CHAPTER FOUR .
Toast to the King
The Port city of Dychant wasn’t all that large, but it was a trade harbor that flowed with people. Few likely lived here year round, but the streets were crowded. Ships of various sizes and makes filled the small docks, packed in so tightly that they bumped and rubbed against each other. The taxes here were lower and smaller merchants made more profit by unloading at this dock and bringing their goods inland, or selling entire lots to larger ships for transport to the island cities within the Barrier.
Races in this place were as mixed as the streets of Purt and the costumes varied almost as much. Theo was tired, blistered, wet, and filthy. He still couldn’t bear to look at Shannon and had nothing to say to him. He was afraid to touch Kaava at all, lest the man feel what Theo had become. They had been hunted for weeks and had had little to no time to eat, let alone bathe, and now that they were in the city, he didn’t really care anymore.
His Elven silks were all but in ruins and he had lost everything but his staff. He thought he had lost it once, but when he reached for it, it was there. As he had half thought and half-feared, when he checked at the Sanctuary, it was there, leaning up in a corner. He suspected that even if he dropped it in the ocean, he could reach for it and it would be right there for him. It was a nice thought, but not one he was too eager to test.
“Theo,” Kaava objected as Theo strode from the shadows where they lingered, looking for a way to slip past guards. Theo had had enough. He wanted to eat and he wanted clean clothes, and if it got him killed, so what. The other two could do whatever they wanted. The guards glanced at him as he passed, but did nothing.
The crowd was either thinner than he had thought, or he was so filthy that no one wanted to touch him. They let him slip through without much trouble. He headed toward the nearest tavern with drink, food, and a room to sleep in.
The name was something about a pig’s ass, as best he could read. Fitting, he thought, for the state of his life at the time. It was a six story building dotted with small square windows framed with heavy shutters. The shutters spoke of the storms that would blast this coast line. He passed under the shadow of a massive man, almost as big as Ivan, and entered the inn.
Inside it was dry, hot, and smelled of roasting meat. Tables filled the main floor which was spread out with pillars to support the upper floors and the many fireplaces. There were at least four races of men in here and three different races of elves, not to mention a Sphinxen woman who was being lead around by a golden chain about her neck.
He wasn’t very concerned about them all; he just wanted a table. A small cluster of empty tables to the left was where he headed. He went to pull a chair out, but Shannon was there. The man pulled it out for Theo before he sat himself at the table.
Theo all but dropped into the chair. He wanted to peel off his wet boots and let his poor feet dry out, but he didn’t. He leaned back and wondered how he was going to pay for the drinks that he was thirsting for.
“What can I get you?” a man asked, walking to the table.
Theo opened his eyes to look at the man. He was a fine-looking Elven man; half human no doubt – his features were too soft and hadn’t the sharpness of most elves.
“Wine,” he said after a moment, “some food… and a room.”
“We have several types of wine, and what sort of food, and what size of room?”
“We will take a red wine,” Shannon said. “A bottle of Geesh if you have it, and whatever your kitchen has that is fit for a lord; the nicest available room and fresh clothes for my lord.”
The man bowed slightly. “Will you pay now, or when it is brought?”
Shannon reached into his cloak and pulled out three gold coins. He put them on the table and slid his fingers back slightly, revealing only the edges of the gold coins to the elven man. He looked up.
“Treat us well and there will be more,” Shannon said.
“Of course, Your Grace,” the Elven man said, laying his hand on Shannon’s to slip the coins free without anyone seeing them. Shannon nodded once and let the man go.
“Can you not do that to anyone I have to look at?” Theo asked, laying his head on the table.
“I just bought you new clothes, Theo.”
“You just propositioned an elf.”
“As to be expected in a place like this,” Shannon said a bit tensely. “You picked it, not I.”
Theo lifted his eyes to look at the vampire, even as a group of guards walked in to get a meal…. all of them wearing Gerome’s marshal badges on their arms. He watched them take a seat several tables away.
“We may as well be in Ulam Ar at this point,” he muttered to himself. He leaned back in his chair and glanced at Kaava who sat with an odd calm.
“It smells very good in here,” Kaava said. “I’m starving.”
Theo smiled at the orc. “I’m going to miss you, Kaava,” he said.
Kaava looked over, startled. “Miss me?”
“Well, I can’t just take you back to Purt very well. And, for you, if you can’t make it home, you have either Purt or some random sacrificial fire at this point.”
“Oh yes, I suppose,” Kaava grinned. “Maybe I’ll get a job as a bodyguard here, and find my way there someday.”
“Oh, it’s a great deal like this, I suppose,” Theo shrugged. “I might just stay here. It’s not like I can just go home anyway.”
In the back corner, music started up. The Elven man brought their glasses and poured wine for Theo and Shannon, then waited for a nod from Theo to pour for Kaava as well. The elf left three bottles on the table and went to see to other tasks.
Theo took a sip of wine and savored it. It wasn’t the best he ever had, but it would work. He watched, almost in shock, as Shannon took the glass. He lifted it slowly to smell it first before he took a little sip of it. The Purtan leaned back in his chair, holding it in his mouth.
“Is that a good idea?” Kaava asked.
Shannon swallowed the wine, swirling the cup a little. He looked over at Kaava.
“At this point, I think so. It changes my energy enough that I will all but vanish in the city. It might help them lose track of you two, as well. Demons do not understand the effects drinking has on men. It has thrown them off before. If nothing else, if I am caught, I would rather be drunk than sober. I hate killing friends when I am sober.”
“Sober or not, I would be glad if you did,” Theo said seriously. “As selfish as that is, I’d far rather be dead than caught at this point.”
“I’ll toast to that.” Kaava lifted his glass, having learned it from watching Riven, Ivan, and Dave drinking in Ulam Ar.”
Theo lifted his glass to meet the orc’s. Shannon lifted his a little, then added it to the toast.
Theo drank down the entire glass and poured another. “If I get too drunk, Kaava, you going carry me to bed?”
“It’s what I’m here for, my lord,” Kaava laughed, “but once dressed new, you might be drug off to bed by finer company than I.”
Theo laughed. “Don’t let me do that.”
The food arrived with platters of meat, bread, and cheese. Fruit was piled onto bowls of ice, and a bottle of smoked blue glass arrived with three tiny cups. Shannon reached for that as the other two grabbed for food. He poured three little shots and handed one to each of the men at his side.
He lifted his up, elbow on the table, to look at the swirling liquid of white and clear in his tiny cup.
“What is this?” Kaava asked, smelling it.
“It’s a type of drink that hasn’t been made in Purt for about two thousand years. It was once the ceremonial drink of Purt. You’d drink it at weddings, births, deaths – that sort of thing.”
“How expensive is this?” Kaava asked.
“Quite, I am sure.”
“Why are we drinking it now?” Theo asked.
Shannon looked at his cup a moment before he answered.
“Because either we make it through this and you earn the right to drink like a king, or you get killed, likely by me… and I have no one else with whom to toast the death of a king.” He slammed the shot and poured another.
Theo took his shot, knowing that it was going to be quite a night. It was clean, sweet, and warmed him to the gut. Fear and pain seemed to slip away. By the time his clothes arrived, he felt almost good. He took the clothes and with Kaava went to their room above, to change, leaving Shannon to drink. He was not sure he wanted to leave Shannon alone long, so they hurried. But he did take the time to comb his hair out before they went back down to the table.
Shannon was not there, but, just as Kaava started to ask about it, the Purtan came back from wherever he was.
“Don’t ask,” Shannon said as he sat back down. “I needed to take care of something real quick.”
“Excuse me, my lords, but I cannot help but notice your guard,” a man said as he approached the table, not sure which man to talk to. “I don’t suppose he’s for sale, is he?”
“Everything is for sale,” Theo said, “but I’m afraid he’s not mine to sell. He’s on loan from the king of Ulam Bac. I doubt you can afford him. Unless you are as wealthy as Gerome, there is not much you can hope to offer.”
“Ah, I see. You must have very important things to attend to.”
“Quite,” Shannon said. “So, unless you have a ship that can take us back to that city we have not much to offer each other.”
“As it so happens, I do,” he said with a hint of nervousness, but with the eagerness of any true merchant for gold to be made on such a trip. “I am headed to Teno in the morning, where I will be taking a small garrison to the Holding Walls. My ship is one of few that has been blessed to allow it to pass though the Barrier. For the right price I can get you home; Ulam Bac is certainly achievable. I had no reason to rush in Teno, but for you I might.”
“I am sure,” Shannon said. “Let us think on it and see what other offers come up.”
“I will seek you out later then.”
“Of course,” Shannon nodded.
Theo wasn’t paying attention to the conversation. He was watching a man across the tavern. The fellow was being very careful not to be noticed. He had caught Theo’s attention for some reason. Theo wasn’t sure why yet, but he knew it was not a good reason.
Outside, a storm rumbled loud enough to be heard, the ripples of the war to the north just now reaching this area. The magics here would flicker a bit tonight. Good for them. Theo took another sip of the Geesh that Shannon had poured and got to his feet.
He moved toward the back, playing up being a bit drunk. He knew he was drunk, but he was far from stumbling drunk. He slipped out after the man who was headed for the privy in the back yard, or so it would look.
Theo knew the man had not made far enough to have vanished from the yard, so he stepped aside, up the back wall to the side alley, and there the man was. He was kneeling in the alley, drawing in the mud. Theo walked up behind him and looked over his shoulder. The man was so busy with his work that he didn’t notice. Theo took only a moment to see what he was doing and cleared his throat.
“You have it all wrong,” he said. “That is so sloppy; whatever you summon will eat you alive.”
The man jumped and spun around with a wide-eyed look at Theo.
“Petty,” Theo said. He moved with speed that almost surprised himself. He stepped up, stole the man’s own dagger and stabbed him in the chest. Theo jerked the blade to be certain that the wound would be fatal and then shoved the man back.
With a sigh, he looked at the blood on his new clothes. He folded his cloak over his hand, concealing the spatter, and went back inside. He stumbled his way back to the table and sat down heavily. He put his hand on the table and leaned toward Shannon.
“Spilled something on my sleeve,” he said. “You want to clean it up for me?”
Shannon looked at Theo with a slightly confused look, glanced down at Theo’s hand, then back to him as he laid his hand on Theo’s and leaned over a bit to whisper in his ear.
“You had a reason, I hope.”
“I did,” Theo said. “You should know me better than to think otherwise.”
“It seems oddly out of character for you to murder anyone,” Shannon said.
“Hmm, must be the company I keep is shifting my attitude.”
“Not my intention.”
Theo leaned over a little closer.
“Perhaps it is best that we leave here tonight. We can find a small boat and be gone. I don’t like the way the garrison hauler is watching us. He smells of a spy, and the other one wasn’t alone.”
“I would agree. Shall we then?” Shannon got to his feet pretending to pull Theo up. Theo knew the game, knew they were being watched, and almost regretted having come here at all. Still, he let himself fall against Shannon, who staggered a little.
Helping each other, they headed for the door. Kaava sighed and got up, following them. He knew the game as well, and he knew they were being watched by more than just Gerome’s spies.
Once in the street, they headed toward the lit-up market, an area that was still active this late with music, food, and crowds. Around a corner and into the crowd, Theo pulled off the red cloak that had been brought to him. He traded it for a wool one in passing by a vendor. He handed the wool cloak to Kaava, who put it on, hiding his head and ducking lower, to not tower so over the crowd. In the same instant, Shannon shimmered a moment and put back his hood, suddenly appearing as a stunning elf in a blue cloak. He held Theo’s arm tight to his side.
“Whatever you do, do not lose contact with me,” he said softly. “It will shred my illusion.”
Theo glanced at Kaava who lumbered along beside them, looking like a rather homely Ezeeren. He wondered what the illusion made him look like as they walked. They had not gone far when a man grabbed Kaava’s arm to turn him.
Kaava grunted and looked at the man; it was the man who had offered them passage on his ship.
“Is there a problem?” Shannon asked in Elven.
“Uh… no, your grace.”
“Then unhand my slave and be on your way, man.”
The man bowed and hurried past with several others, scanning the crowds for the missing men.
They left the street, cutting for the poorer waters, the fishermen’s wharf. The illusions were dropped and Shannon had to stop a moment.
“You alright?” Kaava asked.
“It’ll pass,” Shannon said, swallowing hard. “We have to get on the water tonight.” He put his hood up and looked for a tavern, to find a fisherman to take them away.
The tavern was not wealthy, nor was it all that filthy, either. It was crowded with men, many of them doing deals over books and charts. Theo could feel the place being watched and knew at once that Shannon and Kaava would be spotted far too easily here.
“Wait here,” he told them at the door. “Try not to draw attention.” He slipped away from them, knowing that if he was not a bit buzzed off the drinks, he would never be able to be so bold. But here he was, walking into a crowd alone. He was looking for something; an attitude, an energy, another drink.
He moved to the bar and pointed to the beer on tap. The bar owner brought it over and set it on the bar top. Theo felt for his purse and grumbled at having changed clothes once again.
“Lifted purse, huh?” the man said.
“So much for spelled cords,” Theo muttered. “I’ll be right back.” He moved to go get money from Shannon.
“Pay the next one,” the man said. “You seem honest enough. Just this once.”
Theo nodded his thanks. “It’s been one of those days,” he said. “Thank you.” He lifted the beer to the bartender who nodded and moved on to serve others. Theo turned a little, to look around and let his ears pick up what he needed.
He sipped at his beer and said nothing, just waiting, hoping that no one would spot the Purtan and the orc just inside the door.
He barely heard it when he did. The man was talking low, but he caught just enough of it to get a direction. He got up and moved toward the voice. He stepped over to the fire as if to warm himself, only two tables away from the men he wanted to overhear.
“…there’s nothing I can do. My shipment didn’t sell. I don’t have the money.”
“I have a ship full of perishables and you don’t have the money? You swore you’d have it. You told me you had it, not that it was locked up in a trade.”
“The best I can do is to get it sold here. There’s enough of a market here to sell it off before it rots.”
“At such a cut, I get nothing!”
“I don’t have the money for the harbor tax; I don’t know what else to do. Better to sell it now than lose it all. I need a drink, let me get you one and think about it.”
The man who had the ship left the table disgusted. He moved to the fire and bent down for a twig to light his pipe. Theo watched him pretend to light it with the burning twig, but instead of using the flame, he used magic to make the herbs in the bowl burn. He stood up with a draw and an upset expression.
“I didn’t mean to overhear, but it sounds like you’ve been scammed, my friend,” Theo said. The captain looked over.
“That’s what it certainly seems. My cargo is worth a thousand times more in the city, and yet, all that I have is invested in it.”
“Your friend seems like the sort who would not have a problem killing in order to keep that cargo in his own hands. I’d watch your back if I were you.”
“Hmm… I can almost feel the dagger now,” he muttered. “You seem like a rather fine sort of man to be in a place like this.”
“Hmm… It’s a very long story. But, needless to say, I am stuck here for the moment. And as much as I would like revenge on the man who made sure I was stuck, I am unable to.” Theo looked over at the captain. “I have a deal for you,” he said with a sudden tone. “You need money to get into the harbor, right?”
“I need to get to Teno. I pay your harbor tax; you take me and my companions?”
“Three of us right now.”
“If we hurry, we can leave before the tide.”
“It might be a good idea for you to slip out now, before your friend sees you. I’ll meet you out front. I don’t want a dagger in my back or to be chased to the docks, either.”
“Right,” the captain muttered and then moved toward the table as the other man returned. “I gotta piss,” he told the other and left as two beers were set on the table. The other sat with a smirk. Theo left the fire, moving toward the front. He set his beer down as he went, slipping out without even a glance to the other two.
He darted around the building, down the alley, and jumped the low fence. The captain was caught in a fight with two men. Theo ran at them, catching one around the neck and tearing him away. They slammed into the ground. Theo grabbed a stick that was at hand and drove it into the man’s throat. Theo struggled up, pulling his robes away from the man, who was holding his throat and choking on blood. He took the dying man’s blade and drove it into the other’s side. The captain was released, dropping to his knees and sucking in air as he peeled the strangling wire from his neck and hair.
Shannon and Kaava were just hopping the wall as Theo shoved the dying man away from the captain.
“Come here,” Shannon ordered. He took hold of Theo’s sleeves; the blood on them began smoking away. “Are you done yet?”
“They were cheats, and after I just made a deal with the captain to leave tonight, I had to.”
“My thanks,” the man said, getting up. “My ship isn’t far. Let’s go before there is more trouble.”
The city state of Teno seemed to rise right up out of the ocean, without even cliffs to support it. Smooth walls shot upward with the surf endlessly pounding them. Theo was from a harbor city and had to admire the craftsmanship of the walls that held up to such a beating. He also had to admire the massive gates enclosing the harbor, a bustling metropolis built seemingly right out of the ocean waters.
The outer harbor was as sheltered and calm as could be hoped, but much too far out to unload anything. The inner harbor was gated with an entry tax to be paid up-front. Ships lined up for days to pick their way through the gate. One in, one out, all day long and all night long, the movement never stopped. Magic guided ships where wind and sails were unable to. The quarters were packed so tightly together, Theo couldn’t even imagine what fire would do to it all. If a fire or a war started, there would be no escape. The chaos would be insane.
The weather was making it harder than usual to manage operations here. Ships and men not used to the cold were in shock as snow drifted out of the sky. Theo was reminded of home. He stood on the deck watching the captain steer his ship into place with the smallest touches of magic. A bump here and a bump there shifted things so slightly; yet, in the slow motion and flat waters, it was enough.
“The weather is a bit off,” the captain said. “Helping the fruit keep, no doubt.”
Theo half-smiled at the man whose life he had saved. “I am sure.”
“I would say the northern tribes have put up quite a stand to not be so easily swayed by smooth words and silver tongues; instead, putting up a fight strong enough to affect the weather like this.”
“I would think they’ve done more than simply put up a stand,” Theo objected. “I bet they kicked those priests’ asses. Have you ever seen those nomads? They’re fantastic with their feathers and tattoos, and their horsemen are deadly accurate with the bow. It’s too bad… the weather will make life very hard for them for quite some time, I would think.”
“Maybe the Shield will come down and the world will balance out. God help us all if it explodes under the pressure.”
“Hmm.” Theo drew his cloak up a little tighter about his shoulders. “I’m not even sure anyone knows how to bring it down anymore.”
“The house of Armond will.”
“The house of Armond is not exactly what it was.”
The captain laughed a little. “I dare say not. We will be in the harbor for several days. Will you and your friends need ship passage out?”
“I hope so,” Theo said. “We come looking for friends. If we find them, we’ll want to go, but we cannot leave without them.”
“Understood. We will need tax by dawn. It changes, so I don’t know the exact amount.”
“I’ll bring it up.” He left the captain to find Shannon.
Kaava and Shannon stayed hidden most of the time to not be on the minds of the men on the ship at all. Shannon, however, was just coming up as Theo went to look for him. They walked back to the rail. Shannon looked off to the city, examining the sheer size of it.
“Are they there?” Theo asked.
“Oirion is. Dave is,” Shannon said softly. “I can feel them both. The others… it is too hard to say. The storms…” he rubbed his eyes. “I must be careful. This place crawls with the whispers of hell.”
Theo put a hand on Shannon’s shoulder as softly as he could.
“Don’t risk it. I can find them if you cannot.”
Shannon looked over at him. “Dave must not be broken,” Shannon whispered.
“I know,” Theo said, looking back to the city, holding his elbows. “I don’t think you should leave the ship. I will take care of Dave; you must not be taken. The salt water will help hide you.”
“This is my task…” Shannon started to say.
Theo shook his head. “Don’t you dare push me to have taken these steps, to have gone so far, only to have you walk into his hands now. I can’t go back. And if you are taken, then what has it all been for?”
Shannon didn’t say anything; they just stood at the rail watching the gates draw closer.
It was too much. The storms had reached the harbor; the winds gusted and howled. Ivan had barely escaped capture on the last ship he had tried to land on. The crewmen fancied his feathers for a good trade item. The one little perch of rock that he had found to escape capture was repeatedly slammed with waves.
His ribs were broken, his mind slipping. He had lived on nothing but fish guts and what little birds he could snag out of the air. He had stolen a few eggs, but his talons crushed holes in the shells, often before he had a chance to land for a moment to eat.
Salt water was nothing he could drink and the little bits of blood he had gotten were not enough to keep him hydrated. Scans had knocked him off of wall tops twice and he’d been shot at with arrows several times to get him off the rigging.
He was prepared to just drop into the ocean and drown; after all this, he was going to die in the water. A cry of anguish escaped him as the scream of the Ezeeren eagle he was now. He would have cried if he could. He was so tired, so broken.
On the cold wind, through the shift of the snow, he tried to keep above the rigging. A strong downward gust and he veered wildly off his path; barely missing ropes that he didn’t see, ducking through the sails, he caught his wings again. Struggling, he tried to keep in the air.
It was the utter black of the cloak as it blew in the wind that caught Ivan’s eyes. Something about that black, about the way it moved. He turned to it, trying to think, trying to recall what it was.
Blond hair, whipping about and exposed; a thousand images rushed through his mind. He saw, for a moment, the blue eyes that went with that hair, the glow of the staff top, the shaman on the black horse, and the shy quiet smile of the man Theo… his friend. Ivan’s heart jumped, he floundered on a gust of wind that tried to steal him away.
His mind screamed for help, he reached desperately for his friend. The wind howled up around him like the demons that hunted him.
He wanted to scream Theo’s name. He could feel the magic cords spinning out to catch him in a net. The demons had changed their tactic and he was about to be taken. A strangled cry escaped his throat. Maybe, having heard it, Theo looked up. Ivan could see his eyes.
“Help me! Theo, help me!” His mind screamed as the cords started to draw tighter.
Theo threw up an arm as if he had heard Ivan’s cry. Power seemed to wash out from him like a warm wind. It swirled over the deck of the ship and flew up with the motion of his arm. Ivan felt it wash over him. The cords simply fell away, melting like frost in the sun.
He pounded his wings against the cold sky, desperate to reach Theo before the demons returned. As he reached the deck, he was so tired that he couldn’t land and he knew it. He would just as likely shred Theo’s arm as miss utterly, so he just aimed for the ship.
Wind gusted back at him and he slammed into the deck; he felt his wing snap under him as he hit. Panting, he tried to lift his head as Theo ran over and knelt down beside him. Ivan wanted to say who he was, to let Theo know… but darkness tunneled around him and he had no time to do so.
“Shh.” Theo put a finger to Ivan’s lips. He wasn’t looking at Ivan, but to the wall instead. Ivan tried to push himself up, but the pain made him wince back down to the bed. Theo put a hand on Ivan’s chest to quiet and reassure him. They could hear voices just outside the wall. They were muffled, but men’s voices.
They passed by, then Theo looked at Ivan. “They’re looking for you,” he said softly.
Ivan tried to push up again, scared that he would be trapped, that he would be revealed with a mind sweep.
“No one saw you,” Theo said softly. “Lie still before you hurt yourself more.”
Ivan looked down at his body to make sure it was his. The relief, the warm friendship in Theo; the big man could not help but start to cry.
“Shh,” Theo told him. “It’s not over yet, but at least we found you. You have any idea about the others?”
“No.” He caught at Theo’s hand as he struggled to get up again. “They almost had me.”
“I know,” Theo said seriously. “Rest and be still, Ivan; try to sleep. Kaava and I are going ashore to look for the others.”
“Theo…” he didn’t want to be left alone, but he knew the others would need help.
“Shannon will slip in here to join you once the guards leave the ship. You won’t be alone long. I have to go find Dave. Shannon thinks things are about to get very bad for him. He’s about ready to go himself, and that’s insane.”
“Don’t get caught,” Ivan said softly.
“Me?” Theo smiled. “I haven’t yet.” He slipped out of the little door that was all but invisibly hidden in the wall. And just as Theo said, Ivan didn’t lie alone long. Several moments later, Shannon slipped in, sat down at his bedside, and set a crystal on his chest.
“It’ll help shield you,” Shannon said.
“It’s good to see you. I was afraid that this time I was caught.”
“It’s good to see you in your own form,” Shannon said. “You had me concerned that you would not be able to turn back.”
“I don’t know how long I was like that.”
“A few weeks, I think,” Shannon said.
“How long have we been taken?”
“About two months.”
“I pray that the others are alright, over-looked, forgotten.” Ivan closed his eyes. “I heard Riven cry out in pain, saw Kelly beaten to the floor and raped… I was given the form of the bear to escape.” Ivan was still with that thought. He had worn that form once before as a teenager. That was different; a different type of bear. And, he had left the beach as a simple seagull. He knew he had; he recalled the webbed feet sloshing in the water… yet, he had crashed as the eagle. That meant one thing. Only the goddess gave the eagle form… and only to the king. His father was dead… or worse, denounced by the gods of Ezeer. He didn’t want to weep for the old man. Ivan didn’t want to admit who he himself was or that, even exiled and having raged against his own people’s betrayal, his gods still claimed him. He curled over, clutching the crystal to his chest, trying to stay as shielded from Shannon as he could, and wept with as much dignity as he could maintain.
Shannon stayed long after Ivan had fallen back asleep. He had no place better to go.
The day that Theo turned fifteen had been terrifying. His mother had taken him to Ulam Bac. He had been allowed to wander the imperial palace for hours, go shopping in the finest city in the world, and then as darkness fell, Gerome had taken him from the feast to “the pits.” He called them the pits because there was no better word for it. It was on his fifteenth birthday that he walked the halls of hell with Gerome, who at one point had caught hold of his hand and told him how pretty he was.
Theo couldn’t forget that day or that night, certainly not standing here looking at the gates to the pits of this city. It was set up the same, and even had the banner of Gerome’s dark side over the door. It was the black leafless tree that twined with vines of purple and red, almost like a Purtan knot, almost like death vines. Theo had learned that, depending on the magic or drugs, it could be either.
He knew the way to do this. He had learned it that night, but now he wasn’t a scared young man at his master’s side. He wasn’t even prince Tharadon. He was just a strange man walking up to sealed gates. If he set his hand on the gate stone, it would know he was here and thus Gerome would know. He couldn’t have that.
“They must die,” he said softly to Kaava.
“I will follow your lead,” Kaava said under his breath.
Theo drew a deep breath. He shook off his dread of the dark halls and the knowledge of what he would find in those halls. Masking any lingering fear with mimicry, he strode forward. He crossed the street right before the gate without looking aside. The guards bowed their heads a little.
“Sir, on whose authority are you here?” he asked, as Theo reached toward the stone. Theo looked over at him, acting as if he had stopped his hand for the interruption alone. He looked over.
“Mine,” he said, and then moved to drive his sharp jab of power into the man’s heart. He caught him as he fell and stepped him back to set him down. He patted the dead man on the shoulder. Kaava was setting his man down in the same fashion.
Theo reached for the gate again, but this time he sent out his gremlin to eat the magic. It was a trick he had learned. It was hard for the gremlin to master, but they had done it long ago. Theo told it to follow them, to clean up their trail and whatever stray energy it wanted. It was like a puppy licking up a trail of milk. It had fooled Gerome before. The skill he had learned hiding from his mother and Gerome as a boy was now about to be put to an adult version test.
The smell wasn’t there all at once, but it wasn’t long before it could be tasted and then, eventually, begin to creep upon the flesh. Kaava stayed close as they strode the halls. Theo could only guess as to the place his friends were. He had scanned out the halls the best he could; now he prayed it held as he strode past guards like he knew his way by heart.
Several levels down, he entered the room he was looking for. Half the room was set up as an office; the other half housed a dozen guards. Petty criminals and those too weak to bother with were often punished here and set aside. The cells about this chamber would be the sugar-coated front for priests who might have heard grizzly rumors, but needed to not see the truth… priests like Oirion.
Several guards sat around a small table eating their meal while another sat off to the side, cleaning blood out of his fingernails. Theo looked around at the men. The one cleaning his hands got to his feet uncertainly.
“Can I help you?”
“I would hope so,” Theo said, displaying annoyance at the utter lack of order that was normally demanded for Gerome’s pits. Gerome was a vain man and demanded kneeling subservience of his people. If Gerome had been met by this attitude, these men would all die slowly and painfully. Then again, he had only been to a pit with the man in charge and he was sure they all acted up for it. Word was certainly rushed to them to be in order before the Lord of Purt inspected them.
“I am here to gather several trespassers for transport.”
“Do you have the case numbers?”
That was it. Theo knew his friends wouldn’t be turned over to them. The game was up.
“Kill them,” Theo said, already moving to kill the man. A case number meant that Gerome had these prisoners under special watch. If they were asked for the case number and didn’t have it, their cover was blown. He hit the guard in the chest with his hand. One of Theo’s lesser gremlins shot into guard, staggering him back. The thing took over the man’s body and, with a delighted little chirp, turned to attack the men that Kaava was already attacking.
It was over before the men could even get up from the table. Theo took a sword from one of them.
“So much for trying to just walk in and out again.”
“Got us in,” Kaava said, watching the gremlin-possessed body dancing around to its own great amusement.
“Let’s go get them,” Theo said, shivering a moment before he led Kaava away from the dancing guard. The guard was whirling around, singing and chirping, waving around swords with great delight. Kaava followed Theo into a hall that seemed a dead end, until Theo walked right through it.
The whole place instantly changed from a prison into hell. The cries, the moans, and the reek were more than just that of the flesh. Kaava gagged and staggered a step.
“Dave and Oirion are close,” Theo said. The magics were foul and tangled. Even down below, the storms outside affected them. The magics that hid this place from the world above and kept the demons trapped inside were magics that ran up from a hot core below. The whole island was sitting on a deep, slumbering volcano whose power transformed this level of the prison into the very pits of hell that they were said to be.
Theo had to scan several times, not daring to reach too far or leave too much of himself as evidence. The cell wasn’t far, conveniently located should Gerome want someone dragged above for whatever black magic might require a prisoner. The cell placement indicated that the guards didn’t know who they had. If the captured friends were smuggled out, they might be overlooked for some time. Gerome likely didn’t know who he had yet. There was still hope to find them sane and unbroken.
Arriving at a large common cell, he pulled the bolt as easily as if it wasn’t spelled at all and opened the door. A trick that he had learned early on was that it was always a bad idea to let the door close behind you. He stood in the door and scanned ever so lightly.
“Get them,” he ordered Kaava. Kaava moved into the cell and grabbed up Dave with no effort to be nice. The people here would spot that. Dave groaned and cried out a little as Kaava tossed him up over a shoulder. He grabbed Oirion by the arm and jerked him up, dragging him up out of sleep.
Oirion staggered, grabbed wildly for Dave and was hit by an immobilizing spell from Theo. It was painless, but made him freeze for a moment.
“Behave,” Theo ordered. “I do not have time for such nonsense.”
Oirion was drug along by Kaava, half immobilized, half struggling to get his feet under himself. Theo locked the cell and moved down the hall.
Once past the door, Theo caught Oirion under the shoulder to help him up.
Kaava eased Dave down to look at him. Dave’s eyes rolled as he slid down the wall.
“He’s not good.” Oirion said, his words slurred from the magic. Theo pulled the last of the magic away, but with it a great deal of pain numbing was lost. Oirion half-cried out and nearly sank to the floor as well. Theo caught him up.
“Come on, Oirion; I need you to stay on your feet.”
Oirion struggled, as he had for months now, to stay on his feet, bite back the pain, and be one of the leaders.
Theo gave the priest support as he scanned for Riven and Kelly.
Dave tried to lift an arm and groaned, his eyes trying to open, but he was beyond that.
“Still, David,” Kaava said. “It’s almost over. Can you find them?”
“Riven is hiding, and well. I can sense sparks of him cast about. I think he escaped his cell and is hiding in the halls. We have to keep moving.”
Oirion almost started to cry as his knees buckled at the first step. Kaava grabbed his arm and jerked him back up.
Oirion clung to the orc, unable to hold on to anything else.
Theo tried to help with Oirion as they moved down the hall, his mind focused on trying to find the other two. He knew time was running short as his gremlin darted back to him, the body of the man he had worn now dead and without a doubt nothing but a hollow husk, sucked dry of all energy and life. He gave the gremlin the command to find Riven, and to do it quickly. The thing darted off, leaving them to keep moving down the hallways, past the cells of men in hell. They entered a common chamber where the tools of torment were kept ever-ready.
They didn’t pause. There was no going back up and no leaving without the other two. Both of them knew far too much about the rest. There would be no escape for any of them if either River or Kelly was broken.
“Come on, Riven, don’t be such a troublesome thing,” Theo muttered. “Where the hell are you?”
The gremlin returned, excited to have succeeded, and then darted off again, right through the wall. Theo growled; they would have to find ways around and through the labyrinth of halls and chambers to get to the gremlin, but at least Riven was in reach.
At one point in the wall, the stone had cracked and broken from ancient earthquakes. It left a small gap in the wall that would be overlooked by most. There was no way Kaava would fit, and neither Oirion nor Dave could make it without Kaava. Theo swore.
“I’ll be right back,” he promised, and then slipped in. He followed his gremlin into the darkness, his eyes shifting to see just enough. He picked his way through the crack of stone into a cavern that was as wild and rugged as any.
Steam was venting up from the fires below. In here… Riven was in here. Theo could see him through the gremlin’s eyes. Riven was crouched up, hidden somewhere up ahead and above, gripping a wicked looking knife of bone. He didn’t look at all like Riven. The dwarf was wild and beaten. His face was more blood than skin; his beard and hair looked half-burned away. He was stripped to nothing but some pants and a belt, both far too big for the dwarf, but pulled in and made to work.
“Riven,” Theo called, summoning his gremlin back with treats of power. The priest could sense the creature and was wild with it. It darted to Theo, took his treat and the orders to find Kelly. “Riven, come down. Please hurry; we have to get out of here. I need your help to find Kelly.”
Theo waited, his eyes not seeing anything beyond a few feet. The steam hissed; his body was starting to sweat and itch. The stink and cries from beyond didn’t help.
“Riven, please,” Theo pleaded. If they were caught, he would have to kill Dave, and he couldn’t stand to think it. “Please.” He waited, growing sick with worry about it. Self-doubt and fear; what if Riven felt his magics…. what if Riven attacked him and killed him, and Dave was taken back. “Riven!” he shouted, frustrated and angry about the whole thing. “Snap back to yourself! We have to go!”
From the darkness the attack came, slamming him back. He tripped and fell, Riven’s blade slicing the air just above his head. Riven was on him, wild and enraged. Theo shouted and hit the dwarven priest with the same spell he had used on Oirion. The spell worked only in part. Riven struggled, slow and weak, but still moving to kill the man he was standing over.
“Riven, please,” Theo pleaded, trying to hold him back. Riven pressed his weight against Theo’s arms, pushing closer and closer. Theo had no choice. He knew he would have to kill Riven before letting himself die, thus leaving the others for capture. Sobbing, he began to build the power to kill the priest and yet keep the soul safe to let it go someplace where it wouldn’t be grabbed up by evil. He was planning to steal Riven’s soul, the same as he had done to the Elven prince.
The magic burned in Theo’s hands as Riven’s blade pressed into his chest. Theo didn’t know what made Riven stop, but he stopped. He blinked and staggered back a mere second from having his soul ripped out. Theo sobbed with relief and let the magic sink. He covered his face for a moment.
“Theo?” Riven whispered, unsure, terrified, and yet hopeful. Theo crawled up.
“Come on, Riven. We have to go.” He crawled for the door, not wanting to look at the priest. He made his way back through the narrow passage with Riven ghosting along behind him. He crawled out of the crack to Kaava and the other two.
He leaned back against the wall, panting and shaky with what he had almost been forced to do. He swallowed hard and wiped his face.
“Kaava?” Riven asked, looking up.
“Yes, Riven, time to get out of here. Just need Kelly now.”
The gremlin darted to Theo. It had found her. Theo stumbled after the thing, even as Riven jerked back and put his sword up.
“Hush, my friend,” Kaava whispered. “Follow Theo; he’ll get us out.”
Riven followed for fear of being left. Theo tried to gather himself as he tracked his pet down the halls.
They twisted through the halls, had to back-track several times, passing thousands trapped in the pits. The gremlin led them to a corridor that had solid doors lining the walls. It stopped outside the door of one. It waited a moment, then darted back to Theo.
Theo reached the door and saw why. It was sealed with the crest of the Church. Theo looked to Oirion.
“Open it,” he said.
Oirion staggered toward it and fell against the wall. He laid his hands on the seal and, weeping for the pain of the reality, he whispered the prayer. The door clicked and swung open, dropping Oirion to his knees.
Theo found Kelly in the room. She crouched against the back wall, a bone in her hand. She looked half wild, her clothing nothing but a few rags, her skin so battered and raw the grand tattoos that covered her seem to vanish in the aftermath of her beatings. Had they seen her in the light and had had no magic to aid in indentifying her, they might not have known her at all.
“Kelly, it’s us. Time to go.”
She snarled at him.
“Kelly,” Theo said. “It’s me, Theo. We have to go.”
“We got problems,” Kaava said. “They are coming down the halls. They’re following our trail. We can’t fight out of this, Theo. There is no way we can all get out.”
“No,” Theo pleaded to the heavens and Gods and all things good. He couldn’t stand to think that he would have to kill them all.
“Go!” He ordered all his gremlins to attack and devour the guards who hunted him. They all shot away. He had bought them time. It was at a great cost, but now they had time. He would pay for the services the gremlins did for him later. Now, if they could just get out of the harbor…
He couldn’t think… it was too much. There was just too much magic pulling at him, too many emotions, and the heat of the fires this low made the very rocks warm. He tried to think for a moment; if they could move like the guards who had attacked them in the marsh, they could get away.
“A gate.” He needed to build a gate. They just had to get away.
“They will track a gate,” Kaava said.
“Blow it up,” Riven said. “Draw the fires up. Make them have to deal with it.”
“Demons do not care about fires,” Kaava said.
“Shh!” Theo ordered them, trying to think. If he could hide the gate, if he could move them all, if he could just get them close to the harbor, he could make the fires rise up and flood the pits at least. That would set all the souls free and set all the demons loose. Gerome would have to work hard to catch them all, forcing his greater demons to focus on that….. as long as they didn’t know who had escaped.
From down the hallway, the screaming of the gremlin attack could be heard.
“Kelly, get out here!” he ordered. “We have to be close together for this to work at all. Now, Kelly!”
She stumbled from her cell to the group. Riven caught her hand and pulled her into the group.
“Closer, tighter. Get as close to me as you can,” Theo ordered as he set his feet. He focused and grabbed for his staff. It appeared in his hand as fast as his mind wanted it. There was no point in trying to hide now; any hope of discretion was gone. They had to get away. The hellish red glow of the pit faded as the claws snapped open and blue light illuminated the hall. They all blinked in the shifting light, then looked at each other, all beaten and wild. Theo closed his eyes and focused.
Above, powers turned to see who was sending gremlins into the pits and what in hell was going on. Gerome was about to see his lost pupil standing in his halls, about to steal the prize of the world.
Theo thought it all out carefully and clearly, step by step, so the staff knew exactly what he was trying to do. Then, with a shout, he grabbed at the fires below and funneled them like a blow torch directly into the magics that he was building.
The doorway opened and they fell, out of the darkness and into the wild and warm of the fields of Awens. It smelled of rain with lightning on the horizon, the long grasses whipping about them for one moment, and then they dropped again.
They hit the ground hard this time, staggering to get to their feet. They were outside and on the street, a short run from the docks. Theo had one last task as the air of the snow and salt hit him. He grabbed at the fires below and, with all he had left, ripped them free. He had intended it to be a mere distraction, but his power was much stronger than even he had thought. The spell grew unexpectedly and out of control. All of his rage, fear, and hatred for Gerome was unleashed and channeled into the spell.
Theo felt his knees give out as he sank to the street.
Riven blinked and caught him.
“The ship. Move!” Kaava ordered. He grabbed Oirion. Throwing him over his other shoulder, he moved with power and speed, shoving a path clear for his friends. They stumbled after him. They didn’t have far to go, as the ship was at the dock unloading.
“Set off!” Kaava roared as they neared. “Pull the ropes!”
The men on the docks stopped to look at him, carrying two naked, beaten men over his shoulders, roaring.
Behind him, the others ran on what strength they had left.
“Set off! Shannon! Pull the ropes!”
He hit the ramp and reached the deck in four great steps. The others stumbled up, collapsing on the deck as Kaava dropped his two friends. He threw up his arms and the ship jolted forward. The sailors moved swiftly to cut the ropes before the ship was ripped apart. The ship lunged forward, crushing its way through the crowded harbor.
The startled crew watched as the city began to shudder. The water started to ripple and a strange sound was heard. It sounded like thunder, but was coming from underneath the ground.
Kaava waved his arms and the ship raced forward, slamming other ships out of its way as their speed continued to increase. His own magics were revealed – against his grandfather’s command – as he cleared a path, their ship pushing its way toward the gates.
To the north, well inside the city, a column of smoke and ash blasted out of the ancient volcano’s caldera, its core glowing with fire. The fire began to roar up with ever building power, creating a gigantic whirlwind of dark magic, lava, and souls…. souls who were released from Gerome’s pits. The sky grew dark.
Magic-driven, the Albatross shot past many other ships where the men onboard were either pulling anchor or standing, staring at the sight. Within moments, snow turned to ash, and then little pea-sized stones began to clatter to the deck.
“Good God,” Shannon said beside Kaava, looking back at the smoke and fire that was blasting upward. “What happened?”
“Theo did it. Help me with this!” Kaava ordered. Shannon turned to focus on the ship and their escape.