fazing her. As she stumbled backwards he limped around to face her, jabbing at her chest. She knocked the blow away with her katana, nicking the wood of his weapon near the head. Then unexpectedly she went from crouching in pain to aiming a high kick at his right shoulder. Momentarily he dropped his spear, but regained it before her next blow, which was a kick at his other shoulder.

Kokeeno was beginning to wobble. She ducked his next, uncertain thrust and put her weight on her hands as she struck out with her feet at his right ankle, knocking his legs out from under him. Wrenching the spear from his hand, she eased the point up into his helmet and placed the sharp tip under his chin. She wondered if she would have to force him to yield or something silly like that, but was reassured when Ferarri cried, “Tonight’s victory belongs to Dazah!” The assembled Silmarians cheered, and she released the unsteady Kokeeno. The two of them were led into a back room that held, apparently, only a closet with no door. Into this they were instructed to go, and Kokeeno stepped in without question. En Shevil, wondering, walked slowly under the archway. Magic flashed around her, and she felt her wounds healed. But when she came out she was shaking, just a bit, from the startlement of the thing. She wondered what such an enchanted device must have cost Ferarri. She was given a prize purse of 250 drachma, at which point she joined the dispersing crowd outside the arena and headed for the Dead Parrot.

It was but the day after next that she learned to her surprise of Kokeeno Pookameeso’s murder. Little specific grief followed the revelation, but any such death must make her sorry. To her happiness, however, she read the following message on the news board:

“The fishing village of Naxos has been freed from the mercenaries by Achim, Prince of Shapier.”

Disappointingly, it said nothing of the next Rite; for that she had to wait until the next day — but she whiled away her time comfortably by visiting another world. “Competitors must find the location of the Hesperian Mercenaries’ fortress and defeat their general. The person that returns with the general’s shield shall be deemed the winner of this quest.” She worried a bit about Achim, but was fairly sure (hoped she was fairly sure) that he could take care of himself. After ascertaining that checking the news board was all she wanted to do in the city, she returned to the transporter and Erasmus’ castle.

“I think we have determined how to solve the hair problem,” Rawn said as she entered. “We have woven a new spell over the device that should make your hair its usual length and color when you return this time.”

En Shevil had an amusing idea. “Could you do anything to keep it red?” she asked. “It would be convenient for my disguise.”

Erasmus shrugged. “I see no reason why not,” he said. This being only her third world, he, Rawnmé and Fenris still felt the need to gather in the octagonal room to watch her go and return. “Rawn, let’s…” he launched into a long magical tirade that En Shevil ignored.

Eventually, after some magic, they were apparently ready, and En Shevil stepped through. The sensations were still so new to her as to be wholly engrossing, and she was dwelling on them even after she had rematerialized at her destination. Thus, it took her a moment before she began to gape.

The fine houses of Nob Hill were gone, and had been replaced by a long row of boxy structures with identical doors and windows. No sign was there of the arena, but instead stood a large building of florescent colors with a bright yellow, rounded letter M over the door. From it wafted the scents of baked potatoes and… pizza?

The ground had been paved as far as her eye could see, and nearly all the foliage was gone. What little remained was strangely twisted and mutated, as if it had long been exposed to unhealthy soil or other conditions. And the most bizarre sight of all was the Hall of Kings, or what should have been: massive, many-storeyed, rising up into thin, strange towers around a great dome, the whole thing had an artificial, metallic look to it, and lightning danced from one tower to the next. Where the gate in her world was flanked by the proud Silmarian Guard, here was an eight-foot box of black metal with a door in its face. She could not resist. She had to enter.

In darkness she found herself, for she was quickly shut in. Feeling a bit worried, she pawed her way forward until she found the opposite wall not five feet away. Suddenly something flashed to life at her right, making her jump. It was a square, green-glowing and eerily hovering on the wall. As she approached she found that there were words written on it in white: “Welcome to the Hall of Kings. You, too, can witness the genius at work within these walls. Please take the simple Entry Quiz to prove your worth. Do Serious Research!”

“Ah… all right,” she said, not knowing quite how this magical-looking square worked.

And it began to ask her questions. She couldn’t be quite sure, but she felt they were rather silly — “What does every ruling figure need?” with the following choices offered: “To be able to spell Betelgeuse,” “To be able to tell the difference between a hawk and a handsaw,” “A diploma from the Academy of Science in Silmaria,” “A perpetual motion machine.” If she answered three wrong the thing would tell her, “That was your third wrong answer. I’m sorry, but you are not qualified to enter our presence.”

“This is so stupid,” she grumbled, giving yet another incorrect response. Still, determined to get past, she activated the test sequence for the third time and tried again. She was beginning to remember the first few answers very well (“B — to discover the true meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything, not to mention gain rulership in major countries,” “A — without science, the world would be destroyed by ignorance and superstition!” “D — all of the above”), and after much trial and error she made it. The screen flashed and read, “Congratulations! It is probable that you have the makings of a scientist! Go to the Academy today to find out!” A door opened before her. She jumped as a metallic voice spoke out of nowhere:

“You may enter the Hall of Kings now.”

“It’s about time,” she snorted, much more frustrated than she felt she should be. Unable to find whoever had just spoken, she shrugged and stepped forward into the light. The box closed up again behind, and she looked around. The lawn that should have been to her left and right was not there. Instead, a field of odorous, wide-leafed plants stood several feet high on either side of the path. Many seemed to be the subject of botanical experiments, for they sat in small circles of water or under miniature, clear domes. She bent and examined one. Its smell was not pleasant, but reminded her vaguely of something she had once eaten a great deal of. Garlic, perhaps, but she could not be quite sure. She headed on towards the great doors.

These were twenty-foot slabs of metal with large, exaggerated-looking rivets. At about face-level was a flat panel, interrupting the bumps on the rest of the surface, that seemed to be thinner than the surrounding material. Seeing no handles or other marks, and not know what else to do, En Shevil knocked on the smooth rectangle. It opened inwards, showing a pair of huge glowing eyes and otherwise darkness. These eyes were pressed startlingly close to the door, and she took a step back in wonder. “Who seeks to enter?” said a voice suspiciously like the metallic one she had heard moments earlier.

“My name is En Shevil,” she said. “I’m a traveler, and I’d like to see the Hall of Kings.”

“Whom do you recognize as King of Silmaria?” the creature continued. The eyes never blinked, and their glow was strangely steady.

She sucked in a breath. “Um, I just got here today,” she said. “I don’t know who the king is.” Not a lie, truly.

There was a whirring sound. “We have no record of your arrival. We must contact the harbormaster.”

“I didn’t come by boat,” she said. “I came by magic.”

There was a very long silence, and the eyes never moved. But the whirring sound continued. “Please, enter,” the voice finally said, and the doors swung open with an extended (and undue, En Shevil thought) sound of multiple gears. Someone’s been bored around here, she was thinking. It’s a door, not a clock.

She had no cause to be suspicious of the ease of her admittance until, halfway down the boxy metal hallway, two guards fell silently into place just behind her, keeping her pace. She did not turn to look at them, but felt that neither their uniforms nor their drawn weapons were anything similar to what she’d seen in her own world.

The great hall that gave the building its name was not far ahead, and murmuring voices could be heard from within. Upon her entrance, one of the guards took her right arm and whispered in her ear, “You will stand here with us.” En Shevil did not think of resisting, especially since she was almost too busy looking around to hear him.

The place looked normal enough at first glance, but on closer examination she decided that whoever was ruling this Silmaria was decidedly weird. The round, domed room was hung with a myriad of fine banners, most of them bearing pictures of books and other symbols of wisdom. But they were all in dark colors, blacks and greys. Next, the pillars around the inner circle, separating the arena-like seating from the main floor, were square — and spiked! Staring at them skeptically, she almost felt she had seen similar pillars somewhere in her world. The strangest sight of all, however, was the tile beneath her feet, for across the floor of the room’s inner circle stretched a huge marble pizza. Half of it was topped with red circles and yellow triangles, the rest with green circles and grey fish. She blinked a few times, telling herself that she was not seeing a giant pizza on the floor of the ruler’s main audience hall. Confident at last that it was, in fact, actually there, she raised her eyes to try and ascertain the identity of said ruler.

There was a fanfare, although the sound had a very metallic quality to it and seemed to come, instead of from living trumpeters, from somewhere near the top of the wall just before the dome began. From this same area a voice spoke. “All make obeisance before his high majesty — genius of science, champion of logic, scourge of superstition — Academy graduate, Rite conqueror, King of Silmaria and someday of the whole world….. Gort!

En Shevil stifled a giggle. “’King Gort?’” she murmured, feeling with the words a tightening of the guard’s hand on her arm.

The Silmarians were all making some sort of weird salute towards the platform at the head of the room, and En Shevil watched curiously as the king emerged. She giggled again at the sight of the massive, boxy, green-skinned man in royal attire — complete with bushy cape. “Infidel,” hissed the guard into her ear, and something hard and metallic pressed warningly to her back. This almost increased her desire to laugh, for she could not imagine loyalty to this moronic-looking “king.” But then, perhaps when he spoke she would be surprised.

He did not speak. Instead, a short and nearly bald man to his right greeted the people in what sounded like a ritual beginning to the audience or whatever it was. “Your loyalty does credit to your intelligence. Some of you may have the makings of true scientists.” He nodded graciously to them. “If the Speaker would please bring up the first item of business for today’s council?”

A young, somewhat nervous-looking man stood forward with a long scroll. “Um, the first — um, item — is the accusation of citizen Ionestra, for deception and the practice of High Trickery.”

“Let her be brought forward,” the bald man said, and En Shevil did not miss the sly poke he gave to the King — who then gestured to accompany the statement. Are these people stupid? En Shevil wondered, to follow this ridiculous mockery of a puppet?

Two guards dragged a ragged brown-haired girl up to stand just before the king’s dais, she fighting them all the way, and stood holding her in anticipation of her sentence. She struggled for a few moments, then straightened and regarded the king and his minister proudly. “Citizen Ionestra,” the bald man began with a disdainful curl of his lip, “you have been caught in the act of that practice which is most detrimental to our society: the deceit which your type calls ‘magic.’” He said the word with ultimate derision, but En Shevil saw very clearly that emotion to which she was by painful experience most attuned: fear. This man was a thousand times more afraid of magic than En Shevil was, and she wondered why. “Everyone knows that this ‘magic’ of yours does not exist, but that by your High Trickery you have made it seem like you have a power greater than that of Science, the only true power in the universe. Do you deny this?”

The girl’s voice was steady as she responded — loudly — but held an audible undertone of fear and despair; she knew what her fate was to be. En Shevil was by this time so curious as to what was going on that she was almost jumping, straining to hear all she could over the soft sounds of the council. “I will never deny,” the girl was saying, “that I practice magic — and that MAGIC IS REAL!” Her voice rose to a sudden, startling scream. “AND YOU CAN’T CHANGE THAT!

The following silence was alive with expectancy, eager in a horrifying sort of way as the bald man stared wordlessly at the poor Ionestra. Finally he shook his head in mock pity. “You have sealed your doom. Your punishment is death.”

En Shevil was surprised into loud and angry speech. “What?!” Heads turned to regard her, even that of the king and his minister.

“All citizens of and visitors to Silmaria are aware of the law,” the latter commented in her direction.

“You can’t execute her just for practicing magic!” En Shevil shrieked, and with a twist flipped her annoying guard to the floor. She ran to Ionestra’s side and disarmed the girl’s guards in a few swift kicks.

Meanwhile the bald man was wailing. “Guards! Stop her! She is of the deceivers — those who would convince innocents that such things as ‘magic’ really exist!”

“Magic does exist!” En Shevil cried, though her voice was strained by the uncanny weariness she was again beginning to feel. “That’s how I’m even here!” Guards were converging on them, and someone had run up to the platform and was whispering in the ear of the bald man. En Shevil began to fight off the guards, shouting all the while. “How can you people follow a king that doesn’t even talk? How can you put up with this stupid law about magic? What kind of doormat kingdom is this?”

That was as far as she got. She might have been able to fend off the weak guards indefinitely, despite her combat inhibitions, but at that moment something odd happened: she was suddenly surrounded by a bright light, and spasms of cramp-like pain cracked through every muscle in her body. With a cry she fell to the floor, aching and in terrible fear of another such blow. If these people don’t allow magic, what in Tartarus was that?

Several guards surrounded her, steadily pointing their strange-looking weapons at her as she was hauled to her feet. She noticed she had been separated from Ionestra, who was now crying.

“So you are the intruder,” the minister said when she was looking at him again: “you are the one who infiltrated our kingdom in order to spread your lies about magic to the good people of Silmaria. Whoever hired you must have been a person of sufficient intelligence, for it is apparent you are not: our records show you could not even pass the simple entry test in less than seven tries.”

Laughter filled the gallery, and En Shevil was becoming angry. It took some effort to move her jaw and tongue in order to speak coherently, and the council was forced to quiet in order to hear her almost-whispered words. “Your test is hardly proof of intelligence.”

“Nor are any of your actions,” was the bald man’s smooth and obviously spontaneous response. More laughter followed both statements. “You mindless warrior! Doesn’t it ever disturb you not to be among the smaller circle of humanity that has been gifted with reasonably-sized cognitive abilities?”

En Shevil puzzled through this briefly and snorted. “How could you possible know?”

“Imbecile! You blunder in here with your great physical powers without any contemplation as to our powers of security. See how easily you were outwitted and captured! Mind over matter!” The maruroha was now slightly confused, and it must have been evident on her face, for the minister smirked. “For espionage, High Trickery, and aiding a traitor to the country, not to mention several other minor charges that do not need to be listed, you are sentenced to death along with this citizen, with his majesty’s blessing.”

Gort nodded.

Ionestra’s weeping became audible. “Please don’t kill me!” she cried. “I’ll never use magic again! I’ll leave the country and never come back! Please!”

“Science is not cruel,” the minister consoled her. “The drug is quick and painless and even somewhat pleasant; you will sleep peacefully until you die.”

En Shevil struggled, but her body was sluggish and hurt, and would not move without jerking. So she resorted to her only option. “You’re the stupid one!” she cried in the loudest tone her fumbling organs could command. “You’re the one who’s afraid of something you can’t use!” Someone was approaching her through the ranks of guards, and she knew her time was short. “Maybe I can’t win your stupid test at your stupid door, but at least I’m trying to do something good with what I’ve got — not trying to use a bunch of lies and a stupid monster figurehead to take over the world!

At that moment she was conscious of many pairs of hands on her, particularly on her right arm; someone pinched her, and a tiny sharp stab prickled in her elbow. The mass of guards began to blur, and her entire frame relaxed. She fell forward into darkness.

Her first word upon awakening back in Erasmus’ octagonal tower room was not polite. “I just had two weeks of the most bizarre dreams I’ve ever had in my life,” she groaned.

“Do not forget your are fighting in the arena tonight,” Rawn remarked from nearby. “You asked me to remind you.”

Not having witnessed the previous evening’s tournament, (she’d spent the time easily in the Dead Parrot with her fellow ex-harem-girls), En Shevil was totally unprepared for what she found upon meeting Magnum Opus

So ugly a man she had not expected, but that was hardly his fault — although with less deliberate muscle and more attention to hygiene he might have been more attractive. His faults of appearance were complicated by his stance, which was so completely beyond arrogance as to be almost amusing. But this was nothing to his address upon her greeting him.

“So,” he began, “you dare to challenge me, Magnum Opus? Poor, overconfident fool, your defeat will come swiftly. Had you been a man, I might have hoped for some exercise from the fight. But a woman? Ha!” He tossed his head with a deep, contemptuous laugh. Then he looked more closely at her and gave a wide, toothy smile with his overlarge mouth. “Perhaps you would prefer to skip this battle entirely and return to my room at the inn?”

He looked at her expectantly, and En Shevil stared at him a moment before she realized that he was in earnest. She tried to speak but dissolved rather into laughter, leaning on the wall for support as her stomach cramped with the force of her mirth. She could do nothing but laugh at such a man who, on top of everything he already was, tried to be taken seriously. “I think…” she said between gasps for breath, “…I think that… I will enjoy… beating you…”

Magnum glared at her as the door beside them was opened from within and they were allowed to enter.

“Tonight’s champion has more than proven himself in battle. He has the reputation as a leader of warriors, and tireless student of the marshal arts. From the city-state of Nova Roma, I summon to battle Magnum Opus!” From her position in the challenger’s doorway, En Shevil giggled.

Magnum stepped forward, his face holding all the expectancy of a warm welcome that such a disposition as his must. He spoke, loudly and without even the appearance of deference towards the supervisor of the event. “I, Magnum Opus, brilliant tactician and strategist, shall demonstrate to all in Silmaria that I am unsurpassed in my combat skills. I shall defeat all who challenge me. Ave, Ferarri. I, who shall make my opponent die, salute you.”

Oh, honestly, En Shevil thought, with a prodigious roll of eyes. She was then introduced, and the battle began.

Taking automatically to the offensive, she rolled forward and spun on her hands to knock Magnum’s legs out from under him with her own. He clattered to the ground and did a backwards roll to his feet again. More agile than I thought in that armor. Magnum took a powerful swipe at her with his massive sword as she sprang up, and she leaned her upper body back to avoid it, kicking out at his left knee with her right foot at the same moment. He stumbled forward a step, sword driving wildly past En Shevil’s left shoulder. She turned ninety degrees to the right and drove her left forearm up into his right armpit, then ducked and backed out under his outstretched arm.

Magnum dropped his sword. This is too easy, En Shevil thought; for as Magnum bent to recover it, she kicked him hard in the face. Despite this he managed to close his hand on the hilt before her blow knocked him back, and his growl of rage as he charged evidenced just how much she’d hurt him. She flipped tightly to her left, missing the Hesperian’s blade so narrowly that had her hair not been pulled back in a braid-crown (Rawn had done that) it might have been shorn. Immediately she landed she jumped to avoid the diagonally-downward left-to-right stroke Magnum had reversed into. As she hit the ground again she barely twisted out of the way as a third swift slice threatened to take her left arm off. He wants swordplay, she thought. Wonderful.

Deciding to go dramatic, she did a high jump into the air, flipped thrice and dove with newly-drawn katana bearing down on Magnum’s helmeted head. As she had expected, he raised his own sword to repel her, and she allowed herself to be thrown from him in a controlled flight, landing crouched with blade at the ready before her. He was beginning to circle her with defenses high, looking for an opening. She straightened and watched him for a brief moment before flying into motion again.

The next few seconds flashed in the light of ringing swords, uncountable blows levied and repelled until En Shevil ended the sequence and the fight with the same move she’d used to begin her bout with Kokeeno: after twisting his sword away from her midsection and as he was preparing, lightning-fast, for another stab, she flipped over him, landed head-down on her left hand, and slammed her feet into his back. At that same moment she pushed off with the hand that bore her weight to put her upright once more, and whirled to face the off-balance warrior. Remembering the healing closet and knowing that mercy was not necessary, she stabbed his leg; he fell twisting to the ground, sword beneath him. She put a foot on his rear and the tip of her sword to his neck.

“The winner of this bloody battle –“ Didn’t Ferarri get a kick out of saying that! “– is Dazah!”

En Shevil could have sworn that Magnum was blushing as she allowed him to rise, but it was difficult to tell for the lowness of his hanging head. As they entered the outer healing chamber, En Shevil sighed, “Had you been a man, I might have hoped for some exercise from this fight.”

The next day, on her way out to check the notice board, she saw a familiar golden-white figure basking in the sub-tropical sunlight on a great rock just across the bridge from the transporter. With a smile she quickened her pace.

“Rakeesh,” she greeted him from behind. The liontaur turned and looked at her for a long time.

“So,” he said at last, slowly, “Silence speaks.” She nodded. “Why are you here?”

“I’m helping Erasmus and Rawnmé with some experiments.”

He gestured to her hair, which was still in that adorable braid-crown. “Why do you conceal yourself?”

“I don’t want Achim to know I’m alive,” she said with a shrug that did not speak how she truly felt. “And actually the hair isn’t so much a concealment thing; it’s a magic thing.”

“Why do you act thus?”

“Achim’s gotten over me; he has new… friends, now. It would only shock and disturb him if I came back into his life.”

“Your reasoning is wise: a Paladin tries to avoid harming others at all times. But that must to a reasonable extent include yourself — and you still love him.”

She looked away. “It doesn’t matter,” she said finally. “I don’t deserve him anyway.”

“What you are determines what you deserve,” said Rakeesh, “and you will always be strong of heart and pure of intent. And he still loves you.”

“Excuse me,” she said, and, crouching, slipped into the shrubbery behind Rakeesh’s rock. Observing the approaching Prince of Shapier, Rakeesh knew why.

En Shevil slipped back to the transporter as she heard Achim begin to speak. “I think I know where mercenaries are hiding out!”

I can check the messages when I get back, she thought. Now she was growing excited for whatever the magical transporter would hold for her today. Fenris was not present, and En Shevil took this as a sign of the increasing normality of her ventures. However, nothing could accustom her to the acutely bizarre sensations associated with her travel. And the feeling that filled her upon transition was something she’d never even felt before: free-falling.

In the first instant she screamed, but immediately her lungs stopped their function and the sound ceased. Freezing moisture bit into her agonizingly as clouds rushed past, but she barely had time to wonder what was happening before she was in the clear air, head downwards, and moving increasingly swiftly towards a vast and terrifying expanse of ocean below. She did not pause to wonder where Marete was; she did not think to prepare herself for the pain of the approaching impact; she did not consider how she might somehow swim to safety if she survived the fall — she merely gave in to terror.

It was mute, it was blind, it was cold and piercing, and it was momentary. She had expected it to drag out, seem to last forever, but her descent was by now too rapid. As she slammed into the stony surface of the water with all the force of a hundred foot fall she blacked out. It was but for a moment, and at her return she was conscious of raging, enveloping pain — she felt every bone in her body must be broken, her eyes were broken, and her teeth seemed to be leaning inwards; consuming, intolerable cold — she was still plunging deeper into the clinging water; terrible, burning fluctuation of internal organs — struggling against the increasing pressure, empty lungs in desperate need of air; and lastly, saturating, clawing fear — a child of fire and earth suddenly immersed in a hostile world of water.

Without thinking she tried to draw breath. Agony clawed at her lungs and black slashes of oblivion flashed across her consciousness. In panic she struggled, thrashing her mangled limbs slowly and clumsily. Everything seemed on fire, and jolts of incredible pain shot through her with every movement. But she was fading rapidly, and soon the void of death swallowed her, water rushing in like a whirlpool as her body vanished.

She fell to the floor, screaming. Rawn was at her side, arms about her shoulders, in an instant. She spoke no words, but radiated calm. Slowly the image of endless, gluttonous water and its sadistic desires fell away from her eyes, and the room came gradually into view. She knelt, hands pressed against the comforting surface beneath her, and gasped for almost a full minute. Finally she climbed to her feet, and fainted.

Achim’s experience the next day was similar. Returning in acute exhaustion from an unimportant and overlooked island called Sifnos, he stood in his bedroom doorway at Gnome Ann’s Land staring blankly at the distant wall for some time. Her questions fell unanswered, for his weariness and grief were deafening. The previous sleepless night had held many times its fair share of sneaking and fighting, and the last, highly personal battle, had been so taxing as to drain him more than entirely.

His plan was to eat before falling into bed, but after standing silently at the door for almost a full minute, he closed his eyes and slumped to the floor.

“It took the entire kitchen staff to get him into bed,” Nawar reported later at the Dead Parrot. “I wonder what their secret is,” she added with a laugh. I’ve got to find a new source for gossip, En Shevil thought with an aching heart. Or maybe I should just explain the whole thing to her. That thought was almost amusing.

“I guess they can cook,” Budar put in — she always heard what Nawar was saying — “Why do you think Ferarri likes me?”

“You two deserve each other,” Nawar said.

“So, what else have you heard about the Rite?” En Shevil asked, lest the conversation degenerate into one of the harem girls’ typical banterfests.

Nawar shrugged. “I don’t care much about it. The prince won, that’s all I know. Oh — and Magnum Opus was murdered out in the woods somewhere.”

“Magnum murdered?” En Shevil echoed, more than a bit surprised. “I can’t say I’ll miss him, as little contact as I even had with him. But he was one of the most interesting swordfighters I’ve ever fought.” She gave a sighing laugh. “I’m really starting to wonder what’s going on around here.”

“There is another contest I care about more,” Nawar said with a dreamy look, ignoring En Shevil’s words. “I hope he wins.”

“And what contest would that be?” inquired the stony voice of Elsa von Spielburg from behind Nawar. She had descended the stairs and now stood in all her aloof glory beside the stage.

Nawar’s eyes narrowed, and her body went rigid. En Shevil had never before seen a meeting between these two women, but she could easily have guessed at the tension that might exist between them. “I’m sure you know what I mean,” Nawar replied at last.

“He may win,” Elsa replied, with cutting derision: she could not stomach Nawar’s superficiality, “but not because such as you wishes it.”

En Shevil had made her way to the thieves’ guild the night before, and knew exactly what they were talking about. She had not realized, however, that Elsa was involved in the Chief Thief contest.

“Ferarri might be very interested to hear your speculations about who’s really going to win that contest,” Nawar spat back.

Elsa snorted. “Ferarri can’t touch me.”

“Only because you’re hiding behind Minos.”

“I wonder who’s fighting now that Magnum’s dead?” En Shevil spoke over whatever Elsa said next and strode purposefully towards the stairs, pulling her hood farther down over her face.

Reeshaka’s was the latest name under ‘This week’s Champion’ — as a matter of fact, this was already her second day. Ferarri certainly didn’t lose any time between news-of-death and appointment-of-successor. En Shevil tapped the board on the next and pointed to herself. “You know the price,” the bookie said, flipping a page in his log and marking her down to fight on the liontaur’s third day. En Shevil counted out the drachma for him.

Before long she was joined by Elsa. “That woman belongs in a harem.”

En Shevil put a hand to her mouth in symbol of laughter and drew Elsa away. The bookie laughed as they went. “I wasn’t about to get between you,” En Shevil murmured when they were nearing the door. “I had enough of that in school.”

“I do not see what you see in her,” Elsa commented darkly.

“I don’t see what Achim sees in her,” En Shevil replied and added with an amused sidelong glance, “but as for me — well, we’re fellow ex-harem girls.”

Elsa stopped and looked at her friend askance, disbelieving. She saw the laughter in En Shevil’s eyes and blushed. “My comment was meant…”

The Shapierian laughed again and waved the half-apology away. “It’s an embarrassing detail I don’t mention often.”

“I would be glad to hear it at another time. But tonight I came to speak to you about a more serious matter.”

“What?”

By this time they were exiting the Parrot, and Elsa looked around them carefully before heading up the beach and continuing with an explanation. “I did intend to win the Chief Thief contest. When I am the Queen of Silmaria, I want to make sure I have the thieves, especially Ferarri, under my thumb.” She stopped outside the Adventurers’ Guild and gave a significant glance towards the Thieves’ Guild below. “But I have been pondering on this, and I feel that it is not perhaps the wisest course of action for me. Tell me, my friend, where will you go from here?”

En Shevil was surprised at this question, and was not yet beginning to link the two topics of the conversation. “I don’t know,” she said, confused. “I’m here because I wanted to see Achim again, and see what he’s going to do. I guess it depends on him.”

“Then I wish to make you an offer: that you become the Chief Thief of Silmaria, and I will make you a counselor when I am Queen. We will keep law and order in the land, yet still allow those of our secret profession limited freedom.”

Taken completely aback, En Shevil could only stutter for a moment and then fall silent in thought. She really didn’t have any idea what would be the next step in her life, but she felt suddenly that to be basing her future on the actions of someone else would be beyond ridiculous. This was a definite and pleasant-sounding failsafe in case things didn’t work out between her and Achim. And at the rate I’m going, she was thinking, I’m heading for Chief Thiefdom. “Wonderful,” she said aloud. “Great idea. It’s a choice, anyway. If I decide not to follow Achim wherever he goes next, I’ll stay here and do that.”

Elsa smiled. “I thank you,” she said sincerely. “I would be glad to have you by my side.”

“How do I get into the contest?” En Shevil asked.

“You will have to put a substantial amount of money down,” Elsa replied. “And the one sure way of winning the contest is to present the Blackbird.”

En Shevil grinned. “Which is…?”

Elsa’s eyes narrowed. “Minos took it from me, under the guise of protecting it. I believe he does not intend to return it.”

The Shapierian looked worried for a moment. “It is yours, though…”

“It is a gift I would gladly give you, my friend.”

“Wonderful. How do I get there?”

“First you must enter,” Elsa said. “The fee must be up to nearly a thousand drachma by this time; do you have enough?”

En Shevil shrugged. “I’ve beat some people in the arena, and Rawn lent me some — I should be good.”

“I will await you here.”

As it came out, the fee was only 882 drachma (which was hefty enough), and then they were off to Minos Island. Elsa returned to the large private boat first, alone, to give the appearance of normality; En Shevil slipped aboard just as it silently cast off. It was a frightening moment — the dark water hissing beneath her as she leapt, a possibly hostile goon manning the helm, her whole body swaying with the rocking of the sea as her feet touched down with a slight thud and she crouched warily on the deck — but at last she found her way safely to the small hold, sitting very still and keeping all her courage about her for the brief sea voyage.

Elsa had warned her on the way to the boat about the large number of guards Minos employed, and yet En Shevil was surprised. The man was very, very paranoid who stationed half a dozen goons outside his mansion — which was itself more like a fortress, snuggled into the rock cleft as it was, accessible on the fourth side only by sea. The maruroha crouched in the shadows out of sight for some time after Elsa and her escort entered the house. She was deep in thought. The Blackbird was an obvious motive, but there had to be some other reason for Minos to have such an impressive contingent on his payroll. And no respectable Silmarian-style guards these — every one was a goon, though the smaller shapes stationed on the towers of the outer wall seemed human. She peered at them, squinting and trying to make out their strange forms. Definitely helmeted, but she could not determine anything more since she’d wrapped the tie of her robe-like shirt low about her brow to shade her eyes and hide any light that might reflect off of them. They glowed like a katta’s when she was employing her dark-seeing talent, and she didn’t want to give herself away by something so obvious. Of course that meant she was standing in the chilly night air in only a tight undershirt and her baggy white pants — but such things mattered little on this sort of expedition. She did wish, however, that she’d worn a different color tonight. Ah, well, she thought a bit apprehensively. A thief in white is more talented than a thief in black.

She began to creep forward, clinging to the rock wall on her right and staying low. Her slow-bending feet made not a sound, her hands equally silent as they touched the stone now and then to get the feel of it. Goosebumps rose on her bare arms and shoulders as she drew coldness from the island around her as if ingesting it. A thief must be one with the land around her, she was thinking. They always said at home that only healers and nature magicians were “one with the desert;” but I think they were wrong. Her body seemed like liquid as she melded with her surroundings, moving almost magically through bushes without a rustle. Silence enveloped her, awareness heightened — both of her own body, the pull and slack of every muscle and tendon; and her enemies, so that she could nearly identify in feet and inches where each one stood and how deeply he breathed. Though she did not realize it, she had reached an ineffable level of skill as a thief. She felt strangely warm.

Finally she was close enough to discern detail on the bodies of the helmeted tower-guards. Their armor was undoubtedly of Hesperian style, and their helmets were the type she had sometimes seen while wandering Marete: skull-like and all-concealing. What is Minos up to? she wondered. Surely he’s not responsible for the mercenaries’ attack! She shrugged the thought away; mercenaries were… mercenary, after all.

So far it looked easy, but she needed to see more. The stone surfaces around her were sheer, and to prevent grapnel-style scaling the walls had been regularly adorned with sloping, flat-sided protrusions. Unfortunately for the good name of the architect, one of these at the far eastern side was positioned close enough to the cliff that someone (En Shevil at least) could shimmy up between them with not too much difficulty and catch on to the top of the overhanging lip at the wall’s head. Vaulting over the crenellated edge, she crouched on the narrow parapet beyond and continued to plot.

Elsa had not exaggerated the number of guards. She had already seen five or six goons outside the front gate, and beyond there were perhaps ten more — not to mention at least four mercenaries. She stayed where she was for some time, planning in detail each further step. Between the corner of the mansion and the cliff wall, where a narrow alley led towards the back yards, a goon stood squarely. That one she would have to walk straight past, only a few yards away; but goons were not the most intelligent of all cheap labor, nor the most brilliantly night-sighted. The white pants might be a problem, though; she must remember to minimize her legs.

he entire east end of the house seemed to be a standardized living area, probably a type of barracks for all these guards. It would be easy to climb, and the windows were wide and gaping, but this wasn’t much help: given the mistrustful nature of this whole setup, she thought, there was not likely to be an entrance from the barracks to the inner house; so she shifted her gaze to the front door. No good — two goons stood directly in front of it. But above… a fairly low balcony without rails seemed to hold, in the deep shadows behind its pillars, two doors that probably led where she wanted to go. Lined up with each door was a mercenary, but they stood at the very edge, peering out over the gate with ready bows, leaving a good three feet for her to slip behind them and enter the house.

After briefly plotting her exact climbing route, she turned and jumped from the wall, catching the ledge to shorten the fall and dropping softly to the ground. In a stooping run she crossed the yard, eliciting not so much as blink from the corner goon despite her ivory attire. Up the barrack wall and onto the balcony in a split second, and she was ready to enter.

Frustrated, she found the door locked. Not funny, she thought as she withdrew her lockpick from her undershirt. Oh, for those good old days when she’d had a lot of hair! But that might have gotten in the way here, since (if she recalled correctly) her bulky ponytail had stuck out three inches from the back of her head. She could practically feel the body warmth of the man standing directly behind her; fortunately he would not feel hers, nor any slight movement of air caused by her passing, nor would he see her — his well-padded armor and restrictive helmet would ensure that. And if she could manage this, the near-silent click of the lock giving would also be dimmed in his well-protected ears. She grinned, aware of the irony of such thoughts from the mind of a warrior.

The lock was more difficult than she’d been expecting, and by the time she felt its oiled tumblers align in satisfying quietness, a thin sheen of sweat had formed on her previously cold skin. So far, however, she congratulated herself on having alerted not a single guard. The next moment she bit her lip and the bright mood dissipated as she realized that if the house was lit within, the ensuing luminance from the door’s opening would give her away. She turned slowly, estimating the exact width she would need to slip through, the exact path of the light’s ray, and the exact dimensions of the left guard’s helmet. Could she enter in time that the small amount of light falling onto it would not cause him to turn his head? She knew that, at times, someone who could not see in the dark (or someone who could and was not currently employing the technique), staring straight ahead into darkness for a extended period, would imagine all manner of distracting things: nonexistent auras of light, pulsating blobs of color, movement where there was none. If she could time it correctly, he would discount it as a trick of the brain.

A thought came to her all of a sudden — Why don’t I just charge in, fight them all off, grab the bird, and run? A myriad of answers shouted her idea down, the most prominent being, What would that prove? I can’t be Chief Thief by maruroharyu skill!

It’s wonderful, she told herself, concentrating on the door again. I can do it. She forced these mental statements of confidence, for in all honesty she was not nearly as sure of her thiefly abilities as she was of her warrior prowess. She took a deep, silent breath and opened the door.

Light fell for an instant, her slim body slid through, the guard turned his head — but the door was closed, and En Shevil was already pressed against the inside wall, hidden by the thick marble doorframe. There, she tried frantically to calm her racing heart while she stared at the staff-bearing centaur posted immediately to the left of the ingress she’d just employed. Great Iblis, she was thinking, how did it happen that he was looking over there right as I came in? She forced her eyes to narrow, practically dragged her pulse down to a normal rate, and scanned the huge chamber. She was on the second level, a balustraded walkway off of which several doors opened. Based on what Elsa had told her, the Blackbird was located in a storage room at the far end; its doors were flanked by goons. Her nervousness faded as she studied these, and she knew she could easily use the same trick by which she’d attained entry to the house: the goons stood at least two feet out from the wall. But their position at the end of an exposed walkway, and the possibility of turning heads anywhere else in the room presented a massive problem.

She let her eyes run up the gold pillar at the meeting of the balcony railings. It connected to an outcropping in the ceiling where the flat part met an upward sloping gold skylight of immense size. With a great deal of effort and probably some noise she could climb the pillar and slide, clinging, along the rectangular outcropping. Then she could swing to the top of the storage room door’s bulky frame, lean down, pick the lock, and swing inside without the goons noticing. Then jackalmen will fly me home, she thought with a nervous mental giggle. As if there’s any way they wouldn’t see me swinging from the ceiling!

All right… but keep thinking along the same lines… She smiled as she saw a plausible path and mapped it out in detail. Observing the centaur to her left, she waited for the perfect moment and darted to the corner of the pillar’s base, then crawled around like a spider to the underside of the balcony — ceiling to the lower level. Clinging to the beveled edgeboard, she made her way along towards the far end of the walkway. The only problem she encountered was when she reached a great hanging tapestry hooked into the very gilded molding on which she relied. Her response to this dilemma was to move exceptionally slowly so as not to cause any unusual ripples of movement in the fabric. By the time she turned the corner and traversed the short end of the balcony, she was sickeningly dizzy; her head throbbed; her clayish arms were beginning to sting. Yet a few more exertions were required: haul herself up over the railing, pressed against the wall behind the goon, and jump silently to catch the top of the doorframe and spring up with trembling limbs. The goon beneath her turned slowly to regard the wall, probably alerted by the breeze of her passing but too stupid to investigate further. As he stared at the shadowy corner, she dropped backwards into the door’s recess where she hoped the other goon could not see her, and tried the knob.

She frowned; it was unlocked. Though six inches thick like the previous door she’d opened, it swung silently outward for her use. With a shrug she went inside, easing the latch into place behind her. There, she slumped in relief that the room was empty. No sound from outside suggested she’d been detected; Minos really should look into some kind of magical thief barrier.

Her critical eye swept the treasure chamber. I should take all of this junk, as long as I’m here, she thought, for the room was quite stuffed with wonderful things: bags and bags of money; large, fine Shapierian rugs of muted colors; tall ornate jars of perfumed oils and shorter ones of unknown content; masterful paintings of mythological characters; the walls were lined with shelf-filled, grate-covered alcoves obviously stocked to the brim with an assortment of smaller things. There were potions of all kinds, weapons glowing with magic, similarly-endowed armor, a great deal of money in neatly organized pouches, jewelry of both the decorative and functional types, and — the Blackbird! She grinned and headed for the first alcove on her left. The trap on its lock brought her up short, and she snorted softly. I hate traps, she reflected, for they were not her area of thiefly expertise.

Nevertheless she managed this one, which involved a swiftly-spinning disk and sliding plates that must never all be in the same position; she saw signs to indicate that an explosion might occur if her fingers were not sufficiently nimble. And the lock that followed was no game either. Again she found sweat on her back and brow by the time she finished. But at that moment her triumph was sweet enough to make up for all previous discomfort as she lifted the heavy statue off the shelf and hefted it. She let out the long, slow breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, and a great load of tension fled her body.

The pouched money was the only other thing she eventually decided to take; the rest was too bulky for her to drag out to Elsa’s boat — and there was no way in Tartarus she was making more than one trip. Though objects always interested her more than pure currency, she felt that due to the significance of this particular robbery she should take all she could carry. So she stuffed her pockets with leather-clad drachma, strapped the Blackbird to her back with the tie of her shirt, and looked around for a quick escape.

The one window was set in the far wall, high up, small and barred — and, judging by the rest of this place, was likely to be well-maintained. But it couldn’t hurt her to check it out. She hauled the largest rolled rug over and propped it up against the wall, where its top was still four feet from the recession of the window. It was a test of balance to climb, as its inclination was to slide and bend, but eventually she made it to the top and jumped for the window as the rug fell away and came half-undone, its remaining roll ending up nearly where it had been before, next to the others. She smiled as she realized she might be able to leave the room almost exactly the way she’d entered it, minus a few details.

She turned her attention to the window and rolled her eyes. It was trapped even more elaborately than the Blackbird’s alcove had been. The good news was that it would swing open, bars attached to a stone frame on a heavy metal hinge, when the trap was disarmed and the padlock undone. She would then be on the eastern cliff side of the house in the narrow lane she’d noticed earlier. A swift kick to the base of the goon guard’s skull would allow her access to the front yard, which she could exit in the same way she had entered (she hoped; the wall was probably less scaleable on the inside). Then the last step was to stow away a second time on Elsa’s boat until her friend left Minos Island for Marete and the announcement of the next Rite of Rulership in the morning. Just a quick walk around the plaza.

But she could not sleep on the small, yacht-like ship. A few rays of pale, diluted light slanted down from the grate covering the hold, and to amuse herself she held the Blackbird under them to admire its fine craftsmanship. It was a beautiful thing, one she and every other thief in Glorianna had coveted for years. Its weight made her exhausted arms tremble, and she could not hold it long. So she tied it to her back again and curled up in an attempt to get some rest; she had to fight Reeshaka in seven or eight hours. But the silver-tinged glint of her ebony prize had burned its way into her eyes, and she shook — not from the exertions of the night or even the overcool sea air, but because what the glitter of the statue symbolized was so very momentous. It was a future, a stability she was reaching towards and perhaps had been for all the past year: an end to her life on the run for whatever reason.

But was it the future she wanted?


Chapter 14 – Various Ends

The sun was sinking on Reeshaka, Achim, and Rakeesh as they conversed by the large rock outside of the arena. The Rite of Conquest had been declared Achim’s that morning, and from Rakeesh the other two were trying to wheedle some clue as to the nature of the next Rite. The Paladin refused to budge, but instead continued to question the Prince of Shapier about his Conquest the night before last.

Achim was shaking his head. “I fought him to a standstill. I knocked him down and put a spear to his neck and told him to surrender.”

“You did all you could, my friend,” Rakeesh said. “You gave Honor its full measure. Your intent, in this case, was more important than the results.”

“I still don’t like it,” Achim muttered.

“At least you made it to the island,” Reeshaka said. “The others couldn’t even figure out where they were.”

“And then Magnum!” the Prince cried, his tone now one of outrage. “That was pure murder! He wasn’t even given a chance to defend himself!”

Rakeesh nodded. “I fear that when I think about this, I am not the calm Paladin I should be. I sometimes find myself wanting Revenge rather than Justice for these murders.”

“But why these murders?” Reeshaka asked rhetorically. “Why shatter dragon pillars? Surely they don’t want to wake the dragon!”

“I don’t know,” Achim said, and then looked up with a quizzical expression, as if reminded of something. “I can’t figure out that Dazah woman, either. Perhaps she’s tied up in this somehow.”

“What do you mean?” Rakeesh asked swiftly, while Reeshaka prudently held her tongue.

“Well, for one thing, there’s something strangely familiar about her fighting style — something I should remember. They call her a ninja, but which form is she using? It’s not karate.”

“Perhaps she simply does not want her identity to be know.”

“I only see her at the Arena and the Dead Parrot,” continued Achim thoughtfully — “She’s fighting you tonight, isn’t she? She’s never in the marketplace during the day. Why does she pretend to be mute? ‘Dazah’ means ‘silence,’ but I know she talks to Elsa and Nawar. Why them? And why in the world is her hair different every time I see her?”

Reeshaka giggled.

“I do not think she is the assassin,” Rakeesh said bluntly.

“Why?”

Instead of answer, Rakeesh commanded, “Get down!” Achim dropped to the ground as a dagger spun through the air to bury itself in the older liontaur’s body. As a horrified Reeshaka called out, “Father!” the Prince threw himself towards the dark hooded figure, but a familiar pulling feeling filled the air and the stranger disappeared. Turning again, Achim saw to his surprise Dazah kneeling on the rock beside the fallen, a bottle of poison resistance pills in her hand. She pointed away, towards the guards at the Hall of Kings. He took her meaning, dashing off to fetch help. When he returned, Dazah was gone. It seemed she had never been there at all, for Reeshaka now held her father’s head in her lap, the bottle in her other hand.

“Where did she go?” Achim asked.

“To Erasmus,” the warrior replied.

“Well, she’s not the assassin.”

“No.”

With grim faces they attended the guards who carried friend and father down to the healers’ on the lower plaza. Dazah, Erasmus, Rawnmé and Shakra soon joined them there. Little analysis was required to determine that the poisoned dagger was of the same sort as the one that killed King Justinian. Salim was silent and downcast as he worked at cleaning the wound, for it deeply stabbed his joyful heart to face such a malicious hurt.

The three mages spoke a slow and powerful incantation over the weakening body of their friend, but were baffled by the strong charm laid on the poison itself. After this and all that Salim had done, it was still only a faint hope that Rakeesh would live.

As they all stood silent, crowded in the tiny back room of the healers’, the air was tense with grief, anger, and fear. Achim watched the victim’s children with especial pity, and noted with a half inner smile the comforting hand placed on Reeshaka’s shoulder by the mysterious Dazah. The liontaur rounded on the human fiercely and growled, “Time for our rematch.” Dazah nodded.

I should let her win, En Shevil was thinking while Ferarri announced them at mundane length. She’d like that. Reeshaka was stating bluntly that she would fight to ease her anger at her father’s attacker. En Shevil wondered suddenly how the liontaur’s involvement with Silmaria’s EOF chapter was coming along. Arena battles were probably a great convenience in that area. Maybe I won’t let her win, she reflected. After all, she also had inside herself a bit of anger at Rakeesh’s attempted murderer. But she knew that to fight in anger was a bad idea.

Remembering to strike a confident pose at the appropriate introductory moment, En Shevil prepared to do battle. She knew for a fact this time that Achim was watching, for he’d come to the arena with the contestants. So she redoubled her decision to give Reeshaka a good fight. If throwing herself against a brick wall would help the liontaur let out stress, so be it. She tensed, ready for the contest to begin.

She’d always wondered how it was that she constantly defeated Reeshaka when she couldn’t do the same to Rakeesh — liontaurs, as a general rule, were bigger, stronger, and much faster than humans, not to mention having an extra set of limbs with which to fight; and Reeshaka was Rakeesh’s daughter. En Shevil didn’t understand the level to which Reeshaka’s beating and demon possession not long ago had affected her fighting skills, her self-confidence, and her actual physical strength. The blunt and rather talkative victim had given her all the dry details, of course, sitting at their ease on a pentagram rug in a dark and comfortable room where nothing could threaten — but even she had never hinted at the change brought about by the terrible events. En Shevil, who did not even fully comprehend exactly what had happened, thought nothing of it, never suspected.

So it was with complete surprise that she was knocked seven feet backwards by Reeshaka’s sudden charge, her katana nearly flying from her hand. The crowd gave a murmur of surprised anticipation, leaning forward in their seats, for much had been expected of this mysterious newcomer who’d with little effort humiliated Kokeeno Pookameeso and Magnum Opus.

En Shevil jumped to her feet, eyes wide, sword raised, as the liontaur came at her again. She dodged aside at the last moment, but Reeshaka had stopped, risen to her hind legs, and driven her heavy spear downward to her right — straight into En Shevil’s stomach. Throwing herself backwards did not save En Shevil the long, shallow slice from between her breasts to a little deeper just above her abdomen. Staggering in pain, she crouched, with blade at the ready and red lights flashing across her vision, to meet the liontaur again. This time she was warned, tensed for any necessary escaping spring, despite the distracting flapping of her bisected shirt and the pouring of blood across her lower half.

Reeshaka bounded forward, landing in a twisted squat that completely evaded the sweep of En Shevil’s katana. The huge spear stabbed tightly forward into the maruroha’s knee, catching it just as En Shevil jumped. Her escape was spun awry, her kneecap chipped and dripping blood. She landed and crumpled on the right, rolling away from her touchdown spot automatically and attempting to rise. The damage to her knee was more shock than real hurt, as it had been thrust painfully in the wrong direction, and she could stand. She decided to go on the offensive, as it seemed she would not be able to get any advantage by defense on this inexplicably-improved enemy.

Her current spot was behind the liontaur, but Reeshaka spun faster than her eyes were willing to credit and bore down on her with the close-held head of her spear. That thing’s bigger than my head, En Shevil reflected, jumping high and forward into a tight flip that would put her behind her opponent again. But as she kicked backwards upon landing, her weakened right knee lessening the force of her blow, she found nothing where she’d aimed. Beginning to spin, she was shocked to find powerful, clawed feet striking hard at her shoulders and bowling her over. This time she did lose her weapon, and felt before she could rise Reeshaka’s forelegs holding her down and the liontaur’s spear at her neck. Dirt, churned up by sharp claws and twisting shoes, was ground into her stomach wound, and she clenched her teeth against an outcry. How could she, who had once dealt with an entire fortress full of trolls, lose to a single opponent?

Ferarri seemed singularly pleased as he announced this fact, since it had not been expected and was read as an increase in profits — at least for the next fights of both Dazah and Reeshaka. En Shevil might have resented being thus used had she not been concentrating so hard on her own state. She was sorely looking forward to the healing chamber, though for her wounded pride it would do little.

During her trip through that room of miracles, she was made fully aware how very overrated it was. The cut across her front was reduced to an itchy, barely-healed scar; the chip in her kneecap remained under the healed skin. The next event to which she looked forward was a trip through the world transporter. She still couldn’t believe she’d lost.

She glanced over to where Reeshaka stood talking to a burly man near the arena entrance. He reminded En Shevil of Issur, and she hoped that their battle had been beneficial towards that end. She turned for home, and nearly jumped to find Achim directly behind her. It was the first time “Dazah” had been this close to him, and was definitely a test of the credibility of her persona.

Barely catching herself and remembering not to greet him aloud, she simply stared until he spoke instead. “Are you all right?” She nodded. “That fight was amazing. I expected you to win!”

She really did love the sound of his voice. Something inside her, especially after this small humiliation, wanted very desperately to give up — to give up everything. She felt a physical inclination to sink up against him and snuggle into his chest. She swore at herself silently and forced a shrug in response to his statement. “I hope your wounds aren’t bad,” Achim continued. “I always lose when I fight in the arena, but I don’t usually get hurt like that.” She held her head still against the urge to shake it — Achim didn’t have any pride of the sort that would be wounded by defeat. But would it be wounded if his ex-girlfriend won Chief Thief against him?

Feeling suddenly uncomfortable, she began to walk slowly towards the transporter. Achim kept pace. “You stay with Erasmus, right?” She nodded again. “I hear you’re doing magical experiments with him and his partner, that faerie.” Another nod. “Are you a wizardess too?” En Shevil shook her head vehemently. “Maybe I’ll come visit some time,” Achim said after a pause. He seemed almost hesitant. She did not reply, though her heart was for some reason pounding. He had stopped at the bridge. “Well… goodnight.”

As Dazah turned briefly and waved goodbye before stepping into the portal, Achim’s eyes moved to her stomach and the bumpy red line visible through the wreckage of shirt and undershirt. Why had it disturbed him like that to see her wounded? So much that he’d had to seek her out after the battle and inquire after her well-being? The fight had almost made him forget about Rakeesh and the other events of the day. Now he turned and headed thoughtfully away from where Dazah had disappeared, towards the lower plaza.

It was with slight trepidation that En Shevil stepped into the transporter that night and was diluted off into another reality. Hopefully Marete would actually be there this time, but she was still a bit worried.

It looked normal enough, but something was strange about this Silmaria. It took some time for her to realize that there was music playing. There was definitely a guitar involved, but she wasn’t sure about the rest of the instruments. Looking around futilely for the source, she finally shook her head in confusion and moving on. Things around her looked strangely flat and surreal; she even got the feeling that if she had tried to move on through the Nob Hill neighborhood, she would have run into an invisible wall just past the Arena. She couldn’t even see half of the houses down that way. She began to scroll along… stroll along. Where had “scroll” come from?

It took her a moment to recognize the man running up the stairs from the lower plaza. His face was expressionless and he wore, instead of the leopard-skin vest, loose white shirt and green pants she had seen him in a few minutes ago, some heavy chain mail of glowing silver above grey-blue tights and large black boots. His face was half-hidden by a tacky helmet of green, blue, and gold that shone with the same pulsating light as, though off-rhythm with, the armor below. It was Achim. As he approached her, he kept running, until he stopped directly in front of her in what seemed an arbitrary, you-must-stop-walking-and-talk-to-me-now way. She got the feeling that, for whatever reason, he only had a limited number of things he was going to say to her, and was trying to choose between them. In a strange motionlessness the world seemed to hang waiting for his words. For several moments nothing happened, and then a massively loud voice rang out across space — it was that of a young girl, supremely confused:

“What the heck?”

En Shevil tried to look around for the speaker, but found that she could not move. Everything — including her — was waiting for the Hero to speak. Finally his still frame seemed to awaken. “Hello. I’m Buggy the Female Lovey Beadle Salt Eatr, Prince of Shapier and Hero of Tarna and Mordavia.”

En Shevil giggled. “What?”

“Let me tell you about my adventures. First I rescued Elsa von Spielburg and her brother Barnard from enchantment in Spielburg. Then I rescued the city of Shapier from vicious elementals, and freed Rasier from their master, the wicked Ad Avis. In Tarna, I stopped a war between the Liontaur and the Simbani tribes and defeated the evil demon king who was behind all the mischief. Then in Mordavia I battled vampires to stop the rise of the Dark One, and freed the soul of Erana to pass on into the next world.”

En Shevil was more than a bit confused. “Why are you telling me all this?”

There was a momentary silence while Buggy the Female Lovey Beadle Salt Eatr apparently changed directions. “What is your name?” he said.

“My name is En Shevil,” she replied, willing to play along with this evidently less-than-sane version of Achim.

“Nani?!?” cried the girl’s voice from nowhere. “En Shevil?!?”

The conversation seemed to be over, for En Shevil found herself free to move again. But what she really wanted was an explanation. She looked around through the sky in an attempt to find that huge voice. The sky looked like a painting.

“You can’t see her,” Buggy the Female Lovey Beadle Salt Eatr said softly. En Shevil looked back to find him scanning her up and down curiously. “Who are you, anyway?”

“I’m En Shevil,” she repeated.

“I’ve never seen you before,” he protested, “throughout the whole game.”

“What game?”

“This one! Dragon Fire! You must be a bug or something.”

En Shevil, puzzled and a bit annoyed at being called a bug, started to explain the reality portal. Buggy the Female Lovey Beadle Salt Eatr didn’t seem too interested, as he continually scratched one leg with the other, yawned and stretched, gazed blankly at his wrist, and rolled his head from side to side.

“So you come from an actual, real Silmaria?” he asked in wonder when she’d finished.

“Yes… What is this place, then?”

“This is just a computer game. None of it’s real, except what you need for the exact story.”

“What are you talking about?”

“This Silmaria’s like a stage, and everyone you know’s job is to amuse the great Voices who tell us what to do. I’m not allowed to talk candidly like this when a Voice is around.”

“What, are they gods?”

“We think so,” he whispered. “And I remember now why the one who was just here was so excited — I’ve heard your name before! I think your destiny is controlled by a Voice too.”

“Wonderful.” En Shevil threw up her hands. “This is the craziest place I’ve ever been to.”

“I think the Voices are crazy,” Buggy the Female Lovey Beadle Salt Eatr continued, still in his low tone. “You should see the names I’ve had.”

“What, this one isn’t weird enough?”

“This one is the weirdest, and the weirdest permutation of a long string of Buggies. But I’ve been JEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAN, and Mogru the Awful and Bad, and T, and Pi — you know, like the number? — and Woodless Graphite Pencil… and one Voice likes to play me all the way through the third game just to hear Rakeesh’s ‘This is Dark Magic’ line with my name in it: Be Safe, You Idiot, Who Cares?, I’m Hungry, Duhhh, and a million other things. Of course, that’s the same Voice who’s had me slay, between loadings, over four hundred Silmarian guards! He’s got a saved file for it, called Doing Bad Things. With so many guards in the city, I wonder why Silmaria’s worried about invasion!”

En Shevil was becoming increasingly angry. “I don’t know what in Tartarus you’re talking about, but you’re getting boring,” she snapped, and turned to walk away.

“Don’t do that!” Buggy the Lovey Female Beadle Salt Eatr hissed. “The Voice is coming back!”

“Whatever,” En Shevil said with a roll of her eyes, and headed for the stairs to the lower plaza. There, she scanned her surroundings, taking in the various strange differences. The guitar and ensemble, she noted, was still playing, and at the same volume as before. Buggy the Lovey Female Beadle Salt Eatr had remarked that this Silmaria was like a stage — did that include a musical score? She considered asking someone, but most of the citizens that usually collected on this plaza were gone: a few women, identical but for their dress colors, wandered aimlessly back and forth, and over by the apothecary a man walked in endless circles. En Shevil couldn’t help wondering what kind of sick being would want to do this to someone — and also what these people’s names were. She was about to walk up to one of them, against her better judgement, when a voice spoke out clearly to her.

“A Voice is coming.” It was Sarra, and oddly enough she easily overrode the all-permeating music. “Hide here in my stand.”

En Shevil was tired of being confused no matter where she went, so she gave up and followed orders. She jumped into the stand and crouched down beside Sarra under the counter. Surprisingly enough, it was completely empty. Not only was there no merchandise concealed there, where one would think it ought to be, but the entire inside of the stand was a featureless grey that didn’t even resemble the wood and cloth of which she’d always thought it was made.

“– ou talking about?” a Voice demanded; En Shevil wasn’t sure how she knew it was a Voice, but somehow the shivers it sent down her spine confirmed it.

“I’m serious!” squealed another, the one she’d heard before (the second was older). “She was just up there, talking to Buggy!”

Sarra greeted someone — En Shevil assumed it was Buggy — “ “ Buggy said nothing in response, but the Voices continued to converse.

“Squee, I’m going to go back and continue checcing my email,” the older one was saying.

“No! I’m so serious, she was here!”

“Yah seely.”

“No, no, no, please stay! Wait for me to check the other places!”

And the Voices stopped.

“They’re gone,” Sarra said quietly. En Shevil stood to find everyone in the plaza looking intently at her. “How did you get here?” En Shevil started to explain the transporter for the millionth time. “So, you really are the En Shevil we’ve heard about.” Sarra’s tone was filled with wonder, and other onlookers were beginning to crowd around the stand.

“What do you mean?”

“The Voices are as powerful as we thought…” someone said.

“To create something like this…”

“Somebody kill me and send me home,” En Shevil said in exasperation, “because I’m getting sick of all this.”

“That older Voice you heard just now created you,” Sarra explained. “She talks about you all the time: why you are the way you are, why she likes you, and what you’re going to do.”

“Oh, wonderful. Are you sure you don’t mean the En Shevil of this reality that was created by your mighty Voice?”

“There is no En Shevil of this reality. This is the original reality: a computer game. Your reality that you think is real is only a fanfiction.”

“My head is starting to hurt. Do you have anything logical to say?”

“I can prove it if you like; I know every world you’ve been to so far, I know the Voice’s crossover plans, and I know how the book’s going to end.”

“What book?”

“The one about you. Pride of her Parents.”

Finally she was paying serious attention. “That’s what my name means.”

“And it’s the title of the book about you. If you’re here, the end isn’t far off.”

“So how’s it going to end?”

“I really shouldn’t tell you.”

She rolled her eyes. “I knew you’d say that. So you don’t actually have any real proof to offer.”

“What can I tell you that won’t hurt you? It’s dangerous to know your own future. There was once a king, Silmarian I believe, named Oedipus…”

“I don’t even want to hear about it.”

“Very well, I’ll tell you something. But don’t blame me if your future is destroyed because of it.”

“All right.”

Sarra searched her mind, looking indecisive. Finally she nodded. “Katrina.” Others around her seemed to agree.

“Katrina?” It was a woman’s name, which was not promising; moreover, it was a name that somehow filled her with foreboding.

“The Voice says she’s going to make you worry about Nawar, but that it’s Katrina you should really be worried about.”

“With Achim?” En Shevil squeaked; if the Voice wanted her to worry, it had already succeeded.

Sarra nodded. “But apparently, even when you think you know when and why to be worried, you’ll still get it wrong.”

“Complimentary,” En Shevil noted. “What kind of weird sadist is this Voice? She controls your reality, I guess, with her little pet Hero, and now you’re saying she controls mine too? Why don’t I ever hear her there?”

“We don’t know,” Sarra replied softly. “We don’t know much about what she is.”

“This is beyond stupid.” En Shevil jumped out of the stand and headed for the stairs. “See you all back in real life.”

They all looked after her as she climbed towards Nob Hill. But then with a flurry of movement they returned to their various places around the plaza as the Voices returned. En Shevil crouched in the shadows in the arch over the top corner of the stairs and watched Buggy the Female Lovey Beadle Salt Eatr stand motionless at the doorway to the gate area. “– see her, why don’t you save your game right there, OK?”

“Oh, yeah! I saved my game right before I met her… I’ll restore.”

“Hurry up; this is getting boring.”

With a strange noise, suddenly everything froze: the wanderers on the plaza, the flying bananas in Marrak’s juggling paws, and even En Shevil. Only the music continued as they all waited for whatever was going to happen. After a moment, it did — En Shevil died.

It was of all things at that second the least expected. There was no pain, only confusion: what in the world had killed her? She continued to wonder as she floated back towards her own reality.

The next morning she awoke feeling well-rested but still scratching her head at the night’s adventures. She hadn’t believed, didn’t believe any of it — of course — but who was Katrina? Why should she be worried about her? And there was no way she could stop worrying about Nawar. She didn’t believe it, but she was still worried.

“I meant to give this to you several days ago,” Rawn said, settling onto her feet inside En Shevil’s bedroom — the Shapierian had specifically requested gravity in her bedroom. En Shevil slid out of bed, trailing the blanket onto the floor and approaching the half-faerie. “I thought it would be useful for a sojourner who does not wish to be known to many,” Rawn was saying.

“Oh, wonderful,” En Shevil laughed, pulling on a robe and accepting the crystal ball Rawn held up towards her. “You three are having a bad influence on me.”

Rawn smiled lightly. “You have only to command it verbally, and it will show you anything that is not hidden.”

“Well, let’s see how Achim’s doing on this Rite of Valor.” En Shevil set the crystal down on the table beside her bed, which wobbled on its uneven legs that had not been made to rest on the floor. “Show me the Prince of Shapier.” The sphere’s interior swirled from black to grey to white, and the scene she wanted appeared. Achim was still running around town, looking hyper and talking to people. En Shevil rolled her eyes, smiling. He’ll never win like that. “Show me Elsa von Spielburg.” The crystal rapidly shifted to a much more disturbing scene: the warrior running through a wild countryside towards a rocky hill. As Elsa rounded a massive wall of stone, En Shevil heard, from far off, the sound of some great beast. Elsa continued on towards it, and of a sudden the crystal went hazy and dark. She lowered her brows. “What happened?”

“Your friend has approaching something that cannot be scried,” Rawn replied calmly.

“Like I can’t be scried… a dragon? The hydra!” Arrogant fool, she thought, though her annoyance was affectionate. She’s going to get herself killed, trying to fight that thing alone.

“You could help her,” said Rawn, approaching and managing to guess En Shevil’s thoughts.

“How?”

“Teleport to Hydra island and join her in the battle.”

“I…” She gazed back at the crystal, which was still clouded. “Where’s that weird guy? Gort? Show me Gort!” The image shifted to show the monstrous man standing with his back to a wall in a dim room. “He hasn’t even left yet. But how can I…?

“Someday,” said Rawn slowly, “you must accept what you are.”

She took a deep breath. “So how do I teleport? Is there some spell I should know?”

“Have you forgotten what I have told you? Will it to be, and it shall be.”

“How can I help her once I’m there?”

“The Hydra’s necks must be burned as the heads are cut off. You can create fire with your magic as well.”

“Wish me luck.”

“Good luck.”

Taking hold of her courage center, she willed herself to Elsa’s side. Everything went blurry in her mind and she felt her body dissolving in much the same way that it did in Erasmus’ transporter. Almost that same instant the particles of her being reassembled, and as she opened her eyes she saw her friend gaining visual coherence before her. Still agitated from the magic, which hadn’t been nearly as bad as she’d expected, En Shevil tried to smile. “Need some help?” She raised her fist to eye level and willed it to flame without burning her. She barely restrained herself from trembling as half-familiar power bade her hand spring into fire; she felt the heat but no pain. It was so easy, but the unfamiliarity of it made it frightening.

Elsa smiled back. “En Shevil. I did not expect you here, but I did not look forward to fighting this battle alone. Let us defeat this monster!”

They ran, Elsa readying her gold-glowing sword as they approached the ledge beside the rightmost head. En Shevil looked at the ugly thing they were to fight, and felt at once a strange and dismal sense of kinship with this monster. The five heads, their long, thick, snakelike necks blocking whatever body lay within the cave, resembled no beast she’d come into contact with before; yet she was related to it, and something evil and familiar in her blood drew her to it. No doubts about it, it was a dragon. As Elsa hacked at the first head En Shevil stood staring, not liking to think about this affinity. At last tearing her attention from it, she looked at the other woman.

Her strokes were quick and effective. Slowly she was cutting away at the Hydra’s neck, while the various heads hung poised above her, spewing weak acid over her again and again. Finally the first head fell. Willing fire to her hands, she sent an overlarge ball of flames at the severed neck. She was tired already, but she found that the magic was, overall, not as bad as she’d thought it would be, though severely taxing.

She tired herself even more when by a sudden decision she switched from fire to water and doused her friend to remove the corrosive saliva of the Hydra. Elsa, after a flickering moment of surprise and a half-glance back towards En Shevil, nodded her thanks and stood firm. By the time the Hydra was defeated, the Shapierian was ready to collapse.

“Thank you,” said Elsa. “I knew you were a skilled fighter; I did not know you were a skilled magician.” En Shevil bowed her head in acknowledgment of this, and took a few steps towards the cave in hopes that there might be some treasure there. But she sank to her knees, a terrible headache springing upon her and weakness taking her limbs. Elsa was at her side in a moment. “Are you all right?” She nodded. “Do you need help back to Marete?”

En Shevil shook her head. “I’ll talk to you again,” she gasped, and willed herself to Erasmus’ house.


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