Kathy sat quietly picking at her muffin, not really eating so much as slowly grazing. The sun had just come up, but she'd been too worried to remain in her rented bed at the Phoenix Inn. Sleep had been fitful, filled with horrid visions of violence, bloodshed. At one point in her dreams, Kathy found herself standing at the foot of a set of stone steps, leading up to a blackened walnut throne, the steps smeared with drying blood. On the throne, legs draped over one arm, eased in the seat of power like a fool, sat a raven-headed man in a black-and-white checkerboard zoot suit. Its eyes, disturbingly human, goggled as a bizarre warbling sound filled the air. Kathy recognized it as someone playing a saw like a zither.
The raven-man swirled his eyes and said with a toothy smile, "Sounds Hawaiian, doesn't it?" His shrieking, tittering laughter forced Kathy awake in a sweat, her eyes scanning the room, hands stealing over the axe propped up against the bed in easy reach. There was no sign of the nightmare creature to be seen, but she couldn't relax and go back to sleep.
So now, an hour and a half later, she sat drinking fresh coffee and picking at a blueberry muffin, offered compliments of the cafe's owner. The cherubic gnome had come to recognize her, Daggeuro and Baron Dimanche on sight, and having them around seemed to make business more lively.
She popped a small crumble of muffin between her lips, looking up as Vernin trundled through the door, kicking off the bells overhead. The cyclops spotted her from the counter, waved, and placed his order. With coffee and an egg, ham and cheese on a bagel the size of her hands put side by side, he took up residence in the recliner kitter-corner to her spot on the couch.
"Feeling restless, Miss Kathy?"
"Yeah. Bad dreams."
"Hmm. Wanna talk about it?"
"Not really, except to say they were frightening." She sipped her coffee. "They'll be at the barrier today."
"I know. Shop got extra orders from the Watch for shields and bucklers. Rationing starts in earnest today. Lot of shops will be boarding up."
"Bollocks to that," said the owner, sitting down with his own cappacino on the other end of the couch, adjusting his white apron. He ran his free hand through his scraggly white beard, his yellowish skin gleaming with sweat from the bakery area in back of the café. "I always have extra portions in store, in the event somefin' like this 'appens, which it seems to do every ten years or so. Usually it isn't as serious as this, but I always stay well ahead of the game."
"Wise of you," said Kathy.
"Cheers." He clinked mugs with her and drank deeply, wiping foam from his bushy mustache. "Where's the other two blokes, then? Dog-face and top hat?"
"Sleeping still, if they're sane," said Kathy. "I couldn't sleep very well. Hey, thanks again for the muffin." He waved it off, then scurried back around the counter as three young elven men entered. Vernin wolfed down his sandwich, then his coffee, and covered his mouth for a belch. As he rose, he drew something out from a black duffel he had been keeping by his feet. Kathy saw the object was a thick ball of string, woven of some fine, white material. He handed it to her. "Um, Vernin? What's this?"
"String made from unicorn hairs," said the cyclops.
"Unicorn?" Kathy rolled the soft ball back and forth in her hands, giddy with the notion. "But why give it to me?"
"Several months back, while I was at market, an odd little man agreed to give me twenty pounds of merite to work with. In exchange, he demanded a favor, to be named later. Yesterday, he came to me at the shop with that ball in hand. He said to repay him, I would ensure that ball got to you." Vernin chuckled, shaking his head. "His kind have ever confused me with their notions of what constitutes bartering."
"Wait, was he a wefaree?"
"Indeed," said Vernin. "Said his name was Chappie."
Daggeuro stood atop the southern wall in full combat gear, chain coif fitted to allow his canine ears to maneuver. His scalp itched terribly, as he hadn't worn any sort of head protection in a long time. He made no move to scratch, though. His attention was too fixed southward to make any move.
Luga's forces had swollen, joined by two modest-sized goblin clans from the north and the east. Rangers reported three soumen orcs had also joined, each bringing a pack of specters under their magical control along to add to Luga's army.
He'd seen enough. At their current speed, they would make the barrier in three more hours. He had the earrings for communicating with Kathy and Dimanche ready. One last meeting, then, and the siege would begin.
Baron Dimanche sat where Vernin had been when Kathy returned from the restroom, Daggeuro where the owner had ben sitting. He and the Baron each wore a large emerald earring, and the kennin High Knight held one out to her. "Hold it to speak with us," he instructed, demonstrating with a pinch of his own ear. Kathy took out one of her own studs ad replaced it, feeling the buzz of the magic for only a moment before it faded. "Do either of you have final questions?"
"I have one," said Kathy. "I hadn't really thought of it for awhile, because it's something missing."
"When I first got here to the Ether, for quite some time, I would occasionally hear this little voice in my mind, one that felt and sounded like a different person. But it's been gone a little while now. What was it?"
"Dat was your magic," Dimanche said, fielding her inquiry when he spotted the confusion on Daggeuro's face. "It happens wit' all Awakened. Until you are perfectly in sync wit' your powah, it speaks to you as a foreigner in your own mind. Its absence just means you've fully adapted."
"Ah," she said, nodding.
"Anything else," Daggeuro asked.
"I have a question, actually," said Dimanche, cane gripped tight in both hands. "Is dere a procedure for when de barrier falls?"
"Yes," said Daggeuro. "We have barricaded the gates, and have archers on the walls to fire down on Luga's forces. If the gates are breached, we systematically fall back, relinquishing one street at a time and using stalling tactics to slow his forces. We have units strung from the east end all the way to the west. We're stretched thin, but Royal Guard have also been deployed. In the event we should lose more than half the city, we hold until all civilians can fall back to the inner city behind the dividing wall. King Ovin himself has prepared a barrier for use there."
Dimanche visibly relaxed, satisfied with the kennin's answer. Kathy briefly considered telling them about the unicorn hair string ball, but decided against it. For the time being, it was her secret.
"Where will you be," she asked. He was about to answer when a lizard-man faerie in heavy chain rushed in and took a knee before the High Knight.
"My lord Daggeuro, news from the wall!"
"What is it, man," Daggeuro snapped, causing the reptilian fellow to to flinch.
"One of the sharpshooters up top spotted a flag, sir, yellow field with a green 'X' on it."
"What does that mean," asked Kathy and Dimanche in harmony.
"It means Luga seeks parley," snarled Daggeuro. "He wants to talk."
King Ovin paced in the air, an odd affectation when one considered he was using his wings to stay airborn. Daggeuro, Kathy and Dimanche stood before the thrones, Queen Titania looking haggard in her seat. She had only two days before delivered their third and final child, and though fairy infants became children capable of moving about and tending largely to their own needs within weeks, those first days were, to be blunt, hellish. She hadn't had more than a few moments of peace since delivering.
Yet matters as grave as these required her attendance, if not her participation. Ovin kept looking over to her, checking on his long time companion. "You're sure it was the flag of parley?"
"Three sharpshooters confirmed it," said Daggeuro. "I know not what sort of game he's playing at, but we should assume some trickery is in his mind."
"A safe assumption with Luga," Ovin said.
"Would we have to let him into the city," asked Kathy.
"Traditionally, yes," said Ovin. He stopped pacing suddenly, facing them, his tiny features animated. "But not always. If the flag of parley is flown, however, we must at least signal acknowledgement of it. That must occur within six hours of sighting. A follow-up signal must be given within twenty-four hours. Which gives us more time to consider our actual response," he said, floating down to his throne.
"Surely you won't actually parley with him, sire," Daggeuro half-said, half-asked.
"We must consider the court's reputation, Sir Daggeuro. Doubtless the ambassadors from neighboring kingdoms are curious to see how we handle internal strife. There is ever the political long view to consider here."
"Politics," Daggeuro snarled. "Ever the bane of swift action." King Ovin gave him then a nearly murderous look, which took the kennin High Knight to his knee, head bowed. "Forgiveness, sire."
"Granted," Ovin said, distracted. "Have an acknowledgement flag waved from the wall in two hours' time. Wimble?" A toad-man in servant's suit shuffled from the side of the chamber. "Tell all of the council members to assemble in their hall. I will hear their opinions briefly."
"Sah," the toad said, shuffling off. Kathy felt the tension in the room like a punch in the stomach. Daggeuro had not yet risen from his stance of subjugation, and Baron Dimanche kept fidgeting with his cane and tapping his foot.
"You may rise, Sir Daggeuro," king Ovin finally said after two more awkward minutes. The kennin did, his eyes full of both sorrow and rage. Kathy's mind raced. Easy, Dag. Fairy he may be, but he could level you without much effort. Yet Kathy now wondered how true that was. If Daggeuro let himself come unbalanced, with only Bane in hand, she couldn't say for sure that king Ovin would be able to keep him at bay, let alone fight him. Boon would likely remain sheathed if Daggeuro's inner beast raged, forgotten until he regained control of himself.
But Daggeuro's words spoke to his truer nature, that part of himself he'd striven to become for so long. "I thank thee, sire, and beg mercy in memory of this conversation."
"So given, yes," said the king, still somber but clearly glad the tension had pased. "Now, the three of you should see yourselves out. My queen and I must converse as rulers before engaging the council."
The trio bowed as one and exited the throne room, then the manor. The inner district was quiet, with only a few Royal Guard left to defend it. Kathy tried imagining the entire populace of the city falling back and taking shelter here, found she couldn't imagine the crowding.
When they passed through the dividing gate out into the main city, she immediately took note of the absence of regular citizenry in the street.People are frightened, she thought. I can't say as I blame them. She took one of the little bumblebee figurines she'd kept in a pouch on her hip, pushed magic into it, and sent it flying south, toward the wall. Being enhanced by magic, it took only ten minutes to arrive at the wall, and she peered through its ceramic eyes at the ammassed army outside of the city's boundary.
Luga's army easily numbered two-thousand men, specters included. Among the creatures controlled by the soumen was a pack of ten silver rendermen, the living metal men moving about with sharp, jerking motions. Kathy thought on what Selena Barnick had told her about the silver rendermen, how her father's magic hadn't been enough to defend against them.
Drawn back within herself, still walking with one hand on Daggeuro's shoulder for balance, Kathy realized with some surprise that the Baron hadn't gone off on his own yet. He usually seemed all too eager to be away from the group, doing his own thing. With the pall of war in the air, she suspected he found himself suddenly wanting the company.
"Dag," she said, pulling her hand off his shoulder plate. "Is silver resistant to magic?"
"Yes, it is. Only the most potent spells can be worked upon it. Why?"
"There are silver rendermen out there, serving one of those soumen. How is it they can control the silvers?"
"A souman's magic affects the spirit of the creatures, their very minds," Daggeuro said. "There's no physical aspect to their power. Silver rendermen are also vulnerable to illusions. The only standard form of magic they can be threatened by is large water spells that drown their victims, for rendermen need oxygen as much as you or I."
Kathy nodded. The trio ultimately wound up back at the café, naturally gravitating to their collective comfort zone. Kathy got a hot cocoa instead of coffee, since her nerves were already shot. When they were all seated, they maintained a companionable silence for a while. When Baron Dimanche finally broke their quiet, it was with a question they'd all been thinking, but unwilling to ask aloud.
"How long until dey break t'rough de barrier, do you t'ink?"
The Narbocks had been a proud minotaur family, generations of stalwart Watch officers serving the kingdom of Amermidst. The four sons and two daughters of the last branch of the family still living in Celia were classified as heavies, brutes capable of standing in the thickest of battles and holding their ground. They took great pride all in their combat prowess.
As such, when their father, Murote, gave them his request, they were puzzled and a little insulted. This hardly seemed to any of the six brawny offspring of Celia's highest-ranking minotaur like the kind of work they should be doing. Yet their sense of tradition, woven strongly into their upbringing, demanded that they do as he bade, for the task harmed no innocent, and broke no explicit rules.
The eldest son, Tavar, grunted as he pulled his cart to a stop along the side of the field. His kin were all taking a break, chatting among themselves. As he approached, the elder sister, Vokra Narbock, lifted her chin at him. "Hail, Tavar. Hail, brother. Is that your last load for now?"
"For now, aye," he rumbled, arming sweat from his forehead. "Come, my kin, help me unload them and we shall take good rest." With mixed grunts and grumbles, the six siblings brought down the load from the cart, arranging the objects as their father had detailed. When they were finished, they sat round his cart, eyeing the field. It was usually reserved for Watch training maneuvers, but their father, claiming he needed this done as repayment to a wefaree merchant, insisted that he would bear the wrath of Lord Daggeuro if any questions arose from this unauthorized use of space.
"What do you suppose this is all about," Vokra asked.
"I know not," Tavar replied. "Nor do I care. Still, it is somewhat unsettling to look at. It's like we're assembling a giant game of war chess." The field was now occupied by four dozen life-sized statues of warriors, most of them held in a warehouse owned by a merchant named Chappie. The largest statue had been the first one they brought, a hulking figure that chilled all six to the bone. It was a fully painted, scaled-down replica of the great blue dragon named Skylia, a legend in Amermidst kingdom.
Before their work was done, the Narbocks would deliver three more such statues.
Daggeuro shook Kathy by the shoulder, and despite her hostile reaction, swinging wide for his jaw, he was impressed with her speed. She sat up in the bed, pajamas loose around her. "What's going on," she asked through a yawn.
"King Ovin has agreed to parley," he said in a harsh whisper. "It is roughly three in the morning. Get dressed, quickly. His majesty has chosen you and I to be present as his witnesses." He stepped out into the hall then, leaving Kathy to change in private. When she was dressed, she used her focus magic to make her cloak as tough as chain link but as flexible as cloth. It would only last a couple of hours, but she sensed the talk wouldn't last long.
With her axe on her hip and bow slung crosswise from her shoulder to her hip, Kathy followed Daggeuro southward from the Phoenix Inn. "Where are we going," she asked, moving fast to keep up with the kennin High Knight's long, sure strides.
"His majesty ordered me wakened and directed to the southern gates. I know nothing more than that," he replied brusquely. "Gods know why he would signal for parley so late in the night. If he worries about political appearances, he should do this at dawn, when there's someone to see it all transpire."
Kathy said nothing, saving her energy for whatever might lie ahead. They closed to within shouting range of the gates twenty minutes later. King Ovin and four Royal Guard stood at the gates, the barricades shoved back out of the way. Watchmen stood in a nervous clutch to one side, weapons drawn. She didn't blame them.
When they bowed to the diminutive king, he gestured at the gates, which swung creaking inward, exposing the shade's camp just beyond the barrier of translucent blue energy surrounding the city.
The shade himself looked like some kind of blackened lizardman. He stood not five feet from the dome. Next to him were a gotrin of considerable size in half plate armor, and a tall, slightly angular woman who looked disturbingly similar to Kathy. The taomen, Kathy thought. She came from me.
Daggeuro took to Ovin's right side, Kathy to his left, and the three approached the barrier together. Ovin spoke low, so his voice wouldn't carry more than a few feet. "Sir Daggeuro, do you also find it odd that the troll Foruk is not here?"
"I do," he said, peering beyond Luga towards the shade's camp. "Perhaps he commands the encapment in his master's absence." Ovin offered no reply, and half a minute later, they stood only five feet away from Luga, seperated only by the barrier. Even with it there, however, Kathy felt the power flowing from shade and taomen, Luga's a corruption so foul it soured the saliva in her mouth.
"This was clever of you, Ovin," Luga hissed, his voice oily and full of hate. "Traditionally, accepting parley invitations includes having your foes come inside."
"As the gnomes might say, bollocks to that," said king Ovin, eliciting a gasp from several nearby Royal Guard, Daggeuro included. "Keeping peaceful is also part of tradition, and I trust you to do that about as much as I trust it will rain frogs tomorrow morning. This will suffice." Luga hung his head, chuckling as he shook it.
"Ah, you never cease to amaze me, fairy. Let us to it, then. Give me the remaining fragments of the Great Door, and I shall disperse my army. You will be left alone, by my word."
"Your word is worth that which falls from a donkey's ass," snarled Daggeuro, lips pulled back from his teeth. "Foul and best left untouched."
"Doggy needs a new chew toy," Luga replied, calm and collected. "Or mayhap the human woman could get a muzzle and leash?" Daggeuro growled low in his throat, eliciting laughter from the taomen, the orc and Luga.
"You ought not laugh, shade Luga," said Ovin, his voice cutting through their noise like a honed blade. "He speaks for the court in this."
"Such abusive tones from your court will become quickly heard elsewhere," said the taomen. "The master has shown me how to carry words spoken here upon the wind."
"Then let that wind carry the truth," Kathy interjected. "That you and your master have come here to wage a war of aggression, and that you've taken pains to do something that will threaten every other kingdom out there. Not everybody knows it, but your master would happily kill everyone in this city to get what he wants."
"Enough," snapped Luga, holding up a hand. "Perhaps this was a futile gesture, seeking parley. But know this; your barrier can and will be beaten down. When my army comes into your city, no quarter will be given. One last chance, Ovin, to protect your citizens from that horror. Surrender the fragments, now."
"I will not."
"So be it," Luga said, hurling a prong of lightning at the barrier. The scent of burning ozone filled the air, his power rampaging against the dome. The taomen joined in with a cone of flames, and Ovin, Daggeuro and Kathy returned to the interior of the city, the gates slamming shut behind them. Ovin turned in midair towards Daggeuro and Kathy.
"It is begun," he said.