Design of Darkness
by the lady of shalott
* * *
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth--
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth--
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small.
* * *
Sheila shut her eyes, turning her head away from the stench of rotting teeth and rancid breath as the half-orc captain bent over her, his hands filthy and pawing. I will not scream, she silently chanted, refusing to give the raucous crowd of orcs outside the tent that pleasure. I will not scream. But she could feel the horror rising up in her throat, strangling its way out of her, and her breath was coming in short, panicky gasps as his weight came down on her, one brutal knee forcing her legs apart. "You not so high and mighty now?" he laughed above her, lowering his head and ripping the front of her dress open with his teeth. Her mind ran in frantic circles, desperate for this not to be happening, refusing to believe that she was going to be raped even while his thick fingers slid up her thigh. But no one was there to help her. She was alone, more alone than she'd ever imagined being, and although she was trying to be strong, tears trembled at the corners of her eyes.
A rush of air blew into the tent as someone came in, and he lifted partly off her. "I say no one disturb me!" he snarled over his shoulder.
Then his weight flew off her, and she opened her eyes in shocked relief to see the captain's feet dangling nearly a foot off the ground. Her gaze traveled upwards. An ash-pale hand clenched around the captain's throat, and she shrank back from the archmage's expression even though it wasn't directed at her. Venger's batwings were half-spread, the network of tendons glowing in the lamplight as red as his fierce eyes, and she almost felt a twinge of sympathy for the half-orc, who was doing his best to cower away despite his suspended position.
She gulped the sweet, cold air streaming in through the gaping tent flap and slowly sat up, clutching the front of her dress with both hands, more to keep them from trembling than for modesty. She scanned the tent and saw her cloak, lying in a heap not two feet away from the skirts of Venger's robes. Got to get out of here. She held that thought firm, using it to push down shock and panic, and started to creep slowly towards the huddled pile of blue cloth.
"I seem to recall informing you that the prisoner was to be unharmed." Venger's voice was at it silkiest.
"Master...forgive," the captain choked out, barely audible.
A thud sent ripples through the fabric of the tent, and she spared a glance to see the half-orc now cringing on the floor in the looming shadow of the batwings.
"You are fortunate that I do not have the time to spare to deal with you as I should, or you would be spending the rest of eternity in the Abyss. As it is..."
The cloak was only a few feet away. She could see the material billow a little in the wind. Then a sudden shriek and a crackle of light dazzled her eyes, followed by the stink of roasting flesh and an ominous, heavy silence. She blinked rapidly, stretching one hand out and groping, only to have her vision clear with Venger looming over her, her cloak dangling from his hand.
"Looking for something, Thief?" His voice sounded almost amused.
"I don't suppose you'd consider giving it back to me and letting me go?" One corner of his mouth twitched, and she edged a little further back. "I didn't think so."
Venger reached down and caught her arm, pulling her up easily. "No, Thief, I require the pleasure of your company for some time longer. With you in my power, your companions will not dare to interfere with my plans for Mirunor."
"If you think Hank and the others are just going to stand by and let you destroy a city just because you're threatening me, you're crazy," Sheila said with forced bravado, trying without success to pull her arm from Venger's firm grip. "It's not like they can trust you not to kill me the second you get what you want. For all they know, I'm already dead!"
"Ah, but tomorrow, when I make my assault on the city, they will see good evidence that you are not," Venger said. "Until then, it appears I will have to keep you under better guard."
She gathered her wits as he pulled her towards the tent flap and dug her heels in. "Wait!"
He raked her with a glare. "You would prefer to remain here? That could be arranged," he said threateningly.
Her eyes flicked briefly to the blackened corpse still smouldering in the corner, and she swallowed down bile. "No, thank you," she muttered beneath her breath. Louder, she said, "I'd just prefer to have something else on before you drag me through the whole camp!" She regretted saying anything in the next moment, fighting not to squirm as his eyes traveled over her body, the thin lips twisting in mocking amusement as he examined the ruins of her dress.
"Very well." Before she realized what he was doing, he had caught the torn edges and ripped the remainder of the gown off her with a single jerk. She gasped and tried to turn away from him and cover her breasts at the same time, but he gripped her arm and held her in place. "Hold still. I assure you, your form is," his eyes slid over her again, "quite pleasing, but hardly unusual. I have seen disrobed women far lovelier than you."
"How? Did you rip their clothes off too?" she snapped.
His eyes glittered. "Perhaps you would enjoy marching through the camp naked?"
She clamped her mouth shut on the rejoinder that sprang to her lips and shook her head. Nice going, Sheila. For an encore, why don't you see if you can make him mad enough to fry you on the spot?
"Then hold still and keep silent."
His hands reached for her shoulders, glowing with violet light, and it took every ounce of her will to not back away. Then they were gripping her, surprisingly warm, and a delicious heat spread from that touch, rippling down over her whole body like a wave of silk. Then she glanced down and saw that it was silk. The gown was long-sleeved, but it barely covered her shoulders, and the floor-length skirt was slit nearly to the waist on both sides. Her boots were gone as well, replaced by slippers so thin that she could feel the pebbles beneath the tent floor through their soles. Great. I look like a hooker, and I'd get blisters after five yards in these things.
"Black suits you," Venger commented mockingly. She glared at him, trying to tug the dress further up on her shoulders. The neckline stubbornly slid right back down.
He seized her arm again and pulled her outside. The orcs were all huddled on the other side of the campfire now, as far from the captain's tent as possible, and their piggish eyes followed Venger with pure terror. She didn't have much of a chance to look, though, since she had to nearly trot to keep up with the archmage's long strides. Then they were out of the clearing and deeper into the camp, where grim-looking humans in black armor mingled with expressionless lizardmen. The guards here simply bowed their heads as Venger passed instead of cowering the way the orcs on the perimeter had, and their weapons shone with the patina of long use and care, unlike the rusty and stained blades of the orcs.
This army looks a lot more dangerous than any of the forces I've seen him use before. Her eyes catalogued everything she saw, locking the information away in case she managed to escape and warn her friends. Where did all these troops come from?
They passed through another perimeter, this one manned entirely by humans, and entered a large clearing ringed by freshly-hewn stumps that showed the place had recently been enlarged. An enormous tent filled the space, a black banner flying from the center pole, and the two guards at the entrance bowed and held the flaps open for Venger to pass through.
He released her with a little shove as they entered, propelling her forward onto a pile of cushions to the side of the door. She struggled with the tangle of skirts and managed to sit up just as a shadow detached itself from a corner of the tent and coiled itself into the shade of Venger's wings to avoid the lamplight that had bloomed at their entrance.
"What news?" Venger demanded, walking to a table near the center and pouring a goblet of red wine.
"Mirunor has rejected the terms of surrender." Shadow Demon trailed after the archmage. Sheila made herself small against the tent wall, hoping that maybe they'd forget she was here.
"As expected." Venger drained the goblet and negligently waved it into nothingness.
"The orcs in the front army caught two other scouts as well, Master. Four others evaded them and returned to the city."
"Good. Have the orcs take the two captured ones into the middle of the front camp, then let them escape. I want the city to be quite certain they know the size of the army." Venger's smile was unpleasant.
Front army? Sheila frowned. Even the clearing that she'd been held in had been deep in the forest, far from the city walls. He's keeping this whole army in reserve, she realized with dismay. He's got a completely different army up front, and he'll wait until the city thinks they've won...I've got to warn them!
As if he'd heard her thoughts, Venger glanced over at her. "Have one of the guards bring a set of shackles," he ordered Shadow Demon. "I will keep the Thief here. Even if her friends discover this camp, they will never be able to rescue her from my own tent."
"Of course, Master." The shadow slipped out invisibly.
"You're not going to get away with this," she said.
He smiled thinly. "We shall soon see." A guard entered, clinking with the set of heavy chains he carried. "Fasten the chain to the center pole," Venger ordered, then beckoned her towards the guard.
Sheila measured the distance to the door for just a moment, more in wishful thinking than out of a serious hope of escaping. No way I can get out of here without my cloak. Better play along for now and keep an eye out for a chance to get my hands on it. She slowly walked over to the guard, who fastened the manacles around her wrists, and ignored the half-curious, half-leering look the man gave her.
A blue flash flared from the cuffs as he locked them into place. "They're fast, m'lord," the guard said, with a final tug to make sure they were snug enough that she couldn't slip her hands out. Sheila glanced down at the cuffs in dismay, realizing that there was no sign of a locking mechanism, just smooth metal wrapped around her wrists.
"Good," Venger said absently, from where he stood at a heavy table strewn with maps and scrolls of parchment. The cloak lay draped over the table near him. "You may leave."
The man bowed out of the tent, leaving her alone with the archmage, who didn't seem to be paying much attention to her. Sheila sighed and walked to the limit of the chain, snagging a couple of cushions with her foot and nudging them back towards the center pole to make a little seat for herself. She sat down and wrapped her arms around her knees, pillowing her head on top and wondering tiredly if Venger ever slept. Silly, she realized, glancing back into the recesses of the tent. That's definitely a bed over there, so he must use it...occasionally.
Her stomach rumbled, reminding her of another bodily necessity that she hadn't satisfied anytime recently. She looked over at the small table with the wine flagon on it, but there was no food on it. Eyeing the archmage, she wondered whether she dared risk asking him for something. Even if he did give me something, it would probably be stewed bat guts or something else just as disgusting, she thought.
Just as she was gathering her courage to ask, the tent flap opened, and an old woman came in with a tray that she set down on the small table. Delicious smells rose from it, and Sheila looked longingly at the silver dishes as the servant uncovered them. Finishing her task, the woman trudged out of the tent without a single look at either Venger or Sheila.
Sheila sat for a full ten seconds before reaching out to the plates. In a moment, she was luxuriating in the taste of still-warm bread, fragrant and dripping with melted butter. She spared a cautious glance over at Venger, but the mage didn't appear to even have noticed the arrival of the meal. I guess he never has to worry about where the next meal will come from. Sheila thought a little resentfully of all the times she and her friends had gone hungry, then shrugged and helped herself to more of the food, idly wishing for a bath. The shock of the earlier attack was fading quickly, but her skin still creeped a little with the feel of the orcish fingers on her skin.
The tent flap opened again, admitting a tall warrior in chainmail and leather, wearing a helmet whose nosepiece concealed most of his face. The hilts of two swords stood out behind his shoulders, both of them unornamented steel wrapped in dark leather. Sheila looked at him with interest as he pulled off the helmet, her eyes widening with surprise as a thick black braid shot through with grey fell out and she realized that the angular face, left cheek slashed with a thin white scar, was female.
The other woman gave her a swift dismissive glance before striding over to Venger's side. "Lord." Her voice was deep, rolling with a strange accent Sheila had never heard before.
"General," Venger acknowledged, pulling another map open on the table and gesturing towards it. "Report."
Huh. Venger's got a woman general. Let's hear it for affirmative action, Sheila thought, fascinated.
The warrior glanced pointedly at Sheila. Venger followed her gaze, then waved a hand. "Do not concern yourself with her. She will have no opportunity to warn the city."
"As you command." The general inclined her head, although Sheila thought her eyes still looked doubtful. But she stepped forward to the map with no further hesitation, gloved finger tracing lines on the parchment. "The five legions from Venn are encamped in the west, and the nine from Steris are a mile back, deeper in the forest. All ready to move when you give the word."
"And the drow archers?"
"I've moved them forward, to the edge of the forest. No scouts will be seeing them, and they'd have a time moving forward tomorrow. It's likely to be a bright day."
"Leave that to me," Venger said, straightening with satisfaction. "Anything else?"
"There's like to be some trouble with that gorgodemon, Lord," she said. "We've fed him all the deserters we caught, but he's already hungry again, and testing the bars."
Venger scowled. "That creature is becoming more trouble than it's worth."
"We could use it at the front tonight, in the first attack," the general suggested. "Break their spirits a bit, maybe crack the front lines."
"Very well. Without the Weapons of Power, there is no weapon in the city that could kill the demon in any case, so there is no reason not to send it out. The carnage should make it easier to control for the rest of the seige."
She nodded. "That's all, then, Lord. The front army will wear them down, then the second will strike when they're thinking they've won. Should topple them better than a siege engine."
"If we brought out the full army, they'd most likely surrender at once, though, Lord."
"Indeed, they would, General, but I have other plans." Venger smiled unpleasantly. "When the news of this battle spreads, all my enemies will know that they can never be certain of the size of my forces. And once we have defeated them, I will make an example of the city that will ensure that none other dares to defy me for the next century."
Sheila bit her lip to keep her reaction in. That jerk! He's playing with the city just so he has an excuse to do something horrible to them afterwards?
The discussion over, the general bowed once and strode out of the tent, sweeping her braid back up under the helmet as she left. Venger turned back to the scrolls, raising his hand to bring the tray from the small table floating over to his side. He frowned down at the mostly-depleted plates and glared over at Sheila, who stared right back at him and deliberately licked her fingers. "Thanks for dinner, it was delicious," she said sweetly.
"You are fortunate that you are still of use to me, Thief," Venger snapped, ringing a small bell that summoned the servant back in. "Bring me another tray," the archmage commanded the old woman, who took the half-eaten meal away.
"Hey, prisoners have to eat too," Sheila said. "If you'd had your people give me something, I wouldn't have taken your dinner."
"Perhaps I will feed you to the gorgodemon when I have taken the city," Venger mused aloud. "The indigestion should keep him quiet for at least a week."
"So what are you planning to do with me, anyway? My friends aren't just going to sit around waiting for you to destroy the city just because you threaten me, you know."
Venger gave her a mirthless, chilling smile. "Never fear, Thief. I am quite certain that I can offer them sufficient incentive to keep out of the battle."
Sheila had a feeling she wasn't going to enjoy the incentive.
* * *
The suns were low in the sky, the smallest one already touching the horizon. Hank shielded his eyes from the glare with a hand and looked out over the troops taking up positions around the city, wind riffling through his hair.
"Hey." Diana came up behind him and patted his shoulder. "You know that you're never going to see her coming."
"She should have been back by now," Hank said, his gaze never turning away from the field. "All the other scouts returned hours ago."
"Well, maybe she found something important, further away."
He shook his head. "If she doesn't get back soon, she'll never be able to make it through the armies anyway. The Queen said that the orcs will probably attack at sunset -- Sheila knows that! She knows she had to get back before then. And she's still not here..." He didn't have to go on, knowing that Diana would understand his fears.
"Let's not borrow trouble, Hank. For all we know, Sheila's late because she found the Silver Pool," Diana suggested. "She could show up any minute now, telling us we're on our way home."
"Yeah, right. Do you really believe that?"
"No, but it's better than imagining the worst." Diana wrapped her arms around herself and gave a short laugh. "You know, I always used to get mad at my parents for calling all my friends if I didn't come home straight after school or practice. Made me feel like they didn't trust me. Now...well, I swear, when we get home, I will call them before going anywhere unscheduled."
"If we get home," Hank said, before he could help himself. Diana's startled look made him raise a hand apologetically. "Forget it. I didn't mean it." He kept his doubts to himself most of the time, but right now his pessimism was out in full-force, and the words had slipped out.
Diana was quiet for a few moments. "It's okay to not be the perfect leader all the time, you know."
"All the time?" Hank slammed his fist down on the stone. "If I was a perfect leader even once, we'd be home by now! Hell, we could be home this very minute if we hadn't stopped to help here. But no, I had to have us play hero." He leaned his forehead against the rough grey stone of the battlements, worry and frustration choking his throat.
"Now you're starting to sound like Eric," Diana said.
"Hey, come on -- Eric's mellowed out a lot lately," he said.
"Yeah, I know," she agreed. Then she smiled wryly. "Actually, don't tell him this, but I'm almost sorry. All the complaining he used to do, all the times he said we should forget about everyone else and just worry about getting home...well, there was always a part of me that agreed with him. And yelling at him was like yelling at that part of me."
"Yeah, I think I know what you mean," Hank said. "So Eric starts growing up, and the rest of us start regressing." He laughed a little, but he couldn't keep bitterness from slipping into the sound.
"Hey, you guys." They turned to see Presto climb up the last few steps onto the battlement, looking glum. "The orcs have started moving forward. Looks like the fight's about to get started."
Hank felt like punching someone. "We're not going to do anyone any good up here," he forced himself to say. "Come on. Let's go down there and help stop Venger's army. The sooner we've run off those orcs, the sooner we can get out there and find Sheila."
* * *
Sheila gulped and involuntarily tried to back away as the guard pushed her towards the snorting nightmare. Venger sat astride the restless stallion, one hand held out impatiently towards her. "Hand her up." The guard hefted her off the ground and lifted her towards Venger, who wrapped his arm around her waist and settled her across the nightmare's withers in front of him.
"I suggest you hold on, girl," he told her.
Sheila had barely a moment to follow the advice and wind her fingers in the hot, coarse strands of the nightmare's mane before the steed was rearing and leaping into the air. Wind lashed her hair against the skin of her neck like stinging needles as they climbed into the sky, whipping tears from her eyes. Tension rippled through in Venger's arms as his wings spread out, cutting the force of the wind a little. She glanced up at him and surprised a passionate, fierce expression on his face, his eyes remote and chin lifted slightly, as if he were looking far away. Then he caught her looking and his face hardened into a cold mask as he spurred the nightmare to greater speed.
In what seemed like only a few breath-stealing moments, they had swept over the forest. The towers of Mirunor glowed ahead in the light of the setting sun, their white and gold in stark contrast to the shifting darkness of the two armies battling around it. A golden flare of light drew her eyes to a small group near the city gate, and she leaned forward a little as she recognized her friends.
Venger sent the nightmare into a stooping dive, and the air around her suddenly crackled with energy. She shivered, every hair on her body standing suddenly on-end, as Venger raised a hand and flung fire down into the defending army. "No!" she cried, seeing bodies fall beneath the firebolt, and grabbed for his arm as he lifted it again. A surge of power went through her like an electric shock, and the whole world faded in a sea of black spots for a moment.
He was swearing when she came to, struggling to hold her on as the nightmare reared and shrieked. "Stupid girl," he shouted at her. "Do that again and I will feed you to the demon!"
Sheila drooped against the nightmare's warm neck and clung to the mane, her head whirling. She was dimly aware that Venger was firing off more bolts, but she couldn't even think of trying to stop him again, each new blast sending a fresh shock through her.
"Sheila!" The cry caught her attention, even over the noise of the battle below and the thunder of the magic in her ears. She stared down and realized that she could see her friends not too far away, Bobby yelling her name and waving his club in the air, Hank's face full of dismay as he lowered his bow without taking a shot at Venger.
Venger looked down and smiled cruelly as he caught sight of the others, sending the nightmare towards the group with a quick jerk of his arm. "Ranger!" he shouted, holding the steed back and still high over the field, "Hear my warning. Should any of you aid Mirunor, the Thief dies -- and she will die before your eyes!" With a quick jerk, he sent her toppling off the nightmare's back, his grip on her arm the only thing that kept her from plummeting.
Sheila screamed involuntarily, clutching at his arm as her legs dangled into empty air. She squeezed her eyes shut, not wanting to see the ground beneath her, and scrabbled for a hold in the nightmare's mane. But a moment later, Venger pulled her up, setting her in front of him once more. She clutched at him out of instinct, panting with adrenaline, as he turned the nightmare back to the front lines of the conflict. She strained to see her friends again, but his wings hid them from view. "You--you jerk!" she gasped.
He laughed. "You did not enjoy the experience? What a pity. You had best hope your friends do not defy me."
Suddenly furious, Sheila balled up a fist, pushed herself back onto the nightmare's withers, and punched him in the stomach as hard as she could. His breath exploded out as he bent nearly double coughing, and she felt a surge of satisfaction -- until he straightened up and she saw the rage in his face. "Ow!" She couldn't help crying out as he grabbed her wrist, pain lancing up into her fingers as he squeezed.
"I should turn you into an insect," he snarled.
"Go ahead," she panted defiantly. "Good luck finding another hostage to use against my friends!"
She could practically hear his teeth grinding as he turned her around and pulled her tight against him, wrapping one arm around her body and pinning her arms to her sides. "Punishment is only delayed, Thief, not canceled," he said, his breath hot against her ear. "You will regret your insolence before the next sunset, I promise you."
"Promises are made to be broken," she said over her shoulder, but it was bravado, and by the low laugh behind her, he knew it too.
* * *
Eric stared out the narrow window at the moonlit sea of bodies outside, feeling a sick pang every time he saw an orc-wielded blade or black-fletched arrow sink into one of the defenders. His shield hung heavily on his arm in mute reproach. Behind him, Hank was talking to the Queen of Mirunor, his voice low and unhappy.
"I'm sorry, your Majesty. We want to help -- but...he'll kill Sheila if we do."
"Ranger," the Queen answered, "do you think that we will reproach you for this? You and your friends are not of Mirunor. Your help was a gift from the gods, unlooked for in this dark time, and if you had not paused in your quest to aid us, your friend would never have fallen into the Dark One's power. You have our thanks for what help you have given us, and our promise that if we can free your companion, it shall be done."
"Thanks, your Majesty," Hank said, sounding as miserable as Eric felt. A few moments later, the door closed as the Queen left the room, leaving the five companions alone.
"We gotta do something," Bobby burst out, for the tenth time since they'd watched helplessly as Venger flew away with Sheila.
"Bobby, I don't think there's anything we can do right now," Hank said. "We can't fight our way through two whole armies, not without using our weapons, and Venger's got the entire city surrounded."
"And even if we could get out, we don't have a clue where Venger's keeping Sheila," Diana said.
"So what are we going to do?" Eric said, whirling around to stare at his friends. "We're just going to sit on our rears while Venger's orcs carve up the Queen's army? Terrific. Then Venger can take his time killing Sheila after he's done taking over the city."
"What do you want me to say, Eric?" Hank demanded angrily, taking a couple of steps towards him. "'Let's go out there and fight Venger, and who cares what he does to Sheila'? Is that your idea of what we should do?"
"Hey, guys, take it easy, okay?" Presto said, stepping between them. "This isn't going to help Sheila or the city." Hank turned away abruptly and went to stand by a window, leaning his forehead against the frame. "Look, the Queen's not down for the count yet, and we all know how stupid orcs are. I bet you guys anything the city's army will win," Presto continued. "Then we can get out there and find Sheila and rescue her from Venger."
Diana stood up. "You're right, Presto, but I don't think any of us want to just sit and wait for Venger's army to lose. Why don't we go to the healers -- I'm sure they could use some help."
"Help the healers?" Eric said. " People are dying out there right now because we're not out helping, and you want us to go wash bandages? We're not doctors. All we can be there is an extra pair of hands."
"Look, Eric, if you have a better idea, go right ahead," Diana said sharply. "I'm going to go down there and try to do some good at least."
"I'm with you," Presto said. The two of them headed for the door, and Hank and Bobby followed them after a moment, both of them silent and glum.
Eric watched them leave, torn between anger at himself for provoking his friends when they were all upset and the growing sense of wrongness he felt at sitting idly by. He turned back to the window and stared out at the fight for a few more minutes until frustration drove him away. He flung his shield down on the floor and paced the room. "I can't go out there," he said aloud, trying to argue with the pressing internal urge to do just that. "The second horn-head sees me, he'll kill Sheila, and it's not like I can just blend into the crowd with this fancy get-up and the shield." He dropped into a chair and stared down at the shield. Then the idea hit him, and he grabbed up the shield and hurried out of the room.
* * *
Cold air rushing past her face roused Sheila from the daze she'd fallen into during the battle. Her body still tingled with the power Venger had unleashed, as if she'd somehow inhaled magic from the charged air. Looking down past the nightmare's galloping hooves, she saw nothing but darkness below, although the rustling of leaves told her they were over the forest. He must be taking me back to the camp. If he puts me back in those chains, I won't have a prayer of getting away. She looked down again, trying to judge how far below the trees were.
The nightmare swooped lower suddenly, and she heard the snap of teeth and breaking bones. Behind her, Venger muttered something angry in a language she didn't recognize and thumped the nightmare's shoulder. The beast tossed its head back and kept crunching whatever it was it had caught. More importantly, from Sheila's perspective, it kept flying low and close to the trees.
Please don't let me die or break every bone in my body, she prayed silently, then carefully unwound her stiff fingers from the mane. "Look, over there!" she said, pointing to the right. Venger's head turned automatically, and she squirmed herself free from his grip and slid off the nightmare's back.
The fall was mercifully quick, and then branches were snapping beneath her weight as she grabbed for some support. She managed to get a grip on a thick branch, swallowing a yell at the pain of torn fingernails, and got her feet planted on another branch. Scrambling down as quickly as she dared, she slipped and fell the last few feet to the ground and lay there with the breath knocked out of her. The shrieking whinny of the nightmare somewhere nearby was the only thing that got her back on her feet and moving again.
Her feet were already sore in the thin shoes, so she concentrated on walking slowly and quietly instead of trying to rush. I just hope I'm going the right way and not towards the camp.
"Fool!" Venger's voice echoed through the trees, unpleasantly close. "You are more than a mile away from the city, and my army stands between you and the gates. You will never be able to reach the city without your cloak."
Trouble is, he's probably right...but it's better than just sitting around letting him use me against my friends! Sheila kept picking her way forward, eyes hunting around for a likely spot to hide if Venger got any closer. She still felt the aftereffects of the magic, her skin prickling with it like a faint case of pins and needles, and the shivers were slowing her down just as much as the fragile slippers. A cracking branch and flare of light behind her warned her that she was about to be caught again just as she came to the edge of a small clearing, fringed with thick brambles. She threw herself flat and squirmed into the tangled bushes, biting her lip against the pain as thorns snagged her skin and pulled her hair.
Venger stormed into sight, one hand holding a blazing orb. He paused not ten feet away from her, sweeping the thorny bushes with narrowed eyes, and threw the orb up into the air to illuminate the whole clearing. "You are more resourceful than I would have expected," Venger said. "But you cannot hide any longer."
She lay still and tried to breathe quietly, hoping that he was just pretending that he knew where she was.
He raised a hand and spoke harsh, grating words that she couldn't understand, and a trail of blue-green sparkles went flurrying out from his spread fingers, winding through the air towards her. The tiny lights whisked through the gaps in the bushes and settled on her skin, outlining her clearly for Venger to see. He stepped over to the bush and glared down at her. "I suggest you come out now."
"I'm comfortable here, thanks."
He eyed the thorns. "I find that doubtful."
"Come and get me, then," she said.
"Cursed girl," Venger muttered, reaching down to grip the branches. She hid a smirk when he hissed with pain at catching his hand on a thorn. Then he muttered another strange word, and the bramble withered away into dust all around her, leaving her lying flat on the ground at his feet. She scrambled up and tackled his legs, sending him tumbling to the ground, and tried to make a run for it. But she'd barely taken a step when his hand closed around her ankle and tripped her flat in turn.
He dragged her back along the ground despite her efforts to kick free and finally threw himself on top of her, pinning her wrists and legs to the ground with his weight. She struggled a little longer, but he was simply too large to throw off, and she finally gave up and lay still, her panting breath loud in the illuminated clearing.
"You...are proving...to be a great annoyance." His own breathing was a little labored, she noted with satisfaction.
"Good! It serves you right, you...you bully," she said as he pulled her up, both her wrists held securely in one of his large hands. "Mirunor's never done anything to hurt you, they don't even have anything you want -- why would you want to destroy them?"
The nightmare paced out of the trees, rolling its scarlet eyes uneasily as it stepped into the lit clearing and came to Venger's hand. "My motives are beyond your comprehension, girl," he said
"You can say that again!" Sheila said as he tapped the nightmare's chest. The stallion whuffed out its breath in what Sheila thought was an indignant way and knelt down on the ground. "Why are you making him get down like that? He can't be comfortable."
Venger actually sighed, sounding as exasperated as the nightmare had just a moment before. "Because, Thief, if I were to put you on his back without first mounting, he would carry you off to the depths of Hades before you could draw breath. And I certainly would not trust you to remain quietly by while I mounted," he added, seating himself and pulling her down in front of him. The nightmare heaved itself to its feet, snorting in complaint, then lunged upwards into the sky.
* * *
I must be crazy. Eric swallowed hard, his hands sweaty inside the stiff leather of the new gloves as he gripped his shield and tried to hold the sword as if he knew what he was doing with it as he marched forward with the squad. His nose tingled with the thick turpentine odor of the fresh coat of black paint on his shield, and his shoulders felt strange without the weight of chainmail and plate he usually wore -- the studded leather armor the master-of-arms had given him felt as light as his old clothes from home by comparison.
"We'll be going to the front, Sir Eric," the corporal at the head of the squad said. "They're getting pounded up there -- if that shield of yours can protect 'em some, that'll help us hold against those orc bastards."
"Fine by me," Eric said, lying through his teeth. It most definitely was not fine. What would be fine would be getting zapped back home right this second before he got himself any further into this mess. They were getting close to the front now, and he could hear screams and shouting mingled with the clash of swords. Then the ranks of the defenders opened to let them through, and the snarling, brutish faces of the orcs were looming right ahead of him, a forest of bloodstained swords sprouting from their hands, evilly glittering in the full moon's light.
Lord, save me from my own stupidity, please, Eric had one moment to pray, and then all thought vanished into the rhythm of battle as he threw his will behind the shield and felt the wall of power spread itself out to cover the front lines of the defenders.
He was sweating in moments. Using the shield had never been much of an effort before -- normally he'd invoke its power briefly, deflect whatever attack was heading his way, then let it turn off. But now he could feel every blow that the shield took resonating through his body. The ache in his muscles already reminded him of holding up the rockfall that Kelek had dumped on them back in the valley of the unicorns, and he could still hear cries of pain to either side, where the shield's power didn't reach. He clenched his jaw and pushed some more, feeling the shield spread out even further, and tried not to wonder just how long he could keep this up -- or what he would do when he couldn't.
The sword dangled unused from his right hand until the corporal shouted in his ear, "Use the sword, lad!" Eric blindly hacked with the blade and felt it hit something, but he nearly lost the shield wall when he had to yank hard to pull the sword free. He took a deep breath and concentrated on keeping the shield wall where it was, then stepped back for a moment and took a quick look at what the soldiers to either side of him were doing. Their swords rose and fell in a complex pattern.
No way can I do that, Eric thought. He stepped back into place and experimentally thrust forward with the point of the sword, jerking it back right away. The simple stroke didn't take much of his attention, and after a few minutes he found a rhythm -- brace the shield wall, step forward, thrust, and brace the shield wall again. The lines of the orcs were slowly, slowly falling back as the defenders hewed them down under the protection of the shield.
Suddenly the lines ahead began to waver and break. A yell of triumph rose from the soldiers behind them, but almost immediately, a howling roar drowned out the cheers, and the orc ranks split to let a nightmarish creature shamble forward. Its head was little more than a mouth full of black, serrated teeth and two enormous, pupilless eyes, and it loomed two feet over the heads of the orcs.
"Yuck." Eric coughed as its stench wafted forward, a vile mingling of rot and blood and filth. The creature raised a clawed hand and slashed down at the front lines, and the shock of that blow knocked him backwards, destroying his concentration on the shield wall for a moment.
A moment was long enough for the monster to grab one of the soldiers and rip his arm off, the rows of teeth shredding flesh and bone alike while the man screamed. Staying a healthy distance back from the thing, the orcs laughed, banging their swords against their shields in applause while it bit off the soldier's head and let the still-twitching remains of the body fall to the earth, turning back to the ranks of the defenders.
His stomach roiled, the remains of his dinner trying to climb up his throat, but Eric somehow managed to force himself back onto his feet, shoving the shield's power forward with everything he had. The monster howled its frustration as its massive arms beat fruitlessly against the shield's energy.
The corporal's hand fell on his shoulder. "Keep holding that demon! I'll see if I can hamstring it," the older man shouted over the din, then dashed out past the shield's protection and slashed his blade across the demon's leg. But Eric saw that despite the power behind the blow, the sword barely broke the demon's ridged skin. The creature shrieked its fury at the minor wound and turned to strike the corporal down.
"No!" Eric yelled, stabbing with his own sword. A hideous, sticky sensation rocked up his arm as the blade sank into the monster's leg, and he felt it go numb to the elbow. He pulled the sword out with his upper arm and looked up in panic to see the creature trip over itself as it turned too quickly to return the new attack. "Oh, shit!" He yanked the blade up and aimed it for the thing's chest as it toppled down towards him. "God, please don't let me die before I have another milkshake."
And then everything went black.
* * *
Sheila stumbled into the tent ahead of Venger and collapsed on the cushions. The escape attempt had sapped what little energy she had left, and its failure what little hope she had left. She leaned her cheek against the cool metal of the center pole and shut her eyes for a moment, trying to gather her strength.
When she looked up, she blinked in surprise to see that Venger had removed his helmet, revealing platinum-white hair that fell past his shoulders. "You have hair?" she blurted without thinking. Venger gave her a disgusted look and didn't dignify the question with an answer. He lifted the black cape from his shoulders and took off the jacket of red leather as well. Sheila watched in fascinated suspense as his hands went to the neck of the grey robe he wore beneath and unfastened it.
His bare chest looked inhuman, not simply oversized, with no nipples and too many ribs arching visibly against his side. The skin stretched over the ribcage shone oddly, as if scaled, and his abdominal muscles were divided into eight clearly defined sections instead of four. His legs looked more normal, thickly muscled with perhaps more tendons and veins than she thought humans had, although she couldn't see any hair there or anywhere else on his body. As he turned to lay the gown over a chair, she saw his back, where two ridges of flesh, darker grey than the rest of his skin, curved from the top of his shoulders to his waist, and disappeared beneath the short kilt-like undergarment he wore. Is that where his wings are? But there are no holes in his clothing...and I thought that cape was the wings...
She didn't realize she was staring until she glanced up and found him staring back at her, one eyebrow quirked. "Is your curiosity satisfied?"
Blushing, Sheila ducked her head. "Um, sorry."
"You need not apologize, Thief." She looked up warily at the tone of his voice and saw him standing over her, eyes gleaming with a dangerous light. He reached down and stroked her hair, letting the coppery strands slip through his fingers.
The touch reawakened the shivers of magic in her body, and she pulled herself up with the pole and edged away from him in alarm, every nerve in her skin flickering with sensation. "What are you doing?" she said, trying to sound annoyed instead of panicked, which was how she was feeling.
"You object?" he asked, his lips curving into a half-smile as he moved towards her.
"Yes!" she said, backing away hastily. "What has gotten in to you?"
He laughed softly and closed in on her as she bumped up against the bed. "Did I not warn you, Thief, that punishment was only delayed?"
"Wh...what?" He was so close now that she could feel the heat radiating from his body, and something in her was yearning towards that heat even as every other instinct was screaming at her to run.
He caught her around the waist with one arm, running the pad of his thumb along her skin, just above the neckline of the dress. His touch was a match stroking over her skin, igniting her as it went, and she grabbed his shoulders just to keep from falling over as her head whirled. Another shudder went through her at that contact, welling up from deep inside her and flowing up and through her fingertips, as if it were rushing into him.
"Ahh..." she heard him breathe, sounding almost surprised, then his mouth was descending on hers, furnace-hot, and there wasn't just pleasure but near-oblivion, sensation so powerful that she couldn't have remembered her own name if someone had asked her at that moment. Silk slithered off her shoulders at his touch, leaving her skin bare to the cold air and the blaze of his impatient hands as he lifted her and lay her down on the bed.
She reached up blindly, fingers catching in his hair, her heart thrumming like a trapped bird as his mouth trailed down, lips soft and warm on her throat, her shoulders, her breasts. His knowing hands seemed to be everywhere at once, lifting her partly from the bed, cupping the back of her neck and sliding down her spine, molding her body to his. His fingers slid up her thigh, his thumb stroked feather-light over her sex, and she heard her soft cry as if it came from another's throat.
The sound woke her to herself, and she struggled frantically in his arms, kicking and pushing at his shoulders. "No! No! I won't!" she panted, fighting herself as much as him.
He pressed her into the bedding with his weight, imprisoning her wrists over her head with one hand and caressing her throat with his lips. "Yes," he whispered in her ear, his breath sending quivers through her body. "Yes." He reached over and caught the flagon of wine beside the bed with his other hand, staring down at her with passion and possession blazing in his eyes.
She trembled in his grip as he pulled the bottle open with his teeth and tilted it up for a swallow. Then his mouth descended on her breast, the cool wine swirling over her nipple while his tongue flickered over her. She sobbed, her back arching into the caress against her will as he swallowed. He drank again, this time capturing her lips again, sharing the sweet, spiced wine with her. The alcohol burned down into her stomach, meeting and stoking the flames already there.
He lowered her to the pillows and shifted his weight, one hand alighting on her breast, fingers gently working the soft curves as his lips brushed downwards, feathering kisses over her abdomen. Sheila squeezed her eyes shut as his tongue flickered out to her clitoris, first just touching lightly, then gradually adding more pressure, each wet stroke sending a pulse right through her. A subtle fire built up beneath her skin, every limb tingling, until she felt she might fly apart.
Now he was bending over her, one finger sliding into her as he caught her lower lip gently between his teeth, and the elemental satisfaction of it wrung a sigh from her. She surrendered in fragments, her body won by passion, her voice won by pleasure, her mind won by surprise. When he parted her thighs and pressed into her, the final yielding was almost insignificant, because she had already been conquered, already taken. He was the only solid thing left in the world as she rose to meet his thrusts, everything else fading into shadows next to the sleekness of his shoulders beneath her hands and the harsh gasps of his breathing in her ears.
Her legs curled around his thighs, pulling him deeper in, and he flung his head back, throat taut with held breath as he exploded deep inside her, dragging her into velvet darkness on a shared cry of pleasure.
* * *
Diana pressed the water-beaded glass to her forehead for a few moments before drinking the cool water. Hank walked carefully by with two cauldrons of steaming water hanging from a yoke across his shoulders, and he gave her a forced smile as he continued into the main hall. She glanced in to look for Presto and caught sight of him in the back, still pulling bandages and other medical supplies out of his hat -- along with a combination of less useful things. Still, he's getting something good one time out of three -- that's not bad. And it's not like Venger can know he's using the hat in here. Her own javelin was tucked against her wrist, inside the armband, and she looked down at it with a sigh. Too bad that my weapon doesn't exactly have a lot of non-combat use. At least those CPR lessons my dad made me take are coming in handy.
The doors to the hall opened wide again, and she tilted her head back to gulp the rest of the water before setting the glass down and hurrying over to help with the latest arrivals. Three men walked in, one of them grey-faced, holding his arm, while the other two were carrying another on a pallet. The prone soldier looked bad, she noted clinically as she reached them, his armor covered with dark blood and his face utterly pale beneath the helmet.
"Bring him over here," she said, leading them to an empty bed and pulling up a chair for the other wounded man. She turned around to dip a cloth in the bowl of water standing ready next to the bed while the men bent over the unconscious soldier and started removing his helmet and armor. Turning back, she froze, hands clenching so hard around the cloth that water dripped down her arms. "Oh my God. Eric!"
Overhearing her, Presto and Hank came hurrying over and halted by her side in shock. "What...what happened?" Hank choked out.
The wounded soldier in the chair eased his own helmet off with one hand, the other cradled in his lap. "They set a demon on us, out there," he said. "I barely put sword to its cursed hide, and my arm is as useless as wood." He nodded towards Eric. "He killed it, thank all the gods, but he's not stirred since we heaved the misbegotten thing's carcass off him, for all there's no mark on him."
Hands shaking, Diana bent over Eric and started to wash his face clean. "Hank, you'd better get one of the healers over here," she said, trying to keep her voice steady.
She had gotten most of the mud and ichor off him by the time Hank came back, with an older woman that Diana remembered seeing in the very back room, where the most seriously wounded soldiers were taken.
The woman looked at Eric and frowned, then turned to the other soldier. "Corporal, let me see your arm." She took the limb in her hands and closed her eyes, standing completely still for several long moments.
"Ah!" The corporal suddenly gasped, the fingers of the wounded hand springing wide and then clenching into a fist.
The woman's eyes opened and she released the arm, stepping back and breathing hard. "A greater demon," she said finally, after catching her breath. "Give thanks to the gods for your life, Corporal -- I have never heard of such a thing being slain without great magic or the High Lord's blessing."
The old soldier moved his arm experimentally, color already returning to his face. "Aye, Sister Canla, that I do. But what of the lad? He's the one who killed it."
Canla bent over Eric's prone form, holding a hand over the bloodless lips. "He still breathes," she said, sounding surprised. "I would not have thought any ordinary fighter could strike down such a thing and live."
"His shield -- did he have his shield?" Diana asked.
"We brought it in with us," the corporal said, pointing. "The lad had it painted black so that whoreson mage wouldn't know him and hurt your friend."
"The shield is magical -- that would have protected him, wouldn't it?" Diana turned to the healer desperately.
The woman pulled another chair up to Eric's bedside. "It must have, my dear, or he would already be dead." She turned to the three friends and gave them a quick smile. "Do not fear," she said. "I think if the High Lord wished to call him home, he would already have done so." Then she turned and took Eric's hand in her own, and bowed her head over it in prayer, leaving them to wait in worried silence.
* * *
The bellow roused her out of sleep. Blinking, she lifted her head from the unfamiliar pillows and tried to orient herself. Venger was rolling out of bed on the other side, and memory returned, bringing horror with it. Holy Mary! What the hell did he do? What the hell did I do?
"How was it slain?" Venger demanded, reaching for his clothes. The tall general was standing at the entrance, her face betraying no reaction to Venger's nudity.
"We're not certain, Lord," she said. "All the orcs that were by were killed as well. May be that some soldier suicided to kill it -- we saw them carrying a body away."
Venger shrugged the cape onto his shoulders and stormed out of the tent without a backwards glance, the general right behind him. Sheila watched them go without moving, afraid to feel the significant aches she could tell were just waiting to make themselves known to her. Finally, she closed her eyes and pushed herself up to a sitting position in a single motion. "Owww..." she hissed, hunching over a little. She looked down at herself with dismay. Bruises mottled her skin, and she couldn't blame all of them on her escape attempt, either.
"I don't believe this," she moaned, letting her head sink onto her knees. "Sheila, you have really done it this time." She looked around the tent, hoping miserably for something she could use to wash up with, and her eyes fell on the cloak, still lying discarded across Venger's table. Sheila stared at it dumbly for a minute before scrambling out of bed, heedless of the aches and pains. The cloak was in her hands in an instant, and she looked at the tent entrance, half-expecting Venger to come charging back in.
But no one entered. Hurrying, she pulled the dress and slippers back on and swung the cloak over her shoulders, then snatched up the large map of the forest with the positions of Venger's second army marked on it. She stood there for a moment, half-irresolute for no reason she could identify, then pulled her hood up and let the magic of the cloak wrap around her.
* * *
"Will you guys quit hovering? I feel fine." Eric pushed away Hank's offered arm and stood up by himself, feeling silly in the long white nightshirt the healers had put him in. "See? I'm 100 percent."
Diana glared at him and poked him in the chest. "Sure you are. 100 percent nuts! What were you thinking?"
"Diana's right! Eric, you could've been killed out there, and none of us would even know what had happened," Hank said.
"Hey!" Eric protested, raising his hands defensively. "I said quit hovering, not 'start picking on me'!" He picked up his clothes and armor from the chair where they were lying, grateful that he hadn't been wearing them in the battle. He stared at Diana pointedly until she took the hint and turned her back while he got dressed. "So..." he said, voice muffled briefly as he pulled the heavy chainmail shirt over his head, "what's happening in the battle?"
"We're winning!" Bobby said. "After you whacked that demon-thingy, the orcs got totally freaked out. We've been seeing some of them sneak away all day."
"Maybe we can even get out to start looking for Sheila later tonight," Hank added.
"Maybe I can save you the trouble." They all turned to stare as a shimmer in the air resolved itself into Sheila's cloaked form.
"SHEILA!" they all yelled in unison and nearly fell over each other trying to reach her.
"How did you get away? Are you okay? You're bleeding!"
"HEY!" Hank shouted finally. Everyone turned to look at him in surprise. "Let's give her some air, guys. Come on, Sheila, you'd better sit down. You don't look too good..."
She shook her head. "I can rest later, guys. I've got to see the Queen -- there's some information she's got to know, right away!"
Eric eyed her doubtfully. "Why do I get the feeling this isn't going to be good news?"
* * *
Sheila stood in the shadows of the gate tower, invisible in the folds of her cloak, and watched the Queen and her councillors gather on the walkway over the gates to the city, beneath the white flag that had just been sent up. Even though she still ached all over and her friends were back at the castle, she felt compelled to watch the results of her news play out. She worried her lower lip, wondering whether she'd done more harm than good to the city by telling them about the second army. It's got to be better if they surrender than if they fight until Venger crushes them and then takes the city, she tried to convince herself. But she'd seen the Queen's face, bleak and hopeless, after the decision to surrender had been made, and it was hard to believe that there really was no better way.
A neigh caught her attention, and she looked up to see Venger's steed come galloping down from the clouds. Even though she knew she was invisible, a chill ran along her skin despite the new warm tunic and leggings that the Queen's servants had given her. She drew further back against the stone, pulling the cloak around herself more tightly.
"You have raised a flag of truce," Venger's voice rolled over the battlefield as he faced the Queen, "but you already know my terms. I shall grant you one last opportunity -- surrender, or your city shall pay the price for your defiance."
The Queen stepped forward, her back a rigid line as she looked towards the conqueror. "If we surrender, what guarantee have we of your mercy for the people of our city?" she demanded.
Sheila could see Venger's twisting smile. "The best guarantee, Queen Zanora -- my own self-interest. I have no interest in putting down uprisings here for the next century. Surrender, and not another drop of Mirunorian blood shall be shed. Continue to resist," his voice darkened, "and the streets of your city will run red with it."
The Queen bowed her head and remained silent for a long moment. "We will consider your terms again," she said eventually.
"Consider briefly," Venger said. "My patience is short. You may have until the first sun sets." He turned the nightmare and descended to his army's ranks. Sheila quickly lost sight of him among the milling soldiers.
The Queen waved her hand at the page standing by the flagpole, and the white flag was brought down. She remained standing on the walkway a few moments more, then turned and slowly walked down the stairs with her advisors, to the coach that waited to take them back to the castle. Eyes stinging, Sheila watched her go, rubbing her forearms against the faint chill in the air, then went down the stairs herself.
The city streets were almost empty, the few people on the streets either in the uniforms of the city guard or hurrying with downcast eyes. Even the houses seemed hushed, windows shuttered and curtains drawn, with only a few splinters of light peeking out from inside. The suns were low, casting long, spiky shadows over the streets. Sheila lowered her hood and walked slowly down the middle of the road, trying to piece together her feelings. The Queen was going to surrender, she was sure of that. And if not...well, either way, Venger would soon be marching in through the gates to claim the city. And everything in it.
A shudder ran through her, and she stopped by a fountain to splash a little of the cold water on her face. Beneath the lingering aches, her body remembered pleasure and power, and the thrill of holding that power leashed in herself. The tingling of magic was gone, but she still felt like a stranger in her own skin. Could that really have been her, crying out with pleasure, caressing, welcoming... She turned and sat on the fountain's edge and closed her eyes, hands clenched on the cold marble.
"Sheila!" She looked up to see Hank jogging down the street towards her. "Glad I found you," he said, breathing a little hard. "We've got to get back to the palace. The Queen's decided to surrender, but she's going to hold out until the last minute to give us a chance to get out of here."
"Out of here? How?"
"There's some kind of emergency portal in a chamber beneath the palace," Hank explained. "The Queen says we can use it to get past the army. Come on!"
* * *
Eric slumped against the wall in the Portal Room, staring down at his feet. The light from the oval portal hanging in midair danced over his polished greaves in what he personally thought was a mocking sort of way.
"Why so glum?" Diana nudged him with an elbow. "I thought you'd be happy. We're finally going to get back to looking for the Silver Pool."
He looked over at her. "You don't have a problem with running out on these people and letting Venger march in and take over the place?"
She turned to stare at him. "Let me get this straight -- you want to stay here and fight to certain death instead of going home? Okay, where's the pod?"
"Hey, it's kind of annoying to have them just give the city away after I risked my neck out there fighting the creature from the Black Lagoon!" Eric said defensively.
"Come on, Eric," Presto said, coming over to join them. "The Queen decided to surrender -- it's not like we're running out on them. And if we did stay here, Venger would just capture us and take our weapons. Then he'd really be unstoppable. We've got to leave."
"I know, I know! But I don't have to like it." Eric sighed and pushed away from the wall, wandering over to the portal and staring into the light. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Presto and Diana exchange a shrug. This just isn't right! They shouldn't be surrendering to Venger, and we should be helping them find another way. I just...can't think of one. He scuffed the heel of his boot against the floor in frustration.
"Do not blame yourself," a quiet, oddly familiar voice said behind him. He turned to see an older woman in grey robes watching him.
"Do I know you?" he asked.
She smiled. "I am Canla."
"Hey, you're the one who healed me." Eric almost held out a hand in greeting, then remembered the heavy gauntlets he wore and let his arm fall. "Uh, nice to meet you. Thanks for saving my neck."
"Thank the High Lord, Cavalier," she said. "He gives healing where He wishes. But I have not come for your thanks, but to warn you."
"About what?" Eric said, a little alarmed. "Is this thing not safe or something?" He jerked a thumb at the portal entrance.
"No, it is quite safe," she said. "That is not the kind of warning I bring." She paused and looked at him steadily, a little furrow between her eyebrows.
"So...what's the warning?" he prompted.
"The High Lord's grace has been with you," she said finally. "I hope that it will always be with you. But remember this -- we are called to serve others, not to be served."
Eric waited, but she seemed to have finished. "Right. I'll keep that in mind," he said awkwardly, not really knowing what to say.
She nodded, apparently satisfied. "Good. The High Lord's blessing be with you and your friends on your journey."
"Same to you guys," Eric said. "You're going to need it with Horn-head running the place," he added.
She shook her head. "That we will. But a day may come when Mirunor is free again."
"I sure hope so," Eric started, but the opening of the door interrupted him.
Hank and Sheila came in, out of breath. "The first sun's already setting," Hank said. "The Queen's going to the gates to let Venger in. We've got to go now."
Canla nodded and walked to the portal, holding her hands up in front of it, fingers outstretched. Shimmering ripples spread out through the silver light, and as they cleared, an image took shape -- an empty field, rock-strewn and overgrown, with slate-blue crags looming behind it. She stepped away from the portal. "I have set the portal to take you to the High Ridge. It is not far from the city -- you can still see Mirunor from there. But it is beyond the foothills of the Silent Mountains, and I do not think Venger will have troops there. When you have gone through, I will direct it elsewhere, so Venger cannot follow you."
"Thanks, Sister Canla," Hank said. "Come on, guys, let's go!"
* * *
The air had the bite of the mountains in it, crisp and fragrant with pine and snow. By silent agreement, they all sat down in the field and just enjoyed the clean coldness of it, glad to be out of the stifled city. Uni nibbled the gorse while they shared the ration bars the Queen's people had given them and drank cupped handfuls of water from the small brook that ran through the field and tried not to watch as the distant swirl of Venger's army curled around the city walls and sent trailers through the city gates.
"I hope the Queen will be okay." Sheila hugged her knees and pulled blades of grass from the ground, careful to keep her eyes turned away from the south, where the city lay under the sinking suns.
"I wish she'd come with us. We could have gotten her to safety," Hank said.
"Look guys, let's not dwell on it, okay?" Diana said. "There's nothing more we can do, and it'll just make us miserable. How about we get started looking for the Silver Pool again?"
"Dungeon Master said that we would find it in the gateway to the Silent Mountains," Presto said. "And those are the mountains. So it's got to be around here somewhere."
Hank climbed to his feet. "Right. And we're not going to find it by sitting around -- not to mention that this would be a pretty cold spot to spend the night." He pointed to a small trail leading into the thin forest surrounding the field. "That looks like a hunters' trail. Maybe we can find someone who can help us."
They followed the trail, soon led onwards by the rhythmic sound of an axe chopping wood. The trail widened into a clearing with a small cottage at one side. A tall, bearded man stood by his chopping block with a large axe leaning on his shoulder. "Aye, and what brings you by?" he asked sharply.
Hank stepped forward, holding his hands out peaceably. "Sorry to bother you -- we're looking for the Silver Pool," he said. "It's supposed to be somewhere near here. Could you point us in the right direction?"
The woodcutter relaxed a fraction and rubbed his brow. "Can't say as I've ever heard of it. There are a lot of lakes and ponds near here, and I suppose as some of them may have names."
"It's not exactly a pool," Sheila explained. "It's a portal. We need to use it to get home."
"It's supposed to be in the gateway to the Silent Mountains," Diana put in. "Do you know where that is?"
"Ah, well, that's different. That'd be the Silver City," he said. "It's down two, maybe three miles from here. A few hours' walk south, that's all."
"South?" Hank looked puzzled. "I didn't see any other cities near Mirunor."
"No, no, no, no-- don't tell me." Eric closed his eyes and pushed his hands out at thin air
"Mirunor is the Silver City," the woodcutter said after a brief, puzzled glance at Eric. "And aye, I have heard tell that there's a magic door of some kind there in the castle."
"What?" Five voices exclaimed in agonized chorus.
"I told you not to tell me," Eric groaned, turning to bang his head against a tree.
Diana smacked her forehead. "I can't believe it! We were there! We even used the damn thing!"
"Oh, I can believe it," Presto sighed. "It's just our luck."
"But it's still there! Why can't we go back and use it again?" Bobby said.
"In case you've forgotten why we left in the first place, kid, the transvestite from Hell is in charge there now," Eric snapped. "But hey, any time you feel like wading through five bazillion orcs, go right ahead."
"Hey, we could do it!" Bobby argued.
"Bobby..." Sheila said, reaching out to him, her heart aching at the anger in his voice.
"We could! Hank, tell him!" Bobby demanded, his voice wobbling.
Hank's shoulders slumped. "I...I'm sorry, Bobby. But I don't see how we can."
Bobby stared at him, his hands clenching into impotent fists for a moment, then he ran over to Uni and hugged her tight, burying his face in her mane. The little unicorn nuzzled his shoulder gently.
Hank sighed heavily and rubbed his forehead. "We'd better move on and find someplace to sleep. Maybe Dungeon Master will show up tomorrow and tell us where to go next."
"There's a loft in the stable," said a new voice. They turned to see a woman standing in the doorway of the hut, wiping her hands on her apron. "You children go on and make up some beds there. I'll set dinner on."
"Oh, we couldn't impose," Sheila said, thinking of the small cottage and the homespun clothes the couple wore and how much of a burden six hungry mouths would be.
"Not a word of it," the woman said. "I have a boy gone west to Greymark to make his way. I hope if he were lost on his way home, some goodwife would give him a place to sleep."
"If there's something we could do to help you," Hank offered.
"Go on like Dara's told you, then you lads can help me put up the stock for the night and load the cart for tomorrow's load," the woodcutter said.
"Well...then thank you," Hank said, his voice betraying his relief. Heartened by the promise of a hot meal and a roof over their heads for once, they trooped behind the cottage to the warm stables, climbing up into the hay-strewn loft and started the familiar work of putting another failed attempt to get home behind them.
* * *
General Terena stared at the cringing orc in displeasure. "Stop sniveling," she ordered. "If they are gone, they are gone."
"But...the Master will be angry," the orc whined.
She restrained herself from kicking the fool with some effort. "You're reassigned," she said flatly. "Go report to the camp commander outside the city and have him find something for you to do." The orc gaped at her dumbly for a moment until her hand lifted towards the sword hilt strapped behind her left shoulder. "Do I need to tell you again?" The orc fled, leaving her alone in the Great Hall except for the scurrying servants, who were shifting furniture and valuables around in the wake of the sudden change in ownership. She squared her shoulders and pushed the irritation from her mind. There were more important things to deal with than the cowardice of a useless orc.
Taking two steps at a time, she went up the curving staircase to the master quarters, where the flare of light indicated magic at work. One of the more difficult tasks she'd faced since entering Venger's service had been adjusting to the archmage's profligate use of sorcery. And his piss-poor excuses for ground troops, she thought. Fortunately, the latter could be changed. After becoming general, she'd sent a call back to the tribes of her southern homeland, and with the wealth that Venger could offer, the army she intended to be commander of would soon be worth commanding.
The chamber that had formerly been the Queen's was utterly transformed from its original state as a relatively ordinary if opulent room. She reached back to touch the hilts of her swords in an automatic, superstitious gesture as she glanced around at the newly-enlarged doorway and raised ceiling. All of this, in barely two candlemarks. She shook her head.
The architect of the transformation stood in the center of the room, his hand still alight with sorcerous energy as he crafted new furnishings to accomodate his height. "Yes, General?" he demanded.
"The youngling adventurers aren't about," she said. "There's a portal in the lower levels of the castle -- they likely used it to escape."
He said nothing for a moment, his face rigid, then nodded curtly. "Seal off the portal. I want no further departures."
"Already done, Lord," she said, careful to let none of her own surprise at his muted reaction show. "What of the false second army?"
"I see no reason to disabuse the city of the inevitability of their defeat. Have the real squadron of troops march past the city and down the Great Southern Road. The 'legions' will copy their movements until they enter Cardren Forest. Then I will release the illusion spell."
"That will be two days' march," she observed.
"It poses no great difficulty." He turned to the chamber's large window and gazed out on the city lying below. "The strategy worked admirably," he said. "It would have taken months to break the city in a siege with the real troops. Letting the Thief bring them word of the second army was even more effective than parading the illusionary troops before them would have been."
"She proved tougher than I expected," Terena said. "I confess, Lord, I didn't think she'd manage to escape, even though you left the magical cloak out for her to take."
The archmage was silent for a moment. "Yes," he said finally. "She was...surprising." He turned away from the window and demanded, "Is the city secure?"
She nodded. "A few of the Guard offered resistance, but nothing that couldn't be handled. I have the Queen under guard in the north wing. Her advisors are all being kept in their homes, unharmed, as you commanded."
"Good. I will see which of them proves most amenable to becoming my governor here. A familiar face will go far to keeping the city subdued."
"As you say, Lord."
The archmage fixed her with his vermilion gaze. "You have served me well, General. If you wish the governorship, it is yours."
"I'd sooner fall on my sword," she said bluntly.
His mouth twitched in a rare gesture of amusement. "Then what reward do you desire?"
She met his eyes. "Command."
"A generalcy is not enough?"
"Give me free rein with the army, and I'll conquer every city between here and the ocean for you in five years."
He studied her, then smiled thinly. "Do it in three."
* The End *