Masques (Sianim #1)

Chapter 11

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If Wolf wanted to believe that smile, Aralorn could see no sign of it from where she sat hiding under the large leaves of a plant that happened to be growing near the ae'Magi. Wolf lay down and began cleaning the toes of his front feet with a long pink tongue.

The ae'Magi's face froze at the implied insult and then relaxed into a rueful expression. "It was always so with you. Say walk and you run, stop and you go. I should have expected no joyous reunion, but I had hoped. It warms my heart to see you again."

The wolf who was his son looked up and said, "We have no audience here. Do you take me for a fool? Should I return as the long-lost son to his loving father? Let me know when you are through making speeches so that we may talk."

Aralorn marveled at the perfect response the magician made. A hint of tragedy crossed his face, to be supplanted by a look of stoic cheerfulness. "Let us talk then, my son. Tell me why you are come if it be not out of love for your father." It hit her then that something was wrong, but she couldn't figure out just what it was. "I pray you be seated." He indicated a spot not too near him with his left hand. It was just in character to politely offer Wolf a seat, making him look like an unruly child if he didn't take it. If he did take it, it would give the ae'Magi the upper hand to have had Wolf obey his first request. He'd reckoned without Wolf, who looked not at all uncomfortable and made no move to come closer to the ae'Magi.

"I do not play your games. I have come to stop you. Everywhere that I go, I see one of your filthy pets. You are annoying me and I will not put up with it." Wolf put no force behind his words; the gravelly tone carried threat enough.

The ae'Magi stood and stepped slightly to his left so that the fire no longer was a barrier between himself and the Wolf. "I am sorry if I have caused you bother. Had I had known that the shapeshifter woman was yours, I would never have taken her. She didn't tell me about you until we were done and there was nothing I could do about it. Did she tell you that she cried when I …"

Wolf rose to his feet with a growl of rage and stalked toward the figure. Abruptly Aralorn realized what it was that bothered her about the ae'Magi. He cast no shadow from the light of the fire. She noticed something else; Wolf's path would take him right across the place that the ae'Magi would have had him sit at.

"Wolf, stop!" she yelled as loud as she could in mouseform, hoping that he'd heed her. "He has no shadow. It's an illusion."

Wolf stopped, muting the feral tones in his throat. Her voice broke into his unexpected rage, forcing him to reason. He did then what he should have done first. Sniffing the air, he smelled only the taint of moat and Uriah; no life – no human.

Ignoring the pseudo-ae'Magi, Aralorn the mouse scampered to the space that Wolf had been baited toward. "There's a circle drawn in rosemary and Uiarrnud root here."

"A containment spell of some sort," commented Wolf. "It's probably best if we don't trigger it." His voice was calm but his body was still stiff. He growled a word and the image of the ae'Magi froze in mid-sentence.

"Is he monitoring it, do you think?" asked Aralorn, bouncing away from the circle toward Wolf.

"I doubt it. Both the illusion and the trap are simple enough spells that he wouldn't have to." He regained his human form and picked up Aralorn, setting her on his shoulder. "If I had triggered the containment spell, it would probably have alerted him then."

"Like a spider's web," said Aralorn softly.

"Just so," agreed Wolf.

"Where to now?" Aralorn asked, "Do we wait for the Uriah to attack or do we look for the ae'Magi?"

"For someone who should be scared and cowering, you sound awfully eager." Wolf stood staring at the silhouette of the ae'Magi; his voice wasn't as emotionless as usual.

"Hey," replied Aralorn, trying to break the mood, "it's better than spending the winter cooped up in the caves."

Wolf made no answer except to run an absent-minded hand over the smooth skin of his cheek. Aralorn waited as patiently as she could and then said, "He knew that you were coming."

Wolf nodded, "He's been expecting me for a long time. I knew that. I should have been more alert for something like this. Aralorn, when he had you here, did he …" His voice tightened with rage and stopped.

"No," she said instantly. "The first time he was working on a spell and wanted to save his energy – much to my dismay." Sarcasm crept into her voice. "The second time he was too interested in finding you to worry about it. You shouldn't let him pull your strings so easily." She curled her tail against his neck in a quick caress.

The tension eased out of him. "You are right, Lady. Shall we go a-hunting sorcerers in the castle? Perhaps you would prefer a Uriah or two to begin with, or one of my father's other 'pets.' I believe that there are a few that you haven't seen before. Would Milady prefer to be outnumbered a hundred to two or just one to two? We can be accommodating."

"Then, of course," said Aralorn, "once you have attained your goal we can arrange to have the castle fall on you so that you will escape mutilation from the outraged populace that you have saved from slavery and worse. Sounds like something I want to spend my day doing." She thought that Wolf might have been smiling as he headed downhill and away from the castle, but it was hard to tell from her vantage point.

The woods grew increasingly dense as Wolf walked further from the castle. A hoot from an owl just overhead made Aralorn-the-mouse cringe lighter against his neck. "Lots of nasties in these woods," she said in a mouselike voice void of all but a hint of humor.

"And I," announced Wolf in a grim voice that was designed to let Aralorn know that it was time to be serious, "am the nastiest of all."

"Are you really?" asked Aralorn in an interested tone. "Oh, I just adore nasties."

He stopped and looked at the mouse sitting innocently on his shoulder. Most people cowered under that look. Aralorn began, industriously, to clean her whiskers. When Wolf stared to walk again, though, she said in a stage whisper, "I really do, you know."

THEY EMERGED FROM A PARTICULARLY THICK GROWTH OF BRUSH into a narrow aisle of grass. In the center of it sat an oddly shaped altar dedicated to one of the old gods. It was so heavily overgrown with moss and lichen it was almost Impossible to tell the original color of the stone. There was nothing unusual about finding the altar, as such remnants dotted the landscape from well before the Wizard Wars. However, the altar itself was unusual.

"Oh, dear," said Aralorn drolly, "I suppose that it must have belonged to one of the fertility gods, hmm?"

It stood as tall as a man and almost as big around. When Wolf touched it, it slid sideways with a creak and a groan, although it didn't appear to be difficult to move. Wolf slipped inside the dark hole that was revealed and started down the ladder. Aralorn darted off of his shoulder and down his arm to get a better look.

"The ladder is a lot newer than the altar," she commented, flashing back to her post and tucking a paw inside his collar.

"I put it up myself, when I saw that there was some kind of exit from the tunnels up here. There was no sign of another one, so I suppose it must have rotted completely away. Plague it, Aralorn, you're going to fall and kill yourself if you don't stay put!" The last was said as she darted out on his other arm to get a closer look at the tilework on the wall. He picked her off his wrist and set her firmly back on his shoulder. "Just wait until we get down and you can have a better look."

Once on the floor, he closed the opening with a wave and let his staff light the hall that they stood in. Aralorn scrambled to the floor and took her own shape, sneezing a bit from the dust. She scuffed a fool on the floor, revealing a dark, polished surface. The ceiling was as high or higher than the great hall in the castle and the walls were covered with detailed mosaic patterns of outdoor revelries of times gone by. The ceiling was painted like the night sky, giving the overall impression of being outdoors. Or at least that was what. Aralorn assumed. The years had covered the tile on the walls with cracks and knocked down whole sections. The ceiling was badly water-damaged, showing the stonework that held it up through gaps left by fallen plaster.

Reluctantly, Aralorn followed Wolf through a gap in the wall that led to a drab little tunnel that looked as if a giant mole had dug through the earth. It branched several times, but Wolf never hesitated.

"How many times did you get lost exploring this?" asked Aralorn in a soft voice.

Wolf shot her an amused look. "Several, but I found a book hidden in one of the old libraries that detailed some of the passages and there was a copy of the master plans in the library I found here in the tunnels. The passages are extensive; it's a wonder the whole thing hasn't collapsed. There are only fifteen or twenty large rooms like the one we started in, most of them about in the same condition. If we make it through the next few days, I'll show you a library that makes mine look small. I don't know all of the passages. There are a lot of secret panels and hidden doors, magical and mundane, that make it difficult to find most of the interesting places. Like this one." Wolf waved a hand and a large section of the tunnel just disappeared into a finished and ornate corridor.

When they stepped through, the opening disappeared – leaving a blank wall in its place. The end of the corridor widened into a huge room with a water fountain at its center. The floor had once been wood, now mostly rotted away, leaving a walkway that was uneven and hazardous. Aralorn stumbled and tripped forward, staring at the frescoed ceiling and the elaborate stone carvings on the walls. When she started muttering about '"where the fourth Earl of Such-and-Such met with the Queen to defeat the Sorcerer What's-His-Face." Wolf put a firm hand on her shoulder and led her patiently around the old traps and pitfalls. He enjoyed her enthusiasm quietly, as any comment on his part was likely to spark a full-blown story.

He led her through several other unexpected doorways before they came to stairs that led up to the castle itself. The first place he took them to was the master's suite. It consisted of eight interconnected rooms, all covered with tapestries of great age. The rooms were empty except for the silk merchant's youngest daughter, who was crouched sobbing in a corner.

Her nakedness made her look even younger than she was. The white skin of her back was mottled with bruises and lash marks. An arcane symbol whose meaning eluded Aralorn was etched into one shoulder in bright red.

Wolf, who recognized the symbol, grabbed both of Aralorn's arms when she would have reached out to touch the girl. He pushed Aralorn behind him with more speed than gentleness and gripped his staff in one hand. Noiselessly he drew his sword in the other.

"Child." The word was gentle, his tone sad – for him; but he gripped the sword and held it in readiness. It was fortunate that he did so.

With a chilling cry and uncanny speed she turned and leapt. Once her face had been uncommonly pretty, thought Aralorn. Now the skin was drawn too tightly against the bones. Her china-blue eyes were surrounded by pools of blood red. Her full lips were stretched over pearly teeth, the kind that all of the heroines in the old stories had – with a slight difference. The lower set of teeth were as long as the first two knuckles of Aralorn's ring ringer. Her mouth gaped impossibly wide as she launched herself at Wolf.

He knocked her aside easily enough, for her weight was slight, and in the process cut her deeply in the abdomen. He ended her suffering with a cut to the back of her neck.

Death was no stranger to Aralorn, so examining the body didn't bother her – much. "One of your father's pets, I assume?" It was a comment more than a question.

Wolf grunted an affirmative and touched the symbol on her back. "She'd have been a lot harder to fight if she hadn't been so new at it. She didn't even know how to attack."

Aralorn jerked the embroidered bedspread off the bed and covered the pathetic little body with it before following Wolf into the next room in the suite.

The study was a wonder in cultured taste, not that Aralorn expected anything else. Wolf walked to the desk and picked up a sheet of paper. He laughed humorlessly and handed it to Aralorn. It read simply, "I'm in the dungeon."

"Apparently," said Wolf, "he was monitoring his little trap. He probably knows that you are with me. I want you to go back. Now."

She looked at him consideringly. "I probably should tell you that I will, and then just follow you in."

"You would, wouldn't you?" Wolf's voice was soft. He glanced at a decanter on the ae'Magi's polished desk. It imploded loudly enough to make Aralorn jump. "Plague it, Aralorn, don't you see? He will use you against me. He already has."

Aralorn felt her own temper rise to the surface. "Plague it, yourself," she hissed. "Do you think that I am some weak helpless female who can do nothing but stand around while you protect her? I am not helpless against human magic or anything else he's likely to throw at us." She made human sound like a filthy word.

He was silent for a long moment and then he waved his hand with an haphazard motion and the decanter re-created itself, leaving the desk unblemished. He walked over and pulled the stopper. Taking a token drink from the neck of the bottle, he met Aralorn's glare. "I owe you an apology, Lady. I'm not used to caring about anything; it's … uncomfortable."

She tilted her chin up at him, flags of temper still on her cheeks, then she took the decanter that he was still holding and took a mouthful herself. She set it on the desk and muttered something that he wasn't supposed to hear.

"What?" Obviously he did hear it.

She put her hands on her hips and glared at him, tapping a foot impatiently on the floor. ';I said, quote: 'It's a good thing that I love you or you'd be Uriah bait': unquote. Now that's settled, why don't we go find ourselves an ae'Magi?" Without waiting for him, she stalked out the door into the hallway.

"Aralorn, you're going the wrong way if you want to find the dungeons.'" If it had been anyone else, she'd have thought that his voice was meek.

She followed him through the twists and turns of the castle halts that were almost as convoluted as the secret tunnels. The dimly lit passages that had seemed threatening and huge when she had gone through them alone were not as intimidating as she remembered them.

Apparently there were no humans in the castle this late at night; at least they didn't see any. The Uriah standing at guard here and there paid them no heed. Aralorn was careful to keep her eyes from their faces, but she recognized Talor's boots anyway. Wolf's grip was steady on her shoulder as they went by it.

When they passed the entrance to the great hall, she couldn't resist the opportunity to look inside. The black bars of the cage were discernible in the moonlight, but the light wasn't good enough to see if it were occupied.

The stairway that led down to the lower levels was well lit and smelled of grain and alcohol. Each storage room on the first sublevel was carefully labeled as to contents. Most of them contained foodstuffs, but other labels read things like weapons, fabric, and old accounting records.

The second sublevel was only under one part of the castle. Here there were several small sleeping quarters intended for the use of apprentices; at least so Aralorn judged them by the traditional sparseness of the cells. The only other rooms were obviously intended for labs, but judging from the dust that coated the tables they hadn't seen use for some time.

The dungeon was on the third sublevel, deep below the earth's surface. Like the caves, the temperature was consistently chilly, but not cold. The smell was overpowering.

Aralorn felt the hair on her arms move with the magic impregnated in the walls of the castle at this level. Countless magicians had bespelled the stones of the castle here to prevent the escape of the inmates, and the half of Aralorn that wasn't human told her that the spells had been strong enough to keep in some of its prisoners even after they died. It occurred to her that they were lucky that neither of them were full-blooded shapeshifters – they could sense the dead almost as clearly as the living. A shapeshifter wouldn't keep his sanity for very long in a place such as this.

Without the fever that kept her from shielding herself from the human-twisted magic, she could block out enough of the emanations that the pain was nominal. She ignored the discomfort that was left and kept close to Wolf.

The guardroom was empty. By prearranged plan, and it took a strong argument to convince Wolf, she entered the dungeons first – because it was unexpected, and the more off-base they could throw the ae'Magi, the better off they were.

The first thing that she noticed was the lack of sound. There had never been a cessation of the moaning and coughing – sometimes the noise had driven her crazy. Now it was still and silent. The light was dim; Wolf's staff had stayed in the guardroom with him, so she couldn't see inside the cells. She crept carefully down one side of the path and hid in the shadows.

It wasn't hard to tell when Wolf entered the dungeon. His staff bounced daylight throughout the room. Aralorn saw then what she hadn't noticed before. The ae'Magi stood at the far end of the room. He, too, carried a staff, massive and elaborately carved, which he tilted as if it were a lance, it wasn't aimed at Wolf, but at her. She dropped instantly to the floor, which vibrated with the force of the explosion of the wall behind her. She was so distracted that she almost missed the Wolf's countermove, designed to force the ae'Magi to deal with him.

As planned, it caused the ae'Magi to turn to Wolf. While he was watching his son, Aralorn pulled one of her knives and threw it at the ae'Magi. She hit him in the chest. She only had a moment to congratulate herself before the knife passed through him without effect and clattered harmlessly to the floor behind him. The ae'Magi didn't even glance her way.

With a philosophical shrug she stayed on the floor where she was and prepared to watch the fight. It would have looked odd to someone who was not sensitive to magic and could only see two men gesturing wildly at each other. Aralorn could feel the currents of magic moving back and forth, gaining momentum and power with each countermove, but the only gesture that her limited experience with human magic allowed her to recognize was the deceptively simple spell that Wolf had been working on. She was also the first one to understand what would be the results of an anti-magic spell let loose in the dungeon of the ancient seat of the master magicians. A dungeon seeped in magic of centuries of spells.

Since she was already on the floor, all that she had to do was flatten herself tighter and hope that it was enough. Then the spell hit and chaos reigned.

She didn't know if it knocked her out, or just blinded her: either way she lost track of time. The first thing that she saw clearly was Wolf sitting on the floor and leaning awkwardly against a wall, his staff clenched in his right hand. She scurried to him on hands and knees.

"Are you all right?" she queried anxiously.

"Yes," he said, holding his staff out to her, as if he needed both hands to get to his feet.

Aralorn heard the noise behind her and twisted her head to see the ae'Magi getting to his feet even as she reached for the staff. She turned back to Wolf to warn him and noticed something she would have noticed right away if she hadn't been so dazed – she'd been in enough rights to know a broken back when she saw it. She saw the same knowledge in his face. He smiled at her with a haunting sweetness as she touched the staff. He said something that might have been, "I love you too," but a jolt of magic traveled up her arm and she blacked out.

When she woke up the floor she was looking at was bare stone, not cobbled as the floor in the dungeon was. But it was by the musky smell of the books that she knew where she was.

"No! You stupid son of a … Plague take you, Wolf!" Her scream was muffled by the rows of bookshelves in the library. Helplessly she pounded a list on the floor, letting her rage keep back her tears.

"The sword!" She didn't see anyone, but a firm hand pulled her to her feet. He materialized and shook her by the shoulders. His features were the too-perfect features of a shapeshifter.

"The sword, you stupid girl! Where is the sword?"

Aralorn had been through a lot. She had long since outgrown any patience with being manhandled. With a deceptively easy twist recently learned from Stanis, she freed herself and backed away.

With the distance between them, she could see the aura of age that clung to him, despite the smooth skin on his face. He was only a few inches taller than she was and far more beautiful to look upon. At another time she would have been more courteous to the Old Man of the Mountain, but Aralorn wasn't in the mood for politeness.

"What, sword are you talking about, old man?" she spat.

"The sword! The sword!" His arms swung widely in one of the overblown gestures that shapeshifters favored. He dropped into their language, and Aralorn had to struggle to understand the dialect he spoke. "You haven't let the ae'Magi get his hands on it, have you? Where is it? He mustn't have control over it."

"What sword?" Aralorn's voice was harsh with impatience; she needed to travel back to the castle, and a goose wasn't, the swiftest of fliers. "Sir, you will have to explain yourself more clearly."

"Your sword, did you leave it there? Didn't …" He stopped and looked behind her.

Curious, she looked behind her and saw her short sword, the one that she had left in its usual place under the couch, floating gently in the air behind her. She could almost see the person holding the sword – it was like looking at an image in rough water.

"You didn't take it?" The Old Man's voice was filled with disgust. "What is wrong with you? I've given you so many hints I might as well have come out and told you what you needed to do! If it weren't for the fact that Lys cares about that Wolf, I would let you stew in your own pot."

He stalked to the sword and took it from the apparition that held it. He unsheathed it and swung it once. "This is the third of the Smith's great Weapons." He gave it a name, but Aralorn was too distracted to translate it. "If the ae'Magi gets his hands on her and realizes what he has, there will be no one who can stand against him. You were supposed to take her with you and use her. I take it that your silly little spell didn't work?"

He didn't wait for her nod but continued on. "I thought that he just might pull it off. Here" – abruptly the shapeshifter's voice lost its force and became querulous like that of a very old man – "take it and go back. I'm very tired – maintaining this shape is burdensome. Lys?" He shoved the sword at Aralorn and was gone with an abrupt pop.

Aralorn took the sword and looked at it. It looked no more magical than it ever had, but still … it did match the description given for the Smith's sword.

Sheathing it abruptly, she slipped it onto her belt. With Wolf's staff in one hand, she ran out of the library to find Myr.

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