In the first two days of the siege, the cacophony of hundreds of spells striking the barrier was almost deafening. Kathy found herself plugging her ears whenever she went outside, which wasn't often. She and the Baron spent most of their time in the café, she reading on her tablet, he playing chess with various customers and the owner. Routines, Daggeuro had informed her, became the foundation for retaining one's composure in a siege like this.
She might have enjoyed the park where she had practiced her archery, but minotaur Watch officers stood guard at the entry points and shooed her away each time. When she tried telling them who she was, they rather pointedly informed her that they didn't care beans for who she was.
Daggeuro couldn't help her on that score, as he was too busy keeping the Watch from falling apart in pre-battle jitters. The city's criminal element had also amped up operations, taking advantage of all the tension and panic. She felt discouraged by such cowardice.
Still, there was nothing for it but to bide her time.
Only three layers of protection remained before Foruk would have access to the main seal on the hidden tunnel entrance. Between he and Blakely, the layers had at first fallen away like dust. But under that dust lay powerful rituals, preserved by the upper films of magic.
He had worried for a moment on the last one. Blakely, clearly spent, had carried on too long and almost triggered a water spell that surely would have drowned him. Foruk had shoved him roughly aside and finished the job, continuing right into his own shift. The other soldiers had grown restless, and were even now playing dice and card games to pass the time.
Except the Swarm. That thing shouldn't be here, Foruk thought for the hundredth time in three days. It can't be trusted. Yet if he told it to leave, it likely would, leaving him and his a bloody pile in the grasses.
Another layer of protective ritual magic peeled away. Now he was down to the reflective layer, which would prove tricky. Each of the pevious layers had required the steady, honed use of magical power like a scalpel. Such a tactic wouldn't work here; the power would be thrown back at him.
When he and Blakely had discussed the reflecting layer the day before, they theorized that if they focused on the bindings of the layer instead of its essence, they could break it free, work it loose enough to flood energy up behind it, breaking it apart from the back side. He began using his senses to locate the bindings.
It only took him an hour to find them. "Now to break them," he muttered to himself, focused upon his task.
Baron Dimanche rolled the vial of green liquid from finger to finger, watching tiny bubbles forming within. Kathy paid him little attention, but each time she spied him from the corner of her eye, he was rolling that vial.
Finally, she felt the need to ask. "What is that?"
"Dis?" He held the vial up by the tips of his fingers like a cartoon character. "Just a tool for later use."
"Looks like a healing potion."
"Looks can be deceiving," he cooed, pocketing the vial. "Can you feel it, Miss Kat'y? Somet'ing is changing, somet'ing is on de cusp of happening. I believe I may become part of it." He looked directly at her then. "Or de fact dat de barrier prevents me from going back to de Spirit Plane is driving me insane."
"I'm hoping for door number one, for everyone's sake," said Kathy. She set the tablet aside a minute. "Baron, can they dig under the barrier?"
"No. I already asked Daggeuro about dat. De magic would simply extend down into whatever hole dey dug." He shook his head. "I just wish I had known all magical travel was cancelled widdin de barrier. I hardly know what to do wit' myself."
"You could always try to find a whore. They're probably hurting for customers right now." Kathy reached to her right for her coffee, and when she turned back, Dimanche was gone, the café door swinging shut behind him. She shuddered. "Dirty old bastard."
The human woman had, rather inadvertently, given him the perfect excuse to vanish for the time being. As a spirit creature unable to leave an area at will, Baron Dimanche had indeed been going mad, until he accidentally discovered the tunnel.
Ever able to find secret places, he'd just been looking for a distraction, something to take his mind off of the fact that he was trapped in Celia. While strolling along the city's west end, hoping to track down a rumor he'd heard about an underground poker tournament, Dimanche came upon the ruins of a condemned brick building that had formerly been a book shop.
The building had fairly radiated the aura of something secret. Checking he wasn't being followed or noticed, he'd ducked inside, following that aura through a hidden trapdoor in the back storage room. It led down to a wide tunnel, lined with a concrete floor and a winch system. Carriages could have, once upon a time, been lowered into the tunnel from the false storeroom above.
"A secret entrance and exit," he'd commented, traveling down the tunnel for several miles. When he reached the end, he discovered a double door layered with a protective seal, one too powerful to be removed by his magic alone due to other layers of protection on the outside. But before he turned around to leave, the voodoo spirit had felt an exterior influence working against that protection. He'd sensed this presence before, back when he, Daggeuro and Miss Kathy had gone to see the Gaedling Goblin.
Now, as he approached the doors again, he felt how thin the barrier beyond the sealed doors had become. Someone was trying to sneak into the city, likely some of Luga's men. With the seal standing, he couldn't tell who, what, or how many.
His reasons for not warning Daggeuro and Kathy about this were threefold. Firstly, with so many men camped at the southern end of the city, he doubted this second group was large enough to constitute a major threat. Secondly, this hole in the city's defenses would, when opened, allow him to freely travel between the Planes again. Finally, though he didn't like to think of it as anything more than convenient altruism, civilians could be led safely out of the city through this means of egress should the barrier fail and the streets be overrun.
He wouldn't warn anyone, but he could at least do something to minimize problems. He set about laying magical traps for the three most common elements of Luga's forces, keying his magic so it would only affect goblins, gotrin and orcs. When he was finished, he walked back down the tunnel toward the city. "You boys will be in for a rude surprise," he said to himself, hunkering down a hundred yards from the doors to await his chance to slide over to the Spirit Plane. He didn't intend to abandon the city to its fate; he merely wanted the option to hide should things get bad enough.
Now, he had but to wait.
The afternoon drew late toward evening by the time Daggeuro put in an appearance at the café. Kathy saw bags under his eyes and shook her head at him. "You're doing too much," she said as he sat with her on the couch.
"It doesn't feel like it's enough," he countered. "I've had sharpshooters giving me witness reports all day. Luga has some extremely talented magic wielders out there, and the Hurik Clan of goblins. They're brutal warriors, almost the equal of any kennin clan."
"Whoa, really? I thought you guys were the best there was."
"We are, but the Huriks can go toe-to-toe with us for a goodly while. Many of them out there are mace or spear wielders, so I'm not personally worried, but normal Watchmen stand little chance without ganging up. And they account for around fifty of the two-hundred or so goblins out there."
"Sounds like the odds keep getting worse for us," said Kathy.
"It isn't the best, but I'm confident we'll prevail. Luga's magic wielders will not be at full strength when the barrier finally weakens enough to break. The vital thing is for our people to strike them hard when they try to rush in." He bit into a long chocolate éclair, seeming to savor the taste.
"Heavenly right now," Daggeuro replied. "The only other thing I've had to eat all day was a banana at Selena's this morning. She was out the door right behind me, so she's likely blown out as well."
"I thought she was just a Watchman now."
"She is, but all Royal Guard who leave for the Watch or Rangers are automatically made sergeants, unless they're forced out." He wolfed down the rest of the pastry, checked his timepiece, and sighed. "I've a few final details before heading back to her place for the night. Kathy," he said solemnly, eyes bright. "I can sense something wrong in the city. I have no powers of premonition, but something tells me we will be sorely tested this night. I have all units on high alert, and stacked the duty roster for nightfall. If you see anything unusual, use the earring."
She agreed that she would, checking her quiver to make sure she was fully stocked on arrows. When Daggeuro left, she felt the heaviness in the air he must have detected, the weight of events just about to unfold. She gripped her bow, wondering if she was ready for this.
It was three minutes later when the bells jingled, and into the café strode a funny-looking little man with golden eyelights under a floppy wizard's hat, voluminous blue robes worn over a stout frame. He didn't hesitate to look around for her, but made a direct line for Kathy. She smiled widely at the wefaree merchant.
"Small world," she said.
"Big for man small as me," Chappie replied. "You get ball of string?"
"I did, thank you," Kathy said. "What's it for?"
"You go park now, minotaurs let you through. Them job done. String carries all magic from end to end. You will know what do." Kathy didn't understand what he meant, but his first instructions seemed clear enough. As for the minotaur officers, she wondered how the wefaree knew they'd been keeping her out. Before she could ask, he left just as suddenly as he'd entered, gone before she could even hitch up her gear bag.
"I really wish people would stop doing that to me," she grumbled.
It took both Blakely and Foruk working their magic together, but the reflective layer was turned aside and chipped apart, scattered into aimless energy. All that remained now was the seal itself upon the double doors.
"The wyldfire ritual will take me an hour to perform," the troll vindicator said, teeth bared in savage triumph. "Get everyone ready, Blakely."
"Yes, sir," the gotrin said, saluting. When he backed away, Foruk stood alone at the end of the ramp, squared up with the aging double doors. His own ability to detect other powers, while not great, nonetheless told him something lay in wait beyond the sealed doors. He would send the Swarm first, with clear instructions to keep on into the city in search of those keeping the barrier infused with power. If it triggered defenses and was slain, oh well.
The troll began chanting low in his throat, weaving the sigils in black energy ribbons that he would need for the wyldfire. The seal would absorb most of the power, if his estimation of it were close to accurate, most, but not all. There would just be too much to contain, which would break the seal and allow them entrance.
Their time was close at hand.
Kathy marveled at the assembled statuary, forty-three warriors of various races represented, fronted by a blue, red, green and white dragon. They were simply stunning in detail, and awe-inspiring in their realism. She stood before the blue painted dragon with the ball of unicorn hair string in hand, unsure of what to do.
She thought about the wefaree's parting words. String carries all magic from end to end, she thought, mentally affecting his squeaky accent. Kathy was nobody's fool, and she quickly set to work, doing precisely what Chappie had hoped she would realize she had to. Unspooling a little string, she tied a bit to the blue dragon's front right leg, then led the string over to the green one, looping a section of the line, unbroken, around its tail. She carried on like that, unsure of how long her task would take, and yet not worried about time constraints.
If her suspicions held true, this stunt would buy the city plenty of that precious resource.
Foruk drew the final sigil in the ritual, then pressed his palms together, feeling the power roar through his body, demanding release. This was not as large as the first wyldfire ritual he'd performed, but the pure hunger for destruction living within this energy could no more be contained than a whirlwind could. It needed only direction.
The troll vindicator thrust his palms and all of his will towards the sealed double doors, vicious green and purple flames lancing in a column of force forward, the stench of scorched earth rising as the earthen ramp boiled under the cone. A complex ring of golden glowing sigils flared all over the doors in response, and when the cone struck, there came a thunderclap powerful enough to throw all of Foruk's men back. The troll himself didn't budge, rooted by the power of the wyldfire.
Onward he poured the magic, until finally smoke rose in black tendrils skyward from the door. As the last of the wyldfire leaped from his hands, Foruk saw the doors, smouldering, blackened, fall inward, ruined beyond repair. He took several deep breaths, walking back to his men some twenty yards away.
"Swarm? You will enter first. Go straight to the city. Stop for nothing until you find the men or women keeping the barrier up. Slay them. When all are dead, then you may join the rest of us. The lot of you, follow after, but be watchful. There may be sentries or traps waiting. I will bring up the rear."
The wraith only waited until he stopped talking, followed shortly by a score of men and women ready for bloodshed. The city was blissfully unaware that their defenses had been breached.