Myr was never difficult to locate. Aralorn simply had to look for the largest group of people and head in that direction. She found him just outside the cave entrance giving knife-fighting lessons to a group of the younger refugees. He glanced up and saw her as he was avoiding a crudely wielded blade; the distraction almost cost him a slitted throat.
He talked for just a minute to his former opponent, who was white-faced and shaking; it was no light thing to come so close to killing a king. Aralorn shifted impatiently from one foot to the other as Myr dismissed the class and strode to her.
He took a long look at her, noting the scrape on her check that she'd gotten rolling across the floor, the filth that clung to her, and Wolf's staff that she held clutched in one hand. He didn't demand any explanations, merely asked in a businesslike tone, "What do you need?"
"I need you to call the dragon to take me back to the ae'Magi's castle. I can't get there fast enough by myself." She noticed with detached surprise that her voice was steady.
Myr nodded, gestured for her to wait for him and ducked back into the caves. He returned carrying his sword in one hand, the belt dangling from its sheath, and led the way through a thicket of brambleberry to a smallish clearing.
Carefully he unsheathed his sword and gave a rueful look to the blade that years of his grandfather's warring had left unmarred. Then he drove it into the sandy soil, trying not to wince at the grating sound. Another time Aralorn would have smiled.
When he was done calling the dragon he stood quietly beside her, not asking her what had happened. It was Aralorn who finally broke the silence.
"We made it into the ae'Magi's castle. He was waiting for us in the dungeons. I think that Wolf's spell would have worked anyplace else. There was too much old magic and the spell wasn't strong enough and backlashed. I was on the floor already so it didn't hit me very hard. The ae'Magi was knocked out momentarily. Wolf …" Her voice cracked and she stopped, swallowed and tried again. "Wolf's back is broken; he tricked me into touching his staff and sent me back here. I don't know how fast a dragon can fly. Even if it consents to take me to the castle it will probably be too late." She laughed then, though it could have been a sob, and clasped the staff tighter. "He may have been right and it was too late when he sent me back."
Myr didn't say anything, but he put a comforting hand on her shoulder. A cold wind swept down the mountainside, and Aralorn shivered with impatience as much as chill. Even though she was watching intently, she didn't see the dragon until it was overhead. Silver and green and as graceful as a hummingbird, the great reptile landed and eyed them with interest – or perhaps hunger.
"I need you to get me to the ae'Magi's castle as fast as possible." Aralorn had no more regard for protocol than she had ever had. The dragon tilted its head back in offense.
Myr's grip tightened warningly on Aralorn's shoulder as he said, "Lord Dragon, the only one of us who stands a chance of facing down the ae'Magi is by himself at the castle. We need to get there to help him or the ae'Magi has won. You are our only chance of doing so in time." Aralorn started at the "we," but decided not to protest as it was likely to offend the dragon even more.
The dragon hesitated a minute and then asked, "Speed is important?"
"Very, Lord Dragon," Aralorn said carefully, keeping a respectful tone.
It nodded, saying, "I can travel much faster than flying, but it means that because of your safeguards against magic I cannot take you, King Myr. The shapeshifter half-breed I can take."
Myr looked unhappy, but he nodded his, acceptance. When the dragon lowered its belly to the ground and folded its wings, Myr helped Aralorn up, as she was hampered by the necessity of keeping the sharp claws at the end of Wolf's staff away from the dragon.
The scales on the dragon's back were slick, but otherwise it was no worse than riding a horse bareback. The wings beat steadily until they caught an updraft, then flattened and spread wide, letting the wind pull them south.
Abruptly the dragon lurched forward and Aralorn felt a now-familiar dizziness seize her and clutched the fist-sized scales reflexively. When she was able to focus her eyes again, the castle of the ae'Magi lay just below.
Shouting so that the dragon could hear her past the sound of the wind, Aralorn said, "Land wherever you can find a safe place, Lord. I can find my way in."
In acknowledgement of her words the dragon changed its angle of flight until it was losing altitude fast. Aralorn's ears popped painfully and she tightened her grip on the dragon's scales until they cut into her hand. When the dragon landed, the jolt loosened Aralorn's grip and she landed with a thud next to an impressively armed forepaw.
She rolled to her feet with more speed than grace. She turned to face the dragon and bowed respectfully. "My thanks, sir, and apologies for my clumsiness." Without waiting for a reply, she shifted quickly into a goose and flew as fast as she could to the castle.
The moat didn't smell any better than it had before, and it took her some time to find a pipe that was not plugged with grime and still intact. Once she found one, she balanced precariously on it until she could turn into a mouse. Even in the mouseshape she had trouble negotiating the tricky business of crawling into the pipe from the top, but she managed without falling into the moat.
The corridor that she entered was only dimly lit by wall sconces, and from what she could see it was not one that she'd been in before. She considered staying a mouse, but decided that she would have a better chance of recognizing something familiar if she were in human form, since she'd been in human form while she was following Wolf.
When she took her own shape again, the staff appeared beside her. She hadn't been sure that it would. She wondered if it had changed with her, like the sword and her clothes, or if it were following her on its own. The thought caused her to pick it up gingerly as she started down the hallway.
There were still Uriah posted in the halls. As before, they allowed her to pass without bothering her, though they followed her progress with their eyes. She kept a steady, rapid pace, hoping that she would find a clue to where she was soon enough to be of some help to Wolf.
The castle was eerily silent, so that when she heard sounds coming from inside a room she stopped impulsively and opened the door. Lord Kisrah looked up startled from where he'd been eating breakfast in bed with a giggling young beauty.
"Lord Kisrah, you wouldn't be interested in showing me the way to the dungeons, I suppose?" asked Aralorn. She wondered if she should pull her sword or knife. She didn't have a chance to act. Something flashed at her out of Lord Kisrah's hands. Instinctively, because it was already in her grip, she moved the staff to block it. When the flash hit the dark, oiled wood, the crystals on one end of the staff, which up to this point had been dull and lifeless, flared brightly and Lord Kisrah's magic dissipated without a sound.
Unwilling to let him get another spell off, Aralorn attacked with the staff. Lord Kisrah, unarmed, not to mention unclothed, didn't have much of a chance against Aralorn wielding her favorite type of weapon. Her first blow broke his arm and her second knocked him unconscious on the floor next to the bed.
Aralorn turned to his bedmate with apologies on her lips, but something about the girl made her tighten her grip on the staff instead. Focused intently on the unconscious man, the red-haired woman slithered out of the bedclothes, knocking the bedtable with their food onto the floor.
Remembering the harpy that she and Wolf had met earlier, Aralorn tapped the girl's shoulder gingerly with the clawed end of the staff. She hadn't realized how sharp the claws were until they drew blood. She felt bad about it until the girl turned and Aralorn got a good look at her.
The girl snarled and Aralorn jumped back and seriously considered leaving Lord Kisrah to his fate. As the girl moved, her shape altered rapidly into something vaguely reptilian with a large, spiked tail and impressive fangs. It was fast and strong enough that when its tail hit the post of the bed, the wood cracked. It was also, thankfully, stupid – very stupid. It jumped at Aralorn with a shrill cry and impaled itself on the claws of Wolf's staff.
Dying, it changed back into its former beautiful self and the woman blinked her green eyes and said softly, "Please …" before she was unable to say anything.
"Plague it," said Aralorn in an unsteady voice as she retrieved the staff in shaky hands. She backed into the corridor and started down it when she noticed the hungry gaze of one of the Uriah focused on the bloody end of the staff. She thought of Lord Kisrah lying like an appetizer beside his bedmate's corpse; she went back and shut the door to the bedroom and locked it with a simple spell that Lord Kisrah would have little trouble breaking when he woke up.
Just as she was about to give up hope, Aralorn rounded a corner and found herself in the great hall. From there it was a simple matter to find her way to the dungeon. She was concentrating so hard on doing so that the whisper took her by surprise.
"Aralorn," said the Uriah from its position in the shadows near the stairway that fed down to the dungeons.
She came to an abrupt halt and spun to face Talor. "What do you want?"
It laughed, sounding for a minute as carefree as he always had, and then said in a harsh voice, "You know what I am. What do you think that I want. Aralorn?" It took a step closer to her. "I hunger, just as your companion will shortly. Leave, Aralorn; you can do no good here."
Aralorn shifted her grip on Wolf's staff from, her right hand, which was getting stiff and sweaty, to her left. "Talor, where is your brother? I haven't seen him here."
"He died making the transition to Uriah," it said softly, and smiled. "Lucky Kai."
Aralorn nodded and turned as if to go down the stairs. Instead she continued her turn, drawing the sword as she moved. Smith's Weapon or not, the blade cut cleanly through the Uriah's neck, beheading it. The body fell motionless to the stone floor.
"Sweet dreams, Talor," she said soberly. "If I find Wolf in your condition, I will strive to do the same for him."
With the sword in her right hand and the staff in her left, she started down the stairs. The lower levels were darker, but now Wolf's staff was emitting a faint glow that allowed her to see where she put her feet. As she started down the third set of steps it occurred to her that she didn't really know what she planned to do. Alone against the ae'Magi, she had no chance. Not only was he a better magician by infinite orders of magnitude, but if he was Wolf's equal with a sword then he was a much better fighter than Aralorn.
The smells of the dungeon were strong now, and the stench didn't help her stomach, which was already clenched with nerves. In the guardroom she abandoned the staff because she didn't know how to stop the crystals from glowing.
Not wanting the sword to make any noise, she sheathed it and then dropped to her belly, ignoring the filth on the cold stone floor. Slowly she slid into the dungeon, keeping to one side. The voices that had been indistinct were now intelligible. She heard Wolf speaking, and the huge weight of grief lifted off her shoulders.
"… why should I make this easier for you than I already have? This is a very easy shield to break through; most third-year magicians could do it. Would you like me to show you how?" Wolf's voice was weaker than she'd ever heard it, but there was no more emotion in it than it ever had. "It docs have the unfortunate effect of incinerating whatever the shield is guarding."
"Ah, but I have another method of removing your protection." The ae'Magi's voice was a smooth contrast to his son's. "I have been informed that the girl whom you so impetuously sent away has returned all alone. She should be here momentarily, if she isn't already."
For an instant Aralorn plastered herself motionless to the floor before her common sense reasserted itself. It really didn't matter if the ae'Magi knew she was coming; the element of surprise wasn't going to help her much anyway. What did matter was that somehow Wolf had managed to hold the ae'Magi at bay, and no matter how much Wolf cared for her, he knew that it was more important that the ae'Magi not be able to control Wolf's powers. He wouldn't give himself to the ae'Magi just to save her skin … she hoped.
She inched forward a few steps more until she could see Wolf revealed by the light of the ae'Magi's staff. He sat in almost the same position that he had been in when she left him. He had drawn a single orange line of power around himself, and there was something different about his position. She looked carefully and saw that he was cautiously moving his toes. She smiled; he had bought enough time with his barrier to heal himself.
Aralorn drew the sword and stepped into the light in front of Wolf. She expected an immediate reaction, but the ae'Magi was pacing back and forth with his back to her.
"… you should not have crossed me. With your power and my knowledge, you could have become a god with me. That's all that the gods were, did you know it? Mages who had discovered the secret to eternal life, and I have it now. I will be a god; the only god, and you will help me do it."
All of the dictates of honor demanded that she call attention to herself before she could attack, Aralorn, however, was a spy and a rotten swordswoman besides, so she struck him in the back.
Unfortunately the same spell that had rendered her knife useless previously was also effective against the sword, which slid harmlessly through him and knocked Aralorn off balance. She turned her fall into a roll and kept going until she hit a wall. Although the sword hadn't done the magician any harm, the metal grip had heated enough that she was forced to drop it on the ground. It had something to do with hitting a magician with metal, she supposed.
"Ah," said the ae'Magi with a smile, "who would think that the son of my flesh would fall for a silly girl who is stupid enough to try the same trick twice." He turned to Wolf and started to say something else, but Aralorn quit listening. She couldn't believe that the Archmage was just dismissing her. She decided not to question her luck and began to shapechange, trusting that Wolf would see her and keep the ae'Magi's attention long enough that she could complete the transition to icelynx.
"Don't discount Aralorn so lightly; you may be surprised," commented Wolf, stretching the stiff muscles of his neck. "Certainly I never thought that she could get back from the Northlands so quickly. Perhaps the Old Man of the Mountain sent her back."
The ae'Magi snorted in disbelief, "You could not have sent her so far; the Northlands would have blocked such transportation. I do not care where she was. As for the 'Old Man of the Mountain' myth, there is no such person or I would have run into him long since."
Wolf curled his lips in the dim light of the ae'Magi's staff. "If you are so sure that the old gods are real, why not a folk tale as well?"
The keener senses of the icelynx made the smell of the dungeon worse, and she curled her lips in a silent snarl of disgust as she stalked slowly toward the ae'Magi. She crouched down behind him and twitched her stub of a tail, waiting for just the right moment before she sprang.
Her front claws dug into his shoulders for purchase while her hind legs raked his back, scoring him deeply. But that was all that she had time for before the ae'Magi's staff caught her in the side of the head with enough force to toss her against a wall. As she lay dazed, her eyes focused on Wolf.
On his knees, Wolf carefully retraced the circle of power. Reaching out almost casually, he snagged his staff where it apparently had been waiting for him in the darkness.
"Father," he said getting to his feet.
The ae'Magi turned and, seeing Wolf, brought his staff up and look up a fighting stance. It was quiet for a moment and then Wolf struck. Some of the fighting was physical, some of it was magical, most of it was both – accompanied by a very impressive lightshow.
Aralorn watched from her corner and got slowly to her feet. Anything that she could do as an icelynx was likely to do as much harm as good with so much magic flying around. She look back her human shape, from habit as much as anything else. She started to lean against the wall and watch, when she caught a glimpse of the sword, half buried in the filthy rushes on the floor. On impulse she picked it up; the heat that had made her drop it was gone.
Atryx Iblis, the Old Man had called it in an archaic dialect. "Atryx" was easy; it meant "devourer."
"Iblis" took her a while longer but when she understood it she smiled and held it at ready, waiting for a chance to use it again.
Healing himself had weakened Wolf, and he was showing it. His blocks were less sure and he lashed out in fewer and fewer attacks. The ae'Magi was also tiring; the blood he was losing to the deep slashes that Aralorn had made on his back was bothering him. But it was Wolf who slipped in the muck on the floor and fell to one knee, losing his staff in the process.
For a second time Aralorn attacked the ae'Magi's back with the sword, but this time she stabbed him with it instead of cutting him and then released the grip. The sword Ambris hung grotesquely from his chest, though it was doing no apparent harm. Without taking his eyes off Wolf, the ae'Magi swung the tip of his staff at Aralorn and said a quiet phrase.
Nothing happened, but the Smith's Sword was glowing brighter than either of the staves, bathing the dungeon with pink. Wolf got to his feet and retrieved his staff, but made no move to attack. Frantically the ae'Magi grabbed the blade and pushed the sword out, cutting his fingers in the process although the blade slid out easily enough and fell, shimmering, to the floor.
Aralorn grabbed it, heedless of the heat, and sheathed it as she said conversationally, "The Old Man says that it's one of the Smith's Weapons. Atryx Iblis, he calls it – Magic Eater."
The ae'Magi's staff was dark now, just an elaborately carved stick to his touch. The ae'Magi's hands formed the simple gestures to call forth light and nothing happened. Turning to his son, he said, "Kill me, then."
Passionlessly, the predator the ae'Magi had created looked at him with glittering yellow eyes and then said in his macabre voice, "No."
Wolf turned to Aralorn and, gripping her arm tightly, transported them to the meadow where they'd faced the ae'Magi's illusion, leaving the Archmage in the darkness, alone.
WOLF STEPPED BACK FROM ARALORN ALMOST IMMEDIATELY and stood looking at the Magician's castle. Aralorn looked at his brooding face and wondered what he was thinking.
He spoke softly. "I am still what he made me, it seems."
"No," said Aralorn in a positive voice.
"Do you know what I just did? I mercifully" – he bit off the word – "left him bleeding, to face a castle full of Uriah that he no longer controls. I would do it again."
"A kinder fate than he had in mind for you," Aralorn reminded him, examining the burns the sword had left on her hand. "He has as much chance of escaping from the Uriah as Astrid did. He may escape anyway. There seem to be a lot of secret passages around."
She smiled then. "You also eliminated the threat that his faithful followers would attack us after we killed the ae'Magi. He will either disappear, or be found mostly eaten by his former pets."
Wolf caught her hand and the burns disappeared from it, along with much of the dirt. Aralorn laughed softly and wiped her other hand on his cheek, showing him the smudge on it. "This time, you are almost as dirty as I am."
She caught his arm and tugged gently. "Come on. Let's go find Myr and let him know what's happened. Then I have to get back to Sianim and let Ren know that there is going to be a plaguing awful mess of Uriah running around that someone's got to clean up. If he works it right, Sianim stands to make a lot of gold off this."
The first baron of Tryfahr, Seneschal of the Royal Palace (also known as Hans the Smith), stepped into the kitchen to examine the food being prepared for the feast celebrating King Myr's formal coronation. Seeing the Seneschal slip into the kitchen, the Lyon of Lambshold, who currently held the title of Minister of Defense, decided to join him.
In the main kitchen, the cook who ruled there sprawled asleep in her rocking chair near the dessert trays, a nasty-looking wooden spatula in one hand. The new court taster stood silently near the stove.
The new cook was a marvel; the fowl had never been so moist, the beef so tender, and her sweets were beyond comparison. More wondrous still was that she was able to maneuver her bulk around (though no one but the hulking taster who lurked in the corner had ever witnessed it) and cook.
"So," commented Hans, "the mercenaries have offered to help clean up the Uriah."
"Aye," snorted the Defense Minister, "for a discounted rate, since their troops will be in the vicinity clearing the Uriah out of Darran as well. They've already cleared out the ae'Magi's castle." His hand crept out involuntarily to hover over one of the lacy sugar cakes.
"I wouldn't," muttered the Seneschal to the Lyon, nodding at the massive hand that was tightening around the spatula's handle though the cook's eyes had remained closed. He cleared his throat and remarked in a louder tone, "Likely they were hoping to find the ae'Magi in a state to pay them, but I heard that they couldn't find a trace of him anywhere." There was a trace of satisfaction in his tone.
The Lyon snatched his hand back and said absently, "Eaten, most likely, poor man. Sianim'll probably make the next ae'Magi pay them before they turn the castle over to – " He was interrupted by a shout from one of the pages who seemed to be taking over the castle lately.
"Hans! … umm, excuse me … I mean, my Lord. Myr … uh, King Myr wants to know if the delegation from Ynstrah is here yet. He can't find them anywhere, though the gatekeeper says that they came in last night." The page stood at the top of the stairs, pulling at the velvet surcoat he wore.
"Tell him I'm coming, Stanis," grunted the Seneschal.
The Lyon gave a last look at the cakes as he followed Hans up the stairs.
When they were safely gone, the small, bright sea-green eyes of the cook opened, almost concealed in the folds of her face. She shifted her amazing mass out of the chair and waddled to the bakery trays. Taking a cake in her pudgy hand, she threw it to the guardsman who served as taster. He caught it easily despite the eyepatch he wore.
"I told Ren that we wouldn't learn anything at an event this size," she said. "There isn't enough privacy for any good plotting. The only thing that ever happens at a state occasion is an assassination attempt, but Myr has already hired Sianim guards to stop that."
The guard nodded his head – he'd heard her complaint more than once. He examined the little delicacy with his good eye before biting into it, saying, "You could have let him have the cake, Aralorn. They're easy enough to make." Another cake appeared in his hand as he spoke and he tossed it to Aralorn.
"I couldn't undermine the authority of the castle cook," said Aralorn in a shocked voice, while catching the treat with a dexterity that was out of character. '"Besides," she added, taking a bite of her cake, "this way they'll enjoy the two that Hans snitched even more."
Wolf sauntered to the dessert trays and saw that there were indeed three delicacies missing. "Should we tell Myr that his Seneschal is light-fingered?"
"Not unless he wants to pay for the information. You need to start thinking like a mercenary, Wolf." Aralorn licked her fingers. "By the way, where did you learn to cook like this?"
Wolf bared his teeth at her and said, his voice as macabre as always, "A magician needs must keep some secrets, Lady."READ MORE >>