The Day Before
Kathy loosed another arrow, flexing her will as it traveled, making its course curve sharply right at the halfway point to the target. It landed just left of center, but she felt that showed promise. Combining the two aspects of her magic was taxing, but would possibly prove vital if Luga's forces breached the barrier.
She could wield the bow with the skill of its previous owner, and by manipulating the arrow itself, she could tie it to her will as she did with any inanimate object, giving it enhanced function. The effort had been hugely taxing on the first day she trained, but now, two days later, she had a strong handle on it. Her reserves of power had grown considerably.
She wondered during those three days how Tigger was doing, and how her friends and coworkers, her parents, were all getting on. By her own estimation she'd been in the Ether Plane for close to three weeks, which surely must have set off some sort of warning bell. Yet she'd been assured from the beginning that all was being taken care of back home. She tried not to dwell on it.
Kathy drew out one more arrow, and focused her mind upon it. She envisioned the arow stopping mid-flight, so that she could use her will to turn it before sending it on its course. She saw it in her mind's eye with perfect clarity. She then drew, fired, and yipped with glee when, halfway to the target, the arrow stopped.
"Very impressive," said Selena Barnick, approaching the archery range from the west. This small portion of the city's small park on the west end was reserved exclusively for Watch exercises, and as she still held an honorary rank, Kathy was taking advantage of its current disuse. The elven woman strode towards her with a smile, fairly glowing.
"Thank you," Kathy said, turning the arrow towards a different target and letting it go. It landed true to the bull's eye at an angle. "You look positively ecstatic, Selena."
"Lord Daggeuro has agreed to stay with me at my home for a while," Selena said. "It's going, um, very well," she said, blushing.
"Got laid, didn't you?" Barnick gasped, but couldn't contain her good humor.
"Why Miss Kathy! A lady never kisses and tells. Of course, I'm no lady, and it was grand I tell you," she gushed, starting them both to giggling. She didn't go into grotesque details, but spoke rather at length about the romantic date they enjoyed the previous evening, culminating in a night of passion she had never dared dream of. "You should see him today, he's like a renewed spirit," said Barnick.
"I can imagine," said Kathy. Movement behind Selena caught her eye, a stumpy gnome running across the fields toward them. "Hmm. What's this, then?" The pudgy little man finished his run panting, handing out an envelope to Kathy marked with her name in the kennin's handwriting. She opened the envelope and reviewed the single line writ on a small card; 'Cafe, meeting, ASAP.'
Selena looked it over. "Quite succinct. Listen, before you go, I have to ask," she began, suddenly awkward. "Has he shown you his pocket realm?"
"What? No, I didn't know he had one," Kathy said.
"You should ask him about it," Selena said, wistful. "It's a beautiful thing. I think you'd better understand him if you saw it." Kathy made a mental note to do just that, then excused herself for the meeting, bow strapped back in place.
Baron Dimanche scowled at the kennin, eyes narrowed. "You just love rubbing it in my face, don't you," said the voodoo spirit.
"I'm not rubbing anything in anyone's face," Daggeuro replied. He tapped one foot gamely on the floor, the rhythmic thump of his metal boot vibrating through the entire lower seating area. "You've every opportunity to avail yourself of the eligible women in this city."
"De kind of woman I want isn't easy to find in Celia," the Baron said.
"Well, the court frowns on prostitution, Baron. That doesn't mean they aren't there, just harder to find."
"Try nearly impossible," Dimanche said, snorting. "I found one woman two nights ago, but a Watch patrol turned down de street before I could finish negotiations on price."
"Don't be cheap next time," Daggeuro said, grinning.
"You wound me."
"If only I were allowed." The café door opened, bells tinkling, and in came Kathy, fetching herself a cappacino before settling on the couch opposite Daggeuro on his end. "You've got quite the twinkle in your eye," he said.
"Had a chat with Selena before your messenger showed up," said Kathy. She lifted her mug at him. "Congratulations are in order."
"Thank you," Daggeuro said, touching mugs with her.
"Oh to Hell wit' you bot'," muttered Dimanche. "Dere's a reason you called us here, yes? Or shall we snap a wet towel at your ass and give up a round of applause?"
"Easy does it," Daggeuro warned, sitting up straighter. "Luga's forces will be at the barrier tomorrow, around mid-morning. We have twenty-four hours remaining. The two spies we hadn't discovered before have been jailed, and curfew orders have been issued. Obviously you're both exempt."
"I thought we'd have a few more days," Kathy said quietly.
"They move under enchantments which enhance their speed and reduce their need for sleep," said Daggeuro. "There's no slowing them now. Ranger teams have harried them here and there, but king Ovin ordered a halt after the last encounter. Too many Rangers slain."
"We have known dey were coming for some time now," Dimanche pointed out. "Why de sudden urgency for a meeting?"
"There may be a weakness in the barrier we had not previously considered," Daggeuro said quietly. "Before the barrier went up around the city, king Ovin's great sages gave him counsel regarding a pair of creatures summoned to our world by means unknown, creatures serving Luga for the time being."
"I'm not from dis world either," said the Baron. "Neider is Kat'y. What's your point?"
"You and Miss Kathy are from Planes joined to this one," said Daggeuro. "Luga's summoned creatures are not. The barrier may not defend against their entry. We won't know for certain until they arrive."
"That's a downer," said Kathy. "What are these creatures like?"
"The sages weren't able to tell his majesty anything more than that they are otherworldly and potent. They also said that the creatures are mad, either driven insane by being brought here, or by their very nature. Luga may be wicked, profane to his very essence, but madness can be far more dangerous than evil."
The trio all sipped their drinks in contemplative quiet. The Baron seemed about to say something, thought better of it, let it drop. They all had some thinking to do, preparations to make. Daggeuro spoke his final words of warning.
"We will all three likely be separated if the barrier is breached. It is vital that we be able to contact one another. As such, I'm having the royal enchanter prepare linked earrings for each of us. Hold it and speak, the others will be able to hear. Obviously there will be moments when we cannot respond, but we should all three keep in contact."
"We aren't going out on anymore sojourns," Baron Dimanche pointed out casually. "Why remain attached to one anodder?"
"Because we create a balance," Kathy answered, looking each man in the eyes for a moment. "We started this conflict with Luga together, so we should see it through together. Is that about the gist of it," she asked, looking to Daggeuro. He nodded, finished his coffee, and departed swiftly. Kathy rose and walked over to Dimanche, patting him on the shoulder. "You know he's right."
"I know," he said with a sigh. "Dat's what burns my ass."
Luga gave Foruk's unit a quick once-over, particularly the Swarm. The wraith had, like its kin, been disturbingly silent during the entire march. There had been a bizarre absence two days before, but both creatures rejoined the army half a day later, both looking swollen and buzzing with energy. Luga made a mental note to look for signs of villages being sacked or massacred in that region later on, during the siege.
The Swarm now hung in a swirling cloud of gold-and-black insects to one side of Foruk's people. The troll vindicator had also fallen quiet, but this was normal; he usually did before a big battle. The importance of the task he was being saddled with also undoubtedly weighed on his mind.
There were only twenty assorted soldiers with him, the eight he'd taken before and twelve more. "My friend, this is where we part," the shade said. "Should we meet again soon, it will be inside of Celia, tearing into their guardians, pummeling them until king Ovin gives us what we want. Have you anything to set me on with, my longest-standing ally?"
"I do, though it is in my native tongue. I know you never learned it, but it loses something in translation. Would you hear it anyhow?" Luga smiled, a genuine, cheerful expression, so rare that Foruk thought he'd seen nothing quite so simultaneously heartwarming and bone chilling.
"I would, yes! Let us hear it!"
"Very well." Foruk cleared his throat. "Ak haru hetara vus tal butara. Ak vis peru tu, guaridae eturna. Mas, vekana pudane, ak filne, nus vuna ni pura. Vie, sen dietes wask uvan tu." He clapped Luga on the shoulder, grunted, and turned away, leading his unit due west. When they were half a mile away, Luga's main force on the march again, the shade turned his head toward Casey.
"Translation, please," he said simply.
"'I have loved you as a brother. I will die for you, protect you always. But time is a face on the water, my friend. From here on, I see you only in the distance. May the gods watch over you'. It was really a rather lovely little speech, if a bit fatalistic."
"What do you mean by that, Casey," Luga asked.
"He does not believe he will survive the coming battles, master. He believes he was saying farewell." There was an odd silence as they marched, leading the main force north along the main trade road. They had traveled well south of Celia in order to approach as two separate forces, one known, the other small and unnoticed. With luck, and the proper misdirection, Ovin's people wouldn't realize there was a second unit until it was in their midst, killing the divars holding up the barrier.
When finally Luga spoke, his words were soft, carried only to the taomen's ears. "You know, I think of all the things I'll be leaving behind when I pass through the Great Door, I'll miss him most."
Kathy knocked on the door three times before Daggeuro's voice called out, "It's open." She stepped into his official Watch office, closing the door behind her, then goggling at the sheer mountain of paperwork strewn about his desk. "Occupational hazard when war is about to start. Reports all get handed in at one time, especially from those officers who expect they're going to die. Come, give me a break from this," he said, gesturing to the visitor's chair.
"Actually, I'm here to ask you a favor," Kathy said.
"Selena said she'd visited your pocket realm," she began awkwardly. "She said I'd come to finish understanding you if I saw it. You know I trust you, Dag, but," she said, searching for the right words. He held up a hand to stay her.
"But you've seen me come off balance before," he supplied. "You wonder why I'm obsessed with balance. Well," he said, standing up. He waved his left hand at the wall of his office, and a tall, brilliantly white door with a golden handle appeared there. "Follow me." He opened that door, and Kathy followed him into darkness.
When the door clapped shut behind her, she yelped. Soon, however, lights overhead flared to life. They stood in a stone chamber, the left half of the room layered in vines and flowers, vibrant with heat and life and light. The right half of the room was frosted in ice, gloomy and dank.
"Fire," he said, gesturing left. "The sunlight gives life and joy, feeds the life we see in the plants. The sun is made of living fire. Yet fire is considered profane to most. See here, however, the way in which that force gives life, which is sacred?" Kathy nodded, trying to stay calm. Daggeuro seemed excited, energized, and that half-mad grin he sometimes wore spread across his face. "Now see here. Ice, which is water, sacred, yet frozen it kills, chokes out life, leads to death. Here we see it in its capacity for the profane."
He led her to a walnut door on the other end of the room. Beyond, they stepped into a chamber which was a narrow corridor with two glassed in halves on either side. On the right, an empty section of stone chamber tinted greenish. On the left, verdant bushes bearing large, sweet-looking fruit.
"On the left, earth. Used as profane, to cause earthquakes and manipulate plants into hostile acts. Yet here, we see it used to grow food, to nourish. On the right, air, usually used as a non-lethal defensive form of combat magic. Yet, with a spore-based toxin carried on it, lethal."
Kathy saw the pattern clearly now. Daggeuro must have spent a great deal of time forming this pocket realm, in essence a reflection of his inner heart, his essence. One steel door stood at the end of the narrow corridor, and he led her through it. Inside the final chamber there lay a hospital room, clones of the kennin High Knight on two beds on opposite sides of the room. The one on the left lay in bright light, casts on his legs and bandaged thoroughly, blood weeping out of him. On the right, the room hung in shadow, the copy looking beaten and worn, but with eyes roving the room.
"Here, this one on the left could live, but crippled and in constant pain. Death magic could make a swift, merciful end. On the right, this one might die on his own, but with healing, will be vital once more. So you see," Daggeuro said evenly, turning to face Kathy with bright but solemn eyes, "balance is key."
There came a thud, a rattle of chains. Kathy looked to the left wall, where stood a massve iron door layered in chains. Something beyond the door snarled savagely. "What is that," Kathy asked, trembling.
"My inner beast," he said quietly. "I am a kennin, Kathy. My people are territorial, bestial by nature. The more combat we see, the more stress we take upon ourselves, the more powerful the need to tear, rend, destroy. I keep my beast at bay, by maintaining balance. Yes, it creeps out now and again, but I am quick to restrain it." He led her to a golden door opposite, which led back into his office. Kathy shivered as she stepped out, shocked to her core with revelation.
"That's why kennin don't go to high ranks," she said. "I'd noticed that days ago, I never see them higher than sergeant, and even that's rare."
"And each has his or her own method of coping with our nature. Some maintain a moderate level of hostility, which means they never go berserk. Others keep a smithy forge at home to work out their aggressions. Still others overindulge in food or drink or sex. It is our way of maintaining civility."
"But you," Kathy said, finally taking the seat he had offered before. "You've got a ton of stresses to deal with, and you've seen a lot of combat. I mean a lot."
"Yes, but I cope. Balance," he said. "King Ovin knew of my need for it when I first joined the Royal Guard so many years ago. That's why he gifted me Boon and Bane. They help maintain my inner balance."
Kathy just sat numbly, staring off at the wall. After a minute, she said, "I remember going off on you, way back when we came across that little wefaree merchant. I had no idea how hard it was for you."
"Water under the bridge," he said, sitting behind his desk. "Kathy, I have watched you grow every moment you've been here in the Ether Plane. Yet one thing about you has always remained the same, and that is your sense of wonder. I see it at play even now," he said, smiling. "Never let that go."
"I won't," she said, shaking off the last of her tremors. "Trust me on that." She had come for a clearer, final understanding of her friend and guide through this strange and wonderful realm of magic, and she'd gotten what she came for. Yes, he frightened her a bit, but he knew his own demons well enough to consistently best them.
If she lived a thousand years, she'd never again meet a man like Daggeuro.
The sun set in the distance, the final sliver of its light now fading as it dipped farther beneath the horizon. Foruk had heard of certain types of birds that followed the sun constantly, never ceasing to settle anyplace for more than a few hours. Stupid birds. What's so bad about the night?
He didn't often question nature, but when he did, it was usually to wonder why certain species were so stupid. Foruk brought his unit to a halt when he saw ahead a kind of earthen ramp mostly concealed by rough foliage and a rock outcropping. He approached and looked down the ramp, finding the large iron lift gate that concealed the city's hidden entrance. Even from the top of the slope he could feel the power of the seal, a complex working of magic woven with several rituals.
"Hmm," he rumbled, rubbing his heavy, square jaw.
"Pretty heavy stuff," said Blakely, a skilled gotrin magic wielder in his group. "It'll take a few days to work through all of it."
"And if I just hit it with wyldfire?"
"The last layer before the final seal is a reflector," said Blakely. "It'd burn right back out and kill us all."
"So, not the best idea. Shit," he spat. "All right, we set camp here. No fires, no lights," he ordered, watching them set up their gear. "Blakely, you and I will work on the layers of protection in shifts. Are the layers restorative?"
"No, what we chip off will stay off. The source of these defenses is long dead," said the gotrin.
"Good. Shifts, then, but not clock-round. Do you want to start, or should I?"
"Let me have first crack," said Blakely. "I'll get chiseled in, then make pathway cracks before hammering." Foruk had no idea what he was talking about, but nodded as if he did. Luga's main force had not yet reached the barrier, yet the siege of Celia had begun.