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