User:Michael Bard/Pricing Immortality - Book 1 - Immortality Lost
Pricing Immortality - Book 1 - Immortality Lost
|Tales of the World story universe|
- 1 Chapter 1: Lost Battles
- 2 Chapter 2: Friends and Enemies
- 3 Chapter 3: New Friends, and Old
- 4 Chapter 4: Finding a Home
- 5 Chapter 5: My First Day in the Underworld
- 6 Chapter 6: Oh What a Tangled Web
- 7 Chapter 7: Of Partings and Mortal Souls
- 8 Chapter 8: The Carnival of Masks
- 9 Chapter 9: Hunters and the Hunted
- 10 Chapter 10: The Inquisition
- 11 Chapter 11: The Dragon Emperor
Chapter 1: Lost Battles
And so the Faerie, the First Race,
betrayed their creators, their Gods
In their jealousy, their hatred
They turned on the Gods
Although a few in silence
Some in the earth, some the forest
Stayed hidden, the rest did attack
They betrayed the Gods
And Vashigan, saddened, darkened,
Tears of Sorrow dripping from him
Turned and left the World in darkness
They fell before the Gods
And once the World was frozen waste
The Faerie begged them for forgiveness
But the Gods instead gifted them
They thanked all the Gods
And the Gods gave them what they asked
Life eternal and unchanging
They would always be unchanging
They cursed all the Gods
Then the Gods drove them from the World
Away into silvery dark
They would live unchanging always
And so judged the Gods
- From the hymns to welcome Spring
I yanked on the reins of the horse I’d been given by a mortal lover untold ages ago. The horse was getting old - had it really been that long? Around me the battle had paused, although off in the silver mist my followers continued their fight. I watched one have his head cleanly chopped off by an enemy and smiled as his body stumbled off in pursuit of it.
But I had more important things to worry about.
Up on the hill watching her followers slowly being disabled by my own, I saw Calynisha. She, who styled herself among the mortals as the ‘Goddess of Heavens, Mother of Horses’, had been left in quiet like me. Mother of horses - ha! Her mount was down and she was all alone. Finally her power would be mine!
“Calynisha!” I forced my chestnut into a gallop up the gentle slope and prepared my spear. She heard me and spun around. I was close now, close enough to throw. Leaning back I threw my spear forward, screaming my rage and hatred as I filled the spear with my will as I released it. And I followed right behind it, drawing my sword.
Was that fear I saw in her eyes? No, just contempt. She laughed, and then the spear that I’d filled with my hatred pierced her, its leaf-shaped bronze point cleaving her heart and pushing it out from her chest. And still she laughed, laughed at my dreams and at my hopes. She pulled the spear out in silence, and her heart, still beating, was sucked back into her chest.
Then I was upon her. But my horse, treacherous mortal gift that it was, reared up screaming in pain and fear. Then it collapsed, falling upon my spear that Calynisha had impaled it with. In a second I leapt free and rolled and sprung to my feet, my sword ready.
Calynisha turned to face me. Her eyes were black, and her hair was almost dyed red with the blood of my followers and of my horse. Like myself she wore fine silks that were torn and tattered, but her flesh, like mine, was smooth and healthy. Uncorrupted as it always has been and always will be.
“Ilisri,” she whispered. “Will you never learn? Always you try, and always with the same result.” She spit a gob of spittle and blood that I could feel hit my cheek and then slowly roll down, leaving a trail of pale whiteness as it washed away the blood.
I paced towards her, my sword at the ready. “Your power is finally mine. After all these centuries...”
She laughed. “Will you never learn? It can’t be yours. The Curse makes sure that none of us can ever change. But now, you’ve begun to bore me.” She drew her sword and screamed, her scream like the sound of my horse when she’d struck it down. And then she was upon me.
Her blade clanged against my blade and slid off it. I yanked my sword down and thrust it into her chest and twisted, just as she thrust her blade into mine. We both gasped and staggered back.
The pain, the delicious, wonderful pain. It was new, it was delightful, but it wasn’t. It was like the pain of death had always been. Then our chests sucked our guts back in and closed and we moved forward, each towards the other.
Then our swords sang and whistled and clunked. I would cut deep into her thigh, and she would cut deep into my arm. And then we would laugh at the pain as our swords struck again. We circled around, no longer having the breath to shout out our hatred, just the will to keep our swords in motion. I stepped back away from her thrust, and stumbled on the head of my horse. She leapt forward and chopped my leg off at the knee as I started to fall to the ground. Even before I hit it, the bone and muscles were stretching and growing, but not fast enough. I tried to get up but stumbled - my leg hadn’t healed enough.
“What a wonderful idea,” Calynisha whispered. And she closed her eyes and willed her new reality.
I dragged myself to my feet with the mane of my horse as it screamed with its last breath. And then I began to echo it.
With a suddenness that was outside all my ageless experience I felt my leg draw the flesh and the bone of my horse into itself. I felt my horse’s mortal flesh scream as it joined with my own. I felt my own flesh scream as the horse’s mortal corruption entered into it. It was new, it was wonderful, it was pain and it was joy.
My leg was now healed, but the horse’s flesh pulled me to my knees. I could feel its heart pumping along with my own. I could feel its blood in my veins, and my blood in its. I sucked in a breath and felt my breath rattle down my long gashed throat into my chest. And then I was pulled forward and my chest embraced my chest and they joined. I breathed in unison; my hearts pumped in unison. I closed my eyes to treasure the sensations, and breathed in through my noses so I would miss nothing.
Soon my blood and the horse’s blood were one. I was mortal, and yet not mortal. I was immortal, and yet not immortal. I gasped as my mane grew longer and longer. I tried to flick my tail but it was too long and too heavy. My chest joined my chest and I felt my tails grow and lengthen. My back tingled as my manes grew and tangled together. I fell into myself and opened my eyes to see the flesh melt from my skull. I felt my ears vanish and then grow. My mane shriveled and my mane grew. My tails grew. I felt my feet shorten and tingle as the hairs were pushed out and tickled as they fell off onto the grass.
And then my spirit mingled with my spirit. It was mortality, putrefaction, death and life. I screamed, but I had no mouth, but then I did. My heart stopped and my other one kept pumping. My chest quivered, and then sucked in air, pulling long hairs into my mouth.
I coughed and gagged and missed the last of the sensations.
It was over.
I opened my eyes and flicked my ears and twisted around onto my tail. I was surrounded by black horse hair, mounds and mounds and mounds of it. Above me was Calynisha, almost exhausted, her sword dropped on the ground behind her. With a cry of triumph, I grasped my sword and leapt up, and up, and up. I stood on my feet and then on my toes, and then landed flat on my face, my tail hanging down between my legs, my mane flowing around my face and flicking ears.
I gasped for air as Calynisha just laughed.
Finally I pushed myself up on my hands and looked up into her face, hearing her laughter loud and oddly pitched. “What have you done?!”
“Why ended our little battles once and for all my lover.” She looked down at me. “What a wonderful spell - I’ll have to remember it. And you must enjoy it too.”
And then there was a mirror in front of me.
I looked up at myself with shock and amazement and joy. My face and neck and chest were the same, pale and graceful and thin. But where my hair had always been short and curled and white, now it was as black as the hair of my chestnut. And it was long, so amazingly long. It barely covered my bare and pointed ears which were no longer at the side of my head but at the top - they were turned forward to hear Calynisha’s laughter, just like a horse’s ears which they matched in all ways but hair for they were of naked flesh. And my hair kept flowing and growing down my back - I could feel the hairs growing out from my spine all the way down. And then my hair flowed out into a black tail that hung out behind me. And below my tail were my legs. At the top they were still pale flesh, silver in the silver light. They curved forward to my knees, which were closer to my waist than they had been, and then my legs twisted back and thinned. I could see fine silver hairs starting just below my knees, and gradually coming to cover my legs. At my ankles my legs thinned more and bent back forward, but still they went on. By now they were covered in hair that grew more luxurious and darker until, almost black, it covered all but the base of my pale white hooves.
By the Curse, what had she done to me?!
The mirror vanished.
“A good job indeed!” Calynisha closed her eyes and I felt her magic grasp me and pull me up into the air. “Behold what was once the mighty Ilisri!”
A cold wind howled out of the forests and blew away the mists. I watched the battle revealed, almost everybody was missing legs or arms or heads and lay on the ground smiling at the sensations of growth. A few still stood, more were my followers than were Calynisha’s, but not too many. They all turned and looked up at me.
“Behold your leader!”
“Ilisri?” It was my brother Naralome.
I tried to answer but Calynisha’s will held me motionless. I tried to fight free, but the flow of power eluded me. I struggled against her and willed my freedom, but could feel only a trickle of change flowing out from my mortality. I finally had to stop, gasping for breath, sagging against Calynisha’s will.
“...avenge her death!” It was Naralome again.
My death? What was he talking about.
“But don’t you want your mortal sister back?” Calynisha whispered sweetly, but it was the sweetness of a dragon.
“Ilisri’s death will be avenged, I swear it by The Curse! Who is with me?!” Naralome shouted.
I heard the survivors shout out, “Vengeance!”
Naralome was abandoning me?
“We will be back!”
I watched, unable to say or speak or move as he lead those who’d followed me for all these centuries back into the forest to heal and plan. I remembered doing that time and time again. But now was different.
Different? Nothing was ever different...
I felt myself spun around, my legs and hooves still hanging in the air, until I faced Calynisha. “And now what shall we do with you?”
“Change me back.”
“But why? Just so you can creep off and attack me again? We both know what will happen, after all we’ve done it often enough.”
“This time it will be different!” I could feel things changing. I could sense the future out ahead of me, bounded and unknown. I knew uncertainty.
But things never changed, they always stayed the same. Always! My body, my muscles, my bones...
I could feel them slowly dying.
I could feel my life slowly trickling away, my immortality drifting off into the trees. I could feel myself dying.
“You stink of death.” I looked down and saw Calynisha wrinkle her nose.
“Change me back!”
“Isn’t it wonderful?” She smiled.
It was, and I had all of time to enjoy it. But then I knew I didn’t for I was dying. I forced calmness upon myself until my anger slipped out through my hooves following my immortality. “You will change me back now,” I began, “or I will hunt you through all of the forests, and all of the castles, and all of the seas, and make you my plaything! I will hunt you through the twilight and through both the realms! I will catch you and skin you and make your life an eternal torment!” I paused. “Unless you change me back now.”
“And ruin my wonderful work? Never! For finally I’ve beaten you. I’ve finally found a way to beat you!”
“I will kill you!”
Calynisha laughed. “You can’t kill me. But I think I can kill you... But no, that would be too easy, too wasteful.” She wrinkled her nose. “Begone with your foul mortality and bother me never again.”
She closed her eyes and I felt her will clamp tight around me. It pushed and squeezed and spun me around and around and around. I could feel a gate forming and felt Calynisha’s will force me through. I screamed, but no one could hear me in the chaos between the worlds...
The eternal silver twilight was gone - instead it was night. I looked up and could see Luani sailing in her boat in the heavens, her light pale and dim, and I could feel air rushing past me. Below me I could hear a roar of falling water. I looked down and saw a river just as I fell into it.
The water was bitterly, killingly cold. I fell into its depths until my hooves hit the gravel on its bottom. I gasped for air but just got muddy water that flowed in and started to take my life.
No! I would not die before Calynisha! I kicked off from the bottom, feeling the cold of the rocks even through my hooves, and struggled to the surface. If it had been very deep I wouldn’t have made it, but it wasn’t and I did. I coughed and gagged and dragged myself to the shore, finally crawling onto the bank. There I coughed and gagged and shivered, the roar of falling water in the background.
But I was alive. And as long as I lived, I would have my vengeance!
Chapter 2: Friends and Enemies
The first settlements that became what is now known as Mandalor were founded in the Second Age for two reasons. The first was to take advantage of the pilgrimage traffic up the Simbrani River and the fact that pilgrims had to portage past the Simbrani Falls. The second was to take advantage of the rich clay deposits along the banks just below the falls.
As the city grew the pottery and pilgrimage trades became secondary and Mandalor became a center for small industry. By taking advantage of the natural caverns that riddled the cliff, and with the strategic construction of additional waterways, a large proportion of the flow of the Simbrani River was used to power industry. First simple grain mills, but then more complex lumber and metal mills.
Mandalor was defended against conquest by Morfranyn just before the beginning of the Third Age through the deeds of Puldar and Kartan. It remained independent until conquered by the Caldayan Empire about a century later. For half a century it remained under Caldayan rule until it finally revolted from the collapsing empire and created its own citystate under the rule of its leading merchant families.
From Mandalor before the Dragon Emperor
I had survived.
I’d survived Calynisha and her curse. I’d survived her tossing me into the mortal realm that mortals called The World. I’d survived falling into a freezing river.
I would survive until her bodiless head was in my arms!
“Calyn...” A sudden fit of coughing halted my cry of rage and hatred. I coughed more of the muddy river water from my lungs and then I started shivering uncontrollably. That mare-bitch had left me with nothing, not even the clothes I’d worn. And my wet and dripping mane and tail were of no help at all.
“Are you all right?!” a voice called out.
By the Curse! It was a mortal. It couldn’t see me like this and I was in no shape to protect myself - I couldn’t even walk. I needed magic to cloak myself, to hide myself, until the mortal went away. I closed my eyes and concentrated, looking for the feeling of reality awaiting my will.
And found nothing.
What?! It had always been there. Easy, obvious, a child’s toy. But now, nothing. No! I sought and peered through the forces of mortal wills that bound The World to what they wanted. Searching frantically I sought a hole, a gap, a tiny chink to force my will through. Nothing. Nothing!
I felt arms grasping me and jerked my eyes open. There above me, was a mortal, a man. He was dressed in dry and warm looking clothes and he didn’t seem repulsed or fearful...
“By the Gods, what happened to you?”
I couldn’t help but flinch at the name of those who had put the Curse upon my race. Then I remained silent. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t trust him. I couldn’t take the chance. I couldn’t...
All I could do was cough and gag out some more of the dirty river water onto his arms. Then I started shivering uncontrollably. I felt something dropping onto me - a net, ropes... I refused to let him take me! I struggled, or tried to.
But I could only shiver.
Only shiver until my eyes drifted shut and I knew no more.
When I awoke I was warm. So wonderfully, deliriously warm that I just lay there, eyes closed, luxuriating in the warmth. I could hear the crackle of a fire and gradually noticed something else. A pain in my rear, a pressure of something crushed.
I rolled over to my side and sighed. Moments later I was asleep.
I awoke again. I was no longer warm, but uncomfortably hot. I willed the temperature down, but nothing happened. And where were my servants, my mortal slaves...
Then I remembered. Calynisha! In an instant I was wide awake, sitting up and throwing the covers off. A stab of pain shot through my tail as I partially crushed it, along with a stab of cold air on my naked chest. I twisted a bit to relieve the pain and looked around.
I was in a small room, bare and rough. To my left was a small fireplace, the fire now reduced to just a few glowing embers. I was on a large bed that took up most of the room, with piles of quilts tangled around my legs and feet.
I closed my eyes and shuddered. Hooves.
I breathed deeply and forced calm. Magic required calm, and centuries of magic use made sure I could easily attain calm. I opened my eyes and continued my examination.
The floor was of rough wooden planks, as were the walls although there the planks ran vertically. The walls were plain and unadorned and there were no windows. But, in front of me, there was a plain wooden door, roughly hewn, but closed. The light was dim and reddish, but I could see things clearly - at least I hadn’t lost my vision.
But where was I?
I didn’t know. I remembered the human coming upon me, and then nothing. Had he taken me somewhere? I couldn’t stay - it was too dangerous. But I was alone. It was a time for silence and caution over speed.
I slowly leaned over and pushed the remaining covers off of my hooves. I knew where they were but couldn’t feel the bed with them. I would torture Calynisha for a thousand years! Then I slowly turned myself around until my feet...hooves...touched the wooden floor. The CLOP as they hit was loud in the silence, and boomed out before I thought I’d touched the floor but I couldn’t feel the wood, just a roughness... I knew my hooves were on a surface but not much else.
I paused and waited, listening. I could feel my ears swivel slightly as I sought any noise. There was a loud crackle which made the hairs on my legs stick straight out, but I calmed myself an instant later when I recognized the sound as the embers settling in the fireplace. Then I waited and listened.
And heard only silence. Wonderful silence.
Then, slowly, carefully, I raised myself onto my hooves. I stood up higher and higher, finally balanced on the tip of my toes...hooves. I swayed a bit finding my balance, waving my tail to stand upright. It was difficult, but not too difficult. In my eternity of life I’d been a dancer, and a thief. The balance came easy.
I played with that balance a bit. I wobbled and twisted until I was confident. Then I took my first step. I tried to move slowly, but when my foot left the floor I lost my balance. I dropped my foot back down and my hoof hit the floor with a loud BANG and I wobbled backward until I could regain my balance.
Then the door opened, shining the bright light of a lantern over me.
Trying to turn to face my enemy, my leg hit the bed. I tripped and stumbled and fell into the straw, twisting my tail under me. Something banged on the floor, and something else smashed. Then I felt hands grasping me about my shoulders.
I struggled, but the hands moved and held my arms. I knew I had the strength to break his grip, but now was not the time. I stopped struggling and looked up at a human.
“There, it’s all right. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m just going to back away and get the lantern.”
Out of the corner of my eye I could see it on the floor - somehow it had landed on its base and stayed upright. I nodded.
He let go and slowly backed away and picked up the lantern. I could see a tray and a broken dish with some liquid seeping into the wood. Then he slowly walked back towards me. I remained motionless but could feel my ears pull themselves flush against my head.
He stopped about a foot away from the bed. “Are you all right?”
I swallowed. “Yes.” My voice rasped and my throat was sore.
“Just stay there, I won’t be gone long. I’m just going to go and get some more soup - you need it. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not the Inquisition.” He started backing away. “Just stay and wait. You’re going to be okay.”
I nodded and watched him back out of the room. He closed the door as he left.
Now what? The door was the only way out. I had no place to go, and wasn’t even sure that I could walk if I had a place to go. I would have to wait. But, if I could find my magic, I would be safe. I closed my eyes and concentrated, looking for a weakness in reality upon which to force my will. I sought deep into myself, down through the layers of stability and mortal will to the depth, the core. And finally I saw it - a little, tiny crack, a hole for my will. But it was small, so very, very small. I pushed a little of my will through and tried a simple magic. Just a little tiny light. But it was hard, sluggish. Where once I could have moved a mountain, now I had to strain just to summon a light. A simple basic light. So simple, so easy, so small. And so hard. But I could, I would, I could, I did!
I opened my eyes and saw a tiny light above my clenched fist. And looked beyond it just in time to see the door opening. By the Curse! - I relaxed my will and the light vanished. Then I waited, watching, as the door opened.
It was the same man again. I looked at him closely, memorizing his features, this mortal who had saved me. He looked old, almost ancient. I could actually see gray in his mostly black hair! But he wasn’t stooped and he didn’t shake. He held the tray steady and nimbly stepped over the remnants of the first tray. His frame was strong and muscular, and he was dressed simply in some kind of wool shirt and trousers, both a dirty gray. He stopped near the bed.
“I’m going to sit now and then help you with the soup. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Yes.” My voice was a little better.
He sat and the straw shifted. I backed away a little to lean my shoulders against the wall. It was cool and rough.
I smiled at him and stopped backing away as I was finally sitting up with my back against the wall, leaving just enough space for my tail to be comfortable.
He waited a moment and then pulled a wooden spoon out of the bowl and slowly moved it towards me. It was steady and never spilled a drop. I opened my mouth and felt the spoon pour the soup in.
The soup was good and hot. Not hot enough to burn, but almost. The warmth baked my mouth and then I swallowed. I could feel it washing the roughness from my throat and then entering my stomach and filling my entire being with a warmth and contentment I had never felt before. It was so much better than any of the feasts I had created or been at. I smiled and waited for the next spoon, content to be served.
Too soon the soup was done and he started to stand up.
I reached up and lightly grasped his arm. “Who are you?”
He stopped and turned his head to look at me. “I’m Eolath of Mandalor. A friend.”
So I was in the free city. “A friend?”
“You looked like you could use one.”
“So, now that you know who I am, what’s your name?”
I was taken aback for a second. My True Name would give him power, but no one alive knew my Name anymore. For a second I remembered my hatchling sister, killed by the Gods, but that was long ago. Then I realized that he must mean my use name. “Ilisri.”
“A pretty name. So, what happened to you?”
I frowned. I had to say something, but what? I remembered that the humans had magic now, so... “A wizard did this to me.”
I closed my eyes to think. Something simple. Something to make him want to help. Something that would make him want to keep me even when I was well. “I was the slave of a wizard. I was his plaything. I pleasured him and kept him company.”
“Then why did he do this to you?”
I frowned. What to say? “I don’t know. I went to sleep in my bed and the next thing I knew I was being awakened by his chanting. I had a moment to realize that I was lying in the middle of a stone floor and then the pain started and continued until I fainted. The next thing I knew I was in the river and then with you.” I smiled at him.
He smiled back. “Then be glad I, not the Inquisition, found you. Now rest, I’ll come back later.”
I nodded and slid back down onto the bed and helped him cover me up. I was getting chilled and the covers were now cool but quickly they warmed up and I went back to sleep.
The next two weeks passed quickly. I spent much of it in bed, and the rest learning how to use my new body. Soon I could walk, and then run, and then tumble. But I was never able to leave for Eolath was afraid the Inquisition might see me. He said that they were looking for a faerie they had felt arrive in the city. I wondered if that had been me - when I use to come to play I would cloak my arrival, but Calynisha would not have bothered.
As I grew stronger I would dine with Eolath in the evenings. He talked about the city and told me tales - I heard the truth about Senator Haramund and his five mistresses. The furor, once that had become public knowledge, was still settling. He told me tales of the rogues and bandits in the upper city along with their secret lairs in the burial crypts deep underground. He introduced me to the joys of running water - it came from the Simbrani at the top of the cliff and traveled through pipes and tunnels throughout the lower city. I tried to show awe at this, although I wasn’t really impressed. He was warm and charming, the perfect host.
But something was missing.
He only let me see a few rooms, and only at night. It was for my protection he said. Even his locking of my bedroom each day was for my protection. I could have picked the lock with ease if I had a single bit of wire, but all I had were slivers of wood. My magic I kept secret, but practice as I would, all I could do was bring a dim light, and the effort left me sweating and exhausted. Even then, more often than not, nothing happened.
As I practiced my confidence grew, until finally I had to get out. I had to find out what Eolath was hiding from me. Thus, one evening when he came to greet me, I slipped a wad of straw into the doorjamb as we left. He didn’t notice. After dinner I claimed fatigue and asked to retire - he escorted me back to my bed and locked the door behind him - one of his servants had already lit my fire to a bright flame.
Then I waited. I waited until far into the next watch when I was sure he was asleep. In the dim light from the embers in the fireplace I tore strips of cloth from one of the dresses he’d given me and wrapped them around my hooves to muffle them. It was awkward, but I could keep balanced. Then I silently crept to the door.
Unfortunately, although the cloth helped, where once I would have made less noise than a falling feather, now each footstep echoed loudly in my mind. But it would have to do. I reached the door and stopped and pressed the side of my head against the door. Then I moved my one ear until it was cupped against the wood - at least their mobility was good for something. And I listened.
Silence. For a hundred heart beats, silence.
I slowly backed away and pulled the door open, keeping everything but the corner of my head behind the door. As the door opened I stared into the hallway, peering for any sign of anybody or anything.
Nothing. No lights, no animals, no people. Just the faintest of glows from Luani through the windows along the top of the walls. I waited a moment more and then crept forward down the hallway until I stopped before the dining room we’d been using. I listened. Nothing. I peeped around the corner. Nothing. The room was dark except for a faint light from the window. And in the window was a shadow...
I ducked back behind the corner.
“Come out my dear.” The voice didn’t sound human. At best it was the rasping and croaking of an old man.
I lifted my tail high and held my head proudly as I strode into the dinning room. A cold breeze blew in from the window and I could only see a raven perched on the sill, its feathers moving in the wind.
“It was me,” the raven croaked.
I stopped a few feet from the window and watched him, holding myself motionless except for my ears which flicked up and down nervously. The silence remained until finally I broke it.
“And what brings your unkindness upon me?” I whispered.
“Just your health and happiness.” His voice echoed loudly.
I kept to a whisper, “Really.”
The raven cocked its head. “Listen. You should hear it,” he paused for a moment, “now.”
Faintly, from far away behind me in the house, I heard a horrifying scream of panic and pain. It wasn’t human but it still pulled at me. I spun around just as it suddenly stopped. It was the last cry of a horse in pain before its death.
“Now feel your host’s mistress.”
My blood turned cold and my hairs stood on end. I could feel her. Faintly, cloaked, but she was here. Calynisha. The ‘Mother of Horses’ had come to accept her sacrifice from her followers. Then my vision blurred and my hearing changed. Although I couldn’t see him I could suddenly hear Eolath clearly.
“Accept my sacrifice my mistress. Give me your boon and prepare me for tomorrow.”
There was silence. I thought I could hear another voice, but it was too faint to make out. It might have been Calynisha, but I had no way to tell.
“Yes, your chosen one is ready. I found her by the river where your vision showed she would be. She is here and tomorrow night she will be yours!” And Eolath began to laugh.
Then Eolath’s laughter was gone. I heard the rustle of feathers behind me and spun around in time to see the raven flying off into the night. Then I stood, looking out through the window, not seeing but thinking. So Eolath would sacrifice me to Calynisha would he? I started waving my tail back and forth quickly. By the Curse he would not! But, he would bring Calynisha to me so I could have my vengeance! I smiled. Probably he would try to drug me at dinner or some such to tie me up. He might try it while I slept, but I’d always been a light sleeper.
I spun around, feeling the windowsill against my tail, and crept back to my room, removing the straw as I pulled the door shut. It was time to go to bed and prepare for tomorrow. I unwrapped the cloth from my hooves and tossed them on the embers. Let Eolath take me. Let Calynisha think she would see my death.
I fell asleep dreaming of wringing Calynisha’s neck.
I awoke early the next day and had lots of time to prepare for dinner that evening. The fire died and went out leaving the room in blackness but Eolath did not come. Hours passed. Nothing. I paced back and forth in the darkness, my hooves loud on the wood. More hours passed. I knew it was now long into the night, but still no Eolath.
Finally I heard the latch on the door and spun around to watch it open.
At first all I could see was the blinding light of a lantern, but then my eyes adjusted and I could see Eolath. He was holding the lantern in one hand, and a loaded crossbow in the other.
“Good evening my dear.”
My mouth turned dry.
“Enjoy your explorations last night?”
I remained motionless. I refused to give him any acknowledgement - maybe he wasn’t sure. Maybe...
“One must learn not to leave tail hairs upon the windowsill.”
But how? I thought back...it must have been after I heard the sacrifice when I was nervous. But the windowsill - when I had spun around to leave! Damn Calynisha! I was too full of my hatred to pay attention to what I was doing.
“I don’t need you mobile, or conscious, just alive. In the hallway is a wooden mug. I will back up and you will follow. Then you will pick up the mug and drink it. If you don’t then near death from a bolt in your chest is good enough.”
I glared at him, my ears flat against my head, my tail swishing behind.
“Now move forward slowly.” He started backing up.
I forced my tail to stillness and slowly walked after him. My best chance would be when I had the mug. And planting some seeds of doubt couldn’t hurt. “Eolath, why?”
I couldn’t see his face in the shadows.
“I was out last night. I couldn’t sleep so I went out looking for you - the door was open. Then I heard some kind of scream in the night and fled back here.”
Was he frowning?
“Please. I can clean your room. I can even warm your bed.” I lowered my head and held my arms before me, palms up. But out of the top of my eyes I watched him. Did I see him frown? Now I was at the door.
I heard him swallow. “I’m sorry, but I can’t take the chance. The drink won’t hurt you - I just have to make sure that you aren’t under the control of one of my enemies. Drink and we can be together.”
Why that lying... Somehow I managed to keep my anger from my face as I slowly crouched down and picked up the mug. I slowly started to raise it and then suddenly spun around and threw it at him.
My aim was true, but he must have been expecting something for he still got the crossbow fired. And as true as my aim was, so was his, and I felt a piercing agony as the bolt sank into my left leg. I stumbled from the pain - it was like nothing I’d ever felt. Hot, burning, agonizing, I could feel nothing else. I couldn’t help but scream. No! I wouldn’t let Calynisha win. And I heard other screaming.
I opened my eyes and saw Eolath rolling on the ground, pressing his hands against his face, screaming in agony. I limped over to him and managed to shove the hoof on my wounded leg down and into his face. His screaming changed to a low bubbling. I pushed harder. His bubbling stopped and he stopped moving.
I looked down at him lying dead. I had no regrets. And the pain of the crossbow was fading.
Now I had to get out of here. Calynisha would come, and I was in no shape to face her. I stumbled over Eolath’s body and staggered down the hallway. I started to wobble, I couldn’t keep my balance. I stopped and leaned against the wall, barely able to stand. I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
The crossbow bolt - it must have been drugged! I had to go, I couldn’t wait for Calynisha. I couldn’t...
I collapsed into unconsciousness.
I awoke with a heavy weight on my leg, with claws digging into my flesh. Opening my eyes I looked up just as a raven flapped off my left leg and landed a short distance away.
The wounded leg.
But not anymore. It was still bloody, and I could see some fingerprints in the blood, but I could see that the wound was healed. And I could see two broken pieces of the bolt beside it. But how? Who’d touched it?
I looked at the raven.
“We have to go. She’ll be here soon.”
“Follow me and I’ll lead you into the crypts,” the raven croaked. “You can hide there and prepare yourself to face Her.”
I had never been in debt to anybody before and didn’t know what to say.
“The words are thank you.”
“Thank you,” I mumbled.
The raven turned and started hopping down the hall. I followed and watched him stop and turn his head to look at me.
The raven turned its head back and continued. Soon we were in the dining room and it hopped and flapped onto the windowsill. It turned around to face me. “This is the best way out. It’s on the second floor but just land and roll - the dirt is soft. Then follow me out of the garden.” The raven hopped back around and flew off into the night.
I followed it to the windowsill and clambered out. Then I lowered myself as low as I could, hanging only by my fingers. And then I let go and hit the ground, rolling backward, keeping my tail protected.
I grinned - I wondered what others would make of the hoof prints below the window. Then I stood up and looked for the raven - he was perched on the stone lintel above a small gate in a faerie-high stone wall. I checked and it looked like it surrounded the house. I ran, or maybe galloped, up the gate and stopped and watched the raven. Suddenly I had suspicions...
“And what shall I call you?” I asked.
I shrugged. For now I had no choice. But there were mysteries here. Had the raven healed me or had something else?
“Hurry,” he croaked. “We have to go now!”
My questions would have to wait. I opened the gate and followed my friend out into the city and toward the crypts. As we hurried through the alleys I could faintly sense Calynisha’s presence behind me.
She was not happy.
Chapter 3: New Friends, and Old
From time immemorial, human dead have been properly entombed in their crypts beneath the City of Mandalor. From time immemorial their remains have been interred as the Gods willed them to be.
Until the Caldaya came.
It was the Caldaya with their false religion that forced us to burn our dead. That prevented us from using the crypts and tunnels that had been built and constructed by our noble forebearers, as the Gods had willed.
It was the Caldaya that for a century sealed off the crypts, forcing those of us who remained loyal to the word of the Gods to tunnel from our homes and basements, in secret, to reach down into the crypts. It was the Caldaya who forced us to slink like thieves through the darkness to pay our respects to those who came before us.
And it was the Caldaya who drove intruders down into the depths of the World to plot and scheme and desecrate the tombs of our forefathers.
Writings found on the inside of a sealed entrance into the tombs and catacombs below Mandalor.
I’d managed to escape the priest of Calynisha and even Calynisha herself. She’d transformed me, merged me with mortality, but her time would come. I would be avenged!
But not now. First I had to get shelter from the humans, and all I had to trust was this raven that may have saved me, or may have not.
And for a name all he gave me was the words ‘a friend’. I couldn’t trust him, but for now I had to. So I’d followed him through the dark streets, my hooves echoing between the walls of the human buildings. Followed him to this dead end.
I kicked at a scrap of wood and felt it dimly through my hoof before it skittered and clacked against the end of the alley.
“A good hiding place you’ve led me to, friend.”
“The door is here,” the raven croaked.
“What door? Or are we just going to wait for some of your friends to arrive?”
“I saved you, didn’t I?” the raven hissed. He landed at the end of the alley, just to the left of the centre. “Here it is.”
I looked. It was a wall. But... Looking carefully at the base I could see some lighter coloured scratches in the cobblestones. So it seemed that I could still trust the raven. “Where does the door lead?” For a second the form of the raven seemed to flicker, but then the raven was back. What did that mean?
“It opens into the crypts below the city. We’ll be safe there.”
“Safe? To live in the dirt and dust of death?!”
“Shut up, you’ll have to open it. Get over here and press the wall inward to my left. Do it quickly to minimize the noise.”
It was getting lighter, the raven was right to be in a hurry. I walked up to where he’d motioned, my hooves echoing, and leaned against the wall. Then I pushed. At first the panel wouldn’t move, but then it groaned and scraped and began to twist inward. My hooves skittered on the cobblestones but I kept my balance and pushed. The door suddenly spun forward and I followed it into the darkness. It kept spinning almost all the way around. I spun around and pushed it the rest of the way shut.
Darkness. So black even my faerie vision couldn’t see.
I closed my eyes and willed light to come. I was fey! I was magic! But the magic was so weak, it was so hard. I would not fail! And I didn’t need much. I willed the light and finally, grudgingly, dimly, it came. But it was enough.
I opened my eyes and could see a stone lined passage sloping down into the earth in a dim green light that radiated from my upraised hand. Lowering my hand, and keeping much of my will forcing the light to remain hovering nearby, I looked around for the raven. And he was there, on the floor, his eyes glinting in the greenish light.
“Very good,” he croaked. He flapped his wings and landed on my shoulder, his claws pinching painfully into my skin. I staggered a bit under his weight and his wings brushed my mane as he opened them to keep his balance. But I recovered and the light firmed, though it remained dim.
“You’ve picked a dangerous place to perch.”
“But comfortable. Now go forward.”
What was this raven doing, ordering one of the powers of the fey! “And who are you to order me around? You’ve brought me where I was going anyway and now I don’t wish you around me. Because you have helped I give you one chance to leave before I destroy you.”
The raven cackled with laughter. “With what, your magic? It’s taking almost your entire will to keep that feeble light aglow.”
By the Curse, the raven knew. Fine, but its time would come. I sighed. “You’re right.” And I started walking.
For hours I followed the raven’s directions. Passages branched off and most we passed. Some contained the stink of ancient death, some seemed passageways that stretched deeper into the World. But we never went up, only down. I wanted to stop and rest, but the raven kept urging me on. The passages grew damper and slimier, but remained clear, although they gradually changed from rough cut-stone into rough-hewn rock. Finally the passage opened up onto a landing. Beyond it was a river, about 20’ in width, and beyond that rock. Occasionally the sound of water dropping into the river could be heard echoing through the passage.
“Now what, oh friend.”
“We wait for passage. For now sleep.” He clenched his claws and flapped his wings and alighted at the end of the landing facing up the river.
“Now I can sleep? And how do I know you won’t kill me as I rest?”
The raven hopped and turned to face me. “You have much to learn, and you better start now.” He hopped until he stood before me. “And the first thing you have to learn is to lose your arrogance. Before you had the power to back it up. Now you’re nothing! And if you don’t realize that now, you’ll never take your vengeance. I’ve saved you and healed you and I’m the only friend you have. So shut up and sleep.” Then the raven turned and flapped back to the edge of the landing.
Why that... I shook my head. By the Curse, the raven was right. For now. But the raven would have to earn my trust, or pay for all eternity after I had crushed Calynisha. But, he could still be taught at least some respect. “Fine.” I released my will and let the light vanish.
Yawning I backed up to where I remembered the wall of the passage was and sat with my back against it and crushed my tail. By the Curse! Damn thing. I still wasn’t use to it. I turned onto my side and was asleep.
I was awakened with a choking weight upon my chest and a crimp in my tail. I’d rolled onto my back and the raven had alighted on my chest. Leaping onto my hooves I watched the raven flap frantically to keep from hitting the ground.
But the raven was too smart and kept in the air and landed with a thud on my shoulder.
Hold it - how could I see the raven? Where was the light coming from?
“Now listen,” the raven whispered, “the light is from one of the human barges that ply this river in secret.”
“And what good does that do me?” I hissed back.
“Shut up and listen. Down in these crypts and tunnels the outlawed humans live. They won’t kill you as they have nothing to do with the Gods whom they feel have abandoned them. You’ll have to barter for passage. And you can’t tell him that I can talk - I’m just your pet. I...” The raven suddenly fell silent.
Then I heard the rustle of water against wood and could see the shadow of a barge coming from up river. The light was coming from a lantern hanging in its bow and stunk of mortal magic. I slowly walked to the edge of the landing, my hooves echoing through the tunnels, and waited.
In a few minutes the barge was clearly in sight and almost at the landing.
“Ho! I demand passage.”
“Don’t be arrogant!” the raven hissed in my ear, just loud enough for me to hear. Then it cawed.
There was movement on the barge and a caldayan, his half furred human, half lion form easily recognizable, walked to the front of the barge holding a staff of wood that dripped water from its end. He looked at me and laughed. “And what have you to demand with, my defenseless lady.”
I clenched my fist and forced calm. I would show him. But, damn the raven, he was right. Now I would have to beg. I!! I swallowed my pride. My time would come.
“You’re right. But it did get your attention.” Then I stepped out into the light.
There was a moment of silence. Then the laughter again. “And what in the World are you?”
Well here goes - I might as well keep with the same tale I’d used already. “I’m the cursed plaything of a wizard.” But a little threat wouldn’t hurt. “A plaything that the former wizard didn’t keep an adequate eye on.”
“Dead wizards are former.”
“Then you must be more formidable than you appear. And just how will you be paying for your passage?”
Pay? Me? Humble. I had to be humble. “What would you accept? Service, or something more personal?” I smiled.
Again the caldayan laughed. “And how do I know that you won’t make me a former barge captain?”
“Because I don’t know how to sail the thing.” I thought I could, but no sense in letting him know. “And besides, you didn’t do this to me. I can be very nice to those who are nice to me.” I jerked my head forward so my hair was flicked over onto my chest.
“Then grab this rope and come aboard.” He flung a rope.
I could have caught it but decided not to show off too much. So I stumbled on the landing before grabbing it. I could see the caldayan smiling.
“And what about your pet.”
“This?” I motioned to the raven. “Oh he won’t hurt anybody. He’s already been taught his lesson.” Let him mull over that.
“Well then help me pull my barge over to the landing so that you can board.”
The job didn’t take long and shortly I was able to leap on board, my hooves skittering on the wood. The captain reached out to take my hand and steady me while the raven launched itself from my shoulder and landed on the small cabin toward the back of the barge.
“Thank you, captain?”
“My name is Kalibynthn my lady. An exile from Mandalor. And welcome aboard my humble boat.”
I swallowed my pride and shyly nodded.
“Since we’re already at rest, shall we start your payment now?” He led me back into the cabin and lowered himself onto a straw mattress and pulled me after.
From behind me there was suddenly a clatter of claws and a low growl. I pulled myself from the caldayan’s grip just in time for a huge wolf to leap onto me and slam me onto the bed. The wolf sat on me, a low growl in his throat.
“I’m not quite so stupid as I look lady. There’s something about you I don’t trust. So take this as a warning - Organyth here is very loyal, and very dangerous.” He raised his voice. “Down boy!”
The wolf slowly backed off of my chest until it was crouched on the floor watching me with its hungry yellow eyes.
“Now,” Kalibynthn continued, “as long as you behave yourself, Organyth here will behave himself too. One doesn’t survive down here long without protection.”
I couldn’t be angry. I refused to show my rage for right now it would probably get me killed. Still, Kalibynthn had a point - he was just being cautious and the wolf hadn’t hurt me. I could see myself doing the same kind of thing. So I rolled myself around onto my stomach and looked into the captain’s eyes.
“I’d be surprised if you hadn’t done something like this. You can call me Ilisri, and I hope that my payment for your passage is enjoyable. I know that I could use some relaxation.”
His booming laughter filled the tunnel and his wolf howled. “You’re a character, you are.” Then he pulled me against his chest and licked me on one of my bare ears. “It should be enjoyable for both of us.”
And he was right. The bed was warm, the company fun, and the play hot and furry. The raven remained silent and the time passed quite enjoyably.
In fact very enjoyably.
I was comfortably laying with my head on his upper chest and his purring loud in my ears. There had been some early problems, particularly with hooves, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome.
“So where are we going?” I asked.
“On the barge. Where are we going to end up?”
He moved around and my head slid onto his lower chest where it rose and fell as he breathed. His purring stopped.
“You mean you don’t know?” The echoes of his voice resonated from his lower chest.
“Unfortunately I didn’t come here quite as prepared as I would have liked.”
He laughed, the sound echoing in my ears and my body as his chest rose and fell. So much so that I was almost sick so I sat up.
“Ow! Haven’t we gone through this with those damned hooves already?”
“Sorry.” And I actually was as he had been quite pleasurable. “So, where are we going?”
He shook his head. “To Sarsynalithagas’s Cave.”
I jerked back - the name sounded liked the name of a dragon. I closed my eyes. I could almost remember hearing that name a long time ago, there was something familiar about it...
“Who is Sarsynalithagas?”
He smiled. “More what my furry, but sometimes hard, dear.”
I sighed. “It’s a dragon, isn’t it.”
He pulled his ears tight against his skull until they were hidden by his mane. “Aye.”
I rolled around and leaned up to face him with my elbows on his lower chest. “So how long has she been down there.”
I winked, he shrugged. If you’re around when the dragons are created and interact with them for a VERY long time, you get use to how their names work.
“Well, ‘she’ lairs at the bottom of a large cavern deep beneath the water that fills it. At his,” I frowned, he shrugged, “her sufferance a number of people live on the shore.”
“But why?” Why would humans live deep in the darkness?
“Oh various reasons. The dwarves live down here because they like it. The humans and caldayans are generally refugees, thieves, dethroned nobles, bankrupt merchant princes, bandits, rogues, all kinds of naer-do-wells.”
“And why are you down here?” I used one hand to start rubbing his lower chest. He shuddered in pleasure and his purring started up again.
“Oh not so grand a reason as yours. I was just a cub when the Mandalorians kicked us out of our city. My parents fled down here and I’ve never felt the need to leave.”
“Do you remember the sun at all?” It’d been ages since I’d visited the mortal world during the day.
He sighed, a low rumble that made his chest jiggle and my elbow bounce. “Can you tell me what it’s like.” He closed his eyes. “I can’t even remember it anymore.”
I swallowed. Oh, oh. I didn’t really remember either. “I don’t know what to say.”
“I haven’t been out in the day for years, only at night, beneath Luani’s silvery glow. I was always hidden away by the wizard during the day.”
“Oh well, never mind.”
“I’ll try though.” I closed my eyes and remembered. “I remember walking across a field of grass under Vashigan’s golden glow. It was hot and dry and the grass crinkled and broke under my feet. I couldn’t look up because it was so bright but also so wonderfully warm on my back. That’s what I remember most, the warmth of the light heating my tired back.” I smiled and pulled my hand away so that only my middle finger was touching him. Then I started moving it around and around in a circle. “Almost as warm as you.” Then I let myself fall until my face sank into his lower chest.
He sighed. “That’s all I remember too, the warmth.”
“The warmth and smiles and laughter.” He got up and I fell down into the straw.
“Sorry my dear, although your warmth brings pleasant memories, I have work to do. I do have cargo to get delivered you know.”
I turned onto my side to face him, “I can help...”
He kissed me on the top of my head through my mane. “Don’t you worry. There’s barely enough room on this barge for one, and you’ve more than paid for your passage.”
“Hmph! How long do we have to travel. Are we going to have enough time?” I opened my arms invitingly.
He let out a low whistle. “No my dear, however much I might wish it, we’ll probably be there in half a watch.”
“If it was longer you’d have to work harder to pay for your passage.” He turned and fled from the cabin.
I started to get up but then stopped. He’d more than earned a bit of forgiveness with the pleasure he’d brought me. But now I had a dragon to worry about. She would know what I was from scent if nothing else. I sighed - if only. But she was long dead. I’d have to figure out what to say. But then maybe she wouldn’t even pay attention.
I yawned and rolled onto my side and went to sleep. Things would fall as they would. I was too tired and comfortable to worry.
My eyes flashed open and I leapt out of bed onto the deck, almost into Kalibynthn. He quickly stepped back and his wolf growled.
“Down Organyth!” The wolf whined and backed away as he turned to face me. “Put on that dress of yours and get up. We’re going to have to pay our toll to Sarsynalithagas soon. He’s, sorry she’s picky about whom she lets by. She likes to look everybody over at least the first time.”
By the Curse - what I’d feared most.
“Now don’t you fear nothing,” he paused, probably remembering the dragon’s sex, “she tends to have a soft spot for victims. You’ll be safe.”
Unfortunately there was too much about me he didn’t know and that I was in no hurry to tell him. “Thanks for the reassurance.” I smiled. “I’m sure it’ll be all right.”
“Well get ready quickly, we’re almost there.” He turned and left.
Oh shit, almost there. I brushed some straw out of my mane and tail. She could swallow me in a bite or do worse. And why did the name sound familiar... I quickly slipped into my only dress. Hmph, I would have to do something about clothing.
If I survived the dragon.
Finished I clopped out onto the deck. The raven was asleep on the roof of the cabin and the barge was still in the tunnel. The only light was from the lantern hanging from the bow and Kalibynthn was at the stern behind the cabin poling the barge forward. He waved.
I walked along the short deck, past the cargo, and to the bow. And there I just stood, leaning against the pole that held the lantern and looked off into the darkness. The river already looked wider but it was still just as silent as it had been before. All I could hear was the shush of water against the bow. Not even any dripping. Then, suddenly, the roof rose and vanished and the barge drifted out into an endless lake. I spun around and watched Kalibynthn pull his pole in and start to swiftly move the rudder back and forth to keep the barge in motion.
Well, he looked like he knew what he was doing.
I turned back around just in time. The water boiled and the barge staggered to the left as the head of a dragon rose out of the depths. I managed to grab the lantern pole to keep my balance and watched in awe, and fear, as the head and neck rose to tower above the barge.
The head was a deep green with splotches of lighter green scattered along its snout. Additionally it was horned, with two pale white horns stretching from the base of the snout from the sides, and another two, each almost 20’ long, stretching from the back of the skull. The eyes were monstrous, the size of a warrior’s shield, and a bright gold in colour. And the neck... It stretched down into the depths, covered in scales of a light green that darkened in the distance.
By the Gods and the Creation it couldn’t be! She was dead!
The head slowly lowered until it was just above the deck of the barge, just inches away from my face. Its breath smelled of musty fish and incredible age as it spoke. “SO KALIBYNTHN, YOU HAVE RETURNED TO MY CAVE. AND YOU HAVE BROUGHT SOMEBODY...”
She turned her head and looked me in the eye.
“COULD IT BE?” She sniffed, her breath making my mane and tail flow in front of me. “IT IS, AND IT ISN’T.”
I remembered Sarsynalithagas, my hatchling sister from long before the faerie had revolted against the gods.
The dragon screamed, “WHAT HAS BEEN DONE TO HER!!” Then, before even I could react, she shot her head down and swallowed me within her snout. Her tongue wrapped itself gently around me and held me tight as she dove into the depths of the lake. I was clenched so tight I couldn’t move and couldn’t breathe; I was unable to struggle as I couldn’t move the slightest. Then her head suddenly jerked up and stopped. The jaws opened and water spilled in as she spit me out into the depths.
Somehow I managed to clench my mouth shut and not inhale, though I knew I couldn’t wait long.
I opened my eyes and could see nothing in the darkness but I knew Sarsynalithagas was near. Then I saw her eyes begin to glow and an instant later the pulse of her will grabbed me and shot through my soul and spirit. I couldn’t help but scream as the magic tore through me in pain and agony, more than I’d felt since Calynisha had bound me to my horse. I felt my mortality strain against my body, but it would not be driven out. Sarsynalithagas’ magic fought with it but could not win.
All I could do was scream, and gag as I sucked in the freezing lake water.
I felt the magic change and the pain vanish. My form changed and twisted and the gagging changed to swallowing and I kept swallowing and breathing. My hooves fell off and drifted downward as my legs merged and changed to a tail. Then, finally, Sarsynalithagas’s magic faded, although I could still sense her will holding my form.
I opened my eyes and looked down. My legs were gone, changed into a fleshy tail that wavered and drifted in the water. My mane and horse-tail were still present, but longer and darker, twisting and entwining around my leg-tail. I turned away and looked up at Sarsynalithagas. Although I had been blind before, I could see her, and everything else, easily. I could see her massive form, her monstrous wings, all stretching off into the darkness beyond what even my newly enhanced vision could see.
I swam up near to her muzzle, even now longer than I was. “My hatchling sister,” and I said her True Name. I felt the power of that word rise up and shiver through her, but not as much as it would to another for the dragons had always been less bound by their Name.
And she answered, “My hatchling sister,” and said my True Name. I had heard her, and only her, say it before and knew what to expect. The sounds wrapped themselves around my soul and then spun through it. But, where once they would have encompassed my soul and bared it open, now they only gave it warmth. Something was different.
“What?” we both said at the same time.
Sarsynalithagas pulled back her head in shock and I could feel her will gathering.
“Wait! It is me, hatchling sister, for do I not know your Name? I’d never hurt you, and would do all that I could to save you my hatchling sister.” I sighed and opened my arms. “But if you fear for your life, than do what you must. I will sacrifice myself willingly for you.” Then I waited.
For a moment I could sense the tension in Sarsynalithagas but then I felt it relax. “Only my hatchling sister would offer herself so.” I sensed the swishing of her tail as she slowly swam up to me.
I waited a moment and with a flick of my leg-tail rose up above her snout and drifted above her head. There, as I had so often, and so long, long ago, I embraced her ear and kissed it. I heard her rumbling sigh.
“You must tell me what happened.”
And so I told her, whispering my tale into her ear. I didn’t speak with air or lungs, but spoke through her magic. And through her magic I told her of my battle with Calynisha and how Calynisha had merged my immortal self with the mortality of my horse.
“And that is probably why my Name is no longer my Name, for my being has changed.”
“Yes. It is a hard life you have had since we strove against the Gods and failed.”
“And what of you Sarsynalithagas? How did you come to be hiding in these dark depths? The last I saw of you was during the final battle. Then the ice came and we were separated in the biting cold. When Vashigan returned and announced the Curse, I couldn’t find you. I searched and I sought, but I could find nothing!”
“It’s simple. When the cold came I fled deep into the World, hiding from the wrath of The Gods deep in these caverns. Oh my sister, I panicked and fled in fear, forgetting all about you.” I could hear her voice tremble. “Will you forgive me?”
“Of course, how could I not? Are we not hatchling sisters, raised together from our birth?” I smiled and felt the warmth of her gladness fill me.
“I should have come out to look for you but I couldn’t. I stayed awake through the cold, and heard the Curse and felt it flow through my flesh. I was afraid, too afraid to ever come out again. So here I have remained, taking this cave as my own.” She lowered her head. “It’s a quiet life, dark and cold, with little company other than the humans. I suffer them for their company. They fight and struggle and slay and I shudder at their pale reflection of our glory.” Then she dove down and twisted around me and enwrapped me in her tender wings. “I’ve missed you, oh how I have missed you.”
“And I you. I should have looked harder, I should have sought in the depths, but I, too, was afraid of what I would find.”
And then, together, we began to cry. Both for joy, and for sorrow at all that we had lost.
Chapter 4: Finding a Home
The Great Dragons were created by the cursed Faerie as one of their few creations of genius at a time when only they and the Gods existed. It is said that the Dragons were created as servants and slaves, and were later freed by the Gods, but we know that they were created as equals to live and grow with the Faerie.
And eventually the dragons wanted their own God, one to lead them and aid them and guide their souls through the darkness after they passed from their mortal flesh. And the Gods heard them and eventually raised the first of the Great Dragons, Tuomyn, the lordship over all the Dragons.
And so it remained until the Faerie revolted against those who had created and taught them. And, although Tuomyn cried against it, many of the Great Dragons were swayed by the foul words of the Faerie and joined them in their fight against the Gods. A fight that was doomed by its very nature.
But, as it was fated, the revolt failed, and those who took part were cursed and banished, Faerie and Dragon both. Tuomyn sorrowed for his children, but the punishment was just and he was forced to agree with it.
But it was the betrayal of his children, and his sorrow at their banishment, that let the cursed Sheshanka steal Tuomyn away into the depths of the oceans. There she imprisoned him, in the cold darkness, for what she claimed was her love of him.
But we know better.
We know better and we will free our Lord.
Writings of the Priesthood of Tuomyn
“Ilisri, my hatchling sister, my love. I wish you could stay forever but it’s not to be.” The dragon’s magical voice was strained.
“Sarsynalithagas, what is it?” I asked. I leaned close against my hatchling sister’s ear to give her what warmth and comfort I could.
“Your mortality - I can’t keep it bound for long. Even now it’s straining to transform you back.”
Now that Sarsynalithagas had mentioned it, I could feel it straining against my being - I was tense with the struggle. Once my magics would have made this transformation a triviality, but since Calynisha had bound me my magics were nearly gone. “I would aid your struggle if I could,” I whispered.
“You must go. As much as I would wish otherwise, you must go.”
I sighed. “I understand. I’ll miss you, our reunion has been much too short. Maybe you could join me?”
A sigh rumbled through her body. “Once I could have, but I’ve been here for so many ages I can’t leave, I daren’t leave.” The mighty dragon, feared and terrifying, larger than some fortresses, was trembling.
“I’ll visit. I’ll stay here by your lake and keep you some company.”
“You have your own quest. When you are free then come, and we can travel together through the heavens as we once did.” She managed to force her words past her terror.
I was struck by what time had done, by what the gods had done to me, to my hatchling sister, even to the mortals. The passion of our revolt against them sang in my veins once again. “We’ll be free. All who have wronged you, who have wronged us, will pay. They’ll learn the cost of their savagery!”
My hatchling sister was silent.
I frowned. “Is something wrong? I want...”
“No. It’s...” She sighed. “I refuse to keep secrets. Do you remember our revolt against the Gods?”
“Of course. Our noble dreams, and our grand failure.”
“Were we right?”
“They created us. What right did we have to even think to overthrow them? And they did give us immortality...”
“This!? They gave us The Curse. Yes, we can’t die - but we’re still their slaves!”
“How? No, you must go now, quickly, I don’t know how much longer I can hold you in your form.”
“As you wish my hatchling sister. But, and I ask only because I must,” I smiled, “do you have some clothes? What I was wearing wasn’t much, and it’s now gone.”
She snickered. “Of course, what else is a hatchling sister for? But I can’t give you much.”
“Of course, I wouldn’t ask but...”
She snickered again. “Nothing ever changes. You’re so proud you won’t beg. Fear not, what I have is yours. But we must hurry.”
“Then lead and I will follow.”
“Too slow. Grab hold of one of my larger horns and hold on tight.”
I swam away from her ear and wrapped my arms and leg-tail around one of the massive horns that grew from her skull. “I’m ready.”
I sensed her body move, and then felt the water begin to flow. At first it was slow, but then it was fast, so fast I was almost torn from my grip. She swam for a few moments, her body wiggling like a snake, her wings tight against her back, until she stopped.
I looked down into a pile of ruin and wealth. There were bones, tatters of cloth, broken and rusted swords, all entwined and mixed with carvings and jewels and coins. Dim and intermingled glints of copper and of silver and of gold. All dull, but still beckoning.
“Take what you need. This is just a portion of the tributes I’ve taken over the centuries. I won’t miss what little you can carry.”
“I thank you hatchling sister. And I will repay my debt.”
“But you don’t...”
“Hush. We’ve had this argument before - and I always won then.”
Her wings shrugged.
Quickly I swam down and started rooting around looking for some kind of container - I could feel my body straining harder against my hatchling sister’s will. The first thing I found was a small bronze pot with two handles - it would have to do. Fortunately it had a lid which could be secured. I would have tried to sort through the wealth, but there was no time so I just grabbed some handfuls of coins and gems and dropped them in. Then, grasping the pot, I closed it and then swam back. There was no usable clothing left, but with coins I’d have to manage.
“Grab hold again, but you won’t need to hold on so hard - we’re almost there.”
I grabbed hold with one hand and held one of the handles on the pot with the other. “Ready.”
Then Sarsynalithagas began to swim, but not nearly as fast as before. She was swimming easily but still straining - I could feel her will struggling to keep my shape as it now was.
“Hatchling sister, go to the surface and then you can let my form go and rest.”
She didn’t respond but suddenly turned and swam upward. Then, even as we were still swimming, I could feel my leg-tail begin to split. I stopped breathing and held my breath. Suddenly my insides twisted and I had to cough but I forced myself to wait. I felt my leg-tail twist and tear in agonizing pain as the skin of my leg-tail tore off to twist and tumble into the depths. Closing my eyes I willed myself to not let go. I felt the bones in my legs tear and burst through the skin and harden. My hooves grew. I had to cough and gag and get rid of the water and breathe. I couldn’t, I wouldn’t. I would wait. I had to wait!
But then I could wait no longer.
Just as I broke the surface I gagged and vomited the water out of what was again my lungs. I was wracked with pain and convulsions as I gagged and forced the water up and out. Eventually though, the spasms ended and I could breathe normally. I took deep rasping breaths of cold air and finally began to relax.
“ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?” Sarsynalithagas tried to whisper but her actual voice, rather than the magical way we had been using, was just too loud. There was a dim light above her head - she’d summoned it so we could see.
“I’ll live.” I looked at my one arm clenched tight on my hatchling sister’s horn, and the other still clenched around the handle of the pot. I looked down and saw that the dress I had stolen from Eolath was back. Wet and torn, but back. I grinned. “I managed to keep the pot.”
My hatchling sister snorted.
“Now where do I go?”
“THE SHORE IS NEARBY - I’LL TAKE YOU A LITTLE FURTHER BUT YOU’LL HAVE TO WALK THE REST OF THE WAY. YOU CAN WALK THROUGH THE SHALLOWS TO THE HUMANS - IT’S NOT VERY FAR.”
She started swimming and I held on. A few minutes later I felt her chest scrape bottom and she stretched her neck out. When her motion stopped I let go of her horn and dropped into the water.
It was shallow enough that I could just touch the bottom with my hooves while keeping my head above the surface.
It was frightening how natural it felt to dimly feel the rock through my hooves.
“I’m ready. Which way do I go?”
“GO TO THE LEFT AND FARE WELL. IF YOU NEED ME JUST DIVE IN AND CALL - I WILL HEAR.”
She pulled her head up out of the shallows and I could feel the scraping of her claws against the stone as she stood up and backed into deeper water. I turned and watched her go.
“Farewell hatchling sister. We will fly together again, I swear.”
There was a splash and she was gone.
When she left so did the light she’d summoned. I sighed. Then I closed my eyes and focused my will upon the cracks in reality. I wanted light. I needed light. I would have light!
I opened my eyes and it was there. Dim, but there.
I sighed - this time I wasn’t even breathing too hard. My feeble powers, a dim shadow of what I once had, were getting easier.
I don’t know how long I tramped through the cold water. First I walked, or is that trotted, towards the rock wall where it was shallower. The shallowest I could reach before I could feel the rock ceiling tugging on my mane was waist deep. Then I turned to the left and started walking - it was easy going although I had to detour around pillars of rock that went into the lake, and spears that descended from the ceiling.
And the water was cold. By the Curse, it was cold. Freezing cold. I forced myself to keep a grip on the pot as my teeth began to chatter. The last time I remembered being cold was when Vashigan had turned away and froze the World. And, somehow, this seemed colder.
But, even as my legs grew numb, just like my hooves, I let the heat of resolve keep me going. If I froze and collapsed then Calynisha would win. I would not let her win. I would never let her win!
But it was cold. So cold.
My resolve started to waver.
But it would be so easy just to stop. After all, I couldn’t die? Right?
So easy. Just collapse and sleep and wake up later when I was relaxed...
But then, finally, I saw lights in the distance. I tried to dim my light but I couldn’t control it and it went out.
But there were lights - there - not too far away.
I hurried toward them, my teeth chattering. The water began to shallow, until, suddenly, it deepened and I fell into the depths. I managed to grab a breath before I went under and then, scrambling and holding on to the pot, managed to clamber out of the depression until my head was once again above the surface.
I had to make it to the town. I had to. The water began to shallow a bit, and then deepen. I wanted to run but I couldn’t. It was up to my chest, my neck...
I tilted my head up so I could breathe.
And then I was at the dock - but I could barely reach its surface.
I refused to call for help. In my shape and in my condition, who knew what somebody would do. I struggled and managed to get the pot onto the dock. Then I ducked under and jumped up and grabbed the dock surface. It was smooth - I flailed around with my hands looking for something, anything, and then I saw a stone post- it must be what they tied the barges up to.
I grabbed it and dragged myself out of the water.
I was there. I’d made it. I was cold, wet, freezing. My legs and tail were nearly numb.
Then I heard somebody coming.
“What do we have here?” It was an elf, a female. “It looks like a drowned rat.”
“No, worse.” It was her companion. Another elf, male this time. “It looks like a drowned dwarf.”
They laughed at me!
I forced my eyes open and staggered to my feet, my hooves clattering, and glared down at them. They were slightly shorter then I was and roughly dressed in leathers and rags. The rest of their appearance matched for they were dirty and rough and their hair was uncut and tangled. I could see daggers and shortswords at their waists.
“It lives!” It was the woman, laughter colouring her voice.
I just glared.
The male looked down and saw the pot. He leaned over and removed the lid and whistled as he saw its contents which gleamed and glittered in the dim light from the town. “And look, it brought a donation.”
How dare they! I forced my body to stillness and felt a raging heat in my chest. I kept my voice quiet and steady as I answered: “That is mine.”
They laughed at me!
“And how will you keep it little horsie?” the woman asked.
I clenched my fists. “It is mine,” I repeated quietly.
The male fell back from my voice but the woman laughed and turned to him. “What are you afraid of? Afraid she’ll flick her tail and get you wet?” Then she reached down and grabbed the pot.
“Let go now.”
“Or what?” she asked sweetly. “In exchange for this I think I just may let you live.”
I was one of the great faerie. I was a power! And they were taking my property!
I bent my knees and crouched and leapt at her.
She slipped to the side and I slammed into the stone dock. For an instant the blow stunned me, and then I began to feel my legs. And all I felt was pain. Their pain and my anger. I staggered to my feet and turned to face her.
She laughed and drew her shortsword.
I watched as she crouched into a guard position. Then we began to circle around the dock - I tried to find her companion out of the corner of my eye but she must have seen the motion because she stabbed forward. Barely I managed to step back so that her blade only pierced my dress and nicked my chest.
The pain was hot and its heat began to spread.
Humble. I had to be humble. “May I at least have your dagger so that this combat can be fair?” I asked quietly.
She laughed. “Fair, why would I want fair?” Then she dashed to the side. I turned to watch her sword as it nicked to the left. It almost made me miss her arm as she started to move it to punch me.
But I did see it and managed to duck.
Then she thrust forward with her sword. Somehow I twisted on one hoof and the sword only burned a slash into the surface of my leg. I could feel my blood, my mortality, begin to ooze out.
For a second I was glad, but then I began to fear. I could die. It was a sobering thought.
But then she wasted her breath in speech: “Look, it can dance!”
My breath was rasping in my throat and a burning tingling started to flow down my legs. I staggered. She wasn’t an expert but she didn’t have to be.
She backed up as I fell to my knees.
No! I would not let anybody see me like this. Not my hatchling sister! Not her.
I got to my feet and clenched my hands into fists. Behind me I could feel my tail flicking madly; through me I could feel the warmth of my rage overwhelming my pain. I steadied and swiveled my ears wide to listen for others. But my eyes were only on her.
Slowly we circled. I couldn’t hear anything else. I couldn’t see her companion. We circled some more and I waited.
A flicker of a muscle, the movement of a leg.
She stepped back and twisted. Her hand came forward, its palm flat. But where my face had been I now had my hand and it slapped hers to the side. Then I leapt as her blade slashed across where my legs had been. She started to pull back but my leap took me towards her. As I was in the air my other hand came down on her other arm, the one holding her sword, with a smack
She dropped her sword and it clattered on the dock.
I smiled as I landed with a clop.
Then something hit me in the side of my head.
What?! I staggered back and saw that it was her male companion - he’d hit me with a dagger. Somehow I must have seen it come and turned my head so that he’d hit me with the side of the blade rather than the point.
“Grab it and go,” he whispered.
No! I shook my head to stop the world from spinning.
Then a spot of blackness zoomed down and slashed him across the face and was gone. He screamed as blood poured down from where his eyes had once been.
I recognized the shape as a raven.
Finally the world stopped spinning and I took a step towards the woman.
She dropped her sword and turned and fled, the male forgotten.
I stepped over and picked up her sword and turned and stabbed it into him. Then I twisted the blade to make sure before I pulled it out.
He staggered backwards and splashed into the lake.
Then I collapsed.
“Get up!” a voice hissed.
Clenching my eyes tightly shut I forced my nerves to calm down. I was still cold and still shivering. My leg burned with pain but I was alive. And I remembered the raven.
“Why?” I whispered.
“Come on, we don’t have much time. Other scavengers will be here soon.”
By the Curse. I opened my eyes and struggled to my hooves. The stab wound in my chest was a dull ache, and the slash across my leg burned, but I would have to manage. I saw the raven perched on the pot of treasure.
He saw me stand up and took flight and thudded down on my shoulder.
I staggered and he cawed loudly, his outstretched wing battering my head. I locked my knees and ankles and stood.
“Pick it up and let’s go,” the raven whispered. “I’ll tell you how to reach an inn.”
I wanted to argue but I had no time and I was in no shape to do much of anything. But I would get some answers. I limped over and grabbed the lid from where the elf had left it and put it on the pot.
“Grab some coins first you idiot.”
I jerked to a stop. How dare he... No! I had to be humble for now. And, curse it, the raven was right. I removed the lid and grabbed a handful and clenched them in one hand. Then I put the lid on and latched it. I thrust the blade of the shortsword through one handle of the pot until its guard caught and picked up the pot by the other. Finally, holding the coins in one hand, and the pot and shortsword in the other, I limped off the dock.
The dock led into a large cavern that was dimly lit by glowing spheres of magical light. There were a few people around - all human - but they shied away from me. Probably because of my appearance and blood.
I smiled. Let them know fear.
“To the left,” the raven whispered.
I stopped and looked. To my left was a stone building that extended maybe 10’ from the wall of the cavern. A magical light revealed a sign that showed a bronze rat.
“Yes, the Bronze Rat.”
I turned my head and whispered: “I knew that. Any other comments?”
“The innkeeper is Baldorf Kryss - a dwarf. It’s late so it shouldn’t be too busy. Just get a room and we’ll go up.”
I sighed. Then I closed my eyes and willed the pain to go away. I would not walk into an inn limping. Not now, not ever. I opened my eyes and started walking.
It was slow at first, and it hurt, but I had my pride. I would walk and the rest of the World could be taken by the Curse. Reaching the door I grasped the latch, taking care not to drop any coins, and pulled the door open with a creak.
The common room was well lit by lanterns and a small fire was burning in a small fireplace against one wall to chase away the chill - I wondered where the smoke was going. There were five tables, but only one was occupied - by a pair of humans, both male. They stopped and turned to stare at me.
“Humble,” whispered the raven. Then it cawed.
I walked in refusing to wince at the pain each time I took a step on my injured leg.
A dwarf came out carrying a log for the fire so I went over to talk to him. “You Baldorf?”
He carefully put the log onto the fire and turned around and looked up at me. Certainly an unusual dwarf - his face was beardless and what hair he had was white and wispy around the sides of his bare head. He was dressed in plain leather and cloth and had a dagger and a small axe attached to his belt.
I thought about how I must look and couldn’t help but snicker.
“What’s so funny?” He scowled.
“I was just thinking about the way I look.”
He smiled. “I can’t argue with that.” He frowned for a second and then smiled again. “I take it you want a room?”
“That’ll be five silver, and none of the devalued stuff from the Seven Cities mind you.”
Five silver?! “You’re a thief!” I whispered. “I’ll give you one and I also want a hot meal.”
He made a sign with one hand and I recognized it - he was a thief! Then he responded, “Take it or leave it.”
What?! “Do you know who I am?” I asked coldly. Then I gave him the response sign back.
“Nope, nor do I care as long as your money is good. And if you don’t hurry up I’ll charge you for any blood you drip on my floor.”
Why... Humble. I had to be humble. I clenched my fists for a second until I forced my anger down. “Four.”
I clenched my fists back tight for a moment and then slowly opened them. “Five.”
“And it’ll be another two for the meal.”
I almost drew my sword but then was not the time. I was homeless and friendless and I needed a place. I gritted my teeth and hissed, “Fine.”
He walked over to a bare table and I followed.
“Let’s see it.”
I placed my fist on the table and let the coins lie there as I removed my hand. A small damp spot spread out from the money.
“Let’s see...” he began reaching towards the coin.
Enough! “Keep your hands off or lose them. I’ll pay your price, but that’s it.”
He scowled but kept his hands to himself.
I looked down at the pile and sorted through it. It was mostly silver with a bit of gold and a bit of copper. I counted out five Mandalorian Swords and a larger coin, old and slightly tarnished, a silver King from the sunken city of San-Tu.
He raised his eyebrows at the last one.
“This should cover it.”
He picked up the silver King and weighed it in his hand. “About.”
“And I want the food brought up to my room.”
“I don’t fetch and carry.”
I glared at him for a second and then pushed over a Kyndarian silver Castle.
“But in your case I’ll make an exception. It’ll take a while to heat up the stew, unless you want it cold.”
“I want it hot.” Especially given what it was costing me.
“Your room is up the stairs,” he motioned behind him, “it’s the second door on the right.”
I picked up the rest of the coins and headed for the stairs.
“Keep the door barred until I knock.”
I stopped and turned to look at him. His hands were at his side and he was smiling. Hmph - he was a strange one. “Thank you.” Then I turned and went up the stairs.
My room wasn’t hard to find and once I got there it actually wasn’t that bad. It was dimly lit by a lantern and was very small, containing only a pile of straw and some quilts, but the straw was actually fairly clean - I’d expected a disaster. Putting down the pot and sword, I latched the door and then sat down on the bed as the raven hopped over into the corner.
What to say? There was no way I was going to tell him about my hatchling sister. “I knew her from a few centuries ago and she owed me a favor. Nothing else.”
“And what about what she said?”
“I don’t know - I think she confused me with somebody else.”
There was a knock on the door. “Baldorf.”
I got up and grabbed the shortsword and held it ready as I walked to the door and unbarred and opened it.
It was indeed Baldorf.
He looked at the sword. “Maybe you’ll do all right here. Here’s your stew and some ale. And here’s your professional refund.” He handed over two silver Swords. “We can talk more in private in the morning.”
I put the shortsword down and took the coins from him. “Thank you.” He turned and walked away and I closed and barred the door behind him.
Then I walked back over to the straw and put the silver by the pot and then started to eat. The stew was thick and gummy, but at least it was hot, and Baldorf had actually heated the ale.
The raven hopped over in front of me. “So?”
I kept eating.
“The dragon confused you with someone else.”
I looked at him while I slowly chewed my mouthful and swallowed. “Yes.”
“I don’t believe you,” he croaked.
“Fine.” I swallowed some ale which was too bitter for my taste and went back to my stew.
The raven fluttered back into his corner and just watched me.
I ignored him as I ate the stew. Eventually it was done and I finally began to feel warm. And I felt sleepy. I finished the ale and put the bowl and cup beside the straw and pulled the wool blankets up and over me and curled up on my side to sleep - my stupid tail wouldn’t let me sleep any other way. I reached over and blew out the candle in the lantern.
So here I was, in my own room. I finally had some money, and I was free.
Calynisha, no more will I run. I’m coming for you.
I went to sleep.
Chapter 5: My First Day in the Underworld
I can confirm that deep below Mandalor there is a natural cavern that is a lair of the forgotten and the abandoned that have fled from the light into the darkness. They live there, steeped in their filth and blasphemy, defended by one of the Great Dragons from the cursed faerie.
I believe that they are in desperate need of the light of the Gods amongst them. Not only for their own good, but to defend them against the insipid faerie that may try to corrupt them down in the darkness.
Excerpt from a report by Inquisitor Jasefson on the rumoured inhabitants in the crypts below Mandalor
I was sleeping and, I think, dreaming. It was odd - I’d never dreamed before. And the dream itself was odd. It wasn’t about magic or power or battles, but simply about running across grassy plains...
Then I suddenly woke up when I heard something at the door to my room.
I kept my breathing calm and slowly moved my arm to grab the hilt of the shortsword I’d acquired while I turned my head ever so slightly to look at the door.
It was opening.
Who could be coming in? And why had I not heard them removing the bar?
Not that it would matter for soon I would have answers.
I waited as the door opened and watched a faerielike figure walk in. The figure was apparently carrying a bundle of something. I watched as it pushed the door almost completely shut so that only a sliver of dim light from the hallway spilled into the room. Then it started to walk towards me.
Inwardly I tensed, but I forced my body not to show it. Other faerie had attempted to entrap me before in our eternal wars and power struggles so this waiting was nothing new.
I was ready. The figure was almost...
The figure leaned down and silently put its bundle on the floor. Then it turned around and walked back towards the door.
Fine. If that’s the way it’s going to work, then I’ll hit it from the rear when it’s almost at the door and its eyes have adjusted to the light. I waited.
The figure reached the door.
The figure pushed the door shut and I heard it quietly put the bar back in place.
There was an almost inaudible woosh.
I kept my eyes open and forced my will out into the World and looked for a crack and a hole. In a moment I found one and through that hole forced light to appear with my will. The light came, quick and silent, bright and pale blue, and without completely exhausting me.
And, as the light appeared, still concentrating on keeping it lit, I leapt from bed and onto the floor with my shortsword ready. In the distance I heard my hooves clop as I turned to look at what was near the door.
It was the raven.
And it was awake and looking at me.
It was time for some answers. “What are you?” I asked quietly.
I frowned in distaste. “Is it a friend who sneaks around in the night?”
“There are gifts for you.” It motioned towards the floor in front of it with its beak.
Keeping my sword at the ready, and watching the raven closely, I looked where it motioned from the corner of my eye. There was a pile of what looked like clothes.
I remembered the faerielike figure I’d seen. “Who brought them?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“It was you.” I made it a statement, not a question.
The raven was silent.
I slowly moved towards it. “So here you are. You can change your form - we both know it. You helped me escape Eolath. You changed to bind my leg while I was unconscious, didn’t you?”
The raven stared at me, the soft blue of my light glinting off of its black eyes.
“And you guided me down here. And now you’ve brought me these.” I nodded towards the clothes.
The raven remained motionless and silent.
“Tell me or by the Curse I’ll force it out of you!”
“Why do you fear me?” the raven asked.
I clenched my fist around the sword’s hilt. “I fear no one and nothing.” I paused. “You haven’t answered my question.”
I took in a breath to scream at its arrogance, but then slowly let it out. Anger would not serve. “Why should I trust you?”
“I’ve done nothing but help you.”
I remembered my life since the Curse. Every faerie out only for herself. Nothing done without a plan of an ultimate payback. “And what do you want for your help.”
“Why can’t you believe that someone wants to just help you?”
“Because nobody just wants to help.” Except my hatchling sister, but she was different.
“Humans do. Caldayans do. Elves and dwarves do.”
I couldn’t believe what the raven was saying. How could it think that I would actually believe that crap? “Why are you doing this?”
“Because we want to help.”
The raven took a step backward.
I smiled. “Who are ‘we’?”
“Why won’t you just take my help?”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“I’m here. It’s not as though I’m just trying to get your trust...”
That was it! The raven, and its associates wanted to get my trust. Then, when they were ready and I was fooled they would strike. I’d done it to others, and others had done it to me. “Get out.”
“You have helped me so I gift you with your life. Now get out.”
“After you leave anything I owe you is gone and I will kill you if I see you again.”
The raven took another step backward.
I circled around the raven and pushed the bar off the door with my free hand. It clunked onto the floor. Then I pulled the door open, never letting my eye off the raven. “Get out now before I lose my patience.”
“You need me!”
“I need no one and nothing! Leave now, or I’ll kill you where you roost, regardless of what you’ve done for me.”
The raven turned around and hopped to the door but stopped in the entrance way and turned to face me. “You will be waiting.” Then it took wing and flew down the passage.
I shoved the door shut behind it and put the bar back in place. With the remnants of my will I forced myself over to the lantern - if I could make a light, I could make a spark. I released my will and the light vanished while I gasped for breath. Time passed in the darkness as I rested. Then I picked up the lantern and concentrated. One small flame, that’s all I wanted. One small, tiny, insignificant flame. And I found the crack and I struggled with it with my will. And then, I had it, for an instant, a flame.
But that was all it took and the lantern blazed into light.
I put it down and staggered over to the bed and collapsed in exhaustion.
After a while I awakened, cold and tired. The lantern was still going but it was dimmer than it had been. I stumbled to my hooves and rubbed my eyes to clear my head.
I was so glad that the raven was gone.
It was a threat, a danger.
I shook my head to clear it and turned around to look at what the raven had left.
It didn’t take long to sort through the pile of clothes as there wasn’t much. There was a plain shirt of some rough material, dyed a dull brown, along with a matching pair of pants of the same material. I thought for a moment and then remembered the mortal word - linen. I grimaced as I felt the roughness. There was also a massive...linen cloak with a hood dyed a dull red. And, of course, a plain leather belt and a pouch and a scabbard.
I realized that the raven had actually been quite clever. The pants would hide the fur on my legs, the hood would cover my ears, and the cloak would cover and hide my tail. The cloak might billow out a bit far, but it wasn’t bad for a simple disguise of my unique nature. The pouch would hold my coins, and the scabbard looked just the right size for my shortsword.
Of course, it could be a trap.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on the clothing, looking for any ripples in reality.
The clothes were plain and ordinary cloth.
And they were dry so they were likely not coated or dipped in poison. I could be wrong, but the worse that would happen would be some pain and discomfort until I healed.
I couldn’t help but shudder as I remembered. If I healed.
Well, if it was poisoned, it was too late now.
First thing then was to get out of the remnants of the dress I’d been given by Eolath. I simply tore it off - there wasn’t much of it left. Then I put on the shirt and pants - and noticed that the pants even had a slot to fit around my tail.
Somebody had been almost too clever.
Finally I turned to the pot and poured out its contents - time to see what my hatchling sister had lent me. It didn’t take long to sort. Most of it was silver, and most of that was minted in either Mandalor, Kyndar, or the Caldayan Empire before it had broken apart into the Seven Cities. Most of the rest were silver Claws from the Seven Cities and it was easy to tell them from the silver Claws forged by the Empire as they were much lighter, and what little silver they contained wasn’t enough to make them as bright as the others. The last of the silver consisted of a few Kings from the ruined city of San-Tu. There were also a few copper from all over, along with ten gold coins - curiously all ten were gold Fangs from the Caldayan Empire. Finally there were a couple of gems, all poorly cut, an overly-gaudy gold ring (holding it up I could tell that the gold was heavily alloyed) and an ancient silver necklace.
I held it up, unbelievingly. But it was.
Its chain consisted of finely molded links, the wire that had made them barely thicker than one of my hairs, but still wondrously strong. The chain held a simple silver disk that had once contained three gems - a black onyx for the Curse, a green emerald for the World, and a blue sapphire for Faerie.
The necklace was a gate, a portal that could transfer the wielder between the World and Faerie.
It was unfortunate that the gems were gone, but not a disaster as the magic was in the necklace - the gems were just symbols. Any gem of the appropriate type would do.
I put the necklace around my neck and tucked it under my shirt - the warmth of its magic made my heart beat a little faster.
For the first time since Calynisha’s curse I began to feel hope. I’d feared that finding a way to reach her would be my greatest difficulty, but the key had been handed to me. I might have thought it a gift from the gods, except that I’d been a god myself.
I forced my mind back to the room and transferred all of the coins and gems, and the cheap ring, into the pouch. I put the shortsword into the scabbard, which it did indeed fit. Then I stood up and wrapped the belt around my waist and snugged it tight with its silver buckle. All that remained was the cloak which I secured around my neck with the cord provided and then I raised the hood to cover my head and ears.
I was ready to go. My ears felt a little pain from the weight of the hood, and my tail a little pain from the weight of the cloak, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t live with. I was indeed ready to go.
I spun around prancing on my hooves, their clopping sound loud on the stone, letting the cloak fling wide as I held my arms out. I was ready. For a moment more I pranced for joy before forcing myself to calm down. Then I let the cloak fall and stopped, my breathing heavy.
Now calmer, I picked up the lantern and walked to the door and pulled the bar off. Then I pulled the door open and blew the lantern out before putting it down beside the door. Although I wanted to prance, I forced myself to just walk, my hooves still a bit loud and hopefully sounding a little bit like hard-soled boots, and went down into the common room.
When I arrived I was glad that I’d changed, for it was much busier than it had been. In fact it was almost full.
And all were listening to a caldayan speaking by the fireplace.
I blinked my eyes in wonder, for it indeed was Kalibynthn, and he was talking to the crowd.
“...was overthrown,” he was saying.
“By who?” another caldayan asked.
“A dragon. Asgynthana told me that she had heard that one night a monstrous beast, black as night, suddenly appeared and attacked the castle.”
“Who was overthrown?” I called out over the crowd. With my legs I was taller than most.
He reared up so he could see me. “So it’s my lovely passenger. How did you...”
“Later,” I hissed and glared at him.
He must have gotten my message for he just answered my question. “Queen Kitrana II of Kyndar, my lovely. From what I heard the dragon swallowed her in one bite.”
But why would a dragon try to take over one of the mortal kingdoms? The great dragons that had survived since the Curse lay hidden in dark places, and their younger and weaker offspring had to hide from the mortals that would slay them.
“...sorry but I must be going. There’s an old friend that I have to greet.” It was Kalibynthn speaking again. The others greeted his speech with laughter as he made his way through the group towards me.
An old friend? Me?
Then he was in front of me.
“So, my lovely Ilisri, we meet again. And after such a long period of loneliness.” He grinned causing the light from the torches to glint from his fangs.
What was I going to do about him? “It’s good to see you again.” And it was. “Shall we sit down somewhere so we can talk?” We needed to - I couldn’t let him blurt out what he’d seen.
“This way my furry lovely,” and he led me towards a table in the corner.
Furry? I hoped no one had heard that. “Shhhh!” I hissed in his ear.
“Whatever you ask. Ah, here we are.”
We’d reached the table and he pulled one of the wooden chairs out and motioned for me to sit. I did - what else could I do? Then he almost bounded around the table and lifted the other chair aside and seated his lower body on the floor so that his face was level with mine.
“We have to talk...” I began to whisper.
“Later. For now I am famished. Illiania?!”
Who was that? And what was I going to do with this caldayan? Maybe it was simplest just to kill him to make sure he stayed silent. His wolf wasn’t here, and it certainly wouldn’t be difficult. But there were too many people...
I was interrupted when a female human child came up to the chair. “Welcome back Kalibynthn. Your usual?”
And he seemed to be too well known.
“Of course. And the same for my lady friend here.”
“Hmph. Another one?” It was Illiania.
“Of course. And I haven’t forgotten you...”
She turned around and walked off, but not before Kalibynthn managed to lightly pat her on her rear.
I smiled. Obviously he got around - which would explain why he was so experienced. But, what to do with him? He was so skilled that it would be a waste just to kill him to keep a secret. And he had listened...
“So Ilisri, what happened?” he interrupted.
I just raised my eyebrows.
“With Sarsynalithagas of course. The dragon ate you and I feared for your life and then I find you here before me,” he whispered.
At least he had some discretion. Oh, by the Curse, he was too much of a rogue to kill off. And he’d given me too much enjoyment to waste. Then, suddenly, I knew just what to say. “She smelled the wizard on me,” I whispered back.
“Wizard?” He paused for a moment. “You mean the one who trans...”
“Shh!” I said, maybe a little louder than I should have.
“Sorry,” he whispered.
“She had had problems with him in the past. Actually,” I grinned, “she was quite happy to know that he wouldn’t be a problem anymore. She even gave me some coin as a gift.”
“She must have been really happy. And what about the raven? After you were gone it suddenly took off and flew madly towards the town. Have you seen it?”
The raven. “No,” I said icily.
He looked a bit startled by the coldness in my voice. Then he smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “I like your new clothes. Where’d you get them?”
“A donation - I had a problem with some...”
“Here you go.” It was Illiania back again. She put a wooden bowl of a hot and thick stew down in front of me along with a hunk of rye bread and a wooden mug. Then she put the same thing in front of Kalibynthn. She kissed him and was gone.
“You better hope I’m not the jealous type,” I said and began eating.
He laughed and dug in too.
The stew was made from some kind of grain with bits of fish meat and some ground nuts, and the drink was a thin and sour ale of some kind. I didn’t care for the ale. Unfortunately, although for a second I forgot and tried, my reduced magics were incapable of improving it.
After a bit Kalibynthn asked: “You were saying about your clothes?”
I swallowed some of the sour ale with a grimace. “A donation. I ran into some elves who tried to steal from me.”
“One fled, the other is dead in the lake.”
He was silent for a while until he replied. “Oh.”
He was finished, and I was almost finished, before he spoke again, “And what are your plans?”
“Oh, just some errands. I need to get a better sword and check into some things.”
“Would you like some protection?”
A chuckle burst from my lips. Me, needing protection from mortals? And protected by a mortal?
“Did I offend you in some way my fur... love?”
I forced my chuckle down and finished the last of my stew before I replied. “No.”
“I’ll be fine by myself.” His concern was almost touching. “I just found the idea that I needed protection funny.”
He looked hurt. “Well, at least I was able to treat you to breakfast.”
“No.” I reached into my pouch for some silver Swords.
“But it’s the least I can do,” he protested. “It’s nothing to me...”
I tossed two silver Swords onto the table and then interrupted, “I always pay my debts.”
“It’s no debt.”
I choked down my first reply - he deserved better. “I do thank you for breakfast, but I can’t accept it as a gift.”
“I insist my love.”
I frowned and glared at him. Enough. “No.” I pushed the chair back and stood up and left, my hooves clacking on the floor.
“But...” I heard from behind me.
I just shook my head as I left.
Unlike when I’d arrived, the town was now quite busy. Nowhere near as busy as the streets of Mandalor could get, but certainly better than the emptiness I’d encountered on my arrival.
Which was probably fortunate.
The town, although it was more like an oversized village, was built in a large cavern that extended off of the lake. The Bronze Rat was built into the wall of the cavern, but fronted on the market that surrounded the harbour. And in this town, unlike what would be in a village, the buildings were all of stone and were all crowded close together, towering up to the roof of the cavern. It was dim, but not dark, as the streets were lit at irregular intervals by light globes, and even the occasional smoking and stinking torch. And, unlike villages but like most cities, I was soon encompassed by various riff-raff - abandoned children and youths trying to survive. There weren’t as many as there could have been, but more than I expected. They quickly crowded around me until I couldn’t move.
I refused to get angry. I was in too good a mood to get angry.
Then, suddenly, they all fled as a youthful caldayan bullied his way through. He stopped in front of me and bowed.
“Lookin’ for a guide? I knows my way around, and I’m the best. A lady can deserve no less.”
I looked down at the youth in front of me. He couldn’t have been more than eight or nine and was coloured night black - the colouring looked natural but who could tell? He was unclothed but his upper chest was covered in thick hair, and his mane completely covered his back. The only clothing he had that I could see was a pair of dagger sheaths and a pouch, all on a belt around his waist.
“And why would I need a guide?”
“Oh, but a noble lady like yourself has small time ta waste. I know all the best places, and all the best prices.”
I bet. I wondered how much he was paid by the ‘best priced’ merchants to bring over travelers. I couldn’t help but smile though - so expected, so barbaric, so mortal, yet so very alive. “Do you know a dwarven swordsmith?”
“Dwarven? Hmm? Aha! I know jest the one.”
I grinned. “And how much will he pay you?”
“I’m shocked, I am. T’is my honour to lead you.”
“Then lead on.” He turned away and I followed.
The way wasn’t long, but it was anything but straight. My guide led through a tangle of narrow streets and around the occasional tossing of a chamber pot. Nobody accosted us, and in fact the few other children I saw fled when they saw my guide coming. Thus it wasn’t long until we reached a more open area within which the stone floor was smoothly finished.
“Here ya go - the smith’s Boraran.” And he bowed and held out his hand.
I shook my head. I’d used urchins as guides before in my rare visits to mortal cities, but none had ever been quite this forward. I reached into my pouch and felt around until I found a silver Sword and then pulled it out and tossed it to him. He leapt up and caught it in his hand.
He opened his mouth to speak but left his jaw hanging open when he saw the glint of silver.
“There may be more if you just wait. I have other errands to run and could make more use of a dependable guide.”
“Oh yes, Lady. I’ll stay here, right here in fact.” And he plopped himself onto his lower chest on the stone street and watched me as I entered the building that he’d led me to.
The entrance was open and I could hear the rhythmic clang-clang-pause of a hammer. After the Curse I’d tried my hand at smithing but I could never pick it up, even though it had looked so simple. I walked through and was met by a youthful dwarf who stopped and blocked my way. I looked down at him.
“You can’t go in.”
“I have business with Boraran.”
“He can’t be disturbed.” The youth’s voice squeaked at the end.
Glaring at him, I wanted to teach him his place but I refused to let my good mood be spoiled by a brat. “He will see me,” I said coldly. “And if you know what is good for you, you will get out of my way. Now.”
The youth stood in his place.
“Who’s that then Moranan?” The voice, gruff but strong, came from inside and I realized that the hammering had stopped.
“It doesn’t sound like nobody.”
I looked over Moranan and saw an ancient and squat figure standing just behind him. His face was red with effort and heat, and moisture dripped down his cheeks and got lost in his scraggly beard. Interestingly, he had his beard braided and tossed over his shoulder. He was wearing blackened and scarred leather pants and apron, and his bare chest and arms were heavily muscled and scarred, and even burned here and there. Then my gaze met his gaze and I knew he recognized what I was, and I knew that he knew that I knew.
“Moranan, go and fetch me some water from the well.”
“But master you have lots...”
Moranan stumbled sideways and around me and then fled.
After a moment I asked, “Boraran?”
“Yes. We don’t see many of your kind around.”
I glared at him and he glared right back. I remembered our revolt against the gods. A few had remained loyal to their creators - some had become the elves and others had become the dwarves. Most were degenerate now, but in some the old blood still flowed, and this was one. I finally answered: “Be glad.”
“Why am I here?”
“Amongst other things.”
“I want a sword.”
“And why would one of the mighty ones be needing that? Can’t you just will one up?”
Normally I could. “Does it matter?”
“Not so long as your coin is good.”
He walked forward until he was standing just in front of me. “I’ll need to see your arms so I can pick one with the right balance for you. And I’ll take it for granted you don’t want any iron in the blade.”
I reached up and pulled off my hood - it felt good to free my ears. Boraran made no reaction. “No, no iron.” Although I did wonder. Normally iron carried death for faerie, but since I was only half faerie... And it would certainly surprise Calynisha. “Or maybe I will.”
He put his hands against his waist. “And how would you manage it?”
“Well, why don’t we see. Do you have an iron dagger I can hold?”
“It’s your pain.” He pulled out a dagger from underneath his apron and tossed it to me. I caught the blade between my fingers.
The blade began to heat up in my grasp, the iron burrowing into my flesh. I almost dropped it but then forced myself to wait. I had felt iron before, had been killed in the mortal realm and forced back into faerie by it. But this was nothing compared to that screaming agony. It was painful, but survivable, like holding a pot that’s just slightly too hot to hold. I started tossing the dagger in the air and catching it again with the same hand.
“I think I will take a blade with some iron.” The dwarves and elves aren’t affected by iron, possibly because they were blessed, the word was like a curse, by the gods. The dwarves used it frequently because iron absorbed magic. Any spell that iron touched would be destroyed, with the potential of the magery transformed into heat in the iron, the magery turning the iron brittle for just an instant.
Boraran shook his head. “Well, come along then, I have a blade almost ready that looks just about right for you. Let’s go and see how you like it.” He turned and went back into the smithy.
I followed, my hooves ringing on the flagstones. I watched him hesitate for a fraction of an instant at the sound, but then he continued. A few moments later he reached a battered wooden chest with a lock - which I wasn’t sure even I could pick. He hunched over it, hiding it from my view and then pulled the chest open. Then he reached inside and pulled out a metal blade, wrapped in soft sheepskin. He turned and I watched as he unwrapped it.
The sword was just a blade and a tang, and it glinted dimly in the reddish light from the forge. I could see the interwoven layers of bronze and iron - iron for strength and defense; bronze to keep the sword from exploding as it absorbed magery. Even though I knew it was made from strips of steel and bronze hammered and folded again and again, there was no evidence as it was too finely done, with too many folds made to see any single one. It was a glowing red leaf, sparkling and shimmering as the light caught the thousands and thousands of folds.
“It’s beautiful,” I said in awe.
He smiled. “One of my greatest works.”
That I knew. Only the dwarves could layer iron and bronze, and they kept the secret clenched tight to their chests. “May I?” I asked quietly, holding out my hand.
Silently he held it out and I grasped the tang. I could feel the heat of the iron, but only a bit. The bronze remained cool in my hand. I lifted the blade and felt its weight and balance. Its weight was perfect, although it was a bit short for my height.
Finally, grudgingly, I handed it back. “It’ll do.”
“I thought it might be a bit light for you, with your height, but then I noticed your legs.”
My hooves and ankles which gave me my extra height. “I would ask you to keep it quiet.”
“Fear not. I’ve nothing against you. I take it your fortunes aren’t what they once were?”
My, he was perceptive. But for that sword he could have almost anything from me. “You could say that. I have a certain faerie in mind to meet this sword very close.”
“That’s none of my business. One thousand silver and it’s yours.”
A thousand? But for a blade like that it wasn’t too outrageous. Still... “Two hundred silver.”
He shrugged and started wrapping it up.
That blade would be mine! My hand started to reach for my shortsword, but I forced my rage down. This wasn’t the time, and he wasn’t one I wanted to fight. “Three hundred.”
He stopped wrapping. “Nine hundred.”
I remembered my coinage. The gold would be about 200, and there was another hundred or so silver. The gems would bring, maybe, another three or four hundred. “Four hundred.”
He frowned and I waited for his answer. Finally he spoke: “Eight hundred.”
I remembered the weight of the blade. “Five hundred.”
“Six hundred and an ivory handle.”
“Six hundred, an ivory handle, and a favour.”
“When you have regained your state, come and I will ask. And what I ask you must grant.”
“A stiff price.”
“But not too stiff. I may not be alive when you have regained what is yours. Or you may fail.”
“I will not fail.”
“A favour. As long as it does not harm me or my friends.” I remembered Sarsynalithagas.
“One of the mighty ones with friends?”
I glared at him. “Do you agree?”
“Yes.” He switched to the ancient tongue from before the Curse. “I will finish the sword and give it unto you and it will be yours. Until the End of All Things.”
“And I will use the sword for honour and death, and swear, by the Creation and the Ending, to grant your wage and your favour when I am restored and you ask, as long as it does not harm me or mine. Until the End of All Things.” I answered in the same tongue.
He switched back to the human tongue. “Then it is done. Let’s see the coins.”
I dumped the pouch out. The gold was easy. I handed him the gems and he looked at them for a moment.
“Three seventy-five.” A fair price.
I counted out another twenty-five silver and even gave him the last of the silver Kings.
He nodded and picked them up. I was afraid that he might want to test them, normally reasonable, but with the oaths we’d sworn... He didn’t.
“It will be ready tomorrow.”
“I’ll be back then.”
Then we bowed and I turned away. I knew he would do his part. I flipped my hood back over my head as I left.
Outside my guide was still waiting and Moranan was with him. They were talking like old friends and I wasn’t the least surprised.
“I think you can go in now.”
Moranan jumped up, grabbed a bucket of water, and ran around me.
I had planned on visiting a moneychanger or jeweler about the gems, but that problem had been solved. It was time to get back to the Bronze Rat and talk to Baldorf about some prospects to get some wealth from. I would need more money to repair the necklace and repay Sarsynalithagas. I turned to my guide, “It seems that I won’t need your services anymore today.”
“But how have I wronged you...”
“Don’t worry, it’s nothing you did. But this visit cancelled the need for any others.”
He frowned and started fumbling around in his pouch.
“Don’t worry, you’ve more than earned your silver.”
“Thanks miss, and if ya ever need any help just you ask for Talynthen.” Then he ran off.
I shook my head and started making my way back to the Bronze Rat.
I had a bit of trouble finding my way through the narrow streets that Talynthen had led me through, but the extra time gave me a chance to wonder. Unlike other mortal cities the streets were curiously empty. There were always people in sight, but there was always room to move easily. That changed by the time I reached the market by the harbour. There it was crowded.
But still, not as crowded as markets in mortal cities on the surface.
I spent a long time wandering through the market and looking at goods. There were manufactured goods such as clothing and wooden furniture near the harbour, and they were very expensive. Foodstuffs were plentiful, but most of it was fish or dried meats and fruits - fresh fruits and vegetables were rare and expensive. Of course there were entertainers on the corners, and some beggars, but not too many. The crowd of youths that had greeted me when I’d left the Bronze Rat were absent - Talynthen had marked me as his own.
And of course there were thieves. There were three attempts to pick my pocket, all of which I took in good humour, carefully touching their hand and pushing it away. As the day passed I bought a couple of roasted fish steaks and some ale. And, later still, I practiced my own pick pocketing skills and acquired a fair number of coppers, and the odd silver.
Eventually though I became bored, even though it was still early, and so I returned to the Bronze Rat.
As when I’d first arrived it was mostly empty, although a pair of humans were talking at one table, and an elf was sitting in a corner finishing off his meal. I sat down and waited until Illiania came over.
“What kind of meat do you have?” I definitely didn’t want fish.
“We have fish,” I grimaced, “along with some stewed rabbit.”
“Then I’ll have some of the rabbit, along with some bread and ale.”
She curtsied. “And Baldorf would like to speak to you later.” Then she turned and left.
I wonder what he wanted to talk about? Maybe it was about a thieve’s guild. I would at least have to ask him about the layout of the town. Leaning back, with my arms behind my neck, I watched the entrance while I waited. Nobody came in, although the elf left, before Illiania returned with my meal.
She put the bowl and mug on the table along with the bread. “A silver lady.”
I got one from my pouch and sent her on her way. The stew was much better than what I had when I first arrived, still thick, but much more tender. The bread was as hard as a rock, as mortal bread has always been, and the ale was sweeter than before, but still a little bitter for my taste.
When I was done Baldorf was waiting beside me.
“I need to speak to you - if you’ll follow?” He turned and walked towards the back.
I shrugged and followed him. He opened a door near the kitchen and I followed him in, closing it behind me. The room was small and apparently carved wholly out of natural rock, although the floor was covered in wooden planks. He sat down on a padded wooden chair beside a plain table and motioned me onto a plain wooden stool. I sat down, making sure to raise my tail so that I wouldn’t sit on it. Finally I was beginning to learn.
“You’ve been busy today.”
Did he know Boraran? “I have?”
“In the market.”
“And you are quite skilled, much more than a simple pickpocket or mage’s slave should be.”
Now where did he pick that up? It must have been from Kalibynthn - if he’d told him about the dragon... I needed to move the conversation to a different subject. “I’ve had a varied life. So, what’s this about? Do I need to pay some fees to a guild or something?”
He laughed. I frowned until he continued, “A guild? If there was a guild, probably half the people here would be a member.”
“It would be worse, but there is a kind of mutual agreement against thievery down here. Pick pocketing the merchants is fine, but nothing more.”
“So where would I go for a more wealthy haul.”
That could cause problems for me. But did I have a choice...?
He frowned and continued, “You might have problems there, but they would be less than if you tried something down here. No matter how good you are, there are an awful lot of us.”
I let my lips widen into a slight smile. “Point taken. But if I did want to go to Mandalor one night, who would know best where I should go?”
“Just 10% of the take.”
A bit high, but if his information was good it would make my job a lot easier. And the sooner I could get the gems and coins I needed to repay Sarsynalithagas and repair the necklace, the sooner Calynisha could be gifted with the burning iron of my sword in her chest - where it could remain until the End of All Things. “If your information is good, that’s quite reasonable.”
“I’m glad you agree.”
“Could you answer some of my other questions?”
“Firstly, how is this town setup? I’ve only seen a little bit of it.”
“As you’ve probably seen it is quite small, but quite dense. There are three quarters. The one you’re in is generally called the Commons and is the largest of the quarters and where most people live. Boraran lives with most of the dwarves in the Warrens which extend off into tunnels.”
So he did know about my trip, hopefully not too much though.
“The other two quarters are marked off by a stream that feeds into Sarsynalithagas’ lake. Across from the Commons but touching the harbour is Port Town, even though more of the docks are located in the Commons. The Elven quarter is there near the docks, but then it becomes almost solely human. Beyond that, across a tributary of the stream and the pond, a small pool that is fed by another tributary that comes out of the earth, is High Town, which is entirely human and is run by the churches.”
“I thought the churches left you alone?” I hoped so - the last thing I needed was a human inquisitor tracking me down.
“They do, but they rule High Town and restrict it to only humans. They have a strong military presence from their military orders which keep order in High Town. However they almost never leave it.”
I would definitely have to stay away from there, but at least it was unlikely that they would come out. Although a faerie might...- I’d have to keep a low profile. “I need to get some equipment before I go up to Mandalor.”
“You should go to Binnar - he can probably get something to muffle your...feet.”
“Can he also make tools?”
“Grappling hooks, picks, files, probably even some kind of climbing boots for your feet.”
They would be useful. “How can I find him?”
“Talynthen can take you, but you’ll have to wait for tomorrow - Binnar’s probably gone to the Silver Moon by now.”
Tomorrow would be fine as I could also pick up my sword. I gave a feral grin - even Baldorf leaned away a bit. That meant that I would have to stay here a while. “Then I’ll need a room from you for a while,” I paused and thought, “for about a month.”
“One hundred and twenty silver.”
“Oh come on, I haven’t been that successful.” I had paid three silver for one day, so the same rate would be 90 which would strain my resources. “Fifty.”
He just stared at me, a look of hurt coming into his eyes. “That pittance, after all the help that I’ve given you?”
“That and your 10%.”
“Hmm. One hundred.”
“Eighty.” He smiled. “With meals.” He frowned.
His turn. “Ninety, with meals. And 15%.”
Fifteen percent was a bit high, but then once I got the necklace I wouldn’t need it. “Seventy five with meals and 15%.”
We shook and he led me back to the common room.
I spent the rest of the evening there, watching the crowds come in. There were a pair of elves playing darts and challenging others - they almost always won. Eventually I, meekly and demurely, stuttering, offered to play. They accepted, expecting a sucker, but weren’t quite so happy by the time I’d won 20 silver from them.
Then I left for bed, quite satisfied.
All in all, it had been a good day.
Chapter 6: Oh What a Tangled Web
The caldayan race was born as the children of Cernus and Tamiola. They were born, not created as we were in the image of the Gods. Never forget that.
That is why they are different. Yes, they have the body and head of a lion, the torso and arms of a furred human, but they are not in the image of the Gods. They may think, they may fight, they may debate and conquer, but they are not the creation of the Gods.
They are simply the children of others.
We are made in the image.
We are the ones that are created.
And that puts us above them. That will make us beat them!
And that is why we will be victorious!
Puldar addressing the forces defending Mandalor from the caldayans under Morfranyn
I awoke the next morning in my room, still happy from the day before, especially my victories in the evening. So I bounced out of bed, and pranced as I got dressed and put on my shortsword. Then I pocketed my possessions and opened the door and walked downstairs for breakfast.
I was later than I’d been yesterday, and the inn was mostly empty, so Illiania was able to serve me quickly with some more stew and ale. I asked her if there was any sweeter ale, and she said that she would see what she could dig up.
I left and Talynthen was at the door waiting for me.
“Morning my lady. And where’d you be goin’ today?”
“First to see Boraran, and later to see someone named Binnar. Do you know him?”
Then he walked off and I hurried to follow. It wasn’t long until we arrived at Boraran’s, and this time Moranan led me right in. I wondered if he remembered me, or if his master had explained to him what to do. When I reached Boraran, Moranan turned and hurried back out into the street.
“It is ready,” Boraran said.
I almost pranced in place, but forced myself to be calm, and stern. “May I see it so I can inspect your work?”
He sighed and then turned around and walked over to a table on which was a sheepskin wrapped bundle - it looked like the same skin from yesterday. I waited, impatiently, as he slowly unwrapped the blade. Then, he held the sheepskin in his arms, with the sword sparkling in the light on top of the skin, and turned to face me.
I stepped forward, trying to walk softly, but still hearing my hooves loud in the silence, and picked up the sword by its leather-wrapped ivory grip.
The sword was perfectly balanced and swung easily, yet there was weight behind each blow. The leather felt warm in my hand, but nothing more. Eventually, after a few swings, there was a sudden twinge in my arm and I couldn’t help but grimace. I willed my body to heal, but nothing happened.
Boraran raised his eyebrows. “It doesn’t meet with your approval?” I could hear the disbelief and anger that the tone of his voice barely covered.
I carefully, and reverentially, put the blade back on top of the sheepskin he was still holding. “No. Just a twinge in my arm.” I frowned as I thought about it. My arm felt a little bit like it was wounded, but not the same. It was filled with a dull, throbbing, pain that pulsed from nothing, to a little bit, and then back again to nothing.
“Have you done any sword work recently?”
“Nothing since I lost to Calynisha.” I started to spit at her name, but his glare stopped me.
Now it was my turn to glare. “By the Curse, I won’t stand anybody to laugh at me!”
At that he quieted. “You’ve never had to practice before have you?” He turned around and walked back and put the sword back onto the table.
“Of course not.”
“No wonder. Do you know why you no longer had to practice?”
“Why?” I couldn’t believe what he was saying. I didn’t need to practice, I had never needed to practice. My skills had been mine since before the Curse.
He shook his head. “If I didn’t need...” He swallowed and paused before continuing. “Before you were always controlling your body with your will. Its strength, its shape, its fitness. If you were about to use your sword, you willed your muscles to be fit. And now you can’t.”
I closed my eyes and sighed. He was right. I remembered the time before the Curse. Before I had my immortality and my skill in magic. I remembered my Mistress of Swords training me and showing me exercises and stretches.
“And let me see this shortsword of yours.” He held his hand out.
I slowly drew it and handed it to him. He glanced down the blade and suddenly his expression hardened.
“Where did you get this?”
“I took it off of an elf who tried to rob me.”
“And what have you done with it?”
“I took it and sheathed it and nothing more.”
He held up the blade and pointed at a nick, barely visible in the blade. “Do you know what this is?”
I looked closely. The nick was small but visible. I could feel a memory nagging at me, something from a very long time ago. Then I had it – it was my Mistress of Swords showing me how to care for a blade. How to clean it with fine oils, and how to slowly rub out the nicks to keep it sharp. This was another thing I had had no need to do for so very long. I looked away from the blade and at him, still patiently waiting. “How much for some leather, oil, and cloths?”
“So, somebody did train you.”
“It was my mistake – I simply haven’t had any need since before the Curse.”
“Don’t worry about paying for it – your favour is more than enough. I’ll get it for you.”
I nodded. I remembered the raven and the humbleness he’d tried to force into me. Now seemed the right time for a bit of humbleness. “Thank you.”
He stopped and slowly turned around, astonishment clear on his face. Then he snorted, and then he smiled, and then he nodded. Then he turned around and went back to the table.
I waited patiently, remembered my training in swords so very long ago. My Mistress of Swords had been in my father’s service since before I returned from my fostering. I remembered that she was a very small woman, and she had always kept her hair cut short. I couldn’t see her face, but I remembered her hair – it was a brilliant copper red. I’d always suggested that she should let it grow long, but she’d always refused. She’d said she was used to it that way. I remembered her teaching me to use both a sword, and to use any other weapons I could to make sure that I would have every advantage. Then I remembered that she’d been killed by my father in a rage about twenty years before our revolt and the Curse. For the first time in an age, I remembered my father. I remembered that I had fought him for that, and it was I who had...
I realized that I was swishing my tail back and forth in agitation and had pulled my ears flat against my head as I opened my eyes and looked at him.
He took a step back. “Is there something...”
“No, no, nothing. Just ancient memories.”
“Whatever. Then here’s the sword in its scabbard, and this bag contains the cloth and oil and leather.”
I nodded and took the scabbard from him. It was of simple leather, without ornamentation except for a bit of silver wire at the top. I removed my belt and took off the shortsword’s scabbard and handed it to him, and then I put the new scabbard in its place.
It was noticeably heavier, but the weight felt good.
Then I took the bag and put it into a pouch. “Thank you.”
“At your service, my lady.” Then he paused and looked at me. “And don’t forget our bargain. Be careful, and be victorious. Before the End of All Things.”
“Before the End of All Things.” I paused, remembering, and then asked, “And one more thing...?”
He looked at me curiously.
“Do you have throwing daggers. Four or five of plain bronze would be plenty. And a shoulder belt and scabbards for them.”
“You didn’t come away with much did you? Is there a particular reason that you’re asking now?”
I swallowed. Then I remembered that sometimes it’s OK to mention a weakness. “The ancient memories of my training brought up other memories of other tools. I was taught that there is no such thing as honourable combat, just the results of victory or death. And that any kind of victory is much better than death, no matter how honourable.”
“You had a wise teacher.”
I sighed. “For two ages of the World, I have relied on my power and my magery, with weapons skill a distant second. Now that has to change.”
He nodded and turned away, going back into another room. “I have a shoulder belt and four daggers to go with it.”
I watched again, as he almost stopped walking for an instant, but then continued. Then I waited, closing my eyes and in my mind seeing my father on the marble floor in front of me, wounded, beaten, and afraid. So afraid that the father I had for so long respected and feared had fouled his pants with his fear. So afraid...
I couldn’t help but step back. “Sorry.” Then I reached out and took the belt and scabbards from him. The belt was of plain leather, and the scabbards plain and unadorned. This was fine with me – I had learned long ago that there is a place for ornamentation, and a place for simplicity. I pulled out one dagger and looked at it. It was of hammered and folded bronze with a simple bronze handle and no guard. No where near as well crafted as my sword, but well balanced and perfect for throwing. Just what I needed. “These will do quite well.”
He smiled. “Then for you that will be 16 silver.”
I put the belt down on the table and started pulling out the Silver Claws from the Seven Cities. As I counted Boraran first frowned but then stopped as the count went higher and higher until I finally had counted out thirty. I wanted to get rid of all of them.
“No barter?” he asked when I was done.
“We’re both too old, and know each other too well to need that anymore.” I pulled off my cloak and secured the belt over my shoulders.
There was a long pause until he finally said, “I think you may kill Calynisha after all.” He must have been remembering what I’d told him about my Mistress of Swords.
I smiled, a grim, feral smile. “I plan to, and Before the End of All Things.”
“Yes. Oh, and be careful of Binnar...”
How’d he know that?
“And I’ll see you again, Before the End of All Things.”
I tensed for a second, and then sighed. I would see Binnar soon enough, and anger with Boraran would achieve nothing. So I turned and left, walking past Moranan who was standing in the entrance. I wondered what he thought of Boraran’s and my parting phrase? Ah well, let Boraran worry about it. Then I was in the street and Talynthen was lying on the bare stone, waiting.
The instant he saw me, he bounced to his feet and bowed. “My lady. And what wish your greatness now?”
“And now we go to see Binnar. You said you knew him?”
“Yes. Follow, and soon we’ll arrive.”
Talynthen was off in a flash, and I had to trot to keep up. “What’s the hurry?”
He just sped up, so I just shrugged and hurried after. When we arrived I’d ask and he would answer.
Talynthen led me down narrow, dirty, dark alleys, completely unlit except for the odd glint of light from cracks in closed shutters. We met no one, other than a few rats, but I could hear human voices fading in and out in the distance, echoing around the alleys we followed.
Then, suddenly, Talynthen stopped in front of a plain door and knocked twice, then thrice, then twice again. Just as I stopped behind him a small sliding panel opened in the door letting a dim light shine out into the alley, and then the door was pulled open and Talynthen quickly paced in.
What could I do but follow?
The door opened into a dim stone room and then the door was slammed shut behind me.
What?! I spun around, drawing my sword and looking to see who’d closed the door.
And there was somebody. They were short and slim, dressed in ring mail made of blackened metal, with each ring wrapped in some kind of black cloth to keep it silent and dark.
“You are Ilisri?” a male voice whispered.
Still holding my sword ready, I said back, in a normal voice. “Yes. And...”
“Shhh! We don’t know who’s listening.”
OK. So I whispered, “And you are Binnar?”
For a moment he didn’t answer, but instead turned to look at Talynthen who was behind me. I turned my head enough to see both and watched as Talynthen shook his head. Immediately the man relaxed.
“Yes,” he finally answered in a whisper.
But if he had waited for a confirmation from Talynthen, then why had his negative response been accepted? Or was that the proper signal, in case he was under duress? Or...
“Baldorf told me you’d be here today. If you’ll follow to someplace safer where we can talk?”
I lowered my sword to a more comfortable position but did not sheaf it. “Lead on,” I answered, still in a whisper.
He nodded and then walked away from the door and down a corridor leading from the room that slanted steeply downwards. As he entered the light I could see that he had long hair, either naturally black or stained, worked into tight braids that hung down from his head and down just past his waist. From his slightly pointed ears I knew he was elven. Although he was not holding any weapons, on his body I could see two swords, and five daggers in various places, and other places that looked like they had concealed weapons. I turned to follow behind him.
Instantly, faster than I could have, he spun around, drawing a pair of swords and facing me. Before I even consciously realized this, my sword flashed back up to its defensive position. There was a tense moment until he whispered, “Not so close, stay back at least 10’ or I won’t answer for the consequences.” Then he started to back down the corridor, always facing me.
I felt my ears pull down flat against my head and felt my tail stop swishing. Why... Then I felt a furred hand on my arm. I spun around, and managed to halt my strike when I recognized Talynthen quickly backing away.
“Don’t,” he whispered. “Binnar’s like this to everyone. I don’ know, but I’ve heard he had a strange life. Don’ provoke him.”
We would see about who would provoke whom, but for now I waited until he was 10’ ahead and then followed. As we walked down the descending and twisting passage, I turned to Talynthen and asked, “So why were you in such a hurry?” My voice was light, unlike my mood.
“We were in the human section – it wasn’t safe t’ tarry.”
As I looked at Talynthen, I realized that he was worried. For the first time I knew of his ears were flat against his skull. I thought about that for a moment, my hooves clacking on the floor as I followed Binnar, and I licked my dry lips. Then, slightly louder, I whispered to Talynthen, “What are you hiding?”
He stopped, and I stopped and turned to face him, my ears raised and rotated to hear the whisper of sound that Binnar made as he continued down the passageway. Talynthen started to back away until I grabbed his arm in my left hand, holding my sword ready.
“You rush me here and later give an excuse. Then when Binnar looks at you, you shake your head, as though I was NOT who I am. And now you look ready to bolt.”
He stood there, and then slowly turned to look at the floor. “I’m afraid Binnar’ll kill you.”
“What?!” My voice echoed loudly.
“You look’d ready to attack Binnar and then he’d kill you. I answered him that you’re you as arranged and...” He sighed. “I don’ want you dead.”
Binnar kill me? And that easily? I laughed out loud for a second - until I heard the almost silent hiss of a dagger through the air. Ignoring Talynthen I spun around and saw a dagger hissing towards me, with the dim light glinting off something on the blade. I leaned just enough to the side and barely caught it by the handle, almost dropping it. Then I looked up and saw Binnar about 15’ away, ready with another dagger.
“By The Curse, enough!” I shouted and threw the dagger to the floor where it skittered off into the darkness. I heard Talynthen back away and press himself against the wall. Binnar tensed at my words and prepared to throw again.
I had barely caught the first dagger and might not be able to catch the second, so other measures were required. I’d been practicing and, without letting my gaze leave Binnar, pulled a magic through a crack in the will of the mortals and brought a single small light into existence above my head. “Binnar. Do you know what I am?”
“Didn’t Boraran warn you? Or Baldorf?” Not a motion. “We both know that at least one of them did. Do you think that one of my kind would actually be so powerless as they believe? I don’t want to kill you, but I can and will take you with me, and make you live in endless agony until The End of All Things.”
At that he blinked. Finally, a movement. So he did know, or at least knew what they’d told him.
“For now I’m playing a game, and that game has its rules, otherwise what fun would it be? And within those rules you are useful to me. Useful, but not vital.” Now for the dangerous part. To help convince him I sheathed my sword. “You think you can actually hurt me, but I know you can’t. You think that you can stop me if we do actually fight. And, if I stay within the rules, you could actually be right. But I don’t like receiving pain, and the worst you could do would be to banish me for a year and a day. And then I would be back, and not bound by any rules.” I let myself smile. “Do we have an understanding?”
I watched the readiness for battle vanish from his body as he sheathed his dagger. “My trust is not easily earned, and you haven’t. But those whom I do trust have asked, and I have promised. For now we can have peace, and not because of any fear of you.”
My smile actually grew – I could grow to like this person. He had guts and wasn’t afraid – there were very few like him. I think I could have taken him, but even in all my power it would likely still not have been easy. “Then lead on.”
Binnar turned around and proceeded down the passageway. I was ready to follow him, but first had to deal with Talynthen. Turning around I saw him some distance away, his black coat making him almost invisible in the shadows. “Talynthen?”
He slowly stepped forward, crawling on his belly, one step at a time, slow and afraid. I heard Binnar stop behind me, but just listened, my eyes watching Talynthen slowly creep towards me. He stopped about five feet away.
“Talynthen, there is a time when fear can help you, and a time when fear will do you no good at all. If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead, and nothing upon this World could save you. Maybe Binnar behind me could avenge you, but even if he could, that wouldn’t save you. And, since you can’t do anything about it, then there is no sense in being afraid of it. Fear can, and in this case will, get you killed.” I let a small smile appear on my face as I pushed back the hood on my cloak and let my ears be clearly visible. “So come along.” Then I turned around and started walking after Binnar, who, for an instant, grinned and winked, and then turned and continued. After a few moments, I could hear Talynthen padding along behind.
We continued in silence for a while longer until Binnar stopped. I stopped about ten feet away and heard Talynthen stop about five feet behind me. Then Binnar pressed against the wall and a door silently spun open. He went in and I followed, and eventually Talynthen followed behind, pushing the door shut behind him.
Interesting – he must have been here before. But the chamber itself was more interesting.
It was not quarters, but was instead a combination workshop and practice area. There were dummies and targets along one wall, and another wall had strips from floor to ceiling of various types of surfaces – plaster, wood, stone - all ready for practice climbing. There were tables along the other two walls crowded with locks and tools. Above them, hanging from the hooks on the walls were all kinds of costumes and masks and cloaks and robes. Lots of them I could see had well concealed pouches and scabbards.
Binnar waited until I finished my appraisal and then he spoke in a normal voice. It was low pitched, but melodious, making his words almost into a song. “You’re right, I wouldn’t appreciate it if you killed Talynthen. And you’re right, that probably wouldn’t do him much good.”
I chuckled. He could almost be one of my children, if I’d ever had any. “And I wouldn’t want to kill him, but I hope the lesson I taught him wasn’t wasted.”
“I’ll make sure it won’t be.” And then Binnar smiled.
“Then let’s get to our work. I take it that Baldorf told you of my plans and needs?”
“Yes, Baldorf has passed on a couple of good targets for you, but we don’t have much time.”
I would have to talk to Baldorf – it seemed that something was going on between him and Boraran and Binnar - and I didn’t like it. But why was there so little time? So I asked, “Why?”
“In twelve days all of the World will be celebrating the Carnival of the Masks at the end of the week mourning Vashigan’s death. I take it you know of that?”
I had no love for Vashigan. “I’d heard that Kor had killed him, and then brought him back.” One of the few good things the god Kor had done – maybe it had taught Vashigan some humility.
He nodded. “During that festival, all will be in costume. That’s the best time for you to be on the surface, as you already have most of a costume. All you need is a head piece, and then you can go as a horse.”
I smiled. “A horse.”
“The mask will be light and easy to remove as needed. I’ll need to get measurements to get the mask made, and then we can discuss your other tools. I have some ideas for what to do about your hooves.”
I heard Talynthen shuffle in the background – I guess nobody had bothered telling him, but I kept my attention on Binnar. “I would need some kind of leather boots that could be strapped on with thin metal points out the front to grip.”
Binnar smiled. “Just what I had in mind – I think we’ll get along.”
“And so do I.” I pulled off my cloak and let it settle to the ground, my tail enjoying its freedom. “So, shall we get started?”
The rest of the day passed quickly. Binnar and I ignored Talynthen and Binnar got to work. He already had mockups of the boots I’d described made out of cloth, and the first task was to measure my hooves so that they would fit properly. He would get the actual boots finished in a couple of days. The mask was easy, as he already had a horse costume and it was just a matter of cutting holes for my ears. It would need some repairs as it looked like it had been badly used, but it looked good. Then, the final few hours were spent with locks and picks and practice. Binnar had samples of most of the locks made by locksmiths in Mandalor and he knew the best tool and best procedure for each. I paid careful attention, for it was clear he knew what he was talking about. Finally, the day was over, and we were both tired so he let me out. He told me a different knock signal for tomorrow and then he closed the door to his workroom behind Talynthen and I.
I looked down at Talynthen who looked much happier as I put my cloak back on. “They haven’t told you much, have they?” I asked him.
“And what did you see today?” I was curious as to what he would answer – I wanted to see how wise he really was.
He grinned. “Just two human’s gossip’n.”
I smiled back but let my voice be cold, “And you won’t tell anybody anything else, will you?”
“No lady. I’ve plans.”
“Then we have an understanding. Let’s get back.” He started walking up the passageway. “Oh, and I won’t be needing you tomorrow.”
“I know the way. And that way, if Binnar gets nasty, you won’t be in the way.”
He whispered, “And if you get nasty?”
I let my feral smile fill my face. “You don’t want me to get nasty.”
He swallowed and turned and hurried up the passageway as I followed.
Good, he would stay silent. But there was one more thing that I called after him as I followed, “This is one of those times when fear is a good thing.”
I laughed as he stumbled for a second before he caught himself.
The trip back to the inn was quiet and uneventful. I only had time to clean out one pocket in passing - unfortunately there were only three silvers, but that’s life. Once we reached the Bronze Rat Talynthen turned, and then left so quickly it was almost like he fled, which he probably had. I laughed and went in.
The inn was busy, but there was an empty seat at an empty table in the corner so I made my way over to it. A human was also making his way towards it but then he suddenly turned and went elsewhere – I saw Illiania motion him away as I reached the table and sat down. The elves were again playing darts but this time they ignored me. Oh well, what could I expect after the way I’d fleeced them yesterday. In a few minutes Illiania came over to me with some more stew and a mug of ale which she put on the table in front of me.
“The stew is the same as yesterday, and the ale is the sweetest I could find. Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Thanks,” I responded and tossed her a copper. She smiled and the coin vanished.
The meal was as good as yesterday, although the stew was much spicier. More importantly the ale was much more to my taste. Soon my meal was finished and I waited until Illiania came to pick up the plates. “The ale was perfect.”
She smiled as I tossed her another copper.
“Do you know where Baldorf is? I’d like to talk to him, in private.”
“Just wait and I’ll get him.”
I waited and a few moments later she was back and motioned me to follow. I did, and she led me to the same room I’d talked to Baldorf in the first night I met him. She turned and closed the door behind me. This time I looked carefully around at every wall, and found what I was looking for – a pair of arrow slits, hidden, high in the wall behind his desk.
It was just like being back home again and struggling against the other powers. And this mortal thought he could play the game better than me?!
Baldorf motioned me to the chair and I walked to it but remained standing.
“Did Binnar not help?”
“That’s not why I’m here. What have you and Boraran told each other and Binnar?”
He leaned back and his padded chair creaked under him. “I haven’t told Boraran anything, and I only arranged your meeting with Binnar.”
Why... I galloped to the desk and grabbed his chin, drawing a dagger as I did so. “You lying bast...”
He stayed perfectly still, although I saw one arm start to reach under his desk.
My dagger was at his throat. “Whatever you’re getting, it won’t be fast enough.”
I felt him swallow. “Now why would you treat your partner in crime this way?” His voice was calm and full of innocence.
Innocence! I forced myself to stay calm. He hadn’t hurt me, but I had to know how far this went and whom he thought worthy of trust. “Boraran knew I was going to see Binnar, and you had arranged that meeting. I can’t see Binnar telling anybody anything so that leaves you. So who else did you tell?”
His eyes flicked around.
“And now you’re thinking that I won’t kill you because I know that your friends will avenge you. Well, I have my friends too. You know the dragon Sarsynalithagas?” I let go of his chin, but kept my dagger ready. “You can nod if you want to.”
“She’s been my friend longer than your race has existed. Now, doubtless, you’re thinking that you should just agree, and then quietly poison me. Or maybe just call for help and hope your guards can kill me before I can kill you.”
“And you’re right. She might never find out. But I know that she would, and very quickly too. We’ve been lost to each other for so long before finally finding each other again. She would not be impressed if I died – if I even can.” Behind Baldorf I heard some movement behind the wall.
“Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out what death was like?” he asked.
“I’ve no interest in finding out right now, and I hope you don’t either. And I would strongly advise your telling the two archers to back off right now. Otherwise I shall have to lift you up so as to give them a different choice of targets.”
“Wait two small cycles,” he called out in dwarvish, which I knew fairly well as it had evolved from my tongue. I heard the archers back away.
For a second I thought of continuing in dwarvish, but decided that that knowledge was a dangerous thing for him to have. “I see that you’re not eager to die. And I don’t want to kill you, but I don’t like people who know about me telling too much to other people. It makes me nervous.”
“I’ve noticed,” he whispered, speaking again in the common tongue of the World.
I pulled the dagger away from his throat and backed up and sat down, again remembering to lift my tail. “I don’t want to kill you, but the hints I’ve been picking up today make me nervous. I don’t like being nervous.”
“A wise attitude.”
“Oh, and before I forget. You might not believe me about Sarsynalithagas. Unless Kalibynthn told you certain things, or you can check with Boraran about hatchling sisters.”
He paled. So he knew what that meant.
“Now,” I started cleaning under one fingernail with my dagger, “exactly who have you told, and what have you told them? And you might want to tell the archers to leave so they don’t hear too much. They might avenge you, but they won’t save you.”
He sighed and stood up, brushing his shirt to smooth it out. Then he called out in dwarvish, “Go now, but guard the door and don’t let her out alive unless I tell you.” Then he sat down.
I smiled – a wise precaution. Ultimately stupid for this town, but if he was dead then what would he care. But he was still plotting which was dangerous. So I answered him in dwarvish, “Futile, but a wise precaution.”
Interestingly he didn’t react to that. He must have figured that I understood his tongue, in which case I had to admire him. I waited for him to continue.
He sighed, and then finally answered, “It’s just Binnar, Boraran and myself. I was once the guildmaster in Mandalor and the other two were my assistants until the caldaya were driven from the city and we were forced to flee from the humans down here.”
Interesting. Given Boraran’s skills, he probably wasn’t a thief, but any such guild would certainly have made use of his skills.
“We’ve kept in contact with others in the guild,” Baldorf finished.
“And you were going to use me, ultimately, to get back into power.”
“Originally we were going to trade you to the churches for wealth.”
I glared at him.
“But your dealings with Boraran put a halt to that.”
Which made sense. A favour from me, once I had my true power back, would put any amount of wealth to shame. It seemed that he was speaking the truth, and it was a bit easier than I’d feared, but his answers made sense, and he wasn’t really out to kill me. “And what have you told each other?”
“What you look like, what Boraran knows of your dealings with Calynisha, what you’ve told each of us.”
“And there is no one else? Not Kalibynthn?”
“Pah, no one else, and not him. He’s just another bit of scum who likes it down here. But we may have to talk to...”
“No, you don’t want to talk to him. He doesn’t know anything you need to know, and if you ask him he will ask you why, and that’s dangerous. And he won’t tell you anything anyway, not if he knows what’s good for him.”
“You are not a good person to know, are you?”
“I can be once certain rules of trust are established, which we’ve now done. For now I need you and your friends to help me, and later I will help you and your friends. Simple and agreeable. I just wanted to make sure that everybody involved knew the rules.” I paused and let a demure smile appear on my face. “I take it we all understand each other?”
“Now, if you’ll call off your archers, I’ll be on my way so that we all can get what we want.”
He smiled and called them off, and then walked over and opened the door for me. I smiled, and walked out and up to my room. I needed to rest for my further training tomorrow with Binnar. But, first I went through my memories of my Mistress of Swords and went through the stretches and exercises she’d taught me. Then I pulled the tools that Boraran had given me and cleaned and polished my weapons. Only then did I finally go to bed, after double-checking to make sure the door was barred. There was probably a secret entrance that Baldorf could use, but I wasn’t worried – after all we had an understanding.
The next week passed quickly. I would wake up and perform the exercises I remembered, and clean my weapons. Then I would go downstairs for breakfast, unfortunately I never ran into Kalibynthn, and then go and meet with Binnar. We would work through the day, and then I’d return, wander a bit through the market by the port and pick up some loose change, have supper in the Bronze Rat, go to my room, stretch and clean, and then go to sleep. Occasionally I would hear rumours of war to the north, and that the garrison of Mandalor was being reinforced, but I didn’t worry – I’d be long gone before any invasion could reach Mandalor. Eventually Binnar did become, well sort of, a friend, and my training would be broken up by sparring matches. By mutual agreement we used wooden blades since, although we were skilled enough not to intentionally hurt most people, we were so equally matched that we both feared an unfortunate accident as each of us tried anything to win. Wooden blades were the right idea, as I could barely hold my own against him. But in latter bouts I pulled ahead as I learned to use my body, and my hooves, as weapons. Eventually we ended up padding my hooves too.
Kalibynthn was still in town, and I saw him a couple of times in the Bronze Rat but he studiously avoided me – I wanted to talk to him before I went up to the surface. That was it. Both for his guidance as to the best path – to check against that recommended to me by Baldorf and company – and to make sure he understood to keep his mouth shut.
Following Talynthen’s advice, I kept to the alleys and cantered quickly to and from my meetings with Binnar. It worked for the rest of the week, but eventually it failed. I was on my way home, when, suddenly, I heard the quiet pacing of six humans as they stalked out of side alleys and stood in front of me, four with daggers, and two with shortswords. All had their weapons ready.
They looked young, almost adults but not quite. I stopped, and waited, ready to grab a pair of daggers and react if things went the way they were likely to.
Finally one of the two with the shortswords spoke, “We don’ like your kind here.” A couple of the others laughed. I waited, calmly, until he spoke again, “But we’re peaceful folks. Ya pay us, we might let ya go.”
Ha! I was hot and tired after a good day with Binnar, so I wasn’t annoyed enough to just kill them. I’d give them a chance. “And if you leave now, I might just let you live to try it on somebody else.” I didn’t really want to fight them – six on one is not good odds, no matter how good the one was. But I could not let them extort me as once they started, they’d never stop.
A couple backed away a little, possibly from the cold and confident tone of my voice, but others kept them from withdrawing completely. The leader took a step forward. “With attitude like t’at, tha price just went up.”
Inwardly I sighed – the threats weren’t going to work. And with six of them, I would have to even the odds as quickly as possible. So I made the first move. First my two hands whipped out two daggers and threw them towards two of the youths with daggers, not the ones that had backed away. Then, with the daggers still in flight I galloped towards the leader, drawing my sword as I went.
Fortunately he wasn’t as skilled as he made himself sound and didn’t even get his sword up before mine ran him through. Twisting it as I pulled it out, I turned to look at his lieutenant, glancing around at the others. The lieutenant had his sword ready and was approaching me. My daggers had hit my two targets, and one was down, while the other was advancing with one arm hanging loose. The other two were following behind.
I’d have to make this fast, before the four could rush me, or even worse, pummel me with daggers at range. Fortunately they were holding their weapons to fight, not to throw. So I rushed the lieutenant while the body of the leader was still slumping to the ground. He had his sword up and managed to parry my blow, but that was my intent as I kicked him in the crotch with one hoof. He went down and I kicked him in the head to make sure while I turned to face the last three.
They’d started backing away. I smiled my feral smile and told them, “I did warn you,” as I galloped towards them. They turned and fled. However, as I wanted my dagger back, I drew another dagger and threw it into the back of the one I’d hit in the arm. He went down and the others fled faster.
It was over.
I decided to let the two run as if word got out about me I would likely not have to go through this again. However, there was no reason to let any of the others live. It didn’t take long to slit all their throats - even though two were likely dead I wanted to make sure. Then I cleaned my weapons on clean areas of their tunics and checked their possessions. I left their weapons but took their pouches. Then I turned and left.
I forced myself to remain calm until I was back at the Bronze Rat. There I asked Illiania to bring my supper to my room and I went up right away. It wasn’t until I was in, and had latched the door, that I let my fear out and sat down, hard, on the bed.
I’d been worried. If they had all rushed me, even though they had nothing like my skill, I would likely have killed three or four of them, but the other two would have been behind me with their daggers in my back. It had been close. I’d actually had a chance to lose.
And, by the Curse, it was exhilarating! A part of me wanted to do it again, but I forced that part down. I had to stay alive for Calynisha, and no matter how diverting and enjoyable, there was no sense in taking risks.
I’d emptied the pouches onto my bed when Illiania came with dinner. Letting her in, I thanked her, took my dinner, and gave her a silver for her troubles. She smiled and left, probably to tell Baldorf about how successful I’d been that day. I wasn’t sure if I wanted him to know the truth or not – it could make him fearful of my skill, which he probably knew of from Binnar, or it could give him ideas. I decided I’d keep silent.
Dinner wasn’t as good that night for some reason, although it was still filling, and the ale was now nice and sweet as I liked it. I finished my meal and counted my earnings – most of it was copper but there were almost thirty silver and there was actually three gold. They must have accosted a rich merchant before they ran into me. Their loss, my gain.
As I sat down to clean and polish my weapons before performing my exercises I decided that I’d been putting off the problem with Kalibynthn too long. I’d been avoiding it. But why had I been avoiding him? My thoughts stopped for a second. Why did I suddenly think him and not it? Well, he still had to be dealt with. As the fight today had reminded me, problems avoided simply grew. I needed to talk to him, but then I discovered, in shock, that a lot of me didn’t want to. That was too much! I would talk to him tomorrow and make sure that things were properly understood. I was too close to my vengeance to let any mortal cause problems, no matter how good they were in bed.
The next day went as normal, and I had no encounters either going to, or leaving from, Binnar’s labyrinth. Hopefully the word was getting around. Now it was time to go and see about Kalibynthn. The port was easy to reach, and a few queries pointed me to the right dock. I looked down it and saw that his barge was indeed moored there, and that some cargo was being loaded. Unfortunately that meant that he’d be leaving soon, and I wanted him to guide me. I’d have to see what I could do.
I clopped down to the end of the stone dock, dodging around humans and the occasional dwarf, until I was opposite his barge. Spotting him, I saw that he was talking to someone so I waited until that person turned to leave, then I called out, “Kalibynthn!”
He turned and looked at me, and then, after an instant he smiled. “Why my love! It’s glad I am to see you again. Come on aboard!” And he opened his arms wide and invitingly.
I laughed and hopped aboard, the barge shifting slightly with my weight. Looking around, I saw no sign of Organyth. Then I made my way over to Kalibynthn.
“Welcome aboard my love,” and then he whispered, “as furry as I remember!” Then, in his normal voice he continued, “You look well.”
“As do you. I thought I’d say hello before you left, and have a little fun. It’s been cold and lonely at nights.”
He chuckled. “For you perhaps.”
And then he laughed, “But you’ve always been in my mind, no matter who was in my arms.”
He smiled and I couldn’t help but smile with him. I really hoped I wouldn’t have to kill him.
“Shall we relax and talk then?” I paused and looked down at the deck. “I have some things to ask.”
“At your service I’ll ever be. If you’ll follow me to my cabin, we’ll talk and try to keep your bed from being so cold and lonely.” And then he bowed and walked to his cabin.
I laughed and followed and let him open his door for me as I walked through. And then he slammed it shut on me. I spun around to look out at him.
“You’re fun in bed, and fun to hug, but there is too much danger swirling around you. As much as I might hate it, I need some answers before anything else.”
I couldn’t believe what this mortal had done to me! Then I heard a low growl behind me and knew that Organyth was there awaiting his masters word. I wasn’t afraid of the wolf as I wouldn’t have trouble dealing with him, but that, and the door, would give Kalibynthn time to flee - and that would be a problem. It seems that I, I!, would have to talk to him. Mentally I shrugged, after all he had entrapped me so well, and I could almost understand why. And I really didn’t want to kill him. So I calmed my face, blinked my eyes helplessly and told him, “I don’t know what you could be afraid of, but ask. Then I won’t have to be lonely tonight.”
I could tell from his eyes that the act wasn’t working. “I’ve heard too many ugly things about you these past days. And too many have been asking of you – you can stop the act.”
He was good, but he needed to be taught a lesson. If he wanted to see the true me, then fine. I let my hatred of Calynisha and my disdain for mortals fill my eyes. I watched, amused, as he took a step back.
“Maybe you should have kept the act up,” he muttered.
I smiled my feral grin – I was becoming quite good at it. “So, who’s all been asking?” I asked, my voice ever so sweet.
“That raven of yours asked. It seems he can speak. Is he the mage you mentioned? Was that a truth, or was he a helpless victim of yours?”
I looked at him. I’d told him that because it was what he would believe and it would help him want to aid me. Now I had to decide what to tell him. He wasn’t like those humans yesterday – he was intelligent and kind. And I found that I cared about him. I swallowed. He deserved at least some of the truth. “No, not a victim. The whole mage story was just that, a story.”
“A story,” I emphasized. “I had nothing and had to have your help. I was desperate.”
He snorted. “So what is the raven?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t know? Hard that is to believe. I can understand your need to tell a story, but...”
“Let me start at the beginning then.”
“That is often the best place.”
“But before I begin, just remember that I really do like you, and I really don’t want to have to kill you.”
“Really...” he answered, disbelievingly.
“And I must have your word that you will tell no one what I’m going to tell you. If you do, I’ll find out, and I will kill you.”
“Really. You make me sound like the prisoner and you like the captor.”
“What did you tell those who asked you of me then?”
“Nothing. So far.”
Good. “Then saying you won’t tell them anything since you haven’t told them anything, shouldn’t cause any harm, now should it.”
“No, likely not. Fine, you have my word. Unless you betray me, you have my word that I will tell no one what I am about to hear.”
“Good enough. Then listen, and believe that I have told only one other all this, and realize what that means.” And then I told him. In quiet words I told him about Calynisha and her curse, about my arrival in Mandalor and my encounter with Calynisha’s priest and his death. About how I met the raven and how the raven had guided me to him. About why Sarsynalithagas had taken me, and about what a hatchling sister was and what that meant. About my arrival in the underworld and how the raven and I had had a parting of the ways. And about how I was getting ready to steal the gems I needed to go home and take my rightful place back in faerie. I did not tell him about Baldorf or Boraran, or Binnar. That he didn’t need to know. It had been tiring, yet it felt good, and right, to let him know the truth. Then I waited for his response.
“Is that the whole truth?”
“No, but everything I told you is the truth. What I left out was to protect you - certain others would be dangerous if I told you.”
“Aye. You mean Baldorf don’t you.”
Interesting. “Yes, and others he knows.”
“There are stories about him. Some stores are whispered, and some have been whispered once and then the whisperer turned up dead. Somebody who, if certain rumours are to be believed, might be working for him, came to ask me about dragons.”
“And you told him?”
“Only that Sarsynalithagas had greeted you like she, although I said it, greeted others.”
“Thank you. Did they ask why I didn’t arrive on your barge?”
“Yes. I told them that you vanished one night whilst we were in the lake. I told them that I didn’t know how.”
I was impressed, and thankful. “A wise answer from a wise man.”
“And the raven came and warned me about you.”
“He said that danger was coming after you, more danger than any mortal could handle. He wanted me to tell him if I ever saw you again. In fact, he sounded worried about you.”
Worried? “Are you going to tell him?”
“I don’t know.” He paused, “Why don’t you trust him.”
“He has too many secrets.”
“As do you from me.”
“That’s different. I’m telling you what I can – I don’t want to hurt you, or Organyth.”
“And I don’t think the raven wants to hurt you.”
“I don’t trust him.”
“And I don’t trust you. You have too many secrets.”
What?! After I’d told him everything about me? Or almost everything. By the Curse, how dare he! How dare... I clenched my fists and forced the anger out, ignoring Organyth’s sudden growling. Kalibynthn was right – I was doing to him what the raven was doing to me. Finally, calm, I looked into his eyes and asked in a quiet voice, “So now what?”
“You could start by telling me your secrets.”
“I can’t! Do you want cultists after you? Do you want some of the powers after you? Do you want Baldorf and his lackeys trying to kill you?” I found that I actually didn’t want to tell him for fear of what might happen to him.
“Then that’s a risk I’ll have ta take.”
I sighed. “You know I could call for Sarsynalithagas to come and free me.”
“You could, if Organyth lets you live long enough.”
“I don’t think that would be a problem. However, I’m not going to out of respect for you.”
I sighed. I felt strange. I felt both warm and cold. Part of me wanted him near, and another part wanted him far away and safe. The part that wanted him near me, holding me, was winning. But he was a mortal. A plain, stupid, powerless, soon to be dead, mortal. A tool to be used and discarded. But I couldn’t discard him. Even if I needed to, I don’t think I...
“Are you all right?”
He was almost at the door looking at me. I could grab him, or I could shove my sword into his face, or I could throw daggers into his eyes, or... What I actually did was blink tears out of my eyes. “I’m...I’m sorry. I’ll be...be fine, really.” There were tears. In my eyes. Tears!
He put his hand paw through the window and caught one of my tears in his fur. It tickled, but felt so good.
I didn’t want to say anything, I just wanted to enjoy his presence. But then, too soon, his paw was pulled away. “Don’t,” I whispered.
“How can it be like this? I don’t want to hurt you, and I don’t want hurt to come to you.” Absently, part of my mind realized that Organyth was actually licking the upper portion of my left leg. His tongue was wet and rough, but it was comforting.
Then Kalibynthn was opening the door and holding me in his arms. I looked up into his face. “Why?” I whispered.
“Organyth accepts you, and that’s enough for me.” And then he held me tightly as I sobbed.
After a while he led me to his bed and helped me onto it. Then he let go of me and was silent. He didn’t even scent of eagerness or need. He scented of, for lack of a better word, pain. Finally I was, at least outwardly, calm, and asked, “Is something wrong?”
“No, not with me anyway.”
“But your scent...”
“It must be the pain I feel for you.”
“You’re sad, and I don’t want that.”
“But why am I sad?” I asked, more to myself than to him. “My goal is in sight. Those who could hurt me are under control, through fear or their own dreams of power. I’ve finally found my hatchling sister, and I’m with a friend.” I paused and then whispered, “A friend?”
“And why not.”
“But I’ve never had a friend. Relations, hatchling sisters, but never a friend. It’s always been fear and struggle and power.”
He lay on the bed and pressed himself against me, his hot furry body. Not hot with eagerness, but just hot because the Gods had made him that way.
And, for an instant, I didn’t think of them as a curse or as an enemy.
“A friend,” I whispered. And I remembered being held by my Mistress of Swords one day after my father had whipped me. She had held me without love and without seeking anything. She had held me just to hold me, like Kalibynthn lay beside me now, just being there.
He remained silent.
“I think I had another friend once, a long, long time ago.”
He wrapped his arms around me and whispered in my ear, his breath soft and warm, “Tell me about her.”
“She was the Mistress of Swords for my father. She taught me all about the World and how to survive. She held me after my father punished me for failing at anything. And then he killed her.”
“And I killed him. He was there, lying on the floor, the stink of urine in his pants, begging me for his life. But I just laughed and killed him. And not a clean kill. I opened his chest slowly and let him struggle and scream until finally death took him.”
I waited for Kalibynthn’s reaction but he was still except for his breathing. So I sighed and continued, after first forcing my ears to relax from where they were plastered against my skull. “I killed him but took no joy out of it. She’d taught me that there was no joy in killing, pride in doing what had to be done well, but no joy. And then I left.”
“What did you leave?” He didn’t sound curious, he sounded like he asked because I needed to be asked, and nothing more.
“He was powerful, one of the mightiest of the lords of old. His family was close to the highest ranks of power. He helped plan our attack upon the Gods.”
“Then he was a fool.”
“We were not fools!” I sat up and pushed away from him. “Why did we not deserve what they had? We worshipped them, we built in their name, we made greatness in their name. And, at the end, when we began to teach them, they still hoarded! We were not deserving they said. And if we were not deserving, then why did they make us that way!?”
He put his hand on my shoulder. “It’s done now. Long and long done. I shouldn’t have judged him, and I shouldn’t have judged you for I wasn’t there.”
I could tell that he still believed we were wrong. But we were not! And look where it had gotten us. Look at what it had cost us. For a long time I was silent until I finally whispered to him, “Were we wrong?”
“I don’t know.”
“For thousands of years we’ve paid for what we deserved because we failed. For thousands of years all we’ve done is squabble and fight. All that mattered was power and respect and fear.” And then I realized the truth. “And still I’m doing that. Offering Boraran his dreams, making Baldorf fear me so that he behaves himself. Playing for control and power with the tools of fear.” I turned and looked at him.
“I don’t know if you were wrong – I wasn’t there. I don’t know why you fought, the Gods don’t say, and the priests don’t know. From what I was taught the Curse seemed to fit your crime which was so horrible. But now that I see the cost...”
“But you’re right. It’s done. It’s done but the price is still being paid.” I wrapped my arms around him and pulled my face deep into his chest. And then I whispered, “I’m so tired of playing the game. I just want to rest.”
“And here you can.”
I started crying into his chest again. “I’m so tired,” I whispered.
“Then rest tonight, for tonight I’ll keep you safe.”
Eventually I cried myself to sleep.
Chapter 7: Of Partings and Mortal Souls
The second age of The World ended with the slaying of the God Vashigan by the God Kor. With Vashigan’s death the World would have been plunged into eternal darkness and cold except for the creation of Alindor, the Aldorashgan, a temporary clockwork sun to replace Vashigan’s divine radiance.
According to legend, the god Kor was sent to the World to live as a mortal until he could find Vashigan’s soul and see over its rebirth. Fortunately for us all this quest, or whatever really occurred, was successful and Vashigan was reborn and returned to shine his divine light and heat upon the World.
But, this rebirth did not come without cost. From that point on, for a quarter of every year, Vashigan leaves his throne in the sky where He looks down upon us and goes to His hidden throne where He judges the dead. When He leaves, the Aldorashgan is once again put in His place so that all may know that the divine Vashigan has departed, but will return.
From the introduction to the fourth book of the Histories of Heronith.
Sometime later I awoke from a deep sleep, my head pillowed on Kalibynthn’s rising and falling chest, with one ear crumpled and numb from my sleeping on it. Immediately I heard a short whine from Organyth, but then he settled down.
I lay there, wondering what had awakened me. Then I knew. It was the knowledge, the absolute, certain, knowledge that Vashigan had once again died. Every year this happened, but before it had never concerned me. I’d never noticed, and I’d never cared.
But this time something in me did.
I sighed, moved around a bit, ignoring Kalibynthn’s quiet grumbling, and went back to sleep as my ear began to tingle as its numbness wore off.
A long time later I awoke again and, instantly, without even opening my eyes, realized that Kalibynthn was gone. Somehow he’d gotten out from underneath me, and, somehow, someone had straightened me up on his bed.
And however that was done, it hadn’t awakened me.
I listened carefully and heard only the rhythmic bump of the barge against the stone dock. A moment later I heard the clicking of claws on the deck and scented Organyth entering the cabin. And then I felt his cold nose against me.
Kalibynthn must have awakened before me and, somehow, someway, managed to tuck me in without awakening me. Maybe I had just been that tired, but that had never occurred, ever, or maybe I just trusted him. At least I knew now, since Organyth was relaxed, that there was no danger.
I turned over and arched my back and stretched my arms above me, and bent my tail until it touched the back of my head. Then I relaxed and opened my eyes and saw Organyth back at the entrance. I twisted slowly around and sat up and clopped my hooves onto the deck, just as Kalibynthn reached the entrance to the cabin, his shadow blocking the magic lights from outside.
I walked over to him and stopped, looking up at him. “I...” Then I paused, shaking my head and flicking my tail. Last night had been... I didn’t know what. But whatever it was, it was dangerous. The others I was using, Baldorf, Boraran, needed to be kept in line, and for that I needed to keep playing the game. And to do it I had to always do it. “How much to hold your barge for five days, and then to buy passage back to where you picked me up?”
Kalibynthn crouched on his hind leg-paws and stepped backwards with his fore leg-paws and Organyth whined. I could smell an acid scent in the air, from Kalibynthn I thought. Then the moment was past. The air cleared, and Kalibynthn smiled. “For you, my furry love, five gold.” He grinned, showing all his fangs.
Five gold?! Why...! “One gold, and that only because I like you.”
“You know that I do have a cargo ready for shipment – I’d have to delay it for you. Four gold, and you can clean the cabin.”
Me?! Clean the cabin?! I felt my ears pull themselves against my skull, but then I relaxed as Kalibynthn grinned. “Two gold, and I’ll keep your bed warm.”
He licked his lips. “Ah my furry love, I wish it could be so. But I’ll have to pole us upstream and there won’t be time. But in memory of a warm bed, three gold.”
“Fine. Three gold, and,” I paused, “no other passengers.” I remembered what Kalibynthn had said about the raven talking to him.
He sighed. “Three gold, and no other passengers. Be here in five days.” He stopped and cocked his head, one of his hand-paws reaching down to scratch Organyth. “You know that we’ll probably arrive half a day before the festival at the place I picked you up?”
“Yes. I want that time to rest and make my way to the entrance.”
“You’re the buyer. But I need the coins now for some bribes so I can stay in port for you.”
Now? What would stop him from running away...? I shook my head and flicked my tail. He wouldn’t. It made no sense, but I knew that he wouldn’t. And that seemed like a good thing to me. Why? I reached into my pouch and pulled out the three gold that I’d acquired from the humans two days ago and tossed them to him. “D...” Then I swallowed the warning. “I’ll see you in five days, early in the morning. Be ready then.”
“Yes, oh furry master.” He grinned for a second. “You’re...,” then he stopped and frowned and said in a quiet voice: “In five days then Ilisri.”
It was interesting that he’d changed his tone in mid speech. Why? “In five days.”
I turned and walked over and grabbed my cloak. As I put it on and flipped the hood to cover my ears, he stood up and stepped backward and, out of the corner of my eye, I watched he and Organyth turn and follow me with their eyes as I walked past them out of the cabin and jumped from the barge onto the dock, my hooves loud on the stone.
I didn’t look back.
It was a quick journey back to the Bronze Rat and what had become my usual table was empty. I sat down, remembering my tail, and in a moment Illiania had brought me my usual breakfast, with its nice sweet ale. As she put the mug down in front of me, she leaned over and whispered, “Baldorf wants to know where you were.”
“Why? Does my renting a room require that I use it?” I whispered back, not looking at her.
“He’s, ah..., concerned.”
“He needn’t be. Tell him I was with my sister. He’ll know what that means.”
She nodded, turned and walked away.
That answer should keep Baldorf quiet.
And for the rest of the week it did, just as my little demonstration with the human muggers kept other problems from occurring. My days settled into a routine. I would spend each day with Binnar practicing, and then relax with some pick pocketing on the way home, and then rest and eat in the inn. In fact the only things that were really interesting were my practice bouts with Binnar.
The first couple of days were more of our general practice, but then my disguise was ready. The headpiece was of tanned horse leather stretched on a whicker frame and secured to my head by leather straps that simply kept it from falling off – there were no straps under my chin. The mask left the top of my head bare, so that my ears and my mane would be uncovered. The eyes were a pale blue crystal of some sort, carefully angled and designed so that, although they were in actuality much bigger than they needed to be, they didn’t look it. And the angle gave me reasonable vision to the front. And, of course, its fur matched my chestnut legs, and its forehead was decorated with a white star. To go with that was a massive, voluminous red brocaded dress that left my tail free, but otherwise enveloped me in cloth. The dress was needed as wealthy ladies would wear such clothing to the carnival.
The first time I wore the ensemble Binnar easily trounced me, especially when I twisted my body which caused the mask to twist and block my vision. I had to learn to keep my head steady as I fought, and to keep the mask away from my opponent so that he couldn’t knock it askew. And the dress certainly didn’t help. But, by the third day I was back to my regular trouncing of him.
Finally, at the end of the fourth day he gave me my equipment in a bag and we wished each other well. I in words, he just by cracking a slight smile – one of the few expressions I’d ever seen on him.
Binnar was certainly interesting in his own, twisted, way.
As usual the trip back was uneventful, but once I reached the Bronze Rat Baldorf was there waiting for me.
“Would you come with me? We need to discuss your room.”
I nodded. Now it was time to plan the actual robbery. I had my skills, and my tools, now I would discuss the details of the target I’d picked out with Binnar. We went into the backroom and he closed the door behind me and sat down in his chair, his weight making the wood creak. Sitting down on the other side of the desk I put my bag down beside me, waiting while he unrolled a parchment on the table and held it open with silver dragon sculptures.
Was that a message? If so, I couldn’t figure out what the message could be but there was no sense in living dangerously – it was time for another reminder. I picked one of the sculptures up and looked at it. “The tail’s too short, and the claws aren’t well detailed.”
He made no reaction as I put it down, instead just pointing to a building on the map, but I knew the reminder had been noted.
The building he indicated was a large wooden villa, situated right on the west bank of the Simbrani River just north of what Baldorf named Freedom Square. When I looked at him curiously, he stated that it had been named that after the humans had kicked the caldayans out. It even contained a gallows for public hangings. The building was walled by a fifteen foot high stone wall with a single gate. His recommendation was to go over the wall. The next danger was the three guard dogs – Binnar had given me some drugged preserved meat to deal with them.
Continuing, Baldorf stated that the best means of entrance into the actual house was to climb the west wall and enter a second story window – that would avoid traps and locks on the first floor. The stairwell I wanted was hidden behind the fireplace in a study on the second floor and led down into a secret basement that contained the objective.
That was fine with me.
After a few hours of going over the map and the plans, I thanked him, and arranged to return within four days with his share of the wealth. Then I left and went to bed.
That night I didn’t sleep well and tossed and turned, often pinching my tail and sort of half waking up to adjust it. It wasn’t discomfort, or fear of tomorrow, but it was the dreams. Unlike the dimly remembered dreams of running across the fields I’d had before, I now lived those dreams. I felt the coarseness of the grass and stones beneath my four hooves. I felt the wind blowing through my mane and filling my nose with the scent of my herd. I felt the sting of rain pounding on my skin as the lightning flashed and Tarkrin fought Sheshanka in the black clouds overhead.
A couple of times I awoke hot and sweaty, unsure of where I was, unsure of whether I had two hooves or four. But by opening my eyes, and picturing my body in my mind, I was able to relax and drift back off to sleep.
Finally, too soon, I knew that the Aldorashgan was rising to shine upon The World.
Now usually I wake easily and alertly – a well learned survival skill. But this day my eyes were like weighted practice swords after a full day’s drill. I knew it was day, but I couldn’t get up so I just lay there. My eyes drifted shut and then, sometime later, I finally awoke again.
By the Curse, I was going to be late for Kalibynthn!
Well, at least that awoke me.
I threw on my robe and pants and weapons, and grabbed my bag and threw the door open. Behind me I could hear its loud bang against the wall as I galloped down the stairs. Then I was in the common room, which was almost empty except for Kalibynthn who was sitting by the entrance.
He turned and looked at me as I clattered to a stop.
“Why my...f...sleepy lovely, you seem in such a hurry for one who slept so late.”
I stopped and willed my breathing to calm down. My sweat was cooling in the fur of my legs and starting to itch. Then, strangely, I felt my face heat up.
I’d never felt that before, what was it?
It didn’t matter. I slowly paced over to Kalibynthn until I was standing above him looking down. “Are you ready then? I don’t like to be kept waiting.”
He grinned. “Then follow me my lovely bedwarmer, and we shall be on our way.”
Bedwarmer! Then I smiled. And then I laughed and motioned him out.
He got up and I followed.
The trip through the market was quick, and oddly enough there was no sign of Talynthen at all. And I didn’t even have to carefully remove any prying fingers from my pouch.
I smiled to myself – I guess I was becoming known.
Then, almost too soon, we reached Kalibynthn’s barge.
Then I stopped – I could scent Organyth and I wasn’t worried, but I still couldn’t bring myself to continue. I felt my tail hold itself stiff, and my ears pull themselves against my head, and the hairs rise on my legs.
Kalibynthn turned and looked at me from the barge. For a moment he was silent, and then he frowned. “Is something wrong?”
I was afraid. Not of Kalibynthn, but of the wolf I could scent on the barge. So afraid that I couldn’t move. I couldn’t walk forward, and I couldn’t flee.
My legs began to quiver from tension.
By the Curse, what was going on?! Organyth wouldn’t hurt me, nothing here would hurt me.
So why was I so afraid that I couldn’t move?
Well, I couldn’t keep standing here.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on my body. First my ears. I forced them to slowly rise and relax. Then I could feel the hairs of my mane stiff and upright. Slowly I forced the hairs to relax. I let my arms slowly fall to my sides, and then forced my tail to lower and be calm. Then I made my legs stop quivering. Everything was fine. Calm, relaxing, fine.
Finally, the tension drained through my hooves and sank into the stone of the dock.
I opened my eyes to see Kalibynthn holding my arm. “Are you all right?”
I pulled my arm loose. He’d seen me afraid! I couldn’t let him li... I shook my head. No! He’d proven he could be trusted. I looked into his eyes, “I’m fine now. I’m not really sure what happened.”
“Maybe you sensed something.”
He sounded almost fearful. Was he afraid of me? Maybe. But why was I afraid that he was? “No, just Organyth. It was nothing, just anticipation, maybe.” That was it.
“Well then my furry bedwarmer, come on aboard and let us be off.”
I shook my head and hopped aboard. Then, out of nowhere, Organyth was in front of me, sitting on the floor, whining.
I stopped and raised one hoof...
No! This was my body and my mind! I would not let fear rule me!
My hoof hit the floor with a loud thud and then Organyth was licking my leg. I leaned over and scratched between his ears.
What had come over me? Well, whatever it was, I was fine now. “So, let’s be off then.”
Kalibynthn smiled. “Not this time I’m afraid, I’ll have to work too hard to get up stream...”
I frowned. “Even if I help.”
He sighed, “I wish it would be enough, but it wouldn’t. You can sit and keep me company though.”
I felt my heart beat faster. “I think...yes, I would like that. But let’s get out of this cave first so we have some privacy - I’ll keep watch from the bow for you.”
He smiled and I turned and quietly, or at least as quietly as I could, moved forward. Putting my bag down in the small cabin I went and sat just behind the bow, half sitting and half lying on my side. I couldn’t help but startle as Organyth lay down beside me and put his head in my lap, sighing as he relaxed.
I sighed and was finally able to relax to as I scratched his head, feeling his hot breath rustle the fur on my leg.
It wasn’t long until we were out of the harbour and onto the lake – soon the only sound was the quiet rattle and creak of the wooden rudder in its cradle as Kalibynthn moved it back and forth, and the rattle of the water on the bow. A quiet while passed like this and I nodded off, only to be awoken by a shower of cold water and the scent of fish.
I felt Organyth stand up and growl, but once I opened my eyes I shushed him. He turned and fled.
It was Sarsynalithagas, my hatchling sister.
“ILISRI! YOU WOULD LEAVE ME WITHOUT SAYING GOOD-BYE?”
She could hardly speak from the sorrow in her voice.
I stretched upward and rubbed the base of her forward horn. “I would never do that, never again. You know that.”
I shushed her by placing a hand over her mouth, or at least partially over one tooth, and gently pulled her head down so that I was standing almost enveloped by her ear. “I have a gate.”
“It was a loan from you. But it’s not complete, it needs the three gems.”
“THAT’S WHY I DIDN’T KNOW.”
I couldn’t help but smile. Dragons were not very good at keeping things quiet. “I’m going to get them now and in a few days we can both be free.”
“YOU’D TAKE ME?” Her voice was warm now, and filled with hope.
Did she actually think I would leave her here? “Sarsynalithagas, how could you even think I wouldn’t?”
“IT’S BEEN SO LONG, AND SO MANY OTHERS HAVE PROMISED...”
“But were they me?”
She wrapped the tip of her cold, sharp tongue around my arms in a hug, and I ignored the sharp stinging. “In a little while,” I whispered. Her tongue wrapped itself tighter and drew a few drops of blood. Then I whispered her Name, “I’ll be back. I promise.”
Her tongue pulled itself loose and there was a splash and she was gone. Soon I’d be back, and soon we would be together until the End of All Things!
“So she owed you a favour?”
It was the voice of the raven! I spun around and looked up and saw that it was indeed that creature. “And that is no business of yours.”
“Not my business? You are my business.”
I turned away and clomped to the stern where Kalibynthn was still at the rudder with Organyth lying pressed against him. Stopping in front of him I screamed so loudly that Organyth whined and Kalibynthn pulled his ears against his head and winced. “I TOLD YOU NO OTHER PASSENGERS!”
I had to strain to hear his response. “There are no other passengers.”
I gritted my teeth and forced some calm upon myself. What was happening? I’d never gone off the edge like this before. But I’d have to worry about that later - now there was a more important crisis. “The raven.”
“He is not a passenger.”
I managed to keep my voice calm, “Then he is a stowaway, and I demand that you throw him off now.”
Kalibynthn sighed. “He is not a stowaway. He is crew.”
“I really think you should talk to him.”
He, a mortal, thought he knew what was best for me?! I spun around and galloped into the cabin and banged the door shut behind me.
Kalibynthn had done this. By the Curse, why had he done this?! I threw myself down upon the straw. “By the Curse why?!”
“Because he actually cares for you, Kor knows why.”
I spun myself until I was sitting, automatically raising my tail out of the way, looking at the raven perched on the windowsill. Looking around I searched, frantically, for something to throw, but saw only the straw I’d scattered and my bag.
“You’re not yourself today, are you?”
I stopped and glared. How did he know?!
“You know that two nights hence is Am Samhanen?”
“Of course I do,” I hissed. “Why do you think I’m going into Mandalor now?!”
Somehow the raven sighed. “And do you know what happens that night?”
“The spirits of the dead wander the World for the last time before going to Vashigan’s judgment.” It didn’t matter to me - what did I care about mortal dead?
“The soul of the body you were forced into will be with you then. You’ve felt him, haven’t you?”
“By the Curse, what are you talking about?”
“The spirit of your horse will be with you that night. Already he’s stirring, and your body is simply reacting. And you’re reacting to your body.”
I slowly stood up, and slowly, deliberately, stalked over to the window until my breath was ruffling the raven’s feathers. I couldn’t believe what he was saying. “You think that a mortal body, a mortal spirit, can affect me?” I laughed.
“How can you believe that it isn’t?”
“Because it isn’t!” I glared and snapped my teeth and felt my ears point towards him. “You’ve amused me, so I gift you with another chance at life. I suggest you take it and leave now.”
The raven glared back at me and didn’t move.
Why... I stepped back and drew my sword. “I give you the time it took the Gods to say the first word of the Curse to be gone.”
The raven rustled his feathers. “If that’s the way you want it, then fine. I came here because my master asked me to. I returned because it was His will. You want me gone, you want to give up the aid of Kor? Then on your head be it!”
The raven hopped off the sill and was gone.
I waited for a few moments, slowly letting the tension drain from my body. Then I lowered my sword and carefully sheathed it. Only then did I turn around and make my way back to the bed. Carefully, slowly, I sat down, raising my tail without thinking about it, not trusting myself to move any faster.
So the raven served Kor, or at least so it claimed. Oddly appropriate, the trickster having a raven as a servant. But why would Kor be interested in me?
It didn’t matter. I’d survived without the Gods for all of the Second Age. I would survive without their aid now! I was fey, I was power, I was Ilisri!
I screamed my triumph out loud, the sound more like that of a horse than of a woman.
I spent the rest of the day alone in the small cabin on the barge. Sometimes I sat on the bed and calmed myself, going over and over the course of the theft in my mind. I was Ilisri, and I would not let myself fail! But, more often, I paced back and fourth, my hooves clattering loudly on the deck. Finally, watches later, I left and went to the bow to do my private business and drink some water.
The barge was tied to a rock outcropping which meant that we’d stopped. Why? And where was Kalibynthn?
I slowly walked back to the stern to look and found him. He was there, but Organyth was nowhere in sight.
I stopped and crouched down in front of him and waited.
He ignored me.
I felt my ears pull down against my head and my tail pull itself high. I heard my breath pass loudly in and out through my flaring nostrils.
I scented him, his maleness, his threat...
Yes, he’d asked the raven to see me, and that had threatened my control.
But he also threatened...
I shook my head to clear it.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Of course I’m all right!” I snapped.
He turned away.
Why was I angry at him?
I exhaled loudly and stamped one hoof on the deck – he wasn’t worth the effort! But...
I inhaled and sighed.
“The raven is right,” he whispered.
“What?!” I stood up and glared at him, ready to fight him for the herd that was rightfully mine!
“You’re acting like a stallion in heat being set off by the slightest thing.”
I let myself collapse to the deck, automatically raising my tail. Could he be right? Could the cursed raven be right?
“Before the raven left you screamed like a stallion in heat.”
“No...,” I whispered.
He reached out a hand-paw and lightly touched me on the shoulder.
I jerked away from him, helpless to stop myself.
And then I knew - Kalibynthn was right. Well fine! I would not be controlled by the spirit of a mortal animal! I closed my eyes and breathed in and out, first rapidly and then slowly. I felt my ears relax, and my tail fall limply to the deck. After a few minutes I opened my eyes and looked up at Kalibynthn. He was crouched there, both hand-paws limp against his side.
I slowly reached out and grabbed his right hand-paw and slowly pulled it towards me.
As I pulled it closer I could feel my tension, my fear, my anger, start to rise but I forced it down. I was not a horse! I was Ilisri! I whooshed the air from my lungs, forcing the tension out as I pushed his hand-paw towards my shoulder.
My shoulder twitched but I refused to let myself shy away from his touch. His hand-paw touched my shoulder and I breathed rapidly and shallowly, but then, slowly, forced myself to be calm.
Finally, fully calm, I whispered, “Hold me, please.”
He wrapped his hand-paws around me and pulled me against his chest. Then I buried my head in his fur, and then tensed at his scent.
I forced myself to be calm. I was Ilisri. I was fey. I was in control!
I slowly exhaled, forcing the tension out of me.
For a while we sat like that, silent. I kept my eyes closed and concentrated on all the scents from Kalibynthn, slowly forcing down the fear and anger caused by them. I searched out every bit of the stallion I could find and imprisoned it deep within me.
I was Ilisri and I was in control.
But it was not easy, and I knew, even though I tried to deny it, that the control was barely held. But it was held!
Finally, slowly, I pulled myself away from his chest and looked up into his eyes.
“Are you feeling better now, my furry lover?”
I couldn’t help but grin, but even that instant of relaxation caused the stallion within me to strain at its bindings.
I closed my eyes and forced it back down.
Finally, slowly, I once again opened my eyes and looked back up at Kalibynthn, seeing the reflection of my face in his eyes. “I think so, but it’s hard.”
He smiled, “Then let me take your mind off it...”
I shoved him away, and heard Organyth yelp – he’d been leaning against me and I hadn’t even noticed. “No!”
Kalibynthn just looked down at me.
“I have to keep in control, I have to keep my will free.” I let a crooked smile onto my face. “And making love to you would certainly distract my will.”
He sighed. I heard Organyth’s claws clatter on the deck and felt him leaning against me again. “But, hold me, please? Hold me tight against the dreams.”
He nodded and slowly stood up and led the way into the cabin as I stood and followed. There he crouched down on the straw and I snuggled against him, forcing down the stallion’s urge to flee or attack, forcing down the stallion’s fear as Organyth snuggled against us.
Then, slowly, gradually, I went to sleep.
Like last night my sleep was restless. I dreamt of running in the grasses, of the warmth of Vashigan on my back. But that was only the start. Soon I was dreaming of mounting my mares and screaming as my hot seed shot into them. I dreamed of biting and kicking other males and driving them off.
After each mating, after each fight, I would start awake and look around in a panic, unsure of where I was. But then I scented Kalibynthn, dimly lit by the magical lights at the bow and stern, and then I remembered where I was and then I forced the stallion down, back into its box.
And so passed the night.
Eventually morning came and I stayed with Kalibynthn as he went to the bow and untied the barge. Organyth followed us there, and then to the stern where Kalibynthn went back to poling the barge along.
I sat beside him, sometimes watching him, sometimes watching Organyth who was lying against me, but more often closing my eyes and forcing the stallion back into his prison.
I was Ilisri, and this body was mine!
Eventually, too soon, Kalibynthn spoke.
I started and opened my eyes and turned to look at him.
“This is your stop, my furry love.”
I sighed, and then I swallowed and stood up.
Kalibynthn touched me and I spun around. But I remained calm – I would not let the stallion win!
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I have to, and now is the best time.”
He frowned. “Then may the blessing of the Gods be with you.”
I shook my head. “That’s more of a curse than a blessing, to such as myself.”
He opened his arms, “But it is the best I know.”
I leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. What? Why? Then I spoke even though my mind was still mired in confusion, “I know, and I know that you meant it that way.” Then I slowly pushed his arms back to his sides.
“I wish I could go with you.”
“It would help, but we both know you can’t.”
“But I can wait here.”
I blinked and looked at him. “But what about your cargo, your schedule...?”
“A friend is more important.”
Suddenly, impulsively, I hugged him. I held him for a moment, and then forced myself to slowly let go. “I need to get going.”
“I’ll be here, my furry love.”
I smiled. “I’ll be back within two days.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
Then I turned and walked to the cabin, feeling Kalibynthn’s eyes on my back. Organyth padded alongside me, his claws clicking on the deck. Reaching into the cabin, I picked up my bag and turned and lightly jumped to the passage that led back up to Mandalor, my hooves loud in the emptiness.
I heard Organyth whine behind me.
I closed my eyes and willed a light to appear. It was hard, and I felt the stallion kicking at his bonds, but I held them and forced the light to appear through the crack in the will of the mortals.
I opened my eyes, and the light was there. Dim, but there.
And then, without turning around for fear of what I might do, I went off up the passageway.
The trip took almost a watch. The only light was the dim greenish glow that I’d summoned, and the only sound was my hooves clattering on the stone. The air was dry and dusty, and I could scent things long dead in the passages that occasionally branched out. The stallion within me wasn’t happy, but I kept him in his prison.
I’d be glad when his soul left me to go to its judgment.
Finally, I reached the end. Before me was the door that opened up into the alley that led into Mandalor. I stopped and opened the bag and pulled out my costume - the cloak and pants I was wearing went into the bag. First I strapped a large pouch to my right leg – it contained coins in a small compartment on top, and my tools for that evening below. I strapped my sword to my left leg, and also secured the scabbard just above my knee. Next the dress of red silk and green velvet, with silver brocading depicting horses standing and galloping was pulled on over my shoulders. It was open partway down the back and I fluffed my mane above it. As it settled, I wiggled my tail until it fit through the slit provided for it. Then I buttoned the dress below my tail, a fold in the fabric concealing the button, and then wrapped a golden girdle around my waist and below the tail as further camouflage. The dress was designed to flare out below my waist, and had cleverly concealed fitchets that allowed me to reach the pouch and my sword. Then I secured a small dagger and scabbard, a demure weapon such as a wealthy lady would wear in public, to my girdle. Finally, I pulled the horse’s head over my own and made sure it was securely seated, and that my ears were comfortably free.
At that the stallion reared up within me, but I forced it down.
I was Ilisri and this body was mine.
I sighed as the stallion quieted. Now, finally, I was ready for the festival.
I carefully put the bag down in a corner where it was unlikely anybody would see it. Then I pushed against the door, careful to keep my dress from touching the stone, and heard the scrape of stone on stone as the door pivoted.
I slid through and pushed the door shut behind me, the last scrape echoing in the alley. Once again I was upon the World, this time with the dim light of the Aldorashgan in my eyes.
I took a deep breath and then pranced out into the Carnival of the Masks.
Chapter 8: The Carnival of Masks
I remember the first carnival in Mandalor as Vashigan turned away from us. It was hard to believe that it was not forever, having only seen him upon his throne for the past year. There was depression, fear, anger. Although we’d driven off the caldayan invasion, there was still fear of war. Families were besieged by the spirits of their loved ones before they chased after Vashigan to flee the cold they’d fear would come.
And that is why there is carnival!
I don’t know who thought of it, but I remember the announcement from the temple of Vashigan. It was a time for celebration, a time for sorrow, a time to abandon our hopes and fears and celebrate the turning of the year. A time to remember that Vashigan would return. A time to remember those who have died and to send them on their way.
A time to celebrate life reborn.
A time to hide from the spirits for a day and celebrate the joy of life.
A time for carnival!
And thus it began.
From the journals of Fasinia of Mandalor, Guild Mistress of the Docker’s Guild in Mandalor
The instant I closed the secret entrance to the underground, my ears were assaulted by the noise of Mandalor. But it was not the normal noise, instead it was the noise of celebration and gaiety.
It was the noise of carnival!
Smiling behind my mask, I strode out of the alley and into the crowds and chaos of the Carnival of Masks. I found it uncomfortable, but the stallion within me was somehow comforted.
Everybody was masked of course, but few as elaborately or as richly as myself. I had to push my way past a mortal wearing a head of a griffon, or at least half wearing it as he was holding a flask of what smelled to be wine and the mask was pushed up so that he could drink easily - which he’d been doing.
Then I was in the crowd and was swept away.
There were mortals everywhere, all human, and all in masks and costumes. Some were of plain cloth, some of leather, others of painted wood or feathers, and even some that were just magical illusion. There were streamers and drums and bells and singing and groaning and screaming. Wrapped and entangled with the sounds were the scents – unwashed bodies, hot food, wine and beer, sweat and sex and shit. Of course, the scent of animal dung was always present.
But, still, it didn’t seem right.
Beneath the dim glow of the Aldorashgan, the gaiety seemed almost forced. I’d been at other Carnivals in years gone by, and knew that something was missing.
Well, it was no concern of mine. I had places to go and buildings to find, and robberies to perform.
I started pushing my way through the crowd, occasionally giving someone a light kick with a hoof, making my way towards the falls. There I could get oriented and find my way to Freedom Square and my target. Unfortunately, I could move only a little faster than the crowd, but fortunately it was drifting my way.
The crowd I was with was going along the riverbank, across bridges over the pottery works, and through arches and gates. Eventually I reached the arched bridge that led across a portion of the Simbrani River to the island that housed the Docker’s Guild. The gate that led onto the bridge was closed and barred, and guards were standing on the walkway above it in simple costumes looking down.
Guards during the carnival?!
I knew that the Docker’s Guild in Mandalor had always been separate from the rest of the city. Mandalor had first been settled as a portage around the falls for pilgrims to reach the city of Gandala which was on the site where the gods were said to have created the World. Travelers had discovered the rich clay deposits below the falls and a large and successful pottery industry had grown up. But the industry had been dependent on trade with the other cities down the river and those that had existed upon the destroyed continent of Valdanis. The Docker’s Guild had grown rich from that trade, and had become a separate city within the city. When the caldayans had conquered Mandalor the Docker’s Guild had remained separate. When the humans had revolted and killed all the caldayans in the city, the few caldayan families which were members of the Docker’s Guild remained sacrosanct.
For the Docker’s Guild to remain separate, even during the carnival, was expected. But to actually post guards...? I remembered a mortal I’d known in the guild, a human, what was his name? Lingolan. I’d met him when I’d came to the World disguised as a mortal, having heard the guild claim that nobody would ever leave it – I proved them wrong when I made him love me so much that he did leave the Docker’s Guild.
Of course, once he came back with me I didn’t care about him anymore – I’d proven my point. Now what had I ended up doing with him? I stared at the gates for a minute, struggling to stand against the movement of the crowd, until I finally remembered – I’d traded him to Sandaril for the horse I’d used against Calynisha.
I frowned at the memory of the name. Calynisha, I am coming for you!
What had Sandaril ended up doing with the mortal? Knowing him, he probably used the mortal as a beast of burden and a pleasure toy. I shrugged - it was the Guild’s arrogance at fault.
Then, waving my tail, I turned and let the crowd sweep me along with it.
I’d been jostled and swept along for a short distance when a mortal, in a crude and poorly made costume of a horse, reached over and grabbed me around my waist and pulled. In a moment we were out of the crowd and alone in the opening of another alley, the sound of the falls faintly heard over the laughter and song from the street.
What?! I spun around and broke free of his embrace.
He, however, just laughed, and raised up his mask and kissed the snout of my mask.
I almost gagged from the scent of wine on his breath.
“Come my mare, let’s be together,” he whispered, trying to sound seductive.
The stallion’s spirit imprisoned within me wanted to flee, but I beat it down and tried to decide what to do about this on my own. Normally I would simply kill him, but then was neither the place nor the time.
He grasped my mask and started to raise it.
I grabbed his arms and forced them down, and then slapped him. He staggered back. Then I slunk up to him and whispered in his ear, “Not that way, it’s carnival, we must do it as that which we are,” and I laughed lightly. Meanwhile, I slipped my hand to my side and grabbed the hilt of the dagger.
He smiled and leered and reached up to pull down his mask.
I drew the dagger and, with the flat of its blade, hit him on the back of his skull, sending him forward against the far wall of the alley where he slumped to the ground. Sheathing the dagger, I pranced over and leaned down. “I am not for the likes of you.” And I kissed the portion of his mask that covered the back of his head and pranced back into the crowd.
I hadn’t hit him hard enough to kill, and anybody who saw me would not think it the least odd of a lady to defend herself against unwanted advances.
And, in its own way, it was more satisfying than simply gutting him.
I felt a whisper of hair against my ear and heard a woman whisper, “Good for you – people like that are asking for it.”
I turned and looked over at a human woman. She was dressed in black velvet and wore the mask of a panther. Behind the mask her hair flowed out, braided into ten long strands that fell to her waist. A black leather belt was around her waist and on it a scabbard with a dagger with a well worn hilt, and a pouch. “You know him?” I asked.
“Him no; his kind yes.”
Behind the mask I smiled, and my ears flicked forward. In reaction, the panther’s face grinned and an eye winked - I could sense the magic in her costume. I sighed, “Do you know a place we can get out of the crowd and eat? I could use a break.”
“Let it be my treat then, for the entertainment you’ve given me.”
At that I laughed. Payment for a little bit of fun was fine with me. After all, it wasn’t a loan or a favour.
She grasped my arm and forced her way through the crowd, growling at anybody who didn’t leap out of the way fast enough, her magically created tail whipping back and fourth behind her. Obviously I hadn’t been aggressive enough, or maybe it was my costume, but in either case it was just a few moments before we were in an open space and standing before a vendor of meat pies.
The scent was wonderful, but the stallion in me was not happy and I had to force him back into his cage.
“Are these all right?” she asked.
“Of course - I’m not really a horse.” I am not! I told the stallion’s spirit.
She laughed. “I didn’t think so.”
She picked up two pies and tossed the vendor, who was costumed as a bull with a massive horned head, a silver and handed one pie to me. I almost dropped it, it was so hot. With her other hand she pulled up her mask, which let go of her face with an almost sucking sound, and took a big bite of the pie, letting the juices dribble down her chin. Shaking my head, I pushed my head up and took a much smaller, neater bite. It was hot and juicy and faintly spiced and I licked the juices that did get onto my chin.
From her face I could tell that she was quite young, and her skin was tanned. Her eyes were blue and large, and from her unscarred appearance she was likely not born into the lower classes. But she looked capable, which seemed odd for an upper class woman. Capable enough that I could make use of her – she was much better at getting around through the crowds than I was, and people would probably remember her pushing her way through rather than me.
We finished our meal in silence and, as she was licking the oil off her fingers, I asked, “May I ask you something?”
“Sure.” She finished licking her fingers. “What can I do for you?”
“It’s a bit awkward, but I need to get to Freedom Square and, well, you seem to be able to push the crowd aside better.”
She laughed, a deep belly laugh that tinkled from her mouth. “I guess they fear the cat rather than the horse.”
When I’d taken my rightful place and replaced Calynisha I would change that. However, for now all I could do was sigh. “You’re right.” Then she took a step back and placed both hands to her sides and looked at me. Her face moved up and down and then she moved her hands in front of her and gave the sign that she was a thief.
A thief? Well, that explained a bit about her appearance, but it still seemed odd. However, I still gave the sign back. Then she smiled, pulled her mask back down until its green eyes glinted with humour, and waited while I did the same to mine, although my eyes just glinted. Then she leaned over, “You need to get your mage to do a more complete job next time.”
I smiled under my mask – if only she knew.
“And my name is Sanula, the greatest thief in Mandalor!”
I slipped my hand around her and pulled out her dagger as I responded, “Well, Sanula, you can call me Ilisri, but this night I’m the greatest thief.” Then I took a step back, bowed, and handed her her dagger.
For a moment she stared, then she touched her side, and then she laughed and took the dagger. “It looks to be an enjoyable evening for us both then.” She dropped the knife back into its scabbard and grabbed my hand and pulled me behind her into the crowd.
With impressive aggressiveness she pushed her way through the crowds, ignoring the occasional curse, and even pocketing two pouches of coins. Well, maybe three, I wasn’t sure about the third - which was certainly impressive. I kept my hands to myself as there was no sense in taking risks that I didn’t need to take. Interestingly, there were no robbery attempts on either of us – either others were too busy, or Sanula was too well known even in costume.
Still, even with her aggressiveness and skill, it took the rest of the afternoon to make our way through the crowds to Freedom Square. The square was almost under the falls and was large and open, although still crowded. Dominating it along the shore of the Simbrani River was what had once been the keep of the caldayan governor, but was now, or so Sanula told me, the Palace of the Families. I asked her why as we strolled across the square and she told me that after the Mandalorian populace had overthrown the caldayan rule, the leading merchant and military families created a ruling council, with each of the major families having a vote.
Government by a group! I just shook my head.
On the north side of Freedom Square were the large mercantile family homes, with smaller ones behind them, built along the edge of the cliff. In its own odd way, Mandalor had developed so that the upper classes lived at the base of the cliff, and the peasants and slaves lived atop the cliff. The cliffs were honeycombed with tunnels and passages that diverted the water from the Simbrani River and piped it through mills and into the homes at the base of the cliff to provide running water.
As the bells tolled the end of the 3rd watch, and the beginning of the evening - and the festival of Am Samhanen - I pulled Sanula aside into a richly appointed tavern named the Golden House of Rest. I remembered it from the last time I’d been in Mandalor. Once we entered the brightly lit common room, I led Sanula into one of the private booths along the side overlooking the river.
“And now it’s my turn to thank you,” I said as I sat down.
“Oh no, there’s no need. I’ve already been well paid for the day.”
I smiled. “I noticed. Was it two or three?”
“Actually three – but I’m impressed that you were able to keep count. I noticed that you didn’t have much luck.”
“I decided not to, I’ve no need and I have bigger horses to fry.”
“A curious choice of phrase.”
At this point a young man dressed in a flower-printed robe, wearing the mask of a rabbit, came to our table. “And how may I help the ladies this evening?”
“Do you trust me?” Sanula interrupted.
I turned and looked at her and raised an eyebrow, and then remembered the mask. I tilted it up, pretending to make sure that my ears stayed on. “You have a suggestion?”
“It’s a special that I know of here.”
And why would she think to offer a special when I was the one that had brought us here? I frowned mentally but let a smile appear on my face. “Unfortunately I can’t, I have a delicate digestion – but don’t let that stop you. And don’t worry, this is my treat.”
I nodded, wondering how much of my excuse she believed.
She turned to the man and said, “I’ll have my usual special, and make sure the meat is spiced properly. And I’ll have some Allindar Green to go with it.”
That wine was from the south, if I remembered correctly. The man turned to me. “I’ll just have some venison, well done and tender, and the same Allindar that she’s having,” I finished, motioning to Sanula. “And please make sure that the meat is not too spicy.”
“Anything else ladies?” He paused for a second, and then bowed and turned away, the floppy looking ears of his mask remaining stiff.
I turned to Sanula, “You come here often?”
“Frequently. They have the best food in the city. Oddly though, I’ve never seen you here.”
“I haven’t been here in a long time.” Longer than she could imagine – I think it was fifty or sixty years as the mortals counted.
“It’s still odd that I’ve never seen you – I grew up working here.”
Was that a lie, or was it the truth? And if it was the truth then I had to be careful. “I’ve had to change my appearance recently.”
Then I asked, “Do you mind if I ask your opinion?”
“Not a problem.”
“What’s going on here? I’ve never seen the carnival like this – and there were actual guards at the bridge to the Docker’s Guild.”
“It’s the war in the north.”
“I’ve heard rumours.”
“From what I’ve heard, a mage raised a dragon in Kyndar, overthrew the caldayan rule, and, aided by elves from the north, led the humans from the Western Kingdom into power. Then he started to move south.”
I’d heard something about that recently. But a dragon? Why would a dragon serve a mortal mage...or, could a mortal mage actually be powerful enough to enslave one? Impossible. “I heard a bit about that. You’re sure you heard it was a dragon?”
She leaned towards me, “Actually, I’ve heard anywhere from one to five. But the first one, according to tales in the guild, rose from the crypts beneath Kyndar.”
My mouth hung open. I knew that the guildmaster of the thieves in Kyndar was actually a dragon, and, although he was of the second born, he was still more powerful than any mortal could hope to control. Unless... - impossible. The Spherandracyl was hidden in Faerie by the Gods under wards so powerful that even I couldn’t get at it when I had my full power, even though its blood called to mine, as the blood of my father, and others, had gone into its making. I closed my mouth. “I don’t believe it.”
“I didn’t either, at first, but the great families believe something and have been gathering food and supplies for a siege for weeks. I’ve even heard...”
She stopped as the waiter brought our meals. Hers was some kind of meat drenched in a ruby red sauce and she pulled off her mask so that she could enjoy it. The meat was so tender that it broke apart almost as her fork touched it. And it was certainly spicy – I had no trouble scenting the pepper, dragon’s heart, and other spices. My meal was not as spicy, but it too was drenched in a sauce of pale yellow.
I picked up my fork and started eating – yes it was as good, or even better, than I remembered. And the Allindar Green was sweet, or even a bit sweeter, than I remembered. Sanula and I enjoyed our meals for a while in silence until she started the conversation again.
“So where are you staying? I’m surprised I haven’t heard of one of your skill staying in Mandalor.”
I finished chewing my mouthful, letting the meat melt on my tongue and then slide down my throat depositing a pleasant warmth in my stomach - the stallion I’d imprisoned within had struggled a bit at the first taste of meat, but it was becoming easier to keep him locked away. Since Sanula was guild, she could receive the truthful answer. “I’ve been staying down below with Baldorf.
“He’s still around?”
“Around, but not happy. Have you ever dealt with him?”
“Not really, the guild up here has as little to do with him as possible, although rumour says that there are still some contacts.” She looked at me intently.
“Oh don’t worry, I’m here for one reason, and then I’ll be far gone. Nothing for you or your guild to worry about.”
We ate in silence for a bit until she leaned over and whispered to me, “I do need to ask your target though.”
That was an odd request. Still, with the threat of Baldorf lurking below, I could see the sense of asking. I swallowed some wine and leaned close to her and whispered, “The merchant Vasgulan.”
“You’re sure you...” Then she leaned back and laughed. “What am I saying – of course you can handle that, although I might have a little trouble.”
I laughed. I was glad that I wasn’t staying here long – she’d be trouble if I was as she was much too competitive for her own good.
We finished the meal in silence and when she’d finished her wine she went to pull out some coins. I motioned with my arms for her not to bother. “My treat, and my thanks. And, since you know where I’m going, you know I can afford it.”
She relaxed her hand and then turned and bowed. “I wish you the blessing of Kor, and luck in your endeavors,” a common blessing of one thief to another. Then she turned and left. I finished my wine and leaned back, relaxing.
I was full and happy, but she worried me – I was glad she was gone.
After a while the waiter came back and I paid him two gold, using good Kyndarian coins, although with the war and invasion who knew how much any new ones would be worth. Then I pulled down my mask and turned to leave.
It was getting late and soon it would be time for me to begin.
The square was still crowded, but less than before. I walked westward to the edge of Freedom Square and reached a walkway that ran along the Simbrani River. There was a bench, empty, and I walked over and sat down, lifting my tail out of the way, and watched the Aldorashgan slowly fade out. The air was cool, and there was a faint spray from the falls, but I could still feel a faint echo of warmth on my neck and hands.
I sighed and watched the Aldorashgan go dark, remembering times so long long ago, before the Curse, when I could walk freely under Vashigan’s warmth. I remembered running through the grasses with my herd...
I closed my eyes and looked into the box I had forced the stallion into. I heard him nicker, almost laughing, as he pulled his head back in.
I’d be a lot happier when this night was over and he’d gone to his rest. I opened my eyes and looked back upon the World.
Walking upon the World during the day brought back memories – it’d been so long since I’d been here during the day, only coming during the night to hide from the wrath of the gods. The gods who had pronounced the Curse.
The Curse! I wanted to throw my headpiece into the river, but I still needed it. I looked up at the dark Aldorashgan and whispered a pleading, “Why?”
Then I shook my head, feeling my mane brush my back, and forced myself back to my senses. It was done, long, long ago. We were right but the gods had won.
May they be cursed as they cursed us.
I stood up and turned and walked back into Freedom Square, my nostrils drinking in the scent of the mist, and of humans, and of food. I was still a little hungry, and so made my way over to a small wagon and purchased another hot meat pie, the aroma wafting into my nostrils and making my mouth water. Lifting my mask, I gulped it down, and then lowered my mask, turned away, and slowly began to make my way towards Vasgulan’s home.
Walking slowly, I wandered to and fro – I still had lots of time. I passed groups of dancers and masked performers – one group were acting out the story of Wulfstan facing the dragon at the gates of San-Tu. I stopped and watched for a while, and sighed as the dragon was dispatched.
The rest of the mortals cheered.
I was not one of them, although maybe I was partially now. I would be glad when the mortal spirit was gone from my body and what mortality I had was gone with it. I sighed - all I was doing was delaying my task, for what reason I wasn’t sure. For some reason I felt restless, maybe it was the stallion’s spirit within me. Well, it was the prisoner and I was the jailer, and I had a task to do.
I turned away, the hem of my dress swirling, and trotted off towards Vasgulan’s home and my mission.
With the Aldorashgan out, the city quickly became dark, lit only by lights from some of the houses, and the light of the spirits that the Gods had saved shining as points of light far above.
There were still people, but they became fewer as I moved towards the base of the cliff and the richer sections of the city. Here the homes were large walled compounds, often multi-storied, so unlike the crowded hovels of the poor which were atop the cliff, but far enough back that they could not be seen from the lower city.
And then, too soon, or not soon enough, I wasn’t sure, I was there.
Vasgulan’s home was one of the smaller walled mansions, and was almost right below the cliff edge. As I’d been told, it was a two story stone structure surrounded by a walled yard – the wall was about 15’ high. I could scent the dogs, two of them (Baldorf’s information was likely out of date), and they could scent me, for I could hear them shuffling along the wall nearest to me. Hurrying along the wall, I finally reached an alley along the west side and ducked into it - I didn’t want to climb the wall in the open. I could hear the dogs following me.
It was the dogs that were the first problem. I had the meat, but they had likely been trained to ignore it, or at least that training had been attempted so I had to fool them. Binnar had assured me that the meat would work, but I had another way to try first. I closed my eyes and concentrated on looking for a crack in the wall of the dog’s belief. What I wanted to do was simple, I just wanted to change my scent to match their’s so that each dog would scent me as a duplicate of their own scent – that should be more than enough to earn their trust. And, if it worked, I wouldn’t even need to use the meat.
The crack was small, but I found it and pulled it open and forced my will to change the reality of my scent, but only to the dogs. It was hard, and hard to maintain, and I could feel the stallion straining to escape, but I managed to keep my scent changed, and him in his box.
Finally I opened my eyes, gasping for breath – that little bit of magery had taken more out of me than I’d expected, but at least it was working. But I knew that I couldn’t keep it up for long. I swiftly reached through the fitchet in my dress to the pouch and pulled the climbing attachments for my hooves out. Then I pulled off the flared hem of my dress - it was easy to remove as it had been designed that way - and put it against the wall, and carefully removed and put my mask on top of it. Next I carefully pulled the silver wire from the upper portion of my dress removing anything that might glint in light and give me away. Finally, carefully, and securely, I tightened the straps onto my hooves and lower legs.
When I was done I double-checked – the last thing I needed was to have one of them work loose and cause me to fall, which would almost certainly break my concentration on my scent.
They were attached. I checked one last time to be sure.
Then it was up the wall. It was easy – the weeks of practice with Binnar had made it so – a month ago I would have had no chance. In a minute I was at the top and looked over, making sure to keep my hands off the top of the wall in case of broken glass or other dangerous items – and yes, there were glass shards, but not right at the edge where they could be seen from below.
The space at the edge was just enough for me to use my hands to pull myself up and then flip over the wall, landing on the far side with a dull thud, my hooves sinking into the ground as I crouched to absorb the shock. Instantly the dogs were on me, sniffing at my legs. I quieted and waited, and in a minute they turned away – my scent change passed the test.
Of course the owner knew that magic was around, and he doubtless had other ways to alert the dogs. I had guessed that visual confirmation was not enough as that would be a common magical trick – I’d hoped that scent was less obvious, and it had been. Turning, I quietly walked over to the wall of the house, walking slowly and carefully to keep the climbing attachments on my hooves from digging into the ground – they were not at the base of my hooves but a bit higher so once I got inside walking would not be a problem.
Soon I was at the wall of the actual house. Looking up I smiled when I saw that both windows were dark. I made sure to stay far away from the narrow shuttered ground floor windows as they were likely lined with iron to cancel any magery used by a thief when she tried to climb through them. Well, once I was up on the wall, I wouldn’t be worried even if I touched some iron.
I moved a few feet to the left and slowly began to climb the wall of the house. As I started to climb the wall to the right of one of the ground floor windows, I had to twist and move directly above it, being careful not to touch it with my legs or tail. A bit further and I ended up to the left of a second story window which was closed and shuttered, but that was not a problem. Holding on with my left hand, I used my right hand to slowly pull a narrow, tiny handled, iron knife out of the pouch on my leg, the iron warming as it absorbed the magery that changed my scent and cancelled it. But then I stopped, there was something else I had to check.
I slowly put the knife back into its scabbard within the pouch and moved my right hand until it was a fraction of an inch from the center of the shutters at the base of the window. Then I closed my eyes and concentrated, seeking any ripple in the reality that would be indicative of magery.
Nothing. Good, I hadn’t thought there was any likely present due to the difficulty and complexity of maintaining it in a heavily trafficked area. But, there was no need to take any chances.
Once again I reached down and slipped out my iron knife. Now I slipped it between the shutters and slowly moved it upwards, feeling for any resistance as it touched the bar.
Slowly I moved it upward. Slowly, carefully, and there!
A resistance, ever so slight. I stopped for an instant, and then slowly moved the knife upward, feeling the bar move. I had to move the knife slowly because I couldn’t let the bar drop. And yes, it was a big one.
Then, I felt it become a little looser – that meant that it was out of its hook. I leaned forward, balancing myself on my hooves that were strapped to thin bars of bronze that were placed precariously in cracks in the wall. I slowly pushed the knife away from me until a crack appeared between the shutters. I pried a little more, and then there was a small opening, small but large enough for me to reach around and grasp one of the shutters.
In an instant I let go my grip with my left hand on the wall and grabbed the shutter with the same hand and pulled the shutter open, slowly putting weight on my left hand as I opened the shutter.
Then it was open, and I could see the bar still held by the knife. I closed my eyes for a minute to calm myself, and then moved the knife downward and grabbed the bar in my right palm, with the hilt of the knife between it and my palm. Then I slowly lowered it, feeling the bar pivot.
This was too easy.
Then the bar was vertical, and the shutter was open. Still holding onto the left shutter, I sheathed the knife and used my right hand to open the right shutter a little. Then I slowly climbed in and let myself quietly down onto the floor inside, although my hooves still made a sound that was uncomfortably loud in the silence.
I turned around and closed the shutters behind me.
I summoned a small, very dim, light. Not enough for a mortal to see by, except for maybe an elf, but enough for me to make my way carefully around. Then I pulled out the two padded shoes for my hooves and secured them on, tying them around the straps that held the climbing blades. I hadn’t put them on earlier because I didn’t want to leave any dirt behind from the yard.
Once again I double checked just to make sure.
Now it was time to find my way down into the basement. According to Baldorf, I should be in a guest bedroom on the second floor, and I could indeed dimly see a small bed. The door that led into the main hall on the upper floor should be in the wall opposite. From there I would have to sneak down the hallway and into the study. There was the fireplace that contained the hidden staircase that led to the gems.
Slowly, silently, I made my way to the door and listened.
Nothing but the soft swish of my tail, and the dim gleam of light beneath the door. I waited a moment and listened again just to be sure. Still silence. Then I felt around the door until I found the hinges. I pulled out a small flask and carefully oiled them – I wanted to make sure that they were silent.
Besides, it was nice to leave something of a gift behind.
In an instant it was done, and I put the flask back into my leg pouch and waited, giving the oil a few minutes. Then I listened again, just to be safe.
I slowly pulled the door open a crack and peered into the hallway which, although lit by a couple of mage lights, was indeed empty. It was about 5’ wide and ended at a plain wooden railing that I’d been told looked over the staircase down to the entrance hall on the first floor. The walls were of bare wood, covered here and there with tapestries depicting scenes from Mandalor, and from some forest. As I’d been informed, the door to what I hoped was the study was to my right and just around a corner.
I let my light go out and then, slowly pushing the door open, I drifted into the hallway and silently pushed the door closed behind me. Then, staying along the outside wall so that I’d be hidden from anybody downstairs – I couldn’t scent or hear anybody but... - and to maximize the chance of staying away from creaking floorboards as I would be near the support beam that supported the wall I was staying against.
A couple of minutes and I was at the door to the study.
I stopped and listened for a minute, and heard only silence. So far, so good. Unfortunately the hinges for this door were on the other side so I couldn’t take any precautions against them making noise. I paused and closed my eyes and searched for ripples in reality and didn’t find any. On to the next step.
I slowly moved to the handle and pushed the trigger to open the latch – it was one of the newer locks that had recently been introduced in Mandalor, or so Baldorf had told me.
As I’d expected there was resistance as it was, indeed, locked.
I carefully pulled out a pair of thin iron bars from the pouch on my leg, my fey nature heating them to a pleasant warmth in my palm, and carefully manipulated them inside the lock.
Click. Its soft sound was loud in the silence.
I put the bars back into their sleeves in the pouch and then slowly, carefully, opened the door a crack and looked in.
Dimness and emptiness. The only light came from the door, and from dimly glowing coals in the fireplace. In that light I could dimly see a desk and a padded chair to the right of the fireplace, and a few bound books on a shelf to the left.
I padded in and slowly pulled the door shut behind me. The click of the latch sounded loud - I’d have to remember to lock it as I left – the longer before Vasgulan realized anything was wrong the better.
For the moment hidden, I looked around the room more carefully, padding across on my muffled hooves to the desk first. It was made of a dark wood, coloured reddish by the dim light from the fire. On top were a few papers and a closed ink pot and some quills. There were a few drawers but I ignored them – what I was looking for wasn’t there. I lifted the chair up and carried it over to just in front of the fireplace. According to Baldorf the secret panel was behind it, and that was were the magical protections would be. I could concentrate more fully on searching them out while seated. Carefully, silently, I put the chair down and then slowly sat down, raising and bending my tail as much as I could to avoid the back, but not with complete success. Then, facing the fireplace, I closed my eyes.
First I built up the scene in my mind. The stone mantle and sides and back, the glowing coals in the base, the redness of their light, and the occasional sound as they slowly burned. The actual interior of the fireplace was about 3’ wide and 4’ high – lots of room for me to clamber in. The secret panel was at the back of the fireplace interior and I added it to the picture. I’d been told that it was a pivot plate that pivoted horizontally.
I could see the picture clearly.
Then I opened my mind and sought for the ripples in that picture caused by magery - and yes, there was something.
There were two likely possibilities as to the purpose of the magery. One, it was set to trigger some kind of alarm or trap when something opened the panel. I didn’t think that was it, since the obvious solution was to touch the sill with iron and cancel the magery. The second possibility included the first, but also another magical trigger that monitored the one on the sill and would go off if the magery on the sill was cancelled. That was the likely case.
I concentrated on the ripple in my mind and followed it through the panel and across the narrow shaft that went downward and over to the opposite wall.
Yes, there was another ripple there. The ripple was small, slight, which suggested that the magery had been there for a long time becoming a defacto reality. However, even once a magery became permanent there was still a slight ripple that indicated reality had been changed – and that was what I could sense.
Now I had to puzzle a way around it. Young or stupid thieves would just barrel in with iron to break the magic and be trapped. Older, better trained thieves, would have devices to twist the magic, but such devices would have been very unlikely to detect or affect the monitoring spell. That was where my skill came in. Before Calynisha, mentally I cursed her name, I could have just made myself appear in the shaft, or effortless read out all the details of the magery. Now I had to work at it. I had to do small, subtle things one at a time.
I could feel sweat forming on my face.
The coals wouldn’t be a problem. My hooves could survive a few seconds upon them, and I had gloves for pushing against the back wall to open it. The hard part, and the one thing that Binnar couldn’t help me practice, was bypassing the magic.
I knew I couldn’t break the first spell, so I would have to take a way around it. It was possible it could simply check the appearance of Vasgulan against the person who opened the panel but that wasn’t likely – there were too many easy ways around appearance. I followed the ripples on the panel in my mind and traced what they spelled – it was not appearance, but instead a word and a symbol.
I stopped, gasping for breath, but keeping my breathing silent, and relaxed. I kept the image but let the ripples I had sensed fade away. I needed to rest.
Then I waited, relaxing my mind, letting my breathing calm down naturally, ignoring the cramp in my tail as I pushed it against the back of the chair, ignoring the crackle of the coals in the fireplace, ignoring the dim echo of the eerie howling of Cernus’ hounds that I more sensed along my spine than heard, as the hounds sought the spirits of the dead to take to judgment. It was midnight and the Hunt was out.
Then I felt something nibbling on my mane...
Leaping out of the chair and spinning around, I opened my eyes and drew my sword.
I felt a snuffle of breath against my ear and flicked it reflexively. Then I felt something brush against me – but I realized it was only in my mind.
By the Curse, what was going on?!
Another howl faintly scraped along my spine.
Then I realized what was happening – the stallion had escaped. I felt the cage I’d made and knew that it was empty. But then where was the stallion? Unless, because of tonight, the hunt...
I slowly sat down, a bit more forward this time to give my tail more room, and closed my eyes and built up the picture of the room in my mind. Soon I could see the chair and the desk and the fireplace and...
He was standing beside me, his mane entangled in mine as he nibbled on my ear.
I pulled my head away from him, both in reality and in my mind, and saw him raise his head but continue to lean against me.
Why? he asked, soundlessly, speaking only in my mind with a deep nasal voice.
In my mind I turned my head to look at him and watched as he stepped around, always staying in contact with me, until his tail was entangled in my hair, and his head was turned to face me.
Why you steal me? he asked.
What? It was Calynisha who had joined us. I didn’t steal any...
Calynisha stole me?
By the Curse, how’d he hear my thoughts? I snorted – of course, he was in my mind, literally. Then I answered, Calynisha merged us together.
What she do?
Of course, he was just a horse, but he seemed to have gotten some language, probably from me. Calynisha made us one.
I want to be free! Get out of me!
Why...! I calmed myself as my mental picture wavered. It wasn’t his fault, it was Calynisha. It was she who’d trapped us together.
Get her to free me?
She doesn’t want to, I replied.
Make her. She is mare, she must obey her stallion.
I played with the consequences of that statement. The stallion believed that, at least partially, I was a stallion too. Which made sense since I was one with him, and the concept of being joined with a mare was probably too much for him.
Mare? Me? No! The stallion snorted, and danced, but still remained always in contact with me.
I reached up and started rubbing the side of his head, slowly calming him down. Calm...calm... Finally, after a few minutes I thought to him, I want her to free me too.
You trapped? He didn’t believe me.
We’re trapped together. I’ll make her free us.
I can’t. I need to get things to force her to realize that she is mare and must obey us.
I grabbed his head and pulled it down until I could see my breath moving the hairs on his ear. I am here working to free us both, I thought into his ear. I need to do it now so that we can both be free.
I could sense his confusion. Not now?
Soon. As soon as I can.
A week, maybe two...
Eight or twelve days, suns.
I sensed him calm and waited while he digested what I’d said. Eventually he leaned his head down until it was resting on my shoulder, his breath moving the hairs of my hair.
I looked down and saw that, in my mind anyway, I was back to myself. Of course, I was seeing our spirits talking together, and of course our spirits looked like they did originally.
I felt him rubbing his neck on my shoulder to relax me and then he spoke, his voice low and deep and slow, Can I be free sometimes?
What did he mean? He was as trapped as I was. No he wasn’t – I could see and scent and run while he was trapped deep inside. I shuddered as my imagination began painting a picture of what that might be like before I thrust the thought away. I knew that I couldn’t lie to him, not since we shared the same mind. After a moment I responded – I don’t know. I’ll try.
When? His voice was eager.
Soon, when we are done here, if I can. But for now I need to get back to making us both free.
And then his image was gone, although I could sense him looking over my shoulder and running his neck through my hair, which I realized was a mane again.
Now all of me was after Calynisha – it made me feel better.
I returned my concentration and willed the ripples from the magery to re-appear. They came much easier this time, much much easier than before, although it was still hard.
Maybe because the stallion wasn’t fighting me? I sensed his agreement.
I’d have to find out my limits later. But now the traps were easy enough to work out. The keys to the spell were a single word, a nonsense phrase, and a spelled medallion. I didn’t have the medallion, but now I could change the spell on the panel so that it would accept any necklace, such as the gate I wore, as the proper symbol in addition to the specific medallion it was currently keyed to.
But wait – I didn’t think mortal magic was skilled enough but what if the monitoring magic checked for changes. I turned my attention to it and with my newly enhanced skills read it out – good – either mortal mages couldn’t, or they hadn’t thought of it. Then I turned my attention back and worked my will upon the magery upon the panel and changed it, feeling the ripples grow stronger as reality resisted the new magery.
I knew that now I could have made it permanent, could have held it until it was the reality, but there was no need, I would only need it for a short while. I willed the change so that it was strong, strong enough to last a day, and then it was done.
I opened my eyes breathing heavily, looking at the fireplace and the glowing coals, scenting the smoke and ash as I quietly gasped for breath. The magic was bypassed. A powerful mage could see that the spell had been changed because of the greater resistance of reality to its presence, but otherwise there was no way to tell.
Satisfied, I stood up and stretched, arching my tail over my head, working out the kinks from the time I’d spent seated. Then I relaxed, first reaching down to remove the pads and climbing attachments from my hooves and legs and putting them back into the pouch, and then getting out and putting on a pair of heavy gloves so that I could safely press the panel. I started towards the fire, trying to walk silently, but hearing my hooves clicking on the floor.
I could sense the stallion’s fear, but I also sensed that he trusted me now, and he didn’t make any resistance as I stopped in front of the fire, and he still made no resistance as I took a few deep breaths and then held my breath as I stepped into the fire and pressed against the panel.
It was hot, and I could feel the heat through my hooves, and could smell them starting to burn and my fetlocks singeing. Although I held my tail high, its hairs also started to singe, and I quickly pushed the panel open and then stepped inside onto a ledge. I spun around and pushed the panel closed.
I’d made it! I let out my breath with a whoosh and breathed rapidly for a moment until my lungs were again comfortable. Easily I summoned a dim light and looked around the dark shaft.
It was small, maybe five feet across, and I was standing on a narrow platform about 2’ wide. I could see a set of rungs attached to the back of the chimney (probably it was also the chimney for a fireplace of some kind on the first floor) leading downwards into the darkness. Fortunately the rungs were flat pieces of wood attached straight to the side of the chimney so I could climb down on my hooves without needing anything else.
I turned around and started climbing down, slowly and carefully, carefully applying pressure to each rung as I reached it. The rungs were slightly warm, and the stone was uncomfortably warm, but it was manageable. I expected some of the rungs to be trapped, and the fourth rung was indeed loose. I avoided it and made my way the rest of the way down without any more problems.
Finally I was at the bottom, not too far below the main floor – probably I was beside the basement if there was one. The chamber opened behind me and I turned around, moving the light higher, and looked around.
The room was small, maybe five feet across, and contained a single chest against the far wall, along with a pile of books. The books were likely records that Vasgulan wanted to keep secret, either of contacts, or shady deals he didn’t want the Council of Families to know of, but I didn’t care. I ignored them and made my way over to the chest. It was about three feet long, two feet wide and two feet high, and made of bronze-bound wood, the bronze appearing a glistening green in the dim light from my magic.
A drop of water fell from the ceiling to the floor, its plop loud in the silence.
I let the light go out and closed my eyes and sensed the chest. It was easier, and I found no magic. I hadn’t expected to find any as the protections were all earlier. But now, at least, I knew that the chest was locked. I opened my eyes, caused the light to return, and pulled out the two iron bars and then leaned down to open the lock.
And then stopped. There were no magical traps, yet...
I walked over to the left side of the chest and, leaning on the top but keeping my arms and hands to the side of the lock, put the bars into the lock and toggled it open. There was a click, and then a second click as three glistening bronze needles shot out from tiny holes in a line about a foot above the lock. Fortunately they’d missed my arms as I could see some kind of liquid glistening at their tips.
Yes, there was one last trick. Or...
Still standing beside the chest, I slowly raised the lid, but there were no other traps. I let the lid rest lightly against the wall and peered in.
There were coins – mostly silver but with a lot of gold, all neatly compartmentalized, but they weren’t what I was looking for. Still, I pocketed some of the gold, making sure to take only Kyndarian coins, ignoring the lesser valued ones.
OK, here were the compartments, and they looked to be the complete depth of the chest. But, according to Baldorf, there was a secret compartment below them. I carefully pulled out the trays using the handles on their insides that were kindly provided and looked at the bare wooden bottom. I reached down, checking, and yes, the bottom was where the bottom of the chest would be – there was no room for anything else.
If the chest was actually separate from the floor.
I leaned over and looked carefully, bringing the light down into the chest and brightening it.
Yes, I could see a handle, more of a hole really, that looked almost exactly like a knothole in wood. I smiled and then pulled out one of the iron bars and felt around inside. As I’d expected there was nothing, but there could have been.
I put the bar back and placed a finger into the knothole and pulled the panel open.
Before me, glittering dimly in the light I’d summoned, were over a hundred gems of all types and sizes. The hoard. I looked carefully and found a large black onyx, a large green emerald, and a large blue sapphire, all for the gate, and put them into one of the smaller pouches inside the large pouch on my leg.
Those three gems were mine.
The rest I gathered up and put into the bottom of the pouch. I made sure to get all of them – Baldorf would be pleased. After a few minutes I was done so I closed the panel.
The first thing I had to take care of were the needles. They were much too long to just slide in, so they probably were stored vertically and then sprung out in an arc. I looked around inside the chest and found three small, shallow, finger slots opposite the needles. I inserted my finger into each one in turn and slid it, and a narrow panel, downward, pulling the needles into the chest until the panel clicked and the needles were hidden. Next I put the trays of coins back in and then closed the chest, locking it. It was time to go.
I stood up, stretched, and then climbed back up the ladder along the chimney to the ledge on the second floor. I stopped and rested for a moment, and then put the gloves back onto my hands. Breathing deeply a few times first, I pushed the panel open, held my breath, and stepped into and across the coals and out into the room.
It was no longer dark, and it was no longer empty.
For a second I just stared, looking at the older man in festive garb who was standing at the door, looking like he had just closed it. He was staring back at me.
By the Curse!
Then I acted. I whipped out a throwing knife and threw it at his throat, silently hoping he wouldn’t scream, and then leapt across the chair and galloped towards him, drawing my sword. I could see him starting to inhale and start to turn away when my dagger sliced him in the neck. It wasn’t a perfect throw, but it did go in deep, so that he could only gurgle. The knife thunked to the floor.
Then I was upon him and my sword was in his chest. He started to slump down.
Curse! I grabbed him by one shoulder to lower him silently and, leaving my sword in his chest, clamped my other hand over his mouth to keep him silent as he died. Slowly he slumped down until I leaned over him, still holding my hand over his mouth until he was no longer breathing.
I swallowed and forced myself to calm down. He’d been here alone and I’d surprised him. Likely it was Vasgulan just returned home, which meant that there were likely bodyguards downstairs.
I hoped they hadn’t heard the knife thunk onto the floor, or me gallop across the room.
I quietly clicked my way over against the wall beside the door so that it would open with me facing the opening. Then I waited and listened, hearing nothing but the crackle of coals, and the occasional drip of blood from my blade onto the wood.
I waited and listened and was rewarded – there were footsteps outside the door. Now I had to wait and be ready for them. There was a soft knock on the door, and then nothing.
I waited, my sword ready.
A long pause, and then more footsteps outside, fading away.
I twisted my ears towards the door and concentrated on the sound. It was fading, but not quite right – why...
Then the door slammed open and two figures, armed with swords and armoured in chain, burst in.
I had parried one blow and taken a step forward, pushing the first back against the second so that the second was trapped in the doorway, before I even consciously realized what had happened. Fortunately the door wasn’t completely open as it had banged against Vasgulan’s body.
The dogs outside began to howl.
I couldn’t wait – I had to make this quick and dirty, and the person I fought knew what he was doing. For a few moments our blades danced as we tested each other and I was able to draw a dagger for my other hand and hold it ready as a counterpart to his armour. I managed to strike him twice during that time, but the blows weren’t sure enough to penetrate the chain.
This was not good.
Our swords danced and parried some more, and I was aware of the other man falling back and then running downstairs. A moment later I heard a loud horn blowing.
Curse, curse curse! The horn was going to call the city guard which meant that I couldn’t stay. And this mortal was doing a good job of holding me here.
I stepped backwards, allowing his sword to glance my thigh and draw blood. His eyes widened as he realized that what I was wearing wasn’t a costume, but that was his last thought, for by allowing his sword to knick me, I was able to twist my sword around and thrust it into his chest, hard. The chain stopped some of the blow, but the bronze parted before my iron and my blade sunk deep.
He dropped his sword and staggered back as I stepped forward keeping us close, and then swinging my dagger across his unprotected neck, making sure not to go deep enough to hit the spine and risking my blade being caught.
As my dagger swung through, partially balanced by its weight and the suction of my sword in his chest, I kicked upwards and forced him back, my sword snicking out of his chest.
He staggered backwards, stumbled, and collapsed, his last breath gurgling in his throat.
But I didn’t stay to watch, instead leaping over him and galloping down the stairs into the entrance hall and upon the other man who was taking a breath to sound the horn a second time.
He didn’t even have time to turn around before I thrust my sword through his chest and out the front, twisting it as I pulled it back out. As he collapsed on his stomach, I swiped my blade clean on his cloak and sheathed it.
I shoved the door closed before the dogs reached it and then leaned against it, gasping for breath.
Now what? Fortunately he’d only had enough time to blow the horn once and, if fortune favoured me, in the midst of the carnival no city guards would be nearby. But, I couldn’t count on that and I had to leave now.
But there were still the dogs, barking and howling outside and throwing themselves against the door.
I stopped, calmed myself, cleared my mind, and remembered the scent of the hounds from when I’d come in. Then, with my magery, I cloaked my scent so that to each of the two dogs, it seemed to be their own. Then I sheathed my sword to try and hide the scent of blood that it still held.
Taking a deep breath, I opened the door and stepped out.
Instantly the dogs were upon me, sniffing and whining, but not attacking. They stayed close while I stepped across the yard. I hadn’t had time to put on my climbing shoes and would have to use the gate, hoping nobody noticed, and hoping that the guard was not in sight.
I had almost reached it when I felt a stone hit me in the cheek. That was a sudden warmth and then the hounds leapt on me, yowling and barking.
Their weight forced me to the ground, and it was all I could do to keep them from my throat as their teeth dug into my arms, grating on the bone.
No! I wouldn’t go out this way. I wouldn’t. But...
Then, somehow, I felt my will pushed aside and a new will take over. Suddenly I was growing, healing, leaping up from the ground and towering over the dogs. I felt the straps on my clothes dig into my chest and legs and then snap open, and saw the dogs spring backward, growling deep from their throats.
And then I struck. My hooves kicked their chests, and my strong teeth tore into their flesh. The dogs leapt up and tried to grab my throat but I shook them free and reared and fell, crushing one of them under my fore hooves. The other stepped back, growling, and then sprang again, but I reared up and kicked its skull in with my front hooves.
Both dogs were dead.
Then I just stood there, my will back in charge, feeling the blood and sweat caking my fur, letting my head hang low near to the ground.
By the Curse, what had happened?
I looked around, seeing almost all the way around, and seeing my snout extend in front of my eyes. Looking down and back, past my fore hooves, I could dimly see my rear hooves with my tail hanging down almost to the ground behind them.
I was a horse, the warhorse that Calynisha had merged me with.
Was that it? Had the stallion’s spirit pushed me aside and taken over? But why was I now a horse? Did the stallion do it somehow? And if so, then why was I now in control, and still a stallion. I checked between my legs – yes, a stallion. And why had the dogs attacked?
I turned around and walked back to where I was standing just before the dogs went mad. Then I leaned my neck down and snuffled along the ground looking for the stone that had hit me – there it was – I could scent myself on it. I stepped over to it and pushed my nostrils right up to it.
Iron. Someone had thrown an iron stone at me. It had cancelled the magery that cloaked my scent, and then the dogs had attacked.
I looked around for my pouch and the clothing that had been flung from my body as I’d changed. They were gone.
I looked around and spotted a figure, dressed in black, running for the wall carrying the pouch.
WHO WOULD DARE?!!
My body twisted and changed and I stood on two feet, feeling the cold ground on their naked soles, feeling the wind rustle along the tips of my ears.
With a cold rage I reached out with my will and grabbed the fleeing figure and pulled it slowly towards me. The figure tried to run, but its feet just scraped the ground.
Then the figure was in front of me.
I spun it around and made the hood vanish from its face.
It was Sanula.
I glared at her, my will holding her in the air before me.
Finally, in a quiet voice I asked, “Why did you do it?”
She glared back.
“Baldorf sent me,” she croaked. But it wasn’t her mind that made her answer, it was my will that ripped the words from her throat.
Baldorf. That lying, conniving bastard! I’d deal with him next.
I let her go and watched, my eyes and heart cold, as she fell to the ground landing on her chest. I kicked her until she rolled over and looked up at me, her eyes wide in fear. Then I left her and walked over and picked up the pouch and began strapping it to my leg.
“Did Baldorf tell you what you were stalking?”
Silence in answer. I finished and walked over and picked up my sword in its scabbard and strapped it to my other leg. The straps had parted but there was enough extra that I could still secure the scabbard.
“So he didn’t tell you.” I walked over and looked at her as she slowly crawled away on her back, always looking up. I walked slowly behind her, making sure to always loom over her. “Then let me give you a reminder. You wanted to be a panther?”
She stopped and glared up at me, fear in her eyes, but fear that was tinged with hatred.
“Then let me give you a pair of gifts so you’ll never forget again.” I smiled, a cold feral smile, and let my will caress her. With it I warped her eyes into huge almonds of glowing green, laughing as the pain caused a whimper to escape from her lips. Then I forced a long, black furred tail to spring out from her, dragging itself through her skin and scraping along the ground.
She screamed with the agony and I laughed.
Then I leaned down and whipped the cloak she’d been wearing off and put it on. I let a cold, hard laugh escape me as I turned and made for the gate.
And then the magic left me.
I didn’t know why I’d had it, hadn’t even recognized consciously the fact that it had returned, but had just made use of it. I felt my tail tear itself free, and felt the bones break and twist in my legs, and felt my feet crush themselves into hooves.
But I was Ilisri and I didn’t scream, but I couldn’t help but stumble a little. I stopped.
What had happened? I’d become a horse, and then I’d become myself, if only for an instant. For a moment my power had once again been mine, but then it was gone. I remembered the vision as I talked with the stallion – the stallion looking like a stallion, and I looking like myself. Was that it? And I remembered my magery returning stronger once the stallion had agreed to help me. Was that the key? Was it the stallion’s disbelief and resistance that was keeping my power from me? For once had we both hated together?
That had to be it. My will needed his will for its full strength.
By the Curse I’d be glad when I’d regained my true form and given the stallion back his, after I’d killed Calynisha.
And in a short time I would be able to do it.
I started walking again and reached the gate and stopped. I listened for a moment and heard only the sounds of a few mortals partying – no patrol, at least not yet.
I smiled, and threw the gate open and pranced onto the street, joining the party, pulling the gate loudly closed behind me.
Nobody even gave me a second glance.
I turned and made my way to the west side of the house and ducked into the alley and the protecting darkness.
I’d done it. I’d pulled it off. I couldn’t help but laugh as I picked up my mask and placed it once again upon my head, completing my costume – I left the hem of my dress behind.
I spent the rest of the night making my way back to the entrance to the catacombs. It wasn’t difficult as the crowds were thinner, and most were so far gone in drink that I don’t think they even saw me. I reached the alley just before dawn.
It was as I was pushing the pivoting door shut that the Aldorashgan began to glow. I felt the stallion’s spirit tearing from me and vanishing, deep into me, hidden and secret where it had been before Vashigan had died.
I stood in the darkness and felt its mind twisting and shrinking and finally vanishing. But, it wasn’t completely gone, somehow I knew it was still there. I searched the depths of my spirit and found it, small and hidden, at peace in its dreams.
I left it and opened my eyes.
Then I had a thought – did I keep the new strength of my magic, or did the drawing away of the stallion’s spirit draw that gift away as well?
I summoned a light and it came easily. So our agreement held.
And then I wondered...
I removed the mask and cloak and pouch and scabbard and secured the scabbard to the pouch and the pouch to the bag I’d left earlier. And then I concentrated on remembering what had happened when I was attacked by Vasgulan’s dogs, building the image in my mind. I remembered the twisting of my spine, the bending of my legs, the pinching in my chest, the stretching of my face. And I remembered the feel of walking on four hooves, and of seeing my snout before my eyes.
And I felt the twisting and the bending and the pinching and stretching. I opened my eyes and, in the light of the magery that I still willed, saw my snout and felt my four hooves on the ground.
I nickered in pleasure – this would at least be faster than walking on two hooves.
Stretching my neck down, I picked up the pouch and scabbard in my mouth, and began to canter down the passage.
It was good to walk on four hooves. It was good to be alive.
For me, if not for Baldorf.
Chapter 9: Hunters and the Hunted
One day little Andalya was fleeing through the forest. She was angry for her parents had made her work all day when she just wanted to run. She wanted someone to just play with her for all her life. It was getting dark and she was starting to worry, but then she heard the sound of children laughing and went to see.
The voices were quiet at first, but then grew louder and little Andalya raced through a glistening silver mist and suddenly was in a dense forest lit only by an eternal twilight. Instantly all the laughter and shouts faded and then vanished. Startled she looked around and watched as a beautiful lady in flowing silk walked towards her.
My name is Ilisri, she said, and then asked if Andalya would like to play. Of course little Andalya said yes and then they played and danced and twirled until poor little Andalya was broken when she was thrown into a tree.
Ilisri sighed and then the body vanished. A moment later the sounds of children returned and Ilisri waited for another plaything to come.
Traditional children’s tale from the Dragon Isles.
I cantered at an easy pace, even though I had to keep my head low on my way to meet Kalibynthn at the river. The air smelled stale, and I couldn’t help but wrinkle my nostrils a bit as the stench of ancient decay occasionally wafted my way. And, in my mind, I kept playing out what I would do to Baldorf. Killing was too easy for him. Maybe a slow drowning? Still too easy. A slow transformation from dwarf to slug, a little bit each day?
That was promising.
Other ideas played in my mind but none of them really appealed to me so I kept trying different ideas to find the perfect punishment. Too soon though I recognized that I was almost at the landing where Kalibynthn was waiting.
I stopped and put down my packages, snorting to get the taste of leather out of my mouth, remembering the form that Calynisha had cursed me with.
A form that part of me was starting to believe might not be a curse.
At that thought I shook my head violently, pulling my ears down flat. It was a curse and she would pay!
Then, almost painfully, I pictured and willed my body back to its half-horse form. My insides clenched and changed, my neck and face shortened, and my hips twisted. And then it was done.
And, through it all, I had no trouble keeping the dim light glowing.
I shook my faerie head feeling my mane on my back and realized that it was starting to feel right.
Then I leaned over and sorted through my pile of supplies, pulling out the clothing. A few moments later I was clothed, and had my scabbard and pouch strapped on, one on each leg, and the knives on their belt that I slid over my shoulder. I refused to put the hood over my head to hide my horse ears as there was no need to hide them from Kalibynthn. And, I was becoming quite proud of them and wanted to show them off.
Proud? Show them off? To a mortal?!
I’d be glad when this was over and Calynisha was screaming in agony in front of me.
Smiling at the image, I flicked my tail underneath my cloak, and walked the rest of the way to the landing, my two remaining hooves still echoing loudly. In a few moments I could see the lights from the barge and let my light go out. A few more steps and I was there.
Organyth was at the edge waiting, wagging his tail. And there was Kalibynthn standing beside him.
I stopped. Suddenly I couldn’t walk, couldn’t speak. What was wrong with me?
“You’re back early.” His voice was cold and low.
Why...! I shook my head, gritted my teeth, and then forced calmness, exhaling my anger in a loud whoosh. “Everything went smoothly. Let’s get going.”
He grinned. “Is there a hurry, my furry bed-warmer? I’ve none.”
I could move again. Grinning I hopped aboard, nimbly dancing away from the arm he offered to help - although I did almost need it. Two legs felt oddly unstable.
Once on board I spun around, teasing Organyth with the tip of my tail, and then let Kalibynthn hold me and lead me off into the cabin where we warmed each other’s bed and eventually fell asleep, each of us entangled within the other.
I awoke a while later, hot and uncomfortable, and pushed myself up out of the pile of straw.
“Wha....” came from the tangled pile of hot fur and mane that was still mostly asleep.
I turned, “You snore you know.”
“Mmph.” And then he did start snoring.
Smiling, I turned away and quietly, or at least as quietly as I could with hard hooves, clomped across the floor and went over to the edge of the barge and did some personal business over the side, lifting my tail to keep it clean. By the time I’d finished and had made it back to the small cabin, Kalibynthn was at least partially awake.
“So, my hot furry horsey, did it go well?”
Horsey? Did he...? He couldn’t – he was probably just commenting on my hooves. “If you aren’t more careful in what you say, I’ll kick you a couple of times.”
He backed away in an exaggerated hurry, “No, no, my terrifying and dangerous furry horse lover.”
I laughed. “But it did go well. Not as well as it could have, but I got what I needed.”
He must have sensed something in my tone for he suddenly became serious, “What went wrong.”
I sat down and leaned into his warm lower chest. “Only a couple of things. I was caught by the owner and had to kill him and his guards.” I felt his body tense up and waited a moment but he was silent. “And another thief tried to take my prize.”
“She named herself Sanula. Ever heard of her?”
He frowned. “No. But then I don’t have much dealing with Mandalor.”
“She was sent by Baldorf.”
“How do you know?”
“She told me.”
He looked at me questioningly.
“I convinced her.”
For a while there was silence until he asked, “Is she still alive?”
“You should have killed her. She’ll either flee, or tell Baldorf that you know.”
“I don’t think she’ll flee – she didn’t strike me as the type.”
“Then you can’t go back to the underworld.”
“Unfortunately I have to – I need someone to rebuild the necklace to take me home.” A desperate need filled me. “Will you come with me?”
“To faerie. Once I’ve destroyed Calynisha, I can give you anything you want. Power, magic, endless life...”
I stopped and stared.
“I like you, I enjoy your company, and your warmth in bed.” He smiled. “Except for your hard little feet and scratchy tail of course. But I like my life. I like my solitude on the river in the darkness, silent except for the quiet burble of water. I like my time in the settlements drinking and talking. And I look forward to getting old and retiring.”
I sighed, afraid for him, and hating him. “Then you must leave while you still can. Go south, or flee into the wilds.”
He stared. “You want to get rid of me that much?”
“Yes, no, I...” I stopped and turned away, getting my thoughts in order. “There is a mage coming from the north. He’s already destroyed the caldayan kingdoms there and he’s going to reach Mandalor any time.”
“Dragons are aiding him.”
“I’ve heard, but I find it hard to believe. And even if they are, he won’t bother coming down here. Nobody ever...”
He made sense, but that didn’t allay my fears. I grabbed him and pulled his face close to mine, “This one is different! Please leave. For me?” I slowly unclenched my hands from his arms, smelling his hot and tasty breath as he exhaled onto my face.
“He won’t come down here. They never do.”
“I fear for you,” I whispered, realizing then that that was the truth. I actually cared about the fate of a mortal!
“You don’t have to. I can take care of...”
“Not against this! A mortal mage with dragons is coming conquering and I fear what he has stolen.” If the mage had the Spherandracyl... He couldn’t! But I could almost hear it calling me... No!
“What has this man stolen?” His eyes, large, clear, earnest, looked into mine.
He can’t have taken it – it’s not possible. “You must leave. I beg you to leave!”
“No. I can take care of myself.”
I stared. How could this mortal defy me? Why would he not listen?
“I have friends and I have a place and I don’t need to run. I will not leave!”
I looked down at his upper chest. “Then on your head be it,” I whispered. “I wash...” my voice started to waver and I swallowed to hide it, “...wash my hands of you.” I turned and stood up and started walking to the door, my hooves loud on the wood. “I have given you wisdom – if you are too foolish to heed it, then I take my leave of you.”
“Take me back now so that our business can be finished. I...” I felt a tear on my cheek, “...I never want to see you again.”
Never? What was I saying? Of course I wanted... I shook my head, flattened my ears, raised my tail up against my back, and stalked to the front of the barge. He was just a mortal. A silly mortal dalliance that would soon be completely forgotten. What did I care about his fate?
He was a mortal. Just a silly mortal.
I sat on the bow and let my hooves dangle in the water. I would not look back. I would not give in. I was Ilisri and he was just a silly mortal.
My hooves clunked against the wood of the barge with a thud dampened by the water. Even Organyth stayed away from me.
Kalibynthn was just a mortal, and if he chose to ignore me, then he did not deserve me! That was it. He didn’t deserve me.
I kept repeating it over and over again as my ears rotated to listen as he left the cabin and stopped.
I refused to turn around.
After a moment I heard him pad to the stern and untie the barge from the landing. A few moments later I heard the sound of a pole in the water and felt the barge begin to move.
He was just a mortal. A plain, short-lived, worthless mortal.
He was just a mortal.
I chanted that over and over again in my mind until I almost believed it.
Hours passed as I sat in the bow, in the dim light, staring down the tunnel and watching the ripples of light reflected from the water on the ceiling. I had done the right thing – all of my past had proven that what I had done was the right thing. And then my musings were interrupted as a great wave of cold water rushed into the bow, soaking me up to my chest. The barge rocked and I blinked my eyes to clear them, clearing them in time to see the massive jaw of my hatchling sister filling the tunnel.
I stood up, feeling water drip from my drooping tail, and rubbed the tip of my hatchling sister’s snout. “Don’t say a word, for now. In a moment, I’ll join you – try and do what you did before as best you can – and don’t worry it won’t be as long this time my hatchling sister.” And I whispered her True Name and felt her breath quiver in fear and love.
Then I spun around and clomped towards the stern running into Kalibynthn halfway there. He’d been walking towards the bow and had reached the starboard side of the cabin when he stopped and waited. A moment later I stopped in front of him.”
“One last thing and we’re done.” My voice was cold, and I managed to keep it steady, even when Organyth licked the hair on my lower leg. “Stay here and wait a while after I’ve gone. And don’t tell anybody that you saw me, otherwise it will be your life.”
He was silent.
“The only reason I don’t take it now is because of what you so foolishly threw away.” Was it him who threw it away?
I spun around and walked back to the bow, ignoring the touch of his hand-paw on my mane. Once at the bow I removed the pouch from my leg, removed the sword and scabbard, removed the shoulder belt and throwing knives, stripped off my clothing and bundled them tight around the sword and belt, and put the bundle in my pouch. Hopefully that would keep the sword somewhat dry, but I would still have to thoroughly clean and oil it when I could.
I almost stopped right then and turned around; I almost stopped and begged forgiveness, but I refused to let myself do that. Now I wish I had. Instead, holding the pouch tightly against my chest, I made a shallow dive into the stream.
For a second I felt nothing but the icy coldness, and then it vanished as the warmth of my hatchling sister’s magic embraced me. As it had before, my form changed and twisted and I started swallowing the water to breathe. My hooves fell off and thunked to the bottom as my legs merged and changed into a tail, a fleshy tail that wavered and drifted in the water. My mane and horse-tail were still present, but longer and darker, twisting and entwining around my leg-tail.
Still holding my bundle tightly, I flicked my leg-tail and swam swiftly down the stream and into the lake in the cavern. With my enhanced vision I could see my hatchling sister withdrawing her head and neck, and the water swirled behind it pulling me along. Then I was in the lake and I swam down into the depths behind the dim form of my hatchling sister. A few minutes and she stopped on the bottom, waiting as I swam along her length, passing under her left wing and tickling its surface with my horse-tail, before finally arriving at her head.
I stopped, just above one of her large horns, and freed a hand to rub the sensitive skin at its base. Then we spoke, using her magic to talk.
“You returned,” and she whispered my True Name, and I felt its power embrace and warm me. “How was your trip?”
“I got what we needed. Soon we can both go home and we can be together.”
“Together.” She sighed.
I could sense her eagerness. “But not for a little while. Now, please, take me to where you took me before for I’m ready to repay...”
“Ilisri – not between hatchling...”
“Between anybody. I pay my debts.” I sighed. “You know me, unlike anybody else. You know that you can’t win this argument.”
Her voice turned deep and fearful. “We need to leave soon.”
“So you’ve felt it too, the Spheran...”
“Don’t name it – don’t draw its attention. I can feel it searching for me, seeking me out. When I wake up I can feel the tentacles of its power sliding out of my mind trying to remain hidden...”
I grabbed her horn tightly. “Then take me back to your treasure while we talk, for we have much to arrange before we can go away together, far from this danger.”
She started swimming, her wings pulled against her body, her tail whipping back and forth, faster and faster until I could barely hold on. “You have the gate ready, hatchling sister?”
“No, but I have the gems. I need to see a dwarf of the old blood who can fix it faster than I can. But it must be done secretly.”
“One who helped me betrayed me. He must not know that I am back.”
“We can kill him together, like in the old times, like we did to all who worked against us.”
“Shh... Not yet. We’re too alone, and there are too many who would act against us. But, fear not, when we’re ready, we’ll return and Baldorf will pay.” The perfect fate for him occurred to me. “How would you like a spirit to purify for one of your eggs?”
“Eating his body and purifying his spirit will take a long time. A very long and painful time.” I could sense her smiling eagerly.
“Just make sure to consume his self last.”
For a long while there was silence as together we smiled in anticipation. Centuries of burning agony, with no escape, no madness, and nothing but the knowledge that all that he was, was being slowly destroyed so that his spirit could serve us. Yes it was perfect.
Eventually we came to a stop, deep under the lake. “We’re here. Hatchling sister, you don...”
I sighed and opened the pouch and started fishing out the gems that I didn’t need. The gems that Baldorf thought would be his. Letting myself drift away from my hatchling sister, I pulled out the gems one by one and let them go, watching them drift down to the bottom, twisting back and forth and around and around as they sank into the depths to join her hoard. All I kept was the gold I’d taken, the largest gem to give to Boraran in return for his repair of the gate, and the three gems needed to repair the gate.
Once the last one had disappeared from sight, I slowly swam back to my hatchling sister’s head. “It’s time to go.”
“You could stay for a while.” Her voice was wistful. “Holding you in this form is easier now.”
Holding the pouch by one of its straps in one hand, I swam up to one of her ears and gently kissed the sensitive skin on its inside. “By the Curse how I wish it could be so, but there’s no time. Soon though, just a few days, and we’ll be together until the End of All Things.”
And I sighed with her. “But for now I must go. Take me to the edge of the town, let me surface, and then let me revert. But stay near in case I need you.”
“Grab hold my hatchling sister.”
I swam down and grabbed one of her large horns, wrapping one arm and my leg-tail around it tightly as she started swimming. “It’ll seem so long. I’ve been so lonely, especially after finding you.”
“I know, I have too. But soon, soon. A few days and we’ll leave together. I’ll return as soon as I can and take a boat out into the lake. Then I’ll be ready and you can come.”
“What if you need me?”
“Stay near and I’ll whisper your name.” I would whisper her True Name which she would hear anywhere upon the World.
“I’ll be ready. But be careful – after I’ve finally found you...”
“Because I’ve found you, I’ll make sure that nothing will happen to me, or to us.”
For a while we swam in silence until she slowed. “We’re almost there. Fare well, and return quickly.”
She raised her head to the surface, and I felt the water streaming off of my mane and horse-tail, dripping off of my flesh and out of my gills. I kissed the sensitive skin at the base of her horn once more. “Be silent, for I know of your love and I must arrive in secret. Soon we’ll be together.”
Then her will left me, but this time much more gently. Tenderly, sweetly, I felt my leg-tail shrink and twist, and then break apart. Slowly, warmly, my legs shrunk and tightened and my hooves slowly grew back. And then, with a warmth of love, I felt the water in my chest squeeze out of my mouth so that my lungs were empty. And then my gills closed, and my sight darkened.
And it was done.
Summoning a dim light, I kissed the base of her horn in thanks. “Hatchling sister,” I whispered, “sshhh – not yet. Soon we’ll be together.” Then, holding the pouch tight, I walked along her snout and made a shallow dive off its edge and into the freezing water. I surfaced and stood on the bottom and turned to face my hatchling sister. “Soon we will be together, never to be parted again, until the End of All Things.”
Then her snout slipped back into the lake and she was gone.
I sighed and then hurried the short distance to the docks, staying low in the water and moving as quietly as I could. Often I stopped and listened, moving away from any sounds I heard, and dimming my light as the light from the town grew brighter. Finally I reached a bit of shoreline that was shallow, rocky, and unused. I crept onto the shore, trying to stay silent, but still making more noise than I would have hoped. Fortunately nobody approached me as I swiftly made my way into a darkened corner where the roof of the cavern slanted down to the floor.
There I carefully turned the pouch over and lay it on the ground, waiting for the water to drain out. I removed my trousers, shirt, belt, shoulder belt and cloak from it and wrung the cloth as dry as I could before getting dressed. Removing the four throwing knives, I wiped them somewhat dry and placed them into their scabbards on my shoulder belt. Next I took the sword in its scabbard, pulled it out and wiped it dry and oiled it – I would have to do a more complete job later when the scabbard could be let dry out – and placed it back in its scabbard and strapped its scabbard to my belt. Finally I took out the leather mufflers for my hooves and secured them on. They were wet, and probably a little slippery, but silence was more important. Strapping the pouch to my other leg, I threw on the cloak and then sat and waited, ready to go but wanting to wait until night. The town didn’t shut down as cities on the surface did, but it did get quieter. Eventually I heard most of the noise in the distance fade away and slowly got up to my hooves.
My clothes were damp, but it would have to be managed. I pulled the heavy hood over my head, its cold wetness heavy on my ears and tail, and doused my light. Then I stood up and made my way into town.
I didn’t go out of my way to avoid anybody as that would have looked odd, but I made sure to keep a distance between myself and the Bronze Rat. I could only hope that Baldorf wouldn’t have any spies out yet as I’d made good time coming back. Looking and listening I couldn’t detect anybody tailing me, and I made it past the inn without problems.
And then I heard someone approaching on soft paws. I spun, hand on the hilt of my sword, and realized that it was Talynthen, hurrying across the market to meet me.
By the Curse! Now I’d have to deal with him. I waited, silent, as he padded up to me.
I clamped my hand over his mouth and whispered, “Sshhh. Nobody can know I’m back. Nod if you understand.”
He nodded and I carefully removed my hand.
“What are you doing here? Was it...?”
“Not here,” I whispered, grabbing his hand-paw and leading him towards an alley further in from the lakeshore. Inwardly I cursed – Baldorf knew of him, and Baldorf could break him. I wished I didn’t have to kill him – his body was something that would make Baldorf suspicious and I couldn’t afford that. If I had my power, it wouldn’t matter what he told Baldorf, but I didn’t.
A few moments later I led him into a dark alley.
“I was successful, but I think somebody’s been following me,” I whispered, sliding my hand along my chest, slipping a knife into my palm, and eventually stroking my chin.
“I’ll slip you to Bald...”
He ended that name in a gurgle as I slit his throat with one hand, slapping the other over his mouth. Keeping him silent, I slipped the knife into his chest and twisted it. A moment later he breathed his last, and I let his body slip to the ground.
I couldn’t hide his body, so I’d have to disguise the reason for his death. I quickly searched it and found his pouch with his few coins, including the silver I’d given him for guiding me, and a sheathed dagger. Then, after wiping my hands on his chest fur, I slipped what I’d found into my pouch.
I silently stood up and slipped away.
The rest of my trip through the dark alleys was made in silence and alone. The couple of thugs I heard I was able to hide from, and then slip past when they moved on. Finally I reached Boraran’s smithy.
I slipped the pair of iron bars from my pouch and wiped them on my cloak to remove at least some of the dampness. Then I closed my eyes, performing a quick check for magery and fortunately found none. I’d been afraid of magery – dwarves, especially those of the old blood, were often quite proficient in its use.
Picking the lock was difficult, especially as I was afraid to summon any light, but eventually it clicked and I pushed open the door. I couldn’t reach the hinges to oil them, but I wasn’t that worried as they hadn’t squeaked before. Slipping through and pulling the door softly shut behind me, I crept into the forge and summoned a dim light. Then I made my way across, slowly and carefully, silently stepping over Moranan’s body as he slept by the forge. A few more steps and I was at the door at the rear that I guessed led into Boraran’s private quarters.
A quick check, both with the iron bars, and sensing for ripples in reality, revealed that the door was unlocked and was not magically protected. I quietly pushed it open and crept in, pulling it shut behind me, and then proceeding.
I’d taken only a few steps when I heard a faint whisper of movement behind me. I spun around whilst drawing my sword, only to see Boraran standing there, armed with his own iron blade, and armoured in heavy chain.
“Is there a reason for you to disturb my rest?” he asked dryly.
I stood straighter. “I need your help.”
“One of the mighty powers needs my help? So why the sneaking around?”
“You know why!” I hissed.
“Then why me now, and not Baldorf?”
Could he not know? Because of the promises we’d exchanged it would be stupid for Boraran to want me dead – he had too much to gain from my living. “Baldorf betrayed me.”
“I take it the betrayal was less than successful?”
“I’m alive.” I knew then that I should have killed the thief Baldorf sent, but it was too late now.
“Does Baldorf know?”
“He shouldn’t, at least for a couple of days, and that’s all I’ll need.”
“And where do I come in?”
“I need to buy your services for some work.”
He raised his left eyebrow, still keeping his sword ready.
“I need three gems mounted in a necklace as quick as you can.”
“And you can’t?”
“You can do it much faster than I can.”
He nodded. “Why should I help you?”
I knew that he meant more than just the necklace. “First, I can pay you well for your services. Second, you want me to succeed. Third, you should be done and I should be gone before Baldorf gets suspicious.”
Typical. I reached into my pouch, still holding my sword ready just in case, and pulled out the large gem I’d saved for him and held it in the dim light I was still maintaining. It was a ruby, twice the size of one of my knuckles.
“A large price.” He lowered and sheathed his sword. “But not needed. What do you want me to do?”
I sheathed my sword and drew the necklace from around my neck and tossed it to him. He caught it. “I need you to fix this.”
He turned it around in his hands and I saw the light in his eyes as he realized what it was. “A gate,” he whispered. “But it’s missing the gems.”
I pulled out the three gems and held them in my hand. “Already taken care of.” I handed them to him one by one and watched as he examined each in turn, before slipping each into a pouch on his belt.
“You know it’ll take a bit – they need to be mounted and balanced, both physically and magically.”
He thought for a moment. “Two days.”
He glared at me.
I sighed and nodded. “Two days then.” I handed him the ruby. “Payment.”
He took a step back. “I don’t need payment for this.”
I stepped forward. “I always pay my debts.”
He shrugged and took it and slipped it into his pouch. “I have a store room at the back where you can stay until I’m finished. There’s food and drink for you there. I trust you can remain silent?”
I wanted to laugh but just nodded. Then I stepped aside to let him walk by and turned to follow. The trip was short and straight and ended in front of a brass-bound wooden door. Producing a key, Boraran opened it.
“Here you go. I apologize, but it will keep you hidden.”
I looked over his shoulder and into the room. It was small and had been carved out of stone. In my dim light I could see five or six crates, some barrels, and a large pile of sacks.
“I use it to store supplies. The crates contain preserved tack, the barrels wine, and the sacks grain. Help yourself.”
“A lot for a single smith and his apprentice.”
“I keep prepared for sudden government changes. You’ve heard?”
“Yes. This mage is on his way, and he has the Spherandracyl.”
Boraran frowned. “Are you sure?”
“I can feel it calling as the blood of my father went into its making.”
“So that is why you’re in such a hurry.”
“Yes, I and another need to leave before it gets too close.”
“You should take that thing with you.”
I let out a quiet, sad, laugh. “You’re probably right, but the gods have forbidden any who have the blood of its makers from ever touching it. And they put wards on it to make sure that we don’t”
He sighed and shook his head. “Unfortunate, but I thank you for the warning – it will enable me, and others, to prepare.”
“For the storm that’s coming, but then you’ll be long gone.” He stepped out of the way. “Your room awaits.”
I stepped around him and inside. “Thank you.”
“And, I trust, the next thing you will do is to clean and dry your sword?”
I turned to face him, glaring. “I am not a child.”
“But before you had forgotten.”
“True, but now I’ve remembered. I’ll do it before I sleep.”
“And have you named it?”
I frowned. “No, I haven’t had a chance.” I stopped and remembered how it had saved me – it had certainly earned a name. “I’ll take care of it after I wake up.”
“Good. Let me know what it is. I wish you well.” He turned and closed the door, locking it behind him. That didn’t worry me as I knew that I could open it if I needed to, and I knew that he knew.
Once the door was closed, I willed my light to a greater brightness and quickly spotted a large oaken bar that I could use to secure the door. After barring the door, I moved some sacks to make a place to rest. Next I undressed, putting my clothes and hoof mufflers on various sacks to dry. Then I pulled out the oil flask and a rag and worked on the sword for a long time, slowly and carefully polishing out each mark and nick. When I was finally finished, I did the four knives, much quicker. The scabbards would have to dry out by themselves. Unfortunately, I had to set the blade naked on one of the barrels, but it was the best I could do.
Then I slept.
I awoke sometime later, hearing the sound of work from the smithy. The storage room was dark and still, and I summoned a light and started to think of a name for my sword. Thinking, I drank some wine from one of the barrels, and ate some tack from one of the crates. Then I did my personal business in a corner. I checked my clothes, and they were more or less dry, although the scabbards were still slightly damp. Next I spent a while working the stiffness out of the leather from the pouch and the straps for the various attachments to my hooves – I would definitely need the mufflers again. After all this, I still had no name.
I carefully pulled the sword from where I’d placed it, turned it over, and started polishing out the marks from the barrel. A name. I needed a name that this blade deserved, a name of honour and skill. Then I stopped, smiling. I remembered my Mistress of Swords from so long ago, the woman that my father had had killed. Carefully picking up the blade in both hands, I leaned down and kissed the blade, whispering my Mistress of Sword’s name, and giving it to the sword.
Then I carefully polished out the marks left by the moisture in my breath and sheathed Naveela in the now dry scabbard.
Everything was done, but the day was still young. I could still hear work from the smithy, and definitely didn’t want to go out during working hours. So I started to wonder – were there other entrances into this storeroom? I spent the rest of the watch confirming as best I could that there were none.
Once that was finished, I ate and drank some more and then sat and checked everything – it was all dry and ready to go. I cleaned and sheathed the knives. Now what? Shrugging, I started to practice my magery, learning the limits of my new strength and sensitivity. Eventually, tired, I stretched my muscles and performed my exercises, and then went to bed.
Fortunately this would all be over in another day.
I suddenly awoke when I heard a dull thudding coming from nearby. It sounded like someone was pounding on the door to the smithy. I waited and listened and then heard, “In the name of the Inquisition and of the Gods you will open this door!”
The inquisition? By the Curse what were they doing here?
I heard a door being flung open, footsteps, and then another door opening. Then I heard Boraran: “What in the name of the Gods are you talking about. Do you know it’s the middle of the fourth watch?!”
“Silence.” It was the inquisitor. Then I heard the clunking of metal armoured boots on stone and the tinkle of mail.
“What...” Boraran began.
“It is here.”
I heard more mailed figures enter the smithy.
“By the Gods what are you talking about?”
“I have tracked one of the powerful, cursed, fey here – where are you hiding it!”
By the Curse – I must have left a signature when I transformed Sanula! And the thrice cursed inquisition, those who followed the gods and hunted down the faerie, had followed it.
“I haven’t seen or heard of any of the fey powers, and I don’t know what you’re talking about.” That was Boraran.
“And yet, the stench leads here.”
“I had some ancient weapons almost a year ago, maybe it’s their remnants...”
“We both know it’s not that. I know of you, and the Inquisition knows of you. We haven’t forgotten your, shall we say, transgression.”
More sounds of figures moving, followed by the sounds of objects being overturned and thrown around.
“I have followed the stench of one of the most powerful of the cursed fey from Vasgulan’s body down here and into this smithy. The faerie was here!”
“And how am I supposed to stop one of the most powerful cursed ones?”
My eavesdropping was interrupted by a soft rustle behind me. Summoning a dim light, I spun around, reaching for my sword as I saw a section of the wall rotate open. Pushing it open was Moranan.
“What?” I whispered.
“We must leave, now!”
“In a moment.” I grabbed my belt and shoulder belt with Naveela and my knives and put them on.
“Its cursed magery is here!” It was the inquisitor.
“One more moment.” I balanced on one hoof and strapped a hoof muffler to my other hoof, and then switched. Then, grabbing the pouch but leaving the clothing behind, I whispered, “Let’s go.”
Moranan turned and quietly paced down the secret passage, and I silently stepped over and up into it. A quick push closed the well-balanced stone and I heard it click softly into place. At least I didn’t have to worry about the inquisition finding it – if I couldn’t then what chance had a mere mortal?
Turning around I saw Moranan standing in front of me with a torch he’d lit, its stench filling the small passageway, and its flickering flame casting a dark and gloomy light. “Douse your magic and let’s go, now!”
I released my will and let my light go out. Behind me I could hear pounding on the door to the storage room I’d just left.
“It’s here – I can sense it. Break the door down!”
“Wait...,” Boraran began, but was ignored.
Moranan fled down the passageway and I followed, crouching to keep my head from scraping the ceiling. Behind me I heard the door crash open, the oaken bar splintering, followed by muffled curses.
“It was here!”
They’d found my clothes.
The voice of the inquisitor faded out as I followed Moranan.
He led me through twisting passages, with only ourselves and the stench and crackle of the torch for company. In fact it had almost completely burned down before Moranan finally stopped and turned to face me.
“Here.” He handed me a pouch.
I took it from him and opened it – it was the gate, complete and finished. As I pulled it out and placed it around my neck, letting the pouch fall to the floor, I asked, “How?” My voice was a whisper.
Moranan answered, keeping his voice a whisper, “Boraran knew that the Inquisition was seeking you, so he hurried. He’d just finished it when they started banging on the door – he had only enough time to give it to me to give to you.”
“And why has he done this for me?”
“Over a century ago when Boraran still lived in the north, the Inquisition came and took his brother stating that his brother had too much of the old blood. Boraran raised his clan and pursued them but he was too late – he caught them as they were tossing his brother’s body into the cleansing fire.”
“That doesn’t answer the question.”
“He needs you alive for the favour. I don’t know what it is, but I would guess it has something to do with his past – as he told me to tell you about it if you asked.”
I nodded. “You’re not as young and innocent as you look. Now what.”
“This passage goes a short distance further and opens into an alley not too far from the lakeshore. You must leave now, for the hunt is alive for you.” He turned away. “May you live to see the End of All Things.” And he turned.
I grabbed his shoulder.
“Tell Boraran that her name is Naveela. He’ll know what I mean.”
Then I let him go and watched him flee back the way we’d come, taking the torch with him.
So the inquisition was hunting me. In my cursed state it would have been safest to open the gate right there, but I would not leave my hatchling sister alone. Boraran must have known that when he had his apprentice lead me this far.
Clenching my fist around the gate necklace, I felt its bound mageries warm under my hand. Soon I’d be free of all this, and once I had my power I’d come back and find Boraran – I was curious as to what his favour would be. Hopefully, for the inquisition’s sake, they would let him live so that I could find out.
The light from the torch had vanished in the distance, so I crept through the blackness, afraid to use any magic as the inquisition might sense it, running my hand lightly along the wall ahead of me. I walked slowly but still quickly reached the end of the passage. There I stopped, and pressed my ear against the cold stone and listened.
Nothing, but then I could hear footsteps, faint, soft. They came nearer, and then they faded. I waited for 50 heartbeats and then pushed the left side of the wall and it pivoted easily and smoothly, its sound soft but still loud in the silence. Stepping out, I landed on the ground and turned and pushed the panel shut behind me.
“There she is!” I heard whispered in the distance.
Who? It couldn’t be the inquisition – they’d have no reason for silence. But who else would be seeking me? Baldorf. I stopped and waited, drawing Naveela, watching and listening as three figures ran towards me.
The three were humans, still young, and all were armed with swords but were not armoured in metal – I couldn’t tell if they had boiled leather or not, but I had to assume that they did. That meant that I’d need a head shot to make sure. And for that to work I’d need to hit the eye. Getting a knife ready I waited.
A moment later they were almost upon me, their eyes glinting in the magelights in the underworld, and they were indeed wearing leather breastplates. I whipped my knife at the closest, luckily piercing his eye and causing him to stumble backwards, but then the other two were upon me.
This was one of my worst fears. Certainly they were not as skilled as I was, and I had a wall protecting my one side, but there were two of them, and they both had some skill. I’d have to be quick and dirty. The first was upon me and I parried his blow, and was ready for a killing thrust when I had to change my thrust to a parry to stop the blade of the other.
By the Curse!
I started backing away along the wall, keeping the second one from getting around behind me, frantically striking and parrying to keep their blades from my naked flesh. Behind them I could hear the third screaming as his blood spilled from his eye. Soon there’d be a crowd.
Suddenly I leapt backward and willed a light to glow in the eyes of the first. Before the carnival I couldn’t have done it, but now I could and did – he staggered, and the other, suddenly bereft of his companion, had time only for a single parry before I twisted Naveela and shoved it into his chest and twisted, pulling it free with a sucking sound. I saw his companion’s eyes clear and heard the sound of others approaching – I wished I’d had time to finish off the survivor and get my knife back from the other, but I didn’t.
I turned and fled, holding Naveela at the ready.
My hooves galloped almost silently on the stone and I recognized where I was – only a few blocks from the lakeshore, my hatchling sister, and escape. I whispered her True Name to myself and felt it go twisting and spinning towards the water. Soon she would be there and we could both go home.
The footsteps were fading behind me.
“There it is!”
The voice shouted from ahead of me and I recognized it – it was the inquisitor – and somehow he was between me and the shore. I took another few steps and slipped into an alley and waited in the darkness.
In the distance I could hear a number of men, five I thought, all hurrying towards me, their footsteps loud with the sound of metal on stone accompanied by the faint tinkle of mail. I sheathed Naveela and prepared two knives in my hands. Then, I took a deep breath and leapt out of the alley.
There were only four men, the closest 15 feet or so away from me, and all were armoured. I threw both daggers towards them and jumped back into the alley and heard a scream greeting my efforts. I’d gotten one.
I drew Naveela and waited.
Hurry hatchling sister, I need you, and I whispered her True Name again.
I backed further into the alley and waited – fortunately it was so narrow that I would face them only one at a time. Now, as long as nobody came up behind me...
The inquisitor followed his men into the alley, lighting his way brightly with a radiant glow from his bronze-bound quarterstaff. All three figures were fully armoured in bronze chain, and the two warriors guarding the inquisitor each carried a shield and sword. Their shields were gleaming silver, with the golden rays of Vashigan radiating from their centers, and all three wore the gold trimmed crimson cloaks of the inquisition.
They stopped in front of me, all three in a line, the inquisitor at the rear. “I give you one chance, fey, surrender and let us save your soul.”
I laughed. “I give you one chance to flee now while I feel like letting you live.” Hatchling sister, hurry...
“Then you shall be cleansed!” and the Inquisitor began calling upon the power of his gods as the first of his guards moved towards me, sword and shield at ready. I advanced with Naveela, pulling my ears safely against my skull and holding my tail high.
The first of the guards was wary and experienced, and kept most of his form behind his shield. His strikes were cautious, short stabs from behind the shield, skillful enough that I was forced to back away to stay safe. All I was able to do was defend myself.
Then, suddenly, on some unspoken signal he stepped back, and a golden radiance shone from the inquisitor onto me. The warrior had simply been a decoy, a distraction, while the inquisitor used his god granted powers to slay me. But I had Naveela, and I felt her iron grow hot in my grip as she ate the magery.
I smiled as the inquisitor frowned.
“Naughty, naughty!” I shouted as I leapt onto the first warrior. He didn’t even have time to get his guard up before the point of Naveela was in his neck. I twisted the blade and pulled it out as his form slumped to the ground. “You’ll have to do your dirty work yourself.”
“I don’t know what foul magery you summoned to stop me, but it’ll not save you. Slay her!”
And then the other man was upon me. He was nowhere near as skilled as the first, and it was easy for me to take a step backward so that he stumbled on the body of his companion. I grabbed the edge of his shield with my free hand and held it while I thrust Naveela into his neck and twisted.
He slumped to the ground.
“And now it’s your turn,” I said.
I stepped forward, smiling, making sure not to step on either of the two bodies. But I was stupid and the first wasn’t quite dead, but was alive enough to shove a dagger deep into my thigh. I staggered backward to get away from him, and then thrust Naveela down, forcing the point through his chain and into his chest, to make him stay dead.
The inquisitor stepped forward, holding his quarterstaff before him and at the ready. Against an armoured foe the staff would be laughable, but I was unarmoured, and its longer reach made it a deadly threat. I just glared at him, gasping for breath, feeling my blood pour down my leg, and the blade of the dagger scrape against its bone.
“It ends. You shall be cleansed from the World. I offer you one more chance at absolution.”
I ignored him and willed a light, but couldn’t. His will held its grip on reality too strongly. And he knew what he was doing - I watched him grasp the staff lightly about two-thirds of the way to its base and strike.
I parried, sending the golden sun on the staff’s tip flying into the air and scraping along the ground, but he raised it too fast for me to get past its length and upon him. He swung and I was forced to step backward, willing myself to stay conscious because I could not afford to stumble.
More time passed. More strikes and parries, more steps backwards to keep out of reach of the cursed staff. I’d nicked it, but that was it. We were both gasping for breath, but mine was harsher and I could feel myself weakening as I bled.
I had one chance. He was tired and maybe I could distract him, but it would have to be done perfectly. Drawing my last knife I took another step back and then let myself stumble. I saw the glee in his eyes as he moved for a final strike, but I twisted myself on my good leg and dove under the staff, crouching on my hooves and preparing to leap. Somehow he changed the staff’s course and I felt it slam into my back, but not before I had started my dive and thrown my knife.
The knife throw was wild – I hadn’t had a chance to aim - but it achieved its purpose and he stepped back to avoid it. Then, ignoring the pain in my leg, pushed forward faster by his staff, I rolled over onto my back and kicked him with my hooves. He staggered further back and then, continuing to roll until I stood back on my hooves, I leapt from the ground towards him and shoved Naveela’s razor point through the base of his skull and up into his brain.
He staggered backward, dropping the staff, and I twisted Naveela to make sure, pulling it out as he collapsed to the ground. With the momentum I still had, I couldn’t help but land on top of him.
My lungs were on fire and my wounded leg was screaming. Using Naveela, silently apologizing to it, I managed to push myself onto my hooves.
I reached over and picked up my knife from the ground and cut off a piece of the crimson robe of the inquisitor and wrapped it around my leg. Outside the alley I could hear the screams of panic, and the pounding of running feet. Above it all I heard the scraping of scales on scales, and the tearing of claws on stone. I pulled the tourniquet tight and couldn’t help but moan.
Then I heard her say my True Name, and just the sound of her voice saying it gave me enough energy to stagger out of the alley and into the square that opened up onto the docks. And filling that square, though mostly still in the lake surrounded by the wreckage of most of the boats, was my hatchling sister.
She waited, her eyes large, her mouth open, as I staggered over to her, still holding Naveela with blood dripping from its tip. A massive forepaw reached over and I leaned against it as I staggered towards her.
“WHO DID THIS TO YOU?!”
“He’s dead,” I whispered. “Let’s just go home.”
“Not until you pay what you owe me,” called Baldorf.
I couldn’t believe it. After what he’d done to me, and while facing my hatchling sister, he still... Clasping my hatchling sister’s claw I turned around and forced myself to stand and face him, and refused to let Naveela’s tip touch the ground. “You’ve already gotten all that you’re getting.” I could hear my voice shaking as I changed it to a whisper so that only my hatchling sister would hear it, “The one speaking is for your egg.”
I looked up and saw that Baldorf was there accompanied by ten others, some were dwarves or elves, but most were human. They were all armed with crossbows and swords, and armoured in boiled leather.
“This is your last chance Ilisri!”
I couldn’t believe it! “My last chance? You’re the one who betrayed our bargain. You’re the one who sent your lackey Sanula to do your dirty work. Were you too afraid of me to do it yourself?”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“Don’t you lie to me! I know the truth, from her own words and from your own actions.” I stood up a little straighter ignoring the pain in my leg, struggling to keep my voice steady. “Let me guess – you didn’t want to share any of it with the rest of your lackeys so you kept it secret.”
“That’s a lie! Everybody knows that the faerie can’t be trusted.”
My voice turned cold. “I can’t be trusted?” I ignored Baldorf and looked around at the others. “If you want to live, leave now. This is between Baldorf and me.”
“I’ll gut the first coward who leaves.”
“You won’t be alive to do so.” I watched the two elves turn and withdraw - the elves had always been a wise people.
“Ha! Crossbows ready!”
Baldorf’s companions raised their crossbows.
“Last chance Ilisri. Give me what is mine.”
I smiled. “If that’s what you want – Sarsynalithagas, they’re all yours.” Then I waited.
My hatchling sister had already inhaled in anticipation, so she immediately exhaled a sheet of white fire and swept it across the square. Wooden carts that had been abandoned burst into flame and then fell into ash, the wooden doors and furniture in the buildings nearby burst into fire. Baldorf’s henchmen collapsed into dust.
But, as for Baldorf himself, most of the flame carefully avoided him so that he was still alive, although his entire body was engulfed in fire. Then my hatchling sister’s snout snaked over and gulped his burning, but still living, body down.
Then there was silence, except for the crackle of flames in the houses. Slowly I pulled myself around and looked up into my hatchling sister’s loving eyes. “Let’s get away from here.”
I pulled out the necklace and wrapped both hands around the amulet and its three gems and exerted my will through the focus and opened the gate. At first it was but a pinprick, a spot of silver light, but then I pulled it larger and larger, until it became a circular, silvery doorway leading into a silvery twilight realm, surrounded by a frame of gleaming light. The gate was large enough for me when I heard the call.
It was the Spherandracyl calling and binding the dragons to the will of its master.
“No!” The gate faltered and I could feel my hatchling sister’s paw quivering as she resisted the call.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on the gate. With my will I wrenched it larger, large enough for us both. Opening my eyes I called, “It’s ready – go – I’ll follow!”
I braced myself with Naveela and watched my hatchling sister turn and enter the gate, all the while trying to shield her with what power I had.
I could feel the call getting stronger. She was almost through.
And then she stopped, quivering, her tail whipping back and forth in the lake driving the water to a froth.
“I CAN’T! IT CALLS, IT BURNS! ILISRI....!”
My hatchling sister stepped back out of the gate and stretched her wings. Another step back and her head was free, and then her wings flapped and she leapt into the air.
My grip on the gate faltered, and what little defense I’d created for my hatchling sister shattered. I collapsed to my knees, helpless, my head staring up as she reached the ceiling and began digging her way through to answer the call that I could feel burning in my mind.
I whispered her True Name, oblivious to the rocks tumbling from the ceiling around me, some shattering in the square and spraying me with slivers; others splashing into the lake sending waves of bone aching coldness over me, but her True name had no power over the call of the Spherandracyl.
She burrowed out of sight.
I just stared, tears in my eyes, the gate slowly collapsing as my will left it.
The deluge of rocks slowed to a trickle and gravel, and a shaft of painfully bright light from the Aldorashgan shone through on the dark and cold lake.
“No!” I wailed, letting the gate close. “No!”
Chapter 10: The Inquisition
“Your worships, the Inquisition has gone far beyond the bounds of justice. Since they were created to uphold our faith in the almighty Gods, and to uphold Their holy Word against the cults and temptations of the cursed Faerie, their crimes and their arrogance have grown.”
“Most recently they ransacked and burned half of the town of Solinda in their attempts to root out the cults of Earynbra and Calynisha that I’d told them time and again didn’t exist. After two weeks of death and chaos they finally admitted I was right and left, telling me that I should thank them for sending the souls of the hundreds they’d killed to honour amongst the Gods!”
“Is it the will of the Gods that their tools abuse their power this way? Should they not respect those who dutifully worship the Gods? Is it not better that one heretic escapes than one loyal worshipper be killed before his time as ordained by the Gods?”
“Your worships, I beseech you, the Inquisition must be curbed!”
Excerpt from the address of the High Priest of Kor in Solinda before the Ecumenical Council in the holy city of Gandala, two weeks before he was expelled from the priesthood and then burned as a heretic.
I must have passed out as I cried after Sarsynalithagas, for the next thing I knew I was in a dim room, laying down on some kind of hard though pleasantly warm surface. Though awake, I still felt fatigued, thirsty and hungry, and my bladder was uncomfortably full. A dull, throbbing pain pounded both in my left thigh, and at the base of my tail which I could feel digging into my back. I tried to move and discovered that I was strapped down, tightly and uncomfortably.
Calm. Panic achieves nothing. Closing my eyes I breathed deeply and forced the anger out. Then I opened my eyes and raised my head to see what was going on.
The room I was in was unlit, the only light coming through a small window in the door across from me. I guessed it came from a torch on the wall of a passageway outside, for the dimness flickered and I could faintly scent the stench of burning tar. My arms were stretched above my head and trying to move them told me that they were strapped at the wrist. Looking down I saw that my right leg was strapped just above my hoof, and my left leg...
Well it was gone. It had been chopped off just below my waist and I could scent burned and charred flesh on its stump as stabs of dull and continual pain shot up my spine from it. Somebody must have removed my leg and cauterized the wound.
I seemed to be strapped to a large rectangular slab, black in the darkness. With my fingers I could tell it was hard, and, where my fingers touched it, cold, even though it felt warm on my back, leg and arms. Looking down between my leg and my stump I saw that my tail was gone – but since I could feel its stump still pressing into my spine I guessed that whoever it was must have cut it off too.
Looking around gave me the answer. On the walls were blades and implements, sharp, jagged, pointed. Knives, pokers, needles, and other instruments of torture. In one corner I could see a large cauldron, probably to hold boiling oil, or just coals to heat the implements.
Closing my eyes I concentrated on the scents. The tar in the torch in the hall was strong. Behind it I could sense faint odours of blood, of vomit, and below it, all around me, cold iron.
That was the slab I was on, and that explained the odd warmth and curious fatigue. Slowly, my magery, my very self, was being sucked out into the iron that warmed and then radiated it away.
In the distance I heard, faintly, a scream that was suddenly choked off half way through.
I opened my eyes and sighed. Somehow, though I had no proof, I knew that I’d been taken by the inquisition.
A part of me wanted to scream, to shout, to make it all go away, but I refused. They may have me, but they would not break me! I carefully twisted my arms and stretched my fingers, but I could not reach the straps and I could not squeeze my wrists out from within them. They were too tight.
All I could do was wait. Any magery I used would be instantly drained by the iron I was strapped to. I had to wait until someone came, and then look for an opportunity.
I closed my eyes and sighed, my mind still feeling the Spherandracyl pulling. It was closer than it had been. I started to whisper my hatchling sister’s True Name and then stopped – the inquisition would not have it!
I relaxed, and, since I had nothing better to do, let the urine dribble out onto the slab and drip onto the floor. Eventually I fell back into sleep.
I awoke hearing footsteps out in the corridor and opened my eyes to see a flickering light getting brighter. It was time to start the game for my life.
Closing my eyes, I concentrated on my ears and my nose. First I could only smell the stench from a torch getting nearer, but then I heard the rattle of a key, and the creak of a door opening. A number of footsteps entered the room and I could see a growing brightness through my closed eyes.
Waiting, I kept my breathing easy and slow, and forced my limbs and ears not to twitch as I heard someone approach. Then I heard the scrape of metal on metal as the door opened.
The footsteps stopped, and for a moment there was silence except for breathing, until a stab of burning pain scraped across the stump of my leg.
It was burning, stabbing, but I’d survived a thousand years of death wounds and healing. Still, if they wanted a scream, there was no sense denying them.
So I screamed, opening my eyes, and trying to move my stump away from the pain.
“The creature is awake.”
Pretending to be frightened I frantically looked around. The room was now brightly lit by torches on all the walls and it was crowded with three men, all in the red cloaks of the inquisition. One was lighting a fire under the cauldron, another was standing by the entrance, and the third, with one eye missing and recent burns covering the entire left side of his face, glared down at me, one hand holding a jagged knife. Blood glittered on its teeth.
Before I could stop myself, I gathered some liquid in my mouth and spit in his face. I watched as the spittle slid down his burns and then, dutifully, screamed again as he jabbed the knife into my stump, and twisted it as he pulled it out.
“You will treat me with respect!”
My throat dry, I let my fear out, but kept a deep core of strength in control. I swallowed, dryly, and croaked, “If that is your wish.”
“Don’t lie to me, faerie spawn!” He stabbed the knife into my stump again and I screamed.
After all, it was what he wanted.
“You and your cursed dragon did this to me,” he motioned towards his face. “You killed my brother, and now you’ll pay!”
Since he expected resistance, it was time to give him some. “What, no requests for me to repent, to return my spirit to the Gods before you burn me in Vashigan’s fire?” It might have worked better if I could have spoken louder than in a whisper.
He slapped me across my face with the knife and I felt blood trickling down my cheek. I remained silent.
“Whatever you are, you had your chance, now...”
I watched as the man by the entrance walked up and grabbed the first man’s arm. “Sindagul, stop!”
“No!” He spun around and stabbed at the man who’d grabbed him, but the other man just grabbed that arm and held it, squeezing, until the dagger dropped to the floor with a clang that echoed loudly. Then he slapped Sindagul twice, hard, the sound ringing through the room, once on each cheek. Sindagul stumbled backwards and tumbled to the floor.
I noticed the third man squeeze back into the shadows as a fire started burning and crackling under the cauldron.
The other man stepped forward and looked down at Sindagul and spoke in a low, calm, voice. “Sindagul, enough. You assured me you would control your anger, but you’ve proven otherwise. I am in charge here, and we will save her soul, one way or another. Her soul is what matters, as does yours, which is why I don’t kill you where you lie.”
Sindagul looked at the other sullenly.
The other continued, “You will go to your cell and ponder what you’ve done wrong.”
“No,” he whispered. “She must pay...”
“She will pay, one way or another. But she must have the chance to repent. If she refuses, then she has fallen and is lost, and she will suffer. But, at my hands, and those of the Gods in their sorrow, not you in your rage. Go!”
I watched as Sindagul glared for a second, and then leapt to his feet and stomped out of the room. The other man turned and spoke: “I’m sorry, that was uncalled for. My name is Davinulf, and I apologize for my brother.”
I looked up into Davinulf’s face. He was unscarred and sharp featured, although there was a cruel glint in his eye. His hair was black and cropped short. “What happened to Sindagul?”
“He’s too filled with anger towards you. You slew his brother, and your dragon scarred his face.”
“And why aren’t you angry? Isn’t he your brother?”
“Not by blood, just in my holy task. Let me offer you some water.”
He held a waterskin to my face and leaned on the iron slab, waiting while I drank almost a third of the water before he pulled the skin away, and as I licked the few drops that had dribbled onto my chin. I finished swallowing and then remained silent.
“Not going to say anything? Well, I can’t say I blame you. But Sindagul’s question was a good one.”
“Which question?” My voice was much clearer and sounded almost normal.
“When he wondered and stated ‘whatever you are’. You are not faerie, for if you were the iron beneath you would have consumed and purified you and you would be exiled back where the Gods sent the fey. You are not mortal, because I can feel the warmth of the iron drinking your soul.”
“I am Ilisri.”
“Ah yes, we’ve heard. You claim to be one of the great powers of the fey.”
Where had he heard that?
“And from what we know, your name matches. But that doesn’t prove anything as we both know. And why would Sarsynalithagas serve you?”
“I don’t know.”
He slapped me, hard, so hard that my other cheek, still bleeding, ground into the iron. “Don’t you lie to me! By the Gods you will answer me as I save your soul, or condemn it. Just because I pulled Sindagul off you, don’t you think I’m soft.”
“And why should I tell you, you’ll kill me anyway.”
“I can toss you into the cleansing flames for a quick death, and a chance for happiness as your soul is reborn, or I can torture you where you lay until I finally let you die in misery.”
“And how do you know that I can die?”
“Because you’re not fey.”
“Oh, but I am. You must have known it from the magic, from the iron. The gods betrayed me and cursed me so why should I listen to you. Your pain is nothing!”
“Nothing? I have taught others the meaning of pain. I have taught them until they told me of the heresies of their parents and lovers, until they would have chewed off their leg at my word if it would make me stop...”
I laughed. “My chest has been hacked through, my head chopped off, my legs and arms chopped and mangled, all countless times. And each time it hurt, just as it will now. So why should your pain be any different?”
“Because it is my duty.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“You will repent your sins. In the name of Gaenan, the mother of us all and of the World beneath us; of Kor, who planted the seed within her to birth the World. In the name of Vashigan, who shines his wisdom upon the World and whose flame will cleanse you; and Alindor who forged the Aldorashgan that lights us while Vashigan is dead. In the name of Sheshanka, who rules the waters and blesses the sailors; and Sildaya, the warrior and the lover. In the name of the Gods, and their children, you will repent!”
“Over a thousand years ago the gods themselves offered me the choice of either bowing down to them, or refusing. I refused then, and was gifted with the Curse. Whatever I choose now, their Curse will stand. So why should I make you happy and lie about something that I will never do?”
“It is my duty, my honour, and my calling, no matter the cost, to save the souls of the fallen and the heretics.”
“And your soul will be saved. Acknowledge the Gods, beg for their forgiveness. It is never too late.”
Yes it is, I whispered in my mind.
And then the real pain started.
I don’t know how long the torture continued, and I’d lied. The pain of battle, the pain of recovering from the death forever denied me, was trivial compared to the pain this Davinulf gave me. And it wasn’t because of his skills, but because of the mortality that had been bound up with me. Somehow that made the pain more real, more immediate.
Eventually all I could do was flee deep into my mind, refusing to let my will be broken, until my will was wrapped around my True Name, clasping both it, and the bit of the soul of my warhorse within me, tightly. Together we whimpered in pain.
Eventually the agony stopped, or at least the sharpness of it, but pain still pulsed through my entire body. I think I felt myself being moved, and then being doused in freezing water, but I wasn’t sure...
I woke up expecting more pain, but I was alone, and the pain was gone.
I was lying on my side on a bed, cool, soft, covered in a thick quilt of plain blue. The room was dimly lit by a mage light. I could feel that my leg and tail were back, but I was still tired. I grasped the cover and realized that my arms were no longer bound.
I looked around and saw a raven, the raven, perched on the foot of the bed. When my eyes met his the light in the room suddenly grew in brightness to a comfortable level.
“You...” I croaked in a whisper.
“There’s water beside the bed. Drink some and let’s talk.”
I turned away and looked around. The room was small, and the walls were of smoothed wood as was the floor. There was a pile of armour on the floor, glittering, and there was a table beside the bed with a leather flask. I turned and leaned over and grabbed the flask and drank half of it down. Then I capped it, put it back on the table, and slowly pushed myself up until I was sitting, facing the raven’s black eyes, with my tail held high against my back.
“Why am I here?”
“I saved you.”
“Well, I and the priests of Kor.”
Kor. Why was he so interested in me? “You haven’t told me how.”
“If we hadn’t saved you, the Inquisition would have tortured you for years. Unless you gave in, which you would have eventually.”
“Everybody will break, even you.”
Maybe it was right. “What happened outside? Is Sarsynalith...”
“She’s alive and safe, for now. The Dragon Emperor has her, and Mandalor.”
“The man’s a fool! He had three dragons and a small force of elven and human cavalry and attacked before the rest of his forces could arrive. One of his dragons was killed by a bombard from the city. If your dragon hadn’t come bursting out behind he would have been driven off and...”
A fool had my hatchling sister? “And where is this fool now?”
“He’s in the Palace of the Families. Right now his forces are in the city, hunting and killing, and soon they’ll be down here.”
“Who are they killing?”
“The families, the merchants, the guardsmen, any who fight them.”
“Then he is a fool – he’ll turn the whole city against himself.”
“I don’t think he cares. With three dragons, what does he have to fear?”
“Death, poison, betrayal...”
“He doesn’t seem to fear them.”
“And what about Kalibynthn?” By the Curse, why had I asked that? And why was my heart beating faster?
“I don’t know.”
“You, a servant of Kor, don’t know?”
“He’s not important.”
Not... “Go! Get out of my sight!”
Silently the raven turned and flapped out the door which quietly opened and then closed behind it, the light dimming once it had left. Why was I so concerned about Kalibynthn? I had to think.
I lay down on my side, stretching my tail out behind and pulling the covers back over me. The priests had healed me, but why? Why was I so important? If they’d taken me from the inquisition, then why had the inquisition not resisted? Were they a part of this? If so then why torture me?
And why had I asked about Kalibynthn?
I could still feel the power of the Spherandracyl pulsing around me. Maybe that was what they were after.
With these thoughts rolling around in my head I fell back to sleep.
I woke up hearing the door open and twisted and sat up as the raven flew in and landed on the foot of the bed.
“I have gifts for you,” he croaked.
“If you’ll look beside the bed, you’ll see them. Armour and weapons...”
I threw the cover off over the foot of the bed but the raven flapped out of the way and landed back on top once it had settled. Meanwhile I got up and loudly walked over to the pile of armour I’d noticed earlier. I picked up a piece. It was a bronze helm, plain but well made, polished to a mirror finish, and topped by a black plume of horsehair that matched my tail.
I tossed it aside and it clanged on the floor and rolled into a wall.
I picked up each piece in turn. The bronze breastplate, the greaves, the shield. Each was tossed aside with a clang and a rattle. The last was the sword. Picking up the scabbard I drew it and saw a well made bronze blade, polished and sharp.
I spit on the blade and tossed it and the scabbard on top of the rest.
“You don’t like the gifts?”
“They are not mine, and that is not my sword.”
“Your sword is lost.”
I would get Naveela back first as I would need a weapon, and then I would go after the Dragon Emperor. “Where is it?”
“You cannot get it back.”
I slowly walked over to the raven until I was looming over it. Then, speaking slowly, I asked, “Who has it?”
The raven croaked and then was silent. I waited, starting to tap my hoof, the clunk of it on the wooden floor loud in my ears.
Finally the raven spoke. “Davinulf has it.”
“And why didn’t you and your priests steal it back for me.”
“We supplied you with a replacement.”
I took a step backward – first I would get information, and then... “Who is this Davinulf?”
“He’s the head of the Inquisition here.”
“And where might I find him?”
The raven cawed loudly. “He is up in his private chambers at the top of the Temple of Alindor, resting. Far beyond where you can reach.”
I leapt forward and grabbed the raven around its chest with both hands and held him close to my face. It struggled but couldn’t escape. I wouldn’t let go, even when it started pecking at my hand drawing blood. “Why the gifts and not my sword?”
“The gifts are from Kor him...”
“These?” I almost dropped him in my amazement. “The sword is but a common blade, as is the armour. Why did you not take my sword?!” I squeezed a little.
“You and who else?!”
“The priests. Davinulf keeps it with him always. We...”
So I would have to take it back from him, and hopefully repay him in the bargain. I smiled. “Did I not say that if I ever saw you again, I would kill you?” I asked as I squeezed tighter.
The raven was silent and I could feel it struggling for breath, its heart pounding rapidly against my palms.
“I keep my word.”
I squeezed until I felt its chest collapsing; squeezed until it stopped pecking and I felt its guts and heart oozing through my fingers. When its heart stopped beating in my hand I let the ruined flesh fall to the ground, watching as it splatted on the wood.
“I am tired of being a plaything for your god. I am tired of being lied to, of things being hidden from me. I will get my sword myself, and take no more gifts from Kor. Tell your master...”
My voice fell silent as I saw the pile of gore move and ripple. Intestines and organs humped across the floor like worms and crawled back into the raven’s chest. Then the chest closed and the feathers re-grew as I sensed the Curse at work healing another of its victims and keeping it from death.
A moment later the raven coughed and started breathing. It flapped its wings and hopped onto the foot of the bed.
“Why is one of the cursed faerie helping Kor?”
“Because he helped me and asked me to.”
“And why would a raven be afflicted with the Curse, or are you really a raven?” I remembered the faerielike figure that had brought clothes to me in The Bronze Rat.
“Kor has helped you before, and he will help you again. You need him.”
“I need nobody!”
“And where would you be without him, his priests, me?”
“I would be free of your presence.”
The raven cocked its head and was silent for a minute. Finally it spoke, “You’ve made your wishes clear, Kor will be waiting until you come back to him.” The raven leapt into the air and circled and vanished.
I turned and went back to the bed, noticing that the armour was gone too. Somehow I did not believe that the raven really was gone. But, first I would get Naveela back, and then go after the Dragon Emperor and my hatchling sister, and then after Calynisha. And if I saw the raven again I would kill him again.
I grabbed the cover I’d thrown off, and, using my teeth, tore it into strips. Then I wrapped the strips around my hooves to muffle them as best I could. Finally I walked over to the door, my hooves still louder than I would have liked, and listened.
I tried the door and found that it was not locked.
I wasn’t surprised.
Carefully I opened the door and looked out. It opened up into a hallway dimly lit by magic, and I could see stairs going down. Waiting and listening I could hear no one. I made my way to the stairs, staying against a wall, and then down into a small room. A hallway led back under the steps and before me was a door. Going over to the door I stopped and listened.
I opened it a crack and looked out.
The door opened onto a brightly lit small square, both from some magelights around the side, and, mostly, from a gleaming sphere of clockwork on top of a building across the square. At the door of that building were a pair of figures, armoured and armed with spears, and above that door was a silver wheel, the symbol of Alindor.
That was where Davinulf had Naveela.
Looking further up I saw stone above the building and the square and knew I was still in the underworld. That explained the silence, and why the square was empty other than the two guards. Probably almost everyone had fled before my hatchling sister’s fire, or had hid from the invasion of Mandalor and a possible invasion of the underworld.
I closed the door.
The guards would be a problem. I could search for weapons and maybe find some, and maybe not. Possibly there was a passage underneath the building I was in, but I couldn’t be sure. Still there was another way. And, since I wasn’t carrying anything anyway, nothing would get broken or lost. I reached down and untied the cloths around my hooves, and then opened the door a crack. It opened outward so I would be able to push it the rest of the way.
Closing my eyes I remembered what it was like to have four hooves, to have a snout and fur. And I forced the memory to replace the reality of my body.
I felt the twisting and the bending and the pinching and stretching. And, when I opened my eyes, I saw my snout and felt my four hooves on the ground.
Softly I nickered and then, with a burst of energy and speed, I pushed the door open and leapt through and galloped across the square, my head held high, my hooves ringing on the stone. An instant later I was at the entrance to the Temple of Alindor.
The two guards there were too astonished to even get their spears up before I was upon them. Rearing, I kicked and battered; then I leaned my head down to bite and tear, until both of the guards lay dead beneath my feet. Unfortunately, my attack hadn’t been silent so I would have to move quickly.
I closed my eyes and remembered my old form and willed it to be true, and an instant later my body twisted and bent and pinched and stretched and I was back. Leaning down I grabbed a scabbard and yanked out the hand and a half sword, and then grabbed a shield. I had just enough time to take a step backwards as the door opened.
Holding the shield before me, I swung and stabbed, and soon there were two more dead bodies. The sword I was using was heavy and sluggish and dull, but it would have to do. Gasping for breath, I stepped forward, and stabbed each guard in the neck and twisted the blade to make sure they were dead, and then I stepped over their bodies and into the entrance.
The entrance hall was short, with a door on either side and a pair of large, bronze-faced doors at the end. The doors at the end had embossed upon them images of a mechanical clockwork light. I walked forward, my hooves loud on the polished wooden floor, and yanked the doors open with a creak and a groan, and then a pair of thuds as they slammed against the sides of the hallway.
The chamber the doors opened up into was large and high, and in the centre was a bronze altar. The room was brightly lit from a massive magelight on the ceiling, and in front of the altar were three figures – one in a crimson cloak.
A rage possessed me. A blind, mindless rage. Screaming incoherently, remembering the pain and the torture, I galloped forward and leapt onto the side of the crimson cloaked figure. He had just started to turn when I landed on him and we both went stumbling into the altar, him underneath. The shield went flying from my grasp. As he collapsed, I stumbled off him and twisted around until my back slammed into the altar, painfully squeezing my tail and knocking the altar off of its stone stand. It, and I, tilted and slammed onto the floor with a gong that echoed throughout the temple.
But I didn’t care. I leapt to my feet and hopped over the base of the altar and started swinging and hacking with my sword into the back of the crimson-cloaked figure again and again and again, until my sword was thudding through gore into the wood underneath. Finally I stopped, breathing heavily, holding the blade two-handed above my head, a stupid, defenseless position, when I noticed movement behind me.
I screamed and spun around and slashed horizontally through the chests of the two other figures, both women who had also been at the altar. They collapsed screaming.
I stopped, letting the battered and nicked sword slump to the floor, gasping for breath, when I heard a voice behind me.
It was Sindagul.
I spun around and saw him run down the stairs, drawing his sword.
And then a red rage swept through me, and I threw the sword away no longer needing it. As it had before, I felt my body shift and my hooves and tail vanish until I could feel the blood soaked wood under my bare feet. But I didn’t care.
Reaching out with my will I grabbed Sindagul and yanked him into the air. I felt him summoning the power of his gods and I laughed as I yanked the magery away from him. Then, slowly, I stretched him, and held him. First I pulled off one leg, and then the other, laughing at his screaming. Blood sprayed across the room as I dragged him closer and then ripped off one arm and then the other. Finally I flung him against the far wall with such force that I heard a wooden beam crack, and then I watched as his body slid to the ground leaving a red streak behind.
“So you are fey.”
That voice. Slowly I turned around, my power making the air around me sparkle and shimmer.
“Davinulf.” He was standing by the bronze doors I’d come through, dressed all in crimson, and holding a quarterstaff topped by an iron mechanical gear and wrapped in swirls of iron up and down its length. Around his neck I could see my necklace and the gate, and at his waist I could see Naveela’s scabbard and her hilt.
“How did you escape?”
I was still breathing heavily, but now my rage had cooled to an ugly, freezing, block of ice that filled my chest. “It seems that the priesthood doesn’t always co-operate with the inquisition, particularly that of Kor.”
“Kor? How...? What did you offer them?”
“Return my property.”
“Or what?” He walked towards me, the staff and its cursed iron at the ready. I could feel it sapping my strength.
Taking a step back I summoned fire from the air around me and flung it at him as a great ball but he just laughed as it struck the staff, not panicking. The gear on top shattered, but the rest of the iron survived.
Iron. But there was more than one way to crush an inquisitor. I reached out with my mind and grabbed the bronze altar, lifting it and preparing to throw it at him.
He pointed and called out “Crossbows!”
Spinning around I looked up and saw three figures pushing open concealed doors from the second floor and leaning out with crossbows. I reached out with my magery and grabbed them and started tearing them apart when a stabbing agony suddenly touched my back. Screaming, I fell to the ground as my magery was sucked out. My body wrenched and twisted and my tail grew and my feet clenched back into hooves. The altar slammed into the floor with a dull bong and a horrendous crack as the floor beneath it collapsed.
“And so the mighty fall.” Davinulf shoved the jagged end of his staff into my back where it burned like the fires of Vashigan.
A faint gong echoed from the hole through which the altar had fallen as it hit the floor of the basement.
I would not let him kill me. Not him! I spun around, feeling the iron tear along my back, and stood up and galloped towards where I’d thrown the sword. Dragging strength from my exhausted muscles, I picked it up and grabbed it with both hands, barely able to keep its tip off the floor.
“You should be dead, but this will be more fun.”
“Your men are dead,” I gasped out, my lungs sucking and heaving to get air.
“Ah, but their souls have simply gone to an honoured place with the Gods. Unlike yours.” He let his staff fall to the floor with a clang and drew Naveela and advanced towards me. “I don’t know how you survived, but whatever you did took a lot out of you.” He paused and then continued, “I wonder why you went back to that form?” He smiled. “No matter. You’ve been offered forgiveness and have refused. Now you will be sent back into exile.”
My lungs still heaving, I took a step back and dragged the sword up into a guard position. The iron had drained my strength but I would not let him have me! Not him. I heard the echo of the stallion within me agree.
As I didn’t have breath to talk, I just waited.
He swung first, and I parried, our blades clanging together. I was forced to step back. Another strike, another parry, and then another step back. Another and another. If I had my strength this would be no contest, but I had nothing left.
I would not let this monster kill me!
Summoning all my strength, I struck a flurry of blows and drove him back, beating at his sword, forgetting my lessons of so long ago in my hatred. And then it happened.
The blade I had taken, weak, normal bronze, slammed into the edge of Naveela and broke, the blade flying away and thunking onto the floor where it slid and scraped to a stop.
“And so the cursed fey die.” He stabbed out with a thrust.
And I let it hit. Twisting forward, I let Naveela sink into my left shoulder and then I wrenched it out of his grip. The pain was easy to ignore as Davinulf had trained me well. Dropping the broken blade I’d been using, I reached up and grasped Naveela’s hilt, feeling its comforting and familiar warmth in my hand, and wrenched her out of my shoulder.
I could feel the blood soaking my chest and running stickily and warmly into the fur of my leg, the one that this mortal had chopped off.
Stepping forward, I followed him as he stepped backward drawing a dagger. I could see the fear in his eyes.
Then, two quick slices, faster than the eye could see, and his chest opened. And then a stab into his guts, and a twist to finish him off.
He slumped to the ground and I let go of Naveela’s hilt and let it fall on top of him but, somehow, drawing strength I never knew I had, I kept from collapsing onto him.
Not this time. “Not again!”
My voice echoed hollowly in the temple.
Falling to my knees, I closed my eyes and pictured my chestnut stallion in my mind. Its legs tall and thin, its chest strong and smooth, its eyes bright and intelligent. With the last of my strength I willed the change to happen and felt my chest twist and blossom, my hands clench, my legs, neck and head stretch.
And I was done. I was laying on my side, on the floor, gasping for breath. Shaking my head, I rolled and kicked and forced myself to stand until I was looming over Davinulf’s body, my head low, my huge lungs gulping air.
It was done.
I reached down with my neck and head and grabbed the necklace and the gate in my teeth and ripped them off.
Dragon Emperor, you’re next.
Chapter 11: The Dragon Emperor
There are many rumours of the origin of the Dragon Emperor. One says that he was the leader of the Brotherhood of the Damned, a cursed group of mages dedicated to overthrowing the Gods. Another states that he was one of the great powers of the fey that won free from his curse and made his way upon the World. And there are many others.
What is known for certainty is that the creature that became known as the Dragon Emperor first appeared in the two hundred and second year of the Third Age in the month of Challana. He appeared in the city of Kyndar on the back of a massive black dragon that erupted from the crypts beneath the city.
His first act was to attack Kyndar Castle and consume Queen Kitrana II. The chaos that followed his appearance was quickly quelled as elven infantry entered the city. Within two days the Order of the Winter Storm had forsaken rulership of West Kyndaria and had sworn to follow the Dragon Emperor.
Two months later he captured the city of Mandalor.
From the fifth book of the Histories of Heronith.
I listened to the emptiness around me in case there was anybody left who hadn’t fled. The only sound I could hear was the gasping of my lungs; the only scent I could smell was the acrid richness of hot blood slowly cooling. Gradually the echoes of my gasping breath faded and the silence of the empty building surrounded me.
I opened my mouth and let the necklace clunk to the floor.
Closing my eyes I pictured the form that Calynisha had cursed me with. I felt my chest twist and clench, my hands open, and my legs, neck and head shrink.
Once my form was restored I leaned down and picked up the necklace and put it around my neck. I walked over to Davinulf’s body and picked up Naveela and then kicked his body to roll it over so that I could pull his cloak off him. Then it was the belt, and Naveela’s scabbard that he’d been wearing. The belt fit on long, but a second with Naveela cut off the excess. Naveela was comforting as I wiped her blade off on Davinulf’s body and then sheathed it.
I promised to clean her properly later.
Finally I wrapped the cloak around me and stalked to the door. Normally I would have looked out but I was too angry to care anymore. Too angry and too desperate.
Fortunately the square was empty and dim, the light almost too little for even me to see by, but not enough to hide the fading sunlight I could see in the distance from the tunnel Sarsynalithagas had dug to the surface.
At least I knew that she was alive.
I galloped through the square and then through streets and alleys until I reached an alley and a plain door that I knew well. A glimmer of sanity caused me to stop and knock twice, and then thrice, instead of just ripping it off its hinges.
The door opened and, after a moment, I entered, closing the door behind me. Then a light from a lantern appeared as it was unhooded and I saw Binnar standing about five feet in front of me.
“Mistress,” he whispered, before he ended the bow and stood straight.
“Yes. You are now the Guildmistress as you slew Baldorf.”
Guildmistress. That could be useful. “And you will serve me?”
“I will serve you as you require. But...”
“I don’t like you around - too many people seem to die or vanish.”
“And if I tell you to stay with me.”
“Then I will obey, mistress.”
I snorted. “So you wouldn’t think about knocking me off to gain the leadership for yourself?”
He laughed, a cold, nasal laugh. “What would I gain? You and I are all that’s left. Baldorf and his lackeys are dead. Boraran has vanished...”
Boraran? Had the inquisition...?
“I don’t know mistress.”
“You gave off clues in your expression, your eyes, your ears.”
“Then you know what I want.”
“You want to be re-equipped.”
“And led to a safe place.”
I laughed. “Then you don’t know everything.”
“Or tell everything, mistress who wants to go after her dragon.”
I took a step forward and then stopped. I needed him, and as long as he was loyal...
Binnar turned and walked off down the passageway and I trotted along behind him. Soon we reached his workroom and there were four throwing knives with scabbards, along with linen pants, leather shirt with padded chest, a plain brown hooded robe, and muffling attachments for my hooves. I threw off the cloak that I’d taken and clothed myself and muffled my hooves.
“This way.” Binnar turned and opened a hidden door that I’d never noticed in the wall. Picking up the lantern he called, “Come mistress.”
He walked through the hidden door and I followed.
The way led around and around and slowly upward. Some of the chambers we passed through were so small that we had to crawl as Binnar pushed the lantern in front of him. Others were so large that Binnar’s light ended at darkness in all directions other than the floor upon which we walked. Fatigue began to fill my legs but I would not let myself stop before Binnar, and he said not a word and never slowed the pace.
Time passed, maybe a day, as we slowly got closer and closer to the surface and Mandalor. Gradually I began to feel the Spherandracyl wind its tentacles into my mind. I could hear it whispering to me, calling me with the blood of my father. It became stronger and stronger, but I was able to keep its influence at bay.
Then Binnar stopped, so suddenly that I almost ran into him. “Here mistress.”
“Just go forward and an exit will open into an alley just east of Freedom Square. Sarsynalithagas is there.”
“You know a lot.”
“I am informed mistress.”
“I will tell no one mistress, as long as I serve you.”
“Then you know too much.”
“I will serve you until you die.”
I smiled. “Well then. I order you, as my servant, to tell no one what you know of me.”
He bowed. “Yes mistress.” Then he stood and started walking back the way we came.
I turned to follow him with my eyes. “I have not said that you can leave.”
He stopped and turned to look at me. “I will be there when you need me, mistress. And I will serve you best while hidden.”
He turned and took a step and then stopped. “You should listen to the raven.”
“Stop!” My voice echoed loudly in the passage.
He stopped and turned to face me.
“What do you know of the raven?”
“Your best hope is with Kor.”
“Best hope for what?”
“Best hope for happiness.”
“I can kill Calynisha myself!”
“If that is what you wish.”
He turned and calmly walked off with his light until I was left in darkness. I willed my own light and soon the passage was dimly lit in silver as I went off the way Binnar had mentioned until the passageway ended. Strangely, the passage was no longer hewn out of rock, but constructed from brick, and above me I could hear the faint rattle and tinkle of water. Looking down I could see the scrapes on the floor that indicated a door that rotated open.
I took a step towards the door and then stopped - I couldn’t go out now. I was too tired and I needed to be fresh and rested. Turning, I stepped a few feet away from the door and then lowered myself until I was lying on the floor with my cloak wrapped around me.
Soon, Sarsynalithagas. Soon.
I let the light go out and went to sleep.
I woke up with a start, my body sore and stiff, and my tail painfully pressed against my right leg. Remaining still I listened, but I could only hear the faint tinkle of water. But then I heard another sound, a sound that came from beyond the entrance from this passage.
The agonized screams of mortals suddenly cut off.
By the Curse, what was going on?
I listened, but all that greeted me was the tinkle of water from above.
Well, the screams weren’t an immediate threat so I rose onto my hooves in silence, thank the Curse for the hoof mufflers, and started stretching. I would almost certainly have to fight my way to the Spherandracyl.
After a few minutes of my mortal bones creaking I was ready. Then I silently stalked to the door and listened.
Silence but for the tinkle of water. Then a faint scrape, and then nothing. I waited a moment longer, the stone cold against my ear, but still heard only silence and water.
Stepping back I pulled my ears against my skull and pulled the hood of the cloak over them. Then I pushed against the side and the door pivoted open, the grating scrape of stone on stone agonizingly loud as it drowned out the water. Eventually the opening was just large enough and I squeezed through, pinching my tail painfully and then yanking it out behind me. I pulled my cloak around until my tail was hidden and then pushed the door closed, my hooves skidding on the cobblestones. I made careful note of the entrance’s surroundings just in case I needed it again.
The night was cool and misty, and the entrance to the underworld was in the side of old brickwork. Above I could hear the faint tinkle of water and looking up I could dimly see the splash of water reflecting lights from the city. Then, suddenly, the sky was lit with a bright orange glow and I heard the woosh and roar of dragonfire and the screams of mortals.
And then the screams were silent, and the glow from the fire dimmed and vanished.
By the Curse what was that idiot doing? Mass executions? He’d turn the entire city against him.
Or was that what he wanted?
I moved away from the fountain and slipped deeper into shadow.
At first I’d thought he wanted to conquer. But what if that was secondary? If he wanted to cause death then what he was doing made sense. But why would he want to kill all of these mortals?
It almost sounded like a sacrifice.
But to who?
What would a mortal...
Forylmagalon. He’d always been a bit more bloodthirsty when it came to mortals than I’d been comfortable with. And he offered his followers a kind of living death in exchange for sacrifice. Maybe this Dragon Emperor was trying to keep from dying.
That I could understand. And what were a few mortals against life? The sacrifices would be wasted when I killed him, but then his victims were only mortals.
And Kalibynthn wasn’t with them.
Why did I care about that?
I shook my head and spluttered to clear my throat. He was gone and good riddance to him. I had more important people to save.
Turning I made my way through the shadows towards Freedom Plaza, making note of the way I took. The streets were empty – not surprising if mass executions were going on. I could hear nothing except for the fading tinkle of water and the rising roar of the falls until I felt something spatter on my head.
I dashed into a shadow and looked around. Nothing.
And then I saw a drop of water spatter on the cobblestones. And then another, and another and another until so much water was falling it became hard to see. It quickly soaked my cloak and hood and plastered them against me as a cold wet blanket. I could feel water seeping into my mane and dripping down my back.
By the Curse, what was going on? Where was all this water coming from?
And then I remembered. It was an old memory, an ancient memory.
It had been centuries since I’d felt rain.
And it felt wonderful. I would have preferred it a bit warmer, but it brought back memories of a better time.
Then I shook my head - I had no time for memories. So I pulled my cloak around me and proceeded on my way through the empty streets.
It wasn’t long until I found the edge of Freedom Square. Then I slipped into the shadows and looked out. Through the rain I could see a massive green scaled figure extending off into the distance.
May the gods be cursed! It was my hatchling sister.
I would have to sneak around her and look for another entrance – there was no other solution that I would accept. And I would have to go around the square since I didn’t know the city well enough to quickly find another way. Well, nothing would be gained by waiting so...
I heard footsteps.
Quietly I pushed myself back against the wall of the alley and waited.
The footsteps grew louder and then I could see four figures pass in front of the alley. They were dressed in soaked cloaks of some kind with the hoods over their head. In their arms were long spears and across their back were slung oval wooden shields. Painted on the shields was the image of a white stag’s head on a green background. I recognized the shields.
As I remembered it, this group lived in the northern forests in the World’s Spine mountains. What were they doing here? Then I remembered that Sanula had said that elves were with this Dragon Emperor. I waited until they were gone and all I could hear was the hiss of rain on the cobblestones. The rainfall had slackened a bit, but it was still quite heavy.
I took a deep breath and slowly, carefully, as silently as I could, stepped out of the alley and started making my way around the edge of the square towards the Palace of the Families. I had made it two-thirds of the way around before what I’d dreaded occurred.
“ILISRI – GO. FLEE!”
I refused to flee and leave my hatchling sister behind. So I abandoned my stealth and started galloping towards the entrance to the palace. All around me I could hear the hiss of the rain, and then the scrape of scales and claws.
“STOP!” Sarsynalithagas’ head appeared out of the rain right in front of me.
I stopped. I could see my death before me, either from fire or from tooth. But I refused to let my hand even move towards Naveela’s hilt. “Hatchling sister...”
“GO!” Her voice was trembling as it echoed off the cliff north of the square. “I CAN’T... ILISRI IT BURNS!”
“Fight it!” I whispered and tried to dash around her head.
But she was faster and whipped her head across the cobblestones so that it was between me and the entrance once more. “YOU MUST STOP OR IT’LL FORCE ME...” Then my hatchling sister screamed.
I was too shocked to move. Through the pain I could see in her eyes, through the pulsing of the Spherandracyl that I could feel tearing at my will, I could see her fighting its domination.
But only to a point.
Then, suddenly, her body stopped shaking and her breathing calmed. “ILISRI. I CANNOT LET YOU GO ANY FURTHER.”
“I MUST DEFEND MY MASTER, AND YOU ARE DANGEROUS. BUT AS LONG AS YOU DON’T THREATEN HIM...”
Her mind had come up with a loophole against the power of the Spherandracyl.
“...I CAN LET YOU LIVE.”
Forcing myself to relax, I spoke. “I will free you.”
“NO! DON’T EVEN THINK THAT – IT DOESN’T, DOESN’T...” she shook her head and then continued, “...LIKE THAT.”
“Then can we just talk?”
“NO! IT WON’T...”
My heart began to burn with hatred. But how could I... Then I had an idea. The Spherandracyl would not let my hatchling sister let a threat by. But, if I was not a threat...
“Hatchling sister, I swear that I will not harm your master this night. And I swear this upon my soul and my magic, until the End of All Things.”
I watched as my hatchling sister’s entire body relaxed. She would know what that oath meant. And, normally, it would be unbreakable. But I was swearing by my soul and my magic that I wouldn’t harm the Dragon Emperor – but within me was also the soul of my stallion, and it had not sworn anything.
She lay her head down along the cobblestones beside me and I walked along until I was standing at the base of one of her great horns. I leaned up and started scratching the sensitive skin at its base. “I will not leave you behind.”
Her ear on that side of her head rotated to focus on my voice.
“I will never lose you again.”
“BUT YOU MUST – AFTER TONIGHT I WILL HAVE NO CHOICE!”
“After tonight it won’t matter.” Curse – I shouldn’t have said that – that might make her think I knew of a threat and that might make the Spherandracyl...
“Shhhh. Don’t think, just rest. I’m here and I won’t leave you.” Thank the Gods that the Spherandracyl hadn’t picked up on it.
Thank the Gods?
Why had I said that? I couldn’t worry about it now so I thrust it away and just scratched my hatchling sister.
For too short a time we remained there, silent and together, until some elves came. The rain had changed to a heavy mist when I noticed eleven of them were jogging towards me, in formation, all holding their spears ready except for two who were bearing torches and their leader who was holding a sword.
It was the leader who spoke: “You! Stand away!”
I let go of my hatchling sister and stood straight, pulling my hood off my head. Elves should recognize what I’d been from my face, and besides my ears were cold and cramped.
The group came to a stop about five feet away, standing in formation two deep. Their leader, an older male, stepped forward holding his bronze sword. He was wearing a green robe, but I could see that he was armoured head to foot in bronze. A massive plumed bronze helmet on his head, a bronze breastplate with an embossed stag’s head around his body, white linen pteruges around his waist, and polished bronze greaves on his legs. The rest of the elves were armoured similarly, although their armour was plain and their helmets did not have a plume.
The leader spoke to me: “You will move away from the dragon now!”
I remained standing, letting my eyes meet his as I grasped Naveela’s hilt and half drew her. “Do you think you can stop one such as I?” I knew that if they fought together they almost certainly could, but...
“We will stop you.”
I could see that he did not look pleased by his choice.
“YOU WILL NOT HURT HER!”
I smiled. It seemed that the orders forced upon my hatchling sister did not include the safety of these soldiers. Their leader took a step backwards...
The new voice was quiet and high-pitched, and didn’t sound quite natural. I turned half around, and stepped backward until my back was almost against the side of my hatchling sister’s snout, and then searched for the man who’d spoken.
But there was no man. Instead there was a panther, but not a living panther for it was made of molded silver and bronze. Through the drops of rain on its form I could see that its joints were cunning gears and hinges. But its eyes...
Its eyes were black and cold and hard. Behind them there was a mind. I let Naveela slide back into her scabbard.
This was just a tool, a clockwork mechanism created by mortals, animated by magic, and controlled by a mortal.
“Leave us – I will take care of her myself.”
As I turned to face the creature squarely I heard the elves behind me move off. Then the panther and I just stared at each other for a long while until the creature finally spoke.
“So you are one of the fey.”
The animation left the creature for a moment before the controlling mind returned and continued: “I’ve been told that my dragon is important to you.”
So this was the Dragon Emperor and he thought my hatchling sister was his dragon?! I clenched my fists and forced the anger from me. I needed to get away from my hatchling sister so that I would have time to let the stallion’s soul have control.
“It is my dragon,” he continued.
“I will give you this one chance to let my hatchling sister free before I destroy you.”
A strange inhuman metallic laughter burst from the creature. “Ah, but you have sworn upon your soul and your magic that you will not hurt me, at least not right now.”
Idly, a part of my mind wondered if he’d heard the conversation between my hatchling sister and myself, or learned of my oath through the Spherandracyl. “I’ve simply given you time to make your peace with your gods.”
“Ah yes, the Gods. You just might hate them more than I do. But, no matter. If you attempt to leave, I will have my dragon destroy you, now.”
Unfortunately he wasn’t stupid. But why did he hate the gods? “You cannot destroy me.”
“Ah, but your hatchling sister can. She knows you, knows all of you.”
By the Curse - he knew about hatchling sisters and about True Names. Maybe he could... “The Curse will make sure that neither you nor my hatchling sister can destroy me. But it won’t protect you.”
“True, but there are others who might.”
This wasn’t going anywhere - I had to get away from my hatchling sister. “Then how about we discuss the problem, see if we can come to a compromise.”
“I live, you live. I think that you would be interested in at least the latter. Shall we go and talk face to face?”
The silver panther stepped forwards until his nose was almost touching my chest. “I am not stupid. We will discuss it here and now, and reach an agreement, or I will destroy you here and now.”
I wanted to swallow but I couldn’t let myself. It didn’t seem likely that I was going to be able to safely kill him, at least not right now, so what else could I offer? And I couldn’t show weakness. “You know that you’re an idiot.”
“What?!” the panther squeaked.
“You have dragons, infantry, an army, and you attacked a city that was barely fortified. Yet you still would have lost if my hatchling sister hadn’t been waiting for you.” And if you’d come a few moments later and we were gone, you would have lost.
The panther folded its hind legs and sat. “True.”
“I’ve been fighting wars since before your race existed. I helped lead the forces of my race against your gods.” I paused for a moment. “I can lead your forces.”
“Interesting. But why should I need you. I can simply wait and take my time and do it myself.”
I laughed. “From what I’ve seen, you haven’t a hope of that. The Seven Cities are probably already making plans against you, and other fey are probably scheming to steal the Spherandracyl.”
“I’ve taken care of the fey.”
“And what about military threats. With only three dragons you can be easily overwhelmed. And as you know dragons can be killed.”
“Be my general, swear loyalty until the End of All Things, and I will let you live.”
I glared at him. “You think yourself much more important than you really are. You need me more than I need you.”
“Do you? I have your hatchling sister and I can destroy her.”
“You destroy her and your fate will make the Curse pale. But I offer you a gift.”
“I will lead your forces to victory over Kelda. In return, you will release both of us when Kelda becomes yours.”
“Just one city? I will let you go when you’ve conquered everything for me.”
“Everything?” I spun around and started walking away.
“I order you to stop.”
I took a few more steps and then stopped and slowly turned around. “You will never order me. I will take Kelda and Shastral for you. No more.”
“You will conquer all of Pagona for me.”
“The entire continent?” I took a step towards him and let my voice turn cold. “I will conquer or destroy each of the Seven Cities for you. My hatchling sister and I will immediately be freed. That is your final choice.”
“The Seven Cities?” The creature stood up and waved its tail back and forth. “That will be acceptable.”
Acceptable?! I was giving him control of most of the mortal world!
“You will swear allegiance to me.”
Maybe I could still get him alone. “Only to your actual body.”
“Like I said, I’m not stupid. You will swear to me, now, and if you do not then your hatchling sister will attack you.”
I had one last chance. “I swear, upon my soul, and my magic, that I will serve you until each of the Seven Cities is either destroyed or under your control. I swear this until the End of All Things.”
He nodded. It was going to work! I’d never sworn not to harm him.
Then he stopped nodding and stared for a moment before he responded. “You must swear one more thing. You will never try to harm me. Neither you, nor anybody or anything who is in your service or who is allied to you. And you will do your best to keep me from harm as long as you are in my service.”
He was being cautious. The lines were now drawn - I could enter his service and conquer the cities for him and save my hatchling sister, or I could leave now. If I left he would keep my hatchling sister and probably kill her.
I sighed. Calynisha would have to wait.
And then I swore. “I swear that I will never try to harm you, and that anybody or anything that is in my service or is allied to me will never attempt to harm you. And, I will do my best to keep you from harm as long as I am in your service and such efforts do not interfere in my conquering of the cities for you. This I swear until the End of All Things.” I was swearing to never ever harm him, but he was a mortal and wouldn’t live very long anyway.
He opened his mouth to speak, and then paused. “I see your point - to protect me you could never leave my side. If you never left my side, you could never conquer the cities for me. Agreeable. I accept your oath until the End of All Things.”
“Until the End of All Things.”