A Midwestern Yankee... (Chapter 14)

Chapter Fourteen

Throwing the Bait

              After a great deal of haggling, Kathy had managed on their second day back in the city to purchase a bow formerly belonging to a member of the Rangers for only seventy drakes. The merchant had been asking for ninety, as the ironwood bow had belonged to Anson Felsh, an elite archer well-known across the kingdom for his prowess. When Kathy held the bow, she saw into its history, and for a wonder discovered that the merchant was telling the truth.

              Yet she also saw in its storied past that the bow had been stolen and fenced to this very merchant by a skilled fellin thief some three years earlier. Nobody had raised a stink, Felsh being dead and all, but when she mentioned that hot merchandise should never go for full price, he'd been willing to drop twenty drakes from the asking price. It carved deep into the money Daggeuro had given her, but Kathy wanted a ranged combat option in the event they got into a scuffle.

              Since that day, she'd been relaxing, taking in the sights and sounds. The kennin High Knight gave her more money, commenting that she'd been wise to make such a purchase, though he clearly didn't approve of her blackmailing the merchant. "At least I wasn't there to witness it," he said.

              Otherwise, Kathy spent much of her time at the city's ancient library, filling her magical tablet with tomes of information and academic musings. When she walked, she read, peering up frequently to make sure she didn't collide with anyone. There were a few who asked her what she was looking at, and though she tried to explain it, only one owl-man faerie took the time to ask questions and clarify his understanding.

              "That's very impressive," the owl-man said. "If you're willing to part with it, I'd happily give you three soverigns for it."

              "I'm afraid it isn't for sale," she said. The owl hooted with good-natured mirth.

              "Ah, how rare! A human with the wisdom to know that a repository of knowledge is worth so much more! Very well, a proposal," he said, reaching into his own cloak. He pulled out a small brass coin, presenting it to her. "If you should ever make another such device, tap this to your forehead and drop it upon the ground. It shall summon me to your side, that I might purchase the new one from you."

              Kathy thanked him for the coin, promising to think about it. She thought it highly unlikely she'd be making another tablet, but if she needed the money in a hurry, it might be a good option to have. She went on her way, back to enjoying the life of the city.

              Now, four days after their return, the trio once more sat in the little café they'd taken to as their meeting place by unspoken agreement. Kathy had arrived first, early enough to catch Vernin the cyclops on his way to work at Prime Forge. They sat together on the couch and shared some idle small talk before he wished her well and departed. Baron Dimanche and Daggeuro came in together fifteen minutes later, as she finished an interesting treatise on the Biclaw War.

              "Miss Kathy, I've got to say, a lot of members of the Royal Guard have been asking about that thing," Daggeuro said, sitting on the opposite end of the couch from her. "Apparently your talents are far more rare than we could have guessed. There are very few things that all members of the Guard agree upon, and that's one."

              "I presume we are departing today or tomorrow, given de urgency of your messengers," Dimanche chimed in across from them. This day he wore his canary yellow ensemble with black top hat.

              "Today," Daggeuro said. He sipped at his coffee slowly, savouring it. "This afternoon, at two of the clock, we'll meet at the southern gates. Word has been thoroughly spread among the Watch and the Rangers."

              "Um, what about after, uh, you know," Kathy said quietly.

              "King Ovin has seen to it," Daggeuro assured her with a sly grin. "For security purposes, of course." Daggeuro set his coffee aside a moment, leaning forward so that he didn't have to raise his voice for Dimanche's benefit. "I believe our going will get rough once we're well along our way. The phenomenon of specters becoming more aggressive has spread throughout ours and the neighboring kingdoms. King Ovin and several scholars believe it is the result of a magical fluctuation in the kalpas."

              "I'm inclined to agree wid' deir assessment," said the Baron. "Dere have been disturbances in de shadowpaths as well. But do any of dem have a hint as to what's causing de fluctuations?"

              "None thus far," said Daggeuro. "But that's none of our business. For now, we only need to be vigilant against specters, of all kinds. Now, each of you no doubt has some last-minute business to tend to, as I do. Let us to it." He finished his coffee in one quick go, set the cup down, then left. Kathy and Dimanche exchanged a curious look.

              "Something's wrong," she said evenly.

              "Yes."

              "But he doesn't feel he should say anything."

              "Yes."

              "Do you know what he's keeping from us, Baron?"

              "If I did, it wouldn't be bot' of us sitting here wondering," he replied. "Perhaps it's somet'ing to do wit' de tolos surrounding de Temple." Kathy took up her pad and searched through the creature compendium file for the entry on tolos. The associated picture showed a short, bulbous creature of inky black, with a spherical body and head, and cartoonish, rounded feet and arms. Two stalk-like antennae stood off of its head, over two round, yellow eyes. It looked almost harmless, but she knew better than to trust looks alone.

              According to the compendium, tolos were creatures of pure, physically manifested profane magic. They fed upon pain and fear, and their amorphous bodies could bend and flow into various shapes for different functions in hunting and combat. Some, referred to simply as megas, were the size of wagons, and could take on the countenance and abilities of small dragons. They typically lived in groups of ten to fifteen, referred to as a swarm.

              "Not very nice critters," she said, looking up. But by the time she'd finished reading, the voodoo man was already gone.

              Daggeuro signed the scroll with a hasty flourish, set aside the quill, and went over to the window, peering out over the city, hands clasped behind his back. Even sheathed, the twin blades Boon and Bane hummed through him, alignment perfectly balanced within the strange soul of their wielder. Always balance must be kept, he thought, the ongoing mantra he'd used upon himself to keep chaos at bay. Always.

              The kennin High Knight knew that the days ahead would be fraught with battle, both against specters and his fellow faerie. Chaos seeped into the world he knew, overbalanced in favor of the profane, the dark. Luga and his current madness was but a symptom of a much larger problem, he knew, but what eluded him was the core cause of that disruption.

              "One thing at a time, old boy," he muttered to himself.

              "What's that, my lordship," asked Percival, the gotrin manservant standing by the office door. Daggeuro flinched, turned toward the wig-wearing butler.

              "Oh, sorry Percy. Woolgathering aloud, I suppose. The ink should be dry. Please deliver it to his majesty as soon as you can."

              "Rather bad timing if I say so, sire," said the manservant with a haughty air, rolling the scroll up and tucking it into his waistcoat pocket. "There's already many Royal Guard in absentia from the capital. Why ever would Lady Barnick chose now to resign in favor of the Watch?"

              "Her reasons are her own, Percy," Daggeuro said, somewhat more defensively than he'd intended. He caught the barest hint of a knowing smirk, quickly removed from the gotrin's face. "T'is best not to question a lady in good standing what her motivations are."

              "Of course, sire," Percival said, bowing before he left. Daggeuro looked out the window once more.  I hope to return safely from this trip, Selena, to make your motives worthwhile.

              Foruk ran a whetstone over the bladed ridges on his mace, honing their edges to a razor sharpness, the repetitive snick, snick, snick hypnotizing. "Dance the waltz of carnage, friends, dance it two by two," he muttered, staring off into the bog.

              After informing master Luga of his spy's report, the troll vindicator had been ready to go retrieve the Great Door fragment right away. But the shade had ordered him to hold back. "We don't want the High Knight getting word too far in advance of his failure," Luga cautioned. "Let them march halfway to the fellins' territory before snatching it. The longer they're stuck out in the wilds, the better."

              There was another reason for the deay as well, he knew. Once the troll got the fragment from the cat people, the final fragment remained. Taking it would require laying siege to and invading the capital itself. Luga wanted his field marshall around to get the troops ready. The nearby village had emptied, every goblin and gotrin and orc living there having come to the camp to prepare to march on the capital once the fourth fragment was within Luga's hands.

              Snick, snick. Foruk looked around, spotting the taomen. She looked less spectral this day, more human. Since the master had taken to being around her less frequently, and was no longer mating with her, Casey had regained some essential vitality, a quality of livliness. She'd bathed and donned a clean black mourning dress with lace frill on the sleves and hem. She held a black umbrella crooked in the hollow of her shoulder, looking around at the throngs of servants to the shade.

              "Pray tell, Casey," he said, eyes back on his mace, whetstone sliding. "What ails thee?" The taomen took a few steps toward Foruk, waving her free hand outward. A set of dry plant roots and vines emerged from the ground, forming a short chair for her to sit in. She used the same free hand to smooth her dress down over her knees, then had a thin vine take her umbrella, holding it up over her.

              "It's the wraiths," she said softly. "Specifically the one called Swarm. I witnessed it feeding last night."

              "Oh?"

              "The master wanted to see its abilities, and it needed sustenance. He set it upon a group of goblins and an orc who were in hock with him. Watching it flow over them, crawling into their armor, their clothes, boring into their bodies in a bloody cloud of shrieks," she said, shaking her head. "They died badly, Foruk. When the Swarm was finished, all that remained was wet bones in armor and stained clothes."

              The troll ceased sharpening the blades on his mace head, looking not at it, but beyond. His mind's eye saw the raven-man, Quoth, standing in Luga's pocket realm, silver microphone in hand. Yes, the wraiths were bad, unnatural things that did not belong in the Ether Plane, but Quoth had been unholy.

              "We are fortunate their master didn't stick around," he said, setting the mace aside. "I believe, however, that something else troubles you. Speak plain with me, for my patience for subtlety is not exactly abundant."

              "It's this Sir Daggeuro, and my source," she said. "I fear we may underestimate them and paya heavy toll for it."

              "Ah, them," said Foruk, now on more comfortable ground. "You are right to worry about Sir Daggeuro, for he is the most capable swordsman in all the lands. The kennin are one of the greatest warrior races in all of Ether, and there are five Honored Masters to their kind. There is the Bowmaster, the Spearmaster, the Axemaster, the Fistmaster, and the Blademaster. Sir Daggeuro is the current Blademaster of kennin."

              "I understand he also wields legendary swords, twins called Boon and Bane. What do you know of them?"

              "Precious little," Foruk admitted. "I know this- Boon is forged of pure manifested sacred power, while Bane is of profane power. The master has tried many times to have Bane stolen for himself. Sir Daggeuro had slain every agent sent for it."

              "Ah," said Casey, fidgeting in her makeshift seat. She used a small dagger to pick dirt out from under her nails as she spoke again. "The men you're taking with you south, are they capable?"

              "Among the very best," Foruk said.

              "What will they do against my source?"

              "The master has ordered them to subdue her and bring her here alive, if we should run into them." Casey whipped her head up, dagger stilled.

              "If? What do you mean, if?"

              "I mean we are being transported via ritual ahead of them, that we may get the fragment and return undetected. We are not going to pick a fight." Casey sheathed her dagger and sprang from the magically crafted chair, which immediately began to rot. Her hair began floating about as though she were underwater, eyes glowing crimson. After a moment, she seemed to deflate, returned to normal.

              "Sorry. I just, I don't like knowing she's out there. I won't feel whole unless she's dead. I'm just a copy," she said, shuffling away. Foruk made a mental note to address the taomen's mental state with Luga when next they spoke. With the wraiths already presenting a threat within the ranks, they didn't need a potent wielder like Casey goin haywire to add to their worries.

              He would be glad to be on the march when they retrieved the fourth fragment. At least then he would be busy, instead of thinking about such things.

              Kathy saw Baron Dimanche standing by the southern gates ahead, and she took a moment to wonder where, in that lone small bag of his, he kept his magnificent wardrobe. She supposed that as a spirit, he would have a bag much like Daggeuro's, somehow connected to a much larger space back on his home Plane. She had taken the time after leaving the café to stop by a small, out-of-the-way hobby shop she'd discovered a few days before, purchasing three items and stowing them away safely in cardboard tubes in her bag. She couldn't be certain, but she thought they'd come in handy.

              She gave Dimanche a little wave when she was about ten feet away, which he returned with a grin. "Miss Kathy, did you finish preparations?"

              "I did," she said. "You?"

              "For de most part. De last detail requires Sir Daggeuro be here." Kathy took a spot next to him against the towering outer city wall, leaning back on the stone. She felt a queer vibration coming through the stone, and stepped away to face it, squinting at the wall. Dimanche chuckled. "Dat's de barrier magic being prepared."

              "Barrier?"

              "Yes, child, barrier. Dere's a group of six skilled defense-magic specialists who, in a time of war, will channel deir power directly into de walls of de city, creating a protective dome around it. King Ovin expects a siege to begin shortly after our mission is complete, succeed or fail."

              Kathy thought quickly on the little bit of Celia's history she'd learned while reading the stored tomes on her tablet. "The food stores, how long would they last right now?"

              "Two weeks, unless travelers can be evacuated," Dimanche said. "Ten days at current population, at full rations. On short rations, sixteen days wit' current numbahs." Dimanche's attention drew away. "Ah, our company is complete. Hail, Sir Daggeuro," he called.

              The kennin High Knight came fully armored, cloak flapping around him, bag slung across his back. He moved with purpose, clearly eager to be off. When he was a few yards away, he pitched some kind of short, red metal tube to Dimanche, who then rammed it into the ground at the base of the city wall.

              "Now our preparations are truly complete," Dimanche said to Kathy. "Our way back inside if de barrier is up prior to our return." Kathy didn't ask questions; at this point, she'd come to accept that some things needed no exposition. With Daggeuro in the lead, they struck out southward along the trade road, away from Celia and safety.

              "They just left an hour ago," said corporal Standish, holding the mirror at arm's length. He saw Foruk's ugly, craggy visage on the other side of the magical connection, surrounded by swampland. "I've got nothing else really to report for right now."

              "That's just as well," said Foruk. "What of the other information I inquired about?"

              "There is a way through, by way of an old secret messenger tunnel that goes from the city's west side out onto the plains. It's sealed from the outside, some kind of trap magic, but I figure you can work through it."

              "Where exactly is it?" Standish gave him several landmarks to locate the secret tunnel by. "Very good. A bonus payment will be arranged to arrive in a few hours, Standish. The master rewards his allies, always." The mirror clouded over, then cleared to reveal a simple reflection. Standish put the mirror away in his dresser, and laid back on his bed with a book in hand, opting to relax.

              He didn't have to work that day, so why not just enjoy a little time to himself? After all, even traitors had to have some r&r.

              The first specters to ambush the trio came out of seemingly nowhere, hulking ape-like creatures that shrieked like banshees as they swung scythe-like arms at them. Daggeuro barely blocked two incoming blows, while Kathy rolled away from one beast and Baron Dimanche used his staff to bat three of the beasts away, rolling fire at the ends of his weapon.

              Kathy used the axe to take off one arm on her nearest assailant, following through to finish the monster off quickly. Another one kicked her in the ribs, sending her sprawling in the dirt. Only the enchanted belt and her swiftly hardened cloak kept her from broken bones.

              She had distance now, though, so she clipped the axe in its holster and drew out her bow and an arrow from her newly purchased quiver. She took aim as one of the ape-things charged Dimanche from his left flank, and let fly, sending the arrow right into the back of its head.

              The battle ended quickly after that, Dimanche burning three to ashes, Daggeuro cutting down a total of six of the beasts. He was caked in their gore, but he muttered a simple spell which shook off all of the blood and spatter into a ring around him. "Everyone all right," he asked.

              "Just fine," said Dimanche.

              "Doing okay," said Kathy, retrieving her arrow with a grunt. She looked at the shaft, judged it true enough to fire again, and clipped it to a notch parallel to the string. "I think I like this better."

              "Without armor or attack magic, it's your best bet," Daggeuro said. He smiled suddenly, a handsome expression when he wore it. "Hmm, balance."

              "What," asked Dimanche.

              "Swordsman, spell wielder, archer. Balance," Daggeuro said, leading the way once more. He kept Boon and Bane drawn now, each streaming faint mist behind it. Kathy tried to stay mostly on his right, so that if any of that power touched her, it came from Boon, the sacred blade. Dimanche, as one might expect, stayed left, in the path of Bane.

              Two hours later they were set upon again, this time by a lone specter. Kathy, upon seeing it charging uphill at them from the west, thought to herself, chimera. The wide lion's body and head, flanked by one of a small dragon and one of a goat, caused a tremor in her legs as she took aim with her bow.

              A footsoldier might have aimed for one of the heads or the broad, easy to hit chest. But the bow's previous owner had been an expert marksman and a Ranger, experienced in handling specters of many varieties. She aimed low, releasing, and nearly hooted when the arrow struck home in the beast's front left leg, toppling it into a long skid.

              Dimanche hurled green fire downhill at the felled specter, finishing the job. There didn't seem to be anything they wouldn't be able to handle. Kathy, Dimanche and Daggeuro carried onward, continuing to bait the hook in hopes that Luga would bite.

              Luga inspected the group he would be sending the next day via ritual to a small area north of the Menchis Clan fellins and their villages. Foruk had chosen well, for all six men and both women were hardened veterans, experienced killers. None would shy from a fight.

              "Foruk, with me," he said finally, leading the troll vindicator away from the troop. As they walked to the edge of the camp, he spoke. "I have come to understand that you've arranged for a group of our agents to investigate the increased specter activity in the Ether. You may tell them to stop."

              "My lord?"

              "I know why they've grown restless. It's the Great Door." Foruk, nonplussed, had to jerk forward to catch up after standing shock-still a moment. "You seem surprised," Luga said.

              "Master, the Great Door is not complete. How can it be causing disruptions of this sort?"

              "It actually began a few years ago," Luga said, hands clasped behind his back. "Though it is fragmented, the power of the Great Door has never been entirely silent. Small drips of that power have been leaking out, until a large enough pool forms and spreads outward. Since joining the first two fragments together, the disruptions have been more potent."

              "And when it is complete? What then?"

              "Then the power will be whole again, contained within the Great Door," Luga replied. "So, we don't want a long siege of Celia. We're used to the specters here in the marshlands, but many of our men aren't accustomed to facing plains roaming creatures."

              "Giant scorpions and the like?"

              "Chimeras and manticores," Luga said, stopping on the edge of camp.

              "I have enough bags of salt, master," said Foruk. "I'll need plenty of volunteer blood, though."

              "What?"

              "Master, I can form a ring of protection around the siege camp once we arrive outside of Celia's walls."

              "Really? I've never been able to," said the shade, pursing his lips.

              "As a vindicator, I have access to many forms of magic most would not expect," Foruk said with a shrug. "You have only ever really seen me wield magic in combat, master Luga. As for tapping into the ritual of wyldfire, we were both more or less just wondering if it would work. Speaking of that," said Foruk, cracking his knuckles. "I believe that will prove to be our way of undoing the seal on the entrance to Celia's secret tunnel."

              "Well, it was either that or trying to focus wyldfire on the city's barrier," said Luga. "I don't think that would work, though, not a lone casting. It would take three or four rapid waves to bring that thing down. Better we now know of that second way in."

              Together, they turned back and slowly ambled toward the shade's command tent. When they arrived there, Foruk saluted his master. "We'll be ready to depart on the morrow, then."

              "Remember to snap the returner to get back," Luga said, handing over a thin, short yellow rod of wood. "A good day, Foruk."

              "A good day, sir."

              Afternoon was pulling down, evening drawing near, as Kathy sat with her legs stretched out before her, a spare leather belt gripped between her teeth as Daggeuro dipped his dagger into her wound. They'd come upon a cloud of white-and-purple striped bees the size of her fists, feasting on a dead buffalo, some twenty minutes earlier. The insect-like specters had swarmed the trio, biting with oversized teeth and stabbing with their stingers.

              Daggeuro's armor and speed had kept him protected, while the Baron conjured a bubble of water around himself which drowned the creatures on contact. Kathy had managed to stay distanced and lob several arrows into the creatures, but when only two remained alive, one had swooped low while she took aim at the other, burying its stinger in her thigh.

              Now she groaned into the belt as she bit down, the kennin's knife prying the last of the barbs free. With his claws he daintily plucked out the stinger, dropping it on the grass. He then reached into his bag and withdrew a dark green potion vial, uncorking it and pouring the fluid into her leg. Kathy bit down hard, muffling her screams as the potion took hold and restored her body.

              Finally she let herself flop back onto the ground, pulling the belt free from her teeth. "Jesus that hurts," she groaned. "I recognized those things from the compendium. Reelees. Thankfully, they're not venemous." She tilted her head left, looking up at Baron Dimanche. "Does it look like it's going to scar?"

              "Yes," the voodoo man said, though he at least wasn't smiling or making any rude commentary for a change. "Not to worry, dough. I have a salve you can begin applying tomorrow dat will minimize it."

              "I shouldn't really be worrying about it, but I happen to like my legs," she said, lying back. "They've often been complimented as the sexiest part of me."

              "Den I should avoid being struck in de face," Dimanche said, running fingers down his cheek. "Who could resist dis handsome mug?"

              "Any woman with half a brain or taste," Daggeuro muttered, a wry smile on his face. She chuckled appreciatively, always surprised by his infrequent shows of humor. "Come on, Baron, help me stand her up. We need to cover a little more ground today."

              A little more ground turned out to be only half an hour's worth before the group made camp. They would be sleeping in their tents this night, but come the morning, they would all three gather in Daggeuro's tent and activate the sigils drawn within, which would send them far to the north, near the Temple of Korant.

              The original plan had called for the trio to find their way through the tolos surrounding the Temple, go inside, and retrieve the fragment for themselves. Baron Dimanche had made a new suggestion, however, which Daggeuro thought vastly superior. While they were safely well away from the tolos, Kathy would animate several of her figurines and send them into the Temple. At first Kathy had protested, saying she couldn't control her focus constructs from such a distance.

              "Dat's where I come in, dear child," the Baron said. "I can channel my own power into you, bend it so dat it allows you greater range. Dere will be a trade-off, howevah," he said, finger raised in a show of caution. "Afterwards, you will be extremely fatigued, unable to defend yourself for a while. We will have to protect you during dat recovery period."

              "Sounds like a fair trade to me," she said. The trio set up their camp and cook fire, Kathy making a simple but hearty stew for them. As the moon rose high and darkness swept the lands, they heard distant animal noises, but were undisturbed. Dimanche had used a bag of salt and a jar of snake blood to form a protective circle around them, warding away specters and their powers. Only the most powerful specters could disrupt the circle, and by then they'd all be awake and able to fight anyhow.

              Still, Daggeuro agreed to take first watch. Just before bedding down, Kathy scooted over to where he sat by the fire, and surprised herself and the kennin High Knight with a brief hug. "You've become a good friend, Dag," she said. "Thanks for getting that thing out of my leg." She patted him on the back and disappared into her tent then, off to sleep the sleep of the comforted.

              Members of the Watch were usually on the lookout for any sort of suspicious doorway exchanges in the dark of evening or night. As such, Travis Standish told the little black-clad goblin to meet him in the back yard of his squat family cottage. He fairly raced through the house, eager as a flea chasing a dog for its next home/meal combination.

              His bags sat in his room, the door locked, his worldly possessions all packed and ready to go. A driver would be delivering his horse and wagon at midnight, per his instructions (two sovereigns for the animal and wagon, another for the driver's forgetting the whole business), and with the rest of his earnings and bonus, he would be away. His letter of resignation had been delivered in the afternoon, accepted by a surprised lieutenant who wished him well on his treasure-hunting endeavors. Everything was in place for him to finally be able to start living a life free of his family.

              Travis slipped out into the back yard, making his way to the tool shed. A tap on his arm brought his attention to the goblin operative, holding a small red wooden box with a lock clasp on the front. The hook-nosed little man looked around conspicuously, then up at Travis. The elven man hadn't noticed in any of his meetings with this goblin the faint gray coloration of his eyes, which currently disturbed him.

              "I trust my bonus is in there," he said, indicating the box.

              "Aye, it is," said the goblin.

              "Do you have a key for me as well to open it?"

              "Nay, squabbot," the goblin snarled. "T'is enchanted to unlock when I'm two-hundred yards away. I'm being put on a new assignment, need to ensure I'm not noticed." He handed the box to Standish and cleared his throat. "So, are ye enjoying yer traitor's pay?"

              "I am no traitor," Standish snapped defensively. "I'm just a practical man trading knowledge for a better life."

              "Whatever helps you sleep at night," said the goblin, walking away. Standish slipped into the shed, setting the red box aside while he retrieved his loot box from under the floorboards. There came a 'click' from the red box, which he turned on his knees to lift open.

              As soon as the hinges squeaked up, the box opening, the ice magic trapped within exploded, spears of ice bursting out in every direction. Four rammed through Standish, one through his gut, one through his chest, one through his left arm, and lastly, one through his head, stabbing right through the middle of his face. He lived just long enough to think, Ah, the true wages of treachery are mine.